Friday, 25 October 2013

Book Review: The Wedding in Auschwitz by Erich Hackl
After two months it’s high time for some more Austrian literature on my blog. There are quite some contemporary writers in my country who can boast with notable success in German-language literature and a few of them have even seen their work translated into English. One of those Austrian writers is Erich Hackl. For this review I picked The Wedding in Auschwitz which was first released in English in spring 2009 and which to the translator Martin Chalmer’s great disappointment didn’t receive much public attention. 

Erich Hackl was born in Steyr, Austria, in May 1954. After his German and Hispanic studies he worked as a teacher and editor, later as a translator, journalist and writer in Vienna and Madrid. Already his first novels Aurora’s Motive (Auroras Anlaß) and Farewell Sidonia (Abschied von Sidonie) from 1987 and 1989 respectively established him as a master of forging well-researched true stories into literary form reminding of Latin-American testimonial literature. Only two of his later novels have been translated into English so far, namely Narratives of Loving Resistance (Entwurf einer Liebe auf den ersten Blick: 1999) and The Wedding in Auschwitz (Die Hochzeit von Auschwitz: 2002). His latest novel titled Familie Salzmann was released in 2010. Erich Hackl lives and works in Madrid and Vienna. 

For his novel The Wedding in Auschwitz Erich Hackl patches up the memories of a dozen of people who have in one way or another been linked to the lives of the protagonists Margarita “Marga” Ferrer Rey and Rudolf “Rudi” Friemel, the couple whose wedding in the registry office of Auschwitz on 18 March 1944 at 11 a.m. inspired the novel and its title. From his earliest days the Viennese Rudi has been an ardent socialist. So early in 1938 he joined the International Brigades in Spain to fight for the republic against the fascist troops of General Franco. During a visit of a group of Mujeres Antifascistas (anti-fascist women) from Barcelona at the front line close to Falset, Rudi and Marga met for the first time and for both it was love at first sight. Whenever Rudi was in Barcelona, he met Marga and when the International Brigades were withdrawn from the front line in autumn 1938 he asked the father for her hand, but was rebuffed. Despite all Marga and Rudi got married in Spain before Rudi and his brothers-in-arms had to flee across the borders to German-occupied France where they were seized in a camp. Also Marga and Marina escaped from the fascist troops to France. They were interned in a camp and later forced to work in the area of Annecy. Rudi traced and joined them. On 26 April 1941 Marga gave birth to a son and shortly afterwards Rudi decided to accept the offer of the Nazi officials to be repatriated. Since General Franco had declared all marriages contracted under republican law null and void, Rudi wanted to take his family home to Vienna and get properly married there, but things were to take a different course than he expected. 

The Wedding in Auschwitz isn’t a novel of the kind that Europeans like me are used to from childhood. Although it tells the true life story of the protagonists Marga and Rudi from birth to death, the book can’t even be called a biographical novel with full right. It’s much rather the testimony of some people who knew the couple and their lives at a given moment in time or have information about them. Erich Hackl worked up the material in the same way as a director might have done for a documentary. The narrators are alternating all the time because the author lets each one of the interviewed witnesses tell her/his part of the story with her/his own voice and from her/his own point of view. In the beginning this can be a bit confusing since the identity of the narrators is revealed only through what they say and it isn’t always clear at once who is currently talking. The language used is simple and matter-of-fact as suits the topic. 

Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of Erich Hackl, but this may be because in general I prefer pure fiction to true stories which rather limit the author’s scope. The Wedding in Auschwitz is a really good book which deserves being more widely read and which I’d like to recommend to everybody who is interested in life under the Nazi regime and in the concentration camps.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Book Review: A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen is a small country on the Western edge of Europe and often in the shadow of the bigger neighbour on the British Isles, the United Kingdom. As a holiday destination the Emerald Isle enjoys growing popularity and not just the area of Dublin, but the entire country. On my tour around Europe I’m taking you to Ireland today, more precisely to County Cork. My choice of book for this review is A World of Love by the renowned Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen.

Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin, Ireland, in June 1899, but moved to Hythe in England, U.K. with her mother in 1907. With the help of her writer friend Rose Macauley, she made her literary debut at the age of twenty-four bringing out a collection of short stories titled Encounters. Her first novel was published four years later in 1927. Many more novels, short stories and essays followed throughout her career. Among the most notable works of Elizabeth Bowen count the novels The Last September (1929), The House in Paris (1935), The Death of the Heart (1938) and above all The Heat of the Day (1949) set in London during the bombing raids of World War II. A World of Love came out in 1955. Her last novel, Eva Trout or Changing Scenes, was released in 1968 and received much acclaim. Elizabeth Bowen died in London, U.K., in February 1973.

It’s an extraordinarily hot June in the early 1950s when A World of Love unfolds for twenty-year-old Jane Danby. She has just finished secretarial school in London and is home for holidays at Montefort manor in County Cork, Ireland. Her parents, Fred and Lilia Danby, manage and maintain the solitary and run-down country estate which belongs to Antonia who inherited it from her cousin Guy after he was killed in World War I. One night, after a Fête given by Lady Latterly at the neighbouring castle, Jane goes to the attics to fetch a hat which she remembered when she saw the lady with hers. On her way out an old trunk catches Jane’s attention and she can’t resist opening its lid to look inside. She finds a beautiful old muslin dress and when she takes it out a packet of letters drops at her feet. Back in her room Jane reads the letters lacking every hint at when or where they were written, who wrote them or whom they were written to. They are love letters and make the girl on the brink of womanhood dream. The following day she mentions the letters at table and unintentionally confronts her mother as well as her motherly friend and mentor Antonia with their past. All of a sudden the house is filled with Guy’s ghostly presence and the people at Montefort are forced to reassess their relations to him as well as to each other. Also Jane’s father Fred and her twelve-year-old sister Maud are drawn into the emotional whirl of memories, disappointment and grief coming to light. Jane is surprised by the repercussions of her find, but doesn’t give them much thought. She has her own future to engage her, especially after Lady Latterly has invited her to a dinner party at the castle and leads her step by step away from her limited childhood environment into the wide adult world.

A World of Love is a philosophical and psychological novel revolving around love, pity and the influence of time on people. Overall there isn’t happening much. The story comes alive rather through the atmosphere which Elizabeth Bowen’s poetic language creates than through the simple plot that spans no more than three days. The dilapidated manor, the picturesque landscape and the suffocating heat mirror the psychological condition of the characters and their memories. Guy is the omnipresent symbol of love sought, found and eventually lost. To my taste there could be a little more action and the unconvincing end comes a bit sudden, but for the rest it’s an interesting and easy-to-read novel.

Doing some online research on Elizabeth Bowen’s A World of Love I found that it probably isn’t her best work. For me it was a good read which I enjoyed enough to write about it here on my blog. At any rate, I wish to recommend this Irish author and this novel in particular to those among you who have a liking for the poetic and the psychological.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Book Review: Lafcadio's Adventures by André Gide mystery and glamour surrounding the Vatican have always stimulated the imagination of writers as prove countless books which make it on bestselling lists all over the world every year and which without doubt have been, are and will be discussed on a great number of book blogs and other literary websites. Since I don’t have a special liking for thrillers, historical fiction or insiders’ revelations, my literary expedition around Europe inevitably led me to a less common read related to the city of the Holy See: Lafcadio's Adventures by André Gide. Next summer this surrealistic novel of the Nobel Prize laureate in literature 1947, or rather this “sotie” or satirical farce as the author himself called it, will see the centenary of its publication.

The French writer and moralist André Gide was born in Paris, France, in November 1869. His first novel The Notebooks of André Walter (Les Cahiers d’André Walter) was published already in 1891 and sold poorly, but it marked the beginning of a prolific career. André Gide’s writing was symbolist and dealt openly with sexual matters, as from 1914 with homosexuality in particular. Among his most famous and not purely autobiographical works count The Fruits of the Earth (Les nourritures terrestres: 1897), The Immoralist (L'immoraliste: 1902), Strait Is the Gate (La porte étroite: 1909), Lafcadio's Adventures (Les caves du Vatican: 1914; also and more accurately translated as The Vatican Cellars and The Vatican Swindle), and The Counterfeiters (Les faux-monnayeurs: 1925). From the mid-1920s on he wrote against social injustice both in mainland France and the colonies, above all the Congo. In 1947 the writer received the Nobel Prize in Literature. André Gide died in Paris, France, in February 1951. The following year all his works were put on the Index of Prohibited Books of the Roman Catholic Church.

The story of Lafcadio's Adventures revolves around a set of five exaggerated types rather than characters. First of all there is the confirmed atheist Anthime Armand-Dubois who resides in Rome with his pious Catholic wife Veronique. He is the model scientist and freemason making cruel experiments with rats and despising everything religious until he is miraculously cured of his crippling rheumatism. Count Julius de Baraglioul is his brother-in-law, a practicing, though pragmatic Catholic and the writer of mediocre novels who yearns to have a seat in the Académie française. He just brought out the biography of his highly respected and spotless father who was a French diplomat. The old Count feels death approaching and as soon as his son is back to Paris he asks him to discretely make inquiries about a young man called Lafcadio Wluiki. Julius de Baraglioul visits the eighteen-year-old in his cheap lodgings and the youth turns out to be a highly intelligent and charming happy-go-lucky. After the visit Lafacadio immediately goes to the library to find out who his visitor was and what could have been his true motives. Reading the biography of the old Count he gathers – like Julius de Baraglioul before – that he must be the illegitimate son of the honourable diplomat. Lafcadio decides to visit the old man and finds himself well-received. Soon the old Count dies and the young man receives a legacy which allows him to break with the past. At the same time Protos, a former school-mate of Lafcadio, sets up a big swindle about the Freemasons having secretly imprisoned Pope Leo XIII in the Vatican cellars and having replaced him by a false pope. When naïve and devout Amédée Fleurissoire, another brother-in-law of Julius de Baraglioul, hears about this outrageous crime from his wife, he leaves his provincial home for the first time in his life to rescue the Pope in Rome. As fate would have it, this travel leads to a “motiveless murder” on the train to Naples with unexpected aftermaths for everybody involved.

Even though Lafcadio's Adventures bursts with irony and exaggeration, its basic plot is borrowed from true events. In 1892, thus more than twenty years before André Gide brought out his comedy of manners, there had in fact been a rumour that the Freemasons had put a false Pope, one who was sympathetic to the French Republic, in the place of Leo XIII. Quite some Catholics and monarchists were deceived and handed over to the swindlers considerable amounts of money. However, the actual swindle, exposed by the novel’s original French title referring to Vatican cellars which in reality don’t exist, serves the author only as the suitable background for his multilayered character and sociological studies. André Gide raises many different, often existentialist questions regarding human condition. Also his writing style is varied and satirizes the traditional form of novels which use to be realistic or analytical.

My overall impression of Lafcadio's Adventures by André Gide is positive although the read didn’t send me into raptures. I must admit that I had some trouble getting into the story. Maybe this was because I’m not used to reading surrealistic satires in French. Despite all I enjoyed the book and am ready to recommend it to everybody with a taste for the grotesque.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Book Review: Swell by Ioanna Karystiani who knows me well enough, will tell you that I'm all but fit for a sea voyage. Despite all I decided to continue book travelling the seven seas for another week of my grand tour around Europe. This time, however, I'm more modest and content myself with an old merchant ship instead of a luxurious yacht. The freighter is one flying the Greek flag which makes her Greek territory according to Art 91 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), no matter where she's cruising. The novel which I picked for today's review is Swell by Ioanna Karystiani.

The writer Ioanna Karystiani (Ιωάννα Καρυστιάνη) was born in Chania in Crete, Greece, in September 1952. After her law studies she was a cartoonist for different Greek newspapers and magazines as well as a scriptwriter for the film industry. Her career as a writer began with a collection of short stories – Η κυρία Κατάκη (Mrs. Kataki, no English edition found) – published in 1995. Two years later she brought out her first novel The Jasmine Isle (Μικρά Αγγλία) which established her fame. More novels followed in the 2000s, but so far only Swell (Σουέλ: 2006) and Back to Delphi (Τα σακιά: 2010) have come out in English translation. Ioanna Karystiani lives in Athens and Andros.

The opening scene of Swell takes place five days after New Year 1997. A couple of seamen watch a white cat balancing recklessly on the railing of a Greek merchant ship anchored off the South Australian coast at Port Pirie. The cat called Maritsa is the constant companion of Mitsos Avgustis, the vessel’s seventy-five-year-old captain who has passed virtually all his life at sea. He’s a very skilled mariner and highly revered by the entire crew made up of Greeks, Russians and Romanians, but his family and the owner of the ship want him to retire. The reasons why Chatzimanolis jun., the ship-owner, wants to get rid of the captain are purely economic. The businessman wants younger and cheaper Asian seamen to run the ship. The problem is that he can’t simply dismiss Mitsos Avgustis because of a clause in his late father’s will. Captain Avgustis’s wife Flora, his two daughters and his son haven’t seen him once in twelve years and want him to be a part of their lives at last. They are bitter and reproach him with disinterest in the family, especially in his grand-daughter whom he hasn’t even met since she was born five years ago. His lover Litsa has kept waiting for Mitsos Avgustis in her house in Elefsina in vain for just as long as his family and yet she doesn’t hold it against him. The retired hairdresser would have good reason to feel resentful about having sacrificed her life to the married seaman, but she holds him in high esteem and loves him despite all that happened. When Captain Avgustis doesn’t succumb to temptations and threats, Chatzimanolis sends Flora to Kobe to persuade her husband to come back home to Greece with her and she makes a revelation which gives his actions and his stubbornness an unexpected dimension. Of course, Mitsos Avgustis again refuses to leave his ship and the swell of the sea. It needs a new crew member and an almost disaster in the middle of the Indian Ocean to make him rethink his attitude towards family and life on land.

Swell is an impressionistic novel with many flashbacks and recurring changes of perspective. In addition, Ioanna Karystiani unfolds the story of Captain Mitsos Avgustis and the people who are a part of it either in fact or in memory at a slow pace putting together seemingly unrelated episodes and memories. As the story progresses with the rolling swell of the oceans, it fuses and reveals a complete picture. The plot makes think of Homer’s Odyssey with two Penelopes doomed to staying at home and waiting, one cold and nagging, the other warm and loving. By and by all essential characters of the novel gain complexity and become truly alive through their actions and thoughts rather than through lengthy descriptions of their nature. Not knowing Greek and being limited to the German edition of the novel, it’s difficult for me to judge the author’s language and style. Undoubtedly they are rich and poetic although they may have lost power in translation as happens every so often.

For me Swell by Ioanna Karystiani has been a pleasure to read. It’s literary fiction as I like it. Thus my verdict can only be: highly recommended.