Robert Menasse ‘The Capital’


For any member of the Commission hoping to promote a project, to realise that nobody takes an interest in it is a great relief.***


This is a satire about Europe and the European ideal seen through the eyes of multiple characters, each with their own responsibility within the Europe they live in and its almost planned stagnation. This book looks at the two contradictory forces playing with the destiny of the continent, on one hand a supranational European organisation lead by the Commission and set up after the results of the unbridled nationalism of the early twentieth century had gone to the extremes of the extermination camps and with the main objective which could be summed up as “never again”. On the other hand the representatives of the nation states who want to protect their individual states from a supranational ideal and are themselves at present undergoing the pressure and changes brought about by populism and nationalism within their own countries.

There is the ambitious Fenia Xenopoulou, a Cypriote but with a Greek passport as Cyprus was not a member of Europe until after she had arrived, trained in economics but who has been promoted to a role in Culture:


Greece eventually gets “Culture”….with its never ending financial and budgetary crisis, Greece had hit rock bottom and thus was defenseless and had no other choice but to accept what was given to them: the department everybody looked down on. It wasn’t a mission it was a punishment: when you dont know how to handle money, it’s best not to have any, and so that’s how you wind up with a department that has no budget.***


Xeno, as she is known needs a success to get her career back on track. When in answer to a call for a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the commission one of her team comes up with the idea of putting Auschwitz at the centre of the celebrations, “never again”, why populism and nationalism should never again be allowed to gain foothold, Menasse’s satire on the inner workings of the the Commission and how to kill a project is sumptuous. Xeno is outplayed by the chief of cabinet of the president of the Commission, Romolo Strozzi, a former Olympic fencing medalist, who gives her project the go ahead:


She had a strange feeling. she suppressed it. What was troubling her were the last few sentences Strozzi spoke at the end about planning the next stage: Oh yes, Ill take care of how we’ll include the member states in the project.
The member states? you mean the Council? Xeno replied. Why? I thought we’d agreed, the project is the Commissions responsibility.
Yes that’s clear. But it was the member states that created the Commission.
Yes of course.
It was at that moment exactly that Xeno wasn’t agile enough. that “yes of course” cut an opening in her defense.***


Strozzi is then able behind the scenes to use the member states against the Commission to kill the project. Menasse gives us his view of the sterility of advisory groups who are experts in the status quo and a case study of Europe being unable to negotiate a contract to sell pork offals to China with then, Germany first, and the other nations each negotiating their own contracts with China but from positions of weakness as no individual country is able to satisfy the full demand.

In these few lines I’ve simplified a rich and thought provoking book.

First Published in German as “Die Hauptstadt” in 2017 by Suhrkamp
Translated into French as “La Capitale” by Olivier Mannoni and published in 2019 by Verdier
Translated into English by Jamie Bullock and to be published in 2019 by Maclehose Press.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Pour tout membre de la commission désireux de faire avancer un projet, constater que personne ne s’intéressait été un grand soulagement

“La “culture” revint finalement à la Grèce….avec son interminable crise financière et budgétaire, la Grèce avait déjà touché le fond, elle était donc sans défense et n’avait d’autre choix que de prendre ce qu’on lui donnait: le service que tout le monde dédaignait. Ce n’était pas un mission, c’était un punition: quand on ne sait pas se débrouiller avec l’argent, mieux ne pas en avoir entre les mains, et c’est comme cela qu’on se retrouve avec le département dépourvu de budget”

Elle a eu un drôle de sensation. Elle la refoula. Ce qu’elle repoussa, c’étaient les deux ou trois phrases que Strozzi avait prononcées à la fin, à propos de la suite de la planification: Ah oui je m’occuperai de la manière dont nous intégrerons les états membres dans le projet. Les états membres? Le Conseil donc? avait répondu Xénon. Pour quoi faire? Nous étions d’accord , le projet est l’affaire de la commission.
Oui c’est claire. Mais ce sont les états membres qui ont fondé la commission.
Bien sûr.
C’est précisément à ce moment là que Xeno avait manqué d’agilité. Ce “bien sur” creuset une ouverture définitive dans sa défense.

Pierre Lemaitre ‘Travail Soigné’


The journalists were in a hurry.
He said: Two victims.
Who?
We don’t know yet, young women…
How old
About twenty five. That’s all we can say for now.
When will they bring the bodies out? Asked a photographer
Soon, It’s taking a bit of time. Technical problems……
The journalists, until then not particularly interested were suddenly aroused when the door of the loft, 190600AA-E6F3-4069-84B7-3433F93FD33Fwide open, gave them a clear view of the wall covered by an enormous splash of blood thrown on it as on a painting by Pollock. As if this was not confirmation enough, the two crime scene technicians began conscientiously loading the van with carefully sealed and labelled plastic bags. Journalists, however like undertakers, can estimate at the blink of an eye, the size of a body from the length of the bag. And watching them loading the bags, everyone could guess that the bodies were  all in bits.***


