imageTranslated from Czech by Alex Zucker

Experts agree that animals are almost like people.. As long as they’ve got a nice place to live and something to keep them entertained, they can do without freedom … In a good zoo, where they’re well-fed and have a chance to socialize, most animals are happier than they would be … in lonely and dangerous freedom.

That quote neatly summarises the attitude of the Communist regime in 1950’s Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia. Kovály’s novel demonstrates the impact of such on the citizens of Prague, or more accurately the impact on a microcosm of society, the 2 usherettes and their manager at the Horizon Cinema in Steep Street, who come under the close scrutiny of the security services following the murder of a young child in the projection room.

The ladies all have uncomfortable secrets.  At the centre is Helena Nováková, whose husband has been falsely imprisoned on charges of espionage.  Guilty by association, fired and spurned by her former publishing colleagues, she is now working at the cinema because it is the only way she can earn a living.  The regime cannot, however, accept her innocence, and so begin to track her every movement.  The manager is a state informant, tasked to do just this.  The second usherette is having an affair with a local police inspector, who, despite having solved the child’s murder, continues to keep a watchful eye on the cinema.

The puzzle of who is who and what they are up to is not easy to piece together – deliberately so, to reflect the realities and paranoias in 1950’s Prague. Chapters often begin with a knock on the door and the entry of an as yet unidentified character. There’s no way of knowing whether the entrant is friend or foe.  The culmulative effect of this found me breathing a sigh of relief when it wasn’t state security on the threshold.

In Part I the focus is firmly on Helena, whose experiences draw much from the life of the author herself  (explained in the introduction by Kovály’s son).  The narrative, often in first person, takes us deep into the thoughts of a lonely, confused woman who wants nothing more than to ease her husband’s predicament.  She is convinced by others that the best way to do this is to have an affair with a powerful man, Hrůza, who may be able to help.  For his part, Hrůza, who works for State Security, only wants to get closer to her to find evidence of her husband’s guilt (because, of course there is none).  He uses their relationship in the most cynical way with tragic consequences.  The big question is can Helena be said to have colluded with the State?

Thus ends Part 1 and Part II begins with the actual murder of the title.  The victim is Nedoma, the local police inspector, who has infiltrated his way into almost all of the various intrigues. The result is that he knows too much and everyone has motive to kill him. Some more than others.  Enter Vendyš, the official in charge of the case, a man with no political agenda, his concern a straight-forward murder investigation.  Did I say straight-forward?  No chance.  Although Vendyš, based on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe,  is an ample match for the twists and turns that present themselves in the case, no-one can match the interference from the powers that be.

There are many misdirections in the denouement. Only one character in the whole sordid tale has a crisis of conscience and seeks redemption with  a confession that satisfies the needs of the authorities.  That this isn’t the whole story  is revealed only in the final chapter when two fat men (one fat, one even fatter) converse.  Who these men are and what the information is passed onto them in the cinema is never revealed, but there is a delicious irony that, despite the intense levels of surveillance by the authorities, there are times when they can’t see what is right under their noses.

Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street is clever and satisfying.  It demands patience, however.  There are a lot of characters, many addressed by more than one name.  Action is often not on the page, but indirectly observed during conversations. At the heart is an expose of an inhuman and corrupt society but more than that, a hard and depressing lesson that true innocence in such is unsustainable.   To quote the epigraph from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast,  All things truly wicked start from an innocence.

… while I attend to other priorities.  Needs must.



Esmahan Aykol, Paula Hawkins and Rosie Goldsmith (Photo Credit: Max Easterman)

It was a clever piece of programming. Teaming Esmahan Aykol with multi-million-copy-selling Paula Hawkins guaranteed a sellout audience in the Studio Theatre and hundreds of potential new readers for the lesser known (in UK reading circles) Turkish crime writer. Assigning doyenne of translated fiction, Rosie Goldsmith, to be chair ensured a lively event too.

For Women in Translation month, this post focuses solely on insights into Esmahan Aykol gained during the event.


Photo Credit: Chris Close

Q: Which authors inspire you?
A: Patricia Highsmith. (Ed: She is a lady of finest discernment.)

Q: What are your objectives in writing the Kati Hirschel mysteries?
A: I want to depict the Turkish lifestyle told through the eyes of a German. (Aykol is Turkish, who lived for many years in Germany, before returning to Istanbul. Her protagonist, the amateur sleuth, Kati Hirschel, is German and the owner of a specialist crime-writing bookshop in Istanbul.)

Q: Is Kati’s bookshop based on a real place?
A: Unfortunately not.  There is no crime-writing bookshop in Istanbul.

Q: Life in Istanbul now isn’t like that in your books, is it?
A: I’m showing how Turkey was at the beginning of the 21st century. It was a liberal country then.

Q: Why did you move back to Istanbul?
A: I write in Turkish about Istanbul. I simply need to be in the place and to hear the language.

Q: How do you view the world?
A: I look at the world with a detective’s eye. Politicians lie all the time and you need to do that to find the truth.

Q: Does crime fiction have a purpose beyond entertainment?
A: I use my novels to address contemporary social issues: Hotel Bosphorus addresses child abuse; Baksheesh, political corruption; Divorce Turkish Style, domestic violence and being gay in a Muslim world.

Q: (From audience). How long can you remain living in Istanbul, in the current political climate?
A: Life is frightening at the moment. Istanbul is a city of fear, bombs and police. But I have dual citizenship and a German passport. I feel this gives me a certain freedom which I still use to criticise. But I don’t know how long this will continue.


Photo Credit: Lizzy’s mobile phone

Q: (From Lizzy in the signing queue.). Do you miss Germany?
A: Not at all. I don’t miss the discrimination I experienced, although this has been reducing in recent times.
(This led to a conversation in which it became apparent that Lizzy’s German homesickness is partially fuelled by the scarcity of sunshine.  Not a problem for Esmahan Aykol in Istanbul, of course.  But she would struggle in Scotland.  I left her shivering in her quilted jacket and that on a positively balmy Scottish evening.  It was 16C.)

The welcoming committee were on hand – lined up, all spick and span ready for the next 17 days of bookishness.  The rubber ducks are iconic – they are as much a part of the festival as the books and authors themselves.


Ducks on their green pond (a nod to the Olympic Diving Pool, perhaps?)

In an unusual start for me, my first event was a non-fictional one.  Having spent the last 4 weeks removing all traces of myself from the office, discarding 20 years worth of notebooks, files and the like, the title of Alexander Masters latest A Life Discarded proved quite intriguing.  It is a story of discovery, a story of how Masters pieced together the identity of an unknown diarist having studied 148 diaries that had been discovered in a skip.  Not as easy as it sounds because diarists speak more of others than themselves, there being no need to reveal their names, gender or details of their appearance.  Masters told of the surprising numbers of wrong assumptions he made and false trails he followed to identify his diarist.  And then after 4 years of research, he made a discovery that threatened publication … When he revealed it to the audience, there was an audible gasp of astonishment.  The fact that the book has appeared means that disasters have been averted, but the whole story shows that fact can be just as fascinating as fiction.

The book festival is as much about discovering new authors for me as about listening to established favourites.  And Geoff Dyer has been on my radar for a while, and, as I have plans for significant amounts of travelling during my “gap year” – i.e 1st year of retirement – his latest White Sands will be the first of his I read.  But what is White Sands – travelogue, fiction, non-fiction, a collection of essays?  Dyer wouldn’t say, but playfully hammed it up, reading from an anecdote (?) in which his wife Rebecca has been renamed Jessica.   What is that all about?, he asked.  He was merciless to his chair as well.  The chair was once Dyer’s publisher at Hamish Hamilton.  Remember that funny little book The Missing of the Somme asked Dyer.  The one that didn’t sell? Not surprisingly really that Hamish Hamilton are no longer publishing me.  This was the event of the day – ascerbic wit and sardonic commentary, plus the honesty to talk about how expectations of place don’t always converge with him to produce a piece of writing.  I can’t wait to read White Sands now.

At my final event of the day, it was lovely to welcome Rosie Goldsmith, champion of translated fiction, to the Edinburgh Book Festival stage.  She was chairing an event with  multi-million-copy-Girl-on-a-train fastest-ever-adult-novel-selling Paula Hawkins together with Turkish crime writer Esmahan Aykol, author of 4 Kati Hirschel crime novels, 4 of which have been translated into English.  (As it’s Women in Translation month, I’ll focus on Aykol in a separate post.) The discussion was wide-ranging, and lively  and reminded me of just how good The Girl on The Train is – although I can’t remember much.  (That’s what happens when I read on a Kindle.). In addition, Rosie Goldsmith fearlessly asked the question that we all wonder about.  To Hawkins:  So what’s life like now you’ve got all that money?  As Hawkins stared at her in stunned silence, Goldsmith added, surely all your friends have asked that?  Yes, agreed Hawkins, but they’re not usually that direct!  I loved it, and hope that I attend more of Goldsmith’s events this year.


In just a few hours, I’ll be home from home, in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square once more for the biggest and best public book festival in the world.  I’ll be spending 8 out of the next 10 days there, bankrupting myself in the bookshop listening to the authors of the books I’ve been enjoying over the last month or so.


10 books for the first 10 days

I intend to unveil all ten (and possibly a few more) as the days pass, though blogging time will be limited.  My twitter account, @lizzysiddal, will be extremely active.  Follow along especially if you want to keep in touch with the action as it happens! Better still, follow the hashtag #edbookfest, because that’s where ALL the action is.  I can’t wait to being right in the midst of it!

