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Note: Author Josephine Rowe is the 2016 WINNER of Australia’s Elizabeth Jolley Prize.

“There comes a point where you have to say, Here it is. Here is what life looks like. Where you stop turning your head away, cupping your ears…because you finally understand it won’t do any good. For years now, [I’ve] been waking to the same knowledge. This is not my life. Gray eucalypts shaking out there in the stonewashed sky and Jack’s loose copper change scattered across the bedside table. No, none of this is right. None of this fits.” –Evelyn, Ru’s mother

coverI am always excited to see who has won the Elizabeth Jolley Prize, especially so this year.  Jolley, a transplant to Australia from England, began her writing career when she was in her sixties and produced several stunning novels filled with dark ironies, dramatic twists, and characters whose intimate thoughts and feelings drive the action.  She is one of my all-time favorite authors.

The latest winner of the Jolley Prize, Australian author Josephine Rowe, employs the same dark ironies, dramatic twists, and intimately developed characters while she is still in her early thirties.  Creating a character novel driven by a father’s inability to deal with the horrors of the Vietnam War and the effects his traumas have on his abused family, Rowe presents the action in six chapters featuring five different members of the same family. Introducing the action is Ru, the twelve-year-old daughter of Jack Burroughs. Her mother Evelyn, her older sister Lani, Jack himself, and Jack’s brother Les also reveal their stories in their own chapters, with Ru, by then much older, the speaker in the conclusion.

PHoto by Patrick Pittman.

Photo by Patrick Pittman.

The novel opens ominously in the summer of 1990, with the arrival of a dead sperm whale in the bay at Mount Martha. The Gulf War is raging. Ru’s father Jack, who has survived the Vietnam War, has not survived his ghosts. “His head is a ghost trap,” Ru declares. “It’s all he can do to open his mouth without letting them all howl out.” Now her father, on one of his many disappearances, is being hunted by her mother, and Ru finds it “impossible to imagine her [mother] ever being young, impossible to imagine swimming trophies and a modeling portfolio” left behind in the elegant house where her mother grew up. “All she had to show now were an arctic fox coat and a photograph of her in the driver’s seat of the famous green Corvette a few years before she sold it to pay off a loan.”  If only she had decided to “swing her slender legs up into that beautiful car and driven as fast as she could in the opposite direction,” away from Jack, her life would have been totally different. Instead, she ran away with him. Now, even after years of trying to help him cope, she still hopes to lead him away from the “mud, away from the cracks of invisible rifles, the strange lights through the trees.”

Mount Martha Bay, where a sperm whale washes ashore and dies in the opening pages.

Mount Martha Bay, where a sperm whale washes ashore and dies in the opening pages.

Everyone in the family is tormented. Ru, at age twelve, is being bullied at school, and she finds escape in making cigarettes from the pack of tobacco her father left behind. Her sister Lani is escaping through sexual experimentation, in selling her father’s left-behind medications. and in bossing Ru, to whom “she can be mean as cat spit [with] a sixth sense for knowing what will hurt most.” Their uncle Les, sometimes known as Tetch, has begun hanging out in the family garage, fixing what needs to be fixed without being asked, though neither he nor anyone else can fix the family’s inner demons. Les did not serve in Vietnam because of an injury. Evelyn sometimes escapes into memories of her earlier life, with the family’s race horses, especially Blue Boy, a blue roan, and her aimless afternoons at the family elegant home. Despite her memories of her quiet life there, however, she has never been able to leave Jack, always believing in “the good that was there. She could “wait it out…the war in him…He’d come up eventually; she’d always believed so. Come up gasping, and she’d be there.”

A Blue Roan horse, like the one Evelyn remembers from her childhood.

A Blue Roan horse, like the one Evelyn remembers from her childhood.

In prose that often feels like poetry, Rowe creates lives for these characters, and the reader comes to know and empathize with them. They are what matter here, as there is little overriding plot, which the reader puts together from the many flashbacks and flash-forwards. Ru, the main character, is a special case, since Rowe has chosen to use the second person for both Ru’s opening chapter and her closing chapter. With the action addressed to “you,” as Ru lives her life, the reader also becomes absorbed into Ru’s life, identifying with her in a way which is more intimate than it is with the other characters, however well-developed they may be – and they are exceptionally so. Perfect, abbreviated descriptions create lively, memorable imagery. Ru’s grandparents were simply “feathery handwriting on birthday and Christmas cards, padded envelopes containing presents of glittery stationery and books you’d read years ago.”  When sister Lani would climb through the window of Ru’s bedroom to avoid her mother, “her mouth [would be] all blurry and her eye makeup gone panda.” For Les, “certain moments would lose substance in their revisiting, memories he’d meant to preserve instead rubbed back to the oily sheen of overhandled suede.”

Poet Phillip Bay, where Evelyn and Jack meet for three weeks during the summer, when Jack worked in the projection booth of a theatre. The bay was cloudy with pollution and they could not go swimming.

Port Phillip Bay, where Evelyn and Jack meet for three weeks during the summer, when Jack worked in the projection booth of a theatre. The bay was cloudy with pollution and they could not go swimming.

Throughout, Rowe uses a series of animals to convey her characters’ connections to the wider world, avoiding the kind of sentimentality that a novel so emotional might suggest. The whale at the beginning is already sick, and it is soon dead. Jack’s Belle, whom he rescued and loved, is horribly killed by the panther he brought back from Sumatra after the Vietnam war. The blue roan horse from Evelyn’s teen years, is described by a trainer as stupid: “A horse will run itself to death, eat itself to death, drink itself to death if you let it. It’s the only animal that needs to be [taught] restraint.” Ru’s mother calls her, sometimes, by her nickname, Possum, and Lani, years later, tells Ru that she now has a dog – “A friend traded up for a baby, and it was bye-bye-Bruno, poor old fella.” A human’s connection to the animal world remains unbroken, though life is not golden and offers no kind of grace. No matter how fast we move – in Corvettes, in airplanes, on motorcycles, or on foot – we cannot escape our pasts or our memories.

Les opens a trunkful of old letters - and memories - and remembers the goannas, "those pricks...We watched one go after a chicken, and it was carnage."

Les opens a trunkful of old letters – and memories – and remembers the goannas, “Practically pre-historic…dragons.  We watched one go after a chicken, and it was carnage.”  These can grow to eight feet long.

Beautifully constructed, filled with original description and characters connected by vibrant themes, this debut novel establishes Josephine Rowe as a writer to watch for, one whose talents and accomplishments to date belie her thirty-three years. Elizabeth Jolley would surely be encouraging her success – two authors with similar views of the world.

Photos, in order.  The author’s photo, by Patrick Pittman, is from http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au

Mount Martha Bay, where a sperm whale washes ashore in the opening pages and dies, setting the scene for the rest of the action.  https://www.goto.com/

A Blue Roan horse, like the one Evelyn remembers from her childhood:  http://www.blueroanquarterhorses.com/

Port Phillip Bay, where Evelyn meets Jack, a projectionist at the local theatre, for the first time.  Because of pollution at that time, they were unable to use the beach.   Over 3.2 million people live around its shore, making Port Phillip Bay Australia’s most densely populated catchment.  http://www.ppwcma.vic.gov.au/about/our-region/bays-coasts/port-phillip-bay/

Two reptile experts hold a goanna, which can grow to over eight feet long.  (This one is anesthetized after surgery.) Les remembers them as being like dinosaurs, practically prehistoric.  http://www.theaustralian.com.au

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Josephine Rowe
Published by: Catapult
Date Published: 09/12/2017
ISBN: 978-1936787579
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“In the secret grassy quadrangle of the Gardens, I crawled before I could walk, I walked before I could run, I ran before I could dance, I danced before I could sing, and I danced and sang until I learned stillness and silence and stood motionless and listening at the Gardens’ heart, on summer evenings sparkling with fireflies, and became, at least in my own opinion, an artist…a would-be writer of films.”

cover golden houseSet in the Greenwich Village enclave of the Macdougal-Sullivan Historic District, Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is pure Rushdie, while also being pure New York. His young narrator, Rene Unterlinden, the son of Belgian academics, has lived in the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens all his short life while working to become a filmmaker. The spacious house beside him, owned for over twenty years by a mystery man who has never been seen on the property, has been in the care of professionals – despite its highly desirable address. On the day of President Obama’s inauguration, an “uncrowned seventy-something king from a foreign country and his three sons take over their castle…exuding a heavy cheap odor, the unmistakable smell of crass, despotic danger, the kind of scent that warned us, look out for this guy, because he could order your execution at any moment, if you’re wearing a displeasing shirt, for example.” Nothing hints at the family’s place of origin, and the head of the household has no wife or even any photos of a wife. Though “he made huge, clumsy efforts to be sociable and neighborly,” he was found to be “a man deeply in love with the idea of himself as powerful.”

Salman_Rushdie_2014Rene confesses that when looking at this man, he “thought of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster,” but before long, Rene begins thinking that this man might, at last, be the unique film subject he has been searching for. Fewer than twenty pages later, the reader learns that the new residents are from Mumbai and that they have survived a terrorist attack which took place there in November, 2008. About a month after that, the family vanished from India for New York, their escape to their “safe” address in New York City having been planned for many years. Now calling himself Nero Julius Golden, with sons named Petronius (Petya), Lucius Apuleius (Apu), and Dionysus (D), the new resident of the Gardens reminds Rene of the wicked king in a fairy tale who kept his sons prisoners in a house of gold. He admits, however, that “in our age of bitterly contested realities, it is not easy to agree upon what is actually happening or has happened, on what is the case, let alone upon the moral or meaning of this or any other tale.” What is known about the sons is that Petya is high on the autism spectrum and loves computer games and martinis. Apu is a gifted painter of portraits who has learned sorcery, Practical Kabbalah, Buddhist Judaism, and Mysore yoga. Their half-brother Dionysus is uncertain about whether he is transgender, transsexual transvestite, or cross-dresser, though one person suggests that “if you don’t identify with woman-ness or man-ness, maybe you’re nonbinary.”

macdougal st.

Looking across the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic Disrtrict in Greenwich Village. Photo by Douglas Elliman

 Rushdie is obviously having the time of his life as he creates and develops these characters, and he certainly enjoys the opportunity to set his story in New York in the heady days immediately after the Obama election. With his immense intelligence, his wild, non-stop imagination, and his ability to see current events as the basis of satiric commentary, he includes music, films, novels, folk tales, and classical references to expand his scope, and as he develops his story, behind the mask of Rene, the focus falls more firmly on Nero Golden, even as Nero begins to age. When Nero falls for the machinations of a young and practiced Russian flirt, the action begins to become more personal, even as Rene begins to uncover the source of the immense wealth which is supporting the family. By 2012, Nero is regarded as a new power player in the construction and development business, and he has had business dealings with the Mafia in major cities throughout the country. When Rene becomes the tragic victim of fate, Nero invites him to live in his house, and event that Rene siezes as an opportunity to be “the wooden horse inside the gates of Troy.”

Another view of the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District.

Another view of the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District.

As Rene observes major changes in the lives of the Golden family, however, he is still in his twenties, and he has had little experience dealing with high-level, world-class manipulators. The time frame speeds up in the middle of the novel, as death begins to stalk the Goldens. Nero’s family gets smaller and smaller, and Rene becomes more important as the focus of the story. He is aware that there are gaps in the Golden family narrative and some skeletons in the closet. Eventually, Rene’s girlfriend suggests that he write a “mockumentary,” instead of a documentary, making up what he does not know. “You have an imagination,” she said. “Imagine it.” And Rene suddenly remembers “A golden story…For the Romans, a tall tale, a wild conceit. A lie.”

A Mondrian-like house within the district is the source of some complaints.

A Mondrian-like house within the district is the source of some complaints.

When US elections roll around in 2012, Nero is furious about the choice of Romney for Presidential candidate against Obama, and by 2015, he is at his wits’ end: “The Joker was on TV, announcing a run for president, along with the rest of the Suicide Squad….Unable to watch the green-haired cackler make his improbable declaration, I turned to the crime pages and read about killings.” New and ominous characters make their appearance and become threats to Nero and his family, even as two women, girlfriends or former girlfriends of the Golden boys and Rene, become influential players in the action. When the 2016 elections occur, Rushdie is in his element.

As he concludes his novel and ties up the loose ends, he offers this: “Let my little story have its final moments in the midst of whatever macro garbage is around as you read this, whatever manufactroversy, whatever horror or stupidity or ugliness or disgrace. Let me invite the giant victorious green-haired cartoon king and his billion-dollar movie franchise to take a back seat and let real people drive the bus….For eight years we persuaded ourselves that the progressive, tolerant, adult America embodied by the president was what America had become, that it would just go on being like that….[But] America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain.” While this novel is more contemporary in its focus than many of Rushdie’s others, it is brilliant, thoughtful, literary, and often very funny, one of Rushdie’s most easily enjoyable.


Some autistic people have been helped by their relationships with felines. Petya Golden’s “cat” was an Alpine lynx.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The garden picture of the Macdougal-Sullivan Historic District may be found on https://www.dnainfo.com     Photo by Douglas Elliman.

The aerial view of the Macdougal-Sullivan Historic District is found on https://www.foodsofny.com/

A Mondrian-like house in the historic district was the source of some controversy.  http://spgarchitects.com

Some people on the autism spectrum were helped by their relationship with felines.  Petya Golden decided to befriend an Alpine Lynx.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynx

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, US Regional
Written by: Salman Rushdie
Published by: Random House
Date Published: 09/05/2017
ISBN: 978-0399592805
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Eigil said that the Faroese were an extremely clannish society, and that one of the particularities of clan bonds was that they were based on smell. Those who lacked a father did not necessarily smell bad, but they smelled different. The connection between children and parents was essentially based on everyone smelling right. That was just how it was.”

cover brahmadellsIf this description of family relationships sounds different from anything you have ever read before, be prepared for even more surprises. This novel, a modern epic of the Faroe Islands, closely resembles a tell-all “confidential” over several generations while also presenting a vibrant panorama of island history. In this, The Brahmadells  may be unique – at least among books in recent English translation. Written in Faroese by Joanes Nielsen, a native of the Faroe Islands, and translated by Kerri A. Pierce, the novel is pure Faroese in setting, atmosphere, and character. Eigil Tvibor, around whom the novel revolves, is a Faroese author who starts out working on a book containing the cultural history of the islands and then decides to “work some of his own family history into the book.” Of particular interest to him is his great-great-grandfather, Nils Tvibur, who survived the measles epidemic which killed fifty of the 800 inhabitants of the island in the mid-nineteenth century. Though Eigil Tibor asserts that Nils, a violent man, did exhibit some praiseworthy traits during his lifetime, Eigil also admits that Nils “had not been a good person, and truth be told, he sometimes suspected he [himself] was more like his great-great-grandfather than he knew.”

joanes nielen authorTracing several generations through the eighteenth century to the present, Joanes Nielsen creates characters who relish their independence and still resent the foreign countries which have tried to tame them and bring them under political control. The British, Norwegians, and Danish have all occupied and left their marks on the Faroe Islands, and the characters who live in this novel during these periods convey their own individual resentments and, sometimes, act upon them with violence. The British and Norwegians are long gone now, and the Danish have granted the islands home rule within the kingdom. Still, in the present, many of the characters shown here are passionately engaged in political efforts and council work, fighting some of the same battles we see in other democracies regarding universal questions: How conservative do the islands want to be? How much do they want to provide help to their residents in need? What role does religion play in deciding the answers? And what role do unions play? In the Faroe Islands, some dramatic cultural elements also become issues – How much strange, even horrifying, activity can be attributed to ghosts, and how much does the supernatural influence the outcome of events? What is one to do when s/he receives messages from beyond the grave? And how is the country to deal with those who possess long-recognized family histories of violence which they believe are inherited?

Located in the Atlantic, about halfway between Norway and Iceland, the Faroe Islands have a storied history.

Located about halfway between Norway and Iceland, the Faroe Islands have a storied history.

Time is fluid here, as are the characters and families which appear within each time frame/chapter. Eigil Tvibor introduces himself as an author in the opening pages, suggesting metafictional elements which appear again near the conclusion. He gives some early clues about the stories here, including his own disgrace for dishonoring the grave of a surgeon from the mid-1800s. The measles epidemic of 1846 is described, as are the political reasons for Eigil’s strong dislike of the surgeon whose grave he has defiled. He includes a short quotation from T. S. Eliot, introduces his girlfriend Karin, and describes his own arrest – all this within a busy opening chapter which raises many of the topics which will be developed further over the more than two centuries of the novel.

Torshavn, tne capital of the Faroe Islands, formerly under Danish rule.

Torshavn, tne capital of the Faroe Islands, formerly under Danish rule.

The next chapter shifts time, describing the arrival of a three-masted schooner from Copenhagen and the arrival of an unnamed passenger, who gives an apple to a six-year-old local child named Tovo. That child becomes the subject of the third chapter in which he tries to save his twelve-year-old dog from being shot by his father. This child will eventually become the assistant for Napoleon Nolsoe, whose grave Eigil Tvibor defiles over a hundred years later. Connections do exist among these chapters, but sometimes it takes several more episodes before the reader will be able to connect all the details, especially as they may involve other generations with new characters bearing the same last names. Occasionally, author Nielsen will provide the sad or dramatic ending to an episode without having given the background which has led to it, only to include this needed information later when he is describing a different character or situation.

Uti a bo, one of the Faroe Island’s spectacular sights.  Photo by Adam Burton/Alamy

Nielsen includes many other genres to illustrate the characters’ feelings, including a ballad, a stomach-churning short story, an occasional love story, and a couple of episodes of torture and disembowelment, all presented as entertainment. References to, and sometimes quotations from, Keats (“Ode on a Grecian Urn), Walt Whitman, August Strindberg, Charles Dickens, Henrik Ibsen, and others, along with the lyrics to favorite songs by Dusty Springfield and the repeating image of a child ballet dancer by Edgar Degas, add to the continuing literary and cultural allusions. While these references provide philosophical and artistic context to enhance some of the action here, other examples of the novel’s content are repulsive in their vividly described appeals to a person’s worst fears.  Though an epic’s usual purpose is to provide a broad historical record of the deeds and adventures of a cultural hero, some deaths or dismemberments here, described with what seems like gleeful horror, feel more like what one would expect in a grotesque comic book, an epic carried to extremes for the modern audience.

Sod hut. Double click here to get a video of the Faroe Islands.

Sod hut. Double click here to get a video of the Faroe Islands.

One of the characteristics which female readers will not be able to ignore is the male expectation of control in the action. While this is obviously consistent with the tone of most other historical “epics” from times before women were recognized as having abilities, talents, and strengths of their own, the male belief here that “I didn’t have any control” or “I inherited my tendency to violence from my family” gets old quickly. Overall, however, the novel provides many chances to see the Faroe Islands in detail, and most readers will celebrate the opportunity to share a “new” culture with its author while enjoying the trip.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on http://www.bokbyen-skagerrak.no

Map of the Faroe Islands:  https://www.seashepherd.org/

Torshavn, the capital of the Faroe Islands:  https://www.commonspace.scot/

One of the Faroe Islands’ most beautiful sights, Uti a Bo:  https://www.commonspace.scot/    Photo by Adam Burton/Alamy

A sod hut overlooking the Atlantic.  Click to get a video of the Faroe Islands:  https://www.youtube.com

Review. Photos. Faroe Islands, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Joanes Nielsen
Published by: Open Letter
Date Published: 11/21/2017
ISBN: 978-1940953663
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression. Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts….Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man. In fact, he was rather ordinary with no distinguishing features…the sort of man who causes us to ask ourselves, ‘What does he live for? What does he find in life? What logic compels him to keep breathing? What philosophy drives him as he wanders the earth?’ ” – unnamed narrator.

cover madonna fur coatBorn in the Ottoman Empire in 1907 in what is now Bulgaria, author Sabahattin Ali worked as a writer, poet, teacher, and journalist, and he served his country multiple times as a soldier, but he was also a man who believed that women had as much right to be leaders in life as men did, an idea at odds with the militaristic leaders of the Turkish Republic, which was formed in the aftermath of World War I. Writing in his own weekly newpaper, Sabahattin Ali was twice jailed for criticizing the country’s leaders, and mysteries still surround his death by gunshots at the border of Bulgaria and Turkey in 1948, though the nation’s security services are believed to have been responsible. His novel Madonna in a Fur Coat, published in 1943, remains an enduring legacy, reflecting many of his beliefs regarding the role of women within an unusual love story. A new 2013 edition of this book, seventy years after its original printing, has been “Turkey’s best-selling novel for the past three years,” according to the New York Journal of Books, this despite (or perhaps because of) current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s push to reestablish traditional gender roles within the country.

Ali author photoIn 1941, the unnamed narrator of the novel, quoted at the beginning of the review, is asked by Raif Efendi, a man he has come to know from his employment, to go to his house to retrieve a notebook in which he wrote intimately about his life for ten years, now long past. The last passage in the journal, dated June 1933, conveys Efendi’s highly emotional state of mind: “I cannot go on with all this locked up inside me. There are so many things – that I need to say…but to whom? Can there be another soul wandering this great globe who is as lonely as I? Who would hear me out? Where would I begin?” Efendi’s eventual choice of this narrator to secure the notebook for him shows his absolute – and belated – trust in the narrator as a confidante since he feels that “all this locked up inside me” cannot be shared with his wife and daughter. The narrator is surprised by Efendi’s request: “It seemed impossible that a man like Raif Efendi…would willingly shrink away from those closest to him. [Perhaps] he did not wish those around him to know who he was.” As the narrator reads the journal from the beginning in 1923, he lets the journal tell the story, never interrupting Efendi’s entries as he shares intimacies which will forever change the life of the narrator.

The Tiergarten, to which Efendi escapes when an acquaintancce makes an obvious, unwanted advance towards him.

Berlin’s Tiergarten, to which Efendi escapes after an acquaintancce makes an obvious, unwanted advance towards him.

The action of Efendi’s journal takes place in Berlin, a city the author knew well from his two years of studying and teaching there. His main character Raif Efendi had studied briefly at the Istanbul Academy of Art but was never able to share his deepest feelings on canvas, essential for an artist. His father, hoping to give him a sense of direction, sent him off to Germany to study the soap business, in which the father had some interest. Now twenty-four, Raif, however, spends most of the year learning German instead, reading literature, attending art exhibitions, and getting to know some of the people at the pension where he lives. One exhibition of new expressionist artists, “made me want to laugh” because “these dreadful portraits looked like sketches of criminals.” As he glances toward the main room, however, a “torrent swept through me…I can only remember standing transfixed before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat…a face utterly new to me…[and] I couldn’t help but feel that I had known that woman since I’d opened my first book at age seven…since I’d started to dream.”

Andrea del Sarto's Madonna delle Arpie, in which the madonna looks almost identical to the painter, Maria Puder.

Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna delle Arpie, in which the Madonna looks almost identical to the painter Maria Puder.

The portrait is a self-portrait by a woman named Maria Puder, about which a local critic declared that the woman in the painting greatly resembled Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna delle Arpie, with its “expression of anguish and resentment.” Efendi particularly likes the fact that unlike the innocent, girlish madonnas seen so commonly in religious art, this Mary appears to be a woman who has learned how to think, someone who shuns the world to the point that she is not even looking up at the sky, preferring to keep her eyes on the ground. Innocent himself, Efendi spends hours staring at the portrait over the next few days, then unexpectedly sees the artist walking and follows her to a cabaret where she is performing. When she comes to his table, he is overwhelmed. Gradually, they begin to converse, but from the outset Maria warns him not to try to understand her. “There’s one thing you must remember. This all ends the moment you want something from me. …You [men] ask so much of us, as if it were your natural right.” She particularly resents the fact that “Men are the hunters, and we their miserable prey. And our duties? To bow down and obey and give them whatever they want.”

The Romanische Cafe, where Raif Efendi and Maria Puder discuss their future, or lack of it.

The Romanische Cafe, where Raif Efendi and Maria Puder discuss their future, or not.

With the emotional roles between Raif and Maria reversed from the social norm, especially in the mid-1920s, the relationship features Raif as the naïf, certainly in the thrall of Maria, who, in turn, wants to keep everything on an intellectual level, even though her work requires her to flirt with the men who come to the cabaret. “The moment I see you pitying me is the moment I say goodbye,” she announces. They get closer as they come to know each other, and he falls completely in love while she still believes that “As different as you are, you are still a man.” Going to the famed Romanische Café, they eventually begin to communicate about what love is and is not, and Maria blames herself for not being able to love freely. Their unstable relationship changes still further as time passes.

grunewald forest

The Grunewald Forest, still a romantic environment for those looking for a quiet escape.

As the reader knows from the outset, Raif keeps his journal for ten years, after which eight more years pass before he finds someone like the narrator who can appreciate and learn from his experiences. The novel, an intense romance, albeit an unconventional one, becomes even more fully developed the longer it lasts. Forthright and realistic regarding social issues, despite the overarching romantic elements, the 1940s style feels a bit old-fashioned, but the themes could not be more current. With this novel Sabahattin Ali has left a legacy that must have been unique in Turkey at the time of publication, and it still has much of importance to share, even now.

Photos:  The author’s photo appears on https://i.ytimg.com/

After he is assaulted by an inebriated woman against his will, Raif escapes to the Tiergarten the next day to recuperate – and avoid her.  https://www.gardenvisit.com

Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna delle Arpie greatly resembles Maria Puder, who painted a self-portrait which consumes Raif Efendi.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Berlin’s Romanische Cafe, where Raif and Maris discuss their relationship and the future, or not.  https://img.morgenpost.de

The Grunewald Forest, still a quiet place to escape:  http://www.viaggiarelibera.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Germany, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Turkey, Romance
Written by: Sabahattin Ali
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 11/07/2017
ISBN: 978-1590518809
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note:  Swiss author Peter Stamm was SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, and in 2014 he was WINNER  of the Friederich Holderlin Prize in Germany.

“Thomas could hear nothing but the scraping of his soles on the gravelly ground and his breathing which had adapted to his stride pattern. He felt suddenly present as never before; it was as though he had no past and no future. There was only this day and this path on which he was slowly making his way up the mountain.”

cover back of beyondSwiss author Peter Stamm has made a career out of writing short novels in which characters who seem ordinary on the surface become more intriguing – and sometimes more self-aware – as they try to control change or learn to live with it. Some of his characters are damaged while others are simply out of tune with themselves – lacking self-awareness and often oblivious to what is happening around them. Most of these characters must learn to deal with relationships, especially those involving romance, and Stamm often uses dual points of view to convey two different opinions about a relationship and the characters involved in it. This novel is no exception, except in the nature of the couple which is the focus. Here the two main characters, Thomas and Astrid, are older than the characters in the earlier novels – in their thirties as the novel opens and in their sixties when it closes.  At the outset, they have been married for a decade or so and have two young school-age children. Having just returned from a five-week family vacation in Spain, they are tired from all the traveling and the need to open up the house and get settled again. They have quieted the children in bed and have begun the usual domestic activities, with Astrid sorting and washing laundry, and Thomas sitting outside on a bench with Astrid’s empty wine glass sitting beside his full one, as he contemplates getting up the next morning to go to work.

Author photo by Robert Ramos

Author photo by Robert Ramos

Walking back to go inside the house, Thomas almost gets there, but he “hesitated momentarily, then, with a bewildered smile that he was only half aware of, he turned away to the garden gate…lifted the gate as he opened it, so that it didn’t squeak…and, slowly and self-consciously, walked down the road….Even though he was stone cold sober, he had a sense of moving like a drunk, slowly and self-consciously.” Astrid has gone to bed and does not notice his absence until the next morning. She is so confused that she waits more than two days before calling the police to say that Thomas is missing, telling white lies, in the meantime, to his secretary and to the children. During this time, Thomas has been walking through the mountains in eastern Switzerland, heading west, avoiding roads and places near his home as he travels, a decision he has made so quickly that he has not even brought camping equipment or heavy clothing for the cold temperatures in the mountains.

Braunau, Switzerland, where Thomas made a credit card purchase which alerted the police. Photo by Nouly.

Braunau, Switzerland, where Thomas made a credit card purchase which alerted the police. Photo by Nouly.

The novel moves forward with each character describing his/her life in detail from the moment Thomas has left: Astrid does the ironing and fixes meals. “She had always been the voice of reason in the relationship and in the family.” Thomas makes his way through the mountains to a small village where he uses his credit card, a mistake which stimulates the interest of the police.

Trekking in the mountains without winter clothing, Thomas learns to protect himself as he heads west.

Trekking in the mountains without winter clothing, Thomas learns to protect himself as he heads west.

Stamm takes many chances with this novel. His characters are completely ordinary and lacking in self-awareness, and the reader is not able to share experiences with them. They “stand off” on their own, apart from the world at large, protecting themselves. Even the crises they face here do not seem to provide great moments which show their developing consciousness or feelings for those around them. Astrid goes on with her life and her new “job” of taking care of the family. Thomas travels through the mountains from town to town, always being careful not to be noticed, while picking up odd jobs to support himself when he needs money. Author Stamm also extends the time frame of the action in which these characters operate. Since they themselves, and especially Astrid, provide little intrigue for the reader in terms of their thoughts and observations about the world and their lives, the reader is left to watch them for many more years as they continue to do what they have already been doing. Astrid is organized and predictable, despite her husband’s absence. Thomas, whom we never get to know well, goes to new places, meets people, gets jobs, and leaves when he feels like it, moving on to new places and new countries. Eventually thirty years pass.

A snow grouse, or ptarmigan, was responsible for an emergency for Thomas.

A snow grouse, or ptarmigan, was responsible for an emergency for Thomas. Photo by Jan Frode Haugseth

As always, Stamm is precise and clear with his prose and his story line, though he provides little intimacy between the reader and the characters. Emphasizing the themes more than character, the author’s conclusion takes place when Thomas and Astrid are in their mid-sixties. This provides an opportunity for the reader to observe them at this late stage of their lives, along with the lives of their children, brought up with no input from their father for most of their existence. Have Astrid and Thomas learned anything? What, if anything, should they have learned? Are they happy? Have they lived lives which are rewarding to them? What do they owe their families, if anything, and how much true freedom can a person expect in twenty-first century life? Where does love fit into the picture, and what does one do if the person who is loved is unhappy with that love? What does it mean to be responsible? And what do we owe ourselves? All these questions find their resolutions in a surprise conclusion. The reader’s own answers to these questions will determine whether or not s/he finds the surprises realistic – and satisfying.

ALSO by Peter Stamm, reviewed here:  SEVEN YEARS,       AGNES,       ALL DAYS ARE NIGHT

Photos, in order:  The author photo by Robert Ramos appears on http://www.elperiodico.com

Braunau, Switzerland, where Thomas made a credit card purchase which alerted the police. Photo by Nouly.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Trekking in the mountains alone and without winter clothing, Thomas learns to protect himself as he heads west.  https://www.shutterstock.com

A snow grouse, or ptarmigan, was responsible for an emergency for Thomas. Photo by Jan Frode Haugseth. https://commons.wikimedia.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Literary, Psychological study, Switzerland
Written by: Peter Stamm
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 10/03/2017
ISBN: 978-1590518281
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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