The Impostor by Javier Cercas

 

The Impostor by Javier Cercas

Spanish Non-Fiction

Original title – El Impostor

Translator – Frank Wynne

Source – review copy

Well, a change from German lit month for a book from one of my favourite Spanish writers of recent years. Javier Cercas has featured on the blog three times before. This is his latest book to be translated. He has won the Iffp prize in the past.Also has been the Impac Dublin book prize longlist a couple of times. This book is rather like his earlier book Anatomy of a moment as it uses an actual historical event as the start of the book. This is a look at one man Enric Marco. He was thought to be a champion of the Unions with a history of fighting fascism a survivor of the Nazi death camps and opposed Franco.

On May 11 2005, the truth was discovered: Enric Mrco was an impostor. For the previous twenty-seven years Marco had claimed to be prisoner No. 6448 from German conce/ntration camp Flossenburg: He had lived this lie and had to made it live: for almost three decades, Marco gave hundreds of talks about his experiences of the Nazi regime, he was president of the Amical de Mauthausen, the association of Spanish survivors of Nazi camps, he was awarded notable honours and medals and on January 27 2005, he moved many members of both houses of the Spanish parliment to tears ..

He spoke so well on what wasn’t his life but anothers .

The book begins at the point when in 2005 He was unmasked as a fake.Cercas met him four years after that but it wasn’t until a few years later he decides to try and find the truth behind the man and his story. Marco is an enigma as the first part of the story shows called Onion skins like Gunter Grass whose biography is called Peeling the onion. We peel the layers away from the man and his story. The time Marco choose to invent his history is about write a time when people could still make up a past if they wanted. He is a man that wanted to be more than he was. He wanted to be a hero also a champion of the underdog. But as he rose in the public eye the lies he had told became harder to hide.He had been in a German Prison. He went to Germany as a worker not a prisoner from the republic. when he was in the civil war he went to France and was arrested as a criminal, not to a death camp.He rose to be the leader of the Spanish organisation for prisoners of the death camps and their families. it was just as they were to celebrate sixty years as the story of his deception broke he wasn’t in the camp he said he was and his story starts to unfold.

Marco was born in an asylum ; his mother was insane.Is he mad too? is this his secret, the condrum that explains his personality? is this why he always sided with the majority ? Does this explain everything, or does it at least explain the essentials ? And if Marco truly is mad, what is thhe nature of his madness.

Now, this is a great piece of narrative non-fiction like his earlier book Anatomy of a moment. Cercas has chosen a historic event to explore his own countries past, but this through one man’s journey.This book is around maybe at just  the right time. We are so interested in real life tales with the podcast like S town and serial. There is a saying that truth is often stranger than fiction and Enric Marco is an example. He was bigger than Billy Liar. His story held up longer than the fake 9/11 victim that like Marco wanted to be held up as a hero and also fight for the victims. This is a study of what makes a man lie! Then the snowball effect of those lies, how when the ball is rolling it was hard to turn back time and stop it. Till like in Marcos case it is a final event that explodes his world open. As ever frank has brought a poetic tone to Cercas words. This is a tale of a man’s twisted journey he did good but is that enough for the lies? Marco is an enigma even after this I still not sure what to make of him.

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Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

Pub date: 1 November, 2017 ISBN 978-0-9930093-3-4 / Flapped paperback 190x130 / 128 pages / RRP GBP10.00 A slim half-memoir, half-philosophical treatise musing on translation's potential for humanist engagement by one of the great contemporary French translators. Hansel has lived her life as a risk-taker. Going back to her childhood in post-war France she reflects on her origins as a translator; then she evokes her encounters with banned German writers in 1960s East Berlin. During the Vietnam war, Gansel went to Hanoi to work on an anthology of Vietnamese poetry. With the city under bombardment, this section of the book is a fascinating account of wartime danger, hospitality and human kinship.  Photograph by Natasha Lehrer

 

Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel

Translators memoir

Original title – Traduire comme Transhumer

Translator – Ros Schwartz

Source – review copy

I bring you today a complex memoir from a French translator Mireille Gansal from German to French. She also has translated a lot of the first books of poetry from Vietnam into French after she lived in Hanoi in the 1970’s and discovered the writers of that country. This is another from the new publisher Les Fugitives a small press wanting to bring the most interesting French female voices to English. If this is and the two of the first three books I have read My review of Eve out of the ruins is her  There will be a review of a Blue a self-portrait as well soon. They are a publisher bring us real gems.

If translation is building a bridge between tow foreign shores, I realised that night how important it is for each one of the piles to be firmly anchored .

Translation is also about taking the byways that lead to distant places. The ultimate refuge: poetry as the language of survival, of unassailable liberty.

Two short quotes fromGansel about the art of translation ?

Mirellie Gansal grew up German during the post-war years, but as we find out her family heritage is one of Hungarian with Yiddish being the main language her father spoke growing up. She tells in on passage her wonder of letters arriving from family in Hungarian and how strange those words look, or visiting an aunt who language was a mix of Hungarian , Yiddish , German as she spoke the young Miriell a girl that would grow to love language and her describing the German of writers like Appelfeld and Kerstez the german from beyond Germany .Then to her first journey into that world of the translator when hit by one word a word that can not be held by strict dictionary definition and thus opening the oyster of the translators art and that is to discover the pearls from the words they are translating into English and this is what the book describes also how she discovered the wonderful poetry which she has translated into French and discovered whilst in Hanoi.Then she tells us about Nelly Sachs the Nobel winning Swedish poet that was German escaped Nazi persecution as a German Jew and then wrote about the tragedy of the Jewish people and was also a friend of Paul Celan.

To my delight , the section of the letter my father was reading was about me . He initially translated a word used by his brother or one of his sisters as “beloved” stumbled over the next word and repeated this – actually rather ordinary- adjective once, stumbled again and then rrepeated it a second  time.That triggered something in me. I dared to interupt him. I asked : But in Hungarin, is it the same word? He replied evasively:”it means the same thing!” Undettered I pressed him : But what are the words in Hungarian ? then one by one, he enumerated, almost with embarrassment, or at least with certain reticence, as though there were something immodest about it, the four magic words which. I have never forgotten :Dragam,Kedvesem,aranyoskam,edesem.

Her early wonder at hungarian but also what is in the meaning behind words .

I loved this Gansal brings to life so well her world that of a translator, her reaching out and connecting to the writer’s reality when she translated Reiner Kunze, she hit that nail so well the way a great translator looks beyond the words to bring the writers world to life. then I also was drawn into her early life she may have been one of the last true Mittel Europeans those families that came from everywhere Germany, Austria Hungary and had wonderful stories to tell of their lives. She also shows how she discovered the new voice in Vietnam at a time when America was trying to bomb them back to the stone age she discovered wonderful poets and their works. I feel this is a must-read for any fan of translation and translators and maybe the start of a new trend in translator memoirs?

Irish Journal by Heinrich Böll

Irish Journal by Heinrich Böll

German Memoir

Original title –Irisches Tagebuch

Translator – Lelia Vennewitz

Source – personnel copy

The last time I saw you was down at the Greeks
There was whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks
You sang me a song as pure as the breeze
On a road leading up glenaveigh
I sat for a while at the cross at finnoe
Where young lovers would meet when the flowers were in bloom
Heard the men coming home from the fair at shinrone
Their hearts in tipperary wherever they go

Take my hand, and dry your tears babe
Take my hand, forget your fears babe
There’s no pain, there’s no more sorrow
They’re all gone, gone in the years babe

Well who else but the Pogues Broad majestic shannon a song about having Ireland in your heart .

