Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Posts Tagged ‘MacLehose Press’


Posted by lucypopescu on May 12, 2018

One morning, at the turn of the millennium, a wolf crosses the border between Poland and Germany and disappears into a forest. The following month, 80 kilometres from Berlin, a fuel tanker jack-knives and explodes causing a long tailback. The rescue attempts are hampered by snow. Stuck in his car, Tomasz, a Polish builder, is surprised to see a wolf standing at the edge of the motorway which he manages to photograph before it vanishes. Tomasz is returning to his partner, Agnieszka, a cleaner based in Berlin. Like so many migrant workers, they toil all the time, surviving ‘on crisps and coke and biscuits and tea and beer, because they didn’t like the food in Germany and because they had no time to cook.’

Roland Schimmelpfennig’s impressive debut novel is peopled by a diverse array of characters whose paths meet, overlap and diverge. Elisabeth, a teenager, tired of her mother’s beatings, decides to run away with her best friend Micha.

‘Let’s get away from here, she said to her boyfriend.

The two of them were wearing heavy leather jackets, combat boots, chains, earrings, but they had soft faces and light bodies.

Where do you want to go? He said.

Berlin, she said.’

They head into the forest where a man sits in a hide with his gun and waits for the wolf to appear. Micha’s father, a depressed alcoholic, decides to give chase and bring the teenagers home but he is worried that he won’t remain sober and will lose himself: ‘With drinkers there were no mistakes. With drinkers you could merely shift time, every one of them caved in again sooner or later.’ Elisabeth’s disappointed mother, a frustrated artist, reluctantly travels to Berlin and ends up confronting her past, the choices she made and the husband who left her. After falling pregnant her career had abruptly ended. ‘She couldn’t understand why interest in her work had waned. Then she began to blame it on her husband’s success. She accused him of doing nothing for her.’

The wolf links the lives of these disparate individuals. No wolf has been seen in the region since 1843 and as it approaches Berlin, panic sets in. Tomasz’s photograph of the wolf is reproduced worldwide. Charly, who owns a kiosk with Jacky, becomes obsessed with tracking down the predator. Meanwhile, minor characters step in and out of the story. A woman burns her mother’s diaries on a Berlin balcony; Elisabeth’s father, a famous sculptor, constructs a vast skeleton of a whale in his studio; Semra, a newspaper intern, Berlin-born with a Turkish background, seizes the opportunity to cover the story by claiming to know about wolves. Schimmelpfennig’s characters are, for the most part, disconnected from their surroundings and from one other, disillusioned and lonely.

Schimmelpfennig is best known as a playwright. This is clear in the construction and narrative pace of his novel, deftly translated by Jamie Bulloch. Interior monologues abound and the hopes and fears of his characters are revealed in simple, concise language:

Tomasz worked that morning as if it was any other. He didn’t say much, but he talked a great deal inside his head. He talked to his mother and Agnieszka’s mother and Agnieszka’s brother and Agnieszka.

He tried to remain calm, but couldn’t manage it.

He realised he wouldn’t be able to make it through the next days alone. He wouldn’t cope with being alone. He felt scared.’

The prose often reads like a series of stage directions: ‘The bus driver had stopped, and when he didn’t see the girl and the boy he waited for a moment, at just after half past six in the morning at the only bus stop in the village. He waited longer than he ought to … Later that morning he’d called the boy’s mother and asked her whether everything was alright, that’s what you do in the country.’

However, some of the theatrical elements weaken the plot. While a large cast is exhilarating to see on stage, a heavily peopled novella can feel like too many character sketches. The absence of names – “the boy’s father” and “the girl’s mother” – serves to distance the reader and makes it harder for us to feel empathy. Initially, the numerous subplots dilute tension and Schimmelpfennig has a tendency to tell, rather than show, what his characters are feeling. Our interest is pulled in too many directions, our loyalties are divided and consequently we don’t know who to really root for.

