Eric Faye ‘Eclipses Japonaises’


—During the first lessons, they wanted to hear her talk about her earliest childhood…they insisted on her teaching them nursery rhymes….in total 5D3DD7A7-8259-45DB-A603-3D2209016298seriousness they repeated the songs after her until they knew them by heart, they drank in her childhood. Had she stumbled into a lunatic asylum?…one day looking at their uniforms, Naoko thought that maybe she was teaching killers nursery rhymes***


Éric Faye brings us here in Japanese Disapearances*** A novel based on the true story of state kidnapping by North Korea of a number of Japanese citizens that went unknown for 25 years or more as in the 1970’s and early 80’s almost incredibly, small groups of North Koreans surprised isolated young Japanese near the coast, popped sacks over their heads and rushed them onto boats. Since nobody imagined this state of affairs, they were often assumed drowned or having run away from home and the isolated incidents were not connected.

Faye tells us the stories of some of these people with romanced names, here for instance Naoko Tanabe who was kidnapped when she was 13 years old in 1977 near her home in Niigata or of Setsuko Okada kidnapped at 20 in 1978 from the island of Sado. No clear reason for these kidnappings seem obvious, other than that they could. Through these two illustrations we quickly understand the situation of total hopelessness in which they find themselves, isolated from the population, living through the continual North Korean doctrination, mostly unaware of other cases of kidnapping, forced to change their names and to police everything they say with no hope of leaving, hence the quote from Dante’s Inferno at the beginning of the book:


—Abandon all hope you who enter here


We learn that Naoke, still at a young age is asked to teach North Korean military to act and to seem Japanese as in the opening quote, yes, it’s not a country where they could just go to Japan to learn this. One of Naoke’s  « students » who is captured alive after bombing à Korean Air flight killing all of the passengers and crew tells the investigators of Naoke, but this information is kept secret thus neither her family or other families suspect anything for two more decades.

The North Koreans did not just kidnap Japanese and some had fates similar to  Setsuko Okada, who was cook and then married to an American deserter, Jim Selkirk in the book, who disappeared from the DMZ between the two Koreas in 1966.

We learn of the unlikely way a journalist puts together the story and the civil pressures of the families of these victims on the Japanese government to negotiate with (and of course to pay) North Korea to recuperate some of these victims. And of course after so many decades some had died and some did not come back.

The interest lies in the truth behind the book.

First published in French as ‘Éclipses Japonaises’ by Éditions Du Seuil in 2016
***My translation

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Paolo Giordano ‘The Human Body’

—In the years following the mission, each of the guys set out to make his life unrecognizable, until the memories of that other life, that earlier existence,img_1064 were bathed in a false, artificial light and they themselves became convinced that none of what took place had actually happened, or at least not to them.

Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body was written using his experience as an embedded journalist in an Italian peace mission in Afghanistan. The title loses its double meaning in the translation being both a body and a military unit in the original Italian, this story investigates a military unit by following a number of individuals through the senselessness and boredom of their mission, their ill preparedness for the intense stress caused by a mission outside of their base that goes terribly wrong and how this incident transforms them, illustrated by the opening quote.

In particular we meet the squad leader René, a career soldier respected by his men and who when he is not on mission is a Gigolo with a string of middle aged paying customers, the loud mouthed Cederna and his young acolyte, the “virgin” Ietri, as well as Mitrano who is bullied by Cederna, Zampieri the only woman in the unit who has continually to prove herself and Torsu, who from the mission outset has health problems. When they arrive in Afghanistan they are joined by Egitto the garrison Doctor has decided to stay on for another mission, Paolo Giordano talks us through everyday bored military life as here in a discussion between Cederna and Ietri

—The embarrassing truth is that Ietri has never been with a woman, not in the sense that he considers complete. No one in the platoon knows this and it would be a disaster if they were to find out. The only one who knows is Cederna; he told him about it himself one evening at the pub when they were both smashed and in the mood for confiding. “Complete? You mean to say you’ve never fucked?” “Well, not . . . fully.” “A goddamn little virgin! Hey, I have a new name for you: verginella…. Listen up now—it’s important. The tool down there is like a rifle. A 5.56, with a metal stock and laser sighting.” Cederna shoulders an invisible weapon and aims it at his friend. “If you don’t remember to oil the barrel from time to time, it will end up jamming.” Ietri looks down at his mug of beer. He takes too big a swig, begins to cough. Jammed. He’s a guy who’s jammed. “Even Mitrano manages to shoot his wad every now and then,” Cederna says. “He pays.”

