Alexis Ragougneau ‘A Beggar’s Gospel’


– It’s the Olive garden isn’t it?
– Gethsemane, yes. Jesus’ arrest. Don’t you find the theme particularly appropriate?
Kern prefered not to answer.
– Only the faces are left to finish.
– Of course that’s the most difficult. We always leave the faces till last, proceding layer by layer, from the darkest to the brightest… The true meaning of the Icone only appears when the characters faces are illuminated by the divine truth and their names written above them on the panel in greek or in ancient slav. In short, an enquiery.***


A small group of homeless down and outs take over Notre-Dame just before Christmas, lead by the charismatic Mouss, a north African christian, but who would know from appearances. Amongst his followers is Stavros, a once painter of Icones, decided to finish an Icone begun years earlier as shown in the opening quote. the priest officiating at the time is Father Kern.

Months later the dead body of Mouss is found in the Seine with holes in its hands, feet and side. Claire Kauffmann is the examining magistrate and we quickly return to the events of the previous christmas, the police laying seige, the crowds of both those for and against Mouss and his followers, of the integrist catholics and their relationship with Notre-Dame and its rector, Rieux Le Morlay, of the many groups this sort of event could draw out and polarise.

It takes the combined forces of Claire Kauffmann and Father Kern to get to the bottom of this mystery, who betrayed the group and let in the police? Who was responsible for Mouss’s death? were the two events linked?

Readable.

First Published in French as “Évangile pour un gueux” by Viviane Hamy in 2016
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

– C’est le jardin des Oliviers, n’est-ce pas?
– Gethsémani, oui. L’arrestation de Jesus. Vous ne trouvez pas le thème particulièrement adapté à notre situation?
Kern préféra ne pas réagir.
– il ne reste plus que les visages à faire
– C’est le plus dificile bien sûr. on termine toujours par les visages, en procédant par couches, du plus sombre au plus clair…. Le véritable sens de l’icône n’apparaît qu’une fois les visages des personages illuminés par la vérité divine et leur nom inscrit sur le panneau, en grec ou en vieux slave. en somme, c’est une enquête.

Alexis Ragougneau ‘Niels’


THE CLERK. – So lets fill it out together. first off; “Did you ever denounce anyone during the occupation?
RASMUSSEN. – What sort of denonciation?
THE CLERK. – Did you ever denounce a Frenchman to the Germans?
RASMUSSEN. – No.
THE CLERK. – Good Frenchmen to bad Frenchmen?
RASMUSSEN. – What do you mean by good or bad?
THE CLERK. – It’s quite clear. Resistants to collaborators.
RASMUSSEN. – And what about the others then?
THE CLERK. – What others?
RASMUSSEN. – Those that were neither one or the other?
THE CLERK. – I don’t see what you mean.
RASMUSSEN. – It’s quite clear.***


Alexis Ragougneau’s first novel not directly in the crime genre, Niels, was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, Ragougneau writes for the theatre and this novel lets him explore the world of the theatre in Paris during and just after the occupation. Rasmussen, who had worked with his friend, Jean-François Canonnier producing plays in the Olivier theatre in Paris before the war, and is now a Danish resistant receives a letter the day of the German capitulation telling him Cannonier is to be judged for collaboration.

As Rasmussen returns to Paris to try to understand what had happened during the war years, he brings an outsider’s view to proceedings. The opening quote tells us of his visit to the “Front national du théatre, La Scène française” set up to purge the world of theatre after the war and of the polarisation of society, you were either one of us or one of them.

Rasmussen discovers that in this polarised world, it is the victors that write history, but that during the occupation, the lines of separation were not clear, hence there was a certain scramble for position in the aftermath and  his friend, finally a smallfry, had little hope of a fair impartial trial, that for writing tracts at the wrong time, when others had already turned their vests, he now risks his life. as the following exchange between Rasmussen and Cannonier’s lawyer tells us:


– And Jean-François? What are his chances?
-Difficult to say. The President who is judging him held the same position under Vichy.
– That should help him shouldn’t it?
– You must be joking! former Vichy magistrates only have one idea in head, to establish an unquestionable reputation by condemning as many collaborators as they can. As for the jurors, the have to have shown their nationalist fervour, that’s to say they are either resistants or victims of the occupation.***


Ragougneau criticises the famous actors and producers of the period, explaining that in the social events organised to promote the world of the theatre and the cinema, the exact same people are present during the occupation as after, with the exception of the Germans. He also takes a shot at a holy cow, Louis Jouvet, the great man of pre-war theatre who from 1941 to 1945 took his troop on a tour of South America, should he have remained and resisted?


Mr. the great actor goes off with the Marshal’s subventions and comes back to the General’s benediction.***


This is a complete novel, far more complex than I have been able to show here and worth a read, not yet available in English.

First Published in French as “Niels” by Viviane Hamy in 2017
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

LE GREFFIER. – Alors nous le remplirons ensemble. Primo: “Avez-vous fais des dénonciations pendant l’occupation?”
RASMUSSEN. – Quel genre de dénonciations?
LE GREFFIER. – Avez-vous dénoncé des Français aux Allemands?
RASMUSSEN. – Non.
LE GREFFIER. – Des bons Français aux mauvais Français?
RASMUSSEN. – Qu’est-ce que vous appelez bon ou mauvais?
LE GREFFIER. – C’est pourtant clair. Les résistants contre les collabos.
RASMUSSEN. – Et les autres, alors?
LE GREFFIER. – Quels autres?
RASMUSSEN. – Ceux qui n’étaient ni l’un ni l’autre?
LE GREFFIER. – Je ne vois pas de quoi vous parlez.
RASMUSSEN. -C’est pourtant clair.

– Et Jean-François? Quelles sont ses chances à lui?
-Dificile à dire. Le président qui le jugera était déjà en place sous Vichy.
– Cela devrait jouer en sa faveur, non?
– Vous plaisantez! les magistrats vichystes ont pour principal souci de se refaire une virginité en condamnant du collabo à la louche. Quant aux jurés, ils doivent avoir fait la preuve de leurs sentiments nationaux, c’est-à-dire qu’ils sont soit résistants soit victimes de l’occupation.

Monsieur le grand acteur s’en va avec les subventions du Maréchal, puis s’en revient avec la bénédiction du Général.

Pierre Assouline ‘Sigmaringen’


In uniform, obedience is a virtue. It avoids going against authority. There are those that command and those that obey, and not only the Prussians.I know no other master than the prince, no other loyalty than to the Hohenzollern, no other house than the castle.***


As the book begins, in August 1944, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a part of the German aristocracy, are evicted from their 900 year old castle by the Führer at a half days notice to make way for the exiled Vichy government. The prince was able to negotiate that his Major-domo should stay in place with his staff to serve the new inhabitants and to ensure the integrity of this 380 room castle. So begins this very particular version of Upstairs Downstairs related by the Major-domo Julius, described in the opening quote.

Sigmaringen soon fills with the Vichy government, from the president, Marshal Pétain and his prime minister Laval, their ministers and a militia force in the castle overlooking the town, to a thousand or so french civilians in the town itself. Julius shows us through his eyes this pathetic circus, Pétain, who occupies the Prince’s apartments on the seventh floor, realising that he is in fact a prisoner as shown when Cecil Von Renthe-Fink, arrives for a meal with the Marshal, Von Renthe-Fink who had been Pétain’s “guardian angel” in Vichy, as Pétain tells Julius:


Excuse me Marshal, but Mr. Von Renthe-Fink has just arrived, he is in the antechamber. Maybe you know him……Do I know him? He followed me around for two years at the Hôtel du Parc!
Mr. Von Renthe-Fink is here for dinner and…..
I don’t remember having inviting my jailor to dine with us. He will dine alone.***


Laval, who occupies the royal apartments on the sixth floor spends the eight months preparing his defence whilst Julius has to organise the castle so that Pétain and Laval, who cannot stand each other, should never meet.

The ministers as for them, are divided into two clans, the passive and the active clan, the one looking to continue the simulacrum of government and the other planning their escape. Julius must organise things so that these two groups never meet either. And then there was Céline, the famous author of “Voyage au bout de la nuit”, but a confirmed anti-semite.

