Unsheltered, I live in daylight- Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Unsheltered, examines in two parallel narratives what happens to people when their known securities, the fabric of their existence, their shelter, is threatened. In the case of Willa Knox, the irretrievable collapse of the house she’s recently moved to is just one of the unexpected calamities she has to face as a fifty odd year old woman who’s done all the right things in life. Thatcher Greenwood, the protagonist of the parallel 19th century story, is overwhelmed by the same crumbling house a century and a half before.  He’s also facing hostility from his community because of his progressive ideas on science and specifically Darwin. In a clever weave of their two narratives, Barbara Kingsolver examines the idea of shelter-as an essential human requirement, but also as something that can hold us back, that can prevent us going outside, beyond the shelter to see the light.

The novel opens with Willa Knox, recently moved to her aunt’s house in South Jersey, being told by a surveyor that their collapsing house is beyond repair because of shortcuts taken in the construction, namely a lack of foundations. This is really bad news for Willa’s family : her husband, Iano, lost his tenured lectureship, at a university in Virginia and this house they’ve inherited is their only asset. They’ve moved there for its convenience to Iago’s new post- a one year contract at a Philadelphia university-and Willa, who’s recently gone freelance as a journalist, should be able to work from her office at home. Except she has barely any time to work at all, as they’re caring for Nick, Iano’s father, who is seriously ill and on oxygen at home, and, soon into the novel, for their baby grandson, Dusty, while his Dad, their son Zeke, is in Boston trying to make a living. As these problems and demands pile up on her, ceilings collapse in the house and rooms become unusable.Their financial situation becomes more and more dire, until the family become eligible for Medicare and at times there is little in the fridge to eat. Willa struggles to cope, becoming beset by anxiety and panic attacks, all the while aghast at how this could be happening to her and family, well educated and hard working as she and Iano have been all their lives, always doing the right thing.

The 19th century narrative has Thatcher Greenwood recently married and moving back to the house in Vineland, South Jersey, which had been built by his late father-in-law. He is aware that the house is in urgent need of repair and that it was shoddily built in the first place, but Thatcher is a science teacher and does not have the means to carry out repairs, so again his story is set against a background of a house collapsing around his ears, and his inability to provide shelter for his family. He has a post, for one year only, at the local school where he tries to teach science through investigation and observation, methods which the director, Cutler, finds suspect and even more so when he realises Thatcher is a follower of Darwin. He sets Thatcher up in a public debate of Darwinian v Creationist ideas, with the intention of humiliating him publicly and specifically in front of the school’s benefactor, Landis. Landis master minded and built the Vineland community including the school and is revered by the community for his philanthropy.In fact, he is a powerful wheeler dealer who controls all business and local politics and will brook no criticism.Thatcher endures the challenges he faces thanks to his growing friendship with his next door neighbour, Mary Treat. She is a biologist with similar progressive ideas to his own and corresponds with Darwin and other scientists of the day. (In the Acknowledgements we learn that there was a real Mary Treat, a 19th century female biologist whose life and contribution has been sadly neglected.)

The two narratives progress in alternate chapters, linked together by the last phrase of each chapter becoming the title of the next. There are similarities in the lives of both protagonists: obviously the crumbling house and their financial precariousness. But they are also both on the cusp of an era of new thinking, of new ideas. Just as Darwinism fundamentally shakes the prevalent 19th century world view, so we see in Willa’s story a way of life, capitalism, which is bankrupt. Not only do we see the effects of ruthless economic policies on the working lives of every generation of her family, we see in the abandoned farmsteads of the South Jersey landscape the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and the indifference of governments to climate change. The new way of thinking, a new approach, is embodied in the character of Tig, Willa’s daughter, who has long rejected her parents’ striving to do the right thing and instead travelled, worked and lived in alternative communities and ends up, with her boyfriend Jorge, being a compassionate and non judgemental carer for both her grandfather and her nephew, baby Dusty.

Now, if it sounds like there’s an awful lot of ideas in this book of only 464 pages, that’s because there are. I felt at times that the historical section suffered slightly through this in that the female characters, apart from Mary Treat, are not developed as much as they could be. But in my view this is more than made up for by the brilliant characterisation in the contemporary section, particularly the wonderfully sympathetic character of Willa, with whom many middle aged women readers will identify. There is her obvious struggle with the demands of three generations of her family, but Kingsolver also adds more subtle touches, such as her quiet grief for her mother, recently passed, an anchor and friend all her life, and Willa’s love for wordplay and linguistic puns which add humour and levity to the narrative. Willa’s frustration and rage at her reactionary father-in-law is convincingly developed and her ­ changing relationships with her children told with sympathy and nuance.

