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“When Claude was in full flow, it was hard to disagree with her. “Masculine, feminine,” she said. “I can do all that. But neuter – that’s where I feel comfortable. I’m not going to be typecast or put in a box. Not ever. I’m always going to have a choice.” – Suzanne Malherbe.

cover ThomsonRupert Never Anyone but You (reprint), In a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly on the fringes of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two such women who live on their own terms close to the margin of social acceptance. Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends upon their first meeting in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen. They come to be almost inseparable, and quickly develop very strong feelings, even sexual feelings, for each other. Of the two, Suzanne is more stable, with Lucie dealing with anorexia and other issues, and it is Suzanne, who, at Lucie’s father’s request, accompanies Lucie when she needs to go to a convalescent home for several weeks in an effort to recover from a suicide attempt as a young teen.

Author Rupert Thomson

Author Rupert Thomson.  Photo from Other Press.

Ironically, Suzanne and Lucie are actually aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives “as sisters.” As they grow older, writer Lucie attends the Sorbonne, and artist Suzanne attends the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where they come into contact with the leaders of France’s many avant-garde movements, such as the surrealists and the Dadaists, becoming friends with writers Andre Breton and Robert Desnos, and exploring political philosophies of all varieties. Lucie eventually shaves her head and dresses as a man, full-time, announcing that henceforth she will be known as Claude Cahun, and Suzanne will be Marcel Moore. They experiment with Marxism, even as, inspired by Freud, they also practice automatic writing.  They become friends with Joan Miro, who compliments Marcel for his/her work, and both enjoy seeing Salvador Dali. Soon they know many of the most important people involved in the avant-garde movements in Paris, while celebrating their lives and love for each other.  Claude has several more psychotic episodes during this time when life becomes too challenging.

Writer Robert Desnos, a surrealist whom Claude and Marcel see throughout three decades.

Writer Robert Desnos, a surrealist whom Claude and Marcel see throughout three decades.

All this biographical and historical information in the first part of the book, while necessary to set the stage for the rest of the book, feels somewhat academic – less personally involving than the rest of the novel – though it is exciting intellectually as it includes dozens of references to famous artists and writers, such at Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and Salvador Dali, who add interest to the story. The chronology of the book parallels the lives of its real subjects, of course, and as the action develops and many famous and not-so-famous characters appear, I sometimes found myself waiting for the next famous person to make an appearance to provide some excitement. Additionally, Claude, throughout, is self-absorbed and psychologically damaged, and Marcel is so busy playing nursemaid, and in a sense, mother, that the true, deep characters of Lucie and Suzanne are not really clear until the midpoint of the book. This occurs when Claude and Marcel think about moving to the island of Jersey, off the coast of France in 1937, a place they have known since they were teenagers. At this point, the book begins to catch fire and move forward powerfully and at great speed.

Claude Cahun (top) and Marcel Moore (bottom)

Claude Cahun (top) and Marcel Moore (bottom)

Part Three, “Self Portrait in Nazi Uniform,” takes place largely on the island of Jersey, and when it is bombed, Claude and Marcel really hit their stride, with Claude, surprisingly, taking the lead in an effort to defeat the Nazis. Both are completely aware of what will happen if they are caught, but Claude, who has always seemed to embrace death, has no fear of it. S/he is willing to take great chances, hoping to make great differences in the waning war effort, however naïve she may be. Creating their own personas, fabricated, in part, from their experiences in the theatre, Claude and Marcel get close to some officers in the Nazi leadership, especially when part of their house is requisitioned. Their interactions with Nazis and with local residents on the island show them both to be heroic and clever for three full years. The Germans have twenty thousand men on an island of forty-thousand people, and they have the access to the food, leaving most of the people there are close to starving during that occupation. In addition, captured Russians, who raise the sympathies of Claude and Marcel have also been brought in as slaves, most of them regarding this sentence, rightly, as their death sentences.

Salvador Dali, a surrealist who likes some of the work of Suzanne/Marcel.

Salvador Dali, a surrealist who likes some of the work of Suzanne/Marcel.

