V.V. Ovchinnikov - Britain Observed

Rating 7.3

The Britain observed by V.V. Ovchinnikov dates back to the end of the 1970s. And the cover of this book with its Pacman-like graphic and the "O" of "observed" shaped as the Soviet sickle & hammer (sorry, no picture available) tells you something more on the odd anachronism of reading it on 2012.

However, I have to admit that Mr Ovchinnikov wrote a pretty good little book on Great Britain (plus Eire and Northern Ireland). The kind of observations the former correspondent of Pravda does here are somehow between a tourist guide of the 1950s and what an author like the Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini wrote about Britain and the Britons in the 1990s selling an awful lot of books.

Here you can find many clever but old-aged notes on the British way of life as it was 25 years ago but also plenty of observations which are still valid nowadays.
The only downwards of Ovchinnikov's work is that he had the weird tendency to compare the UK with Japan and China where he spent years as a correspondent before being sent to London. And sometimes he even states the Britons and Japanese are similar. Oh well, that's news!

That said, the good part of this book is that its author never indulges on the Soviet superiority over the UK, poking fun at Britons sometimes but always stressing out how their way of, say, washing dishes without using running water is a cultural difference rather than a barbarian act.
I think that, in this aspect, Britain Observed reflects the period in which it was written with the glasnost at the door and a Soviet Union no longer under the unbearable rhetoric and political influence of Lenin and then Stalin.

Vsevolod Ovchinnikov doesn't have the wit of Ilf & Petrov who themselves wrote a marvelous account of a visit to the US in the 1930s but - at the same time - was never asked to wrote an elegy on a canal dedicated to Lenin as happened to the comic duo.
I don't know what this guy was writing as a correspondent from London for the Pravda and how much freedom he enjoyed in his articles, but Britain Observed has a very relaxed and pleasantly ironic pace without doing any annoying proselytism.
This is what I call well-documented escapism and I'm not surprised that the book, with its Russian-Soviet title meaning The Roots of an Oak-Tree (?), sold well in the USSR. At least that's what the cover of my British edition says.

Check for the chapters on the British politics and you will be surprised on how good Ovchinnikov is in describing how the English parliament works. Given his training at home with the elephantine structure of Soviet government, I assume the author had no problems at all in grasping the mechanisms of the UK democracy.

All in all, this book stands out as an interesting historic document including many brilliant observations on the UK provided from an unusual half-communist point of view with such funny oddities like Ovchinnikov touring Ireland following the steps of Engels


Hans Fallada - Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Alone in Berlin)

Rating 8.2

Falada was a talking horse appearing in The Goose-Girl a fairytale written by the Grimm brothers.

When Herr Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen took the nom-de-plume of Hans Fallada, borrowing the first name from another Grimm's fairytale he was far from being the kind of person you would like your children to spend time with.
Claimed insane after having killed a friend in a duel when he was barely 18 year old and for that reason a notorious guest of several mental institutions, he was also addicted to morphine and an alcoholic.

The young troubled Mr Ditzen was an outcast. He spent his time working in the farm fields mostly for financing his drug and drinking habits and trying to compose some poetry while at the sanatorium but without really managing to make it.

And yet, somehow, Ditzen/Fallada was on his way to become one of the most successful German writers of his generation portraying scenes of all but idyllic German life in the difficult years of the Great Depression and the Mark super-inflation.

Despite being labeled as an undesirable author by the rising Nazis, Fallada managed to get by during World War II refusing to leave Germany although constantly intimidated by Goebbels & company who understood his talent and wanted to put it at the service of the Third Reich.

The disturbing beauty and way too underrated importance of Jeder stirbt für sich allein (appropriately translated into Every Man Dies Alone in the US but becoming a milder Alone in Berlin for the British edition of the book) is that Fallada wrote this book at the very end of his short life.
He died before the book got published perhaps not having the time for editing it as he would have liked to.
And yet, Alone in Berlin stands as one of the most powerful last wills in literature you can ever find.

Fallada took inspiration from the real story of a German couple who decided to write hundreds of anti-Hitler postcards during the last years of the regime. The Hampels left the postcards in public places thus hoping to get a reaction against the Nazis.
Otto and Elise Hampel were not cultured people and eventually failed in their goal to stir the Berlinese people against the Third Reich being discovered and executed, but the strength of their rebellion is nonetheless a great one.

Fallada was given the Hampels file by a friend of his and decided to make a novel out of that forgotten little example of resistance to the Nazi atrocities. And what the author managed to accomplish is an extraordinary portrait of everyday's life in Berlin in the 1940s with an impressing cast of characters and a spy-story plot which reminded me of Graham Greene.

But, if possible, Fallada aimed higher here than what Greene ever did.
And you know what? He got there. Let's keep in mind and never forget that this book was written in 1947, when all the awful memories were fresh and actually the Berlin pictured here was still mostly raised to the ground. 1947 is the very same year in which pen-named Hans Fallada died.

Alone in Berlin is a novel where the triumph belongs to the apparent banality of good demonstrating how it is not only the most-educated people fighting against a regime, but also those who have personal motivations and strong ideals and a tenacious will to win over the evil.


Junot Diaz - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Rating 7.0

This is an interesting book about a cultural, social and historical background I am not really familiar with.
Before meeting up with Oscar "Wao" (it stands for Wilde, mind you!), the only things I knew about Dominican Republic is that it's a little country in the Caribbeans sharing the same island with the unfortunate Haiti and where baseball is the national sport.
Well, there is not a single crack of the bat in this novel. Which is not necessarily a fault, I think.

I assumed there might have been a huge Dominican community abroad but to this day I would frankly be unable to distinguish a Dominican from a Puertorican or an Haitian if I could meet a Latino looking person in the streets of the UK. Don't take me wrong: it's just that I'm not familiar with the topic.

So far the only book I had read regarding the life of Latino immigrant families in the US dates back to several years ago and is named "An Island Like You" by Judith Ortiz Cofer a novel talking about Puertoricans in New Jersey which the most interesting feature is probably starring a character named Jennifer Lopez and being the hideous and ambitious beauty of the neighborhood. Well, as the book was written in 1995 when the famous J.Lo was still a nobody, that's what I call a coincidence!

Anyways, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is a different sort of paper beast dealing with Dominicans in New Jersey. But not a paper tiger at all.
Junot Diaz likes to show us how talented he is and how much he likes to flick among literary genres with a narration moving from third to first person, dealing with three generations of the same Dominican family and with a mind-blowing use and abuse of footnotes, quotations and pop culture references. And indeed, Mr Diaz is a talented author who seems to write with an extreme confidence and easiness, playing with his readers and tickling their sentimental as much as their morbid instincts.

I read reviews comparing Junot Diaz with Nabokov but I honestly cannot see how. Where Nabokov was cold and rational in impersonating and justifying either Humbert Humbert excesses or his own idiosyncrasies, the characters of this book are very much alive and kicking and falling apart.
Sure, Junot Diaz is indebted with other writers and he himself is well aware of it.

The way Oscar Wao builds up his sentences, for example, is hilarious because he borrows from JRR Tolkien (a recurring name here) every sort of old fashioned term and one cannot deny the huge influence of John Kennedy Toole in portraying the way the fatness of Oscar is perceived (the fact he ends up teaching English in a school just like Toole himself did is a clear homage to the father of Ignatius O.Reilly).

The greatest strength of this book is in the way Diaz gives a strong personality and a very precise identity to his characters, while its weakest point is probably the discontinuity of the narration, with key moments which seem to be forgotten with a main Latino narrator appearing out of the blue and Oscar Wao driving a car on his own all in a sudden.
I did prefer the Dominican Republic chapters to the one about life in New Jersey although the references to the dictatorship of the Trujillo family are a bit obscure every now and then.

One may wonder on how much of Mr Junot Diaz himself is into Oscar Wao's pop geekness and it's not a coincidence that I thought several times to a book like "Ready Player One" by Ernest Cline while going ahead with the (not that) brief but surely wondrous life of Oscar Wao. In fact, I do think that Cline and Diaz could be excellent pals and would have a lot to talk about while playing arcade videogames and listening to The Smiths on tape cassettes.

All in all, this is a funny and touching book to read but before starting with it make sure that you have some basics of Spanish and Spanglish as Junot Diaz won't help you with any marginal notes on translation (despite delivering many others here).
Ah, and don't get too much impressed by the way Diaz seems to enjoy descriptions of sex from an often violent and mechanical male perspective: after all - as he points out here - no Dominican man has ever died a virgin!


Down & Up Anna Pavlova Close

The bird on the pointy roof
rain-proof, wind-borne, maroon
aloof from a wingless world
and yet, it stands, it sways itself
for the sake of no one else
just a dot on a sheer tile-made top
unmoved, untold by the tick of the clock
whose time-driven hands have never
never caught the sense of its halt.
Not to mention the rest.


Frank Westerman - Engineers of the Soul

Rating 8.0

Back on December 2011 I had never heard about this book and its author.
The only Dutch journalist familiar to me (after a semester spent studying journalism in the Netherlands on 2008) was Geert Mak whose European travelogue I enjoyed but whose book on the Galata bridge in Istanbul left me lukewarm.

Then my girlfriend and I had the chance of hosting Elke from Brussels and our guest introduced us to some brilliant conversations, tasty food and a handful of Dutch and Belgian novelists, among them Mr Westerman and his work over Soviet-time novelists, this book.

Well, actually calling Engineers of the Soul a book about Soviet writers is not making any justice to what Westerman managed to accomplish here: a fascinating work which combines literary criticism with travelogue writing and social history of the USSR with reporting on the Russia of early 2000s.
And much more. All balanced in a perfect way and providing very convincing insights on what Westerman aimed to reach and why he wanted to get it, which is what seem to lack in the books written by his countryman Mak.

I particularly liked the passion behind and beyond this book.
Westerman hasn't just done his reporter homework on behalf of the NRC Handelsblad ("our intellectual newspaper" quoting one of my Dutch professors years ago). Quite the reverse!
The author here is very able to engross the readers on his investigation on how to Soviet power, censorship and socialist expectations influenced the literary production of a handful of prominent Russian writers between the 1930s and the 1950s.

Those who have a fair knowledge of Russian literature of the last century can find names they already know like those of Babel, Platonov, Pasternak, Shokolov and a focus on the influential and controversial role played by Gorki in the whole Soviet literary movement.
But it's while talking of supposedly minor socialist novelists like that Paustovsky the book starts from and ends with that Engineers of the Soul displays its amazing qualities.

The fact is that in the early USSR there were ranks over ranks of either brilliant or mediocre novelists who were pretty much forced to write about the joy of canalization, the beauty of dams, the touching struggle of "volunteers", the technological achievements of the socialist motherland to please Lenin and then Stalin.
These novelists were controlled, checked, somehow tyrannized by a system and a network of informers who could not accept supposedly decadent, romantic, foreign-like novels coming out from the pens of its most known writers.

To put it straight: "Boy meets tractor" was properly Soviet, "Boy meets girl" was surely capitalist while "Boy meets girl, they meet tractor" could have been alright but also a Trotzkyist plot.
The girl coming before the tractor? Come on, tovarisch! That looks a little suspectful. Besides, who could have said whether the girl was a foreign agent therefore ready to weaken and corrupt the boy while sabotaging the tractor?

And because the stress of any given novel had to be put on a very specific range of topics, many writers started to flirt with hydrography, metallurgy, engineering. Novelists, poets and journalists were invited to collective literary expeditions with the goal to embellish the construction of the nth canal or dam built to accomplish ambitious and unrealistic plans.

Words like "cement", "dam", "steel", "turbine" and - of course - "tractor" found their way on the titles of thousand of ideological bestsellers published in the USSR before and after World War II.
This book tries to understand why this happened on such a wide scale and who among the socialist-friendly novelists tried to escape from the industrial cliche, quite often losing fame, reputation, a nice dacha and - accidentally - his own life or mental sanity in the process.

Westerman mentions banned poets and novelists of the period like Akhmatova or Mandelstam (but not Bulgakov!) and doesn't forget a famous ex-pat like Solzhenitsyn but does prefer to tell the stories of other people.
The so-called "engineers of the soul" are the authors who joined (sometimes despite themselves) the socialist club before falling into sudden disgrace. Hence we have plenty of poignant pages dedicated to the misfortunes of Platonov, Pasternak, Babel and the book-hero, the controversial Konstantin Paustovsky.

Just don't look at this book as a mere history of the Soviet literature, because Westerman travels through the country on his own looking for the documents he needs and the places portrayed by those socialist novelists. It's these visits to Stalingrad/Volgograd dams system, to the Russian Film Institute or to the forgotten White Sea Canal that I appreciated the most.

The nadir of the whole book is the long literary trip taken by its author on the footsteps of Paustovsky as far as Turkmenistan during the heydays of former communist politician (and electrical engineer) creative dictator Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov.
There on the salty desert shores of the mysterious bay of Kara Bogaz, Westerman finds many of the answers he looks for while new questions arise.

This book has a rare gift: it's magic - a magical and sour realism - and it will always keep a special place on any future bookshelves of mine.


Leslie T.Chang - Factory Girls

Rating 6.7

There are two terms that come up to my mind while starting this review: mess and potential.
For Factory Girls has potential but is a mess.

Don't take me wrong, I do believe that it's better reading this book than ignoring its existence, but I suppose that whereas most readers can be satisfied with the menu offered by Leslie Chang, many of them could complain about the way this story is delivered.

Oh well, let's begin with the menu. There is an appetizer of tasty introduction followed by two main courses: the personal stories of two young female workers Min and Chongming on a bed of Dongguan-Guangdong metropolitan salad. These two stories are often and quite abruptly interrupted by a soup of Mrs Chang's personal family history: a non-requested extra served in large portions.

Let's have a look at the presentation.
Around 100 pages over 400 here are dedicated to Leslie T. Chang looking for her Chinese family history, seeking for those who were left behind in motherland Chinese Manchuria rather than escaping to Taiwan and then to the US when the Communists took the power.
Was this family soup necessary in a book dealing with the conditions, aspirations and disillusions of Chinese migrant industrial workers in one of the most vibrant and cruel new-metropolis of South China?

In my humble opinion, there is absolutely nothing in common between the stories of Min and Chonming in Dongguan 2000-2005 and the family Chang/Zhang saga in the last century or something.
And I think that any editor on Earth should have been able to notice this lack of cohesion. Perhaps, Leslie T.Chang asked for a separate book talking about her family history to be published but having no room (and not enough interesting material) for it, she decided to include this stuff right here watering way too much the soup, but not the mouth of her readers.

Then there is the frame, the structure of the book which is pretty confusing.
I confess how I lost track of whom Mrs Chang was writing about a lot of times mainly because to my Western eyes, Min and Chonming were easily mistaken into the same character or mixed up (choosing two pseudonyms would have helped, I think).
Not to mention the fact that the author has this tendency of jumping forth and back in years and events without any apparent logic with the first meeting with Chonming (or it was Min?) portrayed around page 250 or something after dozens and dozens of pages spent on this girl.

Plus, there is a handful of disjointed stories breaking the rhythm of the book like the chapter dedicated to the big shoe factory-town which - according to Chang herself in the interview published at the end of the book - was an aborted story. Oh really? It's good to know it. So why including it here? I mean we're talking about a quite brilliant chapter, but perhaps it had to be placed at the very beginning or at the very end of the book.
Besides, Mrs Chang you're a journalist, so the shoe factory could have been dried up becoming all together the sort of perfect article for your Wall Street Journal.

But I don't want to be too harsh with Leslie T. Chang.
Factory Girls has many unforgettable moments and plenty of interesting information and lively details on the crazy crazy life of Dongguan from the way a dodgy industry-line English school work, to the hustle and bustle of the job "talent market" passing through a dive into the karaoke-brothel underground.

It's just not clear what part the author decided to play here.
At some point Leslie T.Chang behaves like a friend of the girls she's writing about (even living with their families in the villages), while in other moments she chooses to look at them in cold blood from a reporter point of view, but then she suddenly switches into a nosey and quite critical observer.

This is what I meant when I talked about mess.
All in all, Factory Girls is a book which found the right topic but chose the wrong focus and sometimes the wrong angles to look at it.
And in doing this, Mrs Chang printed out a blurry but still interesting view over several aspects of the new Chinese over competitive way of life in the heydays of its economic boom.


Ota Pavel - Smrt krásných srnců (How I Came to Know Fish)

Rating 7.7

One cannot help but loving this thin thin book collecting a bunch of short stories written by Ota Pavel in the very last years of his short and troubled life.
Perhaps, one of the reasons to fall in love with How I Came to Know Fish is its brevity, a shortness that appears to be deeply related with the unfortunate but nonetheless joyful life of its author.

Born Otto Popper, Ota Pavel was the son of Jewish father and a Christian mother. A condition that saved him from concentration camps during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia while his dad and elder brothers couldn't skip them but were among those who managed to come back home.

