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hour of the jackalWinner of the 2011 German Prize for Crime Fiction
Translated from German by John Brownjohn

Lack of evidence ensured that no-one was ever successfully prosecuted for the 1989 political assassination of pro-independence, anti-apartheid activist, Anton Lubowski. Even if the identities of the killers were known.

In The Hour of the Jackal, Jaumann imagines what would happen, if decades after the event, someone decides that justice must finally be served. A merciless, brutal assassin begins to take out Lubowski’s killers. It is a race against time for he is, himself, terminally ill.

The detective, Clemencia Garises, makes the connection between the victims after the second killing and seeks to contact the other men the hit list. Yet she is obstructed by both by the lack of urgency in her own force and by influential others: the retired judge of the failed trial and her own superiors. She would make no headway if she didn’t have the help of a German journalist, whose interest in her is a little more than professional.

Clemencia is a dedicated officer with trials of her own. In an inversion of the usual trope, it’s not that she has no family, rather that she has too much. She shares the two-roomed home, paid-for entirely by her, with her two children and her extended family, including two meddlesome, match-making aunts. (They love the journalist, by the way.) Clemencia’s only demand that she has a room of her own. The sometimes comic tribulations of Clemencia at home contrast sharply with the serious and life-threatening problems of the case, which is dark, violent and steeped in the murky politics of the late-80’s.

The novel includes a portrait of Namibia itself, a vast country with dust-track roads and a climate of extremes. Changeable with sudden storms – just like the plot. Clemencia’s family life  allows the author to inject local colour, and is reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith’s Ladies Detective Series, although Clemencia is no Madama Ramotswe. Jaumann’s assassin has much in common with Frederick Forsyth’s jackal, and I’m sure the title is no accidental homage. Like Forsyth’s jackal, Jaumann’s is hunting real people, with uncamoflagued identities.  Given that they weren’t convicted of the crime in reality, and some were still living when Jaumann named them here, the author isn’t compromising in any way. Unlike his detective, who finds herself fighting to save the lives of men whose values she loathes. It makes for a most interesting dilemma.

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This post is part of a series in which I investigate the German Krimi, guided by Katharina Hall’s Crime Fiction in German. Jaumann’s novel is discussed in more detail in chapter 5: Der Afrika-Krimi (Crime Novels set in Africa).

 

sandWinner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2012
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

I was a little nervous going into this Leipzig Book Prize award-winning novel, having previously abandoned two others. I needn’t have worried – this one is a bit of a page turner!

Somewhere in the Sahara of the early 70s, two local policemen get drunk and take an IQ test for 12 to 13 year olds.  Polidoro scores a measly 102.  His colleague, Canisades, 130.  Soon they are interrogating a suspected murderer.  Allegedly he drove into the nearby American commune and killed 4 people.  During the interrogation, it is not at all clear whether he is innocent or guilty.  Regardless he is going to pay with his life.  And then he escapes and disappears into the desert.

At the same time a nameless man – known later as Carl, because of brand of his suit  – regains consciousness in a barn somewhere in the desert.  He has a bad head injury and no memory whatsoever.  But he knows he is in mortal peril.  Fortunately he hasn’t lost his resourcefulness, because he needs it and will continue to do so for the rest of the novel.  It seems that everyone is out to get Carl – gangsters, American molls, cod psychologists, enemies posing as friends. If only he could work out his identity, there might be a resolution.  As it is, he is beaten and tortured, chased from pillar to post,  or rather from sand dune to underground mine, in the course of which he effects escapes worthy of Houdini.

At one point, as he is being chased across the dunes:

Two flat slabs of rock stood in the sand next to each other as if in a toaster.  In their slipstream a deep trench had formed.  He threw his body into it, his head between the slabs of rock , and shoveled sand onto his legs and torso.  He burrowed his arms sideways into the ground. It wasn’t difficult to make little avalanches of sand pour down on himself from the slanted sides of the trench.  Finally he rotated his head back and forth between the rock slabs. …. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes and rotated his head back and forth again. Another load of sand slid down over his forehead to his cheekbones, dusting his eyelids, cheeks and the corners of his mouth like powdered sugar.  He had only a very rough impression as to how much of his face will still uncovered.  Probably his chin and the tipof his nose.  But he couldn’t turn his head any more now.  With a little puff he blew a few grains of sand out of his nose and waited.

Buried alive.  Hellish.  And yet it’s not the scariest thing that happens to him.

