Book Review: The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Those of you who have never read Camus’ The Stranger, go read that now. Those of you who have already done that, consider reading this book.

It’s a post-colonial tale of what happened in The Stranger, with the senseless murder of an Arab (“because the sun’s light was too bright”) operating at its fulcrum. That Arab, unnamed and of little consequence in the Camus beyond being a plot device, is the protagonist’s older brother here.

The book opens with an old man narrating his story to a journalist at a bar. He tells of his brother’s murder, how his mother and he dealt with it, what they did when they found out the murderer was a celebrity (in this universe, The Stranger was published as a work of nonfiction), and how the investigation never offers them any relief. There is a loose plot, which creeps dangerously close to the story of The Stranger, but for the most part it reads as a rant. For anyone who’s read any Antonio Lobo-Antunes, the same caustic anger can be found throughout here. But not the wild, Faulknerian prose. Although this book has a bit more poeticism to it than Camus, this book is told in language simple enough to be reminiscent of Camus’ writing.

This set up could get old very quickly, but luckily Daoud wrote a book that also mirrors The Stanger in terms of length: it clocked in at about 150 pages with large print in my copy.

While I don’t think it’s likely this will go on to be the world classic The Stranger is, it is definitely a must read for fans of Camus and those interested in post colonialism. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s oeuvre has an odd cumulative effect: the more books you read by him, the more you like him. The novels occupy special places in his body of work, complementing each other. But, other than a few highly acclaimed near-masterpieces (Missing Person, Dora Bruder, and Pedigree), all of these feel incomplete with taken alone, and sometimes even placing them within the context of his other novels is not enough to shake this feeling. Thankfully, In The Café Of Lost Youth belongs in the former category of near-masterpieces.

Those familiar with Modiano, however, might appreciate it more. It deals with all the typical Modiano tropes and themes: a dreamy recollection of years long past, Parisian locales, possible shady dealings, a detective, a mysterious young woman. If Modiano doesn’t click for you, it’s easy to get tired of the same old tricks, but here it works. He varies the formula just enough to make it new.

The novel begins with a typical Modiano narrator, a young student with a literary bent. He describes a café he begins to frequent, the regulars there, and an odd woman who attracts him. But 25 pages in, the point of view switches. There are four different narrators in total, including a passage narrated by the intriguing young woman. This allows Modiano to avoid a pitfall he frequently has trouble with. Too often he is too vague in his endings, not so much not answering questions readers have as not even providing the framework to know which questions to ask. By switching the point of view, he manages to give satisfying solutions to problems one narrator might not know which another reveals, while still evoking the mysterious atmosphere he is so famous for.

And, much like his other novels, this is incredibly short, with around 130 pages in my edition.

Though perhaps not as great as Missing Person or Dora Bruder, this is up there as one of the author’s best. Anyone—fans, those who tried a book and weren’t wowed, newcomers—are all recommended to take a look at this.

Book Review: The African by J.M.G. Le Clezio

If you go on the Nobel website, click on the winners, and look at “About the Nobel Prize in Literature ____ (insert year here),” you’ll find something called the bio-bibliography, which gives an account of the many books each laureate wrote and the themes. Often times the sections dedicated to individual books varies in length, and here lies the interesting part: the books with the longer paragraphs or parts are the books that helped get the authors the Nobel. Usually these are the books you would expect (ex. Le Clezio’s DESERT), but occasionally it is one that has flown under the radar, that has been passed off in the public eye as a minor work. This is exactly the case with Le Clezio’s THE AFRICAN, a novella length memoir that gets as much space as DESERT, which has been described as the writer’s masterpiece.

Le Clezio was virtually unknown in the English-speaking world when he won the Nobel; now, a few years down the line, he still does not get talked about much. Which means THE AFRICAN, which has been summed up as a minor work over here, is rarely if ever mentioned. This is a shame, as it’s quite the book.

The focus is on Le Clezio’s strict father, a doctor who spent most of his adult life working in a very rural area in Africa. After the war, the author, his brother, and his mother all went to live with him (and, in the boys’ case, to meet him). Le Clezio’s descriptions of the landscape, the plains, the termite mounds are as always poetic, and this section is filled with dreamy memories of him and his brother playing around, gritting their teeth at the strange man everyone calls their father.

The book then shifts in time, moving from memories to reconstruction based on the stories Le Clezio was told. How his father wound up in Africa when he could have settled in England. How he and his wife first traveled there. How the couple was separated during the war and how the father abandoned his post to make a mad journey across the Sahara to try to be reunited with his family.

The book is incredibly slim and can be finished easily in two hours. While not a real negative, at times the book does not go into satisfying detail about various anecdotes and recollections. But this is still a very heartfelt book. By the end the father has gone from a strict figure, the bane of rambunctious youngsters, to a complex, tragic figure torn from having a normal family life due to circumstances beyond his control.

This book never really took off in the English-speaking world, and as Le Clezio recedes into a forgotten figure, another example of the Nobel picking a nobody instead of some living legend like Kundera, it seems unlikely that it will ever get a resurgence. This is a shame, as THE AFRICAN unexpectedly confirms Le Clezio as a worthy winner.

Book Review: Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano

Not the definitive Modiano novel, but my library had it so I thought why not. This is Modiano, chronicler of the dark Occupation, reporter of the Holocaust, and speaker for those who no longer can, doing a children’s book. And it has nice, whimsical pictures, like something out of Roald Dahl. (Plus the short length doesn’t hurt!)

The story, if you can call it that, is about a grown ballet teacher reminiscing about her childhood in Paris, after her mother had immigrated to the US and it was just her and her father. Her father and his snobbish partner run a shady company that Catherine doesn’t know much about. All she knows is that various loose ends with it are the reason they can’t join her mother. So her days mostly consist of her going to school, going to her dance class, and doing homework in her father’s warehouse.

And, heads up, the rest of this review will have spoilers, as most of my problems with this book are there.

For fans of Modiano, this is a decent outing, with some memorable characters and scenes. However, in typical fashion, he answers very few if any of the questions he asks. This is less a narrative than a series of memories, few of which build on each other, and as a result, it’s missing something, some impetus to drive things along. There is hardly any conflict in the book. Sure, her and her dad want to go to America and Catherine would like to see her mother again, but so little of the mother is seen it takes a backseat to the relationship between Catherine and her father. And between them there is no conflict. At a party where her father is trying to make business contacts that he thinks will finally get them to America and fails, Catherine feels bad for him, but other than that, it’s smooth sailing between them.

Catherine herself does very little. She has her dance classes, and at one point she makes a friend who invites her and her father to the party mentioned above, but that whole arc just reads like it’s there to remind readers they want to leave France. The friend soon moves away, the people the father meets do not help them, and it is never mentioned again after. One day the father is suddenly free to leave and they then leave.

That’s it. Nothing is answered, which Modiano can pull off in his adult books, but here for a book meant for kids…well, I can’t see any kid being happy with this book. Even girls into ballet might find the dancing bits fun, but would definitely think the rest of the story an enigma. The lack of narrative-drive hurts it. Although the main conflict should be about them getting to America, it reads more like a meditation about her father’s mysterious job, but Catherine herself doesn’t actually dedicate too much time pondering over what it might be he does—it’s tough to imagine a child getting invested in this.

I’ll give this book two ratings. I’m not super well-versed in children’s lit, but I did spend a summer at a children’s fiction publishing firm, so this first rating is for kids. I really can’t see too many kids liking it for the story itself, although, again, those pictures are awesome. One star for kids.

As a fan of Modiano, I’ll be a bit more generous. It has all the hallmarks of his writing, and while they end up being much less satisfactory here than in his other books, it’s still decent fare. If you’re a fan of Modiano’s writing, it is worth a look. You can blaze through it in 45 minutes, so you’ll be done long before you decide you don’t like it. Three stars for fans.

Book Review: Mishima A Vision of the Void by Marguerite Yourcenar

On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima, one of the most acclaimed Japanese writers of all time, was part of a group that stormed a military facility and held a prominent officer hostage. Mishima then appeared on a balcony and gave a speech urging soldiers to return to the view that the emperor was a god, but the military men only mocked the author. He returned inside and then committed seppuku—ritual suicide—with his male lover.

Theories on why Mishima did this abound: some say he was delusional and his attempt at a coup d’etat was serious; others have made the argument that this was only to give the suicide obsessed Mishima the context for a death he had dreamed about. This odd incident served as inspiration for Marguerite Yourcenar, a fan of Mishima’s writing, and the result is this essay.

This is an odd book. Yourcenar knows no Japanese and thus relies on translations, which she herself admits and seems to recognize the folly of it, but then goes ahead and writes this essay anyway. It is primarily concerned woth the relations between Mishima’s written work and his life, specifically his suicide, which she treats as a work in itself. It’s a mixed bag.

When discussing Mishima’s books written before the Sea of Fertility (ex. CONFESSIONS OF A MASK; SOUND OF WAVES; TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION), she doesn’t go into too much detail, but her analysis does a lot to illuminate the western influences on Mishima and how these manifest themselves in his novels and plays. Perhaps it is the brevity of this section that lends it its strength, because the next section, devoted to the tetralogy, suffers from the plot summaries.

Finishing up, she goes into his politics and his seppuku, and here the essay as a whole ultimately felt like it does not cohere as much as Yourcenar hoped it would. She sums up the Japanese author who created art out of his own life, a man whose suicide was as poetic as his books, but her analysis of his fiction makes this conclusion appear more as if she came up with the ending and then worked backwards. Cherry picking abounds, and Yourcenar is hastily dismissive of some of Mishima’s works for unsatisfactory reasons.

The biggest problem with this work, though, is that in order to get something out of it, you need to be a fan of Mishima, but if you are such a fan of his that you sought out this volume, it doesn’t offer too much new. Any biography of him offers most of the same information, but in a much more informative and context-laden way. Yourcenar’s writing is stellar but not enough to save this. If there’s nothing else of Mishima’s to read, you might as well go for it, but don’t expect big things.

 

Book Review: Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

I’ve heard Modiano is an acquired taste, and after reading a number of his books, it’s not hard to see why. Take this collection. I wouldn’t call these stories so much as reminisces, meditations on a memory from long ago and seeing what else it conjures up, following the memories to their ends, which are usually brought about more by forgetting the rest or time wiping away any other clues about people the narrator once knew. Despite this unorthodox approach to story telling, I loved it. But it’s not for everyone (the reason it has so many votes on Goodreads and Amazon is that for a few months after his Nobel prize win this was the only book of his widely available in English, not because this is one of his major works).

Still, for anyone who wants to get into Modiano, this is a book that should not be missed. For anyone curious about him, I recommend reading either DORA BRUDER or MISSING PERSON first, as they’re probably his best books, and then either this or THE OCCUPATION TRILOGY, to get a sense of the cumulative effect that pervades his writing.
As others online have said, the first two novellas are quite good. At first they might seem disappointing, as they raise a lot of questions and then end with hardly any of them answered. But these stories linger in your mind. They also slowly build up, adding to each other to form a powerful cumulative effect. After the first story, AFTERIMAGE, about a man trying to recollect and gather everything about a photographer who wanted to be forgotten, I was left thinking, “That’s it?” After the second one, about two boys who are raised by a suspicious group of their parents’ friends while their guardians are off exploring the world, left me with a similar feeling, but also a desire for more.

And the last one, entitled FLOWERS OF RUIN, seems to be the least popular of the bunch, but I liked it a lot. What starts out as an investigation into a double lovers’ suicide that happened some years ago instead becomes a reflection of all the old sites in Paris: all the history they’ve seen that links people together and how these buildings are being torn down to make way for McDonald’s and other such chains. This is where the cumulative effect starts to show, as characters and events that occurred in the other novellas bleed into this one—I’ve been told that each Modiano book could be said to be a chapter in one large book, and after these I’d have to agree. I can see why some might dislike Flowers of Ruin, and there is a lot about it that shouldn’t work, but Modiano’s crisp prose style, understated yet poetic, filled with descriptions and phrases as fleeting as memories, keeps it all fresh.

Final thoughts: if you’re hesitant about Modiano, start with DORA BRUDER or MISSING PERSON. If you’ve read one of his better known works and are intrigued, then go for it. Modiano only gets better the more you read by him. If this is your first and you’re not hooked, give him another chance if it doesn’t strike your fancy. I didn’t think much of him after reading just this collection, but after DORA BRUDER, I wasn’t only a fan of Modiano, I rethought these stories and appreciated them more.

And I’ve only gained appreciation as I read his other books.