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.

David Diop ‘ At Night All Blood is Black’

Booker International Prize 2021: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“All Night All Blood is Black”: In order of reading book number 1.


Captain Armand says that you need to rest. The captain says that you are truely very brave but also very very tired. The captain says that he applauds your bravery, your very great bravery. The captain says that you will be awarded the Military Cross like me, oh, you have it already. The captain says that you’ll maybe get another. So yes I know I’ve understood that Captain Armand no longer wants me on the battlefield. Behind these words relayed by the elder, military cross, chocolate, Ibrahima Seck I knew, I understood that they’d had enough of my seven severed hands brought back fromm the battle, yes I understood, God’s truth, that on the battlefield they only want temporary madness, mad from anger, mad from suffering, raging mad, but temporary, not continuously mad.


David Diop’s story of African soldiers in the first world war, bringing “savagery”to a “civilised” war as Alfa Ndiaye, the narrator theorises, the enemy over there is particularly afraid of the African’s savagery as his french commanders tell him proudly until he becomes really savage. You can go too far, he learns, in this “civilised” war, as illustrated in the opening quote.

David Diop tells us of Alfa Ndiaye, a Senagaleese soldier fighting in the trenches for France and of his more-than-brother, Mademba Diop who dies in no man’s land next to Alfa with his insides on the outside, begging Alfa to finish him but Alfa can’t. So begins this story of Africans in the trenches, with the author telling the story through Alfa who is haunted and influenced by Mademba, David Diop’s namesake. Mademba is killed in noman’s land by an enemy from across the lines who pretending to be dead suddenly pounces and kills him. Alfa takes this up as a modus operandi, lying in wait after the battle, slowly killing stragglers, severing a hand from each victim and bringing them back as trophies. We slowly learn of Alfa’s life in Africa and his relationship to Mademba and by the end of the book we no longer know which of the two of them remains in Alfa’s body, as Alfa says:


I loved Mademba, my more-than-brother. God’s truth I loved him so much, I was sonafraid he would die, I so wanted us to return together safe and sound to Gandiol that I would do anything to keep him alive.


This winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens has got to be one of my favourites, a fresh view on the madness of war.

First Published in French as “Frère d’âme” in 2018 by Le Seuil.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

le Capitaine Armand a dit que tu devais te reposer. Le capitaine dit que tu etais vraiment très brave mais très très fatigué aussi. Le capitaine a dit qu’il salue ton courage ton très très grand courage. Le capitaine a dit que tu allais avoir la croix de guerre comme moi, ah tu l’as deja. Le capitaine a dit que tu allais en avoir peut-être une autre. Alors oui je sais, j’ai compis que le capitaine Armand ne voulait plus de moi sur le champ de bataille. Derriere les mots rapportés par l’ainé, croix de guerre, chocolat, Ibrahima Seck j’ai su, j’ai compris qu’on en avait assez de mes sept mains tranchées rapportées chez nous, oui j’ai compris par la verité de dieux que sur le champ de battaille qu’on ne veut que de la follie passagère, des fous de rage, des fous de douleur, des fous furieux, mais temporaire, pas de fou en continue.

J’aimais Mademba mon plus-que frère. Par la verite de Dieux je l’aimais tellement, j’avais tellement peur qu’il meurt, je souhaitais tellement que nous rentrions sain et sauf tous les deux à Gandiol, j’étais prêt a tout pour qu’il reste en vie.

The Booker International…Sort of Confinement Issue

And the Winner is:

Blocked at home once more…Sort of…not really, lockdown but no checks and no one takes any notice here. So another opportunity to beat the jury!

I’ll read the six shortlisted novels, write articles and debate extensively with myself.


Before announcing the definite winner, of course that’s if the jury doesn’t get it wrong again this year


Julia Deck ‘Private Property’


I knew about Annabelle’s hot pants. She had a whole collection, which she wore with high heels when she spotted a sucker at the agency. I’d also noticed to what extent hot pants make the person that wears them amusing, and just how much the listeners suddenly credit then with inimaginable wit.***


The Cardarecs are a middle class hipster Parisian couple, with middle class aspirations, to move from Paris, but not too far, to be able to benefit from more space, to get out doors a little but not to leave their Parisian lifestile behind. in this book read for the Roman de Rochefort.

He, Charles, a long term hypochondriac that she, the narrator, an architect, with their social consciences buy into a new eco-district in the suburbs, energy-neutral, low waste footprint etc. only to find that it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Any small set back sends Charles scuttering for his bed. The walls of the houses are paper thin, and the self-sufficient energy system has been under-sized. The Cardarecs could have made a go of it in spite of all this had it not been for their neighbours, the Lecoq family.

In this short sharp concise writing style Julia Deck tells the story of the neighbours from hell, Annabelle from the opening quote, young thirty something and her husband Arnaud, partying loudly into the early hours and eventually annoying the whole neighbourhood. After Charles complains about them in an informal neighbour’s meeting the Lecoq family cat is found dead and cut in half down in the trench in the street meant to bring gas to their houses. Then Annabelle dissapears.

When her body shows up on waste ground Charles is suspected and arrested, Arnaud the husband had been out all night with Patrick Lemoine, a neighbour who avoids going into too much detail about their evening out and as the narrator tells us:


Ok, Lemoine had never been able to get it up, it was a miracle that he had managed to knock her up, and that twice. And what’s more he had doubly lied. It most definitely wasn’t a coincidence that he’d come across Arnaud Lecoq at the Voltigeur the evening Annabelle had dissapeared. They had arranged to meet there and to go on to a private club where they had accidently met some time before and found that they had something secret in common.***


First Published in French as “Propriété privé” by Les Éditions de Minuit in 2019
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Je connaissais les microshorts d’Annabelle. Elle en possédait toute une collection, qu’elle assortissait avec des talons compensés quand elle avait flairé le gogo à l’agence. J’avais également noté à quel point les microshorts confèrent de l’esprit à celle qui les portent, et combien leurs auditeurs les créditent soudain d’une verve insoupçonnée.

Oui, Lemoine avait toujours bandé mou, c’était un miracle qu’il l’ai engrossée par deux fois. Et puis il avait doublement menti. Ce n’était absolument pas une coïncidence s’il était tombé sur Arnaud Lecoq au Voltigeur le soir de la disparition d’Annabelle. Les deux hommes s’étaient donnés rendez-vous. Ils étaient convenus de se rendre ensemble dans un club privé où ils s’étaient croisés par hasard quelques temps plus tôt, se découvrant par la même occasion un point commun inavoué.

The Booker Prize – The Short List – Prognostics

This year, thanks to Corona the Booker prize will be discerned on the 19th of November, SO I’m going into prognostics “say it with data”.

I have one month left to finish reading the shortlist and to predict, foresee, guess the winner.

You will see it here first, I’m sure the Booker jury will copy me soon after so here goes!



Claudie Hunzinger ‘Les Grands Cerfs’


The economic impact for the Rhineland can be summarised as follows: 1 deer shot = 1260 euros saved for the timber industry.***


Years ago, Nils and Pamina, still students take the radical decision to move to the mountains and live on a high prairie cut of from the world in this book read for the Roman de Rochefort. Sure each year at set times they heard wild life noises and discovered their young trees had been massacred in the morning, but then Léo arrived, maybe an ex-military man, wanting to know if he can set up an observation post on their land and then for ten years not much happens.

Léo tells Pamina of the stags he observes and of which he takes photos, of Wow of Apollo, of Arador and of Geronimo. Léo who has observed these animals and knows them has given them names to personalise them. Slowly Pamina is pulled into the story until one day she gives in to a whim and goes to the observation point. She slowly learns that observing these animals is 99% waiting and 1 % observation, she is drawn in to Léo’s tales and marvels at these wonderful creatures. As she gets to know more about them, of their world, of their vocabulary, antlers, horns, velvet, moult and feels she knows them, of their life cycle, the animals begin to be shot, the wonderful Wow and the old clever Arador.

Claudie Hunziger renders their lives real to us, their growing antlers, shedding their velvet by impact with the trees, rubbing their antlers up against the trees to give them a finish, colour, rubbing up against a nut tree for instance to give an antler a gold colour. She tells us of the nights where they fight for ascendancy, of their mating and of then losing their antlers, their moult until the cycle begins in the spring. She tells us of their surviving the hunger of winter in the snow, eating tree bark.

Léo brings Pamina into contact with the forestry commission and the hunters who together “regulate” the “stock” of deer and learns of the future for the deer as shown in the opening quote from the representative of the commission. He explains to her that the forestry commission who regulate the livestock, auctioning of bracelets, the right to kill a deer, are only interested in the timber the forest produces:


He presented himself, what’s more, as a representative of the forestry commission responsible for implementing the national policy which is to ensure the regeneration of the forest and of its financial returns. That is to say to favour coniferous trees, silver firs, spice trees, Douglas firs, the woody species the most chewed by stags, eaten if you like……And that that required a population of deer reduced to a strict minimum.***


And of course what the hunters really want are the antlers, the stags are their real prey. Pamina lives this as her personal window onto the sixth great extinction which is now underway.

If you didn’t know about the life of stags before you read this, you certainly knew more afterwards. This was written passionately.

First Published in French as “Les grands cerfs” by Grasset in 2019
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

L’impact économique pour la Rhénanie Palatinat se résume ainsi: 1 chevreuil tiré = 1260 euros d’économie pour l’industrie forestière.

s’est d’ailleurs présenté comme un agent de l’ONF chargé d’appliquer la politique nationale qui est de veiller à la régénération des forêts et à leur rendement financier. C’est à dire de veiller à privilégier les conifères, sapins pectinés, épiceas, douglas, espèces ligneuses les plus “abrouties” par les cerfs, bouffées, quoi…. Et que ça passait par un peuplement de cervidés réduit au minimum

Iegor Gran ‘Competent Departments’

We should have neutralised Pasternak for good. Back in the good old days….the valiant Tcheka…the NKVD….I don’t understand why we put up with it.
What a dumb fool he is!
We have to be tactically astute, declares Pakhomov. We can’t just go in all guns blazing when the eyes of the world opinion are on you……the international interest of the foreign media have created an invisible protective dome around Pasternak.***


Iegor Gran takes us back in time to Moscow in the 1960’s and illustrates this schitzophrenic period by the true story of his parents and the five year hunt for his father by the eigth section of the KGB, responsible for anti-soviet propaganda.

This is a time, following Krouschev’s recognition of Stalin’s crimes, where we follow the life of lieutnant Evgueni Feodorovitch Ivanov as he tries to find out who is hiding behind the name of Adrien Tertz, a jewish name, and is publishing in the West, first in French and then in Russian. His writings criticising the Soviets are too precise and could only come from within the USSR. Tertz begins by quoting the union of Soviet writers:


Socialist realism is the fundamental method in soviet literature and in soviet literary criticism. It requires of the artist a true historically tangible representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Amongst other things it should contribute to the ideological transformation and of the education of workers in the spirit of socialism.***


Siniavski and the French diplomat that helps him get his works out of the USSR laid down at the beginning, the strategy that allowed him to write for so many years, a Jewish name, hints of links with both Poland and Lenningrad that had Ivanov well off track in his hunt.

The main choice of Iegor Gran to reverse the vision and to write the story not from his father’s point of view but from Ivanov’s liberates the author to show the contradictions from within, for instance Gagarin’s first space flight and his hero’s welcome contrasting with his reward being a state secret, if the West were to get their hands on the clothing list he was granted as a hero, they would understand the state of things for the Soviet Peoples, as Gran points out the list was signed in person by Krouschev:


Coat mid-season – 1 off
Light summer coat – 1 off
Raincoat – 1 off
Suits – 2 off (one light, one dark)
Shoes – 2 pairs (black and light)
Shirts white – 6 off
Hats – 2 off
Ties – 6 off
Gloves – 1 pair
Handkerchiefs – 12 off
Socks 6 pairs
Underpants, vests – 6 off
Electric razor – 1 off***


As Ivanov laments, if only they could have found Adrien Tertz quickly, the Soviet Union was in a state of constant flux following the death of Stalin, each change affecting the resources and morale of the KGB, Krouschev denounces Stalins crimes, Stalin’s body is removed from the mausoleum he shared with Lenin and buried secretly, Krouschev is “retired” and throughout all of this the eigth section is unable to find Tertz. Meanwhile Siniavski knows he will be caught, sometime, he just doesn’t know when as months turn into years.

Iegor Gran then through his narrator tells us of the french and Italian, communist parties, the hope of whose victories kept the KGB hardliners in check, of the Nobel literature prize for Pasternack for the Dr. Zhivago that was forbidden in the USSR, as illustrated in the opening quote, of the eigth section often finding illegal copies on raids of the intelligentsia.

I particularly liked the raid on Siniavski’s house when his mother after years of preparation was more than a match for the officers, telling them when they revealed that her husband was in the Lubyanka of her relief to find out that he wasn’t with another woman. And of course when she quickly places her young baby, Iegor Gran, in Ivanov’s hands before he could avoid it.

He gives a sense of the time in history to the story and brings Ivanov to life as a complex character. Their very hunt for Tertz and his imprisonment bring the light of the western media on an otherwise little read author. This is an engaging book that will do well and would deserve a translation.

First Published in French as “Les services conpétents” by P.O.L in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

On aurait dû neutralisé Pasternak définitivement. Au bon vieux temps… La valeureuse Tchéka… Le NKVD…Je ne comprends pas pourquoi on tolère.
Quelle brute épaisse, celui-là!
Il faut être tactiquement astucieux, affirme Pakhomov. On ne peut pas y aller à la hache quand les yeux de l’opinion internationale sont braqués sur vous…….l’attention des médias étrangers à créer autour de W Pasternak un dôme de protection invisible.

Le réalisme socialiste est la méthode fondamentale de la littérature et la la critique littéraire soviétiques. Il exige de l’artiste une représentation véridique, historiquement concrète, de la réalité dans son développement révolutionnaire. En outre, il doit contribuer à la transformation idéologique et à l’éducation des travailleurs dans l’esprit du socialisme.

Manteau demi-saison – 1 unité
Manteau léger d’été – 1 unité
Imperméable – 1 unité
Costume – 2 unités (un clair, un sombre).
Chaussures – 2 paires (noires et claires).
Chemise blanche – 6 unités.
Chapeau – 2 unités.
Cravate – 6 unités
Gants – 1 paire.
Mouchoir – 12 unités.
Chaussettes – 6 paires.
Slip, maillot de corps – 6 paires
Rasoire électrique – 1 unité

Arnaud Cathrine And The Anonymous Project ‘Andrew est plus beau que toi’

Arnaud Cathrine has put together this marvelous book from a selection of amateur colour slides from the 1940’s through to the 1970’s chosen from Lee Shulman’s Anonymous Project www.anonymous-project.com, a large private collection of anonymous Kodachrome slides. He has imagined a story linking these images and as the story moves on we don’t initially realise that the images of the recurring characters, the brothers Andrew and Ryan Tucker are never twice of the same persons. The story he tells us is a story of California from the 1940’s through to the 1980’s and of the different life trajectories of the two brothers.

The story is told in alternating chapters by the two brothers beginning with their fathers arrival in California just before the outbreak of the war and the meeting with their mother in Santa Monica. The marvelous images at every page of the book give us a full immersion into working class homes, which seem by today’s standards to be sparse. The two brothers take different roads as Andrew discovers his attraction to men, take this photo with his first boyfriend:

As things become more difficult at home Ryan advises him to move to San Francisco where he meets his life partner. Capturing the post war tensions, his father refuses to see him from then on, even to his death.

Ryan on the other hand meets his wife to be, shown in this photo titled by Arnaud Cathrine “Come near her and I’ll crush you”

An interesting way to give life to these 90 or so photos, as for instance their mother has a secret liaison with the neighbour who then dies in a car crash or their childhood friends move away and always these remarkable photos.

First Published in French as “Andrew est plus beau que toi” by Flammarion in 2019