Erri De Luca ‘La Nature Exposée’

–As you can see it is a piece of art worthy of a renaissance master. Today the Church would like to restore it to its original form. Which means removing the drape.FullSizeRender
I examine the contrasting stone cover, which seems well attached at the hips and to the naked skin. I tell him that in removing it the nature will inevitably be damaged.
–what nature?
–The nature, the genitalia, that’s what we call male or female nakedness where I come from.***

Erri De Luca’s short book read in French as La Nature  exposée or in English as Nature Revealed*** is the story of a man who values people and shared experiences. The main protagonist lives in a mountain village in the north of Italy, this mountain village has always been situated on a crossroads, a route between the north and the south, as he describes the women of his village:

–Our village isn’t a village for women. They have all left for the towns, married or not. Traditionally they possess a beauty that comes from the passage of migrant populations. They have caravans in their blood.***

So in this isolated village where he has lived all of his long life and where everyone knows the business of everyone else, he carries on the age old business of guiding migrating populations across the Alps. He feels however a certain solidarity with these people forced from war afflicted countries to search a new life far from home and who are exploited at each step of their way. He quietly takes their money and then once over the mountains he returns it, until, after a grateful migrant mentions this act in a book, changing his village life totally as the other mountain guides learn of this treachery:

–The blacksmith and the Baker no longer greet me, the worst snub in the country village expelled from the list of living.

Forced to leave his mountain village he leaves for Genoa and takes up residence in a boarding house which serves meals each evening, once again a point of passage where he meets hard working migrant workers from Northern Africa who either work on the boats or in the marble quarry and feels comfortable with these people,  one of whom gifts him the marble needed for the ‘Nature’. As he looks for work he is chosen, because of his humility, to carry out the work of sculpture hinted at in the opening quote, where he must sculpt a penis for Jesus. I’ll leave you here with this story only to say that in empathy with the subject he goes to extremes:

As if, to be able to interpret a Muslim or a Jewish character, an actor asked to be circumcised in order to blend into the role: taking the Stanislavsky method to its extreme limit.

First Published in Italian as “La Natura Esposta” in 2016 by Feltrinelli.
Translated into French by Danièle Valin as ‘La Nature Exposée’ and published by Gallimard in 2017
*** My translation


Karine Tuil ‘L’insouciance’

—She still thinks that I was the one that caused us to split up when we were at Princeton, when it was in fact she that left me! IMG_1106She left me because she preferred to form a couple with a black, a man with a brilliant future ahead of him, a Harvard degree – and black like herself!***

In Karine Tuil’s latest book, ‘Frivolity’***, The question of identity is the very lynchpin of existence, from the very first quote proposed by Tuil:

—Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Freedom, equality, brotherhood), promote all of these values, but sooner or later, the problem of identity appears.
—Aimé CÉSAIRE, Negro I am, Negro I will remain. Interviews with Françoise Vergès***

The question of identity is the underlying link as we follow this intricately interlocking story between the different protagonists:
—Osman Diboula, a black social worker who had become a political adviser to the president following his role in intervening for the families of two adolescents during and after the riots following their accidental  electrocution whilst hiding from the police.
—Romain Roller a career soldier, who had known Osman when he was a troubled adolescent and with his help had been saved by the army and is now coming back from Afghanistan after a traumatic tour of duty.
—Marion Decker, a journalist from a poor background and the second wife of the richissime François Vely.
—François Vely, a rich business man whose Father, Paul Levy, after fighting in the resistance and being deported changed his name from Levy to Vely:

—At the end of the war,Paul Levy had changed the order of the letters in his name and removed his biblical Christian name in order to improve his integration into French society, his assimilation, to reinvent himself maybe, so what? My identity is purely political, Levy/Vely liked to repeat. Paul Vely the great conscience of the left, the committed intellectual, that was important, that defined him far more than the identity that had been pressed on him, like a mask whose contact he had never accepted.***

Through events of considerable violence each of these characters has his identity questioned and we are shown the difficulty and pain involved in changing one’s identity.

—Vely, who due to his wealth finds himself out of touch with his own image and the effects of negative publicity on his life. He then discovers that he cannot escape his Judaity.
—Roller who through the post traumatic stress after his return from Afghanistan is unable to go on mission and loses his identity as a soldier.
—Decker, who has left the poverty of her adolescence and is married to Vely,  is torn by a relationship with Roller which would lead her back to a life closer to the insecurity of her youth.
—Diboula who falls out of favour with the President and discovers the drug of politics, its mechanisms and also that with social mobility there is no going back:

—Don’t believe that loyalty is the rule in politics. It’s the exception. The rule is betrayal…all the art of politics was to create power relationships to protect you from betrayal.***

The book takes all of these questions and bringing these characters all together shakes out four solutions: the end of frivolity.

First Published in French as “L’insouciance” in 2016 by Gallimard
*** My translation

Samanta Schweblin ‘Fever Dream’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tristan Garcia ‘Faber, The Destroyer’

-We were middle class children from an average western country, two generations after winning a war, one generation after a failed revolution. We were neither rich nor poor, we didn’t miss the aristocracy, we had no utopian dreams and we didn’t care about democracy.image Our parents had worked but only ever in offices, schools, for the postal services, in hospitals, administrative work. Our fathers wore no overalls or ties, our mothers no aprons or pantsuit. We had been brought up on books, films, music – with the promise of becoming individuals.***

Tristan Garcia, a philosopher and writer, is forging a solid reputation, with his books being nominated for or gaining prizes, culminating with last year’s ‘7’ winning the ‘Prix du Livre Inter’

The opening quote sets the scene in the mid 90’s the generation that had known the events of May ’68, and influenced the way France went after, were in their late 40’s and the youth of the country that had been brought up by these very people to believe in freedom and individualism were discovering the hard economic facts, nobody owes you anything.

The book builds up to two periods, the first is the social conflict of 1995 where month long strikes, partially powered by the students at Lycées brought about the downfall of the then right wing government, replacing them by the socialists who then, amongst other things, in order to better share opportunities brought in the 35 hour week. Centering on events and people at a Lycée in a French town. The second period is the present day (2012) and the reckoning between the protagonists of that time.

Faber appeared one day in primary school in the lives of two children, Madeleine and Basile, Garcia describes in realistic detail the humiliation and pain involved in the bullying, and using brain not brawn frees them both and they both then spend their school years almost in adoration of Faber, to give one example:

-It was our place, lead down, we spoke about the week at school,  of our teachers, of our parents and of all those we called “the others”: our own generation for which we had only scorn. The “others” we’re either sheep or jerks. And then Faber spoke to us about the future which sounded wonderful to us.***

Fast forward to Faber my Bing from being a brilliant student at school to becoming a dissatisfied student, slowly putting distance between himself and his two friends who never accepted this culminating in Faber, although not in his senior year, taking a leading role in the student strikes in 1995, through the euphoria to the ultimate defeat.

-In the turmoil of the two or three weeks of the strike, here is the first scene that comes back to me: Faber in the process of goading on the group of undecided lycéens at nine in the morning. Climbing on the railings of the main gate, he had pulled himself above the teeming masses : bags on the floor, sitting in a circle, whistling and smoking, parents demanding that the lycée should be opened. He was sitting on the spikes at the top of the railings like a fakir, and in perfect balance he opened his arms to address us. Maybe he finished with his ass bleeding, but he smiled. He was magnificent. I already imagined him as head of state.***

Things go rapidly wrong for the three friends from here, Faber, due to a dramatic event, forced to leave, living for fifteen years as a marginal and Madeleine and Basile making what they can of their lives. So then begins the second part of the book, which involves revenge, deceit, and a whole new reading of events around Faber’s other friends and the jealousy of Madeleine and Basile, as Faber says:

-A small provincial town, sleeping through the modern world is a thing of beauty…..But when it wakes up it can be nauseating.***

A well written book, but not the one, in view of the subject,I would choose to translate into English.

First published in French as ‘Faber le Destructeur’ by Gallimard in 2013
*** My translation

Catherine Cusset ‘Indigo’

-You’re a pain in the ass you know
that had surprised her, since Deb nobody had used these words on her and he had pronounced it with the same intonation as Deb as if she had been reincarnated in Raphael but without the friendship….image
-it’s funny you should use those words, I had an American friend who use to say just that to me in French; you’re a pain in the ass
-it must be true then he chuckled, are you no longer friends?
-She killed herself six months ago
-You were that much of a pain in the ass?***

Catherine Cusset’s novel takes place in the south of India, an area where France has historical links via its trading posts in Mahé and Pondichery, and around a cultural festival organised by the Alliance Française in Trivandrum. The story concerns four French people and their reasons for being at the festival. Charlotte, late forties,  who lives and works in New York, leaves her husband and children for a week to come to this festival trying to find a sort of internal peace that has escaped her since the suicide, in India, of her friend Deb. Roland Weinberger, an egocentric successful sixty something author living with a much younger Italian, he too is there for another reason, to try to meet the only woman that had ever left him. Raphael, who has written a very troubled autobiography concerns nag abuse as a child but he has changed all of the names and then Finally Gerlaldine who lives in India, is married to an Indian and works for the Alliance Française, she is the organiser of the festival.

The festival takes place the year after the terrorist attacks in Bombay amid heightened security. As time moves on the protagonists slowly lose their bearings, Gerladine is drawn to Raphael whom she recognises from her youth where she had a holiday home near his family home in Brittany and recognises his family from his book.

-The car followed the deserted road towards Trivandrum, towards her apartment towards her happy and peaceful life which she had just brushed aside for a minute of absolute happiness as you would impulsively pull a cloth from a table, adulteress, there was something old fashioned about this name, even melodramatic they made her smile, because she had brushed nothing aside, the two realities coexisted without contradiction, she was Joseph’s mother, the Muslim wife of Intiaz and she was also…….the woman who had just made love with this man twenty five years later.***

Roland who has lived his life so far, discarding women when he is ready to move on in life, is drawn to this one woman who discarded him as a young man and goes to the town she lives in to meet her. He is at first annoyed to see that she has not come to the meeting but sent her mother instead, and of course it’s not her mother…..

The book ends with a tragedy, with one of the four drowning, but you will need to read to discover.

This book is a slow study of character and interaction, Which I listened to on audio and which happily shortened my commute.

First published in French as ‘Indigo’ by Gallimard in 2013
*** My translation

Hédi Kaddour ‘Les Prépondérants’

‘- My opinion has no value when compared to that of a settler, that’s because the French say that they have the Overriding opinion .
– What is that, the Overriding opinion?
– It’s when you are overriding.
– What does that mean?
– It’s when you have the machine guns and the Colonial troops .’***

This remarkable book is set at a turning point in the French colonial experience, the aftermath of the Great War. The comfortable pre-war colonial status quo was under pressure from the changing world, against a background of Egypt declaring its independence from Great Britain and  Attaturk installing a secular regime in Turkey.

Into this background in 1922 an American film crew arrive in an imaginary town, Nahbès in the Magreb, straining the ways the different groups in society, the French settlers (Prépondérants), the Arab traditionalists, the youthful Arab nationalists searching for a way forward. Hédi Kaddour shows us throughout this book that despite these rigorous divides all is not monolithic.

Hédi Khaddour paints an impressive picture of the period with the settlers sure of their ways, describing a particular episode of missing wine bottles at a country pick nick, the severe physical punishment of an Arab worker designated as the thief, only to find the bottles were stolen by the local policeman’s children and the way each party present then manages to save face, the worker is paid but no excuse is given nor apology is issued, we are asked if this is enough and the settler answers but of course, his own people already know he is innocent.

The de-facto segregation between the peoples where the Eoropeans live in the European town and the Arabs in the Arab town excepting the Arab merchants who supply the European market is ensured by both sides and particularly by the Arab women:

‘The women in particular are terrible says Marfin, since they are stopped from having contact with the outside world they then want there to be next to no contact for the men. Hachouma, shame, they are always being served this word, so they have taken it and have turned it on their lords and masters. So and so was seen at a reception at the Civil Controler’s, Hachouma, such and such went to France for business, Hachouma, so and so  has had a European style suit made, Hachouma, they don’t dare say anything about the presence of their men at the cafés in the Medina, but if it is a café in the European town, Hachouma, they have become the guardians of their prison guards’***

This segregation is put to the test by the American film crew at their hotel parties where Arabs, Jews and even Italians mix with the French and Americans, the conservative forces of both communities would like to put an end to this but the film director has been received and decorated by the monarch in the presence of the French ‘Resident Generale’ and thus nothing can be done.

Finally this book is about a series of impossible relationships with the most mysterious being between the young widow Rania and either the French settler, Ganthier or the young Arab nationalist Raouf, we never learn which.

There are a number of notable inter-crossing stories in this book, such as the imprudence of a local merchant who finishes by denouncing Raouf to the French police and the subtle way Si Ahmed, Raouf’s father  destroys him, using his own weaknesses and greed.

