The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, translated from the original French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

September 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is another playful offering from Gallic Press, whose The Suicide Shop I reviewed just last month.

As he picked up his second oyster he glanced discreetly to his left. The President had put on his glasses and was reading the menu.  Daniel took in the famous noble profile, seen in magazines, on television and every New Year’s Eve for the past five years.  Now he was seeing that profile in the flesh.  He could have put out his hand and touched François Mitterrand.

The waiter returned and the President ordered a dozen oysters, and the salmon.  The large man chose mushroom pâté and a rare steak, while Roland Dumas followed the President’s lead with oysters and fish.  A few minutes later, the wine waiter appeared with a silver ice bucket on a stand containing another bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé bathed in ice.  He uncorked the bottle smoothly and poured a little into the presidential glass.  François Mitterrand tasted it, approving it with a brief nod.

Daniel poured himself another glass of wine, and drank it down almost in on, before taking a teaspoon of the red shallot vinegar and dressing an oyster.

‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week…’ Daniel heard François Mitterrand say as he ate his oyster.  Never again, he told himself, would he be able to eat oysters with vinegar without hearing the words: ‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week’.

The premise is relatively simple:  The French President François Mitterrand loses his hat in a Parisian brasserie.  Well, technically, Daniel steals it after dining next to the President and his party.  Through the course of the book the hat continues to change hands and transforms the lives of the four characters who wear it.  The prose is straightforward.  The story sweet.  Like The Suicide ShopThe President’s Hat has the slapstick quality of a French comedy.  It is not particularly complicated or challenging, but very engaging.  The relaxed, gentle tone in how it is told reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series – slightly more whimsical.

Which reminds me of a friend of mine who went to a book-signing by Alexander McCall Smith at Barnes & Noble.  She came back completely charmed.  The author relayed an anecdote in which someone asked him why there were no car chases in his novels.  He laughingly replied that he felt it would be irresponsible of him to include a car chase in one of his books.  That his readers might not be able to handle that level of excitement.  But, as a compromise, he had included a shopping cart chase in the new novel he was there to sign.  It received a huge laugh and a smattering of applause from the crowd.  They knew it to be true.

There’s always been a readership for quiet books in which very little happens.  Several examples come to mind. The types of stories found in Ladies Journals were very popular when Ladies Journals were in their heyday. Today, the Persephone Press seems to thrive on catering to the  quiet reader with re-prints of books by women authors from the first half of the 20th-century.  And while planning this post I kept thinking back on some of my favorite books/authors from when I was younger: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jack & Jill, Under the Lilacs and Eight Cousins were read multiple times; and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series.  Those books had more in common with McCall Smith novels than what I read now.

So I’m wary of being too hard on or of dismissing The President’s Hat simply because I don’t have much to say about it.  I did read it in one sitting, cover to cover, and enjoyed it (particularly the little twist at the end).  I loved each of the characters who found the hat and became completely wrapped up in their individual stories.  This may be the perfect book for a quiet evening at home.  Antoine Laurain appears to have no aspirations other than to amuse his readers with a tale well told… which he does.  At least this reader was amused.  And I’m sure my friend who reads Alexander McCall Smith will love it.  In fact, I just sent her the recommendation on GoodReads.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 908313 47 8

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The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, translated from the original French by Sue Dyson

September 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

Gallic Books is a small UK press that publishes French books translated into English. They  were founded in 2007 by two Random House alumni.   Later in September I’ll be reviewing The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. It tells the story of Daniel Mercier, an average man who finds President François Mitterrand’s black felt hat and puts it on.  “It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow… different.”

Intriguing, right?  I can’t wait to find out where the author intends to go from there.

The Suicide Shop is an altogether different book by an altogether different author.  Yet, the two novels are similar enough – whimsical plots that don’t take themselves too seriously – for the personality of the publisher to begin to show itself.  Gallic Books seems to delight in the slightly off-kilter.  They’re a refreshing new (despite being established 6-years ago this is the first I’ve encountered them) voice in the world of translations.  A world too often dominated by dense, cerebral novels at one end of the spectrum and Nordic Crime fiction at the other.

