Home

“Memory…is the enemy of every corrupt regime.” @VQ_Books #OdesaatDawn

26 Comments

If you pop into the Ramblings on any kind of a regular basis, you’ll be well aware of my love of crime writing. Nowadays, it tends to be mainly geared towards Golden Age mysteries, but in the past I’ve read many more contemporary works as well as a good number of spy-type works. Today’s book, a recent release from V&Q Books, falls firmly into the latter category; it’s an entertaining yarn set in modern day Ukraine with a surreal twist! The title is “Odesa at Dawn” written by Sally McGrane, an American-born author based in Germany but who’s lived in Odesa – and it’s clear she knows and loves the city!

Set in a time before the current conflict, the story follows an ex-CIA man, Max Rushmore, who’s sent to Odesa on a routine assignment. Max is a somewhat hapless character, and things soon start to go awry for him; the severed hand of the local governor is found in a vat of sunflower oil; Max comes upon a detached toe with the same markings as the hand; and needless to say, he sets off to investigate.

The city of Odesa is in a volatile state, with conflict between the governor and the mayor; the local mafia and the criminal underbelly of the place are all out to get what they can via the many corrupt officials; and there are of course tensions with neighbouring Russia which threaten to bubble up to the surface (and, of course, we all know how that’s going…) Will Max get to the bottom of things without being damaged (at the very least…)? Will his wife accept that he won’t be back in the USA in time for an important meeting she has lined up to start on a very different, and much more respectable career, or will she throw her hat into the ring? What is going on beneath the city? And what on earth are all the cats of Odesa up to??? Well, you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out!

As you might have gathered, there’s a lot going on in “Odesa…” and it makes for gripping and entertaining reading. The plot is a complex one which weaves in the history of its setting, blending the past and future of the city beautifully. McGane uses her extensive knowledge of Odesa to draw in the influences of previous residents like Babel and Gogol, and the former’s fictional gangster, Benya Krik. The place seems to exert a magnetic influence on those who’ve lived there or were born there, and all manner of characters are involved in the action, from the local poet Fishman who blogs about life in the city, to Sima the beautiful pastry-chef, who is adored from afar by Mr. Smiley…

Ah yes – the cats! As well as the real life-criminal element, there is an underground mafia which exists in the world of cats, and Mr. Smiley is one of the bigshots! He and his feline team observe the action, unsuspected by humans, and shed an interesting light on the nefarious activities of the humans. They have an important role in the resolution of the plot, and I would have rather liked to see more of them!

Although the bumbling investigator Max is ostensibly the main character, the star of the book is, of course, Odesa itself. McGane paints a wonderful portrait of the city, one which, as Lizzy has noted in her review, is not always flattering. I personally find the book even more appealing because of that nuanced portrayal; although often humorous and entertaining, there are points where the narrative goes to darker places, exploring the horrors of the past; the Jewish characters in particular have suffered much. The are reflections on a kind of mortality that applies to cities as well as people, as it’s noted that Odesa is sinking into the sand in many places. No doubt the labyrinth of catacombs which exists under the city, and which provides thrilling and surreal escapades in the book, have something to do with this…

“Odesa at Dawn” was a wonderful read, from the opening pages where we first meet Mr. Smiley to the dramatic ending on stormy high seas. McGane’s love for Odesa shines through from start to finish, and as well as providing an entertaining and often dramatic read, she’s also painted a marvellous picture of the city. Babel’s translator, Boris Dralyuk, has advised readers to “come for the story, but don’t forget to take in the sights,” and he’s not wrong – highly recommended!

 

“… only writing can save them…” #lovenovel @VQ_Books

24 Comments

Back in 2020, I read and shared my thoughts on two novels by a new publisher, V&Q Books; these were “Paula” and “Journey Through a Tragicomic Century” (which you can read about here), and both were fascinating reads. V&Q have gone from strength to strength, and recently were kind enough to send me one of their latest titles – “Love Novel” by Ivana Sajko, translated from Croatian by Mima Simic. I’m not sure if I’ve read anything Croatian before, so that’s an exciting first; and the book itself is striking and very memorable.

“Love Novel” is the story of an unnamed married couple struggling with life and their relationship in an unnamed European country. The man is an unemployed Dante scholar attempting to write; the woman is a fairly average actress who made the mistake of not only falling for the man, but also giving up her regular job at the theatre to look after the couple’s baby. The strain of lack of money, an unstable location and the fact that they have nowhere to turn is bringing their relationship to the brink and it’s not clear whether it (or them!) will survive.

The publicity blurb describes the book as a “Furious anti-love story” and that’s not far from the truth. The couple are suffering from lack of sleep, the strain of dealing with a small child (mostly being borne by the woman) and there is a sense that the pair didn’t really know each other than well before the pregnancy and marriage came along. So they circle each other, lash out and struggle to stay sane enough to make a living. The man finds himself drawn into a public protest against the authorities; and their neighbours add pressure by expecting them to contribute to improving the appearance of the block of flats. A brief period where they both manage to grab temporary jobs brings a little respite; but not for long; and it soon becomes clear that the little family unit can’t stay in their small flat for much longer… What will become of them is anybody’s guess.

It has to be said that “Love Novel” is not necessarily an easy read; seeing two characters in extreme emotional conflict is painful to say the least. What makes the book stand out so much, however, is the writing; Sajkno’s narrative with its long, fluid sentences drags you into a maelstrom where you experience the whirlwind of the couple’s emotions first-hand. It’s intense and immersive writing, and does leave you a bit breathless. The narrative very cleverly doesn’t take sides, allowing you to see events from both male and female perspective; and though both have their faults, you can’t help but hope they’ll find a way through…

So my third read of a V&Q turned out to be a really powerful and thought-provoking work. It’s a book which is of its time, capturing the pressures and the fragmented lives being lived in what the blurb calls late capitalism; but it also highlights the eternal differences between men and women, society’s expectations of both and the sheer difficulty of one human being understanding another. Forcefully and brilliantly written, “Love Novel” is a book which will demand your attention and one you’ll struggle to put down!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

The silence of the past and the madness of the 20th century – introducing V&Q Books! @vqbooks

29 Comments

Something slightly different here on the Ramblings today! I don’t as a rule take part in Book Tours and the like, preferring to plough my own furrow, so to speak. However, when I was approached by a fascinating new imprint, dedicated to publishing works translated from German-based authors, I just couldn’t resist… 😀

V&Q Books is headed up by translator Katy Derbyshire, whose work I encountered most recently with the excellent “Dark Satellites“. An imprint of the German publisher Verlag Voland & Quist, its stated aim is to export what they call ‘remarkable writing from Germany’ – and a very laudable one it is, I think! So the focus is on books written in any language by German-based writers, and three titles have been released initially: “Paula” by Sandra Hoffmann, translated by Katy Derbyshire; “Daughters” by Lucy Fricke, translated by Sinéad Crowe; and “Journey Through a Tragicomic Century” by Francis Nenik, again translated by Katy Derbyshire. Frankly, all three sounded absolutely fascinating, but I have read two of the titles and am happy to share my thoughts on them here.

Paula

It’s often said that there’s a thin line between love and hate, and that’s certainly demonstrated in Sandra Hoffmann’s intriguing piece of autofiction. The Paula of the title is the author’s grandmother, and much of the family’s life has been informed by silence; a silence represented by the German word schweigen, defined as deliberately choosing to remain silent, rather than just having a quiet moment. Hoffmann’s mother was born in 1946, and Paula had always refused to reveal who the father was. A devout Swabian Catholic (Swabia is a region in south-western Germany), Paula brought up her daughter single-handedly despite the expected slurs; and as Hoffmann is growing up, her grandmother lives with the family, dominating the domestic set-up in many ways with her silence; a silence which damages not only Paula’s daughter but also her granddaughter.

So Hoffmann sets out to try to make sense of Paula’s life, by exploring her own memories, those of her mother and her great-aunt; and she also feverishly scrutinises the family photographs, trying to pin down who could have been the grandfather, and inventing imaginary histories for the men in the pictures. And true or not, Hoffmann gradually peels away the layers of silence and gives her grandmother some kind of story.

It is impossible to invent the truth. Precision is essential. Fiction is the only way to close the gaps between image and image, fragment and fragment.

It’s an intriguing work, as fragmented perhaps as memory is, yet compelling reading. Hoffmann’s own memoirs of growing up and the damage caused by the unspoken secrets are often painful, and the controlling, instrusive behaviour of Paula is very hard to take. You feel the anger of the young Sandra, unable to deal with the smothering attention of her grandmother which is perhaps driven by Paula’s own behaviour and experiences in the past. There is baggage between Hoffmann’s mother and Paula which infects the whole household’s relationships, although affects Hoffmann’s brother less; and this does make me wonder what was unsaid in the family about the post-War context (Swabia was overrun by various troops when the Nazis fell) and whether Paula is dead set on protecting her granddaughter from any possible danger.

However, as much as this is a book about Paula, it is also book about Hoffmann, who she is and the kind of person she became. While looking back on her childhood and her family life, she reveals the emotional damage done and her need to try to understand what was unsaid. The suffocating presence of Catholic religion and guilt, the inability to escape her grandmother’s constant supervision, and Paula’s refusal to respect Hoffmann’s personal boundaries, all reveal a troubling upbringing. Her exploration of the past, through memories and photographs, reminded me in some ways of the writing of Annie Ernaux; although Hoffmann has a voice all of her own. The book is described as autofiction, a term that’s becoming increasingly used for the kind of books I read which straddle the divide between the real and the imagined; and it’s certainly apt here, as Hoffmann pieces together what she feels she knows, while imagining what could have been the reality of her grandmother’s life and secrets.

Paula is a multi-layered book which deserves a much more thorough exploration than I can give it here. Suffice to say, it’s a powerful, deeply emotional and complex read and definitely deserves to be in the vanguard of V&Q’s publishing launch.

Journey Through a Tragicomic Century

This rather intriguing book is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner” which sums up rather neatly much of what’s happening in it! Francis Nenik is a pseudonym; the author prefers to remain anonymous, though reveals he was born in the 1980s and lives in Liepzig. Nenik has published widely and a previous work has also been translated by Derbyshire. A man of relative obscurity, then – much like the subject of his book…

Hasso Grabner was also an author, but an extremely obscure one; born in 1911 in Leipzig, he lived through some of the most dramatic periods of the 20th century in Germany, dying in 1976. His work has mostly been forgotten; and Nenik sets out to tell the story of a writer consigned to oblivion.

Memory, as every child knows, is the basis of history. Ideology, however – as will become clear later on – is the form in which history is expressed.

Grabner’s life really does live up to the descriptions of tragicomic and absurd. A communist by belief, he was an anti-fascist fighter and for his pains ended up in Buchenwald Concentration Camp (and I was slightly shocked by the realisation that such places existed well before the start of WW2). He managed to survive, and during the war was conscripted to a Penal Battalion, supposedly to fight for Germany; nevertheless when stationed on Corfu he still managed to warn local partisans to get Jewish occupants out while they could. Ironically, he was awarded the German Iron Cross after the German withdrawal from Greece… After the war, he ended up in East Germany under communist control, where he lived a life working in industry as well as writing and having regular run-ins with the authorities; he does, of course, end up with a fat Stasi file…

It’s the same old game. Some make history and others re-write it.

Even a brief outline of Grabner’s dramatic life gives you a flavour of what a strange man he was, living through strange times; but what makes this book a particularly outstanding read is the method of telling. The book is described as “narrative non-fiction” and it’s such an entertaining piece of writing! Nenek tells the story of Grabner with verve, the book crackles with snappy commentary and a wry sense of the ironies of history, and it’s about as unlike the traditional biography as you’ll get – which I really loved! The idiosyncratic style complements the content brilliantly here, with the almost conversational narrative really emphasising the stupidity of much of the 20th century; for example, Nenik says obliquely of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany:

However, history ignores the principles proclaimed by the communists, takes a right turn driven by millions on 30 January 1933 and erects its own dictatorship.

Grabner himself emerges as a stubborn man, determined to do things his own way and somehow managing to survive in the GDR despite his inflexibility and refusal to toe the line; and I got the sense that his story was probably just one of so many which could be told about people of the 20th century enduring horrific events (which do appear here, though mostly in a reasonably minor key) and having to remake some kind of existence afterwards.

Memory, that much is clear once and for all, is the basic fabric of history. Ideology, however, is the form in which history is written, struck out, abbreviated.

There’s an interesting coda to the book where Nenik reveals how he came to write it; and that makes fascinating reading too, although I shall say nothing about it because it’s best read when you’ve finished “Journey…” This was a brilliant and compelling read, and I absolutely loved it.

*****

So my first experience of V&Q books has been a really positive one, with two very different but equally fascinating works; and as both authors are new names to me I would never have read them without the prompt of these editions, so kudos to the new imprint. I think this is an excellent initiative, particularly if it’s going to bring previously unheard voices to an Anglophone audience. I have to comment on the actual physical books themselves, too. Obviously, an important part of bookselling, particularly for independent imprints, is branding and V&Q have certainly nailed it with their bright and distinctive design, plus those all-important French flaps! But of course the crucial thing is the content, and on the evidence of my readings so far, V&Q are certainly going to be a publisher to watch!

If you want to get a flavour of the prose, there’s a nice little reading from it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zccoImjOprI&ab_channel=V%26QBooks

 

%d bloggers like this: