Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Back Reviews Reel: May 2015

My reads of this month three years ago were an intriguing time travel into the past, notably the 1920s and 1930s. The Swiss classic Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach took me to Berlin in the 1930s with a young man in love with a cabaret singer who takes advantage of him. The suffocating atmosphere of Lisbon in 1938 when Salazar’s fascist terror regime was in power filled the contemporary Italian novel Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi. The passionate dancers of the contemporary Spanish novel Heart of Tango by Elia Barceló stumbled across a crime committed in Buenos Aires during the 1920s. The French satirical classic Penguin Island by Nobel laureate Anatole France unfolded the history of a fictitious country from legendary times through the future. And finally the classical Austrian novel in five scenes Yellow Street by Veza Canetti brought to life a whole neighbourhood in Vienna of the 1930s.

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Set in the vaudeville milieu of Berlin in the 1930s, Lyric Novella by Annemarie Schwarzenbach shows a narrating protagonist desperately in love with charismatic cabaret singer Sibylle. Everybody in his surroundings warns the law student against getting involved with this woman because cold and corrupt as she is, she has already ruined other, more experienced men than him. Of course, the twenty-year-old doesn’t listen – he can’t because he has been under her spell from the very moment he first saw her. Craving for her affection, he does everything she asks him to. So instead of going to university and getting absorbed in his books, he drives her around in his car at night. Only when she asks him a big favour, he musters up the strength to drag himself away from her.
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- - - - - Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi is set in Lisbon in the hottest of summer 1938 and at the height of António de Oliveira Salazar’s fascist terror regime in Portugal. Dr. Pereira is literary editor of an unimportant afternoon paper and offers philosophy graduate Francesco Monteiro Rossi to write anticipated obituaries of authors likely to die before long. When the young man suggests one of Federico García Lorca of all men as a trial, it dawns on Pereira that he may be in for serious trouble. Meeting Monteiro Rossi’s friend Marta disturbs him even more because she is an ardent communist and all but willing to keep her mouth shut. Despite him Pereira who used to live more in the past than the present gets involved into their affairs and is forced to face reality.
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- - - - - the beginning of Heart of Tango by Elia Barceló stand Rodrigo and Milena who attend a tango night in Innsbruck and Salzburg respectively. Their partners virtually seem to breathe the spirit of tango, but eventually they disappear without a word, not without a trace, though. Rodrigo finds a scrap of paper and Milena an old business card that lead to one Natalia and Diego Monteleone in La Boca, Buenos Aires. The urge to find their amazing dance partners brings them to the Argentinean capital and to a little visited museum full of powerful tango paintings that an unknown artist did in 1920. Two of the portraits show Natalia and Diego. Startled Rodrigo and Milena set out to find out more and stumble across an old, unpunished crime of passion – and across each other.
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- - - - - satirical classic Penguin Island by Anatole France, the 1921 laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, starts with the legend of practically blind and deaf Saint Maël who travels the seas to spread Christian faith among the heathen in foreign lands and mistakes the penguins on a remote Antarctic island for human beings. To avoid ridicule and theological problems, God turns the baptised animals into human beings and moves their island northward to a place off the Breton coast. What follows are the chronicles of Penguinia from the Middle Ages with their legendary rulers through modern times to a highly technological future as a late nineteenth-century historian trying to show his country at her best is bound to tell them.
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- - - - - life in a typical Jewish neighbourhood in Vienna of the 1930s fills the pages of Yellow Street by Veza Canetti, the little known wife of en-NOBEL-ed writer Elias Canetti. The world economic crisis is in full swing and many in the street have a hard time making ends meet every month. Among them are four women and a girl – each the protagonist of one of the novel’s “five scenes”, each with her own hard lot. One is the deformed owner of a tobacco shop and another is an abused wife with a son. The third is a woman of many trades bordering on crime, notably pimping, while the fourth is a married woman increasing the family income as piano player. And finally there’s the poor girl collecting donations and giving them to her friend who misses his mother terribly.
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