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Note: British author Ian McEwan has been NOMINATED for the Man Booker Prize six times, and was WINNER of that prize in 1998 for Amsterdam.

“I count myself an innocent, unburdened by allegiances and obligations, a free spirit, despite my meagre living room. No one to contradict or reprimand me, no name or previous address, no religion, no debts, no enemies. My appointment diary if it existed, notes only my forthcoming birthday. I am, or I was, despite what the geneticists are now saying, a blank slate.”—unnamed, unborn child, the narrator/ main character of this novel.

coverI have to admit that when I read the premise of this novel, I cringed, thinking that it sounded too “cute”- even effete – to be taken seriously;  author Ian McEwan relates this entire novel from the point of view of an unborn baby, nine months in the womb. Describing his “living room” with its cramped quarters within his mother Trudy’s belly, the unborn child points out that he has a surprising amount of control over his life, that he can overhear every conversation involving his mother, that he can participate in every physical act involving her, and that he likes his father, John, a poet, even though his mother has left him for a new lover, his father’s younger brother Claude. When the baby gets bored, he knows he can start kicking so that his mother will turn on the radio to calm him down. He enjoys participating in the excessive drinking of alcohol which his mother and her lover Claude enjoy, and though he knows that alcohol may lower his intellect, he finds himself sometimes “pulling on his cord” for “another round.”

author photo

If, by now, you have a little smirk on your face, you will have seen how wrong I was to have dismissed this novel initially as a clever trick. In fact, McEwan creates a real tour de force here, a novel that is totally unique – certainly bizarre, in many ways, but very funny in its absurdity. The author’s adroit handling of the ironies of its plot and characters keep the reader fully engaged, even as he is revealing the action from the point of view of a particularly precocious unborn baby. The baby’s father, John Cairncross, the poet and head of a failing publishing house, has abandoned his childhood home and leased another house not far away. In debt, he could use the income from the sale of the house he has inherited, but Trudy, his baby’s mother, and her lover Claude, his brother, are currently living in it. Dilapidated and filthy, the house has garbage in the hallway, but no one seems to notice, and John still comes by to visit and to recite poetry to Trudy, hoping she will take him back. Claude, a property developer, dull and vapid, as we learn from the baby-narrator, is noted for his “witless, thrustless dribble,” and he drives the baby crazy with his constant whistling. He “composes nothing, invents nothing,” according to this yet-to-be-born academic snob.

In several places, the baby-narrator sees his other as a "blonde and braided Saxon shield-warrior," about to go into battle.

In several places, the baby-narrator sees his mother as a “blonde and braided Saxon shield-warrior,” about to go into battle.

In the first pages of the novel, the baby tells us that his mother and Claude are planning a dreadful event,” but the reader is not told the details of what that event is until after the author has described their characters and laid the groundwork for the action. The baby hears them say that they must act quickly, observes his mother saying that she “can’t do it,” then hears Claude insist that they can. The baby remarks that he himself is “an organ in her body not separate from her thoughts. I’m party to what she’s about to do…As they kiss again she says into [Claude’s] mouth…baby’s first word. Poison.” What bothers the baby most, however, is that Claude also refers to the aftermath of the “event,”  when they have “placed the baby somewhere.” Furious, the baby cannot stop thinking about “placed” as the “lying cognate of dumped.” And he knows that “only in fairy tales are unwanted babies orphaned upwards. The Duchess of Cambridge will not be taking me on.” He imagines himself living in public housing with a tattooed mother and her boyfriend’s pungent dog, “raised bookless on computer toys,” and he silently implores his father to rescue him from his Vale of Despond.

When the speaker is unable to take the action he wants to take, he thinks of Franz Reichelt, the Flying Tailor, who in 1912, decided to test a parachute he'd developed. After a long wait to draw courage, he jumped to his death from the Eiffel Tower.

Needing courage to take the action he wants to take, the baby-narrator thinks of Franz Reichelt, the Flying Tailor, who in 1912, decided to test a parachute he’d developed. After a long wait to draw courage, he jumped to his death from the Eiffel Tower.

From this scenario within the first forty pages of the book, all the complications evolve for the remainder of the novel. McEwan’s descriptions, often hilarious, keep the reader completely involved with the obvious ironies and absurdities, and as the baby-narrator develops a plan for revenge on his uncle and his mother – not for their plans to poison his father but for their betrayal in wanting the baby “placed” after its birth – the action ratchets up and becomes yet more convoluted. Twists, turns, and surprises galore keep the tension high as the author works his way to the tour de force of an ending. Filled with literary allusions and commentary on the contemporary world, the author creates a delicious new version of some old themes and plot lines.

Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet

Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet

I have deliberately ignored the clear parallels that McEwan draws between the plot of this novel and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to give more attention to this novel on its own.  McEwan is obviously having great fun as he creates a modern mystery story told by a Hamlet in utero.  The result is a light-handed parody of the play and of Gertrude and Claudius (Trudy and Claude) who killed Hamlet’s father, and of Hamlet himself seeking his revenge. This novel stands fully on its own for those who may be unfamiliar with Hamlet, though it will certainly be more fun for those who know the play and recognize some of the hidden references. Trudy and Claude are true villains here, just as Gertrude and Claudius are in Hamlet, and the baby-narrator, the Hamlet of the novel, is not quite sure what he can do to avenge their plans for his father. “To be or not to be…” takes on new and witty meanings when imagined by a confused infant, not yet born. The title of the book, Nutshell, refers to a line from the play in which Hamlet says “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams,” a sentiment not completely shared by the baby-narrator in which he offers advice to newborns: “Don’t cry. Look around, taste the air. I’m in London. The air is good, Sounds are crisp, brilliant with the treble turned up.”

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.platform505.com/

The “blonde and braided  Saxon warrior” which Gertrude represents to the speaker is from http://www.abovetopsecret.com

Needing courage to take the action he wants to take to avenge his father and himself, the baby-narrator thinks of Franz Reichelt, the Flying Tailor, who in 1912, decided to test a parachute he’d developed. After a long wait to draw courage, he finally jumped to his death from the Eiffel Tower. http://twitika.com

Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet, a far cry from the narrator of this novel:  http://libguides.uwlax.edu

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, England, Humor, Satire, Parody Absurdity, Literary
Written by: Ian McEwan
Published by: Nan A. Talese
Date Published: 09/13/2016
ISBN: 978-0385542074
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: Winner of many literary prizes in his home country of France, Patrick Modiano was also WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014.

“I found myself at the Chatelet metro station at peak hour….There was a woman wearing a yellow coat….She was so like my mother that I thought it must be her….She had the same profile as my mother, that distinctive nose, slightly upturned. The same bright eyes. The same high forehead. She hadn’t changed much….Her mouth was set in a bitter grimace. [Now] I was certain it was her.” Therese, age nineteen.

cover little jewelIn an unusual twist, author Patrick Modiano uses a young woman, Therese, as his main character in this intense and seductive novel of identity. Few readers of his novels, however, will notice much difference in her thinking from that of the young men who are also searching for identity in many of Modiano’s other novels. Her isolation from her parents is like theirs – and like that of Modiano himself as he has described his childhood and early teens. At age nine, Modiano was essentially abandoned by his parents and given over to a group of young circus acrobats to raise.  He did not see his parents for two years, except when his father occasionally appeared late at night for secret “meetings” related to smuggling he was doing for the French Gestapo. The arrest of the acrobats left Modiano alone, and he ended up in boarding schools with no parental guidance.  There he used his prodigious writing skills as an outlet for his emotions, eventually attracting the attention of author Raymond Queneau, who became his mentor.


Therese, who is about nineteen as this novel opens, has had a similar experience. Put on a train as a six-or-seven-year-old child, with a sign around her neck directing those in charge to take her to a woman in the countryside for care, she was abandoned by her mother. Herself an actress like Modiano’s own mother, Therese’s mother had assumed several different names during Therese’s early childhood. Years later, even if Therese had been able to mount a search for her mother, she would have had no idea what name her mother might be using. She left behind only a portrait of herself and a small metal box containing a diary, a notebook of contacts, and a few jottings on paper. Periodically, Therese would look through this assortment of “stuff,” but the only news she ever heard of her mother was a long-ago report that she had died in Morocco.

Chatelet Metro station, where Therese first sees the woman in the yellow coat.

Chatelet Metro station, where Therese first sees the woman in the yellow coat.

