Autofiction · review

Deviation, by Luce d’Eramo

38122394As I read Luce d’Eramo’s Deviation (translated by Anne Milano Appel), I had the image of a moth fluttering around a bug zapper constantly in my head. Lucia, the protagonist of this book—which I can only describe as autofiction—resembles nothing so much as a moth furiously and irrationally trying to kill itself. Lucia volunteers to work as a laborer for the Nazis in Germany to get a better look at the Arbeitslager and konzentrationslager because she believes that they can’t be as bad as the rumors make out. As if this wasn’t enough of a deviation, Lucia makes decision after decision that puts her straight back into harm’s way. In this reflective book, d’Eramo uses fiction to explore her decisions, the consequences of those decisions, and her lost memories. Fiction that hews closely to autobiography (or vice versa) seems the best way for her to try and understand her actions.

D’Eramo’s book is a collection of stories that closely resembles what happened to her in 1944-1945 and 1960. Deviation opens with an escape, when Lucia makes her way from the Arbeitslager at Dachau to a Durchgangslager where deportees and laborers live while they perform impressed work for the Nazis and Germans. (Lucia was never interned with Jewish people or any inmates in the death camps. Also, I’m not sure what the right words are to describe the laborers. Some of them are volunteers, but most of them seem to be drifters who got caught by the Nazis.) Lucia has, by this point, learned the ins and outs of camp life. She also has a knack for making the right friends, friends who will steal food and supplies for her. Futher, Lucia knows that, if things get really bad, she can always pull her rip cord: her parents connections to the well-heeled fascists of Italy. In spite of herself, Lucia lands on her feet in the Durchgangslager.

From the first story, d’Eramo takes us back and forth from the events of 1944. We see her running away from an attempt at repatriation to Italy. We see her helping rescue people in Frankfurt after a bombing—only to be crushed under a collapsing wall, an injury that leaves her legs paralyzed. We also see her striving mightily to escape a pernicious suitor after her injury, fluttering from tenuous situation to tenuous situation, with no though to anything except getting a little further away.

Lucia’s behavior is very confusing, even after d’Eramo spends pages looking back in an attempt to understand her younger self. The last “story” is full of thoughts about how she recovered memories only decades later and why she repressed those memories. D’Eramo/Lucia’s theory is that she suppressed and deliberately hid things in the earlier stories because it took her that long to realize that she wasn’t a hero for volunteering for her fact-finding mission. D’Eramo/Lucia retold a less complicated version of her life so many times that it became real, at least until the real memories started to resurface.

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Luce d’Eramo in 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Deviation puzzles me greatly. If it wasn’t so obviously modeled on the author’s own life, I would have found it a particularly audacious and worrying piece of fiction. Because it is autofiction, it offers a unique look at the Holocaust—even if it leaves me with more questions than it answers. In spite of my continued confusion about the book, I want to complement Appel, the translator, for her very capable job of transforming d’Eramo’s text into coherent English. There are parts of the book that drag, but I chalk that up to d’Eramo’s maundering.

I’ll leave it to other readers to think about d’Eramo/Lucia’s epiphanies and revelations. I don’t know that I’m entirely convinced by d’Eramo/Lucia. I don’t think the narrator is either. The last story of the book, I think, betrays the narrator’s own bewilderment towards her own actions. Lucia’s behavior is so irrational that calm reflection decade’s later doesn’t seem capable of answering the central question of why Lucia volunteered for an Arbeitslager.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be received 18 September 2018.

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historical fiction · review

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

27428407There are two paired questions I hear all the time from students studying World War II. The first is, how much did ordinary Germans know about the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The second is, how could they not know what was happening? In Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (translated by Anthea Bell), we see a small family of aristocratic Germans who are so clueless about what was happening outside of themselves that I wanted to scream at them. This disturbing novel follows the von Globigs and a handful of their acquaintances over the course of a few weeks in January 1945. They’ve been isolated from the truth of the war up to this point, but the war is heading straight towards their little piece of East Prussia and they will no longer have the luxury of sitting to one side.

Last fall, I read Ivan’s War, by Catherine Merridale, so I had a very good idea of what was going to happen to any German who got caught by the Red Army. I can’t entirely fault the von Globig family for not knowing; the Red Army was still in their future. But I can fault them for their self-absorption. Katherina von Globig is a society lady who has deliberately isolated herself in her rooms of the family manor, Georgenhof, after the death of their daughter two years previously. Grief is hard, especially for a parent, but Katherina still has a living son, Peter, to keep an eye out for. Auntie, Katherina’s relative-in-law, who lost her family’s estate in Silesia in the 1920s and who lived through World War I should know better than to shut out the world. The Polish and Ukrainian “servants” should definitely know better. And yet, the family carries on with their own amusements. Katherina reminisces about the movies she’s seen and her affair with the local mayor. Peter plays with his trains. Auntie keeps an eye on the family goods so that no one steals anything. None of them has an eye on the horizon, even though Katherina occasionally tunes into the BBC.

Meanwhile, Drygalski keeps butting into their business as the local housing manager. The little martinet wants to use the large house to billet refugees and, any way he can, stick it to the aristocrats who’ve always looked down on them. Peter’s tutor, Dr. Wagner, carries on teaching the boy Latin. A parade of refugees—the higher in rank, the more self-absorbed and out of touch with their rapidly changing reality—comes through Georgenhof. Only a few characters have healthy senses of self-preservation. Most of them are fixated on what they’ve lost, their family heirlooms, their instruments, etc.

It’s only towards the end of All for Nothing that the characters get swept up in the cresting wave of refugees from the east. I don’t want to give away the characters’ fates, but I can say that bad luck strikes the family and their acquaintances with an almost divine sense of retribution. There are moments of kindness and mercy, as well as moments of opportunistic cruelty and murderous chaos. With blind luck in the mix, it’s a wonder anyone makes it out of this novel alive.

Kempowski’s novel—through Bell’s lucid translation—has the feeling of folklore throughout. There are few details about the characters given, except for easy to recall facts that stand in for development. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, I see All for Nothing as a fable that serves to teach us lessons about the impossibility of staying neutral when others commit terrible crimes in one’s name. So, we drift along with the characters as their fortunes change from moment to moment. We have to experience along with them their good and bad luck. There is backstory of some of the characters, but nothing to distract us from what is happening during those cold weeks in January 1945 with the Red Army coming as fast as it can to snatch them all up. All for Nothing is extraordinarily effecting in answering at least one of the questions we always ask about the Germans on their home front.

historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Horsemen of the Sands, by Leonid Yuzefovich

40168569Horsemen of the Sandswritten by Leonid Yuzefovich and translated by Marian Schwartz, contains two novellas. In The Storm, students are treated to a terrible (in content, form, and intent) lecture from a public safety officer while events conspire to bring about what looks like divine retribution for that officer. The longer Horsemen of the Sands is a framed story about a Russian soldier in Mongolia who is treated to possibly tall tales about the notoriously violent and unstable Baron Roman Fyodorovich Ungern-Sternberg. Schwartz’s translation is skillfully done and highly readable.

The Storm begins in a rural classroom somewhere in the Soviet Union. A public safety officer is giving a lecture about road safety, possibly in response to an incident involving one of the student’s fathers. For such a short novella, there are a lot of moving parts—which I love as a fan of books in which random events start to look a lot like fate. As the officer’s lecture continues, the students get increasingly upset. The officer starts making things up to keep their attention as they squirm, to the point where one boy is moved to vomit outside the class. That boy then makes a prayer that the officer will be struck by lightning. Ordinarily, the prayer wouldn’t do anything, but in Yuzefovich’s hands, that prayer left me wondering if what happened was an accident or a sign of something else entirely.

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Ungern-Sternberg in 1921. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me)

Horseman of the Sands is a story within a story. It begins when a Russian soldier meets a Mongolian man whose father and older brother fought for Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a historical figure who led a rogue regiment into the country to…actually, I’m not sure what he was up to because the actual history is just so weird. The Mongolian man offers to give the Russian a gau (protective amulet) allegedly worn by the Baron. The Russian then listens to the Mongolian’s strange tales about the Baron’s apparent imperiousness to bullets, his volatility, and how the Mongolian’s family members were ultimately killed by him. The stories the Mongolian tells make it seem like the Baron is just following his own off-beat drum. The conclusion, however, makes us wonder if there was a cunning sort of method to the man’s madness.