Gradually, though, Schimmelpfennig ratchets up the tension for his lead characters. During one of Tomasz’s absences in Poland, Agnieszka begins an affair with Andi, a man she meets in a Berlin club, and weeks later realises she is pregnant. Elisabeth risks being exploited by a mysterious Chilean bar owner who might be Romanian. The boy’s father is increasingly alienated, but knows if he gives in to alcohol, it may be his last drink: ‘The last thing he wanted was to go home, but where should he go? He’d lost the trail. He had no goal. He was cold. He sat on a bench on the station concourse. He felt as if people were staring at him, but maybe he was just imagining it. He could hear the drunken chatter of the men and women in the pub, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying.’

Meanwhile the threat of the wolf’s arrival in Berlin hangs over them all and there is a dreamlike quality to the random encounters. The woman burning her mother’s diaries offers Elisabeth and Micha a room for the night. The boy’s father spends a Schnapps-soaked night with his older brother, refuelling at Charly’s kiosk. The final word and sighting of the wolf is given to a linesman on the S-Bahn, a friend of Micha’s who we don’t actually meet until the closing chapter. Berlin may be considered one of the best cities in the world to live today, but Schimmelpfennig’s memorable tale of urban dislocation reveals a darker side.

Originally published by Riveting Reviews,

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Book – review –

Posted by lucypopescu on March 12, 2018

The Impostor

by Javier Cercas,

translated by Frank Wynne


Enric Marco passed himself off as a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, a Republican deportee to Nazi Germany and a survivor of Flossenburg concentration camp. For almost three decades, he visited schools, gave lectures and wrote papers about his fictitious experiences. Most damningly, he served as president of the Amical De Mauthausen, the Spanish association of Nazi victims, despite never having set foot in a concentration camp. The reality is that he went to Germany as a volunteer worker in late 1941 to avoid military service; Spain provided Germany with cheap manpower as part of an accord enabling Franco to repay Hitler for his aid during the civil war. Although Marco was incarcerated for a short time, it was in an ordinary prison.

After being unmasked by historian Benito Bermejo in 2005, Marco was widely condemned as a charlatan and liar. The worldwide furore that ensued immediately piqued the interest of the novelist Javier Cercas. He was encouraged to write about Marco by the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa, who said: “Marco is one of your characters! You have to write about him!” But Cercas wrestled with his conscience for seven years before deciding to investigate. One of his fears was that by writing about Marco he might begin to understand, and therefore justify, his behaviour.

Cercas calls The Impostor “a novel without fiction” and, early on, draws parallels between Marco’s tale and that of Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote. An ordinary hidalgo (nobleman), Alonso Quixano yearns to perform chivalrous deeds. Reinventing himself as Don Quixote, he allows his imagination to triumph over reality.

Like Quixote, Marco achieved mythical status. Cercas reveals an ordinary man who, from an early age, was desperate to be loved. Marco changed his date of birth (by two days) to 14 April 1921 so he could claim to have been born “exactly ten years before the declaration of the Second Spanish Republic”. He was born in an insane asylum and his mother was abandoned there. His father and step-mother had little time for him and “for most of his childhood he could not shrug off the mortifying sense that he was not wanted anywhere.”

The reason Marco got away with his “tissue of lies” for so long, Cercas suggests, is tied up with Spain’s own inability to confront the horrors of the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. After the war, Cercas claims no one wanted to talk about it, least of all those who had been defeated: “the vast majority of Spaniards … meekly accepted the dictatorship.” Marco recognised that “he who controls the past, controls the present and the future.” Ironically, he advocated the recovery of historical memory, while rewriting his own.

The Impostor, seamlessly translated by Frank Wynne, is a fascinating analysis of a nation in denial. Just as Germany was unable to truthfully confront its Nazi past in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s death, Cercas suggests, Spain could only begin to look into the horrors of Franco’s reign 25 years after his death. Marco played into this, aware that “no one dares to question the authority of the victim, no one dares question the authority of the witness.”

Cercas took his time writing The Impostor – it’s a little woolly in the middle and there is some unnecessary repetition. But by going over Marco’s story repeatedly, adding new details, embellishing existing ones, Cercas illustrates how Marco embedded his heroic persona into a society’s consciousness. This is the story of a fraudster and a profound meditation on the legacy of Spain’s civil war. Cercas was clearly nervous about writing it and his conclusion is damning: “Marco reinvented his life at a moment when the entire country was reinventing itself … during the transition from dictatorship … with Franco dead, almost everyone began to construct a past to better face the present and prepare for the future.”

Originally published in New Humanist 

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Book review – News from Berlin

Posted by lucypopescu on January 7, 2014

News from BerlinIt’s wartime, 1941. Dutch diplomat Oscar Verschuur’s family are dispersed throughout Europe. He is posted in Switzerland, his wife Kate volunteers in a London hospital and his daughter Emma is married to Carl, a “good” German, and is based in Berlin.

The “news” referred to in the title of Otto de Kat’s novella comes from Emma. Her husband Carl works in the Foreign Ministry, the only place where there is still resistance to Hitler, and has seen the date and codename of the planned Nazi invasion of Russia. She feels sure her father Oscar will know what to do with the information.

Oscar leads a shadowy existence; helping refugees across borders and feeding information to Winston Churchill’s main intelligence adviser. He’s a consummate “cover-up agent”. He knows that he is watched by the Gestapo and that if he warns the Allies of the impending invasion he may endanger his daughter’s life. But if he doesn’t pass on the intelligence, there will be appalling bloodshed.

Difficult choices are inevitable in wartime. De Kat’s previous novella, Julia, also dealt with the chaos of war and one man’s sense of dislocation after leaving behind the love of his life. News from Berlin is just as engaging a read but Oscar’s quandary is less convincing. When he is given the opportunity to pass on the crucial intelligence, Oscar realises that because the source is German (Emma’s husband) his information won’t be believed. This immediately kills any tension.

The shadowy world of espionage during the Second World War is a familiar subject in contemporary fiction but de Kat weaves various other plot-strands into his main story. The most intriguing of these sub-plots involves Kate’s relationship with a young Congolese soldier. Matteous was wounded in action, while saving an officer’s life, and is sent to Kate’s hospital in Richmond to recuperate.

She finds herself drawn to him, and starts to recall her first love and marriage to a dashing archaeologist. De Kat is particularly eloquent on the nature of memory: “It was as if somewhere far away, in the unconscionable depths of her being, parcels were being unwrapped, mysterious envelopes torn open, stacks of paper riffled through.”

As well as conveying the febrile atmosphere of wartime Europe, News from Berlin is a compelling portrait of love, loss and regret lucidly translated by Ina Rilke.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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A passion for literary fiction in translation

Posted by lucypopescu on July 11, 2013

During the fifteen years I worked for English PEN’s Writers in Prison committee, we campaigned on behalf of many writers whose work was not translated into English. We knew that they had written something to anger or intimidate the authorities but PEN would usually have only the relevant extracts translated. Of course, I always wanted to read more. One of the strangest cases was that of Elif Shafaq (who recently judged the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). Shafak was charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her novel Baba ve Piç (which had been originally published in English as The Bastard of Istanbul). One of her characters referred to the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres – a sensitive subject in Turkey. Shafak and her publisher argued that the book was a work of fiction and therefore not appropriate for prosecution. Shafaq was acquitted in September 2006.

Almost seventy years earlier, in 1937, PEN had campaigned on behalf of Arthur Koestler who had been arrested by Franco’s forces while reporting on the Spanish Civil War and was threatened with execution. A petition was sent to General Franco appealing for Koestler’s release, signed by forty PEN members including EM Forster and Aldous Huxley. This early campaign for a writer in prison proved successful and Koestler was released. Later he wrote to PEN:  ‘I am fully aware that it was no personal merit of my own, but in the deeper interests of freedom of expression of opinion, which is the life-blood of democracy and humanity that this help is given. That a free public opinion should have thus proved so strong, is as much to me as my own personal liberty.’ Later, in Paris, Koestler was arrested again, and lost the German manuscript of his novel, Darkness at Noon. Fortunately, an English translation had been mailed to London a few days before, which literally saved the book from being lost forever. The English version was published in December 1940.[1]

The PEN charter proclaims: literature knows no frontiers’. In 2007, I had the pleasure of editing the PEN anthology, Another Sky, which covered forty years of our work with persecuted writers. We commissioned a number of new translations including, from Spanish, two Cuban poets Angel Cuadra and Yndamiro Restano, Peruvian journalist Augusto Ernesto Llosa Giraldo and the Mexican novelist and human rights activist Jose Revueltas.

My time at PEN made me curious about foreign writers and in particular, literary fiction in translation. I was hungry to read and discover more. Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish traveller-reporter, neatly sums up my own feelings about why foreign fiction is important when he writes of travel: ‘these other worlds, these other cultures, are mirrors on which we can see ourselves, thanks to which we understand ourselves better – for we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison’. [2]

Shortly after I left PEN, I lived briefly in Mexico from 2009 to 2010. I began reading voraciously about the country and immersed myself in the work of classic Mexican authors such as Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo and contemporary authors published in English translation such as Enrique Serna, Eloy Urroz and Jorge Volpi. The latter is a leading light in his own country and to my mind is as thrilling a discovery as Chilean Roberto Bolaño. Born in 1968, Volpi is a founding member of the Crack Movement – a literary group that endorses the complexity of plot and style employed by Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Volpi is a master of the historical thriller and effortlessly blends an acute analysis of political events into his fiction. It’s hard to believe that Volpi has had only one novel, In Search of Klingsor (translated by Kristina Cordero) published in the UK (Fourth Estate, 2003).

In fact, relatively few contemporary Mexican authors are known in the UK. Laura Esquivel’s homage to Mexican cooking, Like Water for Chocolate, (translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) became a bestseller only after it was made into a successful film in 1992 by Alfonso Arau. Thankfully, this looks set to change. Fernando del Paso’s mammoth News from the Empire (translated by Stella T. Clark, Alfonso González) about the French conquest of Mexico and Emperor Maximilian’ s troubled reign was published by Dalkey Archive in 2009. More recently, And Other Stories saw their English language version of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole (translated by Rosalind Harvey), a nightmarish inversion of Alice in Wonderland – where absurd wishes are granted, giant cats are fed human corpses, and corrupt politicians come to lunch – nominated for the Guardian First Book Award 2011.

When I returned to England, I become acquainted with Peirene Press who publish European literature of distinction in English translation. Their books are beautifully designed paperbacks and are always less than 200 pages “so you can read them in the same time it takes to watch a movie”. The first title I read was Maria Barbal’s poignant novella, Stone in a Landslide, about rural hardship in Catalonia at the beginning of the 20th century. It is considered a Catalan classic but before it was translated into English, by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell, Barbal was unknown over here.

Granta Magazine gave younger writers a huge boost in 2010 when it published its wonderful anthology The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. Apart from the mainstream publishers of prominent authors such as Javier Cercas, Javier Marías and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, it is mainly the smaller, independent presses who are introducing Spanish language authors to these shores. Thanks to them, in recent years I have become acquainted with many new Spanish language novelists whose books have been translated into English for the fist time. The most memorable include Peruvian Santiago Roncagliolo who, together with his English translator, Edith Grossman, won the 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) for his political thriller Red April published by Atlantic Books; Chilean Carla Guelfenbein and her tender love story, The Rest is Silence, translated by Katherine Silver and published by Portobello Books; Horacio Castellanos Moya’s meditation on post-civil-war San Salvador, The She-Devil in the Mirror, translated by Katherine Silver and published by Alma Books; and Colombian Evelio Rosero, whose novel The Armies (translated by Anne McLean and published by Maclehose Press) won the 2009 IFFP.

There have been a spate of Argentinean writers published over here in the past two years alone: Marcelo Figueras and his brilliant coming of age novel set during Argentina’s Dirty War, Kamchatka, translated by Frank Wynne and published by Atlantic Books;  Carlos Gamerro, also writes poignantly about Argentina’s brutal past in An Open Secret, translated by Ian Barnett and published by Pushkin Books; Matías Néspolo’s assured debut novel, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat, set against Argentina’s financial collapse of 2001, translated by Frank Wynne and published by Harvill Secker; Iosi Havilio and his beguiling debut novel, Open Door, about an open-door institution for the mentally ill, translated by Beth Fowler and published by And Other Stories; and Andres Neuman’s magnificent Traveller of the Century (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by Pushkin Books), this year’s joint runners-up at the IFFP.

Why these books remain uppermost in my mind is because so few foreign writers are being translated into English. At International Translation Day 2012, Alexandra Buchler from Literature Across Frontiers, announced that translation makes up only 4.5% of fiction sales in the UK, compared with 24% in Spain and 15% in France. This is slighter better than the 3% generally cited for the US but is still woefully low. However, many consider this small increase an indicator of change and some credit for this must go to initiatives like New Spanish Books.

I was delighted to be invited to be part of New Spanish Books’ 2013 panel of literary professionals and trade experts. We met only twice but whittled down over 120 fiction titles to just seventeen and then chose a final eight. Most of these were clear shortlist material and there were few disagreements. We tried to include a range of subjects from Betina González’s coming of age novel, Las poseídas and Isabel Camblor’s psychologically complex Memoria de la inocente niña homicidato to Alan Pauls’ topical Historia del dinero about an Argentinean family’s relationship to money as well as a mix of genres from Catalan master Pere Calders’ short stories Croniques de la veritat oculta to Felix G Modrono’s historical drama, La ciudad de los ojos grises. We also considered whether the works bring something different to what is being published here already.

Hopefully, these titles will be snapped up by UK publishers. Given the globalised society in which we now live, there are ever more pressing reasons to read literary fiction in translation, in order to explore and better understand “these other worlds, these other cultures”.

[1] Scammell, M. ‘Dialogue with Darkness’ from Index on Censorship, Beyond Bars: 50 Years of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, Vol 39, No 4. 2010

[2]  Kapuściński, R. Travels with Herodotus, Penguin Books, 2007

Originally published by New Spanish Books


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Book Review – Black Sky, Black Sea

Posted by lucypopescu on December 18, 2012

Black skyBased on real events, Black Sky, Black Sea is set during a particularly bleak time in Turkey’s past that many will remember with regret and sorrow. Izzet Celasin is a Turkish refugee who was imprisoned after the 1980 military coup and then fled to Norway. He has turned his experiences into an absorbing and illuminating novel and is eloquent on political struggle and what leads peaceful protestors to make harsh choices or take up arms. There is much to admire in Celasin’s debut, not least that it was written in Norwegian, his adopted language, and is seamlessly translated by Charlotte Barslund.

Celasin’s protagonist, nicknamed Oak by his school friends because “it was no use trying to reason with a tree”, is young, idealistic and an aspiring poet. Like any ordinary teenager on the cusp of adulthood, Oak is experimenting with love and politics, but becomes obsessed with Zuhal, a female left-wing activist. As civil unrest erupts in Istanbul, they go their separate ways – Zuhal decides to follow the path of armed resistance while Oak remains a pacifist.

It’s a harrowing rite of passage from high school to adulthood. As an undergraduate, Oak discovers that students are targeted regardless of their politics. He narrowly escapes being tortured, survives a random shooting at his university and it quickly becomes impossible for him to finish his studies there.

Part of the novel’s fascination lies in the characters Oak encounters along the way: Ahmet, a vegetable wholesaler and “a likeable villain”; the female Professor who both inspires and protects him and Soldier, the well-connected manager of a casino and strip joint. Then there are the women that Oak loves: Ayfar, his gentle and unassuming neighbour; Zuhal the fearless freedom fighter; Semra a talented poetess; and finally Nehir who, true to her name, is like “a river; calm, wild, shallow, deep, lovely and unpredictable.”

For the most part, the story is told from Oak’s perspective and Zuhal is a shadowy figure. But there are a few occasions when we hear Zuhal’s voice, particularly towards the end when the army is closing in on her small guerrilla unit. It is telling that as their hold on each other weakens, her voice becomes stronger.

Given the various civil protests taking place today, this is a timely novel that tells a wider story. Celasin makes the daily battles between left-wing activists and nationalists, the murder of students, and the brutal suppression of dissidents into a page turner that will resonate with readers both inside and outside Turkey.

Oak, like the tree he is named after remains resilient and survives, but watches, helpless, as others fall for their beliefs or become caught up in the endless cycle of violence.

A shorter review was originally published in The Independent

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Book review – Where I Left my Soul

Posted by lucypopescu on November 23, 2012

While working in the field of human rights, I learned that methods of torture do not vary much across borders, nor over time. A Syrian writer, incarcerated in the 1990s, once described to me how he had lost all sensation in his arms after having his spine stretched out on “the German Chair”; a form of torture employed by the Nazis during the Second World War and adopted by the Syrian military intelligence.

The systematic nature of torture and its effect on both victim and perpetrator is the subject of Jérôme Ferrari’s disturbing novel. Set over three days during the Algerian War, Where I Left My Soul is told from the perspective of two French officers, both involved in “the hunt for intelligence”. The conflict was particularly savage and atrocities were committed on both sides.

Captain André Degorce, a member of the French Resistance in his youth, had been captured and “interrogated” by the Nazis and this, Ferrari suggests, is what first brutalises him.

A few years later, he was interned again by the Viet Minh after the bloody battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As a prisoner, Degorce’s stoicism and strength of character brought him many admirers, among them Lieutenant Horace Andreani.

The two men are reunited in Algiers in 1957 but respond very differently to their new role as torturers. Unlike his junior officer, Degorce wrestles with his conscience. Following the arrest of the rebel leader, known as Tahar the Pure, he treats him with respect and, to Andreani’s disgust, offers him full military compliments.

Ferrari (who has just won the Prix Goncourt for his new novel The Sermon on the Fall of Rome) states that his main aim was “to capture the moment when we open our eyes in horror at the mirror reflecting back at us the very image of everything we have sought to fight against”.

Both men are complicit in torture and equally ruthless when extracting a confession, but Degorce resists that moment, the realisation that he has lost his soul, with startling ferocity. He fills his mind with musings on the past, attempts to write with honesty and love to his wife, seeks solace in his religious belief, and struggles to retain compassion for his prisoners. By contrast, Andreani swiftly accepts, even embraces, the darkness within himself.

Where I Left My Soul may not be an easy read – it is an unsparing examination of how violence begets violence – but it is an important one. The horrors of the Algerian fight for independence should not be forgotten and, as Ferrari reminds us, the psychological wounds of war are often the hardest to heal.

Originally published in The Independent

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Book review – Breathless

Posted by lucypopescu on June 7, 2012

Set in rural Skåne in southern Sweden, Anne Swärd’s haunting novel traces the life of a young woman unable to let go of her past. Breathless opens with the birth of Lo, looking “nothing like a shiny rose-pink apricot covered with golden down, more like an Eskimo…hair as dark is if it had been dipped into a bottomless lake.” From early on, Lo feels like an outsider in her Nordic family. Aged just six, she befriends her Hungarian neighbour, thirteen-year-old Lukas. Alarmed at the age difference, Lo’s protective family forbid her from seeing him but the two children conspire to meet in a derelict pearl fisher’s house by the lake.

Poor, illiterate and emotionally bruised, Lukas receives regular beatings from his surly father. The two barely communicate, having no language in common. Gabriel has never bothered to learn Swedish and Lukas has forgotten his native tongue, so this brutal physical contact is the only form of interaction between father and son. Lo is inextricably drawn to Lukas and feels a connection with his pain and loneliness.

As children they share a love of Godard’s film, from which the novel takes its title, and delight in recreating Jean Seberg’s betrayal of Jean-Paul Belmondo, which becomes a central motif in their own relationship. Like the film, Swärd’s novel is psychologically dense, her central themes are about forbidden love, escape and, like Seberg’s character, Lo suffers from indecision.

