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Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós

Tristana from Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) is a subversive novel that takes a sly look at the power structure in the relationships of its three main characters: Don Lope, an aging, dissolute roué, his ‘ward,’ the beautiful Tristana, and the handsome, wealthy young man she falls in love with, a painter named Horacio. This is the sort of novel guaranteed to elicit a range of responses from its readers, and that would make this relatively short book, clocking in at just under 200 pages, a great choice for book groups who’d like to sink their teeth into complex characterisations and slippery morality.

tristanaWhen the book opens, one of the main characters Don Lope Garrido, now well past his prime, is living in “cheap plebian rooms, with, as noisy neighbors, a tavern, a café, a shop selling milk fresh from a goat, and a narrow inner courtyard with numbered rooms.”  That wonderful quote creates a cacophony of sounds surrounding Don Lope as he emerges from his surroundings as a rather slippery character:

The first time I encountered this gentleman and observed his proud, soldierly bearing, like a figure in a Velázquez painting of one of Spain’s regiments in Flanders, I was informed that his name was Don Lope de Sosa, a name with more than a whiff of the theatre about it and worthy of a character in one of those short tales you find in books on rhetoric; and, that, indeed was the name given to him by some of his more unsavoury friends; he, however, answered to Don Lope Garrido. In time, I discovered that the name on his baptismal certificate was Don Juan López Garrido; so that sonorous Don Lope must have been his own invention, like a lovely ornament intended to embellish his person; and the name so suited the firm, noble lines of his lean face, his slim, erect body, his slightly hooked nose, his clear brow and lively eyes, his greying moustache and neat, provocative goatee beard, that he really could not have been called anything else. One had no alternative but to call him Don Lope.

Even though Don Lope Garrido (and the name is explained in the footnotes) is 57, it’s still possible to see this dapper aging womanizer as the dangerous threat he used to be. Some of the measures he takes to hang onto the shadow of his vigour are laughable.

The age of this excellent gentleman, in terms of the figure he gave whenever the subject came up, was a number as impossible to verify as the time on a broken clock, whose hands refuse to move. He had stuck fast at forty-nine, as if an instinctive terror of the number fifty had halted him on the much feared boundary of the half century.

He’s spent his lifetime pursing women while evading the consequences of his actions, but now living on an “ever-decreasing income,” he floats on his past glory as a supreme seducer of women with a manufactured morality “which, although it seemed to have sprung solely from him, was, in fact, an amalgamation in his mind of the ideas floating around in the metaphysical atmosphere of the age, like invisible bacteria.” The situation with Tristana is perfect for Don Lope. She’s beautiful, innocent enough to fall for his manipulative arguments and as his ward, she’s entirely dependent upon him.

Don Lope Garrido–just to whet  your appetite–was  a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity that he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: ‘You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier.’

So there, in a few quotes, is a lot of information about Don Lope, who, IMO is the main character of the book–in spite of the fact that its title is the name of Don Lope’s ‘ward’ Tristana. The term ‘ward’ is applied sarcastically as beautiful, young Tristana, who fell initially into Don Lope’s power through the poverty of her parents and Don Lope’s generosity, is her guardian’s mistress.  Locals theorize that Tristana is Don Lope’s niece or even his daughter (“there were even some who claimed to have heard her say ‘papa’, just like one of those talking dolls”), but in time  it becomes clear that “she was nothing […] an item of furniture or an article of clothing, with no one to dispute his ownership.” Tristana, who has a great deal more power than she realizes (or is able to exercise) is, however, the celestial body that the other two main characters, Don Lope and Horacio orbit. Too young and naïve to initially understand her vulnerability, she grasps her situation in her guardian’s home too late, and when she begins to put up resistance to Don Lope’s despotic power, he, a lifetime seducer of women, unscrupulously checkmates her at every point.

The domestic situation in Don Lope’s house is at once bizarre and pathological, and gradually as the story develops we see how Tristana was initially under Don Lope’s thumb and how she now chafes under his control. Don Lope, once the great seducer, entranced women with his words, his wiles and his caresses, but now he alternates various roles to keep his control on Tristana, his “last and, therefore, dearest trophy,” so in one moment, he sits her on his knee and fondles her, and in the next he’s her caring, but authoritative parent who sends her to her room. This leaves Tristana, who’s a neophyte when it comes to manipulation, always one step behind her aging lover/protector/guardian, and while she knows she’s being manipulated and used, she can’t ever quite challenge the various arguments that seasoned seducer Don Lope sends her way. As a result, her resentment and desire for freedom grows, and then she meets Horacio, a young painter who understands her plight….

There were so many ways this novel could have ended, but Benito Pérez Galdós delicately constructs the most subversive route to his story’s conclusion. There’s love and tragedy but there’s also irony, domestic comedy and the massive egos of two of the three main characters, and that’s as much of the plot as I’m prepared to discuss.

A section of the novel takes the form of an epistolary as mushy love letters pass back and forth between Tristana and Horacio. At this juncture the novel lost some of its momentum, and yet at the same time, these letters were essential to question the nature and authenticity of love while showing how the three characters inhabit necessary roles for each other. Tristana and Don Lope eventually become almost caricatures of themselves while Horacio, always a lesser player in the game, does not.

Balzac was an enormous influence on Galdós and you can see this in Tristana in the way the author gently dismantles the layers of his characters with each new event as jealousy, rivalry, and tragedy challenge the triangular relationship between Don Lope, Tristana and Horacio. In this parable of power, self-deceit and ego, who will emerge the victor? And what will victory look like? Don Lope, the seducer, Tristana, his victim, and Horacio the lover begin by inhabiting the lives stock characters, but as the tale continues and the layers of this tale unfold, Galdós does not let his reader make easy moral judgments.

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Review copy/own a copy

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Silence by Jan Costin Wagner

2014

I am delighted that Lizzy and Caroline decided to host yet another German Literature Month—a blogging event I looked forward to all year, but even though I’ve had a year (since GLM 2013) to select books, I found myself with no concrete plans except the promise to read some Joseph Roth. Then a few weeks ago, Caroline, in a lead-up to the month, made a post with a few book suggestions. There was a name on the list… Jan Costin Wagner, a German writer of crime novels set in Finland….

I ordered Silence, and when the book arrived the cover was different from the one expected. Not a big deal, but the cover of my edition is the film tie-in version, and guess what, I’d seen the film which was excellent btw. I’d seen the film a few years ago, but it was one of those films you’d don’t forget, and the plot didn’t disappear into the ether the minute I turned off the DVD player. So my main concern, after seeing the film version, was that I’d feel a total lack of suspense when reading Silence.

Set in the small Finnish town of Turku, the novel focuses on the disappearance of a young girl who simply vanishes one summer day while on her way to volleyball practice. The thought that a human being can vanish without a trace is eerie, but in this case, it seems that history has repeated itself. The missing girl’s bicycle is found in a field right next to a makeshift shrine to yet another young girl who vanished from the same spot 33 years earlier. It’s impossible to not connect the two crimes. The first girl, raped and murdered, was eventually found in a remote lake, and of course, the police and the community fear that a similar fate awaits the second girl. Is the same killer, possibly now geriatric, responsible for the fate of the two girls? Or is this a copy-cat crime?

silenceSilence begins back in 1974 and within a few pages we know exactly who the killer is. The suspense, and there’s a lot of it, is generated by the unknown fate of the second girl, 33 years later, and whether or not the police will solve the two crimes. Interestingly the film diverged from the book in several ways. The plot is still recognizable, but the film includes some bold differences. The film is a much more traditional investigation, with an emphasis on the visual (some of the more painful details not flushed out in the book), and the book’s cover indicates one of the crucial clues missed in the first investigation and not touched on at all in the book. The book is quite different (you’ll see why if you watch the film too),  and the inner lives of the detectives following the case are a main focus. Ketola was a young policeman, new to the force when the first girl, a thirteen year old named Pia was murdered, and even though he retires shortly after the novel begins, he cannot forget the case and even drags a model of the crime scene, made in 1974, back to his home in case staring at it all day will wake up some dormant clue.