For their peacekeeping mission they are stationed in an inhospitable landscape, their base camp is on the top of a hill, isolated from the country they are there to help in order to provide its own safety:

—The truth is, as in all of the operations since the start of the conflict, the clearing of the area has only been partial, the secure zone extends for a radius of 2km around the base, some dangerous pockets of guérillas remain within this zone and outside of the zone it’s hell…***

After several moral sapping isolated months on the hill top, peacekeeping, they are forced to leave their base in convoy to escort some Afghan  lorry drivers who have had their lorries taken from them through the inhospitable zone which surrounds their hill. Paolo Giordano conveys to us just how easy a target they actually are, up to and including the moments of the tragedy.

A study of futility, the smallness of our individual lives and the impossibility of the peacekeeping mission in this inhospitable territory.

First Published in Italian as “Il corpo umamo” in 2012 by Arnoldo Mondadori.
Translated into French by Nathalie Bauer as ‘Le corps humain’ and published by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel as “The Human body”and published by Viking Penguin in 2014
*** My translation

Andreï Makine ‘L’Archipel d’une autre Vie’

—At night, from here on we saw the fire lit by the fugitive.normally he lit three, several metres from each other which prevented a successful attack.img_1061 It would have been easy to catch him sleeping, but next to which fire? A night attack against an armed man was too risky. And our orders were strict: he had to be kept alive to allow him to be punished in an exemplary fashion to terrorise the other prisoners..***

Andreï Makine takes us on a journey through the Taïga with a diverse group of Soviet era conscripts in the pursuit of a fugitive  which at the slow speed of an awakening brings the central character, Pavel Gartsev, to see the times he lived in, to lead him to question himself and then finally leads him in the continued and extreme pursuit of an ideal on the archipelago of the title, the Chantar islands off of the eastern coast of the Soviet Union.

—In my youth I often thought back to the hermits  of the Chantars. At one point their exile seemed incomprehensible, even frightening. To cut oneself of from society, to shut oneself off entirely in the ice, on a small island surrounded by a  raging ocean! To refuse the spectacle of life, its emotions, its rivalry! I was then at the age where I was blinded by diversity and intoxicated by the number of different postures. Where changing roles gives the illusion of freedom. Where multiplying yourself through thousands of relationships is interpreted as having a rich life.***

The story concerns a group of soviet citizens in 1953, in the final months of Stalin’s life, taking part in a survival exercise in the Taïga in the event of an American nuclear attack. Five of them are seconded to pursue, apprehend and bring back an escaped prisoner from a soviet camp. In theory a simple task for five well equipped Soviet soldiers against a poor weakened prisoner. Makine takes us down the well worn road of totalitarianism, the nominal army chief and the real chief, his political commissar, the ambitious soldier sucking up to the commissar and the soldier who has himself spent time in the Gulag before being totally cleared. Nothing new here, it is however entirely believable.

As the chase is drawn out, with the prisoner proving himself able to live in the Taïga and the soldiers, extenuated and slowly dropping out of the chase due to injuries, the remaining pursuers discover that the prisoner, so skilfully evading them is a woman:

—The fact that the fugitive was a woman completely changed our outlook. Before, we felt a certain compassion for this barefooted fugitive. He was what could happen to any one of us in these unpredictable and terrible times in which we lived. But to be faced with a woman changed everything for us. She had humiliated, even diminished us. We were the real victims! Tossed around in this endless Taïga. Our honour had been questioned. Diminished by a girl who could shoot better than us, walked bravely, pushed back our attacks keeping her composure. On top of this when she could have killed us, she had chosen not to!***

Following this discovery, they try much harder to capture her, talking about all of the the things they dream to do to her in order to regain their lost masculinity. It is at this point that Gartsev slowly begins to question what they are doing. The Soviet machine is unforgiving and if they do not bring her back then helicopters and troops will be sent after her which explains her choice of the most remote uninhabited point of the USSR as her destination:

—The words of Pavel came back to me with their calm certainty: follow day after day, a woman that has no knowledge of you as you have no knowledge of her destination, to live only for the unending journey, not to ask anything of the other. For a short moment the exciting madness of this dream Intoxicated me***

The story is told by a narrator that had met Gartsev in the Taïga and came back many years later looking for him, this part of the story was of no interest to me. An interesting book but not one of Makine’s best

First Published in French as “L’Archipel d’une autre Vie” in 2016 by Seuil
*** My translation

Alain Mabanckou ‘Black Bazaar’

imageMy French reading for the year has begun outside of my reading list with Alain Mabanckou’s 2009 novel Black Bazaar.

This is a rambling book about an African from the Republic of Congo and his everyday life in the expat community in the north of Paris.

After a meeting with Louis-Philippe, a Haitian expat, he decides to write about his life and so we discover this community that vibrates to Congolese music, where wind instruments, unlike Jazz, were abandoned years ago. Everyone in the book has a colourful nickname, and most can’t be easy to translate. The writer is known by his friends as the ‘Fessologue’ or Ass Studier, translated as the Buttologist. The title of his book Black Bazaar comes from the black community in Paris with bazaar, meaning mess, in French.

The book begins after Fessologue has been abandoned by his wife ‘Couleur d’origine’ original colour, who was born in France but is blacker than the expats born in Africa.

‘So there is nothing left to tell you that a woman and a child lived with me in this room, except maybe the shoe that my woman forgot probably due to the rush. That day she must have told herself that I could come back at any time and catch her collecting together all of her belongings whereas I was Enjoying my Pelforth at the Gips and if I found that shoe it’s a little thanks to Paul from the Larger Congo, who said to me whilst we were drinking that when a woman leaves you then you should change the position of your bed to underline that the relationship is over.’***

The book is a meandering story describing the writers life through his friends and his encounters as he makes the journey from writing to being a writer. Most of the Africans painted in the book have strong views about subjects that touch them , such as Yves one of the writers drinking pals

‘Yves from the Ivory Coast once again brought up the subject of the colonial debt you should have taken a métis, you haven’t understood anything about this country despite my trying to explain Urbi et Orbi that the most urgent problem for we negroes is to snatch an indemnity from them here and now for what we were submitted to during the colonisation… The equation is simple friend, the more we go out with French girls, the more we contribute to leaving our trace in this country, to be able to let our old colonisers know that we are still here, that in tomorrow’s world there will be negroes at every crossroads, negroes who will be French like them whether they like it or not.’

Or the Arab who owns the corner shop and speaks about Pan Africanism, respect and who knows everyone in the neighbourhood, or Mr. Hippocrate a French west indian who considers himself above the Africans, used by Mabanckou to illustrate base racism and who defends colonisation as a generous act.

This was a light colourful book worth the detour.

First Published in French as “Black Bazaar” by Éditions du Seuil in 2009
Translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone and published as “Black Bazaar” by Serpents Tail in 2012
***My translation

Andreï Makine ‘A Woman Loved’

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a beautiful description!

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

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Arturo Perez-Reverte ‘le Tango de la Vieille Garde’

As of today I am a grand father!
After ‘Queen of the South’amongst other books translated from Spanish into English and French, since turned into a television series, read easily ten years back, his latest book translated into French but not yet into English ‘Le Tango de la Vieille Garde‘ which can be thought of a little like the song ‘Every time We say goodbye, you know I cry a little‘ is a film waiting to happen.

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The story set in three distinct periods, the late twenties, the late thirties and the early sixties follows Max and Inzunza two characters from different worlds, her rich, with no worries for tomorrow and he poor surviving by scams.
In the late twenties they meet on a transatlantic liner from Spain to Argentina, She with her wealthy composer husband working on a Tango (a simple bet with Ravel to better his Bolero) and he as the House dancer, suave and debonair, surviving by ripping off rich women. He takes them through the back streets of Buenos Aires to the birth place of the true Tango and lives a passion with Inzunza before disappearing with her valuable pearl necklace.
We meet them again in the late thirties in Nice between the Spanish civil war and WW2, he by now an accomplished cat burglar and she estranged from her husband, they once again are passionate lovers before events force a second separation.
The third confrontation is in their twilight years where Max who has come through difficult times meets once again Inzunza with her son (A chess champion challenging the Russian world champion) and at the bequest of Inzunza becomes embroiled in a dangerous case of burglary.
Throughout we are aware of their unrequited love, (if only life could let them be together).
As always these stories are intertwined. This is once again a compelling story, worthy of an English translation, I’d pay to watch the film.

Le Tango de la Vieille Garde: First published in Spain in 2012
Translated into French by François Maspero, published by Seuil in 2013

Victor del Árbol ‘ A Million Drops’

Here is a major Spanish suspense story writer with his second book to be translated into English (May 2015), which I read in advance in French as ‘Toutes les Vagues de l’Océan’. A journey through time and place (Europe from the 1930’s to present day) and a darker journey through a families awful secrets. This exceptional historic panorama is painted (unusually for me) from a Spanish perspective. image Read on