29.12.12

George Orwell - A Clergyman's Daughter

Rating 6.4

com·ple·tist /kəmˈplētist/
"An obsessive, typically indiscriminate, collector or fan of something".

Ah, I like this one. I am an obsessive - although not indiscriminate - collector of something: books.
Now, my problem with George Orwell is that I liked, if not adored, all that I read by him, which is pretty much all that the man wrote. With one exception: A Clergyman's Daughter.

I knew that Orwell himself disowned this novel deciding to don't have it reprinted during his lifetime. However, unlike Franz Kafka - who burned much of his early writings - and Graham Greene - whose second and third works have never been published again - Orwell set a different fate to A Clergyman's Daughter.

Writing to his literary executor, Orwell agreed to have "any book which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs" printed again after his death.
And that's why a novel which Orwell himself looked at as "a silly potboiler" found its place into the Penguin Modern Classics.

Well aware of the fact that A Clergyman's Daughter was all but a masterpiece, I've always postponed the right moment to buy it hoping to bump into a second hand edition in a charity shop, to no avail.
Then, rummaging through the bookshelves of a provincial Oxfordshire library I found the novel and promptly borrowed it.

Done with the reading, it's time to talk about this book.
And what can I say?
Well, first of all that this stuff is not that bad.

I mean if you're a completist of George Orwell, you might read this one. Just keep in mind that the final version of this novel is far from what its author had in mind having been savagely maimed by its fearful and puritan publisher, Gollancz.
That alone could explain why on my Orwellian scale this book comes last even though in some of its moments is better than the clumsy, but exotic, Burmese Days.

Let's name the merits first. It's admirable that George Orwell put himself in the shoes of a woman, Dorothy Hare, for the first (and last) time in his career as a novelist.
It's equally praiseworthy that Orwell wanted to open the eyes of his readers on something of a taboo in 1935 England: rape. The idea behind this novel was to highlight the supreme injustice of many English women in the 1930s. Women who were powerless against oppressive families, perverted men, vicious gossip and dodgy employers. Not that many of these nooses have changed in the meantime.

Dorothy Hare is oppressed by her father - a snobbish lazybone of a reverend - and stalked by an old womanizer in a dull village. A village where social life revolves around the male obscenities shouted in a pub and the female backbitings whispered in a tea house.
And Orwell is quite good in portraying the pious monotonousness of Dorothy's humble life and her passive resignation.

Then this bucolic nightmare is suddenly interrupted. But thanks to Gollancz censorship we don't know what happened to Dorothy. All that we can read is that the clergyman's daughter wakes up on a pavement in London unaware of who she is and where she comes from.

Badly struck by his own publisher, Orwell tries not to sink.
The novel follows Dorothy (now Ellen) in her new harsh life as a beggar, a hop-picker and eventually as a teacher in an awful school.
This part of the book deals with George Orwell's personal experiences down and out in London and teaching in order to make a living, but it doesn't work as it could.

Sure, there are vivid and poignant descriptions of a miserable life in London and its countryside among gypsies, petty thieves and prostitutes, but whom the author fails with is Dorothy/Ellen. The poor woman recovers all of her memory, but never develops as a character.
No matter what happens around her, the clergyman's daughter sticks to her role of a musty wallflower at the mercy of events. Till the disappointing but pretty obvious sweet and sour end.

At the end of the day, it's not clear what Orwell wanted to achieve here.
What was the point of putting Dorothy's life upside-down if she didn't change a bit? How doesn't she feel any frustrated emancipation?
True, the woman admits that she lost her faith and that's certainly bad for a clergyman's daughter. But does she seem to care? Mmh, not really.

In all of its insipidity (and due to the significant cuts), A Clergyman's Daughter is not a silly potboiler, but definitely a missed chance. What a pity.

16.12.12

Colin MacInnes - Absolute Beginners

Rating 7.4


Published in 1959, Absolute Beginners is the sort of novel that became extremely popular in the UK without leaving many traces elsewhere.

To this day, the book written by Colin MacInnes is perceived as a "modern classic" on the eastern shore of the Atlantic Ocean. Some critics compare the impact of Absolute Beginners on the British popular culture and literature to the one The Catcher in the Rye had in the US.

Now, what surprised me is that this novel is supposed to be an early manifesto of the so called Mod subculture and yet the term "mod" doesn't appear once into the 286 pages of Absolute Beginners. I mean, not a single time.
Still, the book stages plenty of "Teds" which stands for "Teddy boys" that is the archenemies of the Mods.

Don't get fooled by the yellow Vespa on the cover. This book will not take you back to the age of customised scooters, amphetamines and R&B or ska music. True, the protagonist of the novel likes to dress well and spends the money he earns on books and jazz records, but he calls himself "a teenager" and would abhor joining a gang of Mods.

The greatest merit of this novel is the way MacInnes talks about London and - above all - the very specific area between Maida Vale and Willesden that the narrator calls "Napoli". The six pages taking the reader into this Londonian Naples in the 1950s are masterful.

MacInnes is far less skillful in portraying the characters of his novel. There is a lot of attention to the way Wizard, Suze, Ed the Ted, Mr Cool and the Hoplite - the bizarre cast of Absolute Beginners - talk, but much less focus on their personalities.

The author shows us these colourful people through the eyes and the ears of the protagonist - a 17 year old freelance photographer - thus limiting their possibilities. Even though this choice makes sense, it's just a pity that, say, a character worth of Isherwood like the Hoplite cannot develop all his potential in this novel.
Other literary influences that I could find here include two minstrels of the down and outs of London such as George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton along with a debt to Evelyn Waugh each time the novel moves uptown.


As a non-English native speaker I found the way the protagonist and his friends talk here very cute and almost irresistible. I'm well aware that all those "cats" (people), "spades" (coloured men), "cowboys" (policemen), "darl" and "hon" are outdated slang from fifty years ago and that's precisely the reason why I liked them so much.
In a way, the extent of what MacInnes did with the language used in this novel is no less than what Anthony Burgess accomplished by creating the Nadsat argot for A Clockwork Orange.


Reading through the negative reviews of Absolute Beginners I found here and there, I can see how many disliked the way MacInnes describes  the racial clashes that happened in London in 1958.
I agree that the author  doesn't dig very deep into this subplot and treats the whole matter of the Notting Hill riots in a superficial way, but I didn't find that disturbing. Just keep in mind that this book doesn't deal with history, but with lifestyle.  

After all, the protagonist and narrator here is supposed to be a 17 year old chap hence having a very limited understanding of the subject.
What I found odd is that, as a freelance photographer, this guy doesn't think to take some snapshots of what's going ill in his neighborhood selling them to the press. Especially considering how the young chap wishes to make easy money as quickly as possible to impress "his" Suze. Shall we consider this lack of initiative like a proof of the juvenile inexperience of the teenager or rather like something missing in the novel?




Mind you, Colin MacInnes is not always consistent in remembering that his hero is just a teenager and often makes him much more full-grown than he should be. No matters.
The title of the novel says it all: Absolute Beginners. You don't expect perfection in greenhorns, don't you?

8.12.12

Andre Agassi & J.R. Moehringer - Open

Rating 7.0


«Did you know that Agassi is an Iranian surname? It should be pronounced Agassì, with the stress on the last "i"».

No, I didn't know that when I was 12. But I kept that in mind, as you can read.
Now, the same fact that, back in 1994, my friend Amir (owner of an Iranian and final "i" stressed surname himself) told me something on Andre Agassi and I knew who that guy was means something.

One year before our teens, Amir and I were all but into tennis. Not that we didn't care about sports - football, basketball and even ski were among our chief interests -, but tennis was definitely not.
On the one hand, as self-proclaimed egalitarians, we looked at the racquet & ball discipline as an elitist pastime of the bourgeosie. On the other hand, the lack of a single talented Italian tennis player in the ATP circuit in those years left us with no one to cheer for.

And yet, Andre Agassi was somehow a household name for us. Why?
Did I care about stylish hairdo and weird outfits? No.
Was I a rebel? Most certainly not.

Well, Open worked as a refresher. And a good one too.
Agassi was a character. He did crazy things and the media loved or hated him for that due to the circumstances. When Agassi won, the man was a picturesque, charismatic star with the potential to revolutionize tennis for good. When Agassi lost, he became a bad model and a foul-mouthed buffoon not worthy to set foot on a tennis court.
I knew the name of Andre Agassi, but didn't pick a part.

After learning that the surname Agassi was of Iranian origin, I didn't care a bit about tennis for a couple of years. Then, at the age of 14 all this radically changed. I started reading the main tournaments results on newspapers and on teletext. I couldn't stand Sampras and Becker, the winners. I supported erratic players such as Rafter, Kuerten, Henman plus the old champ Edberg because I liked his serve and volley. Andre Agassi didn't stir positive or negative reactions in me.

What led me to follow tennis much more than I used to towards the end of the 1990s?
That's easy to say. Love. Not love for the game itself, even though I quite liked to watch the few tennis matches shown on TV (the Rome and Montecarlo Opens, the fortuitous Davis Cup final reached by the Italian male team).

Nay, love for a girl. Or so I thought at that time. Her name was the same of one of the then rising Williams sisters. She looked mysterious and unapproachable. Schoolyard rumours said she was a countess. Faced with aristocracy, my early egalitarianism went through a teenage crisis. Apart from slightly stalking the girl following her everyday on her way to our school, I did some research. You see, I desperately needed some common ground with her to start a conversation.



And I discovered she was the cousin of two professional female tennis players in the WTA circuit. Two sisters who, unlike the Williams, were far off from the best rankings, but still stayed in the top 100 for years.
To cut a long story short, I was too clumsy at that time to win a single point with my beloved girl. And when I managed to drag my possible countess on an actual tennis court, I played so badly that all I recall of that morning is my double faults. No metaphors involved. We played tennis. I was hopeless. Out.

Not so Andre Agassi. Even though the hairy bald man states umpteen times that he "hates" tennis in this book, he was a talent in the game.
He started winning local tournaments well before his teenage years and became an international sensation reaching number 3 in the world ranking at the age of 18.

The best part of Open is when Agassi and his Pullitzer-prized ghost writer J.R. Moehringer recount the early years of the champion. That crazy father of Andre torturing his son by the means of a self-built tennis balls shooting machine. The oddities of the Agassi family. Young Andre humiliating adults on a tennis court and being either mocked or patronized by the likes of John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase.

And, above all, it shines the time Agassi spent at the infamous Bollettieri Academy where the pygmalion of scores of tennis stars created the tennis equivalent of a Victorian mill. I believe Agassi and Moehringer exaggerated some details of life at the Bollettieri Academy, but reading those pages was highly entertaining. The antics of Mr Agassi himself and of, say, Jim Courier were priceless.

Less compelling were Agassi's late years in the ATP circuit, when he starts complaining about his back, his sentimental life, his unfair opponents, etc. I appreciate the man wants to show us how fragile he actually is, but he does that with too much victimism for my liking.

And it's funny to read how the already world famous Agassi decided that Steffi Graf had to be his woman by the means of rumours, slight stalking and finding a common ground: just like I did with my teenage love. Poor Steffi Graf.

Let's face it, just like this review of mine, Open is a narcissistic accomplishment. Whatever Andre Agassi does in this book, the reader has to be on his side, no matter how wrong that is.

When Mr Agassi breaks the speed limits on his Corvette it's always for a good reason (charity, love, etc.). When Mr Agassi takes drugs or drinks too much it's because others took advantage of his trust and shattered feelings. When Mr Agassi loses a match with a low ranked player it's always because Andre is not focused on tennis, or injured or DECIDES to lose on purpose. I mean, get over yourself man!



And yet, Open is an engaging book. I was brought to the tennis courts where Agassi's career took its turning points for bad or for good. And the way Andre A. tells us what he had in his mind while playing those matches is fascinating although a bit unnatural.

Once a woman asked Louis Armstrong what he thought about as he played the trumpet. And Armstrong answered: "Lady, if I told you, your mind would explode".
Your minds will not explode after learning what Agassi thought when he played, but they will certainly have something to think about. Tiebreak.


30.11.12

Anna Funder - Stasiland

Rating 7.4


The public underground toilets of Alexanderplatz, Berlin in the early 1990s.
It's the wee hours and it's snowing outside onto the vast tarmac and concrete rectangle of the empty square. In the toilets, drunken toothless men zip up their flies. The smell of disinfectant and urine, the sight of vomit stains and cigarette butts.

You bet that not many books begin in a less glamorous setting.

What's even more unusual is the way the author introduces herself: hungover and bumping into rubbish bins, memories of her drinking session at the pub only a "smoky blur".
Certainly, Miss Funder doesn't gain much credibility as a reliable journalist with such an overture. As long as Hunter S. Thompson is not her mentor as a gonzo reporter.

Just like the actual aims and reputation of Anna Funder in Berlin, Stasiland took its time to convince me.
This is a book with a clumsy and uncertain beginning. The author seems to avoid at any rate the hard task of introducing her readers to the once called German Democratic Republic (GDR). What Miss Funder focuses on and seeks for are the relevant details that made the big picture: the personal stories of some of those who lived in the GDR.


