Samanta Schweblin ‘Fever Dream’

—There are children of all ages. It’s very hard to see. I hunch down over the steering wheel. Are there healthy children too, in the town?IMG_1080 There are some, yes. Do they go to school? Yes. But around here there aren’t many children who are born right.

Amanda is on holiday in the countryside in Argentina with her daughter Nina, Schweblin’s rurality is  dangerous, she paints us a picture full of anguish and worry heightened by the storytelling process, with Amanda lying in bed in a feverish state with a short time to live explaining events to David, a child, who is pushing her to remember when it all started, the key moment, when everything changed.

First of all, who is Amanda, and why does she have this notion of rescue distance to her daughter, measured by an invisible rope, so firmly ensconced in her, what family secret lies behind this notion:

—My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible. Now there’s almost no rescue distance, the rope is so short that I can barely move in the room, I can barely walk away from Nina to go to the closet and grab the last of our things.

Amanda begins by telling the story of David, which she had heard from David’s mother Carla, about David suddenly becoming  ill and Carla, in an attempt to save him, taking him to the local healer’s green shack where his body and his mind are separated to enable him to live on, with his parents then no longer recognising him. We later understand that this is not a one off event and that in this isolated community everyone consults the healer and that animals as well as people are concerned:

—Carla thinks it is all related to the children in the waiting room, to the death of the horses, the dog, and the ducks, and to the son who is no longer her son but who goes on living in her house. Carla believes it is all her fault, that changing me that afternoon from one body to another body has changed something else. Something small and invisible that has ruined everything.

What are in the plastic drums used on the nearby farm? One of which, left on the grass near where Nina was playing, Amanda manages to trace back to the point when everything changes. Schweblin’s story is a mystical account of an insidious ecological disaster:

—Yes. But the nurse’s son, the children who come to this room, aren’t they kids who’ve been poisoned? How can a mother not realize?
—Not all of them go through poisoning episodes. Some of them were born already poisoned, from something their mothers breathed in the air, or ate or touched.

First Published in Spanish as “Distancia de Rescate” in 2015 by Literatura Random House
Translated into English by Megan McDowell as “Fever Dream” and published by Oneworld in 2017
Translated into French by Aurore Touya as “Toxique” and published by Gallimard in 2017

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

Tanguy Viel ‘Article 353 of the code of criminal procedures’

—Article 353 of the code of criminal procedure: the law does not hold magistrates accountable for the means by which they come to a conclusion, nor does it describe the rules on which the full satisfaction of proof should depend;IMG_1076 the law requires them to question themselves in quiet withdrawal and to search their consciences sincerely for influence the evidence brought forward against the accused and the means of the defence has had on them. The law asks of them but one question, which encompasses the full weight of their responsibility: Do you have a firm belief?***

Tanguy Viel tells us here a universal story of gullibility where a crooked property developer, Antoine Lazenec appears in the working class far western French port of Brest. Here in an essentially poorer city in France, the lack of loose money has not prepared them for Lazenec. The events are preceded by the naval arsenal, the city’s largest employer, closing down and the employees getting lumped sum severance payments, loose cash in an otherwise frugal community.

The story is told by Kermeur, in an almost monologue to the magistrate, and who after being layed off by the Arsenal, was the gatekeeper of the “Chateau”, a beautiful municipally owned property on a cliff top overlooking the bay and at the same time the property that was to be developed by Lazenec and leads to the final act of the magistrate questioning the events in the light of Artticle 353 of the code of criminal procedure shown in the opening quote.

The story opens with Kermeur in a small boat, a Merry Fisher, the very type of boat Kermeur had dreamed of bying for himself, well off of the coast, throwing Lazenec overboard to certain death and calmly sailing back to port. Kermeur later describes to the magistrate the effrontery  of Lazenec:

—From here I’d say it alost looks like a real chateau. Yes, that’s right, he replied. It’s almost a shame to demolish it. Demolish? I said. And whilst I was still taking in his answer, at that same time he had begun to walk back towards the quays , whilst I was trying to tell him that I hadn’t understood that from the model, it had seemed to me quite the opposite, the chateau…Yes, but what can you do, he said, the project is evolving, and you’ll see, Kermeur, it’ll look a lot better like that.***

Lazenec is a type of character that since the banking crisis of 2007-2008, we have become accustomed to. Lazenec has no shame, not only does he never begin the actual building work but he continues as time goes on to sign up more people from the peninsula as investors, I mean he must be for real? As the swindle becomes too obvious to ignore, the town mayor, Le Goff, realising he has severely indebted the commun in the investments is the first to act:

—I think you could still here it the following friday, the bullet, under the black umbrellas surrounding the grave, ricocheting off of the walls of the bell tower for at least three days bouncing off of the swing of the death knell before now whistling down the alleys of the cemetery***

The judge asks Kermeur why he and the other people who were cheated didn’t group together to take him to court, but of course nobody wanted to admit that they had been so easily cheated. The strength of Viel’s writing is to describe the events surrounding the disintegration of the lives touched by Lazenec leading to the question asked of Kermeur by his son:

Do you intend winding up like Le Goff?

And of course the magistrate’s final reflection in the light of the article from the code of criminal procedure.

First Published in French as “Article 353 du code Pénal” in 2016 by Les Editions de Minuit.
*** My translation

Paolo Giordano ‘The Human Body’

—In the years following the mission, each of the guys set out to make his life unrecognizable, until the memories of that other life, that earlier existence,img_1064 were bathed in a false, artificial light and they themselves became convinced that none of what took place had actually happened, or at least not to them.

Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body was written using his experience as an embedded journalist in an Italian peace mission in Afghanistan. The title loses its double meaning in the translation being both a body and a military unit in the original Italian, this story investigates a military unit by following a number of individuals through the senselessness and boredom of their mission, their ill preparedness for the intense stress caused by a mission outside of their base that goes terribly wrong and how this incident transforms them, illustrated by the opening quote.

In particular we meet the squad leader René, a career soldier respected by his men and who when he is not on mission is a Gigolo with a string of middle aged paying customers, the loud mouthed Cederna and his young acolyte, the “virgin” Ietri, as well as Mitrano who is bullied by Cederna, Zampieri the only woman in the unit who has continually to prove herself and Torsu, who from the mission outset has health problems. When they arrive in Afghanistan they are joined by Egitto the garrison Doctor has decided to stay on for another mission, Paolo Giordano talks us through everyday bored military life as here in a discussion between Cederna and Ietri

—The embarrassing truth is that Ietri has never been with a woman, not in the sense that he considers complete. No one in the platoon knows this and it would be a disaster if they were to find out. The only one who knows is Cederna; he told him about it himself one evening at the pub when they were both smashed and in the mood for confiding. “Complete? You mean to say you’ve never fucked?” “Well, not . . . fully.” “A goddamn little virgin! Hey, I have a new name for you: verginella…. Listen up now—it’s important. The tool down there is like a rifle. A 5.56, with a metal stock and laser sighting.” Cederna shoulders an invisible weapon and aims it at his friend. “If you don’t remember to oil the barrel from time to time, it will end up jamming.” Ietri looks down at his mug of beer. He takes too big a swig, begins to cough. Jammed. He’s a guy who’s jammed. “Even Mitrano manages to shoot his wad every now and then,” Cederna says. “He pays.”

For their peacekeeping mission they are stationed in an inhospitable landscape, their base camp is on the top of a hill, isolated from the country they are there to help in order to provide its own safety:

—The truth is, as in all of the operations since the start of the conflict, the clearing of the area has only been partial, the secure zone extends for a radius of 2km around the base, some dangerous pockets of guérillas remain within this zone and outside of the zone it’s hell…***

After several moral sapping isolated months on the hill top, peacekeeping, they are forced to leave their base in convoy to escort some Afghan  lorry drivers who have had their lorries taken from them through the inhospitable zone which surrounds their hill. Paolo Giordano conveys to us just how easy a target they actually are, up to and including the moments of the tragedy.

A study of futility, the smallness of our individual lives and the impossibility of the peacekeeping mission in this inhospitable territory.

First Published in Italian as “Il corpo umamo” in 2012 by Arnoldo Mondadori.
Translated into French by Nathalie Bauer as ‘Le corps humain’ and published by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel as “The Human body”and published by Viking Penguin in 2014
*** My translation

Jean-Christophe Duchon-Doris ‘L’embouchure du Mississipy’

—Most high, most powerful, most invincible and victorious prince Louis the Great, by the grace of God, king of France and of Navarre, img_1070fourteenth of this name, take possession of this country of Louisiana, seas harbours, ports, bays, adjacent straights and all of the nations, peoples, provinces, city’s towns, villages, mines, minerals, fish, streams, rivers, within the length and breadth of the aforementioned Louisiana***

As I was on a trip to New Orleans, I thought I would pick up a French historical novel about the City and thus came across this ‘Mouth of the Mississipy’ by Duchon-Doris in my local lending library. The story is set in the first years of the eighteenth century as the d’Iberville brothers from New France have been sent to form a settlement by King Louis XIV, the vast region of Louisiana having been claimed for king Louis in an earlier expedition by Cavelier de La Salle in the 1680s whose speech at the moment of claiming it is given in the opening quote.

The expeditions take place during a time of religious rivalry between the Roman church and the Reformed church and rivalry within the camps between the Jésuites, who by the purists are accused of making concessions with the faith in order to get if adopted in far flung lands, and one of these purist groups, the “Missions étrangères” backed by Madame de Maintenon.

