Juan José Saer ‘The Witness’

In this already strange situation, the cabin boy faces other adversities. In the absence of women the ambiguity of his juvenile form,05579E62-011E-457F-85DE-B3C45B6AA0CF a product of his incomplete virility, eventually becomes more appreciable. That which the sailors, in other situations good family men, consider repugnant, seems to them, in the course of the sea crossing, as being more and more natural.***

The action of Saer’s novel, read in French,  takes place at the very beginning of the 16th century as a Spanish ship, whilst searching the coast of the Americas for a route through to the Indies, and during a seemingly safe survey of the mouth of a river in smaller boats in what appears to be an uninhabited land, is attacked by a group of Indians. All of the survey party except the cabin boy are killed by the Indians who then run off into the jungle at a sustained pace for a full day, carrying the dead sailors and the cabin boy before reaching their village where the dead are cut up, roasted and eaten, followed by several days of drinking to excess (several people die) and then orgies, all of this witnessed by the cabin boy. He then repeatedly, once a year over the time of his stay, re-lives similar events, as hunting parties return with dead captives and a witness before once again repeating the canabalistic events. These witnesses seem to accept and understand what is happening to them and are soon after sent back into the jungle in canoes full of food. He is kept 10 years by the Indians, he has nowhere to go back to, and then one day without warning he is sent of in a canoe and soon after comes across Spanish ships, where it soon becomes clear that he has forgotten his mother tongue:

To calm them I began to tell them my story but as the story advanced, I could see the sense of wonderment growing on their faces until, after a moment, I realised that I was speaking in the Indians language. I tried then to speak in my mother tongue, realising then that I had forgotten it.***

Years later towards the end of his life, the now aged witness writes about these events and his later life in an attempt to analyse and understand what had happened to him. This story follows the outline of others, such as The Legend of Tarzan and the double shock of being brought up in another world and then rediscovering ones own “civilised” world and seeing it through new eyes

Were the orgies of the Indians, described in some detail, any worse than his experiences as a cabin boy? Was the sense of belonging to a community such as the Indians not better than his treatment as an orphan in Europe? The narrator then joins a travelling theatre group to tell his story to packed audiences throughout Spain, but he realises that the people did not want to know what really happened, they wanted confirmation of their own ideas and prejudices.

On to the crux of the matter, why he was left alive and what was the role of the witnesses? This is the point that pushes him to write and maybe towards the end pushes us to continue. This was not an easy read, there is a certain amount of repetition and to be fair I was reading Antonio Muñoz Molina in parallel and how can you compete with the beauty of his writing (and excellent translation).


First Published in Spanish as  “El Entenado” in 1983 by Folios Ediciones.
Translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa as “The Witness” and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2009
Translated into French by Laure Bataillon as “L’Ancêtre” and published by Flammarion in 1987
*** My translation


Christopher J. Yates ‘Grist Mill Road’

“For years I was obsessed with Japan because I considered it the strangest place827AB891-A08F-4261-8F3D-21964701E469 I could visit that didn’t require space travel. Then again, I had not, until my early twenties, experienced New Jersey.”

Grist Mill road is a psychological thriller set in the present but based on events taken place years before as the main protagonists were young adolescents. This is a thriller told individually by the three characters and follows the outline of the unreliable narrator whose descriptions of these past events seems entirely believable but in retrospect incomplete, the why of the matter being avoided.

So in 2008 and in turn, Patch then Hannah and finally Mathew tell us of the events that occurred in upstate New York back in 1982 when, as Patch tells us that at the age of 12, he and his slightly older friend Mathew take Hannah out into the country where they have played all summer and whilst Patch, as Mathew asks him, goes away to count to one hundred, but secretly watches, Mathew ties Hannah to a tree and shoots one of her eyes out with an air rifle:

I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh, and each time he hit her she screamed. Do the math and the whole thing probably went on for as long as ten minutes. I just stood there and watched.

Flash forward to 2008, Patch has recently got together and is living together with Hannah as Mathew seems to reappear in their lives pushing them to bring old memories to the surface and we are brought to re-examine and to see the same story we have been told, of the evil Mathew, the innocent Hannah and the voyeur Patch through different eyes, we learn more about them at that time, Hannah coming from a rich family, Mathew has a drunken abusive father and Patch’s father is a small time but ambitious local politician and of maybe more nuanced events, as the story rushes towards its troubled climax.

First published in English as ‘Grist Mill Road‘ by Picador in 2017

Edward Louis ´En Finir avec Eddy Bellegeule’

-In our village it wasn’t enough to be known to have been hard, you had to be able to make your son a hard case too. A father reinforced his masculinity through his sons,image to whom he had to transmit the values of virility, and my father would do I it, he was going to make me a hard case too.***

Now this was a difficult book to write up, I’ve been sat on it for five months now not really sure how to go forward and the I came across a blog article by Francilien based on an interview given by Edward Louis. I would suggest you check this out, I follow on here with a quote from this blog to put this book in perspective:

-Much of Louis’s work is influenced by the French sociologue Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on symbolic power. I’m not yet familiar with the body of Bourdieu’s work, but the conversation revolved around how Louis’s novels affirm the existence of symbolic power while simultaneously having the protagonist–Louis himself–diverge from this theory.
Symbolic power is basically the perpetuation of social violences by a group of people who have the claim to cultural–and thus political and economic–capital. “The question of political action, for the people with whom I grew up, was firstly a question of body.

The opening quote explains a little of the world into which the character Eddy was born. This book and the characters are a very thinly disguised version of the author’s own life, Eddy is born in an industrial village in the countryside in Picardy in the north of France, an English parallel could be an industrial village in Wiltshire or Somerset. From twelve years on school results were of no importance, to survive socially a boy had to be hard, take no nonsense, and going into school each day or not, you would still end up living in the village.

-Violence wasn’t unusual for me, far from that. I’d always, as long as I could remember, seen my father drunk, in fights leaving the café with other men as drunk as him, smashing their noses or their teeth. Men that had looked too pointedly at my mother, and my farher under the influence, who said threateningly who do you think you are looking at my wife like that you filthy bastard. My mother who tried to calm him down -darling calm yourself- but whose efforts were ignored. My father’s mates, who eventually ended up intervening, that was the rule, that was being a true mate, a good friend, diving in to separate my father and the other man, the victim of his drunkeness, with his face covered in cuts and bruises.***

From the outset Eddy would need to work double hard to gain respect, after all his name was “Bellegeule” that is Pretty Face in English. But there was another problem from the outset:

-Very quickly I spoilt my father’s hopes and dreams. From the first months of my life my problem was diagnosed. It would seem that I was born this way, no one understood the origin, the cause, where that unknown force came from that took me over from birth, that made me a prisoner of my own body. When I started to express myself, to learn to speak, my voice spontaneously took on a feminine tone. It was higher than that of other boys. Each time I spoke my hands moved wildly, all over the place, twisting and flapping. My parents called that  putting on airs, they said stop it with your airs. They asked themselves why Eddy  was carrying on like a sissy. They told me: Calm down, can’t you stop making those exaggerated movements like a queer. They thought that I had chosen to be effeminate, like a personal aesthetic that I had chosen just to upset them.***

Edward Louis in this book takes us through his early life, his surroundings and his family in painful detail until he can finally get away from his village and begin to construct his own life, for me there is an overwhelming feeling of bitterness behind this book and I wonder how he himself will feel, not about the sociological detail, but about the lack of forgiveness in the fullness of time.

First published in French as ‘En Finir ave Eddy Bellegeule’ by Editions du Seuil in 2014
*** My translation

Alain Mabanckou ‘Black Bazaar’

imageMy French reading for the year has begun outside of my reading list with Alain Mabanckou’s 2009 novel Black Bazaar.

This is a rambling book about an African from the Republic of Congo and his everyday life in the expat community in the north of Paris.

After a meeting with Louis-Philippe, a Haitian expat, he decides to write about his life and so we discover this community that vibrates to Congolese music, where wind instruments, unlike Jazz, were abandoned years ago. Everyone in the book has a colourful nickname, and most can’t be easy to translate. The writer is known by his friends as the ‘Fessologue’ or Ass Studier, translated as the Buttologist. The title of his book Black Bazaar comes from the black community in Paris with bazaar, meaning mess, in French.

The book begins after Fessologue has been abandoned by his wife ‘Couleur d’origine’ original colour, who was born in France but is blacker than the expats born in Africa.

‘So there is nothing left to tell you that a woman and a child lived with me in this room, except maybe the shoe that my woman forgot probably due to the rush. That day she must have told herself that I could come back at any time and catch her collecting together all of her belongings whereas I was Enjoying my Pelforth at the Gips and if I found that shoe it’s a little thanks to Paul from the Larger Congo, who said to me whilst we were drinking that when a woman leaves you then you should change the position of your bed to underline that the relationship is over.’***

The book is a meandering story describing the writers life through his friends and his encounters as he makes the journey from writing to being a writer. Most of the Africans painted in the book have strong views about subjects that touch them , such as Yves one of the writers drinking pals

‘Yves from the Ivory Coast once again brought up the subject of the colonial debt you should have taken a métis, you haven’t understood anything about this country despite my trying to explain Urbi et Orbi that the most urgent problem for we negroes is to snatch an indemnity from them here and now for what we were submitted to during the colonisation… The equation is simple friend, the more we go out with French girls, the more we contribute to leaving our trace in this country, to be able to let our old colonisers know that we are still here, that in tomorrow’s world there will be negroes at every crossroads, negroes who will be French like them whether they like it or not.’

Or the Arab who owns the corner shop and speaks about Pan Africanism, respect and who knows everyone in the neighbourhood, or Mr. Hippocrate a French west indian who considers himself above the Africans, used by Mabanckou to illustrate base racism and who defends colonisation as a generous act.

This was a light colourful book worth the detour.

First Published in French as “Black Bazaar” by Éditions du Seuil in 2009
Translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone and published as “Black Bazaar” by Serpents Tail in 2012
***My translation

Heinrich Steinfest ‘Die Feine Nase der Lilli Steinbeck’

This book is the first of my 2016 German lit target.

Heinrich Steinfest is an Austrian Crime novel writer who is a multiple winner of the Deutscher Krimi-Preis

This book written in 2007 begins with a peculiar kidnapping, the victim, Stransky, who lets himself be kidnapped, turns out to be the eighth of ten pawns in an elaborate game, organised by a neutral referee, between two teams with the the life of the pawn in play. The pawn is always a German who has worked in Athens. IMG_0010

“A neutral referee, let’s say. Someone whose role consists of organising the kidnapping, without emotion but not without fantasy, and transporting the victim to his starting point….And then the referee withdraws leaving the man alone”***

one team tries to bring the man home whereas the opposing team tries to kill him. Police inspector Lili Steinbeck, when investigating Stransky’s mysterious disappearance, then finds herself confronted with this well oiled routine.

Steinfest’s dry humour is very particular, and most of the people presented in the story are caricatures, it could almost be a cartoon book story. Take for instance the French leader of the team trying to kill Stransky, summed up in the following quote

“…..Greenpeace’s best moments. We can safely say that Desprez publicly condemned these people : crusaders, but far too hypocritical to admit it, preferring to present themselves to the world as saviours. If the whales hadn’t existed they would have protected three legged tables. But whales, of course, were better. They couldn’t answer back, they couldn’t protest either against their own massacre or against the people, too bored to stay at home, that instrumentalised them. That was Deprez’s opinion, full of the latent hate of the French towards Greenpeace.”***

We are presented with two opposites, the very rich people who run the game, shaping the world to their wishes and the very direct Lilli Steinbeck illustrated by the following quote.

“I took in on myself to repatriate your colleague, M. Kallimachos. He is at present my house guest.
What? Of his own free will?
It could be said that to want to is to be able to. The opposite could also be said that when one can then one does not need to want to. There is then no longer a question of free will.
So you’ve kidnapped Kallimachos then?”***

Does Lilli Steinbeck save Stransky? Well you will just have to read the book (In German or French, not yet translated into English). Against my initial leanings I did finish the book and if you like a mix of fantasy and crime, you may become part of Heinrich Steinfest’s cult-like following. I on the other hand am glad I read this book but will probably not read any others.

First Published in German as “Die Feine Nase Der Lilli Steinbeck” by Piper Verlag in 2007
Translated into French by Corinna Gepner and published as “Le Onzième Pion” by Carnets Nord in 2012
***My translation

Marc Dugain ‘Avenue of the Giants

As this thriller begins, we learn that the narrator is Al Kenner an adolescent at the outset of over seven feet tall,imageKenner takes us quickly through his oppressive family life as an unwanted child until he winds up at his grand parents farm, the first defining moment of his life when he delivers this matter of fact description.

“My grandmother was always yelling…I heard the old woman’s voice…even in the great out doors I felt enclosed…at about a hundred meters from the house I caught sight of my grandmothers outline, the old woman was just in front of her bedroom window with her back to me to avoid having the sun in her eyes….I walked towards her, my head more or less empty, I felt annoyed at seeing her again but no more, There were only twenty meters between us, she must have heard the sound of my boots on the dry earth but she didn’t turn around, I said to myself turn around, go on turn around! Why I wanted her to turn I didn’t know, the only thing that crossed my mind at the time was that I wondered what it would be like to kill your grandmother, it was the sort of outlandish idea an adolescent would have, except that normally they wouldn’t do it, when I got to say ten meters, I armed my Winch….I shouldered and then shot her in the neck….she was certainly dead, I didn’t hate her so much as I would want to see her suffer so I shot two bullets into her back near her heart”***

Al Kenner’s story is a mixture of fact and mostly fiction based on Edmund Keeper the ‘Co-ed Killer’, we learn that he is narrating his life story whilst yet again in a psychiatric hospital. After killing his grandparents on the the day president Kennedy was assassinated he had served a first five year term where, during his discussions with the psychiatrist, he discusses his initial actions before being declared sound of mind and being released to his mother

“for our first session he (Leitner) established the rules, he asked if I knew how to play chess, my grandfather taught me the basics and I had rewarded him by firing one bullet into his back and another in the back of the head….he made an exception to the rules and asked me if I felt any empathy towards him (my grandfather) explaining that empathy meant putting oneself if the others position…the question surprised me, how could I put myself in his place? How can you put yourself in a dead man’s position, a tenth of a second before the shot, he’s an old bloke getting the shopping out of the boot of his break….a tenth of a second (later) he’s nothing, dead, so I asked Leitner where was the place for empathy in this?”***

As the story advances Dugain manages to persuade us through Kenner’s prose that he has recovered and is an intelligent character with a real capability to earn people’s trust, we as readers, don’t want to believe the clues that accumulate before our eyes as his triple life unfolds.

He becomes friends with the Santa Cruz police chief and his daughter, helping him build a psychological profile of a serial killer and being asked to find missing teenage girls (at the end of the sixties it was not uncommon for youths to take off to hippy communes or farms). This conversation with the police chief’s daughter tells us about his state of mind.

“When are we getting married Al? What about in two months time?….as she went she turned to wave to me, I was relieved to be alone, as I watched her floating off in her blue dress, I wished she’d disappear, evaporate, that we’d never met.”***

At the same time he is is living with his alcoholic and verbally abusive mother who tells him

” The worst thing that could happen to me Al, is that you have a child, I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that proliferation of evil.”***

Thirdly he is investigating the hippy culture, picking up hitch-hikers to better understand them but his killing instincts are never far from the surface as he analyses this meeting with one hiker

“But that wish to kill was one of those that you never carry out, she sensed that I wanted to, that I was capable of it, and she delighted in it because she had no wish to hang on to her miserable life, the man that wanted to kill but didn’t dare, the woman who wanted to die without daring to***”

The book then races to its inevitable end.
You may not not have heard of it or read it, but go out and buy it now!

Published in French as “Avenue des Géants” by Gallimard in 2013
Translated into English by Howard Curtis and published as “The Avenue of The Giants” by Europa Editions in 2014
***My translation

Michael Köhlmeier ‘Two Gentlemen on the Beach’

Michael Köhlmeier artfully mixes fact and fiction in this comparative life of Churchill and Chaplin, tying them together by their dark secret, depression.image

Two Gentlemen on the Beach is my last post for the fifth German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.

Chaplin and Churchill meet at a party given in California and Churchill immediately recognises the depressed state of Chaplin and proposes to him that they walk a little along the beach where they discover a strong empathy toward each other and discover amongst other things that

“they shared Nietzche’s opinion that the very idea of suicide was a strong comforter which helped them over many a difficult night”.***

Chaplin explains during this walk that

“I suddenly saw myself as a man moving forward as best as I could over the last twenty eight years launching thousands of projects just not to hang myself from the first tree or jump from the nearest bridge or even buy a revolver”***

Churchill in turn explains that when Samuel Johnson described his own illness which he called the Black Dog, Churchill recognised himself in the description. There and then they agree that wherever they are or whenever they are called they will hurry to the other to save him from the Black Dog. So begins the book.

Köhlmeier uses the correspondence between the narrators father and William Knott a “« very private Private Secretary to a very prime Prime Minister » ” as his source of material for the book. The narrators father had met Chaplin as a child when Chaplin had visited his town’s school for clowns and later wondered if the man accompanying him for the visit was not Churchill who had been in Germany on a family holiday at the time.

The story takes us through key events for each of the protagonists at the time leading to meetings in L.A., New York, London and Biarritz, events such as the first talking movie and Churchill’s being run over in New York. The story naturally funnels towards the war years with an initial discovery

“Chaplin relates that an English statesman had told him that at the beginning of the 1930’s, a friend of Hitler’s had told him that Hitler had been tempted to commit suicide when he was six years old. Chaplin then answered his friend – I quote : “Winston, unfortunately we can’t choose the members of our club.””***

Both Churchill and Chaplin had to struggle to be able to fight against Hitler with their respective arms,

“Charlie playing two roles, that was the idea of genius behind the film –Charlie as the ridiculous dictator and, at the same time, as the Jewish barber, that was the blow dealt to the monster. One man hit back as hard, but not with the weapons of a clown: Winston Churchill.”***

Finally we learn the true role of William Knott, but I will leave that to you!

First published in German as Zwei  Herren an Strand by Hanser Verlag in 2014
Translated into French by Stéphanie Lux as Deux Messieurs sur la Plage and published by Actes Sud in 2015
Translated into English by Ruth Martin as Two Gentlemen on the Beach and to be published by Haus Publishing in 2016
*** my translation