Pierre Lemaitre’s first book in his Verhoeven series, Travil Soigné, Meticulous Work, translated into English as Irene, the name of Verhoeven’s wife, begins by slowly introducing Verhoeven’s team as they come to terms with the horrific murder of two young women as illustrated in the opening quote. We quickly cover Camille Verhoeven, 1m45 tall but an imposing character respected by all, his assistant Louis hailing from a wealthy family:


It was Camille’s opinion that thirty years earlier, Louis would have become a left wing revolutionary. But nowadays this sort of ideology was no longer a serious option. Louis hated religion and hence volunteer work or charity. He thought about what he could do and suddenly all became clear: he’d join the police.***


And Armand, a meticulous policeman but renowned miser. The killer of the two girls intentionally leaves a clear fingerprint in blood on the wall. As the story progresses the team gets dragged emotionally into the mystery and then finally personally. I’ll leave it at that for now.

An efficient murder mystery as ever in this series, the murders and the murder scenes are described in graphic detail as in the other books in the series Alex and then Camille. For more detail and then the risk of spoilers go to Detailed review 

First published in French as ‘Travail Soigné’ by Editions du Masque in 2006
Translated into English by Franck Wynne as “Irene” and published by MacLehose Press in 2014
*** My translation

Marie NDiaye ‘Three Strong Women’

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Antonin Varenne ‘Trois Mille chevaux Vapeur’

Antonin Varenne is a future great writer whose previous two books ‘Bed of Nails‘ and ‘ Losers Corner‘ have been published in English by MacLehose Press. His latest and greatest book ‘Trois Mille Chevaux Vapeur’ or ‘Three Thousand Horse Power’ in English was released in France in April last year.

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This story follows Arthur Bowman, initially an English private soldier working for the East India Company, on his life changing Odyssey beginning with his and his group’s initial capture and torture over a four month period in the Burmese jungle, their return to London and their inability to come to terms with what had happened to them illustrated mainly by Arthur’s despair.

A series of terrible murders then begin where the victims are killed in the same fashion as Arthur and his group were tortured, leading Arthur to deduce that the murderer was one of the few survivors of their ordeal.

The book follows Arthur on the trail of murders from mid 19th century London to New York and the long trail to San Francisco. The reader follows the metamorphosis of Arthur from unquestioning soldier through to a person capable of forgiveness.

This book is at the crossroads between being a thriller and an adventure story, set in several very precise moments in history, from the demise of the East India Company through to the wagon trains to the west and the American civil war.

Greed and survival are the two major themes ever present throughout the 700 pages. From the writing style through to the subject matter this is a book almost written for the English speaking world. The descriptive skill had me feeling I was present in most of the places in which the story was set.

Highly recommended, come on MacLehose, get this one translated.

First published in French as Trois Mille Chevaux Vapeur by Albin Michel in 2014

Andreï Makine ‘A Woman Loved’

Andreï Makine, who won the biggest French literary prize the Goncourt in 1995, was rescued from an orphanage in Siberia in 1960 by his grandmother and raised speaking French, his own parents were “probably” deported. Makine, whose classical style writing stands out from other modern French literature, took political asylum in France just two years before the Berlin Wall came down.

A Woman Loved is exceptional, it had me thinking how interesting a couple of chapters of Wolf Hall written in the style of Makine would be! Now there’s a challenge.

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This book centres around an initially young film director Oleg Erdmann, Russian but of German origin. Erdmann is a tortured individual “back then he had been someone caught between his two origins, suffering from his past and wishing feverishly to succeed his future, he didn’t know how to define himself in relationship to the world, he invented complicated identities, alibis and reasons for himself.”***he lives to bring the essence of Catherine the Great, a German princess who becomes the ruler of Russia, to the screen. Makine brings us through the difficulties of the late Soviet era (how to get a film past the Soviet film board), with Brezhnev dying before the film is finished.

Catherine’s supposed numerous love affairs and wild sexual life, the payoff for her favourites, the intrigues, murders and revenge are so well reported that throughout the changes, from soviet to oligarch to new Russia, Oleg is unable to get beyond the rumours to the truth of Catherine’s life as he imagines it. A Woman who cannot escape from her own caricature but who in her early 50’s falls in love and is ready to leave everything for her lover Lanskoy.

Oleg is able to recycle himself and his work in the post Soviet world, producing a successful television series on Catherine, selling out on all of his values delivering an ever escalating soft porn version of Catherine’s life.

He eventually comes full circle to the actress who played Catherine from the first Soviet version of his work, who he had never been able to forget and finishes through her in finding out who he actually is through the power of love “a simple identity….a man reflected in the eye of a woman who is loved”***

What a beautiful description!

First published in French as Une Femme Bien Aimée by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Geoffrey Strachan and published in 2015 by MacLehose Press
***Read in French, my translation

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Pierre Lemaitre ‘Au revoir là-haut’

Changing genre is no mean feat as recently J K Rowling has shown, here Pierre Lemaitre successfully obtains France’s most prestigious literary prize the ‘Prix Goncourt’ at his first attempt.

