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“When you start swaying on your legs, when you light another cigarette to kill five more minutes even though your throat is stinging and your mouth is so furred up you feel like you’ve eaten a tarpaulin, and then the others also light cigarettes and linger a while longer – when all that happens, then it really is time to go home to bed.” – from the Prologue, as three young men meet after four a.m. and then decide to go home.

Valuing the idea that “keeping it simple” is important to the success of mystery stories, author Marco Malvaldi draws deliberate parallels between the conclusion in Leonardo Sciascia’s, A Simple Story, in which the main character suddenly finds “where the light switch is,” the clue that allows him to solve the entire mystery, and the final resolution in Malvaldi’s own Game for Five,  as bartender Massimo Viviani suddenly solves the murder of a young woman. Simple deductions have been the key to his success.  This short, uncomplicated, and often very funny novel depends for its success on more than the mystery itself, however.  Quirky characters, three of them in their mid-seventies and one in his eighties, gather regularly at Massimo’s Bar Lume to pass the time playing heated games of briscola and gossiping about everyone and everything in their coastal community outside of Pisa.  Massimo, the thirty-ish bartender/owner of the Bar Lume, humors these characters, often joining in their card game as a fifth player when times are slow, and chatting and sharing their lives with them, valuing their commentary on all subjects and offering his own, sometimes contrary, observations to keep things lively.

Massimo, whose point of view drives this story, finds himself drawn unexpectedly into a murder mystery, which makes him the center of much interest among the patrons of his bar and in the community at large.  Late one long night, after four in the morning, as Massimo has been cleaning up his bar, three young men, so inebriated they can hardly walk,  are standing beside a green Nissan Micra across the street, with two of them trying to talk the drunkest youth, the owner of the car, out of driving home.  The young man insists on driving off, but half a mile from the bar where Massimo is working, the youth pulls off the road to relieve himself in a trash barrel.  When he discovers that the barrel is “occupied” by the dead body of a beautiful young woman, he also learns that his cell phone is dead.  Returning to Massimo’s bar to call the police, he is so drunk he is unable to make himself understood, and it is Massimo who accompanies him back to the woods and summons the police, thereby involving himself in this murder mystery.

The young man who eventually discovers a woman's body in a trash can is standing beside his green Nissan Micra, like this one, at 4:00 a.m., across from Massimo's bar, before leaving for home in a drunken stupor.

Massimo’s Bar Lume has been used for years as the regular card-playing hangout of a group of elderly men, who also serve as Massimo’s sounding board when he becomes increasingly convinced that the police, acting too quickly, have detained the wrong man for the murder. Ampelio, age eighty-two, is a retired railroader and “uncontested winner of [a] cursing competition” held unofficially at a local festival each year.  Aldo is the owner of a relatively upscale restaurant; Gino is a retired postal worker; and Pilade, who “apart from being ill-mannered [and] a pain in the butt,” has been employed at the town hall.  Because of their former jobs and their naturally gregarious natures, they know just about everyone in town, and they become conduits for information, bringing rumor and gossip to Massimo as he works on freeing the young man he believes innocent, and, unfortunately, conveying every scrap of information they learn from Massimo to the rest of the town.  Scenes from their ferocious games of briscola are so lively and so full of natural dialogue, as conveyed through the ironic and sometimes hilarious point of view of Massimo, that the reader feels as if they are all people s/he knows and enjoys.

The unique deck for playing briscola contains these cards.

At times during the action of the novel, the static setting of the bar and the teasing back-and-forth of the characters, as they sort things out and convey their lives and attitudes through their conversations, make the novel feel like a play, with much of the action taking place off-stage and Massimo acting as the Stage Director.  Often farcical, the action that does occur features some typical, often stereotyped characters – arrogant but clumsy police; a sensitive local doctor;  a bouncer with muscles for brains; teenagers experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol; a society woman more interested in upward mobility than in her family; and the hard-working and honest, but single, Massimo, who has been disappointed in love.  As complications arise in the investigation of the murder and the focus shifts among a series of suspects, Massimo becomes convinced that he knows who the guilty party is, but, he says,  “I feel like the main character in…Sciascia’s A Simple Story, when his superior tells him where the light switch is…and he understands the whole thing, who the murderer is and how he did it.  And like him I don’t know who…to tell.”

Pineta, where the action takes place, is described as being a coastal village near Pisa, newly gentrified, perhaps similar to Viareggio, here. Note the outdoor bar/cafe.

The solution to the mystery, which is delayed till the very end, is almost unimportant to the fun of the book.  It is Massimo’s point of view which carries the novel – his comments about life in the town, about its people, and about Italy, reflect his good nature and his never-failing sense of humor, making this novel closer to comedy than to noir. The author’s descriptions and his dialogue are often unique:  At one point, Massimo asks that Tiziana, his busy assistant, come in to cover for him during her time off, giving her a set of instructions to which she answers: “Yes, Bwana.  Do you also have instructions about the cotton harvest?”   The character of another person is conveyed through this description:  “[As a child], many questions had come into his mind, such as ‘How long will it take this lizard to die after I’ve cut off its head?” and “Why don’t cats fall on their feet if you tie a weight to their tails?” And when Massimo eventually decides to ask the four old men if he can play cards with them, “he wondered if thinking that playing cards with four old geezers mightn’t be a symptom of something strange about him, but he immediately dismissed the thought.  Can I at least decide what I like? he thought, and focused his attention on the High Priest who was about to open the gates of the Temple to him.”  Short, snappy, filled with humor, and great fun, this is a light entertainment, perfect for a change of pace or for summer reading.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo may be found on http://www.festivaletteratura.it

The green Nissan Micra, like the car owned by the young man who discovers the woman’s body in the trash can, appears on http://www.caradvice.com.au

The unique briscola cards are shown on http://www.seeyouinitaly.com/

Viareggio, perhaps similar to Pineta, the “coastal community near Pisa” which has recently become gentrified, may be seen here:  http://italyholidays.wordpress.com/

ARC:  Europa Editions

Note: This novel was WINNER of the Prix Littéraire Francophone International in 1981, and its English translation was one of The New York Times‘ Notable Books of the Year in 1983.  It is a New York Review Books Classic.

“The view from my room overlooked the scattered houses, and I could see straight into the fjord where icebergs floated.  An intense light slanting onto the houses, casting long shadows and reddening the tundra, showed that it was early morning.  A morning after a night without darkness…Nothing moved in this strange morning light.  The silence was overwhelming.”—the author’s first experience with “the midnight sun” in Greenland.

If the title of this book doesn’t pique your curiosity from the outset, the photo of the author, below, probably will.  The astounding ironies – the contrasts between what we are seeing in the author photo vs. what we expect when we see someone wearing traditional Eskimo (Inuit) dress – are only the first of many such ironies as Tete-Michel Kpomassie, a young man from Togo in West Africa makes a journey of discovery to Greenland.  Kpomassie, the sixth of his father’s children by five wives, has lived a traditional life in his African community, attending school through the sixth grade, earning money by making straw mats from coconut fronds, climbing tall palms to get coconuts, and even saving lizard grease to improve virility.  On one of his family’s trips into the dense vegetation to get coconuts, Tete, then sixteen, climbs to the top of a tall palm, then finds himself face-to-face with an enormous python sharing the top of the tree.  As he tries quietly to slide back to the bottom of the tree, unnoticed, the snake follows him, and when he drops to the ground, he experiences intense pain, then falls unconscious.

Days and nights of traditional treatments for snake bite fail, and as his delirium increases, his father decides, at last, that the herbal medicines he has been using may, in fact, be poisoning his son.  The only alternative is to take his son into the Sacred Forest where he can be treated by priests of the python snake cult. Days later, after a terrifying experience with more pythons as part of his cure, Kpomassie is well enough to travel, but there is a catch.  He is now pledged to the python gods who have saved his life.  When, during his recovery at home, he visits an Evangelical Bookshop, he discovers a book called The Eskimos of Greenland in Alaska by Dr. Robert Gessain, which he buys with his savings.  The fact that Eskimos have a hunting tradition like his own but live where there are no trees, no snakes, and no hot weather appeals to him far more than the life of a priest in the cult of the python.  He decides at that moment to run away.

Double-click to enlarge map.

For the first sixty pages, the author describes life in Togo in lively detail, setting the scene for his lengthy journey from Togo to Copenhagen to get a visa for Greenland, an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark.  As he travels over the years through Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Mauritania, before arriving in Marseille, Paris, Bonn, and eventually Copenhagen, he clearly establishes his background and experiences and the mindset and cultural background he will be bringing with him when he finally gets to Greenland after ten years of working toward that goal.  In the interim, he reads constantly, learning about life in other parts of the world, befriending citizens of these countries, becoming fluent in German and French, and sensitively observing the differences between his culture and those of the other countries in Africa and Europe in which he has lived.  By the time he is finally able to get a visa for Greenland, he is twenty-six, a highly skilled “anthropologist,” observing cultures and recognizing what is important, having learned what he needs to know through his own unconventional daily life.

Iceberg at Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland

In June, sometime in the mid-1960s, he leaves, at last, for Greenland, ill-equipped but full of enthusiasm, trusting in his ability not only to make his way in that country, which has fascinated him for years, but also to become part of the Eskimo culture there.  Taking off in a cargo boat with eight other passengers, he enjoys the long days of the midnight sun (with the ladies on board sunbathing till eleven o’clock at night), before experiencing a horrific gale, followed by dangerous ice floes and icebergs as he approaches Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland.  His arrival in Julianehab (called “K’akortoq” in the book, and “Qaqortoq” on most internet sites), is at least as exciting for the inhabitants waiting at the dock as it is for Kpomassie:  “As soon as they saw me, all talking stopped.  So intense was the silence, you could have heard a gnat in flight.  Then they started to smile again, the women with slightly lowered eyes…”  Eight inches taller than the average Inuit, he is deemed kussanna (handsome) by the local women, a word he is to hear many times over the next sixteen months as he lives with the people of Greenland.

Photo of Qaqortoq (K'akortoq), the first village where Kpomassie stays. Note the pervasive snow on the ground. Photo by Kunuk Abelsen

The local inhabitants are universally hospitable, perfectly happy to provide a place for him to stay and to share meals and drink. Their children are allowed to do what they want, with little discipline, a pattern that extends to the schools, where teachers are extremely patient, rather than strict.  Though people work for most of the day when there is sunlight, they get “tanked up” early at night and celebrate all occasions, with a whole month dedicated to celebrating Christmas. The Inuit willingly provide him with the fur clothing he needs in the winter, and the women in the families with whom he stays make him the specially sized boots and garments that he needs. Cooked rare reindeer steak is the tastiest food on the menu, which also includes the raw lungs and livers of seals, raw seal meat, raw birds, fish, the dried skins of whales, and the fat from seals and whales.  Even dog meat is part of the diet.  Cooked food is the exception, and in the winter, with temperatures that can be minus forty-five degrees, it is not unusual for food, even when heated, to contain ice crystals.

Inuit child in traditional dress (plus binky). Photo by Joel Sartore/Getty/National Geographic

With a wonderful eye for the telling detail, Kpomassie observes the differences between Greenland, the world in which he grew up, and the world in which he has lived in Europe.  He becomes real, a stand-in for the reader who will enjoy living through his journey vicariously. The people he meets not only represent their culture but emerge as individuals through their interactions with him.  Despite language differences, he is able to communicate and share their lives, and because of his honesty and his curiosity about their culture, he makes many friends in Greenland – and with the reader who shares his enthusiasm for discovery.  His departure from Greenland is bittersweet, but eventually he feels that it is his “duty to help the youth of Africa to open their minds to the outside world.”  His return to Europe and his later life as a citizen of the world, are testimony to his sense of adventure and his commitment to looking beyond the local to the universal.

Double-click to enlarge map.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://samfunnet.sib.no/

The map of West Africa, by Mondo Magic, is found on http://upload.wikimedia.org/ (Double-click to enlarge.)

The Iceberg at Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of Greenland appears here:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

Qaqortoq (K’akortoq), the first village where Kpomassie stayed, is colorful but snow-covered.  Photo by Kunuk Abelsen.  http://www.capscandinavia.com/

The Inuit child, photographed by Joel Sartore/Getty/National Geographic, is shown in traditional dress (plus binky).  http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/

The Map of Greenland is from https://www.maps.com/ Double click to enlarge.

“The sun is at the vertical, and shade is as scarce as charity on Biashara Street.  Where it exists -  shop fronts and alleyways, like cave mouths and canyons – life clings: eyes blink, and patiently they watch.  They see a man and a boy walking along the sidewalk, the boy turning every third or fourth step into a skip to match his companion’s rangy stride.  Their posture suggests that if either reached out a hand the other would grasp it, but for their own reasons, neither will offer.”  Opening scene, Nairobi, Kenya, 2007.

These vibrantly descriptive opening lines introduce a chapter that is a textbook example of good writing, drawing in the reader, establishing an atmosphere, suggesting character, hinting at a father’s relationship with his son, and presenting a familiar scene of a child who can hardly wait for his first bicycle.  By the next page, the author has created a much broader, more dramatic context for these characters, expanding the setting, placing this small episode in the context of the larger community, and suggesting ominous new directions for the action.  In less than three hundred words, I was hooked.  The author’s writing is so confident that I, too, became confident that this debut novel would deliver a well-wrought story with well-developed characters within the fraught atmosphere of Nairobi in 2007, and that it would do so with style and intelligence.  It does.

Author Richard Crompton, a former BBC journalist who now lives in Nairobi with his family, understands the city’s social, economic, and political conditions and reveals them through his precise descriptions, his insights into his characters’ motivations, and his appreciation of the tribal loyalties and conflicts which affect virtually every aspect of daily life within this complex society.  The main character, forty-two-year-old Police Detective Mollel, has been a national hero for his selfless actions during one national emergency, but he is now a pariah within the department for challenging his superiors and often expressing his rage at the lack of  “justice” he sees in society.  Otieno, the police superintendent, has even threatened to get rid of him:  “Justice is a luxury.  Peace is a necessity,” he pronounces. “You want justice, move to some first-world state with sophisticated crime labs and DNA tests and judges who can’t be bought off…Better still, become a judge yourself.”

Young Massai, with one ear lobe hanging and one folded up. Photo by Hilary Wheeler.

Mollel, a Maasai within a society dominated by Kikuyu and Luos, is often mocked by his peers for his hanging ear lobes, a tribal tradition which teenage Maasai boys accept as part of their maturation.  He is, however, often sought out by other Maasai who do not trust police officers from other tribes.  Mollel’s immediate assignment is to investigate the death of Lucy, a young Maasai woman, thought to have been a prostitute, whose bloody body is found in a sewer which extends from Uhuru Park, the huge central park in Nairobi, to Orpheus House, a decrepit, former refuge for prostitutes, now owned by the megachurch of George Nalo Ministries.  When Mollel learns from witnesses that the park has been used recently for night-time drills by a paramilitary group just days before the 2007 election, he is alarmed.  President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, is unpopular, and his opponent, Raila Odinga, supported by the Orange Democratic Movement and the Luos is widely expected to win the popular vote – unless it is stolen by thugs from the General Service Unit working for the President and his Kikuyu supporters.

The Kajiado Plain, which stretches between Nairobi and Tanzania, is where Mollel grew up.

As Mollel investigates Lucy’s murder with the help of her friend Honey, also a prostitute and also Maasai, his own family relationships unfold.  Mollel is a loner.  His father, his younger brother, his mother, and his wife are all “gone,” and his young son often stays with his mother-in-law in the crumbling outskirts of the city as Mollel pursues justice with a ferocious anger.  He senses a similar rage boiling within the city as the prospects of a “stolen” election grow.  “Enkai Nanyokie, The [Maasai] Red God, [is] vengeful and capricious, full of jealousy and wrath,” and the Maasai believe that “The Hour of the Red God is a time when madness descends.  When people turn against each other and when anger is the only human instinct.”  Mollel sees that Hour coming.

Violence breaks out after the 2007 elections in Kenya. Over 1200 people are killed. Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP

As Mollel has warned (and as historians already know), the Kenyan elections of 2007 are filled with unimaginable brutality which kills over twelve hundred people.  As voting day approaches, all available police are assigned to polling places to act as “peace-keepers.”  Stores are empty of supplies, since the populace knows that they may not be able to leave their houses for days, and police, like Mollel, never know where the next fire and bloodshed will take place.  Many police are seriously injured, all are worried about their own families, and all fear the worst.  At the same time, the novel’s other threads, including the murder investigation of Lucy and the possible involvement of the leaders of the megachurch, continue.

UN Sec. General Kofi Annan (L) brokered an agreement between President Mwai Kibaki (C) and Raila Odinga (R), in which Odinga became Prime Minister, thereby ending the violence after the disputed election of 2007.

In the last third of the novel, the action sometimes loses its way, overcome by the sheer density of events.  Occasionally, an unnecessary scene will intrude: As a group of tourists leaves their safari for the airport in a truck which Mollel accompanies, the author veers into the clichés of the “ugly tourist,” which add nothing new to the novel.  The tourists make patronizing statements, like “You have to expect this sort of thing in Africa…tribal tensions are never very far from the surface,” “All the aid we give them is part of the problem. If you treat people like children, you can’t be surprised when the throw their rattle out of the stroller,” and “They are children, really…I sometimes think they’d be better off if the modern world just left them alone in their mud huts.”  Visions of the future, expressed by one African character, offer an easy transition into the action to come, and twists and surprises at the conclusion resolve the action neatly, though sometimes through unrealistic coincidences.

Kawangware, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, is the area where Mollel's mother-in-law lives, though she claims differently. This area is now the subject of work by a foundation for children and youth, the Lee Oneness Foundation. Please see credits.

Still, this outstanding debut novel, while not perfect, wonderfully depicts the various cultures of Nairobi and its social issues, in addition to some of its legends and beliefs. The novel moves quickly in prose which is often stunning with its imagery, and Mollel, as a main character, never ceases to be intriguing and often unpredictable in his actions.  The book’s cover calls this “A Detective Mollel Novel,” suggesting that this is the first of a series.  Thoughtful and engrossing, this novel of modern Nairobi and its people is sure to gain fans for any succeeding novels to follow.   I will be one of the first in line.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://www.telegraph.co.uk

A young Maasai, with his elongated ear lobes, shows one ear with decorations and one folded up.  Photo by Hilary Wheeler at http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/

The Kajiado Plain between Nairobi and the Tanzanian border may be seen here:  http://www.distancebetweencities.net

Post election violence in Nairobi is photographed by Roberto Schmidt/AFP for http://www.theguardian.com/

Following the disputed 2007 election, UN Sec. Gen. Kofi Annan brokered an arrangement whereby Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent President, remained in office as President, and Raila Odinga, whose Luo supporters believe he won the election, became Prime Minister.  The photo appears on http://blogg.fn.no/2013/04

In Kawangware, the Lee Oneness Foundation for Kawangware Street Children and Youth works to help children.  Over 400,000 people here, 65% of them children, live on less than a dollar a day.  I hope you will read the story of this group’s efforts to provide clean water for the area.  http://www.leeonenessfoundation.com/projects/kawangware

ARC: Picador

Note: Jonas T. Bengtsson has been WINNER of the BG Bank First Book Award and WINNER of the Per Olov Enqvist Literary Prize.  This novel was a FINALIST for the Danish Radio Literature Prize for Best Novel of the Year.

“I wish I could drive a car without a number plate, that my feet didn’t leave footprints in the snow.  But that’s not possible.  So you have to trust people.  Not always and not unconditionally.  But you have to trust that if they like you, then they’ll do a lot to help you.  And that’s worth much more than the money…” – comments by the young boy’s father.

This can’t-put-it-downer of novel about three generations  of a disturbed family excites and unnerves the reader at the same time that it puzzles and terrifies with its eerie atmosphere and constant sense of imminent doom.  A coming-of-age novel with a twist, it reveals the trials of a young boy, age six when the novel opens, constantly moving with his father through dark locales from Sweden to Denmark, and the reader quickly discerns that the father is hiding a terrible secret from the boy, who is never named, and from everyone else.  The boy and his father clearly love and support each other, but they are constantly moving, and their lives are always changing with the father’s succession of oddball, low-paying jobs.  The father, whom we come to know well, is obviously educated and intelligent, though he works doing manual labor, and when he has time at night, he tells the child stories about a King and a Prince who no longer have a home.

This sinister “fairy tale” has little in common with the beloved stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Here, “The King and the Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her.  With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only ones who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it really is.”   White Men work for the wicked Queen, and the boy grows up trying to avoid the White Men always lying in wait for him and his father.  How and why the White Queen placed a curse upon them, alienating both from the rest of the world, is unclear, at first, but the symbolic effects of this alienation pervade the entire novel.

Memorial to Olov Palme. Photo by Frida Henberg/scanpix

Danish author Jonas T. Bengtsson opens this novel in Sweden in 1986, just as Swedish Prime Minister Olov Palme is shot and killed while returning home with his wife from the cinema, which he has attended without bodyguards. The boy’s father, sobbing, bewails the fact that “they got him…the bastards finally got him.”  And when the boy asks if his father knew Palme, he does not reply, commenting only that “I think we’re going to have to move again.”   Moving to Copenhagen, where the boy was born, they find a tiny apartment, and while the father looks for work, the boy acts as an “explorer” but finds himself bullied by another child who lives in the neighborhood.  The father has a succession of odd jobs –  “distressing” furniture so that it can pass as antique, delivering newspapers in bulk, working as a gardener for an old woman, as a bouncer at a strip club and as a lighting engineer for a small theatre.

The Radhuspladsen (City Hall Square), which the boy and his father visit during the early part of the novel.

His father’s penchant for violence throughout this section is something the boy takes for granted, perhaps related to his father’s inherent need to prove that he and only he knows the world as it really is.  As the resilient boy stays close to his unstable father, the boy’s intelligence, his loving attitudes, his willingness to trust people who seem to like him, and his increasing development of his artistic talent endear him to the reader who constantly hopes for his success.  No matter how many promises his father makes and breaks, the boy always believes, and he never resents or even questions his father for disappointing him.  A trip to Christiansborg, the seat of the Danish Parliament in 1989, foreshadows a dramatic event which changes their lives.

When the boy is a teenager, he and his girlfriend haunt the cinema and see Profondo Rosso, a film by Dario Argento

At the novel’s halfway point, the time frame shifts from 1986 – 1989 to 1996.  The boy, now sixteen, is living in the suburbs. Later, another move takes him to a Danish island, where he learns much about his own background and that of his father, while also developing his art talent even more fully.  By 1999, at the age of nineteen, he has a full-time job back in the city.  How he gets there provides the reader with many vibrant scenes.

Filled with surprises, the action is non-stop, with the author pacing his dramatic moments so effectively that there are no “dead spots” in the novel. Past and present overlap, often converging unexpectedly and then veering in new directions to provide new information. The constant sense of menace contrasts with the intrinsic “niceness” of the boy and allows the reader to wish fervently for his ultimate success while always fearing the worst.

Hovedbanegarden, the central train station, from which the boy travels to and from the island and elsewhere.

The author controls his tone and the sense of atmosphere so well that it may not be until the conclusion that readers will actually begin to question the book’s depiction of “reality” and whether it actually makes sense. Unfortunately, a not-so-subtle misogyny also pervades the novel. From the story of White Queen to the bad decisions the father makes, women are held accountable, yet the father’s biggest problems have not been caused by women. As the boy, in the third generation, tries to make sense of his adult world, the reader is left to wonder how successful he will be in avoiding the snares of the White Queen, while still hoping for his success.

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

The memorial to Olov Palme at the site of his assassination in Sweden in 1986, is from http://www.thelocal.se

The Radhuspladen  was visited by the boy and his father early in the novel: http://travelerguidance.blogspot.com

The boy and his girlfriend go to the cinema to see the avant-garde film Profondo Rosso by Dario Argento:  http://www.youmovies.it/2011/07/08/in-dvd-profondo-rosso-di-dario-argento

The central train station, the Hovedbanegarden, from which virtually all the boy’s trips are made, is shown here: http://ekstrabladet.dk/

ARC:  Other Press

“Few people understand the delights of being like everyone else.  For a pariah like me, it’s intoxicating.  The pleasure of passing unobserved, of melting into the anonymous mass of those who have the right to carry on living.  Of letting oneself be carried along with the flow.  It’s as if one were suddenly accepted.  Without displaying one’s condition.  Without a sign on one’s chest saying PATIENT.”—Otto J. Steiner, Salzburg, 1940.

Otto J. Steiner, an Austrian whose diary from July, 1939, to August, 1940, forms the basis of this novel, is not talking here about any imminent danger he feels because he is of Jewish descent, and though he is aware that some Jews and gypsies have been “transferred,” he is puzzled about why: “What’s the connection between the Jews and the Gypsies?  They have nothing in common.  Apart from being wanderers.” Few people know of his Jewish background because he has never practiced any religion, and he is not really concerned much with politics. He is a “pariah” because he is dying of tuberculosis and is confined to a sanatorium, not allowed to mix with the general population unless he leaves under his own power for occasional walks.  The immediate problems Steiner faces – isolation, declining finances, the delayed rent owed him by a young couple living in his apartment in Salzburg – complicate his life in the hospital by threatening his ability to remain in a single room, instead of a ward.  His wife has died, and his sister living in Vienna is married to a “bourgeois and a snob” and does not communicate with him.  His son has emigrated to Palestine.  The only thing that keeps him going is his love of music, the recordings he has brought with him, his phonograph, and his desire to go “one last time” to the big Festspiele, which will be held in Salzburg in six months.

As author Raphael Jerusalmy develops Steiner’s story, he incorporates many details of Steiner’s daily life in the sanatorium – such as a meal of “boiled potatoes but no cod” – along with the variety of people who live and work there, all drawn together because of a terrible illness and not for political or religious reasons.  Jerusalmy also uses Steiner’s personal isolation and his pre-occupation with his terminal illness to provide a new slant on events in Austria in 1939.  By limiting Steiner’s “world” to the sanatorium, his illness, and his dedication to music, the author avoids repeating details (and clichés) so common to “Holocaust novels.”  The author assumes that readers already know what happens when Jews and gypsies are “transferred,” and, just in case they don’t, he describes the tenant of Steiner’s apartment as an engineer on the railroad, working overtime transporting people from Salzburg to other places.  The tenant is waiting for a new type of locomotive which will be more powerful and more efficient than the one he currently operates.

Nazi flags line the road to the theater where the Festspiele will take place.

In February, 1940, Steiner is visited by his friend Hans, who, like Steiner, is a writer about music and a critic.  Hans has been preparing the program for the next Festspiele, set to occur in Salzburg in late July, and the audience will consist primarily of Nazi officials and military.   Hans has discovered that the entire music program, usually heavily Mozart (an Austrian), has been changed into a propaganda tool by the German occupiers, “an entertainment for the troops.”  He wants Steiner to help him by writing the program notes, which the Nazis will review and/or edit, and Hans is afraid to do it.  Steiner, however, is galvanized by this news:  “Taking Mozart hostage.  Demeaning him in that way…This farce must be stopped.  At all costs.  Mozart must be saved.”

Franz Lehar, one of four conductors for the Festspiele in 1940, arrives at the theater with his wife, who was Jewish before she converted to Catholicism when she married.

While Steiner and Hans are wrestling with issues of the coming music festival, the Nazi machine is on the move.  News of the invasion of Poland in August, 1939, the call by Pope Pius XII for peace on Christmas Eve, 1939, an intensification of fighting on the Finnish front, and a raid on the sanatorium where Steiner is living, bring the outside world to Steiner and the patients, and when the anniversary of the Anschluss in March, 1940, is broadcast from Vienna, Steiner is appalled:  “Deutschland uber alles echoed through the dayroom…Hymns and marches, oratorios, and masses.  Why does all this have to happen to music?  The instruments should fall silent.  The tenors, the violinists.  They shouldn’t be a party to all this.  Out of a sense of decency.”  A March, 1940, meeting between Hitler and Mussolini at the train station at the Brenner Pass gives hints of what will come with the Festspiele in Salzburg during the summer, and Steiner sees the new Petain government in France in July, 1940, as another betrayal:  “We betray Mozart.  [Petain] betrays Ravel and Debussy.”

As the journal of Steiner and his letters to his son prepare the reader (and the increasingly ill Steiner) for the dramatic climax planned for the Festspiele in July, author Jerusalmy also examines the changing conditions at the sanatorium, at which less and less food is available to the patients, wounded soldiers are replacing tubercular patients, and competition exists for medications.

Hitler has some final words with Mussolini before his train leaves the station at the Brenner Pass, where they met, 1940.

Saving Mozart is closer to a novella than to a novel, and though the author does include many details from the life of Steiner, and two long letters to his son to make the action come alive, some readers will still have a hard time identifying with Steiner.  How does someone with a Jewish heritage, even one which he does not care to recognize publicly, ignore the actions of the Nazis on a daily basis and become incensed and galvanized only by the “insult” to the musical heritage of Mozart? And though the author works hard to present issues of the Holocaust from a new and different perspective, some readers will find the focus on a music festival and its selection of music in 1940 to be almost insignificant in scale when compared to the real-life “insults” to the Jewish populace of Austria during this same period. (If the author is being deliberately ironic here by focusing on a music festival to increase the reader’s horror at the Austrian populace’s lack of action in saving the Jews, that angle does not come through clearly. The book’s focus on Steiner and his music feels sincere.) Fast-paced and easy to read, the novel’s style has the clarity of young adult fiction, while evading the very real, very big, very human and social issues of the period.  Mozart has survived, and the Festspiele has survived, with or without Steiner, and I suspect that a number of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their families may feel demeaned by this novel, considering the enormity of the horrors which took place in Austria at the same time that Steiner was so busy “saving Mozart.”

Karl Bohm, conductor on the last night of the Festspiele, 1940.

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

Nazi flags line the approach to the theater where the Festspiele takes place.  http://www.salzburgerfestspiele.at/

Franz Lehar was one of four conductors for the 1940 Festspiele, shown arriving at the theater with his wife.  The others were Karl Bohm, who conducted on the last night of the festival, Hans Knappertsbusch, and Wilhelm Furtwängler.  http://www.salzburgerfestspiele.at/

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini meet at the Brenner Pass.  They arrived by train from opposite directions and met on the platform between the two trains.  http://bbs.napolun.com/

ARC: Europa Editions

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