I have reviewed three  other books by the late great german writer Heinrich Boll Billards at half past nine ,The lost honour of Katharina Blum  and Safety net. I won this one a couple of German lit months ago with the copy of safety net so it seems fitting to review it for German lit month. Heinrich is a writer I have been a fan of for years in fact he was one of the writers I had in mind reviewing when I started this blog , since then I feel yes the Melville house books came out but in some ways he is fading from the limelight which is a shame he was an important voice of post war West Germany .

Once a year I have to go there to visit my parents, and my grandmother is still alive. Do you know County Galway ?

“No” murmured the priest ”

“Connemara?”

“No.”

“You should go there , and don’t forget on your way back in the post of Dublin to notice what’s exported from Ireland : children and priests , nuns and biscuits, whiskey and horses, beeer and dog ..

THe point is a lot of things were leaving Ireland as Boll travel to Ireland .

Well this is a memoir piece by Boll where he recounts his visits over time in the 1950’s to Ireland. He arrives and even before he has set foot there feels the need to defend this land he has wanted to go too, the land of Joyce etc. When he hears someone dismissing it before he has seen it himself. He arrives and loves what he sees the slow languid pace of 1950’s Ireland a land run by tradition and the Church. The contrast from the war ravaged and damaged Germany that is caught up in rebuilding to the Neutral and untouched Ireland. We see the land through a man who has fallen for the place faults included .

That a church service can only begin when the priest arrives is obvious; but that a movie can only begin when all the priests, the local ones as well as those on vacation, are assembled in full strength is somewhat surprising to the foreigner used to continental customs.He can only hope the priest and his friends will soon finish their supper …

He has to wait for the priest to watch the film, I believe this my other grandparent told me of banks of priests at football matches at Manchester united in the forties.

I was reminded of my own grandparents talking of the trips to Ireland, well to the south from their home in Derry, They went to Dublin most years to the Antique fair or to Donegal to a cottage they rented for years so the world Boll talked about to me seemed like theirs. The way it seemed the south was always at that time so far behind the North but was always more relaxed as said when a  Train is late well god made time and there is plenty of it. A lot of the towns He visited Mayo Limerick and of course Dublin I went to as a kid and young adult as well (it has been a few years since I last had a visit ). We see a man in love with a place because it hasn’t caught up with the times and seemed out place but he seemed to get it, but he wasn’t blinked he did see the darker side of this land the poverty and lack of direction somewhat (This was before the Celtic tiger took off ) This is the land that the character in a book like Brooklyn were going to america to escape (and of course then remember they came from their for decades after ). I enjoyed this but do wonder if it was a little rose-tinted it was a tough place to live in the 1950’s Ireland but was still one green unspoilt country .I choose an older cover mine is the Melville cover but liked this one more.

Have you read this ?

Thank you for not reading by Dubravka Ugresic

thanks you for not reading

Thank you for not reading by Dubravka Urgesic

Croatian non fiction

original title – Zabranjeno čitanje

Translator – Celia Hawkesworth

Source – personnel copy

At the record company meeting
On their hands – a dead star
And ooh, the plans that they weave
And ooh, the sickening greed
At the record company party
On their hands – a dead star
The sycophantic slags all say:
“I knew him first, and I knew him well”
Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!
Re-evaluate the songs

Paint a vulgar picture by the smiths is about how music is a product .

I mention this book a week or so ago and how blown away by it I was .Ugresic had long been on my list of writers to get too , so when this work of essays and observations on writing was in a recent sale at waterstones in Nottingham ,I couldn’t resist it . Dubravka Ugresic studied Russian literature at Zagreb , she  has written a number of novels  her best known books in the jaws of life , described as post modern .She  left Yugoslavia in 1993 ,since then she has lived in the US and most recently the Netherlands .

What does this all have to do with literature ? Almost nothing .Then why mention something as trivial as Joan Collins pink suit ? Because trivia has swamped contemporary literary life and become , it seems more important than the books .A books blub is more important than the book itself , the author’s photograph on the book jacket is more important than it’s content , the authors appearance in wide circulation newspapers and on tv is more important than what that author has actually written .

Joan Collins or any celeb writing a novel is just the sad state of books and reading .

Thank you for not reading is a collection of essays all based around books , the market for books and her observations on coming to the west to promote her books . , it starts when she is at the london book fair in the 90s and the fair is being opened by Joan Collins . This is the first of a number of observations by her of what is the market force lead western , well english book market . This is contrast with her memories of growing up under Tito where books and writers where values how the soviet system treated writers in one way and then in other ways both good and bad but they were valued for what they wrote not who they were !

Milan Kundera wrote that one day , when everyone writes , nobody will listen .The markets , it seems , is creating utopia .But nevertheless , in the whole commercial whirlgig , there is a sad and paradoxical truth :glamour is a populist longing , a sign of absence .Literacy can have an aura of glamour only where literacy does not exist .

I agree with this statement , literacy is so important !

A breif description as it is more my reaction to this book that is what I want to talk about as for me it touches on a point about books that I often go on about , but feel I struggle to get across . I will give an example that mirrors the book I was at the recent launch of Olja Savicevic book Farewell cowboy , which was being filmed t=by the Croatian news to be broadcast on the evening news .There was an air of surprise when I pointed out that this wouldn’t happen here in the uk .Like this book it is a sign of what books have become and this is my constant point the big selling books and writers now can like Urgesic observed can be celeb writings or celeb writers (if you know what I mean !).But the flip of this is what I call “Adding to the critical discussion on books in translation or in general  ” that is raising books to high culture thus making them seem unreadable or unobtainable to the masses  . I mean just today we are talking about giving every kid a library card .It is not just that gets people reading it is making books seem interesting not adding to a critical discussion on books !!  An example  would  be John Buchan was the most wide read writers in the trenches of Flanders when the Everyman was reading his books . Now Buchan is considered a literary writer , but back then was read by the masses , so I agree with Urgesic view that making writers seem like heroes but heroes we can touch ,so in one book she has touched on so much that makes me blow my top the putting of books on high peaks whilst promoting drape books to the masses , it is our right to choose what we want to read not to be told book a is right because we come from a certain social or educational background Jesus would you have been the one top grab the 39 steps out of the hands of the Tommy because they couldn’t add to the critical discussion of books !! I have drift into arant her but isn’t that what a great book can make you do . For me this is the heart of why I read books from around the world knowledge is free to all well here and too most readers of this blog so don’t let books scare you because you are told they may be high culture .This book is funny and possibly ahead of its time when it was written .

The false Apocalypse by Fatos Lubonja

The False Apocalypse by Fatos Lubonja

Albanian Non-fiction

Original title – Nëntëdhjeteshtata – Apokalipsi i rremë

Translator – John Hodgson

Source – review copy

When one voice rules the nation
Just because they’re top of the pile
Doesn’t mean their vision is the clearest
The voices of the people
Are falling on deaf ears
Our politicians all become careerists

They must declare their interests
But not their company cars
Is there more to a seat in parliament
Than sitting on your arse
And the best of all this bad bunch
Is shouting to be heard
Above the sound of ideologies clashing

I ve gone for Billy Bragg song ideologies as this is a story of ideas falling apart

I love the fact that Susan at Istros books is publishing books like this one for I feel no one else would publish a book about Albania internal politics .Fatos Lubonja is the son of Todi Lubonja who was one of the closet aids to Hoxha , until the early 1970’s when he was arrested and Fatos , where Fatos then spent the next 17 years in Jail  , he is considered an outspoken critic on the post communist world of Albanian politics and also the writer Ismail Kadare .In the introduction he is called the closest thing tp an intellectual conscience in Albania .

The arrival of a boatload of sugar , whose sale would pay off all his debts , was the last deception used by the mastermind of the pyramid scheme to palm off the daily demands of his creditors .Qorri has made this boat the focal point of the novel , a symbol of people’s hope and trust in the victory of capitalism over reality of socialism ,The arrival of the sugar boat would solve everything .

