Henry James’ Midnight Song (Austria)

book covercourtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

by Carol de Chellis Hill

Oh boy, is this book FUN. Get to know historical and literary characters (and they are Characters) like Henry James, who loves women but refuses to date them. Like Edith Wharton, the opinionated speed-demon and lady author. Like Inspector Maurice, who seduces women so easily that it makes him weary. Like the libido-nous Countess whose American cousins are scandalized by her behavior. Like Zionist Theodor Herzl and his Viennese newspaper. Like the very Jewish Siggi Freud and his menage a trois with his wife and his wife’s sister. Like Freud’s intended successor the not-at-all Jewish Carl Jung.

Freud is treating James for a neurosis involving a cat. Wharton is having an affair, as is the Countess, but with different men. The Inspector is trying to solve a possible murder, but Freud is obstructing justice. Herzl is offending other Jews with his separate but equal ideas. The young Americans are writing a novel. Carl Jung is seducing a female psychiatrist. Emma Eckstein is having nosebleeds–possibly from hysteria, but possibly from having an unfortunate length of gauze left in her nose after an incredibly incompetent operation by Freud’s bosom buddy Dr. FleiB. (I am using the letter B here as a stand-in for the German character meaning a double S.) Dr. FleiB is such an idiot that I wondered if he were related to Mike Fleiss, creator of the TV series The Bachelor. Just kidding! I love the Bachelor. But I would totally have sued that doctor. I know, it’s so American of me. And this is a very European book.

Take My Advice: Persevere!

a cafe in ViennaI wasn’t sure about this novel at first. It took me about 70 pages to really fall in love with it, so I urge you to go on a second or even third date with this novel. It is SO worth it. It isn’t that the short scenes are hard to read–not at all. The writing is clear and concise–very clean. The more I read about each character, the more eager I became to see what they were doing and thinking and saying.

I just didn’t like that in the beginning, you can’t really tell what’s real and what isn’t–the black horses and the fog and whether there is a murder or not, and who is hysterical and who isn’t. But as the book went on, it just didn’t matter because I was so into the characters.

Klimdt painting woman in goldIf you enjoy literature and history, this book will knock your socks off. It’s so unique. I liked that there were short footnotes explaining obscure references, like the one about the Dreyfus Trial, and then I enjoyed Googling to learn more.

Vienna is kind of a character in the story–the characters have strong opinions about the city. The Inspector was born there but hates it. He lives in Paris and has a bit of a nervous breakdown when his superiors ask him to return to solve these murders.

The Countess loves it; Freud has made it his home and I suspect in part because Vienna is a Jewish cultural center and has a Talmudic rabbi school established by Emperor Franz  Josef. The Emperor is protective of “his Jews” which makes it a real shame when later on, the Nazis erase all of the tolerance present in this time period. There is some foreshadowing in the book that will make you shiver!

The Spanish riding school at the Hofburg palace...Lippizaner stallions

The Spanish riding school at the Hofburg palace…Lippizaner stallions

As with most cities, there are suggestions that the sophisticated city folk are lazy hedonites who are morally bankrupt or corrupt or just too decadent.

Indeed, Vienna, with its cathedral crypts and sachertorte and sidewalk cafes and performances of T.S. Eliot is not the Austria I knew as a Bavarian exchange student. Not for these characters the rustic ski lodges of Schladming nor the ancient apple orchards of Graz or the small pink churches and cross-country ski fields of Peiting or the mountainous splendor and small-city feel of Salzburg. Not for them the homemade EidelweiB schnapps from a grandfather’s still.

castle in ViennaNo, these are rich people, famous people, doing what the rich and famous do. Swanning about in beautiful clothes, getting into ridiculous arguments about abstract theories at dinner parties, sleeping around and in general behaving badly. And what fun it is. They drive too fast, they speak too loudly, they behave in petty and prejudiced and gratuitous ways.

At one point Leopold, the Countess’s much-scorned husband, says that Africans are savages–they wear no clothes, they live in huts, and they speak barbaric languages. He is completely unaware of his own bias! He knows the Countess sleeps around, and not with him, but he doesn’t confront her for fear she will leave him, and then he would lose his possession of a beautiful woman. Her beauty as an object he owns brings him pleasure. UGH

map of Austria circa 1815I had to wonder if Carol the author had written herself into the story, because the young American Cecily has an outburst at Henry James and Edith Wharton, saying that unless they put her into fiction she will not live forever, but will disappear. She criticizes James’s writing, saying he should have been better to Lily Bart, that his readers and his characters deserve more. My sentiments exactly! She also asks which of the two authors’ works will still be widely read in 100 years. She obviously favors James, but I think it might be The Age of Innocence by Wharton. HMMM. I did read Portrait of a Lady in school but I didn’t like it.

Two Not Very Beautiful People Who Wrote Beautifully

Henry James

Henry James

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s ironic that Cecily doesn’t like Wharton, feeling her to be in competition for the attention of James, which is all a moot point as James is quite clearly gay. Well, maybe it wasn’t so clear during the fin de siècle. But it sure is now. Cecily’s Aunt Ida doesn’t really like Wharton either, being a bluestocking feminist, because Wharton doesn’t stand up for women, even being a female author. Still Wharton is a likeable character with a lot of drive (pardon the pun).

Rating: Rush right out and buy this book. Then spend three days reading it and another three Googling. Five therapists’ couches!

 

 

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Dirty Feet (Guinea) or (Togo)

book covercourtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

From a man with a cheesy name (ha ha)…Edem Awumey

I’m not sure where to place this book in the world. Rather like the main character. But we’ll get to him in a moment. The author, Edem Awumey, is from Togo. The MC is from Guinea. But, he’s in exile in Paris. So we don’t really get a sense of Togo or Guinea in the book. It seems ripped from today’s headlines, about Africans fleeing their homelands for Western Europe though, so I will go with Guinea.

There are 3 Guineas, by the way. There is Equatorial Guinea, the only African country where Spanish is spoken, as a result of imperialism. There is Guinea-Bissau, where Portuguese is spoken–second verse, same as the first. And there is Guinea, on the coast, in the Gulf of Guinea, where the MC, Askia, ended up with his family before going to Paris in search of his father. The family is from the interior, fleeing poverty and starvation, although the nation is never specified.

map oF guineaI must say, I thought all along that the search for Askia’s father Sidi ben Sylla Mohammed was futile. Askia doesn’t know why his father left them, or what has happened to the man in the pure white turban. Is he dead? Did he go on ahead? Did he abandon them?

The son is living in a cockroach-infested squat in Paris, having a non-sexual relationship with a Bulgarian girl who claims to have photographed his father 10 years earlier. He’s driving a cab. He’s also fleeing a violent past. I hated the bits about how the kids were so cruel to the dog, though I suspect it is a Western view of the world and the place of animals in it.

An Excerpt:

women holding hands“Askia would recount how, in her final delirium, his mother would keep on about the letters that Sidi Ben Sylla Mohammed, his father, was supposed to have sent from Paris. Along with some photos. Which he had never seen. But then one day Askia went off on the same route as the absent one. He did not leave to find the missing father. He could live with gaps in his genealogy. He left because of a strange thing his mother had said. “For a long time we were on the road, my son. And wherever we went, people called us Dirty Feet. If you go away, you will understand. Why they called us Dirty Feet…”

villiages

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, I have been called by a former boyfriend a person with Wandering Feet, so I understand. It sounds romantic until you have to do it, until you have no choice. Until strangers get to say that you stink.

Some reviewers have compared this novel to The Stranger, by Albert Camus. I didn’t see it, but it’s been a long time since I read that work. Apparently Camus was himself a “pied-noir”, or Black Foot, being Algerian of European descent, returning to France after the independence of Algeria.

outdoor school

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought many things about the book were genius. The wandering theme, relating to slavery, being cast out on the road. The way that no village in Africa would take in the strangers, thinking them the cause of bad luck, as if it were catching. Paris doesn’t want to take them in either–Askia is illegal. The girlfriend, who is herself a Gypsy, wandering borderless. Identity-less in a way.

photo of author

Edem Awumey

I recently read an article on why ISIS has made France one of its top targets. I did wonder in light of (more) terror attacks recently–why France? Why  not Germany or England or Hungary? One of the reasons proposed online is that France has a larger proportion of Muslim people living there, and terrorism like other crimes is a numbers game. If 1 in 10 people is a burglar, for example, then if you have more people living in your country you’ll have more burglaries–that makes sense–so Switzerland probably has fewer burglaries than China. Another reason is that Paris has a large Muslim slum area in which people are not integrated; are poor and have few opportunities. And I’m sure a third reason is the history of French colonialism and disempowerment of Africans.

Albert Camus

Albert Camus

I sometimes wonder whether, if the European colonialists could have looked into the future and foreseen their actions coming home to roost, if they would have behaved differently.

Anyway, I enjoyed some parts of this book and others not. I did not like the ending, which was not satisfying. I think it would have been more interesting (but vastly more difficult to write) for Askia to have encountered and confronted his father…but I can see why the author chose the ending he did, particularly if he is paying homage to Camus and Samuel Beckett and that ilk. I don’t like their books.

