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Note: Swiss author Peter Stamm was WINNER of the Friederick Holderlin Prize in 2014 and was SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013.

“She couldn’t remember how the crash had come about….[but] suddenly she understood that time had a direction, that it was irreversible.  Her first memory was that sense of not being able to do anything anymore, of having no force and no mass.  It was as though consciousness had already deserted her body, which accelerated…collided…was thrown back…hit something else in a ridiculous to-and-fro.”

Gillian, a TV commentator and drama school graduate, has just begun to regain consciousness in the hospital following an accident which has killed her husband Matthias, the editor of a magazine, and as her memory of blue water and empty space comes and goes, she alternates between awareness of her surroundings and complete befuddlement.  The impact of the crash has destroyed her face, and it will be many surgeries and many months before it can be rebuilt.  She “had always known she was in danger, that she would sometime have to pay for everything.  Now she had paid.”  She and her husband, both intoxicated, had been quarreling because he had found a long-forgotten roll of film hidden in her desk, had had it developed, and had discovered that the film contained nude pictures for which she herself had posed.  Already jealous about her career, her friendships, and her easy conversations with those she interviews, Matthias was outraged – “no one took him seriously” – and went on to embarrass her at a party, later refusing to let her drive, though he was even more intoxicated than she.  Now he is dead, and she will not have a real face for six months, at least.

What follows in this novel of relationships by Swiss author/dramatist Peter Stamm is a vibrant story of love with its many complications, as damaged people, including Gillian,  try to rebuild their lives and find some sort of peace.  Time is fluid here, as memories intrude for Gillian, and as Stamm, dramatist that he is, recreates much of her life in vivid scenes of natural and revelatory dialogue.  As in Stamm’s Seven Years, a previous novel reviewed here, marriage among these characters feels more like a merger than a powerful, overwhelming sense of commitment to the well-being of another person, and few of these characters express much self-awareness.  The result is that the novel speeds along, compelling the reader to keep reading it for its story and its outcome, rather than for its serious thematic development or any deep self-analysis by the participants.  Though it is tightly and thoughtfully organized, and filled with vibrant imagery, the novel’s main interest is in the ways the characters try to make sense of their lives.  What is significantly different from Stamm’s earlier novel Seven Years is that this one is often very funny as the author sees and highlights the absurdities in the lives of these shallow people.

While Gillian is in the hospital, an exhibition poster is on the wall opposite her bed. Like this one it is also an abstract in red and green, with circles.

The novel divides into three sections:  The first is focused on Gillian, whose “life before the accident had been one long performance – her job, the studio, the designer clothes, the trips to cities, the meals in good restaurants, the visits to her parents and to Matthias’s mother.  It must have been a lie if it was so easy to destroy with a moment’s inattention.”  The person who took the nude photographs of Gillian is artist Hubert Amrhein, age thirty-nine, who usually photographed ordinary women performing ordinary tasks. Gillian had found him to be a “jerk” and a “chatterbox,” but also found his instinctive connection to what she herself was thinking during an interview to be “striking.”  As the time frame comes back to the present and Gillian reveals her daily life during her recuperation, she has to admit that it was she who had suggested that she pose nude and that she was sorry after it. Still, Hubert’s reaction toward her in the photographs was almost indifferent.  “I get the feeling that there’s nothing coming from you,” he says, as he looks at her images.

The unnamed American artist mentioned by Hubert's gallerist as having painted the same neighbor woman for fifteen years, may have been Andrew Wyeth.

The second section, from Hubert’s point of view, takes place five or six years later, when he is married to Astrid with whom he has a son in kindergarten.  Hubert is now teaching at a college, and he and Astrid both have lovers and are leading separate lives.  Anxious for even more “space,” Astrid now wants him to remove all his memorabilia and the old work which he has been storing in their attic.  When he is invited to have an exhibition at a cultural center in the mountains one summer, he accepts, though he has not done any new work in years.  When he learns from his “gallerist” about a famous American painter who painted nude pictures of a neighbor for fifteen years, keeping the paintings hidden for that time, Hubert wonders if he has anything hidden away in his attic that he can use or adapt for the exhibition.  He does not know that one of his former models, Gillian, now known as Jill, is the person directing this event.

At one point Hubert recalls the landscapes of Georgia O'Keeffe, where the hills looked like the bodies of naked women.

