Tag Archives: war

Book review – The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

Love. Hope, Passion. Evil. Loss. Loneliness. Isolation. Displacement. Genocide. Survival.

Image result for the little red chairs

Edna O’Brien’s latest novel weaves all these disparate themes, and emotional extremes, into a story that will leave you gasping for air by the time you turn the final page. And shaking your head in disbelief at the evil man can perpetrate.

This is masterful prose from a gifted story-teller at the peak of her considerable powers, honed in 19 novels and much other garlanded literary output throughout her 86 years.

Image result for edna o'brien

The first part of The Little Red Chairs takes place in a small village in rural Ireland. A stranger arrives in this peaceful community. He is an enigmatic presence but a poet and a healer, who soon becomes an increasingly popular figure.

His name is on everybody’s lips, Dr Vlad this and Dr Vlad that. He has done wonders for people, women claiming to be rejuvenated, just after two treatments. It is tantamount to a miracle, what he has done for Hamish’s wife. 

Jack McBride is a good man, but much older than his wife. Fidelma longs for a child, to become a mother before that option is no longer available to her. She comes to know Vlad, but the consequences are a scene as shocking as I can remember reading in any work of fiction.

The second part of the story is told on a broader canvas, both geographically and in its themes. War. Genocide. The asylum process. Immigration. Revenge. These are communicated effectively by the writer, but I preferred the subtlety of quiet, brooding, parochial scenes in rural Ireland – and the difficult to endure, heart-piercing shock of the pivotal scene – to the more sweeping story that develops afterwards.

This book has been called Edna O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to read some of her other work to compare. But it is a fine novel, memorable and haunting.

Image result for the little red chairs

 

Book review – All Quiet on the Western Front

I like the adage less is more.

It’s usually true.

Translated from the original German novel Im Westen nichts Neues, Erich Maria Remarque distills all the horror of war into just 200 pages, in his remarkable  All Quiet on the Western Front.

Paul Bäumer and his school classmates are barely 18 when they’re persuaded by their teacher to fight for Germany in The Great War.

With spare language, Remarque describes the daily routine of their life on the front in France.

In some vivid set-pieces, Paul and his infantry company endure abject extremes: stabbing to death a French soldier who falls into Bäumer’s shell-hole; an infestation of rats in the trenches; a deadly gas attack; daily bombardments from heavy artillery.

But there are also some occasions of black humour that epitomise the camaraderie of those who know death is almost certain: a feast of piglets and white sauce, even as Bäumer and best friend Kat are under heavy fire; swimming naked across a river to meet some French girls, for fear of getting their uniforms wet; stealing a goose to wring its neck and provide a memorable meal for the starving soldiers.

But one by one, his friends fall. To shrapnel wounds. To direct mortar hits. To dysentery. Bleeding to death in no-mans’ land. Drowning in mud. Shot for desertion.

But amongst all this futllity and desolation, he still recognises the insatiable human lust for life.

I am very calm. Let the months come, and the years, they’ll take nothing more from me, they can take nothing more from me. I am so alone and devoid of of any hope that I can confront them without fear. Life, which carried me through these years, is still there in my hands and in my eyes. Whether or not I have mastered it, I do not know. But as long as life is there it will make its own way, whether my conscious self likes it or not.

All this in 200 pages.

Weniger ist mehr.

Book review – The Thread

The Thread is the first book I’ve read by Victoria Hislop, the best-selling author of The Island and The Return.

She is not a writer I would normally pick off the shelves, but our good friend Alex Overington passed The Thread our way after acquiring it during their recent trip to South Africa, and knowing that we are soon heading to Thessaloniki ourselves.

Gill and I are both Greek virgins, and are really excited about visiting Greece’s second city, in the north of the ancient country, and some of its surrounding landscapes, on a writing trip for those lovely people at Silver Travel Advisor.

My anticipation has only been heightened by reading this book, which offers up a fascinating insight into Thessaloniki’s multi-layered history and turbulent time throughout the 20th century. It also provides some stark parallels with the refugee crisis engulfing Europe today.

