A God In Every Stone: A Novel by Kamila Shamsie

The city of Peshawar is located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan. It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city. Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone.

Title:  A God In Every Stone:  A Novel

Author:  Kamila Shamsie

Publisher:  Bloomsbury, London (2014) / Atavist Books

ISBN:  978 1 9378 9430 6

 

AGodInEveryStoneThe city of Peshawar is  located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan.  It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city.  Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone – by setting it in the period between WWI and the Partition of British India and by using the Persian Empire -(and the tale of Scylax, a hero who betrayed his king) to bookend her story.

It’s an ambitious novel.  Vivian Rose Spencer is sent by her father to his old friend, Tahsin Bey, to take part in an archeological dig in the Labraunda region (located in modern day Turkey).   It is 1914.  For Vivian the trip is marked by a series of firsts – first adventure away from home, first taste of independence, first archeological discovery & first love. Tahsin Bey, the man who will be the great love of Vivian Rose’s life, tells her the story of Scylax  of Caryanda. A sea Captain and Ancient Greek Historian, he is mentioned in Herodotus. In Tahsin Bey’s version of the tale the Persian King Darius I favored Scylax, the Greek explorer, and as a mark of his favor gave him a finely wrought silver crown of figs. But when Caryanda rose up against the Persians, Scylax betrayed his King and rebelled with his countrymen.* Tahsin Bey believes the crown exists and has spent his life searching for it.

And then WWI detonates and turns Labraunda into an idyllic interlude very different from everything that follows.  Vivian Rose returns home to London to nurse the wounded soldiers and we are introduced to Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun soldier, who travels to France as a part of the Indian Army.  He will eventually lose an eye in the Battle of Ypres and be sent home to Peshawar.  Vivian Rose, traumatized by the carnage of war she sees in the army hospital escapes back to India and archeology.  These two will be bound, completely unbeknownst to them, by their affection for an engaging and intelligent boy. Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb, who will become Vivian Rose’s student and protegé.

For the first time she gave him her full attention – a smiling boy with excellent but oddly pronounced English, as though most of his vocabulary came from books. He was dressed more formally than the day before in narrow black trousers, a white tunic, and a white turban with a grass stain which suggested he’d been standing on his head.

They turned into another lane and Najeeb said it was the Street of Partridge Lovers, and looked startled when she laughed.

– What else? Tell me all the street names!

– The Street of Dentists. The Street of Potters. The Street of Felt Caps. The Street of Silver. The Street of Money-Changers. The Street of Coppersmiths. The Street of Englishwomen.

– The Street of Englishwomen?

– They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will avoid it.

– Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must.

He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.

 

All of which is only a very small part of a larger (and, in hindsight) messier plot that also includes the Khudai Khidmatgar or“Servants of God” – the Pashtun Liberation Movement with strong ties to Gandhi’s Indian Liberation Movement – led by Ghaffar Khan.  Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan were good friends and shared a common philosophy of non-violence. Qayyum will become of follower of Ghaffar Khan and a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar and Pashtun Liberation.

Against this richly layered historical backdrop Shamsie uses her characters to take a hard, unsentimental look at the relationship of two cultures interacting under the social constructs of colonialism & Empire.  She accurately describes the injustice, prejudice, and inequality that existed in British India without dismissing the complexity of that relationship. She also takes an honest look at both cultures’ treatment of women.  Vivian Rose’s father raises her as if he were the son he never had: “a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect”. He seems remarkably enlightened until we learn how he “set her right” on women getting the vote by sending her to an Anti-Suffrage League meeting. “If all women were like Ms. Bell and you, men would fall over their feet in the haste to give you the vote”. “- Are you to spend the rest of your life making up for my womb’s insistence on killing his sons?” her mother asks at a pivotal point in the sorry.

A few months later, halfway across the world, Najeeb will find his four-year-old niece looking at one of his books.

– Do you want to learn how to read?

Najeeb sat down beside her as he spoke, both of them small enough to occupy a single chair. The child nodded her head, placed her hand on the page and said, Alif, Bey, Pay. Qayyum lifted her up in his arms, away from the book, away from Najeeb’s questioning gaze, and placed her on her grandmother’s lap.

– Play with your doll, little one.

 


A God In Every Stone is a lush, sweeping novel; ping-ponging between Britain and India; with a larger than average cast of characters. Shamsie paints every one of them (no matter how tertiary) so vividly as to confuse her readers into believing she is writing non-fiction. Preconceptions, projection & misunderstandings shape events. From the early chapters, where a young British woman and a wounded Pashtun soldier find themselves sharing a train compartment, to the final pages in which a single Pashtun man finds himself on a rooftop with a young Pashtun lady to whom he is not related –  characters misinterpret and misjudge each others intentions. Shifting, third person narratives provide an array of perspectives – men and women who understand surprisingly little about themselves or each other.  Sometimes with tragic, sometimes glorious, results.

I wrote earlier that this was a messy novel. Let me clarify:  A God In Every Stone is messy like a Charles Dicken’s novel is messy – crammed full of plot, description and people.  Its character’s are imperfect, like those favored by E.M. Forester – committing multiple mistakes before reaching the end.  So yes – I still hold Kamila Shamsie has written a messy, imperfect masterpiece. But a masterpiece nonetheless.

 

*Carian Heraclides of Mylasa is a work attributed to the real life Scylax. In it Heraclides revolts against the Persians (during a Carian revolt c. 492 B.C. which was supported by the Greeks).  

The Last Days by Laurent Seksik, translated from French by Andre Naffis-Sahely

22669613The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely

Published by Pushkin Press, London (2014)

Historical fiction is strange. We approach it with the understanding that what we are reading is and is not true.  We contract with the writer to accept his (or her) interpretation of events without requiring he take on the burden of proof.  The situation become even more convoluted when we deal with historical figures, versus fictional characters placed in historical settings. For better or worse,  Philippa Gregory’s Boleyn sisters have supplanted the historical Ann & Mary in her reader’s minds.  Personally, I prefer Hilary Mantel’s versions – but the point is that both portraits are flawed and filled with inaccuracies due to the limits of the historical records. The facts that are represented – dates, portraits, whatever written documentation remains – are true. The mannerisms, the inflections of the voice, the emotions and motivations, events that took place behind closed doors – all this information is fabricated by the author to add depth to the narrative. But it raises the question:  if history is, as Voltaire said, “fables that have been agreed upon” what then, are historical fictions?

Laurent Seksik’s The Last Days attempts to understand the last days of the author Stefan Zweig and his young wife Lotte, who will kill themselves at the end of the novel.

During his lifetime Stefan Zweig was one of the most celebrated and translated authors in the world. But while he was commercially successful, he is considered by critics to have been a minor author at best. It was an opinion he accepted, perhaps even shared, showing extraordinary humility. When his books were burned by the Nazis in 1933 he is reported to have called it an honor to see them thrown into the same bonfires as the works of great men like Einstein, Freud and Mann.

The Last Days skips over most of Zweig’s life and goes straight to the year 1942.  Stefan & Lotte are attempting to make a home in Petrópolis, Brazil after fleeing from Austria to England, then England to New York. Zweig is presented as a man dealing with middle age (he was 61) and – a bit like the varsity football player who peaked in high school – obsessed with the golden days of a Vienna that no longer existed.*  Lotte,  half his age and in awe of his celebrity, finds herself living a life of exile and self-imposed isolation that is very different from the glamorous existence she fantasized. The Last Days is a complicated novel – contemplative & thoughtfully written in a way that is uniquely French.

Andre Naffis-Sahely’s translation moves readers towards the couple’s death gently – the cadence of the writing slow and sad and achingly beautiful.  Zweig seems aged past his actual years and is actively disengaging from the world. Many of his friends are dead.  Those who managed to escape are pressuring him to take a political stand condemning Germany.** His world is shrinking – geographically and intellectually.  Something those around him are beginning to recognize.

