Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to AmericaThe Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America by Martin Amis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] the time has come for serious (i.e. talented) writers to be serious, without losing lyricism or laughter. 'No more novels about adolescence, career problems, sexual adventure, wounded ethnicity.' Why not address 'the mysterious circumstance of being', and say what it's like to be alive at this time, on this planet?"

The quoted passage comes from the short essay Saul Bellow in Chicago, one of the many great pieces in Martin Amis' fabulous collection The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), in which his short writings from 1970s and the early 1980s are assembled. The author offers the set as "a book about America", and indeed, although the majority of the pieces are book reviews and literary criticism essays, the attentive reader will soon see the outline of a portrait of a country. The author presents a sharp, critical yet accurate and honest portrait of the United States of America - that unique country on Earth, which despite its many detestable "-isms" (rabid anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, unfettered commercialism), despite its deep and pervasive social injustice and inequity, remains the country of unprecedented freedom and affinity to change.

While providing captivating literary analyses of top-ranked American prose Mr. Amis does not refrain from entertaining the reader: he uses his sharp language and wit to make a little fun of famous American writers. About Philip Roth we read "Completing the self- beleaguerment, he has now written two autobiographical novels about the consequences of writing autobiographical novels." Truman Capote is chided for helping start - with his In Cold Blood - the trend of "permissiveness about turning tragedy into entertainment." Of another great American author Mr. Amis writes "in the United States, provided you are Norman Mailer, it seems that you can act like a maniac for forty years - and survive, prosper and multiply, and write the books." We have a few sarcastic remarks about William Burroughs and Joseph Heller. The sharpest treatment is reserved for yet another major literary figure: "If there is a key to Gore Vidal's public character, it has something to do with his towering immodesty, the enjoyable superbity of his self-love." Even Kurt Vonnegut, the author with "only the mildest prickle of amour propre", is given a barbed and wonderfully witty treatment: "When success happens to an English writer, he acquires a new typewriter. When success happens to an American writer, he acquires a new life" (and wife, as Mr. Amis explains). Only one author largely escapes Mr. Amis' satire - Saul Bellow, a truly serious writer, according to the words quoted in the epigraph.

Several pieces in the collection are Mr. Amis' reports from some uniquely American places, events, or phenomena. He writes about Palm Beach, a town that reeks of money, leisure, and "women, still going strong, prinked, snipped, tucked, capped, patched, pinched, rinsed, lopped, pruned, pared, but still going strong [...]" Another piece provides sharp observations from Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign trail. Mr. Amis also paints a totally scary portrayal of fundamentalist TV preachers and the New Evangelical Right, and equally scary report about artificial life in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion West. One can just imagine Jerry Falwell and Hugh Hefner in a huge bed, cavorting with Playmates of the Month, and a few angels.

The best piece in the entire collection is the short essay, written in 1985, Double Jeopardy: Making Sense of AIDS. Despite the global hysteria about the public health crisis raging at the time, Mr. Amis gives the topic a cool and level-headed treatment, well balanced between concern, sympathy, and worry about the future. From the perspective of 30 years later it is clear how right the author was at those dramatic times.

The AIDS essay also contains a most memorable passage, concerning one of my "hot button" issues: people's attempts to ameliorate reality by changing the language that describes it. While at the time of writing that tendency was just in larval stage, these days using the politically correct euphemisms is the dominant paradigm. Mr. Amis writes "It is a very American dishonesty - antiseptic spray from the verbal-sanitation department. Having named a painful reality (the belief seems to be), you also dispatch it, you get it off your desk."

Hard to believe but the topics in this thirty-year-old collection are as relevant now as they were in the 1980s. The Moronic Inferno is very highly recommended!

Four and a half stars.

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Tigers of Subtopia and Other StoriesThe Tigers of Subtopia and Other Stories by Julian Symons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I am a boiler. A boiler is a mean little sneak. A boiler's nose is full of snot. He can't tie his own shoelaces. A boiler fails in everything he tries. A boiler stinks. I am a boiler..."

The Tigers of Subtopia and Other Stories is a collection of short works by Julian Symons from the period between 1965 and 1982. Symons, one of the most prominent British crime writers of the second half of the 20th century, was a "serious" author too, but obviously his works in literary criticism, history, and poetry are not what he is known for. All eleven stories in this collection are interesting and compulsively readable, but the readers who are looking for straight mystery/crime stuff may be disappointed, except for the last four items. In fact, several stories have no significant "crime component", and they are the better for that.

