Literature and War Readalong March 31 2015: The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

The Disappeared

Kim Echlin’s novel on the war in Cambodia is the first title of this year’s Literature and War Readalong.

I chose The Disappeared for various reasons the most obvious being that we haven’t read anything on the war in Cambodia so far. The fact that it was nominated for many awards and has been translated into 19 languages made it a worthy choice as well. Another reason was that it came highly recommended by one of my favourite bloggers (Gavin from Page247) who sadly has stopped blogging in 2013.

Kim Echlin is a Canadian author, journalist, and educator. She has published a couple of other novels before The Disappeared and a new novel is due this year.

Here are the first sentences

Mau was a small man with a scar across his left cheek. I chose him at the Russian market from a crowd of drivers with soliciting eyes. They drove bicycles and tuk tuks, rickshaws and motos. A few had cars. They pushed in against me, trying to gain my eye, to separate me from the crowd.

The light in Mau’s eyes was a pinprick through black paper. He assessed and calculated. I chose him because when he stepped forward, the others fell back. I told him it might take many nights. I told him I needed to go to all the nightclubs of Phnom Penh. The light of his eyes twisted into mine. When I told him what I was doing, the pinprick opened and closed over a fleeting compassion. Then he named his price, which was high, and said, I can help you, borng srei.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.

*******

The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 March 2015.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Deborah Levy: Swimming Home (2011)

Swimming Home

Picture this—A dark road in a mountainous area, in the South of France at night. It’s summer. The sound of insects in the dark. A couple is talking in a car. The woman, Kitty Finch, is driving the car. The conversation is slightly off. The atmosphere brooding. That’s how Deborah Levy’s novel Swimming Home begins. Then it rewinds and we learn how the two people ended up in the car together. In the first chapter a red-haired woman swims naked in a pool. The people who have rented the villa to which the pool belongs are watching her. They have no clue who she is. Finally, Isabel, a war correspondent, and the wife of a famous poet, Joe, jumps into the pool, grabs the young woman by her ankle and forces her to leave the water. Other people have watched the scene. An elderly therapist,who rents the villa next door, Joe, the famous poet, Laura and Mitchell, family friends, and Nina, Joe’s and Isabel’s teenage daughter. Kitty Finch tells them that there was a mix up in the dates. Jurgen, the caretaker of the villa, has made a mistake. They are all enthralled by Kitty Finch, her striking red hair, her beauty, her green finger nails and the fact that she skinny dips in the pool of strangers as if it was the most natural thing in the world. But what is even more surprising – Isabel offers her a spare room.

Inviting a mysterious stranger is daring at the best of times, but inviting someone who behaves as oddly as Kitty Finch is downright reckless. Soon it’s obvious that her presence upsets an already fragile balance and people start to show what they were hiding behind their masks. The reader senses—something bad will happen.

Writing more would spoil this wonderful book. I truly admired Deborah Levy’s understated style. The book felt fresh, uncluttered, like a well-aired room. Everything she writes reminds you of something but proves to be very different in the end. People never say what you would expect them to say. On the other hand Swimming Home was one of those books I couldn’t read without being constantly reminded of other books or movies. I suppose that’s because the setting, the South of France, is so charged with meaning. I was reminded of Françoise Sagan’s novel Bonjour Tristesse, which has equally unhinged characters, desire and raw emotions at its heart. The movies La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, and Swimming Pool, starring Charlotte Rampling, came to my mind as well.

I also liked that Deborah Levy used so many point of view characters. The POV changes in every chapter and it’s not always clear who is the main character. Kitty Finch who serves as a catalyst for each of the other characters or Nina, the teenage daughter on whose POV the book ends? Or the poet who seems to occupy the emotional centre?

I’ve owned a copy of this novel for some time, but Violet‘s recent post was the reasons I picked it up finally.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: Il Gattopardo – The Leopard (1958)

The Leopard

Published posthumously, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel Il GattopardoThe Leopard is one of the most important novels of Italian Literature. If I hadn’t watched Luchino Visconti’s movie, I would have read it much earlier. The English translation of the title is actually a misnomer because a gattopardo is a serval and not a leopard. The two animals allude to something quite different. While the English title emphasizes the strength and nobility, the Italian evokes extinction.

Il Gattopardo is a historical novel, set in Lampedusa’s native Sicily during the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, in the 19th Century. The novel starts in 1860 and ends in 1910. The main character is Don Fabrizio Corbera Prince of Salina, a Sicilian nobleman, the last great head of the house of Salina. Don Fabrizio is a melancholic intellectual, who finds solace in mathematics and studying the stars. Even if he wasn’t living in such troubled times of civil war and revolution, he’d be uneasy because he is aware his house is coming to an end as none of his children is as great as he is. None of them embodies the spirit of the true aristocrat. He would have wished that his nephew Tancredi was his son. He is extremely fond of Tancredi and does everything to help the impoverished young man to make an excellent match. The chosen one is Angelica, the extremely attractive but not very refined daughter of Don Calogero Sedàra, a rich businessman and social climber who actively supported the revolution.

Like so many great European classics the Gattopardo doesn’t really have a plot other than history, the passing of time, and the changes they bring. It’s one of a few novels who describe the end of an era, therefore it’s not surprising it’s full of motifs and metaphors of decay, death and ending. This doesn’t mean however that it’s a depressing book. Thanks to the intrusions of the author it’s very witty. And it’s also a sensual book, full descriptions of lavish interiors and lush gardens.

What I admired the most is how Lampedusa weaves recurring motifs and metaphors into the text and how the structure of the narrative reinforces them. One of the first scenes in which we see Don Fabrizio on his own takes places in the garden of Villa Salina in Palermo. Don Fabrizion is alone with his dog Bendicò. The Prince is a great lover of dogs and this is one of his dearest. It’s a summer evening and the garden is filled with scents. The roses and other flowers are in full bloom. They are at the point where the scent is about to turn from delicious to overripe.

But the garden, hemmed and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling whith a nursery whiff of acacia and a jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange-blossom.

It was a garden for the blind: a constant offence to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose.

It’s one of many instances in which the reader feels the change and the end, without being told. This first scene is echoed in the last scene of the novel, which takes place in Concetta’s rooms. She was the Prince’s favourite daughter. The house Salina has changed so much that even the clergy doesn’t let them dictate rules anymore. They have a chapel in which they display relics. Unfortunately the church has decided to examine them and found that they were not authentic. Angelica wants to help them fight the decision but Concetta resigns. A lesser author would have ended on the thoughts of the elderly woman but Lampedusa chose to show us the Prince and Bendicò one last time. One is hanging on the wall as a painting, the other one is a moth-eaten piece of fur lying on the floor and finally thrown out of the window and discarded.

A whole chapter is dedicated to the death of the prince. It’s one of the greatest death scenes I’ve ever read. And one of the most beautiful. The prince compares himself to an hourglass. His energy has been leaving him for years and now – towards the end – it accelerates. Soon all the grains of sand will have left his body. And, just like in an hourglass, they will not be lost. They will just not be this body anymore but disperse and turn into something else eventually. I though this was a pretty picture and surprisingly non-Christian.

I haven’t done this book any justice. It would deserve a whole series of posts. One could say so much about all the individual elements. I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day. Maybe I’ll write a series then. For the time being I would just like to urge everyone who hasn’t read it yet to do so.

I expected a great novel, a novel that I would love, but I didn’t expect it to be this subtle and nuanced, this melancholic and funny. It’s truly one of the greatest works of literature.

If you own a copy with an introduction – don’t hesitate reading it. This isn’t a novel that can be spoilt and an introduction will help you navigate the confusing history of the unification. Unfortunately my copies (the Italian and the French translation) had no introduction.

Pascal Garnier: La place du mort (1997) – The Front Seat Passenger (2014)

The Front Seat Passenger

I’ve seen French crime writer Pascal Garnier mentioned on so many blogs that I could no longer resist and had to read him. La place du mortThe Front Seat Passenger seemed like a good choice as it’s short and the story sounded intriguing.

Fabien loses his wife in a car accident. Until that day he thought they were fairly happy. At least as happy as you can be when you’ve been married for a long time and have taken the other one for granted. Still, finding out she wasn’t alone in that car but with her married lover comes as a bit of a shock. While he may not be mourning her, he’s outraged and comes to the conclusion: If that guy took my wife – I’m going to take his widow. And he starts to pursue the other man’s wife, follows her, observes her, enters her apartment.

After his wife’s death he moves in with his divorced friend Gilles. Both men are unemployed and spend their days playing with Gilles’ small son, looking out of the window, smoking pot. Their playful cohabitation is often interrupted by Fanchon, Gilles’ ex-wife, who doesn’t think it’s funny that the two men behave as if the weren’t any older than her small kid. It’s a hilarious set up.

Fabien is anything but likable. He’s sarcastic, frustrated, acerbic. His comments and observations are a lot of fun. Not everything is amusing though. He may be astute when it comes to others, but he doesn’t seem to have a good feeling for himself and so, after a while, the reader feels uneasy.

The writing is surprisingly good, placing this crime novel firmly among the more literary of its kind. I really liked how he included small details – like the movements of pigeons on a windowsill, for example.

The first hundred pages of this book were really excellent but unfortunately from then on it went downhill. What started as a great contemporary French crime novel turned into a Hollywood plot. Think “Misery” with a twist. I have no idea why Garnier chose to flush his original story down the toilet. I can’t imagine he couldn’t come up with another idea for an ending, so it must have been a deliberate choice. I’m just not sure why.

Not one of the other reviews I read had a problem with the end. I have to admit, the writing is so good, that I, too, was tempted to forgive the end but I failed.

Because the first hundred pages were outstanding,  I’ll be reading more of him. I just hope the next book will not be such a mixed bag.

Here are two more favourable reviews by Guy here and Emma here.

Elizabeth Jane Howard: After Julius (1965)

After Julius

It is twenty years since Julius died, but his last heroic action still affects the lives of the people he left behind. Emma, his youngest daughter, twenty-seven years old afraid of men. Cressida, her sister, a war widow, blindly searching for love in her affairs with married men. Esme, Julius’s widow, still attractive at fifty-eight, but aimlessly lost in the routine of her perfect home. Felix, Esme’s old lover, who left her when Julius died and who is still plagued by guilt for his action. And Dan, an outsider. Throughout a disastrous – and revelatory – weekend in Sussex, the influence of the dead Julius slowly emerges.

Elizabeth Jane Howard is best known for her Cazalet Chronicles, which I haven’t read yet. I don’t know where I came across After Julius, I only know I liked the premise. I’m drawn to stories that deal with the aftermath of an action. While After Julius is more complex than that, all the characters are affected by Julius’ last heroic action, which took place during WWII, twenty years before this story begins.

After Julius is divided into three parts; each part is subdivided into several chapters, each of which is told by another narrator. In lesser hands this might have turned into a fractured story, but Elizabeth Jane Howard is a very skilful writer and, while each chapter is told in a distinct voice, the whole feels seamless.

The narrators are Esme, Julius’ fifty-eight-year-old widow, Cressy, her older daughter, Emma, her younger daughter, Dan, Emma’s friend and Felix, Esme’s former lover. These five people, plus a married couple and an old Major meet for a dinner at Esme’s house in the country.

In the first part we see them all get ready for the weekend. Cressy and Emma live together in a dingy flat in London. Emma works in her late father’s publishing house, while Cressy struggles as a pianist. Like her mother, Cressy’s been a widow since the last war. She’s a great beauty, one of those that make whole rooms go quiet when she enters. A bit like Lily Bart. And, like Lily Bart, her beauty isn’t doing her any good. She attracts many, mostly married men, and all of her affairs end in drama and tears. When we meet her first she’s crying and thinking of ending it with her current lover Dick. Esme lives luxuriously in a big house in the country. Her only occupations are her garden, answering letters, planning meals and instructing the housekeeper. Dan’s a struggling poet and Felix is a doctor, who has spent most of his life abroad.

The dinner turns into a disaster for many reasons. Felix, who is Cressy’s age, was once her mother’s lover. He left her when Julius died and they haven’t seen each other in twenty years. Cressy’s lover is the husband of the woman, Esme invited for the dinner. The friend Emma brings along is an eccentric poet that she’s met only a few hours ago and invited spontaneously.

The last part of the novel shows each character after the disastrous meal.

The plot isn’t the most important thing in this book. What is amazing is how true to life these characters are. How we get to see their vulnerabilities, their disappointments, their hidden motivations. It’s a very outspoken book. Whether it lays bare the hopes of the protagonists, their sexual desires, or their life choices, it’s so honest, it’s occasionally painful to read. We forget that these are characters on paper and think we’re actually looking into someone’s soul.

It’s a beautiful book and a tragic one. We can’t help but wonder—when did things start to go wrong? While Julius’ death sets things in motion, it’s not the real beginning of the drama.

Esme is by far the most tragic character. She’s looking forward to seeing Felix again. Although he’s fourteen years younger, she hopes that there could finally be a future for them. She never assumes that he may have come for other reasons.

I found it hard to believe at times that this book was written in 1965. The open discussion of abortion and sexuality seemed far more modern. It made me wonder if were not living in more prudish times now.

Before ending this post I have to mention Elizabeth Jane Howard’s descriptions. They are stunning. When she describes a room, a scene, clothes, anything, she makes full use of these descriptions. It’s never just a random description but it always contributes to the understanding of a character, enhances the mood, sets the tone.

It’s still early but I wouldn’t be surprised if this book would be among my best of this year. Since she reminded me of many writers I absolutely love —Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen — I know I’ll be reading more of her.

Do you have a favourite Elizabeth Jane Howard novel?

 

Laura Kasischke: Mind of Winter (2014)

Mind Of Winter

I wonder sometimes whether authors prefer we read their books very slowly, savouring every word or whether they take it as a compliment if we devour a novel in one sitting. I don’t think Laura Kasischke’s going to pop in and let me know how she feels about the way I read her latest novel Mind of Winter. I bought it, started reading on the tram, kept on reading at home – resenting even the shortest interruptions – and finished it a couple of hours later. I don’t do that very often and if I do, it means that I found a book highly enthralling and couldn’t wait to find out what’s going on. Not a bad thing for a psychological thriller, right?

Mind of Winter (which I discovered on Tony’s Book World here) takes place on December 25, during one snowy day. Holly Judges, a poet, who has been suffering from writer’s block for decades, wakes late on Christmas morning. Her husband dashes out the door to get his parents at the airport, their daughter Tatty – Tatiana – is still sleeping. Holly, who woke from a nightmare, tries to make sense of a sentence that haunted her when she woke up “Something had followed them from Russia.”

Moving back and forth in time we hear about the adoption of Holly’s daughter, thirteen years ago, from a Russian orphanage and we witness how this Christmas day develops. It’s snowing constantly and after a few hours it’s obvious that neither friends nor family will make it and join Holly and Tatty for their traditional Christmas meal.

Inside of the house tensions rise. Tatiana not only displays the moodiness of a teenager but behaves more and more erratic.

There are many dark elements of the past mentioned – dead animals, neighbours who don’t speak to Holly anymore, a family history of hereditary cancer and much more. In the beginning there are just a couple of words that hint at something sinister but then, more information is added on every page, a fuller picture emerges and the reader is wondering constantly what really happened in the past and what is going on in the present.

Saying more would spoil this utterly compelling novel. There’s just one tiny thing that I feel I have to reveal—while the atmosphere is dark and brooding, and the book is more than a little creepy at times, there’s no supernatural explanation. As much as I love ghost stories, I really hate it when a psychological thriller takes the easy way out and uses some lame paranormal explanation for the things that go on.

This is a tightly woven novel, a real page-turner, but still a book that explores a huge amount of interesting themes like hereditary disease, writer’s block, poetry, motherhood, family  . . .  I know I’ll be returning to this author soon.

Laura Kasischke isn’t only a novelist, she’s also a poet. It’s not surprising that poetry is important in this book. I’m grateful that she introduce me to a whole bunch of poets I didn’t know and to the poem referred to in the title,  Wallace Stevens’  The Snow Man.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

 

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

 

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

 

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Yasushi Inoue – Three Short Stories

Yasushi Inoue

A review of a collection of Yasushi Inoue’s short stories on the blog 1streading inspired me to look for a book by this author. Luckily I found one just in time, before the end of Tony’s January in Japan. They had a large number of novellas, novels, and short story collections at the book shop. Clearly there’s more available in German than in English. Since I wanted to find out whether he’s an author I want to read more of, I got a collection with short stories first. The book is called Liebe (Love) in German and contains three stories. Translated these would be the titles : Death, Love and Waves – The Stone Garden – The Honeymoon. I’m annoyed that they didn’t bother including the Japanese titles even though I don’t speak or read it. Because of this omission I’m not sure whether you can find translations of these or not.

The first story tells the story of a man who has come to a hotel because he wants to kill himself. It took him some time to find the ideal spot. He wanted a place that was visually appealing and practical; one that would allow him to jump off a cliff and be dead right away. We don’t know why he wants to die at first, we only know that things don’t go according to plan because a young woman arrives with the same idea in mind. I was really wondering whether they would both jump, or if only one of them would do it or whether they would even decide to stay alive. This is such a typically Japanese story. I don’t think that Westerners write like this about suicide. What strikes a Western reader even more than the choice of topic is the reasoning behind the choice. In Western literature people who commit sucide are in great distress, but these two, sound very sober. It’s a question of honor and the logical thing to do. Our narrator looks at his own death from a great distance.

The second story was the one I liked best. A newly married man visits a stone garden with his young bride. The description of the nature and the garden is exquisite. The stone garden is a zen garden that proves to have a stunning effect. Every time the man visits the garden, his life changes completely. This time is no exception.

The last story was the saddest because it captured two absolutely unfulfilled lives. The only thing this married couple had in common was that they both avoided joy and were extremely avaricious. The only sign of their love for each other is that they agree so much in their avarice and that the man follows his wife’s example even after her death.

Yasushi Inoue, it seems, isn’t as widely read outside of Japan although he’s one of the greatest Japanese writers. I wonder why. Maybe the stories are too quietly odd? I thought these stories were a great introduction to Inoue’s work and I know I’ll read more of him. The mix between delicate descriptions of nature and character analysis that seems to have been executed with a scalpel is fascinating. I also loved that it felt strange and familiar at the same time.

If you have read Inoue I’d love to hear which books you’d recommend.