Another policeman on the case is Kemmo Joentaa, a widower who lives in a home that’s basically become a shrine to his dead wife, Sanna.  Joentaa sees exactly the same presence of the dead when he goes to question Pia’s mother, Elina. People are surprised that she stayed in the same house, and there’s an unspoken criticism that she chose to do so, but Joentaa understands all too well how hard it is to let go.

The girl in the photograph was laughing. A peal of laughter, thought Joentaa, those were the words that had occurred to him when he saw the picture of the girl. Pia Lehtinen.
Joentaa stood in front of the photograph and felt a tingling sensation at the idea that it had been hanging there for decades. Just as Sanna’s photos would still be in the same place. decades from now.

“That’s Pia,” said Elina Lehtinen, who had come to his side. She was carrying a tray with cups, plates and a blueberry cake still steaming from the oven.

“I know,” said Joentaa.

“Of course. You have a photograph in your files,” said Elina Lehtinen.

Joentaa nodded.

“It’s incredibly long ago,” she went on, without taking her eyes off the photograph. “I was thinking about that yesterday, and I was surprised to realize that today Pia would be a woman of forty-six. Hard to imagine.” She looked at him and smiled.

Elina Lehtinen’s  daughter was murdered 33 years earlier, but the parents of missing Sinnaka Vehkasalo are enduring the agony of a missing daughter who’s feared murdered. Elina and her husband divorced after the murder of their daughter, and Pia’s father still can’t talk about it. We see Sinnaka’s parents travelling down the same path as they blame each other over various aspects of their daughter’s disappearance. The contrast of these two sets of parents is interesting and subtle. Elina has managed to attain a certain serenity but we know that it was hell getting there.

“Once I really did have a great fit of laughter,” continued Elina Lehtinen and she was laughing again now as she saw Joentaa’s face.

“An extraordinary fit of laughter, it’s my most vivid memory. On the day my husband left me. He said he was going now, and I started laughing and couldn’t stop until that evening, and the next day I rang my neighbour’s doorbell and they took me to a hospital, and I spent  a long time having treatment there. Is the cake alright?”

“It’s very good,” said Joentaa.

“My most vivid memory,” she repeated. “Everything else is almost just a  … well, a feeling of everything being over. It’s sometimes close, sometimes further away. You talk to people, that sometimes helped me. And now it’s ages ago, but it’s beginning all over again.”

“You mean the missing girl, Sinikka?”

“Yes. It’s repeating itself. When I saw the police officers I wasn’t surprised. Because I’d always expected it to happen again, somehow. Do you understand?”

Joentaa didn’t answer. He didn’t know whether he understood or not.

“I always knew that couldn’t have been all, because some time everything comes to an end, but this never really did. I’m afraid I can’t explain it better.”

The pain and difficulty of parenthood is evident through the glimpses we have of these distraught parents, but there’s also Ketola who’s coming to terms with the fact that his son is mentally ill. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the book. Ketola is obsessed with Pia’s murder–the case he never managed to solve during his long career, but something also gnaws at the corners of Joentaa’s mind.

The silence of the title refers to the things left unsaid–the thoughts we cannot express to people, the spaces left by the dead, and the silence of waiting for answers. The book’s intriguing premise is more than matched by the characters, and I’m delighted to learn that Joentaa appears in other books from this author.

Thanks for the tip, Caroline.

Translation by Anthea Bell

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Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara

Joe was like a young fellow that never grew up. In many respects that was what he was. But if you let it end there, you wouldn’t have the full picture of the man. I can’t believe that what I was allowed to see of Joe was all there was. If that was all there was, he was a dull man, perhaps a stupid man.”

Joe Chapin is the main character of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick. There’s nothing really special about Joe, and he would have been a very average man if not for his inherited wealth. Born into the privilege that always cocooned him and also denied some fundamental, necessary experiences, he attended law school, married and had two children. He was a good husband, a good father, and as a conservative, he was also a lifelong member of the Republican Party. He never travelled to Europe, didn’t fight in a World War, but he did have political ambitions which grew, almost preposterously, from his innate sense of self-worth. In many ways it’s a small life, and it’s definitely a sad life. From early childhood, Joe was conditioned to act a certain way, think a certain way, and only mingle with certain types of people. Joe was a man who never stepped out of line–except once, and that incident led to his permanent unhappiness.

ten north frederickTen North Frederick is the address of Joe’s home–an old mansion in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. This was also Joe’s parents’ home; Joe was born in the house, and he died there. He obeyed his family’s wishes to keep the family home in spite of the fact that it wasn’t the most elite address in Gibbsville, because the best families–not the richest or the most fashionable–lived in that section of town, and even Joe’s address said a great deal about the sort of man he was.  We could say that Joe was defined by external markers rather than internal. Joe was, in fact, a rather hollow person.

The novel’s focus is on the hypocrisy of small-time American life. In the introduction, written by Jonathan Dee in my Penguin Classics edition, Dee argues that O’Hara’s work is primed for a renaissance. He states that the novel is “pitilessly accurate” in “freezing the details of a bygone era in American history,” and citing the 2008 financial clash, that the novel blasts “the great American fairy tale of class mobility.” One of my pet beliefs is that no one writes as well about the excesses of wealth and the tentacles of selective power than Americans, and Ten North Frederick, surely one of the giants of 20th century American literature bolsters my argument. O’Hara’s style is heavy & ponderous–think Dreiser.

The novel begins with Joe’s funeral, and then the narrative expands with various pallbearers’ versions of Joe. A picture begins to form of the man who was the epitome of conformity, but then O’Hara moves in closer to see Joe through family members, and cracks begin to appear in the image we have until, by the end of the book, the vision we have of Joe and his life is of a big blank hemmed in and defined by conformity. Joe moved in a circle of influential people who all thought like him, shared the same values and beliefs, and rarely, if ever, stepped outside of their comfort zone.

In Gibbsville, in 1909, only a few men could tell with exactness the true wealth of the wealthy Gibbsville families. A family that had assets worth $800,000 could, and usually did, live in great comfort without spending much more money than a family worth $200,00. It was a matter of pride with the best people of Gibbsville to live comfortably, but without the kind of display that would publicly reveal the extent of their wealth. A few families, whose names were given to large holdings in coal lands and to breweries and meat-packing houses, lived in American luxury. They were the owners of the early motor cars. they employed the larger staff of servants. They had summer homes at distant resorts and led the lists of contributors to church and charity. Their wealth was a known fact and they were free to enjoy it. But behind them, obscured by the known wealthy, were the well-off, who possessed considerable fortunes and who quietly ran the town.

