Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, Maclehose Press, Pierre Lemaitre, Publisher, Setting

‘Blood Wedding’ by Pierre Lemaitre

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 312 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately with way too many books on the go and none of them really hitting the spot, as it were. And then I picked up Pierre Lemaitre’s Blood Wedding and — cliché alert — I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

Set in Paris, France, the story focuses on Sophie, a nanny, who wakes up one morning to discover the little boy in her care is dead, a shoelace from her own boot around his neck. Having no memory of the night before but knowing she will be accused of the murder, she withdraws all her savings and decides to flee the city. Not everything goes to plan, and before she’s even had time to book a train ticket she commits another horrendous crime that serves to make her situation even worse.

Running from one calamity to the next and frightened that she will be arrested, Sophie makes a series of blunders that threaten to expose her. It becomes clear that she is deeply troubled. She’s mentally unhinged, often blacks out and, as a consequence, has giant holes in her memory. Her problems seem to stem from the death of her husband in a terrible road traffic accident several years earlier. Since then, everything has spiralled out of control.

Now, convinced that the only way to hide from the authorities is to assume a new identity, she sets into motion a plan to find a rich man to marry and take care of her. But the person she marries isn’t who she thinks he is and this fast-paced octane-fuelled novel switches into an even higher gear.

Lemaitre then does something superbly clever — and unexpected. He tells the story from a different point of view so that we see Sophie in a whole new light.

Someone watching over you

Frantz is a voyeur who has been keeping an eye on Sophie for quite a long time. He stalks her and knows her every movement and records it in a diary, but Sophie has no idea she is being watched in this way. It makes for an insidiously creepy read, but it’s also highly intriguing. Who is Frantz? Why is he so obsessed with Sophie? What does he know about her husband’s death? And will he sabotage Sophie’s plan to assume a new identity?

Both storylines come together neatly at the end, but there’s nothing predictable about the plot. I have a lifetime of reading experience in this genre but even I couldn’t guess what would happen — or how. It felt like such a rare treat to be so absorbed by a suspense novel in this way.  (Indeed, it turns out Lemaitre is an award-winning writer — his first novel to be translated into English, Alex, won the CWA International Dagger for best translated crime in 2013 and in the same year he also won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for The Great Swindle.)

In this book, nothing is as it seems. Just when you think you have a handle on what is going on, the author throws in a new piece of information that turns everything on its head. It is pointless to second guess. And that’s the beauty of this compelling suspense novel.

Blood Wedding really does quicken the pulse. Its intricate plot twists and turns its way towards a satisfying could-never-see-it-coming conclusion. I loved being held in its thrall for two days and missed it when it was over. It got me out of a reading slump, and has me inching to read more by this talented French author.

Anne Serre, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Les Fugitives, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Governesses’ by Anne Serre

Fiction – paperback; Les Fugitives; 120 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Originally published in 1992, Anne Serre’s novella The Governesses has just been translated into English for the first time.

This quirky, dream-like tale is akin to an exotic and erotic fairy tale for adults. Strange and beguiling, it tells the story of three young governesses — Eléonore, Inès and Laura — who live in a grand country estate where they are employed to educate a bevy of little boys for Monsieur and Madame Austeur.

The day the governesses walked into the garden, Monsieur Austeur was standing behind the net curtains in the salon, keeping an eye out for their arrival. They advanced in single file: first Inès in a red dress, weighed down with hat boxes and bags, then Laura in a blue skirt, and, bringing up the rear, Eléonore, who was waving a long riding crop over the heads of a gaggle of little boys. He was amazed: it was life itself advancing. He rubbed his hands together and began jumping up and down in the salon. Into the garden they came, and with them a whole bundle of memories and desires, a throng of unfamiliar faces clutching at their dreams, their future children, their future sweethearts, the interminable cohort of their ancestors, the books they had read, the scents of flowers they had smelled, their blond legs and ankle boots, their gleaming teeth.

This trio of alluring young women swan about doing very little except to act on their wild sexual urges, flinging off their clothes and running about the grounds as if on fire. Often they pursue innocent would-be suitors, who have wandered through the golden gates of the secluded estate, and run them down as if they are prey to be devoured. Once caught, they are then used for the governesses’ carnal pleasure.

Observing this from afar is the elderly gentleman who lives across the road in another grand house. He has a telescope and spies on the shenanigans next door, mistakenly thinking that the women don’t know what he is up to. But they are very much aware of his voyeuristic tendencies — and play up to them.

Once more they were jumping around on the lawns, soliciting his gaze and signalling to him, clapping their hands when they discovered the reflection of his telescope once more playing over their dresses and the wall of the house, or climbing into the trees like a butterfly in summer.

This might make the story seem little more than a succession of erotic romps, but the dream-like quality of the writing married with a series of rather exquisite metaphors makes it feel like an enigmatic fable. Scratch the surface and there’s a lot going on here, about nature, sexual repression, romantic love, desire and the male gaze.

I loved the dark sensuality of the tale, the ripple of black humour that underpins it and the gorgeous, languid quality of the prose, so expertly translated by Mark Hutchinson.

The Governesses has been released by independent press Les Fugitives, which is dedicated to publishing Francophone authors, mostly female, previously unavailable in the UK.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault’ by Angela Carter: This slim volume features 10 of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales, translated from French (in 1977), to which Carter has added her own distinct twists and tongue-in-cheek morals.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, Leïla Slimani, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Leïla Slimani’s much-lauded Lullaby, a novel about a nanny who murders her young charges, and I had such a bad reaction to it that I wanted to throw the book across the room. My initial gut reaction was tempered (slightly) by the discussion that followed in the comments and that continued on Twitter and I came to see that perhaps I had missed the subtleties of the book, which was based on a true story. (I hadn’t known that at the time I read it.)

Adèle, her follow-up, has just been published in the UK, but it’s actually her first novel (published in France in 2014) and has simply been translated out of order.

Going on my past experience with her work, I picked it up with trepidation, telling myself that if I wasn’t hooked within the first 50 pages, I would abandon it. I ended up reading the entire book in two sittings.

North American cover

Extra-marital encounters

On the face of it, the book deals with another ugly subject: a married woman — the Adèle of the title — who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places. But it is so much more than this.

It is a deeply provocative look at modern life and privilege, of having it all but of never being quite satisfied, of one particular woman’s struggle to seek forbidden physical encounters to make her feel alive and to fill up the emptiness within her inner-most self. It is also an extraordinary examination of self-deception and self-destruction.

That Adèle has a successful career (as a journalist), a young son and a rich husband (who is a surgeon), and that she lives in a comfortable middle-class area of Paris in a beautiful apartment, makes one wonder what exactly is missing from her life.

But look a little closer. Adèle is clearly bored and doesn’t have much of a maternal instinct, but I think the real nub of it lies in her decision to marry the first man who asks her, choosing comfort and financial security over love, a fact she willingly admits to her best friend. And because she doesn’t have that true bond with her husband it makes it easier for her to betray him. It also makes it easier for her to compartmentalise her sexual encounters as being purely physical events and not emotional ones.

Adèle is neither proud nor ashamed of her conquests. She keeps no records, recollects no names, no situations. She forgets everything very quickly, and that is a good thing. How could she remember so many different skins and smells? How could she recall the memory of the weight of each body on hers, the width of their hips, the size of their penis? She has no clear memories of them, and yet these men are the sole landmarks of her existence.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Adèle is not the often graphic descriptions of the one-night stands and extra-marital affairs (be warned, this book isn’t for the prudish or even the squeamish), but of her lack of interest in food. Adèle never eats. She’s painfully thin. That no one ever seems to notice this is worrying.

Simple plot, clear writing

Of course, I realise I’ve written 500 words and not really outlined the plot, but it’s a simple one, and you can probably guess how it pans out given it’s about a woman who strays outside of her marriage: her husband discovers her secret life. What you won’t expect is how he deals with it, and how their relationship morphs into something else entirely, and the effect that has on both of them, making Adèle an intriguing portrait of a marriage before and after the outfall of its potential destruction.

The prose is also sharp and clear (it was translated from the French by Sam Taylor) using short but vivid sentences — “Paris is orange and deserted” — where not a word seems to be wasted. And the pacing is quick-fire and suspenseful.

This is a compulsively readable book; unnerving, disturbing, daring and erotic. But it’s also a psychologically rich novel, full of insights about the human condition, the quest to feel alive and loved, and the struggle to lead a happy life when so much around us — whether that be our family, our friends, our job — compete for our time and energy.

