Martin Suter ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’

‘Dr. Fluri was no more under the illusion for this point than the other participants. img_1412-1His only thought was to save face, the same one Urs Blank would have happily slapped that same afternoon.***

Welcome back to the Swiss author, Martin Suter, once again read for German lit month VIII. Urs Blank is a successful corporate lawyer specialising in mergers and acquisitions, we discover him at the beginning as he prepares and helps to negotiate a deal that is a merger only in name, Dr. Fluri’s company is to be taken over. The narrator lets us know of Urs’ frustration at the pompous Dr. Fluri as illustrated in the opening quote. As then Urs is given the opportunity to ruin Fluri and takes it we understand that Urs has a surpressed “dark side”. We are not the only ones to see this, Pius Ott, A multimillionaire and hunter (he hunts both rare and dangerous wild animals including both a rare lynx early in the story and had at one time hunted and killed a man eating lion) who is the money behind the takeover of Fluri’s business, appreciates Urs’ killer instinct and thinks he recognises a kindred spirit. Ott is the character Urs could become, Ott was never interested in Fluri’s business, only in destroying the man which Urs did for him.

But Urs is dissatisfied with his well ordered life, lunch same time, same place each week with his friend, the psychiatrist, Alfred Wenger, his life without love with his companion, Evelyne Vogt and wants to change something, and so he does. What at first seems a banale middle-age crisis as Urs takes up with a young hippy girl, Lucille, swings out of control when she persuades him to come to the countryside with some friends and to try some psychedelic mushrooms. Urs has a severe reaction to the mushrooms which release his dark side, he no longer feels guilt which we discover as he kills Lucille’s cat with his bare hands and puts it in his briefcase or as he causes the death of a random impatient motorist who wants to overtake him:

‘The car behind was  bumper to bumper with his Jaguar, lights on full beam. Blank showed no reaction, coming out of the next curve the car set to overtake him…. it was a two seater sports car….it wasn’t a match for his twelve cylinders. The more the other accelerated, the more Blank accelerated….the lights of the car coming in the opposite direction shone on the sports car next to Blank….Blank accelerated. Behind him he heard the impact, like an explosion.
Then there was silence, he could only hear the hum of the air conditioning. Blank turned on the radio. A classical music channel, Haydn..***

After talking to his friend Wenger and thinking back to his experience with the mushrooms Blank realises that there was a mushroom different than the others in those he took, he then sets out to search for this mushroom. Blank retreats into the forest over several months, the only place he feels really safe, where he learns to live in total self sufficiency in the wild. An incident with Pius Ott, finishing with Blank punching him and walking away leads to the hunter detesting him, soon after, to escape from the police (there were other murders), Blank successfuly fakes his own suicide, living then entirely hidden in the forest. When Ott discovers that Blank is still alive and could thus be killed without being missed then the hunt begins between the hunter with no concience and the proficient forest dweller with no concience and builds up to the final crescendo.

This was really a fun book, a well written psycological thriller for which a 2016 film by Stephan Rick exists, a shame that it hasn’t been translated into English yet.

First Published in German as “Die Dunkle Seite des Mondes” in 2000 by Diogenes Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni and published in 2000 by Christian Bourgeois
***My translation


Ota Pavel ‘How I Came To Know Fish’

Fishing is above all freedom. To cover miles looking for trout, drinking from springs, img_1399alone and free for at least an hour, a day, or even weeks or months at a time. Free from television, from radio, from civilisation.***

In this book read for the Roman de Rochefort prize, the author is the narrator, Ota Pavel tells us the story, through this book of more than twenty five chapters, each a short story, of his family’s life in central Europe in the early and mid twentieth century, a story of his father Leo Popper, a larger than life character, a non practising jew, who always had a way to make money, and if he had any he spent it, a real roller coaster of a life  and Ota’s long suffering  mother, a catholic. Leo’s passion in life was fishing and so he “invested” in a country house where they could go on holidays, this was then the beginning of their fishing life. Ota describes the man who taught them to fish, Prosek the poacher:

Prosek had a long, yellow bamboo rod, a whip without a spool. He would walk against the rushing water so that the fish could not see him and crack the whip as he styled his dragoon’s moustache. That is how his method got the name ‘crack-casting.’

