Iegor Gran ‘Competent Departments’

We should have neutralised Pasternak for good. Back in the good old days….the valiant Tcheka…the NKVD….I don’t understand why we put up with it.
What a dumb fool he is!
We have to be tactically astute, declares Pakhomov. We can’t just go in all guns blazing when the eyes of the world opinion are on you……the international interest of the foreign media have created an invisible protective dome around Pasternak.***


Iegor Gran takes us back in time to Moscow in the 1960’s and illustrates this schitzophrenic period by the true story of his parents and the five year hunt for his father by the eigth section of the KGB, responsible for anti-soviet propaganda.

This is a time, following Krouschev’s recognition of Stalin’s crimes, where we follow the life of lieutnant Evgueni Feodorovitch Ivanov as he tries to find out who is hiding behind the name of Adrien Tertz, a jewish name, and is publishing in the West, first in French and then in Russian. His writings criticising the Soviets are too precise and could only come from within the USSR. Tertz begins by quoting the union of Soviet writers:


Socialist realism is the fundamental method in soviet literature and in soviet literary criticism. It requires of the artist a true historically tangible representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Amongst other things it should contribute to the ideological transformation and of the education of workers in the spirit of socialism.***


Siniavski and the French diplomat that helps him get his works out of the USSR laid down at the beginning, the strategy that allowed him to write for so many years, a Jewish name, hints of links with both Poland and Lenningrad that had Ivanov well off track in his hunt.

The main choice of Iegor Gran to reverse the vision and to write the story not from his father’s point of view but from Ivanov’s liberates the author to show the contradictions from within, for instance Gagarin’s first space flight and his hero’s welcome contrasting with his reward being a state secret, if the West were to get their hands on the clothing list he was granted as a hero, they would understand the state of things for the Soviet Peoples, as Gran points out the list was signed in person by Krouschev:


Coat mid-season – 1 off
Light summer coat – 1 off
Raincoat – 1 off
Suits – 2 off (one light, one dark)
Shoes – 2 pairs (black and light)
Shirts white – 6 off
Hats – 2 off
Ties – 6 off
Gloves – 1 pair
Handkerchiefs – 12 off
Socks 6 pairs
Underpants, vests – 6 off
Electric razor – 1 off***


As Ivanov laments, if only they could have found Adrien Tertz quickly, the Soviet Union was in a state of constant flux following the death of Stalin, each change affecting the resources and morale of the KGB, Krouschev denounces Stalins crimes, Stalin’s body is removed from the mausoleum he shared with Lenin and buried secretly, Krouschev is “retired” and throughout all of this the eigth section is unable to find Tertz. Meanwhile Siniavski knows he will be caught, sometime, he just doesn’t know when as months turn into years.

Iegor Gran then through his narrator tells us of the french and Italian, communist parties, the hope of whose victories kept the KGB hardliners in check, of the Nobel literature prize for Pasternack for the Dr. Zhivago that was forbidden in the USSR, as illustrated in the opening quote, of the eigth section often finding illegal copies on raids of the intelligentsia.

I particularly liked the raid on Siniavski’s house when his mother after years of preparation was more than a match for the officers, telling them when they revealed that her husband was in the Lubyanka of her relief to find out that he wasn’t with another woman. And of course when she quickly places her young baby, Iegor Gran, in Ivanov’s hands before he could avoid it.

He gives a sense of the time in history to the story and brings Ivanov to life as a complex character. Their very hunt for Tertz and his imprisonment bring the light of the western media on an otherwise little read author. This is an engaging book that will do well and would deserve a translation.

First Published in French as “Les services conpétents” by P.O.L in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

On aurait dû neutralisé Pasternak définitivement. Au bon vieux temps… La valeureuse Tchéka… Le NKVD…Je ne comprends pas pourquoi on tolère.
Quelle brute épaisse, celui-là!
Il faut être tactiquement astucieux, affirme Pakhomov. On ne peut pas y aller à la hache quand les yeux de l’opinion internationale sont braqués sur vous…….l’attention des médias étrangers à créer autour de W Pasternak un dôme de protection invisible.

Le réalisme socialiste est la méthode fondamentale de la littérature et la la critique littéraire soviétiques. Il exige de l’artiste une représentation véridique, historiquement concrète, de la réalité dans son développement révolutionnaire. En outre, il doit contribuer à la transformation idéologique et à l’éducation des travailleurs dans l’esprit du socialisme.

Manteau demi-saison – 1 unité
Manteau léger d’été – 1 unité
Imperméable – 1 unité
Costume – 2 unités (un clair, un sombre).
Chaussures – 2 paires (noires et claires).
Chemise blanche – 6 unités.
Chapeau – 2 unités.
Cravate – 6 unités
Gants – 1 paire.
Mouchoir – 12 unités.
Chaussettes – 6 paires.
Slip, maillot de corps – 6 paires
Rasoire électrique – 1 unité

Liz Moore ‘Long Bright River’

The first time I found my sister dead, she was sixteen. It was the summer of 2002. Forty-eight hours earlier, on a Friday afternoon, she’d left school with her friends, telling me she’d be back by evening.
She wasn’t.


In the Long Bright River Liz Moore gives us a woman’s take on policing in a run down area of Phiadelphia.
Michaela, known as Mickey has patrolled Kensington, near the river Delaware, a area she was brought up in, over the last thirteen years and watched it slide through the devastation of drugs to a point where the main transactions are either narcotic or drug related, life expectency is short:


Thirteen years ago, when I first started, it happened a few times a year: we’d get a report that someone had fatally overdosed, had been deceased so long that medical intervention was unnecessary. More common were calls about overdoses in progress, and typically those individuals could be revived.


Mickey’s last partner is on sick leave due to an incident that leaves her feeling guilty and she is paired with Lafferty and tries to get him interested, to no avail, in the lives of the people in the area she patrols, her ex-schoolfriend Paula Mulroney who works a corner with Kacey, Mickey’s sister. Kacey hasn’t been seen for a while as a serial killer begins operating on their patch. Mickey is more of a doer then a talker and is comfortable with silence, not to be with Lafferty:

Facts I have learned about Eddie Lafferty in the first hour of our acquaintance: He is forty-three, which makes him eleven years my senior. A late entrant into the PPD. He worked construction until last year, when he took the test. (My back, says Eddie Lafferty. It still bothers me sometimes. Don’t tell anyone.) He’s just rolled off his field training. He has three ex-wives and three almost-grown children. He has a home in the Poconos. He lifts. (I’m a gym rat, says Eddie Lafferty.) He has GERD. Occasionally, he suffers from constipation. He grew up in South Philadelphia and now lives in Mayfair. He splits Eagles season tickets with six friends. His most recent ex-wife was in her twenties. (Maybe that was the problem, says Lafferty, her being immature.) He golfs. He has two rescued pit mixes named Jimbo and Jennie. He played baseball in high school. One of his teammates then was, in fact, our platoon’s sergeant, Kevin Ahearn, and it was Sergeant Ahearn who suggested he consider police work. (Something about this makes sense to me.) Facts Eddie Lafferty has learned about me in the first hour of our acquaintance: I like pistachio ice cream.

The book, veering between then and now, brings us up to date on Mickey and her life, she is saved from her sister’s fate when in her early teens, by a local police after-school initiative, the Police Athletic League. Already back then her younger sister Kacey, more street wise, sees through the officer who takes her under his wing, officer Cleare, a married man, with whom she ends up pregnant.

Liz Moore keeps us following this story through the earnest character of Michaela, juggling between her job and her child, as the deaths pile up, as danger comes close to home and as suspicion points to an unidentified police officer.

This story pulled me in through the refreshing writing of Liz Moore.

First Published in English as “Long Bright River” by Hutchinson in 2020

Joyce Carol Oates ‘A Book of American Martyrs’


Terence Mitchell who’s 29, a former US marine and a member of the catholic right to life organisation, The Lambs of Christ, had spent many hours in prayer before driving to the abortion clinic in Travers City with a double barrelled shotgun. After the shooting of the abortion doctor he made no attempt to escape from the police but surrendered his weapon and made a full confession to authorities


Joyce Carol Oates has taken on a huge work here, to try to render the right to abortion debate readable. In this piece of fiction set in the 1990’s and the aftermath of events she attempts to get up close to both sides of this divide, deep diving into the characters and events portrayed as Luther Dumphy early one morning, turns up at the Broom county women’s centre, follows doctor Guss Vorhees’ car in through the gate and turns his shotgun on Vorhees and his police driver killing both. She uses multiple first person narratives taking us into the minds of the protagonists, their lives and the events that lead them to this point. She begins with Luther Dumphy, who after a “strict” upbringing turns into a wild unreliable youth until he discovers religion at his wive’s church, The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesus, leading to his wish to become a preacher.

We follow his indoctrination process as we discover the background to the “debate” that isn’t one in the mid-west. One day a trip is organised by their church to see a professor Wohlman, an ex-Jesuit who finishes his presentation with the following declaration:


We the undersigned declare a state of war in the struggle to defend innocent human life. We declare our allegiance to the word of Jesus and not the law of man. We declare that we will not shrink from taking all earthly action required to defend innocent human life including the use of force. We declare that whatever force is necessary to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We declare that the martyrs Michael Griffin, Lionel Green, Terence Mitchell though they may have broken the law of the state have not broken the law of God though they have shot abortion providers who were about to commit the terrible act of fetuscide they are not guilty of murder but of intervening in the premeditated murder, that is to say that these courageous men committed acts of defence against murderers not to save their own lives but the lives of unborn children therefore their use of lethal force was justified.


Dumphy, who’s daughter had been killed in a road accident as he was driving, is portrayed as a sincere, fragile and easily manipulated person, just enough as to almost feel a certain understanding for him.

Vorhees is investigated mostly through the people around him, his wife and daughter rather than through himself, he was a staunch, even radical defender of women’s rights, at great danger to himself, he chose to work in medical centres where, through fear, no one else was prepared to work. Oates tells us of the Right for Life organisation’s published league tables where the higher up the table the doctors find themselves, the more likely they are to be assassinated, exactly because of these tables, and the pressure put on the law by declaring the perpetrators martyrs. His daughter learns more about him posthumously through interviews she carries out:


Interviews: Was it known to you that your father was a crusader for abortion rights? Did you know as children what abortion rights meant? Did you know that your father performed abortions? Did you know that your father had many enemies? Did you know that your father was considered difficult even by those that were his allies? Have you read your father’s published writings, his famous controversial address to the national women’s leadership conference 1987 in Washington DC? Are you familiar with that? “There cannot be a free democracy in which one sex is shackled to biological destiny”. Are you familiar with this much reiterated remark of doctor Guss Voorhees? Do you or have you ever felt as a girl that you are shackled to biological destiny or did you inherit a strong feminist identity from your parents?


No subject such as this where there is so much hatred, where the two sides cannot talk to each other can exist without hypocrisy, and here there are ladles of it, on Vorhees’ side where in fighting for the freedom of women he essentially takes away the freedom of his family. On the “pro life” side, the following quote goes deep into public relations denials to a case of clear support:


Though our church is staunchly pro life and opposed to abortion in any way shape or form as a legally sanctioned slaughter of the innocents in the United States at the present time. We do not and we have not ever condoned violence against the practitioners of abortion and those associated with them we do not condone violations of state and federal law and we do not excuse those who commit such violations despite of our sympathy for their moral convictions it is a profound step from believing that abortion is state sanctified murder to believing that an individual has the right to assassinate an abortion murderer. The Saint Paul missionary church of Jesusis adamantly opposed to such an act and is in no way associated with the practitioner of such an act. Though I remain in contact with Luther Dumphy currently incarcerated at Chillicothe correctional facility, Chillicothe Ohio. I am not in a position to provide any sort of information about him or to convey remarks made by him to any third party or to the media it is true I am involved in the Luther Dumfy defence fund which welcomes donations to aid in Luther’s appeal to the Ohio State Supreme Court, cheques money orders cash as little as a few dollars as much as several hundred or thousand all are welcome and greatly applicable in the name of Jesus.


As a European, I have trouble understanding this “debate”, but Oates ends with some hope, through the two men’s daughters, that future generations could grow to understand each other.

This is a must read.

First Published in English as “A Book of American Martyrs” by Fourth Estate in 2017
Translated into French by Claude Seban and published by Philippe Rey as “Un livre de martyrs américains” in 2019

Arnaud Cathrine And The Anonymous Project ‘Andrew est plus beau que toi’

Arnaud Cathrine has put together this marvelous book from a selection of amateur colour slides from the 1940’s through to the 1970’s chosen from Lee Shulman’s Anonymous Project www.anonymous-project.com, a large private collection of anonymous Kodachrome slides. He has imagined a story linking these images and as the story moves on we don’t initially realise that the images of the recurring characters, the brothers Andrew and Ryan Tucker are never twice of the same persons. The story he tells us is a story of California from the 1940’s through to the 1980’s and of the different life trajectories of the two brothers.

The story is told in alternating chapters by the two brothers beginning with their fathers arrival in California just before the outbreak of the war and the meeting with their mother in Santa Monica. The marvelous images at every page of the book give us a full immersion into working class homes, which seem by today’s standards to be sparse. The two brothers take different roads as Andrew discovers his attraction to men, take this photo with his first boyfriend:

As things become more difficult at home Ryan advises him to move to San Francisco where he meets his life partner. Capturing the post war tensions, his father refuses to see him from then on, even to his death.

Ryan on the other hand meets his wife to be, shown in this photo titled by Arnaud Cathrine “Come near her and I’ll crush you”

An interesting way to give life to these 90 or so photos, as for instance their mother has a secret liaison with the neighbour who then dies in a car crash or their childhood friends move away and always these remarkable photos.

First Published in French as “Andrew est plus beau que toi” by Flammarion in 2019

Joël Dicker ‘The Mystery of Room 622’


Macaire was a man who would never hurt her, always cares for her, always ready to bend over backwards for her. Men who bend over backwards are men that are conquered and passion doesn’t last after conquest. Now what she needed was passion.***


After the East coast of America Joel Dicker brings us back to Switzerland, where he tells us a story of bankers and the fight for succession at a private investment bank, the Ebezner Bank, whilst in parallel developing for us his views on story telling and a eulogy to his late editor Bernard de Fallois as he, the writer, tracks down the tale. For Joel in the book, a story begins with an enigma which can then be explored.

Here as Joel feels alone, he decides to take a few days in the mountains in a hotel that Bernard de Fallois used to use, the Palace de Verbier in the story, and as he goes to his room on the sixth floor he noticed that there is a gap in the room numbering and that there is no room 622, but why? From this enigma he develops a story where we understand that a good story does not need verisimilitude to succeed, the characters and their interactions suffice.

He tells us the story of Macaire Ebezner, a mediocre banker who would have been next inline to be president of the family bank had his own father not changed the rules before his death, calling for a board vote, of Macaire’s wife illustrated in the opening quote who is secretly in love with his successful rival Lev Levovitch and of Tornogol the rich Russian oligarch who, thanks to Macaire, and to his late father’s displeasure leading to the change in the rules of succession, has a seat on the board.

No one is who they seem as we discover mystery after mystery, toxic mothers, jealous fathers and mediocre bankers. The tension builds up to the banks annual get together at the Palace de Verbier where the new president is to be announced and the events in room 622.

This book has had mixed write ups but I confess the suspension of reality worked for me, larger than life but fun.

First Published in French as “I’énigme de la chambre 622″ by de Fallois in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Macaire était un homme qui ne lui ferait jamais de mal, toujours au petits soins pour elle, à se plier en quatre pour elle. Les hommes qui se plie en quatre ce sont des hommes conquits et la passion ne survit pas à la conquête. Aujourd’hui elle avait besoin de passion

Stéphane Carlier ‘Madame Halberstadt’s Dog


People have their eyes riveted on their smartphones, what do you expect. And the rare readers all buy the same book…..
My editor
There was an article about it in L’Obs, not long back. The people that still read are divided into three categories. The old because they’re insomniacs. Women with little or no qualifications who read in public transport. And occasional readers who buy one or two books a year.


Baptiste is down, he’s just released a book that’s number 475758 on the Amazon sales list and as he says “People had preferred to buy “Teaching Physical Education to our Children”, a text book written in 1907 by the Abbot François Calot, classed number 475612.” In this state he meets up with his editor and she tells him of her analysis in the opening quote.

But then his neighbour, Madame Halberstadt asks him to look after her dog whilst she is in hospital and things begin to look up, his book begins to climb Amazon’s sales table and he meets an unbelievably beautiful woman whilst walking the dog and tells his mother that the dog is lucky! Soon his mother asks to borrow the dog and then comes around unexpectedly to walk the dog.

When Madame Halberstadt comes back to her apartment she refuses to take the dog back, claiming it’s not hers.
A short pleasant read as Baptiste tries to get to the bottom of the missing dog enigma; since his mother walked the dog Baptiste’s good fortune, as he remarks, had run out.

