Metin Arditi ‘Le Turquetto’


Stood up, his right hand grasping his cane, the master was unable to tear his eyes away from the canvas. He had before him the most beautiful portrait that had ever been painted. The lines were of an absolute precision. And the colours…. How had he managed to obtain such nuances in the darker colours? There was the young man’s look, the beauty of his age, a charm, but a force as well, a kindness…. He moved forward towards the painting looking for the signature. He couldn’t find it. His eyesight weakened…. He tried again three times and finally found it, in the lower right hand corner, a capital T, painted in dark grey.img_3098
He stepped back from the painting and once more took it in slowly. What he needed to do to save it was shameful. and even obscene. But there was no other solution but this, and he did his duty.***


Welcome to Metin Arditi’s art world, in this work of fiction Arditi begins with a chromographic examination report leaving some doubt as to whether the work, “Man With A Glove” from the Louvre was actually by Titien, leading him to create the character the Turquetto, who had actually painted this work, and why there is no other trace of Turquetto’s work, taking us right up to the terrible decision by Titien himself to add his signature to the painting as illustrated in the opening quote.

The book written in three parts takes us from sixteenth century Constantinople, with its varied population of Turks, Jews, Greeks and Armenians, each with their own religions and very different rights but all having one thing in common, reproducing any of God’s creation is forbidden. Elie a young jewish child who had been brought up in a greek family and who moves easily amongst the Turkish merchants eventually escapes to venice and on the journey takes a Greek name, becoming a christian overnight.

In the second part of the book in Venice, due to heis natural skill but also due to his mixed cultural experience he becomes a painter of great renown, but as he matures, he finds he no longer wants to hide who he really and eventually falls foul of the inquisition, finally escaping and returning to Constantinople where things are becoming more difficult for the Greeks and the Jews.

This is a fascinating story as Arditi draws us a picture of the sixteenth century world and the inability of the different people to live with each other, any resemblance with what is happening around us today is purely coincidental!

First Published in French as “Le Turquetto” in 2011 by Actes Sud
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Debout, la main droite agrippée à sa canne, le maitre n’arrivait pas à détacher ses yeux de la toile. il avait devant lui le plus beau portrait qui ait jamais été peint. Un trait d’une précision absolue. Et des couleurs… Comment avait-il réussi à obtenir de telles nuances dans les sombres? Il y avait dans le regard du jeune homme la beauté de son âge, un charme, mais aussi une force, une bonté….
Il s’approcha du tableau et chercha la signature. Il ne la trouva pas. Ses yeux déclinaient…. Il s’y reprit à trois fois et fini par la répérer, au coin inférieur droit, un T majuscule, peint en gris foncé.
Il s’éloigna de la toile et une fois encore la regarda longuement. Ce qu’il devait faire pour la sauver était indigne. Et même obscène. Mais il n’y avait d’autre solution que celle-là, et il fit son devoir.

Antoine Bello ‘The Falsifiers’


“What was the plan? asked Magawati dryly.
“The plan was to, one hour exactly before the Sputnik 2 launch, send a press release from TASS to around fifty media outlets announcing that the satellite had onboard a two year old dog called Laïka.”
“Even though the satellite was empty?” asked Youssef, in disbelief.
“Even though the satellite was empty,” repeated Vargas, “What happened?”
***


After a hectic month of November, reading for the Roman de Rochefort and for the Booker Prize, I was having trouble getting back in the saddle so, off to the library and after twenty minutes with Véronique, “I need something easy to read with a certain intrigue”. Away I came with the first of this trilogy by Antoine Bello and, shame on me, I’d never heard of him. He may well be an American author who writes in French, but his main protagonist here is Icelandic, Sliv Dartunghuvet. Sliv, fresh from university is easily recruited by an environmental research company, one of many fronts for a tentacular organisation, the CFR (Consortium de Falsification du Réel). Sliv asks some questions but faced with an absence of answers from his recruiting agent, Gunnar, he turns out to be a trusting fellow:


And what can be said about the motives of CFR? Gunnar talked away normally, without ever revealing anything of importance. Three conversations later, and I had no more idea than the first day. Why did the CFR falsify reality? With what money and on behalf of who?***


Sliv soon learns of some of the older cases the CFR has worked on such as Laïca from the opening quote who never actually existed. Sliv is pulled into the ludic side of the job, working on scenarios that, after examination and correction, the organisation may decide to put into action.

