Benoît Vitkine ‘The Wolves’

Faithfully. Once again he takes the blue textbook in his large hands, places it on the embers where it instantly bursts into flames. He films it. Faithfully. He sends the video to the number he’d been given.
He had just saved the Bitch once again. Just as she’d asked him. The textbook, the old lady that implicated her. No longer existed.***

Benoît Vitkine’s timely novel introduces us to a gloves off version of The Ukraine in this political thriller treating the 30 days between the election of the new president Olena Hapco and her taking office. Vitkine tells us of how fortunes were made in the post Soviet era, here in The Ukraine, but the same recipe applied to any of the ex-Soviet states. Hapco was less ready as the Soviet system collapsed and so needed to be quick, brutal and know how to make allies and deal with enemies.

Hapco is elected on a reform ticket, but pretty soon it’s clear that she needs to negotiate with the Oligarchs, as Russia tries to tie her down, described in her meeting with the Russian ambassador. First she has a call with Vladimir Putin who speaks in riddles, as usual, leaving the unpleasant messages to his underlings, with the ambassador explaining how they will trap and control her. They have been spying on her for decades, including choices she had made, to avoid being crushed, that could be viewed as treason. She knows that they have the means, via the tv stations of certain Oligarchs controlled by the Kremlin , to make it known, before they tell her what they expect her to do:

You can be reassured, the project that we have prepared is perfectly favourable to you! Our idea is to revalue the terms of the contract for the transit of the gas that we sell to the Europeans. In simpler terms, to increase your dividends from the transit of the gas in the pipelines that crosses your territory ……The increase in tarifs for the transport of russian gas in ukranian pipelines, as seductive as it sounds, is an illusion. The money will only make a handfull of crooked, kremlin controlled intermediaries rich, creating as many russian agents in ukranian affairs.****

But if there is one thing Hapco has learnt the best form of defence is to attack. What do the Russians hold against her? Can she neutralise the threat? Can she play the Oligarchs against each other? Can she get out of the trap that is set for her before she officially takes office? These are the questions that Vitkine, one time correspondant of’Le Monde’ in Moscow and laureat of the Albert Londres prize, takes us through whilst at the same time painting a vivid picture of The Ukraine and its people.

First Published in french as “Les Loups” in 2022, by Les Equinox
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Fidèlement. Il reprend le cahier bleu dans ses grands mains, le dépose sur les braises, où il s’enflamme instantanément. Il filme. Fidèlement. Il envoie la vidéo au numéro qu’on lui a indiqué.
Il vient de sauver la Chienne, une nouvelle fois. Comme ell le lui avait demandé. Le cahier, la vieille l’incriminaient. Ils ne sont plus.

Mais rassurez-vous, le projet que nous avons conçu vous êtes parfaitement favourable! Notre idée est de revaloriser les termes du contrat de transit pour le gaz que nous vendons aux européens. En clair d’augmenter les dividendes que vous percevez pour le transit par les tuyaux situés sur votre territoire……L’augmentation des tarifs de transit du gaz russe dans les gazoducs ukrainiens, aussi séduisante soit-elle, est une illusion. L’argent ne servira qu’à enrichir une poignée d’intermédiaires véreux aux ordres du Kremlin, qui constitueront autant d’agents de la Russie dans les affaires ukrainiennes.

Nancy Huston ‘Fault Lines’

One thing my parents agree on is that no one should hit me, smack me or give me any type of corporal punishment. It’s because they’ve read a lot of books where beaten children become violent parents, abused children become paedophiles and children who have been raped become whores and pimps. So they say that it’s always important to talk and talk and talk, to ask a child why he’s behaving badly and to let him explain before showing him gently how to choose to act in a more appropriate manner next time. Never hit him.***

We met Nancy Huston at a book event in Massy back in 2012 along with Mohamed Kacimi. It only took me two years to read the Kacimi but despite the fact that she had dedicated her book it took me eight years to get around to reading this powerful work. A couple of words on Nancy Huston, she is Canadian and writes in French and English, she also translates her own books, a not so common feat.

Onto the book, Huston tells us the story of a family spanning four generations, it couldn’t span five, and the impact the previous generations have on the next generations, the sudden shifts in the tectonic plates of their family’s history that shakes their life. She tells the story backwards as we see the effects before we learn of the causes. In the four generations there are four narrators, with each narrator being six years old at the time of the events he relates, the story begins then with Sol, a child of the twenty first century living in California who tells us in the opening quotes about his education. The two seismic events in his six year old life are the operation he has to remove a benign birth mark from the temple region of his head and the visit to Munich with his parents, his grand mother and his great grandmother to visit this latest’s sister.

His father Randall’s life is up ended in 1982 when his mother Sadie, a converted Jew insists on taking her family from Manhattan to Haïfa as she pursues her doctorate studies concerning the second world war. His father Aron, did not want to leave Manhattan. Randall  quickly picks up Hebrew and befriends a Palestinian girl at his school, but this is the time of the war in Lebenon and the Sabra and Shatila massacre where the Israeli Defense force at best stood by and did not intevene. These were confusing times for this intelligent six year old who wanted to show his mother, Sadie, that he understood what was happening around him:

I really liked the moment where Samson is so angry with Delilah for her treachery the he pushes apart the columns of the temple until the building colapses killing everybody. “It’s just like the human bombs in Israel at the moment!” I say, proud to show granny that I know a little bit about her country, but she shakes her head as she says: ” No, not at all, it’s really not the same thing at all!”***

We then follow Sadie in 1962, the year she leaves her strict grand parents in Toronto to live with her mother, Kristina, who is on the brink of becoming a famous singer, singing with sounds but not words, In Manhattan. Sadie is a very insecure child partly due to her grandparents who’s favourite dish is “culpability” as Kristina tells her, and Sadie also has a birthmark but on her bottom. Sadie’s life begins to settle into normalness, as she tells us of her sunday mornings spent with her stepfather, Peter, a Jew, in delicatessens. And then one sunday when Peter is away a stranger turns up speaking with a heavy accent and she hears her mother speaking in a foreign language. Her life is blown apart by what happens.

And finally back to Kristina’s story and the sounds without words.

A book about violence barbary and the energy of the narrators despite this, at the age of 6 and after. If you can find it, read it!

First Published in French as “Lignes de Faille” in 2006, in France by Actes Sud
Translated into english by Nancy Huston and published as “Fault Lines” by Black Cat in 2008
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Une chose sur laquelle mes parents sont d’accord, c’est que personne ne doit me taper, me fesser ou m’infliger toute autre forme de châtiment corporel. C’est parce qu’ils ont lu beaucoup de livres où on voit les enfants battus se transformer en parents violents, les enfants abusés en pédophiles et les enfants violés en putes et macs. Alors ils disent que c’est important de toujours parler, parler, parler, demander à l’enfant quelles sont les motivations pour sa mauvaises conduite et le laisser s’expliquer avant de lui montrer, gentiment, comment faire un choix plus approprié la prochaine fois. Ne jamais le frapper.

J’apprécie surtout le moment où Samson est tellement furieux contre Dalila pour sa trahison qu’il pousse les colonnes du temple jusqu’à ce que l’édifice s’écroule sur lui en tuant tout le monde. “C’est comme les bombes humaines en Israël en ce moment!” Je dis, fier de montrer à mamie que je connais un peu son pays, mais elle secoue la tête en disant: “Pas du tout! Ce n’est pas du tout la même chose!”

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.

Edouard Louis ‘Who Killed My Father’

When we ask the American intellectual Ruth Gilmore what the word racism means to her, she replies that racism is the exposition of certain populations to a premature death.img_1381
This definition also works for male domination, the hatred of homosexuality, or of transgenders, class domination and all phenomena of social and political oppression.***

In this short book of less than 100 pages, read for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, Edouard Louis revisits one of the many themes of his book examining his own childhood in Picardy “The End of Eddy“. In this initial work Eddy’s father was a product of his upbringing and life, basically promulgating the creed of machoism, alcohol to the detriment of self improvement and woe betide anyone including his family who did not conform. Here Edouard Louis revisits his father, remembering as best as he can his every interaction with this father and explaining politically who his father was, how he became who he was, and his evolution since that date. The book opens telling us clearly in which direction it will take us, illustrated in the opening quote.

After reassessing his relationship with his father, openly trying to put the good moments in perspective with the bad, including his fathers playful moments such as driving his car at dangerous speeds to annoy his wife whilst winking at Eddy in the mirror as opposed to the story of his hiding the christmas presents in the car and having a hit and run driver crush the car setting him into a wild rage, Edouard Louis visits his father who he has not seen for some time and we discover a premature old and unwell man:

The problems began in the factory where you worked… afternoon we received a call from the factory telling us that a weight had fallen on you. Your back had been crushed, squashed, they told us you would be unable to walk for several years.***

Edouard Louis’ father is then exposed to a premature death due to class domination, where he perpetuated his own fathers class and due to social and political oppression, and here Edourd Louis examines the real effect on his father and his father’s condition of this oppression, using his father to represent his class, the style of this “pamphlet”, naming the politicians and the effects of their decisions, is illustrated here:

In 2009 Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and his accomplice Martin Hirsch replaced the RMI, a minimum payed by the state to people without work, by the RSA. You had received the RMI ever since you had been unable to work: the change from the RMI to the RSA was “to incite the return to employment” as the government put it. The truth of the matter is that from then on you were constantly harased by the state to get back to work, in spite of your disastrous state of health, in spite of what the factory had done to you.***

His father who had been totally opposed to any political activity, in part due to fear of the police and the judicial system, as Eddy was growing up, finishes by asking him if he is still politically active, and we understand that time and his father have moved on as he assents that it is good that he is still active. In the relative absence of wide political discussion, sure there are politicians and journalists, Edouard Louis’ is a voice with a wide readership adding his deeply rooted thoughts to the debate.

First Published in French as “Qui a tué mon père” in 2018 by Editions du Seuil.
To be published in English in 2019 by New Directions Publishing Corporation.
*** My translation