This denunciation leads to Si Ahmed persuading Gantier to take Raouf on a tour of Europe whilst things cool down for him in North Africa. In Europe Raouf communistic leanings cool off and there is a particularly savoury trip to the Alsace where Raouf observes:

‘It’s true that from 1870 the Germans backed your colonial conquests to distract you from Strasbourg? We were made to pay for your defeat? And then in 1918 the Germans really left and went to the other side of the Rhine, after all those years spent in Alsace, even those that had bought their land, put up their buildings, their factories, left without any indemnity? That is good decolonisation’***

I have a special mention for the historical irony of Ganthier’s comments in the French occupied Rhinelands:

‘They stopped in front of a building to watch a shiny iron curtain slowly and silently lowering to the ground.
The people here really have the idea of faultless mechanical systems in their blood said Ganthier, it is fortunate that the Versailles treaty obliges them to write “Made in Germany” on their products, that protects us.’***

On their return to Nahbès, it is noticeable that both Gantier and Raouf have changed their positions have grown closer, as Rania says on leaving the market:

‘On leaving, they came across Raouf and Ganthier….through the veil covering her face, she called them the “protectorate in two volumes”, then turning towards Gabrielle ‘you know what is happening don’t you? They see each other so often that they are rubbing off on each other and one day each one will see the other in his mirror’***

No good end tends to come in colonial stories and this book is no exception, an act of God accompanied by human weakness brings about the death of one of the major protagonists revealing the complex feelings and links between them.

I most enjoyed this book and my review has only just touched the surface, missing out on several key figures and events, I heartily recommend this book!

First Published as “Les Prépondérants” by Gallimard in 2015
*** my translation




Marc Dugain ‘L’emprise’

In this the first book L’emprise in the The Power trilogy (Trilogie de L’emprise) Marc Dugain’s Takes us in a romanticised no holds barred vision of the conquest of modern political power in France, doing for French politics what Michael Dobbs did for British imagepolitics at the end of the 80’s with his House of Cards trilogy so well reviewed, refreshed and revisited by Kevin Spacey. Dobbs tells us about the genesis of his trilogy:

Conservative Party Headquarters, 1987. A week before election day I was Margaret Thatcher’s chief-of-staff. She was about to win a record third election but Maggie had been persuaded by a combination of a rogue opinion poll and uncharacteristic nervousness that she might lose. She hadn’t slept properly for days, had a raging toothache and insisted that someone else should suffer. That someone was me. On a day that became known as ‘Wobble Thursday’ she stormed, she blew up a tempest, she was brutally unfair. Her metaphorical handbag swung at me time and again. I was about to become another footnote in history. When we left the room, that wise old owl and Deputy Prime Minister, Willie Whitelaw, rolled his eyes and declared, ‘That is a woman who will never fight another election.’ He’d spotted the seeds of self-destruction that all too soon would become apparent to the entire world. As I sat beside my swimming pool, Willie’s words were still ringing in my ear. I reached for my pen and my bottle of wine. Three bottles later I thought I had found my character –his initials would be FU –and a plot. About getting rid of a prime minister. So Francis Urquhart and House of Cards was born.

Here 25 years later and in France, Dugain tells us that the state of the political machine has become more extreme but that due to a certain deference in the media, wealth and power are free to act together in total impunity:

‘In France we think we are a large democracy able to give lessons to the whole world, but the reverence shown towards power is still such that nobody dares to talk. It’s got to a point where certain journalists have got to saying that the only way to expose What is really going on in our politico-industrial class is through the novel, which remains the only method of expression which is almost free from attack.’***

So having set the scene, into the review. L’emprise is part of my French lit targets for 2016.

We follow from the start the battle between the two right wing opposition politicians, Launay the lifetime politician who has worked hard throughout his career to stay clean and his rival Lubiak who has captured all of his parties illegal type funding but has ensured that everything is handled offshore to avoid traceability. Lubiak is in politics for personal enrichment and had powerful foreign backers. Launay under pressure proposes at one point that should Lubiak desist in his idea of a party primary then he Launay would pledge to only do one term in power. His advisor analyses this and as such delivers an indictement of modern politics

‘- If I were him I’d say no.
– Why?
– The country is sinking, slowly and durably. The conservative forces are so strong that nobody can put things right in five years. Therefore even if you do well, the people will reject you at the end of your five year term. And if Lubiak is in your slipstream, he will suffer the same fate…..He will try to destroy you without hurting the party. The principal of the neutron bomb.’***

This takes place against a background of fusioning of the French electrical distribution company, La Française d’électricité, and the nuclear power company, Arlena, including the replacement of the female head of Arlena, mirroring actual events in France.

Other events closely resemble actual  happenings in France, fishing boats sunk by submarines, the installation of incinerators amid rumours of corruption that emit large quantities of dioxins dangerous for people living nearby etc. In conclusion, a novel whose background has enough recognisable events to enhance the believability of the main story.

Of course as this is a trilogy, there is a winner, but as this is politics, no one wins without leaving some of their soul along the way with debts that will be called in later. What you mean? Our politicians don’t belong entirely to themselves when they arrive in power?

First Published in French as “L’emprise” by Gallimard in 2014
*** My translation