Pascale Roze ‘Fighter Zero’


In the morning, even before the sun rises, the fighter gets underway . Kitted out in black, it’s deadly load strapped to its underside, it starts up. The engine roars in the silence of dawn. The propeller spins. The plane shakes, lights out, rolls down the runway, lifts its nose and begins to climb.With a constant thrust it climbs to five thousand metres and levels out. The sun has risen. From the sea and from the sky the fighter is visible in every direction. My name is Laura Carlson. I was born on the 10th of January 1944 in New York. My father died on the 7th of April 1945 in Okinawa. ***


So begins Pascale Roze’s 1996 Goncourt prize winning novel, as Laura Carlson tells us of her life, of a father she never new, of her mother, a war widow left with nothing in a foreign land, forced to move back into her parental home in the ironically named Charity street with her baby daughter Laura. Her mother never really recovered from losing her husband, when Laura’s grandparents let her mother out, she would drink to excess and go to servicemen’s clubs looking for a man, any man and then come home drunk. Faced with this her tyrannical grandmother kept her mother sedated and locked in and in this state her mother didn’t speak to her or anyone else for the best part of eighteen years for which Laura could not forgive her, so that in her own words:


In the morning, even before the sun rises, the fighter gets under My childhood was grim. The appartement was grim, my grandparents were grim and my mother sank into a grim silence. ***


So, onto the main line of the story, as Laura grows up no one speaks to her of her father, at school for one year, she gets to know her only childhood friend, Nathalie, who’s family has just been forced to leave Algeria during the war of independence. Nathalie pushes Laura to investigate her fathers death and from the date of his death and the ship on which he was stationed, she learns that they were attacked by a Kamikaze and that he must of died in this attack.

The key point in this story occurs when Nathalie gives her a book written by a Kamikaze before his death, called Tsurukawa shortly before Nathalie’s family move back to Northern Africa. Laura is clearly perturbed and begins hearing the roaring noise of an engine in her ears at random moments of day or night and persuades herself that it is Tsurukawa’s Zero heading towards her. As she begins her studies in Paris, she meets and has a long term relationship with Bruno a student musician. Their relationship is interrupted when Bruno is called up and Laura’s mental state regresses, one day when Bruno is with her in Paris we understand that she is now mixing up Bruno and Tsurukawa:


Bruno seemed to be getting back to normal, or at least had recovered the will to work, he spent his whole leave seated at his desk. I preferred him like this. I could once again begin to admire him. And I told myself that an arrangement might be possible between Tsurukawa and him. ***


And then later she tells him:


I said that when we made love, it was now Tsurukawa who took means that he ravaged me. ***


As the book reaches its climax, Laura drives her car faster and faster along a road, trying as Tsurukawa had explained, to keep her eyes open to the last second. Then she awakes in hospital and looks at the photos of Tsurukawa and of her father:


For the first time I really looked at them and thought of my whole life. My name is Laura Carlson. I don’t know who that man is who has his arm around mum’s waist. I put the photos down next to Tsurukawa’s diary and compared them. I don’t know which of Andrew Carlson or Tsurukawa Oshi is my father. ***


First Published in French as “Le Chasseur Zéro” in 1996 by Albin Michel.
*** my translation

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Jean-Christophe Ruffin ‘The Hanging Man from Conakry’


Aurel, with a quick glance at the group, sized them all up. With the exception of the African, all the others were Whites, over fifty, bulging stomachs, eyes glowing with alcohol. They were dressed in Hawaïen shirts unbuttoned down to the waist with either swimming trunks or shorts beneath. They mostly wore flip-flops or had slipped barefoot into old moccasins.***


Jean-Christophe Ruffin, member of the “Académie Française” and ex-French Ambassador from west Africa, winner of the “prix Goncourt” in 2001 tries his hand here with a murder mystery, making the journey from Goncourt to mystery in the opposite direction from Pierre Lemaitre, where his descriptions are as interesting as the mystery itself which opens early one morning with the discovery of a dead white body hanging from the top of the mast of one of the yachts anchored out in the small port of Conakry in the Republic of Guinea and with the arrival of the unlikely investigator Aurel Timescu of the French consular service described by his boss to the other members of the Conakry yacht club as:


A Romanian, imagine that, and the awful accent he speaks with. He’s such a walking catastrophe that I don’t know what to give him to do. I’ve relegated him to a cupboard. Literally. Without a telephone or a computer. You might well ask me why we keep him? It’s not as if we haven’t tried all of the tricks. All of his bosses have wanted to get rid of him, me included. But he’s a career civil servant, so there’s nothing one can do.***


Aurel the anti-hero is culturally at odds with the other ex-pats present in Conakry,as can be understood from his first visit to the yacht club to question the Europeans present about the dead man as he quickly sums them up illustrated in the opening quote. Aurel was brought up in the Romania of Ceaucescu and has thus developed a resilience the others could not begin to imagine, typified by his arrival at the port that morning:


It was midday when the chauffeur drew up at the entry to the marina where Aurel, a member of the French embassy’s consular service who, despite his small frame and thin limbs, needed to expend a great deal of energy to extract himself from the car. It was a two door Clio, the service’s smallest and most knocked about car, the only one his boss, the Consul General would allow him to use. Aurel acted as though it were a luxury sedan car, he tilted the passenger seat forward and lowered himself onto the rear seat, designed for a young child. He settled himself in with dignity, his knees tucked under his chin and his head wedged up against the roof. He descended from the car with the same air of importance, after all Severe was one of the titles of Roman emperors, as was Felix, incidentally. Aurel had never forgotten this lesson from history: dignity and happiness are sovereign attributes. Each one of us can seize upon them if he wishes. It was thus, with dignity and joy that the consul advanced towards the club-house, through the two rows of palm trees standing to honour him. ***


As the story unfolds and wrapped and ready solutions are proposed to him, concerning robbery, Aurel never loses from sight the key point for him, why would robbers come for the money and then take the time to hoist the dead body up the mast? As Aurel finally understands the intricacies of the situation his years under Ceausescu leave him with all of the necessary experience to extract a confession! Read in the Summer break.

First Published in French as “Summer” in 2018 by Flammarion.
*** my translation

Monica Sabolo ‘Summer’


Mother had put out a table cloth and layed a box on my sisters plate….My sister let out a cry of surprise as she unfolded the scarf,2D670B9D-EF27-49E3-81B3-FE3B8160C0ED whose bluebird seemed more alive than ever, then she stood and took my mother in her arms…… I had the feeling that I had watched a heartbreaking ritual, as if my mother had offered her youth and her beauty to her daughter.***


Monica Sabolo presents us a story of the disappearance one summer day soon after her nineteenth birthday, at a family party on the shores of Lac Leman, of Summer Wassner, in this story read for the “Roman de Rochefort”. As Benjamin, Summer’s brother, five years younger than her, years later, slowly unfolds the tale of the mystifying dissapearance of his sister from her ideal family, a dissapearance which utterly destroys his own life and that of his parents, we slowly realise that Benjamin is, despite himself, an unreliable witness, as he relates key moments of the story, such as his own frustration when his father buys an aquarium for Summer:


My father loved water as well….For her ninth birthday, he bought Summer an aquarium with a complex system to filter and to add oxygen to the water and which hummed continually…..two folding chairs were placed just in front , and that’s where I found Summer and my father, sometimes early in the morning, absorbed in watching an illuminated under water forest.***


We must remember that in spite of the maturity of Benjamin the narrator, at the time of the events, on Summer’s ninth birthday here for example, Benjamin was only four years old. He is nonetheless haunted by this day as we slowly realise from the dreams he relates to his psychiatrist which we initially assume refer to Lac Leman from whose bank she dissapears:


Summer is there. She’s wearing a blue night shirt, which floats around her like wings or fins, the smooth  oscillations of a skate.***


This story is narrated by Benjamin, after he suffers an unexpected nervous breakdown, as he says he has barely consciously thought of his sister in years. He is forced to revisit the unsolved events, talking to certain of the people present that day, Jill his sister’s closest friend and his own ex-lover, and his parent’s closest friend of the time, Marina Savioz. Benjamin is slowly brought to question his own certitudes of the idyllic life of their rich family living on the shore of Lac Leman. There are certain clues such as his mother’s  reaction when his father’s friends compare her to the pre-adolescent Summer:


“They look like sisters”,  called out dad’s friends, as they moved towards them on the loose gravel in light dresses, and mum blushed, pushing back a strand of hair which was coming loose from her poneytail…..It’s true that mother looked like an adolescent, with her lean look, the way she smoked, a certain tendency to provocation.***


As Summer moves into adolescence her relationship with her mother becomes, naturally, strained with the story of the scarf, illustrated in the opening quote, epitomising the rift, a scarf which has great sentimental value for Benjamin’s mother and which Summer is always stealing until one day she hands it over to Summer, only for Summer to no longer want it.
Slowly as the family secrets are stripped away by the different people that Benjamin finally takes it on himself to visit, he forces himself to see the secret he has been hiding from himself all these years.  He then confronts the inspector that had been charged with the case with something he remembered the inspector telling him years before:


“you once told me that you always find people eventually, they leave a trace, didn’t you?”
“Its true, nearly always, yes”***


This is a powerful well written story of loss, trust and betrayal I recommend it.

First Published in French as “Summer” in 2017 by JC Lattès.
*** my translation

Sebastian Barry ‘Days Without End’


Why should a man help another man? No need. The world don’t care about that, world is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicoree drinking and whisky and cards. img_1289No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars, we ain’t saying no laws in Washington, we ain’t walking on yon great lawns. Storms kill us and battles and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind.  Happy to breathe because we’ve seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion. Bibles wern’t wrote for us nor any books, we ain’t maybe what people do call human since we ain’t partaking of that bread of heaven.


The narrator, Thomas McNulty tells us the immigrant tale of the Indian wars, the Civil war and fear his beau John Cole in an America where men were men and well, there really weren’t any women. In this book read for the Roman de Rochefort prize, three main themes prevail, firstly as illustrated by the opening quote, the boredom interspersed with savagery of the army, secondly hunger, from the death of the whole of McNulty’s family from famine in Ireland to the deaths of most of the “passengers”, who were of no value, on the trip to Canada and the subsequent quarantine on to hunger wandering in America, to the hunger of the Indians and even the hunger of the soldiers who were saved from starving to death by the very Indians they were fighting. As McNulty once says with typical Irish humour hiding his fear:


I was so hungry I could eat the head of John the Baptist.


The third theme throughout is the absence of women in the frontier lands, from the starving boys Thomas and John Cole getting work in a saloon in a frontier mining town dressing as women in shows for the miners through to their living every waking and sleeping moment together in the army forts where despite their discretion there can be no secrets and finally their living together in their remote farm as John and Thomassina, once again wearing dresses, with no sense of right or wrong, guilt or innocence, just peace at being who he is.

So onto the Indian wars, where the soldiers, amid both food and female deprivation become in the heat of the action animals rather than humans, captured by Sebastian Barry in the mouth of his narrator whose rural background shines through his simile after the troop had just killed all of the children and squaws of an Indian village and two of the troopers, Watchhorn and Pearl had raped some of these women, a crime the army shot them for:


The troopers worked until I believe their arms could do no more, Watchhorn and Pearl Rutting and shouting then ruthlessly killing again till in runs the major, shouting the loudest with true horror in his face shouting his orders, wild to bring a stop to things then we were all of us standing there panting, our cold sweat pouring down exhausted faces, our eyes glittering, our legs trembling, just like you would see dogs do after they had been killing lambs.


So how does Barry imagine a starving detested Irishman’s views of what was happening to the Indians:


The padre made a huge prayer out in the open and the whole town went down on its knees right there and praised the lord. this was the section of humanity favoured in that place, the indians had no place no more there, their tickets of passage were rescinded and the bailiffs of god had took back the papers for their souls. I did feel a seeping tincture of sadness for them I did feel some strange toiling seeping sadness for them, seven hours off buried in their pits….. there weren’t no padre praying in exhaltation for them they were the boys with the loosing hand….


The second great war McNulty and John Cole are witness to is of course the civil war, they sign up expecting like many others a short war and after initial victories they begin to understand how pernicious a civil war can be when like fight against like, often with no understanding of why as illustrated below:


The captains give the order to fire and the thousand muskets give voice and fling their rounds of shot towards those walking demons, Johnny reb with his skinny legs and his butternut rags and all he thinks about and thinks good carried under hats of all descriptions. South don’t got  uniforms, grits or oftentimes shoes, half of these fierce looking bastards have bare feet, could be the denizens of a Sligo slum house, goddammit probably are some of them. On they come, I can see the regimental banners now better, and this damn one at centre coming on has shamrocks and harps, just like ours. Usual crazy fucking war..


Overwhelmed in battle, they are ordered to surrender and near starve to death in captivity, McNulty remarks that it wasn’t because they were ill treated, their captors had no food either, the crops had been distroyed during the war.

The book kept me interested throughout and the voice of McNulty rang true to me.

