Diego Marani ‘New Finnish Grammar’

‘At heart, we have always been Lutherans, even before we became Christians. The heroes of the Kalevala were already Lutherans in the same way that Achilles and Ulysses were already Orthodox. 2F042AD6-7A56-4C98-8D52-428CB0A1F403Ulysses practised his wiles on a sophisticated and sceptical society which was familiar with mental trickery. Väinämöinen’s mode of speech is craggy, immediate, uncomplicated, like the first blow of a chisel on rough stone. The Greek Gods mingled with men, wrangled and negotiated with them. The God Ukko never comes down to Earth; he judges our actions and then visits light or darkness upon us, punishment or reward.’

In Diego Marani’s left of field book New Finnish Grammar, read for Italian Lit Month,  the story of roots and the need to belong is brought to us in this improbable story. During the Second World War a man is found in the port of Trieste, badly beaten and having lost his memory and speaking no language, the only clue to his identity is the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen found on his jacket. He is brought aboard a german hospital ship to be treated where the doctor that treats him, Pétri Friari, has himself unsure roots, in the German forces but himself of Finnish descent. He tries to teach Karjalainen, the rudiments of Finnish before sending him to Helsinki to better discover and understand his own country and language and to then maybe discover more about himself. But Finnish is no ordinary language as we learn:

Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and to bend them to our needs. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here.

The reader feels something of the poetry, of the essence of Finnish, without Marani trying to detail the actual language. As the Finns prepare to defend their country against Russian attack, Sampo is housed in the military hospital where he meets Ilma, a nurse who feels for him, maybe a new start is possible with her as he struggles to speak Finnish, helped by the pastor Koskela who tries to teach him not only the language but also what it is to be Finnish through Finnish mythology, The Kalevala, the spirit of which is rendered in the opening quote.

Marani’s tale is told by Pétri Friari, pieced together from notes written by Sampo in Finnish whilst Sampo was struggling to learn the language. Who was Sampo? What was he doing in Trieste? Is their hope, through Ilma for a man that does not know who he is? A chance observation by Sampo at the end of the story makes all clear, As Pétri says:

If Doctor Friedrich Reiner had found the handkerchief with the initials S. K. even a day earlier the fate of Massimiliano Brodar would have been different, as would have been my own.

First published in Italian as ‘Nuovo Grammatica Finlandese’ by RCS Libri in 2000
Translated into English by Judith Landry as “New Finnish Grammar” and published by Dedalus in 2011


Kamila Shamsie ‘Home Fire’

“You know what fathers and sons are like”
“Not really, no.”
“They’re our guides into manhood, for starters.”
She’d never really understood this, though she’d heard and seen enough anecdotally and academically to know there was something to it.16831436-5F28-4664-9749-557A446D1F14 For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition. He must have seen her look of incomprehension because he tried again.
“We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.”

Welcome to my second review of a book using Antigone as its thread, the first was Chalandon’s Quatrième Mur and here Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. Both books, as well as Sophocles of course are necessarily set in times of conflict, Chalandon’s in the Lebanese civil war of the early 1980’s where his Creon was Christian, his Antigone was Palestinian, his Haemon was Druze and his play included Chiites, Chaldeans and Armenians. Shamsie’s book is set in the current Syrian conflict, and is a thoroughly modern telling of this classical  tale. what all three have in common is that they are studies of people in times of conflict.

Shamsie, as Sophocles, brings us a tragedy, men blind through power bringing about their own personal downfall. The King Creon in the case of Sophocles who pushes his own niece Antigone and his son Haemon to their deaths and in doing so loses his wife, Eurydice, all this in trying to cement his power. Shamsie brings us Karamat, the British Home Secretary and second generation Pakistani immigrant in the place of Creon. But to this classic story, Shamsie brings us a study of the role of fathers in the coming of age of their sons, see the opening quote by Eamonn, Karamat’s son, and of the mechanism of indoctrination of fragile European youth into The Islamic State through Parvaiz.

