Jeanine Cummins ‘American Dirt’

Luca starts to understand that this is the one thing that all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances some urban, some rural, some middle class, some poor, some well educated some illiterate, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carry some story of suffering on top of that train and into El Norte beyond. Some like Rebecca share their stories carefully selectively finding a faithful ear and then chanting their words like prayers, other migrants are like blown open grenades telling their anguish compulsively to everyone they meet dispensing their pain like shrapnel so that one day they might wake to find their burdens have grown lighter. Luca wonders what it would be like to blow up like that, nut for now he remains undetonated.

As the book opens, Lydia owns a bookshop in Acapulco and the world is well, she lives with her husband Sebastián, a journalist and her son Luca and her world ends at a family barbecue when gunmen enter her garden and kill all thirteen of her family members present except her and Luca who hide in the shower.

Sure violence is creeping into Acapulco with the drugs but it’s mostly invisible, happens to others then one evening Lydia learns that the reclusive boss of the cartel that has taken over Acapulco, that Sébastián will reveal in tomorrow’s newspaper is a customer she knows who comes to her shop with a bodyguard and who buys poems.

She knows she must run, fast and far but the cartel’s influence is far reaching, you can’t travel on a road between towns without them finding you, any youth could be working for them, all they need is a smart phone and a gun. We follow Lydia and Luca as the travel with other migrants on the roof of “La Bestia”, the freight train and the other migrants they meet, of the sisters Rebecca and the too beautiful Soledad, yes, to be too beautiful is no good thing, who teach them how to join the train:

The wind fuzzes through Luca’s hair as the noise of the train grows closer, the booming clatter and reverberation of those monster wheels hauling themselves along the metal of the track. The very loudness of that noise seems designed as a warning that enters through your ears but lodges in your sternum stay away stay away stay away don’t be crazy don’t be crazy don’t be crazy ..he sees it emerge from beneath his feet mammy peers over the edge of a low guard rail just as the train pulls itself into view it’s good Rebecca smiles at them, nice and slow. Ready, Soledad says. her little sister nods Lydia’s face grim whilst she studies the stretch of the train….Soledad tosses her pack and then follows it with one graceful, chaotic, suicidal lurch she moves her body from the fixed to the moving she drops, Lydia can’t tell how far it is six feet, ten and then the girl is instantly receding, her form growing smaller as she moves away with the train.

Not many of the hopeful migrants they meet actualy make it, far less have any money left on arrival and if they think the cartel only control the roads the they don’t know the power of corruption, but they do. And throughout all this the young boy Luca is working through the grief of losing his father, his abuelo and his abuela, aunts uncles and cousins whilst fighting to stay alive on this long journey:

Luca is exhausted, there’s a tug of war in his heart already between wanting to remember and needing to forget in the months to come Luca will sometimes wish he hadn’t squandered these early days of his grief…because as the forgetting part takes anchor and stays it’ll feel like a treachery.

No one makes this journey for fun, they are all fleeing from something, some are able to talk about their experiences, with difficulty to a chosen trusted person and others, well the are just time bombs waiting to explode. Jeannine Cummins takes us through despair, recovery of sorts and a raw energy to survive. Makes me think of a film I’ve seen “The Golden Dream

First Published in English as “American Dirt” in 2020 by Tinder Press.

Olga Tokarczuk ‘Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead’

With age, many men come down with testosterone autism, the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts.

Olga Tokarczuk’s multi-prize winning book begins on the remote, high, snow covered Polish plains, close to the Czech border, with the death of Big Foot at his filthy home, and his neighbours, Oddball and Duszejko, finding his body. Duszejko then discovers both the overt and the covert original sins that are at the driving forces behind the book. No spoilers here, we’ll only consider the overt original sin. As they arrive, a group of wild deer seem to be watching them intently with deer tracks around the house, Duszejko then discovers to her horror and disgust that Big Foot had set up a feeding area at the back of his house and that he had shot a deer from his grange as they came to feed.

How much does it take to push a convinced believer into radical action? To the poetry of Blake, as the book advances the retired and recluse engineer Duszejko, who’s views of Hunters are clearly laid out in the opening quote, slowly sees a group of friends coalesce around her, whilst in parallel the number of suspicious deaths of hunters builds up.

At each crime scene no obvious murder weapon is to be found but there are deer tracks found around the bodies, after each death Duszejko, an old woman, who believes everything in life can be explained by astrology and who is not taken seriously, goes into town, to the police station to explain about the deer tracks and to push the police into considering that the animals are taking revenge.

As the hunters die, we discover that illegal actions within their number lead to payoffs to the police whilst the rest of the community scrape to get by.

Amongst many of the quotes from Blake, being translated into Polish by Dizzy, one of Duszejko friends, one sums up this state of affairs:

God made Man happy & Rich but cunning made the innocent Poor.

This is a book that would push you towards the animal cause, confronting two ideologies, the responsibility of man towards animals to help them live a full and happy life and that of the hunters epitomised by the following quote from the local priest blessing the hunters:

My dear brothers and sisters, hunters are the ambassadors and partners of the Lord God in the work of creation, in caring for game animals. Nature among which man lives needs help in order to flourish. Through their culls the hunters conduct the correct policy.

A great deal of work is carried out by the hunting lobby to show that hunters are necessary to regulate the wilds and that Q.E.D. They are the animals’ best friends.

Back to the whodunit, just a small detail, a lovely touch, Duszejko’s car, a Samouraï.

First Published in Polish as “Prowadż swój pług przez kości umarlych” in 2010 by Wydawnictwo Literackie.
Translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published in 2018 as Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Translated into French by Margot Carlier and published in 2012 as “Sur les ossements des morts” by Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc

The quote as read in French

L’âge venant, beaucoup d’hommes soufrent d’une sorte de déficit, que j’appelle “autisme testostéronien”. Il se manifeste par une atrophie progressive de l’intelligence dite sociale et de la capacité à communiquer, et cela handicape également l’expression de la pensée.

Dieu créa l’homme heureux et riche. La ruse rendit pauvres les innocents

Les chasseurs, chers frères et sœurs, sont les ambassadeurs et les compagnons de Dieu dans l’œuvre de la Création et de la protection de la faune. Ses meilleurs collaborateurs. Il faut aider la nature qui nous accueille en son sein à se développer. Grâce à l’abattage systématique du gibier, les chasseurs mènent une action juste.

The Booker international special confinement review

And the Winner is:

Blocked at home thanks to the COVID, I thought: make this an opportunity .

So I’ve read the six shortlisted novels, written articles and debated extensively with myself and here are the conclusions.

The two South American books, very different in style, the poetic self discovery of China Iron contrasts with the crude realism of Hurricane Season but they share themes, poverty, cruelty, escapism through alcohol and drugs and the contrast of machism with homosexuality.

Tyll shares with China Iron taking their sources, the characters of Tyll and China from historical sources and using their stories to tell of the histories of Europe and Argentina.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, through a story told, steeped in magic and ghosts , the influence of the Zoastrians, tells us the recent history of Iran and the terrible impact of the revolution and its oppressive regime on the people.

The memory police, is a stripped back yet allegorical story of a future and its past, about an oppressive regime and the faint hope that remains in the people.

And finally, The Discomfort of evening, a painful and disturbing book about the investigation and non acceptance of death in a young adolescent living in a hard line Reform community.

For the strength and depth of the story, re-visiting La Vuelta de Martin Fierro and the birth of Argentina from a new angle, the cruelty of the Hispanics, the instrumentalisation of the Gouchos and the poetic style, The adventures of China Iron is for me a clear winner.

Eugenia Almeida ‘The Exchange’

“Apparently she was waiting for one of your customers”
“That’s what I was told, and that she pointed her gun at someone. Is that true?”
“You didn’t see it?”
There is a point in time when you can hear the first fracturing sound of an avalanche. Except that the slide can follow in the next second, or years later.
“What was the name of the man who left the bar?”
“How should I know?”
“He wasn’t a regular?”
“Could you describe him?”
“I don’t look at my customers in order to make artists’ impressions of them. And are you sure he left the bar?”
“Absolutely. And so are you.”

The book, read for “Spanish and Portuguese lit Months” begins with a clear suicide. A woman in  Plaza Herral aims a gun at a stranger, after a brief exchange which no one hears, the stranger walks away and the woman shoots herself in the chest and dies. This has all the hallmarks of a suicide and of the police only one of them looks at this in any detail and as he tries to understand what has happened, he quickly understands that nobody has seen anything! as illustrated above by the questions asked to the bar owner on the square who knows nothing but who involuntarily confirms that the man who had the brief exchange with the woman had come out of his bar.

This book is a general study of Power and corruption, applied here, in particular, in Argentina. The police are quickly ordered to stop investigating  and to close the case as a suicide. Following a visit by the minister, see the following quote. But a reporter Guyot, who is friends with the detective in charge at the station, Jury, continues to investigate and is fed information by the police team unhappy at having been ordered to stop.

“As it happens, the blond haired image consultant suggested to the minister to make a list of the sensitive cases.”
“There going to fire people?”
“Here? No way! If they had to get rid of all of the dirty cops….and you know which of our cases they chose?”
“The girl?”
“It seems that when Fierro wanted to to know a bit more, The story of the bloke came out. But whe he was told the name of the bar he said no, not that case, for a suicide it’s not woth the bother.”
“The misister’s would’t be a regular?”
“Either way he knows something.”

The journalist Guyot had lost his wife years earlier when she had been shot to death in her home during a burglary when nothing had been taken, where he had come to know the detective Jury. As Guyot delves into the case, unravelling the story from next to nothing, people around him who may know things begin at first to have accidents and then are clearly killed. Almeida gives a credible description of the men with the power behind the scenes who did not completely dissapear with the dictatorship and who are still pulling the strings, she also draws a picture of the ambitious ex policemen looking to survive and who are happy to carry out executions that are never asked for but only hinted at. But incidentally if people aroung Guyot are eliminated as he advances, including policemen, why don’t they just eliminate Guyot? And why did the girl kill herself.

A highly efficient police investigation novel, peeling back the layers of Argentina’s present to show the ongoing links with the past.

First Published in spanish as “La tensíon del umbral” in 2015 by Edhasa
Translated into French by Francois Gaudry and published as “L’Échange” in 2016 by Métailié
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

“Apparement elle attendait un de vos clients.”
“C’est ce qu’on m’a dit, et qu’elle avait braqué son arme sur quelqu’un. C’est vrai?”
“Vous ne l’avez pas vue?”
Il y a un moment ou on peut entendre le premier craquement d’une avalanche. Sauf quel’écroulement peut survenir dans la seconde, où des années après.
“Comment s’appelle l’homme qui est sorti du bar?”
“Comment voulez-vous que je sache?”
“Ce n’est pas un habitué?”
“Vous pouvez le décrire?”
“Je ne regarde pas des clients pour faire des portraits-robots. Et puis vous etes bien sûr qu’il est sorti du bar?”
“Absolument. Et vous aussi

“Il se trouve que le blondinet, conseiller en image, a proposé au ministre de faie une liste des dossiers sensible.”
“Ils vont viter des gens?”
“Ici? Non! S’ils devaient jeter tous ceux qui ont les mains sales…….Et tu sais quelle affaire ils ont choisie parmi les nôtres?”
“La fille.”
“Il parait que lorsque Fierro a voulu savoir un peu plus, l’histoire du type est sortie. Mais quand on lui a appris le nom du bar, il a dit que non, pas cette affaire, que pour un suicide, ça ne valait pas la peine.”
“Le ministre serait un habitué?”
“En tous cas il sait quelque chose.”

Nick Harkaway ‘Gnomon’

Which brings her back to Hunter who’s mind conceals not one untruthful life but three, three mirages layed on top of one other so that the dismissal of the first becomes the gateway of the second and so on and on deeper and down this recording is a sinking sand of the mind… img_1496it is a breathtaking defense the architect of this barrier did not attempt to harden the mind against enquiry did not build some brittle wall to keep the Witness out but accepted the stricture of intrusion and created a defense in depth…it was done either to the woman or by her with this end in view that when, not if, when the Witness touched her mind Diana Hunter would confound it..

Diana Hunter dies during interrogation by the Witness and Inspector Neith, of the Witness is brought in to investigate. This is the simple opening premise to Nick Harkaway’s, far from simple doorstep of a book set in a near future London where everyone is under surveillance all of the time and in order to follow and act in time on anything that is observed, or predicted based on the observations humans have abdicated responsibility to an AI, known as the Witness, with a number of checks and balances:.

In this environment there’s simply no such thing as privacy anymore every action is visible to the system and it can call you and demand an accounting in the midst of a perfect world where power is in a way truly held by the people and government has almost entirely gone away, there’s a thin strand of horror of interrogation machines mandated by the majority and algorithms that see everything you do and want to know why you did it that understand your actions according to an actuarial chart and analyse you as an aspect of behavioral economics.

As the story begins, we follow Neith, as she takes part in her everyday life activities on line, assisting in debates she has been chosen for by the Winess, where her views or knowledge would be pertinent, asking questions where necessary and voting on line in what appears to be direct democracy where the people decide almost everything and we understand that Neith is exemplary in her involvement and her honesty. So back to Diana Hunter, for exceptionally dangerous behaviour, citizens can be interogated and if necessary their minds can be corrected by direct intervention, but deaths at the hand of the Witness are exceptionally rare, the Witness has direct access to their minds and their thoughts, so in steps the inspector of the Witness who has access to the recordings of the interrogations and can “live them”.

Diana Hunter’s interrogation is exceptional, And accounts in part for the length of the book as Neith discovers one after the other three completely different characters within Hunter’s head as illustrated in the opening quote. Who’s purpose becomes sort of obvious as the story progresses.  In order to render these lives real, the story Harkaway writes around these characters is enough to cover a short story for each one.

There is Constantine, a Greek banker from our time who after a near death incident with a shark sees on his screen certain fiancial events before the happen and so becomes incredibly rich.

There is Athenais, an alchemist and one time mistress of Saint Augustin, the mother of his son, who’s death she cannot prevent but who’s resurrection she tries to attempt.

And finally there is Berihun Bekele, an Ethiopian artist who had been arrested in the military coup after the death of Haile Selassie and imprisoned in a cell in Alem Bekagn, the infamous prison of Addis Ababa who’s name means Farewell to the World. Berihun later in his life works with his daughter Annabelle on a computer game which resmbles the life Neith is living with the Witness.

Did I say the last of the three, Neith then discovers a bug, a fourth character Lernrote or Gnomon,  does he exist only in Hunter’s head or does he exist in real life?  Harkaway throws in a spanner, a person from the far off future. Was it he who fabricated Gnomon:

In this new world many people, most in fact exist across bodies, that is to say that their thoughts are distributed between a large number of individual brains rather than concentrated in just one. Each individual body has a little doodad in it that sends and receives messages to all the others.

Slowly Neith becomes suspicious of the system she relies on and the characters within Hunter’s mind, indirectly make her understand something is rotten in the kingdom of Denmark.

What if the weak link in this system of surveillance and perfect government of the people by the people was in fact the people? how would they be stopped from making the wrong decisions?

As Neith’s freind Tubman says:

Obfuscation like you’re asking about, hiding in plain sight, breaking up the message well I suppose you could call it artisanal, you could do it but you’d need to be brilliant and dedicated, a bit mad maybe, three words which summarise what you don’t want in an adversary.

First Published in English as “Gnomon” in 2018 by Windmill Books

Michel Houellebecq ‘Submission’

I was hungry and what’s more I felt like shopping for something to eat, a blanquette de veau, hake cooked with cervil, a berbère moussaka; meals for the micro-wave, reliable in their insipidness, but with  colorful  packaging…not ill intended and the feeling to be taking part in a deceptive collective, yet egalitarian experience.***

In this book from 2016 by Houellebecq, in a near future the narrator, a bored university lecturer at Paris-Sorbonne, in between having affairs with his students is watching his life drift past, as it would seem is the whole country, in passive dissatisfaction. A perfect idea of his character is given by the opening quote.

Houellebecq picked up well on the mood of the nation with regard to the existing political landscape as was confirmed afterwards by the election of Emmanuel Macron, as  the narrator introduces us to election night:

I’ve always liked presidential election evenings; I even think that with the exception of football world cups, they were my favorite television programs. There is obviously less suspense, elections obeying to the singular narrative disposition of a story whose outcome is known from the first minute.***

But in this election night Houellebecq puts the Muslim brotherhood, a little like Hitler in his time, in a position of force to form a coalition government with the socialists. And as the book goes on he imagines the changes this could bring about, accepted apathetically by the electorate. Let us take the narrators profession as one of the examples he presents:

The republican school system stays as is. Open to everyone – but with much less money, the education budget will be divided by three at least, and this time the teachers won’t be able to save anything, in the curant economic climate any budget cuts will be certain to obtain large approval. And in parallel a system of private muslim schools will be put in place. Obviously in next to no time public schooling will equal low cost schooling.***

Houellebecq as other authors in dystopian novels plays on the readers fears as the narrator loses his job because his university becomes the Islamic university of Paris-Sorbonne and he is not Muslim (but no panic, the university is payed for by the Saudis and he is well paid off). He plays on arrangements to make polygamous mariages legal as the narrator’s colleagues become Muslim to keep their jobs, at three times the pay level, including wives found for them by the administration and  he imagines changes to our shopping centres:

Inside the shopping centre, things were more nuanced. Bricorama (DIY) was uncontested, but Jennifer (adolescent clothes) certainly wouldn’t last long, they sold nothing that would suit an islamic teenager. Secret Stories  on the other hand, that sold cut price branded underwear, had nothing to worry about: the success of similar shops in merchant galleries in Riyad and Abu Dhabi was incontestable…..dressed in impenetrable black burkas during the daytime, when the evening comes rich Saudi women are transformed into birds of paradise.***

This book was well received by the critics I, however, was uncomfortable with it, I found it quite simply plays on readers prejudices, and wouldn’t recommend it, look elsewhere for dystopian futures and imagine, maybe optimistically, that populations everywhere take an active interest in the way their countries are governed.

First Published in French as “Soumission” in 2015 by Flammarion
Translated into English as “Submission” by Lorin Stein and published in 2016 by Vintage
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

J’avais faim et plus encore j’avais envie d’acheter à manger, de la blanquette de veau, du colin au cerfeuil, de la moussaka berbère; les plats pour micro-ondes, fiables dans leur insipidité, mais à l’emballage coloré et joyeux… aucune malveillance ne pouvait s’y lire, et l’impression de participer à une expérience collective décevante, mais égalitaire.

J’aimais depuis toujours les soirées d’élections présidentielle; je crois même qu’a l’exception des coupes de mondes de football, c’était mon programme télévisé favori. le suspense était évidemment moins fort, les élections obéissant à ce dispositif narratif singulier d’une histoire dont le dénouement est connu dès la première minute.

l’école républicaine demeurerait telle quelle, ouverte à tous – mais avec beaucoup moins d’argent, le budget de l’Education nationale sera au moins divisé par trois, et cette fois les profs ne pourront rien sauver, dans le contexte économique actuel toute réduction budgétaire sera certaine de rallier un large consensus. et puis parallèlement se mettrait en place un système d’école musulmanes privées. Evidemment, très vite, l’école publique deviendra une école au rabais.

A l’intérieure du centre, le bilan était plus contrasté. Bricorama était incontestable, mais les jours de Jennifer était sans nul doute comptés, ils ne proposaient rien qui puisse convenir à une adolescente islamique. Le magasin Secret Stories par conte, qui vendait de la lingerie de marque à des prix dégriffés, n’avait aucun souci à se faire: le succès des magasins analogues dans les galeries marchandes de Riyad et d’Abu Dhabi ne s’était pas démenti….Vétues pendant la journée d’impénétrables burqas noires, les riches Saoudiennes se transformaient le soir en oiseaux de paradis.

Richard Powers ‘The Overstory’

When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one.img_1480 Networked together underground by countless thousands of miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests….There are no individuals. There aren’t even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest.

This is my first Richard Powers book, offered to me by my wife and what a good present, this man is an encyclopedia of knowledge about trees. He approaches this book, the story of our relationship with the natural world seen through the particular relationship with trees, the danger we represent to trees and thus ultimately to ourselves through the often intertwining individual lives of a number of people that one way or another fight for their environment and at the same time embarks on the history of trees in North America since the arrival of the Europeans.

There is Nicolas Hoel whose family moved from the east coast to Iowa where land was given away and who successfully planted and grew a chestnut tree so many miles from its normal habitat and the amazing project begun by his great grandfather and continued by each generation to take a photo of this tree once a month from the same spot, making it possible by flicking through the photos for humans to appreciate the slowed down life of a tree. We also hear of the parasite that wiped out all of American chestnut trees:

Death races across Connecticut and Massachusetts, jumping dozens of miles a year. Trees succumb by the hundreds of thousands. A country watches dumbstruck as New England’s priceless chestnuts melt away. The tree of the tanning industry, of railroad ties, train cars, telegraph poles, fuel, fences, houses, barns, fine desks, tables, pianos, crates, paper pulp, and endless free shade and food —the most harvested tree in the country—is vanishing.

There is Olivia Vandergriff, an East coast student who dies electrocuted and recovers and follows voices in her head knowing that they will dictate her life. Her meeting with Nicolas Hoel sparks a bond that sends them to the Oregon forests to fight for trees, once spending a year up a particular fir without coming down to try to slow down the logging industry which had already cut down more than 95% of Americas original forests and which is now clear cutting the Douglas firs.

There are Douglas Pavlicek, a war veteran with a Purple Heart and Mimi Ma who wind up together in the same camp in the same forest war, Douglas one day understands what is happening around him and that he has been too blind to see:

Douglas Pavlicek sees slabs of light through the trunks where there should be shadow all the way to the forest’s heart….He stops at a gas station to tank up. He asks the cashier, “Have they been clear-cutting up the valley?”
The man takes Douggie’s silver dollars. “Shit yeah.”
“And hiding it behind a little voter’s curtain?”
“They’re called beauty strips. Vista corridors.”

There is also Patricia Westerford the biology professor who, too early, learns that trees communicate between themselves as illustrated in the opening quote and whose work is derided by the establishment before being accepted decades later.

We follow these characters and others, that I found much less interesting, through their different lives, Westerford approving non violence and then the first four, Hoel, Vandergriff, Pavlicek and Ma moving over to direct action leading eventually to the death in an explosion of one of them as they are attacking a logging base, and the effect this tragedy has on their lives.

The trees will still be there when we’ve gone. A powerful book, will make you want to fight for nature.

First Published in English as “The Overstory” in 2018 by W. W. Norton & Company.

Madeline Miller ‘The Song of Achilles’

The horse’s muscular legs ended in flesh, the equally muscular torso of a man. I stared — at that impossible suture of horse and human, where smooth skin became a gleaming coat.
Beside me Achilles bowed his head. ‘Master Centaur,’ he said. ‘I am sorry for the delay. I had to wait for my companion.’ He knelt, his clean tunic in the dusty earth. ‘Please accept my apologies I have long wished to be your student.’…
He regarded Achilles a moment. ‘You do not need to kneel to me Pelides. Though I appreciate the courtesy. And who is this companion that has kept us both waiting?’
Achilles turned back to me, and reached a hand down. Unsteadily I took it, and pulled myself up.
‘This is Patroclus’

In this, the Orange prize winner of 2012, Madeleine Miller, in her retelling of the life of Achilles, takes us back to the age of heroes and through the voice of Patroclus, re-centres the story of Achilles’ life firmly around his love for Patroclus. Before he is exiled from his father’s court, Patroclus, as a boy suitor, is present amongst all of the kings of Greece when Helen chooses and is given to Menelaus after Odysseus had engineered the oath of every man present to uphold Helens choice and to defend her husband against all who would take her from him. The founding oath of the Trojan war.

We follow the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles as children at king Peleus’s court, of their mutual attraction one for the other and of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a lesser of the lesser gods, a sea-nymph only, and her hatred of Patroclus. Their relationship is finally sealed when Achilles, as a young adolescent, is sent alone into the mountains to be trained by Chiron the centaur and Patroclus runs away from the court of king Peleus to join him as illustrated in the opening quote.

And so on to Troy, Patroclus leaves us in no doubt that Agamemnon’s true interest is rather in the fabled riches of Troy rather than his brother’s wife. As the boats approach the shore Patroclus describes to us Hector, seen in the distance and the first hints that the war might be more difficult than they had imagined:

His power came from his carriage, his perfectly squared shoulders, the straight line of his back arrowing up to heaven. This was no slouchy prince of wine halls and debauchery, as Easterners were said to be. This was a man who moved like the gods were watching; every gesture he made was upright and correct. There was no one else it could be but Hector.

This is however a book about the love of the two men, a normal thing amongst adolescents in Greece at the time, but not amongst warriors. Achilles, “Aristos Achaion”, the best warrior, a half god, could and did do as he pleased. Madeleine Miller, after Patroclus’ death, brings out Achilles’s despair as illustrated here when king Priam comes at night to request the return of Hector’s body:

Priam’s eyes find the other body, mine, lying on the bed. He hesitates a moment. ‘That is — your friend?’
‘Philtatos,’ Achilles says sharply. Most beloved. ‘Best of men, and slaughtered by your son.’
‘I am sorry for your loss,’ Priam says. ‘And sorry that it was my son who took him from you. Yet I beg you to have mercy. In grief men must help each other, though they are enemies…..
Priam’s voice is gentle. ‘It is right to seek peace for the dead. You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.’

A chance to catch up once again with the time of heroes and the love story of Achilles and Patroclus.

First Published in English as “The Song of Achilles” in 2011 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Mohsin Hamid ‘Exit West’

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, 28078486-3414-447A-8036-EB4B65EC53BAa young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.

Mohsin Hamid in Exit West, shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, leads us by the hand from a city in a middle eastern country, poor, but with hope, where Saeed sells outdoor advertising space in a small company and lives with his parents, whilst Nadia has a job in an insurance company  and has managed the prowess of being able to live alone. Nadia and Saeed get to know each other with initial mistrust illustrated by the following quote as they meet for coffee for the first time:

They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.

Mohsin Hamid takes us through their brief period of getting to know each other in almost normal circumstances, where Nadia wears a Flowing black robe covering her from the tips of her toes to her jugular notch, not from religious conviction but to protect herself from men, and where Saeed disguises himself in a one of her robes to be able to visit her in her appartement, then in a few lines he describes the tipping point:

The following evening helicopters filled the sky like birds startled by a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree. They rose, singly and in pairs, and fanned out above the city in the reddening dusk, as the sun slipped below the horizon, and the whirr of their rotors echoed through windows and down alleys, seemingly compressing the air beneath them, as though each were mounted atop an invisible column, an invisible breathable cylinder, these odd, hawkish, mobile sculptures, some thin, with tandem canopies, pilot and gunner at different heights, and some fat, full of personnel, chopping, chopping through the heavens.
Saeed watched them with his parents from their balcony.
Nadia watched them from her rooftop, alone.

He then briefly takes us through the total breakdown of ordinary civilised life at the outbrek of war, then the story until this point torn between reality and something lighter moves towards the fantastic, he manages this by following Saeed and Nadia as they become displaced citizens, migrants but shrinking their trips between countries to passages through doors, as if the true question for both the migrants and the habitants of their destinations is not the trip nor the barriers but the tensions on their arrival and how the world could react:

But Nadia’s new friend was as good as her word, because very early one morning she put both Nadia and Saeed on the back of her scooter and sped them through still quiet streets to a house on a hill with a courtyard. They dashed inside and there was a door. The girl wished them good luck, and she hugged Nadia tight, and Saeed was surprised to see what appeared to be tears in the girl’s eyes, or if not tears then at least a misty shine, and Nadia hugged her too, and this hug lasted a long time, and the girl whispered something to her, whispered, and then she and Saeed turned and stepped through the door and left Mykonos behind.
They emerged in a bedroom with a view of the night sky and furnishings so expensive and well made that Saeed and Nadia thought they were in a hotel, of the sort seen in films and thick, glossy magazines.

So what would happen if people could move about as easily as this, Mohsin Hamid presents us with the competing factions within the different host countries, illustrated by, here, London with the initial reaction from the nativists:

Saeed and Nadia heard it said that nativist extremists were forming their own legions, with a wink and a nod from the authorities, and the social media chatter was of a coming night of shattered glass, but all this would probably take time to organize, and in that time Saeed and Nadia had to make a decision: whether to stay or to go.

But in line with the lighter positive vision of the world and its capability for good, he imagines the world embracing the situation:

In the formerly protected green belt around London a ring of new cities was being built, cities that would be able to accommodate more people again than London itself. This development was called the London Halo, one of innumerable human halos and satellites and constellations springing up in the country and in the world.

For the migrants however, acceptance alone is not an answer to the trauma that they live through nor the people nor the life they leave behind epitomised by the differing capabilities of Nadia and Saeed to accept their situation:

It seemed to Nadia that the further they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.

This is a dreamlike book Treating an age old problem of the pain of migration, not of the journey but of the change.

First published in English as ‘Exit West’ by Hamish Hamilton in 2017

Diego Marani ‘New Finnish Grammar’

‘At heart, we have always been Lutherans, even before we became Christians. The heroes of the Kalevala were already Lutherans in the same way that Achilles and Ulysses were already Orthodox. 2F042AD6-7A56-4C98-8D52-428CB0A1F403Ulysses practised his wiles on a sophisticated and sceptical society which was familiar with mental trickery. Väinämöinen’s mode of speech is craggy, immediate, uncomplicated, like the first blow of a chisel on rough stone. The Greek Gods mingled with men, wrangled and negotiated with them. The God Ukko never comes down to Earth; he judges our actions and then visits light or darkness upon us, punishment or reward.’

In Diego Marani’s left of field book New Finnish Grammar, read for Italian Lit Month,  the story of roots and the need to belong is brought to us in this improbable story. During the Second World War a man is found in the port of Trieste, badly beaten and having lost his memory and speaking no language, the only clue to his identity is the Finnish name Sampo Karjalainen found on his jacket. He is brought aboard a german hospital ship to be treated where the doctor that treats him, Pétri Friari, has himself unsure roots, in the German forces but himself of Finnish descent. He tries to teach Karjalainen, the rudiments of Finnish before sending him to Helsinki to better discover and understand his own country and language and to then maybe discover more about himself. But Finnish is no ordinary language as we learn:

Finnish was not invented. The sounds of our language were around us, in nature, in the woods, in the pull of the sea, in the call of the wild, in the sound of the falling snow. All we did was to bring them together and to bend them to our needs. When God created man, he did not bother to send any men up here.

The reader feels something of the poetry, of the essence of Finnish, without Marani trying to detail the actual language. As the Finns prepare to defend their country against Russian attack, Sampo is housed in the military hospital where he meets Ilma, a nurse who feels for him, maybe a new start is possible with her as he struggles to speak Finnish, helped by the pastor Koskela who tries to teach him not only the language but also what it is to be Finnish through Finnish mythology, The Kalevala, the spirit of which is rendered in the opening quote.

Marani’s tale is told by Pétri Friari, pieced together from notes written by Sampo in Finnish whilst Sampo was struggling to learn the language. Who was Sampo? What was he doing in Trieste? Is their hope, through Ilma for a man that does not know who he is? A chance observation by Sampo at the end of the story makes all clear, As Pétri says:

If Doctor Friedrich Reiner had found the handkerchief with the initials S. K. even a day earlier the fate of Massimiliano Brodar would have been different, as would have been my own.

First published in Italian as ‘Nuovo Grammatica Finlandese’ by RCS Libri in 2000
Translated into English by Judith Landry as “New Finnish Grammar” and published by Dedalus in 2011