The book goes back in time over Joe Chapin’s life. We meet his parents locked in a bitterly miserable marriage. Joe’s neurotic, sexually repressed, vindictive mother Charlotte transfers all of her ambition and attention to her son while sidelining her husband into becoming a marginal, distant figure in his own house. Joe eventually marries Edith Stokes, a woman made in the same mould as his mother, and so he steps from his mother’s leash to his wife’s. Nothing is spontaneous with these people, and everything is decided by a name, an address, or a bank account. Here’s Edith planning the wedding invitations which are designed to let people know whether or not they are important enough to be invited to the reception:

Her lists had been checked and rechecked long before the engagement announcements, so that when she took the list to Charlotte Chapin, the mother of the groom and the bride-to-be were almost in perfect accord. Names marked with an “R” for reception remained marked with an “R”; a few, but a very few, marked with a “C” for church-only, were remarked with an “R” because Charlotte felt that this husband or that husband was slightly more important in the business affairs of the town than Edith could be expected to know. “It will mean a lot to Joe later on, Edith dear. I’d have done just what you did, but if you let down the bars just a little bit, just in one or two instances, I know it will be appreciated. And they’re worthwhile people, and in one more generation there wouldn’t be the slightest question about their being invited. So don’t you think we ought to be nice to them now?”

And so Joe’s life is controlled from the cradle to the grave–first by his mother, and then by his wife. He rarely makes a decision about his own life; his college is selected for him; his friends are arranged–even his college roommate is no accident, and Joe’s carefully conditioned to not question the status quo or who should be considered as acceptable society. There are many great scenes in the book that illustrate this but my favourite occurs when Joe’s mother, Charlotte takes offence with how 10-year-old  Joe is treated by another mother, Blanche Montgomery, at a child’s birthday party. She vindictively colludes with an acquaintance  to punish Blanche by shutting her out of the ‘best’ society.

The exclusion of the Montgomerys from the informal little dinner club was not noticed until the unannounced twenty-couple limit had been reached and nominations closed. It was an informal club in that there was no clubhouse, it had no rooms, no place for a bulletin board, no stationery. Its name was The Second Thursdays, without the word club. When it was seen that the Montgomerys were not included (and it became known they had not been asked), their social indispensability was at an end. Charlotte’s strategy had included extra, direct snubs for Blanche Montgomery, but she need not have planned so carefully. The absence of the Montgomerys from The Second Thursdays lowered their standing in the eyes of nonmembers and members–and no one, or almost no one, ever knew what had happened. One day they were a first family; then in a short while they were just another old family with money. And even Blanche Montgomery did not suspect Charlotte, who was not a member of The Second Thursdays; nor did she suspect Bess, a woman incapable of intrigue. In her tears and anger she blamed herself, but she never discovered the real reason for the snub. Perhaps she spent too much money on clothes? Perhaps she had flirted with someone’s husband? Possibly they did not like the color she had chosen for the repainting of the old Montgomery mansion? She was fully aware of the enormity of her failure: not even being married to a Montgomery was enough to carry her, but being married to her was enough to hurt a Mongtomery. In 1930, when her son was a lawyer for the big bootleggers and organized prostitution, dressed like a bootlegger and one of the prostitutes’ best patrons–she still blamed herself, and wished that her boy could have turned out like Joe Chapin.

The novel is packed with unforgettable characters: the vicious, yet hale and hearty politician, Mike Slattery, a very powerful man who runs the local political scene, and his wife, Peg who wanted the wives of the local elite  to “not forget for a minute that she was the most powerful human influence upon one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth.” If you want a favour–someone run out-of-town or an abortion arranged, then Mike is your man. Mike never forgets that people owe him, and he sees himself as the puppetmaster behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the Chapins never really understood that Slattery’s power did not run on the same level as their own. Since a great deal of the novel’s focus is on conformity and hypocrisy, it’s not too surprising that there’s a thread of sex–illicit, secret, repressed–running throughout the book and seen in the thoughts and actions of several characters.

Ten North Frederick, which was incidentally made into a film, is the portrait of a privileged American but it’s also the portrait of the first few decades of the American century with landmark historic events which don’t touch the Chapin family. WWI takes place off in the distance, prohibition reigns–not that the alcohol ban makes any difference whatsoever to Joe and his friends who always have plenty of alcohol to drink, the 1928 crash, (Joe loses money but life doesn’t change),  the depression and there are distant rumblings of WWII. Ten North Frederick is a monumental achievement. It begins with Joe’s funeral and the many versions of this man, so at first Joe appears in our vision as a complicated piece of origami which over the course of the book is unfolded, through his various relationships, to reveal … a blank, creased piece of paper, a remarkably empty human being. And yet at the same time, it’s to O’Hara’s credit that the character of Joe remains fundamentally sympathetic.

** For foreign readers, there are a few passages of Pennsylvania Dutch which I had to work my work through phonetically.

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The Mad and The Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Eccentric, wealthy businessman, former architect Michel Hartog arrives at a swanky country asylum to collect Julie Ballanger, a young woman who’s lived there, voluntarily, for 5 years. She’s leaving to be employed as a nanny for Hartog’s young nephew, Peter aka “the snotty brat.” Hartog inherited his wealth unexpectedly when his brother and sister-in law died in a plane crash, and their deaths left him in charge of the family fortune and the well-being of his nephew, the heir. Now Hartog has hired a former mental patient as a nanny. What’s wrong with this picture?

If you listen to Hartog’s driver, Hartog has a reputation as a philanthropist for hiring people who have physical or mental problems. Hartog’s home is a “house of defectives.”

Julie nodded. The driver handed her the drink. He had poured himself a Ricard. He drank half of it and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Physically, you are better built than Old Polio.”

“Old Polio?”

“The nursemaid before you. Completely off her rocker. Fifty if she was a day. And an idiot. What about you? What’s your thing?”

“I don’t understand at all,” said Julie. “My thing? What do you mean?”

“The thing that’s screwy with you.”

“I’m cured,” Julie stated.

“The hell you are!” exclaimed the driver. “The boss’s way of doing good is over the top. He only hires retards. He sets up factories for cripples to work in, can you figure that?”

“Not really.”

“Those guys who go around in little motorized wheelchairs? He’s got them working on a production line! In this house it’s the same baloney. The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotor ataxia–no wonder his meals arrive cold! The snotty brat’s old nanny–well I told you about her. As for you, you must know yourself.”

Hartog is certainly very odd, but his first scene at the asylum shows us that he’s not a nice man, so does he hire Julie from some sort of philanthropy or contrariness or is there something deeper at play?…..

the mad and the badJulie’s introduction to Hartog’s nephew is not reassuring; Peter is a difficult child, and Hartog, who encourages Julie to drink, is strangely repellent, with a smile which “resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” Julie is not the only one who hits the booze hard in Hartog’s house; it’s “a drinker’s paradise,” and even the valet downs Guinness with his breakfast omelet. Hartog runs his home in a paradoxical fashion. On one hand, he whimsically expects his employees to be available whenever he pleases, sharply dressed and ready to perform their duties, but on the other hand, he indulges certain vices.  Thrust into this new stressful environment, Julie washes down tranquilizers with alcohol.

Although we never get the whole story of Julie’s past life, some information is revealed in fragmented hints, but these crimes are only the external projections of something much deeper. Julie who claims to be “allergic” to the police is politically alienated from bourgeois society. Hartog plucks her from an insane asylum, hands her a job, a wardrobe full of clothing and a regular paycheck. He expects her to be impressed and grateful:

“What do you think of me?” Hartog asked. “What do you know about me? Do you get the feeling you are in a fairy tale?”

“I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Okay. But what then?”

“You are a soap, oil, and detergent magnate. You are rich and you are a philanthropist.”

“Let’s not exaggerate.”

“You do Good. You are probably trying to compensate for the feeling of being a usurper. Because your wealth is not the fruit of your own labor. Only the death of your brother and his wife made you the owner of it. You must have developed a strong sense of guilt, even if you had no wish for them to die. Anyway, one always wishes for the death of one’s brother at some level.”

“Congratulations!” said Hartog in a toneless voice. “Is that what they teach at the asylum?”

“It’s not an asylum. It’s an open establishment. I could have left any time I wanted.”

“But you stayed there for five years. Why?”

“You’ve seen my records. You know why.” 

While this is a crime story, The Mad and the Bad also contains a socio-political undercurrent. Hartog expects gratitude from Julie for offering her ‘another chance,’ but he also wants to see awe–awe for his wealth and his accomplishments. But Julie is unimpressed. She sees Hartog as an unexceptional human being with the advantage of controlling a fortune:

“Quite the little rebel,” he observed. “I know all about you. Pickpocket. Arsonist. Congratulations.”

“Of course you do,” replied Julie. “It’s all in my file.”

“You, all you poor people, are just too stupid. You go about things in the dumbest way.”

“Everyone can’t inherit money.”

Hartog shrugged.

“For my part I do something with my inheritance. You people wouldn’t know what to do with one.”

I’m not going to reveal much of the plot–the back cover of the book reveals more than I intend to address here. But since this is a crime novel, a hit man and his sloppy henchmen enter the scene, and Julie’s brief re-entrance into society comes to a screaming halt. Suddenly, she finds herself back in a life on the run, and all of her old survival skills return. Julie describes herself as looking like a “post-op transsexual,” but this is just a reflection that Julie eschews bourgeois society’s signifiers of the feminine ideal; in reality she’s fit, attractive, handy with weaponry and adept at survival. As the book continues, there’s a parallel metamorphosis that takes place as both Julie and Thompson, the hitman with a nagging ulcer, return to primal behaviour.

The Mad and the Bad is a deeply subversive novel and contains the same sharply observed criticisms of bourgeois society that are found in Fatale. As the novel continues, Julie’s ‘madness’ becomes questionable, and as her violent history morphs into her violent present, she is removed farther from society’s norms and sinks deeper into self-preservation. Her past insanity is seen mal-adjustment–a reaction to the hypocrisy of a decadent, materialistic society and a drive to anti-social behaviours; she simply opted to no longer live in the world and voluntarily retired to the asylum where, drugged and removed from aggravation, she was “cured.” Her re-entry into society has turned into a nightmare, and those same anti-social behaviours that sent her into the asylum in the first place, now allow her to survive. Another character, Fuentès, a failed idealist, has also rejected society, and in his case, he’s not locked up in an asylum, but chooses to isolate himself in a bizarrely constructed building whose labyrinth design grants security and is a testament to his individualism. Is Fuentès, another fringe dweller, also mad, or is his abandonment of society a signifier of sanity?

There are moments when Julie seems aware of her delusions, but there are other times when she can’t control herself. One scene in which a preacher emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between religion, the government and the police seems to awaken something in Julie:

She had to get rid of all these bastards who were out to destroy her. This was no time to lose her head. She would have loved to open fire with a machine gun and create a bloodbath.

It’s no coincidence that one of the book’s destructive, brilliantly explosive scenes takes place in a large department store–a temple to consumerism. Violence detonates with a darkly humorous edge as Julie is pushed to extremes in order to shock the customers and shop assistants out of their stupor. Yes, Julie uses the location for her purposes, but as the tranquilizers wear off and she blazes across France, Julie comes alive, all those old skills ignite, and we cheer her on. 

Manchette shows that while the ‘bad’ are predictable, the ‘mad’–those who reject society–are not. This is the fourth Manchette novel I’ve read, and my favourite to date. For its irony, its unexpected twists, and for the marvelous character of Julie, The Mad and the Bad will make my best-of-year list. For those interested, here are reviews of Fatale, The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith & with an introduction from James Sallis.

Review copy/own a copy

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Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale

“I needed, as they say in California, some space. Or as we say in Texas, I wanted to be left the hell alone.”

Cold in July is a novel from American crime author Joe R. Lansdale’s backlist. Its release is in conjunction with the film version which features Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. After reading the novel, I don’t need to read the cast list to see who plays which role; it’s easy to guess.

The book’s premise is simple: Richard Dane lives with his wife and small son on the outskirts of the small East Texas town of Laborde. One night Richard’s wife, Ann wakes up after hearing the sounds of someone breaking into their home. Dane grabs his .38 and in an act of self-defense, kills the armed burglar. This should be the end of the matter, and local police Lt. Price reassures a troubled Dane that he had no choice but to shoot. The man is identified as Freddy Russel, a small time crook with a history of incarceration. Dane’s house is cleaned, and the remnants of the crime are washed away, but Dane is troubled, in spite of the fact he knows he had no choice but to kill the burglar.

Trouble begins when Freddy’s violent father, Ben, just released from Hunstville comes looking for revenge….

cold in julyLansdale’s crime novels frequently place the individual on a lonely path, seeking justice, vigilante style, without the aid of legal channels. The individual, outside of the boundaries of the law for various reasons then rounds up loyal friends, people he can trust, and then with a team in place, the action begins. It’s a throw-back to the Western idea of the posse, and Lansdale novels seem to tap into monumental archetypes. That scenario emerges here as Dane learns that he cannot trust the police, and seeking the truth, he forms an uneasy alliance with Ben Russel, an ex-con whose explosive temper is fueled by guilt.  They join with unorthodox PI Jim Bob Luke and a speedy investigation takes them right to the Dixie Mafia.

On the down side, there’s the sentimentality of saving the home and hearth which some readers may not mind, but the main issue is that there are just too many implausibilities which occur simply to move the plot along (the phone book? really?…) . I can’t give the examples I’d like to give as that would reveal too much of the plot, but I can add that one of the first implausible points that annoyed me was Dane as the owner of a marginal frame shop with two full-time employees in a town of 40,000. This just hit me the wrong way. He lives too well, doesn’t worry much about money (orders new locks, windows, a paint job & a couch without blinking), and then leaves the work to two employees as he takes off to pursue his investigation with a PI he hires for $300 a day.

But that brings me to the best part of the book–the character of the PI, Jim Bob Luke, a man who drives a blood-red Cadillac named the Red Bitch:

About two-thirty an ancient blood-red Cadillac about the size of a submarine pulled up directly in front of the door to Russel’s room. There were baby shoes hanging off the mirror along with a big-yellow, foam-rubber dice, and on the windshield was a homemade sticker that had six stick-figure humans and three dogs drawn on it and there was an X through each of them. The car had curb feelers and they were still wobbling violently when the driver got out and slammed the door and stretched.  

The entrance of the seeming laid-back Jim-Bob to the book added a lot of zest. He’s a well-developed character, always fully into his role, and that includes some racist comments.  He looks like a “washed-up country and Western singer,” complete with a “worn straw hat with a couple of anemic feathers on it.”  Here’s some dialogue to give a sense of the book’s style:

Jim Bob ordered steak and baked potato and all the trimmings, and when he took his first bite of steak he waved the waitress over and told her, “Honey, take this cow on back and finish killing it. Set the little buddy on fire for about three more minutes and then bring it back to me.”

While Jim Bob waited on the steak, he and Russel talked about old times, and laughed. Ann and I felt a little limp, as if we had gone to the wrong party.

When Jim Bob’s steak came back he thanked the waitress and ordered a Lone Star Light. “Got to watch my girlish figure,” and he went at his food with gusto, saying “Brain food.”

“Then you better eat plenty of it,” Ann said.