Let the festival begin!


I’ll start the third Women in Translation month in usual fashion, listing the books read and reviewed in the past 12 months, but I’ll make no apology for the lack of linguistic diversity.  I’m concentrating on the German Lit TBR this year (actually, probably for ever and a day looking at the mountainous height of it.)

17 read, with 13 reviewed as per the hyperlinks.  Not a bad effort at all.  Titles of my favourite 5 are in bold.

Dark Heart of the Night – Leonora Miano
Translated from French by Tasmin Black

The Vegetarian – Han Kang
Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith

The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante
Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

They Divided the Sky – Christa Wolf
Translated from German by Louise von Flotow

August – Christa Wolf
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

This Brave Balance – Rusalka Reh
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

The Secret of the Water Knight – Rusalka Reh
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

Erebos – Ursula Poznanski
Translated from German by Judith Pattinson

Fly Away, Pigeon – Melinda Nadj Abonji
Translated from German by Tess Lewis

The Weight of Things – Marianne Fritz
Translated from German by Adrian Nathan West

Who is Martha? – Marjana Gaponenko
Translated from German by Arabella Spencer

Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann
Translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

I called him Necktie – Milena Michiko Flasar
Translated from German by Sheila Dickie

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything – Daniela Krien
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Five – Ursula P Archer (Fantastic! – Review to follow)
Translated from German by Jamie Lee Searle

The Happy City – Elvira Navarro
Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

It’s time to face it: My annual summer blogging slump has coincided with #spanishlitmonth. There are just too many distractions this year; sunshiny days here and there, Brexit, the massive Edinburgh Book Festival TBR (20 strong – 6 read and only 17 sleeps to go) plus a major life change. 10 working days from now, I join the ranks of the (early) retired. Now you’d think the prospect of all that free time is a cause for great celebration – and it is – but I’m not planning on spending it hunkered down with the blog and my books. I’m intending to travel for a while and sorting out the plan for that is highly distracting. My bucket list of things to do is almost as long as my TBR! But more on that in September – post Edinburgh Book Festival.

For now, back to the event in hand, Spanish Literature Month and my attempts to focus on it with varying degrees of success.

The main objective was a re-read of Don Quixote, as I am looking forward to a reading workshop with Andres Neuman in Edinburgh on 19th July. I have a memory of reading and enjoying this in my late teens. I’m beginning to think it is a false memory because at 100 pages, I’ve put it to one side. It’s became apparent during my reading of the Walter Scott Shortlist earlier this year, that I’m not much inclined to episodic narratives. Is there anything more episodic than Don Quixote? I can’t see me picking this up again without encouragement. Will Andres Neuman convince me to do so? I also have a copy of William Egginton’s The Man Who Invented Fiction, which is calling to me loudly in this year of #cervantes400. Perhaps a leisurely parallel read is called for. Later in the year.

Elvira Navarro’s The Happy City is a much shorter read. This book consists of two interconnected short stories with adolescent protagonists; the first, a young Chinese immigrant. When his parents emigrated to Spain, the toddler Chi-Huei was left behind with his aunt for 5 years, until such time as they established themselves and could send for him. As he grows older, he is expected to spend time helping the family business. There’s no time for a childhood, what with school, the family business and being bullied as the outsider. A couple of friendships are formed with local girls, one of whom could be a romantic interest. Sara, however, has preoccupations of her own, which are disclosed in the second story. Not that I had much truck with her obsession with a homeless man. Though I recognised the duplicitousness of a rebellious teenager in her. Hmmm. I had much more sympathy with Chi-Huei, particularly as the damage to his relationship with his mother, caused by those early years of absence, surfaces in later years. I can’t say I enjoyed this read though. The stories, particularly the second one, are vignettes, studies of a particular moment in time, and we’re right back to my current problems with episodic narratives again.

Thankfully I had more success with Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. Although if you want proof that my mind was/is(?) not in the right place, at one point I contemplated abandoning even this! Too many repetitions – it seemed to take an age (which is saying something as the tale is only 96 pages long) to stop looping round the incidents of the protagonist’s love interest ignoring him. (Ironic, given that those loops in time are the precise point.) I shall say no more at this stage except that I ended up loving this recognised masterpiece. I must return to it soon, both to appreciate it more and write a review worthy of a novel (novella?) Borges called perfect.

Finally I picked up another small piece – The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez, which I bought a couple of years on the back of Annabel’s review (which seems not to have been republished on her new domain.) Suffice to say this is a book about book lovers, the dangers of obsessive book collecting and of reading while walking. (2 of the 3, not the latter, apply to me.) It also encompasses the tragedy of a £20,000 book collection going to rack and ruin, exposed to the elements, after being turned into a physical beach house. No surprises that this little volume touched me more than any of the other books mentioned in this post!