Javier Cercas ‘Terra Alta’


“I’m sorry mate”, said his colleague. “My son broke his finger playing handball”.
“No problem” Melchior reassured him as he did up his safety belt. “I listened to a bunch of old people to pass the time”.
“I’ll bet all they talked about was the war”.
Melchor turned towards him.img_2777“How did you know”?
“Don’t talk rubbish”, said Sirvent.
“Here, the old folks don’t talk about anything else. As if nothing else has happened here in Terra Alta in the last 80 years”.***


This book, my third read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, and my second by Javier cercas after ‘Outlaws‘ follows the main protagonist Melchor, who identifies his life with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and in particular, not to Jean Valjean but to Javert. Not the man who must choose between “Staying in heaven and becoming a demon or going back into hell and becoming an angel” but “the pretend bad guy, and pretend bad guys are the real good guys”. He even names his daughter Cosette.

Just for a change(heavy sarchasm) the story follows two distinct time lines, the present in Terra Alta and the past which has moulded Melchor. In the present, the story begins with an atrocious murder, the owner of the largest company in the area, Francisco Addel and his wife are sadistically tortured to death in their home, enough to shock the police at the death scene as illustrated below. In Terra Alta everyone knows everyone and the enquiry soon becomes bogged down and the task force eventually gets re-deployed. In the second time line we learn that Melchor much like Jean Valjean has been in prison and then with false paperwork was able to become a policeman, following a shooting incident where Melchor puts to good use the training he had working for a Cartel, he shoots dead four terrorists, making him famous, the police who had begun to realise his paperwork was suspect ensure his legitimacy and send him into the isolated Terra Alta until things quieten down.


Goma watches them all for a moment then points to a puddle of sticky stuff on the floor.
“Can anybody explain to me what this is”?
“The patrolman who came in with me vomitted”, Melchor answers.
“He wasn’t the only one”, adds deputy inspector Barrera. “Except that the others were more discreet”.***


This is a story of meanness, of cupidity and of revenge. And what if Javert once again had to choose, would he arrest the killer or let him go? throw into the cauldron the murder of Melchor’s wife.

Cercas keeps our attention and leaves enough doubt about Melchor’s choices.

First Published in spanish as “Terra Alta” in 2021, by Booket
Translated into french by Aleksandar Grujicic and Karine Louesdon and published as “Terra Alta” by Actes Sud in 2021
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Je suis désolé, mec, dit son collègue. Mon fils s’est cassé un doigt en jouant au hand.
—Pas de souci, le rassura Melchor en bouclant sa ceinture de sécurité. J’ai écouté un groupe de vieux, ça m’a fait passer le temps.
—Je parie qu’ils parlaient de la guerre.
Melchor se tourna vers lui.
—Comment tu sais ça?
—Arrête tes conneries, dit Sirvent. Ici, les vieux ne parlent que de ça. Comme s’il ne s’était rien passé en Terra Alta ces quatre-vingts dernières années.

Goma reste un moment à les observer puis montre du doit une flaque d’une matière pâteuse qui souille le sol.
—Quelqu’un pourrait m’expliquer ce que c’est?
—Le patrouilleur qui est entré avec moi a vomi, répond Melchor.
—Il n’a pas été le seul, ajoute le sous-inspecteur Barrera. Sauf que les autres ont été plus discrets.

Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021

It’s that time of year again, Literary prizes once again and here in France, there are of course the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Renaudot amongst others but of absolutely enormous importance once again is our village prize, The Prix du Roman de Rochefort. No shortlist here! Ten books chosen on the 5th of september, the jury (everyone who has read the books, about 20 people) meet end of november amid much food and drink to debate the winner. The debate is almost more important than the winner itself. Almost!

And as you will notice, true to form unable to choose Ten books we have 11 to read in the same time. yoopeee.



La face nord du cœur, Dolores Redondo (Gallimard)

Broadway, Fabrice Caro (Gallimard)

Terra Alta, Javier Cercas, (Actes Sud)

Farallon islands, Abby Geni (Actes Sud)

Le lièvre, Frédéric Boyer (Gallimard)

L’autre moitié de soi, Brit Bennett (Autrement)

Une république lumineuse, Andrés Barba (Christian Bourgois)

L’inconnu de la poste, Florence Aubenas (L’Olivier)

Dibbouks, Irène Kaufer (L’Antilope)

La Tannerie, Celia Levi (Tristram)

L’ami impossible, Bruno de Strabenrath (Gallimard)

Fabrice Caro ‘Broadway’


For Denis’s fortieth birthday, Beatrice organised a surprise party, she thought it would be a good idea to hold it in a Karaoke bar.I suspect Denis and Beatrice rack their heads to try to find activities that are the exact opposite of my desires.***


This book was read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, and has left me with mixed sentiments, a lot of work has gone into shaping the story and linking the witty stories together using running jokes. The tone is slightly disenchanted with life, a mid life crisis? But at the same time that is all this book is, a string of witty stories and for this reader I soon lost patience. and no longer appreciated his drollery, I wanted to scream too much! The following quote is an example of Axel wanting to tell his daughter Jade that her boyfriend that has left her just isn’t woth the sorrow. The paragraph in itself is mildly amusing, the blue envelope is one of the running jokes; basically he received a colorectal test kit through the post four years earlier at 46 years old than the 50 years at which the kit is normally sent:


Maybe I should tell her: you know, today you admire him, but one day he’ll change, he’ll put on weight, slowly a fatty layer will appear around his midrift, his hair will recede, he’ll try to limit that by the use of Minoxydil 5% to no avail, you’ll notice CDs from the 90s (even the 80s) in the glove compartment, he’ll tell you its ironic, but it won’t be it’ll just be bad taste, in the evening on the sofahe’ll read car mags and sport pages, now and again he’ll say something about a transfer out loud and you’ll ask yourself if he hasn’t anything better to say to you, you’ll dye your hair and he won’t notice it, you’ll argue with each other more and more for less and less and one day he’ll go for the mailand find a blue envelope….,colorectal blue, that’s what you’re crying over Jade.***


In a nutshell Axel talks about his life, which should be happy, but as the opening quote shows, it’s all about him.

I won’t be voting for this book, much like king John, it died of a surfeit.

First Published in french as “Broadway” in 2020 by Gallimard.*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Pour les quarante ans de Denis, Béatrice lui avait organisé un anniversaire surprise, elle lui avait trouvé judicieux de faire ça dans un bar karaoké – je soupçonne Denis et Béatrice de se creuser la tête pour tenter de ne me proposer que des activités qui sont aux antipodes de mes aspirations.

Peut-être devrais-je dire: tu sais, tu l’admires aujourd’hui, mais un jour il changera, il va prendre du poids, sensiblement, des contours de graisse vont faire leur apparition tout autour de son ventre, son front va commencer à se dégarnir, il essaiera d’enrayer ça avec du Minoxydil 5% mais ce sera peine perdu, tu vas voir apparaitre des CD des années 90 (voire 80) dans sa boîte à gants, il te dira que c’est du seconde degré mais ça n’en sera pas, ce sera juste du mauvais goût, le soir sur le canapé il lira des magazines automobiles et des journaux de sport, de temps à autre il fera un commentaire à haute voix sur un transfert de joueur et tu te demanderas s’il n’a pas autre chose à te dire que ça , tu feras une couleur et il ne remarquera pas que tu as fait une couleur, vos disputes se feront de plus en plus fréquentes, avec de moins en moins d’enjeu et un jour il ira au courrier et y trouvera une enveloppe bleue…, bleue colorectal, voila ce que tu pleurniches ma Jade.

Dolores Redondo ‘The North Face of the Heart’


Alvord Texas
The field in front of the Allen’s house showed little or no signs of the hurricane’s passage.For an observer, the farm seemed to give, at first sight, an impression of absolute normality……Only when you looked at the first floor,the windows, you noticed that the house didn’t have a roof.***


The wheel has turned another year and the Roman de Rochefort is upon us again, this year their are several thrillers in the short list, and as I was away on hols I’ve begun with one of these, The North Face of the Heart. Move over Star Wars, Dolores Redondo has written a prequel to her Baztan trilogy featuring Amaia Salazar which are available on Netflix. In this then her fourth book, Salazar is a young assistent detective sent on a course for international police forces at Quantico, to learn about profiling serial killers, but she is not just another student. The renown, somewhat maverick team leader, Aloisius Dupree, has noticed her before she arrives. We should mention here that she has already, at the age of 25, single handedly caught her first serial killer in her native Basque country at Baztan.

Early on in her training, Dupree seconds Amaia onto his team to look for an active serial killer dubbed “the Composer” who has passed under the radar by killing whole families during natural disasters, he then composes the family members with their heads facing north, to make it seem as if the father has killed the whole family, his wife and three children as well as the children’s grandmother before ending his own life. By profiling the victims, Amaia closes in on the composer, for instance as in the opening quote when she visits the Allen’s farm it seems her profiling may not be right as only the parents and the three children are initially found, but she is sure of herself and finally finds the grandmother who had tried to escape, shot and dragged under the houses missing roof.

Amaia closes in on the “Composer”, sure that it is a Martin Lenx, whose 5 family members had been found dead 18 years earlier, she talks to the photographer who had taken his family picture just before the massacre all those years before and who had recognised the frustration in him that his family were not what he had planned:


Look at Lenx’s mouth. It looks like a notch carved out by an axe. She agreed. It was exactly whhat she had thought on seeing it.
In fourty years of trade, I’ve often seen it, it’s what I call the “syndrome of the bride and the rain”.***


In this story, with team rivalry and loyalty put in question and explored, Dupree leads the down to New Orleans in 2005 ahead of Hurricane Katrina, ostensibly to get ahead of “the Composer”, but Dupree has unfinished business following the previous Hurricane to hit New Orleans, Betsy. From here on in I’m divided, the descriptions of Katrina and what happened are excellent historical reading, for instance that after hurricane Betsy the then mayor had encouraged everyone to have an axe in their attic ready for the next hurricane (to get out of course). However the story of the abductions and the voodoo with Dupree carrying a gris gris left me exasperated.

There is also the story of Amaia’s childhood played in flashback, explaining her sensitivity to evil.

The main story of the search for the serial killer, including the hunt for him in New Orleans was a page turner, Amaias own story in flashback was of interest but the third story of the abductions and voodoo could have been left out shrinking a near 700 page book back to a more reasonable 500 pages.

First Published in Spanish as “La cara norte del corazón” in 2021, in Spain by Booket.
Translated into french by Anne Plantagenet and published as “La face nord du coeur” by Gallimard in 2021.
Translated into english by Michael Meigs and published as “The North Face of the Heart” by Amazon Crossing in 2021
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Alvord Texas
Le champ devant la maison des Allen trahissait à peine le passage de l’Ouragan. Pour un obserateur, la ferme pouvait donner, dans un premier temps une impression de normalité absolue…..Seulement quand on regardait l’étage, les fenêtres, on s’apercevait que la maison n’avait pas de toit.

Regardez la bouche de Lenx. On dirait une entaille fait à la hache.
Elle acquiesça. C’était exactement ce qu’elle avait pensé en la voyant.
En quarante ans de Métier, je l’ai souvent observé, c’est ce que j’appelle le “syndrome de la mariée et la pluie”

The Booker International Prize, I can leave my house now edition.

And the Winner is:

Blocked in the COVID tunnel, I know when we entered and I’m told there is light at the end, or have I lost my sight (it’s there but I can’t see it)?: So let’s use the time when I used to just see people. I’ve read the six shortlisted novels, written articles and debated extensively with myself and here are the conclusions.


Let’s begin with the duo “unfindable/unreadable” The Employees/In Memory of Memory” no further comments needed.


Next we should move on to the undeveloped: the whole subject of adolescents, evil and magic really doesn’t ring my bell. Yes, “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed“..


And then there were three! and one frustrated reviewer.


I know, as a professional jury member, books are free, but I object to just 46 pages. “The war of the Poor” was a great idea, well written…. but just as you’re beginning….well you get to the 46th page.


Just what have the Jury done in selecting these books? Was my review of last year’s competition so good that they wanted to eliminate competition? Or are they just not interested in readers?


Which leaves us with two, I guess that’s not so bad, What do you think?

Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World‘. An extremely interesting book, just too much information. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

Let me confidently announce that the winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens has got to be the winner of this prize, All Night all Blood is Black, a fresh view on the madness of war. Winner by default but winner also by merit.

Éric Vuillard ‘The War of the Poor’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The War of the Poor”: In order of reading book number 6.


Because the powerful never give up anything, neither bread nor freedom. It is then at that moment that he utters before them his most terrible words. Before the Crown Prince, Duke John, the Bailiff Zeus, the Mayor and Council of Allstedt, after the sword, the poor, Nebuchadnezzar, and the wrath of God, now Müntzer says: death to impious Monarchs.***


This is the story of the poor and their little known rebellions, first of all in England in the 14th century, of John Wyclif who proned translating the bible into the language of the people, who would then have a direct relationship with God and would not need the corrupt clergy, this of course was not a popular idea amongst the rich. After his death one of his disciples, John Ball fomented a peasants revolt due in part to over taxation which was then carried forward by Watt Tyler who marched on London with upwards of 60000 peasants who looted and beheaded judges. The peasants wern’t really prepared, and when the tide turned tens of thousands were put to the sword.

In the next century came the printing press and the bible was then printed in the language of the people. The revolt then flairs up in Germany lead by Thomas Müntzer who goes further than Luther:


His mass in German raised an outcry. People came from all around Allstedt to listen to the word of God, crowds gathered to hear a priest speak to them, for the first time, in their own language. In the church in Allsttedt, God spoke German.***


Müntzer was full of a vindictive rage against the corrupt Clergy and the ruling classes stirring up the people as part if the great peasant uprising of the early 16th century. Where once again up to 100000 of the the poorly prepared people were slaughtered by the arisocrats armies.

This all too short a book, only 46 pages, only scratched the surface of a passionate subject, of these two interesting excerpts of history.

First Published in French as “La guerre des pauvres” in 2019 by Actes Sud.
Translated into English by Mark Polizzotti and published as The War of the Poor by Other Press in 2020
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Car les puissants ne cèdent jamais rien, ni le pain ni la liberté. Et c’est à ce moment qu’il prononce devant eux sa plus terrible parole. Devant le duc Jean, le prince héritier, le bailli Zeiss, le bourgmestre et le conseil d’Allstedt, après le glaive, les pauvres, Nabuchodonosor et la colère de Dieu, voici que Müntzer dit: il faut tuer les souverains impies.

Il va plus loin que Luther. Sa messe en allemand soulève un tollé. Les gens viennent des alentours d’Allstedt écouter la parole de Dieu, des foules se déplacent pour entendre un prêtre s’adresser à eux pour la première fois dans leur langue. Dans l’église d’Allstedt, Dieu parle allemand.

Mariana Enriquez ‘The Dangers of Smoking in Bed’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Dangers of Soking in Bed”: In order of reading book number 3.


Their frantic families came to get them without thinking too much about how odd the case was, how unsettling it was that the children should come back all at the same time.


Mariana Enriquez’s Danger is a book of disturbing short stories , mostly about youths and evil or death, such as Rambla Triste and Barcelona’s ghost children or The Well where a the women in a family transfer evil from themselves to their youngest daughter through a witch and via a photo. The story which stood out for me was the most developed and longest in the book “The kids who came back”

In this story, Mechi, a council worker was emloyed to archive the files on the many missing children in the city and despite working with two other women who don’t talk to her in a very noisy office under a motorway flyover, and despite the lack of importance of her work she genuinly feels good about this job:


Since she’d taken over—almost two years before—the archive had received lavish praise. And that was in spite of the fact that it had a merely documentary value: the important files, the ones that mobilized police and investigators to follow up clues about the kids, were in police departments and prosecutors’ offices. Her archive was more useless, a sort of constantly expanding report without the capacity to inspire action.


Suddenly then over a short period of time these children begin to re-appear in the city parks, but exactly as they were when they dissapeared, sometimes many years previously but are by and large accepted into their grieving families as illustrated in the opening quote before being rejected as not being the person that had dissapeared.

This book, as often for me with short stories, left me with a feeling of “undeveloped”. The whole subject of adolescents, evil and magic really doesn’t ring my bell.

