Philippe Grimbert ‘A Secret’


–Only child, I’d had a brother for a long time. They had to take me at my word when I told this tale to my relations on holiday, to my passing friends.IMG_1136 I had a brother. More handsome, stronger. An older brother, glorious, invisible.***


Fifteen years after his parents suicide, Philippe Grimbert brings us this story of his and his families life told mostly by his young self from the fifties. This family drama was turned into a successful film in France and the book translated into many languages.
Philippe tells us how he grew up in the Paris area with his mother and father, he had health problems and was a weak child so he invented an older brother to give himself courage. His parents were both good looking and athletic and Philippe liked to imagine their youth and how they met.
Philippe, however, was brought up in a family with a secret of which only he was unaware:


–My friend opened one by one new chapters, the events for which I had learnt the details in my history books, the occupation, Vichy, the fate of the Jews, the demarcation line were no longer reduced to bold titles in a school manual, they were suddenly alive, black and white photos that had found their colour. My parents had been through it and were much more marked by this than I had believed. Anna appeared out of the night, Maxime’s first wife.***



The story concerns two major events that in Philippe families case overlapped and interfered. Firstly Philippe’s father Maxime fell passionately in love with his own sister in law Tania, a family drama waiting to burst to the surface and secondly Philippes family was Jewish and Maxime had decided to lead them cross the demarcation line in small groups to flee from their fate and whilst Maxime and Tania arriving separately had reached safety, Anna disillusioned is captured with Simon, Maxime and Anna’s child:


–Try to imagine the feelings of my mother in the light of the news. The enemy from from which she had fled had become an ally brushing aside the only obstacle that stood between her and my father, if Anna and Simon didn’t make it, everything would be possible.***


Could anyone live with the weight of having survived in these circumstances?

First Published in French as “Un Secret” in 2004 by Grasset et Fasquelle
Translated into English by Polly McLean and published by Portobello Books in 2007
*** My Translation

Simonetta Greggio ‘Black Messiah’

 –You’re hilarious you are. You’ll make me laugh to death. You watch too much television, but Italy isn’t the USA: IMG_1120we’re at the back of the class, last in the kingdom of heaven. No DNA database here!***

Simonetta Greggio Italian, writing in French takes us to Tuscany –This kind of thing doesn’t happen, not in Tuscany, on the gentle hills where happy breakfast commercials are shot.*** In this her first crime novel, a number of murders resembling those of thirty years earlier, a true story concerning the monster of Florence, a serial killer who killed seven young couples in their cars whilst they were making love and who was never captured:

–In their torch beams, dozens of insects undulated like the northern lights. The clearing  pulsated with fireflies, but the carabiniers made no move to brush them aside. They stood there still, astounded….The young girl seemed to watch them with her staring eyes. Naked, crucified on a cross in the form of an X,  upright in the middle of the gap, her tortured face looked down on them, arms and legs stretched apart.***

As the book advances and once again young people and couples are targeted, young girls as always are particularly vulnerable. We follow two main characters, Miles, American whose Italian wife died in mysterious circumstances and who has moved to his wife’s country with his daughter Indiana for a new start and Jacopo, an Italian brigadier who was already in the police and on the unresolved case of the monster thirty years earlier, who too has lost his wife and has daughters the age of the victims.

These two characters are on a slow collision course up to the final confrontations in the story. And yes, as the opening quote from the killer leads us to understand, Italy approved its first DNA database in 2016, after the events in this story.

First Published in French as “Black Messie” in 2016 by Stock
*** My Translation

Sandro Veronese ‘Terres Rares’

–Today’s news is the prawn warning. It’s in all the papers, and not only in the local pages for Rome. Killer prawns from Louisiana.IMG_1119 There is a worrying tone to the articles because this particular strain, imported from Louisiana about fifteen years ago by a farmer from lake Bracciano, has flourished in the whole of Latium thanks, if would seem, to its exceptional reproductive ability. From ditch to ditch, from irrigation channel to irrigation channel they have advanced to the Malagrotta waste dumps and from there, once again according to the press, last night they launched their assault on Rome by crossing the Via Aurelia at the thirteen kilometer marker.***

Pietro Paladini, the main protagonist from Veronesi’s previous book Quiet Chaos, who lived in Milan and which concerned a reaction to the sudden loss of his common-law wife Lara, finds himself several years later in a seemingly stable situation living and working in Rome. As with the opening quote, where there is in fact a rational explication, to the irrational newspaper article, all is not as it seems, there are indications waiting to be read of the instability of his situation. Firstly he has a steady relationship with a woman of his age, D, but keeps his life with her separate from his life with his daughter: 

–Nevertheless, whilst I feel a tenderness towards her, hold her in high esteem,  feel a need to protect her, share a complicity, respect, besides a physical attraction that can’t be ignored, all of these indications have never converged to a shining cohesive whole. I don’t believe that I love her, you see, at least not in the traditional sense of the word and I do not think that she loves me.***

Pietro works with an old school friend of his, Lello, whose company repossesses luxury cars which Pietro then sells. Suddenly one day Pietro’s life falls to pieces, all is not as it seems, when, as for the first time, he is asked to recover a car from a young starlet who escapes from him at high speed and as he pursues her, his world begins to unravel. He is stopped by the traffic police for speeding and is found to be over the limit, in quick succession he loses his driving license and his telephone, his daughter leaves home, D leaves him and Lello disappears as the fraud squad take over the company’s offices.

Pietro then decides to disappear and is slowly forced to review the whole of his life beginning even before the death of Lara, his relationship with his wealthy father who ran off to live in Switzerland with the nurse he had hired to care for Pietro’s mother in her final illness, with his daughter who has not fully come to terms with her mother’s death, with Lello who had used him without his knowledge as a respectable front for his criminal business, even up to his own represssed love for another woman and as he is eventually forced to understand:

–Humility is being humble with those that humiliate us.***

This story is full of anecdotes linked to the previous book, it can be read independently but is better read after the Strega Prize winning Quiet Chaos.

First Published in Italian as “Terre Rare” in 2015 by Bompiani
Translated into French by Dominique Vittoz and published as ‘Terres Rares” in 2016 by  Grasset
*** My Translation

Niccolo Ammaniti ‘As God Commands’

–Three stars.
Cristiano ranked his father’s rages on a five-star scale. No, three to four. Already in the ‘approach with caution’ area, where the only strategy was to agree with everything he said and keep out of his way as much as possible.IMG_1102 His father turned round and kicked a white plastic chair, which hurtled across the room and fetched up against the pile of boxes where Cristiano kept his clothes. No, he had been wrong. This was five stars. Red alert. Here the only thing to do was to keep shtum and blend in with your surroundings.

Who would want to be Cristiano Zena, brought up in terror by a violent alcoholic father who taught him that the only thing in life that counts is the bond between father and son. Ammaniti, in stubs Strega Prize winner, takes us on a trip into the consequences of Berlusconi’s impact on Italy. Rino Zena has drifted out of work in the new Italy, and is a Nazi sympathiser. His two friends are Quattro Formagi, an unstable halfwit who has been watching the same pornographic film for many years in private so that he knows the lines and is hovering between reality and fantasy, and Danilo Aprea a drunken night watchman whose life fell apart at the accidental death of his child, that spends his nights stalking his ex-wife at her home or on the telephone. And to complete the background, this is Italy, there is religious mumbo jumbo throughout:

–God comes down hardest on those that are weakest, you’re a doctor and you need to know it’s important Enrico, evil is attracted by the poorest and the weakest, when god strikes he strikes the weakest.

When the story does go off the rails each of the pals falls fowl of his own particular weakness, Danilo wants money for no real purpose, Quattro Formagi thinks he recognises one of the actresses in his old American porn film (a school friend of Cristiano’s):

–Quattro Formagi on the saddle of the Boxer was climbing back up around the hairpin bends of the Saint Rocca woods, a fire burned in his shoulder, every rut that he crossed was agony, but that too was a sign that god was with him, just like the holes in padre Pio’s hands.

Rino’s known weaknesses are violence and misplaced loyalty, we discover another weakness that Ammaniti throws in unexpectedly and as for Cristiano, Well you’ll just have to read it, how far can you take filial loyalty? This is not a book with hope as a central theme.

First Published in Italian as “Come Dio Comanda” in 2006 by Mondadori
Translated into English by Jonathan Hunt and published as ‘The Crossroads’ in 2010 by Canongate Books
Also published in English as ‘As God Wants’ in 2009 by Black Cat

Erri De Luca ‘La Nature Exposée’

–As you can see it is a piece of art worthy of a renaissance master. Today the Church would like to restore it to its original form. Which means removing the drape.FullSizeRender
I examine the contrasting stone cover, which seems well attached at the hips and to the naked skin. I tell him that in removing it the nature will inevitably be damaged.
–what nature?
–The nature, the genitalia, that’s what we call male or female nakedness where I come from.***

Erri De Luca’s short book read in French as La Nature  exposée or in English as Nature Revealed*** is the story of a man who values people and shared experiences. The main protagonist lives in a mountain village in the north of Italy, this mountain village has always been situated on a crossroads, a route between the north and the south, as he describes the women of his village:

–Our village isn’t a village for women. They have all left for the towns, married or not. Traditionally they possess a beauty that comes from the passage of migrant populations. They have caravans in their blood.***

So in this isolated village where he has lived all of his long life and where everyone knows the business of everyone else, he carries on the age old business of guiding migrating populations across the Alps. He feels however a certain solidarity with these people forced from war afflicted countries to search a new life far from home and who are exploited at each step of their way. He quietly takes their money and then once over the mountains he returns it, until, after a grateful migrant mentions this act in a book, changing his village life totally as the other mountain guides learn of this treachery:

–The blacksmith and the Baker no longer greet me, the worst snub in the country village expelled from the list of living.

Forced to leave his mountain village he leaves for Genoa and takes up residence in a boarding house which serves meals each evening, once again a point of passage where he meets hard working migrant workers from Northern Africa who either work on the boats or in the marble quarry and feels comfortable with these people,  one of whom gifts him the marble needed for the ‘Nature’. As he looks for work he is chosen, because of his humility, to carry out the work of sculpture hinted at in the opening quote, where he must sculpt a penis for Jesus. I’ll leave you here with this story only to say that in empathy with the subject he goes to extremes:

As if, to be able to interpret a Muslim or a Jewish character, an actor asked to be circumcised in order to blend into the role: taking the Stanislavsky method to its extreme limit.

First Published in Italian as “La Natura Esposta” in 2016 by Feltrinelli.
Translated into French by Danièle Valin as ‘La Nature Exposée’ and published by Gallimard in 2017
*** My translation

Hannelore Cayre ‘La Daronne’

—I was paid in cash by my employer, The Home Office, who therefore declared no taxes…..its pretty scarey when you think of it, the translators on whom National security depends, IMG_1114the very same that translate the plots hatched by islamists in their cellars and garages, should be clandestine workers with no social security and no pension. Quite frankly there are better ways to ensure incorruptibility.***

Lets get the translation in first, ‘La Daronne’ is French slang for mother, my best equivalent would be the cockney rhyming wersion ‘The finger and thumb’.

Hannelore Cayre who’s First book ‘Commis d’office‘ meaning ‘Duty Counsel’ in English was released as a film in 2009, serves us this time an excellent piece of French Noir centering around Patience Portefeux, a hard working ageing police translator/interpreter with an uncertain future ahead of her, as the initial quote tells us these translators really were paid cash in hand, and how she becomes ‘La Daronne’.

—It was the end of July, the sun was burning up the sky; The Parisians were all heading for the beaches, and I was beginning my new career, Philippe my fiancé and copwas just taking up his new position as head of the drug squad of the 2nd unit of the DPJ…
I was really happy for him, but back then I was still just a simple police Translator/Interpreter and hadn’t yet got one point two tons of hash in my cellar.***

Cayre’s inside knowledge of the judicial process in France gives us little details such as prisoners speaking with the outside world using Playstations to avoid being listened in on, or the description of the dealers with two phones, the bizzness and the halal to avoid being eavesdropped on but being unable to keep their calls segregated and being blown within hours.

I read this book in two sittings, and thoughroughly enjoyed if from start to end, I firmly recommend this book if your French is up to it, if not watch out for or plebiscite a translation.

First Published in French as “La Daronne” in 2017 by Métailié
*** My translation

Herman Wouk ‘The Caine Mutiny’

At the instant that Mrs. Keith saw Willie swallowed up, she remembered that she had neglected an important transaction. She ran to the entrance of Furnald Hall. The chief stopped her as she laid a hand on the doorknob. “Sorry, madam. No admittance.” “That was my son who just went in.” “Sorry, madam.” “I only want to see him for a moment. I must speak to him. He forgot something.”IMG_1107“They’re taking physicals in there, madam. There are men walking around with nothing on.” … “Madam,” said the chief, with a note in his rasping voice that was not unkind, “he’s in the Navy now.” Mrs. Keith suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry.” “Okay, okay. You’ll see him again soon—maybe Saturday.” The mother opened her purse and began to fish in it. “You see, I promised—the fact is, he forgot to take his spending money…. suppose he wants some? I promised him. Please take the money——Pardon me, but I’d be happy to give you something for your trouble.” The chief’s gray eyebrows rose. “That won’t be necessary.” He wagged his head like a dog shaking off flies, and accepted the bills. Up went the eyebrows again. “Madam—this here is a hundred dollars!” He stared at her. Mrs. Keith was struck with an unfamiliar sensation—shame at being better off than most people. “Well,” she said defensively, “it isn’t every day he goes to fight a war.” “I’ll take care of it, madam.” …The chief looked after her, then glanced at the two fifties fluttering in his hand. “One thing,” he muttered, “we’re sure as hell getting a new kind of Navy.” He thrust the bills into a pocket.

In this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Herman Wouk brings us ‘The’ story of the Pacific war or more precisely a study of the wartime Navy told by way of a Bildungsroman of young Willie Keith on the more or less obsolete mine sweeper, the Caine. The opening quote illustrates the difference between the peace time Navy, illustrated by the Chief and of the new Navy with officers from different walks of life, we can imagine that ‘two fifties’ as pocket money was not the norm for peacetime enlisted  officers.

Who was Willie at the outset? He had a Princeton education which left him wanting to be a night club piano player and he had the prejudices of his class where the following quotes illustrate his views of women and of religion:

—in Willie’s world familiarity with opera was a mark of high breeding—unless you were an Italian. Then it became a mere racial quirk of a lower social group, and lost its cachet. Marie Minotti was someone Willie could cope with. She was pigeonholed after all as a mere night-club singer, if a very pretty one. The feeling that he was tumbling into a real relationship was an illusion. He knew perfectly well that he would never marry an Italian. They were mostly poor, untidy, vulgar, and Catholic. This did not at all imply that the fun was at an end. On the contrary, he could now more safely enjoy being with the girl, since nothing was going to come of it.

—Her agent and coach, Marty Rubin, came several times each week to watch her. After her performance he would spend an hour or more talking to her at a table or in her dressing room. He was a short stout moon-faced man, perhaps thirty-five, with pale hair and very thick rimless eyeglasses. The exaggerated breadth of shoulder and fullness of trouser in his suits showed they were bought on Broadway, but the colors were quiet browns or grays. Willie spoke to him casually. He was quite sure Rubin was a Jew, but thought no less of him for that. Willie liked Jews as a group, for their warmth, humor, and alertness. This was true though his home was in a real-estate development where Jews could not buy.

After military training, Keith is transferred to the Caine as an Ensign from where he is able to witness and take part in the events leading up to the Caine Mutiny. The Caine is taken over by the new Captain, a tyrannical, cowardly career officer who cannot come to terms with the relative leniency on officers and men that actual wartime engagement requires. The officers and men soon notice that when there is action he is always to be found on the opposite side of the ship and he avoids engagement with the enemy so that the crew  nickname him old yellow stain, or as the officer Keefer says:

You can’t say he isn’t on the ball, invasion or no invasion Dewsley does his assignment, you never saw a more fearless wielder of a checklist than old yellow stain.

Willie Keith, still a relatively young officer is on deck during the Typhoon when Queeg freezes putting the ship and the lives of his crew in danger and goes along with the decision of the executive officer Maryk to relieve Queeg of his command, the central event of the book, we know he was right to do it and that he would be wrong in the Navy’s eyes.

Events eventually come full circle when Willie, as executive officer saves the ship after the new captain, Keefer, abandons ship during a Kamikaze attack. He however remains loyal to the Captain:

I now see pretty clearly that the mutiny was mostly Kiefer’s doing though I have to take a lot of the blame and so does Maryk and I see that we were in the wrong, we transferred to Queeg the hatred we should have felt for Hitler and the Japs….our disloyalty made things twice as hard for Queeg and for ourselves.

This book is an epic story of the Pacific war seen through the eyes of small cogs in a big wheel, that elusive creature, an enjoyable war time story. I will now have to dig out the film!

First Published in English as “The Caine Mutiny” in 1951 by Doubleday