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“The chessboard has been my mean of artistic expression: the canvas on which I painted, my musician’s staff, the blank page for my poetry. My devotion has been such that I have been compelled to play even in the most abject conditions. While bedridden due to illness, I kept myself alive by re-creating entire games in my mind. I have played in the darkness of a cell, I have played while hungry and cold…[and even] on the eve of being sent before a firing squad. Chess has been the star that guided me…”—Alexandre Alekhine, chess champion of the world.

cover maurensigOn March 24, 1946, fifty-four-year-old world chess champion Alexandre Alekhine* was found dead in his hotel room at the famed Hotel do Parque in Estoril, Portugal. He had been living there alone for two months during the off-season, first awaiting news of a worthy opponent and then awaiting the details regarding a future match. As Italian author Paolo Maurensig develops this story, Alekhine’s life in several different countries under several different governments begins to unfold, and the suspicious circumstances in which his body was found lead to the inescapable conclusion that this death may not have been an accident. Alekhine was fully dressed and wearing a heavy coat as he sat in his overheated room, apparently eating a meal, though he had attended a full dinner in his honor that same night. The journalist who reported on his death in the Portuguese press, Artur Portela, did so in the face of strong censorship and the influence of the secret police of long-time ruler Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, which promptly ended the investigation, making no comment at all, which led some to wonder about their own possible involvement in Alekhine’s death. Others pushed the idea that his death was suicide.

Author Paolo Maurensig.

Author Paolo Maurensig.

Portela’s reports on some of the inconsistencies regarding Alekhine’s death and the gossip surrounding it, suggest that the death might have been part of an international conspiracy. The Russians, under whose aegis Alekhine had lived as a child and young man, were furious at the negative public comments he had made about “new” Russian chess strategies and moves which had changed the nature of the chess game, as exemplified by the newest Soviet chess stars, and they were unsure of whether they wanted to continue to take credit for his world-wide success or take organized action against him and his career. The French considered Alekhine a collaborator for his actions during the German Occupation. The Nazis, who had ruled occupied France while Alekhine lived there, exercised control over him in the aftermath by threatening to release and use statements of his anti-Semitism, which he claimed that he had made under duress in order to play chess. The White Russians would not forgive him because he had worked during the Revolution with the ministry which appropriated the assets of those Russians who had emigrated.   Even his four ex-wives and his alienated children had given up on him. In short, he had no friends, lived only to play chess, and considered his work on strategies to be an art form, rather than a series of mathematical actions and reactions.

Hotel do Parque, where Alekhine stayed as the only guest for the month of January, 1946.

Hotel do Parque in Estoril, Portugal, where Alekhine stayed as the only guest for the month of January, 1946.

Even his first month in Estoril, totally alone as the hotel’s only guest, offered no relaxation. He stayed up all night, ate raw meat while studying chess moves, and occasionally walked to the lighthouse or the beach. He was so short of cash that he was unable to play in a London tournament, and he had to cut down on his drinking and reduce his cigarette consumption to “only” forty cigarettes a day. His doctor had said that his liver was in such bad shape that he might last only a year if he did not act more carefully. When he hears violin music coming from the room next door, he reaches out to befriend the musician, David Newmann, who will be playing at the Lisbon Philharmonic the following week. He also meets a new couple at dinner, Jorge Correira and his wife. While he is anxious to hike with the musician Neumann along the water, he recognizes a note of falsity in Jorge Correira’s questions in the dining room and wonders why Correira is so interested in his past. He wonders if Correira might have been the person who left a packet of disturbing newspaper articles and photographs outside his door. The photographs of Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials include one person who had been the Reichminister of Poland, someone with whom Alekhine and his then-wife had visited.

Alexandre Alekhine, world chess champion

Alexandre Alekhine  (1892 – 1946), world chess champion

In one revealing personal reminiscence, Alekhine relates how chess saved him from imminent execution, though it led to the death of his brother. As the book continues, however, it loses its momentum, to some extent, with pages devoted to his marriages, which are not relevant to the action; philosophical passages in which the mysterious Correira lectures ominously about the nature of good and evil and free will; some blatantly anti-Semitic commentary by various characters; and observations about several secret service agencies and spies from different countries who are hiding both inside and Alekhine’s hotel. While these may add to the atmosphere and illustrate some of the deadly rivalries among different political movements and Alekhine’s relationship with them, they do not advance the narrative. Part of the problem here is that the author, Maurensig, is not able to find enough new information about Alekhine to bring this unlikeable man to life in any sort of sympathetic way. Alekhine has done whatever is most expedient on every occasion in which he has had to make a choice, playing his life as if it is a chess game in which making certain sacrifices will let him win at great cost, but win, nevertheless – his primary goal. A celebratory dinner in Alekhine’s honor goes awry when the suspicious Correira becomes a speaker.

