Sherko Fatah ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’

—The Versailles treaty, that shameful text, the Grand Mufti said one day to those around him, made Germany into a pariah. It’s because of that they have taken the side of the Arabs, the eternal pariahs. IMG_1077May God stop them from losing this war, because then we would lose Palestine to the Jews.***

Sherko Fatah brings us the story of Anouar, a boy from the streets of Bagdad who is swept up in the movements of his epoch, initially moving towards an involvement in an anti-Semitic movement in which he does not really believe. Fatah First paints us a story of prewar Bagdad, Of the growing tensions Anouar slowly discovers between the people and their British rulers and, through an involvement with the Black shirts, the growing hatred towards the Jews living in Bagdad:

—The Black shirts were grouped in front of the building waiting for Fadil’s orders. When I joined them I was accepted as a comrade, and was asked to carry one of the large paint containers…i thus learnt  that the operation we were about to begin was of great importance for the fatherland, that it was aimed at the internal enemy who in association with the British was about to bring down the country’s  rightful gouvernement….Fadil regrouped us around him.
—we will mark all of the shops owned by Jews. You know which ones are concerned. If you have any doubts ask me. Lets go!***

Anouar finds himself, through his links with the Black shirts, a factotum of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who is in political exile in Bagdad and is part of the team of people who accompany him to Berlin in 1941 when after a failed insurrection Bagdad is brought under control by the British:

He wanted to be an Arab partner alongside the Germans and not the lackey without hope that the French see in every Arab, nor the easily manipulated imbecile that the English took him for.***

Anouar describes their time in Berlin where their rallying to Hitler is used as propaganda, here in this second part of the story he is brought into contact with the day to day anti Semitic behaviour and expectations around him and where they spend most of their time just waiting as the war goes from euphoria to despair as illustrated  in the opening quote.

The book then moves into the third and little known phase, where towards the end of the war Anouar is enrolled into the Muslim Legion of the Waffen SS, sent to fight on the eastern front where, during the retreat without hope from the Russian army, the Legion is used for the most dangerous work in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising as the Russian Army halt their advance to allow the SS the time to finish the job.

This book throws open a new window on the events of the twentieth century, seen from an unusual perspective including the tensions in the Middle East at the time. This was a thoughtful read.

First Published in German as “Win weisses Land” in 2011 by Luchterhand Literatur Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’ and published by Métailié in 2014
*** My translation

Andreï Makine ‘L’Archipel d’une autre Vie’

—At night, from here on we saw the fire lit by the fugitive.normally he lit three, several metres from each other which prevented a successful attack.img_1061 It would have been easy to catch him sleeping, but next to which fire? A night attack against an armed man was too risky. And our orders were strict: he had to be kept alive to allow him to be punished in an exemplary fashion to terrorise the other prisoners..***

Andreï Makine takes us on a journey through the Taïga with a diverse group of Soviet era conscripts in the pursuit of a fugitive  which at the slow speed of an awakening brings the central character, Pavel Gartsev, to see the times he lived in, to lead him to question himself and then finally leads him in the continued and extreme pursuit of an ideal on the archipelago of the title, the Chantar islands off of the eastern coast of the Soviet Union.

—In my youth I often thought back to the hermits  of the Chantars. At one point their exile seemed incomprehensible, even frightening. To cut oneself of from society, to shut oneself off entirely in the ice, on a small island surrounded by a  raging ocean! To refuse the spectacle of life, its emotions, its rivalry! I was then at the age where I was blinded by diversity and intoxicated by the number of different postures. Where changing roles gives the illusion of freedom. Where multiplying yourself through thousands of relationships is interpreted as having a rich life.***

The story concerns a group of soviet citizens in 1953, in the final months of Stalin’s life, taking part in a survival exercise in the Taïga in the event of an American nuclear attack. Five of them are seconded to pursue, apprehend and bring back an escaped prisoner from a soviet camp. In theory a simple task for five well equipped Soviet soldiers against a poor weakened prisoner. Makine takes us down the well worn road of totalitarianism, the nominal army chief and the real chief, his political commissar, the ambitious soldier sucking up to the commissar and the soldier who has himself spent time in the Gulag before being totally cleared. Nothing new here, it is however entirely believable.

