Monica Sabolo ‘Summer’


Mother had put out a table cloth and layed a box on my sisters plate….My sister let out a cry of surprise as she unfolded the scarf,2D670B9D-EF27-49E3-81B3-FE3B8160C0ED whose bluebird seemed more alive than ever, then she stood and took my mother in her arms…… I had the feeling that I had watched a heartbreaking ritual, as if my mother had offered her youth and her beauty to her daughter.***


Monica Sabolo presents us a story of the disappearance one summer day soon after her nineteenth birthday, at a family party on the shores of Lac Leman, of Summer Wassner, in this story read for the “Roman de Rochefort”. As Benjamin, Summer’s brother, five years younger than her, years later, slowly unfolds the tale of the mystifying dissapearance of his sister from her ideal family, a dissapearance which utterly destroys his own life and that of his parents, we slowly realise that Benjamin is, despite himself, an unreliable witness, as he relates key moments of the story, such as his own frustration when his father buys an aquarium for Summer:


My father loved water as well….For her ninth birthday, he bought Summer an aquarium with a complex system to filter and to add oxygen to the water and which hummed continually…..two folding chairs were placed just in front , and that’s where I found Summer and my father, sometimes early in the morning, absorbed in watching an illuminated under water forest.***


We must remember that in spite of the maturity of Benjamin the narrator, at the time of the events, on Summer’s ninth birthday here for example, Benjamin was only four years old. He is nonetheless haunted by this day as we slowly realise from the dreams he relates to his psychiatrist which we initially assume refer to Lac Leman from whose bank she dissapears:


Summer is there. She’s wearing a blue night shirt, which floats around her like wings or fins, the smooth  oscillations of a skate.***


This story is narrated by Benjamin, after he suffers an unexpected nervous breakdown, as he says he has barely consciously thought of his sister in years. He is forced to revisit the unsolved events, talking to certain of the people present that day, Jill his sister’s closest friend and his own ex-lover, and his parent’s closest friend of the time, Marina Savioz. Benjamin is slowly brought to question his own certitudes of the idyllic life of their rich family living on the shore of Lac Leman. There are certain clues such as his mother’s  reaction when his father’s friends compare her to the pre-adolescent Summer:


“They look like sisters”,  called out dad’s friends, as they moved towards them on the loose gravel in light dresses, and mum blushed, pushing back a strand of hair which was coming loose from her poneytail…..It’s true that mother looked like an adolescent, with her lean look, the way she smoked, a certain tendency to provocation.***


As Summer moves into adolescence her relationship with her mother becomes, naturally, strained with the story of the scarf, illustrated in the opening quote, epitomising the rift, a scarf which has great sentimental value for Benjamin’s mother and which Summer is always stealing until one day she hands it over to Summer, only for Summer to no longer want it.
Slowly as the family secrets are stripped away by the different people that Benjamin finally takes it on himself to visit, he forces himself to see the secret he has been hiding from himself all these years.  He then confronts the inspector that had been charged with the case with something he remembered the inspector telling him years before:


“you once told me that you always find people eventually, they leave a trace, didn’t you?”
“Its true, nearly always, yes”***


This is a powerful well written story of loss, trust and betrayal I recommend it.

First Published in French as “Summer” in 2017 by JC Lattès.
*** my translation

Advertisements

Sebastian Barry ‘Days Without End’


Why should a man help another man? No need. The world don’t care about that, world is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicoree drinking and whisky and cards. img_1289No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars, we ain’t saying no laws in Washington, we ain’t walking on yon great lawns. Storms kill us and battles and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind.  Happy to breathe because we’ve seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion. Bibles wern’t wrote for us nor any books, we ain’t maybe what people do call human since we ain’t partaking of that bread of heaven.


The narrator, Thomas McNulty tells us the immigrant tale of the Indian wars, the Civil war and fear his beau John Cole in an America where men were men and well, there really weren’t any women. In this book read for the Roman de Rochefort prize, three main themes prevail, firstly as illustrated by the opening quote, the boredom interspersed with savagery of the army, secondly hunger, from the death of the whole of McNulty’s family from famine in Ireland to the deaths of most of the “passengers”, who were of no value, on the trip to Canada and the subsequent quarantine on to hunger wandering in America, to the hunger of the Indians and even the hunger of the soldiers who were saved from starving to death by the very Indians they were fighting. As McNulty once says with typical Irish humour hiding his fear:


I was so hungry I could eat the head of John the Baptist.


The third theme throughout is the absence of women in the frontier lands, from the starving boys Thomas and John Cole getting work in a saloon in a frontier mining town dressing as women in shows for the miners through to their living every waking and sleeping moment together in the army forts where despite their discretion there can be no secrets and finally their living together in their remote farm as John and Thomassina, once again wearing dresses, with no sense of right or wrong, guilt or innocence, just peace at being who he is.

So onto the Indian wars, where the soldiers, amid both food and female deprivation become in the heat of the action animals rather than humans, captured by Sebastian Barry in the mouth of his narrator whose rural background shines through his simile after the troop had just killed all of the children and squaws of an Indian village and two of the troopers, Watchhorn and Pearl had raped some of these women, a crime the army shot them for:


The troopers worked until I believe their arms could do no more, Watchhorn and Pearl Rutting and shouting then ruthlessly killing again till in runs the major, shouting the loudest with true horror in his face shouting his orders, wild to bring a stop to things then we were all of us standing there panting, our cold sweat pouring down exhausted faces, our eyes glittering, our legs trembling, just like you would see dogs do after they had been killing lambs.


So how does Barry imagine a starving detested Irishman’s views of what was happening to the Indians:


The padre made a huge prayer out in the open and the whole town went down on its knees right there and praised the lord. this was the section of humanity favoured in that place, the indians had no place no more there, their tickets of passage were rescinded and the bailiffs of god had took back the papers for their souls. I did feel a seeping tincture of sadness for them I did feel some strange toiling seeping sadness for them, seven hours off buried in their pits….. there weren’t no padre praying in exhaltation for them they were the boys with the loosing hand….


The second great war McNulty and John Cole are witness to is of course the civil war, they sign up expecting like many others a short war and after initial victories they begin to understand how pernicious a civil war can be when like fight against like, often with no understanding of why as illustrated below:


The captains give the order to fire and the thousand muskets give voice and fling their rounds of shot towards those walking demons, Johnny reb with his skinny legs and his butternut rags and all he thinks about and thinks good carried under hats of all descriptions. South don’t got  uniforms, grits or oftentimes shoes, half of these fierce looking bastards have bare feet, could be the denizens of a Sligo slum house, goddammit probably are some of them. On they come, I can see the regimental banners now better, and this damn one at centre coming on has shamrocks and harps, just like ours. Usual crazy fucking war..


Overwhelmed in battle, they are ordered to surrender and near starve to death in captivity, McNulty remarks that it wasn’t because they were ill treated, their captors had no food either, the crops had been distroyed during the war.

The book kept me interested throughout and the voice of McNulty rang true to me.

First Published in English as “Days Without End” in 2017 by Faber & Faber.
Translated into French by Laetitia Devaux and published as “Des Jours Sans Fin” by Joëlle Losfeld in 2018

Aharon Appelfeld ‘Days of a Startling Lucidity’


They went missing, often for three or Four days, sometimes a week. img_1287Mostly to hill top monastries…she was moved to tears at each ancient monastry they reached.
Most of the time the monks welcomed her politely. When they realised she was Jewish they asked: “what do you like so much here?”
“Everything!…”
The more skeptical thought she wasn’t all there and stopped asking questions.***


At the end of the war, Theo left his fellow survivors from camp 8 having decided to return home to Sternberg in Austria across Europe alone on foot in this book read for the “Roman de Rochefort prize”. As he slowly advances his mind plays back to his childhood, to his mother,Yetti, at once fragile and overwhelming, who unusually for a Jew, came from a peasant background and moved to the town of Sternberg when she married Martin. She was always on the move, seeking out the music of Bach which radiated in her but which was linked to churches and monasteries, the only places where she really felt at peace. She would just up and off with Theo taking him out of school on her journeys until her money ran out and then coming home as illustrated in the opening quote.

Theo was never close to his father Martin who indulged Yetti, dilapidating his family savings and running down his bookshop to pay for her trips. Theo advances alone but regularly meeting  people from camps like himself, some advancing, some not moving such as the lady in the following quote:


“I’ve worked all night so that the soup would be ready at noon…its better to go home having built up a bit of strength…”
“I dont need to hurry youngster. My children live now in the land of truth and I’m getting ready to join them. I’ve a little ways to go before that. I’d like to give to others everything I have….”
“And you’re not leaving here?”
“No, young man. Everyone who means something to me lays at rest here in this forest behind me. Who else will watch over them? A month before the end of the war they were brought up here, dug there own graves and were executed. So for now I’m watching over them and soon I’ll join them.”***


Amongst the people Theo meets is the seriously ill Madeleine who takes him for his father, and as Theo tries to take care of her he finds out that Madeleine went to school with Martin and Yetti and that everyone, Madeleine included, thought that she and Martin would make their lives together. Through the brief interlude with Madeleine Theo, through Madeleine, begins to better understand and to better know his own father, to place him in perspective and to feel a certain peace.

As Theo advances and meets people, he always answers the first question asked of him “which camp do you come from?” and then talks about where they are going. Theo discovers that looking for his mother, where he last saw her, at the monastery of Sankt Peter is something the other refugees from the camps cannot aprehend and for which there are violent feelings, these churches and monasteries are the worshiping places of the people that had done this to them, the churches that condoned the actions.

Theo slowly goes over and over his decision to leave the others from the camp to strike out alone, to leave the solidarity that had helped so many to survive, reaching a kind of inner peace. Finally as Theo is close to the Austrian border he meets up with a brigade helping the refugees to return home and learns that he is one of the few that do not stop on route, one of the few that actually want to go home, although he does not know who he will see, or where he will stay. he was certainly not welcome when he and all the other Jews of the region were deported together during scenes of overt hatred.

A strangely peaceful book as Theo is slowly reborn.

First Published in Hebrew as “Yamim shel behirout madhima” in 2014 by Dvir publishing house.
Translated into French by Valérie Zenatti and published as “Des jours d’une stupéfiante clarté” by Editions de l’olivier in 2018
*** My translation

Juan José Saer ‘The Witness’


In this already strange situation, the cabin boy faces other adversities. In the absence of women the ambiguity of his juvenile form,05579E62-011E-457F-85DE-B3C45B6AA0CF a product of his incomplete virility, eventually becomes more appreciable. That which the sailors, in other situations good family men, consider repugnant, seems to them, in the course of the sea crossing, as being more and more natural.***


The action of Saer’s novel, read in French,  takes place at the very beginning of the 16th century as a Spanish ship, whilst searching the coast of the Americas for a route through to the Indies, and during a seemingly safe survey of the mouth of a river in smaller boats in what appears to be an uninhabited land, is attacked by a group of Indians. All of the survey party except the cabin boy are killed by the Indians who then run off into the jungle at a sustained pace for a full day, carrying the dead sailors and the cabin boy before reaching their village where the dead are cut up, roasted and eaten, followed by several days of drinking to excess (several people die) and then orgies, all of this witnessed by the cabin boy. He then repeatedly, once a year over the time of his stay, re-lives similar events, as hunting parties return with dead captives and a witness before once again repeating the canabalistic events. These witnesses seem to accept and understand what is happening to them and are soon after sent back into the jungle in canoes full of food. He is kept 10 years by the Indians, he has nowhere to go back to, and then one day without warning he is sent of in a canoe and soon after comes across Spanish ships, where it soon becomes clear that he has forgotten his mother tongue:


To calm them I began to tell them my story but as the story advanced, I could see the sense of wonderment growing on their faces until, after a moment, I realised that I was speaking in the Indians language. I tried then to speak in my mother tongue, realising then that I had forgotten it.***


Years later towards the end of his life, the now aged witness writes about these events and his later life in an attempt to analyse and understand what had happened to him. This story follows the outline of others, such as The Legend of Tarzan and the double shock of being brought up in another world and then rediscovering ones own “civilised” world and seeing it through new eyes

Were the orgies of the Indians, described in some detail, any worse than his experiences as a cabin boy? Was the sense of belonging to a community such as the Indians not better than his treatment as an orphan in Europe? The narrator then joins a travelling theatre group to tell his story to packed audiences throughout Spain, but he realises that the people did not want to know what really happened, they wanted confirmation of their own ideas and prejudices.

On to the crux of the matter, why he was left alive and what was the role of the witnesses? This is the point that pushes him to write and maybe towards the end pushes us to continue. This was not an easy read, there is a certain amount of repetition and to be fair I was reading Antonio Muñoz Molina in parallel and how can you compete with the beauty of his writing (and excellent translation).

 

First Published in Spanish as  “El Entenado” in 1983 by Folios Ediciones.
Translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa as “The Witness” and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2009
Translated into French by Laure Bataillon as “L’Ancêtre” and published by Flammarion in 1987
*** My translation

Catherine Lacey ‘Nobody is Ever Missing’


—The second thing they tell you about hitchhiking is never accept invitations home for tea because teaIMG_1272 really means dinner and dinner really means sex and sex really means they’re going to kill you.


One morning Elyria says goodbye to her husband as he goes to work in New York, she grabs her backpack, and gets on a plane for New Zealand without informing anyone. Her only tenuous link to New Zealand is an encounter at a book show many years before for a few minutes with a writer who told her if she was ever in the area to look in, the loose type of invitation you don’t ever expect anyone to actually follow up on.

This is the initial framework of Catherine Lacey’s “Nobody is Ever Missing”, A road novel where first of all Elyria’s life is slowly distilled to us as we become aware of her present state of mind. Michael Köhlmeier in his novel ‘Two Gentlemen on a Beach’ describes Churchill and Chaplin’s lifelong fight against depression, telling us of the black dog, well here Elyria is tracked by her wildebeest:


—Nothing is wrong with you, sugar, Jaye said, and I knew she thought that was true, but she didn’t know about that wildebeest that lived in me and told me to leave that perfectly nice apartment and absolutely suitable job and routines and husband who didn’t do anything completely awful—and I felt that the wildebeest was right and I didn’t know why and even though a wildebeest isn’t the kind of animal that will attack, it can throw all its beastly pounds and heavy bones at anything that attacks it or stands in its way, so I took that also into account. One should never provoke or disobey a wildebeest, so I did leave, and it seems the wildebeest was what was wrong with me, but I wasn’t entirely sure of what was wrong with the wildebeest.


Elyria roams over New Zealand hitching from place to place , see the opening quote, and hurting, the book is mostly a monologue, we learn of her mostly drunken mother, of her adopted Korean sister, Ruby, whom she was close to and not so close to at the same time, of Ruby’s suicide as she had become a teaching assistant and finally of Elyria’s marriage to  Ruby’s professor, a much older man, drawn together by separate griefs and living an empty shell of a relationship. As Elyria’s road trip goes on and we are overwhelmed by her ever, mostly self, questioning mind, Elyria takes on senseless routine tasks in an attempt to halt her overheating, continual thinking mind and its mostly self reproach until:


— I was something like a dog I owned. I had to tell myself to leave it, to shut up, had to take myself on a walk and feed myself and had to stare at myself and try to figure out what myself was feeling or needing.


Elyria is in such a state  that she thinks but she does not feel and as for the title, towards the end of her road trip she realizes:


—And after I had deleted my history on Amos’s computer I realized that even if no one ever found me, and even if I lived out the rest of my life here, always missing, forever a missing person to other people, I could never be missing to myself, I could never delete my own history, and I would always know exactly where I was and where I had been and I would never wake up not being who I was and it didn’t matter how much or how little I thought I understood the mess of myself, because I would never, no matter what I did, be missing to myself and that was what I had wanted all this time, to go fully missing, but I would never be able to go fully missing—nobody is missing like that, no one has ever had that luxury and no one ever will.


In order to get a flavor of this nervous high energy narration style the quotes here are longer than usual, this was not an easy read now, one week after I am glad to have read this book.

First published in English as ‘Nobody is ever Missing’ by Granta Books in 2015
Translated into French as ‘Personne ne disparait’ by Myriam Anderson and published by Actes Sud in 2016

Erri De Luca ‘La Nature Exposée’

–As you can see it is a piece of art worthy of a renaissance master. Today the Church would like to restore it to its original form. Which means removing the drape.FullSizeRender
I examine the contrasting stone cover, which seems well attached at the hips and to the naked skin. I tell him that in removing it the nature will inevitably be damaged.
–what nature?
–The nature, the genitalia, that’s what we call male or female nakedness where I come from.***

Erri De Luca’s short book read in French as La Nature  exposée or in English as Nature Revealed*** is the story of a man who values people and shared experiences. The main protagonist lives in a mountain village in the north of Italy, this mountain village has always been situated on a crossroads, a route between the north and the south, as he describes the women of his village:

–Our village isn’t a village for women. They have all left for the towns, married or not. Traditionally they possess a beauty that comes from the passage of migrant populations. They have caravans in their blood.***

So in this isolated village where he has lived all of his long life and where everyone knows the business of everyone else, he carries on the age old business of guiding migrating populations across the Alps. He feels however a certain solidarity with these people forced from war afflicted countries to search a new life far from home and who are exploited at each step of their way. He quietly takes their money and then once over the mountains he returns it, until, after a grateful migrant mentions this act in a book, changing his village life totally as the other mountain guides learn of this treachery:

–The blacksmith and the Baker no longer greet me, the worst snub in the country village expelled from the list of living.

Forced to leave his mountain village he leaves for Genoa and takes up residence in a boarding house which serves meals each evening, once again a point of passage where he meets hard working migrant workers from Northern Africa who either work on the boats or in the marble quarry and feels comfortable with these people,  one of whom gifts him the marble needed for the ‘Nature’. As he looks for work he is chosen, because of his humility, to carry out the work of sculpture hinted at in the opening quote, where he must sculpt a penis for Jesus. I’ll leave you here with this story only to say that in empathy with the subject he goes to extremes:

As if, to be able to interpret a Muslim or a Jewish character, an actor asked to be circumcised in order to blend into the role: taking the Stanislavsky method to its extreme limit.

First Published in Italian as “La Natura Esposta” in 2016 by Feltrinelli.
Translated into French by Danièle Valin as ‘La Nature Exposée’ and published by Gallimard in 2017
*** My translation

Hannelore Cayre ‘La Daronne’

—I was paid in cash by my employer, The Home Office, who therefore declared no taxes…..its pretty scarey when you think of it, the translators on whom National security depends, IMG_1114the very same that translate the plots hatched by islamists in their cellars and garages, should be clandestine workers with no social security and no pension. Quite frankly there are better ways to ensure incorruptibility.***

Lets get the translation in first, ‘La Daronne’ is French slang for mother, my best equivalent would be the cockney rhyming wersion ‘The finger and thumb’.

Hannelore Cayre whose First  book ‘Commis d’office‘ meaning ‘Duty Counsel’ in English was released as a film in 2009, serves us this time an excellent piece of French Noir centering around Patience Portefeux, a hard working ageing police translator/interpreter with an uncertain future ahead of her, as the initial quote tells us these translators really were paid cash in hand, and how she becomes ‘La Daronne’.

—It was the end of July, the sun was burning up the sky; The Parisians were all heading for the beaches, and I was beginning my new career, Philippe my fiancé and copwas just taking up his new position as head of the drug squad of the 2nd unit of the DPJ…
I was really happy for him, but back then I was still just a simple police Translator/Interpreter and hadn’t yet got one point two tons of hash in my cellar.***

Cayre’s inside knowledge of the judicial process in France gives us little details such as prisoners speaking with the outside world using Playstations to avoid being listened in on, or the description of the dealers with two phones, the bizzness and the halal to avoid being eavesdropped on but being unable to keep their calls segregated and being blown within hours.

I read this book in two sittings, and thoughroughly enjoyed if from start to end, I firmly recommend this book if your French is up to it, if not watch out for or plebiscite a translation.

First Published in French as “La Daronne” in 2017 by Métailié
*** My translation