Alexandre Alekhine, left, playing against Efim Bogoljubov, 1934.

Alexandre Alekhine, left, playing against Efim Bogoljubov, 1934. (He won, for the second time.)

The last twenty pages, “The Final Secret,” return the novel to the narrator/author as he explains some final information which he has received many years later from a former war correspondent, now an old man, about the discovery of Alekhine’s body, the “testimony” of a former member of Salazar’s secret police regarding what the body looked like, and an exhumation. Whether any or none of these statements are real is uncertain. What is certain is that Maurensig did manage to keep this reader, who is not a chess fanatic, engaged and interested in a book in which the main character is unlikeable; lives in a complicated political milieu in which he treats life and people dispassionately – as if they are all simply a part of his own game of life; and remains at the end of the novel as much of a mystery as he was at the beginning, and he does this within a novel in which every main character is male, a fact which is so unusual these days, that it is notable.

"Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog" by Caspar David Friederich, 1818, is a painting which Alekhine remembers in a poignant moment as he is walking with Neumann, who is ahead of him, one of the few emotional moments we see from Alekhine in this novel.

“Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friederich, 1818, is a painting which Alekhine remembers in a poignant moment as he is walking with Neumann, who is ahead of him, one of the few emotional moments we see from Alekhine in this novel. Click to enlarge.

*Note:  To be consistent with the book, I am using the spelling of “Alexandre,” instead of “Alexander,” the English spelling.

Photos:   The author’s photo is found on https://www.goodreads.com/

The postcard of Portugal’s venerable Hotel do Parque is from https://arquivodigital.cascais.pt

Alexandre Alekhine, world chess champion, is the subject of a well researched bio on Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Included in the Wikipedia bio of Alekhine, is this picture of Alekhine defending his world chess championship in 1934.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

As Neumann is walking with Alekhine along the cliff beach, he sees him as a real friend, one of his only friends, a memorable, poignant moment for him, which reminds him of the 1818 Caspar David Friederick painting, “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.”  https://literarylife.org/

THEORY OF SHADOWS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Biography, France, Germany, Russia/Soviet Union, Portugal, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Paolo Maurensig
Published by: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Date Published: 01/16/2018
ISBN: 978-0374273804
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

 

“July is the fireworks season. A whole world, on the brink of extinction, was sending up one last flurry of sparks beneath the foliage and the paper lanterns. People jostled each other, they spoke in loud voices, laughed, pinched each other nervously. You could hear glasses breaking, car doors slamming. The exodus was beginning…Smoke rises from the chimneys: people are burning their old papers before absconding. They don’t want to be weighed down by useless baggage.”—Paris, as the Occupation begins in earnest, 1940, from The Night Watch.

cover occupation trilogyThe three novels of the Occupation Trilogy, La Place de L’Etoile (1968), The Night Watch (1969), and Ring Roads (1972) are Patrick Modiano’s first three novels, published when he was twenty-two, twenty-three, and twenty-six years old, and they made the literary world wake up and pay attention – not only because they were so finely written (and were winners of three major literary prizes) but because of their youthful energy and the fact that Modiano illustrated and addressed directly the issue of French collaboration with the Germans during the Occupation from 1940 – 1944. Though more than twenty-five years had passed since the Occupation, this was an issue which had been avoided in French literature for almost all of the years which Modiano himself (1945 – present) was alive. Instead, postwar writers in France specialized in experimental new styles – the theatre of the absurd, surrealism, and existentialism, for example – as these more abstract styles evolved from the postwar horrors and saved them from having to address collaboration directly. Modiano had special reasons for wanting to know more about the Occupation. His father, a blackmarketeer during the war who was reputedly part of the Rue Lauriston Gang, had essentially abandoned him to the care of circus acrobats for his early childhood (until the acrobats were arrested for illegal activities), and he sees the war and its aftermath as major factors in his father’s later continuing absence from his life. Growing up without a mother (an actress who traveled the world) or a father, he transmits his feelings directly in these narratives in which several speakers tells stories of real life, which parallel his own feelings and, sometimes, circumstances from his own life.

Patrick Modiano in his early twenties.

Patrick Modiano in his early twenties.

La Place d’Etoile (1968), Modiano’s debut novel at age twenty-two, explodes with the pent-up creative energy of an immature but sensitive young man, highly educated in literary traditions but perhaps naive about the implications of some of the philosophies he has espoused. Within a maelstrom of wild activity, Modiano creates a narrator, Raphael Schlemilovich, a young Jew turned Nazi sympathizer, who quickly reveals himself as unreliable as he advocates his ideas, lives or imagines a life for himself, explores literary movements, travels, and draws conclusions based on his (very) limited personal experience. All these ideas and many of the (real) people Schlemilovich mentions here existed in the waning days of World War II in which much of France was cooperating with the Gestapo and punishing their own citizens for believing in freedom. Though Modiano himself was born after this period, he sees it as part of his own life, believing that his father’s disinterest in him originated somehow during the war years, and that his father’s illegal activities have continued for years after the war was over.

cover place de'l'etoileFilled with the kind of imagination which young writers delight in exploring, Modiano here “lets things fly,” creating one of the wildest debut novels I have ever read as he obviously imagines himself in the role of Schlemilovich, committing every crime, betraying anyone who crosses him, and acting on every resentment that a talented, but personally neglected, twenty-two-year-old author might harbor against the rest of the world. Modiano does, however, reveal much from his own life through the voice of his narrator – his love of writing and fine literature, his difficulties with an absent father and equally absent actress mother, his enduring sense of irony and, remarkably, his humor.  It is through these qualities that a sense of reality does intrude within the obvious fantasy of this picaresque and out-of-this-world novel. A full review of La Place de L’Etoile, with photos, may be found at this link.

Patrick Modiano at age 24.

Patrick Modiano at age 24.

The Night Watch (1969), set during that fraught period between the German occupation of France during World War II and the liberation which came four years later, is Patrick Modiano’s second novel, written when he was just twenty-three years old. This novel incorporates as his main character a young man, much like himself, who is at a total loss about what to do with his life. Describing the character as someone who “started out a pure and innocent soul,” he admits that his “innocence got lost along the way.” The people who are in contact with him now are criminals and former policemen, including an official now known as the Khedive, who  operate a “detective agency” from which they are collecting protection money. The Khedive, who still has important contacts throughout the police department, has high hopes himself of eventually becoming “Monsieur le Prefet de Police.” The young main character, known only as “Swing Troubadour,” does dirty work for this group, sometimes referred to as “The Night Watch,” while earning a huge salary for his work. Possessing a warrant card and a gun license, the young man is ordered to infiltrate a “ring” of enemies and destroy it.

cover night watchThough Modiano’s style here is more controlled, much less frantic, than it was in La Place de L’Etoilewritten just the previous year, his use of a real plot in The Night Watch is still subject to quick changes of focus, time, and place. Living in an elegant house which he and the Khedive’s group have appropriated from a wealthy man who has escaped from France, Swing Troubadour, has helped sell off artwork, engaged in theft, committed beatings, and even participated in murder for “The Night Watch.” The conclusion, when it finally arrives, is suggested, rather than described in full, leaving the reader with mixed feelings. The rapid-fire narrative and its attendant flashes back and forth come to an end, not through any specific action, but because the author has decided that the highly flawed Swing Troubadour, who has touched the lives of his readers in some ways, now needs to travel the rest of the narrative on his own.  A full review of The Night Watch, with photos, may be found by clicking this link.

ring roadsThe third book in the trilogy, Ring Roads (1972) switches between two time periods, ten years apart, in an attempt to reconcile aspects of what Modiano has learned about his father, and, perhaps, himself. The novel opens with a speaker observing a photograph of three men at a bar, one of whom is his father, Chalva Deyckecaire, sometimes referred to as “Baron.” As he studies the three men, their posture, clothing, and jewelry, he imagines their positions real life relative to each other, concluding that his father is less important than the others. They are all living in a pretty village near the Forest of Fontainebleu, apparently in houses abandoned temporarily by their owners who have left to escape the war – large and elaborate houses filled with objets d’art, paintings, and antiques of all types. “There’s something suspicious about the whole thing,” the speaker remarks. “Who are these people? Where have they sprung from?” Within this milieu, the speaker becomes more familiar with his father and engages in suspicious activities with him. At one point, Chalva, the father, is selling counterfeit stamps, as his son, narrator Serge Alexandre, is having great success inscribing dedications from one famous author to another in the frontispieces of rare books which he sells at enormous prices. A dramatic event involving the speaker and his father at a Metro station dramatically ends their relationship.

Author Patrick Modiano at his Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm in 1914.

Author Patrick Modiano at his Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm in 2014.

Without warning, time and reality shift, this time to ten years into the future, as the speaker has decided to look for his father once again, reconnecting with the criminal group and learning that his father acts as the front man for the trio. The speaker now realizes that any attempt to save his father is futile, and as he asserts himself, he, too, comes under the influence of the time and place in which this gang operates. He quickly learns that double-crosses are in process and that even human life is not sacred. Much of Modiano’s work incorporates parallels between the lives of his narrators, the actions of his protagonists, and the information Modiano himself has learned about his own family, but considering the literary milieu in which Modiano is living and writing, one in which the expressionists, the surrealists, and the existentialists are all experimenting with time, the missing connections in the conclusion here seem a small price to pay in this prizewinning novel by a twenty-six-year-old in search of himself. A full review of Ring Roads, with photos, may be found here

cover-suspended-sentencesNote:  Readers unfamiliar with Modiano may find that the best place to start reading this addictive author is with SUSPENDED SENTENCES, which gives much information about Modiano’s life as a young child.  The Yale University Press edition of the book also includes two other novellas which show the author as a teen and as a college student – a easy introduction to the author for readers new to Modiano here at this link.

Photos.  The book covers are all from Amazon.com.

The first photo of a very young Patrick Modiano comes from https://www.newstatesman.com/

The second photo of the young Patrick is from https://www.goodreads.com

Patrick Modiano at his Nobel Prize ceremony appears on https://www.nytimes.com/

THE OCCUPATION TRILOGY (La Place de L'Etoile, The Night Watch, and Ring Roads)
REVIEW. PHOTOS. France, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408867907
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Murraille, Marcheret, Maud Gallas, Sylviane Quimphe…I take no pleasure in setting down their life stories. Nor am I doing it for the sake of the story, having no imagination. I focus on these misfits, these outsiders, so that, through them, I can catch the fleeting image of my father. About him, I know almost nothing. But I will think something up.”—Serge Alexandre, speaker.

cover occupation trilogyThose who are familiar with the novels of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano will immediately empathize with the references to the “unknown” father of the speaker in this novel. It is a recurring image throughout all of Modiano’s work, as it has been throughout his life. What he (and we) know from his later work is that he was the son of an actress who was away performing all over the world during his early childhood. His father was a man who, during World War II and afterward, cooperated with the French Gestapo as a blackmarketeer and blackmailer, a member of the famed French Rue Lauriston gang. As he shows in his most explicitly biographical novel Suspended Sentences (1988), Modiano and his younger brother Rudy were given by their parents to a group of circus acrobats to be raised when they were very young children, and they lived with them for several years until the acrobats were arrested for their own illegal activities – before Modiano had even reached his teen years. At this point, he was sent to boarding schools and rarely, if ever, saw his parents again, being mentored, fortunately, by Raymond Queneau, a teacher and famed French author.

Author Patrick Modiano at age 24.

Author Patrick Modiano at age 24.

The three novels of the Occupation Trilogy, La Place de L’Etoile (1968), The Night Watch (1969), and this one, Ring Roads (1972) are Modiano’s first three novels, published when he was twenty-two, twenty-three, and twenty-six, and they made the literary world wake up and pay attention – not only because they were so finely written (and were winners of three major literary prizes) but because of their youthful energy and the fact that Modiano illustrated and addressed directly the issue of collaboration with the Germans during the Occupation. This was an issue which had been avoided in literature for almost all of the twenty-five years which Modiano himself had been alive. Instead, postwar writers in France had specialized in experimental new styles – the theatre of the absurd, surrealism, and existentialism, for example – as these more abstract styles evolved from the postwar horrors. Modiano, using the little he knew about his own father and the bizarre life he himself had led as a child, addresses his feelings directly in these narratives in which a speaker tells stories of real life, which often directly parallel his own life and experiences. His uncertainties about his own life also play a part in this early writing, especially in Ring Roads, as he switches between two time periods, ten years apart, in an attempt to reconcile aspects of what he has discovered about his father, and, not incidentally, himself.

One of the large houses outside the Forest of Fountainbleau, like those occupied by the gang members.

One of the large houses outside the Forest of Fountainbleau, similar to those occupied by the gang members.

The novel opens with a speaker observing a photograph of three men at a bar, one of whom, the heaviest one, is his father, Chalva Deyckecaire, sometimes referred to as “Baron.” As he studies the three men, their posture, clothing, and jewelry, he imagines their positions relative to each other, concluding that his father is less important than the others. As the picture begins to come to life through the action, the three seem to form a partnership of some sort, and we learn that one, a “count” named Marcheret, was in the French Foreign Legion, and that the other one, Murraille, plans to give his niece’s hand in marriage to Marcheret in two weeks. They are all living in a pretty village near the Forest of Fontainebleu, apparently in houses abandoned temporarily by their owners during the war – large and elaborate houses filled with objets d’art, paintings, and antiques of all types. We learn that Murraille, the editor of “C’est la vie,” a magazine which seems to be a cross between a pin-up magazine and “a political and society weekly,” dispenses gossip, “makes scabrous comments about public figures,” and features “humorous” cartoons in a sinister style, leading the speaker to remark that “There’s something suspicious about the whole thing. Who are these people? Where have they sprung from?” Time is more than a little flexible here.

At one point the speaker's father is selling counterfeit stamps at the stamp market in Paris.

At one point the speaker’s father is selling counterfeit stamps at the stamp market in Paris.

The women in the novel are definitely not aristocrats. The female bartender had wanted to be a singer but became manager of a nightclub and has been charged with receiving stolen goods, leading to the natural question of where these came from and who supplied them. Annie Murraille, whose “uncle,” the magazine editor, has promised her in marriage to Marcheret, always wanted to be a great movie actress, and Sylviane Quimphe, who wanders the streets at night, recently managed to attract a man who gave her whatever she wanted financially and left her a Tintoretto painting just before he was committed to a lunatic asylum. Within this milieu, the speaker becomes more familiar with his father, sharing one of the elegant, abandoned houses with him and engaging in suspicious activities. At one point Chalva, the father, is selling counterfeit stamps, as his son, narrator Serge Alexandre, is having great success inscribing dedications from one famous author to another in the frontispieces of rare books which he sells at enormous prices. A dramatic event involving the speaker and his father at a Metro station changes their relationship.

Throughout the novel, the speaker and his father travel in a Talbot motor car, this one the Sunbeam, from 1948 - 1950.

Throughout the novel, the speaker and his father travel in a Talbot motor car, this one, the Sunbeam, from 1948 – 1950.

Without warning, the time and reality shift again, this time to ten years into the future, as the speaker has decided to look for his father again, reconnecting with Murraille, now described as a hack journalist who practices blackmail and bribery. Marcheret now claims royal lineage. The speaker’s father acts as the front man for the trio, and the speaker realizes that any attempt to save his father is futile. As he asserts himself, he, too, comes under the influence of the time and place in which this gang still operates, and he quickly learns that double-crosses are in process and that even human life is not sacred. There is a price on everyone’s head, and it is time for him to act in his own best interests. Just what the reader is supposed to glean from the conclusion is open to question, especially since so much of Modiano’s work incorporates parallels between the lives of his narrators, the actions of his protagonists, and the information he has learned about his father, but in a time in which the expressionists, the surrealists, and the existentialists are all experimenting with time, the missing connections here seem a small price to pay in this prizewinning novel by a twenty-six-year-old in search of himself.

Note:  Readers unfamiliar with Modiano may find that the best place to start reading this addictive author is with SUSPENDED SENTENCES, which gives much information about Modiano’s life as a child.  The Yale University Press edition of the book also includes two other novellas which show the author as a young teen and as a college student.  A great introduction to the author.

ALSO by Modiano:   AFTER THE CIRCUS,     HONEYMOON,      IN THE CAFE OF LOST YOUTH,    LA PLACE de L’ETOILE (Book 1 of the OCCUPATION TRILOGY),     (With Louis Malle–LACOMBE LUCIEN, a screenplay),     LITTLE JEWEL,    THE NIGHT WATCH (Book II of the OCCUPATION TRILOGY),      PARIS NOCTURNE,      SO YOU DON’T GET LOST IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD,     SUCH FINE BOYS,     SUNDAYS IN AUGUST,     SUSPENDED SENTENCES,     VILLA TRISTE

Photos.  The author’s photo, at age 24, appears on https://www.goodreads.com

One of the large houses outside the Forest of Fountainbleau, similar to those occupied illegally by the gang members.  https://properties.lefigaro.com

Counterfeit stamps were often sold by the speaker’s father at the stamp market in Paris.  https://www.timeout.com/paris/en/shopping/art-gadgets-hobbies-markets

The Talbot car is featured several times in the narrative, as the speaker’s father and his friends often drove or rode in one.  This one from 1950 is a classic.  http://www.classicandperformancecar.com

RING ROADS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, France, Historical, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Nobel Prize
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1408867938
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Lilacs were blooming in Cracauerplatz. The Visitor felt disoriented and alone, an outsider, lost without a map. Her atrophied German stuck in her throat. Thirty-one years had elapsed between her last day in Germany…and her return to Berlin in late middle age. The city struck her as post-apocalyptic – flat and featureless except for the rivers, its lakes, it legions of bicyclists. She found herself nameless: nameless in crowds, nameless alone. Another disappearance in a city with a long history of disappearance acts.”

cover garcia here berlinReturning to Berlin for the first time since 1986 and renting an apartment in Charlottenburg in the western part of Berlin, author Cristina Garcia has much on her mind – the end of her second marriage, a final rupture with her impossibly difficult mother, and the feeling that she no longer has a home. Though her family was one of the first families from Cuba to escape to New York and settle following the Castro takeover in 1959, the family is dysfunctional, with serious problems the author spends a whole book discussing in The Lesser Tragedy of Death, the title itself giving an idea of just how dysfunctional they actually are as they face day to day life. Following college and graduate school in the 1970s, Garcia accepted a job in West Germany for a few months, which gave her some distance from her own problems. Now thirty-one more years have passed, and Garcia has returned to Berlin for the first time since then. She is fascinated by some of the people she meets there, and, wanting to record their stories without intruding, she creates a “Visitor” as a stand-in for herself, a third person narrator.  Here she does not tell the stories of these people so much as introduce them and then allow each of the thirty-five characters the freedom to tell their stories in their own way. As she “listens” to these stories, she and the reader share the same vantage point – and the stories come to life in unique ways, some of them so “new” that most readers will become spellbound, wondering why they never thought to ask the questions about life in Germany that these characters are answering without being asked.

Author Cristina Garcia

Author Cristina Garcia

The first memory is that of a young boy whose father was the Berlin Zoo’s last keeper. The boy, Helmut Bauer, reminisces about helping to feed the animals on weekends and shares memories of the idiosyncrasies of some animals, like Jupp, a cheetah, “who insisted on having his hindquarters scratched with a rake.” He remembers that his father loved the aviary and that he “borrowed” a Cuban parrot and brought it home to save it from starvation, only to have it disappear during an air raid and vanish (to become somebody’s supper).  Surprisingly, his father, at almost fifty and arthritic, is called to war. Later he is one of the few who returns – catatonic – “a man whose happiness had [once] seemed to me as predictable as the sun.” When his father dies five year later, the boy has one wish, “I long to send letters to the past…but who would write back?” The plethora of detail, the child’s point of view, the conversational tone, and the honesty of the boy’s reactions make this short memoir come to life, and it sets the tone for the thirty-four other stories that unfold immediately afterward.

German submarine, Type IIB, 1943.

German submarine, Type IIB, 1943, perhaps similar to the one which kidnapped a boy from Cuba.

One teen working in Havana as a night watchman is kidnapped by Germans who force him back to their submarine and depart with him aboard. For five months he accompanies them as they move up the East Coast of the United States, coming onto land secretly at night to steal food. When they return the boy to Cuba after that time, no one in Cuba believes his story. A young girl whose grandmother is Jewish, is hidden for thirty-seven days in the sarcophagus of a coal magnate before she can be sent out of the country. A young nurse, who is also an unwed mother, is desperate to leave her hometown and volunteers to go to the Eastern front, where she discovers that her job is to dispense with life instead of to heal. Another character is the daughter of a man who once ran a notorious Berlin sex club in the 1970s, in which the male characters were dressed in authentic Nazi uniforms and put on shows about the intoxication of power to still-sympathetic audiences. One woman who always thought of her grandfather as a war hero from Cuba, learns that he did not fight with the Allies. Instead, he had answered Franco’s call to help the Nazis fight Bolshevism in Spain, Italy, and North Africa.

Punk rocker in the GDR in the 1980s, perhaps like Roto, in the punk band in this novel.

Punk rocker in the GDR in the 1980s, perhaps like Roto, in the punk band in this novel.

Like these stories, other stories also cast light on the lives of the ordinary Germans who survived the war or who told their stories to their children or grandchildren. One speaker is the granddaughter of parents who volunteered her mother as a young teen to be a breeder of Aryan babies, in exchange for a cash bonus. She, one of the babies, was raised as part of a group, without affection, by a team of nurses who eventually abandon them in 1945, leaving them on their own trying to survive. She is still unable to “feel” the way most human beings do, and, she says, she has never experienced joy. Another woman has spent her life interrogating old Nazis and investigating war crimes, one of only six lawyers in the entire country to investigate the thousands of individual crimes that have been reported, with only fourteen crimes having been adjudicated by the government’s courts.   Still another woman, a ballet dancer, danced to survive with a broken foot, eventually becoming crippled, but still had a dalliance with Fulgencio Batista, President of Cuba. An additional character has been the punk bassist for the most notorious East German band of the 1970s. A boy who grew up as a gypsy recognizes the Visitor as a scholar and declares that “Poetry is in the living. Nobody in the world can teach you that.”

Oskar Matzerath, from Gunter Gras's Oskar Matzerath in THE TIN DRUM, is an image that reappears here.

Oskar Matzerath, from Gunter Grass’s THE TIN DRUM, is an image that reappears here.

Though the individual stories are unique, brilliant in their execution, and enlightening, even for readers who have read dozens of books about postwar Germany, Cristina Garcia performs magic by opening up even more new thematic threads and suggesting dozens of issues which most of us have not yet even thought to explore. She connects several characters with each other throughout the book to add to the coherence: A retired boxer who is a former pilot; an African eye surgeon from Luanda; characters from the death camp at Sachsenhausen; a Cuban transvestite named Sylvia; a crippled ballerina; and Mazerath, the main character in Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, among others, provide some continuity among the stories. With or without these connections, however, the book opens eyes in new ways, quietly questioning our long-held conclusions about Germany before, during, and after the war. As for the Visitor (author), she now wants “Quiet, resplendent days in the light. Her daughter a breath away. And a butterfly net with which to swipe the air, trapping bits of flying color here and there. Yes, she might spend the rest of her life doing nothing more than that.”

ALSO by Cristina Garcia: THE LESSER TRAGEDY OF DEATH

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://therumpus.net

The German submarine, Type IIB, from 1943, may have been like the one which captured the teenage boy in an early story from this book.  http://www.icm.com

Roto, a character from a punk rock band, appears in this novel and may have resembled this person from the GDR in the 1980s.  http://1.bp.blogspot.com/

Oscar Matzerath, a character from Gunter Grass’s THE TIN DRUM, appears more than once in this novel, providing some continuity among the characters. http://tvtropes.org/

HERE IN BERLIN
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Cuba, Germany, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Cristina Garcia
Published by: Counterpoint
Date Published: 10/10/2017
ISBN: 978-1619029590
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

 

“Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago, in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

cover in a lonely placeDickson Steele, a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II, has arrived in Los Angeles after wandering, post-war, through Europe and parts of the US, unable to settle down and permanently dissatisfied with his life and his prospects. In Los Angeles, he hopes for a life of excitement as he works on a novel, but even though he has an uncle who has agreed to support him for a year as he works on his book, and has a friend who has loaned him his own elegant, fully-furnished apartment in Beverly Hills while he is away on business, he knows in his heart that nothing will ever quite equal “that feeling of power and exhilaration and freedom that [comes] with loneness in the sky.” He has recently discovered that there is a touch of that loneness at night at the beach, when he looks down from above “at the ocean rolling endlessly in from the horizon,” and when he “put out his hand to the mossy fog as if he would capture it… [he sees] “his hand as a plane passing through a cloud,” a memory which makes him smile.

Author Dorothy B, Hughes

Author Dorothy B. Hughes

Sharing his feelings with the reader, Dix becomes the linchpin of this psychological noir mystery by Dorothy B. Hughes, and within the first two pages, the reader discovers that Dix’s thoughts and behavior are vastly different from what the rest of us would consider “normal. By the third page, he is following an attractive young woman walking along the road and planning what he will say to her when he catches up to her. Only a series of cars passing prevents him from crossing the street to meet up with her, and he decides to let her go, turning instead into a local bar. Author Hughes, with her efficient pacing and streamlined prose, does not make the reader wait long for the action to develop. On the fourth page, at the bar, Dix overhears another patron nearby mention a man named “Brub,” the name of one of his friends from the air corps whom he has not seen for two years. A quick call from Dix to Brub at his house in Santa Monica Canyon, and the old friends decide to get together that night at Brub’s house. There Dix meets Brub’s wife Sylvia and also learns that Brub, having graduated from Berkeley, has now started work at a new job – as a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Los Angeles City Hall, where the police department was located from 1928 – 1990.

As Dix and Brub go their separate ways that night, author Hughes has effectively set up the foundation for all the action which will transpire in the course of this novel. On his way home from Brub’s, he sees an unknown girl and walks toward her. An eight-hour break occurs in the narrative, during which time Dix is apparently asleep, awakened only by the phone the next morning. Sylvia is inviting him to dinner with her and Brub at their local country club. He accepts, does errands during the day, and prepares to meet Brub, all the while resenting his wife Sylvia, whom he regards as “snoopy.” Nevertheless, he also believes that socializing with her and Brub will be intriguing and challenging, though he is basically a lone wolf. Feeling that “the game would be heightened if he teamed up with a detective, he agrees to meet with them. On his way out that night, he sees two things that become the literary “point of attack” for the novel: first, he sees, for the first time, a beautiful red-haired woman who lives above him, and second, he sees the headlines of the local newspaper, announcing a murder in town the previous night.

Poster for the film version of this novel.

Poster for the film version of this novel.

In the first twenty pages of this novel, then, Dorothy B. Hughes has set the scene, taken the reader inside the mind of the main character, an odd sort of protagonist who is telling his story; given background information about him from his own point of view, showing how he thinks; introduced the “antagonist,” a long-time friend from the air corps who happens to be a detective now; introduced the thematic contrasts between strong women and those who lead lives which destine them to become victims; hinted at further action involving the red-haired woman who lives upstairs from Dix; and indicated that Dix plans to match wits with Brub in some kind of game he is playing. Efficiently, Hughes will develop these ideas throughout the remainder of this two-hundred page novel, bringing her characters to life and the action to a peak. In the process she will also bring Los Angeles and its suburbs to life as people try to get back to the kinds of lives they had before the war. Women are stronger now, having taken the place of men who were away fighting in Europe during the war, and some of the men who have returned may have what is now recognized as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Newspapers and the radio are the only public sources of information, and news travels more slowly, offering less opportunity for women to take the safety precautions which we all now recognize as essential for self-protection.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame in the film version of this novel.

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame starring in the film of this novel.

Published by New York Review Books, In a Lonely Place is letter perfect, with not a word too many, yet fully developed in all respects. Written in 1947, it breathes with the personal agonies and, occasionally, rewards of the times and the bleakness of the traumas with which some of those who served the country must deal as they return to civilian life – lives which may not offer any of the opportunities to be heroes which all people crave. Vivid and emotionally rich, the novel, successful in its own right, is only slightly disappointing in its ending. It eventually became a film starring Humphrey Bogard and Gloria Grahame, a novel in which many aspects of the narrative were changed, creating a film about Hollywood and celebrity rather than about the effects of the war on ordinary humans. Both works are dark, but the book is far more ambitious and far more universal in its themes than the film.

Photos. The author’s photo is from https://www.goodreads.com

Los Angeles City Hall, where the police department was located from 1928 – 1990:  https://en.wikipedia.org

The poster for the 1950 film of this novel, quite different, appears on https://en.wikipedia.org

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame starred in the 1950 version of this novel:  https://en.wikipedia.org/

IN A LONELY PLACE
Review. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Mystery, Noir, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, United States, Hollywood.
Written by: Dorothy B. Hughes
Published by: New York Review Books
Date Published: 08/15/2017
ISBN: 978-1681371474
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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