Thus Bad Begins-Javier Marias

This most recent novel by Javier Marías is set around 1980, four or five years after the death of Franco. Taking this period, la transición, as one of its themes, it depicts a nation coming up for air after nearly 40 years of oppression. The novel explores the implications of confronting individual behaviour during the Civil War through a story about unearthing family secrets, and with this touches some profound questions about how we deal with the past and move on from it.

The story is narrated by  Juan de Vere, a young graduate who has come to work as a secretary/ assistant to the film director Eduardo Muriel. Based in his home, de Vere is well positioned to observe Muriel’s family life and it’s clear that Muriel’s marriage has broken down. He is verbally abusive, scornful and cruel towards his wife, Beatriz, and while eavesdropping de Vere gleans that his hatred was triggered by some event in the past. At the same time, Muriel tasks de Vere with following a friend of his, Van Vechten, asking him to report back on his attitudes and behaviour. Muriel has learned something about Van Vechten’s past concerning his treatment of a woman which has shocked him and wants to see if any of it could be true.

So our narrator sets off to entrap the 60 year old Van Vechten by befriending him and inviting him out night after night to dance and party with his young friends- and there was some frenetic partying going on in the clubs and bars of Madrid at that time, with the lid lifted from the repressive facist regime. Our suspicions about Van Vechten grow as he shows an excessive interest in Juan’s sexual exploits and sleazy behaviour around Juan’s young female friends. They go through the roof when he admits to excitement when a woman is cooerced and we are imagining some truly horrific behaviour in his past.

Now, Juan’s role slides interestingly between that of narrator, spy and voyeur: at times he chooses to follow Beatriz and is excited to find her, improbably, having sex at a window. Another facet of his gaze is that of film maker and cameraman. The world of film is a theme of the novel and several scenes are depicted as if a film still, or even, as with Beatriz as part fantasy. But the narrative perspective of Juan is often a highly sexualised one: there are several long intense scenes of watching Beatriz in her diaphanous nightie as well as the skirts of most female characters riding up over their thighs, which frankly bored me and surely must be written for male titillation. Marías may have been deliberately overdoing the male gaze to underline the sexual prowess of young men- also a theme- but these were times when I felt like throwing the book across the room.

And the voyeurism/ spying trope is just one of several favourites of Marías revisited here. As in A Heart so White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the plot involves reaching back into the past, long intense conversations between two people in claustrophobic interiors, with another character eavesdropping. He delights again in word play, returning again and again to examining the Shakespearean quote of the title, (here, thus bad begins and worse remains behind from Hamlet). There is a wonderful pleasure in the playfulness and infinite creativity of language in the florid character of Professor Rico who invents his own onomatopoaeic exclamations and idioms as well as in the writer’s choice of the names de Vere and Van Vechten and the multiple associations they provoke- the English de Vere who some allege was behind Shakespeare’s plays, the origins in the Netherlands of the name Van Vechten, and Spain’s imperial past. Words, meanings and associations ricochet back and forth in some sections, adding to the rich and ambiguous texture of the narrative.

It is not only the manic partying which gives the book its historical context. Early on in the book we learn in a discussion between Beatriz and her women friends that divorce is not yet legal in Spain and that both women and men throughout the land are stuck in loveless marriages as a result- unthinkable to us now. We are also told early on that at that time- just 4 or 5 years after the collapse of the regime- there was a quiet agreement not to delve into the past activities of individuals either during the Civil War or later during Franco’s rule. This was a condition on the part of the ‘Nationalists’ for granting a democracy-that there should be no calling to account- and this didn’t only mean no court cases but no discussions in private either. As the plot develops, the past unravels and we are asked to consider the implications of this silence for Spain and its people.

I very much enjoyed the evocation of this period and the length and scope of this long novel allowed it to drip through the pages and get under your skin. That this is a masculine novel can be seen by the overlong erotic gaze and the fact that there is only one female character, Beatriz, whose voice we rarely hear. This is important because it means I would recommend this book to women friends who are interested in Spain, but not necessarily to others, who may become as impatient with the male gaze as I did. Still, and to my surprise, my attention was drawn back to the plot and I was riveted in the last 50 pages when we finally find out what happened between Beatriz and Eduardo- a story as human and moving as it was unexpected.