“It’s funny to notice how the choices you made as a writers reveal your true inner nature. Mann opted to write about Goethe, while you chose to focus on Kleist and Nietzsche. You look for a path through the darkness and wander from country to country, with neither children nor a fixed address, and now you’ve buried yourself in this godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, Meanwhile, Mann proceeds full steam ahead. Mann surrounds himself with people and protects himself. He has placed himself at the crossroads so as to watch all comings and goings, he’s the sun around which everyone else revolves. Whereas you have escaped to a place where nothing happens and have reached a point of no return. Mann is planning his reconquest of the literary world. Mann is busy building a statue to himself, while concealing his true nature. Mann will never own up to his pederastic inclinations. Mann conceals anything that might compromise his public image.  Mann sees himself as peerless. Mann looks for light and finds it in Thomas Mann. On the other hand, here you are doing your utmost to disappear.”

Seksik uses Ernst Feder, as he uses everything in his novel, as an opportunity to psychoanalyze these two people. He has a hypothesis that he is working through on the page.  It is fascinating to watch – though I couldn’t help wondering if reality wasn’t as tidy as he would like us to believe. Zweig’s suicide was, in fact. not entirely surprising when viewed in retrospect.  He had a history of depression (something his first wife, Friderike Maria von Winternitz, confirmed in her memoir about their life together after his death) and something Seksik only alludes to.***  Lotte, in my opinion, provides much more complicated subject matter.  She was hired by Friderike to act as Zweig’s secretary. They began an affair. Zweig eventually convinced Friderike to divorce him, and he and Lotte were married. She was completely devoted to the both the man and the world famous author. But Seksik is insightful enough to understand that a young wife might not have been entirely content with their life in Petrópolis.  Seksik’s portrait of Lotte, his interpretation of her psyche, is fascinating and troubling at the same time. She’s a pathetic creature willing to diminish herself in return for his love, and yet there are sparks of rebellion.  They amount to nothing, but their brief existence prevents the character from becoming two-dimensional.

On the whole neither Stefan or Lotte Zweig are sympathetic.  They are isolated, from society and each other, by the fog of depression. Yet Seksik manages to channel that depression into a semblance of life.  His characters are made of blood and bone. When husband & wife venture out with friends to celebrate Carnival Lotte wears a new red dress.  In the crowds Stefan loses sight of  her and Seksik describes his initial panic and his reaction when he finds her again.

He had lost hold of Lotte’s hand.  He looked around frantically. The thought that she might have drowned in that human flood terrified him. Pushing his way through the pandemonium, he began screaming out her name, a cry that was lost in the midst of that racket. Everyone around him was lost in jubilation. A man wearing a skeleton costume and a skull mask roared in his face. He felt oppressed by the crowd and began thinking he’d lost her for good. A group of women wearing open bodices surrounded him, their bodies dripping with sweat as they shook in a sort of primitive dance. He saw himself as rather grotesque, lost in a ragged crowd wearing a white linen suit. A man wearing a fake beard jumped towards him and stole his Panama hat from his head. He stood motionless, petrified. Then, just as quickly as the crowd had assembled, it dispersed. All of a sudden, he caught sight of her, covered in ticker tape, swaying her hips in front of a man playing maracas. He lingered for a while observing the scene, in the middle of that frenzied outburst, keeping his gaze obstinately fixed on his wife. She appeared to be floating before his eyes as if in a dream.  He felt a hand on his shoulder.

While Zweig’s popularity has waxed and waned in the decades since his death, European additions of his books have continued to be widely read.  He is currently experiencing a revival – the beneficiary of the public’s nostalgia for the Edwardian period fueled by the popularity of shows like Downton Abbey, as well as films like Atonement and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson’s film was, in fact, inspired by Zweig’s novels). The New York Review of Books & Pushkin Press have recently reissued, between them, almost his complete catalog of books – translated into English to moderate success. There have been reviews and articles in The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, The NY Times Book Review, to name a few.  His suicide has been of particular interest, we humans are by our nature somewhat morbid.  Seksik has managed to elevate the conversation, gleaning beauty from tragedy.  Discovering truth in the absence of facts.

*The Youtube video below provides a sense of what that lost world was like.

**Fellow Jews who had fled the Third Reich took Zweig’s pascifism in life & eventual suicide to be an almost personal betrayal.  Mann wrote after learning of Zweig’s death: “He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.”

***I can’t help seeing parallels to Virginia Woolf’s suicide at the beginning of the war. Her nephew, Quentin Bell, in his amazing biography tells how the Woolfs planned to commit suicide should there be a German invasion.  Leonard Woolf was Jewish, and rumors had already begun to spread on the fate of the Jews under Hitler. Bell attributes the stress of a possible invasion, along with the loss of their London home and the Hogarth Press offices during a Blitz as contributing to her final breakdown.   

 

His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro, translated from the Portuguese by Kim M. Hastings

It is the late 1960’s and Max is embarking on what will be a remarkable career in the Brazilian Foreign Service. A career that will span some of the most tumultuous decades in Latin American history. Through the coups and purges, the government shifts from left to right and back again, the making & breaking of political alliances – he thrives…

Title: His Own Man

Author: Edgard Telles Ribeiro

Translator: Kim M. Hastings

Publisher:   Other Press, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 159051 698 0

Ribeiro_HisOwnManMarcilio Andrade Xaviar – known as Max to friends & colleagues alike – is handsome, charismatic, intelligent, cultured and endlessly complicated.  In short, the perfect diplomat.  It is the late 1960’s and he is embarking on what will be a remarkable career in the Brazilian Foreign Service. A career that will span some of the most tumultuous decades in Latin American history.  Through the coups and purges, the government shifts from left to right and back again, the making & breaking of political alliances – Max thrives.  He is a golden boy. Incapable of a misstep, even if he tried.

Across Latin America governments will fall (in the words of one character) like “right-wing dominoes”. Socialist and Communist leaders will be replaced by military dictators backed by Western powers.  A Cold War game of RISK played on Central & South American maps.  “… We went through Brazil in sixty-four and from there all the countries toppled one after the other, just like a house of cards: Argentina in sixty-six; Uruguay and Chile in seventy-three (a good year for us); Peru at some point, I no longer remember when; then Argentina again in 1976 (after the brief and pitiful Peron hiatus); and so on. A beautiful domino effect… just perfect.”

And at the center of it all stands Max.  Except we aren’t given Max’s version of events.  Instead, His Own Man is narrated by a colleague and former friend. Obsessed with the trajectory of Max’s career and the wrecked lives left in its wake, the narrator (known only as N.) seeks out Max’s ex-wife, associates, even Max himself – anyone and anything that can provide insight into the actions of his former friend.  Structured like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Bolano’s Distant Star and Matthiesson’s Shadow Country trilogy – His Own Man pieces together a flawed portrait from bits of rumor, chance encounters, speculation and fading memories.  And like the main characters of those books, Marcilio Andrade Xaviar comes to embody the evils of the society ruled by terror. Operation Condor, the Argentine Dirty Wars, the kidnapping of the Uruguayans, Pinochet’s coup and Chilean “Operation Silence”, the torture & murder of millions – somehow we are meant to understand that Max had a hand in all of it.  Yet, when pressed, he appears entirely disinterested in politics.

“After giving me a good-natured glance, Max repeated, ‘That’s right, he drank from the wrong well.’ And he concluded, ‘He only saw what was directly in front of him. Whereas…’”

I finished describing the scene to Marina.  Turning his back on the ministry esplanade, Max had slowly rotated, a motion I had to follow, given how close to him I was standing. And he’d gestured broadly with is arm from right to left through the space in front of us. His fingers glided past Burle Marx’s suspended gardens, descended to the people on the marble terrace – lost in their hopes and longings – and, without lingering, moved over the circle formed by the president and his entourage, all lively and elated. With the elegance of an orchestra conductor, his hand then swept past various groups of men in tailored suits,hovered over well-coiffed made-up women, reaching the new graduates and their relatives, until finally landing on the works of art, which ranged from Aleijadinho to Portinari, from colonial furniture to Persian rugs. Once his panorama was complete,  he leaned toward me and whispered, “… Whereas this is what I pursued.”

Ribeiro uses N.’s idealism to contrast Max’s opportunism, and then leaves it to his readers to determine the grey area where the truth resides. Max is mercenary, ruthless and ambitious.  But N.’s idealism never translates into concrete action.  N’s position allows him to shelter his family from the violence and upheaval taking place around them – but he fails to use it to change or even impact the world.  He coasts through events as a witness more than a participant. In fact, a lot of coasting seems to occur throughout the plot of His Own Man.  Max seldom instigates events, rather he stumbles into most of the opportunities that shape his career. Or finds himself manipulated into position by foreign government agencies.  His Own Man is something of a misnomer.

It stands to reason that a former diplomat turned author would avoid the clichés found in most espionage novels.  Edgard Telles Ribeiro – journalist, film critic, author, career diplomat with 47 years in the Brazilian Foreign Service and the UN – knows the world of which he writes intimately.  Not the shadow world of 007 and George Smiley, the real Diplomatic Corps is made up of  men and women who exist somehow independent of the governments and nations they serve. Stationed in embassies located around the globe, they often seem far removed from the events taking place in their home countries even as they help shape them. They live their lives, marry and raise their children in little oasis set on foreign soil. Ribeiro’s characters are intelligent and cultured, they are surrounded by elegance and view world politics as a particularly challenging game of chess.  They believe themselves grandmasters, moving the pieces across the board.  But in reality they are just as likely to be pawns – manipulated and eventually sacrificed.

Kim M. Hastings translation is straightforward, with some lovely moments like the passage quoted above.  Overall, though, I found His Own Man more interesting than engaging.  The Latin American history is fascinating and the premise – an espionage/political commentary novel set firmly in the diplomatic (versus the intelligence) community – is a novelty.  But the 1st person narrator, so important to this novel’s success, comes across as a less charming, a less engaging, a less vibrant version of Max.  That N., in his 60’s at the time of the story’s telling, is jaded and consumed by regret lends authenticity to his character. But it also flattens out his perception of people and events. The sections involving Max’s wife Marina are some of the best in the book, because N.’s empathy and humanity is on display. I’d have liked to seen more of that same kind of emotional depth somewhere in N.’s portrayal of Max. 

The Days of the Rainbow by Antonio Skármeta & the film NO

The art on the cover had me expecting to read about a more grass-roots, Banksy-esque graffiti driven campaign. This is not the case. Still, it’s a great cover.

In 1988 Chilean President and General Augusto Pinochet, after a 14-year dictatorship that began with the 1974 military coup which deposed then President Salvador Allende and in an attempt to legitimize his regime in the eyes of Western governments, called for a plebiscite.  Citizens of Chile would vote – Yes or No – to Pinochet.  “Yes” for Pinochet to remain in power and “No” for free elections.  Overcoming the public’s fear of instability, unifying the disparate political parties of the left and withstanding government intimidation the “No” campaign miraculously won. The Days of the Rainbow is Antonio Skármeta’s fictional account of the making of that historic No! campaign.  The film NO by Chilean director Pablo Larraín is an adaptation of Skármeta’s unpublished play El Plebiscito, on the same subject.

These are works of historical fiction.  The book and film  not only stray from the historical record – they differ significantly from each other.  The Days of the Rainbow (the novel) features two protagonists.  The first, Adrían Bettini, is a well-respected but unemployed ad executive who has been blacklisted by the Pinochet government.  He is middle-aged, happily married with an 18-year old daughter.  At the beginning of the book Bettini is approached by representatives from both the Yes! and No! and asked to head their respective campaigns.  He, of course, chooses the No!

The second protagonist is Bettini’s daughter’s boyfriend, Nico Santos, who provides a first person narrative to his version of events.  In the opening pages Nico’s father, a high school philosophy teacher, is arrested and disappears like thousands of others detained by the Pinochet government.  These disappearances had become so commonplace that his father (who Nico refers to as Professor Santos as he is also his teacher) had discussed the possibility with Nico – dividing it into two possible scenarios.

… Professor Santos and I had foreseen this situation.

We had even given it a name:  We called it the Baroque situation.  If they took Daddy prisoner in front of witnesses, that meant they couldn’t make him vanish like they did to other people, people who are put in a bag with stones and are thrown into the ocean from a helicopter.  There are thirty-five students in my class and we all saw with our own eyes that they took my father.  He says that that’s an optimal situation, because they won’t kill him.  In cases like this, he’s protected by the witnesses.

According to the Baroque plan, when they take Daddy prisoner I have to make two phone calls to two numbers I learned by heart, although I don’t know the names of the people who are going to answer.  Then I have to keep living a normal life, going home, playing soccer, going to the movies with Patricia Bettini, going to school as usual, and at the end of the month, I have to go to the treasurer’s office to pick up his paycheck…

… If they had made my father disappear without any witnesses, we would be facing the Barbarian syllogism, and I would’ve probably died already of sadness.

After Professor Santos is taken Patricia and Nico are instrumental in helping Patricia’s father develop the No! campaign.  They help Bettini to understand that he needs to incorporate joy, laughter and even silliness for the No! to succeed.  The Days of the Rainbow is a completely engaging novel, easy to get lost in.  The prose, translated by Mery Botbol, is light and simple as is the story.  Young love, silliness, good overcoming evil, hope – all of these are present.  Like Robert Ampuero’s The Neruda Case (which would pair nicely with The Days of the Rainbow) the goal here is as much to entertain as to educate.

NO (the film) has an entirely different cast of characters.  The daughter and Santos family are absent.  Bettini is replaced by the much younger and hipper René.  René is a successful (and employed) advertising executive.  He rides a skateboard, is a single father, and has an estranged wife who is repeatedly arrested for protesting against the Pinochet government.  While there are references to disappearances, no one attached to the main characters is made to disappear.  The film focuses on the marketing aspect of the No! campaign – the filming of the television spots and the attempts to intimidate the team behind them.  Larraín chose to film it in a retro style which captures the washed out colors of 1970’s films.  It is lovely and evocative.  There’s very little background noise in the scenes, creating a sense of stillness that feels like being trapped in the eye of the storm.  The overall tone is definitely much darker than The Days of the Rainbow and the stakes feel much higher with René constantly looking over his shoulder in fear.   In one scene René’s boss, a man named Guzman who is a Pinochet supporter, meets with a government official in a plaza.  The Minister asks him “Who are these people running the No! campaign?  Who are these people I never heard of them?” “People to relaxed for my liking, minister.”  “Be careful with what you say Guzman.  If I open that door you have to close your eyes.”

The character of Guzman fills the same role as the random government official who initially approaches Bettini to work for the Yes! campaign in The Days of the Rainbow.  He is both friend and enemy , and a far more complicated character than our heroes Bettini, Nico and René.  Opportunistic is to crude a way to characterize Guzman’s and the official’s motivations.  Pragmatic too kind.

The Atlantic has a wonderful interview of Genaro Arriagada, the true head of the No! campaign.  Arriagada discusses the inaccuracies between the film and actual events. He does so without malice or censure.  As in everything in life, authors writing historical fiction must pick their battles.  The facts (for example – neither book or film mention that American consultants were involved in running focus groups that resulted in the campaign slogan “Joy is coming”) are subjugated and characters merged and simplified to illustrate larger ideas the author wishes to express.  We, as readers, must accept that for Skármeta the individuals involved are not so important as what the movement meant to Chile.  And that different mediums require different formulas. It’s not surprising that the book, the film and the facts do not entirely line up. I’d argue that the similarities rather than the differences in the two interpretations Skármeta has given us serve to highlight what truly matters: the plebiscite as a historic event; that  hope for a future without Pinochet was marketed to the Chilean public as a product (like a brand of soda or a microwave); and most importantly, that when the Chilean plebiscite was over those who voted Yes! and those who voted No! went back to their joint lives without incident.  The results stood.  There were no riots or (as far as I my research went) retaliations.  Those who were in power adapted and adopted the platforms necessary to remain in positions of power regardless of regime change.  Everyone else went back to their daily lives.

Democracy in action.  A government changes without too much disruption to anyone’s day-to-day life.  Even the politicians’. In 1989 Patricio Aylwin, who had opposed President Allende once upon a time, won the election and became Chile’s new president.  In 1990 Pinochet stepped down but remained Commander-In-Chief of the Army for eight more years.  Despite the overall upbeat tone of the book and the “thriller” character of film, Skármeta isn’t afraid to show some cynicism.  And why not?  We are talking about politics.

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051627 0

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The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido (translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead)

The Corpse Reader (another historical whodunnit in the same vein as The Hangman’s Daughter series) is published through Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s international/translation imprint.  I bought it because it was advertised on my Kindle as the “Daily Deal”.  Not so much for the low price – though I am surprised to admit that did play a small part – but mainly because it caught my eye as being something I’d actually enjoy reading (unlike say, Wedding Cakes and Big Mistakes which is currently polluting the screen of my device.  Porn would be less embarrassing). 

The hero of The Corpse Reader is Cí , a character based on Song Cí, the real life historical figure considered to be the father of forensic science.  He lived during the Tsong Dynasty (1206).  And so like The Mistress of the Art of Death series (do you see a pattern developing here?) by Ariana Franklin we have a Sherlock Holmes figure who pre-dates Doyles Sherlock and at the same time draws on the popular historic novel genre.  What gives The Corpse Reader an edge is that the author not only spent years researching the period, he also seems to have at knack for the tone/style of Chinese authors. When I compare The Corpse Reader to my (admittedly limited) experience with reading Chinese literature there are some cultural idiosyncracies that Garrido gets right.  The extreme deference to male authority figures, uncomfortable sexual relationships, the cut-throat political machinations of the Tsong Emperors Court.  And bad luck.  Chinese protagonists experience an inordinate amount of bad luck.  If it wasnt for bad luck, as the saying goes, theyd have no luck at all.

Cí shuddered at the sight of the City of Death.  In Wang’s view, to dock there was to engage in a dangerous game of chance.  The place was infested with outlaws, fugitives, traffickers, cardsharps – all of them ready to bleed dry any foreigner.  But as the barge approached, the wharf area, swathed in mist, looked abandoned, and the crews of the hundreds of docked boats were nowhere to be seen.  Even the water lapping against the boats’ sides seemed particularly gloomy.

“Be on your guard,” whispered Wang.

They glided toward the primary dock and began to see people running between the warehouses.  Cí looked down just as a dead body, surrounded by a bloody spew, floated past.  Other bodies floated nearby.

“The plague!” cried Ze.

Wang nodded, and Third and Peach Blossom came and huddled next to Cí.  He tried to discern the shore, but the mist was too thick.

“We’ll go downstream,” Wang said.  “You,” he added, addressing Peach Blossom, “grab a pole and help.”

Instead of doing as she was told, Peach Blossom grabbed Third and made to throw her into the water.  Third struggled hard and began to cry.  The prostitute’s face had become a wicked mask.

“The money!” she shouted.  “Give me the money or I swear I’ll throw her in!”

Cí is a lightning rod for bad luck.  But like a lightning rod all his bad luck and misfortune deflects onto those around him.  After tragedy strikes his family and forces him to become of fugitive from the law Ci journeys to the capital determined to find a way to resume his studies at University.  A series of misadventures occur  Eventually our young hero finds himself, and his extraordinary powers of observation, at the service of the Emperor.  He is commanded to solve a  series of murders connected to the Court .  In a situation he cannot win, surrounded by people he dare not trust, Cis struggles to attain his dreams.  You struggle with him.  Which makes The Corpse Reader hard to put down.  

Im providing only the barest of outlines because Antonio Garrido has crafted a plot that challenges and surprises.  One that deserves to be read spoiler free.  And the translator, Thomas Bunstead, was partly responsible for one of my favorite books of 2012:  The Polish Boxer.   The Corpse Reader is an entirely different kind of book, story and setting.  Bunstead seems to view that as a chance to show his versatility, and I’ve no doubt that the tone/style I tried to describe earlier can be in part attributed to his skills as a translator.

Engaging characters, a mystery that keeps you guessing, a translated crime novel from somewhere other than Sweden  – The Corpse Reader is something different to add to your Summer Reading List.  Available for a limited time on the Kindle for $3.99.*

Publisher:  Amazon Crossing, Las Vegas (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 6121 8436 4

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*Disclaimer:  I’m not being paid by Amazon.  I just think that’s funny.