The Tuvaches are a family of French shopkeepers who provide a very specific service to the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Paris: selling the implements necessary for suicide. Their motto: “Has your life been a failure?  Let’s make your death a success.”  In the Suicide Shop you can find handcrafted ropes with which to hang yourself, candies laced with arsenic mixed in jars with regular candies (Russian roulette for the very young), a poison du jour mixed-up by Madame Tuvache daily and – for those of an artistic temperament – a poisoned apple painting kit (complete with a small canvas and a paint set so that you can paint the apple before eating it).

Death has been good to this family.  The Tuvaches have successfully operated The Suicide Shop for generations.  But that changes with the birth of their youngest son.  He is a child who laughs, and smiles and wishes the customers a good day.  He has an outrageously sunny personality and it’s beginning to rub off on his older siblings.  Such happiness is (forgive the pun) killing business.

Quirky, silly, delightfully light-hearted –  the story rolls along with the comic timing of a French cabaret.  The author, Jean Teulé,  is also a film maker and The Suicide Shop was made into an animated film.   The books structure lends itself to a screen adaptation.  Each chapter is a set piece, advancing the plot in self-contained scenes that jump forward in years.  And just when you think the author has decided to end on a cliché, you arrive at the jaw-dropping last sentence.

My one small, nit-picky criticism is Teulé’s decision to place his family in a dystopian future.  While it doesn’t take anything away from the story, it doesn’t add anything to it either.   No time is spent developing the world other than to make it clear that suicides have increased with the decline of the society.  And so the insistence on events happening in some distant future – when they could have just as easily happened in a manipulated present – feels superfluous.

But, overall, this novel is a quick and entertaining read.  Written at roughly a YA level, Sue Dyson does a wonderful job capturing the upbeat swing of the prose in her playful translation.  I’d classify The Suicide Shop as dark gray versus black comedy (for example,  it’s nowhere near as dark as the 1988 film Heathers) – so everyone from junior high school students up to and including adults should find something to enjoy in the ever-amusing antics of the Tuvaches.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 906040 093

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All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler

August 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

ALL DOGS ARE BLUE_FRONT cmykAll Dogs Are Blue is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of mental illness.  Rodrigo de Souza Leão has given us a story set in a Brazilian mental institution which isn’t a caricature of lunacy.  The author does not fall into the familiar stereotypes.  He does not confine his narrator within a prison of horrors.  Nor does Souza Leão romanticize the disease, assigning it the attributes of genius.  The narrator has schizophrenia, but he is not defined by it.  He possesses a consciousness and humanity outside of his mental illness.

The unnamed narrator is a patient at a Rio de Janeiro asylum.  In the course of his free-flowing, stream-of-conscious narrative he tells us about his daily routine, gives his observations on his fellow patients, his parents and caregivers, tells how he came to be committed and shares his reoccurring delusions. Two of these, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, are his best friends – the angel and the devil on his shoulders.  He masturbates a lot.  A loose subplot hinges on another inmate, The Fearsome Madman, and provides some comic relief.  All Dogs Are Blue is a book full of contradictions.  When it is funny, it’s hilarious.  When it is serious, it’s heartbreaking. 

This is by no means a traditional narrative, filtered as it is through the narrator’s – sometimes lucid, sometimes delusional – perceptions.   The routine of the asylum can be mind-numbingly boring, and yet the narrator is constantly striving to find beauty and meaning inside this narrow world.  While Souza Leão is no slouch as a novelist, his true calling is as a poet.  I recommend reading this book for the richness of the prose;  the shifts between reality and delusion; the beautiful and surreal imagery; and the symbolism of a blue toy dog.  Each and every word, up until the last period, counts.

All Dogs Are Blue is – at its heart – a long, shimmering prose poem beautifully translated by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler.

I’ve been to China.  Saying it like that makes it sound like I’ve travelled a lot.  It was a very pretty place, full of people, bicycles and lots of clouds.  The clouds, the clouds.  There I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a foreigner and I was madly in love with those far-away clouds, oh those wonderful clouds!  Shapes in the sky.  When the day is like that, a sunny day, a day like today, I no longer want to get out of here.  I’ll sleep in the calm green of 6 mg of Lexotan.  Hold on tight to my blue dog and enter into a pact with happiness.  Remember China, its bicycles, its blood-red flag and, finally, those incredible clouds in the Chinese sky.  I think I’ll be happier once I’ve taken the bloody blood oath.  I want to die of anything, anything but of a chip I swallowed.