The premise of the Novel Fatos Qorri called Sugar boat about one pyramid scheme .

The False Apocalypse is a story of the years after the fall of communism within Albania .The book has two narratives one that follows the greater picture of Albania at the time  the government of Sali Bershia that was the leader of the country at the time .The problem with the regime was the fact they let to many fraudsters take over the country , in particular a number of Pyramid schemes (the schemes used new investors to pay old investors whilst appearing to make money , the only ones that made money where the leaders of the scheme ) , these schemes had grown since the fall of Hoxha and the fall of communism in 1991 , the schemes had grown and grown so in 1997 the collapse of them was going to take the whole country down with it .As the public start to protest and riots begin as scheme after scheme collapses .The second narrative thread in the book is the personnel story of Fatos Qorri ( akter ego of fatos lubonja ) describes the events of 1997 through his own eyes through diary entries . He is in the process of writing a novel in fact about the pyramid schemes and as he is doing so the events take over him .

The victory of the guns in Vlora created a nightmare for thee Tirana government .Could Berisha weather these events ? The Government was on the brink of resignation , with dozens of deaths laid at it’s door State institutions had collapsed , Vlora was in rebellion with fighting in the streets , and the nation faced bankruptcy .moreover , after what had happened , Albania was split in two and Berisha’s people didn’t dare set foot in the south .

The first real crack appeared at Vlora the first of many .

Now I remember the aftermath of this when the west rode in to save the government of Berisha .What I enjoyed about lubonja book is the way he used his own personnel experience at the time and mixed it in with the wider picture of what was going on in Albania at the time .what we see is a country trying to run before they have learnt to walk .A government that has really lost control over the schemes and the country as a whole , this is what happened when the prisons were opened , the gangs are allowed to take control . The former secret service has also  become a force to be watched after it was not taken apart from the fall of communism .What we get is the chaos explained , what happens on the wider scale when a country starts to fall apart but also on the personnel scale to the man on the street .This book appeals to anyone that has an interest in the fall of communism and maybe wants to learn more about Albania .

Have you a favourite non fiction book in translation ?

The story of a shipwrecked sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

shipwreck sailor

The story of a shipwrecked sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

Columbian non fiction 

Original title – Relato de un náufrago

Translator – Randolph Hogan 

Source personnel copy 

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

From rime of the ancient mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge  source

Well this is a book hung over from Spanish literature month that I didn’t get time to review ,which is a real shame as I had want to include the two non fiction books I had read by Marquez for Spanish literature month  .Marquez worked as a journalist most of his life .He started as a journalist he was a member of the Barranquilla group a group of Journalist ,philosophers and writers based in the city of Barranquilla  in Columbia .This group was also featured in his novel one hundred years of solitude .Now to this book based on the true story of a Columbian sailor .

At six o’clock the destroyer began pitching violently .Luis Rengifo was awake one bunk below me .

“Fatso ” he asked me ,”Haven’t you gotten sick yet ? ”

I said no ,but I admitted I was worried .Rengifo ,who as I said was an engineer -very studious and a good seaman explained why it was unlikely that something could happen to the Caldas in the Caribbean

How untrue this was !.

 

In 1955 a crew of eight set sail on a Columbian navy destroyer Caldis ,that has spent time in the US .The book sets of with a crew that maybe had partied too much when in America and a lot of stuff on board they shouldn’t have ,so when they hit a storm in the middle of the Caribbean ocean ,the crew and items they were returning to Columbia with all end up in the sea .Now the Navy searches and finds no one .But actually Luis Alejandro Velasco ,he managed to grab stuff and make him self a raft ,he spent ten days drifting on the ocean in which time he drank little ,manage to wrestle  fish from the sharks around him ,also kill a gull which he didn’t eat (can’t blame him I have a friend that grew up in the wilds of highland and shot regularly and once shot and tried a gull which he didn’t like one bit ) .Any way he manages to drift to land which luckily for him is actually his homeland of Columbia  ,he is brought back  to the city nursed back to health and given a heros welcome ,this is the point where his path crosses with Marquez who likes his story and decides to write this book to keep it for prosperity .