Now nineteen, Therese suddenly believes she has seen her mother at the Chatellet metro station, and her longing for information inspires her to follow the woman in the yellow coat as she travels the metro. “I had no desire to speak to her; I felt nothing in particular towards her. Circumstances had prevented us from sharing what people call the milk of human kindness. The only thing I wanted to know was where she had washed up, 12 years after her death in Morocco.” Soon she becomes obsessed with following the woman, going to the train station nearly every day in case the woman appears and then takes the train. As Therese rides the train in pursuit, she reminisces about her childhood nickname, Little Jewel, and her mother’s name Sonia, a made-up name, since Therese knows her real name is Suzanne Carderes.  Conversations which Therese later has with the concierge of the apartment building to which woman in the yellow coat returns at night also indicate that the woman is referred to as the Kraut and as Death Cheater by other residents, and that she is behind on the rent. Eventually, Therese musters the courage to go upstairs to the woman’s apartment, where she discovers that the nameplate on the woman’s door reads “Comtesse Sonia O’Dauye.”  She does not knock on the door.

jardin de acclimation1

The little girl for whom Therese is babysitting had to look out her bedroom window at the Jardin de l’Acclamatation every night, though there was little chance she’d get to go there.

The layers of reality (or fantasy) here quickly begin to accumulate.  When Therese eventually gets a job as a babysitter for a lonely young girl, the overlaps between the early life of Therese and the life of the unnamed child begin to combine and blur.  The child’s parents fight constantly and disappear at night leaving her alone to feed herself and put herself to bed. They spend no time with her and have no discernible feelings for her. No one is quite sure of their name, and no one knows where they came from or how long they plan to stay. The child’s room, ironically, overlooks the Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children’s park, though she never gets to play there. Soon Therese’s life becomes a balancing act between caring for the child, following the woman with the yellow coat, and enjoying a new relationship with a young man who is able to translate writing and radio commentary into twenty different languages. She feels guilty that she has lied to him about having been to a language school, and she becomes engulfed by the emotional turmoil taking place inside her on many different levels.

The Gare de Lyon, with its famous clock.

The Gare de Lyon, with its famous clock.

At the halfway point in the novel, Therese has her moment of recognition. Overwhelmed and feeling lost, she has been walking around the area by the Gare de Lyon, a place where, as a child, she was sometimes was cared for by her “uncle,” Jean Borand, one of the few people who was ever kind to her. As she tries to imagine seeing him again, she realizes that none of the places around the station look familiar to her now. All she can see is the Gare de Lyon and its illuminated clock face, symbolic to the reader on several levels. Suddenly she realizes that “The time had come to make a break…I had to see this through to the end, without really knowing what “to the end” meant.” Looking in the window of a pharmacy, she sees a woman pharmacist’s face, “so different from Death Cheater’s….There was a calmness and grace about her in the soothing glow of the light.” Therese walks inside, her chest feeling as if it is “suffocating her.” The sensitive chemist tends to her, and for the first time in her life Therese shares her real feelings.

"I was in a big glass cage. I looked around There were aquariums in other glass cages...I wondered what the shadows in the aquariums could possible be."

“I was in a big glass cage. I looked around. There were aquariums in other glass cages.”

As Therese works her way toward a resolution of the many different elements of her conflicts – her mother, her goals for the future, her male translator friend, the child she babysits for, and her fondness for the chemist/pharmacist who has been so helpful to her – she continues to have her ups and downs and the emergencies that go with them. She has never experienced love, parental or otherwise; she has no personal resources on which to draw for strength; she has no real knowledge of how to begin to fix her life; and she is totally alone. Modiano makes Therese’s life real and understandable, making it feel as “normal” for the reader as it is for Therese – a life that might have happened to any one of us – and he seems to suggest that it is only by chance that any of us manage to make it through our lives. Without a trace of sentimentality, Modiano creates one of the most revelatory of all his novels, one that shows the possibilities of resolution and redemption, even for those who have always been alone, a novel that ranks high on my Favorites list.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo on http://www.babelio.com/

The Chatelet metro station where Therese first saw the “woman in the yellow coat” is shown on https://soundlandscapes.wordpress.com/

The little girl for whom Therese is babysitting had to look out her bedroom window at the Jardin de l’Acclamatation every night, though there was little chance she’d get to go there.  http://www.lesparisdemma.com/

At the Gare de Lyon, with its iconic clock, Therese begins to come to  a recognition regarding her future.  http://www.lesparisdemma.com

When Therese finds herself in a “big glass cage, she “looks around.  There were aquariums in other glass cages.”  http://www.reamaternity.gr

ARC: Yale University

REVIEW. France, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Yale University
Date Published: 08/23/2016
Edition: Margellos World Repubic of Letters Book
ISBN: 978-0300221824
Available in: Ebook Paperback


Note: Canadian author Ross King is a three-time WINNER of the Governor General’s Award, the highest literary award in Canada, for Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (2003), The Judgment of Paris: the Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (2006), and Leonardo and the Last Supper (2012).

“Painters of water [like Claude Monet] usually concentrated on more distant effects, such as moonlight shimmering on ruffled rivers or waves crashing heavily on the beach. Monet himself was an acknowledged master of these sorts of waterscapes…But Monet beside his lily pond was in search of more intimate impressions as he registered not only the surface vegetation and reflections but also the water’s murky, half-hidden depths.”

cover mad enchantment

Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) was already recognized as one of the most important impressionist painters in the world by the time this study of his work begins in 1914. At seventy-four, he still worked outdoors, painting in his garden at Giverny, his rural home forty miles northwest of Paris. He was impatient to keep working, with many more paintings to go, many more milestones to reach. The word “impressionistic,” a pejorative term when it was first applied to the work of Monet and others at their group exhibition in Paris in 1874, refers to their seemingly spontaneous and unstructured style, a marked contrast to the smooth, elegantly formal paintings of the Salon of Paris, the official style of the French Academie des Beaux Arts. The impressionists’ light-filled paintings and their ability to achieve a new depth and immediacy in their work by superimposing colors upon colors in short brush strokes, gradually won over patrons, and over the next twenty-five years, artists like Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt became both famous and successful.

Author Ross King received the Governor General's Award in Canada for LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER.

Author Ross King as he receives the Canada’s Governor General’s Award in 2012 for LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER.

Among Monet’s closest friends was Georges Clemenceau, a former Prime Minister of France, leader of the Radical Party, medical doctor, journalist, novelist, art lover, supporter of Alfred Dreyfus, and, not incidentally, lover of gardening who lived within twenty miles of Claude Monet. Skilled at negotiating on a professional level, Clemenceau was one of the few people who could “get through” to the stubborn and uncompromising Monet when Monet became impatient with the progress of his work and, later, the status of his eyesight. It is Clemenceau’s presence throughout this book which provides a clear perspective on the life and work of Monet and its place within the life of a country at war against Germany from 1914 – 1918. The ironic image of Monet, taking an underground passage every day to his private garden so that he could paint his roses, water lilies, and weeping willows while the Battle of Verdun was going on just two hundred miles away, provides a perspective on Monet’s artistic commitments and their contrast with the work of Clemenceau, who was Minister of War.

Monet, Clemenceau, and the water lilies.

Claude Monet, Georges Clemenceau, and the water lilies.

Besides Clemenceau, Monet was fortunate throughout his life to have a number of other people dedicated to his welfare. His first wife, Camille, by whom he had two children, sometimes accompanied him on his studio-boat, where he could paint while observing the changes in the water’s surface, along with the ambient light, color, sky, and shadows. After Camille died at age thirty-two, Monet began a long affair (and later marriage) with Alice Hoschede, an artist married to a man who had been one of Monet’s patrons. When Alice died in 1911, her daughter Blanche, who married Monet’s son Jean, became Monet’s caregiver and assistant. Other loyal friends were Gustave Geffroy, a journalist, art critic, and novelist, who was also a friend of Clemenceau, and Sacha Guitry, an actor, director, and playwright, who was a generation younger than Monet, but whom Monet regarded as “a delightful friend.” These characters appear and reappear through the book as they offer council and often try to cheer the often impatient and frustrated Monet.

Edouard Manet paints Monet and wife Clarisse in Monet's boat-studio, ca. 1874

Edouard Manet portrays Monet and first wife Clarisse in Monet’s boat- studio, ca. 1874. Click to enlarge.

As Monet aged, his work became more abstract, and his water lily paintings, done very late in his career, are not only his biggest, but, many critics believe, his best paintings. In 1909, he had told a friend from Paris, Raymond Koechlin, a wealthy and cultured patron, that he would like to install “a flowery aquarium in a domestic setting to provide a tranquil oasis.” The primary motif he had in mind was of water lilies from his own water-garden, which he had painted occasionally in the past, and when Koechlin visited him again in 1914 and asked about this project, Monet said that he was, in fact, beginning to work on this idea, though “he felt ashamed to be painting when so many people were suffering and dying.” Recognizing that “moping changes nothing,” however, Monet admits to Koechlin, “I’m pursuing my idea of a Grande Decoration,” a project that would consume the rest of his life.

One of Monet's "upside down" paintings with the sky at the bottom as a reflection. This also shows the weeping willows upside down.

One of Monet’s “upside down” paintings with the sky at the bottom as a reflection. This also shows the weeping willows upside down.  Click to enlarge and to see many more closeups of Monet paintings.

