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Tanguy Viel–ARTICLE 353

“Nobody wants to fall overboard fully clothed into the ocean anywhere in the world, even close to shore – it’s such a surprise for the body to find itself in this new element.  One moment, the man is on a bench in a boat, chatting at the stern rail while rigging his lines and the next he’s in another world, with gallons of salt water, numbing cold, and the weight of wet clothes making it hard to swim.”

cover article 353With this opening paragraph, author Tanguy Viel is off and running with a propulsive story which never lets down and never quits until the last possible moment, when its ending comes as a relief or an irony to the involved reader.  Set in Finistere, a depressed waterfront community in Brittany in the late 1990s, a man stands before a judge, trying to explain how and why he has killed another man aboard that man’s own Merry Fisher boat, and then returned home to await the inevitable arrival of the local police a few hours later.  When he sees them arriving, he cannot help but admit that he “wouldn’t have done anything different…I would have done the same thing, heaved Antoine Lazenec overboard the same way and brought the boat back in the same way, following the channel to the yacht harbor while respecting the green and red buoys like railroad signals…”  The killer, Martial Kermeur, is anxious to set the record straight, and he is impressed that this judge is “thirty, at most” and really seems to want to hear him out.  In descriptive and involving prose, Kermeur describes his thoughts – “no they weren’t thoughts, images maybe…still whirling around…as if I were a cormorant aloft on a shifting breeze, scanning the sea for a tiny shadow or glint that would justify my diving to catch something, anything, so long as it was a place to begin….” And then suddenly, he sees the whole picture and begins:  “It’s about a run-of-the-mill swindle, Your Honor, that’s all.”

Author Tanguy Viel.

Author Tanguy Viel.

Establishing the background of his isolated community for the reader (since the judge would, of course, already know it), Martial Kermeur states his belief that if the town had been bigger and more connected to the real world, that they would have recognized the victim, Antoine Lazenec, for what he truly was, a swindler.  Lazenec’s arrival in his cream-colored Porsche 911 was “like a hand reaching out to pull us from the waves,” and his big plans to buy the local chateau and the land around it and develop it are an exciting possibility for the five thousand “somewhat tired” people living on the peninsula where “heaven’s been hard on us for a long time.”  More than eighty percent of the workers at the large Arsenal shipyard have, in fact, been laid off in the past three years, and no new businesses have taken its place.  With good layoff bonuses for the former workers, many “guys who look too young to be retired” have become fishermen with their own boats.  Kermeur has become a caretaker for the estate of the chateau, living there in his own cottage, but he dreams of having his own Merry Fisher boat some day.  Lazenec’s arrival with his big plans comes at a time when some of the former shipyard workers still have layoff bonuses to spend, perhaps participating in the action of the new “seaside resort.”

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere.

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere.

All this information is revealed in the first thirty pages of this novella, and it is from this point on that many readers will become so involved with the characters and the predicament of Kermeur and others in the community that they will read the entire book nonstop.  I have quoted more here than I usually do in reviews to give a sense of the author’s intensely involving use of detail, especially in making Kermeur feel real and likable despite his obvious crime.  Kermeur, of course, in addition to being caught up in some action beyond his control, is also a weak man, often convincing himself to give in when that seems to be the easiest choice.  When he is flattered by Lazenec, who builds him up when talking about the future of the building project “at maturity,” Kermeur admits “something in me was swelling with pride or, I don’t know, sovereignty,” as Lazenec continues to plant seeds in his brain about the future.  Ultimately, Kermeur admits, “It was as if the captain who was supposed to be living with me in my brain had abandoned the ship even before the wreck began.   Maybe he was on some distant rock, his eyes wild….”  Still, Kermeur remains a sympathetic character because he is so vulnerable, so hopeful, and so desperate for respect within his family and his community, a combination rife with potential disaster.

The Merry Fisher, the boat which all the former workers at the Arsenal Shipyard wanted to buy with their layoff bonuses.

The Merry Fisher, the boat which all the former workers at the Arsenal Shipyard wanted to buy with their layoff bonuses.

