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Translated from Dutch by Richard Hujing

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Bottle-dungeon St Andrew’s Castle

One of the most chilling things I have ever seen is the bottle dungeon at St Andrew’s Castle in Fife.  Impossible to capture in a photo without a very wide-angled lens (as you can see on the right), but imagine this.  There is a hole in the ground with a 30-ft fall to the rocky bottom. It is pitch black and you are about to be thrown into it, knowing that even if you survive your inevitable injuries, you will never come out alive because there will be no food or water provision.  Your fate is to die in pain of hunger and thirst surrounded by the dead and dying who have preceded you.

imageI had nightmarish visions about what that must be like, and so, when I came to Bel Campo’s story in the recently released Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, I was amazed to find those nightmares on paper.

The story begins as the unnamed warrior is cast into the dark pit, not knowing what awaits him there.  Man-eating animals perhaps?  As his eyes accustom to the gloom, he discovers he is in a human pit full of vanquished peoples, in various states of decay.  Noone is moving, noone is speaking.  Each man is resignedly undergoing the decline of the body.

What is there left to do, except to cling to life for as long as possible, as an act of independence against the conquering nation?  To reminisce on the sweetness of life, before it was darkened by war and ethnic cleansing.

That was the stuff of my nightmares but Bel Campo had even more horrific things in store.  For our prisoner’s enemies are not content with allowing their prisoners a dignified death.  Deeper humiliations await.  They wish to further divide and conquer, to reduce their prisoners to the level of animals, to strip them of all vestiges of humanity.  This they do by staging what I can only describe as a diabolical banquet. No further details here, but I was reminded of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as I read ever more wide-eyed.  The temptations of the flesh leading only to death and damnation for both conquerors and conquered ….

… and yet, in the midst of this hell, the unnamed protagonist manages to find a kind of grace in the form of true love. What a twist!

Belcampo’s story is as vivid and visual as a painting, and it is a shame that this is the only story of his that I can find in English.  An admirer of E T A Hoffman, this nom-de-plume is taken from one of Hoffmann’s characters, which suggests that there is is a fantastically gothic oeuvre just waiting to be discovered by Hoffmann’s many English-reading fans.  If only someone would translate it.

imageTranslated from German by Simon Pare.

Nominated for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award by libraries in Hungary and USA

It’s not often that I allow my dislike of a main character to interfere with my enjoyment of a novel, but there’s always an exception that proves the rule.  So here we go. I took a strong dislike to Manon and not even her tragic fate redeemed her.  It proved an insurmountable hurdle for a novel that pivots on the love of its main protagonist for this woman.  But let me start at the beginning.

NOTE: This review will contain mild spoilers, so reader beware! 

Jean Perdu is the owner of the little Paris bookshop in question, a book barge.  Actually it’s not a bookshop; it’s a literary apothecary, because Perdu will not sell a book to a customer unless it is right for that person, and, he can,  just by looking at a person, prescribe the correct bookish medicine. Like many doctors, however, he’s not good at self-medication. His problem? His lover of five years, the afore-mentioned Manon, left him suddenly without a word.  Some months after her disappearance, she sent a letter, which Perdu threw into a drawer and never opened.  For the next 21 years, Jean Perdu is a lost soul, locked away emotionally and cut-off from the joys of life.

The arrival of the recently divorced Catherine into his apartment block leads to the letter resurfacing and his eventually reading it.  What he reads devastates him further. The letter is a plea from Manon to her lover to come to her – she is dying.

And so 21 years too late, he unmoors his boat and sets off for Provence to visit Manon’s grave and ask for redemption.  The complication is that he is going to have to visit her husband, Luc, who knew of Perdu’s existence, and married her nevertheless.   Both men were seemingly accepting that one man was not enough for the love of their respective lives.  (Really? Not in my world. Besides, at one moment, I’m asked to accept that Manon is the most wonderful lover in the world.  The next she’s leaving again to return to  the other man, knowing the hurt she is inflicting.  How selfish is that?  You see my problem with her?)

The journey he undertakes is a heart-warming adventure back into the land of the living.   Accompanied by the young author, Max Jordan, who is struggling with a severe case of second novel syndrome, the people he meets along the way provide moments of scintillating literary discussion, high comedy, deep empathy, and generally breathe life and love back into the emotional corpse.  In stages –  as  illuminated by Hermann Hesse’s poem of the same name.

The text is both emotional and sensual, and, putting aside the issues I have with the love triangle and the general sainthood of Luc Bisset, Manon’s husband, in places quite touching. But, in others, overblown.  Particularly that redemption scene.  For incurable romantic mystics.   Not for me.

Winner of the 2014 BNG Bank Literature Prize
Translated from Dutch by Sarah Welling

Kito, a teenage boy has drowned and his mother struggles to come to terms with reality.  That, in essence, is the distressing core of The Boy, which probably should not be approached if you’re feeling particularly sensitive.  However, if you’re looking for emotional rawness and psychological complexity, then prepare to be engrossed.

For Kito’s mother is a psychiatrist, and, her tragedy is that the walls she builds between herself and her patients remain in place when she is dealing with her son and her husband.  Here is a woman who didn’t realise, that despite her good intentions, she would have much more to regret than the death of her son.  By the end of her journey through the stages of grief,  however, there’s no doubt about it and the question is whether she can accept the truth and survive ….

Adopted from China by his well-meaning Dutch parents, Kito’s fate is that of the outsider.  Separated by his skin colour, he is never really accepted by his peers.  Other kids play with him only because he has access to the latest video games.  His mother recognises this but tolerates it, because seriously what other option is there? Kito seems to take it in his stride.  Naturally placid, he’s not for asserting himself.  But he does feel it.  As he grows into puberty, he turns inwards and away from his parents.  How much of this is just puberty or is something more worrying at play?

In the first section of the novel, Kito’s mother reflecting on her son’s childhood is in denial.  Her son has not committed suicide, someone has killed him.  In the second section, 4 years later, she homes in on the person she holds responsible (based on the stories Kito’s peers have told her). This takes her away from her now non-functioning marriage and to Bulgaria, to Kito’s former drama teacher, Hannah.  With murder in her heart,  by the end of the part two, it looks as though revenge is just a matter of time.

The third section delivers all the surprises – all of them heart-wrenching.  As Hannah tells of Kito’s experiences in the school – the peer-pressure, the bullying and the way in which she tried to help him – the perspective shifts on some of the events related in the first section. At one point, Kito’s mother says:

I have patients who are convinced that the well-being of the world depends on the way they brush their teeth in the morning or arrange their belongings, and as long as they stay vigilant and pay attention at all times, the world order will be safe. It’s our job to convince them that the small choices they make are unimportant, but since Kito disappeared I find myself thinking more and more often that they are right, and everything matters because you never know beforehand what your one crucial mistake will be. 

Well, she discovers her mistake alright and the game of consequences she has been playing with Hannah turns right on its head.

This is a brilliant and devastating novel with much to debate. Key to a reader’s response would be the reaction to Kito’s mother – to condemn or otherwise? I can’t. For all her flaws, she is a mother. In fact, we never learn her first name, so that role is her entire identity in these pages.  Her love is real. Her grief is real.  Her mistakes are real.  And that’s the key lesson here – even the most well-meaning mums get it tragically wrong sometimes.

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Why Round 1?  While the official part of GLM VI is finished, the unofficial extension is about to begin.  As the European Literary Network are hosting a German month in December, I, for one, will use it for further German literature reading and reviewing (starting with the German-language literature on International Dublin Literary Award Longlist.) The contributions index at http://www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.com will, therefore, remain open for the whole of December.

This will give those who haven’t been able to review the books they have read in November opportunity to do so, should they so choose. I know there are a lot of unreviewed books out there.  Due to circumstances, there was much off-blog stress in November (sickness, Weltschmerz and other ills).  Hopefully things will pick up for those German lit lovers soon.

However a massive DANKE SCHÖN to the 36 bloggers, Amazon and Goodreads reviewers who have participated and contributed in the region of 110 high-quality reviews.  While some regulars were missing (and I did miss you), we were joined by 7 new-to-me bloggers (welcome all, and rest assured you are now all in my permanent feedly feed.) I hope you will all join us again next year (if not in December.)

