I find that it is quite difficult to talk about tragedies through the eyes of children without becoming twee. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We CannotI find that it is quite difficult to talk about tragedies through the eyes of children without becoming twee. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See and Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close are paramount examples of this twee. Foer pulls it off, Doerr not so much. So I was a bit nervous in picking up this book, which deals with the particular part of Auschwitz called "The Zoo;" in this area internees that were identical twins or had other genetic anomalies would be gathered under the "loving" but in fact completely sadistic and psychopathic attention of Josef Mengele. If this book is to be believed -- and it is very thoroughly researched -- Mengele was a mediocre physician with a great capacity to ascend to the highest ranks of the Nazi kingdom, and the book gives the distinct impression that his "experiments" were vastly more exercises in sadism than advances in science.
The protagonists of this book are 12 and then 13-year-old twins, Pearl and Stasha, and alongside them in The Zoo there's a motley crew of truly fabulous characters, kid survivors who bank entirely on their own oddities to stay alive.
The first point I want to remark on is that the author, Konar, bends over backwards to avoid brutality porn. She gives us just enough that we know that the unspeakable happens, but she also gives us plenty of ways to put it in a nice box of denial.
The second point I want to remark on is that there is all sorts of magic that happens between twins -- not Harry Potter magic, just plain human magic -- and all this magic is rendered through inventiveness, quirk, and lovely vocabulary. The result is an utterly original, mesmerizing, and joyful book where a joyful book should have been impossible.
The third point I want to highlight is the key point of the book, the soul and the heart and the air and the oxygen and the sunshine and the warm milk of this book, and it is that if you are deeply loved you will survive. Clearly, Pearl and Stasha love each other inexpressibly, but since it is precisely Mengele's mission to tear twins apart, the love that manages to keep them alive when they should have died ten times over, is the memory of the love of their mom, their dad, their grandfather and of each other. A child who has been absolutely treasured has survival tools you cannot even imagine. Patricia McCormick's Never Fall Down is a luminous example of this theory.
Fourth: children have tools for survival we can only dream of. We live in the constant fantasy that we need to look after children. This is a fantasy. Like angels, children are constantly looking out for us. All of them.
Fifth: quite surprisingly, the book dropped the ball at the end, and the last ten pages are disappointing. I do not know if this is the author's fault, the editor's fault, or God's fault. Since God can take it, I'm gonna blame him for it....more
there might have been a time, when i was in high school or college perhaps, when this book would have spoken to me. in that time i read voraciously ththere might have been a time, when i was in high school or college perhaps, when this book would have spoken to me. in that time i read voraciously the peripatetic adventures of hemingway's non-heroes and imagined myself traveling from france to spain and back on the spur of the moment, overnight, roughing it up. the freedom, you know? it appeals to you when you are barely over childhood.
i don't know the author's age, but i imagine her to be also, as i was then, in her 20s. and i defy anyone to read this book without thinking of hemingway. but the comparison ends here. this is a brutal book about the immediate aftermath of a terrible dictatorship, and even though the dictatorship is finished, the dust is settling and a lot of the rottenness is being hastily swept under the rug.
first-person narrator mosca has lost parents and a brother in the war and fears that the security forces may be after her. in her terrible grief she seeks safety away from home, first in the spanish country-side, then on the mountains, and finally in france. she is accompanied in this journey by three friends.
there are a few recurring themes here: on the one hand, mosca (and some of her friends) still believe/hope that mosca's brother is alive, and quietly look for him. on the other, the four kids are terribly young and lost, and suffer great physical duress in their journey of escape. they are eaten alive by hunger and cold. this physical duress is accompanied by emotional duress, mostly caused by the ways in which their stories, feelings, and lives intersect and interact.
this adult reader (me) found herself quite perplexed at the young characters' survival in the intolerable conditions in which their journey plunge them. they basically never eat. they sleep on floors. they never bathe or get any creature comfort. for weeks. and weeks. with a sort of relish that i remember from those times, fuentes mentions again and again their thinness. living hard takes a big toll on the body. youth makes this toll romantic, and this is fine. but i would have liked a bit more explanation. truly, they basically NEVER EAT. even when there is food, they peck at it, too dejected to feel hunger.
i could not get into the intricacies of their relationships -- who loves whom, who trusts whom, who touches whom, who needs whom, who cannot stand whom, WHY. one needs to do this stuff sparsely for it to work. it's not done sparsely here. lots and lots of language is dedicated to it and this language goes from extremely beautiful and lyrical to somewhat juvenile and uncontrolled. a third of the book could have been edited out.
the denouement, which is not really a denouement but rather a more explicit journey into national mythology, a diving into the suppurating wound of the war and the dictatorship, is quite effective and beautiful, quite a few of the sentences were obscure to me, but the overall thrust of the last section is deeply poetic in a way in which the book is only infrequently, and this poetry is effective and powerful.
in spite of the fact that this book could have been trimmed down and its language better edited, there are quite a few fabulous passages to admire and savor.
i want to say that it is very obvious to me that the writer cares a great deal about this story, and that the writing of this book was no small feat. it must have cost her blood. i see on goodreads that readers are appreciating it. i'm glad. as i said, i am probably very much not its intended audience! ...more
This book is presented as a novel, but it's hard, in reading it, not to think of it as a memoir. I have given some thought to what makes a novel readThis book is presented as a novel, but it's hard, in reading it, not to think of it as a memoir. I have given some thought to what makes a novel read as a memoir and I can't quite pinpoint it -- but maybe we expect a novel to have a certain dymanic form, and to be shaped by certain dramatic occurrences and by a certain progressive development. This book is driven by the urgency of telling a story that hasn't been told, that of the Slovenian minority in Austria during WWII. This, too, felt memoiristic rather than novelistic to me, in this particular book, though of course this needn't be the case for every book driven by a historical urgency.
In any case, I was captured by the writing for most of the book -- the protagonist's childhood, the increasingly haunting memories that fell her family and many of her fellow villagers, and that eventually fill up her mind. Her collapse under the cumulative weight of all this silenced, unprocessed past. The unrecognition of Austro-Slovenian partisans both by the Austrian and the (then) Yugoslavian governments, the former because the partisans are perceived as affiliated a bit too much with communism, the latter because they are not communist enough. There are some incredibly moving passages in which the narrator explains (see?) how the partisans simply did what needed to be done for their and their community's survival -- how it wasn't even a choice really. They were Slavs, therefore prime targets in Hitler's path of racial "purification." And many of them, the majority of those who didn’t join the partisans in the mountains, ended up, in fact, in concentration camps, and only a few returned, and those who returned were never the same.
The child and then young woman who narrates the story conveys powerfully, first the mystery in which her family and the entire village is steeped; then her own sense of responsibility for the survival of her family, in which trauma is ravaging minds and physical health; then her need to leave but also, at a distance, to understand, because if she understands the terrible trauma and the terrible belittlement and disgracing that followed maybe, just maybe, things will get better, for someone, maybe.
As a document of a poorly-known corner of WWII this is terrific. As a document of what makes some people last and some people fold, this is terrific too, But at the end, 1/5 to the end, I felt that the "novel" had told me whatever story it had to tell and there was no need to continue.
I wish a careful editor had gotten in here and cut the bits that needed to be cut and blended a bit more rationally the bits that needed to be connected. There is too much repetition. There is, also, some clumsy meshing of styles. Still, if you are interested in the particular story this book tells, then you should read it. And if you are a WWII buff, then you should read it. And if you feel compelled to remember the people who died for justice and freedom but history forgot, then you should read it too.
i read this hot on the heels of The Land of Green Plums, which was written two years later, in 1994. Fox is being translated into english for the firsi read this hot on the heels of The Land of Green Plums, which was written two years later, in 1994. Fox is being translated into english for the first time, by a different translator from the one who translated Plums. this makes it all the more striking that müller's language sounds, in english, so incredibly consistent. this woman thinks in poetry and imagery and, even though the imagery is bleak, the language is oh so beautiful. if you don't believe it, read her nobel lecture. sometimes i wonder how she speaks in daily life: do people understand her?
but people must, because, even though the language and the imagery are so very strange, by half-way through you understand pretty much everything. the story emerges from the language, in the language, with sudden clarity, and you wonder if it was there all along and you missed it, or if you had to get used to the telling, or if müller just needed to set it all up so that it would be earned.
the novel follows, first a village, then a small group of friends over the last few months/years (not clear to me) of the ceausescu regime. uncharacteristically, i believe, for müller, ceausescu is clearly alluded to, and, at one point, even named.
there is a passage in Primo Levi's If This Is a Man in which levi describes in astonishing terms what it means to be considered by another not a person but an intangible, invisible thing, and how this act of dehumanization is more powerful, more destructive, than overt violence. müller is masterful at explaining the ways in which a brutal dictatorship can chip away at the joy of living through the daily grind of fear. nothing extraordinarily horrible happens in this or the other novel i've read. no one is killed, raped, or beaten. what happens, instead, is that people's simple going about their day gets soaked in fear. there is some specifically targeted intimidation, some precise mind-fuckery, but most of all what gets to people is the bleakness, the lightlessness, the perennial scrutiny, the pervasiveness of petty exercises in authority. this is the particular dehumanization herta müller portrays.
the book starts with poplars and the particular prison-bars-like shading of trees. poplars are like knives. evil men eat sunflower seeds and spit them. the sunflower seeds are black and small. there is a striped cat and its stripes are the stripes of the bars made by the trees. it's either very cold or very hot, but even when it's very cold there is no snow so the cold is dry and dusty. the factory where most of the villagers work has spools of wire and the wire rusts and the rust leaks. people steal metal from the metal factory, bit and pieces, and they get caught by one of the many gatekeepers installed in the village, and when they get caught they have to leave the metal they have stolen with the gatekeeper. the regime creates little hierarchies that make neighbors be merciless and cruel to each other.
it's ordinary life but it's also scary life and hopeless life and people escape it by crossing the danube into hungary, except they often drown and when they drown no one mourns them because they are just corpses that don't mean anything.
there are many insects in this book. they follow people around.
herta müller has the imagination of a child. she sees the world through metaphors. she is struck by moles, birthmarks, warts, tall foreheads, wide-spaced eyes, thin temples, big heads, small hands. little things we regularly miss mean so much in this book. what would happen if we saw the world they way she does, so immensely pregnant with things to see, so immensely marvelous?
this is why, in spite of the bleakness, this is a lovely book. the language makes it so intolerably beautiful. it's beautiful in spite of itself but it's also beautiful intentionally, because maybe, just maybe, this beauty, all these moles and warts and wide-spaced eyes and insects and poplars and seeds, are the things that make life endurable, the way children make life endurable by telling themselves stories in the dark of their room, at night.
many thanks to netgalley for an ARC of this book...more
it seems to me that if you want or need to write about the intensely traumatic life of people under a brutal dictatorship, writing with the language oit seems to me that if you want or need to write about the intensely traumatic life of people under a brutal dictatorship, writing with the language of children is a good way to go.
i deduce from other things i've read by herta mūller (okay, basically only her nobel lecture, which i can't recommend highly enough), that this novel is autobiographical, and i find profoundly inspirational that she helped herself through the process of writing about her trauma by using great inventiveness of imagery and language, and fantastic turns of events. in spite of being dark, this book is suffused with the special sweetness that comes from narrating events through the lens of child-play. trauma is so, so difficult to tell, and if lovely simple imagery helps us through the telling, well, dang, we should totally use it.
so look, this is not a super easy book to read, because you need to don your childlike glasses and let yourself be taken by plums and wooden objects and tin objects and sacks of canvas and pillowcases and barbers and nailclippings, and at first, since you are so thoroughly weaned from the magic of childhood, you will be confused. you will want to understand; you will expect the narrator to explain. eventually, though, the language will train you back into looking at things with the eyes and forbearance of a child, and you will understand pretty much everything.
which is -- the everything that needs to be understood -- that petty quotidian abuse and the systematic reminder that your freedom is taken away from you without rhyme or reason or any possibility for appeal cause a distress so deep that surviving it is well nigh impossible. there are, maybe, hints of true blue torture in here, but mostly what grinds down the soul of the young and older people who populate this beautiful, beautiful novel is their daily subjection to indignity, oppression, humiliation, suspicion, and fear.
i don't want to give the impression that this is all high fantasy, because it isn't. under the language of childish words there is a clear, realist story, and you can reconstruct it pretty well. but the language, well the language made the book more tolerable for me to read, and maybe (this is my starting theory) more tolerable for the writer to write, too.
because children have this tremendous tolerance for horror, and what is horrific to us -- the wolf eating red riding hood's grandmother -- is story to them, and stories make you stronger. stories allow you to experience pain without too much bite. stories give you the demons and the saviors, too.
the present-time of the narration is alternated with flashbacks of the narrator's childhood, and i found these little vignettes, inserted seamlessly in the text, very powerful. they felt to me reminders that this is a book written in some ways by a child (in some ways, because the narrator is in fact a university student), but since the stories contained in them are pretty straightforwardly bitter, they also brought home to me that it is easier for the childlike narrator to play a little when telling the story of her present trauma if she tells the pain of her childhood straight up. in other words, the childlike narrator has to establish herself as a lucid and direct narrator of her own childhood, so that the childlike quality of her narrative of her adulthood be grounded and rooted in the honesty and truthfulness of the story of her childhood pain.
i don't quite know why things were not better for our narrator when she was a child. i don't know whether she looks back at her childhood and tinges it with the horrors of the present. i don't know if her childhood is meant to represent the childhood of all children and all adults under ceausescu. It is quite possible that this was her childhood -- that it wasn't a good childhood. those were the parts that hit me the most: the unadorned pain of a little girl.
even though this, for the reasons i have explained, was not the easiest read, i couldn't put it down, and always looked forward to going back to it. it's beautiful writing, and an important story, and in my opinion quite a masterpiece.
this story is so... preposterous, really, that one doesn't quite know what to do with it. but jo nesbo writes fine prose and fine story, and keeps youthis story is so... preposterous, really, that one doesn't quite know what to do with it. but jo nesbo writes fine prose and fine story, and keeps you engaged, and at the end of the day the son (protagonist) kept me good solid company for a week, so, okay: five stars for keeping me company; one star for being a book that doesn't make any sense at all and whose denouement you can see half way through. average: 3 stars.
entertaining, well written, well paced psychological thriller. what i like most about this series, beside harry hole (pr. hoo-lah), is that there areentertaining, well written, well paced psychological thriller. what i like most about this series, beside harry hole (pr. hoo-lah), is that there are no guns. with few exceptions the cops carry no guns, and when they do they don't use them. they seem to prefer talking their criminals down and tricking them in other ways. i just read in the news that american cops are trained to go for the head or the torso. like, you know, if you are mouthing off, or videotaping them, or twitching a little. these norwegian cops seem to be trained to go for the mind, and if they really need to incapacitate someone i suppose they'll try with a graze wound on the arm. ask me how much i love this.
also: no slew of dead/raped/uber-sexualized and violated young women. ask me how much i like this. ...more
this is really good. i docked stars because, and also because (view spoiler)[when the solution to a mystery involves the killer's having multiple persthis is really good. i docked stars because, and also because (view spoiler)[when the solution to a mystery involves the killer's having multiple personalities it feels to me like a cop-out (hide spoiler)]. other than that, great read, great writing, great pacing, and fuck war. ...more
i read this a long time ago. though i remember it only dimly, i know that it changed my life, the way some books do. like The Catcher in the Rye. likei read this a long time ago. though i remember it only dimly, i know that it changed my life, the way some books do. like The Catcher in the Rye. like Almanac of the Dead. like If This Is a Man. like that book by czeslaw milosz in which he riffs on whitman, whose title i cannot remember/find to save my life, and which got dropped to the bottom of the atlantic ocean when i tried to ship my books across continents in a box that was way too slight to hold so much weight. there are good books somewhere between northern france and the statue of liberty for the fish to enjoy. beats plastic, petrol, and mercury, don't you think? if you know what milosz i'm talking about, drop me a note.
with life-changing books, sometimes it's a freak thing, sometimes there's no freakness involved at all.
i don't know who to recommend it to. maybe no one. i'm in a space now in which only fast pace and cool COOL language works for me. i read mysteries, even though i am an extremely poor consumer of mysteries. i've discovered there's some really great stuff in genre fiction. i thank mike for this, and linda.
this "review" has almost nothing to do with the book it is supposed to review, but maybe my friends will read it anyway and understand why i needed to write it....more