His father is best understood in the chapter “In the service of Sweden”, where we learn that Leo, with no training can sell anything to anyone if he is motivated , after taking a shine to the Electrolux Czech bosses wife he becomes the best door to door salesman of fridges and vacuums in the country:

Dad sold four vacuums in Rokycany on the same day, which for a novice was quite an exploit because the people had been attached to their brooms and dust pans for hundreds of years, considering a vacuum at two thousand crowns as a devil’s invention and whatsmore, perfectly useless.***

Amongst the many stories, his father who owns a carp pond has it conviscated by the local mayor when the Nazi’s arrive because of the very technical question, is it possible for a jew to own a carp pond. Leo and his two older sons are sent to Auschwitz but Ota avoids this because he is too young and they had forgotten to have him circumcised. Throughout the war Ota, although young keeps them alive partly from poaching fish until both his father and two brothers against all odds return home after the war to the slow descent of Czechoslovakia during the communist period.

In all honesty to enjoy this book to its full it’s best to like fishing, where, as the opening quote tells us, fishing is about freedom.

First Published in Czech as “Smrt krásných srncu” in 1971.
Translated into English by Jindriska Bdal and Robert McDowell and published in 1990 by Story Line Press
Translated into French by Barbora Faure and published by Editions Do in 2016.
***my translation

The original quotes before translation

La pêche c’est surtout la liberté. Parcourir des kilomètres en quete de truites, boire à l’eau des sources, être seule et libre au moins une heure, un jour, où mêmes des semaines et des mois. Libéré de la télévision, de la radio, de la civilisation.

Prosek avait une longue canne en bambou jaune. Une ligne sans moulinet. Il avançait à contre-courant pour ne pas se faire repérer des poissons en faisant parfois claquer sa ligne et ses moustaches de dragon – il appelait cette technique ‘pêcher à la cravache’

Papa vendit quatre aspirateurs à Rokycany dans la même journée, ce qui était un exploit pour un novice, car les gens étaient attachés depuis des centaines d’années à leurs balais et leurs balayettes, considérant un aspirateur à deux mille couronnes comme une invention du diable et de surcroît parfaitement inutile.

Simone Buchholz ‘Blue Night’

The main protagonist in this crime thriller read for German lit month VIII is the hamburg state prosecutor Chastity Riley, in this book which I too learnt afterwards was the sixth in a series, maybe why there were so many characters around her (well Simone Buchholtz had had five books to develop them), Chastity is a city girl, a Hamburg girl, what is she thinking of? Driving into the countryside. After she breaks down somewhere between“Mecklenberg and wherethehellever” we learn from her friend Faller“Why do you do these things Chastity? Just head off out of town? you need your concrete” I guess she really is a city girl.

Chastity has been relegated to witness protection for a sombre story including gunshot wounds to a criminals testicles and launching a corruption case against her bosses. As the story opens her next protection case is being prepared for her in the back streets of Hamburg:

“Then they whip the coshes out from under their jackets. Three jackets, three coshes. Left leg, right leg. Left arm, right arm. And six feet for twelve pairs of ribs. Your very own many-headed demon. Tailor-made to order. Then out come the pliers. Right index finger. A clean crack. But you’re left-handed; they don’t know everything.”

Well as I skipped through the opening chapter and the man being beat to a pulp was able to congratulate himself on his attackers not knowing everything (that he was right handed) I thought to myself : “well he’ll still be able to write” and then later in the book I felt like Marylyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot: Not very bright he needed his trigger finger for something other than writing

Chastity is a right and ready street girl, used to working the shadier areas of Hamburg and can hold her own in any drink and cigarette contest, after gaining her witness’ confidence, she gets out of Hamburg for the day, following a lead, I get to feeling that Leipzig really isn’t like Hamburg, that said I’ve never been to Leipzig, I like the nail scissors.

“Leipzig looks like any other medium sized German city, only a bit better, tidy in a Bavarian kind of way, pretty, old, picture book, listed buildings everywhere, we come to a tree lined square that looks like it was smartened up with nail scissors.”

As the story moves on we find ourselves in the drug business with two unlikely drugs in the same operation, Croc and Crystal meth, Unlikely I said:

“Croc, codeine tablets cooked up with Formic acid and match heads is meth’s cousin from hell, dead in six months… with meth you can hold it together for years, Croc kills quickly, it doesn’t quite fit the business model”

Throughout the story there are many references to Hamburg, as here for instance as the story draws to an end:

“Faller and me on the erholung promenade in St. Pauli we’re smoking and drinking coffee from paper cups the jetties are below us, a few ships, a few tourists, a lot of gold, no sun in the sky.”

She’s a Saint Pauli girl alright, wait for the football match, everybody standing, no one in the boxes.

First Published in German as “Blaue Nacht” in 2017 by Suhrkamp Verlag.
Translated into English by Rachel Ward and published in 2017 by Orenda Books

Jakuta Alikavazovic “Progress of the night”

In some ways it was true. There was nothing between them, img_1396but then again it was false, once everything that takes place with time had taken place something unalterable remained.***

In this award winning book from 2018 read for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, Alikavazovic studies opposites, how people at different ends of the spectrum can be attracted, attracted and at the same time repulsed (an attempt here at copying her writing style, affirming something and then it’s opposite in the same sentence, illustrated by the opening quote). The characters and the writing style reflect these opposites, opposites highlighted by their similarities. Take for example the main protagonists, Paul and Amélia, both orphans on their mothers sides, one rich, one poor, both architecture students, Paul  working as a night porter in a hotel, Amélia as a mysterious rich student  living in the hotel. They meet and live a fusional relationship:

I’d give everything to be like you, i’d give everything to be you ― but Paul knew that there was a difference between unlearning something that we know and never having known it.***

Their architecture lecturer Albers is a specialist of cities and the night, a subject they see from opposite viewpoints, for her, night would represent a violence that would grow out of control, for him, night was a subject to be tamed, controlled. Albers turns out to have been a very close friend of Nadia, Amélia’s mother, who had left  Amélia as a baby and had gone to Sarajevo just before and during the siege, where she had disappeared. She was unable to go through with her life and ignore the unfolding tragedy, she had to feel it, she was an artist and needed to be involved. Albers on the other hand, a theorist, did not feel the need to become involved. Albers theorising the city in dislocation, Nadia living the destruction of the city. It would take Albers’ vision and understanding to see what was happening between Amélia and Paul:

It was obvious that they would be, one for the other, the perfect lover. And that a person with more experience, Albers or another, should have been able to feel something worrying, an almost mechanical inevitability of the pleasure which would sometimes, for both of them or at least for one of the two of them be a nightmare.***

Amélia leaves him abruptly one day and disappears for ten years, spending this time ostensibly looking for her mother in Sarajevo whilst actually looking for herself, discovering that after the destruction of the city, (and her mother), the people want to rebuild the city as it was, to forget the violence which she cannot. She marries a young Serb who under her influence becomes an artist fighting against the will of the people to forget the seige, the recent past, taking actions such as splashing the streets with red paint. Alikavazovic theorises:

And what if art was the contamination of an experience, the inoculation of an experience, not lived yet experienced.***

When Amélia returns, Paul has become rich, as an architect he has become a specialist of …windows, and with her father’s help then sets up as a security specialist, in a way to protect against the night, selling amongst other things a thick walled safe people can hide in to escape danger. Once again seen from a certain perspective she living the essential, searching, feeling and yet back with no answers and he understanding the fear of the people in the city yet working at and living from the futile:

He never knew what the light was like, nor the strange dissociation that sets in between he who sees everything whilst experiencing nothing and he who experiences everything without doing anything, without being able to do anything, and are one and the same person.***

To finish my write up, they have a child, Amélia leaves soon after to go from war zone to war zone and a new cycle sets in as eventually their child leaves to seek out her mother. A difficult, hard, yet rewarding read.