Author, Book review, Calder, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Marguerite Duras, Publisher, Setting

‘Moderato Cantabile’ by Marguerite Duras

Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras

Fiction – paperback; Calder; 122 pages; 2017. Translated from the French by Richard Seaver.

I’ve been keen to read more books by Marguerite Duras having loved The Lover a few years ago. Much of her work appears to be out of print, or at least difficult to track down, so when I saw Moderato Cantabile on the shelves at Waterstone’s a month or so ago I just had to buy it.

First published in 1958, it was republished by Surrey-based Calder (an imprint of Alma Books) last year.

It’s a rather strange and beguiling novella (easily read in an hour), but one that is hard to pin down. I’m not sure I fully understood everything it was about.

I’m guessing that the title — a direction for playing music in a “moderate and melodious” way — is a metaphor for the book’s structure, which is based around eight short chapters. The final two are rather climatic compared with the six earlier chapters, which are so moderate as to be slow and, dare I say it, a tad repetitive. In other words, it reads a bit like a musical score: beginning slowly, repeating notes and choruses, then building to a crescendo.

A simple story

The story is a very simple one. Anne Desbaresdes, a well-to-do woman, takes her young son to piano lessons every Friday. On one particular Friday, shortly after the piano lesson is finished, she hears a scream from the café below the piano teacher’s apartment. A crowd has gathered and a man is sitting on the floor of the café, a woman next to him, whom he has murdered.

When Anne discovers that the murder was a crime of passion, she becomes slightly obsessed with it. She visits the café the next day in the hope to find out more. She orders a glass of wine and strikes up a conversation with a fellow drinker, an unemployed man called Chauvin, who claims he witnessed the murder.

Every day, for the next week, Anne visits the café and converses with Chauvin in a bid to imagine what might have made the man kill his lover. She brings her son with her, but he is free to roam the streets and the harbour of the coastal town, leaving her free to enjoy adult company.

But Anne, who is not normally a drinker, finds herself becoming increasingly enamoured by wine (“How wonderful wine is,” she states, seven days in). She also becomes enamoured with Chauvin, who seems to know a lot of detail about her life, including where she lives and what the interior of her house looks like. She’s constantly nervous — her hands shake whenever she’s in the café — but nothing untoward ever happens between them. Their hands rest side by side on the table, but they never touch.

Forbidden relationship

It’s clear, though, that their “relationship” is a forbidden one, for Chauvin is working class and Anne is not. Her husband, it turns out, owns the factory where most of the men who drink in the café are employed. The café’s landlady clearly doesn’t approve of their liaison, watching them carefully from behind the bar. More often than not they sit in the darkened back room away from prying eyes.

Anne is always careful to leave in the early evening, not long after the factory whistle has blown, presumably so that she can get home before her husband. Yet by chapter six — more than seven days after the murder — the normal pattern of her day-to-day life has been influenced by alcohol, and after drinking one too many wines, finds herself getting home late for a dinner party she is supposed to be hosting. Her husband is disgraced by her drunken behaviour and she’s left to sleep on the floor of her son’s room, presumably having been thrown out of the marital bed.

By the novella’s end we see how the murder has turned Anne’s life upside down, unravelling the tight formality of her existence, and leaving her to pursue a relationship that is seemingly just as shallow as the one from which she is trying to escape.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Faber and Faber, Fiction, France, Leïla Slimani, Publisher, Setting

‘Lullaby’ by Leïla Slimani

Lullaby
The UK edition

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2018. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 2016. It is the kind of novel that will give anyone who has a nanny pause for thought, for it centres around a rather abhorrent crime carried out by a seemingly perfect au pair, catching everyone by surprise.

I’m going to be completely up front and say I didn’t much like this book, which is known as The Perfect Nanny in some territories.

As much as I love dark fiction — goodness knows I read a lot of it — this one didn’t sit right with me. It felt distasteful, shocking for the sake of being shocking, and I didn’t find it terribly convincing. I haven’t read any other reviews of it, but going by what the bookseller in Waterstone’s Piccadilly told me the other day, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Be careful what you wish for

The story, which is set in modern-day Paris, opens in dramatic fashion: two young siblings, Adam and Mila, are murdered by their nanny. Their mother, Myriam, is in a state of shock — “that was what the paramedics said, what the police repeated, what the journalists wrote”.

The story then spools back to Myriam and her husband’s search for someone to look after their two children so that Myriam can return to work as a lawyer. This isn’t a decision they take lightly. Indeed, Myriam’s husband Paul is a bit put out that she would want to return to work at all. But they carry out thorough checks (“no illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers”) and then give the job to Louise, an older woman who has a grown up daughter of her own and an air of self-assurance.

When she describes that first interview, Myriam loves to say that it was instantly obvious. Like love at first sight. […] Paul and Myriam are charmed by Louise, by her smooth features, her open smile, her lips that do not tremble. She appears imperturbable. She looks like a woman able to understand and forgive everything. Her face is like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no-one.

The North America / Australia cover: notice the different title

The perfect nanny

Once hired, Louise turns out to be the perfect nanny. She makes herself indispensable by not only looking after the children who adore her, but by going above and beyond her role to run the household efficiently, keeping the apartment looking immaculate, doing the grocery shopping, hosting extravagant dinner parties and staying late without complaint. She quickly becomes a vital part of family life.

But the relationship is one-sided. Not that Myriam or Paul ever recognise this. Neither of them takes the time to find out about Louise’s own home life, which is lonely and troubled. It’s only when the taxman comes hunting for her that the cracks begin to appear in a carefully maintained facade.

You know the saying, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is”? I can’t help thinking that if Myriam and Paul had taken heed of that instead of selfishly taking Louise for granted, then the abhorrent murder that robs them of their children would never had occurred.

If nothing else, this novel is a dire warning about middle-class complacency, about wanting to have it all and not being prepared to see that everything comes at a cost.

As for the crime at the heart of this novel, I still can’t understand the point of it: did Louise just go mad or did she deliberately destroy Myriam’s most precious “possessions” to make a point that you should never take your children for granted? Or perhaps she just hated those kids and had been pretending she loved them all along? Book groups the world over will have a field day with this one!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Patrick Modiano, Publisher, Setting, Yale University Press

‘After the Circus’ by Patrick Modiano

After the circus by Patrick Modiano

Fiction – paperback; Yale University Press; 160 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

What a treat this book proved to be! Patrick Modiano’s After the Circus, set in the mid-1960s, is a hypnotic and atmospheric read — think moody Parisian cafes, high-ceilinged apartments, empty tree-lined streets and endless cigarette smoking — about a love affair between a teenage boy and an enigmatic older woman. But this is not just a love story; it’s also a kind of mystery, one that is marked by a dark and potentially violent undercurrent.

Love at first sight

When the book opens we meet our narrator, Jean, who is looking back on his life. He tells us that as an 18-year-old he was interrogated by police about a man and a woman he claims not to know. It was during this interrogation that he first set eyes on the woman who has bewitched him ever since:

He [the policeman] saw me to the door of his office. In the hallway, on the leather bench, sat a girl of about twenty-two. “You’re next,” he said to the girl. She stood up. We exchanged glances. Through the door that he’d left ajar, I saw her sit down in the same chair that I’d occupied a moment earlier.

The girl’s name is Gisèle. Later that day, seated in the window of a cafe, Jean sees her passing by and catches her attention. She comes inside to join him, and the pair remain pretty much inseparable from the word go. But there are complications to their relationship. Jean, for instance, never reveals his true age; nor does he admit that his father has fled to Geneva under mysterious circumstances. And Gisèle, who was once married and worked in the circus, plays her cards close to her chest, never quite explaining how she makes a living and why she’s being booted out of her present accommodation.

As the narrative unfolds and the couple slowly begin to open up to one another, making plans to flee to Rome where Jean has been promised a job as a bookseller, Gisèle continues to hold things back. What, for instance, is she hiding? Why does she introduce Jean as her brother to her male friends? And who are these men  — and why do they want her and Jean to carry out a certain task for them?

A love letter to Paris

As well as the moody, evocative descriptions of Paris — the story feels a little like a love letter to the city — Modiano’s quietly understated prose, which is beautifully translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti, truly captures the exhilaration — and confusion — of young love. It brims with nostalgia, heartbreak and melancholy. Yet, at the same time, the book is deeply unsettling, for the young Jean is caught up in events much larger than himself, events he doesn’t fully understand and which have the potential to ruin his life and the lives of others.

