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This title should come with a health warning – particularly if you love cruises or are intending to take one in the near future. The warning: do not take this book with you. It’s terrifying and the terror starts on the very first page. Be prepared.

When I say book, I mean audiobook, or more accurately audio dramatisation. Fitzek has written a special script of his novel (not yet translated into English), in which traditional narrative is interspersed with acting dialogue and sound effects. I quite enjoyed it even if the sound effects felt a bit forced and obvious at times. (If I listened to more radio dramas, this probably wouldn’t have been the case.) Nevertheless, this, my second outing with Fitzek, was as compulsive an experience as my first.

The basis of the tale is this fact: Each year 23 cruise ship passengers or crew are lost at sea (most disappearances are explained as suicides). Among this number, in Fitzek’s world, are the wife and son of Martin Schwartz, who were lost 5 years previously in what was explained at the time as a murder-suicide. Since then Schwartz has been careless with his own existence, undertaking the most dangerous undercover missions for the Berlin police. Each mission more sordid than the next and Fitzek does not spare on the details.

It’s a relief when Schwartz receives a phone call from someone claiming to know what happened to his wife and child. The only catch is that he must meet her on The Sultan of the Seas – the very ship on which his family were lost.

Fitzek has said the following: “Every year cruise ship passengers disappear without a trace. Shipping companies claim, almost reflexively, that these are suicide cases, but many people have legitimate doubts about the validity of this – to the point where there are now law firms in the United States that specialize in this area. During my research I realized that cruise ships actually provide the backdrop for a perfect crime – a place with no police; surrounded by ocean – where evidence can disappear forever; but it’s also a world populated by ambitious people, keen to preserve the glossy image associated with luxury liners”.

This is the world which Martin Schwartz encounters while on his personal crusade.

There are times when he wishes he hadn’t. Heavens, there were times when I wish he hadn’t. I thought the details of his land missions were bad enough – though I have no doubt that these are similarly based on unwelcome facts about our world. What’s happening on the sea is the stuff of nightmares. Another mother and child went missing, and the company explained their deaths in the usual way. However, the severely traumatised child has since reappeared and is now being held captive below decks until the company works out how to save face (which may or may not involve killing her). Unbeknown to all, however, the mother is still alive. She’s well-hidden and being systematically and sadistically tortured elsewhere. It is horrendous but her experience is key. When the links between her and Martin’s wife become clear, you really have to hope that Nadia didn’t meet the same fate.

This is crime combined with full-blown horror. Gruesome certainly, and not my normal cup of tea. Yet I kept on listening. Fitzek knows how to hold his audience.

He’s also persuaded me that my natural disinclination to take a cruise is a wise one.

imageWinner of the Austrian Alpha Literature Prize 2012

Translated from German by Sheila Dickie

Taguchi Hiro is a 20-year old hikikomori – a young man who has not ventured from his bedroom for two years.  He has not spoken to his parents, having shut himself off from all human contact.

Ohara Tetsu is a middle-aged employee, who has just lost his job, but cannot “confess”.  So every day he dresses for the office, leaves the house, and travels to a park bench, where he spends the day before returning home to his wife.

There he meets Taguchi, who is just beginning to take tentative steps at reentering the world.  At first there is little communication,  neither wishing to break out of their shells, but gradually they open up to each other and the full extent of the shame they feel is revealed.

Who would have thought that conversations between two broken souls could be so spell-binding?

At first I thought this was a quirky read.  Then when I googled hikikomori and discovered that there are an estimated 1 million such in contemporary Japan, I realised Flašar is addressing a serious issue.  Ohara Tetsu’s shame at becoming unemployed is something I could feel, although perhaps quite as deeply.  It’s a fact of life in austerity Britain, no longer a point of honour.

The style – short sections, alternating narratives – makes for easy reading.  Yet, as the traumatic events leading to Taguchi’s breakdown are revealed, the cumulative effect is devastating.  Similarly Ohara’s story of his failures as husband and father is extremely moving. At the mid-point I was on the verge of tears.

The tragic losses endured by both shocked me.  Yet it was insightful details that got under my skin; the leitmotif of Ohara’s lunchbox, Taguchi’s realisation of the price his parents were paying for his withdrawal.  In order to cope, they too had become hikikomori of sorts.

For all their flaws, there isn’t an unsympathetic main character in these pages, just circumstances and societal expectations that crush the vulnerable.  While the main mood is profoundly sad, the final word “BEGINNING” sounds a hopeful note. And at that point, my defences cracked and I cried me a river.

5stars.GIF

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

 

 

 

imageEver bought a book for its cover? Would you have bought this one?

When I spotted this gloriously garish dustcover from 1968 on the shelves of a dilapidated, dusty charity shop in Dunoon, it promised old-fashioned frights aplenty.  And now, some eight years later, thanks to the TBR Triple Dog Dare, and the fact that I’m on a run of Austrian novels or novels set in Austria, I’ve removed another layer of dust and finally read it.

It was £1 well spent.

Not as quaint as I expected, although in places, it was corny and unfeasible. Yet it proved a thoroughly entertaining thriller involving a chest of Nazi secrets recovered from the Finstersee (sinister lake), and the race to take possession of it following the death of the diver who brought it from the depths.  How many interested parties are there?  Closet Nazis, Austrian police, Austrian secret service, the FBI, the Russians, the Chinese maybe, (I was losing count by this stage), a family in it purely for personal gain and an American publisher and his lawyer.  In fact, the merry dance begins with a book contract gone wrong.

Crosses and counter crosses, in the days before computers, tracking devices and mobile phones.  Old fashioned leg work, signals agreed verbally in advance and passed on in the way a book is placed on a table.  The fact that the lawyer is a civilian who is allowed to take the key role in the pursuit of the chest is highly unlikely but he was such a well-groomed, courteous, honourable gent that I hardly cared, even when he couldn’t spot an obvious plant from 5 feet away. I was happy for him, when he and his new found lady love survived all the ruthlessness and peril and drove off into the distance at the end, because what is a thriller without a little old-fashioned romance?

Don’t think this novel is as superficial as my synopsis. Amidst the action are some touching psychological portraits of people damaged by the past.  It’s also quite well signposted who has the most to lose if the chest is opened, and it’s hard not to sympathise, once his history is revealed. As for the lady spy, orchestrating from the centre, well, she is one nasty piece of work.

I hadn’t heard of Helen MacInnes before, so imagine my surprise to find she was a top selling Scottish espionage writer in her day, with a husband who worked for MI5.  So there’ll be authenticity in the detail ….  Interestingly, much of her back catalogue, including The  Salzburg Connection, has recently been reissued …..

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

Summer Before The DarkHow long have I wanted to read this book?  From the minute Thomas reviewed it during German Literature Month 2014. I got really excited when Mel reviewed the English translation by Carol Brown Janeway during German Literature Month 2015. I think that makes it Lizzy’s most anticipated release of 2016.  Thankfully with a January release date (today!), I didn’t have to wait until German Literature Month 2016!

Was it worth the anticipation?  Yes, yes and yes again!

(Editor: Calm down, Lizzy, you’re meant to be reviewing – not gushing.

Lizzy takes deep breathes, and works out how to write the piece without the adjectives, wonderful, fantastic, superlative, etc, etc.

Pause …….. Thinks a bit longer ……. This is tough.)

I’m tempted to leave it there, with an invocation to every fan of Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun to go out, grab a copy and read it now.  Do the same, even if you’re not. You won’t read anything more illuminating about these writers or the extended community of artistic exiles that congregated in Belgium in 1936.  Nor will you read anything faster.  I sat down intending to read just the first chapter.  Next time I looked up, I had turned the final page. (168)

The summer of 1936 was a time for reflection, for working out what to do now that doors were closing in Nazi Germany.  Putting a brave face on it, enjoying the summer, each other’s company in the Café Flore, plenty of drink and a passionate, if extremely puzzling love affair (Roth/Keun).  Their worlds may have been falling apart, yet still they found the wherewithall to write literary masterpieces.  The supportive and collaborative community they formed that summer enabled that.  Weidermann shows how that community came to be, the dynamics involved and just how that period was the summer before the dark.

As a long-time Zweigette ( 😉 ), I offer this book as an antidote to the venom of that article written by Michael Hofmann. (See footnote.).  Yes, Zweig was a multi-millionaire, some of it inherited, most of it earned by his writings.  (He was the best-selling author in the world during his day.) Of course, this gave him a position of privilege.  Yet he used his wealth to support many less fortunate – such as Roth, who he bankrolled for 10 years.  (Think of all the masterpieces that wouldn’t have existed for Hofmann to translate, had Zweig not done that.)

