Luca D’Andrea ‘Beneath the Mountain’

At the end of the screening, the fat guy was the first to have his say. What he said in a speech that lasted thirty-five minutes can be summed up as: “What a crock of shit!”…4B3AEFDD-E132-4BE7-BDDC-D37E89C80E28I was about to retaliate with a long (very long) series of not very PC remarks…when…The blonde girl asked permission to speak….She stood up (she was really pretty) and said, in a very strong German accent, “I’d like to ask you. What’s the exact word for Neid?” I burst out laughing and mentally thanked my dear Mutti for her insistence on teaching me her mother tongue.  “Mein liebes Fräulein,”….. “Sie sollten nicht fragen, wie wir ‘Neid’ sagen, sondern wie wir ‘Idiot’ sagen.” My dear young lady, you shouldn’t ask how we say “envy,” but how we say “idiot.” Her name was Annelise. Annelise was neither German nor Austrian nor even Swiss. She came from a tiny province in the north of Italy where most of the population spoke German. It was a strange place was Alto Adige, or Südtirol.

Luca D’Andrea’s book, read for Italian lit month, is set in the Alto Adige at Siebenhoch, a small mountain community in Italy, North of Bolzano, where the traditional language is German, a once poor mining community that seemed destined to disappear before the advent of tourism from the 1980’s. Salinger, a successful documentary writer comes to stay with his wife Anneliese and their daughter Clara. Soon after his arrival he sees the red helicopter of Dolomite Mountain Rescue and after discovering that it had been his own father-in-law, Werner Mair, who had been responsible for creating it, he decides to shoot his next documentary around this subject.

During the shooting, there is a tragic accident in the mountains where the helicopter is lost and Salinger is the only survivor, but he is injured both physically and mentally PTSD. This marks the true beginning of the story, whilst trying to recover Salinger discovers a mysterious Cold Case, the horrific murders of Evi, Kurt and Markus up in the mountains, at the Bletterbach caves, near the old mines on the night of April 28, 1985. In trying to solve the mystery of the deaths he meets resistance from the local community, discovers that in this remote community, despite his marriage, he will always be an outsider. As he investigates, he meets all of the remaining protagonists, Max Krün the local policeman and Werner Mair, his own father-in-law, who were both in the rescue team that discovered the bodies, the other two rescuers Gunther and Hannes are both since dead, he meets Gunther’s alcoholic girlfriend, Brigitte Pflantz, and Gunther’s rich brother, Manfred Kagol, the owner of the Bletterbach Visitor Centre, built soon after the deaths to welcome visitors to this fossil rich mountain area, the catalyst for a local tourist infrastructure bringing relative wealth to the area.

Salinger discovers many dark secrets, touching everyone around him including his own family, as well as a fair share of red herrings. Luca D’Andrea brings us a well written, well paced thriller in this unusual setting.

First published in Italian as ‘La sostanza del male’ by Einaudi in 2016
Translated into English by Howard Curtis as “Beneath The Mountain” and published by Harper in 2018



Luc Lang ‘Au Commencement du septième jour’

Ringing, deafening his ears…What time is it? What? 4h in the morning? It’s a private call. Hello?….Yes?95509ADC-1BA7-4A8D-8A86-43E06D04F0D6 A deep voice, commanding, presents himself, the gendarmerie, Saint-Eustache-la-Forêt, what? Saint-Eustache-la-Forêt in Normandy, I’m terribly sorry to wake you at this time of night, Camille Texier is your wife?….at the A&E in Bolbec….a car accident, we wanted to notify you as soon as possible.***

Thomas is married with two children and a loving wife, Camille, he works as a programmer in a company which he and his friend Dom helped their joint friend Drincourt to start up and begin to make profitable. The two parents live full professional lives and have little time for their children whom Dana their African “auntie” helps to look after. Time did I say, Thomas’s main project is to work on a software solution linked to a bar code reader enabling companies to know what their off site employees are doing at every moment throughout the day, a wonderful device allowing companies to optimise the use of their employees and helping the employees prove their worth to their companies.

Firstly in the video you see the name of the product: NUXITEMPO, as if it were the title of a film. Then the name of the manufacturer: NUXILOG. accompanied by an epic musical score of the sort with which you can imagine a child being rescued in the wild Pacific Ocean….Then à voice which announces: In five years time 50% of you employees will be nomad. Wherever you are, improve your traceability!***

In the first part of this three part book, Thomas’s life explodes, as we learn of his wife’s car accident in the opening quote, and we examine the circles of deeply engrained lies Thomas doesn’t even realise he is living. What was Camille doing on this lonely country road in the early hours of the morning? How did she have such a dramatic accident on a straight stretch of road where you could see for miles in every direction? Whilst Camille lies in a coma,  Thomas investigates the accident and he discovers that there were things he didn’t know about his wife, at the same time his job becomes more precarious as his once friend Drincourt shows no empathy or understanding towards the effects of his private life on his professional performance. On a personal side Thomas tries to protect his children from the dramatic events concerning their mother, but where does protection end and confiscation begin, a question he will be forced to face by his son.

The book then jumps ahead a few months to the summer when Thomas and the children are on holiday at his brothers house high in the Pyrénées, where his much elder brother, Jean is a goatherd living a pastoral life in the family farm. We learn that Camille, although coming out of her coma, died soon after without ever recovering.
The children fit in well and are enjoying the chores on the farm but we sense a closeness that cannot be and a difference in visions of the world between the two brothers as illustrated by the following conversation:

Hang on brother, stop there. Why do you think I don’t have more than 180 goats?
I guess that over that number it’s a change of scale, you can no longer control the population, whereas with my solution, no need for extra staff….
You don’t get it do you? I don’t go above that number, because I wouldn’t know them: Their names, there characters, their habits….180 is already the upper limit. Doesn’t interest me to have more, but go on Thomas what would I do with your system? What would…
You’d manage! I’d install the apps for you, I’d ensure the computer maintenance, the updates, the….
You really expect me to spend my time in front of a screen, “managing” my goats temperature curves, their blood analyses and population curves? I’d call them up by Skype?***

In the summer, Thomas pushes his brother much against his will to take him up into the mountains to see the place his father was found dead after a fall, and then at Christmas Jean suddenly throws their mother out of his house, off of the farm, Thomas doesn’t understand, there is a deeper family story he is unaware of, knows nothing of.
The answers lies later, in the third part of the book, no spoilers here, when Thomas visits his estranged sister, Pauline who lives in The Cameroun following the death of his brother Jean found after a fall at the same place as his father. All becomes clear, the dark family secrets are revealed to Thomas pushing him to act quickly.

Throughout the book, Luc Lang brings to life the different lives and locations, from the hospital in Rouen to the prison cell in the Cameroun, from the café in Paris and the overindulgence in alcohol under pressure of work to the kinship necessary to live in the remote farms of the Pyrénées, slowly revaluing to Thomas the false strings holding his life together.

First published in French as ‘Au commencement du septième jour’ by Stock in 2016
***My translation

Cristina Comencini ‘When The Night’

The milk will come, you just have to believe. It seems you have to believe in milk, and maybe I just didn’t believe strongly enough, and that’s why it didn’t come. F1BF3673-7EEB-4B3F-A6DB-69CFE34962D9My mother tried to reassure me. “It will come, don’t worry. I didn’t have milk, but you will be more fortunate.”

In this story, read for Italian lit month, Cristina Comencini contrasts the mental mistrust of Manfred, the rough mountain guide, and Marina, visiting from the city, for each other with their overwhelming physical attraction one for the other.

The story is told in two voices, first Manfred and then Marina as we first discover Marina through Manfred’s narration, a young woman come to stay in the mountains with her baby son in Manfred’s rental flat above his home. Manfred is bitter and has his misgivings about women in general and about Marina in particular, he hears a baby crying above him, a bang then silence, he reacts rushing uncannily quickly upstairs to find Marina crying in a corner and the young child who has “fallen” from the table and against Marina’s wishes he rushes them to the hospital. We learn from Marina of the difficulty she has coming to terms with having a baby in the opening quote.

Manfred is one of three sons, brought up in the mountains alone by his father, a rustic life taught to be frugal and untrusting of women, his elder brother has a restaurant high on the mountain slopes and his younger brother is a womaniser living in the same mountain town, as he says to Marina:

But I was honest: I told her what I was like, that I know nothing about women, and that my mother abandoned us when we were little. Ran off with an American. I never saw her again. I know she remarried and had more kids in America, because our father told us.

