Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

Some years earlier, I was impressed by the two Manchette novels I had read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad. No reviews on both of them here, because it was in the pre-blog days, but given that quite a few of his books have been published recently, I felt it was time to pick up another one.

Chaos reigns supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. When the book opens, Aimée Joubert, quintessential femme fatale, has left a trail of bodies in her wake, mostly of people belonging to the wealthy and privileged set.

Aimée has a single-minded focus – when on a mission in any particular area, she gathers information on members of the elite society there and leverages it to extract money.

“Well, it’s the same as ever, isn’t it? It seems slow, but actually it is quite fast. Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes. You have seen other towns, my sweet, and you’ll see others, knock on wood.”

Aimée is now on her way to a town called Bléville (literally translated as Doughville). Like any other town or city, Bléville has within its folds all strata of society, but Aimée is not interested in the working class obviously, heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhood instead.

Once ensconced in a spacious apartment she finds with the help of moolah-loving realtor, Aimée begins to steadily move around in these upper circles and blend in with them. A series of dinners, openings, bridge games follow and Aimée attends them all, always the cool observer.

At one such opening at a mansion, Aimée spots Baron Jules pissing publicly against the walls of the house. The baron is not at all liked in the town, his reputation is tarnished. A notoriety for voicing frank opinions and a stint in a psychiatric hospital have blemished his image.

We are also introduced to a variety of characters Monsieurs Lorque and Lenverguez, owners of a food factory, and “the pillars of Bléville’s prosperity. There’s Monsieur Moutet, a senior manager at the factory. His wife Christiane Moutet along with Sonia Lorque team up with Aimée for a series of bridge sessions. And then there is Lenverguez’s wife who is carrying on an extramarital affair with Baron Jules.

Aimée, meanwhile, goes about her business in town, attending parties and get-togethers, gathering information on the residents and honing her physical fighting skills. The plot suddenly thickens when a series of fatal food poisonings pushes the town residents to the edge.

When the spotlight glares on the powerful Lorque and Lenverguez, all hell breaks loose and Aimée plans to take advantage of the chaos that ensues.

Aimée is a fascinating character. She is a highly trained killer with gorgeous looks, but romantic entanglements do not interest her. Her past is murky – we learn that she was married, but subsequently killed her husband for abusing her.

“It was a genuine revelation, you see,” said Aimee to the baron. “They can be killed. The real assholes can be killed.”

Her motives seem to be purely driven by money and she has no qualms killing her wealthy victims who have largely risen to the top riding on the waves of corruption and exploitation.

Baron Jules could be labelled as left wing as far as his views go. He hates the town residents with intense fervour and claims to know all about their darkest secrets, although he hasn’t yet revealed any of it. As far as the town is concerned, he is a loose cannon.

“You poor old fool,” said the factory owner. “Nobody dares say it to your face, but I’ll say it: You are not welcome here, you are not invited. You think you can do whatever you like because everyone in Bléville is afraid of you. Well, I’m not afraid of you.” Lorque glanced at the man with the mustache. “Commissioner, throw this man out!”

“I don’t give a fuck!” cried Baron Jules as he was hustled towards the door. “I’ll be back to piss all over the place.”

The commissioner and the servants threw him down the front steps. He rolled into the gutter. “I don’t give a fuck,” he cried once more. “You’re all done for.”

These are some striking, bold set pieces that dot the novel – signature Manchette stuff. For instance, right at the beginning when travelling in a luxury train compartment, Aimée, all alone in her cabin, gorges on pickled cabbage and champagne, strips naked and rubs all the banknotes against her body. It’s the only time we glimpse her taking pleasure in something, in sharp contrast to the cold efficiency she displays otherwise. Then there is the incident of Baron Jules deliberately peeing in public as a mark of scorn, a man who greatly unsettles Aimée and which will later have consequences.

In terms of themes, Fatale explores the dark side of capitalism, and is an indictment of the evils of status and class differences. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the noir is as black as it gets hurtling towards a conclusion that does not leave much room for hope. The madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing – I am particularly reminded of that striking supermarket set piece in The Mad and the Bad.

In a nutshell, Fatale, is another excellent novel from Manchette’s repertoire, well worth a read with a terrific NYRB Classics cover to boot.

The Promise – Damon Galgut

A decade ago, Damon Galgut captured my imagination when I devoured three of his novels in quick successionThe Good Doctor, The Impostor and In A Strange Room. All were excellent, but the latter two were even more so. His last offering Arctic Summer, while elegantly written, was somehow not in, the same league as his ‘holy trinity’ of novels, but an earlier novel, The Quarry, was quite interesting and a precursor to what Galgut was capable of writing. And now we have The Promise, released earlier this month, where Galgut is once again in top form.

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

The first section dwells on the funeral of Ma, or Rachel Swart, and is set in the 1980s at the height of apartheid. The Swarts own and live on a dilapidated farm deep in the countryside. Manie Swart, who heads the family, runs a reptile park, having recently found solace in religion. With Rachel’s death, Manie is left with their three children – the eldest is Anton, followed by Astrid, and then the youngest of the brood, Amor.

When the book opens, we are first introduced to Amor, who while at her boarding school is informed of her mother’s death.

The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground.

It’s a moment that feels unreal to her, and she follows through the motions, utterly dazed. Although her mother’s death was expected given the progress of her illness, Amor can’t quite come to terms with it.

It’s at Rachel’s funeral that the true colours of the Swart family start spilling out; their racist tendencies come to the fore. For instance, Manie Swart, his sister Tannie Marina and her husband Oom Ockie find it difficult to accept that Rachel has gone back to her original religion and has wished for a Jewish funeral.

It’s the usual topic, about how Ma has betrayed the whole family by changing her religion. Correction, by going back to her old religion. To being a Jew! Her aunt has been extremely vocal on this subject for the past half a year, ever since Ma fell ill, but what is Amor supposed to do about it? She’s just a child, she has no power, and anyway what’s so wrong about going back to your own religion if you want to?

The spotlight then zooms to Salome, the Swarts’ dedicated housemaid, who despite her many years of service as well as nursing Rachel in her final years, is hardly noticed by the rest of the Swarts and remains invisible.

To the Swarts, Salome is just a minor figure in the background. Yet, her future is the central premise of the novel, the essential moral core that rests on ‘the promise’ Rachel eked out from Manie in her last days. The promise pertains to Salome being given ownership of Lombard Place, the house where she has resided for a long time. It’s a promise that Manie refuses to acknowledge after Rachel’s death. That blank refusal shocks Amor, and it’s the first lesson that she learns regarding her family, they are well and truly lost.

Meanwhile, as the novel lurches forward in time, a picture of the Swart children begins to emerge. Anton, a soldier at the time of his mother’s funeral, deserts the Army, spends several years hiding, and only resurfaces when the political winds of change are blowing in the country – Mandela is elected PM and apartheid is abolished. Tormented by the fact that he shot a mother at the beginning of the book, Anton stares at a bleak future over the course of the novel as he gradually sinks deeper into debt and despair.

Every day since he left home has been imprinted on him as a visceral, primal endeavor and he doesn’t dwell on any of it, nothing to be savoured there. Survival isn’t instructive, just demeaning. The things he does recall with any clarity he tries not to, pushing them under the surface. Part of what you do to keep going.

You keep going because if you do there will eventually be an end. South Africa has changed, conscription stopped two years ago. Jesus, what he did by deserting the army, he’s a hero, not a criminal, amazing how fast that changed.

In sharp contrast, his younger sister Amor is quite an enigmatic, fascinating character, whose single-minded focus of giving Salome her rightful due is as powerful as the flash of lightning that strikes her at a young age. After the blatant disregard shown by her father towards her deceased mother’s wishes, Amor spends the next many years as far away from her family as possible. While she chooses to build a new life in Europe, she never really settles down, eschews meaningful relationships, as she restlessly flits from one city to another. Later, she finds her calling as a nurse working long hours in an AIDS hospital in Durban. Amor’s extreme form of selflessness is construed by her brother as her way of righting the wrongs of her morally wayward family.

Last but not the least is Astrid, the middle child, who settles for marriage and children, a destiny that fails to excite her and fills her with existential angst. Essentially frivolous and morally empty as the senior Swarts, Astrid resents Amor’s transformation into a beautiful woman, while her own looks begin to fade away.

Throughout the years, the siblings keep drifting away from each other, they barely keep in touch, and are only ever united during the four funerals.  Despite their fractured relationship, the one thing that binds Anton and Amor is their deep contempt for their family, which is tottering at the edge of ruin.

One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. This is primarily showcased in Salome’s treatment. During apartheid, the rights of blacks were severely restricted and they were not allowed to own property, a fact that the Swarts hold onto in their denial of fulfilling ‘the promise’. But with the dawn of a new era and dramatic shift in South Africa’s political landscape, the Swarts’ attitude towards Salome hardly undergoes a sea of change.

Amor, appearing half asleep, winds her way slowly upright to a single question. Um, what about Salome?

Excuse me?

Salome, who works at the farm.

Until this moment, everyone in the room has worn an almost stupid air. But now a tremor runs through the group, as if a tuning fork has been struck on the edge of the scene.

That old story, Astrid says. You’re still on that?