Two short sections at the end bring the postwar years to a powerful conclusion and bring the time frame to 1970, showing the changes which time has wrought since the main chronology of the novel started in 1920. Here Thompson shows his control of his themes and his characters, veering in and out of reality and ghost worlds, mirrors and truth, and exploring the psychic worlds of both Claude and Marcel.   Marcel, a carer and “mother” figure, something which Claude had never otherwise positively experienced in his lifetime, continues to offer succor when it is needed and to follow up when Claude disappears, whereabouts unknown. Many readers may become frustrated with the behavior of Claude as s/he continues to act spontaneously, often dangerously, despite the devotion of someone like Marcel. At times, when Claude attacks Marcel viciously, the reader yearns for Marcel to take a stand. Ultimately, however, no reader will ever doubt the depth of their love for each other or their willingness to sacrifice to maintain it.

Channel Islands. Jersey is the island closest to St. Malo.

Channel Islands. Jersey is the island closest to St. Malo.

In a poignant moment late in her life, Marcel/Suzanne shares her thoughts with a young friend, “When you are old, no one can ever imagine what you were like when you were young. It’s as if you’ve always been old – or as though you’ve lived in two different lives, one of which seems made up and overblown, hard to believe. It will happen to you as well, of course, in time. But you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”  Something for all of us to learn on several levels.

Photos.  The author’s photo is from the publisher, Other Press, for an earlier edition of this book.

Robert Desnos, a surrealist author, is a friend of Claude and Marcel over three decades.  http://www.lelivrealamer.fr

Claude Cahill (Lucie Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe) are shown here as they appeared during most of their lives together:  http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/

Salvador Dali enjoyed some of the work of Suzanne Malherbe.  https://www.biography.com

The map of Jersey in the Channel Islands shows Jersey as the island closest to France, and the largest one.  http://collarcitybrownstone.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Biography, Channel Islands, England, France, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political issues
Written by: Rupert Thomson
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 03/03/2020
Edition: Reprint, 2020
ISBN: 978-1635420012
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Santamaria was the finest teller of souls and reverser of fortunes for miles and miles around.  Nine days after the death of a child, people would come to consult him and, standing by a crate with a red candle burning on it, he would speak in the voice of the deceased.  But what made the Master stand out from all the other healers who swarmed in the valley was his scorpion tea.  “Drink it down all at once,” he would say, “and you’ll see your vigor return and tackle whatever confronts you.” – from “The Scarab’s Revenge.”

cover treasure of the spanish civil warPoet-author Serge Pey, the child of Republican partisans and anarchists who participated in the Spanish Civil War, knows well the stories of this terrible civil war and the horrors of defeat. Author Pey, born in 1950, ten years after the war ended, grew up in the internment camps of France, to which his parents, like those of many other defeated Spanish fighters, escaped in the aftermath of the war.  Confined to these rough camps as soon as they were captured, they were treated like the criminals the Franco government and much of France considered them to be.  Within the camps, they were always at risk of being identified by powerful Spanish Fascists and Nationalists, out for revenge for their past “war crimes,” and they expected, and often observed, torture and executions if their past crimes, atrocities, real names – were ever discovered.  Despite the dangers, however, they still believed in themselves and in the freedom for which they had fought and lost.  Here in this collection of often interconnected stories, Serge Pey provides glimpses of a unique and powerful culture,  stories of the lives of his family and their friends during and immediately after the Spanish Civil War.


Author Serge Pey

Pey’s prose and his poetry combine within these stories, filled with images and events of a harsh reality, at the same time that the characters’ hopes for a happy life filled with meaning also live large.  Though some might say that some stories even contain elements of “magic realism,” I prefer to think that Pey is really describing the magic of a different reality from anything that these characters or their readers have ever known or expected – not a series of events that reflect the warm and fuzzy “magic realism” so common in current novels, but instead a reality in which some kind of magic emerges to make life worth living.  In the first story, “An Execution,” a man and a young boy are tending a field when five members of the fascist gardia civil confront them, telling them that they have six hours to leave the farm.  After they leave, the boy watches an eagle wheeling in the sky, helps the man gut and cook a piglet for food, and finds a shell, which the man tells him will “bring good luck because [shells] hold the voices of the departed.”  The gardia returns to kill the man while the boy hides in a hole. In the final scene the imagery of the snail, the man’s ghost, the eagle, and the empty shell all take on new meaning – no magic realism, but a story so powerful that reality itself, as the boy faces the future, makes his situation more bearable.

Clothes drying on trees by Eve Andersson, 2011.

Clothes drying on trees by Eve Andersson, 2011.

“The Washing and the Clothes Line,” a first-person story of a mother and child, focuses on a woman whom all the neighbors consider to be crazy.  Following a strict ritual, the mother puts out her laundry every day, and often does not take in.  Sometimes she takes in some but not all pieces, and sometimes she moves it from the line to a field, or to some trees, or removes or adds a few other pieces.  In the secret language with which she communicates with the mountain, she stays busy all day, and when the security police arrive and hide behind the cemetery wall, she recognizes the need to signal their presence to her allies who might have been watching, waiting for a chance to come down from the mountain.  The mother has the boy put out his shirt, which flutters like a poor man’s flag, a laundry-based signal like all the others.  “I was a semaphore unto myself,” he says, as the security police eventually leave.  Later, when the woman grows older and lives in a small shack, she remembers when “freedom was built not with the mouth but with the hands,” as she continues to build her own freedom and preserve her sign language within the shack.

A French scorpion becomes part of an act of vengeance, "an art as difficult as the act of love."

A French scorpion becomes part of an act of vengeance, “an art as difficult as the act of love.”

Other stories include “La Cega,” a blind woman who was a flesh and blood clock in the valley, one who believed that “watches injure time,”  and that “some watches prefer to die so as to be still closer to the great time that circles above us.”  “Cherry Thief” is the story of a young boy and an old “uncle,” who lets him eat cherries that he has grown, telling him that he is not eating cherries.  “You are eating Guillermo Ganuza Navarro.”  Every tree in the orchard is named for a man who was assassinated between 1949 and 1960, and he wants the boy to be sure to inscribe his name on the one remaining tree without a name when he himself is gone.  Years pass, and eventually, he carves a name.  “The Scarab’s Revenge” is a tale of scarab beetles, scarab jewelry, the art of concealing a scorpion inside a scarab, and the act of vengeance, which is “an art as difficult as the art of love…Vengeance is the highest form of forgiveness…and “getting revenge avoids a Mass.” 

Bust of Jean Jaurès

Bust of Jean Jaurès

“The Piece of Wood” details the escape of a young boy, age twelve, inside a barrel which is being used to hide another body, leads to the story of how the boy lost his brother and sister in all the turmoil, his adoption of a puppy, and, horrifically, the demand of the director of the camp that he reveal names of people he knows, including his own family, and that he choose between saving his friend Pablo, who had been beaten bloody, and the life of his puppy.  “The Treasure of the Spanish Civil War,” a story near the end of the collection, tells of a buried treasure which, many years later, the survivors of the war decide to dig up. For the main character, the most important thing to be discovered is the memory of the Way and how we transmit the memory of that special Way.  “Do not go where the road may lead.  Go where there is no road, and leave tracks.”  “The Apostle of Peace,” refers to Jean Jaurès, a French socialist and anti-militarist, shot by an assassin named “Villain.” For the speaker, Jaurès becomes “a true beam, a light in the darkness of the great butchery of workers that was the First World War.” Filled with dramatic events, symbols, and hidden messages, this book is more than literary fiction.  It is true literature, a collection of writings which inspire thoughtful reflection on life itself and share the ideas of its characters and author, a work which many readers will enjoy reading again and again and again.

The snail shell in "An Execution" provides a lesson for a young boy.

The snail shell in “An Execution” provides a lesson for a young boy.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://archipelagobooks.org

Eve Andersson’s photo of Clothes Drying on Trees, 2011, is from http://www.eveandersson.com

The French scorpion may be found on https://www.independent.ie/

The bust of Jean Jaurès is posted on https://commons.wikimedia.org

The snail shell is symbolic in “An Execution,” and appears on https://gallery.yopriceville.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. France, Historical, Literary, Short Stories, Social and Political Issues, Spain
Written by: Serge Pey
Published by: Archipelago Books
Date Published: 03/03/2020
ISBN: 978-1939810540
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Aravind Adiga–AMNESTY

Note:  Aravind Adiga was WINNER  of the Booker Prize in 2008 for WHITE TIGER.

“All of the coastline of Sri Lanka is indented, mysterious and beautiful – but no spot is more mysterious than Batticaloa.  The city is famous for its lagoon, where extraordinary things can happen.  The fish here, for instance, can sing – true.  Absolutely true.  Place a reed to your ear, lean down from your paddle boat, and you will hear the music of the fish of the lagoon.  At midnight, the water’s skin breaks, and the kadal kanni, mermaids, emerge out of the lagoon dripping with moonlight.”  Dhananjaya Rajaratnam, known as Danny, at his childhood home.

The magicalcover AdigaAravind, Amnesty images of Sri Lanka from the opening pages of the introduction reflect Danny Rajaratnam’s early childhood memories, a much different life from what he is experiencing in his twenties. Danny, from a Tamil family, survived years of civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka in the last part of the twentieth century, ending in 2009.  The genocide against the Tamils and the deaths of 80,000 – 100,000 civilians, along with the devastation and the basic problems of finding food, clothing, and shelter in a country that had been at war for over twenty-five years, left him feeling he had no way out.  His only hope was to join the large number of Tamils leaving the country for new opportunities in other countries.  Danny was “lucky” enough to be accepted into a college in Sydney, Australia, and he arrived in Australia on a student visa, full of hope.  He soon discovered that the college was a “ripoff,” taking his hard-earned tuition and failing to present courses that would prepare him for a job. Now his only choice was to drop out in order to support himself, becoming a reluctant “illegal.”

Batticoloa lagoon

Batticaloa Lagoon, Sri Lanka, a favorite memory of Danny.

Though he has worked hard to learn the English language without accent, along with the cultural expectations in his new city, Danny has been constantly aware that “every police officer, taxation man, and immigration or customs officer has the power to arrest [him] immediately and hold [him] indefinitely unless [he] can show…documents authorizing [his] presence in Australia.”  So far, he has lasted four years as an illegal, working independently as a house cleaner at a lower-than-average rate (to avoid attention), using his own equipment, and putting up with assaults on his pride. He quickly learned to divide Sydney and its inhabitants into two kinds of suburbs, “thick bum, where the working classes lived, ate badly, and cleaned for themselves; and thin bum, where the fit and young people ate salads and jogged a lot but almost never cleaned their own houses.”  It is this group which forms his clientele.

central RR statiion

Central Railway Station, Sydney.

Author Aravind Adiga, whose Indian family emigrated to Australia during his childhood, is well familiar with Australia’s social and economic situations, and with its attitudes toward “brown”people, both legal and illegal. His sensitivity and empathy in his presentation of Danny as a kind, thoughtful, and honest main character make Danny’s problems and his lack of options particularly vivid for the reader.  With the author’s stunning ability to present Danny’s hopes, his memories of beauty from the past, and his fully imagined dreams for the future, which he presents impressionistically, Danny comes fully to life – a real person with a real life and personality – and not simply a character who is illustrating social conditions, themes, and ethical problems.  He has a happily normal life with his Vietnamese girl friend, Sonja, who gives him a broader perspective than he would otherwise have, since his clients, professionals all, are never at home when he arrives to clean. 

coca cola

Famed Coca-Cola sign outside a red light district in Sydney.

Arriving at work one morning, Danny finds a police van parked across the street and learns that there has been a murder across from where he is working – in a house which he himself has cleaned many times over the past two years.  He knows the female owner, Radha, a married woman who is having an affair. Terrified of being watched and becoming somehow involved in a murder case, Danny lets his fear take over, panics, and hastily leaves the house he was to clean, returning home by train.  He needs more information about the murder, but any contact with the police will require presentation of a valid ID and visa. On the train, he sees a newspaper article and, later, a TV story about the murder, with calls going out for anyone who has information to call the police.  Danny, well familiar with the location of the murder, not only knows and works for the victim herself, but also for the person with whom she has been having her affair, Dr. Prakash.  Unfortunately, Dr. Prakash knows that Danny is aware of the killing and that he has some unresolved questions about it – and about him. He knows, too, that Danny is an illegal who has every reason not to help the police, and speculates that Danny might persuaded to help him.

malcolm fraser.

Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister of Australia, 1975 – 1983.

As the day develops, Danny tries to avoid any contact with Dr. Prakash, taking a walk around the city, and remembering people, places, and events from the past.  He dreams of the one special, never-repeated day that a former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, offered amnesty for illegals back in the 1970s.  He thinks about the red-light district in Sydney, located behind the famous Coca Cola sign; a meeting of illegals and a visit to a Gentleman’s Club; a Vegas-style hotel; an interrogation back in Sri Lanka, in which he was tortured and burned. Gambling and its addictive powers, Danny’s former work in Dubai, his interview for the college which cheated him of his tuition, and the sudden realization that he needs Sonja, his girlfriend, pile up on top of each other in random order, an impressionistic picture of the horrors and rare joy he has experienced in his short life.  Throughout this day of remembrance and reckoning, honest Danny suffers for the guilt he feels for staying quiet and the genuine fear he has of being sent back to Sri Lanka.  The dramatic events in Danny’s story overlap as they are presented randomly, adding to a fuller picture of who Danny is, even as the murder plot also unwinds, clearly showing an emphasis on Danny and his battle with his conscience, rather than on “whodunnit.”

author photo

Author Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga, described as “Indo-Australian,” presents his story artistically and without showy “literary flights.” Instead, he writes with an honesty which makes Danny more real, his very genuine fears and concluding decision understandable to his readers.  Having worked as International Student Advisor at a college for ten years, I admit that I loved and admired this book – its portrait of a person caught in the ultimate problem with Immigration officials and his heart-rending fears so true to life that no one could possibly doubt their truth. Adiga does not resort to an easy conclusion for an issue which is not easy, nor does he take sides in a political debate.  He creates a young man desperate to become a legal resident of another country – a big decision itself – and makes the reader/resident care.

ALSO  by Aravind Adiga:   WHITE TIGER    and    LAST MAN IN TOWER

Photos.  Batticaloa Lagoon, Sri Lanka, appears on https://en.wikipedia.org/

The Central Railway Station, Sydney, is found on https://commons.wikimedia.org

The famed Coca-Cola sign outside the red-light district in Sydney is from https://www.pinterest.com

Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister of Australia, 1975 – 1983, offered one-day of amnesty for illegal residents during his term.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

The author’s photo may be found on https://www.dinnerpartydownload.org/aravind-adiga/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Experimental, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Australia, Sri Lanka
Written by: Aravind Adiga
Published by: Scribner
Date Published: 02/18/2020
ISBN: 978-1982127244
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Note: Originally from Prague, author Monika Zgustova translated this novel into Spanish.  Julie Jones, an American, translated the Spanish version into English.

“When spring comes, look at the shining snow, the blue sky, the contrast between light and darkness which is enormous here. Now that it’s winter and the sun doesn’t come out, concentrate on the different shades of gray: some are blue gray; others are almost rose-colored.  Don’t forget to look at the barbed wire and our pathetic huts as if you were taking a photograph, looking for the right shot…Even in the midst of ugliness, it’s possible to find beauty.”—Siberian shaman, speaking from a Russian prison camp, above the Arctic Circle.  

cover dressed dance snowWhen I first saw the romantic cover and title of this book, I assumed it might be some kind of imagined love story about the Russian past, maybe an epic story like War and Peace or Dr. Zhivago, only shorter.  Then I saw the subtitle at the bottom of the cover – “Women’s Voices from the Gulag” – and realized that the title and cover were both part of a monstrous irony.  Dressed for a Dance in the Snow is a collection of nine true stories about some of Russia’s brightest and most creative women – workers, lovers, wives, and mothers who have defied life as it exists in those old romances – presenting, instead, the dark, often horrific revelations they have personally survived in the Gulags and prisons during the Stalinist years.  Where the title deserves its happy image is that, with one exception, these women not only survived their near starvation and imprisonments but also came to some kind of peace regarding their torture.  Ella Markman, in “A Twentieth-Century Judith,” is a pro-communist activist who opposed the “communism” of Stalin and Beria, and was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor.  In her story, however, she is able to recognize a bright side to her imprisonment, as do other women featured here:  “The Gulag, just because it’s so terrible,” she says, “is also rewarding.  That extreme suffering teaches you about yourself, about the people around you, and about human beings in general.”  In fact, she even goes so far as to say “I am grateful to the fate that sent me to the Gulag, because of everything I encountered and learned there.”  She is not alone in that conclusion. 