My favorites are four stories remarkable for their dark mood, seriously disturbing overtones, and subtle intimations of bad things about to happen. The title story, about supposedly peaceful suburban ("subtopian") life, is perhaps the most powerful. It is a cynical, bitter, slightly exaggerated yet still psychologically plausible tale of crime and incommensurate punishment, where the "bad guys" become victims of the "good guys", who become criminals. The story might as well be titled "Lynching in Subtopia". Somebody Else, which refers to the tale of Pelleas and Melisande, is equally unsettling and contains a wonderful passage that describes an anonymous, ambiguous, and vaguely sexual activity. The Boiler is an outright nasty story, strong and psychologically convincing, one that leaves the reader with bitter sadness about the human species. The Murderer - equally dark in its tone as the title story - shows how the entire structure of human personality can be irrevocably destroyed in a single moment.

The remaining stories are more straightforward representatives of the crime/mystery genre: some deal with the so-called perfect crime, others dazzle the reader with extreme and totally unexpected twists and turns of plot. Thus I have not found them very interesting, perhaps except for A Theme for Hyacinth about the oh-so-common delusion of a 50-year-old man who thinks that a young woman is having a torrid affair with him because she finds him interesting. The man's awakening from his fantasy is portrayed with painful bluntness, and the quote from Wallace Stevens's poem Le Monocle de mon Oncle is an added bonus.

The stories are clearly better than run-of-the-mill mystery/crime fiction: the nastiness of ordinary people is shown with some depth.

Three stars.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of DeathThe Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] the internal dynamics of a bomb in the rectal passage were such that the force of the explosion went straight up. [...] Thing went off, it scoured his viscera, guts, lungs, everything, shot them up through his head and out of the top of his skull. Like a fountain."

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (2009) is my fourth book by Charlie Huston and a rather major disappointment. I rated his Six Bad Things with four and a half stars, which might have been my highest rating ever for a pure entertainment type of book. Its prequel, Caught Stealing was also outstanding . Not so A Dangerous Man - less than three stars - but it still was a good read. Alas The Mystic Arts is irreparably damaged by inane, asinine, and simply juvenile dialogues. This is hard to understand since the characters in this novel are about 30 years old: people that age do not talk like high-school sophomores in real life. What's even stranger, the trilogy mentioned above showed that Mr. Huston can write great dialogues, so I am at loss to explain what happened. Maybe the author has a 14-year-old son who was allowed to practice his writing skills?

The setup of the novel is quite ingenious: Webster (Web) Goodhue, the narrator of the story, an ex-elementary-school teacher who had quit as the result of a painful event, lives in Los Angeles with his childhood friend and gets by on money handouts from his divorced parents. He decides to take the job of a "trauma cleaner" and becomes a member of the crew that cleans scenes of murders, suicides, and other bloody events. Here's how a crew member explains the job: "[W]e clean blood and brains. We scrub shit. We vacuum maggot shells. We inhale gas from rotting corpses." The reader has a chance to accompany the crew to several trauma scenes and enjoy decay porn - the details of decomposing human bodies. In addition to handling putrefaction, Web also has emotional problems dealing with his parents. His mother, a free spirit and a New-Age freak, lives in a sort of commune in Oregon, while his father, a once successful Hollywood screenwriter, is a heavy alcoholic. Moreover, the sins of Web's father play a major role in the story.

The criminal plot involves beatings, murder, and kidnapping, and Web has to deal with an aspiring movie producer, an idiot on the scale way beyond the usual morons from Hollywood. All in all, the novel could provide some twisted and demented fun, were it not so damaged by the ridiculous dialogues. There is one truly funny theme in the novel - which is, incidentally, also the only realistic aspect - where the author satirizes Hollywood screenwriters; to avoid spoiling the reader's fun I will just mention that it involves the most successful past activity of Web's father - improving other writers' screenplays.

Other than that The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is a barely satisfactory thriller but certainly a tasty dish for fans of body decomposition.

Two stars.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Name Is ArcherThe Name Is Archer by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"All I could see was his unchanging smile, framed in brilliant light. I felt a keen desire to do some orthodontic work on it. But the gun was an inhibiting factor."

