Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Book Review: The Pledge by Friederick Durrenmatt

The Pledge The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't often respond to adverts that pop up but I recently saw one for Puskin Press's Vertigo imprint which struck a chord. On checking it out I find it started in Fall 2015 to "publish crime classics from around the world, focussing on tour-de-force works written between 1920s and 1970s by international masters of the genre" This book was my first dip into that series.

Friederick Durrenmatt(1921 - 1990) was a Swiss playwriter and novelist. He was instrumental in the post WW2 revival of German theatre. He wrote detective novels. According to the notes in the book "he is famed for his philosophical crime thrillers, which draw comparisons to the works of Paul Auster and Umberto Eco for their post-modern questioning of the conventions of the genre" This one I noted had been made into a movie directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson (with that combination how come I missed it?)

But is The Pledge a detective novel? Yes and No. Yes, there is a murder, and yes there is a detective. It is constructed as a story within a short framing story. The narrator has been giving a talk on the art of writing detective novel which hasn't really gone that well, when he meets Dr H the former Chief of Police in the canton of Zurich, who offered to drive him back to Zurich. On that journey they stop at a run down gas station. There an old man sits on a bench, unkempt and smelling of absinthe while inside an old looking 16 year old serves the two men coffee. Dr H clearly knows them, he calls the girl by her name, Annemarie, an departs saying "Next time" to the old guy outside whose response is "I'll wait, I'll wait, he'll come, he'll come". Thus the story is set up for its telling by Dr H, as we readers are left wondering why Dr H made a point of stopping at this gas station.

The body of a very young girl, brutally stab, had been found in the forest by a travelling peddler, von Gunten. The peddler phones his detective acquaintance Mathai (at that time Dr H's first lieutenant) , because he is afraid he will be blamed as he has a previous conviction for relations with a 14 yr old minor. Matthai upon meeting the parents of the dead girl makes a pledge to find her murderer on his "eternal salvation". It is this pledge of the book's title that provides the core theme of the book. How far do you go to keep a promise? What rules do you break to do so?

Durrenmatt's detective novels are said to "reflect the absurdity of real life rather than proceeding liek mathematical equations with a definite solution" He disliked the logical playing out of the genre. The subtitle of The Pledge is "Requiem for the Detective Novel" . ***SPOILER ALERT *** Whilst the ending told by Dr H, provides a 'solution' to the murder, it comes from left field. Many readers will find this unsatisfactory. But it is meant to be an 'absurd' solution, and provides a comic, tragic story in and of itself.

The real skill in the book is how the author draws the spiralling disintegration of Mathai as he decays alons with his obsession to fulfill his promise. The 'absurb' solution is insult to injury both for the detective, and for the reader. The end is actually more disturbing than the unsolved crime would have been.

The tale and the framing story itself embody a critique about the predictability of the detective genre. Most definitely a genre busting thriller. I could not stop reading it. A great first dip into the Vertigo imprint. More will follow.

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Sunday, 21 June 2020

Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Japanese do love stories like calligraphy, delicate brush strokes full of meaning, subtle yet straightforward, simple yet complex.

In this novella, a single mother is sent by an Agency to housekeep for a "difficult" client, a Maths Professor who lives in a cottage in the garden of a larger home occupied by his sister in law, a widow. After a car accident he has only 80 minutes of memory cycle for events post that time. To aid him getting through the day he wears the same suit, studded with notes to help him remember things, like that she is his housekeeper and she has a young son, whom he has nicknamed Root. The three of them develop an unexpected friendship through a love of numbers, mathematics and baseball. Now I'm neither knowledgeable about mathematics or baseball, and that might bog some readers down but for me it didn't matter mucvh because what matters is that the writer conveys the Professor's passion about numbers and about his baseball idol Enatsu as a way of showing the man the Professor was but also still is, a passionate person who cares deeply about children and sees beauty in numbers and the evening sky.

The book is narrated by the unamed housekeep, looking back on her years with the Professor. How reliable a narrator is she? Well the book is her memories, one sided perhaps, but clearly full of tender affection for the man, and for the love, inspiration, attention and praise he showed her son, who ended up being a teacher. She of course does not know and so neither can we as readers what exactly the relationship between the Professor and his sister in law was leading up to the car crash, but we can hypothesis. From a practical point of view the idea of notes pinned to the Professor's suit is a bit unfit for the purpose of remembering, but serves another purpose - it makes him appear ridiculous at first sight, like a jester or fool which he is most clearly not, and as such serves to reflect how society often views and treats people with memory loss, dementia etc .

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Thursday, 18 June 2020

Book Review: You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann trans by Ross Benjamin

You Should Have Left You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to this book upon finding Daniel Kehlmann' s book Tyll Shortlisted in the International Booker Prize 2020. I read a bit of background on the author, whom I had not come across before, noted that his first translator of all but on eof his previous book had died, and this was his second book translated by his new translator Ross Benjamin|. To me it is always a good sign when an author and translator build up a report and are a constant pairing.  Tyll was till very expensive to buy and libraries are still closed due to the COVID crisis, so I took a look at their other collaboration and noted that it is due out as a movie for streaming release on 19th June ( as I write this that is tomorrow) starring Kevin Bacon and was available at a reduced price as ebook and via Audible. So I picked that up as a starter.

It is a really short book only 128 pages, 2hrs of listening.  The story is set in an Apline AirBnB being rented by a writer, his wife and 4 yr old child, while he is trying to write the sequel for his screenplay. The book is set over the days 2-7 December. He starts to expereince issues with the house which at first amount to getting lost within it which he puts down to it being unfaniliar and to his focus on his work. The work is not going well. He has no sense of where his characters are going and his producer is threatening to replace him as writer if he doesn't deliver on time. As readers we begin to realise there is stress within the family unit, although the writer is our narrator so in that sense we have only one side, therefore unreliable, but engaging and in my opinion well written. It is as if we are inside his head. His thoughts are jumbled moving from the reality of the family situation to his organically growing possible dialogs for the screenplay. Once you get used to these fleeting back and forth, I quickly found it very readable.  This really helps as the novel develops in  many ways like a classic haunted house story. We get the red flag warnings and with the narrator we experience the phenomena he experiences, first as bad dreams, again very plausible with a stressed out imagination at work and finding it hard to rest. There is most definite sense of creeping horror. There is a real sense of disorientation and doom which is lightened only by his relationship with his daughter which is beuatifully written, with some very real touches of an adults perspective on constantly praising a child and reading inane children's stories again and again.  This relationship is key part of the book.

I'm impressed by this small book, can't wait for the movie to see how the director handles this, and oh yes I can see Kevin Bacon playing this role. Mr B aced another role choice.  Not only does Kehlman blur the lines between reality and  imagination, SPOILER ALERT he blurs dimensionalites in lines between ghost story and space/time. He curves space and time within and around the house  in a way that adds to the panic the narrator and we readers feel. I loved the device he chose for this, a simple plastic triangular set square we will all remember using in geometry class at school.

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Monday, 27 January 2020

Review: The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures

The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu: The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures by Charlie English
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found I didn't like the way this book was laid out - alternating chapters on the history with those on the story of the book smugglers, I suspect that was because I knew much of the history from reading done prior to visiting there in 2005. But for anyone not aware of this then it is a reasonable broad sweep intro to the "myth" of Timbuktu and European fascination and exploration to the fabled city.

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