And what is also well done and similarly dripped through the book is the awareness of time and generational difference. Our young narrator has a male erotic gaze but the suggestion is that relationships between young people in the Spain of 1980 are different and more equal than before. When it comes to confronting a nation’s past and individual misdeeds within that past it is suggested that time, the demise of the protagonists and the appearance of a new generation will inevitably lead to those deeds sliding into oblivion. The novel concludes with a brief fast forward to the future relationship between de Vere and the Muriel family, which for all its brevity, left me with a feeling of optimism- that the younger generation will manage things better than their parents. We should look to them.

 

 

 

 

 

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A man who falls – Ein Mann, der faellt- by Ulrike Edschmid

ThiImage result for A man who falls + Suhrkamps is the story of a man who falls from a ladder while decorating his flat and suffers life changing injuries. At first diagnosed as paraplegic by the doctors, he regains some feeling and movement but is permanently disabled. Related by his female partner, it is the story of how they learn to live with and come to terms with his disability. It is also a story about Berlin. It is the summer of 1986 and the couple are renovating a flat in Charlottenburg, in the former West. The narrator observes a range of colourful and often eccentric characters moving in and out of the Wohnhaus. Beyond their own lives, the couple live through the dramatic changes to the fabric and population of Berlin when the wall comes down in 1989 – fascinating reading for people who knew that city before and after 1989.

The narrator is away in Frankfurt when the accident occurs. She finds him in the clinic, completely paralysed, catheterised, his face stitched after being gashed by his workman’s trowel. After a few days he is transferred to a specialised clinic for paraplegics in Zehlendorf, a residential suburb in south west Berlin. A sort of parallel narrative then emerges, one strand detailing the narrator’s afternoon visits to her partner and the second outlining her focused organisation of workmen, planning and purchasing materials for the continuation of the flat renovations. There is barely a shred of anguish, self pity or even shock on the narrator’s part, which would after all be quite understandable in response to this catastrophic event. It’s as if this energy for the renovations is a kind of reaction- as if by ordering and organising she is taking a stand against life’s unpredictable disasters. It is when she moves his possessions into their flat- his cycle, his running shoes- that she thinks about the man he was and the life they had together, aware this is now in a past they can never return to.

The man improves in tiny, incremental steps. He is very gradually raised in the bed to a sitting position and eventually transferred to a wheelchair. The narrator’s attention to detail in recounting his progress leaves us in no doubt as to the huge effort and indescribable pain he goes through. But there is also a question of identity. The man refuses to accept the doctor’s dictum that he will be a wheelchair user. They both loathe the shapeless tracksuits the patients wear and one day the narrator brings in her partner’s linen suit for him to wear. There is a wonderful triumphant moment when she finds him waiting for her at visiting time, wearing his grey linen suit and smart town shoes, one leg casually slung over the other. Yet she knows what it cost him to arrange his legs in such a position.

Eventually towards the autumn the man leaves the clinic and moves into the now renovated flat. He is using crutches and a stick and his walking is very tentative and unsteady. The narrator describes the difficulty he experiences with getting up and down the stairs to their second floor flat when neighbours forget to close the lift doors, the difficulty he has sleeping at night with the rowdy Spanish restaurant below, the problems when pavements ice over. Yet it is also an account of the practical steps they both take to adapt to and come to terms with the new reality. This includes an eventual return to work for him. He works for a firm of architects concerned with renovation and restoration and when the wall falls in 1989 the firm expands into East Berlin. Though no longer able to work on site, he is able to meet clients and agree plans. There is an evocative account of him taking a slow walk through the buildings, barracks and storerooms used by the former border guards, now abandoned symbols of an abandoned regime.

The narrative describing how they both adapt to these changes is interleaved with glances to the past, sometimes a snatched memory- of cycling, walking, dancing the tango- activities they will not share again. Sometimes the memories are more focused on him, the man he once was. He was a talented and innovative photographer: at one of their first meetings he viewed and photographed her textile work. Together, they broached the barbed wire fencing round the bombed out Belvedere temple in Sans Souci Park- to drape it in her hangings for him to photograph. At the end of this account, she states simply that, no longer quick or steady on his feet, he’s had to give up photography.

The narrator is a visual artist too, a seamstress, and it is her visual eye which brings to life not only scenes from their personal lives, but also vignettes of Berlin. One of their favourite walks was along the river Havel, from where they could see the Kirche von Sacrow, in Potsdam, which at that time lay in the former East Germany and therefore out of reach for them in West Berlin.  (I was so fascinated by her description of this Romanesque church with the blue tiles which I didn’t know that I found its website and have pasted in the photo! ) She evokes a more recent side of Berlin in her account of attending an opening visit of the new Jewish Museum in 2001. He cannot walk fast enough to keep up with the group, and as they get left further and further behind the deliberately disorientating architecture of the building brings them to a state of near panic.

The writer enjoys too describing the cast of eccentric characters who pass through their lives, often finding a temporary haven in the melting pot of the Weltstadt Berlin. In the 80s their neighbours include a Korean church, a purveyor of S and M equipment, a trans woman. Down at street level the Spanish restaurant is noisily in business all night long. With the fall of the wall, property speculators take the building over, Eastern European voices are heard on the street and cars with Polish number plates queue up to buy video recorders en masse from a shop opposite, sprung up overnight. After 9/11, the Iranian women’s Resistance movement moves in, the women in headscarves working tirelessly all night for their comrades in Iran. And then there is René, from Switzerland, now landed in Berlin, with an unprobed but possibly murky past behind him, who comes to help them, a former butler, now sort of factotum who after a while just disappears from their lives without a trace.

As with Ulrike Edschmid’s two other novels, Die Liebhaber meiner Mutter and Das Verschwinden des Philip S. one suspects a strong autobiographical element here and this is confirmed in Peter Henning’s review in Spiegel Online. He also explains that Ulrike Edschmid herself fell ill and struggled to finish the book. But she did finish it and has written a detailed and moving account of this life changing accident and the struggle to come to terms with the new reality. It is the simplicity and succinctness of her writing and her visual sensibility rendering the past so vivid which brings home to us the finality of this loss, this change. This will be a moving read for anyone wishing to understand how people live after such an event, and of course offers a fascinating account of Berlin, before and after the fall of the Wall. Let’s have it translated into English soon please!

 

 

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A Whole Life- Ein Ganzes Leben, by Robert Seethaler translated by Charlotte Collins

This slim novella chronicles the life of Andreas Egger, a simple Austrian living in a mountain village, and spans the 20th century with its social changes and upheavals. The novel combines beautifully lyrical descriptions of mountainous landscapes and snow with a frank and unsentimental account of the rural community in which he lives. Starting with his arrival in the village as a little orphaned boy in 1902, the narrative takes us through to his old age at the end of the century and shows both change and continuity in this main character and his village.

A great story teller, the writer draws us in from the start in the opening scene, where the adult Andreas finds the goatherd Horned Hannes emaciated and near to death in his hut above the village in the deep February snow. He places him carefully in a wooden frame which he straps to his back to bring him down the treacherous mountain path to the village, Hannes protesting and warning of the proximity of Death , the Cold Lady. The narrative then goes back to Andreas’ childhood. Taken in by his uncle, he is not accepted by the other children and this, combined with a broken leg and consequent permanent limp after a beating, means he remains a friendless outsider within the family and in the village.  Nevertheless he finds work on the new cable car construction, finds a woman he loves and makes a living in the village until he goes off to fight on the Russian front. He returns years later in the early 50s to a community now living increasingly from tourism and he becomes a mountain guide for several years. The social developments of the 50s and 60s, like television and the moon landings are related and then Andreas’ decline into old age.

Now it is quite a tall order to describe a Whole Life in a novella sized book. One way the writer achieves this is by his vivid painting of particular episodes and moments which engage us emotionally. One such is the account of the kindly grandmother’s sudden and unexpected death. An animal fight during her funeral procession dislodges the coffin lid and the little boy sees her yellowing hand dangling over the edge of the coffin as if waving him a last goodbye. These moments often involve detailed and evocative description which engages our senses: we can smell the snow, hear the cows’ ‘muffled chomping’, the moths’ wings as they ‘beat against the pane with a barely discernible papery sound’.

The power of these moments lies of course also with the translator. Charlotte Collins has done a fantastic job with the demands of this text. She works with the longer more complex German sentences in lyrical passages to produce rhythmical sentences in English which really work: ‘ the goatherd stared at him out of the darkness, emaciated and ghostly pale, and Egger knew that Death already crouched behind his eyes’. She recreates alliteration to wonderful effect: ‘ the snow fell so thickly and incessantly from the sky that it seemed softly to swallow the landscape, smothering all life and sound’. She works equally well with the different requirements of straight narrative and dialogue and her use of idiom is just right. She has created a really compelling, fluent and readable rendering of the original.

