War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

 

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Belgian fiction

Original title – Oorlog en terpentijn

Translator- David Mckay

Source – review copy

Stefan Hertmans is a poet , novelist and short story writer . He has won a number of prizes including the AKO prize for this book. this is the next stop on the man booker list this is the one I felt would be on the liust as it was frequently compared to Sebald when it came out, which in a way made me get to it later in the list in case I was disappointed by it , which I wasn’t that it was very Sebald like (it isn’t really yes it has pictures and place and memories but in another context it isn’t Sebald work mainly dealt with the outfall of world war two ).

Strange as it may seem, there were details of my own world that never offered up their historical secrets until I read his memoirs: a gold pocket watch shattering on the tile floor ; an oval cigarette from a silver case , smoked in secret, which made me nauseous when I was fifteen years old ; a worn reddish-brown scarf on the discard cupboards in the dilapidated greenhouses, covered within droplets of the disoriented blackbirds that would throw themselves against the glass in panic .

Images of his youth come to life in his grandfathers notebooks

 

The story goes Urbain wrote these notebooks and he died in the sixties the son of a painter also called Urbaine were passed to his grand son Stefan the writer but he left them for thirty year what follows is his story of reading them. The first part of the story is pre world war one father and son in a the city og Ghent  just getting by making ends meet painting small fresco in churches around the town , a one point the son takes a job in gelatine factory , remind me of the time we see David Copperfield an artist in the making in the bottle factory another dangerous job .Now unlike Dickens in Urbaine case the war sends his life in another direction the most of the book is the grandfathers notebooks of his war experiences , very much like most war accounts of the tome we have a real feel of Mud , the trenches , rats and death in the air all around them. A break comes when he is sent to Liverpool to recover and paints the sea and places round Wallasey (I found an ironic connection to Hitler , here who many years earlier was in the same city painting ) The last part is post war a love story.

As soon as my health and the weather permitted I went out searching .Maud was right:in St James Street I found the church of St Vincent de Paul. My heart was pounding as I entered its damp , sparsely decorated interior. On the dingy walls to the left, there was no sign of any murals my father might have worked on. On the right , I found the stations of the cross on panels .there happened to be men at work in the church , whitewashing walls. They couldn’t recall any frescos under the whitewash.

Urbain tries to find a fresco his father did in Liverpool was he recovers

Now the book is littered with pictures the start that inspired father and son , the buildings of Ghent . Then in the war years the only picture we see is the one of Urbaine in his uniform at the end of the war a man with that thousand yard stare of someone who has seen death in the eye. This is slightly like Sebald , even in the last part of the book there is a quote from Vertigo .  The nearest english novel would be Siegfried  Sassoon cycle of books The Sherston trilogy , which follows a mans pre war and post war and war-time journey like this novel does . Hertmans manages to capture the madness brutality and darkness of the first world war.  I enjoyed this book it is destined to be a modern classic.

The explosion chronicles by Yan Lianke

 

Image result for explosion chronicles lianke

The explosion chronicle by Yan Lianke

Chinese fiction

Original title –  炸裂志

Translator – Carlos Rojas

Source – review copy

Yan Lianke is a writer I have read twice in the course of shadowing the man booker and IFFP before we have twice reviewed his books Dream of Ding Village and Four Books  . both of which showed the dark of modern day China .I am always saying I miss the Chinese novel that takes on these Mega cities that are now so vast and huge they are like a sprawling creatures on the chinese landscapes what it must be like to be in those place is what I want to know . Well this on the surface is partly what this is about the birth of one of those mega cities from a few small huts and house to a cities of millions.

Yuan dynasty

When explosion Village was first founded, it had about hundred residents. Because the village had Yi river in front and the Balou Mountain range in back, and because its fields were wide and flat, farmers would often gather there to barter and to buy and sell goods. As a result, the village gradually became a small marketplace.

The small start rather like a number of these megacties .

The novel follows the people of the city of explosion , I find an irony in the name as this is what these huge cities are explosions on the map in away and this is the tale of one of those told in its own history  .What we see is a small village lead by Zhu Ying father starts to expand the village , but he runs into trouble as there is a rival family the Kong family  there are two brothers they also what to be in on the growth of the city. Then  Zhu father is killed in strange circumstances so she leaves but like all prodigal children she returns and firstly runs a brothel then starts to become a serious businesswoman .Add to that marriages between the families , a large amount of back hash. backhands and blackmailing . A scene where a number of elders kill themselves and what we have here is the inside track of these monster cities birthed in the back and beyond and allowed to grow uncontrolled under no supervision into a mega city with a dark underbelly.

Democracy mixed with a thunderstorms, leaving explosions completely soaked.

Zhu Ying returned from the provincial seat the day before the election .By this point the rain had stopped, the sun had come out and the air was fresh. A sedan brought zhu Ying to the entrance  of the village, where she saw the enormous stele the town mayor had erected in her home. Then she strolled into the village .

Zhu Ying returns to her home town to get back what was theirs in the past .

Well I like this it still missed the sense of what it is for these place to be as an everyday person it had at times a traditional Chinese fable like feel to the story as it went on the brother the daughter scared by her father death a marriage to try to unite them these are all familiar themes in myths especially Chinese myths . Maybe what Yan is trying to say is these cities are in a way surreal and fable like growth places like Suzhou have expand since the Chinese since the post Mao reforms . He captures the madness of this world of backhanded and blackmailers. Like his other books he takes a look under the veil of modern china.This is my favourite book by him and worth reading for a take on modern China .

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer

German Fiction

Original title – Im Stein

Translator – Katy Derbyshire

Source – Review copy

I rejoin my late run on the Man booker longlist to try to get through the books , which I have now all read including a rereading of this book. One of the joys or reading so much in translation is to meet writers you have reviewed earlier as they move on in the careers and here is one such case . I first reviewed Clemens Meyer when on of his early short story collections All the lights was translated and published into English , so when six years later his Magnus opus arrived in english I read it, but struggled how to review it as it is like his earlier work an unflinching account of his east german homeland.So when it was longlist I decide a reread and maybe a new look at Im stein the book was also on the german book prize list when it came out in Germany

If this year goes well  I’ll have saved up a nice sum. Most girls can’t kep hold of it , like guys with their cum – money I mean . Gucci here, Prada there ,sure I treat myself now and then , what do you think ? (wink wink !smile to camera , and my little winter comedy’s rolling after all , oh well , it’ll be a nice little hotel job, the perfect end to a working day , and a gentlemen with champagne and hopefully not one of those monster dicks , mind you , wink wink !)

One of the girls early on about the life and how easy it is to get caught up in it and who is that next Man !!

The story is rather like a classic American gangster film plot in a way ,I ‘m think Scarface in a way for the story of Tony in Scarface is similar to that of Arnie the main character in Bricks and mortar . They both come from the tough sde of town one aC killer that escapes to american and the other an East German football thug . Now they have different path tony is of course drugs but Arnie makes his with woman and sex in what is often called the oldest profession and as in Germany it isn’t strictly illegal he sees his empire grow from the early days in 1989 to the modern-day from the dark side of the trade with young children and the pipeline bring women from around the world to the doors . We also see the shifting tastes of his client’s as his empire grows but like all empires he has to protect it and this we see in full police and other people wanting to step in on the trade . We also see the world from the inside with the voices of those on the blunt end the girls

You open , your eyes and you’re not alone . There’s a woman sitting there , on the chair by the wall , right under the flower print . She’s black , her skin , and black curly hair and a  pale pink dress . You don’t understand right away because it’s not possible. ou work with a couple of African women , it used be the Vietnamese to begin with and now its the Africans, but why has this woman of all people come to visit you ? And didn’t they tell you no visitors for one or two days ?

A detached voice of a girl caught up in this world telling of the change faces she has seen

This is a brutal books , Meyer like earlier German writer like Jorg Fauser (who I reviewed here ) or Doblin in Alexanderplatz  they are much better at looking at the dark side of life and here Meyers use the prostitutes and the pimps to show how the old East German stumbled into the New Germany not smoothly but kicking and screaming like a premature child of one of the girls on the came screaming to go back to the safe world of the east at times not the capitalist world of commerce , webcams money to be made from the girls all day every day yes they have rights but some don’t and as the book goes on you see them become more of a wheel in a money-making machine for Arnie and others , hence I choose their voices for the quotes as they really hit home I felt  the hopelessness of this a brutal world elegantly written by Clemens  and translated by katy and another gem from fitzcarraldo a publisher trying to bring the best and most challenging works into English .

Fever dream by Samanta Schweblin

 

Fever dream by Samanta Schweblin

Argentinean fiction

Original title – , Distancia de rescate

Translator – Megan Mcdowell

Source – Personal copy

Now this was the first book I read after the longlist came out as it was the one we may have called in I feel if it hadn’t made the longlist. Samanta is another from the granta list of the best Spanish language writers under 35 that came out a few years ago , I wish they would do a few more of these books for other languages that list has produced some of the best books I have read over the last few years and Samanta is one of the names of that list I had want to try long before I actually got to this book .

They’re like worms

What kind of worms ?

like worms , all over

It’s the boy who’s talking , murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.

Worms in the body ?

Yes, in the body

Earthworms ?

No, another kind of worms

It’s dark and I can’t see.The sheets are rough, they bunched up under my body. I can’t move , but I am talking .

The opening lines leave the question why is the sheet rough on Amanda is she even alive ?