And the ideas in the book are both far reaching and relevant for our time: it’s not just a question of the old order breaking down and the arrival of new ideas, but the way information is controlled and our readiness to listen and accept that we need to do something new. So in 19th century Vineland it is one man, Landis, whose newspaper and worldview dominates. The town cravenly see him as a philanthropist and benefactor and are unable to hear any criticism of his hegemony and sharp business practices. So if he and henchman Cutler see progressive scientific ideas as threatening, that becomes the view of the majority of people. In the contemporary story we hear the racist views of Nick, who refuses to engage with Willa’s alternative explanation for the diminishing power of white working class men in the workplace and, almost an aside towards the end of the book, the reactionary politician Bullhorn gaining a primary in New Hampshire, and suggesting to us through association the ushering in of the era of fake news.

So as well as a compelling narrative about the fragility of the structures we rely on and shelter in, the novel is also a plea for examining and questioning that shelter. The change in her circumstances leads Willa to face the way in which her generation has contributed to the present state of affairs, whereby, as Tig says, we’re overdrawn at the bank, at the level of our species. It’s asking us to stand in the clear light of day…unsheltered, like Mary Treat, so that we can see how we have bankrupted our planet and what we have to do to change.  As so often before, Barbara Kingsolver combines her considerable gifts as a storyteller with her observational scientific eye and knowledge to create a novel which pulls us along with its characters while urging us to see what needs fixing.


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The Cut Out Girl by Bart van Es

Bart van Es was aware that his Dutch grandparents had sheltered a Jewish girl during the second world war when the Netherlands was under German occupation. He also knew that the family had broken off contact with her a long time after the war, but didn’t know why this had happened. Late in 2014 he sets off for Amsterdam to meet with Lien, to see if she’ll talk to him about her life and the time she spent with the van Es family. Hesitant at first, she grows to like and trust Bart van Es during that first meeting and agrees to talk with him. Out of their meetings, many other interviews, and his own research, comes this heartrending account of Lien’s life, which won the Costa Biography Award 2018 and then the overall Costa Book of the Year Award. The book is not only a moving and very empathetic account of the experiences of a little Jewish girl, who left her parents at the age of 8 to spend the war fleeing from one family and hideout to the next. It’s also an account of the often shameful role played by Holland and the Dutch authorities during the occupation. And it’s an account as well of the process of investigation, of how the writer is affected by the investigation, made to reflect on his own family relationships, and the Netherlands of today.

At that first meeting, Lien shows the writer photographs, documents and her poesie album, a kind of scrapbook where friends would write little poems and stick in pictures cut out from magazines. These help Lien tell the story of her early life in The Hague, where she was brought up, the only child of her parents, Catherine and Charles, enjoying the company of aunts, uncles and cousins in the extended family which was Jewish, though not particularly observant. With the German invasion of 1940 came the same discriminatory measures against the Jewish community as elsewhere- exclusion from public life, separation of Jewish children into Jewish schools, the wearing of the yellow star. In the light of the growing threat, Lien’s parents gave her over to a resistance network which helped Jewish children escape arrest and deportation by hiding them with families willing to shelter them. In August 1942 she was brought by the indomitable Mrs. Heroma to the van Es family in Dordrecht.

Bart von Es excels at evoking the feelings of a small child plunged into a very different family life-the daunting mountain of potatoes, sprouts and meatballs served up at the first dinner, the no nonsense attitude of Auntie, who pours her medicine for a delicate digestion down the sink, the sound of the other children’s regular breathing as she shares a bedroom for the first time in her life, the hustle and bustle of a family with several children.  Yet she soon comes to enjoy the company of the other children, tadpoling with Kees, looking after little Marianne. On her birthday, 7th September 1942, she receives letters from her parents, sending her love and best wishes and asking how she is spending her birthday, hoping she is having special treats to eat. These testimonies to separation, suffused with loving care, are absolutely heart rending to read and provoke such homesickness and longing in little Lien that she then spends many days in uncontrollable weeping. Auntie, this warm, strong woman, tries to comfort her in her grief and ends up weeping with her too. And the family can guess at the fate of Lien’s parents when her letter in reply is returned to them unopened.

