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Book Reviews

An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer) published by Pushkin at £7.99.

My grandfather was an old soldier during the second world war. Too old to have been called up normally, he was called up because he had been in the Territorial Army and had experience of weapons. He became a regimental sergeant-major “in the field”. Somewhere I have a photo of him with a group of other RSMs, friends of his. He was the only one to survive the war.
In charge of a supply column moving up Italy his group found themselves behind enemy lines after Italy surrendered and Germany invaded, sweeping down through Italy leaving his column stranded. Through the offices of some Glasgow Italian soldiers they were able to make contact with local partisans, hand over the supplies to them and fought alongside them for some months. Family legend is that was the one period of the war he would never talk about. What did they do that he could not talk about? Partisan warfare is not exactly nice, you can’t take prisoners.

An Untouched House | Willem Frederik Hermans | 9781782274445
From time to time I’ve read novels or experiences of partisan life and have just read An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans (translated by David Colmer), newly published by Pushkin at £7.99. Hermans was a Dutch writer, read by many in Holland, but whose work was so disliked that he went into voluntary exile. He did not make life easy for himself, as the afterword by Cees Nooteboom, explains. When Hermans died his archives comprise “thirty meters of coagulated anger”.
Partly this was because he published about the war before plucky little Holland had come to terms with aspects of their war that were not the stuff of legend. Later he was a critic of Dutch rule in Indonesia.
This book, first published in 1951, is a novella about a short period in the life of an unnamed Dutch partisan who somehow ended up fighting in an unnamed area of Eastern Europe. After a successful battle against occupying German forces he wanders off and finds the untouched house of the title, a rather beautiful house in an area deserted by its occupants. There’s soup on the stove, evidence of recent flight, but no sign of life.
The partisan explores the house, strips off his filthy battle gear, bathes and sleeps in clean sheets.
Then German soldiers turn up, knocking at the door, planning to requisition the house. He – the partisan – passes himself off as the owner and allows them in, simply grumbling a bit to ensure they look after the place, as any owner would. It sounds a bit like a farce typing this, but shortly afterwards the real owners turn up when the Germans are out on patrol. The partisan has no option but to kill them to avoid being found out. In due course his former partisan comrades arrive, the Germans have been beaten off for good, the German captain had already surrendered to the partisan of the story, now back in uniform and the mystery of the one locked room in the house has been solved.
The partisans proceed to find the wine cellar, get raging drunk and… well, they are not exactly nice to the house, their captive and an elderly deaf and confused man who had turned up to look after his collection of rare fish in that locked room. The fish don’t do well out of this either.
Sorry for the spoiler.
And this book is one of the reasons Hermans was read but not popular in Holland. Every occupied force and every army of occupation likes to think of itself at least in retrospect as the good guys, the most moral. Hermans, in An Untouched House, suggests otherwise.

Ross Bradshaw

An Untouched House is available for £7.99 post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrente (Europa, £11.95)

Having sold so many copies of My Brilliant Friend I thought that – in the spirit of self sacrifice – I should read the book, knowing it would be hard going, as so many people were talking about it. By now most people will have heard of this four-volume set of novels set in post-war Naples which follow the lives of two girls, later women, one of whom leaves the claustrophobic network of poor families through being educated whilst the other, though actually the brighter candle, stays behind. The background is poverty, tradition, rules and male violence and the expectation of little change. Early in the book the narrator’s friend Lila, aged ten, is simply thrown through a window by her father Fernando. “Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing. … ‘I haven’t hurt myself.’ But she was bleeding; she had broken her arm.”
As the girls filled out they became interested in men and men became interested in them. But dangers lay everywhere. Being given a lift in a car was akin to rape, which would need to be revenged by brothers. And in the background was the Mafia to whom any implied slight could be fatal. This caused one man to publicly apologise outside church for something that had not happened so that people could hear him being respectful.

The girls of the story had a loving friendship, they would copy each other and were rarely away from each other’s thoughts. And it is within these, I’ll reuse the word claustrophobic, thoughts that the novel grips you. It will be hard to avoid reading the rest of the series.
My only criticism would be that the original Italian – which I don’t read – must have had the families slipping into Neapolitan as some things are best expressed in the language of the street rather than standard Italian. The otherwise excellent translator Ann Goldstein has to tell us whenever people use dialect which, in making the point, loses the point.

Ross Bradshaw

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach’s succinct and deceptively easily readable novel blends crime genre tropes with arthouse experimentalism; if Scott Turow had rewritten Last Year at Marienbad to include some courtroom shenanigans, this would be it. Although structured in four parts, each featuring a colour as a leitmotif, it’s essentially a narrative of two halves. The first documents the troubled life of artist Sebastian von Eschburg in a dark, occasionally absurd, and thoroughly unreliable manner. There are so many lacunae that sometimes it seems like you’re potholing instead of reading. The waters are further muddied by Eschburg’s emotional detachment and synaesthesia – the novel uses the condition to a narrative purpose unequalled since Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

The second half is from the perspective of Konrad Biegler, a defence lawyer so grumpy, so portly and so henpecked that he makes Rumpole of the Bailey look like Dirty Harry. Biegler races (or rather waddles) against time to make sense of the case – which involves a shedload of circumstantial evidence but no actual body – with the assistance of Eschburg’s glamorous partner Sofia. As the trial date approaches, Schirach first tinkers with then outright subverts his readers’ expectations.

The artworks and installations that make Eschburg famous are based on Goya’s The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, Sir Francis Galton’s multiple photographic exposure of the faces of criminals, and Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “mechanical Turk”. Not mentioned in the novel, but a tempting correlation, is the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Poetry Machine installation, a sort of random poetry generator that became a bete noire of the German literature scene a decade and a half ago. Similarly, Schirach’s novel reads in places like a randomly generated thriller, as he gleefully throws everything from hidden family secrets to the sudden reappearance of long lost siblings into the pot, seasons with east European hookers, and simmers over the hyperbole of torture porn imagery.

All of which, done purely for its own sake, would pretty much guarantee a cynically entertaining read. However, Schirach assembles all his pieces (including several rugs that don’t remain under the reader for very long) in the service of two thorny questions: what the relationship is between reality and truth; and, as Eschburg asks outright at a crucial moment, “what is guilt?” Omitted from Schirach’s author’s back cover biographical note is the fact that his grandfather was Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, an awkward bit of family history which nonetheless offers perspective from which to ponder that question.

Neil Fulwood

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken (Gallic, £8.99)

9781908313867Ah Paris, where booksellers go out for espressos and glasses of wine during the day at their nearby cafe instead of a trot round the block and a baked potato with cheese and beans… Bookseller Laurent comes across an upmarket handbag dumped by a bin which about to be emptied. He rescues the bag, guessing it had been thrown there by a thief. Having failed to give it in to the police he goes through it at his leisure. There are plenty clues as to the owner, but no address, no phone, nothing of monetary value but things of sentimental value. What is the story? An intriguing clue is  a novel dedicated to “Laure” by the elusive Patrick Modiano (see reviews of his work elsewhere on this site). Neat because Modiano’s novels are mostly about tracing someone unknown on the basis of clues. Among the possessions is the red notebook which includes the owner’s scattered thoughts, her fears and hopes

Gradually Laurent tracks down the woman who we know from the first is in hospital in a coma following a mugging. He knows her well by now, he’s read her journal, has picked up her strappy dress from a laundry and, unaccountably when he turns up at her door to return the bag he allows Laure’s gay friend, William, also visiting her flat to think he is her latest boyfriend. Laurent finds himself looking after the flat and moves in, to explore room by room, bookshelf by bookshop, painting by painting the surroundings of the woman he has not yet met but knows so well. Meanwhile his relationship falls apart as the women he is seeing thinks he has found someone else, as he has.

Literary references abound; Sophie Calle is there of course, but this is not a book with pretensions, just an easy Friday night read with the odd bit of clunky translation.

But the fantasy has to end. Laurent leaves a brief note for Laure is getting better and will return. She knows that this man knows her life better than others who have simply known her body and sets out to find a bookseller called Laurent…

Ross Bradshaw

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano, translated by Daniel Weissbort (Godine, £14.99) and Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano, translated by William Rodarmor, illustrated by Jean-Jaque Sempe (Anderson, £9.99)

ModianoIf you scroll down, you’ll see that the last book I reviewed was by Modanio, and I liked it. I regret that I can’t give such a positive review to the first book here, though it is perhaps his best known, having won the Prix Goncourt in France, some years before his winning the Nobel in 2014.

Godine – a great American independent publisher – must be so thrilled (they were the first English language publisher of the second book here) having stuck with Modiano despite sales that could only be described as modest until the Nobel. But  Missing Person did not do a lot for me. The story is of Guy Roland, who decides to find out who he really is. That name and his identity were given him by his employer, a private detective, when the narrator becomes a private detective. Roland is a man without a past – the survivor of a fugue state (though the words are never used). When his employer retires Roland starts following clues to discover he could be one of several people. The clues lead him to assorted odd characters who invite him up, give him copies of photos and documents that lead him on to his next possible persona. He becomes a collector of other people’s memories and starts to imagine the lives of those he might or might not have been. Modiano deliberately confuses real life with imagined life so the reader is not sure if Roland has found anything real or is living in his imagination. Now that I am more familiar with Modiano, it is no suprise that a turning point is on the Swiss border in 1940 when a woman disappears without trace. The bones of a great story are here, but though this is only a novella of 168 pages I had to push myself to get to the end.

Catherine_certitudeModiano’s book for children, though quite suitable for adults, is, however, charming, and beautifully illustrated. The Catherine Certitude of the title looks back from New York to her childhood in Paris where she lived with her father before they rejoined her dancer mother in America. Her Papa owned a small firm which bought and sold, well, anything. It was obvious that the provenance of some at least of what he sold was dodgy. Was this the black market (which is how Modiano’s father made his living) or just scraping a living? Either way, her father was not a success and when Catherine is invited to a fellow ballet student’s party he pretends to own a posh car parked in the street, something nobody believes. When someone drives it away he pretends it is being stolen. But nobody is quite what they seem – he often speaks to people in “mysterious languages” while Catherine’s Russian ballet teacher is no more Russian than this writer.  Despite, or perhaps because of his failure, Catherine loves him and the whole book is a a fond look back on Paris and childhood memories.

Ross Bradshaw

Missing Person is available for £14.99  and Catherine Certitude for £9.99 at Five Leaves Bookshop , by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
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The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, translated by Joanna Kilmartin (Harvill, £8.99)

the-search-warranEvery time I visit Paris I’m always stopped short in the street by the sight of the small plaques commemorating those who died fighting the Nazi occupation. Ici est tombé pour la libération…Sometimes just one name, sometimes a few.  They appear on walls as if at random but with a map and a history book it would be easy enough, I imagine, to chart the ebbs and flows of partisan warfare in the city.

It is easier, though, to work out the old working class Jewish areas around Belleville. There some blocks of flats have lists of those taken by the Nazis and, more dramatically, school buildings listing the names of the Jewish children deported and murdered.

I was reminded of all this when reading The Search Warrant, the first of the books released in English following the French author’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a short, sombre,  novel of 137 pages which can be read in one sitting, and probably benefits for so doing as it  has no continuous narrative. The narrator comes across an old notice in Paris Soir in a December 1941 issue, advertising for information on a missing girl, Dora Bruder, who had ran away from her convent school where she had been placed to avoid the impending trouble. She was Jewish and would have been a “hidden child”. The narrator tries to find what happened to her and what happened to her family. Along the way he drops in details of his own family background, a broken family where – just as in his hunt for information on the Bruder family – he tries and fails to find his own estranged father who’d escaped from a round-up in Paris. He wonders if his father, who survived the war, had met Dora Bruder who was caught and did not survive.

