Eric Vuillard ‘Une sortie honorable’


This may seem odd, but there had never been a french settler established in Cao Bang, no district, european social life, not a single enterprising trader, not a single hotel owner in search of adventure, not a single person to pave the way, no one…..The Cao Bang Mining Company was created in 1905; and in order to function only needed a few european engineers and foremen, that’s all, and a military outpost to protect themselves.***


This book, my first read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2022, is written by Eric Vuillard, the 2017 winner of the prix Goncourt for ‘L’ordre du jour’ which took us to a secret meeting in the Reichstag leading to the financing of the 1933 elections and the petty negotiations between the different people present setting history on its unstoppable path to war. Here Vuillard takes us to an initial meeting in the National Assembly and the inevitable consequences of greed, leading to war in South East Asia. What are the french interests in Indochina? As he explains illustrated here in the opening quotes, it was not a question of a colony and the difficulties of communities living alongside one another, in both Cao Bang where the initial battles took place up to Diên Biên Phu where the french army was defeated, there were no settlers.

Vuillard takes us to a debate over the Indochina ‘situation’ in the house and through descriptions of the different political actors arguing to support the venality of the business interests, and of Mendès-France spelling out in detail that France had neither the means nor the real will to keep Indochina at all costs, he swiftly gives us a panoramic view of the political situation. Mendès, and the truth of course, are not welcomed in the assembly.


The truth” continued Mendès, his face showing no emotion, almost sad, “in a moment where so many other worries weigh on us, we do not have the means to impose the military solution that we have pursued for so long now in Indochina****


Vuillard takes us through the inevitable failures and the gross incomptence of the military commanders appointed by Paris, leading to a modern military power being overcome by peasants. He also introduces the American connection, including De Lattre de Tassigny’s visit to the US and the loaded questions prepared for him.


“Can you tell us why Indochina Is important for we Americans?”
As usual, the question seems abrupt, but in reality it is made to measure. It would seem to have been written by the Army communication department. And in spite of this De Lattre gets bogged down, he can’t find his words. At this moment any word will do, any tiny forgotten word, even a spasm, a sigh…….Then, as if appearing from below the waterline, the General takes a deep breath and adds “that Indochina is the keystone of South-East asia and that this keystone is surrounded….”.****


The description of the CIA and in Particular Dulles’s visit to Paris should leave the reader speechless:


Bidault opens the door without knocking, crosses the room, tripping on the carpet, and sitting on a chair opposite the secretary of state, seemingly overwhelmed: “do you know what Dulles just said to me?” Schumann looks looks at him confused: ” He offered me two atomic bombs to save Diên Biên Phu”****


A strong start to the 2022 prix de Rochefort, and for anyone unfamiliar with these events in history a must read moment!

First Published in french as “Une sortie honorable” in 2021, by Babel

The quotes as read in French before translation

Cela peut sembler curieux, mais il n’y a même jamais eu, un colon français établi à Cao Bang, nul quartier, nul vie sociale européenne, pas un commerçant entreprenant, pas un hôtelier aventureux, pas un seul premier de cordée, personne……La société des mines de Cao Bang avait vu le jour en 1905; et pour fonctionner, elle n’avait besoin que de quelques ingénieurs, de contremaîtres européens, c’est tout, et pour se protéger, il lui fallait un poste militaire.

“La vérité, reprit Mendès, le visage clos, presque triste, “dans un moment où tant d’autres soucis nous accablent c’est que nous n’avons pas les moyens matériels d’imposer en Indochine la solution militaire que nous y avons poursuivie si longtemps.”

“Pouvez-vous nous dire maintenant quelle est l’importance de l’Indochine pour nous Américains?”
Comme d’habitude, la question a quelque chose d’abrupt, mais en réalité elle est faite sur mesure. On dirait qu’elle a été rédigée par le service de communication de l’armée. Et pourtant de Lattre s’embourbe, il cherche ses mots. À ce moment, n’importe quel mot ferait l’affaire, un tout petit mot oublié, un spasme même, un soupir….Alors, comme s’il jaillissait brusquement hors de l’eau, le général reprend sa respiration et ajoute “que l’Indochine est la clé de voûte du Sud-Est asiatique, et que cette clé de voûte est encerclée…”

Bidault ouvre la porte sans frapper, traverse la pièce, trébuchant sur le tapis, et s’asseyant sur une simple chaise face à secrétaire d’État, l’air accablé, bredouille: “Savez-vous ce que Dulles m’a dit?” Schumann le regarde, désorienté: “Il m’a proposé deux bombes atomiques pour sauver Diên Biên Phu”

Benoît Vitkine ‘The Wolves’


Faithfully. Once again he takes the blue textbook in his large hands, places it on the embers where it instantly bursts into flames. He films it. Faithfully. He sends the video to the number he’d been given.
He had just saved the Bitch once again. Just as she’d asked him. The textbook, the old lady that implicated her. No longer existed.***


Benoît Vitkine’s timely novel introduces us to a gloves off version of The Ukraine in this political thriller treating the 30 days between the election of the new president Olena Hapco and her taking office. Vitkine tells us of how fortunes were made in the post Soviet era, here in The Ukraine, but the same recipe applied to any of the ex-Soviet states. Hapco was less ready as the Soviet system collapsed and so needed to be quick, brutal and know how to make allies and deal with enemies.

Hapco is elected on a reform ticket, but pretty soon it’s clear that she needs to negotiate with the Oligarchs, as Russia tries to tie her down, described in her meeting with the Russian ambassador. First she has a call with Vladimir Putin who speaks in riddles, as usual, leaving the unpleasant messages to his underlings, with the ambassador explaining how they will trap and control her. They have been spying on her for decades, including choices she had made, to avoid being crushed, that could be viewed as treason. She knows that they have the means, via the tv stations of certain Oligarchs controlled by the Kremlin , to make it known, before they tell her what they expect her to do:


You can be reassured, the project that we have prepared is perfectly favourable to you! Our idea is to revalue the terms of the contract for the transit of the gas that we sell to the Europeans. In simpler terms, to increase your dividends from the transit of the gas in the pipelines that crosses your territory ……The increase in tarifs for the transport of russian gas in ukranian pipelines, as seductive as it sounds, is an illusion. The money will only make a handfull of crooked, kremlin controlled intermediaries rich, creating as many russian agents in ukranian affairs.****


But if there is one thing Hapco has learnt the best form of defence is to attack. What do the Russians hold against her? Can she neutralise the threat? Can she play the Oligarchs against each other? Can she get out of the trap that is set for her before she officially takes office? These are the questions that Vitkine, one time correspondant of’Le Monde’ in Moscow and laureat of the Albert Londres prize, takes us through whilst at the same time painting a vivid picture of The Ukraine and its people.

First Published in french as “Les Loups” in 2022, by Les Equinox
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Fidèlement. Il reprend le cahier bleu dans ses grands mains, le dépose sur les braises, où il s’enflamme instantanément. Il filme. Fidèlement. Il envoie la vidéo au numéro qu’on lui a indiqué.
Il vient de sauver la Chienne, une nouvelle fois. Comme ell le lui avait demandé. Le cahier, la vieille l’incriminaient. Ils ne sont plus.

Mais rassurez-vous, le projet que nous avons conçu vous êtes parfaitement favourable! Notre idée est de revaloriser les termes du contrat de transit pour le gaz que nous vendons aux européens. En clair d’augmenter les dividendes que vous percevez pour le transit par les tuyaux situés sur votre territoire……L’augmentation des tarifs de transit du gaz russe dans les gazoducs ukrainiens, aussi séduisante soit-elle, est une illusion. L’argent ne servira qu’à enrichir une poignée d’intermédiaires véreux aux ordres du Kremlin, qui constitueront autant d’agents de la Russie dans les affaires ukrainiennes.

Tierno Monénembo ‘Le terroriste noir’


The Valdenaires were the first ones to set eyes on him, Mister—the father and his son—it was the time of year when meadow saffron blooms! They were out gathering golden chanterelles when suddenly the son let out a yelp, surprised by what sounded like an animal having its throat cut. He closed his eyes and pointed at a dark and disturbing heap sprawled in a thicket of whitebeams, where the earth seemed a bit less muddy. The father started, ran over, large beads of sweat bathing his face, then quickly regained his composure. “Calm down, Etienne, it’s only some poor black man.” “A German spy, then!” “The Germans haven’t got any more Negroes, and that’s what started this war…. Come along, son!”


A now old lady, Germaine, tells the story of the african troops who fought in the second world war for France through the story of one such, Addi Bâ who, after having been abandoned as France signed the armistice and escaping from a German camp was discovered by Étienne in a thicket of white-beams in a small village in the Lorraine, as described in the opening quote. We learn of the difficult cohabitation of the locals with the Germans who take nearly all of their produce leaving them hungry, and their reaction as hinted at in the following quote which refers to the saint Bartholomew pig feast, a reference to the slaughter of the saint Bartholomew, a famous massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572, meaning of course here that they slaughtered all of the pigs to prevent the Germans getting them:


As for young Etienne, I might have seen him once or twice trotting around with a bunch of other kids who would pass through here heading up to the hilltops to gather chestnuts. I wouldn’t really meet him until the Saint Bartholomew Pig Feast.***


Slowly Addi gets to know everyone in the villages and local countrside, before becoming a key element in looking after and training the young men in the “maquis” and then eventually being betrayed to the Germans, by who? we never find out, too many possibilities:


It reminded us of the time he fell from his bike, sir, because he was near death and everyone in Romaincourt was wathching, inspite of the dogs, inspite of the hostility of the Jerrys who were striking out with their rifle butts and jabbering on, excitedly as we’d never seen before: –Der schwarze Terrorist! Der schwarze Terrorist! The black terrorist! The black terrorist!***


This was a interesting book treating a major, and forgotten subject of what happened to the colonial troops “les tirailleurs sénégalais” at the armistice, here Addi Bâ who was recognised only in 2003 with the “médaille de la résistance”.

First Published in french as “Le terroriste noir” in 2012, by Le Seuil *** my translation
Translated into English by C. Dickson and published in 2017 as “The black Terrorist” by Diasporic Africa Press

The quote as read in french before translation

Cela nous rappelait la fois où il était tombé du vélo,monsieur, puisqu’il était au bord de la mort et que tout Romaincourt assistait à la scène, malgré les chiens, malgré l’animosité des Boches qui distribuaient des coups de crosse et hachepaillaient, excités comme on ne les avait jamais vus:
–Der schwarze Terrorist! Der schwarze Terrorist! Le terrorisre noir! Le terrorisre noir!

Anthony Doerr ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’


What his mother and sister distribute among the men, the honey and preserves, the pickled cabbage and the trout, the sheep’s cheese, the dried venison, comprises almost all of their food for the winter. Many of the men wear cloaks and daggers like woodsmen, whilst others dress in cloaks of fox fur or camel hide and at least one wears ermine with the teeth still attached, most have daggers attached to girdles about their waists and everyone speaks of the spoils their going to win from a great city in the south.


Books are fragile, they die, so little of the literature from ancient Greece has reached us, and that often copied and re-copied or translated. But books can free us, change our perceptions, even give us a reason to live. In this tale, Anthony Doerr rells us of such a book, a fictitious work by Antonius Digenes, Cloud Cuckoo Land, its journey to us and through to the future, of librarys and mankinds vain attempts to assemble all knowledge. We discover Cloud Cuckoo Land and its influence on a number of people in this intertwined tale.
We pick up the story and the first of our characters at the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, we meet Omeir as the army moving towards this city with the unpenetrable walls at the moment that he is engaged and the immensity of the tasks they must catty out as illustrated in the opening quote

We meet Anna, a seamstress living in what has become an almost illiterate city just before the arrival of the Ottomans, of her learning to read from a dying and drunken Greek living in their city walls, of her finding books in a forgotten and crumbling monastry and selling them to Venitians who have come in search of knowledge for their libraries. As she reads one of the codexes to her dying sister we learn of Ethan the goatheard and his journey in the fantastic old tale and the peace it brings her sister.


She has grown quicker at deciphering the tidy left leaning script inside the old codex and by now can lift lines off the page without trouble. Whenever she comes to a word she does not know or lacunas where mould has obliterated the text she invents replacements, Ethan has managed to become a bird at last, not the resplendent owl he hoped but a bedraggled crow. He flaps across a limitless sea searching for the end of the earth, only to be swept up by a water spout. So long as Anna keeps reading Maria seems to be at peace.


Through Anna and Omeir, the story reaches modern day, being uncovered in the Vatican library. The only timeline where the link with the book is not apparent is that of Konstance, travelling on an interstellar spaceship leaving the Earth behind to implant life on a faraway planet with her family and a group of other passengers, and of course a computer containing “all the knowledge of the world”:


Konstance stands in the library atrium touching the place on her work suit where mother stitched a pine seedling four years before, mrs flowers’ little dog stares up at her and wags his tail, he is not real, the desk beneath her fingertips feels like wood, sounds like wood, smells like wood, the slips in the box look like paper feel like paper, smell like paper, none of it is real.


In the present day, Zeno, an 80 year old Korean war veteran is putting on a school play called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes when Seymour, a disturbed adolescent, worrying about the planet comes into the library with a bag packed with explosives:


He remembers how it felt, his whole body taught when he sprung the lid off the crate of pawpaws old grenades for the first time, all that latent power, never before has someone articulated his own anger and confusion like this. Wait they said, be patient they said, technology will solve the carbon crisis. In Kyoto, in Copenhagen, in Doha in Paris they said we’ll cut emissions we’ll wean ourselves off hydrocarbons and they rolled back to the airport in armour plated limos and flew home on Jumbo jets and ate sushi at 30000 feet in the air while poor people choked on the air in their own neighbourhoods. Waiting is over, patience is over we must rise up now before the whole world is on fire.


Why take explosives into a library? who are all of these characters and how are the present day and the future linked, I’ll give you a guess. Get this wonderful read and find out.

First Published in English as “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in 2021 by Fourth Estate

Emma Stonex ‘The Lamplighters’


When they built these towers they made sure our bedrooms faced the coast, a lighthouse keeper retires to his bed feeling his beacon settle on home and they want your beacon there, img_3150they don’t want you getting ideas about the sea beneath you, quieter and deeper than it’s safe to know. a keeper’s in bed, that’s when his memories grow bigger than he is and he needs the land, to be sure it’s there, the way a child listens for his father’s footsteps in the middle of the night. We’re all tied to the land.


Back in 1972 the three men living on the Maidan rock, Aurthur the PK (Principal Keeper), Bill his assistant and their junior, Vince the Young first time keeper, dissapear. Based on a true event Stonex tells us that all the clocks in the tower were stopped showing the same time and that the door was locked from the inside. The story oscillates between events in 1972 and events in the “present day”, 1992 as a writer of maritime fiction takes it on himself, by talking to the bereaved widows, to get to the roots of what happened back then. The opening quote helps to show something of the true loneliness that life, something that back then before the internet and cell phones, that over time could exercise on the keepers who could spend up to three months at a time on duty.

The tower life, of course, attracts men with a reason to live this life, from the PK who had never recovered from his only son’s drowning, to Vince hoping to avoid a life of crime with thisoffering a way out and from Aurthur who believes that living prolonged periods with two other people is “as good as it gets”:


Occasionally it strikes me how much time I spend with men i’d otherwise have nothing to do with. At home I don’t make friends easily, I don’t have the knack. People come and go there’s no time, can’t find a way in. Here it isn’t a choice, we learn to live together in a narrow column with no way out, men become friends, friends become brothers. For “Only Children” this is as good as it gets, when I was a boy I heard it as “Lonely Children”. I thought it was that through to when I was fourteen and saw the right thing printed on a medical pamphlet.


Through the women’s stories and their secrets, through Helen, Jenny and Michele, Stonex tells us of their grief, of their not knowing and why events drove them apart. Beginning by the backwards and forwards in time to let us see some of the pressures, from the shady Trident House that runs the lighthouses and gives no information on what might have happened, to the fact that the company provided housing so that even on land the keepers, and their wives lived next door to each other, sometimes passing long periods at home whilst their neighbour was away, she paints the picture, the background to those events.

