The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Boll (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #64)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or, how violence develops and where it can lead by Heinrich Boll (1974, tr. Leila Vennewitz 1975) is a satire on anti-communist paranoia written in a reportage style. If that summary and the cumbersome title of the novel makes you feel like this:


Stick with me. Boll manages to convey the story with a fast pace and a light touch which means that the narrative carries you along and you don’t feel bludgeoned with polemic. He also undercuts the objectivity that his narrator is proclaiming, questioning the facts that are presented, even when we know what has happened – that Katarina Blum has shot and killed Totges, a journalist for a (fictional) newspaper Die Zeitung.

“Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood […] Totges was wearing  an improvised sheikh costume concocted from a rather worn sheet, and the effect of a lot of blood on a lot of white is well known; a pistol is then sure to act almost like  spray gun, and since in this instance the costume was made out of a large square of white cotton, modern painting or stage effects would seem to be more appropriate here than drainage. So be it. Those are the facts.”

How Katharina came to do such a thing is told from a variety of viewpoints, capturing the events of four days from when she meets Gotten, a bank robber and suspected radical at a party, to the time when she commits the murder. Die Zeitung spins its own story around events, outraged that one of their own has been killed. The newspaper reporting is comical:

“The pastor of Gemmelsbroich had the following to say: ‘I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.’”

Yet at the same time this is the crux of satire. The newspaper is able to spin such tales, eagerly gobbled up by its readers, without censure. The print media both perpetuates and exacerbates the tragedy, as the lies spun around the ‘Red’ Gotten and Scarlet Woman Katharina cause the hard-working, honest Katharina to become so desperate as to take a life.

Of course, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was written over 40 years ago so the reality it portrays is barely recognisable now. An irresponsible sensationalist press, whipping up public feeling, vilifying marginalised groups, passing judgement on female sexuality…nope, can’t think of a single contemporary parallel.


“Everything will be done to avoid further blockages and unnecessary buildups of tension. It will probably not be possible to avoid them entirely.”

Much as I enjoyed the novel and fancy admire the brilliant mind of Kris Kristofferson, I think I’ll be skipping this made-for-TV adaptation (cue 80s-tastic trailer):

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” (Maya Angelou)

This week’s post is about novels which build on the untold stories of other novels. This was prompted by last week’s post where I looked at the The Plague by Albert Camus. I mentioned that there were essentially no women in the book but I neglected to say that there is another significant group missing from this Algeria-set tale: Arabs. In The Plague, Camus makes reference to events depicted in The Outsider (L’Etranger):

 “Grand had personally witnessed an odd scene that took place at the tobacconist’s. An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case that had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach”

The Arab killed by Meursault in The Outsider is nameless. In The Meursault Investigation (2014, tr. John Cullen, 2015) Algerian writer Kamel Daoud has given him a name and expanded the events of The Outsider to show the fallout from the murder on the victim’s family.



“Well, the original guy was such a good storyteller, he managed to make
people forget his crime, whereas the other one was a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust – an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.”

Told by Harun, the victim’s brother, to a silent interlocutor in a bar, the story brings home the emotional fallout of a person – famous yet anonymous – being killed:

“My brother Musa was capable of parting the sea, and yet he died in insignificance, like a common bit player, on a beach that today has disappeared”

Yet it also questions why, in this touchstone of twentieth-century literature, those in the story and the readers of it do not interrogate what is depicted more:

“the court preferred judging a man who didn’t weep over his mother’s death to judging a man who killed an Arab”

The Meursault Investigation, despite its slim size (142 pages in my edition) is a hugely ambitious work. Obviously it is in conversation with The Outsider (from the outset with the opening line “Mama’s still alive today”, echoing Camus’s opener of “Mother died today”) but it is using this a starting point to explore issues around colonialism, post-colonialism, language (Daoud writes in French, not Arabic):

 “I’m going to take the stones from the old houses the colonists left behind, remove them one by one, and build my own house, my own language. The murderer’s words and expressions are my unclaimed goods. Besides, the country’s littered with words that don’t belong to anyone anymore. You see them on the facades of old stores, in yellowing books, on people’s faces, or transformed by the strange creole decolonisation produces.”

 Big themes, but Daoud explores them with a lightness of touch and a dry humour which stops it becoming unbearably heavy. Like Camus, he raises questions without offering trite answers. A worthy companion to the classic which inspired it.

 “I’m philosophising? Yes, yes I am. Your hero had a good understanding of that sort of thing; whether or not to commit murder is the only proper question for a philosopher, the only one he ought to ask. All the rest is chit chat. However, I’m only a man sitting in a bar. It’s the end of the day, the stars are coming out one by one, and the night has already given the sky a positively exhilarating depth.”

Both the books I’ve picked this week are quite serious, so let’s pause and spend some time with a drunk raconteur slightly less coherent than Harun:

Secondly, March by Geraldine Brooks (2006) the story of the missing father in Little Women, which won the Pulitzer. Prize-winning novels can be a mixed bag, and leave me feeling more than a little peevish*, wondering if the judges and I have even read the same book. Not in this instance, as March is both beautifully written and very readable.  But firstly, I need to get something off my chest. This is my edition:


That Richard and Judy Book Club sticker is permanent. PERMANENT. O monstrous disfigurement! Removable stickers are bad enough: they’re not really removable, they leave a sticky mess and no matter how much I scrub, even if the sticky bit goes, there’s always a weird, oleaginous*disc-shaped mark left on the cover. They never tell me anything I want to know – in this case, that I’m reading something recommended by Richard and Judy. Why, publishers? WHY? No-one wants this! NO-ONE.

*deep breath*

 Back to March, which gives voice to the absent father in Little Women, and the year he spends away from home fighting in the American Civil War. A man of strong convictions who sees his family’s poverty as part of a wider cause and follows a vegan diet meaning all his little women have to do the same, he begins the war with ideals challenged but intact:

“If war can ever be said to be just, then this war is so; it is action for a moral cause, with the most rigorous of intellectual underpinnings. And yet everywhere I turn, I see injustice done in the waging of it.”

Brooks does not pull her punches on these injustices; at times March was harsh reading. March reflects on his life and how he has come to be involved in the fighting, which includes a violent awakening to the horrors of slavery. Unsurprisingly, the horrors continue during the conflict and March has to take difficult decisions that challenge his beliefs not only in social justice and moral causes, but in who he is as a man. At the same time, the portrait of Marmee is extended and complicated beyond the source novel. She is angry:

“I only let him do to me what men have ever done to women: march off to empty glory and hollow acclaim and leave us behind to pick up the pieces. The broken cities, the burned barns, the innocent injured beasts, the ruined bodies of the boys we bore and the men we lay with.”

Although Brooks doesn’t dwell on this, there is also the suggestion that Marmee is racist. Despite participating in the underground railway and supporting emancipation, when she arrives in Washington to see her husband and encounters free black people, she wonders: “are there no end to these people?” A bold move by Brooks, but one that results in flawed, complex characters who are wholly believable.

March is a sad book, but not depressing. Ultimately it is about endurance, against the odds, and how we hold together even when feeling utterly broken. Like Little Women, it is also about family, whether they are physically with us or not:

 “One day I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was…that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was he was meant to do”

To end, what my own family sadly lacks is a catchy theme tune:

* Following last week’s post comments: today’s blog post was brought to you by the words peevish and oleaginous, thanks to Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest 🙂

“The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.” (Humphrey Bogart)

This post is my contribution to the 1947 Club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book, do check out their blogs and join in!


Firstly, In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes, which I was inspired to pick up after reading Jacqui’s excellent review. Dix Steele is a war veteran who has recently moved to LA. He runs into one of his army buddies, Brub, who updates Dix on his career choice since the army:

“He came sharply into focus. The word had been a cold spear deliberately thrust into his brain. He heard his voice speak the cold, hard word. ‘Policeman?’ But they didn’t notice anything. They thought him surprised, as he was, more than surprised, startled and shocked.”

Why the problem with Brub being a policeman? Brub is investigating a strangler who is terrorising the young women of the city. Dix is intrigued by this and carefully questions his friend on the investigation, gleaning as much information as he dare. The third-person narration is from Dix’s point of view and we are privy to his disturbing thoughts, including his attitude to the strangler’s latest victim:

“The only exciting thing that had ever happened to her was to be raped and murdered. Even then she’d only been subbing for someone else.”

It emerges then, that Dix is a deeply disturbed human being.  He is filled with anger, and feels alienated from the rich society of LA (although he is staying in a stylish apartment loaned from a friend, whose car, clothes and accounts he has also appropriated) and from the marital happiness he sees between Brub and his wife, although he is dating a beautiful actress, Laurel Gray:

“To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.”

In a Lonely Place works well as thriller, it is tightly written and the narrative tension is maintained. However, like Highsmith’s Ripley novels, it also works extremely well as a character study of a complex human being. Dix is not likeable, but at the same time he is damaged and lonely, unable to see a way out of his desperation.

“He was there for a long time. Lost in a world of swirling fog and crashing wave, a world empty of all but these things and his grief and the keening of the fog horn at sea. Lost in a lonely place. And the red knots tightened in his brain.”

I thought I knew the story as I had studied the 1950 film at university, but in fact the film is very different. It is a wonderful film noir, and because of the significant plot changes, it doesn’t matter which you experience first. I recommend both the book and the film of In a Lonely Place:

Secondly The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus, which I read in the English translation by Stuart Gilbert (1948). Set in the Algerian coastal city of Oran, it is one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. The story begins with the rats of the city gruesomely dying in abundance.

“It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humours – thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core”

Yuck,yuck,yuck. Told by a narrator who doesn’t identify himself (there are no women in this tale) until the end, The Plague recounts the experience of Dr Rieux who works treating the victims; Grand, who works on his novel but never gets beyond constantly re-writing the first line; Cottard, who is suicidal before the plague but reinvigorated by the outbreak; Rambert who was only visiting Oran for work but now finds himself trapped, and a handful of other citizens. The Plague is told in a deceptively simple style, and captures the oppressive atmosphere of a town trapped in quarantine, where you might die at any moment:

“Thus, in a middle course between these heights and depths, they drifted through life rather than lived, the prey of aimless days and sterile memories, like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.”

Amongst this desperation there is also surprising humour (Camus was associated with absurdism):

“One of the cafes had the brilliant idea of putting up a slogan: ‘The best protection against infection is a bottle of good wine’, which confirmed an already prevalent opinion that alcohol is a safeguard against infectious disease.”

And with regard to the officials of the town:

“That, in fact, was what struck one most – the excellence of their intentions. But as regards plague their competence was practically nil.”

Yet of course this was written by one of the foremost philosophers of the twentieth century, and so there is more to this tale than the plague in Oran. It has been read as an allegory for French resistance to Nazism but it is wider than any one reading.

“What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men rise above themselves. All the same, when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.”

While they don’t give in, the reactions to the plague by the characters are various but also oddly subdued – there is very little panic or revolt. The desperation is quiet but Camus shows the tragedy of this as life goes on under the shadow of an indiscriminate threat: “the habit of despair is worse than despair itself”.

The Plague is a remarkable novel, straightforward yet complex, that would lend itself to repeated re-readings, and which is both bleak yet hopeful. Thus when Camus writes:

 “each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth, is free from it”

He is pointing out the common humanity which unites as well as the plague of existence.

I don’t want to end a blog post with the phrase ‘plague of existence’ so instead I’ll end it with the phrase chuckles of stardust.

… and a song written in 1947 (this performance from 1962) which suggests it’s all OK really:

“An artist is someone who should raise questions rather than give answers. I have no message.” (Michael Haneke)

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK and the theme is Messages. I fully endorse this choice, primarily because I didn’t have to think twice about which retro pop video I could shoehorn into this post:

Arguably any poem is a message, but I’m lazy don’t believe in shying away from the obvious so I’ve chosen two poems that are titled as messages. Nothing kills a poem like analysing it to death, hence not one of my typically waffling posts this week🙂

Firstly, back to the 8th century and prolific poet Wang Wei (I’m not sure who translated the poem, but I took the version from here). I chose it because it also references autumn, which is apt right now for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

Message to P’ai Ti

Cold and blue now are the mountains
From autumn-rain that beat all day.
By my thatch door, leaning on my staff,
I listen to cicadas in the evening wind.
Sunset lingers at the ferry,
Cooking-smoke floats up from the houses…
Oh, when shall I pledge Cheih-yu [the great hermit] again
And sing a wild poem at Five Willows?

I love the simplicity of the poem, and how evocative it is of a slightly melancholic moment taken to reflect at the end of the day.

