Daniel Kehlmann ‘Tyll‘

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.

1. “Tyll”: In order of reading book number 1.

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

Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Tyll Ulenspiegel… sang a mocking ballad about the poor, stupid Winter King, the Elector Palatine, who had thought he could defeat the Kaiser and accept Prague’s crown from the Protestants, yet his kingship had melted away even before the snow. He sang about the Kaiser too, who was always cold from praying, the little man trembling before the Swedes in the imperial palace in Vienna, and then he sang about the King of Sweden, the Lion of Midnight, strong as a bear, but of what use had it been to him against the bullets in Lützen that took his life like that of any mere soldier, and out was your light, and gone the little royal soul, gone the lion! Tyll Ulenspiegel laughed, and we laughed too, because you couldn’t resist him and because it did us good to remember that these great men were dead and we were still alive, and then he sang about the King of Spain with his bulging lower lip, who believed he ruled the world even though he was broke as a chicken.


Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novel places the legend of Tyll in the Europe’s thirty years war where some estimates suggest up to fifty percent of the population of Germany succumbed to war and it’s byproducts famine and disease. The book is organised into separate stories involving the jester Tyll and the events of this complex war of the early seventeenth century. As the book begins, near the end of the war, Tyll arrives in a village of about one hundred people, so far spared by the war and amongst juggling, theatre and tightrope walking he tells the story of the war so far as in the opening quote in a language that would be easily understood by the people at the time and is at the same time a prologue to the book we are about to discover.

We move back to Tyll’s youth and one of the events this war for control of Europe between the Habsburgs, catholics and the Lutherians and Calvinists becomes known for. A previous peace treaty had set that if the ruler of one of the areas in the contested parts of Germany should be of a religion, or convert then everyone under his rule should be of the same religion. Thus when two Jesuits arrived in their village at the behest of the ruler, Kehlmann uses the individual story as an illustration of the global situation as Tyll’s father is tried for witchcraft, with the full use of torture and the Jesuit’s reasoned explanation for their “fair” trial.

Tyll lives through a number of events, becoming the Jester to the Calvinist Winter King, Frederick V, whose reclamation of the kingdom of Bohemia was the event which started the war and who had been deposed after one winter. Frederick was married to Elizabeth Stuart and it is through her, years later that we visit the peace conference, a surreal process where none of the key protagonists were allowed to be present and their negotiators had little or no power to come to agreements.

On the road with Tyll we see the brutality and filth of this war with camps of one hundred thousand soldiers but no latrines, of the intervention of the king of Sweden on the Protestant side and eventually the intervention in the war of France, against the Habsburgs, and thus on the Protestant side.

If you know nothing of this period of history, and here I hold my hand up, this is a fascinating way of discovering it

First Published in German as “Tyll” in 2017 by Rowohlt. Translated into English by Ross Benjamin and published in 2020 as Tyll by Pantheon. Translated into French by Juliette Aubert and published in 2020 as “Le Roman de Tyll Ulespiègle” by Actes Sud

Alaa El Aswany ‘j’ai couru vers le Nil’


—You know, I deserve a citation of excellence , but of course they are only open to sons of paschas.
His father did’t understand and Khaled explained to him that the university administration awarded citations of excellence to children of the teaching staff and to those of high officials in order to ensure their nomination as assistants. This angered Madani.
—But this is unjust.
—But of course it’s unjust
—you must lodge a complaint.
Khaled broke out laughing:
—What complaint? Haj Madani. We’re in Egypt. injustice is the rule.***


This is El Aswany’s novel treating the Egyptian spring, how the revolution came to remove Mubarak and how the military were able to stop the threatened revolution and to keep power, with the will of the people. This book is still banned in Egypt and when you read it you will understand why. The book begins with the movement in Tahrir Square already underway and treats a microcosm of Egyptian society. There are two students, Khaled the son of a chauffeur who explains to his father in the opening quote how the system is stacked against him and Dania the free thinking daughter of the head of state security, general Alouani. The following conversation between Dania and her father shows how an age old religion, here Islam, can be interpreted to justify almost anything as she has been protesting for justice for a dead protestor:


—We ask that his assassins are brought to justice.
—Who is we?
—My fellow students from university and I.
—I don’t understand are you a lawyer or a law student?
—I’m a muslim
—We’re all muslims
—Islam requires us to defend what is just.
—Islam says that sedition is worst than murder.
—Islam sanctifies man and forbids humiliation and torture.
—These are the words of human rights groups payed for by the european union. Who told you that Islam forbids torture? the lash, stoning, hands cut off, these aren’t torture? Islam permits torture of certain individuals and even killing them to ensure the stability of a country. Have you heard of taazir? According to taazir he who governs has the right to judge alone a crime and to decide on the accused’s punishment.***


This book is told through the stories these and of the other members of this microcosm, Asma a teacher, Mazen a unionist, Aschraf a rich Copt and his servant Akram as well as Nourhane a television presenter. We learn of the extreme violence of the army against their own people, including murders, torture and running over protestors at speed in narrow streets with their tanks, of the enforced and humiliating virginity tests carried out on the female protestors with soldiers watching on, these told through individual testimonies.

We are told of how State security, organises for rich private Egyptians within the media to set up a successful smear campaign against the young protestors persuading the average Egyptian that their is a plot against order and the army, financed from abroad, as in this excerpt concerning Nourhane:


Every evening the Egyptians watch Nourhane. She invites university professors, intellectuals, specialists in strategic affairs. All confirm with proof that the Egyptian revolution had only ever been a conspiracy financed and planned by the American secret services and their counterparts in Mossad. Each time, you could read the emotion on Nourhane’s beautiful face as she ended her program calling the almighty in a humble voice as the camera gives a closeup of her face:
—Oh God, make Egypt safe and free her from traitors and those that wish her ill.***


This is a deeply disturbing book mixing manipulation with religion and the underlying influence of Wahabism, the power of the rich arab states, to explain how Egypt’s present day has been shaped. I suspect this book is not going to be available in Egypt in the forseeable future.

First Published in Arabic as “Al-Joumhouriyya Ka’anna” in 2018 by Dar Al-Adab
Translated into french byGilles Gauthier and published by Actes Sud in 2018
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Nous demandons que ses assassins soient soumis à un proces juste.
—C’est qui, vous?
—Mes condisciples de l’université et moi.
—Je ne comprends pas: tu es avocate ou étudiante en droit?
—Je suis musulmane
—Nous sommes tous musulmans
—L’islam nous ordonne de défendre ce qui est juste.
—L’islam dit que la sédition est pire que le meurtre.
—L’islam a sanctifié l’homme et interdit de l’humilier et de le torturer.
—Ce sont là les propos des associations des droits de l’homme financés par l’Union européenne. Qui t’as dit que L’Islam interdit la torture? Le fouet, la lapidation, les mains coupées ne sont ils pas des torture? L’islam permet de torturer certains individus, et même de les tuer pour assurer la stabilité du pays. As–tu entendu parler du taazir? Selon le taazir, celui qui gouverne à le droit de juger seul le crime et de décider du châtiment de l’accusé.

—Tu sais, je mérite une mention d’excellence mais, bien sûr, elle est réservée aux fils de Pacha
Son père ne comprenait pas et Khaled lui expliqua que l’administration de la faculté accordait la mention d’excellence aux enfants des professeurs et des hauts responsables, de façon à assurer leur nomination comme assistants. Cela mit Madani en colère.
—Mais c’est une injustice.
—Bien sûr que c’est une injustice.
—Il faut que tu déposes plainte.
Khaled éclata de rire:
—Quelle plainte? Hadj Madani. Nous sommes en Égypte. L’injustice est la règle.

Tous les soirs les Égyptiens regardaient Nourhane. Elle invitait des professeurs d’université, des penseurs, des spécialistes des affaires stratégiques. Tous confirmaient avec preuves à l’appui que la révolution en Égypte n’avait été qu’un complot financé et planifié par les services secrets américains aidés par leurs confrères israéliens du Mossad. Chaque fois, l’émotion se lisait sur le beau visage de Nourhane, qui terminait son émission par une invocation qu’elle prononçait d’une voix humble tandis que la caméra faisait un gros plan sur son visage:
—Mon Dieu, donne la sécurité à l’Égypte et délivre-la des traîtres et de ceux qui lui veulent du mal.

Juli Zeh ‘Unterleuten’


“The land rent for ten wind turbines is fifty thousand euros a year. You work it out for a hundred turbines. Just to see what sort of a retirement that pays.”….
“Gombrowski’s going to wind up Ökologica. He doesn’t need it any more. Finished, over.”
The effect was immediate. Kron cut short all muttering with a movement of his hand.
“Think a bit. Ökologica hasn’t been profitable in a long time. Why is Gombrowski so set on the wind park? To pay himself a tidy pension.”
This time he let them mutter. Except for Ulrich, they all had family that worked at Ökologica: daughters, nephews, sons and sons in law; Björn’s grand-daughter had just begun an apprenticeship in agronomy. In Unterleuten to lose your job was the equivalent of a professional death sentence.***


Juli Zeh takes the time to set the scene in this delicious rural thriller, where the events that take place are blurred by the form, they are seen from the viewpoints of each of the many protagonists living in the village of Unterleuten in Brandebourg about fifty kilometres from Berlin, there are no truths only different perspectives. There are the new arrivals, moving in from the city and the villagers who have lived the tumultuous times of the twentieth century, the disenfranchisement of the land owners, the collectivisation of the land followed by targets set in Berlin that didn’t take account of the seasons and the capability of the land, the flight of villagers to the West, The Stasi’s spying of the people, the wall falling and coming to terms with Capitalism. The villagers all know each other or are related and old contentions run deep. Each of the protagonists, as the events unfold, is persuaded to be acting justly as the village’s fine balance is knocked out of equilibrium.

There is the mayor, Arne Seidel, who best represents the arbitrariness of the past fifty years, once the vet trained in The DDR, but whose training was no longer recognised after re-unification. Arne is then left a broken man when his beloved wife dies of a short illness only to discover that she had been a Stasi informer, writing page after page about him every week, before he is then coaxed by Rudolph Gombrowski into becoming Mayor.

There are the two long term enemies, Kron, a one time convinced communist who regrets the passing of the DDR and the privatisation of the collective farm, and whose wife ran away to the West years during the Cold War leaving him with a young daughter to bring up. There is Gombrowski the man who had taken the collective farm in hand after unification and created a private company, guaranteeing employment for a large part of the the local population but making himself rich at the same time. We soon learn that problems are handled locally without outside interference, police or lawyers as opposed to the West, Gombrowski and Kron had opposed each other as Gombrowski tried to take over the collective farm and had a meeting in the forest during a storm from which one person died and Kron suffered broken legs as Gombrowski was then able to take over the farm. But what really happened that day? Whose interest is it to leave a doubt?

For many years Seidel and Gombrowski have acted in tandem, both believing this is the best for the community with the excesses from Gombrowski’s company Ökologica GmbH, more or less subsidising the village.

Then there are the newcomers, of which two stand out, the highly manipulative, stop at nothing Linda Franzen, who wants to set up a ranch for sick horses but needs money and land, and there is “The Bird Protector”, Gerhard Fließ, who wants to restrict any human activity that will threaten the presence of the Ruffs that feed in the region during their annual migration, Gerhard uses his power to prevent Linda from building an enclosure for the horses. Neither of which understand the old antagonisms present in the community.

To this state of affairs, set in 2010, Juli Zeh throws in a private company, Vento Direct with a project to install a wind turbines park in the local countryside, where no single land owner has quite a large enough patch of land without the small patch which Linda Franzen discovers she owns….
This was a magnificent read which I highly recommend.

First Published in German as “Unterleuten” in 2016 by Random House GmbH.
Translated into French by
Rose Labourie and published as “Brandebourg ” in 2017 by Actes Sud
*** My translation

The quote as read in French

“Le fermage pour Dix éoliennes, c’est cinquante Mille euros par an. Á vous de faire le calcul pour cent éoliennes. Histoires de voir quelle retraite ça donne.”….
“Gombrowski va fermer l’Ökologica. Il n’en a plus besoin. Fini, terminé.”
L’effet fut immédiat. Kron coupa court aux murmures qui s’élevaient d’un geste de la main.
“Réfléchisez un peu. Ça fait longtemps que l’Ökologica n’est plus rentable. Pourquoi est-ce que Gombrowski tient tellement au parc éolien? Pour se faire une jolie pension de retraite.”
Cette fois, il les laissa murmurer. Á part Ulrich, ils avaient tous de la famille qui travaillait á l’Ökologica: fille, neveu, fils et gendre; la petite fille de Björn venait de commencer un apprentissage d’agronomie. Á Unterleuten, perdre son travaille était l’équivalent d’un arrêt de mort professionnel.

Rasha Khayat ‘We’ve Long been Elsewhere’


And they’ve always told us, that everything is fine like this, that we have the best of both worlds, that there are only advantages, since we know two different cultures. img_0013But most of the other people you meet always want you to choose a side, they never tell you that they’re just looking to confirm what they already know. Nobody ever tells you that this divide has no end, will never heal over and that you don’t rightly belong anywhere.


In this book,chosen for the Roman De Rochefort prize and read for German Literature month, Basil the son of a Saudi Arabian doctor and German wife comes back to his apartment in Saint Pauli to discover that the sister, Layla, that he is so close to has left Germany without warning to go back to live in Saudi Arabia where they had last lived as young children. When the book begins Basil is preparing to fly to Jedda for his sister’s wedding, passing by his mother, Barbara’s apartment, on the way to the airport. She thinks that this is one of Layla’s stubborn decisions and refuses to attend whilst Basil is really only going because it’s his duty. Everything seems clear.

As Basil arrives in Jedda we slowly get to know his and Layla’s large and noisy Saudi family, with each part of it living on a different floor of their large apartment block and things seem to become more negative as Basil meets Layla’s soon to be, and arranged, husband who seems only interested in his phone. But as the book moves on we get the feeling of the genuine sense of togetherness and love holding his uncles’s family together. We find out of their family tragedy, the death of Basil’s father of a sudden heart attack soon after moving back to Germany with his family after the children had begun their schooling in Jedda. Their then staying, naturally, with Barbara. Basil even agrees to go to the mosque when his cousin Omar explains to him that his devout uncle, Khaled, feels responsible for the whole family since his brothers death and assuring that they will all be reunited in the next world.

One evening after the others have gone to bed Layla tells him of her feelings, illustrated in the opening quote. Which also helps the reader to look at this tale of two cities with a little more distance. Then onto the stag night, out in the desert, smoking shishas and shooting at tin cans which Basil can’t come to terms with.

Soon after comes the day of the wedding, full of action but at the same time so strange to a western mind:


soon the other women head for the beauty parlour, and, as Omar explained , my only responsibilities for the day were to pose for the photos and then to lead the bride into the room. The party will then, as with everything else in this country, will be celebrated separately, the women in one place and the men in another.


“at sometime we drove to Omar’s” I said and the thought of it made me smile. “And played with a PlayStation. At three o’clock I was in bed and slept like a log. Imagine I should tell anyone that weddings here are celebrated playing video games!”


