Thomas B Reverdy ‘Il était une ville’

Reverdy is no newcomer to dramas set in faraway worlds, after his last work, ‘Les evaporés’ (Those spirited away), published in 2013 and set In Japan, ‘Il était une ville’ (There was a city) is an ambitious book with three story lines set in a post apocalyptic Detroit, except that the apocalypse which is the background for the book actually took place!

In the presentation of the book Reverdy’s editor explains that ‘he tells us what love is in the times of catastrophe’***


Reverdy takes us to Detroit in 2008, where Eugene, a young manager with an already chequered past, is sent to Detroit by his Corporation (Either as a punishment or as a last chance) to lead a multi-national team on a project that can never realistically see the light of day.

Reverdy shows us from several view points the central theme of the book,

” ….. And this is also what is at stake in human society. Run, we don’t know how to do anything else. And when things start to go wrong, we accelerate – what else can we do ?….At the precise moment of their fall, all civilisations seem to be like headless chickens”***

With the Corporation that continues to imagine grandiose solutions in spite of its own inevitable demise, forgetting about its different teams along the way.

With Detroit where “You had to carry on buying houses, cars, filling your supermarket caddy, but there weren’t any more jobs”.***

With the City Police where due to the bankruptcy of the city administration they no longer have the adequate equipment to do their job whilst the mayor of the city is forced to resign after the murder of an ex call girl brings to light  his sex parties and fraud on a massive scale.

With more than seventy youths who go missing over a period of several months without the police being notified in a shrinking city (Detroit actually shrinks by one third of its population) and who are found living together in the abandoned city center.

In this chaos, Reverdy shows us some people that care and gives us a story of love and hope that does not seem out of place.

The ravages of capitalism on Detroit shown in this book do not seem so very different from that shown on Moscow by Makïne in ‘A Woman Loved’

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Published in French in 2015 by Flammarion
***My translation


Andreï Makine ‘A Woman Loved’

Andreï Makine, who won the biggest French literary prize the Goncourt in 1995, was rescued from an orphanage in Siberia in 1960 by his grandmother and raised speaking French, his own parents were “probably” deported. Makine, whose classical style writing stands out from other modern French literature, took political asylum in France just two years before the Berlin Wall came down.

A Woman Loved is exceptional, it had me thinking how interesting a couple of chapters of Wolf Hall written in the style of Makine would be! Now there’s a challenge.


This book centres around an initially young film director Oleg Erdmann, Russian but of German origin. Erdmann is a tortured individual “back then he had been someone caught between his two origins, suffering from his past and wishing feverishly to succeed his future, he didn’t know how to define himself in relationship to the world, he invented complicated identities, alibis and reasons for himself.”***he lives to bring the essence of Catherine the Great, a German princess who becomes the ruler of Russia, to the screen. Makine brings us through the difficulties of the late Soviet era (how to get a film past the Soviet film board), with Brezhnev dying before the film is finished.

Catherine’s supposed numerous love affairs and wild sexual life, the payoff for her favourites, the intrigues, murders and revenge are so well reported that throughout the changes, from soviet to oligarch to new Russia, Oleg is unable to get beyond the rumours to the truth of Catherine’s life as he imagines it. A Woman who cannot escape from her own caricature but who in her early 50’s falls in love and is ready to leave everything for her lover Lanskoy.

Oleg is able to recycle himself and his work in the post Soviet world, producing a successful television series on Catherine, selling out on all of his values delivering an ever escalating soft porn version of Catherine’s life.

He eventually comes full circle to the actress who played Catherine from the first Soviet version of his work, who he had never been able to forget and finishes through her in finding out who he actually is through the power of love “a simple identity….a man reflected in the eye of a woman who is loved”***

What a beautiful description!

First published in French as Une Femme Bien Aimée by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Geoffrey Strachan and published in 2015 by MacLehose Press
***Read in French, my translation


Daniel Kehlmann “Fame”

This is a novel in nine stories and as Leo, a famous author says “Stories within stories within stories. You never  know where one ends and the the next starts! To tell the truth they all blend together, they’re only ever really separated in books”.***


Kehlmann strings together for us nine seemingly weakly intertwined novels, using varying writing styles, I thought I recognised a similarity to The Book Of Dave in chapter 7.