Building a new studio to accommodate huge canvases –  each of which was six-and-a-half feet high by fourteen feet long, Monet would eventually create fourteen separate series incorporating and connecting up to fifty panels. These panels, if combined end to end, would have stretched over seven hundred feet – a Grande Decoration by any measure. Determined to donate some of these to France and its museums, Monet hoped to have some of them displayed in an oval room, where they would be “glued” to the walls to accommodate the curve of the room and create an almost circular view. Eventually, in 1922, he signed a contract to have eight enormous panels installed in the Musee de L’Orangerie in Paris. Though the country expected these to be delivered within a year, circumstances prevented that. Monet had been diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes in 1912, and now, after ten years, his sight was seriously compromised.

Three of Monet's enormous panoramas installed at the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris.

Three of Monet’s enormous panoramas installed at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris. Click to enlarge and to see many more closeups of Monet paintings.

In 1922, as he was producing his huge, new water lily paintings, he became frustrated by his problems with color, distance, and clarity. He had already destroyed many paintings by the time he saw a physician in Paris and learned he was legally blind in one eye and had only ten percent vision in the other. He needed cataract surgery immediately. Frantic at the idea of a long recovery lying flat on his back, unable to lift his head or move for weeks, Monet had the surgery, but he was an impossible, tempestuous, sometimes violent patient who refused to follow directions. Eventually, he would have three surgeries, refusing to have a much-needed fourth. Emotionally alone, he became convinced that he could not produce the required panels and that his life’s work had no value.  Nevertheless,  he kept working on these paintings, though he could not bear to part with them or consider them finished. They did not leave Giverny to be installed at the Musee de l’Orangerie until after his death at age eighty-six in 1926, and Monet would never fully comprehend how much his work influenced young artists and taught them how to see. A comprehensive, involving, carefully researched, and well illustrated study of Claude Monet at the end of his life.

Also by Ross King:  MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE’S CEILING,    BRUNELLESCHI’S DOME: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture,     LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER

A short film entitled “Ceux de Chez Nous,” made by Monet’s friend Sacha Guitry in 1915, shows Monet talking with Guitry and (at the one-minute mark)  a scene in Monet’s garden with Monet himself painting there:

Photos, in order:  Author Ross King is shown at his award ceremony for the Governor General’s Award of Canada for Leonardo and the Last Supper (2012):  http://www.ctvnews.ca/

The photo of Claude Monet, Georges Clemenceau, and the Water Lilies may be found on http://www.mamylou.fr/

Edouard Manet made a portrait of his friend Claude Monet and Camille, his wife, in 1874, in Monet’s boat-studio:  http://www.manet.org/

One of Monet’s “upside down” paintings with the sky at the bottom as a reflection. This also shows the weeping willows, upside down.  Many more Monet pictures shown here:  http://poulwebb.blogspot.com/

Three large panoramas are shown from the Musee de L’Orangerie in Paris.  To get an idea of scale, these doorways are enormous, and the seating in the center will hold eight people.  Many more Monet photos are seen here.  http://poulwebb.blogspot.com/

ARC:  Bloomsbury

MAD ENCHANTMENT: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
REVIEW. Biography, Art History, Book Club Suggestions, France, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, VIDEO
Written by: Ross King
Published by: Bloomsbury
Date Published: 09/06/2016
ISBN: 978-1632860125
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

David Trueba–BLITZ

Note: Spanish author David Trueba was WINNER of Spain’s National Critics Prize in 2009 for his novel Learning to Lose. His film Living is Easy with Eyes Closed was WINNER of Goya Awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.

“Pivotal moments remain immortalized in your memory, associated with a circumstance, a detail, a place, a time of day. It was raining, you were wearing that sweater, a yellow car passed, a pigeon had been run over in the street. I didn’t want my breakup with Marta to get spattered with yogurt sauce. I would always associate the end of our romance with that kebab lunch in Munich; no further details necessary.” –Beto Sanz.

cover trueba blitzFrom the outset of this novel, author David Trueba’s ability to visualize and recreate intense word pictures dominates his style, making the reading of this novel a special treat on several different levels. Not only does he show the places and people surrounding his main character, Beto Sanz, instead of simply telling about them, but he also channels Beto’s own inner thoughts, providing lively commentary on virtually every aspect of his life and the activity around him. As the narrative opens, Beto has just arrived in Munich from Madrid for a conference for landscape architects, where his firm is a finalist for an international prize. His project is competing in the category of “landscape intervention, not necessarily feasible or reasonable…[but] something like a fantasy or a fiction.” Beto’s particular innovation is a “forest of human-sized hourglasses…sand clocks, which if you turned them over, accorded you a measured period of time to devote to your own thoughts…a reminder and quantifier of time, but also…an escape.” He is nervous but full of hope as he prepares for his presentation to the jury, after which he and Marta, his partner and lover, will return immediately to Spain.