Fate takes a hand in both novellas, either by accident or by apparent design. Not knowing one way or the other provides plenty of food for thought: do the bad guys deserve what happened to them? Are they actually being punished if they don’t know that what they did lead to physical pain? Is a story less powerful if there’s a mundane explanation for seemingly supernatural events? The Storm and Horsemen of the Sands are puzzling in a way that I think could inspire interesting discussion for book groups, especially groups with a philosophical bent.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

historical fantasy · historical fiction · review

The Pasha of Cuisine, by Saygın Ersin

38330852Food is powerful. A good meal can bring people together who normally can’t stand to be together (Thanksgiving, anyone?). A favorite dish can recall lost memories of childhood (Proust made a whole career out of this). But in Saygın Ersin’s The Pasha of Cuisine (translated by Mark Wyers), a man known only as the cook attempts to use his mastery of flavor and scent to win back his lost love from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire himself.

The book opens with leeks. The Chief Sword Bearer to the Sultan loathes them, but the cocky cook serves them up anyway. It’s the opening gambit in a plan he’s been working on for years, ever since he escaped certain death at the hands of the new Sultan’s guards along with all the other children of the old Sultan. Flashbacks show us how the cook survived and learned his art, as well as how he met his great love, Kamer. Meanwhile, the action chugs along as the cook’s leek dish results in his return to the palace, albeit as a cook in service to the volatile, cruel Chief Sword Bearer.

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The restored Imperial Kitchens at Edirne Palace, where some of the action of this book takes place.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The best parts of The Pasha of Cuisine are obviously the lush descriptions of the food. There are several sections that made me wish that there was a Turkish restaurant I could rush out to so that I could try some of the things the cook made. As it turns out, the cook is not only a great cook; he also knows how to work magic with food. A whispered word can amplify the emotional impact of his dishes and inflame the eater’s passions, make them terribly ill, and more. The cook uses his creations to manipulate the people who can set Kamer free from the Odalisque Harem, where she was sent after they met and fell in love years ago. It’s a tricky process, as one might expect, and I was very entertained by the unintended consequences of the cook’s dishes.

Mark Wyer’s translation of Ersin’s book walks a careful line between making the book comprehensible, while still preserving the exotic names of some of the cook’s dishes. Wyers and Ersin use slightly archaic language throughout much of the book. I found some of the prose a little overworked until I started to think of it as a more-fleshed-out fairy tale. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the book to get in the way of the action and the cook’s apprenticeship and journeymanship struck me as something I might find in folklore.

The more I read The Pasha of Cuisine, the more I liked it. It was a treat to visit the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Most of all, I enjoyed the cook’s heroic journey. He battles all kinds of human monsters on his quest, armed only with a mighty knowledge of food and its effects on the eater. I would recommend this to readers who like a taste of the exotic, both in terms of setting and in terms of cuisine. Bon appetit!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

historical fiction · metafiction · review

The Tale of the Missing Man, by Manzoor Ahtesham

36376808Character can mean either a person imagined up by an author, but also the strengths and flaws that make up a person’s personality. In The Tale of the Missing Man, by Manzoor Ahtesham and translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark, we have a meditation on both. Zamir Ahmad Khan has lived in Bhopal, India for the length of his sad sack life. We meet him in his doctor’s office, where he complains of symptoms of dissociation and malaise. Then Zamir takes us back to his childhood to show how he became who and what he is. At the end, we’re left to think about the missed opportunities of Zamir’s life. Could things have been different if he’d made different choices? Was it even possible to choose other paths?

A third of the way into the book, the narrator interrupts to explain (emphatically) that Zamir Ahmad Khan is not the narrator. The narrator chides any readers who might draw comparisons between Zamir and the narrator, to ignore the many similarities between the two. Instead, the narrator asks us to think about what might have happened if. The problem with thinking about the what ifs of Zamir’s life is that Zamir seems pathologically incapable of making good choices in his life. He falls in love with the wrong people, then fails them. He goes to the wrong school. He makes the wrong friends. He lies, all the time. He just can’t seem to help himself.

Apart from the interruptions from the narrator, The Tale of the Missing Man is written as a series of memories centered on people who have since passed away. Zamir’s life is full of wonderfully flawed people, sometimes hilariously so. To be honest, I enjoyed the other people in Zamir’s life a lot more than I liked him. Zamir, unlike those other characters, doesn’t seem to have anything he wants. Where other characters pursue careers or build families, Zamir only seems to know what he doesn’t want and avoids commitment wherever possible. I don’t mind unlikeable characters normally, but the ones who don’t know what they want or have no ambitions annoy me. Zamir annoyed me a lot.

Grunebaum and Stark do sterling work translating Ahtesham’s novel. In their afterword, they write about Ahtesham’s skill with Hindi and Urdu, as well as a Persian style of storytelling called dastan, in a way that makes me strongly suspect that I’m missing layers of meaning in The Tale of Missing Man. This isn’t the fault of the translators. They captured Ahtesham’s meandering and highly detailed writing. The liveliness of the characters and the grit of Bhopal come through brilliantly.

The Tale of the Missing Man will be best enjoyed by readers who love detailed character studies. Readers who also like to think about a writer might be thinking about and trying to accomplish by creating characters will definitely find food for thought. I found the book overlong. The longer it went on, the more I skimmed. I just didn’t care enough about Zamir to stay glued to the text. There were parts of the book I really liked. The character studies and the ending were very good. The Tale of the Missing Man just wasn’t for me.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 August 2018.

literary fiction · review

Babylon, by Yasmina Reza

37842810There are several variations of this old saying, but that all go something to the effect of “A friend will help you hide but a great friend will help you hide the body.” In Yasmina Reza’s Babylon (smoothly translated by Linda Asher), we see the seeing play out over the course of 24 hours in a French city.

Elisabeth narrates the story of that very bad day in a highly confessional manner. Not only does she tells us what happened with her friend Jean-Lino, she also tells us about how they came to be friends, his family heritage, her troublesome father, and her vexed relationships with her mother and sister. She also tells us in detail about her efforts to create a lovely, lovely Spring Celebration party. The party is a success, except for a couple of uncomfortable moments. One of her husband’s work friends makes an ass of himself. Jean-Lino tells a story about his wife, Lydie, that embarrasses her.

Elisabeth doesn’t know anything is wrong until Jean-Lino comes down to the apartment she shares with her husband, Pierre, in the early hours of the morning to announce that he’s done something very stupid. He’s strangled Lydie and doesn’t know what to do. The sensible thing would be for Elisabeth and Pierre to call the police and let them deal with it. Elisabeth does not do the sensible thing. We get the sense from her confessions that she has a connection with Jean-Lino that she doesn’t have with anyone else. She feels like she’s found a true friend in him. So, she tries to help.

The plot of Babylon drifts back and forth through time as Elisabeth tells us what she thinks we need to know to understand why she didn’t just call the police. I’m not quite sure if Elisabeth is normally chatty or if she’s verbose because of nerves or if she’s just interested in rationalizing her behavior. I suspect its up to us readers to act as Elisabeth’s judge and jury. Speaking for myself, I’m can return a verdict that Babylon is a fascinating character study of an unusual woman.

Note on the translation: Linda Asher’s translation is wonderfully transparent. There were no strange word choices or weird word order to remind me that I was reading a work originally written in French. Reading Babylon was like being in a confession booth with Elisabeth.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

literary fiction · review

Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal

87280One of the things librarians kvetch about (and we kvetch about a lot of things) is how our patrons drop off tons of books that we can’t use because they’re a) obsolete, b) uninteresting, and/or c) gross. But for the protagonist of Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal (and translated by Michael Henry Heim), discarded books are something to be rescued or turned into artistically ironic art. Hanta works as a paper and book baler. Every day for thirty five years, he has taken scrap paper and damaged books and baled them for their trip to the landfill or recyclers. His job has shaped him and, in this novel, he tells about what he’s learned over the years.

Hanta is a hermit. All he does is make bales and drink and read the books he steals from his job. Hanta has a serious case of bibliomania. His apartment, he tells us, is full of books. The bathroom is full. He even built a canopy over his bed for books, but now has to worry that it might collapse under the weight of the books and kill him. He’s taught himself several graduate courses worth of philosophy from rescued books. Hanta even has a nice sideline in selling books and things he recovers from the horde.

Because of his love of books, Hanta is not a good choice for his job (hence all the beer). He loves the books too much. He’s not callous enough to just shovel books and papers into the baler and send the bales on their way. It takes him ages (to his boss’ frustration) to make bales, but the mice are happy to have a mostly undisturbed habitat. Unfortunately for Hanta, his good thing is about to come to an end, in the form of an industrious group of laborers and a massive baler that puts his own to shame.

Hanta’s story comes from the end of the line for books and I admire him for being the thin dusty line and rescuing books, even if I also know how quixotic it is. I can see why Too Loud a Solitude has a warm place in so many readers hearts. The thought of getting rid of books forever—not just passing them on to other readers when we’re done with them—is gut-wrenching. Books represent so much, while the destruction of books is associated with the worst parts of western history. But as a librarian, I know that not all books belong in all libraries. I also know that books that have been ruined, sprouted mold, or infested by insects must go straight to the landfill.