Lukas Bärfuß “One Hundred Days”


They weren’t just shoemakers, farmers, doctors, drivers, sons, mothers, daughters, or whatever. First and foremost, you were either one of the Longs or one of the Shorts. Expats avoided these local terms–they were forbidden words, associated with calamity, with murder, expulsion, revolution, and war. And we never asked anyone their affiliation, as we called it, because we didn’t know what exactly these groups were, whether they were tribes, ethnicities, or castes. But Short or Long, they all spoke the same language and we didn’t have a foolproof way of telling them apart.


I’ve chosen Lucas Bärfuß, the 2019 winner of the Georg Büchner for my last book to be read for this year’s German lit month. With this his 2008 book about a young Swiss aid worker caught up in the Rwandan Genocide, David an idealistic young man, who four years previously has gone to Rwanda, The Switzerland of Africa, “not just because of the mountains and the cows, but also because of the discipline that ruled every aspect of daily life”, as part of The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The intersection between David’s personal life, as he falls for an open, free young Rwandan, Agathe, who causes him to stay behind in hiding in his villa for one hundred days after the last Europeans leave the country and the Rwandan genocide.

As the opening quote leads us to believe, the Europeans in general but the Swiss agency in particular, who had been present since the independance in the 60’s, had no real window to or comprehension of the complex ethnic situation in this up to then well run country. Bärfuß, through David, tells us of the pressures on the country, first economic, as the Americans ended the international export agreement on coffee, the almost single export matter of Rwanda, putting a sharp slide on the price of coffee, then population, as there was no longer enough land to support an agricultural based society:


The country was overpopulated and the situation in Butare province was especially dire. For every dead person there were three newborns, more mouths that had to be fed somehow. If the country’s population continued to grow at the same rate, it would double in fifteen years. Already the demand for land could not be met. The hills were cultivated all the way to their summits. Even the dead were begrudged their graves. Since no one wanted the land to lie fallow, goats were allowed to graze in the graveyard. After ten years the graves were dug up….


Having told us of the pressures he then tells us of the two other necessary ingredients, firstly political historical, of the changes in the country when the Belgians took over the colony from the Germans at the end of the Great War and the subsequent decline of Kigali the erstwhile capital and the Belgian’s working with the longs, of many of the longs their being forced to flee to Uganda at the independance of Rwanda and of the instability caused by their being expelled from Uganda:


But then the monster rose again and repressed history rose again in the guise of the expelled Longs, returning home from their Ugandan exile, and because the Shorts had never allowed them to cross the border freely, the Longs sent their sons armed with rifles.


And secondly, organisational, as David explains that the relative stability of Rwanda up until this point can be linked to its organisation, where everyone knows his place in society, as in his own country Switzerland, but that here in Rwanda everything is controlled centrally, a prerequisite he surmises for a genocide:


Like all of Rwanda’s 840 mayors, he had been personally appointed to his office by the President. In theory, the local council held authority, but since most of the councilors had only gone to primary school, the mayor led the council like a bull with a nose ring. Each community was divided into ten sections, and these in turn were divided up into cells. The cells were not just administrative units, but were divisions of the political party. There were no independent structures and even the lowest-level leaders were controlled by the administration in Kigali. Each citizen knew his place and his superiors and followed orders that came directly from the capital.


As David lays out this backdrop he tells us his personal story, of his slowly losing his idealism in favour of the realism needed for his mission, epitomised by a story he tells of letting his house keeper, a long, grow vegetables in his garden which helped to support her family of eight only to find that that the agencies project for a much needed orphanage was turned down because of this and that he then ripped out the garden. David tells us of how the people in Rwanda changed through the story of his girlfriend, Agathe, a short and how she changes from a proud and independant woman to a rabble rouser and of his own confusion in his relationship with her, leading to his staying behind when the other Europeans fled in the hope of seeing her again even though he knew of her actions.

David tries to analyse the work carried out by his agency, for instance when they arranged for the radio broadcasters to be trained into making their programs more interesting:


They had learned the lesson. The broadcasts were entertaining. They played music, performed short sketches in which two shrewd farmers discussed the stupidity of the inkotanyi, as they called the members of the rebel army. Fine, it wasn’t our intention to teach the génocidaires how to do their work, and it was certainly not our fault if they used the radio as a murder weapon, but somehow I could never shake the feeling that I was observing one of the agency’s more successful projects.


Finally he tells us of the West’s missreading of the situation through the voice if Missland, an old hand aid worker who had long since come to terms with the situation:


This country’s history is one giant lie, Missland had said, and he made fun of the experts whose report demanded that the President take measures against the death squads. The man from whom they demand action is himself commanding the death squads..


This is a powerful story that I would recommend to anyone, my first encounter with Bärfuß’s work but certainly not my last.

First Published in German as “Hundert Tage” in 2008 by Wallstein.
Translated into English by Tess Lewis and published as “One Hundred Days” in 2013 by Granta Books

Sten Nadolny ‘The Discovery of Slowness’


“John’s eyes and ears,” Dr. Orme wrote to the captain, “retain every impression for a peculiarly long time. His apparent slowness of mind and his inertia are nothing but the result of exaggerated care taken by his brain in contemplating every kind of detail. His enormous patience…”


This book by Sten Nadolny published in 1983 about the polar explorer John Franklin, read for German lit month follows Franklin throughout his life from a young schoolboy to his death and studies how a particularly slow child could slowly develop and in adulthood turn this diadvantage to his favour. He is at first taken for and treated as an imbecile, the first person to see anything else in him is his teacher Dr. Orme who tries to explain his condition to a ships captain as John’s dream is to go to sea, illustrated in the opening quote.

The writing follows John’s developing thought process and is initially quite disjointed, becoming more and more clear as John slowly builds his theories regarding slowness, and its role compared to fastness. John lives through extraordinary times, taking part as a young midshipsman in the battle of Trafalgar realising that his inability to act quickly could be a dissadvantage in a wartime situation as a midshipsman but countering this by an ability to learn vast quantities of information about boats and by showing great braveness. Following this battle he obtains the opportunity to sail on a scientific voyage of discovery in the south seas which circumnavigated Tasmania. This voyage was of huge importance for him as he very slowly managed to persuade the crew of his capability, terminating in the sinking of the ship off of the coast of Australia and the stranding of the crew on a narrow and shallow sandbank where two events were to shape his future. Firstly the captain, rather than rushing took the time to get exacy bearings of the sandbank before rowing the more than 100 miles to the main land and coming back with help, thus a man in responsibility should not act precipitously and a captain should always bring back his crew. Secondly whilst the others were hurrying around the sandbank he thought carefully and after a day decided to put their food safely high above the sea, this was swiftly followed by a storm which wasshed away everything except the food which permitted them to hold out until rescued.

On the trip back to Europe with a boat with a number of others from the East Indies company and after an act of bravour by the captain when faced with an overwhelming force of French men of war John’s reputation now went before him as the captain proclaimed:


“Scrutinize three times; act once. Young people don’t always grasp this. Being slow and faultless is better than being quick and final. Isn’t that so, Mr. Franklin?”


But it was the North West Passage that was to make his fame, where he was chosen as captain and set off believing that after the ice there was open sea at the north pole, they were totally unprepared for the trip and as illustrated when they began to get caught in the ice:


Above 81 degrees latitude the ice floes turned into platforms, and those into islands. At one point, under the most favorable transverse wind, the Trent simply stood still and didn’t budge. “Why don’t we go on?” Reid called from below, and a few minutes later the second mate, Kirby, came on deck: “Why aren’t we moving?”


Once again Franklin’s slowness comes to their rescue as all around is panic and he appears to do nothing until his observstion saves them:


The critical moment had arrived; even Beechey became nervous: with their slow captain the whole ship would be wrecked. But why did Franklin stay so calm? What did he actually believe? Why did he stare at the shore; what did he look for with his telescope? “There!” John shouted. “We’ve got to get there, Mr. Beechey!” What did he mean? Into the pack ice? Voluntarily?


This experience caused him to think that command required two people, a first officer to handle the quick work and a captain to reflect completely and to act slowly.

So, onto the voyage that would make his legend, “The man Who ate his shoes”. He was to lead a land expedition to find the North West Passage, for this his nature and his intuition were to prove useful in his first meeting with the indians necessary to help him fulfill his mission, amongst the whites they recognised him at once as the leader:


John saw the Indians approach across the lake in a long line of canoes. Behind him, a tent had been erected at the fort. The flag was waving, and next to him the uniformed officers and Hepburn were lined up in formation. Upon John’s command they had put on their decorations. He wore none himself. His instinct for dignity told him that as the highest chief, he should be able to do without them. Akaitcho climbed out of the first canoe and strode slowly up to the Englishmen without looking right or left, so that John had to take him most seriously. This was no man who would let his warriors fall upon Eskimos and chop off their hands and feet. Whoever walked this way kept his word. In contrast to his warriors, the chief wore no feather headdress; he was dressed in mocassins, long blue trousers, and a wide shirt with crossed shoulder straps hanging loose over his trousers, belt, and powder horn; a beaver cloak hung from his shoulders to the ground.


Few of the original group made it back alive, those that did owed it in part to the decisions of their captain, in part due to a solid young sailor who went on ahead to fetch help and in part to the impression that Franklin had made on the indian chief, causing him at great risk to his life to come to resue them. This event, back in England, was perceived as a fiasco until John, slowly wrote a book about the trip, omitting nothing including that he had eaten the leather of his shoes in hunger. Thus book became a best seller and redeemed him to the public, strenghthening his belief in slowness.

Then came his later life, his knighthood, his years as governor general of Tasmania, a mostly penal colony and his final fatal mission to the North West Passage. Throughout all of this, the people that came to know him were fiercely loyal to him as he was to them.

First Published in German as “Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit” in 1983 by Piper.
Translated into English by Ralph Freedman and published as “The Discovery of Slowness” in 1987 by Viking Penguin

Britta Böhler “The Decision”


Yes, Heinrich was often right. His “subject” still exists today. The eternal petty bourgeois mindset, kneeling to those above you, tramping on those beneath you. “Everyone should have someone above himself he is afraid of and someone below that is afraid of him.”***


This book by Britta Böhler, read for German lit month in French, concerns three days in 1936 between when the nobel prize winning author of The Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann had handed in a letter to be published stating clealy his opinions as a critical opponent of Nazi Germany and his agreement for it to be published. It examines what may have been going through his mind, the greatest German writer of his time , who abhorred the Nazi regime but who would have to sacrifice his German readership, the only ones he really wrote for.

At the end of February 1933. Thomas Mann, his wife Katia and his daughter Medi leave Germany for a three week holiday in the Swiss mountains, he couldn’t know that this trip was one way and that he was leaving Germany:


During this time in his fatherland the world collapsed. You leave in all innocence on holiday and, before you know it, you no longer have a fatherland. And that at dizzying speed.
The fire in the Reichstag, the dissolution of Parliament, Hindenburg speech. The first proclamation of the state of emergency, a decree to protect the people and the state, what could that mean, I ask you?….And the there were the March elections, and he regained hope. Hitler had got it wrong, the majority of Germans hadn’t voted for him. But soon, it appeared that it changed nothing. New emergency decrees followed, the Reichstag had been completely neutralised. In November there would be new elections, and Hitler celebrated his defeat as a victory.***


Thomas Mann is described as a patriarch who lives for writing and is unfit for anything else in real life, from the outset the Nazis attack him in the press and as he stays longer than he is supposed to in Switzerland, they confiscate is house in Munich. He examines his relationship with his brother, the writer Heinrich Mann, he describes as a lover of wine and women, thinking back to a recent visit he had payed him in the south of France. Heinrich was impulsive and decisive, when in the first world war Thomas had taken two years to write on the nobility of war, missing the change in heart of the people and being published late in the war, Heinrich had written aboutreplacing the regime by a republic. Thomas was also frustrated by his son, Klaus who he compares to Heinrich, Klaus who for his first issue of “Die Sammlung”, an antifascist review, in 1933 had published A scathing article by his uncle Heinrich.

As Thomas dithers during these three days, he is under pressure from his daughter Erika who cannot understand his not clearly coming out against Germany. As he tells Katia at the end of the three days:


“The letter will be published tomorrow”, he says.
“it’s really what you want?”
He folds his napkin, empties his glass. How can he explain to her that he has made the decision to lose his fatherland? Or more precisely that he is losing nothing, that they can’t take Germany from him?
He rises and kisses Katia on the cheek.
“Germany is to be found where I am”, he says, and heads for the phone.***


A rich journey into the past where, against his inner convictions, Thomas Mann decides that literature cannot live in isolation from politics.

First Published in German as “Der Brief des Zauberers” in 2014 by Aufbau.
Translated into French by Corinna Gepner and published as “La décision” in 2014 by Sock
Translated into English by Jeannette K. Ringold and published as “The Decision” in 2015 by Haus
*** My translation

Jeanette Winterson “The Gap of Time”


“Then a plague plagued the city and some meddling oracle announced that the plague would never end, ever end unless the killer of the dead old king was found. They had no idea about viruses in those days. Plagues were sent from the gods.”
“They said that about AIDS. Even I knew it was a stupid thing to say and I’m no doctor.”
“One thing you notice about progress, kid, is that it doesn’t happen to everyone.”


Winterson’s book read for the “Roman De Rochefort” is a version of “The Winter’s Tale” set in the modern day but keeping the main drivers which are jealousy, pride, remorse and finally forgiveness. The two central characters in the initial actions of the book, Leontes, King of Sicilia and his childhood friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia are replaced by Leo Kaiser, a successful investment banker, an alpha male, “Men in Leo’s position had personal assistants who could moonlight as super models in their celery and cottage cheese lunch breaks”and by Xeno, a sensitive computer games writer who at school had had a homosexual relationship with Leo and to whom women were attracted:


Leo was playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and shouting at the console when Xeno came in and threw a banana skin at the screen.
“Hey!” said Leo. “What’s with you?”
“Gaming is the best technology mated with prehistoric levels of human development,” said Xeno. “It’s all cars, fights, theft, risk, girls and reward.”
Leo couldn’t see the problem. That was his real life exactly. Why should a game be any different?
“Women don’t play because it bores them,” said Xeno. “So that’s half your potential market gone”


Hermione, Leonte’s wife is replaced by Mimi a French American singer, songwriter who feels comfortable in the company of Xeno. The story follows closely the original with some interesting finds, Leonte spies on his wife and Xeno using webcams, Xeno goes far away to New Bohemia, a former French colony, and as everyone’s life is torn to pieces by the jealousy of Leo, jealousy for both Mimi and for Xeno, the baby, Perdita, is sent by Leo to New Bohemia where to save her life as the man bringing her is about to be robbed she is put in a hospital baby hatch with the money Leo had sent and, there, discovered by Shep, a black widower who then brings her up.

I’ll not bore you with a blow by blow description of the book, it follows the original story, just to say that redemption is reached through forgiveness as in the original and that there are some great one liners as in the original quote as Autolycus explains the story of Oedipus to Perdita’s stepbrother, Clo.

If you haven’t read or seen the Winter’s Tale, well then this is an easy modern telling, including some explanations about the transposition.

First Published in English as “The Gap of Time” in 2016 by Hogarth.
Translated into French by Céline Leroy and published as “La Faille du temps” in 2019 by Buchet-Chastel

The quotes in French

“Et voilà qu’un fléau s’abat sur la ville et qu’un oracle confus annonce que ça ne s’arrangera pas tant qu’on n’aura pas retrouvé le meurtrier du vieux roi.
Ils ne connaissaient rien aux virus à l’époque. Pour eux, la peste était une punition des dieux.”
“Ils ont aussi dit ça du SIDA. Même moi je sais que c’est débile, et pourtant je suis pas médecin”
“Le truc avec le progrès, gamin, c’est qu’il n’arrive pas à tout le monde”.

Les hommes de la stature de Leo avaient des assistantes personnelles qui travaillaient au noir comme top-modèles pendant leur pause déjeuner à base de céleri et de fromage zéro pour-cent.

Leo jouait à ‘Grand Theft Auto’ et hurlait après la console quand eno entra dans la pièce et envoya une peau de banane sur l’écran.
“Hého! Qu’est-ce qui te prend?”fit Leo.
“Le gaming, c’est le meilleur de la technologie allié à un stade préhistorique du développement humain”, rétorqua Xeno. “On n’y trouve que des voitures, de la violence, du vol, du risque, des filles et des récompenses.”
Leo ne voyait pas de problème. C’était la copie conforme de sa vie. Pourquoi un jeu vidéo devrait-il être différent?
“Les femmes ne jouent pas parce qu’elles s’ennuient. On perd donc une moitié du marché potentiel.”

Martin Suter ‘A Perfect Friend’


“The scents of Jasmin, rose, lily of the valley, ylang-ylang, amber and vanilla penetrated the darkness. The left half of his lips felt something soft. A mouth? Fabio jerked his eyes open.img_0029Before him, so close that he couldn’t focus on it was a woman’s face.
“Norina?”
The face pulled back. Now he could make it out.
High cheekbones, big blue eyes, a small mouth with full lips, short blond hair. Mid twenties.
“Hello Fabio”, she said smiling. Bravely, it seemed to Fabio.
“Hello”, said Fabio. He had never seen the woman before.***


In this book, read for German Literature month, Fabio wakes from a coma with post traumatic memory loss, as the doctor tells him, six days after incurring a severe head injury for which he has no memory. Things begin to get complicated when a woman he doesn’t know comes to visit him, as illustrated in the opening quote. He quickly comes to the realisation that he can no longer remember fifty days of his life, and in these fifty days he slowly comes to understand that his life has been turned upside down, he has left his job and his girl friend, Norina, and taken up with a new set of friends, as he confesses to his memory specialist:


“Have you already once had a case like me?”…
“All cases are different.”….
“but not so completely. Before, I’d written about people like Fredi Keller. And then I’m going all over these bling-bling clubs in the city with him. I live with a lady who is fully engaged in the struggle against exploitation of women in the sex business. And then I become a regular in a strip club. I make fun out of the lying press releases that arrive at my desk everyday. And then I get involved with one of these women that writes them. I’ve become the exact opposite of myself.***


Fabio is visited by his closest friend Lucas, whom he remembers and who works at the same newspaper as Fabio, Lucas, by ommission, neither tells Fabio that he had left his job at the newspaper before his accident nor that he had left his girlfriend Norina, he also omits to tell him that he himself is now living with Norina. Fabio leaves the hospital with his new girl friend Marlen, is a stranger to him, and who also doesn’t tell him he has lost his job. So after his first visit to his memory specialist who tells him he should slowly begin to live his life in a settled manner in order to regain his missing memory, he goes in to work where he find someone else installed at his workplace. He then learns of the last subjects he had been working on, that he had published an article about the suicide of a researcher who had thrown himself in front of a train. Fabio also learns from his bosses secretary that he had been working on a secret story and that in the time span lost from his memory he had changed entirely from the Fabio he had been to this new Fabio. On a personal basis, Fabio cannot understand why Norina will not answer his calls, until he sees Lucas entering her appartment.

The scene is now set as Fabio tries to retrace the secret story he had been working on, discovering that someone had deleted his electronic data and his backups, and that that person could only be Lucas.

The intrigue he is chasing is linked to the date the book was published, Prions and Suter’s home country, choclate from Switzerland and of course corruption. Could somebody change so entirely in such a short time? What was Lucas’ role in this story? Is Fabio the person he remembers himself to be or the person preople think he has become? Who is the person he will be from now on? For this and many other questions watch the film in French or read the book in German or French, No English translation available.

First Published in German as “Der Perfekter Freund” by Diogenes Verlag in 2002
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni and published as “L’Ami Parfait” in 2003 by Seuil.
Film in French directed by Antoine de Caunes and released in 2006
*** my translation

The quotes as read in German before translation

In die Dunkleheit Drang der Duft von Jasmin, Rose, Maiglöckchen, Ylang-Ylang, Amber und Vanille. Die linke Hälfte seiner Lippen spürte etwas Weiches. Einen Mund? Fabio schlug die Augen auf. Vor ihm, so dicht, daß er es nicht fokussieren konnte, war das Gesicht einer Frau.
“Norina?”
Das Gesicht wich zurück. Jetzt konnte er es erkennen.
Hohe Backenknochen, große blaue Augen, kleiner Mund mit vollen Lippen, blondes kurzes Haar. Mitte Zwanzig.
“Hallo Fabio”, sagt sie und lächelt. Tapfer, wie es Fabio schien.
“Hallo”, sagt Fabio. Er hatte die Frau noch nie gesehen.

Hatten Sie schon einmal einen Fall wie mich?…
“Alle Fälle sind verschieden.”…..
“Aber nicht so radikal. Gegen Leute wie Fredi Keller Habe Ich früher geschrieben. Und dann ziehe ich mit ihm durch die Schickimicki-Lokale der Stadt. Ich lebe mit einer Frau zusammen, die sich gegen die Ausbeutung de Frauen durch das Sexgewerbe engagiert. Und dann werde ich zum Stammgast in einem Striplokal. Ich mache mich Lustig über dir verlogenen Presseinformationen, die auf meinem Schreibtisch landen. Und dann lasse ich mich mit einer dieser Tanten ein, die sie schreiben. Ich habe mich ins pure Gegenteil meiner selbst verwandelt.”

Blake Morrison ‘The Executor’


To a cuckold:

Miles mate, you don’t know me and if you did you wouldn’t like me and if you knew what I get up to with your misses you’d like me even less. But honest, I’m doing you a favour, haven’t you noticed how sweet and attentive she’s become? How she sings when cooking supper and never complains when you spend Sundays at the golf course? She’s lost weight too and looks younger, why be jealous? It’s me who endures her guilt and remorse whereas with you she’s happily luxurious. The key to a good marriage is adultery you see, every husband needs a louse to warm the bed for him every Union a bastard like me. So when you find out and come looking for me, don’t bring a knife bring a thank you present. The day she stops betraying you is the day your problems begin.


Matt Holmes, à journalist on the book pages has his annual lunch with his friend and twenty years his senior, the Poet Robert Pope, “the bow-tied poet”. Pope asks him to be his executor in the event of his death to which Holmes, without giving it too much thought agrees. Soon after Pope dies unexpectedly and the story unfolds in two timelines, as the narrator, Holmes relates the present day and also his relationship with Robert Pope. Holmes’ first surprise comes at the funeral when Louis, Popes literary agent tells Matt that Pope had asked him to be his executor a few months after he had made the request to Matt who is left feeling unwanted, but things are soon cleared up:


I got the call at the office a couple of weeks after the funeral, only Marie phones my extension everyone else e-mails so it took me a moment to grasp who the caller was, “What do you mean both of us?” I said.
“It’s common enough” Louis said “after we talked at the wake I realised that’s what he’d probably done, I tried to find you to say so but you’d rushed off. I spoke with his solicitor yesterday the will was straight forward, he left everything to Jill the codicil concerns his literary remains, nice phrase eh? he named us as joint executors, officially I’m general executor and you’re literary executor, but in effect we’ll be acting together.”
“Right.”
“You sound dubious?”
“I’m just surprised, I assumed he’d dropped me.”
“Well I’m glad he didn’t, my role is to sell his work, I’ve not the expertise to sort through the manuscripts”.
“I’m no scholar either.”
“Well he trusted you, he knew you’d do it well. There might not be much to do, he told me he’d written nothing since his last collection.”


In the present day, Matt advances then slowly as Popes office is at Jill, his frosty and wary widow’s home where Matt is ill equipped emotionally to deal with Jill but where Matt’s wife Marie seems to understand her and enables Matt to slowly find the right tone, but initially finds no new material. In the past he relates how they met when Pope was a lecturer an Brandon, an american university, and Holmes was studying there, they hit if off, with Pope telling him of a girl Corrine, he had fallen for but who had left him and of the late age he had lost his virginity. Soon after Holmes comes back to London, he tells us of the return of the energetic, city loving Pope, a contrast to the older suburbs living Pope:


His poems began to appear in journals and within months to my amazement and envy he got some reviewing work too, editors liked his fearlessness, he was the new kid on the block, cudgel in hand ready to take on the old guys.
“It helps that I don’t know anyone.” he said “once you’re friends with other writers you’re sunk.”
I was unpublished and didn’t count, but writers can’t make a living without contacts, and though he continued claiming not to know anyone, people got to know him, editors, publishers, radio producers.
“I’m enjoying my fifteen minutes” he said, stressing his lack of credentials failed PhD student, second rate academic, wannabe poet.


As the story then progresses, Holmes slowly discovers unpublished poems hidden away in other documents that cast his friend in another and as yet unforeseen light, as a misogynist and a predator of women, illustrated by the opening poem. Was he serially unfaithful to Jill, was it possible to write these poems with such apparent feeling without having lived these events?

The conflict within the story is then centred around Jill, fiercely fighting to keep the exiting vision of Robert Pope, and Matt trying to as best as possible carry out the will of his friend and to publish his works, and what if there were more to these poems than we imagined?

A clever story that keeps the readers interest and an ending in keeping with the mood of the book.

First Published in English as “The Executor” in 2018 by Vintage.

Jonathan Coe ‘Middle England’


‘She couldn’t stand politicians,’ Colin said, bringing some subterranean train of thought to the surface, and not needing to specify who he meant by ‘she’. He spoke in a low voice, thick with regret and repressed emotion. ‘Thought they were all as bad as each other. All on the fiddle, every one of them. Fiddling their expenses, not declaring their interests, holding down half a dozen jobs on the side …’ Benjamin nodded, while remembering that in fact it was Colin himself, not his late wife, who was obsessed with the venality of politicians.


Jonathan Coe has chosen the Trotter Family and their Birmingham base from his previous books, The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle, as the medium to study Pre and early Post Brexit Britain, the latent differences between the Leavers and the Remainers, that were waiting to be cleaved open. The opening quote from Colin Trotter, Benjamin Trotters father, maybe in his eighties, is of course something you can hear in any democracy in the world, squeaky clean is rare and of course this sort of resentment is like dry tinder.

Basically the fifty somethings in this book were not too interested or informed, typified by Benjamin who was too interested in his own navel and too timid to even have an opinion or his friend Doug, a freelance journalist who writes articles under severe time pressure, even his 16 year old daughter Coriander can see he is out of touch with what is happening in the country. But amongst all of the strands in this book, The Brexit story and its strife is carried by Sophie Trotter, Benjamin’s niece, in her early thirties and the man she chooses to marry, Ian who she meets on a driving training course after being caught speeding. This was never going to be a straightforward marriage. After Ian is injured in the Birmingham riots and Sophie drives his mother to the hospital, the tooothpaste is let out of the tube. Yes there is rascism, and resentment but maybe only that:


“Where will it end Sophie where will it all end this dreadful business end”?
Of course Sophie knew what she meant by this dreadful business but it was the middle of a quiet Saturday afternoon in august they were driving along the A435 not far from the Wivel roundabout and the sun shone placidly on the roofs of cars, the traffic signs, the petrol stations, the hedgerows, the pubs, the garden centres, the convenience stores, all the familiar landmarks of modern England. It was hard at that moment to see the world as a dreadful place or a very inspiring one for that matter, she was about to formulate some bland response, oh you know, life goes on , these things blow over after a while, when Helena added
“He was quite tight you know rivers of blood, he was the only one brave enough to say it”.
Sophie froze when she heard these words and the platitudes died on her lips. The silence that opened up between her and Helena was fathomless now, here it was after all the subject that wouldn’t, couldn’t be discussed the subject that provided people more than any other, mortified people more than any other, because to bring it up was to strip off your own clothes, and tear off the other persons clothes and to be forced to stare at each other naked, unprotected with no way of averting your eyes any reply she made to Helena at this moment, any reply that showed her own differing views would immediately mean confronting the unspeakable truth that sophie and everyone like her, and Helena and everyone like her, might be living cheek by jowl in the same country but they also lived in different universes and these universies were separated by a wall infinitely high, impermeable, a wall built out of fear and suspicion and even perhaps those most English of all qualities shame and embarrassment. Impossible to face this, the only practical thing to do was to ignore it, but for how long was that practical in fact?


Both Sophie and Ian suffer career setbacks, Ian, an alpha male loses out on a promotion to a woman, an Asian woman and he fosters resentment, a feeling of having had something that should have been his taken away by the PC crowd. Sophie is called out on Twitter by Coriander for something seemingly innocent telling a transgender student who had dithered on an essay between two choices, that she couldn’t make her mind up. Sophie was suspended pending an investigation, as Ian says Guilty until proven innocent. Ian and his mother cannot understand that Sophie is not bitter about this. And the added pressure of The Brexit debate tears their marriage apart, or was it always going to end this way:


Their relationship councillor Lorna told them that many of the couples she was seeing at the moment had mentioned Brexit as a key factor in their growing estrangement. Now I usually start by asking each of you the same question. Sophie, why are you so angry that Ian voted leave and Ian why are you so angry that Sophie voted remain? Sophie had thought for a long time before answering, I suppose because it makes me think that as a person he’s not as open as I thought he was, that his basic model for a relationship comes down to antagonism and competition not cooperation. Lorna had nodded and turned to Ian who said it makes me think that she’s very naive that she lives in a bubble and can’t see how other people around her might have a different opinion to hers and this gives a certain attitude an attitude of moral superiority. To which Lorna had said, what’s interesting about both those answers is that neither of you mentioned politics.


A long and relatively verbiose book, but you know what you’re getting when you buy a Coe. This book is maybe the analysis needed to begin the slow process of being able to live together, having different opinions and who knows, respecting opposite points of view. But don’t hold your breath.

First Published in English as “Middle England” in 2019 by Penguin Books Ltd.