Monthly Archives: February 2016

Review: The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Europa Editions.  The original book was published in French and this English translation is done by Alison Anderson.

My Review:
Layout 1This intense story is told in alternating views of two people who survived the brutality of a fictional totalitarian regime called the Theological Republic.  Although the homeland of these two characters is fictional, it is evident from clues in the text that this country is in the middle east and that both characters are refugees somewhere in Russia.  The female character, Vima, was know in the republic as their most stubborn political prisoner and given the name Bait 455.  Vima is arrested and repeatedly raped and tortured by her captors who are trying to get information about her husband’s political subterfuge.  Vima’s love and devotion for her husband runs so deep that the only words she ever speaks during these torture sessions is a defiant, “No.”  One day, without any warning, a high ranking official interrupts one of these torture sessions by snapping his fingers and Vima is rescued.

The other character in the book is a high ranking Colonel who was in the inner circle of the republic’s Supreme Commander.  The Colonel started out as a foot soldier in the Colonel’s army but because of his bravery and knowledge of arms and technology he quickly rises up in rank until he is one of the most trusted members of the Supreme Commander’s inner circle.  The Colonel’s job is to spy on the staff of the prisons where it is suspected that there are groups of traitors who are letting prisoners escape.  The Colonel’s position brings him into direct contact with Bait 455 and through an interesting twist of circumstances in the book he is the man who snapped his fingers to save Vima.

Vima and the Colonel are both refugees in a new country for five years when their paths cross.  The Colonel has applied for refugee status and the political leaders in his country of asylum keep interrogating him.  Vima is called on to be a translator for the Colonel during these interrogations.  At this point their roles as captor and captive are completely reversed and the Colonel knows that his fate is doomed.  The country of asylum really has no interest in harboring this criminal and the Colonel feels that it is only a matter of time before he is eliminated.  So he asks Vima to write a book which tells his story; the most important part of the story for him is the unconditional love he has for his wife whom he had to leave behind in the republic.

Vima and the Colonel both have emotional personalities that allow them to love deeply and unequivocally.  Vima’s tormentors, no matter how much they tried to break her body and her spirit, would not betray her beloved.  The Colonel gives up his position in the republic and risks his life to escape because his wife demands that he do so.  But in the end Vima and the Colonel are both disappointed because their intense love is not matched by their respective partners.

There is one final interesting literary allusion in the text that, as a classicist, I would be remiss not to mention.  The Colonel enjoys reading literary classics with his lawyer, an eccentric man named Yuri.  Yuri introduces him to The Iliad and The Odyssey and the Colonel becomes fascinated with the Greek hero Achilles.  Achilles, not unlike the Colonel, is a controversial hero who wreaks havoc and destruction despite his heroic status.  Achilles is eventually brought down because of his one week spot, his heel, and the Colonel, too, has a vulnerability which comes in the form of his love for his wife.

This is one of those books that will stay with me and that I will think about for a long time to come.  I made the mistake of reading this before bed and it kept me up thinking for quite a while.  The true hero in the book is Vima who, despite suffering the worst evil that humanity has to offer, is resilient and never stops fighting back.  Vima fights her tormentors with a simple “no,” she fights abandonment from her beloved, and she fights when her past comes crashing back into her life and threatens her sanity.  I think that this will make my list of favorite books of the year.

About the Author:
F HachtroudiFariba Hachtroudi was born in 1951 in Tehran. She comes from a family of scholars and professors. Her paternal grand-father was a religious leader who supported the constitutionalists in 1906, against other religious leaders who advocated for governance by Sharia law and the absolute rule of God as a monarchic authority.

Fariba’s father Mohsen Hachtroudi was a learned scholar, often called the “Ommar Khayyam” of contemporary Iran. As a well known French-educated mathematician, philosopher and poet, Mr Hachtroudi was unquestionably considered to be a moral authority for generations of Iranians. Hachtroudi fought his entire life for the promotion of democracy, social justice (most notably women rights) and secularism. Fariba’s mother, Robab Hachtroudi was a professor of humanities and Persian literature.