(Editor: Lizzy, behave yourself!  You’re reviewing, not polemicising.

Lizzy: Sorry, Ed, but 6 years later, to the day, I am still outraged.)

The point I’m making is that Weidermann’s portrait of Zweig is sympathetic, a response to those who think him insincere, or a non-entity in terms of world literature.  In fact, Weidermann shows how much of a hand Zweig had in the some of Roth’s work.  (And vice versa.)

Now for a confession.  I’m not particularly fond of Roth or Keun as writers.  This statement is based purely on having read a single book by each: The Radeztsky March and The Artificial Silk Girl. But having now “met” the people behind the pens, I’m curious to read more, particularly the books they wrote during that summer of 1936: Roth – Confession of A Murderer; Keun – After Midnight, and, of course, Zweig – The Buried Candelabrum. Also Britta Böhler’s The Decision, a contemporary novel about Thomas Mann, who at this time in 1936, had not yet made his stand against Nazi Germany, and was ridiculed for it by the exiles in Ostend.

(Editor: Lizzy! I commissioned a review, not a reading list!

Lizzy: Sorry Ed, I don’t know how to review non-fiction without simply reiterating book content, and this book is so much more than a stand-alone read for me.  For a while I’ve been intending to delve deeper into the literature of this period. I have found my springboard and I shall be diving in for the rest of the year.  But as you insist on a final verdict ….. )

Absolutely fab-u-lous! (A modest amount of gushing is allowed, isn’t it?)

5stars.GIF

(Footnote: I refuse to link to it but search for Vermicular Dither if you must.)

 

 

 

Who_is_Martha.JPGWinner of the Adalbert Chamisso Prize 2013
Translated from German by Arabella Spencer

It’s no spoiler to tell that Martha was the last passenger pigeon who died in Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914; the day on which Gaponenko’s protagonist Luka Levadski is born. 96 years later Levadski is facing his own cancer-related extinction. The last of his line, he relates strongly to Martha.

What to do? Take the chemo to extend his life by a couple of months and wait out the end in his cramped appartment in the Ukraine, or, enjoy his savings with one last adventure in a luxurious hotel in Vienna. He takes the option I find rather appealing.

To hell with radiation theapy and all those other highly poisonous drugs. Instead, he would treat himself to a piece of chocolate cake every day in honour of his mother, a widow who, between the wars, had been in the habit of ordering chocolate cake for Levadski in Vienna’s finest hotel.

For Levadski, Vienna is the scene of his childhood memories; his mother and two music-loving aunts, who took him regularly to concerts in the Musikverein; a  place of happiness in contrast to the drabness of his life in the Ukraine, despite him being a world-renowned ornithologist. Decision made, the adventure begins and he kits himself out to die in luxury and style, and to confirm that we have a character on our hands,  his favourite purchase turns out to be a black polished drinking stick with an eagle-throat handle in sterling silver and a built-in glass tube for liquids of his choice!

Once settled into the Hotel Imperial, he revels in the luxury but cannot entirely escape the frailness of his condition or the loneliness of his old age – This is no Little Old Man Who Jumped Out of a Window, but a thoughtful poignant reflection on age and advancing death.  Nevertheless Levadski’s spirits never sag and he finds comfort in the understanding, even tender care, of his butler, Habib, and enjoyment in a new, if fleeting, friendship with another old man,  Mr Witzturn.  Their night out to the Musikverein and post-concert drinking session can be considered the highlight of the novel.

Interspersed throughout are his memories of an almost migratory existence populated wih many avian metaphors and similes. The musical heritage of Vienna and Europe is handled similarly.  This is a cultured and elegant composition abounding in originality.  I quote my favourite metaphor to demonstrate.

The pathetic sparkle and the paltry entertainment to which the old women desperately clung could be likened to a sparsely populated lake, where a mollusc counts as half a fish.

