Stefan Chwin: Hanemann (Death in Danzig)

The latest addition to my website is Stefan Chwin‘s Hanemann (Death in Danzig). Hanemann whose name is the title in most languages, including the Polish original, is a professor of anatomy in Danzig. He is to perform a post-mortem when he discovers that the body is of his lover, killed in a ferry accident. We then switch to the end of the War and the Germans are fleeing Danzig. Hanemann looks as though he is going to leave but then stays. We are never sure why. The family of the young narrator, Piotr, like Chwin’s own family, arrive in what is now Gdánsk and move in to a flat below Hanemann. The rest of the book is about their relationship with this enigmatic man, suspected by the Polish authorities of being a spy, a man who is living partially in the past, a German who speaks fluent Polish and has no desire to return to Germany but embraces German culture and a man who helps his neighbours and gets on with them. We never really learn who he is and nor does he himself.

Fowzia Karimi – Above Us the Milky Way

The latest addition to my website is Fowzia Karim‘s Above Us the Milky Way. Fowzia Karimi and her family – parents and five daughters – left Afghanistan in 1980 after the Soviet invasion and settled in California. This is their story – how and why they left, the problems of exile and reports of the continuing horrors they left behind. But Karimi is an artist by profession and this story is told by an artist as well as by one of the daughters. She illustrates it herself, both with her own paintings and family photos, but also with her words describing in a poetic/artistic way the joys of pre-Soviet Afghanistan and their family life. Indeed, they are such a close-knit family that she often describes the five sisters as one, even though all five have their own personalities. The book is divided into twenty-six sections, one for each letter of the alphabet, with appropriate themes from Afghanistan (for A) to Zenith (for Z), though her approach is more kaleidoscopic, jumping around with her images, both visual and verbal and her telling of the story in a non-chronological way. The result is a beautiful book, a story of the horrors of war and exile but not by any means a conventional one.

Eduardo Mendoza: El rey recibe [The King Receives]

The latest addition to my website is Eduardo Mendoza‘s El rey recibe [The King Receives]. This is apparently the first in a trilogy about Spain in the second half of the 20th century but, quite frankly, it does not work, not least because not much happens and the hero/narrator is, by his own admission, not very exciting. We follow Rufo in his career in Spain – journalist, editor of gossip magazine – and then in New York – unspecified job with Spanish Chamber of Commerce, his somewhat messy but not very interesting love life, his meeting with the Prince of Livonia and his wife and a few events in Spain and the US. Nothing really happens to him of much interest, his acquaintances, colleagues and family are no more interesting than he is. It has not been translated into any other language, so if you read Spanish, do not bother and if you do not read Spanish, do not look out for a translation.

Olga Tokarczuk: Księgi Jakubowe (Books of Jacob)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Księgi Jakubowe (Books of Jacob). When you are self-isolating from a virus, a nearly one thousand page long novel by a Nobel Prize Winner written in a foreign language is the best way to distract yourself. It is availabe in Czech, Dutch, French, German and Swedish but will not appear in English till March 2021. The novel tells the story of the historical Jacob Frank, a false Messiah in 18th century Poland and surrounding areas, who attracts many followers and many enemies, who converts to both Islam and Christianity and becomes very involved with the rich and powerful in Poland, with Christians as well as Jews and moves around between what is now Turkey and Eastern Europe. Though the main characters are male, Tokarczuk portrays many strong women who play a key role behind the scenes. It is a brilliant but highly complex novel, with a cast of hundreds and lots of historical and religious issues.

Patrick Modiano: Un cirque passe (After the Circus)

The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Un cirque passe (After the Circus).

This novel will be familiar territory to those who have read other Modiano novels. It tells of a naive young man in Paris, whose father has to suddenly leave the country, presumably for legal reasons, who meets a woman (four years older than him). He is smitten and the couple travel round Paris in a borrowed car. She involves him with her decidedly dubious friends but agrees to accompany him to Rome where he has the possibility of a job. But who is she really and why are the police interested in her and who are her mysterious friends? We learn well before the end that it is not going to work out with her but we are left as much in the dark as our hero is.

Agustina Bazterrica: Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh)

The latest addition to my website is Agustina Bazterricas Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh). This is a novel about cannibalism, not occasional cannibalism but official, world-wide cannibalism. A virus has led to all animals being wiped out (though it may have been fake news) and eating human flesh is the norm. Certain groups (the poor, immigrants, the marginalised) have been bred for their meat. We follow the story of Marcos Tejos, manager at a processing plant, i.e. one which takes humans, kills them and sells them to butchers as meat. We follow Marcos as he makes his rounds, visiting the breeding stations, the butchers, even the hunters, though he has his own problems (wife gone back to her mother after death of their young son, father with dementia). Bazterrica spares us no details and she gives us full details of, for example, the slaughtering process. Not a novel for the squeamish but she makes her point about overpopulation, carnivores and human hypocrisy.

Sergio Bizzio: Borgestein

The latest addition to my website is Sergio Bizzio‘s Borgestein. Enzo, the narrator, is an Argentinian psychiatrist. He is attacked and wounded with a knife by one of his patients, Borgestein. This traumatises him so much that he buys a cabin in the mountains and heads off there, to do nothing. He leaves behind his wife, Julia. They have been married eighteen months but have barely seen each other in that time, as they have different schedules. She is a very successful theatre actress. At the cabin, there is a waterfall which is beautiful but whose noise really annoys him, so he starts a project to fill up the pool below with rocks. Apart from a puma attacking a passer-by and the noisy waterfall, he seems to more or less settle down, till he sees a photo of Julia in a magazine with Borgestein standing just behind her. It is a fine novel, with various plot strands to keep us interested.

Robert Menasse: Die Hauptstadt (Capital)

The latest addition to my website is Robert Menasse‘s Die Hauptstadt (Capital). This is a satire on the European Union, its officials and some of the nationalities who are part of it. The story starts in Place Sainte-Cathérine, in the centre of Brussels, where most of the main characters are to be found at the beginning of the book, including two senior EU officials having an affair, an Auschwitz survivor, a hitman who has just killed someone, an Austrian visiting professor and a pig who seems to be wandering round the square. We follow their stories but the two main themes are (the lack of) EU pig policy and an attempt by the Commission to exploit Auschwitz for a jubilee to promote the Commission. Many of the stories merge while many take unexpected and, in some cases, not very pleasant turns. Menasse has fun mocking EU officials and various nationalities while raising the issue of nationalism vs supranationalism.

César Aira: Artforum (Artforum)

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Artforum (Artforum). This is a series of short pieces all linked by the US art magazine Artforum. The narrator is a devoted reader of the magazine but it is difficult to obtain in Buenos Aires, where he lives so, eventually, he subscribes to it. However, delivery is not reliable and this causes him much grief. However, in normal Aira fashion, we get all sorts of odd tangents, such as the magazine having a mind of its own, the narrator getting killed by a policeman because of the magazine, the narrator even considering producing his own edition of the magazine, not to mention the somewhat odd issue of clothes pegs randomly breaking. As always it is great fun and highly original.

Roger Manderscheid: Feier a Flam [Fire and Flame]

The latest addition to my website is Roger Manderscheid‘s Feier a Flam [Fire and Flame]. Manderscheid was a Luxembourg writer and he wrote this book in Luxembourgish and then translated it himself into German. It is a Bildungsroman, the third part of a trilogy, with the first two books telling of the childhood of Christian Knapp and this starting just as he leaves school. It essentially concerns the entire 1950s and is presumably, at least in part, autobiographical. We follow Christian as he struggles with life, both wondering what he will do as a career (he tries teaching, the army and the railways before becoming a mundane civil servant) and, of course, with the opposite sex. Like many young men, he is very naive and seems unable to settle down to a steady relationship, something he aspires to. It is not a great book but, if you read German (or Luxembourgish), a fascinating account of growing up.