As the chase is drawn out, with the prisoner proving himself able to live in the Taïga and the soldiers, extenuated and slowly dropping out of the chase due to injuries, the remaining pursuers discover that the prisoner, so skilfully evading them is a woman:

—The fact that the fugitive was a woman completely changed our outlook. Before, we felt a certain compassion for this barefooted fugitive. He was what could happen to any one of us in these unpredictable and terrible times in which we lived. But to be faced with a woman changed everything for us. She had humiliated, even diminished us. We were the real victims! Tossed around in this endless Taïga. Our honour had been questioned. Diminished by a girl who could shoot better than us, walked bravely, pushed back our attacks keeping her composure. On top of this when she could have killed us, she had chosen not to!***

Following this discovery, they try much harder to capture her, talking about all of the the things they dream to do to her in order to regain their lost masculinity. It is at this point that Gartsev slowly begins to question what they are doing. The Soviet machine is unforgiving and if they do not bring her back then helicopters and troops will be sent after her which explains her choice of the most remote uninhabited point of the USSR as her destination:

—The words of Pavel came back to me with their calm certainty: follow day after day, a woman that has no knowledge of you as you have no knowledge of her destination, to live only for the unending journey, not to ask anything of the other. For a short moment the exciting madness of this dream Intoxicated me***

The story is told by a narrator that had met Gartsev in the Taïga and came back many years later looking for him, this part of the story was of no interest to me. An interesting book but not one of Makine’s best

First Published in French as “L’Archipel d’une autre Vie” in 2016 by Seuil
*** My translation

Anthony Doerr ‘All the light We Cannot See’

—He leads them single file down two twisting staircases and along several corridors and stops outside an iron door with a single keyhole. “End of tour,” he says.img_0992 A girl says, “But what’s through there?” “Behind this door is another locked door, slightly smaller.” “And what’s behind that?” “A third locked door, smaller yet.” “What’s behind that?” “A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe.” The children lean forward. “And then?” “Behind the thirteenth door”—the guide flourishes one of his impossibly wrinkled hands—“ is the Sea of Flames.”

Anthony Doerr in his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner brings us the parallel stories of two main protagonists whose paths cross in Normandy in 1944, Marie-Laure, a young girl living with her father, the locksmith at the Natural History museum in Paris and Werner Pfennig, an orfan living in a mining town Zollverein in the Ruhr and why Werner has for a mission to find and eliminate her but does not.

Marie-Laure, as a young girl goes blind and her doting but meticulous father builds her a 3 dimensional scale model of their quartier so that she can go anywhere in this quartier and get back home. In the museum is the mysterious Sea of Flames, a most valuable jewel, hidden as described in the opening quote behind thirteen locks whose legend says:

—The keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain.

In Zollverein Werner and his sister, Jutta are brought up in their austere orphanage after their father is killed in a mining accident and his body never recovered, by a French mother-tongue nun, Werner is gifted with radios, can build and repair them from a young age and one night Werner and his sister tune into a far off broadcast in french:

—The Frenchman’s voice is velvet. His accent is very different from Frau Elena’s, and yet his voice is so ardent, so hypnotizing, that Werner finds he can understand every word. The Frenchman talks about optical illusions, electromagnetism;
Time slows. The attic disappears. Jutta disappears. Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?

For the children of the orphanage there is no way out, the orphanage raises the children and all boys from the age of fifteen “without exception” will go down the mine.

The story is built from these foundations, Werner is recognised for his key and necessary radio skills, sent to an elite Hitler youth school where he designs, manufactures and then operates, in the field during the war, radio emitter detection devices and his team then mercilessly kill the operators. Marie-Laure and her father leave Paris during the invasion carrying one of four copies of the Sea of Flames for which one is the original. Anne-Laure spends the war with her reclusive uncle who before the war emitted captivating stories not knowing if he had listeners and during the war emitted for the resistance but unable to resist putting something of his pre-war broadcasts into his performance, whilst Anne-Laure picked up the messages to be broadcast.

And yes of course this particular radio is the point of intersection of their stories and under the allied threat and then attack of Saint Malo, Werner does the right thing.

This is an exceptionally well researched story with a necessary touch of fantasy, its pages are filled with thousands of details, it has however left me pining as a reader for something akin to the French mouvement of the past, La Nouvelle Vague for films, or maybe Punk for music, that is to say the risk of wing and a prayer writing or maybe just not using computers. I feel a little like a consumer, somebody has done all the work for me

First published in English as ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Scribner in 2014