By the end of this story, Rasha Khayat has shared some of the nuances and contradictions of this country with the reader.

First Published in German as “Weil wir längst woanders sind” in 2016 by Dumont Buchverlag
Translated into French by Isabelle Liber and published as “Notre ailleurs” in 2019 by Actes Sud
*** my translation

The quotes as read in German before translation

Und dass sie uns immer erzählt haben, das sei alles ganz toll so, dass wir das Beste aus beiden Welten bekommen, dass wir nur Vorteile hätten, weil wir zwei so verschiedene Kulturen kennen. Aber dass die meisten anderen, die man trifft, immer wollen, dass man sich für eine Seite entscheidet, dass sie immer nur suchen, was ihnen bekannt vorkommt, das haben sie uns nie gesagt. Dass dieser Graben nie endet, sich nie schließen wird und dass man nie irgendwo richtig hingehört. So was sagt dir niemand.«

die anderen Frauen sind bald zum Beauty-Salon aufgebrochen, und, wie Omar mir erklärt, besteht meine einzige Aufgabe heute darin, später für die Fotos zu posieren und danach die Braut in den Saal zu führen. Gefeiert wird getrennt, wie immer hier im Land, Frauen für sich und Männer für sich. »Vierhundert Frauen«, sagt Omar. »Mütter, Schwiegermütter, Cousinen, Tanten, Angeheiratete, Freundinnen. Mach dich auf was gefasst.«

»Wir sind irgendwann zu Omar gefahren«, sage ich und muss bei dem Gedanken daran grinsen. »Haben PlayStation gespielt. Um drei war ich dann im Bett und habe geschlafen wie ein Stein. Wenn ich das jemandem erzähle, dass hier mit Videospielen Hochzeit gefeiert wird!«

The quotes as read in French

“Et qu’ils veuillent toujours nous faire croire que tout était si formidable, que nous avions le meilleur de deux mondes, qu’il n’y avait que des avantages à connaître comme nous deux cultures si différentes. Mais jamais ils ne nous ont dit que la plupart des gens qu’on rencontre veulent toujours qu’on fasse le choix d’un parti, qu’ils ne cherchent toujours que ce qui leur semble familier. Que ce fossé n’avait pas de fond, qu’il ne se refermerait jamais et qu’on n’était jamais nulle part chez soi. Personne ne te l’apprend, ça.”

Layla et les autres femmes sont parties pour l’institut de beauté et, comme me l’explique Omar, ma seule tâche aujourd’hui consistera à poser tout à l’heure sur les photos, puis à conduire la mariée jusque dans la salle de réception. Comme toujours ici, les festivités se déroulent séparément, les femmes d’un côté, les hommes de l’autre. “Quatre cents femmes”, dit Omar. “Mères, belle-mères, cousines, tantes, pièces rapportées, amies. Tu ne vas pas en croire tes yeux.”

“On a fini la soirée chez Omar, dis-je, incapable de retenir un sourire. On a joué à la PlayStation. À 3 heures, j’étais au lit et j’ai dormi comme un bébé. Tu imagines, si je raconte à quelqu’un qu’ici on célèbre les mariages en jouant à des jeux vidéo!”

Fernando Aramburu ‘Homeland’


Txato shared his grave with his maternal grandparents and an aunt, at the edge of an alley on a gentle slope, in a row of similar graves. On the gravestone there were the Christian names and names of the dead, his date of birth, and that of the day they killed him but not his nickname, Txato. In the days leading up to the burial, family members in Azpeita, had advised Bittori not to have any allusions, emblems or signs, which would identify Txato as a victim of ETA, carved on the headstone. That way she would avoid problems. She protested;—Come on, they’ve already killed him once. They’re surely not going to start again. Not that Bittori had thought of having a comment on the death of her husband carved on the headstone; but it only needed for someone to try to dissuade her from doing something for her to dig her heels in. Xabier agreed with the family and the only things carved on the grave were the names and the dates. In Saragossa, Nerea had the cheek to suggest that they falsify the second date. Astonishment. What do you mean?—I thought we could put a date either before or after the attack. Xabier shrugged his shoulders. Bittori said it was out of the question.***


This story, read for Spanish and Portuguese lit month, begins as three men wearing ski masks and white cloaks, Klu Klux style announce to the world that ETA are finally giving up the armed struggle. Fernando Aramburu, then takes us in a wide sweeping story of the tragedy of these years, centred on the story of two families in a small Basque village, impressing on us that here, as with any other terrorist organisation, the very people that they are fighting for must become their victims for them to fuel the fight. We first discover Bittori, an old woman living in San Sébastien but making clandestine trips back to the village to see her house, and of her husband Txato, dead these many year, killed by ETA and of her children, Xabier and Nerea both scared of ETA, Nerea to the point of not attending her father’s funeral so that her friends and professors in her new life in Saragossa would not link her to the assassination. The opening quote tells us something of the time of Txato’s murder.

We also follow the story of Miren and her husband Joxean, the families, like the wives are close friends until the “armed struggle” begins when events take them along different paths, the wives both stubborn for their own reasons:


Before Txato’s tragedy she was a believer, but not anymore. She had been, however, devout in her youth. She had even nearly become a nun. Her and that friend from their village that it’s better not to remember. Both of them had changed their minds at the last minute when they had already one foot in the door of the noviciate. Now , she takes all those stories of resurrection of the dead, of eternal life, of the creator and the Holy Ghost for nonsense.***


Txato, who has built up a transport business in this poor, high unemployment area, receives anonymous letters to pay the “revolutionary tax” in order to fuel ETA, which of course he pays, but as he pays, the demands increase until he can no longer pay. Aramburu then tells us something of the randomness of the terrorists as the local bar owner fuels hatred of Txato in the community by organising graffiti against him including targets next to his name and with his previous friends then out of fear staying away from him. This is in itself not enough to get him killed, but then as the ETA organisation sends autonomous cells into the country side, avoiding contact with the locals so as not to be betrayed. These cells then, in this case at least read street graffiti to identify potential targets.

In parallel, José Mari, Miren’s oldest son, passes from delinquent to full blown ETA soldier and is seen in the village the night before Txato’s assassination. As the story begins he has been in prison, far from his family and the Basque Country, in Andalusia for many years. This long and engaging story then follows the slow breakdown of resistance as Bittori, before her death, wants to know the true story of what happened that day, hear of Joxe Mari’s role and wants him to ask her for forgiveness and the roles of the different family members in this process. The difficulty of the task is placed before us at the start, as on hearing of the ETA announcement Miren says:


They’ve given up the struggle, in exchange for what? Have they forgotten the liberation of Euskal Herria? And the prisoners rotting in prison? Cowards. We must finish what we’ve started.***


An excellent study of grass roots terror.

First Published in spanish as “Patria” in 2016 by Tusquets Editores
Translated into French by Claude Bleton and published as “Patria” in 2018 by Actes Sud.
Translated into English in by Alfred MacAdam and published as “Homeland” in 2019 by Picador.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le Txato partage sa tombe avec ses grands-parents maternels et une tante, au bord d’une allée en pente douce, dans l’alignement de sépultures similaires. Sur la pierre tombale figurent le prénom et les noms du défunt, sa date de naissance et celle du jour où on l’a tué. Mais pas son surnom. Dans les jours précédant l’inhumation, des membres de la famille, à Azpeitia, avaient conseillé à Bittori de s’abstenir de graver sur la pierre des allusions, emblèmes ou signes qui identifient le Txato comme une victime de l’ETA. De cette façon, elle s’épargnerait des problèmes. Elle protesta :—Dites donc, on l’a déjà tué une fois. Ils ne vont quand même pas recommencer. Non que Bittori ait envisagé qu’on grave un commentaire sur le décès de son mari ; mais il suffit qu’on cherche à la dissuader de faire une chose pour qu’elle s’y accroche. Xabier donna raison à la famille. Et ne furent inscrits que les noms et les dates. À Saragosse, Nerea au téléphone avait proposé, quel culot, de falsifier la seconde date. Étonnement. Comment cela ?—Je me suis dit qu’on pourrait mettre sur la tombe une date antérieure ou postérieure à l’attentat. Xabier haussa les épaules. Bittori dit pas question.

Avant la tragédie du Txato, elle croyait, mais plus maintenant. Et pourtant, elle était dévote dans sa jeunesse. Elle avait même failli prendre le voile. Elle et cette amie du village qu’il vaut mieux ne pas se rappeler. Toutes deux renoncèrent à leur projet au dernier moment, alors qu’elles avaient déjà un pied dans le noviciat. Maintenant, elle prend toutes ces histoires de résurrection des morts, de vie éternelle, de Créateur et de Saint-Esprit pour des sornettes.

Ils renoncent à la lutte en échange de quoi ? Ont-ils oublié la libération d’Euskal Herria ? Et les prisonniers qui croupissent en prison ? Lâches. Il faut finir ce qu’on a commencé.

Antonio Muñoz Molina ‘A Manuscript Of Ashes’


With his belt in his pocket and his shoelaces in his hand because they had been confiscated when they took him to the cell, perhaps to keep him from dismally hanging himself and were returned only a few minutes before he was released.63DD3B56-686A-49F4-9612-5B17C1FC5D03 But they said the other one had committed suicide, that he took advantage of a moment’s carelessness on the part of the guards who were interrogating him to throw himself down into the courtyard and die in handcuffs.


This beautifully written temporally disjointed novel by Muñoz Molina, read for “Spanish and Portuguese lit Months” is set in three main time periods, in the last of these periods, 1969, the young student Minaya, after a brief imprisonment by Franquist police, is released although the man he was arrested with dies, as illustrated in the opening quote. With no money and knowing that once the police have had their hands on him it is only time before they return, Minaya, on the pretext of studying the revolutionary poet Jacinto Solana, goes to lay low in his uncle’s house, and the description as he arrives, of Mágina is an example of Muñoz Molina’s prose:


Mágina on winter afternoons becomes a Castilian city of closed shutters and gloomy shops, with polished wood counters and faded manekins in the display windows, a city of cheerless doorways and plazas that are too large and empty, where the statues endure winter alone and the churches seem like tall ships run aground, it’s light was of a different sort, Golden, cold, it’s blue stretching from the ramparts of the city wall in an undulating descent of orchards and curved irrigation ditches and small white houses amongt the pomegranate trees extending in the south to the endless olive groves and blue or violet fertile lowlands of the Guadalquivir and that landscape was the one he would recognise later in the manuscripts of Jacinta Solana.


