All Our Yesterdays – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

By sheer coincidence I’ve been reading books set during the Second World War that view events from the Italian perspective – Iris Origo’s two diaries, important pieces of work because they are a first-hand account that captures the immediacy of the events unfolding around her; and All Our Yesterdays, a work of fiction by Natalia Ginzburg also set during the same period but written in the years following the war. Both are simply brilliant. Ginzburg, especially, is turning out to be another favourite author and I’ve read and throughly enjoyed her books – Family Lexicon and The Dry Heart – in the past.

Set in a smaller town in Italy before and during the Second World War, Natalia Ginzburg’s All Our Yesterdays is simply wonderful; a big-hearted, bustling novel of family, friendships, politics, and war pitted against a backdrop of immense turbulence, and narrated in a style that captures Ginzburg’s customary dry wit.

Essentially a family saga, the book is divided into two sections. In Part One, Ginzburg focuses her gaze on an ensemble cast – two families living in a smaller town in Northern Italy. We are introduced to our protagonist Anna whose father, an ageing widower, is moody, temperamental, and a staunch anti-Fascist engrossed in composing his memoir most notably his harsh views on Fascism. Despite these big ambitions, the book is nowhere close to complete, and yet the father labours on. It’s the elder son Ippolito who bears the brunt of his father’s tyranny, forced to assist him with his writing and various other tasks. Yet Ippolito doesn’t outwardly complain; he suffers instead in silence.

Then there’s Ippolito’s sister Concettina, a young woman who has many men vying for her attention, of which one is Danilo – a man who stands by the gate of the house in a manner that disconcerts Signora Maria, their housekeeper. Concettina is a tad vain and frivolous, engaged in myriad fleeting affairs, and always in a sour mood. Rounding off the family are two of its youngest members – Guistino followed by Anna.

Much of the story then is told from Anna’s perspective although this is not a first-person account. Shy and reserved in nature, Anna’s very young age and reticent demeanour mean that she is hardly noticed in the house, but she notices various aspects of her family the significance of which she does not always comprehend.

Residing opposite them is another family – Mammina, the second wife of an old man, along with their two sons, the down-to-earth Emanuele, and the snobbish, uppity Guima. Their step-sister Amalia also lives there and frequently visiting them is a seemingly flighty man called Franz on whom Mammina has her designs. Franz, we later learn, is a Jew and deeply worried about the fate of his Jewish parents who have most likely perished in the Holocaust.

Once the fathers of both households die, the sons start taking an interest in politics, more specifically in anti-Fascist activities. Anna observes Ippolito and Emanuele having spirited, intense discussions furtively and they also bring Concettina’s suitor Danilo into their fold. But subsequently, Danilo is arrested, whipping up a frenzy in the family to burn all evidence and material pointing to their dissident activities in which Anna also takes part.

Ginzburg seamlessly places these family dynamics against a wider political backdrop – Fascism, the approaching rumblings of World War Two with the big question of the mode of Italy’s participation, and later on the horrors of the Holocaust.

While initially focusing their energies on devising the mechanics of a revolution that would overthrow Fascism, Ippolito, Emanuele and Danilo realise that an even bigger threat has entered the picture – Hitler and his frightening vision of Nazi Germany. As Germany steadily begins invading countries beginning with Poland and moving westwards, Emanuele et al are wracked with tension, and the fall of France is the final straw precipitating Ippolito’s descent into a crippling depression.

We are also introduced to the rather colourful character Cenzo Rena, an older friend of the family rumoured to be rich with his own house and estate in Italy’s rural south. Cenzo Rena’s sudden appearances are often chaotic, uprooting the rhythm of the house, but he livens up the household becoming a sort of mentor to Guistino who values his company.

Meanwhile, Anna is beset by troubles of her own that no one in the household is aware of. Her brief fling with Guima results in a pregnancy that she is at pains to terminate. Guima, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a coward with no inclination of assuming any responsibility and Anna is in despair. Unexpectedly for her, she finds herself confessing to Cenzo Rena who suggests that they marry so that she can keep the child. Thus, in a move that greatly bewilders Anna’s family, Cenzo Rena marries Anna and the couple moves to his house in the village of San Costanza which becomes the central focus of Part Two of the book. This section also gets much darker – we see Italy declaring war, the fall of Mussolini, the signing of the armistice followed by German occupation and all the chaos and terror that came with it. These developments in various ways affect the inhabitants of Cenzo Reno’s village too.

In Part Two, many of the characters who had a minor presence in the first part become central to the story, while the central figures in Part One get pushed to the periphery although never entirely forgotten. Thus, the spotlight shifts to Cenzo Rena and he becomes the axis around which much of the plot of Part Two revolves. Cenzo Rena goes through a gamut of emotions – boredom, anger, despair, fright, and remorse. He is tormented by the news of Jews being packed off in trains; he resists the idea of lodging refugees at his home because he hates people staying with him but later relents and willingly provides shelter to a slew of fugitives in his house cellar.

Thus, in All Our Yesterdays, through the lens of two families, we get a broader glimpse of a country at war – Italian civilians engulfed by tension, anxiety, and mounting uncertainty given the events unfolding around them and on the world stage. Amidst a continuous barrage of air raids and bombings, genocide and violence, the new normal way of life carries on in whatever way it can.

The essence of the themes covered includes the impact of war on society, the constant nerve-wracking tussle between the brutal reality of daily violence and trying to lead some semblance of a normal life despite it all, how the worldview shrinks to everyday existence coupled with an all-pervading sense of stasis.  But it is also a novel about family and relationships – individuals grappling with their insecurities on a personal level, struggling to adapt to larger events beyond their control, and the inability of members of the same family to communicate and connect during moments of immense upheavals particularly in their private lives. There’s a sense that Anna and her siblings despite living under the same roof in the first part of the novel essentially lead different lives, unaware of each other’s innermost thoughts or feelings. What’s more, as if the frightening global scale of war was not enough, the book’s characters, both major and minor, also have to contend with unexpected deaths, suicides, quarrels, boredom, anxiety, adultery, betrayals, and abandonment.

