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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich ****

Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘classic oral history’ The Unwomanly Face of War has recently been released in its first English version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I was so excited to pick up a copy, fascinated as I am by Russian history and the Second World War, both of which Alexievich’s work encompasses.

During the Second World War, ‘about a million women fought in the Soviet army,’ Alexievich writes in her introduction.  ‘They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones.  A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work.  The feminine forms were born there, in the war’.  Belarusian Alexievich then goes on to discuss her experiences growing up just after the war in Ukraine, when tragedy affected everyone: ‘We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.’

Alexievich, 9780141983523an investigative journalist, wanted to write an account about women, and of their experiences in conflict.  Her reasoning and justification for writing The Unwomanly Face of War are strong.  She saw the existing reportage of wartime accounts flawed, due to their masculine leanings.  She writes: ‘There have been a thousand wars – small and big, known and unknown.  And still more has been written about them.  But… it was men writing about men – that much was clear at once.  Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”‘  She goes on to exemplify the highly varied experiences of women, and their often far more emotive accounts.  ‘”Women’s” war,’ she points out, ‘has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings.  Its own words.  There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’

It was markedly important for Alexievich to speak to as many women as she could, and in consequence, she is able to share ‘stories of women’s experiences in World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.’  To collect the testimonies, she took ‘dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape.  Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left in my memory, only voices remained.  A chorus resounds in my memory.  An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping.’  Accounts came from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  She interviewed snipers, drivers, traffic controllers, liaison officers, nurses, paramedics, mechanics, telephone operators, pilots, and partisans, to create her multilayered portrait of women in war.

Alexievich is aware of the flaws to be found in any project of this kind, primarily the validity of what she is being told, as there is no way to verify individual accounts.  She says, ‘but the narrators are not only witnesses – least of all are they witnesses, they are actors and makers.  It is impossible to go right up to reality.  Between us and reality are our feelings.’  Her aim here is to portray the ‘sickening’ futility of war, and its far-reaching effects: ‘I write not about war, but about human beings in war.  I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings.  I am a historian of the soul.’

The Unwomanly Face of War, as far as it can be judged to be so, feels candid.  Both the accounts which have been transposed, and Muller’s intelligent and measured commentary, are expressive and immersive.  Whilst the accounts themselves are sometimes very matter-of-fact, and verge upon the simplistic with regard to their language, they are often horrific and difficult to read.  The Unwomanly Face of War is such an important historical document, touching and tender.  Alexievich has included fragments of so many stories which deserve to be told.

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‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink **

Like many readers, I very much enjoyed Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader when I read it quite some time ago.  For some reason, however, I had not picked up any of his other books in the intervening years.  The Woman on the Stairs, first published in German in 2014 and in English translation by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt in 2016, is described as ‘a tale of obsession, possession and a mystery painting’, and its description certainly intrigued me enough to buy it.

Just as mysteriously as a painting disappeared, it is found again, donated anonymously to a gallery in Sydney.  At this revelation, ‘the art world is stunned but so are the three men who loved the woman in the painting, the woman on the stairs.’  These men, one after another, manage to track her down to a dilapidated cottage on an isolated headland near Sydney.  ‘Here they must try to untangle the lies and betrayals of their shared past – but time is running out.’9781474600651

I did enjoy some of the descriptions in The Woman on the Stairs.  Schlink describes the painting like so: ‘A woman descends a staircase.  The right foot lands on the lower tread, the left grazes the upper, but is on the verge of its next step.  The woman is naked, her body pale; her hair is blonde, above and below; the crown of her head gleams with light.  Nude, pale and blonde – against a grey-green backdrop of blurred stairs and walls, the woman moves lightly, as if floating, towards the viewer.  And yet her long legs, ample hips, and full breasts give her a sensual weight.’

The Woman on the Stairs is told using very short chapters, the majority of which consist of just two or three pages.  The prose here did not grab me at all; I found it rather matter-of-fact, and consequently, some of the chapters felt rather dull.  The plot was flimsy and stretched in places, particularly given the space in the novel which was devoted to certain elements.  The narrator of the piece, a self-important lawyer, did not feel realistic.  Despite the first person perspective, there was a sense of detachment and impersonality throughout.  The pace also felt problematic; it plods along from one chapter to the next, and nothing about it was particularly interesting.  I did not connect in the slightest with either the characters or the slowly ensuing story.

There is often no distinction between past and present here, and consequently, the book becomes rather muddled.  I found that there is barely any depth within The Woman on the Stairs; it is rather a superficial novel.  Indeed, there is barely anything else within the plot which is not suggested or baldly stated in the blurb.  The love story element, which was horribly inevitable, is wildly overblown, and highly rushed.

Whilst I was impressed with The Reader, there seems to be very little, if any, of the power which suffuses its plot and pages in this particular tome.  In fact, if I were to read both The Woman on the Stairs and The Reader without knowing which was the earlier book, I would select the former; it feels unpolished, and almost as though it is a first draft.  I found the novel lacklustre, and whilst I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did The Reader, I still expected that it would be well written, taut, and poignant.  Unfortunately, none of these are words which I would use describe the novel.  The prose is too plodding, and the dialogue offered very little, no matter which character was speaking.  There is no emotion here, and I have come away from the novel wondering why I bothered to read it in its entirety.

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‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin *****

I chose to read Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mother, for the South Korea stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Please Look After Mother has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone since its publication in 2009; the author is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, and has won many literary prizes throughout her career.  The book was a highly anticipated one for me, and I was so looking forward to getting to it.  The English translation, published in 2011, has been masterfully handled by Chi-young Kim.

The reviews on the book’s cover piqued my interest even further, it must be said.  Edwige Danticat writes that it is ‘Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations’, and Geraldine Brooks that ‘Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.’

Please Look After Mother tells the story of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has ‘lived9780753828182 a life of sacrifice’.  She is recovering from an earlier stroke, which has left her ‘vulnerable and often confused’.  She and her husband decide to travel from their countryside home to Seoul, to visit their grown-up children.  At the central train station, she becomes separated from her husband when the doors of the busy train close.  The family soon begins an enormous search effort for their matriarch, reflecting on everything which she has done in her life for them: ‘As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and revisit all the things they never told her.  Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches and secrets she harboured within.’

The novel opens with the following line: ‘It’s been one week since mother went missing’.  Throughout, varied perspectives are used; the voices of her daughter, son, and husband, as well as So-nyo herself have been deftly crafted, as have the second and third person perspectives, the latter of which has been used to oversee various parts of the search.  Each of these narrative voices feel effective, particularly that of the second person; we as readers are immediately immersed into the Park family’s story, particularly with direct writing such as this: ‘You clammed up.  You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days.  You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.’

So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment.  This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story.  So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years.  Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious.  To you, Mother was always Mother.  It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.  Mother was Mother.  She was born as Mother.  Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood.  From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

The family dynamics which are portrayed here, and the ways in which they shift and alter over time, are both fascinating and believable.  Shin has given such a lot of thought to the ways in which such a disappearance will impact upon, or change, each member of the Parks; each reaction is different.

Please Look After Mother is rightly described in its blurb as ‘compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written’.  This absorbing novel tackles an awful lot of important themes, all of which have been translated to the page with such care and consideration.  Please Look After Mother is a loving and poignant portrait of a missing woman.  The novel is filled with tenderness and affection, but it never crosses the line into sentimentality.  Shin’s prose is beautiful throughout, and the translation is fluid.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as intense and moving, Please Look After Mother is a novel which I doubt I will ever forget.

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The Book Trail: The Russian Edition

I am beginning this episode of the Book Trail with a novel I read recently and very much enjoyed; my detailed review will be up in the next week or two, once I get around to typing it up!  As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to compose this list.

1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov 226378
In its adventurous happenings, its abductions, duels, and sexual intrigues, A Hero of Our Time looks backward to the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, so beloved by Russian society in the 1820s and ’30s. In the character of its protagonist, Pechorin, the archetypal Russian antihero, Lermontov’s novel looks forward to the subsequent glories of a Russian literature that it helped, in great measure, to make possible.

 

2. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin
The Queen of Spades has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest short stories, in which Pushkin explores the nature of obsession. The Tales of Belkin are witty parodies of sentimentalism, while Peter the Great’s Blackamoor is an early experiment with recreating the past. The Captain’s Daughter is a novel-length masterpiece which combines historical fiction in the manner of Sir Walter Scott with the devices of the Russian fairy-tale. The Introduction provides close readings of the stories and places them in their European literary context.

 

580433. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
In this powerful and brutal short story, Leskov demonstrates the enduring truth of the Shakespearean archetype joltingly displaced to the heartland of Russia. Chastened and stifled by her marriage of convenience to a man twice her age, the young Katerina Lvovna goes yawning about the house, missing the barefoot freedom of her childhood, until she meets the feckless steward Sergei Filipych. Sergei proceeds to seduce Katerina, as he has done half the women in the town, not realizing that her passion, once freed, will attach to him so fiercely that Katerina will do anything to keep hold of him. Journalist and prose writer Nikolai Leskov is known for his powerful characterizations and the quintessentially Russian atmosphere of his stories.