But this summon of the drowned and the saved after the collapse of East Germany between 1989 and 1990, develops very slowly.
At first, it looks like the author herself treats the whole thing as a pastime inbetween her part-time job on TV and drinking bouts at the Berlinese pubs.
Then, little by little, Anna Funder finds her angle and Stasiland eventually takes off as a very good book with that extra bit of research that fills the gap in each personal account.


Even though, the author puts too much of herself into the book (and seems to enjoy despising herself, for what it's worth), this was an interesting and important reading.
Just don't leaf through Stasiland expecting to find much of the remorse and redemption of the Stasi agent portrayed in the movie The Lives of the Others. Actually, the former Stasi agents Anna Funder meets up after putting an insertion on a local newspaper are all but regretful for what they did and look pretty carefree in the post GDR years.

As for those who were the victims of the Stasi apparatus, the author gets the credit to pick up a few but significant and rather poignant personal stories.

What I liked is the way physically or/and psychologically tortured people recount their awful and often absurd experiences chatting with Miss Funder in a lucid and analytical way.
What didn't convince me is the counterposition that shows men as the only enforcers and women as their chief victims. I believe this choice is not deliberate and is due to the fact that Funder got in touch more easily with women telling her their private stories while in Berlin. At the same time, there were statistically more chances that former Stasi agents contacting the author (she calls them "my Stasi men") were male. But still.

All things considered, Stasiland does have its flaws, but it's a refreshing book and a honest collection of first hand accounts on the GDR, that dinosaur of a blabbermouth nation once called East Germany.

11.11.12

Barbara Demick - Besieged


Rating 7.2

Besieged is a book about life in war time Sarajevo wrote by Barbara Demick in 1996 after spending some time there at various intervals between 1992 and 1995 as the correspondent of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The reason why this stuff has recently been re-published is the success recently gained by Nothing to Envy the brilliant book by Mrs Demick about life under the North Korean communist regime.
There is, therefore, a gap of almost fifteen years and more than five thousand miles between what Barbara Demick wrote about Sarajevo in the 1990s and Pyongyang nowadays. Not to mention all the rest.

The book formerly known as Logavina Street and now published in the UK under the title of Besieged with the addition of a slight editing and two extra chapters at the end is good but far from being excellent as Nothing to Envy is.

On the one hand, Mrs Demick was younger then and less experienced in dealing with the personal stories of the people she wrote about. On the other hand, what happened in the region now named Bosnia & Herzegovina in the early 1990s cannot be fully explained in this book, but Demick tried her best to make things clearer here (an afterthought of the author, I guess).

Don't expect a book about the Yugolav Wars, though.
Besieged revolves around the long and bloody siege of Sarajevo in its different stages as seen from the people living or finding shelter in one of the nicer and most diverse streets in town: Logavina.
Here and there the names of Ilja Itzebegovic, Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic appears just like a few lines dedicated to the awful events in Tuzla and Srebrenica even though, the city of Mostar is never mentioned here.

Nevertheless, Besieged is a good and poignant book which achieves the goal to show the hard lives of those (Muslim-Bosniaks, Croats, a few Serbs) who were caught by the Serbian-Chetniks barbarian siege to Sarajevo and how they managed to get by surviving shelling, snipers' fire and starvation.

This is an interesting and important reading, but at the end of the day Mrs Demick could have made it better when she wrote it and so much better while re-publishing the book.
The city of Sarajevo disappeared from the newsreels in the last years and what Besieged lacks is an insight on how things are going on in town right now.



20.10.12

Robert Hughes - The Fatal Shore

Rating 8.7

A few years ago, I came across a book by Anton Chekhov in a second hand stall in Ferrara, Italy. The book was on sale for a song and I promptly bought it even though at that time I had no idea what Sakhalin Island was about and had never heard of it. I knew something about Chekhov and that was enough.

Well, needless to say that the travelogue of Chekhov visiting the remote detention island of Sakhalin - somewhere between Russia and Japan - became one of my favourite books pretty soon.
True, the great Russian playwright and writer was shown a mock-up of that huge chunk of frozen land thus grasping only a fragment of the terrible conditions convicts lived in. Nevertheless, Sakhalin Island was an eye-opener for me. The author thanks to his literary and medical background, but also because of his qualities as a caring and sympathetic human being brought me there among the settlers of Sakhalin in the Tsarist forefather of the Stalinist archipelago of "working camps". From then on, I read Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn and Herling as well as Anne Applebaum's masterful Gulag becoming more and more familiar with the gruesome Soviet equivalent of dreadful Nazi concentration camps.

Now, let's leave Sakhalin behind flying to another and bigger island, Australia.
Down Under. Oz, Terra Incognita. The land of plenty. You name it.


You know where it lies.
You know we're talking about a massive island which is actually a continent on its own.
You know they speak English there (although some Englishman might object they actually don't).
You know they drive on the left side of the road.
You know about kangaroos, koalas and - perhaps - even of wombats and platypuses.
You know the king of all sports: Australian rules Football. And if you don't, that's entirely your fault and you deserve to watch some cricket test match sticking to your Crocodile Dundee on VHS.

Well the thing is, it's all a coincidence. No, not the Aussie football and its sleeveless gladiators in itself, but actually this whole country of Australia as we now know it. Yessir, just a coincidence.
With just a little twist of history, Australia could have been something completely different for the joy and despair of former Python and current documentary maker Michael Palin.

Consider this, if the random Spanish navigator, Portuguese explorer or Dutch merchant had had better instruments for calculating their longitude, Australia would have had very few chances of becoming the less tempting British colony from the end of 18th century to a good half of the following one.

In fact, well before the first Briton set foot on the Australian continent, a few other Europeans had already done it even though none of them understood the extent of their discovery. Documents show how Dutch vessels reached the coasts of Northern Australia 164 years before James Cook and his Endeavour dropped anchor in Botany Bay, south of modern day Sydney.


With peculiar pragmatism and lack of imagination (scurvy and homesickness must have played a role in the choice), Dutch gentlemen of fortune named that stretch of hostile land New Holland and that was pretty much all they did. The northern Australian soil looked sterile enough and even less welcoming with the visitors were the local aborigines who put the Europeans back on their ship by means of arrows and spears.
Two thousand miles southwards, the Dutchmen were the first to put on the maps a triangle-shaped island they christened as Van Diemen's land (now Tasmania). There was a whole continent between New Holland and Van Diemen's land, but no Dutch seafaring vessel stumbled upon it.

Ahead of the Dutchmen, Spanish and Portuguese navigators looked for a Terra Australis, but always missed it for an inch or two and, if they ever landed on its shores, failed to bring tidings to the eager courts of Madrid and Lisbon.


You see? Coincidences. Luck and fate were with the Britons.
On 29 April 1770, captain James Cook "discovered" Australia a good 50,000 years after its first inhabitants moved to the continent coming from Asia.
The funny thing is that this discovery was a serendipity or rather an accident. As Robert Hughes makes clear, Cook had no intention of discovering an entire new continent. What the British navigator and his crew wanted to do was actually going back to England as quickly as possible after their long journey around New Zealand and Tahiti. And so it happened that the Endeavour and her crew came across the eastern coast of Australia by mere chance looking for a shortcut back home.


Cook and his men followed the discoverers' protocol. They claimed those lands for the Crown of England. They put a flagpole with its customary Union Jack on the sandy shore. They meticolously named every bay, cove and promontory around them. They picked up a few local specimens to show in London. They waved at the reluctant Aborigines by shooting a gun. Then, they left. The land beyond Botany Bay looked far too vast to explore thoroughly and on the spot, so the Endeavour came back into the open sea.

Now, another funny thing is that in London nobody could care less about this new land of Australia. All the interest of the public was for the fierce Maori warriors and the spectacular natural scenery of New Zealand as well as for the tropical bliss of Tahiti with its sophisticated rituals and its sensual beautiful women (Paul Gauguin would have understood that completely). Even the kangaroo Cook managed to bring back to England didn't excite the British scientists who found it vaguely similar to a hare.

The reason why eleven English ships came back to Australia eighteen years (18!) after Cook's landing is very simple: England wanted to get rid of hundreds of petty criminals who overcrowded its gaols. And what better place to send these thieves, forgers and good for nothings than a distant dustbin like Australia?
And so it happened that 165,000 "criminals" (among them Irish indipendentists, poor people stealing a loaf of bread, victims of hasty trials, etc.) were deported to Australia from the British isles in just 80 years. Thousands of convicts never made it to Port Jackson or Moreton Bay and perished on the way due to the awful hygienic conditions of the semi-hulks used for penal transportation.

Oh well, I want (or better need) to cut it short now.
This book is extraordinary. To my knowledge there is not a single aspect of the whole early Australian epic that the recently gone Robert Hughes - an Aussie himself - forgot to cover in The Fatal Shore. 
From the age of explorations to the bad conditions of Georgian England which led to the decision of sending convicts overseas. From the first meetings with Aborigines to their sad fate and, quite often, careless extermination. From fascinating early descriptions of wild Australia plants and animals to the harsh and primitive life spent by the convicts and their keepers in Sydney, Norfolk island and Van Diemen's Land. From the appalling way women were treated in the new colony to the crazy attempts of those who tried to escape from Australia ending up dead in the bushland or caught by the seas.
And much more including aching folk songs.



The Fatal Shore is a gem of a book and a captivating account of approximately one century of Australian history which nobody talks that much about.
The documents, letters, stories you will find here are second to nothing else. And Robert Hughes shows an unbelievable talent in keeping everything accessible and at the same incredibly rich, meaningful and multi-layered. This is history telling at its greatest and if you're Australian, visited Oz or are planning to go Down Under make sure to add this book up to your Lonely Planet or Rough guide.

13.10.12

Robertson Davies - The Deptford Trilogy

Rating 8.2

From the snapshots you can find online, Robertson Davies looked like Charles Darwin with a touch of Santa Claus.

The Canadian author had a long white forked beard that was strikingly demode in the 1970s when he delivered the three books of this excellent Deptford Trilogy.
And yet, don't be fooled by the first appearances. You better look more carefully at the photos of Mr Davies. If you do that, you will perceive genuine wit and an eager inquisitiveness in his eyes as well as the intimidating irony of his slightly raised eyebrows.

This man knew what he did and always kept himself up-to-date with the long times he lived in. If Robertson Davies chose to look from another age deserting the barbershops of Ontario, that was not a sign of personal carelessness but very much a deliberate intellectual disguise.

Davies' old-fashioned long white forked beard had at the same time the gravitas of the British born naturalist and the bonhomie of the popular gift-bearer. And in between Darwin's meticolous but revolutionary cataloguing and classifying specimens and Father Christmas' magic but punctual efficiency in delivering airborne gifts, Robertson Davies' prose might be found.

No surprises that reading The Deptford Trilogy to me has been like embarking on the Beagle with a flying open sleigh on the deck ready to take off at the author's call.
Captain Davies led our brig-sloop time-machine through his story with remarkable confidence and ease leaving the cold Canadian shores behind with the occasional brat throwing a snowball at us from the quay. During our navigation he always had the first and the last word on board and - to his credit - he managed to keep his whole crew of characters under control without neglecting the needs of his only reader and passenger.

We followed a circular route with a stopover between Fifth Business and The Manticore to welcome on board a new first narrator looking for psychoanalysis. Then, thanks to the flying open sleigh we brought along on the Beagle, we left the poor fellow on the Swiss Alps between Jung and the Jungfrau.
Just in time to begin the exploration of the third stage of our trip leading us to the illusive borders of the World of Wonders together with a film troupe and eventually back to Deptford.

Believe me, folks. You will suffer no seasickness sailing (and flying) with Robertson Davies.
This guy never loses the control of his helm and - as a plus - is not afraid of pointing straight into the whirlwinds of history, politics, religion and love.That and the difficult art and consequences of dodging a snowball thrown by a brat. The magical realism and real magic you will bring back home after embarking on a journey on The Deptford Trilogy with Captain Davies are equally haunting.


This frame comes from Citizen Kane, by Orson Welles, but I can see both Fifth Business and World of Wonders here.

30.9.12

Peter Carey - Bliss

Rating 6.0

How to Spoil a Good Plot Wittingly or Not a dissertation in form of a novel titled Bliss by Peter Carey.

Take a great idea. The apparent death and unexpected resuscitation of the main character would do.
The main character thinking that he actually died, went to Hell and that his own life after-resuscitation is just a day to day performance set up by demonic-characters impersonating his family and friends sounds perfect.

Now, this is definitely something. And if you add up that the main character writes down notes comparing the differences between the people he knew before his stroke with those he now believes are performing their roles, the plot you have it's just great with a hint of absurdity.

What Mr Author, needs first and foremost is to spoil a good plot. And that's precisely what Peter Carey does for the remaining two thirds of the book with the occasional good idea or brilliant sentence interfering with his purpose.

