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“Harry was running…Some people ran because they liked it. Haruki Murakami liked it. Harry liked Murakami’s books, apart from the one about running…Harry ran because he liked stopping. He liked having to run. He liked weight training: a more concrete pain that was limited by the performance of his muscles, rather than a desire to have more pain. That probably said something about the weakness of his character, his inclination to flee, to look for an end to the pain even before it had started.”

coverIn the past twenty years, Norwegian author Jo Nesbo has published eleven thrillers featuring self-destructive former alcoholic detective/investigator Harry Hole in action, two Olav Johansen mysteries which are shorter and more literary, several stand-alone works, four children’s novels in the Doctor Proctor series, and the concept for a ten-part TV series, which is about to have its second season. Thirteen prizes, including the Peer Gynt Prize for contributions to Norway in 2013, have accompanied this prodigious output, and Nesbo is still writing with imagination, dramatic pacing, and careful characterization. This new installment, the eleventh in the continuing career of Harry Hole, includes most of the characters who have filled his previous novels with life, conflict, and even romance. Three years have passed since the last novel, Police, took place, during which Harry has been working as a lecturer at the Police College, a job in which he has inspired young officers without having to stare into the gunsights of criminals on a daily basis. He is getting his life back after being almost killed, and he is now happy and sober, married to his long-time love, with his stepson Oleg studying to become a full-fledged member of the police corps.

author photoLike all the other Hole novels, this one, too, is complex and carefully plotted, with overlaps, unexpected twists, and grand surprises in the conclusion. It is also filled with some of the goriest, most stomach-turning violence imaginable, one of the reasons I prefer Nesbo’s more literary Olav Johansen novels. To give Nesbo his due, the violence is directly connected to the murders involved, making the need to find the murderer and any accomplices much more immediate, and it does ratchet up the pace dramatically, however horrific the killings may be, adding to other complications in the plot which take place in the background. In this case, it also allows Nesbo to introduce yet another type of writing to his thrillers, a characteristic which makes Nesbo’s many novels different from each other and those of other thriller writers. Among the many different types of plots which Nesbo has explored are the historical (The Redbreast), psychological (Nemesis), pure horror (The Snowman), foreign action (The Leopard), and, in this novel, vampirism – though Nesbo is quick to say that the enemy in this book is not a vampire but a vampirist, someone who drinks blood but is not a supernatural character, a difference which may be too subtle for many readers.

When the novel opens, Harry Hole has been living in virtual seclusion for three years in Holmenkollen.

When the novel opens, Harry Hole has been living in virtual seclusion for three years in the hills of Holmenkollen, thirty minutes from Oslo.

The novel opens quickly with the murder of a female lawyer who has specialized in rape cases. She has been viciously bitten in the throat. As the Oslo Police begin to investigate, readers who may not remember all the repeating characters may want to keep a character list as there are about forty characters who appear in this carefully crafted and complex novel, and some relationships have changed. Mikhail Bellman, the young police chief, is still ambitious and is now a candidate for Justice Minister. He is still a playboy, and his wife, too, is exploring other partners. Truls Berntsen is still working, only because he has something on the chief, who keeps him on the payroll to keep him from talking. Katrine Bratt, one of the lead investigators, has broken up with her lover, but is working hard to solve the recent murder.  Several medical doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists become involved in the case when more grotesque vampirist murders take place. As Harry observes, a serial killer may be an ordinary person who is seriously mentally ill, but when a vampirist is a serial killer, it is “like a landslide.”

Ila Prison, where Svein Finne is incarcerated. Hole's first big case led to Finne's imprisonment, and he now wants to get information from him regarding the main suspect in the vampire murders.

Ila Prison, where Svein Finne is incarcerated. Hole’s first big case led to Finne’s imprisonment, and he now wants to get information from him regarding the main suspect in the vampirist murders, who has escaped.

Nesbo’s skill as a novelist is on prime display here as he delves into the personal lives of the members of the police force and the issues which may spill over to affect their professional lives. Some are willing to sell information to a journalist, some mourn the loss of a relationship, some find release in one-night stands, and Harry worries about his wife Rakel, who is seriously ill. His long-standing promise to her that he will stay out of the fray at the Police Station becomes an issue for him when he must decide whether to help with this case, which may save many lives in the city, or whether he will remain at Rakel’s bedside while she is ill and unconscious. The fact that the vampirist may be someone Harry knows from four years ago, the one person who “got away,” adds to the pressure. Murders continue and the relationships become more complex. Eventually, the reader becomes convinced that that vampirist has been caught, only to have the novel move in a new direction. Many surprises bring together all the threads of this complex novel in a grand conclusion, and they do so in a way which makes sense, deductively, not just by accident. Eventually, the reader believes that there has been a happy ending for the first time ever in a Harry Hole novel – and then the Epilogue sets up a new complication, paving the way for yet another suspenseful and addictive story in yet another volume.

Mona Daa meets with a paid informant at the Monolith at Frogner Park, Oslo

Mona Daa meets with a paid informant at the Monolith at Frogner Park, Oslo

This novel presented a conundrum for me, and those who know me will know why. I have always enjoyed the Nesbo mysteries, despite my horror at Nesbo’s obvious love of blood and gore. His work, carefully crafted and very finely tuned, has always represented for me a total break from my usual reading and from whatever is dominating the news. My review just before this one was of Penelope Lively’s The Purple Swamp Hen, a collection of beautifully written, gem-like short stories, and I thought the contrast in styles between Lively and Nesbo would represent a complete break for me. When I began this novel, I was disappointed by the immediate vampirist murder, however, and by the time Harry Hole appears for the first time, I was thinking that I might not continue the book, not because Nesbo was doing anything different but because the world at large had become different – the book didn’t really feel like enough of a break. Now I’m glad I continued to the end. Nesbo, despite the love of violence in his novels, is the real deal in his love for his characters and their values. Ultimately, Harry Hole and his friends won me over again for their principles and their dedication to what is right, against all odds and bloodshed.

ALSO by Nesbo:  Harry Hole serises:   THE BAT,      COCKROACHES,     THE REDBREAST,     NEMESIS,     THE DEVIL’S STAR,       THE REDEEMER,     SNOWMAN,     THE LEOPARD,     PHANTOM,      POLICE,       

Olav Johansen series :  BLOOD ON SNOW (2015 ),      MIDNIGHT SUN (2015)

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

Holmenkollen, thirty minutes from Oslo, where Harry has been living with his wife in seclusion for three years may be seen on http://media7.trover.com/

Ila Prison, where Svein Finne, Harry’s first major antagonist, has been incarcerated for years.  Harry want to talk with him about a friend who has escaped.  http://img3.custompublish.com

The Monolith at Frogner Park is where Mona Daa, a journalist, meets with an informant with information about this case:  https://commons.wikimedia.org

REVIEW. Mystery, Thriller, Nordic Noir, Norway, Psychological study
Written by: Jo Nesbo
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 05/09/2017
ISBN: 978-0385152161
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: Dame Penelope Lively, Order of the British Empire (OBE), named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to literature, was WINNER of the Booker Prize in 1987 for Moon Tiger, set in Egypt during the British Occupation.

“You know me. You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii…[but] you don’t cry – oh! a Purple Swamp Hen, because the vast majority of you can’t recognize one. You eye me with vague interest, and pass on. It’s just like a garden today! you cry. No, it isn’t…I am – was – in this garden because it was a Roman garden and the Romans kept us there for ornamental purposes….The garden of Quintus Pompeius, where I passed my time, was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known.” –Porphyrio porphyrio, the Purple Swamp Hen.

cover swamp henThis swamp hen goes on to describe the Roman garden, which “hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household, and his associates.” And, the hen states, the humans were far more imaginative than the fauna, which “simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction.” Clearly establishing the satiric tone of this and many other stories in her new story collection, her first in almost two decades, author Penelope Lively continues to prove that great writing – elegant, precise, completely attuned to nuance, and committed to using exactly the right word and not one word more – still exists for lovers of fine prose.   She further shows that fine writing need not be stuffy or effete, that humor is an integral part of life, and that satire may be more effective in conveying ideas than polemics and criticism. Best of all, she shows that stories, though short, may convey big ideas and that collections of stories may represent different times and different forms and still develop a broad thematic unity within the collection.

Author photo by David Levenson.

Author photo by David Levenson.