Occupying a strategically important location 520 km north of Athens, the port city is the capital of Greek Macedonia and played a central role in Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

After the Prologue, set in 2007 – where we meet ageing Dimitri and Katerina Komninos and their grandson – the story takes us back to 1917, and a very different Thessaloniki. Christians, Jews and Muslims happily co-exist in the ancient, labyrinthine streets. But a devastating fire rips through the city and changes its fabric – physical, religious and cultural – forever.

As part of the rebuilding process, Muslims are repatriated to Turkey and Asia Minor, from where more Christians replace them in Greece. Ringing any bells?

5 years later, rampaging Turkish soldiers attack Christians and force them from Asia Minor. A young Katerina Sarafoglou is separated from her mother, but rescued by Dimitri’s brother. A terrible refugee crisis ensues, with Katerina ending up in Thessaloniki with her new family, while her own mother and sister start a hard life near Athens.

Katerina is luckier. Her loving adoptive mother and sisters live in a poor but happy neighbourhood, next to the Jewish Moreno family. When she is old enough, Katerina works for them as a star seamstress and embroiderer.

But the Germans occupy the city in 1942, slowly stripping Thessaloniki of its supplies, pride…and ultimately, its remaining 50,000 Jewish population. After forcing the Morenos out of their business and home, they are transported to the death camps in Poland for the Final Solution.

The end of the war does not bring peace to Greece or to the city. Greek nationalists despise perceived collaborators, and Dimitri – an idealist – gets caught up with the Communists fighting the right wing government and army. He hides in the mountains of northern Greece, near the Albanian border, as his hated, opportunistic and greedy father Konstantinos becomes ever wealthier back in the city.

A vicious civil war follows, and then a devastating earthquake destroys more of the hard-pressed city.

The threads of the story, and its surviving characters, are pulled together in 2007, a time of relative peace and false affluence. But we know that the city and country are about to be engulfed in yet another crisis, following the global financial melt-down and the ensuing dilemma of bankrupt Greece’s place in the EU.

The Thread is a fascinating insight into Thessaloniki’s rich history and culture, and will undoubtedly enhance our own exploration of its streets, both ancient and modern.

But as a novel, I’m afraid I found the writing and the characterisations one-dimensional. Everyone is either a saint, a hero or a demon, and the plot plods from one historic event to the next, with little subtlety or shading.

As 1943 began, the city descended further into a state of famine. This took over as the main preoccupation of all those who lived in Thessaloniki.

The Moreno workshop was managing to retain all of its remaining employees (as well as Jacob, three others had died in the labour camp) but there was now little work. The Germans no longer came in for their suits and even the wealthier people of the city – “who must all be collaborators”, Kyria Moreno concluded – could not get the fabric for their new clothes. Konstantinos Komninos had put up the prices so much that only the very rich could afford to pay.

The star of the book is undoubtedly Thessaloniki, and I can’t wait to walk through its history.

Muslim madness

Gill and I went to Paris late in 2015, just two weeks after the so-called Islamic State terror squads had wreaked havoc there through a series of murderous attacks on soft civilian targets, one normal Friday evening.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

Now further atrocities have been committed in Brussels, by IS suicide bombers linked to the Paris attacks.

These incursions strike at the heart of Europe, developed western economies and non-Muslim religions. But two other unrelated attacks, since the Brussels outrage, have shocked me even more.

Asad Shah, a shopkeeper in the Shawlands area of Glasgow, was by all accounts a kindly man. He was also a Muslim.

Asad Shah

Last Thursday he was murdered outside his shop, shortly after posting a message to his customers on Facebook: “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.”

Tanveer Ahmed, 32, from Bradford in Yorkshire, was accused today of murdering Mr. Shah. Police Scotland had previously described the incident as a religiously prejudiced attack and said both men were Muslims.

The implication is clear: one Muslim took deep offence at another extending the hand of friendship to Christian friends during their own religious festival.

On Easter Sunday, in Pakistan’s Lahore, the city’s minority Christian community was celebrating at a funfair. Suicide bombers detonated their deadly loads and killed at least 72 people, including 29 children and many women.

Taliban splinter group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar said it carried out the attack against Christians celebrating Easter. Ironically, many Muslims were also killed.

It seems that the so-called Islamic State and its far-flung acolytes will not rest until all non-Muslim religions are eradicated.

I fear the war – for that is now what we face – is only just beginning.

Movie review – Disorder

Do you prefer certainty, or the unknown?

The Odeon’s admirable Screen Unseen concept is by definition a surprise. Although they do give some clues on Facebook and lots of clever cinephiles try to anticipate what the next Unseen movie might be.

So I toddled off to last night’s outing, fully expecting to see Hands of Stone, the story of boxer Roberto Duran, starring Robert de Niro as his legendary trainer, Ray Arcel.

The appearance of Disorder on the Censor’s certificate caused a ripple of unease amongst the audience, and within minutes quite a few had vacated their seats and were heading for the neon-lit exit door. Disappointed boxing fans, or perhaps sitting through a sub-titled French film on a cold Monday night was just too much effort?

Matthias Schoenaerts is Vincent, a muscular French army soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not knowing if he’ll be assigned to another mission, he’s persuaded to sign up for a private security job, a lavish party at the opulent estate of a shady Lebanese businessman.

For the first hour, the film is a taut thriller played out largely in Vincent’s head. Not helped by a cocktail of drugs, his mind and hearing are still on the battlefields, and he’s suffering from a paranoia that distorts his judgement. The soundtrack perfectly complements this mental mayhem.

Thereafter, it morphs into a fairly pedestrian – and confusing – home-invasion thriller.  Vincent is asked to stay on after the party, to look after the businessman’s wife – Diane Kruger as Jessie, looking like a dead ringer for Grace Kelly – and son Ali.

Vincent suspects that the Lebanese husband is an arms dealer who also has dubious links with the recently elected French Interior Minister. His suspicions are confirmed when the husband is arrested on a trip to Switzerland, the police protection outside the estate disappears, and masked men invade the house.

The developing relationship between Vincent and Jessie is the glue that binds the plot together, but the movie is a whole doesn’t quite work. In my humble, non-cinephile opinion.

But Matthias Schoenaerts is an undoubted star, and carries the film as far as it can go. He was outstanding as one of Bathsheba Everdene’s suitors in the recent version of Far from the Madding Crowd,  played a small but important part in The Danish Girl, and is undoubtedly destined for full-blown Hollywood stardom. Another famous Belgian for that favourite quiz question?

Disorder is being called Maryland for English-speaking audiences, and is released in the UK on 25th March.

I wonder what Hands of Stone will be like?

Paris – a city in mourning, but not in fear

Below is an article I have just had published on Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

————————————————————————————

We have just got back from a weekend in Paris.

We arrived 2 weeks after 130 people were killed in a series of devastating, barbarous attacks by Islamic State murder squads, and the day after President Hollande led the country in a moving tribute on a day of national remembrance for the victims.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

The security in Paris was heightened on my last visit there in March, just 2 months after the Charlie Hebdo murders. That was clearly targeted at the satirical magazine that had so overtly lampooned the Muslim religion. The recent 13th November attacks assaulted global sensibilities, however, as the victims were intentionally innocent people in a liberal western democracy enjoying a sporting, musical and culinary Friday night out in one of the world’s most vibrant, multicultural and liberated cities.

Our trip was booked a few weeks ago, to benefit from a free Eurostar ticket (thanks to a 5 hour wait at St Pancras after a “jumper” at Ashford on a previous trip). And also to enjoy a free night at the wonderful Great Northern Hotel, smack bang next to St Pancras & Kings Cross stations, after Gill experienced her own Poseidon Adventure in the shower, en route to Marseille in June (it’s a long story…….).

We could easily have cancelled this trip. Belgium remains in lock down, and France is still hunting those connected to the recent murderous attacks, who didn’t die for their violent cause or who weren’t subsequently captured.

But we still wanted to go, for all those reasons that appear trite on the page: to show support for our French neighbours; to uphold the principles of freedom v the bullet; to carry on normal life in the face of terrorist atrocities.

Paris seemed quiet on Saturday. The Eurostar train was only half full and it’s rumoured hotel bookings are down on usual levels by as much as 40%.

But we enjoyed an entertaining and insightful guided walk around Montmartre, with Pierre from the excellent Culturefish Tours, and a cosmopolitan group comprising Swedes, other Brits, Americans and a young Chinese girl living and working in San Francisco.

We learned that the hilltop community was outside the city until 1860, populated at that time largely by winemakers and by miners, excavating gypsum from deep mines under the “butte”. This output was used to make plaster for the city walls….et voila, plaster of Paris!

We strolled in the footsteps of Toulouse Lautrec and Picasso and Renoir, some of the many artists who populated bohemian Montmartre during the “belle epoque” period – from the late 19th century to the early 20th – after it was embraced as another city arondissement.

We heard the bewitching story of The Man Who Walked Through Walls, now trapped in a moving sculpture.

Statue of The Man Who Walked Through Walls

And we saw where Dalida – the exotic singer and dancer of Egyptian and Italian – lived, and whose many lovers all seemed to commit suicide, just as she eventually did. And on a lighter note, we saw the cafe and greengrocer’s shop made famous by Audrey Tautou in the joyously Parisian movie “Amelie”.

Amélie (2001) Poster

We enjoyed dinner at a typically French bistro, Le Louis on rue Coquilliere in the 2nd arrondissement. We luxuriated in a cheese-based Sunday brunch at l’Affineur Affine, tucked away on a quiet neighbourhood street in the 9th, and we gorged on cheap Thai street food at Monthai in the 3rd.

We walked miles, as you always must in Paris. We felt safe.

But on Sunday night and throughout Monday, we saw lengthy convoys of armed police, and heard sirens wailing, and helicopter rotors droning in the Parisian skies. The world’s leaders had arrived for the climate conference, and the city felt under siege again.

We struggled to keep our emotions in check as we read the hundreds of tributes draped around the statue in the Place de la Republique, and then saw those in front of the Bataclan night club, scene of the most murderous attack.

We returned on Eurostar, humbled but glad that we had spent the weekend in Paris, a city in mourning but not in fear.

Tearful tricolour graphic

 

Book review – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I can’t remember feeling quite so emotionally drained as I did late last night,  after reading the final few words of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Winner of the prestigious Man Booker prize in 2014, the Tasmanian writer’s novel is epic in scale, with a beauty of language describing an atrocity of actions that breaks the reader’s heart on almost every page.

Dorrigo Evans is the story’s main protagonist. He is at once both a good man and a bad man, and in Flanagan’s deft hands becomes one of contemporary literature’s most memorable characters.

As a young surgeon and officer, waiting in Adelaide to be called up to WWII, he has a chance meeting – in a dusty bookshop – with an alluring girl. He discovers Amy is the much younger wife of his uncle Keith, but that does not deter them from embarking on a torrid love affair that will haunt Dorrigo for the remainder of his complex life.

The core of the novel is the horror resulting from the Japanese Emperor’s grand project to build a railway from Burma to Siam, in an impossibly short time and in inhuman conditions, using forced labour from 60,000 allied POWs and more than 180,000 Asian civilians.

The subject of so many other graphic films and novels, Flanagan somehow elevates – or debases – the Death Railway story further, through a haunting combination of almost poetic language and characterisation.

Dorrigo – Big Fella – fights an unwinnable battle every day, with the Japanese POW camp officer Major Nakamura and with nature: his 1,000 charges – no longer soldiers, and barely still men – suffer from dysentery, malaria, beri-beri, malnutrition and myriad other diseases. The surgeon does what he can to delay inevitable death for them, but is still forced to choose those least sick to buckle to the Emperor’s impossible demands in building The Line.

The detail in the description of their deprivation is difficult at times to read, impossible always to understand.

In a makeshift operating theatre, Dorrigo does what he can to save the leg of one of his men. It’s already gangrenous and previously amputated, but he was frantically searching the muck of Jack’s stump with his fingers, trying to find something to stitch, pinching vaulting slime, groping pitching slop, there was nothing, nothing to stitch into, nothing that might hold the thread. The artery walls were wet blotting paper. There was, realised Dorrigo Evans, with a rising horror as the blood continued to pump out, as Jack Rainbow’s body went into a terrible series of violent fits, nothing he could do.

Other characters are fleshed out into whole human beings, even as they waste away to diseased skin and battered bone. We come to know and care about Wat Cooney, Jimmy Bigelow, Squizzy Taylor, Rooster MacNeice, Tiny Middleton , Bonox Baker and other lost souls, as much as their respected officer – Dorrigo, Big Fella.

But the author reserves his most devastating detail and horrific narrative for Darky Gardiner. Essentially a good man, Darky becomes a hapless victim of circumstance one day, and an unavoidable example of Japanese brutality, necessary as Nakamura sees it, to maintain discipline and impose the Emperor’s determination to finish The Line.

The novel extends way beyond that terrible 18 months on The Line, but inevitably Dorrigo’s life after the war is moulded by the horror endured in Burma. He marries Ella, his old fiancee, they have children, he becomes a distinguished surgeon, a public figure and a reckless philanderer. But he still thinks of Amy.

We follow Nakamura and his brutal Korean guard, The Goanna,  who rationalise their brutality, with differing outcomes.

We see how some of the other few surviving POWs deal with freedom, home and memories.

But most of all, we remember horror.

My father’s cousin’s husband – Fred Seiker – is 100 tomorrow. Fred survived a Japanese POW camp and, like one of Dorrigo’s men, sketched life in the camp, presumably also risking immediate death if discovered. His published images remain enduringly haunting, and we should never forget The Death Railway. I will certainly never forget The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

 

 

Book review – Waiting for Sunrise

I’m a real William Boyd fan, thanks to old colleague Steve Coles recommending him back in the 1980s.

The author is often described as a master storyteller, and Waiting for Sunrise is no exception.

Its hero, actor Lysander Rief, spends time in pre-WW1 Vienna undergoing pyscho-analysis for a sexual problem. His analyst, Dr Bensimon, talks about the benefits of parallelism, but it’s the bedroom antics of Hettie Bull, a gamine sexual manipulator, who solves Lysander’s problem quicker than the shrink.

The action moves to London, where our hero becomes a reluctant spy. Then to the trenches on the front line, neutral Geneva – where Lysander conjures up a nice line in torture, and back to London.

So all the usual Boyd ingredients are there….international locations, well-drawn characters, evocative descriptions and a labyrinthine plot. Another fast-paced, readable cracking yarn.

And yet, and yet, and yet….

Sorry, William. Something is missing. I can’t quite identify the gap, but a piece of the literary jigsaw is missing. I know….who am I to criticise one of the greatest living British writers.  But somehow the narrative strands don’t fit together as perfectly as they did in Restless, for example. And it feels to me as though the author is occasionally going through the literary motions.

An imperfect William Boyd book is still a rewarding way to spend a few hours of bookish time, but I hope the great man isn’t running out of steam just yet….

Theatre review – Lilies on the Land

Lilies on the Land – review for Essential Surrey website.

Rating: 4.5 of 5

The Electric Theatre

Book review – A Whole Life

The oft used adage less is more has never been more appropriate than when applied to this charming book:

I chose A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler as my first selection for Steve Dover’s West Surrey Book Club, not quite at random but certainly serendipitously. And because of my own affinity with mountains.

Its brief description on Amazon captivated me as completely as seeing the sun rise on a single mountain, clad in fresh overnight snow.

Andreas Egger lives a simple, hard existence through the first half of the 20th century in a remote valley high in the Austrian Alps. He is at one with his natural habitat, often sleeping on the grass outside his ramshackle hut….and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

He falls unexpectedly in love and – almost wordlessly – marries Marie. She, together with their unborn baby, dies in an avalanche. He leaves the valley only to fight on the Eastern Front in World War II, spending 8 years incarcerated in desolate conditions.

He returns home to continue working amongst his beloved mountains, helping to construct lifts for the burgeoning ski market. He stumbles into a late career as a mountain guide. He dies.

The book is a mere 149 pages. I read it in not much more than 2 hours. Its simplicity, honesty and beautiful prose captivated me from first to last.

As far as he knew, he had not burdened himself with any appreciable guilt, and he had never succumbed to the temptations of the world: to boozing, whoring and gluttony. He had built a house, had slept in countless beds, stables, on the back of trucks, and even a couple of nights in a Russian wooden crate. He had loved. And he had had an intimation of where love could lead. He had seen a couple of men walk on the Moon. He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.

Charlotte Collins has done a remarkable job translating Herr Seethaler’s original German text.

Read and enjoy A Whole Life….both what it says and how it’s said.