Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Back of the North WindThe Back of the North Wind by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nicholas Freeling's "The Back of the North Wind" begins as a police procedural, a roman policier. Bits of a young woman's body are found in a forest and Commissaire Henri Castang is tasked with investigating the grisly case. Several other murders are under investigations as well, yet quite soon it becomes clear that the novel is not a police procedural at all and does not have that much in common with investigating crimes. A political intrigue, connected with the change of French government from Giscard d'Estaing's regime to socialists is the dominating thread of the plot. New power structure is emerging and people are jockeying for positions of influence. The mysterious Monsieur de Biron becomes the most significant character. Parts of the ending are quite violent and cinematic like in standard thrillers, but it still does not change the basic fact that the novel is about the hidden evils of human nature that emerge when people reach for power.

Mr. Freeling once again demonstrates his absolute mastery of writing. "At one time or another she had aroused the lubricity of the entire regiment but was, she said firmly, no company inkwell for pens to be dipped into." Nobody writes quite like Nicholas Freeling. This sentence, quoted from the novel, other than being beautifully phrased, is just funny but thousands of other sentences in Mr. Freeling's novel are not only exquisitely constructed but also carry incredible amount of psychological, sociological, or political insight.

In its deepest layers the novel expresses the human yearning for a "world beyond the north wind, in which people lived in respect for plants, the animals, the people with which they shared it." Such a world is no more. It is just the stuff of dreams. It is now all about power, about what one can get other people to do.

"The Back of the North Wind" is a very difficult novel to read. I haven't struggled so much with a book for quite many years, having to reread many, many fragments of this short book to grasp the meaning. So despite my long-lasting (almost 50 years now) love for Mr. Freeling's work and the beauty of the language and writing, I can only rate the book with

Three stars.

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