Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Song of Truth and SemblanceA Song of Truth and Semblance by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] her voice, always surrounded by air, so that everything she said came in separate, veiled parcels of breath, which gave the impression that what she said was not true, or that it was not true that she said anything, or, he thought later, the manner in which she spoke made you think she was talking to someone who was not there."

My tenth book by Cees Nooteboom, A Song of Truth and Semblance (1981) is also the first one that I am not exactly enthusiastic about. To put it in perspective, though: it just does not meet my sky-high expectations of the author, raised by masterpieces such as The Following Story . Had this been a work of an "ordinary" writer, I would have likely rated it higher than with two-and-a-half stars.

This short novella - a wonderfully slim volume of about 80 pages - is yet another exercise in metafiction. Two threads are intertwined: one is happening in Amsterdam in 1979 and introduces The Writer and The Other Writer (the capitalization is mine). They discuss the craft of writing in general: The Other Writer represents a down-to-earth, one could say commercial approach to the literary craft while The Writer is rather meditative in his literary exploits. They also discuss the story that The Writer is working on, the story that constitutes the second thread, set exactly 100 years earlier in Bulgaria and Italy, at the time of the Treaty of San Stefano. It features the Colonel, the Doctor, and his newly married wife, with whom the Colonel falls head over heels in love. The two threads, already referentially connected by one being about the other, become additionally linked in a different way at one point of the time-space continuum: in 1979 at "the elegant revolving door of the Grand Hotel de Russie", close to Via del Corso in Rome. But there is even more to the linkage: yet another neat story-versus-story twist awaits the reader.

Mr. Nooteboom teases the reader with metafictional conundrums again and again. The Writer returns to work on his story after a four-month break. The last three words he had written before the break were "Then I see ..." and he now wonders, "Then I see what?" He now knows that he would never know. And that the reader would never know that the writer did not know. The other referentiality quandary is even more playful: when a writer writes a story about his writing a story, do the stories differ as to their level of realism? Or - to state it differently - what would the writer have to do to make the stories differ as to the degree of realism? The ending twist in A Song teases the reader along these lines.

Other than the usual metafictional theme of the relationship between the author and the characters and worlds they create the novella features another common Nooteboom's motif: the intersections of people's trajectories in time and space. On the other hand, this is my first book by the author where the subject of death is conspicuously missing. Also the Stun Latency Coefficient - how many pages does it take for me to get stunned by the beauty or expressive power of the author's prose - is very high: I had to wait almost half of the book, until page 36, to find the first extraordinary fragment of prose, quoted in the epigraph.

And before I slam the novella with a not-recommended sort of rating, let me quote one hilarious phrase:
"Mourning was definitely not what he felt at the funeral of his colleague. Dutch writers cannot as a rule do much for each other, but they do bury each other very well [...]"
Two and a half stars.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Abominable Man (Martin Beck, #7)The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Oh, he taught me a great deal. How to cut a sheep's throat with piano wire before it has a chance to bleat. How to handle a full grown wildcat you're locked up in a closet with. The way to bellow when you charge a cow and stick a bayonet in its belly."

The seventh installment in the Martin Beck series of socially-conscious Swedish police procedural novels, The Abominable Man (1971) is an outstanding representative of its genre. In a marked contrast with its weak predecessor,
Murder at the Savoy , it is well written (or perhaps much better translated), has an interesting plot and, more importantly, its examination of social issues - the relationship between the police and citizens - is not as superficial as in the previous novel. The recent events in the United States - police killings of unarmed people and the resulting backlash - make the book particularly relevant here and now.

Stockholm, 1971. A very sick man is lying down in a hospital bed: the morphine has already stopped working and the man is trying to endure horrible pain. But when another man sneaks into the hospital room with a bayonet, the patient would probably prefer to keep suffering rather than getting viciously slaughtered. Chief Inspector Martin Beck, head of the Stockholm Homicide Squad, leads the investigation helped by other detectives known from previous novels, Gunvald Larsson, Lennart Kollberg, Einar Rönn, and Fredrik Melander.

Although the mystery plot is interesting and well developed, the main value of the novel lies in its examination of excessive brutality in the military and police force and how major character flaws of individual people in positions of authority corrupt the entire system. The authors show us self-proclaimed "hard men, unwilling to tolerate mistakes and weaknesses in others" who might have gone one step too far. What is the boundary between hardness and sadism? Obviously, one of the essential and indispensable goals of training military or police recruits is "making men out of mama's boys," but there must exist limits to the degree of hardness that the recruits will be able to tolerate. If - because of lapses in judgment - the trainers go too far with their demands, things are likely to break down with tragic consequences. Again, this is a timely issue in the United States, with the recent death of a Marine Seal recruit, subject to extreme rigors of training. What I admire about the authors is that they present both sides of the argument rather than attempting to provide an answer. Obviously there are no right answers to problems like that.

The other great feature of the novel, purely of literary nature, is that it hits the reader hard when it is least expected. Amid all the somber themes we are suddenly treated to a long and light-hearted fragment that features comedic characters who we are well acquainted with and who may be expected to provide comic relief. And then, BAM! The reader is suddenly and brutally shaken out of the comfort zone. The authors, admirably, recognize that a book which provides exactly what the reader expects cannot be very good, although it will probably sell better. In the same vein, one cannot avoid mentioning the last-page surprise: no, not a plot twist, but a totally unexpected and awe-inspiring behavior of a police officer. I wish there were officers like that in this country.

Highly recommended novel. Not as uniformly great as
The Laughing Policeman but perhaps better than the memorable Roseanna

Four stars.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Knight Has DiedThe Knight Has Died by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"'I am in love with you,' he says again, more in general this time, i a o i u , no i a i o i u!"

The Knight Has Died (1963) is an early book by my beloved writer, Cees Nooteboom. Some sources - for instance, Amazon and Publishers Weekly - incorrectly give 1982 as the year that the book was published in the Netherlands. Also, they classify this work - perhaps for business reasons (sales) - as a novel while based on the usual criteria of volume it should be considered a novella.

The setup promises an exercise in recursive metafiction. The narrator's friend, André Steenkamp, is a writer who - to continue in the author's own words - "starts on a book about a writer who writes about a writer who dies, and he himself dies before he has completed the book about the dead writer." Obviously André dies before making substantial progress with the book, so that the narrator has to use the loose notes and drafts to write a book about André trying to write a book:
And so I sit here, with eternally receding writers, mine and his, who die with other writers at their heels who then complete their works, but who die, etcetera.
However, the recursive setup is not explored at all in the novella, and perhaps wisely so; after all, it might seem a contrivance. Instead, the narrator tries to reconstruct the last period of André's life - the time when he was trying to work on the book - and follows his tracks on an island off the coast of Spain. There he meets an Englishman who introduces him to a colorful group of expatriates, Germans, Americans, Swiss, who wander from one bar to another and observe the local and tourist events - the Fiesta of the Army, pilgrims praying in a church, the funeral procession for a local deceased, and events at the caves where virgins had once been sacrificed to Astarte. On "the longest day of his life" the narrator meets a mysterious woman, Clara, and they engage in a brief and enigmatic relationship. André dies, of course - in the novella's past - but it is the death of another character, in the novella's present, that becomes an important aspect of the denouement.

From the summary it may appear that there is a plot in the traditional sense, which is not really true: the faint story is just a pretext to show something much more important. The novella is a landscape of moods, imbued with sadness, poignancy, and premonition, captured with beautiful prose. Two words come to mind when trying to characterize the book: "slight" and "fleeting". To me, reading the novella felt a bit like that elusive sensation that we occasionally experience: when thinking intensely about some topic one suddenly feels about to understand something very important - without quite knowing what - and when one is just on the verge of grasping the truth, the feeling is promptly gone - so slight and so fleeting a feeling, as if it has never existed. In the author's words, "the moment is irrecoverable and therefore also the emotion."

In many ways the novella reminds me of two great films from the past: Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), with its dreamlike quality and non-linear entanglement of time and space, but instead of the film's crystalline coldness The Knight offers human emotion. The other movie is Luis Buñuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), with its focus on a group of high-living friends, wandering aimlessly in the French landscape, but instead of Buñuel's surreal humor Mr. Nooteboom infuses The Knight with poetry of human feelings.

Of course, the novella being a Nooteboom's work, death is one of the central motifs. The reader will also find the author's first attempts to wrestle with topics that will later become some of the other main themes of his books, including his masterpieces like The Following Story or The Foxes Come At Night : the nature of human memories, the problems of one's temporal and spatial identity ("I drove past here yesterday, and am I still the same person, here and now?"), the relationship between a person and the physical space they occupy, and what happens to that space when the person dies, which is a topic that appears thirty-five years later in All Souls' Day .

The Knight Has Died is definitely not a book for novice Nooteboom's readers. The uninitiated may find it too slight, too enigmatic, and perhaps even too unfocused. This is my ninth book by the author and I just can't stop loving his beautiful prose.

Three and a half stars.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The ChillThe Chill by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I [...] sat on a bench at a bus stop, and read in my new book about Heraclitus. All things flow like a river, he said; nothing abides. Parmenides, on the other hand, believed that nothing ever changed, it only seemed to. Both views appealed to me."

The Chill (1964) is the eleventh - out of eighteen - Lew Archer novel by Kenneth Millar, writing under the pseudonym of Ross Macdonald. It is one of the best entries in the series and deservedly received the Silver Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers' Association. In fact, before I undertook the "Re-read Macdonald" project I had considered it the author's best novel. Yet the current read of The Chill has been a slight disappointment and I now believe that The Underground Man should be regarded as the author's top achievement. Nevertheless, The Chill certainly is one of the top novels in the mystery/crime genre: a very well-written book with a great plot and a satisfying ending. It just falls a bit short of a masterpiece.

A young man, Alex Kincaid, hires Lew Archer to find his wife Dolly, who left Alex - without explanation - after less than one day of marriage. Just before disappearing Dolly had a male visitor, a man named Begley, and Archer is able to quickly locate the missing woman by tracing the man's steps. Dolly happens to be a student at a small private university in Pacific Point, a fictional coastal California town. She also has a part-time job driving a rich widow, Mrs. Bradshaw, in her Rolls. Mrs. Bradshaw's son is the dean of the college, yet despite his position he seems to be completely under his mother's thumb. Archer soon discovers deeper and more troubling connections between Mr. Begley and Alex' wife so that finding her turns out to be just the beginning of a monstrously complicated case that involves three murders.

There is a well-known photographic technique that uses three layers in a picture: foreground, middleground, and background; each of these layers should provide some interest to the viewer. Ross Macdonald uses a similar approach in this novel. While the usual structure of his mysteries involves two time frames: past and present, where some dramatic events from the past - betrayal, childhood trauma, murder - cast shadows on the present, here we have three time frames, separated by intervals of about ten years. The events from about 20 years ago affect the events 10 years later, and events from both these frames impact the present.

In addition to the outstanding plot The Chill features some highly accomplished writing whose quality far surpasses the usually unconvincing prose of the mystery genre. My favorite is Chapter 12, where Archer talks with Miss Jenks: the vivid prose and well-captured dialogue makes me feel I have personally known the woman. There are many memorable passages in the novel: let's have two more wonderful Macdonald's quotes:
"I got a quick impression of him: a man of half-qualities who lived in a half-world: he was half-handsome, half-lost, half-spoiled, half-smart, half-dangerous. His pointed Italian shoes were scuffed at the toes."
And what about the following gem:
Time seemed to have slowed down, dividing itself into innumerable fractions, like Zeno's space or marijuana hours."
Unfortunately, some weaker fragments can be found as well, for instance the rooftop scene in an Illinois town, where Archer flies trying to untangle the web of past events. The scene reads like a script for a really bad movie.

I am not a fan of surprising endings in mysteries, but one has to admit that the monster plot twist offered by Macdonald in The Chill is well designed and not ridiculous, unlike most final plot twists in other books, including several works by the same author.

Four stars.

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Fahrenheit 451Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh God, the terrible tyranny of the majority."

Dissing classic works of art usually indicates arrogance or stupidity on the part of the disser. Even worse, when a book lover, such as this reviewer, shows lack of respect for a classic novel loved by millions, written by a book lover and promoting the love of books, it may seem to border on insanity. Yet I am unable to recommend Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This is a review of a book, a work of literary art, not a critique of the important ideas that the author tried to convey. The indisputable value of a book's message does not absolve the author from having to write well. So while I wholeheartedly agree with most of what Mr. Bradbury has to say, reading the book has been a struggle - so lacking I have found the prose.

Most readers know the premise of this famous dystopian novel, often mistakenly categorized as a science-fiction book. Written in 1953, during the times of McCarthyist persecutions, the novel portrays the then future, at least 50 years later, meaning just about the current times. The full prohibition on books is being enforced and books are publicly burned when found, along with the houses where they were stored; the book owners are imprisoned. People spend their leisure time either watching stupid television shows on wall-size TVs or amuse themselves by driving their cars very fast. Guy Montag is a fireman, which means - in a cute inversion - that he works as a member of book- and house-burning crew. One day, having witnessed an elderly woman choosing self-immolation rather than watching her books burned, Montag experiences an epiphany of sorts and embarks on the search for understanding the power of books.

Popular websites offer detailed and often overreaching analyses of the main themes, motifs, and social diagnoses offered in the novel. I can only submit my personal take on some of the themes. 63 years ago Mr. Bradbury was spot on in recognizing how effectively the citizens can be controlled via television. Participation in the passive entertainment provided by TV shows, which Bradbury calls "parlor families in the walls", prevents people from undertaking any mental effort to understand what is happening around them and cuts off their contact with reality. The modern day "reality shows" - which are farther from reality than anything else on television and which further impoverish the viewers' perception of the actual world - are the embodiment of Mr. Bradbury's prophetic and scary vision. These days one should also consider the Internet as potentially even a stronger tool of peoples' intellectual enslavement. Another fascinating theme in Fahrenheit is the "tyranny of majority", a subject currently quite relevant because of the pervasive atmosphere of "political correctness". But enough proselytizing - let's now focus on what's wrong with the book.

I find the novel horribly overwrought. The reader will find frenzied histrionic babbling on almost every page. The bad prose obscures the powerful message of the novel. Consider the following passage:
The victim was seized by the Hound and camera in a great spidering, clenching grip. He screamed. He screamed. He screamed!
Montag cried out in the silence and turned away.
Repetition - the major trademark of minor writers. But what's worse is the irony when the author himself criticizes the hysterical style of writing when quoting Paul Valéry:
The folly of mistaking [...] a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths [...]
There are undoubtedly many capital truths in what Mr. Bradbury writes, but they are hard to discern in the torrent of his verbiage. The theatricality of the author's style has caused this reader to giggle in supposedly dramatic fragments. Another capital sin of the novel is its naive didacticism evident, for instance, in Professor Faber's rants.

Bottom line: the subpar prose nullifies the impact of the important ideas and sharp social insights the author attempts to convey.

Two stars.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Murder at the Savoy (Martin Beck, #6)Murder at the Savoy by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"The bullet struck the speaker just behind the left ear, and he fell forward onto the table, his left cheek in the crenelated mash potatoes around an exquisite fish casserole à la Frans Suell".

A good illustration of the usual fate of book series: after magnificent The Laughing Policeman and quite good The Fire Engine that Disappeared comes Murder at the Savoy (1970), the sixth installment in the series, a marginal quality procedural and a barely readable mystery, very, very far from Maj Sjöwall's and Per Wahlöö's peak achievement. Murder is clearly the weakest book in the series so far.

Even the title is pedestrian, more so in the English translation than in the original. The Swedish title Polis, polis, potatismos! - which means "Police, police, mashed potatoes!" (thanks, Google!) - might not be particularly sales-friendly but at least it is way more attractive than the generic Murder. The story begins in a luxury hotel restaurant in Malmö where a dinner party of seven includes Victor Palmgren, a corporation president and a business magnate. While he is making a speech, a man comes in, calmly shoots him, and equally calmly exits through a low window. Due to utter stupidity of a police patrol (Kristiansson and Kvant at your service) the suspect manages to escape. The highest echelons in the Swedish government are concerned because the victim has been involved with "sensitive matters" and because "there were strong vested interests in certain areas of his operations" (which, in translation, means that Palmgren might have been involved in arms sales to African countries). Obviously, Martin Beck, the Chief Inspector in the National Homicide squad, is leading the investigation; in addition to scarcity of clues he has to suffer interference from meddling agents of the political secret police.

While social issues become the dominating theme in this installment of the series, the authors' critique does not seem particularly well targeted. Even though I despise the predatory brand of capitalism and am suspicious of many of the so-called business practices, I am unable to support claims that businesses should have the well-being of their employees as the main criterion in their operation. Neither, on the other hand, is it true that only the bad apples among the business owners - the utterly greedy ones who lack moral scruples - are responsible for their employees' degradation and poverty. The faults are obviously systemic rather than personal and likely result from the lack of suitable regulation. But enough of amateurish political economy discourse, let's get back to literature or rather to what is wrong with the prose.

One of the main problems with this novel is the writing: the conversations between Gunvald Larsson and his sister or between Ǻsa Torell and Lennart Kollberg are conveyed in stilted, unnaturally sounding dialogues, where the paper-thin characters deliver their unconvincing "lines". Maybe it is a fault of the translation as different people are credited with it than in the case of magnificent prose of The Laughing Policeman. The criminal plot is close to average quality, yet - to reiterate - very far from the level that the previous books in the series have taught us to expect. The reader may also question the use of coincidence to introduce the episode with Larsson's sister. Big disappointment overall.

Two and a quarter stars.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

PninPnin by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] his attitude accentuated his striking resemblance, somewhat en jeune, to Jan van Eyck's ample-jowled, fluff-haloed Canon van der Paele, seized by a bit of abstraction in the presence of a puzzled Virgin to whom a super, rigged up as St. George, is directing the good Canon's attention."

For some strange reason I have never read Lolita so Pnin (1957) has become my first book by Vladimir Nabokov. This Russian-born author, who had emigrated to Germany and France and then - in 1941 - to the United States, and who first wrote in Russian, became one of the most famous writers in the English language. His works are included in the canon of the 20th century literature. Pnin, perhaps not as well known as some other novels, is Nabokov's fourth book written in English.

Timofey Pnin is a Russian-born literature professor who, via Germany and France, emigrates to the United States, and obtains the position of an untenured assistant professor of Russian at a fictional Waindell College. The parallels to the author's life are abundant: Mr. Nabokov had the same emigration path and then taught at Wellesley and at Cornell. The plot follows events happening to the professor at his college and in his personal affairs and sheds light on the story of his life, told in retrospections. In a word, we learn about "all things Pninian." Some deeper themes are present in Pnin as well: for instance, the intriguing relationship between the narrator and professor Pnin has an almost postmodern quality in that it inserts the author into the plot.

While some darker accents are present Pnin is mostly a hilarious read, a rich satire on the life in academia. Being a university faculty myself I can vouch for the accurateness of the college life observations: various silly rituals of social behavior that the usual menagerie of academic characters participate in are incisively portrayed. Some of the humor is based on Pnin's difficulties with the English language:
"[...] his verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythopeic. His slips of the tongue are oracular. He calls my wife John."
Literary references abound, for instance the hilarious:
"the languid Ellen Lane, whom somebody had told that by the time one had mastered the Russian alphabet one could practically read 'Anna Karamazov' in the original."
Yet the two aspects of the novel that resonate with me the strongest are not satirical: Professor Pnin is prone to a sort of seizures or episodes during which he experiences extremely vivid recollections of events and images from the past. How seamlessly his memories merge with the present! Then, of course, there are the squirrels! They appear several times in the novel, and the first time it happens the Professor helps a squirrel drink from a fountain - a memorable passage.

Mr. Nabokov clearly has extreme fun with English. The virtually unsurpassed command of his acquired language reminds me of Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish, and who had also achieved world fame as a writer in English. And although I certainly prefer Nabokov's prose to that of Conrad's, there is an aspect of it, at least in Pnin, that bothers me. It is arrogant of me to criticize the style of a "master stylist of English language", but there are too many words in his prose: the sentences tend to contain thirteen words where nine would suffice.

To end with a positive accent, here is a best passage that I have ever read about a pencil sharpener:
"With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener - that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.
Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Zebra-Striped HearseThe Zebra-Striped Hearse by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"The stout woman behind the counter looked as though she had spent her life waiting, but not for me."

