Book Review: Hotel Silence

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), tells the story of a man who feels that he no longer exists. Once upon a time he was a husband, a father, a son. Now these roles have been eroded, taken from him by forces he struggles to understand. He is unable to find any reason to go on.

Jónas Ebeneser has always tried to do as he is told by the women in his life. His names mean ‘dove’ and ‘the helpful one’ – they suit him well. His mother, a former maths teacher, lives in a home for the elderly where she is gradually losing her mind. His wife has divorced him, his daughter grown and leading her own life. Over the years Jónas taught himself how to fit appliances, mend that which was broken, become a handyman. When his father died he dropped out of university that he may keep the family business going. He considers himself ordinary, lately become unnecessary and thereby unhappy. He has decided to commit suicide.

Jónas plans to borrow his neighbour’s gun although he has never handled a firearm and is concerned that he may inadvertently hurt someone else. He considers hanging himself from a light fitting but worries that his daughter may be the one to discover his body and have to cut him down. He does not wish to be an inconvenience when he has always tried to be helpful.

Eventually Jónas concludes that the easiest place to die would be abroad, his body tidily returned to his family in a box. He clears out his belongings and puts his affairs in order. He buys a one way ticket to a former war zone where the supposed dangers may solve the problem of how to meet his end.

Wars and their aftermath are opportunities for the unscrupulous to make money. The local population has been decimated, traumatised, the survivors forever scarred physically and mentally. As they try to salvage a life for themselves, outsiders arrive eager to hoover up anything of value, to gain lucrative contracts amidst the rebuilding. When Jónas arrives all are suspicious of his motives.

He has booked himself into Hotel Silence, a venue with few guests and suffering neglect in a place now avoided by tourists. Wanting to take a shower, Jónas fixes the plumbing in his room. When a door falls off in his hands he reattaches it. Soon he is being called on to use his skills elsewhere. He has tools and knowledge that are in demand.

Surrounded by the aftermath of allied bombing raids and local infighting, Jónas helps out with practical matters as he has always done when asked. His efforts do not please everyone. There is jealousy from those who are not benefiting, warnings from those who seek to profit from the misery inflicted. They are incredulous that he should work simply to be helpful.

The story is told in two halves. The first is set in Iceland and tells of how Jónas reached a point in his life where he wished to end it. The second is set in the unnamed former war zone and offers a different perspective on survival. Whereas Jónas can no longer find a reason to live, the people he meets abroad have suffered unimaginably but remain determined to continue with their lives.

The writing is spare and humane offering an understanding of individual unhappiness. No trite answers are offered but there is empathy in the cost of loneliness and the damage caused by personal and wider wars. An unusual tale that offers much to consider. Despite the often grim subject matter, a captivating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

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Book Review: The Bear and the Paving Stone

The Bear and the Paving Stone, by Toshiyuki Horie (translated by Geraint Howells), is a collection of three stories by this award winning Japanese author. The titular tale takes up the bulk of the book and tells of a visit to France where the narrator meets an old friend from his university days. He has been working in Paris, translating a biography of  lexicographer and philosopher Émile Littré.  Upon finding himself with a little free time he contacts Yann, a freelance photographer, and arranges to meet.

The story describes a vivid dream, a train journey, and the days spent with Yann who invites the narrator to stay for a few days at the place he is renting. It is close to the town where the Littré family lived and also to Mont Saint-Michel, a Gothic monastery which the men travel to view.

As conversations with friends are wont to do there are many changes of direction. The pair reminisce on how they met and on events from their past. Yann is Jewish and his thoughts turn to the impact of the war on his family. The narrator is disturbed by the emotions evoked by some of the photographs Yann offers him as a souvenir.

When his friend must leave for a prearranged journey to Ireland the narrator stays on in Yann’s house, meeting his landlady and neighbour, Catherine, and her young son. He finds connections in the books he is reading, his dreams and one of the child’s favoured toys.