But what is truly astonishing about All Our Yesterdays is the sheer range of humanity on display – each of the characters is beautifully etched, they are endearing in different ways despite their flaws and foibles. We see the darkness of Ippolito’s depression, we get a taste of Anna’s loneliness when her marriage geographically separates her from her family, we are beguiled by Cenzo Rena’s eccentricity and we feel Guistino’s torment at the hopelessness of falling in love with a friend’s wife and his frustration at being abandoned by Cenzo Rena, a figure he revered. In those troubled times, we see the fortunes of these characters change dramatically, they drift apart fuelled by marriage and the men inevitably heading off to war, but these longer periods are also punctuated by brief moments of reunions. We also see many of them display considerable moral courage to the best of their abilities, striving to do the right thing even if it means endangering themselves in the process.

At present, when he happened to hear cries and lamentations from the contadini in the lanes, Cenzo Rena would go out and look, and it would be Germans searching the houses for young men to put on lorries and send off to work in Germany, and Cenzo Rena would start talking German and sometimes he had succeeded in getting the Germans away from the houses and telling them some kind of tall story to get them to leave people alone. It wasn’t much, Cenzo Rena said to Giuseppe, it wasn’t much but it was all he was able to do. 

The culmination of war brings great relief and joy to the surviving characters, normal life can finally resume but will it ever be the same? In the post-war world, some form of emptiness also gnaws at these survivors, who otherwise used to rebellions, revolutions, and political turmoil, must navigate a welcome but substantially altered and unknown era of peace.

But in a short time he would be giving up the newspaper and leaving Rome for good, because he did not know how to produce newspapers. He could produce secret newspapers but not newspapers that were not secret, producing secret newspapers was easy, oh, how easy and how splendid it was. But newspapers that had to come out every day with the rising of the sun, without any danger or fear, that was another story. You had to sit and grind away at a desk, without either danger or fear, and out came a lot of ignoble words and knew you perfectly well that they were ignoble and you hated yourself like hell for having written them but you didn’t cross them out because there was a hurry to get out the newspaper for which people were waiting. But it was incredible how fear and danger never produced ignoble words but always true ones, words that were torn from your very heart. 

Another singular feature of the novel is Ginzburg’s wry humour and deadpan wit as reflected in her striking prose style. The tone of the narrative is often light-hearted and funny that blunts the impact of the darkness at the heart of the novel and there is something unique about the portrayal of her characters, in how they come across as both comic and tragic at the same time.

And they laughed a little and were very friendly together; and they were pleased to be together, the three of them, thinking of all those who were dead, and of the long war and the sorrow and noise and confusion, and of the long, difficult life which they saw in front of them now, full of all the things they did not know how to do.

All Our Yesterdays, then, is another superb novel by Ginzburg; a seamless blend of the personal with the global, where the comparatively smaller dilemmas of families and relationships can be as debilitating and crushing to individuals as the bigger, large-scale dramas of politics, war and violence. Highly recommended!

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Winter Love – Han Suyin

I’ve slowly started collecting these gorgeous books released by McNally Editions, they are so beautifully produced, a pleasure to hold and read. Winter Love is the first title from their catalogue, and it’s a book I liked very much indeed.

Winter Love is a fascinating, elegantly written tale of doomed queer love, toxic relationships and self-destruction set in Britain at the end of the Second World War.

Our protagonist Brittany Jones (called ‘Red’ by her peers) is a young woman in her early 20s studying at Horsham Science College and living on bare means. The Second World War is on its last legs, but the ground reality in Britain remains stark, marked by food rations, poverty and decrepit boarding houses.

During her years at Horsham, as far as relationships are concerned, Red has always shown a preference for women, her latest interest being Louise Wells. But all that topples when she comes across Mara Daniels (“I knew it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen”).

There I stood with Daphne Meredith and Louise Wells, my chums. I’d known them both since school-days, and Louise said she was in love with me. But I walked away and stood by Mara, only of course I didn’t know her name.

In every aspect, Mara is unlike the other Horsham girls. She stands out by a mile. She is wealthy, dressed in well-cut clothes and exudes an aura of privilege, luxury and comfort. And to top it all, she is drop dead gorgeous. Red is instantly taken in by her much to the chagrin of the other girls.

Whereas Mara suggested…oh, so many things, envy-making things: warm beaches and cosmetics and music, and lots of clothes and no coupons, and eggs and tins from America, and French wines, and oh, so many things we were forgetting in the war or had never had.

We learn of Red’s traumatic background…Her mother abandons her father and runs off with a lover. The mother goes on to have a string of love affairs thereafter and Red has blurry memories of waking in desolate hotel rooms marked by scenes of her mother crying. Red has a soft spot for her father but once he remarries, her relationship with her step mother is pretty strained too. The only family relation who means anything to her is Aunt Muriel who decides to take on the responsibility of her care when Red was a child, and now every Christmas, Red travels to the countryside where Aunt Muriel resides to help her with the Christmas festivities.

Mara’s circumstances could not have been more different. She is a married woman living in an upscale apartment in London with her husband Karl. Given that she is well provided for, why she should choose to study in a university remains a mystery to the girls and Mara makes no attempt to dish out an explanation. Her casual attitude in class irritates their professor Eggie, and everyone is pretty sure that she is bound to fail in her exams. But Mara passes with flying colours much to everyone’s astonishment; an achievement that Red secretly revels in.

