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Note:  This is the third novel in the Sam Wyndham series.  A Rising Man, the first novel of the series published in 2017, was WINNER of the CWA Historical Dagger Award and was SHORTLISTED for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.

“It’s not unusual to find a corpse in a funeral parlor.  It’s just rare for them to walk in the door under their own steam.  It was a riddle worth savouring, but I didn’t have the time, seeing as I was running for my life.” – Captain Sam Wyndham.

cover smoke and ashesIt is almost Christmas in 1921, and Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta is running blindly across the rooftops of Chinatown at midnight, trying to avoid capture by his own men, who have no idea who they are chasing.  An opium addict, as a result of his service in World War I and its aftermath, Sam has spent the evening fighting off his withdrawal symptoms by feeding his habit in an opium den.  Then, inexplicably, the police attack.  In his desperate efforts to escape, he climbs up through a hatch to a storage attic, where he finds a critically wounded Chinese man with ritualistic injuries – a man in such agony that he musters the last of his strength to try to kill Wyndham with a knife, before expiring.  As the police work their way up through the building, Sam escapes across the roof, eventually hiding in a crawlspace, covered with blood and carrying the bent-bladed knife with which the Chinese man tried to kill him, the kind of knife that the Gurkha regiments carried during the war. 

author photo

Abir Mukherjee

With all this fast and flamboyant action stuffed into the first ten pages, readers may wonder, as they take a breath, if author Abir Mukherjee is creating a sensational, non-stop narrative to draw the reader into an action-for-its-own-sake story about exotic India and its unusual cultures.  Mukherjee, however, has far bigger plans for this novel, both thematically and historically, and as the nonstop action begins, he simultaneously creates a vivid picture of his main character, Sam Wyndham, his problematic personal life, his fears, his role as a police officer trying to maintain control during the British raj in Calcutta, and his questions about why this raid was kept secret from him. 

mahatma gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi (1864 – 1948)

The next morning Wyndham has “little appetite for food,” and is determined to gain some insights into what created last night’s raid.  When he picks up the morning newspaper, Englishman, he sees that Mahatma Gandhi’s most recent actions have left the country even closer to being “a powderkeg.”  Urging his followers to rise up in a frenzy of “non-violent non-cooperation,” the Mahatma has promised that if they do so, he’ll deliver independence for India before the year is out.  It is mid-December now, and some of his followers are getting impatient at the lack of progress. Appealing to ordinary folk, farmers, peasants, and factory workers from India’s thousands of towns and villages, he has encouraged them to “boycott British products, resign from government posts, and generally cause a bloody nuisance.”  Most importantly, he has convinced them that they matter. All they have to do is sit down in the streets and refuse to move in a peaceful revolution against the British.  The British, in response, have moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi, but the masses in Calcutta are still striking, resigning from civil government, and, as a result, decimating the local police force.   Back in England, the British decide to re-emphasize the importance of the empire by sending the Prince of Wales (Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David), later Edward VIII, on a one-month tour to India.

Prince Edward VIII

Prince Edward, later Edward VIII, portrait by Vandyk, 1936

Officers of the Imperial Police Force, including Captain Sam Wyndham and his Lieutenant, Surendranath Banerjee, better known as Surrender-not Banerjee, have been assigned to keep the peace. The local police, the Congress Volunteers, who are sympathetic to Gandhi, are facing some crises of decision themselves.  Some feel uncomfortable supporting the status quo – and the British.  They have already shut down virtually all civilian activities and businesses in a general strike protesting the Prince’s arrival, and they have left the colonial administration and its own military police on the verge of dangerous confrontation. Now, however, the government is planning to outlaw all such volunteer organizations like their own.  “Anyone gathering in paramilitary uniform or similar dress will be subject to summary arrest.” As Taggart, the commissioner of the military police, has said, “It’s one thing tackling a few hundred bomb-throwing terrorists, [but] dealing with a national mass movement led by a saint whose strategy is to smile at you before he orders his followers to sit down, block the streets, and pretend to pray, isn’t something [military intelligence] is particularly adept at dealing with…The whole thing’s damned unsporting.”  The back-and-forth action and the emotional effects of the crisis on characters of all ethnic and racial groups develops fully and vibrantly in the ensuing action leading up to the arrival and public appearance of Prince Edward.

Police car, Wolseley Model 20 C8.

Police car, Wolseley Model 20 C8.

The murder of a nurse at the military hospital across the river raises a host of issues, as she worked for the military, was a Christian, and wasn’t local.  Additional ritualistic murders and some connections between the murder victims and various research organizations raise surprising questions about on-going British military experiments in the development of mustard gas, some canisters of which are now missing.  It becomes critical that a combination of dedicated police groups find whoever has the mustard gas canisters before they can be utilized to create unimaginable horror at the planned demonstration.  The broad picture of Calcutta at this point begins to become far more personal as the Imperial Police now realize they have only a few hours to catch the murderer and save those who care about law and order, whether they support the raj or work for independence.

Raj Bhavan, the former Government House in Calcutta is where Prince Edward VIII stayed in Calcutta

Raj Bhavan, the former Government House in Calcutta, where Crown Prince Edward stayed on his visit.

Author Abir Mukherjee does a masterful job here, creating and maintaining the suspense and action while also allowing time to recreate the conflicting ideas and the sense of crisis which existed in colonial India in late 1921.  By balancing scenes of personal crises for Wyndham and some of the other characters with a sense of urgency regarding the broad issues of colonialism and those who oppose it, he is able to keep the reader completely involved in action on foreign soil among people of different beliefs and cultures as they work their way to resolving some of the major conflicts. The desire not to rile the base supporting Mahatma Gandhi for fear of creating even bigger problems for those in power holds many echoes of the present.  Ultimately, I was totally occupied, fascinated by the history, intrigued by the characters, and, best of all, consumed by the desire to see exactly how the crisis and confrontation here is resolved without another world war.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.pinterest.com/

The picture of Mahatma Gandhi is from https://www.nationalgeographic.org

The portrait of Crown Prince Edward may be found on https://www.npg.org.uk

The Wolseley Model 20 C8 Police car is seen on https://www.alamy.com

Raj Bhavan, formerly the Government House in Calcutta, is where Prince Edward stayed when he was in Calcutta.  http://www.bbc.co.uk

SMOKE AND ASHES
Review. Photos. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, India, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Abir Mukherjee
Published by: Pegasus
Date Published: 03/05/2019
ISBN: 978-1643130149
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“And then, all of a sudden, you feel it, the cold….You perceive it with all five senses, the cold, you see it in the steam that billows out of your mouth, you hear it in the wheeze of your heaving breath, you inhale it like a whipcrack through your nostrils, you even taste it on your parched tongue.  And you touch it on her body.”

cover pizzofalcone coldIn this fourth novel featuring Inspector Lojacono, a lieutenant in the contemporary Naples police department, author Maurizio de Giovanni succeeds in establishing a second mystery series which is on its way to being as much fun to read as his first, highly successful series starring Baron Ricciardi, a commissario of the Naples Police during the reign of Benito Mussolini. Famous for its well drawn, repeating characters, its insights into everyday life under Mussolini, and its noir subject matter, the Ricciardi series (now numbering nine novels) also highlights de Giovanni’s trademark dark humor.  In this installment of the newer Lojacono series, set in the present, de Giovanni’s repeating characters develop far more fully than we have seen in the previous three novels, and their relationships become more intense and insightful.  In fact, many readers will find Cold for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, this newly released fourth novel in the series to be on a par with the best of the Ricciardi series, which has always been more popular.

author photoThe title sets the tone of the novel, referring to the physical cold of a bleak winter, matched by the cold, alienated mood of current officers at the Pizzofalcone precinct.  Major officers here were recently purged from the department for corruption and possible connections to the Neapolitan Mafia after they tried to sell a shipment of narcotics which had been confiscated in a raid.  These crooked officers, most of them veterans, were put on trial for obvious crimes or forced to resign.  A whole new crew, many of them old-timers who had never achieved recognition by the department, along with a few “outsiders” with personal difficulties and few friends within the department, have been put in charge of the precinct.  These new officers must also deal with the insulting sobriquet of “bastards,” which is applied to them regularly by the veteran police throughout the rest of Naples.  Worst of all, the Pizzofalcone station is on temporary status and can be closed at any moment by the higher-ups if the officers do not do an effective job – or if they create further problems for the police hierarchy.  Working there is like living on the edge.

rampe pizzofalcone

A ramp road goes up the hills of Pizzofalcone, where the roads are sometimes at a forty-five degree angle.

Lieutenant Giuseppe Lojacono is one of the precinct’s outsiders.  The most experienced of the “bastards” currently working in Pizzofalcone, Lojacone was sent to Naples from his home in Sicily after a low level member of the Sicilian Mafia turned state’s witness and testified that the innocent Lojacono, who had been particularly effective in rooting out crime there, was,  in fact, a Mafia informant.  Innocent but unable to prove it, Lojacono was reassigned to Naples, which did not want him.  There, for nearly a year, he killed time, until, on his own, he solved the case of the Crocodile (in the first and most violent novel in this series).  While he earned a modicum of fame in Pizzofalcone, it was not accompanied by any real respect from the Naples police hierarchy.  Working with Lojacone are other characters from previous novels in this series, many of them loners with personal issues who have done their jobs honestly but without “making friends” with people of influence or “making waves” in the department.  This odd group of officers develops much more fully here as they gain experience investigating and prosecuting cases, dealing with the higher-ups in Naples, and conducting their business and their own lives, often with complications.  As they are thrown together, these characters’ personalities and their accompanying issues come to the fore. Lojacono’s own life is more complicated here because his daughter Marinella, a young teenager from Sicily, has come to live with him. Though he wants to devote all his time to her, she wants to be more independent.

The funicular at Pizzofalcone, used by 28,000 people a day, and over 10 million people a year. The diagonal car is built with stepped platforms for safety.

The funicular at Pizzofalcone, used by 28,000 people a day, and over 10 million people a year. The diagonal car is built with stepped platforms for safety.

The big investigation in this novel begins when Lojacono and Alessandra Di Nardo, known as Alex, are called to the site of two murders in the same apartment.  A young woman lies sprawled on a bed, her face swollen around the nose and mouth, reddish stripes on her neck. A second victim, a young man, is slumped over a desk, seated, with his head resting on the desk, and his arm, still gripping a pen, dangling beside him.  The young male victim, Biaggio Varricchio, a serious researcher at the university, had been expecting a visit from his father, whom he had not seen for seventeen years while his father, convicted of  murder, was serving his jail sentence. The second victim is Grazia, Biaggio’s sister, five years younger.  Though she had the opportunity to go to college, like Biaggio, she declined, preferring to live with her aunt and uncle, and eventually her brother, close to her boyfriend known as “Nick Guitar” in town, and “Nick Trash” on social media. She has already become well known as a model, with opportunities to be an actress.  Her father, outraged by what he imagines her behavior to be, demands that she move in with him so that he can “protect” her, and her refusal to comply enrages him.

One of the characters enjoys meeting an elderly female friend near the fountain in the park of the Palazzo Reale.

One of the characters enjoys meeting an elderly female friend near the fountain in the park of the Palazzo Reale.

The resulting murder investigation provides the author with an opportunity to examine the lives of all these characters – both the murder victims and the investigators.  The primary suspect is of course, the victims’ violent father, who describes his life, thoughts, and fantasies in detail in italicized sections throughout, making it possible for the reader to know him well without having to see him in many action scenes. This allows the author to spend most of his narrative bringing his investigators more fully to life, often with humor.  As the complicated lives of the often unconventional “bastards” of Pizzofalcone begin to unfold and the officers become more comfortable with sharing who they are, their love stories also begin to be revealed.  Some officers find themselves attracted to others within the precinct, some finally give in and admit their innermost longings, and still others, who have been reticent, finally see how much the love and care of another can change their lives.  Ultimately, the novel becomes much more a novel of character and personal interactions than a “murder mystery,” though the search for the killer continues to serve as the unifying factor in the structure of the novel.  By the time the murderer is identified, the reader has become so entertained by the growing stories of the characters that it is the insights into them – the “bastards” and their friends – that give life and excitement to the novel.  Ultimately, this series, like the Ricciardi series should attract future readers wanting to know the continuing stories of the characters for which the mysteries serve as vehicles.  Maurizio de Giovanni is in total control here, and the result is totally satisfying.

ALSO reviewed here:  RICCIARDI SERIES, in order:   I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE ( #1),    BLOOD CURSE ( #2).    EVERYONE IN THEIR PLACE (#3),   THE DAY OF THE DEAD (#4),     BY MY HAND (#5),     VIPER (#6),    THE BOTTOM OF YOUR HEART (#7),    GLASS SOULS: MOTHS FOR COMMISSARIO RICCIARDI (#8),    NAMELESS SERENADE (9).

LOJACONO SERIES, in order:  THE CROCODILE  (#1),    THE BASTARDS OF PIZZOFALCONE (#2),     DARKNESS FOR THE BASTARDS OF PIZZOFALCONE (#3),

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.randomhouse.de/

A ramp road goes up the hills of Pizzofalcone, where the roads are sometimes at a forty-five degree angle.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

The funiculare at Pizzofalcone, used to transport 28,000 people a day, and over 10 million people a year up the hills, is built with stepped platforms for safety.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

One of the characters enjoys meeting an elderly female friend near the fountain in the park of the Palazzo Reale.  https://www.pinterest.com/

COLD FOR THE BASTARDS OF PIZZOFALCONE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Mystery, Noir, Social and Political Issues, Naples, Italy.
Written by: Maurizio de Giovanni
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 05/28/2019
ISBN: 978-1609455255
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“How is it that for as long as I can remember, there has never been peace and harmony in the senior henhouse?  Surely one would expect more common sense, patience, and respect from the Netherlands’ elders!  With old age comes wisdom, goes the adage.  Ha! Let me modify that: with old age comes the mudslinging.”

coverIn this sequel to The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old, “Hendrik Groen” continues his iconoclastic and irreverent commentary on life in a senior care center outside of Amsterdam.   A full year has passed since Hendrik Groen completed his earlier diary in 2013, and now, in 2015, he has finally decided to start another one.  “This diary will give me a sense of purpose again,” he believes. “It forces me to stay alert, to put my eyes to work and my ear to the ground, and obliges me to follow the developments in our care home as well as what’s happening in the rest of the world….Brain gymnastics to keep the mind sharp.”  He introduces the diary by stating that at his age, now eighty-five, he has approximately an eighty percent chance of living through the year, a “one-in-five-chance” of not being around to complete his diary – and if that happens, he wants no whining.  He then begins by re-introducing his best friend, Evert, announcing in his diary’s first entry that “Evert used to be partial to planting his New Year’s firecrackers in dog poo or, even more spectacularly, horse droppings [though] those were of course less common.”  Now Evert’s big regret is that the “bangers” are so big that he is afraid to use them for fear of blowing himself up in his wheelchair. 

rollator

Rollator, used by many seniors for balance.

s-l3001

Scooter, a power vehicle for roads – and for fun!

This description in the opening paragraph of his January 1, 2015, entry does, in some ways, show the evolution in Hendrik’s attitudes since the previous one.  Though he still has his sense of humor and his look-on-the-bright-side attitude toward life, he reflects a darker vision, overall, some of it related to his dissatisfaction with the care home’s director, the policies she enforces, and her lack of attention to minor issues which, if fixed, would make the lives of residents much happier.  Still willing to flout some of the home’s regulations which he considers silly, Hendrik, often called “Henk” in this sequel, and his close friends from the “Old But Not Dead Club” have had a New Year’s Eve banquet in Evert’s sheltered housing flat, where cooking is allowed – unlike in Hendrik’s own “care” unit.  Then they watched the neighborhood fireworks from another resident’s top floor room and ultimately fired off “a single illicit rocket on behalf of us all, as a mutinous raspberry aimed at the management.”  Their celebration lasts till 2 a.m., but their happiness does not last long.  Only a few days later Hendrik’s diary includes a mournful tribute to the passing of Eefje, his “darling,” whose death last year from Alzheimer’s was so difficult for him that he did not feel like writing in his diary at all.

The Kroller Muller Sculpture Garden, a popular place for trips by seniors.

The Kroller Muller Sculpture Garden, a popular place for trips by seniors.

Some concern is also registered early in the diary about the fact that “the vigor of the residents hasn’t improved in the past year.  The weakest and oldest have left us, and instead of hale and hearty seventy-year-olds taking their place, we’ve welcomed into the fold several old crocks well into their late eighties.”  One woman was there for only a day-and-a-half before she died, having drunk only one cup of tea, leading to a discussion of whether “the deceased would have to pay the whole month’s rent anyway.”  Stricter criteria for admission to care homes is becoming a major problem throughout the country, as more very elderly must remain at home before they “qualify,” and the present residents are noticing that some vacancies in their own home are not being filled.  “By 2020, 800 of the 2,000 care homes will have to close.  That is 40 percent,”  Hendrik notes.  Questions of when or whether their own home is slated for demolition are spreading “like a flu epidemic.”  A group visit to a nearby “old age home” is discouraging, as the home is being reconfigured and will include expensive apartments, a nursing home, and a traditional home like theirs, though dramatically reduced in size. 

Sail Amsterdam, a summer event which the Old But Not Dead Club attends.

Sail Amsterdam, a summer event which the Old But Not Dead Club attends.

Gradually, the reader comes to know Hendrik more intimately than was possible in the first novel.  His marriage, wife, and family are mentioned here, along with his job as headmaster of a primary school for thirty-five years.  A friend in the care home, who is seriously ill but who has shared the bad news regarding his approaching death only with Hendrik, makes him even more human in his expressions of sadness, revealing more empathy with his friend, and his thoughts about his own future.  The death of a beloved service dog, a trip to the cemetery to look at cemetery plots, and the eventual death of his friend make Hendrik’s life more grim, and his list of good friends even smaller.  Still, he soldiers on, working with the Old But Not Dead Club to take over the Residents Committee and regain some control over the actions of the administration.   In the meantime, the Club has added visits to ethnic restaurants to their regular social activities, such as their trips to parks, museums, and cultural events throughout the area, and while the Club’s own eight members enjoy these private events, the rest of the home’s residents, who are not included because the Club’s private bus is too small, often resent their own exclusion.

Asperitas, the first "new" cloud to be labeled since 1951, a symbol for Hendrik. Photo by Witta Priester.

Asperitas, the first “new” cloud to be labeled since 1951, is symbolic, for Hendrik. Photo by Witta Priester.

Some new residents add to the interesting mix of elderly here, with a new resident from Turkey piquing Hendrik’s interest when he discusses the Cloud Appreciation Club, an international group which has recently registered the first new cloud to be identified since 1951 – the Asperitas.  Hendrik, fascinated, is discouraged by the attitudes of his fellow residents, who would “rather sit staring blankly out the window with the awning down,” and he determines to pay more attention when he is looking out, imagining how wonderful it would be if he “saw a bubble cloud” before he died.

Though this sequel continues the stories of many of the previous characters from Groen’s first book, the mood is quite different, and the focus is not so sharp.  Some international news is inserted here.  The fact that Greece is on the verge of bankruptcy, that there is a major sex scandal in the British House of Lords, and that many horrific deaths have occurred recently among Syrian refugees are not directly connected to a book about life in a “care home,” which, at 440 pages, could have been condensed significantly, its focus sharpened.  Fans of the first novel will enjoy seeing what has happened to characters in the ensuing two years.  Newcomers who have not yet “met” Hendrik Groen, however, may find it advantageous to begin with the more focused – and more humorous – first novel, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old.

cover henrik groenPhotos.  The mobility scooter appears on https://www.ebay.co.uk/

The rollator, which many of the home’s residents use regularly, is found on https://www.amazon.com

The Kroller Muller Sculpture Garden is in High Veluwe National Park:  http://www.tapooztravel.com/

Sail Amsterdam was a feature of the summer at the home:  https://www.yourlittleblackbook.me

Asperitas, the first “new” cloud to be labeled since 1951, was a symbol for Hendrik. Photo by Witta Priester.  https://www.flickr.com/

ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: THE NEW SECRET DIARY OF HENDRIK GROEN, 85 YEARS OLD
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Humor, Satire, Literary, Netherlands, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Hendrik Groen
Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Date Published: 03/19/2019
ISBN: 978-1538746639
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“The air and sea were the sole options for leaving.  Though Kamchatka was no longer a closed territory by law, the region was cut off from the rest of the world by geography.  To the south, east, and west was only ocean.  To the north, walling off the Russian mainland, were hundreds of kilometers of mountains and tundra.  Impassable.  Roads within Kamchatka were few and broken: some, to the lower and central villages, were made of dirt, washed out for most of the year; others, to the upper villages, only existed in winter, when they were pounded out of ice.  No roads connected the peninsula to the rest of the continent.  No one could come or go over land.”

cover disappearing earthSetting her novel on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, where she spent a year on a Fulbright Fellowship, Russian scholar Julia Phillips creates an involving and very human story about Kamchatka’s women while highlighting the various ethnic groups on the peninsula, their past histories, and the life styles they take for granted.  Four families and an assortment of local employees, including a customs officer, a major general, a police assistant, and a volcanologist studying some of Kamchatka’s twenty-seven volcanos, reflect everyday life in a series of episodes which sometimes overlap.  In its isolation and its relatively sparse population, Kamchatka often feels more like an island than a part of greater Russia, and any dramatic event which occurs is likely to remain within the community in which it occurs, very much in the style of a “closed room” mystery story.  Two mysteries involving crimes against women lurk at the heart of this novel, but they are the inspiration for a dramatic portrait of daily life on Kamchatka, developed month by month over the course of a calendar year, and not simply an end in themselves.

phillips_julia

Author Julia Phillips

“August” opens with two girls, Alyona, age eleven, and Sophia, age eight, walking along the waterfront below St. Nicholas Hill in Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, the main city of the peninsula, located near its southernmost tip.  Alyona has been in charge of Sophia for the whole summer, as their single mother, a journalist, needs to work.  She has often left them money for the cinema or to take bus rides to other parts of the city, and on this day, Alyona and Sophia have taken the bus to the waterfront, as it is one of the first warm days they have had this summer.  Alyona amuses Sophia by telling her about Zavoyko, a village not far away which completely vanished, years ago, washed away in an earthquake.  As they explore, they are observed by a young man, an “overgrown teenager,” who asks them for help as they return to the city. He has fallen and injured his foot and needs help getting to his car.  He offers to drive them home.  On the ride, he misses the turn for their house, then captures Alyona’s phone, “I have a rule…no phones while I’m driving.”  Alyona, catching on quickly and fearing for the future, keeps her sister from becoming upset by continuing her story of the village which disappeared into the ocean.  No big tale of violence, no description of their interactions beyond this, and no details about what happened when they arrived at the person’s house are included.  Readers will supply all of that from their own imaginations.

water Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

Two girls walk along the beachfront in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the largest city on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

In “September” posters are up with the pictures of Alyona and Sophia, the two missing girls, and all the females in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky are aware of what has happened.  Olya, a schoolgirl, spends much time alone during the summer, since her single mother is gone all week working as an interpreter “up north.”  To keep busy, Olya capitalizes on her friendship with Diana, her best friend, from a more prominent family.   Suddenly, however, Diana’s mother fears that the free-wheeling Olya might be a bad influence on her daughter, and prohibits Diana from seeing her.  Alone on the bus and later on the beach, Olya is accosted by a policeman who wants to know if her name is “Alyona.”  She is furious – she is older and not a “tiny thing, small-boned and fragile” like Alyona and her sister, and she resents being interviewed about this.  She feels no compunction about lying to the policeman about how long she’s been at the beach, where her mother is, when her mother is coming back (not for two weeks), and who is calling her on her cellphone when the policeman arrives, a vivid picture of some of the issues surrounding the disappearance of the two girls in a community in which girls are expected to be independent by many but also molested by some.

Volcanic mountain overlooking Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

Volcanic mountain overlooking Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

“October” introduces a woman who, unmarried at thirty-six, is camping with her new boyfriend, a researcher at the volcanic institute.  They discuss the fact that the police have now begun to think the sisters have been taken off the peninsula.  Both believe that to be impossible because of the geography, and the woman, Katya, has a friend who believes she actually witnessed the girls’ abduction. “December” shows a romance between an ethnic young woman from Esso, to the north, where her parents are herders who live in a yurt, and her boyfriend who is “white,” descended from Russians.  He demands to know where she is all the time, fearful about her safety but possessive to a dangerous degree.  When she meets an ethnic man from Palana, a fishing community even farther to the north than Esso, their relationship begins to develop.  They comment on the fact that while everyone, everywhere, is looking for the two missing little girls from Petropavlovsky-Kamchatsky, both of whom are Russian and white, another girl from Esso, an ethnic girl, has been missing for three years with little publicity or attention.  “New Year’s” raises the issue of two lesbian women who must live very secret – and very fearful – lives, “If you let your guard down, they will come for you.”   In “March,” an Esso woman and her 5-year-old daughter are about to go to Palana, in the farthest north to start over.  Her parents work in the reindeer fields, and she needs to consider if she will really go back or stay where she is, where she has little support but a more independent life.

map edbb366be9b0c5bfd61eb68a06c262d4As the months pass and the characters sometimes overlap, the focus on the mothers and their special issues, and the female characters who must be both independent in their care of families and children, while often their sole support, becomes more fully developed.  In addition, ethnic issues and issues of color play a role in society and in the attitudes of police toward crimes.  By July, a fortuitous resolution to the issues of the missing women is reached, one which some will celebrate while others may find more “convenient” than realistic.  Throughout, the author lets the facts speak for themselves and avoids the temptation to stir up emotions through sentimental language and heavily “charged” commentary as the action develops.  Ultimately, author Phillips inspires readers to supply their own interpretations of what is happening within her carefully crafted conclusion, thereby creating far more realistic drama than what one finds in the typical suspense novel.  Unforgettable!

abandoned village #1

In 1960, Nikita Krushchev established a military garrison on the peninsula, shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Cold War was at its height.  It remained there until 1996, when Boris Yeltsin closed it.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.bookbrunch.co.uk/

The beachfront in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is from https://www.tripadvisor.co.za

A volcanic mountain, one of twenty-seven on the peninsula, overlooks Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky:  http://russiatrek.org

The map of the Kamchatka Peninsula may be found on https://www.pinterest.com/

Now a ghost town and tourist attraction, this military installation in an almost inaccessible part of the peninsula was built in 1960, at the height of the Cold War by Nikita Krushchev.  It remained there until 1996, when Boris Yeltsin closed it. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/

DISAPPEARING EARTH
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Russia, Kamchatka Peninsula, Literary, Mystery, Social and Political Issues,
Written by: Julia Phillips
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 05/14/2019
ISBN: 978-0525520412
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Nowadays the devil no longer has horns, nor a two-sided cape, he no linger smells of sulfur, he doesn’t frighten us with his facade, but rather he does everything he can to make himself seem helpful and agreeable.  He doesn’t have, as one might think, the look of a huckster, nor of an eye-winking panderer, nor that of a jolly good fellow with an inexhaustible repertoire of spicy stories.  His appearance is always well-groomed, he wears double-breasted suits, his speech is refined…” – Father Cornelius.

cover a devil comes to townOne can almost see the wink and the smirk on the face of Italian author Paolo Maurensig as he begins his dark satire of a community in the mountains where a formidable adversary has established residence, a place where the residents do not even recognize this new resident as an adversary, though he is the devil himself.  Telling a story within a story within a story, the author begins by introducing an unnamed young man who has had one “fortuitous” novel which led to his renown, but which has also led to his receiving countless manuscripts from other beginning authors wanting him to read their work and possibly introduce them to a publisher – and then write a preface to their work.  The man does not want to be hurtful to these authors and does not want to discard their manuscripts, but he needs time for his own work and more space in which to do that work.  Then, unexpectedly, he finds an unopened envelope from Switzerland which contains a hundred typed pages of a book called The Devil in the Drawer. The author is anonymous, saying only that he has been working as a consultant for a small publishing house owned by his uncle and that in 1991 he was in Kusnacht, Switzerland, for a conference honoring the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Carl Gustav Jung.  The sender of the manuscript goes on to describe his meeting there with one of the speakers, Father Cornelius, who described his belief that the devil can blend in among people and play multiple roles, even borrowing the appearance of people someone might know.

Paolo MaurensigThe recipient of the anonymous manuscript becomes more and more intrigued with this book, though the subject matter was controversial, even at the time of the conference.  The mysterious sender of the manuscript, nicknamed “Friedrich” by the recipient, goes on to describe Father Cornelius’s warning to him to be careful of the choices he makes in his own life, asserting that “Literature is the greatest of the arts, but it is also a dangerous endeavor….The writer can initiate a chain of thought capable of attributing life and intelligence even to a figure everyone considers to be imaginary, such as the devil.”  Father Cornelius believes that the devil is subjected to earthly laws and that he can no longer perform magic, but he also believes that the devil still seeks power as an end in itself.  If any sort of competition is involved, especially a “pseudo-intellectual competition,” that is just what the devil most wants.  “Consequently, the ideal place [to find the devil] is a literary society…a place where vainglory, fueled by envy, grows immoderately, where even the most banal thoughts – as long as they are printed in type – are accepted as absolute truth.”   He  advises Friedrich to stay away from literary societies, “those dens of iniquity,” then mentions that he knows a place where, in fact, “a whole colony of writers was overcome by a particularly enterprising devil.”

Goethe statue, photo by Philippe de Rexel.

Goethe statue, Strasbourg.  Photo by Philippe de Rexel.

The real action and the thematic development begin as Father Cornelius tells this story to Friedrich, becoming the third such story-teller within the novel.  Naming the mountain village where the action took place “Dichtersruhe,” meaning “Poet’s Repose,” to keep its real name secret, he describes a place where Goethe supposedly stayed for one night, the place where Father Cornelius himself was a vicar ten years ago, replacing an older priest who essentially retired.  Father Cornelius was not popular in that village, something he blames on rumors that had preceded his arrival.  He soon begins to notice that everyone in town has a writer in the family, and all mail their work to publishers regularly in hopes of seeing their thoughts in print.  No one has yet succeeded in this except Marta Bauer, a young woman described as “mentally handicapped” whose illustrated nursery rhymes and illustrations won first prize in a contest.  The other writers in the town all display their publishing house rejections on the wall as a matter of pride. 

Rabid fox, rampant during parts of this novel.

Rabid fox, rampant during parts of this novel.

An outbreak of rabies, carried by foxes, coincides with the arrival of Bernard Fuchs (meaning “fox”), a publisher from Lucerne.  Father Cornelius, who believes that Fuchs has intuited all his own secrets, is not happy, declaring sarcastically that “It was just the thing in a village of literati:  all they needed was a devil of a publisher who, coming from God knows where, would invade Dichtersruhe like a fox in  a henhouse.”  The leaders of the community are excited, however, especially the semi-retired old priest, Father Cristoforo, and the Burgomaster, who hope that Fuchs will establish a branch of the publishing house in the village.  When a literary award with a monetary prize is announced there, life in the village becomes completely undone, a calamity of jealousies, fears, and resentments dividing families and friends and threatening every aspect of society.  Father Cornelius’s constant warnings regarding Fuchs are for naught, and he becomes more and more convinced that Fuchs really is the devil in action.  The village continues to ignore the fact that Fuchs is living off the village, promising everything they want, and contributing absolutely nothing except dissension.

Miniature font for holy water. Fuchs insisted that these all be removed from a wall display in the house where he was staying.

Miniature font for holy water. Fuchs insisted that these all be removed from a wall display in the house where he was staying.

Throughout the novel, Maurensig keeps the action moving rapidly, while also raising serious questions about the nature of good and evil.  His use of symbolism and lively detail allows the reader to see some issues which are often discussed more abstractly by other writers, and his dark sense of humor keeps the reader from becoming overwhelmed by the serious subject matter.  (Where else can you see a woman’s complexion described as “pasty and opaque, dotted with blackish bristles like a piece of boiled pork rind.”) The care with which Maurensig organizes and paces this novel is astonishing – it feels like a thriller in places where serious issues are being presented – and the build-up to the conclusion is so carefully done that the discussions of morality which one usually associates with a parable or an allegory feel natural, instead of turgid or intrusive here.  Imaginative, finely crafted, and totally different from any other book I have read in years, this one will be high on my Favorites List for this year.

ALSO by Maurensig, reviewed here:  THEORY OF SHADOWS, a biography about Alexandre Alekhine, world chess champion in the 1940s.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.giunti.it/

Goethe’s statue in Strasbourg, photographed by Philippe de Rexel, is from http://www.otstrasbourg.fr/

The rabid fox may be found here:  https://www.nydailynews.com

The miniature font for holy water appears on https://www.amazon.com/

 

A DEVIL COMES TO TOWN
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Allegory, Satire, Italy, Literary, Social and Political Issues, Switzerland
Written by: Paolo Maurensig
Published by: World Editions
Date Published: 05/07/2019
ISBN: 978-1642860139
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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