David Machado ‘The shelf life of happiness’

The vacuum cleaner scheme went like this: the company that sold them (it was called WRU, though I never found out what that stood for) rented equipment by the week to its employees—me and everyone else who had been selected—so we could do demos. We were expected to arrange these demos ourselves, … They didn’t give me a desk, just the address of a warehouse where I’d go pick up the vacuum cleaners. Everything else was done over the phone. I didn’t have a contract, which allowed me to keep collecting unemployment, and I earned a commission for each vacuum cleaner I sold, between 7 and 11 percent, minus rental fees. In other words, I had to pay to work. I accepted the job immediately.

David Machado’s Daniel had a job, a family and friends and them came Portugal’s financial crisis. In this book read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, as Daniel ‘s wife moves back in with her parents at the other end of Portugal to find work, and then Daniel’s well paid job as a lunch pin in a travel agent’s just get’s swept away in the internet tsunami, We follow Daniel as he fights to survive in a world that no longer really exists, unable to face up to what is happening to him. There are no jobs out there and in order to try to keep the appartement his family no longer live in he is forced towards degrading jobs, like the one in the opening quote.

The story is told as a conversation between Daniel and his friend, Almodôvar, who is in prison and we slowly learn that despite himself, Daniel is there for his friends and their families around him, for instance for the seemingly asocial Xavier, who has not left his room for a decade and who was more Almodôvar’s friend where we hear of the website the three friends had tried to create to try to bring people together to help each other:

In Xavier’s room, time slows down, things take longer to happen, as if our bodies become denser there, as if nothing—no gesture, no sentence, no silence—could ever really end. After about three minutes, he spoke. “We messed up,” he said. “What do you mean, ‘we messed up’?” “The site,” he said. “The site isn’t working.” Can you believe it? The dude was still working on the site. You hadn’t been around for over six months and Xavier had kept working on that shitty site. … He was right: the site wasn’t working. But I had forgotten about it a long time before. Meanwhile, a year later, Xavier was still messing around with it. I didn’t want to have that pointless conversation, so I tried to be patient. “What do you want to do about it?” I asked him. “We can’t put in more money.” He closed his laptop, and his face went dark. “There are people using the site,” he said. “The problem is that none of them need any help.”

And for Almôdovar’s son, Vasco, who, since his father has been jailed, has become mixed up with other kids of his age, first of all filming themselves pissing on drunks and then posting the films on line, films which, to Daniel’s surprise, have tens of thousands of views a day “who would want to watch this?” And then when Daniel has lost his appartement and is living in his car, as he is talking to Vasco, these same friends set fire to his car.

It takes a road trip in a van with Xavier, Vasco, Daniel’s troubled children and a pensioner who had posted on their website to say he had a seven seater van, in order to help the first person that had ever asked for help on their website, for Daniel to see that everyone struggles and that he needs to let go of the past to redefine himself. And as for Almodôvar, well the clue to what’s happening there is in the first page.

First Published in Portuguese as “Índice médio de felicidade” in 2013 by Publicações Dom Quixote
Translated into English by Hillary Locke and published as “The Shelf Life of Happiness” in 2016 by AmazonCrossing

Jeroen Olyslaegers ‘Murky’

I know what everyone thinks: he’s going to fall down and break his hip. He’ll find himself in a bed in Saint-Vincent’s. And that’ll be the end of him, struck down by one of those bacteria they have the secret of growing in hospitals. It’s strange how old people allow themselves to be contaminated by other people’s fear. Because of that fear they let themselves be locked up in old people’s homes, let themselves be ovecome with tasteless muck and twaddle, with a stupid bingo night and a Maroccain woman stuck behind their bums with a strip of toilet paper.***

So begins Olyslaeger’s excellent novel of the Second World War in Anderlecht, a story being told by a cynical old man to his unborn great grandson in this Dutch language Belgian book read for the “Roman De Rochefort” prize. As the title suggests the narrator, a young man at the outbreak of the Second World War walks a questionable line in this occupied city. As the story begins Wilfried Wils obtains a job as a Belgian policeman in order to avoid forced labour service in Germany, but pretty soon he was employed in rounding up those that tried to avoid this same service, with an insight into the ambiguous views of the public in general, welcoming the Nazis, and the police force in general to the German occupation. As he comments after being ordered by German military to follow them:

In principal, we should present ourselves to get our orders, but when a Feldfritz shouts, you obey. We head down the Pelikaanstraat towards the south. Lode and I marching behind the two uniformed Übermenschen in complete silence, like two punished children. The Germans have only been here seven months and it’s as if they’ve been here several years. The town lead on its back, legs wide open, for these supermen.***

Wilfried Wils sails through pretty muddy water, not necessarily understanding everything that’s going on around himself, mostly putting up with the Germans but with an ambivalent reaction to their occupation, pushed by his friend Lode who despite personal risk seems to have a clearer view of the “übermenschen” and despises the local lookalikes:

A Waffen-SS uniform suddenly pulls up at our table.
May I invite the young lady to accompany me to the dance floor?
We look up. He’s not a German. He’s one of our’s, but with his hair shaved on the sides and the heels he clacks together, you could take him for the real thing, as if this town was only good for shitting in and that his heart and soul had been cast in Prussia.***

Olyslaegers, in interviews,tells of his personal relationship to this story as, at a university reading, he comes across a story of a Jewish family who, during the first roundup of Jews in Anderlecht commit suicide with the father cutting his own throat spouting blood on the Belgian policeman that had come to get him. The street name in the story rang a bell to him and when he later asked his mother she told him he had an aunt who worked for a Jewish family, who had committed suicide, in that street and that afterwards she had lived on in the house with her SS boyfriend.

He tells us of Wilfried Wils living this story and of the policemen wanting to file reports saying that the Jews had not been told why they were being arrested but that they caved in under pressure from above. Wils had found his job with the police through an old school teacher, an active Nazi sympathiser with whom he keeps up a relationship throughout the war, despite his abhorrence, a friend of his aunt’s Nazi boyfriend, this quote towards the end of the book, gives an idea of the views of this group of people:

For you, its a fucking game. But it’s people like me that pay for it. We succeeded in wiping out the Jews in this town, those parasites who have infested our town for so many years are nearly all gone. It was a promise we kept. the credit is mine in part, in spite of the hypocrisy of people like you…..All that I want, is ….a tobacconist’s with Jenny….comfortable…without a Jew boy in view, in a town fully thankfull to people like me for all the sacrifices we’ve made.***

Even those that seem to be less murky than others, such as Lode and his father who hide a Jew at great risk to themselves are shown to be doing it for money, Anderlecht was the diamond capital of Europe. As the war comes to an end and Wilfried Wils gets involved in a bloody act of vengeance against one of the worst Jew hunters, disgusting Lode with his violence. All of which comes back to haunt him in a personal tragedy some fifty years later.

This is a book that, far from the binary simplification of good and bad, goes some way to explaining how life might have been under occupation in a town showing no real sympathy to what they considered a migrant population. As Wils says early in the story, no one knew where the Jews were being sent but at the same time they didn’t suppose that it was to a place where they could be integrated into society.

First Published in Dutch as “Wil” in 2016 by Bezige Bij b.v.
Translated into French by Françoise Antoine and published as “Trouble” in 2019 by Stock
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Je sais ce que tout le monde pense: il va tomber et se fracturer la hanche. Il va se trouver dans un lit à saint-Vincent. Et puis s’en sera fini de lui, terrassé qu’il sera par l’une de ces bactéries qu’ils ont le don de cultiver dans les hôpitaux. C’est curieux comme les vieilles personnes se laissent contaminer par la peur des autres. À cause de cette peur, elles se laissent enfermer dans les maisons de repos, se laissent abreuver de fadaises et de bouillies froides, avec une soirée bingo à la con et une Marocaine pendue à leur derrière avec un morceau de papier cul.

En principe, nous devions nous présenter pour recevoir nos ordres, mais quand un Feldfritz gueule, tu t’exécutes. Nous prenons la Pelikaanstraat en direction du sud. Lode et moi marchons derrière les deux Übermenschen en uniforme dans un silence parfait, comme deux enfants punis. Les Allemands ne sont ici que depuis sept mois et c’est comme si la place était à eux depuis des années. La ville s’est couchée, cuisses grandes ouvertes, devant ces surhommes.

Un uniforme de la Waffen-SS se dresse tout à coup à côté de notre table.
Puis-je inviter la demoiselle à m’accompagner sur la piste de danse?
On lève les yeux. Ce n’est pas un Allemand. C’est un gars de chez nous, mais avec des cheveux rasés sur les côtés et les talons qu’il fait claquer l’un contre l’autre, on dirait un presque vrai, comme si cette ville n’était plus bonne que pour y déféquer, et que son corps et son esprit avaient été coulés en Prusse.

Pour toi, c’est un jeu salaud. Mais ce sont des gens comme moi qui paient l’addition. On a réussi à exterminer les juifs de cette ville, ces parasites qui ont infesté notre ville pendant tant d’années sont presque tous partis. C’était une promesse et nous l’avons réalisée.Le mérite m’en revenait en partie, malgré l’hypocrisie de gens comme toi….Tout ce que je veux, c’est.. un tabac avec Jenny…à notre aise…sans un youpin à l’horizon, dans une ville pleine de gratitude à l’égard de gens comme moi pour tous les sacrifices consentis.

Idra Novey ‘Ways to Disappear’

When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeão International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in…Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the sticky sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere. Her cab driver had a body as well, much of it on display beneath his pink muscle shirt, all of it glistening with sweat.

The famous Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda is seen climbing into an almond tree with a suitcase and then dissapears at the beginning of this book by Idris Nova about the author and her young English translator, Emma Neufeld, which although written in English, is set in Brazil and so I am proposing this for the Spanish And Portuguese lit month. Emma having translated all of Beatriz’s works and remembers a prison warden climbing a tree in one of them decides to travel to Brazil and look for her. As always when she arrives the shock to her senses awakens her body as illustrated in the opening quote.

When she comes to Brazil, Emma always stays with Beatriz and this time as she arrives she finds Beatriz’s grown children Raquel and Marcus. Raquel is exasperated to see her and cannot understand why someone who has read everything she has written should presume to know her mother better than her, thinking that it was more important to know what she hadn’t written down. They quickly discover that Beatriz is persued by a loanshark due to an on line gambling habit.

As Emma meets up with the loanshark, quickly painted in a few brush strokes by Idra Novey, she quickly learns that he doesn’t quite understand the meager amount of money in play in translated literature:

Listen, he said to her breasts, fuck the story. You know what I want? I want the six hundred thousand fucking dollars she owes me. Okay? I know she’s broke. So you need to get the damn book from her. Whatever you get for it in your country, half a million is mine, and then I won’t have to kill her.

To underline the translating theme, the book is interspersed with definitions and dry humour examples from the text, such as the one below inspired by the previous quote:

PROMISE: From the late Middle English prom-is. First known use 15th century. 1. A declaration of what a person intends to do, which may correspond to what a person actually does, or may not. 2. A verb used to assure of a certain outcome, as in: With time, a translator gets used to promising the impossible the way a loan shark gets used to promising carnage.

We meet many other characters, including Beatriz’s Brazilian publisher in this successfully humorous book as Emma follows successive leads searching for Beatriz, who cannot afford to be found. A fun book that lived up to its hype (Oh, and Emma and the good looking Marcus….).

First Published in English as “Ways to Dissapear” in 2016 by Daunt Books

Cixin Liu ‘The Three Body Problem’

And your conclusion?
Everything thats happening is coordinated by someone behind the scenes with one goal to completely ruin scientific research.
I dont know, but I can sense the plan. A very comprehensive, intricate plan. damage scientific research installations, kill scientists, drive scientists like you crazy and make you commit suicide, but the main goal is to misdirect your thoughts until you’re even more foolish than ordinary people.

Something is seriously wrong, the worlds top theoretical physicists are commiting suicide and an unlikely duo are brought together, the applied physicist Wang Miao and the rough detective Shi Qiang as Wang Miao is persuaded to infiltrate a mysterious organisation, The Frontiers of Science. One day Wang Miao has a count down which only he can see appear before his eyes, beginning at 1200 hours and nothing he can do will make it disappear, Wang Miao becomes worried and goes to visit Shen Yufei, a member The Frontiers of Science who tells him if he gives up his research and directs his laboratory to work on another problem the count down will stop, he tries this for a few days and it does. Whilst at Shen Yufei’s apartment he notices that She and her Husband are playing a Computer game whose internet address he notes down. Shi Qiang an untypical policeman is brought in by the military to work on the problem of the suicides without being told of the background which he nevertheless begins to intuit as illustrated in the opening quote as he gets Wang Miao back on track.

What is the computer game that the members of the Frontiers of Science are playing owners Wang Miao, The Three Body Problem? the aim is to solve a problem in an imaginary world of a planet and two suns where a civilisation tries to develop but suffers near annihilation at irregular intervals which they cannot predict and which are linked to the movement of the three bodies. The civilisation only survives because they have evolved the capability to dehydrate when the suns come too close (a chaotic era) and to rehydrate again when all is safe. A computer game at many levels as at the end of each chaotic era the rehydrated civilisation, which evolves from era to era, tries to solve the three body problem in order to predict these chaotic eras using known eras and characters from our historical past.

This book is the beginning of a trilogy involving the Trisolariens whose world is about to come to a cataclysmic end and who have been seeking another world. At a secret Chinese deep space listening centre Ye Wenjie, an astrophysicist who had been sent out to this centre at the back of beyond decades earlier during the cultural revolution, emits a message about the Earth and then picks up a first ever message from outer space in return. Will she then reply knowing that with the direction of the message and the time between sending and receiving the Trisloariens would discover Earth.

Liu Cixin then introduces us to Superstring Theory as the Trisolariens propel a proton towards the Earth at the speed of light, a proton you will say can do no damage, Wrong! When unwrapped from up to 11 dimensions down to 2 dimensions it can contain information and commands and can wrap itself around the Earth. For more explanations try fiction unbound.

If you read Science fiction and haven’t yet read Liu Cixin, a nine times winner of the Chinese Galaxy Award and want to know How far do She Hang and Wang Miao get? Do they discover Ye Wenjie? Does anyone suspect what is behind the suicides? and can anything be done? Then get out there and buy it!

First Published in Chinese as “San Ti” by Chongqing Publishing House in 2006.
Translated into English by Ken Liu and published in 2015 by Head of Zeus
Translated into French by Gwennaël Gaffric and published by Actes Sud in 2016

Ota Pavel ‘How I Came To Know Fish’

Fishing is above all freedom. To cover miles looking for trout, drinking from springs, img_1399alone and free for at least an hour, a day, or even weeks or months at a time. Free from television, from radio, from civilisation.***

In this book read for the Roman de Rochefort prize, the author is the narrator, Ota Pavel tells us the story, through this book of more than twenty five chapters, each a short story, of his family’s life in central Europe in the early and mid twentieth century, a story of his father Leo Popper, a larger than life character, a non practising jew, who always had a way to make money, and if he had any he spent it, a real roller coaster of a life  and Ota’s long suffering  mother, a catholic. Leo’s passion in life was fishing and so he “invested” in a country house where they could go on holidays, this was then the beginning of their fishing life. Ota describes the man who taught them to fish, Prosek the poacher:

Prosek had a long, yellow bamboo rod, a whip without a spool. He would walk against the rushing water so that the fish could not see him and crack the whip as he styled his dragoon’s moustache. That is how his method got the name ‘crack-casting.’

His father is best understood in the chapter “In the service of Sweden”, where we learn that Leo, with no training can sell anything to anyone if he is motivated , after taking a shine to the Electrolux Czech bosses wife he becomes the best door to door salesman of fridges and vacuums in the country:

Dad sold four vacuums in Rokycany on the same day, which for a novice was quite an exploit because the people had been attached to their brooms and dust pans for hundreds of years, considering a vacuum at two thousand crowns as a devil’s invention and whatsmore, perfectly useless.***

Amongst the many stories, his father who owns a carp pond has it conviscated by the local mayor when the Nazi’s arrive because of the very technical question, is it possible for a jew to own a carp pond. Leo and his two older sons are sent to Auschwitz but Ota avoids this because he is too young and they had forgotten to have him circumcised. Throughout the war Ota, although young keeps them alive partly from poaching fish until both his father and two brothers against all odds return home after the war to the slow descent of Czechoslovakia during the communist period.

In all honesty to enjoy this book to its full it’s best to like fishing, where, as the opening quote tells us, fishing is about freedom.

First Published in Czech as “Smrt krásných srncu” in 1971.
Translated into English by Jindriska Bdal and Robert McDowell and published in 1990 by Story Line Press
Translated into French by Barbora Faure and published by Editions Do in 2016.
***my translation

The original quotes before translation

La pêche c’est surtout la liberté. Parcourir des kilomètres en quete de truites, boire à l’eau des sources, être seule et libre au moins une heure, un jour, où mêmes des semaines et des mois. Libéré de la télévision, de la radio, de la civilisation.

Prosek avait une longue canne en bambou jaune. Une ligne sans moulinet. Il avançait à contre-courant pour ne pas se faire repérer des poissons en faisant parfois claquer sa ligne et ses moustaches de dragon – il appelait cette technique ‘pêcher à la cravache’

Papa vendit quatre aspirateurs à Rokycany dans la même journée, ce qui était un exploit pour un novice, car les gens étaient attachés depuis des centaines d’années à leurs balais et leurs balayettes, considérant un aspirateur à deux mille couronnes comme une invention du diable et de surcroît parfaitement inutile.

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