14.12.14

A.M. Bakalar - Madame Mephisto

Rating 6.8

I confess I had a lot of fun while reading this novel which is a fantastic page turner indeed.

I guess that living in Poland right now and having dealt with always smiling but often treacherous HR personnel in the UK for some years played a significant part in my enjoyment, though. Well done to A.M. Bakalar for having taken such a good snapshot of both aspects, then.

But wait a moment. Did she?
Well, yes and no.

To be honest, the author here indulges way too much on some stereotypes about Poland that you might have not expected to find in a book written (in English) by a born and bred Pole like she is.
This doesn't mean that reading 'Madame Mephisto' was not entertaining, but I'd daresay that A.M. Bakalar could have avoided a number of things which were not that necessary to her plot.

I lived in Krakow for a couple of months and the idea that many locals might insult a black person calling him 'monkey' while he's taking a stroll in daylight and in the beautiful Old Town is just absurd. I'm not denying that Polish society might be racist sometimes, but placing racist insults of that sort and in that place was just gratuitous and left a foul taste in my mouth.
You see, the author there was trying her best to stress out the differences between multicultural UK and a current almost monocultural Poland. But it didn't work well.
Another dumb note was the cannabis selling subplot. This stuff looked (and read) overimposed on the novel merely to make the point of Magda's double personality clear. I don't know anything about cannabis homegrowing and handshaking purchase, but my impression is that the author herself relied on information coming from some friend(s) of hers and magazine features to build up those junkie bits.

To counterbalance my criticism, I have to say that the pages focusing on Magda aka Madame Mephisto changing jobs in London were much better than those set in Warsaw.
I didn't live in London but spent four years working in the UK and most of the office dynamics described here were similar to those I experienced myself. The importance given to summer parties, KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), silly Excel spreadsheets and involvement in charity events instead of to the quality of your work and the results you gain. That and the often disturbing interference of people working in Human Resources on your job and career were depicted perfectly here. I'd like to stress out that I'm not against HR (cannot guarantee for A.M. Bakalar, though), but more than once I had the impression that they struggle to legitimate their position within a company by making up the most absurd procedures and regulations. Smiling everyone?

The fact that Madgda/Madame Mephisto is a natural born troublemaker and a whistleblower displaying the occasional fits of rage certainly helped in having plenty a tragicomic job-related scene included in this novel.
And that I enjoyed a lot.

Perhaps the reason why I give this book a decent pass is that - for all its flaws - it was funny to read and with a first person narrator that didn't annoy me. The same fact that there are some interesting, if slightly clumsy, switches to a third person narrative whenever Magda looks at her other self Madame Mephisto, helped in alleviating the prose. Oh well, I don't really know.
What I can say is that if you had the chance to experience both, the UK and Poland you might like this book. And yet, if you hail from Poland, be prepared to stumble upon some cheesy scenes about your homecountry.

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