First Published in Spanish as “Los peligros de fumar en la cama” by Anagrama in 2017.
Translated into English by Megan McDowell and published as “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed” in 2021 by Granta Books.

Olga Ravn ‘The Employees’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Employees”: In order of reading book number 5.

What are the Booker International Prize Jury doing? From In Memory of Memory my last read, I would have needed auto blood transfusions to keep the yellow jersey and finish the book to this seemingly promising but unfindable book (even Amazon, like em or hate em, if you can’t find it they’ve got it, “normally”). Couldn’t read it, therefore no article!!

Maria Stepanova ‘In Memory of Memory’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“In Memory of Memory”: In order of reading book number 4.


I must have been about twelve. I was hunting around for something interesting to look at. There was plenty of interesting stuff: with every death a pile of new objects appeared in our apartment, deposited just as they were, trapped in a sudden end state, because their previous owner, the only person who could have freed them, was no longer amongst the living.


I don’t know who chose the shortlist for this prize this year but he certainly wanted to make it difficult to follow. I guess there must have been some powerful lobying. I’ve read doctoral theses with far less references. I had assumed this to be a fiction prize but it would appear in this case not and I should confess up front that my Kindle tells I only managed 42% of this particularly long book (I never normally give up during a book).


The opening quote tells us something of the subject, do memories die with the person and what do we do to prolong them, firstly our own before we die and secondly those of others after their dissapearance. How have momories changed and our understanding of them from the time of the handwritten letter to the time of the selfie. Stepanova then takes us through the twentieth century, its pogroms and revolutions, state terror and the Shoah and of the terribly small chance of a Jewish family to have lived through these times intact no matter which choices they had made at the turn of the century.


The children of the turn of the century had three choices before them, and they all looked much the same. Revolution, assimilation and Zionism


How in this situation of mass interruption of the memory line can or should the memories of these whole families, whole communities, whole people be assured. This is as far as I got, the premise seems interesting and should be. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a stubborn reader, good luck with the others.


In contemporary Europe, with its barely healed wounds, black holes, and traces of displacement, a well-preserved family archive is a rarity.


First Published in Russian as “ПАМЯТИ ПАМЯТИ” by Novoe Izdatel’stvo in 2017.
Translated into English by Sasha Dugdale, and published as “In Memory of Memory” in 2021 by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Benjamin Labatut ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“When We Cease to Understand the World”: In order of reading book number 2.


Decades before, Zyklon A—a precursor to the poison employed by the Nazis in their concentration camps—had been sprayed on California oranges, as a pesticide, and used to delouse the trains in which tens of thousands of Mexican immigrants hid when entering the United States. The wood of the train cars was stained a beautiful blue, the same colour that can be seen even today on certain bricks at Auschwitz; both hearken to cyanide’s authentic origins as a by-product isolated in 1782 from the first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue.


In this rambling book, Benjamin Labatut brings us in just over 150 years on a rollercoaster ride in sciences from the more or less alchemist days of the mid to late eighteenth century where little more than four elements were known, and with accidental experiments leading to discoveries that soon escaped the hands and minds of the person that discovered them, through to God playing dice, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principal.

Labatut chooses to take us from the accidental discovery of Prussian Blue by Jacob Diesbach, useful in dyeing and painting, through the accidental discovery of cyanide by Carl Wilhelm Scheele stirring a pot of Prussian Blue with a spoon coated in traces of sulphuric acid and of Scheele’s death from a painting pigment poisoning, a wonderful green colour used extensively but based on arsenic. And yes as in the opening quote, he links this through to Zyclon A and then Zyclon B.

But how does he get us to Heisenberg and Nils Bohr? Well the first man to derive the exact solution to Einstein’s theory of relativity and thus ultimately predict the existence of Black holes died as a result of being gassed in the first world war trenches.

I’ll stop here, an extremely interesting book, just too much information. Yes I’ve left out huge chunks of subject matter. It could make the excellent basis of a ludic documentary series but I wouldn’t propose it for this prize.

First Published in Spanish as “Un Verdor Terrible” by Anagrama in 2020.
Translated into English by Adrian Nathan West and published as “When We Cease to Understand the World” in 2021 by Pushkin Press.