In this slow moving, classy, well told whodunnit Stonex leads us on to her imagined final scenes in both 1972 and twenty years later. A story I would warmly recommend.

First Published in English as “The Lamplighters” in 2021 by Picador

Olivier Bordaçarre ‘Appartement 816’

Quai du Polar 2022: Books shortlisted for the readers prize, Book read Number 3

Olivier. Bordaçarre: Appartement 816 (L’Atalante)


I’m 1m71; I weigh roughly 75 kilos; I was born on the 2nd of November 1989 at 7.30 in the morning; I live at number 9 rue Emmanuel-Bronstin; I’m 41 years old; I wear size 41 shoes; my Sanipass number is 1891178283712 33; according to my bill from Ravi, I’ve eaten 81 125 gram tins of tuna (10.12 kgs) and 50 750 gram tins of chick peas (37.5 kgs) since the start of the Total General Isolation. That’s to say one tin of tuna every two days for six and a half months; one tin of chick peas every four days.


Didier Martin, simple accountant seems to be holding it all together, even if he is writing his diary in small print on the wall of his apartment where he lives with his wife Karin, his adolescent son Jérémy and his dog. He had to go through his diary to be sure of the facts, France is entering its 30th straight month of isolation for its inhabitants, the last six months have been IGT, Total General Isolation, that is to say Didier, his family and his dog have not been able to leave their apartment at all for the last six months. The detail in his diary entries concerning himself and his diet illustrated in the opening quote tells us something of the strain he is under and the following quote tells us of how his mind is telling him that isolation is normal, maybe even beneficial to fight against….loneliness.


You have to accept the evidence, living with your times is necessarily living without movement. Without flow we can do everything with a simple internet connection. It’s exactly what is happening with Rezo isn’t it? Aren’t we in touch with our friends, our families? We can see each other, talk to each other, exchange information, help each other get over problems. Thanks to the virus, digital connections have replaced all of our actions from everyday life and saved people from loneliness.***


Food is delivered by drones, which also ensure the rules are followed and waste is evacuated in plastic bags without human intervention. But as you can imagine the situation in a strain on interpersonal relations within the family, his son Jérémy is an asshole, his wife doesn’t always agree with him and his dog pisses and shits on the balcony floor that he has to clean up every time ( why only him you might ask):


I wouldn’t mind making other efforts, write inside our kitchen cupboard doors, for instance, or on the closet walls behind the shoes, but, when I propose something that goes a little in her sense looks at me silently and the walks off. Discussion is impossible. I asked her, then, once and for all (and Im writing it down in black and white today), not to shout any more. She’s free to express herself, she can criticise me as she wishes, I’m not totally opposed to dialogue, but without shouting. Without shouting. Otherwise. It just isn’t possible. We wont be able to carry on like that. The three of us live together in this apartment, we can’t do that without rules.***


Didier does some pretty normal things under the circumstances and evacuates the body parts in the plastic waste bags. At the end of the IGT it would seem that a large number of people in France are “missing”.

A book with a certain humour, the deliveries being taken over by a company named after the largest river in North America, Mississippi, for instance. A more interesting read than I had at first imagined but again this would not be my choice for the winner.

First Published in French as “Appartement 816″ in 2021 by L’Atalante.
*** My translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Je mesure 1 mètre et 71 centimètres; je pèse 75 kilogrammes environ; je suis né le 2 novembre 1989 à 7 heures 30 minutes; j’habite au numéro 9 de la rue Emmanuel-Bronstin; j’ai 41 ans; je fais du 42 de pointure; mon numéro de SaniPass est le 1891178283712 33; d’après les factures récapitulatives du site Ravi, j’ai mangé 81 boîtes de thon de 125g (10,12 kg) et 50 boîtes de pois chiches de 750g (37,5 kg) depuis le début de l’Isolement Général Total. C’est-à-dire une boîte de thon tous les deux jours pendant six mois et demi une boîte de pois chiches tous les quatre jours.