Monika-ZgustovaThe author of this book, Monika Zgustova, left Czechoslovakia with her family in the mid-1970s, when the Soviets, who had retaken her country in 1968, began to persecute her linguist father.  Later settling in the US, she attended college and studied Russian language, literature, and culture, as well as Eastern European cultural history, doing significant research on Russian dissident movements, and eventually teaching Russian in the US.  In 2008, she traveled to Moscow and had the opportunity to attend a meeting of former prisoners of the Gulag. She was anxious to meet them and learn “how they had endured the cruel conditions of the Gulag under Stalin,” a time in which an estimated thirty million Russians were killed.  Surprised by the number of men and women who appeared at the meeting, Zgustova decided she would interview only women, as they were “less documented,” and as she interviewed them, she began to understand that “what these women found in the Gulag was their hierarchy of values, at the top of which were books, and invulnerable, selfless friendship.” 

Zayara Vesiolaya

Zayara Vesiolaya

Nine of the “intelligent, sensitive, and strong women” Zgustova interviewed share their lives in this book, and in keeping with the magnitude of their suffering and the universality of their responses, the author is able to draw parallels between each interviewee and a Biblical, mythological, classical or folk hero, identified in each chapter title.  The first chapter, entitled “Lot’s Wife,” is the story of Zayara Vesyolaya, whose father was shot during the great purges, and whose mother was sent to a concentration camp, simply “because she was his wife.”  In their communal apartment one evening, while celebrating her sister’s academic success, Zayara herself is arrested by the police.  Not allowed to bring anything with her except what she is wearing, she quickly accepts a friend’s camisole and pair of stockings and leaves home, dressed “as if going to a dance.” She ends up at Lubyanka Prison instead, then on to Novosibirsk in Siberia, where she is sentenced to spend five years.  There she meets Nikolai, a charming and attractive young painter who has already served fourteen years. Later, she gets transferred to Kazakhstan and has to leave without warning, hence the title of the chapter.

Composer Sergei Prokofiev and family. Lina is at far right.

Composer Sergei Prokofiev and family. Lina is at far right.

In “Penelope in Chains,” Susanna Pechuro tells of her childhood as a Jew who spoke Yiddish and the policy of anti-Semitism, a new concept to her.  A number of her friends are arrested, as is Susanna herself at age seventeen, and she eventually ends up in eleven different prisons and seven work camps over the years. Lina Prokofiev, a Spanish singer who was the wife of composer Sergei Prokofiev, befriends her in one of these camps. Another character, Ella Markman, in “Twentieth Century Judith,” has saved all the correspondence between Ariadna Efron Tsevetaeva, daughter of poet Marina Tsevetaeva, and novelist Boris Pasternak, correspondence that is completely new to modern critics.  Pasternak appears in these stories again in “Eurydice in the Underworld,” in which Irina Emelyanova is the speaker.  Irina is the daughter of Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s last love and the inspiration for Lara, in Doctor Zhivago.  Olga, too, has had her time in the prison camps, and her sadistic treatment by the female head of the work brigade, who was sentenced to ten years, as opposed to Olga’s five, is emotionally offset by the behavior of the commander of the camp, who has her brought to his office one night so that she can read a long letter and notebook of poetry by Pasternak.  The behavior of Pasternak’s wife Zinaida, upon Olga’s release, however, nearly ends the relationship: Ultimately, Pasternak can not live without Olga, but he can not make himself abandon his wife.

Boris Pasternak with Olga (left) and Irina (right)

Boris Pasternak with Olga (left) and Irina (right)

Natalia Gorbanevskaya, a journalist, dissident, and poet, in “Antigone Facing the Kremlin,” tells of her experiences in 1968, set later than most of the other chapters, as the Soviets invade Czechoslovakia.  The dissidents in Moscow decide that the only appropriate action is to have a demonstration, during which many are beaten and sent directly to prison.  Natalia recalls that  British playwright Tom Stoppard wrote a play about the demonstrators’ bravery in Red Square, and Joan Baez composed a song named “Natalia,” about Gorbanevskaya, saying, “It is because of people like Natalia Gorbanevskaya…that you and I are still alive and walking on the face of the earth.”  Balancing details about the Soviets’ cruelty under Joseph Stalin against the artists and writers who risked their lives to remain true to their beliefs, this fascinating but very sad history provides new insights not only into the period but into the ability of humans to adapt to horrors.  As Susanna Pechuro says, “I know that without my experience in the Gulag I wouldn’t be what I am today: a woman who is afraid of nothing…[I am] armored.  I have passed the test.”

Lubyanka Prison in Moscow is now a museum.

Lubyanka Prison in Moscow is now a museum.

Photos.  The author’s photo is appears on https://voxeurop.eu/

The photo of Zayara Vesiolaya is Photo #1 in photo section of this book, Monika Zgustova’s DRESSED FOR A DANCE IN THE SNOW.

The  family of composer Sergei Prokofief, with Lina on the right, is from https://en.wikipedia.org

Boris Pasternak, with his great love Olga and his daughter Irina, is from https://www.seattletimes.com

Lubyanka Prison in Moscow is now a museum:  https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/lubyanka

Russia, Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, Historical, Literary, Non-fiction, Russia/Soviet Union, Siberia, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Monika Zgustova
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 02/04/2020
ISBN: 978-1590511770
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


“From what we hear, you guys are a couple cards short of a deck…You’re a failed singer, your friend in the hall is a retired smuggler, and the one waiting in the car is an obese terrorist…You’re non-entities.  But sometimes losers come to know things of interest.  That’s the only reason I accepted your invitation [to talk].  No way are we going to work together….You tell me where I can find Tobias’s murderer, I kill him, and with him dead, you avoid jail.” —Paz Anaya Vega, to the Alligator, Marco Buratti.

cover blues outlaw hearts... In his darkest and most “noir” novel yet, Massimo Carlotto continues his “Alligator” series, featuring Marco Buratti, a man haunted by the evil which consumes the society in which he tries to live.  In touch with members of organized crime and its violence throughout Europe, he also understands crime on a local scale among the people he knows in his home of Padua, Italy.  The local police department knows Buratti well for many reasons, and they sometimes ask him for help on their most challenging cases – some of which feature crimes within their own department and the implication that their request for help is something he must not refuse.  Padua’s location a few miles west of Venice exposes them to international crime coming from the east, including Russia and Armenia, but also from Europe, and as far away as Spain, as the drug culture, and the theft and violence it spawns, affects everyday modern life, at least within the subculture in which Buratti lives.  As the depiction of criminal life in Padua and throughout Europe develops, it feels completely real, even with all its changes of focus and location. 

Author Massimo Carlotto

Author Massimo Carlotto

Author Carlotto’s attitudes toward law and crime are, in fact, the product of his own very real  experience. In 1976, when he was nineteen, he responded to cries for help from a woman stabbed over fifty times. Covered with blood from trying to save her, he was later arrested for her murder, his case becoming one of the longest cases ever tried in Italy. Lasting eighteen years, and involving eighty-six different judges, his case was tried and retried eleven times, and it was not until eleven years after all that, that he was finally pardoned in 2004 – twenty-eight years after the crime. Carlotto has known the “justice” system firsthand, and he knows it to be a fallible system, to say the least. From his own incarceration and the people he came to know there, he is also familiar with the many different and sometimes competing Mafia groups that operate within the country, each applying its own system of justice to keep the peace. Stating that he has “never made up a murder” in his novels, Carlotto claims to have researched every murder he has written about, to have studied all the autopsy reports, and even to have interviewed those eventually convicted of these crimes. (Source for biographical information here, story by Brian Oliver.)

Often described as "the most beautiful police station in the world, the Padua station features statues of Dante and Giotto in front.

Often described as “the most beautiful police station in the world,” the Padua station features statues of Dante and Giotto in front. Photo by Brenda Kean.

This novel is the most complex of all Carlotto’s novels so far and has two separate, but overlapping, plot lines and several different settings.  It also has two different narrators, in opposition to each other –  Buratti (the Alligator) at the beginning of the novel for two chapters, and then Giorgio Pellegrini, a person who will stop at nothing, including murder, beginning in Chapter Three and appearing in alternate chapters thereafter.  As the novel opens, Buratti and his two buddies, Beniamino Rossini and Max the Memory, an obese man who loves to cook, have been living in Bern, Switzerland, for a month, hoping to locate where Giorgio Pellegrini is hiding from the police after his wife’s murder.  When Buratti gets a tip, for which he and his friends pay handsomely, Marco perks up.  He has been extremely lonely – even depressed, recently – in need of a woman to love, and looking forward to being present at the death of Pellegrini, an event which almost came true, not long ago, at the hands of his partner Rossini. A few days later, Buratti and friends are back in Padua, dealing with the Padua police, especially Dottoressa Angela Marino, a high official, who wants to get Buratti to help her clear Pellegrini, who is a friend of hers.  She plans to blackmail Buratti with a bogus drug crime to get Buratti’s co-operation.  In the process of investigating, Buratti discovers that a woman from Spain named Paz Anaya Vega may have planned the killings of Pellegrini’s wife and friend.

Pellegrini meets with Angela Mrino at the Park Cafe in Munich.

Pellegrini meets with Angela Marino at the Park Cafe in Munich.

Shifting the point of view to Pellegrini, by now in Munich, the author provides more information about the complex relationships at play here and indicates that Pellegrini has killed three people involved in the drug trade recently. In Munich he meets with Paz Anaya Vega, the Spanish woman who may have arranged the murder of his wife and friend.  She is seeking the murderer of her husband, a drug dealer, and some friends and wants his help.  In the next chapter, which takes place in Vienna, Buratti returns as narrator, expressing concern about the Russians trying to hack his accounts and surveil him.  When Buratti meets Edith, an older prostitute in Vienna, his heart is stirred and he would like to help her, even as he worries about all the intersecting criminal relationships and the violence they inspire.  More shooting and deaths keep the action high and the plot increasingly complex.  The conclusion leaves open the possibility that the enmity of Buratti and Pellegrini will be further developed in another book in the series.

St. Michael's Church, Munich.

St. Michael’s Church, Munich, where Pellegrini evaded those tailing him.

With over thirty characters, some of them known by aliases, a complex plot which is developed in Padua, Bern, Vienna, and Munich, and two narrators giving conflicting information regarding crimes and responsibility, this is a challenging novel.  The violence is fully described and sometimes shocking, and there are no people here who can be considered true heroes.  Buratti occasionally gets twinges of conscience regarding deaths he has witnessed, but he is, he says, very aware of “the difference between justice and vengeance.”  His own idea of justice “didn’t involve cops and courts,” especially when he and his partners were “playing multiple tables at a time.”  Of particular note in this novel is the fact that a number of the women here are particularly loathsome and especially vicious, though no more so than many of the men.  While it is laudable that the women are not presented falsely as innocent victims with hearts of gold, the two most prominent women here – Dottoressa Angela Marino and Paz Anaya Vega – are both presented as beautiful, but have no redeeming moral qualities at all.  Ultimately, the novel reminded me of an unrefereed football free-for-all, with a great deal of careful plotting and planning by the teams, some wild and unexpected plays, a great many chances taken, much hitting and hurting, and several players lost to the action, before it all ends in a blood-spattered statistical tie.


Finnish blues singer Ina Forsman, whose CD reminds former singer Buratti how lonely he is in Munich.

Finnish blues singer Ina Forsman, whose CD reminds former singer Buratti how lonely he is in Munich.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.zimbio.com/

The Padua Police Station has been described as “the most beautiful police station in the world.”  Photo by Brenda Kean.  https://www.123rf.com/

The Park Cafe, Munich, where Pellegrini meets with Angela Marino to plan future steps.  https://www.groupon.de

St. Michael’s Church, Munich, where Pellegrini evaded a “tail.”  https://en.wikipedia.org

Finnish blues singer Ina Forsman, whose CD reminds former singer Buratti how lonely he is in Munich.  https://www.bluesfeeling.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Italy, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Massimo Carlotto
Published by: Europa Edition.
Date Published: 02/04/2020
ISBN: 978-1609455699
Available in: Ebook Paperback

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