Julia Deck ‘Sigma’


Alexis Zante is one of the 35 vice-presidents Of the Bergson Bank. In order to reach the top, in theory he would need to eliminate the president and his 34 counterparts. 89B22E5D-3CCF-4198-BC85-B462A1FBB3B0But as with the world of finance itself this line of thought is purely speculative because of the total separation between the objects and the abstract system that governs them.
A man, he explains to me whilst bringing his fingertips together, harvests a ton of wheat. Six months earlier this ton had been bought by another person who had himself sold it on before the plant had begun to grow out of the ground. In the mean time, others will have gambled on the variation of its sales price, taken out insurance on the evolution of the stock markets and these insurances themselves will have been grouped together in packages by investment funds. When the traders have unloaded them on their clients no one will have the slightest idea what he has bought, if the ton Han actually been delivered and who had eaten the bread.***


Julia Deck has put together a spoof story about espionage  and intervention in Switzerland centering around the worlds of finance, art, investment and ideas. The objective of the mysterious organisation behind the action, Sigma, is to prevent the subversive ideas that a painting, once thought lost but which may have been discovered, from affecting society, they tell us about one of the best ways of neutralising a work of art:


Gentlemen,

You have commissioned our organisation to fight against undesirable works of art. When it proves to be impossible to eliminate them at their source, we arrange for them to go into museums, where their ability to harm our interests slowly peters out. No major work of art escapes our organisation.***


This story is full of interesting characters and situations, the actress, Pola Stalker, balancing choices of films for popular cinema favoured by Sigma, and arthouse works for her image, or of the professor, Lothaire Lestir, à specialist In neuroscience who lectures that the inequality in society between men and women can be traced to the fact that in their lifetimes a woman has on average 32 times less orgasms than a man and preaches equality, for which Sigma believes that despite their hatred of revolutionary ideas, this one is too far from being applicable so no action is needed.

Each of the characters has a private secretary and each of these are employed covertly by Sigma, Has Alexis Zante found the missing monochrome painting? Where could you hide a monochrome? Can Elvire, the gallery owner obtain it? Can she use her sister Pola Stalker to seduce Zante? like any true spy story there are twists, seemingly innocent deaths and an explosive ending, after all humans under pressure are unpredictable. This book was fun and was read quickly.

First Published in French as  “Sigma” in 2017 by Les Éditions De Minuit.
*** My translation

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Juan José Saer ‘The Witness’


In this already strange situation, the cabin boy faces other adversities. In the absence of women the ambiguity of his juvenile form,05579E62-011E-457F-85DE-B3C45B6AA0CF a product of his incomplete virility, eventually becomes more appreciable. That which the sailors, in other situations good family men, consider repugnant, seems to them, in the course of the sea crossing, as being more and more natural.***


The action of Saer’s novel, read in French,  takes place at the very beginning of the 16th century as a Spanish ship, whilst searching the coast of the Americas for a route through to the Indies, and during a seemingly safe survey of the mouth of a river in smaller boats in what appears to be an uninhabited land, is attacked by a group of Indians. All of the survey party except the cabin boy are killed by the Indians who then run off into the jungle at a sustained pace for a full day, carrying the dead sailors and the cabin boy before reaching their village where the dead are cut up, roasted and eaten, followed by several days of drinking to excess (several people die) and then orgies, all of this witnessed by the cabin boy. He then repeatedly, once a year over the time of his stay, re-lives similar events, as hunting parties return with dead captives and a witness before once again repeating the canabalistic events. These witnesses seem to accept and understand what is happening to them and are soon after sent back into the jungle in canoes full of food. He is kept 10 years by the Indians, he has nowhere to go back to, and then one day without warning he is sent of in a canoe and soon after comes across Spanish ships, where it soon becomes clear that he has forgotten his mother tongue:


To calm them I began to tell them my story but as the story advanced, I could see the sense of wonderment growing on their faces until, after a moment, I realised that I was speaking in the Indians language. I tried then to speak in my mother tongue, realising then that I had forgotten it.***


Years later towards the end of his life, the now aged witness writes about these events and his later life in an attempt to analyse and understand what had happened to him. This story follows the outline of others, such as The Legend of Tarzan and the double shock of being brought up in another world and then rediscovering ones own “civilised” world and seeing it through new eyes

Were the orgies of the Indians, described in some detail, any worse than his experiences as a cabin boy? Was the sense of belonging to a community such as the Indians not better than his treatment as an orphan in Europe? The narrator then joins a travelling theatre group to tell his story to packed audiences throughout Spain, but he realises that the people did not want to know what really happened, they wanted confirmation of their own ideas and prejudices.

