Archive for September, 2017

The President’s Room

September 30, 2017

Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room, the third release from recently founded Charco Press (you can read about the first, Die, My Love, here) name-checks a number of well-known writers on the reverse: Kafka, Calvino and (naturally) Cortazar. Such references are, of course, necessary to entice the notoriously timid English-speaking reader, but perhaps in future we will be able place this novel, and others like it, in a recognisable genre of its own, one which we are at last being introduced to (thanks to wonderful translators like Charlotte Coombe): Argentinian horror. Like Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream before it, The President’s Room uses a domestic setting, family relationships, and, above all, a child to create an atmosphere as fearful as the woods at midnight, or the dead-end of a dark alley. Though magic realism was never as cute as some would have you believe, now the magic is as dark as the print it appears in, dressed in the borrowed clothes of the horror genre to disguise the deeper horror which lies beneath in reality itself.

Where Schweblin’s horror was environmental, Romero’s, from the title onwards is nakedly political. Told in the voice of a young boy in a series of short chapters, it begins with a description of the house he lives in with his parents and two brothers, ending with the sentence:

“And of course, at the front of the house at the left, looking out over the garden, is the president’s room.”

As he later explains:

“In our neighbourhood, all then houses have a president’s room. And yet the president has never been to visit us. It’s not that we are expecting him, because to be honest, most of the time we forget the room’s even there. Most of the time, we forget.”

With this simple idea, Romero captures the insidious invasion of dictatorship into the domestic space. The narrator’s fascination with the room (“I’ve also climbed the laurel tree to peer into the president’s room”) reflects our own fascination with the powerful. Throughout the novel, Romero uses the geography of house as an echo of the state:

“There’s no basement…They’ve been banned since my grandparents were around. People say that terrible things used to happen before, in the basements.”

Even the brothers’ illnesses are made to seem ominous, his little brother’s bouts of fever linked in his mind to his grandfather, now dead:

“One of them is alive and the other is dead, but they both have a fever.”

The grandfather, whom the boy barely remembers, is vivid in his speculations, suggesting that his memory hangs heavily over the house. Similarly, when at one point the little brother disappears, we sense that every event is the echo of some wider, unnamed tragedy.

The boy is only aware of one boy at his school who is rumoured to have had a visit from the president, but he is too scared to talk to him:

“They say that’s something went wrong in his house, and that for quite a while afterwards he had a fearful look about him.”

There is a later hint that something may have happened to his parents. Even when he briefly mentions that he has not seen the girl he likes at school for two months we cannot help but fear something terrible has happened.

Inevitably, the president does visit the house – “he was dressed just like when we see him on TV” – observed by the boy, unnoticed by the rest of the family. That Romero from that point steers the novel to a conclusion which is both satisfying and unexpected says much about his skill. The President’s Room, at only eighty pages, can be read in an hour but, appropriately for a novel which turns the haunted house story into a political satire, it will haunt the reader for some time to come.

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My Cat Yugoslavia

September 25, 2017

Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia (translated from the Finnish – an important point in itself – by David Hackston) is a first novel which matches bravura with accomplishment. Its opening gambit is a gay sex scene where the encounter has been arranged via social media – a daring nod towards modernity – but within a few pages we are in the presence of a talking cat, a character which ranges menacingly though literature from Puss in Boots to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only that, but Statovci comfortably pursues two narratives: the first set in contemporary Finland, following Bekim, the son of Yugoslav immigrants, as he comes to terms with who he is; the second relating the story of his mother, Emine’s, early life and ultimate departure from her home in the face of persecution. To Statovci’s credit, both narratives are equally compelling.

Before the cat, however, there is a snake. In the second chapter Bekim acquires a boa constrictor in a scene which also has homoerotic overtones:

“I gripped the snake with both hands and wound it round my neck, and as its scaly sides touched my bare skin, as it touched my neck with the tip of its tongue, goose bumps appeared all over my body. Its slow progression across my bare skin felt like a long warm lick.”

While the snake (and the cat) are clearly linked to Bekim’s sense of his own identity, the novel cannot be reduced to a symbolic schematic. Bekim frequently mentions looking at his reflection in the snake’s eyes, but, while the snake may be how he sees himself (particularly in terms of his loneliness), this is not the same as saying it represents his true identity. The cat, on the other hand, seems to embody the worst aspects of the society in which he is now living, making him one of the most infuriating, repulsive, and entertaining talking animals you are likely to encounter. He pronounces his opinions in the same way that he dances: with attention-seeking conviction:

“Gays. I don’t much like gays… How repulsive. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops and wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!”