After Lo’s fifteenth birthday and a trip to Tivoli, in Copenhagen, something shifts between the two friends that neither can express to the other. Two years later, Lo takes off with Yoel, a fickle man she had employed as a translator to enable Lukas to communicate with his dying father. She moves with him to Stockholm but finds herself unable to settle down.

Lo’s mother had always warned her against falling in love, and as a young woman she shies away from emotional attachment, referring to love as “like lighting a cigarette on a burning curtain, an exaggerated gesture, an excessive risk”. She drifts between jobs and men, unable to return to Lukas but also powerless to forget him. In adulthood, Lo revisits again and again the memories of their secret trysts in the old pearl fisher’s house, reliving in detail their last summer together.

A sense of foreboding pervades this beguiling novel. Swärd is eloquent on love, betrayal, and the complexities of the human heart, and the book’s lyrical quality is beautifully translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner.

Originally published by the Independent 6 June 2012



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Book review – Trieste

Posted by lucypopescu on March 23, 2012

Dasa Drndic’s vast, sprawling, magisterial work begins during the First World War and ends in July 2006.

At the heart of the novel are the experiences of Haya Tedeschi and that of her Catholicized Jewish family during the Second World War.  Now an elderly woman, Haya sits alone in a rocking chair. She is waiting, as she has done for sixty-two years, to be reunited with her son. As she waits, she sifts through the contents of a basket at her feet. It contains letters and newspaper cuttings, posters and photographs of movie stars, old programmes, tickets and photographs of her family now yellowing with age.  Haya’s story is just one of many “about encounters, about the traces preserved of human contact” alluded to in this brilliant work of documentary fiction.

Haya was born in Gorizia (also known Görz, Goritz and Gorica), situated between Italy and Slovenia, and her story is inextricably entwined with this small town’s own history, its shifting borders and transient population.  Haya’s own family travel – they are initially displaced by the Great War. Later, in the 1930s, they move – to find work or to escape persecution – to nearby Trieste, Naples, Valona in Albania and finally Milan.

As a young woman, Haya returns to Gorizia, now part of the new German province, Adriatisches Kustenland, where she has an affair with an SS officer and gives birth to a son, Antonio. When just a few months old, Antonio is snatched from his pram and ends up a victim of the notorious Lebensborn programme. As Haya later learns, with the help of the International Red Cross, he had been sent to an orphanage to be ‘adopted’ by ‘racially pure’ German parents.

Interspersed through the novel, sometimes detracting from, sometimes adding to the main narrative, are lengthy asides, transcripts from the Nuremberg Trials, the names of 9000 Jews who were either deported from Italy or died there between 1943 and 1945, the brief biographies of SS members, snatches of song and words of poetry. This makes it a challenging read but, ultimately, a rewarding one.

Haya’s main failing, like so many at the time, is to ignore what is going on around her. Her family lives “in the illusion of ignorance. Those who know what is happening do not speak. Those who don’t know ask no questions…the Tedeschi family don’t ask so there is nothing for them to find out, so there is no reason for their getting unduly upset.” When they can no longer ignore what is happening they act as a means of survival: “The Tedeschi family are a civilian family, bystanders who keep their mouths shut, but when they do speak, they sign up to fascism.”

It is only when Haya begins the long search to find her son that she begins to piece together the atrocities that were happening on her doorstep, the concentration camp in Trieste, and the terrible culpability of her German lover, Kurt Franz. “Haya deciphers her past. She builds a file of her past.” Drndic also rails against the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and the Swiss who allowed the sealed freight trains transporting Jews to death camps to pass through their country.

The last part of this phenomenal book, lucidly translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, is dedicated to the voice of Haya’s son, now a middle-aged man, trying to make sense and come to terms with what it means to have been fathered by a mass murderer and war criminal. “Hans, what do the children of murderers look like? some of my kind ask me. Like us, I tell them, they look like us.”

Orignally published by Tribune magazine

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Book Review – Sanctuary Line

Posted by lucypopescu on February 25, 2012

Like the monarch butterflies at the heart of the story, Jane Urquhart’s novel is a delicate work of rare beauty. In winter, Canada’s monarchs migrate south to Mexico. It is never the same monarchs that return. Most butterflies live for only a few weeks but the hardy Methuselah generation, live for nine months enabling them to make the long journey to Mexico. Their migratory patterns and remarkable genetic memory are powerful motifs in Urquhart’s novel.

Set in southwestern Ontario, Sanctuary Line depicts several generation of a prosperous farming family and four secret love stories. Liz Crane has recently returned to Lake Erie to study and tag the monarchs. The farm where she lives was owned by her charismatic uncle, Stanley Butler and his wife, Sadie, a cousin from the American side of the lake. As a child Liz spent glorious summers here with her mother.

Like the monarchs, the Butlers migrated as a means of survival and left Ireland a century before. By the 1980s, the farm had become a flourishing business and Liz’s uncle a renowned orchardist. At the novel’s start, Liz is mourning the loss of cousin Mandy, a brilliant military strategist with a love of poetry, recently killed in Afghanistan. As Liz reflects on the past, she recalls the Mexican labourers employed to harvest the fruit orchards, likening their annual journey to that of the monarchs.

The family’s love of poetry, passed down through the generations, is reflected in Urquhart’s lyrical prose, her pastoral allusions and the way certain recollections are echoed through the novel. She emphasises the transformative power of poetry and its ability to articulate unspoken feelings and emotions. Liz recalls the “uncertain, changing imagery” of the house, overlooking the lake, and once filled with mirrors and glass. She also remembers how an ordinary cedar was set alight with the monarchs’ orange wings and how the “butterfly tree” always signalled the end of summer. All her memories lead to the dramatic events of one night that were to tear the family apart and shatter Liz’s own fragile love.

This is a beautifully written novel about absence, homecomings and the unravelling of memories.

Published by the Independent on Monday 20 February


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Book review – Julia By Otto de Kat

Posted by lucypopescu on February 11, 2012

Germany, 1938. Dutchman Christiaan Dudok is working in a factory in Lübeck, where he meets and falls in love with Julia, a German engineer. Otto de Kat’s elegiac novel focuses on the pair’s short, doomed love affair during this tumultuous period.

The fear of ordinary people, not in thrall to Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship, is pervasive: “Germany was adrift, a festering mess, the whole country in the grip of terror.” Opponents to the regime, like the principled Julia, are thrown out of their jobs. When her brother, an actor, makes a public stand against the Nazis, her own life is endangered. She hides in Chris’s flat and their love blossoms: “Julia dominated his brain, seeped into the divisions and seams of his soul – a soul he no longer believed in”.

But for the next few months, they can enjoy only a few stolen moments as Julia is forever on the move – unknown to Chris she is visiting fellow opponents and distributing illegal pamphlets. Outside, “Arson and murder were the watchwords, the code. Love and been driven underground, into warrens, alcoves and unlit rented rooms.”

Finally, after Kristallnacht, Julia presses Chris to leave, telling him that it is for her own safety. He returns reluctantly to his home town in Holland, dutifully takes over his father’s factory and marries the girlfriend he had left behind

With poetic grace, De Kat reveals how Chris’s loss is internalised. His passion for Julia endures his entire life affecting his marriage, its “agonizing ordinariness”, leaving only a “suppressed, deeply buried sense of yearning.” Even when he discovers her fate, twenty years after he left her behind, Chris cannot lay her memory to rest.

In 1981, now a widower, Chris takes his own life. He is found dead in his study by his driver, Van Dijk, who is baffled by his employer’s actions. There is no suicide note but Chris leaves behind a faded newspaper cutting from April 1942 about the bombing of Lübeck. Among the names of the dead is that of Julia Bender.

De Kat’s narrative opens with Chris’s death, before tracking back and forth in time. Reflecting on his lost love and feelings of emptiness, Chris is unable to come to terms with the past or the choice he made. De Kat’s slim novel is an affecting study of mourning and regret, a compelling, sorrowful account of the chaos of war and how it tears apart lives.

A shortened version was originally published by Tribune Magazine

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