I couldn’t do anything but wait for Mara afterwards, wait for her by our locker, acquiescent, waiting, in acknowledgement of her strength: for in all of us there is this submission to someone who has earned our respect; the way the others made room for Mara, a scarcely perceptible hush in their voices even if they pretended to be unaware of her, proclaimed it too. She was somebody now. She had beaten us all, beaten back into us the ever-present, smug, pin-prick sadism towards someone different. She was different, but she was strong, and I was proud of her, even more than after the quiz.

Red is fascinated with Mara, more specifically her devil-may-care attitude and the two begin spending time together regularly. But it’s clear from the outset that this relationship is doomed.

Winter Love, in many ways, is a character study of both Red and Mara and how their significantly differing personalities and circumstances play a crucial role in disrupting their relationship. There’s no element of surprise here, we know that in the present Red is now married to Andy, a man who resided in the same boarding house as she did during her student days. Red is our narrator and her account of her short, troubled affair with Mara is a vivid memory from the past, a period forever etched in her memory, something that changed her life forever. But with sufficient years having passed since then and with the benefit of distance gained, Red can take a much more analytical view of what happened then, even if she doesn’t always have all the answers.

Only when my mind goes back to that London winter do I feel alive, instead of merely knowing as a fact that I live. In that closed memory do I count my heartbeats by the spirited blood’s surge, there once again I walk with Mara through the evening that is night, holding an electric torch in my hand, the blacked-out glass letting through a faint yellow ring at our feet, and I know what it is to love, to want to die for love. This is still so, and I’m a married woman with a child.

Red is a complex woman. She is extra careful about money, to the point of being a tad miserly, traits that to some extent can be attributed to her troubled childhood. But coming from her vantage point she fails to comprehend Mara’s extravagance. Red is tormented by her longing for Mara – she loves Mara passionately but at the same time, Mara’s docility and non-assertiveness fuels feelings of cruelty in Red. She is also prone to intense jealousy – Red can’t stand the idea of Mara living with her husband Karl but has no problem enjoying Karl’s money, enjoying as she does the comfort and richness of Mara’s luxurious married home.  A part of her wants Mara to abandon Karl and yet the other part doesn’t because she knows that the two can’t survive on Red’s income alone.

Meanwhile, I rather pigged it. I had to be careful with money, one never knew what might happen, and I saved about a third of my allowance because I might need it. The way Mara took taxis, bought books, went to expensive places…whatever she had was expensive. I thought with pleasure, though, that I had a rich friend. I did not know that she could walk out of money and comfort as easily as losing a handkerchief (and she was always losing handkerchiefs). She dazzled me a little, I had not been accustomed to this kind of spending.

In sharp contrast, Mara is careless, dreamy and not assertive when she is with Red. Attuned to being comfortably provided for, Mara is clueless about the harsh realities of life. She detests Karl, can’t bear the physical intimacy with him, and is besotted with Red. But she is not bothered and troubled by how she would get by financially if she were to leave Karl. It’s also very hard to pinpoint her personality. At the beginning of the book, Mara stands out in the crowd not only because of her good looks and money, but also because of her insouciance, an air of indifference that accentuates her superior demeanor – qualities that greatly attract Red. And yet, she hardly ever displays that same confidence with Red and does not fight back when the latter is cruel towards her. While Mara is easily swayed by people and their problems and ready to lend a helping hand wherever she can; Red is suspicious, resentful and would rather not get involved in other people’s lives, she prefers to remain detached and maintain a distance.

Winter Love is a tale of myriad themes – lesbian relationships, doomed love, obsession, self-destruction, class and privilege, how men and women perceive relationships, and the crippling impact of war on everyday living. The topic of class and privilege is exemplified by Mara and Red’s circumstances and personalities, the crucial indicator of how their relationship is bound to eventually play out.

Winter Love is also an indictment of the tenuous relationships between men and women, the discontent between them, how women at that time had to play along and pander to what the men wanted. Given how queer relationships were considered scandalous then, Red and Mara can’t openly proclaim their love for one another; they can be seen in public as friends but not as a couple. Hence, to keep up appearances and conform to societal expectations, they marry men but that experience leaves both deeply disillusioned. Red, particularly, is scathing in her perceptions of men…

What saps men always are, and so incredibly selfish with all their man-made ideas of what women think and how a woman ought to be happy just to be with them. And it isn’t quite true, it never is wholly true, women aren’t happy just being married and having kids and doing the housework, they want something else too. But we’re so unsure of ourselves, we’ve always been so dependent on men for their approval, we feel guilty if we’re not happy as they tell us we ought to be. How few of us really try to find out what we’re like, really, inside?

The book is set in 1944 during a deepened London winter (“It was bitterly cold all the time; and dark, the sun never there, round-the-clock glumness, dim to dark and back again”), that lends the novel its name. The depiction of wartime London is also spot on – the seedy boarding houses, food shortages and rations, air raids that disrupt normal civilian life fairly regularly, the sheer randomness of bombs falling from the sky.

The cover of Winter Love in this gorgeous McNally Editions paperback perfectly encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the book; it’s akin to watching a classic black-and-white film, sophisticated and dripping with understated elegance. Red and Mara are not particularly likeable, but they make for utterly compelling characters driven by their fears, uncertainties and complex motives. What also works is the stylish writing; the clipped, polished sentences that enhance the novel’s narrative pull. In a nutshell, Winter Love is a captivating rendition of thwarted love, a sensual evocation of an era that is firmly rooted in the past but pulsating with certain themes that resonate even today.

The Island – Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Ana María Matute’s The Island came to my attention in 2020 during the peak of the pandemic lockdown, when it was released with another title from the Penguin Modern Classics range – Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman. The Aleramo was great, and now I can say the same for Matute.

At a certain point in The Island, the protagonist, 14-year old Matia is on the veranda with her cousin Borja, smoking cigarettes in harmony. It’s a secret but frequent ritual for the two when sleep eludes them and the quietness of the hours when the household is in slumber seems the perfect time. At such moments of contemplation and quiet companionship, Matia listens to Borja reminiscing about his past with rapt attention, or the two grumble on the state of limbo they’ve been hurled into by the seemingly never ending war. For the most part, Matia is lost in her own thoughts (“I had formed another island belonging only to me”), reflecting on the cruel and alien world of adults, the sharp realization that both she and Borja were in no man’s land, that murky space between childhood and adulthood where they felt lost with no clear sense of identity.

What an alien race adults were, how strange were men and women. And how alien and absurd were we. What strangers to the world, to the passing of time. We were no longer children. But neither, suddenly, could we say what we were.

That sense of futility and lament against a ruthless, vindictive adult world is a refrain that will run throughout the novel. Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island, then, is a dark, brilliant, deeply atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the island of Mallorca where passions and tensions simmer, ready to erupt like lava from a volcano.

Matia, our narrator, is a wild, rebellious girl recently expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress. She is adrift – her mother is dead since she was a little girl, and she has vague memories of her father who is at the front fighting on the opposite side – with the Communists – a fact that distresses the grandmother. The father, subsequently, leaves her with his ageing housekeeper Mauricia, and Matia has happy memories of early childhood there despite the chaos of her upbringing. Once Mauricia falls ill though, the grandmother Dona Praxedes, a domineering woman, takes matters into her own hands and Matia is sent to live with her (“My grandmother had white hair rising in a wave over her forehead, which made her look irate”).

The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person. That intimidating personality extends to her dealings with people too including her family and those working for her. She is a sharp woman, forever perched on her chair by the window, focusing her gaze on the Slope where most of the island’s tenant farmers reside. Nothing misses her eye.

After lunch she would drag her rocking chair to the window of her private dining room (mist and gloom, the scorching, damp wind tearing itself open on the agaves or pushing the chestnut coloured leaves under the almond trees; swollen, leaden clouds blurring the green brightness of the sea) and from there, with her old jewel-encrusted opera glasses – the sapphires were false – she would inspect the white houses on the Slope…

Matia has company though, if not always welcome. There’s her cousin Borja, a sly character and a petty thief, and his timid, vacant mother (Aunt Emilia to Matia) who is patiently waiting for her husband Alvaro to return from war. Daily household chores are taken care of by the housekeeper Antonia; and her son Lauro (Borja’s nickname for him is Chinky), studying to become a priest, is employed to tutor both Borja and Matia. But cut off from the outside world, Matia and Borja are increasingly bored, fretful and biding their time, waiting for something the essence of which they can’t quite fathom.

And while we anxiously waited for news, which was always unsatisfactory (the war was barely six weeks old), the four of us – my grandmother, my aunt Emilia, my cousin Borja and myself – stewed in the heat, the boredom, the loneliness and the silence of that corner of the island, in the far-flung vanishing point that was my grandmother’s house.

Matia’s loneliness and alienation are heightened by her homesickness for Mauricia, her impression that she belongs nowhere, and her only source of comfort is her little black doll, Gorogo.

Our holidays were interrupted by a war that seemed eerily unreal, at once remote and immediate, perhaps more frightening for being invisible.

Things are further complicated by Matia and Borja’s love-hate relationship. As a teenager (15), Borja has a dubious, slimy personality with the ability to plot and connive and have his way even if it’s through blackmail (“He could be sweet and gentle when it suited him to be so in the company of certain adults. But never have I met a more pig-headed and deceitful traitor, nor a sadder little boy, than Borja”). Matia quickly discerns that he has some hold on Lauro, knowledge that gives him power to treat Lauro like dirt even under his tutelage.And yet, Matia, has no one else for company and readily tags along with Borja, even earning his respect and admiration for being expelled from school.

The island of Mallorca may be cut off from the Spanish mainland, but the ideological differences and deep fault lines are mirrored on the island even percolating down to the daily lives of its inhabitants. News from the outside, mostly about the war, filter into Matia’s world through morbid tales spun by Antonia (“They say they’re killing whole families over there, shooting priests and throwing people into vats of boiling oil”).

Indeed, violence is a permanent feature of the island fuelled by age-old prejudices that create deep fractures impossible to fill. The gang wars between Borja and Guiem alternate regularly with occasional periods of truce as fragile as water sliding off a duck’s back. These aren’t just vocal matches but involve rifles, meat hooks and other forms of ghastly weapons. But that’s nothing compared to the terror unleashed by the Taronji brothers, a couple of extreme right-wing fascists, whose death squads send waves of fear across the island leaving a behind a trail of destruction. The violence is also manifest in the treatment of minorities, particularly the Jewish community – the little Jewish square on the island is a grim reminder of the Inquisition’s persecution of the Jews, the echoes of which reverberate even in the present, accentuated by the gang wars and burning of bonfires.

Against this menacing landscape of war and violence, the lives of Borja and Matia play out. The pair smokes cigarettes in the deep of the night, they confide about their earlier lives steeped in nostalgia, and explore the island, its many nooks and crannies and secret hiding places, some of which can only be accessed by boat. It’s during one such expedition that Matia gets her first taste of real violence – on a beach cove, they come across a dead body riddled by bullets. The body belongs to José Taronji, a Jew, and thus, Matia comes face to face for the first time with Manuel, José’s son.

Because of their Jewish heritage, Manuel, his mother Malene and his two younger siblings are treated with contempt and disrespect, Malene mostly is dismissed as a ‘loose woman’. Manuel’s persona is mysterious, he is barely talkative, but there’s something good about him that’s a sharp contrast to the evil in Borja. It’s as if Borja is trying to get himself noticed by Manuel who remains indifferent, and yet as the novel progresses, Matia and Manuel strike up a friendship, the repercussions of which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Intertwined in their storyline and crucial to the plot, is the mystical figure of Jorge of Son Major, previous employer of José Taronji, who had donated some plot of land to Malene and José years earlier, and is now living as a recluse in his castle with his companion Sanamo, a guitarist. Borja idolizes Jorge which perplexes Matia, and things only get murkier when an inkling of some past friction between Jorge and their grandmother becomes palpable.

To see him, Jorge of Son Major, in his walled garden, wearing his threadbare blazer, taking refuge in memories ad dark roses, made me want to touch, drink in his memories, swallow down his sadness (‘thank you, thank you for your sadness’), take refuge in it so I could escape as he had done, submerge myself forever in that great glass of pink wine, to be filled up magically with his nostalgia.

The defining feature of The Island, though, is its vivid sense of place, an aura of otherworldliness all around (“The sun’s pink veil lay over everything, like a dream.”)

The sun was full and ripe that afternoon. We were entering a golden season of full-bodied light, shining read and mauve between the trees. A warm sun like vintage wine, which had to be sipped slowly so it wouldn’t go to our heads. We had entered the month of October.

 It’s a very hypnotic, evocative novel where the languid heat of the summer and the vibrant kaleidoscope of colours lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to a book that is awash with stunning descriptions – the grey sky “swollen like an infection”, the whitening stones of walls “like enormous rows of teeth”, the fringe of golden seashells at the water’s edge “shattering like bits of crockery”, sand that glints on Borja’s ankles “like tiny slivers of tin”, and so on.

The Monsignor was playing dreamily with an opaquely initialled goblet, and its bluish crystal was like the light when it rains, beautifully opalescent. On transparent nights he drank an orange liqueur, lucid as water, and on cloudy days he drank Pernod, because he said drinks bore a strong relation to the atmosphere or the colour of the sky. (At high noon, amontillado, and in the evening, solemn and translucent liqueurs.) When he said this my mouth and nose would fill with violent perfumes; I even felt a little dizzy.

Matute’s rendering of mood and atmosphere is superb – an air of menace and creeping dread pervades the island along with a sense of loss and deep lingering sadness.

The brightness was everywhere. It was so deep inside me that everything – the perished boats, the sand, the prickly pears, my own body – was submerged in painful depths of light. I could hear the sea, the waves that were on fire and would overwhelm me with thirst.

Friendship, betrayal, the pains of growing up (the transformation from a life of innocence and naiveté to one of knowledge, treachery and even cowardice), the crippling impact of an endless legacy of violence and hatred, the cruel role of fate and destiny, how our pasts can shape up our future with damaging consequences, are some of the core themes explored in The Island. In a nutshell, Matute has written a stunning novel where the power of its themes blends beautifully with the poetry of her prose, churning up a golden-hued heady cocktail that deliciously courses through the body and is unforgettable.

Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman (tr. Robert Chandler)

It took me two months to finish the epic Life and Fate but what an experience it was. The accolades showered upon it are fully deserved. The prospect of writing about the book daunted me, I was afraid I could never to do it justice. And yet, there was a part of me that nevertheless wanted to pen some thoughts, so here goes…

The story of how Life and Fate was published is as riveting as the novel itself.

Grossman began writing the novel when Stalin was still alive and the finished manuscript was submitted for publication around late 1960. However, the KGB raided his apartment and confiscated all his notebooks and manuscripts and even the various forms of copies. Miraculously, Grossman left two copies of the manuscripts with friends, a fact which escaped the notice of the KGB. Grossman was told that his novel will never see the light of day, which in some sense was true, because at the time he died in 1964, the novel was as yet unpublished. It was only a decade later, that his friend Lipkin, who was in possession of one of the surviving copies, put it onto a microfilm and with the help of Vladimir Voinovich smuggled it out of the country. It was published in the West in the 1980s.

Life and Fate is a truly extraordinary novel, with its sweeping views on Stalinist Russia, its political landscape during and after the historic Battle of Stalingrad explored through the story of the Shaposhnikov family.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE CHARACTERS

Lyudmila Shaposhnikova is married to Viktor Shtrum, a respected theoretical physicist. When the novel opens the couple, along with their daughter Nadya, is living in exile in the provincial town of Kazan. It is late 1942, the heart of World War Two, and the Germans are advancing over vast swathes of Russia. The battle is now poised at a crucial juncture and the city under spotlight is Stalingrad. Staying with the Shtrums in Kazan is Alexandra Shaposhnikova, Lyudmila’s mother.

We are also introduced to Viktor’s circle of friends and acquaintances, both personal and professional, in Kazan. There’s Sokolov, his good friend and also a mathematician at Viktor’s lab. Sokolov’s wife is Marya Ivanovna, Lyudmila’s friend. While Viktor’s work at the physics institute, their married life and their social circle form one thread of the novel, through Lyudmila we are introduced to another character and subplot – her former husband Abarchuk who is now imprisoned in a Russian labour camp.

Meanwhile, there is Lyudmila’s younger sister Yevgenia, resident of Kuibyshev and two of the subplots in the book revolve around the two men she loves – Novikov, her lover, commanding officer of a tank corps that will play a crucial role in the Russian victory in Stalingrad, and her former husband Krymov, a commissar in the Red Army and a staunch Party man, who is accused of being a traitor by the State.

Two more subplots center on more members of the Shaposhnikov family, – Lyudmila’s younger sister Marusya drowned in the Volga, but her husband Stepan is the director of the Stalingrad power station and resides there with his daughter Vera. Vera, meanwhile, is in a relationship with Viktorov, who is a jet fighter pilot, and the story of this fighter squadron of the Russian Air Force forms another subplot in the novel.

We are also introduced to a slew of characters and consequent story arcs – political prisoners in a German concentration camp, of which one chief character is Mostovsky an old Bolshevik who plots with his fellow prisoners to murder the Germans; Sofya Levinton, a Jew and a friend of the Shaposhnikovs in those normal days pre-war, who is now captured to be massacred along with her fellow Jews in gas chambers. And more…

EPIC BREADTH AND DEPTH OF THE NOVEL, MULTIFACETED VIEWPOINTS

The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages.  The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.

These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on.

It is these multiplicity of angles and viewpoints that give a broader idea of the definitive moment of World War Two history, what defined the political landscape of Russia at the time, how the Battle of Stalingrad united the Russians to fight against Fascism, and how at the same time they grappled with totalitarianism and terror unleashed by Stalin in their own country.

STORY OF A MARRIAGE

While Life and Fate excels in how it paints the macro picture of a country, it is also brilliant in the way it captures the stories of individual lives. One of those facets is the story of a marriage, the marriage of Viktor and Lyudmila. The couple has been married for many years, and Viktor has always shared his worries, his successes and biggest challenges with her, but the cracks are gradually beginning to show. The strain in the marriage is a culmination of resentments, miscommunication and secrets.

Viktor is Lyudmila’s second husband; her former husband Abarchuk is a political prisoner in a Siberian camp, while her only son from that marriage, Tolya, is away fighting at the front. Lyudmila has always resented Viktor’s mockery of Tolya and his unflattering attitude towards him, while Viktor has never really forgiven Lyudmila for not willing to let his mother stay with them (she subsequently perishes in the concentration camp, her fate is revealed to us in the earlier part of the novel through a heartbreaking letter written to Viktor). Meanwhile, Viktor is secretly in love with Sokolov’s wife Marya Ivanovna, feelings that cause him much anguish.

AN INDICTMENT OF TOTALITARIANISM

Chapter 50 is one of the most extraordinary chapters in the novel as it discusses the devastating, inhuman aspects of a totalitarian state, how it can set in motion horrific pogroms of mass murder, and how a man’s yearning for freedom is the ultimate force that can defeat it. One of the defining features of totalitarianism is its reliance on violence (“the extreme violence of totalitarian social systems proved able to paralyse the human spirit through whole continents.”)

This ideology of violence and control breeds an atmosphere of intense distrust, suspicion and extreme anxiety. At any given point of time, the basic human instinct is to survive. This drive for self-preservation induces a majority of the population to throw even loved ones under the bus if it means that they can stay alive. But that’s not enough.

How does a totalitarian state sponsor mass murders? It is fair to say that the ordinary human being is averse to committing murder, of killing human life. Yes, there are exceptions – murderers exist in most countries, even civilized democracies are havens of crime, but for humans, killing is not a natural instinct like it is for wild animals. How is it then that the Nazis were able to compel its people to wipe out a race? What motivates ordinary people, who were otherwise never inclined towards violence, to agree to perform such horrific acts?

A man who has placed his soul in the service of Fascism declares an evil and dangerous slavery to be the only true good. Rather than overtly renouncing human feelings, he declares the crime committed by Fascism to be the highest form of humanitarianism; he agrees to divide people up into the pure and worthy and the impure and unworthy.

The instinct for self-preservation is supported by the hypnotic power of world ideologies. These call people to carry out any sacrifice, to accept any means, in order to achieve the highest of ends; the future greatness of the motherland, world progress the future happiness of mankind, of a nation, of a class.

IS COMMUNISM ANY DIFFERENT FROM FASCISM?

For the Russian population, united in its intent to defeat the invading Germans, obliterating Fascism so that Communism can triumph was the one true goal of the Battle of Stalingrad. But Grossman questioned that thinking, which can be evinced by this conversation between Mostovsky, an Old Bolshevik imprisoned in a German concentration camp, and Liss who is an SS official and the camp’s administrator. Liss essentially implies that for all the fighting between Fascist Germany and Communist Russia, they are really the same sides of a coin; an insinuation that greatly unsettles Mostovsky.

“What is the reason for our enmity? That your banks and factories belong to the people? That you’re internationalists and we’re preachers of racial hatred? That we set things on fire and you extinguish the flames? That the world hates us – and that its hopes are centred on Stalingrad? Is that what you people say…? Nonsense! There is no divide. It’s just been dreamed up. In essence we are the same – both one-Party States. Our capitalists are not the masters. The State gives them their plan. The State takes their profit and all they produce. As their salary they keep six percent of the profit. Your State also outlines a plan and takes what is produced for itself. And the people you call masters – the workers – also receive a salary from your one-party State.”

VIKTOR’S MORAL DILEMMA

The moral dilemma that confronts Viktor as the novel progresses is one of the stellar features of the novel where Grossman brilliantly evokes the complexity of Viktor’s emotions, those moments of painful realization of how powerless he is against Stalin’s political machinery as he battles to stay true to himself.

There are various points in the novel where the immense burden of being a citizen of a totalitarian state emerges. For instance, when the Shaposhnikovs are in Kazan, a convivial evening gathering of friends paves the way for intense conversations and debate on art, books and the notion of freedom; an interchange of ideas otherwise forbidden under Stalin’s rule. On a certain level that evening weighs heavy on Viktor lest it be reported, but on the other hand, it is the vibrant energy of that very evening that brings to an end the stasis that has overwhelmed Viktor in his work – a physics problem he is desperately trying to solve but is utterly stuck. That evening releases a flow of ideas and opens up new ways of thinking and progressing in his work.