How he did it?
Oh well, it's actually quite easy. Just take the absurd element to an extreme level, introducing madness, manias of persecution and some deranged characters flirting with lost ambitions, homeopathy, alcohol abuse and - why not? - drugs.
Then leave behind untouched all the potentially good subplots you started at the beginning of the novel. Just focus on the madness of the main character and his clumsy need of redemption while in a psychiatric hospital led by a crew of psychopaths.

Don't forget to forget mentioning Hell again as the same quality of your prose will lead the irritated readers straight into the infernal abyss leaving them quite confused and with an unbearable urge to put the book aside.

Well done, Mr Carey. You made it!
Bliss is just ready to be read and, most likely, heavily misunderstood for a decent novel. I repeat: this book is nothing of that sort but the crafty disguise of a masterful dissertation titled How to Spoil a Good Plot. Wittingly or not.

20.9.12

Nick Cave - The Death of Bunny Munro

Rating 6.8

Next to a whole room dedicated to the deeds of a horse named Phar Lap - whose stuffed bulk looms over the bored pupils of a local school and the puzzled visitors from overseas - the Melbourne Museum offers a little corner to the music scene of Victoria.

Among a documentary worshipping AC/DC, posters of distant gigs and photos portraying groupies and clubgoers wearing awful trousers, pops up the kohl eyelined face of the vocalist of The Boys Next Door, a local band.
That lad with a pale pale skin and a dark dark tuft of hair is no less than Him. The frontman of The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman, the actor, screenplayer and author: ladies and gentlemen let me introduce you to Niiick...Caaave.

The local pupils in their green blazers may not know who Mr Cave is, but their parents and some of the visitors from overseas do.
Just like Phar Lap, the horse, Nick Cave left Melbourne long ago to pursuit a career who made him an international artist and an ambassador of Australia. Whereas Phar Lap found his death in the US (and some say he was poisoned), Nick Cave decided to settle in Brighton, UK.

It's important to know the current whereabouts of Mr Cave because The Death of Bunny Munro - his second novel - takes place in Sussex, and more precisely between Brighton and Newhaven.
Now, chances are you've been to glamorously decadent Brighton at least once in your life, but most likely not to Newhaven.

If that's the case, let me just tell you that you lost one of the dullest and most depressing towns in England. Newhaven is a built-up area of depauparated cottages, deserted flats and shut factories facing a port canal where rust and seagulls dung pile up on boats, ships and a half-sunk hydrofoil.
The reason why I know this is that you can take a ferry from Newhaven to the French city of Dieppe which I once did with a return ticket. You won't be surprised to know that even a backwater French town like Dieppe looks as vibrant and sophisticated as Paris when compared to gloomy dead Newhaven (pictured in all of its splendour above).

It's hardly surprising to learn that Bunny Munro - the marvelous anti-hero of this novel - is a familiar presence in Newhaven. In fact, it's between Rottingdean and Newhaven that Mr Munro makes most of his business of a door-to-door (but by appointment!) seller of beauty products on a perpetual sexual heat.
Bunny Munro is a lust-driven, theatrical bastard who drools over every female between 12 and 60 years old and whose ultimate purpose in life is screwing around as much as he can. A man masturbating himself thinking about the genitalia of Avril Lavigne (!) and the golden hot pants of Kylie Minogue (which is pretty ironic if you think that Nick Cave himself sang a famous duet with the petite pop star back in 1995: as shown below).



Picture a 30 something guy in an awful suit driving his yellow shit-stained Punto in the streets of Sussex with Spinning Around as a background music and howling obscenities at the local teenagers and you will have Bunny Munro.
Visualize a 9 years old kid sticking his reddish eyes into a voluminous encyclopedia sitting in the passenger's seat of the Punto and you will have Bunny Junior, the Boy of his Dad and the former apple in the eye of his Mummy.

Yes, horny Bunny Munro is a married man. And in the course of this novel, his poor wifey Libby will manage to haunt Bunny's escapades, thus paying off his infidelity. But let's say no more. The title of the novel will suggest you its ending but not how it ends.
I'd say it's worth reading what Nick Cave has to say here although it's sometimes very hard to distinguish between the dirty thoughts of Bunny Munro with his anti-social behaviors and the impression that the Australian songwriter himself is the main character of this novel.

I thought about Leonard Cohen more than once while reading this as the Canadian minstrel shares a similar - if more talented - approach to sexual perversion in his books with Mr Cave here. And I suspect that the leader of The Bad Seeds wouldn't be displeased by this analogy.
Cohen and Cave are two Don Juans who elevated the literary status of the word "vagina" with their lyrics and prose and I bet that even the most hardened feminist would close an eye or two when confronting them.


No, it's not some random formaldheyded horse by Damien Hirst, this fellow is Phar Lap - the former Melbourne glory.

15.9.12

Sarah Murgatroyd - The Dig Tree

Rating 8.0

It all started with a BBC documentary about what is either known as the "Dead Heart" or the "Red Heart" of Australia: an extension of mountain ranges, deserts, salt lakes and bushland stretching out for thousands of miles between Perth and Sydney (West-East) and Melbourne and Darwin (South-North).

The documentary mentioned the golden age of explorations which in the 19th century helped in mapping out inner Australia, a part of the country bigger than continental Europe. An enormous mass of land where the local Aboriginal populations lived for thousands of years but where no Australian colonists and settlers dared to venture for almost a century.
Too harsh and hostile the heart of Australia when compared to the nature and climate of the towns blossoming up along the coastline from Adelaide to Brisbane.

Then, something interesting happened: the young Aussies decided to look beyond their towns and thus begun having a look into the core of their new mysterious land. And the competition for supremacy among the states of Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia led the wealthy citizens and the local governments to finance "scientific" expeditions in the heart of the continent. The funny thing is that most of the first Australian explorers were actually foreigners: Germans, Scots, Irishmen and Englishmen.


Some of these explorers genuinely thought that inner Australia could have been a promised land, with inland seas, hidden civilizations, mythological beasts, green pastures, huge forests and all sort of precious resources. Alas, Australia was not Africa and most of these adventurers had to struggle very hard to come back alive reporting about an endless and silent desert in the outback.
Some expeditions kept a low profile approach to the bushland involving a half dozen of men, horses and essential supplies under the command of clever expert explorers. Other explorations were lavish, equipped with all sorts of paraphernalia and sometimes ill-driven by swashbucklers who had no knowledge of the bush and would have been able to get lost going for a picnic.


The Dig Tree, which I bought in Brisbane, is the fascinating and nail-biting account of the most famous trip into the great Australian beyond, the Wills and Burke expedition of 1860.
An expedition led by the Barry Lyndon-esque Irish policeman - Robert O'Hara Burke - chosen by the Royal Society of Melbourne due to "his vocation to command". An expedition involving dozens of camels shipped from India with their drivers and all, tons of superflous equipment (oak tables, a boat, 270 litres of rum) and a wild bunch of adventurers with no experience at all into the wild. An expedition following a man who didn't even bother to write a diary or to leave written instructions to his subordinates but who was madly in love with a 16 year old actress he left behind in town and to whom he decided to leave all of his possessions (graciously minus the debts).


The final goal? Crossing the whole continent from south to north reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria and coming back to Melbourne bringing tidings on the possibility of exploiting natural resources and opening new trade routes. All of this disguised into the pretext of a "scientific mission".
No surprises that the whole party ended up pretty tragically with most men, camels, scientific instruments and supplies being left behind by Burke who eventually died of starvation in a place where the Aborigines lived happily and well-fed.

And even if Burke and his men never reached the shores of Carpentaria ending up engulfed by mangroves and thus giving up their goal, they became national heroes with statues, songs and paintings dedicated to their memory.
That's why the story of Wills and Burke is very well known Down Under and this book written by Sarah Murgatroyd (a British journalist who prematurely died) will probably embitter many an Australian in showing how much Burke and his party did wrong and how amateurish the whole expedition was in the first place.
One can object that it's quite easy to look at the matter in a critical way now that the red heart of Australia is no more terra incognita, but some of the mistakes and miscalculations of Mr Burke were simply too spectacular to be ignored.

Sarah Murgatroyd doesn't despise the Wills and Burke expedition in its whole, but delivers what I believe is a fair, well-documented and deft-written account of this controversial page of Australian history.
The author here is able to take you along with the explorers and manages to dig into the personal stories of William John Wills, Robert O'Hara Burke and many others of their men with an excellent background work to put the expedition in the contest of its age. Thumbs up, then!

29.8.12

G.K. Chesterton - The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Rating 7.2

Unusual and engrossing The Napoleon of Notting Hill kept me company amidst the chaos of Terminal 3 in Heathrow while waiting to embark on the first long distance flight of my life.
My impression is that Mr Chesterton was too much far ahead for his times but didn't care a bit having a good sport in poking fun at defying literary conventions.

This odd little novel could be read in many ways: as a satire of British politics and the frail concept of modern democracy, as a dystopian entertainment or as a book poking fun at those who worshipped heraldry and the Middle Ages as an age of unsurpassed heroism and valour.
If you think about the success gained by works of semi-historical fiction such as Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, it's pretty clear how the clang of armours and the bang of swords into shields had many followers back in the 19th century.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is an allegory of all that passion for the Middle Ages feuds ridiculing them as a mere clash of snazzy liveries, but also and perhaps foremost a tale about London, an original tribute to its boroughs and its streets soaked up in a very peculiar and very Chestertonian sense of humour.
Even though the events narrated in the novel take place in a future dated 1984, don't look for Newspeak or Rooms 101 here as there is no anticipation of Orwell in Chesterton.

And yet, this novel could have a modern and contemporary interpretation.
In reading about the skirmishes and battles taking place on the edge of Notting Hill I couldn't help but thinking more to the recent London riots and its episodes of urban guerrilla more than to the barricades of the French revolution.
It's just a stroke of luck that no one of the London rioters and looters seemed to have studied Chesteron much: otherwise there would have been massive floodings rather than fires in the August of 2011.

7.8.12

Christopher Isherwood - Mr Norris Changes Trains

Rating 7.0

When a friend of mine heard that I was reading a book titled Mr Norris Changes Trains, the first thing he said was "Chuck, I suppose?".

Poor Christopher Isherwood! Had he known about the main badass character of Walker Texas Ranger kicking his Arthur Norris out of common knowledge, I'm sure he would have chosen to call him differently.
By the way, popular culture betrayed Isherwood twice here. Just tell a female friend of yours what given name the surname "Bradshaw" (the main narrator of this novel) brings to her mind and there you are: Carrie.

Does this ring a bell? I sincerely hope it doesn't.
But I'm afraid it does. Now, don't deny it!

Anyways, let's put first and second names aside for a moment. And let's forget that - Chuck or not Chuck - Mr Norris Changes Trains is a very unfortunate title. If I could rechristen this novel, I would call it "The Fairy Godfather" (sorry Daniel Pennac) or, on a more silly note, "The Wig and the Moustache". But Isherwood thought it otherwise.

This is an odd novel. Here we have a book which is at the same time a relic from the past and something modern.
Whereas Arthur Norris' look, speech and manners wouldn't displease Thackeray, the little Isherwood tells us about the foreign correspondent Helen Pratt is enough to make a Orianna Fallaci or a Katie Adie out of her.

This contrast is just the effect Isherwood wants.
For "Mr Norris Changes Trains" is set in a very well-defined place and moment of recent history: Berlin in the mid-thirties. That is precisely when Hitler seized power tightening his grip on a whole nation and - quite soon - changing for worse Europe as we knew it.
And that Berlin was caught between the carefree hedonism of its cabarets (heirloom of the 1920s) and an economic and political crisis which quite helped the Nazis to kidnap Germany and throw it to the dogs.

Isherwood is masterful in writing: no doubt about this. And where he excels is in Mr Norris himself. This affected Barry Lyndonesque man with more than a touch of effeminacy and seeking for sadistic pleasures is a marvelous creation.
Far less successful is how the British author writes about Mr Norris' business between Paris and Berlin: plotting and intrigues are definitely something Graham Greene is more apt to work on than his compatriot. Isherwood tries to tell us more about German communists but he somehow fails to be very convincing in that respect.

Nevertheless, this is a good and enjoyable novel, if only for Arthur Norris' antics. I would have liked Isherwood saying more about Berlin in the 1930s but the German capital stands pretty much in the background here with the exception of a chapter or two. I guess how I should pick up Goodbye Berlin by the same author or try the earlier Berlin Stories cooked up by Robert Walser to get more of what I want

2.8.12

Jan Kjærstad - The Conqueror (Erobreren)

Rating 7.8


I had a brief but very deep romance with Oslo in the summer of 2005.
It was my first experience of life abroad all by myself and this made it unforgettable even though it lasted for less than five months.


I remember how I left the town on the first snowy day of that autumn only to come back a year later, but without the same motivations to stay. It's now six years since the last time I've been there.
And - herregud! - I miss that place quite a lot.

To me, Oslo is much more than the capital of Norway and one of the most expensive cities in the world (but with an awesome quality of life).
Oslo means memories. Which I will not recall here.

(Please be advised that I actually deleted twenty lines of a walk along Memory Lane I had previously written down here. Lucky you!)

Suffice to say that I was so mesmerized by the time I spent in Oslo that I kept a sort of Norwegian diary while there covering up around 600 pages of notes, impressions, observations, fictional dialogues and a good deal of frustrated romantic impetus. Back to Italy, I tried to make a novel out of those diaries, but somehow the plot overrun me involving too many things I didn't know that much about. And drafts after drafts of chapters of a novel titled Line Three found room in a drawer.


Now you know the reason why I will never be a good reviewer of The Conqueror.
For Jan Kjaerstad here wrote what I was not able to  accomplish. And rightly so. Had I spent 500 months instead of only 5 in Oslo, perhaps I could feel ashamed.
Not only Kjaerstad made what I couldn't make, but he did it 10 years before my clumsy Line Three.
And finally, he delivered a novel built on childhood episodes which equals to ensnare me under a spell. Curse you, Jan Kjaerstad!

You see? I simply cannot be impartial in looking at this book. On the one hand I'm very envious about it and on the other quite charmed by a novel who brought back a ton of Oslo-related moments.
True, The Conqueror is the second part of the so called Jonas Wergeland Trilogy (from the name of its protagonist), but given the impossibility of putting my hands over the ouverture of The Seducer, I began with this one. Believe me when I say that this book could actually work by itself.


This is a novel revolving around Oslo and pretty much all you could call typically and quintessentially Norwegian. From politics to television, from pop culture to geography, from local habits to the way Norwegians see themselves and Norway in this wide world.
I mean, don't be surprised if you don't know a good half of the 20 great Norwegians that Jonas Wergeland chose for his programme "Thinking Big". And there are some subtleties that seem to work only in Norwegian like "fra hytte til hytte" which becomes "from hut to hut" in English, but doesn't explain the social and cultural importance of this way of saying and way of trekking in Norway.
And the reason why the novelist and Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun doesn't deserve to be printed on any Norwegian banknote (you will find that part in the book) is that he became a Nazi collaborator in his elderly years making him an enemy for his nation.
To name just the first two references which came to my mind.

Nevertheless, if you read the English translation don't believe the Scottish translator when she calls the district of Bygdøy "an island". Please be aware that, as stated by this reader and confirmed by the Oslo resident Mr Irwan S, Bygdøy is actually a peninsula.

A key point now. Jonas Wergeland here calls his compatriots "a nation of spectators" meaning that they're never invited at the high tables or in the control rooms of planet Earth, but quite enjoy having a look at them comfortably sprawled out on a sofa or on a stressless chair. This sort of Peeping Tom attitude means that Norwegians are also accused by the protagonist of this novel of merely witnessing dramatic events without trying either to shape or to stop them.

I would call these accusations of being lazy and craven a bit too harsh.
After all Norway hosts only 5 million people and what these few Norwegians can do in a world scenario of 7 billion human beings? Norway should be content of having had sons and daughters like Ibsen, Nansen, Amundsen, Grieg and Sigrid Undset. That's not too bad, I think, but not enough for Wergeland - and I suspect for Mr Kjaerstad too.


Uh, I forgot to tell you. The Conqueror includes plenty of sex in pretty much all the combinations you can wonder. And, I must add, most if not all of this sex, targets Jonas Wergeland giving you the impression that Norwegian women always take the initiative. Don't jump to the same conclusion too fast! To be honest, more than a "conqueror" Jonas Wergeland in this book is "conquered", sexually and wistfully.

To make a long story short, this novel is not a masterpiece overall, hence I cannot reward it with a five stars rate. But this is the kind of book that means an awful lot to me. Now you know why I had to write this neverending review. A review which will not be very helpful to you, I'm afraid. Apologies for my biased effort!

28.7.12

Tadeusz Konwicki - A Minor Apocalypse (Mała Apokalipsa)

Rating 7.3

I had very high expectations for A Minor Apocalypse and am now quite undecided on how to rate this book.
On the one hand this novel is an excellent allegory of the state Poland - read Warsaw - was in at the end of the 1970s and is full of glittering literary inventions.
And yet, on the other hand, after a quite promising start the book derails into a sort of grotesque parody à la Grosz where it becomes really hard keeping track of what's going on: at least for me.

Konwicki wrote A Minor Apocalypse in 1979 at the end of the Gierek era. Wikipedia states that the then first secretary of the Communist Party helped in raising up the standard of living for many Poles, but I was also told by reliable Polish sources that - in doing so - Gierek indebted Poland a lot.

And one cannot ignore the riots, the rise of inflation and the social turmoil which eventually led to the rise of general Jaruzelski with the introduction of martial law and night curfews in 1981. From that low point on, little by little, things start to get better for Poland.


The title of this novel could be seen as an anticipation how what would have soon come in Poland as shown by this famous photo taken in Warsaw by Chris Niedenthal on 13 December 1981 .

The Warsaw Konwicki walks through in this novel is a city where foreign currency is hard to get, Arab oil-tycoons book the nightclubs and disguised police agents patrol Nowy Świat, one of the most important streets in town. It's a Warsaw of dairy bars, clandestine meetings, intellectual speculations and drinking marathons; a quite exciting place indeed for those who can look at it without the need of filling up their bellies or entertain themselves with self-despising, sarcasm and disillusion.

This is a lost Warsaw which many don't miss but which fascinates me quite a lot. During my most recent visit in town, I did seen many Polish editions of books by Konwicki in bookstalls, but discovered how the dairy bars are all but gone replaced by gastropubs, banks or offices, the clandestine meetings are now sponsored gatherings.
As for intellectual speculations and drinking marathons the only place where I experienced them was on the verge of closing down due to the opposition of the local mayor who didn't want an "anarchist lair" in the middle of the branded Euro 2012 hosting Warsaw.


Even the awful, scary but nonetheless imposing Palace of Culture "donated" by Soviets (would be the perfect set for a European remake of one of the best scenes of Ghostbusters) was in a bad shape: surrounded by parking lots ready to host "football supporters zones". I even watched a movie inside the monster: what Władysław Gomułka would have said about this? 
And what happened to the tiny apple trees, to the cauliflowers and currants which grew in patches around the socialist moloch in the 1970s?
I wonder what 86 years old Tadeusz Konwicki himself thinks about this. Does he like this new clumsy pop side of the loathed Palace of Culture? I bet he does not.

Back to the book now. A Minor Apocalypse is essentially a stroll around a long bygone Warsaw with an oil can on your left and a dog on your right. But it's also one day in the life of Tadeusz Konwicki as seen by himself after many a vodka too much. It's a farcical tale about some extinct specimen of human beings and their thoughts and their feelings. It's a political message delivered between and beyond the lines. And much more, I guess.

Whereas the name of the Czech student Jan Palach who sets himself on fire in Prague to protest against the Russian presence in Czechoslovakia is now a famous one, I'd like to know if you've ever heard of his Polish predecessor, Ryszard Siwiec.
Did you? Well, Tadeusz Konwicki did and this novel, in all of its deranged flow, is at the same time a critic and an eulogy to all those who committed self-immolation behind the Iron Curtain.
I'm not Polish and I'm sure there is much here I failed to understand, but this novel brought me back to messy times which I'd like to know in a better way.


20.7.12

Ismail Kadaré - The General of the Dead Army

Rating 6.6


As stated in the last page of the book, it took Ismail Kadaré five years to write this novel between 1962 and 1966 when he was in Tirana. 
One can wonder whether The General od the Dead Army was nail-biting business involving many stopovers for the Albanian author or if Kadaré himself was tied-up with other things in those days.

The idea behind the book is an excellent one: a general and a priest (both left nameless) from the Italian army going to Albania in the 1960s in order to dig out the bodies of the soldiers sent on the other shore of the Adriatic sea by Mussolini between 1938 and 1942. Men who found their death in a relatively unknown little country with their families claiming for their bones to return home. 

The macabre but humanitarian task to find, collect, identify and ship back to Italy the mortal remains of the long dead soldiers is allowed by the Albanian communist authorities. 
A political gesture which could be seen a sign of reconciliation between the two countries twenty-five years after the Italians invaded Albania looking at it as a mere stepping stone on their way to subjugate Greece.

Whereas it took barely three days to the Italian forces to "conquer" the tiny Balcanic country thus adding up the Albanian kingdom to the Italian crown, the following Greek expedition was an utter failure.

The fascist forces were soon driven back by the Greeks onto the Albanian mountains and plateaux finding themselves struggling for survival amid the coldest winters they could imagine and caught between the fires of local partisans and Hellenic soldiers. 
The Italian domination of Tirana and surroundings lasted for approximately four years giving enough time to print stamps and banknotes, raise monuments and awfully grand buildings as well as affecting the local population with arrests, fusillades and rapes. 

You wouldn't be surprised to know that when the Italians started retreating, with Germans taking their place in committing atrocities, Albanian partisans hit the former occupying forces back in reprisal.
Hence, violence kept spreading with more killings and more mass graves.

In fact, Kadaré believes that the hatred of the recent past has not been forgotten.
The general and the priest may have Albanian experts and drivers within their expedition and hire gravediggers in the villages they stop by but are far from being welcomed by the local farmers and peasants. 

There is never a clear hostility of the Albanians towards the general and the priest, but they both feel a sort of uneasiness around them and don't even try to mix up with the locals. 
At least that's what they do till the very last night of their Albanian year long travel, a night where the General insists to celebrate the end of their task going to a wedding. A decision which will make the very last hours of the Italian duo in Albania quite shocking, stirring up old rancours colliding with the sacred importance given to hospitality by the local population.

All in all, what we have here is a slow-placed novel dealing with a potentially very poignant topic but treated and developed in a somehow cold blooded way which could disappoint many readers.
But one must not forget that this same cold blooded view on the hard business of digging out corpses from the Albanian soil, guessing their height from the bones and matching it with a list of dead soldiers names is precisely the message Kadare aimed to deliver.

This is a book about loneliness and a book about bitter memories. The loneliness of the Italian general reluctantly appointed to his grievous task who tries to wash it away with brandy and the bitter memories of the elderly Albanian woman who stares at his clumsy dizzy dancing during a wedding. 

If I had to give a colour to The General of the Dead Army, it would definitely be grey. The grey of  consolidated mud, the grey of stones, the grey of gravel. The grey of dirty uniforms. The grey of bones.

Here we have a book which shows very little hope with Ismail Kadaré being well aware of its unpleasantness. A novel where the pace is set by the monotonous clash of spades against hard soil. 
Spades which once buried bodies and spades which later dug the same corpses out. 
The dry words chosen by Kadaré here are just like spades: they can bring back dead soldiers to light, but cannot heal the wounds which killed them and those they inflicted. 

15.7.12

Ornela Vorpsi - The Country Where No One Ever Dies

Rating 6.5

Reading this book equals to trying to take off an old layer of plaster from a wall using some tin foil. Sure, if you scrub really hard, a few pieces of plaster could give way, but you know things would get better having a piece of sand paper.

For The Country Where No One Ever Dies (TCWNOED for short) by Ornela Vorpsi is not a bad book overall, but it's wrapped in tin foil thus merely scratching the surface of an interesting topic - Albania in the 1980s - leaving you dissatisfied at the end.

Still, it would be unfair saying that this collection of vignettes jointed to each other in a sort of novella is hard to read. In fact, quite the contrary: Vorpsi has an effective writing style mixing up childhood memories with fiction and reaching the heart of the matter with carefully chosen words.
Nothing seems superfluous here and that's good, but writing something more would have not been bad either. The point of view of a little girl growing up in Tirana is not always that convincing, but manages to give some insight on Albania.

Vorpsi works well when she focuses on what the little girl sees and perceives: odd elderly people, unfortunate neighbors, local gossip, the influence of the party on everyday's life, her mum, her dad. Vorpsi doesn't sound very convincing when she tries to put sex in the context: here she overdoes it.
For example, I haven't quite understood why adults of her own family keep on calling "a whore" the young girl with different names whose short stories make this book.

Now, is that because the author wants to show us how male chauvinist, backwardish and sexually aggressive the Albanian society could be? Or maybe is it because the girl - like Vorpsi herself - tries to develop an independent personality against all odds? I'm afraid only Ornela Vorpsi could answer.
She certainly looks happy to have left Albania behind her, hence some ill feeling could be justified. But, believe me, this book would have been better without a few jarring notes about sex.

To recover Vorpsi's reputation as a novelist, I don't think it's an act of sacrilege stating that in its best parts TCWNOED has a certain affinity with The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller. I hope Miss Vorpsi will take it as a compliment. No plagiarism involved, just a similar choice of writer's palette.
Of course the Romanian Nobel Prize winner is a more talented - and more experienced - writer, but if Vorpsi will be able to get over herself and her obsession for sexual interludes, some pretty good books may follow The Country Where No One Ever Dies. Let's see what comes next.