Blumenberg by Sibylle Lewitscharoff

If you are a reader who likes a good biopic novel,( and I for one love them, see my reviews on novels about Kafka and Stefan Zweig), then this novel may be for you. The eponymous protagonist is the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) and the novel is set in the early 80s when he was a Professor of Philosophy in Münster. Now, I have to confess that I didn’t come to this novel through an interest in Blumenberg, but rather because I hugely enjoyed Lewitscharoff’s novel Apostoloff and wanted to read something else by her. This novel won the Georg Büchner Prize in 2013 and came recommended by a critic whose opinion I value highly.

The novel starts with Blumenberg in his study at night, where he spends much of his time working, reading and thinking, relieved to be alone. He glances round and finds a lion lying on the rug- groß, gelb, atmend– big, yellow, breathing- a real lion, possibly an older specimen, looking straight at him. Thoughts go through his mind- is it real, should he be scared, why has the lion done him the honour of turning up in his, Blumenberg’s study? For Blumenberg, according to Ijoma Mangold’s review in die Zeit, was interested in the power of metaphor and imagery and one of his favourite images was the King of the Beasts, the lion.

While gazing at the lion lying peacefully on the rug, several instances of the lion’s appearance in art and literature go through Blumenberg’s head. This is characteristic of the man whose mind operates, as one might expect from a philosopher, on a higher plane than the rest of us, but who can also conjure up in amazing detail examples of world art and literature at the drop of a hat. Blumenberg is presented to us as a great thinker, a genius, no less.

The lion does not go away. One of the next scenes is the lion appearing at one of Blumenberg’s lectures, lying peacefully as before in the central gangway of the lecture hall. Blumenberg can’t help himself looking over to the lion to the extent that his students wonder why he keeps staring at that spot on the floor. This scene introduces us to the second strand in the novel, the group of students who attend Blumenberg’s lectures and are all affected by him to a greater and lesser extent. Their stories are told in parallel to that of Blumenberg and the lion and when their paths cross, this seems to have little impact on Blumenberg. We see this most tragically after the death of the young student Isa, when he doesn’t connect the woman in the newspaper report with the eager student on the front bench of the lecture hall who no longer shows up. He seems to be a lecturer who excels in and enjoys the public performance of the lecture but does not engage in a more personal relationship with students.

The students belong to their era, that of the early 80s and take their time over their studies. Richard goes off travelling in South America and Lewitscharoff treats us to a fabulously atmospheric and evocative description of the Amazonas with fantastic detail of the animals he encounters there. There is an equally arresting account of a trip Blumenberg takes to Egypt with his wife and friends in 1956, pre Suez, where the Nile is described in lush and wonderful detail- with the Mercedes they have shipped over to ferry them around providing an amusing and thought provoking counterpoint.

Now the novel has been criticised for not bringing these two strands together enough, for not providing us with a coherent enough narrative with a message- what is the point of the lion? Why do the young people have tragic ends? I must say, this didn’t bother me particularly. I found Lewitscharoff’s writing so compelling, whether it was the description of the lion, the exotic landscape, or the way poor Isa gradually loses a grip on reality that I didn’t find myself seeking more explanation. It may be that readers who know more about Blumenberg than I do will feel this more. Alternatively, with a greater understanding of his ideas about the power of metaphor, they may find a straightforward interpretation for the presence of the lion. Whatever your response may be to that lion, the novel contains some passages of superb writing which transport you to Egypt, to the Amazon and, sadly, to that motorway bridge and the grief of Isa’s parents. If you liked Apostoloff, you will enjoy Blumenberg. It’s available in English translated by Wieland Hoban, published by Seagull.

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The Robber of Memories- a River Journey through Colombia by Michael Jacobs

This is the story of Michael Jacobs’ journey along the river Magdalena in Colombia, from Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast upstream to its source in the high mountain moorlands of the Páramo de las Papas. The journey and the river itself provide the frame on which Jacobs weaves a rich texture of meditations on Colombia, past and present, historical and fictitious. He persuades us of the magical pull of the river from the very first, with Gabriel García Márquez’ insistent  I remember everything about the river, absolutely everything, while friends’ reactions to his plans suggest a trip up the Magdalena is the dream of every Colombian.