Sliv turns out to be an exceptional creator of scenarios and begins to take more and more risks until he puts the organisations existance at risk and has the unfortunate experience of meeting the Special Ops.

This was a really good book to get back to reading, this first book of the series was written back in 2007 and treats the pre-internet falsification of reality as Dartunghuvet climbs the lower levels of the CFR, waiting to see how the later books take on the whole fake news thing.

First Published in french as “Les falsificateurs” in 2007, by Gallimard *** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

—Quel était le plan? demanda Magawati d’une voix sèche.
—Le plan consistait, une heure exactement après le lancement de Spoutnik 2, à envoyer un communiqué de l’agence Tass à une cinquantaine de rédactions annonçant que le satelite emportait à son bord une chienne de deux ans du nom de Laïka.
—Alors que le satellite était vide? demanda Youssef, incredule.
—Alors que le satellite était vide, répéta Vargas. Que se passa-t-il?

Et que dire des mobiles du CFR? Gunnar discourait habituelement, sans jamais rien révéler d’important. Trois conversations plus tard, j’en savais à peine plus qu’au premier jour. Pourquoi le CFR falsifiait-il le réel? Avec quel argent et pour le copte de qui?

Celia Levi ‘La Tannerie’


Paula summoned Jeanne, it was important. Jeanne was shaken. she was afraid her contract would’t be renewed.img_0247“I’ve done something wrong?” Jeanne asked, Paula smiled. “No, quite the opposite, you’re going to get more work, don’t worry.***


This book, my ninth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, tells the story of The Tannerie, a local arts centre and its microcosm, representative of much of the Paris area. The story centres around Jeanne, a girl from a farm in brittany, who after her university studies in Rennes decides to move to Paris to try her chance in the big city but finds herself in a precarious situation with consecutive short term contracts, unable to plan ahead or to feel stable, as illustrated by her being called by her boss and thinking only of her contract in the opening quote.

After a difficult start in Paris, Jeanne slowly settles into a routine with the other workers at the Tannerie, gradually making a place for herself:


She worked nearly every day. Fridays she had a few drinks with Marianne, the girls from the ticket office, Xavier and his colleagues, the technicians, Saïd joined them, only talking to the technicians. She felt appreciated, she only occasionally took part in the conversation, she was a good audience, listened and that was enough for her.***


When everyone is away at holiday time, her acting boss, Paula’s colleague, Julien, invites her out for walks or drinks, and she interprets this for maybe more than it is. Julien, who has himself been in Paris for several years comes over to Jeanne as sophisticated, and has relatively reactionary views for someone in junior management in a cultural centre as opposed to some of Jeanne’s friends, themselves in precarious situations and involved in demonstrations in Paris.


Julien hadn’t said anything up till then, he looked serious as he said: No, things aren’t done that way these days. what’s more the unions no longer have control, people aren’t fooled by this show of strength going nowhere. Its become folklore. You’ll see you’ll have forgotten in a few weeks. I know Julien continued, turning towards Jeanne , it’s exhilarating, we think everything’s going to change, there’s shouting in the streets, we count how many we were, we end the day with a smell of smoke, the sound of whistles in our ears, institutional songs, the International, Bella Ciao, Flags with images of Ché, I had my period during my time at Lycée, during the CPE; finishing with a big show. It’s out of date, archaic, you can feel the shadow of ’68 in the background, but in truth it’s the end of the road.***


What happens at the Tannerie when hommeless migrants move in next door? How are Julien’s ideas assimilated by Jeanne? Or What happens when Jeanne’s “extra responsibilities”, young people on work insertion projects, are handed full time contracts at the end of their time training with Jeanne whilst she is kept on temporary contracts? Well if you read to the end you’ll find out. I was only very mildly interested myself.

First Published in french as “La tannerie” in 2021, by Tristram
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Paula convoqua Jeanne, c’était important. Jeanne s’en trouva tout effrayée. Elle avait peur qu’on ne renouvelle pas son contrat.
“J’ai fait quelque chose de mal?” hasarda Jeanne. Paula sourit. “Non, au contraire, tu vas avoir plus de travail, ne t’inquiète pas.”