The Name is Archer is an early collection of Ross Macdonald's (the pen name of Kenneth Millar) short stories. Tom Nolan in his great Ross Macdonald: A Biography explains the origins of this collection: in the summer of 1954 Bantam Books "made a deal for a collection of Lew Archer short stories. The paperback would combine the five Archer novelettes done for Manhunt and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" with two non-Archer stories. Particularly the first of these two magazines specialized in hard-boiled fiction - sometimes of the "pulp" variety - and the early Macdonald's stories seem to fit the profile well. The collection garnered praise from critics: as Mr. Nolan writes, "Bill Pronzini, first President of the Private Eye Writers of America, in 1986 ranked Macdonald's anthology [along with Hammett's and Chandler's works] as the finest volumes of so-called hard-boiled crime stories."

The straightforward hard-boiled crime prose is not my thing - the authors are too constrained by conventions of the genre causing repetitiveness and abundance of clichés - and I do not like this collection of Macdonald's stories. The emphasis is on fast action rather than on mood and character psychology that are so distinctive for the later works of Ross Macdonald. Alas, I do not much care for the prose in these early stories either. Mr. Millar has not yet found his voice, which will be so unique and powerful in his future works.

In the first story, Find the Woman, which is set in the mid-to-late 1940s, Archer has just been released from the army, and is in his second day on the private eye job. Lew's fans will undoubtedly find the story of his first job interesting. For me the last story, Wild Goose Chase, is the most engaging: Archer is hired to watch a murder trial and predict the verdict. It is a psychologically intense story with rather well drawn characters. The writing is also notable and somewhat similar to later works of the author. No such lapses as, for instance, the awkward sentence "I could smell the fear on Donny: there's an unexplained trace of canine in my chromosomes" in the story Gone Girl. The rhyming dialogue in the same story is awful as well; but I believe such dialogues were de rigueur at that time. Of course I like the mention of La Jolla and the Cove, where most of the plot of Suicide takes place, and which reminds me of the many years I spent around that place some 25 years ago.

Perhaps the weakest of all works by Ross Macdonald, but even then better than 90% of current bestsellers.

One and three quarter stars.

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Friday, March 18, 2016

The Foxes Come at NightThe Foxes Come at Night by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The dead, if neglected for too long, can affect you that way."

Another stunning book from Cees Nooteboom! During the 60 years of my adventure with books I have had various favorite writers: from Hugh Lofting and Jules Verne during childhood, through youthful fascinations with William Faulkner, through Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Joyce, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez - to mention just a few literary giants towering over my middle age - to the recent obsession with J. M. Coetzee, whom I first read just over two years ago. But it is the extraordinary prose of my newest favorite author, Cees Nooteboom, that resonates the strongest with my literary sensitivities. I have never been so totally mesmerized by anyone's prose: not even by Joyce's unparalleled maturity and depth of insights about people, not by the spellbinding charm of Garcia Marquez' magical realism, and not even by the crystalline mathematical clarity of J.M. Coetzee's writing. Not only am I awed by Mr. Nooteboom's poetry of prose and his mastery of evocative moods, but also his favorite themes affect the deepest layers of my emotional self.

The central themes in Mr. Nooteboom's fiction are human impermanence, the fleeting nature of our existence, the questions of human identity and the essential role of memories in shaping who we are. His stories reveal the most horrifying truth about our ephemeral existence: the ordinary people die twice: first, the death takes them away from the realm of the living, and then, gradually, they turn into complete nothingness, when people who remember them die too. Soon they exist no more and it is precisely as if they have never existed at all. My grandmother still exists a little, because I remember her. Even my grandfather, whom I never met as he died over seventy years ago in the Mauthausen concentration camp, still exists a tiny bit, because she had told me about him. When I die, though, they will disappear forever.

The Foxes Come at Night (2009) is a collection of eight short stories, ostensibly connected through their setting at various points of the Mediterranean coast, but what really matters is that they are about memories of people whom we once knew and who are now gone. Any attempt of mine to summarize the stories would be ridiculous and would debase the beauty of the prose, so let me just say that although I love each one of the eight pieces, Paula and Paula II are absolutely unforgettable. The latter, a contemplation of our gradual passing from being to nothing, is likely the most stunning piece of writing I have ever been privileged to read. Loneliness is the fate of human life and most of us realize how lonely we will be at the moment of death, but we probably are not eager to imagine the utter loneliness when the memories of us vanish.

140 pages of a literary masterpiece. Wonderful translation from the Dutch by Ina Rilke needs to be acknowledged as well.

"My fingernail pressing in your hand that time, watching Antonioni. [...] Leave-taking. The last goodbye. You have opened your window. Gust of wind. That was me. Rustle, whisper. [...] All very fleeting. As we are. Gone."

Five stars.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Dead BabiesDead Babies by Martin Amis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Everything is out of whack at Appleseed Rectory; its rooms are without bearing and without certainty. The inhabitants suffer, too, from curious mental complaints brought on by prolonged use of drugs, complaints that can be alleviated only by drugs of different kinds."

Martin Amis is quickly becoming one of my favorite novelists. I loved his Night Train and quite liked Time's Arrow despite the time-reversal gimmick. I am currently working on two of his more serious books: Koba the Dread, about the greatest mass murderer in the history of mankind, and The War Against Cliché, a collection of literary essays. Yet even great writers have their bad days, and Mr. Amis' Dead Babies (1974) is not a very good book: it is "A miss for Amis," and the quality of my pun matches the level of the novel.

The book's main theme reminds me of a fairly popular math joke from some time ago. To enhance the enrollment in a calculus course it was titled "Sex, Drugs, and Calculus. Part I: Calculus." Unfortunately Mr. Amis does only the second part of the course and there is virtually nothing in the novel other than sex, drug use and heavy alcohol consumption. The events occur in the future, the early 1990s, when a group of young people living in Appleseed Rectory located in far suburbs of London are preparing for and then enjoying a weekend of boozing, sex and drugs. The colorful menagerie of characters includes not only the residents of the rectory but also a trio of American guests. We learn in excruciating detail about everybody's sexual proclivities and alcohol and drug preferences. All of this is extremely immature and reeks of boy adolescence: obsession with intercourse, breasts, farting, masturbation, and practical jokes that involve placing enriched human excrement in beds or defecating down the chimney.

Some of the colorful characters are portrayed as physically repulsive or come across as totally loathsome individuals. For instance Keith, a sickly obese, dwarf-sized man, whose main yearning is to have sex with a woman, is said to look so disgusting in his swimming trunks that girls vomit when they see him. The obnoxiousness of the male American guests is virtually unlimited: one is an author, sort of a learned fellow, spewing fashionable pseudo-scientific claptrap, while the other is a crude specimen ready to mate with anything that moves. All this is really inane, and if Mr. Amis' intention was to satirize the excesses of the permissive society and extrapolate the early 1970s trends to the future, he was not successful.

So why am I not foaming at the mouth decrying the novel as worthless as I did with the utterly horrid Fight Club ? Because - unlike Mr. Palahniuk - Martin Amis is an excellent writer. His prose, even when it contains nothing but descriptions of boozing, drugging, and fucking, is a pleasure to read. This is an author with a major writing talent who - among all the inanity of his plot - can produce unforgettable passages of prose, such as, for example, the spellbinding fragment about "lagging time", which "came abruptly, flopped down like an immense and invisible jelly from the ceiling, swamping the air with marine languor and insect speeds [...]" Drugs can do this to people...

To sum up: an infantile, silly, rather pointless, but oh-so-funny and a very well written novel.

Two stars.

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Game for Five (A Bar Lume Mystery)Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Blessed are the simple, he thought, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven and police stations on earth."

Marco Malvaldi's Game for Five (2007) is the first book in the Bar Lume mystery series that features Massimo the barman, a quartet of "sprightly old-timers" - an octogenarian and three septuagenarians - and a slow-witted police inspector. The plot takes place in a fictional little town of Pineta on the Italian coast, near Pisa. As far as I know, three books in the series have been translated into English so far, but I will not be looking for the other two entries. Game for Five is quite a mediocre book: the plot is far from interesting and the novel does not offer much in the literary sense. It has been published by Europa Editions in their World Noir series, which is hard to understand as there is absolutely nothing noir about the book; if anything, it could be categorized as a humorous mystery novel.

A drunken teenager finds a young woman's body stuffed in a trash can and when the police do not believe him, Massimo has to confirm and report the murder. The police begin their investigation, but because of their utter incompetence solving the case is up to Massimo, the four geezers, and other town locals. The case is discussed on a 24-hour basis in Bar Lume. The town is so small that the residents know all details of the case and information about new developments is instantaneously propagated to everyone. The four elderly sleuths, whose primary occupation is "sticking their noses into other people's businesses", provide occasionally funny diversions from the criminal plot.

This short book is quite a nice, fast, and undemanding read, but there is nothing particularly interesting or memorable about it. One can find several funny lines - for example, "her unsteady, uncoordinated gait [...], like a car with manual gears driven by an American" - but also some awkward and strained passages. The novel does not convey much sense of place of Italian seaside, other than the generically Italian cult of espresso and cappuccino. There is some weirdness in the novel: for instance, it is hard to understand the purpose of including a half-page passage on Kurt Gödel's contributions to foundations of mathematics. For the benefit of other readers I hope that the next books in the series are more interesting.