Into his account of the journey he weaves the story of his parents’ decline into Alzheimer’s disease- which partly explains the title. His mother has been diagnosed with the disease some time before, but has gone downhill just before he was due to leave, leaving him guilty and anxious during the trip. Sadly for the writer, his father also died of Alzheimer’s some years earlier and during the journey he goes back over the lives of both his parents. The theme of memory and forgetting is very present in the book, the title referring to a folk tale told along the Magdalena of a rider on horseback who descends on unwitting locals to steal their memories. Jacobs visits Mompós, once a thriving colonial port on the Magdalena, now a forgotten backwater due to silting of the riverbed making it harder to navigate: a place designed to stagnate, a chronicle in stone of a death foretold. And there is a heartbreaking account of his visit to the village of Agostura where a genetic mutation has led to a concentration of early onset Alzheimer’s: he visits a family where one elderly mother and her daughter are caring for three other middle aged children at varying stages of the disease.

Michael Jacobs started out as an art historian and I read somewhere that he became interested later in writing about people and places. You see his skill in evoking place in his description of the river, from the dirty ashen waters of its mouth at the Boca de Cenizas, to its wide expanses further upstream. He is a careful observer of nature: herons, perched on floating logs, prepared to take off into a sky already streaked by flocks of geese and white egrets. Black ducks swarmed around the gaunt branches of an immensely tall tree flanked by clusters of palms. He gives us the feel of the towns and villages in these parts: a market encased in diseased yellow plaster,……….shops psychedelically painted in luminous oranges, purples and blues. And he conveys his delight in the vast range of Colombians he comes across: the captain, Diomidio Raimundo Rosales is an Afro- Colombian who looked like a jovial, overweight blues singer past his prime. He wobbled and wheezed as he walked, his hair was peppered white and a massive silver chain glinted beneath his capacious green overalls.

Jacobs is very aware of his literary and scientific predecessors. There are many references to Gabriel García Márquez, not only to the fictional town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but also to the trip he made as a 15 year old up the Magdalena in the iconic luxury passenger ship the David Arango. He follows in the footsteps of the Spanish botanist José Celestino Mutis to Mariquita and has his ‘hero’ Alexander Humboldt also in mind.Yet as the journey progresses the complex and darker side of more recent Colombian history comes to the fore. Diomidio warns him that after Gamarra everything is dangerous- there is delinquency, guerrillas and the paramilitary. Jacobs and his friend Julio spend some time in Barrancabermeja, in the notorious Magdalena Medio, and find out about the murderous activities of the paramilitaries in that area. In Puerto Berrío this really hits home- to Jacobs and the reader- when his guide Ariadne is scared of talking in front of certain locals in the cafe and the courageous human rights worker Pilar assures them that the paramilitaries are carrying on much as before- one person a day is assassinated in the town with its population of 27,000.

Tension increases further when Jacobs and Julio leave the river for the final stage of their journey by bus and on horseback to the source of the river on the high plateau of the Páramo. Snatched whispers and an air of unease around their guide Torito suggest that there is something afoot so it is little surprise when they’re stopped and detained by some FARC guerrillas. Jacob describes this encounter brilliantly: his anxiety and the unexpected courtesy of the guerrillas which makes it difficult for him to read the situation and then the tenderness he feels towards the smiling young woman, so kind and sweet and brimming with enthusiasm, who gives him a gelatina to take away for his dessert. He learns she has been with the FARC since the age of 5. Jacobs’ party are allowed to continue, though they meet up with the guerrillas the following day and he realises that they’re controlling the local town.

The book ends with an account of the carnival in Barranquilla, where Jacobs has returned. The crazy inventive costumes of Jacobs and his friends is matched only by the riotous and anarchic partying of the whole city, just like the world over at carnival time. At the end of the night the writer sits down exhausted and finds himself thinking of the lovely young woman guerrilla who he’ll not see again, as well as his parents and people he has loved, now gone for ever. He remembers the words his uncle used to say: ‘carpe diem’. And that feels particularly poignant when we know that Michael Jacobs died not long after this book was published- in January 2014 of kidney cancer. This book is travel writing at its best and a great legacy.

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The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico

This carefully plotted collection of short stories is set in and around Cali, Lucky Ones UK.jpgone of Colombia’s largest cities, and an area which saw some of the worst violence in the recent troubled decades. The protagonists come from a wide range of backgrounds- the children of the wealthy, guerrilla fighters, American teachers, domestic servants- and all are affected by the civil conflict in some way. The stories are interconnected so that we meet some characters several times over, sometimes at a different point in their lives and in a different situation. The rare use of names means that we start relying on simple descriptors to identify characters -that dirty blonde hair, the black sparkly hairband- and are shocked at times to find people turning up where they do, but ‘oh,it’s you!’ is quickly succeeded by ‘well of course’ as the book proceeds and firm categories of victim and perpetrator, abuser and abused, exploiter and exploited are shaken and undermined.

The first story, Lucky, which you can read here, is set in 2003 in the Valle de Cauca and is told from the point of view of the 17 year old daughter of a wealthy family, allowed to stay in the city for the weekend with the maid Angelina while her family go to a friends’ out of town ranch for the weekend. There is no doubt this is a dangerous place: tension is ratcheted up when she recalls adult conversation about guerrillas and her mother warns her not to answer the door, talking over a car radio news piece about communist rebels. The girl is irritated and dismissive of Angelina, pushing away her ‘stubby finger’ as she strokes her hair, disliking her smell. She is looking forward to an illicit meeting with her friend and some boys in the mall, where she will receive their compliments ‘with the same icy sense of destiny that she accepts everything else in her life’.

Much later in the book comes the story The Bird Thing, Valle de Cauca 1993, told from Angelina’s point of view 10 years earlier. Her inner thoughts as she goes about her daily tasks in the same household-washing clothes, preparing breakfast- are interleaved with memories from her village. The memories are mixed and she feels at times persecuted by memories ‘hovering round the living like horseflies on cattle’. She remembers school being no fun, the cruel nuns twisting her earlobes with their cold fingers, her games of catching fish being impossible when there were bodies floating down the river. She remembers the way the oil executive looked at her, ‘his wet fingers on her thigh’ and her subsequent giving birth to a child her mother brings up in the village so that she can work for a family in the city, loving and nurturing the children of the rich.

Lemon Pie, Guaviare 2008, is set in the jungle and tells the story of an American teacher, kidnapped and imprisoned by the guerrillas in the jungle. This is a story that begins full of pathos as the teacher attempts to ward off  insanity by timetabling his day into units of Thinking and Picturing, Parasite Squishing and teaching literature, namely Hamlet. There is some nice irony when he considers how far Hamlet’s insanity is genuine and whether a hallucination shared by another ( here by Horatio who also sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father) can reasonably be called a hallucination. His back story is revealed when those disturbing thoughts of the day he was kidnapped rise to the surface and with a few deft phrases the writer has us wondering if he was maybe using those Colombian girlfriends, drinking a bit too much? And his guards in the background are also suffering from parasites, the heat, the sense of drift and pointlessness. Aren’t they trapped in this situation too?

The thoughts and feelings of childhood are wonderfully evoked and seem particularly poignant when juxtaposed with the reality of the world around the children. In Siberian Tiger Park Valle de Cauca 1993 a classroom of children in the elite private school are drawing pictures for Penelope’s family after her death in the Avianca plane crash of 1993. But another agenda is going on: her position as a popular girl is now vacant and a less popular girl who has been bullied wishes to fill it. She leads their imaginative games in the playground as Penelope had done, but she’s a different girl altogether and the games morph into the Siberian Tigers being locked up, shot and then terrorising others, much to the dismay of the other children. They turn on her and the bullying recommences.

However saddened we may be at the idea of violence invading the children’s imaginative worlds, this is as nothing compared to the experience of children in the poor rural areas at this time. In Julisa, Antioquia 1998, we meet idealistic Eduardo, gone to work in a rural school. He has found a way to calm and befriend Julisa, lying in the playground one day, rocking from side to side and refusing to come into class. She doesn’t show up the next day and though this is nothing new for this school with its ever changing and itinerant crowd of pupils, he sets off to her home to look for her. Her home is a set of rabbit warrens, out of which children appear. They are feral and Julisa herself has ‘gone’.