Armed with this success, Viktor expects an elevation in his status in the scientific community, but when the time comes to move back to Moscow, he is forced to contend that the reality is entirely different, much to his confusion. Viktor’s freethinking scientific ideas, attuned with those of eminent Western scientists, hold no weight in Moscow’s science circles, whose chief institute is bogged down by red tape, and run by political appointees having no flair or understanding of the intricacies of the subject.

Viktor refuses to bow down to these pressures and subsequently finds himself isolated not only from his work but also from his closest colleagues, who in an instinct for self-preservation (as outlined in Grossman’s views on totalitarianism) abandon him.

This conflict in Viktor is wonderfully conveyed. Should he stand up for his ideas or should he bow down to State pressure? A brilliant scientist like him should be focusing on his work, but many a time Viktor finds himself brooding over petty matters – how some of his colleagues have received more favours or have attended dinners for which Viktor has not received any invitation.

During a critical point in his life, he does stand up for his ideas, but its consequences are grave and he is beset by newer worries of everyday living. Stripped off his privileges, Viktor is tormented by financial concerns, of how he can provide for his family if there is no forthcoming income.

Strangely, it is during this period of isolation that Viktor finds some modicum of peace. If he has hit rock bottom, things can’t get worse, can they? At one point, the fears of an impending imprisonment loom large, but at the same time Viktor finds solace in his interactions with his closest family. At some moments the dawning realization that the end is near fills him with peace, at the other times he is wracked by the terror of being arrested.

ANTI-SEMITISM AND THE HORRORS OF HOLOCAUST

The pages devoted to the Holocaust are very difficult to read, as they are meant to be. The letter that Viktor’s mother writes to him from the Jewish ghetto is poignant highlighting the inhumane living conditions in the ghettoes, and how many of its people gradually become de-sensitized and resigned to their fate. But there are others for whom the flame of hope refuses to go out, the conviction that things will improve and resolve, however improbable, burn bright (“I’ve realized now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive.”)

Here are some more lines from her letter…

People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish – it’s just the way people are.

And then much later on, here is Grossman on anti-Semistism…

Anti-Semitism can take many forms – from a mocking, contemptuous ill-will to murderous pogroms.

Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved. It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems. Tell me what you accuse the Jews of – I’ll tell you what you’re guilty of.

During the darkest moments of his life in Moscow, Viktor is forced to confront the implications of his Jewish identity, how it holds greater weight in determining his future, much more than any of his scientific achievements.

THE MANY FACES OF HUMAN NATURE

The throbbing pulse of Life and Fate lies in its unwavering focus on humanity and generosity, its examination of the complexities of human nature, and its persistent moral questioning.

Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.

In terms of ideas, it focuses on the concepts of freedom, the fight between good and evil, the vitality of cultural discussions and so forth.

When the novel’s focus zooms on people, we glimpse the camaraderie between the Russian troops as they get ready for combat or when they already under heavy fire; the moments of kindness displayed by some ordinary Russians towards Germans even when their countries are at war.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.

We notice the angst of a mother losing her son in battle, heartbreaking scenes of the Holocaust where people cling on to irrational hope even in the throes of death, the gnawing despair of those wrongly arrested or stuck in labour camps, and how minds shrink and people slide into petty politics even when the nature of the problems they are confronted with is much more grave.

And last but not the least, Grossman is always holding forth his views on man’s eternal yearning for freedom that is hard to completely extinguish.

Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and the world-wide triumph of the dictatorial State is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian State id doomed.

TO CONCLUDE…

Life and Fate was a profound reading experience and Robert Chandler is to be commended for his stellar translation that has ensured a much wider readership for this wonderful book. In his fascinating introduction, Chandler points out how Viktor Shtrum, in many ways, is Grossman’s alter-ego. Grossman was not always a dissident, he gradually became one later, and that’s one of the themes of Life and Fate – the complexities of life under totalitarian rule, the inconsistent behaviour it produces, and how hard it is for an individual to withstand its pressure.

But an invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating…

Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment – with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.

Highly, highly recommended!

A Month of Reading – December 2021

I had a good December in terms of reading and managed to finish five books. I also started Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, most of which will definitely spill over to next month, so hopefully it’s a book that will feature in my January 2022 post. Anyway, of the five books this month, my favourites were Small Things Like These, Nightmare Alley and Suite for Barbara Loden.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…As usual, for detailed reviews on the first two books you can click on the links, while there are a couple of reviews I plan to put up in January.

SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE by Claire Keegan

Small Things Like These is a quiet, haunting, atmospheric tale that dwells on how kindness can make a difference in people’s lives and how having a purpose can instill a sense of meaning or fulfillment.

This novella is set in a small Irish town and the year is 1985. We are introduced to our protagonist Bill Furlong, a respected coal and timber merchant and a decent man. Bill’s business provides comfortably for him and his family, but the work is physically demanding. 

During one of his coal deliveries to the Convent, by chance he comes across a group of women working hard at scrubbing the floor, one of whom walks up to him and implores him to rescue her. The arrival of a nun restores the scene to what it was, but that one fleeting moment unsettles Bill greatly.

The developments at the Convent form the central story arc of this novella and are modeled on the horrific Magdalen laundries that sprung up in Ireland till the late 20th century.

Small Things Like These is a compact gem, a timely reminder of how simple gestures of kindness and empathy are crucial in communities, especially at a time when we live in an increasingly fraught and polarized world.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY by William Lindsay Gresham

This book had been languishing on my shelves for a while, and only came to my attention because of its recent film adaptation by Guillermo del Toro starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. The film has yet to be screened in my part of the world, but intrigued by the premise, I had to atleast read the book…

Nightmare Alley is a wild ride of a novel; a wonderful, dark slice of noir fiction with its mix of unique elements – carnival life, tarot cards, spiritualism, psychoanalysis – that make it compelling in its depiction of horror, pure evil and the randomness of fate.

The first chapter is striking where our protagonist Stan Carlisle, a magician at the carny show, is mesmerized by the geek in the enclosure, a man who has sunk to the lowest of depths, is akin to a beast biting the heads of chicken. Carlisle subsequently learns that he is a man-made geek, a drunk who can be manipulated by the lure of the bottle. Meanwhile, Stan, an ambitious man, wants to rake in moolah, and we subsequently follow his journey from his days at the carny to becoming a preacher and plunging headlong into full-blown spiritualism where he latches on to wealthy, gullible clients as prey. Until he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, a cold, calculating, ruthless woman in whom Stan finally meets his match.

Nightmare Alley brims with liberal use of slang language, the kind of expression natural in the carny world, and Gresham’s writing is a wonderful blend of gutter talk with the lyrical. It’s a terrific novel and highly recommended.

FATALE by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

Chaos runs supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim, stylish novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. We are introduced to the quintessential femme fatale, Aimee Joubert, a highly trained killer who has left a trail of bodies behind her, mostly of the wealthy and privileged set. Aimee is now on her way to a town called Bleville, particularly heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhoods. Once ensconced in that wealthy set, Aimee sets about putting her plan in motion of extracting money, but a baron with Marxist tendencies veers her from her path.

In terms of themes, Fatale, can be looked upon as a statement on the dark, dirty side of capitalism, and an indictment of status and class privileges. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing, atleast in the two noir books I’ve read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad.

NECKLACE/CHOKER by Jana Bodnárová (tr. Jonathan Gresty)

Necklace/Choker by Jana Bodnárová is among the first titles released from Seagull Books’ newly created Slovak List, one of the books I purchased from its recently concluded excellent Winter Sale.

It’s a book about memories, nostalgia for a way of life that has vanished, the debilitating impact of war on ordinary citizens, the power of art as a means of protest and how it can be snuffed out by totalitarian regimes.

When the book opens, we are introduced to Sara who has returned after a longtime to her hometown in Slovakia, to the bungalow which belonged to her father, the renowned painter Imro. Sara’s return is solely to wrap things up, hand over the bungalow to the municipal authorities to convert it into a museum. In this project, she is joined by her friend Iboja, a woman some years elder, and who lived across from Sara and her family when they were both children.

As Sara and Iboja spend an evening at the bungalow quaffing wine, relishing food and enjoying the beautiful night in the garden, they begin to reminisce about the past, about their parents and their own personal lives. In that sense, through their flashbacks, we are presented in a way a brief history of Slovakia right from the glorious pre-war days, to the terrifying life under the Nazis, the brutal impact of the World War to be followed by the cruelty of Soviet rule.

Through Sara, we learn about her father Imro, his Jewish heritage, his passion for painting, how Imro’s parents find it difficult to adapt to the harsh realities of Nazis and the war, followed by his marriage to Sara’s mother and the birth of Sara.

Through Iboja, we learn about her grandparents. How her grandfather ran Hotel Aurora, a classy, beautiful hotel filled with wealthy, stylish patrons, smoky jazz evenings, music, gaiety and laughter. How he and Imro’s father were good friends and his fondness for Imro. But the brutality of war and the massive scale of political upheavals take its toll on running the hotel, it becomes increasingly clear that things will never go back to what it was once.

Despite its ambitious scope, Necklace/Choker is a quiet, elegantly written novel. While I enjoyed it, I’m not sure it effectively conveyed the uniqueness of Slovakia, somehow I felt a sense of place was missing.

SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN by Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon)

Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden is part of a triptych of books that include Exposition and The White Dress. The book is based on the actress Barbara Loden and the only film she directed Wanda. Before embarking on the book, I decided to watch Wanda first and was pretty struck by its subject matter. Wanda is a woman completely adrift and rootless. She has abandoned her husband and kids, has been kicked out of her job at a sewing factory (she is too slow), and is now homeless and practically penniless. The only real thing she clings on too is her prized possession – a white handbag. As she aimlessly roams the streets of Pennsylvania, she runs into the robber Mr Dennis and for the rest of the film hangs on to him, even agreeing to become his accomplice in an attempted bank robbery.

Loden’s inspiration for the film came from a newspaper article she read which reported on the arrest and sentencing of a woman for being an accomplice in a failed bank robbery. Her partner having been shot at the scene of crime, this woman is pronounced guilty and actually expresses relief for being locked away, and this fact plants a seed of an idea in Loden’s mind.  

Meanwhile, Léger’s mandate from her editor is to prepare a short encyclopedic entry on Loden but Leger can’t bring herself to commit to such a narrow task. She desires to research deeply on Loden, on Wanda, on how bits of Loden’s life and Wanda’s circumstances are intertwined. It also explains why Loden cast herself as Wanda in the film, because, in many ways, she was Wanda.

Suite for Barbara Loden, then, is a hybrid book, a wonderful amalgam of film appreciation, biography and memoir. Indeed, just as the creation and filming of Wanda was part of Loden’s vision to express a part of herself, so is Suite for Barbara Loden a vehicle for Léger to examine her own motives which include her relationship with her mother who finds herself abandoned by an abusive husband. In short, this is a wonderful book on what drives us to make art, on being a woman, on relationships and the desire to be accepted.

That’s it for December. I had an excellent reading year and last week released My Best Books of 2021 with a total of 21 books. I loved them all and would heartily recommend them. Hoping for an equally amazing 2022 bookwise and everything else!