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 .’***
image

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

Boualem Sansal ‘2084: La Fin du Monde

‘-Our faith is the soul of the world and Abi it’s beating heart.img_0224
-Submission is faith and faith is truth.
-The Party and the people are one as Yölah and Abi are one.

Are part of the 99 key sentences that we learn from our earliest youth and that we repeat for the rest of our lives’*** This in Abistan the régime invented by Boualem Sansal in his Orwellian tale of Islamic dictatorship from his latest book 2084:The end of the world, Rewarded as joint winner of the ‘Grand Prix du Roman’ by the Académie Française.

This book illustrates for the reader the Religious dictatorship in Abistan who’s founding date far in a past that no one can remember is 2084, a date with no meaning other than the beginning for the people. The people who are kept in ignorance by a state which rewrites history regularly as it wishes. The human size view of this dictatorship is given to us through Ati. In Abistan where the only infrastructures remaining come from the period before the dictatorship, no one moves or travels except for the pilgrimages, where each Abistani dreams of dying as a martyr on the way, but first you must be chosen by the state:

‘The passion within the people for pilgrimages was encouraged by continual campaigns mixing advertisements, sermons, fairs, competitions and various other sorts of manipulation at the order of the very powerful minister for pilgrimages and sacrifices’***

‘What better way than through hope and wonder to tie the people to their beliefs, because he who believes knows fear and he who knows fear believes blindly’***

Ati, however was not chosen for the pilgrimage but evacuated to the mountains to die or as in Ati’s case to recover from tuberculosis. In so doing Ati becomes someone rare in Abistan, someone who has traveled, high into the mountains, albeit within Abistan. Whilst in the sanatorium , he discovers that there is an inscription in a language that no one can read carved in the rock above the monumental doorway in which figures the number 1984 which pre-dates official history. He also discovers that there is a border:

‘The existence of a border was overwhelming, the world is therefore divided? Divisible? Humanity is multiple? Since when? Since forever of cours!’***

In the mountains Ati discovers that there are soldiers who fight to protect the border, but those that fought and survived the massacres had crossed the border and thus knew:

‘The soldiers who ….. had made it back were subject to the punishment reserved for traitors and  heathens, they wound up in the stadium the day of worship, executed to the cheers of the public after having been paraded through the town. To close an affair of state requires the disappearance of the witnesses.***

At the Sanatorium, Ati meets a state archaeologist who confers to him that they have found a site which calls into question the very existence of the religious dictatorship.

Returning to the Capital Qodsabad Ati with the slow burning fuse of freedom lit will try to discover the truth of history and the régime, but all may not be as it seems and It is difficult in a dictatorship to be more than a pawn.

This book is part of my French lit targets for 2016. A huge amount of work has gone into this novel warning us about the dangers of obscurantism and as with Orwell giving us through an imagined novel a vision of dictatorship, in this instance religious.

This is a rich book in ideas and I have touched on few in this post, however, how far would you need to extrapolate fundamentalism, in this case Muslim, to match this vision. That is the question!

First published in French as 2084:la fin du monde by Gallimard in 2015
*** My translation

 

 

 

Marie NDiaye ‘Three Strong Women’

I’ve been meaning to read Marie NDiaye’s ‘Trois Femmes Puissantes’ since it won the Goncourt in 2009 with a certain imageapprehension, this was a major work of literature that had been favourably compared to Toni Morrison. The book’s title tells us of the strength of the three main characters, Norah, Fanta and Khady Demba developed in three novellas where this strength, their self belief is put into perspective by their isolation and their fragility amid a certain mystical background.

 

In the first novella Norah a successful lawyer arrives in Senegal, without knowing why, at the request of her father who she has not seen for twenty years. This is the opening of the three stories relating these women’s experiences in their personal journey between Senegal and France, Norah was born in France but lived a childhood trauma as her father ran back to Senegal tearing her younger brother from her, her sister and her mother for ever.

