Kazuo Ishiguro ‘KLARA and THE SUN’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“Klara and The Sun”: In order of reading book number 4.

‘He’s a B2,’ Manager said. ‘Third series. For the right child, Rex will make a perfect companion. In particular, I feel he’ll encourage a conscientious and studious attitude in a young person.’
‘Well this young lady here could certainly do with that.’
‘Oh, Mother, he’s perfect.’ Then the mother said: ‘B2, third series. The ones with the solar absorption problems, right?’
She said it just like that, in front of Rex, her smile still on her face. Rex kept smiling too, but the child looked baffled and glanced from Rex to her mother.
‘It’s true,’ Manager said, ‘that the third series had a few minor issues at the start. But those reports were greatly exaggerated. In environments with normal levels of light, there’s no problem whatsoever.’
‘I’ve heard solar malabsorption can lead to further problems,’ the mother said. ‘Even behavioral ones.’

Ishiguro’s Klara is set some time in the not too distant future and lets us compare two feats of engineering, Klara, an AF, an Artificial Friend, developed to be a friend for teenagers and the teenager in question, Josie. Josie who is “lifted”, that is to say as we learn near the middle of the book, genetically engineered, a choice her richer parents were able to make because if you’re not “lifted” you have no real chance of an education.

The story is told by Klara, from the beginning in the shop waiting to be bought, where we learn through Klara of her observations and deductions, Klara is a B2 as illustrated in the opening quote and of course has a very particular relationship with the sun which gives her all of her “nourishment”. Whilst in the shop window, Klara made two observations which were to form her vision of the world, firstly a machine working in the street outside which giving of large amounts of smoke temporarily hides the sun and secondly a drunk passed out on the street who comes around when the sun shines strongly on him.

Soon after being bought by Josie, Klara learns that Josie is very ill and may die (genetic engineering seems to be a risky business, Josie had had a sister that had died at her age and as we learn, if they manage to live through this age then they’ll be ok). So she tries to reason how to save Josie and thinks back to her earlier experience:

I thought too about the time the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man and his dog and considered the important differences between his circumstances and Josie’s. For one thing many passers by had known beggar man and when he’d become weak he had done so on a busy street visible to taxi drivers and runners, any of these people might have drawn the sun’s attention to his condition and that of his dog. Even more significantly I remembered what had been happening not long before the sun had given his special nourishment to beggar man, the Cootings Machine had been making its awful pollution.

We learn that people think of AFs as having superstitions but we see through Klara that a partial understanding of the world around you can lead to this. Can the sun help Josie? Through Klara’s observations we learn of the toll of human suffering the technology brings, of people losing their jobs, of communities fighting back. More directly, firstly we see in the shop the differences between the AFs, each with their own personality and then hear Josie’s father wonder about the ironing out of differences between the lifted children:

Mr Paul is an expert engineer I said turning to face him, I was hoping he’d be able to think of something, but the father kept gazing through the windshield at the yard I couldn’t explain it to mosey earlier in the diner, I couldn’t explain why I hate Kapaldi so much, why I can’t bring myself to be civil towards him but I’d like to try and explain it to you Klara if you don’t mind, his switch of subject was highly unwelcome but anxious not to lose his goodwill I said nothing and waited I think I hate Kapaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right that what he claims is true that science has now proved beyond doubt that there is nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can’t excavate, copy, transfer, that people have been living with one another for all this time, centuries loving and hating each other and all on a mistaken premise, a kind of superstition we kept going while we didn’t know better, that’s how Kapaldi sees it and there’s a part of me that fears he’s right.

Josie’s mother would like Klara to learn to be Josie, to replace her for a while if she were to die, to ease the pain. It of course never gets to this and as the book comes to an end, and Klara to the end of her useful life, her observations as to what makes a human individual and why she would not have been able to replace Josie ring true. Finally a whole AF life, for an exceptional AF to really understand humans.

Another most enjoyable book well worth reading.

First Published in English as “KLARA and THE SUN” in 2021 by Faber & Faber.

Tsitsi Dangaremga ‘This Mournable body’

“Booker Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“This Mournable Body”: In order of reading book number 3.

In order to follow this event, I am writing articles on all six of the short listed books and will propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker Prize 2020

Christine has that layer under the skin that cuts off her outside from her inside and allows no communication between the person she once believed she could be and the person she has in fact become. The one does not acknowledge the other’s existence, the women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before, not exactly male but no longer female. It is rumored the blood stopped flowing to their wombs the first time they killed a person

In this book set in Harare in late 1990’s Zimbabwe, Tambu is trying to exist in a world that has no place for her. Tambu’s education at a Catholic school during the fight for independence has left her with no direct experience of and thus no real links to the generation that fought this war and the war of independence in Mozambique, represented in particular by Christine, illustrated in the opening quote who comes from the same village as Tambu’s family and who is sent to Harare to protect her aunt, Tambu’s landlord, from her aunt’s own sons who want to dispossess her. Tambu is also in her late thirties, too old for the younger generation that make it difficult for her to find a new job in copy writing:

You tortured yourself in the early days…with the idea that you have no one but yourself to blame for leaving your copy writing position. You should have endured the white men who put their names to your tag lines and rhyming couplets. You spend much time regretting digging your own grave over a matter of mere principle. Your age prevents you from obtaining another job in the field for the creative departments are now occupied by people with Mohawk haircuts and rings in eyebrows, tongues and navels.

Tambu tries to take some distance from what is happening to her by narrating this story in the second person referring to herself as “you”, as she first rebels and so loses her copy writing job, she is then forced to leave her hostel because she is too old, moving into Christine’s aunts lodgings and slowly poverty encroaches on her: 

Once a week you go shopping at a tiny supermarket as depressed in its appearance as you are. Leaving the yard you force a spring into your step in order to walk to like a woman with lots of dollar bills lying in the bottom of her bag inside the shop pretense suffocates you as though you were wearing a too tight corset. Completing your purchases you do not want to go out again because your bag bulges with budget pack plastic bottles smallest size sachets and minute boxes cooking oil, glycerin for you skin, candles for power allergies, matches, everything broadcasts your poverty.

Tambu cannot just go back home as her mother lives in a remote village in very difficult conditions. After an incident during a temporary teaching job, when she attacks one of her students, she is eventually rescued from a psychiatric clinic by Christine and one of Tambu’s aunts, both veteran fighters, and is taken to live with her cousin Nyasha. Through living with Nyasha, Tambu realises that life isn’t easy for other’s and gains in her own self esteem, feeling for the first time in her life “superior”.  Nyasha is married to “cousin brother-in-law”, a german and her stay in Europe and return has ill prepared her for Zimbabwe:

You have entered a new realm of impossibility, worse even than the discovery that your cousin has been placed on the slide to impoverishment in spite of her degrees in Europe. You had not believed there was such a thing on this earth as a European without means or money. Now in her reckless manner Nyasha has married one she has made him your relative.

Tambu, through a job in the tourist industry, eventually comes back to her native village, we understand something of the difficulties of her relationship with her mother but this return seems to bring something of the seeds of being able to accept herself and her life. This was a story of a delicate woman, we don’t know if she will find a “raison d’être”, but she is a survivor, an engrossing read.

First Published in English as “This Mournable Body” by Faber & Faber in 2020

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld ‘The Discomfort of Evening’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Discomfort of Evening”: In order of reading book number 5.

It hasn’t occurred to me before that Mum and Dad couldn’t only be overcome by death but they could beat death to it.img_0081That you could plan the Day of Judgement just like a birthday party.

Jas, the narrator is, like Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, brought up in a Dutch Reform family in a Reform community, cut off from the rest of the world, “the other side”, the upbringing is strict in a religious sense and feelings are not shown or talked about, the family is poor and fights to just subsist. But Jas is brought up with her brothers Obbe and Matthies and her sister Hanna on a dairy farm with more than one hundred head of cattle and with country folk’s natural understanding of reproduction. At the outset of the book the initial tragedy takes place as Matthies takes part in a local skating competition where the winner “got a plate of stewed udders with mustard and a gold medal with the year 2000 on it.” He falls through the ice and drowns.

This story then studies the effect of this event on Jas’ family as the natural characteristics of each of the family members is magnified by the event. It begs the question of religion; does this age old unchanged religion help to cope with such a tragedy? Firstly, the mother who in her sorrow has no time for her children or for herself and clearly is torn with the thought of suicide. In her morbid state she provides no stability for the family as illustrated by the following quote from Jas who used to enjoy watching the stars:

I’ve learned that the heavens aren’t a wishing-well but a mass grave. Every star is a dead child, and the most beautiful star is Matthies – Mum taught us that.

The eldest son Obbe becomes obsessed with death and repeatedly tries to re-enact his brothers death, firstly with animals, drowning a hamster and looking on with Jas and becoming more and more dangerous. Jas herself, concious of the danger posed by her brother, nonetheless goes on to push her younger sister off of the bridge leading to “the other side” into the river just to see what would happen.

The lack of understanding between the generations, of what it is to be an adolescent, can best be illustrated by Jas’ father’s udder cloths:

He secures the cows between the bars, attaches the cups to their udders, then uses one of my old underpants covered in salve to clean them afterwards. I often used to feel embarrassed when Dad rubbed one of my worn-out pairs of knickers on the udders, or cleaned the milking cups with them without any kind of bashfulness – but sometimes at night I’ve thought about the crotch that has passed through so many other people’s hands, from Obbe’s to Farmer Janssen’s, and that they touch me that way, with calluses and blisters on their palms. Sometimes a pair of knickers gets lost among the cows before finally getting kicked between the gratings. Dad calls them udder cloths; he doesn’t see them as underpants any more. On Saturdays Mum washes the udder cloths and hangs them to dry on the washing line.

When things can’t get worse, they do. Foot and moith disease reaches the community and the family, disoriented by death, must now witness the killing of their cattle:

Death hasn’t only entered Mum and Dad but is also inside us – it will always look for a body or an animal and it won’t rest until it’s got hold of something.

The book then heads towards an ending that no longer surprises us.
This book was at times difficult to read, especially when addressing the deeds and missdeeds of the children and their sexual awakening in this, their troubled time. Violence, lack of conscience, morbidity and sexual experiments make for uneasy reading. We need to talk about Obbe!

First Published in Dutch in 2018 by Atlas Contact.
Translated into english by Michele Hutchinson and published as “The Discomfort of Evening” by Faber & Faber in 2020
Translated into french by Daniel Cunin and published as “qui sème le vent” by Buchet Chastel in 2020

Sam Byers ‘Perfidious Albion’

Its only right that we should try to share what we have with those who have less. But what we have in Britain now is a society that asks those who work to share their earnings with those that scrounge; those who have grown up here to share their hard-fought space with those that have just arrived; and those who deserve their place to share it with those who merely envy it.

Sam Buyers’ Perfidious Albion is a dark satire on post Brexit Britain, his story takes place in Edmunsbury, a small town in southeastern Britain where at the outset the town is trying to redefine itself, the story opens at a party at Jacques DeCoverley’s where we meet a varying group of people that have left London and are trying to be someone in the opinion-sphere, from DeCoverley who writes about pavements to Robert, a left leaning blogger and his girlfriend Jess, the main protagonist of the book, the narrator observes her situation, for example:

Jess popped to the toilet to tweet. Back in the room, an assortment of indistinct men – bearded and earnest and flushed with credentials – talked at her or for her, but never quite to her.

Jess, after having been seriously abused online had set up multiple false identities for blogging such as Byron Stroud who had become very influential within the opinion-sphere, partly because he only wrote about the opinion-sphere and Julia Benjamin, a feminist, who had become the main online critic of Jess’ boyfriend Robert.

The Larchwood estate, a failing housing project, worth much more empty than with its current residents is being emptied and then Buyers Paints a none too flattering picture of the opportunistic right wing party, England Always, and its local representative Hugo Bennington with the opening quote representing one of his initial quotes. Through the events within the book, Buyers by way of satire, deconstructs the use of fear and through this the linked subjects of violence and race by opportunistic right-wing political parties, for instance the analysis of audience response by his assistant Teddy:

‘That spike is just a huge upsurge up people calling me a twat the moment I appeared on television.’
‘Isn’t it amazing?’
‘How is that amazing?’
‘Because it’s free publicity. You can’t buy this kind of amplification, Hugo.’
‘But it’s negative publicity.’
‘No such thing. Negative publicity is like antimatter. It’s an urban myth.’
‘I don’t think antimatter is an urban myth Teddy.’
‘Alright then, show me some antimatter.’
‘Well, obviously I can’t show you some antimatter, because it’s—’
‘Right. If you can’t show it to me, it doesn’t exist. You see what I’m saying? It might very well actually exist, but to all intents and purposes, it doesn’t.’

There is a tentacular secretive tech firm in Edmunsbury which are at the centre of much of the intrigue and for which Buyers tells us something of Jess’ and of course probably his own view of modern corruption:

Jess wasn’t sure when the architectural love affair with glass was going to come to an end but whenever it was it wouldn’t be soon enough. As politics and commerce had become murkier, so the buildings in which vital transactions took place had become ever more resplendently clear, as if recognizing that in the flattened homogeneity of the present all actions, both benign and malicious, now looked the same: a squint at a screen, a series of keystrokes, the choreography of global espionnage now no different to the microritual of online shopping.

And finally in the build up there is Robert, a none too successful blogger for an online newsletter trying to get by and being manoeuvred by a mixture between his own ambition to exist and his editor:

‘People are being lied to. People are being intimidated. Are you trying to tell me people don’t want to read about—’
‘They want to read about things that are cool, funny or evil. That’s the holy trinity.’

The powder keg is then ready and waiting for the spark, which is provided by an unfortunate tweet as Trina, a coloured worker at the techfirm when watching Bennington can’t listen anymore and tweets #whitemalegenocide. lol. This is the spark that leads to the chain of events where the true satire really gets underway with the instrumentalisation of this tweet.

A very much up to date biting satire following in the tradition of Tom Sharp.

First Published in English as “Perfidious Albion” in 2018 by Faber & Faber.

Sebastian Barry ‘Days Without End’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Stoppard ‘On The Razzle’

Melchior: Madame Knorr is not just another hausfrau. Fashion is her middle name
Zangler: More or Less. Knorr Fashion House. I think I see what you mean….The Imperial Gardens Cafè is a fashionable place, is it?img_0963
Melchior: It’s the only place for the quality at the moment.
Zangler: The quality…Are you sure it is quite refined?
Melchior: Refined?! The ploughman’s lunch is six oysters and a crème de menthe frappé.

I read Tom Stoppard adaptation of Johann Nestroy’s ‘Einen Jux will er sich machen’ for German lit month VI, and learned in the process that a previous adaptation, Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Matchmaker’ existed which itself was adapted to make ‘Hello Dolly’. Stoppard’s comedy ‘On The Razzle’, which I saw on stage back in the early 80’s, has kept the Viennese setting.

The first act of this two act play sets up the three situations that will be exploited in the second act of this play with the pompous country grocery shop owner Zangler and his quick witted servant Melchior at the centre of the action with, as the opening quote illustrates, Zangler due to go up to Vienna to meet his possible future wife, Madame Knorr.  The first antagonising situation is that of Zangler’s ward Marie whom he attempts to keep apart from her suitor, Sonders. An example of the double entendres around this situation is given as they think they have been discovered by Zangler (a case of mistaken identity):

Marie: Oh my uncle!
Sonders: Oh my God–Herr Zangler!
Marie: Don’t be angry, dear Uncle, I meant no harm
Sonders : She’s blameless, sir, intact I swear, I mean in fact I swear she did it against her will
Marie : I didn’t do it
Sonders : No she didn’t –I haven’t– Oh, sir, it was love that drove us to deceive you!

The third situation is that of the two employees of Zangler, Weinberl and Christopher (who incidentally was played by Felicity Kendal in the opening production) who, deciding to go on the razzle, shut up shop in Zangler’s absence and head for the big city in order to get a ‘past’ before it’s too late, as they see Zangler approaching they hide in a shop Knorr Fashion House where Weinberl pretends to be a Mr Fischer, unfortunately for him the widow Fischer is in the shop but she plays along with his subterfuge.

Mme Knorr : …It is such an honour to meet you. I think it is so romantic–you must have swept her off her feet. Tell me, how long have you known each other?
Mrs Fischer : Not long at all
Weinberl : No, not long.
Mme Knorr : You must have been married with your head in a whirl!
Mrs Fischer : You couldn’t say I went into it with my eyes open
Mme Knorr : Of course you did, and I am sure you have not been disappointed.
Mrs Fischer : Surprised more than disappointed. My husband has a very individual way of dealing with the banalities of ordinary time–I expect we’ll be engaged next week and exchange cards the week after.
Mme Knorr : Isn’t she priceless
Weinberl : I expect you think I’m rather presumptuous.
Mrs Fischer : No, I wouldn’t say you were presumptuous. Presumption one has encountered before.

The act ends as we learn that Zangler and Madame Knorr, Marie and Sonders as well as Weinberl and Mrs Fischer all are to be at The Imperial Gardens Café at the same time. In the second act there are more misunderstandings than you can point a stick at before as in always in comedy, all ends happily. Should you get a chance to see this play you will spend a fine evening and leave the theatre smiling.

First Published in German as “Einen Jux will er sich machen” More than 150 years ago
Adapted into English by Tom Stoppard after a close literal translation by Neville and Stephen plaice as ‘On the Razzle’ and published by Faber and Faber in 1981

Peter Stephan Jungk ‘The Snowflake Constant’

-I wanted to create order. I thought I could find some constant values. Over the course of fifteen winters, I have caught immaculate snowflake hexagons and put them in a polyvinyl ethylene solution and…..took pictures of them…..And then I counted for ninety six seconds that,img_0941 according to Tigor’s constant, yes gentlemen, to my constant, needed to elapse before an identical hexagon would appear  on an area of maximally ten square centimetres……But what happened? I was forced to see that what will prevail is chaos. Isomorphism, yes, constants, no. Fractal geometry, yes, Euclidian geometry, no

Peter Stéphan Jungk’s Snowflake Constant, read for German lit month VI, présents two sides to an age old philosophical contrast between determinism and free will, here represented on a first level as the contrast between Tigor’s work to date on his Constant which we learn initially is a representation of Euclidian geometry as opposed to Chaos theory. As the book opens Tigor arrives back in Trieste in a sorry state, we learn that he had uncharacteristically fled from a conference in Trieste his home town when he realised that his life’s work on this constant was wasted and he had taken off into an ancient forest to try to live from the fruits of the forest, a re-birth of sorts, and nearly starving to death in a short time period.

On a second level we learn that throughout his life his decisions had been those of others, he had only taken up the work on his constant because asked to take over his professor’s work, his life had been determined, and his flight to the forest was his first act of free will. A chance meeting with a taxi driver named Khoy later in the book who had during the years of terror in Cambodia actually survived a number of years in a forest, tells us how poor was his first attempt at free will. Tigor then in attempting to make decions for  himself repeatedly oscillates between the two positions.

After living and working in the Odeon theatre in Paris, of his own choice, and as he is to leave for Moscow, he changes his flight plans at the last minute and then is witness to a street accident. In his thoughts he is then drawn, once again, back to a deterministic view of events:

-He felt in some way responsible, that he had started the chain of events that had culminated in the accident. If he had been on the Moscow plane that morning, as had been his original intention, then Tigor believed everything subsequently would have transpired differently. Every individual was like a thread in the complicated weave of reality…….As he saw it, the consequences of the mild displacement he had caused had gone out, like echo waves to the periphery, and then bounced back to their starting point. The motorcyclist, if Tigor had indeed left as planned, would have reached the Place Claudel a split second sooner or later.

He leaves Paris when, after a dream, the doctor Chabanian persuades him that this dream was of Yerevan and that he therefore must visit it, where then he, an atheist, becomes linked with a group of creationists, the ultimate determinists, whose arguments explain the ridiculousness of evolution:

-so the little fish noticed, according to you believers in evolution, that there wasn’t all that much interesting food for him in the water. He spent the next two to four million years converting his fins into little feet. Then, because he wanted to eat still more, and also be better protected, he needed wings to get up into the treetops. So what did he do? He waited another five million years for his little feet to turn into fluffy colourful feathers. And a few million years later the wings had turned into a giraffe.

Tigor’s ultimate voyage, sent by the creationist Armenians in Yerevan, is to the deserted Mount Ararat, holy but inaccessible for the Armenians in neighbouring Turkey, to search for the remains of Noah’s Ark only to find that Mount Ararat is not deserted, quite the contrary there are large numbers of tourists who climb this mountain.

This is a rich novel which would yield more on re-reading.

