Two Thousand Million Man-Power – Gertrude Trevelyan

Last year, I read a couple of marvellous books published by Boiler House Press under their Recovered Books imprint – Herbert Clyde Lewis’s Gentleman Overboard and Tess Slesinger’s Time: The Present – and therefore was very much looking forward to Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan, a novel and an author completely new to me. Trevelyan published eight novels in her lifetime, tragedy struck when her house was bombed during the Blitz – she didn’t immediately die but succumbed to her injuries a year later. Anyway, I thought this was an absolutely terrific novel.

More than halfway into Two Thousand Million Man-Power, in a fit of abject despair and hopelessness, Robert Thomas stumbles towards the grim, gray docks of London. It has been many months since he was laid off, and Robert has lost all hopes of ever finding a job. To make matters worse, he is overcome with guilt and shame for the stress his unemployed status has imposed on his wife Katherine, feelings that refuse to go away. After another fruitless search and afraid of heading home during the middle of the day, Robert ambles along to the desolate, grimy vista of water. Is this just aimless wandering? Or is there a darker purpose in store? The reader begins to wonder until Robert reaches the edge of the water; a piercingly sad moment when Robert’s true intentions suddenly become clear.

Robert does not go through with suicide, but it is one of the many moments of creeping dread that punctuate Two Thousand Million Man-Power, a brilliant, psychologically astute tale of a marriage with its trials and tribulations, the indignity of unemployment, the wretchedness of poverty…in a seamless blend of the personal with the global.

When we first meet Robert Thomas, he is in his early twenties employed as a chemist at a cosmetics firm. Robert spends his days in the laboratory deriving formulae and brewing mixtures to be converted into creams and lotions, while evenings are spent in a dingy rented room working on his thesis of Time. We are talking of a period somewhere in the early 1920s when the world has just emerged from the brutality of World War One. Robert is an aspiring intellectual often attending political lectures and debates after work and it is during one of these gatherings that he meets and falls in love with Katherine Bott.

Katherine is also an idealist, working as a teacher in a council school. Katherine immediately comes across as a tad cold; she is contemptuous of her colleagues and their rigid outlook and not very sympathetic when a married teacher faces the possibility of losing her teaching job (in keeping with a newly introduced law that prohibits married women from working). Despite her intellectual leanings that involve evenings spent attending lectures and meetings, Katherine’s existence is otherwise dry, residing in a dismal bedsit in what is probably a slum-infested area.

Katherine’s biggest fear is treading the path of the bourgeoisie with all the mundaneness that it entails. She yearns for an intellectual life, somewhere on the higher plane, and one of the reasons why she is drawn to Robert is his scientific profession, a calling that fits in with her ideals of progress and prosperity (“She was thinking that knowing somebody who was doing research and making exciting discoveries was the next best thing to doing it oneself”). Katherine is impressed with the idea that Robert is writing a thesis, which she thinks could translate into something momentous, although Robert is vague about what he hopes to achieve.

She thought about progress and about Robert: about what she and Robert were going to do for progress – what she was going to help Robert to do for progress – and what progress was going to do for them. 

The two begin to see each other regularly and the first half of the book focuses more on their tentative courtship – evenings that Katherine spends in Robert’s room that creates a problem with Robert’s landlady later on, going for long walks around the city just so that they can continue having a conversation, a situation that almost leaves them miserable and frustrated. Despite Robert’s proposal of marriage, Katherine remains hesitant because she frets over being a burden on Robert and his ambitions.

Robert often contemplates ditching his job at the cosmetics firm for the prospect of something better, but on Katherine’s insistence hangs on. That strategy pays off and Robert is finally awarded a salary raise which coupled with royalties on one of his inventions signals a significant improvement in fortune. Finally, the two marry, their series of furtive meetings come to an end, and the couple soon transitions into a phase of comfortable living and a marked improvement in lifestyle. A bigger house and a car befitting their status, modern furniture, the wireless, and all other paraphernalia associated with a modern suburban existence – all bought on an installment basis – give the impression that the Thomases are finally achieving their dreams of being upwardly mobile after being hampered by limited means for so long.

Sadly though, that brief period of prosperity comes to an end when Robert is fired from his job. Suddenly hurled into depths of poverty, the couple is forced to scale down and shift to dingy lodgings that scream squalor; Robert trudges every day to the city desperately seeking any work that is to be found (even those unrelated to his skills), while Katherine is compelled to hunt for a teaching post again because they are barely making ends meet.

Kath was earning, Kath was keeping them; Complexion Solvent wasn’t bringing in much now, not more than a few shillings a week. Kath was out at eight and back at six, doing the work of the flat. The thought of it drove him out early – out when she was out – and sent him tramping the streets farther and more at random. He took to applying for labourers’ jobs, though he knew they went to men from the labour exchanges. He stood in queues for hours for jobs he knew he wouldn’t get and tramped along streets of small shops with his eyes dragging the windows for Wanted cards, Apply Within.

He knew he had to get a job, because of Kath. Kath couldn’t go on, he couldn’t go on letting Kath. He plodded along with his eyes on the windows, hair-cut and small tailors, Apprentice wanted, Smart Lad to learn. He knew there was a job somewhere, and he had to find it. He turned a corner and came face to face across the street with a slab of house-high hoardings, Bovo for Bonny Bairns, and a grinning crane-top in a gap between roofs. He knew suddenly with certainty that he would never get a job. 

