Constellation by Adrien Bosc (Willard Wood, tr.)

Title:  Constellation
Author:  Adrien Bosc
Translator: Willard Wood
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2016)
ISBN: 978 1 59051 756 7

Is it on one of these bottomless nights that the airplane falls asleep and goes into exile?

Well-written prose can excuse a lot. That isn’t hyperbole – I truly believe it.  Portions of Adrien Bosc’s novel read like a historical report describing the 1949 crash of the Air France F-AZN, also called the Constellation.  A notable event mostly because the plane’s passenger list was filled with wealthy celebrities.  A champion boxer, a world renowned concert pianist, the inventor or the Mickey Mouse watch and a young woman from a poor family being whisked off to America by a rich, fairy godmother – together they amount to a metaphor no writer could resist.  Stars falling from the sky.

In his Almagest, a summation of mathematical and astronomical knowledge, Ptolemy offered the first analytical map of the celestial vault, identifying 1,022 stars and forty-eight constellations. In the Azores, after dusk, in an airplane named for a grouping of stars, forty-eight people went missing. At 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., no sign awakens the Atlantic. Reflected in the infinite puddle are the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, and Scorpion.

Constellation CoverThe light and lyrical prose that runs through Constellation is typically French. Bosc’s sentences flow into each other as carelessly as events become memories. For this he will, inevitably, be compared to authors like Houellebecq and Laurent Binet. And it’s a fair comparison. He writes beautifully. But this is a book of isolated vignettes that never resolve themselves into a novel.  And I have to believe resolution was the author’s intention – to somehow create meaning out of tragedy; to find a pattern that will feed the symbolism; or (if we’re being cynical) to further invite those comparisons to Houellebecq and Binet.  Why else would Bosc inserts himself into the text, in textbook meta fashion, other than to bind together his stories of the dead.  Because his jarring and persistent presence has no other function. What his actual relationship is to the events he describes is never explained.  The ending, in which he speaks of his own birth, is particularly self-indulgent.  Readers will ultimately become confused.  It’s like spotting an ex at a cousin’s wedding, and wondering, what the hell are they doing here?

But Bosc does other things extremely well – all of which helps dilute Constellations flaws. Willard Wood’s translation captures the elegance in Bosc’s digressions. The epigraphs used as headings for each chapter were thoughtfully chosen by the author. The lives of the passengers, even those few who weren’t famous (a group of shepherds being flown from Italy to work in the American West), are treated as equally fascinating. Bosc writes them all mini-obituaries. He builds memorials to the dead.  The anecdotes he provides for each passenger make for a pleasurable afternoon’s reading.

That morning, she sees the great posters to her glory. In one stroke of the paperhanger’s brush, a SOLD OUT strip extends across each ad. Ginette chose her fate. It is easy to attach the label of “prodigy” to her precocious career and miss, through facile stereotyping, the child’s implacable will, hard work, and discipline, the mailed fist of her genius. A staccato like no other, fruit of the obstinacy of a serious child. We like fairy tales, Newton’s apple, Eureka moments, grace conceived as a punctual, innate, and ineluctable event, and we erase, because of our penchant of the marvelous, the prior groundwork, the tedious chores, the doubts. At seven, after a first concert at the Salle Gaveau, Ginette trains hard to overcome her anxiety, stop the trembling in her knees, conquer the sweat on her forehead and palms. In the evening, standing on the kitchen table practicing, she tells her astonished mother: “It’s to get used to performing onstage. The other day, I had stage fright, it was probably vertigo.”

There really isn’t very much else to the story otherwise. There’s no mystery sixty odd years after the crash of Air France’s Constellation to solve.  Without a black box there’s no way to be completely certain what happened, but the investigation at the time came up with a very reasonable theory of events. I was convinced. Bosc should perhaps take an example from another French writer, George Perec, who he quotes at the beginnings of both chapters 10 & 16. Perec was at his most brilliant when he was describing things without embellishment. Allowing the reader to see and experience them just as they were.


HHhH by Laurent Binet (translated from the French by Sam Taylor, audio narrated by John Lee)

HHhH is the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman award winning novel which tells the story of Operation Anthropoid:  the secret WWII mission to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich.

Heydrich was Nazi Germany’s golden child.  Chief among his many accomplishments was the development “the final solution to the Jewish question” – which he helped conceive and present to Nazi leaders at the infamous Wannsee Conference of 1942.  He is arguably the father of the Holocaust.  At the time of his death he was also the Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – Hitler’s man on the ground in those two occupied countries.  If Laurent Binet is to be belived, and I see no reason he shouldn’t, many thought Heydrich would one day replace Hitler himself.  He was the monster even the monsters feared,  nicknamed “the man with the iron heart”, “The Butcher of Prague”, and “the blond beast”.   Heydrich served directly under Himmler, and the book’s title: HHhH is an acronym for a popular German saying of the time.  Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.

His would be assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš are more obscure. A Czech and a Slovak, soldiers sent from England by the Czech government in exile, they were tasked to kill Heydrich and to establish among the Allied Forces that the Czech Resistance has teeth.  In comparison to Heydrich very little seems to be known about these two men, or of the dozens of others in the Prague Underground who assisted them in their mission.  The recounting of their mission is a harrowing, heroic, and frequently touching wartime adventure.  It has all the elements you’d expect – acts of courage and cowardice, daring escapes, heroic last stands, camaraderie and betrayal.

Laurent Binet has woven a metafiction into his novel, placing himself squarely between the reader and events.  His narrator relays a scene and then stops, correcting himself and revising, speaking directly to the reader of the difficulties he’s encountering.  Then he jumps forward in time to explain what will eventually happen to some key characters.  He takes all kinds of licenses – imposing psychological traits, describing Heydrich’s voice as distinctively and comically high-pitched (something I found too good to be true – which it apparently is), imagining scenes that could never have been witnessed and so perhaps never happened.  Or explaining that if they did happen, they were completely different from what he describes. By using what is basically a literary affectation, Binet creates complete transparency.  HHhH becomes as much a commentary on the act of writing non-fiction as it is a description of Operation Anthropoid (Binet is the son of a historian).

Binet tells his readers what is true, what might be true and what is patently false.  Adeptly he draws back the curtain on the  scenes he’s made-up for narrative expediency, never breaking stride or missing a beat.  The prose is surprisingly unified and fluid.  The actual story is surprisingly heart-wrenching.  I write “surprisingly” because with all Binet’s narrative breaks and insertions, the interruptions and explanations, the complete opposite should be the true.    Until the final scene, and in contrast to most works of historical fiction, we are kept outside of events.  Yet, Binet’s writing is so masterful that his peculiar choice of narrative seems the only way to properly tell the story of Operation Anthropoid.  Any other way suddenly appears melodramatic and contrived in contrast (something Binet reinforces by mentioning books and films which predate HHhH).

And, without giving too much away, that last scene I mentioned – when we are finally allowed within the frame of the story –  is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of prose written this year.  Even listening to it on audio doesn’t detract from its power.   It is suffused with light and emotion.  Brilliant (to invoke an adjective I freely admit to overusing) in every sense of the word.  That last scene is a culmination of everything – every chapter, every literary trick and artifice – Binet has employed throughout the pages that precede it.

HHhH is a thrilling WWII tale, a precocious first novel and (I’m calling it!) a future classic of French literature.  Personally, I’ve not one piece of negative criticism.  I expect it to (and will cry foul if it doesn’t) win all the translated novel awards this year.  Sam Taylor has created a subtle and nuanced translation.  That may seem a bold claim from someone who doesn’t speak the source language, but even a non-French speaker can see the challenges this novel poses.  There is precision in the plotting and intent which could have been all too easily lost or muddied.   There is a constant shifting in perspective and, subsequently, in style.  John Lee has done an equally fine job with the audio.  Particularly in voicing the narrator’s asides, which he’s given just the right inflection of wry banter.  I’m pleased to write that Farrar, Straus and Giroux, true to form, accorded HHhH all the attention and talent it deserves.  I even love the cover art.

Publisher:     Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 374169 91 6

Censoring an Iranian Love Story. a novel. by Shahriar Mandanipour.

Nabokov has, in his brilliant lectures and lessons on literature, said, “Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf, and there was no wolf behind him.”

But this is simple.  I would say that the best stories are those in which the lying shepherd boy, or the writer, comes crying wolf, wolf, and a wolf that was not there appears behind him.

I’m fascinated by  Censoring an Iranian Love Story. There’s an inflection,  a way in which the narrator structures his sentences, which I love.  Mandanipour’s writing  style is distinctively Middle Eastern (in contrast to a Western author writing about the Middle East).   There’s a poetic formality to his phrasing, yet at the same time a lightness to his overall prose that keeps the novel from becoming too dense.   Shahriar Mandanipour describes his country as only a hometown boy does  – with understanding, a tinge of sadness and a hefty dose of irony.

The novel’s premise, and the  goal of the book’s narrator – Mandanipour’s thinly veiled alter ego – is to write a love story and see it published in Iran.

…for reasons that like other writers I will probably discover later, I, with all my being, want to write a love story.  The love story of a girl who has never seen the man who has been in love with her for a year and whom she loves very much.  A story with an ending that is a gateway to light.  A story that, although it does not have a happy ending like  romantic Hollywood movies, still has an ending that will not make my reader afraid of falling in love.  And, of course, a story that cannot be labeled as political.  My dilemma is that I want to publish my love story in my homeland… Unlike in many countries around the world, writing and publishing a love story in my beloved Iran are not easy tasks.

To accomplish these tasks he needs to get past the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, the embodiment of which is the  character of Mr. Petrovich.  And so a large part of the narrative is taken up by the author examining and second guessing his characters’ actions; deciding what can be said openly and what should be implied.  His hope is that though he will need to  compromise, it will not be at the expense of artistic integrity.  Our narrator believes, naively, that he will be able to reason with the Ministry.  His conversations with Mr. Petrovich are enlightening.

Mr. Petrovich will say:

“Do you really think that if writers write about the wolf it will show up behind them?”

“It depends.  If they write really well and creatively, somehow some sort of a wolf will appear behind them and before the eyes of the reader.”

But this is very dangerous.  What you are saying is that writers can write about hundreds of antiregime guerrilla groups and thousand of counterrevolutionaries, spies, and malfeasants, and they will all appear.”

I have to kick myself really hard.  What have I done?  I have not only made matters worse for myself and my colleagues, but…

“In reality, you story writers are like Aaron, who made a golden calf and misled the Israelites.  You deserve whatever trouble comes your way.”

The  love story, about an Iranian couple named Dara & Sara, is printed in bold text.  It is constantly interrupted by the author’s explanations, protests, insertions of himself into the narrative action and self-censorship.  Entire passages are crossed out with black lines (but are still legible for the sake of the reader).  Censoring an Iranian Love Story, visually, has a very Tristram Shandy feel to it. And while the love story is  poignant: star-crossed lovers separated by government, economics and class; a more complicated  metafiction is  told over and around it.

One of the things I found unusual about Censoring an Iranian Love Story is the playful way in which Mandanipour deals with what could easily become pretty depressing subject matter.   At no point did I doubt the accuracy of his descriptions – I’ve read other books that prepared me for the culture shock of Iran.  But this is where irony plays a key role:   much like  families will tell funny anecdotes about crazy uncles and disastrous vacations, Mandanipour’s narrator describes his homeland with both humor and affection. And while there are obvious fantastical asides, some embroidery of the facts, the novel captures the essence of a country and city that simultaneously inspires and infuriates.  Shahriar Mandanipour’s love story is not just about the relationship between his hero and heroine.  It is about his own love affair with Iran.

Unfortunately, these two love stories seem destined to only end badly.  I read that because of this novel Shahriar Mandanipour  cannot return to Iran. The obstacles that Dara, Sara and scores of Iranian youth face appear insurmountable.   But, despite a gloomy outlook, for two hundred and ninety-five pages the reader is  treated to  a magical story inhabited by One Thousand and One Nights, flying carpets, a hunchbacked dwarf, alchemists and ghosts. Again and again Mandanipour’s narrator invites us to “Ask so that I can explain…”

And the explanations are beautiful.  There is a delicate intricacy to Censoring an Iranian Love Story which, combined with the tone of the writing and the psychologically complex characters at the novel’s center, will not fail to enchant.


Due out in paperback, from Vintage, on June 1st.

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2009)
ISBN:  978 0 307 26978 2

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