This is also a semi-autobiographical novel.  It’s Brazilian author, Rodrigo de Souza Leão, died in an institution.  He, like his protagonist, was not a man defined by his illness.  His artistic output during his too short life (1965-2008) was enormous.  He was the author of at least four novels, more than ten books of poetry and was co-founder/editor of the Brazilian poetry magazine Zunái.  He was a blogger and maintained friendships with several other important Brazilian poets and authors through email and social media.  In addition he was a visual artist whose paintings were posthumously exhibited, in a solo exhibition, at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art.  Most dream of, but few succeed in, leaving behind such a legacy.

____________

The English edition of All Dogs Are Blue, published by And Other Stories includes an Introduction by Deborah Levy and the Publisher’s Preface to the Second Brazilian Edition by Jorge Viveiros de Castro (Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s Brazilian publisher) who was a friend of the author’s.

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Eléctrico W by Hervé le Tellier, translated from the original French by Adriana Hunter

July 11, 2013 § 6 Comments

http://pubimages.randomhouse.com.au/getimage.aspx?vid=474500&usehttp=0&cat=default&class=books&size=custom&resize=1&dpi=300&quality=100&type=jpg&width=1500&height=2500&id=9781590515334Let’s talk about Oulipo.  It’s a French movement that includes authors and mathematicians who use constraints when creating literature.  For example:  writing an entire novel without using the letter “a”.  Or using palindromes.  Or starting  every sentence with the same word or phrase.  Or, my particular favorite, replacing every noun with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary (this constraint has its own name:  N+7).

Italo Calvino was a member of Oulipo – which is why If On A Winters Night A Traveler is a book of only beginnings.  As was Oskar Pastior, Duchamp and Georges Perec.  I consider Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch Oulipian, but discovered he was not a member.  That book, though, shares Oulipo’s fascination with puzzles – so it’s not surprising that Cortázar wrote it while living in Paris.

Hervé Le Tellier is a member.  Though, in terms of constraints the one he used for Eléctrico W seems a bit weak.  The novel follows the structure of Homer’s Odyssey.  And while I’m by no means an expert, it does so in such a vague way that I couldn’t find the parallels.*  Be that as it may – puzzles and games and Oulipo all put aside – Eléctrico W is an entertaining novel.

It was 1985, nearly twenty-seven years ago.  At the time I didn’t feel like showing it to publishers.  I did give it a title, though, and this morning, with the sun taking its time coming up, it is called Eléctrico W, the name of a tramline in Lisbon.  But that has been a provisional title for so long.

This paragraph is added in because, according to the computer, the manuscript comprised 53,278 words.  I wanted it to be a prime number.  Out of some superstition.  So I added an adjective here, and adverb there, I don’t even remember where.  And this is where the notebook starts again.

In these opening paragraphs we are introduced to the narrator, a middle aged journalist named Vincent Balmer.  He’s recently moved to Lisbon, leaving behind his life in Paris and an affair that had run its course.  He’s kept his job, though.  The French newspaper, which still employs him, has him cover  the trial of a serial killer.  He is partnered with a photojournalist, Antonio Flores, who he knows from the Paris office.  The two men spend nine days together.  One night  Flores reveals to Vincent that he grew up in Lisbon… eventually telling the story of his star-crossed love for a girl called Duck.  The story captures Vincent’s imagination (“imagination” being the key word) and he attempts to track down Duck with the vague idea of reuniting the pair.  Eléctrico W is the story of Vincent’s quest over those nine days he and Flores are assigned to the murder trial.

Vincent’s voice is introspective.  Sedate.   He does not seem to be subject to emotional peaks or valleys – regardless of what he sometimes claims.  While he  describes himself as more conventionally handsome than Antonio Flores, he lacks that male version of “jolie laide” which makes the other man irresistable to women.  In face, Vincent learns that Flores is currently sleeping with the woman who had broken up with him/Vincent in Paris.  She,  Irene, eventually joins the two men in Lisbon.  Despite all of Vincent’s professed passion for Irene his attempt at revenge seems half-hearted at best.  Based on my previous reading experience, Vincent is part of that long tradition of utterly charming but romantically (and otherwise) inept Frenchmen whom French authors seem to adore.  A cross between Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” and Gérard Depardieu.

Vincent also has a hobby.  Interspersed throughout the book are short stories which he is translating, written by the fictional Portuguese author Jaime Montestrela.  Montestrela who appears in many of Le Tellier’s books.

In the town of Chiannesi (Umbria, Italy), on Shrove Tuesday, it was customary for every inhabitant to swap minds with another, women played at being men, children being parents.  This swap included animals, and mice could be seen toying cruelly with cats.  The municipality brought a definitive end to this custom in 1819, when the swap between cows and flies led to a crisis.

A small step above flash-fiction, these relatively straight-forward tales (we’re told that Montestrela might have intended them as allegories, but as Vincent doesn’t seem too worried about what they represent why should we?) provide “air” between the denser, atmospheric prose that makes up most of the novel.

A cool breeze was blowing and I shivered in the shade of the cypress tree.  Graves seen in sunshine are never entirely melancholy.  There’s always a hint of life to distract the eye, a blade of grass glimmering, a carefree chaffinch pecking at the ground, a black beetle with heavy mandibles crawling over the gravel.  And when graves have no story to tell, we don’t linger over them.

All the writing, as translated by Adriana Hunter, is stylistically elegant.  As are the characters.  Vincent, in particular, is a flawed but sympathetic protagonist.  And Le Tellier’s plot nicely mirrors the tenets of the Oulipo movement.  Just like an Oulipian work is more than what is superficially apparent (though Eléctrico W still functions very nicely at that level if you aren’t interesting in delving into it) so is there more to the story of Antonio and Duck than meets the eye.  Early on Vincent tells us how at the end of their time together he looked at Antonio and “… no longer saw a thirty-year old man in flesh and blood sitting beside me on that seat with its cracked leather, but a character, a character from a book.”  He projects his own narrative onto these two people, much like Le Tellier has projected the structure of The Odyssey onto this book.  It complicates things, but not in a bad way.   It causes confusion and, at times, surprising reveals.  I wouldn’t call Vincent an unreliable narrator, just a misguided one.  And, to my mind, all the more interesting because of it.

Punlisher: Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 534 1

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* While writing this review I began to think that it’s not the plot of The Odyssey that Le Tellier is following, but the actual physical structure – words, lines, letters, phrasing.  This is purely guesswork on my part, though. I’ve found nothing to support it.

The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber (translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid)

June 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

 
 
 
 

 

- excerpt from the United Nations Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005).  Popularly known as “The Mehlis Report”.

Rabee Jaber’s gorgeously written and brilliantly conceived novel – let’s establish that right out of the gate – is set in the days leading up to the release of UN Security Council Resolution 1595:  The Mehlis Report.  And while it isn’t necessary to know the history to enjoy the book (I learned most of of the information included in this review only after I’d finished reading) knowing a little bit about Lebanon and the events leading into to the story is helpful.

With that in mind:  Lebanon, like Belgium, might be considered a victim of its geography.  Both Syria and Israel loom at its borders.  The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the details of which I’m not going into, resulted in internationally sanctioned invasions and occupations of Lebanon by both these neighbors.  Israel sent troops into Southern Lebanon in 1982, where they remained for almost two decades.  Syrian forces invaded even earlier, in 1976, eventually occupying two-thirds of the country.  It was Former Prime Minister Harriri’s assassination, spawning peaceful protests known in the West as the Cedar Revolution and Intifadat-al-Istiqlal in Lebanon, which precipitated Syria’s withdrawal in 2006.  Thus ending almost 30 years of continuous foreign occupation.

Jaber’s The Mehlis Report takes place in 2006 after the protests have begun and a few weeks prior to the release of the UN report investigating Harriri’s death.  Tensions in Beirut are high.  Everyone is talking about and speculating on what Mehlis’ (the German Special Investigator appointed by the UN) Report will reveal.  A middle-aged architect named Saman Yarid is no less effected than those around him.  We are privy to conversations between Saman and his two sisters (one now living in Baltimore and the other in Paris).  It is a close family.  The sisters worry about his safety. They feel it is time that he, too , leave Lebanon.  He knows they are probably right… and yet he stays.  And takes long walks saturated with memories of war, family and the changing landscape of Beirut.

