Archive for January, 2014

The Siege

January 21, 2014


It has been 6 years since the last appearance in English of an Arturo Perez-Reverte novel – that was The Painter of Battles, a contemporary thriller based in part on his experience as a war journalist. His previous novel in Spanish, about the battle of Trafalgar, remains untranslated, as do the two which followed, the first set in Madrid in 1808 as the Spanish fight the French for the city; the second featuring Spanish soldiers in conflict with the Aztecs. The historical novel is clearly Perez-Reverte’s default setting, if not that of English language publishers. The Siege, however, as its title suggests, is an historical novel, set in 1811 in and around the Spanish port of Cadiz, besieged by the forces of Napoleon.

As we have come to expect from his novels, even those considerably shorter than The Siege’s 560 pages, it contains more than one plotline. Its selling point, apparently, (and perhaps one reason for its translation, I would cynically suggest) is that a serial killer is on the loose in the city. One of the novel’s numerous main characters is the police comisario, Tezon, who is responsible for finding the man responsible for killing young girls after lacerating their backs with a whip. Tezon becomes fixated with the coincidence of the murders with bombsites, a connection that becomes all the more mysterious when a body is found before a missile lands.

However, the reader should be careful not to expect a detective story with a little historical window dressing. Firstly, Tezon’s story is only one of many, and although the events and characters of these plotlines coincide at times, anyone who assumes they will all connect will be disappointed. Perez-Reverte is equally interested in his other tales: of the French Captain Desfosseux who is tasked with increasing the range of their artillery; of Lolita Palma determined to keep her shipping business solvent during the difficult conditions created by the war; of Pepe Lobo, the corsair captain searching the sea for prizes; of Gregorio Fumagal, the taxidermist and French spy; of Felipe Mojarra, the salter who uses his knowledge of the marshes to aid the Spanish troops.

Each story contains its own moments of tension and excitement and there is plenty to reward the patient reader. Perez-Reverte is intent on providing a detailed picture of Cadiz during the siege and throughout the novel we mix with all classes from the richest to the poorest. At times historical detail threatens to overwhelm the narrative, particularly when it comes to ballistics, but generally the author’s obvious love of the period is kept in check.

While this is not as riveting as the early page-turners which Perez-Revert made his name with like The Dumas Club and The Flanders Panel, or as much fun as the Captain Alatriste novels, anyone who enjoys intelligent historical fiction should seek it out.

News from Berlin

January 15, 2014

news from berlin

Otto de Kat’s short novels are now a fairly regular occurrence since MacLehose Press published Man on the Move in 2009. This was followed by Julia in 2011 and now News from Berlin. Although de Kat (a pseudonym) was not born until the Second World War was over (1946), all three novels are set around that time. While the previous two novels begin prior to the war and continue past it, News from Berlin is unusual in that it is set over a much shorter time period, a matter of weeks in 1941, as the German army prepares to invade Russia. It does, however, share the same focus on how the war affects and influences relationships. A single date is of great importance in the novel: the 22nd of June, the date on which Germany will launch its invasion of current ally, Russia. Oscar Vershuur, a Dutch diplomat living and working in Switzerland, receives this information from his daughter, Emma, whose German husband works in the Foreign Ministry. The dilemma he faces is what to do with this knowledge. Who should he tell? Indeed, should he tell anyone when there is a danger the leak will be traced back to Emma in Germany?

“He was certain that his name would crop up sooner or later. There would be Russians making enquiries among German diplomats, asking about an operation code-named Barbarossa. Never heard of it, of course, whatever gave them that idea? Oh …some Dutch specialist in Berne. The Gestapo would do the rest.”

Oscar’s agonising over his decision unifies much of the plot, but beyond its spy thriller trappings, the novel is primarily about relationships. The novel begins with Oscar falling in love with a woman he meets in the Swiss mountains. Meanwhile his wife, Kate, is in London helping in a military hospital; she has become infatuated with a young Congolese soldier, Matteous, who has been sent to England to be treated after saving the life of his Belgian officer. This infatuation continues even once he is discharged as she finds him a bedsit to stay in and begins to teach him to read and write. The novel not only moves effortlessly between her experience and Oscar’s, but also spends time with Emma in Germany, giving us a panoramic view of the war and its effects. All these relationships are profoundly affected by the war: in Oscar and Kate’s case it is because they are thrown together with someone they otherwise would be unlikely to meet; in Emma’s case it is the circumstances she finds herself in having married an enemy of her own country. But de Kat is not arguing entirely for fate: all three characters make important decisions too. Emma risks her life to pass on the information to Oscar; he must then decide what to do with it – and that decision will affect his other relationships. All the characters also share a sense of statelessness. Matteous is marooned in London, desperate to return to the Congo but with no idea whether his home still exists. Emma is stranded in a country she is at war with; Kate is separated from her family, a refugee in London; and Oscar has lost all sense of home:

“Home? Oscar heard the word, but it had no ring to it. Berne, Berlin, London, he had lost his home long since.”

The German invasion of Russia is, of course, a turning point in the war. De Kat uses this ironically to conclude the novel – for the characters too, we fear, it is the “beginning of the end.” If you have not read de Kat before, this would be a great place to start.

I Was Jack Mortimer

January 11, 2014

jack mortimer

Alexander Lernet-Holenia was an Austrian writer who had the misfortune to be of an age to fight in both the first and second world wars, and the good fortune to survive both. He was a prolific author, writing not only novels but poetry and plays; even his novels can be apparently divided into those that are intended to be serious works of literature and those that are primarily entertainment. It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Pushkin Press has unearthed I Was Jack Mortimer (one of his entertainments) for translation given their previous success with Mitteleuropean writers such as Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler.

I Was Jack Mortimer uses the now familiar (though, no doubt, less so in 1933) starting point of many a thriller: the ordinary man innocently caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Its protagonist is Frederick Sponer, a taxi driver, whose life is turned upside down by one unlucky fare. That fare is, of course, Jack Mortimer, whose journey to the Hotel Bristol is interrupted by the three shots which kill him. Sponer is at first oblivious and then (when he discovers the body) panicky: after two failed attempts to tell the police he becomes anxious they will simply assume that he is the murderer. He decides, therefore, to dispose of the body and spend the night as Jack Mortimer in the Hotel Bristol to throw the police off his trail, a plan that goes remarkably well until Mortimer’s lover turns up, closely followed by her husband.

The novel begins relatively slowly with Sponer’s fascination for a wealthy young woman, Marisabelle, who rebuffs all his advances, but proceeds to a frenetic pace the moment Mortimer’s death is discovered. What I particularly liked about it was not simply the twists and turns of Sponer’s story, but the author’s willingness to interrupt that and take us elsewhere. There is, for example, a sudden change of scene when we are presented with the back story of Mortimer’s lover’s husband before that character has even appeared in Sponer’s story. This happens more subtly later when we leave Sponer and follow his girlfriend, Marie, as she attempts to aid him. (Although it has to be said that the competition between Marie and Mrisabelle is far from subtle in the way it is played out).

I Was Jack Mortimer may not be a neglected classic, but it is an excellent thriller – it is no surprise to learn that it has been twice made into a film (in the 1930s and 1950s). In Lernet-Holenia, Pushkin Press has discovered yet another writer that I, for one, want to hear more from.

The Wine Dark Sea

January 8, 2014

wine dark sea

A new year should always be a time for new writers, and I don’t just mean the over-hyped newcomers who are currently filling every 2014 list, but those writers you always meant to read but never quite get round to. Luckily Granta has obliged by reissuing a number of Leonardo Sciascia books this January. As a fan of European noir, it is somewhat surprising that I’ve not made the effort to encounter Sciascia before, and perhaps also surprising that I decided to opt for The Wine Dark Sea, a collection of stories, rather than one of his crime novels, though Sciascia does comment in an afterword that “they seem to form, collectively, a kind of summary of my work up to now.”

The earlier stories in particular bear resemblance to folk tales. The first, ‘The Ransom’, even opens with a King travelling in a carriage, though this is simply a prelude to a story itself which takes place at a later date. That it concerns a father giving up his daughter to help his son-in-law evade punishment for a crime, however, has echoes of the folk tradition, and also introduces the endemic corruption that will be recurrent theme: the judge offers as a reason for marrying the daughter:

“…if I were to do all I were disposed to do and that is in my power to do on behalf of a brother-in-law, a relation, no-one would offer a word of criticism.”

The stories are dark but often funny. In ‘The Long Crossing’ desperate emigrants are fooled into believing they have been taken by boat to America. Their efforts to discover where they are are comic at the same time they are heart-breaking. In ‘Guifa’, the protagonist, a simpleton, easily outwits the police after killing a cardinal. In ‘The Demotion’ Sciascia casts a cynical eye at both religion and politics: a wife’s distress that the local saint has been demoted by the Pope is echoed in the husband’s shock that Stalin’s tomb is no longer going to be moved.

The later stories are often more obviously of the crime genre. ‘End-Game’, a story of competing murders, is, in particular, full of twists and turns. ‘Mafia Western’ is laced with the violent revenge its title suggests, and ‘Trial by Violence’ is, at times, written in the manner of a court report.

The title story, ‘The Wine Dark Sea’, is the longest, a mediation on the transitory nature of love. Its protagonist, Bianchi, falls in love with a young woman he meets on a long train journey. She is travelling with her aunt and uncle and their children; the children take up much of the narrative, and it is one of them who comments that the sea “looks like wine.” This is immediately dismissed by the parents:

“What on earth’s the matter with the child’s eyesight? He doesn’t seem to be able to tell one colour from another.”

Bianchi on the other hand suggests:

“Perhaps it’s the effect, almost like the effect of wine, which a sea like this produces. It isn’t drunkenness, but it overpowers the senses…”

He is referring to his own love, endorsing the poetic fancy of the child and its echo of a greater poetic fancy. When the family alight and the train moves on though, thoughts of visiting them quickly fade from Bianchi’s mind:

“…all his emotion of sorrow and of love was immediately blotted out by sleep.”

It’s no surprise in Sciascia that the pragmatic is victorious over the poetic!

As I haven’t read any of Sciascia’s novels, I can’t say whether The Wine Dark Sea provides a good introduction to his work; it is, however, well worth reading on its own merits.

The Flamethrowers

January 3, 2014


As usual, I begin the new year reading those books I should have read last year: first up, Rachel Kushner’s much lauded American epic, The Flamethrowers. Set largely in New York and Italy during the 1970s, the novel tells the story of a young woman’s love affair with a wealthy Italian while detouring into radical politics in the first half of the twentieth century and in the seventies.

It’s narrator falls fully born into the world of the novel, so much so that even her name remains unknown to the reader, who must make do instead with the suitably mythic nickname she quickly acquires, Reno. This establishes her working class, provincial roots, which she has abandoned to live in New York and pursue her ambition to be an artist. Luckily, not the kind of artist that has to spend long hours in a studio painting or sculpting, as Reno finds it difficult to stay still – so much so that the novel begins with her taking part in a motorbike speed trial across the desert. Her ‘art-form’ involves filming in some way that is never entirely specified, and, in fact, art rarely gets in the way of a story that is supposedly full of artists.

It is entirely appropriate that Reno sees herself as a camera as she is rarely active in the novel, and more often finds herself viewing the action as an outsider. She arrives in New York knowing no-one:

“I figured it was only a matter of time before I met people, was part of something.”

And though she does meet people, she is never quite part of the New York art scene, Later, when her Italian boyfriend, Sandro, takes her to meet his mother in Italy she is equally adrift, even when it comes to the rules of the cheese knife:

“…rich people didn’t follow the letter of the law….Although there was some way of following them, while not submitting to them, but it required a mysterious touch, and you had to be from that class to possess the special touch.”

In Rome, among radicals, her position as an observer is enforced by her decision to film the demonstration she is taken to. Her job as a ‘China girl’, a woman who is photographed holding a Kodak colour card at the beginning of a film as a marker for the flesh tones, seems symptomatic of her role in the novel.

Reno’s speed trial ends with her crashing, and the novel also seems prone to sudden stops. Her biking and filming are presented as integral parts of her character but are also largely irrelevant to the plot once their particular set-piece is over. Perhaps the best section of the novel is that set in Sandro’s mother’s villa in Italy, with its eccentric cast of inhabitants. However, when she catches Sandro with another woman she simply walks away and the relationship peters out. Admittedly this takes her (somewhat implausibly) to another interesting setting, with a group of radicals in Rome, but, after one encounter with street violence, it skids to a halt and we are soon back in New York.

Clearly the novel thinks it has something to say about class: Sandro’s wealth is entirely built on exploitation, not only of factory workers Italy, but of the natives of South America who harvest rubber for the company. It is suggested near the end that it is Sandro’s knowledge of this that has led him to be an artist, but that decision seems more to originate in a desire to forget where the money comes from. There is an implied contrast between Sandro’s friends, firing blanks at each other for sexual pleasure, and the radicals of Rome:

“The gun was a tool like the screwdriver was a tool, and they all carried them.”

In fact, the novel hints at the exploitative nature of art itself, particularly the way it exploits women. Sandro’s friend, Ronnie, puts on a show of pictures of “women mugging for the camera with their faces roughed up.” In Rome she discovers some men filming a young girl, pregnant and homeless. When the baby is born, they put the girl in an asylum:

“They didn’t care about her. The girl who was the centre, the cause, the reason for their film.
Venice. They were hoping for Venice”

Reno herself seems largely to be let down and abandoned by men, the novel’s conclusion reinforcing this pattern.

The novel, then, has many memorable scenes, but I found it a stop-start affair. The one thing it never seemed to do was pick up speed.