Scandi-crime time…

Spring Tide by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind

spring-tideOn Thursday 23rd April, it is World Book Night. Once again, I applied to be a ‘giver’. I picked a book from the list, and wrote my case for being awarded a batch of copies to give out. I was delighted to be accepted and even more pleased to get my first choice of book – Spring Tide – the first in a Scandi-crime series by the husband and wife scriptwriting team behind some of Swedish TV’s biggest hits (including adaptations of Martin Beck, Arne Dahl and Wallander).

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Cilla & Rolf Börjlind last summer at an event hosted by their UK publisher Hesperus, and somehow I didn’t get round to writing about it at the time. Cilla & Rolf were absolutely charming and despite my not having watched much of their TV work, they chatted about how they work together – if I remember correctly, they alternate chapters writing and editing, but also one of them will take the lead on a particular character.

Spring Tide is their first novel together and a second featuring the same team, Third Voice, was published last month and is waiting its turn to be read on my bedside table.

Needless to say, given the Börjlinds’ pedigree, Spring Tide arrives fully formed with a fascinating plot full of twists and turns and a pair of investigators that are totally original. But before we get to them, the novel begins back in 1987 with the spectacularly gruesome murder of a pregnant woman, who is buried up to her neck on a beach on the night of the spring tide – she essentially drowns. It’s witnessed by a boy hiding behind the rocks up the beach. It’s a bold start!

We then return to the present and meet Olivia Rönning. Olivia is a police student in Stockholm; her supervisor gives them all a project – to examine a cold case and report back. Olivia chooses the beach-murder – a case her late father had been in charge of; her supervisor isn’t surprised at her choice. It’s hard to get anywhere on the case though, as most of those involved are gone, dead or disappeared. If only Olivia could find Tom Stilton, her father’s colleague, a policeman who dropped out.Meanwhile, there has been spate of attacks on homeless people in Stockholm. The attacks are filmed and posted online. In the latest, they go too far and their victim, known as One-eyed Vera, dies. Her friend Jelle, a homeless man, vows to uncover her killers. Is there a link with Olivia’s case? Olivia, as you might expect, gets totally emotionally involved in the case and begins to investigate it, at great personal risk and we are taken on a roller-coaster ride through the less acceptable sides of Swedish life – from high-class prostitution and corrupt businessmen to the fate of the homeless.

There are certainly echoes of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö (my review of the first, Roseanna, here). The Martin Beck books are famed for their emphasis on justice and exposing the bourgeois underbelly of Swedish society. However, whereas Sjöwall & Wahlöö get their cases solved by dogged detective work the Börjlinds, with Olivia and Stilton (once she finds him) being outside the formal police system, are not bound by procedure and consequently the action moves at a greater speed and in a more exciting way, although being over 450 pages long. Rönning and Stilton make a fascinating coupling as an investigating team. Both are damaged in their own ways but are totally different to the usual maverick cops – very refreshing indeed.

Spring Tide was translated by Rod Bradbury who is well-known for translating the best-selling  The 100 year old man… and there was no jarring – I was hooked on this novel from the outset with the result that Spring Tide is probably the best Scandicrime novel I’ve read. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series, and I can hand out my copies on World Book Night knowing that I loved reading it. (10/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Spring Tide by Cilla & Rolf Börjlind. Hesperus, 2014. Paperback, 476 pages.
Third Voice (Ronning & Stilton 2) – Hesperus, March 2015. Paperback, 464 pages.

Advertisements

Would you do this on holiday?

Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

loe-lazy-daysTranslated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. With its irresistible cover I was always going to pick this book up to examine it. I read the blurb on the flyleaf and discovered that the author, new to me, was Norwegian, and that the book was likely to be quirky and probably funny, so that sold it to me.

It’s simply the story of what Bror and Nina Telemann did on their summer holiday, as told to us by Bror.

Bror is in his early forties. He’s stage director at the Norwegian National Theatre, but aims to become a celebrated playwright – soon. He hopes to get started on his magnum opus while on holiday. His wife Nina has booked a house for the family summer holiday in the Alps near Munich in the town that Google Translate calls Mixing Part Churches – Garmisch Partenkirchen to you and me, but Bror only uses the mangled translation. Bror and Nina bicker about her choice of destination…

Do you think Mixing Part Churches is the type of place people lock up their kids, or others’ kids, in the cellar for twenty-four years and rape them three thousand times?
That’s enough.
No, but do you think so?
Stop that now.
For Christ’s sake, no harm speculating.
Stop it.
You don’t think this is a hub for that sort of practice then?
No.
So, those things don’t happen here?
I don’t think so.
So, we just let the kids run about on their own?
I think so.
Good.

That is very representative of Bror and Nina’s conversations. They tend to be very one-sided, as reported by Bror, with him always winding up Nina; sometimes deliberately, other times unconsciously. He’s not happy with her choice of Germany – he considers Bavaria as ‘being the cradle of Nazism’, and doesn’t hesitate to rub it in.

Nina is left most days to go out with their three children and they have a lovely time visiting all the sights. Bror stays behind, supposedly writing – except that he doesn’t. He’s mostly having fantasies about Nigella Lawson, whom he thinks is ‘fascinatingly well-built. She has, for instance, got hips. And a bosum.’

All the above is in the first 21 pages. The book has only 211, so in its small hardback format can easily be read in one sitting. You can imagine, as so often happens on holiday, that tensions simmer and come to the boil explosively, behaviour on both sides of the relationship gets out of hand – can they sort themselves out in time to go home?

This turns out to be quite a dark little comedy – and I could see it working well as a stage adaptation. Bror starts off by being ironic and funny but, as his writer’s block and fantasies take over, Nina is increasingly dismissive of him. Bror’s obsessions take him over, and he gets less likeable by the page; the long-suffering Nina, feeling hard done by, retaliates and does herself no favours either.

To be honest, the whole Nigella thing started to get tedious, but given that the novel was published before the whole scandal, this does give it an added frisson initially but that soon pales. Bror in his mid-life crisis reveals himself to be bigoted, boring and still a big kid for most of the time.

What I did really like though was the author’s dead-pan style of writing, which comes through in the translation. Written in the present tense, Nina and Bror’s conversations in particular, forming much of the meat of this little novel, develop a real sense of anticipation in the reader trying to guess which direction they’ll go in, or what awful thing Bror will say next.

Based on Lazy Days which was fun, I would certainly read more of Loe’s work; a couple more of his novels have been translated. (7/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lazy Days by Erlend Loe (2009, trans 2013) Pub by Head of Zeus, hardback 211 pages.

Book Group Report – Jean Teulé

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

suicide-shopOur book group read for July into August was actually a re-read for me. We’d wanted something quick and light as due to our schedules we only had three weeks between meetings instead of our usual four or five. I had read Teulé’s 2007 novel, published in English translation by Sue Dyson in 2008 when it first came out pre-blog – but thanks to my spreadsheet that I was already keeping back then I can retrieve my capsule review:

This very French, dystopian fable reminded me very much of the stylish film Delicatessen (a hilarious post-apocalyptic French sort of Sweeney Todd), but lacking some of its virtuosity. That’s not to say that it is unimaginative … Some of the ways that the proprietors of The suicide shop devise to help their customers do away with themselves are really hilarious, but it lacks the film’s lightness of touch with its macabre material. In particular, the Alan Turing suicide kit is inspired, as is the Kiss of Death given to Marilyn as her coming of age birthday present.

The Tuvache family who own the shop are all cartoon characters, all named for famous suicides which tell you all you need to know about them – there’s the father Mishima, the mother Lucrèce, son Vincent, daughter Marilyn, and the wayward youngest son. He’s named Alan after Turing, but does not display any of his namesake’s traits! Alan is the despair of his parents being all too happy, and happiness is catching in this sulphurous City of Lost Religion (presumably a take on Paris being the City of Light?). Usually in novels, it’s the other way around with everyone starting out happy before diving into the slough of despond – but this does allow a neat ending. A clever and funny, quick novel to read, but a little heavy-handed.

Yes, it’s literally about a shop where you can buy everything you need to kill yourself in whatever way you please. M. & Mme. Tuvache are only too happy to will help you decide how. There are some delightfully gruesome jokes here – but I will only share a bit of the Alan Turing one with you in case you want to read the book yourself:

‘The inventor committed suicide in an odd way. On the seventh of June 1954, he soaked an apple in a solution of cyanide and placed it on a small table. Next, he painted a picture of it, and then he ate the apple.’
‘He never did!’
‘It’s said that this is the reason why the apple Macintosh logo depicts an apple with a bit out of it. It’s Alan Turing’s apple.’
‘Well, well… at least I won’t die an idiot.’

(Wikipedia tells me that a half eaten apple was indeed found beside Turing’s bed, but it wasn’t tested for cyanide. His inquest wondered if he had accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes from gold electroplating which he did in his spare room.)

I really enjoyed the book all over again, but what did the others in the group think?  Well – no-one hated it outright. We were split over the plot, or perceived lack of it – some wanted more, others somewhat disagreed with as it is only 160-odd pages of big print – a short novel really and it does have a main storyline with other elements. I think all but me felt a little cheated by the final ending, but I won’t expound further. Everyone did at least like some of the jokes. Needless to say, we all found it very French! Given the amount of discussion though, it did make quite a good book group read. I particularly loved the shop’s slogan – ‘Vous avez râté votre vie, réussisez votre mort…’ translated as, ‘Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success.’ (8.5/10)

By the way, I recommend the film Delicatessen from 1991 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro – a post-apocalyptic character-based French comedy about the inhabitants of a building block. Full of grotesques and very quirky – very Terry Gilliamesque, but in French. The Suicide Shop has been made into a French animated film too, but I haven’t seen it and aren’t sure if it’s subtitled.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, Gallic Books, paperback 169 pages.
Le Magasin des suicides (DVD) ~ Patrice Leconte
Delicatessen [DVD]

Women in Translation month

WITmonth3 + text1Women in Translation month (#WITMonth) is being hosted by Biblibio. She has set up an enviable optional schedule of different posts and themes for the whole month over on her blog – do go and visit. I do intend to read a couple of fitting novels this month if I can, but I will also enjoy seeing all the posts around the blogosphere.

However, I thought at the outset that I should do a quick totting up of all the women in translation I’ve read since starting this blog nearly six yrs ago (shamelessly copying the idea from David’s own such list). Don’t worry – or rather should I say, sadly – the list doesn’t go on for very long, (the links go back to my original reviews) …

Just 17 in nearly six years, and all European except for Yoko Ogawa. Something to remedy a little this month. I thought there would be more crime in my list, but I didnt’ include the husband and wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, or one Icelandic crime novel I didn’t finish. I was glad to be able to include one children’s novel (Funke) in the list – but it remains the only book I’ve read of hers.  Nationalities-wise, French authors just pip German to the post for quantity.

My plans are to read My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, and its sequel if I have time, plus The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino which has been sitting beside my bed for several months now.

Are you joining in at all?

A novel way of revisiting children’s classics…

Although I only studied it up to O-level, possibly my favourite subject at school was Latin. I continue to surprise myself by the amount of Latin I’ve retained over the years, but I do try to use it whenever I can.  Viz my blog’s Latin motto: Noli domo egredi nisi librum habesNever leave home without a book.  (Mottoes just have to be in Latin!)  On holiday in Normandy I revelled in being able to translate bits of the Bayeux Tapestry; I like reading Latin engravings on tombstones in old churches and so on. Now, I’m able to help my daughter with her homework (she doesn’t share my love for the subject, but is naturally good at it!).

winnie-ille-pohpu-001

Years ago I acquired Winnie Ille Pu and Domus Anguli Puensis translated by Alexander Lenard, which were first published in 1958 (and many other Pooh spin-off books not in Latin – The Pooh Perplex, The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet etc. Sadly, I’ve not kept any of them.)  Back to the Latin – it’s lovely to see Heffalump declined in Latin – Heffalumpus, Heffalumpum… It is an intuitive translation and is great fun for Latin-lovers.

One of my daughter’s favourite picture books as a child was Olivia by Ian Falconer. She’s since become a bit of a media star and had many sequels, TV series and merchandise, but that first Olivia book before all that was pure gold. She’s a precocious and genius of a piglet, of course! Fashion-conscious, arty, likes ballet and so on.

Recently I saw that it had been translated into Latin some years ago and The Book People had it in their sale – I just had to have it!

P1020163 (600x800)I love the bit where she’s bargaining with her mum over bedtime reading… her first bid is five. I’m going to have to buy the original again, aren’t I to make sure I got it all right, I think we passed it on, but it goes something like this…

‘No, Olivia, one only.’
‘Perhaps four?’
‘Two.’
‘Three.’
‘Done. Three.
But that’s enough!’

A piglet who enjoys reading – attagirl!

The one thing that all these books and the many parodies and cod-philosophical volumes have in common is that by their nature, you have to have read the original to enjoy the adaptation.

Go on, own up! Which books of this sort are on your shelves?  Be they foreign versions or parodies.  

I’ll also admit to owning several Asterix books in French (which is commendable), but also the funny (well it was back when I read it) Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (1968).

* * * * *
Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Olivia by Ian Falconer (The original book)
Olivia: The Essential Latin Edition by Ian Falconer trans Amy High.
Winnie Ille Pu by A.A.Milne, trans Alexander Lenard. O/P but S/H available.
Bored Of The Rings (GOLLANCZ S.F.) – Harvard Lampoon.

 

 

Meet Mr Sulky

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, translated by David McClintock

thomas bernhardWhen Stu announced he would host Thomas Bernhard Reading Week this week, I first thought ‘Who?’. Just a little research revealed that he was considered one of Austria’s leading writers of the post-war era, and he was also rather controversial for constantly criticising Austria – a Nestbeschmutzer (one who dirties his own nest). I also ascertained that he was likely to be quite difficult to read, but I liked the sound of his books, so I took up the challenge, choosing one of his shorter novels…

woodcutters

Woodcutters was written in 1984 and  the translation by American, McClintock I read was from 1987. It takes the form of one long unspoken monologue, written in one long paragraph too – I considered writing my review in similar fashion, but I shall spare you that!

The action takes place at a late-night artistic dinner-party in Vienna, hosted by the Auersbergers, who run into our unnamed narrator in town after not seeing him for over twenty years, (he had formerly lodged with them and they had fallen out).  Surprised, he accepts.  Frau Auersberger tells him the guest of honour is to be an actor, currently starring in Ibsen’s play The Wild Ducks.

However, earlier on the same day as the dinner is the funeral of one of the narrator’s dearest friends, Joana. She hanged herself, but the Auersbergers, who also knew her are continuing with the dinner. Our narrator arrives at the party in a real sulk, wishing he wasn’t there, brooding over the death of his friend and the events of the funeral, hating his hosts; he decides to sit in a tall wing-backed chair out of the way, to observe, doze and tell us about Joana and the Auersbergers.

Eventually the actor arrives after his evening performance and they sit down to dinner after midnight. The narrator hates the actor on principle – he rants to himself:

These actors are petit bourgeois nonentities who know nothing whatever about the art of the theater and have long since turned the Burgtheater into a hospice for their terminal dilettantism.

The narrator’s former lover, Jeannie, a writer of sorts, is also there – he hates her now, and she repeatedly tries to show off. She asks the actor inane questions, and the actor pontificates in response…

It was a wonder, he said, that The Wild Duck had been put on at all in Vienna – put on was a phrase he used repeatedly – since putting it on in Vienna was a risk. After all The Wild Duck was a modern play. He actually used the term modern to describe a play that was just a hundred years old, and was still as great, after a hundred years, as it was when written: to call such a play modern was patent nonsense. To present The Wild Duck to the Viennese public was not just a risk, said the actor, but a considerable gamble. The Viennese simply did not respond to modern drama. They preferred to go and see classical plays, and The Wild Duck was not a classical  play – it was a modern play, which might admittedly become a classic.

But finally the actor retorts with something that momentarily raises him in our narrator’s eyes – he wishes he was a simple woodcutter – ein holzfäller.  But that doesn’t last, and eventually, they all go home at about 4am.

Essentially that’s all that happens, but it’s the way his tells it that makes the story.   You know how it is when you worry at something, you mutter about it or fiddle with it repeatedly, and this is how it is with the narrator.  Right from the beginning, when he arrived masking an angry sulk, he wishes he wasn’t there, that he hadn’t bumped into his former friends, the Auersbergers. Looking around the apartment, he settles on the library…

The Auersbergers, who inherited this library, have probably taken out no more than twenty or thirty volumes in the past thirty years, whereas I positively fell upon these collections in the Gentzgasse and Maria Zaal with all the passion of the ignoramus, as I have to admit. And perhaps what tied me to the Gentzgasse and Maria Zaal was not so much the Auersbergers themselves as the extensive libraries which their forebears had founded merely for show, a show of scholarship, culture and comprehensive knowledge – the kind of wide-ranging knowledge that is deemed to go with metropolitan life – things that have always been in fashion. … They’ve always gone in for show, I thought, because they lack any capacity for reality. Everything about them has always been show.

He sulks, he mutters, he reassures himself that he’s sitting the the wing-backed chair, and he sulks some more, sitting in the wing-backed chair. He wishes he hadn’t met the Auersbergers again, he disparages them some more as he sits in the wing-backed chair.  Slowly, and with much repetition, the story gradually edges on, reaching the end of the evening.

You will have seen from the extensive quotes above, that this short novel is not an easy read, especially with no paragraphs to give natural pauses.  When I put the book down for a breather, I found I had to go back a couple of pages to get into the flow again.  It has a certain sardonic humour running through it though as the narrator constantly criticises everyone except the dead Joana – while sitting in the wing-backed chair, of course.

I’m glad I’ve read Thomas Bernhard – thanks Stu. I did enjoy it, but it was hard work and I was tiring of it in the middle, only for it to pick up again towards the end. If you like a challenge, Bernhard would be ideal – and this book could be a good one for you (6/5/10)

I shall leave you with a treat – Monty Python’s Lumberjack (ie: holzfäller) song in German, which the Pythons made for a special programme to show in Germany and Austria back in 1972…

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard, Faber paperback.

A French crime novel of character…

The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

3 evangThis was our bookgroup read for June into July, the first roman policier, and an award-winning one too, by frenchwoman Fred Vargas – Fred being short for Frédérique.  Vargas is an archaeologist and historian and, with Reynolds as her translator, won three successive CWA International Dagger awards for her first three novels.

Although the plot of this novel contains an ingenious crime which kept us guessing to the end, at its heart this book is totally character-driven. It is set in and around those quiet Parisian side-streets south of the rive gauche full of houses where shabby can sit perfectly alongside chic, and cornershop brasseries and tabacs do a good local trade. Let me tell you a little about what happens …

The story opens with an opera singer – Sophia Siméonidis wakes up to discover that a tree has been planted the garden of her grande maison. Her husband is unconcerned, but it troubles her, so she rings the bell of ‘the disgrace’ as she calls the house next door to ask the three young historians, Marc, Mathias and Lucien who share it to dig up the garden and see what’s going on.  Nothing found, the tree is replanted, but some weeks later Sophia goes missing. The remains of a corpse which appears to be the missing opera singer is found in a burned-out car.  The three had befriended Sophia and her best friend Juliette who runs the brasserie a few streets away, and together with Marc’s godfather and uncle, an ex-cop, they start to investigate.  Was it her cool and aloof husband, her fiery Greek former lover, her niece who has arrived in Paris?  All could have dunnit.

Now, back to the characters.  It is Armand Vandoosler, Marc’s godfather that coins the term the three evangelists for the guys, calling Marc, Mathias and Lucien, St Mark, St Matthew and St Luke after the gospels for fun.  It irritates the hell out of Marc in particular, but it sticks.

The three young academics are strapped for cash. When offered to live at a low rent in ‘the disgrace’ in return for doing the house up, they jump at it.  They each specialise in a different era of history – Marc is a medievalist, Mathias studies cavemen, and Lucien The Great War. Their characters reflect their chosen eras too. Marc is very serious and dresses in black, Mathias would live like a caveman if he could, and Lucien talks in war clichés…

…Lucien came downstairs and burst into Marc’s room without knocking.
‘General alert!’ he cried. ‘Take cover! The neighbour’s on her way.’
‘Which neighbour?’
‘The one on the Western Front. The one on the right, if you prefer. The rich woman who wears scarves. Not a word. When she rings the bell, nobody moves. Empty house. I’ll tell Mathias.’
Before Marc could say anything, Lucien had run down to the first floor.
‘Mathias,’ he called, opening his door. ‘General alert! Empty—‘
Marc heard Lucien stop abruptly. He smiled and came downstairs after him.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Lucien was saying. ‘Do you have to be in the nude to put up some bookshelves! I mean, what is the point? Don’t you ever get cold?’
‘I’m not in the nude, I’ve got sandals on,’ Mathias said calmly.

It could be easy to get irritated by these three, our modern-day equivalent of the impecunious students of Puccini’s La Bohème, or French ‘Friends‘ like Ross, Chandler and Joey.  However, I rather liked them, as did our bookgroup. I did have a favourite in Mathias  who is big-hearted and arty, (he’s Joey, although by subject matter he should be paleontologist Ross); Lucien could be Chandler – master of the quick quip, and Marc is all too serious and highly-strung Ross.

GiancarloI haven’t introduced you properly to Vandoosler yet.  The old ex-cop is utterly charming, a silver-haired flatterer who had was retired from the Sûreté for not being the cleanest of flics.  I immediately visualised him as Giancarlo Gianini, (who played Rene Mathis in the Bond films, Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace).  I know he’s Italian, but he feels right in my thinking.  Mind you, Alain Delon would do too!

Armand Vandoosler raised his finely wrought profile. He was looking like a policeman now. He had a concentrated expression which seemed to draw his eyes in under his eyebrows; his nose appeared somehow more commanding. Marc recognised the look. The godfather had such an expressive face that you could tell the kind of thoughts he was having. When he looked serious, it was the twins and their mother, lost somewhere in the world; when it was medium-serious, it was police business; when it was sharp, it was some woman he was trying to seduce. At least that was the simple reading.

Vandoosler leads their investigation, using his contacts in the police, but doing things totally his own way.  He must have driven the local police mad with his interfering, but we all enjoy maverick investigators.

There was much humour in this novel which kept the tone light – the interplay between the three evangelists was fun, and the relationship between Marc and his godfather too.  The descriptions of Paris life were nice too, particularly all the late suppers at the brasserie, bringing shopping from the markets not the supermarché – it almost seems an age ago, yet the modern scourge of car parking problems will play a part too.

large_sm walking down paris streetI liked this book a lot, and so did the rest of our bookgroup who made it to our monthly meeting.  Vargas has written two more novels featuring the Three Evangelists, but unfortunately, these don’t appear to have been translated yet. We all would read more, but will have to try her other series – featuring Commissaire Adamsberg.

Overall though, this book just made us all want to go to Paris!   (8/10)

Paris in July 2013

Which brings me to the fact that this post fits perfectly with the start of this year’s Paris in July hosted by Bookbath and Thyme for Tea – a month-long celebration of all things literary related to the City of Light. It’s the first time I’ve joined in, and I hope to read at least one more Parisian book this month too.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas (1995), translated by Sian Reynolds (2006), Vintage paperback.

Book Group Report – a German classic novella…

The Jew’s Beechby Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff

the-jews-beech Being a German novella from 1842, this book was an unusual choice for our Book Group. It came about in conversation because one of our group’s sons was studying it at uni, and another who teaches German, owned a copy in German which she’d never read. Luckily, translations are available from Oneworld Classics and online at Project Gutenberg.

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was born into Westphalian aristocracy and given an excellent education.  She became an esteemed poet and musician, however, this novella was her only work of fiction.  The central story is based on a real murder. It’s often been viewed as a prototype of the crime thriller and also has Gothic elements – you could say ‘Grimm’.

For a novel of a scant one hundred widely-spaced pages, upon reflection and after lots of discussion, we realised that a lot actually happens in this story.

It follows the life of Friedrich Mergel from birth to his death. The first half tells the story of his drunken wife-beater of a father, and how his uncle Simon adopts him after his father died, putting him over his ignored pig boy Johannes Niemand who might be his illegitimate son.

They live in a village in the middle of a heavily forested area of Germany and the first half of the story concentrates on village life, including all the gossip and tittle-tattle that thrives therein, under the eye of the local barony.  It’s a hard life for these peasants and their living relies on forestry.  It’s not until a band of tree-poachers starts chopping into their livelihood that things take on a more sinister turn, when one of the village foresters is found in the wood with an axe through his skull. Did the ‘blue-cloaks’ as the poachers are called do it? No-one is sure.

Cut to later on, and a wedding in the village. Friedrich, who’s grown up to be a bit of a dandy for a forester makes a bit of a fool of himself, especially in front of Aaron, the Jew, who demands to be paid for the silver watch bought on tick that Friedrich is showing off. Aaron will later be found murdered in the forest, near a big beech tree, and suspicion falls on Friedrich, who promptly runs away, shadowed by Johannes…

Many of the big problems of the age, seen under the lens of village life are observed – poverty, poor Johannes steals a pound of butter at the wedding feast, and then stands in front of the fire; also bigotry and anti-Semitism.   But there are also nods towards Gothic fantasy – the blue-cloaks seem to spirit themselves into and out of the woods, leaving no tracks; the dark forests themselves are foreboding and the stuff of fairy tales, Grimm’s having first been published in 1812.  The villagers are quite superstitious, and there is (to us) a bizarre episode where someone went to dig up a horse’s head that had been buried years before as a talisman against sorcery.

Here it might be appropriate to compare the two translations we read between us:

Next morning the fountain in the garden would not work, and it was discovered that somebody had moved a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse which had been buried there many years before – this was reckoned to be a guaranteed protection against witches and apparitions. (trans Lionel and Doris Thomas, 1958)

The next morning the fountain in the garden would not play, and it was discovered that some one had removed a pipe, apparently to look for the head of a horse’s skeleton which had the reputation of being an attested instrument against any wiles of witches or ghosts.   (trans Lillie Winter, Proj Gutenberg)

The feeling was that the Thomas’s translation was a little uninteresting, and that the Winter one had more charm despite being more directly word for word. Our German teacher commented that at least the author wrote in sentences of reasonable length unlike her contemporary Heinrich Von Kleist.

So, to recapitulate, this odd little story generated a great discussion in our book group.

Next month, we’re reading another crime novel in translation – but this time contemporary and French – Fred Vargas’ first novel The Three Evangelists.

* * * * *
The Jew’s Beechby Annette Von Droste-Hülshoff, Oneworld classics paperback.

Travelling Man

Lost Luggageby Jordi Punti, translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark.

lost luggage

This is the story of Gabriel Delacruz, orphan, international furniture remover and father to four sons. Four boys – born in four different countries to four different mothers; one German, one English, one French and one Spanish, and all christened the local equivalent of the name Christopher. They are not aware of each other’s existence, and none of them have seen their father for a couple of decades.

The ‘Four Christophers’ finally meet when the youngest, Cristòfol is contacted by the police when his father goes missing. He finds a piece of paper with the details of his brothers on.  The Christophers meet to learn each others stories, and also to research their father – they don’t believe he’s dead.

In fact, disappeared isn’t the correct verb, and if we’ve decided to find him, it’s to make sense of the word.  Give it a body. Only somebody who’s previously appeared can disappear and that’s not the case with our father. We haven’t seen him for more than thirty years and the sum of our memories presents us with only a blurry image of him. It’s not as if he was a timid man, or naturally reserved, but he always seemed to have an escape route. He wasn’t edgy, anxious or mistrustful either. Sigrun says she fell in love with both his presence and his absence. Mireille recalls that as soon as he arrived it was as if he was leaving again. The brevity of his visits helped, of course. …
This vanishing act can even be seen in the letters he used to send us. He wrote them from all over Europe, wherever he was moving furniture, telling us stories about the trip. Sometimes they were postcards, scribbled by the roadside. … In the letters he wrote us he sometimes enclosed photos of himself, alone or posing with his trucker friends. The words accompanying these images revealed real tenderness and longing, which made our mothers cry if they were feeling fragile, but they never went beyond two sides of a single sheet of paper. Just when it seemed he was getting into his stride, the writing would abruptly end. See you soon, kisses, and so on and so forth, his name, and that was that. As if he was afraid to give all of himself.

The brothers take their turns to tell their stories. How their mothers met Gabriel, their births, and those rare visits throughout their childhood.  Although they are very different, they all get on well, making up for lost time.  Their mothers were all independent women and despite the lack of a permanent father figure in their lives, they have made the most of things. They start meeting regularly to talk, and search out Gabriel’s friends and acquaintances to help fill in the gaps.

Alongside Gabriel’s unfolding story was that of his fellow orphan and colleague Bundo. Together since their days in the ophanage, their undying friendship was the most touching part of this story. Whereas Gabriel had a woman in each port so to speak, there was only ever one girl for Bundo but he had to share her, for Carolina was a prostitute in a roadhouse outside Lyon.

One of the naughty but interesting things that Gabriel and Bundo did together along with fellow removers was to always remove one random box from the contents of each move. They’d share out the contents, and Gabriel catalogued them – over 200 boxes in total over their career. One of those boxes had contained a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Gabriel passed on to his German son, Christof, who called it Christofini. The dummy kept butting into Christof’s part of the narrative, which did give a slightly surreal edge to things.

I particularly loved reading about Gabriel and Bundo and their exploits through the years, lovable rogues both, always up for a chance to make a bit on the side or a game of cards. The sons’ stories weren’t as exciting in comparison, and as I read on, I did hope that they’d make progress on finding Gabriel, for at 473 pages, this is rather a long book. I won’t let on what finally happens, for this was a charming story told with humour, and you may want to find it out for yourself.  Despite its length, Punti has created some memorable characters in this debut novel and I enjoyed the travels and travails of Gabriel, his friends and extended family a great deal. (8.5/10)

* * * * *
I received a copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti, pub 25th April by Short Books, Trade paperback, 473 pages.

Medieval Iceland – a place of cod wars even then…

On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, trans Alda Sigmundsdottir

At the heart of this novel is the tale of Ragna, a young Icelandic woman from a family with property in Greenland which she will inherit. Still a young teenager, yet betrothed to Thorkell, Ragna becomes unmarriageable when she becomes pregnant by an English sailor who is shipwrecked on their shores. Disgraced, she manages to make a life for herself and her son and is luckily taken on by the new English Bishop Craxton as housekeeper, a role that gives her as much respect as she she can ever now expect. However Thorkell returns, now an ordained priest, and is immediately attracted to Ragna again. Can a relationship work between a priest, who should be celibate but has already sired bastard children, and an excommunicated woman?

His intensity frightened her. It also enraptured her.
“Promise that you will never betray me, Ragna,” said Thorkell one night at the beginning of the month of Goa, in early spring, when they met in the small back room. For a full week they had not been alone together, as he had been away on business with John Craxton. Before she knew it, he had brandished a knife and cut his palm, his bloodied hand reaching out for hers. Hesitantly she extended her right hand, and he used the knife again. Her blood swelled from the wound, and she merged her blood with his, promising him loyalty unto death in this ancient manner. A few drops fell on the floor between them.
“Now you are mine in the pagan manner,” he said and smiled, the priest, with fire in his eyes that made her burn, inside and out.

So, that’s the love interest got out of the way. What was more interesting in this novel were the other themes behind the central romance.

At the turn of the century the Black Death had killed nearly half of the population, and left Iceland a very poor country, reliant on the stockfish (wind-dried cod) trade. Iceland was divided into two political factions – the nationalists, led by the Icelandic Archbishop are loyal to the old regime, as Iceland was owned by Norway and Denmark at this time.  Those at Holar, who are governed by the new English Bishop appointed by the Pope, are happy to ply an illegal trade with England, ruled by Henry V at this time of 1420. The English rule the trading though setting the prices which makes for an uneasy relationship.

Thorkell, who has political aims of his own, manages to get promoted to being Bishop of a parish who wouldn’t submit to Holar, deposing the sitting Bishop who remained loyal to the Norwegian King.  These priests and their people are not afraid of taking up arms, and when some English sailors in Iceland by permission of the see at Holar start to do some raping and pillaging, the scene is set for conflict.

Ragna gets caught between the two sides – her responsible role at Holar working for the Bishop, and her passion for Thorkell, the randy priest.  All along she is seen as a commodity, initially destined to end up being owned by a man one way or another, even though she will be an heiress. Men are not subjected to the same standards as women by the church, and Thorkell can easily get away with his behaviour.

I really enjoyed this historical novel, especially the cut and thrust of the episcopal politics in 15th century Iceland. Ragna has some spark to her, and the will-she-won’t-she relationship with Thorkell contrasts with the big picture. Some of the romance and dialogue may be slightly cheesy, but you kept rooting for Ragna throughout.

If you liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, you’ll probably enjoy On the Cold Coasts, (which is much shorter too!).  (8/10)

It is the first book I’ve read from Amazon Crossing – Amazon.com’s latest publishing venture of books in translation from around the world.

* * * * *
My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine for review. To explore further on Amazon.co.uk, please click below:
On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, pub Amazon Crossing, Mar 2012, paperback 207pp.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett