Feed on

Fiete plucked something from the carpet on the altar steps. “And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes our segment on ‘How to have a Happy War’.” His somber voice made him sound like a cinema advertisement: “Rope too tight for you? Bullets too fast? Then why not try lovely sepsis! Three weeks of convulsions in a sickbed, nice and warm in your own shit, and at last you’ll hear angels singing. Free to party members, and for regular people it’s available for the low, low price of one human life.”—Fiete, Walter’s cynical friend.

cover to die in spring A caveat. I almost did not read this book. Our current political situation and all the anger generated daily in the news and on TV had me longing for something fun and funny to read, something to break the monotony of our nasty political reality. This book focuses on the horrors of World War II from the point of view of two rural German teenagers who get drafted, and that was not what I had in mind for a relaxing read. I started it, however, and as I became involved with the very real – and very naïve – main characters as they faced the terrifying, life-changing situations of war, I found myself emerging from the stupor of TV reality into a much bigger, more comprehensive world view. The subject matter is harrowing, but this sensitively written book generates an enormous amount of empathy for its very human main characters as they come to terms with who they are, where they are, and how they must cope with a war they know is already lost.  Ultimately, I was able to escape the pettiness of the latest news cycle.  I could appreciate the confidence with which the author develops big ideas for a world audience, and I felt the much-needed thrill of having read something that was sadly enlightening but presented on a level more elevated than anything I could have imagined if I had looked for something “fun.”

Author Ralf Rothmann

Author Ralf Rothmann

As the novel opens, an unnamed young man is remembering the life of his father, a man haunted by the past, someone who “lived his whole life in silence.” The boy describes how handsome his father was, how helpful to his neighbors, and even what he wore, but he had never been able to get inside his father, Walter Urban, who spent his life virtually alone. “His was the seriousness of someone who had seen something more potent than the others, who knew more about life than he could say and who sensed that even if he had the language to express what he had seen, there would be no redemption for him.” When Walter Urban retired, his son gave him a notebook and asked him to sketch out his life, writing down the major events from the years before his son was born, but Walter wrote only a few words, feeling that there was no point to it. A dairyman who had worked on a farm resembling Edouard Manet’s “Country House in Rueil,” Walter became a miner later in life, and became deaf from his work. He eventually suffered a stroke, and he was left virtually mute, a condition which led his son believe that “he wasn’t unhappy in his unquestioning silence.”

The manor house on the farm where Walter was a dairyman, which the narrator describes as resembling Manet's "Landhous in Rueil."

The manor house on the farm where Walter was a dairyman is described as resembling Manet’s “Landhaus in Rueil.”

The previously untold story of Walter Urban’s younger life begins immediately after this and becomes the novel, with only a brief paragraph of introduction, related to an underlined passage in the family Bible, “When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength…A fugitive and vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.” Walter’s own feeling of being a “fugitive and vagabond” may or may not have evolved from the events described here, but his son’s need to explain how and why he thinks his father became so withdrawn, and his ability to see into his father’s psyche is so important to him that that readers will believe every word. Walter is seventeen as the story of his life opens, as recreated here by his son after his death, and what Walter has heard on “enemy stations” on the radio has convinced him that the war is nearly over. Working with him at the dairy farm is his close friend, Fiete Caroli, an eighteen-year-old who is his opposite. Fiete takes chances, drinks to excess, plays around with girls, and is dedicated to having as much fun as possible.

As he looks for his father's grave, he must use a damaged BMW R5 motorcycle, instead of a car.

As he looks for his father’s grave, Walter must use a damaged BMW R75 motorcycle, instead of a car.

At the community hall one evening, a heavily scarred, one-armed German SS officer stands up and makes a speech, bullying “everyone who loves his family and his native soil and who can hold a rifle…to join the victorious Waffen-SS. We owe that to our heroes at the front.” Now drunk on the beer supplied by the officer, Fiete decides to enlist, and he drags Walter with him, both of them believing that the war “will probably be over before we’ve finished training.” They have no training, and soon they are on their way to Budapest to fight. Fiete will be on the front lines, and Walter, who has a driver’s license, is assigned to a supply unit. Almost immediately, Walter and his unit arrive at a farm at which the owners and workers are tied up, ready to be hanged, supposedly for being partisans. Walter stands up for them on the grounds that these are the “nice people” who had provided a place for him and others to spend the night the previous night, but to no avail. He is “handled” by the officer who tells him to “Stop your opera singing! You’re inches away from crying…Partisans, Jews, who cares?” and the hangings begin. As the convoy continues toward Budapest, the sadism of the German officers becomes more pronounced as the futility of the German position becomes more obvious. When Walter has a chance to talk with an influential officer to ask for permission to look for the grave of his father, who has been killed in action in one of the many towns they are passing through, he is granted three days as a reward for a favor he has done.

As he searches for his father's grave on the way back to his rural home, Walter takes time to see a recent movie, ROMANCE IN A MINOR KEY, a film based on Guy de Maupassant's short story, "Les Bijoux."

As he searches for his father’s grave on the way back to his rural home, Walter takes time to see a recent movie, ROMANCE IN A MINOR KEY, a film based on Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Les Bijoux.”

While exploring nearby towns looking for his father’s grave, he discovers that Fiete is in the basement of one building, under lock and key. He has deserted, and is awaiting punishment. From here on, everything happens at warp speed, and Walter returns to his unit.   Some information comes from home via letters which still manage to find him, and the terrain and the towns become more familiar as Walter and his unit get closer home. Along the way, they explore places they know, even escaping to a popular film, at one point. The action moves increasingly fast and becomes more abbreviated in description, the closer Walter gets to the dairy farm where he lived and worked. He expresses his inner thoughts less often, noticeably removing himself from activity, thereby preserving what is left of his sanity. An Epilogue from Walter’s son, the author of the “memoir,” brings the themes of life and death, innocence and guilt, responsibility and accountability, and power and futility to their climax. This powerful novel wastes no words, much like Walter himself.  Superb!

When Walter gets to Essen, near his home, he discovers that the Synagogue has hardly been touched by the war, "and one might have been tempted to think of something like mercy, a protecting power."

When Walter gets to Essen, near his home, he discovers that the Synagogue has hardly been touched by the war, “and one might have been tempted to think of something like mercy, a protecting power.”

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/

Monet’s “Landhaus in Rueil,” described as similar to the manor house where Walter works as a dairyman is from  https://commons.wikimedia.org

A damaged BMW R75 motorcycle is the only vehicle that Walter has available to use as he searches for the burial place of his father, killed in the war in one of the towns through which he is traveling. http://i.imgur.com/

Walter and friends, still teenagers, see a recent German film as they travel back to their homes near the end of the war.  “Romance in a Minor Key” is described as Kautner’s best film of the period and is an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “Les Bijoux.”  https://letterboxd.com/film/romance-in-a-minor-key/

To Die in Spring
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Germany, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Ralf Rothmann
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 08/29/2017
ISBN: 978-0374278144
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


“I stand before the painting, which is small and, frankly, ugly; I can admit that at last, I can finally see it, since it no longer represents serendipitous millions or retrieved history or much of anything more than a garish trio of midnight revelers on the Andrassy ut….Receding echoes of the last war mingle with the next war’s approaching thunder, ahead of which the jittery brushstrokes struggle to remain. The work is hobbled by interwar deprivation: brittle cardboard in lieu of canvas, the cheap paints cracked with age.” Matt Santos.

cover memento parkOn the night before an auction of world-class paintings, thirty-something Matt Santos gets permission to spend the night at the auction house “saying goodbye” to “Budapest Street Scene,” painted in 1925 by Hungarian artist Ervin Kalman. Although Matt is considered the owner of the painting, he has, in fact, just recently learned about his connection to the painting as part of the on-going repatriation efforts made for paintings stolen by the Nazis.  Matt has a family picture of his grandfather’s living room in Budapest, in which the painting is shown on the wall, but he has never known anything about it in real life, and when investigators finally tracked him down and told him that the painting would be “returned” to him, he could not understand why his estranged father had already refused to accept it, even though it is worth millions of dollars. As he spends the night staring at the painting and thinking about his family, what he knows of their history in Hungary, and how he relates to them in the present, he is accompanied only by a night watchman from the Vigil security firm, a man he addresses as “Virgil” in this vibrant, novel-length monologue.

Mark-Sarvas-Official-Photo2-e1498134289183-225x225-1Author Mark Sarvas involves the reader from the outset of Memento Park as Matt spends a long night delving into memories going back three generations, considering whether they reflect truth or merely his interpretation of it based on his own experience. At the same time he also reflects on his present life in Los Angeles, where he has been working as a “reliable, drama-free,” B-list actor and living with his model fiancée, who spends her free time working on social causes. Ultimately, Matt relives his very recent trip to Budapest, describing what he has learned about the artist, and exploring his own Jewish roots for the first time. Staring at the painting in the auction house, he admits, “I find myself wondering yet again how I could have failed for so long to see this painting for what it is, a rotted memory, an epitaph to everything I thought I knew.” For the reader, it is equally an epitaph on the self-centered, disconnected life Matt Santos has been living to date. As he shares his life and thoughts with the reader, the novel develops into a complex personal story, at the same time that it is also a story filled with mysteries. And when another person challenges his ownership of the painting, the novel becomes more involving, raising questions about what happened to it after 1944, when his grandfather used it to obtain the papers he needed to escape Hungary with his son Gabor, Matt’s father.

The fictional artist Ernst Kalman was said to be buried a few tombs away from the Blue Tomb here.

The fictional artist Ernst Kalman was said to be buried in Kozma Street Cemetery, a few tombs away from the Blue Tomb here. Photo by Lazlo Lihi.

As a character, Matt can sometimes engage a reader’s sympathies, but he is a challenge for a reader to like or admire. He has few strong values, a difficult relationship with his father, and minimal connection with his bohemian mother since her divorce from his father when he was a young teen. Perhaps it is lack of close ties that has made him successful as a young actor, someone who can easily slip into secondary roles and blend into the background of a film. Engaged to marry Tracy, a model who is currently spending her free time supporting the legal case for a convicted murderer on Death Row, Matt is nevertheless vulnerable when he meets Rachel, the attorney helping him to prove his connection to the Kalman painting. Rachel’s commitment to her own Jewish heritage begins to fascinate him, and he begins to experiment, at least superficially, with his own cultural roots, attending a synagogue for the first time and joyously nailing a mezuzah onto his own doorpost. Soon he is “in love” with two women, unable to concentrate on his work. Life becomes more complicated as he becomes jealous of Tracy’s photographer, and Tracy becomes jealous of Rachel.

Gabor Santos, Matt's father, is a collector of antique toy cars.

Gabor Santos, Matt’s father, is a collector of antique toy cars.

Matt’s father, Gabor Santos, who plays a significant, but silent, part in the conclusion, has little empathy for Matt, regarding him as weak and referring to him as someone “lacking in the killer instinct.” Gabor has been a collector all his life and has dedicated the entire basement of his house in New York to his collection of toy cars. He is especially fond of Corvettes, but he has never allowed his son to take one out of its box or handle it, and Matt still resents that. When Gabor contacts Matt to tell him that he is coming from New York to participate in a toy show in Glendale, not far from where Matt lives, Matt regards this as a chance to visit with his father and perhaps settle some differences. He picks him up at the airport, helps his father set up his booth, is careful to save all the wrappings in case any small pieces get lost in the wrappings, and he monitors his booth for him when he leaves it. Though terrible misunderstandings occur once again, this time his father makes a special effort before he returns home, referring to Matt by a childhood nickname, “with surprising gentleness.” As Matt himself says, “With one word, my father penetrated my rage and was briefly restored to me.”

Memento Park in Budapest contains the monumental sculptures from Hungary's Communist era.

Memento Park in Budapest contains the monumental sculptures from Hungary’s Communist era. Photo by Prosopee.

Eventually, Rachel, hoping to find real evidence of the original purchase of the Kalman painting by Matt’s family, suggests they take a trip to Budapest to interview his now elderly cousins there. His grandfather and then-four-year-old Gabor had left in such a hurry that they could not take much with them, and the hope was that the family left behind might have found the documents. In Budapest, Matt explores the universal themes of memory, love, family, religion, and responsibility. Time shifts from one subject area, set of characters, and time into other subjects and times here, leaving some tantalizing questions unanswered in one area while slowly revealing information in others. In this way Sarvas maintains suspense while expanding the character of Matt slowly, and though the novel has fewer than three hundred pages, it is compressed in such a way that it feels longer and more complex than other novels of its length. The book does rely on coincidence and novelistic “magic” to resolve some of the issues of plot and character, however, and much of the emotion generated is sentimental, rather than subtle. As Matt opens himself more fully to life and love on all levels, however, he becomes more self-aware, leading to a grand resolution and a long overdue coming-of-age.

Berliet double-decker tin bus from the workshop of Parisian artisan Pinard, recently sold for $10,270

Berliet double-decker tin bus from the workshop of Parisian artisan Pinard (perhaps similar to some belonging to Gabor Santos in his dreams), recently sold for $10,270.

Photos.  The author’s photo by Mark Sarvas appears on http://offtheshelf.com/

The tomb of the fictional artist Ernst Kalman (by Lazlo Lihi) in Kozma Cemetery was said to have been a few tombs away from the Blue Tomb here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/

Gabor Santos, father of Matt, is said to have filled his basement with the toy antique cars which he collected. This one is a tin car from the Carette line in 1910.  https://www.antiquetoyworld.com/tin-toys/antique-toy-cars/

The monumental sculptures from Hungary’s Communist period have been relocated to Memento Park in Budapest.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/    Photo by Prosopee.

The Berliet double-decker tin bus (recently sold for $10,270) is by the Parisian workshop of Pinard.  https://www.pinterest.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Literary, Psychological study |
Written by: Mark Sarvas
Published by: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Date Published: 03/13/2018
ISBN: 978-0374206376
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


“The road to Balinnie took them through Royston, then Provanmill. Long rows of dirty, black tenements lined the way interrupted by empty sites full of mud and piles of old tiles and bricks, any metal or lead from the roofs long gone. Driving through the north of Glasgow, a place he’d known since he was a boy, was like driving through a different city now. All the landmarks were gone, couldn’t find his way any more. All that was left…was a few rows of tenements. Motorways and shitty high flats. The New Glasgow.”

cover bloody january Alan Parks lived for years in Glasgow, Scotland, the place where he has set his debut novel – and the same place where revered author William McIlvanney set his three Laidlaw novels between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. McIlvanney, credited as the founder of “Tartan noir,” casts a wide shadow with his Scottish writing, not only as a novelist, but also as a poet, a writer of literary fiction, a journalist, and a writer of screenplays, and publishers and some recent critics have drawn favorable comparisons between McIlvanney and Parks. Though both novelists have written dark, noir novels about Glasgow’s underworld and its subcultures, those familiar with McIlvanney will find few similarities to Parks, once they look beneath the surface. Parks is uncompromisingly realistic in his vision of the city, its gangs, its poor, and its corruption, whereas McIlvanney fills his narrative with unique descriptions and literary references, while also revealing the sad realities of his characters. Parks illustrates the weaknesses of his main characters – their alcohol dependence, use of drugs, and willingness to compromise in one legal area in order to achieve what they want in other areas. McIlvanney’s Laidlaw holds to his own truths.  While Parks employs some local dialect and intersperses that language with a flood of four-letter descriptives which often dominate the dialogue, Mclvanney uses so much dialect that it often requires the reader to “translate” what the characters are saying in their “foreign language.”

Author Alan Parks

Author Alan Parks

In fact, the differences between these authors outweigh the similarities, though both show the underside of Glasgow life. McInnerney is a realist; Parks is a naturalist – or as one of my teachers said many years ago, “The realists called a spade a spade; the naturalists called it a goddamn shovel.” Parks’s naturalistic description begins with the novel’s opening paragraph. It is 1973, and Det. Harry McCoy, just thirty, has been summoned to Barlinnie Prison, a Victorian building which houses many more prisoners than it was ever built for. “No wonder the whole prison stank. The smell of overflowing slop buckets and stale sweat was so thick it caught in the back of your throat as soon as the big doors opened; stuck to your clothes when you left.” He is meeting Howie Nairn, a convict confined to the Special Unit who has not admitted to a murder that he almost certainly committed. Nairn, however, has not called McCoy to discuss that. He wants to tell him that a girl named Lorna will be murdered the next day. All he knows about her is that she works in a “posh restaurant,” possibly Malmaison, and “someone’s gonnae do her tomorrow.” He doesn’t know her last name, but he feels that if he can do a favor for McCoy that his own position in jail might improve.

Barlinnie Prison, built in the Victorian period, and seriously overcrowded by 1973, when this novel takes place.

Barlinnie Prison, built in the Victorian period, and seriously overcrowded by 1973, when this novel takes place.

At this point, McCoy has worked a full day, night has fallen, and he needs some time off with Janey, his girlfriend. At the shebeen where she works and “where every room [is] converted to a bedroom apart from the kitchen,” he smokes dope, gets drunk, and decides he is “too stoned” to go anywhere looking for the mysterious Lorna. He does return to his job the next day, however, and, accompanied by Wattie, a young intern, he goes to the bus station and waits for her to arrive for work. Sudden shouts and a woman’s scream alert him to a teenage boy with a gun, and McCoy is not able to stop him from fatally shooting a woman – Lorna – then himself in the head. Upon returning to headquarters, McCoy and Wattie are sent back to the prison to find out how Nairn knew about the killing in advance .

Paddy's Market, the market for people whose kids didn't have shoes, whose tea was bread and jam or a bag of chips if they were lucky.

Paddy’s Market, “the market for people whose kids didn’t have shoes, whose tea was bread and jam or a bag of chips, if they were lucky.”

From this early scene, the action develops, day by day for the month of January, as does the picture of low-life Glasgow in 1973. By the third day, three people have died, and the true depths of depravity have only started to be revealed within a city which is dying: One neighborhood “was just motorways, half-demolished tenements with wallpapered rooms open to the sky and the odd pub left stranded in the middle of nowhere, everything around it gone.” As McCoy investigates Lorna’s life, he begins to show some real feeling about the people with whom he is in contact. Lorna’s friend, maybe her only real friend, inspires the first real sense here of McCoy’s sympathy for people in the grips of a lifestyle over which they have little or no control. His own issues regarding his health, his past, and his old friendships slowly emerge. Gradually, the involvement of “higher-ups,” both socially and within the police, shifts the focus upscale to the “important” Lord Dunlop and his son.

Park Circus, part of a series of grand Edwardian terraces...a posh area, where McCoy talks with "Madame Polo."

Park Circus, part of a series of grand Edwardian terraces, “a posh area,” where McCoy talks with “Madame Polo” about Lorna.

As McCoy begins to reveal his own past, his  difficult childhood, family background, and early career become important for the reader. Murray, his boss, who has difficulty keeping him focused and directed, McCoy’s intern Wattie, and the reader eventually learn that McCoy’s court defense of an abused tramp who murdered someone in self defense led to the murder charge being reduced to culpable homicide and the sentence reduced to eighteen months. Since then McCoy “cannae walk down the street without some jakey (homeless person) shaking his hand telling him he’s a fucking hero.” Just when McCoy seems to be becoming more human, however, his very humanity makes him as vulnerable as those he wants to protect.

The Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, where a final scene sets up a continuation of this novel and its characters.

The Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, where a final scene sets up a continuation of this novel and its characters.

In the last fifty pages, sadistic violence against McCoy and others leads to a grand climax and more graphically described torture and bloodshed than the reader has seen in the previous two hundred fifty pages combined. The narrative is carefully constructed, but very graphic in its depiction of the setting and period, as it introduces a highly flawed, new “hero,” whose upcoming career in the “polis” seems set to develop in future novels.

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

Barlinnie Prison, built during the Victorian Period, was already crowded in 1973, when this novel took place.  http://www.heraldscotland.com

Paddy’s Market, “the market for people whose kids didn’t have shoes, whose tea was bread and jam or a bag of chips, if they were lucky.”  http://www.chrisleslie.com/

Park Circus, part of a series of grand Edwardian terraces, “a posh area,” where McCoy talks with “Madame Polo” about Lorna. http://www.scottishconstructionnow.com/

The novel’s final scene at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow summarizes the action and sets the scene for a future novel.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glasgow_Royal_Infirmary

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Historical, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Psychological study, Scotland, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Alan Parks
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 03/20/2018
ISBN: 978-1609454487
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Domenico Starnone–TRICK

“It was a journey plagued by cold sweats and the desire to head back to Milan. It was raining and I felt tense. The train sliced through gusts of wind that cloud the window with trembling rivulets of precipitation. I was often scared that the [train cars], felled by the storm, would jump the tracks, and I realized the more one aged, the more it mattered to stay alive.”—thoughts of main character Daniele Mallarico, elderly illustrator of literary fiction.

cover trickDaniele Mallarico, in his seventies, is on his way from Milan to Naples, where he has agreed to care for his four-year-old grandson Mario for three days so that his daughter and son-in-law can attend a professional mathematics conference. Daniele, already late with illustrations he has agreed to create for a new edition of Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” has been ill, and he and his daughter have not been close, even during and after his recent surgery. He has not seen his only grandchild for two years. The house where he will be staying, however, is the one in which he grew up – and where he has left ghosts – part of an elegant, centuries-old building overlooking the busy Piazza Garibaldi in Naples. Mallarico’s arrival in Naples begins author Domenico Starnone’s novel and is quite different from what one would expect from the above summary, the many blurbs on-line and on the book’s back cover, and the novel’s obviously “cute” cover illustration. For unknown reasons, the chosen cover shows ghostly images of a curious school-age girl exploring a modern, painted bureau, neither of which plays any role at all in this thoughtful literary novel.

author starnone

Author Domenico Starnone

This novel is serious, not cute, despite its innate charm. Here the author uses irony and dark humor for his primary dramatic effects, contrasting the age and thinking of the elderly grandfather and his precocious grandson as he raises questions about how we become who we are, and what, if anything, we can do about it. His narrative style keeps the reader involved, non-stop, captivated by the novel’s ideas and its many surprises, a real treat for grownups who admire well-developed literary fiction with philosophical and psychological overtones and serious themes presented with panache and style. Mallarico arrives in Naples exhausted and out of sorts, unsure of himself because of his long physical recovery after surgery and his difficulties in getting inspired enough to create the plates he needs to illustrate Henry James’s story, “The Jolly Corner.” Though author Starnone does not spend a lot of time drawing obvious parallels and contrasts between his own novel and James’s short story – and does not make the reader feel that s/he needs to read the James short story in order to like and understand Trick – some parallels are clear: In both narratives, an older person returns home after being away for many years to find himself questioning how he became the person he is, exploring new ideas about what he might have become, and questioning his choice of profession, in particular. His interests and possibly his abilities now seem very different from what he has pursued in the past. This leads him to wonder whether he has wasted his life following a wrong path as he confronts his personal ghost, his alterego.

Piazza Garibaldi, Naples, by Ansaldo Breda.

Piazza Garibaldi, Naples, by Ansaldo Breda.

In Trick, Mallarico is aided, unwittingly, by Mario, his four-year-old grandson, who is also facing significant issues as he begins making new choices offered by his grandfather and recognizes these choices and their outcomes as different from the choices offered by his mother and father. His grandfather offers him much more freedom, leading Mario to see alternatives, as Mallarico recognizes that all children have unique potential which must be recognized and encouraged if the child is to feel fulfilled. Mario, precocious and intelligent, knows how to turn on the gas stove, how to set the table, and all manner of household dos and don’ts, and when he decides that he does not want to go to nursery school and to stay with his grandfather for the day instead, Mallarico agrees. He allows Mario to be messy, to take chances, and to explore and experiment. In the meantime, he is aware that he himself no longer wants to work on illustrations for the Henry James story. He recognizes that a person making big commitments to one profession or one person or one talent, at the expense of others, limits his/her potential, and knowing when or where to draw the line, over time, makes the difference between long-term happiness and dissatisfaction. He realizes that he has felt this way for ten or fifteen years, recognizes that he is in decline, and believes that his imagination is worn out.

Behind the Garibaldi statue is an apartment house like the one that belonged to the family of Daniele Mallarico. The unit in the top right with the balcony is like the one he describes here.

Behind the Garibaldi statue is an apartment house like the one that belonged to the family of Daniele Mallarico. The unit in the top right, with the balcony, is like the one  described here.

Watching Mario gives him some new ideas, however, and when Sally, the maid/cook, gets locked out of the house, it is Mario who figures out how to get her back inside. Mallarico and Mario continue to lock horns, however, as Mallarico faces ghosts from the past, along with the memories inspired by looking through an old family album and a collection of his own early drawings. Eventually, he takes a new approach to his contract of illustrating Henry James, creating images inspired by his own family apartment, his own adolescent years, and his own ghosts. Eventually, Mario wants to draw what he sees his grandfather drawing so that they can “work together,” an event which leads to some new understanding, at the same time that it creates a major crisis between them. Eventually, Mallarico finds himself helpless in dealing with a terrible problem that only young Mario can solve. In turn, Mario ends up in a predicament which needs Mallarico’s help though he cannot give it until Mario helps him first. From opposite ends of life – Daniele Mallerico, near death, and Mario just recently coming alive – they begin to affect each other, Mallarico filled with thoughts of the past and Mario filled with thoughts of the future, leading Mallarico finally to conclude, “I don’t know if I’m scared for the child or scared of the child.”

Mario persuades Mallarico to take him to the subway, where the wants to ride the escalators. With escalators like this one, it's easy to see why. Photo by Oscar Tusquet Blanca

Mario persuades Mallarico to take him to the subway, where he wants to ride the escalators. With escalators like these, it’s easy to see why. Photo by Oscar Tusquet Blanca

Sensitively translated with all the subtleties of complex Neapolitan expressions explored until she is satisfied with the result in English, author/translator Jhumpa Lahiri adds her own formidable skills to this remarkable and thought-provoking novel. “My hope,” she says, “was to channel Starnone’s style, to write as if he were writing, to somehow copy and paste him into English. This…involves something of a trick….Starnone’s text remains the parent that spawned this translation, but somewhere along the road to its English incarnation, it also became a ghost.” The book is thoughtful and rewarding – brilliant – and is high on my Favorites list for the year.

ALSO by Starnone:  TIES

Metro Toledo supports and lighting, by Oscar Tusquets Blanca

Metro Toledo supports and lighting, by Oscar Tusquets Blanca

Photos. The author’s photo appears on http://images.gqitalia.it

Piazza Garabaldi, by Ansalmo Breda, is from  https://www.flickr.com/

The Garibaldi statue, with a centuries-old apartment building behind it, shows a 6th floor apartment (top right) with balcony like the one described as belonging to Mallarico’s family.  https://upload.wikimedia.org

The metro station, restored and rebuilt by Oscar Tusquets Blanca, is from https://www.pinterest.com

Another Metro photo of the supports for the underground development appears on https://www.pinterest.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Italy, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Domenico Starnone
Published by: Europa
Date Published: 03/06/2018
ISBN: 978-1609454449
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: Antonio Munoz Molina was WINNER of Spain’s National Novel Prize in 1988 and 1992, the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature in 2013, and the biennial Jerusalem Prize, in 2013, for his novels “celebrating themes of human freedom in society.”

“Feverish images and words proliferate like coral through the depths of insomnia. I feel I won’t be able to sleep well until I know everything, until I have reviewed every detail and thread of the story. There isn’t a blank space behind what could have been the final period of that fateful shot. And a shot does not exhaust and does not even summarize what happened in that instant, at six in the afternoon, six and one minute.”—Author Antonio Munoz Molina on his own involvement with the story of Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

cover like fading shadowIn this fascinating, involving, often hypnotic novel, Spanish author Antonio Munoz Molina creates a compelling story from several points of view and several different time periods, revolving around the life of James Earl Ray and his eventual murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Munoz Molina gives Ray’s story a different slant from purely journalistic accounts, concentrating on his life, his past, and his thoughts, and culminating in his two escapes – the first time in 1967, a year before the assassination, when he escapes from a Missouri prison and moves throughout the US and Canada for months, eventually living in Mexico. Leaving Mexico in November, 1967, he returns to the US, supports the Presidential campaign of George Wallace, has some facial reconstruction surgery, and considers emigrating to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then under the rule of a white minority. Eventually, he gravitates to Memphis, where he commits the murder of Dr. King and escapes, first to Canada, then to London, Lisbon, and back to London, where he is apprehended. Though Munoz Molina often details the thoughts of James Earl Ray, he uses an unusual third person point of view, combining his journalistic skills regarding events and places with the fictionalized inner personality and emotions of Ray as he lives and travels, providing a kind of literary energy which goes beyond the limits of narrative reporting.

Antonio Munoz Molina, photo by Alberto Villalon

Antonio Munoz Molina, photo by Roberto Villalon

Shortly after this introductory section, Munoz Molina introduces himself at home in Granada, Spain, in 1987, almost twenty years later. A young government worker, age thirty-one, he likes to regard himself as a writer, having little in common with his work colleagues. Outside the office, he leads a fragmented life. His wife works in Madrid and lives there with their young child, and she is expecting their second baby. They see each other for three-day weekends, alternating between his place in Granada and hers in Madrid.  “I was a father and a husband, and also a foolish adolescent,” he tells us, “an apprentice in the art of the novel and a bureaucrat.” He believes that “real life is elsewhere, that imagination is richer and more powerful than reality, and…fiction more perfect than the dull repetition of reality….” Though he started his first book the month before his first child, now three years old, was born, he always got stuck or bored, and it is far from finished. Though he has entitled it “Lisbon,” he realizes that the book has nothing at all to do with Lisbon. “I did not know how to create fiction from the world I saw around me, or invent characters with lives similar to mine…I lacked vision. I was incapable of imagining the breadth of the future.” Having had this sudden realization, he decides that he must go to Lisbon to research his novel immediately, and though his wife has just given birth to their second son, he takes off for a long weekend, seeking some sort of satisfaction there, just as James Earl Ray did at the end of his final escape.

The statue of King John has dominated Praca da Figueira in Lisbon since 1755.

The statue of King John has dominated Praca da Figueira in Lisbon since 1755.

The third narrative line takes place in February, 2014, twenty-seven years after the young writer had his epiphany regarding Lisbon and his first novel. Now a successful author of almost two dozen novels (six of which are available in English), he has returned to Lisbon from Spain with his youngest son, who is now twenty-seven. He reminisces about how he always feels when the writing of a novel nears its end. “A novel is like an ember that must continue glowing beneath the cool ashes after the flames have died, an ember that you must carry in secret, while you get through everything else that occupies your life besides writing.” When a book is finished, he says, a feeling of “lightness” and a “quiet happiness” fills your soul, even though you realize that you will spend additional months editing, re-writing, and tightening the narrative.   Munoz Molina enjoys talking with his son about the son’s job of translating documentaries about travel, and “visiting” these places through his work. Suddenly, a feeling of exultation overwhelms Munoz Molina, and he decides to find out more about James Earl Ray’s time in Lisbon before his final arrest, to learn every possible detail about that time – and to write this book about it.

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. The shot came from the window being pointed out in this photo.

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. The shot came from the corner window being pointed out in this photo.

The final section, which may be controversial for some readers, returns to James Earl Ray, as he writes in jail, bent on convincing the courts and the world at large that he is innocent of the murdering Dr. King, that a man named Raoul or Roual was the guilty party. A quick cut to Munoz Molina shows him contrasting his own life with that of his son, detailing some of his research in Lisbon and in Memphis for this book, as he brings the reader up to date on the events from his own life – his divorce when his oldest son was five – and his new life and love. Ultimately, he even creates a climactic chapter in which Martin Luther King himself becomes the speaker on the last day of his life, revealing information about his personal life which only researchers into the life of Dr. King would probably know. The novel winds and twists, has many different ideas and directions, and talks about fiction and its writing, its differences from journalism, its responsibilities when dealing with real events, and its long-term value.

cover james earl ray 6_20_77Throughout the novel, the author ignores many of the standard “rules” regarding the overall organization of his narrative, with the point of view and the time frame of the action changing back and forth throughout the separate sections. King is assassinated early in the novel, but he and Ray are both further developed throughout the book, including in its conclusion, as a result of Munoz Molina’s research – and speculation. To this extent the novel may be considered “experimental.” The author is taking his chances with the reader, trusting that the reader will want to discover as much as he himself has discovered regarding the events in Memphis and the people involved in them. He also wants to show how he himself became involved in this story and to show how he came to write this novel, the weaknesses he sees in his own early writing and the changes he has instituted with maturity. Fiction is alive and well here, whether it be the author’s lifelong work as an author, Ray’s written attempts to convince authorities that he is innocent as he faces a lifetime in prison, or Munoz Molina’s son’s excitement about translating and living a life through filmed events, and that supersedes any limitations of the narrative order, at least for me.


Photos.  The author’s photo by Roberto Villalon appears on https://elasombrario.com

The statue of King John in the Praca de Figueira appears many times in this narrative:  https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/

Dr. Martin Luther King was shot by a lone gunman at 6:00 p.m. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  https://clickamericana.com/

Time Magazine’s photo of James Earl Ray featured his escape, an event developed further in this book:  http://content.time.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Experimental, Historical, Literary, Portugal, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Spain, US Regional
Written by: Antonio Munoz Molina
Published by: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Date Published: 07/18/2017
ISBN: 978-0374126902
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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