The mystery of Carl is the central mystery of this novel. It may, or may not,  involve espionage, drug-dealing, gold smuggling.  It certainly involves a man named Centrois, who may, or may not,  be Carl.   After Carl’s appearance,  the first crime disappears from view. Why its inclusion?  As far as I can see, it purpose is to signal some of the games that Herrndorf will play in the main narrative. He’s not going to pander to reader’s expectations.. The question of innocence or guilt – answered in the first case at the half-way point – is never clarified with regard to Carl, although I find myself presuming guilt (for, otherwise, all these bad people wouldn’t be after him, would they?) Yes, guilty even though we can do nothing but sympathise with the poor, persecuted soul.    There is also a comic element to Polidoro and Canisades, with comedy reappearing from time to time – possibly to relieve an ever darkening mood.  Regardless, the scene with the “psychologist” is very, very funny.  And the word play on the French word “mine”,  ingenious.

Written when Herrndorf was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, it’s telling that Carl has a severe head injury.

He tried to turn his head and felt pains he couldn’t pinpoint. As if a fist were trying to push his eyes out of his head from the inside …

Is Carl’s experience a projection of the inside of Herrndorf’s head at the time of writing?  Other reviews have used the word nihilistic.   Certainly Herrndorf allows something to happen to Carl that I would find unforgiveable elsewhere, and yet, knowing the author knew his own struggles to be futile, I understand completely.


This post is stage 8 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: Denmark

With last night’s announcement of the Man Booker International Prize shortlist, I think all shortlists of interest have been declared.

Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (1)

Best Translated Book Award (1)

Bolinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize (2)

International Dublin Literary Award (2)

Man Booker International Prize (3)

The Petrona Award (1)

Rathbones Folio Prize (2)

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (4 plus 2 already read)

The numbers in brackets indicate the number of shortlist titles in my TBR.  It’s clear that some judging panels didn’t take that into account when making their choices! 😂 Nevertheless, with some crossovers (titles appearing on more than one shortlist), and 1 or 2 purchases (OK 3), I now have 16 shortlisted titles.  Just enough for a tournament to keep me entertained and away from further purchases until publication of the Edinburgh Book Festival Programme on June 8th ( following which there will be a flurry of acquisitions.)

Where possible books competing for the same prize are paired with each other in the first round.  Otherwise my logic – just go with it.  The resulting draw (edited on 22.04 with the late inclusion of two titles from the Helen and Kurt Wolff translation prize shortlist) is as follows.  I’m quite pleased with this.  Two groups: one for Anglophone fiction, the second for translated.  The two meeting only in the finaL

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The Barry vs Tremain bout has been settled as I read both novels for the Costa Prize in January. I’m reversing the decision I made then, because Days without End has simply stayed with me better than The Gustav Sonata, and Walter Scott Prize Winners are always memorable!

Onwards …

Two years ago I met Corinna and Claudia, the ladies from the German cultural blog Nachtgedanken at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  You must come to the Leipzig Book Fair, they exhorted.  It’s so different from any other festival.  You’ll enjoy it, they said.  They were right.  It is, and I did.  What they didn’t tell me is that it is also ex-haust-ing.

Leipzig Book Fair is the second largest in Germany.  It is a trade fair but also one for readers.  Perhaps mainly for readers. Definitely mainly for readers. Author events take place at almost every publisher stall; there are special event spaces in each exhibition hall; tv and radio stations have their own areas with special programmes broadcasting all day, every day.  But more than that, there are readings all over the city, a great number of which are free!  The Book Fair is one part of a bigger celebration of reading  – Leipzig Liest (Leipzig is reading) – and given the numbers that flocked to the exhibition halls, that was certainly true. Reading and dressing-up – 105,000 visitors in 4 days to the Manga-Comic-Con in Hall 1 alone; most of whom came dressed as their favourite fantasy figure. (Instagram feed here.)

I was in Leipzig for the four days of the fair; two of which I spent in the exhibition centre, the other two recuperating exploring the new-to-me city.  The main issue for me was the lack of seating.  Events are so popular and the cubed seating so scarce. It doesn’t matter if you are in plenty of time for your author event.  These run back-to-back every half-hour so that you need to be strategically placed to pounce – and I do mean pounce – if you are to stand a chance of resting your weary pins.  There is obviously a knack to surviving the fair – not attempting consecutive events for 6 hour shifts, making use of the break-out areas, and leaving through the correct entrance, avoiding (what felt like) a 2-mile walk to the tram, for instance.  I’ll bear these things in mind for next time, but as this was my first visit, I was the kid in the proverbial sweetie-shop, wanting to see as many authors as I could, given the increasing rarity of German literature events in Scotland.

I saw a fair few and quite a bit of Matthias Énard as well! The Prix Goncourt winning Compass was awarded the Leipzig Book Prize for European Undertanding in the opening ceremony and you might say, Day 1 was Matthias Énard day.  He was the first author I heard speak and he kept popping up throughout the day.  As you will see. Enjoy the slide show from the comfort of your own seat. No elbows needed to claim it, I hope!