Hunger is bearable when you have no hope of food .but it was never so insistent as when I was trying to slash that shiny green flesh with my keys .

After a few minutes ,I realized I would have to use more violent methods if I wanted to eat my victim .

Velasco struggle to find food to eat .

This is a good old adventure yarn ,but far from being fiction it actually happened Luis Alejandro Velasco did spend ten days at sea ,he did suffer but like any true hero he had to fall t o rise and be honoured .As I read this I wondered if Yann Martell had read this .I think he did in some ways this is rather like a blueprint for A life of Pi but if Marquez had written this as a novel it would have been near Martell’s book I do wonder if in some way if life of pi was a way to see what happens when you add magic realism to a shipwreck story .Velasco story is of course like other stories Crusoe (based on the real life Alexander Selkirk from Lower Largo in Fife ,I used pass his statue on the way to my Gran’s every year ) which Defoe wrote and spawn many similar stories in what are known as Robinsonade fiction books about  a shipwrecks and sailors  from William Golding with Pincher Martin to Umberto Eco with the island of the day before  and also life of Pi .The actual book cause Marquez a lot of trouble due to the way he told the story of the contraband the ship was carrying and he had to actually leave Columbia for a while he also hand the writes to the book to Velasco in Spanish ,but kept the translation Rights himself  ,even thou Velasco tried to sue for them ,but then later made up with Marquez .Have you read this or have a favourite Robinsonade story ?

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

An armenian sketchbook

An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman

Russian Non fiction

Translator – Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

Original title – Dobro Vam

Source – Review Copy

Pleased to get this from Maclehose , as I’ve dabbled with life and fate  but never got far  into it and sat  finished the book .So this was the first full book I have  read by him .Vasily was born to a Jewish family in Ukraine ,he reported during world war two  this formed many of the views that he put in his great Novel Life and fate , he was a respect  journalist as well as a novelist .He sadly died four years after the journey he took in this book .

In October 1960 Grossman had submitted the manuscript of Life and fate to the editors of a soviet Literary Journal ,It was the height of the Khuschev’s “thaw” and Grossman seems genuinely to have believed that lif and fate could be published in the Soviet Union ,even though a central theme of the novel is that Nazism and Stalinism are mirror images of each other .

Just before he went to Armenian from the intro to the book

An Armenian notebook follows a Journey Vasily Grossman took during 1960 ,he was out of favour in a way his famous now book Life and Fate had been stopped by the soviets .So he had decided to take a chance and work on an epic Armenian novel that required a  better translation .So he head to Armenian ,one of the thrills in getting this is my own Knowledge of the region is very scant .So Grossmans simple clear prose brought to life this remote stone cover land and it quite unique people ,as we follow his travels .So we get to see each person he meets in little sketches about them and their life gently build a wonderful picture of the folks he meets .Armenian is a place that is caught between Asia ,Europe ,Russia and the persian world ,this leads to a very interesting mix of people .Vasily him self wasn’t in the best of health when he wrote this but still managed to inject a good deal of humour to his words .He is also fair in his observations,the  fact is  he has that great Journalistic skill of good journalistic writing in not being biased the best writing of place leaves it to the reader to make their minds up and this he does well here ,it would have been easy for Grossman to have made this book seemed very anti soviet to make this place seem as thou it was an out laying region with out anything good from Communism but it didn’t. He also made me want to read the book he was translating ,I never read a book from Armenian so if any one knows if it is available in English let me know .

A second day passed ,and a third .The new arrival ceased to think of himself as an exotic parrot in the mountain village .Now the people he met were beginning to greet him .And he was greeting them back .

