The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, tr. Adriana Hunter

July 11, 2015 § 5 Comments

Title:  The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author:  Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator:  Adriana Hunter
Publisher:  Other Press
ISBN:  978 159051707 9

The Travels of Daniel AscherThe Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer.  According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies.  The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words:  the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.

Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris.  He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène.  Her relationship to Daniel is complicated.  Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish.    Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her.  At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels.  And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.

Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her  own devices.

That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background  of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.

Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel.  The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish.  A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable.  Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted.  Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history.  With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin.  Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning.  This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.

As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous.  My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.

The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition.  Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting.  Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher.  Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”.  Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.

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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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The Colonel: A Novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale)

June 1, 2012 § 5 Comments

A basic grasp of 20th Century Iranian history is advisable if you plan to read Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel, published in English last month by Melville House Books.  Readers might be able to get by on the information provided by the publisher in footnotes and a glossary, but a little time spent on Wikipedia can’t hurt.  (I also recommend Lisa Hill’s excellent review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog).  The Colonel is both a political novel and a family drama – knowledge of the former is essential in understanding the latter.  To complicate matters further: it also functions as a Persian fable.

Two colonels are referenced in the title.  The first, “the colonel” (always in lowercase letters), is the novel’s protagonist and one of its two narrators.  He served in the military under the Shah.  After Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ousted the colonel was arrested and sent to prison. (I’m fuzzy as to whether this was because of his politics or because he killed his wife in a drunken rage).  He has five children.  The eldest son, Amir, witnessed his mother’s murder.

Amir is the novel’s second narrator.  His life, in many ways, mirrors that of his father’s.  Both men have troubled pasts.  Both men supported different, fallen regimes (Amir supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh who deposed, and was later deposed by, the Shah); both were imprisoned and tortured; both men played a part in their wives’ deaths. Their combined actions and choices – particularly their political choices – have led to the destruction of their family, contributing to the deaths of Amir’s two brothers and youngest sister.  A second sister is married to a brutal opportunist who holds both his wife and her family in contempt.   At the point where the story begins Amir and his married sister are the only children of the colonel still alive.  We meet the other three in flashbacks.  We learn the details of their deaths and, as the story unfolds, understand that they were sacrificed.

The catalyst which sets the story into motion is a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  The colonel is summoned to collect the body of his fourteen year old daughter, Parvaneh, from the police station.  She died in custody and he must bury her before dawn in an unmarked grave.  Two soldiers accompany him to assist with the burial, which turns into something of a farce… almost a comedy of errors (except it’s not funny).  There is no women to bathe the body, they have no shovels to dig the grave, the rain never stops, the ghost of the colonel’s dead wife makes a tragic appearance… as does the ghost of the second Colonel.

The second colonel of the title – The Colonel (always capitalized) is a historical figure.  The details of his life would be familiar to most Iranian school children.  Footnotes and the book’s glossary provide some detail.  To my mind, his importance is more as a symbol and less as a man.  The colonel keeps his picture in a place of prominence in his home.  As he loses each of his children he places their photographs in the frame at The Colonel’s feet.

Dowlatabadi moves back and forth between the colonel and Amir to tell the story.   The Colonel is non-linear, filled with flashbacks, memories and hallucinations – making the timeline of events sometimes difficult to follow.  I initially believed this was done on purpose to reflect the states of minds of the two narrators.  To demonstrate how their individual psyches and family are deteriorating apace with the nation.  But if Dowlatabadi meant for this novel to be taken as a fable then it’s possible that what I identified as hallucinations were meant to be visions or, even, actual occurrences.   This is just one instance among many where I fell short as a reader.  (Another being my failed attempts to grasp the amazingly complex political and cultural traditions depicted in the book).

