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.