Photo by Rafael Lopez-Monne, Tarragona Turisme

Photo of the author by Rafael Lopez-Monne, Tarragona Turisme

Later that day, while he is waiting to pick up a lunch order at a restaurant, Beto, in typical fashion, is maundering to himself about cell phones and vibrations and whether phones are harmful addictions; whether they will bring about deaths, million-dollar judgments, and detox clinics; and even whether they cause hyperactivity in children. Suddenly, the phone in his pocket vibrates with a text message: “haven’t told him yet, it’s really hard. argh. I [heart] u.” When he looks back at the table where Marta is sitting, he can “see from her expression that she’d sent [him] the text by mistake.”  She has sent her message, meant for her current lover, to Beto instead.  “Marta’s past had returned, elbowing my future right off the track,” Beto concludes. Some stubborn force prevents him from “stooping to recriminations,” but the next day Beto remains in Munich while Marta returns Madrid.

Allianza Arena, the soccer/football stadium in Munich, designed by Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog.

Allianza Arena, the soccer/football stadium in Munich, designed by Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, holds no interest for Marta.

What follows is the intimate story of one calendar year from January, when Marta and Beto end their relationship, through December, when Beto begins to take some control of his life. His is a long story of inaction and of doing what seems right at the time without any serious contemplation of the future. The author, a well-regarded film maker, allows the reader to share Beto’s innermost thoughts and experience some of his questionable activities, while he also uses visual elements from art and architecture to ground Beto’s life in a greater reality. It is up to the reader, however, to see relationships between the author’s choice of details and Beto’s inner life, since the author never becomes didactic, preferring to maintain the “tragicomedy” of Beto’s behavior without offering commentary. In one of the earliest artistic references, Helga, a woman in her sixties who is volunteering for the conference, picks up Beto and Marta at the airport and points out the Allianza Arena, the Munich soccer/football stadium, world famous for its architecture. Beto comments to Marta about the architects, but “she didn’t seem very interested,” a strange attitude considering the imposing architecture, the fact that it is the first stadium in the world to have a full color changing exterior, and the fact that she is his business partner in a company that celebrates architecture and landscape architecture.

Poster for F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, 1925.

Poster for F. W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” 1925.

Beto’s later decision to stay in Munich after the breakup, while Marta returns home, leaves him without a place to stay. Helga, the kindly, older woman who has picked them up at the airport, offers to let him stay at her apartment overnight until he can make new arrangements for his trip home. There he is impressed by an enormous poster for F. W. Murnau’s film The Last Laugh (1925) on her living room wall. In that film, an elderly man who lives a very simple life in near poverty, works his heart out as a doorman for a hotel and is proud of his work, fully living up to the impression his elegant uniform creates. When the old man, getting weaker with age, is demoted to washroom attendant, losing his uniform in the process, he loses his sense of identity and all his pride. Helga, the woman who has displayed this poster on her living room wall, is a practical and thoughtful woman with an inherent sense of pride, a characteristic we see during lessons she subtly illustrates to Beto during his visit. Beto is clearly a man with hopes but little sense of pride – and no real resources for taking charge of his life.

"Madonna" by Edvard Munch, with child in bottom left.

“Madonna” by Edvard Munch, with child in bottom left.

Also in Helga’s living room is a postcard of a reproduction of Edvard Munch’s Madonna, which also arouses strong feelings in Beto: “I felt like that monstrous infant in the corner of the painting, a fetal Baby Jesus, gazing neurotically at the ethereal beauty of his mother,” perhaps suggesting, on some level, his attitude toward the kindly Helga.

Later, on a tour of Munich before he returns to Madrid, Beto sees a sign for a small exhibition of paintings by Otto Dix, and he and Helga observe “the frightened, imperfect, spent, and fragile” women Dix painted, all considered “Degenerate Art” by the Nazis. Several of these paintings are included in this book, and though Helga finds the paintings disgusting, Beto is not so sure, another example of his lack of commitment, empathy, and serious thought.

Woman with Red Hair by Otto Dix, considered "Degenerate Art" by the Nazis and scorned by Helga.

“Woman with Red Hair” by Otto Dix, considered “Degenerate Art” by the Nazis and scorned by Helga.