He already knew many people : the young women from the post office ,the man at the village shop ; the night watchman – a melancholy man with a rifle ,two shepherds ,the old man who looked after the thousand-year old walls of the Kecharis monastery

Grossman is drawn into a remote villages life

So what did I discover ,well a writer of Non fiction I love Grossman is such a beautiful and clear prose writer it is hard not to fall in love with his words and use of words .,He manages to catch the place as a whole the people ,nature ,building and even the feel in the air (if you know what I mean I always feel every place you go to have a spirit about it something in the air that you can’t quite put your finger on ,this he manages to capture ).The sadness of Armenian he talks about the link the Armenian feels of the horrific event in 1916 and the Jewish massacre during world war two .  My favourite parts where around his village to a remote Mountain Village ,as all follows of this blog will know I have a great love of villages  as they say so much more about people than big cities do .

Have you read this book ?

Thomas Bernhard in Person

Well in the run up to Thomas Bernhard week I decide to watch a couple of things on You tube .I always love to place and see the writer as a person .So with my basic schoolboy German I watch these .First is a documentary with Bernhard talking about why he writes .

The next piece was a staging of Letter Bernhard had written over the years to his German Publisher Siegfried Unseld .I beleive these are in process of being translated into in english .

The German paper Die Zeit had this to say about this book

 

»Great cinema, a publisher and his pugnacious author write one another. And themselves. Correspondence as Fight Club.« Florian Illies, Die Zeit

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A journey to nowhere by Jean-Paul Kauffmann

A journey to nowhere (detours and riddles in the lands and history of Courland) by Jean-Paul Kuaffmann

French non fiction

Translator Euan Cameron

Jean-Paul Kaufmann is a french Journalist ,he was born in Mayenne france .He became a Journalist and started working for the french press agency in Beirut in Lebanon in the 80’s in 1985 he was kidnapped and held for three years ,after the intervention of the French government was freed .He returned to France and started a magazine ,and at this time he started writing travel books and then in 2007 wrote about his captivity in Lebanon .He also wrote a book about Napoleon and St Helena ,this won a number of prizes  This book was published in 2009 in french and this year by Machlehose press in English .

Well a journey to nowhere ,is a real journey to nowhere .We follow Jean-paul who via a french Canadian called Mara  when he is national service ,discovered this place called Courland in the book on the french king louis XVII he sees the mention of a prince from this place he ask Mara she says find out about it that is what Jean-paul does that on his return from national service .Now I didn’t know about Courland til I opened this book ,it turns out in the opening pages the french writer Marguerite Yourcenar called Coup de grace was set the it is in the Baltic region  and makes up what is now called Latvia but it’s  Northern half  the costal part of latvia .So when the chance arrives to goand find out more he goes  to Riga and then on it what was Courland. Jean-Paul takes the chance to see what happened and what remains of this once special little nation .So we arrive and he is using a red Skoda to get round this country .We see how the duchy of Courland was quite a enlighten place with even its own two small overseas post one in Gambia the over in Tobago became a part of first russia and the germany and finally  part of Latvia till now their are few that even remember it all even call themselves Courlanders .We discover the little country the knights of the Livonia til 1500 then the duchy .We meet present day people who live there how varied there reactions are ,figures from the past like Eduard Von keyserling a writer that was maybe a link between Turgenev’s writing and the likes of Franz Kafka .We see Jean-Paul like a Holmes of the Baltic piece together the bits of this land then and now .

“we haven’t come to Courland for its gastronomy “, says Joelle

She could not have put it better .People’s relationship with food seems purely functional here,but that may only be an impression .We are what we eat ,popular wisdom decrees .Jean-Jacques Rousseau maintained that the English ,with their love of very rare roast beef ,could not be a perverted and violent people .What are the Courlanders ,then ? To judge by the restaurants we’re visited ,the cuisine is peasant based .Pork and potatoes reign supreme

the cuisine of Courland discussed .

