Feed on

Note:  Author Erri De Luca was WINNER of the European Prize for Literature in 2013.

“This is how I see it: the hard work is nothing, just a way to make a living. But what matters is living with your head between your feet, your face down to tend the goings-on below. What matters is keeping your neck craned over the ground, caring more about it than about people…I’ve spent more of my life looking at the ground, water, clouds, walls, and tools than at faces. And I like them.” –unnamed speaker of this novel

cover thee horsesWithin a swirling time frame and several settings which change suddenly through unexpected flashbacks, Italian author Erri De Luca creates a character whose life breathes with subdued passion and the tragedy of sudden terror. Now fifty, the unnamed speaker is working as a gardener/landscaper on a large estate in Italy owned by Mimmo, a filmmaker, someone the speaker knew when they were youths in Turin and with whom he shares a family background in Calabria in the toe of Italy. Leading a solitary life, the speaker is surprised one evening when an attractive younger woman flirts with him while she is eating lunch with another man at a tavern, then, on her way out, drops her card on the table where he is reading. After she’s gone, he plans what he might say if he were to see her again. He has had little social contact with other people in recent years, using his gardening skills and his connection with nature for his satisfaction – “caring more about it than about people.”

author photo

Now, however, “in the time he has remaining,” he thinks he might be ready to get involved with other people again, especially with this woman, Laila. Later, when they meet at her apartment, she confesses that she is an escort, a working girl. He confesses that he is a “fugitive,” who “doesn’t run toward open space but into many barred paths…The world is on my shoulders. Even the stars are dogs at my heels.” He says he has been living in the Southern Hemisphere, participating in a war there, “days filled with trouble, ruined by death that tears away clumps of us folks, stuffs thousands of the living, freshly plucked, into its sack.” He lived in Argentina for twenty years, a place where thousands of Italians found refuge and new lives after World War I, before the “dirty war” there in the 1970s.

explosion room Castelletto mine

Climbers hold on to the ferrata (cable) inside the tunnel working their way to the top of the Tofana di Rozes, as the speaker and Dvora once did.

Time and place shift, as the speaker remembers his life in Argentina with Dvora, whom he first met in the Dolomites when they were climbing the Tofana de Rozes, so steep he climbed it with his cheek pressed against the stone. She, touring Europe as a graduation present from school in Argentina, meets him in the hut on the mountain and the next day ascends with him through the Castelletto mine tunnel to the top, the site of a major battle in World War I. It is only a short time before they return to Argentina together. “Married love between us begins in Argentina,” he explains, before they are caught up in the rebellion against the army in the mid-1970s, when “Argentina tears a whole generation from the world like a madwoman pulling at her hair. It kills its children, wants to be done with them. We’re the last.” Their married life lasts from their meeting on the mountain, site of a battle in Italy, to their separation during the war in Argentina and the speaker’s escape to Patagonia and eventually the Malvinas (Falklands). A long recovery working on a farm, and eventually a new relationship, evolve there.

When the speaker works on a farm in the Malvinas (Falklands), he is only 800 miles from Antarctica, a fact obvious in this photo.

When the speaker works on a sheep farm in the Malvinas (Falklands), he is only 800 miles from Antarctica, a fact obvious in this photo. Click to enlarge.

Another swirl of time and place brings the reader back to Italy in the time of the novel’s opening. There the speaker, still working as a gardener, befriends an African refugee and provides him with food and company, learns about Mimmo’s experiences in Croatia during the war there, and reconnects with Laila, only to discover that she is fighting her own personal war. As he tries to sort out his life and what it means, the novel works its way up to a grand climax and startling finale. Themes related to life and death, war and peace, fear and commitment, and responsibility and self-preservation combine to affect the conclusion. Another time swirl, and the means by which the speaker escapes to Europe and eventually Italy become clear. The difference between having control over your life and just being lucky becomes obvious in the final sections of the novel. “I know I’m a man because I am the most dangerous animal,” he says. “This is not a hunt. It’s an act of destruction.”

The holm oak, sometimes called the holly oak, is a tree that the speaker enjoys planting as part of his job.

The holm oak, sometimes called the holly oak, is a tree that the speaker enjoys planting as part of his job.  Note acorns and holly-like leaves.  Click to enlarge.

In the conclusion of this sometimes romantic novel, the author reduces his writing style to the bare essentials, writing many short sentences in the subject-verb-object pattern, with each sentence being its own paragraph, matching the style to what is happening in the content. When he is in Argentina, in his thirties, trying to escape to Europe, an older tavern-keeper has told him that “A man’s life lasts as long as three horses’. You have already buried the first.” Now he is faced with a crisis, at the end of which he realizes that his “second horse has died.” A man who was once a revolutionary, who has come under the dominating influence of nature with its patience regarding growing and blooming, now realizes that he is no longer as comfortable with taking action to avenge grievances as he once was. A consummate reader, the speaker ultimately believes that “If I am someone else, it’s also because books move men more than journeys and years. I break away from what I am when I learn to treat my own life differently.”


The author on a climb.

Author Erri De Luca, recognized as “Italy’s most prominent writer,” and described by Milan’s daily newspaper Corriere della Serra as “the only true first-rate writer that the new millennium has given [Italy] for now,” is almost unknown in the US and Europe, and only four of his sixty-five novels have been translated into English. A man whose politics have always been on the extreme left in Italy, De Luca has never been a model for academia. For a number of years, he worked in a Fiat factory in Turin, and at the airport in Catania. He worked as a truck driver and as a mason. He has become an elite mountain climber, specializing in extreme climbing in the Himalayas. In 2013, he received international acclaim as the recipient of the European Prize for Literature. He continues to live his life on his own terms, accepting responsibility for his actions and inspiring others in his footsteps.


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

Like the speaker and Dvora, the climbers in the Catelletto tunnel are using the ferrata (cable) to climb to the top of the Tofana di Rozes.  https://www.geocaching.com/

Brown sheep and penguins exist side by side on Soledad Island in the Malvinas (Falklands), where the speaker worked after escaping from Argentina.  http://modernfarmer.com

Quercus Ilex, the holm oak or holly oak, is a favorite of the speaker for planting on the estate where he works in Italy.  Note the acorns and holly-like leaves:  https://www.pinterest.com

Described by Milan’s daily newspaper Corriere della Serra as “the only true first-rate writer that the new millennium has given us for now,” Erri De Luca still challenges himself with extreme mountain climbing at the age of sixty-six. http://www.trentinofilmcommission.it/

REVIEW. Argentina, Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Italy, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Erri De Luca
Published by: Other Press
ISBN: 978-1590511350
Available in: Ebook Paperback

When our youngest grandson had his sixth birthday a year ago, he was already telling stories. Full of excitement about everything in his real world, everything he saw and heard, and everything he could imagine, he suddenly decided to write his own books – and these were not one-page books, however much fun those may be. Modeling his stories on the many stories read to him and which he had begun to read himself, he decided that he would write his own stories – long stories – and that he would illustrate them.


Tyrannosaurus Rex

Our surprise Christmas present last year was our six-year-old grandson’s first “book,” an eighteen-pager written in often-phonetic spelling, about a young boy trying to escape from a T. Rex. In the first chapter the boy, Jack, and his buddies see a T. Rex but hide in the woods. Soon Jack and the T. Rex find themselves on a bridge, but the T. Rex is too heavy, and when the bridge breaks, the boy escapes with his friends to a tree house. The boys look out as the T. Rex stomps away. Later, when Jack heads for a tall mountain, he sees that the T. Rex is back. Fortunately, there is a handy zip-line on which Jack can escape over the valley.

When he gets off the zipline, however, a fire dragon grabs him, but Jack manages to escape and run back to the tree house. The dragon breathes fire on the front gate. A water dragon suddenly appears and squirts water at the flaming gate. Then a Stegosaurus appears. So does the T. Rex. The Stegosaurus “shoots his spines” and stops the T. Rex. End of story. Whew.



Page eighteen, the last page, is a classic. The young author is anxious to know if we liked his story.   He asks three questions:

  1. “Was it good?”
  1. “Was it bad?”

These two questions have been scratched out, though it is possible to read what was written there. The author has decided he really does not want to know the answers to those two questions. For him there is only one important question:

  1. “What was your favorite part?” This is followed by three hand-drawn lines in which we can fill in all the details we liked best.   Clever author.

Another book arrived a few months later, near the end of his first grade year – longer, more detailed, with smaller printing, on larger pages, with more facile drawings. This second book comes with a formal “deducation” to us, and a Table of Contents. “Chapter One: Words,” and “Chapter Two: Pictures.”



This longer book is about a ninja, who is the main character, fighting evil robots, and it has many more transitions (including words like  then, later, soon), nicely spaced drawings (some of them in color), and sound effects (“Boom,” “Wow,” “Buzz,” and “Ting Ting”) along with dialogue. What intrigued me most was his use of questions to increase suspense. “How did the ninja get in?” and “What if the robots were wearing costumes?” and “What is the code?” The Ninja and the robots have a verbal conflict in dialogue – not just action – though one crisis occurs inside a house in which no one knows how to turn off the buzzer that warns of danger. Eventually, a boy named Jake saves the day, though the author leaves much unresolved for a further book.


It is important to note that this writing was completely self-directed. His parents are not writers, though they are great communicators, and they did not want to spoil his motivation by becoming involved in any way. It was never a school assignment. Each day, when he came home from school, he went to his writing table, where he’d work on his book for fifteen minutes or so to unwind after school. Then he’d go out to play touch-football, soccer, basketball, and any number of other neighborhood games. My daughter-in-law, with incredible self-restraint, never peeked at his secret book, respecting his wishes and his sense of commitment .

My grandson has now written three such books, all after school…but nothing for the past six months or so. When I asked him on the phone recently if he’s written anything new lately, his enthusiastic answer was, “Yes, I’m now writing songs!” Maybe we’ll get a video soon.

I mention all this because as a life-long teacher, I am thrilled to see someone get so excited about writing – he does not regard writing as an assignment and considers it FUN.

stock-vector-illustration-of-people-patiently-waiting-on-a-queue-309616469Two weeks ago, I had another remarkable literary experience, not with my grandson but with another little boy who is also seven. This boy and his family were standing in line just behind us as we waited to board a plane on a long flight. When, in casual conversation, I asked him if he liked to read or write stories, he told me that he writes stories all the time. “What kind of stories?” I asked, wondering if there was another T. Rex story in the works. “Well,” he said, “last month at school we all wrote “personal narratives.” I blinked, not even trying to hide a smile.

“And what is a personal narrative?” I asked, never doubting I’d get a great answer. “Those are fun,” he said. “You tell a story about something that has happened to you.”

And he went on, “But this month we are doing something different.”

“And what is that?” I asked, happily.

This month we are doing “realistic fiction!” And, yes, he knew exactly what he was talking about – “You tell a story that didn’t happen to you but you pretend that it did.”

The second graders of the world are writing, ladies and gentlemen. Life can’t be all bad.


Note: Korean author Han Kang was WINNER of the Man Booker International Prize for this novel in 2016.

“I had a dream….Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with blood-red gashes of meat…and no exit.”—Jeong-hye, wife of Mr. Cheong.

cover HanKang, The VegetarianPowerful, dramatic, and psychologically unsettling, author Han Kang’s prizewinning novel delves into the inner lives, the secret goals, the hidden fears, and the mysterious dreams, of three members of one Korean family. These family members – a young woman who has decided to become a vegetarian; her successful, married sister; and her sister’s artist husband – each become the intense focus of their own section of the novel, allowing the reader to share that person’s thoughts and motivations from the inside. At the same time, the characters appear and reappear in each other’s sections, providing new information so that the reader sees each person interacting with others – a clever technique which makes it possible for the reader to observe the characters from the outside. Starting simply, with the introductory story of “The Vegetarian,” Han Kang introduces Mr. Cheong, a dull man who has always chosen “the middle course” in his life, avoiding the beautiful, intelligent, or sensual daughters of wealthy fathers because “they would only have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.” It is only natural, then, that he would decide to marry Yeong-hye, “the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world,” a young woman who works part-time, filling in the words to speech bubbles for a comics publisher.


For five years the marriage works. Then one morning, he wakes up and discovers Yeong-hye in the kitchen, surrounded by black trash bags and empty plastic containers. She has spent the entire night removing every piece of meat, fish, and poultry from the refrigerator and freezer. Her only explanation is that she has had a dream, one so powerful that she now declares that she is a vegetarian, and she will no longer allow any animal products in the house. Her new commitment raises havoc the next night when, refusing to wear leather shoes because leather is an animal product, she accompanies her husband to an important business dinner – twelve courses of specially prepared, exotic food, nearly all of which involve meat, chicken, and fish. She eats only the rice, leaving her husband humiliated and fearful that her “performance” at the dinner will affect his chances for promotion.

The little white-eye bird plays a dramatic role in the opening section, The Vegetarian.

The little white-eye bird plays a dramatic role when Yeong-hye finds him in the “The Vegetarian.”

For much of this introductory section, Han Kang keeps the mood light. Those who know the inoffensive Yeong-hye cannot believe that she would make such a life-changing decision, leading to ironic scenes among friends and family.  Spot-on descriptions by the author add to the atmosphere of fun in the style of a light-humored entertainment and mild satire. Halfway through this section, however, the atmosphere becomes more sinister, and the story takes on a much darker tone. Over time, Yeong-hye becomes dangerously thin and sometimes refuses to eat anything at all, vegetarian or not. Mr. Cheong finally decides to call in her family for help. As they become more directly involved, they hint of past problems between Yeong-hye and her parents. Violence intrudes unexpectedly, and the reader realizes that Yeong-hye’s vivid nightmares, conveyed in italics throughout the section, are certainly no laughing matter.

camo body paint

Yeong-ho uses body painting of nature to allow a person to blend into the environment. Then he decides to expand that vision.

The second section, “Mongolian Mark,” is the story of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist married to In-hye, sister of vegetarian Yeong-hye. A successful woman in business, In-hye worked part-time even after the birth of her much-loved son, and at his third birthday, she went back to her shop, full-time, growing and promoting it. Her husband, Yeong-ho, an artist, stays at home to care for their son, enabling him to have the artistic freedom to direct and create original videos in his spare time. Though he has been lacking inspiration for several years, he has recently found a new interest which greatly excites him – painting nude women – literally. Covering their entire bodies with painted blossoms and vines, he then poses them so that they look as if they are part of a jungle scene, as if plants and body have become one. He is anxious to make a video using these ideas, and responds with unexpected enthusiasm when his wife asks him if he will check in on her sister, Yeong-hye, who has been going through a difficult time. He is thinking that Yeong-hye might be a good model for the video he dreams about.

In-Hye spends much time taking a bus hrough the city in order to care for family members while also running her business.

In-Hye spends much time taking a bus hrough the city in order to care for family members while also running her business.

The final section, “Flaming Trees,” is In-hye’s story. By now the reader knows her sister, Yeong-hye, the vegetarian, and In-hye’s husband, the artist/video creator, and with each of these sections the family dynamics become more complicated. Each person feels called to do something which will make his/her life more satisfying, but always at a cost. In this section, we learn of In-hye’s courtship and marriage, and her husband’s belief in her “goodness, stability, and calm,” yet she is now nearing the point of exhaustion, working full-time, trying to be a peace-maker within the family, caring for ailing family members, and attending to her son while her husband is working on his new video project. This section pulls together all the thematic and narrative threads. Most of the unanswered questions about the characters and their lives, which pervade the novel, are answered, in part, in this section.

The Man Booker International Prize

Han Kang asks and illustrates many basic questions about who we are as humans, who we are in relation to the outside world, and how much control we have over our lives. Yeong-hye is concerned about eating animals; Yeong-ho, the artist, sees truth in art, in which he wants to use the human form, but he also has some personal motivations that make the reader question his higher goals; and In-hye, the businesswoman and mother, wants to fix whatever she can in the broken lives of the people she knows and loves, though she has been responsible for some of their problems. Where the novel excels is in its ability to create psychologically rich characters who do not fit molds – people who do what feels right to them at the time, often make mistakes, and then have to live with the results, for better or worse – usually the worse. Unsettling and sometimes overwhelming.

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

The little white-eye bird, about the size of a sparrow, is common in Hawaii and in east Asia.  http://orientalbirdimages.org/

The art of body-painting became an obsession for Yeong-ho, and after seeing the results of one person’s painting in relation to the whole natural world, Yeong-ho decided to expand his goals.  http://skincitybodypainting.com/

In-hye spends much time traveling from home and work to take care of ailing family members, on a bus like this one. http://kojects.com/

The Man Booker International Prize is shown on http://www.thenational.ae/

REVIEW. Korea, Literary, Psychological study.
Written by: Han Kang
Published by: Hogarth
Date Published: 02/02/2016
ISBN: 978-0553448184
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Note: Eugen Ruge was WINNER of the German Book Prize for his previous novel, In Times of Fading Light.

“I remember my surprise at suddenly finding myself in my kitchen, in exactly the same attitude…that I had carried out in just the same way the morning before (and the morning before the morning before), and for a moment I had the feeling that it was the same morning and I was the same man, a man who like the undead, was doomed to repeat the same sequence again and again.”–Peter Handke, narrator of this novel.

cover cabo de gataAuthor Eugen Ruge grew up in East Berlin during the time of the Berlin Wall and lived there, working as an academic, till the age of thirty-four, leaving the East for the West a year before the Wall fell, and perhaps it is this background which has inspired him to create a main character like Peter Handke.  Handke, also a man from Berlin, has lost his sense of direction, and he has decided to start over in a new country.  Not as young as he seems, he is a former professor of chemical engineering with a well-paid, permanent position, one he has recently resigned in order to become a writer. He has had only minimal success since then.  Handke is disconnected from those around him, a profound loss of motivation preventing him from making needed changes in his world.  In another environment, he believes, he will be able to write the novel he has always dreamed of. Though his father, also a writer, considers his own work in history and philosophy to be far more important than Peter’s work (mostly light satire, to date), he nevertheless gives him some funds to help him get started in a new country. The attitude he conveys, however, leads Peter to confess that “I seemed to myself rather dull-witted,” not a happy thought for someone planning to create a new life.


A novel of absurdity which sometimes borders on the bizarre, Cabo de Gata (“Cape of the Cat”) begins with Peter’s travels from Basel to Barcelona and then on to Andalusia, the southernmost region of Spain. There he meanders long the southeast coast toward Cabo de Gata, about a hundred fifty miles due east of Malaga. His arrival there does not reflect the romantic promise that Peter expects of a place described as “a breath of Africa,” just across the Mediterranean. He “remembers the wretched (pink) buildings,” finding it hard to say “whether they are still being built or already falling into ruins,” along with mended tarmac, broken paving stones, and rocks piled up, and he feels that “the whole landscape looks like a sparsely overgrown dump.” Wind blows sand into his eyes, yapping dogs surround him as he walks, and the church and a row of tiny, two-story houses show no signs of life. He is stunned, reflecting like a film director that “if I seem to myself in those long minutes like a character from a film, it may be because I keep my hat on throughout this entire scene.”

Cabo de Gata

Cabo de Gata

The author’s close attention to detail enables the reader to see the world through Peter Handke’s eyes as he first decides to leave Cabo de Gata, and then later decides to stay. At one point during a walk along the “beach,” he finds a spiral conch shell and decides to take it home, only to discover that inside the shell a pair of “black button eyes” belonging to a hermit crab look out, though the crab itself is dead. Since Peter’s sign of the zodiac is Cancer the Crab, he thinks this may be an omen that he should stay, and fascinated by a group of small birds which he thinks of as “hysterical aunties,” he eventually lets loose with a loud shout. “I think it was simply a cry of rage, not of triumph, not a liberating roar, but a short sound of blatant annoyance that an outsider might have taken as my reaction of an insect bite.”

Cabo de Gato

Flamingos, Cabo de Gata

Eventually renting a small room for three months, managed by the  grumpy old woman who runs the only café, Peter Handke begins his new life. Not having a desk in his tiny room, he writes sitting on a bench outside, and when he wants to take a break to read, he lies in bed with the only book he has brought with him, Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi. Gradually, he comes to feel comfortable in his walks along the promenade and begins to have a “strong sense of belonging to all this,” his change of attitude leading him to tear out a first sentence he’s written in his notebook in favor of a newer, more positive opening. He discovers a shallow lake filled with flamingos, “and it seems to me entirely absurd, positively deranged, to doubt the existence of God.” The arrival of an Englishman who leaves after two days, and later an American who vanishes in a storm leave Peter alone again, and he decides to pay more attention to the people who live there while contemplating life’s biggest questions and analyzing his dreams. Can the world really be perceived? Is the world on television the real world and the world he lives in an illusion, or the other way around? Eventually, a feral cat appears in his life, and changes his approach to the world as he tries to tame her. As she stalks like a lion, he is reminded that his deceased mother was a Leo, and he begins to draw some bizarre conclusions about external forces.

map s. spain_1

Cabo de Gata is about 150 miles due east of Malaga, on a point. Click to enlarge.

The novel ends without a clear resolution, adding to the feeling that this novel defies all the “rules” and presents itself on its own terms. Peter Handke is not a “hero” or even an anti-hero. He is too neutral and uncommunicative to attract the long-term interest of the reader, and his journey is a solitary one, with no antagonist, other than life itself, to fight him. He raises questions but does not come to many conclusions, and those he does draw are often offbeat and darkly comic. There is some satire in Peter’s search for philosophical answers (perhaps a rebellion against his father the philosopher), and the novel is clever and written with exquisitely descriptive prose (beautifully translated by Anthea Bell). The “Seven Puzzles of Cabo de Gato,” written as if they were the seven biggest mysteries of the world – Peter’s world – are one of the novel’s highlights, with the author obviously having fun, and the use of a feral cat as a possible deus ex machina is clever and fun to read. Readers who can be satisfied with letting the novel unfold on its own terms will enjoy this unusual and often humorous creation which offers more than mere laughs.

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

Fishing boat on the rough coast and beach of Cabe de Gata.  http://www.juntadeandalucia.es

The flamingos of Cabo de Gata attract many visitors each year to southeast Spain.  http://www.juntadeandalucia.es

Cabo de Gata is about 150 miles due east of Malaga, on the coast. This red line represents the itinerary of a bird-watching program.  Click to enlarge.  http://www.avg-w.com/

ARC:  Graywolf Press

REVIEW. Experimental, Humor, Satire, Absurdity, Literary, Psychological study, Spain, Germany,
Written by: Eugen Ruge
Published by: Graywolf Press
Date Published: 11/01/2016
Edition: Translation by Anthea Bell
ISBN: 978-1555977573
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“It is the eyes that make the picture great. The soldier’s eyes look out directly from the page. They look out and through – or perhaps they are not looking at all but seeing only what they have seen already, images that are imprinted on the retina and on the memory so strongly that they cannot be supplanted by whatever is before them now. This soldier has seen horrors first hand. Perhaps he has been a perpetrator….” – speaker Jonathan Ashe, photographer, in Vietnam.

cover gun roomLike so many other young men in the 1960s, Jonathan Ashe, a young man from a farm in rural Norfolk, England, has escaped his small village to travel the world and, on some level, to find out who he really is. He and his older brother, who has been left in charge of the family farm following the death of his father, have little in common, and some event from the past has alienated them. Though he has feelings for his mother, he cannot bring himself to write to her on a regular basis. Now in Viet Nam, half a world away from England, Jonathan decides to challenge himself as a photographer during the Vietnam War, anxious to expand his views of the world in an effort to understand more about life and death and survival.   Jonathan’s own father died of an accidental gunshot wound when Jonathan was a young child, and the suddenness of the death and the memories he has of the aftermath have haunted Jonathan ever since. Now he as he thinks back on his childhood, he wonders how much of what we remember about a person or event is actually real and how much is what we wish for – or what we choose to remember? Can we ever learn to see traumatic experiences in new ways without lying to ourselves and others about the realities?


Georgina Harding

Jonathan hopes that viewing the world through the uncompromising lens of a camera will provide him with some new understandings. In Vietnam he accepts a ride in a helicopter from a young pilot who is about to fly over a battle site, thereby setting in motion his personal quest to observe, digest, and live with some of life’s most difficult truths. In clear language and a style which is so simple in its structure that it sometimes resembles poetry, British author Georgina Harding follows Jonathan as he sees a reality more horrific than he has ever imagined. Arriving at the scene of a battle in the copter piloted by his new friend, Jonathan is at first disappointed that the battle is essentially over, but as they are looking for a place to land, he sees a young woman, screaming and clutching her belly, severely wounded. Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees an American soldier running toward her and firing at her head, but he cannot be sure. A few minutes later, when the chopper lands, Jonathan gets out and hurries toward the smoke, “and then he [sees] the soldier…very still…seated on the ground with his back to a wall, his knees bent up in front of him and his two hands clamped to the barrel of the gun held upright between them…Beyond the soldier, the village. The houses were burning.”

war is hell (1)

Taking a quick picture of the soldier, who is unmoving and silent, he moves on to see dead bodies crumpled on the ground, seemingly stopped in mid-action, dead children and pets with legs all entangled, and numerous bodies floating in the river, obviously shot from above. Soon he finds the body of the wounded woman he had previously seen from the air – a young woman, the mother of a baby. She has a new wound in the center of her forehead. He takes a picture of her, and moves on. On the way back to the chopper, he once again sees the soldier by the wall – he has not moved an inch in the forty-five minutes that have passed, and continues to stare straight ahead, completely oblivious to all that is happening. Jonathan takes a second picture of this stunned soldier, then returns to base, packs everything he owns, and hastens back to Saigon, well out of the field of battle. While there, he learns from the radio that an atrocity has occurred in the village that he has just photographed. He responds to the news, and his photos of this village – and especially his iconic photo of the stunned soldier – soon appear all over the world.

HIroshige snow

“Snowfall” by Ando Hiroshige

This beginning contains the seed of every other event which follows in the novel. No further warfare and no more bloodshed occur, but Harding’s purposes – to show the more personal and long-lasting effects of trauma and the more universal aspects of responsibility and humanity – develop with insight and deep feeling, as Jonathan Ashe, his last name appropriate to his role in the novel, moves on to Japan and a new life. Teaching English to Japanese students, “Jonathan tries to become part of society there, taking pictures wherever he goes, but even he sees that “All that is in his pictures when he first comes to Japan seems material, except the sky.” He is surprised by how cold Japan can be in February, though he has long been familiar with the Hiroshige prints of snow falling. He takes long walks, believing that “the less he held to himself, the more he gave to the crowd, the more he would be part of the place, understanding it in its present.” He finds a favorite bar, which he enjoys at night, but he does not really connect with others until he meets Kumiko. The story of their relationship, which depends on her patience and insight, rather than any genuine commitment on his part, provides much of the drama and pleasure of the novel.

Jonathan is intrigued by the fact that if he brings a bottle of whiskey to a bar in Japan, they will hold it for him and use it for him alone when he orders whiskey.

Jonathan is intrigued by the fact he can buy a bottle of whiskey in a bar in Japan, and they will put his name on it and use it for him alone when he orders whiskey. Note individual names on bottles in Japanese.

Several overlapping events connect the various parts of the novel. Jonathan Ashe’s father had been a soldier in World War II and had fought in India, Assam, and Burma, where he had fought the Japanese in the jungle and never really recovered. Kumiko’s grandfather now senile, fought the British in Burma, and was so traumatized that even now he insists that his garden always be tidy and neatly trimmed so that it does not resemble the jungle in which he fought. As Jonathan notes,

“War is the most concrete thing. The memory of war will stay with a man longer than anything else he will ever know.”

Shinjiuku Gyoen, a public garden that Jonathan and Kumiko enjoyed visiting.

Shinjuku Gyoen, a public garden that Jonathan and Kumiko enjoyed visiting.

British Jonathan and Japanese Kumiko must work their way through much family history, culture, and Jonathan’s own trauma in order to reach a meaningful understanding, and when Jonathan, walking down the street, suddenly sees the soldier he once photographed in Vietnam during the shooting of the young woman, he follows him, eventually meeting and coming to know him and his girlfriend and gaining some new insights about himself. Harding keeps her style simple and quiet, and except for one unlikely coincidence, the novel resonates with honesty and truth, as Jonathan begins to find out what he needs to do to feel happy, ending the novel on an upbeat note.


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

The war photo from the Vietnam War, “War is Hell,” is from http://www.businessinsider.com/

“Snowfall” by Adro Hiroshige may be found here:  http://www.dominicanajournal.org

Bottle storage at some bars in Japan, where people buy bottles for their exclusive use, over time, each carrying his/her own name is described on http://www.japan-talk.com/jt/

Shinjuku Gyoen, a public garden in Shinjuku, is a place where Jonathan enjoyed walking with Kumiko:  http://www.urbancapture.com/

ARC:  Bloomsbury

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Japan, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Vietnam, England
Written by: Georgina Harding
Published by: Bloomsbury
Date Published: 11/15/2016
ISBN: 978-1632864369
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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