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Desperation Drives Ageing Woman To Seek Refuge [book review]

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Lyrics Eleanor Rigby, Paul McCartney

People in Japan were astounded by a strange story of a homeless woman that appeared in the national press in 2008. The 58-year-old woman had managed to slip into the apartment of a meteorology worker and live there in a cupboard, undetected, for a year.

Nagasaki by Eric Faye

She was discovered only when, suspicious about the disappearance of food from his fridge, he installed a video surveillance camera in his apartment.

We searched the house … checking everywhere someone could possibly hide,” Itakura [police spokesperson] said. “When we slid open the shelf closet, there she was, nervously curled up on her side.”

This real life story forms the basis of Nagasaki, a novella by the French journalist Eric Faye which won the Académie Française Grand Prix du Roman in 2010.

Faye could have written it as a thriller in which the mysterious events experienced by the apartment owner have a menacing tone. Instead he turns this curious incident into a reflective narrative about loneliness and  the way in which people can just drop unnoticed through chinks in society.

Lonely Office Worker Seeks Friends

The narrative is told from the point of view of Kobo Shimura, a fifty-six-year old man who finds life has simply passed him by.

He lives alone, has never achieved any lasting relationship and has little in common  with his colleagues at the bureau of meteorology.  They go out to lunch and for post-work drinking sessions but this sense of comradeship eludes Shimura.

Instead he spends his lunch break searching for ‘friends’ on Facebook and his evenings talking back to the television news presenters. Even his home is on the fringes of the community:

Imagine a man in his fifties disappointed to have reached middle age so quickly and utterly, residing in his modest house in a suburb of Nagasaki with very steep streets. Picture these snakes of soft asphalt slithering up the hillsides until they reach the point where all the urban scum of corrugated iron, tarpaulins, tiles and God knows what peters out beside a wall of straggly, crooked bamboo. This is where I live. Who am I?  Without wishing to overstate matters, I don’t amount to much.  As a single man, I cultivate certain habits which keep me out of trouble and allow me to tell myself I have at least some redeeming features.

Each day is much like the previous day, turning him into a man who becomes increasingly fussy and tormented by the noise of cicadas that seem everywhere in the city.

What disturbs this equilibrium is his growing sense that food items are going missing, and that someone (or perhaps something) is getting into his flat and stealing the ingredients of his fish supper and his orange juice.

Shimura is naturally shocked when the culprit is found but is even more disturbed by the realisation of how closely he and his intruder had lived for a year.

An Awakening to Reality

Initially resentful of the woman, he begins to sympathise with her and to understand how circumstances had forced her to take refuge in his home. Even so, he cannot bear the thought of remaining in this apartment which will forever now be tainted by her presence. 

His experience opens his consciousness to his city’s history, seeing a parallel in the way it had tried, but failed, to protect itself from intruding foreign traders hundreds of years earlier.  

The woman’s intrusion also causes him to question his life and to see it more clearly.  Watching news reports about the trend in creating robots to look after the country’s ageing population he sees that his fate is to die alone with only a robot to care for him.

Having pulled us so effectively into Shimura’s world, Faye leaves us dangling while he introduces the perspective of the other party in this human drama, the intruder herself.

In the second part of the story we get to hear of the sequence of events, including the effects of Japan’s deep economic recession at the time,  that led her to find shelter in his home. Faye shows not only how someone’s life can cycle downwards until they have no place to go.

As interesting as it was to understand why she ended up in the apartment and the painstaking efforts she made to keep her presence secret, it was Shimura’s story that held my interest more and was written more compellingly.

This was overall however an excellent story which makes you think about your own future in old age and how many other people there are as isolated as Shimura or as desperate as his unwanted houseguest. A chilling thought..

Fast Facts: Nagasaki and Eric Fray

Nagasaki by Eric Faye was published in English in 2014 by Gallic Books, translated from French by Emily Boyce.  It’s been translated into 20 languages.

The real life story upon which his novel is based was widely reported internationally

Eric Faye was born in Limoges, France. He is also a journalist, editor-translator in the Paris offices of the Reuters news agency.

Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé [Review]

Naples - gate of hellFrom the earliest Greek and Roman civilisations, people have believed in the idea that hell is an underworld accessible to mortals via special gates on the surface of Earth. It was through these gates that Orpheus travelled to rescue his wife Eurydice and Dante descended through nine concentric circles of suffering in The Inferno.

In Laurent Gaudé’s novella Hell’s Gate, hell is a state of mind as well as a place. It’s the mental torment experienced by Matteo, a Neapolitan taxi driver whose young son is the innocent victim of a gangland shooting. Matteo blames himself. If only he hadn’t harried his child to walk faster when he took him to school that morning. If only he’d listened to the boy’s cries to slow down. If only he’d stopped for a second to tie up his son’s shoe lace. Those seconds would have put his boy Pippo out of danger.

Matteo and his wife Giuliana are consumed by despair at the loss of their son.  Matteo’s reacts by driving aimlessly through the darkened city every night, not picking up any passengers, just driving. His wife’s response is to demand revenge to bring ‘some small, fragile solace like a little breath of air on my wounds.” But though Matteo tracks down Cullaccio, the gangland leader responsible for the boy’s death, he cannot bring himself to kill the man. Giuliana leaves their marital home cursing her husband for his weakness and cursing all fathers for failing to protect their sons.

Just when Matteo feels his life has lost all meaning, he encounters the strange Professor Provolone and his revelations that there is a way Matteo can be re-united with his son. It requires him to accept there is an underworld the living can enter and from which they can return.   It’s through the Professor’s explanations of the  “bridges, intersections, grey areas” connecting the two worlds, that Matteo achieves a degree of peace.

For the first time in a long while Matteo felt happy.  He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café.  He wanted to share a meal with these men, to listen to what they had to say, to stay with them in the dim light of the little room, far from the world and its grief.

Determined to recover his son he descends into the sulphurous underworld through a gate in the port of Naples. His companion and guide is the unstable priest Mazerotti.

They were on foot, going at the halting rhythm of pilgrims lost in a strange land. They were a tight little group of men feeling their way in the night, like blind men holding each other by the arm or the shoulder so as to not get lost. Or like madmen in a boat gliding silently through the water, wide eyed at a world they did not understand.

rodin's hell

Rodin’s view of hell – detail from his Doors of Hell sculpture

The rescue requires priest and father to negotiate multiple obstacles all of which are graphically described.  It’s a vision of hell that will be familiar from its many depictions in art, one full of writhing shadowy figures streaming through a diseased landscape. Gaudé’s vision comes complete with giant doors sculpted with “hundreds of faces disfigured by suffering and horror … their toothless mouths forever laughing, dribbling, shrieking with rage and pain”;  the Spiral of the Dead, a River of Tears where the dead souls are tossed and beaten as they see their lives pass by and Bleeding Bushes adorned with the scraps of flesh from the souls left in the land of the living.

That the boy is rescued isn’t a surprise because of the structure of the novel. Hell’s Gate actually opens with an adult Pippo hell bent on the revenge his father was unable to execute. It’s 20 years after Matteo’s journey into the underworld.  Pippo is now a barista with the uncanny ability to concoct exactly the right blend for each character depending on their mood. Tonight will be his last at the cafe however because he is about to murder his murderer Cullaccio. He approaches his task without fear:

I’ve already been to hell – what could possibly be scarier than that? All I have to ward off are my own nightmares. At night, the blood-curling cries and groans of pain come flooding back. I smell the nauseating stench of sulphur. The forest of souls surrounds me. …. Other people might call them nightmares but they’re wrong. I know what I see is real – I’ve been there.

The book thereafter is organised in chapters that alternate between Pippo’s narrative in 2002 and his father’s in 1980. Taken together they offer an exploration of revenge, guilt and a search for salvation.  Regardless of whether you believe in hell, the novel Hell’s Gate is an intense and compelling read that seamlessly weaves fantasy with reality.

Endnotes

The Book: Hell’s Gate by Lauren Gaudé  was published by Gallic Books in April 2017. Translation from the French is by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken. The original French version was published in 2008 as La porte des Enfers. 

The Author: Laurent Gaudé was born in Paris in 1972. He is a winner of the Prix Goncourt for two of his novels. La porte des Enfers is his fourth novel. He has also written several plays. 

Why I read this book: My copy was provided by the publishers Gallic Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Other Reviews: 

ANZlitlover’s review 

RavenCrimeReads review  

Late Harvest Havoc – murder among the vineyards

late-harvest-havocI’ve been known to enjoy a glass of wine (or two even). Even more appealing if I can do this while looking out onto some splendid French vista.  Wine + France is a near perfect combination (now if only someone would create a chocolate flavoured wine I’d be in heaven….) Add a touch of mystery to that combination and you have the set up for The Winemakers Detective Series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balan. This highly successful series delves into the darker world of the wine industry with the aid of two amateur detectives: master winemaker Benjamin Cooker and his aide-de-camp Virgile Lanssien.

In Late Harvest Havoc, the latest episode to be translated into English,  the duo are in the Alsace region. It’s winter time and in the countryside dark clouds are gathering.  Someone is vandalising local vineyards just as the late harvest is about to start. There seems no pattern to the attacks, nothing to connect the damage at one estate to that of another a few miles away. Is this vengeance for a personal grievance? Is there a connection to the days of German occupation? Cooker and  Lanssien put their collective brains to work to try and bring peace.

Detective work is demanding so of course the duo need plenty of sustenance. This is a novel which it’s probably not wise to read if you’re hungry or thirsty. Every day comes with details of something rather scummy sounding from foie gras de canard; caisson de porcelet rôti aux épices douces, and duck and sour cherry terrine to baba au rum. Cooker is a man who likes to eat well and whose palette is as sensitive to food as to wine:

He loved it perfectly ripened, when the golden crust was nice and firm and he rind had gone from soft to creamy. As with wine, Benjamin Cooker assessed Munsters with his nose. He’d plunge his knife in to reveal the centre of this cheese from the Vosges plateau. The more tenacious and rustic the aroma – even a tad repugnant – the more the cheese lover’s nose quivered.

The plot may be rather on the skimpy side and the writing plodding at times but by the end your knowledge of the finer points of  viticulture will have increased markedly. The novel is peppered with gems of info with which to impress your friends. Did you know the best wines in Alsace come from the slopes of the Vosges Mountains, that the Rosacker vineyard takes its name from the wild roses growing nearby or that Riesling needs “exposure to southern sun and a steep incline in slate-rich soil that furrowed in stormy weather.”

All this focus on eating and drinking seems fitting given that the idea for the Winemakers’ Detective Series originated over a meal and a bottle of Château de Gaudou 1996 which is apparently a red wine from Cahors.  I’ve no doubt the detailed descriptions of the wines are accurate but I did wonder whether someone who makes a living from his tastebuds would really smoke as many cigars as Cooker. Wouldn’t that affect the palette so much it would be difficult to pick out the subtler notes of each wine?  Maybe I’m quibbling too much and the finer points don’t matter to the fans of this series or the millions of viewers who watch the TV adaptation.

End notes
Late Harvest Havoc has been available in France since 2005 but only became available in English in 2015. Translated by Sally Pane it is published in the UK by Le French Book, Inc. My copy is courtesy of  the publishers. For details of the book tour organised by France Book Tours. For full tour dates click here.

Win a copy of Late Harvest Havoc 

5 copies of Late Harvest Havoc are available in a giveaway. To enter click on this link.

I’ve tried updating this after some readers alerted me to the problem. If this new link still doesn’t work, go to this book tour page at Words and Peace blog site where Emma has the giveaway open until January 23

Winners will get a choice of print or digital if they live in US residents. In other countries, winners will receive digital copies.

 

Classics Club: November meme

classicsclub3

The task from the Classics Club this month is to pick a title someone else in the club has read from the big review list and explain why their post makes you excited to read that classic in particular.

I’ve chosen my namesake Karen who blogs at the Books and Chocolate blog. Here is her take on a book I have on my Classics Club list:

A book about poor French people who drink themselves to death!

Reading that wonderfully succinct description of Emile Zola‘s L’Assommoir convinced me to abandon my nervousness about this book and to make sure I read it next year. It’s been sitting on my shelf for about two years now while I steeled myself to open it.  The hesitation is there simply because although I rate Germinal, one of the other novels in Les Rougon-Macquart series as one of my all-time top three novels and was also engrossed by La Bette Humaine and  Therese Raquin, I just couldn’t get into another of his novels Nana. Even though this was extremely well received upon publication and continues to  be rated highly, I just couldn’t get interested in it and in fact never finished it.

But reading the review by Karen has persuaded me that L’Assommoir really is a book I would enjoy reading. I loved the freshness of Karen’s style of writing and her personal response to the book. Here’s an example:

I’ve read a lot of books with characters that I like to call fascinating train wrecks, but Gervaise [protagonist in L’Assommoir] has to be one of the worst — but Zola writes her and her situation so well.  The characters seem so real that sometimes I just want to jump into the book and give them a good shaking.

Will be interesting to see if I have the same response.

Alex by Pierre Lemaitre: Review

AlexParis at night. A girl walks home alone down a darkened street. She’s grabbed, thrown into the back of a van and driven off.  Next time we see her the girl is being forced naked into a wooden cage and suspended from the roof of a disused rat -infested warehouse. Her assailant wants to watch her die.  The rats are not content to watch – they want a piece of the action.

The opening chapters of Alex by the French novelist Pierre Lemaitre are graphically gruesome; definitely not for the squeamish. But just when you think you can’t bear to read any more, Lemaitre masterfully brings us some relief in the form of the police hunt for the missing girl. We’re in the safe world of police procedure here with the tried and tested device of a senior investigator who has his own back story and the usual run in with his superior officers.

Alex might contain many of the hallmarks of  the crime novel genre, but it’s certainly not run of the mill stuff. It has tremendous pace and tension and enough unexpected twists to keep most readers hooked right through to the end. Yes it has a high quota of horrible ways in which people meet their death but this never feels gratuitous or subservient to the plot and character.  Yes it has more than a fair number of contrivances which require readers to suspend their disbelief but the novel is so fast paced and gripping that it’s easy to just ignore the tricks and devices.

Beyond the nasty bits and the police man hunt, this is a novel that has a strong human dimension. Both Alex the kidnapped girl, and the man desperate to find her, Commandant Camille are unhappy people though unhappy for different reasons. Alex (not her real name it turns out) has never recovered from her traumatic childhood. Camille has never recovered from his wife’s kidnapping and murder a few years earlier. He is riven with guilt that he couldn’t find her in time. He’s also trying to reconcile himself with his mother’s recent death.

At it’s heart, Alex is a novel of revenge. But it deals with that topic as more than a simple plot device. It uses it as a means to raise a moral question – the question of whether certain actions can ever be fully justified. It’s purpose is not to provide answers, but merely to get readers to evaluate, to consider for themselves.  Quite an achievement to combine both a moral issue and a page turning book. Lemaitre seems to be an author to watch.

Endnotes

  • Pierre Lemaitre was born in Paris in 1956. He worked for many years as a teacher of literature before becoming a novelist
  • Alex is the first of his novels to be translated into English.
  • It won the Crime Writers Association International Dagger prize for best crime novel  in translation in 2013
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