Zoran Drvenkar ‘You’


–In car number seventeen an old man is waiting for you. He’s belted in and sitting upright as if the journey is going to continue at any moment. There’s classical music on the radio. “I was waiting,” the old man said. You close the door behind you; the old man goes on talking. IMG_1297“I saw you. A truck went past. The headlights shone through the windows of the car in front of me. I saw you through the snow. And now you’re here. And I’m not scared.” “Thank you,” you tell him. The old man unbuckles his seat belt. He shuts his eyes and lets his head fall onto the steering wheel as if he wants to go to sleep. The back of his neck is exposed. You see a gold chain cutting through his tensed skin like a thin thread. You put your hands around the old man’s head. A jerk, a rough crack, a sigh escapes from the old man. You leave your hands on his head for a while, as if you could catch his fleeing thoughts. It’s a perfect moment of peace.


In this thriller by Drvenkar, read for German Lit Month, that mostly takes place between Berlin and Norway, two men operating in wholly separate spheres, and whose paths should never cross have their separate orbits pushed together by an onset of chaos and thus the man without a soul and the man without a heart embark on a long collision course.

The title of the book tells us something of the story, You. The narrator in turn addresses the different protagonists by the word you, ‘du‘ in German, the familiar form, allowing us the observer a certain proximity with them. The narrator is thus clearly observing the protagonists and we are observing the narrator. The book opens with one of the two colliding stories, that of the traveller as illustrated in the opening quote, clearly from the outset the man without a soul, and follows this serial killer in his sporadic killing sprees over a ten year period whilst also going back in time to tell us about the first time, how it started. He is a rumour and we as the reader are observers, we feel absolutely nothing for him but are not particularly drawn to his random victims either.

The second colliding story is that of the man without a heart, we follow im from his youth where he and his brother are brought up in a rigid military type survival regime by a psychopathic father during the week but who is absent a the then week-end. One Saturday by chance the elder son sees his father with his normal ‘other family’ and does the only logical thing, he kills him and moves to Berlin at sixteen years old, a survivor. Fast forward he is the feared logistical king of Berlin, bringing drugs, weapons or whatever is wanted to the city’s ‘wholesalers’, and is respected due to the regime of fear he installs, illustrated by the following quote:


–“I want her to suffer.” “I’ll see to it,” David replies. The answer comes too quickly. David wasn’t thinking, even though an order like that doesn’t call for much thinking. He reacted automatically. You hate that. Your men should think and not react. Both of you get up at the same time; you’re close to one another, so that you can smell his breath. “David, what did I just say?” “That she–that she should suffer?” You grab him between the legs. He tries to move away, thinks better of it and stands still. Only his torso bends slightly forward, that’s all that happens. You press hard. “What is that, David?” Sweat appears on his forehead; his answer is a gasp. “Suffering?” “No. This isn’t suffering, David. Suffering is when I pull your balls off and let you dive after them in the pool, that would be suffering. Now do you understand what I meant when I said she should suffer?” “I understand.”


And finally there is the grain of sand that interferes with the well oiled machinery, five young friends, all girls and ironically the same age as the man without a heart when he killed his own father, these girls, all different and with their own secrets find themselves with five kilos of heroin stolen unknowingly from this man and unknowingly trying to sell if back to his son.

There follows a chase/road trip where it is probably better for you health not to be a fringe character as the man without the heart and the man without a soul are brought into collision.

An excellent thriller, lots of well described characters, more or less believable, a pleasure to read, and of course, not Anglo-saxon and not Nordic, a very rewarding read.

First published in German as ‘Du’ by Ullstein verlag in 2010
Translated into English by Shaun Whiteside as “You” and published by Alfred A Knopf in 2014

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Sven Regener ‘Berlin Blues’


–Sleep isn’t as important as all that, physically speaking, but lack of it will drive you crazy in the end. That’s why it is difficult to tell the chicken from the egg. Did your friend flip because he hadn’t slept for so long, or did he go without sleep for so long because he’d flipped?46285D58-FF4E-48C0-AFDD-C66F2BB6FC55
–You tell me said Herr Lehmann
–A bit of both I’d say. That’s what we’ve got to find out, but it may also be a dully developed manic–depressive psychosis
–What would that mean? He asked.
–It takes time. In such cases I always recommend that patients be sent back home for therapy. The vast majority come from West Germany.