Il faut forcément se rendre à l’évidence. Vivre avec son temps, c’est vivre désormais sans mouvement. Sans circulation. On peut tout faire grâce à une simple connexion Internet. C’est bien ce qui se passe au niveau de Rezo, non? Est-ce qu’on n’est pas en lien avec ses amis, sa famille? On peut se voir, se parler, échanger des informations, s’aider à surmonter un problème. Grâce au virus, le numérique a pris le relais sur l’ensemble des actions de la vie courante et sauve les gens de leur solitude.

Je veux bien faire d’autres efforts, écrire à l’intérieur des portes des placards de la cuisine, par exemple, ou sur les murs du cagibi derrière les chaussures, mais, quand je fais une proposition qui irait un peu dans son sens, Karine me regarde sans rien dire et elle s’en va. Quand je fais un pas en avant, elle me fauche. Comme elle l’a toujours fait. Elle s’en va. La discussion est impossible. Je lui ai demandé, donc, une bonne fois pour toutes (et je l’écris aujourd’hui noir sur blanc) de ne plus crier. Elle est libre de s’exprimer, peut tout à fait critiquer ce que je fais, je ne suis pas fermé au dialogue, mais sans crier. Sans crier. Sinon, ça ne va pas être possible. On ne va pas pouvoir continuer sur ce ton. On vit à trois dans cet appartement, cela ne peut pas se passer dans ces conditions.

Metin Arditi ‘Le Turquetto’


Stood up, his right hand grasping his cane, the master was unable to tear his eyes away from the canvas. He had before him the most beautiful portrait that had ever been painted. The lines were of an absolute precision. And the colours…. How had he managed to obtain such nuances in the darker colours? There was the young man’s look, the beauty of his age, a charm, but a force as well, a kindness…. He moved forward towards the painting looking for the signature. He couldn’t find it. His eyesight weakened…. He tried again three times and finally found it, in the lower right hand corner, a capital T, painted in dark grey.img_3098
He stepped back from the painting and once more took it in slowly. What he needed to do to save it was shameful. and even obscene. But there was no other solution but this, and he did his duty.***


Welcome to Metin Arditi’s art world, in this work of fiction Arditi begins with a chromographic examination report leaving some doubt as to whether the work, “Man With A Glove” from the Louvre was actually by Titien, leading him to create the character the Turquetto, who had actually painted this work, and why there is no other trace of Turquetto’s work, taking us right up to the terrible decision by Titien himself to add his signature to the painting as illustrated in the opening quote.

The book written in three parts takes us from sixteenth century Constantinople, with its varied population of Turks, Jews, Greeks and Armenians, each with their own religions and very different rights but all having one thing in common, reproducing any of God’s creation is forbidden. Elie a young jewish child who had been brought up in a greek family and who moves easily amongst the Turkish merchants eventually escapes to venice and on the journey takes a Greek name, becoming a christian overnight.

In the second part of the book in Venice, due to heis natural skill but also due to his mixed cultural experience he becomes a painter of great renown, but as he matures, he finds he no longer wants to hide who he really and eventually falls foul of the inquisition, finally escaping and returning to Constantinople where things are becoming more difficult for the Greeks and the Jews.

This is a fascinating story as Arditi draws us a picture of the sixteenth century world and the inability of the different people to live with each other, any resemblance with what is happening around us today is purely coincidental!

First Published in French as “Le Turquetto” in 2011 by Actes Sud
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Debout, la main droite agrippée à sa canne, le maitre n’arrivait pas à détacher ses yeux de la toile. il avait devant lui le plus beau portrait qui ait jamais été peint. Un trait d’une précision absolue. Et des couleurs… Comment avait-il réussi à obtenir de telles nuances dans les sombres? Il y avait dans le regard du jeune homme la beauté de son âge, un charme, mais aussi une force, une bonté….
Il s’approcha du tableau et chercha la signature. Il ne la trouva pas. Ses yeux déclinaient…. Il s’y reprit à trois fois et fini par la répérer, au coin inférieur droit, un T majuscule, peint en gris foncé.
Il s’éloigna de la toile et une fois encore la regarda longuement. Ce qu’il devait faire pour la sauver était indigne. Et même obscène. Mais il n’y avait d’autre solution que celle-là, et il fit son devoir.

Antoine Bello ‘The Falsifiers’


“What was the plan? asked Magawati dryly.
“The plan was to, one hour exactly before the Sputnik 2 launch, send a press release from TASS to around fifty media outlets announcing that the satellite had onboard a two year old dog called Laïka.”
“Even though the satellite was empty?” asked Youssef, in disbelief.
“Even though the satellite was empty,” repeated Vargas, “What happened?”
***


After a hectic month of November, reading for the Roman de Rochefort and for the Booker Prize, I was having trouble getting back in the saddle so, off to the library and after twenty minutes with Véronique, “I need something easy to read with a certain intrigue”. Away I came with the first of this trilogy by Antoine Bello and, shame on me, I’d never heard of him. He may well be an American author who writes in French, but his main protagonist here is Icelandic, Sliv Dartunghuvet. Sliv, fresh from university is easily recruited by an environmental research company, one of many fronts for a tentacular organisation, the CFR (Consortium de Falsification du Réel). Sliv asks some questions but faced with an absence of answers from his recruiting agent, Gunnar, he turns out to be a trusting fellow:


And what can be said about the motives of CFR? Gunnar talked away normally, without ever revealing anything of importance. Three conversations later, and I had no more idea than the first day. Why did the CFR falsify reality? With what money and on behalf of who?***


Sliv soon learns of some of the older cases the CFR has worked on such as Laïca from the opening quote who never actually existed. Sliv is pulled into the ludic side of the job, working on scenarios that, after examination and correction, the organisation may decide to put into action.

Sliv turns out to be an exceptional creator of scenarios and begins to take more and more risks until he puts the organisations existance at risk and has the unfortunate experience of meeting the Special Ops.

This was a really good book to get back to reading, this first book of the series was written back in 2007 and treats the pre-internet falsification of reality as Dartunghuvet climbs the lower levels of the CFR, waiting to see how the later books take on the whole fake news thing.

First Published in french as “Les falsificateurs” in 2007, by Gallimard *** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Quel était le plan? demanda Magawati d’une voix sèche.
—Le plan consistait, une heure exactement après le lancement de Spoutnik 2, à envoyer un communiqué de l’agence Tass à une cinquantaine de rédactions annonçant que le satelite emportait à son bord une chienne de deux ans du nom de Laïka.
—Alors que le satellite était vide? demanda Youssef, incredule.
—Alors que le satellite était vide, répéta Vargas. Que se passa-t-il?

Et que dire des mobiles du CFR? Gunnar discourait habituelement, sans jamais rien révéler d’important. Trois conversations plus tard, j’en savais à peine plus qu’au premier jour. Pourquoi le CFR falsifiait-il le réel? Avec quel argent et pour le copte de qui?

Anuk Arudpragasam ‘A Passage North’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“A Passage North”: In order of reading book number 3.


Waking up each morning we follow by circuitous routes the thread of habit, out of our homes, into the world, and back to our beds at night, move unseeingly through familiar paths, one day giving way to another and one week to the next, so that when in the midst of this daydream something happens and the thread is finally cut, when, in a moment of strong desire or unexpected loss, the rhythms of life are interrupted, we look around and are quietly surprised to see that the world is vaster than we thought, as if we’d been tricked or cheated out of all that time, time that in retrospect appears to have contained nothing of substance, no change and no duration, time that has come and gone but left us somehow untouched.


A passage North is a carefully written introspective book, the opening quote gives an idea of this degree of thought, a great deal of emotion is present but mostly kept at a distance as Krishan is forced to reflect on his life both just before and during his passage north. We learn something of the magnitude of the war between the Tamil Tigers and government forces in the poverty stricken north of Sri Lanka where the Tiger’s were not just beaten but their very trace erased from the land leaving the people in a great state of trauma. Krishan was away from Sri Lanka in India during the war, somehow explaining away to himself what was happening there:


Even now he felt ashamed thinking about his initial reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of what had happened at the end of the war, as though he’d been hesitant to believe the evidence on his computer screen because his own poor, violated, stateless people were the ones alleging it, as though he’d been unable to take the suffering of his own people seriously till it was validated by the authority of a panel of foreign experts, legitimized by a documentary narrated by a clean-shaven white man standing in front of a camera in suit and tie.


Whilst in India krishan had fallen in love with Anjum, an activist and their story had lasted on and off for several years.

After moving back to his home in Colombo, in the south of Sri Lanka, Krishan is given the opportunity to help his ailing grandmother by employing Rani, a woman from the north that had lost her husband and her son during the war, having Rani away from her home region seemed to be helping her. After news of her death Krishan learnt more about Rani’s life, about her electric scock treatment for trauma, and undertakes the long journey north by train where he is able to reflect on his own life.

This is a very different piece of writing to the other shortlisted books, caught between ancient and modern, violence and gentleness, the events are not yet first hand.

First Published in English as “A Passage North” in 2021 by Random House

Maggie Shipshead ‘Great Circle’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Great Circle”: In order of reading book number 4.


In my blip of higher education, I had time to take Intro to Philosophy and learn about the panopticon, the hypothetical prison Jeremy Bentham came up with, where there would be one itty-bitty guardhouse at the center of a giant ring of cells. One guard was all you needed because he might be watching at any time, and the idea of being watched matters way more than actually being watched. Then Foucault turned the whole thing into a metaphor about how all you need to discipline and dominate a person or a population is to make them think it’s possible they’re being watched. You could tell the professor wanted us all to think the panopticon was scary and awful, but later, after Archangel made me way too famous, I wanted to take Katie McGee’s preposterous time machine back to that lecture hall and ask him to consider the opposite. Like instead of one guard in the middle, you’re in the middle, and thousands, maybe millions, of guards are watching you—or might be—all the time, no matter where you go.


This is a story about two timelines and two women with a number of things in common, of Marion Graves, the aviator, who dissapeared in 1950 during a round the world attempt passing by both poles and of the actrice chosen to play her role for a film of Marian’s life, Hadley Baxter. Hadley’s parents died in an aircrash when she was young and she was brought up by a Holywood uncle who between drinks and drugs had her taken to a number of castings from which she eventually becomes the young woman epitomised in the opening quote.
Hadley had read the lost logbook of marian in the library:


The lost log book of Marian Graves… It made a big impression on me when I was a kid orphan solidarity you know, team raised by uncles, i thought it would be full of hidden messages like tarot cards….
It’s the perfect sort of book for that isn’t it mostly cryptic bits and pieces what did it tell you? nothing…..really I’m most intrigued by the question of whether or not she intended it to be read at all. I think the fact that she left it behind at least meant that she couldn’t bear to destroy it.


Marian’s life is however the centre point of the book, from surviving a mysterious ship sinking on the atlantic with her twin brother Jamie during the first world war to being brought up, or left to bring herself up by a gambling and drinking uncle who was also a semi renowned painter in Missoula an out of the way town in Missouri where she made and kept, throughout her entire life, her childhood friend Caleb. How did she become an aviator? Well she passed by many steps, marrying a jealous bootlegger and then flying for him before changing her name and going into hiding to escape him:


He’s my friend, Marian said he’s always been my friend am I not allowed to have friends? Her voice rose, do you want me to be completely alone except for you? He sat down heavily the anger going out of him yes he said if I’m being honest
You want to know what we did we talked she gathered herself said as though making an accusation i told Caleb I loved you he looked up, you did when did you start having me followed say it again tell me what you told him he was radiating thrilled pleasure, she felt only hopelessness not now tell me you love me Louder she said When did you start having me followed when you flew to Vancouver only because I was so afraid of losing you…it was for your protection.


Marian becomes an aircraft ferry pilot during the second world war in England before the events around that ship sinking as she was an infant catches up with her. The question Hadley then asks herself and eventually solves is whether Marian really resembles the Marian in the film.

If the prize were to go to a traditional “story” then this book would be an excellent candidate.

First Published in english as “Great Circle” in 2021, by Doubleday