Abdulrazak Gurnah ‘Paradise’

They were met by a young man called Khalil who came rushing out of the shop at the front of the bungalow with garrulous cries of welcome. He kissed Uncle Aziz’s hand reverently, and would have kissed it again and again if Uncle Aziz had not pulled his hand away in the end. He said something irritably, and Khalil stood silently in front of him, his hands clasped together as he struggled to restrain himself from reaching for Uncle Aziz’s hand. They exchanged greetings and news in Arabic while Yusuf looked on.

This book, read for the Roman de Rochefort and written by the Nobel prize winner Gurnah tells us a story of East Africa at a pivotal moment. The arrival of the European powers and their modern weapons, forcing the locals under their rule, and the effects of this on the trade of the Arabs. In this precise case, of Aziz who lives from the age old trade with the interior of the continent, and who provides work and wealth for the villagers around him. The changes in the balance of power force the traders to take greater risks to find new sources of ivory and animal skins deeper in the continent.

‘There wasn’t much longer to wait. After Amir Pasha came Prinzi, the German commander, and he made war at once and killed the sultan and his children and any of his people that he could find. He placed the Arabs under his heel at first the chased them away. The foreigner ground them down so thoroughly that they could not even force their slaves to work on their farms anymore.’

Aziz as a money lender, living on the coast, when he cannot be repaid accepts if necessary people, usually children from the villages in the countryside. At the start of this story “uncle” Aziz comes away from a village with the young Yussuf who does not understand that he has been ceded to Aziz by his parents, illustrated by his arrival at the walls of Aziz’s villa.

This book then describes the voyages of Aziz and his caravan in the hinterlands the people they meet and the risks they take. It also shows the inner power of Aziz and his standing up against these people.

The air was sharp under the mountain, and the light had a purple tint which Yusuf had never seen before….Behind the mountain, he was told by the others who had been here before, lived the dusty warrior people who herded cattle and drank the blood of their animals. They thought war honourable and were proud of their history of violence. The greatness of their leaders was measured by the animals they had acquired from raiding their neighbours, and by the number of women they had abducted from their homes.

Abdulrazak Gurnah manages to recreate a time, the pressure and the people and persuade us of their reality.

First Published in French by Gallimard in 2023.

The quotes as read in French before translation

Un jeune homme sortit précipitamment de la boutique qui se trouvait sur le devant de la maison, et vint à leur rencontre avec des protestations volubiles de bienvenue. Il baisa la main d’oncle Aziz, et aurait continué indéfiniment since dernier ne l’avait retirée en prononçant quelques mots d’un ton irrité: « Assez, Khalil ! » Khalil resta immobile, serrant ses mains l’une contre l’autre comme pour se retenir de saisir encore celle de son maître.

« Peu de temps après le départ d’Amir Pacha est arrivé Prinzi, le commandant allemand; il a livré bataille au sultan, l’a tué lui, ses enfants et les membres de sa famille. Les Arabes ont été contraints de se soumettre, et humiliés à un tel point qu’ils ne pouvaient plus forcer leurs esclaves à travailler dans les champs.’

L’air était vif sur la montagne, et la lumière avait un reflet violet que Yusuf n’avait pas vu auparavant….Derrière la montagne, d’après ceux qui y étaient déjà allés, vivaient des guerriers qui élevaient du bétail et buvaient le sang de leurs animaux. Ils pensaient que la guerre était honorable, et étaient fiers de leur passé de violence. Le mérite des chefs était évalué d’après le nombre d’animaux qu’ils avaient capturés au cours de razzias chez leurs voisins, et de femmes qu’ils avaient enlevées.

Didier van Cauwelaert ‘Un aller simple’

“I started in life as a child found by accident. Stolen with a car as it happens. An Ami 6 of Citroën heritage. So they called me Ami 6 so as not to forget. Well these are my origins so to speak. As time went on they shortened it to Aziz.”***

After my mother in law died, I picked up a few of her books, this one ‘One Way’, priced at 89,00F from 1994, it’s going back a bit but I think I may have bought if for her. Incidentally it won the Prix Goncourt that year.

Aziz Kemal (see the opening quote), brought up in Marseilles by gypsies that found him in a car they’d stolen, had no identity papers, nothing new there, where he was brought up nobody did, but nobody got caught, except this time Aziz did, and at his own wedding.

Aziz is then expelled to Morocco, back then they imagined he would be accompanied by a cultural attaché to help him reintegrate Morocco. (Bless them, no flights to Rwanda for processing back then!) Except of course neither he nor the attaché had ever been to Morocco.

When pushed by Jean-Pierre Schneider, the young attaché about where he comes from, he makes up a story about a village in a secret valley, Irghiz and so begins their journey.

Must say I enjoyed this book, are they both looking for something, besides this non existant village? Well of course they are.

First Published in french as “Un aller Simple” in 1984, by Albin Michel

Translated into English by Mark Polizzotti and published in 2003 by Other Press

***My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

J’ai commencé dans la vie comme enfant trouvé par erreur. Volé avec la voiture, en fait. Une Ami 6 de race Citroën. Alors on m’a appelé Ami 6 en souvenir. Ce sont mes origines, quoi. Avec le temps, pour aller plus vite, c’est devenu Aziz.

Britt Benett ‘The Vanishing Half

Sometimes she wondered if Miss Vignes was a separate person altogether. Maybe she wasn’t a mask that Stella put on. Maybe Miss Vignes was already a part of her, as if she had been split in half. She could become whichever woman she decided, whichever side of her face she tilted to the light.

This book, my sixth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021 is an exploration of  possibilities and of contradictions, a story of  identical twins, the Vignes girls, Stella and  Desiree, born in the late 30s in Mallard. Mallard, a town founded in 1848 by Alphonse Decuir for “men like him, who would never be accpted as white but refused to be treated like negroes. A third place.” Whiteness was held as an ideal and blackness to be avoided, so several generations later the twins could have been “mistaken” for white. The girls, inseparable, at sixteen run away to New Orleans, living together in a black neighbourhood when one day without warning Stella dissapears, faced with the dilema illustrated in the openinq quote, she has decided to “pass over”. And from here on in, the twins diverge into two different lives.

The girls had maybe been closer than twins would normally be, having as young children hidden and watched their father being hung by white men as related by Willie Lee.

Leon couldn’t have written that note—the white men must have been angered over something else and who could understand their rages? Willie Lee heard that the white men were angry that Leon stole their business by underbidding them. But how could you shoot a man for accepting less than what you asked for? “White folks kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little.” Willie Lee shook his head, packing tobacco into his pipe. “You gotta follow they rules but they change ’em when they feel. Devilish, you ask me.”

For Stella to survive as “white”, no one must suspect her. She cuts out all contact with the black world, growing into her role as a housewife in the sixties and seventies, living through loneliness and boredom, as her husband Blake says:

“I understand, Stella, I do. You’re lonely. That’s right, isn’t it? You never wanted to move to Los Angeles in the first place and now you’re lonely as all hell. And Kennedy’s getting older. So you probably . . . well, you should take a class or something. Something you’ve always wanted to do. Like learn Italian or make pottery. We’ll find you something good to do, Stel. Don’t worry.”

But what happens with the next generation? Kennedy, her daughter who at the cusp of adulthood has no idea of her mother’s secret.

Remember The Persuaders with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis? Two such different lives. Desiree feels as though a part of her has been cut away when Stella dissappears, she has a child in New Orleans and eventually leaves the man and moves back home to Mallard fourteen years after leaving:

The morning one of the lost twins returned to Mallard, Lou LeBon ran to the diner to break the news, and even now, many years later, everyone remembers the shock of sweaty Lou pushing through the glass doors, chest heaving, neckline darkened with his own effort. The barely awake customers clamored around him, ten or so, although more would lie and say that they’d been there too, if only to pretend that this once, they’d witnessed something truly exciting. In that little farm town, nothing surprising ever happened, not since the Vignes twins had disappeared. But that morning in April 1968, on his way to work, Lou spotted Desiree Vignes walking along Partridge Road, carrying a small leather suitcase. She looked exactly the same as when she’d left at sixteen-still light, her skin the color of sand barely wet. Her hipless body reminding him of a branch caught in a strong breeze. She was hurrying, her head bent, and-Lou paused here, a bit of a showman-she was holding the hand of a girl, eight or so, and black as tar.
“Blueblack,” he said. “Like she flown direct from Africa.”

Years later working in Los Angeles Jude Winston, serving drinks at a rich persons party sees her mother Desiree, but it can’t be, yes coincidence brings her to Stella who refuses to acknowledge her. Eventually then “black as tar” Jude meets Kennedy and a whole new generation in a whole new world, the 80’s, and Kennedy must come to terms with her familly’s story.

I found this a truely fascinating and well written book, and had never heard of “passing over”.

First Published in English as “The Vanishing Half” in 2020 by Dialogue Books
Translated into french by Anne Plantagenet and published as “L’autre moitié de soi” by Autrement in 2020.

The quotes in French.

Parfois, elle se demadait si Mlle Vignes n’était pas une personne à part entière, un double qui avait toujours fait partie d’elle. Elle pouvait être l’une ou l’autre, en fonction du profil qu’elle offrait à la lumière.

Leon ne pouvait pas avoir écrit ce message; la colère des Blancs devait venir d’autre chose, mais pourquoi un telle rage? Willie Lee, le boucher, avait entendu qu’ils reprochaient à Leon de casser les prix et de leur voler leur travail. Mais comment pouvait-on abattre un homme juste parce qu’il acceptait moins que ce qu’on demandait?
“Les Blancs te tuent si t’en veut trop, ils te tuent si t’en veut pas assez, soupira Willie Lee en bourrant sa pipe. T’es censé suivre leurs règles, sauf qu’ils les changent quand ça leur chante. C’est vicelard.”

“Je comprends, Stella. Sincèrement. Tu te sens seule. C’est cela? Tu ne voulais pas partir à Los Angeles et tu sens terriblement seule. Sans parler de Kennedy qui grandit. Alors, tu dois sans doute…Tu sais ce que tu devrais faire? T’inscrire à un cours. Faire quelque chose dont tu as toujours rêvé. Apprendre l’italien, faire de la poterie, ce que tu veux. on trouvera, Stel. Ne t’inquiète pas.”

Le matin où l’une des jumelles disparues revint à Mallard, Lou LeBon se précipita au diner pour annoncer la nouvelle et, aujourd’hui encore, des années plus tard, tout le monde se souvient du tollé qu’il provoqua lorsqu’il franchit les portes vitrées, en nage, la poitrine palpitante et le cou assombri par l’effort. Les clients mal réveillés braillaient autour de lui — une dizaine, même si, par la suite, ils seraient plus nombreux à prétendre avoir été présents, ne serait-ce que pour pouvoir dire qu’ils avaient été, au moins une fois dans leur vie, témoins d’un événement vraiment excitant. Dans cette petite localité rurale, il ne se passait jamais rien qui sortait de l’ordinaire. Le dernier fait notable était justement la disparition des jumelles Vignes, et ça remontait à plus de quinze an. Ce matin d’avril 1968, donc, comme il se rendait au travail, Lou avait aperçu Desiree Vignes qui marchait le long de Partridge Road, une petite valise de cuir à la main. Elle était la même que lorsqu’elle était partie à seize ans: le teint clair, couleur sable légèrement humide. Avec son corps sans hanches, elle lui faisait penser à une branche battue par un vent violent. Elle se hâtait, la tête courbée, et — ménageant son effet, Lou marqua une pause à cet endroit — elle tenait la menotte d’une fille de sept ou huit ans, noir comme le goudron.
“Noir-bleu, précisa-t-il. On aurait dit qu’elle débarquait d’Afrique.”

Quai du Polar 2021: And The Winner Is…

Quai du Polar 2021: So here we are, with the event delayed until July this year,7f4889a0-23d1-4f38-b05c-ddb85d1ae29a I’ve had ample time to read all six of the short listed thrillers, and I must say that I needed the extra time, you’ll find out why. Here then is my “official” Winner. Let’s see if the event jury get it right on the 4th of July……………

Hannelore Cayre “Richesse Oblige”. An interesting book from a historical perspective.

Joseph Incardona “La soustraction des possibles”. This complex story, its construction, and the slightly sarcastic style combine to make this a most enjoyable book.

Gabrielle Massat “Le goût du rouge à lèvre de ma mère”. This was a long book, and pretty improbable, setting it in San Francisco seems to me to be an over complication.

Sébastien Rutés “Mictlán”. I had read a comment of despair about this before hand and can safely now say I share this despair, I needed two months to get over it.

Benoît Séverac “Tuer le fils”. An honest story, just not my cup of tea.

Patrice Gain “Le Sourire du scorpion”. This uncomfortable story is based on the true life events of a genocidal criminal arrested in Lyon in 2011.

And finally, I’ve gone with:
Joseph Incardona “La soustraction des possibles” (Éditions Finitude).

Sites to visit linked to this proud going ahead now just 3 months late.
Emma, Marina-Sofia and the official event site Quai du Polar


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!!

A Wave of Apathy

The coronavirus is an easy scapegoat, since the UK brought back the quarantine and France reciprocated, holiday plans were thrown into limbo, second wave and tuti quanti. Haven’t been able to see my parents, daughter and grandchildren for a year.

So yes a wave of apathy has submerged my blogging, but now I am resurfacing and should probably admit to myself that from time to time my output flags. So before I get hit by the second wave of apathy time to start again.

Are you ready…… Don’t all answer at once.

Joël Dicker ‘The Mystery of Room 622’

Macaire was a man who would never hurt her, always cares for her, always ready to bend over backwards for her. Men who bend over backwards are men that are conquered and passion doesn’t last after conquest. Now what she needed was passion.***

After the East coast of America Joel Dicker brings us back to Switzerland, where he tells us a story of bankers and the fight for succession at a private investment bank, the Ebezner Bank, whilst in parallel developing for us his views on story telling and a eulogy to his late editor Bernard de Fallois as he, the writer, tracks down the tale. For Joel in the book, a story begins with an enigma which can then be explored.

Here as Joel feels alone, he decides to take a few days in the mountains in a hotel that Bernard de Fallois used to use, the Palace de Verbier in the story, and as he goes to his room on the sixth floor he noticed that there is a gap in the room numbering and that there is no room 622, but why? From this enigma he develops a story where we understand that a good story does not need verisimilitude to succeed, the characters and their interactions suffice.

He tells us the story of Macaire Ebezner, a mediocre banker who would have been next inline to be president of the family bank had his own father not changed the rules before his death, calling for a board vote, of Macaire’s wife illustrated in the opening quote who is secretly in love with his successful rival Lev Levovitch and of Tornogol the rich Russian oligarch who, thanks to Macaire, and to his late father’s displeasure leading to the change in the rules of succession, has a seat on the board.

No one is who they seem as we discover mystery after mystery, toxic mothers, jealous fathers and mediocre bankers. The tension builds up to the banks annual get together at the Palace de Verbier where the new president is to be announced and the events in room 622.

This book has had mixed write ups but I confess the suspension of reality worked for me, larger than life but fun.

First Published in French as “I’énigme de la chambre 622″ by de Fallois in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Macaire était un homme qui ne lui ferait jamais de mal, toujours au petits soins pour elle, à se plier en quatre pour elle. Les hommes qui se plie en quatre ce sont des hommes conquits et la passion ne survit pas à la conquête. Aujourd’hui elle avait besoin de passion

Shokoofeh Azar ‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree”: In order of reading book number 4.

As I was exiting the house mum repeated one of her favourite sayings, “I don’t care if people’s lives are divided into before Nowruz and after Nowruz, or before the revolution and after the revolution, in my family it’s divided into before the Arab invasion and after the Arab invasion.” After that event mum always said Arab invasion, not fire or burning, she still wants to make the point that they came and burnt, plundered and killed just like 1400 years ago.

This powerful book about the decades following the Iranian revolution, the “Arab invasion” of the opening quote is told to us in this very personal view of events, by Shokoofeh Azar, from her new home in Australia and not from Iran, of course. Azar chooses to tell the story of one age-old family, of Hushang and his wife, and of their children, Sohrab, Beeta and the young narrator Bahar, and how their family tree ended.

This was a cultured Persian family who watched as Khomeni swept away the Shah and civil society to replace it by his  oppresive regime, they leave Teheran for a village, Razan, lost and forgotten far from the cities after a group of revolutionaries filled with hate arrive at their home:

I died the day inflamed revolutionaries boiling with revolutionary hatred and fervour poured into our house in Teheranpars and making strange noises cried out God is great, God is great, they stormed dad’s basement workshop and after, pouring kerosene on all his handmade tars and books and mulberry wood, set them alight. I was just 13 years old and was down there practising tar when they savagely attacked, I crawled under the table paralysed by fear. I saw with my own eyes how they splashed petrol everywhere and threw the lighter.

As the ghost of Beeta tells us, through stories interspersed with dreams and Zoroastrian folklore, there was no escape even in their backwater. She tells us through the arrest, torture and death of Sohrab of the price the population was made to pay for this revolution:

There was no news from Sohrab because he was waiting, he was waiting for the executions to end. They did end, some say it was september 22nd 1988, and some say it was later, either way they eventually came to an end. 5000 men and women, young and old, whose only crime had been their political or religious beliefs, were killed in the prisons of Teheran, Kharaj Mashhad and other cities. Once they had all finally died and their corpses had fed the crows and stray dogs in the dessert they didn’t sit idle, they set off, the ghosts of 5000 political and religious prisoners rose up from the cities deserts and from around Teheran and Havaran and looked at their smelly maggot infested body parts strewn around and carried in all directions in the mouths of crows and dogs, they set off with a common loathing, they wanted to see their murderer’s face up close. They could have appeared instantly in Khomeni’s bedroom the man who had signed their execution orders.

She tells of the revolutionary guards come to Razan to forcibly conscript all of the men to fight in the war against Iraq, of the sorrow of the mothers as none of them came back and of the contempt of the regime that gave them no news until the martyr foundation one day, with no warning, drove into the village with bronze plaques for them, the Black Snow in the quote refers to an actual event as in 1991 the Kuwaiti oil fields burned, black snow fell on mountainous regions:

The mothers thought that if we die they call our lone defenceless children orphans, but when our children die nobody calls us lone defenceless mothers. It was thus that they began calling themselves orphan mothers, mothers who had been orphaned by their children. Just as the happless arrival of the martyr foundation employees was beginning to fade from its memory, Rasan’s seemingly calm and beautiful heart suddenly stood still when it found itself the sudden home to a large graveyard, a graveyard the breadth of memories hopes and dreams, a graveyard the length of the past present and future. in the days and months after the storm of the black snow and the end of the war there was no news from veteran soldiers and nobody came from the provincial capital or Teheran to help the inhabitants of Rasan or even remembered their existence.

Late in the book, as Hushang, a bystander, is arrested on the margins of a demonstration and is then forced to write his story as a confession, there is a moment which reminded me of “The Life of Pi”, when the choice between the real story and a romanced version is presented.

This was a very personal story which also gives insight into how criminal regimes self perpetuate. Give those actually doing the dirty work more to lose by the fall of the regime than its perpetuation. This is of course a fiction, told in poetic language which contrasts with its backgroung setting.

First Published in Farsi.
Translated into english by Adrien Kijek and published as “The Enlightenmet of the Greengage Tree” by Wild Dingo Press in 2017

Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz comment 4

Readalong with Caroline.

As the story moves on and it starts to get nasty its back to business school:

“Croc, codeine tablets cooked up with Formic acid and match heads is meth’s cousin from hell, dead in six months… with meth you can hold it together for years, Croc kills quickly, it doesn’t quite fit the business model”