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 poulation 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”

Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz comment 3

Readalong with Caroline.

Well, Chastity’s got out of Hamburg for the day, I get to feeling that Leipzig really isn’t like Hamburg, that said I’ve never been to Leipzig, I like the nail scissors.

“Leipzig looks like any other medium sized German city, only a bit better, tidy in a Bavarian kind of way pretty, old, picture book, listed buildings everywhere, we come to a tree lined square that looks like it was smartened up with nail scissors.”

Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz comment 2

Readalong with Caroline.

“Then they whip the coshes out from under their jackets. Three jackets, three coshes. Left leg, right leg. Left arm, right arm. And six feet for twelve pairs of ribs. Your very own many-headed demon. Tailor-made to order. Then out come the pliers. Right index finger. A clean crack. But you’re left-handed; they don’t know everything.”

Well as I skipped through the opening chapter and the man being beat to a pulp was able to congratulate himself on his attackers not knowing everything (that he was right handed) I thought to myself : “well he’ll still be able to write” and then later in the book I felt like Marylyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot: Not very bright

Readalong with Caroline: Blue Night – Simone Buchholz comment 1

Readalong with Caroline. Well I’ve just met the main protagonist Chastity Riley the hamburg state prosecutor and what have I learnt so far. After she breaks down in the country side somewhere between “Mecklenberg and wherethehellever”  we learn from her friend Faller “Why do you do these things Chastity? Just head off out of town? you need your concrete” . I guess she’s a city girl.

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