Interwoven with Robert and Katherine’s lives and peppered throughout the novel are snippets of headlines depicting both national and international events; encompassing a period from the early 1920s to a couple of years before the advent of the Second World War, Robert and Katherine’s earlier relationship is placed in a wider context of astonishing technological advancements but also disturbing political developments. These were a tumultuous couple of decades where transatlantic flights, rising production, manufacturing marvels and rapid industrialization heralded an era of “progress, prosperity and peace” although this march of capitalism often displayed its darker side which Katherine rationalized as “the price of progress”, only to be followed by the Great Depression and the ominous rumblings of war.

Sensation flight R.101. Conquest of peace is imminent. Wall Street. Soviet plane completes first flight, Moscow – New York twelve thousand miles. In Italy, successful trial, six thousand horse-power bombing plane. Giant submarine is launched by France. Panic strikes New York stock market. Prosperity; no danger here. Bank rate is down by half cent. Huge figures in road fund report, increase in driving licences. Gas suicides; air suicide. First. Air crash, train crash, bus crash, planes crash. New race to come through gland control. Progress, prosperity and peace.

At the height of their poverty, Robert is often struck by the symbol of this endlessly grinding machine, a heartless system that just chugs along indifferent to the plight of individual lives; sometimes the system can pick you up, sometimes it will discard you and these dramatic changes in fate are as arbitrary as the random throw of the dice.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power reverberates with myriad themes – the extent to which individuals are governed by economic developments and political upheavals, the hard reality of capitalism with its benefits and pitfalls, the damaging consequences of poverty and the narrowness in perspective that comes along with it, the crippling shame of unemployment, the quest for finding purpose in life, class differences and so on. Often during their marriage, Robert wonders about his purpose – on one hand he is glad that things with Katherine seem to be on the mend, and yet there is a part of him that feels progressively empty. He is plagued by a nagging thought that his abandoned thesis might have given him a sense of self if not fame or money.

There wasn’t much the machine hadn’t had from him. He’d thought once it was the want of money that did it, but he had plenty of money now and it was just the same. There’d been a time when he used to believe in things, and in Kath, and in himself, and now he didn’t believe in anything. He’d dropped himself, somewhere, long ago.

The class differences come to the fore when Robert’s unemployment becomes an issue – he laments at not being entitled to a “dole” like the working class even if his plight is just as bad as theirs or even worse; a statement on the ruthlessness of a capitalist system.  

“Because theoretically, theoretically mind you, we belong to the capitalist class. Although I’ve been out of a job for over a year. And the family that gets one of those flats may be earning four or five pounds a week between them. Now it’s a very remarkable thing,” he said, the hot food expansive in him, “that not only would the Council indignantly deny us any right to benefit from the rates, but the fellow in the council house earning his four pounds still feels that we are better off than he is. Still resents us. Now why do you think that is?” 

But at the novel’s very core is a story of a marriage – a relationship that is strong when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, but whose mettle is severely tested when the going gets tough. It’s a searing depiction of a young couple’s dreams and ideals fading away in the relentless harshness of everyday life; an intense, unflinching gaze at how a debilitating experience can scar two people and subtly drive them apart at least when it comes to what they expect from life.

As far as the two main protagonists go, Robert comes across as more sympathetic than Katherine at least to this reader. During their long courtship and earlier days of marriage, both Robert and Katherine’s goals and aspirations seem similarly aligned and differences in their personalities do not matter much when they both wish for the same things. When they are plunged into poverty, however, this gulf only widens; Robert grapples with guilt and shame, longing for some sympathy from Katherine, while Katherine turns increasingly bitter, the sediment of resentment settled well within her as she openly and internally curses Robert. With Robert sinking into despondency, one can’t help but acknowledge that it is Katherine’s practical approach and single-mindedness that ultimately pulls them out of their hole, although the two are dramatically altered by that traumatic experience. Katherine is a complex woman and it is perhaps ironic that a woman who looked down upon the bourgeoisie and was also a tad condescending towards those who she perceived to be lower than her in status, finds herself pushed into even lower depths when the tide turns for the worse.

The placing of the personal against a broader economic and political landscape is what makes the novel so unique and remarkable; two realms that move in parallel, not always converging. It imparts a real-time quality to the story and accentuates how contemporary Trevelyan was, sharply aware of world events unfolding around her. Her hard-edged often gritty prose, her powers of perception, and her keen insights into human nature particularly in the way she captures the interiority of her characters, lend the narrative a psychological edge that is riveting and compelling.

In a nutshell, Two Thousand Million Man-Power is a dark but magnificent and powerful piece of writing that has only whetted my appetite for more of Trevelyan’s work. Highly recommended!


Grand Hotel – Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

I have a vague recollection of having read Grand Hotel in 2019. I say vague because I was a very distracted reader that year, it wasn’t a good one personally, and I may have started the novel but kept it aside, which is by no means a reflection on the book (it is brilliant), but rather on my state of mind. Hence, I was happy to see it featured as part of Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 readalong, it gave me the impetus to pick it up again. Long story short, I loved it very much.

In the earlier pages of Grand Hotel, one of the central characters in Baum’s brilliant ensemble cast – the ballet diva Grusinskaya – is in the midst of one of her intense dance performances. Grusinskaya’s halcyon days of fame and adulation seem to be a thing of the past; she is now older when measured against the standards of her profession and yet not an old woman, but she is sharply aware of her star fading and her inability to mesmerize audiences the way she did in her younger days. As her dance performance draws to a close, the applause has dwindled and reduced to mere politeness, the theatre seats are mostly vacant mirroring the emptiness in Grusinskaya’s soul and the series of encores that she was so accustomed to are no longer plentiful. Grusinskaya’s entourage remains fiercely loyal to her despite her waning career because of her frail and tragic personality that stops them from abandoning her. 