Author Lively, concerned during her whole career with relationships, especially family relationships and the forces which create havoc within them, starts this collection of fifteen stories with “The Purple Swamp Hen,” the quotations above establishing the tone and the perceived moral superiority of swamp hens to the Romans who treat them as decorations – and sometimes eat them. The hen notes the “curious” behavior of homo sapiens in owning other members of homo sapiens as slaves, of eating for entertainment, and, even worse, drinking to excess which they “find enjoyable rather than humiliating.” The cruelty and the difficulties of the elite in leading ethical lives are quite different from the lives of the “fauna” and the human slaves which surround them, and Porphyrio is eternally grateful to a young, abused slave girl who saves him from being tormented by children in the household. When the second earthquake in two days strikes Pompeii, just before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the hen warns the slave girl to run, and, sensitive to nature and volcanoes, “knows that this [life] would end, but was also a beginning.” Swamp hens would forevermore lead a completely different lives, though “it is not for me to proclaim progress, or otherwise.”

Many Edwardian houses features a "strong room."

Many Edwardian houses featured a “strong room.”

The last story in the collection, “The Third Wife,” recreates a modern version of the society of the Romans which the swamp hen had earlier found wanting. In this clever story, Molly, the wealthy third wife of Stan, has been looking for real estate and has found an Edwardian house which perfectly suits her – large, no near neighbors, with its own drive, lovely gardens, a great kitchen, and another feature which she thinks will appeal to Stan. Here, too, the promise of a better life and the cleverness of a main character shine through the tumult and offer delights to the reader. In between these two stories are thirteen more dealing with relationships, many of which become unhappy and later become reconciled, one way or the other. In “Abroad,” two young artists in their early twenties go to Europe after university, considering themselves on a par with peasants as they drive around and lead simple lives (always knowing that they can get whatever funds they really need from home). A car breakdown changes their lives, forcing them to reevaluate their lives.

British Library Reading Room

British Library Reading Room

“Who Do You Think You Were” deals with family lines and histories and may remind readers, once again, of some aspects of “The Purple Swamp Hen,” especially when a young woman in 1787, who knows how to skin a rabbit but does not know how to read or write, gets a rooster, destined for the pot, for her aunt. When she hands it over, she feels “a goose walking over my grave.” In a parallel thread from 2015, another woman, Caroline Gladwell, is doing research in graduate school.  She, however, cannot pluck a fowl or skin a rabbit. She is working in the British Library on her family history. Duplicate names and similar accidents show her the connections with the past. “A Biography” is a story of relationships as Julia Pemberton investigates the story of Lavinia Talbot, a seventy-year-old woman who died suddenly in 2012. Lavinia, her sister Alice, Alice’s husband, Lavinia’s husband, her cousin, her former roommate, and her two lovers all tell their recollections of Lavinia. Gradually, the reader considers all of these different and sometimes conflicting depictions of Lavinia and comes to a conclusion about who Lavinia really was and why she behaved as she did.

riding to the huntSly literary references add to the enjoyment of several stories. “License to Kill” about a woman in her mid-eighties and her working relationship with an 18-year-old maid, contains a reference to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” (“Shall I eat a peach?”), and “Mrs. Bennet” gives a modern twist to the Mrs. Bennet  of Pride and Prejudice, as Frances Landon, with limited funds, tries to marry off her three daughters by having them schooled in riding so that they can associate with the gentry during hunting season. The fates of the three daughters are different, with the youngest managing to escape the destiny into which the other two fall willingly. “The Bridge” features Alison, a sixty-year-old woman who has lost a child, and as the points of view shift between her, her husband, and her surviving daughter over twenty years later, the ironies of memory and the passage time affect the reader.

The Swamp Hen from the home of Quintus Pompeius. a continuing image thoughout this collection.

The Purple Swamp Hen, in a mural in the home of Quintus Pompeius during the Roman Empire,  is a continuing motif throughout this collection.

Considering virtually every possible relationship between husband and wife and lovers and friends within this delightful and enjoyable collection, Penelope Lively depicts her society over the ages and draws conclusions about life from the point of view of an author, now in her eighties.  Lively has much to say, often ironically or satirically, to a younger generation, which still has much to learn. Clever, often humorous, and filled with insights, this collection, for all its variety, creates a vision of life and love that is broader and more varied than what is usually possible within the specific boundaries of a novel. This collection will be treasured by lovers of fine prose, elegant style, and rich characterization, especially of the elderly.

Also by Penelope Lively:  SPIDERWEB,     MOON TIGER,     HOW IT ALL BEGAN

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo by David Levenson appears on  http://www.gettyimages.com/

The Edwardian “strong room” is shown on https://au.pinterest.com/

The British Library Reading Room is from http://goodereader.com/

The Beaufort Hunt depicts traditional British country life:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

The garden mural in the home of Quintus Pompeius depicts the Purple Swamp Hen, whose point of view in opposition to the Romans is represented in the first story in this collection.   http://i.telegraph.co.uk

THE PURPLE SWAMP HEN and Other Stories
REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, England, Literary, Short Stories
Written by: Penelope Lively
Published by: Viking
Date Published: 05/09/2017
ISBN: 978-0735222038
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“It was always an awkward moment when the two [groups of convoy drivers] met up again. Right from the start of the trip, a heavy, hostile atmosphere had reigned in the group. It was a gross understatement to say that the five members of the convoy did not get along. Things did not improve with the passing miles. Clans of convenience were formed….Maud and Lionel made one team; Alex and Marc, the two drivers in the other truck, were another. Vauthier did not hide his dislike for [all of] them.”

cover rufin

Written by Jean-Christophe Rufin, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders and former president of Action Against Hunger, Checkpoint provides a new look at the whole idea of humanitarian service, in this case during the Bosnian War (1992 – 1995), which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The author, both a doctor and writer of popular novels, puts all his talents to use in this novel in which a team of four young people and one middle-aged man joins La Tete d’Or in Lyon, France, to deliver food, clothing, and medical supplies to people stranded without resources in the war zone.  Each of the five volunteers has his/her own reason for risking all in the name of humanity, and none of them are acting purely out of altruism as they work their way through Bosnia on their way to Kakanj.  There the Muslim, Croat, and Serb populations, which once got along well, have become alienated, and adjacent areas within the same community are now enemies. As the two-truck convoy heads into the Bosnian war zone, they must pass regularly through checkpoints, operated by local warlords, where “the only true subject, the ultimate motor of all behavior and all thought, was fear. You had to play along and show you took the matter seriously… [by] displaying an obvious fear of the [man in charge].”

Jean-Christophe Rufin

Jean-Christophe Rufin

Rufin delineates each character enough that the reader can keep the backgrounds and motivations of each one clear. The author has clearly selected and developed their differences to illustrate different aspects of the war and the people involved in it and within the aid community. Maud, the youngest, at age twenty-one, comes from a privileged family, and she studied law for two years so that she could be part of her father’s firm of notaries. She has never been in love, a fact which has made her join the group, and she has begun to think that “danger was the only way she could overcome the obstacles that kept her from love.” Lionel, the twenty-four-year-old leader of the group, has been involved in aid work for three years, and he deals with his insecurities by “smok[ing] joints from morning to night.” Marc and Alex, are both former soldiers who have already had a six-month stint in Kakanj, an area in the middle of Bosnia, where the major source of employment has been the coal mines. All energy there comes from coal, and if the mines are shut down, disaster will rule. While there previously, Alex fell in love with a woman he hopes to see on this return trip, though he fears for her and for the family. Marc, a man who follows the rules, does not even smoke cigarettes, and he is always concerned with doing what is “right.” He and Alex are on a mission that they have kept secret from the rest of the group, and they are determined to execute it. The fifth participant, Vauthier, is older, in his forties. A conscientious objector, he operates on his own. Coarse and rude, he is friendless within this group, and some think he is a “cop.”

mapThe first third of the novel concentrates on setting the scene, though with five main characters to describe and a complex country of divided loyalties to depict, the author depends on “telling about” the people and places instead of employing the more subtle and more literary technique of revealing information through the characters’ actions and dialogue. This creates a situation in which, except for arguments and macho competition for Maud, not much drama really happens, at first, and little tension is created. At the halfway point, however, the group splits, with two participants taking off secretly, and Vauthier becoming a more active part of the plot. He has asked French agents at UN headquarters to investigate two members of their group about a theft, and an investigation is currently under way in France. The second group then decides to chase after the two who have absconded in their truck.  At this point the narrative splits between the two groups and tells the separate stories of each group with alternating points of view, with much of the ensuing action devoted to the chase, leading to a cinematic grand finale.

One of the trucks in the convoy passes "a fortress, one of those castles that had been the glory of Bosnia in the Middle Ages." Now, "no invader would dream of going by there."

One of the trucks in the convoy passes “a fortress, one of those castles that had been the glory of Bosnia in the Middle Ages.” Now, “no invader would dream of going by there.”

Thematically, the novel attempts to deal with many issues, concentrating especially on the values of the individual aid workers and why each might have chosen the dangerous path of helping others in a war zone. Most are not the altruistic people the reader has always associated with such aid groups – each has his/her own reason for escaping the world in which s/he has lived. All five of the workers here are people dealing with conflicts, and as we never really see any of them getting involved in helping real people (until the final pages of the book), this lack in the book was disappointing to me. Many of the scenes are predictable, even trite, and I do not know whether the descriptions of some of the action are the responsibility of the author or of the translator. Romantic clichés and exaggeration spoil some scenes. At one point after a love scene, the male lover is sleeping, as the female removes her glasses so that “he would see her like that when he woke up: she hoped he would think she was beautiful.” She goes on to tell us what she is seeing: “His features were relaxed, revealing another person. Gone was the tense warrior he played during the day…He seemed much younger and more vulnerable, almost frightened. His expression in sleep was that of a defenseless, unloved child who is hurt and sad.”

Bridge over the Drina River. mentioned in the novel.

Bridge over the Drina River, mentioned in the novel.

Later after a grand finale with shootings, injuries and even death, the author once again tells about the characters’ feelings, instead of showing them, and in a particularly noticeable bit of unreality, remarks, “Then everyone suddenly relaxed and they all burst out laughing.” Despite the stylistic limitations, the novel provides many insights into the whole issue of aid programs and the people who participate.  The pacing picks up after the long introductory section, with many action scenes and a conclusion that is reminiscent of a romantic film. The book would certainly make a good film, as the author clearly wants the reader to visualize what is happening, and in a film the reader would experience visually the acts and thoughts that the author so often “tells about” here in words.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo may be found on http://www.writersfestival.co.nz/

The map of the former Yugoslavia appears on https://www.lib.utexas.edu

One of the trucks in the convoy passes a fortress/castle from the Middle Ages.  “Once a front line, now the place was deserted, and no invader would dream of going by there.”  https://www.panoramio.com/user/1564011

The Bridge over the Drina River features in a scene in this novel:  http://www.bhembassy.co.uk/

REVIEW. Bosnia, Historical, Social and Political
Written by: Jean-Christophe Rufin
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 05/02/2017
ISBN: 978-1609453725
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“What I am about to tell you is a secret. You are not to breathe a word of it to another soul! Later tonight, at around one o’clock, in a certain part of Tokyo, a crime…a homicide will be performed. I want to get ready now and go see it happen, and I want you to go as well. So what do you say? Will you join me?”—Sonomura, who learned of this planned crime through a series of cryptograms.

coverIf a narrative inspired by the discovery of coded messages sounds familiar to students of American literature, it may be because so many of us read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” as students. The plot of “The Gold-Bug,” also a favorite in Japan after its translation and publication there in 1902, depends on cryptography for its mystery and excitement, and this appealed especially to author Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), who borrowed much from Poe, including the idea of cryptography, as he developed the plot and narrative style of his own work, Devils in Daylight. Serialized simultaneously in two newspapers in Tokyo and Osaka in 1918, this short book found a ready audience in a country already well familiar with Poe, and Tanizaki added some twists of his own, making his story even more attractive to his audience – it is far more psychological, even twisted, and more obviously sexual. He creates visions of reality and fiction on three levels – that of the author as he creates and develops the basic story, that of the fictional characters as they “live” their stories, and that of the reader, who accepts as “truth” the actions created by the author and the reactions of the characters, then brings his/her own interpretations to the narrative and its implications.

Junichiro Tanizaki

Junichiro Tanikzaki (1886 – 1965), is widely regarded as the greatest Japanese writer of the twentieth century. The Tanizaki Prize, established in 1965 in his honor, is Japan’s highest literary award.

Romantic, even gothic in its approach, it is a tale which entices the reader through the speed of its narrative, moving so quickly that Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” is intensified – the reader wants to get on with the excitement and does not want to be bothered much about the obviously bizarre (and unrealistic) circumstances which make the excitement possible. The atmosphere and tone of the book are set when the narrator, Takahashi, recalls a telephone call he received from his friend Sonomura, who asks him to come to his house immediately. Takahashi, a writer, has been up all night, working on a deadline, and is not able to travel to Sonomura’s right away. He is nervous about the call, informing the reader that mental illness runs in Sonomura’s family, and that he has concluded that “This time…Sonomura really had been stricken with lunacy.” Sonomura, quoted in the opening lines of this review, tells Takahashi (and the reader) that he knows, for sure, that at one o’clock that night, a murder will take place in a certain part of Tokyo. He does not know exactly where, but he wants to go see it happen. He also wants Takahashi to be there with him. Fearing for his “poor friend’s sanity” and worried that “he really has lost his mind, Takahashi agrees to go to his friend’s house when his work is finished.

The male involved in the murder plans looks like Onoe Kikugoro V, according to Sonomura.

The male involved in the murder plans looks like famed kibuki actor Onoe Kikugoro V, according to Sonomura.

Tanizaki’s ability to convey Sonomura’s excitement and Takahashi’s obvious concern for his friend’s sanity make these opening lines particularly attention-getting when Takahashi suddenly begins to worry that Sonomura might be planning to murder HIM. When Sonomura offers Takahashi a piece of paper containing the same kind of code that Poe used in “The Gold Bug,” he explains that he received it two days ago – or, rather, picked it up from the floor of a movie theatre after watching someone in front of him read and discard it. Eventually, after delays of several hours, Takahashi and Sonomura leave for the event. Since this is at the beginning of the story, it gives away nothing to say that they do get there in time to peer through some knot holes to observe a murder taking place, after which they must escape without making noise. They note that the murderer resembles Onoe Kikugoro V, a famed kabuki theatre actor. The woman intimately involved in the murder is gorgeous, and even Takahashi becomes excited by her sadistic behavior during the crime.

Sonomura lives near Shiba Park.

Tanizaki’s ability to tell this tale with a straight face is admirable, and even more admirable is his ability to get the reader to care enough about the action and characters to keep reading. Enough hints are dropped and enough information is withheld to keep the reader on edge from suspense while wondering where the author will go with this narrative. Much sarcasm, casual humor, and irony make their way into the scene of the murder, and as both men want to get closer to the mysterious woman involved in the murder, the sexual connotations are obvious. Takahashi is interested in learning about her motives, wondering who she really is and how many more murders she might have been involved in. Sonomura declares that “It’s only seeing things like what we saw tonight that prevents me from going insane from sheer monotony.” He sees the female murderer as a “heroine ripped from the pages of a detective novel, a fantasy he has longed for,” and hopes she will come to comfort him in his loneliness. To say more would involve giving spoilers, but the story does become more complex over the course of several weeks. The conclusion will keep book clubs busy with discussion.

When Takahashi first goes to Sonomura's house, he is not sure he wants to be involved, so he spends time pacing outside the gate to the Zojo-ji Temple while he waits.

When Takahashi first goes to Sonomura’s house, he is not sure he wants to be involved in his plans, so he spends some time pacing outside the gate to the nearby Zojo-ji Temple.

Devils in Daylight seems made for film, and Tanizaki may have written it with that aspect in mind. Japanese silent film had been popular since the beginning of the century, and Tanizaki himself eventually worked as a screenwriter, adding yet another level of possibility to any discussion of the novella – a writer of fiction who also writes for a visual medium may see one reality from two different perspectives. The book explores reality and fiction (or fantasy) from many different perspectives, and as the action develops well beyond what has been mentioned here, the complexities of exploring different aspects of reality at the same time that everyone in the novel is allowing his/her imagination to run free, fills the book with fascinating side issues. Even translator J. Keith Vincent, in his detailed Afterword, explains how he interprets the novella and its issues and what he did to make it more “real,” from his choice of words and phrases, some of them translated directly from Poe and inserted here, to the title of the book, which Vincent chose for its ironic connotations – “the devils in this story do not operate in daylight,” he says. Much of the reality here is connected to visual performance – from the staging of the murder, to use of night to enhance the images the reader derives from the action, the ultimate ironies being that we see these different “realities” in a work of fiction.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from http://misteraufziehvogel.blogspot.com

Onoe Kikugoro V, was one of the most famous and celebrated kibuki actors of the Meiiji Period. Sonomuro thought that the male involved in the murder plot looked like him.  https://en.wikipedia.org

Sonomura lived near Shiba Park.  http://i-love-japan.info/

When Takahashi first went to Sonomura’s house to talk with him about the expected murder, he was nervous about Sonomura’s state of mind and paced in front of this Zojo-ji Temple gate while he waited to go to visit. http://muza-chan.net/

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Japan, Literary, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study
Written by: Junichiro Tanizaki
Published by: New Directions
Date Published: 04/25/2017
ISBN: 978-0811224918
Available in: Paperback

“You must admit we are different from other creatures. Can you name another that would stand as we do, one before the other, willing to kill – or be killed – for something that is not food or property or even temporary dominance? For ideas as inconstant as principle or justice or love? Is this what makes us so wretchedly human? Dare we call it a soul? – Mikhail Bulgakov

cover mikhail and margarita

Julie Lekstrom Himes, with Mikhail and Margarita, has created an enthralling book which pays honor to Mikhail Bulgakov and his most famous novel, The Master and Margarita, which Bulgakov began writing in the late 1920s, a time of upheaval, coups, and the Russian Civil War.  By that time, Bulgakov, a physician, novelist, and playwright had already run afoul of the state censors for his plays, and many of them were not allowed to be performed.  Eventually, he was blacklisted.  In desperation, he sent a personal letter to Josef Stalin requesting permission to emigrate, but Stalin surprised him – by answering his letter and praising his talents.  Some of his work was then reinstated and saved, though the satire was removed from it by the censors, making it irrelevant.  By the time he began writing The Master and Margarita in 1928, the literary situation had become so tense that Bulgakov ultimately destroyed the first manuscript of it for safety reasons, then rewrote it in secret.  After his death in 1940, his wife protected the second, secret manuscript by hiding it until 1966, when she published it for the first time, to great acclaim.

julie lekstrom himes

In Julie Lekstrom Himes’s novel, Mikhail and Margarita, Bulgakov himself is a main character, one with whom the author obviously empathizes. Himes, who is also a physician and writer, has traveled in Russia, has spent a year doing research for this book, and has devoted seven years to writing it. The resulting novel, remarkable in its ability to bring author Mikhail Bulgakov and the period fully to life for the reader, recreates Bulgakov’s “thoughts” so effectively that the reader feels as if the author has inserted actual autobiographical commentary. The book, the story of a romantic love triangle, opens in 1933, at a private meeting of writers in their union hall where they sometimes meet privately to read and discuss their work.  Poet Osip Mandelstam, a long-time friend and sometime mentor for Bulgakov, attends this meeting, accompanied by young Margarita Nikoveyeva, with whom he is apparently having an affair. Bulgakov, whose own wife has left him, is also attracted to Margarita. Later that night Mandelstam is taken in for questioning, his apartment searched and his work confiscated. No one is sure what will happen to him – or to his friends.

Patriarch Ponds in Moscow, where several scenes, both at the beginning and the conclusion take place.

Patriarch Ponds in Moscow, where several scenes, both at the beginning and the conclusion, take place.

Within hours, Margarita contacts Bulgakov to report that her apartment is being watched, and Bulgakov, returning to his own apartment, finds his books and prints all over the floor and his apartment in shambles. Before long, he and Margarita  become aware of the ubiquitous presence of Ilya Ivanovich, a Russian official, and the basis of the novel’s plot begins: Ilya Ivanovich is also attracted to Margarita, and he has all the power of the regime at his disposal as he attempts the conquest of Margarita. Wherever Bulgakov and Margarita go, Ivanovich is not far behind, and as the novel progresses, Bulgakov observes the relationship of love and power: “Love is no different than any other relationship. At its core, it seems to be more about power.” Margarita disagrees.

Vereshchagin (1842-1904). This painting, named “Cannibal,” once hung in the Summer Palace of Prince Orlov. It plays a role in Bulgakov’s visit to Lubyanka Prison.

Soon Bulgakov receives a summons to go to Lubyanka Prison for an “interview,” and as he waits in an office, he begins to see the delay as a symbolic event: the woman who directs him to a seat ignores him.  He finds himself kicking at a dead moth on the floor and  soon discovers that the office clock is broken.  He is finally acknowledged by a higher officer who escorts him down long corridors into the bowels of the facility. “They came to a painting, hung between two doors, and here the officer stopped. He held out his arm like a docent. This was a Vereshchagin. Truly, he said. He smiled. In this place.” The painting is dominated by the outstretched wings of vultures, long shadows, a secluded glen, and a powerful tiger. “Between the animal’s arms lay the corpse of a man. Its head and shoulders were in the tiger’s embrace; the creature’s open mouth was poised above him. To the side, other vultures waited; some beat their wings; their eagerness at odds with the languorous gestures of the beast.” The painting’s title? “Cannibal.” The officer comments on the “strange nobility” of the victim, how honorable is “one’s life culminating in the provision of sustenance to the beast.” Bulgakov disagrees. For him the man looks “more like a willing lover, since there is no protest, no scuffle, no thrashing of limbs – the disagreement with the officer epitomizing the struggle within the country at that historical moment. Soon Ilya Ivanovich enters, and Bulgakov sees him for what he is, a “predator breathing…its life force exceed[ing] that of a dozen men.”

Josef Stalin was a car buff, and he enjoyed tinkering with this 1933 Packard. His story of what happened to a previous artist who tinkered with it also is horrific.

Josef Stalin was a car buff, and he enjoyed tinkering with this 1933 Packard. His story of what happened to a previous artist who was asked to help him with it is horrific.

The novel develops at an extraordinary pace from here on, both thematically and dramatically. The three members of the love triangle operate on different levels involving different aspects of society, and arrests and threats of arrest keep the reader on tenterhooks. Stories of horrific tortures involving people the reader knows make the reader long for a swift conclusion, but the elegance of the overall thematic concept and its development through these characters keep the reader energized, more than repulsed. The author credits the reader with the ability to draw his/her own conclusions based on the  facts presented and on information revealed in dialogue, a refreshing change from authors who overwrite their narratives with miniscule detail.  Occasionally, she also shifts briefly and without warning to an earlier time and place in order to put an event into larger context, which some readers will find disconcerting, and occasionally, the point of view of that inserted passage is difficult to determine, with the references for some pronouns unclear. (Who is the “he” of the passage, for example?).

The Irkutsk Train Station plays a role in the last part of the novel.

The Irkutsk Train Station plays a role in the last part of the novel.

Exciting, but serious, well developed, and consummately literary, the novel is written in a style which seems appropriate, given what is known of Bulgakov’s own life and personality. Margarita is a more complex character than expected, and Ilya Ivanovich, while devious, seems less intelligent than expected. That said, the conclusion, a true “grande finale,” is unforgettable – a reconciling of people,  events, and themes on a dramatic scale, filled with surprises. And when a mysterious  old man materializes at Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow to speak to Bulgakov, few readers of The Master and Margarita will be surprised. One of the outstanding books of the year, high on my Favorites list.

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

Patriarch Ponds, in Moscow, appear throughout the action.  This photo by Elisa Rolle, shows the Skating Ring building.  https://en.wikipedia.org

Vereshchagin (1842 – 1904)’s painting once hung in the Summer Palace of Prince Orlov.  It is entitled “Cannibal.”  Many of his works were banned during his lifetime.  https://www.pinterest.com/

Stalin’s 1933, 12-cylinder Packard, was a favorite, with which he liked to tinker.  On one occasion, an artist he asked to help him met a terrible fate. https://myntransportblog.files.wordpress.com

The Irkutsk train depot plays a role in the last part of the novel.  http://expatspost.com/

Mikhail and Margarita
REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Russia/Soviet Union, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Julie Lekstrom Himes
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 03/14/2017
ISBN: 978-1609453756
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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