The story is told in five parts by five different narrators, beginning with Isma, who has brought up her younger brother and sister, the twins, Parvaiz and Aneeka after their mother’s death, their father, Adil Pasha, had abandoned his home before the twins were born to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya and the Kashmir before dying in transit to Guantanamo. The twins having reached school leaving age, Isma can pick up her life again and heads to the USA for a PhD. Through Isma we are introduced to all of the main protagonists of the story, her brother and sister, a second generation English Muslim politician Karamat Lone:

Mr British Values. Mr Strong on Security. Mr Striding Away from Muslimness.

Isma and her mother had approached Karamat to get information about the death of their father, on the way to Guantanamo they had heard  unofficially, he had refused to help them and was now Home Secretary. And finally Eammon, Karamat’s son who Isma meets in America:

How they laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name— Ayman became Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated. (His Irish-American wife was seen as another indicator of his integrationist posing rather than an explication for the son’s name.)

She realises he is not like his father but although confiding in him about her father and her brother Parvaiz who we are learning has disappeared from his life in Wembley, she cannot go past simple friendship. Before returning to England, Eamonn sees a picture of the beautiful Aneeka at Isma’s appartement.

In the second part of the book Eamonn and Aneeka become lovers, Aneeka initially we learn later, to try to help her brother who realises he has made a mistake in going to Syria and wants out, to come home. The thing is that Karamat has managed to pass a law removing citizenship from dual nationals engaged in Syria, and Aneeka hopes to influence Karamat through his son. But life is not a plan and Aneeka falls in love with Eamonn who decides to intercede for her with his father.

In the third part of the story we follow the indoctrination of Parvaiz, a part of this book is the study of boys becoming men and the respective rolls of their fathers, Eamonn and his father caring for him versus Parvaiz who does not know his father, here the recruiters use this need for a father as a hook as in this conversation between Parvaiz and Farooq:

“I never knew my father…..”
“He regretted that.” The stranger said, “that you never knew him. He fought with my father; I heard all the stories of the great  warrior Abu Parvaiz.”
“That wasn’t my father’s name. It was Adil Pasha.”
“It was his—“ The man said something that sounded like numb digger. “That’s French for jihadi name….. When he entered the fight for justice he called himself Father of Parvaiz. That was his way of keeping you close……”

We learn that Parvaiz contacts his sister Aneeka wanting to come home helping us to understand the events of the previous section, Aneeka’s relationship  with Eamonn. From here on in the last two sections narrated by the inflexible Karamat and then Aneeka who has no limit to her wish and actions to repatriate her dead brother, the tragedy of Sophocles’s Antigone plays out up until the breathtaking end.

A splendid book.

First published in English as ‘Home Fire’ by Bloomsbury Circus in 2017

Alan Hollinghurst ‘The Sparsholt Affair’

“The evening when we first heard Sparsholt’s name seems the best place to start this little memoir. We were up in my rooms, talking about the club. Peter Goyle, the painter, was there, and Charlie Farmonger and Evert Dax.3B22C1AF-0CA2-4A17-8359-8E3F426D9F8AA sort of vote had taken place, and I emerged as the secretary, I was the oldest by a year and exempt from service”

Alan Hollinghurst’s novel chronicles gay life in a number of distinct episodes in England through two generations of the Sparsholt family. The book begins at the outset of the second world war at Oxford university illustrated at the first meeting of the memoir club in the opening quote where Goyle, Dax and the narrator of the first time period, Julian Green are are present and we hear of Sparsholt, a young freshman keen on rowing coming from an engineering family in Warwickshire with no real interest in books and only really filling in time before he is called up and seems so out of place with the upper class gays in the club:

“Oh, yes, him,” Evert said, as the source of the shadow moved slowly into view, a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights. He did this with no apparent effort – but of course it was hard to tell from this distance, from which he showed, in this square of light, as massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light himself. Peter put his hand on my arm.
“My dear” he said, “I seem to have found my new model.” At which Evert made a little gasp, and looked at him furiously for a second.

Sparsholt is then indeed painted by Peter Goyle, a nude torso which is after Goyle’s death in the war later obtained by Dax. In this well described 1940.s Oxford it is also clear that Sparsholt is a more nuanced charachter than he may first seem and that gays even in these times should not be stereotyped.

In the second time sequence, we follow David Sparsholt’s family on a family holiday in the 60’s, a little before the actual Sparsholt affair, where we see that he has married his girlfriend from before his Oxford years, Connie, has a family but still prefers the company of his friend, Clifford, who is on holiday with his wife nearby, nothing is overt here, homosexuality is afterall still illegal. We are also introduced to his son, Johnny the narrator of the remainder of the book as he suspects nothing of his father but is himself discovering his own sexual tendancies in his early teens as he is infatuated with Bastien his French exchange student.

The second part of the book follows Johnny through his life in London as he first meets Evert Dax and then the rest of the Memoire club, this happens after the Sparsholt affair, a scandal involving his father, and follows Johnny as he matures and the grows older.

First Published in English as “The Sparsholt Affair” in 2017 by Picador.


Patrick deWitt ‘The Sisters Brothers’

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

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

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

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

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

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


Laurent Bénégui ‘Mon pire ennemi est sous mon chapeau’

—The program is postponed professor Minowski.
—Postponed….until when? I had answered naively, six weeks earlier.AA0AE221-1420-440C-84DF-0E1F480BF3CF
—Sine die, Talbot, the director of genolab, had mumbled.
As if it was less painful for a scientist to be sacked in Latin.
—Your whole team’s fired including you.***

Laurent Minowski’s life is falling apart, in the space of few days, he loses his job as illustrated in the opening quote and his doctor diagnoses him with high blood pressure. Laurent’s albeit unfortunate problems are not exceptional except that Laurent lives with Juliette, who is twenty years younger than him and is afraid that if he does not seem strong he will lose her. He begins by stealing a Vélib bicycle and selling it on at a flea market, leaving his telephone number with the crooks in case they can use him for any small operations. From this opening Bénégui sketches out a wild comedy, My Worst Enemy is Under My Hat, as Minowski gets deeper and deeper into trouble.

Minowski soon learns that success in any new field of endeavour, including larceny, requires experience as he is set up to carry the can for a murder, being sent ostensibly to steal some paintings into an appartement with two corpses in, he gets out just in time but with an abandoned baby!!! Now Juliette so wants a baby…..So after wondering how they will keep the baby they take him to the doctor’s where they are caught out and make up a name on the spot, Mateus:

You’ll seldom find parents who know their child’s head size but not his name…the paediatricians swallowed our story more easily than we could have hoped for.
Sitting behind his desk he looked enthusiastically at us with a beaming smile…
—Well Mateus Minowski, said the paediatrician, the talking’s over let’s examine you now, if your parents would be kind enough to undress you……
—Ok, pass him to me, I’ll Open the parcel joked Doctor Lebillon….I heard him pull back the Velcro on the nappy, and he was silent….
—Is there a problem doctor? Juliette asked.
—Has he dirtied his nappy?

A light, fun read.

First published in French as ‘Mon pire ennemi est sous mon chapeau’ by Julliard in 2012
*** My translation


Martin Suter ‘Allmen And The Dragonflies’

—Never before in his life had he known a woman throw herself at him with the hunger shown by the platinum blonde from the opera. 63ED61CD-00E9-4E8E-B710-CA2DF2B00E28On the back seat of the limousine, in full view through the chauffeur’s mirror, he had just been able to fight off Jojo’s attacks. But on arrival in the  entrance hall of the large lakeside villa, he let himself be pulled, without resisting, first up the  large staircase, then into the diva’s bedroom as if he had been a prey brought back by a lioness.***

Martin Suter’s Allmen and the dragonflies, read for German lit month, is the first book in a series concerning Allmen, a completely decadent Swiss gentleman, who has inherited wealth but, due to his lifestyle, is unable to hold onto it. Allmen owes everyone money but holds back enough to keep up appearances, for instance his opera-house membership from before he had delapidated his fortune gives him access to two cheaper tickets , one of which he sells on to a rich banker for profit and is the starting point for this book’s adventure.

The book gives us a short easy to read and slowly unravelled mystery in which Suter’s character descriptions stand out, such as the opening quote about Joëlle (Jojo), fourty something, Rohypnol taking woman who turns up at the opera with the rich banker’s ticket illustrated in the opening quote, or Carlos the resourceful Guatemalan gardener come man servant who has become indispensable to Johann Friedrich Von Allmen and who he adresses as Don John:

—The evening when he told Carlos that he would have to sell the villa, move to the gardener’s house and let him go, Carlos just  nodded his head and replied ‘very well Don John’ and went back to the house in question
But the next day, whilst Allmen was seated before his breakfast and Carlos was serving him coffee, he said in his usual stiff manner:
‘Una sugerencia nada más’***

Almenn then, who becomes involved in petty art thefts which he sells to his local fence, one evening at Jojo’s father’s villa on the lake, crosses the line from anonymous petty larson to more serious theft when he finds and steels an art nouveau glass with a dragonfly decoration, one of a set of five and sells it to his local fence for 20000 Swiss Francs. All seems well until he returns with Jojo for a second torrid night hoping to get the other four glasses and to his surprise discovers all five glasses in place once again.

Before the end of the book we discover, that the glasses are worth considerably more than the 20000 Swiss Francs, murder, insurance swindles, blackmail and more. Allmen with no small thanks to Carlos skates over the thin ice and of course comes out on top. Is he more of a gentleman thief or more on the side of the law? I guess only Simon Templar would know.

First published in German as ‘Allmen und die Libellen ‘ by Diogenes  in 2011
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as “Allmen et les Libellules” and published by Christian Bourgeois in 2011
*** My translation


Peter Stamm ‘Seven Years’

—When she finally arrived we greeted each other as though we hadn’t seen each other for ages, we went for a walk in the snow 614205A4-BFD9-4959-A899-A3400720D22Fand talked everything over again we relished the reconciliation of the night by saying over and over what we’d done wrong and how we’d meant to do better in the future and what our life would be like and how much we loved each other, our words were conjurations as though everything would go the way we wanted it so long as we said it often enough.

Alex, the narrator is a shadow of a man, he exists, but has no real substance. Peter Stamm paints us a picture of the narrator, who through a series of discussions with his wife’s friend Antje tells us about their life over the last seven years and in so doing, through his accounts of the conversations with others and through their judgements, tells us about himself in this story read for German Lit Month,

Alex, an architect living in Munich is married to his business partner Sonia, who is beautiful, but whom in Alex’s honest narration he doesn’t love but wants to please. Alex lives throughout this whole time, on and off, an infatuation with a very catholic polish illegal immigrant, Ivona, to whom he doesn’t feel attracted, with whom he doesn’t really talk, but to whom he returns regularly, mostly just for sex but also to forget himself for a few hours.

Alex strings along both women over this time period, unable to make decisions about who if either of the women he wants in his life. The central element in the story occurs when his wife, Sonia, is unable to have a child and then Ivona falls pregnant. Alex persuades himself and Ivona, but without really persuading the reader that he is acting for both Ivona and the unborn child’s best interests taking the child off of her hands and explaining that it would be better if he and his wife bring up the child. What did Ivona really think of Alex who only rarely saw her afterwards? Her cousin tells us some years later:

‘Ivanna’s wasted her life on me’ I thought.
‘For the past fifteen years she’s been chasing the spectre of an impossible love.’
‘You mustn’t reproach yourself’ said Eva as though she’d read my mind.
‘It has nothing to do with you, in her own way Ivona is perfectly happy she has you, she’s been in love these fifteen years.’

As Alex’s life begins to fall to pieces later on through the pressure of work and alcohol and in a moment of symmetry in the story, Sonia’s parents explain to Alex how it would be better for him and the child, Sophie, if they were to take her of his hands.

The views of Alex by others is confirmed during one of the conversations with Antje during a moment of self doubt:

‘Maybe I really wasn’t good enough for Sonia’ I said.
‘It’s not your fault’ said Birgit
‘You’re not the only people in trouble’.
‘But for me Sonia would have had more of a career’ I said
‘She wanted to go abroad and work in a big architecture company’.
‘She knew what she was getting with you’ said Birgit.

Towards the end of the story in a rare moment of self appraisal Alex tells us:

‘The whole time I felt as though I was standing outside myself watching, disgusted by my own heartlessness.’

This was a chilling tale by its everyday easy conversational form, had it have been a confession there would have been some redemption. There really are people out there like Alex with no colour and no texture, beware.

First published in German as ‘Sieben Jahre’ by S. Fischer in 2009
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as “Seven Years” and published by Granta Books in 2013