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cover golden ageNote: This novel was WINNER of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian Fiction; WINNER of the Patrick White Literary Award, one of Australia’s highest honors; WINNER of the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, and WINNER of the New South Wales Premier’s People’s Choice Award for 2015.

“He felt like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home….Ever since the fever of polio had subsided, light had seemed less bright to him, older, sadder. –Frank Gold, age twelve, polio victim.

Author-Joan-London-5991765Highly lauded Australian author Joan London sets her newest novel in The Golden Age, a rehab facility for children suffering the paralyzing aftereffects of polio in the sparsely settled outskirts of Perth, Australia, which once had a disproportionately large percentage of child polio victims. Filled with realistic, straightforward details and a complete lack of easy sentimentality, the novel presents vibrant pictures of the people, places, and moods of the communities in and around Perth affected by this world-wide disease. Many readers who also grew up before the development of Jonas Salk’s “miraculous” polio vaccine in 1955 will find their own memories of this fraught time returning in abundance. August, the hottest month of the year in the US, was also the time when polio struck the greatest number of children, some of whom were their friends. Parents tried to protect children by forbidding them to go to public places, like the movies, that month, and they often postponed their children’s birthday parties to avoid exposing a whole group of friends to “the demon.” The worst punishment during the brutal “dog days” of August, was being prohibited from going swimming in local lakes and swimming holes – all because the children might “catch polio” from germs in the water.

An iron lung, in which some polio victims lived their entire lives, just in order to breathe. Fewer than a dozen such victims still survive.

Some polio victims lived their entire lives in an iron lung, just in order to breathe. Fewer than a dozen such victims still survive to the present.

Main character Frank Gold, a twelve-year-old who has immigrated to Australia from Hungary, has already survived the Nazi terrors in his country in which his father was captured and assigned to a work camp. His mother hid Frank with someone she knew across the Danube River so that Frank would not be caught if she herself were apprehended. He lived indoors with her friend, avoiding windows for months, until the family could reunite and then escape the country.  Ultimately being transported to a community near Perth, Australia, the family once again faces disaster: Frank “catches polio” and is paralyzed, unable to walk. Assigned to The Golden Age rehabilitation center for therapy, he and his only friend, Elsa Briggs, also age twelve and paralyzed, are the oldest children there, dependent upon each other. The novel flashes back to when Frank was previously in the Infectious Diseases Branch of the Royal Perth Hospital, where he was one of the youngest patients, almost a mascot to the other residents, and it is there that he became friends with Sullivan Backhouse, in his late teens, an older boy confined to an iron lung who would not let his physical limitations quell his desire to write poetry. It is Sullivan who encourages Frank intellectually, and gives him a goal – he, too, wants to become a poet – and when Frank is later moved to The Golden Age, for younger children, he sees himself as the “little maimed animal” he describes in the opening quotation of this review.

The Gellert Hotel and the Szabadsag (Liberty) Bridge were two milestones for Frank's mother when she took him to stay with an acquaintance across the Danube during the last part of the war.

The Gellert Hotel and the Szabadsag (Liberty) Bridge in Budapest were two landmarks for Frank’s mother when she took him to stay with an acquaintance across the Danube during the last part of the war.

As the book develops, the emphasis is on character, and the reader soon gets to know the people in the facility, including the nurses, therapists, and teachers; the families of Frank and Elsa; and all the patients Frank comes into contact with, including their stories about the moment they first knew they had polio.  What makes all these memories so effective is that the details feel so ordinary, so typical, not only of the lives of these young children, but also of the lives of readers from that age who will universally empathize with them and share their traumas. Details, no matter how significant, are revealed casually here, in the manner of children, creating great drama in their irony. While in Budapest, Frank’s mother, for example, must decide whether to take Frank to stay in Budapest with an acquaintance who is not Jewish. Eventually, she decides that “it was more acceptable to her if her son was killed by a bomb [there], along with everybody else, rather than singled out, hunted down and left to drown in the Danube tied to another who had been shot. Two, or even three, for one. In that way, bullets were saved.”

The Perth Modern School, founded in 1909, gave Frank a full scholarship to attend. His father now doubts that he will be able to do that.

The Perth Modern School, founded in 1909, gave Frank a full scholarship to attend. His father now doubts that he will be able to do that.

Flashing backward and forward, the author creates a broad and dramatic scope without becoming tied down to the big events of the historical period and the big emotions of their everyday lives. When Elsa chides Frank for being critical of other children at The Golden Age, she tells him that he lacks “Christian charity.” His explanation that he is not a Christian but a Jew makes her realize that she’d never thought of Jews as not being Christian. “Jesus was a Jew,” she remarks. To which Frank responds, smartly, “And you know what happened to him. We Jews have to be on the lookout.’ Declaring him a “funny boy,” she sees in him “the look of someone who has lain in bed thinking, alone, for too many nights,” an observation the reader, presumably older and wiser, will accept fully.

In 1955, Jonas Salk created a successful vaccine against polio. Cases between 1955 and 1957 were reduced by 80 percent.

In 1955, Jonas Salk created a successful vaccine against polio. Cases between 1955 and 1957 were reduced by 80 percent.

With the nurses and other employees of the Golden Age eventually going out to dances and flirting, the novel introduces the ideas of love and sex, and soon Frank and Elsa, though innocent, feel completely in love, even as some of the adults they know, responding to the traumas they, too, have faced, look for love and sex in new places. Frank and Elsa, desperate for some sort of connection with the outside world and anxious to live according to their own desires, rather than in the circumscribed world of their illness and its limitations, soon begin to experiment with ways to show their love to each other. Eventually, the time comes for both to leave The Golden Age, released to their parents’ care where they must deal with their recovery on their own terms, though alone and separated by distance and social backgrounds.

The final chapter, entitled “New York,” unnumbered and different from the others in intensity, begins about fifty years after the previous action of the novel and brings all the elements of the novel together, in terms of both plot and themes. The grandson of one of the main characters visits the other character and asks about the love between the two young people during the polio epidemic, wonders what that character has learned over time, and questions what the character is doing now. Abrupt in its change of time and place, and surprising in its revelations, the conclusion fits with the statements made by these characters earlier in the novel. Some readers may be disappointed because the conclusion is not what they expected, or disappointed in the characters and their decisions, a testament to the reality of these characters and their ability to involve the reader. Some, however, will cheer this final scene for its honesty, an appropriate ending for a novel in which very young people make life-changing decisions to preserve their sense of self, while, at the same time, circumstances beyond their control are also are work to change their futures.

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

The iron lung is shown on http://maureenhelen.com/

The Szabadsag (Liberty) Bridge and the Gellert Hotel are iconic landmarks in Budapest, and were noted as part of Ida Gold’s trip with Frank when she took him across the river to stay more safely with an acquaintance across the river.  http://www.budapesthotelreservation.hu/

The Modern School, built in Perth in 1909, offered Frank a full scholarship, but his father is not sure he will be able to attend now that he is crippled.   http://www.perthmodern.wa.edu.au/

In 1955 Jonas Salk successfully developed a vaccine against polio.  Between 1955 and 1957, the number of cases dropped by eighty percent.  http://medicinalanimalexperimentationpointlesscrueltyornecessaryevil.weebly.com

ARC: Europa Editions

REVIEW. Australia, Book Club Suggestions, Coming-of-age, Historical, Literary, Psychological study. Prize winner.
Written by: Joan London
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 08/16/2016
ISBN: 978-1609453329
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Patrick Modiano–HONEYMOON

Note: French author Patrick Modiano was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. He has also been WINNER of the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise in 1972, the Prix Goncourt in 1978, and the Prix Mondial Cino del Duca in 2010 for the total body of his work.

“For a long time…summer has been a season that gives me a sense of emptiness and absence, and takes me back to the past. Is it the too-harsh light, the silence of the streets, those contrasts of the shade and the setting sun, the other evening, on the facades of the buildings in the Boulevard Soult? The past and the present merge in my mind through a phenomenon of superimposition. That’s where the malaise must come from.” –Jean B.

cover honeymoon modianoThe superimposition of past and present, so often featured in the work of Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick Modiano becomes not only the primary aspect of the plot of this narrative, written in 1990, but also a controlling idea in its structure. Jean B., the main character, appears in episodes from the age of twenty through his late forties, as the narrative switches back and forth among time periods. The characters in his life, both real and reconstructed from memory, and from both his present and his past, appear, disappear, and reappear as time passes and Jean B. learns more about them and shares information about them with the reader. Twenty years old in the 1960s, when he describes hitching a ride to Saint Tropez with Ingrid Teyrsen and her husband, known as Rigaud, a couple in their mid-thirties, Jean B. is in his late forties when the book takes place “in the present,” sometime around 1990, when the novel was published. By that point he has had a successful career, is married to Annette, and is living in Paris. Sandwiched between these time frames are several intersecting stories, including Jean B’s memories of Ingrid and Rigaud, which gradually unfold and raise questions about who they really were – and, more importantly, who Jean B. really is.

Author photo by Michel Clement AFP.

Author photo by Michel Clement AFP.  He appears here to be about the age that Jean B. would have been during the last part of the novel.

As the novel opens, Jean B. is in Milan.  A resident of Paris, Jean is an explorer and maker of documentary films, but he has become disenchanted with his job, and his private life is falling apart. His wife is having an affair with Cavanagh, his friend and partner in the film business. Privately, the discouraged Jean B. has decided to stage his own disappearance.  Instead of taking his scheduled flight from Paris to Rio to begin a new documentary, he has flown instead to Milan, and upon arriving, he never leaves the airport. Having convinced his family and fellow filmmakers that he has, in fact, left on the announced flight for Rio, he immediately turns around and secretly flies back to Paris, planning to stay in a Paris hotel, not at home, and to change hotels regularly so that he will not be discovered. At some point he plans to tell his wife what he is doing – but not yet.

Train station in Milan, where Jean B. bought a newspaper telling of Ingrid's death.

Train station in Milan, where Jean B. bought a newspaper telling of Ingrid’s death.

On an earlier trip to Milan eighteen years before, Jean had had an experience that has continued to niggle away at the back of his mind for the eighteen years since then. While staying at a hotel there, he learned that a woman had committed suicide in the same hotel while he was registered.  Upon reading the story in the local newspaper, he discovered that the suicide was a person he knew from when he was twenty – Ingrid Teyrsen, who with her husband Rigaud had accompanied him to St. Tropez ten years before.  Age forty-five at the time of her suicide, Ingrid’s suicide confounded him, especially since friends had been waiting for her in Capri. He had tried to find out more about her and Rigaud upon his return to Paris just after her suicide, but he had been unsuccessful in locating Rigaud at the only address he had for him and had dropped the subject as his work became all-encompassing. The suicide of Ingrid continued to niggle away at the back of his mind for eighteen years, however, and now, having officially “disappeared” from his job and is marriage, Jean B. decides to investigate her life and death from his vantage point in Paris, and perhaps come to some new knowledge about her and himself.

View of Piazza del Duomo in center of Milan. Jean B. finds a bookstore to amuse him while there.

View of the Piazza del Duomo in the center of Milan. Jean B. finds a bookstore to amuse himself while there, as all the shops are closed for vacation.

Often challenging to follow because of the time shifts, especially at the beginning, the narrative switches without warning, and often without transitions, among three time frames:  the first, on the Cote d’Azur, when Jean B. is twenty and Ingrid is thirty-five; the second, Jean’s visit to Milan and the suicide of Ingrid when she is forty-five; and finally, events in “the present,” eighteen years after that suicide. In the course of investigating Ingrid’s life, however, Jean B. also learns much about her earlier life as a teenager, when she is sixteen and working as a dancer; her “marriage” to Rigaud shortly afterward; and ultimately, her life in Paris during World War II and the Occupation. Throughout all these episodes and time shifts, Modiano incorporates imagery of light and dark, warmth and cold, and continuity and permanence, while developing themes of life and death, appearance and disappearance, and love and loss. Winding through all the subplots here is also an awareness that people are fallible – often victims of their emotions – and that their sense of responsibility is dependent upon their immediate emotional commitments and their present circumstances. As is often the case with Modiano, too, there is no dominating philosophical value system which governs a person’s decision-making. People often act on the basis of their emotions, and they often make mistakes.

cite veron

Cite Veron, located behind the Moulin Rouge in Paris, is a popular place for writers, and is where Jean B. himself lives. Boris Vian also lived here.

Readers who have never read Modiano may be surprised to discover how earnest he is as he writes his novels and deals with issues which feel real and personal. Much of his writing, is, in fact, based on real events from his life, which includes a childhood which can only be described as bizarre, negligent, and unfeeling on the part of his absentee parents, and, for him personally, often lonely in the extreme. In fact, reading Modiano conjures up many of the issues that all of us deal with as we go though our teen years, but because of his personal circumstances, with apparently no real love and no good examples to follow for much of his life – until he is taken under the wing of writer Raymond Queneau – his issues are far more serious, and his ability to survive them and learn from them makes his achievements that much more remarkable. It is this sad characteristic which make his readers respond to his novels so viscerally and with such empathy. He writes spare prose with little lyricism, but he evokes emotions so real that many of us have become addicted to his writing, perhaps in the hope that what he discovers about life will be applicable to our own. As Modiano says, “ Circumstances and settings are of no importance. One day this sense of emptiness and remorse submerges you. Then, like a tide, it ebbs and disappears.”  Whether one can survive this emptiness and find the resources needed to float above it when it inevitably returns are subjects he continues to explore in other novels.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo, taken when he was about the age of Jean B. in this novel, appears on https://newrepublic.com/   The photographer was Michel Clement, AFP

The railroad station in Milan, where Jean B. bought a newspaper telling of the death of Ingrid Teyrsen, is shown on http://www.milanostation.com

The Piazza del Duomo in the center of Milan is by http://www.matteocolombo.com/

The Cite Veron in Paris, an enclave in which a number of writers have lived, is located behind the Moulin Rouge:  https://soundlandscapes.files.wordpress.com/

REVIEW. France, Italy, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Patrick Modiano
Published by: Verba Mundi
Date Published: 10/29/2014
Edition: Reprint
ISBN: 978-1567925388
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

“Here in Zimbabwe, I don’t think we see death like it is in the UK…The whites I have met don’t know what to do when there is catastrophe. They think it will never happen. Zimbabweans, blacks, we expect a catastrophe…We don’t panic. Our economy collapses, money’s worth nothing, HIV, angry ancestors, failing crops, crashing cars… and still we get up in the morning and still we have to feed ourselves and our children.” – Man in bar speaking to Jerry Jones.

cover death rex nhongoAuthor C. B. George, a mysterious author who provides no biographical information and no photograph, tells a story of contemporary Zimbabwe, still being ruled after almost thirty-six years by dictator Robert Mugabe, now aged ninety-two. A one-party ruler, he has been famed for his appropriation of white-owned lands and their redistribution to black farmers and political allies, the disappearance and death of political enemies, the use of terror, and gross human rights abuses, all to enforce his will and to ensure the retention of his office and his wealth. Here author C. B. George, who lives in the UK, according to the book jacket, presents the narratives of three couples who represent different aspects of contemporary life in Zimbabwe, primarily in the capital of Harare. The author’s sense of drama and his ability to pace the narrative to keep the reader continuously involved in the lives of his characters, while simultaneously focusing on the attempts of these people and their families to lead “normal” lives, suggest that he may have a background in television or film.

Guy Watson-Smith, who had owned the appropriated farm where Rex Nhongo was later found dead.

Guy Watson-Smith, whose family had owned the appropriated farm where Rex Nhongo was later found dead.

The novel opens with a brief Preface telling the story of Rex Nhongo, the nom de guerre of General Solomon Mujuru, a hero of the Zimbabwean War for Independence and former chief of the army, whose body was found completely incinerated in a farmhouse outside of Harare in August, 2011. Identification was possible only through dental records, though the rug on which the body was found was barely scorched. At an inquest, a maid and a private security guard on the property reported hearing gunshots two hours before the fire, though a special “VIP police security detail” just a few meters from the farmhouse heard nothing: Their radio was broken, their phones were “out of minutes,” and there had been a power failure. When the fire engines arrived from Harare, forty minutes away, all the water in their tanks had leaked out en route. The white owner from whom the farm had been appropriated by the rulers testified that the roof was made of asbestos sheeting and was fireproof and that the bedroom where the general was found had three doors and four double windows, making it virtually impossible for someone to get trapped. Ultimately, the general’s death was declared to be the result of “smoke inhalation.”

Solomon Mufuru, also known as Rex Nhongo,

Solomon Mujuru, also known as Rex Nhongo,

Though there are several references to this event – and the book’s title shows its importance – little more is said about Rex Nhongo during the novel. Instead this real event and its outcome serve as symbolic lessons for all the participants in the action here. When a former national hero and right hand man to the President can die such a horrific death, and that death can be found to be accidental “smoke inhalation,” with no follow-up and no charges brought, the reader and the “ordinary” people who are featured in this novel know that powerful forces control everything of importance and that no “ordinary” person can possibly win against such power.


Fadzai serves sixty meals a day to help her family. Zimbabwean Peanut Stew is a local favorite.

Fadzai prepares and serves sixty meals a day to help her family. Zimbabwean Peanut Stew is a local favorite.

A unifying force in the novel is a taxi driver named Patson whose cab is commandeered one night by a man later identified as Mr. Mandiveyi, who works for the Central Intelligence Organization. When two off-duty soldiers pass the cab on foot and attempt a shakedown of the unknown occupants, Mr. Mandiveyi opens his briefcase, takes out a gun and shoots at the soldiers. He then makes sure that Patson knows his name and informs him that he will “call” again. Patson, married to Fadzai, a home cook who serves sixty meals a day to help support the family, has two teenage children, one of whom later finds the gun when he is cleaning the cab, presenting Patson with the difficult problem of what to do with it while also trying to avoid Mandiveyi. Also living with Patson is his wife’s brother Gilbert, who has come from the countryside to the city because there are more opportunities to work in Harare. An eternal optimist, Gilbert is married to Bessie, and they have a two-year-old who is staying with his grandmother in the countryside. Bessie works as a nanny/babysitter for a British couple newly arrived in Zimbabwe.

One character decides to invest in the gold mines in Zimbabwe, a business largely controlled by the government.

One character decides to invest in the gold mines in Zimbabwe, a business largely controlled by the government.

The British couple for whom Bessie works is Jerry Jones, a nurse, and his wife April, who works for the British Embassy. Because he has come to the country as the spouse of a government official, Jerry cannot work, but he can volunteer to help a local doctor who tries to improve health conditions for the poorest of the poor. His wife meets many other newcomers, one of whom is Shawn Appiah, a black American from New York whose wife Kuda is Zimbabwean. Formerly known as the McLaren family, the Appiahs are a bit mysterious, their daughter Rosie presenting a child’s point of view through italicized sections in which she talks about an invisible spirit which inspires her to act.

Gilbert, an optimist, identifies with Voltaire's Candide, even while working 20 hours a day.

Gilbert, an optimist, identifies with Voltaire’s Candide, even while working 20 hours a day.

As all these characters work, interact, and try to avoid trouble, they become a microcosm for the country as a whole. Those in charge live on a different plane and can do what they want, as long as they stay on the right side of those in power, but as Rex Nhongo discovered, even those who seem totally protected from disaster are vulnerable. As each person here tries to improve his/her life, some get caught up unwittingly in the morass surrounding them, some are simply naïve, and some who do everything “right” are simply the victims of fate. The novel successfully depicts people who have little control over their lives no matter how hard they work. A couple of elements do not seem to fit, however. Gilbert, living with his sister and Patson, away from his wife and baby, is still an optimist who identifies with Voltaire’s Candide while working low level jobs over twenty hours a day. Though the reader knows he loves to read as an escape, this reference and his choice of reading – Dickens, Hardy, Eliot, and Baldwin – seem to stretch plausibility, under the circumstances. The whole subplot involving Rosie, the Appiahs’ daughter, and her imaginary, sometimes wicked, friend Sasa introduces a supernatural element which feels at odds with the realism of the rest of the novel. As one character observes, “Normality for people like [us] means navigating the daily struggles with no propulsion but the swell and lull as [we] lurch from crisis to crisis.”

Photos, in order:  The photo of Guy Watson-Smith, former owner of the farm where Rex Nhongo was found dead, is from http://mutaretimes.blogspot.com/

Solomon Mujuru, also known as Rex Nhongo:  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Every day Fadzai, wife of Patson, makes 60 meals for sale to support her family.  Peanut Stew is a standard among Zimbabwe meals.  https://arousingappetites.com/

One character decides to invest in gold mining, a business largely controlled by the government and  crime.  http://www.businessdaily.co.zw/

Gilbert, ever the optimist, often sees his life as like that of Voltaire’s Candide. https://www.amazon.com

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Zimbabwe, Historical, Social and Political Issues, England
Written by: C. B. George
Published by: Lee Boudreaux Books
Date Published: 07/12/2016
ISBN: 978-0316300506
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  This novel was WINNER of the Finlandia Prize in 2011.

“There’s a limit to everything. I never hit [my wife] out in the hall of the communal apartment, or in the street, or at the office. I only hit her in our own room, because otherwise the block watch or the militia would show up…Beat your wife with a hammer and you turn her into gold, that’s what the old guys told me… It’s advice I’ve followed. Maybe too much.”—Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, “the man.”

cover, Compartment No. 6The speaker in this quotation, called “the man” throughout most of this novel, will repel every female reader – and most male readers – with his macho vulgarity, his unrelenting assessment of women in terms of their anatomy and sexual stamina, and his proud alcoholism. Leaving his battered wife behind, he is now on the trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Mongolia for a new job in construction.  Though he boasts of his ability to consume seven bottles of vodka a day in his prime, he manages “only” two bottles a day on this trip. Sharing a compartment with him, a character known only as “the girl” had hoped to be alone on this trip. Recovering from a personal crisis involving Mitka, a young friend on whom she had set her romantic sights, the girl is making this trip almost as a memorial to him.  She had met him in Moscow in college, where she studied antiquities and anthropology for three years, and they had hoped to go to Mongolia together to  see the famous ancient petroglyphs there, some of them dating back to 11,000 B.C. So quiet and repressed that she makes only one or two statements during the entire trip, she is the complete opposite of Vadim, the man, with whom she has been fated to travel.

Author photo by Bengtl Oberger.

Author photo by Bengt Oberger.

The Finnish author of this novel, Rosa Liksom, grew up in Lapland in a village of eight houses, where her family were reindeer breeders.  At seventeen she ran off to Helsinki and other cities throughout Europe, living raw, squatting in abandoned buildings and communes, and making her own way, until she began attending college in Moscow, where she decided to study anthropology and social sciences. It is not by accident that the main character here shares the same interest in cultural history and anthropology, and that “the girl” here is also in search of a change of scenery and the beginning of a new life. Liksom, with an extraordinary eye for detail, perhaps honed during her late teen years in which virtually everything she saw and did was a contrast to her life in Lapland, creates vibrant, often lyrical pictures of what might otherwise be monotonous scenery on the girl’s winter train trip to Mongolia. Also an artist, Liksom’s feeling for contrast and color make much of this voyage sound both intriguing and enlightening, despite the bitterly cold, bleak scenery though which they pass.

Oil wells and towers were much of the scenery around Omsk.

Oil wells and towers were much of the scenery around Omsk.

Readers will cringe at the obscene language that the man, Vadim, uses when he meets the girl, but gradually these two main characters come to a kind of stalemate in which Vadim sometimes makes tea for the girl in the morning, and often offers her vodka, which she refuses. She, in turn, sometimes buys vodka, cigarettes, and food for him when she is killing time in some of the villages through which they stop on their long trip from Moscow to Ulan Bator. The action takes place in the mid-1980s, when the Soviet Union still rules Mongolia, doing everything possible to wipe out the native languages and culture there, and the girl comments that “The terror [still] came and went.” Interestingly, the girl admires – even loves – the Russians and their culture, perhaps reflecting the author’s own attitude after a life of monotony in Lapland.

A grim statue of Dostoyevsky on a grim day in the city where he was assigned to a work gang.

A grim statue of Dostoyevsky on a grim day in the city where he was a prisoner assigned to a work gang.

Throughout the trip, the girl observes parallels between what she is seeing and what she remembers from some of the many novels and stories she has read by Russian authors. In bleak Omsk, she notes that the city is “sucked dry by the taiga [swampy forests], abandoned by youth…The lifeless copy of a statue of Dostoyevsky in manhood is left behind….A lonely nineteen-storey building in the middle of a field, a five-hundred-kilometre oil pipeline, the yellow flames and black smoke from the oil rigs. Forest, groves of larch and birch forest – these are no longer Omsk.” References to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Garshin’s The Scarlet Flower, the work of Pushkin and other literature abound. Music, mostly classical, is broadcast in just about every public park and on the train, from Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” played in a park in Irkutsk, Siberia’s capital, to Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” played on the train. Louis Armstrong and Dusty Springfield play on the girl’s headphones. Paintings by Ilya Repin – “The Reply of the Zaporoshian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed” – and one showing Ivan the Terrible with his fatally wounded son – accompany references to Russian history, helping to create a broad cultural background to interest the reader during the characters’ long train trip.

Young Pioneers of the Russian Communist party, in uniform. Vadim grew up as a member of this group.

Young Pioneers of the Russian Communist party, in uniform. Vadim grew up as a member of this group.

Considering the fact that neither of the main characters is one with whom the reader will identify to any great degree – Vadim because he is so disgustingly venal and the girl because she is so passive – author Liksom does a remarkable job of keeping the reader completely occupied during her novel. Vibrant pictures of life in the Soviet Union from the 1940s to the 1980s emerge as Vadim tells his life story in pieces throughout the trip, and the girl’s own life, though a bit confused and undirected, reflects some of the attitudes of young people and the reasons for her own lack of commitment. Several episodes which take place in the cities where the train stops also add to the atmosphere, especially, in one case, when the girl invites two young men, friends of a friend in Moscow, to visit her. Their fate, directly related to her innocent invitation shocks the reader, illustrating the government’s attitudes at a time in which the weakened Soviet Union is about to break up and become the Russian Federation.

Petroglyphs in Mongolia. These, from, 1000 B.C., show the use of horses for hunting. Earlier petroglyphs here date to 11,000 B.C.

Petroglyphs in Mongolia. These, from 1000 B.C., show the use of horses for hunting. Earlier petroglyphs here date to 11,000 B.C.

The plot, such as it is, consists of loosely organized episodes involving the girl and Vadim, interrupted by passages of romantic, often lyrical descriptions of nature in the winter as the girl looks out the train window. The contrast between the style of these passages, and the bleakness of the landscape helps to define the Russian characters. As the trip ends in Ulan Bator, both the girl and the man have learned from their long trip – “Its joys, sorrows, hope, hopelessness, hate, and perhaps, love,” and, as they head off in different directions, both appear more confident and controlled – he, “going out goating, to get a smell of life and death,” and she, “ready to meet her life, its happiness and unhappiness.”

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo by Bengt Oberger is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/: His page is here:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/

The oil wells and towers, which dominate the landscape near Omsk, are shown here:  http://geosferaterrestre.blogspot.com

Dostoevsky was sentenced to a work camp in Omsk and nearly died.  He is memorialized there in this statue:  http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/

Thousands of children joined the Young Pioneers, sponsored by the Russian Communist Party.  Vadim was a member of this group as a child:  http://www.atlasobscura.com

Petroglyphs in Mongolia date from 11,000 B.C.  The ones shown here are from about 1,000 B.C. and show the use of horses for hunting:  http://whc.unesco.org/

REVIEW. Exploration, Finland, Historical, Literary, Mongolia, Russia/Soviet Union, Siberia, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Rosa Lissom
Published by: Graywolf Press
Date Published: 08/02/2016
ISBN: 978-1555977474
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“You know, Batman, even if you’re a hero and it seems as if you’re not afraid of anything, I know that, in this big, dark room where they tossed us after taking us, even you are just a little bit afraid…Still, we don’t need to worry, because my papa’s going to come get us out of here. Fly, Batman fly… You’re not afraid of the dark, and I can hold onto you as you fly.” –Dodo, age ten, talking to his action figure.

cover darkness pizzoWith the release of his tenth novel to be translated and published in English since December, 2012, Neapolitan author Maurizio de Giovanni adds a third noir crime novel to his on-going “Lojacono” series featuring “the bastards of Pizzofalcone.” Giuseppe Lojacono, one of four police officers recently transferred from their home precincts to work in a backwater precinct of Naples, is, like his fellow officers, a “problem” employee in his home precinct. The four have been transferred to Pizzofalcone to replace four local officers who have been convicted of dealing with the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. The four new officers, with various special talents, also have special limitations, but each has a chance to reclaim his life if he can keep out of trouble and help solve local crimes. Set in the present, these novels are dramatically different from the seven novels previously published by de Giovanni as part of his Commissario Ricciardi series, all of which are set in Naples in the early 1930s, during the reign of Benito Mussolini.


In reading and reviewing de Giovanni’s ten novels published over the past four years, I have enjoyed watching the increasing sophistication of his work as he has further developed his ability to create vibrant settings and tense atmospheres. His repeating characters and his plots, which are unusual in that they often contain elements of dark humor, have become more intricate and challenging over time. The seven Commissario Ricciardi novels have won the hearts of readers, with characters who have become so familiar that readers root for their success and mourn their failures, while the neighborhood in which the Commissario lives and works is fully drawn and realistic. The plots in the Ricciardi series deal with all levels of society, including the very poor, the struggling shopkeepers, the clergy, hardworking families, the art and music lovers, and even the aristocracy, of which Commissario Ricciardi is a member, and the historical setting in Naples during the reign of Mussolini adds drama and excitement.  These novels have now sold over a million copies in Italy and throughout Europe and are about to become a television series in Italy.

Ramp road on Pizzofalcone, where some of the slopes re forty-five degrees.

Ramp road, Pizzofalcone, where some of the slopes are forty-five degrees.

The books in the Lojacono series are extremely dark, with The Crocodile as dark as it gets.  On three occasions in this novel, a man chooses a young teenager and stalks and and murders the child.  These teens are not trouble-makers.  They are children of whom any parent would be justifiably proud. The brutal, cold-blooded nature of the murders, foreshadowed and then fulfilled, make this the most violent and upsetting of all de Giovanni’s novels. The second in the series, The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, feels like the true introduction to the series, with four main investigators being individualized as new characters here and the unusual Pizzofalcone setting being developed. In this novel, the absurdity of the murder of a wealthy woman with a collectible “snow globe” of a ukulele player suggests that de Giovanni may have retreated a bit from the repulsive violence against teenagers in The Crocodile, and returned to the somewhat mellower style more common to the Ricciardi series.

Once a week Dep. Capt. Giorgio Pisanelli meets Bro. Leonardo for lunch at Il Gobbo: mussels, clams, prawns, beans, and pasta.

Once a week Dep. Capt. Giorgio Pisanelli meets Bro. Leonardo for lunch at Il Gobbo: mussels, clams, prawns, beans, and pasta.

I had great hopes for this current novel, Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, since de Giovanni had given just enough individualization of his four main characters in the previous novel, The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, to make me think he might go further this time, bringing his main characters even more fully to life; his use of some trademark humor in that novel also made me think that might continue in this novel. The first half of Darkness…. was in keeping with my high expectations, despite the emphasis on the word “darkness” in the title. The novel begins with the kidnapping of Dodo, a ten-year-old boy who brings his Batman action figure with him.  The boy is not mistreated, despite being confined to a dark room, and he chats with Batman – and the reader – without much sense of fear. That plot line is paralleled throughout by a second line in which a robbery takes place at the home of a well-to-do couple, though what is stolen and why are mysteries. A third line, which is included in the narrative but not as an investigation, involves a priest, Brother Leonardo Calisi, a good friend of Deputy Captain Giorgio Pisanelli, who is suffering from prostate cancer. Brother Leonardo, with whom Pisanelli has lunch once a week at Il Gobbo, ministers to those who are sad and depressed, many of whom die by their own hands.

The Basilica Santissima and its monastery are where Bro. Leonardo is based. Photo by Alex Ranaldi.

The Basilica Santissima and its monastery are where Bro. Leonardo is based. Photo by Alex Ranaldi.

Lojacono, who was falsely accused of collaborating with the Sicilian Mafia, is partnered in this novel with Alex di Nardo, an expert marksman who shot off her gun in a precinct house for reasons unknown. Francisco Romano, an enormous man with a short temper, known as The Hulk, is matched with Cpl. Marco Aragona, Lojacono’s partner in The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, a “tan man” with a big ego who is a maniac behind the wheel of a car. Each pair of detectives covers a different case. Several italicized interludes of almost poetic quality provide points of view of unknown characters and allow the author to create moods of darkness as reflected in nature. Because of the number of characters and plots, however, little character development takes place, and there is little real connection or conversation among the officers at the precinct house. Some flirting does take place, but there is no real love story. At the halfway point in the book, a horrific revelation – involving a theme I’ve never seen developed in any other mystery novel – changes what had been a benign view of one character into something much darker and more frightening.

"Tan man" Aragona lives at the Hotel Mediterraneo because Irina, an angel disguised as a waitress, serves him eggs and bacon each morning.

“Tan man” Aragona lives at the elegant Hotel Mediterraneo where Irina, “an angel disguised as a waitress,” serves him eggs and bacon each morning.

It is also at the halfway point that the novel begins to lose its way. With no single main character to hold it together and none of the plot lines overlapping to any degree, until the end, the broad view of people, places, and themes which we see in the first half, and which de Giovanni implies he will develop, begins to fade into numerous, stand-alone short scenes. Of the conclusion, the less said, the better. While surprises are a goal of most mystery stories (“the butler did it”), the conclusion here feels unnatural, not a plausible part of the narrative, created purely for its disturbing ironies – an out-of-the-blue “gotcha moment” which only the author will enjoy.

ALSO by de Giovanni:  Lojacono series:  THE CROCODILE (#1),          THE BASTARDS OF PIZZOFALCONE (#2)

Ricciardi series:     I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE (#1),       BLOOD CURSE (#2),     EVERYONE IN THEIR PLACE (#3),     THE DAY OF THE DEAD (#4),      BY MY HAND (#5),      VIPER (#6),     THE BOTTOM OF YOUR HEART (#7)

Napoli_2Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on https://luciogiordano.wordpress.com/

The famous ramp road, Pizzofalcone, has some slopes of forty-five degrees:  http://www.imgrum.net

Bro. Leonardo and Det. Capt. Giorio Pisanelli enjoy having lunch together once a week at Il Gobbo:  https://www.yelp.fr/

The Basilica Santissima and its monastery are where Bro. Leonardo is based.  Photo by Alex Ranaldi. https://commons.wikimedia.org

A surprise discovery is that “Tan Man” Aragona lives at the elegant Hotel Mediterraneo, where he enjoys eggs and bacon served to him every morning by Irina, “an angel disguised as a waitress.” http://www.bluwelcometravel.com

The panorama shot of Naples is from https://meta.wikimedia.org/

ARC:  Europa Editions

REVIEW. Lojacono series. Italy, Mystery, Thriller, Noir
Written by: Maurizio de Giovanni
Published by: Europa Ediitions
Date Published: 08/02/2016
ISBN: 978-1609453374
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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