‘Their father, in answering the phone one day to their grieving mother who told him she would borrow the money to buy airline tickets in order to come to see her son at his house since he refused to send Sonny to her on holiday, said if I see you turning up here I’ll cut his throat and then my own in front of you’***

Norah discovers that Sonny is now in prison for murder  and her father wants her to drop everything and to defend him. As the mystery slowly unfolds and Norah questions herself for having left her own daughter behind with her partner, she reconsiders her own life and her relationship to her father through the first of a series of related Anthropomorphic images within the book. She feels she can see and smell him as a large vulture perched on the flame tree outside her bedroom window looking in with his wings folded under his shirt.

The story ends with both Norah and her father perched high up in the flame tree, giving the image of a possible reconciliation between a them.

 

The strong woman in the second Novella, Fanta, is never present except through the thoughts, words and actions of her husband, Rudy. Fanta is at at a different point in her personal journey between Senegal and France. From a modest background in Senegal she had become a teacher and had met Rudy, a not entirely stable character who was teaching in Senegal. Rudy had lived a traumatic incident as a child in Senegal when his father after killing his Senegalese business partner then committed suicide, forcing Rudy and his mother to return to France in poverty.  Coming back to Senegal for him was proving something to himself but especially to his mother.

When Rudy loses his job through an incident at the school he proposes to take Fanta back to France with him where she can teach and live with him, nothing is planned or researched they just up and go, Rudy who has no resources moves back to the countryside near his mother and Fanta’s teaching credentials are not recognised in France.

We pick up the story after a particularly violent dispute between Rudy and Fanta as Rudy incapable of holding down a job or understanding the difference between a plan and a dream has slowly forced Fanta into a corner with no way out and as in the first story a series of anthropomorphic images of Rudy being attacked by a buzzard which he is persuaded is Fanta and which scratches his forehead.

 

The third strong woman, Khady Demba is still in Senegal at the time of the novella, this story is by far the saddest, following the death of  her husband leaving her childless and thus a worthless mouth to feed in the eyes of her husband’s family, where she slowly becomes invisible in their eyes in order to survive. When one day without warning she is sent of with a man who is supposed to take her to a far off land from which she will have to send back money, Khady herself knows nothing of the world outside of her village and thus begins a long tragic journey.

After fleeing the people taking her when she see’s the state of the boat supposed to take her from the Senegalese coast she teams up with a young man Lamine from whom she learns,

‘what she needed to keep in mind was that the trip could last months, years as was the case for one of Lamine’s neighbours who reached Euorope, whatever exactly Europe was and where it was she put off learning until later, five years after setting out’***

Despite a seriously injured leg in the escape from the boat Khady and Lamine set out across the desert where they are robbed of their remaining money by the military before in order to pay for a meal and then later to gain a little money to go further, Khady is prostituted out by the cafè owner then robbed of her meagre gains and abandoned by Lamine. Throughout all of this she keeps proudly in mind that she is Khady Demba. As time goes on she wishes she could

‘soon acquire an unfeeling mineral body with no desires and no needs which would only be a tool to serve an intention she didn’t yet know but which she would be forced to come to terms with’***

This novella ends in a refugee area near a fence once again in a mystic fashion as Khady falls from a ladder trying to cross the fence

‘And then abandoning, letting go, falling softly backwards and then thinking that the essence of Khady Demba, less than a breeze hardly a movement of air, was certainly not to hit the ground but to float……Its me, Khady Demba, she thought at the very moment her head hit the ground and with her eyes wide open she saw a grey bird with long wings gliding slowly above the fencing, it’s me Khady Demba she thought with a dazzling revelation knowing that she was this bird and that the bird knew it’***

 

Why did I put off reading this book for so long?

First published in French as Trois Femmes Puissantes by Gallimard in 2009
Translated into English by John Fletcher as Three Strong Women and published by MacLehose Press in 2012
***My translation