Bernhard Schlink and Walter Popp ‘Self’s Punishment’

Having read some of Schlink’s later works such as ‘The Weekend’ for example, I wanted to try a back to the roots look at one of his earliest works, written in association with Walter Popp ‘Self’s Punishment for German Lit Month V. The title in itself misses out on the ambiguity of the German title ‘Selbs Justiz’.


This book published in 1987 and set at about the same time was released as a TV film in 1991 in Germany as ‘Der Tod Kam Als Freund’. This is a crime novel about people and motives, not a procedural thriller.

The book begins as an early story on computer manipulation affecting the RCW (Rhine Chemical Works) for which the company president Korten calls in his brother in law Selb, a 68 year old detective, to investigate discretely. After discovering that this is an early case of outside intervention over phone lines, Selb writes his report and part 1 of the book ends.

Part two begins with the seemingly accidental death in a road accident of Mishkey, the man Selb had confronted and denounced to RCW in part 1 and the following investigation leads into the murky pasts of RCW and eventually Selbs and Korten.

The essence of this book is about how people can come through a criminal regime, in this case Nazi Germany, and react so differently. Selb was a court prosecutor during the war, a believer in the regime ‘At the end of the war I was no longer wanted. I’d been a convinced National Socialist, an active party member, and a tough prosecutor who’d also argued for, and won, the death penalty. There were some spectacular trials. I had faith in the cause and saw myself as a soldier on the legal front’. After the war when so many of his colleagues went back to their previous jobs after temporary suspension Self could not accept this ‘Around the time of the Monetary Reform they started to draft incriminated colleagues back in. I could have returned to the judiciary then, too. But I saw what the efforts to get reinstated, and the reinstatement itself, did to my colleagues. Instead of feeling guilt they only had a sense that they’d been done an injustice when they were expelled and that this reinstatement was a kind of reparation. That disgusted me.’ He then began a lifetime of coming to terms with his past until awoken by the events in his investigation he says ‘I had planned to live at peace with my past. Guilt, atonement, enthusiasm and blindness, pride and anger, morality and resignation –I’d brought it all together in an elaborate balance. The past had become abstract. Now reality had caught up with me and was threatening that balance.’

In contrast his brother in law, Korten, who is quoted in the book as saying ‘It’s not reprehensible to use people, it’s just tactless to let them notice’ became the head of the RCW (Rhine Chemical Works), determined to keep the lid on his previous criminal actions during the regime. As Korten replies when questioned about events ‘Actually I don’t have to comment on that. The years between nineteen thirty-three and nineteen forty-five are supposed to remain a blank –that’s the foundation on which our state is built.’

The book slowly builds up to a confrontation between these two characters and their beliefs.

This is a well written crime novel, as with ‘The Reader’ revisiting aspects of Nazi Germany, peoples actions and how the consequences play out in their lives following the war. There are two other books in the series, both translated into English, Self’s Murder and Self’s Deception, although I am not a great reader of series I will read these at a later date.

First published in German as ‘Selbs Justiz’ by Diogenes Verlag in 1987.
Translated into English by Rebecca Morrison and published by Random House in 2005.


Antonin Varenne ‘Trois Mille chevaux Vapeur’

Antonin Varenne is a future great writer whose previous two books ‘Bed of Nails‘ and ‘ Losers Corner‘ have been published in English by MacLehose Press. His latest and greatest book ‘Trois Mille Chevaux Vapeur’ or ‘Three Thousand Horse Power’ in English was released in France in April last year.


This story follows Arthur Bowman, initially an English private soldier working for the East India Company, on his life changing Odyssey beginning with his and his group’s initial capture and torture over a four month period in the Burmese jungle, their return to London and their inability to come to terms with what had happened to them illustrated mainly by Arthur’s despair.

A series of terrible murders then begin where the victims are killed in the same fashion as Arthur and his group were tortured, leading Arthur to deduce that the murderer was one of the few survivors of their ordeal.

The book follows Arthur on the trail of murders from mid 19th century London to New York and the long trail to San Francisco. The reader follows the metamorphosis of Arthur from unquestioning soldier through to a person capable of forgiveness.

This book is at the crossroads between being a thriller and an adventure story, set in several very precise moments in history, from the demise of the East India Company through to the wagon trains to the west and the American civil war.

Greed and survival are the two major themes ever present throughout the 700 pages. From the writing style through to the subject matter this is a book almost written for the English speaking world. The descriptive skill had me feeling I was present in most of the places in which the story was set.

Highly recommended, come on MacLehose, get this one translated.

First published in French as Trois Mille Chevaux Vapeur by Albin Michel in 2014

Monique Schwitter ‘Goldfish Memories’

Monique Switter made it onto the Buch Preis long list with ‘Eins im Andern’ this year which I will try to finish for German Lit Month, so in the mean time to get acquainted with her I have read Goldfish Memories, a series of short stories first published as ‘Goldfischgedächtnis’ in 2011.


