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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kit Fan–DIAMOND HILL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Kit Fan

Author Kit Fan

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Alan Parks–THE APRIL DEAD

“They were standing in the middle of West Princes Street looking up at the blown-out windows and scorched sandstone of what had been the flat at number 43.  The flats around had suffered too: cracked windows, torn curtains hanging out, a window box filled with daffodils sitting face down in the middle of the road…Glasgow [had always been] Belfast without the bombs…until now that is.”

cover parksSet in Glasgow in the days between April 12, 1974 and April 22, 1974, this dark, mystery thriller by Alan Parks focuses on the dysfunctional aspects of life in one of Scotland’s major cities, one well known for its gangs and knife crime.  According to research by Beltramian and Company,*  it is “the least peaceful of all the major urban areas in the UK,” and though it has improved in the present day, “recent studies have found that up to 3,500 [young men] between the ages of 11 and 23 have joined one of the 170 street gangs within the city’s borders. Furthermore, the homicide rate for Glasgow males between 10 and 29 is comparable to rates of Argentina, Costa Rica and Lithuania.”  Life in Glasgow is both difficult and dangerous, and author Alan Parks, a long-time resident, knows it well.  Author of four novels set in Glasgow in the 1970s, Parks specializes in “Tartan Noir,” and brings this difficult city to life in each one, recognizing the horrors of violence and the underlying economic conditions which make any kind of “ordinary life” there a dark challenge. He sees life as it is and depicts it in all its grim reality.

Donald Stewart, son of Andrew, disappears from the nuclear naval base in Greenock.

Donald Stewart, son of Andrew, disappears from the nuclear naval base in Greenock.

The novel opens with an explosion at a “shitey rented flat in Glasgow,” which the polis see as a bizarre attempt to strike at the British establishment. A superficial investigation indicates that there is one dead man, whom Harry McCoy and his partner Wattie decide was the bomber.  It is not until Hughie Faulds, a cop from Belfast, shows up with his superior experience, that they learn details that show the victim was inexperienced and trying to make the bomb when it went off prematurely.  Now the concern is that someone or some group may be making more bombs, a new problem for  Glasgow.  In the midst of this turmoil, an American man, Andrew Stewart, approaches McCoy. Stewart’s son Donald, a young American sailor assigned to the American naval base in Greenock, has gone missing.  Young Donald is a shy man, not the adventurous type, and his father, a former navy captain, is frantic with worry.

Prison in Aberdeen where McCoy will pick up friend Stevie Cooper. (Photo: David Cation)

Prison in Aberdeen where McCoy will pick up a friend.

Since McCoy is about to leave for Aberdeen, he allows the father, who has traveled to Glasgow from Boston,  to accompany him on the ride to tell his story.  McCoy is going to Aberdeen Prison to pick up a friend, who “got into a wee bit of bother, nothing serious.”  That man, a childhood friend named Stevie Cooper, has been badly beaten and kicked by the officers in the prison, perhaps because of his connection to a fight with Pat Dixon and his brother Jamsie, a man who is about to be sentenced to several years in prison  for his violence and his problems in Glasgow.  Connections between the prison officers, the police, and the crime lords of Glasgow are suggested, and Cooper seems connected to them. Adding to the narrative mix, Andrew Stewart represented the U.S. in boxing in the 1948 Olympics, and Stevie Cooper is a boxing promoter, and these two begin to spend time together.

GlasgowCathedralDavidCationPhotography-5c72ca0ec9e77c000149e4fe

Glasgow Cathedral. Photo by David Cation.

Then another explosion occurs, this one at the Glasgow Cathedral.  As the various characters begin to interact more directly, McCoy begins to believe that Cooper may be involved in some of the troubles, perhaps in a big way.  He also begins to believe that Donny Stewart, missing son of Andrew Stewart, might not be as timid as his father thinks he is. Murders take place, and some of McCoy’s non-police friends make suggestions regarding the possible guilt of various characters whom the reader has come to know.  The possibility that the IRA is involved in some of the trauma further adds to the complexity and the international scope.  Another bombing at a brewery leads to additional deaths, and some evidence suggests that one or more private groups, including a commune, may, in reality, be private military groups with their own set of governmental goals.  A hoard of old photos showing men being tortured, perhaps by the British army, adds a new element of horror and raises questions regarding the people responsible for the photos and their own possible involvement in the crimes McCoy is investigating.