In the second half of the novel, Beto moves to Barcelona, and meets some new women but never feels quite comfortable with them. Ironically, it is his greatest competitor who has provided him with a new job and helped him gain some sense of direction, though not a direction he has ever before considered. The novel is darkly humorous, at the same time that it deals with a talented young man with little sense of direction and no sense of purpose, a personal failure in the making. His inner thoughts, often clichéd and conventional, show little of the creativity which his landscape design suggests.  It is his obvious vulnerability which draws in the reader and keeps the tension high. The conclusion, which comes as a surprise, may leave a few unanswered questions for the reader – Is the ending comic? Or is it tragic?  You decide.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo by Rafael Lopez-Monne appears on http://www.tarragonaturisme.cat/

The Allianza Arena, the soccer/football stadium in Munich, designed by Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog and built in 2006, is the first stadium in the world to have a full color changing exterior. https://www.pinterest.com/

The poster of F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1925) adorns the living room of Helga, the sixty-three-year-old woman who drives Beto and Marta to their hotel and later helps Beto with his travel arrangements.  http://www.filmposter-archiv.de/

A post card in Helga’s living room of Edvard Munch’s Madonna, with child at the left bottom, arouses Beto’s feelings:  “I felt like that monstrous infant in the corner of the painting, a fetal Baby Jesus, gazing neurotically at the ethereal beauty of his mother.” http://www.thetimes.co.uk

Beto and Helga see an exhibition of the paintings of Otto Dix, considered Degenerate Art by the Nazis.  She is disgusted by it.  He is not so sure.  https://www.pinterest.com/

ARC: Other Press

Spain, Germany, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, tragicomedy
Written by: David Trueba
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 08/30/2016
ISBN: 978-1590517840
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Northeast Italy is a complicated territory, split between mountains and plains. And swamps that aren’t marked on the maps. Swamps everywhere. Full of dangerous, lethal snakes. Places where an alligator could wallow, rake the muck, and make some trouble.” –Commentary by Marco “the Alligator” Buratti.

cover carlotto all gold world“The Alligator’s” metaphorical description of northeast Italy, especially the area around Padua, comes so vividly to life in this series of Mediterranean Noir novels that the reader might be excused for wondering how author Massimo Carlotto obtained his knowledge of crime and criminals. His writing feels true. His thoughts on the judicial system in Italy feel far more sophisticated and far more complex than what one would normally expect to see in a mystery series which has made the author one of the most popular noir novelists in Europe. His own views of what constitutes “justice,” if his main character Marco Buratti, “the Alligator,” can be considered his “voice,” are more “flexible” than those of any other author I can recall reading. At one point in this novel, Buratti, who works as an unlicensed private investigator, comments that “you can’t leave someone alive if he might decide without warning to pump you full of lead or else hire someone else to do it for him.” He adds that “in the underworld, when situations arise that threaten to end in a bloodbath, the thing to do, if possible, is to arrange for negotiations that will at least limit the number of corpses.”

author photoAuthor Carlotto’s attitudes are, in fact, the product of his own experience. In 1976, when he was nineteen, he responded to cries for help from a woman stabbed over fifty times. Covered with blood from trying to save her, he was later arrested for her murder, his case becoming one of the longest cases ever tried in Italy. Lasting eighteen years, and involving eighty-six different judges, his case was tried and retried eleven times, and it was not until eleven years after all that, that he was finally pardoned in 2004 – twenty-eight years after the crime. Carlotto has known the “justice” system firsthand, and he knows it to be a fallible system, to say the least. From his own incarceration and the people he came to know there, he is also familiar with the many different and sometimes competing Mafia groups that operate within the country, each applying its own system of justice to keep the peace. Stating that he has “never made up a murder” in his novels, Carlotto claims to have researched every murder he has written about, to have studied all the autopsy reports, and even to have interviewed those eventually convicted of these crimes. (Source for biographical information here, story by Brian Oliver.)

Punta Sabbioni, outside of Venice. Click to see larger map.

Punta Sabbioni, outside of Venice. Click to enlarge.

In this novel, like the others in the Alligator series, Carlotto features main character Marco “the Alligator” Buratti, who, with two partners, undertakes very private investigations in which he must rely on formation from informants and from people friendly to him in the underworld. He cannot go to the police – he is an ex-con and unlicensed – and his partners have been his friends ever since they met in prison. They all live in and around Padua, twenty-five miles due west of Venice on the Bacchiglione River. Max the Memory, an overweight man who had once “taken a bullet in his flab” to protect Marco, has cardiac and metabolic problems, and he spends his time every morning studying the latest newspapers and recording items for his archive about local criminals and notables, information which he uses to help with their work. Max and Marco share Max’s elaborate apartment, given to him by a Swiss client who was murdered by gangsters. The third partner, Beniamino Rossini, in his seventies, is a bandit, smuggler, and thief, who keeps a boat on Punta Sabbioni, an island northeast of Venice on the Adriatic, where he has contact with people from the old Yugoslavia, a well known source for drugs coming into Italy.

Palazzo della Ragione, the "city hall" of Padua, with its daily market. Photo by Stefan Bauer

Palazzo della Ragione, the “city hall” of Padua, built 1172 – 1219, with its daily market. Photo by Stefan Bauer.  Click to enlarge.

When Marco is visited by three gang members, strangers led by Nicola Spezzafumo, “the Goldsmith,” he is brought up to date on a two-year-old crime in which three masked men broke into a country villa and tortured and then murdered the businessman-owner of the villa and an innocent housekeeper who was the mother of a boy now twelve. After two years, the police have no suspects, though an anonymous letter has told them that three men in masks dragged three suitcases from the murder scene. The owner of the villa, Gastone Oddo, was part of the gang run by Nick the Goldsmith and was the man who hid their “merchandise” and their weapons, laundered their money, and invested their profits. There had been “two million in gold, precious stones, and cash,” and three Kalashnikovs, handguns, and ammunition stolen in the invasion of the villa.

Throughout the novel, Buratti drives in his Skoda Felicia, a "super-mini car," smaller than a VW Beetle 1992 - 2001.

Throughout the novel, Buratti drives in his Skoda Felicia, a “super-mini car” from Czechoslovakia, built 1994 – 2001, smaller than a VW Beetle.

Buratti refuses to take the case, however, since he realizes that if he and his partners track down the killers, the gang could then decide to shut them up permanently, or if the gang is stupid in their actions, as he thinks they might be, Buratti and Co. might end up in jail. Instead, he finds the young son of the innocent, murdered housekeeper and volunteers to work for him in exchange for whatever money the boy has in his pocket. For twenty cents, little Sergio hires him to investigate his mother’s death. The three partners go about their work as the author introduces between thirty-five and forty new characters to the narrative. Since this is a novel of action, rather than character, some readers will want to keep a character list to avoid becoming confused by so many undeveloped characters engaged in several different and competing gangs, some of whom keep busy by killing each other.

Like most books by Italian authors, the food eaten by the characters gets a great deal of attention. Here is the Risotto Agli Scampi, which Buratti ate with his friends.

As in most books by Italian authors, the food eaten by the characters gets a great deal of attention. Here is the Risotto Agli Scampi, which Buratti enjoys with his friends.

As the action develops, the author provides a commentary on Italy and its on-going war on crime. From the “gentlemen bandits” of the past, which led to a code of behavior which still continues among organized crime, to their opposites – men and women who have rebelled against organized crime but still war privately against corruption – Carlotto shares his observations. He explains and illustrates through the action here that when rival gangs have a serious problem to resolve, “they talk early and often before moving on to the mass slaughter option,” but he also realizes that “Civilians often have no idea that the inner workings of the underworld are so twisted that criminals turn to violence because it may be the only way to find a simple solution.” There is no absolute concept of right or wrong in Carlotto’s novels. Justice is what works in a given situation and leaves the greatest number of good people safe, the greatest number of most hateful people, punished. As Buratti says, “Improvisation only makes sense in jazz.”

Note:  Smoothly translated by Anthony Shugaar

ALSO by Carlotto:  BANDIT LOVE

Photos, in order.  The author’s photo appears on http://biografieonline.it

Punta Sabbioni, an island to the northeast of Venice, is where Beniamino Rossini keeps his boat, with its easy access to the Adriatic and the coast of old Yugoslavia, a famed source of illicit drugs.  https://www.pinterest.com/

Palazzo della Ragione, the “city hall” of Padua, built from 1172 – 1219, has a daily market. https://commons.wikimedia.org    Photo by Stefan Bauer.  https://www.ferras-agency.com

The Skoda Felicia, a “super mini-car” built in Czechoslovakia from 1994 – 2001, is Buratti’s favorite, despite its small size (smaller than a VW Beetle). http://www.tuningmodelar.estranky.cz/

As in many other Italian novels, food plays an important part.  Here is the Risotto Agli Scampi, enjoyed by Buratti: http://www.giallozafferano.it/

ARC: Europa Editions

REVIEW. Italy, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Massimo Carlotto
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 07/19/2016
ISBN: 978-1609453367
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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