It was sorted out a long time ago, Tannie Marina says. We’re not going backwards now.

Amor shakes her head.  It wasn’t possible for Salome to own the land. But the laws have changed and now she can.

She can, Astrid says. But she’s not going to. Don’t be stupid.

South Africa may have embarked on a new path sprinting towards progress, but Salome’s status remains the same. On paper, apartheid has been dismantled, but this is not really reflected in the ground reality, the country’s evolution has been anything but smooth.

The Swarts are the epitome of this racist thinking, first brought to our notice when they fail to understand why Rachel had to go back to her Jewish roots. Seeds of racism are also sown in Astrid, who when cheating on her second husband, worries whether she has committed a sin, not because she is having an extra-marital affair but because she is having this affair with a black man.

We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption. Money permeates the motives of many, and even religion is not spared from its poisonous pull.

Money is what it’s all about. An abstraction that shapes your fate. Notes with numbers on them, each a cryptic IOU, not the real thing itself, but the numbers denote your power and there can never be enough.

This is apparent in how the Swart property is divided among the children and also in the way the local pastor wields his influence on the family, his greed for land ensuring that he extracts quite a bit from them eventually. Indeed, the tenuous relationship between the Swart family members is a symbol for the broader social and political fabric of South Africa struggling to hold its people together against a volatile backdrop.

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye. Indeed, Galgut’s unique narrative technique was on display in his brilliant book In A Strange Room, where he effortlessly switched between the first and the third person in the space of a paragraph. This is very much a trait in this novel too, but Galgut takes it to the next level. While In A Strange Room, the narration was from the author’s own point of view, here the narrative eye takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards.

She (Salome) shuffles off slowly around the koppie to her house, I mean the Lombard place…

The tone is as sharp as a knife and at times laced with subtle moments of black comedy. Galgut is wonderful as ever at creating an atmosphere of unease, as his characters, increasingly unmoored and unsteady, stumble towards their ominous fates. Powerful in its indictment of a country afflicted by racism and corruption, The Promise, then, is another winner from the Galgut oeuvre, and fully deserves being longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

Blast from the Past – Best Books of 2010

I started my blog in early March 2017 to discuss and write about books I had enjoyed reading. This has gradually evolved to become a very enjoyable activity as much as reading itself has been and will continue to be.

It also means there were several excellent books which I read pre-blog that I could not discuss unless I chose to re-read them. The problem is that I have so many books unread, it’s always a dilemma between re-reading a favourite or trying out something new.

Anyway, as I was deleting notes on an old phone, I came across some lists I had made – the best books I read every year.

The seed of an idea was born. Why not highlight these books on my blog?

This exercise was also a great reminder of some wonderful authors I had read and my resolve to seek out more of their works which somehow never came to fruition because there were always other books to tempt me.

I started making these lists from 2010, so that’s the year I will start with (the last of these being 2015, since the Best of 2016 was already the first ever post on this blog).

Also, I don’t intend to write a detailed view on any of these books. It is more of an attempt to bring them into focus once again and so the write-ups will be short.

So without much ado, here were my top reads in 2010…

Best of 2010

Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan

I loved this slim and stylish novella set in summer in the French Riviera. Cécile and her father Raymond are holidaying in the South of France on the coast. They lead a carefree, languorous and bohemian life – Cécile in particular is content to soak up the sun and laze with her boyfriend Cyril.

Until one day Anne arrives into their lives, eventually to become Raymond’s partner. Anne is cultured and intelligent and regards herself as a sort of godmother to Cécile. She tries to take Cécile under her wing, to compel her to stop seeing Cyril and get back to her schoolbooks, all of which agitates Cécile greatly and propels her to hatch a plan.

Haweswater – Sarah Hall

I love Sarah Hall. Haweswater was the first novel of hers that I read and I was blown away by it. The book is set in the beautiful Lakes District in England.

Here’s the blurb:

The village of Marsdale is a quiet corner of the world, cradled in a remote dale in England’s lovely Lake District. The rhythm of life in the deeply religious, sheltered community has not changed for centuries. But in 1936, when Waterworks representative Jack Ligget from industrial Manchester arrives with plans to build a new reservoir, he brings the much feared threat of impending change to this bucolic hamlet. 

Jack then begins a passionate affair with one of the residents of that village Janet Lightburn and it is in the depiction of this relationship where Sarah Hall has excelled. Her writing is so spiky, raw and visceral and it was unlike anything I had read at the time.

The Good Doctor – Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut was a find that year as I gulped down three novels in quick succession.