Alan Parks: Photo by ENRIC FONTCUBERTA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10546128a) British writer Alan Parks poses for a photograph during an interview in Barcelona, Spain, 30 January 2020 (issued 02 February 2020), on the occasion of the 'BCNegra' Crime Fiction Literature Festival. The event runs from 30 January to 09 February 2020. Alan Parks at Barcelona's Crime Fiction Festival, Spain - 02 Feb 2020

Alan Parks: Photo by ENRIC FONTCUBERTA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

By far the most complex of the three McCoy novels I have read so far, The April Dead features approximately forty characters, some of them present for much of the book and some merely for short scenes. Keeping a character list saves a lot of page-flipping as these characters appear and reappear (or not).  The overall mood throughout is high pressured and tense, and the novel lacks any kind of comic relief or even the relief of seeing some major issues become successfully resolved before the conclusion.  The deaths keep coming, and while the perpetrators may seem obvious to some characters and the reader, those who are really responsible always seems to remain a mystery.  One factor which makes the mood particularly depressing is that there are almost no women in the book – for good or for bad – and the chance for a break from the super-macho behavior of the police, the military, and the criminal elements never occurs.  When McCoy himself ultimately manipulates some of the evidence to achieve an end he personally deems to be “right,” the depths to which one good man will stoop for the “right” result are laid out for the world to see, if anyone still has any questions.  With non-stop action, constant surprises, deaths and near-deaths, torture, torment, and evil involving virtually all the “good” institutions civilization counts on for its existence, Alan Parks raises some thought-provoking issues on many levels. More loosely connected, plot-wise, than previous McCoy novels, The April Dead will still appeal to Parks’s many Tartan noir fans, while others may hope that the author eventually expands his characterizations to include one or two who find a ray of hope even amidst the horrors.

* Note: Beltramian and Company has published its information about Glasgow here: https://www.beltramiandcompany.co.uk

ALSO by Parks: BLOODY JANUARY    and  BOBBY MARCH WILL LIVE FOREVER

Photos:  The photo of the Greenock Naval Station appears on: https://www.bbc.com

The Prison in Aberdeen, where McCoy picked up Stevie Cooper: https://www.alamy.com

Glasgow Cathedral, one of the bombing sites:  https://www.tripsavvy.com

Author Alan Parks:  https://www.shutterstock.com

THE APRIL DEAD
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Scotland, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Alan Parks
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 08/03/2021
ISBN: 978-1609456870
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Elena knows that “Even if she uses all the tricks in the book, she won’t be able to uncover the truth [about her daughter’s death] unless she recruits another body to help her.  A different body that can act in her place.  That can investigate, ask questions, walk, look directly into people’s eyes.  A body that will obey [her] orders.  Not her own body.”

41oTYgS+QFL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Suffering from a debilitating illness which limits her movement, Elena, an Argentinian mother in her sixties, has decided she will need help in resolving the death of her daughter Rita, assumed by police and investigators to have been a suicide.  Found hanging from the belfry of her local church while a service was in progress, daughter Rita, a middle-aged teacher at the local Catholic school, was Elena’s primary caregiver, though they argued constantly.  Rita believed all sorts of superstitions and was somewhat romantic, but she was a devout church goer.  Her mother Elena, by contrast, has always been far more pragmatic, not sure whether she believes or has any faith at all, though she does observe the holidays. In an argument with the local priest over whether Rita committed an “aberrant act” by committing suicide, Elena goes so far as to tell the priest that his own “appropriating the word of God is the greatest act of pure arrogance,” and that he has no right to take away her right to decide how to behave or how [she] lives her life.  Or how [she or her daughter] dies.”  She “knows” that Rita did not kill herself – because it was raining, and Rita was so afraid of lightning that she never even went outside if it rained.

C;laudia Piñeiro, winner of the Premio Femenino Singular, and Premio Clarin for her work.

Claudia Piñeiro, winner of the Premio Femenino Singular, and Premio Clarin for her work as a novelist.

Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro, a highly successful author in her own country who has also published four previous “mystery” novels in the U.S., is a careful observer of the social scene in Argentina, providing much information about contemporary life there in the early 2000s, when these “mystery novels” were originally published there.  With this novel, which is also described as a “mystery novel,” she writes a far more character-based novel than what I have seen in her previous novels.  Here the character of Elena, a particularly iconoclastic and independent thinker and actor, becomes the key to solving the “mystery” of daughter Rita’s death and unlocking the hidden lives of Elena and Rita, including many of the issues which led to the constant arguments between this mother and daughter.

Rita was afraid to walk on the black and white tiles in front of a women's center in the city.

Rita was afraid to walk on the black and white tiles in front of a women’s center in the city.

Marshalling all her energy to pursue what she considers the incorrect cause of death – suicide, rather than murder – Elena will stop at nothing as she begins her own investigation, ignoring the conclusions of the police and the church, and challenging both priests and police officers.  At the same time, as she does her own investigation, she brings up a long-ago peripheral case in which she and Rita were on opposite sides of the question of abortion as it related to one of their acquaintances.  Elena was in favor of the mother’s right to choose, while Rita believed in the absolute sanctity of life.  As she heads by train to central Buenos Aires to talk with the woman whose desire for an abortion twenty years ago might be a key to helping her in her current situation, Elena fears the woman will not remember who she is but hopes she will help her.  As she heads toward the house where she thinks she will find this woman from twenty years ago, she sees the black and white tiles of the pavement which have always signaled the “abortionist’s house” for her.  Her daughter Rita always refused to walk on those tiles, and she herself always accompanied her daughter on the opposite side of the street so Rita would not have to walk alone there.

Rita saved her money to buy a sea lion filled with special liquid, like that here. If it turned ink it would be a rainy day. If blue, it would be sunny.

Rita saved her money to buy a glass sea lion filled with special liquid, like that here. If it turned pink it would be a rainy day. If blue, it would be sunny.

The narrative, which takes place during a single day, gradually includes Elena’s thoughts from the past, including her relationship with her husband and his attitudes toward the church and its policies.  A porter at the Catholic school, he was also a theology teacher there, believing deeply in the church and  its teachings, while Elena paid only lip service to them.  This gave daughter Rita two different points of view to observe while she herself tried to remain within the church’s good graces – the deeply felt beliefs of her father, the more rational behavior of her mother, and her own fears of making a mistake.  It is this fear which caused her to resort to superstition, just in case that worked, too – refusing to go outside in the rain to avoid being hit by lightning, refusing to walk on black and white paving stones, and even saving her money to buy a glass sea lion filled with a chemical which turned pink if it was expected to rain, and blue if it would be sunny.  A kind person, she also considered a handicapped young man to be her boyfriend, though her mother was repulsed and rejected this idea.  All the churchly conflicts experienced by Elena, the contrasts with her husband, and the confusions of Rita, highlight Elena’s inability to share who she really is – and to learn from others.

The train to Buenos Aires, where much of the action takes place, was difficult for Elena to negotiate due to her illness.

The train to Buenos Aires, where much of the action takes place, was difficult for Elena to negotiate due to her illness.

A new series of medical tests and new information regarding Elena’s illness lead to the climax, and as the beliefs which underlie the lives of each person help, or clearly do not help, them deal with the “meaning” of the tests as they are personally affected by these new results, the death of Rita takes on new significance.  Each character, including Isabel, the woman from the past that Elena has sought out in the city, has a reaction to the news of the testing based on her own past history, and each hopes to be able to deal with it successfully in some way.  The answer for Elena arrives unexpectedly, eventually arising, not from any book or priest or prayer or source of advice.  Instead, the unexpected arrival of a being guaranteed to survive and win any argument, one who is never wrong, and one who will never talk back, gives tomorrow a whole new look.   Facing the future may not be so bad after all.

ALSO by Piñiero:  ALL YOURS,     BETTY BOO,    A CRACK IN THE WALL.     THURSDAY NIGHT WIDOWS

Photos. The author’s photo is by Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images, and it appears on https://www.theguardian.com

Rita was afraid to walk on the black and white paving stones outside a women’s center, even after she was an adult.  https://www.pinterest.com

Rita enjoyed a weather indicator in the shape of a sea lion, similar to the heart-shaped one here.  On a rainy day, the liquid would turn pink.  On a sunny day, it would be blue.  https://www.etsy.com

The train to Buenos Aires, where much of the action takes place, was difficult for Elena to negotiate due to her illness. https://www.alamy.com

ELENA KNOWS
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Argentina, Book Club Suggestions, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Claudia Piñeiro
Published by: Charco Press
Date Published: 07/13/2021
ISBN: 978-1999368432
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“An old man had sat down on the bench across from me and was looking straight at me….Then suddenly the old man spoke.  “A circle with many centers…sometimes an infinite number…[he announced], and it’s a circle with no circumference….Not everyone can see it….You’ve got to imagine it with your own power….[The old man paused.] If you put in such an intense effort that you feel like you’re sweating blood – that’s when it gradually becomes clear what the circle is.”

cover murakamiThis image of the circle becomes the focus of  “Cream,” the first story in First Person, Singular, the newest work by Haruki Murakami.  A young man is reminiscing about the past and the piano recitals he once shared with a young woman, when he receives a surprise invitation to attend a concert which she will be giving at a concert hall at the top of a mountain in Kobe.  Two years have passed since he has seen her, and he decides to attend, traveling up the mountain.  The higher he goes, the fewer people he sees, and when he gets to the top, the gate to the concert hall is locked and chained.  Resting in a park there at the top, he gathers his thoughts, when suddenly, a very old man appears without warning.  The old man’s first words describe a strange circle with “many centers” and “no circumference.”  Puzzled, the young man wonders what he is talking about and asks whether it is possible ever to see such a circle.  The elderly man tells him that if he works as hard as he possibly can to understand and fully appreciate that difficult image, “it becomes the cream of your life…the best of the best, the most important essence of life.  The rest is just boring and worthless.”  Then the old man vanishes.

author photoIn what is the most engrossing collection of stories I have read in years, the author introduces and continues to focus, as he does in “Cream,” on the very meaning of reality and how one approaches it, participates in it, and finds ways to survive and enjoy it – through love, hope, trust, friendship, and any number of other imaginative ways. Though this may seem an esoteric and complex philosophical set of ideas, Murakami’s own personality shines through here – and the resulting stories are not only surprisingly lively and enjoyable, but most often fun and funny.  The subjects – including jazz, baseball, a talking monkey, and an unattractive woman who happens to share the speaker’s deep love of Schumann’s “Carnaval” –  are offbeat but so brilliantly relatable that this reader, at least, was able to put aside any qualms about the exotic content in order to see and enjoy what the author would do with these subjects.  

The imaginary album that the speaker finds in a used-record shop in NYC.

The imaginary album that the speaker finds in a used-record shop in NYC.

The stories never fail to intrigue. “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” takes place in 1963, eight years after Charlie “Bird” Parker vanished from sight.  Now, apparently, Parker has resurfaced, and once again picked up his alto sax to record an album in a studio outside New York.  He is even playing the bossa nova, a new kind of music for him.  The journalist who wrote this story published it when he was in college, and, he readily admits, there is really no such album as “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” since Charlie Parker died on March, 12, 1955.  Continuing his praise as if Parker were still alive, and commenting on Parker’s work here with Antonio Carlos Jobim, in all its detail, the author of the article nevertheless brings Charlie Parker and his music back to life.  He receives praise for it from the editor of the journal which published it – until the editor of the journal discovers that the article has all been a fantasy.  Years later, in New York, the author of the article, while shopping in a used record store, finds a remarkable album entitled “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” and it looks exactly as he described it years ago in his fantasy journal article.  Murakami has great fun playing with this journal writer, the writer’s feelings for Bird, and his love of Bird’s music in a final set of twists, as reality plays its own games, both for the writer and for the reader.

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Shinagawa monkey, one befriended by the speaker at an inn in a “hot springs town.”

“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” takes place in a Japanese “hot springs town” where the writer, a visitor, has difficulty finding a place to sleep. When he finally succeeds in finding a low cost room, he is happy to stay there,  especially so when he discovers that a shinagawa monkey, one who reads, writes and speaks Japanese fluently, gives him a massage and scrubs his back in the spa, which has been his job at the inn for three years.  After dinner the monkey brings snacks and beer and confesses that he gets along better with humans than with his own kind, as he was brought up by a professor and his wife and does not really understand the society of monkeys.  The monkey admits that he does, sometimes, feel love for human females, however, and he expresses that love by stealing the women’s names, the “ultimate form of romantic love.”  Years later, the storyteller meets a woman who tells him that, for reasons she does not understand, she often cannot remember her own name, reminding the speaker of events from his stay at the inn and raising strange questions regarding the shinagawa monkey.

The trademark of the Yakult Swallows in Japan.

The trademark of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in Japan.

In “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” the speaker, who indicates that he is Murakami himself, confesses his passion for live baseball, especially the Yakult Sparrows team.  In fact, he has chosen to live within walking distance of the Jingu Stadium where the Sparrows play so he can walk regularly to the games. As he examines why he is such a fan of this particular team, which is not a team that wins a lot, he goes over past history, his and theirs, and as he describes the ten years leading up to the first league championship of the Yakult Sparrows, he thinks back on the poems, included here, that he has written about the team and its players.  As he watches this ordinary game, he is “quietly praying that our team wins.  But at the same time quietly steeling myself for the possibility of yet another loss,” the attitude of a true baseball fan.

Quotation from Mahatma Gandhi

Quotation from Mahatma Gandhi

Filled with new ideas, exciting and unexpected twists and turns, and much to think about, First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami is the most enjoyable and eye-opening collection of stories I have read in years – a journey into new worlds of imagination and an exploration of their possibilities.

ALSO by Murakami:  Colorless Tsukura Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

PHOTOS.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.pinterest.com

The Charlie Parker record cover is from https://illustration-awards.vam.ac.uk

The shinagawa monkey may be found on https://www.literaryroadhouse.com

The trademark of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows occurs on https://www.yakult-swallows.co.jp/en/

The quotation from Mahatma Gandhi, similar to the quotations from the mysterious man in “Cream,”
is from https://quotefancy.com

 

FIRST PERSON, SINGULAR
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Japan, Literary, Short Stories
Written by: Haruki Murakami
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 04/06/2021
ISBN: 978-0593318072
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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