The one reservation I have about this book is its aim to recount a whole life in less than 200 pages. Both when reading the German and the English translation, I felt my commitment and interest lessened in the second half of the book. I felt that massive life experiences, like spending 8 years in a Prisoner of War camp were skated over, and I wanted to know more about the influx of tourists in the Austrian mountains in the early 50s ( really? who were they? German cities were still in ruins, rationing was still in force in Britain, I’m not saying there were no tourists but tell me more about them please). But this may just be me, a matter of personal taste- I remember feeling luke warm about Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna for the same reason, though she’s a writer whose work I generally admire.

So this is a beautifully written book and an excellent translation. I’m looking forward to reading more of both Robert Seethaler and Charlotte Collins.

 

 

 

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Letti Park- Judith Hermann

I first came across Judith Hermann some years ago when reading her début short story collection Sommerhaus, später. Imagine how pleased I was then to come across her latest collection, Letti Park, Lettiparkwhen having the time of my life browsing in Dussmann in Berlin. The delight in her stories comes from the delicacy of her language, the light touch with which she describes a character adjusting to a new truth and conjures up images which linger in the mind.

The stories, unlike those of Jackie Kay, or Jhumpa Lahiri, are not anchored in a particular social milieu depicting characters intensely bound up or challenged by the norms of their group. They will not tell you about a topic in the way that Christos Ikonomu tells us how the Greeks are affected by austerity. Rather, the characters float above social categorisation and the stories are more concerned with showing individuals encountering each other, sometimes unexpectedly, and the small changes which sometimes then occur in their take on the world.

The stories frequently have female protagonists and sometimes, as in the title story and Solaris, involve female friends meeting again after a lapse of several years and a reconsideration of power relations in the friendship. A range of relationships between parents and children are depicted, from the heart melting tenderness between mother and child in Papierflieger to the dutiful coolness in Gedichte. Hermann’s characters span a wide age range: I loved the relationship between Maude and her elderly landlady in Manche Erinnerungen and was moved by the depiction of old age in Mutter.

Men often don’t come off well. Even long and apparently happy marriages end ‘von einem Tag auf den anderen’ (from one day to the next)  and in Gehirn Philipp puts his camera between himself and emotion. In Letti Park the friends Rose and Elena, who meet by chance years later in a supermarket, now have men who are definite, practical, commanding.But they are connected by a previous relationship with Page Shakusky, who gave Elena a book of photographs he’d taken of Letti Park, her favourite childhood park. It’s all snow showers, creating drifts and shifts, blurred outlines and uncertainty, as unreliable as memory itself.

These images are powerfully handled in the stories. Like the snow in Letti Park the image of pollen invading the courtyard in Pappelpollen is vividly depicted. Despite being ethereal and insubstantial it seems to fill the yard so thickly the inhabitants mistake it for smoke and call the Fire Brigade. At the end of Papierflieger, Tess stands with her friend and children watching the paper aeroplanes they’ve launched from the window shine white against the darkness.

Though I said the stories are not concerned with social issues, one or two set outside Germany involve the characters feeling out of their depth in a different culture. My favourite is Osten, where Jessica and Ari arrive in Odessa, which she has been keen to visit with her romantic ideas about the Black Sea. Jessica finds the grimy reality and grinding poverty of Odessa completely at odds with anything she has come across before.

Now there are one or two short stories which I found elusive- as if the meaning was just beyond my grasp- but on the whole I enjoyed this collection, as much for the clarity and simplicity of the language as for the content of the stories. A collection to be read when you feel like detaching yourself from the hectic rush to enjoy those images of a yard full of pollen floating and the soar of paper aeroplanes.

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Unterleuten by Juli Zeh

This great novel by Juli Zeh is set in the village of Unterleuten in Brandenburg, one of the former East German Bundesländer. Situated as it is about one hour’s drive north of Berlin Unterleuten seems an ideal spot for Berliners weary of the city and seeking the authenticity and simplicity of rural life. The attempts by the newcomers to understand and integrate into village life constitutes one of the themes of this novel and indeed the clash between town and country is nothing new in literature. However here the narrative is played out in an area which has seen massive social, political and ideological changes in the preceding century, most recently the post war Communist era of the DDR ( Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and the change ( die Wende) brought about by the fall of Communism from 1989. The village of Unterleuten, as everywhere else, has seen its fair share of winners and losers from these upheavals- and the resulting grudges and resentments add ballast to the mix of emotions and rivalries bubbling away beneath the surface. The novel’s structure and crime thriller elements invite the reader to try to make sense of these subcutaneous ripples and in particular an accidental death which happened 20 years previously.

