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lundi 29 décembre 2008

The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

Please note: forthcoming March 2009!

This novel, which I found fascinating and beautifully written, is a three pronged lament for the tragedy caused by human arrogance. The story has three principal actors, three major destructions are evoked in three different parts of the world, more or less playing at the same time in history.  It is a twentieth century tale. The sub context is about love and redemption.  It is also about the power of family and of memory.  Memory is evoked by conversation and intimacy.  

I was going to start by telling you about Avery, Jean and Lucjan, to tell you who they are and from where they came, but I think it is better to begin with the places of destruction and you will be able to use your imagination for the plot without having it all given away by me.  We begin in Egypt with the barrage that was put into action by Nasser’s giant Aswan High Dam built in the 1960’s. This enormous hydro-electric power plant made a gap so deep and long, the land would never recover. “Nubia in its entirety – one hundred and twenty thousand villagers, their homes, land, and meticulously tended ancient groves and many hundreds of archeological sites – vanished.”  Nasser built the monument to himself just as Ramses had his likeness sculpted at Abu Simbel to himself. “Lake Nasser would melt away this holy ground.”  (300 kilometers worth of lake).

Avery, an english engineer and his canadian wife Jean are sent to Egypt so that he can supervise the immense project to save Abu Simbel from the rising waters.

This is the central plot. The love of this couple for one another, their attempt to live a life under grim conditions whilst he is engaged with all his skills to organize the move by hundreds of workers and machines, of that monument, block by block to a higher land. Avery has doubts all along concerning the worth of what will be in fact a fake monument, a reconstituted monument, a false witness of time. Jean becomes pregnant and carries the future within her. “What was lost was more than what was gained, said Jean.”

There is another destruction recounted by the third person, Lucjan, a polish Jew who not only witnessed the destruction of Warsaw but also took part in rebuilding it afterwards.  A fake old town is brought to life. A cheat. Can one bring a city back to life? Does it bring atonement? How is this related to the salvaging of Abu Simbel?

I find it difficult to end my review.  I have not told the story.  I have given you a mise en scène, a theme.  I have not told you about the beautifully crafted and carefully stitched family quilt of the memories of two people who seem to fit together like two pieces of a wooden jig saw puzzle: every joint, every limb, a smooth fit. I have skipped over the Saint Lawrence hydro-electric power plant and the destruction wrought by that project.  I have left out a great deal but I hope this little bit that I have written down will induce you to read a, yes I dare write a perhaps over-used word, a heartbreaking story.

mercredi 17 décembre 2008

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

This novel by an author I seem always to have enjoyed and found interesting is, I believe a most confusing story. Some of the reviews talk of moral complexity.  It seemed to me to be difficult to follow.  Already there is a muslim terrorist who is an anti hero without available language since he speaks only chechen or bad russian, uniquely dressed in a shabby long black garment  He needs a translator and she is german but speaks russian. There is a Brit who is vague but exceedingly wealthy owner of a private bank in Vienna, there are the spy networks of the americans, the germans, the russians, oh dear, hard to keep track more so since they appear under various names at various times.  Some themes are familiar and you begin to feel at home in Le Carré territory: corporate greed, government excesses, a half starved young man is smuggled across the border, the german civil rights lawyer determined to save the world against the excesses of capitalism, the british banker who is attracted to her and who also is lost in the spy networks of international competition and confusion.

I haven’t given you the plot, I have not even been very enthusiastic about this latest Le Carré, but it is a handsome Christmas present for the fans of either the author or the eternal subject of international crime with mysterious good guys and bad guys who do not let you into their secret until the very end.  The hard cover edition is beautiful and comes with a green silk page marker to match the green author’s name on the cover.

mardi 2 décembre 2008

Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago

“The following day no one died.”

Thus the opening sentence of this extraordinary and magical book. Death has decided that she needs a holiday.  I should not have capitalized her name but that it opened a new sentence. She herself does not want to begin her name with a capital D.  Death is the central character of the book.  Her decision to take a holiday which she feels is well deserved, creates pandemonium in this country of two million people who are condemned to continue life regardless of the state of their health or their age or of any other possible eventuality.

Suspended life.  No one knows what to do.  The government, as is habitual in times of emergency, creates a commission: in this case of newspaper editors, ministers, clairvoyants and cardinals. I need hardly tell you that the burial societies and the insurance companies operate in a mode of utter panic.  How can they continue to work?  The church consults the president: how are we to maintain a church, a following of believers when we have no eternity to offer?

A large part of the novel is speculative, the examples, the solutions, the hysterics are all generalized until, half way towards the end, Saramago finds a fifty year old cellist who resists death’s warning. (perhaps I should have included in my brief summary that when things get too much out of hand, when the people start to drag the fragile and about to die old, across the border so that they can die quickly on foreign soil, death decides on an intermediary solution wherein she sends letters of warning to people giving them a week in which to make adequate preparations for this event.) The letter death had sent him was returned without any message from the post office to explain the situation. Death goes to see him and I will leave you in suspense.

I read a review in which the writer called this book an allegory/parable/literary philosophy/science fiction/novel/painting/musical composition.  Well, why not?

Saramago is no longer young.  85 or so. Perhaps he too would like to put a human face on death.

I loved the book, but I have one question concerning the translations.  Death in all the romance languages is, indeed, a she.  Not in German. DER TOD. I assume it is the same in the northern countries. What then will happen? I must get myself a German copy.