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Note: In 1996 author Graham Swift was WINNER of the Booker Prize and WINNER of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Last Orders. He was also WINNER of the Guardian Fiction Prize for Waterland in 1983.

“It was a strange business, this Mothering Sunday ahead of them, a ritual already fading, yet the Nivens – and the Sheringhams – still clung to it, as the world itself, or the world in dreamy Berkshire, still clung to it, for the same sad, wishing-the-past-back reasons. As the Nivens and the Sheringhams perhaps clung to each other more than they’d used to, as if they’d become one common decimated family.”

cover mothering sundayAs the novel opens on March 30, 1924, the Nivens, Sheringhams and others throughout England are celebrating Mothering Sunday, a holiday in which the citizens, aristocracy and servants alike, celebrate their mothers. Servants are especially happy, as they all get a day off to travel to their homes and visit with family. Jane Fairchild, who works as a housemaid at Beechwood in an atmosphere much like that of a small Downton Abbey, will not be traveling, however. A foundling deposited at the door of an orphanage shortly after she was born, Jane has never known a mother or a father, does not know any birth name she may have had, and has spent her whole life in an orphanage – until, at age fourteen, she entered “service.” At sixteen she begins working for the Niven family, which, in the aftermath of World War I, has reduced the number of their household servants to two – Milly, the cook, and Jane, the maid.

As we learn in the opening pages, Jane, now twenty-two, has been having a secret sexual relationship for the past six years with the only surviving son and heir of neighboring aristocrats. On the holiday, that young man, Paul Sheringham, will be entertaining Jane in his own house and in his own bed for the first time, and, at his request, Jane will arrive at the estate’s front door as an equal, not at the servants’ entrance. Paul’s parents and the Nivens are off visiting with their friends, the Hobdays, celebrating Paul’s future marriage to Emma Hobday, a woman of “appropriate” class. The wedding is scheduled to be held in just two weeks.

Mr. Nevin takes his wife in the Humber car as they meet the Sheringhams and Hobdays at The Swan for lunch.

Mr. Nevin takes his wife in the Humber car as they meet the Sheringhams and Hobdays at an inn for lunch.

Author Graham Swift sets the tone and mood at the outset with the inclusion of a one-sentence epigraph introducing the novella: “You shall go to the ball.”  And while his audience may be thinking of Cinderella and happy endings, Swift also introduces the opening paragraph with “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed, when there were more horses than cars, and before the male servants disappeared…” The dark ironies involving the shattering loss of four young sons of the Niven and Sheringham families during the war, along with the developing new world order and the changing values of their society at all levels indicate a far more complex story than the happy-ending stories of childhood. As Jane shares her seemingly circumscribed life within which she gradually shows signs of intellectual growth, and Paul tries to survive his differently circumscribed life with some sense of integrity and independence, the reader becomes aware of just how much society has changed with the world war and how much these changes affect the future of the entire nation. The whole notion of personal freedom and independence for all, not just the aristocracy, is challenging the very foundations of social life.

lady cydclist2

Jane leaves Beechwood on “the second bicycle” to meet Paul Sheringham at Upleigh when the Nevins depart for the inn. She is pleased to arrive, not by a back road but by cycling directly to the front entrance and entering as an equal.

Though Paul Sheringham was supposed to join his family, friends, and future wife, Emma Hobday, for a late lunch during the holiday, he has chosen to entertain Jane instead, telling the others that he has to study for some law exams, though “he had as much intention of becoming a lawyer as becoming a lettuce.” His assignation with Jane, passionate and sexual, brings a sense of peace to Jane, who understands what is at stake and knows that this will probably be their last time together, and even as she watches Paul get up from the bed, she believes that “There never was a day like this nor ever will be or can be again.” As for Paul, “he wanted her to be there, [though] it might have been her role in another life, in a commoner comic story, to be already scurrying downstairs, still adjusting her clothing. It was his wish before he left, to see here there, to have her there, nakedly and…immovably occupying his bedroom, so that the image of her would be there, branding itself on his mind, even as he met…his [bride-to-be].” He delays and delays his departure, eventually leaving the house so late that his absence will certainly embarrass his family, friends, and future in-laws, and especially his fiancee, awaiting his arrival at the inn.

The Swan Inn on the Thames, where Paul is scheduled to meet Emma for lunch. Pohoto by Richard Leigh

The Swan Inn on the Thames, where Emma is awaiting Paul for lunch. Photo by Richard Leigh

About halfway through the book, Swift unexpectedly changes the time frame. Jane is now in her nineties, and, as she describes changes in her life over the past sixty-five years, she also provides more information about her early life at the Nivens’ estate, showing the reader how some elements of her early life, especially regarding her interest in adventure books, play out more fully over the course of her adult life. An acute observer of the people around her, she is now living a happy and productive old age, fulfilled in ways which she and the reader never expected when she was in her twenties. It is to Swift’s credit that the reader is able to understand how Jane arrived at her goals though the author has presented this information casually and without much emphasis during the early action of the book, requiring the reader to form conclusions on his/her own. Jane’s long interest in reading, which Mr. Niven encouraged by allowing her to borrow books from his library, allows her to make sense from her new experiences and to feel a new kind of independence. Though she seems to trace everything in her life back to her last day with Paul Sheringham, she regards that time as almost holy, and has never shared that story with anyone else, except the reader.

After her assignation with Paul Sheringham, Jane returns by bike to Beechwood, where she begins Joseph Conrad's YOUTH, eventually reading most of Conrad's work in the aftermath of events.

After her assignation with Paul Sheringham, Jane returns by bike to Beechwood, where she begins reading Joseph Conrad’s YOUTH, eventually reading most of Conrad’s work in the aftermath of unfolding events.

Swift never spells out Jane’s inner quandaries leading up to her arrival at “the ball” during the seventy years between opening and closing of the novel. Instead, the reader follows Jane obliquely as the author provides information which Jane has previously kept private, leaving it up to the reader to fill in the blanks between what she says in her old age and any issues which must have arisen as she matured. The reader, always on her side, shares in her life, despite her reticence, and the novel speeds along on the strength of its characters’ independent decisions and their life-changing moments, however small they may seem to the world at large. Times change, but those who can find a “language” for expressing what they have to say have a chance at getting at the truth, “the very feel of being alive.”


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

The 1924 Humber leaving the front of an elegant house might have been the car that Mr. Nevin drove to his meeting with the Sheringhams and the Hobdays.

The photo of the young woman on the bicycle is part of the collection at http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/

Paul is scheduled to meet Emma at the Swan Inn on the Thames at 1:30 but leaves Upleigh at an embarrassingly late time.  Photo by Richard Leigh.  https://www.tripadvisor.com

After Jane returns to Beechwood, she reads a book from Mr. Nevin’s library , YOUTH by Joseph Conrad, the first of many Conrad books Jane later reads with excitement.  As Conrad was still alive until August, 1924, Jane even fantasizes about having an encounter with Conrad. http://www.famousauthors.org/joseph-conrad

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, England, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Graham Swift
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/19/2016
ISBN: 978-1101947524
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note: This novel was WINNER of the Irish Novel of the Year Award and is SHORTLISTED for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for 2016. Author Enright is a previous WINNER of the Man Booker Prize.

“You could tell Rosaleen about disease, war, and mudslides, and she would look faintly puzzled, because there were, clearly, much more interesting things happening in the County Clare….Local gossip, that is what his mother allowed, and only of a particular kind. Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road. Her own ailments, of course, other people’s diseases…”

cover green roadAnne Enright’s intimate and often humorous look at an Irish family with roots in an unnamed County Clare village near Limerick may reflect the values and attitudes of one family in that part of Ireland, but Enright is by no means parochial. The Madigan family dynamics, which operate beneath their polite veneer, betray long-time resentments, continuing hostilities, and difficulties in communication shared by other families, not just in Ireland, but almost anywhere else in the world. Enright’s skillful rendering of the Madigan family members as they interact with each other and within the new worlds they choose to inhabit – away from their mother and their home village – reflects deep feelings, and will feel familiar to many, if not most, readers because of their universality. Rosaleen Madigan, the widowed matriarch of the family has always been a powerful figure within her family, managing all aspects of family life and the household where she has lived with her husband and children for her entire marriage. Now she is alone and lonely, and she will not “go gently into that dark night.” She has a plan.

author photoChristmas is coming, and as she writes her Christmas cards, she asks her children to come to Ardeevin for the holidays. She has decided to do something that will change all their lives while guaranteeing that their future success will always be connected to her. Only one of the children, Constance, lives near Rosaleen, and the others have not been as closely in touch as the needy Rosaleen would like. Dan, her favorite child as he was growing up, now lives in New York. Emmet, her second son, is a volunteer in Mali, West Africa, and the youngest, Hanna, lives in Dublin and has almost no contact. In scenes which range from 1980 to 2005, all the children share their lives with the reader. All are dealing, on some level, with social and personal issues of which Rosaleen is unaware–cancer, AIDS, the deaths of friends, children born out of wedlock, drugs and alcohol, and the inability to love. Like Rosaleen, none are happy.

At one point Constance drives past Bunratty Castle, built in 1425. The Durty Nelly pub beside it is the first ever built.

At one point Constance drives past Bunratty Castle, built in 1425. The Durty Nelly pub beside it is the original Durty Nelly’s, established in 1620.

Enright creates the Madigan family in revealing detail within a highly sophisticated structure which lets this family laugh, cry, and fume. Part I divides into five sections, one for each of the four children and Rosaleen. Since a different character is point of view for each of these sections, much information about other characters is revealed, creating insights into the whole family and its interactions. In the first section, for example, Hanna is twelve, sent on an errand to Considine’s Medical Hall to get medicine for Rosaleen. As she walks through the town, her observations about the people and places include Pat Doran, who decorated a tree with an old pair of pants to look like a person who has fallen into the oil drum beneath it. The window display at Considine’s Medical Hall consists of cardboard boxes faded by the sun, each advising “Just right for the constipated child, ” another image impressive to a child. As the section develops, the reader learns that “Hanna’s mother [Rosaleen] had taken to bed” two weeks ago when son Dan, a college student in Galway, announced that he now wants to leave and go elsewhere. The effects of this discussion widen to include the rest of the extended family, and are presented with both sensitivity and some humor. It is “not the first time their mother took the horizontal solution.”

The Bandiagara escarpment in Mali, where Emmet did some work.

The Bandiagara escarpment in Mali, where Emmet did some volunteer work, a dramatically different place from the cliffs near his home in Limerick.

The next section, belonging to Rosaleen’s son Dan, takes place in 1991, more than ten years later. Dan is in New York’s East Village now, and has been there for five years, having moved in with Isabelle. Relationships within the whole community become fraught, however, as AIDS begins to affect friendships and fear takes over. Back in Limerick, Dan’s sister Constance has let her fear of a breast lump dominate her life. Their brother Emmet is working in Mali and traveling the world as a volunteer. The novel’s scope broadens further as Emmet talks about life and death and events in Bangladesh, Mozambique, and the Sudan. Rosaleen’s section, in 2005, brings the reader up to date as she writes the Christmas invitations which will lead to the climax of the novel. She thinks about Dan, now forty-three, and her other children, remembers her husband Pat, and eventually goes upstairs to the two rooms she has refused to visit for several years – the one belonging to Dan and the one in which husband Pat died. She then starts a card for Hanna, who is living the kind of life that Rosaleen has never even dreamed of. Part II, at the halfway point of the book, continues the story of these characters, already well developed, as they get ready to come home for Christmas.

Knockauns Mountain, where Rosaleen eventually begins her walk and loses, then finds, her direction.

Knockauns Mountain, where the road ends and Rosaleen eventually begins her walk on the natural Green Road, losing, then finding, her direction.

The novel, which resembles a series of interconnected short stories, focuses on individuals who are all trying to fill voids in their lives. Many years have passed since they all lived together, leaving them isolated by time and distance. In some cases, they have rebelled against the past, and in others they have become dependent upon the past. Life has been kind to some and less kind to others, with all of them seeking love and acceptance, even as they deal with death. In these regards, the novel is less “Irish” than many other such novels, as the universal themes carry this character-based novel far beyond place. In other ways, however, the atmosphere and the setting are consummately Irish, its descriptions of the village, the heritage of the family and its churchly connections over the years, the traditions, and the focus on the land and the sea. Rosaleen’s eventual epiphany “on the Green Road,” like the arrival of spring, brings about new growth within the family, and in some cases new beginnings and a new kind of happiness. Autumn and winter always follow the brightness of spring and summer, however – birth and death are forever intertwined, and beginnings always beget endings.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo comes from http://www.ucd.ie/

The fifteenth century Bunratty Castle and its companion, Durty Nelly’s, established in 1620, appear on  http://www.megalithicireland.com/

Emmet worked on the Bandiagara Escarpment and with its people in Mali. http://traveltamed.com

Knockauns Mountain, where Rosaleen’s husband Pat grew up, and where she drives till the road ends. She gets out and walks along the natural Green Road and eventually loses, then finds, direction during this night-time epiphanyhttp://www.lochstein.de/hoehlen/irland/burren/burren.htm

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Literary
Written by: Anne Enright
Published by: W. W. Norton
Date Published: 05/11/2015
ISBN: 978-0393248210
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Yoel Hoffmann–MOODS

“Ever since finishing my last book, I’ve been thinking of how to begin the next one. Beginning is everything and needs to contain, like the seed of a tree, the work as a whole. And so, what I see is the figure of a man descending (from the sidewalk?) five or six steps to a basement apartment, and he’s halfway there. I know it’s a love story. And maybe there’s a woman in the basement apartment. It’s probably November.” –from Moods, Section [1]

cover moods hoffmannAs Israeli author Yoel Hoffmann begins his wild metafictional, and often metaphysical, tale, he invites the reader along with him as he experiments with his format, lets his mind wander in new directions as one idea leads to the next, remembers the past and the people in it, thinks about God (or not) and death, and creates a tale that is both serious and full of fun at the same time – not a description which can be applied to many other novels these days. As the author himself says, later in the book, “At first glance this book would seem to be a hybrid. That is, a book that sometimes laughs and sometimes cries. But in fact (as logicians say), it’s laughing and crying at once, and to the same degree.” The book challenges the very nature of genre, emphasizing that all books are stories, just as life is, and the best way to distinguish between them is to classify them by their feelings – happy or sad, “a book that can laugh or smile or cry. The book itself. The reader can behave however he likes.”


Filled with a wildly imaginative and an unusually personal style, the book rejects the convention of using page numbers, dividing the writing into half-page sections instead, numbering them so that the reader can find his way around, and creating a sense of order and progress, though the content within the sections can vary widely. Immediately after introducing the book with the highlighted Section [1] at the beginning of this review, for example, Hoffmann launches into Section [2], which talks about his experience in an empty building in Ramat Gan in the fifties. “In that empty building a woman who’s now seventy-four (if she’s not dead) took off her dress.” He tells us in Section [3] that the man’s name was Nehemiah and the woman’s, Hermione, and, in the next sentence, he suddenly informs us that after his father died he “spritzed his deodorant into my armpits for three or four months.”

Schaffhausen watch

Schaffhausen watch, vintage 1960s.

Having introduced the ideas of love and death and family, however briefly in the first two pages, he now volunteers in the next sentence that his father “had a Schaffhausen watch, which wasn’t removed even when he fell into a coma,” further developing the idea of time’s passage, the connections between fathers and sons, and the idea of illness and unconsciousness. Within a mere three hundred fifty words, the author has done what he has promised to do in the second sentence of his novel: He has created a beginning which, “like the seed of a tree, [contains] the work as a whole.” The “novel” branches into memoir within the same two pages as the author tells the reader that he, too once “went down steps to a place where a French woman waited” and that maybe he’ll continue the story with his own memories, emphasizing that “Bookstores hold an infinite number of memories like these, but only a few speak in praise of whores.”


Azrieli Center, Tel Aviv, some of the tallest buildings in Israel.

Through flashbacks, Hoffmann recreates his own life, imagines new lives, and returns to the image of his father wearing his Schaffhausen watch, emphasizing that the men who created this watch are now either dead or very old and that their wives are also dead, and he asks the reader to “picture the wife of a watchmaker. How she places a bowl of beets on the table,” as opposed to people like Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” whom he has mentioned in an earlier section in which he refers to the potatoes at the Austrian old age home in Ramat Gan. He would like to bring back Aunt Edith so that she can be amazed by the elegant Azrieli skyscrapers in Tel Aviv which have been created since her death.



Mummies at St. Michan’s Church. Their bodies have remained relatively intact and have not decayed because of the gases emitted by the soil in the crypt of the church. The body in the top left is that of the crusader mentioned here.

References to other writers and their work, and to other cultures, reflect the author’s own background and work as a professor of Japanese poetry, Buddhism, and philosophy at a university in Israel. He contemplates concepts of beauty and the reality of death – and wonders about the souls of dogs. He has an unusual preoccupation with the life of Christ and the crucifixion, with love and hate, and with psychology and psychoanalysis, admitting that he would go down into “the world of the dead if only [he] could meet William Saroyan.” He is intrigued with the “dead who remain on the surface of the earth,” like the mummies in the crypt of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, whose flesh is preserved by the combination of elements oozing from the earthen walls and floor. He imagines the lives of these dead people, including a crusader so tall that his feet had to be cut off so he could fit into a casket, and he contemplates the miracles which sometimes accompany death.

candles lake biwa

Candles float in paper boats to celebrate the lives of family members at a festival of remembrance in Japan.

About halfway through this novel, the author thinks about changing to a more contemporary, sexier story which he believes his readers might like better than what he has written so far. He says he would like to do something “godlike” and create a person, or take a train ride to Bulgaria, and he admits that he loves his Great Pyrenees dog because he “never has anything critical to say about us.” He talks about the lies that writers perpetrate and says that the worst crime of writers is that of inflicting boredom, for which people could be thrown into prison, but, he admits, that “that’s better than sitting in Tel Aviv at fancy stores like the Bookworm.” The passage of time is remembered poignantly with his memory of the thousands of candles which the Japanese float in paper boats at a festival on Lake Biwa, each candle representing the soul of a family ancestor, and, he says, as the candles burn down and the paper boats sink, the personal experience cannot be described.

Music, and dreams, and poetry, and parallel languages also gain attention from an author so alive and so full of ideas that anyone who chooses to read this marvelous book will be powerfully affected.  Ultimately, however, Hoffmann believes that all he can really offer his readers is a kind of emptiness, which they may be able to assuage, in part, with a buy-one-get-one free prize offer, along with a beautiful tale.  He admits, in closing, that feels especially sorry for God, who must deal with perpetual loneliness.


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

The Schaffhausen watch, now sixty years old, is now a “vintage” watch, found here:  http://www.vintagewatch.ca/

The modern Azraeli Center in Tel Aviv is consists of two of the tallest buildings in Israel: https://en.wikipedia.org

The crypt of mummies in the basement of St. Michan’s Church is reachable down a narrow staircase entered from the outside of the church. The qualities of the soil and the gases the crypt emits have preserved these ancient bodies so that little to no decay has occurred.  When we were there ten years ago, it was possible to stroke the hand of the crusader for luck.  We passed on that opportunity.  http://www.chooseireland.com

Paper lanterns float with candles at a festival in Japan, in which each candle represents the soul of a deceased family member.  http://gocamperjapan.com/

ARC:  New Directions

REVIEW. Experimental, Israel, Literary
Written by: Yoel Hoffmann
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 06/09/2015
ISBN: 978-0811223829
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Daniel Silva–THE HEIST

“The butcher boy has the cruelty of his father but lacks his father’s cleverness which makes him very dangerous. At this point, it’s all about the money. It’s what’s holding the clan together. It’s why the loyalists remain loyal. It’s why children are dying by the thousands. But if you could actually get control of the money…the possibilities would be endless.” –Ari Shamron, about Syria’s ruler.

coverDaniel Silva’s fourteenth novel featuring Gabriel Allon, an Israeli secret service agent who also works as a restorer of fine art, starts with the gruesome torture murder of a former diplomat to the Middle East, found hanging by his wrists from the chandelier of an estate on Italy’s Lake Como. The victim, suspected of being both a collector and an exporter of stolen paintings from Italy, is well known to General Cesare Ferrari, head of the Art Squad of Italy, and Ferrari knows whom to contact to investigate this case about stolen art, who buys it, and why. Gabriel Allon, who is currently in Venice restoring an altarpiece, made his reputation with the Israeli secret service as a young man when he personally tracked down and executed six Black September terrorists who had killed eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Though he regards himself as an artist and art restorer, he is widely recognized as someone who will stop at nothing to right terrible wrongs and bring about true justice. He has remained connected to the Israeli secret service ever since then, and often helps other intelligence agencies throughout Europe.

silva author photo

Allon has been working on the restoration of Paolo Veronese’s “Virgin Assumed with Saints,” the main altarpiece in the small, sixteenth century church of San Sebastiano in Venice when General Ferrari asks him to help find the murderer of Jack Bradshaw at an estate along Lake Como. Bradshaw is believed to have been a collector of stolen art masterpieces, and he may also have been an exporter and seller of them.  The condition of Bradshaw’s body, which bears the marks of extreme torture, lead Ferrari and Allon to speculate that the murderer may have succeeded in gaining whatever information he needs to retrieve and sell the paintings Bradshaw may have had in his possession. Allon, now happily married and awaiting the arrival of twins, is reluctant to become involved, but as he is an old friend of the now-traumatized person who discovered Jack Bradshaw’s mutilated body, he finds himself unavoidably drawn into the case. Further investigation suggests that the Bradshaw may have been working to acquire these stolen paintings for a single individual.

Gabriel Allon is working on the restoration of this Veronese altarpiece from 1600, "Virgin Assumed with Saints."

Gabriel Allon is working on the restoration of this Veronese altarpiece from 1600, “Virgin Assumed with Saints” at the Church of San Sebastiano, Venice. Double-click to enlarge.

Throughout this first part of the novel, Silva presents examples of real lost and stolen art works, many of which are thought to be in the possession of art thieves who sell these nearly historical treasures to unscrupulous collectors for one-tenth their real value, a way for the new owners to launder cash and keep the extent of their huge fortunes secret. He goes into particular detail about Caravaggio, whose painting of the “Nativity with San Lorenzo and Francesco d’Assisi,” painted in 1600, was stolen in Palermo, Sicily, in 1969, reportedly by the Mafia there. General Ferrari is desperate to find it, as is Allon, who approaches the Mafia in Corsica as part of his investigation. The don of the Orsati family, an unusual “friend” of Allon, claims that he himself was in Palermo the night it was stolen and may have been the first person to discover its loss.

Church of San Sebastiano, Venice. Photo by Didier Descouens.

Church of San Sebastiano, Venice, from the 16th century. Photo by Didier Descouens.

Further action concerns the use of art forgers who may copy a masterpiece and substitute it for the real thing long enough to escape with the original, and Allon soon becomes involved with the disappearance of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Ultimately, he meets with a man in Syrian intelligence with direct connection to the ruler of Syria, who has a fondness for art and an even greater fondness for hiding his incredible wealth. As someone in Israeli intelligence comments, “He’s a man who’s used systematic torture, indiscriminate artillery barrages, and chemical weapons attacks against his own people. He saw Hosni Mubarak put into a cage and watched Muammar Gaddafi being lynched by a bloodthirsty mob. As a result he’s concerned about what might happen to him if he falls, [and he wants] a little nest egg for him and his family.” Allon, the Israelis, and western intelligence organizations determine to follow the money wherever it leads them, even to Syria, if necessary, hoping to locate the missing paintings and return them to the rightful owners.

The Missing Caravaggio painting, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence.

The Missing Caravaggio painting, “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence.” Double-click to enlarge.

The action in the first part of this novel feels familiar and resembles that of other novels in the series, as many of the same characters from the thirteen novels which precede it reappear here. The cast is huge, and readers unfamiliar with this series will be challenged to keep all the characters and their past histories straight, unless they keep a character list. The novel really hits its stride in the second half, however, as Allon and others follow the money and become involved with some of the Syrians. Here Silva discusses many of the horrors of the war in Syria, some of which have had little or no publicity here, and its effects on particular individuals, one of whom may be willing to help Allon at a huge risk to life. His trips to Israel to visit their security people, also involve discussions of Allon’s own future with the service, and as he organizes members of the staff to address particular aspects of the Syrian investigation, he himself comes more fully alive for the reader. His marriage and his impending fatherhood, his goals for the future, and his genuine concern for the people who work with him make him much more human.

Vincent Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photo by Ras Marley.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photo by Ras Marley.

The action moves at top speed, held back in the beginning by the reader’s need to track the large cast of characters. Though the characters do become more familiar as the novel continues, they also, however, begin to use false names as part of their disguises, adding another layer of complexity. The action extends from London and Paris to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, and then moves into Syria and Israel, keeping the reader flying back and forth with the characters to many different locations. Some readers may become frustrated by thin characters and many different locations, but readers who love paintings and can identify with the commitment of Allon, Gen. Ferrari, and others to protecting them for posterity will be rooting for their success throughout, while those most interested in the money trail will be equally intrigued.


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

Veronese’s altarpiece entitled “Virgin Assumed with Saints,” which Gabriel Allon has been restoring, is located inside the Church of San Sebastiano in Venice. https://www.pinterest.com

The photo of the sixteenth century Church of San Sebastiano, where Allon works, is by Didier Descouens: https://en.wikipedia.org/

Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence,” was stolen in 1969.  It is still missing.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Among the many paintings of sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh is this one, belonging to the Rijksmuseum, which I think is one of the most fascinating of all, one I’ve never seen before.  Photo by Ras Marley:  https://www.flickr.com/

REVIEW. Gabriel Allon (Book 14), Italy, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Social and Political Issues, Syria, Israel
Written by: Daniel Silva
Published by: Harper
ISBN: 978-0062320063
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Javier Cercas–OUTLAWS

Note:  This book was SHORTLISTED for the Dublin International Literary Award, formerly the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the richest prize in the writing world, in 2016.

“I never felt entirely like just one more member of the gang: I was and wasn’t, I did and didn’t, I was inside and out, like a witness or onlooker who participated in everything but most of all watched everyone [else] participate…Aside from Zarco and Tere…I barely spoke to anyone on my own, and I wasn’t close to any of them. For all of them I was…a meteorite, a disorientated kid, a posh brat lost among them…” –Gafitas, aka Ignacio Canas.

cover outlawsOpening in 1978, three years after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, this stimulating and provocative novel comes to life through the point of view of Gafitas, a naïve, middle-class sixteen-year-old drawn into the alien world of Zarco, a school dropout who lives in the poorest section of the city of Gerona, in the far northeast of Spain. With no guidance, no prospects, no hope, and no future, Zarco and his friends have only the miserable present to look forward to, and their primary goals are to do the best they can with what they have and to take what they don’t have if they can get away with it. Forming a gang of quinquis, they commit petty crimes, and as the novel opens, Gafitas, cruelly bullied by his former school friends, has made informal contact with them during his school vacation. Dazzled by Tere, who may or may not be Zarco’s lover, he is easy prey for the gang, which needs an innocent-looking accomplice for a robbery.

Confesseur-d-un-menteurIn the course of the summer, Gafitas experiments with drugs, sex, and the excitement of behaving in a way that is totally alien to everything his family believes in. His resentment of his father and his father’s rules make Gafitas’s participation in robberies and car thefts both exciting in their own right and exciting for the “freedom” he experiences. It gives away nothing for anyone who reads the book’s endnotes or the summaries of this book in reviews and on Amazon, to reveal that the first part of the book ends when an armed bank robbery by the gang goes bad and the police appear in force. Shooting breaks out and, the wounded Zarco, who is running with Gafitas at the time, insists that Gafitas escape, since Gafitas has never really been part of the gang anyway. Simultaneously crushed by this revelation and full of guilt at abandoning his “friend,” Gafitas returns home and re-enrolls at school at the end of the vacation. No one there knows about his unusual summer activities.

Map of Catalonia. Double click to enlarge.

Map of Catalonia in northeast Spain on the French border.

Throughout Part I, Spanish author Javier Cercas reveals the action of 1978 through interviews conducted by a journalist who is currently writing a book about Zarco, thirty years after the action of 1978. Interviews with Gafitas alternate with the same journalist’s interviews of an Inspector Cuenca of the Gerona Police, who helped thwart the robbery from which Gafitas escaped years ago. The inspector’s commentary and the journalist’s questions provide additional perspectives on those same events and broaden the scope of the novel beyond that of a thriller. Gafitas’s view of what happened also includes conversations with Zarco, the women involved with the gang, and Gafitas’s family, giving even more visions of “the truth” and establishing the themes of the novel very early. In Part II, the same journalist continues his interviews, bringing the action up to date, thirty years later. Gafitas, now known universally by his real name, Ignacio Canas, is a highly successful lawyer in his early forties who has never publicly revealed his “summer of 1978.” Interviews with Gafitas/Canas alternate in Part II with those of Eduardo Riquena, who is the superintendent of the prison in Gerona, and he becomes a major character here when Zarco/Antonio Gamallo hires Canas to represent him in a suit against the legal system. Throughout this section, the author keeps the reader up to date on what has happened to the rest of the characters from Part I, often giving hints and creating a sense of foreboding.

General Alvarez de Castro, who in 1808 joined the Spanish rebels against the French. Under Alvarez, the Spanish held out against a siege for seven months though outnumbered by 4:1. This image appears in both the opening pages and in the conclusion. See Notes below.

Monument to General Alvarez de Castro, who in 1808 joined the Spanish rebels against the French. Under Alvarez, the Spanish held out against a siege for seven months though outnumbered 4:1. References to Alvarez de Castro appear in both the opening pages and in the conclusion. See Note with photo credits for symbolism.  Photo by D. Timmermans.

Highly literary in its approach to the subjects of identity, moral responsibility, and truth as each person sees it, the novel illustrates how a person’s past influences his perception of the present and how that, in turn, influences that person’s actions which affect the future. Canas introduces themes in the first chapter of Part II when the journalist comments that since Canas was a delinquent and is now a lawyer that he must know, first hand, both sides of the law, to which Canas replies: “A lawyer and a delinquent are not on two different sides of the law…a lawyer is an intermediary between the law and the delinquent. That converts us into morally dubious types: we spend our lives with thieves murderers, and psychopaths and, since human beings function by osmosis, it’s normal that the morals of thieves, murderers, and psychopaths end up rubbing off on us.” Complicating matters, Canas points out that once the press becomes involved in reporting the tales of a criminal, the criminal is often perceived as some kind of “good delinquent,” thereby acquiring mythical stature which changes the public’s perception of who that person really is for a generation or more. Zarco’s myth still hasn’t ended, even thirty years later: “The proof is that here we are, you and I, talking about him,” Canas says, noting that the journalist is also getting ready to release a book that may continue the myth.

The depiction of Zarco is inspired by the memoirs of Juan Jose Moreno Cuenca, an outlaw who was active in Spain during the 1970s.

The depiction of Zarco is inspired by the memoirs of Juan Jose Moreno Cuenca, an outlaw who was active in Spain during the 1970s.

The Author’s Note at the end of the novel provides additional insights into the writing of this book. The first source which the author mentions as important to him is a book called Hasta la Libertad by Juan Jose Moreno Cuenca. That book, according to Wiki and other sources, consists of the prison memoirs of a real person, one of the most legendary criminals in Spain, and he is widely regarded as the inspiration for the character of Zarco here.   In an especially ironic twist, the author also gives the police inspector the name of the real criminal, Cuenca.  Perhaps as a result of having been based on a real person, Zarco comes alive in terms of the ups and downs – moral, physical, psychological, and legal – with which he, and by extension Canas and the journalist, must cope over the course of thirty years. The book becomes intensely introspective as Cercas explores his themes from the points of view of Canas, Zarco, and the female gang members supporting the gang. Both Canas and Zarco eventually come to some new understandings in the course of the novel. The journalist, however, may present a problem with the truth, depending on whether he believes in Zarco’s myth and wants to publicize it. As Canas says, “Frivolous journalists lie but everyone knows they lie and nobody pays them any attention, or hardly anyone; serious journalists, however, lie while shielding themselves with the truth, and that’s why everyone believes them. And that’s why their lies do so much damage.”


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

The map of Catalonia may be found on http://www.spainthenandnow.com/

The memorial to Gen. Alvarez de Castro, photographed by D. Timmermans, may be found on http://napoleon-monuments.eu/     References to the general occur at the beginning of the novel and in the last pages, showing the impossibility of ever knowing the absolute truth. When Cuenca was young, he regarded Gen. Alvarez as a “fabulous hero,” which was why he asked to be posted to Gerona after he completed his police training.  Many years later, when he revisited the story of Alvarez, he concluded that he was a “disgusting character, a psychopath,” coming to the ironic conclusion that “the best thing that happened in my life [coming to Gerona] happened to me due to a misunderstanding…and because I thought a villain was a hero,” an unusual conclusion on the subject of accepting and moving on.

Many photos related to the life of Juan Jose Moreno Cuenca, including the picture of his book shown in this review, are displayed on http://elcomentamierda.blogspot.com

Catalonia, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Spain
Written by: Javier Cercas
Published by: Bloomsbury
Date Published: 08/12/2014
ISBN: 978-1620403259
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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