On to the crux of the matter, why he was left alive and what was the role of the witnesses? This is the point that pushes him to write and maybe towards the end pushes us to continue. This was not an easy read, there is a certain amount of repetition and to be fair I was reading Antonio Muñoz Molina in parallel and how can you compete with the beauty of his writing (and excellent translation).

 

First Published in Spanish as  “El Entenado” in 1983 by Folios Ediciones.
Translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa as “The Witness” and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2009
Translated into French by Laure Bataillon as “L’Ancêtre” and published by Flammarion in 1987
*** My translation

Theresa Hannig ‘The Optimisers’


“You’re a Basileus, right?”
“Yes. I am Basileus B334 Eva. I am employed at present as a history teacher for this class.”861636CD-7AA4-4088-A10E-72F871312351
“Since when have children been taught by robots instead of real people?”
“At the moment it is only a test period. Children going through puberty are particularly exhausting for teachers. Many prefer to teach either younger or considerably older pupils.”***


Welcome to 2052 in the federal republic of Europe, consisting of the three richer countries Germany, Norway and Poland, to the ‘Optimal Well-being Economy. We see the story through the eyes of Samson Freitag (TGIF?), a Life Consultant, employed by the state, as the story begins Samson is married to Melanie and is fully convinced of the importance of his work to society. Samson is a meticulous worker seeking to help the people who choose to consult him (choice of course is not necessarily free), The first woman who consults him is Martina Fischer who as he later explains to Melanie:


“I had a relatively unhappy customer today”, said Samson finally. “She even wanted to seduce me so that I’d give her a better result.”
“Aha” said Melanie, taking a sip of wine.
“Of course I told her to stop that. At the end she needed to go into Contemplation. But she really wasn’t happy about it.”
“Ha!”
“What’s there to laugh about?”
“Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing. Poor woman.”
“What do you mean poor woman?”
Well, because you shipped her off to Contemplation. Is there anything worse?”
“What do you mean worse? It’s the best place for her.”
“Yes. exactly. She’s good for nothing right?”
“The way you say it makes it sound terrible. I see it realistically. She is most useful for the state when she does nothing. Any robot can fulfill any task better than her.”
“And What happens when the day comes that a robot can do your job better than you?” She filled her empty glass.
“That’ll never happen.”***


What is then this Optimal well-being economy? Initially life seems not to be too far further forward than today, data collection is rife as it would seem to be today, this goes a little further than in The Circle, but with the means of the time. Do you remember what life was like before the Internet? Could you have imagined what it would bring? Could you imagine living without it today? Well here they have contact lenses feeding them information in real time about events or about the people around them and recording whatever they see. The same questions as today are more pointed, to what end is all of this information collected?

Samson, early in his career, had been consulted by the new up and coming politician Ercan Böser and had been in two minds about whether he should be an actor or a politician, as he re-visions the recording of their interview he realises Böser had been quoting from Georg Buchner’s “Death of Danton” and takes it in his mind to correct his initial erroneous assessment. From this moment on everything goes wrong for Samson, Martina Fischer commits suicide and his wife leaves him causing his number of “social points” to plummet, we realise that through the contact lenses everyone immediately is aware of the number of social points of the people they see, avoiding people with lower numbers. Samson’s account goes into free fall as he begins to understand for the first time that all may not be well in the Optimal well being economy.

This book then takes this, so far dystopian but possible, story to a new level as Samson gets delivered a Basileus robot, such as described in the opening quote, but with all of the thoughts and experiences of and looking exactly like the recently suicided Martina Fischer. Who is using all of this data and to what end? Well Samson ends up finding out in a way he was not expecting!