The immediate narrative is around the plan to build a wind park with 10 wind turbines on an area of land in Unterleuten called ‘die schiefe Kappe’. Responses to this in the village are mixed, but there is no doubt the plan will go ahead- it is part of Angela Merkel’s new energy policy of 2010 to go over wholesale to renewables and the only question is, whose land will it be built on and who will benefit from it? The company Vento Direct requires a site of 10 hectares. The landowner Gombrowski owns 8 hectares, the Bavarian property speculator Meiler also owns 8 hectares and it is newcomer to the village Linda Franzen who owns 2 hectares and the balance of power.

Prior to Vento Direct presenting their proposals at a village meeting we have been introduced to some of the key players. Gombrowski is the proprietor of Ökologica GmbH, a farming business which had been a family business originally and was forced to convert to a collective farm under communism. The business is not now doing so well financially and clearly he would benefit from the leasing of his land to Vento Direct. Meiler is a property speculator from Bavaria who randomly bid for and won some land in Unterleuten in an auction. He is indifferent to wind turbines at first, though later wishes to have them on his land to raise money to finance his son’s drug habit. Linda Franzen is renovating her house Villa Kunterbunt and wishes to extend the property to develop her business as a horse whisperer ( aka horse psychologist) and to stable her own beloved stallion Bergamotte. She has her eye on 4 hectares of land behind the house presently owned by property speculator Meiler and may do a deal, selling her 2 hectares on ‘schiefe Kappe’ to him in return for the 4 hectares behind her house.

Now I did call the wind turbines plan the ‘immediate narrative’ and though the machinations between the characters is indeed entertaining, this narrative thread is also a hook on which to explore other themes and human reactions in this rural community. Indeed the novel does not open with the wind turbines story but instead with a witty account of the gap between rural idyll and reality in the story of Gerhard Fließ, a former sociology lecturer from Berlin, his young wife Jule and their baby Sophie. They left Berlin in search of the good life and we find them sitting indoors with the windows closed on account of the insufferable smell and smoke from their neighbour who runs a car repair shop burning rubbish on their boundary day and night.

Like Gerhard, we soon learn that conflicts are not resolved  in this community by going to the authorities: Gombrowski’s friend, Hilde, has been attacked by villager Kron, but calling the police is not an option. Gombrowski claims disingenuously that disputes in Unterleuten can be settled over a drink and a chat in the local, whereas we gradually learn in a slow drip effect through the narrative that his influence is coercive and far reaching and if disputes are not settled to his liking there will be consequences for those who dare to cross him. One challenge for Linda Franzen, and the newcomers in general, is uncovering the web of power relationships simmering beneath the surface, in order to pursue their goals or simply to live a decent life. The way in which they react to and accommodate these unwritten rules provides both humour and unease- and Zeh’s skill lies in often provoking both at the same time.

To what extent are these conflicts the result of the political system under which the community lived for 40 years- the DDR? We know that Gombrowski’s 50 year dispute with Kron has political differences at its origin: Kron, a Communist, was amongst a group which forced Gombrowski’s family farm to become a collective farm under Communist rule. Gombrowski, however, did well out of the Wende-when his farm was converted to Ökologica GmbH, he was awarded a 70% shareholding and got rid of the workers’ committee. Gombrowski’s used his power at that time to ‘help’ other losers-when Arne Seidel, the vet at his farm, was not able to work because his East German qualifications were not recognised, Gombrowski supports him in becoming mayor- on the basis that Gombrowski’s projects were waved through on the nod. So Gombrowski’s ‘support’ for Arne and other villagers comes at a price and this exertion of power creates resentment, bitterness and clan warfare which tips over into violence with great regularity.

Other conflicts in the novel are brilliantly delineated, for example the generational differences. The digital generation who work for themselves, like Linda and her husband Frederik, are objects of curiosity for the older generation and there are some humorous observations, from former East Germans, about the young people’s precarious jobs and the ubiquity of surveillance cameras in the workplace! Juli Zeh brings out these differences in several powerful scenes in which characters from utterly different worlds confront one another.When Meiler arranges to meet Linda at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, he is expecting her to be intimidated by his familiarity with the pretentious setting. Instead she is as adept as he is at dealing with both the setting and the negotiations despite her youthful ponytail and casual clothes.

The structure of the novel itself expresses difference. Each of its 62 chapters is headed by the name of a character and through inner monologue and free indirect speech both progresses the narrative, while giving us that character’s back story and perspective on events. It is to Juli Zeh’s great credit in her skilful use of voice that we are quickly drawn into the intimate thoughts of characters quite unlike ourselves and find ourselves seeing things from their point of view and even empathising with them. Yet as the novel progresses we realise that we are being told different versions of events, according to the character narrating, and that the characters themselves are unreliable narrators, being self delusional, opinionated, believing what fits their preexisting prejudices as well as just plain forgetful. In trying to piece together what happened in the past through the different narratives we sometimes feel the sands of Brandenburg are as shifting and unreliable as they seem to Meiler on his first visit to Unterleuten.

And the sands, the land itself has both an overt and  symbolic presence in the novel. On the one hand it’s a story about wind turbines and the ownership of land in Brandenburg. On the other hand there are several references to what lies beneath which have a symbolic resonance. Gombrowski refers to the village’s scrap metal buried beneath the ground in DDR times rendering the soil poor and unyielding, as if the tired old grudges of the communist era are responsible for the malfunctioning community of today. His final act, which I shall not spoil, is a malicious act also concerning the land. Yet this is not the last word. That which is buried can be dug up and defused- the land can be fertilised and restored. And it is the younger generation who will do this. The newcomers to Unterleuten, renovating their properties, take up the linoleum laid in DDR times to reveal the tiles beneath, as if raking up the past and getting rid of it. And the epilogue sees the younger generation in the character of the sympathetic Kathrin take on the role of mayor as the old men die out.

This is a great novel about life in a rural community and the complexity of relationships which it reveals may be seen in smaller rural communities in many different parts of the world. Jon McGregor’s latest novel Reservoir 13 discussed here on Open Book indicates that this is a current topic of interest to novelists. Yet the setting in Unterleuten of a village in the former DDR, where sophisticated Berliners rub shoulders with the locals makes this a very contemporary commentary on life in Germany today. It is a big book in its range and breadth of characters, at times humorous, satirical, poignant and chilling and its clever plotting kept me gripped to the end. Have a look at the Unterleuten website to learn more about the characters and their community.  Cross your fingers for an English translation soon and give it to your friends.

 

 

 

 

entified as ideal land for her business is owned by Meiler, a property speculator from Bavaria. He bought the land cheaply in auction, oblivious to the resentment he’s caused- his speculating will inflate land value and increase interest repayments for the locals.

The two most powerful locals make their entrances early on : Kron and Gombrowski, both older men now in their 60s who have lived in Unterleuten most of their lives. Gombrowski has a farming business, Ökologica GmbH, now not doing so well financially and it is suggested in a sort of slow drip fashion that his influence and power is both subtle and far reaching- he helped Schaller set up his auto repair yard, for what? we wonder but have no clues as yet. The fact that Kron and Gombrowski are at logger heads is seen by the fact that Kron has attacked Gombrowski’s friend Hilde. Again, there is no question of involving the police and we are told their enmity goes back a long way: Kron was an active communist and fought against Gombrowski all those years ago when he was resisting the collectivisation of his family farm. The men hate one another and their feuding is characterised by violence, some of which forms part of the narrative, some merely hinted at for the reader, but contributing nevertheless to the atmosphere of fear and anxiety which builds up during the story.

The structure of the novel enables us to meet the many characters and hear their back stories before the narrative really gets going. The chapters are each headed with the name of a character- and I loved the generational difference noted in the female characters’ ‘Gombrowski geb. Niehaus’ but ‘Kron-Hübschke’. Each chapter then describes events from the point of view of that character and here we see Juli Zeh’s skill in the range of voices she expresses-from that of the older man Gombrowski, deluding himself that he has only done good for his community and that he loves his woman folk whom he bullies and beats, to that of the cool and calculating Linda, her busy thoughts running along her demanding daily schedules, interleaved with nuggets of wisdom from her guru Manfred Gortz. In this way we see events from one individual’s point of view and, after a while inevitably become aware of the discrepancies and different interpretations put upon events by different characters and factions. And this is indeed part of the novel’s message, indicated by the mayor Arne at the end- that the really dangerous people are those who think they are right.

