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“Everybody talks about genocides around the world, but when the killing is slow and spread over a hundred years, no one notices.  Where there are no mass graves, no one notices.  American outrage is always for show.  It has a shelf life. If that Griffin Book had been Lynched Like Me, America might have looked up from dinner or baseball or whatever they do now.” —Gertrude Penstock

cover treesI was a child in Massachusetts when Emmett Till was brutally tortured, mutilated, and ultimately lynched in 1955, but I can still remember vividly when I first heard of his death on radio and TV, and, once I did,  I could not “unhear” it.  His story was different, so real and so outrageous with its fourteen-year-old victim from Chicago, brutally killed while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, that the story would not die for me and my friends. We were close to Emmett Till’s age, we had relatives from out of state whom we enjoyed visiting, and we identified with Emmett, not understanding or believing that just whistling at a white woman was a crime for which he would pay with his life.  When we talked about this privately with our parents or among friends at school, we still kept believing that Emmett Till must have done something much more serious that we did not know about.  And when the court later found Till’s killers “innocent,” we continued to wonder what he had done that was still kept secret. We youngsters living twenty-five miles from Boston, had never heard of such horrors – or such punishments – being imposed on children.

The original wooden Tallahatchie Bridge, which was burned and destroyed in a demonstration in 1972.

The original wooden Tallahatchie Bridge, which burned and collapsed after a demonstration in 1972.

Now, sixty-six years after Emmett Till’s lynching, there may be readers who pick up this book without knowing anything about his death, and though Till’s sad story undergirds all the action here, the novel’s narrative and its themes are far broader than the death of one person, however horrible that was.  In revisiting this racial crime, Percival Everett pays special attention to the long-term effects of the Emmet Till crime on the people who participated in it, their families, the society in which they lived and shared their beliefs, and the changes, if any, that have occurred since then.  He does, however, also add new characters to expand the real story line and make their limited lives more relatable, their problems and difficulties more obvious, and any hopes for the future more sensitive to the visions of the nation’s founders for an effective democracy.  Opening in Money, Mississippi, he introduces Wheat Bryant and his wife Charlene who are having a family get-together.  Wheat has had only one job in his life, a job he lost when he drove a truck off the Tallahatchie Bridge and then emerged from the wreck clutching a can of beer in his fist. His mother, Granny C., an elderly, deaf woman nearing the end of her life, is sitting quietly, revisiting her past and regretting some of her actions.  Her brother J. W. Milam, known as Junior, is also there, along with his son Junior Junior.  All are white and uneducated, speak pidgin English, have few, if any goals in life, and excel in their use of profane language and racial epithets.  Most importantly, all of them were involved in real crimes against Emmett Till.

Courthouse and Confederate Monument in Hattiesburg, the "home base" of the MBI.

Courthouse and Confederate Monument in Hattiesburg, the “home base” of the MBI.

A few pages later, Sheriff Delroy Digby gets word to investigate a death in Small Change, a “suburb” of Money.  The victim, horribly mutilated, is Junior Junior Milam, who has just been at the get-together.  A small black man found with him is also badly beaten, both so damaged that Coroner Reverend Cad Fondle does not even touch them in declaring them dead.  Within minutes the black body has vanished from the morgue where it was placed, and no one knows where, when, or how it disappeared, the coroner declaring that it was “the devil hisself” which had claimed it.  While the local police are investigating, two black detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation in Hattiesburg arrive at the scene.  When Wheat Bryant is also found dead soon afterward, he, too, is accompanied by a dead black man, the same dead man found earlier at the scene of Junior Junior Milam’s death.  In both murders the damage to the white victims has involved the ugly amputation of the same body part and the use of the black victim to hold it for the police.  Once again, the black body disappears.  And once again, the Doctor Reverend Fondle is terrified of what it means: “Oh, Gawd Jesus, I knows you have a plan, but us poor White mortals is scared to death down here with this strange n—— you keep sending.  Is he an omen, O Lawd, a sign, or is he the devil, and should we dismember him and burn his body right away?”  The racial murders continue – and spread to other parts of the country – Illinois, Wyoming, Utah, Minnesota, Indiana – always the same in their detail and always with a mutilated white man accompanied by a black.

TN_Memphis_LorraineMotel

Officer Ed Morgan of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation always stopped at the Lorraine Motel to honor Martin Luther King, who died there. It is now the Civil Rights Museum

Percival Everett, a dark-humored and incisive author, has much to say, and he says it cleverly within his novel, often reversing conventional roles.  The best of the detectives here are the black detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, not the white local police.  The white murder victims are always accompanied by a black victim, putting those black murders on a par, though the traditional reaction of the local police has always been to give the white deaths more attention.  The disappearances of the black bodies and suggestions of divine intervention raise issues of responsibility on a grander scale, and the mutilation of the white bodies and the seeming involvement of the black victims suggest a kind of vengeance understandable even to the most uneducated whites.  Professor Damon Thruff, aided by Mama Z,  a “root doctor” over a hundred years old, has been doing research on lynchings for years, resulting in the real names of almost three hundred victims being listed in one section of this book and  showing the reader that the extent of these crimes goes way beyond the occasional crime that sometimes hits the news.

Author Percival Everett

Author Percival Everett

Despite his serious subject and its even more serious implications for democracy and racial justice, the author manages to keep a light, often absurd touch, preventing the reader from becoming so overwhelmed by issues that s/he becomes inured to the individual horrors. One technique he uses throughout is to give his characters unexpected names – Herberta Hind, Helvetica Quip, Faggart Muldoon, Pinch Wheyface, and Pick L. Dill, for a few.  Ultimately, Everett concludes a point in a wild scene featuring a “former President”  in the Oval Office calling for his hairdresser after the death of a Secretary.  The Trees is unique – a serious study of a serious problem regarding racial justice presented in a readable and often humorous format.  Unforgettable for its subject and its messages.

Also:  Another novel dealing with the Emmett Till story is Bernice L. McFadden’s  Gathering of Waters

Photos.  The Tallahatchie Bridge in Money Mississippi.  This wooden bridge was burned during a demonstration and destroyed. https://bridgehunter.com

The Court House and Confederate Monument were familiar sites in Hattiesburg for the two Mississippi Bureau Investigation officers.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Officer Ed Morgan of the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation always stopped at the Lorraine Motel to honor Martin Luther King, who died there. It is now the Civil Rights Museum.  https://civilrightstrail.com

Percival Everett, author of over thirty books, is a Distinguished Professor of English at USC.  https://www.chicagotribune.com

THE TREES
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Historical, Absurdity, Literary, Social and Political Issues, United States, US Regional.
Written by: Percival Everett
Published by: Graywolf
Date Published: 09/21/2021
ISBN: 978-1644450642
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: Colson Whitehead is a two-time WINNER of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, one of only four two-time winners in history.  He is also a WINNER of the National Book Award.

“An outside observer might get the idea that Carney trafficked quite frequently in stolen goods, but that’s not how he saw it.  There was a natural flow of goods in and out and through people’s lives, from here to there, a churn of property, and Ray Carney facilitated that churn.  As a middleman. Legit.”

cover-Harlem ShuffleSet in the years between 1959 and 1964, author Colson Whitehead’s newest novel vibrantly establishes the many aspects of daily life in the Harlem community, depicting its people and its activities in detail and making the reader care about the characters from the outset.  Ray Carney, the main character, who is the son of a hoodlum, has had to learn about life the hard way.  Living on his own from his teen years, he has had to work hard, learn to make ends meet, deal with the bullies in school, stay alive, and somehow manage to graduate from high school and then Queens College with a business degree, all without an adult to serve as a healthy role model for him.  Ambitious, he owns a store by 1959,  selling new and used furniture, and is happily married and the father of a young daughter, with another child on its way.  With his wife Elizabeth, he lives in an apartment that is “dark, with a back window that peered out onto an air shaft and a front window kitty-corner to the elevated 1 train.”  Weird smells and trains rumbling are what they are used to, dramatically different from the life Elizabeth’s more prosperous parents enjoy in Strivers’ Row, a “little island” that is “one of the most beautiful stretches of Harlem.”

Strivers Row, where Carney's in-laws live.

Strivers’ Row, where Carney’s in-laws live.

Throughout these pages, Ray’s cousin Freddie provides a major connection to Ray’s past and its overlaps with the present.  Freddie enjoys Ray’s company, especially since he has learned that he can use Ray to help him dispose of stolen goods.  So far, the “fencing” has been fairly minor, but Freddie, not much of a thinker, hangs out with Miami Joe and other crooks, and he has recently decided to involve Ray in a robbery planned for the Hotel Theresa, a robbery about which Ray does not have full knowledge until it is well underway.  Jewelry and cash stored in the hotel safe end up in Ray’s hands, and he has no idea what to do with it or where to how to get rid of items of great value.  Likewise, he is at a loss when he learns that he must also get rid of a body from the aftereffects of the robbery.

Carney's Furniture store is located a few blocks from the Apollo Theatre.

Carney’s Furniture store is located a few blocks from the Apollo Theatre.

Part II, from 1961, shows the beginning of a rapidly changing society in Harlem as Whitehead continues to develop his vibrant characters dealing with real changes in their lives, both self-created and imposed by the people with whom they associate. Here the scope broadens.  Detective Munson, a white policeman, “helps” the community personally in exchange for a cut from some of the activities.  The Dumas Club attracts an elite membership and becomes the goal of some upwardly mobile characters from within the community, while others are drawn to organizations like the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC.  Carney’s wife Elizabeth works for Black Star Travel, which has expanded its programs to include bookings for civil rights groups. An increasing number of leaders have been steering clients to Carney’s store, in exchange for a piece of the action, and the heroin trade has been increasing.  Despite the serious social and political issues happening on a small scale here, Whitehead’s focus is unremittingly on his characters, especially those who appear to have good hearts only “slightly tainted” by criminal elements with which they may be associated.  He never presents incidents purely for shock value and excitement in the narrative, and even the most evil deeds, like murder, are part of the “general picture” of life, not a focus for their own sake.

The World's Fair was a huge inspiration for Carney, as it was for much of the population.

New York’s World’s Fair was a huge inspiration for Carney, as it was for much of the population.

Part III, which takes place in 1964, shows some changes to the life of Ray Carney’s family – they have moved to Riverside Drive, where they do not hear the trains, but, instead, the “cooing of baby pigeons.”  Ray’s in-laws are now living at upscale Park West Village.  Carney’s Furniture Store remains at its old address, not far from the Apollo Theatre, but the decor has been updated and it more stylish than it was.  The World’s Fair, held in Queens, has been a gigantic success, with spectacular consumer events and visions of the future. While all this is happening in Queens, however, Harlem is facing violent protests and bloodshed.  The police killing of a fifteen-year-old, unarmed black boy has drawn attention to the racial divide and the whole area is about to explode with frustration and hatred of injustice.  As rioting breaks out, some of Carney’s shady accomplices take advantage of the turmoil, while others get caught up in issues serious enough to cost them their lives.  Somehow Carney manages to toe the line and stay clear of the worst threats while benefitting, big-time, from some of the confusion.

Author Colson Whitehead

Author Colson Whitehead

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is a gem of novel, one certain to win both literary prizes and enthusiastic plaudits from its readers.  A crime novel which remains both entertaining and filled with warmth toward many of the characters, even those who do not follow the straight and narrow, it shows life as it is and emphasizes the variety of ways that people deal with their difficulties successfully, even when threats and fear become part of the equation.  Despite his marginal set of ethics, Carney as main character remains intriguing and sympathetic in most of his actions. And though he may never be considered a “hero” on a grand scale, he is a hero to many people for his accomplishments and his pragmatic vision of the community’s future possibilities. His innate goodness, even in the most trying times – in a neighborhood in which murder is common – somehow shines through, often with a touch of humor.

Demonstraters became rioters in Harlem in 1964, awakening the country to issues of importance there and elsewhere.

Demonstrators became rioters in Harlem in 1964, awakening the country to racial issues of importance there and elsewhere.

Photos. Strivers’ Row, one of the more elegant parts of Harlem, was where Elizabeth’s parents lived.  https://www.walksofnewyork.com

The famed Apollo Theatre was a hub for entertainment and gatherings, not many blocks from Carney’s Furniture. https://www.blackpast.org

The 1964 New York World’s Fair was a huge success, changing people’s visions about what was possible in life and in the local world.  https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/relics-of-the-worlds-fair-new-york-city

Colson Whitehead, author of this novel, is the only author to have received two Pulitzer Prizes for his works.  https://www.ebay.com

Demonstrators became rioters in Harlem in 1964, awakening the country to racial issues of importance there and elsewhere.  https://en.wikipedia.org

HARLEM SHUFFLE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues, US Regional
Written by: Colson Whitehead
Published by: Doubleday
Date Published: 09/14/2021
ISBN: 978-0385545136
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Sitting at a desk sucks all the oxygen out of you.  That’s maybe somebody’s idea of policing, but not mine.  I’m good at this city, though.  I would definitely make that claim.  It’s because I keep doing my homework….You can do deductive reasoning anywhere, but sometimes an office is the worst place for it, especially with Milligan nipping your napper.” – Det. Sgt. Jack Laidlaw.

cover, McIlvanney-Rankin The Dark RemainsFans of Scottish author William McIlvanney will rejoice in the publication of The Dark Remains, released six years after McIlvanney’s death in 2015.  The father of “Tartan noir,” McIlvanney was highly successful in achieving audiences for three thrillers set in seamy Glasgow, all featuring Detective Sergeant Jack Laidaw.  All three novels won major prizes:  Laidlaw won the CrimeWriters Association Macallan Silver Dagger in 1977; The Papers of Tony Veitch won the same award in 1983; and Strange Loyalties won the Glasgow Herald People’s Award in 1992. Several of McIlvanney’s non-thriller novels also won prizes, even as McIlvanney continued to work as a journalist, poet, screenplay author, essay writer, and literary critic.  It was not until after his death, according to Alison Flood of The Guardian*, that McIlvanney’s wife Siobhan Lynch found the manuscript which became The Dark Remains among among his papers.  She showed it to McIlvanney’s publisher, Canongate, who then asked Ian Rankin, a huge fan of McIlvanney’s work and a successful Scottish crime writer in his own right, if he would be interested in using this unfinished manuscript as the start of a final Laidlaw novel, to be jointly authored with McIlvanney.  Rankin accepted, especially when he discovered that this novel was written to be the prequel for all three of the later Laidlaw novels.

Author William McIlvanney

Author William McIlvanney

As the novel opens in 1972, Commander Robert Frederick of the Glasgow Crime Squad has just received word that a man called Bobby Carter has disappeared, reported by his family to have been missing for two days.  Bobby is considered a “venally clever lawyer, who didn’t so much rub shoulders with criminals as steep in the same polluted bathwater as them.”  Commander Frederick knows that Carter has guided “the scum of Frederick’s particular patch of earth” as he and his crew have moved dirty money around, “putting it out of reach of the taxman.”  Of particular interest – and danger – is the fact that Carter is so well known among the criminal element and is seen as Cam Colvin’s right-hand man.  Colvin heads one of the major criminal enterprises in Glasgow, and Frederick fears that “Carter’s vanishing act might reverberate far beyond gangland and affect the greater, wholly innocent population.”  Cmdr. Frederick’s chat with Det. Sgt. Bob Lilley leads to his assignment of Lilley to keep an eye on “the new boy,” Det. Jack Laidlaw, who needs careful handling if they are to get the best out of him.  Cmdr. Frederick wants him “inside the tent, as Lyndon Johnson says.”

Author Ian Rankin

Author Ian Rankin

When Lilley chats with Laidlaw, he quickly discovers that Laidlaw knows both Cam Colvin, the gangster for whom the missing Carter worked, and John Rhodes, the leader of a competing Glasgow gang, and when Lilley and Laidlaw later meet with DI Ernie Milligan at a bar,  he adds to the interconnections.  Milligan and Laidlaw began their police work together some years ago, but “one of us has kept climbing the ladder, the other’s still at the bottom, petrified of heights,” a comment Milligan makes as a deliberate insult to Laidlaw. When Milligan leaves, Laidlaw reveals his own opinion to Lilley:  “[Milligan] would be just as happy in a uniform with a swastika on the sleeve…Sometimes you have to judge a book by its cover.”  Laidlaw himself has always been a great reader and has books by Unamuno, Kierkegaard, and Camus on his office desk.  He admits that he would like to see “Socrates patrolling the Gallowgate on an Old Firm night,” a broad and sophisticated vision of right and wrong and a broad understanding of the appropriate role of the police.

Former Glasgow City Mortuary.

The grim former Glasgow City Mortuary.

The discovery of the body of Bobby Carter in a back alley, in gangster John Rhodes’s territory, gets the action underway, the undercurrent of gang warfare setting the tone for the action.  Soon the knife used as the murder weapon is discovered in the bushes near Carter’s body, and efforts are made to identify it.  At this point, the number of characters involved in the action begins to increase dramatically. The relationships among the various gang members and their women are revealed and also begin to overlap with the investigation of Bobby Carter’s death.  These women move among the various characters and sometimes overlap, and as they discuss the Bobby Carter case, they reveal much about themselves and their relationships, both within families and with lovers.  Laidlaw’s own fraught relationship with his wife Ena becomes an issue.  Ultimately, the relationships between Laidlaw and various gang leaders reveal much about Laidlaw, too, as some key players begin to learn that  “here was a detective who didn’t always take everything to his bosses, a detective capable of keeping secrets.  Maybe a rare cop [a gangster] could trust without money changing hands.”

Jaguar XJ6, the car driven by John Rhodes.

Jaguar XJ6, the car driven by John Rhodes.

Soon the gangs, their wives, girlfriends, and the police begin to overlap in the action, especially when the gangs appear to be attacking each other.  Even they do not know for sure where and with whom some of the attacks are originating.  Soon the number of characters participating in the action grows so significantly that I decided to keep a “character list,” and I am glad I did.  By the end of this 240-page novel, I had a list of forty characters, each of whom had appeared at some point in the novel at least once, some several times in different episodes separated by time and many pages.  As the novel draws to a close, the major murder suspects become rather obvious, primarily because, by process of elimination, there is no one left who qualifies for that role.  The novel is fun to read, and the chance to live through a new Laidlaw experience is something I think most fans of the series will thoroughly enjoy.   Ultimately, most readers will probably agree with Det. Sgt. Bob Lilley, who, when asked about Laidlaw and his role in solving the case, declares, “He’s a one-off in a world of mass production.  He’s not a copper who happens to be a man.  He’s a man who happens to be a copper, and he carries that weight with him everywhere he goes…Mind you, he can be a pain in the bahookie, too, but it’s a price worth paying.”

Laidlaw contrasts the beauty of Kelvingrove Park with the neighborhoods he covers.

Laidlaw contrasts the beauty of Kelvingrove Park with the neighborhoods in which he lives and works.

*Alison Flood’s story, “Ian Rankin to complete William McIlanney’s final novel The Dark Remains,” was published in The Guardian on Dec. 5, 2020.

Photos. William McIlvanney’s photo appears on https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk

Ian Rankin’s photo is shown on https://au.rollingstone.com

The Glasgow City Mortuary, to which Bobby Carter’s body was taken is from https://www.alamy.com

John Rhodes drove a Jaguar XJ6, shown here:  http://momentcar.com

Late in the novel, Laidlaw comments on Kelvingrove Park and the grand museum located there, mentioning that he had taken his children to the museum and that they and not been “keen” on the Dali Christ shown there.   https://www.triphobo.com

 

THE DARK REMAINS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Scotland, Social and Political Issues
Written by: William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin
Published by: World Noir, Europa Editions
Date Published: 09/07/2021
ISBN: 978-1609457198
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


 

“Despite everything, I want to live!  And that requires all the wits I have, but they aren’t enough, because the same reasoning is pitting me against myself.  It negates my existence.  So where does that leave me?   It’s because I understand…that I despair.  If only I could misunderstand.  But that’s something I’m no longer able to do.  [All] I have left in life is the list of all my losses.”

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Like The Diary of Ann Frank, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger is also written by someone who began to write about the horrors of the Holocaust while they were actually happening, and while the author was living through its personal tragedies. Boschwitz’s novel, however, offers a significantly different focus from Anne Frank’s diary, providing additional dimensions of reality while sacrificing some of its intimacy.  Whereas Anne Frank is a young girl living in hiding with her family in Amsterdam and telling their story, Boschwitz, author of The Passenger, is twenty-three, a recent college graduate who wrote this book as fiction over the course of one frantic month in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht.  Creating the fictional story of Otto Silbermann, a married businessman/owner of a successful scrap and salvage company in Berlin, Boschwitz gives realistic details about life in the city, describing a man who has always been dedicated to his business and fair to his employees, who loves his family, and who has a long history of hard work, even serving in the German military during World War I.  After Kristallnacht, however, as life for Jews throughout Germany becomes ever more difficult, Silbermann finds all escapes from Nazi control closed, and takes what he regards as the only way out.  He becomes a “passenger,” a man who travels from city to city by train almost non-stop, sometimes not getting out when he arrives at his “destination” in order to avoid being being identified and possibly arrested for being a Jew.  It is a hopeless existence.

The border of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where Silbermann tried to escape.

The border of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where Silbermann tries to escape.

Early in the novel, after Silbermann negotiates the sale of his business and his apartment house to an Aryan who had worked for him and who now exploits his sad reality, Silbermann is anxious to escape the city.  Having sold for cash, however, he now must carry the entire sale proceeds packed into a briefcase as he travels through Germany.  Unable to reconnect with his wife, and with the security forces actively looking for him, he decides to take the train from Berlin to Aachen, a city at the junction of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  The attitudes of those on the train, mostly in agreement with the government, make the trip more difficult, and one man in his compartment, a Jew, is trying to figure out how to bribe an official at the border so he can escape into Belgium or the Netherlands.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Church, where Silbermann thought of meeting Ursula Angehof.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Church, where Silbermann thought of meeting Ursula Angehof.

Eventually he is able to hire a driver to take him to the border of Belgium, from which he plans to walk to safety, but he has no luck with that plan and must return to Aachen, and, later, head back to Berlin.  Ursula Angelhof, an attractive woman from the train whom he regards as a possible helper – and not incidentally, someone who can help make him feel less lonely – is also going to Berlin, and she agrees to meet him at the Gedachtniskirche, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, later that day.  He is happily married, but he feels he needs someone to share what he has been going through, and his wife is with her Aryan family, which is not anxious to see him at this point. Circumstances intervene, and he is left with the advice of Ursula, his friend, to “start living as though each day were [his] last.” He believes that if he can do this, and get to know the places he visits, at least a little bit, that his constant movement might seem “a little less grindingly senseless.”  He continues his train travel.

The funicular in Dresden which goes up the mountain to spectacular view.

The funicular in Dresden which goes up the mountain to a spectacular view.

Ultimately, Silbermann travels to Dresden, trying to decide whether to return eventually to Berlin.  His panic is driving him to make irrational decisions, and even leads to a brief medical intervention,  but at last he decides to take the funicular from Dresden up to the Weisser Hirsch to see the spectacular view, which he hopes will affect his will and his confidence.   On finally deciding to return to Berlin, he falls asleep, exhausted, on the train.  When he awakens, he realizes that his briefcase, carrying every cent he has left in the world, has been stolen.  The constable on the train cannot help him.  As the train starts up again, Silbermann reveals the depth of his depression and loss of motivation.

The loss of his briefcase (and all his funds) is a turning point for Silbermann.

The loss of his briefcase (and all his funds) is a turning point for Silbermann.

Hiding within this “fictional” story are aspects similar to what author Boschwitz himself experienced during this same period.  In the Afterword by Peter Graf, the real life of Boschwitz himself is shown to resemble that of the fictional Silbermann in some key aspects. Eventually, the author was able to escape Germany and become a young exile in England, where he became part of the internment system, which declared him an “enemy alien.”  Isolated, alone, and unwanted, he was out of Germany, but not free in England.  The Afterword provides additional details of Boschwitz’s real, post-Kristallnacht life, made even more affecting to the reader because s/he has already shared the life and thoughts of his main character Silberman whose experiences were similar and equally grim.

Author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, who wrote The Passenger when he was in his early twenties.

Author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, who wrote The Passenger when he was in his early twenties.  Photo courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.

Reading and responding to a book like this, which was written by a very young author trying to cope with the very real horrors of Nazi rule requires some special considerations, I believe.  It is possible to criticize the wandering nature of Silvermann, his unplanned train trips, and the lack of coherence in the novel as he tells his seemingly unplanned story.  On the other hand, that very lack of coherence and the frantic movement of the story itself is certainly characteristic of the main character acting out his panic attacks and fears of the future.  Author Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz has something to say, and real life and its emergencies are not necessarily as “neat” and carefully ordered as literary fiction.  This book rings true.  It is powerful and intense as a vision of life, and I cannot imagine any reader who will not be strongly affected by this “novel” of life in Berlin as the Nazis get ready for their world war.

Translation: Philip Boehm.   Preface: Andre Aciman.  Afterword:  Peter Graf.

Photos.  The photo of the border of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands appears on https://www.tripadvisor.com

The Gedachtniskirche, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, where Silbermann had hoped to meet Ursula, was destroyed during World War II.  https://en.wikipedia.org

Silbermann takes the funicular in Dresden to Weisser Hirsch, a beautiful ride, hoping to lift his depression a bit.  https://en.wikipedia.org  Photo by Chris J Wood

Silbermann keeps all of the money he has in a briefcase, perhaps similar to this one from World War II.  https://www.antiquesnavigator.com

The author photo may be found on https://insidestory.org.au/hell-or-high-waters  Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute, New York

THE PASSENGER
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, Book Club Suggestions, Germany, Historical, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
Published by: Metropolitan Books
Date Published: 04/13/2021
ISBN: ‎ 978-1250317148
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Kit Fan–DIAMOND HILL

“There were no street signs.  [Diamond Hill], a shanty town, was a maze, all its lanes and paths twisted and crisscrossed randomly.  Most houses were wooden or metal shacks, one leaning precariously on another, each fitted with wafer-thin walls…Red demolition notices were glued on all the doors.  There were wires everywhere, some loose, some tangled up around lampposts.  Open gutters [funneled] a foul smell of sewage and lemon bleach.”

cover kit fan diamond hillWhen a young man known as “Buddha,” who has been living in Bangkok, is sent back to Hong Kong to continue his recovery from drug abuse in the late 1980s, he finds many changes underway.  Once “the Hollywood of the Orient,” the familiar Diamond Hill area of Hong Kong looks vastly different now in the lead up to the British turnover of Hong Kong to China, less than ten years away.  Bruce Lee, who once made films there is now long gone, though many residents of Diamond Hill still celebrate his work and long for his return.  The returning young man, known here as Buddha, feels abandoned in Hong Kong – and friendless after his time spent in Bangkok – and he misses Daishi, the elderly Buddhist monk who helped him “get clean” there. He is not sure why Daishi has now ordered him to Hong Kong to live on property operated by a Buddhist nunnery.  He is especially confused when he discovers that it is located in the midst of a shantytown and is run by the Iron Nun, a strict woman (and former travel agent) who is well aware of the corruption surrounding her.  “This religion is older than capitalism or communism,” she asserts, though whether it will survive those influences and the rapid physical changes of the area and its people remain to be seen.

"Audrey Hepburn: claims that she was in a film with Bruce Lee what was produced in HongKong .

“Audrey Hepburn” claims that she was in a film with Bruce Lee that was produced in HongKong .

Poet and novelist Kit Fan, who was born and educated in Hong Kong until he was twenty-one, tells Buddha’s story with the kind of sensitivity which comes from knowing his setting well, its people, and its problems – and caring about all of them  Focusing on the people whom Buddha comes to know on Diamond Hill after he returns there from Bangkok, he writes an intimate story involving four major characters.  Buddha himself, though he leads the action, is unsure of himself, and his role here is primarily one of observation as he sifts through what is happening to him and to those around him for clues as to how to find himself in this new/old Hong Kong.  The first people he meets are an abusive mother and a boy who is tied to a chair while she tries to cut his hair with scissors and a bowl for a pattern.  These people turn out to be “Audrey Hepburn,” a woman using a false name who once acted with Bruce Lee, and a childlike character who might have been  her son but turns out to be a little girl.  When Buddha offers to cut the little girl’s hair and claims to have been a hairdresser, in order to save her from further abuse, the child runs away. “Audrey Hepburn”responds by offering herself to him, free of charge.

A poor shanty town like Diamond Hill in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong.

A poor shanty town like Diamond Hill in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong.

These characters later achieve greater importance when the “little girl” turns out to be a significant player in Diamond Hill’s gangs and the heroin business, where she is known as “Boss.”  When Boss meets Buddha for the second time, she “takes out a tiny plastic jacket filled with the white powder and waves it in [his] face. It’s Grade A stuff.  People call it ‘the diamond cut.”  Then she adds “You don’t need to look anywhere else.  I run a monopoly in Diamond Hill.” She is not exaggerating.  “Audrey Hepburn,” who may or may not be her mother, appears and sometimes reappears, and when Buddha next sees “Audrey,” she is working as a dishwasher for a noodle shop.  Both Audrey and Boss hope eventually to escape Hong Kong for the United Kingdom.  In the meantime, they, especially the aggressive Boss, do what is necessary to stay in charge of their lives.  When Boss soon gets in trouble with the criminal Triad and has to hide in the nunnery, she is clever enough to avoid the Triad and others looking to end her criminal career.

Buddha and Quartz visit Lion's Hea Rock on a trip up the mountain. Photo by Nick Eagles

Buddha and Quartz visit Lion’s Head Rock on a trip up the mountain. Photo by Nick Eagles.

One final character, Quartz, the Iron Nun’s assistant, is a complex and disturbed woman who is in charge of the nunnery’s chickens and often does the cleaning for the nunnery.  Thought to be suffering from memory loss,  she is described as extremely “fragile,”  the complete opposite of someone like Boss, for whom nothing, even human life, is truly sacred.  In one symbolic section, Quartz, who has been starving herself, persuades Buddha to go on a hike up the mountain to a cave, where they feed the bats and later observe the stone ruins and Lion Rock, where Quartz hauls herself over the top of the cliff and disappears, temporarily, testing herself against fear. Later the two, Buddha and Quartz, share aspects of their pasts, and she persuades him to try to help rescue Boss from all her dangerous activities.

Author Kit Fan

Author Kit Fan

Throughout the novel, poet/author Kit Fan keeps the attention fixed on his characters, not on the more general social issues which threaten them in the face of the imminent Chinese takeover in just a few years’ time.  He includes sections in which nearly all the characters discuss their personal pasts which led them to who they are now.  Their secret interrelationships add to the interest and the mysteries here and explain, in many ways, why each character has acted as s/he has.  With Boss as the biggest criminal and Quartz as the most saintly, he offers two extremes for the reader to contemplate, and Buddha, who relates to both of them, must decide how he fits into life with each of them.  Kit Fan, despite the dramatic scenes and the exotic setting, writes often beautiful prose and provides many sensitive insights into the lives of these people living on the edge.  By showing the effects of the political turmoil on well-developed characters, he makes the complex foreign issues more understandable.  One of the best debut novels I have read in a long time, I look forward to Kit Fan’s next novel for its insights, its precise descriptions, and its unusual characters.

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

The Bruce Lee photo is from https://www.pinterest.com

The Diamond Hill photo from 1994, may be found on https://www.alamy.com

Lion’s Head Rock, which Quartz visits with Buddha,  is by Nick Eagles.  https://fineartamerica.com

DIAMOND HILL
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Hong Kong, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Kit Fan
Published by: World Editions
Date Published: 05/04/2021
ISBN: 978-1642860887
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

 

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