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Pierre Lemaitre has seven crime thrillers of renown published here in France of which his early trilogy based on the detective Camille Verhoeven, which are already translated into English by Frank Wynne and published by MacLehose Press

I read parts of the book and listened to the whole audio book , which is written in such a way as to suggest an oral story with the narrator cutting in from time to time to give comments, pushing Lemaitre to read the audiobook himself.

‘Au revoir là-haut’ was published at the end of 2013 and coincides with the centenary of the first world war. The book covers the end of the trench warfare and deals with:

-The feeling of the French soldiers, “Those that thought the war would be over soon are all long dead. Killed by the war. So Albert was pretty sceptical when rumours of an armistice started circulating in October. He took no more notice than he had of the initial propaganda which explained, for instance, that the German bullets were so soft that they just squashed up against their uniforms like over ripe pears, causing great laughter amongst the ranks. In the last four years Albert had seen a stack of soldiers laugh themselves to death after being hit by a German bullet.”***

-The mixing of the well to do upper classes with the poor working classes (officers and soldiers), “The officer stared at him, gave a sigh of discouragement and slapped him in the face. Albert instinctively protected himself. Pradelle smiled a wide smile that said it all… When he pronounced his name, Maillard, he insisted on his unpleasant way of pronouncing the last syllable making it sound worthless, full of scorn as if Maillard meant dog shit or something of the like.”***

-The severely facially disfigured soldiers seen for the first time in warfare (‘les gueules cassées’ in French) and the use of drugs such as morphine and heroin at the time during the war for injuries and on the black market post war.

-Then finally two enormous swindles one of which according to Lemaitre is based on a true story, up to you to guess which one of the two.

The three main protagonists are linked by dramatic events which take place in the last days of the war contrasting utter self interest in one character to pure altruism in the second character, both stemming from wealthy backgrounds. The third character from a working class background becomes a pawn in the future of these two eventual swindlers, taking an active part in one of the schemes.

Two of the most remarkable sights during a visit to France for anyone interested in the First World War are the huge military cemeteries spread over a large part of North Eastern France and the various war memorials to be found in every town or village in France, the least generous of which that I have seen and is referenced in the book is of a cockerel standing on and scratching a German army helmet. These two sights are the subject matter for the swindles.

The last one hundred years has caused such change in social relationships that, realising this is a thoroughly believable set of situations, I, whose life has spanned more than half of this time, still need to ask is it possible people related to each other in such a way?

If you found this review useful remember to hit the like button

The Great Swindle: First published in French by Albin Michel as ‘Au revoir la-haut’ in 2013
Translated into English by Frank Wynne and to be published by MacLehose Press in November 2015
***Book read in French, my translation with excuses to Frank Wynne

Jérôme Ferrari ‘Le sermon sur la chute de Rome’

Jérôme Ferrari’s book ‘The sermon on the fall of Rome’ a ‘Goncourt Prize winner’ which has now been translated into English by Geoffrey Strachan is a book of many layers centred on a village in Corsica (which could be a village in any disappearing rural community), following one family from the first photo ever taken in the village at the end of the First World War, where all of the family were present except the central character of the first layer, Marcel, up to tragic events in the present day and the death of Marcel. A perspective is drawn using excerpts from St. Augustine’s Sermon on the fall of Rome. image On the 24th August 410, an army of Visigoths sacked Rome, causing amongst other things a large number of refugees to flee towards North Africa Tell me more

Patrick Modiano ‘La Rue des Boutiques Obscures’

I had read nothing of the 2014 Nobel prize winner’s work. I had seen him on the television in the 90’s and was aware of the difference between the flow of the language in his books and the relative difficulty I had seen in his verbal expression in the television interview.

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So I began my initiation into Modiano by his prix Goncourt novel ‘Rue des Boutiques Obscures’ translated into English as Missing Person where his main character Guy Roland, an employee of a private detective agency, searches  from the start to the end his own real identity which he forgot in an event unknown ten years earlier.

The book was written in the 70’s and the characters include elderly White Russians and their community as well as events in ex pat communities around the Second World War, this is a hunt, clue by clue for his elusive past. We are as unconvinced of the probability that he is on track as is he, we travel through Paris at the present day (the 70’s) learning about the different groups of people his contacts belong to, everyone ends up trying to help him, generous in their own ways and we are eventually sucked into thinking that out of the improbable comes the possible.

The book is about the quest we all lead for our own identities and the generosity we can inspire through openness.

Many of you may have read Modiano, I found this a compulsive read and will read more, perhaps his latest work ‘Pour que tu ne te perdes  pas dans le quartier’

First published in France in 1978 by Gallimard
Translated into English as Missing Person by Daniel Weissbort and published in 1980 by Jonathan Cape