First Published in English as “Days Without End” in 2017 by Faber & Faber.
Translated into French by Laetitia Devaux and published as “Des Jours Sans Fin” by Joëlle Losfeld in 2018

Aharon Appelfeld ‘Days of a Startling Lucidity’


They went missing, often for three or Four days, sometimes a week. img_1287Mostly to hill top monastries…she was moved to tears at each ancient monastry they reached.
Most of the time the monks welcomed her politely. When they realised she was Jewish they asked: “what do you like so much here?”
“Everything!…”
The more skeptical thought she wasn’t all there and stopped asking questions.***


At the end of the war, Theo left his fellow survivors from camp 8 having decided to return home to Sternberg in Austria across Europe alone on foot in this book read for the “Roman de Rochefort prize”. As he slowly advances his mind plays back to his childhood, to his mother,Yetti, at once fragile and overwhelming, who unusually for a Jew, came from a peasant background and moved to the town of Sternberg when she married Martin. She was always on the move, seeking out the music of Bach which radiated in her but which was linked to churches and monasteries, the only places where she really felt at peace. She would just up and off with Theo taking him out of school on her journeys until her money ran out and then coming home as illustrated in the opening quote.

Theo was never close to his father Martin who indulged Yetti, dilapidating his family savings and running down his bookshop to pay for her trips. Theo advances alone but regularly meeting  people from camps like himself, some advancing, some not moving such as the lady in the following quote:


“I’ve worked all night so that the soup would be ready at noon…its better to go home having built up a bit of strength…”
“I dont need to hurry youngster. My children live now in the land of truth and I’m getting ready to join them. I’ve a little ways to go before that. I’d like to give to others everything I have….”
“And you’re not leaving here?”
“No, young man. Everyone who means something to me lays at rest here in this forest behind me. Who else will watch over them? A month before the end of the war they were brought up here, dug there own graves and were executed. So for now I’m watching over them and soon I’ll join them.”***


Amongst the people Theo meets is the seriously ill Madeleine who takes him for his father, and as Theo tries to take care of her he finds out that Madeleine went to school with Martin and Yetti and that everyone, Madeleine included, thought that she and Martin would make their lives together. Through the brief interlude with Madeleine Theo, through Madeleine, begins to better understand and to better know his own father, to place him in perspective and to feel a certain peace.

As Theo advances and meets people, he always answers the first question asked of him “which camp do you come from?” and then talks about where they are going. Theo discovers that looking for his mother, where he last saw her, at the monastery of Sankt Peter is something the other refugees from the camps cannot aprehend and for which there are violent feelings, these churches and monasteries are the worshiping places of the people that had done this to them, the churches that condoned the actions.

Theo slowly goes over and over his decision to leave the others from the camp to strike out alone, to leave the solidarity that had helped so many to survive, reaching a kind of inner peace. Finally as Theo is close to the Austrian border he meets up with a brigade helping the refugees to return home and learns that he is one of the few that do not stop on route, one of the few that actually want to go home, although he does not know who he will see, or where he will stay. he was certainly not welcome when he and all the other Jews of the region were deported together during scenes of overt hatred.

A strangely peaceful book as Theo is slowly reborn.

First Published in Hebrew as “Yamim shel behirout madhima” in 2014 by Dvir publishing house.
Translated into French by Valérie Zenatti and published as “Des jours d’une stupéfiante clarté” by Editions de l’olivier in 2018
*** My translation

Santiago Roncagliolo ‘Red April’


“Associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar left the hospital feeling out of sorts, he was pale. Terrorists he thought, only they were capable of something like this, they had come back. FFD11E72-802C-444D-9EE5-ABE96113828EHe did not know how to sound the alarm or even if he should…..The prosecutor thought that perhaps, after all, the deceased was a case for the military courts, he did not want to interfere in the anti-terrorist struggle, the military had organised it, they knew it best.


This story read for the Spanish and Portuguese lit month, is set back in the year 2000 when victory in the twenty year war against the Maoist inspired Sendero Luminoso has been declared by the then President of Peru, Fujimori. Roncagliolo has chosen to treat this period by way of a crime thriller centred in the town of Ayacucho, a town which had been at the centre of the guérilla warfare which over the twenty year period up to 2000 saw about 70000 deaths or disappearances of which about half were attributable to Sendero and a third to to government security forces.

So it is against this background that associate district prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar arrives from Lima to work in Ayacucho where he finds himself confronted with the discovery of a badly burnt and mutilated body, so badly burnt that despite the official line that the rebellion is over, he hesitates to attribute the murder to terrorists as illustrated in the opening quote. As the Holy Week festivities approach and the bodies mount up Félix Chacaltana Saldívar discovers troubling secrets about the past twenty years concerning the terrorists and the exactions of the security forces and he retreats behind his written reports to the military command, it is clear he has doubts about the past, when Commander Carrión questions him:


“You think we’re a gang of killers isn’t that right Chacaltana?” The commander’s question came after a long silence when they were already on the highway back to Ayacucho, between the mountains and the river. He was driving the vehicle himself, they were alone.
“I do not know what you are referring to commander.”
“Don’t act like a prick Chacaltana I know how to read between the lines of reports and I know how to read faces too. Do you think you’re the only one here who knows how to read?”
The prosecutor felt obliged to explain himself. “We waged a just war commander.” He said it like that using the first person, “that is undeniable but sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy and when that happens I begin to ask myself what exactly it is that we fought against.”


As Chacaltana investigates he finds disturbing links between the security forces and the church as well as links to religion in the actual murders and then in an attempt to understand the motives he visits one of the jailed terrorists, Comrade Alonso who leaves him little doubt that the Sendero Luminoso would not use religious signs and tells him the following story:


“What do you think will happen after death?“
Comrade Alonso gave a nostalgic smile, “it will be like the Indian servants dream, do you know it? It’s a story by Arguedas, do you read?”
“I like Chocano”
Now the terrorist laughed sarcastically there was something like cultural petulance in his attitude, he did not consider the prosecutor to be an intellectual, “I prefer Arguedas, they don’t let us read here, but I always think about that story it’s about an Indian, the lowest of the slaves on a plantation, a servant of the servants one day the Indian tells the master that he has had a dream, in his dream they both died and went to heaven, there god ordered the angels to cover the Indian with manure until all his skin was hidden by shit, but he ordered the rich man to be completely bathed in honey the master is happy to hear the Indians dream he thinks that it’s reasonable he thinks that it’s exactly what god will do, he urges him to go on and asks and then what happens the Indian replies the when he saw the two men covered in shit and honey respectively he says now lick the others body until it is completely clean.”


As Chacaltana realises that the main link between the murdered people is that he had interviewed them all he begins to look closely around himself amid a certain despair at the events for which Commander Carrión has the following fatalistic explanation for events in Ayacucho:


“Our work of two decades has just gone all to hell, we can’t even guarantee our own security we’ll never stop them, they’ll keep coming back. But it is our job.”
“To fight the sea?”
“After all I’ve been reading during the days that I’ve been inside, Ayacucho is a strange place, the Wari culture was here, and then the Chacana who never let themselves be conquered by the Incas, and then the indigenous rebellions because Ayacucho was the midway point between Cusco the Inca capital and Lima, the capital of the Spaniards and indépendance in Quinua, and Sendero, this place is doomed to be bathed in blood and fire forever.”


As the investigation advances, the assistant district prosecutor who begins as a quiet decent man hiding behind written procedural reports permitting him to avoid responsibility and strangely close to his dead mother whom he addresses as a living person, metamorphoses into a persistant investigator ready to ruffle feathers. The pressure he endures pushes him towards behaviour which after a few weeks leaves the reader wondering what the difference between Chacaltana and the other guilty protagonist of the twenty year dirty war would have been had he have been there over that period.

A recommended read.

First Published in Spanish as “Abril Rojo” in 2006 by Alfaguara.
Translated into English by Edith Grossman and published as “Red April” by Atlantic Books in 2010
Translated into French by Gabriel Laculli and published as “Avril Rouge” by Editions Le Seuil in 2009

Philippe Jaenada ‘Manaccora Beach 16h30’


Three woman about fifty years old, friends on holiday (“like it used to be”), passed in front of me and headed into the bushes on the path marked by the Virgin (icy, silent). 7EC49A5E-0453-48DB-B942-FDD46E1901DBIt made no sense rushing into the forest, they’d never make it out alive, but was it better to stay here and no longer be able to breathe? How many people out of ten, trapped in a room on fire on the fifth floor, jump through the window?***


Earlier this year I had tried to read ‘La Serpe’ by Jaenada, 500 pages where I had first come across his writing style, in telling his story he regularly goes of at a tangent talking about different events in his life outside of the scope of the story at hand and after 120 pages the actual subject of the book had not really been broached and, unusually, I just gave up on the book. After talking with my librarian, I went back to this earlier book, with as many digressions but only 250 pages long for which the style seems to work.

The story which really happened to Jaenada in Italy on holiday is of a forest fire that traps hundreds of people on Manacora beach. Jaenada and his family  fled on foot from their rental apartment ahead of the fire to this beach from which there was no way out from more than 30 kilometers of forest along the beach that was being burnt to a cinder, there was one footpath leading into the burning forest ahead of the fire which some people took, nothing was heard from them again as illustrated in the opening quote.

Jaenada’s digressions about his life work well here as we follow him in this life changing event, after escaping when they were sure they would die, life’s worries are put into perspective.

I am not a fan of this particular style of author-centric writing.

First Published in French as “Plage de Manaccora, 16h30″ in 2009 by Grasses& Fasquelle.
*** my translation