Sadly for Lien, the time with the van Es family is short lived: their home is raided and she is smuggled out just before to a series of homes and hiding places. In Ijsselmonde near Rotterdam she spends months in a hiding place with many strange adults, most of them men avoiding being sent to Germany as slave labour. As Lien tells Bart van Es, she copes with this by numbing her feelings, by not reacting, by being on a low heat. She ends up in Bennekom with the unsympathetic van Laar family who show her little love and use her as a cleaner. Worse is to come when the family have to evacuate Bennekom after the failed allied landings, leaving along a route edged with bomb craters, resistance fighters strung up in the trees and a dead horse, its body covered with fliesAt the end of the war, Mrs. Heroma appears to ask Lien where she would like to live. She asks to return to the van Es family. But things are not the same as before and the writer  teases out with skill and subtlety what had happened in the interim to both the family and to Lien to make her return and future there less secure, less comfortable.

Woven into Lien’s story is an account of the role played by the Dutch authorities and the Dutch population in rounding up the Jews. I was shocked to read that 80% of the Jewish population in the Netherlands were killed in the camps, more than double that of any other Western country, far higher than in Belgium, France, Italy or even Germany or Austria. I think the story of Anne Frank combined with a general idea of Holland being now a liberal and progressive country led me to buy into the myth of Dutch resistance. The writer does mention extraordinary acts of courage from individuals- for example the man who cut his finger off to get time off work to construct a hiding place for Jewish children in his home. But on the other hand 230 Dutch police officers were investigated after the war for their role in the Holocaust, including the notorious Harry Evers whose career is outlined in the book. And, shockingly, the Netherlands was the only country to operate a bounty system, whereby the price of seven guilders and fifty cents was placed on the head of every Jew.

I enjoyed the way Bart van Es puts himself and the process of writing the book into the picture. He too is shocked at the levels of antisemitism and collaboration he discovers during the occupation and regularly compares his findings to the Netherlands of today. On the one hand this is now a society with people from different ethnicities and faith groups: his cousin takes him to a club where young people of all nationalities are dancing and enjoying music together, the epitomy of successful multiculturalism. On the other hand Geert von Wilders’ right wing Freedom Party, advocating the banning of the Koran and the building of mosques, has recently gained 15% of the vote in National Elections. And, as he is writing and researching, the journalists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo are murdered in Paris, leaving us in no doubt about the extent of tension and conflict in Europe as a whole.

As moving as the war years, and what for me makes this book unique, is the account of Lien’s life and struggle to live after the war. There is firstly her return to the van Es family, which is less straightforward than she’d hoped. In describing her life with them, the writer explores her feelings of never being quite as loved and accepted as before and his grandmother’s role in this. But apart from that, Lien’s struggles with her own identity,as a woman, as a wife in her first marriage, are dogged by being unable to face up to the terrible loss in her life. It is through therapy, meditation and Buddhism that she is able to reach some peace, as well as through the nurturing relationships she finds in later life.

I found this a very moving book, not least because it tells the story of little Lien, separated from her parents at the age of 8, from the child’s point of view. (Ursula Krechel, in Landgericht, tells the story of Kindertransport children in England, but the most emotionally charged section in that book was for me the mother’s view, finding her children after 10 years’ separation). Bart van Es evokes Lien’s experiences and feelings with such sensitivity and empathy that I was reduced to tears at times- and at others outraged. And I was full of admiration at the honesty of his reflections about his own family relationships, which changed and evolved through writing this book. Thank you, Lien and Bart van Es for your story.

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Und jeden Morgen das Meer by Karl-Heinz Ott

A German friend told me about this book and I was interested in it because part of it takes place on the Welsh coast, which I’ve recently been exploring. The novel begins with the protagonist, Sonja, standing on a cliff top looking out to sea, hovering between the solidity of the green hills behind her and the wild waves crashing against the cliff face, threatening to sweep her out to sea and annihilation at any moment. This image of a woman literally on the edge recurs throughout the novel and reflects the position 62 year old Sonja finds herself in at the beginning of the novel. Her husband and business partner, Bruno, has died, the once smart hotel they ran on the Bodensee, The Lindenhof, has been taken over by her brother-in-law, Arno, to pay off debts, and with no family or place to go, she decides to follow a casual offer made by a Lindenhof guest, to take on a run down family hotel on the Welsh coast.