First published in German as ‘Die Optimierer’ by Bastei Lübbe AG  in 2017
*** My translation

Christopher J. Yates ‘Grist Mill Road’


“For years I was obsessed with Japan because I considered it the strangest place827AB891-A08F-4261-8F3D-21964701E469 I could visit that didn’t require space travel. Then again, I had not, until my early twenties, experienced New Jersey.”


Grist Mill road is a psychological thriller set in the present but based on events taken place years before as the main protagonists were young adolescents. This is a thriller told individually by the three characters and follows the outline of the unreliable narrator whose descriptions of these past events seems entirely believable but in retrospect incomplete, the why of the matter being avoided.

So in 2008 and in turn, Patch then Hannah and finally Mathew tell us of the events that occurred in upstate New York back in 1982 when, as Patch tells us that at the age of 12, he and his slightly older friend Mathew take Hannah out into the country where they have played all summer and whilst Patch, as Mathew asks him, goes away to count to one hundred, but secretly watches, Mathew ties Hannah to a tree and shoots one of her eyes out with an air rifle:


I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh, and each time he hit her she screamed. Do the math and the whole thing probably went on for as long as ten minutes. I just stood there and watched.


Flash forward to 2008, Patch has recently got together and is living together with Hannah as Mathew seems to reappear in their lives pushing them to bring old memories to the surface and we are brought to re-examine and to see the same story we have been told, of the evil Mathew, the innocent Hannah and the voyeur Patch through different eyes, we learn more about them at that time, Hannah coming from a rich family, Mathew has a drunken abusive father and Patch’s father is a small time but ambitious local politician and of maybe more nuanced events, as the story rushes towards its troubled climax.

First published in English as ‘Grist Mill Road‘ by Picador in 2017

Feridun Zaimoglu ‘Scum’


“All of a sudden another Albanian slashed my shoulder with a shank. I didn’t even notice. I was numbed from anger, from coke and from vodka. img_1206And then my boys waded in, and the fucking cops turned up with their lights flashing, running all over the shop now that there was nothing left to do. Even an ambulance rolled up, but I’m too proud to be carried off on a stretcher by the fucking vultures. Fuck me I’d just fought off four serious assholes, to have managed that and not to walk out on my own two legs, well what sort of a shitty end would that have been I ask you? Then the fucking girls arrived yakking on ‘oh Ertan, no kidding, you held your own!”***


In Feridun Zaimoglu’s ‘Scum’, not yet translated into English and read in French as ‘Racaille’ we hear the true story of Ertan Ongun, and I use the word hear with purpose as the book is based on interviews recorded on tape for Zaimoglu. Ertan Ongun in his own words is a ‘dago, a junky and a gangster’, born in Germany and living back and forth between Germany and Turkey. The story is told in Ertan’s language, the language of the streets, remarkably translated into French and good luck to a future English translator!

Ertan takes us through his life in Kiel, as he slides inevitably from delinquency through drug abuse to prison and then finally, here, hopelessness. For the most part as the opening quote illustrates in his circles you can’t survive without pride and the young Ertan has ‘cojones’ to spare, he and his friends hang out in a bar known as the “Flohmarkt” where most of the actions begin or the ideas are hatched, told in short, mostly 3 to 5 page chapters. We learn of the different groups around them, the Kurds, the Albanians and the Yougoslaves which he paints in a couple of sentences as for example here with the Yougoslaves:


“The bloke that ran the club ‘Eros’, was a Yougoslave. He was called Zlatko. He had a large Mercedes 500, a massive gold chain with a huge cross studded with big diamonds and all the rest.”***


I can almost see Zlatko. As the book advances, everyone around Ertan just sort of naturally winds up in prison or dead and Ertan slowly slides into drugs, doing everything but slowly being destroyed by ‘H’ at first he manages to get off of it on his trips to Turkey but he then quickly finds a source there too.

The book is full of bravado and humour, he tells us who he is with the gloves off, this isn’t an attempt to get us to like him and as Zaimoglu concludes:


“He delivers his message: we’re the dagos that you, the Germans, have systematically put forward as representing. Well now, here we are, in every way identical to the image you have created of us, to your fears.”***


Since this book, Zaimoglu has gone on to be a well known literary figure in Germany, a playwright and author amongst other things but as yet not translated into English.

First published in German as ‘Abschaum Die wahre Geschichte Von Ertan Ongun’ by Rotbuch/Sabine Groenewold Verlage in 1997
Translated into French by Florence Tenenbaum as “Racaille La véritable histoire d’Ertan Ongun” and published by Stock in 2004
*** My translation

Dave Eggers ‘The Circle’

 


“We all have a right to know everything we can, we all collectively own the accumulated knowledge of the world.”
“Right” Mae said, “so what happens if I deprive anyone or everyone of something I know? Aren’t I stealing from my fellow humans?”
“Indeed” Bailey said, nodding earnestly.57EB273D-FD10-451F-BFF6-670CD29C2500
Ma
e looked at the audience, at the entire first row, the only faces visible nodding too.
“And given your way with words Ma
e, I wonder if you can tell us this last revelation you made? What did you say?”
“Well, I said privacy is theft”…the words now appeared on the screen behind in great white letters
Secrets are lies
Caring is sharing
Privacy is theft.


War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

In The Novel, 1984, the world is ruled by a group of people who through intimidation or persuasion have brainwashed the entire population into believing their slogans which have one meaning for the Party and one meaning for the people, putting  into words the idea of doublethink, which in its essence is a parody, breaking down what can be obtained by controlling the people through  a total, ruthless and cynical  monopoly of information.

Clearly, as illustrated from the opening quote, Dave Eggers is revisiting the idea of a totalitarian threat in a future world where all information could be controlled by one malevolent source, with the Circle modelling itself on a malevolent Facebook/Google type company. The book begins with a believable situation of a modern digital company, the Circle, as the main protagonist, May, leaves her job at a utilities company to join the almost cult like company, the Circle, thanks to her friend Annie. The Circle links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing information, all of which is already available today to a certain extent on the net. But to what aim?

It comes As no surprise that this book came out the same year as the Edward Snowden revelations and seems to address two of the main points argued by Snowden, in creating a world that Snowden so clearly rejects:


I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded.


He also presents a world where everyone is happy to give up their privacy for the common good because they have nothing to hide:


Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.


So briefly onto the story, Mae discovers and embraces in full each of the particularities of The Circle, from the scoring of each employee by their social media scores and the constant need to recontact customers to persuade them to increase the customer satisfaction scores (who isn’t contacted these days by incessant customer satisfaction questionnaires? If I’ve a complaint I’ll tell them!), to the dorms on campus, not obligatory of course but why would you not want to use them, I asked why would you not want to use them!

Of course, someone who has access to all information could be tempted to use it to reinforce their position, Politicians who take a stand against The Circle find themselves shamed on social media, but how far will the Circle go and who controls the seemingly poorly thought through incremental changes, from voting on social media for lunch at the Circle to voting for Elections using the same media:


She walked up to the screen and pushed yes, the engineers cheered, the developers cheered, on the screen a happy face appeared with the words “you are heard” arcing above. The question disappeared replaced by the words Demoxy result, 75 per cent of respondents want more veggie options, more veggie options will be provided. Sharma was beaming, “see that’s a simulated result of course, we don’t have everyone on Demoxy yet but you get the jest, the question appears, everyone stops briefly what they are doing, responds and instantly The Circle can take appropriate action knowing the full and complete will of the people, incredible right?”
“It is”, Mae said
“Imagine this rolled out nationwide, worldwide….”
Mae left the Renaissance and was greeted just outside the door by a group of young Circlers, all of whom wanted to tell her, all of them on their tiptoes bursting that they had never voted before that they had been utterly uninterested in politics and felt disconnected entirely from their government, feeling that they had no real voice. They told her that by the time their vote or their name on some petition was filtered through their local government and then their state officials and finally their representatives in Washington it felt like sending a messages in a bottle across a vast and troubled sea. But now, the young Circlers said, they felt involved, if Demoxy worked they said, then laughed, when Demoxy is implemented, of course it will work, they said and when it does you will finally have a fully engaged populace and when you do, the country and the world will hear from the youth and their inherent idealism and progressivism will upend the planet.