Fariba Hachtroudi received her doctorate (PHD) in art and archeology in Paris in 1978.

She lived in Sri Lanka from 1981 to 1983, where for two years she taught at the University of Colombo while performing research on the Teravada Boudhism.

When Fariba returned to France in 1983, she started, as a journalist, to denounce Khomeynism.

In 1985 / 1986, to understand the daily life of her compatriots, Fariba travelled clandestinely to Iran by way of the desert of Baluchistan. L’exilée, Hachtroudi’s first book describes her haunting journey.

10 years later, in 1995, Fariba who was much more pessimistic than others, already predicting change and revival “slowly and from within Iran”, decided again to approach the issue by creating a humanitarian association free of political affiliations. MoHa, the association for the foundation of Mohsen Hachtroudi, focuses it work on education and secularism – conditions essential for the respects of women’s rights and the promotion of democracy. MoHa helped Iranians refugees wherever they were. After her last trip to Iran (2006) Fariba Hachtroudi hopes to be able to register her Foundation in Iran in order to help the youth inside the country as it was the goal of her father.

For more information visit her website: http://www.faribahachtroudi.fr/bio/uk.html

 

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Filed under France, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Uncategorized

Review: None So Blind by José Ángel González Sainz

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks via Edelweiss.  The original book was published in Spanish and this translation has been done by Harold Augenbraum.

My Review:
None So BlindThis is a difficult title to review because it is impossible to describe the beautiful and philosophical language which permeates the book.  When the narrative begins Felipe Díaz Carrión  is returning to his home in a small village in Spain, but returning from where we do not yet know.  When he reaches his native village he takes great comfort in the familiar surroundings in which he grew up; the trees, the road, the nest of Egyptian vultures, the bronze doorknocker on his house and a cross which is the grave marker for his own father are all soothing to him.  As a person who likes her routine and is comforted by old, familiar things, I was mezmorised by the first few pages of this story as Felipe slips back into his peaceful and calm surroundings.

We are told that Felipe not only grew up in this small village, but he also met his wife, married her and started a family here.  When his son is about ten years old Felipe loses his job as a typesetter and he decides to move his family to a city in order to find work.  While in the city Felipe takes a job at a chemical factory and he settles into a new pattern where he walks the same road every day to work.  But the road in the city is greatly contrasted to his favorite road in the small village.  Whereas the small village dirt road is full of nature, is serene and peaceful, his road to work in the city is crowded, polluted and noisy.  But Felipe happily makes this transition for the good of his family, or so he thinks.

While his family is living in the city, his wife Asuncion gives birth to their second son.  Felipe is thrilled to have another son and he is proud to give his second son his own name.  Felipe’s relationship with the younger Felipe is tender and one built on respect and mutual interests.  But during this time trouble with his firstborn son also arises.  His eldest son spends less and less time at home and develops an attitude of disdain for his father.  It appears that his son has become radicalized through contact with his friends and acquaintanes in the city.  Felipe’s wife also becomes distant from him and she develops a newfound confidence and outspokenness about her.  She starts to attend political meetings at her friends’ homes and she even arranges her hair and clothing differently.  For twenty years Felipe calmly watches as his wife and oldest son grow farther and farther apart from him and their comments about his pacifism become increasingly abusive.

The biggest question facing the reader in the book is why Felipe turns a blind eye to his son’s and his wife’s radicalization, even when it is apparent they are breaking the law.  There is a lot of imagery, as one can imagine from the title, that revolves around blindness.  Felipe is shunned by his neighbors and beaten badly; his youngest son comes home with a black eye and his eldest son disappears for months on end.  During all of this Felipe doesn’t see or even try to see what is going on.  There are clues that he has suspicions about his son’s behavior, but he never confesses that he truly sees what is going on.  The significance of eyesight and blindness is further enhanced by the prolonged descriptions of the Egyptian vultures who nest around his home village.  They eat the softer parts of their prey like the tongue and eyes.

When Felipe is given an early retirement package from the chemical plant he realizes that there is nothing left for him in the city and so he moves back to his beloved village by himself.  He lives there peacefully for about year when he younger son shows up to deliver the awful news that his oldest son is accused of some horrific crimes.  Felipe is devastated and keeps wondering how much he is to blame for his son’s actions.  Felipe then takes us on a journey through the memories of his own father’s murder which he witnessed as a young boy.  It is no wonder that Felipe has become passive and almost numb to the things around him.  But does the fact that Felipe  turned a blind eye to his son’s behavior mean that Felipe is partly responsible for his son’s horrible crimes?  At which point in his son’s upbringing should Felipe have intervened?  And, finally, if he did speak up and intervene, would his son have listened to his father’s advice?

This is my first experience with a publication from Hispabooks.  I am so impressed with the beauty of the language and philosophical questions this book raises.  I can’t wait to see what else is in the Hispabooks catalog.

About the Author:
J.Á. González Sainz is a Spanish fiction writer and translator and co-founder of the Centro Internacional Antonio Machado, a Spanish language learning center for foreign students based in Soria, his hometown in Spain. He won the Premio de las Letras de Castilla y León in 2006, a prestigious Spanish literary fiction award.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature

Review: The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst

I received a review copy of this title from Peirene Press . It was first published in the original Dutch in 2013 and this English translation has been done by David Colmer.

My Review:
The Man I BecameI don’t normally read Dystopian, Orwellian type novels with talking Gorillas.  But since this book is published by Peirene Press I decided to give it a try anyway and I am glad I did.  The narrator tells us that he was living a happy life in the wild until one day members of his family start disappearing from their idyllic home.  He then finds himself drugged and dragged out of his natural habitat against his will.  He, along with his family, are chained together and forced on an arduous journey during which they are given just enough food and water to survive.  Some of them die along the way and the living are forced to march on and leave their loved ones behind..  I found this to be the most heart wrenching and sad part of the book.  Their fear was palpable and it was difficult to read about these innocent animals as they are taken out of their natural surroundings, and forced on a journey towards the unknown.

After a long ride on a ship in cramped quarters, the animals reach what they call The New World.  They are given clothes, taught how to clean and groom themselves and are given speech lessons.  They practice walking upright, which is very uncomfortable to them and they practice carrying on polite conversations.  It is clear that their captors are trying to turn them into something as close to human as possible.  After a period of time the animals are given a test to see how far their human training has come; they are dressed up and attend a coctail where they meet other animals that have also been trained.  This part of the book is an interesting commentary on what it means to truly be human.  If one can look the right way, and speak the right way and have manners, is that person truly human?  Are a bath, the ability to walk upright and to carry on a conversation really the only things that separate us from animals?

There is one other important social criticism that comes through in the narrative and that is our reliance on technology, especially the cell phone.  When the gorillas reach a certain point in their training they receive a phone and are told that it is their identification and they  must carry it wherever they go.  At first they can only receive calls on their phone and it is another way that their captors keep track of them.  As the narrator becomes more human, he gains more privileges for his phone, such as the ability to dial out to other numbers.  The humans who are in charge of the animals possess multiple phones  and are always seen answering their phones, looking at their phones and talking on their phones.  Is this electronic contraption really another thing that separates us from the animals or does it separate us from other humans and our sense of humanity?

The ending is very interesting and I don’t want to give it away.  But I will say that the gorilla’s life does appear to have a happy ending.  He no longer remembers his previous life and he has found some peace with his human existence.  He is a bit smarter than the rest of his family and he gradually begins to realize that conformity isn’t always the best decision; he questions and investigates his surroundings and those who have positions of authority.  I am sure that there are additional layers of meaning in the story that I did not understand.  I can’t wait to see what other readers make of this story.

This is the first release from Peirene Press this year in their Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series.  The Man I Became is a powerful and thought-provoking first book with which to start the Fairy Tale series and I look forward to the other novellas with great anticipation.  Please visit their website for more details: http://peirenepress.com/

About the Author:
peter_verhelst_0Peter Verhelst, born in 1962, is a Belgian Flemish novelist, poet and playwright. He has written more than 20 books. His work has been praised for its powerful images, the sensuality and richness of its language and the author’s unbridled imagination. His breakthrough came in 1999 with the novel Tonguecat, which won the Golden Owl Literature Prize and the Flemish State Prize for Literature. The Man I Became is his eleventh novel.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: Epitaph for a Working Man by Erhard von Büren

I received a review copy of this book from the translator, Helen Wallimann.  The book was published in the original German in 1990 in Switzerland and this English version was released in 2015.  I invite you to read my review and scroll down to the end of the post to win your own copy of Epitaph for a Working Man.

My Review:
EpitaphHaller resides in a nursing home in Switzerland where he still participates in a very full and active life.  He visits the local pub, he continues doing some work as a stone mason and he entertains his roommates with his quick, sarcastic wit.  This book is the story of the last year of his life as told by his only child, his son.

When the story begins, Haller’s son, who is never given a name, is picking up his father’s belongings from the nursing home at which he had resided for the last twelve years of his life.  His father’s only earthly possessions are contained in two small boxes.  His son slowly begins to recount his father’s illness which began as an odd mole on his back that at first only caused him some minor discomfort.  We guess from the description of this growth that Haller has melanoma and as the story progresses this diagnosis is confirmed.

Haller has to make three trips a week to the hospital in order to undergo radiotherapy treatments for his back.  At first the prognosis seems quite good and the doctor is optimistic that the treatments will take care of the growth on the old man’s back.  Haller’s son meets him at the hospital for all of his father’s appointments and waits for him while he receives his treatments.  Haller and his wife divorced when their child was very young so Haller and his son have never been very close.  It is Haller’s illness and his time at the hospital that bring the father and son together into a closer relationship and connection.

Haller’s son has lost his job as a typesetter and has been living on unemployment for many months now.  He has lost his sense of purpose and his only task during that day is that of “house husband.”  He makes meals for his wife, picks up around the house and does laundry while his wife is at work all day.  He takes the news that his wife is having an affair with her boss in a rather emotionally detached way.  He wonders where they meet to have their trysts and he also wonders if he should leave her.  He doesn’t seem to be all that upset about this development in their marriage so we are left to speculate if he wasn’t all that emotionally attached to the relationship in the first place, or if he is just numb with shock and depression.

The last few days of his life, which are very painful for Haller, are related to us in some detail.  Haller’s son never shares with his father when the cancer reaches his organs.  He struggles with his decision not to be honest with his father about his diagnosis.  He also struggles with how to make his father the most comfortable in his final days.  The strength of this story lies in its subtle commentary on how we struggle as human beings to deal with our final days.  Helen’s translation beautifully renders the heartwarming relationship between father and son into English for us.

About the Author and Translator:
Erhard von Büren was born near Solothurn, Switzerland, in 1940. After a PhD in Psychology and German philology from Zurich University (Zur Bedeutung der Psychologie im Werk Robert Musils. Atlantis, Zürich) and study stays in France he worked as a teacher in advanced teacher training. He lives in Solothurn, Switzerland.     He has had three novels published in Switzerland: Abdankung. Ein Bericht (Zytglogge Verlag, Bern 1989), Wespenzeit (Rotpunktverlag, Zürich 2000), Ein langer blauer Montag (verlag die brotsuppe, Biel/Bienne 2013).     Erhard von Büren has won various literary awards including the Canton of Solothurn Prize for Literature in 2007.     Homepage: http://www.erhard-von-bueren.ch

Helen Wallimann was born in 1941 and grew up in Cheltenham. She received her MA from Edinburgh University in 1963.She has worked in publishing in Munich, Paris and London. From 1973 to 2001 she was a teacher of French and English at the Kantonsschule Solothurn.  Her literary translations in book form include Legends from the Swiss Alps. MCCM Creations, Hong Kong 2009 (translated from German); Leung Ping-kwan, The Visible and the Invisible. Poems. MCCM Creations, Hong Kong 2012 (translated from Chinese).