However, Grusinskaya’s creator, the author Vicki Baum, need not worry about a lukewarm response to her novel; in a virtuosic performance where she displays sheer mastery over characterization, Grand Hotel is a resounding triumph, in which by focusing the spotlight on five core characters from varied walks of life brought together by fate, she dwells on their internal dramas as well as their interactions; these are tragic, haunting characters grappling with their inner demons and insecurities while also wrestling with some of the bigger existential questions.

In the book’s opening pages, the lounge of the Grand Hotel becomes a stage for the audience (readers) to whom the various dramatis personae are introduced. We first meet Doctor Otternschlag, all alone and seated in a corner surveying the hectic scene before him, gripped by utter loneliness. Physically and mentally scarred by war (one half of his face is destroyed), Otternschlag often shuffles to the reception desk inquiring for letters addressed to him (mostly none), and the staff put up with this daily façade to humour him. Newspapers fail to assuage his loneliness in those twilight hours and his overall view of life seems to be coloured by despondency.

Shortly, into this lounge enters an elegant, stylishly dressed man, a whiff of the scent of lavender about him. This is none other than Baron Gaigern – handsome, easygoing, and utterly charming. Baron Gaigern exudes an aura of wealth and aristocracy, although the reality, as the reader soon learns, is entirely different. Gaigern is a light-footed thief but has failed to scale the heights of his dubious profession (he does climb the steep hotel walls to slip into Grusinskaya’s room) because of his casual but endearing nature. Gaigern is often short of cash and is now in cohort with a band of petty thieves, who entrust him with the job of stealing Grusinskaya’s pearls.

Next through the revolving doors (a metaphor for something more philosophical later on), the provincial man Kringelein makes an appearance. Attired in clothes that sharply indicate his limited means, Kringelein, an accountant at Saxona Cotton Company, looks incongruous amid the splendour of the hotel. But he has come to Grand Hotel as if on a mission – he demands a room, but based on his appearance the staff put him in one that is downright depressing, and in a fit of tears he throws a tantrum. Kringelein knows that his short-tempered boss Mr Preysing always enjoys a luxurious room in this particular hotel, which is Berlin’s finest and he painstakingly makes it clear that he wants something similar. Kringelein soon gets what he wants but not before Otternschlag watching this spectacle, offers him his equally dingy room. Although his offer is declined, it’s an act of kindness that means the world to Kringelein.

Then there’s Herr Preysing, General Manager of Saxona and Kringelein’s boss who terrorizes his subordinates back home but lacks confidence in handling business matters. Preysing is at the hotel on a tricky mission that involves deft and delicate maneuvering, but this is made all the more challenging by his incompetence and lack of respect from his peers as well as his father-in-law. Saxona is a large company, financially sound but faced with a floundering future, and is looking to acquire a smaller but nimble firm with exciting prospects called Chemnitz. However, with a breakdown in those talks, Preysing is charged with the responsibility of reigniting negotiations; a scenario where he feels completely out of depth. Preysing wishes he was somewhere else, safe in his domestic idyll with his wife Mulle and their daughters, rather than sticking with a difficult situation that only fuels his mounting dread.

Last but not least is Flämmchen, the coolest character in the book and my favourite. Flämmchen is smart and glamorous, armed with an ice-cool attitude and dollops of confidence. We first meet her as a typist hired for Preysing’s work related to the Chemnitz negotiations, but Flämmchen has bigger ambitions. She dreams of making it to the movies, but in the meantime is open to dabbling in an assortment of jobs that will earn her money till she gets her big break. Compared to the rest of the cast, Flämmchen has the smallest role in the novel, but in that short space, she leaves an indelible mark.

That is a brief sketch of the novel’s characters and Baum expertly weaves their storylines together into a rich tapestry that explores a slew of themes – love and friendship, crippling loneliness, suicide, thwarted ambition, failure, dashed hopes, the price of success, the value of life and so on.

Baum’s characters may be flawed but her characterization is flawless. Her creations come from different strata of society, mostly strangers to each other before their stay at the hotel. But once there, chance and circumstance see their lives begin to intertwine in unexpected ways. Despite differences in class and wealth, each is plagued with fear and insecurity that torments them within.

The core cast is looking for answers to some of life’s monumental questions related to love, life, success and money…quintessential and timeless topics that have always mattered to most of humanity. For instance, Grusinskaya has reveled in fame and experienced the intoxication of success, but with the heady days of her career seemingly behind her, she is besieged with dark thoughts. Love and companionship have always eluded her until there comes along her life-altering encounter with Gaigern.

The bed was turned down, and a pair of little bedroom slippers were by the bed. They were rather trodden down and shabby – the slippers of a woman who is accustomed to sleeping by herself. Gaigern, as he stood by the door, felt a fleeting, tender pity at the sight of these little tokens of resignation on the part of a famous and beautiful woman.

Gaigern with his insouciant personality has always been a ladies’ man having enjoyed his fair share of affairs, but in Grusinskaya he finally experiences the beginning of something more substantial. But Gaigern’s chief problem is a perpetual shortage of cash and barely making ends meet which strongly belies his outer demeanor of elegance and extravagance.

