Pierre Assouline ‘Sigmaringen’


In uniform, obedience is a virtue. It avoids going against authority. There are those that command and those that obey, and not only the Prussians.I know no other master than the prince, no other loyalty than to the Hohenzollern, no other house than the castle.***


As the book begins, in August 1944, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a part of the German aristocracy, are evicted from their 900 year old castle by the Führer at a half days notice to make way for the exiled Vichy government. The prince was able to negotiate that his Major-domo should stay in place with his staff to serve the new inhabitants and to ensure the integrity of this 380 room castle. So begins this very particular version of Upstairs Downstairs related by the Major-domo Julius, described in the opening quote.

Sigmaringen soon fills with the Vichy government, from the president, Marshal Pétain and his prime minister Laval, their ministers and a militia force in the castle overlooking the town, to a thousand or so french civilians in the town itself. Julius shows us through his eyes this pathetic circus, Pétain, who occupies the Prince’s apartments on the seventh floor, realising that he is in fact a prisoner as shown when Cecil Von Renthe-Fink, arrives for a meal with the Marshal, Von Renthe-Fink who had been Pétain’s “guardian angel” in Vichy, as Pétain tells Julius:


Excuse me Marshal, but Mr. Von Renthe-Fink has just arrived, he is in the antechamber. Maybe you know him……Do I know him? He followed me around for two years at the Hôtel du Parc!
Mr. Von Renthe-Fink is here for dinner and…..
I don’t remember having inviting my jailor to dine with us. He will dine alone.***


Laval, who occupies the royal apartments on the sixth floor spends the eight months preparing his defence whilst Julius has to organise the castle so that Pétain and Laval, who cannot stand each other, should never meet.

The ministers as for them, are divided into two clans, the passive and the active clan, the one looking to continue the simulacrum of government and the other planning their escape. Julius must organise things so that these two groups never meet either. And then there was Céline, the famous author of “Voyage au bout de la nuit”, but a confirmed anti-semite.

The upstairs-downstairs view of events is present throughout, with the servants being made up of the original German retinue, interspersed with some of the french exiles. As the allies advance, rumours abound, are their spies present? How will the Germans fight back? An example of two views follows during a conference given by the head of the belgian fascists, Léon Degrellé:


Upstairs:

Mr Degrelle claims to have information on the subject. Secret information, of course, he couldn’t reveal his source. He could only certify that in underground laboratories and hidden factories, brilliant german scientists were putting the final touches to terrifying arms of destruction:
“Vulcans forges! You’ll see! In the meantime, you can already see the devastation reaped by the Panzerfaust, the poor man’s weapon. Do you realise? A 50 Pfennig stovepipe blowing up tanks worth 25 million!
He gloated. His audience refrained from applauding…

Downstairs:

At the end of the evening, once the guests had rejoined their apartments, I lingered in the kitchens as two valets gave their versions of the conferences……imagine, he was on stage with all the chiefs, in the middle of explaining why Germany can’t lose the war, with his “Don’t be afraid to be true French and at the same time Europeans…. Europe will perish or will live on!” and his “It’s a soldier telling you this…. We’ll be the first in Brussels, be the first in Paris… Vive la France!”….
And then Céline, who was in the central aisle, he stopped, he stared him in the eyes, he shrugged his shoulders and then he walked off, he turned his back on him and left saying out loud: “Who is this complete idiot who won’t even look good on the gallows with that fools face?”***


This is also a book about Julius himself. Who is behind the impassive exterior? Can he be coaxed back towards showing his feelings? I felt a glossary of the ministers and their positions would have been an interesting addition for the reader.

First Published in French as “Sigmaringen” by Gallimard in 2014
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sous l’uniforme, obéissance fait vertu. Il évite même de s’opposer à l’authorité. Il y a ceux qui commandent et ceux qui obéissent, ep pas seulement chez les Prussiens. Or je ne me connaissais d’autre maître que le prince, d’autres loyauté que les Hohenzollern, d’aure maison que le château.

Pardon, monsieur le maréchal, mais M. Von Renthe-Fink vient d’arriver, il se trouve dans l’antichambre. Peut-être le connaissez-vous….Si je le connais? Je l’ai eu sur le dos pendant deux ans à l’Hôtel du Parc!
M. Von Renthe-Fink est là pour dîner et…..
Je ne me souviens pas d’avoir invité mon geôlier à notre table. Il dînera seule.