The last two stories are set in 2013 which is significant as it’s a time when the Colombian Peace Process is being negotiated; though both stories have a feeling of post conflict and terrible damage they also contain some feeling of hope. In Armadillo Man, Nariño 2013, this comes at the end when the professor prepares a beautiful meal of chicken for Sofia out of a gesture of loving friendship and she is able to overcome the ghastly physical sensations she has suffered as a result of trauma in order to move her tongue and eat. In Beyond the Cake, Cauca, Valle del Cauca 2013, Eduardo and Betsy, a couple, return from the US where they are now living to visit post conflict Colombia. We learn a little about what Eduardo ( yes, the teacher from Julisa’s story) suffered prior to leaving Colombia. He is now an academic and writing a paper on Post Conflict Colombia ‘filled with so much truth and fantasy it’s hard to know which is better’. For the paper is presenting an optimistic and idealised picture of the present situation. How should we react to this? With stern pleas to be realistic? Dismissing this as a fantasy on a par with the lovers’ games of Mouse Pilot or Mad Max? Yet fantasy has kept many of the characters in this book going- look at the crazy American teacher with his classes on Hamlet.

The uncertainty and ambiguity in this ending takes nothing away from the power of these short stories. Julianne Pachico draws us in with her range of voices to the very different but related worlds of the protagonists. With her succinct evocation of character and a narrative where no line is redundant she drops clues along the way which have us puzzling over how they fit together just like Ms. Simon’s pupils in more than one story try to fit together the jigsaw puzzle pieces representing the departments of Colombia. I don’t think any of them succeed and indeed the book shows us a world without coherence : where people’s lives have been ripped apart for reasons they barely understand, a world where usually it’s the poor who suffer most of all. These stories offer us an imaginative way into the complexity of the conflict and a momentary glimpse of the suffering of so many Colombians over decades. Thanks to Julianne Pachico for this superb collection.





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Delirium-by Laura Restrepo

This brilliant and moving novel, set in Colombia, begins when Aquilar returns from a short trip to find that his wife has gone crazy: he left her decorating their apartment and returned to find her in a random hotel room, deranged and unable to explain what had happened in his absence. The events leading up to this are slowly unravelled by several narrators, the most important of which are Aquilar and a man named Midas McAlistair, often in the form of a sort of dialogue with Agustina with frequent changes of pronoun and perspective which both disconcerts and adds to the feeling of destabilisation one experiences when reading this text.

Aquilar’s narrative takes us back to his meeting with Agustina only  a few years previously and fills in her family background. Coming from a wealthy Colombian family her childhood was dominated by a powerful and macho father whose sense of masculinity is affronted by the sensitivity and gentleness of his second son, Bichi. Close as she is to her brother, Agustina’s childhood is characterised by anxiety as she second guesses her father’s cruel and violent outbursts and tries to protect her younger brother from them. Her marriage to the impoverished academic Aquilar is barely acknowledged by her family and we are shown an unattractive middle class with shallow materialistic values, entrenched gender roles and a family life riddled with concealment and lies.

Through the narrative of Midas McAlistair we learn more about the provenance of the family wealth: Agustina’s father and older brother are involved with a whole money laundering business run by Pablo Escobar and from the very beginning we are left in no doubt as to the cost of this in terms of violence and human life. The relationship between McAlistair and Agustina is at first unclear but we later learn that he is a school friend of  her older brother, was infatuated with her from afar and that this develops later into some kind of relationship. McAlistair comes from a humbler background than Agustina’s family and in the condescension and bullying he experiences at the prestigious Liceo Masculino we see further examples of the class consciousness and snobbery of the middle classes. Yet there’s the suggestion that their hegemony is both recent and precarious. McAlistair is aware as a boy that even at the posh boys’ houses they ate the same basic comfort food  and growing up he sees that the wealthy are no good at managing their estates- they lack business sense and it’s people from his class background who are better at running the show.