The novel then goes back and forth between her new life in Wales and scenes from her past life in Germany. Abandoned by her mother, she was brought up by her elderly grandmother in a rural backwater  until the age of 10 when gran could no longer look after her and she went to a boarding school run by nuns. Heartbreakingly, her beloved gran was too confused to visit her and when Sonja left, the bundle of letters she’d written to her was returned to her- the nuns had opened them prior to sending and considered them full of lies about her treatment at boarding school and so had never sent them. So Sonja is very much alone in the world until she meets Bruno at hotel management school in St. Moritz. This is no grand passion but a relationship which works for them both in the relentlessly hard hotel environment and they end up taking over Bruno’s family hotel together and making a real success of it, culminating in a Michelin star and visits by the great and the good of Switzerland and South Germany. However, it becomes harder and harder to maintain this position and the hotel starts to falter when the star is lost, Bruno loses his way and ends up drinking in the cellar. When he finally dies, in unspecified circumstances, the extent of the Lindenhof’s finanncial failure becomes clear and Sonja is forced to sign the hotel over to her sleazy brother in law, Arno.

So she’s a 62 year old woman who finds herself with nothing- no job, no home, no husband, no family. She swallows her pride and applies for other jobs in the area in the hotel business but gets nowhere. She then decides to follow the remark made by Mr. Pettibone and explore the option of that run down Welsh hotel and so finds herself in Abydyr, a small town in Wales, running the hotel and working in the bar at night. This is also not a bundle of laughs- there are few guests, the occasional back packers on their way down from North Wales, and a few locals in the bar at night whose main preoccupation seems to be the removal of a letter box. There is no real plot development beyond this: Sonja spends her time in between hotel duties walking on the cliff tops, looking out to sea aware of her own insignificance and mortality in the face of the hugeness and agelessness of the waves.

I found this a very sad and rather bleak novel: there was not much resolution and certainly no happy ending. The sections on the Bodensee hotel life were excellent, giving a real sense of the sheer hard work endured by people working in this sector and how this eats away at personal life and feelings, eroding the self until there is little left. I found the sections in Wales less convincing: couldn’t  we have had Welsh characters in that bar rather than Professor Todd? And I realise the book was written for a German, rather than British audience, but nevertheless felt the Welsh landscape could have been described in all its particularity, rather than in general terms of green fields and sheep. Still, the writer’s strength lies perhaps in evoking character and the awkward interactions between people rather than nature and this he does to great effect in the account of that hotel world at the Bodensee.

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The House with the Stained Glass Window- Zanna Sloniowska, translated from the Polish by Antonia LLoyd Jones

I can’t quite remember how I came across this novel, but was immediately keen to read it as it’s set in the city of Lviv in Ukraine, brought alive for me by Philippe Sand’s terrific book East West Street. This novel is the story of four generations of women living in the eponymous house with the stained glass window. Through their lives the city of Lviv and its complex history is explored: lying as it does just east of present day Poland, in the west of Ukraine, the city has been at the epicentre of tumultuous social and political upheaval during the twentieth century. These upheavals, the various ethnic identities and allegiances of its population, are presented to us through the characters but also through the architecture and monuments of the city, whose stars also rise and fall, giving us a rich and kaleidoscopic picture of Ukraine’s loveliest city ( Lonely Planet).

The novel is narrated by the youngest member of the family, whose name we’re never told (unless I missed it?). It begins in 1988 with the untimely death of her mother, Marianne, a much loved opera singer, who was shot by mistake at a political rally. The narrative then goes back and forth in time in an episodic, anecdotal way, to scenes from her earlier childhood with her mother to scenes from the lives of her grandmother and great grandmother and their routes to ending up in Lviv. Great- granma is a strict and unappealing character, a Catholic who married her Soviet officer husband in Leningrad in 1928 and came to Lviv with him and her daughter, Aba, after the war. By 1988 she’s a suspicious, paranoid old lady, who’s alienated her family sufficiently that they keep separate households. She forbids Aba from following her dream to be an artist. Aba becomes a doctor instead and soon after develops crippling rheumatoid arthritis which dogs her all her life. Added to this, she was not allowed to marry the Polish musician she’d fallen in love with and as the Polish border moved westwards after the war, so he left with it, moving to a place she couldn’t follow. Marianne is an established opera singer at the beginning of the book and an exciting and passionate character who’s recently got involved with Ukrainian nationalist politics. Her daughter is born as a result of a brief romantic encounter and though she has a liaison with the art historian Mykola, she’s not interested in settling down with him. So the youngest woman, the narrator, is brought up in a household of self sufficient and unconventional women where men have come and gone through their lives, but the enduring people, with whom she has the closest bonds, are women.

The scenes from the past are interspersed with the forward narrative: the narrator loses her mother on the cusp of adolescence and she becomes increasingly independent, spending more and more time with the art historian/ lecturer Mykola, who introduces her, and so the reader, to the iconic buildings, squares and monuments of the city. Their relationship eventually becomes sexual and, though their erotic and passionate encounters are well described and plausible, I wondered whether the author had intended us to feel uncomfortable about the age difference and power imbalance here? The narrative takes us through iconic public moments too, such as the toppling of the Statue of Lenin from its position in front of the Opera House in 1990, and the finding of the Jewish gravestones in its base- it was then removed to a builder’s yard, where its head was knocked off for ease of storage. The stained glass window of the title is an important physical symbol in the book too- a unique piece, stretching right through four floors as it does, it is also fragile and friable, at times breaking up and vulnerable to theft. The novel takes us right up to the Ukrainian protests of 2013/2014 in the last chapter The Maidan, where Marianne’s daughter, our narrator, is joining in the protests, recording the brutal behaviour of the security forces on her mobile phone.

For me one of the great pleasures of this book is Zanna Sloniowska’s vivid imagery, so well rendered by Antonia Lloyd Jones. I loved old Great-granma’s puckered legs, and Marianne’s dirty green dress which resembled the open belly of a gutted trout. This is no deoderised, sanitised and scented feminine world, but one of sweat and body odour: Marianne’s little girl loves to leap into her mother’s unmade bed in the morning with its whiff of unwashed body and describes her mother’s legs encased in the mesh of her black stockings, slightly damp with sweat, they were prickly with hairs long unshaven.

And she excels at set pieces: I loved the birthday party at Uncle Alexei’s with its Brezhnev era spread : eggs stuffed with mushrooms and mayonnaise, red and black caviar canapés, beetroot and prune salad, the Olivier salad mandatory at every Soviet feast. The narrator sneaks into her aunt and uncle’s bedroom to poke about  in their private sphere and discovers  a mighty double bed, with a sort of frilly drape- an ice breaker in lace.

But my favourite is the chapter called Akademitska where she describes going shopping with Aba. First to the Galanteria, or Accessories, shop where a crush and a clamour of portly ladies pushed towards the counter, unashamedly extracting their beige bosoms from their dresses to try on the bras. Then the Kovbasa or Sausage shop where the assistants were as inaccessible and implacable as queens; their ample figures were too big for their frilly aprons. Then the Tiutin or tobacco shop with its fabulous wall and ceiling paintings of Cossacks, half- recumbent in close ranks besides their horses, amid the fumes of their own pipes, their fine dark eyes were closed, the feet emerging from their dark-blue pantaloons were long, their nails clipped, and their wavy topknots grew into their horses’ curly manes. I loved the account of the unspoken queuing rules, the relations between customers and shop assistants, the range of characters observed. I loved the scent of the countryside brought by the Astrakhan sheepskins and woollen coats and the tradeswomen in the bazaar, standing on their makeshift platforms above heaps of potatoes and carrots, eggs and meat, shouting and gesticulating, unashamed of their fat, blackened fingers.

And here, as elsewhere, identity is inextricably linked to language. The country people speak Ukrainian, the townspeople Ukrainian and Russian. Marianne marks her commitment to the Ukrainian cause by choosing to speak Ukrainian instead of Russian. I was reminded of Natasha Wodin’s book Sie kam aus Mariupol where, at an earlier time,  the 1917 Russian revolution meant that the language of the people, Ukrainian, became the lingua franca overnight and university professors, eloquent speakers of Russian, had to interview candidates in Ukrainian. Yet decades later, in this book, when Ukraine nationalism becomes a threat, the Russian authorities attempt to reduce the influence of the language by banning it as a medium language in schools and attempting to eliminate ethnically Ukrainian words from the dictionaries.

The book ends on an ambiguous note.The stained glass window, its existence threatened when a developer wants to remove it next door, is saved by a promise from the Polish authorities in Warsaw to renovate both house and window. Yet the Ukrainian authorities are outraged at another country’s Ministry of Culture interfering with their affairs. And poor Aba, rejected and abandoned by the narrator as she grows up and away from her, turning her back on the family,  is a lonely figure indeed. But the very last chapter, The Maidan, has our young protagonist narrator participating in the most recent protests, very much her mother’s daughter, but also her own person, protesting in a new era where new media plays a crucial role in the protests.

In a concise 240 pages Zanna Sloniowska combines a compelling family story with the history of a city in the crossfire of 20th century conflict and political struggle. While describing the Russian, Polish and Ukrainian communities there is little reference to the large Jewish population who were killed during the Second World War- the reader will need to go to Philippe Sands’s book to find out more about the terrible fate of the Jewish community. Thanks to Antonia Lloyd Jones for bringing this to us in a wonderfully smooth and readable translation: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Die Hauptstadt- The Capital- by Robert Menasse.

