Archive for October, 2022


October 30, 2022

Eton and Oxford educated Henry Green seems an unlikely candidate when it comes to the best novels of working-class experience written during the 20th century, yet his second novel, Living, published in 1929, falls exactly into that category. Green ‘researched’ the novel while working in his father’s factory, but this alone does not explain his ability to articulate the lives of the workers with such unpatronizing detail. Partly it is a choice of style, deliberately avoiding conjunctions and articles and instead echoing the speech of his characters – disconcerting at first but developing into a rhythm uniquely suited to world he is describing.

The novel has an extensive cast but focuses mainly on the experiences Lily Gates, the daughter of one of the workers, and Dick Dupret, the son of the owner. Both, in their own way, are attempting to establish themselves as individuals and also find someone to love. Lily lives with her father, Joe, and her father’s friend and work partner, Craigan, whom she calls ‘grandad’. It is Craigan’s house, and he is the head of the household, as we discover when Lily talks to a neighbour about getting a job:

“Then she said to Mrs Eames… how the old man would not let her try for a job at Waley’s though she knew her father would not think twice about that if it was for him to decide, who thought only of money.”

The fourth member of the household, Jim Dale, is a younger man, and the three men hope Lily will marry him in order to preserve their way of life (i.e. with Lily doing all the cooking and housework) but Lily has her eye set on another factory worker, Bert, with whom she intends to elope to Canada. Green conveys Lily and Jim’s contrasting characters on a visit to the cinema when Lily cannot “understand what he came to the pictures for, to listen to the band and not watch the picture, she liked the stories.” Lily is a dreamer who want to improve her lot. Dupret is also something of a dreamer:

“Standing in foundry shop son of Mr Dupret thought in mind and it seemed to him that these iron castings were beautiful and he reached out fingers to them, he touched them…”

He intends to succeed his father in running the factory, and the novel opens with him being shown round the works. He, too, flirts with the idea of marriage, but the woman in question only has eyes for another, and when that other isn’t interested, she still does not turn to Dupret: “though each day she circled further from Mr Tyler yet she did not draw any nearer to where Dick lay.” Lily seems more successful, and, after much pressing, she heads to Liverpool by train with Bert to stay with his parents and borrow the money which will allow them to go to Canada. What Bert hasn’t told her, however, is that he has lost touch with his parents. In one of the novel’s most famous sequences, the couple head into poorer and poorer parts of the city on their search.

In Green’s hands, all of his characters are sympathetic though none are entirely admirable. Dupret not only has minor faults such as nose-picking, but he makes the decision to sack all the older workers (like Craigan and Gates) as he regards them as too slow. Craigan is looked up to by many of the men, but we see in his treatment of Lily that, though he is a kind man, he has little time for her plans to better herself. Her father, Joe, on the other hand, is bad-tempered, prone to drink, and at one point hits his daughter. Yet we can see that this bluster disguises a fear of poverty and homelessness (it is Lily Craigan wishes to remain in the house rather than Joe). Sebastian Faulks has written of his characters, “So real were they, so grand yet so fragile, that one felt protective of them – protective even against the plotting of the author.” This is not because Green takes the time to flesh out their back story but just the opposite, revealing them always in the moment. As Adam Thirwell has put it:

“Green’s subject wasn’t only working-class life but the universal, unavoidable minuteness of living.”

Living is a novel which does, indeed, live and breath. Green is not a writer like Dickens who revels in describing his city, but you will feel you have walked the streets and factory floors of Birmingham because you have walked them in the footsteps of his characters.

Barbarian Stories

October 28, 2022

Naomi Mitchison was a prolific Scottish author of more than forty novels. Barbarian Stories, published in 1929, was her fourth collection of stories in five years (two novels had also been published) and her writing at that time tended to focus on the historical, though she would later stray happily into any genre, including fantasy and science fiction. Her first novel, The Conquered, was set among the Gauls during the time of Julius Caesar; her second, Cloud Cuckoo Land, focused on the rivalry of Athens and Sparta. Barbarian Stories is a collection of stories which centres on peoples regarded as ‘barbarian’, beginning in the early bronze age and moving through time until 1045 – with one final story set in the volume’s future, 1935.