First Published in French as “L’avancée de la nuit” in 2017 by Editions de l’Olivier
*** My translation

The original quotes before translation

D’une certaine façon c’était vrai. Il y avait rien entre eux, mais d’une autre c’était faux, une fois qu’était passé tout ce qui se passe avec le temps il restait quelque chose d’inamovible.

Je donnerais tout pour être comme toi, je donnerais tout pour être toi — mais Paul, lui savait qu’il y a une différence entre le fait de désapprendre quelque chose que l’on connaît, et celui de ne jamais l’avoir su.

Il était évident qu’ils seraient l’un pour l’autre de parfaits amants. Et cette personne plus expérimentée, Albers ou une autre, aurait pu pressentir là quelque chose d’inquiétant, une inévitabilité presque mécanique de la jouissance qui serait parfois, pour les deux ou au moins pour l’un des deux, cauchemardesque.

Et si l’art est la contamination d’une expérience, l’inoculation d’une expérience non vécue et pourtant éprouvée

Il ne sût jamais comment était la lumière, comment était la dissociation étrange qui s’installe entre celle qui voit tout sans rien éprouver et celle qui éprouve tout sans rien faire, sans rien pouvoir faire, et qui sont une seule et même personne.

Marc Elsberg ‘Zero’

‘Over thirty years ago, a computer manufacturer launched an ad campaign for its latest model featuring the slogan “On January 24th Apple will introduce Macintosh. 58418F37-2053-4C65-A6A4-DAAF3A399111And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” That’s the same computer manufacturer whose iPhones and iPads now log where we’re standing or walking at every instant. Whose apps search and pass on our address lists. Which bans apps from its App Store when they show, say or do something that Uncle Sam doesn’t like….’

Marc Elsberg’s world here in “Zero” read for German lit month VIII is so very close to ours, as the future technology giants embrace the available technology to offer us a better present, why give away your data to Google or Facebook when Freemee will pay you for it, all of it. Ok so you will have to wear a smart watch which in real time sends in your actual physical data, but with this and your profile which Freemee picks up from all of your online information, Freemee Act apps can tell you how to act to meet your goals and you may find that  Freemee can define your individual goals better than you because with the data and probability analysis they know you better than you know yourself. So this is the opening gambit as illustrated by the opening quote.

The story revolves around Cynthia Bonsant, a dinosour really, Cynthia is an investigative journalist in a world of instant news, anyone with a camera can be a journalist. One day Cyn is given a pair of on line video glasses to test by her newspaper, which hardly interests her but this is where the trouble begins, she lends the glasses to her daughter Vi who decides to test out the glasses with her friends, the glasses use facial recognition software and almost instantly in a crowd you can know everything about everyone:

The low afternoon sun picks out strands of hair, spectacles and earrings sparkle and cast sharp shadows over a sea of heads, these heads are streaming in all directions, slowly hastily with gritted teeth or relaxed expressions chatting laughing talking and phoning there are red and green squares around the faces of passers by bigger or smaller depending on how far away the person is, they move along with the people occasionally overlapping for a second whilst others vanish and new ones appear, a psychedelic pattern of abstract patterns, within seconds the red squares turn green.

As Vi and her friends each use the glasses, one of the boys sees a face that is almost instantly recognised as a violent criminal and begins to chase him, in spite of his friend’s warnings and those of Freemee through the glasses he continues his chase and is eventually shot dead. Six months before he had been a quiet young boy but since he had started using Freemee Act apps his whole character had changed, girls liked him, he had improved at school etc.

In parallel to this story, initially at first is the story of the internet activist Zero who warns against the power of the people hoarding personal data and who crosses paths with and helps Bonsant:

You’re paying the world’s data oligarchs to spy on you. That, right there, is consummate surveillance. Please let me give you money so you can locate me and use my data! They could sure teach international spy agencies a thing or two …’ Zero lowers his voice, his tone more biting. ‘Here they come with their Trojan horses, offering you search results, friends, maps, love, success, fitness tips, discounts on your shopping and who knows what else –but all the while, armed warriors sit lurking in their bellies, waiting for an opportunity to pounce! Their arrows strike you right in the heart and the head. They know more about you than any intelligence service. They know you better than you know yourself.

As the story progresses Bonsant discovers the insidiousness of the technology, even her daughters seeming rapid maturing and changing for “the better” is due to her use of Act apps. The on line video glasses rapidly ammass much more data more quickly. There is however a secret closely hidden by the head of Freemee, Vi’s friend is not the only youth to have taken inordinate risks and died. Bonsant circles around before finding the story and when eventually after chases and deaths Cyn brings the truth to light, the head of Freemee cynically plans the next phase.

Ok, he says to Joaquim and Henry as unobtrusively as possible the story’s out I see two alternatives: one, we undermine Bonsant’s and Bricle’s credibility and deny everything. We’ll need to undermine more than their credibility says Joaquin, people conform to Julius Caesar’s old adage, I love treason but hate a traitor, we must challenge their character and motives and their integrity, the same way the US administration and their allies did to Edward Snowden by attacking his motives, his escape to China, his asylum bid in Russia and a few tactless statements he made they got people to reassess his other actions as treason this played perfectly with many members of the public.

First Published in German as “Zero” in 2014 by Blanvalet Verlag.
Translated into English by Simon Pare and published in 2018 by Doubleday

Peter Stamm ‘The Mild indifference of the World’

The text on Magdalena and my life had lead nowhere. I had spoken to her about it adding that too few things happened in our existence to turn into literature.56B71533-481E-455B-8108-C3B64F7CC34C Why write all that I said, we are already living it. In truth I was afraid Magdalena would become foreign to me, that the fictional character could irrevocably replace the real character…..actually I didn’t like to see her on stage, maybe because I didn’t want to see that she could be completely different, that our love wasn’t the only possibility that she carried within her.***

As this book opens the narrator, an old man, is haunted by a young woman, Magdalena. In this mysterious book by Peter Stamm read for German lit month VIII the narrator begins by inviting an unknown young woman whose name is Magdalena but who is known as Lena to a rendezvous in a cemetery in Stockholm. As the story moves on he confesses to Lena that twenty years earlier he had separated from the one great love of his life, Magdalena, an actress, and of his insecurity over their relationship, of the differences between who she had been and how he had imagined her illustrated by the opening quote. He finally leaves her in order to better concentrate on his literature, then writing and having published the only book he ever wrote which concerns their lives and their separation.

But who is Lena, she is an actress too, she resembles Magdalena and has acted in the same play by Strindberg as had Magdalena. We learn that he had first come across her partner, Chris, a young writer that resembles himself whilst visiting his home town, Chris worked in the same hotel he had worked in, went to the same university and finally had a partner called Magdalena. The narrator, after following Chris over a period of time and then confessing to Lena, tries to alter their lives so that they remain together:

I didn’t cheat on Magdalena, I repeated. And what does that change? says Lena. I thought that if you and Chris were to meet here, everything could end differently this time, I said. He would realise things, you would talk, go back to the hotel, everything would end well. And he wouldn’t write the book says Lena. That’s what you were counting on isn’t it? Her voice was still exasperated. I think we can sort things out ourselves. Or do you believe that you can put your life in order by wrecking our’s?***

Lena asks him the key question, had leaving Magdalena made him happy. A short intense book, but the opening chapter tells of the tragedy, of the ever young woman visiting the man who doesn’t recognise himself trapped in his old body.

First Published in German as “Die sanfte Gleichgültigkeit der Welt” in 2018 by S. Fischer Verlag
Translated into French by Pierre Deshusses and published in 2018 by Christian Bourgois
*** My translation

Christian Kracht ‘Imperium’

Presently Engelhardt speaks of the coconut which of course neither the peasant nor his wife nor the farm girl has ever tasted or seen he tells of the idea of encircling the globe with coconut colonies, CF4DE67A-7F4D-4566-A1C9-508BC485934Arising from his seat his almost pathological shyness vanishes when he champions his cause as an orator before sympathetic ears speaking of the sacred duty of one day paying hommage to the sun, naked in the temple of palms, only here, and he gestures around himself with outstretched arms it will not work.
Unfortunately, too long the inhospitable winter, too narrow the minds of the philistins, too loud the machines of the factories, Engelhardt climbs from the bench onto the table and down again exclaiming his credo that only those lands in eternal sunlight will survive and in them only those people who allow the salutary and beneficent rays of the day star to caress skin and head unfettered by clothing. These brothers and sisters here have made a promising start he says but they really must now sell their farm and follow him, leaving Bavaria as Moses left Egypt of old and booking passage on a ship to the Equator.

Welcome to Imperium, read for German lit month VIII
and my unusually long opening quote, but this book in its careful writing doesn’t lend itself to short quotes, more careful build ups than clever phrases. The story is set in the period at the first years of the twentieth century and concerns Engelhardt, a very intense young man and the realisation of his dream to live from the culture of the coconut whilst going naked in a tropical paradise. Here, in the quote where he has been welcomed on a naturalist farm in Bavaria he preaches about his vision and his first step, setting up in the South Sea colonies in German New Guinea. Engelhardt makes the long journey out to Herberstshöhe, the capital of Neupommern, meeting many larger than life characters on the way and, trusting those looking to help him has most of his savings stolen. When he arrives the local Consul arranges with Emma Forsayth known as the queen Emma to sell him an inhabited island, Kabacon, for his planned plantation for which he puts his entire future harvest in hock for many years to come, the following quote describes his arrival on his island and of course the book’s style:

He fell to his knees in the sand so overcome was he, and to the black men in the boat and the few natives who had found their way to the beach with a certain phlegmatic curiosity, one of them even wore a bone fragment in his lower lip as though he were parodying himself or his race, it looked as if a pious man of god were praying there before them. It might remind us civilised peoples of a depiction of the landing of the conquistador Hernan Cortez on the virginal shore of San Juan de Ulua perhaps painted by turns if this were even possible by El Greco and Gaugin each of whom by an expressive jagged stroke of the brush once more conferred upon the kneeling conqueror Engelhardt the ascetic features of Jesus Christ, thus the seizure of the island of Cabacon by our friend looked quite different depending of the viewpoint from which one observed the scenario and who one actually was.

As time over on, Engelhardt, accepted as an eccentric by the natives, who incidentally have no idea that their island has been sold and would not understand the concept, and living off of a diet made up exclusively of coconuts becomes slowly weaker and weaker as malnutrition sets in. Over time he has occasional visitors, one of which a popular musician Max Lützow who, by his stories sent back to Germany, attracts to him a cult following of young Germans with no money that decide to come and join him on his island and live as him exclusively from coconuts, they reach Herberstshöhe but not Kabacon, leading to a shanty town building up of penniless young Germans sick from tropical diseases on the outskirts of Herbertshöhe, a situation completely unacceptable for the imperial government leading to attempts by the Consul to have Engelhardt assassinated.

Kracht brings us a well constructed novel based on a true story, Engelhardt did exist, and a time in history where earnest people lived out their destinies before the outbreak of the world wars.

First Published in German as “Imperium” in 2012 by Kiepenheuer & Witsch.
Translated into English by Daniel Bowles and published in 2015 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux