Blood & Gold, and an earlier thriller by Leo Kanaris, Codename Xenophon, are perfect examples of how well-crafted detective fiction from another country opens windows on to a brave new world, and shows that there are more similarities than differences between us all as we get on with the business of living in failing Western societies.
As the post-war liberal bandwagon begins to roll backwards, overtaken by the populist demagogue’s juggernaut of lies, we need more cracking good crime stories like this one, to entertain, illuminate, and inform.
“‘What a strange world this is,’ he said to me suddenly when the bus turned into Pulaski Street. ‘Before I’ve even had time to blink, they’re already calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit’.” – Wioletta Greg, Swallowing Mercury
Invasion, occupation, partition: Poland’s strategic location between Germany and Russia has made it a target throughout history. In 1990, after the fall of Communism, Lech Walesa became Poland’s first popularly-elected president. In 2004, Poland was one of ten new states to join the EU. Britain’s nationalist-minded tabloids make Poles the enemy, taking away jobs and homes. Post-truth politics thrive on ignorance, breeding fear and hate. We have much to thank Poland for – not least Chopin, Copernicus, Marie Curie, Joseph Conrad, Helena Rubinstein … and Häagen-Dazs ice cream!
“Style is not an end in itself: it is a result,” René Magritte.
A thinker, Magritte was in permanent revolution against banality and crass assumptions. He communicated his ideas through paintings, which he called “visible thoughts,” upending society’s conventions. He united the familiar in unexpected ways to create what is unfamiliar and often disturbing. Famous for playing with words and image, millions of people know his iconic painting of a pipe with the words beneath it, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“this is not a pipe“) — point being the image may be of a pipe, but the pipe is not representative of the image.
In this brave new world of twenty-first century “post-truth politics” in which image matters to an alarming degree, and words no longer need bear any relation to reality, how everyday language disguises thought; the vagueness and ambiguity of words; and the gap between words and seeing, are hot topics. Déjà vu? Magritte captured the essence of the relationship between words and image over half a century ago. The first-ever publication of his Selected Writings in English by Alma Books is long overdue, and timely.
Once upon a time in the West, marriage was a strategic alliance between families, and it was often between first and second cousins. Polygamy was common until the Church prevailed and monogamy became the status quo, although men enjoyed extramarital affairs. Only in the 19th century did love get a look in; and in the 20th the idea of marriage being a partnership of equals took hold.
Divorce rates around the world have rocketed over the last few decades and in the UK more than a third of people are single, or have never married. Yet the happily married couple is still idealised. It is the domestic holy grail; the stuff of fantasy. ‘Brangelina’, ‘Kimye’, and ‘Billary’ are regular red-top fodder on to which we can transfer our dreams and desires, envy and self-righteous outrage, all depending . . . Image, image, image – but what really lies behind?
A happy marriage is a mirage, a miracle, or, according to Lucien d’Azay, a masterpiece. Two very different perspectives of marriage, desire and fantasy are offered to us, in his beautifully-written narratives, Sonia Stock and Ashley & Gilda. I just hope a canny British publisher picks them up and translates them into English, so that they can be savoured by readers on this side of the Channel.
“She had known from the start, before she could even speak or understand, that Malinka and her mother meant nothing to anyone, that this was how it was and there were no grounds for complaint, that they were lowly flowers, their existence unjustified, lowly flowers.”
Whatever reality is, it isn’t what it seems. Ndiaye goes through the looking-glass into a world of barren parent-child relationships, rootless limboland, and racial being and nothingness in this bewitching and unsettling novel. The eerily poetic prose is limpid yet has a blurred effect like reading with the wrong pair of glasses. Translator Jordan Stump has done a great job.
Three women − mother, daughter and granddaughter − form a cursed constellation; a yawning void between them. The banality of everyday life, and a desire for normality, are underpinned by a surreal, destabilising atmosphere.
Manuel D’Exil − comment réussir son exil en trente cinq leçons (A Survivor’s Guide to Exile in 35 Chapters) by Velibor Čolić
Both World War I and World War II originated in the Balkans. Central-Eastern Europe is a region that is terra incognita to most Brits. Prime Minister Chamberlain famously remarked about the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938: “How terrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Dictator Marshal Tito held Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and others in a state of uneasy alliance until his death on 4 May, 1980. Ethnic tensions grew in Yugoslavia and war broke out in 1990.
“La vie est belle, le destin s’en écarte Personne ne joue avec les mêmes cartes Le berceau lève le voile, multiples sont les routes qu’il dévoile Tant pis, on n’est pas nés sous la même étoile.”
IAM – Nés sous la même étoile [Born Under the Same Star]
Although a thriller, Arab Jazz is really about muddled identities, lives destroyed by religious extremism, and dysfunctional families coexisting in fragile racial harmony in impoverished neighbourhoods. The narrative travels between the ungentrified 19ième arrondissement of north-east Paris, home of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers, and Brooklyn, with its Sephardic and Hasidic synagogues and kosher diners. Karim Miské’s debut novel excellently translated by Sam Gordon is a good, very ‘real’ read.
Dew Angels is one of the best young adult novels I have read in a long time. It’s not just Melanie Schwapp’s strong, lucid writing; believable, engaging characters; compelling plotlines; and snappy pace, but also how the reader sees the world through fourteen-year-old Nola’s eyes. My ‘inner teenager’ certainly identified with underlying aspects of the story: the need to be loved and to belong; the agonies of first love and heartbreak; the power of anger; to feel comfortable in my skin and at one with the roots of my identity; and, most of all, the need for self acceptance. These are concerns that never completely go away even when one is a so-called ‘adult’ who has – supposedly! – learned how to handle things.
At birth, Nola Chambers is ostracized by her family for having skin “black as a moonless night”, while her siblings have skin “as golden as the retreating sun”. She is obliged by the headmistress of her school to do homework with Dahlia whose mother runs Merlene’s Bar and Grill, known locally for being a den of evil. “There was music coming from the bar. The deep reggae bass seemed to spur on her racing heart as she walked past the red door. A woman in a tight orange mini skirt and tubed top leaned against the jamb, blowing streams of smoke from her nose as she drew on a cigarette.” The gambit works and Nola discovers the meaning of committment, friendship and fun. She also learns that gossip is malicious and fuels prejudice founded on ignorance, fear and envy. Continue reading The BookBlast Review | Dew Angels by Melanie Schwapp
Henrietta Foster is a freelance journalist and TV producer for the BBC. Her latest film, Beyond The Grace Note, is about women orchestra conductors. She is writing a book about Hungarian Jews.
Alois Hotschnig sent me a copy of Ludwig’s Room about a year or so ago. Accompanying the book was a postcard of a fearsome blue dragon by Albrecht Dürer, and on the reverse was a greeting in pencil. I mentioned his gift to Tess Lewis, the translator of the book, and that I was very much looking forward to reading it. Quick as a flash an email came back saying that as I had just been through a bad emotional break up, I was not to read the novel under any circumstances – any circumstances whatsoever. It was not a book for the broken-hearted. A little taken aback I did, however, obey my wise and good friend.
A few weeks ago and with some trepidation, I decided that I was now sufficiently robust to read Ludwig’s Room. I was also curious to discover why it would have been so harmful for the recently dumped. Like Dürer’s dragon, it is a spiky, frightening, bleak and at times difficult book to read. But also like Dürer’s mythical beast, it is finely drawn and deceptively engaging. At times, it is very funny in a self-deprecating rather black-humoured way. Continue reading Henrietta Foster reviews Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig trs. Tess Lewis
In his planning notes for Nana, the character of which was based on four notorious, pampered prostitutes, Zola describes his novel as being about “a whole society chasing after sex. A pack of hounds following a bitch . . . The poem of male desire.*” Nana rises from being a streetwalker to high-class cocotte; her golden tresses and “deadly smile of the man-eater” holding Le Tout Paris in thrall. Zola’s descriptions of her delirious expenditure, rising debts and magnificent, glitzy Hotel Particulier, “which seemed to have been built over an abyss that swallowed up men — along with their worldly possessions, their fortunes, their very names — without leaving even a handful of dust behind them,” foreshadow her vile death rotting in a state of stinking pustulence from smallpox during the last years of the French Second Empire. When it was published the novel was an instant hit, selling nearly 55,000 copies.
In his study of prostitution in Paris published in 1842 — Streetwalkers, Lorettes and Courtesans (Filles, Lorettes et Courtisanes) — Alexandre Dumas shows how going to work on the streets near La Bourse or rue Saint Honoré; on the Grands Boulevards; or in a brothel was more profitable for a lower-class girl than factory work, or shoplifting. Many sold themselves to support their families. Others were servants sacked by their employers, or arrived in the big city from the country having fallen pregnant. Continue reading Sex in the nineteenth-century city | Paris, London and the demi-monde