The precarity of wealth and status is illustrated in the wonderful saying ‘Bisabuelo arriero, abuelo hacendado, hijo rentista y nieto pordiosero’- Greatgrandfather muleteer, grandfather landowner, son tenant and grandson beggar. The rapid change in fortunes and status in Colombian society can also be seen in the story of Agustina’s grandfather, Paulinus which makes up the third narrative strand. He is a musician and from Germany. Arriving in Colombia he married Blanca and was content to swap his Bach and Beethoven for Colombian vallenatos. However when we meet him in the novel he is beginning to suffer from hallucinations and obsessions- and this account of mental fragmentation and breakdown so carefully managed by his wife Blanca is movingly told. We are led at first to wonder whether his mental disintegration is a response to living and working in a different language and culture,or whether it is a genetic predisposition, passed on to his granddaughter Agustina. But then towards the end of the novel some elements of his childhood are revealed which suggest childhood trauma may have played a part.

What we also see in Paulinus’ story is the importance accorded to boys over girls in the delirio (vii premio alfaguara de novela 2004)-laura restrepo-9788420401751family, the masculine over the feminine.  Paulinus and Blanca have accepted into the bosom of their family a young man, Farax, who turns out to be a talented musician and whom they dote on, while their own daughters are rather shadowy figures in the background at this stage of the story. This mirrors the centre stage accorded to Joaco, Agustina’s older Alpha male brother, in the family and the brutality and rejection meted out to Bichi because he doesn’t conform to the masculine stereotype. The culmination of this drive to assert masculinity comes when one of the money laundering gang commandeers a sadistic floor show in an attempt to achieve sexual arousal-he’s paralysed from the waist downwards after a bomb attack- with tragic consequences.

This is a compelling book which operates on several levels. We are driven to discover what has happened to Agustina, the source of her breakdown, by the carefully controlled slow reveal of elements of her family background which works like a detective story to hold our attention. Aspects of contemporary Colombia are explored which would induce a permanent state of anxiety in most people. It is not just the involvement of Agustina’s family which we are shown but violence as a fact of life in the casualness with which people accept roads being controlled by paramilitaries or guerrilla forces at certain types of day, the references to a favourite cafe as the one where the owner was decapitated. At the same time towards the end I felt a more diffuse sense of unease as the narrators shift their tone. A tense scene with Midas and Agustina  reveals his underlying nastiness and real power and even the hitherto good guy Aquilar seems to be displaying some greedy if not exploitative attitudes towards the women in his life.

For me, the hope for a different future lies with the character of Bichi- what happens in the last crucial scene before he walks out on his family. And the open ending when the family are waiting for his return. You will have to read it to learn more and to appreciate the tour de force which is this fantastic novel about madness in modern Colombia.

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The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean-a Colombian story?

This is a story of informers and betrayal. Set in the Colombia of 1991, the narrative goes back to the Second World War and Colombia’s role as a place of refuge for Europeans of every political hue: German Jewish escapees from Nazi Europe as well as Nazi sympathisers. When the United States joined the Allied side after Pearl Harbour in 1941 they put increasing pressure on the Colombian government to round up their resident Germans, which they did by means of a notorious blacklist. This is the story of how a particular family were affected by this list and the act of betrayal which put them there. But the novel also explores informing and betrayal in a wider sense: what constitutes informing, the motives behind our betrayals and their consequences.

The novel begins with the narrator, Gabriel, visiting his 67 year old father in his Bogotá apartment after a period of estrangement. His father, Gabriel Santoro, is a lawyer well known for his seminars on Judicial Oratory in the Supreme Court. We find out that the estrangement is connected with the book his son wrote, A Life in Exile, about their family friend, Sara Guterman, leaving Germany with her family and settling in Colombia, but are told little more at this point. During the visit the narrator’s father tells him that he has a blocked artery and needs urgent medical treatment or he may die. He goes in for treatment, survives the operation and recovers at home, cared for by the narrator, their friend, Sara, and the physiotherapist Angelina.