The third section consists of what happens in the present when Hubert goes to the cultural center and reconnects with Jill.  Much from the past is revealed here, as he, still with nothing to exhibit, tries to reinvigorate his sense of creativity; as his wife tries to get him out of her life; and as he begins to have feelings for Jill.  In what amounts to a coda to all this, Gillian/Jill comes to her own awakening and begins to think about changes in her own life.  Stamm’s sense of direction for the action is unerring, and his ability to focus is total.  His characters, though limited in personal awareness, are consistent, and their inner thoughts are clearly revealed to the reader. Because of this realism, most readers will be hoping for the characters to awaken, eventually, to new possibilities in their personal lives, and it is this hope which keeps the reader engaged, rather than the development of complex universal themes.

At one point Jill shows Hubert the photos he took of her and he is struck by one which shows her vulnerability. She was sitting with her hands in a pose which Hubert had "cribbed from Edvard Munch" in a portrait he did of a young girl.

The author’s own interest in art infuses this novel, as it did in Seven Years, and he sets up parallels between some of his characters and famous artists whose lives have similarities to the characters’ lives – Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O’Keeffe, and even Edvard Munch.  The famous artists have managed to live with their creativity and to use it, however, and one is not sure whether Stamm’s characters, especially Hubert, in search of inspiration, will also be able to gain the insights to do so, too.  After the exhibition has come and gone, Hubert makes some decisions, and soon after that, Gillian/Jill remembers the origins of her “blue water” imagery, which opens the novel. It remains to be seen if she will act on what she discovers.

[Famed translator Michael Hofmann has translated this and many of Stamm's other books.]

ALSO by Peter Stamm:  SEVEN YEARS

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

The abstract picture by Geneva artist John Armleder, similar to one on the wall of Gillian’s hospital room, is one of a pair done in 2003:  http://www.nonobjectifsud.org/2007/aja1.html

John Wilmerding’s book about Andrew Wyeth’s “Helga Pictures,” was released in 1987 and may be found on Amazon and other book-selling sites.  http://en.wikipedia.org/

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Red Hills, Gray Sky,” from the late 1930s, is shown on http://dailycristo.com

Edvard Munch’s depiction of the vulnerability of a young girl (1894) stands in sharp contrast to his most famous painting, ” The Scream.”  Ironies abound when thinking of this sweet painting in relation to Gillian, though she posed for her photo by Hubert in the same position.  http://www.edvard-munch.com

ARC: Other Press

Note: This novel was WINNER of Germany’s 2014 Hans Falada Prize.

“If her grandmother had left for the Vienna Woods just half an hour later; …or if [she] who was so eager to cast her life aside had not…taken a right turn from Babenberger Strasse onto Opernring, where she coincidentally encountered her own death in the form of a shabby young man; or if the fiancée of this shabby young man had not broken off their engagement; …or if the shabby young man’s father hadn’t left his Mauser pistol in the unlocked drawer; …then she would not have been thinking of [being] shot, but [instead] about…a dark painting inside the [nearby] museum.”

The above quotation is not really a spoiler, since this unusual novel features a cast of characters whose lives change constantly in response to the circumstances of their lives.  Even death is not permanent.  If the unnamed main character makes a bad choice and dies, usually through no fault of her own, German author Jenny Erpenbeck simply changes one or more of the conditions which brought about the character’s death and its terrible consequences to the family and retells her story.  In fact, the unnamed main character here has five “deaths” in the novel’s five “books,” and other characters experience similar changes of fortune as the author examines the very nature of time, mortality, fate, coincidence, and the effects of a death or other terrible event on the people connected to that character. There is no heavenly hand, no higher deity, no fate with predictable goals or rewards controlling the outcomes here, only the hand of the author, with her long view and broad themes.

Author photo by Maarten ten Haaff

Erpenbeck aims high, creating an unnamed main character from early twentieth-century Galicia (now incorporated as parts of Poland and Ukraine) who endures two world wars and their aftereffects, the growth of communism, the division of Germany and later the fall of the Berlin Wall, and other major events of European history over the course of a century.   The main character’s death-defying personal traumas match those wrought by political changes, and as she endures, or dies and is given a second chance, she also becomes an “Everywoman” for the century.  The main character’s intimate life story, portrayed within the context of major historical events in various locations in Eastern Europe, makes the small details of a person’s life feel real at the same time that major political and sociological ideas are sweeping the continent.  Her setting becomes the world of Europe in miniature, a microcosm of the continent over the course of a century.

The country which was Galicia in 1914 has now been incorporated into Poland and the Ukraine. Its former territory is now bordered by the present countries of ( E – W) Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldava.

The novel opens with the death of an eight-month-old baby shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century and vividly recreates the personal devastation it brings to the child’s mother and the family surrounding her.   The baby’s Jewish grandmother, whose husband had been killed by a neighbor during a bloody pogrom by Poles against Galician Jews, had arranged for the baby’s mother, who survived, to marry a “goy,” enhancing her chances to live, she believed, but this daughter’s half-Jewish baby has just died anyway of unexplained causes.  As the mother must reorder her life following the baby’s death, her “goy” husband runs away to New York, leaving her to sort out her life by herself. In New York her husband hears that if they had put snow on the baby’s chest, under its shirt, that it might have stimulated its breathing impulse and kept the baby alive.  Then “fate would have kept quiet, and this first moment when the child might have died would have passed without further ado,” and without changing the lives of everyone in the family.

Galician refugees from what is now the Ukraine, 1918. Double-click, then scroll to enlarge.

Book II takes place in 1919, after World War I, and what is left of the family has moved to Vienna, where 450,000 refugees like them from Galicia and 150,000 refugees from other places in Europe have congregated, hoping to find food. Instead they find themselves taking turns standing in lines all night in order to get a small piece of cow’s udder for “food.”  The main character, who is the subject of the opening quotation of this review,  “dies” here at the hands of a medical student who sees her and thinks that she is a whore who has rejected him.  The girl, shot, might have been a writer, and she has hidden some writing behind the wardrobe, where it is discovered during a later incarnation.

The medal of the Great Patriotic Order of Merit, given to Soviets who were especially deserving, was won by one of the characters here.

The first two “books” of the novel, tension-filled and dramatic, keep the focus on the relationships among time and chance and death, while each “Intermezzos” between the chapters offers suggestions regarding an alternative time frame which could have changed the course of lives. The smooth descriptive prose, trenchant dialogue (both real and imagined), and the occasional glimpses of hope as the author changes the outcomes of a death provide ample opportunity for the reader to reflect on the themes and enjoy the author’s creativity in conveying them without bogging down the narrative with an excess of philosophizing.  Book III takes a new direction, and the narrative style changes as description becomes subordinated to the tumult of political events.  Here, it is 1935, and the main character, a committed communist, has gone to Moscow, become involved in political intrigue, and walked the narrow path between the Trotskyites and the Stalinists.  Married, she watches as her husband goes off to war and later gets arrested. She herself is suspect regarding her ideas.  The horrors of Russian life and the threats of the gulag are front and center, with images which feel almost rat-a-tat-tat in the precise staccato of their presentation.  The main character is writing an apology for her life in an effort to save it and that of her husband, something which most readers who have studied this period will find familiar, and even the sections which look like poetry feel abrupt, constrictive.  The emphasis on the political and sociological, while important from the point of view of twentieth century history, supersedes that of the main character here, and some readers may find their attention to the narrative wandering in this section.

Throughout the novel, a collection of the works of Goethe becomes symbolic for the power of writing and its importance. This photo shows Vols. 12 - 18, including both volumes of Faust.

Book IV continues the story through the next generation represented by the son of the main character, who has many questions about his past.  Book V, one which will hit hard for anyone over sixty, depicts the life and thoughts of an elderly woman, Frau Hoffmann, age ninety and in a home for the aged, as she and her heirs separately relive her experiences through the possessions which she has left behind.  Erpenbeck deserves high praise for writing a novel about major ideas in a serious and literary way, never underestimating the reader and always providing new insights which expand our view of the past and increase our understanding of themes.  With the exception of Book III, which seems to lose its way, this is a first-class literary novel which deserves all its attention and praise.

Photos, in order: The authors’s photo, by Maarten ten Haaff, appears on http://nrcboeken.vorige.nrc.nl/

The map of Galicia in 1914, shows a country which has now been incorporated into Poland and the Ukraine.  Its former territory is now bordered by the present countries of ( E – W) Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldava. http://mobile.ztopics.com/

This 1918 photo of Galican refugees to Austria, and a story about them, appears on http://www.austrianphilately.com/

The Great Patriotic Order of Merit, won by one of the characters here, is shown on http://daliscar.deviantart.com

The 40-volume Collected Works of Goethe, a recurring motif here, represents the power of writing and its importance.  This photo shows Vols. 12 – 18, and the includes two volumes of Faust.  http://goaliesanxiety.blogspot.com/

ARC: Other Press

Note: William McIlvanney was WINNER of the 1977 Crime Writers Macallan Silver Dagger Award for Laidlaw in 1977 and for The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), and WINNER of the Scottish Arts Council Award for Fiction for Strange Loyalties in 1992.

My life was one terrible mess.  Miguel de Unamuno had written something that applied to me, if I could think what it was.  I read quite a lot of philosophy in a slightly frenetic way, like a man looking for the hacksaw that must be hidden somewhere, before the executioner comes.  It was something about continuity.  Unamuno says something like: if a man loses his sense of his own continuity, he’s had it.  His bum’s out the window.”–Jack Laidlaw

Jack Laidlaw has never been one to hold back in his assessments, even in his assessments of himself and his problems, and in this third novel of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy, published in 1991, after Laidlaw (1977) and The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), main character Laidlaw faces himself, square-on.  A detective with the Glasgow police, he is divorced, alienated from his teenage children, at a crisis in his relationship with a new woman, and addicted to the possibilities of escape through alcohol.  When he learns that his troubled younger brother Scott, a teacher, has died in a pedestrian accident, his life “snuffed out on the random number plate of a car,” Laidlaw is about ready to “shut up shop on [his] beliefs and hand in [his] sense of morality at the desk.  The world [is] a bingo stall.”  Desperate to believe that Scott’s death must mean more than it seems to mean, Laidlaw also feels an inexplicable sense of guilt.  Requesting a week’s time off from the job, he decides to investigate Scott’s death in an effort to learn how it happened and discover if it was truly random.

Laidlaw, a thinker, philosopher, and reader, has always believed that the cases he investigates have their roots in institutional, fiscal, and political injustices, that they are more than “merely” legal offenses.  “It was the crime beyond the crime that had always fascinated [him], the sanctified network of legally entrenched social injustice towards which [a] crime feebly gestured” on virtually every case he has worked on.  Now, however, his “personal harpies” have come home to roost, “fouling [his] sense of his own worth,” and he is frantic, knowing he must resolve the issues of his brother’s death because it feels “unjust.”  Unless he can come to terms with the randomness of this death and his own sense of guilt and responsibility, if any, he will remain unable to deal with issues involving his own life and his own mortality.  “Where,” he wonders, “does an accident begin?” and “When did my brother’s life give up its purpose so that it could wander aimlessly for years till it walked into a car?”

The Rotunda, the yuppie restaurant where Laidlaw and Brian Harkness meet to discuss the future before Laidlaw leaves for a week to investigate his brother's death.

As he prepares to leave Glasgow for Ayrshire, where he grew up, to investigate Scott’s immediate past, Laidlaw’s young partner Brian Harkness meets him at the Rotunda Restaurant, in an ancient building recently restored, which has become a yuppie symbol of a regenerating city.  There Harkness tells him about a new case that he and another “polis” officer, Bob Liffey, will be working on while Laidlaw is gone:  a man’s body has been found just across the river from the Rotunda with a rope around its neck, one arm and all fingers broken.  The contrast between the “people eating and drinking in the high brightness while in the darkness across the water where the light didn’t reach, a dead man lay abandoned,” is symbolic for the cynical Laidlaw:  “Live high on the hog and don’t give a shit about other people.”  It is in that mood that he departs, determined to get some answers.

A horse show at Floors Castle, near where Scott's former in-laws live and where Laidlaw indicates that "I'm sure my ancestors went on foot and had to fight the ones that sat on horses. And maybe in my heart I'm still fighting them."

What follows is a story that, in its depth, bears more thematic resemblance to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment than it does to other noir novels.  The main characters of both novels must to come to terms with the personal and ethical impact of their own behavior,  and both engage in intense self-analysis and second-guessing from the outset.  At the same time, however, Laidlaw also feels the obligations and sense of mission felt by  Dostoevsky’s police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, making Strange Loyalties doubly intense for the reader since Laidlaw must assume two responsibilities – what he owes to himself and what he believes he owes to the public. Though Strange Loyalties is obviously written for a different audience in a different period (and one would not want to push the analogy too far), McIlvanney shares with Dostoevsky the same intensity and seriousness of purpose in his analysis of the themes and of the guilt associated with death.

Edinburgh New Town, where Anna, Scott's ex-wife, has moved: "This was in its origins the most English place in Scotland, built between 1765 and 1850. Photo by Dave Morris, Oxford, UK (See Credits below.)

McIlvanney differs dramatically from Dostoevsky (and from most modern noir writers, for that matter) in his sense of humor, however.  Without sacrificing his intellectual honesty and his well-earned literary credentials, McIlvanney writes from a breezy, irreverent, and often profane point of view, creating in Laidlaw a character whose flaws often get in the way of his personal success but whose sense of absurdity bubbles to the surface, no matter the circumstances.   Laidlaw describes himself as a “strange searcher for justice – the polluted avenger, knight of the rusted sword.”  Later, when he takes two pills for his hangover, he regards that as the equivalent of  “sending in two rookie policemen to quell a riot.”  He sees his father, a millworker,  as “a cave with flowers round the entrance.”  He tells one loathsome character that he resembles “a maintenance worker at Dachau or somewhere.  You might convert the showers to gas..but you wouldn’t actually kill anybody.”  As Laidlaw investigate the specifics of another death in his hometown in an effort to understand more about his brother’s death, however, he gradually broadens his conclusions about everyday life, often expressing these in wry aphorisms:  “The rectitude of the aged is often just the fancy clothes in which incapacity likes to dress up” and later, continuing that analogy, “Fame’s just borrowed clothes.”  His use of symbols deepens the characterizations and the themes.  Scott’s paintings, for example, have a number of symbols, especially that of the “man in the green coat,” the mystery of whom Laidlaw discovers and explains, and he later relates the legend of the boy and the fox in Sparta as a sad allegory of his brother’s life.

Drumchapel with its broken windows and burned out apartments: It is here that Laidlaw meets TV commentator Michael Preston, who is interviewing a young couple, and from whom he hears "the banality of hopelessness."

As Laidlaw gets to know Scott in relation to the four friends from the past who have played a huge role in his life, he comes to know and trust himself, however damaged by life  he may be.   In one moving, but surreal, scene, he gives a petty criminal a new chance as the man’s mother lies dying, showing his ability to his mold his values to the circumstances and not see morality simply as a set of fixed rules.  Despite the large number of characters and the complex interrelationships among them, the novel provides a perfect ending, tying up the details of the themes and the action at the same time that it suggests an appropriate coda:  “And the meek shall inherit the earth, but not this week.”  Memorable for its literary values, its creativity, and its intelligence, as much as for its themes and dramatic action,  the Laidlaw trilogy has achieved the status of a classic during the author’s own lifetime.

NOTE: A new, paperback edition of this book will be released by Europa Editions in April, 2015.

ALSO by William McIlvanney:  LAIDLAW and     THE PAPERS OF TONY VEITCH

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

The Rotunda Restaurant, an old Glasgow building, now a yuppie restaurant, represents the regeneration of the city of Glasgow. http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/

Floors Castle horse show, near where Laidlaw’s former in-laws live:  “They’re where it was, and I don’t like the way it was.  It’s maybe a tribal memory.  I’m sure my ancestors went on foot and had to fight the ones that sat on horses.  And maybe in my heart I’m still fighting them.”  http://www.horseandcountry.tv/news

Edinburgh New Town, “the most English place in Scotland,” built between 1765 and 1850, the place to which Scott’s wife Anna has moved.  http://commons.wikimedia.org/ Photographer: [http://flickr.com/photos/davemorris/ Dave Morris] from Oxford, UK. Edinburgh, New Town, taken March 9, 2005 Original source:  [http://flickr.com/photos/davemorris/61\

Drumchapel, with its broken windows and burned out apartments is where Laidlaw meets Michael Preston, a TV commentator who is interviewing an impoverished young man and his wife, and from whom he hears “the banality of hopelessness.”  http://ukhousing.wikia.com/

Joseph O’Neill–THE DOG

Note: The author’s previous novel, Netherland, was WINNER of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  Both that novel and this novel were LONGLISTED for the Man Booker Prize.

“Dubai…a country of buzz.  Maybe the secrecy of the Ruler precludes any other state of affairs, and maybe not.  There is no question that spreading everywhere in the emirate are opacities that…call to my mind submarine depths.  And so the place makes gossips of us whether we like it or not and makes us susceptible to gullibility and false shrewdness.”

Irish author Joseph O’Neill, a citizen of the world, was born in Cork, Ireland, lived in Mozambique as a toddler, in Turkey (his mother’s place of birth) till he reached school age, and in Iran, the Netherlands, and England (where he attended college and then practiced law for ten years), before moving to New York City, where he has lived for the past fifteen years.   Perceptive and particularly attuned to cultural differences and their ironies as a result of his own upbringing, O’Neill writes a darkly comic novel set in Dubai, creating an unnamed narrator whose real first name, never mentioned because he hates it, begins with the letter X.  In an unusual twist, this main character is a man so lacking in personality that he himself also resembles an X.  A lawyer who for nine years lived with Jenn, a co-worker, X is now single, with almost no resources, emotional or financial.  The breakup, coming as it did when he and Jenn were in their mid-thirties, was toxic, her revenge leaving him with few funds, no apartment, no friends among their mutual acquaintances and fellow employees, and virtually no prospects for a better life.  His public scorn and denigration on the internet’s social media, perhaps engineered by Jenn, are so widespread that even Facebook provides no refuge for him.

Through a fluke, X and Jenn had attended Donald Trump’s wedding in 2005, an event which eventually leads a wealthy Lebanese college acquaintance of X, Eddie Batros, to assume that X and Trump are friends.  In 2007, Batros offers him a job working for the family, which now lives in Dubai, just before that country’s economic collapse in 2009.  Treated like a dog and completely ignored for months after the Batros job offer, X also suffers the humiliation of being stood up when he flies to London for an interview.  Eventually, however, he is hired as the Batros Family Officer, managing the family’s law firm, their legal affairs and assets, their investment and tax strategies, their international concierge services, the Batros Foundation operating primarily in Africa, and the family’s accounts on the Isle of Man, where they keep their reservoir of personal wealth.  The people he supervises “are in a position to commit embezzlement or otherwise gravely fail the family,”  and his job is to make sure that no one steals from the company.

Dubai Airport: “A vast white palace filled with rows of the grandest white columns in the world…maybe ten feet in diameter.” People, like the man in the white robe here, travel on the people-movers in the center.

Living on the eighteenth floor of a luxury apartment complex on Prosperity Bay in Dubai, X begins to hope that his life has changed in this new, almost surreal environment where no one knows him.  He has plenty to time on his hands.  His job, despite all the supposed duties, involves almost no actual work, and his contact with Eddie Batros and his brother Sandro is almost non-existent.  In his free time he takes advantage of the highly paid prostitutes available to him at the most elegant hotels, and never questions what the family is doing.  Still thinking about Jenn and the sad details of their relationship, his musings reveal much more about his “character” to the reader than they do to X himself.

The Atlantis, a 1500-room resort with a marine theme, opened in 2008.

The third plot thread concerns the disappearance of Ted Wilson, a deep sea diver, like X himself, who has suddenly gone missing.  Referred to as “The Man from Atlantis” and nicknamed for the hero of a 1970s TV series, Ted Wilson has been living in X’s apartment building, and any real or imagined sighting of him immediately appears on the internet social media and in e-mails.  Much speculation arises about Ted Wilson’s life, both in and out of the water, along with questions about what this American has been doing in Dubai:  “A person usually needs a special incentive to be here – or perhaps more accurately, to not be elsewhere – and surely this is all the more true for the American who, rather than trying his luck in California or Texas or New York, chooses to come to this strange desert metropolis,” a description which ironically does not even give X a moment of pause.  The entrance of Mrs. Ted Wilson into X’s life adds to the complications.

X has the opportunity to meet with a woman in an underwater bedroom of the Atlantis.

The author’s depiction of X and his life in Dubai provides many scenes of fun, humor, and irreverence, but because X is sometimes hopelessly dense – and gullible – about social relationships, most readers will find it impossible to empathize with him on more than a superficial level when the expected complications “unexpectedly” intrude.  Though he is, at heart, a good man, he is malleable and amenable to being grossly humiliated, as if he does not believe that he deserves better.  Intelligent, he still trusts virtually everyone, hoping, perhaps for their friendship, despite his terrible breakup with Jenn.  He even accepts as one of his major duties, that of “babysitting” for Sandro Batros’s obese fifteen-year-old son, trying to keep him busy as an intern and even weighing him each week.  Ordered by Sandro Batros to give the son a sense of values, X does not think twice about the ironies involved in this task and what they may mean.

The Burj Dubai/Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is visible from every part of Dubai, a building seen by X as vastly superior in design to the Freedom Tower in New York

Filled with vibrant and revelatory scenes, this very funny novel unfortunately lacks a clear focus.  Since this is also characteristic of X himself, the reader must rely on witty and insightful details for the novel’s compelling interest.  At one point, for example, X is told by the fifteen-year-old Alain to [expletive]-off, when he is asked to help carry out the trash.  To this, X replies (with what he describes as his “best move”), “Listen, you’re hurting my feelings when you say something like that.” When Alain then sniggers, X’s reaction is: “Vulgar abuse and childish f-bombs are water off a duck’s back.  But this snigger is directed at the very notion of fellow feeling.”  He takes out the trash himself.  While O’Neill excels at providing this kind of information within other small scenes, it may not be enough to maintain the interest of all readers.  The wild and very clever conclusion does tie up the loose ends of this loose plot, satisfying those who have been absorbed in the wittiness of the writing and the insights provided into the unusual culture and lifestyles of Dubai, and for many of us that be will be enough.  The novel provides unique, private glimpses of life in an emirate which rarely shows its private side.

A map of the Emirates in relation to the rest of the Persian Gulf is shown here. Dubai is near the tip of the peninsula of the United Arab Emirates in the bottom right of the map. Just double-click. Double-click to enlarge.

Photos, in order: The author’s photo appears on http://www.irishpost.co.uk/

The Dubai Airport is  “a vast white palace filled with rows of the grandest white columns in the world…maybe ten feet in diameter.”  People travel on the people-mover in the center of the photo:http://www.constructionweekonline.com

The Atlantis, a marine-themed hotel with 1500 rooms, opened in 2008: http://holidayspackages.co.za/

X enjoys an evening with a woman in an underwater room of the Atlantis:  http://travel.ninemsn.com.au/

The Burj Dubai/Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, visible form every part of Dubai.  X finds it superior to the Freedom Tower in New York comparing the Burj Khalifa to a blade of grass and the Freedom Tower in NYC to a “stump – a gargantuan remnant.”  http://openmarkets.in/

A map of the Emirates in relation to the rest of the Persian Gulf is shown here. Dubai is near the tip of the peninsula of the United Arab Emirates in the bottom right of the map. Just double-click.  http://www.geographicguide.com

ARC: Pantheon Books

“I envy the winds, the water, and the birds whenever I think of them.  They blow, flow, and fly; they all get to leave, whereas, in spite of my two quick legs, I am condemned to stay among the mountains and the river valleys, not much different from a tethered horse.”  Dshurukuwaa, main character of the novel (and real name of Galsan Tshinag).

There are not many times when one can say that a novel – or series of autobiographical novels, in this case – is truly unique, something written from so personal and unusual a perspective that it becomes a completely new experience for the reader, yet Galsan Tschinag has succeeded in accomplishing this.  Born into the nomadic Tuvan culture of Mongolia in 1944, Tschinag, like his parents and grandparents, grew up following the seasons with his sheep and yaks and living with his extended family in a collapsible yurt as part of a small community (ail) which moved from the mountains to the steppes and back so that the animals could feed. With the eyes and ears of a poet, Tschinag recreates his life in three volumes:  The Blue Sky (2006), about his first eight years living with his family in their yurt in the Altai Mountains, shows his energy, his intelligence, and his sensitivity to the mysteries of life, which he has learned through Tuvan myths, stories told by family, and his own observations of the natural spirits so tangibly present in all aspects of the natural world around him.

His second novel, The Gray Earth (2010), continues his story as dramatic changes occur in the 1950s, not just to him and his family but to his culture and to all of Mongolia, as the Russians take over their lands and systematically subvert the local cultures and their beliefs in spiritual powers, in part through the requirement that the brightest children attend Russian boarding schools for nine months a year, returning home only for summer work.  The third novel, The White Mountain (scheduled for release in April, 2015), continues the life of the main character, Dshurukuwaa, as he completes school in Mongolia and is sent by the Russians to Leipzig, where he continues his education and eventually obtains his doctorate.  There he begins writing (in German) in an effort to save the culture he remembers in Mongolia.  Now in his seventies, Tschinag tells us in the Afterword to The Blue Sky, that he has returned to Mongolia, and “With my shaman’s whisk, a truncheon, or a laptop [!], I alternate between living in the indigenous culture of the post-socialist Tuvans [in the mountains and in Ulan Baatar]…and the enlightened state monopoly of Western Europe.”

Mongolian boy, about the age of Dshurukuwaa/ Tschinag

As The Gray Earth opens, Dshurukuwaa/ Tshinag is eight years old, and already he has determined to become a shaman, with the aid of an aunt by marriage, Aunt Purwu.  When he oversteps and intervenes in a ceremony being conducted by Aunt Purwu to drive out an evil spirit, however, his parents believe that he “has done worse than bring shame to the family – [he] has enraged the blue sky.”  The night of his childish intervention has led to the killing of a dozen sheep by wolves, and they believe it is his fault.  Though he swears off shamanizing, he still cannot keep himself from chanting when he is outdoors, calling out to the spirits, and using the poetry which frequently overcomes his soul to praise and honor them.

Altai Mountains with yurt

Unfortunately for him, he is overheard one day by his much older brother, who has returned home unexpectedly from the Russian boarding school where he is the principal.  He announces to the parents that Dsurukuwaa has “played the baby long enough – it has to stop.  Anyone who makes rhymes on death and the devil and fills the sky and the earth with his shouting can learn a few measly letters and numbers,” and he convinces them to let him bring the boy to the boarding school where another older brother and sister are already in attendance.  The boy “feels ambushed.”  When his sister and brother went to school, “they looked dazzling, wrapped from head to toe in colorful brand-new clothes Mother had sewn throughout the summer.  Father himself had led them away.”  He, however, is in rags.  “My headscarf is frayed and stained with squirrel blood and fish slime,” and he hopes no one will see him. Frightened and convinced that he is truly different, he arrives at the school and finds it a “prison,” a word which takes on new meanings when he tries to escape the school, gets caught, and ends up beaten and thrown into the equivalent of a real prison at the age of eight.

Larches with Altai Mountains in background. One offensive of the head of the school involves cutting down the larches nearby, which stimulates outrage first, then surrender by the students.

Galsan Tschinag’s sensibilities dominate this novel/memoir, but he never loses sight of his childhood point of view, even as he recreates the political climate of Mongolia under the Russian occupation and the very real areas in which the Russian goals conflict with the inherent spirituality of many of the students in the school.  For the Russians, only the pragmatic, present, and achievable ends which govern both the school administration and the occupying forces, have any value, and they use their allies, the Kazakhs, to enforce these goals.  Someone like Dshukurukuwaa/ Tshinag, with a strong awareness of the spiritual values inherent in the sky, the land, and the mountains, must either keep his mouth shut or risk all. Before long, the “chinks” in the armor of those Mongolians who seem to be cooperating fully with the Russians appear, as circumstances arise in which one or more of them needs the help of a shaman to fend off devastating illness or physical danger.

Chalama, colored cloths placed on a tree in a sacred place, symbolize reverence for the universe, the grandeur, beauty, and wisdom of nature.

While the boy suffers alone and tries to survive his new environment, he also wants to learn, and he is so intelligent that he is able to straddle the line between the old and the new ways, at least in public.  The vibrant and sympathetic depiction of peripheral characters with whom Dshurukuwaa comes into contact, many of them lonely people without his own inner resources, adds to the drama of this novel and conveys the many levels on which the fight to preserve or destroy the “alien” culture of the Tuvans takes place.  Infighting, as one person cooperating with the authorities tries to save himself by blaming another, will sound familiar, and as those in charge set about instituting a series of  “offensives” to emphasize the power and influence of the Russians, they set up the conditions which result in a dramatic denouement affecting Dshurukuwaa and his family which nevertheless feels natural despite its obvious symbolism.  Katharina Rout’s translation helps bring this novel to life and makes each character feel like “one of us” on the human level, despite the obvious differences in culture.  Powerful and enlightening.

ALSO by Tschinag:  THE BLUE SKY

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

The Mongolian boy is shown on http://worldexpeditions.co.uk

The Altai Mountains with a yurt may be found on http://www.filmapia.com/

The larches on the Altai are from http://www.russiawanderer.com/

Chalama, brightly colored cloths on a tree on a sacred place represent reverence for the universe and the grandeur, beauty, and wisdom of naturehttp://tyulyush.wordpress.com/

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