The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962) had been my first book by Ross Macdonald; I read it some time about 1970 in Polish translation - still remember the title, Pasiasty karawan. The concept of 18-year-old California surfers traveling from beach to beach in a hearse painted in a zebra pattern represented the pinnacle of cool for a college student in Poland, behind the so-called Iron Curtain, in the peak phase of his fascination with the youth rebellion of the late Sixties.

Harriet, the daughter of a retired Colonel Blackwell, has fallen in love with Blake Damis whom she met in Mexico. The Colonel, a controlling personage, does not think that the man is a suitable candidate for his son-in-law. He hires Lew Archer to investigate Damis in hope of finding some dirt on him. Archer soon discovers that the man has entered the U.S. from Mexico as Q.R. Simpson. He might also be using the identity of Bruce Campion, a young and gifted painter. Harriet disappears, most likely with Damis, while Campion and Simpson feature prominently in two separate murders, the former as a suspect and the latter as the victim. The case takes Archer to Guadalajara in Mexico, various places in the Bay Area, and Nevada. The trajectory of the plot somehow circles back almost to the same place where it started. The hearse appears several times in the story and an object connected to the surfers becomes a clue.

The best thing about the novel is the Guadalajara part of the story where the author vividly conveys the character of Mexican location. Well-written conversations between Archer and Miss Castle and then also Mrs. Wilkinson are compelling and full of psychological truth. The reader even gets a little surprise signaled by "I recognized the way she used her eyes." Alas, several later passages in the novel read flat and uninspired, the worst being Archer's interrogation of a suspect in a hospital, written in an awkward dialogue that reeks of theatricality. Somehow it almost feels the fragments were written by a different author.

Re-reading the novel after half a century has been a bit of disappointment. Not that it is a bad book; on the contrary, it may be a better than average entry in the Lew Archer series, but it is hard to understand why this young man in Poland, who somehow turned into me, was so fascinated with the book. One of the reasons must have been the exotic locale of Southern California - now my home - but why the false memory that the zebra-striped hearse was a major component of the story? It is not, other than serving as a sort of metronome that provides rhythm to the tale.

A number of neat quotes decorate the novel. Other than the blatantly cute Chandleresque quip shown in the epigraph, let me point out a clever one alluding to a common human foible:
"Her voice held that special blend of grief and glee which we reserve for other people's disasters."
Three and a quarter stars.

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Monday, July 4, 2016

All Souls' DayAll Souls' Day by Cees Nooteboom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The point was that the past could be accessed and therefore still existed. And it would continue to exist until the act of describing the world ceased to exist, together with the world itself."

I am writing this just ten days after Brexit, and it is a difficult time for me because the event has dealt a severe blow to one of the most wonderful ideas in world's political history - the unification of Europe in the form of the EU. That the countries such as Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy and many others - despite a thousand years' worth of wars, hate, and killing - have been able to overcome their national prejudices in the interest of people rather than just "our people" was an event on a scale never experienced in human history. Well, now it seems clear that we have just been deluded and that Europe will merrily go back to the old ways of nationalism and division.

What does it all have to do with Cees Nooteboom's All Souls' Day (1998)? I am sure that Mr. Nooteboom is very sad today too. He is not just a Dutch writer as his nationality and native language indicate, but a quintessential European writer, and this novel is one of the most European of serious books that I have ever read. Among the major themes in All Souls Day are the European history, culture, art, philosophy, ways of thinking, even food. Most of the novel is presented as a stream of thoughts of a highly educated intellectual and as conversations with other intellectuals. Arthur, the narrator, is a free-lance TV documentary director and cameraman, and among his closest friends are a sculptor, a philosopher/writer, and a physicist. We read about the art of Vermeer, Heidegger's Sein zum Tode, Hegel's philosophy of history, Penderecki's Stabat Mater, the gender markings in European languages, the kingdom of León-Castilla under queen Urraca in the early 12th century, the cathedral in Madrid, the tunnel underneath Alcalá, Krzysztof Pomian's essay Histoire et Fiction, and also about Saumagen, Apfelstrudel, and various types of sausages. Arthur's stream of thoughts transcends national identities and languages: his thoughts are not Dutch or German or French, they are thoughts of an European.

In All Souls' Day Mr. Nooteboom returns to the main themes of his most famous novels: the time and space dimensions of human life, human impermanence, the ways in which the past exists, and how we, the living, relate to people who had been close to us and who died. One of the most moving passages describes Arthur's conversation with an old woman living in a block of apartments in Berlin. She is looking at a tree that has always been growing in front of her window. The tree had been small when the woman and her husband had lived there before World War II. The husband was killed on the Eastern front, but the woman, some fifty years later, still talks to him and tells him about the tree:
"I tell him how the tree is doing, how big it's grown. He can't understand the rest, how everything has turned out. I don't dare tell him."
Whenever I read this fragment I choke and my eyes get wet. Indeed, the dead would not understand all the rest. But we do have the obligation to the people who had departed: we need to think about the times we had together. Talking to our dead makes them exist again, just a little.

There is so much more in the novel. Arthur's narration is interrupted a few times by a voice that resembles the chorus from a classic Greek drama. Sometimes this collective disembodied voice (all souls' voice?) comments on the events, but mainly it provides a wider perspective on the themes and motifs in the text. For instance - in keeping with the meditative mood of the novel - the voice muses on the power of human intellect that "can ponder eternity" and "allows you to lay claim to vast amounts of time and space," on the random intersections of human trajectories in space and time, and on the non-existence of the future. One will also find a most unusual description - in its understatement - of a person's death.

Readers should be aware that All Souls' Day may only barely be counted as a novel. The plot is thin: Arthur, who lost his wife and son ten years ago in a plane accident, spends time in Berlin, waiting for his next assignment, wandering all over the city, sitting with his friends in cafés and Weinstubes and discussing art and philosophy. He meets a young woman, Elik Oranje, a graduate history student and a complicated yet instant attraction arises between them. The story continues about the time they spend together in Berlin and then about Arthur's search for Elik in Spain, where she goes to look for source materials to her dissertation.

Despite many utterly beautiful passages and themes All Souls' Day feels a little bit overlong. unfocused and occasionally rambling; it does not reach the greatness of, for example, The Following Story or The Foxes Come at Night , which are meditations of unsurpassed depth on the existence of past and our impermanence. But it still is a wonderful book and it makes it crystal clear that the writings of no other author I have ever read resonate stronger with my worldview and sensibilities.

Four and a quarter stars.

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Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Fire Engine That Disappeared  (Martin Beck, #5)The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Now we've three dead men, one murdered, one both murdered and committed suicide and one who only committed suicide. How do you explain this suicidal psychosis?"

It must be a very difficult task for an author to follow a masterpiece in a series of novels. In the Martin Beck series of police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö The Fire Engine That Disappeared (1969) follows the extraordinary The Laughing Policeman and - quite naturally - pales in comparison, even if it is quite a good book in its own right.

The epigraph succinctly describes the problem that the detectives face. In addition to an apparently obvious suicide, they have to deal with an explosion in the house that has been under police observation because of a suspected car thief living there. Several people die in the explosion, but has it been really planned as a murder? Well, it turns out to be a suicide but then it also turns out to be a murder. In addition to the murder/suicide conundrum, we have the disappearing fire engine. But wait! It is not just one fire engine that disappears! From the mystery point of view the plot is quite engrossing.

While I like the increased focus on Gunvald Larsson the tension between him and Lennart Kollberg has become somewhat of a cliché. Martin Beck's squad has a new member, Benny Skacke; alas his characterization is full of clichés as well. In general, the writing in this installment could be described as lazy - the authors rely too much on things that the readers are supposed to know from previous books: the repetitiveness of characterizations is - in my view - one of the worst aspects of series of novels. On the other hand, the further deterioration of Martin Beck's marriage is shown well and cleverly contrasted with a rather unconventional marital life of Detective Månsson. The interrogation of Nadja Eriksson makes hilarious reading, and I have had fun imagining why there are breaks in the taped recording.

This is the first novel in the series where the concerns about social issues become really prominent. The authors worry about Sweden's "failed social policies" and - while from many of the U.S. residents' point of view Sweden is too much of a socialist country - the authors hold a totally opposite view: they suggest that the Swedish socialism is fake and just a cover for a truly uncaring and predatory capitalist society. At any rate, even the readers who are not too much into social issues will have fun with the plot and some vivid characters.

Three and a half stars.

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