Sebastian Barry ‘Days Without End’

Why should a man help another man? No need. The world don’t care about that, world is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicoree drinking and whisky and cards. img_1289No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars, we ain’t saying no laws in Washington, we ain’t walking on yon great lawns. Storms kill us and battles and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind.  Happy to breathe because we’ve seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion. Bibles wern’t wrote for us nor any books, we ain’t maybe what people do call human since we ain’t partaking of that bread of heaven.

The narrator, Thomas McNulty tells us the immigrant tale of the Indian wars, the Civil war and fear his beau John Cole in an America where men were men and well, there really weren’t any women. In this book read for the Roman de Rochefort prize, three main themes prevail, firstly as illustrated by the opening quote, the boredom interspersed with savagery of the army, secondly hunger, from the death of the whole of McNulty’s family from famine in Ireland to the deaths of most of the “passengers”, who were of no value, on the trip to Canada and the subsequent quarantine on to hunger wandering in America, to the hunger of the Indians and even the hunger of the soldiers who were saved from starving to death by the very Indians they were fighting. As McNulty once says with typical Irish humour hiding his fear:

I was so hungry I could eat the head of John the Baptist.

The third theme throughout is the absence of women in the frontier lands, from the starving boys Thomas and John Cole getting work in a saloon in a frontier mining town dressing as women in shows for the miners through to their living every waking and sleeping moment together in the army forts where despite their discretion there can be no secrets and finally their living together in their remote farm as John and Thomassina, once again wearing dresses, with no sense of right or wrong, guilt or innocence, just peace at being who he is.

So onto the Indian wars, where the soldiers, amid both food and female deprivation become in the heat of the action animals rather than humans, captured by Sebastian Barry in the mouth of his narrator whose rural background shines through his simile after the troop had just killed all of the children and squaws of an Indian village and two of the troopers, Watchhorn and Pearl had raped some of these women, a crime the army shot them for:

The troopers worked until I believe their arms could do no more, Watchhorn and Pearl Rutting and shouting then ruthlessly killing again till in runs the major, shouting the loudest with true horror in his face shouting his orders, wild to bring a stop to things then we were all of us standing there panting, our cold sweat pouring down exhausted faces, our eyes glittering, our legs trembling, just like you would see dogs do after they had been killing lambs.

So how does Barry imagine a starving detested Irishman’s views of what was happening to the Indians:

The padre made a huge prayer out in the open and the whole town went down on its knees right there and praised the lord. this was the section of humanity favoured in that place, the indians had no place no more there, their tickets of passage were rescinded and the bailiffs of god had took back the papers for their souls. I did feel a seeping tincture of sadness for them I did feel some strange toiling seeping sadness for them, seven hours off buried in their pits….. there weren’t no padre praying in exhaltation for them they were the boys with the loosing hand….

The second great war McNulty and John Cole are witness to is of course the civil war, they sign up expecting like many others a short war and after initial victories they begin to understand how pernicious a civil war can be when like fight against like, often with no understanding of why as illustrated below:

The captains give the order to fire and the thousand muskets give voice and fling their rounds of shot towards those walking demons, Johnny reb with his skinny legs and his butternut rags and all he thinks about and thinks good carried under hats of all descriptions. South don’t got  uniforms, grits or oftentimes shoes, half of these fierce looking bastards have bare feet, could be the denizens of a Sligo slum house, goddammit probably are some of them. On they come, I can see the regimental banners now better, and this damn one at centre coming on has shamrocks and harps, just like ours. Usual crazy fucking war..

Overwhelmed in battle, they are ordered to surrender and near starve to death in captivity, McNulty remarks that it wasn’t because they were ill treated, their captors had no food either, the crops had been distroyed during the war.

The book kept me interested throughout and the voice of McNulty rang true to me.

First Published in English as “Days Without End” in 2017 by Faber & Faber.
Translated into French by Laetitia Devaux and published as “Des Jours Sans Fin” by Joëlle Losfeld in 2018


Lídia Jorge ‘The Night of the Singing Ladies’

The maestrina describes us as five magnificent girls, with different backgrounds and natures, simultaneously attracted, from several places in Africa by the sound of a piano. img_1288Five young girls dispersed, born and brought up in different regions and nevertheless equally fascinated by the same music. It was the beautiful sound of the Grand piano, the Yamaha, forgotten in a garage looking out on the Tage, it was this piano that called us, one after the other, as its magical teeth moved constantly day and night.

In this book of litten up by the narrator, Solana de Matos’s song writing and read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, Lídia Jorge tells us the story of five young singers in Lisbon, singing in a garage as in many other garages elsewhere in the world in 1987, of Gisela, the maestrina, of the two sisters Maria Luisa and Nani Alcide, trained clasically in a conservatory, of Madalena Micaia, the African Lady and finally of Solana de Matos. This is the story of the end of the Portuguese empire in Africa, all of the singers were children when they fled Africa with nothing and came back to Portugal with no help from the government, no state of emergency was announced, what was left behind was lost and many of those that came back died of depression or depression related causes. These girls were the survivors.

The book begins twenty years after at a television show where the singers, with the exception of The African Lady who could not be reached in her village in Africa, were reunited in what was a “perfect night”, Gisela navigating easily the television stage and introducing the other singers, as described in the opening quote. but as we are taken back to those months of 1987 we discover a very different story. At the outset there was Solana de Matos, a student and her friend Murillo, with the contrast between his view of world politics and injustices, of getting ahead by small steps and Solana’s view of the world, a view of a shrinking horizon, of coming back with nothing, of being ready to give everything for her passion, of her parents striking example of building up a farm with hundreds of livestock in less than ten years from literally nothing. Her life was the opposite of small steps. There were the Alcide sisters whose parents were amongst those that had died since their return from Africa, there was Madelena Micaia with the Jazzy voice and then there was the ultra driven Gisela for whom money seemed to be no problem, she asked her step father Mr Simon and people were paid.

This is a story of awakening for the young Solana, discovering the world for what it is, she leads a chaste love affair with João de Lucena the dance coach for the group. Amidst Gisela’s one minded tyranny to keep the girl’s focus, insisting they do not see men, even humiliating Nani in front of the other girls after she discovers she is seeing a boy, getting her to repeat after her in front of the others, over and over again:

I will concentrate night and day on my role since I will only have in mind to give my all.

Why does Gisela does not admonish Solana, she must know of their discreet afair? When Solana discovers the truth, she learns to handle it as a song writer she looks for rhymes for what she sees, words to rhyme with lecherous, or shame.

Things don’t go as planned as Madalena gets pregnant putting pressure on the girls planned opening concerts, leading to tragedy. Finally the relationships between the different characters are more complex than Solana’s first assessment as she learns to handle Gisela.

First Published in Portuguese as “A noite das mulheres cantoras” in 20011 by Publicações Dom Quixote.
Translated into French by Geneviève Leibrich and published as “La nuit des femmes qui chantent” by Editions Métailié in 2014

Aharon Appelfeld ‘Days of a Startling Lucidity’

They went missing, often for three or Four days, sometimes a week. img_1287Mostly to hill top monastries…she was moved to tears at each ancient monastry they reached.
Most of the time the monks welcomed her politely. When they realised she was Jewish they asked: “what do you like so much here?”
The more skeptical thought she wasn’t all there and stopped asking questions.***

At the end of the war, Theo left his fellow survivors from camp 8 having decided to return home to Sternberg in Austria across Europe alone on foot in this book read for the “Roman de Rochefort prize”. As he slowly advances his mind plays back to his childhood, to his mother,Yetti, at once fragile and overwhelming, who unusually for a Jew, came from a peasant background and moved to the town of Sternberg when she married Martin. She was always on the move, seeking out the music of Bach which radiated in her but which was linked to churches and monasteries, the only places where she really felt at peace. She would just up and off with Theo taking him out of school on her journeys until her money ran out and then coming home as illustrated in the opening quote.

Theo was never close to his father Martin who indulged Yetti, dilapidating his family savings and running down his bookshop to pay for her trips. Theo advances alone but regularly meeting  people from camps like himself, some advancing, some not moving such as the lady in the following quote:

“I’ve worked all night so that the soup would be ready at noon…its better to go home having built up a bit of strength…”
“I dont need to hurry youngster. My children live now in the land of truth and I’m getting ready to join them. I’ve a little ways to go before that. I’d like to give to others everything I have….”
“And you’re not leaving here?”
“No, young man. Everyone who means something to me lays at rest here in this forest behind me. Who else will watch over them? A month before the end of the war they were brought up here, dug there own graves and were executed. So for now I’m watching over them and soon I’ll join them.”***

Amongst the people Theo meets is the seriously ill Madeleine who takes him for his father, and as Theo tries to take care of her he finds out that Madeleine went to school with Martin and Yetti and that everyone, Madeleine included, thought that she and Martin would make their lives together. Through the brief interlude with Madeleine Theo, through Madeleine, begins to better understand and to better know his own father, to place him in perspective and to feel a certain peace.

As Theo advances and meets people, he always answers the first question asked of him “which camp do you come from?” and then talks about where they are going. Theo discovers that looking for his mother, where he last saw her, at the monastery of Sankt Peter is something the other refugees from the camps cannot aprehend and for which there are violent feelings, these churches and monasteries are the worshiping places of the people that had done this to them, the churches that condoned the actions.

Theo slowly goes over and over his decision to leave the others from the camp to strike out alone, to leave the solidarity that had helped so many to survive, reaching a kind of inner peace. Finally as Theo is close to the Austrian border he meets up with a brigade helping the refugees to return home and learns that he is one of the few that do not stop on route, one of the few that actually want to go home, although he does not know who he will see, or where he will stay. he was certainly not welcome when he and all the other Jews of the region were deported together during scenes of overt hatred.

A strangely peaceful book as Theo is slowly reborn.

First Published in Hebrew as “Yamim shel behirout madhima” in 2014 by Dvir publishing house.
Translated into French by Valérie Zenatti and published as “Des jours d’une stupéfiante clarté” by Editions de l’olivier in 2018
*** My translation

Santiago Roncagliolo ‘Red April’

“Associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar left the hospital feeling out of sorts, he was pale. Terrorists he thought, only they were capable of something like this, they had come back. FFD11E72-802C-444D-9EE5-ABE96113828EHe did not know how to sound the alarm or even if he should…..The prosecutor thought that perhaps, after all, the deceased was a case for the military courts, he did not want to interfere in the anti-terrorist struggle, the military had organised it, they knew it best.

This story read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, is set back in the year 2000 when victory in the twenty year war against the Maoist inspired Sendero Luminoso has been declared by the then President of Peru, Fujimori. Roncagliolo has chosen to treat this period by way of a crime thriller centred in the town of Ayacucho, a town which had been at the centre of the guérilla warfare which over the twenty year period up to 2000 saw about 70000 deaths or disappearances of which about half were attributable to Sendero and a third to to government security forces.

So it is against this background that associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar arrives from Lima to work in Ayacucho where he finds himself confronted with the discovery of a badly burnt and mutilated body, so badly burnt that despite the official line that the rebellion is over, he hesitates to attribute the murder to terrorists as illustrated in the opening quote. As the Holy Week festivities approach and the bodies mount up Félix Chacaltana Saldívar discovers troubling secrets about the past twenty years concerning the terrorists and the exactions of the security forces and he retreats behind his written reports to the military command, it is clear he has doubts about the past, when Commander Carrión questions him:

“You think we’re a gang of killers isn’t that right Chacaltana?” The commander’s question came after a long silence when they were already on the highway back to Ayacucho, between the mountains and the river. He was driving the vehicle himself, they were alone.
“I do not know what you are referring to commander.”
“Don’t act like a prick Chacaltana I know how to read between the lines of reports and I know how to read faces too. Do you think you’re the only one here who knows how to read?”
The prosecutor felt obliged to explain himself. “We waged a just war commander.” He said it like that using the first person, “that is undeniable but sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy and when that happens I begin to ask myself what exactly it is that we fought against.”

As Chacaltana investigates he finds disturbing links between the security forces and the church as well as links to religion in the actual murders and then in an attempt to understand the motives he visits one of the jailed terrorists, Comrade Alonso who leaves him little doubt that the Sendero Luminoso would not use religious signs and tells him the following story:

“What do you think will happen after death?“
Comrade Alonso gave a nostalgic smile, “it will be like the Indian servants dream, do you know it? It’s a story by Arguedas, do you read?”
“I like Chocano”
Now the terrorist laughed sarcastically there was something like cultural petulance in his attitude, he did not consider the prosecutor to be an intellectual, “I prefer Arguedas, they don’t let us read here, but I always think about that story it’s about an Indian, the lowest of the slaves on a plantation, a servant of the servants one day the Indian tells the master that he has had a dream, in his dream they both died and went to heaven, there god ordered the angels to cover the Indian with manure until all his skin was hidden by shit, but he ordered the rich man to be completely bathed in honey the master is happy to hear the Indians dream he thinks that it’s reasonable he thinks that it’s exactly what god will do, he urges him to go on and asks and then what happens the Indian replies the when he saw the two men covered in shit and honey respectively he says now lick the others body until it is completely clean.”

As Chacaltana realises that the main link between the murdered people is that he had interviewed them all he begins to look closely around himself amid a certain despair at the events for which Commander Carrión has the following fatalistic explanation for events in Ayacucho:

“Our work of two decades has just gone all to hell, we can’t even guarantee our own security we’ll never stop them, they’ll keep coming back. But it is our job.”
“To fight the sea?”
“After all I’ve been reading during the days that I’ve been inside, Ayacucho is a strange place, the Wari culture was here, and then the Chacana who never let themselves be conquered by the Incas, and then the indigenous rebellions because Ayacucho was the midway point between Cusco the Inca capital and Lima, the capital of the Spaniards and indépendance in Quinua, and Sendero, this place is doomed to be bathed in blood and fire forever.”

As the investigation advances, the assistant district prosecutor who begins as a quiet decent man hiding behind written procedural reports permitting him to avoid responsibility and strangely close to his dead mother whom he addresses as a living person, metamorphoses into a persistant investigator ready to ruffle feathers. The pressure he endures pushes him towards behaviour which after a few weeks leaves the reader wondering what the difference between Chacaltana and the other guilty protagonist of the twenty year dirty war would have been had he have been there over that period.

A recommended read.

First Published in Spanish as “Abril Rojo” in 2006 by Alfaguara.
Translated into English by Edith Grossman and published as “Red April” by Atlantic Books in 2010
Translated into French by Gabriel Laculli and published as “Avril Rouge” by Editions Le Seuil in 2009

Pablo Martín Sánchez ‘The Crucial Moment’

“Sure, I lived four years in Santiago. But I never worked for Allende. I went for a symposium at the University of Chili, I was taken in by his project and I stayed on. 7DBC8600-4510-495A-960E-593CB0CC4EBCThen along came the mother-fucking military and everything went haywire. Though, the truth is it was Allende’s fault. As one of my friends says: if you’re only half a revolutionary you might as well dig your own grave.”***

The story, read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, takes place in Barcelona in 1975, just before the first democratic elections after the Franco period and incidentally the day of the author’s birth, in six time periods, midnight, dawn, morning, midday, afternoon and evening of a single day, slowly building up to the Crucial Moment.

In Parallel, at the beginning of each section, Sanchez tells the story of a baby being born that day.

The story has six narrators at each time period, seemingly unrelated but on a collision course for the evening, there is Gerardo Fernández Zoilo, a university teacher having spent time in Chili, illustrated in the opening quote, and Carlotta Felip Bigorra, a student investigating stolen babies and who sleeps with her teacher Gerardo at midnight.

There are José María and María Dolores Ros de Olano Y Figueroa, he a wealthy and corrupted business man formed by the Franco years and she a photo of his dead mother, observing from the living room wall:

“A light comes on in the building opposite, where the young widow lives. Then again, these days, she could just be single. Or worse still, divorced! These civil marriages are a real crime: When you want to get married, you get married as God wished and good luck. But I’m sure she’s a widow, we widows recognise each other at once, even after the mourning period.”***

Finally There are Clara Molina Santos, a bullied school girl and the greyhound Solitario VI, at the end of his useful career, we are introduced to him in the kennels at night with the drunken keeper, Atilano, who beats the dogs and one of the new greyhounds, Mogambo, who begins to howl:

“Stop howling boy, stop howling. Atilano lowers his head, half shuts his eyes and rocks back and forth, from toe to heal, again and again and again. Finally he clears his throat and advances down the central corridor….far from calming down, the howls become louder and break into barking, the voices of the other new dogs quickly add to the mayhem….Atilano seizes his cane and begins to bang on the bars of the cages, and occasionally lets slip between the bars, judging by the yelps. Other greyhounds in the stable join in in protest. Me, I sit back and howl at the nearest light….Atilano turns back….I pretend to be sleeping.”
“I heard you Solitario, Carry on like that and you’ll wind up in Casablanca.”***

As the day goes on each one of the narrators, with the exception of Maria Dolores, the photograph, makes a decision that leads to the final showdown, Maria Dolores had made her decision many years before, when trapped on the fifth floor of a burning apartment with her baby son.
An intriguing read.

First Published in Spanish as “Tuyo Es El Mañana” in 2016 by Editorial Acantilado.
Translated into French by Jean-Marie Saint-Lu and published as “L’instant Décisif” by Editions La Contre Allée in 2017
*** my translation

Philippe Jaenada ‘Manaccora Beach 16h30’

Three woman about fifty years old, friends on holiday (“like it used to be”), passed in front of me and headed into the bushes on the path marked by the Virgin (icy, silent). 7EC49A5E-0453-48DB-B942-FDD46E1901DBIt made no sense rushing into the forest, they’d never make it out alive, but was it better to stay here and no longer be able to breathe? How many people out of ten, trapped in a room on fire on the fifth floor, jump through the window?***

Earlier this year I had tried to read ‘La Serpe’ by Jaenada, 500 pages where I had first come across his writing style, in telling his story he regularly goes of at a tangent talking about different events in his life outside of the scope of the story at hand and after 120 pages the actual subject of the book had not really been broached and, unusually, I just gave up on the book. After talking with my librarian, I went back to this earlier book, with as many digressions but only 250 pages long for which the style seems to work.

The story which really happened to Jaenada in Italy on holiday is of a forest fire that traps hundreds of people on Manacora beach. Jaenada and his family  fled on foot from their rental apartment ahead of the fire to this beach from which there was no way out from more than 30 kilometers of forest along the beach that was being burnt to a cinder, there was one footpath leading into the burning forest ahead of the fire which some people took, nothing was heard from them again as illustrated in the opening quote.

Jaenada’s digressions about his life work well here as we follow him in this life changing event, after escaping when they were sure they would die, life’s worries are put into perspective.

I am not a fan of this particular style of author-centric writing.

First Published in French as “Plage de Manaccora, 16h30″ in 2009 by Grasses& Fasquelle.
*** my translation

José Eduardo Agualusa ‘A General Theory of Oblivion’

Ludovica never liked having to face the sky. While still only a little girl, she was horrified by open spaces. She felt, upon leaving the house, fragile and vulnerable, like a turtle whose shell had been torn off. C2F764A0-5DD1-4BEC-865C-E80B3905C946When she was very small –six, seven years old –she was already refusing to go to school without the protection of a vast black umbrella, whatever the weather. Neither her parents’ annoyance nor the cruel mockery of the other children deterred her. Later on, it got better. Until what she called ‘The Accident’ happened and she started to look back on this feeling of primordial dread as something like a premonition.

I remember Angola from the news reports of the seventies as a battle ground involving Cubans and mercenaries fighting over the remains of the country, Here, read for Spanish and Portuguese lit months, Agualusa brings me up to date with what actually happend, not concentrating on the political detail but on the events in Angola over twenty five years seen through the eyes of Ludo, who as the opening quote tells us sufered from agraphobia.

Agualusa was given the documents on which he based this story, including photos of Ludos walls, covered in writing, by Sabalu whose roll we discover towards the end of the story. Ludo was a Portuguese woman living with her sister and brother in law in Luanda in 1975 as Angola obtained its independance from Portugal and the chaos began. When one evening her sister and bother in law did not make it home, she manages to frighten off the kidnappers who came to the door of her appartment looking for diamonds which her brother in law was supposed to have stolen, shooting and killing one of them. Ludo then, using building material that was at hand and food and drink left behind by the other Portuguese in her building in their hurry to leave the country, builds a wall across her corridor just before her appartment door where she then lives without ever leaving for a period of twenty five years with her dog Phantom and the dead body of the kidnapper which she plants in a flower bed on her terrace. Her understanding of events is based on what she witnesses through her window.

I was woken by gun shots. Later, through the living room window, I saw a very thin man running. Phantom was restless all day, running in circles from his own fear, biting his paws. I heard shouting in the neighbouring apartment. several men were talking. Silence followed. I was unable to sleep all night. At four in the morning
I went up to the terrace.
The night, like a well swallowed the stars.

That’s when I saw a truck loading the bodies.


Agualusa also mixes in chapters on other people living through the chaos who have an impact on Ludo’s life, such as the thin man, Jeremiah Carrasco, observed in the previous quote, who had been one of the kidnappers and whom we follow through the events surrounding his life, his arrest and summary execution, his being left for dead but surviving, and his twenty five years of being reborn and living clandestinely as a Kuvale cowherd up to his eventual meeting with Ludo. We follow the torturers and he tortured, up to the day when Subalu, à child, climbs a scaffolding and enters Ludo’s apartment and finding her in a state worst than himself leaves her bread which she discovers on waking.

This is a rich story full of unlikely characters of which Ludo is just one of many. At the end of the book we discover Ludo’s secret, of the “Accident” and of the tragedy of her life. Her twenty five year ordeal is somehow a positive event for her, a cleansing of her mind. A marvellously poetic story.

First Published in Portuguese (Angola) as “Teoria geral do esquecimento” in 2012 by D. Quixote.
Translated into English by Daniel Hahn and published as “A General Theory of Oblivion” by Archipelago in 2015
Translated into French by Geneviève Leibrich and published as “Théorie Générale de l’oubli” in 2014 by Editions Métailié