First Published in French as “Le Chien de Madame Halberstadt” by Le Tripode in 2019
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Les gens ont le nez collé sur leur téléphone, qu’est-ce que tu veux. Et les rares qui lisent encore achètent tous le même livre…
Mon éditrice…
Il y avait un article là-dessus dans L’Obs, y a pas longtemps. Les gens qui lisent encore se répartissent en trois catégories. Les vieux parce qu’ils ont les insomnies. Les femmes pas ou peu diplômées qui lisent dans les transports en commun. Et les lecteurs occasionnels qui achètent un ou deux livres par an.

Sylvain Prudhomme ‘Par Les routes’


What do you think you’re looking for, asked Jeanne turning back towards the hitchhiker. What I want to say is when you do it, why do you do it. You don’t make money from it. It separates you from Marie and Augustin. It takes you several days each time. You come back exhausted. You’re not a reporter, nor a writer or photographer. You don’t want to make a film, or an expo or a novel, at least as far as I know. So why do you do it.***


Sacha moves to a town, V, in the south east of France, the town where his roommate, who he hasn’t seen since university ten year’s earlier, lives. Sacha undertakes to visit him and finds the hitchhiker living happily with Marie and their son Augustin. Sacha and his roommate had hitchhiked in their university days, which were, as Sacha tells us, already well past the golden age of hitchhiking.

The call of the roads is however still there and the hitchhiker we soon learn still leaves his family for days at a time before coming home tired and dirty to the incomprehension of their friends as illustrated by the opening quote. Marie on the other hand seems proud of his freedom. We learn from the discussions between the two men that what drives him to the open road is the encounters he makes with the drivers:


With time the hitchhiker began to regret that the trip’s ended. That his journey should always, inevitably end by separating him from the people he meets. He began asking them if they realised the extraordinary set of circumstances that had lead to their routes crossing.***


As his absences grow longer, the postcards he sends show that his trips take on themes, for instance:


The hitchhiker described his projects. Trips abroad without leaving France: Saint-Benin, Venise, Montréal, Porto, Grenade, Le Désert, Dunes.***


The pride that Marie had for his freedom slowly turns to resentment as it becomes obvious that he doesn’t care for everyday life, has Sacha’s arrival freed him? Knowing, sensing, even maybe expecting Sacha to move in and replace him. One day he asks Sacha to join him for a trip where we better understand the lack of romanticism in his endeavour, sleeping short hours in his little tent, cold in his sleeping bag but always meeting people. Hitchhiking as a means not an end.

First Published in French as “Par les routes” by Gallimard in 2019
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Mais tu penses que tu cherches quoi , a demandé Jeanne en se tournant à nouveau vers l’autostoppeur. Je veux dire quand tu fais ça, tu le fais pour quoi. Ça ne te rapporte pas d’argent. Ça t’éloigne de Marie et d’Augustin. Ça te prend plusieurs jours chaque fois. Tu rentres épuisé. Tu n’es pas reporter, pas écrivain, pas photographe. Tu ne veux pas faire un film, ni une expo, ni un roman, enfin pas que je sache. Tu le fais pour quoi alors.

Avec le temps l’autostoppeur s’est pris à regretter que les trajets se terminent. que sa route doive toujours à la fin inéluctablement, se séparerde celle des gens rencontrés Il s’est mis à leur demander s’ils se rendaient compte. S’ils mesuraient quel extraordinaire concours de circonstances avait permis que leurs routes se croisent.

l’autostoppeur racontait ses projets. Voyages à l’étranger sans quitter la France: Saint-Benin, Venise, Montréal, Porto, Grenade, Le Désert, Dunes.

Gary Shteyngart ‘Lake Success’


Chatting was his primary activity. The office was overrun by quants and other assorted math geniuses, half their staff now seemed to flow from MIT or its less-endowed counterparts from around the world, while wide-shouldered, charming Princetonians like Barry were left to handle the big picture of yearly separating guys named Ahmed of the Qatar Investment Authority from 2 percent of the assets Barry managed. He did that by talking to them in the broadest, most backslapping former-athlete way possible. All of those hours practicing his “friend moves” in front of the mirror back when he was at Louis Pasteur Middle School had finally paid off. “Friendliest dude on the Street,” some young bro had once called him.


In Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success, Barry runs his own investment fund and is a multimillionaire, lives in Manhattan with other investment bankers, has a beautiful and intelligent wife and a young son, but Barry, the “Mentor” to other up and coming capitalist sharks sees his life unravel as his son, who still doesn’t speak, but continues to scream at three years old, is diagnosed with autism, and as the FBI are closing in on him for insider dealing. Barry’s fund had invested in a company making essential medecin more expensive thus pricing the poor out of medical care. Nostalgic, selfish Barry, echoing a road trip from his early twenties, takes off on a greyhound bus to rediscover “America” and its people, meeting the poor who travel on greyhound busses. He passes by Baltimore, for instance, where he discovers the neighbourhoods featured in “The Wire” only to understand that it has become a tourist attraction and that narcotics have long since moved on, technically and geographically.

The events take place in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections and the fear that Trump could actually win. We discover Barry as having been an adolescent unable to feel part of society and to relate to people but who worked hard to train himself in small talk and smiling which took him to where he is today. He still has trouble controlling his rages and has worked on this with his shrink, becoming a collector of expensive watches:


Whenever he felt this out of control, when the world lurched around him and his own body felt counterfeit, he remembered what his shrink had told him: “Look at your watch.” He looked at his watch. It was a Nomos Minimatik with a champagne-colored dial. Nomos was his new thing. They were not expensive watches, they topped out at 20K, but they were made in the tiny German town of Glashütte, far from all that overpriced Swiss razzle-dazzle, and they stuck to a strict but playful Bauhaus aesthetic. The watch did its work. It calmed him.


Shteyngart also takes us on a visit of the seriously rich in Manhattan, where wealth can be measured by the difference in floors between two apartments in a building. Eventually the road trip ends and life must go on. What has Barry learned from his trip? Will he be a better person? Will he give up investment banking to do “something useful”?

Buy the book!

First Published in English as “Lake Success” in 2018, by Hamish Hamilton.
Translated into French by Stéphane Roques and published as “Lake Success” by Les Éditions de l’Olivier in 2020

The quotes as read in French

Le bavardage était sa principale activité à lui. Le bureau était envahi par les analystes quantitatifs (ou quants) et autre génies des maths, la moitié de leur personnel semblait désormais tout droit sortie de MIT ou de ses équivalents internationaux moins bien pourvus, tandis qu’il revenait aux anciens de Princeton comme Barry, aussi charmants que large d’épaules, de prendre de la hauteur pour mieux délester chaque année tous les Ahmed de l’Authorité d’investissement du Qatar de l’équivalent de 2% des actifs gérés par Barry. Il y parvenait en se livrant aux plus grandes démonstrations d’amitié possibles, digne de l’ancien sportif qu’il était.

Chaque fois qu’il sentait que cela prenait des proportions incontrôlables, que le monde convulsait autour de lui et que son corps lui donnait l’impression d’être une contrefaçon, il se souvenait de ce que lui disait son psy: “Regardez votre montre.”
Il regarda sa montre. C’était une Nomos Minimatik à cadran champagne. Les Nomos était son dada. Elles n’étaient pas chères, coûtaient tout au plus 20 mille dollars, mais étaient fabriquées dans la petite ville allemande de Glashütte, loin de tout le clinquant suisse hors de prix, et s’en tenaient à une esthétique Bauhaus aussi stricte que ludique. La montre tenait son rôle. Elle le calmait.

Alexis Ragougneau ‘Opus 77’


Shostakovitch and his violin Concerto. The themes are universal, timeless: the individual against the steam roller of a totalitarian state, man versus the system, the community.***


Alexis Ragougneau delivers us a nuanced study of Opus 77 and the unrelenting world of the professional musician through the story of the Claessens family, of the father Claessens, one time pianist and then conductor of the Swiss-Romande Orchestra and his two children David and Ariane. As the book opens Claessens is dead, David doesn’t show up and Ariane, a now accomplished Pianist, rather than playing a Requiem, launches into a piano version of Shostakovitch’s Opus 77 described in a few words in the opening quote.

The book, narrated by Ariane then investigates these two enigmas, of the terrible pressure brought on David by his exacting father whose only words to his son seem to have been “again”. how much pressure can a child take? Eventually David leaves home near broken to then be slowly coached back to high level by an old Russian Violinist who seems not to be well known but who has lived through some of the times of Soviet Russia that Shostakovitch himself had lived through, Stalin playing with Shostakovitch’s life as a cat would play with a mouse.