This collection of stories, whether from the title story ‘Goldfish Memories’ dealing with having a drunken father or the excellent ‘The Pit’ dealing with an ageing actress who had memorised, unable to forget, so many roles and now due to ill health finds her memories being erased, or from ‘A Tendency Towards Nothing’ with a random meeting leading to monthly silent gambling outings  is faithful to its title Goldfish Memories, stories that are a collection of jerky sound bites as if rediscovering the world at each tour of the bowl.

A theme running through the book, again a part of a goldfish memory, is a study of nothingness: in ‘The Pitt’ the actress finally remembers a line:

-But whate’er I be, Nor I nor any man that but man is With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased With being nothing.

In ‘A Tendency Towards Nothing’ the title is illustrated by Döblin ‘Nothingness is the material which holds, and does not hold, the things of this world in balance.’ In ‘Haiku and Horror’ this discussion between the journalist and the writer illustrates this theme:

-What are you reading at the moment?
-Nothing. I watch films.
-You’re not reading anything?
-Nothing of consequence.
-That makes me curious!’

The words nothing or nothingness are ever present (74 times throughout the volume).

The staccato rhythm given to these stories by the writing method, where often the protagonists are the goldfish but where it is the reader who is mostly given the impression that he rediscovers something about the story with each ‘sound bite’, enhances the interest and makes this volume of short stories a compelling read.

First published in German as Goldfischgedächtnis by Literaturverlag Droschl in 2011
Translated into English by Eluned Gramich and published by Parthian in 2015

Michel Bussi ‘Omaha Crimes’

This is Bussi’s first book (pre dating Black Waterlilies and After the Crash both published in English) originally written 20 years ago and recently republished, his twisted story lines were already in place, the premise the story is built on, a D-day story which leads to a string of events over France and the USA including disappearances, suicide, accidents, greed, deception and murder over a 45 year period, is original.


On the 6th June 1944, a troop of 178 rangers have the task of landing on the beach then one at a time carrying explosives in open machine gun fire to breach a wall before getting to the bottom of the cliffs, they estimate that the first 30 rangers at least will die in the attempt and decide to draw lots to decide their order of assault. The rich Oscar Arlington who draws the number 4 begs to swap his number for another against a large sum of money which subsequently is never paid (maybe).

an enjoyable read including however, one or two points which the writer would handle differently today such as the relationship between Alice and her private detective.

First published in French as ‘Omaha Crimes’ by PTC (company since dissolved) in 2007.
Republished in French by Les Presses de la Cité as ‘Gravé dans le Sable’ in 2014

Mohamed Kacimi ‘The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing’

MOHAMED KACIMI is a prolific Algerian playwright and novelist. His writings include 1962 and the autobiographic L’Orient après l’Amour. ‘The Day Nina Simone stopped Singing’ is the result of a meeting in a Paris theatre of Kacimi and “a shy young girl” Darina Al-Joundi who handed him an open letter to her father “who had dreamed of the greatest of freedoms for his daughter while she, precisely because of this freedom, would come to know the worst servility…She told (him) the story of her childhood, her wars, her drug habit, and her love affairs without any self-censorship.”This book is that story. This is the second book this year which I have read treating the war in Lebanon (Sorj Chalandon’s Quatrième Mur).


The story is a search for freedom against the background of the terrible war in Lebanon which gave rise to the radical religious groups and a disappearance of the space for personal liberties as well as the particular violence against women institutionalised and practiced by all of the religious groups in The Lebanon.

The story begins with the defining moment of the book, with Darina in agreement with her father’s wishes refusing to let religion become part of his funeral rite by turning off the cassette playing the Koran. “Suddenly I heard a strange voice that ripped through me. An intolerable cry that split my skull, pierced my skin: someone was wailing verses from the Koran. I flung open the door to the next room. It was filled with women in black weeping around a cassette player broadcasting prayers. I stepped over and on them, snatched the cassette player, and shut it off. The women shouted out in horror. My mother and my sisters tried to grab hold of me, shouting, “Stop that! You’re mad! Come back, this is not the time …” I ran to hide in my father’s room and double-locked the heavy oak door. I heard the men hollering, “You crazy woman, give back the Koran or we’ll kill you. Open up, you bitch, open up! One doesn’t cut off the voice of God. Open up, you bitch, if you so much as touch God’s Book you’re dead.”

How did we get to this situation, the book takes us from Darina’s fifth birthday and the powder keg that was Lebanon, “Beirut was a free city, the oasis of every Arab intellectual who in his own country was forced into silence. It was also the capital of the PLO, the Palestinians made the laws, and Beirut was their republic…….in Lebanon, we all know where we come from, to what community we belong, of which there are seventeen in our country; so are you Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Maronite? Even cats know to what religion their families belong, even a dog can smell whether his leash is held by a Greek Catholic or a Greek Orthodox.” Into this keg came Darina whose secular father brought her up with an ideal of personal freedom that would need fighting for and was maybe possible before the war.

Kacimi and Al-Joundi then lead us through the war years where because of the continual danger over so many years a complete disregard for personal danger and risk becomes the norm. We are introduced to the concept of a “house of surrender.” In Islam, when a husband lodges a complaint against his wife for desertion, the police forcibly bring her back and the husband can “tame her” by locking her up at home or in a stairwell. as well as the Christian version the priest informed me that the Church did not allow divorce, no exceptions made, but for ten thousand he might be able to make things easier for me…. a novice in a cassock who was to count the bills. As he waited for the result, the priest read the Gospel of St. Mark and when he heard the words “it’s fine,” he gave me a certificate of annulment without so much as a word.

The story then reaches the defining moment from the beginning of the book and the violence against women outside of wartime is illustrated, when after her father’s death she is physically beaten on the street and forcefully psychiatrically interned at her families request until she agrees to promise not to dance anymore, not to drink or smoke anymore, not to go out with men anymore, not to talk the way (you) did before. She finally leaves The Lebanon.

This book is published in English by The Feminist Press and should be compulsory reading in schools.

First published in French as ‘Le Jour Où Nina Simone a Cessé de Chanter’ by Actes Sud in 2008.
Translated into English by Marjolijn De Jager and published by The Feminist Press as ‘The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing’ in 2011

Pierre Deram ‘Djibouti’

Pierre Deram’s first book Djibouti was released last June, he is a young author and judging by this book we haven’t heard the last of him.


This book is about Markus, a French soldier and his last night in Djibouti after a 6 months tour of duty. Djibouti is a particularly inhospitable strip of land which controls the entry to the Red Sea, and in the first third of the book Deram explains to us just how extreme this city is during the day, from his arrival in Djbouti “Six months since that first day on the burning Tarmac ; so hot that he thought it must be due to the jet engines, but it was only the khamsin”,*** through the soldier’s folk memory “One day, a soldier was lost in the middle of the desert during manoeuvres. They found him in the evening on the road to Dikhil, completely naked, burnt from head to toe, his face eaten by the sun, green, full of puss, almost skinless.”***

His precisely written descriptions leave us in no doubt as to the difficulty of living there with an economy seemingly built solely around the military presence, bars, clubs, taxi’s and prostitutes. We learn how these people survive, “Towards six in the evening, the sun finally disappears over the horizon, leaving behind a landscape of dust and people with nothing. So in the last reddish remnants of daylight, ignoring water and food, the people of Djibouti, warn out by thirst and fatigue, head in droves for the stalls piled high with the green bouquets of the magic drug…Khat.”***

Then begins the night, full of senseless violence, drunkenness and crudely described sex. Legionnaire and soldier, soldier and prostitute, soldiers and refugees.

Deram presents a soldier’s drinking game as an allegory where with escalating violence, two soldiers blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs fight by head butts until only one is left standing, as Markus asks later “have you ever had the feeling, madam? That the world is bankrupt…that we all wander around blindfolded, completely lost in a drunken night.”***

This was a short, well written book with an engaging subject matter, Djibouti May be strategic but life there is pointless. This book is worth a translation and we will hear much more of Deram

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

Jonas Lüscher ‘Barbarian Spring’

I discovered a recommendation for this book in the French magazine Lire’s October edition which has the book’s humour as caustic , a stinging turn of phrase, and less than 200 pages of small mindedness as well as …. repeated misfortunes for dromedaries. Well I had to try this one!


We discover the main protagonist, Preising who tells his story in an interview. After he inherits his company in dire straits, ‘Preising’s father, who put off dying just long enough for his son to complete the Business Studies degree he’d interrupted by spending eighteen months at a private Parisian singing school, bequeathed Preising his TV-aerial factory with 35 employees at a time when cable television had already gained a firm foothold.’ more by luck than by skill he hires a young engineer that turns his company into a success and keeps Preising as a figurehead with no real power.

Half a decade after the banking crisis and a couple of years after the Arab Spring Preising finds himself on a business trip to his suppliers in Tunisia where he is installed in one of their themed hotels in the desert ‘THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS RESORT in the oasis at Tschub was modelled on a nomadic Berber settlement –or, to be more precise, on what market researchers thought a first-class tourist to Tunisia might imagine when he pictured a typical Berber settlement.’ The Hotel is filled with a large wedding party of derivative traders from the City. Here we have the ingredients for a fine tale.

To avoid spoilers my description stops here, but the story reminds me a little of Tom Sharp although I did not laugh out loud as I did with ‘Wilt’, but maybe I’m just 40 years older now.

First published in German as ‘Frühling der Barbaren’ by Verlag CH Beck in 2013.
Translated into English by Peter Lewis and published by Haus Publishing as ‘Barbarian Spring’ in 2014