M. (Léon) Degrelle (le chef des fasciste Belges) disait détenir des informations sur le sujet. Des informations secrètes, naturellement, dont il ne pouvait revel la source. Il pouvait juste certifier que dans des laboratoires enfouis sous terre et des usines cachées, le génie scientifique allemand mettait au point de terribles armes de destruction:
“Les forges de Vulcain! Vous verrez! En attendant, voyez déjà les ravages causés par le Panzerfaust, l’arme du pauvre. Vous vous rendez compte? Un tuyau de poêle de 50 Pfennig qui fait sauter des tanks de 25 millions!”
Il exultait. Son public se retenait d’applaudir….

À la fin de la soirée, une fois que les invités eurent regagné leurs appartements, je m’attardai en cuisines car deux valets racontaient leur version de ces conférences…..Imaginer qu’il était à la tribune avec tous les chefs, en train d’expliquer pourquoi l’Allemagne ne pouvait pas perdre la guerre, avec des “N’ayez pas peur d’être des vrais Français tout en étant des Européens… L’Europe périra ou elle vivra!” et des “C’est un soldat qui vous parle…. Nous serons les premiers à Bruxelles, soyez les premiers à Paris….Vive la France!”…..
Alors le Céline, qui était dans l’allée centrale, il s’est arrêté, il l’a regardé fixement dans les yeux, il a haussé les épaules puis il a rebroussé chemin, il lui a tourné le dos et il est reparti en disant très fort: “Quel est ce roi des cons qui ne fera même pas un beau pendu avec sa gueule de jean-foutre?”

Robert Harris ‘The Second Sleep’


LATE ON THE afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468, a solitary traveller was to be observed picking his way on horseback across the wild moorland of that ancient region of south-western England known since Saxon times as Wessex.


We’re of to Wessex in this Sunday Times #1 bestseller from Robert Harris, I should declare from the outset that had the initial idea, a “Planet of The Apes” moment, a voyage in a mediaeval world that we quickly come to know as our future, been developed in an original way then I would maybe have understood this enthusiasm, but no. **Spoiler Alert**, not that it spoils much! The people of the past were worried and fled before the apocalypse:


We regard our society as having reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse, key sectors and technologies could be affected to such an extent that our chances of finding our way back to the status quo ante could diminish alarming quickly.
Oh yes the ancients had had faith sure enough, their God had been science and it had deserted them.


There are so many thought provoking views of the future out there, including Armagedon moments. Seek and find one, this is not it.

First Published in English as “The Second Sleep” in 2019, by Hutchinson.

The Booker international special confinement review

And the Winner is:

Blocked at home thanks to the COVID, I thought: make this an opportunity .

So I’ve read the six shortlisted novels, written articles and debated extensively with myself and here are the conclusions.


The two South American books, very different in style, the poetic self discovery of China Iron contrasts with the crude realism of Hurricane Season but they share themes, poverty, cruelty, escapism through alcohol and drugs and the contrast of machism with homosexuality.


Tyll shares with China Iron taking their sources, the characters of Tyll and China from historical sources and using their stories to tell of the histories of Europe and Argentina.


The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, through a story told, steeped in magic and ghosts , the influence of the Zoastrians, tells us the recent history of Iran and the terrible impact of the revolution and its oppressive regime on the people.


The memory police, is a stripped back yet allegorical story of a future and its past, about an oppressive regime and the faint hope that remains in the people.


And finally, The Discomfort of evening, a painful and disturbing book about the investigation and non acceptance of death in a young adolescent living in a hard line Reform community.


For the strength and depth of the story, re-visiting La Vuelta de Martin Fierro and the birth of Argentina from a new angle, the cruelty of the Hispanics, the instrumentalisation of the Gouchos and the poetic style, The adventures of China Iron is for me a clear winner.

Fernanda Melchor ‘Hurricane Season’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Hurricane Season”: In order of reading book number 6.