I looked at her. Russel looked at her. Jim Bob looked at her and laughed. “Ain’t that the damned truth,” he said. “Pass that salad dressing. The one that looks like someone threw up in the bottle.”

I’m a long-time fan of Lansdale, but this is not his best book. IMO the Leonard & Hap series is the best of Lansdale. That and Bubba Ho Tep, of course.

Review copy/own a copy.

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White Mischief by James Fox

“I hope I have never looked like a murderer. I think all my friends know it is not exactly my line of country. However, in a strange country, god knows what will happen.” (Sir Jock Delves Broughton)

There are some crimes that could only have occurred in a unique set of circumstances, and this is certainly true for the murder of Lord Erroll. Erroll, Josslyn Hay, the 22nd Earl of Erroll was shot in his car in the early morning hours of January 24th, 1941. Although a trial was conducted, no one was ever convicted for the crime, and the murder remains, officially, unsolved. Forty years after the murder (the book was originally published in the 80s), in White Mischief, author James Fox painstakingly pieced together transcripts from the trial and testimony of witnesses in an attempt to both explain and solve the crime.

white mischiefErroll was murdered in Kenya, and a large portion of the beginning of the book concentrates on establishing the atmosphere in Kenya in the late 30s. It was a wild place–well at least it was a wild place for the British expatriates who were whooping it up in the area known as Happy Valley,notorious since the 1920s as a playground for aristocratic fugitives of all kinds.” According to the author, “Happy Valley originated with Erroll himself and with Lady Idina Gordon” when they “set up house there in 1924.” She was a married woman and left her second husband and moved to Kenya with Erroll as it “seemed the obvious, indeed the only place to go.” Once established there Erroll and Idina became the centre of local society as she organized riotous parties and  partner-swapping evenings, but not everyone became entangled in these activities; the wife of the Governor put Idina “on the blacklist.”

Over time, the reputation of Happy Valley grew and became a Mecca for a certain type, including a number of British fascists.  European nobility gathered in this area of Kenya–this “permanent feast of dissipation and sensuous pleasure,” building splendid palaces, throwing endless parties, and engaging in appallingly bad behaviour. Most of the British expatriates were there for a reason–often scandal, bankruptcy and divorce drove them from the shores of England and to the less inhibited social whorl of Kenya. Sometimes British upper-class families despaired of a son’s relentless gambling habit, and so he was banished off to Kenya. Whatever the reasons, and there were many, a certain ‘type’ gravitated towards Happy Valley. And there, various degenerates led unleashed, uninhibited lives and recruiting newcomers into their ranks.

In the colonial imagination, Africa was a dangerous country which inspired extremes, liberated repressed desires, insinuated violence. At the furthest end of the scale was the subconscious fear that someone might even break ranks, betray his country and his class by ‘going native,’ though just what for this might take could never be out into words.

The colonials often shared that strange sensation common to exile Englishmen living in groups of being ‘out of bounds.’ Many of them had money. Many were remittance men who had been paid off by their families and sent away in disgrace. Once their spirits and sense of status was restored in the feudal paradise, the temptation to behave badly was irresistible

These uninhibited lifestyles resulted in morphine addictions and an endless array of extra-marital affairs for the upper-crust loungers who bestirred themselves once in a while to go off and shoot a lion or two. For those who couldn’t conform to British society, Happy Valley was a sort of paradise–and one was limited only by one’s personal resources.

Beneath the surface lay another rich seam: the extraordinary story of the British aristocracy in Kenya, subjected to a tropical climate and high altitude, suspended between English traditions and African customs, answerable, more or less, only to themselves.

Many people thrived in this Happy Valley bohemia, but many did not. The Earl of Erroll was one of those who thrived–women adored him, and men enjoyed his company, yet someone hated him enough to kill him. The contrasting views of Erroll show versions of a complicated man who usually got what he wanted. He was a known philanderer who delighted in deceiving husbands and had a string of married lovers long before he met and began an ill-fated affair with newlywed (and new arrival) Diana Broughton. In late 1940, 57 year-old Sir Jock Delves Broughton, fresh from a divorce, took his 22 year-old bride straight to Kenya where he owned a coffee plantation. It was hardly  a love match–at least not for Diana who had an unusual pre-nup agreement with Broughton. One meeting with Erroll, and Diana’s affair began…

In these pages, we see the bizarre culture of these wealthy exiles who built magnificent palaces surrounded by exquisitely manicured lawns and flower beds in their attempts to “preserve the way of life of the English county families.” These are the twilight years of the British colonies with multiple servants (sometimes unpaid and abused), with the spoiled rich amusing themselves with safaris, extravagant stunts and multiple love affairs.

Author James Fox follows the genesis of the book which began as an investigation for a story in the Sunday Times Magazine in the late 60s, the murder case and the subsequent trial, as well as his meeting with Lady Diana Delamere–known as Diana Broughton in White Mischief. Recreated here are the circumstances that drove a particular murder, but we also get an absolute sense of the society in the Happy Valley with the Muthaiga Club at its centre–a club in which jews were not allowed. The club hosted “nightly balls … and women were required to wear a different dress each night.” Often the parties, which ended at 6 in the morning, turned into hooliganism. Morphine and cocaine were frequent hors d’oeuvres to the all-night entertainment.

The story behind the crime is excellently and meticulously researched. The background story of Happy Valley’s society is fascinating, riveting stuff, and the build up to the murder is rather tense with every piece of background information slotted into place. Most of the characters are a dissolute, bored, destructive lot–certainly no one ‘deserved’ to be murdered (although one may feel a certain astonishment that there was only one victim). The degree of wonder remains in the fact that a nobleman was bumped off. Would this have happened in England? I doubt it. Kenya, for the decadent British expatriates who took up residence, was a peculiar paradise, and this was a unique time. While the author does a simply marvelous job of recreating the atmosphere of the times, there is no great revelation here as the criminal trial unfolds. Everything is an inevitable foregone conclusion, and the book’s strength is found in its successful re-creation of a peculiar time and place.

This was a re-read for me. I first watched the film years ago, and reading the book for the second time rekindled all my original feelings about the society in Happy Valley. For the second reading, already knowing about the decadent lifestyle of many of the Happy Valley residents, this time I was struck by how while bad behaviour was accepted amongst one’s own set, bad behaviour in front of the natives was “inexcusable.” How peculiar that the British ex-pats went to such lengths to recreate the trappings of a pseudo British society complete with its snobbery, magnificent gardens and polo fields, but then led the sort of wild lives that would find them ostracized back in England. The sheer rapidity of the fatal events that led to Erroll’s murder were just as surprising for this second read, although this time I marveled at the way society members stood up for Erroll’s murderer during the trial and yet he was a pariah following the verdict.

A few years ago, author Christine Nicholls revealed additional information that she had about the case, and while the information all slots into place, the murder of Lord Erroll is still, officially, unsolved.

The book contains a Cast of Characters and an image gallery.

Review copy/personal copy.

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Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household

I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against–there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.”

Geoffrey Household novel’s Rogue Male had been recommended to me several times, but I delayed reading it; part of the delay came from the mistaken idea that it was some sort of spy novel. It wasn’t.

The novel, told by a first person narrator, begins with a simple sentence: “I cannot blame them.” And this sentence is the epitome of the narrator’s attitude to most of the people he meets and most of the brutality directed towards him. In essence, he accepts that we are what we are, that most of us are caught in roles not necessarily of our own making, and in those roles, we are driven towards certain actions. Amazingly generous and Zen really when you consider what happens to him.

Rogue MaleOur nameless narrator, a wealthy Englishman, has been caught just as he was about to assassinate a European dictator. He had the man in the sights of his rifle but hesitated, and that hesitation led to his capture (the word ‘arrest’ would dignify what happens) and torture. According to our narrator he thinks his captors are “beginning to understand that a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game might well find a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth.” There are people, difficult as it is for this reader to understand, who actually enjoy hunting rare and endangered species.

They must have wondered whether I had been employed on, as it were, an official mission, but I think they turned that suspicion down. No government–least of all ours–encourages assassination. Or was I a free-lance? That must have seemed very unlikely; anyone can see that I am not the type of avenging angel. Was I, then, innocent of any criminal intent, and exactly what I claimed to be –a sportsman who couldn’t resist the temptation to stalk the impossible?

The narrator is horribly tortured, and since he does not give his captors any valuable information to implicate any one else or reveal that he’s part of some sort of conspiracy, they are left to conclude that he is probably just what he claims to be–a hunter who wants to bag the ultimate big game. But no matter the reason behind his assassination attempt, his captors, and the narrator, know that there is little choice but to kill him. Under the circumstances–flayed skin, a badly damage eye, and fingernails ripped out, he can hardly be set free to return to England. Instead he is left to die. Badly wounded, our narrator is a survivor, or perhaps even a survivalist. Resourceful and intelligent, he flees for his life….

Rogue Male is superb–the best action-adventure novel I’ve ever read. We know every little about our narrator–except that he’s a member of the British upper class with plenty of leisure time (there’s a wonderful rift about Class X ,) who has wandered into a volatile Europe, crossing over from Poland into the unnamed country on the brink of WWII. We can, of course, guess just who is the object of the ‘big game’ hunt; the question is why.

I’m not going to say a great deal more about this extraordinary novel as to dissect it too much would give away the pleasure that awaits for the next reader. Suffice to say that our man makes it back to England, and while I thought that he would feel safe in his native land, the action only  intensifies, and the figurative broad net created to capture the narrator becomes much smaller, much more defined as the escape and arena for safety becomes increasingly more claustrophobic.

Leaving plot aside–something that is, after all, relatively easy to discover for oneself, I’ll say that at first I thought the narrator was an assassin, perhaps the classic unreliable narrator, but rather his motives remain opaque even when aiming his rifle. It’s only much later that the narrator finally comes to understand his own motivations.

The narrator begins the novel in a very bad spot, and it goes downhill from there as he tumbles down even his own society, reverting to the status of a homeless man, a drifter, and finally an animal. Household cleverly reverses the roles of the hunter and the hunted, and sometimes those roles reverse in a mere second, and there’s even a comment made about unnecessary death, the slaughter of a helpless animal that is a statement on the value of life.  The narrator does, of course, make a mistake or two, but the book is written so that we suspect immediately that a mistake has been made. This all builds incredible, almost unbearable suspense.

For this reader, some of the greatest fun of the novel came from two distinct sources: the characters the narrator meets who help him along the way–unsung heroes who, at great risk to themselves, show a little kindness. But the greatest source of delight came from Geoffrey Household’s incredible main character who honestly puts the James Bond types with all their techno toys to shame. Not only is our narrator extremely resourceful, but he’s physically tough and highly intelligent. He also applies the skills of a hunter to his escape and his slippery ability to evade the men who seek his death. Of course, though, it’s inevitable that he meets someone whose craft and stealth may match his own.

One significant theme of the novel is individualism. Here we have an individual outside of any government or official channels, who acts on his own, thinks on his own, and takes his actions to their ultimate conclusion. His individualism is apparent immediately from the simple fact that he’s the object of massive man-hunt, but as the novel continues and the action intensifies, the narrator, abandoning the resources of society, has no one to rely on except himself and his own considerable skills.

I can admire such an individualist as you. What I respect in you is that you have no need of any law but your own. You’re prepared to rule, or to be suppressed, but you won’t obey. You are able to deal with your own conscience.

Rogue Male was published in 1939, and here in the 21st century, it seems remarkably ahead of its time. If you read the NYRB edition (as I did) I’d recommend leaving the introduction until after you’ve finished the book. It contains spoilers galore.

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Spring Torrents: Turgenev

Turgenev (1818-1883), one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature, is the master at creating fictional male characters who engage in relationships with women only to experience the destructive nature of passion. Perhaps a Turgenev character will lose love from a failure to commit or perhaps he will discover that the woman has another game even as he’s drawn in deeper and deeper. Bitter regret and love go hand in hand in Turgenev’s fiction.  Spring Torrents, published in 1872,  is short–only 176 pages in my Penguin Classics edition, and it’s superb quintessential Turgenev.

spring torrentsThis is a frame story, and the novel opens with a middle-aged man, Dimitry Pavlovich Sanin, now in his 50s, who, after an evening’s entertainment, feels a vague disgust and discontentment with his life. He reminisces about his past and his loves, and this brings us to Sanin at age 23, thirty years before. It’s 1840.

Sanin has inherited a little money, and he decided to use it travelling before returning to Russia and “putting on the harness of employment in a government department.” He has just left Italy, and is now in Frankfurt with just enough money to return to Russia. He has reserved a seat in a coach, the last coach leaving that night at 10 o’clock. So his life is arranged, or appears to be. Then fate sends him into an Italian patisserie for a glass of lemonade, but just as he arrives, a young boy, the son of the owner has collapsed. Urged by a beautiful young Italian girl to save her brother, Sanin steps in and revives the boy.

This dramatic event is the beginning of Sanin’s relationship with the Roselli family. Signora Leonora Roselli, the owner of the patisserie, is a widow with two children, Emilio, a young boy who does not appear to have the best health, and his gorgeous sister, Gemma. Sanin misses his coach, but no matter, he can’t take his eyes off of the beautiful Gemma. Sanin is treated as one of the family, and very quickly becomes involved with the Rosellis. He even serves in the shop a few times, and finds that playing shopkeeper is rather enjoyable. But as much as he’s charmed by the Rosellis, it’s really Gemma who draws his attention. Too bad she’s already engaged to Herr Karl Klueber, a man Sanin dislikes:

It may well be supposed that, at that time, in all the shops in all Frankfurt there was not to be found another such courteous, well-mannered, grave, and polite chief assistant as Herr Klueber. His immaculate dress was of the same high level as the dignity of his demeanour and the elegance of his manners–a little prim and stiff, it is true, in the English fashion (he had spent two years in England)-but beguiling elegance for all that. It was evident at a glance that this good-looking, somewhat stern, exceedingly well brought-up and superlatively well-washed young man was in the habit of obeying his superiors and of issuing orders to his inferiors. The sight of such a man behind his counter was indeed bound to inspire respect even in the customers. There could not be the slightest doubt that his honesty surpassed all natural limits–why, one only had to look at the points of his stiffly starched collar.

Spring Torrents examines the issue of sexuality, attraction, infatuation, obsessive passion and love. These are elements easily confused, and we see Sanin attracted to Gemma and then he’s falling in love. This all happens very quickly, and Senora Roselli expects Sanin to marry Gemma and stay in Frankfurt. He impetuously agrees to sell his Russian estates and invest his money in the patisserie, and there are hints that Sanin is naïve. At one point as Sanin works in the shop, he feels “ready to stand behind the counter for all time dealing in sweets and orgeade” as long as he has Gemma by his side, and then there’s the haste with which he finds himself engaged. After all, “he had had no thought of marriage in his mind” and had just “surrendered himself to the driving force of passion.” Now he’s planning on returning to Russia to wind up his affairs, move permanently to Frankfurt and become a shopkeeper when fate intervenes in Sanin’s life again, and he is drawn into a dark, destructive passion.

The women in the novels of Turgenev are always memorable, strong & vibrant characters–possibly a reflection of Turgenev’s incredibly tough mother, Varvara Petrovna.  In Spring Torrents, we see two very different women, and through them, two different types of passion. As readers, we ask ourselves what does Sanin really want or is he just swept along by “the driving force of passion” once again? How many times are we confronted by situations in which the image of the person we’d like to be is challenged by the reality of who we really are?

Spring Torrents delves into the stages of sexual passion, and while sex is not mentioned, several scenes vibrate with sexual possibility:

Sanin seized those listless hands as they lay, palms upwards, and pressed them to his eyes, to his lips … This was the moment when the curtain, which he had kept seeing the day before, swept up. Here it is, happiness with its radiant countenance!

He raised his head and looked at Gemma boldly, straight in the eyes. She was looking at him too–with a slightly downward glance. There was scarcely any lustre in her half-closed eyes: they were flooded with shining tears of joy. But her face was not smiling…No! It was laughing, with soundless laughter that was also the laughter of bliss.

He wanted to draw her to his breast, but she resisted him, and still laughing silently, shook her head. ‘Wait,’ her happy eyes seemed to be saying.

By the time the end of the novel arrives, it’s impossible to read about Sanin without drawing parallels to Turgenev’s life. Turgenev fell in love with the married opera singer, Pauline Viardot and followed her around Europe–not that Turgenev suffered the humiliations heaped upon Sanin, but nonetheless, Turgenev was completely absorbed by the Viardot family in a situation that alarmed his friends. Turgenev is highly recommended by this reader and he’s certainly the 19th century Russian author to read for any readers out there who feel slightly intimidated by this period.  While I preferred Nest of the Gentry, Spring Torrents is marvelous.

Translated by Leonard Schapiro

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The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

“We were living men in a dead world.”

Reading Curzio Malaparte’s insidiously explosive book, The Skin is rather like watching the aftermath of some horrific apocalypse; we almost can’t believe the ugliness of what we are seeing and yet there’s a fascination that renders us powerless to turn from the sight.

Malaparte, a play on Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but he ran foul of Mussolini, was arrested multiple times and spent a short time in prison for “publishing a how-to manual entitled Technique of the Coup d’Etat.” Malaparte, as a liaison officer to the American forces, narrates the book, and as a narrator, he’s a tricky character. Slippery and never to be taken at face value, Malaparte’s ironic, often malicious narration examines life in Naples after the arrival of allied troops and mines the gap between reality and the high moral ground seized by the victors. In twelve amazing chapters, Malaparte describes scenes of life as he accompanies Colonel Jack Hamilton and various other officers in and around Naples, and his mostly light tone belies the human tragedy that surrounds them; death, disease, cruelty and starvation are in stark contrast to the high moral ideals and deliberate blindness exhibited by the victors and their idea of ‘liberation,’ and while Malaparte seems intent on exposing hypocrisy, his sympathies are for the broken human race brought to their knees by desperation.

The SkinIt’s Naples 1942, and the narrator of The Skin, Curzio Malaparte bemoans the state of Naples since the “conquerors” arrived. To Malaparte, Naples has become a toxic, moral wasteland with almost every female up for sale to the allied forces–anything is possible for a soldier who has money in his pockets and food to barter for sex.

We were clean, tidy, and well fed, Jack and I, as we made our way through the midst of the dreadful Neapolitan mob–squalid, dirty, starving, ragged, jostled, and insulted in all the languages and dialects of the world by troops of soldiers belonging to the armies of liberation, which were drawn from all the races of the earth. The distinction of being the first among all the peoples of Europe to be liberated had fallen to the people of Naples; and in celebration of the winning of so well-deserved a prize my poor beloved Neapolitans, after three years of hunger, epidemics, and savage air attacks, had accepted gracefully and patriotically the longed-for and coveted honor of playing the part of a conquered people, of singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been the emblems of their foes, and throwing flowers on to the heads of the conquerors.

That quote captures the irony, the hopelessness, and the poignancy of this extraordinary book. It’s a rare and special book that stands as an eyewitness testament to tragic moments of human history, and while Malaparte’s book gives us an eyewitness account, this isn’t a matter of a straight forward narration; rather this is a document that forces the reader to confront some uncomfortable realities of war and the degradation of the human spirit while challenging our notions of ‘victory’ and ‘liberation.’

Malaparte’s personality seeps through these pages. He’s an extraordinary narrator, malicious and crafty, and yet it’s those very characteristics that expose the hypocrisy of both the Neapolitans and the conquering American forces. While some of the scenes of women, starving young men and children who sell themselves on the streets for a crust of bread are heartbreakingly sad, there are also moments of some really nasty humour as Malaparte, as a liaison officer, accompanies his favorite American, Colonel Hamilton, through the ravaged streets of Naples.  Hamilton is the kind of man, Malaparte argues, “that seems to hail from Ivy League America as conceived by Vladimir Nabokov, a world where military men read ancient Greek in university gymnasiums surrounded by wet towels.” 

Malaparte feels “incredibly ridiculous” in his British uniform. “The uniforms of the Italian corps of Liberation were old British khaki uniforms handed over by British command.” These uniforms, and even shoes, have been stripped from the dead of Al Alamein and Tobruk, and Malaparte speculates that they been “dyed dark green, the color of a lizard” in order to hide the bloodstains and the bullet holes. Malaparte seems to be the only one who recognizes the bitter irony of wearing the uniforms of the dead former enemies–a fact which seems as deeply insulting to those who wear these uniforms as it is to those who died wearing them. And yet the very interchangeableness of the wearer of the uniform underscores the absurdity of uniforms in the first place and the anonymous dead: strip the uniforms from the dead, dye them, and recycle them to your former enemy:

There was no gainsaying it: that stupid war had certainly ended well for us. It could not have ended better. Our amore proper as defeated soldiers was undamaged. Now we were fighting at the side of the allies, trying to help them win their war after we had lost our own. Hence it was natural that we should be wearing the uniforms of the allied soldiers whom we had killed.

Malaparte can never be taken at face value, and he’s perhaps at his most delightful, wickedly malicious and most duplicitous self when he’s accompanying Americans through Naples, and at these times Malaparte and whichever American is by his side engage in a mutual baiting game–almost as if the battles between nations continue, at a combative but less violent level. Malaparte seems unable to resist piercing that tight membrane of righteousness to reach the conscious discomfort of the conquering American who’s conveniently blind to his role in the moral corruption brought forth by circumstance. Here’s Malaparte goading Jack on the subject of “this fall in the price of human flesh,” cleverly comparing the price of children against the price of lamb:

Faded women, with livid faces and painted lips, their emaciated cheeks plastered with rouge–a dreadful and piteous sight–loitered at the corners of the alleys, offering to passer-bys their sorry merchandise. This consisted of boys and girls of eight or ten, whom the soldiers–Moroccans, Indians, Algerians, Madagascans–caressed with their fingers, slipping their hands between the buttons of their short trousers or lifting their dresses. “Two dollars the boys, three dollars the girls!” shouted the women.

“Tell me frankly–would you like a little girl at three dollars?” I said to Jack

“Shut up, Malaparte.”

“After all, it’s not much, three dollars for a little girl. Two pounds of lamb cost far more. I’m sure a little girl costs more in London or New York than here–isn’t that so, Jack?”

“Tu me dégoûtes,” said Jack.

“Three dollars is barely three hundred lire. How much can a little girl of eight or ten weigh? Fifty pounds? Remember that on the black market two pounds of lamb cost five hundred and fifty lire , in other words five dollars and fifty cents.”

“Shut up!” cried Jack.

 Malaparte’s conversations with Americans seem to frequently end with him being told to ‘shut up’ as he makes observations about life, sometimes tweaking consciences, sometimes exposing hypocrisy. Malaparte likes Jack “because he alone, among all my American friends felt guilty, ashamed and miserable before the cruel, inhuman beauty of that sky, that that sea, those islands far away on the horizon. He alone realized that this Nature is not Christian, that it lies outside the frontiers of Christianity.” Other Americans “despised” Naples and saw it as a corrupted citynot as a city of people brought to their knees and desperate to survive, no matter the cost.

Captain Jimmy Wren is an American who sees Naples as a polluted city and does not see that degradation or deprivation combined with Yankee dollars has created a market in which everything is for sale, and here’s another comment not to be taken at face value–although part of Malaparte seems to envy the Americans’ simplistic view towards morality:

Jimmy’s conscience was at rest. Like all Americans, by that contradiction which characterizes all materialistic civilizations, he was an idealist. To evil, misery, hunger and physical suffering he ascribed  amoral character. He did not appreciate their remote historical and economic causes, but only the seemingly moral causes reasons for their existence. What could he have done to try and alleviate the appalling physical sufferings of the people of Naples, of the people of Europe? All that Jimmy could do was take upon himself the part of the moral responsibility for their sufferings, not as an American, but as a Christian. Perhaps it would be better to say not only as a  Christian but also as an American. And that is the real reason why I love the Americans, why I am profoundly grateful  to the Americans, and regard them as the most generous, the purest, the best and the most disinterested people on the earth–a wonderful people.  

There’s one great section in which Malaparte goads both Jack and Jimmy on the subject of Neapolitan dwarf women who’ve turned to prostitution and have a brisk trade with American servicemen, and in another section Malaparte describes crafty, desperate Neapolitans engaged in the “purchase and resale of Negroes on the flying market,” –a process in which black servicemen are passed around as a resource through various hands, with each participant shaving off from “the lavishness and recklessness of his expenditure.” Ultimately Naples is seen as a fire sale marketplace in which everything and everybody is degraded and up for bid. Whether Malaparte is commenting on the last virgin in Naples, the epidemic of venereal disease, pubic hairpieces, the piles of bloated corpses in the streets, the brutal execution of young fascists, or friends lost in the chaos, he’s a darkly glittering marvel–duplicitous, dangerously intelligent, always the outsider watching and recording hypocrisy through the roles played by both the conqueror and the defeated in the moral degradation that results from war.

Translated by David Moore

Review copy

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Love, Pain, and the Whole Damn Thing by Doris Dörrie

German literature monthDoris Dörrie is one of my favorite German filmmakers (Cherry BlossomsNobody Loves MeAm I Beautiful?), so I was delighted when I discovered a few years ago that she was also a published author, and, what’s more, that some of her work is available in English. This makes her a perfect read for German Literature month. Back in 2011, I read her wonderful novel Where Do We Go From Here? , a very funny look at how a middle-aged couple seek Enlightenment in various ways. In Dörrie’s short story collection: Love, Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, the theme is the toxicity of domestic life and in these 4 stories, we see people altered by suburbia and routine go off the rails in spectacular ways.

love pain and the whole damn thingIn the first story, Straight to the Heart, a young impoverished, seemingly unconventional music student named Anna, who has blue hair and plays saxophone in the park, accepts an offer from a middle-aged dentist named Armin to become his mistress. To Armin she seems both exotic and approachable:

“I sense an excitement that unfortunately has been missing in my life for the most part until now.”

She understood at once. “What sort of excitement is that?” She smiled because her blood suddenly began to course faster.

“The excitement of just for once becoming a different person than you already are–because of a second person.” Now he was grinning. “An illusion. But so much more intriguing than reality.”

He installs her at his country farmhouse with a year’s contract and pay of 2,000 marks a month. The relationship is awkward at first, but Armin is an attentive and considerate lover. The couple make a trip to America together, and Anna gets a brand new red fiat for her 21st birthday. But all that is unconventional about Anna dries up with the routine of domesticity, and the story’s focus is what happens when Anna realizes that the contract will not be renewed.

The second story is Men, and if you’re familiar at all with Doris Dörrie’s fabulous films then you will recognize the title. In this story, middle-aged Julius Armbrust, who “designed packing concepts,”  is told by his wife, Paula, that she is having an affair with the very scruffy, penniless Stefan. Julius has had many affairs of his own, but after hearing the details, Julius feels threatened:

Was the same age, he was, she said. Name? Unimportant. Occupation? She didn’t know exactly, something in the artistic line, she hadn’t asked him, the most important thing after all was that … That he was good in bed? After that, she had nothing to say to him.

While Julius heads to the office every day, Paula spends time with her lover, a man who drives an old Beetle, and Julius begins spying on the couple. Julius disappears from Paula’s life, using a fabricated affair as an excuse, and he reemerges and reinvents himself as Stefan’s new roommate. Men argues that we lose our identity in the day-to-day grind of making money, paying bills, and holding down tedious 9-5 jobs. Over the years, our relationships stale and we lose sight of who we used to be.

Marriage is also examined in Paradise, my least favorite story in the collection. In this story, the relationship between a long-married husband and wife shifts when an acquaintance from the past re-enters their lives.

My favourite story is Money. This is the tale of a married couple, Carmen and Werner Müller, in debt, hounded by consumer-driven teenagers, and facing losing their home, who turn to a life of crime. This is really a very funny story with some twists and turns. The emphasis is on humour and proletariat reclamation:

Carmen Müller, thirty-five years old, married to Werner Müller for fourteen years, two half-grown children, Karin and Rainier, with a house, a car, television and VCR, a deep freeze, but no vacation for five years now and debts galore, Carmen Müller, cleaning lady with fourteen years experience, she thought to herself as she wiped up the flooded bathroom where a hose on the washing machine had burst during the night, while Karin aloofly scrambled over her, heading for the mirror and ardent application of her make up.

I am my children’s employee.

Karin and Rainier are critical of their parents, and Karin tells her mother that they “could do a little better job keeping yourselves up.” That criticism comes easily and doesn’t stop the teenagers from seeing their parents as living, breathing never-empty wallets. Carmen and Werner are now “fat and flabby,” and Werner hibernates in the bedroom with a terminal case of depression. He works in a toy factory which produces war toys, but, according to Werner’s boss the business is crashing:

“Our specialty is war toys, after all, and orders have been… this whole peace movement thing has played havoc with us. We’ve got to rethink things, here, look at this” –he pointed to small plastic men meant to look like policemen, while down the belt next to them little barbarians rolled. “Those are the demonstrators, and these are the police. The game’ll be called Battle at the Reactor, and if that doesn’t sell, we can close up shop…”

While in Men, one of the characters reinvents himself, in Money, Carmen and Werner undergo a transformation with hilarious results. Leaving suburbia (Carmen doesn’t know what to pack for “the underground,“), and their ungrateful children behind, they embark on a life of crime. Through these stories we see stale relationships worn out by time and familiarity, and husbands and wives who lose sight of who they really are through the day-to-day drudgery of working lives. Doris Dörrie’s mischievous, spirited take on domestic life shows us how people hang on to the familiar and the comfortable, and yet once they’re set loose, things may never be the same….

 Translated by John E. Woods.

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