The intimate tone of this introduction draws us into the characters and their relationships:we see his father’s flat through Gabriel’s eyes, the yellow drops of urine on the toilet seat and floor, the Alka- Seltzer and rusty shaving brush in the drawer. The aftermath of the operation, the physical invasion of the body by tubes and catheters continues this picture of fragility and vulnerability, so that when Gabriel Santoro recovers we can feel his enormous sense of relief and gratitude that he has been granted a second life- and the theme of reinventing oneself and second lives recurs in different and interesting ways later in the novel. So reinvigorated is Gabriel that he starts an affair with Angelina, the physiotherapist, and they go off to Medellín for a short break together.

The narrative then switches focus to the interviews with Sara Guterman which formed the basis for the narrator’s book, A Life in Exile. We learn about the family’s difficult journey from Emmerich in Germany and their eventual settling in Duitama where her father, Peter Guterman, opens a hotel, the Hotel Nueva Europa. This hotel becomes a sort of gathering place for Europeans and Colombians alike, a melting pot where the wishes of the management- bitte, leave your politics at reception– are respected, at least at first. And a frequent visitor to the hotel during the 30s is the young Gabriel Santoro, a law student in Bogotá who makes a habit of spending his weekends down there and befriends the other residents, in particular Enrique Deresser. As the US tightens its hold on Colombian politics and insists on the compilation of the lists, Enrique’s father, Konrad, ends up on the list and it is through his story that we see the devastation this causes: his assets are frozen, his business goes bust, his marriage breaks down and he loses everything. It is clear that while some listed people were paid up Nazi sympathisers- we meet one such in the novel- many others are innocent or harmless and end up there there as a result of someone informing, an act of betrayal.

The narrator learns from Sara that his father was implicated in the betrayal of Konrad Deresser and some time later goes to Medellín to meet with Enrique Deresser. He finds out more about the consequences of the betrayal for the next generation- and also, chillingly, for his own father.

The narrative is brilliantly plotted and well controlled : we are informed partially and in stages about the events it describes. We are given sufficient background historical detail but it is Gabriel Vasquez’s powers of characterisation and storytelling which flesh out, deepen and bring home to us the impact of the historical events: the rifts between father and son caused by language and cultural difference in the Deresser family, the loosening of the power of religious symbols in the life of Sara, issues explored in all their complexity and subtlety. And as events unfold it is suggested that informing and betrayal are not restricted to Gabriel Santoro giving away his friend: isn’t Angelina’s appearance on a TV chat show exposing details of her relationship with Gabriel a form of betrayal? And the furtive copying of a letter without permission by the journalist narrator at the end feels like a betrayal not only of Enrique but of us the readers!

And is this propensity for betrayal something particularly  Colombian? After all, the narrator learns of his father’s disapproval of his book through a ‘chain of breaches of confidence, which in Colombia is so efficient when it comes to damaging someone‘.  Certainly the repercussions of the betrayal- a shocking moment of violence in the book- are echoed in the larger scale violence at Centro 93 and Los Elefantes, killings which happened during La Violencia, the years of violence, also referred to in the book. Whether we choose to read the act of betrayal strictly within the Colombian context or as a more generalised human tendency, this novel explores the topic with consummate skill. In a clear and pitch perfect translation by Anne McLean, the novel is a compelling and thought provoking tour de force by the brilliant Juan Gabriel Vásquez and an essential read for anyone interested in contemporary literature coming out of South America.


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Paula by Sandra Hoffmann- A family memoir.

This is a memoir about the life of the narrator’s grandmother, Paula. We know from the Paulabeginning that Paula’s main feature was her silence, a silence which was not a neutral state of peace and quiet, but was experienced by the narrator as an angry, overpowering act of concealment swelling to fill the space and eventually poisoning the relationship between the narrator and her grandmother. Paula was silent on many things but it was her silence about the identity of her daughter’s father, the narrator’s grandfather, which caused the narrator most anguish in her childhood and adolescence and affected family relationships into the next generation.

Because of her silence, we are told, any account of Paula’s life may not be reliable: the process of investigation and uncovering becomes a theme in itself and results are inevitably incomplete, piecemeal and possibly fictitious. The narrator tells us she will listen to the voices of the women in her family to tell Paula’s story. An analysand, she knows that images from dreams creep up on us in no particular order by day and catch us unawares. So the narrative is composed of the narrator’s own memories of Paula, anecdotes from others, accounts of conversations and some brisk biographical details. This provides for a variation of tone which is welcome: the intensity of the teenage narrator’s fury with her grandmother, followed immediately by her feelings of bottomless guilt would be hard to bear if not relieved by the banality of the family chat which comes just afterwards.

One of the narrator’s sources is a large and uncatalogued collection of photographs found in Paula’s drawer after her death. The narrator scrutinises these to see what Paula was like as a young woman- did she laugh, love, have fun, know joy? She speculates on her relationships with the young men in the photos, their names unknown. The narrator is aware she looks different from others in her family- her hair is black and wiry- as does her mother, das anmutige dunkelhäutige Mädchen -the graceful, dark-skinned girl. Could one of these men be her grandfather, the father of her mother?  No-one wants to speak about it, Tante Maria and Onkel Gustl dismissing the absent grandfather as a Zigeuner – a gypsy.

We are told early on that Paula was born in a small village in Oberschwaben in 1915 to a family of modest means. She had two sisters, one brother who died in World War Two, had little education and worked as a cleaner. The narrator knows very little else of a factual biographical nature about her grandmother. However she does have some warm early memories of Paula, who came to live with her parents soon after they married. When her parents were taken up with a frail younger brother, Paula became her surrogate mother for a while, taking her into her bed at night and comforting her during night terrors. The downside of this intimacy, which becomes increasingly burdensome for the narrator as she gets older, is Paula’s Catholicism. Every childhood misdeed had to be atoned for by prayers, and Paula’s ever more predictable response to life’s challenges by grasping for the rosary in her apron pocket seems pathological- to the reader as well as to the child.

The relationship between grandmother and child really falls apart in adolescence. As the narrator is asserting her independence from the family, Paula starts intruding into her personal space, rifling through her drawers and belongings when she’s at school, appearing at her bedroom door when she wants to be alone. The narrator’s fury is ferocious and at one point she rearranges her furniture so her bed is furthest from the door and her books are piled up against it, barricading herself in and away from her grandmother. We glimpse a little of how damaging this is for the child in a reference to the whole family having to attend family therapy because of her eating disorder. And of the further damage caused by the fact that no other family members see the point of family therapy and blame her for making a fuss.

The portrayal of the narrator’s mother in the story is interesting. Like the narrator, and unlike Paula, she doesn’t have a name, yet she is an important presence. We learn early on that she bears no physical resemblance to her mother, yet states firmly that she has no wish to know more about the identity of her father. We learn later in the book that she was bullied for being a bastard and got away from a life of poverty by going to work in the town where she met her husband. A beautiful woman and accomplished seamstress she was pleased to sew her own clothes after a childhood in hand me downs. She is interested in things which are new and different and at the same time scared of them: at the beginning of the book the narrator says that her parents would not be interested in her life in the multicultural city brimming with variety. I felt she was somehow abandoning her daughter to Paula’s craziness and yet she is not painted as an unsympathetic character. It is as if,  in shutting down her own curiosity about her father, she is colluding in Paula’s silence and cannot go there with her daughter. So the silence has been transmitted across the generations: Das Schweigen hat sich über die Generationen verschleppt.

This is an intense and moving narrative, skilfully developed in a range of voices, from poetic lyricism through chatty anecdote to family dialogue. I was drawn in by the character of the narrator, both the mature woman reflecting on her family and the outraged yet suffering adolescent. As the generations recede so they become more shadowy, the mother emotionally absent and Paula herself an outline, known only through the experience of others. So we can construe her silence on the one hand as a response to the shame and guilt of bearing an illegitimate child at that time in Catholic South Germany. But I find myself thinking too of L. P. Hartley’s The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there : Paula’s character and motivation, her very consciousness is rooted in a past that has now slipped away around a corner and beyond our grasp. It raises the question: at this distance in time what could we ever know about Paula?

