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.

10.7.12

Ismail Kadaré - Broken April

Rating 7.5

Broken April is a haunting story with an out of time charm. There are not many novels around with such a simple and yet powerfully evocative style. More than the plot in itself what counts here is the atmosphere Kadare is able to recreate.

I actually perceived the mist and the cold as well as the brightless nights and the wind-swept landscapes where the novel takes place with an uncommon intensity.
As a reader who gets easily distracted, Broken April meant an unusual business to me: this book never lost its grip on me from the very first to the last page.

I don't know that much about Albania apart from being aware that Italian fought a useless and aggressive war there ("We will break the kidneys of Albania!" barked Mussolini back in 1939) and that the country hosted one of the most senseless dictators - even for the crazy communist standards - in the world, Enver Hoxha, that bunker maniac.
For a striking majority of Italians, contemporary Albania is a God-forsaken country, a place good for ruffians, pimps, prostitutes and hosting bogus universities where our dull politicians get their fake degrees.


Besides, the massive waves of desperate immigration coming from the coasts of Albania which reached Italy in the 1990s didn't help in the way our neighbours are perceived. It's true how there are Albanians involved in criminal activities in Italy, but then again it's always the bad guys who get all the news. 
Just like it happens with Romanians - who share a similar bad reputation in Italy and had a megalomaniac dictator too - there are thousands of good, honest, hardworking and considerate Albanian immigrants between the Alps and Sicily. But this is pretty obvious, isn't it?

Broken April deals at the same time with backwardness and cultural heritage of Albania introducing the equally wonderful and terrifying Kanun an ancient code to settle arguments and controversies in the remote Albanian plateaux.



A code where vengeance through family feuds under brutal but strict rules is a focal point and that reminded me quite a lot the way disputes were handled in some parts of southern Italy and Sardinia. The Albanian Kanun, however, seem to be more structured and taken more seriously by the local inhabitants than its Italian  less official counterparts.

This novel speaks about the Kanun and the people living (and quite often dying) according to its principles, but it's also an excellent cross-section of the Albanian mountaineers, a people able to welcome the Church and the Islam without losing most of its peculiar habits and with a fascination for towers.


There is a distinct beauty in the uniqueness of Broken April and this quality more than compensates the slight disappointment of a plot and an ending which could have been a bit better. Not that it really matters as what makes this novel very good is not its storytelling, but where the story itself happens.
This is the first book by Ismail Kadare I've ever read and most likely the first of a long series. Here we have an author who definitely has something to say and somewhere to speak about. I'd like to listen more of it.

2.7.12

Max Hastings - All Hell Let Loose

Rating 7.0


The World at War 1939-1945 states the subtitle of this mastodontic book by the British historian and former war correspondent Max Hastings.
And there is little doubt that the 675 pages of All Hell Let Loose, also known as Inferno for the US audience, should be enough to deliver a thorough account of all the main events of World War Two.

Potential skepticals on the ability of Mr Hastings to portray such an important period of history on a worldwide scale will be stunned to find fifty-nine (59!) additional pages of notes and references at the end of this book.
Sure enough, you would say, a total of 748 pages will suffice to show what really happened during the turbulent seven years between 1939 and 1945 from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sea of Japan, from the boiling sands of El Alamein to the frozen waters of Murmansk.

You will be disappointed.

All Hell Let Loose doesn't tell you all and in fact is very far to win over the ambitious goal of making you as much familliar as possible with all the main events of World War Two. Much, too much is missing here.
And the choice of what including and what omitting in this volume is very unclear.

On the one hand is understandable how this goal couldn't be easily achieved even by the celebrity of historian Mr Hastings is and you cannot blame him too much for failing. But on the other hand, I believe that reviewing this book as "a single-volume history that covers every aspect of the Second World War", as the Financial Times did, means either being over indulgent with its author or having a limited knowledge of WWII.

Nevertheless, in many respects this is a history book to praise and something worth to get. Max Hastings takes you to not much known war-scenarios delivering well-documented, poignant and informative descriptions of events such as the siege of Budapest, the Nazis landing in Norway and the American-Japanese bloody fights for conquering the Philippines.

There is an overwhelming amount of documents, letters, written and oral accounts as well as diaries that the British historian had to look into, research and select in order to show us how war, famine and despair were felt by those who found themselves engulfed by the conflict as reluctant soldiers, deported Jews and POWs or as terrified civilians. Much to Mr Hastings credit the skill of putting everything in the right place here.

Less well-chosen is the decision of putting quotes from works as fiction such as Suite Française* by Irene Nemirovsky or Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman inspired by World War Two along with actual first hand accounts of the years from 1939 to 1945. Fiction is fiction. No matter how good it could be. And a historian like Mr Hastings is should be very much aware of this tracing a dividing line separating reality from fiction.

Fiction is not journalism too.
No serious historian would put quotes from The Quiet American by Graham Greene hand in hand with passages from Dispatches by Michael Herr while writing about Vietnam. The fact that Mr Hastings himself was once a war correspondent is an aggravating circumstance of the historic status he gave to novels.

*It must be said how Suite Française was not intended to be "a trilogy" (sic) as Hastings wrote here, but rather a serie of 5 novellas within a single volume. Perhaps some confusion with the Lord of The Rings saga arose in the busy historian's mind. 

Fair enough. Let's talk about the omissions here.
The term "Sudetenland" cannot be found a single time in the 675 pages of narration as well as in the 59 pages of notes and references of All Hell Let Loose. Just like it happens with "Danzig corridor", "Westerplatte" and "Polish underground state".

This denotes a certain superficiality in talking about the very beginning of the war and leads us straight to a major problem this book doesn't care to face: when did the Second World War begun?
Well, the invasion of the Sudetenland region belonging to Czechoslovakia and justified with futile reasons by the Nazis happened on 21st October 1938 and I would put this event as the beginning of World War Two as the very first act of Hitler expansionism. And yet, the subtitle chosen by Mr Hastings and his editors says 1939-1945. An unfortunate choice? I do believe so.

Unluckily, there are plenty of peculiar choices here by Max Hastings.
The British historian states that "Britain's anti-militarist tradition was a source of pride to its people" to explain the reluctancy of Britons to be deeply involved in World War Two (a feeling eventually won over by the Luftwaffe air-attacks and by the passionate exhortations of Winston Churchill).

Oh well, if a colonialist country which fought two Boer wars in South Africa, three wars in Burma, three wars in Afghanistan, two opium wars in China (later sending troops to face the Boxer Rebellion), attacked the Zulus and the Ashantis in Africa, battled with Sikhs and Indian "mutineers" taking part to the First World War  - just to mention the most significant conflicts happened in the 100 years before World War Two - has an anti-militarist tradition, we can call Stalin a democratic leader and a benefactor of economic liberalism.

As an Italian, I found puzzling how the chapter about the liberation of Italy stops half way on the Gustav line without mentioning at all the battle of Monte Cassino which had a fundamental importance and an important historical legacy.
Moreover, Hastings forgot or - even worse - chose to leave out from his book what happened in northern Italy as well as the dark page of the Republic of Salò, our own Vichy with Mussolini leading a Fascist state within the country supported by thousands of fanatics leading to civil war in Italy.

There is a review of this book published on The Economist, here, stating that "Mr Hastings excessively admires two German field-marshals: Gerd von Rundstedt and Eric von Manstein, whereas only Bill Slim and George Patton rise above the general mediocrity of Allied field commanders".
A sentence which I looked at in disbelief as a potentially ironic remark considering how Hastings here stresses out pretty often how Britons were superior, more clever and considerate than guilt-anguished Germans, savage Russians, anachronistic Japanese and that scum of the Earth-like good for nothing Italians.

Talking about the American General Patton, I remember how the author basically addresses him an antisemite quoting a sentence by the American general about Jews being less than animals.
If this is what The Ecomomist calls "rising above the general mediocrity of Allied field commanders", well I might assume that the reviewer is in league with Mr Hastings in considering Britain a country with an anti-militarist tradition!
All in all, I consider All Hell Let Loose as a good history book, but "the best single-volume history ever written" (quoting the Sunday Times) might be somewhere else or, perhaps, has just not been written yet.