 

4. The Golovlyov Family by M.E. Saltykov-Shchredin
Searingly hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter, the ancestral estate of the Golovlyov family is the end of the road. There Anna Petrovna rules with an iron hand over her servants and family-until she loses power to the relentless scheming of her hypocritical son Porphyry.   One of the great books of Russian literature, The Golovlyov Family is a vivid picture of a condemned and isolated outpost of civilization that, for contemporary readers, will recall the otherwordly reality of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 

5. The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin 2376088
Vladimir Sorokin’s first published novel, The Queue, is a sly comedy about the late Soviet “years of stagnation.” Thousands of citizens are in line for . . . nobody knows quite what, but the rumors are flying. Leather or suede? Jackets, jeans? Turkish, Swedish, maybe even American? It doesn’t matter–if anything is on sale, you better line up to buy it. Sorokin’s tour de force of ventriloquism and formal daring tells the whole story in snatches of unattributed dialogue, adding up to nothing less than the real voice of the people, overheard on the street as they joke and curse, fall in and out of love, slurp down ice cream or vodka, fill out crossword puzzles, even go to sleep and line up again in the morning as the queue drags on.

 

6. White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya’s short stories — with their unpredictable fairy-tale plots, appealingly eccentric characters, and stylistic abundance and flair — established her in the 1980s as one of modern Russia’s finest writers. Since then her work has been translated throughout the world. Edna O’Brien has called Tolstaya “an enchantress.” Anita Desai has spoken of her work’s “richness and ardent life.” Mixing heartbreak and humor, dizzying flights of fantasy and plunging descents to earth, Tolstaya is the natural successor in a great Russian literary lineage that includes Gogol, Yuri Olesha, Bulgakov, and Nabokov.  White Walls is the most comprehensive collection of Tolstaya’s short fiction to be published in English so far. It presents the contents of her two previous collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with several previously uncollected stories. Tolstaya writes of lonely children and lost love, of philosophers of the absurd and poets working as janitors, of angels and halfwits. She shows how the extraordinary will suddenly erupt in the midst of ordinary life, as she explores the human condition with a matchless combination of unbound imagination and unapologetic sympathy.

 

5892577. Soul by Andrei Platonov
The Soviet writer Andrey Platonov saw much of his work suppressed or censored in his lifetime. In recent decades, however, these lost works have reemerged, and the eerie poetry and poignant humanity of Platonov’s vision have become ever more clear. For Nadezhda Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, Platonov was the writer who most profoundly registered the spiritual shock of revolution. For a new generation of innovative post-Soviet Russian writers he figures as a daring explorer of word and world, the master of what has been called “alternative realism.” Depicting a devastated world that is both terrifying and sublime, Platonov is, without doubt, a universal writer who is as solitary and haunting as Kafka.  This volume gathers eight works that show Platonov at his tenderest, warmest, and subtlest. Among them are “The Return,” about an officer’s difficult homecoming at the end of World War II, described by Penelope Fitzgerald as one of “three great works of Russian literature of the millennium”; “The River Potudan,” a moving account of a troubled marriage; and the title novella, the extraordinary tale of a young man unexpectedly transformed by his return to his Asian birthplace, where he finds his people deprived not only of food and dwelling, but of memory and speech.

 

8. The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays by Vasily Grossman
The Road brings together short stories, journalism, essays, and letters by Vasily Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, providing new insight into the life and work of this extraordinary writer. The stories range from Grossman’s first success, “In the Town of Berdichev,” a piercing reckoning with the cost of war, to such haunting later works as “Mama,” based on the life of a girl who was adopted at the height of the Great Terror by the head of the NKVD and packed off to an orphanage after her father’s downfall. The girl grows up struggling with the discovery that the parents she cherishes in memory are part of a collective nightmare that everyone else wishes to forget. The Road also includes the complete text of Grossman’s harrowing report from Treblinka, one of the first anatomies of the workings of a death camp; “The Sistine Madonna,” a reflection on art and atrocity; as well as two heartbreaking letters that Grossman wrote to his mother after her death at the hands of the Nazis and carried with him for the rest of his life.

 

Which of these books pique your interest?  Have you read any of them before?

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‘A Hero of Our Time’ by Mikhail Lermontov ****

Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which was first published in 1839, was my choice for the Georgia stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  According to its translator Paul Foote, it ranks as ‘one of the earliest of the great Russian novels.’  It was written towards the end of Lermontov’s very short literary career, killed as he was in a duel at the age of 26, and was published just two years before his death.

Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, the tongue-in-cheek ‘hero’ of the novel ‘was offered to the public not as a model but as a condemnation of the period.  Restless, cynical, disillusioned, sometimes cruel, he shares with many nineteenth-century Russian heroes a sense of superfluousness.’  Foote goes on to give some historical context to Pechorin’s – and Lermontov’s – world: ‘The period in which he wrote – the 1830s – was an important transitional step in Russian literature, when verse surrendered its pre-eminence to the story and the novel, and the great age of Russian literature began.’  Interestingly, Lermontov’s career ‘ran parallel’ to Pushkin’s, with both poets turning to prose towards the end of their writing lives.9780140447958

A Hero of Our Time is made up of five separate short stories, which have not been chronologically ordered; they give a series of episodes, essentially, in which elements of Pechorin’s life are shown to the reader.  Three of these are journal entries of Pechorin’s, but we learn more of his character from those which are narrated by others, and tell of his exploits.  Of Lermontov’s protagonist, Foote believes: ‘The only comfort Pechorin has is his conviction of his own perfect knowledge and mastery of life.  He despises emotions and prides himself on the supremacy of his intellect over his feelings.’  He is, however, Foote goes on to say, ‘more than a mere social type.  He is also a psychological type, the dual character, in conflict with himself, torn between good and evil, between idealism and cynicism, between a full-blooded desire to live and a negation of all that life has to offer.’  Foote also believes that Pechorin is a highly autobiographical portrait of Lermontov himself, who exhibited many of the same traits as his ‘hero’.

Lermontov’s descriptions are as dramatic as they are resplendent; when he writes about Georgia, for instance: ‘What a glorious place that valley is!  Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragva – linked with some nameless torrent that roams out of a black, mist-filled gorge – stretches glistening like a scaly snake.’

A Hero of Our Time is the first example of the psychological novel in Russia; whilst it is perhaps not ‘psychological’ in the same extent as we would expect nowadays, there are many examples to be found in which Pechorin deliberately manipulates those around him, largely for his own gain.  At the time in which he was writing, there was no established tradition of Russian prose; rather, this was one of the first books of its kind, and as Lermontov had no rules to follow, he can be credited as one of the first masters of the Russian novel.  There is much here to admire.  The translation feels seamless, and reads fluidly.  Pechorin is a complex, mysterious, and deplorable character, who feels markedly realistic.  A Hero of Our Time is rather a quick read, particularly when compared to other Russian classics, but is both interesting and memorable.

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‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus ****

I have wanted to read Albert Camus’ The Plague for such a long time, and was pleased that I was able to select it for the Algeria stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I have really enjoyed what I have read of Camus’ work in the past, and tried my best to ignore the reviews which mentioned how gory, vivid, and disturbing this novel was, squeamish as I am.  Of course, I expected a novel about a plague to have some level of gore within it; how could it not?  Several paragraphs were stomach-turning, but actually, the clever storyline and the intelligent writing shone through, and were at no time overshadowed by drama or melodrama.

The Plague is set in a fictional Algerian town named Oran, a French port on the coast, and takes place sometime in the early 1940s.   It was first published in 1947, with initial English translation coming out just a year later.  Camus immediately sets the scene, making Oran appear vivid, if dull: ‘Really, all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it…  Treeless, glamourless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there.’9780141185132

Dr Rieux, who is introduced at the beginning of the second chapter, is a composed and determined individual, one of those who tries ‘to fight the terror’, remaining in Oran to stop the spread of the plague, and to treat those who are infected.  Camus sets the tone, as well as Dr Rieux’s composure and determination, when he writes: ‘A monstrous evil has entered their lives but they will never surrender.  They will resist the plague.’

As with Camus’ other work, the pace within The Plague is just right, and I was gripped immediately.  There is such a sense of atmosphere throughout, and Camus is always aware of the human aspect.  To use a striking example, when the town is put under quarantine, Camus describes the way in which the people who are trapped within the walls all change over time: ‘Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.  This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility.  For instance, some of our fellow-citizens became subject to a furious kind of servitude, which put them at the mercy of the sun and the rain.  Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious.  A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood.  A few weeks before they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone…  But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices, in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.’

Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Plague feels entirely fluid.  The hopelessness which comes of living under such conditions, particularly for an extended period of time, has been both well wrought and evoked: ‘But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone.  No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared of all.’  Every element of plague hitting such a populated area seems to have been well thought out; there is consequently a sort of realism to the novel, which makes it feel downright unsettling in places.  I was reminded rather of John Wyndham’s work whilst reading the highly thought-provoking The Plague.

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