All of the technology is leading towards the laudable wish for transparency, firstly in the political domain but applied so as Tom control the politicians, Initially some politicians, after seeing the power of The Circle on the previously shamed representatives of the people, agree to go “transparent” that is to say to wear a portable camera so that all of their actions and all of their tractations are visible in real time, then Mae herself agrees to go “transparent”, after all  she has nothing to hide.

For me, a particularly heavy addition to the story was the Circle leader interested in exotic aquarium life but who had the rare species eaten by a shark, this could have been more subtle.

And finally, to tie in the opening picture, The Circle of course wanted to share and control all medical data.

First published in English as ‘The Circle’ by Knopf in 2013

Mohsin Hamid ‘Exit West’


In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, 28078486-3414-447A-8036-EB4B65EC53BAa young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.


Mohsin Hamid in Exit West, shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, leads us by the hand from a city in a middle eastern country, poor, but with hope, where Saeed sells outdoor advertising space in a small company and lives with his parents, whilst Nadia has a job in an insurance company  and has managed the prowess of being able to live alone. Nadia and Saeed get to know each other with initial mistrust illustrated by the following quote as they meet for coffee for the first time:


They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.


Mohsin Hamid takes us through their brief period of getting to know each other in almost normal circumstances, where Nadia wears a Flowing black robe covering her from the tips of her toes to her jugular notch, not from religious conviction but to protect herself from men, and where Saeed disguises himself in a one of her robes to be able to visit her in her appartement, then in a few lines he describes the tipping point:


The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree. They rose, singly and in pairs, and fanned out above the city in the reddening dusk, as the sun slipped below the horizon, and the whirr of their rotors echoed through windows and down alleys, seemingly compressing the air beneath them, as though each were mounted atop an invisible column, an invisible breathable cylinder, these odd, hawkish, mobile sculptures, some thin, with tandem canopies, pilot and gunner at different heights, and some fat, full of personnel, chopping, chopping through the heavens.
Saeed watched them with his parents from their balcony.
Nadia watched them from her rooftop, alone.


He then briefly takes us through the total breakdown of ordinary civilised life at the outbrek of war, then the story until this point torn between reality and something lighter moves towards the fantastic, he manages this by following Saeed and Nadia as they become displaced citizens, migrants but shrinking their trips between countries to passages through doors, as if the true question for both the migrants and the habitants of their destinations is not the trip nor the barriers but the tensions on their arrival and how the world could react:


But Nadia’s new friend was as good as her word, because very early one morning she put both Nadia and Saeed on the back of her scooter and sped them through still quiet streets to a house on a hill with a courtyard. They dashed inside and there was a door. The girl wished them good luck, and she hugged Nadia tight, and Saeed was surprised to see what appeared to be tears in the girl’s eyes, or if not tears then at least a misty shine, and Nadia hugged her too, and this hug lasted a long time, and the girl whispered something to her, whispered, and then she and Saeed turned and stepped through the door and left Mykonos behind.
They emerged in a bedroom with a view of the night sky and furnishings so expensive and well made that Saeed and Nadia thought they were in a hotel, of the sort seen in films and thick, glossy magazines.


So what would happen if people could move about as easily as this, Mohsin Hamid presents us with the competing factions within the different host countries, illustrated by, here, London with the initial reaction from the nativists:


Saeed and Nadia heard it said that nativist extremists were forming their own legions, with a wink and a nod from the authorities, and the social media chatter was of a coming night of shattered glass, but all this would probably take time to organize, and in that time Saeed and Nadia had to make a decision: whether to stay or to go.


But in line with the lighter positive vision of the world and its capability for good, he imagines the world embracing the situation:


In the formerly protected green belt around London a ring of new cities was being built, cities that would be able to accommodate more people again than London itself. This development was called the London Halo, one of innumerable human halos and satellites and constellations springing up in the country and in the world.


For the migrants however, acceptance alone is not an answer to the trauma that they live through nor the people nor the life they leave behind epitomised by the differing capabilities of Nadia and Saeed to accept their situation:


It seemed to Nadia that the further they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.


This is a dreamlike book Treating an age old problem of the pain of migration, not of the journey but of the change.

First published in English as ‘Exit West’ by Hamish Hamilton in 2017