Well this book is one of those books that could sit on the shelf next to my  Bruce Chatwin’s ,W g Sebald’s or last years favourite Edmund de Waal .It is one of those books where the narrative digresses here and there , in fact in this book they drift from the grand past of Courland to the grey post communist Latvia as we see Jean-Paul ,piece it all together in  piffy chapters .I found he had a dry humour and a very keen eye on the world around him picking small details up and expanding them out . Almost like a clever tie together of great blog post  written about this place but these are all written by Jean-Paul but each chapter seems like another piece of a huge jigsaw .So if you want to see what happens to the little country of europe maybe read this ,I was reminded of the film the Mouse that roared this little place had manage to go out to Africa and the Caribbean and set up shop .one for all lover of travel with history books I think any way ..

Have you read this book ?

Have you read the Yourcenar book ?

 

 

Brother Mendel’s perfect horse by Frank Westerman

Brother Mendel’s perfect horse by Frank Westerman

Dutch non fiction

Translator – Sam Garrett

Frank Westerman is Dutch writer and former Journalist ,he grew up in Assen in a dutch reform church family ,he then went to university eventually ending up as a journalist ,where in the early nineties he end up in former Yugoslavia ,this inspired his first book since then he has written six books most of which have won prizes and been on shortlist in native Holland .He is now a full time writer .

So to this book Brother Mendel’s perfect horse or its original ditch title translated is Animal ,animal above but English title links Mendel’s work on peas the early study of genetics that also influenced the Horse’s breeding  .The book is a wonderful insight into the beautiful Lipizzaner horses  ,I loved the way he’d first meet the horse on the edge of the town he lived was a horse a Lipizzaner but it turns out it he finds the horse whole blood line .For those of you not in the know Lippizzanner’s are large perfect white horse that due to there bloodstock are able to be trained to perform wonderful trick and precision riding,but also have in breed genetic problems  .I was aware of the horse and knew roughly where they came from but had always wondered why it was called the Spanish riding school but was in Austria .I found  this book answered any other questions I had ,but the horse are just a small part of the story here as Frank has managed to weave a tapestry of fact ,his own life and history .These beautiful horse have been the prize for a number of the most feared and hated men in twentieth century  history  with Stalin and Hitler both ordered people to get the horses at one time or another .Soon after Anschluss in world war two Hitler sent people to secure the Spanish riding school which is the home of the Lipizzaner ,Hitlers own idea closely matched the breeding of the original Lipizzaner ,he’d order breeding of perfect farm animal to match his perfect Aryans .The stories of this period leads Frank to  meet a number of people or family members that were involved with the horse and made sure they were kept safe ,this also leads to other strands later on in the book as the horses  move round the central area of europe Austria ,Yugoslavia ,Romania to name three .The later two are also touched on later in the book as the break up of Yugoslavia means the a group of the horses get caught up in the warring sides and become a pawn in the end of the war .So next time I see them on a news report or a travel show I ll remember how much they have been involved in the history of modern europe and are more than just pretty horses .

A door slid open and ,Illuminated in the resulting darkness was a white horse ,standing hesitantly as though posing for a picture .The animal stepped from the frame with a graceless gait ,led by a girl in riding boots with hair down to her buttocks .At twenty ,thirty paces from my hiding place they stopped .Face to face ,even lip to lip they stood there .like two youngsters kissing .

Frank describing his first meeting with a Lipizzaner .

 

This is a book that falls in with books like Hare with Amber eyes ,rings of Saturn and wildwood .The very best of narrative prose .He use the horse connection with men as a motif for the history of the twentieth century .I was also reminded of the booker shortlisted by Simon Mawer the glass room where the book had  a house as a motif  that had been closely touched with recent history .This is a book for that difficult to buy book person that you may have brought hare or snow goose for in other years  ,also lover of great prose ,the horsey person ,the history lover .In fact if this isn’t near top of the pile this Christmas I ll be shocked because it deserves to be .I read on the Dutch wiki page this is currently in production to be a 90 min film about the horses .So this is my second choice for the dutch lit month and very pleased to review a non fiction books as not enough non fiction gets translated .The book comes out next month in the uk  .

What narrative prose do you like ?

 

 

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