I am going to keep this review shorter than usual because I am working on a couple of larger projects at the moment and am not writing much this week – normal service will be resumed in a few days time.
I seem to be having a binge on Scandi-crime novels this month – The Quarry is my third this year and I think it’s something to do with living in the dark days of January and feeling a touch of sympathy with those poor Swedes and Norwegians who won’t be seeing warmer weather for some time yet.
I’ve tried at least to limit my crime-binge to writers I’ve not read before such as Jan Costin Wagner, Håkan Nesser and now Johan Theorin, three authors whose books try to push the boundaries further than the average crime novel, and who have all won prizes for their work (Theorin won the Crime Writer’s Association’s International Dagger Award in 2010 for his previous book, The Darkest Room).
Theorin’s books form a quartet of novels based on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea. Theorin has had long familiarity with Öland having been a regular visitor there from childhood and coming from a family whose antecedents lived their for centuries as sailors, fishermen and farmers. The island is noted for it’s strange folklore involving trolls and ljusalfer (a sort of elf – see the excellent Wikipedia article on Scandinavian folklore).
In The Quarry, we read of Per Morner, a divorced father of two teenagers who has taken over an old wooden house on Öland and has decided to live there for the summer while he carries on his work as a telephone pollster. Morner has two difficult situations to cope with; his daughter Nilla is in hospital undergoing investigations into a potentially dangerous medical condition. In addition to this, his elderly father Jerry has had a stroke and is no longer coping on his own – to make things more complicated, his father is a renowned pornographer whose life has been dominated by dubious business transactions and affairs with porn-stars.
The Winter of the Lions comes into the unusual category of a Scandinavian crime novel written by a German. The writer, Jan Costin Wagner has the unusual distinction of being selected by the Goethe Institute as one of their “hand-picked Germans“, presumably because his books have been translated into quite a number of languages and he has won prizes for his fiction around the world.
In an interview, Wagner said, “In my novels I aim to encapsulate a moment of comprehension – through leaving things out. I believe that writing fiction can get so close to reality and reveal the feelings that are common to all”. He has been closely linked to Finland for many years (his wife is Finnish) and although his books have all the characteristics of “Scandi-crime”, there is something looser and less precisely defined about them than most novels in the genre, leaving questions unanswered and loose ends untied.
The Winter of the Lions was translated by the highly-regarded Anthea Bell which suggests that the publishers think it is a cut-above the run-of-the-mill crime novels.
Like most crime novels, the book has a police detective as the main character, this time a Kimmo Joentaa, who following the death of his wife returns each night to a snow-bound, lonely house to sit in silence reflecting on the past. An unexpected visitor arrives on his doorstep on Christmas Eve, a young, enigmatic woman who, earlier in the day at the police-station, has claimed to be a victim of rape. The lonely Joentaa allows her into his house and after a short conversation, “a great cry enters” Joentaa’s brain as she takes him in her arms.
Hans Keilson died in 2011 at the age of 101. A German Jew, Keilson and his non-Jewish wife fled to the Netherlands in 1936 to avoid Nazi persecution. The couple separated during the war while Keilson went into hiding, undertaking work among the Jewish children separated from their parents. He reunited with his wife after the war and discovered that both his parents had been deported to Auschwitz where they had died. In order to practice medicine in the Netherlands, Keilson had to re-qualify as a physician and later trained as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.
While he was in hiding during the war, Keilson began work on his most significant novel Death of the Adversary in which he writes about the experience of being gradually cast out from a society which had previously been his home. The English edition of the book has been in and out of print since 1962 but was republished by Vintage Books in 2011.
The book is written in the first person. We join the un-named narrator living in his parent’s home (how we reviewers hate not knowing the name of the main character!). In this case we are not even told which country the novel is located in and Keilson also deliberately anonymises the name of the dictator who slowly comes to power, giving him the title, “B” (he is of course based on Adolf Hitler). The narrator’s father runs a photographic studio and is given to a pessimistic frame of mind which his wife finds too bleak, urging him not to voice his fears in front of their young son.
I have just been to see the film Les Miserables, a brilliantly produced gloom-fest (despite the best efforts of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter to lighten the tone). My response wasn’t quite as dramatic as that of the family in the viral video who left the cinema sobbing (hear the father say, “I’ve been to funerals more cheerful than this!”) but it would be hard to remain dry-eyed throughout especially when Samantha Barks sings On My Own as she walks through the rain after seeing the love of her life in the arms of another woman.
It seemed a good week to read about another French tragedy contained in the short novella, A Slight Misunderstanding by Prosper Mérimée which was recommended to me by Guy of His Futile Preoccupations and Emma of Bookaroundthecorner.
A Slight Misunderstanding is a near-perfectly constructed story about a young woman, Julie de Chaverny, married to someone she has come to dislike intensely. Julie finds an outlet for her romantic feelings in mild flirtations but is quite determined to avoid anything more serious. Her enthusiasm for romance has been curtailed by her disappointment and she has become “agreeable to everybody in general and to no one in particular” (perhaps we all know people like this).
Enter stage left the young Major de Chateaufort, an officer with “a charming face” and “extremely likeable”. He receives a note written by Julie on behalf of her husband, inviting him to dinner. Being a conceited young man, de Chateaufort reads far too much into every phrase of the note, exclaiming to his friend Major Perrin,
“Can’t you see the fondness in that letter, My dear Major de Chateaufort, Please note that in another letter she just wrote Dear Major de Chateaufort . . . I shall be doubly grateful to you, there’s no mistaking what that means”.
(I can’t imagine what de Chateaufort would have made of the endless LOLs and XXX of today’s social media).
AmazonCrossing is Amazon’s new venture into translating world literature into English. An interview with Jeff Belle, the head of Amazon Crossing suggests that this is a genuine attempt to rectify the imbalance in translations (far more books are translated from English than into English). No doubt there are also strong commercial motives for setting up AmazonCrossing, but anything which brings more translations into the English language is to be welcomed.
The first major success of AmazonCrossing was Oliver Pötzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter and they have followed this with a new book in the same series, The Beggar King which is available in either paperback or Kindle editions.
Oliver Pötzsch is a descendant of one of Bavaria’s leading dynasties of executioners and so has an interest in basing his series of historical novels on the hangman of Schongau, Jacob Kuisl, and his daughter Magdalena. The book opens with a short prologue set in 1662 during the 30 years war which gives readers a glimpse of what rape and pillaging meant for a peaceful rural community. It is worth noting the names of those involved for they will feature 25 years later in the book we are about to read.
Jakob Kuisil leaves his home-town of Schonburg to travel to the regional centre of Regensburg where his sister is reportedly dying of cancer. Back in Schonburg, Jakob’s daughter Magdalena has troubles of her own. Her boyfriend Simon is a partially-qualified medical doctor and between the two of them they have uncovered corruption in the home of a city dignitary who has poisoned one of his maids who he made pregnant. When Magdalena’s home is attacked and burnt in retribution for their discovery, the two lovers decide to follow Magdalena’s father to Regensburg to try to make a new life for themselves, not knowing that they are going to get embroiled in a much bigger scandal behind the heavily guarded walls of the city.
After two years and three months my Kindle finally gave up the ghost by presenting me with a screen consisting of a mess of horizontal lines and black and white blocks. It’s had some pretty rough treatment – being put in my trouser pocket while on long cycle rides, being rolled on when I fell asleep while reading it and being exposed to sand and salt on many days on the beach.
I decided it was still worth ringing Amazon to see if they could offer me anything and was surprised to find that after being passed around three different people I was offered a significant discount on a new Kindle (with the amount of money I spend on ebooks I could say that they should just have sent me a new one for free).
Without a lot of thought I opted for the Paperwhite version and didn’t realise it was a touch-screen model. When it arrived I turned it on and while I was looking for non-existent buttons I didn’t realise that the screen was asking me to choose a language and I inadvertently selected Chinese. The confirmation screen then gave me two choices – in Chinese (presumably accept or cancel) and I chose the wrong one – result: a fully Chinese Kindle.
It would of course be a simple job to change the language back again were the menus not now written in Chinese characters. I rang Amazon again and the agent was able to tell me which menu options to choose by counting down from the top and eventually I ended up with an English language Kindle but with some irritating Chinese pop-ups such as dictionary which I managed to get rid of over the next couple of days.
When non-English writers get their work published in translation you often find that when they enjoy success in translation, their publishers begin to translate and publish books from their back-catalogue. Per Petterson is in this situation; his books Out Stealing Horses, To Siberia and I Curse The River of Time have been very well received and now his publishers have decided to publish It’s Fine By Me which was written in 1992 but was first published in English in this edition of 2012.
Its Fine By Me is semi-autobiographical and could be called a “coming of age” novel in that it follows the life of Audan between the ages of 12 and 18. Audan lives with his mother and sister in a working-class suburb of Oslo. He had a brother who was killed in a road accident and Audan now struggles with his role as “number one son”, while his shadowy and violent father comes and goes, wreaking havoc whenever he turns up on the scene. Interestingly Audan’s best friend is Arvid who is the main character in the earlier book, I Curse the River of Time.
I enjoyed this book far more than I expected to. I assumed that the publishers were now publishing 20 year-old work from an immature Petterson, but was surprised to find that I probably liked this one more than any of the author’s later works. I immediately liked Audan’s “voice” (the book is written in the first person) and found myself sympathising with his troubles. He exhibits all the traits of adolescence – from wearing sun-glasses at all times to finding ways of separating himself from his mother. But his struggles are real and he deals with them courageously if not always successfully.