Archive for September, 2020


September 29, 2020

Milan Kundera (and translator Peter Kussi) won the second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1991 with Immortality so there is every reason to suppose he would have made the long list with his following novel, Slowness, in 1996, this time with a different translator, Linda Asher, this being the first novel he wrote in French. Kundera himself features occasionally in the novel as he travels to and then stays in the chateau which is the setting for its stories, waking his wife as his restless imagination invades her dreams, “as if you’re dreams are a wastebasket where I toss pages that are too stupid.” Aware that he is inventing a new novel, she recalls:

“You’ve often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it.”

It’s difficult to resist the idea that Slowness is that novel, particularly as it descends into farce in the final pages.

Kundera first considers the concept of slowness as he drives to the chateau increasingly aware of the impatience of the driver behind him:

“Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.”

In contrast he recounts an 18th century French novella which tells the story of a young Chevalier who spends the night with a married woman only to discover he has been used as a decoy to disguise her true lover. Of the woman, Madame T, Kundera imagines “a gentle indolence emanates from her” and that “their adventure might bloom in all its splendid slowness.” Slowness not only allows us to experience but to remember:

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.”

Later, Kundera will contrast this encounter with a more modern one which seems grotesque in comparison. This second story begins with another idea (Kundera is nothing if not discursive), that of the ‘dancer’. A dancer, according to the character Pontevin, is someone who is performative in their moral actions: “The dancer differs from the politician in that he seeks not power but glory.” Berck, he says, is the “king of dancers”, but he begins with a story of him being out-manoeuvred when another ‘dancer’ kisses a man with AIDS at a dinner. Realising he cannot either copy or outdo him, Berck instead flies to Africa “and got himself photographed alongside a little dying black girl whose face was covered with flies.” As Pontevin says:

“Taking over the stage requires keeping people off it.”

In this Kundera seems to be outlining virtue-signalling (and those that condemn it) well before that phrase came into common use, summing up the attitude of the dancer as follows:

“He is in love with his life the way a sculptor might be in love with the statue he is carving.”

In this way, Pontevin sends his friend (though a clearly inferior friend) Vincent to the chateau and a conference of entomologists where Breck will be making an appearance. It is there Vincent embarks on the grotesque amorous encounter mentioned earlier which ends in simulated sodomy by the hotel pool and includes the author addressing Vincent’s member in an attempt to understand its lack of arousal. (A scene which, as in a farce, will involve all the characters coinciding in the venue, each one ridiculous in their own way).

One of these is a Czech scientist, attending the conference after years of being denied his position in his own country. This, we are told, makes him feel, a “melancholy pride”, even though he was never really in opposition to the government, a fact he has slowly forgotten over time. When he tells this story to the conference he receives a rapturous response, led, of course, by Breck:

“…he feels famous and he wants his walk to his seat to be long and never-ending.”

Kundera has great fun with this character, no doubt recycling many personal incidents, as his name is either pronounced or spelt wrong (or both), central European capitals are mentioned interchangeably, and his country is referred to as being in the ‘east’. He is in the pool to shown off the muscles he has developed through manual labour through a series of handstands, another reason for his pride.

All the characters, in fact, are exposed to the reader’s laughter in one way or another, but at the same time Kundera is usually gentle in his ridicule. We understand the anxieties which lead them to expose themselves (though perhaps less so with the female characters) and therefore we rarely feel Kundera is vicious in the spot-lighting of their weaknesses. This can, however, have a distancing effect and, for some readers, it may seem too much like his characters are merely experiments in an idea, but the laughter – sometimes cringing, sometimes cruel – always feels very human. Slowness is a novel to enjoy, whether it is read languorously or at pace.

Long Live the Post Horn!

