Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Back Reviews Reel: August 2016

Except for the dystopian fantasy from the Habsburg monarchy before the first Great War, all books that I presented at this time of summer three years ago dealt with World War II and with some of its effects on later generations respectively. I started the month’s tour on The Train by Vera Panova, a forgotten Stalinist classic about people working on a hospital train behind the front lines of Eastern Europe. After a nightmarish detour to The Other Side with Austrian writer and graphic artist Alfred Kubin that evoked a walled-up “Dream Kingdom” somewhere in the mountains of Central Asia in the 1960s, I returned to war-time Soviet Union and accompanied The Conductor by Sarah Quigley during the siege of Leningrad. And finally I joined The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson who is the son of Jewish immigrants in Manchester and relives his adolescence as a gifted table tennis player.

- - - - - story of The Train by Vera Panova, winner of the Stalin Prize 1947, begins when German troops marching eastwards cross borders in defiance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and bring World War II over the Soviet Union in summer 1941. Men fit for service are called to arms, while a bunch of doctors, nurses, engineers and the inevitable political officers are crammed into a train that has just recently been turned into a mobile field hospital. For nearly four years they live and work together in the confined spaces of the train driving up and down the tracks at the rear. These fellow travellers of necessity are fervent patriots and most of them volunteered to do their duty helping the wounded heroes of the Red Army, but they have very different characters and backgrounds...
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- - - - - published in 1909, the – declaredly – fantastic novel The Other Side by Alfred Kubin evokes a walled-up “Dream Kingdom” tucked away in a secret spot in the Tian Shan Mountains between China and (then) Russia. At the invitation of his long forgotten school friend, who built the place for a select elite to form the ideal society free from the annoyances of progress and devoted to an intellectual life, an unnamed graphic artist in his thirties moves there with his wife. However, already their first step through the only existing gate reveals instead of the promised utopia a nightmarish place patched together from old houses under an ever sunless sky. From the start the atmosphere weighs on the couple, but things go from bad to worse after the arrival of an American capitalist…
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- - - - - on a true story from Leningrad under siege, The Conductor by New Zealand author Sarah Quigley gives fictionalised account of the months leading up to a concert given in August 1942. The starved out Leningrad Radio Orchestra plays the Seventh Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich – to be broadcast live into the world, notably to the nearby German front lines. It’s a difficult piece that the famous composer wrote during the first months of the siege and the performers are a motley group of professional as well as amateur musicians who barely manage to stay alive long enough. The common task gives them a goal beyond mere survival, though, and under the baton of Karl Elias Illyyich Eliasberg they prove to the world that the spirit of Leningrad can never be destroyed…
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- - - - - Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson is a Jewish boy from Manchester in the 1950s. Reluctant to risk blushing for no reason at all as he often does when he mixes with people, he prefers to lock himself away in the toilet for hours on end where he indulges in reading classical literature as well as in the adolescent pleasures that he just discovered. One day, however, the eleven-year-old finds a ping-pong ball bobbing on a lake not imagining that it will change the course of his life. He uses a book for a bat and his talent becomes obvious, but although he loves the game he shows no inclination to make something of it. So his father signs him up for the table tennis team of a Jewish club where he will pass his forming years with other players, most of them older than himself…
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