In communist Czechoslovakia the young Popper/Pavel became a good hockey player and an outdoor activities enthusiast choosing a career of sport reporter which allowed him to follow his two greatest passions: writing and hockey.
Everything looked smooth and fine for Ota Pavel, but on a bad day in 1964 a sudden crack in the thin Austrian ice claimed him and his brains. As he himself recounts in the Epilogue of this book:

"I went mad at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck. My brain got cloudy, as if a fog from the Alps had enveloped it. In that condition I came face to face with one gentleman-- the Devil. He looked the part! He had hooves, fur, horns, and rotten teeth that looked hundreds of years old.
With this figure in my mind I climbed the hills above Innsbruck and torched a farm building. I was convinced that only a brilliant bonfire could burn off the fog. As I was leading the cows and horses from the barn, the Austrian police arrived. They handcuffed me and took me down into the valley.
I cursed them, pulled off my shoes, and walked barefoot through the snow. I was thinking of Christ as he was led to the cross".

And from that moment on, the avalanche which eventually took the life of Ota Pavel nine years later due to a heart attack - he was only 43 - started to roll down the Austrian mountains heading to Prague. Pavel was delivered to doctors and spent the rest of his days from a mental hospital to another one. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder or so it seems.

Those were the days when Ota Pavel understood that the greatest time of his life was already behind him and he decided to recount the very best of it.
Those were the days when he wrote the short stories you can find in this book.

How I Came to Know Fish is a somehow chaotic but very poignant and ironic collection of Ota Pavel's childhood memories written with a surreal magical touch which makes them unique.
I'm not a great connoisseur of Czech literature and certainly Pavel was a very peculiar sort of writer having left only memoirs, short stories and sport articles (there is a second English translated book by him about fishing eels). And yet, the few childhood stories reunited here have the power to create an atmosphere of their own.

It's true there are a few elements (the provincial Czech town, the Nazi occupation, the young age of the protagonist, Ota/Otto's relation with is dad) which could remind a novel like The Cowards but I think that in his best moments, Pavel is even better than Škvorecký.

A short story like At the Service of Sweden is a delicious Czech cupcake with a bittersweet taste and an international irresistible touch. And the rest of Ota's short stories are equally brilliant in their obstinate looking at the bright side of life, poking fun at the Nazi occupiers rather than crying on an ill fate.

Sure, the thread here is the time spent fishing outdoors, feeding carps and looking for the perfect pond to catch them. But the power of this book is in its message: as long as you have a rod (wits) and know how to use it, no one will ever be able to pull you down.

PS: It seems like the original Czech version of this book titled Smrt krásných srnců (The Death of Beautiful Deer) includes at least a couple of short stories set in the 1950s. Only those at Penguin know why there was no room for this stuff in the English edition of the book. Perhaps a second short stories collection by Ota Pavel will come later on?


Slavomir Rawicz - The Long Walk

Rating 6.6

A well-deserved pass goes to the novel which is a good one.
Just please, don't tell me this is all a true story.

I know how the authenticity topic seems to be still controversial more than fifty years after the publication of this book, but come on! The Long Walk is clearly a clever work of fiction with titbits of reality popping up here and there just like bits of rancid yak butter float over the black tea Slav and his companions were served in Tibet. Of course assuming they get there with their own feet.

Praise the author for the plot and shame on him for claiming it a true story.
Some parts of The Long Walk are certainly authentic memories and nobody can deny the description of the tortures suffered by Rawicz in the Russian prisons are very accurate and compelling.

But then we have a strange and rather suspectful lack of details in many crucial following parts and some oddities (the role played by the camp commander's wife in the prisoner's escape, train of camels seen north of the Transiberian railways, 8 days without drinking while crossing the Gobi desert, an unexpected meeting with Mr and Mrs Yeti) are clearly fictional.

Just look at a map and see those 1500 miles of Chinese territory separating Mongolia from Tibet. How came that 6 people (plus one girl met on the road) walking in rags and with western features escaping from a Soviet gulag crossed this immense distance within China without ever being checked by anyone? And why Rawicz looks so reticent in talking about the Chinese villagers, habits and costumes then giving detailed descriptions of Mongolian headgear and Tibetan hospitality? This is what puzzles me here.

Still, this is an interesting book if you don't take it as a reliable account of what really happened to its author in one of the most remote and secluded corners of the Soviet Union.

I'm sorry, there is no Colin Farrell playing the "over-tattooed bad urka guy but with a golden heart" in the original book. But where Slavomir Rawciz outclassed Peter Weir is in starring two abominable snowmen rather than a single abominable actor.