In this story, Guillaume de Lauteret expecting to become the Paris prosecutor finds his fiancée’s mother arrested under order of the king but with no explanation.  In trying to discover the truth they learn that the father of  Delphine, his fiancée, had been involved in an expedition to Louisiana where he had until recently be supposed dead, as they then learn:

—Listen to me, he said. I’ll be quick. There are always two versions to a story. In the first, your father is dead. He killed by Mr. Cavelier de La Salle in 1687 after an ugly quarrel. He was tried and executed immediately afterwards by the survivors of the expedition. In this version, your mother is imprisoned.
—In the second version, seventeen years later, when the Sire d’Iberville is leading a new expedition to the mouth of the Mississippi , in the name of the king, the settlers are attacked by a man who kills five of them and is recognised by M de La Salle’s old aumônier as your father.***

img_1069
Map showing the expeditions to Louisiana

So begins the story that will lead them on an adventurous expedition to Louisiana with the d’Ibervilles looking to discover the truth about Delphine’s family. A pleasant story mostly read in the plane.

First Published in French as “L’embouchure du Mississipy” in 2004 by Julliard
*** 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

Zadie Smith ‘Swing Time’

—She would not press play until she had Fred and Ginger exactly where she wanted them, on the balcony amongst the bougainvillea and the Doric columns at which point she began to read the danse as I never could,img_1054 she saw everything the stray ostrich feathers hitting the floor, the weak muscles in Ginger’s back Fred had to jerk her up from any supine position spoiling the flow ruining the lines, she noticed the most important thing of all which was the dance lessons within the performance, with Fred and Ginger you can always see the danse lessons.

Swing time is the story of an unnamed narrator and the four female characters that influence her life up to the point at the end of the book where she is 33 years old and she finally takes the time to begin to question herself.

The First and foremost of the influences on her life is her childhood friend Tracy, from the initial quote, who lives on a nearby estate and who she meets at dancing classes, drawn together by their exact same skin colours:

—Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.

The narrator is defined by what Tracy is and what she herself is not. Tracy is a gifted natural dancer, determined, earnest and speaks her mind about everything except her father, Louis, a local character no longer living at home, thrown out by Tracy’s mother. Tracy grows up becoming rebellious, getting in to a dancing school and drifting away from the narrator.

In parallel to friendship with Tracy, the narrators home life is in flux as her West Indian mother strives to exist through education in a single minded climb through learning obtaining a university degree, becoming a local councillor and then a member of parliament, the price to pay is her lack of time for her family, her husband leaves home and her lack of empathy towards and time for her daughter who spends more time with Tracey:

—I was not a dancer at all –although I took too much pride in my singing, in a manner I knew my mother found obnoxious. Singing came naturally to me, but things that came naturally to females did not impress my mother, not at all. In her view you might as well be proud of breathing or walking or giving birth.

The story then moves on to its second phase as Tracey begins to get secondary roles in west end musicals, the narrator’s Mother goes through a relationship with the ‘Notable Activist’ and then lives with her assistant, Miriam. As this happens our Narrator begins a ten year role as a personal assistant to Aimee, a mega rich superstar traveling the world on private jets, to ensure that Aimee can be free to live her life in the full whilst ensuring that the narrator can have no life of her own. Aimee unfettered by day to day life, all taken care of by her assistants, moves seamlessly from one idea or obsession to next, one in particular will take up a good deal of the narrator’s  time, a school for young girls in The Gambia:

—Governments are useless they can’t be trusted Aimee explained to me and charities have their own agenda, churches care more for souls than for bodies and so if we want to see real change is this world….well then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, we have to be the change we want to see. By we she meant people like herself of financial means and global reach who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own fortunes. It was a moral category but also an economic one and if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing therefore the more money a person had then the more goodness or potential for goodness a person possessed.

The fourth female character to influence her life is Hawa, a young teacher at the village school in The Gambia, a young balanced woman, happy with the simple village life she lives and the gossip that goes with it, Hawa as the other strong female characters in the book are shown as contrasts to the narrator who nonetheless sees her as having some things in common with her. Hawa is however ten years younger than her and as this final quote shows cannot avoid her destiny to marry, which again is seen through the narrator’s reaction:

—I couldn’t rid myself of a nagging sense of error that having misread everything beginning with Hawa who opened the door of her compound wearing a new scarf, black that covered her head and stopped half way down her torso and a long shapeless shirt, the kind she had always ridiculed when we saw them in the market, she hugged me as firmly as ever….oh sister good news I am getting married. I hugged her and felt the familiar smile fasten itself on my face the same one that I wore in London and New York in the face of similar news and I experienced the same sense of acute betrayal, I was ashamed to feel that way but couldn’t help it a piece of my heart closed against her.

The wheel eventually turns full circle with Tracy bringing up her children in her childhood flat, no longer able to dance, still angry, an anger that in her case gives her a certain balance and the narrator having stepped off of the treadmill with only questions before her. Finally it is only the narrator that seems to have an acute sense of observation but no character, a shame for the book.

First published in English as ‘Swing Time’ by Hamish Hamilton in 2016