The Good Doctor is a taut, lean and compelling novel set in post-Apartheid South Africa that essentially focuses on two main characters – Frank Eloff and Laurence Waters, two doctors of different personalities and opposing perspectives, who are now thrown together in the same hospital and are also sharing a room. The novel charts the actions of these men as they respond to the challenges that they face in the hospital as well as in the community in their own ways, each with a varied view on what is moral or ethical.

The Impostor – Damon Galgut

The Impostor is another superb offering from Galgut and even better than The Good Doctor.

When Adam moves into an abandoned house on the dusty edge of the town, he is hoping to recover from the loss of his job and his home in the city. But then he meets Channing – a mysterious and shadowy figure from his past – along with Channing’s enigmatic wife.

Greed and corruption in South African society is at the centre of this novel. Galgut’s prose is top notch – spare, lyrical and absorbing. There is a sinister air that pervades the novel that is both unsettling and thrilling at the same time.

In A Strange Room – Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room is a completely different beast from both The Good Doctor and The Impostor but incredible in its own way. This is a more reflective and quiet novel which explores the themes of travel and relationships and what they entail – does travel give the much desired freedom or does it intensify feelings of loneliness?

The novel is told in three parts – the only link being the narrator who is Galgut himself. Besides the beautiful writing, what impressed me was the ease with which Galgut was able to move between first and third person in a single sentence. It’s a credit to the quality of his prose that instead of confusing the reader, this ploy actually enhanced the effect of what he wanted to convey.

Any Human Heart – William Boyd

This is a wonderful, ambitious novel by Boyd told in the form of diary entries of a single man’s life against a landscape spanning the twentieth century in many continents – the Bloomsbury set, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Americans in Paris, wartime espionage, and New York avant garde art. The central character is Logan Mountstuart and he chronicles his life from his early childhood in Montevideo, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, tracing his haphazard development as a writer.

We learn of his successes, his failures, his marriages and his alcoholism, with 20th century events serving as the backdrop and a richly etched supporting cast.

The Fall – Simon Mawer

I had loved Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier, and was therefore keen to try more of his work.

The Fall in set in Wales.  Jim Matthewson, one of the great climbers of the modern era, has died in one of his mountaineering expeditions. His old professional partner Rob Dewar attends the funeral and the inquest, and gradually begins a relationship with Jim’s wife Ruth. That’s the present. The novel then goes back to the past highlighting the lives of Rob and Jim’s parents, and the impact it will have on the younger generation.

While the splendor of nature and obsession with mountaineering are wonderfully evoked by Mawer, this is also a novel of friendship and family secrets, the crux of which is revealed in the final pages.

The Way We Live Now – Anthony Trollope

The first and the only Trollope I have read till now. This is one of his standalone works and not part of either the Barchester or the Palliser series.

This is a richly layered novel with many sub plots. But what impressed me at the time was how prescient the novel was. Trollope penned this inspired by the financial scandals of the 1870s. And I delved into it just when the crippling effects of global financial crisis of 2008-09 were still playing out. In essence, The Way We Live Now is a satire on the greed and corruption that seeped into the moral fabric of the society at the time. The most notable creation was Augustus Melmotte, a wealthy financier with a mysterious past.

Stone’s Fall – Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost was a favourite of mine many moons ago and Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall did not disappoint either.

This is an ambitious novel comprising three sections that move backwards from Edwardian London (early 1900s) to Paris in 1890 and finally to Venice in 1867, in search not only of the reasons for Stone’s death but of the man himself. Also, every section is told from a different point of view.

As I recall, of the three, the Paris and the Venice sections were the most absorbing for different reasons. The Paris story was peppered with enough tension and drama exploring the worlds of banking and financial management, as also wonderfully evoking the atmosphere of intellectual salons.

The Venice section was more melancholy but no less gripping. Here, Pears has superbly conjured the rot and decay of Venice – of not just its grand palazzos but also of its people. All of this ultimately culminates into a satisfying end to Stone’s saga.

Sacred Hunger – Barry Unsworth

Sacred Hunger was the joint winner of the Booker Prize along with The English Patient. But while the latter went on to garner accolades even to be made into an acclaimed film, Sacred Hunger comparatively sank into oblivion.

Here’s an excerpt of the book from Wikipedia:

The story is set in the mid-18th century and centres on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship employed in the triangular trade, a central trade route in the Atlantic slave trade. The two main characters are cousins Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant from Lancashire and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist who losing everything that he loves decides to go on the voyage. The novel’s central theme is greed, with the subject of slavery being a primary medium for exploring the issue. The story line has a very extensive cast of characters, some featuring in only one scene, others continually developed throughout the story, but most described in intricate detail.

This was a richly layered tale, which besides the themes of slavery and vengeance, also explored the topics of mutiny and setting up a utopian society.

And that’s it for 2010. Next month, I will highlight the best books I read in 2011.