However, this novel was a Prix Goncourt finalist, so somebody liked it a great deal indeed! I guess it’s one of those where I can admire the writing style and the plotting even as I dislike the characters and the story.

Rating: Three clean but illegal taxicabs.

 

Diary of a Blood Donor (Estonia)

by Mati Unt

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Gulf of Finland mapThis novel is supposed to be a re-telling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but I had trouble following it. It isn’t a linear narrative. Parts of it are–and I enjoyed them–and then it’s interspersed with stream-of-consciousness bits about nameless people that don’t seem important to the main story. A woman makes blood dumplings while waiting for her philandering husband, for example.

There is blood, and mysterious attacks, and characters named Minna (Mina) and Lussi (Lucy) and Joonathan Hark (Jonathan Harker)…There is a section toward the end about bats and magic and vampires in Estonian folklore. And yet I kept getting the feeling that something was being implied, something hidden behind a veil of postmodernism, something I would understand were I Estonian or even Finnish or Russian, but which without context I was left floundering in a gulf of seemingly meaningless nonsense.

Map of EstoniaIt’s a shame, because the linear bits are so pleasing. They seem to be set in 1986, during Communism, although they bounce around a bit:

“N., comfortable in his armchair, took a long drag from his pipe and began to talk…

I’d been thinking of changing the wallpaper for a while anyway, but the shops had no paper. By the time the paper became available, they were out of glue. When I decided to boil my own glue, starch had disappeared, because the starch factories, due to the gas shortage, had no potatoes. And by the time starch reappeared, the wallpaper factory was bankrupt. So I called the supplier and was told the wallpaper would be in tomorrow. I’ll go again and take a look, but I expect to be told that the wallpaper will be in the day after tomorrow.”

The Dead Poet

Lydia Koidula on the banknoteMuch of the non-vampiric action centers around Lydia Koidula (1843-1886) and her patriotic Estonian fervor. One of the scenes in the novel is of Estonian and Soviet soldiers in 1946, in St Petersburg (aka Leningrad), digging up her body and repatriating it to Estonia. They did not, however, take her husband, a Baltic German gynecologist deemed not Estonian enough. So his grave is still in Petersburg!

book cover“With his aching tooth, [Joosip] spoke of Koidula’s mission. What as her mission? Certainly patriotic. Her father was an educator in the broadest sense. At home they spoke German and wrote in German, but they disapproved of the Baltic Barons. Her brothers were drunks. One fell out of a window, the other one died of typhus. Not a suitable theme for a eulogy. It’s not a good idea to cover up the truth–but then, truth can be debilitating The history of the Estonian people has many dismal and evil pages, but why dwell on the obvious? All our numerous invaders have made us a touchy people. We’d rather hear what is uplifting and good…”

I was rather taken with the author’s idea that the subconscious of a people, of a nation, can create a living being. In this case, the vampire. (In the case of Tibetans, a tulpa.) I shudder to think what the subconscious of an America capable of electing Donald Trump would create. UGH.

The Realities of Estonian Life

A port in EstoniaIn the beginning of the book, the author has received a mysterious letter asking him to travel to Leningrad and meet the sender on the ship Aurora on a certain date. The Aurora, we learn, is the same cruiser that fired the first shot at the Winter Palace in 1917, leading to the Russian revolution. After WWI, the Estonians fought for their freedom and earned it. It was sadly short-lived as the Soviet Union absorbed them (plus their southern neighbors Latvia and Lithuania) during World War II. After the fall of the Berlin War, Estonia freed itself from its “liberators” once again.

A beach in EstoniaI was surprised to see that the Estonian language seems to have so many similarities to Finnish, but I shouldn’t have been, given its geography. Estonia sits at the top of the Gulf of Finland, just across the Baltic Sea from…Finland. The author enjoys coffee and sugar sent to him by his Finnish publisher…items which are rationed or non-existent in Estonia.

In the novel, there is one proper name, Euruut, with two umlauts over the double “u”s. If the umlauts are shorthand for a silent “e” as in German, then this name with all its vowels would be Eureueut. That’s a LOT of vowels. (Euruut is one of the characters that I have no idea of why he is even in the novel.)

A palace in EstoniaBut. This is definitely a book that’s worth reading. I’d suggest Googling it either first or last, so you can discover what the book is all about. If you’re an American like me and do not enjoy non-linear novels, hang in there. This narrative has a lot to offer, even as it is making you uncomfortable.

Rating: Four squawking seagulls.

 

Shadows of Your Black Memory (Equatorial Guinea)

by Donato Ndongo
Translated by Michael Ugarte from the Spanish

Note: Equatorial Guinea was the only Spanish-speaking country in sub-Saharan Africa

The first chapter of this book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It’s a young African man explaining to the white priest why he no longer wants to be ordained. The white man is just incredulous that he would reject this amazing opportunity to do anything else. And of course, the priest thinks the Lord has called the young man.

The African says that while his country needs religion–it also needs doctors and lawyers and engineers. Of course the priest dismisses this statement as nonsense.

What’s It All About

This novel features a Westernized African man looking back and trying to remember his “African-ness”. And it’s hard. Identity, as the translator’s postscript says, is a mixture of the personal, ethnic, national, religious, existential. From the time he was little, the narrator was conditioned to turn his back on Africa and embrace Spain. He wants to identify with the colonizers because they have power.

Here’s a paragraph from the time when the narrator, under the wing of Father Ortiz, his would-be mentor and colonial father-figure, steps into a boat. They’re going to an island where the kid will learn to be a priest and he’s leaving his family.

“…And you would return many years later, carrying the wisdom and power of the whites, determined to be the new boss in town. Your mother was crying, but you didn’t see her because you were busy thinking about your victorious return, dressed in a black cassock and blue sash that would give you the perpetual immunity necessary fro the salvation of the tribe. Your father was crying, but you didn’t see him, you saw yourself as a replica of Father Ortiz imbued with his mysterious, magical power, which , together with the mysterious magical dignity of the ancestors, had been granted to you; it would give you the strength and valor necessary to consolidate the triumph….”

Straight Out of Equatorial Guinea

And more memories:

“When you all met Father Ortiz that noon at the mission, you didn’t know that many, too many years would pass before you would again walk on that beach, a beach with bubbling waters, in the distance, touched by white foam and bright red clouds of dust. Father Ortiz took your hand when you got out of the mission’s Land Rover.

“The blacks, conquered by the will of the planters, were gathered there with boxes, sacks, packages, wood, themselves determined to initiate a life as conquerors–indecisive, unpracticed, and unwilling, like you, in an unfamiliar island shadowed by mist and covered in black by the vomit of the earth’s entrails.

“Yes, just like you, except that they would break their backs on the plantations and you would genuflect at the alter, initiated into the white man’s practice of witchcraft, without knowing that you too would join an invisible army of conquerors attracted to the island’s riches.

“The planter had told them they would find good pay for their work, fine women, taverns just for blacks, a short distance from Santa Isabel but you’ll be able to do what you want there, not like on the mainland, where you have to hide your drink; you’ll have good strong brandy; here, take three hundred pesetas for your girlfriends dowry and come with me to Fernando Poo for a couple of years, only four work seasons, and when you go back, you’ll be top man in town, the envy of your townspeople.

“And the black man rolled his eyes, and he took the three hundred pesetas that to him meant fine women and good strong brandy; happiness was promised, so now he dozed off among the boxes, the sacks and packages.

Young Men Coming of Age

Some of the tension in the plot comes from cultural clashes in Equatorial Guinea. The boy narrator’s father is all for Western ideas. The mom and dad are Catholics who have been well taught about the “needed advancement of their native land in economics, morals, and technology.” The kid never has to kneel on gravel at school as a punishment like some of the kids, because they speak Spanish at home and so he speaks it well.

In school they march in front of the Spanish flag, and sing paeons to Ferdinand and Isabella. They are taught to say that they are Spaniards and Fascists, and that Facism and Catholicism are good and great.

But the boy’s Tio Abeso has other ideas. He’s all for the indigenous culture. He speaks Fang and doesn’t know Spanish. He was the elected village chief before the Spanish forcibly deposed him, but he still influences the people. He is a polygamist who believes in the power of the tribe’s ancestors rather than in Christ, and he insists on providing his nephew with the traditional rituals. Including circumcision.

The second chapter is the narrator’s reminiscing about “becoming a man” in the tradition of his tribe. As a little boy he was teased by his older cousins and boys in the village because he was “a child” and they were “men”. So at the age of 6 or 7 he’s taken out for his circumcision ceremony. It’s described in detail. I’m sorry, but UGH. Maybe this is just me as a woman, or as a Westerner or both, but I don’t like male coming-of-age stories because I don’t understand the obsession with the phallus. Moving on!

In the flashback where the narrator is leaving his family, there was a sentence that really struck me: “They were carrying bundles, oil lamps, a mattress, a sack of malanga, and the one at your side wearing a grotesque helmet from some mysterious war the whites had fought among themselves, who knows when. But you, recalling it many years later when you read about the heroic feats of that way, identified it as a German helmet. But of course, the man wearing it didn’t know…”

Didn’t know? Didn’t know about World War II? We think in the Western World that everyone knows about it and is as horrified as we are. No. In Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, he explains that many black South Africans name their dogs or even their children “Hitler”, thinking it a strong name that scared lots and lots of white people. They neither know nor care about the war.

 Conclusions

This was an easy read. The translator did a great job, and I liked having the explanations and notes at the end, so I could form my own opinions of Ndongo’s prose. His writing, at least in translation, is smooth and fluid. It was an interesting choice to tell the story in flashbacks but somehow keep the tension. He managed.

Three sacks of Malanga!

Malanga is Arrowhead Root, a potato-like tuber said to have a nut-like flavor.

Under the Yoke (Bulgaria)

by Ivan Vazov

When this book arrived (by special order from Auntie’s Bookstore) I was surprised to see that it’s two-language. In the Rosetta series. The left pages are all in Bulgarian (Cyrillic script). The right pages are in English. I was actually thrilled, because I love languages. However, I soon found out that:

I’ve only got the first 16 chapters of this Bulgarian classic, written in 1888. And why?

Completely Ridiculous, Yet Hilarious Introduction

And I quote: “This volumes includes the first 16 chapters of part one. There are two reasons for this-the first is praticality, (sic) a complete bilingual edition would be around 600 pages long; secondly it is at this point that the translations start to diverge quite significantly. It is hoped that the current volume provides enough grouding (sic) to allow the student to allow the student to proceed with the rest of the novel in the original.”

Are you &*%&^&*^!! kidding me?!!!

I have taken a Russian language course at EWU. I have the Russian Rosetta Stone software. I read Cyrillic. But I don’t speak Bulgarian! Yes, I can translate the title as Pod Igroto, but I would have NO idea it meant Under the Yoke if the English weren’t right beside it.

I could read the book with a dictionary, manually and laboriously translating word for word like the censors in Laos (see Colin Cotteril for explanation)…it would probably only take 5 years. Sorry, other books to read!

OK. Enough grousing. On to the book.

The Turks Were Like Flies

The novel begins in a mill in rural Bulgaria. The miller’s 10-year old daughter is asleep on a cot in the corner and the father is preparing to turn in himself when there is an ominous and thunderous knock at the door. The miller looks out to find a notorious outlaw and a muscle-bound henchman standing there. The old man has no choice but to let them in.

Huts in BulgariaThey tell him to go fetch alcohol for them from town. The miller, knowing they will assault his daughter if he leaves, says no. The creeps then start stringing the miller up from the rafters so he can watch. The swaggering bullies aren’t afraid of an old man and a little girl. So they’re very surprised when a healthy young man who has been hiding in the mill leaps out and attacks them. He puts an end to their atrocities by killing them.

(The outlaw had, in just the last week, cut the head off another child, a boy from the village, for no apparent reason other than that he could.)

Ottoman soldierThe young man is the hero of this tale, and he’s just escaped from a Turkish prison. The miller, in gratitude, helps him get established in the village and to fly under the radar.

The narrator of this book is very scathing about the Turks. “They were like flies,” he says, and this is not a compliment. (I mention it because in ancient Nubia, flies were so respected that their likeness appeared on medals of honor. The Nubians thought the flies persistence was appropriate to warriors.) Anyway, the Bulgarians were “under the yoke” of the Ottoman Empire, and had been for centuries.

Ivan Vasov doesn’t like it. The people chafe. The town doctor, the Chorbaji, the escaped prisoner and others are all quietly plotting revolution. You can see why.

Gone Missing

Bulgarian MapIt would have been helpful to have had some footnotes while reading this novel. Dr. Phil always says “You can’t change what you can’t acknowledge.” Well, you can’t understand what you don’t know isn’t what you assume. Confused? Here is the beginning of the novel:

“On a delightful evening in May Chorbaji Marko, bareheaded and in dressing gown and slippers was sitting at supper with his family in the courtyard.”

Well naturally I thought this man’s name was Marko Chorbaji, written in the Hungarian and Japanese way (and apparently the Bulgarian) with the family name first. But as the book goes on, it talks about the Chorbaji class. It’s the upper middle class of society, not a name. Huh.

I enjoyed the book. It was an easy read. I would like to read the rest of it! (In English.)

Rating: Five Higoumens! (A Higoumen is the leader of a monastery. The one in this book is a patriot. Very interesting.)