It’s 1989 in West Berlin, West Berlin is not West Germany and attracts youth from all over West Germany because, amongst  other things, if you lived in West Berlin you were exempt from the 18 month military service in place in West Germany. Frank, who has recently become known wittily by his friends as Herr Lehmann because he will be 30 years old on the 9th November, has been a barman since his arrival from Bremen 9 years earlier, and has no other ambition. His life mostly revolves around working, drinking with his best friend Karl and sleeping. Herr Lehmann is not the sort of person who asks himself questions and then one day when he goes to the Markthalle, where Karl works, for early lunch he meets the new woman chef, who shows her capability to equal him in meaningless disputes, and falls in love:


–Karl : What’ll you have then?
–Frank: Roast pork said Herr Lehmann who never had anything else at the Markthalle….if it’s ok for these imbéciles to breakfast till five in the afternoon, it must be ok to order roast pork at eleven in the morning.
–Katrin: If the world is teeming with assholes who breakfast till five in the afternoon she said why should we need any desperate characters who order roast pork at eleven in the morning?


Thirty has crept up on Frank without his suspecting it and his well oiled no questions asked routine is about to be dynamited, we follow him and his often drunk friends, who work the bars and live at night with no thoughts of the future, through their routines, people come and people go in and around their bars but there is always Frank’s friend Karl, a barman by night with dreams of becoming an artist. As Frank meets Katrin and finally finds some form of acceptance for his life from his parents, he doesn’t notice Karl’s strange behaviour as he slowly drifts towards a crises, illustrated in the opening quote, which then comes to a head as Katrin leaves him. He is then alone as he sets out to celebrate his 30th birthday on the fateful 9th November 1989.

A great book, read for German lit month, if you like your humour dry and  subject matter blue then this book is for you. Some of the incidents Regener describes should remind everyone of those heady days which were our 20’s, it did me!

First published in German as ‘Herr Lehmann’ by Eichborn in 2001
Translated into English by John Brownjohn as “Berlin Blues” and published by Secker & Warburg in 2003

Daniel Speck ‘Bella Germania’


She should never have brought the two men together, she thought. Not in her presence.img_0884They didn’t belong in the same dimension . You should never mix truth and fantasy otherwise you lose your bearings. You no longer know what is real and what isn’t.***


Daniel Speck’s tale of three generations of an Italian family torn between Italy and Germany begins with the third generation, Julia a fashion designer from Munich whose mother, Tanja, is an alternative culture woman from the late seventies, with a life style diametrically opposed to fashion design, and whose Italian father, Vincenzo, has been dead since she was a young child. Julia is a talented designer who has never really broken through and just as she has her chance in a show in Milan, an elderly man, Vincent, meets her back Stage and tells her he is her grandfather.

We follow this story as Julia learns that her mother lied to her and that her father is still alive. The story takes us back through her family’s past, we learn of her grandmother, Giulietta, working in an Italian car factory which made the Isetta and of Vincent being sent to Milan by BMW to bring back an agreement to manufacture the car in what was still post war Germany:


–The Isetta sales in Italy were slow –it was a practical car, but not pretty. And whilst for the Germans, nothing can be good that’s not practical, for the Italians nothing can be good that’s not beautiful.***


Giulietta was however engaged to Enzo and when Vincenzo goes back to Munich wanting to take Giulietta with him, was she pregnant by Vincent or by Enzo? Throughout her story Giulietta keeps the two men in different worlds, inverted compared to the Isetta, Enzo practical, down to earth and Vincent for fantasy, love. In these hard times for women workers, Giulietta makes her own clothes and dreams of opening a shop.

In this story which oscillates between Munich and Italy, Daniel Speck tells us of the complicated relationship between Germany and its first post war immigrants, the Italians, the very first Gastarbeiters in Germany  who came to work, to save and to return to Italy but who had next to no rights in Germany, but who would, as with the following waves of Gastarbeiters, help shape today’s Germany. For instance today’s Munich counts more than 700 pizzerias, up from 0 in the middle fifties. Speck illustrates this period through the story firstly of Giulietta’s twin brother, Giovanni one of the original Gastarbeiters and then of Giulietta who follows him to Munich and of her son, Vincenzo, Julia’s father.

Having lived in both Germany and Italy I enjoyed this well researched book, read for German lit month, which had just enough history and just enough intrigue to take me through this 640 paged door wedge of a book in German. I liked the symmetry of Julia and Giulietta both in name and character and in the choice of the names of Vincent, Enzo and Vincenzo for Giulietta’s lover, her husband and her son and that up until the end, the story still bounces back and forth between Munich and Italy.