The upstairs-downstairs view of events is present throughout, with the servants being made up of the original German retinue, interspersed with some of the french exiles. As the allies advance, rumours abound, are their spies present? How will the Germans fight back? An example of two views follows during a conference given by the head of the belgian fascists, Léon Degrellé:


Upstairs:

Mr Degrelle claims to have information on the subject. Secret information, of course, he couldn’t reveal his source. He could only certify that in underground laboratories and hidden factories, brilliant german scientists were putting the final touches to terrifying arms of destruction:
“Vulcans forges! You’ll see! In the meantime, you can already see the devastation reaped by the Panzerfaust, the poor man’s weapon. Do you realise? A 50 Pfennig stovepipe blowing up tanks worth 25 million!
He gloated. His audience refrained from applauding…

Downstairs:

At the end of the evening, once the guests had rejoined their apartments, I lingered in the kitchens as two valets gave their versions of the conferences……imagine, he was on stage with all the chiefs, in the middle of explaining why Germany can’t lose the war, with his “Don’t be afraid to be true French and at the same time Europeans…. Europe will perish or will live on!” and his “It’s a soldier telling you this…. We’ll be the first in Brussels, be the first in Paris… Vive la France!”….
And then Céline, who was in the central aisle, he stopped, he stared him in the eyes, he shrugged his shoulders and then he walked off, he turned his back on him and left saying out loud: “Who is this complete idiot who won’t even look good on the gallows with that fools face?”***


This is also a book about Julius himself. Who is behind the impassive exterior? Can he be coaxed back towards showing his feelings? I felt a glossary of the ministers and their positions would have been an interesting addition for the reader.

First Published in French as “Sigmaringen” by Gallimard in 2014
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sous l’uniforme, obéissance fait vertu. Il évite même de s’opposer à l’authorité. Il y a ceux qui commandent et ceux qui obéissent, ep pas seulement chez les Prussiens. Or je ne me connaissais d’autre maître que le prince, d’autres loyauté que les Hohenzollern, d’aure maison que le château.

Pardon, monsieur le maréchal, mais M. Von Renthe-Fink vient d’arriver, il se trouve dans l’antichambre. Peut-être le connaissez-vous….Si je le connais? Je l’ai eu sur le dos pendant deux ans à l’Hôtel du Parc!
M. Von Renthe-Fink est là pour dîner et…..
Je ne me souviens pas d’avoir invité mon geôlier à notre table. Il dînera seule.

M. (Léon) Degrelle (le chef des fasciste Belges) disait détenir des informations sur le sujet. Des informations secrètes, naturellement, dont il ne pouvait revel la source. Il pouvait juste certifier que dans des laboratoires enfouis sous terre et des usines cachées, le génie scientifique allemand mettait au point de terribles armes de destruction:
“Les forges de Vulcain! Vous verrez! En attendant, voyez déjà les ravages causés par le Panzerfaust, l’arme du pauvre. Vous vous rendez compte? Un tuyau de poêle de 50 Pfennig qui fait sauter des tanks de 25 millions!”
Il exultait. Son public se retenait d’applaudir….

À la fin de la soirée, une fois que les invités eurent regagné leurs appartements, je m’attardai en cuisines car deux valets racontaient leur version de ces conférences…..Imaginer qu’il était à la tribune avec tous les chefs, en train d’expliquer pourquoi l’Allemagne ne pouvait pas perdre la guerre, avec des “N’ayez pas peur d’être des vrais Français tout en étant des Européens… L’Europe périra ou elle vivra!” et des “C’est un soldat qui vous parle…. Nous serons les premiers à Bruxelles, soyez les premiers à Paris….Vive la France!”…..
Alors le Céline, qui était dans l’allée centrale, il s’est arrêté, il l’a regardé fixement dans les yeux, il a haussé les épaules puis il a rebroussé chemin, il lui a tourné le dos et il est reparti en disant très fort: “Quel est ce roi des cons qui ne fera même pas un beau pendu avec sa gueule de jean-foutre?”

Robert Harris ‘The Second Sleep’


LATE ON THE afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468, a solitary traveller was to be observed picking his way on horseback across the wild moorland of that ancient region of south-western England known since Saxon times as Wessex.


We’re of to Wessex in this Sunday Times #1 bestseller from Robert Harris, I should declare from the outset that had the initial idea, a “Planet of The Apes” moment, a voyage in a mediaeval world that we quickly come to know as our future, been developed in an original way then I would maybe have understood this enthusiasm, but no. **Spoiler Alert**, not that it spoils much! The people of the past were worried and fled before the apocalypse:


We regard our society as having reached a level of sophistication that renders it uniquely vulnerable to total collapse, key sectors and technologies could be affected to such an extent that our chances of finding our way back to the status quo ante could diminish alarming quickly.
Oh yes the ancients had had faith sure enough, their God had been science and it had deserted them.


There are so many thought provoking views of the future out there, including Armagedon moments. Seek and find one, this is not it.

First Published in English as “The Second Sleep” in 2019, by Hutchinson.

Fernanda Melchor ‘Hurricane Season’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“Hurricane Season”: In order of reading book number 6.

In order to follow this event, I have managed to write articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Lagarta, you little shit-stirrer, you’re sick in the head, only you could come out with such a rotten, disgraceful pack of lies, aren’t you ashamed of yourself, whoring around and then pointing the finger at your cousin? There’s only one thing’ll stop you wanting to leave the house, you wicked little tramp. Grandma had cut off all her hair with the poultry shears while Yesenia sat motionless, as still as a possum in the headlights, terrified of being slashed by those icy blades, and afterwards she’d spent the whole night out in the yard, like the mongrel bitch that she was, and Grandma had said: a stinking animal that didn’t deserve so much as a flee-ridden mattress beneath its fetid coat.


As the story begins, the body of the witch is found in an irrigation canal on the outskirts of Matosa. To help us make sense of this discovery, chapter by chapter we follow what has happened through the eyes of one or the other of the protagonists. In sentences, rivalling Proust for length, through these different accounts we get a feeling for the town, Matosa:


They say that’s why the women are on edge, especially in La Matosa. They say that, come evening, they gather on their porches to smoke filterless cigarettes and cradle their youngest babes in their arms, blowing their peppery breath over those tender crowns to shoo away the mosquitos, basking in what little breeze reaches them from the river, when at last the town settles into silence and you can just about make out the music coming from the highway brothels in the distance, the rumble of the trucks as they make their way to the oilfields, the baying of dogs calling each other like wolves from one side of the plain to the other; the time of evening when the women sit around telling stories.


In this desperate town where the women seem to live from prostitution, and the men from the women we get a feeling of hopelessness, take for instance Lagarta from the opening quote, brought up harshly by her grand mother, as are so many of her cousins, nephews and nieces when their young parents runaway or are jailed. The hopelessness of their situations are drowned in Aguardiente, drugs or religion with dreams of having enough money to get a bus away from here.

The story is of machism and homosexuality, and the fine line between the two, of young girls discovering their power and becoming women too soon and preys of the men and of the age old solutions to unwanted pregnancies, with the witch central to both of these conflicts.

A second South American book in the selection, set 150 years after the first, The Adventures of China Iron , but treating many of the same subjects but this time through a realist vision, of the two, I preferred the first.

First Published in Spanish as “Temporada de huracanes” in 2017, in Mexico by Literatura Random House.
Translated into english by Sophie Hughes and published as “Hurricane Season” by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2019
Translated into French by Laura Alcoba and published as “La saison des ouragans” by Grasset in 2019

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld ‘The Discomfort of Evening’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Discomfort of Evening”: In order of reading book number 5.


It hasn’t occurred to me before that Mum and Dad couldn’t only be overcome by death but they could beat death to it.img_0081That you could plan the Day of Judgement just like a birthday party.


Jas, the narrator is, like Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, brought up in a Dutch Reform family in a Reform community, cut off from the rest of the world, “the other side”, the upbringing is strict in a religious sense and feelings are not shown or talked about, the family is poor and fights to just subsist. But Jas is brought up with her brothers Obbe and Matthies and her sister Hanna on a dairy farm with more than one hundred head of cattle and with country folk’s natural understanding of reproduction. At the outset of the book the initial tragedy takes place as Matthies takes part in a local skating competition where the winner “got a plate of stewed udders with mustard and a gold medal with the year 2000 on it.” He falls through the ice and drowns.

This story then studies the effect of this event on Jas’ family as the natural characteristics of each of the family members is magnified by the event. It begs the question of religion; does this age old unchanged religion help to cope with such a tragedy? Firstly, the mother who in her sorrow has no time for her children or for herself and clearly is torn with the thought of suicide. In her morbid state she provides no stability for the family as illustrated by the following quote from Jas who used to enjoy watching the stars:


I’ve learned that the heavens aren’t a wishing-well but a mass grave. Every star is a dead child, and the most beautiful star is Matthies – Mum taught us that.


The eldest son Obbe becomes obsessed with death and repeatedly tries to re-enact his brothers death, firstly with animals, drowning a hamster and looking on with Jas and becoming more and more dangerous. Jas herself, concious of the danger posed by her brother, nonetheless goes on to push her younger sister off of the bridge leading to “the other side” into the river just to see what would happen.

The lack of understanding between the generations, of what it is to be an adolescent, can best be illustrated by Jas’ father’s udder cloths:


He secures the cows between the bars, attaches the cups to their udders, then uses one of my old underpants covered in salve to clean them afterwards. I often used to feel embarrassed when Dad rubbed one of my worn-out pairs of knickers on the udders, or cleaned the milking cups with them without any kind of bashfulness – but sometimes at night I’ve thought about the crotch that has passed through so many other people’s hands, from Obbe’s to Farmer Janssen’s, and that they touch me that way, with calluses and blisters on their palms. Sometimes a pair of knickers gets lost among the cows before finally getting kicked between the gratings. Dad calls them udder cloths; he doesn’t see them as underpants any more. On Saturdays Mum washes the udder cloths and hangs them to dry on the washing line.


When things can’t get worse, they do. Foot and moith disease reaches the community and the family, disoriented by death, must now witness the killing of their cattle:


Death hasn’t only entered Mum and Dad but is also inside us – it will always look for a body or an animal and it won’t rest until it’s got hold of something.


The book then heads towards an ending that no longer surprises us.
This book was at times difficult to read, especially when addressing the deeds and missdeeds of the children and their sexual awakening in this, their troubled time. Violence, lack of conscience, morbidity and sexual experiments make for uneasy reading. We need to talk about Obbe!

First Published in Dutch in 2018 by Atlas Contact.
Translated into english by Michele Hutchinson and published as “The Discomfort of Evening” by Faber & Faber in 2020
Translated into french by Daniel Cunin and published as “qui sème le vent” by Buchet Chastel in 2020

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara « The Adventures of China Iron »

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Adventures of China Iron”: In order of reading book number 3.

In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Many said there was no need to spare the blood of gauchos, but he did spare it: he considered the gauchos every bit a part of the estancia as any one of the cows and he wouldn’t let a single one die without good reason.


Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s China Iron (thanks to the translators notes) is a story very loosely based on the 19th century balad, “La Vuelta de Martín Fierro” about life as a Gaucho on the Argentinian Pampas, except that Cámara bases this story around Fierro’s wife, unnamed in the balad.

A female gaucho, a “gaucha” is know as a china, and as the story begins Fierro, as in the balad, wins china from El Negro in a card game and fathers her two children before her fourteenth birthday, Fierro kills El Negro “because he can” before the army catches up with him:


When they conscripted Fierro along with all the others, they also took Oscar, who was what Fierro laughingly called (in his famous song) a ‘Jimmy-gringo’ from Britain.


His wife just ups and leaves on a wagon with Liz, Oscar’s wife, on a 19th century Pampas road movie, a voyage of discovery of herself and the country she lives in. When Liz asks her her name, she realises that she doesn’t have one, people have only ever called her china like all the other women, and so she begins by naming herself, keeping the China and using the English translation of her husbands name, Iron.

They leave the Pampas and cross the dessert following an old Indian, well trodden, earth path as she and Liz get to know each other, China falling in love with Liz during torrid nights in the wagon, and as China gains an outsider’s view of Gauchos:


Liz – who believed in work more than in God the Father – was right about gauchos being parasites on cows and horses. She was right about my people’s life of meat and water; we didn’t grow squashes or beans, we didn’t weave or fish, we barely hunted, didn’t use any wood other than fallen branches, and then only to make fire.


In the second part of the trip, China discovers the creation of the “New Argentina” as they stop over at José Hernández’s Hacienda, the José Hernández that wrote the balad. She sees the cruelty of the land owners to the Gouchos, using the army to control them, with his view of them illustrated in the opening quote. A normal punishment was to be staked out in the sun using four stakes for several days. But if the Gauchos were second class citizens they were better treated than the Indians:


I’ve already told you, Liz: Argentina needs that land in order to progress. And as for the gauchos, they need an enemy to turn them into patriotic Argentines. We all need the Indians.


China and Liz escape to Indian country where they meet up with the “real” balad writer Martín Fierro who as in the original balad had run of with a deserter, Cruz, but not for quite the same reasons as imagined by Cámara in this version of the poem, translated marvellously in A B C C C B by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh:


Like Jesus rising from the tomb
In two days I was well:
The third day dawned, he kissed my lips
His salt-sweet mouth mine did eclipse
He mounted me, he held my hips
To heaven I came from hell.

The sun shone on my arse that hour.
My spurs I cast away,
A moment more I couldn’t wait
To suck him dry and with him sate
My lust for him, then lie prostrate;
Such freedom I knew that day.

To you in words I can’t explain
The pleasure that I felt
To have his prick come into me
In paradise I seemed to be
Through flesh was God revealed to me
And at his feet I knelt.


This was a fun story of awakening in a cruel world (slavery, the indusrial revolution and the creating of Argentina), well worth its place on the Booker International shortlist.

First Published in Spanish as “Las aventuras de la China Iron” in 2017, in Argentina by Penguin Random House Group.
Translated into english by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh and published as “The Advetures of China Iron” by Charco Press in 2019

Nancy Huston ‘Fault Lines’


One thing my parents agree on is that no one should hit me, smack me or give me any type of corporal punishment. It’s because they’ve read a lot of books where beaten children become violent parents, abused children become paedophiles and children who have been raped become whores and pimps. So they say that it’s always important to talk and talk and talk, to ask a child why he’s behaving badly and to let him explain before showing him gently how to choose to act in a more appropriate manner next time. Never hit him.***


We met Nancy Huston at a book event in Massy back in 2012 along with Mohamed Kacimi. It only took me two years to read the Kacimi but despite the fact that she had dedicated her book it took me eight years to get around to reading this powerful work. A couple of words on Nancy Huston, she is Canadian and writes in French and English, she also translates her own books, a not so common feat.

Onto the book, Huston tells us the story of a family spanning four generations, it couldn’t span five, and the impact the previous generations have on the next generations, the sudden shifts in the tectonic plates of their family’s history that shakes their life. She tells the story backwards as we see the effects before we learn of the causes. In the four generations there are four narrators, with each narrator being six years old at the time of the events he relates, the story begins then with Sol, a child of the twenty first century living in California who tells us in the opening quotes about his education. The two seismic events in his six year old life are the operation he has to remove a benign birth mark from the temple region of his head and the visit to Munich with his parents, his grand mother and his great grandmother to visit this latest’s sister.

His father Randall’s life is up ended in 1982 when his mother Sadie, a converted Jew insists on taking her family from Manhattan to Haïfa as she pursues her doctorate studies concerning the second world war. His father Aron, did not want to leave Manhattan. Randall  quickly picks up Hebrew and befriends a Palestinian girl at his school, but this is the time of the war in Lebenon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre where the Israeli Defense force at best stood by and did not intevene. These were confusing times for this intelligent six year old who wanted to show his mother, Sadie, that he understood what was happening around him:


I really liked the moment where Samson is so angry with Delilah for her treachery the he pushes apart the columns of the temple until the building colapses killing everybody. “It’s just like the human bombs in Israel at the moment!” I say, proud to show granny that I know a little bit about her country, but she shakes her head as she says: ” No, not at all, it’s really not the same thing at all!”***


We then follow Sadie in 1962, the year she leaves her strict grand parents in Toronto to live with her mother, Kristina, who is on the brink of becoming a famous singer, singing with sounds but not words, In Manhattan. Sadie is a very insecure child partly due to her grandparents who’s favourite dish is “culpability” as Kristina tells her, and Sadie also has a birthmark but on her bottom. Sadie’s life begins to settle into normalness, as she tells us of her sunday mornings spent with her stepfather, Peter, a Jew, in delicatessens. And then one sunday when Peter is away a stranger turns up speaking with a heavy accent and she hears her mother speaking in a foreign language. Her life is blown apart by what happens.

And finally back to Kristina’s story and the sounds without words.

A book about violence barbary and the energy of the narrators despite this, at the age of 6 and after. If you can find it, read it!

First Published in French as “Lignes de Faille” in 2006, in France by Actes Sud
Translated into english by Nancy Huston and published as “Fault Lines” by Black Cat in 2008
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Une chose sur laquelle mes parents sont d’accord, c’est que personne ne doit me taper, me fesser ou m’infliger toute autre forme de châtiment corporel. C’est parce qu’ils ont lu beaucoup de livres où on voit les enfants battus se transformer en parents violents, les enfants abusés en pédophiles et les enfants violés en putes et macs. Alors ils disent que c’est important de toujours parler, parler, parler, demander à l’enfant quelles sont les motivations pour sa mauvaises conduite et le laisser s’expliquer avant de lui montrer, gentiment, comment faire un choix plus approprié la prochaine fois. Ne jamais le frapper.

J’apprécie surtout le moment où Samson est tellement furieux contre Dalila pour sa trahison qu’il pousse les colonnes du temple jusqu’à ce que l’édifice s’écroule sur lui en tuant tout le monde. “C’est comme les bombes humaines en Israël en ce moment!” Je dis, fier de montrer à mamie que je connais un peu son pays, mais elle secoue la tête en disant: “Pas du tout! Ce n’est pas du tout la même chose!”

Yoko Ogawa ‘The Memory Police’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
1. “The Memory Police”: In order of reading book number 2.

I don’t normally follow this prize in detail but I end up reading some of the shortlisted books, since, due to the confinement, the award has been delayed and I’m into my third book of the six, I thought here goes.
In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


My favorite story was the one about “perfume,” a clear liquid in a small glass bottle. The first time my mother placed it in my hand, I thought it was some sort of sugar water, and I started to bring it to my mouth. “No, it’s not to drink,” my mother cried, laughing. “You put just a drop on your neck, like this.” Then she carefully dabbed the bottle behind her ear. “But why would you do that?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled. “Perfume is invisible to the eye, but this little bottle nevertheless contains something quite powerful,” she said. I held it up and studied it. “When you put it on, it has a wonderful smell. It’s a way of charming someone. When I was young, we would use it before we went out with a boy. Choosing the right scent was as important as choosing the right dress—you wanted the boy to like both. This is the perfume I wore when your father and I were courting. We used to meet at a rose garden on the hill south of town, and I had a terrible time finding a fragrance that wouldn’t be overpowered by the flowers. When the wind rustled my hair, I would give him a look as if to ask whether he’d noticed my perfume.” My mother was at her most lively when she talked about this small bottle. “In those days, everyone could smell perfume. Everyone knew how wonderful it was. But no more. It’s not sold anywhere, and no one wants it.


The female novelist and narrator in this, Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 novel, lives on an unamed island under the control of an unknown totalitarian power, unknown to us and also to the narrator it would seem. The island is policed by the strict and all powerfull Memory Police. The story begins, with small things, small events, and we do not know where the narrator is taking us as she tells us of her mother who had been taken away and the stories she used to tell her, epitomised by the long opening quote telling us that no one now knows what perfume is. But if her mother told her, then she had not forgotten.

As the story progresses, things are occasionally dissapeared, initially roses, and we understand that from one day to the next everyone on the island, which is cut off from the world, forgets the existence of roses. Slowly as the novel advances the scale of the things that are dissapeared is ratcheted up.

The narrator is a writer and we understand quickly that not everybody forgets the objects that are dissapeared. Her publisher, who had known her mother, comes to her and we learn that this sensitive man, R, can no longer hide his memories and is in fear for his life. The narrator with the help of an old family friend, the old man, decide to hide him from the memory police. The old man had been the ferry man before the ferry had dissapeared and no one remembered where it went. R shows them some of the things that had been dissapeared but for which examples had been hidden, he then explains the importance of these objects and their eventual memories to the narrator and the old man:


I’m not the one who needs these things, you two are. The old man let out a low sigh as though lost in thought. “I truely believe they have the power to change you to alter your hearts and minds, the slightest sensation can have an effect, can help you to remember, these things will restore your memories.” The old man and I glanced at each other and then looked down. We had known that R would tell us something like this but now that we were confronted with his actual words no appropriate response came to mind. “If we do remember something” said the old man struggling to find words “What do we do then?”
“I suppose memories live here and there in the body.” the old man said moving his hand from his chest to the top of his head “But they’re invisible aren’t they? And no matter how wonderful the memory it vanishes if you leave it alone, if no one pays attention to it. They leave no trace, no evidence that they ever existed.”


What is memory and where can the manipulation of memory lead? As the narrator tries to come to terms with memory through the experience of R, she slowly loses her ability to write. R insists that she keep working on it and she slowly tells a parallel story of a man who captures the voices of writers by taking their typewriters, which contain their voices away from them and the eventual awareness of the situation by the female narrator of this story within a story:

At that moment I noticed something that should have been perfectly obvious, there was no paper anywhere in the room, not a single sheet of typing paper, not even a scrap fit for a note. There was no point in looking for a working typewriter if there was nothing to type on. Once I realized there was no means to get them out, words seem to proliferate wildly inside me, filling my chest and suffocating me.
“Fix one quickly!”
Unconsciously my fingers began to move as though tapping out these words, but with nothing to strike they just fluttered in the air. I went to the pile, retrieved my broken typewriter and placed it in front of him again, unable to stand the trapped feeling a moment longer. “Why won’t you fix it? what’s wrong with it? I can’t stand it if I can’t talk to you.” I held tight to his shoulder trying with all my might to convey this feeling to him through the expression on my face. His hand stopped moving and he let out a long sigh, then he wrapped the stopwatch in the velvet cloth and set it on the table. “Your voice will never come back.”

This is a haunting novel about the birth of hope and rebellion in a totally hopeless situation, it will come back to you from time to time, a truely impressive work.

First Published in Japanese in 1994. Translated into English by Stephen Snyder and published in 2019 as The Memory Police by Pantheon.

Manuel Vilas ‘Ordesa’


The spirits are there now. My father is the one that comes the most often, he lies down beside me and touches my hand.
He’s there, carbonised.
“My son, why did you have me burned?”
Me too, in the near future, I will be a dead father and I will be burnt. For Valdi and Bra I will be deceased too…..
I believe in the dead because they have loved me so much more than today’s living.***


The writer, Manuel Vilas, grieving at the losses of his mother and father wrote this multi-award winning book about his life and his grief. This is a bitter-sweet book but you may have to look for the sweet. Vilas gives each character in the book the name of a musician, first of all the living, his sons Valdi and Bra (Vivaldi and Brahms). Vilas is divorced and lives alone with a spare room for his sons who come to see him for the minimum time possible and who never use his spare room, who have no idea of his grief, he is haunted by his dead parents having been unable to afford a burial plot as illustrated in the opening quote.

Vilas takes us through his upbringing in Spain under Franco and the relative poverty of this era and slowly he re-visits all of the dead musicians of his life, everybody he knew from his childhood is dead, a period that eventually arrives for most of us, such as here with Monteverdi:


My mother’s brother is dead, my uncle Alberto Vidal passed away on the 11th march 2015 at the age of seventy three.
In this book I’ve refered to Alberto as Monteverdi….
we burried him there in Ponzano. I can’t go there, obviously. I never go to a burial. So I don’t know what his tomb or his alcove is like. I don’t know if there are flowers. I don’t know anything.***


Such is grief that there is no hope, this is a period of life which Vidal must live through. Much like his book for the reader! This book was a difficult read, easing up to something like peace towards the end.

First Published in Spanish as “Ordesa” in 2018 by Penguin Random House
Translated into french by Isabelle Gugnon and published as “Ordesa” by Éditions du Seuil in 2019
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Les esprits sont arrivés. Mon père est celui qui vient le plus fréquemment, il se couche à mes côtés et me touche la main.
Il est là, carbonisé.
“Mon fils, pourquoi m’as-tu fait brûler?”
Moi aussi, dans peu de temps, je serai un père mort et on me fera brûler. Valdi et Bra me considéreront comme un défunt….
Je crois aux morts car ils m’ont beaucoup plus aimé que les vivants d’aujourd’hui.

Le frère de ma mère morte, mon oncle Alberto Vidal s’éteint le 11 mars 2015 à l’âge de soixante-treize ans.
Dans ce livre j’ai désigné Alberto sous le nom de Monteverdi…
on l’a enterré là, à Ponzano. Je ne peux pas y aller, bien evidemment. Je ne vais à aucun enterrement; j’ai passé ma vie à ça: éviter les obsèques. Je ne sais donc pas comment est sa tombe ou sa niche. je ne sais pas s’il y aura des fleurs. Je ne sais rien.