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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Ostende 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft- Volker Weidermann

This book has been recently published in English as ‘Summer before the Dark’. It’s an account of the friendship between the Austrian writers Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth and the summer they spent together in 1936 in Ostend, in exile from Nazi Germany and its ever more tightening restrictions on Jews and writers. I read the book in German and so can’t comment on the the English translation by Carol Brown Janeaway. However I’m delighted we have a translation so soon as both these writers are known far beyond the world of the German literature cognoscenti, for such greats as The Royal Game and Beware of Pity (Zweig) and The Radetsky March ( Roth). Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth are just two of a whole community of writers in exile and we hear the stories of other writers like Irmgard Keun and Egon Erwin Kisch as well. Wider world events- the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, preparations to host the Olympic Games in Berlin-provide a backdrop, lending weight to the atmosphere of tense desperation which hangs over the group. And the awareness of the inexorable rise of populism during the 30s together with the denigration of liberal values and reason resonates chillingly with developments we are seeing today.

One of the challenges of writing about a phase late in the lives of two such writers must be the selection and organisation of material and presumably Weidermann sifted through many volumes of letters and diaries before deciding what to include. The result is a concise and yet far from superficial portrayal of both men. We’re given some prequel material for both. Zweig was a wealthy, highly educated, widely published Austrian writer with a house on the Kapuzinerberg in Salzburg and humanist values. Though his books were burned on Bebelplatz in 1933 because he was Jewish, they continued to be available in Germany for some time after that and he didn’t show his rejection of the Nazi regime by going into self imposed exile immediately as did some other Jewish and resistant writers. By 1936 however his marriage to Friderike was breaking down and he longed to spend some time in the cafes and beaches of Belgium, a place where writers and intellectuals could meet and talk, a place he’d loved for many years.

Joseph Roth came from a very different milieu. An ‘Ostjude’, he was born in Brody on the Eastern edges of the Austro-Hungarian empire into much more modest family circumstances and studied in Lemburg before going to Vienna, where he first met Stefan Zweig and began a career as a writer and journalist. He was an eternal itinerant, living in hotels, a spendthrift and an alcoholic. By 1936 he was having marriage problems too and was  open to Zweig’s invitation to join him in Ostend.

Their friendship worked on many levels. From an early stage they had exchanged ideas and criticism of one another’s writing and, movingly, at the end of their stay in Ostend, Roth gave Zweig the idea for completing his story Der begrabene Leuchter. Zweig was desperately worried about Roth’s destructive lifestyle and concerned about the negative influence of Roth’s lover, Irmgard Keun, herself an excessive drinker, on his health. But another aspect of their intimacy, brought out by the book, was that they were both mourning the passing of a way of life, slipping away during the 30s and never to return. Now for Roth, this process of disappearance had begun with the breakup of the Austro- Hungarian Empire after the First World War, the monarchy which had given him opportunities and security in his youth and which he revered. Zweig’s world of humanist values, explored in his book Die Welt von Gestern-The World of Yesterday was disappearing with the rise of fascism and his most recent work Castellio gegen Calvin was criticised for being out of touch with present realities.

The liminal quality of this summer conveyed in the book is intensified by the stories of other writers and characters staying in Ostend-Egon Erwin Kirsch and Gisela Kirsch, Hermann Kesten- as well as the stories of Klaus and Erika Mann, mulled over and laughed about-determined as they were to put on a brave face and not admit to increasing anxiety about the future.  Irmgard Keun as Roth’s lover plays a greater role. Her books were banned not because she was Jewish but because her female characters were far too modern and independent- as indeed she was, having the temerity to sue the Propaganda Ministry for loss of income and for the return of the confiscated copies! She comes to Ostend for a bit of sea and sunshine, meets Roth and, finding him the most sexually attractive man she’s ever met, falls for him. The two of them move in to the same hotel room and spend their days writing and drinking.

The summer of 36 is the last time Zweig and Roth are to see one another. Stefan Zweig goes on a trip to Argentina as a guest of PEN and also visits Brazil, which he is considering as a future home. Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun continue drinking through the hotels of Austria and Zweig refuses to see them in Salzburg. On 12th March 1938 Hitler is welcomed with jubilation in Vienna’s Heldenplatz: the worlds of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig are indeed over and Joseph Roth dies just one year later.

I really enjoyed this book. Weidermann manages to convey the complexity of the characters and their relationship with skill and economy, rooting them absolutely in the tumultuous times in which they lived. At the same time he evokes an atmosphere of a community on the edge of a precipice which will signify a break for ever with the past. While seeing liberal values in Europe eroding, a turning away from internationalism in the UK with Brexit and a rise in nationalism I felt at times when reading this a chilling feeling of familiarity. And yet it is Weidermann’s skill as a writer which places Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in a world now gone, a world on which he quietly closes the door.

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A Woman’s Work- Harriet Harman

You don’t have to be a fan of political memoirs to enjoy this very readable account of img_0952Harriet Harman’s life in politics. The book takes us from her early engagement as a radical lawyer working for the National Council for Civil Liberties, to her arrival in Westminster as Labour member for Peckham in 1982 and her subsequent career in parliament during a period of over 30 years. She comes across as a dogged and hardworking politician, very focused on improving the lives of working women, while at the same time bringing up her own family of 3 children.  We are left in no doubt as to the struggle involved in her achievements: Harriet Harman is refreshingly open and straightforward about her own steep learning curve, but also points out that in 1982 with only 17 women MPs parliament was very much a male preserve. In tracing her career path the book charts the progress made in terms of greater equality for women in the last 40 years- as well as, inevitably, the changing fortunes of the Labour Party.

The chapters on the years before 1982 are a great reminder for the reader of the heady radical days of the 70s. Qualifying as a solicitor, Harriet Harman worked at Brent Law Centre and then as legal officer for the NCCL. The Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act came into force in 1976 and there were several key industrial disputes arising from this legislation- Trico, Grunwick, the Kynoch munitions factory- where she represented women workers now determined to claim their rights. At the same time Harman became involved in the Women’s Movement and she outlines the different strands of this movement, conveying as she does so the excitement and energy engendered by new thinking about relationships between women and between women and men.

As a Labour party activist, Harman was aware of the lack of women in parliament and with the support of her husband Jack Dromey and women friends like Patricia Hewitt put herself forward as the Labour party’s candidate for Peckham. She was selected  to take over from Harry Lamborn when he retired, but due to his sudden death became the candidate sooner than expected, and then, winning the by election, was elected to parliament in 1982. She had several immediate challenges: the small number of women in parliament and the struggle to be taken seriously by parliament and the press, the urgent need to redress the effects of swingeing Tory cuts in her constituency, particularly in relation to women, and the damaging effects of the far left within the Labour Party generally but specifically within her own constituency Labour Party. The first challenge she addressed immediately by forming the Parliamentary Labour Party Women’s Committee to provide a forum where women MPs could work collectively on women’s issues.  In the face of criticism and belittling from the press in response to the issues she was campaigning on -the  ‘women’s issues’ of childcare, maternity rights,domestic violence- she turned to the local press and radio, never missing an opportunity for an interview, and began to get her message across and win support from the electorate. And having her own 3 children during the 80s she challenged the old boys’ club ethos at Westminster by providing a very visible image of a new kind of woman, that of the working mother.

Harman was given her first job in the Shadow Cabinet by John Smith in 1992 when she became Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and deputy to the new Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown. Her account of these years in the Shadow Cabinet leading up to Labour’s election win in 1997 give us a fascinating insight into the development of New Labour away from the destructive internal party strife of the 80s into the new dawn of a modernising party embracing economic growth. Harman worked on the development of Labour’s policy on low pay during these years, negotiating between the needs of small businesses on the one hand and the resistance of the unions on the other, eventually leading to the Low Pay Commission. And of course, as women were amongst the lowest paid workers in most sectors, her own agenda, improving the lives of working women, was also being tackled in this role. This section is also interesting for her account of the personalities of the time: she acknowledges the importance of Blair’s support for her on equal pay by saying ‘there was no  one better to have on your side than Tony, and not just because he was Leader, but because he was clear in his arguments and not afraid to stand up to people when necessary.’  She also recounts the incredibly close, productive and creative relationship between Blair and Brown at the time: they were on the phone to one another several times a day, even interrupting family Sunday lunch to take a phone call from the other.