Secondly I chose Message by Dorothy Richardson, because it echoes Wang Wei as it also picks up on autumn, and ends with a question, this time to a silent interlocutor rather than the self. I also chose it because I’m really enjoying reading about Jane and Sarah’s experiences reading her Pilgrimage series, but I haven’t yet got round to these novels…

Seeing in flight along the lifting wind,
Like sudden birds peopling an empty sky,
Those last crisped leaves so long you had passed by –
Where dark they hung that had been fire behind
The pasture whose scant blossoms kept in mind
Our summer now grown gold for memory –
Did you remember as you saw them pass,
Flutter and sink, sully the silvered grass,
That each forsaken stem bears, fast asleep,
An eager bud to tell the tale of spring?
Will you forget, hearing darkness weep,
How each hour moves toward their awakening?

I liked how this poem concentrates on one action, a leaf in the air, and yet weaves a wide experience around it, structured in quite a complex way. The iambic pentameter (more or less, Richardson plays with rhythm a bit) echoes Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I just adore. The message of this poem is one I need to remember – I find the dark days of winter hard-going, so I will remind myself how each forsaken stem contains an eager spring bud in those seemingly never-ending grey days of January and February…

To counteract my comparative reticence in this post, some indulgence to finish. A second – yes, second! – 1979 pop video. Happy Thursday🙂

“I don’t know what London’s coming to — the higher the buildings the lower the morals.” (Noël Coward)

It was the autumn equinox last week here in the UK, which means summer for us is officially over and everyone’s back at work. For this reason I thought I’d look at the theme of London as it’s where I live and work, alongside eleventy-million others. Those heady summer days are rapidly becoming a distant memory under the realities of train strikes (salt rubbed into the wound of a service so bad it often seems like Southern rail are running a surrealist immersive art installation they’ve forgotten to tell anyone about) and falling temperatures. For this reason, and after the tribulations of The Notebook last week, I’ve chosen 2 comic novels for a bit of light relief.

Firstly, NW by Zadie Smith (2012) or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Zadie Smith, if you will. This is Smith’s fourth novel (she recently published her fifth, Swing Time) and it’s the first of her much-lauded fiction that I’ve truly enjoyed. Until this point I always preferred her journalism and essays, but NW is the point at which her fiction really grabbed me.

Set in the part of London whose postcode gives the book its title, NW experiments with various forms, hopping between stream-of-consciousness, text-speak, first and third person, diagrams… It is a successful approach, creating the multiple voices and sensory overload that London offers, without descending into a chaotic mess. Edgware Road:

“Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only – quicker to walk! Escapees from St Mary’s Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves fags. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life size porcelain tiger, gold taps.”

Leah, Natalie (who used to be called Keisha), Felix and Nathan grew up on the same Caldwell estate and went to the same school. As adults, their lives have diverged, but they all still live in the area (Willesden) and their stories overlap and layer one another, broadening each of their individual tales.  Leah and Natalie are each other’s oldest friend.  Both are married – more or less happily – and employed, building their lives. But whereas Natalie spent the 90s knuckling down to work and is now a successful barrister, Leah spent it enjoying rave culture and now has a socially responsible but low-paid job, which creates a tension in their relationship:

“Leah watches Natalie stride over to her beautiful kitchen with her beautiful child. Everything behind those French doors is full and meaningful. The gestures, the glances, the conversation that can’t be heard. How did you get to be so full? And why so full of only meaningful things? Everything else Nat has somehow managed to cast off. She is an adult.”

Of course, when we get to Natalie’s version of the story Leah has alluded to, we realise all is not as it seems. Natalie is not entirely happy; she has not shrugged off Caldwell, nor does she entirely want to. There are areas of her life where she still refers to herself as Keisha, and when she gives birth to the first of her beautiful children it is her childhood friends and family that give most comfort:

“People came with advice. Caldwell people felt everything would be fine as long as you didn’t actually throw the child down the stairs. Non-Caldwell people felt nothing would be fine unless everything was done perfectly and even then there was no guarantee. She had never been so happy to see Caldwell people.”

Another section of the novel follows recovering addict Felix around the borough. He is emerging from a destructive life into something more positive.  As he moves around the area, between the people of his old life and new, his story simultaneously captures the transformation which his home town is undergoing:

“He steadied himself with a hand on the Tavern’s back door: fancy coloured glass now and a new brass doorknob. Wood floors where carpets used to be, real food instead of crisps and scratchings. About six quid for a glass of wine! Jackie wouldn’t recognise it. Maybe by now she’d be one of those exiles on the steps of the betting shops, clutching a can of Special Brew, driven from the pub by the refits.”

Nathan meanwhile, beautiful and talented at school, now a physical wreck, has not managed to pull himself out of the sort of life Felix had been living. NW is funny and sad, effectively capturing born –and-bred Londoners at a specific time in an ever-changing city. As a born-and-bred Londoner myself, around the same age as Zadie Smith and therefore her protagonists, I thought it was highly effective in capturing place, time and voice(s). I still think Zadie Smith’s editor needs to be heavier-handed, and one of the characters makes a leap at the end that I thought didn’t quite hold up, but NW means I’m now really looking forward to reading Swing Time.

Not the only member of her family to engage with ideas around language, here is Zadie’s brother Ben aka comedian/rapper/actor Doc Brown, proving that apparently the whole family are good-looking, talented and witty, damn them (little bit rude and mild swears):

Secondly, Capital by John Lanchester (2012). In 2010 former journalist Lanchester wrote a non-fiction book, Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No-one Can Pay (2010) about the credit crunch. This is a fictional look at the same time, through the residents of Pepys Road in south-west London.  Pepys Road, like much of London, has seen the value of the property rise exponentially:

“For most of its history, the street was lived in by more or less the kind of people it was built for: the aspiring not-too-well-off. They were happy to live there, and living there was part of a busy and determined attempt to do better, to make a good life for themselves and their families. But the houses were the backdrop of their lives: they were an important part of life but they were a set where events took place, rather than the principal characters. Now, however, the houses had become so valuable to people who already lived in them, and so expensive for people who had recently moved into them, that they had already become central actors in their own right.”

Hence Capital is about the capital city, and also about the financial capital which the city propagates and runs on.

“She wasn’t sure how to make money, exactly, but anyone with eyes could see that it was everywhere in London, in the cars, the clothes, the shops, the talk, the very air. People got it and spent it and thought about it and talked about it all the time. It was brash and horrible and vulgar, but also exciting and energetic and shameless and new”

In Mr Phillips, Lanchester wrote a slim novel detailing one man’s life over one day. By contrast, this is a 577 page (in my edition) novel takes in the lives of many: Petunia, an elderly lady who has lived in Pepys Road most of her life and her grandson, a Banksy-style artist; Roger and Arabella, a city worker and his materialist wife, their Hungarian nanny and Polish builder; the British Muslim family who run the corner shop; the Senegalese footballer whose club owns one of the houses; the Zimbabwean refugee who works illegally as a traffic warden, ticketing the Aston Martins and Jeeps in the road.

Unsurprisingly, it is Roger and Arabella who are most affected by the financial collapse.  At the start of the novel Roger is anticipating his million-pound bonus:

“His basic pay of £150,000 was nice as what Arabella called ‘frock money’, but it did not pay even for his two mortgages. The house in Pepys Road was double-fronted and had cost £2,500,000, which at the time had felt like the top of the market, even though prices had risen a great deal since then. They had converted the loft, dug out the basement, redone all the wiring and plumbing because there was no point in not doing it, knocked through the downstairs, added…”

The chapter continues in the vein, listing all their running costs and conspicuous consumption before concluding “it did mean that if he didn’t get his million-pound bonus this year he was at genuine risk of going broke.”

Good grief. Arabella’s whole existence revolves around spending money – she doesn’t work, a nanny takes the kids out all day, (“Matya had no theories about children, she took them as she found them, but it seemed to her that many of the children she had looked after were both spoilt and neglected.”) she has no hobbies or interests and seems to define herself through what she owns, so Roger and Arabella’s entire lives pretty much rest on his bonus.

Meanwhile, someone is sending postcards to the residents of the street, which only say “We Want What You Have”. The campaign escalates and the various residents start to feel uneasy:

“the thought of other people wishing they had your level of material affluence was an idea you could sit in front of, like a hearth fire. But this wasn’t like that. This was more like having someone keeping an eye on you and secretly wishing you ill.”

Detective Inspector Mill is called in to investigate:

“His hair wasn’t in fact long enough to get into his eyes, but this gesture was like an atavistic survival of a period during which he had a long, floppy fringe. So for a moment everyone in the room glimpsed him with that languid public school hair.”

Underestimate this unlikely copper at your peril, though.  Mill’s investigation forms the background mystery to the novel, but really this is a story about the variety of overlapping lives that take place in a typical London street: their hopes, triumphs, tragedies and the banal stuff in between. It’s a clever novel and extremely well-written, the pace doesn’t flag and I cared about all the characters (even a tiny bit about Arabella, who is clearly deeply unhappy and has no idea why). Unlike NW, there is one consistent authorial voice, but similarly to NW, Capital succeeds in capturing some of the complexity of a huge city and its many residents.

Capital was adapted into a 3-part BBC drama last year, starring the brilliant Toby Jones as Roger and a great turn by Rachel Stirling as the terrible Arabella:


“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” (Vincent van Gogh)

This is my contribution to Small Press September, hosted by Bibliosa. Do head over to her blog to read all about it and join in! The novels are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr.Rosalind Harvey, 2011), which I picked up after reading Shoshi’s excellent review.  It is published by And Other Stories, a not-for-private-profit company which concentrates mainly on translated fiction. That sentence makes me feel better about the world🙂


Back to the novel: Tochtli (rabbit in Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico), tells us about his love of samurai films, hats, learning new words, and his life as the young son of a drug baron, Yolcaut (rattlesnake).

“I think we have a very good gang. I have proof. Gangs are all about solidarity. So solidarity means that because I like hats, Yolcaut buys me hats, lots of hats, so many that I have a collection from all over the world and all periods of the world. Although now more than new hats what I want is Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. I’ve already written it down on the list of things I want and given it to Miztli. That’s how we always do it, because I don’t go out much, so Miztli buys me all the things I want on orders from Yolcaut.”

The isolation is a necessary part of his father’s business, whose paranoia is an occupational hazard that is no doubt keeping them all alive. The tragic effect that this is having on young Tochtli becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses. Tochtli accepts his life, knowing no different, but to the adult reader he displays worrying signs of severe anxiety: wanting his head shaved because he doesn’t want ‘dead’ hair on him, compulsively wearing hats, constant severe stomach pains, and later, after he sees something his father tried to keep hidden, selective mutism. He also takes violence pretty much in his stride:

“One of the things I’ve learnt from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet. Sometimes they need three or even fourteen bullets. It all depends where you aim them. If you put two bullets in their brains they’ll die for sure. But you can put up to 1,000 bullets in their hair and nothing will happen, though it might be fun to watch.”

Although dealing with extremely serious subject matter, there is humour is the novel, such as Tochtli’s description of the preparation for a drug run to Liberia which he also goes on in order to get one of his beloved pygmy hippos:

“By the way, Franklin Gomez started being Franklin Gomez yesterday in the airport. That’s what his passport from the country of Honduras says: Franklin Gomez. There were problems because Franklin Gomez didn’t want to be Franklin Gomez. Until Winston Lopez convinced him.”

In such a short tale (70 pages in my edition)Villalobos effectively widens the narrative of drug trade away from the usual barons/dealers/ users paradigm to show how the fallout from the industry can reach far and wide, including devastating those too young to have a choice about their own involvement. It is a truly moving story, not about drugs (you can read an article by the author where he refutes the term narcoliteratura here), but about children trying to cope with the messy, corrupt world adults create around them: sadly, pretty much a universal theme.

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy's Castle hat

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy’s Castle hat

Secondly, The Notebook by Agota Kristof (1986, tr. Alan Sheridan, 1989) published by CB editions,  a publishing house which focuses on short fiction, poetry and translations. Kristof was Hungarian but was exiled to French-speaking Switzerland in 1956, and wrote this, her first novel, in French.


Like Down the Rabbit Hole, The Notebook is told from a child’s point of view, in this instance twin boys – we never know their individual names and they always use the first-person plural – who are evacuated to live with their maternal grandmother in the countryside of an unnamed nation, but which is generally thought to be Hungary.

“We call her Grandmother. People call her the Witch. She calls us ‘sons of a bitch’…Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating and drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt.”

This woman shows them no love or affection (although as the novel progresses we learn to recognise the small signs that she does care for them) and life is tough. They work on her smallholding and undertake various psychological ‘exercises’ to try and adjust to their straightened circumstances.

“ ‘My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!’ When we remember these words, our eyes fill with tears. We must forget these words because, now, nobody says such words to us and because our memory of them is too heavy a burden to bear. So we begin our exercise again in a different way…By repeating them we make these words gradually lose their meaning and the pain that they carry in them is reduced.”

The tone of the narration is astonishing. As the boys become more and more detached in an effort to preserve themselves from the horrors they witness, the reader is faced with filling in the gaps regarding what is happening. The delivery is so matter-of-fact that more the once I found myself stopping, thinking ‘Wait a minute, what the…’, going back and finding that something devastating had been described and I’d nearly missed it.

“Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.”

The Notebook is a shattering work, and a challenging read. Human relationships are warped under the pressures of war. More than once, these pretty, golden twins get drawn into adult sex games. A young girl who is named after her birth anomaly – Harelip is apparently her given name – engages in some truly upsetting sexual acts. A neighbour behaves with horrific cruelty toward a group of starving people (presumably Jewish prisoners) and the boys wreak a terrible revenge (which they never admit in the text but you know what has happened and why). It is a difficult read but a powerful one, which does not shy away from the damage done when the acts of nations cause individuals to lose sight of their humanity. It is a political book, but not a polemical one: the twins’ equanimity leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

“Later, we have our own army and government again, but our army and government are controlled by our Liberators. Their flag flies over all the public buildings. The photograph of their leader is displayed everywhere. They teach us their songs and their dances; they show us their films in our cinemas. In the schools, the language of our liberators is compulsory; other foreign languages are forbidden.”

Highly recommended, but go in prepared – brilliantly written and completely brutal.

The Notebook was adapted into a film in 2013, which completely passed me by. From this trailer it looks excellent, and thankfully laws protecting children and animals means certain scenes are guaranteed to have not been filmed, surely?

“She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books.” (Jean Rhys, Quartet)

This is a further (mini) contribution (not my usual two-work blog post) to Jean Rhys Reading Week, hosted by Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal and Eric at Lonesome Reader. Do check out their blogs and join in!

Jean Rhys

This time I’m looking at Sleep It Off Lady (1976) which is Rhys’ final collection of stories, published 3 years before she died. The stories are presented in a chronological order of the age of the protagonist, so it almost feels like a dipping into and out of someone’s life at various points; from the two young sisters living in Dominica in the first story Pioneers, Oh Pioneers to the young woman in Paris in Night Out 1925, to the elderly woman living alone in the titular penultimate story.

This approach is not dissimilar to her longer fiction, such as Good Morning Midnight, which used stream of consciousness to build up a picture of a life from fractured parts. All the things I enjoy in Rhys’ longer fiction are evident in her short stories. For example…

Her humour used to highlight a serious issue – such as mental illness encountered by repressed Edwardian Brits in the colonies:

“‘If,’ said Mr Eliot ‘the man had apologized to my wife, if he’d shown the slightest consciousness of the fact that he was stark naked, I would have overlooked the whole thing. God knows one learns to be tolerant in this wretched place. But not a bit of it. He stared hard at her and came out with: ‘What an uncomfortable dress – and how ugly!’ My wife got very red.  Then she said: ‘Mr Ramage, the kettle is just boiling. Will you have some tea?’” (Pioneers Oh Pioneers)

Her unblinking look at sexual politics which degrade women and empower men. This takes an even darker turn when she documents the sexual assault of a twelve year old (this is written very sensitively and not at all gratuitously, but neither does it let the reader off the hook – we can’t ignore what has happened):

“He talked of usual things in a usual voice and she made up her mind that she would tell nobody of what had happened. Nobody. It was not a thing you could possibly talk about. Also, no one would be believe exactly how it had happened, and whether they believed her or not she would be blamed.” (Good-bye Marcus, Good-bye Rose)

And her startling observations that disconcert yet articulate something fundamental:

“But it was always the most ordinary things that suddenly turned round and showed you another face, a terrifying face. That was the hidden horror, the horror everyone pretended did not exist, the horror that was responsible for all the other horrors.” (The Insect World)

I’m so glad I took part in Jean Rhys Reading week as it encouraged me to explore this writer much sooner than I otherwise might have done.  I’ve no idea why, having rated Wide Sargasso Sea so highly when I first read it in my teens, I allowed Rhys to slip off my radar. Her writing seems drawn directly from her life yet she is able to explore themes that you don’t need to be an ex-colonial, chorus girl, artist’s model, thrice-married Parisian who is friends with Ford Madox Ford to find meaning in (at least I assume so, since that’s basically my life in a nutshell).

“Very widespread now – heart condition.” (Sleep It Off Lady)

I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of her work, I only wish there was more of it.

 Jean Rhys  (1894-1979)