Elle travaillait presque tous les jours. Le vendredi soir, elle buvait des coups avec Marianne, les filles de la billetterie, Xavier et ses collègues de la technique, Saïd les rejoignait, n’adressait la parole qu’aux techniciens. Elle se sentait appréciée, elle n’intervenait que peu dans les discussions, était bon public, écoutait et cela lui suffisait.

Julien n’avait rien dit jusque-là, il prit un air sérieux: “Non, aujourd’hui ces façons de faire sont dépassées. D’ailleurs les syndicats n’ont plus le pouvoir, les gens ne sont pas dupes de ce bras de fer qui mène nulle part. C’est devenu un folklore. Vous verrez que vous aurez oublié dans quelques semaines. Je sais continua Julien en s’adressant à Marianne, c’est exaltant, on croit que tout va changer, on crie dans la rue, on compte combien on a été. on finit la journée avec une odeur de fumigène, les oreilles pleines de coups de siftlets, de chants institutionalisés, L’Internationale, Bella ciao, les drapeaux du Che, J’ai eu ma période au lycée, pendant le CPE; ça finit par une grande messe. C’est très obsolète, archaïque, c’est le modèle de 68 qui est là en arrière-fond, mais qui en réalité agonise.

Irène Kaufer ‘Dibbouks’


My parents left Poland to ensure me a future, or the hope of a future, saving me from the discrimination and the stones thrown at me of which they themselves were occasionally victims or had witnessed when they were young.
I note that to choose the country of Intifadas in order to avoid stones being thrown is in itself a jewish joke.***


This was the last of the eleven books read this year for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, a short, quick and interesting read, a story of the Shoah and the next generation, the silence of the deported told as a mystery with enough dry humour in contrast to the original events and their sequels to explain the rationalistion of the next generation as illustrated in the opening quote of the narrators parents deciding to leave Poland for Israel.

So when she can no longer ignore the presence of the spirit of her dead sister, a dibbouk, she is persuaded to consult a woman who tells her of this phenomenon and who eventually traces a person living in Montreal that could be her supposed dead half sister whom her father had last seen in 1942 as he and his wife with their child were seperated, he to be taken from camp to camp working, “I could write a Michlin guide to the camps” he used to joke, and eventually surviving, they to be taken to Belzec, a death camp.


My dibbouk particularly liked to show up when we were alone, or rather face to face, her and I, in the evening or early in the morning when I couldn’t sleep…..I’d grown into the habit of talking to her, sometimes with a mock careing attitude: So, did you sleep well? Or other times with a resigned anger: Will you never leave me alone?***


She didn’t understand exactly why in the photos from this person found on social media, there was a recent picture of her own father in the background but decides to go to Montreal to spend time with this woman.


I know that it’s impossible. I’m a rational person, I have no fascination for paranormal phenomenon, I treat myself with real chemicals having guaranteed side effects, I believe neither in paradise nor in resurection. Parallel lives, no, completely out of the question.***


This story of discovery of the wartime experience, of its aftermath and the multiple strands and people, of what had/might have happened is particularly well told, a good choice for our long shortlist.

First Published in french as “Dibbouks” in 2021, by l’Antilope.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Mes parents ont quitté la Pologne pour m’assurer un avenir ou un espoir d’avenir, me sauvant des discriminations et des jets de pierre dont eux-mêmes avaient parfois été victimes ou témoins dans leur jeunesse. Je note que choisir le pays des Intifadas pour échapper aux jets de pierre est en soi une blague juive.

Je sais que c’est impossible. Je suis une personne rationnelle, je n’ai aucune fascination pour les phénomènes paranormaux, je me soigne qu’avec de bons produits chimiques aux effets secondaires garantis, je ne crois ni au paradis ni à la résurrection. Des vies parallèles, non, c’est tout à fait exclu.

Ma dibbouk aimait particulièrement se manifester dans la solitude, ou plutôt en tête-à tête, elle et moi, le soir ou le matin, très tôt, quand je n’arrivais plus à dormir….J’avais pris l’habitude de lui parler, parfois avec une sollicitude moqueuse: alors, tu as bien dormi? Ou d’autresfois avec colère résignée: tu ne me lâcheras donc jamais?

Alice Zeniter ‘Comme un empire dans un empire’


Traders now buy zero-days on the market and companies sell them on, all in total secrecy. As Antoine didn’t understand the word, L explained that a zero-day was an error in a program that nobody had yet found and for which as a consequence, there was no patch…..to sum up, said L, capitalism has taken over coding.***


Alice Zeniter’s latest novel covers the world of today through two protagonists whose lives meet and their meeting then transform them. The first is Antoine, a backroom boy and speech writer for a socialist member of parliament in these post-socialist days where the Socialist Party no longer represents even a moderate portion of the electorate and Antoine, all too aware of this, just doesn’t know what to do:


The party is a dead animal in whose stomach you can still shelter but it is now beginning to smell and to become cold. It makes no sense to spend your whole life within it today. That way of shaping politics is dead and I know no other. I don’t know what to do.***


And L, who lived through the early period of the internet hackers, was part of Anonymous and saw the system fight back, break some and then jail the leaders. L lives in two worlds, the Within and the Flesh-world; she prefers the Within, the virtual. The experience with the Anons and the constant fear has kept her from attacking large corporate entities but she has her enemies, the people she defends others against, the abusers of women. When her live in boyfriend/hacker is arrested early one morning, for attacking a large corporate entity her world starts to fall apart.

L begins to see people following her. Are these people linked to her Elias her boyfriend or to the women haters she has been fighting for her female customers, or is it all in her head? She no longer knows. Antoine, whom she has met at a party she did not mean to attend, decides to save her and arranges for her to leave Paris and live with a friend of his in a sort of commune in a caravan with other missfits behind the friend’s farmhouse in Brittany. So opens a phase of renewal, an appreciation of the world around her, the Flesh-world she despises up to this point.

Who do these two people become, does L leave her previous life, or at least put it in perspective, become less paranoid? Does Antoine continue to work for an ideal, a party, an elected representative of the people he no longer believes in? Or does their meeting make them both better, stronger? Do you believe in fairy tails? Well read this book. As usual Zeniter doesn’t dissapoint.

First Published in French as “Comme un empire dans un empire” in 2020 by Flammarion.*** My translation

Des courtiers achetaient désormais à la bourse des zero-days et des firmes les revendaient, le tout dans le plus grand secret. Comme Antoine ne comprenait pas le mot, L expliqua qu’un zero-day était un défaut dans un logiciel que personne n’avait encore décelé et pour lequel, par conséquent, il n’existait aucun correctif……Pour résumer, dit L, le capitalisme s’était emparé du codage.

Le parti est un animal crevé dans le ventre duquel on s’abrite encore mais ça commence à puer et à refroidir. Ça n’a plus aucun sens de passer une vie entière à l’intérieur aujourd’hui. Cette façon de faire de la politique est morte et je n’en connais pas d’autre. Je ne sais pas quoi faire.

Literary Quotes (1) Tournier

To be found in the smallest room in the house

1. Michel Tournier

Café amer au point de n’être plus buvable. Un grand brame. Deux grands brames. Aucun soulagement. La seule consolation de la matinée est d’ordre fécale. Je fais inopinément et sans la moindre bavure un étron superbe, si long qu’il faut qu’il s’incurve à ses extrémités pour tenir dans la cuvette. Je regarde attendri ce beau poupon dodu de limon vivant que je viens d’enfanter et je reprends goût à la vie.
La constipation est une source majeure de morosité. Comme je comprends le Grand Siècle avec sa manie de clystères et de purges! Ce dont l’homme prend le plus mal son parti, c’est d’être un sac d’excréments à deux pattes. À cela seule une défécation heureuse, abondante et régulière pourrait remédier, mais combien chichement cette faveur nous est concédée
 
 
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Hervé Le Tellier ‘The Anomaly’


Mayday received Air France 006. Can you confirm the transponder code 7700?
The voice, in which a clear incomprehension can be heard, repeats:
Air France from Kennedy Approach, confirm the transponder is on 7700.
You did say Air France 006?
Affirmitive, Air France 006 mayday. I confirm the transponder is on 7700, we’ve come through a huge hail cloud, the windshield is cracked, the radome is probably damaged….
Air France 006 mayday, from Kennedy Approach. This is Air Traffic Control, what is your captain’s name please?
Markle sits there mouth wide open. No controler in his whole career has ever asked him a pilot’s name.***


This Goncourt winning book asks the question, if I was faced with myself how would I react? Would I welcome my other self ? Would I try to dominate my other self? Or would I try to annihilate my other self?

Air France 006, piloted by captain Markle on one of his last flights before retirement, comes through a momentous storm and carries out an emergency landing on the 10th March 2021. As the book slowly develops we zoom in on a number of people whose only link was to have been on this flight. There is Blake, a meticulous and successful french contract killer. There is Lucie Bogaert a successful film editor who has been slowly courted by the older architect, André, but who after her trip to New York becomes disillusioned with André, at the end of this chapter the police come to fetch her.

There are a number of other characters, notably Victor Miesel an unknown writer who on his return from New York writes a hugely successful book called ‘The Anomaly’ and Fehmi Ahmed Kaduna, alias Slimboy a little known rapper from Lagos who writes a world wide hit, ‘Yaba Girls’ on his return from New York.

And then in June, as illustrated in the opening quote, Air france 006 piloted by captain Markle appears out of nowhere in a clear sky, the same pilot, the same plane and the same passengers, Markle is passed from Air Traffic Control to Special operations FAA then to NORAD and is guided to a secret airforce base for landing.

The strength of the book is not to deal with how or why but to follow the people as they are prepared for and then brought to meet their other selves, and so yes, how will they react? What will they do? For instance Slimboy June hasn’t known the success of Slimboy March. Victor Miesel hasn’t written a successful book and Lucie June is still in love with André. And what about Blake?

This highly enjoyable book explores the worlds of a dozen or so passengers on this flight. And how was the US able to react so quickly when Air France 006 June appeared and what is the protocol 42?

First Published in French as “L’Anomalie” by Gallimard in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Mayday reçu Air France 006. Pouvez-vous confirmer le code transpondeur 7700?
La voix, où l’on décèle une profonde incompréhension, répète:
Air France de Kennedy Approach, confirmez le transpondeur sur 7700. Vous dites bien Air France 006?
Affirme, Air France 006 mayday. Je confirme transpondeur sur 7700, nous avons traversé un gros nuage de grêle, le pare-brise est fissuré, le radôme est sûrement défoncé….
Air France 006 mayday, de Kennedy Approach. Ici Air Traffic Control, quel est le nom du commandant du bord, s’il vous plaît?
Markle reste bouche bée. Jamais de toute sa carrière aucun contrôleur ne lui a demandé le nom d’un pilote.

Julia Deck ‘Private Property’


I knew about Annabelle’s hot pants. She had a whole collection, which she wore with high heels when she spotted a sucker at the agency. I’d also noticed to what extent hot pants make the person that wears them amusing, and just how much the listeners suddenly credit then with inimaginable wit.***


The Cardarecs are a middle class hipster Parisian couple, with middle class aspirations, to move from Paris, but not too far, to be able to benefit from more space, to get out doors a little but not to leave their Parisian lifestile behind. in this book read for the Roman de Rochefort.

He, Charles, a long term hypochondriac that she, the narrator, an architect, with their social consciences buy into a new eco-district in the suburbs, energy-neutral, low waste footprint etc. only to find that it doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Any small set back sends Charles scuttering for his bed. The walls of the houses are paper thin, and the self-sufficient energy system has been under-sized. The Cardarecs could have made a go of it in spite of all this had it not been for their neighbours, the Lecoq family.

In this short sharp concise writing style Julia Deck tells the story of the neighbours from hell, Annabelle from the opening quote, young thirty something and her husband Arnaud, partying loudly into the early hours and eventually annoying the whole neighbourhood. After Charles complains about them in an informal neighbour’s meeting the Lecoq family cat is found dead and cut in half down in the trench in the street meant to bring gas to their houses. Then Annabelle dissapears.

When her body shows up on waste ground Charles is suspected and arrested, Arnaud the husband had been out all night with Patrick Lemoine, a neighbour who avoids going into too much detail about their evening out and as the narrator tells us:


Ok, Lemoine had never been able to get it up, it was a miracle that he had managed to knock her up, and that twice. And what’s more he had doubly lied. It most definitely wasn’t a coincidence that he’d come across Arnaud Lecoq at the Voltigeur the evening Annabelle had dissapeared. They had arranged to meet there and to go on to a private club where they had accidently met some time before and found that they had something secret in common.***


First Published in French as “Propriété privé” by Les Éditions de Minuit in 2019
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

Je connaissais les microshorts d’Annabelle. Elle en possédait toute une collection, qu’elle assortissait avec des talons compensés quand elle avait flairé le gogo à l’agence. J’avais également noté à quel point les microshorts confèrent de l’esprit à celle qui les portent, et combien leurs auditeurs les créditent soudain d’une verve insoupçonnée.