Manfred eventually decides not to report Marina to the police for his suspicion about her son’s injury and despite themselves they are slowly drawn together, after quarrelling in Manfred’s brothers restaurant one night, Marina gets a lift down the mountain and Manfred decides to walk, when she doesn’t hear him down stairs in his apartment she calls the rescue services who consequently find him injured and save his life in the mountains. Marina visits him in hospital ready to leave her husband for him and then abruptly leaves the mountains to go back home to her husband, we learn years later that the story turned here about Manfred’s youthful family trauma as she tells years later when she revisits the mountains hoping to see Manfred, after her son has grown up and left home:

How long should I wait? What if he doesn’t come? What would Marco and Sylvia think if they saw me? That’s not our mother sitting waiting for a man and how about Mario he’s never known that I might need him that for me none of this is natural, but I still want to dance, to flee, to inflict pain. I never made a promise to them, but I made a promise to him, don’t leave the boy.

Theirs is a tragic love, how does their second chance end? Well you’ll just have to read it to find out.

First published in Italian as ‘Quando la Notte’ by Feltrinelli in 2009
Translated into English by Marina Harss as “When the Night” and published by Other Press in 2011

Diego Marani ‘New Finnish Grammar’

‘At heart, we have always been Lutherans, even before we became Christians. The heroes of the Kalevala were already Lutherans in the same way that Achilles and Ulysses were already Orthodox. 2F042AD6-7A56-4C98-8D52-428CB0A1F403Ulysses practised his wiles on a sophisticated and sceptical society which was familiar with mental trickery. Väinämöinen’s mode of speech is craggy, immediate, uncomplicated, like the first blow of a chisel on rough stone. The Greek Gods mingled with men, wrangled and negotiated with them. The God Ukko never comes down to Earth; he judges our actions and then visits light or darkness upon us, punishment or reward.’

In Diego Marani’s left of field book New Finnish Grammar, read for Italian Lit Month,  the story of roots and the need to belong is brought to us in this improbable story. During the Second World War a man is found in the port of Trieste, badly beaten and having lost his memory and speaking no language, the only clue to his identity is the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen found on his jacket. He is brought aboard a german hospital ship to be treated where the doctor that treats him, Pétri Friari, has himself unsure roots, in the German forces but himself of Finnish descent. He tries to teach Karjalainen, the rudiments of Finnish before sending him to Helsinki to better discover and understand his own country and language and to then maybe discover more about himself. But Finnish is no ordinary language as we learn:

Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and to bend them to our needs. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here.

The reader feels something of the poetry, of the essence of Finnish, without Marani trying to detail the actual language. As the Finns prepare to defend their country against Russian attack, Sampo is housed in the military hospital where he meets Ilma, a nurse who feels for him, maybe a new start is possible with her as he struggles to speak Finnish, helped by the pastor Koskela who tries to teach him not only the language but also what it is to be Finnish through Finnish mythology, The Kalevala, the spirit of which is rendered in the opening quote.

Marani’s tale is told by Pétri Friari, pieced together from notes written by Sampo in Finnish whilst Sampo was struggling to learn the language. Who was Sampo? What was he doing in Trieste? Is their hope, through Ilma for a man that does not know who he is? A chance observation by Sampo at the end of the story makes all clear, As Pétri says:

If Doctor Friedrich Reiner had found the handkerchief with the initials S. K. even a day earlier the fate of Massimiliano Brodar would have been different, as would have been my own.

First published in Italian as ‘Nuovo Grammatica Finlandese’ by RCS Libri in 2000
Translated into English by Judith Landry as “New Finnish Grammar” and published by Dedalus in 2011

Pino Corrias ‘We’ll Sleep When We’re Old’

“The book will be a tremendous success, and success, as Liz Taylor used to say, is an excellent deodorant.”

Who are the glamorous actors and actresses, producers and screenwriters that are responsable for, or appear in the films we see on the silver screen?A1AA7C94-B26C-473A-B1B5-74EE77E1CB7F In this story, read for Italian lit month 2017, Pino Corrias takes us behind the scene’s of the new Roman Dolce Vita. Corrias’ main characters are Oscar Martello, president of his own film production company, come from nothing and who harbors the dream of buying and reviving Cinecittà:

“Oscar Martello is an extrovert. And extroverts generally kick up tremendous clouds of dust so they can then hide in them.”