David is then ready, if still fragile to face the competitions that will decide who will have an international career and who will be also-rans. We soon understand that his violin teacher may not be well known today in Belgium or Switzerland but is highly respected by the Russian musicians. As David reaches the finals, there is a draw to match the competitors with the conductors and of course David and Claessens are drawn together, with David performing the Opus 77:


The atmosphere is dusk. That’s exactly what Shostakovitch wanted in his first movement, Nocturne; and how they succeed, father and son, how they manage to render the darkness of night, the movement of shadows, the truths never uttered. A life of rivalry and misunderstanding spread out on the stage, before the television cameras and the two thousand spectators at the “palais des Beaux-Arts”.***


How does the competition end? Well you’ll need to read the book!

In parallel Ariane lives the life of a world famous artist with manager, pressure to perform at the highest level giving her insights into this world.

This really is a very good book.

First Published in French as “Opus 77″ by Viviane Hamy in 2019
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Chostakovitch et son concerto pour violon. Les thèmes sont universels et intemporels: l’individu face au rouleau-compresseur totalitaire, l’homme face au système et à la collectivité.

Ambiance crépusculaire. C’est bien Chostakovitch qui l’a voulu ainsi dans son premier mouvement, Nocturne; et comme ils y réussissent, le père et le fils, comme ils parviennent à restituer la noirceur de la nuit, les jeux d’ombres, les non dits. Toute une vie de rivalité et d’incompréhension étalée là sur scène, devant les caméras de télévision et des deux mille spectateurs du palais des Beaux-Arts.

Olga Tokarczuk ‘Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead’


With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts.


Olga Tokarczuk’s multi-prize winning book begins on the remote, high, snow covered Polish plains, close to the Czech border, with the death of Big Foot at his filthy home, and his neighbours, Oddball and Duszejko, finding his body. Duszejko then discovers both the overt and the covert original sins that are at the driving forces behind the book. No spoilers here, we’ll only consider the overt original sin. As they arrive, a group of wild deer seem to be watching them intently with deer tracks around the house, Duszejko then discovers to her horror and disgust that Big Foot had set up a feeding area at the back of his house and that he had shot a deer from his grange as they came to feed.

How much does it take to push a convinced believer into radical action? To the poetry of Blake, as the book advances the retired and recluse engineer Duszejko, who’s views of Hunters are clearly laid out in the opening quote, slowly sees a group of friends coalesce around her, whilst in parallel the number of suspicious deaths of hunters builds up.

At each crime scene no obvious murder weapon is to be found but there are deer tracks found around the bodies, after each death Duszejko, an old woman, who believes everything in life can be explained by astrology and who is not taken seriously, goes into town, to the police station to explain about the deer tracks and to push the police into considering that the animals are taking revenge.

As the hunters die, we discover that illegal actions within their number lead to payoffs to the police whilst the rest of the community scrape to get by.

Amongst many of the quotes from Blake, being translated into Polish by Dizzy, one of Duszejko friends, one sums up this state of affairs:


God made Man happy & Rich but cunning made the innocent Poor.


This is a book that would push you towards the animal cause, confronting two ideologies, the responsibility of man towards animals to help them live a full and happy life and that of the hunters epitomised by the following quote from the local priest blessing the hunters:


My dear brothers and sisters, hunters are the ambassadors and partners of the Lord God in the work of creation, in caring for game animals. Nature among which man lives needs help in order to flourish. Through their culls the hunters conduct the correct policy.


A great deal of work is carried out by the hunting lobby to show that hunters are necessary to regulate the wilds and that Q.E.D. They are the animals’ best friends.

Back to the whodunit, just a small detail, a lovely touch, Duszejko’s car, a Samouraï.

First Published in Polish as “Prowadż swój pług przez kości umarlych” in 2010 by Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published in 2018 as Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Translated into French by Margot Carlier and published in 2012 as “Sur les ossements des morts” by Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc

The quote as read in French

L’âge venant, beaucoup d’hommes soufrent d’une sorte de déficit, que j’appelle “autisme testostéronien”. Il se manifeste par une atrophie progressive de l’intelligence dite sociale et de la capacité à communiquer, et cela handicape également l’expression de la pensée.

Dieu créa l’homme heureux et riche. La ruse rendit pauvres les innocents

Les chasseurs, chers frères et sœurs, sont les ambassadeurs et les compagnons de Dieu dans l’œuvre de la Création et de la protection de la faune. Ses meilleurs collaborateurs. Il faut aider la nature qui nous accueille en son sein à se développer. Grâce à l’abattage systématique du gibier, les chasseurs mènent une action juste.