Oui, Lemoine avait toujours bandé mou, c’était un miracle qu’il l’ai engrossée par deux fois. Et puis il avait doublement menti. Ce n’était absolument pas une coïncidence s’il était tombé sur Arnaud Lecoq au Voltigeur le soir de la disparition d’Annabelle. Les deux hommes s’étaient donnés rendez-vous. Ils étaient convenus de se rendre ensemble dans un club privé où ils s’étaient croisés par hasard quelques temps plus tôt, se découvrant par la même occasion un point commun inavoué.

Claudie Hunzinger ‘Les Grands Cerfs’


The economic impact for the Rhineland can be summarised as follows: 1 deer shot = 1260 euros saved for the timber industry.***


Years ago, Nils and Pamina, still students take the radical decision to move to the mountains and live on a high prairie cut of from the world in this book read for the Roman de Rochefort. Sure each year at set times they heard wild life noises and discovered their young trees had been massacred in the morning, but then Léo arrived, maybe an ex-military man, wanting to know if he can set up an observation post on their land and then for ten years not much happens.

Léo tells Pamina of the stags he observes and of which he takes photos, of Wow of Apollo, of Arador and of Geronimo. Léo who has observed these animals and knows them has given them names to personalise them. Slowly Pamina is pulled into the story until one day she gives in to a whim and goes to the observation point. She slowly learns that observing these animals is 99% waiting and 1 % observation, she is drawn in to Léo’s tales and marvels at these wonderful creatures. As she gets to know more about them, of their world, of their vocabulary, antlers, horns, velvet, moult and feels she knows them, of their life cycle, the animals begin to be shot, the wonderful Wow and the old clever Arador.

Claudie Hunziger renders their lives real to us, their growing antlers, shedding their velvet by impact with the trees, rubbing their antlers up against the trees to give them a finish, colour, rubbing up against a nut tree for instance to give an antler a gold colour. She tells us of the nights where they fight for ascendancy, of their mating and of then losing their antlers, their moult until the cycle begins in the spring. She tells us of their surviving the hunger of winter in the snow, eating tree bark.

Léo brings Pamina into contact with the forestry commission and the hunters who together “regulate” the “stock” of deer and learns of the future for the deer as shown in the opening quote from the representative of the commission. He explains to her that the forestry commission who regulate the livestock, auctioning of bracelets, the right to kill a deer, are only interested in the timber the forest produces:


He presented himself, what’s more, as a representative of the forestry commission responsible for implementing the national policy which is to ensure the regeneration of the forest and of its financial returns. That is to say to favour coniferous trees, silver firs, spice trees, Douglas firs, the woody species the most chewed by stags, eaten if you like……And that that required a population of deer reduced to a strict minimum.***


And of course what the hunters really want are the antlers, the stags are their real prey. Pamina lives this as her personal window onto the sixth great extinction which is now underway.

If you didn’t know about the life of stags before you read this, you certainly knew more afterwards. This was written passionately.

First Published in French as “Les grands cerfs” by Grasset in 2019
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

L’impact économique pour la Rhénanie Palatinat se résume ainsi: 1 chevreuil tiré = 1260 euros d’économie pour l’industrie forestière.

s’est d’ailleurs présenté comme un agent de l’ONF chargé d’appliquer la politique nationale qui est de veiller à la régénération des forêts et à leur rendement financier. C’est à dire de veiller à privilégier les conifères, sapins pectinés, épiceas, douglas, espèces ligneuses les plus “abrouties” par les cerfs, bouffées, quoi…. Et que ça passait par un peuplement de cervidés réduit au minimum

Iegor Gran ‘Competent Departments’

We should have neutralised Pasternak for good. Back in the good old days….the valiant Tcheka…the NKVD….I don’t understand why we put up with it.
What a dumb fool he is!
We have to be tactically astute, declares Pakhomov. We can’t just go in all guns blazing when the eyes of the world opinion are on you……the international interest of the foreign media have created an invisible protective dome around Pasternak.***


Iegor Gran takes us back in time to Moscow in the 1960’s and illustrates this schitzophrenic period by the true story of his parents and the five year hunt for his father by the eigth section of the KGB, responsible for anti-soviet propaganda.

This is a time, following Krouschev’s recognition of Stalin’s crimes, where we follow the life of lieutnant Evgueni Feodorovitch Ivanov as he tries to find out who is hiding behind the name of Adrien Tertz, a jewish name, and is publishing in the West, first in French and then in Russian. His writings criticising the Soviets are too precise and could only come from within the USSR. Tertz begins by quoting the union of Soviet writers:


Socialist realism is the fundamental method in soviet literature and in soviet literary criticism. It requires of the artist a true historically tangible representation of reality in its revolutionary development. Amongst other things it should contribute to the ideological transformation and of the education of workers in the spirit of socialism.***


Siniavski and the French diplomat that helps him get his works out of the USSR laid down at the beginning, the strategy that allowed him to write for so many years, a Jewish name, hints of links with both Poland and Lenningrad that had Ivanov well off track in his hunt.

The main choice of Iegor Gran to reverse the vision and to write the story not from his father’s point of view but from Ivanov’s liberates the author to show the contradictions from within, for instance Gagarin’s first space flight and his hero’s welcome contrasting with his reward being a state secret, if the West were to get their hands on the clothing list he was granted as a hero, they would understand the state of things for the Soviet Peoples, as Gran points out the list was signed in person by Krouschev:


Coat mid-season – 1 off
Light summer coat – 1 off
Raincoat – 1 off
Suits – 2 off (one light, one dark)
Shoes – 2 pairs (black and light)
Shirts white – 6 off
Hats – 2 off
Ties – 6 off
Gloves – 1 pair
Handkerchiefs – 12 off
Socks 6 pairs
Underpants, vests – 6 off
Electric razor – 1 off***


As Ivanov laments, if only they could have found Adrien Tertz quickly, the Soviet Union was in a state of constant flux following the death of Stalin, each change affecting the resources and morale of the KGB, Krouschev denounces Stalins crimes, Stalin’s body is removed from the mausoleum he shared with Lenin and buried secretly, Krouschev is “retired” and throughout all of this the eigth section is unable to find Tertz. Meanwhile Siniavski knows he will be caught, sometime, he just doesn’t know when as months turn into years.

Iegor Gran then through his narrator tells us of the french and Italian, communist parties, the hope of whose victories kept the KGB hardliners in check, of the Nobel literature prize for Pasternack for the Dr. Zhivago that was forbidden in the USSR, as illustrated in the opening quote, of the eigth section often finding illegal copies on raids of the intelligentsia.

I particularly liked the raid on Siniavski’s house when his mother after years of preparation was more than a match for the officers, telling them when they revealed that her husband was in the Lubyanka of her relief to find out that he wasn’t with another woman. And of course when she quickly places her young baby, Iegor Gran, in Ivanov’s hands before he could avoid it.

He gives a sense of the time in history to the story and brings Ivanov to life as a complex character. Their very hunt for Tertz and his imprisonment bring the light of the western media on an otherwise little read author. This is an engaging book that will do well and would deserve a translation.

First Published in French as “Les services conpétents” by P.O.L in 2020
*** my translation

The quote as read in French before translation

On aurait dû neutralisé Pasternak définitivement. Au bon vieux temps… La valeureuse Tchéka… Le NKVD…Je ne comprends pas pourquoi on tolère.
Quelle brute épaisse, celui-là!
Il faut être tactiquement astucieux, affirme Pakhomov. On ne peut pas y aller à la hache quand les yeux de l’opinion internationale sont braqués sur vous…….l’attention des médias étrangers à créer autour de W Pasternak un dôme de protection invisible.

Le réalisme socialiste est la méthode fondamentale de la littérature et la la critique littéraire soviétiques. Il exige de l’artiste une représentation véridique, historiquement concrète, de la réalité dans son développement révolutionnaire. En outre, il doit contribuer à la transformation idéologique et à l’éducation des travailleurs dans l’esprit du socialisme.

Manteau demi-saison – 1 unité
Manteau léger d’été – 1 unité
Imperméable – 1 unité
Costume – 2 unités (un clair, un sombre).
Chaussures – 2 paires (noires et claires).
Chemise blanche – 6 unités.
Chapeau – 2 unités.
Cravate – 6 unités
Gants – 1 paire.
Mouchoir – 12 unités.
Chaussettes – 6 paires.
Slip, maillot de corps – 6 paires
Rasoire électrique – 1 unité