The link between the chapters seems to me to be role play and disappearance:

From the man whose telephone number is given to someone else and who thus effectively disappears, to the man later in the book who has the responsibility for editing new phone numbers and who, caught up in relationships with two different women, asks himself “If I was mad?….in which labyrinth I was lost? I’d advanced step by step, none of them seemed large or difficult, but without realising it I’d advanced so far that I could no longer see the way out…..but during the daytime, when I got up and took on each of my roles as if they were the only one, everything seemed to me once again to be easy and almost normal”***

From the woman writer who replaces Leo on a book tour in an eastern country and who was not expected, (she wasn’t Leo) and who steadily disappears, to the writer of this book who appears in a veiled manner taking on roles in the book and who eventually disappears.

I enjoyed this book and was not tempted to pause between the distinct chapters.

First published if German as Ruhm in 2009 by Rowohlt Verlag
Translated into French by Juliette Aubert and published by Actes Sud in 2009
Translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway and published by Quercus in 2011

***Book read in French, my translation with excuses to Carol Brown Janeway

Alessandro Baricco ‘Without Blood’

Baricco’s short Book “Without Blood” takes place in an unnamed Latin country after an unnamed civil war, maybe Spain, maybe Southern America. At the end of the war vengeance is in the air.image In the first half of the book Nina, an eight year old girl lives through the violent murder of her family whilst hidden below the floor boards, the role of her father in the dirty war is mentioned.

During the attack Nina is discovered by the young Tito who, feeling sorry for the young girl and thinking the rest of his band would kill her, gives the all clear and leaves her hidden, only to be devastated when the building is then wilfully destroyed by fire.

Fifty years later as Tito is an old man, a lady he just knows is Nina presents herself to him. All of the other people present that fateful day have been since killed. We are then shown two contrasting interpretations of Nina’s life, before under lifelong crippling guilt Tito accepts the fate Nina has prepared for him and Nina must decide between revenge or pardon, her choice comes in the last page of the book.

This carefully written book reminded me in its blurred edges and descriptive manner of Dino Buzzati’s Tartare Steppe. An easy read.

First published in Italian as Senza Sangue by Rizzoli in 2002
Translated into English by Ann Goldstein and published in 2004 by Knopf
Translated into French by Françoise Brun and published in 2003 by Albin Michel

Amélie Nothomb ‘The Book of Proper Names’

I had a large hole in my racket, Amélie Nothomb, a very prolific French language writer from Belgium. “People either love her or hate her” I was told, I am here to confess that after reading “Robert des Noms Propres” I neither hate her nor love her, this was simply an unusual story, well worth reading.image This is the romanticised story of the Belgian singer RoBert, Amélie Nothomb manages to tell the story with the child at the center as she grows from a foetus to a singer

Plectrude’s life story begins with her 19 year old pregnant mother blowing a hole in her father’s head to “protect” her soon to be born child, she then gives birth to Plectrude in prison before committing suicide.

We are happy for Plectrude as her Aunt takes her in and raises her as her own beloved child, she grows in these circumstances into an exceptional young dancer at the Paris Ballet school where she succumbs to anorexia as a young adolescent, to the point of damaging her own bone structure and thus losing her dream. This is one episode in an eventful life and my description does not do justice to Nothomb’s detailed story as she leads us and Plectrude through adolescence to the key dramatic point of her life and it’s resolution.

We are placed in the position as observers of people’s stupidity, as we watch, powerless, the events unfold. The fairy tale life that the young girl lives (being allowed to eat whatever she wants dressing as a fairy and drifting through early life) is then reactivated as she finally leaves adolescence for a happy ending.

