The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson – #WITMonth 2016

Title:  The Case of Lisandra P.

Author:  Hélène Grémillon

Translator:  Alison Anderson

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2016)

ISBN:  978 0 14 312658 4

 

When writing #WITMonth posts, my first instinct is to spotlight only amazing books. And while those books definitely exist, it started to seem unfair to hold a writer to a ridiculously high standard because of her gender. It is perfectly acceptable for women, like men, to write mediocre but ultimately entertaining novels. Novels you take to the beach or read beside the pool not caring if the pages get full of sand or foxed from the water. Novels that are a little far-fetched and require a willingness to buy into coincidence after unlikely coincidence; but  which have you locked to the page – frantic to find out what happens next.

The Case of Lisandra P. is that kind of book.

In 2003 the French military’s role in training Argentine forces thirty plus years prior, in both urban warfare and torture techniques, was revealed. That training was subsequently used by the Argentine government against its own people in what came to be known as the Dirty War. Anywhere between 7,000-30,000 men, women and children disappeared between 1974 and 1983 – no one knows the actual numbers – and devastated families had no choice but to accept never knowing what had happened to a generation of their loved ones.  French writer Hélène Grémillon sets her story in Buenos Aires, 1987. It is against this backdrop of residual paranoia and loss which The Case of Lisandra P. plays out.

When a beautiful young woman is found dead on the sidewalk by a pair of young lovers, six stories below the window of her own apartment, the police are more than happy to implicate the husband. But Dr. Vittorio Puig,  psychoanalyst, maintains he is innocent.  From prison he reaches out to one of his patients and asks for her help in uncovering the truth. Eva Maria, an alcoholic and emotionally fragile woman (who may be a little in love with Puig), hesitantly agrees.

The alcoholic detective, recovering from a tragic past may be as cliché as it gets – but Eva Maria is more than that. She is a mother still reeling from the disappearance of her daughter.  One day Stella left the house and, like so many others during the Dirty War, never came back.  Her body was never found. In the aftermath, Eva Maria’s marriage falls apart and she drinks until she blacks out.  Her remaining son’s attempts to reach out to her, to care for her, are continually rejected. He desperately wants some sign of his mother’s affection, but Eva Maria is buried alive in a very real portrayal of a parent’s inconsolable grief.

…The funeral of a dead woman is one thing, but of a murdered woman, that’s something else entirely. The sorrow of not knowing how she died, this woman they are burying: it impedes mourning, and nothing should ever impede mourning, or there can be no healing. Can anyone here imagine Vittorio pushing his wife out the window? Is anyone here absolutely convinced he did? Eva Maria got there first, and she will be the first to leave. The policeman are waiting. Talking. Laughing. Eva Maria hides behind a tree. She watches as people leave the church. You don’t take photos at funerals. Her camera sounds like the song of a sick bird. She doesn’t want to miss anyone. Eva Maria is beginning to have a taste for suspicion, the stifling sensation that anyone could have killed Stella. She meant to say Lisandra. She’s confusing them. Mixing things up. In her mind now the two dead women are overlapping. The one who makes her suffer so much that she cannot bear to think of her, and the one who did not suffer, who occupies her thoughts for hours on end.

As she becomes more involved the case the boundaries between  Lisandra P.’s murder and Eva Maria’s obsession with her daughter’s disappearance begin to blur. As she listens to tapes of his sessions, at Vittorio’s request, she learns terrible secrets regarding her fellow patients. Things quickly spiral into an ending both shocking and tragic.

Structurally, The Case of Lisandra P. is a hodge-podge that incorporates first person stream of conscious and all three third person narrative perspectives (objective, limited and omniscient) as it jumps from character to character. Even the victim gets her turn to speak. Four pages of sheet music are reproduced between chapters, we read directly from the transcripts of Puig’s therapy sessions, there is the illustration of a sign and of a business card, a list of words Lisandra found in a book takes up three pages. There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten. Grémillon has metaphorically dumped a box onto a table and assembled a novel out of the contents. A hot mess is one way to describe it.  But the disorganization also creates the impression that the reader is actively participating in Eva Maria’s investigation.

Hélène Grémillon’s first novel, The Confidant was nominated for the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and won Monaco’s Prince Pierre Literary Prize.  I have to think that it was a very different book than this one.  The Case of Lisandra P. is a perfect poolside thriller. Easily read and just as easily forgotten.

 

Memory At Bay by Evelyne Trouillot, tr. Paul Curtis Daw

Title:  Memory At Bay
Author:  Evelyne Trouillot
Translator:  Paul Curtis Daw
Publisher: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville & London (2015)
ISBN:  978 0 8139 3809 7

Trouillot_Memory_Select.inddExtensive reading is not necessary to understand that Haiti has a complicated and troubling history.  The brutal sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, a nation formed out of the world’s first successful slave revolt, decades of precarious and corrupt governments, a devastating earthquake in 2010…time and again this country has had major obstacles thrown in its path.  And yet, despite multiple barriers, its impact and population have extended far beyond the borders of what is a relatively small, still developing, island nation.  By its tenacity alone Haiti is a place that inflames the imagination.

Alain Mabanckou wrote in Black Bazaar what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes about the Haitian people:  “…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds.  They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet.  With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated.  They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence.  I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …”

Evelyne Trouillot is a writer who didn’t leave home.  She is, for all intents, Haitian literary royalty.  The daughter of a Haitian intellectual &  lawyer, the niece of a historian, sister to a writer, an anthropologist and professor – Trouillot resides in Port-Au-Prince and is herself a teacher, novelist, and playwright. With her daughter and brother she co-founded Pré-texte, an institution which holds literacy and writing workshops.  Memory At Bay is her second book to be translated into English.  

Her main characters – two living, one dead – are members of the vast Haitian diaspora Mabanckou describes.  Rather than art they instead grapple with their roles as mothers, daughters and wives – the less glamorous, traditional roles of women.  Marie-Ange, the younger of the book’s two narrators, is employed as a caregiver in a facility in Martinique.  She is in mourning for her mother, whose voice we hear only through Marie-Ange’s memories. Together they left Haiti when she was a very small child. Now she is an orphan and her relationship to her childhood home is entirely colored by the memories her mother shared of surviving a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.

While still very young, I became an expert at choosing inoffensive subjects, ones that wouldn’t provoke a long diatribe from you against the Doréval dictatorships or those rare silences that were the precursors of your days of utter prostration. But today I wonder whether my ploy accomplished much at all. Whether you, Maman, didn’t carry an inexpressible sadness with you to your grave. And whether I who vicariously experienced the despotic regime won’t always have it under my skin. I’ve heard so much about those people since my childhood – not only the Doréval family, but also the notorious henchmen with their revealing or deceptive nicknames, still evocative of terrible anecdotes long after their time: Ti Baba, Captain Henry Tobias, Evaris Maître, Chief Lanfè, Lucien Désir, Colonel Britton Claudius. They’ve become elements of my universe, so powerful a part of my mental space and of my memories that it seems to me I’ll never be able to escape them and will always remain captive to their ghosts.

As she works through her grief Marie-Ange finds herself caring for a Haitian woman of roughly her mother’s age. Odile’s identity is not discussed at the facility (we are told this is for her own protection), but Marie-Ange soon realizes exactly who she is caring for.  Odile is the widow of one and the mother of another Haitian dictator – closely modeled after Papa & Baby Doc Duvalier. Hers is the book’s second narrative voice.

These two women – Marie-Ange & Odile – provide alternating, individual soliloquies on the Doréval/Duvalier regime. Marie -Ange addresses her mother, Odile her past. Over the course of the book a dialogue between them begins to take shape without their ever engaging each other in direct conversation. Trouillot writes about  a particularly complicated time in a country with a peculiarly complicated history.  Marie-Ange’s memories are second-hand, the collective experiences and stories bequeathed to her by her mother.  Outside of her duties in the care facility she shares very little of her life. As she expresses in the passage above, she is held captive by ghosts.

Odile’s memories are, by contrast, entirely singular and skewed.  Her position as wife of the president was unique. Her life privileged and sheltered. She was, in a sense, the monster’s darling.  Now at the end of her life, Odile finds a need to  justify her actions or, at the very least, the actions of others through which she benefitted.  Odile’s version of events, growing more and more desperate and defensive as the novel progresses, is ultimately meant for Marie-Ange. Or, more specifically, what Marie-Ange has come to represent: absolution. In a sense, both women are relaying false memories. It is only when taken together that their words form a story that more completely resembles the truth.

On bad days, Fabien would tirelessly repeat the names of all those he needed to eliminate. As if to dare his listeners to instigate a plot of some kind. The names rolled on, with no need to evoke at much length the circumstances attached to each: they all pertained to former friendships. A wife with whom she had discussed hairstyles and fashion, youngsters who had played with the Doréval children. Sometimes they would learn that the father of a  child to whom they had just given a birthday present had taken refuge in a Latin American embassy. Had received a fusillade in the back while trying to escape arrest. Had perished along with his entire family during an abortive uprising in the course of which the VSN had again proved worthy of the president’s confidence. Over the years she had learned not to recall the sweet little faces, to close her mind’s eye so as not to visualize the expression of terror on a known face. She had put on the impenetrable mask of the photos and official ceremonies. Over the years it had become so easy. AS usual, she wanted to banish all nagging qualms and retain only the thoughts that would facilitate her journey back in time, but she could only manage to take the whole bundle of memories with her into an unquiet sleep.

As Marie-Ange comes to terms with her grief and Odile with her past, Memory At Bay attempts to come to terms with the Haitian diaspora. Or, at the very least, explore what it means to be far from a home which has become more to do with an abstract idea than a geographic place. Troillot thoughtfully deals with the question of how, when a third of a country’s population lives outside its borders, do Haitians define and maintain their relationship to Haiti?  Paul Curtis Daw has thoughtfully translated two distinct, feminine voices – one old and the other young – which complement one another while retaining their individuality.  Memory At Bay is a small masterpiece:  a sensitive, skillfully written novel with nuanced and sympathetic characters which satisfies on multiple levels.

 

Papers In The Wind by Eduardo Sacheri (translated from Spanish by Maya Faye Letham)

Sacheri_PapersintheWindThe 2014 World Cup is almost upon us. Making it the perfect time to pick up a book about soccer – but nothing too technical. Something that taps into the passion of the fans, but doesn’t require that the reader be a fan herself. And, of course, it can’t be all about soccer.  That would be a bit much for someone who has never watched an entire game in her life.

I think I’ve found just the thing.

Eduardo Sacheri’s first novel to be translated into English, The Secret In Their Eyes, was a taut and suspense-filled thriller. His second novel is something completely different.  In Papers In The Wind Sacheri again returns to Buenos Aires, this time to tell the story of four childhood friends. When the youngest of their group, Alejandro “Mono” Raguzzi, dies of cancer his elder brother Fernando and best friends Daniel “Ruso” and Mauricio are devastated but determined to honor his memory.

A few years earlier Mono had used his entire life savings, $300,000.00, to buy a promising young soccer player.  The player never lived up to that initial promise.  And so after Mono’s death the normally level-headed Fernando hatches a scheme  to sell the player and use the money to secure his niece’s, Mono’s daughter’s, financial future. What ensues is a picaresque-style comedy as the three men attempt – through all kinds of harebrained shenanigans – to make a star out of a Striker who is too big and too slow to score a goal.

And hilarity ensues, as they say.  Papers In The Wind is very funny, but it’s also a book with immense heart. That strikes a nice balance, since the overall premise can  seem a bit far-fetched at times.  Eduardo Sacheri is an extremely talented writer whose characters are both perfectly, and imperfectly, drawn.  Their flaws make them real.  And as the story unfolds – both in the present and in flashbacks to Mono’s illness – you find yourself believing in these men. And in their friendship. And, subsequently, in their crusade.

The interactions between the friends, along with a huge cast of supporting characters (at one point a transvestite  wanders into the story, bonds with Fernando and wanders back out again purely for the fun of it), provides a nuanced portrait of friendships between men. Women, with the exception of Mono’s daughter Guadalupe, exist only on the periphery of this masculine microcosm.   The action bounces between present day – with Fernando, Ruso & Mauricio desperately trying to sell the Striker while still grieving the loss of their friend & brother – and flashbacks to Mono’s illness.  In the flashbacks the men bicker and laugh and support each other in ways we’ve been conditioned to expect only from female characters. It’s still a novelty to see this kind of tenderness depicted in men.

Admittedly, where some of that tenderness is directed may seem a little strange to the uninitiated.  Mono has a tendency to wax philosophic on life and fútbol, and his love for the fútbol club Independiente (a.k.a.the Red)*  borders on religious fervor. In one scene Fernando promises his brother that he will make sure that little Guadalupe grows up an Independiente fan, despite the fact that the club’s glory days have long been a thing of the past.

“You don’t have to worry, Mono.”

“About what?”

“She’s going to be an Independiente fan.  The rest of it I don’t know. I mean, about the cups and the mystique, I can’t say for sure. Maybe it comes back, maybe it doesn’t. But we’ll  get her to root for the Red.”

The romance attached to a favorite team or sport might be difficult for non-fans to understand.  Except, caught up in the world of Sacheri’s characters, it isn’t difficult at all.  Moments like the one aboveare incredibly touching.  Fútbol and Independiente become metaphors for something else.  What that something else is: faith, friendship, life, loyalty, tradition… I don’t think it really matters.  The power lies in the attachment. And different readers will take away different things.

Papers in the Wind, and Sacheri, are at their finest in the moments when the main characters are together – the dialogue is a joy to read and the timing is impeccable.  Sometimes Sacheri takes two or three chapters, interspersed between other chapters, to get to the punchline of some joke. Leaving readers giggling along with Mono, Ruso, Fernando & Mauricio like little kids.  And he provides enough twists and surprises throughout to remind his readers that his last book was a thriller. Papers in the Wind, like The Secret In Their Eyes before it, is an extraordinarily well-crafted novel.  Disarmingly entertaining; wonderfully nuanced – it’s clever without showing off. Like a great soccer player, Eduardo Sacheri manages to make what he does on the field appear easy for the fans.

 

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 642 3

 

*A little background: Independiente was one of the great Argentine fútbol clubs until the 1980’s when a began its slow but steady decline.  Prior to that period Independiente won a number of international titles, had the first fútbol stadium in Latin America and was considered one of Argentina’s premier fútbol clubs. In the 2013-2014 season, after 101 consecutive years as a Division One team, it dropped into second division for the first time in the club’s history.

A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov, translated from the original Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

https://i1.wp.com/catalog.openletterbooks.org/images/covers/Short_Tale-front.jpgAngela Rodel has translated three Bulgarian novels for Open Letter Books: 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev, Thrown Into Nature by Milen Rouskov, and A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov (the last is the subject of this review).  She also translated Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva for the UK publisher Istros Books. In addition to being a translator she is a musician and an actress.  She lives in Bulgaria.

A Short Tale of Shame is the second book I’ve read and reviewed by Rodel.  Both books featured introspective, male protagonists dealing with loss.  Her translation recalls for me Edith Grossman’s work in Spanish. Her work is fluid, allowing readers to slip gently into the prose like they would a swimming pool.  Both 18% Gray and A Short Tale of Shame are hauntingly poetic – and while the majority of the credit for that goes to their authors, I can’t help believing that some should go to Rodel as well.  Her name should be on your list of must-read translators.

Coincidence and fortuitous meetings propel the plot of A Short Tale of Shame. Boril Krustev is a middle-aged, former rock star.  His estranged wife has just died and his relationship with his daughter is not great.  In a cliché attempt to outrun his grief, he jumps into his car and drives.  There is no plan.  Within the first few pages he picks up a group of hitchhikes, a college-aged boy and two girls.  Maya, Sirma and Spartacus are likeable young people (just as Boril is likeable) who are unusually close.  They discover over small talk that the threesome are friends with his daughter, Elena.  Shortly after this revelation it’s decided that Boril will travel with them to  Thasos, an island off the coast of Greece. The story of their barely intertwined lives unfolds from there.

Krustev felt a little duped because instead of watching the boat arrive, instead of seeing the island dust off its dress uniform to meet the new arrivals, he had to go down to the car and get ready to leave.  But he left the kids up on deck to watch the palace of the Grand Master above the dappled coast, stern and supercilious, and at least that was some consolation, as if some part of him would stay there, too, watching.  Without noticing it and without meaning to, he had already slipped into their net of key words and tacit agreements, and he was force to admit that this made him feel good.  When he stopped on that Rhodope road and picked them up, he had simply wanted company, people to chat with, to distract him, and to have some immediate goal, in order to drive them to it.  But from then on everything had developed quickly and simply, and the mutual discomfort they had felt, he with them and they with him, was actually more helpful than not, for example on the beach on Thasos he had tried to look aside so as not to stare at Sirma’s brazenly displayed breasts, this had, in fact, brought him closer to them, some quiet thread of shame gleamed in the sunlight for an instant, weaving yet another tie between them.  Alone in his car, in the garage, winded from the gas fumes, Krustev told himself that whatever the three teenagers’ secret was, he didn’t want to know it, he wasn’t enticed by the possibility of muscling his way between them, of digging through the strange space enclosed by their triangle, and he was thankful that they returned the gesture, not asking him why he had taken off on his own and what had happened, and if they had guessed, they didn’t pursue their conjectures with the doggedness of a blind hunter, something he remembered so well from his own youth, back then he had probed every patch of earth, digging down to reach a spring, and once he had drunk from the precious water, he lost interest, just as when he had played his solo and had to return to the familiar and steady rhythm of the song and somehow hold out until the end of it.

Angel Igov assumes the detached perspective of the third person, and through him the reader has  the opportunity to dip into the minds and memories of each of the four characters.  Much of what is revealed involves Elena – apparently a cruel and manipulative person.  She bothered me.  In that she remains a fragmented character who we interact with only through the memories of others.  Her motivations remain elusive; her actions go unexplained. She is Iago-like in the casual way she goes about destroying the lives of others.

It’s hard to reconcile her being Boril’s daughter.

You would think that the story of an older man traveling with three young people would immediately turn creepy, and the title: A Short Tale of Shame seems to suggest it.  But Boril is decidedly un-creepy.  He’s actually really nice.  He doesn’t overstep or ogle the girls. He’s careful not to use his money to assume a position of power. In truth, he is just as he appears: a slightly lost and lonely man mourning the death of his wife and his lack of a meaningful relationship with his daughter.

Maya, Sirma and Spartacus have no ulterior motivations either.  They do not intend to take advantage of Boril or his wealth.  The car is convenient, but mostly they seem to genuinely like and feel sorry for him. The only snake in this garden appears to be Elena.  And she is far enough away as to not pose a significant threat.

This lack of conflict comes as a surprise because there is an undercurrent of tension throughout the story – one that can’t be solely attributed to Elena.  Something doesn’t seem right. I kept expecting some kind of dark, sexual revelation to occur, when what is eventually revealed ends up being rather innocuous. This lack of a twist is strange, but it in no way takes away from the story. 

A Short Tale of Shame takes a more complicated path than one leading to a single moment or revelation.  Igov puts you in a bubble with Boril, Maya, Sirma and Spartacus.  Inevitably that bubble bursts and the ending, when it arrives, is abrupt.  The reader is left disoriented.  As if he or she has been startled from a daydream.  This, in a way, is what this book is: an interlude in the lives of these characters.  Lovely, but isolated.  The significance of which will no doubt diminish over time, even as the memory lingers.

A Short Tale of Shame was a Co-Winner of the 2012 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.

Publisher:  Open Letter, Rochester (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 76

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine