Yasmina Khadra ‘Morituri’


—There are two hundred yards from my block of flats to the garage where I park my car. Before I covered them in a few strides. Today it’s an expedition. IMG_1287Everything seems suspicious to me. There is danger in every step, sometimes I’m so scared I think of turning back.
The caretaker is a good man. He feels sorry for me. To his way of thinking I’m as good as dead.***


If you watched and liked the recent thriller ‘Cairo Confidential ‘ by Tarik Saleh then now is the moment to go back in time to Khadra’s Morituri (Those who are about to die) set in Algiers in the early 1990’s during the Algerian civil war and published in French in 1997. Behind the name Yasmin Khadra hides Mohammed Moulesouhoul who was an Algerian army officer and wrote under this pen name to avoid censorship.

In Algeria caught between corruption and Islamic fundamentalism, where the police are fair game, inspector  Llob is asked to find the rich powerful Ghoul Malek’s daughter, Sabrine (Ghoul’s name is a play on words meaning the Ogre). Not an easy task, I mean who would take the risk of being seen talking to a policeman, a dead man walking, and risk his life. As Llob pursues his enquiry, we learn that an ‘Abou Kalypse’ (apocalypse) is orchestrating the murder of famous writers and entertainers, well those that are left, they have always been fair game for the fundamentalists.

Khadra sets the scene, there is no hope such as here for instance:


—As of now, in my country, a stones throw from the point of no return, there are children gunned down simply because they go to school and girls who are beheaded in order to scare the others.***


As the enquiry advances further and one of his team is tortured to death by the terrorists after straying into a known zone at risk where his father had died, Llob tells us:


—We have become used to the terrorist’s inconceivable abjectness, they have been known to kill a mother with the sole purpose of ambushing the son the day of the burial and to kill a cop in order to mow down his colleagues come to pay their respects at his tomb***


This is a quick read and if you are looking for signs of hope, well there are some, for instance Llob’s partner, Lino, who is scared to inaction at the start of the book, when pushed to his very limits, lets his pent up anger pull him out of his stagnation.

First published in French as ‘Morituri’ by éditions Baleine in 1997
Translated into English as ‘Morituri’ by David Herman and published by Toby Press in 2003
*** My translation

Advertisements

Catherine Lacey ‘Nobody is Ever Missing’


—The second thing they tell you about hitchhiking is never accept invitations home for tea because teaIMG_1272 really means dinner and dinner really means sex and sex really means they’re going to kill you.


One morning Elyria says goodbye to her husband as he goes to work in New York, she grabs her backpack, and gets on a plane for New Zealand without informing anyone. Her only tenuous link to New Zealand is an encounter at a book show many years before for a few minutes with a writer who told her if she was ever in the area to look in, the loose type of invitation you don’t ever expect anyone to actually follow up on.

This is the initial framework of Catherine Lacey’s “Nobody is Ever Missing”, A road novel where first of all Elyria’s life is slowly distilled to us as we become aware of her present state of mind. Michael Köhlmeier in his novel ‘Two Gentlemen on a Beach’ describes Churchill and Chaplin’s lifelong fight against depression, telling us of the black dog, well here Elyria is tracked by her wildebeest:


—Nothing is wrong with you, sugar, Jaye said, and I knew she thought that was true, but she didn’t know about that wildebeest that lived in me and told me to leave that perfectly nice apartment and absolutely suitable job and routines and husband who didn’t do anything completely awful—and I felt that the wildebeest was right and I didn’t know why and even though a wildebeest isn’t the kind of animal that will attack, it can throw all its beastly pounds and heavy bones at anything that attacks it or stands in its way, so I took that also into account. One should never provoke or disobey a wildebeest, so I did leave, and it seems the wildebeest was what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what was wrong with the wildebeest.


Elyria roams over New Zealand hitching from place to place , see the opening quote, and hurting, the book is mostly a monologue, we learn of her mostly drunken mother, of her adopted Korean sister, Ruby, whom she was close to and not so close to at the same time, of Ruby’s suicide as she had become a teaching assistant and finally of Elyria’s marriage to  Ruby’s professor, a much older man, drawn together by separate griefs and living an empty shell of a relationship. As Elyria’s road trip goes on and we are overwhelmed by her ever, mostly self, questioning mind, Elyria takes on senseless routine tasks in an attempt to halt her overheating, continual thinking mind and its mostly self reproach until:


— I was something like a dog I owned. I had to tell myself to leave it, to shut up, had to take myself on a walk and feed myself and had to stare at myself and try to figure out what myself was feeling or needing.


Elyria is in such a star that she thinks but she does not feel and as for the title, towards the end of her road trip she realizes:


—And after I had deleted my history on Amos’s computer I realized that even if no one ever found me, and even if I lived out the rest of my life here, always missing, forever a missing person to other people, I could never be missing to myself, I could never delete my own history, and I would always know exactly where I was and where I had been and I would never wake up not being who I was and it didn’t matter how much or how little I thought I understood the mess of myself, because I would never, no matter what I did, be missing to myself and that was what I had wanted all this time, to go fully missing, but I would never be able to go fully missing—nobody is missing like that, no one has ever had that luxury and no one ever will.


In order to get a flavor of this nervous high energy narration style the quotes here are longer than usual, this was not an easy read now, one week after I am glad to have read this book.

First published in English as ‘Nobody is ever Missing’ by Granta Books in 2015
Translated into French as ‘Personne ne disparait’ by Myriam Anderson and published by Actes Sud in 2016

Faïza Guène ‘Un homme ça ne pleure pas’


—Because learning the language, respecting the state institutions, assimilating the country’s culture by cherishing its famous authors, marching for the glory of the nation, img_0748all of that is nothing compared to swallowing raw minced meat with an egg yoke and sauces squashed in.***


Faïza Guène brings to us in this book, for which she benefitted from an Algerian Cultural Ministry Residency program, a story of the difficulties of second generation integration in France. Her character observation and humour, which I discovered in Bar Balto, is further developed here in ‘Men don’t Cry***’. The humour here is however of a much more bitter kind which initially disturbed me but in retrospect well serves the subject matter of families being stretched to breaking point and torn to pieces by the challenges of integration, put in Brexit terms the difference between hard integration and soft integration.

The story is told by the youngest child Mourad who is ten years old at the outset and tells us how his older sister Dounia rebels against her family in adolescence and one day leaves home never to return, the ‘hard integration’. He tells us of two other forms of integration, of his second sister Mina who accepts an arranged marriage and lives in France in an updated continuity of her parents way of life, and we then live Mourad’s coming of age and his decisions leading to a ‘softer integration’.

Years later as Mourad’s father suffers a stroke, he confides in Mourad his wish to see Dounia again before he dies. Mourad who then leaves his home in Nice to teach in the Paris suburbs meets up again with Dounia and the real subject of the book, the confrontation of the two visions of integration takes place. The role of the mother, wanting to control everything acting through emotional blackmail is shown:


—I thought again of my conversation this morning with my mother. I’d phoned the house just to see how things were?
—My heart is broken! Torn apart! I thought you were dead! I’m so dissapointed. Don’t you think I’m worth a phone call? Do you know that I sleep with your photo? The one where you wear a blue shirt and have your brace…I thought you understood the value of a mother…***


Dounia  is drawn as a not particularly generous caricature of Fadela Amara, the founder of the French association ‘Ni Putes ni soumises’ translated into English as ‘Neither Whores nor Doormats’. The confrontation between views is brought to a head at a dinner party where Dounia’s politician companion argues with Mourad:


—Forbidding the veil at school seems to me to be totally justified! I can’t even imagine that that could be brought into question!
I was livid
—Its because you have a personal problem with the veil
—Not at all! I’ve a personal problem with those that stop women from being free!
—But that’s exactly what you do in forbidding the veil at school! You can’t say to people: “Be free in OUR manner, there is only one way to be free, it’s ours!” I find that absurd! And it doesn’t work! It creates a feeling of injustice! You say you’re defending women, have you thought of the number of women who have had to leave school because of this law! They have had to forget their ambitions, their only chance to get away from this very archaic system that you think you’re fighting…”***


An interesting, even dark story of the trials of everyday integration of an Algerian family in France, but most of the family issues are true of many integration stories I believe.

First Published in French as “Un homme, ça ne pleure pas” in 2014 by Fayard.
***My translation

Juana Salabert ‘The Golden Rule’


—The infamous Golden Rule inserted by force in our largely unimplemented constitutions, IMG_1267with which the Troika and their obedient local vizirs probably wipe their noses every day..***


Juana Salabert’s police mystery, read for Spanish lit month, is an angry story set in Madrid in 2012 at the height of the public indignation surrounding the arrogant treatment of the southern European countries during the debt crisis, with austerity imposed through external pressure on these countries and the entailing social misery, and is one of the meanings of the title as illustrated in the opening quote.
Inspector Allarde is inspecting the second “Cash for Gold” killing, jewelers that in these depressed times are making money from buying gold and family jewels have been targeted by a killer who signs his crimes with a clear message:


—To the loan shark. To the thief of carats and of lives. Vengeance is acted and will be again.***


A third killing takes place which at first seems to be one of the series but Allarde is not sure. This is a story of cupidity, greed and blackmail and as always the question is just how low will people stoop for money and how much is enough, leading to another possible meaning for the title:


—The only Golden Rule that works for money, for truly huge sums, for a fortune accumulated and overflowing and which is fructifying far from its owners eyes, is that it never seems enough.***


Salabert’s Madrid is a desperate and hurting place lived in by people just getting by and is an ideal background for a book about greed. I did at times think that the subject and the hero were the people of Madrid and not the detectives in the story, but only for fleeting moments, as the story itself is well constructed. This may well be the Author’s intent.

First Published in Spanish as “La Regla del oro” in 2015 by Alianza.
Translated into French by Myriam Chirousse as “La règle de l’or” and published by Métailié in 2017
*** My translation

Pablo Casacuberto ‘Scipion’


—That’s all I needed! I’d already been frozen out of my father’s Will, seen a gangster hijack my inheritance and demand that, in lieu of a ransom, IMG_1266I write the Eclogue of a rapist.***


In this book read for Spanish lit month, Pablo Casacuberto slowly introduces us into the tortured world of Anibal Brener, son of a recently deceased but famous historian, the professor Brener, as the story begins Anibal is visiting his dead father’s house, his own childhood home, with an estate agent and we are slowly lead to understand the incongruity of the situation, it has taken two years for Anibal to obtain permission from his own sister living in Brussels to gain access for a one hour visit to the empty home. We learn that Anibal’s sister has inherited everything, including the house and that Anibal’s visit is to pick up what little has been left him:


—In the closet of the adjoining room, the library, I leave three boxes containing certain objects that I consider useful for Anibal’s development.


Anibal is forty years old!
Which is the important ingredient in studies and transmission of history? This is the central point of the difficult relationship between Anibal and his father, Anibal’s historical studies and in a way his life can not get beyond the overwhelming importance of detail whereas his father’s work has been dedicated to ensuring that through a certain amount of romanticising people are drawn to and are interested in history.
The best example of this is the title of a proposed historical study by Anibal:


—Design and distribution of services in the public baths according to social strata in classical Rome***


An idea on which his erstwhile fiancé worked before handing to the Proffesor Brener:


—A closed envelope..containing, as the final blow, the nineteen pages of “Gone with the Water” which he referred to, after having read the text, as “an interesting version of an idea my son ruined by submerging it with boring details and useless information


As early in the book we learn that the proffesor had written a secret will for Anibal, We follow him, firstly in a quest for his inheritance, illustrated by the opening quote and especially in a search for himself.
Why did Casacuberto entitle his book Scipion? Because it was Scipion that defeated Hannibal in 202BC and that after a climax in the book Anibal is literally submerged as the Scipion within him emerges and leads him on a course to confront the true hidden traumatic events of his life.

First Published in Spanish as “Escipion” in 2000 by Inter zona.
Translated into French by Francois Gaudry as “Scipion” and published by Métailié in 2015
*** My translation

Delphine de Vigan ‘Based on a True Story’


Allison Jones:
—I know you weren’t yourself when you did this, Hedy.IMG_1259
Hedra Carlson:
—I know, I was YOU.


In Single White Female Seeks Same, Allison Jones lets Hedy into her life, into a power struggle where Hedy begins to dress and act like Allison and finally tries to entirely possess and replace Allison, we the audience think “why doesn’t she see it coming?”

In ‘Based on a True Story’,  Delphine de Vigan explores the themes of writer’s block, how does a writer move on from a success, and of the importance of truth in fiction in the modern day. The narrator of ‘Based on a True Story’ is called Delphine who has had a success with a book we can identify as de Vigan’s previous novel ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’, thus set in the real. Through Delphine’s meeting with L a ghost writer she is able to present the arguments and counter arguments for basing fiction in the real, L explains that is what Delphine’s readers expect of her in these days where so much fiction is based on minor true news stories and we learn that in fact Delphine has been considering a subject based around reality television.

Faced with the choices between a fiction based on reality and a pure fiction Delphine is unable to write and as this situation persists L becomes more invasive, slowly building up the tension surrounding her, one day Delphine unearths a previous manuscript of her own and is invited for the first time to a dinner party at L’s where none of the other guests turn up:


L asked me to let her and her alone confidentially, read the unearthed manuscript, I promised.
Back at my place I pulled the curtains shut before turning the lights on, the possibility that L could have conceived and set up the whole masquerade with the single aim of softening me up came to my mind much later, I sat on my sofa and looked around me, I felt a strange feeling of relief and by contrast I suddenly understood what bothered me about L’s apartment: at her’s nothing was worn, yellowing, damaged, not a single object, piece of furniture or textile showed any traces of previous use.***


Soon after, L moves in “temporarily” with the weakened Delphine initially taking over her computer, her communications with the outside world and slowly her life, up to dressing like her and replacing her at literary events thus bringing to mind the initial quote from Single White Female.

The tension builds up to a crecendo when we realise that no one other than Delphine including her family, her partner or her friends have ever seen L. As de Vigan through Delphine then gives us another vision of the events and further argues between the need for fiction to be declared as having a tangible basis or not.

First Published in French as “D’après une histoire vraie” in 2015 by Lattès.
Translated into English by George Miller as “Based on a True Story” and published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2017
***My translation

Javier Cercas ‘Outlaws’


–Tell me when you met Zarco.
—At the beginning of the summer of 1978. It was a strange time. Or that’s how I remember it. Franco had died three years earlier, IMG_1254but the country was still governed by Franco’s laws and still smelled exactly the same as it did under Franco: like shit. I was sixteen years old back then, and so was Zarco. We lived very near each other, and very far away from each other.


The opening quote from this book read for Spanish lit month illustrates the setting for the initial events in Javier Cercas’s Outlaws, with the ending of Franco’s regime the social problems did not go away but were slowly allowed to come to the surface and amongst them the beginnings of juvenile delinquency.

The story is about the relationship between three people, Zarco a young gang leader at the beginning of the story and Tere a girl in the gang both coming from the shanty towns on the outskirts of Gerona and the sixteen year old “Gafitas” from a middle class suburb. Many years later Cañas the lawyer who  recounts this his first meeting with Sarko and Tere:


–What’s up, Gafitas?, asked Zarco, taking my place at the controls of the machine. He looked me in my bespectacled eyes with his very blue ones, spoke with a husky voice, had a centre parting in his hair and wore a tight denim jacket over a tight beige T-shirt. He repeated, defiantly, What’s up? I was scared. Holding up my hands I said: I just finished. I turned to leave, but at that moment Tere stepped in my way and my face was a handspan from hers. My first impression was surprise; my second, of being completely dazzled. Like Zarco, Tere was very thin, dark, not very tall, with that springy outdoors air quinquis used to have back then….Going already?, she asked, smiling with her full, strawberry-red lips. I couldn’t answer because Zarco grabbed my arm and forced me to turn back around. You stay right there, Gafitas, he ordered, and started playing pinball on the Rocky Balboa machine.


The Outlaws is a series of interviews between the writer, Cañas who had been known as Gafitas in his gang days, the police detective from the events in the 70’s and who arrested Sarko following a tip off at a bank robbery, and who crucially let “Gafitas” get away and then the prison director from Gerona. How was “Gafitas” allowed to escape? Why did Tere not turn up for the robbery? These questions remain open throughout the story. Sarko as a first Of his kind Is romanticised by the media and then left to rot in Spanish jails:


–For Sarko everything went very fast in fact my impression is that when I knew him in the late 70s Sarko was a sort of precursor and when I saw him again in the late 90s he was almost an anachronism if not a posthumous persona
From precursor to anachronism in just 20 years?
That’s right, when I knew him he was a forerunner in a way of the masses of juvenile delinquents who filled the jails the newspapers radio television and cinema screens in the 80’s I’d say he not only announce the phenomenon he played the part better than anybody.


This book throughout these interviews, a process used to blur the lines between fiction and reality, seems at times to ramble on without clear aims as Cercas slowly and indirectly shapes for us, through the three narrators and the writer, a full view of his main character Cañas and Cercas’s writer tells us something about the story writing and his subject:


–The idea at first (was) to write a book about Sarko to denounce all the lies that have been told about him and tell the truth or a portion of the truth. But a person doesn’t write the books he wants to write but those he can or those he finds, the book I’ve found both is and isn’t that one


First Published in Spanish as “Las leyes de la frontera” in 2012 by Literatura Mondadori.
Translated into English by Anne McLean as “Outlaws” and published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2014