Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O'Brien

Little, Brown and Company, 2015
299 pp

"Come away, O human child
To the waters and the wild,
With a faery, hand in hand, 
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."  
                                                                              -- 152

In 1999 while a full-scale manhunt was on for Radovan Karadžić, aka "the Beast of Bosnia," who was just last year convicted of "genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity" by a UN tribunal, Karadžić managed to escape into Serbia.  In 2005, as Julian Borger reports in The Guardian
"a self-styled spiritual healer and clairvoyant, Mina Minic, answered a ring on his doorbell in Belgrade to find himself face-to-face with a tall man with a long bushy beard, abundant white hair done up in a top-knot tied with a black ribbon. He looked 'like a monk who had done something wrong with a nun,' Minic would recall later." 
This "tall man with a long bushy beard" was none other than Karadžić himself, 
"trying out a new identity provided by sympathisers in Serbian intelligence. He introduced himself as Dragan Dabic, a therapist who had just returned home from a stint in New York following an ugly split with his wife."
He was arrested in Belgrade in July, 2008, but only after
"working for years in a clinic...practicing alternative medicine. He even lectured on videotape at local community centers, in an open and active life..." 
The Little Red Chairs moves the scene from Belgrade to the small Irish town of Cloonoila, where one winter night, Dr. Vladimir Dragan arrives and proceeds to take up work as a holistic healer and sex therapist. People would later remember some bizarre occurrences on that night -- "dogs barking crazily, as if there was thunder, and the sound of the nightingale." At first
"There were those who smelt vice and corruption, while a few lone voices were insisting that he might be an artery for good."
The local schoolmaster responds by relating the story of Rasputin,
"...who hailed from the wilds of Siberia and infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court, presenting himself a a visionary and a healer. He was going to lift Russia from its lethargy, and darkness, he was going to cure the sick child of the Czarina, the future heir, of his haemophilia and he was going to perform miracles ad infinitum. Did he cure the heir? No. Did he save the Russian family from the firing squad? No. He was a fornicator and had carnal knowledge of most of the women in the court."
His last words on the topic were a warning that "Rasputin's last supper was a plate of biscuits laced with cyanide." His little speech gave me a jolt -- not knowing anything about this story prior to reading it, the mention of Rasputin and how he had "infiltrated himself into the very nucleus of the Russian court," gave me my first clue that something just may not be right here, that what's on the surface isn't the real story.    On the other hand, throughout the town the thought also floated that perhaps the newcomer would "bring a bit of Romance into our lives."  Eventually the town gets used to him, incorporating their new healer into their lives and activities. Over the space of  the first few chapters O'Brien captures individual thoughts and reactions among the people living there, among them Fidelma McBride.

Fidelma is forty to her husband Jack's sixties, and as we meet her, we find out that the age difference "had begun to matter."  Jack, the local draper, prefers "keeping her to himself, shutting the world out, drawing the heavy velvet curtains too early on a bright evening."  She, however, of the "Gioconda smile,"  is "in her element" among the "warmth and the banter" of others, but most of all, Fidelma is desperate for a child, having lost two during her marriage.  She above all others is drawn to Dr. Vlad -- not necessarily a matter of love but rather centering on her desire to have a baby. The two begin an affair, which leads to serious implications down the road, especially when Dr. Dragan's past catches up with him.  The revelations about his history have a life-changing impact on this woman's life, who eventually makes her way to London after an horrific incident, where she meets other refugees from different parts of the world who have also had to flee their homes, who have suffered as Fidelma states, "fates much harder than mine, excruciating."

O'Brien's introduction of these people into this book as they relate their own stories offers a glimpse of the sorts of horrific realities that would cause people to flee their homelands and just what sort of realities exist for modern refugees trying to make a new life for themselves. This displacement, and the loss of home is a huge theme that carries throughout the story, and not just in Fidelma's situation.  Fidelma carries the added burden of guilt based on what she feels is her complicity, another thematic element that crops up throughout this book. Why, for example, are people so drawn to these self-deluded, "false prophets" who have appeared throughout history and will continue to do so to such horrific ends? It's a good question, and one that people should be considering, especially now.  There is much more, of course, and I'm only scratching the surface here, but it  is a novel very much worth reading.

  The title of O'Brien's novel reflects the line of 11,541 small red chairs laid out on Titova Street in Sarajevo, April 6, 2012  "on the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War."

from The Atlantic, April 13, 2012
In July of 2016 an interview with Edna O'Brien appeared at Faber & Faber's blog where she notes that these "little chairs" are the "emblematic coffins, so to speak, of infants and children who had lost their lives."  She also notes that
"We cannot ignore or avoid what is happening in the world, it is presented on our screens every single moment. It must by necessity come into the work, because we are all witnesses to what is happening. To write about it is not to ease one’s conscience or exalt one’s status. It is simply to be one of the witnesses along the way."
I'm thinking that on a personal level,  the message of standing as witnesses and not looking away just may be the most important one of all in this novel. 

I'm also looking at readers' takes on this book and several people have had a less-than-sterling response to it, largely because it doesn't seem to be the work of the same Edna O'Brien as in her other novels (to which I can't respond because this is my first by her).   I'll agree that in some spots things seemed a bit contrived, and there's a sort of clunky, disjointed feel here and there in terms of structure, but overall, I was completely engrossed in this book which asks some very difficult but pertinent and timely questions. Recommended. 

real reviews: 
James Wood at  The New Yorker
Joyce Carol Oates at The New York Times
Ron Charles at The Washington Post

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Alpine Ballad by Vasil Bykau

Glagoslav Publications, 2016
translated by Mikaili Khilo
200 pp

paperback, my copy from the publisher. My thanks, along with sincere apologies for not getting to it sooner.


There is something very special about this particular edition of this novel, as noted on the back cover blurb, it is
"An altruistic, philanthropic project of Glasgoslav Publications, Alpine Ballad" is coming out as a gesture of peace and a reminder to all of the human cost of wars that ransack our planet to this day."  
Certainly can't argue with that. Extra cheers to Glagoslav, because the other thing that makes this edition so special is that this translation is the first not to have been based on versions censored by the Soviets.

I had no idea before reading this novel who this author was. It's an embarrassing thing to admit, but, well, there it is. There is a very nice introduction to Bykau in the intro section of this book, and as I was looking up more biographical info about Bykau, I stumbled onto a blurb for his  biographyVasil Bykau His Life and Works by Zina J.Gimpelevich.  It says that
"The Soviet Union banned many of Vasil Bykau's novels, which often focus on the agonizing moral dilemmas faced by young officers during the horrors of war. Considered the best modern Belarusan writer and the last Eastern European literary dissident, Bykau (1924-2003) is referred to as "the conscience of a nation" for leading an intellectual crusade against Lukasenka's totalitarian regime. In exile from Belarus for several years, he was given refuge by Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize by Havel, Czeslaw Milsoz, and PEN."
I'll be reading his biography for sure in 2017.  For sure.  He knows his topic -- he served in the army during World War II and was wounded several times; when the war was over, he began to write.

Now on to the book.

Alpine Ballad is, on the face of it, a novel about the flight for freedom made by two prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp somewhere in the Austrian Alps after they'd managed to escape.  Four of Ivan Tsyareshka's fellow prisoners died after an unexploded  bomb goes off, leaving a nearly-impenetrable cloud of dust and a lot of chaos. Ivan takes off, knowing that there's no way the others survived although he understands that it was only due to their deaths that he now has a chance at freedom.  Alsatian dogs and soldiers are sent after him, but he's not going to give up, and eventually clears the camp area, heading toward the Alps with the plan to make it to Trieste, where he hopes to hook up with partisans.  It isn't long, though, until he encounters another escapee,  Giulia, who is in the camp as a political prisoner marked by a red triangle on her clothing.  The novel follows their journey and their hopes as they take uncertain steps toward freedom.

Now, I say "on the face of it," because there's way more than just a simple escape going on here.  Earlier I mentioned that this novel's publication is a "reminder to all of the human costs of wars," a theme that just permeates this book.  One major idea captured here  is what Bykau refers to as "Entmenschung," referring to the dehumanizing practices of the Nazis, which he says is "the most dastardly of all evil deeds on earth."  We see this idea at work throughout the novel, and it especially comes into play here as Ivan more than once has to make decisions that will require strength of spirit and an examination of his own humanity.  Ivan totally understands this concept -- as we're told, once he was put into the camps and had the opportunity to observe what was going with "the underside of Nazism," he comes to realize that "death was not the worst thing that could happen during the war."

How these ideas play out through the novel I will leave to others to discover.  The story gives Ivan a chance for reflection in the form of flashbacks, which not only help us to understand who he is as a person, but which also offers a look at life in the USSR in the 1930s, most especially the famines that killed so many people in the Ukraine.  While the journey embarked on by Giulia and Ivan is just downright brutal in so many places, this is not, as I said earlier, just another novel about an escape -- reading it that way sort of lessens the impact and importance of what the author has to say here.

another one I recommend. Serious food for thought in this novel.

fiction from Belarus

Sunday, December 11, 2016

a real-world book group read: Em and the Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Aleph Books, 2012
235 pp

"What is a cure when you're dealing with the human mind? What is normal?"

I picked up my phone on Friday morning and my friend and fellow book-group member says to me, "you really put your balls out there with this book," and I suddenly had a panic moment since I hadn't even started it and we meet on Tuesday.  Yikes. After explaining to her that I hadn't even opened it and after some more chatty conversation about the novel,  I figured I'd best be hustling my bustle and get reading. After all, it was my choice for December's group read so I should know something about it, right?    Note the 2012 copyright date -- this book's been sitting on my shelves since it was longlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which is why I bought it in the first place. It didn't win, but it did win the 2012 Hindu Literary Prize.   Oh my god -- 2013 was such a good year for reading, with some excellent novels like Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon (a lovely book that no one should miss), River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, book two of his incredible Ibis trilogy (my favorite historical fiction series ever), and Jeet Thayer's Narcopolis (that year's winner)  to mention only a few.  [As a side note, 2014's winner, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry, is another no-miss novel that I can highly recommend. Memo to self - put that one on next year's group read list.]  Anyway, I started Em and the Big Hoom after that phone call, took a break around 6:30 to go out for Thai and then finished it Saturday morning. 

The first thing I'll say is that it was difficult to keep myself grounded in the idea that this was fiction since it reads so much like a memoir.  One reviewer's overall opinion: "often wonderful writing, but feels too anchored in the auto/biographical" which I assume is a negative here, but I thought otherwise. To create a fiction that reads like reality is to me a mark of a good author; if it is based in reality, well, to put forth one's very soul  cloaked in fiction is a gutsy, bold move, but to each his/her own, of course.  The Em of the title is the narrator's mother, Imelda, who is married to Augustine, aka the Big Hoom.  The story is told via the son, the younger of two children born into this family (the other is daughter Susan), who as he says, wants to "try and understand her," to 
"try and figure out how this happened to my mother, once a beautiful woman with a lovely singing voice, and -- yes -- how this happened to my father, a man with a future who had given it all up to make sure the present was manageable. For her. For us."
Our first clue that something is not quite right is that the novel opens in "Ward 33 (Psychiatric) Sir J.J. Hospital."  The serious bipolar depression that keeps landing her there after several suicide attempts is the "this" that the son is trying to understand, but the novel is so much more than a young man trying to understand his mother's mental illness, which is difficult in and of itself.  At one point Em notes that "Nobody knows what I am going through," and her son agrees:
"Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again. At times, when I was young, I wanted to be inside the tower so I could understand what it was like. But I knew, even then, that I did not want to be a permanent resident of the tower. I wanted to visit and even visiting meant nothing because you could always leave. You're a tourist; she's a resident."
But his real aim is to get underneath her condition, to recover the woman herself, doing so via her stories, her many writings, and what she says when she's speaking in a free-association sort of way, although this isn't always easy, as he notes, since
"Conversations with Em could be like wandering in a town you had never seen before, where every path you took might change course midway and take you with it. You had to keep finding your way back to the main street in order to get anywhere."
One way to approach this novel is as a sort of testimony to Em, but at the same time, it's the Big Hoom who also gets much credit, for being the glue that holds the family together as they undergo crisis after crisis. And then, of course, the son, who just dreads that he may be watching his own future play out in what's happening to Em.  The thing about this book is that there is so much at work here that my short little post can't possibly do it the justice it deserves; there are so many layers to uncover and so many relevant topics that crop up throughout the story that it is again one of those books that a person needs to discover on his/her own.

It's a lovely novel, poignant, sad, filled with despair, but sometimes funny in a darkly humorous sort of way, and frankly, sometimes it's just flat-out, absolutely frightening.  And now that I've written that sentence, it seems to me that my reaction to this book must mirror a range of emotions that caretakers or family members of those suffering the same "madness" as Em does here must also experience, so to me the "auto/biographical" feel becomes even more real.  It's a good writer, I say, who can bring those feelings out onto the page where they then transfer into my head and live there for the duration.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I'm just sad that it's taken me three years to get to it.

other reviews worth noting:

The Guardian
The Complete Review
The Toronto Star

I would skip the Kirkus review, because once again, it's written by someone who did not thoroughly read the novel, as is made obvious in the statement that says "the father, unaccountably, is the Big Hoom."  Well, Kirkus reviewer person, had you actually paid attention, on page 7 the author spells it out for you how that nickname may have come about.

Friday, December 2, 2016

November: Supermoon and super reads

Ah yes, November -- the month of the supermoon, elections, Thanksgiving and of course, super books.  Not a bad one in this month's bunch.  How can one person read so many books in one month? you might ask, which is a fair question, with the answer being that  the election results left me unable to sleep for days at a time and sort of stunned to the point where I just wanted to retreat into a sane world of literature. At least when insane stuff happens there it's fiction -- you can check out any time you like...  'nuff said.

Starting with crime fiction, we have 

Crush , by Frédéric Dard
Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard, both from Pushkin Vertigo
In A Lonely Place, by Dorothy Hughes, basis of the movie with Humphrey Bogart
The Riddle of Monte Verita, by Jean-Paul Török, an homage to the classic locked-room mystery
Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino, which was maybe a little less streamlined than it could have been but is a really good study of what creates a psychopath and
The White Devil, by Dominic Stansberry, which is a lovely mystery based on a classic play

moving onto the strange, there's 

Clark, by Brendan Connell, which is just absolutely delightfully original and refreshing, published by Snuggly Books, who is fast becoming one of my favorite publishers in the universe
It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, which, if you'll pardon me for saying so, scared the shit out of me even though it was written in 1935, and which I recommend to anyone and everyone right now at this particular given moment in American history because he shows how it can happen here
Lonely Haunts, published by another small indie press, Coachwhip Publications, and which features the work of two previously-unknown (to me) and rather obscure writers of ghost stories
Devil in the Darkness, by Archie Roy, from Valancourt Books (my ultimate favorite small publisher), a creepy novel about strangers stranded in a haunted house in Scotland.  Written in the 1970s, but still able to produce spine chills
Muladona, by Eric Stener Carlson, from Tartarus Press. Carlson is a wonderful but not-as-well-known-as-he-should-be author who should be read more widely.  This book was all-around creepy as a young boy has a week to discover the name of the entity haunting him or else. That's just the surface story, though -- so much other stuff is going on here that needs to be read about
The Outcast Spirit and Other Stories, by Lady Dilke, also from Snuggly Books, which I absolutely LOVED because of the ethereal feel of its contents and because she's a new obscure woman writer to add to my list.

Now to nonfiction, you know, with FACTS that can be checked, etc., 

Well, there are only two book in this category this month, neither of which I've written about yet but will soon be posted. First, part one of Stephen Fry's amazing autobiography/memoir, Moab is My Washpot, which I just loved; and second My Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of One of Paris's Most Beautiful and Notorious Courtesan, which is the memoir of Liane de Pougy, a great friend of one of my favorite writers ever, Jean Lorrain. de Pougy's book is meant to be one in a series of memoirs written by women, but I have one more book, The Mayor of Mogadishu to read before I can really embark on that path. 

and finally, the literature,

in which I'm making an effort to read new books combined with what has been just languishing away on my shelves forever:
Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki (on this very page), as is 
The Matiushin Case, by Oleg Pavlov, published by and other stories, another little press whose books I've had good luck with enough to have bought a subscription for the year
The Man With Two Left Feet, by PG Wodehouse, along with his The Inimitable Jeeves, both of which I loved loved loved.  We watched the entire Jeeves and Wooster series, and I discovered that it's a great place to go when one is depressed, as are the books.  I probably won't post about the Wodehouse books, but I'm just head over heels.

that's it, happy reading, and yada yada yada. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

beware: rant ahead -- it's been a crap month for buying from Amazon sellers

This has been me over the last month  or so.  Not once, not twice, but three times I've had issues with  different sellers who have been less than up front about what they actually have in stock, and of course, I'm the one who ends up being disappointed and frustrated to the point of tearing out my hair. This is the part where I name names, because this is just crap and people shouldn't be treated like this. To be fair, I've ordered a lot more from other sellers that actually did their jobs in a very good way, but I just get so angry when I feel like the bad sellers could care less about their customers.

on with the crap sellers:

 MovieMars, from whom I ordered a British dvd on 10/29, sort of didn't tell me that the item they had "in stock" actually came from the UK, and that it would be four weeks before it arrived.  When I emailed the company  (via Amazon buyer/seller messages) that the tracking number they gave me (DHL global, of course -- slower than molasses) didn't seem to exist in the DHL tracking system, their response was that "tracking doesn't seem to be working right now."  Well, hell, it wasn't working EVER, at any time, not just on the day I made the inquiry.  In the meantime, I ordered books from the UK and other dvds through Rarewaves Imports and other sellers, and they all got here within two weeks.  I'll just be skipping MovieMars in future, even if I have to pay more from someone else.

Then there's a company I'll NEVER buy from again, melisandy.  These people just take the freakin' cake.  Again, they listed a book at a decent price, I bought it, and like MovieMars, the book they had "in stock" ended up coming from the UK and no one bothered to tell me when I asked where my book was.  Not only that, but they bloody well lied to me in the process:
"Dear Nancy        
Thank you for your email.I have shipped your book on time via media mail which you paid for. Expected transit time for this shipping method is 4-14 business days. (Monday - Friday, not including postal holidays). In rare instances items may take up to 21 business days to arrive. But most of our books has been arrived earlier than expected time.I hope you will get it on time. If you meet with any problem please let me know. "

Oh yes. And then the tracking number ... nonexistent, which I discovered when I emailed back to inquire about it. Response:

"Dear Nancy , Thank you for your email.I have shipped your book on time via media mail which you paid for. I am sorry but this order has any tracking number. Expected transit time for this shipping method is 4-14 business days. (Monday - Friday, not including postal holidays).I hope you will get it on time. If you meet with any problem please let me know.                      Best regards
And then, of course, my book comes, and not only was it NOT mailed "media mail" as the two responses I received said it was, but it came from the UK, from somewhere called Chalky's. To top that off, they didn't bother to mark it shipped on Amazon until nearly a week after they said they'd mailed it.   Now, I don't know about anyone else, but for me the customs declaration label, along with the return address label from a store in the UK sort of gives it away that melisasandy didn't have the damn book in stock to begin with.  So then I wrote again to say I was disappointed that I was lied to, and the only response I got was "I'll pass on your disappointment to the shipping department."    I still haven't written that feedback, but it's coming.

Case #3 -- another book from another seller (whose name I'll provide if this doesn't get sorted quickly),  a hardcover copy of a novel I've been wanting to read which ended up coming to me as an ARC copy.  I haven't heard back from them yet, but I can't wait to see what they have to say. How the hell do you go from hardcover, like new,  to ARC? Hmm. My guess would be that they didn't have the hardcover in stock to begin with.  This is just bogus and it's another company my dollars will never reach. 

I don't get why Amazon doesn't crack down on sellers who can't actually lay hands on what they're selling and have to get it from somewhere else. Sheesh! If I wanted it from somewhere else, I would have bought it from somewhere else.  

rant over. Share any experiences like these -- I feel better knowing I'm not alone. 

*Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki

Penguin Classics, 2010
originally published as こころ, 1914
translated by Meredith McKinney
238 pp


This novel would probably still be languishing on my shelves had it not been for an online friend who, reading it with a group,  suggested I read it along with her. Great idea, because it also gave me the opportunity to read yet one more book I've owned forever that's just been languishing on my shelves unread. 

  Kokoro is,as I discovered, one of those novels where a second reading and a bit of research can completely change what you thought about it after the first time through. The second read was spurred by 1) discovering that a scholarly controversy had arisen over this book and 2) deciding to pick up and read another translation along with an introduction that explained said controversy. After much time to focus, think and absorb, well, the second time around actually clarified things I had trouble zooming in on after the first time. 

(the second time through): trans. Edwin McClellan
Peter Owen Publishers, 2007

Structured in three parts, the novel opens with the narrator meeting and attaching himself to an elder man he calls Sensei, and is soon "yearning for the possibilities of all he had to offer." However, Sensei, who reveals that he distrusts humanity, is reticent to open up about himself, and our narrator often finds himself frustrated when, as he says, "I failed to gain what I sought from him in matters of the mind." However, Sensei also reveals that while he is "suspicious" of most people, he realizes that the narrator seems "too straightforward and open for that," and that Sensei, before he dies, wants to "have trusted just one person." If the younger man could "be that person, ... sincerely in earnest," from his heart, then he will reveal to him the story of his past and leave nothing out, but not right away, since "It requires a suitable moment." What he wants in return is left unspoken for the moment. Eventually the narrator will learn all, but not before part two, which finds him back home with his parents. While there because his father's health is failing, he abandons his own family at a critical moment due to some disturbing news from Sensei, which sets up part three, where all is revealed. Sadly, since everything sort of turns on the revelations in part three, I have to keep silent, since to tell would be to spoil, but this is actually the part where we come to understand Sensei and where we learn exactly what it is he expects from the narrator -- it isn't expressly stated in so many words, but trust me, it's there. 

I wish I could make this post less cryptic, but there's a lot happening in this novel that a reader really needs to experience and sort out on his/her own. Look for thematic elements such as the formation of bonds, relationships, betrayal, individual vs. social responsibility, love, and above all, what it really means to bare or entrust one's soul/psyche to an outsider. What I will say is that after the second reading, Kokoro became an even darker book than it was the first time through, which I didn't think was possible.  Interesting factoid: the use of hiragana for the word kokoro (
こころ)  rather than the kanji (;) has,  according to Tony Rayns, who wrote the liner notes for the dvd,

"the effect of diffusing the meaning, making it seem less clear-cut and more open to semantic and philosophical nuances. For Soseki, this was related to the sense that the Japanese national psyche was changing; he saw an emptiness in Japan's kokoro brought on by external pressures from the West and internal pressures to assimilate them."  

Highly recommended for people who enjoy Japanese literature or for people who want to start reading Japanese fiction; it probably won't take everyone two readings, but I got a lot more out of it by doing it that way. 

So, having read the novel I had to see the film as well. Big differences abound here, which are covered a bit in the dvd liner notes. As just one example,  the movie "simplifies" Soseki's novel, "reorders its plot and eliminates some of its subtext while playing up the homosexual implications that are merely latent in the original."  I have to say that since the subject doesn't actually come up labeled as such in the novel, I was surprised to see a scene in this movie where Shizu (Mrs. Sensei) starts wondering out loud whether or not there's some sort of attraction between her husband and Hioki  (the novel's narrator, given a name here) which Hioki quickly denies with an "it's not what your thinking!" response.  Much of the story is revealed through flashbacks, which I think really is the best way to have done it, since so much of the novel turns on what happened in the past.  I've seen people criticize this approach used here, but I really don't see how else it could have been done. To tell it in a linear-narrative, chronological style would have wrecked things (as it would have in the novel as well).   While the movie is certainly  worth watching, the book is much, much better. There are movie critiques everywhere so I'll leave it there. 

book & movie -- definite yesses, but definitely read the book first.  

fiction from Japan

Monday, November 21, 2016

oh my god - that ending! Whoa! The Matiushin Case, by Oleg Pavlov

and other stories, 2014
originally published as Delo Matyushina, 1997
translated by Andrew Bromfield
249 pp


The Matiushin Case is second in a trio of stand-alone army novels known as the Last Days trilogy, which begins with Pavlov's Captain of the Steppe (his first novel, shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize in 1995) and concludes with Requiem for a Soldier.  The Matiushin Case won the Russian Booker Prize in 2002, which is how it came to my attention (and thanks to and other stories for translating it, to my home).  Pavlov has also been awarded a number of other honors: the Solzhenitsyn Prize in 2012, a spot on the shortlist for the Russian National Literary Award "Big Book" in 2010, three literary magazine prizes, and he was a nominee for the Russian Booker Prize of the Decade in 2011.  His first novel was published when he was just 24.

Well, it's a good thing that I don't mind bleak in my reading, since no light seems to shine through anywhere in this story. That's not a bad thing -- on the contrary, sometimes people in books don't have happy lives, just as in real life there are people for whom life isn't always lived on the sunny side.  And while several literary people have pointed out what they see as this novel's flaws,  I don't care -- I was very taken with this novel.  For me this was one hell of a reading experience. When I feel like I'm locked into a claustrophobic, hazy hell along with an already-damaged character and that there's no possibility of escape until the end, well,  to me that's a sign of a good book. Disturbing, yes, but if I'm that disturbed as a reader, well then the author's done his job.

The reality is that it is not a happy world Matiushin is living in here, which we discover as the book follows him from childhood to his time as a young Soviet Army soldier, where he ends up as a guard at a horrific Soviet labor camp aka The Zone.  As a child he grew up in an unhappy, unstable home with his mother, a brother and an overbearing, often violent and drunk military father; as a young recruit he finds himself in a world of corruption, mind-numbing routine, violence, and brutality among his fellow soldiers.  But it's the aha-moment ending that really got to me, one I never saw coming, and one that afforded an entirely different perspective on some earlier parts of this novel.

Obviously I haven't really given much away here, and it's better that way in case anyone decides to read it sometime down the road.  I'll post two reviews but I'd suggest refraining from reading anything that gives away too much.  Anyone at all interested in literature reflecting the Soviet era should not miss this book -- while it has many of the same thematic elements as a lot of other literature of its time, there's something different in this one, causing the story to worm its way into my brain and refuse to leave.

review: Phoebe Taplin, The Guardian, 08/21/2014
review: Brandy Harrison, Three Percent

fiction from Russia