As soon as the charming Baron Gaigern had forsaken the Lounge it became suddenly still, and the illuminated fountain could be heard falling into its Venetian basin with a cool and gentle murmur. The reason was that the Lounge was now empty, the jazz band in the Tearoom had stopped playing, the music in the dining room had not yet begun, and the Viennese Trio in the Winter Garden was taking a break. The sudden stillness was broken only by the agitated and persistent hooting of cars as they passed the hotel entrance and were lost again in the nightlife of the city. Within, however, the Lounge was as still as if Baron Gaigern had taken the music, the noise, and the murmur of voices away with him.

Gaigern is the very personification of Life itself, a symbol of optimism and robust health at least to the beleaguered Kringelein who during that very period is staring down an abyss towards death. Suffering from poor health, the doctors have handed him a poor prognosis, and Kringelein is suddenly gripped by a feverish urgency to live the final days of his life to the fullest. But in what way? Having lived a considerably narrowed provincial existence until now, Kringelein craves adventures and a sense of well-being that only money can buy. The doctor’s morose company at first depresses him, but then he latches on to Gaigern (who has his designs) and is transformed by this odd alliance. While Kringelein desperately hangs on to the last days of his life, the traumatised Doctor Otternschlag often contemplates death. Even the least likeable character of the lot – Preysing – evokes some sympathy from the reader as he struggles in his business dealings, increasingly yearning for success but staring instead at failure.

Grand Hotel sizzles with a vivid sense of place; we are immediately transported to the milieu of 1920s Berlin of which this fashionable hotel forms the primary setting. In the beginning, the hotel itself feels like a place of wonder seen through Kringelein’s eyes…

He saw men in dress coats and dinner jackets, smart cosmopolitan men. Women with bare arms, in wonderful clothes, with jewelry and furs, beautiful, well-dressed women. He heard music in the distance. He smelled coffee, cigarettes, perfume, whiffs of asparagus from the dining room and the flowers that were displayed for sale on the flower stall. He felt the thick red carpet beneath his black leather boots, and this perhaps impressed him most of all. Kringelein slid the sole of his boot gingerly over its pile and blinked. The Lounge was brilliantly illuminated and the light was delightfully golden; also there were bright red-shaded lights against the walls and the jets of the fountain in the Venetian basin shone green. A waiter flitted by carrying a silver tray on which were wide shallow glasses with a little dark-gold cognac in each, and ice was floating in the cognac; but why, in Berlin’s best hotel, were the glasses not filled to the brim?

There’s a whiff of nostalgia, a sense of looking through sepia-tinted glasses at a faded past; Baum has brilliantly captured the quiet, understated yet sophisticated mood of a plush hotel, the musicality of its range of sounds and voices with the volume turned down.

Senf, feeling somewhat oppressed, made his way straight across the Lounge, where there was now a good deal of movement. There the music of the jazz band from the Tearoom encountered that of the violins from the Winter Garden, and mingled with the thin murmur of the illuminated fountain as it fell into its imitation Venetian basin, the ring of glasses on tables, the creaking of wicker chairs and, lastly, the soft rustle of the furs and silks in which women were moving to and fro.

One of my favourite set pieces takes place during afternoon tea at the hotel where the beats of the jazz band unleash a frenzy of dancing notably Charleston and tango; a set piece that also sees some drama brewing between Gaigern, Flämmchen, Kringelein and Preysing. Later on, we are given a whirlwind tour of Berlin’s vibrant nightlife seen through Kringelein’s eyes – a diet of fast cars, gambling clubs, sports arenas and drinking dens.

Like the effect of dappled sunlight with its interplay of light and shadows, Grand Hotel oscillates between moments of light and darkness that filter through the lives of its characters; we see them experience joy and exhilaration, even driven to acts of daredevilry that often alternate with periods of loneliness, depression, and frustration that weigh heavy on their hearts.

The writing in Grand Hotel is marvellous. The text is sprinkled with doses of humour and Baum has a striking way with words that captures the essence of her characters in a few sentences. The language is both tonal and visual – we can hear the tinkling of music and chatter in the tearooms, the sound of polite clapping in a theatre, we can see the blurred landscape through the window of a speeding car like Kringelein and taste iced champagne as he does in a cocktail bar. Baum’s descriptive powers also shine when she is writing about ballet, boxing or business. The set piece describing tense moments of Preysing’s crucial meeting with the Chemnitz owners is as riveting as the live boxing match that Kringelein attends along with Gaigern, the adrenaline coursing through his veins. She also beautifully evokes the atmosphere of jazz and tango teas that so epitomized the life of the jet-set crowd in 1920s Europe. Later some philosophical musings punctuate the text, the most striking one being the hotel’s “revolving doors” that in Doctor Otternschlag’s view serve as a metaphor for life and death.

In a nutshell, the drama that is life is full of its share of ups and downs; a dramatic reversal in fate whether for the good or the bad always a possibility. As the novel concludes, some characters meet a sad end but others gain a new perspective on the way they view the world and also derive joy from new friendships. It is this fusion of sadness and optimism that makes Grand Hotel a novel of pure perfection. I’ll leave you with this quote…

The experiences people have in a large hotel do not constitute entire human destinies, full and completed. They are fragments merely, scraps, pieces. The people behind its doors may be unimportant or remarkable individuals. People on the way up or people on the way down the ladder of life. Prosperity and disaster may be separated by no more than the thickness of a wall. The revolving door turns, and what happens between arrival and departure is not an integral whole. Perhaps there is no such thing as a whole, completed destiny in the world, but only approximations, beginnings that come to no conclusion or conclusions that have no beginnings.

