Herman Wouk ‘The Caine Mutiny’

At the instant that Mrs. Keith saw Willie swallowed up, she remembered that she had neglected an important transaction. She ran to the entrance of Furnald Hall. The chief stopped her as she laid a hand on the doorknob. “Sorry, madam. No admittance.” “That was my son who just went in.” “Sorry, madam.” “I only want to see him for a moment. I must speak to him. He forgot something.”IMG_1107“They’re taking physicals in there, madam. There are men walking around with nothing on.” … “Madam,” said the chief, with a note in his rasping voice that was not unkind, “he’s in the Navy now.” Mrs. Keith suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry.” “Okay, okay. You’ll see him again soon—maybe Saturday.” The mother opened her purse and began to fish in it. “You see, I promised—the fact is, he forgot to take his spending money…. suppose he wants some? I promised him. Please take the money——Pardon me, but I’d be happy to give you something for your trouble.” The chief’s gray eyebrows rose. “That won’t be necessary.” He wagged his head like a dog shaking off flies, and accepted the bills. Up went the eyebrows again. “Madam—this here is a hundred dollars!” He stared at her. Mrs. Keith was struck with an unfamiliar sensation—shame at being better off than most people. “Well,” she said defensively, “it isn’t every day he goes to fight a war.” “I’ll take care of it, madam.” …The chief looked after her, then glanced at the two fifties fluttering in his hand. “One thing,” he muttered, “we’re sure as hell getting a new kind of Navy.” He thrust the bills into a pocket.

In this 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Herman Wouk brings us ‘The’ story of the Pacific war or more precisely a study of the wartime Navy told by way of a Bildungsroman of young Willie Keith on the more or less obsolete mine sweeper, the Caine. The opening quote illustrates the difference between the peace time Navy, illustrated by the Chief and of the new Navy with officers from different walks of life, we can imagine that ‘two fifties’ as pocket money was not the norm for peacetime enlisted  officers.

Who was Willie at the outset? He had a Princeton education which left him wanting to be a night club piano player and he had the prejudices of his class where the following quotes illustrate his views of women and of religion:

—in Willie’s world familiarity with opera was a mark of high breeding—unless you were an Italian. Then it became a mere racial quirk of a lower social group, and lost its cachet. Marie Minotti was someone Willie could cope with. She was pigeonholed after all as a mere night-club singer, if a very pretty one. The feeling that he was tumbling into a real relationship was an illusion. He knew perfectly well that he would never marry an Italian. They were mostly poor, untidy, vulgar, and Catholic. This did not at all imply that the fun was at an end. On the contrary, he could now more safely enjoy being with the girl, since nothing was going to come of it.

—Her agent and coach, Marty Rubin, came several times each week to watch her. After her performance he would spend an hour or more talking to her at a table or in her dressing room. He was a short stout moon-faced man, perhaps thirty-five, with pale hair and very thick rimless eyeglasses. The exaggerated breadth of shoulder and fullness of trouser in his suits showed they were bought on Broadway, but the colors were quiet browns or grays. Willie spoke to him casually. He was quite sure Rubin was a Jew, but thought no less of him for that. Willie liked Jews as a group, for their warmth, humor, and alertness. This was true though his home was in a real-estate development where Jews could not buy.

After military training, Keith is transferred to the Caine as an Ensign from where he is able to witness and take part in the events leading up to the Caine Mutiny. The Caine is taken over by the new Captain, a tyrannical, cowardly career officer who cannot come to terms with the relative leniency on officers and men that actual wartime engagement requires. The officers and men soon notice that when there is action he is always to be found on the opposite side of the ship and he avoids engagement with the enemy so that the crew  nickname him old yellow stain, or as the officer Keefer says:

You can’t say he isn’t on the ball, invasion or no invasion Dewsley does his assignment, you never saw a more fearless wielder of a checklist than old yellow stain.

Willie Keith, still a relatively young officer is on deck during the Typhoon when Queeg freezes putting the ship and the lives of his crew in danger and goes along with the decision of the executive officer Maryk to relieve Queeg of his command, the central event of the book, we know he was right to do it and that he would be wrong in the Navy’s eyes.

Events eventually come full circle when Willie, as executive officer saves the ship after the new captain, Keefer, abandons ship during a Kamikaze attack. He however remains loyal to the Captain:

I now see pretty clearly that the mutiny was mostly Kiefer’s doing though I have to take a lot of the blame and so does Maryk and I see that we were in the wrong, we transferred to Queeg the hatred we should have felt for Hitler and the Japs….our disloyalty made things twice as hard for Queeg and for ourselves.

This book is an epic story of the Pacific war seen through the eyes of small cogs in a big wheel, that elusive creature, an enjoyable war time story. I will now have to dig out the film!

First Published in English as “The Caine Mutiny” in 1951 by Doubleday

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

Sherko Fatah ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’

—The Versailles treaty, that shameful text, the Grand Mufti said one day to those around him, made Germany into a pariah. It’s because of that they have taken the side of the Arabs, the eternal pariahs. IMG_1077May God stop them from losing this war, because then we would lose Palestine to the Jews.***

Sherko Fatah brings us the story of Anouar, a boy from the streets of Bagdad who is swept up in the movements of his epoch, initially moving towards an involvement in an anti-Semitic movement in which he does not really believe. Fatah First paints us a story of prewar Bagdad, Of the growing tensions Anouar slowly discovers between the people and their British rulers and, through an involvement with the Black shirts, the growing hatred towards the Jews living in Bagdad:

—The Black shirts were grouped in front of the building waiting for Fadil’s orders. When I joined them I was accepted as a comrade, and was asked to carry one of the large paint containers…i thus learnt  that the operation we were about to begin was of great importance for the fatherland, that it was aimed at the internal enemy who in association with the British was about to bring down the country’s  rightful gouvernement….Fadil regrouped us around him.
—we will mark all of the shops owned by Jews. You know which ones are concerned. If you have any doubts ask me. Lets go!***

Anouar finds himself, through his links with the Black shirts, a factotum of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who is in political exile in Bagdad and is part of the team of people who accompany him to Berlin in 1941 when after a failed insurrection Bagdad is brought under control by the British:

He wanted to be an Arab partner alongside the Germans and not the lackey without hope that the French see in every Arab, nor the easily manipulated imbecile that the English took him for.***

Anouar describes their time in Berlin where their rallying to Hitler is used as propaganda, here in this second part of the story he is brought into contact with the day to day anti Semitic behaviour and expectations around him and where they spend most of their time just waiting as the war goes from euphoria to despair as illustrated  in the opening quote.

The book then moves into the third and little known phase, where towards the end of the war Anouar is enrolled into the Muslim Legion of the Waffen SS, sent to fight on the eastern front where, during the retreat without hope from the Russian army, the Legion is used for the most dangerous work in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising as the Russian Army halt their advance to allow the SS the time to finish the job.

This book throws open a new window on the events of the twentieth century, seen from an unusual perspective including the tensions in the Middle East at the time. This was a thoughtful read.

First Published in German as “Ein weisses Land” in 2011 by Luchterhand Literatur Verlag.
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as ‘Un Voleur de Bagdad’ and published by Métailié in 2014
*** My translation

Tanguy Viel ‘Article 353 of the code of criminal procedures’

—Article 353 of the code of criminal procedure: the law does not hold magistrates accountable for the means by which they come to a conclusion, nor does it describe the rules on which the full satisfaction of proof should depend;IMG_1076 the law requires them to question themselves in quiet withdrawal and to search their consciences sincerely for influence the evidence brought forward against the accused and the means of the defence has had on them. The law asks of them but one question, which encompasses the full weight of their responsibility: Do you have a firm belief?***

Tanguy Viel tells us here a universal story of gullibility where a crooked property developer, Antoine Lazenec appears in the working class far western French port of Brest. Here in an essentially poorer city in France, the lack of loose money has not prepared them for Lazenec. The events are preceded by the naval arsenal, the city’s largest employer, closing down and the employees getting lumped sum severance payments, loose cash in an otherwise frugal community.