Saman’s Beirut is a place laden with portent.  He comes from a family of architects, his father and his grandfather founded the firm in which he works, and so he has an intimate knowledge of every square foot of the city.  He’s constantly comparing the new buildings and construction to what he remembers from his childhood or to the time before the war.

He passes the BLOM bank and the new sidewalk behind the buildings on Maarad Street that descends to the Place de l’Étoile.  There aren’t many customers on this side of the street either.  Spotlights light up Roman columns underneath the street.  Crowns of sculptured marble.  Thresholds.  Grass sprouting among the stones.  He’s seen the plans for this park.  And the long winding path among the ruins.  When will this park be completed?  The view will be different on this side once the park’s finished.  The fish market was here before the war, behind the Banca di Roma.  He used to come here with his father.  The bank has since moved to Al-Omari Mosque Street.  Its building collapsed during the war.  Or rather, half collapsed, and the Solidere bulldozers removed the other half.  These columns were discovered beneath the debris, after the rubble was dug up and dumped into the sea.  The plan had been to put up some buildings here.  The Roman columns changed that plan.  Saman has the very first map of the ruins in his office.  And he has the amended maps as well…

The Mehlis Report is a ghost story in more ways than one.

There was a third Yarid sister, Josephine, who was the victim of a brutal kidnapping 22 years ago.  During the war.  She provides a second, stranger, layer of narrative – speaking to us from a kind of limbo.  She resides in an underworld that is also Beirut, but different.  This shadow city is inhabited by ghosts who remain connected to their former lives through books, a compulsive need to write (a self-reference by Jaber?) and continuous observation of those still living.  Whereas Saman’s story is told in the third person, Josephine narrates in the first.  This lends an intensity and desperation to her part of the story that is incredibly disturbing.  Like in the following excerpt where she attempts to contact her brother.  She calls him on his cell phone.  Though he receives the calls, he doesn’t recognize the number and doesn’t pick up.  She keeps calling, but when he eventually answers he’s unable to hear her voice.

I see you all by yourself, Saman.  You want to know what binds you to this city, but you don’t know.  It’s like your guts are tied to Beirut’s, and you don’t know why.  You go your way while your eyes drink in the buildings and the streets, the city’s hidden nooks.  Wrought iron doors.  Polished walls. How many cities are hidden in the belly of this one city?  At rare times, you see all of those cities together.  At night, when you push the window open, outwards, and hear the wooden shutters bang against the wall and then retreat into the darkness, your heart jumps.  It doesn’t jump because of the sound of wood striking wood:  you’re not scared of that noise.  You’re not scared it will wake up the naked woman under the sheets.  Like you, she drank a lot before going to sleep.  You can tell she’s sound asleep from her breathing.  Even if they started shelling the city right now, she still wouldn’t open her eyes.  “And if it weren’t for my headache, I wouldn’t have woken up.”

Josephine is as chained to the city as her brother.  She refuses let go of her ties to the living world.  She is haunted by her former life, just as those left alive are haunted by their memories of the dead.  And so we are given two evocative descriptions of Beirut, one from above and the other from below.  This inability to release, to let go, is the source of the tension in The Mehlis Report.

The writing, as already mentioned, is gorgeous.  Rabee Jaber uses a shadow world of ghosts and memory to explain a place he obviously feels very strongly about.   And Kareem James Abu-Zeid deserves praise for his stunning translation of a novel that depends as heavily on capturing “atmosphere” as it does prose.  Moving with Saman Yarid through the streets of Beirut it’s hard not to believe you’re experiencing the sites, smells and tangibles first hand.  In Josephine’s voice Jaber describes the same city’s soul. The cumulative effect of both narratives is an incredibly poignant expression of love for this war torn, shifting city that is perpetually rising from its own ashes.

Rabee Jaber is the youngest author to win the International Arabic Fiction Prize, which he was awarded in 2012.

Publisher:  New Directions, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 2064 4

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