I read this elegant, sophisticated book with my heart in my mouth, fearful not only for Jean’s well-being but also his reputation. It’s a wonderful read, the kind of novel you can get completely caught up in as it transports you to another time and place, helped in part by the lovely languid writing and the dreamlike recollection of a different era. Nothing, however, is straightforward: it poses more questions than it answers and there’s an emotional nuance to the writing that brings to mind the likes of Jean Rhys.

If After The Circus is any indication of Patrick Modiano’s general tone and style, chalk me up as a new fan.

Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. After The Circus was first published in French in 1992; this edition by Yale University Press’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series is due to be published in the UK later this month.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Indochina, literary fiction, Marguerite Duras, Publisher, Setting, Vietnam

‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras

The_lover

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Perennial; 130 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray.

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

So begins Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which was first published in 1984. I read it back to back with another (supposedly) sensual novel, the (rather horrid) Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, and they couldn’t be further apart — in mood, style or sheer literary power — even though they covered similar (sexual) territory.

The Lover is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life in Indochina (now Vietnam) and, in particular, the romance she had with a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 when she was just 15. It’s largely based on the author’s own life — she was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to French parents who had emigrated there to work in the French colony. But things did not go well: her father quickly returned to France, where he died soon after, and her mother, a school teacher, made a bad property investment in the colony, which  mired them in poverty. Duras also claimed to have been beaten by her mother and her older brother.

In the novel, the narrator, who effortlessly flicks between first and third person, has a strained relationship with her mother, who wants her daughter to do well at school, to get an education and to study mathematics. The daughter does not think she is good at mathematics, but she excels at French and wants to be a writer.

But that’s not the only strain in their relationship. The mother often goes through periods of despair — I suspect an undiagnosed clinical depression — and locks herself away, despondent and unable to properly care for her family. This hardens Hélène, who blames this lack of care for the death of her younger brother, who succumbs to pneumonia, and it also makes her ashamed.

Search for identity

From the outset, it’s clear that Hélène is unsure of her own identity. She often dresses provocatively — a threadbare silk dress that is sleeveless and low-cut, with a leather belt, gold lame high heels and a man’s Fedora hat — because she feels confident in these kinds of clothes. Yet she realises this attire makes the “girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed” and “might make people laugh”.

But it is exactly this outfit that catches the eye of the Chinese financier, who later becomes her lover. Hélène is returning to boarding school in Saigon from a holiday and is crossing the Mekong Delta by ferry. They talk on the boat and then he gives her a lift in his chauffeured limousine. Later that week he picks her up from school to show her where he lives, and from there a sexual relationship ensues. The rumour mill goes into overdrive:

Fifteen and a half. The news spreads fast in Sadec. The clothes she wears are enough to show. The mother has no idea, and none about how to bring up a daughter. Poor child. Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick, it all means something, it’s not innocent, it means something, it’s to attract attention, money. The brothers are layabouts. They say it’s a Chinese, the son of the millionaire, the villa in Mekong with the blue tiles. And even he, instead of thinking himself honoured, doesn’t want her for his son. A family of white layabouts.

Surprisingly, the affair does not terribly worry the mother, who sees it as a means to an end: her daughter’s lover is wealthy, so he may be able to help the impoverished family with money. If that is a form of prostitution, she can live with it.

Hélène now becomes aware of her own power. She knows that her mother needs her to help support the family. And she knows that men look at her and desire her.

For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting Club.

Beautiful melancholia

There are a lot of complicated family dynamics in this novel, but it is the wise and knowing voice of the narrator, the self-confident schoolgirl who wants to forge her own path in life, to take risks and escape parental and societal expectations, that makes it such a powerful read.

The narrative, which often winds back on itself through Duras’s use of flashbacks, is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, while the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge and pulsates with an aching loneliness  — “I grew old at eighteen” —  which is hugely reminiscent of Jean Rhys. It’s moody and evocative without being depressing, the kind of book that you can settle down with on a rainy afternoon and be swept away into another time and place.

I really loved and admired this short novel, but don’t take my word for it: The Lover was awarded the French Goncourt Prize in 1984 and it features in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was also adapted for film in 1992.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Caroline Vermalle, Fiction, France, Gallic Books, general, London, Publisher, Setting

‘George’s Grand Tour’ by Caroline Vermalle

Georges-grand-tour

Fiction – paperback; Gallic Books; 192 pages; 2015. Translated from the French by Anna Aitken. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Caroline Vermalle’s George’s Grand Tour is the latest in a burgeoning new genre of feel-good novels, such as Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, which are bright, happy and poignant reads.

Admittedly, I tend to like my fiction on the darker side, but every now and then it’s refreshing to read something that practically brims with sunshine and good vibes. I read this when I was feeling slightly miserable for myself (thanks to a pulled calf muscle) and by the final page (yes, I read it in one go while lying on my bed with my leg elevated) I felt immensely cheered. It also made me want to book a holiday to France because Vermalle writes about it so evocatively, especially the fishing ports dotted along the Breton coast.

I should, however, point out that I’m going to keep this review short and sweet — a bit like the book, really — because the real joy in reading this novel is simply going along for the ride knowing as little about it as possible.

The ride, as such, is actually a road trip undertaken by George, an octogenarian, who decides to set off on a great adventure following the route of the Tour de France — in a car, not a bike — taking in 21 stages, 49 villages and covering 3,500km  over two months. He takes his best friend and neighbour Charles with him, but there’s a lot of subterfuge to his plan. First, he has to wait until his over-protective daughter is away, and then he has to figure out how to divert his landline telephone to his mobile so that when his granddaughter calls from London (to check on him) she won’t know he’s out on the road.

There’s a delightfully mischievous tone that runs throughout the narrative. There’s a touch of romance, much sightseeing, beautiful scenery, the occasional satnav diversion, a lot of drinking — and the odd hangover.

George discovers that he’s not too old to learn new things: his mastery of text messaging allows him to reconnect properly with his granddaughter Adèle via mobile phone and their exchanges, dotted through the narrative, are an absolute delight:

We r in L’Auberlac’h, Fnstr, nice port w blu boats.
(We are in L’Auberlac’h, Finistère, nice port with blue boats.)

And while the novel is framed around a road trip there’s much more to it than a long journey in a Renault Scenic: it’s an exploration of the gap between generations and our prejudices against both the young and the elderly, and shows how you are never too old to grab life by the horns and try new things. I adored it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, Laurent Binet, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

HHHH

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 336 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a unique take on the historical novel: it not only blends fact with fiction, the narrative includes the author’s own thoughts on researching and writing the story. What results is an intriguing hybrid, one that constantly reminds us that we can’t always trust the portrayal of history to be accurate or “truthful”, because there will always be elements that are confusing, ambiguous or simply unknowable.

A deadly plot from World War Two

The book focuses on a particular real-life event: the attempted assassination of Nazi SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague on 27 May 1942 by two British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, in a plot dubbed Operation Anthropoid.

As well as exploring the parachutists’ exploits once they are behind enemy lines and all the events leading up to, and after, the planned assassination, it also  looks at Heydrich’s stellar rise up the Nazi ranks to become acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, where he violently suppressed Czech culture and helped plan the “Final Solution”.

In literary terms, Heydrich is a wonderful character — “It’s as if a Dr Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature” — whose horrifying exploits earned him various names, including “The Butcher of Prague”, “The Hangman of Europe” and “The Blond Beast”. In fact, he was regarded as the most dangerous man in the Reich and was seen as a natural successor to Hitler.

He was widely believed to be the brains behind his boss, Heinrich Himmler — and this is the inspiration behind the title HHhH, an acronym of “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich”, which is German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.

How does a novelist stick to the facts?

But as Binet tells Heydrich’s story, he struggles to stick strictly to the facts: he wants to make things up, to add “colour” to situations, to fill in gaps, to create dialogue, to explain character’s motivations and desires:

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell the story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect — and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it — ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy — the unmappable pattern of causality.

He often shows his hand — for instance, when he says a German tank enters the city at 9am he adds that he doesn’t know if that’s true given that the “most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars”.

In another example he describes Goring as being “squeezed into a blue uniform”:

I don’t know why. I just imagine it being blue. It’s true that in photos Goring often sports a pale blue uniform but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day. He might just as easily have been wearing white, for example.

A Marmite book?

The danger with this kind of narrative structure in which the author butts in and interrupts the story to show his thinking is that you either love it or hate it.

If you’ve never really thought about the factual accuracy of historical fiction then you will probably find Binet’s approach fascinating and illuminating.

Me? I found it wearing. I’m a journalist. I know how these things work. I know that it is not always possible to verify every single conceivable, often minor and unimportant, facts — for instance, the colour of people’s clothes worn on a certain date and the exact words spoken behind closed doors — and I believe that a certain journalistic licence is acceptable if it helps get to the “truth” of a story.

But this criticism is not to diminish Binet’s achievement. HHhH is a highly original and astonishing “faction” novel, fast-paced, easy to read and full of thrilling drama. It’s incredibly evocative of time and place — the descriptions of Prague are especially rich and vivid — and meticulous in its detail (I particularly liked all the books and movies that Binet references throughout, many of which I’d read or watched in the past).  All in all, I loved its exploration of loyalty, betrayal, heroism and revenge.

HHhh won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, a highly regarded French literary prize for a first novel, and was shortlisted for various other literary prizes around the world, including the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Afghanistan, Atiq Rahimi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘The Patience Stone’ by Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone
Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by Polly McLean.

If you want to read an important book about the subjugation of women, then put Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone on the top of your list. This novella, first published in France in 2008, won the Goncourt Prize that same year. It’s a rather shocking and deeply affecting read, and I know it will stay with me for a long time to come.

A bedroom confession

The Patience Stone is set in a single room in a war-torn city in Afghanistan. Outside, gun fire and explosions can be heard, along with the hurried footfalls of men carrying weapons, but inside the room it is largely quiet.

The room is small. Rectangular. Stifling, despite the paleness of the turquoise walls, and the two curtains patterned with migrating birds frozen mid-flight against a yellow and blue sky. Holes in the curtains allow the rays of the sun to reach the faded stripes of a kilim. At the far end of the room is another curtain. Green. Unpatterned. Concealing a disused door. Or an alcove.

In this room there is a man and a woman: the man is in a coma, with a bullet in his neck, and he is lying on his back under a dirty white sheet, his gaze fixed on the ceiling; the woman — his wife — sits beside him, feeding him through a tube, lubricating his eyes with drops and all the while praying for his recovery.

When the unnamed woman is not praying, she fills the time and the silence by talking to her husband — she treats him like a “patience stone” to which you:

“…tell all your problems to, all your struggles, all your pain, all your woes… to which you confess everything in your heart, everything you don’t dare tell anyone. You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces.”

And what a confession this woman makes. Initially her voice is timid and afraid  — “Don’t abandon me, you’re all I have left” — but it grows increasingly angry as she comes to terms with the fact that the pair have been abandoned by her husband’s family. Only her aunt, an outcast herself, has stood by her and helps looks after the couple’s two young daughters.

But as the story progresses, this rage is then turned towards her husband, as she recalls their life together — the first three years of their arranged marriage were spent apart while he fought in the war — and the ways in which he has abused her — sexually, physically and emotionally — ever since their marriage was consummated.

Women as second-class citizens

On the whole, the woman’s tale is largely a sexual confession, where her needs have been wholly subjugated by her husband’s desires. She rails against the way she has been treated as nothing more than an object for her husband’s sexual gratification, then made to feel dirty and whore-like for daring to menstruate.

Her bold revelations might be heart-breaking, painful and courageous — they get increasingly more fevered and explosive as the story progresses, she’s definitely no puritan and there are hints she’s becoming unhinged — but they give voice to millions of women who have suffered at the hands of male brutality and patriarchal tribal customs throughout the centuries.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that what goes on in this room between the silent man and the uncensored woman is a microcosm of society in Afghanistan today, where women are second-class citizens, denied basic rights to education, health care and personal independence. For that reason, reading this novella filled me with a slow-burning fury, not dissimilar to the reaction I had when I read The Bookseller of Kabul in 2005.

A confronting read

There’s no doubt that The Patience Stone  shines a light on some confronting and challenging truths — about war, religion, men, sex and misogyny — but it’s done in a rather understated way.

Its gentle, stripped-back prose is possessed of astonishing power, perhaps because it reads like a play, complete with stage directions — “In the street we hear someone shouting Halt! And then a gunshot. And footsteps, fleeing” — and a dramatic monologue. I kept thinking it would make a terrific film because it felt so visual and emotional — and then I discovered it was made into one last year:


I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to rent it, but it’s definitely gone on to my wish list. If it’s anything like the book, it will be compelling, intimate — and unforgettable.