The book ends in the present with a family meal and there is the suggestion that things continue to be unsaid in this family. Yet the narrator has made her own life elsewhere which she will return to and I was left with the sense that she was at peace with this. And left with a feeling of admiration for her ability to accept that some things are never satisfactorily resolved : she lays them on one side and walks away, quietly but not in silence.

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Tessa Hadley, the Midland Hotel and Bad Dreams

The best treat at the Midland Hotel

Image result for Midland Hotel + new marble

a couple of weeks ago was the Afternoon Tea event with Tessa Hadley-as part of the Manchester

Literature Festival she’d come to talk about her work and to read us the short story she wrote while Writer in Residence at the Midland-( did I hear the title right? Is it called Men?). Now of course a hotel is a liminal space and, whether Ibis briskly functional or newly marbled like the Midland, a non place in our globalised world, a space where anonymity may breed transgression. So my heart gave a little lurch of pleasure when Tessa read the opening lines of her story- a group of middle aged northerners gathered in the lobby of a posh hotel to celebrate the birthday of one of their number, the old wives and the new wives done up to the nines, the birthday man mine- hosting, putting his guests at their ease, placing his hand, just now and then, on the upper back of his new partner.


It is this depiction of social milieu, the subtle indicators of power in human interactions and the lurking possibility of transgression which Tessa Hadley excels at. And we see these elements to great effect in her latest short story collection, Bad Dreams. An Abduction contrasts the yawningly dull 60s home of Jane Allsop with the dangerously bohemian style of Nigel’s house: ‘all glass rectangles and slats of unpainted reddish wood’. Her nascent sexuality simmering beneath the surface, the 15 year old agrees to go off with Nigel and his friends Daniel and Paddy, a group of older boys driving around looking for girls while stoned. Spinning with sensation- their bodies pressing against hers squeezed into the car, their masculine smells- she joins them in shoplifting and worse when she gets back to Nigel’s. She goes home the next day, having told her mother she was at a friends’, and tells no one what happened. But a coda set 40 years later suggests this event marked Jane and the boys quite differently.

We see the workings of power in relationships in the next story The Stain, where Marina starts cleaning for an elderly man in the village, recently moved from South Africa to be near his daughter Wendy. As in so many of Tessa Hadley’s books the house itself acquires protagonist status and through the depiction of Marina cleaning and dusting its unloved and empty rooms we get a sense of her employer as someone unsettled and uprooted as well as isolated. As time goes on the elderly man occasionally puts his arm round her, gives her a little kiss and pops a bit of extra cash in her pay packet – nothing to worry about, he’s just lonely- she thinks until his grandson insists on giving her a lift home one day and tells her something which makes her see her boss in quite a different light.

Past transgressions come to the surface in Under the Sign of the Moon. Middle aged Greta is on her way to Liverpool to visit her daughter Kate and falls into conversation with a younger man on the train. They subsequently meet, half by chance, and the flirtation intermingles with Greta reflecting on her past life with Kate’s father Ian, a hippie rebel, dropping acid and keen to consummate their marriage under the light of the moon. Greta herself was part of his hippy milieu- until she moved away from it and eventually found sensible Graham. But that past is there, hovering beneath the surface, still part of her.

The gap and continuity between past and present is beautifully evoked in Silk Brocade. Set in 1953 the first part of the story tells the story of Ann and Kit who run a dressmaking business in a Bristol basement. Giving swift details of their outfits together with the fabrics and paper patterns they work with, the writer captures a milieu where style and glamour are paramount- an era long since gone. The story develops when Nola, an old school friend, comes to their workshop asking them to make her wedding dress. Rather stolid and old fashioned, Nola is a nurse and has a very different sort of life from Ann and Kit. She asks if they can use some silk brocade from her fiancé’s house to make the dress. The second part of the story, again more of a coda, is set in 1972 and features Sally Ross, Ann’s daughter. With superb economy, Tessa Hadley sketches out what’s happened to Ann and Kit and their glamorous milieu as well as the fate of that thick silk brocade.

So this new collection, Bad Dreams, is every bit as powerful and evocative as all her others- the characters in the book as well as that party in the foyer of the hotel are still in my head, accompanying me back into my own forays into the 60s and 70s and then back again into the present. Thank you for such reading pleasure.

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