GLM VI was a fully read-as-you-please event this year, and the choice of reading material was interesting.  Many, many classics – some of them gargantuan – were obviously plucked from the shelves, read and enjoyed at long last.  Result!, I say.

A couple of extremely brave participants began to work their way through Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream, and a couple more took  Goethe’s Italian Journey.  I would have joined this latter duo, had I not spent most of the month reviewing my own #gapyeartravels reading. I finally caught up with myself in Scotland with Fontane’s tour of 1858  – only to pack my bags and zoom off again.

imageDestination? That would be telling but I have taken some books set there with me.  All shall be revealed soon.  In the meantime, while I have only internet café access to wifi, please don’t forget to add further #germanlitmonth contributions to the master index at www.germanlitmonth.blogspot.co.uk.  (I stopped maintaining it on 28.11.2016.) And keep an eye on the European Literary Network – fabulous things will be happening there during December.

Having ignored Book Week Scotland for the last few years due to the clash with #germanlitmonth, I decided to challenge myself to find a book that satisfied the demands of both events.  Et voilà!

imageTranslated from German by Brian Battershaw

At the age of forty, twenty years before turning his pen to fiction, Theodor Fontane travelled to Scotland with his friend, Bernard von Lepel,  like many others enticed by the romantic historical novels and ballads of Sir Walter Scott and entranced by the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their journey was a pilgrimage of sorts, and, I must admit,  well-planned.  I’m not entirely sure how long it lasted – matter of months I suspect – but they accomplished more that I have managed in 28 years of living here!

imageThe map on the right shows the route, and those in the know, will realise that it takes in  sites that are still major tourist attractions today.  Most of which I have visited too, and I found it interesting that the places Fontane describes are often as they appear today. (The places around them will have changed beyond all recognition and so I challenged myself to spot the details that Fontane didn’t mention: so no Nessie in Loch Ness (the story only began to spread in 1933), no McCaig’s tower in Oban (erected 1897) and curiously no mention of the bird colonies on the Isle of Staffa (and they must have been there when Fontane visited.) Neither did he visit a distillery, or if he did he didn’t tell us about it – perhaps the many temperamce preachers he met imfluenced him after all!

But enough of things, Fontane and Lepel didn’t see.  Here are some of the things that they did.

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Fontane’s travelogue is detailed amd multi-faceted with fastidious descriptions of places and people, historical anecdotes (lesser known as well as milestone events), translations of Scottish poems, retellings of Scottish legends, interspersed with personal experiences. These latter show the realities of travel in the mid-19th century.  Remind me never to take the end seat on the outside of a stage-coach.

passengers at the ends of each row … sat with only one cheek on the bench, so that the outer half of each individual dangled and swung to and fro together with hat-boxes and portmanteaus.  I need hardly say that such a minimum of travelling comfort would have been unbearable over a stretch of 75 miles, but for  the fact that at every stage the flanking passengers on the outside changed places so that their right and left halves, alternately rested at the last stage, constituted fresh reserves to put into  line.

The sketches  of his travelling companion Lepel complement the text.  3 of these are reproduced on the book jacket.  (From top to bottom: Loch Leven Castle, Isle of Staffa, Edinburgh) The book was intended to be a travel guide, and, for the most part, it could still serve that same purpose today (modes of transport excepted, of course.) I enjoyed Fontane’s keen observations and I learnt much about Scotland too.  A couple of  examples shall suffice.

1) Of Edinburgh and Stirling castle (Page 100)

Edinburgh Castle is like a recumbent lion while Stirling Castle resembles a sitting one.

2) Of the British Army (Page 102 doubtless a sly swipe at the Prussian Army and possibly not true today.)

We make a great mistake if we think of the British Army as a machine that removes the last vestiges of freedom and independence from the individual.

I will say, however, that there are very few references to the weather – from this I shall assume that the late summer of 1858 must have been a good one!

9 of the 27 chapters are devoted to Edinburgh.  Glasgow is lucky to get 9 lines! How so?  One look at the 300 foot-high factory chimneys of which a number were to be seen rising into heaven like pillars of petrified steam sufficed to make Fontane and Lepel rush for the  next train back to Edinburgh.