At the same time as campaigning to improve the lives of working women in her constituency and in the country, Harman fought to get more women into parliament throughout her political career. She persuaded Neil Kinnock to agree to having 3 women in his Shadow Cabinet and  campaigned tirelessly, against fierce opposition, for the introduction of All Women Shortlists in the selection of parliamentary candidates. This meant that when Labour came to power in 1997,  101 women Labour MPs took their seats in the House of Commons, some considerable advance on the 11 Labour MPs in 1982. For Harman, the aftermath of Labour’s victory was something of a poisoned chalice. She was given the role of Secretary of State for Social Security in Blair’s first government and is refreshingly honest about how different and difficult it was to be in government rather than opposition- to be in charge of a huge department and to be competing for resources with your fellow MPs with whom you’d previously felt solidarity. On top of this, she was forced to continue with cuts to lone parent benefits decided by the Tories, had difficulties working with MP Frank Field and was eventually sacked by Tony Blair after just 15 months.

One of the many admirable qualities about our protagonist is the way she’s able to pick herself up after setbacks and carry on, aware that the fight for women’s equality needs to be fought regardless of any damage to her own ego. So after this demotion Harman embarked on a project I found one of the most interesting: to investigate the struggles of women trying to combine work and motherhood  in some of the lowest paying industries. Keen to extend her own profile beyond the Metropolitan South East, she travelled around the country interviewing women about their situation and found the inadequacy of affordable childcare a major hindrance to women returning to work. In many cases, grandparents were willing to care for grandchildren but could not afford to go part time and lose wages to do so. In her report ‘Mothers in Manufacturing’ Harman recommended that maternity leave should be extended to one year, maternity pay increased, that women should have the right to go back to work part time after maternity leave and that tax credits should be available to help pay relatives looking after children.Some of these demands were realised- in 2001 maternity leave was extended to 26 weeks and maternity pay increased to £100 per week.

After the Labour win in 2001, Harman was asked by Tony Blair to take on the job of Solicitor General and in this role she focused on improving the law to protect victims of domestic abuse as well as making the experience of the judicial process less daunting for women. She introduced training for judges and increased sentencing powers in criminal cases as well as changing the law to allow women to give evidence by video link. She challenged the existing law which allowed provocation as a defence to domestic homicide with the result that the victim’s infidelity can no longer be considered provocation sufficient for a perpetrator to avoid a murder charge.

After Blair stood down in 2007 and Gordon Brown took over as Leader of the Labour Party, it was suggested to Harman that she should run for Deputy Leader. At first reluctant to do so, still smarting from being sacked from Blair’s cabinet, she eventually agreed and was duly elected. However Gordon Brown did not appoint her Deputy Prime Minister, later creating a new post for Peter Mandelson instead as First Secretary of State. Was he giving Harman a mixed message about his assessment of her capabilities or was it a more general reluctance to have a woman in the role of Deputy Prime Minister? In her reflections she regrets not having challenged him on it, not least for the sake of setting a precedent for future generations. Harman comes over nevertheless as fair in her account of Gordon Brown, describing him as a brilliant and hardworking politician with a great mind and fantastic overview of the economy, not just on a national but on a global level. However he was not easy to work with on a day to day practical level, cancelling meetings and being unavailable. Like many commentators she regretted his decision not to call a general election in 2007 which would have given him a proper mandate.

After Labour’s defeat in the 2010 election, Harriet Harman became Leader of the Opposition. She takes great pains to acknowledge the huge support of her advisers Anna Healy and Ayesha Hazarika and all the team which Anna Healy assembled for her to work in this role. Again, Harman is frank about the ‘vertical learning curve’ she felt she was on but also the general state of demoralisation throughout the party at their defeat. She is interesting on the election of the new party leader in September 2010, not hiding her shock at Ed Miliband entering the leadership contest and challenging his brother, David: I was amused to read she had the same reaction as I did at the time: ‘which one was their mother going to support?’. She also acknowledges with gratitude that many people afterwards regretted that she had not stood herself, but reflects that the ‘decades of denigration at the hands of the press had taken their toll’- she thought she’d done a good job as acting Leader but was not up to being party Leader.

Back in her role as Deputy Leader, Harman carried on her work for women, setting up Labour’s Commission for Older Women and more recently taking part in a British Council exchange between MPs internationally. In her exchange with Tanzanian MP Monica Mbega she learned that however tough her work was as a constituency MP in Peckham, this was as nothing compared with the demands made on Monica Mbega in representing her constituents.

Written in an open and personal style, Harriet Harman comes over at times in this book as an ordinary woman just like you and me. She hits the right note in how much she refers to her family life, talking about the stress of constantly juggling responsibilities, the sheer exhaustion and the real longing to be able to spend more time with your children, familiar to every working mother. She is open about her feelings on defeat and generous in her gratitude to women friends and family for their support in getting her back on her feet. I was interested in her discomfort with the term ‘role model’ at the end of the book, for its connotations of individualism and conservatism. Personally I have no issue with the idea of role models, especially in these present worrying times when we could all do with some inspiration. Whether we call her a role model or not, Harriet Harman has certainly changed women’s lives for the better and this book is a great testimony to her achievements.


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Cinco esquinas by Mario Vargas Llosa.

This latest novel by Mario Vargas Llosa is a compelling and provocative storyp1010553 about the press, sex and power. Set in Lima, the story takes place in the 90s and early 2000s against a backdrop of kidnappings and murders carried out by the Sendero Luminoso ( Shining Path) terrorists. The country is gripped with fear and anxiety-though how this plays out in different sections of society is very much the focus of the novel. And woven into the political thriller is an exploration of the moral choices available to individuals in such a climate, in the face of a political regime which feeds on violence and corruption.

The story begins when Enrique Cardenas, a wealthy mining engineer, receives a visit from Rolando Garro, a journalist and editor of the gossip newspaper ‘Destapes’. We have no doubts about Enrique’s disdain for Rolando with his loud clothes, vulgar platform shoes dwarf like stature and trashy paper. However Enrique finds himself on the back foot when Rolando produces a stash of photos, which show him, Enrique, in a compromising situation. In a second meeting Rolando outlines the terms of his blackmail: that Enrique should become a major financial backer for ‘Destapes’. Enrique refuses. The photographs are published in ‘Destapes’, creating a huge scandal.

Julieta Leguizamón, otherwise known as La Retiquita, a tough young journalist on ‘Destapes’, fears that Rolando has gone too far. The paper’s victims are usually members of ‘la farandula’- the world of entertainment and music hall- like Juan Peineta, a reciter of verses, ridiculed in ‘Destapes’ for his performance as part of the ‘Los Tres Chistosos’ comedy act. Enrique Cardenas, a powerful business man, is in a different league. La Retiquita’s fears are realised as some days later Rolando’s body is found in the working class district of Cinco esquinas in the Barrio Altos. He has suffered a brutal death, his face mashed to a pulp.

So who was behind the killing? Enrique Cardenas, motivated by revenge,  is an obvious suspect. Juan Peineta, too, hoves into view- he attributes losing his job and his descent into poverty to being mercilessly lampooned in ‘Destapes’ by Rolando Garro and writes letters to that effect to all and sundry. But La Retiquita soon finds out that the answer lies elsewhere, and in this discovery finds herself drawn into a complex web of power and deceit.

Vargas Llosa is a master of characterisation and his almost Dickensian skill at depicting characters from a broad range of social class is shown to good effect here. We have Enrique’s circle, comprising the lawyer Luciano and their two cardboard cutout wives, Marisa and Chabela, with their handbags, shining hair, trips to Miami and vacuous views. Their apartments are filled with artworks, the artists’ names disingenuously dropped into the text, and with their chauffeurs, swimming pools and private cinema, their lives are lived away from the streets, its poor and its dangers. Rolando and La Retiquita on the other hand come from impoverished backgrounds and are surviving in the tough world of journalism through grit,determination and dogged hard work, barely scraping a living from their work with ‘Destapes’. The photographer Ceferino Argüello, with wife and children to support, takes the job of photographing the compromising evening out of financial necessity and offers the photos to Rolando Garro for the same reason. Through Juan Peineta’s story we visit the ‘comedor popular’ in the Barrio Alto where down and outs can get a daily meal provided by the nuns and served up by the vast Crecilda with her wobbling backside and dubious past. And then we meet Willy, an old friend of Juan’s from the bars and gambling dens of working class Callao and a silent observer of police behaviour in the barrio.

Now, this broad range of character provides of course entertaining local colour and context – I loved the account of La Retiquita’s father toiling up and down the streets of Central Lima with his handcart laden with ’emoliente’, serving it up outside the factory gates at the end of a shift.  The broad range also shows that every section of Lima society is affected by terrorism, corruption and their consequences, albeit to differing degrees. But there’s something else going on with character here and that is the shift in our view of the characters as the plot develops and the nature of the power relationships are slowly revealed. We first see Rolando Garro through Enrique’s eyes and may share his contempt for this journalist from the gutter press. However later our view of him shifts as we see what he is caught up in and are invited to speculate on his reasons for publishing. La Retiquita at first seems to share the same amoral world view as her boss, but later comes to skilfully pursue her hunt for his killers while keeping the paper afloat- and in this way shapes the unexpected denouément in an act of great courage.

And what of the sex? Now it is not quite true to say that the story starts with the meeting of Roland Garro with Enrique. In fact it starts with an erotic scene in which the two friends, Marisa and Chabela, find themselves having sex when sharing a bed one night. This is quite a start to the novel- and hopefully will not put too many readers off. I vacillated between objecting as a feminist to this male gaze on women’s sexual activity- and finding it vaguely titillating. Now, I think it is quite a clever move placing this scene right at the beginning of the novel. Firstly, it sets the scene for the different views on and experiences of sex throughout the novel: you can be blackmailed for doing it, you can do it for pleasure with a partner or friend, you can do it for a living and you can do it for protection. You can do it in all sorts of positions, from the missionary to position 69 and Vargas Llosa at times goes into a Houellebecquian overdrive in detailing who put what where. It also provides humour- Juan Peineta, envious of the 69ers in the photos displayed in every kiosk in Lima, suffers from dementia and just can’t quite remember whether he ever actually did it with his beloved Anatasia! But over and above this, placing this scene first puts us in the position of all those newspaper readers the world over. The scene runs through our heads, we keep going back to it as we read the novel,wondering how it fits in, and, yes, titillated. We readers of Mario Vargas Llosa are no better than any other readers of the gutter press which uses sex to sell newspapers.

So we see in the end the world of the gutter press as messy and scandal driven, able and willing to destroy reputations. The novel slowly reveals the powers behind the press in Peru at that time and I would refer readers to Dan Collyns Guardian article for the political background to events in the book. As for the reputations, our four bourgeois survive Enrique’s scandal materially intact, and for three of them, their sexual antics have become their main preoccupation. As always it is the poor who suffer most- Rolando Garro, Juan Peineta. Yet it is La Retiquita who uses her wits, cunning, imagination and courage to turn things around, achieving a political and narrative coup which is all the more uplifting for being unexpected. What a fantastic ending to the story- and how clever of the writer to unsettle us in spite of this ending by placing a further twist to the bourgeois’ sexual carry on right at the conclusion of the book.

Now I am a huge fan of Mario Vargas Llosa- Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, A Discreet Hero, Death in the Afternoon, A Fish in the Water- are all reviewed here at peakreads. But it is the combination of suspenseful narrative, fabulous characterisation, depiction of Lima within the chilling political grip of that time, which make Cinco esquinas for me one of his best. It must be published in English soon. Don’t miss it.

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