Ota Pavel ‘How I Came To Know Fish’

Fishing is above all freedom. To cover miles looking for trout, drinking from springs, img_1399alone and free for at least an hour, a day, or even weeks or months at a time. Free from television, from radio, from civilisation.***

In this book read for the Roman de Rochefort prize, the author is the narrator, Ota Pavel tells us the story, through this book of more than twenty five chapters, each a short story, of his family’s life in central Europe in the early and mid twentieth century, a story of his father Leo Popper, a larger than life character, a non practising jew, who always had a way to make money, and if he had any he spent it, a real roller coaster of a life  and Ota’s long suffering  mother, a catholic. Leo’s passion in life was fishing and so he “invested” in a country house where they could go on holidays, this was then the beginning of their fishing life. Ota describes the man who taught them to fish, Prosek the poacher:

Prosek had a long, yellow bamboo rod, a whip without a spool. He would walk against the rushing water so that the fish could not see him and crack the whip as he styled his dragoon’s moustache. That is how his method got the name ‘crack-casting.’

His father is best understood in the chapter “In the service of Sweden”, where we learn that Leo, with no training can sell anything to anyone if he is motivated , after taking a shine to the Electrolux Czech bosses wife he becomes the best door to door salesman of fridges and vacuums in the country:

Dad sold four vacuums in Rokycany on the same day, which for a novice was quite an exploit because the people had been attached to their brooms and dust pans for hundreds of years, considering a vacuum at two thousand crowns as a devil’s invention and whatsmore, perfectly useless.***

Amongst the many stories, his father who owns a carp pond has it conviscated by the local mayor when the Nazi’s arrive because of the very technical question, is it possible for a jew to own a carp pond. Leo and his two older sons are sent to Auschwitz but Ota avoids this because he is too young and they had forgotten to have him circumcised. Throughout the war Ota, although young keeps them alive partly from poaching fish until both his father and two brothers against all odds return home after the war to the slow descent of Czechoslovakia during the communist period.

In all honesty to enjoy this book to its full it’s best to like fishing, where, as the opening quote tells us, fishing is about freedom.

First Published in Czech as “Smrt krásných srncu” in 1971.
Translated into English by Jindriska Bdal and Robert McDowell and published in 1990 by Story Line Press
Translated into French by Barbora Faure and published by Editions Do in 2016.
***my translation

The original quotes before translation

La pêche c’est surtout la liberté. Parcourir des kilomètres en quete de truites, boire à l’eau des sources, être seule et libre au moins une heure, un jour, où mêmes des semaines et des mois. Libéré de la télévision, de la radio, de la civilisation.

Prosek avait une longue canne en bambou jaune. Une ligne sans moulinet. Il avançait à contre-courant pour ne pas se faire repérer des poissons en faisant parfois claquer sa ligne et ses moustaches de dragon – il appelait cette technique ‘pêcher à la cravache’

Papa vendit quatre aspirateurs à Rokycany dans la même journée, ce qui était un exploit pour un novice, car les gens étaient attachés depuis des centaines d’années à leurs balais et leurs balayettes, considérant un aspirateur à deux mille couronnes comme une invention du diable et de surcroît parfaitement inutile.


Jakuta Alikavazovic “Progress of the night”

In some ways it was true. There was nothing between them, img_1396but then again it was false, once everything that takes place with time had taken place something unalterable remained.***

In this award winning book from 2018 read for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, Alikavazovic studies opposites, how people at different ends of the spectrum can be attracted, attracted and at the same time repulsed (an attempt here at copying her writing style, affirming something and then it’s opposite in the same sentence, illustrated by the opening quote). The characters and the writing style reflect these opposites, opposites highlighted by their similarities. Take for example the main protagonists, Paul and Amélia, both orphans on their mothers sides, one rich, one poor, both architecture students, Paul  working as a night porter in a hotel, Amélia as a mysterious rich student  living in the hotel. They meet and live a fusional relationship:

I’d give everything to be like you, i’d give everything to be you ― but Paul knew that there was a difference between unlearning something that we know and never having known it.***

Their architecture lecturer Albers is a specialist of cities and the night, a subject they see from opposite viewpoints, for her, night would represent a violence that would grow out of control, for him, night was a subject to be tamed, controlled. Albers turns out to have been a very close friend of Nadia, Amélia’s mother, who had left  Amélia as a baby and had gone to Sarajevo just before and during the siege, where she had disappeared. She was unable to go through with her life and ignore the unfolding tragedy, she had to feel it, she was an artist and needed to be involved. Albers on the other hand, a theorist, did not feel the need to become involved. Albers theorising the city in dislocation, Nadia living the destruction of the city. It would take Albers’ vision and understanding to see what was happening between Amélia and Paul:

It was obvious that they would be, one for the other, the perfect lover. And that a person with more experience, Albers or another, should have been able to feel something worrying, an almost mechanical inevitability of the pleasure which would sometimes, for both of them or at least for one of the two of them be a nightmare.***

Amélia leaves him abruptly one day and disappears for ten years, spending this time ostensibly looking for her mother in Sarajevo whilst actually looking for herself, discovering that after the destruction of the city, (and her mother), the people want to rebuild the city as it was, to forget the violence which she cannot. She marries a young Serb who under her influence becomes an artist fighting against the will of the people to forget the seige, the recent past, taking actions such as splashing the streets with red paint. Alikavazovic theorises:

And what if art was the contamination of an experience, the inoculation of an experience, not lived yet experienced.***

When Amélia returns, Paul has become rich, as an architect he has become a specialist of …windows, and with her father’s help then sets up as a security specialist, in a way to protect against the night, selling amongst other things a thick walled safe people can hide in to escape danger. Once again seen from a certain perspective she living the essential, searching, feeling and yet back with no answers and he understanding the fear of the people in the city yet working at and living from the futile:

He never knew what the light was like, nor the strange dissociation that sets in between he who sees everything whilst experiencing nothing and he who experiences everything without doing anything, without being able to do anything, and are one and the same person.***

To finish my write up, they have a child, Amélia leaves soon after to go from war zone to war zone and a new cycle sets in as eventually their child leaves to seek out her mother. A difficult, hard, yet rewarding read.

First Published in French as “L’avancée de la nuit” in 2017 by Editions de l’Olivier
*** My translation

The original quotes before translation

D’une certaine façon c’était vrai. Il y avait rien entre eux, mais d’une autre c’était faux, une fois qu’était passé tout ce qui se passe avec le temps il restait quelque chose d’inamovible.

Je donnerais tout pour être comme toi, je donnerais tout pour être toi — mais Paul, lui savait qu’il y a une différence entre le fait de désapprendre quelque chose que l’on connaît, et celui de ne jamais l’avoir su.

Il était évident qu’ils seraient l’un pour l’autre de parfaits amants. Et cette personne plus expérimentée, Albers ou une autre, aurait pu pressentir là quelque chose d’inquiétant, une inévitabilité presque mécanique de la jouissance qui serait parfois, pour les deux ou au moins pour l’un des deux, cauchemardesque.

Et si l’art est la contamination d’une expérience, l’inoculation d’une expérience non vécue et pourtant éprouvée

Il ne sût jamais comment était la lumière, comment était la dissociation étrange qui s’installe entre celle qui voit tout sans rien éprouver et celle qui éprouve tout sans rien faire, sans rien pouvoir faire, et qui sont une seule et même personne.

Julie Douard ‘La Chair des vivants’

François was in the provinces doing a tour of the franchises to check that the marketing recommendations, drawn up by experts at the highest levels, were being applied everywhere; img_1385he had to check that the brand wasn’t being ridiculed by some provincial manager or another arrogant enough to think that he knew their customers better than the head office…***

This book is one of the entrants for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, a book that looks at a group of people working in the marketing department of a company, microcosm of many of todays groups of workers, a mix of people thrown together during the day, whose worries at the onset are more about who they are and their image in the group rather than the reason that that they work together or any hypothetical link of their jobs to the real world. The arrogance of the opening quote tells us everything we need to know in a brushstroke about the company the group of people are working for, centralised, elite and and the same time futile.

The group of people at the outset are under pressure to perform and are mostly middle-aged, a terrible thing to be in the modern competitive age. There is Henri a repressed forty something single man who had lived with his mother until her recent death and who, now free, develops a crush on his ex-miliary Serbian masseur and illegal immigrant, Goran, who Henri invites to live in exchange for becoming his personal trainer. There is the tyrant boss, Mr Michel and his trod upon assistant, Sophie, there is the discreet Francois in whom everyone confides but who never wants to take a risk with his life, there is the uninteresting Michon who has just started, by internet, to use a personal coach and of course the frustrated late thirty something receptionist Fabienne. We follow the evolution of this group, typified by the events which lead to Fabienne’s steamy day with Goran and Henri’s reaction illustrated in the following quote:

She, who recently had wanted her life to speed up, was more than rewarded: she had followed up a dinner date with the handsome François by a wild rock and roll dance where thanks to that chaterbox Michon, she had come over as a skilled dancer and then followed that by a mad day of sex that nobody was should have held against her and, precisely for this reason, Henri was now molesting her like an angry father whose barely pubescent son she had just deflowered… Fabienne got a grip on herself and gave Henri a good hard slap, and then another and so on, using both hands to make this machist phallocrat think a second time about his idea that she must be a right slut to shag a Serb on the Lord’s day…***

The book moves to it’s ineluctable end as, in preparing as a team for a marathon in which the company Number 5, the head of their department, takes a singular interest, their individual storylines each reach their conclusions.

First Published in French as “La Chair des vivants” in 2018 by P.O.L
*** My translation

Benoît Philippon ‘Mamie Luger’

Bam, bam, Berthe reloads. Her limbs tremble. A lot of stress for an old woman of 102…. De Gore is lying a few yards from his dog kennel, he has a hole in the back and a hole in his ass, in addition to the official one. img_1382Shit, maybe she went a bit over the top. Berthe had never liked him, de Gore. The worthy descendant of his scumbag father. She hadn’t thought though that he’d wind up at the end of her shotgun, even if she had played with the idea for years..***

This book is the surprise selection for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, a book high on dry humour and regional dialect from the centre of France. The story opens on the initial quote, featuring Berthe a 102 year old firing first of all at her neighbour and then above the heads of the police that come to arrest her. Little do the police then realise the scope of the confessions and life story of Berthe. As the questioning begind we quickly understand that Berthe, famed for her flowery language has her own ideas of how to speak to those around her:

“f’you find my anwers too long, m’off home to listen to my game on the radio.”
“I suspect your game is finished by now.”
“Very clever! And why do you wanna know all this anyway?” says the grandmother getting annoyed.
“Its the protocol”.
“I dont give a fuck, me, if you’ve got a sore ass-hole.”
“I’m sorry” gasps Ventura.
“You’re the one talkin’ to me ’bout yer proctologue.”
“Protocole Berthe.”..***

The story tells us the life story of Berthe from being born during the first world war with a father killed at the front, to being brought up by a grandmother that survives by distilling fruit alcohol and selling it to any men left in the villages through to her many marriages, finishing up a widow each time, beginning by killing a nazi rapist to killing husbands for abuse and slowly going towards killing them for freedom.

The story takes us through many episodes in the police station as well with the detactive she calls Columbo and a short period in the holding cells where she talks with a young delinquant with neither understanding directly the other’s slang but with a transvestite translating for them, we see the instant respect of the youth when he discovers that she is a serial killer. We cover as well the detective being put in his place on women’s rights by the old lady as he tries to tackle her on the murder of a nazi that had raped her:

“You’ve got a nazi burried in your cellar”?
“Well done you’ve been listening”.
“That you assassinated then”? checked Ventura in case the old lady was saying this from senility.
“Oh, no,in fact you haven’t been listening. you missed the rape bit”.
“Yes, of course, there was the attempted rape”, corrected the inspector
“Attempted? my description wasn’t clear enough”? said Berthe with outrage…..
“We’re in 2016, I’m talking to you about rape and you’re insinuating that I’ve something to reproach myself for”?
“Mrs Gavignol..”, the inspector tried to recover.
“Oh yeah, so now we’re putting on the form”? says Berthe bitterly.
“Berthe”! Ventura replies, “I couldn’t care less about your nazi, the exceptional circumstaces plead in your favour…”
“Decidedly speaking, the more you talk, the more insulting you become”.***

The book was a pleasant read but a bit too long for me.

First Published in French as “Mamie Luger” in 2018 by Les Arènes.*** My translation

Edouard Louis ‘Who Killed My Father’

When we ask the American intellectual Ruth Gilmore what the word racism means to her, she replies that racism is the exposition of certain populations to a premature death.img_1381
This definition also works for male domination, the hatred of homosexuality, or of transgenders, class domination and all phenomena of social and political oppression.***

In this short book of less than 100 pages, read for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, Edouard Louis revisits one of the many themes of his book examining his own childhood in Picardy “The End of Eddy“. In this initial work Eddy’s father was a product of his upbringing and life, basically promulgating the creed of machoism, alcohol to the detriment of self improvement and woe betide anyone including his family who did not conform. Here Edouard Louis revisits his father, remembering as best as he can his every interaction with this father and explaining politically who his father was, how he became who he was, and his evolution since that date. The book opens telling us clearly in which direction it will take us, illustrated in the opening quote.

After reassessing his relationship with his father, openly trying to put the good moments in perspective with the bad, including his fathers playful moments such as driving his car at dangerous speeds to annoy his wife whilst winking at Eddy in the mirror as opposed to the story of his hiding the christmas presents in the car and having a hit and run driver crush the car setting him into a wild rage, Edouard Louis visits his father who he has not seen for some time and we discover a premature old and unwell man:

The problems began in the factory where you worked…..one afternoon we received a call from the factory telling us that a weight had fallen on you. Your back had been crushed, squashed, they told us you would be unable to walk for several years.***

Edouard Louis’ father is then exposed to a premature death due to class domination, where he perpetuated his own fathers class and due to social and political oppression, and here Edourd Louis examines the real effect on his father and his father’s condition of this oppression, using his father to represent his class, the style of this “pamphlet”, naming the politicians and the effects of their decisions, is illustrated here:

In 2009 Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and his accomplice Martin Hirsch replaced the RMI, a minimum payed by the state to people without work, by the RSA. You had received the RMI ever since you had been unable to work: the change from the RMI to the RSA was “to incite the return to employment” as the government put it. The truth of the matter is that from then on you were constantly harased by the state to get back to work, in spite of your disastrous state of health, in spite of what the factory had done to you.***

His father who had been totally opposed to any political activity, in part due to fear of the police and the judicial system, as Eddy was growing up, finishes by asking him if he is still politically active, and we understand that time and his father have moved on as he assents that it is good that he is still active. In the relative absence of wide political discussion, sure there are politicians and journalists, Edouard Louis’ is a voice with a wide readership adding his deply rooted thoughts to the debate.

First Published in French as “Qui a tué mon père” in 2018 by Editions du Seuil.
To be published in English in 2019 by New Directions Publishing Corporation.
*** My translation


Goliarda Sapienza ‘Rendez-vous à Positano’

Her movement aroused the attention of all of the onlookers as she descended the remaining steps to the waters edge where a boat was waiting to take her out to sea, img_1370or when, Nicola – La Schimia, the monkey, the son of Lucibello, the oldest and most robust of the former fishermen of Positano, who, like all of the others, had taken to renting out sun shades and deck chairs – helped her to step from the boat, and followed her with a dumbstruck gaze as she crossed the wooden boardwalk that transformed the ancient rocky creek into a cozy lounge.***

Goliarda Sapienza’s novel describing her friendship with Erica has been reviewed here for the ‘Roman de Rochefort’. I’ll start unusually with a short description of the context of this book. first of all Goliarda was born into a famous anarchist socialist family, with her father leading the socialist movement in Sicily until the arrival of facism. Goliarda was involved in the theatre before becoming a full time writer. Her works did not really become well known until after her death. This book written after the death of the central character, Erica, (the names have been changed) tells of a friendship over many years of Goliarda with Erica and a place, Positano. The opening quote, the first lines of the book, illustrate the magnetic attraction of Erica and Goliarda’s writing style.

The story begins in 1948 with the meeting of the two women in Positano where Erica has a Villa and Goliarda is on reconnaissance for a film setting where we immediately understand the magic of the village from the following quote:

It was precisely because of its reputation that we had come to Positano, along with the director Maselli and his screenwriter, Pradino Visconti, to see if the location could be used as the background for the film ‘gli sbandati’ which we were writing . But a few hours were sufficient to convince us that the location was too beautiful and infused with magic for a story such as ours.***

Erica comes from an aristocratic family and is well known by all of the permanent residents of Positano and in truth a little lonely and although Goliarda, with her very different background, is fascinated by her it is one of the permanent residents of the village that suggest to Erica that they could be good for each other and thus, so begins their long friendship meeting each summer in Positano for a period of ten years, from a period of relative anonymity for the village unto the period of mass tourism as the approach road is widened. The cover picture shown at the beginning of the article typifies the idea of the two women that Goliarda manages to portray at this beginning of the 50’s. The following quote helps us to understand the level of confidence that the two friends are able to build up, sharing with each other deeply buried secrets about their lives including the truly dark secrets of Erica’s life told on ‘that famous night’:

At the start of the summer of 58, exactly ten years after our first encounter and three years after that famous night intoxicated by confessions, by silences and by fragrances, I received an enormous post card from New York with a night view of Manhattan (we had begun a bad taste competition, who could dig up the worst, either new or old, of this means of communication), where the small precise handwriting, a little pretentious, even posh of Erica announcing “I’ll be expecting you in July at Positano, I’m happy! and I’d like you to know why. I feel like a new woman, consider me a new woman.***

Erica’s family life from her childhood through to her present day life was filled with tragedy as slowly delivered in the nights spent together during this period, and as if mirrored Positano sinks into the less authentic world of mass tourism whilst Erica’s relatively stable life slips back into tragedy. A final point about the writing style; written by Goliarda mostly in the first person but occasionally stepping back to an overall narrator that refers to her as Goliarda as illustrated in this final quote:

“I would like you to accompany Olivia on the boat. Try to understand where all of her frustration, that has been tormenting me for almost two years, stems from…..”
This task would have vexed almost anyone. But Goliarda likes to get to the bottom of things…..
At least I’ll know why I find her so disagreeable, I told myself…***

I found this book to be a profound and moving book about the story of these two unexpected friends, Castagné’s translation renders a very carefully constructed story the wording it deserves, I could feel Goliarda’s screenwriting in the wonderful descriptions of an already bygone age.

First Published in Italian as “Appuntamento a Positano” in 2015 by Einaudi
Translated into French by Nathalie Castagné and published as “Rendez-vous à Positano” by Le Tripode in 2017
*** my translation

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