Review: Death in Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec

death in pont avenAnd what do we have here?  The first novel in a crime series by a new French writer, Jean-Luc Bannalec?  Well, not quite, for most literary journalists are agreed that M Bannelec is in fact Jörg Bong, a top German publisher who has been doing a bit of moon-lighting by creating the somewhat grumpy police detective Commissaire Dupin.  One thing for sure, Bannalec/Bong has scored a hit across Europe with Death in Pont-Aven and any fan of Inspector Maigret will find Dupin a worthy successor to Georges Simenon’s fictional detective.   There are even back references to Maigret for the book opens with Commissaire Dupin enjoying coffee and croissants in the Amiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s Yellow Dog (interestingly enough,  a real restaurant in Concarneau, which to this day features a “Maigret Menu“).

I spent four very pleasant days reading this book, with memories of several visits to Brittany, the scene of this fictional crime.  Brittany is a remarkable place, steeped in atmosphere with incredible beauty around every coastal corner.  The pretty villages, white-sanded coves, the off-shore islands and countless fishing boats, the exquisite sea-food and tons of typical French charm . . . I could go on, but it’s enough to say that it’s a region I love and this book put me in a holiday mood despite the vicious murder of a 91-year-old man that took place in its first few pages.

The elderly hotelier found dead from a knife wound on his restaurant floor is Pierre-Louis Pennec, a stalwart of the village of Pont-Aven where he has lived all his life in the hotel founded by his grand-parents.  His grand-mother founded the hotel and with her generous hospitality rapidly befriended various painters including Paul Gauguin.  Summer artists retreats took place in the village and before long, the Pont-Aven school of artists, became known for their paintings of Breton interiors and landscapes, packed full of local atmosphere.

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Review: Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

look who's backSo, it’s today’s Germany, and Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up early one afternoon on a patch of undeveloped land.

It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire, there seemed to be no shelling nearby or explosions, no air-raid sirens.  It also struck me that there was no Reich Chancellery and no Führerbunker. 

In full dress-uniform, but reeking of petrol, Adolf Hitler gets up and makes his way across the road to a newspaper kiosk.  He glances at the dates on the newspapers and when he sees the year 2011 he collapses to the ground.

So begins Timur Vermes book, Look Who’s Back, the first German novel to look at Adolf Hitler from a humorous perspective.  And I have to say, it has been very well-received (if rather uneasily) and looks like it’s going to be turned into a film later this year despite the controversial subject matter.

On waking from his years of oblivion, Hitler wander across to a newspaper stall and begins to acquaint himself with today’s Germany.  It is not a comfortable process and Hitler rapidly comes to the conclusion that the nation is as much in need of a Führer as before.  But with no money in his pockets and an utterly changed landscape, the thought comes to him:

 I needed a livelihood, however modest or basic. I needed somewhere to stay and a little money until I had a clearer perspective. Perhaps I needed to find a job, temporarily at least, until I knew whether and how I might be able to seize the reins of government.  

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Review: Tales from the Underworld – Hans Fallada

tales from the underworldIn recent years their has been a resurgence of interest in the mid-20th century German writer Hans Fallada. His novel Alone in Berlin was an unexpected success when Penguin published a new translation in 2010.  Around the same time Melville House published the novel Little Man What Now and then Penguin followed with A Small Circus in 2012.  Now we have a new collection of short stories in Tales from the Underworld.

Fallada is known for his stories about ordinary people in pre-WW2 Germany.  He deals with “the little people” and their concerns about jobs, money and housing.  In a typical Fallade story we conventional marriages and a way of life long gone where the woman works in the fields or busies herself around the house while the husband goes off to a dull job in a shop or office and returns to become a little tyrant in his own home.

The book opens with The Wedding Ring, a story set in a rural, peasant society where a group of women are digging potatoes in a field, supervised by an indolent male foreman.  A newly-married woman, Martha Utesch gets home at night to find that she has lost her wedding ring during the day’s labours. The foreman of the work gang has of course seen the ring and pocketed it, with no intention returning it to its owner.  Within a few pages we see the foreman’s attempt to make some money for himself resulting in horrific consequences.  This is a classic short story, compact, vividly told, with a powerful yet ironic conclusion.  It could have been written by any of the 19th century masters of the short story and its setting in 1920s Germany only goes to show that outside the cities, rural Europe was much the same wherever you were living.

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Review: I Was Jack Mortimer – Alexander Lernet-Holenia

jack mortimerA new book from Pushkin Press is always welcome and in I Was Jack Mortimer, they have found a gem of a novel, written in 1933 but as fresh as anything written today.  The book, a mixture of farce, murder mystery and character study is set in Vienna.

The book’s author Alexander Lernet-Holenia had an interesting life.  As a conscript, he took part in the invasion of Poland but from this he wrote what is thought of as the only Austrian resistance novel which was banned by the government because it contained “an ideologically troubled central character, hints at the existence of active political opposition” (Wikipedia).  He died in 1976 with a reputation for controversy which made him “the difficult old man of Austrian literature”.

Ferdinand Sponer, a young taxi driver picks up a fare outside the railway station who wants to go to the Bristol Hotel.  When he arrives at the hotel, he turns to speak to the passenger and finds him dead with a bullet hole in his throat and other wounds leaking blood into the back of his cab.

Sponer’s efforts to tell the police are thwarted at every turn and realising how implausible his story is, he decides to dump the body in the Danube and forget the whole thing.  Needless to say, this is where things start to go terribly wrong for Sponer.  Before long, due to a convoluted series of events he finds himself taking on the identity of the dead man (thus the title of the book).  I have to admire the author’s inventiveness as the story takes off on a wildly erratic route, with surprises at every turn.

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Review: Anatomy of a Night – Anna Kim

kim Anna Kim was born in South Korea but was brought up in Germany where her father was appointed a Professor of Fine Arts.  She writes in German and her book Anatomy of a Night is one of the first four books to be published by new Berlin-based publisher Frisch and Co who specialise in publishing contemporary books in English translation.  The publisher’s website says that Anna Kim, “is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Austrian State Fellowship for Literature, the Elias Canetti Fellowship, the Robert Musil Fellowship, and the 2009 Austrian Prize for Literature, among others”.

This novel deals with a difficult subject; an epidemic of suicides among the Innuit community in Greenland.  Apparently Innuit suicide is an ongoing problem and a quick search on the Internet brought up some in-depth studies by Canadian academics about the possible reasons for it such as

– Lack of coping skills when relationships break-up
– Lack of access to mental health treatment;
– Loss of control over land and living conditions;
– Socio-economic factors such as poor housing and employment opportunities.

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Review: From the Fatherland With Love – Ryu Murakami

murukamiFrom the Fatherland With Love is a vast novel (664 pages), written on an epic scale, an alternative reality novel describing the events surrounding the invasion of and economically bankrupt Japan by an opportunistic North Korea.  It’s author, Ryu Murakami, wrote the book in 2005 when the Japanese economy had gone into decline.  By setting the book just a few years in the future, he offered his public a vision of a dystopian future close at hand and which seemed at the time (and perhaps still is) all too plausible.  Here and there we can see that elements of Murakami’s vision have actually come to pass, not in Japan perhaps, but certainly in Greece and Cyprus.

The year is 2010, but things are not quite how they are in today’s world. Japan has gone into serious economic decline and nation can no longer afford social care, resulting in vast shanty towns constructed in city-parks.  The banks have implemented stringent controls on how much money can be withdrawn from cash machines and sales tax has soared.  The public sector is the only employer offering real jobs, but security guards have to protect government workers from demonstrating crowds of less fortunate citizens. Criminal gangs are rife and the black-market flourishes.

The rest of the world has responded to the economic crisis by retreating into isolationism. America has a vast financial deficit and can no longer afford to act as the world’s policeman. Instead it is pushing for security agreements with East Asian countries, even a non-aggression pact with North Korea. Europe is concerned only with its own boundaries and China and Russia no longer want to get involved with other nation’s problems. Japan is effectively abandoned to its fate.

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Revew: Balzac’s Omelette – Anka Muhlstein

balzacThis book ticks a number of boxes for me:

– It describes the literary world of Paris in the 19th century;
– It homes in on Honore de Balzac, a writer I have been reading for the last two or three years;
– It describes the history of French cooking and eating-out;
– It’s very interesting and held my attention right to the end.

Sometimes you come to a book like this that seems to be an amusement rather than a serious work and you discover a huge amount of knowledge behind it, so vast in scale in fact that you wonder how the author managed to find out so much about the subject.

Not only has Anka Muhlstein researched the history of restaurants and the food people ate in them during the 19th century, her knowledge of Balzac’s vast number of books is little short of encyclopaedic.  Balzac’s books are generally long, and contain so many characters, you wonder how she managed to hold them all in her head and keep quoting from them as she wrote (to give it’s full title Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture With Honoré de Balzac (Other Press, New York).

Perhaps I should expect nothing less from Anka Muhlstein.  After all, she has published eleven books of biographies and essays and has been awarded the Goncourt prize of Biography, twice receiving the French Academy’s History Prize.  Nevertheless the book is highly readable being full of anecdotes about Balzac and other writers of the time,  short extracts from his books, and magnificent descriptions of meals and vastly long sittings at restaurant tables.

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