Rasha Khayat ‘We’ve Long been Elsewhere’


And they’ve always told us, that everything is fine like this, that we have the best of both worlds, that there are only advantages, since we know two different cultures. img_0013But most of the other people you meet always want you to choose a side, they never tell you that they’re just looking to confirm what they already know. Nobody ever tells you that this divide has no end, will never heal over and that you don’t rightly belong anywhere.


In this book,chosen for the Roman De Rochefort prize and read for German Literature month, Basil the son of a Saudi Arabian doctor and German wife comes back to his apartment in Saint Pauli to discover that the sister, Layla, that he is so close to has left Germany without warning to go back to live in Saudi Arabia where they had last lived as young children. When the book begins Basil is preparing to fly to Jedda for his sister’s wedding, passing by his mother, Barbara’s apartment on the way to the airport. She thinks that this is one of Layla’s stubborn decisions and refuses to attend whilst Basil is really only going because it’s his duty. Everything seems clear.

As Basil arrives in Jedda we slowly get to know his and Layla’s large and noisy Saudi family, with each part of it living on a different floor of their large apartment block and things seem to become more negative as Basil meets Layla’s soon to be, and arranged, husband who seems only interested in his phone. But as the book moves on we get the feeling of the genuine sense of togetherness and love holding his uncles’s family together. We find out of their family tragedy, the death of Basil’s father of a sudden heart attack soon after moving back to Germany with his family after the children had begun their schooling in Jedda. Their then staying, naturally, with Barbara. Basil even agrees to go to the mosque when his cousin Omar explains to him that his devout uncle, Khaled, feels responsible for the whole family since his brothers death and assuring that they will all be reunited in the next world.

One evening after the others have gone to bed Layla tells him of her feelings, illustrated in the opening quote. Which also helps the reader to look at this tale of two cities with a little more distance. Then onto the stag night, out in the desert, smoking shishas and shooting at tin cans which Basil can’t come to terms with.

Soon after comes the day of the wedding, full of action but at the same time so strange to a western mind:


soon the other women head for the beauty parlour, and, as Omar explained , my only responsibilities for the day were to pose for the photos and then to lead the bride into the room. The party will then, as with everything else in this country, will be celebrated separately, the women in one place and the men in another.


“at sometime we drove to Omar’s” I said and the thought of it made me smile. “And played with a PlayStation. At three o’clock I was in bed and slept like a log. Imagine I should tell anyone that weddings here are celebrated playing video games!”


By the end of this story, Rasha Khayat has shared some of the nuances and contradictions of this country with the reader.

First Published in German as “Weil wir längst woanders sind” in 2016 by Dumont Buchverlag
Translated into French by Isabelle Liber and published as “Notre ailleurs” in 2019 by Actes Sud
*** my translation

The quotes as read in German before translation

Und dass sie uns immer erzählt haben, das sei alles ganz toll so, dass wir das Beste aus beiden Welten bekommen, dass wir nur Vorteile hätten, weil wir zwei so verschiedene Kulturen kennen. Aber dass die meisten anderen, die man trifft, immer wollen, dass man sich für eine Seite entscheidet, dass sie immer nur suchen, was ihnen bekannt vorkommt, das haben sie uns nie gesagt. Dass dieser Graben nie endet, sich nie schließen wird und dass man nie irgendwo richtig hingehört. So was sagt dir niemand.«

die anderen Frauen sind bald zum Beauty-Salon aufgebrochen, und, wie Omar mir erklärt, besteht meine einzige Aufgabe heute darin, später für die Fotos zu posieren und danach die Braut in den Saal zu führen. Gefeiert wird getrennt, wie immer hier im Land, Frauen für sich und Männer für sich. »Vierhundert Frauen«, sagt Omar. »Mütter, Schwiegermütter, Cousinen, Tanten, Angeheiratete, Freundinnen. Mach dich auf was gefasst.«

»Wir sind irgendwann zu Omar gefahren«, sage ich und muss bei dem Gedanken daran grinsen. »Haben PlayStation gespielt. Um drei war ich dann im Bett und habe geschlafen wie ein Stein. Wenn ich das jemandem erzähle, dass hier mit Videospielen Hochzeit gefeiert wird!«

The quotes as read in French

“Et qu’ils veuillent toujours nous faire croire que tout était si formidable, que nous avions le meilleur de deux mondes, qu’il n’y avait que des avantages à connaître comme nous deux cultures si différentes. Mais jamais ils ne nous ont dit que la plupart des gens qu’on rencontre veulent toujours qu’on fasse le choix d’un parti, qu’ils ne cherchent toujours que ce qui leur semble familier. Que ce fossé n’avait pas de fond, qu’il ne se refermerait jamais et qu’on n’était jamais nulle part chez soi. Personne ne te l’apprend, ça.”

Layla et les autres femmes sont parties pour l’institut de beauté et, comme me l’explique Omar, ma seule tâche aujourd’hui consistera à poser tout à l’heure sur les photos, puis à conduire la mariées jusque dans la salle de réception. Comme toujours ici, les festivités se déroulent séparément, les femmes d’un côté, les hommes de l’autre. “Quatre cents femmes”, dit Omar. “Mères, belle-mères, cousines, tantes, pièces rapportées, amies. Tu ne vas pas en croire tes yeux.”

“On a fini la soirée chez Omar, dis-je, incapable de retenir un sourire. On a joué à la PlayStation. À 3 heures, j’étais au lit et j’ai dormi comme un bébé. Tu imagines, si je raconte à quelqu’un qu’ici on célèbre les mariages en jouant à des jeux vidéo!”

Ali Zamir ‘Dérangé Que Je Suis’


We even gave our hand carts the names of athletes. And not just anyone. Real world champion athletes like Usain Bolt, LaShawn Merritt or even Michael Johnson….you could read on the front of my cart the name of an athlete I’d heard of. I didn’t know how to write his name so I wrote it as I heard it. In a single word, alternating upper case with lower case letters : CaRleWis.***


Ali Zenir’s tragi-comic story of a docker is set on the island of Anjouan, also known as Nzwani, part of the Comoros Union in the Mozambique channel. This book read for the Roman De Rochefort, tells the story of Dérangé, a humble docker who each day heads to the docks with his hand cart looking for work and hoping to earn enough to be able to eat that day. In the colour and mayhem at the docks, to show their speed and to stand out from the crowd, the dockers give their hand carts names as illustrated in the opening quote.

As the book begins, Dérangé is trussed up in a confined space, plagued by flies and there is no doubt he will die. He then tells us his story, of the three famous dockers, the Pipipis:


It was at the international port, Ahmed-Abdallah-Abderemane de Mutsumaque, that I first met Pirate, Pistolet and Pitié. The Pipipis as they were known.***


It was the Pipipis who had the other three carts in the opening quote, we learn of the precariousness of their situations and the risks they take running between the cars and trucks with their hand carts. In this short book, Dérangé who doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of himself is chosen by a woman, in preference to the Pipipis to unload her husbands goods from a boat, and the needs to negotiate with the Pipipis to get their help as there is too much work for one poor docker. As the work is terminated, they goad him into racing, the next day, three times around the port with their carts., as he says to them before accepting the race:


They laughed at me as if I was a macaque in their eyes. I decided there and then to ask them the question I’d been dying to ask: What do I have to gain in measuring myself against you ? Stupidity?***


There are two other strands to this story, one being the woman , the wealthy wife of a dangerous trader who wants Dérangé for his body, and who takes it on herself to hold the money of the bet for the race, thus enticing the four racers back to her house to pick up their prize money. And Dérangé’s neighbour, Casse Pied (pain in the kneck), a man known and feared who you wouldn’t want to cross and from whom the Pipipis had stolen some bananas:


Pistolet abruptly interrupted Pirate: “he’s Someone who doesn’t show an ounce of pity: he’s got a heart of stone.The proof is, so help me God, he dared to rip his wife’s genitals with his teeth like a cannibal!”***


Dérangé (deranged) seems to be one of the least deranged people in the story. The Title means of course two things (Dérangé is who I am, and I am deranged) Ali Zemir uses a wide vocabulary to take Dérangé through this story and its many risks back to the point of departure. This is a story without a pause, beginning quickly and then accelerating. Unique.

First Published in French as “Dérangé que je suis” in 2019 by Le Tripode.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

On donnait même à nos chariots des noms d’athlètes. Et pas n’importe lesquels. Des vrais champions du monde d’athlètisme comme Usain Bolt, LaShawn Merritt ou encore Michael Johnson…On lisait sur la devanture de mon chariot le nom d’un athlète dont j’avais entendu parler. Je ne savais pas comment l’écrire. donc, dérangé que je suis, je l’avais écrit comme je l’entendais. En un seul mot, et en lettres majuscules alternées de miniscules: CaRleWis

C’est donc au port international Ahmed-Abdallah-Abderemane de Mutsumaque j’ai rencontré pour la première fois Pirate, Pistolet et Pitié. Les Pipipi, comme on les surnommait.

Ils se riaient tous de moi comme si je n’étais qu’un macaque à leurs yeux. Je me décidais de but en blanc à leur poser la question qui me brûlait mes lèvres: “Qu’est ce que je gagnerais en me mesurant à vous? La stupidité?

Pistolet interrompit brusquement Pirate: “C’est quelqu’un qui n’éprouve pas la moindre pitié: il a un coeur de marbre. La preuve, Dieu m’en préserve, il a osé déchirer par ses dents la partie génitale de sa femme comme un cannibale!”

Paul Lynch ‘Grace’


They stand in the yard of an abandoned farmhouse that shapes its gloom over a barren garden, a feeling of emptiness like presence. She wonders why an elm has had its bark stripped to head height and sees another just like it. Colly says, this was a house of tree eaters, I told you this was going on.


Grace, a story of the famine as if you were, there tells the story of Grace’s survival, read for the Roman De Rochefort. This book covers several themes, why was there a famine, who starved and why, and what are people capable of when faced with hunger. As the story begins, Grace, a young, girl of twelve, is living with her subsistence farming mother and siblings in a hut in The Black Mountains in Donegal. The potato harvest has failed and Grace doesn’t fully grasp what is to come as the landlord’s rent collector will want a rent that cannot be payed. Her mother Sarah with her daughter’s survival in mind, and a mouth less to feed at home, dresses her as a boy and sends her to do whatever work a friend of her ex-husband can find for her:


Sarah…produces cloth to bind Grace’s chest, stops and says, you’ve no need of it. Hands her a man’s shirt that swallows her. It smells like rocks pulled from a river. She holds the breeches in front of her and studies them. The fawn fabric is patched tan at the knees. She thinks, they look like a dog has had them for slumber. From whom did they come? Into the first leg she steps and then the other and she looks down at herself—such a sight, wishbone legs snapped loose into two gunnysacks. The breeches go past her ankles. Sarah rolls the ends up, stands behind her and loops the waist with string. A jacket that stinks of rained-on moss. A frieze coat ravelly about the neck and yawning at the elbow. I might as well be wearing jute. Sarah whispers. Here. Put on your boots. And try this cap. Your brother’s cap is too small for you. Pull it lower. Plenty of boys go about dressed in a father’s old clothing. Grace stands staring past the door at the world held starless by a flat dark. Leg-skin strange in these breeches and the cold whittling her head. Sarah hands her a candle and the light falls from her mother’s face so that it seems she is not herself, stands masked to her own daughter. She fusses over Grace, puts a satchel over her shoulder, rolls up the sleeves of the jacket. Then she looks towards the sleeping children, holds Grace with a long look, and whispers. Get to the town and don’t dally on the mountain road. Ask for Dinny Doherty and tell him you are your brother. He has always been kind to us.


As Grace leaves in the quiet of early morning, to avoid the rent collector, her younger brother, Colly, runs after her and whilst fishing with his hands falls in the river and drowns. As she then moves on from situation to situation, Colly’s voice follows with her as a counterpoint to her own survival decisions, telling her about the characters of the people she meets and helping her to survive.

At one job, Grace finds an abandoned hut where she tries to create a normality of life but is saved from a man, that has recognised her as a girl and followed her to her hut, by Bart, a small one armed man from the same work group who has learned to survive by his skill with knives. Grace and Bart then take to the road:


Of a sudden she knows what he is and what he is not. He turns without word and starts for the path without her. She stares at the path and stares at the dying man, another body left lying about and you’ll be the one who has to take care of it and maybe you’d be safer with this knife fighter. Wait! she shouts. She goes into the cabin and bundles her blanket and belongings. When she steps out of the house the dead man has gone. She says, what did you do with him? He says, I did nothing with him. So where is he gone? He got up and ran off. I thought he was dying.


The themes of who and why are examined as two separate worlds seem to coexist as Grace and Bart walk south along the roads, of the rich landowners in their protected estates who grow varied cash crops and corn, and of the poor, for whom potatoes is the only crop capable of producing enough calories to survive on their small plots, whose crops have failed, like Grace taken to the roads in search of food, work or charity:


Every flour cart on the road has been accompanied by soldiers. And in these great vales of Tipperary, the farming estates are sometimes as big as a town. They meet villages where the gardens are tended, the houses fashioned and slated. The great fields of corn giving to the world their color. How they crane their necks towards the flashing scythes. And yet there are the townlands you must go through with shut eyes, where grass grows over the doorways, where the fields learn color only from the sun. The have-it-alls and the have-nothings, Bart says. I give it a year before the country splits apart.


As winter turns to spring, somehow Bart and Grace have survived when so many about them have died, often in ditches at the sides of the roads as the people have become too weak to fight or resist:


They have tunneled through dark into this town called Ennis. Scavengers on the streets like stunned crows. The town watched over by buildings that might be flour mills. She thinks she will always remember the look of the fever hospital, the fright-shapes in the dark by the gates waiting to get in. Bart stops and leans out of breath against a wall. They find a place to sleep on the edge of town, some old forge, she thinks, though it might have been a baker’s once. There are other rough sleepers who speak in coughs.


Grace, Bart and a friend of Bart’s, McNutt, take to robbing the speeding coaches of the rich rushing up and down the same roads where the poor are dying in the ditches, or some of the less well protected houses, to survive whilst living in the hills. And then one day, thirteen long months from the start of the ordeal it happens, harvest comes and the potatoes are once again rotten, another year like the last is ahead of them, except that people are now already starving. Huts, farms and whole villages are now empty with people often lying dead in their huts with no one left to discover them, illustrated by the opening quote.

Slowly now the strong and the survivors weaken and die, including Bart and McNutt, and progressively Colly entirely takes over Grace as the survival instinct causes her to do the unimaginable:


that’s another dead-cart gone past and see what is on it—you will be on it soon no I will not yes you will—and do you know why those men are digging they are digging at meat that grows in the ground—you are not dead yet—yes you are—no you are not—soon unless you do something you must—hee! Tell no one—tell no one who is to know, wait until night like those others you saw in the dark and now it is dark and crawl so yes I will—not crawling walking crawling careful careful in case somebody sees—hee!—shovel hands—hee!—shoveling hands—who is that laughing sounds like Grace—Grace is dead—no she is not she is waiting in the house—it is a dog, a dog laughing—the dog is here for the meat also—how to bring this meat to Grace—it is not meat—it is meat—meat does not grow in the ground—is meat—isn’t—who will know anyhow—you won’t even know if you don’t think about it—dark and nobody is watching—to live is to die and to die is to live who said that—what silliness. Digging fingers meet the meat that lies under cloth—rip cloth—meat on the bone is meat in your hand will taste of mud and dead will it not and so what—the body won’t know what it’s eating, the body won’t care—nobody will know—


Grace is however found in the bottom of a pit of dead bodies and saved but no longer speaks. This is a harrowing story of deprivation, with whole villages of the poorer people being wiped from the map.

First Published in English as “Grace” in 2017 by Little, Brown and company.

The quotes in French

Ils s’arrêtent dans la cour d’une ferme à l’abandon dont la silhouette sombre domine un jardin désolé. La sensation de vide a la force d’une présence. Grace s’étonne de voir un orme dont l’écorce a été arrachée à hauteur d’homme, et en voit une deuxième un peu plus loin, exactement pareil. Les gens de cette maison étaient des mangeurs d’arbres, lui dit Colly, je t’avais que ça existait.

Sarah…lui présente un morceau de toile pour se bander la poitrine, constate aussitôt qu’elle n’en a pas besoin et lui fait enfiler une chemise d’homme qui engloutit son corps. Il s’en dégage une odeur de galet tiré de l’eau. Grace prend ensuite la culotte, qu’elle tient un moment devant elle pour mieux la détailler. Le tissu fauve porte aux genoux des empiècements brun foncé. On croirait qu’un chien a dormi dessus D’où peut-elle venir? Elle passe une jambe, puis l’autre, baisse les yeux pour considérer le résultat. Quelle horreur, ces deux brindilles qui semblent flotter dans des sacs de jute. Debout derrière sa fille, Sarah fait des revers à la culotte trop longue et resserre la taille avec une longueur de ficelle. Une veste aux relents de mousse imbibée de pluie. Un manteau qui arbore un col effrangé et bâille au niveau des coudes.
“Autant m’empaqueter dans de la toile à sac”.
“Mets ces bottes lui souffle Sarah, et essaie cette casquette celle de ton frère est trop petite pour toi. Baisse-la un peu sur le front Après tout, on voit des tas de garçons qui se promènent dans les vieilles frusques de leur père”.
Par la porte ouverte, Grâce regarde le monde plongé dans une obscurité unie, les étoiles effacées. Le frottement du pantalon agace la peau de ses jambes, le froid lui cisaille le crâne. Lorsque Sarah lui donne sa bougie, la clarté en s’éloignant d’elle semble poser sur ses traits un masque qui la dérobe à sa fille, la transforme en une autre. Elle s’empresse après Grace, ajuste la sangle de la besace à son épaule, retrousse les manches de la veste. Son regard embrasse les garçons assoupis, s’attarde un long moment sur sa fille. “Marche jusqu’à la ville”, dit-t-elle, “et ne lambine pas en route. Là-bas, tu demanderas Dinny Doherty, et tu te feras passer pour ton frère. Il a toujours été bon avec nous”.

Devant le regard sidéré qu’il lui lance, elle comprend instantanément ce qu’il est et ce qu’il n’est pas. Se détournant sans un mot, il se dirige tout seul vers le sentier. Grace fixe un moment le chemin, puis l’homme a l’agonie, encore un corps abandonné dont elle sera obligée de s’occuper, peut-être serait-elle plus tranquille avec ce champion du couteau.
Attends-moi! Elle rentre rassembler ses affaires, improvise un balluchon avec sa couverture. Quand elle ressort, le mort a disparu.
Qu’est-ce que tu en a fait?
Rien du tout, je n’y ai pas touché.
Où il est passé, alors?
Il s’est relevé et il est parti en courant.
J’ai cru qu’il était à l’article de la mort.

Les charrettes chargées de farine étaient toutes accompagnées de soldats. Dans le comté de Tipperary, on trouve des propriétés de la taille d’une ville, et certains villages ont des jardins bien tenus et des maisons de belles dimensions, coiffées de toitures en ardoises. Les immenses champs de maïs donnent des couleurs au paysage, courbant l’échine sous les lames étincelantes des faux. Mais il existe aussi des villages que l’on préfère traverser les yeux fermés, avec leurs maisons aux seuils envahis d’herbes folles et leur champs qui ne connaissent pas d’autre couleur que la clarté du soleil. Ceux qui ont tout et ceux qui ont rien, résume Bart. Je parie que d’ici un an, le pays se sera déchiré.

Ils sont entrés dans la petite ville d’Ennis par un tunnel d’obscurité. Les rues y sont peuplées d’écumeurs qui ressemblent à des corbeaux hébétés. Grace est persuadée qu’elle n’oubliera jamais l’hôpital des contagieux, les silhouettes d’épouvante massées devant la grille, attendant d’être admises. À bout de souffle, Bart s’appuie contre un mur. À la sortie de la ville, ils trouvent un endroit où dormir – une forge à l’abandon, croit-elle reconnaître, mais peut-être est-ce une ancienne boulangerie. D’autres vagabonds couchent là, toussant au lieu de parler.

– encore une charrette des morts et vois ce qu’elle transporte – bientôt ce sera toi non pas moi mais je te dis que oui – tu sais pourquoi ces gens se sont mis à creuser ils cherchent la viande qui pousse sous terre – tu n’es pas encore morte – si tu l’es – non tu ne l’es pas – mais ça va venir si tu ne fais rien – hé! – mains pelles – hé! – pelles entre les mains – qui est ce qui rit on dirait Grace – ce n’est pas de la viande – non je te dis – personne n’en saura rien de toute façon – même toi tu n’en sauras rien il suffit de ne pas y penser – il fait noir et personne ne regarde – vivre c’est mourir et mourir c’est vivre qui a dit ça – quelle bêtise. Les doigts fouillent la terre et trouvent la viande sous le drap – drap déchiré – viande sur l’os et viande dans ta main elle va avoir un goût de boue et de mort tu ne crois pas et puis après – le corps ne saura pas ce qu’il mange? Le corps ça lui est bien égal – personne n’en saura rien

Joseph Ponthus ‘Back to the production line’


The factory has got to me
I only ever call it my factory
As if the simple temp that I am amongst so many
others owns in any way the
machines or the fish or the shrimp
production***


This is Joseph Ponthus’ first published book, read for the Roman De Rochefort prize, and there can be no doubt that what is described in these pages, written in verse, represent actual episode lived by Ponthus. He tells us of working on production lines as a temp in the food industry in Brittany, beginning in fish transformation factories which seem hard until he describes his missions in an industrial slaughterhouse.

Through his writing we live with him the exhaustion and the mind numbing days measured by the continual advancement of the production lines. He tells us of the nobility of the workers ensuring against the odds that the lines are never brought to a halt but also in contrast the futility of many of the tasks in under-maintained factories.


The work isn’t so hard
repetitive
Empying twentyfive kilo crates
to fill other twentyfive kilo crates
We may seem like cartoon characters
But its a factory
And you build your muscles.***


As the story goes on everything outside of his time and energy consuming factory becomes peripheral to his life, even his wife and his dog. We get the feeling of someone on a treadmill fighting to stay on as the physicallity of his job slowly destroys his articulations, as life is reduced to the counting of the minutes between cigarette breaks, of working day in day out at whatever hours the machines require, of passing each working moment under basic neon light.


You leave behind your sleep yet again full of dreams
of the factory
to plunge back into another night
Cold artificial and lit by neon.***


And then there is the absurd, the managers and sales people that cannot really comprehend the work in their own factories, illustrated by the folloxing quote, where after a week pushing quarters of beef in a freezer along ill installed rails, requiring lifting the carcasses to advance and thus moving four hundred kilos a day every day, the monthly accident figures are put on the notice boards with a positive poster:


And
Especially
The one that made us laugh for a month

A female production operator from the red
offal section ‘the less I carry the better I feel’
I remember that the morning that poster was
put up
How we Laughed
And we laughed
And we laughed***


This is a book about life, about the will to go forward in the battle that is life, Joseph Ponthus has given us a unique look behind the curtains at the factory and its workers.

First Published in French as “À la ligne” in 2019 by La Table Ronde.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

L’usine m’a eu
Je n’en parle plus qu’en disant
Mon usine
Comme si petit intérimaire que je suis parmi tant
d’autres j’avais une quelconque propriété des
machines ou de la production de poissons ou de
crevettes

Le boulot n’est pas si dur
Répétitif
Vider des caisses de vingt-cinq kilos
pour remplir d’autres caisses de vingt-cinq kilos
Certes on dirait des Shadoks
Mais c’est l’usine
Et ça fait des muscles

On sort du sommeil encore marqué de rêves
d’usine
Pour replonger dans une autre nuit
Artificielle froide et éclairée de néons

Et
Surtout
Celle qui nous a fait rire un bon mois

Une opératrice de production piéceuse aux abats
rouge disant ‘moins je porte mieux je me porte’
Je me souviens que le matin où l’affiche avait été
mise
On se marrait
On se marrait
On se marrait

Sarah Chiche ‘The Obscure’


I know you, he said in perfect french with a hint of an accent which let me know he was a German speaker. You’re the woman who, yesterday afternoon in the Volksgarten, threw herself on the man who had just slapped a child.***


Sarah is married to Paul, an intellectual and writer whose theme of study is the approaching apocalypse, wars, global warming, growing population and strain on resources, and she is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst and they live in Paris. As the book, read for the Roman de Rochefort begins, she has come to Vienna to write about the conditions with which migrants are treated in the refugee camps and it is quickly clear that she is emotionally emerged in and drained by her visit. As she visits a gallery, a tall distinguished looking man talks to her about having seen her the previous day as illustrated in the opening quote.

Although happily married to Paul, she quickly begins an all consuming relationship with Richard K, a renowned musician and German speaker, a language banned from her home life as she was a child, and quickly the relationship brings out the dark side, boiling beneath the surface, of Sarah. Who are we, how are we affected by our younger life and the lives of our parents and grandparents. How much empathy can a woman have for a mother that systematically beat her, as her mother says to her:


I want to thank you…
Thank me? But why?
Because you lived through things that a child of your age should not normally have to live through. You heard things a child shouldn’t have to hear. You saw things that scared you. You were, of all of us, the most courageous because your heart is pure.***


Sarah’s father died as she was young, Sarah’s grand father had been interned in Buchenwald where he had survived and seen and lived things that altered his perspective on life, which then later included incest amongst other things. We learn that Sarah’s great grandmother and her grand mother were interned in Saint Anne’s a notorious mental health clinic, as was her mother, the very hospital in which Sarah now works. As Sarah keeps her continued relationship with Richard K a secret from her family and as she battles with her past and her worries that she too could follow in their footsteps she also tells us of the fight within the hospital with the Freudians, essentially over compassion:


For years I’d explained, in articles and in reading notes, why the scientific, intellectual, clinical and therapeutic prestige of psychoanalysis had irredeemably waned…. we were taught, in a fascinating mixture of complacency and ignorance but also highly cultured, that autism was a psychosis resulting from a bad relationship with the mother and therefore, if a certain child was autistic it was in all probability because his mother was very cold towards him…., in spite of all of the learned studies, which already at that time, had very clearly identified the mutations on the genes responsible for the communication between nerve cells and shown that difficulties in the autistic spectrum had a genetic component and that hormones such as melatonin and ocytocin played a non negligeable role.***


This is the second book in my reviews that refers to the Winterreise, the first being Eins I’m Andern By Monica Schwitter, the verse referenced here is a beautiful verse, about carrying on with life and not lamenting come what may:


Fliegt der Schnee mir ins Gesicht,
schüttl’ ich ihn herunter.
Wenn mein Herz im Busen spricht,
sing’ ich hell und munter.
Höre nicht, was es mir sagt,
habe keine Ohren;
fühle nicht, was es mir klagt,
Klagen ist für Toren.
Lustig in die Welt hinein
gegen Wind und Wetter!
Will kein Gott auf Erden sein,
sind wir selber Götter!


This was not an easy book to follow, as I read it over three weeks I lost the thread repeatedly, between her mother Ève, her grandmother (Ève?)Lynne, and Her great grandmother Cecile, and the story being told by several of the women.

First Published in French as “Les Enténébrés” in 2019 by Les Éditions Du Seuil.
*** my translation

The poem translated into both French and English taken from the internet follows

Que m’aveugle la neige,
Je la secoue d’un geste,
Que s’épanche mon cœur
Et je chante à tue-tête.
Jamais je ne l’écoute,
Je fais la sourde oreille,
Et j’ignore ses plaintes,
Seuls se plaignent les sots.
Courons gaiement le monde
Contre vents et marées,
S’il n’est de dieux sur terre,
Nous serons dieu nous-mêmes.

The snow flies in my face,
I shake it off.
When my heart cries out in my breast,
I sing brightly and cheerfully.
I do not hear what it says,
I have no ears,
I do not feel what it laments,
Lamenting is for fools.
Merrily stride into the world
Against all wind and weather!
If there is no God on earth,
We are gods ourselves!

The quotes as read in French before translation

Je vous reconnais, dit-il dans un français parfait avec une pointe d’accent qui me fait comprendre qu’il est germanophone. Vous êtes la femme qui, hier après-midi, dans le Volksgarten, s’est jetée sur un homme qui venait de gifler un enfant.

Je voudrais te remercier, lui dis-je.
Me remercier? Mais pourquoi?
Parce que tu as traversé des choses qu’un enfant de ton âge ne doit normalement pas traverser. Tu as entendu des choses qu’un enfant ne devrait pas entendre.Tu as vu des choses qui t’ont fait peur. Tu as été de nous tous là plus courageuse,parce que ton cœur est pur.

pendant des années j’avais expliqué, dans des articles, dans des notes de lecture, pourquoi le prestige scientifique, intellectuel, clinique et thérapeutique de la psychanalyse s’était irrémédiablement étiolé….on nous enseignait, dans un fascinant mélange de suffisance et d’ignorance mais aussi de haute culture, que l’autisme était bien une psychose résultant d’une mauvaise relation avec la mère et donc, si tel enfant était autiste, c’était parce que très probablement sa mère était trop froide…..,au mépris de toutes les études savantes, qui a l’époque déjà, avaient très clairement identifié des mutations sur des gènes impliqués dans les communications entre cellules nerveuses et montré que les troubles du spectre autistique avaient une composante génétique et que les hormones comme la mélatonine et l’ocytocine y jouaient un rôle non négligeable.

Luc Chomarat ‘The Latest Norwegian Thriller’


You can bet on the next work of Grundozwkzson being a hybrid product, available only in digital form, with links that will steer the reader towards video extracts and creating crowdfunding for anything based on the text. You could even imagine a sufficiently controlled filing hierarchy allowing each reader to create his own ideal thriller, deleting such and such a person, raping and torturing such and such a girl, the book, the film, the game merging together into a single interactive product with maximum and immediate profitability.***


Dr Flknberg the profiler, Olaf Grundozwkzson the Nordic crime sensation, writer of The Eskimo and inspector Bjornborg and his detective Willander of the police force who are too short staffed to do anything except follow the procedure, well with these characters you know you’re in Scandinavia. In this, Luc Chomarat’s latest book, read for the Roman De Rochefort, the French editor Delafeuille, with his industry is disarray due to the impact of digital publishing, has been sent to Danemark by his traditional company to sign up Olaf Grunozwkzson, the biggest thing in Scandinavian thrillers, for all translation rights in the French speaking world, where he is in competition with Gorki who has a very “modern” vision of the “product” as illustrated in the opening quote.

In this satire on nordic thrillers, Delafeuille soon realises that he himself is in just such an interactive product as he discovers that both the story and exerpts from the book have the same sentences. He finds himself meeting Inspector Bjornborg who represents the boring Scandinavian police:


Bjornborg went back to his Volvo fleet car. As he slid behind the wheel, he felt an overwhelming weariness come upon him. The enquiry was going nowhere, and even that didn’t help him to see clearly. In reality enquiries didn’t actually advance, but neither did they in Nordic thrillers. They are often rather large laboriously written books. As for the cop’s wives waiting for them when they get home, and the relationship between them, well that too was like real life. In short there was no way out.***


And he soon finds himself working to solve the cases of the beautiful blondhaired girls being violently murdered in Copenhagen along with Sherlock Holmes. When they realise that they are protagonists of the story they decide to try too get an interview with Grundozwkzson with Holmes writing to him:


I’m writing to our friend. I’m proposing to interview him at his home on a certain number of subjects, the Nordic thriller, his personal works, the Change to digital form, etc. I’m flattering him a little That should interest him.
I don’t really understand. Why should he see us?
I’m using the old procedure of the Trojan horse. You see: I’m signing with a fantasy name, Ulla Ogsen, which sounds both Scandinavian and erotic, I’m quickly creating a pretty realistic false profile of a journalist, to which I’m attaching the photo of a silicon enhanced Ukrainian porn star.
It’s a crude trap.
He’ll fall for it old boy because his fantasies are as simplistic as my methods.***


Chomarat takes us through all of the clichés of the Nordic thriller, the violent deaths of beautiful young women this in countries famous for fighting for feminine equality, the pointless deadends to the story, the profiler obsessed by sex, the police force with no budget, the extreme climate eventually causing the main protagonists to be isolated from the world. Even the name of the book, “The Eskimo”. I liked the moment of realisation that something was wrong, if they were in Scandinavia trying to sign the rights for the French translation, as Holmes points out why was the story they were discovering already in French?

An amusing satire read in one day.

First Published in French as “Le Dernier Thriller Norvégien” in 2019 by La Manufacture de Livres
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Il y a gros à parier que le prochain opus de Grundozwkzson sera un produit hybride, lisible exclusivement sous forme numérique, avec des liens qui permettront de diriger le lecteur vers des extraits vidéo, et de générer automatiquement du crowdfunding pour toute forme dérivée du texte. On peut même imaginer une arborescence suffisamment maîtrisée pour permettre à chaque lecteur de créer son thriller idéal, supprimer tel ou tel personnage, violer et torturer telle ou telle fille. Le livre, le film, le jeu se fondront en un produit unique, interactif, à rentabilité maximum et immédiate.

Bjornborg rejoignit sa Volvo de service. En se glissant derrière le volant il sentit une lassitude sans nom lui tomber sur les épaules. L’enquête n’avançait pas, et même cela ne l’aidait pas à y voir plus clair. Dans la réalité, les enquêtes n’avançaient pas effectivement. Mais dans les polars Nordiques non plus. C’étaient souvent des assez gros bouquins, à l’écriture laborieuses. Quant aux épouses de flics retrouvaient à la maison et aux rapports qu’ils entretenaient avec elles, cela aussi ressemblait fort à la vraie vie. Bref, il n’y avait pas d’issue.

J’écris à notre ami. Je lui propose de l’interviewer chez lui, sur un certain nombre de sujets, le thriller nordique, son œuvre personnelle, le passage au numérique, etc. Je le flatte un peu. Cela devrait l’intéresser.
Je ne comprends pas très bien. Pourquoi nous recevrait-Il?
J’utilise le vieux procédé du cheval de Troie. Voyez: je signe d’un nom fantaisiste, Ulla Ogsen, qui sonne à la fois scandinave et érotique. Je crée très rapidement un faux profil de journaliste assez vraisemblable, auquel je rajoute une photo de pornstar Ukrainienne siliconée.
C’est un piège grossier.
Il va tomber dedans, vielle branche, parce que ses fantasmes sont aussi rudimentaires que mon procédé.

Jeroen Olyslaegers ‘Murky’


I know what everyone thinks: he’s going to fall down and break his hip. He’ll find himself in a bed in Saint-Vincent’s. And that’ll be the end of him, struck down by one of those bacteria they have the secret of growing in hospitals. It’s strange how old people allow themselves to be contaminated by other people’s fear. Because of that fear they let themselves be locked up in old people’s homes, let themselves be ovecome with tasteless muck and twaddle, with a stupid bingo night and a Maroccain woman stuck behind their bums with a strip of toilet paper.***


So begins Olyslaeger’s excellent novel of the Second World War in Anderlecht, a story being told by a cynical old man to his unborn great grandson in this Dutch language Belgian book read for the “Roman De Rochefort” prize. As the title suggests the narrator, a young man at the outbreak of the Second World War walks a questionable line in this occupied city. As the story begins Wilfried Wils obtains a job as a Belgian policeman in order to avoid forced labour service in Germany, but pretty soon he was employed in rounding up those that tried to avoid this same service, with an insight into the ambiguous views of the public in general, welcoming the Nazis, and the police force in general to the German occupation. As he comments after being ordered by German military to follow them:


In principal, we should present ourselves to get our orders, but when a Feldfritz shouts, you obey. We head down the Pelikaanstraat towards the south. Lode and I marching behind the two uniformed Übermenschen in complete silence, like two punished children. The Germans have only been here seven months and it’s as if they’ve been here several years. The town lead on its back, legs wide open, for these supermen.***


Wilfried Wils sails through pretty muddy water, not necessarily understanding everything that’s going on around himself, mostly putting up with the Germans but with an ambivalent reaction to their occupation, pushed by his friend Lode who despite personal risk seems to have a clearer view of the “übermenschen” and despises the local lookalikes:


A Waffen-SS uniform suddenly pulls up at our table.
May I invite the young lady to accompany me to the dance floor?
We look up. He’s not a German. He’s one of our’s, but with his hair shaved on the sides and the heels he clacks together, you could take him for the real thing, as if this town was only good for shitting in and that his heart and soul had been cast in Prussia.***


Olyslaegers, in interviews,tells of his personal relationship to this story as, at a university reading, he comes across a story of a Jewish family who, during the first roundup of Jews in Anderlecht commit suicide with the father cutting his own throat spouting blood on the Belgian policeman that had come to get him. The street name in the story rang a bell to him and when he later asked his mother she told him he had an aunt who worked for a Jewish family, who had committed suicide, in that street and that afterwards she had lived on in the house with her SS boyfriend.

He tells us of Wilfried Wils living this story and of the policemen wanting to file reports saying that the Jews had not been told why they were being arrested but that they caved in under pressure from above. Wils had found his job with the police through an old school teacher, an active Nazi sympathiser with whom he keeps up a relationship throughout the war, despite his abhorrence, a friend of his aunt’s Nazi boyfriend, this quote towards the end of the book, gives an idea of the views of this group of people:


For you, its a fucking game. But it’s people like me that pay for it. We succeeded in wiping out the Jews in this town, those parasites who have infested our town for so many years are nearly all gone. It was a promise we kept. the credit is mine in part, in spite of the hypocrisy of people like you…..All that I want, is ….a tobacconist’s with Jenny….comfortable…without a Jew boy in view, in a town fully thankfull to people like me for all the sacrifices we’ve made.***


Even those that seem to be less murky than others, such as Lode and his father who hide a Jew at great risk to themselves are shown to be doing it for money, Anderlecht was the diamond capital of Europe. As the war comes to an end and Wilfried Wils gets involved in a bloody act of vengeance against one of the worst Jew hunters, disgusting Lode with his violence. All of which comes back to haunt him in a personal tragedy some fifty years later.

This is a book that, far from the binary simplification of good and bad, goes some way to explaining how life might have been under occupation in a town showing no real sympathy to what they considered a migrant population. As Wils says early in the story, no one knew where the Jews were being sent but at the same time they didn’t suppose that it was to a place where they could be integrated into society.

First Published in Dutch as “Wil” in 2016 by Bezige Bij b.v.
Translated into French by Françoise Antoine and published as “Trouble” in 2019 by Stock
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Je sais ce que tout le monde pense: il va tomber et se fracturer la hanche. Il va se trouver dans un lit à saint-Vincent. Et puis s’en sera fini de lui, terrassé qu’il sera par l’une de ces bactéries qu’ils ont le don de cultiver dans les hôpitaux. C’est curieux comme les vieilles personnes se laissent contaminer par la peur des autres. À cause de cette peur, elles se laissent enfermer dans les maisons de repos, se laissent abreuver de fadaises et de bouillies froides, avec une soirée bingo à la con et une Marocaine pendue à leur derrière avec un morceau de papier cul.

En principe, nous devions nous présenter pour recevoir nos ordres, mais quand un Feldfritz gueule, tu t’exécutes. Nous prenons la Pelikaanstraat en direction du sud. Lode et moi marchons derrière les deux Übermenschen en uniforme dans un silence parfait, comme deux enfants punis. Les Allemands ne sont ici que depuis sept mois et c’est comme si la place était à eux depuis des années. La ville s’est couchée, cuisses grandes ouvertes, devant ces surhommes.

Un uniforme de la Waffen-SS se dresse tout à coup à côté de notre table.
Puis-je inviter la demoiselle à m’accompagner sur la piste de danse?
On lève les yeux. Ce n’est pas un Allemand. C’est un gars de chez nous, mais avec des cheveux rasés sur les côtés et les talons qu’il fait claquer l’un contre l’autre, on dirait un presque vrai, comme si cette ville n’était plus bonne que pour y déféquer, et que son corps et son esprit avaient été coulés en Prusse.

Pour toi, c’est un jeu salaud. Mais ce sont des gens comme moi qui paient l’addition. On a réussi à exterminer les juifs de cette ville, ces parasites qui ont infesté notre ville pendant tant d’années sont presque tous partis. C’était une promesse et nous l’avons réalisée.Le mérite m’en revenait en partie, malgré l’hypocrisie de gens comme toi….Tout ce que je veux, c’est.. un tabac avec Jenny…à notre aise…sans un youpin à l’horizon, dans une ville pleine de gratitude à l’égard de gens comme moi pour tous les sacrifices consentis.