The english title is maybe more to the point of what this book is the spanish title means rescue distance , which in itself is a question where as the english title is Fever dream and that is just what we have here . Two people in a hospital room the first Amanda she lies waking from a fever or in a fever and beside her is a boy , not her son David he is trying to guide her in his own young way , she talks of worms around her he gets he to try to rec all what exactly happened to get them there .Then earlier Amanda in her dream talks to Carla about her son that fell ill six years earlier Also called David .We also see a bleak land that of Patagonia , this land where the Gauchos still farm like they did years ago but is this also a sign of how the world she lives in has changed recently ? Amanda story is one that has very few answers to us as the reader more questions which even thou this book is only 150 short pages it has me two weeks later think about what it is all about ,

How can it not be ? That’s the story we need to understand

No , that’s not the story, it has nothing to do with the exact moment. Don’t get distracted.

I need to measure the danger, other wise it’s hard to calculate the rescue distance . The same way I surveyed the house and its surroundings when we arrived, now I need to see the green house, understand its gravity .

When did you start to measure this rescue distance ?

It’s something I inherited from my mother. “I want you close ” she’d say to me . “let’s stay within rescue distance .”

The spanish title explained her in a detached conversation from Amanda .

This is a very unsettling book that has echos of so many thinks , I do wonder myself if it is just one person with two voices , is David a soul that Amanda meet when she was at the hospital before with her own child , like the landscape she lives in is he a shepherd to guide either one way or the other to the light of life or to the light of being with a daughter she may have lost . Maybe this is like the sixth sense or the film the passenger where those that are dead never really accepted  that they are like Bruce Willis or Anne Hathway in both those films need to be guided to the other side . The book to me has a feel of Beckett in a way Amanda and David detatched voices remind me somewhat of Vladmir and Estragon waiting in a room somewhat in limbo trying to get from one place but waaiting for some to guide them. Amanda voice at times remind me of the way Beckett wrote in something like Not I her life tumbles out of her at a great speed , this is wonderfully drawn out in Mcdowell’s translation . For me this will make the shortlist and may just make our shadow shortlist.

The Principle by Jerome ferrari

The Principle by Jerome Ferrari

French fiction

Original title – Le Principe

Translator – Howard Curtis

Source – review copy

Well from a new French writer to me yesterday with Pierre Senges to an old favourite of this blog Jerome Ferrari has had his two earlier books translated into English The sermon on the fall of Rome and Where I left my soul.  He won the Prix Goncourt with his last novel and lived in Abu Dhabi where he teaches Philosophy. but now lives in Casablanca , like his other novels I have read this is a look back at recent history this time he has looked back at those fever years of the war when scientists where trying to build the Bomb.

You were twenty-three years old , and it was there, on that desolate island where no flowers grow, that you were first granted the opportunity to look over god’s shoulder,There was no miracle, of course, or eve to be honest , anything resembling God;s shoulder, but to give an account of what happened that night, our only choice, as you know better than anyone, is between metaphor and silence . For you , there was first silence, then the blinding light of an exhilaration more precious than happiness

This the time he made his famous uncertain principle

we are drawn into the world of Germany in the  early 1930’s  and onwards when the country falls under a dark shadow of the Nazis,  we follow the life of Werner Heisenberg , a man best known know for his uncertain principle .We glimpse into his world one of knowledge , but he was best known for something he worked out many years earlier his principle . we see his life unfold drawn into the Nazis world of the hunt for the Bomb as he was the one that made classic science become the atomic age of science he is at the forefront. What we see is how a man of science and his own principles has to walk a tight line of the age he is trying but not trying if you know what I mean ! Faced with a world he didn’t expect to be in from those early days  of discovery .

They’re all bored to death

Something in them becomes gradually worn pout over the  endless weeks

Professor Heisenberg plays Mozart sonatas, by heart on the piano. Nobody listens to him anymore. Every day, Professor Hahn walks for hours in the garden, never tiring .He calculates the distance he’s covered. If he’d walked straight ahead , he would have crossed the sea. By know he would have been ages in Germany

They struggle to get the Bomb made .

This was a clever novel that is a good autobiography in a novel form of a figure , that was at the heart of the burning atomic age a man who provide the turning point in the way people thought of Physics. Like his earlier books lament and sorrow under lie the main character in a way also like his earlier books he deals with how people deal with those situation where we have no chance to turn and the world seems in utter chaos. In Where I left my soul it was the Algerian war and the sermon which was an angrier look back at his childhood homeland  as ever using his poetic writing style to look at one person struggle in this world . Here it is the madness of the Nazis and Hitler wanting the Bomb before the allies. There is similarities in style too In search of Klingsor by Jorge Volpi which was also a look at the same group of people in this novel from a different angle where they try to find the top man in the programme. An interesting look at the times .

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