There is Oscar’s friend, probably his only true friend, Andrea Serrano, a respected screenwriter with the power of turning stories of love and murder into moneymaking successes, and there is Jacaranda Rizzi, the lead actress in Martello’s latest film, No, I Won’t Surrender!:

She’d downed a bottle of wine and knocked down the level in the whisky bottle by three fingers. On the tray on the floor was a package of Xanax….. “Those two things don’t go well together,” Andrea told her, pointing at the Xanax and the bottle of Talisker. “No, they go together perfectly, as far as I’m concerned,” Jacaranda replied, again with that voice. The voice of a stupid little girl, thirty years old, drunk on whisky, and stunned by an excess of psychoactive meds.

The book begins near the end of the story with the destruction by fire of Oscar Martello’s sumptious Roman villa, full of his valuable paintings, leaving us to wonder who could have done it, before Corrias takes us back to the beginning of the story just before events accelerate towards the fire. In La Dolce Roma’s venal society where people would sell their souls for a chance to appear on screen, Oscar and Andrea’s long friendship seems to be an exception, they are sat drinking in Andrea’s apartment as Oscar explains just how bad and how much money he will loose because of his latest film “No I Won’t Surrender” starring the beautiful Jacaranda Rizzi, a film about the Mafia. Oscar has the idea of secretly sending Jacaranda to Paris with Andrea a week before the film’s release and of leaking to the press that Jacaranda has been kidnapped because of her role in this anti-Mafia film, thus raising public interest and saving the film. Andrea agrees to help his friend, it sounds fun and Oscar lends him his golden jaguar for the trip. 

But who is Jacaranda really, how has she reached her role as a star in the corrupt Roman film industry and what is her relationship to Oscar? How did Oscar drag himself up from nothing to the top of the pinnacle and who did he squash to get there? What would happen if against all the odds Andrea falls in love with Jacaranda and learns that Oscar has used him, would their friendship survive?  Corrias draws us a 21st century version of the Dolce Vita, the colourful world of the Roman film industry, it’s intrigues and how desperately the different people described will fight to keep what they have, fame, money or both. 

There was nothing sweet about the dolce vita, it was horrendous. —DINO RISI

First published in Italian as ‘Dormiremo da Vecchi’ by Chiarelettere in 2015
Translated into English by Antony Shugaar as “We’ll Sleep when We’re Old” and published by Atria Books in 2017

Kamila Shamsie ‘Home Fire’

“You know what fathers and sons are like”
“Not really, no.”
“They’re our guides into manhood, for starters.”
She’d never really understood this, though she’d heard and seen enough anecdotally and academically to know there was something to it.16831436-5F28-4664-9749-557A446D1F14 For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition. He must have seen her look of incomprehension because he tried again.
“We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.”

Welcome to my second review of a book using Antigone as its thread, the first was Chalandon’s Quatrième Mur and here Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. Both books, as well as Sophocles of course are necessarily set in times of conflict, Chalandon’s in the Lebanese civil war of the early 1980’s where his Creon was Christian, his Antigone was Palestinian, his Haemon was Druze and his play included Chiites, Chaldeans and Armenians. Shamsie’s book is set in the current Syrian conflict, and is a thoroughly modern telling of this classical  tale. what all three have in common is that they are studies of people in times of conflict.

Shamsie, as Sophocles, brings us a tragedy, men blind through power bringing about their own personal downfall. The King Creon in the case of Sophocles who pushes his own niece Antigone and his son Haemon to their deaths and in doing so loses his wife, Eurydice, all this in trying to cement his power. Shamsie brings us Karamat, the British Home Secretary and second generation Pakistani immigrant in the place of Creon. But to this classic story, Shamsie brings us a study of the role of fathers in the coming of age of their sons, see the opening quote by Eamonn, Karamat’s son, and of the mechanism of indoctrination of fragile European youth into The Islamic State through Parvaiz.

The story is told in five parts by five different narrators, beginning with Isma, who has brought up her younger brother and sister, the twins, Parvaiz and Aneeka after their mother’s death, their father, Adil Pasha, had abandoned his home before the twins were born to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya and the Kashmir before dying in transit to Guantanamo. The twins having reached school leaving age, Isma can pick up her life again and heads to the USA for a PhD. Through Isma we are introduced to all of the main protagonists of the story, her brother and sister, a second generation English Muslim politician Karamat Lone:

Mr British Values. Mr Strong on Security. Mr Striding Away from Muslimness.

Isma and her mother had approached Karamat to get information about the death of their father, on the way to Guantanamo they had heard  unofficially, he had refused to help them and was now Home Secretary. And finally Eammon, Karamat’s son who Isma meets in America:

How they laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name— Ayman became Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated. (His Irish-American wife was seen as another indicator of his integrationist posing rather than an explication for the son’s name.)

She realises he is not like his father but although confiding in him about her father and her brother Parvaiz who we are learning has disappeared from his life in Wembley, she cannot go past simple friendship. Before returning to England, Eamonn sees a picture of the beautiful Aneeka at Isma’s appartement.

In the second part of the book Eamonn and Aneeka become lovers, Aneeka initially we learn later, to try to help her brother who realises he has made a mistake in going to Syria and wants out, to come home. The thing is that Karamat has managed to pass a law removing citizenship from dual nationals engaged in Syria, and Aneeka hopes to influence Karamat through his son. But life is not a plan and Aneeka falls in love with Eamonn who decides to intercede for her with his father.

In the third part of the story we follow the indoctrination of Parvaiz, a part of this book is the study of boys becoming men and the respective rolls of their fathers, Eamonn and his father caring for him versus Parvaiz who does not know his father, here the recruiters use this need for a father as a hook as in this conversation between Parvaiz and Farooq:

“I never knew my father…..”
“He regretted that.” The stranger said, “that you never knew him. He fought with my father; I heard all the stories of the great  warrior Abu Parvaiz.”
“That wasn’t my father’s name. It was Adil Pasha.”
“It was his—“ The man said something that sounded like numb digger. “That’s French for jihadi name….. When he entered the fight for justice he called himself Father of Parvaiz. That was his way of keeping you close……”

We learn that Parvaiz contacts his sister Aneeka wanting to come home helping us to understand the events of the previous section, Aneeka’s relationship  with Eamonn. From here on in the last two sections narrated by the inflexible Karamat and then Aneeka who has no limit to her wish and actions to repatriate her dead brother, the tragedy of Sophocles’s Antigone plays out up until the breathtaking end.

A splendid book.

First published in English as ‘Home Fire’ by Bloomsbury Circus in 2017

Pierre Lemaitre ‘Travail Soigné’

The journalists were in a hurry.
He said: Two victims.
We don’t know yet, young women…
How old
About twenty five. That’s all we can say for now.
When will they bring the bodies out? Asked a photographer
Soon, It’s taking a bit of time. Technical problems……
The journalists, until then not particularly interested were suddenly aroused when the door of the loft, 190600AA-E6F3-4069-84B7-3433F93FD33Fwide open, gave them a clear view of the wall covered by an enormous splash of blood thrown on it as on a painting by Pollock. As if this was not confirmation enough, the two crime scene technicians began conscientiously loading the van with carefully sealed and labelled plastic bags. Journalists, however like undertakers, can estimate at the blink of an eye, the size of a body from the length of the bag. And watching them loading the bags, everyone could guess that the bodies were  all in bits.***

Pierre Lemaitre’s first book in his Verhoeven series, Travil Soigné, Meticulous Work, translated into English as Irene, the name of Verhoeven’s wife, begins by slowly introducing Verhoeven’s team as they come to terms with the horrific murder of two young women as illustrated in the opening quote. We quickly cover Camille Verhoeven, 1m45 tall but an imposing character respected by all, his assistant Louis hailing from a wealthy family:

It was Camille’s opinion that thirty years earlier, Louis would have become a left wing revolutionary. But nowadays this sort of ideology was no longer a serious option. Louis hated religion and hence volunteer work or charity. He thought about what he could do and suddenly all became clear: he’d join the police.***

And Armand, a meticulous policeman but renowned miser. The killer of the two girls intentionally leaves a clear fingerprint in blood on the wall. As the story progresses the team gets dragged emotionally into the mystery and then finally personally. I’ll leave it at that for now.

An efficient murder mystery as ever in this series, the murders and the murder scenes are described in graphic detail as in the other books in the series Alex and then Camille. For more detail and then the risk of spoilers go to Detailed review 

First published in French as ‘Travail Soigné’ by Editions du Masque in 2006
Translated into English by Franck Wynne as “Irene” and published by MacLehose Press in 2014
*** My translation