First Published in German as “Tigor” by Fischer Verlag in 1991
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as ‘The Snowflake Constant’ and published by Faber & Faber in 2002

Laura Lippman ‘After I’m Gone’

-Seven point five percent, she said at last.
-The country is two hundred years old this year. They’re asking you to give seven point five percent of the country’s entire history.image
-That’s a lot, and you know I don’t give points easily.

As part of my 2016 English lit targets, Laura Lippman here, influenced by a true case, the disappearance of Julius Salisbury a lottery and strip club owner in 1970 has written a fictional account here of what would happen to the women left behind after the disappearance of a successful but petty criminal. She imagines the family he left behind and their relationship with his mistress, a stripper at his club.

Felix Brewer disappears at the beginning of the book, 1976. On bail under a federal charge for running illegal lotteries, he doesn’t think he would survive the fifteen years in jail that was being asked of him and so in collusion with his two friends, Bert Gelman the lawyer and Tubby Schroeder the bail bondsman he skips bail and disappears leaving his wife Bambi, and three children, Linda, Rachel and Michelle as well as his mistress Julie Saxony who he persuades to drive him to the airport, he was going to leave everybody catered for:

-Julie was going to have it hard, once he was gone. Bambi had the girls, friends, family. Julie didn’t have anyone except her sister, an odd duck and that was being kind. The puss on that one when she took the wheel.
-This better be for forever, she muttered.
-You’re getting yours, he reminded her. Everybody was getting theirs, one way or another.

Ex Baltimore detective and present day cold case private investigator, Sandy Sanchez, drops a file and as he picks it up comes across the erstwhile picture of Julie Saxony, he remembered the case, she had disappeared, 10 years after her boyfriend Felix Brewer in 1986, gone to join him everybody supposed until her body was found in Leakin park in 2001. Maybe it was the mystery, or just her looks that tempted him to re-open this case.

When Felix Brewer disappeared so did his money, but what happened to it, Bambi was left with nothing to raise Felix’s family, Julie Saxony who was left his cover operation, a modest coffee shop, moved up to a small bed and breakfast and then to a fancy  restaurant just before disappearing, but with what money? Bambi’s?

Brewer left behind him a tangled web of friends and family and as Sandy investigates at his slow pace, he picks apart this puzzle,  Julie was definitely going to meet Felix when she disappeared. Bambi had found her own pearl earring at her house just after the disappearance, except she hadn’t lost it; had Felix bought the same earrings for all of his women? Had Julie been to Bambi’s house when she had been away and only Rachel had been there?

A pleasant murder mystery with an in depth study of each of the five women characters as well as Sandy, Felix was after all gone, so why spend too much time with him? As usual all is not as it seems and betrayal is at the heart of things. An interesting two weeks of audio in the car,  I’m not sure I would buy the book.

First published in English as ‘After I’m Gone’ by Faber & Faber in 2014

Amélie Nothomb ‘The Book of Proper Names’

I had a large hole in my racket, Amélie Nothomb, a very prolific French language writer from Belgium. “People either love her or hate her” I was told, I am here to confess that after reading “Robert des Noms Propres” I neither hate her nor love her, this was simply an unusual story, well worth reading.image This is the romanticised story of the Belgian singer RoBert, Amélie Nothomb manages to tell the story with the child at the center as she grows from a foetus to a singer

Plectrude’s life story begins with her 19 year old pregnant mother blowing a hole in her father’s head to “protect” her soon to be born child, she then gives birth to Plectrude in prison before committing suicide.

We are happy for Plectrude as her Aunt takes her in and raises her as her own beloved child, she grows in these circumstances into an exceptional young dancer at the Paris Ballet school where she succumbs to anorexia as a young adolescent, to the point of damaging her own bone structure and thus losing her dream. This is one episode in an eventful life and my description does not do justice to Nothomb’s detailed story as she leads us and Plectrude through adolescence to the key dramatic point of her life and it’s resolution.

We are placed in the position as observers of people’s stupidity, as we watch, powerless, the events unfold. The fairy tale life that the young girl lives (being allowed to eat whatever she wants dressing as a fairy and drifting through early life) is then reactivated as she finally leaves adolescence for a happy ending.

First published in French as Robert des Noms Propres by Albin Michel in 2002
Translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Faber in 2005