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Note: French author Patrick Modiano was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014.  His selection came as such a surprise that there were almost no copies of his novels available in English at the time of his win, a situation which has now been corrected.  This new translation by Mark Polizzotti is published by Yale University Press.

“Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I don’t believe that anything I’ll relate here truly matters to me.  I’m writing these pages the way one compiles a report or resume, as documentation, and to have done with a life that wasn’t my own….I have nothing to confess or elucidate and I have no interest in soul-searching or self-reflection….I lived through [these] events up to the age of twenty-one, as if against a transparency – like in a cinematic process shot, when landscapes slide by in the background while the actors stand in place on a soundstage.”

In this unusual approach to memoir writing, Patrick Modiano (1945 – present) does exactly what he says he will do in the quotation above, presenting all aspects of his life from his earliest memories until he turns twenty-one, without embroidering them, without drawing conclusions about who he is as a result of them, and without moralizing, excusing, or apologizing.  It is as complete a record of his life as he can apparently remember or resurrect from records, with numerous references to people and places that were important to him but that most American readers will not recognize.  The result feels more like an objective research tool for students of Modiano’s work rather than what one finds in memoirs written by other, more loquacious, authors. Though Modiano insists that his novels are fiction, his autobiographical details sometimes work their way into his stories and provide verisimilitude.

Those who have read a novel like Suspended Sentences, for example, cannot help but believe that much, if not most, of that novel is autobiographical. Here in this memoir, however, Modiano gives only the basic outlines of the events at the heart of that novel, and one must believe that the action in this and other novels has been embellished, developed, and described in ways which make for great fiction, whether or not it is completely true.  At age twenty-one, Modiano tells us in the conclusion, he leaves his childhood and early life behind.  His break with his family and the acceptance of his first book for publication inspire him to “set sail before the worm-eaten wharf [can] collapse.”  “La Place de L’Etoile,” his novella published in 1968, gives him his sails:  It is winner of both the Prix Feneon and the Roger Nimier Prize.

Modiano's great-grandfather, a Flemish dockworker, served as the model for this statue by Constantin Meunier, located in the main square in Antwerp

As the author tells us at the beginning of this memoir, his paternal grandfather and his father were both Jewish, a fact that seemed to make little difference in  his father’s under-the-radar existence during the Occupation and life in post-war France.  His mother, the daughter of a hard-working dockworker, was Flemish.  A chorus girl and actress, she was described by her son as “a pretty girl with an arid heart.”  When a fiancé gave her a chow-chow dog, at one point, “she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me.” The chow-chow eventually killed itself by leaping from a window, a result which the author admits “touches me deeply…I feel a great kinship with him.”  (He later illustrates his memoir’s title by describing himself as “a dog who pretends to have a pedigree.”)  His father, who haunted the lower class theatres where he met Patrick’s mother, enjoyed underworld connections, making his living by smuggling petroleum into Paris for sale and other black market activities, from which he sometimes had to escape to live with others to avoid arrest.  Eventually, he spent time in Mexico, Canada, Guyana, Equatorial Africa, and Colombia engaged in “business.”

Modiano's mother had a bit part in this 1949 French comedy, "Rendez-vous in July."

Both parents ignored and often farmed out Patrick, born in 1945, and his younger brother Rudy to caretakers, maintaining little, if any, contact with them.  At one point, the two boys, ages four and one, spent two full years with caretakers in Biarritz, with no parental visits.  Later, he occasionally saw his father, but of his mother, he says, “I cannot recall a single act of genuine warmth or protectiveness from her.”  He skims over his early life with caretaker Suzanne Bouquerau and other circus people, who lived near an old chateau, both of which feature in Suspended Sentences, providing little additional detail in the memoir, saying only that Suzanne was arrested for burglary, at which point Modiano was reclaimed by his father.  At age eleven, Modiano began attending boarding schools, a way of life which did not change during the rest of his education. Modiano’s brother Rudy died a year after Modiano began boarding school, an event which was so traumatic for the author that he says, “Apart from my brother, Rudy, his death, I don’t believe that anything I’ll relate here truly matters to me.”  End of subject, no details.

Modiano's stepmother, "the ersatz Mylene Demongeot," supposedly resembled this famous French actress.

Eventually his parents divorced, and his father married a woman Modiano always refers to as the “ersatz Mylene Demongeot” because she resembled a popular actress. She was even less interested in Patrick than his mother, doing everything possible to keep her husband from having to deal with the responsibilities, especially financial, of parenthood.  Modiano’s late teen years are as traumatic as one would expect for a neglected teen, as he becomes more and more challenging and resentful of his father.  He chooses to live with his now impoverished mother, though they have no real source of income.  The “ersatz Mylene” takes it upon herself to interfere when Modiano goes to his father, desperate for money, and she persuades his father to press charges against his son.

In 1962, Modiano's father enrolled him at the Lycee Henri IV as a full boarder, though his parents lived only a few hundred yards from the school, inspiring a crisis and a new stand by Modiano.

Somehow Modiano survives both of his parents and his “ersatz” stepmother, keeping himself intellectually alive through his contacts with, among others, Boris Vian, Joseph Roth, and eventually Raymond Queneau, who invites him to visit him on Saturdays, occasions in which Modiano, almost twenty-one, discusses the book he is writing and gets advice.  As the memoir winds down and his twenty-first birthday gets closer, Modiano starts summing up his life, confessing to some petty crimes and what he did, on his own, to make amends.  When his a novella called “La Place de L’Etoile” is accepted for publication, Modiano tells us, he gets ready to “set sail,” and when he does, he draws a curtain across that early part of his life, at least emotionally, revisiting it, apparently, only when he wants to use those life experiences in a fictional sense.  Having survived and triumphed, he is now solely in charge of his new life.


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

Modiano’s Belgian grandfather posed for “The Dockworker,” a statue by Constantin Meunier, located in the main square of Antwerp.  http://flickrhivemind.net/

The author’s actress mother had a bit part in “Rendez-vous in July,” a French comedy from 1949.  It was nominated for the Grand Prize in the Cannes Film Festival. http://www.imdb.com/

Modiano’s stepmother, “the ersatz Mylene Demongeot,” supposedly looked like her namesake, this popular French actress. http://en.unifrance.org

When Modiano’s father enrolled him as a full boarding student at the Lycee Henri IV, though the father, mother, and stepmother all lived only a few hundred yards from the school, Modiano rebelled.  He had been living in dorms for the past six years, and he had had enough.   http://www.lefigaro.fr

ARC:  Yale University Press

Note: The Tanizaki Prize is one of Japan’s premier prizes, awarded to a work of fiction or drama each year in honor of author Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965)

“Please consider, Fukuko: I gave you the man who meant more to me than life itself!  And not only that – I gave you everything from that happy household we’d built together as a couple.  I didn’t take so much as a broken teacup away with me.  I didn’t even get back most of the things I brought with me when I married him!…I’ve been beaten up, knocked down, and trampled on.  Considering all I’ve sacrificed, is it too much to ask for one little cat in return?” – letter from Shinako, divorced wife, to Fukuku, new wife.

Irony is too mild a word to describe the twists, surprises, and reversals which bring this book so wildly alive that it is almost impossible to believe the book is not written by a contemporary author. The characters, each of whom is beautifully delineated and brought to life within the limited context of a particular place and imagined time, not only feel real but reflect the universal concerns of human beings around the world, regardless of class or culture. Originally published in 1935-36, the book is as witty, relevant – and, in places, even darkly humorous – as any recent book I can think of, and the novella, from which the book gets its title, and the two stories, with all the imagery they conjure up, constantly reinforce the impression that the author is smirking in the background as we read. Though readers often characterize Japanese literary fiction as being restrained and refined, Tanizaki’s exuberance bursts those bounds and challenges stereotypes, both in tone and in subject matter.  In the three stories in this book, he focuses on ordinary people, not aristocrats, trying to get by as well as they can, a focus which allows the author to use colloquial language and write about earthy and sometimes inelegant subjects.

This photo of Tanizaki with his cat appears on the dust jacket of an earlier edition of this novel, published in 1990, by Kodansha.

“A Cat, A Man, and Two Women,” the main selection, features Shozo, a man who has little idea of who he is, no insights at all into the thinking of his family members, and even less ambition, a man manipulated by his mother, his first wife Shinako, and his second wife Fukuku.  Each night when he comes home from working at the family shop, he has little to say, spending most of his time relaxing and playing with his cat Lily and expecting to be waited on.  Then he feeds Lily mackerel freshly prepared and marinated by his new wife, who doesn’t realize, at first, that she is not really preparing them for her husband.  The narrative line moves back and forth, starting with the letter sent by first wife Shinako to new wife Fukuru pleading to have Lily, both as her only keepsake from her marriage and as a pet to keep her company in the town to which she has moved.  As the action develops, it reveals the machinations of all the people involved in this story, including the abhorrent behavior of Shozo’s own mother regarding his marriages, and the full weakness of Shozo becomes more obvious.  The extremes to which those around him are willing to go in order to get what they want become both amusing and pitiable.  The conclusion guarantees that everyone who reads this will conclude, if they don’t already know this from their own experience, that “Cats rule.”

Tankzaki's house in Kobe is now a museum.

“The Little Kingdom,” a story which raises more thoughtful considerations of themes, begins with the background of Kaijima Shokichi, a thirty-six year-old primary school teacher who has never attained his goals.  His father, a specialist in Chinese studies was his idol, and Kaijima always wanted to be a scholar like him.  Too late, he realizes he should have been an apprentice in some shop.  He is having difficulty supporting his family, and though he has gone to Teachers’ College, he has no advanced study. Unable to cope with pressures of daily life in the city, with his seventh child on the way, he moves to the countryside where he teaches fifth grade.  Though he applies physical punishment sometimes, he is also honest, sincere, and competent.   A new student’s arrival begins the action.  Soon, this student, Numakura Shokichi, is dominating life on the playground, and eventually he becomes “king” of the playground.  Later, when he starts to take over the classroom, even Kaijima must take note.  The obvious parallels between this student and a dictator are clear and, considering the story’s date of 1936, it might have been a warning about growing political dangers.

The spartan room where the author worked.

“Professor Rado,” the most bizarre and absurd of the stories, is also the kinkiest.  A reporter arrives at Professor Rado’s house for an open-ended interview with him as part of a series called “Visits with Eminent Figures in the Academic World.”   When he arrives at twelve-thirty in the afternoon, he learns that the professor is not yet awake.  Looking around, the reporter notes the well cared-for garden, the carefully planted azalea bushes, and the smart, but cozy room arrangement in a western style.  When Rado finally appears, he does so in clothing so dirty that even the pattern cannot be determined.  His eyes are puffy, his flesh is swollen, and he constantly belches. When asked a question, he merely grunts, and when the reporter mentions  that he has heard that the professor is leaving his job, he is rebuffed.  When the reporter is departing, he glimpses a young girl in nightclothes, bathing, and when he peeks into the professor’s study from the outside, what he sees is shocking, even to him.  Several years pass and the reporter, now at the arts desk of the newspaper sees the professor by accident at Asakusa Park, where a variety troupe is performing at one of the theaters.  When the reporter speaks to him, the professor asks him for information about one of the dancers.  He wonders if she is deaf, if she has a terrible deforming disease, and why she does not speak in the theater.  The reporter obliges.  Later he learns just how odd the professor’s lifestyle really  is.

The reporter finds Prof. Rado at a theater watching a variety troupe in Asakusa Park, years after first meeting him. This photo from 1937 shows what the area looked like before the war.

In this latter story, the twists are particularly strange, and the question of who is the true voyeur or  fetishist remains unanswered.  Though the professor certainly qualifies for both, the reporter is obviously a voyeur in his actions, and ultimately the reader becomes a voyeur as well.  Ultimately, all three stories concern themselves with the subjects of dominance and subservience, with power and how to achieve and use it, and with the psychology which makes dominance over others both possible and plausible.  Whether Tanizaki is using a kind of dark humor, as he does in “A Cat, A Man, and Two Women,” a psychological approach as he does in “The Little Kingdom,” or a bizarre erotic interlude, as he does in “Professor Rado,” his themes are similar, his execution is unparalleled, and his characters and their behavior are unforgettable.