The Twilight Zone – Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

I thoroughly enjoyed Nona Fernández’ Space Invaders, a book I read last year, but to me, The Twilight Zone, published by Daunt Books, is even better. This review is my contribution to February’s #ReadIndies hosted by Karen and Lizzy.

One of the striking aspects of Nona Fernández’s novels is how pop cultural references (video games and TV shows) form a unique kernel from which springs tales of the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship; haunting narratives of the mundane uncomfortably coexisting with pure evil. We saw this in her novella Space Invaders with a similar motif employed in The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone takes its name from the popular TV show of the same name – an American anthology television series created and presented by Rod Serling which ran from the late 1950s to the early 1960s and began with the following words…

“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”

Each episode focused on characters grappling with disturbing or unusual events; the show was a blend of science-fiction, fantasy and horror where the phrase “twilight zone” became a metaphor for strange and surreal experiences.

Using this motif and exploring “this dimension beyond that which is known to man”, Fernández delves into these unimaginable spaces of horror, violence and murkiness of the cruel Pinochet regime where beatings, torture and unexplained disappearances disturbingly became a part of the fabric of everyday life.

In March 1984, Andres Morales, a government security services agent, labeled by our narrator as “the man who tortured people” walks into the offices of the “Cauce” magazine and offers his testimony in exchange for safe passage outside the country. After years of imposing torture tactics on Pinochet’s detractors – members of the Communist party, resistance movements, and left-leaning individuals -something inside Morales snaps (“That night I started to dream of rats. Of dark rooms and rats”). Possibly aghast at the monstrosity of the crimes committed, Morales wishes to confess and in the process hopes to be absolved of those horrific acts.

When he first appears on the cover of the “Cauce” magazine, our narrator recalls being in her early teens with no knowledge whatsoever of the people captured and tortured, but the face of Morales stays impinged on her mind.

He didn’t seem like a monster or an evil giant, or some psychopath you had to run away from. He didn’t even look like the national police in boots, helmet, and shield who charged at us with batons during street protests. The man who tortured people could have been anybody. Even our teacher.

Years later, our narrator is working on the script of a documentary for her friends. This documentary is about the Vicariate of Solidarity, an agency of the Catholic Church “created in the midst of the dictatorship to assist victims.”

The film was a record of counter-intelligence work, carried out mostly by the agency’s lawyers and social workers. From testimonies and material collected for each case of forcible disappearance, detention, abduction, torture, and any other abuses they handled, they were able to put together a kind of panorama of repression. By obsessively studying this landscape, the Vicariate team tried to expose the sinister logic at work in the hope of getting a step ahead of the agents and saving lives.

As she sifts through interviews, recordings and other material to draft a coherent script, she once again comes face to face with the man who tortured people, this time on a videotape. As Morales begins to dole out specific information about the people who mysteriously disappeared, a grim landscape of torture and death emerges where the essential details of capture and torture remain the same, but the potency of fear and suspense evoked by these narratives never diminishes.

We first learn about José Weibel and the chain of events on the day he is mercilessly abducted by the man who tortured people. It’s an ordinary day like any other, a busy morning of routine that involves breakfast, getting the kids ready for school and stepping out for work. As the family travels on the bus that will take them to their respective destinations, suddenly and without warning this scene of routine and domestic idyll is transformed into a frightening spectacle of chaos and dread as Weibel is forcibly spirited away.

I wonder whether José took a mental snapshot of his family in that instant. I wonder whether he managed to catch a last glimpse of his wife and children from the car, freezing the protective image. My runaway sentimental imagination wants to believe that he did, and that the image helped him keep terror at bay in the grey realm where he was condemned to spend the last days of his life.

Weibel is not the only victim of this gruesome government machinery. There’s Contreras Maluje who throws himself under a bus because to him death is preferable to torture. He fails though and meets the same horrific fate as Weibel. We read about the Flores brothers – Boris, Lincoyán and Carol – a heartbreaking case where in exchange for the freedom of his brothers, Carol is forced to make a pact with the devil, he has now become a collaborator with the very set of people who were torturing him.

Over the course of the novel, as a series of names along with their stories are revealed, these narratives accumulate to give a wider framework of the atrocities of the regime and the all-pervading sense of distress and extreme anxiety that ordinary people had to grapple with in their daily lives (“Hearing the occasional gunshot wasn’t strange anymore, it was part of the new sounds, the new habits, part of the daily routine that established itself emphatically with no one daring to protest”); where frequent parallels are made between the secret workings of Pinochet’s regime and The Twilight Zone – that dark, murky, nebulous other world of horror and terror that is beyond the imagination of the ordinary man.

Enmeshed in these accounts and retellings, is the narrator’s personal storyline as she dwells on events across a time span that encompasses more than two decades, from her childhood years to her life now with her teenage son, her work, and the people in her orbit. When she goes back to the days of her youth, we are given a snapshot of Estrella Gonzalez, that mysterious girl, who formed such a haunting presence in Space Invaders. We once again hear about her letters with Maldonado, her Uncle Claudio and the red Chevy he drove, Estrella’s father who wore prosthetic hands after losing his hands in an accident, and Estrella’s sudden disappearance from school. We also learn that this particular aspect of our narrator’s history is just another jigsaw piece that when assembled with the other pieces offers a broader picture of the country’s shadowy past.

Providing a window to a particularly dark period in Chilean history, the core themes that reverberate throughout The Twilight Zone are – the legacy of violence, unspeakable crimes, torture and brutal repression. It’s an indictment of the distortion of reality and manufacture of lies, it’s about the quest to uncover the truth, to document history and prevent its erasure so that it serves as a reminder of a nation’s grim past as well as a warning of the dangers of regressing. But it is also among other things, a book about resistance and rebellion against a dictatorship that denies citizens their rights. It examines the complexity of human nature driven to extremes – the hunger to survive, the desire to rebel, and the need to absolve oneself of guilt. We see a couple of role reversals – the oppressed becoming the oppressor and vice versa (Carol Flores under extreme pressure is compelled to move to the darker side; Morales, unable to withstand the heavy burden of his acts and desperate for some modicum of salvation, is driven to turn against the enemy). The Twilight Zone is also about loss and the difficulty in coming to terms with it – the threat of losing your loved ones always a hair’s breadth away, the pursuit of answers as intense as the need to find closure.

Much of the book highlights crucial moral questions at play, and the fate of the man who tortured people is central to it – Should he be absolved of his crimes because he had a change of heart and now wants to do right? Could he have chosen not to be an agent of the government? Is an admission of guilt enough to compensate for countless lives lost? Perhaps the central question that the book addresses is this – Can you resist an oppressive regime?  And what are the consequences if you go down that path?

In terms of structure, The Twilight Zone is a brilliant, riveting assortment of various facets and vantage points – the testimony of the man who tortured people, accounts of those who interviewed him and charted his escape from Chile, a reflection on the country’s bloodied history often intertwined with cultural references of the time (space invaders, Billy Joel, Yuri Gagarin, etc) and the narrator’s imagination which forms a bulk of the narrative. The writing style has a reportage feel to it, but what elevates the book to the next level is the narrator’s vivid feats of imagination and her empathy as she tries to ascribe a human touch to these incidents which in their sameness are in the danger of being obliterated from memory.

I believe that evil is directly proportional to idiocy. I believe that the territory you roamed in anguish before you disappeared is ruled by idiots. It isn’t true that criminals are masterminds. It takes a vast amount of stupidity to assemble the parts of such grotesque, absurd, and cruel machinery. Pure brutality disguised as a master plan. Small people, with small minds, who don’t understand the abyss of the other. They lack the language or tools for it. Empathy and compassion require a clear mind. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, changing your skin, adopting a new face: these are all acts of genuine intelligence.

She attempts to understand what went on in the minds of these people in the moments before their capture, how they were violently pulled away from the comfort zone of routine and family life into an unthinkable dark void (“that ultimate portal of evil and stupidity”) in the split of a second. Because of this unique approach, these individuals and their stories come alive on the pages, they feel real rather than just another set of statistical casualties buried and forgotten.

Fernández’s incantatory, hypnotic writing style is a prominent feature in both Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone but takes on different avatars in each.  In Space Invaders, the hallucinatory prose is driven by a fragmentary montage of dreams, visions and memories. The prose in The Twilight Zone, in contrast, feels more like a documentary but it derives its power from increased emphasis and deliberate repetition. As our narrator focuses on recounting the stories of many of the victims, the reader is struck by how despite the sameness of the brutality involved (violent capture, torture and murder), the panic, tension and anxiety remain fresh and palpable each time.

In a nutshell, The Twilight Zone is a powerful, unforgettable book about loss, repression and rebellion where the premise of the TV show is used to brilliant effect – an exploration of that dark dimension where strangeness and terror rule the roost, and is often unfathomable.

This door we unlock with the key of the imagination. Behind it we find another dimension. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to enter a secret world of dreams and ideas. You’re about to enter the twilight zone.

Highly recommended!

A Month of Reading – January 2023

Well, 2023 has begun on a fabulous note, I read some stellar books this month; a mix of translated lit (from Iceland, Japan & Mexico), a collection of short stories, a contemporary novella, and a surreal feminist tale. I also enjoyed contributing to various reading challenges and readalongs, notably #NYRBWomen23, #JanuaryInJapan & #Japaneselitchallenge16, #NordicFINDS23 and A Year With William Trevor.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the six books…You can read the detailed reviews on each one by clicking on the title links.


In The English Understand Wool, our protagonist is Marguerite; a 17-year old young woman raised in Marrakech, her mother (Maman) has French roots, while the father is English. The phrase “mauvais ton” (loosely translated as ‘bad taste’) features regularly in Maman’s parlance who has strong opinions on the subject. Maman comes across as a conceited woman with superior standards, and she leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that the daughter becomes a connoisseur herself; a way of fine living that Marguerite perfects to the tee because she has known no other. And then quite out of the blue, a crucial piece of information is revealed carrying massive weight that throws a different light on Marguerite’s current circumstances. 

The English Understand Wool, then, is a wonderfully rendered tale brimming with all the hallmarks of DeWitt’s acerbic, deadpan prose. Right from the very beginning, her sardonic wit is on display whether she is commenting on the ludicrousness of Maman’s exacting ideals or poking fun at the way the publishing industry operates. It’s a very cleverly told tale of dubious morals where appearances can be deceptive; a highly original story that has only fuelled my appetite for more of Helen DeWitt’s work.

THE HEARING TRUMPET by Leonora Carrington

If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.

The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. Marian is not welcome in the house and with the aid of a hearing trumpet gifted to her by her charming loquacious friend Carmella, Marian’s learns of her family’s plot to park her in an old age home.

The old-age home is unlike anything she had imagined, and Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Just superb!