Iran seems to be a country where lines are constantly blurred – with so many regime changes and each member of the colonel’s family aligning themselves with a different political cause –  friends and enemies are difficult to keep track of.   It wasn’t entirely shocking when Amir welcomed his former torturer, a man named Khezr Javid, into his father’s home as a guest and hid him from the revolutionary mobs crowding the streets.  Or for that same torturer to reappear later on dressed as a Mulla, now serving in the new government.  After telling Amir how he also served the Shah at one time, he explains his situation  –

“Listen, boy.  Political police are like a religion.  Has anyone ever heard of a religion being overthrown?… A new gang may take over, but they don’t go and overthrow the very basis of the old régime.  I grant you that some of us were strung up by a few of your hot-headed brethren, but that’s not the end of the story.  Not by any means.  We’re the very foundation of everything, we are the underpinning of the state, my engineer friend!”

____________

I’ve read only one other Iranian author.  The difference between Shahriar Mandapour and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is palpable.  Both write about the political and social climate of Iran – but Censoring An Iranian Love Story is more indulgent in its tone.  Mandapour creates a metafiction narrative that acknowledges the reality of his main characters’ situations, but forces upon them unrealistically happy endings (while acknowledging the implausibility of these endings).  Whereas Dowlatabadi is the complete opposite. The Colonel has not been published in Iran due to censorship.  This poses a problem.   He is the quintessential Iranian author, as Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Dickens the British, even in his open criticism of the current government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  And so his novel is dependent on and assumes readers with a certain level of knowledge about his subject matter.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder, outside of Iran and it’s neighbors, how many people have that knowledge?  Dowlatabadi’s writing is more dramatic…grittier… then Mandapour.  His story takes place in damp basements, muddy streets, dark mortuaries and smokey, confined spaces.  He paints a dark and bitter picture of Iran and its politics – of a nation that sacrifices its young people.  While I don’t doubt the truth in what he says, is it an objective or a subjective truth?  Amir speaks of the events leading up to his sister’s, Parvaneh’s, death.

That was when people started talking: it was the duty of any respectable family to repudiate a girl like that and send her packing.  She was now mahdour ud-dam*, fair Islamic game.  It would be an honour killing.

A few pages later the colonel, that girl’s father, recalls speaking to a crowd at his matryed son’s funeral (the morning after burying Parvaneh in an un-marked grave).

…the memory of what he had said about Parvaneh over the unseen, echoing loudspeakers at Masoud’s funeral.  He could not believe that he would ever have been capable of uttering those words against a child who was not even fourteen, a girl to whom he was both a mother and a father.  Had it really been his own voice that had yelled:  ‘This girl is mahdour ud-dam… She must be killed.  She is impure, possessed by the devil and now lost to us all…’

Passages like these are incredibly disturbing to read.  Particularly for a reader without the experience to recognize concrete fact from what is being shaped by the author’s opinions and artistry.  Much like his character Amir,  Dolwatabadi’s writing portrays him as disenchanted with and disenfranchised from his homeland.  Reading these pages it’s difficult to find any redemption or hope for Iran.  I don’t dispute the book’s brilliance, even I recognize the genius behind it.  But for those readers (and I count myself among them) coming to these pages ignorant of the background material, The Colonel is an intense experience.

Note:  The Colonel was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is being whispered as a possible future Nobel Prize winner.

*deserving of death

Publisher:  Melville House, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 6121 9132 4

BookSexy’s Most Wanted: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

June 29, 2010 § 2 Comments

Netsuke from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Guardian Books Podcast likes to torment me with books I can’t have.  The June 24th episode has a fantastic interview with Edmund de Waal, a British potter whose  memoir follows the journey of a family heirloom – a Japanese Netsuke collection – through history.   In the process, he tells the stories of the members of the family who were in possession of the collection.  All were fascinating people in their own right.

The Guardian website has a review here.

The good news is:   no need to  send your money to Amazon UK (conversion rate is currently at $1.50 to 1 British Pound), The Hare with Amber Eyes is being released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S.  The bad news?  It doesn’t come out until the Fall.

O well, I hear patience is a virtue.

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