In order to follow this event, I have managed to write articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Lagarta, you little shit-stirrer, you’re sick in the head, only you could come out with such a rotten, disgraceful pack of lies, aren’t you ashamed of yourself, whoring around and then pointing the finger at your cousin? There’s only one thing’ll stop you wanting to leave the house, you wicked little tramp. Grandma had cut off all her hair with the poultry shears while Yesenia sat motionless, as still as a possum in the headlights, terrified of being slashed by those icy blades, and afterwards she’d spent the whole night out in the yard, like the mongrel bitch that she was, and Grandma had said: a stinking animal that didn’t deserve so much as a flee-ridden mattress beneath its fetid coat.


As the story begins, the body of the witch is found in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of Matosa. To help us make sense of this discovery, chapter by chapter we follow what has happened through the eyes of one or the other of the protagonists. In sentences, rivalling Proust for length, through these different accounts we get a feeling for the town, Matosa:


They say that’s why the women are on edge, especially in La Matosa. They say that, come evening, they gather on their porches to smoke filterless cigarettes and cradle their youngest babes in their arms, blowing their peppery breath over those tender crowns to shoo away the mosquitos, basking in what little breeze reaches them from the river, when at last the town settles into silence and you can just about make out the music coming from the highway brothels in the distance, the rumble of the trucks as they make their way to the oilfields, the baying of dogs calling each other like wolves from one side of the plain to the other; the time of evening when the women sit around telling stories.


In this desperate town where the women seem to live from prostitution, and the men from the women we get a feeling of hopelessness, take for instance Lagarta from the opening quote, brought up harshly by her grand mother, as are so many of her cousins, nephews and nieces when their young parents runaway or are jailed. The hopelessness of their situations are drowned in Aguardiente, drugs or religion with dreams of having enough money to get a bus away from here.

The story is of machism and homosexuality, and the fine line between the two, of young girls discovering their power and becoming women too soon and preys of the men and of the age old solutions to unwanted pregnancies, with the witch central to both of these conflicts.

A second South American book in the selection, set 150 years after the first, The Adventures of China Iron , but treating many of the same subjects but this time through a realist vision, of the two, I preferred the first.

First Published in Spanish as “Temporada de huracanes” in 2017, in Mexico by Literatura Random House.
Translated into english by Sophie Hughes and published as “Hurricane Season” by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2019
Translated into French by Laura Alcoba and published as “La saison des ouragans” by Grasset in 2019

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld ‘The Discomfort of Evening’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Discomfort of Evening”: In order of reading book number 5.


It hasn’t occurred to me before that Mum and Dad couldn’t only be overcome by death but they could beat death to it.img_0081That you could plan the Day of Judgement just like a birthday party.


Jas, the narrator is, like Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, brought up in a Dutch Reform family in a Reform community, cut off from the rest of the world, “the other side”, the upbringing is strict in a religious sense and feelings are not shown or talked about, the family is poor and fights to just subsist. But Jas is brought up with her brothers Obbe and Matthies and her sister Hanna on a dairy farm with more than one hundred head of cattle and with country folk’s natural understanding of reproduction. At the outset of the book the initial tragedy takes place as Matthies takes part in a local skating competition where the winner “got a plate of stewed udders with mustard and a gold medal with the year 2000 on it.” He falls through the ice and drowns.

This story then studies the effect of this event on Jas’ family as the natural characteristics of each of the family members is magnified by the event. It begs the question of religion; does this age old unchanged religion help to cope with such a tragedy? Firstly, the mother who in her sorrow has no time for her children or for herself and clearly is torn with the thought of suicide. In her morbid state she provides no stability for the family as illustrated by the following quote from Jas who used to enjoy watching the stars:


I’ve learned that the heavens aren’t a wishing-well but a mass grave. Every star is a dead child, and the most beautiful star is Matthies – Mum taught us that.


The eldest son Obbe becomes obsessed with death and repeatedly tries to re-enact his brothers death, firstly with animals, drowning a hamster and looking on with Jas and becoming more and more dangerous. Jas herself, concious of the danger posed by her brother, nonetheless goes on to push her younger sister off of the bridge leading to “the other side” into the river just to see what would happen.

The lack of understanding between the generations, of what it is to be an adolescent, can best be illustrated by Jas’ father’s udder cloths:


He secures the cows between the bars, attaches the cups to their udders, then uses one of my old underpants covered in salve to clean them afterwards. I often used to feel embarrassed when Dad rubbed one of my worn-out pairs of knickers on the udders, or cleaned the milking cups with them without any kind of bashfulness – but sometimes at night I’ve thought about the crotch that has passed through so many other people’s hands, from Obbe’s to Farmer Janssen’s, and that they touch me that way, with calluses and blisters on their palms. Sometimes a pair of knickers gets lost among the cows before finally getting kicked between the gratings. Dad calls them udder cloths; he doesn’t see them as underpants any more. On Saturdays Mum washes the udder cloths and hangs them to dry on the washing line.