The second story in the collection, The Sandman is Coming, is set on a beach in Japan. The narrator is walking with an old friend’s younger sister and her child, remembering time spent together with her brother in this place. The man is visiting the seaside town to mark the second anniversary of his friend’s death. When younger he would visit each summer and the three would construct impressive sandcastles on the beach. Now the daughter is just s few years younger than her mother when they first met, although more vivid are the narrator’s memories of her when she was fifteen, her cleavage garnering several mentions.

The final story, In The Old Castle, returns to France. The narrator has been sent a photograph of himself taken many years ago when he visited a friend in Normandy to meet his new partner. Incidents during the journey irk him. He is then critical of his friend’s partner’s looks, focusing on how plump she is rather than the welcome she offers. They visit a partially restored castle, breaking in to look around. Initially excited by their daring, events soon take a darker turn.

The writing is calm and restrained, covering many topics and finding overlaps as each tale progresses. The imagery is strong as are the character portrayals although the style remains understated. The theme of old friendships portrays the reliance on shared memory rather than where they are in their lives today.

An enjoyable read with plenty to unpack and consider. Another fine addition to the publisher’s Japanese novella series.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: My Sweet Orange Tree

My Sweet Orange Tree, by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (translated by Alison Entrekin), is an autobiographical novel set in Rio de Janeiro. It introduces the reader to five year old Zeze, a precocious and mischievous child who lives much of his life in his imagination. Zeze is the second youngest of seven surviving siblings. Their father is out of work so their mother must put in long hours at a factory to keep the family afloat. There are many others living in poverty in the city but Zeze still finds their situation challenging, especially at Christmas when there is no money for fine food or presents. The hardships the family endure lead them to take out frustrations on their little troublemaker. Zeze suffers regular beatings, believing those who tell him he is a devil child and that it would be better had he never been born.

The family move house when their rent arrears become untenable. In the new back garden is a little orange tree which becomes Zeze’s friend. He plays games around it with his little brother, turning their backyard into exciting new worlds. At school he reveres his kind-hearted teacher, behaving well to please her and excelling in his lessons. Zeze earns what money he can from polishing shoes and assisting a songbook seller. He finds a friend in a wealthy adult who teaches him tenderness exists.

Zeze’s escapades are undoubtedly naughty but he is punished so regularly and severely he regards himself as unlovable. The smallest kindnesses offered are grasped and held close. Zeze may lie and swear with abandon, copying the adults around him, but he feels deeply the unfairness of the life he must accept. He shares his thoughts with his little orange tree which he believes listens and responds.

The narration is way in advance of any five year old I have come across but Zeze’s life is also unlike any situation I have known. He is cunning but never malevolent, although at times he harbours thoughts of bloody revenge when mistreated. He dreams of being a poet, finds beauty in music, is eager to learn and to be seen to attain.

Alongside the poignancy of Zeze’s day to day life there is humour, such as the inappropriate lyrics he sings because he likes the popular tune. He asks the adults he encounters whatever questions come to mind without filter, delighting in new words and their meanings. He ponders why Jesus rewards only those who already have plenty.

This is an unusual little story but one that draws the reader in. The author achieves a fine balance between conveying Zeze’s distress at his circumstances and his imaginative coping strategies. The harshness of the boy’s life is clear yet the telling never feels heavy. A story of survival and a search for love as seen through the eyes of an insightful, lonely child.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press. 

 

Book Review: Secret Passages In A Hillside Town

Secret Passages In A Hillside Town, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated by Lola M. Rogers), is a quirky tale of a middle aged man whose past comes back to haunt him. Its protagonist is Olli Suominen, a husband, father, parish counciller and head of a small book publishing business based in Jyväskylä, Finland. Olli considers his home town to be a monument to dull ordinariness. His marriage has grown stale and he barely knows his young son.

Olli has recently joined a film club and Facebook. A girlfriend from his teenage years, Greta, connects with him on the social network. Greta has written a bestselling book – A Guide to the Cinematic Life – which Olli’s wife buys him for his birthday. It prescribes a new way of living.

“The deep cinematic self is an artist that sees life above all as an aesthetic construct. It is like the voice of the conscience but instead of moralizing it leads us to make cinematic choices and interpret our roles as well as we possibly can. It also silences the stage fright of slow continuum attachment so that stories can be set in motion and cinematicness can be achieved.”

Olli’s publishing house needs to find a new title that will sell well. When Greta mentions online that her current publisher is unhappy with her ideas for her next book – the first in a series of magical travel guides starting with Jyväskylä – Olli suggests that she could publish with him. This business arrangement soon starts to affect his personal life.

The reader is taken back to the childhood summers Olli spent with his grandparents in Tourula, where he first met Greta. Olli was part of a group who called themselves the Tourula Five; they even had a dog named Timi. The children would spend their days going on adventures, seeking out underground passageways, eating picnics, messing about on the river. It was a thrilling time until it all went horribly wrong.

Olli has disturbing erotic dreams which are described in detail. His real life sexual encounters are also recounted leaving little to the reader’s imagination. The sex scenes were too numerous and graphic for my tastes, but the same could be said of many popular films, and this story is cinematic in style. As happens on screen, sex is regularly conflated with love.

Much of the story seems preposterous but this appears to be the point. A cinematic lifestyle does not require that the script be realistic, only that it be aesthetically memorable, and the writing reflects this.

Greta’s ideas, which include the existence of mood particles in certain places that affect behaviour, are granted potency. The power of suggestion and the adoption of fads is mocked throughout. When characters become inconvenient they are written away without consequence.

Two denouements are offered for the reader to choose from allowing film preferences to be catered for. The big reveal adds a little depth to the somewhat fantastical plot.

This is a story that encapsulates adventure, mystery, romance, fantasy and comedy with references to the numerous films it parodies. As a whole it is kooky, which at times I found irritating, but despite this it somehow works.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Ms Ice Sandwich

Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Louise Heal Kawai), is a short novel about a young boy’s infatuation with a woman he observes working behind the sandwich counter at a busy supermarket. He is drawn to her eyes, the lids of which are ice-blue. He is fascinated by her attitude, the aloofness with which she treats her customers being so at odds with the typical obsequiousness of service industry employees in Japan. Over the course of a summer he visits the supermarket each day to watch as she slips sandwiches into bags and hands out change. He saves his money that he may purchase the products she sells and thereby get close enough to speak.

When school resumes he cannot spend as much time watching the woman he has named in his head Ms Ice Sandwich. Nevertheless she remains on his mind. He tells his grandmother all about her and draws pictures of her face, painting in the ice-blue eyelids. Grandma is a good listener as she lies in her bed, unable to interact, waiting to die. The boy’s mother is too distracted by her work to converse about more than daily essentials. Peers have their own obsessions, the reasons for which are rarely understood or appreciated.

The boy has a school friend, Tutti, who enthuses about the foreign movies she watches with her dad. She has invited the boy to join them one evening to share a favourite film although a date has yet to be agreed. The boy would like to tell Tutti about Ms Ice Sandwich, especially when other classmates make derogatory comments about her looks. He cannot find the words. When Tutti finds out how he feels she is saddened but advises him to act.

Each of these characters has family and friends yet are portrayed as isolated. What matters to an individual is put at risk when its importance is shared with someone else. The boy does not wish to be laughed at, to have his feelings mocked. Tutti offers him a place in her world, which he is grateful for even if he cannot match her enthusiasm for her interests.

A deftly written, unusual tale of the changes life inevitably brings. Although emotive it is never sentimental. The story touches on universal attitudes, the desire to belong, and the difficulties of conveying what is deeply felt. It is a thought provoking, satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The Beauties

The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater), is a collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories, presented in a beautifully bound edition of this esteemed writer’s work. The book is slightly smaller than a standard paperback with a textured cover, french flaps and clear print on quality paper. It is an ideal size and weight to carry and to hold. I mention these physical attributes as they are notably pleasing – fitting given the title.

The stories inside offer the reader insight into why Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction. They also provide a window into the mindset of the Russian people before mass industrialisation. There is cruelty and hypocrisy but also desire and a search for meaning. The private lives the characters live, their thoughts and aspirations, are timelessly relevent.