The Search Warrant is a brooding novel with a narrator who turns out not to be so nice. Hanging over him all the time is a sense of loss. Something only too easy to feel in the boulevards of what was once an occupied city.

The book is ably translated and I look forward to reading more Modiano as his work appears in English.

Ross Bradshaw

The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern, translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz (Gallic Fiction, £8.99)

People in the PhotoA few years ago my elderly mother sent me a mysterious photograph of her much younger self in the arms of a black man. She said it was important that she passed on the photograph but did not want to tell me the background – she just wanted me to have it. The man was black in that he was burnt black by the sun rather than being African or Caribbean. What was this story? Wouldn’t anyone want to know? I was reminded of Stephen Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past, where a film library was under threat of closure and the staff need to save these images of the past.  Our family lost most of their photographs in a house move which perhaps makes me more interested in what old pictures can reveal, or conceal.

The People of the Photo, then, was a must read. Helene, who did not know her mother, finds an old photograph of her with two unknown men. What was the story, who were they? She advertises and is contacted by Stephane who knows part of the background. Both the characters are single, in their late thirties, and it becomes obvious their families were connected, but how? As they live in different countries Helene and Stephan ewrite and email as each finds just a little bit more background, gets closer to the truth. There was a hushed-up affair, and a tragedy, but what really happened? Why are things so secret? And… are they siblings? Difficult, as they are clearly falling in love. The chapters of the book are short, exploratory letters and emails that gradually open up – the two gradually open up to each other as they open up the past.

The first half of the book worked very well for me, the letters and emails both felt like they were from women used to being on their own, being able to open up because they were writing. But wait! Half way through I realised that Stephane was a man. My ignorance of French names made a fool of me. But that was when I began to have doubts about the book – possibly the author could not write letters as a man would write which led to my guessing it was between two women. It was when they admitted their love that the book began to fade for me slightly. But I was pleased to stay with the book and to finally understand what created the dysfunctional families who brought them both up in ignorance of their past.

The translation is superb and I loved those parts of the book set in the one part of Paris I know reasonably well.

Ross Bradshaw

The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (Canongate)

The Howling Miller by Arto PaasilinnaI read this book last night. Started to read at 11.45pm, fell asleep on it a couple of hours later, woke up at about 4.30am and switched the light on and finished it. Couldn’t not. It’s funny, touching, mad, sad, and totally un-put-downable.

Gunnar Huttunen comes to a small village in the north Finnish backwoods soon after the Second World War. He sets to repairing the mill, and to start with seems to settle in. He entertains the villagers and the children by imitating various animals and birds, and apart from the odd period of depression when he howls in the woods all night long, waking the village dogs and setting them to barking, he makes friends. He falls in love with Sanelma, the horticulture advisor, who persuades him to start a small vegetable garden. This idyll doesn’t last, however. Gunnar lapses into manic behaviour on a regular basis, upsetting his neighbours and incurring their wrath. For instance, when his vegetable garden is still bare earth after a few days despite his care and attention, he mulls over the problem then races up to the farm where Sanelma is lodging in the early hours of the morning and demands to speak to her there and then. As a result of a bizarre yet seemingly inevitable sequence of events, the fat farmer’s wife is tumbled down the stairs and claims to be deaf and paralysed thenceforth.

Can’t recommend this highly enough. The copy I read was produced by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – one of the best bookshops I’ve ever been in – in conjunction with Canongate – one of the best small publishers I’ve come across – in a limited hardback edition. It was my mother’s copy – I may have to acquire my own.

Pippa Hennessy