As Levadski approaches the unavoidable, the narrative slips suddenly into a surrealism at odds with the rest. I suppose this reflects the disorientation of a dying man, but it ruined the poignancy of the inevitable for me.  However, this is the only spurious ingredient in a very fine dish, which I recommend for those with palates desirous of literary haute cuisine.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

imageWinner of the 1978 Robert Walser Prize

Translated from German by Adrian Nathan West

Original title: Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse

Firstly let me say how glad I am that Adrian Nathan West didn’t opt for the literal translation of the title.  I wouldn’t have entertained a novel entitled “The Gravity of  Circumstances” regardless of it being picked as the first read for Three Percent’s Reading The World Book Club.  Far too ponderous – too darned lebenswichtig by half.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some pretty heavy material in these pages, which begins

Of all the events of 1945, there was one Wilhelmine recalled with particular painful clarity.  Wilhelm has hung the necklace with the tiny Madonna around Berta’s neck, not hers.

A case of sibling rivalry you might think, nothing to worry about, except that Wilhelmine soon establishes herself as the most vicious and relentless pursuer of her own objectives ever to cross my reading path. Even so, when years later, she finally gets her hands on that necklace, it is an act so callous and calculated, it takes the breathe away, and earns her the title of villainess of the piece.

Unequivocally, despite …

Well, that would be telling, but her sister, Berta, ends up locked in a cage in a mental asylum as a result of what she does, and yet, Fritz ensures that the reader’s sympathies remain with her. For it is Berta who suffers under “the weight of things”, an incapacity to cope with life, “a softness in the head”, which first becomes manifest – in the novel at least  – when she is told of her fiancé’s death at the front.

… (She) sat down at the table, ran her hand over the tablecloth, trying to smooth it out; said again, “So. So.,” and didn’t even look up.

“So. So.”  becomes her refrain whenever life becomes too much.  Bertha’s tragedy is that her dead fiancé is the only one who understands her needs. He ensures that she has a husband, but Wilhelm, well-meaning as he is, isn’t made from the same mould.  Once Bertha’s mental disintegration is complete, he is no match for Wilhelmine (and, from that point on, deserves everything he gets imo!)

Ah yes, Wilhelm and Wilhelmine.  As mismatched a pair as you could ever conceive, in which Wilhelm is definitely not the Kaiser.  (I know this is an Austrian novel, but that is the association in my mind.)

Fritz plays with names here and throughout the piece, a device of which I am particularly fond.  This edition from Dorothy contains a helpful note on those names and their significance.  There is also an essay by the translator regarding Fritz’s oeuvre as a whole, which is unlikely to ever see the light of day in English.  Why?  Because it’s untranslatable.  Shame.  I’ll have to look out more titles from Dorothy instead.

Recommended for fans of Veronique Olmi’s Beside The Sea.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

 

 

image

The first thing I am aware of is the taste of salt. It fills my mouth. Invasive. Pervasive. It dominates my being, smothering all other senses. Until the cold takes me. Sweeps me up and cradles me in its arms. Holding me so tightly I can’t seem to move. Except for the shivering. A raging, uncontrollable shivering. And somewhere in my mind I know this is a good thing. My body trying to generate heat. If I wasn’t shivering I would be dead.
It seems an eternity before I am able to open my eyes, and then I am blinded by the light. A searing pain in my head, pupils contracting rapidly to bring a strange world into focus. I am lying face-down, wet sand on my lips, in my nostrils. Blinking furiously, making tears to wash the stuff from my eyes. And then it is all I can see. Sand, stretching away to a blurred horizon. Tightly ribbed. Platinum pale. Almost bleached.
And now I am aware of the wind. Tugging at my clothes, sending myriad grains of sand in a veil of whisper-thin gauze across the beach in currents and eddies, like water.
There is, it seems, almost no feeling in my body as I force myself to my knees, muscles moved by memory more than will. And almost immediately my stomach empties its contents on to the sand. The sea that has filled it, bitter and burning in my mouth and throat as it leaves me. My head hanging down between shoulders supported on shaking arms, and I see the bright orange of the life jacket that must have saved me.
Which is when I hear the sea for the first time, above the wind, distinguishing it from the rushing sound in my head, the God-awful tinnitus that drowns out almost everything else.
Heaven knows how, but I am up and standing now on jelly legs, my jeans and trainers, and my sweater beneath the life jacket, heavy with the sea, weighing me down. My lungs are trembling as I try to control my breathing, and I see the distant hills that surround me, beyond the beach and the dunes, purple and brown, grey rock bursting through the skin of thin, peaty soil that clings to their slopes.
Behind me the sea retreats, shallow, a deep greenish-blue, across yet more acres of sand towards the distant, dark shapes of mountains that rise into a bruised and brooding sky. A sky broken by splinters of sunlight that dazzle on the ocean and dapple the hills. Glimpses of sailor-suit blue seem startling and unreal.
I have no idea where this is. And for the first time since consciousness has returned, I am aware, with a sudden, sharp and painful stab of trepidation, that I have not the least notion of who I am.
That breathless realisation banishes all else. The cold, the taste of salt, the acid still burning all the way up from my stomach. How can I not know who I am? A temporary confusion, surely? But the longer I stand here, with the wind whistling around my ears, shivering almost beyond control, feeling the pain and the cold and the consternation, I realise that the only sense that has not returned to me is my sense of self. As if I inhabit the body of a stranger, in whose uncharted waters I have been washed up in blind ignorance.
And with that comes something dark. Neither memory nor recollection, but a consciousness of something so awful that I have no desire to remember it, even if I could. Something obscured by . . . what? Fear? Guilt? I force myself to refocus.
Away to my left I see a cottage, almost at the water’s edge. A stream, brown with peat, washes down from hills that lift beyond it, cutting a curving path through smooth sand. Headstones rise up from a manicured green slope, higgledy-piggledy behind barbed-wire fencing and a high stone wall. The ghosts of centuries watching from the silence of eternity as I stagger across the sand, feet sinking nearly ankle-deep in its softness. A long way off to my right, on the far shore, beside a caravan just above the beach, I see a figure standing in silhouette, sunlight spilling down from the hills beyond. Too far away to discern sex or size or form. Hands move up to a pale face, elbows raised on either side, and I realise that he or she has lifted binoculars to curious eyes and is watching me. For a moment I am tempted to shout for help, but know that, even had I the strength, my voice would be carried off by the wind. So I focus instead on the path I see winding off through the dunes to the dark ribbon of metalled, single-track road that clings to the contour of the near shore as it snakes away beyond the headland.
It takes an enormous effort of will to wade through the sand and the spiky beach grass that binds the dunes, staggering up the narrow path that leads between them to the road. Momentarily sheltered from the constant, battering wind, I lift my head to see a woman coming along the road towards me.
She is elderly. Steel-grey hair blown back in waves from a bony face, skin stretched tight and shiny over bold features. She is wearing a parka, hood down, and black trousers that gather over pink trainers. A tiny yapping dog dances around her feet, little legs working hard to keep up, to match her longer strides.
When she sees me she stops suddenly, and I can see the shock on her face. And I panic, almost immediately overwhelmed by the fear of whatever it is that lies beyond the black veil of unremembered history. As she approaches, hurrying now, concerned, I wonder what I can possibly say to her when I have no sense of who or where I am, or how I got here. But she rescues me from the need to find words.
‘Oh my God, Mr Maclean, what on earth has happened to you?’
So that’s who I am. Maclean. She knows me. I am suffused by a momentary sense of relief. But nothing comes back. And I hear my own voice for the first time, thin and hoarse and almost inaudible, even to myself. ‘I had an accident with the boat.’ The words are no sooner out of my mouth than I find myself wondering if I even have a boat. But she shows no surprise.
She takes my arm to steer me along the road. ‘For heaven’s sake, man, you’ll catch your death. I’ll walk you to the cottage.’ Her yappy little dog nearly trips me up, running around between my feet, jumping at my legs. She shouts at it and it pays her not the least attention. I can hear her talking, words tumbling from her mouth, but I have lost concentration, and she might be speaking Russian for all that I understand.
We pass the gate to the cemetery, and from this slightly elevated position I have a view of the beach where the incoming tide dumped me. It is truly enormous, curling, shallow fingers of turquoise lying between silver banks that curve away to hills that undulate in cut-out silhouette to the south. The sky is more broken now, the light sharp and clear, clouds painted against blue in breathless brushstrokes of white and grey and pewter. Moving fast in the wind to cast racing shadows on the sand below.
Beyond the cemetery we stop at a strip of tarmac that descends between crooked fenceposts, across a cattle grid, to a single-storey cottage that stands proud among the dunes, looking out across the sands. A shaped and polished panel of wood, fixed between fenceposts, has Dune Cottage scorched into it in black letters.

© Peter May 2016
The Big Coffin Road Blog Read continues at Raven Crime Reads on Friday 15th January with Part Two: The Man I Am
Coffin Road by Peter May is published by Quercus in hardback today and I have one copy to giveaway.  (UK and Europe only.)

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