Mineya soon discovers that his uncle’s house is frozen in time, frozen in the civil war, in 1937, a war leading to the police state in which he now lives. He is welcomed by his uncle Manuel who is rather pleased that anyone should remember his friend and revolutionary poet in the light of Franco’s thirty year dictatorship. Whilst researching Solana in Manuel’s house he discovers the love triangle linking Solana, Manuel and the beautiful Marianna who Solana had first known as a model for the artist Orlando before she met and was to marry Manuel. Solana was torn between his friendship for Manuel and his desire for Marianna:


Mariana came over and before I saw her I knew she was coming because I recognised her step and the way her presence made the air tremble, to bring me coffee and a lit cigarette and she remained crouching at my side facing the city and the wind from the river that lifted the hair on her forehead as if she had come to an appointment that only for the two of us was not invisible when she gave me the cup she placed a hand on my shoulder and her hair covered one side of her face, exactly like Orlando’s sketch not a face but the pure shape of a desire and that night, back at the house when he gave me the drawing he was offering me the sign of a temptation too undeniable for my cowardice.


In a parallel to the story of Solana and Marianna and the events which were to take place in the house, Mineya and the maid Ines are drawn together as Ines helps Mineya to discover Solana’s lost manuscript in the house (Franco’s troops destroyed writings, books and the very proof of existence of their enemies), going as far sleeping together in the matrimonial bed, unused for the past thirty years, as Mineya thus discovers the secret to the house frozen in time, the death by gunshot of Marianna at the house on her wedding night, thought to be by a stray bullet from outside. Who actually killed Marianna? This then becomes the question Mineya seeks to resolve, Marianna was a complex person, a revolutionary, about to marry into a landowning family fast losing their riches, as Doña Elvira, Manuel’s mother relates to Mineya, first talking of Manuel her son:


He went voluntarily into that army of the hungry who had taken half our land to divide it among themselves and he almost lost his life fighting against those who were really his people and as if that was not enough he married that woman who was already used goods, you understand me? And even wanted to go to France with her but I’m sure you’re not entirely like them, like my husband and my son and that madman your father or like your great grandfather Don Apolonio who infected them all with his deceptions and madness but not with his ability to make money, all of them liars , all of them reckless or useless or both things at the same time like my husband, may god have mercy on his soul, but if he had taken a few more years to die he would have left us in poverty with that mania he developed to collect first thoroughbred horses and then women and cars.


 

The second time period in the story concerns the release of Solana from a military jail in 1947 and his coming back to Manuel’s house, a parallel with Mineya’s own story, Solana’s frantic writing and his death at the hands of the Franquist police.

Living in the house for thirty years, apart from Manuel and his mother, is Utrera, a one time sculpter, who lived their with no income and it is not clear if it is Manuel or Elvira that has invited him to stay, but Muñoz-Molina’s description of him is a precise portrait that encapsulates his ability to sketch a person:


He spoke very quickly, leaning his body forward to be closer to Mineya with a smile greedy for responses that he didn’t wait for and as he sipped his soup the air whistled through his false teeth which at times, when he adjusted them, emitted a sound like bones knocking together. He had large blunt hands that seemed to belong to another man and on his left ring finger he wore a green stone as extravagant as his smile, a testimony, just like his smile, of the time when he reached and lost his brief glory. He smiled and spoke as if sustained by the same spring about to break that kept his figure of an anachronistic galant standing. And only his eyes and his hands did not participate in the will of the whisp of his gesticulations for he could not hide the fever in his eyes sharpened every morning and every night in the mirror of old age and failure , or the ruin of his useless hand that in another time had sculpted the marble and granite of official statues and modelled clay and now lay still and dull in an immobility driven by arthritis.


Does Mineya solve the shooting of Marianna? How have the manuscripts been saved?Who is actually writing the story in 1967 and are we sure Solana wrote the manuscript?.
You will have understood by now that I very much enjoyed this story and her way it was told, the time periods mixed up and the many parallels leaving me guessing at times as Tom which story is the subject.

First Published in spanish as  “Beatus Ille” in 1986 by Seix Barral.
Translated into English by Edith Grossman and published as “A Manuscript of Ashes” by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2008
Translated into French by Jean-Marie Saint-Lu and published as “Beatus Ille” in 1993 by Actes Sud

Patrick deWitt ‘The Sisters Brothers’


I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called TubEC2DDB73-A815-4577-A8EC-496B350B0A83….Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.


Charlie and Eli Sisters, the Sisters brother’s a famous pair of professional killers are sent by the Commodore from Oregon city to Sacramento in California to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm in 1851. Patrick deWitt tells us through their eyes of the West around the time of the Goldrush, of the rapidly growing towns of the desperate and lonely 49ers and of San Francisco and he chaos of the time as ships sail into the harbour and are left unloaded with their goods rotting as whole ships companies take to the hills looking for gold.

