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Per Petterson–I REFUSE

Note: Per Petterson was WINNER of the International IMPAC Dublin Award for his novel Out Stealing Horses in 2007.  He was WINNER of the Nordic Council Literature Award and the Brage Prize for I Curse the River of Time in 2009.  This is his first novel in five years.

“Your conscience is like a cogwheel, or even like a circular saw, whirring round, and its sharp teeth are biting into your soul, hurting like hell and each time you do something really bad your blood is spurting, but then you do more and more bad things and the teeth are ground down and your soul becomes calloused and then you don’t feel anything when the wheel goes round and then that’s who you are.” Tommy to Jim after a crisis.

I Refuse is, I believe, Norwegian author Per Petterson’s most powerful – even overwhelming – novel yet, a novel which, even now, three days after I finished reading it, still has hold of my heart and still echoes in my memories throughout the day. I have read and reread passages just to be sure that they really do happen the way I thought they did, hoping that if I could just reread them one more time with a new vision that maybe I could keep the sad inevitabilities from happening in quite the same way, this time around. A novel about hardy and determined folk who live in Norway, I Refuse is so full of stark reality and so sensitive in its depictions of the way this reality affects the characters who live there, that I suspect I am not the only one who will go back again and again to reread passages. For Petterson, the inevitabilities of someone’s life journey are nowhere nearly as important as the journey itself, no matter how difficult, or how bleak, or how disappointing the outcomes on a personal level. Ultimately, the novel creates a world in which ordinary people keep on trying, even as they often fail. Ironies abound as the main characters are often tossed around wildly by the vicissitudes of fate – unexpected and uncontrollable twists and turns that affect their lives. Somehow they continue on, and even if they do not always make peace with their destinies or their decisions, their strengths lie in the belief that they have still had some level of control.

Petterson begins the novel in 2006, as Jim, a man in his fifties who never knew his father, almost runs over an old man while driving through a snowstorm in the early morning hours. He wonders if the old man, who is uninjured, could have been his unknown father, a motif which echoes throughout. Jim is on his way to the suspension bridge that connects the island of Ulvoya to the mainland, a few miles south of Oslo. He fishes from the bridge a few times a week in the semi-darkness just before dawn, a peaceful activity for a man who must remember to “take his pills.” He resents the “classy cars” which have just begun crossing the bridge as dawn breaks, and he is shocked when someone in a new Mercedes stops and says, unexpectedly, “It’s Jim, isn’t it?” The speaker is Tommy Berggren, his dearest friend from childhood, with whom he has had virtually no contact for about thirty years, a man who now looks “like Jon Voight in Enemy of the State,” but who miraculously recognizes him from the crowd.

Bridge between Ulvoya and the mainland, where Jim enjoys fishing a couple of times a week and where he meets Tommy unexpectedly.

As the present lives of jobless Jim, who lives on Social Security and has been hospitalized for emotional problems, and Tommy Berggren, a highly successful businessman, are revealed through flashbacks told through several different points of view, the reader feels the dramatic contrasts in the men’s lives. “Isn’t it strange,” Tommy says, off-handedly, “The way things can turn out. The opposite.” Jim understands that Tommy probably did not make this remark to be hurtful, but Tommy then wants to know if he is fishing because he “needs the fish…for eating…Because if you did, I could help you.” Even Tommy realizes he has gone too far with this remark, however, and apologizes. As Tommy leaves, casually indicating that he hopes to see Jim again, Jim, by contrast, is overcome. “I fell to my knees and wrapped my arms tight around my body,” he says, “and tried to breathe slowly, but I couldn’t do it…I held my mouth wide open, the noise wasn’t as loud then and the air flowed easier in and out.”

Jim comments that Tommy, after thirty years, now looks like Jon Voight, an NSA murderer in the film of The Enemy of the State.

As the book relives events, the reader comes to know Jim, who grew up as the only child of a protective single mother – a teacher and Christian leading an honorable and hard-working life. Tommy’s family could not have been more different. His mother left the family when Tommy was twelve, his sister Siri was fourteen, and his little twin sisters were four. His father, a drunk, was abusive in the time that followed, severely beating and kicking the children without letup – until a day two years later, when Tommy was big enough to attack his father viciously during a fight, breaking his father’s leg, and receiving terrible wounds himself. His father disappears, and the family falls apart, the children assigned to live with people from the community who provide them with the only homes they have ever known.

Cover, John Steinbeck's The Moon is Down, given to Jonsen by Tommy. This was the most successful propaganda novel ever written, one which inspired Norwegians all over the country to resist the German occupation.

The novel operates on many levels at once, but Petterson never loses sight of his major themes, all associated with one’s values and the actions they inspire – or prevent – over time. For some, the value lies in the refusal to do something, and for others it is in the refusal to believe something. For still others it is the refusal to admit something, while for the rest it is the refusal to accept something. Petterson has carefully crafted this novel, his talent seen even in what would appear to be casual  “throwaways,” details of plot and setting one would not usually notice unless looking for them. When Tommy’s guardian Jonsen is dying in hospital, for example, Tommy decides to bring him a book from his own seemingly random assortment of old books – John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, about a small Norwegian community which refuses to accept the occupation of their town by the Germans during World War II, a banned book which inspired whole communities to stand up to the Nazis. There are special reasons why this is an appropriate choice for Jonsen.  When Tommy is at a shopping mall late in the novel, he mentions that his favorite author is Raymond Chandler and his hero Philip Marlowe, whose series of hard-boiled realistic crime novels features characters much like Tommy himself.

The sensitive Jim, by contrast, is a fan of Georges Simenon’s Maigret, a man who uses his psychological acumen to solve cases.  Later, as Tommy is leaving a mall, he sees the name of a restaurant which he has visited – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – an ironic and not inappropriate title for two former friends who have traded places between the time they are children and the time they are adult. The ironies and the insights that arise from them broaden the themes and make them even more relevant. The conclusion, in which Tommy’s older sister Siri visits Singapore and discovers something about a family member, is a stunning conclusion to this novel. Why she does what she does after that opens the door to much speculation and a resolution which is one of the most awesome aspects of this profound and unforgettable novel.

Note: Translated by famed translator of Scandinavian literature Don Bartlett, this novel feels letter perfect, it’s mood, thematic unity, and powerful effects perfectly in keeping with what the author must have hoped for.

The Norwegian Seamen's Church in Singapore, where Tommy's sister Siri has an encounter which gives a whole new meaning to the expression, "I refuse."

Also by Per Petterson:  I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME, IT’S FINE BY ME, TO SIBERIA

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

The bridge between Ulvoya and the mainland, a few miles from Oslo,  is where Tommy met Jim while he was fishing, thirty years after they had last seen each other. http://www.nurkiewicz.com/

In one of the many ironies in this book, Jim thinks Tommy looks like Jon Voight in The Enemy of the State.   Voight plays an NSA official and cold-blooded murderer in that film.  http://www.denofgeek.com

The Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Singapore, where Siri learns something about a family member during the climax of the book, is “at the summit of the steepest hill in Singapore with a view of the container harbour, which was one of the biggest in the world.”  https://www.sjomannskirken.no/

ARC: Graywolf Press

“He would come to be called the Gravedigger. There would be other names: the Master Executioner, the Jackfruit Freak, the great Sooryamangalam Sreeganeshan. In his earliest days, his name was a sound only his kin could make in the hollows of their throats…and [he] hadn’t yet learned all there was to learn. His trunk…couldn’t sense what his mother’s could sense – the sudden stillness in the rhythm of things, the peril in the air.”

In this stylistically daring look at the devastating ivory trade in India, author Tania James provides a broad look at all the factors involved in this gory business while keeping her focus on the individual, the small, the personal. To develop her broad message within a manageable focus, she creates three unique stories which evolve simultaneously – the third-person story of the Gravedigger, a lone elephant without a herd and without the grounding in elephant lore which young elephants need to survive; the story of the Poacher, involved in the lucrative ivory trade, told by his younger brother Manu, who is naïve regarding his brother’s motivations; and the story of the Film-maker, in which cinematographer Emma Lewis describes her efforts to document the work of Dr. Ravi Varma, the head veterinarian of the Kavanar Wildlife Park, who works to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned elephant calves. The three separate points of view provide unusual depth to the examination of poaching without leading to didacticism and preachiness. By rotating the focus among these points of view, the author keeps the suspense high, constantly adding new information to each individual story while leaving other mysteries about the Gravedigger, the Poacher, and the Film-maker undeveloped till the end.

As a young elephant, the Gravedigger walks with his herd along the traditional woodland trails which India’s Forest Department will eventually cut into foot trails of their own. His mother has recently had another calf, and his own protected place, under her belly, is now occupied by a new baby, leaving him with only a tail to grab onto when he needs her. The herd includes an old tusker and a twelve-year-old whose tusks are only beginning – just stumps, at this point. Their understanding of poaching is already so ingrained in their cultural experience that whenever they scent a man in the forest, the cows crowd around the two tuskers, their rumps facing outward to protect the tuskers from harm. On one day when the wind is not strong enough to carry the scent, this small herd is attacked, and the elephant who becomes the Gravedigger is suddenly orphaned.

A chain tree by D. Nambiar. Early in the novel, the author presents the legend of a boy who guided a British engineer who was cutting a road through the mountains. The man later shot his young guide, whose restless spirit took residence in a banyan tree. Only when the tree was wrapped in chains was the boy's spirit contained, leading to the naming of the Chain Tree. Here the chains are visible in front of the niche.

Manu, the brother of the Poacher, the second point of view, is a young teen as these narrative sections begin, and he and his young cousin Raghu, sometimes stay overnight in the palli, a primitive hut on stilts in their rice field, which overlooks the Kavanar Wildlife Park where the Gravedigger lives. Their job is to keep an eye on the field during the night and to send up an alarm if an elephant threatens it. Raghu is particularly interested in the stories he has heard about Dr. Ravi Varma, the veterinarian at the nearby wildlife park, who is said to have successfully reintroduced a calf to its mother in such a way that the elephant took her calf back, an almost unheard of success. One night, however, when Manu is supposed to stay in the palli with Raghu, Manu is exhausted, having worked in the fields all day. Not incidentally, he also has a girlfriend. When he fails to show up that night, disaster results. Manu rightly blames himself for the outcome, so he feels obligated when his uncle, Raghu’s father, offers the compensation he will get from the Forest Department if Manu and his brother Jayan, recently released from prison, will kill the elephant who attacked Raghu.

A palli in a rice field.

The point of view of Emma Lewis, the Film-maker, conveys some of the economic complications which inspire a group of the villagers who live near the wildlife center to resort to poaching. The Forest Department has subsidized a private timber company and given permission for them to cut timber on lands the villagers have been using for years, and they are enraged. These lands have officially belonged to the Forest Department ever since they were “inherited from the British Raj, who had previously claimed all forestlands for the queen,” but the villagers have been harvesting firewood and honey there “long before Queen Victoria was in diapers.” The tension is high and the attitude toward the Forest Department is at a low. To add to the complications, an unnecessary and distracting love story takes the emphasis off the real issues in these Film-maker sections (though it makes the characters feel a bit more human).

"Elephant Graveyard," painted by John Seerey-Lester. Reprinted by permission of the artist. See photo credits for further information.

Each of these stories continues to develop during the novel, adding new information gradually and not necessarily in chronological order. Working for the Old Man who has trained him after his mother’s death, The Gravedigger is in chains twice a day when he must perform for tourists, though he escapes every night in his dreams. Fascinating stories of elephant lore, such as how the elephant got its tusks, and how a boy turned into an elephant emerge, add depth to the novel, and the vision of the elephant graveyard becomes a major symbol. Eventually, the Gravedigger endures torture by one of his keepers, whose behavior recalls some of the Gravedigger’s still vividly traumatic childhood memories, and the novel works its way to its climax. Beautiful passages of natural beauty contrast with descriptions of the horrors of human contact to bring the novel to its conclusion.

A Flamboyant Gulmohar tree stands guard outside the Range Forest Office. In the US this is called a Royal Poinciana tree.

Author Tania James walks a fine line here as she develops a story filled with unexpected twists and turns. She wisely avoids the problems of trying to recreate an elephant’s point of view by telling the elephant’s story in the third person and in short paragraphs of realistic detail. Brief sentences in a straightforward subject-verb-object sentence pattern reflect the point of view of an objective observer who is young – like the elephant – but the observations are trenchant, crucial to the development of the novel. The Poacher sections reflect both the thoughts of Manu, the younger brother of Jayan, and Manu’s innocence of what older brother Jayan has been doing, which makes Jayan’s behavior a personal betrayal. The Film-maker sections present narrative commentary and provide transitions among the various points of view in the total story. This is an imaginative presentation of the issue of poaching and ivory sales and the damage done to the environment and its integrity for all species, both human and animal.

Photo credits: The author’s photo appears on http://indulge.newindianexpress.com

A chain tree by D. Nambiar.  Early in the novel, the author presents the legend of a boy who guided a British engineer who was cutting a road through the mountains. The man later shot his young guide, whose restless spirit took residence in a banyan tree. Only when the tree was wrapped in chains was the boy’s spirit contained, leading to the naming of the Chain Tree. Here the chains are visible in front of the niche.  See http://www.dnambiartravelblog.com/

A palli in a rice field:  http://en.wikipedia.org/

“Elephant Graveyard,” painted by John Seerey-Lester.  Reprinted by permission of the artist, whose website and contact information are  located here:  www.seereylester.com

A Flamboyant Gulmohar tree, known in the US as a Royal Poinciana Tree, “stands guard” outside the Range Forest Office.  http://www.pbase.com/neuenhofer

Note: Author Alejandro Zambra was WINNER of Chile’s National Critics’ Prize for his novella, Bonsai, in 2006.

“It’s nighttime, it’s always nighttime when the text comes to an end. I re-read, rephrase sentences, specify names. I try to remember better: more, and better. I cut and paste, change and enlarge the font, play with line spacing. I think about closing this file and leaving it forever in the My Documents folder. But I’m going to publish it, I want to, even though it’s not finished, even though it’s impossible to finish it.”—the author, in his story “My Documents.”

Described as “the greatest writer of Chile’s younger generation,” author Alejandro Zambra has created eleven stories so firmly grounded in reality and filled with carefully chosen detail that they seem to be from his own life, though it is impossible to know for sure without hearing more from the author himself.  Likewise, we cannot know how much may be inspired by his own life but altered for the purpose of improving the story, or how much may be created from whole cloth for the purpose of recreating a period in history or illustrating a theme. Ultimately, this collection of stories vibrantly recreates an unusual childhood from the perspective of a child, while also revealing the speaker’s early adulthood and his lack of confidence in his own maturity.  In several stories, the author conveys the feelings at the heart of parent-child relationships, from the points of view of both; political revolution and trauma lurk in the background throughout all the stories.  As he wrestles with his stories and how to present the personal and community values of Chile during this period in the late twentieth century, the author also contributes much to our understanding of the art of writing itself.  Ultimately, these intense, compressed, clear, and unpretentious stories breathe with quiet life, focused on reality as a simple, if sometimes heart-breaking, concept.

The long opening story, “My Documents,” clearly establishes the time, place, characters, and atmosphere by introducing the main character at age four or five, when, in 1980, he sees a computer for the first time, an enormous machine used by his father, quite different from the electric typewriter of his father’s secretary, or the black Olivetti on which his mother does her typing work, transcribing songs, stories, and poems written by his grandmother.  The speaker learns how to type his name but prefers using the keyboard to imitate drumrolls instead, remembering the drum major in the marching band at his school, before veering off into a discussion of his Catholic education, the music of Simon and Garfunkel, and the local competitions in kite-flying and the tricks used to win.  By 1986, the speaker tells us, he has lied to become an altar boy, a task he honors for over a year while convinced he is going to die because he has been taking Communion “illegally.”

Margaret Thatcher was a friend of Augusto Pinochet during his whole career, selling him weapons and providing supplies for Chile during the Falklands War in 1982. Richard Nixon was also a supporter of Pinochet.

This extended story continues with speaker’s first “adult” discovery in 1986 when, at age eleven, he learns of Augusto Pinochet’s human rights abuses of citizens who were arrested, tortured, murdered, or disappeared.  These crimes are described peripherally, with occasional additional references throughout the book, during Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 – 1990, and up to 1998 while he was still Commander in Chief of the army. In college by 1994, the speaker is on his own by 1997, and by 1999, he has bought his first computer, an immense Olidata. In 2013, when he is in his late thirties, this chapter ends.   The author announces that he has now completed this book, and as he ponders the idea of simply closing his My Documents file, he determines to publish it instead, announcing that “My father was a computer, my mother a typewriter.  I was a blank page, and now I am a book.”

Famed Chilean goalie Condor Rojas was a hero to the speaker and Camilo, until he participated in a hoax during a championship game against Brazil in 1989 . See photo credits for more information.

The story “Camilo” follows a similar pattern to that of the first story, “My Documents,” in that it begins when the speaker is very young and ends decades later.  The speaker is nine when Camilo shows up at their gate and explains that he is the speaker’s father’s godson.  With an interest in rock bands, rather than soccer, which the speaker and his father watch every week, Camilo and the speaker have little in common, but Camilo is a gregarious teenage friend who soon becomes “a benevolent and protective presence.”  In return the speaker and his father take Camilo to soccer games, which the speaker’s father and Camilo’s father had played together.  Gradually, we learn that Camilo is helping the young speaker with his problems with obsessive compulsive disorder. Eventually, the boys attend the Chile-Brazil playoffs leading to the World Cup in 1990, rooting wildly for Condor Rojas, Chile’s goalie, the speaker’s favorite player because his own father plays that position on a local team.  A devastating scandal which arises regarding Rojas, is discussed further, with photos, in the link given in the footnotes here. Camilo later goes to France to reconnect with his father, and, twenty-two years later, the speaker meets with Camilo’s father in Amsterdam.  Moving and thoughtful, the story carries a message about time and chance which will resonate with all readers.

While he is trying to give up smoking, the speaker must deal with migraines. He finds Oliver Sachs's book, Migraine, especially helpful.

Subsequent stories deal with the fact that most of us are alone most of the time. “True or False,” concerns a divorced man whose son visits every two weeks.  The boy considers his father’s house to be the “false house” and his mother’s house to be the “true house.” Knowing this, the father gets a cat to make the house feel more like home, but when the cat later has kittens, a problem arises, and leads to a surprise conclusion.  “I Smoked Very Well,” one of my favorites, is about a writer who decides to give up smoking and discovers that it affects the whole writing process, the reading process, and the general socializing that provides inspiration for his work.  “Family Life” and “Thank You” deal with situations in which women become victims who have too little control over their destinies, which are controlled by men, sometimes because the women allow it.  “Artist’s Rendition,” another story about writing, deals with a reality which becomes fiction while the fiction becomes reality.

In "The Most Chilean Man in the World," the main character goes to Leuven, Belgium, where he contemplates this bizarre fountain in which a stylized figure tries to find the formula for happiness in a book.

Six of these stories, told from the first person point of view, and five from the third person, are grouped to suggest that the first person stories really are about the author’s own life while the third person stories are about life as Zambra would interpret it if he were the main character.  His first person narrators speak intimately, as if the author is addressing his reader directly, while the third person, more distanced, expands the author’s themes, ideas, and images beyond the realm of his own life into the wider world.  In this way, he creates a kind of déjà vu for the reader by filling his narrative with small details his characters remember because of their personal importance at a particular place and time, and most readers will immediately recognize the parallels from their own lives in the small images which forever stick in their own minds and bring back major events.  This extraordinary and profound collection makes writing look easy.   If you love good writing with an unusual series of unpretentious voices and a surprising amount of humor and irony, don’t miss this.

ALSO by Alejandro Zambra:  THE PRIVATE LIVES OF TREES

A special note of congratulations to translator Megan McDowell, who was also the translator for THE PRIVATE LIVES OF TREES.  Translating a book in which the author has been particularly careful in his own word choice requires enormous care from the translator to convey the same feelings and images.

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

Margaret Thatcher was a friend of Augusto Pinochet  during his whole career, selling him weapons and providing supplies for Chile during the Falklands War in 1982. He was arrested in England on a warrant from Spain for human rights abuses in 1998 and spent 1 1/2 years in prison in the UK. After his release he was under house arrest in Chile for the rest of his life.  He died in 2006.  The US under Richard Nixon was also a supporter of Pinochet.  Photo from:  http://www.ibtimes.com/

The story of the hoax perpetrated by Condor Rojas during a championship game against Brazil in 1989, may be found here:  http://colgadosporelfutbol.com/la-mayor-farsa-de-la-historia-del-futbol/. The photo posted here is from http://www.fotolog.com

Migraine by Oliver Sachs was helpful to the speaker when he was dealing with migraines during his efforts to give up smoking in “I Smoked Very Well.”   See http://en.wikipedia.org/

When Rodrigo in “The Most Chilean Man in the World” goes to Leuven, Belgium, in pursuit of a woman, he spends time looking at this bizarre little fountain which shows a stylized boy/man reading a book in which he is hoping to gain the secret of happiness.  Photo from https://lenzu.wordpress.com

ARC: from McSweeney’s

Jo Nesbo–BLOOD ON SNOW

“To sum up…I’m no good at driving slowly, I’m way too soft, I fall in love far too easily, I lose my head when I get angry, and I’m bad at math…So what on earth can a man like Daniel Hoffmann use someone like me for? The answer is – as you might have worked out already – as a fixer.  I don’t have to drive, and I mostly kill the sort of men who deserve it, and the numbers aren’t exactly hard to keep track of.”—Olav Johansen

Thirteen is certainly not an unlucky number for Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, whose thirteenth crime novel has just been released in English.  Winner of countless prizes, including the prestigious Glass Key Award, the Edgar Award, and Norway’s Peer Gynt Prize, Nesbo has written ten novels in the Harry Hole series, and three stand-alone novels, Headhunters, The Son, and now Blood on Snow, a novel quite different in length, focus, and tone from all that have gone before.  Readers who admire Nesbo for his ability to write in a variety of thriller subgenres from horror (The Snowman) to an historical about Norway’s Nazi past and neo-Nazi present (The Redbreast) – have come to expect complex, multi-layered plots punctuated by action scenes of almost unimaginable violence.  This short novel about a hired killer introduces a newer style, however – leaner, cleaner, and more introspective, with wonderful ironic humor new for readers of Nesbo.

Though the novel certainly has its excitements, much of the novel capitalizes on the ironies which exist between the thinking of Olav Johansen, the young, dyslexic main character, and his actions as a “fixer.”  It is through Olav’s running commentary that the reader understands the narrative, and one cannot miss the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the author who is controlling this character. The opening sentences are classic:  With a lyricism uncommon to Nesbo, we learn that “the snow was dancing like cotton wool in the light of the street lamps. Aimlessly, unable to decide whether it wanted to fall up or down, just letting itself be driven…”  As the wind and snow swirl and the romantic language continues, Nesbo suddenly announces that the wind “got fed up and dumped its dance partner beside the wall,” preparing us for the dark punch line:  “And there the dry, windswept snow was settling around the shoes of the man I had just shot in the chest and neck.”

Bygdoy Alle, where Daniel Hoffmann lives. Olav Johansen rents an apartment on the opposite side of the street, so he can spy on Corinna, Hoffmann's wife.

Immediately after this surprise, however, the speaker, exhibiting some of the characteristics of a person with Attention Deficit Disorder, begins chatting about the character of snow crystals and their contrast with crystals of blood which are the deep red of “a king’s robe, all purple and lined with ermine.” He does not ponder about the murder itself  -  in fact, thinks nothing of it.  Instead, he describes the Norwegian folk tales his mother used to read to him, suggesting “that’s probably why she named me for a king.”  In fewer than two hundred words, Nesbo had me in the palm of his hand, enjoying (and smirking) at the ironies involving Olav Johansen as I sped into the rest of the novel.

Photo of the medieval Old Aker Church and its cemetery by Noel Lobo. Maria, the deaf girl Olav has always loved, goes to visit family graves there.

Nesbo takes full advantage of the smaller scope of this novel, and while he does not develop complete characters in the two hundred, wide-margined pages of this book, his focus on the characters’ inner worlds is far greater than one finds in his longer, action-based, multi-layered thrillers.  Olav, for example, has set limits on what he can and will do for Daniel Hoffmann, the high-level operator for whom he works.  He can’t drive a getaway car because he can’t drive inconspicuously.  He can’t be used in robberies because he knows that bank employees who experience a robbery often end up with psychological problems, and he was upset by the effects on an old man at whom he’d pointed a gun.  He can’t work with drugs because his mother was an addict and he himself thinks he could become one.  He can’t work with prostitutes because he falls in love so easily. That leaves “the obvious” – working as a fixer.  Despite the murders Olav commits, they are almost always of people who do evil things – Olav believes he has a good heart, and the reader can’t help but agree.

Bislett Stadium, behind which Olav meets two accomplices before his final murder .assignment.

When Olav receives his biggest assignment from Hoffmann – to murder Hoffmann’s wife Corina, who has been having an affair, he rents an apartment on Bygdoy Alle, across from Hoffmann’s place and spies on Corina. When he sees her admit a man to the apartment, he is shocked to see the man hit her, semi-strangle her, and then tear off her dress before sexually attacking her, and he then remembers, strangely, an image he saw in a book when he was a boy – of three hyenas attacking their prey.  Before long Olav is madly in love with Corina, having given up his dreams of Maria, a deaf-mute girl who is paying off the drug debts of her boyfriend.    When Olav discovers the identity of Corina’s lover, however, he realizes that Hoffman will decide to have Olav himself “fixed,” and that his only chance of survival is to work for Hoffmann’s rival, The Fisherman.

When Olav was very ill as a child, his mother took out Les Miserables from the library, "the concise edition," with the original illustrations by Emile Bayard. The illustration used for all the programs for the modern musical also used this original.

As the complexities increase, Olav also becomes more complex, and he soon tells about his family background and his childhood reading experiences, however difficult reading has been for him.  Soon he and Corina are dreaming of Paris because he has told her the story of Les Miserables and she is infatuated with Cosette and Marius.  Olav is not happy with Victor Hugo’s depiction of Jean Valjean, with whom he personally identifies, so he simply changes Valjean’s story when he tells it to Corina.  Olav is planning the murder of Hoffmann, and he plans it in accord with all the ironies – he will do it at a funeral for someone else.  The twists and reversals which occur at the conclusion, while a “convenient” way to end the novel, bring to mind some of the great, ironic stories of H.H. Monroe, writing as Saki.

I have always enjoyed the novels of Jo Nesbo, and though I have been repulsed by some of the violence inherent in many of them, I have also admired Nesbo’s ability to go in his own direction, wherever his stories take him.  I admire his ability to write and write and write and never “tell the same story twice,” or get bogged down.  Here the prolific Nesbo explores new directions, suggesting more literary approaches and more ironic humor for some future novels, and I am excited about these possibilities for the future. This is a real change of focus and pace here, one which will appeal to those who think it is time for such a change and those who may be wearying of the graphic violence in his earlier work.

Also by Jo Nesbo: THE BAT (1997), COCKROACHES (1998), THE REDBREAST (2000), NEMESIS (2002), THE DEVIL’S STAR (2003), THE REDEEMER (2005). THE SNOWMAN (2007), HEADHUNTERS (2008), THE LEOPARD (2009), PHANTOM (2011), POLICE (2013) , THE SON (2014)

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

Bygdoy Alle may be found on http://www.skyscrapercity.com/

The medieval Old Aker Church and its cemetery, by Noel Lobo, are from https://www.pinterest.com

Bislett Stadium, where Olav met with two accomplices before staging his final murder assignment, appears on http://www.info-stades.fr/

This original illustration for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, by Emile Bayard, was also used for the modern musical programs.  This was the cover for the copy of this book read by Olaf as a child.  http://en.wikipedia.org

Author Chantel Acevedo has been WINNER of the Doris Bakwin Award and WINNER of the Latino International Book Award for two previous novels.

“I was a lector…a cigar factory reader…I’d read for hours entertaining [the workers] as they rolled tobacco.  Shakespeare was a favorite in the tabaquerias…They [also] liked Dumas…They loved The Count of Monte Cristo….Sometimes, however, I would only pretend to read to the cigar rollers.  There I would sit, high in my lector’s chair, five feet over their heads…Then I’d pretend to read from [a book], but what I was really doing was telling my own stories, true stories, about my life.”—Maria Sirena

It is 1963, as the novel opens, and the devastating Hurricane Flora, “bigger than all of Cuba,” is now lashing the island, having already caused devastation throughout Haiti, where it killed five thousand people.  Main character Maria Sirena, age eighty-two, has been forcibly evacuated from her small seaside house by Ofelia, a young revolutionary soldier, who takes her and seven other women to safety on the top floor of Casa Diego Velazquez, the sixteenth century home, now a museum, of the first governor of Cuba. For a couple of days, Maria Sirena rides out the storm with Ofelia and the other women, keeping her companions occupied with stories from her own life and the lives of her parents and grandparents as they lived through Cuba’s various wars for independence from the late nineteenth century to 1963.   She has much experience as a story-teller, having been for many years a lector, a reader hired by a cigar factory to read stories to the workers so that they would not become bored as they hand-made cigars.

Author Chantel Acevedo, a second-generation Cuban American, keeps her focus on the lives of “ordinary” people like Maria Sirena and her fellow guests of the Casa – hardworking folks, often poor, who have struggled all their lives – showing how they have survived and what they have had to do to live.  It is through this personal focus, rather than any detailed historical focus, that three-quarters of a century of modern Cuban revolutionary history emerges for the reader. Born aboard the Thalia in 1881, when her parents were sailing back to Cuba from Boston, after attending a meeting with the exiled leaders of Cuba’s revolutionary movement, Maria Sirena always seemed destined for involvement in revolutionary activities.  Just before the moment of her birth aboard the ship, her father, Agustin, a man with “inherited rage,” confronted the Spanish captain of the ship, and demanded the captain take down the Spanish flag and raise the flag of Cuba’s revolutionary movement so that his child could be born free.  A pistol “thrust under the captain’s jaw” was persuasive.  Later aboard the same ship, omens appear to the baby’s mother, Iluminada Alonso (Lulu), who is convinced that she sees the “dark, wet head of a lady” as that lady is emerging in the wake of the ship.   The lady is claiming Lulu’s baby for herself.  Since Lulu is unsure what kind of deity she is dealing with, Lulu names her child Maria Sirena.

The sinking of the battle ship USS Maine was a rallying point at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The novel develops in kaleidoscopic fashion, with small colorful episodes from various time periods appearing seemingly at random and mixing with other episodes and events from other periods to broaden the reader’s picture of the characters and their lives.  Maria Sirena and the women staying at the Casa Velazquez are one layer of story-telling which remains constant throughout the novel, but within their stories, other layers emerge.  Maria Sirena’s next door neighbor Ada, for example, tells of watching the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, though Maria Sirena’s own memories of the period are quite different.  She herself, just seventeen, had been nursing her baby son Mayito at that climactic moment, which inspires different memories for her. Maria Sirena, we learn, also has a past connection to Casa Velazquez, since her father spent time there as a child when his own mother, Inconsolada, was a governess to the children there.  As Maria Sirena enters Casa Velazquez for protection from the storm, she hears chanting in a foreign language.  She is not surprised that no one else hears it: she knows that the chanting was not her memory but her father’s.

This painting of Jose Marti, poet and hero of the revolution in 1898, is by Rene Mederos.

Later we learn more about Agustin, Maria Sirena’s father, and his imprisonment during the revolutionary period in the late nineteenth century; about Lulu’s connection with Antonio Maceo and famed poet Jose Marti, heroes of the first Cuban revolution; and eventually, more about Maria Sirena, her loves, her life, and, not incidentally, her connection to revolution.  Throughout, she wants the best for her family and always does what she thinks is right, but she is young and often naive when it counts, and her opportunities have been limited.  The arrival of the American investors at the end of the Spanish-American War exacerbates her problems, and her innocent actions, in response, pain her for the rest of her days.  As Maria Sirena tells her own story, it becomes a personal confession, as she says much more than she has ever admitted even to close friends, and the presence of Mireya, who was once a special friend, but who now, mysteriously, has nothing good to say to her at the Casa, adds to her discomfort.   All these story lines overlap and often intersect unexpectedly, providing the reader with a growing portrait of the characters first, and then, connected to those, Cuban history on an epic scale.

A top floor bedroom at the Casa Velazquez, where Maria Sirena and eight others stayed during Hurricane Flora in 1963.

As I reflect back on this novel, I am stunned that the author has been able to include so much within a novel of fewer than three hundred pages.  Her impressionism, her ability to convey so much of the atmosphere within a country for three-quarters of a century of history, her sensitivity to the personal nature of each individual memory as it is revealed by someone who has lived and felt and suffered, and her appreciation of the grandeur of life – on the monumental scale which individuals so seldom appreciate – make this novel unusual and very special.  The chronology of the personal stories, regardless of the actual time period in which they occurred, keeps the narrative tension high, and the interest in the characters at their peak.  The novel, filled with exciting and multilayered action, offers insights into a country which remains full of mysteries to the present day.

The lector at a cigar factory sat or stood in the elevated box in the top right of this photo. Lectors kept the workers from becoming bored by their repetitious tasks. Maria Serena often read Shakespeare and Dumas and took great delight in "reading" her own stories to the workers.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from Auburn University where the author is an Associate Professor.  http://www.cla.auburn.edu

The sinking of the USS Maine, a rallying point for the Spanish-American War, is by an unknown artist:  http://www.savemabel.com/

Poet and revolutionary hero Jose Marti is depicted here by Rene Mederos.  Marti died in battle in 1895.  http://connuestraamerica.blogspot.com

This bedroom on the top floor of the Casa Velazquez may have been a model for the room where Maria Sirena and eight others stayed during Hurricane Flora in 1963.  http://www.youlinmagazine.com

Maria Sirena was a lector, a reader in a cigar factory, hired to keep the workers from becoming bored by their repetitive jobs.  She often read Shakespeare and Dumas, and had great fun “reading” her own work:  http://etc.usf.edu/ The lector stood or sat in the elevated box in the top right of the photo here.

ARC:  Europa Editions



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