ALSO by Tanizaki:  SOME PREFER NETTLES,  the story of a marriage (1928).

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on the back of the book jacket of the 1990 edition this book by Kodansha.  A Japanese website says that this photo was taken by famed Japanese photographer Yoshio Watanabe (1907 – 2000).

The Tanizaki House in Kobe was photographed by 663Highland and posted on https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Tanizaki’s study from his memorial museum is seen on http://www.tripadvisor.com/

The theaters in Asakusa Park, where the reporter found Prof. Rado years after first meeting him, appear in this 1937 photo.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

“Imagine it like a football game.  On the red team, young nationalists.  On the blue team, the Ertzaintza [the Basque police].  They agree to unspoken rules.  Broken windows are OK.  Broken bones are fair game.  Graffiti is acceptable, as are rubber bullets and tear gas.  An unjust or overly lengthy prison sentence was against the rules.  Killing, by either side, was always against the rules.”

Author Gabriel Urza, whose family roots are Basque, lived in the Basque country himself for several years after college before returning to his birthplace in the U.S. to write and practice law, a background which gives this debut novel a sense of atmosphere, a feeling of strong roots, and a sense of the social and political vagaries which sometimes lead to crimes of passion and violence.  To set the scene within Spain politically, the author opens and closes the novel with descriptions on a much broader scale – the 2004 bombing of the Atocha train station, outside of Madrid, which killed one hundred ninety-one people and wounded eighteen hundred, the deadliest terrorist attack in Spanish history.  Coming as it did just three days before Spain’s general elections, it was widely assumed to have been committed by the ETA, the Basque separatist and nationalist movement known for violence.

The Atocha train bombing, mentioned at the novel’s beginning and end, serves primarily to “bookend” the real action here in the small town of Muriga.  When Basque terrorists were thought to have been responsible, the town “changed its dialogue to set itself apart from the terrorists.” Muriga officials “spoke as if it were impossible to consider that this monstrous act might have been carried out by their sons, their nieces, their neighbors.  Anything to distance themselves.”  And when the terrorists were found instead to have been four Islamists from Morocco, some Basques considered this to be “wonderful news.”  All That Followed develops this ironic “relief” of some Basque citizens by showing how their insensitivity may have evolved from their own history, which, in some ways, may have inured them to such violence.  Here Urza concerns himself primarily with ordinary life in the Basque country, punctuated by episodes of violence, much of it political, during the course of the sixty years leading up to the Madrid bombing.  This far narrower, more manageable focus illustrates the world of terror “writ small,” showing how partisan ideas and ideals develop into violence, often at random, and impact individuals, families, and the future on a more understandable scale.

The Atocha train bombing, which killed one hundred ninety-one people and wounded eighteen hundred, the deadliest terrorist attack in Spanish history, occurred on March 11, 2004. Photo by Nicholas Mirzoeff.

The novel, character driven, is told in the voices of three residents of Muriga – Joni Garrett, an elderly American who came to Muriga in 1948 to teach at a local school and never went home; Mariana Zelaia, widow of Jose Antonio Torres, a government official murdered six years before the bombing; and Iker Abarzuza, convicted of Jose Antonio’s murder when he was eighteen, a young man confined to the Salto del Negro Prison in the Canary Islands for the past six years.  Each of these characters places a different importance on the present, and as each ponders his/her life, the author maintains a kind of other-worldly atmosphere, shifting the action among the different “presents” as experienced by the main characters.  Joni, for example, is an old man whose life between 1948, when he arrived in Muriga and the early 1950s, when he married, is, for him, the best time of his life, a time which he remembers as vividly as if it were still the present.  Nothing since then means much to him.

The Ertzaintza, the Basque police, masked, detain a suspect.

Mariana’s marriage was not happy, and an affair was not satisfying.  She identifies with childhood stories of a witch who was burned to death during the Inquisition, a woman who was thought to have been in league with the devil.  She herself has had a kidney transplant, after which she experiences a kind of déjà vu, a sense of the supernatural which leads her to believe that part of her personality is now controlled by her kidney’s donor, whom she believes was an ETA terrorist.  Her biggest goal is to identify the donor with certainty.  Iker Abarzuza’s young life essentially ended when he was arrested and convicted of murder as a teenager.  As the novel flashes between his youthful innocence, with his goal of going on to school, and contrasts it with his present life in prison, where he still has twenty-two more years left on his sentence, his missed chances and his wasted “present” now dominate his life.  He is grateful for even the tiny connections he still has with those he once knew in Muriga.  Like Joni, his former teacher, he is controlled by the past he wishes he had had.

The ETA, masked, holds a press conference in 2012, and announces that they have approved a cease fire and that this may be their last action as an organization.

As the narrative moves among these three characters and their acquaintances in Muriga, the many gaps in the overall story, which help animate the novel’s suspense and interest, get filled in, but because these characters have seen life from such different perspectives, the exact “truth” about what really happens, at various points, is never quite clear.  The author lets the characters provide insights, from which each reader, perhaps, will formulate his/her own truth.

Some details of setting add a sense of history which puts the characters’ reactions to events into perspective while also providing important background information about the Basque country:  The school where Joni teaches, now filled with

Salto del Negro, a prison in the Canary Islands, is where Iker has spent the past six years, with twenty-two years left to go.

children, was once, ironically, a Republican army barracks.  Mariana notes that her grandparents and later her parents were forbidden to speak their native Euskera language for over fifty years, and that many writers and intellectuals were “lost to Franco’s prisons and graveyards.”  Iker and his three rebellious teenage friends meet in an old graffiti-covered bunker left over from the Civil War (1936-1939).  There, their leader Ramon tells them inspiring stories about “the Basques’ last stand against the dictator’s army…the greatest kind of courage.” Later Iker learns that these are untrue, but “we were looking for outrage in those days; we were looking for martyrs.”

With his multiple points of view, well-drawn characters, shifting time frames, atmospheric style, and unusual historical perspective, Urza has developed a sensitive and often moving novel about a part of the world which is only now beginning to receive literary attention.  Though the subject matter of the novel might have been treated sensationally, Urza instead lets his story lines evolve subtly.  The dramatic conclusion adds a stunning coda to the action.

ALSO set in Basque country:  Bernardo Atxaga’s THE ACCORDIONIST’S SON, Atxaga’s OBABAKOAK, Manuel de Lope’s THE WRONG BLOOD

Mariana and her lover’s wife take a hike in the Aiako Harria park refuge

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://us.macmillan.com/allthatfollowed

The Atocha train bombing in 2004, by Nicholas Mirzoeff, is from http://www.nicholasmirzoeff.com/

The Ertzaintza, the Basque police, photo by Ekin Klik can be found on http://www.ekinklik.org and https://commons.wikimedia.org

The ETA press conference in which they  announce their 2012 cease fire, perhaps their final action as an organization, is featured here:  https://thebluereview.org/

The Salto del Negro Prison in the Canary Islands isolates Iker so that he sees someone from home only once a year.  http://ondafuerteventura.es/[caption id="attachment_27962"

The Aiako Harria park refuge is where Mariana takes her lover’s wife for a hike: http://almonteparaque.blogspot.com/

ARC: HHolt

Jack Livings–THE DOG

Note: This collection was this year’s  WINNER of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and was NOMINATED for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize.

“If there’s going to be a battle over who’s got more Chinese pride, I want to be on the side that destroyed feudalism and liberated the peasants, not the side that oppressed the masses.  I’m just saying, if it weren’t for the Red Guards, we wouldn’t be here today….You think you’d be wearing gel in your hair and silk boxers [otherwise]?  You’d be dragging a plow while some landlord beat you with a cane.” – Slick Lips, “An Event at Horizon Trading Company.”

Although Jack Livings’s experiences in China were in the 1990s, when he was a student and then an English teacher, the life he lived there and the knowledge he gained from his conferences with students about their writing have stood him in good stead with this stunning and dramatic story collection.  As he tells the Wall Street Journal, the title story, “The Dog,” is a story told to him by one of his students, a story he embellishes in his own writing here, about a weekend trip to the countryside taken by his student and her family.  Also on the trip was her father’s cousin Zheng, a sleazy operator in the import/export business who “moved in dangerous circles” in the city and who brought with him a dog which he owned jointly with her father.  They had been using the dog for gambling in illegal dog races in Beijing, but because of a government crackdown, the men need to get rid of the dog;  hence, the weekend trip to the countryside and a planned family barbecue.

The bleak ironies and absurdities of this story and its surprising descriptions epitomize the author’s style as he creates seven additional stories of personal crisis from all parts of China, including some areas and cultures with which most of us in the West are unfamiliar.  “The Heir,” the second story, takes place in Ganjiakou, a subdistrict of Beijing where Omar, a Uyghur from Mongolia, and his henchmen run the market known as Uyghurville, taking on the hated Chinese whenever necessary.  Even Omar fears his men, however. “Not to expect treachery from [them] would have been to display a gross misunderstanding of human nature.” Omar is hoping his twenty-five-year-old grandson Anwher will rise to help him in the continuing fight for leadership and control.  All Anwher wants, however, is to escape to Urumqi, a Chinese city just west of the border with Mongolia, almost two thousand miles northwest of Beijing, populated by Uyghurs and Chinese Muslims.  The capture and torture of Anwher and the behavior of Omar show the conflicts within these culturally different groups and the difficulty of survival for anyone who is “different.”

Urumqi, a city of two million Mongolian people, about two thousand miles NW of Beijing, is the dream of Anwher in "The Heir"

Throughout these stories, the author continually blurs the lines between victim and intimidator, while also varying his styles and approach to his material.  In  “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire,” a vibrant satire which takes place in the newsroom of the Guangzhou Post, Ning, a staid and comfortable veteran with forty years’ experience must write a retirement speech for someone he does not admire, at the same time that he is dealing with a generational conflict with a youngster who has poached the big story to which he has devoted much research.  Black humor abounds.

“Donate” tells of Yang, a relatively wealthy factory owner living in a “suburb” when an earthquake hits.  By the time the news of the quake hits the newspapers, “Most people were lost in their own thoughts and looked to Yang [like] a bunch of unplugged televisions.”  His daughter comes home from school and wants a donation, but she has no idea of who will oversee its use. Other groups soon sponsor their own fund-raising programs, which quickly spark a competition among the most successful businessmen to maintain their honor with large donations.  Yang donates blood, and the next day is encouraged to donate plasma, too, while also donating even more money and finally offering to match donations at his company.  His only requirement is that the money go to the Red Cross and not to those who regard donations as personal bribes.  No one is ever satisfied here.

“The Crystal Sarcophagus,” perhaps the most involving and impressive story, begins in September 1976, with the death of Chairman Mao.  Zhou Yu-qing, who works at the Glass Institute along with forty other of the best glass workers in the country, has been summoned for a meeting where the Vice Mayor announces that “As a reward for your exemplary service to the People’s Republic, you are instructed to build the crystal sarcophagus of the founder of the People’s Republic, Chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong!”  Then he announces that this goal must be met within ten months.  The sarcophagus must be earthquake proof, glare-proof, airtight, and most important, “the crystal must be pure to 99.9999 percent.” The craftsmen work with gloves that are burning, some go almost blind from fumes, others are injured by accumulating vapors, and there are endless failures.  When the sarcophagus is finished, even the reader wonders whether it was worth the efforts.

Academics wearing Hanfu clothing, a reminder of traditions and old styles, seen in "An Event at Horizon Trading"

“An Event at Horizon Trading Company,” the only first person story, is told in profane and conversational language and features more dark humor, as many employees decide to emulate the boss when they discover he was at a traditional Hanfu ceremony.  Before long, the majority of employees are wearing long traditional Hanfu robes in a nationalistic style.  Two rebels, however, decide to wear revolutionary red star liberation caps, olive green Zhongshan suits, and brown belts, and carry Mao’s Little Red Book in their chest pockets, in revenge.  Once again, irony rules and individualism fails.

Unique descriptions enhance the clarity and precision of the language and add impact to the themes.  Ning, the old man in “Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire,” asks a smart-alecky woman, “Is it mating season for your species?” A ten-year-old purse-snatcher in “The Pocketbook” is “wastewater wrung from the sponge of the world.”  The workers building the crystal sarcophagus “would attack [the job] blindly, with full red hearts like a cavalry riding directly into enemy cannons.”  In “Switchback,” where there is an accident in which a bike rider is killed by a cargo truck, “a pack of old Muslim ladies whose faces were studies in erosion” emerged from the back.  Livings is a master of technique, style, and thematic development who has used his experience from twenty years ago in this gem of a story collection.  I can hardly wait for him to put his experience of living in contemporary America over the past twenty years to use in writing a future novel.

The departure area for Beijing Airport

Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://article.wn.com

Urumqi, near the Mongolian border, and populated by Uyghurs, is shown on http://chinaedition.com

The earthquake in Wenchuan appears on http://www.zimbio.com

Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, with its crystal coffin, may be found on http://www.oaklandcemeteryburials.com/

Traditional Hanfu clothing, worn here by academics, became popular with employees of the Horizon Trading Company in the story of that name:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanfu

The departure area of the Beijing airport is shown on http://www.flightcentre.com

ARC: Picador

Note: Dario Fo was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, though he had never written a book.  Instead, he was recognized by the Nobel Committee for his more than forty plays, his acting, his directing and his “emulation of the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.”  This biographical novel is his first novel.

“If we remove the story of Pope Alexander VI and his family from its context in Renaissance Italy, what we get is a shocking saga in which all the leading characters act without regard for their adversaries and quite often each other. At every twist and turn, the victim destined for sacrifice, ever since she was a child is Lucrezia.  It is she who is tossed into the gaping maw of financial and political interests by both her father and her brother, without a qualm.  What the lovely young maiden might think or feel is of no concern.  After all, she’s just a female…”—from “Jumping feet-first into the mud,” the Preamble to the novel.

Over the years, Italian author Dario Fo has made no secret of the fact that he believes that Lucrezia Borgia (1480 – 1519), the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, does not deserve her murderous reputation of more than five hundred years. Her father, the Pope, formerly known as Rodrigo Borgia, was often manipulative, acting in response to the changing political landscape, and Lucrezia’s brother Cesare, also the Pope’s son, was even more self-serving – a murderer of anyone in his path to success.  Fo believes that Lucrezia was not only intelligent and incisive in her insights into politics, but also innocent of the crimes which have made the Borgia name synonymous with treachery and danger.  Still considered by many students of the Italian Renaissance to be a power-hungry madwoman, a poisoner of her enemies, and a lover of her brother, Lucrezia Borgia gains new respect in this sympathetic portrait by Fo, who admires her insights into the nature of power and how it may be used to benefit society – as well as herself.

As his main characters travel to various seats of power throughout late fifteenth century Italy, Fo’s series of vignettes, set within many changes of time and scenery, immediately establish an iconoclastic approach to Lucrezia Borgia’s story, which bears little resemblance to a classically structured and plotted historical novel and even less to a serious research paper, despite Fo’s bibliography at the end.  The Pope’s Daughter begins, in fact, with a Preamble which Fo entitles “Jumping feet-first into the mud,” immediately establishing a relaxed, conversational tone, which is further enhanced by the author’s own painted variations of period portraits which provide a fresher, more modern perspective on the characters.  Throughout, the author chats with the reader, explaining in often colloquial language what is happening, which makes the story feel more comfortable than it might be otherwise, and allows the reader to see obvious parallels between what is happening in the late 1400s throughout Italy and what is happening in present day international politics.

Pope Alexander VI, formerly Rodrigo Borgia, father of Lucrezia and Cesare.

Lucrezia Borgia, age twelve, and Cesare Borgia, age sixteen, when their “uncle,” Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, ascends to the Papacy, become the linchpins of this novel of battles, betrayals, murders, and massacres.  Rodrigo Borgia has hidden his role as the father of these and two other children, and it is only his election as Pope which leads him to his acknowledge his paternity, and eventually to appoint his son Cesare to his position as an archbishop in Valencia.  Lucrezia, at thirteen, is married off to Giovanni Sforza, an arranged marriage which lasts only until someone finds him “inconvenient.”   Italy is fighting off constant threats to independent rule from Spain and France, and with the perpetual infighting among the various dukes who control the major cities of Italy – Venice, Florence, Milan, Ferrara, Naples – no one can ever be quite sure who is a friend and who is dedicated to usurping someone else’s rule.

"On August 11, 1492, the artillery of Castel Sant'Angelo were fired to remind Rome and the world that a new pontiff had been elected...Alexander VI." Castel Sant'Angelo , the round building on the left side, was the place where Hadrian was entombed in A.D.138. The painting is by Caspar Van Wittel (1653 – 1746).

Two more marriages and a couple of affairs to powerful men eventually lead Lucrezia to Ferrara, where she plans to avoid most of the horrors of Roman politics. Here she can act as a patron of famous artists while also helping her father, the Pope, in some of his efforts to combat corruption.  As a Vicaress, she addresses the College of Cardinals and at one point acts on behalf of the Pope in his absence, and the author clearly believes that she has acted with good intentions and has not been associated with the actions of her brother.  Cesare Borgia, by contrast, is the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince, a man who acts expediently and allies himself with whoever can help him advance his own political and financial agendas.  He plays upon his father’s position in his relationships with military leaders and uses that connection to advance his own career.  There are hints that he even has a hand in his younger brother’s murder and in the massacre of many leaders from other influential families whom he invited to a meeting in which they would all discuss peace but from which no one else would survive.

Portrait of Cesare Borgia by Altobello Melone

The death of Pope Alexander II and the eventual election of the Borgias’ bitterest enemy, who became known as Julius II, signals the beginning of the end for Cesare, who is now “simply a political annoyance, and therefore has to be eliminated.”  Lucrezia shows her true colors when she raises an army of mercenaries to fight the Venetians, a move which leads famed poet Pietro Bembo, who loves her, to say, “You sound like a soldier of fortune organizing an army!  You’re extraordinary, Lucrezia, your life is a shining example, a great and lasting lesson for me!”

Built between 64 and 68 A.D. by the Emperor Nero, this residence was thought so extravagant that his successors stripped it of its valuables and buried it under tons of rubble. Rediscovered during the Renaissance, the Domus Aurea excited Lucrezia Borgia when she visited it with her father.

With a plot abbreviated to the point that most readers will have some questions at the end of the action regarding exactly who did what to whom and why, Dario Fo has succeeded in creating a real but flawed person out of the information he presents.  Few readers will fail to see parallels between this political action and its on-going warfare, and similar behavior and political activity in the present day, and  the insights into Machiavellian intrigue on the grand scale which we see here with Cesare Borgia will stick in the reader’s mind especially for its contrast with the late-in-life behavior of Lucrezia herself and her own surprising conclusion:  “I hope that this life will make you think festively of the wonder of being alive.”

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

The photo of Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, is found here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Castel Sant’Angelo, by Guiseppe Zocchi.  ”On August 11, 1492, the artillery of Castel Sant’Angelo were fired to remind Rome and the world that a new pontiff had been elected…Alexander VI.” Castel Sant’Angelo was the place where Hadrian was entombed in A.D.138.   It is the round building on the left side, by Caspar Van Wittel (1653 – 1746).

The portrait of Cesare Borgia, by Altobello Mellone, is seen here:  https://en.wikipedia.org

Lucrezia meets her father secretly at the Domus Aurea after refusing to go to Rome because she did not want to see her brother Cesare.  It had been recently uncovered after being buried for 1500 years.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

ARC: Europa

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