When things can’t get worse, they do. Foot and moith disease reaches the community and the family, disoriented by death, must now witness the killing of their cattle:


Death hasn’t only entered Mum and Dad but is also inside us – it will always look for a body or an animal and it won’t rest until it’s got hold of something.


The book then heads towards an ending that no longer surprises us.
This book was at times difficult to read, especially when addressing the deeds and missdeeds of the children and their sexual awakening in this, their troubled time. Violence, lack of conscience, morbidity and sexual experiments make for uneasy reading. We need to talk about Obbe!

First Published in Dutch in 2018 by Atlas Contact.
Translated into english by Michele Hutchinson and published as “The Discomfort of Evening” by Faber & Faber in 2020

Shokoofeh Azar ‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree”: In order of reading book number 4.


As I was exiting the house mum repeated one of her favourite sayings, “I don’t care if people’s lives are divided into before Nowruz and after Nowruz, or before the revolution and after the revolution, in my family it’s divided into before the Arab invasion and after the Arab invasion.” After that event mum always said Arab invasion, not fire or burning, she still wants to make the point that they came and burnt, plundered and killed just like 1400 years ago.


This powerful book about the decades following the Iranian revolution, the “Arab invasion” of the opening quote is told to us in this very personal view of events, by Shokoofeh Azar, from her new home in Australia and not from Iran, of course. Azar chooses to tell the story of one age-old family, of Hushang and his wife, and of their children, Sohrab, Beeta and the young narrator Bahar, and how their family tree ended.

This was a cultured Persian family who watched as Khomeni swept away the Shah and civil society to replace it by his  oppresive regime, they leave Teheran for a village, Razan, lost and forgotten far from the cities after a group of revolutionaries filled with hate arrive at their home:


I died the day inflamed revolutionaries boiling with revolutionary hatred and fervour poured into our house in Teheranpars and making strange noises cried out God is great, God is great, they stormed dad’s basement workshop and after, pouring kerosene on all his handmade tars and books and mulberry wood, set them alight. I was just 13 years old and was down there practising tar when they savagely attacked, I crawled under the table paralysed by fear. I saw with my own eyes how they splashed petrol everywhere and threw the lighter.


As the ghost of Beeta tells us, through stories interspersed with dreams and Zoroastrian folklore, there was no escape even in their backwater. She tells us through the arrest, torture and death of Sohrab of the price the poulation was made to pay for this revolution:


There was no news from Sohrab because he was waiting, he was waiting for the executions to end. They did end, some say it was september 22nd 1988, and some say it was later, either way they eventually came to an end. 5000 men and women, young and old, whose only crime had been their political or religious beliefs, were killed in the prisons of Teheran, Kharaj Mashhad and other cities. Once they had all finally died and their corpses had fed the crows and stray dogs in the dessert they didn’t sit idle, they set off, the ghosts of 5000 political and religious prisoners rose up from the cities deserts and from around Teheran and Havaran and looked at their smelly maggot infested body parts strewn around and carried in all directions in the mouths of crows and dogs, they set off with a common loathing, they wanted to see their murderer’s face up close. They could have appeared instantly in Khomeni’s bedroom the man who had signed their execution orders.


She tells of the revolutionary guards come to Razan to forcibly conscript all of the men to fight in the war against Iraq, of the sorrow of the mothers as none of them came back and of the contempt of the regime that gave them no news until the martyr foundation one day, with no warning, drove into the village with bronze plaques for them, the Black Snow in the quote refers to an actual event as in 1991 the Kuwaiti oil fields burned, black snow fell on mountainous regions:


The mothers thought that if we die they call our lone defenceless children orphans, but when our children die nobody calls us lone defenceless mothers. It was thus that they began calling themselves orphan mothers, mothers who had been orphaned by their children. Just as the happless arrival of the martyr foundation employees was beginning to fade from its memory, Rasan’s seemingly calm and beautiful heart suddenly stood still when it found itself the sudden home to a large graveyard, a graveyard the breadth of memories hopes and dreams, a graveyard the length of the past present and future. in the days and months after the storm of the black snow and the end of the war there was no news from veteran soldiers and nobody came from the provincial capital or Teheran to help the inhabitants of Rasan or even remembered their existence.


Late in the book, as Hushang, a bystander, is arrested on the margins of a demonstration and is then forced to write his story as a confession, there is a moment which reminded me of “The Life of Pi”, when the choice between the real story and a romanced version is presented.

This was a very personal story which also gives insight into how criminal regimes self perpetuate. Give those actually doing the dirty work more to lose by the fall of the regime than its perpetuation. This is of course a fiction, told in poetic language which contrasts with its backgroung setting.

First Published in Farsi.
Translated into english by Adrien Kijek and published as “The Enlightenmet of the Greengage Tree” by Wild Dingo Press in 2017

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara « The Adventures of China Iron »

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Adventures of China Iron”: In order of reading book number 3.

In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Many said there was no need to spare the blood of gauchos, but he did spare it: he considered the gauchos every bit a part of the estancia as any one of the cows and he wouldn’t let a single one die without good reason.


Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s China Iron (thanks to the translators notes) is a story very loosely based on the 19th century balad, “La Vuelta de Martín Fierro” about life as a Gaucho on the Argentinian Pampas, except that Cámara bases this story around Fierro’s wife, unnamed in the balad.

A female gaucho, a “gaucha” is know as a china, and as the story begins Fierro, as in the balad, wins china from El Negro in a card game and fathers her two children before her fourteenth birthday, Fierro kills El Negro “because he can” before the army catches up with him:


When they conscripted Fierro along with all the others, they also took Oscar, who was what Fierro laughingly called (in his famous song) a ‘Jimmy-gringo’ from Britain.


His wife just ups and leaves on a wagon with Liz, Oscar’s wife, on a 19th century Pampas road movie, a voyage of discovery of herself and the country she lives in. When Liz asks her her name, she realises that she doesn’t have one, people have only ever called her china like all the other women, and so she begins by naming herself, keeping the China and using the English translation of her husbands name, Iron.

They leave the Pampas and cross the dessert following an old Indian, well trodden, earth path as she and Liz get to know each other, China falling in love with Liz during torrid nights in the wagon, and as China gains an outsider’s view of Gauchos:


Liz – who believed in work more than in God the Father – was right about gauchos being parasites on cows and horses. She was right about my people’s life of meat and water; we didn’t grow squashes or beans, we didn’t weave or fish, we barely hunted, didn’t use any wood other than fallen branches, and then only to make fire.


In the second part of the trip, China discovers the creation of the “New Argentina” as they stop over at José Hernández’s Hacienda, the José Hernández that wrote the balad. She sees the cruelty of the land owners to the Gouchos, using the army to control them, with his view of them illustrated in the opening quote. A normal punishment was to be staked out in the sun using four stakes for several days. But if the Gauchos were second class citizens they were better treated than the Indians:


I’ve already told you, Liz: Argentina needs that land in order to progress. And as for the gauchos, they need an enemy to turn them into patriotic Argentines. We all need the Indians.


China and Liz escape to Indian country where they meet up with the “real” balad writer Martín Fierro who as in the original balad had run of with a deserter, Cruz, but not for quite the same reasons as imagined by Cámara in this version of the poem, translated marvellously in A B C C C B by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh:


Like Jesus rising from the tomb
In two days I was well:
The third day dawned, he kissed my lips
His salt-sweet mouth mine did eclipse
He mounted me, he held my hips
To heaven I came from hell.

The sun shone on my arse that hour.
My spurs I cast away,
A moment more I couldn’t wait
To suck him dry and with him sate
My lust for him, then lie prostrate;
Such freedom I knew that day.

To you in words I can’t explain
The pleasure that I felt
To have his prick come into me
In paradise I seemed to be
Through flesh was God revealed to me
And at his feet I knelt.


This was a fun story of awakening in a cruel world (slavery, the indusrial revolution and the creating of Argentina), well worth its place on the Booker International shortlist.

First Published in Spanish as “Las aventuras de la China Iron” in 2017, in Argentina by Penguin Random House Group.
Translated into english by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh and published as “The Advetures of China Iron” by Charco Press in 2019