Mitchison’s key aim is to capture the sense of otherness of those distant times. In the opening story, ‘The Barley Field’ we recognise the central character Three-Red’s jealousy of his neighbour, Ash-in-the-Air’s, crop of barley – “the barley shoots were even and thick and very green” – but Three-Red can only offer supernatural explanations of the crop’s superiority to his own, just as Ash-in-the-Air does:

“…the Gods must be, very properly pleased with him… also perhaps also it had been useful to dig deep… a hand deeper than any of the others.”

Here, Mitchison includes a scientific explanation for the modern reader, but this is not always the case. In ‘Niempsor Kar’ Tibar and Lallek go to a magician’s house in search of their father. Even using their swords to nick the doorways as they go through does not allow them to outwit the magic:

“Another door, and this time Tibar was uneasy. ‘I don’t remember that curtain.’ Another door; they were back in the grey room.”

It is only when Lallek agrees to stay behind that Tibar and his father are allowed to leave. In denying the reader a rational explanation, Mitchison prioritizes the story which reads more like a legend and foretells her later fantasy writing such as Travel Light.

Unsurprisingly, many of the stories centre on the experience of women. In ‘Neimpsor Kar’ Lallek goes with her brother to rescue their father – when her long lost sister sees her, she asks, “Why are you dressed like a boy…when your eyes are so much a girl’s?” It is as a ‘girl’ she persuades the magician to release her father: women have their own kind of power. In ‘Steague Fort’ Blackbird, the woman belonging to the tribe’s leader, Mot, is disliked by the other women, and when Mot is captured, her own existence is in danger. She allows herself to ‘passed around’ one drunken night, all the while collecting gold for his ransom, before escaping from the fort. Once ransomed, Mot is able to return to the fort with men borrowed from his captor and wreak revenge. Mitchison does not disguise that women must, at times, use their sex as power – the stories feature strong female characters but they are not modernised as is often the way today.  

But for most women and girls, life is simply dangerous. In ‘A Little Girl Lost’ a child encounters a group of men preparing to attack her settlement:

“There were men standing together, more of them than the finger of both hands three times over. They had swords and spears and wicker shields, the blue war-stain in their faces, and crows’ feathers in their hair…”

Similarly, in ‘Laeta’:

“One of the neighbours’ wives ran out and caught hold of me; she pulled me in behind their door and whispered that the soldiers had come and taken father and mother….”

Overall the stories create an impression of the world as a violent, threatening place, sometimes seen through the lens of ‘civilisation’, that is the Romans, for example in ‘Mascaret’ where a human sacrifice is prevented:

“He faced the crowd, the hate of the Druids who dared not attack, the savage, insane eyes of the worshippers, whose God had failed them.”

Or ‘Maiden Castle’ where impressive fortifications protect only livestock:

“One expects streets of houses and one finds nothing but sheep.”

But there are noble feelings too, such as when, in ‘A Matter of No Importance’, Marcus Trebius returns to Rome with a British slave. Forced to give him to his future wife, he is furious when she sells him and attempts all in his power to find him again. In ‘I’m a Business Man’, the captured title character offers to pay the ransom of another man who has been taken by the same pirates and also offers him a post in his business. The man, however, declines – perhaps a wise decision as, when released, the businessman immediately captures the pirate leader’s sister in order to ransom her. This story is not alone in containing an element of satire.

Satire comes to the fore in the final story, set in the future (at the time the collection was published) – a reminder that Mitchison would later be famous for Memoirs of a Spacewoman. The story tells of a time when one of the ‘owners’ (i.e. the wealthy) is sacrificed in a barbaric form of social justice:

“It came, I expect, of the growing conviction that the rich had really too good a time of it, too much protection, too slow a death-rate.”

As with the rest of the rest of stories, it demonstrates Mitchison’s restless mind and penetrating imagination. Although this volume is unlikely to be reprinted, Mitchison herself is an author worth exploring.

The Time of Indifference

October 25, 2022

The Time of Indifference was Alberto Moravia’s first novel, published in 1929, and translated by his usual translator into English, Angus Davidson, in 1953 (a later translation was produced in 2000 but that, too, is out of print). The product of a cynical young man, its younger characters, brother and sister, Michele and Carla, find themselves trapped in the corrupt world of their mother, Mariagrazia, her lover, Leo, and her friend, Lisa, uncertain how to react or whether to react at all. The novel takes place over only a few days, much its tension originating in the question of whether Leo will be successful in seducing Carla and replacing the mother with the daughter. The attraction is purely physical, as Moravia makes clear, drawing an explicit link between Leo’s desire for Mariagrazia, already satisfied, and Carla:

“The lust he thought had been assuaged for that afternoon reawoke, the blood mounted to his cheeks, and he wanted to cry aloud from desire.”

Of course, Carla objects, but as she pushes him away “a kind of resignation seemed to have taken possession of her…

“…why should she refuse Leo? Virtue would merely throw her back into the arms of boredom and the distasteful trivialities of everyday habit…”

She sees sleeping with Leo as “the only epilogue her old life deserved” as she looks to break free from her mother and “her unchanging quality of life.” Neither character convinces themselves that they are in love but both continue towards the moment they will sleep together (Leo enthusiastically, Carla almost despondently) with a desperate inevitability for entirely selfish reasons, and with little thought for Mariagrazia, who is already a neurotic, jealous woman, allowing Leo to trick her out of the villa she lives in in order to retain his affection (which she has already lost). Only Michele is aware that, while Leo wants them to hand over the house as payment for the mortgage he has loaned them, they would be better putting it on the market, but he, too, is in a state resignation:

“He made an effort to appear cold and tense although he felt nothing but indifference.”

More than once in the novel he thinks he should show anger towards Leo but the sentiment is abstract and it tails off quickly if he demonstrates it at all. (At one point it is compared to “seeing someone drowning, and looking on without moving a finger.”) He remains similarly unmoved by Lisa’s attraction to him, a parallel to Leo’s seduction of Carla:

“…she allowed her imagination to depict Michele as being madly in love but shy, an inexpert youth to whom she would give herself with expert joy.”

The scene where she attempts to seduce him is one of many in the novel where one character completely misreads another. For example, when she tells Michele that Leo is his mother’s lover he reacts with “a look of assumed horror” which she takes at face value. At one point Michele has to bite his lip so as not to laugh.

Moravia accomplishes an almost constant irony by revealing the thoughts of his characters throughout – often he will precede what they say with what they want to say. This creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy by highlighting their frequent dishonesty, as well as undermining them by revealing their delusions – Mariagrazia, for example, believes Lisa to be her rival in Leo’s affections. Michele begins the novel with his ideals to some extent intact but paralysed by a feeling of powerlessness, telling Lisa:

“You’re all like that… Mean, sordid. Love, for you, just means going to bed.”

But by the novel’s end he, too, has been corrupted, as he considers how he can use first Lisa, then Carla, to extort money from Leo:

“Leo would give the money as before, but, in consideration of Carla’s untouched youth and beauty, he would be asked for a sum twice or three times as much as would have sufficed for the middle-aged, corrupt Lisa. Every article has its price.”

While indifference may be the defining feature of its youthful characters, the novel does not feel like the work of an indifferent author. The domestic corruption on show is a condemnation of the previous generation who think only of themselves and leave their children with little choice but to assert themselves in a similar manner.  Its rage can be felt in the fact that Maragrazia is as ignorant on the final page as she was on the first.

Among the Hedges

October 20, 2022

Sara Mesa is a Spanish writer whose work is becoming increasingly available in English: her fourth novel Scar was translated in 2017, followed by Four by Four in 2020 and Among the Hedges (by her third translator in three books, Megan McDowell) in 2021. It is a short novel which tells of the relationship between a thirteen-year-old girl and a man in his fifties, a secret relationship which appears superficially uncomfortable and even dangerous but develops into something like a genuine friendship.

The relationship begins ‘among the hedges’ as that is where the narrator (who is christened ‘Soon’ as she will soon be fourteen) goes to hide when she should be at school, her “little hideout in the hedges:”

“Once inside, between the hedge and the tree, all she has to do is sit down and no one can see her, not even someone who passes very close by – as long as they don’t peer over.”

It is a safe space for her, and a space outside the social rules which would make her relationship with the “old man” inappropriate, a place in which she has put herself outside the rules of society by skipping school. Her first fear when the man discovers her hiding place is that he will also discover her truancy and report her. Soon’s avoidance of school is largely down to how she feels about herself as she enters adolescence:

“She usually wears sports clothes a couple sizes too big. The changes in her body embarrass her, and she tries to hide them.”

A comment from a ‘friend’ – that her body is like a marshmallow – has stuck with her, and she dislikes the fact that all the girls in her class have boyfriends, “like it’s in fashion.” She also mentions that she “started to feel bad when her brother left her:”

“Her brother said he loved her, but it wasn’t true, because he left unapologetically, claiming that he had to go.”

Although she says that one of the worst things about school is the group work as “the only thing she wants… is to be left alone,” she is clearly lonely, and the Old Man (as she calls him), however strange he might be, alleviates that loneliness. He, too, as is quickly obvious, is a lonely character. Even his appearance is unusual as he always wears a suit – except for one occasion when it is getting cleaned and he turns up in “jeans that are too big for him” – the clothes of a friend who killed himself. He has two interests which make up almost all his conversation: birds and Nina Simone:

“He’s always been like that, he says, stubborn and obsessive. If he likes a thing, he really likes it!”

His genuine enthusiasm for these topics sparks an interest in Soon, and he teaches her about Simone’s life and how to recognise bird calls. She appreciates his way of “situating himself at her level and not prying, so unlike other adults.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Old Man has a history of mental illness and trauma which is slowly revealed to Soon and the reader, though, rather than suggest this makes him dangerous, it emphasises his innocence.

Soon and Old Man are two lonely misfits (in Soon’s case this is a temporary state created by adolescence, in Old Man’s it is more permanent) who relieve each other’s isolation. Their relationship is threatened by society’s perception, not only from without but also from within:

“She intuits that Old Man is poor but loves to imagine him as a rich old man; she intuits that he is harmless, but if she wants to get somewhere with this, she has to imagine him as dangerous. She can’t end up without a story to tell.”

In a sense, Soon does what Mesa does not, writes the story society expects, and so creates a ‘realistic’ conclusion which is not true. In doing so the novel further highlights the lack of understanding which society offers those who are different in any way, or do not feel like they fit in. Mesa has the final word, however, with a brief second part where the importance of the relationship is re-established. Among the Hedges is a novel which consistently refuses to bow to society’s expectations and therefore challenges the reader to examine their own. It is a wonderful example of how minimalism in setting and character can be used to question how we see the world.

Still Born

October 12, 2022

Still Born is Guadalupe Nettel’s fourth novel and her third to be translated into English (by Rosalind Harvey who also translated After the Winter). It is a thoughtful examination of motherhood, which it explores across the stories of the narrator, Laura, her friend, Alina, and her neighbour, Doris. Laura is convinced that having children is not for her, and, in fact, that more women should be strong enough to resist the societal pressure to reproduce:

“For years I tried to convince my girlfriends that procreating was a hopeless mistake. I told them that children, no matter how sweet and loving they were in their best moments, would always represent a limit on their freedom, not to mention the physical and emotional cost they bring about…”

Her decision costs her more than one relationship, but a number of her friends, including Alina, agree with her. Until, that is, Alina changes her mind:

“With great tact, almost fearfully, she told me that she respected my decision but no longer shared my point of view. She did now want to get pregnant.”

A lesser novelist might have continued to contrast Laura’s childlessness with Alina’s pregnancy, but Nettel challenges the reader beyond the black and white of having / not having children. Alina soon falls pregnant but there are indications that all is not well – “the brain is ever so slightly smaller than the other organs” – and Alina is eventually told that the baby is unlikely to live:

“It’s you who are keeping her alive, but her brain isn’t capable of guaranteeing her autonomy. She will die when we separate her from you.”

Alina now has the emotional trauma of giving birth to a baby she has been told will not live, but even at this point Nettel is not finished forcing the reader to consider uncomfortable questions of life and death. Rather than die at birth, Alina’s baby, Ines, survives, although brain damaged. (Hence the titles double meaning in English – the belief the baby will be stillborn, and the suggestion it is still born when it is expected not to survive).  The choice of having a child now takes on a different intensity for Alina and her husband Aurelio.

While this would be enough for any novel, Nettel adds a further strand in the form of Laura’s neighbour, Doris, and her young son, Nicolas. When they first move in, Laura describes them as “a woman with a little boy who seems dissatisfied with life to say the least.”

“He hurls insults and profanities around, which is somewhat disconcerting in a child of his age. He also slams doors and throws all sorts of things at the walls.”

Despite her lack of interest in children, Laura slowly gets to know Nicolas. As you may imagine, there are reason for his behaviour: his father, who was abusive, died in an accident, and Doris has struggled to cope both with the aftermath of the abuse and life as a single parent. As Nicolas explains to Laura, “Ever since my dad died, she forgot how to be happy.” As the novel progresses, Doris becomes increasingly withdrawn and takes to her bed, leaving Laura a de facto parent to Nicolas. Eventually Doris sends Nicolas to stay with her sister, asking Laura to take him to the bus:

“I couldn’t sleep all night thinking about how Nicolas was getting on and how stupid I had been not to go with him.”

Her time with Nicolas does not make Laura want to be a mother, but it does make her less resolute in her opposition to parenthood, as does, in a different way, the experience of Alina. In alternating the two stories, Nettel allows them to resonate, contrasting the different difficulties and joys of being a parent.  However, it would be naive to see this as a ‘pro-parenthood’ novel – Nettel presents the issues with the complexity they deserve, and also includes Laura’s relationship with her own mother, and Alina’s with her nanny. (One area the novel rather avoids is the clear disparity in wealth between Doris, who is entirely unsupported, and Alina who not only has a caring husband – also rather neglected in the narrative – but can hire a live-in nanny). Such minor criticism apart, this is a novel which takes the topic of motherhood head on and with some bravery by presenting both a severely disabled child and a troubled child whose mother cannot cope. It does so without condemnation, instead seeking to provide understanding and a little hope.

Body Kintsugi

October 7, 2022

Books can be challenging for any number of reasons: an unlikeable narrator, a complex structure, an idiosyncratic style; in the case of Senka Maric’s Body Kintsugi, newly translated by Celia Hawkesworth, the challenge lies in the subject matter itself. The novel tells the story of a woman’s relationship with her body as she discovers, and then undergoes treatment for, breast cancer. While the novel is not without hope, it is also a gruelling experience for both narrator and reader – a pairing intensified by the use of the second person – with its focus as much on the physical as the psychological effects of illness.

One aspect of the novel’s bleakness is the narrator’s isolation. The novel opens with her husband packing a bag and leaving, and this affects her state of mind in advance of her cancer diagnosis as she realises “he hadn’t left behind him a sense of emptiness, only a sense of defeat.” A month later she finds she has a pain in her shoulder – a build-up of calcium, and a reminder of how little control we have of our bodies:

“The doctor said all you could do would take painkillers and wait for it to pass.”

As that pain begins to pass, however, she discovers a lump in her breast:

“Like a pebble that’s lodged itself the top of your bathing suit.”

This series of events, told in the first few pages, creates a feeling of “how unlucky you are, how for years bad things have been piling up, one after another,” which is compounded by sense that the lump she has discovered is an inevitability linked to her mother’s breast cancer sixteen years before. The “good news,” according to the doctor, is that her diagnosis is early:

“His words were an anchor that made it possible for reality not to dissolve.”

This reaction is an example of Maric’s ability cut to the heart of the narrator’s feelings. The novel is told in short chapters, focusing on such key moments. The diagnosis is followed quickly by the first operation, where Maric makes her intentions clear:

“This is a story about the body. Its struggle to feel while reality shatters it into fragments.”

The novel’s title expresses an optimism the narrator does not often feel in its reference to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is repaired in such a way as to draw attention to the cracks. Maric certainly draws attention to the cracks (“The gash goes from the right nipple towards your back…”) but readers should not expect a celebration of the scars. When another tumour is found, and the second breast must be removed, she longs to keep something of herself despite her doctor’s disapproval:

“Protheses? Why are you talking about aesthetics to me here? I’m talking to you about your life!”

The narrator does not let her body go lightly, attempting to keep the shape of her breasts even as she cannot keep them. In writing about the aftermath of the operation, Maric captures the pain the narrator experiences:

“The pain will be relentless for the following week… You’ll try to trick it. Find a movement it will be late for. As you straighten up your almost hear the stirring of the silicone protheses inside you, a jagged sound that makes you flesh sob.”

Pain becomes a living part of her body, and in the final phrase, Maric mixes the senses to emphasise how it invades every part of her.

Alongside the story of her treatment for cancer, Maric also includes moments from the narrator’s childhood. These, too, often focus on her developing body. As a child she finds some pornographic pictures and feels her body betraying her – a memory she returns to “to enjoy the warmth in your body and hate yourself because of it.” At thirteen:

“You’re having a hard time with your body that longs to be touched.”

These chapters widen the novels scope – rather than being only a story of illness, the novel becomes an exploration of our relationship with the body, and, more specifically, its separation from the mind. It reminds us of our mortality not in a reflective, abstract way, but in drawing attention to the vessel of that mortality. In this sense it can be a brutal, bruising experience for the reader, but also perhaps a necessary correction to our tendency to forget the flesh we live in.


October 1, 2022

In 2010, Maylis de Kerengal had the opportunity to travel on the trans-Siberian railway as part of French-Russian cultural exchange and from that experience she developed, first as short story and then as a novella, Eastbound, published in 2012 and now translated by Jessica Moore. (For those familiar with de Kerengal’s work, it was written between Birth of a Bridge and Mend the Living). It tells the story of a Russian conscript, Aliocha, who is heading eastward to an unknown destination. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, and more young men are conscripted into Putin’s army, it has become sadly more relevant today than ever.

Aliocha is frightened both of the vastness of the country he is heading into – “nothing here is in the human scale, nothing familiar will welcome him” – and the ‘hazing’ which will take place when he arrives. Unable to face it, he decides his only choice is to escape:

“The idea suddenly goes through the boy, a flash of lightning-like certainty tangible as a stone… run away, get out as fast as possible, defect, jump.”

Escape is not as easy as it sounds, however – at every stop there will be patrols, and, in his army uniform, he can hardly blend into the crowd. He is alone, in a country where trust is in short supply – a brief conversation with the train’s conductor (left untranslated as provodnitsa for some reason) makes him fear she intends to report him to his sergeant, Letchov – a fear the reader shares as the narrative makes clear she “knows perfectly well, what he has in mind, this one.” The only potential friend is a Frenchwoman, Helene, who is also travelling on the train:

“He’s never seen women like her, awake at this time of night and alone in trains transporting troops, women in men’s shorts and big boots…”

Though the novel’s tension comes from his desire to escape, it is Aliocha’s relationship with Helene that is its most interesting aspect. They do not share a common language and when Aliocha pleads with her to help him:

“…he speaks to her, an astonishing flow of words, trembling to the lips, words that crash into each other and this language that rolls, rolls, pulsing at top speed, a dialect or slang she can’t tell, can’t catch a single word, but the meaning is clear…”

She takes him to her cabin and although there is an awkwardness between them – at first he “doesn’t know where to put himself” – there is also a trust, demonstrated when, on sperate occasions, each watches the other sleep. Helene’s back story is rather sketched in – a Russian lover she met in France but who has now returned to his home country – but this only adds to the sense that life on the train is somehow separate. The thriller aspect of the novel works well with Aliocha hiding in the cabin until they realise the cabin will be searched. He also discovers that leaving the train at a station is not as straight-forward as he had hoped. De Kerengal creates a feeling of tenderness for Aliocha which is also imbued with eroticism:

“His shirt and t-shirt, untucked, leave bare an area of very white skin, hip and belly, smooth, bones jutting and abdomen hollow below the completely hairless chest.”

With its archetypal Russian setting (both the train and the landscape it travels over) the novel pays tribute to Russian literature, but also amusingly draws attention to this, Helene telling herself that she may not know a word of Russian …

“…but she’s read Anna Karenina three times, hums the melody of Dr Zhivago and still knows [the geography text-book definitions of] the taiga, the tundra and the steppe by heart…”

The translation itself is a little jarring at times. The first line, for example – “These guys come from Moscow…” – is a rather informal opening when the narrative does not represent, at this point, the consciousness of a character (and doesn’t seem to tally with words like ‘pallid’ and ‘wan’ which quickly follow). Similarly, ‘knocked up’ sits alongside ‘coveting conjugal salvation’, and the unforgivable ‘gotta’ is used at one point. I have it on good authority that this mix of registers echoes the original French and can only assume it represents the coming together of the sophisticated Helene and lower class Aliocha.

Eastbound is a compassionate thriller, one where suspense is created around the question of whether one person will aid another. It asks us to remember our humanity and the humanity of others. something which goes beyond nationality and language. Its brevity, like the brevity of Aliocha and Helene’s relationship, belies the impression it makes.