Giveaway:
The translator put together a fun little multiple choice quiz about Switzerland for my readers.  Whoever gets the most answers correct will win a paperback copy of the book.  If there is a tie I will randomly choose a winner.  The quiz will be open until Friday, Feb. 19th.  This giveaway is open internationally.  Good luck!

 

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Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation

Review: William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton

My Review:
William EnglishmanI was not surprised to find out the author composed this novel in a tent on the front lines of World War I.  The novel is a gruesome, starkly honest portrayal of the horrors of war.  The author, however, draws the readers in at first with a light and satirical description of its gentle, naïve and optimistic main characters, William and Griselda.

When the story begins, William is twenty-six years old and still lives with his mother.  He has an extremely ordered and monotonous life working at a clerk’s office and handing over most of his weekly paycheck to his mother.  He doesn’t seem to have any genuine affection for his parent and when she suddenly dies he realizes that he never really loved her.  Her death means freedom for him; not only does he now have financial freedom since she left him a sizeable inheritance but he also has the freedom to make his own decisions about the course his life will take.

William asks some advice from one of his fellow clerks about what he should do with his time and money and it is through this interaction with Farraday that William becomes involved with political and social reform.  William leaves the tedious office where he has worked for many years and embarks on full-time career as a social activist who writes about, protests and goes to meetings about the suffragette movement, pacifism, and other socialist topics.

It is at these meetings that William meets Griselda, a feisty suffragette who shares the same ideals as William.  The tone in the book that describes these two is one of gentle parody as William and Griselda appear to fight for mostly vague causes.  They believe all government is evil and any attempt of a government to raise a military and train it is simply “playing” at warfare.  They love to go to meetings and hand out pamphlets and consider themselves strong and tough for fighting against social injustices.  They see themselves as the perfect couple and their courtship and devotion to each other is a sweet love story.

When William and Griselda take their honeymoon in the remote mountains of the Belgian Ardennes, they are uneasy with the slow-paced, quiet life of the village in which they are staying. But they settle in for a few weeks and enjoy each other’s company.  It is on the very last day of their vacation that things take a horrible and tragic turn for the worst.  They encounter a regiment of invading German soldiers who treat them brutally and inhumanely.  I have to say that the violence in this book shocked me and Hamilton does not gloss over or sugarcoat the atrocities of war.

William, the once naïve and optimistic Englishman who lived in his happy little bubble of bliss, now becomes the disillusioned and distraught victim of real warfare.  It is not a game or a joke when men are being blown apart and people’s lives are destroyed by gunfire and bombs.  I don’t want to give away the plot and the fate of William and Griselda.  But I will say that William’s story comes full circle and in the end his life becomes equally as monotonous and numb as it was when we first meet him living under the thumb of his mother.  What starts out as an amusing story about two naïve lovebirds becomes a harsh commentary on the gory realities of warfare.

I encourage anyone who enjoys World War I historical fiction to pick up this book.  Thanks to Persephone Press for reissuing another brilliant book from an important 20th century female author.

About the Author:
C HamiltonCicely Mary Hamilton (born Hammill), was an English author and co-founder of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League.

She is best remembered for her plays which often included feminist themes. Hamilton’s World War I novel “William – An Englishman” was reprinted by Persephone Books in 1999.

She was a friend of EM Delafield and was portrayed as Emma Hay in “A Provincial Lady Goes Further.”

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Historical Fiction, Persephone Books, World War I