First published in German as ‘Bella Germania’ by Fischer Verlag in 2016
*** My translation

Donald Ray Pollock ‘The Heavenly Table’


—In 1917, just as another hellish August was starting to come to an end along the border that divides Georgia and Alabama, Pearl Jewett awakened his sons before dawn one morning with a guttural bark that sounded more animal than man. The three young men arose silently from their particular corners of the one-room shack and pulled on their filthy clothes, still damp with the sweat of yesterday’s labors. A mangy rat covered with scabs scuttled up the rock chimney, knocking bits of mortar into the cold grate. Moonlight funneled through gaps in the chinked log walls and lay in thin milky ribbons across the red dirt floor. With their heads nearly touching the low ceiling, they gathered around the center of the room for breakfast, and Pearl handed them each a bland wad of flour and water fried last night in a dollop of leftover fat. There would be no more to eat until evening, when they would all get a share of the sick hog they had butchered in the spring, along with a mash of boiled spuds and wild greens scooped onto dented tin plates with a hand that was never clean from a pot that was never washed. Except for the occasional rain, every day was the same.


Following on from my earlier read, 3 years ago, ‘The Devil All of the Time’, I was ready for my next journey with Donald Ray Pollock, this time mostly into the Kentucky-Ohio area around the time of the entry of the US into the First World War. These were desperate times for sharecroppers as the books opening paragraph, and my opening quote illustrates. The story is of desperate men, of the ever presence and devastation of alcohol and of a general feeling of lawlessness, Pollock weaves in for good measure a psychopathic killer and a story of both prostitution and homosexual activity around an army camp at Mead.

The main characters in the book, Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett, on the death of their domineering father decide to steel horses from the man that was exploiting them, Major Tardweller, but things go badly wrong  and the brothers start on a path of no return as outlaws. Pollock weaves in here ‘The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket’,  The only book they had ever poessed  which Cane had read them over and over until they could recite whole sections of the book, as they get into difficult situations, they identify with Bloody Bill whilst at the same time only just understanding that it is a fiction and not a real story. The brothers have an aim as they flee, they will escape with their gains from robbing banks to Canada, but they have absolutely no idea of where Canada is.

Amongst the characters Pollock serves us up are Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler who are swindled out of their savings by a man that sells them cattle in a field that don’t belong to him, and as their son runs away, maybe to join the army and fight the Germans, it becomes clear that the have absolutely no idea where Germany could be. There is Sugar, a black man who lives to drink and stumbles from desperate situation to desperate situation as amongst other things he is tied up and thrown over a bridge into the Ohio river. Then there is the army lieutenant Bovard, with ideals of war similar to those of the ancient Greeks he has read about as he studied classics, discovering drugs and the fact he is gay and finally the psychopath, Pollard, who tortures and cuts up strangers before throwing their remains into the Ohio river.

In this desperate book, full of dry humour, Pollock brings together all of these stories into a crescendo. This book is crammed with the sort of details that hold the reader’s attention and is as good as his excellent ‘Devil All of the Time’. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet discovered Donald Ray Pollock.

First published in English as ‘The Heavenly Table’ by Harvill Secker in 2016

Rosa Montero ‘Flesh’


—She straightened up. Round breasts, heavy, slightly drooping, it makes sense, but still pretty. A body shaped by gym sessions. Completely natural. 60 years old. For sixty she wasn’t bad at all. IMG_1293But, of course, from today on she was in her bloody sixties.she reached out a hand and turned the light on, one of the fluorescent lights above her wardrobe, shining down on her whole body, acceptably smooth until now under indirect light, seemed suddenly to slump as if subjected to the forces of 3D gravity…She inspected herself slowly in the mirror without pity. The body is a terrible thing she said to herself out loud, so as to get moving again.***


Soledad is single professional woman coming to terms with her age at sixty, at once strong but insecure, determined but fragile and reaffirming a hunger for life.

In this book which can be translated into English as ‘Flesh’, Montero paints us a complex picture of a woman of sixty who is still maturing, jealous since her married boyfriend left her for his pregnant wife, jealous to the point of hiring a gigolo for an evening at the opera to try to show him she was better without him, to make him jealous, only for her acquaintances to think she was with her son.

She has her life under some sort of control up to this point, but when leaving the the Opera, her Spanish speaking Russian gigolo intercedes in a violent robbery and things get out of hand from here, their relationship becomes deeper than the clear one of a gigolo and his client. As their relationship evolves, the central question becomes one of danger, is Soledad in physical danger from the young Russian man or, as she suspects he is not being honest with her and she begins following him, is he more in danger from the fiery Soledad? This is juxtaposed with the stories of the Cursed Writers which she is considering for the exposition she is preparing for the National Library. As Soledad’s hunger for life and experiences is confirmed, The ever present question of the onwards march of time persists:


—Soledad felt once again an onset of panic, the unending sadness to think that she may never again fall in love, that she may never again lean up against a man’s body, that she may never again feel a man inside her, that her body may never feel the heat of passion for another. The last time you make love, the last time you climb a mountain, the last time you run in the Retiro park. Time ticks on unstoppable, towards the final destruction like a bomb.***


First published in Spanish as ‘La Carne’ by Alfaguara in 2016
Translated into French by Myriam Chirousse as “La Chair” and published by Éditions Métailié in 2017
*** My translation

Andrée A Michaud ‘Bondrée’


—The children had long since been put to bed when Zaza Mulligan, on Friday the 21st of July, started up the forest path leading to her parents chalet humming Aimg_0860 Whitet Shade of Pale driven on by Procul Harum alongside Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in the sparkling lights of the summer of 67. She’d drunken too much but she didn’t care.***


Welcome to Boundary Pond, a lake on the Quebec, Maine border, which picked up the name of Bondrée from Pierre Landry a long since dead trapper. In this book about the great out doors around the lake and its surrounding forest, Peter’s forest, Michaud manages the feat of presenting us with a closed set up mystery. At the outset of the story Zaza Mulligan is found dead after having her leg sectioned in one of Pierre Landry’s old bear traps, and after investigation by the American detective Stan Michaud the enquiry returns an accidental death but Michaud has his doubts:


—Life reorganized itself around this absence and everyone, except for friends and family as well as cops like himself, unable to hold back the ghosts, would forget that in this space, filled by absence, there was once a young girl. It had to be so, the game didn’t allow the participation of the deceased.***


And then the second death in similar circumstances leaves no doubt, there is a killer out there. Michaud shows us the tired and haunted detective, The mix of holiday makers around the lake, part American and part Québécois, only managing a few words of each other’s language as well as several chapters narrated by the young Andrée Duchamp, no longer a child but not yet an adolescent:


—I’d only seen my mother in such a state at the death of her father grand-dad Fred. For weeks after papys funeral, she just disappeared at any time. Her body was still there bent over the sink or over the kitchen counter, but the essence of my mother was gone. Her hands hung in the air in front of her, our questions slid from her ears and it needed for her to drop her knife or her potato for her to re-enter her body. These absences scared me, because the false grimace that froze her looks belonged to a stranger that I wouldn’t have wanted to cross in the dark.***


And who is Little Hawk, an erstwhile friend of, and who had been taught more than twenty years previously to trap by, Pierre Landry and who finding Landry hung in his hut swore that:


—Nobody, ever, will touch my son, my daughter, my father or my brother.***


Michaud, who manages to have a detective with her surname and a narrator with her christian name, much like Agatha Christie before her, even though we know all of the families around the lake, keeps us guessing till the end.

First published in French as ‘Bondrée’ by Les Éditions Québec Amérique in 2013
Translated into English by Donald Winkler as “Boundary” and published by No Exit Press in 2017
*** My translation

Bérangère Cournut ‘Née Contente À Oraibi’


—I was told, in order to make me a daughter of her clan and because I peed on her the first time she took me in her arms, an aunt called me at first Honawpaahu, Bear-who-sprays-like-a-fountain. IMG_1292Then as on that day I laughed with my mouth wide open, another baptised me Tatatitaawa, She-who-greets-the-sun-with-a-smile……In the following weeks, I ceased peeing on people, wrapped tight in my willow cot like all new borns….which is why I remained Tatatitaawa.***


Born Happy At Oraibi: This is the story of a young American Indian girl, a Hopi, a people who live in the Arazona desert, a people who scrape out a living in this inhospitable area and we are plunged into her life and, through it, the Hopi’s complex belief system, so thoroughly linked to their surroundings and the natural world.

The Hopis live in this arid desert, so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter, dépendant on the meagre harvest for survival, we are with Tatatitaawa, of the butterfly clan, as she grows up in this happy but small community in Oraibi at the third Mesa with at the centre Itangu, the oldest woman of the clan. We are with her as she changes her name at key stages of her life.

We hear of Soyal, when her father and the other men leave their house when the days are shortest and the nights are longest in order pray with the priests and .to call back the sun and of Lakon when the women fast at the end of the cycle in November to pray for rain. We hear of her father who sometimes roared like thunder in the house, but as her mother says, who would complain at the sky for thundering before it delivers us water.

Besides the stories of Hopi celebrations and prayers, births and deaths, we discover Walpi on the first Mesa where Tatatitaawa’s father’s clan, the Grey Bear come from and of the quarrel between her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister of the Black Bear tribe who she believes to be a two-heart who has stolen and given birth to her nborn child.

This is a book with succeeds in giving the reader a glimpse of the Hopi culture and helps the reader to begin to feel its rhythm.

First published in French as ‘Née Contente à Oraibi’ by Le Tripode in 2016
*** My translation