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East West Street by Philippe Sands

Many of us growing up in the 60s and 70s were aware that leading Nazi figures were prosecuted, found guilty and executed for their crimes at Nuremberg. What is probably less well known is what charges were actually on the indictment and what were the names of the crimes for which they were hanged. In this wide ranging and highly personal book, Philippe Sands, an international lawyer, shows us that it was at Nuremberg that the legal concepts ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ were first adopted and applied. In tracing the development of those legal ideas, he follows the life and career of the men who introduced them, Hersch Lauterbach and Rafael Lemkin respectively. Both of these men came from the area near the city of Lviv now in the Ukraine, formerly known as Lemberg and situated near the eastern border of the Austro- Hungarian Empire until its collapse during the First World War.

The book begins when Philippe Sands goes to Lviv to deliver a lecture and uses the opp0rtunity to visit the home of his Jewish maternal grandfather, Leon, who coincidentally had also grown up in Lviv and was born in the nearby town of Zólkiew . When Philippe was a child, Leon was living in Paris, where he’d been since 1939 when he left Vienna. He’d arrived in Paris first, his baby daughter Ruth being brought later by an unknown person in July 1939 and his wife Rita not joining them until late 1941. Philippe Sands was aware growing up that his grandfather never wanted to talk about the past and even his mother seemed remarkably lacking in curiosity as to how she’d arrived in Paris as a baby unaccompanied by either parent. In researching his own family history, Philippe Sands discovers some surprising connections between his own family and that of Lauterpacht: Leon’s mother, Malke, who was to die at Treblinka, lived on the very same street in Zólkiew as the Lauterpachts, East West Street.

This is just one of several examples of lives interweaving and connecting throughout the book. Lauterbach and Lemkin were near contemporaries at the Law Faculty at Lemberg University and yet their legal careers took them to different continents and brought them together again at Nuremberg. Though Lauterbach was not prosecuting at Nuremberg he was on the British legal team and drafted William Shawcross’s opening speech. One of the defendants was Hans Frank, who became the Governor- General of German occupied Poland in October 1939 and was responsible for the murder of Lauterbach’s own family, though Lauterbach did not know this until after the Nuremberg trial.

The career of Hans Frank provides the third strand of the book. Frank was a lawyer and appointed State Minister for Justice in Bavaria in 1933 on Hitler’s rise to power. On becoming Governor -General he took up residence in the Wawel Castle in Krakow, from which he ran the whole of the eastern area, while aspiring to live like a monarch. In this role he was responsible for the deportation and killing of millions of Jews. He did not attend the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 , where the Final Solution was agreed on, but sent Bühler as his representative and expressed enthusiasm about assisting with the transport of Jews from Vienna across his territory at a dinner party in Krakow the next day. His son, Nicolas, as well as later expressing horror publicly at his father’s crimes, also remembers a cold and remote father. (See the film My Nazi Legacy for more on Niklas Frank).

And the climax of the book is the Nuremberg trial. With the help of carefully placed photographs as well as clear and engaging description, the personalities of the legal teams and the defendants stand vividly before us. Sands gives us a chronological account of the trial, detailing the legal arguments and defining the legal terms where necessary but always balancing this with the human reactions of the people involved. Weaving through this section is the appearance of the new ideas of crimes against humanity and genocide and Sands helpfully distinguishes them for the lay reader: crimes against humanity is concerned with crimes against the individual, whereas genocide concerns crimes against individuals because they belong to a particular group. Lauterpacht’s contribution, crimes against humanity, was indeed included in the indictments, whereas genocide, though referred to in speeches, was not to form part of the crimes at this stage. A useful epilogue charts the subsequent development of both ideas, leading to the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the inclusion of genocide in the charges against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999.

I enjoyed this book on many levels. Philippe Sands’ clear and unassuming style conveys well how ground breaking these new legal concepts were: that an international court could have jurisdiction over a national sovereign court was novel indeed. The life stories of the lawyers and of Hans Frank culminating in the Nuremberg trial were well told and through the selection of just one witness account, Sands gives us a sufficient idea of the horrific material aired in that courtroom without dwelling on the barbarity. I enjoyed too his personal quest to fill the gaps in his family history, though this highlighted the fact that some questions will remain unanswered.

And for me personally, the book had many resonances. Having taught the period of France under Occupation and visited the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris several times with school groups I was intrigued to find that Philippe Sands’ mother had been an enfant caché and so moved to read that Elsie Tilney who got her out of Vienna was recognised as a Righteous Among the Nations, a title I had first come across at that museum. Also to hear that after the war Leon worked for the Jewish committee based at the Hotel Lutetia in Paris, a gathering point for Jews returning from the camps, described in Pierre Assouline’s novel Lutetia.

It feels just right too that the book’s Epilogue ends with the personal. After relating developments in the law, progress that has been made in bringing mass murderers to court for crimes against humanity, Philippe Sands recounts his visit to the clearing in the wood outside Zólkiew where 3,500 Jews from the town were murdered.

‘Here were the ponds, two great sandpits filled with an expanse of dark water, mud and reeds that bent in the wind, a site marked by a single white stone, erected not by the town in expression of grief or regret, but as a private act of remembrance’.

He sits in quiet contemplation of the individuals whose bones are commingling now beneath the sand and water and we feel with him loss, disappearance and absence. It is a powerful and arresting ending to a rich, varied and far reaching book which I shall go back to again and again.

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All the Birds, Singing- Evie Wyld

All the Birds, Singing is Evie Wyld’s second novel and won her the Miles Franklin Award and the Encore Award in 2014. A book of two parts, it is set on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain and in rural Australia. The novel starts on the island, when the main protagonist, a young woman named Jake Whyte, finds one of her sheep deliberately killed, eviscerated in the most brutal way. As she attempts to find out who did this, the Australian narrative, which alternates with the British story, takes us back into her past. Written in chronological reverse, we gradually understand more and more about Jake’s past which help us to understand her present: why she shuns the company of men and why she sleeps with a hammer under her pillow ‘as a comfort’.

In her search for the sheep killer we’re aware that Jake is seen as an outsider by her community and chooses to be so. An independent woman, she lives alone in a house bought from an older man Don and tends her few sheep. Both Don and the useless police officer to whom she reports the crime suggest she should go to the pub to try to meet a man. She is resolutely uninterested and indeed is perfectly competent at running her farm, treating her animals with care including using a gun against predators where necessary. However she is shaken by the killing of the sheep, the second such killing, and at night her fear ratchets up to unbearable levels as she hears noises outside, in the house, on the stairs and we readers hover with her on the brink of nightmare and paranoia.

The Australian narrative starts with Jake working on a sheep farm as the only woman. At first she is well integrated, enjoying the work which she does well, and coping with the macho culture on the farm, partly thanks to the support of her lover Greg. Things begin to fall apart when she rejects the advances of Clare, who then says he recognises her from a previous life. Terrified of her past catching up with her, she leaves the farm. That past, which has been hinted at in snatched memories of ‘Otto’, is then slowly revealed- Otto is the name of the older man who abused her, imprisoning her on a remote farm and from whom she managed to escape. This part of the narrative was grim reading for me and my revulsion at Otto’s grooming and escalation of sexual demands is a tribute to the strength of the writing. I found heart rending too the matter of fact manner with which Jake accepts his abuse, ‘ somewhere into the fifth week, Otto has only called for sex a dozen or so times. He’s just a kind, lonely old man. He only ever wants it in the normal way’.

And as the narrative unfolds further back we see that her emotional absence may be the result of her previous work as a prostitute at Hedland. Hedland is a regular mining town and the lore amongst sex workers is that work is safer there than in the holiday town of Darwin, where the punters are ‘off their tits on excitement’ and therefore more demanding. Jake shares a room with Karen and Karen’s attempts to give their room ‘ombionce’ with her scented candles and the occasional laughs they have together seem all the more poignant given the grim reality of what they go through to make a living.

Other threads run through the book, sometimes appearing in both sections. Jake thinks about her family, especially her Mum. We realise she has little contact with home and when she phones and her sister Iris picks up, she is met with hostility. What happened at home? Fairly early on we learn she has scars across her back. Where do they come from? Hares are set running and as the narrative proceeds forwards on the English island and backwards in Australia we’re inevitably developing our theories.

Now from the emphasis in this review it’s not difficult to see that I was more engaged with the Australian narrative than the English one. Both sections contained superb writing about landscape, sensual in its evocation of the sounds and smells of the Australian bush in particular. I found the detailed descriptions of sheep and dogs and the characters’ relationships to animals compelling in both sections. But somehow the characterisation in the Australian section was to me more convincing and so the narrative of these events more gripping-to the extent that I wondered at times whether the book was trying to do too much encompassing both narratives. But the slow and controlled unravelling of the past, the careful dropping of information into the narrative and the to me completely unexpected denouement, show Evie Wyld’s real skill as a storyteller.

 

 

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