Kermeur’s late awareness of both Lazenec’s manipulations combined with his own feelings of powerlessness in the face of Lazenec’s effects on the community at large, stimulate empathy in the reader, despite the fact that the story line itself verges on sentimentality and sometimes feels over-written.  The fast pacing and the careful use of flashbacks to release background material, which effectively increase the drama as the novel progresses, keep the reader totally involved and focused on the progression of the inevitable disaster. The dramatic tension increases as the reader becomes aware of the book’s almost allegorical parallels with some current, well-known scams and scammers.  And as the fallout from Lazenec’s “business plan” affects more and more citizens, the situation begins to sound like contemporary TV news with all its headlines.  Viel cleverly keeps the story and its characters paramount, however, and leaves it to the reader to draw the obvious, wider conclusions, as individuals whom the readers comes to know become – naively – more and more entangled in the horrors which ultimately affect their lives.  As the killer, Kermeur, and the judge confront each other from different points of view, the reader cannot help but think of some of these parallels and “what-ifs” on a larger scale than the limited setting of this book.

The spectre of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.

The specter of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.

The conclusion will be celebrated by some readers and reviled by others.  Author Viel has created an absorbing and honest look at a situation with, perhaps, no “right” answer, at least not one which will satisfy all readers.  The best aspect of Viel’s writing is that he ends the book at exactly the right time, keeping it short and pertinent, and not expanding into all the what-ifs which some authors insist on.  His descriptive style and ability to create memorable images should make this one of the favorites of international fiction fans and a huge hit with book clubs throughout the country.

Photos.  The author photo appears on https://www.lairedu.fr

The 1990 Polestar 911 Porsche, the car which Lazenec used upon his arrival at Finistere, was a sign that Lazenec was not like all the people in Finistere which he was trying to impress.  https://www.automobilesreview.com/

Many of the laid off workers from the Arsenal worked to purchase a Merry Widow boat for use as a fishing boat as a way to support their families.  https://www.sea-ventures.co.uk/

The specter of jail dominates much of the action and the lives of some of the characters here.  http://clipart-library.com/

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, France, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Tanguy Viel
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 03/12/2019
ISBN: 978-1590519332
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  Peter Carey is a two-time WINNER of the Booker Prize, three-time WINNER of Australia’s Miles Franklin Award for Best Novel of the Year, and two-time WINNER of the Commonwealth Writers Prize.

“The police…hated us.  They knew what the [racing] rule book would not admit, that the drivers were all maniacs, gathered to race, to burn each other off, to ‘do the ton,’ to get ahead, to make up time, to sometimes create breathing space for adjustments and repairs, but always, no matter what they said in interviews, to make the other fellow ‘eat my dust.’ ” – Willie Bachhuber, “navigator” for Titch Bobs in Australia’s Redex Trial, 1954.

coverAs soon as I saw the announcement that Australian author Peter Carey had published a new novel, his fourteenth in thirty-six years, I knew I would read it, just as I have read and enjoyed six other Carey novels.  I have just finished reading it, and I did, eventually, enjoy and even admire much of it, but I read the first twenty-five pages three times before I was able to get a sense of who the initial speakers are, how they are connected, what the setting is, and where this book will be going.  Even now I see the plot as consisting of several loosely connected parts, instead of reflecting several different aspects of the same themes and a strong sense of direction and interconnection.  When I finally read some of the professional reviews today, I saw a similar dichotomy among professional reviewers.  Alex Preston in the Guardian, states that this is Carey’s “best novel in years, maybe decades.”  Ron Charles in the Washington Post, however, refers to the “more than a hundred pages of fairly aimless preparations” and suggests that while some “prescient readers” might pick up hints of the drama to come, that others “will probably jump out of this slow-moving plot before it reaches the main event.”  He especially regrets this because “Carey eventually arrives at a profound and poignant story.”

author photoThe novel opens with Irene Bobs talking about her family, her husband, her two small children, his family, and her sister.  She has just found a decrepit house with spacious property for rent in Bacchus Marsh, outside Melbourne, where they can live while her husband Titch develops a used car business at the back of the property.  Her new next-door neighbor is a fair-haired bachelor who likes kids, but she decides not to be too kind to him because  “Everything complicated in life begins with kindness.” The bachelor, Willie Bachhuber, of German heritage, is a “chalk-and-talker,” a teacher who grew up in a parsonage and who is now being sought by bailiffs for suspending a rowdy student from a school window.  Willie is a student of maps and geography and makes some money by participating regularly in a popular radio quiz show.  Eventually, he reveals his past, including his marriage to Adelina, which ended dramatically after the birth of “his” son, a boy who is clearly black, while he is blonde.

The Curta Calculator, purchased by Bachhuger, will help him figure the statistics regarding their trip and its timing.

The Curta Calculator, purchased by Bachhuber, will help him figure the statistics regarding their trip and its timing.

The first plot line, lasting for almost half the novel, begins when Titch decides to gain publicity for his incipient car dealership by participating in the Redex Trial in 1954, not a race, but a competition involving almost three hundred participants who plan to circumnavigate the whole Australian continent – all sixty-five-hundred miles around it.  The winner is the team with the highest number of points gained and the fewest penalties.  There are no big prizes, except for the immeasurable positive publicity for the winner.  Titch and Irene will be the two drivers for their team, and their new neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will, with his map-making expertise, become the navigator as they prepare their Holden sedan for the long trip and the hazards they will face, not least of which are the deliberate hazards for which their competition is directly responsible.  Titch’s father Dan Bobs, the biggest trickster of all, uses gelignite to scare his competition, including his own family.

The model Holden sedan which the Bobs family and Willie drive in the Redex Trials in 1954.

This is the model Holden sedan which the Bobs family and Willie drive in the Redex Trials in 1954.

At about the halfway point, Carey introduces what becomes the most absorbing and important aspect of this novel.  For the first time in his writing career, Carey confronts the subject of the treatment of Australia’s aboriginal people, the theft of their lands, and the attempts to destroy all remnants of their culture.  Introduced when Irene finds the tiny skull of a baby boy with a bullet hole in what appears to have been an open graveyard, this discovery is clearly on the site of a massacre of some sort.  The baby’s bones become a symbol throughout the remainder of the book, and when Irene tries to leave the delicate skull with the police, no one will take it – they have “no room to store it.” Within a few chapters, “Doctor Battery,” an aborigine, volunteers to help the team by fixing their problem battery, and it becomes increasingly clear that Willie Bachhuber’s background as an adoptee does not match the German background suggested by his pastor father.  Other non-white characters become part of the action, and Willie, the unemployed and “wanted man,” is eventually persuaded to run a school in a cave in a secluded community of aborigines.  He is reluctant to stay there long because the place feels to him like a kind of prison, the residents being “exiles in the land….denied the meaning of their lives.”

Car participating in the Redex Trial in 1953.

Car participating in the Redex Trial in 1953.

The wild Redex Trial and its outcome, the marital difficulties of Titch and Irene, the mysterious background of Willie, the incipient love stories throughout, the criminal social element which enters the plot with Titch’s father and his friends, the misunderstandings, and the whole setting provide some simple excitement and interest, though some readers will be hoping for much more.  The setting and Carey’s own feelings about the country’s history regarding the indigenous population, displaced and consigned to the equivalent of exile in their own country, are clearly very real, however, and very important to the author.  In addition, Carey himself grew up in the same town, Bacchus Marsh, where Titch and Irene are living and building a car dealership.  His own father was a car dealer, and Carey’s familiarity with that community makes that setting feel vibrant.  Irene’s discovery of the baby’s skull with the bullet hole is a moving scene and brings the novel’s focus into a new, more complex arena at about the halfway point, giving real life to the conclusion.  Ultimately, some readers may feel that the main characters are not as well developed as some of Carey’s characters in other novels, and that this novel lacks the coherence and depth of those novels. Still, this new work does come alive in several areas, and Carey is so talented, overall, that many readers will forgive the possible missteps along the way.


The Kororoit Bridge entering Melbourne marks the beginning of the end for the Redex Trials.

The Kororoit Bridge entering Melbourne marks the beginning of the end at the Redex Trials.

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

The Curta Calculator, purchased by Bachhuber, will help him figure the statistics regarding their trip and its timing.  https://www.jaapsch.net/

Titch and Irene, and occasionally Willie, drive this model of the GMC Holden sedan for the Redex Trials.  https://www.autoevolution.com/

Authentic photo from the Redex Trials of 1953.  http://www.clubvw.org.au/ 

The old brick Kororoit Bridge entering Melbourne marks the beginning of the end for the Redex Trials. https://www.flickr.com/    Photo by Dave.

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Australia, Historical, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Peter Carey
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Date Published: 02/27/2019
ISBN: 978-0525520177
Available in: Ebook Hardcover


“While the director of the sanitarium was performing [a] demonstration, my eyes had fallen once more upon that ponderous book…WITCHCRAFT AND MEDICINE.  The title had given me an idea, an idea which, like the key piece in a jig-saw puzzle, suddenly made clear in my mind the pattern behind the whole bewildering series of events.  It had been a puzzle for fools, and I saw now that it was its very foolishness which had saved it from being absurdly obvious.” – Peter Duluth, main character.

cover quentin puzzle for foolsWritten in 1936 and out of print for thirty years, A Puzzle for Fools has now been resurrected as part of Otto Penzler’s American Mystery Classics series – and what a classic it is!  The novel, hugely successful when it was initially published, established “Patrick Quentin” as a popular writer, quite different from some of his contemporaries in that he was more interested in the psychology of his characters than many of his contemporaries, who were still following a predictable formula for their plots.  For Quentin, a pseudonym for Hugh Callingham Wheeler, in collaboration with Richard Wilson Webb, this is the first of nine novels featuring Peter Duluth, a main character who is not a genius and is not perfect.  Duluth is a man who has had a Broadway career, and he is still mourning the horrific death of his wife in a fire at the theatre two years ago.  For two years he has attempted to escape his memories of her death through alcohol, ultimately admitting himself to a psychiatric institution where he is attempting to get his life back under control.  Relatively normal when he is not drinking, he gets to know everyone at the institution, from the male patients in his wing and the women who gather with them for activities on weekends, to the employees and officials who make the institution successful.  He is about to get a workout on all levels as mysterious events begin to take a more ominous turn.

author photo wheelerg

Hugh Callingham Wheeler, the primary writer for the Peter Duluth book series, was also the playwright for A Little Night Music, Candide, and Sweeney Todd.

In some very obvious foreshadowing, Duluth tells the reader that he “had no idea then of the fantastic and horrible things which were so soon to happen in Doctor Lenz’s sanitarium…I did have a distinct impression that something was vitally wrong.  Even then I felt that behind all this madness there was method, [but it was] a problem far too intricate for my post-alcoholic brain.” As he establishes the atmosphere of the institution and its patients, he is obviously describing a place far different from the “insane asylums” that have deservedly achieved reputations for being more like prisons and penitentiaries at the time of this novel’s writing.  As Duluth puts it, “It wasn’t a sanitarium really.  It was just an expensive nuthouse for people like me who had lost control.”  Here, the patients involved in the story are people who are not insane but have difficulties with one or more aspects of their personalities.  One man is “one of the greatest conductors of our age,” but  has been frightened so badly by something that he cannot function.  Still another has narcolepsy, falling asleep without warning.  One hears spirit voices and even sees spirits.  A young woman suffers from melancholia, and another woman from kleptomania, able to pick someone’s pocket without their feeling anything.  In an interesting twist, the male and female patients socialize on Saturday nights, under the direction of the medical staff, their interactions affecting their perceptions and those of the staff. 

man in strait jacket

The body found at the institution was in a strait jacket like this one but was turned over to lie on its arms in pain for many hours. A rope around the neck was pulled tight by the legs.

The action begins when Duluth, trying to sleep one night without “sleeping powders,” hears a voice.  Three times it tells him “You’ve got to get away, Peter Duluth,” and it sounds like his own voice coming from the window.  When it then tells him that there is going to be a murder, Duluth panics and runs, finding his way to a nurse’s room where help is summoned.  It is Doctor Lenz, owner of the sanitarium, who decides to trust him with the fact that “there may be at this moment someone in the sanitarium who ought not to be here….[and] I do not doubt that there was something definite and actual behind your experience…This is not the first disturbing thing which has been reported to me recently….one of the patients [may be] deliberately causing this trouble for some crazy reason of his own.”  His best (terse) advice to Duluth is “Do not let anyone or anything persuade you that you are suffering under a delusion.  Good night.”  Duluth’s spirits are soon improved, of course, when he meets Iris Pattison, a beautiful young woman whose father lost all his money and then threw himself off the penthouse roof garden in front of her.  She’s been at the sanitarium ever since.  As Duluth suddenly finds himself feeling sorry for her, he also realizes that it is the first time in two years that he has felt sorry for anyone but himself, and he is determined to help Iris regain her spirits.

The mental institution which Duluth lived in may have resembled this one, at Worcester State (MA), formerly the Kirkbride Ruins.

The mental institution which Duluth lived in may have resembled this one, at Worcester State (MA), formerly the Kirkbride Ruins.

The night-time voices warning of murder become more frequent, and before long, a particularly grisly murder does take place.  A patient skilled in martial arts is found tied up in a strait-jacket, with a cord running from his neck to his ankles – forced to lie face down on his arms for hours before finally expiring on the premises.  Other threats, accompanied by significant and obvious foreshadowing, occur, as Duluth and the sanitarium owner team up and try to find the killer before he strikes again.  What results is one of the cleverest plots I’ve read in ages.  The reader does not know anything about the murderer’s motivations, and the only real clues are what the author has provided and what appears in the night-time messages given by the mysterious voices. While this novel does use psychology more ingeniously than was common for the period of its writing, the characterizations are relatively simple compared to what one normally sees in contemporary writing, and the reader has little to go on, even if one has kept a character list (highly recommended here).  I did find the detailed lead-up to the conclusion a bit too long, and perhaps that feeling distracted me.  As a result, I was totally blind-sided by the clever conclusion when it occurred, one of the best I’ve read in a long time!  The book may be a bit clumsy with its obvious foreshadowing and limited by what was known about psychology at that time, but it is a gem of plot design, one that lovers of traditional mysteries will not want to miss!  As the author tells us in the quotation at the beginning of this review, “it had been a puzzle for fools,” and I was certainly one of them.

The interior of the mental institution may have resembled this one at Danvers State Hospital in MA, which operated until 1992.

The interior of the mental institution may have resembled this one at Danvers State Hospital in MA, which operated until 1992.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on http://www.junglekey.co.uk

The man found dead in the straitjacket in the novel was forced to lie on his arms in pain for hours before he died. In this photo, the man in the straitjacket is Houdini.   https://www.ripleys.com

The mental institution which Duluth lived in may have resembled this one, at Worcester State (MA), formerly the Kirkbride Ruins.  https://www.danverslibrary.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Historical, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Classic, United States, US Regional
Written by: Patrick Quentin
Published by: Penzler Publishers
Date Published: 03/05/2019
ISBN: 978-1613161258
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Linn Ullmann–UNQUIET

“My father had the rare ability to make others feel as though they were the one and only.  That they were seen, heard, chosen.  He would take you by the hand and say, ‘Come with me,’ and for a brief or a long moment you might think you were the first person he had ever said this to….Even when he was very old and one-eyed and frail and forgetful…when he was no more than a heap of skin and bones stuck in a wheelchair…even then he had this ability.  ‘Stay with me.  Don’t abandon me.  You are the only one I let come close.’  Linn Ullmann, on her father Ingmar Bergman.

cover unquietIn this quotation from the ending of Unquiet, author Linn Ullmann summarizes her feelings about her father, Ingmar Bergman, and her complicated relationship with him.  The book, which she calls a “novel,” is more like a memoir, containing descriptions of many intimate family events, the instinctive reactions of her father and mother, Liv Ullmann, to life’s circumstances as they face them, and her own thoughtful exploration of her own identity, which dominates the body of the narrative.  Age forty-eight by the time the novel ends, Ullmann presents an honest and realistic depiction of her life from the time she was a tiny child to the present, and she is so determined to be honest with herself and her reader and so hopeful that her commentary contains elements of universality that she does not even mention the names of her famous parents until well over a hundred pages of narrative have elapsed.  She clearly prefers that they be regarded as real, ordinary humans living their lives as lovers and parents, and not as the famous film and theater professionals that they have become.  As a result, the reader sees her parents facing what were, to her and to them, seemingly “ordinary” family situations and dealing with them from their own perspectives. 

Linn+Ullmann+Dinner+Gala+Agora+12mgG7QNb4JlWith all their other commitments, however, Linn Ullmann’s parents were not typical, of course, nor was her childhood.  As a pre-schooler, she felt left out at home when she wanted to be loved unconditionally.  She wanted to be recognized as important, at least to her parents, part of a real family, however different it might be. The ninth of Bergman’s children by four different wives and additional lovers, Linn was the littlest child in the entire extended family, significantly younger than all Bergman’s other children, and perhaps less interesting to him. Linn was also a mystery to her mother Liv Ullman, who seemed not to know what to do with her, and Liv’s frequent absences greatly exacerbated Linn’s feelings of isolation and alienation.  Linn was begging for attention and was smart enough to do whatever was necessary to get it for much of her childhood.

Linn Ullmann and her mother, actress Liv Ullmann.

Linn Ullmann and her mother, actress Liv Ullmann.

Unquiet reflects the author’s approach to life through its very title, as Ullmann moves around and through time and place, telling her story through incidental flashes of memory.  She is writing, she says, a story of love, and this involves three different kinds of love.  “You can never know much about other people’s lives, least of all your parents’, and especially not if your parents have made a point of turning their lives into stories that they then go on to tell with a God-given ability for not caring the least about what’s true and what’s not.”  Still, she regards the “first love” as that between her parents.  The second love is that of “the lovers who became parents and the girl who became their daughter.”  Her parents were opposite in personality, she says, and “considering that they, too, wanted to be children, things sometimes got a little difficult.”  She adds, “I was his child and her child, but not their child, it was never us three.”  Attesting to this is the fact that “There isn’t a single photograph of the three of us together.  She and he and I.  That constellation doesn’t exist.”

Hammars, along the coast of Faro. The house here is several hundred feel long and one room deep, extended horizontally, and never vertically

Hammars, along the coast of Faro.  From the air, the house looks several hundred feet long but is only one room deep and one room high, an unusual pattern for any home.

Ullmann’s view of the third kind of love centers around Hammars, a house which stretches seemingly hundreds of feet along the ocean on Faro Island, in the Baltic Sea just east of Sweden. “Hammars was his place, not hers, not the other women’s, not the children’s, not the grandchildren’s,” but it was still a place which felt more comfortable to Linn Ullmann than her own name.  Her parents had met when Liv Ullmann was on Faro during Bergman’s shooting of the film Persona, in which Liv Ullmann was one of two female leads.  It was the first of ten films they eventually made together, and Linn Ullmann believes that the two fell in love immediately.  While Bergman was on the island for this film, he also became so enchanted with a site on the ocean that he built his permanent home, Hammars, there, and eventually lived there in retirement and died there in 2007.  From the time she was a young child, Linn Ullmann visited there alone, living for a month with Bergman and any of her brothers and sisters who happened to be around, seemingly a summer camp combined with an effort to be a family.

Museums on Faro Island.

Museums on Faro Island.

By the end of this introduction, the reader is familiar with the basics of this impressionistic family story, which becomes increasingly specific as the author revisits and re-explores the ideas she has proffered so far.  It is on a visit to Hammars in 2005 that her father suggests that Ullmann interview him, spending an hour or so each day making tape recordings.  He has become forgetful, and he is losing his words, but he likes the idea that he might one day make a book tour with her.  He starts recording, eventually creating six tapes, but a book tour is impossible.  He is not healthy enough, and Ullman has many responsibilities. Having earned plaudits as an actress and director, Ullmann in recent years has become a well-respected literary critic and columnist in both Norway, her home, and in Sweden, and she is also the author of five successful books, nominated for many prizes.  When her father dies in 2007, Ullmann looks for the tapes and discovers they are almost useless, so full of static they are nearly impossible to understand.

Faro, an island off the coast of Sweden, where Ingmar Bergman made his home.

Faro, an island off the coast of Sweden, where Ingmar Bergman made his home.

Here Linn Ullmann puts her life into honest perspective, with all three kinds of love being featured – romantic love, love of children and family, and love of home. As her sense of independence and her determination grow of necessity, as she grows from childhood to adulthood, she makes mistakes, ignoring well-intentioned advice from people who have paid little attention to her when she needed them, but she lives with the results and accepts them.  Ultimately, her growing independence and her sympathetic depictions of both parents win hearts despite the sad failings in communication and connection. It makes no difference if this is a memoir or fiction.  Linn Ullman has created a work memorable for its authenticity, its insights into parents and children, and its forthright depictions of the struggles that even caring people have in showing love.

ALSO by Linn Ullmann, reviewed here:  THE COLD SONG

Faro Island is in the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Latvia

Faro Island is in the Baltic Sea, between Sweden and Latvia. Click to enlarge.

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

Liv Ullmann with her daughter, author Linn Ullmann, are from https://www.rogerebert.com

Hammars, Ingemar Bergman’s Faro Island home for much of his life, may be found here:  http://1.bp.blogspot.com/

The Bergman Center and the Faro Island Museum appear on https://www.globtroter.pl/

The lighthouse on Faro Island appears on http://www.museyon.com

The map of the Baltic with Faro Island highlighted is from http://www.worldeasyguides.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Autobiography/Memoir, Book Club Suggestions, Exploration, Literary, Norway, Psychological study, Sweden |
Written by: Linn Ullmann
Published by: W. W. Norton
Date Published: 01/15/2019
ISBN: 978-0393609943
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Note:  Sacred Cesium Ground is published with a companion novella, Isa’s Deluge, as part of the Weatherhead Books on Asia series by Columbia University Press.  Isa’s Deluge is reviewed following this review of Sacred Cesium Ground.

“I took only my phone and lip cream; my wallet and cosmetic bag stayed in the car; I couldn’t imagine I would need them anytime soon.  One thing was still bothering me: do I take the Geiger counter?…It had been bad enough on the road from the hotel, but it was now ringing with a frequency I hadn’t heard before…ten times over the official level that would require Decontamination Implementation Protocols; forty times higher than the measurements I got when I lived in Nakano, in Tokyo….” – main character Hiromi.

coverOn March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake in Japanese history, registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, hit northeast Japan, killing sixteen thousand people and creating massive devastation.  The powerful tsunami that resulted from this earthquake obliterated towns along the coast, and was so powerful it would go on to affect even the coasts of North and South America.  Most terrifying, the rush of sea water had the immediate effect of creating meltdowns at all three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which then released horrific amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere and precipitated the evacuation of over three hundred thousand people.  With a succession of disasters like these – a powerful earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear disaster – and all the cleanup and social management involving the population of the area, life in the Fukushima area was frantic – people displaced, many deaths, families torn apart, livelihoods gone, and the earth itself contaminated.  In the eight years since then, life has been in “emergency mode,” with so much of immediate importance being faced every day by the people of the area that few former residents, service organizations, or concerned citizens have been able to go there, stand back, and see the results of this emergency in any kind of universal perspective.

Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant begins its explosions.

Until now.  With Sacred Cesium Ground, author Yusuke Kimura* has created a novella which is truly unique – literally one of a kind – a work so transcendent that it is hard to imagine anyone reading it who will not be moved by the experience and changed by the insights into this nuclear disaster in a rural area in which many farmers have traditionally raised cattle.  When these farmers were suddenly evacuated from their irradiated fields and farms, the cattle and other farm animals remained behind.  For the evacuated residents, the loss was not only financial but also personal, as most of them respected their animals, even though the animals were, ironically, being raised for slaughter.  Sacred Cesium Ground opens with Hiromi, a troubled young woman in an abusive marriage who appears at the “Fortress of Hope,” a rural sanctuary for abandoned farm animals on the contaminated, evacuated land.

Farmer Masami-Yoshizawa feeds his cattle, much like Sendo does in this novella. Getty image by Paula Bronstein.

Farmer Masami Yoshizawa feeds his cattle, much as Sendo does in this novella. Getty image by Paula Bronstein.

Coming from the Tokyo area, Hiromi arrives at the animal refuge/farm as a volunteer worker for the weekend, along with a handful of other citizens and a few full-time workers who live there. The work is difficult, the supplies for feeding the animals are sometimes spoiled, the weather is challenging, and the ever-present danger of personal contamination by radiation is absolute.  The connection between the animals, who are the incidental victims of humans; the obligations, if any, of the humans towards them; the resentment of these workers against what they regard as “inhuman” behavior on the part of their government towards the animals harmed; and the connections between the volunteers and the animals they help lead to a dramatic and sensitive epiphany on the part of at least one volunteer.  The sensitive, often earthy, writing provides deeply felt commentary by the female visitor from the Tokyo area, and sets up contrasts so stark that many readers, like the visitor, will become completely wrapped up in the tragedy here.  Ultimately, most readers, too,  will see the totality of life in new ways in the aftermath of this disaster.  Stunning.

Review of Isa’s Deluge by Yusuke Kimura
(ISBN 978-0231189439)

“A low rumble reverberated from the ground…for as far as he could make out, rise in a wave, hollow into a trough, and then out of the resulting dust, sometimes a hand would emerge, sometimes a head, backs would rise, crowds of people would appear, all the way to the distant horizon.  When they rose, brushed off the dust, and stood with confidence, they appeared to be warriors like you would see in ancient, Heian-Period scrolls.  But, with pelts around their shoulders, there was also something barbarian about them.” – Shoji’s dream.

Giant Squid, which came ashore in Japan, one which is undoubtedly larger than anything Shoji and Hitoshi ever caught.

A Giant Squid, which came ashore in Japan, one  which is undoubtedly larger than anything Shoji and Hitoshi ever saw, much less caught.

Less tightly focused and more specifically psychological than Sacred Cesium Ground, this novella opens with main character Shoji fishing for squid at night with his cousin Hitoshi.   An “infinite number” of other boats hung with squid lures and lights are conjured up as Hitoshi begins telling the story of his Uncle Isa, one of a group of “tough fishermen,” a tale so romantically descriptive here that even Shoji suggests that Hitoshi may be “laying it on a little thick.”   Both men have been drinking heavily, and Shoji is anxious to find out more about his Uncle Isa.  Now forty, Shoji has come to Hachinohe from Tokyo because he is at a loss, personally.  He knows that he has an “inability to adjust,” along with no money, no woman, no friends, no looks, and no people skills,” and that is just the beginning of his limitations.

Heian Dynasty Warrior, 794 - 1185

Heian Dynasty Warrior, 794 – 1185

Two months before the Great East Japan Earthquake, Shoji began having a recurring dream in which his Uncle Isa appeared.  Uncle Isa may have committed “the darkest stain in Kawamura family lineage” by stabbing someone who taunted him, and he is regarded as an example of extreme manhood by Shoji and, to a lesser extent, by Hitoshi.  As Shoji thinks about writing a story about Uncle Isa, his images of his own life, compared to the lives of the warriors and people of the Heian period who appear in his dreams, show him to be an almost laughably smaller and less significant person.  Gradually, his own upbringing, compared to that of Uncle Isa and other members of his family, emerges, as do the current effects of the earthquake, the nuclear explosion, and the tsunami on the family he has in rural Japan.  A school reunion and his own behavior during the evening eventually lead Shoji to some new awareness of just who Uncle Isa really is, both to Shoji and to those other family members who have known him.

Less tightly organized than Sacred Cesium Ground, this novella is also less specifically connected to the three great disasters experienced by the population of rural northeast Japan, and the irony of seeing Shoji’s personal problems in the same context as those horrific disasters may be part of the author’s point.  Taken together, these two novellas offer unique views of the aftereffects of the disasters of 2011.

CLICK to enlarge.

CLICK to enlarge.

*NOTE: Translator Doug Slaymaker explains some of the challenges of this translation in an Afterword, and he does a masterful job of making the lives of the characters here seem real.  My one difficulty is with the fact that the author’s name has not been translated into the customary pattern of Japanese names in English translations.  Usually, including in all Wikipedia entries in English, a Japanese person’s family name appears last as it does in English, with the personal name given first (as in Junichiro Tanizaki, Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe).  In this translation, however, it is the Japanese name order which prevails for the author’s name (Kimura Yusuke), even in English.  To keep this book consistent with all the other entries on this website, I have used the English name order in this review and in all the alphabetical listings.

Photos.  The meltdown of three reactors of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant is found on http://gratisparacelular.blogspot.com/

Farmer Masami Yoshizawa feeds his cattle, much as Sendo does in this novella. Getty image by Paula Bronstein.  https://www.gettyimages.ca/

A Giant Squid, which came ashore in Japan, one  which is undoubtedly larger than anything Shoji and Hitoshi ever saw, much less caught.   https://sociorocketnewsen.files.wordpress.com/

A Heian Dynasty Warrior, 794 – 1185, much like those that appear in some of Shoji’s dreams and offer themselves as role models. https://sites.google.com

Map of the area in which the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown took place on March 11, 2011.  http://www.bioedonline.org     CLICK TO ENLARGE.

SACRED CESIUM GROUND and ISA'S DELUGE (Two Novellas of Japan's 3/11 disaster) by Yusuke Kimura
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Two Novellas. Historical, Japan, Literary, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Yusuke Kimura
Published by: Columbia University Press, Weatherhead Books on Asia Series
Date Published: 01/08/2019
ISBN: 978-0231189439
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

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