One and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Einstein's DreamsEinstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Time, the human dimension, which makes us everything we are."
(Martin Amis, Time's Arrow)

(For once the epigraph is not a quote from the book that I am reviewing.) By a pure coincidence the two books I have read in the recent week are both meditations on the nature of time. In Martin Amis' book (see epigraph) we observe a man's life in reverse, from his death to his birth, with time running backward. Alan Lightman's book Einstein's Dreams (1993) presents many alternative worlds each having a different variant of time, including the one chosen by Mr. Amis.

The year is 1905, the end of June, and Albert Einstein works in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, evaluating patent applications. He is preparing the manuscript of the groundbreaking paper that introduces his special theory of relativity. He submits the twenty-page paper, On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies to the journal Annalen der Physik on June 30, 1905. Mr. Lightman frames his book as a collection of thirty stories (presumably Albert Einstein's dreams influenced by his work on the theory) that describe what might happen to people in various imaginable worlds that differ as to the nature of their time. For example, one of those 30 parallel universes is a world whose time is discrete rather continuous, with gaps between segments of time. Another one is a world where time stands still in the center point and from there "time travels outward in concentric circles." Yet another world has circular time, where the events repeat themselves precisely and endlessly. Obviously the author also includes time phenomena that are physically observable in our world: gravitational time dilation and relative velocity time dilation, where identical accurate clocks measure time differently depending on their relative speed or location.

Being an applied mathematician I should be very interested in the physical nature of time, but the only aspect of time that really fascinates me is the biological time - the ticking that goes on in the cells in our bodies, the merciless ticking that moves us gradually and inevitably from birth to death. As most people I tend to visualize time as a line on which the past is to the left, the point of the present moves to the right, following the "time's arrow" toward the future. Yet I could as well argue that time, as such, does not exist: the present moment is so infinitesimally short that it does not exist for any practical purpose, the future exists only potentially, as a "maybe", which leaves the past. But how does past exist? How do my mother and grandmother exist? Not in any real sense other than in my and other people's memories. The past is just a set of fuzzy images of moments long gone in the minds of people who have not yet died.

Mr. Lightman writes beautifully about that aspect of time, about the past and memories. I find three passages in the book exceptionally moving: one is about the center of time where it stands still and where parents are "clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let go". In the other one old people, who have no one and nothing but memories, sit in the dark discovering that all they have, their entire universe is disappearing into nothingness. And probably the most expressive one about people trying to capture single happy moments of time as if they were trying to catch skittish birds. These three extraordinarily powerful passages are the highpoints of the book: they deal with the essence of what it means to be human.

I would like to thank Paine, my Goodreads friend (and, I hope also a real-life friend, although we have had some history, insert a big smiley here) for recommending Einstein's Dreams. It is a fantastically interesting book, and I loved reading it and re-reading the beautiful passages several times. If I am not rating it higher it is only because I am a picky, fussy, and hard to please old grouch and grumbler. Thank you, Paine!

Four stars.

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Time's ArrowTime's Arrow by Martin Amis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Beneath the clock was an enormous arrow, on which was printed 'Change Here For Eastern Trains.' But time had no arrow, not here."

Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1991) is, for the most part, a one-gimmick book. This would normally turn me off and it is not easy to explain why in fact I like this novel. Yes, it is well written, but I am finding several problems with the overall concept so there must be something more than just the accomplished prose: probably it is the emphasis on the time dimension of human life - seemingly the main theme of the novel - which made me pay close attention and appreciate the book .

My other difficulty in reviewing Time's Arrow is that I do not want to divulge the ending (if one can call the final one-third of the book "the ending"), when it is precisely the ending that gives the novel the meaning that transcends the gimmick. Without the last third the novel would be reduced to just an amusing contrivance and would not deserve much attention.

The novel tells the life story of one Tod T. Friendly in quite an unusual way: the story begins at the moment of Tod's death and then goes backward in time to the moment of his birth, covering roughly the period from about 1990 to 1917. To make it clear: it is not just the story that moves backward; instead, the narrator participates in Tod's life lived backwards, with the reverse direction of time treated with full seriousness. Not only the years move in the reverse order, but also people move backwards (from our point of view) when they walk, the customers give items to the cashier in a store and receive money for them when they buy things, and food moves from people's stomachs and mouths onto the plates. Tod is a doctor so some of his work involves putting tumors into the patient bodies so that they could go home sad and scared. Lines of dialogue presented in reverse order are fun, substantially more fun than vomiting or defecation done backwards.