His over-bearing masculinity is also redolent of Bekim’s father, who we are meeting for the first time the other narrative. It’s noticeable that the first story Statovci chooses to tell us about Bekim’s mother, Emine, demonstrates the deeply religious and patriarchal society she lives in. Taken to the market by her father, she pauses to look at herself in a compact mirror, before becoming aware of a young man “eyeing me for an unsuitably long time”:

“The man lowered his eyes to my chest, raised both hands to his cheeks, shook his head and shouted, ‘O-paa!’”

Her father’s response is to tell her, “Never do anything like that again” – and he does not take her back to the market. When she marries, aged fifteen, she is shocked by her new husband, Barjam’s, groping in the car to his home, but when she protests he simply slaps her “so hard that my head almost turned right round.” Her main thought is, “I will be the perfect woman for him.”

Emine’s story is fascinating for the insight it gives us into life among the Albanian Muslims in Yugoslavia, a life circumscribed by tradition. We also see the increasing fragmentation of nationalities after Tito’s death:

“The situation grew tenser with every passing day. Party Chairman Milosevic diverted more and more government funds to building projects in Belgrade, millions and millions of dinars… All of a sudden tanks and soldiers were filling the streets. When Albanians started being systematically removed from their jobs, from positions in hospitals and the police, and when it became impossible to study in Albanian, the situation turned desperate.”

Barjam loses his job and eventually the family leave for Finland. Barjam in particular finds the change, which he regards as temporary, difficult, as Bekim explains:

“I learned to speak and read in a language he didn’t understand, to live among people whose culture he despised, to talk about subjects he couldn’t fathom. I learned to avoid him and everything to do with his life.”

Bekim, too, struggles to know who he is: he may absorb the language and culture of Finland but he remains an outsider, and at one point returns to Kosovo in search of his past. As his father has warned him:

“One day you’ll see that if you try to become their equal, they’ll despise you more,”

The novel is a poignant exploration of isolation and identity, one which Statovci handles with a verve and subtlety beyond his years (he wrote it aged twenty-one). It examines the experience of immigration by a family rather than an individual, and the generational difficulties created. Yet, for all its serious intent, Statovci uses a wide palette of emotions with a light touch in a novel deserving of a wide audience.

Melville

September 22, 2017

My introduction to Jean Giono last year, when New York Review of Books published Hill, was one of those moments when a half-known name exceeds all expectations, when an old voice sounds fresh and new, and when those first few pages suggest a long-term relationship. Impatiently moving onto another of his early novels, Second Harvest, I was delighted to discover that NYRB have a similarly enduring commitment to Giono, and have now released Paul Eprile’s translation of Melville (which will in turn be followed by his 1951 novel, The Open Road). As Edmund White points put in his introduction, Melville comes at a turning point in Giono’s writing life, as he moved away from his “Pan Cycle…works of an almost folkloric quality that highlighted his native Provençal landscape.” While this change may be related to the failure of Giono’s pacifism, Melville’s origins are particularly unusual as the novel began as an introduction to his own translation (alongside his friend Lucien Jacques) of Moby Dick. Instead it became an imaginative recreation of the author based on his reading of the book.

Melville begins strangely enough with the lines:

“In 1849, when Melville returned to America after a short stay in England, he had a strange item in his baggage. It was an embalmed head…but it was his own.”

It continues, however, with a summary of Meville’s biography, albeit in a style full of conversational interjections and imaginative interpolations – one in which Melville’s restless energy is echoed in the narrative voice. Giono focuses on Melville’s desire to escape to the sea, but where he is (unsurprisingly) particularly good is in his portrayal of Melville as a writer:

“For fifteen months, since he went to sea, he’d been wrestling with an angel. Like Jacob, he’s plunged into darkness and no dawn comes…He hasn’t a moment’s respite from the fight… He, Herman, wrestles with this dreadful angel who, by doing battle, illuminates the impenetrable mystery of the intercourse between humans and the gods. It’s inside of this mystery that his eyes have sight.”

It’s after Melville has dropped off the manuscript of White-Jacket with his publisher in London that the novel leaves his life behind and entirely enters Giono’s fantasy. Giono portrays Melville as a man who cannot live without adventure:

“…as long as there was the possibility of getting in discussion, in argument; as long as it should have been leading into something worthwhile, London was still bearable. But now – dark, soulless, noisy – he can’t stand it. What kind of trap had he fallen into?”

Dismissing his initial instinct to rebel by wearing a white top hat, Melville instead strikes up a conversation with the stable boy, asking him, “Supposing you had ten days of freedom to do whatever you liked, what would you do?” The stable boy’s answer, that he would visit his sweetheart, Jenny, in the village of Woodcut, is all Melville needs to begin an adventure. He acquires the appropriate costume, recreating the appearance of a sailor, a process which sees him feel alive once more:

“His heart was swelling again. Big, ferocious wings were starting to fan him furiously…”

This sense of adventure is inextricably linked to his inspiration:

“The battle with the angel has resumed. He always suspected it was only a truce.”

It seems likely that Giono sees something (or even everything) of himself in Melville, his attachment to the country echoed in Melville’s relationship with the sea. As Melville wrestles with his muse, we see Giono coming to terms with a change in his own writing:

“It’s up to me to devise my own compasses and my own rigging. In this game you set out either to win it all or lose everything… He’s no more a writer ‘of the sea’ than others are writers ‘of the soil’.”

The adventure of his coach trip is, of course, the adventure of a mysterious and beautiful woman, Adelina, as well as a brush with revolutionary politics. Though the plot is hardly complicated, it still feels as if everything moves at a breathless pace (perhaps partly because we spend a lot of time in the carriage). It is this relationship which gives him the inspiration, and motivation, to write Moby Dick.

This makes Melville one of the strangest pieces of literary criticism ever written. Whether it provides much insight into Moby Dick I cannot say (having never read it) but I suspect it is more revealing regarding Giono himself. Giono’s imaginative engagement with his subject is such, however, that it is impossible to resist.

Go Went Gone

September 16, 2017

Jenny Erpenbeck has frequently explored the injustices of history, but in her latest novel to be translated into English (by her regular translator Susan Bernofsky), Go Went Gone, she tackles the injustices of the present. Erpenbeck decided to write the novel (which was published in Germany in 2015) in 2013 in response to the media reaction to the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean, feeling it was time to look more closely at what was happening, and, in particular, the experience of these displaced people when they arrived in Germany. “You can blank out the suffering of others,” she has said, “but you are also refusing to look at something in yourself.”

The first hurdle a writer must overcome in recreating the lives of refugees is the lack of action, forbidden, as they are, from working, largely spending their time waiting for some response from a distant bureaucracy. Erpenbeck does this by using a retired university professor, Richard, as a conduit for her exploration of their experience. Richard, having just retired, also finds time “completely different”:

“But now he’s being tormented… by time itself. Time is supposed to pass, but not just that.”

The novel opens with a refugee protest, a hunger strike, in Alexanderplatz; Richard’s first involvement occurs as he fails to notice the protest and its ironic intention: We become visible. The demonstration is soon over, but Richard finds it preys on his mind – “He’d really like to know what’s become of the ten men from Alexanderplatz” – and also awakens his interest in the countries the men have come from, bringing him to face to face with his own ignorance:

“The American vice president recently referred to Africa as a country – even though, as the article about this faux pas pointed out – there are fifty-four African countries. Fifty-four? He had no idea. What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger?”

As Richard is a university professor, his ignorance feels wilful, a decision to ignore a large part of the globe which will later be reflected in the attitudes of his friends. Erpenbeck’s decision to make Richard a professor of Classics also seems very deliberate, a reminder of the importance of the countries around the Mediterranean to our culture (many of the refugees come from Syria, even if they are not Syrian). Richard is also East German and therefore aware that a society which seems almost relentlessly permanent can suddenly collapse. It also gives him an insight into different kinds of borders:

“…as long as a border of the sort he’s been familiar with for most of his life runs along a particular stretch of land and is permeable in either direction after border control procedures, the intentions of the two countries can be perceived by the used of barbed wire, the configuration of fortified barriers, and things of that sort. But the moment these borders are defined only by law, ambiguity takes over…”

Richard discovers that refugees can only claim asylum in the EU country they arrive in, but that those countries are happy to let them leave for another country:

“For a moment, Richard imagines what it would be like having someone explaining these laws to him in Arabic.”

Richard begins to visit refugees who have been housed in a nearby, disused home for the elderly, initially viewing this contact as a research project:

“Richard spends the next two weeks reading several books on the subject of refugees and drawing up a catalogue of questions for the conversations he wants to have with them.”

This allows Erpenbeck to use her own research without having to heavily fictionalise it. (At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Erpenbeck was paired with Jason Donald whose novel Dalila is centred on a fictional Kenyan refugee, a character created by amalgamating the experiences of the many refugees Donald has spoken to; Erpenbeck instead presents her stories largely as she heard them). Whether Richard’s journey mirrors her own, it is certainly intended to encourage the reader to move from interest to empathy. Each refugee’s story is individual, but all can be summarised in the words of Rashid:

“From one day to the next, our former life came to an end.”

Though, in style, this is very different to Erpenbeck’s previous novels – particularly in the intensity of language – it is not without haunting images. Erpenbeck uses a drowning in a lake which Richard’s house overlooks to mirror those killed on the voyage across the Mediterranean:

“They still haven’t found the man at the bottom of the lake. It wasn’t suicide. He died in a swimming accident.”

Waiting for the corpse to rise echoes the waiting of the refugees in a novel about becoming visible: as Erpenbeck has said, “Things that disappear still have their place in the world.”

Go Went Gone shows a skilled novelist engaging with a vital topic, demonstrating the importance of fiction in understanding the world. Any fear that Erpenbeck is in danger of reducing her work to reportage is dismissed by an ending which suddenly plunges us into the human depths she has so fearlessly explored in the past.

Petite Fleur

September 11, 2017

Petite Fleur is the third of Iosi Havilio’s five novels to be translated into English (on this occasion by Lorna Scott Fox), following Open Door and Paradises. It is, however, my first experience of Havilio who is clearly a rather eccentric writer of the Cesar Aira school. Beatriz Sarlo’s comment in reference to Open Door – “it doesn’t obey any of the laws of reading, it feels like it sprang out of nowhere” – could equally apply to this later novel, which begins realistically enough but is soon following a logic of its own.

As the narrator, Jose, says in the novel’s opening line, “This story begins when I was someone else,” that is, before his job in a firework factory goes up in smoke at the same time as the factory itself, “reminiscent of a far-off, spectacular war.” Jose’s sudden unemployment leads to his wife, Laura, returning to work after a year off to take care of their daughter, Antonia. Initially Jose struggles with his new role as house husband – “no initiative ever got beyond the limbo of assertions” – until Laura suggests he tidy up their CDs:

“The task took me all day, and though I’d started off unwillingly, moved entirely by a defiant pride, my excitement began to rise from the feet up with almost imperceptible warmth until I couldn’t hide it any longer… Thanks to music I passed from idleness to action, from despondency to hope, and to the ideal management of time.”

One job leads to another, and soon he is planning a vegetable garden, requiring only to borrow a neighbour’s spade to get started. The neighbour, Guillermo, who has only lived nearby for a few months and has spent most of that time refitting his apartment, turns out to be a music lover as well, and the visit extends into hours as Guillermo plays Jose records from his collection. It’s on the way out that things begin to get strange:

“He squatted down, obviously feeling dizzy, and a slow but raging irritation rose in me. A kind of primitive protest that caused something deep inside to snap. That’s when I leaned over, grabbed the spade by the handle and lifted it cleanly from between the bags and in a single continuous motion, up, back and down, sank it into the back of Guillermo’s neck.”

Although we have only been in Jose’s company for a few pages, it’s fair to say this seems out of character. As Guillermo has been all but decapitated, there is no doubt he is dead. Jose escapes, spade in hand, washes the blood from his clothes, and begins to dig what was once going to be his compost pit but is now a grave for Guillermo.

Although the novel is already a murder mystery (the mystery being why he committed the murder), that is not the direction which the narrative will take. Jose spends a couple of tense days waiting for the body to be found but there are “no police, no TV cameras on the doorstep.” Even when he spots a young woman leaving the apartment, the alarm is not raised. Eventually he can bear it no longer and goes round to see for himself:

“The hints of the last few days had braced me for something uncanny, but even so, when the door opened I couldn’t stifle a giggle of dismay… Guillermo greeted me with a beaming smile, elated to the point of euphoria.”

Jose has discovered that when he kills someone (or something – various experiments on ants and pigeons follow) they return to life, with no memory of the murder. Of course, the idea is ridiculous, but once that ridiculous idea has been established it can be pursued with realism, which is largely what fantastic literature does. Havilio also cleverly interrupts the narrative at this point with a reminiscence about a past love affair, only tangentially linked via a fondness for Tolstoy’s Resurrection, before Jose resumes his visits to Guillermo.

As Jose becomes accustomed to his new powers, Laura is also struggling with her new role as a working mother, eventually entering therapy which involves facing your worst fears by enacting them. Her friend, Marion, for example, (who introduces her to, Horacio, the therapist) tackles the “stigma of attractiveness” by being made to strip, insulted, having her hair cut, and eventually being kicked and spat on by the other patients before Horacio demands that she urinate in front of them. Laura’s therapy revolves around the idea that her father abandoned her because she wasn’t a son. In both her case, and Jose’s, there is a sense of coming to terms with the role reversal that has taken place in their lives via their very different forms of release and exploration. Havilio also links this to a more general tendency to destruction and rebirth (which includes the deliberate explosion at the factory, arranged by its owners):

“A periodic summons to destruction and resurgence. Take a look at history, it’s all there: rich men, lovers, artists, frittering away their works, the better to recognise themselves in downfall.”

Petite Fleur is endlessly entertaining: one long paragraph that you are unlikely to want to stop reading. As its dark ending reveals, however, it’s not simply fun and games.

Year of the Drought

September 7, 2017

The Year of the Drought, in Roland Buti’s novel (now translated by Charlotte Mandell, his first to appear in English), is 1976. Auguste, or Gus, is thirteen years old – only a few years older than I would have been that year – and living on a farm with his mother, father and older sister, Lea. His father has invested in hundreds of chickens which he plans to fatten and sell but the intense heat is causing an ever-increasing mortality rate. The real threat to the family, however, arrives in the form of Gus’ mother’s friend, Cecile. The oppressive weather, and Buti’s decision to end each chapter not so much with a cliff-hanger but with a moment of heightened emotion, creates a sense of impending doom unusual for a coming-of-age novel.

Gus, like any other thirteen-year-old, lives much of his life in his imagination; he has, for example, his own explanation for the heatwave:

“I myself was of the opinion that an asteroid had fallen somewhere in the area, a huge heavenly body composed of an unknown metal, and giving off toxic vapours.”

He longs for something out of the ordinary to happen:

“In the hope that something astounding might happen to me, I had acquired the habit of remaining still for very long periods of time… But nothing changed… No mysterious stranger, having floated done from the sky in a basket after an immense voyage through space and time, was ever threading his way towards us through the woods.”

When a stranger does arrive she is both ordinary and extraordinary: a woman who works in the Post Office yet seems to possess a sophistication and glamour absent in the countryside. She initially charms Gus, when she meets him by the roadside, with her enthusiasm for his drawing, his dove (which he is caring for while its tail feathers regrow) and even the farm horse, Bagatelle’s, defecation.

“Looking straight into my eyes she gave me a big, loud, slow kiss on each cheek. I inhaled her breath. It smelled of honey and liquorice.”

Soon Cecile moves in and slowly we realise that her relationship with Gus’ mother is more than friendship, as Buti subtly reveals:

“As she rose, she deliberately brushed against Cecile’s arm, slowing down to prolong the contact.”

Later, Gus will discover that it is his father sleeping in the spare room, and, later still, he spots his mother and Cecile at a stream where he has gone with his friend Maddy to cool off:

“Satisfied they were alone, their movements became freer and more relaxed. Cecile was the first to take off her dress, drawing it over her head in a single, fluid motion that seemed to make it magically disappear.”

The novel may seem to explore two disparate themes: one of love outside of the social conventions of the time, the other of the mechanisation of farming which is shown to be still at the mercy of the elements. Both are united, though, by the loss of control felt by Gus’ father, and the characters in general:

“It must have seemed to Dad that a cosmic shift in the natural order had taken place… One world, the lower one, that you hoped to master through work, through daily care of your animals and plants, that you could almost understand because it was almost human, and part of a universe subject to our human will – this world had yielded to another, different kind of nature, lofty distant, often incomprehensible, yet always imposing itself on us.”

Neither the drought nor his wife’s love can be controlled. Similarly, his wife cannot control her passion. The heat comes to represent that passion – oppressive, unspoken – which is expressed when they spend time together by the stream, an Edenic, out of the world moment. This is echoed in a sexual encounter Gus has with Maddy shortly after when together they sneak into the town reservoir. (There are many other examples of this, from Bagatelle’s refusal to move from a glade where he has gone to die to Rudy, a farm labourer with Down’s syndrome’s belief that every woman who visits the farm is the ‘one’).

Year of the Drought is a novel of many vivid scenes (clearing out the dead chickens will be hard to forget) which Buti manages to imbue with a power beyond his words. He takes an ordinary family and places them under extraordinary stresses, the father in particular taking on almost tragic hero proportions. An English language debut that is well worth seeking out.

The Ropewalker

September 3, 2017

Jaan Kross probably remains Estonia’s most famous writer, his availability in English largely down to a period in the mid- 1990s which saw The Czar’s Madman, Professor Marten’s Departure, and the short story collection The Conspiracy published. Two more novels have followed but his first major work, the four-volume Between the Plagues, has remained out of reach until last year when the first two volumes appeared under the title The Ropewalker, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher. For those who fear approaching any series in translation until there is some certainty that it can be read in full, the third volume, A People Without a Past, was published last month, and the final part is scheduled to appear next year.

The Ropewalker is a historical novel which begins in the 1550s, a period which English writers never tire of writing about, ending as it does with the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559. Its setting, however, (in European terms) could hardly be further away, lying as it does at the other edge of Europe in Livonia. Livonia, a land which does not even have the advantage of still existing, was to be found where much of present-day Estonia is but also included part of Latvia, including Riga. As the novel opens, Livonia is under the rule of the Order which, though it may sound a little science fiction, is, in fact, a group of knights supported by the German nobility. (‘Rule’ is perhaps an exaggeration as large parts of the country are owned by the Catholic Church, and large towns have their own political structures). The language of the ruling class was therefore German, excluding most of the inhabitants of Livonia who were peasants. In The Ropewalker we see the power of the Order wane, creating a vacuum which surrounding states – Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark – attempt to fill.

The attraction of this period to Kross is obvious: he lived through Estonia’s occupation during World War Two by, first, the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then the Soviets again. He also chooses as his protagonist a historical figure, Balthasar Russow (or Bal), author of the Chronicle of the Province of Livonia which charts the area’s history from 1156 to 1583, suggesting that in his own chronicling of Livonia’s history he is picking up Russow’s mantle. (All historical writing is political, but the very act of recording the history of a small nation, particularly one other states wish to absorb, is political in itself). We first meet Bal as he attempts to get a closer look at a group of (tight)ropewalkers who have suspended a rope above the town “like a silver strand of hair, stretching from the steeple to somewhere far beyond the town walls.” The dangerous manoeuvres of the rope dancers foreshadow Bal’s later adventures and the metaphorical tightrope he must walk between the different powers in the land and their representatives, but we also see here his lively curiosity and determination to discover things for himself.

Bal’s father is a wagoner and therefore a step above the peasantry; he is able to pay for Bal’s education and, unusually, has also had his daughter, Annika, educated. The story of Bal’s impressive sounding name is telling:

“His mother expressed some doubt over a name so exalted, for might it not seem as if they were prodding Our Lord to take notice of this child born to simple folk…? But his father replied, ‘Every name is a kind of prod…Since it’s a prod in any case, better that He raise our boy up a bit than push his nose down into the dirt.”

It is Bal’s aptitude for languages which first gets him noticed when a merchant asks him to write a letter in German. This is also his first introduction to ‘diplomacy’ as the letter is a fake – supposedly written by a (dead) German merchant in order to dissuade other German merchants from coming to Livonia and taking business away from the locals. Later, when Bal arrives in Stettin to further his education, the rector immediately tests his Latin:

“…as if out of spite, the rector continues in Latin and asks now about Balthasar’s studies. And he proceeds ever more quickly and aggressively, barely giving Balthasar a chance to answer before posing the next question.”

He survives the inquisition, but on another occasion, when he is sent with a letter for Duke Johan, he fears that admitting his knowledge of Latin may be a disadvantage:

“He tried at lightning speed to weigh the consequences of a ‘yes’ and the dangers of a false ‘no’ which might later be discovered.”

With quick wits he answers, “Verba quidem, sed non sentiam.” (I understand the words, but not the meaning). Towards the novel’s end, when he finds himself embroiled in the Peasants’ Revolt ( a sign he cannot leave his background behind), he is asked to accompany a delegation of peasants into Tallinn and listen to what the council members say amongst themselves (believing the peasants will not understand). Language is political in a way we might only understand with reference to the Norman Conquest or the Highland Clearances in our own country.

Throughout the novel there is, of course, a great deal of ‘right time, right place’ as far as Bal is concerned, but so credibly is his character developed that this never seems forced. This allows Kross to present the history of the period without having to pan back into explanatory prose. It also means that what seems complicated in summary does not feel so in reading as the narrative carries the reader along. The Ropewalker is a classic historical novel, and also an important landmark in the subgenre of writer’s in totalitarian states using the past to write about the present (see also Ismail Kadare). Above all, it is a wonderful, immersive read.