The story is told by Kermeur, in an almost monologue to the magistrate, and who after being layed off by the Arsenal, was the gatekeeper of the “Chateau”, a beautiful municipally owned property on a cliff top overlooking the bay and at the same time the property that was to be developed by Lazenec and leads to the final act of the magistrate questioning the events in the light of Artticle 353 of the code of criminal procedure shown in the opening quote.

The story opens with Kermeur in a small boat, a Merry Fisher, the very type of boat Kermeur had dreamed of bying for himself, well off of the coast, throwing Lazenec overboard to certain death and calmly sailing back to port. Kermeur later describes to the magistrate the effrontery  of Lazenec:

—From here I’d say it alost looks like a real chateau. Yes, that’s right, he replied. It’s almost a shame to demolish it. Demolish? I said. And whilst I was still taking in his answer, at that same time he had begun to walk back towards the quays , whilst I was trying to tell him that I hadn’t understood that from the model, it had seemed to me quite the opposite, the chateau…Yes, but what can you do, he said, the project is evolving, and you’ll see, Kermeur, it’ll look a lot better like that.***

Lazenec is a type of character that since the banking crisis of 2007-2008, we have become accustomed to. Lazenec has no shame, not only does he never begin the actual building work but he continues as time goes on to sign up more people from the peninsula as investors, I mean he must be for real? As the swindle becomes too obvious to ignore, the town mayor, Le Goff, realising he has severely indebted the commun in the investments is the first to act:

—I think you could still here it the following friday, the bullet, under the black umbrellas surrounding the grave, ricocheting off of the walls of the bell tower for at least three days bouncing off of the swing of the death knell before now whistling down the alleys of the cemetery***

The judge asks Kermeur why he and the other people who were cheated didn’t group together to take him to court, but of course nobody wanted to admit that they had been so easily cheated. The strength of Viel’s writing is to describe the events surrounding the disintegration of the lives touched by Lazenec leading to the question asked of Kermeur by his son:

Do you intend winding up like Le Goff?

And of course the magistrate’s final reflection in the light of the article from the code of criminal procedure.

First Published in French as “Article 353 du code Pénal” in 2016 by Les Editions de Minuit.
*** My translation

Paolo Giordano ‘The Human Body’

—In the years following the mission, each of the guys set out to make his life unrecognizable, until the memories of that other life, that earlier existence,img_1064 were bathed in a false, artificial light and they themselves became convinced that none of what took place had actually happened, or at least not to them.

Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body was written using his experience as an embedded journalist in an Italian peace mission in Afghanistan. The title loses its double meaning in the translation being both a body and a military unit in the original Italian, this story investigates a military unit by following a number of individuals through the senselessness and boredom of their mission, their ill preparedness for the intense stress caused by a mission outside of their base that goes terribly wrong and how this incident transforms them, illustrated by the opening quote.

In particular we meet the squad leader René, a career soldier respected by his men and who when he is not on mission is a Gigolo with a string of middle aged paying customers, the loud mouthed Cederna and his young acolyte, the “virgin” Ietri, as well as Mitrano who is bullied by Cederna, Zampieri the only woman in the unit who has continually to prove herself and Torsu, who from the mission outset has health problems. When they arrive in Afghanistan they are joined by Egitto the garrison Doctor has decided to stay on for another mission, Paolo Giordano talks us through everyday bored military life as here in a discussion between Cederna and Ietri

—The embarrassing truth is that Ietri has never been with a woman, not in the sense that he considers complete. No one in the platoon knows this and it would be a disaster if they were to find out. The only one who knows is Cederna; he told him about it himself one evening at the pub when they were both smashed and in the mood for confiding. “Complete? You mean to say you’ve never fucked?” “Well, not . . . fully.” “A goddamn little virgin! Hey, I have a new name for you: verginella…. Listen up now—it’s important. The tool down there is like a rifle. A 5.56, with a metal stock and laser sighting.” Cederna shoulders an invisible weapon and aims it at his friend. “If you don’t remember to oil the barrel from time to time, it will end up jamming.” Ietri looks down at his mug of beer. He takes too big a swig, begins to cough. Jammed. He’s a guy who’s jammed. “Even Mitrano manages to shoot his wad every now and then,” Cederna says. “He pays.”

For their peacekeeping mission they are stationed in an inhospitable landscape, their base camp is on the top of a hill, isolated from the country they are there to help in order to provide its own safety:

—The truth is, as in all of the operations since the start of the conflict, the clearing of the area has only been partial, the secure zone extends for a radius of 2km around the base, some dangerous pockets of guérillas remain within this zone and outside of the zone it’s hell…***

After several moral sapping isolated months on the hill top, peacekeeping, they are forced to leave their base in convoy to escort some Afghan  lorry drivers who have had their lorries taken from them through the inhospitable zone which surrounds their hill. Paolo Giordano conveys to us just how easy a target they actually are, up to and including the moments of the tragedy.

A study of futility, the smallness of our individual lives and the impossibility of the peacekeeping mission in this inhospitable territory.

First Published in Italian as “Il corpo umamo” in 2012 by Arnoldo Mondadori.
Translated into French by Nathalie Bauer as ‘Le corps humain’ and published by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel as “The Human body”and published by Viking Penguin in 2014
*** My translation

Jean-Christophe Duchon-Doris ‘L’embouchure du Mississipy’

—Most high, most powerful, most invincible and victorious prince Louis the Great, by the grace of God, king of France and of Navarre, img_1070fourteenth of this name, take possession of this country of Louisiana, seas harbours, ports, bays, adjacent straights and all of the nations, peoples, provinces, city’s towns, villages, mines, minerals, fish, streams, rivers, within the length and breadth of the aforementioned Louisiana***

As I was on a trip to New Orleans, I thought I would pick up a French historical novel about the City and thus came across this ‘Mouth of the Mississipy’ by Duchon-Doris in my local lending library. The story is set in the first years of the eighteenth century as the d’Iberville brothers from New France have been sent to form a settlement by King Louis XIV, the vast region of Louisiana having been claimed for king Louis in an earlier expedition by Cavelier de La Salle in the 1680s whose speech at the moment of claiming it is given in the opening quote.

The expeditions take place during a time of religious rivalry between the Roman church and the Reformed church and rivalry within the camps between the Jésuites, who by the purists are accused of making concessions with the faith in order to get if adopted in far flung lands, and one of these purist groups, the “Missions étrangères” backed by Madame de Maintenon.

In this story, Guillaume de Lauteret expecting to become the Paris prosecutor finds his fiancée’s mother arrested under order of the king but with no explanation.  In trying to discover the truth they learn that the father of  Delphine, his fiancée, had been involved in an expedition to Louisiana where he had until recently be supposed dead, as they then learn:

—Listen to me, he said. I’ll be quick. There are always two versions to a story. In the first, your father is dead. He killed by Mr. Cavelier de La Salle in 1687 after an ugly quarrel. He was tried and executed immediately afterwards by the survivors of the expedition. In this version, your mother is imprisoned.
—In the second version, seventeen years later, when the Sire d’Iberville is leading a new expedition to the mouth of the Mississippi , in the name of the king, the settlers are attacked by a man who kills five of them and is recognised by M de La Salle’s old aumônier as your father.***

img_1069
Map showing the expeditions to Louisiana

So begins the story that will lead them on an adventurous expedition to Louisiana with the d’Ibervilles looking to discover the truth about Delphine’s family. A pleasant story mostly read in the plane.

First Published in French as “L’embouchure du Mississipy” in 2004 by Julliard
*** My translation