Category: World War I Page 1 of 2

David Diop: Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black)

The latest addition to my website is David Diop‘s Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black). This book won the International Booker Prize in 2021. It tells the story of Alfa Ndiaye and his friend, Mademba Diop, Senegalese soldiers fighting for the French in World War I. Mademba is killed by a German pretending to be dead, who stabs him in the stomach. Alfa gets his revenge by hiding near shell-holes and killing any emerging Germans. He carries back their rifles, with the severed hands holding the rifle, back to the trenches. He is initially feted but then, when he continues, feared as a madman and sent to the rear to rest. In the rear, we learn of his past and his voyage of self-discovery, with Diop using fable, legend and inner psychology to aid him. It is a superb read, mixing conventional realism and more traditional forms.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Afterlives

The latest addition to my website is Abdulrazak Gurnah‘s Afterlives. The novel tells the story of the country that will become Tanzania from the beginning of the 20th century (when it was under German control) to independence in 1961. The focus, however, is on the story of a few individuals when the country was under German control. These are ordinary people struggling to make a living in an unnamed town, though, with one exception, they are not overly affected by the German occupation. Khalifa works as a clerk and marries the boss’s niece. Ilyas is very pro-German,as a German officer helped him when he was being brutalised by an askari. Afriya, his younger sister is ill-treated by her relatives when her parents die. Hamza joins up to fight for the Germans in World War I and sees and is a victim of a lot of brutality but survives. While condemning the Germans for their cruelty, he is also critical of the British. He tells a first-class story while showing us the political situation in his country over some sixty years.

Joseph Roth: Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Die Kapuzinergruft (The Emperor’s Tomb). This was the last novel he published in his lifetime, when he was living in exile, after the Nazis had annexed Austria. He died the following year. It is a sad and gloomy tale focussing on Franz Ferdinand Trotta, cousin of the hero of Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March). Trotta is so taken with his Slovenian cousin and friend that he escapes from his man about town life in Vienna to visit them. War (WWI) is declared while he is there. Instead of joining his Vienna regiment, he gets a transfer to his cousin’s regiment and is almost immediately taken prisoner, returning to a defeated Vienna, where everyone is broke. And then the Nazis take over. It is the end of an era.

Miljenko Jergović: Rod (Kin)

The latest addition to my website is Miljenko Jergović‘s Rod (Kin). This is an 800-page family novel, as the author calls it, but do not let that put you off. It is essentially the stories (mini-novels) of, primarily, his mother’s family, going back to the beginning of the twentieth century but also of his extended family, friends and neighbours, set over a hundred years, ending in 2012 with his mother’s death. We cover a large range of languages, ethnic groups, a few religions, plenty of divergent political views, different overlords and, of course, a few wars. The author tells his story up to the death of his mother in 2012 (he had moved to Zagreb, she was still in Sarajevo). The key event in her life was the death of her brother, Mladen, who died when she was seventeen months old, killed while fighting for the Germans. Her mother never forgave her for living while Mladen died and she, too, was far from a perfect mother. Above all, however, Jergović tells us a host of mini-novels, some funny, some sad, some involving famous people, but many involving ordinary people but all fascinating, colourful and highly imaginative.

Liviu Rebreanu: Pădurea spânzuraților (Forest of the Hanged)

The latest addition to my website is Liviu Rebreanu‘s Pădurea spânzuraților (Forest of the Hanged). Our hero is Apostol Bologa. He is ethnically Romanian – his father had been imprisoned for his role in drawing up a memorandum of the grievances of the Romanians in Transylvania which, till 1918, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To impress his fiancée, Apostol joins the Austro-Hungarian army and has a successful career, fighting the Russians. However, he learns that his unit is to move and fight the Romanians, something which he cannot do and he considers deserting. He knows the consequences of this as he has seen a man hanged for just that reason (Rebreanu’s brother was also hanged for desertion.) He is on the point of desertion when he is badly wounded in a Russian attack. He takes a long time to recover but disturbed by the issue of fighting the Romanians as well as his murky love life and the fact that he has not fully recovered from his injuries, he becomes seriously troubled. It is a superb novel, really getting into the convoluted mental state of our hero.

Zaharia Stancu: Desculț (Barefoot)

The latest addition to my website is Zaharia Stancu‘s Desculț (Barefoot). We follow Darie, a young peasant boy from the beginning of the 20th century to World War I. However, the main focus of the novel is the sufferings of the Romanian peasants. The peasants are continually victims – of the boyars (rich landowners) and their staff, the kulaks (rich farmers), the local moneylenders, the government, wars, bandits, the weather and, in the case of the women, the multiple child births and child deaths. Stancu shows all of these issue, often on many occasions. Apart from the brief hope of the 1907 Romanian Peasants’ Revolt, which is brutally repressed, there is no reprieve from their suffering. Darie, who is a cripple, is even worse off than most, though he tries to make something of himself. However, it is the overall suffering of the peasants that is Stancu’s main concern.

Gabriela Adameșteanu: Dimineață pierdută (Wasted Morning)

The latest addition to my website is Gabriela Adameșteanu‘s Dimineață pierdută (Wasted Morning). The novel gives a panorama of Romania and its sufferings from the beginning of World War I to 1975. Much of what happens we see through the eyes of the seventy-year old Vica Delcă, who has had a hard life. Her father went off to fight in World War I and, while he was away, her mother died, leaving the eleven-year old Vica to bring up her siblings. Things improved briefly when she was able to open a shop, with no help from her useless husband, but that was closed by the Communists twenty years ago and now she struggles on a meagre pension and help from friends, with useless husband stuck in front of the TV. In her morning she goes to visit her sister-in-law (widow of Vica’s favourite brother) and her friend Ivona Ioaniu, whose family mirror the changes in Romania, from a well-to-do French-speaking bourgeois family to Ivona struggling on her own with an unfaithful husband in a big house. Adameșteanu shows the hardships many Romanians have endured over the years. It was big success in Romania.

Camil Petrescu: Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război [The Last Night of Love, the First Night of War]

The latest addition to my website is Camil Petrescu‘s Ultima noapte de dragoste, întâia noapte de război [The Last Night of Love, the First Night of War]. This is a love story and a war story. Stefan Gheorghidiu meets a woman at university. They fall in love and get married. At first all goes well but then he starts to have suspicions that she is being unfaithful to him. They separate, get back together and separate again. They argue. He tries to make her jealous by being seen with another woman. However, it is August 1916. Romania has remained neutral in World War I but it now seems that it is likely to side with Allies. When he is called up, he is worried that she will have further opportunities to be unfaithful. However, he has to fight and Petrescu shows us that Romania was totally unprepared for a war and that love and war do not go hand in hand. This is a classic of Romanian literature but though it has been translated into seven languages, English is not one of them.

Joseph Roth: Hiob (Job, the Story of a Simple Man)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Hiob (Job, the Story of a Simple Man). This is a modern (late 19th/early20th century) updating of the story of the Biblical Job, whom God made suffer, in order to test him. Our Job is Mendel Singer, a Russian Jew, living in Zuchnow, a fictitious town in Tsarist Russia. He is married with four children. His youngest is handicapped. Things get worse when his two eldest sons are called up the army, with one fleeing and escaping to the US, and his daughter has a Cossack boyfriend. The son who escaped pays for his parents and sister to join him in the US and things start to look up, when more afflictions fall on Mendel and he ends up wanting to burn God. He eventually adapts and moves on but he does have his fair share of suffering.

Joseph Roth: Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March)

The latest addition to my website is Joseph Roth‘s Radetzkymarsch (The Radetzky March). This is a superb novel, following the downfall of Austria from its defeat at the Battle of Solferino in 1859 to the death of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who led his troops at Solferino, and who lived till 1916. Along with the downfall of Austria, we follow the rise and downfall of the Trotta family. Lieutenant Joseph Trotta is known as the Hero of Solferino, as he saved Franz Joseph’s life and is amply rewarded. He, his son and his grandson benefit from this, all three meeting the Emperor, but Carl Joseph, the grandson, even with these advantages, like his country, gradually slides down the slope and for all three – Austria, Carl Joseph and the Emperor – it does not end well.

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