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I also attended two of the Leipzig Liest events: the first,  a reading of murderous tales out in the suburbs at Schkeuditz Library.  Bernd Köstering, whose Weimar Trilogy I have reviewed was there; the second a reading in the Egyptian Museum by Titus Müller, one of Corinna’s and Claudia’s favourite historical authors.  And I must say, his Der Tag X is now a must-read.  I enjoyed both of these events immensely – for a start, there were seats ….. and no background noise.  I could relax and simply enjoy.  Note to self – include more of these Leipzig Liest events next time.

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Bernd Köstering (left) Titus Müller (right)

 

The chances are you’ve seen this video by Tribes.  The counter is currently showing 44 million views, but, as it is simply the most powerful message I’ve seen recently about the futility of war, given the current predilection for (what will hopefully be only another round of) sabre-rattling, I’m including it here.

Estimating the number of deaths in all those conflicts is an impossible task, the numbers from World War Two are mind-boggling enough. But each of those 80 million deaths was an individual tragedy, and it’s on the individual level that we feel the pain more acutely.

I left Heinrich Böll as he was leaving high school entering the book trade, seeking ways to avoid becoming another cog in the Nazi machine. In the years between then and the publication of Where were you, Adam? in 1951, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He survived 4 wounds and typhoid fever to distill those experiences into this short and powerful novella.

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From The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll – Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

With no preamble Böll pitches the reader onto the Eastern Front. Hungary 1944. The war is lost and the German army is retreating from the advance of the Russians. Except the words defeat and retreat are forbidden – all movement must be packaged as redeployment. Call it what they will, the horrors and absurdities of war still prevail.  Generals knowingly send men without enough firepower into battle to buy time.  Amidst the carnage, Nazis still have resource and energy to clear the ghettos.

So much for the big picture. Individual stories break down abstractions and generalisations and this is where Böll’s story excels. He relates the story of the German defeat through a collage of experiences: those of the different ranks in the Wehrmacht together with representatives the civilian population. Each episode is depicted realistically with sufficient detail to engage this civilian reader’s senses and emotions without overdoing it. (Unlike this one.)

The first episode begins  with the general inspecting his battalion shortly before sending them into battle:

First came a face, large, yellow, tragic, moving past their lines; that was the general. The general looked tired. The face with puffy blue shadows under the malaria-yellow eyes, the slack, thin-lipped mouth of a man dogged by bad luck, moved hurriedly past the thousand men. … Each of the three times three hundred and thirty-three men into whose faces he looked was aware of a strange feeling: sorrow, pity, fear, and a secret fury.  Fury at this war, which had already gone on far too long …..

Those emotions were key to my reading because in the course of the 134 pages, I felt all of those (although there’s nothing secret about my fury).  For while the German army is staging its retreat – sorry, redeployment – the body count still rises.  And these men – conscripts, in the main – are destined to fall.  But they aren’t just statistics.  Their backstories render them human and in some cases, more vulnerable because of a chronic health condition.  Another man is a wine merchant, conscripted and sent by the whim of some delusional maniac to source 50 bottles of the finest Hungarian wine.  Amidst the madness there are fine examples of courage: doctors and medical orderlies who remain with patients in post-operative recovery to give them a chance of survival.

Civilian life is represented by the Hungarian landlady who quarters the  German troops. She makes a good living out of the war and is sorry when her time of bounty is over.  Conversely there is the Catholic Jewish teacher, Ilona, who makes an unwise choice to visit her parents in the ghetto.

The episodic structure is held together by the figure of Feinhals, whose movements take us from one story to the next.  Wounded in the opening battle (much to his relief) , he is taken to the medical station, the location of the second and third chapters.  Post recovery he meets Ilona, but their love affair is short-lived as he receives further redeployment orders.  And so it continues with increasing absurdity and meaningless sacrifice until the end of the war when Feinhals is decommissioned and on the threshold of his parent’s home.

I’m struggling to identify the most absurd moment of them all.  Could that be poor Fleck’s death who dies on the battlefield, pierced in the chest by one of those 50 wine bottles.

“In the chest?”

“That’s right – he must have been kneeling over his suitcase.”

“Contrary to regulations”, said the second lieutenant.

How macabre is that?

But there is further absurdity to follow including a bridge that is rebuilt only to be destroyed by the builders the day after completion.  You couldn’t make it up, and I suspect Böll didn’t.  As for meaninglessness, the apex is reached in the last chapter, in the last gasp of the war.  It is an incident that is well-signalled, and has been subtly foreshadowed throughout. Nevertheless it resurrected all those emotions highlighted in the first chapter.   It also made this reader raise a white flag in the face of human stupidity.

Five_Stars.GIF

 

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Translated from French by Jean Stewart

When people talk about a policeman’s flair, or his methods, his intuition, I always want to answer:

“What about your shoemaker’s flair, or your baker’s.”

Both of these have gone through years of apprenticeship. Each of them knows his job and everything concerned with it.

The same is true of a man from the Quai des Orfėvres.

This is Maigret speaking, emphasising that his astonishing expertise has been hard won through experience.  These memoirs include the years of his apprenticeship spent transferring from squad to squad learning to recognise the certain signs you cannot mistake that are associated with criminal activity and that make solving a crime so much easier – a matter of process if you will.

To know the milieu in which a crime has been committed, to know the way of life, the habits, morals, reactions of the people involved in it, whether victims, criminals, or merely witnesses.

The point is well made through case studies, and one I would do well to remember, because I have put my reading of Simenon’s series on hold after 10 novels due to frustration at the Inspector’s seeming omniscience.  Not that Maigret has penned his memoirs in response to me.  No, he has taken exception to this chap called Sim (later Simenon), an impertinent individual who showed up one day in 1927 or 1928 at the station with permission to shadow him, promising to use in his novels only what he may see or hear … in a format sufficiently altered to create no difficulties.

Except, of course, there were difficulties. Simenon used Maigret’s name, made him famous and caught him in a mesh from which he never managed to escape.  Did Simenon’s Maigret copy from the “real” Maigret or has the “real” Maigret adopted the mannerisms of Simenon’s creation? It’s enough to make a grown man grumble or  alternatively, resort to the pen in order to set matters straight!

In a hugely enjoyable metafictional conceit, Inspector Maigret takes his creator to task over the depiction of his fictional self! In the course of which he includes the charming story of  his relationship with Madame Maigret – how they met, the first few years of their marriage, and her editorship of these memoirs.  Plus the all important settling of differences between author and Inspector to form the friendship/partnership that produced 75 novels, even if they are according to the Inspector, not entirely accurate. (Best give him the last word today, I think.)

Phillip Ashley is 24 and his older cousin’s heir. Raised by his adored batchelor cousin, Ambrose, he is old before his time, settled in his ways and requiring nothing other than his home to be content  Yet his world is set to be shaken following Ambrose’s surprise marriage to a widowed Italian contessa and his suspicious death which follows soon after.

Ambrose’s marriage and demise happen off-page.  Phillip only hears news  through increasingly rare and distressed letters from his cousin, accusing his wife, Rachel, of controlling, manipulative behaviour and much worse. Surprisingly following Ambrose’s death, Phillip remains his heir (for reasons that surface much later) and Rachel is an impoverished widow.  When she arrives on English shores, Phillip is set for a confrontation …

..  and yet the woman’s natural charm and grace and elegance disarm him. The question is whether Rachel has ulterior motives. Is she what she seems  – a grieving widow seeking further memories of her beloved – or is the impoverished and somewhat older woman seeking to twist the boy (yes, at 24 Phillip is still a boy) around her little finger to take what she can – including his life – if necessary?

Answering that question here will ruin the novel for those who have not read it. So I won’t – actually I’m not sure that I can, because such are the sleights of the author’s hand that one minute I saw it, the next minute I did not. The  result is a slippery, suggestive text with little hard evidence and an awful lot of interpretation on the part of the characters and the reader.   For instance do Ambrose’s letters tell the whole truth, just a kernel of truth or are they the paranoid delusions of a man suffering from a terminal brain tumour?

The reader is conditioned to dislike Rachel, while her behaviour belies all suspicion. And yet, once or twice her mask slips and the paragon of virtue becomes cold and hostile. Usually when there is some tension between herself and the narrator, Phillip himself.  You see it’s impossible to see Rachel unfiltered as she truly is.  Phillip controls her image, and that corresponds to his emotional state.  When he is besotted, she is an angel of light. When he is angry or thwarted, she is grasping and manipulative.

This isn’t just a gothic,  domestic drama, although it is superb, read as such. These are elemental power games.  Rachel is well aware of her feminine allure and the advantage of her experience. Phillip is well aware of the power of money to control the woman he once hated but now does not wish to lose. This battle of the sexes looks as though it could end in happiness for both until he tips the balance so much in her favour that ….  No, no, that would be telling. What I will say is that he does it on the day he comes into his inheritance – April Fool’s Day. Need I say more? Perhaps just one more thing – it triggers a series of events that mirror those preceeding Ambrose’s death.

My Cousin Rachel is one of Du Maurier’s masterpieces, meticulously plotted and seriously unputdownable  (even on a day when I was feeling under the weather.) Thanks to the #1951club for providing the impetus to pick it up at long last. I now eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film, though I have no idea how it will convey the ambiguity of the text without driving the audience (me) insane.