AFTER RAIN by William Trevor

Tender and exquisite, After Rain is a finely chiseled collection of twelve stories that is truly a joy to savour.  The first, ‘The Piano Tuner’s Wives’, is an achingly poignant, richly layered and sensitively written story about the passage of time on two marriages – two women married to the same man at different points in his life and the bitterness that engulfs the second wife who is unable to emerge from the shadow of the first; while ‘A Friendship’ is a fine, beautifully rendered tale of female friendship, marriage and an extra marital affair that threatens to ruin both. Child’s Play’ is a subtle story of the breakdown of a marriage and its repercussions seen through the eyes of the children involved; the titular story After Rain’ is a beautiful, melancholic tale of lost love and finding the strength to heal and carry on. 

Trevor focuses his unflinching lens on parents and children, friends and lovers, widows, husbands and wives as much as he does on petty thieves and confidence tricksters capturing their innermost turmoil beautifully.

SALKA VALKA by Haldór Laxness (tr. from Icelandic by Philip Roughton)

Salka Valka is a wondrous, 552-paged, ambitious novel; an immersive, brilliant, often harrowing tale of a beleaguered fishing community and the indomitable spirit of a woman who prides on her independence and strives to improve their lot.

In the opening pages of Salka Valka, a coastal steamer stops at the port of a small, remote fishing village called Oseyri. Nobody can envisage a life here, but on that cold, bleak winter’s night two figures emerge from the steamer – a woman called Sigurlina and her 11-year old daughter Salvor (Salka Valka). Sigurlina and Salka Valka have made this journey from the North, certain circumstances having driven them away, and while Reykjavik seems to be their final destination, Sigurlina, reduced to a state of penury, cannot afford the cost of the trip further. Oseyri, then, becomes her destination for the time being, she hopes to find a job that will help her make enough money to embark on the journey south. However, fate as we shall see has other plans…

Salka Valka is divided into four sections, each section comprising two parts – the first section focuses on Salka’s time in Oseyri as a teenager, and the second section fast forwards to several years when she is a young woman, independent with her own house and a share in a fishing boat. One of the core themes that the novel addresses is the ugly side of abject poverty and the struggles of the working class, and the second half particularly becomes more political as the debate between capitalism and Bolshevism reaches fever pitch. Epic in scope and ahead of its times, Salka Valka, then, is a simmering cauldron of various delectable ingredients – a coming-of-age tale, a statement on world politics, a strange beguiling love story, and an unforgettable female lead.

THE WAITING YEARS by Fumiko Enchi (tr. from Japanese by John Bester)

Set at the beginning of the Meiji era, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written, poignant tale of womanhood and forced subservience; a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family dictated by the whims of a wayward man.

Tomo, our protagonist, is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa, a publicly respected man holding a position very high up in the government ranks. In the very first chapter, she is sent to Tokyo to find a respectable young girl who will become her husband’s mistress, a terrible and heartbreaking task she is compelled to carry out. As far as themes go, The Waiting Years, then, is an acutely observed portrait of a marriage and a dysfunctional family, the heartrending sense of entrapment felt by its women who don’t have much agency, which is probably representative of Japanese society at that time. Enchi beautifully captures the internal turmoil that rages not just within Tomo but also within Suga, Yukitomo’s mistress. The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. 

PEDRO PÁRAMO by Juan Rulfo (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden)

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a hypnotic, fever dream of a novel of death, ghosts, visions, violence, and vengeance. In the opening pages, Juan Preciado makes a promise to his dying mother that he will make the journey to Comala to visit his father, Pedro Páramo, a man he has never met before. Complying with her dying wish (“Make him pay, Son, for all those years he put us out of his mind”), Preciado sets off for Comala (“you can see Comala, turning the earth white, and lighting it at night”); a town that both he and the reader soon realise is haunted by the dead.

Pedro Páramo is a novella about dashed hopes, twisted love and boundless tragedy, the fates of its characters inextricably linked to the senseless actions of a mercurial, brutal man. There’s a trancelike, hallucinatory quality to the storytelling that flits between past and present; it’s a book suffused with rich imagery that lends it much power.

That’s it for January. I have begun my February reading with Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel for #NYRBWomen23 as well as Nona Fernández’s The Twilight Zone for #ReadIndies and they have been terrific so far.

Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)

Born in 1918, Juan Rulfo was considered an esteemed figure in the world of Spanish literature, and his novella Pedro Páramo, particularly, appears to have influenced the writing of many authors including Gabriel García Márquez who provides an introduction for this Serpent’s Tail edition. That’s not surprising because I thought this was a remarkable book.

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a hypnotic, fever dream of a novel of death, ghosts, visions, violence, and vengeance.

It’s a tad difficult to articulate my thoughts on this novella, its vivid imagery is striking and still etched in my mind, but there’s a slippery feel to the story that’s hard to capture.

In the opening pages, Juan Preciado makes a promise to his dying mother that he will make the journey to Comala to visit his father, Pedro Páramo, a man he has never met before. Complying with her dying wish (“Make him pay, Son, for all those years he put us out of his mind”), Preciado sets off for Comala (“you can see Comala, turning the earth white, and lighting it at night”); a town that both he and the reader soon realise is haunted by the dead.

The Comala of the present is a ghost town – deserted, barren, almost dystopian (“In the shimmering sunlight the plain was a transparent lake dissolving in mists that veiled a grey horizon. Farther in the distance, a range of mountains. And farther still, faint remoteness”).

Most people that Preciado encounters are probably ghosts, a town where the dead outnumber the living with every likelihood that Pedro Páramo is dead too.

“What happens with these corpses that have been dead a long time is that when the damp reaches them they begin to stir. They wake up.”

As he traverses these empty streets craving for the company of real people but is instead assailed by sounds or voices, Preciado meets several people along the way, but alas, they are probably apparitions or a figment of his imagination; indeed, Preciado himself is tormented by dreams and illusions, overwhelmed by fears and sometimes claustrophobia. Frequent references are made to purgatory and hell; many of Comala’s dead have not been forgiven for their sins, the doors to heaven are forever closed.

Interspersed with the present are flashbacks to Comala’s past, a period that seems more grounded in reality simply because it was a robust town of the living then. And yet, it’s a tortured place, simmering with violence, and driven by revenge, where boundaries – both physical and personal – are often encroached not only by Pedro Páramo but also by his illegitimate son Miguel. The timeline of these dramatic forays into the past is non-linear, fragments that when pieced together give a broader picture of the doomed fate of the town and its inhabitants.

Various characters are fleshed out as the novella progresses. We are told about Lucas Páramo, Pedro’s father who died a gruesome death and had a low opinion of his son; we learn of Pedro Páramo’s indifference towards his wife Dolores (Juan Preciado’s mother) who abandons him to settle in another town and his yearnings for Susanna who leaves Comala with her dad at a very young age.

The day you went away I knew I would never see you again. You were stained red by the late afternoon sun, by the dusk filling the sky with blood.

To Pedro, Susanna is the love of his life, the woman he desperately wants. Thirty years later, Susana returns with her father since reports of armed rebellion compel the pair to leave their remote hut on the site of the abandoned La Andromeda mines and head for Comala. Pedro’s happiness knows no bounds, although hints emerge about Susana’s madness, the true nature of which becomes clearer later on, and forms the kernel of Pedro Páramo’s desire to wreak havoc (“And all of it was don Pedro’s doing, because of the turmoil of his soul”).

“Don’t you believe it. He loved her. I’m here to tell you that he never loved a woman like he loved that one. By the time they brought her to him, she was already suffering – maybe crazy. He loved her so much that after she died he spent the rest of his days slumped in a chair, staring down the road where they’d carried her to holy ground. He lost interest in everything. He let his lands lie fallow, and gave orders for the tools that worked it to be destroyed. Some say it was because he was worn out; others said it was despair. The one sure thing is that he threw everyone off his land and sat himself down in his chair to stare down that road.”

Pedro wields a considerable influence over Comala (“He is, I haven’t a doubt of it, unmitigated evil”), a town he rules through frequent recourse to violence, a warped legacy he passes on to Miguel, who unsurprisingly given his brash personality, meets an untimely death in a freak accident. Despite his longing for Susana, Pedro also seems to be a chronic womanizer having fathered many children; at the very beginning Preciado comes across a tone-deaf man called Abundio Martinez who informs him that “Pedro Páramo’s my father too.”

So potent is Pedro’s power in Comala that even the priest, Father Rentaria, is compelled to pardon Miguel at his funeral, even when he internally revolts at the idea (Miguel had killed his brother and raped his niece).

“I know you hated him, Father. And with reason. Rumour has it that your brother was murdered by my son, and you believe that your niece Ana was raped by him. Then there were his insults, and his lack of respect. Those are all reasons anyone could understand. But forget all that now, Father. Weigh him and forgive him, as perhaps God has forgiven him.”

He placed a handful of gold coins on the prie-dieu and to his feet: “Take this as a gift for your church.”

Tired, defeated and burdened by the knowledge that he had set in motion a chain of events that got out of control, Father Rentaria seeks salvation himself from a fellow priest, but is refused. Salvation is not always forthcoming to Comala’s people. Father Rentaria, on his part, refuses to pardon a destitute woman called Dorotea who confesses to having brought girls to Miguel, this is revealed to us in her conversation with Juan Preciado in their graves…

“I don’t know, Juan Preciado. After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded that I was happy just knowing where the ground was. Besides, I lost all interest after padre Rentaría told me I would never know glory. Or even see it from a distance… It was because of my sins, but he didn’t have to tell me that. Life is hard enough as it is. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that when you die you’ll be lifted off this mortal coil; but when they close one door to you and the only one left open is the door to Hell, you’re better off not being born. For me, Juan Preciado, heaven is right here.”

Pedro Páramo, then, is a novella about dashed hopes, twisted love and boundless tragedy, the fates of its characters inextricably linked to the senseless actions of a mercurial, brutal man. There’s a trancelike, hallucinatory quality to the storytelling that flits between past and present, where the boundaries between dreams and reality are often blurred. It’s an enthralling mood piece; prose that has a filmic texture to it, an amalgam of non-chronological snapshots patched together to form a rich reel of an ill-fated town. Not to mention the limpid, poetic sentences pulsating with haunting sensory images.

Green pastures. Watching the horizon rise and fall as the wind swirled through the wheat, an afternoon rippling with curling lines of rain. The colour of the earth, the smell of alfalfa and bread. A town that smelled like spilled honey…

Pedro Páramo is a vessel of collective voices and whispers as it effortlessly moves between the realms of the living and dead; the narrative switches between the first person in the present (Preciado is the narrator to be joined in the second half by Dorotea as the two begin conversing) and a third person point of view when the focus shifts to events of the past. Cinematic in scope, strange and unique, Pedro Páramo can be a disorienting experience in the beginning but then transforms into something magical as it coasts along. Highly recommended!