September 24, 2020

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament was one of my favourite novels of last year; the good news is that Long Live the Post Horn! (translated again by Charlotte Barslund) is even better. Its narrator, Ellinor, is a PR consultant who finds herself questioning her life. The crisis begins when she discovers an old diary and sees clearly the emptiness of her past – and present:

“…there was no sense of progression, no coherence, no joy, only frustration; shopping, sunbathing, gossiping, eating – I might as well have written ‘she’ instead of ‘I’. And had anything changed, had growing older made any difference?”

Her relationship with Stein, a divorcee with a young son, Truls, leaves her largely numb. When she meets Truls for the first time she finds the significance Stein places on this uncomfortable: “I was embarrassed on his behalf because he cared so much.” Similarly, a visit to her sister, Margrete, after she has had had a miscarriage leaves her feeling like “an imposter, a fraud” as Margrete assumes her distress is sympathetic. “Why couldn’t I feel the way I used to?” she wonders, “Except that was exactly what I didn’t want.”

In an echo of her own despair, one of her two business partners, Dag, goes missing and is later discovered to have killed himself. “I yearned for a breakdown,” she tells us, but even that release seems beyond her reach. In Paris to collect Dag’s body, she sees a group of homeless people gather beneath an awning to sleep:

“They were alone with their stories just like I was, I thought, except they were aware of it.”

Later she recalls this image as an escape: “I can go home, fly to Paris, and sleep under the awning.” Hjorth brilliantly captures the continual anxiety, to the point that it’s difficult to read this section of the novel without your heart beating faster and a knot of dread in your stomach:

“Even during my worst nightmares was more excited about continuing to dream than what the day I was waking up to would bring.”

Such a mid-life crisis is, of course, a staple of a certain kind of novel; Hjorth’s portrayal of it is almost too real (the first fifty pages read like an extended panic attack) but it is where Hjorth takes us next that marks the novel out as something special.

At the point of his suicide, Dag was working on the ‘postal directive’, an EU ruling that the Norwegian Labour government looks likely to enforce which will open postal services to competition (British readers will recognise a similar change which took place here). Dag’s remit was to prevent this happening, at the behest of the postal workers’ union, a task that Ellinor and her remaining partner, Rolf, will now need to take on. It is through this unlikely campaign that Ellinor will find a reason to continue; as she realises quite quickly, “I was lacking a cause.”

The change is not overtly political – it occurs when she meets the men and women of the post office in an attempt to school them in the rules of media communication, and listen to their stories for the first time:

“Rolf was bamboozled, but my heartbeat changed pace and my breath filled my body.”

She immediately decides that the training would, in fact, hinder their attempt to get their message across:

“If you were to write letters in the way I was going to teach you, your words wouldn’t move anyone.”

One story in particular moves her – that of a poorly addressed letter which eventually finds its intended recipient only because of the persistence of the local postman. What is the significance of this story? It demonstrates purpose, caring and connection (as all letters do) – all elements which seem to have gone missing from Ellinor’s life and which she now attempts to get back. Slowly she connects to Stein, realising for the first time, “he existed, he was real, he had a heart.” Instead of waiting for a future which she realises is not coming, “waiting for my fairy tale to begin,” she attempts to live in the moment:

“I didn’t want to distance myself, I wanted to engage with the present, but how could I without faking it. Stop faking, I ordered myself, be real!”

Just as Hjorth is convincing when it comes to Ellinor’s spiralling anxiety, she is equally believable when describing her struggle to change. It is neither instantaneous nor complete, but a process she must drive herself, all the time motivated by having a social as well as a personal goal. In this way, Hjorth turns the outcome of the postal directive vote into both a political and a personal drama in which the reader quickly becomes utterly involved. Her great skill lies in taking the most ordinary characters in the most ordinary situations and creating narratives which feel like life or death. She is no ordinary writer.

The Pyramid

September 19, 2020

In 1996 Ismail Kadare had already been short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (for The Palace of Dreams in 1993) and would go on to be selected for inclusion in at least the long list another four times (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2013) before eventually winning the Man Booker International Prize when it was awarded to an author for their body of work rather than for a particular novel. During the nineties much of his work was being translated not from the original Albanian but via French translations – as is the case with The Pyramid where David Bellos has translated for the translation of Jusuf Vrioni (presumably, had he won, the prize would have been split three ways).

The Pyramid, like The Palace of Dreams, is one of Kadare’s historical novels, set, on this occasion, in Ancient Egypt. It begins with the ascent of the pharaoh Cheops to the throne, and his comment that “he might perhaps not wish to have a pyramid erected for him.” The resultant panic among courtiers and advisers leads to the realisation that nobody is entirely certain why the building of pyramids began in the first place:

“They were hunting for the idea that led to the conception of pyramids, the secret reason for their existence: and that was what kept eluding them.”

Eventually they tell the pharaoh that the construction of the first pyramid was the result of a crisis, but:

“The cause of this crisis was unheard of, strange, indeed quite baffling. An unprecedented, perfidious cause: the crisis had not been provoked by poverty, the late flooding of the Nile or by pestilence, as had always been the case previously, but, on the contrary, by abundance.”

In other words, the first pyramid was built to eliminate prosperity as this was becoming a threat to authority. It should be obvious by now that Kadare’s novel is not a meticulously researched historical recreation but a rather savage satire – the first project suggested to make people poorer, for example, is to dig a bottomless pit. It’s always tempting at this point to read the novel as a satire of Albania, written as a historical novel to avoid censorship, but, though there is some truth in this, Kadare’s understanding of the absurdities of dictatorship are such that to confine his barbs to one particular regime seems unnecessarily reductive. Kadare’s description of the pyramid – “domination of the rabble; the narrowing of its mind; the weakening of its will; monotony; and waste” – could apply to many a leader’s vainglorious building project.

The pyramid requires lengthy preparing – the sourcing of stone, the building of access roads, and, of course, the arrival of cartloads of whips. Almost everyone involved in the planning lives in perpetual fear, particularly those who are designing the secret entrances and exits:

“All sorts of pretexts were found for convicting and suppressing them, but the real reason for such measures was well known: to bury the secrets with the inventors.”

In this atmosphere of paranoia, rumours of plots are commonplace: one, for example, begins with a glowing block of basalt which is apparently intended to “transmit nefarious rays so that, once in the pyramid, it would draw an ill fate upon it.” Torture and execution are accepted working conditions – a government member who suggests that the construction be suspended to demonstrate that the pharaoh is immortal (an obviously obsequious comment) is dissected alive, having his tongue removed first for daring to utter this contradiction to official policy. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, are caused by the construction itself, and at points Kadare describes this stone by stone:

“As if it had nothing more urgent to do than fulfil the quota of corpses spared by its predecessor, the eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-fifth stone wrought havoc amongst its carriers.”

Further complications are caused when Cheops insists he doesn’t want to be placed beneath the pyramid but in the middle.

There is a sense that Kadare is having fun writing this novel, with throwaway comments such as describing a delegation of Greeks as “backwards” and ridiculing the Sumerian ambassador’s written report (the Sumerians having invented an alphabet) which, transcribed onto clay tablets, is being transported in two carts and “weighed about the same as the side of a house.” But perhaps he is having more fun than reader. The novel is short but its jokily superior tone becomes a little wearing, especially as it almost entirely lacks characters. Cheops is the only named figure to appear with any regularity but he remains as aloof from the reader as he does from his subjects (“Cheops visage remained impenetrable”). In fact, it is only when grave robbers appear in a coda that we feel among real people. The novel is successful as far as it aims to be. Its critique of power – irrational, trivial absurd, yet fatal – is both accurate and amusing, but Kadare has been equally clear-sighted in other novels which offer a more human counterpoint. For those who are new to his work, this is unlikely to be the best place to begin.

Made in Saturn

September 14, 2020

Rita Indiana’s Tentacle was one of my favourite books of 2018, a science fiction ghost story that took in environmental catastrophe, art criticism, and a drug which could change your gender. Made in Saturn, translated this time by Sydney Hutchison, is a much calmer affair – literally the come down after the drug-fuelled nightmare, as artist Argenis Luna attempts to recover from heroin addiction at the insistence of his politician father. As the novel opens, he finds himself in Cuba, where his father has used connections from his time as a revolutionary to send him into the care of Dr Bengoa, who immediately administers a “synthetic morphine used to treat addiction”:

“Argenis let him do his job like a girl in love while taxi drivers in Cadillacs from a bygone era came and went, full of nostalgia tourists.”

The first half of the novel tells of Argenis’ time in Cuba. Everything seems to be going well as he happily doubles the dose of heroin substitute Temgsic which Bengoa has given him, and begins sleeping with Susanna, the woman who has been sent to clean the apartment where he is staying. They imagine a happy future based on the money his father is sending Bengoa to look after him, however when he asks Bengoa for this he discovers there has been no money for a month. He has completely misread the situation in a culture clash which reflect the novel’s wider themes, between the revolutionary ideology of his parents’ generation and his own. Beethoven’s sympathy no. 6, which Argenis had previously spotted on the dusty record player does not sooth Bengoa’s evenings as he thought, but is a relic of when Castro gave Bengoa the house in 1962:

“It’s the sound of greed… It reminds me that people like you exist, people who believe they deserve it all.”

Bengoa gives Argenis one more month in the apartment, but now he must begin selling his possessions in order to pay for the Temgesic. Even this unsustainable situation only last until he discovers Bengoa having sex with Susanna. His experience in Cuba begins to mirror his life back home:

“After years of conscientiously descending the rungs of the food chain, he’d finally reached the bottom.”

The second half of the novel recounts Argenis’ return to the Dominican Republic. He is still far from committed to staying clean but his old dealer has been threatened by his father and refuses to sell him anything. Increasingly, Argenis seems to be searching for a form of redemption as he visits various members of his family: his aunt, his brother, his mother. Again the focus is on the different experiences of the generations:

“Those children, marked by their parents’ ideological passion, who were they now?”

All of the previous generation are marked in some way by the revolutionary politics of the sixties and the dictatorship of Balaguer. Argenis’ aunt Niurka is literally scarred even though, as she says, “I didn’t want to overthrow any government. What I wanted was to go out dancing.” His mother, too, remembers those times, even though “she had abandoned her Castroist dreams long ago.” But it is his father, now an important politician, who casts the longest shadow. It is here, rather than in science fiction, we find the origin of the novel’s title, in the myth of Saturn eating his children, and the Goya painting it inspired. (It’s for this reason he calls Bengoa “the mouth his father had used to chew him up.”)

Argenis’ relationship with his father is complicated by the fact that he feels his brother was always the favourite – “he knew how to say the things that made their father happy” – and perhaps also by an apparent hypocrisy in his embrace of conventional politics:

“In a final sacrifice for their country, their parents had signed a deal with the murderer of their comrades.”

Behind this, however, lies an inadequacy which extends to Argenis’ failure as an artist:

“…he was terrified of doing something considered outdated. He was afraid of rejection, of being made fun of, criticized.”

Argenis must somehow make peace with his father and his legacy if he is finally to fulfil his own potential.

Made in Saturn lacks the literary fireworks of Tentacle but is instead a slow burner. Argenis’ self-destructive impulses and the duck out of water setting make for an absorbing opening, but his return home seems, at first, a little disordered as he moves from relative to relative. Yet ultimately it is well worth the reader’s patience as Indiana builds towards a moving conclusion, and, while the gap between generations is in some ways peculiarly Latin American, it is in others one that we all face.

In the Hold

September 10, 2020

Vladimir Asrenijevic’s In the Hold is an anti-war novel which never quite reaches the war. It was the Serbian writer’s debut novel and won the prestigious NIN Prize in Yugoslavia in 1994 shortly before Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It is set in 1991 as thousands of Serbians are being conscripted in the fight against Croatian independence. At the time, Aresenjevic claimed that he did not set out to write about the deteriorating political situation:

“I wanted to tell a family story. I set it in the present–wartime–the time in which I happen to live. So my family tale turned into a nightmare.”

The novel, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, is, in fact, subtitled ‘A Soap Opera’, and largely revolves around the family and friends of the narrator: his wife, Angela, who is pregnant with their first child; her brother, Lazar, whose life as a follower of Hari Krishna is interrupted by his call-up papers; and his friend, Dejan, who used to be a drummer in a band but has returned from the war minus one arm.

The novel, in one sense, is about leaving youth behind, Angela’s pregnancy being one sign of impending adult responsibilities. We learn that the narrator and his wife’s younger days were one wild, drug-taking party – indeed, Angela was a dealer – but now he sees himself becoming his father, adopting the “domestic habits which, when we are teenagers, help us hate our fathers in precise detail,” – in this case, an afternoon nap. At the same time, any thought of the future is filled with dread:

“…I lacked the energy to confront everyday life. Troubles attract troubles, I reflected, they will leapfrog over one another, and I shall not be able to withstand the torrent when it starts to roar. I saw myself, calm in the face of the impending catastrophe, like a calf blinking meekly before the sentence of the butcher’s hammer.”

Despite this, both he and Angela are looking forward to their child being born, but they are worried about Lazar when they discover that his parents have accepted his conscription papers. “You have to hide!” Angela tells him, but Lazar is sanguine:”…none of it matters. It’s a question of karma.” The narrator lives in fear of his own conscription:

“…in so far as there was anything I feared, it was the drafters. Once they knocked for a long time on our next door neighbour’s door.”

Dejan, meanwhile, attempts to restart his life, though the narrator suspects that his missing arm is not the only difference since his return:

“Dejan bravely did all he could to give the impression of a person with whom all was absolutely well, but some sort of change – a change which was of course harder to detect than the brutal absence of his right arm – undermined that extraordinary day-long effort and spoiled it.”

Dejan talks about starting a dating agency, and then later sends the narrator t-shirts he has designed. Dejan’s determination to succeed becomes important to the narrator’s own attempts at optimism.

In the Hold, then, is a series of small stories. The novel takes place over only three months – October to December 1991. Arsenijevic captures the microscopic moments of everyday life while the conflict looms in the background, still in its early stages:

“At that time the war had not yet hit us in the face with a knot of human innards; it crushed us in wiser ways.”

Friends leave the country, maintaining that “their departure had absolutely nothing to do with the war.” Reports of the fighting dominate the news bulletins:

“Angela wept, leaning her chin on the arm of the sofa, as she watched splinters of the devastated settlements of the Danube and Vuka in the background of the rustic-featured, wartime TV reporter’s saccharine outpourings.”

As we can see, he does this with an ironic wit that extends to the title which refers to the part of a ship where, according to Arsenijevic, should it start sinking, “you have little chance of surviving but you can remain alive the longest.” Here is how he describes the attitude which allows everyday life to continue as normal:

“…like many of my fellow citizens, I endeavoured to move along the spittle-covered streets with the trained step of a native, who walks without fear along the foot of a live volcano on the island where his tribe has survived, despite the many victims claimed by the volcano, for generations.”

Although it is a slight novel, and plot is secondary, the atmosphere impresses on the reader a desperate conflict between encroaching war and ironic optimism. It is very much a novel that would have found new readers by being long listed for an award, as it could well have been had the 1996 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize occurred, having charm that is hard to resist. The conflict it describes in its infancy continues to be the subject of Balkan literature to this day; it would be a pity if this early novel were forgotten.

Dead Girls

September 6, 2020

“As a girl I sensed that there wasn’t really anywhere I was safe,” Selva Almada tells us in her introduction to Dead Girls, her second book from Charco Press, translated, on this occasion, by Annie McDermott. Dead Girls is not a novel; instead it is part investigation, part memoir, as Almada explores the deep-rooted, misogynistic violence of her home country, focusing in particular of the nineteen eighties. Each of the girl’s stories is unique, yet all are killed suddenly, inexplicably:

“I didn’t know a woman could be killed for being a woman.”

The youngest victim, Maria Luisa Quevedo, is only fifteen. As with all the girls, her adult life started early, and she was working as a servant, starting around seven and finishing at three. On one particular day, presumably the last in her short life, she leaves work and is never seen alive again:

“Neither witnesses nor the police investigation could ever determine what happened or where the girl was between three o’clock on Thursday December 8th, 1983, when she left work, and the morning of Sunday the 11th, when her body was found.”

Sarita Mundin is twenty when she is murdered in 1988. As with Maria, her childhood ended prematurely; she, too, worked as a cleaner from a young age, and was married and pregnant at sixteen:

“She was too pretty for her husband to send out as a maid again, all that beauty going to waste in a haze of cleaning products. So he sent her out as a prostitute.”

She now lives in a house paid for by her married lover, Dady Olivero, with her son, fourteen-year-old (pregnant) sister, and mother. The rumour is that “her relationship with this man, more than ten years her senior and with a family of his own, was petering out.” He is the last person to be seen with her, and later the prime suspect in her murder.

Andrea Danne is perhaps the strangest case of all. There is no disappearance: she is simply found dead one morning, stabbed in her bed, though this doesn’t stop the scene quickly becoming crowded:

“A murder in the privacy of a family home which had the same exposure as a death by the roadside.”

Her sister immediate suspects Andrea’s boyfriend – not for any reason other than the man closest to her being the most likely culprit – but his reaction at the sight of her body persuades her otherwise.

Almada’s aim is not to solve these murders, not one of which led to a conviction, but to understand the pattern. She uses the skills of an investigative journalist – reading the police reports, speaking to the relatives – but also those of a novelist, in recreating their stories and rescuing them from anonymity. At one point she describes her task as follows:

“Maybe this is your mission: to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.”

As well investigating the deaths of the three girls, Almada also looks back on her own life, and in particular, her childhood and adolescence in the 1980s. In this way there are two streams of discovery: that of the adult Almada today writing her book; and that of the teenage Almada slowly discovering what the world can be like for women:

“I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.”

She includes stories of relatives who have been threatened or assaulted by men, and her own experience of vulnerability when hitch-hiking. All this makes for a depressing portrait of a society where violence against women is normalised, by women as well as men, “discussing situations like these in whispers.” Not only does Almada eschew easy answers, she does not seek answers at all. The crimes remains unsolved, and so too the origins of violence – sociological, psychological – remain unexplored. Almada’s focus remains entirely on the victims – whether they died, survived or resisted. This gives the book a powerful emotional punch, though one that may make some readers flinch. Much like Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury, Dead Girls gives a voice to the voiceless, and, similarly, we should be careful not to dismiss its injustice as belonging entirely to a different time or place: teenage girls may not be routinely murdered but the threat of male violence remains. Almada’s book is as much a warning as a reminder.

Lost Books – A Coin in NIne Hands

September 2, 2020

A Coin in Nine Hands is one of Marguerite Yourcenar’s earlier works, originally published in 1934, although, as an afterword from the author explains, this is a revised version from 1959, translated in 1971 by Dori Katz (in collaboration with Yourcenar). That the original had been subject to censorship is perhaps unsurprising as it centres around the attempted assassination of a political leader who is clearly intended to be Mussolini, though the later version was entirely rewritten rather than simply restored. The novel’s conceit is apparent from the title: it uses a ten lira coin to link its characters during one dramatic day. Though each chapter focuses mainly on a single character, we gradually see that all are interlinked, and a character who is merely mentioned in one chapter may well appear in person in another.

The novel opens harmlessly enough with a brief chapter describing prosperous businessman Paolo Farina who, we are told, is regarded sympathetically since his wife, Angiola, left him (marriages – particularly unhappy marriages – will be a recurrent theme of the novel at a time when divorce is not legal). He copes with his wife’s absence by frequenting prostitutes, and a particular favourite of his, Lina Chiari (whose voice reminds him of Angiola – “since all women have more or less the same body”), will be the subject of then next chapter. Here the tone darkens a little as we discover Lina has finally plucked up the courage to see a doctor as she has developed a lump on her breast and fears the worst. Her only comfort is:

“…she savoured the consolation of telling herself that she would no longer have to worry about finding money, about cooking or doing her laundry, that, from now on, all she had to do is suffer.”

Yourcenar slowly develops a sense of hopelessness. Farina may seem superficially contented but he is fully aware, “Love can’t be bought.” In the third chapter we meet shop owner Giulio Lousi from whom Lina buys a lipstick. He is troubled by a nagging wife, and a daughter with a disabled child whose husband has left her:

“…all this conspired to make Giulio not quite the most unhappy of mortals, for there was vanity to claiming that title, but at least a poor man with his share of troubles like everyone else.”

In the next chapter, Rosalio di Credo, Angiola’s sister, tells us “unhappiness had become a habit”:

“Stifled by unhappiness as by sudden asphyxiation she quickly opened the window.”

It is as Giulio and Rosalio are in church that we first catch a glimpse of Marcella Ardeati, the would-be assassin, sheltering from the rain in her black shawl:

“…hiding under it the dangerous object wrapped in brown paper that perhaps tonight would change the destiny of a people.”

Marcella’s chapter, the fifth and therefore central, is by far the longest, beginning with a confrontation between her and the wife of Carlo Stevo – once her lover, but now a political prisoner denied to both of them

“She had met Carlo Stevo at the very moment when both were desperate about the state of their country and the world.”

Everyone she talks to attempts to dissuade her, including Massimo, whom she took for an ally but is in fact a police informer (people being other than we think they are is another recurrent theme). “Your sacrifice will save no one,” he tells her, but she is determined to go ahead:

“She clung to the idea of murder like a shipwrecked sailor hang on to the only solid part of his sinking universe.”

We, of course know, that she is fated to fail; the novel instead asks the question of whether it is better to attempt action, even out of despair, rather than live on without hope. The chapter ends just before she fires, and the rest of her story unfolds in gossip and hearsay in the chapters which follow, winning sympathy even from the world-weary flower-seller, Mother Dida:

“In spite of herself, Dida felt a twinge in her heart at the thought of her.”

In her penultimate chapter, Yourcenar introduces the elderly painter Clement Roux, in conversation with Massimo who has witnessed the attempted assassination. Here too, we see the contrast between those who act and those who stand by as Massimo reflects bitterly:

“To be the one who doesn’t die, the one who watches, the one who never quite enters the game completely…”

Given the circumstances, it difficult not to see his thoughts as also describing the artist, and, by extension, the writer. Roux returns to his hotel and, in a sentence which returns us to Farina’s life at the beginning of the novel, is contented with his lot:

“Once again having assumed the reassuring routine of day-to-day reality, Clement Roux felt safe.”

A Coin in Nine Hands is so cleverly executed it would be a joy to read even without the depth with which Yourcenar delivers her cast of characters. The coin is no mere trick as it emphasises the true connectedness of a society in which individuals often feel quite separate (a scene between Marcella’s husband and Angiola in a cinema illustrates this perfectly). It also wrestles with a question which is as vital now as it was then: tolerate a hopeless existence passively or embrace what may be equally hopeless action? Yet another novel – and, indeed, writer – mysteriously rendered out of print.