The collection opens with The Beauties, in which a schoolboy is travelling with his grandfather across the dusty steppe in summer, pausing for rest and refreshment at the home of a land worker. Here the boy meets a young woman whose unconventional beauty moves him, not with desire but a kind of sad longing that draws him, and the other men in the vicinity, to observe her every move. Several years later the boy, now a student, has a similar experience at a railway station. The imagery places the reader alongside the narrator as he recounts the feelings engendered by these encounters, the melancholy they create.

The Man In A Box tells the tale of a teacher whose habitual behaviour is regarded as odd by his aquaintances. When an additional teacher is sent to the village, bringing with him an unmarried sister, a plan is hatched.

“What a lot of things get done out of pure boredom, in the provinces – unnecessary, pointless things! […] I mean, why did we have to marry off Belikov all of a sudden, when you couldn’t even imagine him married?”

A Day In The Country depicts beauty in its knowledge and descriptions of plant and animal life. This contrasts with the harshness of the lives of the poor, who still manage small kindnesses. The man portrayed is unusual within this collection in not being entirely self-absorbed. He notices those in need and gives without fuss.

Several of the stories explore the temptations their married protagonists succumb to, even those who claim to regard their spouses with some affection. Being admired anew changes how both men and women view their families, the excitement of ardent attention proving hard to resist.

Marriage is presented in several stories as a restrictive burden, love as a feeling that is unlikely to last. In About Love parents try to trick a young suitor into accepting their daughter as his wife. In Grief a long married husband is fighting his way through a blizzard to get his wife to a doctor, driven by guilt and duty more than compassion. The beating of wives is commonplace. The casual cruelty meted out to animals upsetting to read.

The Bet is about man’s greed and egotism. During a drink fuelled debate, a wealthy banker challenges a young lawyer to endure fifteen years of solitary confinement in exchange for a hefty reward. Both men learn difficult truths about themselves as this time progresses. Their knowledge is unlikely to be put to use.

The final story, The Kiss, tells of an unassuming army officer who has no experience with women, and the effect on him of an accidental kiss. His outlook changes despite circumstances remaining the same. Hope is shown to be a powerful force.

The writing throughout is precise, almost simplistic, yet the insights offered have abiding depth. Few of the characters are wholly likeable yet they arouse a degree of empathy. These are snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens. They were a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The Evenings

The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (translated by Sam Garrett), is a book about one man’s ennui. Set in post war Amsterdam, its protagonist is twenty-three year old Frits van Egters, an office worker still living with his parents. The story follows his day to day existence over the course of a few weeks in December. His actions, mostly banal, are presented in hour by hour detail. There are repeated references to the clock as he watches time slowly pass, frustrated by his lack of fulfilment.

Frits leads an ordinary life in every sense. He cycles to and from work, prepares food or eats with his parents. He calls in on friends, visits the cinema, seeks company then counts the minutes until he can leave.

Frits is not a pleasant character, although this view is exacerbated by the detail of his private thoughts which few would ever share. He treats his parents with contempt, insults his friends with impunity. Uncomfortable with silence when with others, his conversation is often offensive.

Amongst his friends there is cruelty, in word and deed. A dog is tortured, the young men exchange anecdotes about the deaths of children, they imagine how they would choose to kill. As a young boy, Fritz dismembered insects and took fish out of water just to see how they would cope, how long they would live. He states that women are ‘defective, deplorable creatures’. He advocates the culling of all those over sixty.

Much of what he says is taken as humour by his friends who, despite knowing he failed at school, consider him a thinker. Fritz has a relentless preoccupation with baldness coming up with many wild theories for its cause and prevention.

In the privacy of his home Fritz will examine himself in front of mirrors. Despite deploring his parents’ slurps and unhygienic practices, he too has distasteful personal habits. He sleeps long hours when he has the opportunity and suffers vivid, violent dreams.

I found the telling repetitive, a book about boredom that I wanted to end. In the Absence of Absalon, by Simon Okotie, proved that the meticulous detail of a life can be portrayed with humour. Unlike that perspicacious tale, I found this soulless.

Other reviewers have described this book as funny and it is not the first time I have failed to see the vaunted humour in a portrayal. The voice and structure cannot be faulted, the setting and imagery impress, but this was not a book I enjoyed reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.