First published in French as Robert des Noms Propres by Albin Michel in 2002
Translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Faber in 2005

Gioconda Belli ‘Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand’

Giaconda Belli’s book expands on the mythology of the garden of Eden and mankind’s expulsion recentered from a female viewpoint, starting with the title from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, feminised in the English translationimage To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour. Belli chooses not to attack the myth itself:- expelling and replacing the warm, providing female earth gods of fertility, harvest etc by the haughty, removed, unforgiving male air god. But instead to revisit the myth changing the view of Eve from that of the week partner being easily tricked and ensuring mankind was ejected from paradise to the strong partner making the necessary decisions Adam was too afraid to make: Clearly it is inconceivable that Adam and Eve could avoid being forced out of the garden of Eden since humans have free will and this will always confront blind obedience. She paints Adam as fickle, Adam chose not to comprehend. It was easier to blame her than the Other who never allowed himself to be seen.
Belli’s novel treats duality, He (Adam) saw the Serpent. “It’s you. I recognize you….. You know him (Elokim) very well.”
“We have been together for a long time. As long as he exists, I will exist, too.”
“You exist to contradict him.”
“Without me he would find eternity intolerable. I provide him with surprises, the unpredictable.

This is not a book about creationism and an all powerful God ruling over us, as the serpent says to Eve
“Are you saying that we will create Good and Evil on our own?”
“There’s no one else. You are alone.”
“And Elokim?”
“He will remember you from time to time, but what he forgets is as vast as what he remembers.”
“We are alone.”
“The day you accept that, you will be truly free. And now I must go.”

The first half of the book dealing with the Garden of Eden myth kept my attention, the second half dealing with Cain, Abel and their twin sisters I found rather tedious.

First published in Spanish by Seix Barral in 2008
Translated into English by Margaret Sayers Peden and published in 2009 by HarperCollins

Thomas Hettche ‘The Arbogast Case’

Thomas Hettche’s Arbogast Case, based on a true story of criminal mis-justice in West Germany stretches from the early 50’s immediate post war times through the building of the Berlin Wall up to the period of  civil unrest towards the end of the 60’s.

The book is roughly divided into four parts, firstly the initial incident and it’s aftermath leading up to Arbogasts sentence, the second part portrays the detention centre and helps us to understand the utter hopelessness of The detainee’s life in this centre at that time. The third part concerns itself with the fight to get a re-trial and the last part deals with this trial.


Hans Arbogast, a married travelling sales man, was no saint and nor was the hitch hiker, one of the refugees from the east living in the Ringsheim camp on that September day in 1953. “After awhile, he felt her hand on his neck and her fingers slipping inside his shirt collar…… “Why don’t we just stop somewhere along the way?” “Do we want to do that?” “Yes.” Her voice was so close against his face that he could feel her moist breath on his skin.” Marie Gurth then died in his arms during a second “vigorous” bout of love making.

His trial hinged on an expert witness who attested to undoubted strangulation, against the view of the legist, based on some poor photos. A possible explanation for this is given towards the end of the book “I went to see Arbogast yesterday, and I do think that what happened back then was some sort of accident. But also an eruption, a sort of blown circuit, a storm, a vestige from the war that suddenly discharged.” “What’s the war got to do with it?” “He’s got it in him.” “So?” “I think everyone felt that back then. People knew the scent of it all too well. The jurors, the judges, the press, all of them knew one thing: That had to go. It mustn’t be allowed. The fear was too great. Then people got civilized—and now the fear is gone. People have actually forgotten it was ever there.”

Hettche then helps us to understand the particular prison that was the Bruchsal Penitentiary, copied on a British idea that was never applied so purely in Britain, Bruchsal was a panopticon prison, designed to de-humanise its inmates at a lowest possible cost. This part of the book seems long but is powerful.

It took his new lawyers the best part of 7 years to get his second hearing, German law “as it existed today, contained all of history inside it…He’d often thought he could hear echoes of the language used during Germany’s imperial past in the current Criminal Code; in certain passages, there were also shades of the heated rhetoric from the period between the wars, when new laws had been drafted in rapid succession; then, too, there were tones of the horrible premeditated sobriety of the Nazis, who had stormed across the Penal Code, incorporating into it one reform after the next….all these disparate voices within the law constituted the real prison that held Arbogast captive.”

There is no doubt in the readers mind that the case against Arbogast would be dropped and as the judge says “Only Hans Arbogast knows if we have made a mistake.”

I found this an enlightening read, a type of historical procedural thriller and many thanks to Farrar the English language publishers for having taken this book on.

First published in Germany by DuMont Verlag in 2001
Translated into English by Elizabeth Gaffney and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2003
Translated into French by Nicole Casanova and published by Grasset et Fasquelle in 2003