Fontane’s most scathing comments, however, are reserved for Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s self-designed ‘Romance in Stone and Mortar’.

There is a rhyming party game in which the participants write a line, then turn the paper down save for the last word, so that there can be no possible connection between what  the next man writes and what has been written before him.

Abbotsford is like that. It has been built for the sake of some forty or fifty catchwords.

No-one is more mortified than Fontane himself that he cannot adopt that tone of love and reverence to which one’s lips  have almost become accustomed when they utter Sir Walter’s name.  Lest we forget, visiting the places that Sir Walter Scott had written about was the primary reason  for Fontane’s journey.  Scott’s ballads were also the inspiration for Fontane’s early writing, who gave a number of his own ballads  Scottish settings. So to find his hero guilty of such poor taste was devastating. (Incidentally I disagree with Fontane here – I find Abbotsford quite charming and Scott’s novels unreadable.)   Regardless, the disappointing visit to Abbotsford, which lies on the Tweed,  is the final stage on this journey and signals a change of direction for Fontane.  When he finally publishes his debut, the historical novel Before the Storm in 1878, there is no trace of Scott’s romantic style and chivalric flourishes. He has become the realist writer on which his fame is based.

His love affair with Scotland had not ended, however.  Some 30 year later he wrote that this journey was one of the most beautiful in my life, at all events the most poetic,  more poetic than Switzerland, France, Italy and everything that I saw later on.

As a Sassenach in Scotland, I’d better not argue with that!!

imageTranslated from German by Samuel P Willcocks and Shaun Whiteside

Seagull Books have been turning their attention to German cult classics of late.  With a fair number in my TBR, I thought it was time to get started with the latter, an uncompleted East German novel written between 1959 and 1965, but never actually published in Germany until 2007.  The long, complicated story of how it came to be banned in the DDR is available in German on wikipedia.de.  The essence is simply that Bräunig omitted the sugar-coating demanded by the state resulting in a novel that depicted life in the early DDR 1949-1953 warts and all.  Not that Bräunig was unsympathetic to socialism.  He just wanted to show the difficulties of building a successful socialist state in a new country, decimated by war and with limited natural resources.

Bräunig is writing of the generation coming of age through the formative years of the DDR; the years during which ideology and pragmatism were often at loggerheads, when those who wished to be practical were often silenced by the idealists.  So it is that the vast majority of his cast are young people, late teens to early twenties, beginning their adult lives in the Wismut uranium mines or the paper factory at Bermsthal. Both settings familiar to the author – he had first-hand experience  of  working in both.

To rebuild the economy the DDR needed workers. To compete with America, Russia needed atomic weapons. Hence the strategic importance of the Wismut uranium mine.  Work there was strenuous and dangerous, but wages, in comparison to other trades, were good.  The novel begins as Christian Kleinschmidt and Peter Loose start their contracts at the mine.  The backgrounds of both couldn’t be more different.  Christian has just been denied university for 2 years because his father is an intellectual, and has been sent to the mine to condition his mind.  Peter Loose, his father a Nazi, has been thrown out of his home by his stepfather.  Down on his luck  and yet his downward spiral continues without letup. Christian, however, comes to terms with his fate, digs in (pun unintended) and makes a success of his time in the mines.

The two are mentored by Hermann Fischer, a communist by conviction, who provides a bridge to the paper factory, as his daughter,  Ruth, works there.  With the support of management, she becomes the model of the female socialist worker, becoming a machine leader, despite the opposition of the male workforce.  Her romance with the personnel manager flounders, however, when he begins to align with the more zealous idealogues.

The older generation are represented by the afore-mentioned Hermann Fischer, and the director of the paper factory,  Dr Jungandres, a denazified pragmatist, too old to seek a new future in the West, who is left to pick up the pieces when the rest of the management team, with the exception of Ruth’s boyfriend, abscond en masse!

I’m barely scratching the surface of the novel here, but you can begin to see why it would attract the ire of the East German authorities.  Bad things happen to the proletarian characters (Peter Loose, Hermann Fischer), those disloyal to the state get away with it (the absconders), those ambivalent to the socialist cause manage to get ahead (Christian Kleinschmidt, Dr Jungandres) and the newly converted comrades are shown to be unsympathetic. It’s not exactly the model of a state-approved socialist realist novel, is it?

imageFollowing the ban, Bräunig put the manuscript in a drawer and never worked on it again.  A pity because had he finished and honed it, this could have been a masterpiece.  As it stands, it is excellent providing insights into life in the early-DDR without being overly  dry or sensational.  There are some lovely literary touches also.  I loved the opening paragraphs in which Bräunig uses the wind blowing across Germany to sketch the historical context before bringing us right back the present and the first shift in the mine.  (Hopefully you can magnify the picture on the right to read this for yourself.)

There are some weaknesses – sub-plots that are tied up in a perfunctory manner, as though the author simply lost interest. The parallel stream set in West Germany which, I assume, is meant to show the superficiality of the easy lives there,  just diminishes the novel’s power, imo. Surprisingly, too, after 528 pages the ending feels rushed. But then, it would.  The novel’s unfinished.  I didn’t know that as I read, which is just as well, because had I known, I wouldn’t have read it.  And that would have been my loss.

To the victor the spoils they say, and in terms of historical reputation, Johannes Gutenberg was the conqueror.  Inventor of the first moveable type printing press and publisher of the first book – the Gutenberg Bible – or so established history would have me believe.  A visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the final destination of my Germany 2016 mini-tour, and a reading of Alix Christie’s 2014 historical novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, opened my eyes to other possibilites.

Gutenberg didn’t invent moveable type.  That was invented about 4 centuries earlier in China by Bi Sheng using ceramic plates.  Moveable metal type was then developed in Korea.  What Gutenberg developed (because he had no prior knowledge of these Eastern systems) was a method of casting reusable metal type from a mould. The letters, together with his printing press, constituted the typographical system that proved to be the greatest invention since the wheel.  There has been nothing of similar importance until the invention of the internet.

imageThere I go, giving Gutenberg all the credit. Yet was this achievement really all his own, or should the roles of his financier, Johann Fust, and his apprentice Peter Schoeffer not be recognised also? They certainly are in Christie’s novel which is narrated by Schoeffer, looking back on the events of 1450-1455.

In 1450 Schoeffer is called back from his training as a calligrapher and engraver by his guardian, Johann Fust, to be apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg.  Of course, he is resentful.  This new-fangled technology is going to destroy his career, and besides, mass production will never be able to able to produce books as beautiful as those made by hand.  Well events are to prove him wrong but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Christie takes us into the workshop and shows us the struggles that the team had: the technical struggles, the trial and error involved in finding the perfect alloy of lead, tin and antimony (a recipe that could not be improved upon for 500 years); the personal struggles resulting from the long hours; the political struggles that needed negotiation and the absolute secrecy that had to be maintained for 5 years to prevent the Archbishop of Mainz from confiscating the press; the personality clashes arising because Gutenberg was not the saint that we perhaps think he was ; and finally, the financial problems that contributed to the court case in which Gutenberg was forced to hand over his press to Fust.

Was that the real reason for the rift between the two partners? The facts are hard to establish as only a fragment of the court papers remains.  There is a school of thought  that Fust and Schoeffer (who testified against Gutenberg) had always planned to seize control of the press. This novel does not subscribe to that view and interprets events in an entirely different but thoroughly plausible way.  Although, with hindsight and with Schoeffer as apologist, that shouldn’t be so surprising.

Although, having no prior knowledge of these events, this took me completely by surprise and I found myself turning the pages ever faster.  It also ensured that I entered the Gutenberg Museum looking for evidence of Christie’s hypothesis. Naturally I found only the historical version of events – i.e the fragment from the court papers and only a couple of mentions of both Fust and Schoeffer.

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To beautiful books!

This saddened me as I’d grown quite fond of the latter, who, following his apprenticeship with Gutenberg, went on to publish the Mainz Psalter, generally recognised to be the most beautiful book ever published. (Note to self – must find one and visit.) Still I was gratified to learn later that Mainz hasn’t forgotten him entirely, and I can verify that the wheat beer that bears his name is as refreshing as it looks!