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The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remar

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 15 October 2006 07:54 (A review of The Night in Lisbon)

There are any number of writers whose entire cannon is overlooked save for a single ‘classic’ work. Burgess with ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and Heller with “Catch-22” being notable examples. Even more unfortunate, are those writers whose most famous novel eclipses their other output, yet fails to lodge their name in our collective cultural conscience. Erich Maria Remarque is one such writer. Who wrote, “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a far more difficult quiz question than it deserves to be.

So, having seen a number of his other books on amazon with glowing reviews I decided to take the plunge with ‘The Night in Lisbon’, one of his later novels.

The story starts, as you might expect, in Lisbon, Portugal. It is 1942 and a desperate refugee is trying to get the right papers to leave war-torn Europe, escape the Gestapo who are on his trail, and make it by boat to America, and safety. It is on the docks that he meets Schwarz, another refugee, one with all the paperwork needed, but one who is willing to give them all up in exchange for the chance to tell his story. As they move from one café to another during the night, Schwarz unburdens himself, and it is his story that forms the bulk of the book.

Schwarz reveals that he has been on the run for many years, ever since he was denounced for his politic ideas by his brother in law Georg, a fanatical Nazi. As the war approaches, Schwarz risks going back to Germany to get his wife Helen. We follow them as they make their way through Switzerland, into France, then Spain, and finally to Portugal. The frustrations of a refugee are played out, as they are imprisoned on the way, and seem to spend every waking moment trying to get the right paperwork to enable them to move on. All the time stalked by Georg and an uncomfortable feeling as a reader that it’s all going to end in tears.

‘The Night in Lisbon’ has an excellent plot, and you could be forgiven from my description from thinking that it’s just a generic thriller with one eye on “Casablanca”. But it’s oh, oh, so much more than that.

“ The wind had risen again, and the swaying branches cast their restless shadows on the faces, on the howling machine, and the silent stone sculptures on the church wall behind them: Christ on the cross between the two thieves. The faces of the listeners were concentrated and transfigured. They believed what the automaton was screaming at them; in a strange state of hypnosis, they applauded this disembodied voice as if it was a human being. The scene struck me as typical of the sinister, demonic mob spirit of our times, of all the frightened, hysterical crowds who follow slogans. It makes no difference whether the slogans come from the right or the left, as long as they relieve the masses of the hard work of thinking and of the need to take responsibility. “

After I’d read fifty or so pages, I knew I liked the story, and enjoyed the style of writing, but was unsure if it had that something extra that you look for that makes a book special. But the further I went, the more the story pulled me in and the greater my respect for Remarque’s skill. He eschews literary pyrotechnics of elaborate, dense prose, instead relying on quality characterisation and good old-fashioned storytelling. The result is a fast, easy read, as you almost feel propelled through the novel.
Only when you’ve finished and take time to go over the book in your mind do the real subtleties of Remarque’s writing start to come out. How the speed of the story line matches the journey Schwarz and Helen are taking. Relationships that at first seem disparate end up revealing striking similarities. The way the conversation between Schwarz and the refugee is repeatedly interrupted and they are forced to move on somewhere else, just as Schwarz and Helen are in their escape across Europe. The realisation that the conversation is more than just the frame for Schwarz’s story that you first believed it to be. How love and hate both have the ability to make us do what we think is beyond us. And how the passing of a passport from one refugee to another and then another feels like wartime is speeding up the passing of one generation to the next.
It’s much cleverer stuff then you first imagine, and I’d need a re-read to feel I was really starting to understand it all. But before that, I’m going to get hold of some of Remarque’s other books. If they are of this quality, he’s a writer who deserves full investigation.

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Ryszard Kapcuscinski - The Emperor

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 11 October 2006 10:15 (A review of The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (Penguin Classics))

‘The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat’ is the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s account of the last days of the court of Haile Selassie, told through the eyes of the courtiers who survived his reign. Whilst I’m sure Kapuscinski would have preferred to have had direct access to Selassie himself, he never the less brilliantly pieces together the strange world of the Ethiopian court from the accounts of those who did.

All the elements of corruption, incompetence, grandiloquence and social climbing we would expect from the inner circle of a third world monarchy are in place. The life lived inside a privileged world, whilst outside the country is left to rot. All outlined in a cultivated and laconic manner by courtiers for whom this kind of ridiculous insanity is the most natural thing in the world. Oh, how the other half live.

One question that hung over my head as I read, was how did this man come to be regarded as a deity by Rastafarians? A possible explanation begins to emerge as you get further into the book, as it turns out that Selassie was just about the most laid back person to have ever walked the earth. The rampant corruption and regular famines of his country are regarded as ‘just the way things are’. The jostling for position and in-fighting amongst courtiers observed with nothing more than mild amusement. Even his eventual overthrow is greeted with the observation that ‘if the revolution is good for the people, then I too, support the revolution and would not oppose my dethronement’. How more Rastafarian can you get?

[Quote] It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on dignitaries’ shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years. [/Quote]

If you find a paragraph like this, three pages into a book, you know it’s going to be a cracker. And yet, and yet. The something that held me back from finding The Emperor an even more fulfilling read was a feeling that this was territory I had seen covered before. I suspect this is not the fault of Kapuscinski whose work was probably ground breaking in its day, but high quality reportage is much more easily found on the shelves of our bookstores than when ‘The Emperor’ was first published. Perhaps it’s better to read ‘The Emperor’ for what it is, a great story, told well, by someone who was an original.

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Corksucker by Dan Fante

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 10 October 2006 06:43 (A review of Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L.A. Streets))

It could be argued that good fiction contains an element of emotional tourism; an opportunity to empathise with the feelings and experiences of others, without having to actually spend your life living through their consequences. If so, the setting of Dan Fante’s collection of short stories, ‘Corksucker*’, in the seedy underbelly of L.A. could not be more appropriate. Fante has no more interest in the glamour of Hollywood than he does in the lives of those that society has protected and rewarded.
Instead he places his central character in a broken down cab that works the baking hot streets by day and accepts the dangers of picking up strangers in an unforgiving city by night. The setting is matched by the dark and oppressively harsh lives of the people whose stories he tells. For them, you feel there will be no Hollywood ending and for the emotional tourists of Fante’s readership, this really is a visit to the shabby end of the ‘City of Angels’.

Fante is a writer who has much to live up to, given that his father John is one of the great American authors of the last century. Added to that, any writer whose bio reads “went to a party aged twenty-one, came back twenty years later”, had better have some tales to tell. Fortunately, Fante has much to say, but whether his stories will ever reach the audience they deserve is debatable. As in terms of style, and to an extent subject matter, Fante’s most obvious comparison would be to his father’s great champion, Charles Bukowski - not a writer you’d describe as ‘Disney friendly’.

‘Corksucker contains eight short stories about a would-be writer forced by circumstance, and given a helping push by alcohol, into working the cabs of L.A. Like all his work, it’s suspiciously autobiographical, and deals in the world of booze, drugs, dysfunctional relationships and failed lives. It’s harsh stuff, but always edged with humour, and never, for me at least, hard going. Of the eight stories, ‘Mae West’ is the stand out and ‘Renewal’ perhaps the weakest. As I’d already read his three novels, I was on familiar territory, and enjoyed the verve of his story telling with my only real quibble being a price of £7.99 for a collection of just over 120 pages.

For those who have read Fante before, you know what you’ll being getting, more of the same, and all the better for that. For the uninitiated, I’d be reluctant to make a recommendation unless you already enjoy the work of Bukowski or perhaps Irvine Welsh. If you like them, then Fante is a treat, although I’d suggest you start with his first novel “Chump Change”.


*Corksucker is published in America under the title ‘Short Dog’.

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A Writer At War by Anthony Beevor

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 9 October 2006 05:21 (A review of A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945)

‘A Writer at War’ details the experiences of the Russian author Vasily Grossman throughout his time as a frontline correspondent during the Second World War. A period of his life that would inspire Grossman to write ‘Life and Fate’, arguably the greatest novel of the Soviet era; as well as undertake ‘The Black Book’ with fellow Russian Ilya Ehrenburg, which documents in meticulous detail the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.

At the time of the German invasion of Russia, Grossman was an overweight writer in his mid-thirties. Declared unfit for active duty, he signed up as a war correspondent for ‘Red Star’, the newspaper of the Red Army, and insisted on reporting from the front line.
The scale and importance of the events he witnessed and reported on were breathtaking. From the disasters of the summer of 1941, where huge German encirclements threatened to destroy the Russian army wholesale, to the months he spent detailing the street fighting at Stalingrad. From the massive tank engagements at Kursk, to the re-capturing of the Ukraine the following year. As well as being one of the first journalists to enter Warsaw, Grossman also witnessed the discovery of the horrors at Treblinka and finally, in May 1945, found himself standing inside Hitler’s office at the Reich chancellery.

In addition to the articles he wrote for ‘Red Star’, Grossman kept detailed notebooks from that time. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Grossman’s writing is that the level of quality between finished articles and extracts made in those notebooks seem almost negligible. Without clarification from Beevor it’s almost impossible to judge from which source a particular passage is drawn. Perhaps a clue to the consistent quality of his work is found in this comment from Grossman’s editor David Ortenberg:

“Although he had taught himself to write in any conditions, however bad, in a bunker by a wick lamp, in a field, lying in a bed or in a izba (Russian peasant house) stuffed with people, he always wrote slowly, persistently giving all of his strength to the process.”

The dedication shows through. I’m sure that as he started shifting through Grossman’s wartime notes Beevor must have soon realised the treasure-trove he had to work with. A large part of ‘A Writer at War’s narrative is drawn from this source, interspersed with excerpts from his articles, letters to friends and accounts from those who Grossman met during that time. All skilfully woven together and put in context by the insightful commentary of Beevor, to form simultaneously the story of one mans war, as well as the fortunes of two countries.

Time and again you are struck by the poetry of the short staccato writing style Grossman employs to record his thoughts; I could pick numerous examples, but this is an extract that leap out at me:

“Morning. A battlefield. Shell craters, flat like saucers, with earth split around them. Gas Masks. Flasks. Little holes dug by soldiers during the attack for machine-gun and mortar nests. They did themselves no good when they dug the holes so close to one another. One can see how they huddled together, two holes – two friends, five holes – soldier comrades from the same region. Blood. A man killed behind a haystack, his fist clenched, leaning back like a frightening sculpture – Death on the Field of Battle.”

On first reading I was immediately reminded of a favourite passage from ‘Dances of Death’ by Aleksandr Blok written some thirty years before:

“Night, street, a lamp, a chemist’s window,
a senseless and dim light. No doubt
in a quarter century or so
there’ll be no change. There’s no way out.

You’ll die, and just the same as ever
begin the dance again. A damp
night, frozen ripples on the river,
a chemist’s shop, a street, a lamp.”

Grossman’s work was immensely popular with ordinary soldiers, and it doesn’t take long to see why. He seems to have had little interest in the great commanders of his day; perhaps the sight of the Generals at Stalingrad bickering over responsibilities and achievements during the battle and squabbling over the glory afterwards formed his opinion.
Instead he displays an enormous affection and trust for the ‘Frontoviki’ (soldiers with experience on the front line), as his reports are filled with character sketches of the soldiers and officers most directly involved. It was through these articles that he in turn earned the trust of these men. Commanders known for their reticence would open up to him, ordinary soldiers would freely voice their opinions in his presence. Possibly the ultimate sign of this trust was that Anatoly Checkov, one of the leading Russian snipers at Stalingrad, allowed Grossman to accompany him on a mission.

As Grossman leads us through the war, we gain further and deeper insight into the thoughts and mood of his countrymen and the pressures Grossman was under to portray a positive impression of the wars progress. In the dark days of 1941 this must have been intensely difficult and may provide another reason for his interest in the man on the frontline. By concentrating on the individual who shows courage, Grossman could create heroes that distracted readers from the reality of the overall situation Russia faced. However, his notebooks reveal his real opinions; he is critical of Stalin and Russia’s preparedness for war, and often the competence in which it was being fought.
Grossman believed in “The ruthless truth of war” and his honesty shines through, even to the point of his disgust at the conduct of Soviet troops when they reached foreign soil; although he attributes the raping and looting they undertook to the rear area soldiers rather than his beloved ‘Frontoviki’. This seems to be one of the few areas where Beevor disagrees with Grossman’s assessment.

In addition to this, we learn of the personal pain of Grossman’s war. He reported from Stalingrad for four months and knew that somewhere else within the city his nephew was also serving; it was not until after the battle had finished that they were to be finally reunited, when Grossman found his nephew’s grave.
As the Russian advance continued, and they reclaimed more and more of their country, he came ever closer to his hometown of Berdichev. At the start of the German onslaught his mother and many other members of his family had been trapped there. He blamed himself for failing to evacuate them in time, a guilt that was all the heavier from the thought of the fate that may befall them as Jews. When Berdichev was eventually re-taken he returned to discover that his worst fears had been true; during the first months of occupation, his mother, her family and 20-30,000 other Jews of the town had been taken by the Nazis to a nearby airfield and executed on mass.
This was not the first such atrocity that Grossman discovered, and it wasn’t to be the last. As the evidence of the Jews treatment built up, Grossman and fellow writer Ilya Ehrenburg decided to document everything that was found in what they called ‘The Black Book’. There was plenty of material; from the massacre at Babi Yar, to the almost total annihilation of the Jewish population of the Ukraine, and ultimately to Grossman’s arrival at a newly liberated Treblinka. The interviews he conducted with the forty or so survivors from that camp formed his most powerful and famous article “The Hell called Treblinka” which was quoted at the Nuremburg trials and is reproduced in large part by Beevor.
Despite the success of that article, others on a similar theme were heavily edited, or like ‘The Black Book’ itself, suppressed due to Stalin’s order that “The dead shall not be divided”; a decree he used to avoid the embarrassment of collaboration by locals with the Nazi atrocities being revealed.

Ultimately Grossman’s story leaves you with an impression of the sheer scale and brutality of the times he lived through and a feeling that during those years there was no reality, let alone normality, only war.

With ‘A Writer at War’, Anthony Beevor has produced a remarkable book that succeeds in a number of ways: as a biography of a crucial period in an important writers life, as a compelling eye-witness account of the most brutal conflict in history, and in revealing the inspiration and source material for two of the most significant works of literature from the last century, ‘Life and Fate’ and ‘The Black Book’. This last aspect is the most original and most revealing, as throughout this wonderful piece of research Beevor points you to characters and events that were to appear in both books, although sadly Grossman didn’t live to see either published; as both were suppressed by Stalin.

Most readers of ‘A Writer at War’ will come to it from an interest in the events and time period it covers, but I hope they will leave with a desire to read Grossman’s masterpiece ‘Life and Fate’, as everything he witnessed during that tumultuous period of history are contained within it’s pages.

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Soul by Andrey Platonov

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 9 October 2006 05:20 (A review of Soul)

Since the publication of the majority of Andrei Platonov’s work following the Khrushchev Thaw, it having been previously suppressed due to its ‘subversive nature’, Platonov has enjoyed an every increasing reputation within his homeland, where he is regarded as arguably the greatest Soviet writer of the twentieth century, and is often bracketed with other giants of Russian literature such as Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy.

Yet he remains relatively unknown in the west. Perhaps due to the dense symbolism he used to criticise the nature of the ‘socialist utopia’ he lived in, as well as his idiosyncratic prose rendering him a very difficult writer to translate accurately. An indication of that difficulty is given by the need for a translating team of half a dozen to render ‘Soul’, a book that falls short of a hundred and fifty pages, into English.
However, the time and patience they must have spent over this translation is to be applauded. In particular the lead translator Robert Chandler, who over the last few years has been responsible for bringing some of the best works of the Soviet era to a wider audience, and in many instances such as this, for the first time in their full uncensored glory.
Praise is also needed for the excellent notes that are included in this edition, which include many insights into the symbolism and references that Platonov worked into ‘Soul’. Whilst I was able to work out the meaning of children lost in the desert being lead to safety by shepherds, and a Soviet official raping an under-age girl, without too much trouble, the rebellious nature of Platonov describing local folk music and the influences of Sufism and Central Asian culture on his text would have passed me by if I hadn’t been forewarned.

“Many pale eyes were straining to look at Chagataev, trying not to close from weakness and indifference. Chagataev felt the pain of his sorrow: his nation did not need communism. His nation needed oblivion – until the wind chilled its body and slowly squandered it in space. Chagataev turned away from everyone: all his actions, all his hopes had proved senseless…Did there remain in his nation even a small soul, something he could work with in order to bring about general happiness? Or had everything there been so worn away by suffering that even imagination, the intelligence of the poor, had entirely died? Chagataev knew from childhood memory, and from his education in Moscow, that any exploitation of a human being begins with the distortion of their soul, with getting a soul so used to death that it can be subjugated; without this subjugation, a slave is not a slave. And this forced mutilation of the soul continues, growing more and more violent, until reason in the slave turns to mad and empty mindlessness. The class struggle begins with the victory of the oppressors over the “holy sprit” confined within the slave: blasphemy against the master’s beliefs – against the master’s soul, the master’s god – goes unpardoned, while the slave’s own soul is ground down in falsehood and destructive labour.”

‘Soul’ is set in the deserts of Turkmenistan, an area Platonov knew well and had a great fondness for. As with many of his books, the plot is disarmingly simple. Chagataev, a recent graduate from the Moscow Institute of Economics, is sent back by the authorities to the land of his birth to collect together the ‘Dzhan’, a destitute and lost nation of people, and bring them back into the communist fold.

As he undertakes this task, we learn of Chagataev’s childhood, how he came to Moscow, and how his good intentions are not always met with success. His leadership is surpassed by others within the nation who, after they are led to safety and provided with housing and food, choose to leave that life for one of their own creation.
Whilst ‘Soul’ deals with the ideology of the time, there is also a more personal desire being played out, for a restless soul to find happiness. Chagataev comes to realise that the Dzhan are not in fact the poorest of the poor, because they have soul, a happiness born from belonging to each other, a happiness he lacks. We also see that you can help people but you can not save them. They can only save themselves. What you want in their best interests is not always what they want, and can not be imposed. A lesson for present times perhaps.

‘Soul’ is a novel rich in meaning, only some of which it is possible to access from a western viewpoint. But it’s also a book I shall return to again and again, in the knowledge that each time there will be more I can take away. This is the best book I’ve read for a long time, and thanks to the work of Robert Chandler and his team of translators, an opportunity to see a truly great writer at the height of his powers.


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The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 9 October 2006 05:18 (A review of The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (Canongate Myths))

Since his emergence in the early 1990’s, Victor Pelevin has remained a controversial and contradictorily presence on the modern Russian literary scene. As a powerful, profound and immensely popular writer, Pelevin was hailed by many as the voice of Russia’s generation X and the new wunderkind of Russian letters. The literary establishment however, were slower to acknowledge his craft; coming as it did in books that had elements of science fiction and which tackled the perilous and surreal nature of the consumer society that exploded in the former Soviet Union following the collapse of communism.

Given his career path to date, Pelevin must have been fairly high up Canongate’s wish list of authors to take part in their ambitious Myths series. Fortunately for them, he not only accepted, but has delivered a marvellous, contemporary re-telling of the ancient Greek tale of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Pelevin’s version begins with a group of people waking to find themselves in what appear to be identical locked hotel rooms, each with a computer terminal linked to the same internet chat room. As they start to communicate, they quickly realise that certain physical aspects of their environment can be controlled by making requests on-line - compartments with food can be made to open, and the door to their room unlocked to reveal they are trapped in different parts of the same giant maze.
As they start to work together they begin to understand that each of them has information that can be used to work out where they are and how they can escape. In particular the mysterious Adriana, who has started the thread, discloses detailed dreams she has had about the maze and it’s Minotaur, who wears the Helmet of Horror. As we are dragged further into the story, we are faced with every increasing questions of which direction takes us to the truth. Who is wearing the Helmet of Horror? The Minotaur, Adriana, or are we all? Does the maze exist in reality, in our minds or are we trapped in the helmet itself?

‘The Helmet of Horror’ is written as a single internet chat thread, spread over several days. Whilst there is the occasional emoticon and text speak abbreviation used, presumably to piss of his beard stroking critics, the text actually reads more like a play, and a damn good one at that. Pelevin weaves myth with modern culture and neatly stitches it together with elements of Christian belief & cyber-age Descartesian philosophy. As with most of Pelevin’s work, he poses many questions, but prefers to allow us to make our own conclusions.

I don’t read much contemporary fiction, so I’m not really in a position to judge where Pelevin stands amongst modern authors; but if there are writers out there more inventive and intelligent than this modern Russian master, they must belong to a very select group indeed.


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Dreamers by Knut Hamsun

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 9 October 2006 05:16 (A review of Dreamers)

Knut Hamsun is one of the hidden gems of world literature, and an author whose writing changed in style and outlook gradually over time. For those familiar with his work, Dreamers is closer to his later, more light-hearted stories like ‘The Women at the pump,’ than to his earlier, darker and more introspective novels like ‘Hunger’.

Dreamers is a charming and humorous story which centres on a familiar Hamsun leading man, Ove Rolandsen, an outsider and a dreamer. With an eye for the ladies, love of the bottle, and a tongue and fists always ready for a fight, Rolandsen is seemingly drifting through life, and you are happy to drift with him. In between flirting with every woman he encounters and drunken brawls with passing fishing crews, Rolandsen finds time to invent a means to make his fortune and simultaneously undermine and possibly usurp the local business tycoon. As is often the case, you need money to make money, and without financial backing his invention cannot be exploited, and he has to remain in his lowly job as telegraph operator. When fate intervenes Rolandsen grabs his opportunity and we discover if his dreams will indeed come true.
Hamsun creates a set of well drawn out characters, and the surroundings of a small, isolated, Norwegian fishing village are agreeably self-contained, allowing the neatly plotted interaction between his protagonists to be entirely plausible, and create a highly enjoyable story.

Souvenir Press have reprinted a number of works by Knut Hamsun; and for attempting to bring this important writer to a wider audience they are to be applauded. However, in this instance I would question the value for money they are providing. Regardless of the back page’s description of Dreamers as a ‘delightful novel’ it is in fact a 122 page novella, and 122 pages of larger than usual font at that. It would have made far more sense to include Dreamers with the short stories that form the ‘Tales of Love and Loss’ collection that Souvenir also publishes. To leave it as a stand alone story, with no introduction, no notes on textual translation, and not even a one page author biography, all for £7.99, smacks of lazy profiteering.

Dreamers remains a wonderful little book, but unless you are a dedicated Knut Hamsun fan you may want to wait until this volume is available from either the library or a second-hand shop.


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One Man's Justice by Akira Yoshimura

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 9 October 2006 05:13 (A review of One Man's Justice)

One of the joys of translated literature is its ability to give you insight into other cultures and, on occasion, to approach well known events from another viewpoint. To observe from the other side of the fence through the eyes of someone who truly understands and experienced the events, rather than a pieced together alternate view from a journalist or historian. One of the best examples of this I have encountered for some time is “One Man’s Justice” by Akira Yoshimura.

“One Man’s Justice” is the story of Takuya, a young junior officer in the Japanese Army towards the end of the Second World War, who, in almost his last act in uniform, takes part in the execution, by sword, of a group of captured American airmen. Branded, post occupation, as a wanted war criminal, Takuya changes identity and goes on the run; taking us with him on a voyage through post war Japan.
Given the subject matter, and actions carried out by Takuya, it would be easy to assume from the outset what your feelings will be reading this book, and where your sympathies will lie. Yoshimura however, is a gifted writer, and whilst this book may be printed in black and white, the story it tells is anything but.
Yoshimura places Takuya’s story into context, and without overly taking one side or another, allows the reader to make his own judgements about ‘One Man’s Justice’. In doing so, you are faced with some questions that are more complicated than at first glance. Who judges what is or isn’t a war crime? Is Yoshimura acting out of duty or desire? Are his actions any more or less of a crime than the bombing of civilians carried out by the airmen?
As the story progresses, attitudes to what happened changes in Japan, and amongst the Americans, in a way mirroring the way the readers’ opinions may alter. Has time mellowed? Have our viewpoints altered? Or are principles being compromised and history being re-written in the mind too ease our conscience?

"From the rear entrance to the building, among the soldiers carrying bundles of paper, appeared the lieutenant from the legal affairs section, walking straight towards Takuya. His pursed lips were dry and his eyes glistened. Stopping in front of Takuya, he explained that the request he was about to make was an order from the major at High Command.
‘The prisoners are to be executed. You are to provide two sergeant majors to help. If we don’t deal with the last of them before the enemy lands, they’ll talk about what happened to the others. There are seventeen left. It’s to be done straightway. People from headquarters staff up near Yamae village are waiting.’
Takuya understood that, to those at headquarters, the prisoners’ execution was as important now as the burning of all the documents. They had already been sentenced to death, and the fact that hostilities had ceased had no bearing whatsoever on their execution.
Although his duties collecting data and issuing air-raid alerts had finished, Takuya once again sensed that his destiny was linked to that of the captured airmen. He had followed their actions for days and months on end, had busied himself to the very last collecting data about the aircraft that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, and had himself issued the air-raid alert and the order to evacuate the city. Takuya had been in the position to know the full extent of the damage caused by the bombing and strafing attacks carried out by these men. So far his duties had assigned him a passive role, but that was all over now, and the time had come, he thought, actively to show his mettle. Only then would his duties be finished.
At the time of the previous two executions, Takuya’s responsibilities as officer in charge of the tactical operations centre had kept him at his post, but the Emperor’s broadcast released him from all duties. I want to participate in the executions, he thought. Taking the life of one of the prisoners with his own hands would be his final duty. The lieutenant had said that the executions would be carried out in order to dispose of remaining evidence, but for Takuya it was something personal, something he had to do as the officer in charge of air defence intelligence.
‘Count me in, too,’ said Takuya."

This is the second novel I have read by Akira Yoshimura, having previously been highly impressed by the brilliant “Shipwrecks”. Whilst the phrasing of this translation is at times not as skilful as I would have liked, it remains a powerful and thought provoking read, very near the standard of his previous book. Unfortunately there is very little else of Yoshimura’s work translated into English, at least very little of his straightforward fiction cannon. I’ll try and hunt down a copy of “Parole” next, in the hope it matches the standard set by “One Man’s Justice” and “Shipwrecks”.


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Monumental Propaganda by Vladimir Voinov

Posted : 12 years, 1 month ago on 9 October 2006 05:11 (A review of Monumental Propaganda)

Many people’s view of Soviet dissident fiction might be that it makes for an earnest but perhaps, rather depressing read. For them, the books of Vladimir Voinovich would come as a pleasant surprise, as he has always chosen to tackle Russia’s troubled journey through the twentieth century with the kind of wry humour and satirical edge that can be often found in Russian literature. Indeed, Voinovich fits into a tradition that runs from Gogol, through Milhail Zoshenko and on to modern exponents like Victor Pelevin.

In ‘Monumental Propaganda’, Voinovich has taken Aglaya Revkina, one of the minor characters from his most well know book “The Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin”, and used her life as a foundation from which to examine Russia’s progress, or lack of, from the Death of Stalin to the explosion of capitalism following the end of communist rule.

Aglaya is a renowned partisan leader from the “great patriotic war” against the nazis, and a fervent follower and believer in Stalin. The story begins in early 1956; Stalin has died and the personality cult surrounding him and many of the excesses of his reign has been criticised by his successor Khrushchev, in a famous speech to the twentieth congress of the CPSU.

Aglaya becomes increasing bewildered and angry as her beloved Stalin is gradually denounced by the same national and local party officials who held his every word to be gospel during his lifetime. She sees his place in history being re-written, and the giant statue of him in her town square that she worked so hard to have erected, being torn down. Her determination to stand firm in her beliefs and to do her duty to keep his image intact, leads her to save the statue from being sent for melting down and have it placed in the living room of her apartment.

As the second part of the century moves on, she is witness to favourites within the party changing, political ideology subtlety ebbing and flowing, and eventually communist rule itself collapsing. In the vacuum that is left, nothing seems certain anymore as the safety nets of the Soviet welfare state are removed, and corruption and greed explode as if from Pandora’s box. Leaving some Russians to ponder whether they need to return to a stronger, Stalin like, leader once again.

"There had been times when Aglaya, thinking about the revolution, has regretted being born just a bit too late and missing the romantic period of the Party’s struggle with the old Tsarist order – when young communists had turned out for meetings and demonstrations and walked along singing under the whips of the Cossacks and the bullets of the police. Of course, she had also lived in fascinating and eventful times, but she’d missed out on the revolutionary romanticism. But now…Even though, of course, many bad things had happened and the enemies of communism had seized power…Now she had been given the chance in her old age to experience the conditions under which the revolutionaries of former times had lived. She recalled the picture she had seen earlier that day; Stalin at the Demonstration in Baku. Soso Djugashvili walking at the head of a detachment of Bolsheviks in close ranks, wearing a Russian-style shirt with the collar unbuttoned, young and dark-haired, with his eyes open wide as they gazed into the future. History repeats itself. Now she, Aglaya Stepanova Revkina, was striding along in the ranks of her comrades, proudly carrying the portrait of their beloved leader.
Glancing back, she couldn’t she how far the column extended. In actual fact, it couldn’t extend very far because there wasn’t very much of it, but it seemed to Aglaya that she was striding along at the head of a procession of people. As she walked, she saw people on the sidewalks along the edges of the roadway watching the column go past and imagining them to be admiring onlookers. In fact, the were only casual passers-by who were so well used to spectacles like this that they didn’t even display any particular curiosity. Several of them actually felt uncomfortable and pitied these stupid, malicious, helpless and ridiculous old people. As people of the new generations, they thought they were quite different and could never be like them. But that is not the way things really are. The generations are no better or worse than each other; their beliefs, mistakes and behaviour depend on the historical and personal circumstances in which they grow up. It doesn’t take a prophet to predict that people will be blinded again, and more than once, by false teachings, will yield to the temptation of endowing certain individuals with superhuman qualities and glorify them, raise them up on a pedestal and then cast them back down again. Later generations will say that they were fools, and yet they will be exactly the same."

Whilst an important period of history is being addressed, and very serious issues raised, Voinovich does so with a cutting humour that makes his work a much easier read than might be imagined. The weakness of the book, and the thing that stops it from being his best work, is the meandering nature of the plot. “Monumental Propaganda” is written in the Russian style of narration that reads as if being told to you in person by the author, with the plot allowed to ramble a little as the author decides to flesh out interesting characters as we meet them on the way. It’s a style that dates back at least to Pushkin and “Eugene Onegin”, with Voinovich using it here to such an extent that you can start to lose the thread of who is who and where you are. Given the chance to read the book again I’d probably take the opportunity to make notes as I progressed.

The usual caveats for Soviet/Russian literature also apply. Use of patronymics can be confusing if you don’t make a mental or written note of them as you go. Knowledge of the time period covered is always helpful, to the point where a little research into post-war Russia may be advised before delving in. But as with much Soviet era literature, that little bit of work before hand is well worth the effort and with “Monumental Propaganda” the rewards can be rich indeed.


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