A pig is sighted running amok through the streets of Brussels.  A shot goes off in the nearby Hotel Atlas. So begins die Hauptstadt, the brilliant novel by Robert Menasse, which won the German Book Prize in 2017 and will be published in February this year, 2019, in translation by Jamie Bulloch. Through a range of characters who find themselves in Brussels- some working for the European Commission, some there on other business, Menasse explores the idea of Europe with wit and humour, but with the dark shadow of Ausschwitz ever present in the background.

The pig is seen from a restaurant window by Fenia Xenopoulou, amongst others, while waiting for a lunch date. She is in charge of the Culture Directorate and has been tasked with organising a special event to mark the Jubilee Celebrations of the European Commission. She’s aware, as are others, that the popularity of the Commission is precarious, so they have to come up with something really special to maintain their reputation. Her colleague, Martin Süssman, travels to Ausschwitz shortly afterwards to take part in the annual ceremony to mark the liberation of the camp on January 27th. This gives him the idea of basing the Jubilee Celebrations on the theme of Nie wieder Ausschwitz! Ausschwitz- never again! in order to showcase the Commission’s efforts to  break down the sort of nationalism which led to fascism and, eventually, the murders of millions of Jews and others in the camps.

The shooting at the Hotel Atlas obviously commands the presence of the police and Kommissar Emile Brunhaut in particular. He is surprised to be told by his superiors shortly after he starts his investigation that no murder has taken place and to find that all record of the murder has been wiped from his computer. The grandson of Belgian Résistants, he’s not one to let go of a challenge, and with the help of his friend Philippe, he continues his private investigations into the murder and the cover up which take him into unexpected territory.

Now these are just two strands of the narrative and they interweave with others and the large cast of characters to show us the day to day workings of the European Commission. We see the formidable hierarchies as countries and personalities jostle and vie for jobs and the favoured Directorates: Fenia has been given the despised Culture brief because she’s Greek and they’re bottom of the pile after the Greek crisis, George Morland has it in for Mrs. Atkinson, whom he claims got the job over him because she’s a woman. Indeed much of their work and activity is satirised as being largely about justifying their present and future existence. There is much humour, too, in the account of the problems with European pork, including a detailed exposition of the issues around European and international trading, which provide instruction for all us British readers trying to understand European and international trade rules prior to Brexit.

One of the things I most enjoyed were the characters’ back stories, slipped in at appropriate moments to help us understand motivation and the force of history, yet also containing some fascinating detail.  I liked the story of Alois Erhart’s attempts to conform to the sporty expectations of his sport shop owning father and the strong local identity of the football teams in the suburbs of Vienna. I liked the account of Florian Süssman, that brashly successful pig farmer and lobbyist, as a boy reading a picture book with his younger bookish brother, Martin. However more brutal experiences emerge too: David de Vriend’s  escape from a train to Ausschwitz as a boy and the memory which haunts him, of his parents and brother staying on that train- he never saw them again. So for many of the characters, now in middle age, the war and post war experiences of their parents and grandparents forever marked them and inevitably shaped the vision of Europe which evolved in the post war period.

Still, the Europe of the novel is nothing if not contemporary. Martin’s flight to Krakow is held up by demonstrators at the airport protesting against the illegal deportation of a Chechen man to Russia. Every kind of tat can be found in the tourist shops of Krakow. Even Ausschwitz is now fitted out with a cafe and a drinks vending machine. And, as the narrative progresses into spring, the temperature warms up unseasonably, reminding us of further global challenges.

Yet perhaps the most chilling contemporary note is the creeping threat of nationalism. At the beginning of the book the trade wars around pork pit national economic interests against those of the European Union in a way not unfamiliar to anyone conversant with business and the economy over the last few decades. Yet the aggressive nationalism and anti- European feelings expressed by Bohumil’s Czech brother- in- law, and his family’s acceptance of those views, seem new. Or are they perhaps a reawakening of an earlier nationalism and fascism which was not dealt with robustly enough in the post war period? Kassándra, in her search for a list of Ausschwitz survivors, comes across the Museum at Dossin- Kaserne, which was once a transit camp in Belgium for prisoners then deported on to Ausschwitz. The museum curator sits at a desk once owned by Eggert Reeder, the head of military administration under the Nazi Occupation. He signed the deportation lists for 30,000 Jews, for which he was condemned to 12 years in prison. However according to Menasse, he was pardoned by Adenauer and got a civil service pension from the BRD! I’m reminded of those former Nazi judges in Ursula Krechel’s Landgericht, who were back in the judicial saddle after only very short periods and minimal sanctions.

The visit to the Dossin- Kaserne is only a brief episode in a very big and complex book. Though there are sections of personal history, witty dialogue and repartee, there are also long discursive sections on abstract philosophical ideas, the Catholic church, and EU customs and regulations, so the pace varies considerably. Sometimes I found the ideas hard going and a list of dramatis personae at the front of the book would have been helpful. But the plot and structure are brilliantly handled so that the ending is a shock and had me looking back to the beginning for clues.

The novel flags up the precariousness of the European Commission and the fragility of the broader idea of European consensus and cooperation it represents when a nastier sort of nationalism is growling in the wings. Yet through its characterisation it communicates this bleak message with humour and humanity.  It is such a gift to be given this situation from a European standpoint in the midst of the UK’s spectacularly messed up attempts to leave the EU and the inevitable one sided view of Europe this has entailed. Thanks to Robert Menasse for this masterful and thought provoking novel and to Jamie Bulloch for his eagerly awaited translation.


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The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran translated by Sophie Hughes

This superb novel, skilfully translated by Sophie Hughes, tells the story of three young people whose lives have been shaped by their parents’ political activism during the Pinochet era in Chile. Narrated alternately by Iquela and Felipe, the action starts when Paloma returns to Chile from Berlin with the body of her mother, Ingrid, to bury her in Santiago. Due to the ash cloud which had just descended on Chile ( from the Calbuco volcano? ), the plane carrying her mother’s body has been diverted to Mendoza in Argentina. They decide the only way to repatriate Ingrid is to set off themselves over the Cordillera into Argentina to recover the body and there follows a crazy road trip in a hearse called The General, involving some hallucinogenic experiences and a measure of macabre humour.

The narratives of both Iquela and Felipe are interwoven with flashbacks and memories of their parents and their upbringing which go some way to explaining their present situations. In fact the novel really starts with a party at Iquela’s house on 5th October 1988, ( a historic moment in Chile when 56% of the population voted in a referendum against Pinochet’s attempt to prolong his power ), where there is some argument between the fathers of Iquela and Paloma. The scene is described from the point of view of a child, and consequently hazy, and subsequent recollections of both Iquela and Felipe are similarly snatched memories which the reader tries to make sense of to understand the main characters. What becomes clear is that Felipe was orphaned and brought up partly by his grandmother outside Santiago, in Chinquihue, and then by Consuelo, Iquela’s mother, in Santiago. Iquela’s father has also died and she lives in Santiago, separately from her mother, but in an intensely dependent relationship with her.

The macabre tone of the novel is underpinned by Felipe’s obsessional drive to count down the bodies he comes across all over Santiago.  He finds them on street corners, in squares, on park benches and is trying to square the number of dead and the number of graves, saying How will I work out how many are born and how many remain? How can I reconcile the death toll with the actual sum of the dead? His sense of urgency is conveyed brilliantly in stream of consciousness style, excellently rendered in translation, so that we just go along with him, not worrying too much whether this is magical realism or psychosis, though the recollections of his behaviour as a child increasingly suggest a manic, if not disturbed personality.

Iquela’s narrative is more down to earth, more grounded in reality, though she too has problems beyond her relationship with her mother. We learn that she self harmed as a child with her only friend as a way of feeling something, of escaping numbness after her father’s death from cancer. We see Paloma through her eyes- the older girl at the party in 1988 who stole her mother’s cigarettes and pills, now returning to bury her mother. The novel’s engagement with language is partly explored through Iquela’s frequent comments on Paloma’s Spanish, her floppy R’s, her guttural voice, her inability to use euphemisms in Spanish.  I was intrigued by both Iquela and Felipe’s concerns to emphasise Paloma’s difference from them – he refers to her as the German and they both laugh at her peninsular Spanish. ( The contrast between Chilean and Peninsular Spanish cleverly rendered by the translator as a contrast between American and British English).

The preoccupation with language in the novel extends to linguistic jokes on multiple meanings and associations-of words like asylum, key, remains and remainders, potions and poisons. There are recurrent motifs-of birds, bones and plants. The theme of choking  is visited in several forms- the pronunciation of Paloma’s S’s, Iquela’s feeling of words getting stuck in her throat, even the thin air of the high Andes at Los Penitentes producing the sensation of being unable to breathe. And throughout the novel references to the sticky heat of Santiago and the layer of ash contribute to the feeling of oppression and suffocation.

As I’m writing this I’m aware that it all sounds fairly bleak. But that’s not the whole picture. Along with the macabre there is a youthful crazy energy as the threesome head off in the hearse, get drunk, have sex and take drugs. Still, they are damaged by the experiences of their upbringing and the legacy of their parents’ political activism and what I enjoyed is the writer’s skill in bringing this psychological damage out through language. From the riff on the mutations of the word remainder to Felipe’s final flight of fancy we’re given a window onto the protagonists’ state of mind- and thanks to Sophie Hughes’s brilliant translation and the publishers And Other Stories this is available to us now in English.

Posted in Books in Spanish, Books in Translation, Books set in South America, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Bis ans Ende, Marie by Barbara Rieger-the story of a friendship.

I first heard about this debut novel by the Austrian writer Barbara Rieger on the Büchermarkt podcast. I was intrigued by the account of a book about a female friendship with an unequal balance of power, having recently read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and, for the first time, Country Girls by Edna O’ Brien, both of which feature power at play in relations between friends.

This story is narrated in the first person by the young female protagonist-whose name we never know-a psychology student in Vienna, who meets Marie working in a bar. Immediately attracted to Marie’s blonde good looks and easy confident manner, she falls in with her and her crowd and follows them through the bars, clubs and music venues of the city, getting drunk and stoned with them and observing Marie’s frequent and casual sexual encounters.

The protagonist herself comes from a different milieu. We piece together, through a text which is episodic and fragmentary at times, that her parents are doctors, that she gave up her medical studies because she couldn’t stand the sight of blood and at the same time abandoned her former boyfriend, Alexander, also a medical student. Barbara Rieger deftly depicts the stiff formality of this milieu via a couple of family events and leaves us in no doubt about her parents’ lack of warmth and the crushing weight of family expectations.

The protagonist is therefore in a very vulnerable place when she meets Marie, and her fragility is highlighted by the content of some of her psychology lectures which are quoted in the text. As the story goes on it seems to illustrate some of these ideas: that of the halo effect as exemplified by her adulation of Marie in the beginning at least and then of the split personality. These parallels intensify as the story goes on and there are passages where we are unsure whether a dream or a fantasy is being described- or is the protagonist suffering from hallucinations?

Now there is not a whole lot of plot development in the novel and I was relieved when the action moved away from the partying and hangovers in Vienna. Marie invites the protagonist to visit her at her family’s home in the beautiful mountainous Salzkammergut region and we then see Marie’s hedonism in another context as she effortlessly strides up the mountain and eats her mother’s Schnitzel with gusto-there’s quite a lot of Marie enjoying her food, while the narrator picks at the occasional salad. And there’s also a holiday in the summer with others in the clique visiting both Vienna and Croatia, drinking and sun worshipping, tipping into a very tense and scary scene leaping from rocks into the sea below.

One aspect of Marie’s nastiness is her mocking of the protagonist for her more cautious approach to sexual encounters, in particular her liking for fellow student Dominic and her difficulty in plucking up the courage to do anything about it. Her power games really intensify over this relationship to the point where I wanted to shriek NO! when Marie eventually moves in to the narrator’s flat. At the same time the narrator’s mental fragility is becoming more evident with more frequent dreams and fantasies, and remarks from others, from friends and a lecturer, noticing she’s unwell, asking how she is.

Barbara Rieger’s use of language underpins the novel. On the one hand the short sentences and brief snatched dialogue illustrate the pace of life of these young people. The recurrence of leitmotifs like the blood and strands of long blond hair reflect the narrator’s obsessions. There are scenes of couples and threesomes dancing and having sex where switching pronouns seem to show a dissolving of personal boundaries and the word  penetration is used both in its sexual sense, but also to suggest Marie invading and taking over the narrator’s self, her very inner being.

So on the one hand I feel this is a novel for young people. There’s a lot of drinking, sex and straight talking about sex from Marie which probably resonates more with a young readership. Throughout the book the characters hum and sing song lyrics-Barbara Rieger said in an interview that the lyrics were carefully selected to suit the characters and has given us a list at the back of the book. But I think the novel can also be read as a young woman’s search for identity on the cusp of adulthood, when leaving the parental home- a time of life which can be tricky for many young people to navigate. The scene which really illustrates that for me is when she’s trying to select which underwear to put on, thinking of the pink set she wore as a child, the white set Alexander liked her in and then the black bra and knickers preferred by Marie. How can she find her own self while others project their own wishes and demands onto her? This is the less strident, more subtle subtext I’ll take away from reading the novel, while admiring Barbara Rieger for creating a fluid and multilayered work.

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