The backward motion in time leads the reader to learn about events so horrible that - if I understand the author's intention - only the insanity of the time's arrow reversal could explain them. Here lies one of my problems with the novel. I do not believe that one needs to suspend the laws of physics to explain humans committing atrocities of the most unimaginable nature. Human beings have been inclined to savagery and barbarity from the very dawn of their history. Everybody should by scared by what humans are able to do to other humans.

My second objection is that the redemptive value of the last part of the novel does not compensate for the indulgently overlong - 110 pages or so - main part that focuses solely on the time reversal trick. That part is simply amusing and because of its sheer volume it overshadows the powerful message of the conclusion.

Finally, my third - technical and minor - problem with the time reversal setup: the technique works fine for a lot of everyday observable activities, which are reversible, at least in mechanical sense. However, there are activities that are irreversible, like thought and speech. We enter the issue of granularity of reversibility: even Mr. Friendly notices that people speaking backwards sound like birds chirping. I love the "shtib" and the "Aid ut oo y'rrah?" shtick. It is really funny! But completely reversed language, including the "language of thought", would have no meaning whatsoever as the granules of meaning are not reversible.

Still, I recommend the novel as a one-of-a-kind, courageous, and failed experiment. And the message that it carries is powerful enough without the time reversal.

Three stars.

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Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Missing Head of Damasceno MonteiroThe Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro by Antonio Tabucchi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"'Millions of stars,' he said, 'millions of nebulae, fuck, millions of nebulae, and here we are fretting about electrodes applied to people's genitals."

Antonio Tabucchi's The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro (1997), is an unusual but overall enjoyable read; while it does not impress as a crime/mystery novel, the serious political and social overtones redeem the book, at least in the eyes of this reader. The back cover blurb that presents the novel as a "genre-bending literary thriller" is only two-thirds accurate: yes, genres are mixed and the quality of writing is far better than in a run-of-the-mill crime/mystery, but - luckily for me - there is not much of a thriller in the book. The criminal affair plot leads to a discourse on the abuse of power, and all this is sprinkled with interesting literary and philosophical references. The author is a famous Italian writer and academic, who throughout his life was fascinated with Portuguese culture and taught Portuguese language and literature at universities in Bologna and Siena.

The plot takes place mostly in or near the northern Portuguese city of Oporto (the original name is Porto). Manolo the Gypsy finds a headless corpse in the bushes and when Lisbon's popular tabloid, Acontecimento, learns about the grim discovery, they send their young crime correspondent and an aspiring writer, Firmino, to investigate and write reports on the progress of the case. He makes the acquaintance of some interesting personages of whom the most important is the grossly overweight attorney, Don Fernando Mello Sequeira. As the criminal plot slowly progresses, the novel begins to focus on Don Fernando, and we learn a lot about his left-leaning political views and his fight against the illegal use of force and torture by the Portuguese police and military, many years after the 1974 fall of Salazar's authoritarian regime.

With Firmino ostensibly being the main character of the novel, it is actually the lawyer who provides the center of attention. Young and naive Firmino is no match for the worldly, experienced, and extremely well-read attorney. Don Fernando's obesity and intellectualism may make him resemble the famous Rex Stout's creation but, in fact, he is not much like Nero Wolfe: Don Fernando's ferocious defense of civil liberties is in stark contrast with Mr. Wolfe's cynicism.

The book contains numerous passages that may seem totally extraneous from the point of view of a crime story: lengthy literary and philosophical discussions on topics such as writings of Elio Vittorini, the philosophy of Georgy Lukács, poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, and the Portuguese neo-Realism. These discussions are well-written and I find them much more interesting than the crime plot.

There are several unusual touches in the novel with none better than the treatment of the final speech by Don Fernando during the criminal proceedings in court. It could have been presented in the vein of great closing arguments, like those memorable monologues that are requisite components of famous legal thrillers and novels, but the delightful twist here is that only small snippets of the speech, individual sentences and even just their pieces are available. Most of the speech is unreadable from the tape because of faulty sound recording. How's that for the war on cliché. Bravo!

The author's passion about the lawlessness pervading the Portuguese police and military forces is palpable and convincing. The prose is accomplished (one needs to praise the English translator, J.C. Patrick, for doing a flawless job). So - despite my objections as to the certain incoherence of focus in this novel - I will look for other books by Antonio Tabucchi.

Three and a half stars.

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