Into that chaos come Charlie and Eli Sisters, Charlie comfortable with his life as a killer, asking no questions and his brother Eli, tortured by the life he leads but loyal to his brother, Charlie a cold blooded killer and Eli réticent until he loses his temper. The story begins with the opening quote as the brothers are given in part payment for a job The horses they will take on the trip with them, the names say it all as Charlie takes Nimble for himself and leaves Eli with Tub.

Warm has found a way to get gold from the river, he has a liquid which when tipped in large quantities into the river causes gold to shine for a short period allowing him to just wade in and pick it out, but even the loyalist Of killers can be tempted by the promise of gold. What is the liquid? Well it kills anything in the river downstream and you really don’t want to come into contact with it, but then gold is gold and it is lying there waiting to be scooped up.

In his 2011 Mann Booker short listed book, the humour is dry and dark and the setting of the story and the descriptions of the times and the different characters are of more interest than the actual story.

First Published in English as “The Sisters brothers” in 2011 by Ecco.
Translated into French by Emmanuelle and Philippe Aronson as “Les frères Sisters” and published by Actes Sud in 2012

Kiyoko Murata ‘Fille de Joie’


—A woman doesn’t just need to take care of her face, added Miss Shinonome. A hairy inside leg is not only ugly but it interferes in bed. Hair removal with tweezers.A93E07D3-B4E8-4DA0-B0FB-B3A3D7D6A116 If we use a razor, the stubble is uncomfortable for the customers, she explains, frowning, with a stifled cry as each hair is removed by Miss Murasaki wealding the tweezers with expertise, not pausing once.
—Watching them, Ichi is reminded of the adults repairing fishing nets***


Ichi from the southern fishing island of Satsuma is sold into prostitution for ten years by her parents at the age of 15, and if she works hard during this time she should be able to pay off her debt, if not, she will be sold on down the chain to lower and lower levels of pleasure houses. This book, ‘Girl of Joy’ follows Ichi and her friends through this first year as they are taken under the wing of an Oiran, a top level courtisan, in Ichi’s case Miss Shinonome from the opening quote, and as the full understanding of their new life comes upon them. All of Ichi’s hopes are then dashed following the visit of her father, one year later, to the owners of the pleasure house but who does not see her and contracts a further debt she must pay off:


—The end of the year was a difficult time for fishermen and peasants. They got by thanks to their daughters bodies….
—I even calculated how long it would take me to pay back my debt counting 5 yen’s per month…
she would need 8 years without spending any money….
—furthermore, even if I earn more, my father will come back.***


But a wind of change is blowing over Japan, a law had been passed some years earlier to free the girls from their debt, the reasoning was simple, when the girls became courtisans they were no longer human, but animals, as were cattle and horses, and who would ask cattle or horses to pay back a debt. But even this did not help as the owners of these pleasure houses, the police and local magistrates agreed not to apply it and went on as before.

We live the disgust of Ichi at the Salvation Army who were battling to free the girls based on the fact that they had chosen their fallen way of life.

A first in Japan then takes place, a strike in the shipyards of Nagasaki, the girls learn from this and post a list of demands before considering going back to work:


Reduction in the price of tobacco
The right to an evening meal even when they don’t have clients
Fish once every three days
An extra egg on days of many clients
Coal in winter even when we don’t have clients
A reduction in the price of clothes necessary for work
Fifteen days holidays after abortions
The right to say no to clients with syphilis.***


A historically interesting book about these times.

First published in Japanese
Translated into French by Sophie Refle as ‘Fille De Joie’ and published by Actes Sud in 2017
***My translation

Catherine Lacey ‘Nobody is Ever Missing’


—The second thing they tell you about hitchhiking is never accept invitations home for tea because teaIMG_1272 really means dinner and dinner really means sex and sex really means they’re going to kill you.


One morning Elyria says goodbye to her husband as he goes to work in New York, she grabs her backpack, and gets on a plane for New Zealand without informing anyone. Her only tenuous link to New Zealand is an encounter at a book show many years before for a few minutes with a writer who told her if she was ever in the area to look in, the loose type of invitation you don’t ever expect anyone to actually follow up on.

This is the initial framework of Catherine Lacey’s “Nobody is Ever Missing”, A road novel where first of all Elyria’s life is slowly distilled to us as we become aware of her present state of mind. Michael Köhlmeier in his novel ‘Two Gentlemen on a Beach’ describes Churchill and Chaplin’s lifelong fight against depression, telling us of the black dog, well here Elyria is tracked by her wildebeest:


—Nothing is wrong with you, sugar, Jaye said, and I knew she thought that was true, but she didn’t know about that wildebeest that lived in me and told me to leave that perfectly nice apartment and absolutely suitable job and routines and husband who didn’t do anything completely awful—and I felt that the wildebeest was right and I didn’t know why and even though a wildebeest isn’t the kind of animal that will attack, it can throw all its beastly pounds and heavy bones at anything that attacks it or stands in its way, so I took that also into account. One should never provoke or disobey a wildebeest, so I did leave, and it seems the wildebeest was what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what was wrong with the wildebeest.


Elyria roams over New Zealand hitching from place to place , see the opening quote, and hurting, the book is mostly a monologue, we learn of her mostly drunken mother, of her adopted Korean sister, Ruby, whom she was close to and not so close to at the same time, of Ruby’s suicide as she had become a teaching assistant and finally of Elyria’s marriage to  Ruby’s professor, a much older man, drawn together by separate griefs and living an empty shell of a relationship. As Elyria’s road trip goes on and we are overwhelmed by her ever, mostly self, questioning mind, Elyria takes on senseless routine tasks in an attempt to halt her overheating, continual thinking mind and its mostly self reproach until:


— I was something like a dog I owned. I had to tell myself to leave it, to shut up, had to take myself on a walk and feed myself and had to stare at myself and try to figure out what myself was feeling or needing.


Elyria is in such a state  that she thinks but she does not feel and as for the title, towards the end of her road trip she realizes:


—And after I had deleted my history on Amos’s computer I realized that even if no one ever found me, and even if I lived out the rest of my life here, always missing, forever a missing person to other people, I could never be missing to myself, I could never delete my own history, and I would always know exactly where I was and where I had been and I would never wake up not being who I was and it didn’t matter how much or how little I thought I understood the mess of myself, because I would never, no matter what I did, be missing to myself and that was what I had wanted all this time, to go fully missing, but I would never be able to go fully missing—nobody is missing like that, no one has ever had that luxury and no one ever will.


In order to get a flavor of this nervous high energy narration style the quotes here are longer than usual, this was not an easy read now, one week after I am glad to have read this book.

First published in English as ‘Nobody is ever Missing’ by Granta Books in 2015
Translated into French as ‘Personne ne disparait’ by Myriam Anderson and published by Actes Sud in 2016

Magyd Cherfi ‘Ma Part de Gaulois’

—Try to imagine the day when you find yourself in your history lesson face to face with a drawing representing Charles Martel who has just beaten the Arabs at Poitier!img_1051
He, Charles sat bolt upright, proud, blond, straight haired, and his horse majestically arched crushing the ragged looking Arabs, yelling, curly haired, mouths wide open and all at once we said “that’s us!”

Magyd Cherfi, The lead singer of The group Zebda, brings us in this book from 2016 the story of his life up to the point where he leaves home and his “Cité” in the north of Toulouse in the early 1980s where he lived in a poor neighbourhood of mostly first generation North African immigrants and their children.

In this lively well told story of a young adolescent torn between his home life, mostly unchanged from the way life had been in the Kabyle mountain areas of North Africa and his school life that did not recognise the immigrants as being anything but French sharing a deep rooted history over many thousands of years (Gaulois). We can imagine their confusion from the opening quote where they start to understand how they are painted in the imagination of the people that live around them.

I will sum up the book here through three excerpts from the book, first of all the everyday violence to keep the women in their place, Magyd with some friends has set up a structure to offer after school support to the younger kids in the neighbourhood, particularly in French and a theatre group, allowing the young girls their only hope of spending time out of their homes, this first quote concerns a lively and independent minded girl Bahia whom Magyd had given Zweig’s Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman to read, she bursts into the theatre group:

—Her face was carnage. Her two lips were split, literally detached from her mouth and all that was left of her nose was a purple mess. Her cheeks looked as though they had been sliced with sharp stones and blood flowed from her two eyebrows into her eyes.
—Later in her hospital bed she would tell us that they pounced on her simply because she was reading a book. Her father and brother had torn her to pieces for a book.

The second episode in the book concerns the French presidential elections of 1980 where a socialist would win for the first time, in the build up to this There was a general excitement amongst the intellectuals, the working classes and the poor and so Magyd did not understand the reaction to this possibility in his neighbourhood:

—They say Mitterrand is going to win.
—Mouhel (Misfortune) he said involuntarily…..
—We’ll be deported like dogs, we should have expected it, said my mother, we should have left of our own accord, that way we would have avoided another humiliation….

Magyd then discusses this reaction with his friend and left wing activist Samir And all becomes crystal clear:

—Mitterrand? But he hates Arabs
—How can you claim such things? I don’t understand ….
Everywhere people were getting out maps, memorising secondary routes to Rabat, Alger, Tunis….
—It’s not the left that scares them, it’s Mitterrand!
—What?
—You need to understand the basics, for them he’s still the minister for the Algerian war, brother…..he legitimised torture in the name of the Republic…..
—What?
—Yep! For the old uns, the criminals aren’t the army, the orders came from Mitterrand, he was the one that kept the guillotine running….oh yes, from 54 to 57 listen to this, he refused to pardon any of the FLN militants condemned to death.
—But he wants to abolish the death penalty!
—And that absolves him of his crimes?

Magyd takes us through his difficult adolescence towards his mother’s dream of him obtaining his baccalaureate (end of school exam giving access to universities in France), where he would be the first person in his cité to reach this educational milestone which he manages. His description of how this is received in his home and in his neighbourhood is well worth the read and as anyone coming from an immigrant background will know, with an education you can become an engineer or a doctor! But as we know, he becomes the lead singer in Zebda.

First published in French as ‘Ma Part de Gaulois’ by Actes Sud in 2016