Friday, December 12, 2014

An Officer and a Spy

I actually thought this novel by Robert Harris would be a kind of alternate history, like his Fatherland, using the Dreyfus Affair as a springboard for an imaginative historical thriller.

But it is a dramatic retelling of the Dreyfus Affair, based on the voluminous documents and featuring the historical characters -- first and foremost Georges Picquart, the army officer who stubbornly followed the evidence clearing Dreyfus and leading eventually to his exoneration.

As Zola exclaimed at one point in the novel (who knows, perhaps he really said this), "Such a tale has never been told." It is totally gripping. Minute details of the original trial, the second trial that once gain found Dreyfus guilty and the denouement of exoneration, which might have been tedious in less gifted hands, become a mountain of clues worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason.

It is told in the first person from Picquart's point of view, so there is no moralizing, no distance, no distractions. It is about the intricate framing of a Jewish officer through misplaced zeal and the determination of an officer, who thought Dreyfus was guilty and was unwittingly even part of the conspiracy to frame him, who was willing to put honor above ambition and follow the trail that showed it was indeed someone else who delivered those trifling secrets to the Germans, that Dreyfus was simply a convenient (Jewish) scapegoat, that the coverup of the this miscarriage of justice was worse than the crime itself.

Picquart is immensely sympathetic, though not unflawed. Dreyfus, on the other hand, is portrayed as decidedly unsympathetic, possessed of a stiff pride and arrogance that did nothing to help his cause. Both were terribly wronged by the army they loved, but both returned to service. Dreyfus actually came out of the reserves to fight in World War I and died in the 1930s. Picquart became Minister of War and was spared the tragedy of the war when he died falling of his horse.

The novel is a lovely map of Paris, each street there today as it was in 1895. Picquart meets Zola, Debussy and a host of other personalities from that period in the City of Light. The glory and shame of France live side by side in this fin-de-siecle cocoon that has such a dark underbelly.

I feel immeasurably enriched to have such a detailed understanding of the Dreyfus Affair. Its role in history can hardly be underestimated and the New York Times had a headline this week about growing anti-semitism in France. Plus ca change!

A wonderful book.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Water's Edge

Karin Fossum is not just another Scandinavian writer cashing in on the current fashion for detective stories from that region. Her spare, direct narration has more in common with classic hardboiled than with the florid Stieg Larsson, and only slightly less florid Jo Nesbo. Her Oslo detective, Konrad Sejer, does not suffer the inner torment of a Kurt Wallander or Harry Hole or Erlandur.

Fossum sketches in the bleak northern landscapes that are so essential to Scandinavian noir. But her focus is more on the quirky relationships that alternate between terse exchanges and more extended riffs between characters. One of her hallmarks, apparently, is the time she spends with minor characters -- as, in this instance, with the couple who find the body of the abused boy that opens this case. We see much more the interior life of the wife, Kristine Ris, than we do of Sejer himself. And in many ways, the novel is as much her story as it is Sejer's and his effort to solve the mystery of first one pedophile killing and then the disappearance of a second boy.

But Sejer's conversations with his Dr. Watson, Jacob Skarre, on why they became policemen and what is the positive contribution they can make are also entertaining, and somehow manage not to interrupt the flow of the narrative, but in fact let the reader catch his breath before galloping off after the next clue.

Another hallmark of Fossum's tales, it seems, is some sympathy for the villain. She neatly creates the circumstances that contribute to their flaws without any liberal, heart-on-sleeve gushing. It is Sejer's insight into this human condition that enables him to unravel the mystery, ignore the red herrings, double back on overlooked clues, and try to mend the damage to those who are not directly the victims of the crime -- or rather the killing, but it is not sure in some cases that a crime has been committed.

Sejer tracks down the perpetrator of the deaths in this mystery. Fossum leaves some sympathy for them as well as for other characters who might just as easily have found themselves branded as criminals if they had been equally unlucky and in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm curious now to read a second Fossum novel with Sejer to see how many of these traits are repeated.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Dog

Joseph O'Neill's novel is a brilliant satire on many levels. He is bitingly, nastily funny about expatriate life in Dubai, sparing neither the foreigners nor the natives. By the same token, the legal and financial professions, globally operating millionaire families, "family offices," consulting, all become objects of the author's derision.

At a deeper level, however, the books is a frightening take on the loss of integrity and even of identity in a world fractured by the Internet and social networking. The unnamed narrator sends imaginary e-mails; obsessively googles his ex-girlfriend, stopping only when he fails to find her among the persons bearing her name; becomes himself the victim of “search libel” as malicious googlers manipulate the autocomplete algorithm so that his distinctive name comes up with “embezzlement,” “sexual harassment,” and other diatribes attached to it.

I wrote in a recent WIRoB blog post that historical and post-apocalyptic novels are so popular these days because it allows the authors to strip away the distractions of contemporary life that make it so diffuse. O’Neill, however, has succeeded in making that the subject of his novel.
All this rendered in a perpetually dazzling language that is so dense that even the relatively short book can take some time to read.

There is not much of a plot. Rather, the action is more like the twist of a kaleidoscope that throws the jumble of the hero’s life into a new pattern. A lawyer, the narrator leaves a job that has become uncomfortable after he breaks up with his girlfriend to become the Dubai-based director of a “family office” for the extended family of an old Levantine friend.

Inevitably, for all his pride in fashioning disclaimers and limiting his legal liability, he become involved in a probe of family dealings that leaves him vulnerable and exposed.

The disappearance of a casual friend that the narrator knows from scuba diving, Ted Wilson, appears to drive the narrative at the beginning, as it emerges that the friend was a closet bigamist, lending a certain fascination to the American wife who comes to Dubai in search of her husband only to leave disillusioned when a second wife surfaces there.

But this vanish person is really just another metaphor for the loss of self, and the hero’s fascination for Mrs. Ted Wilson is part of a fantasy life that blurs with real life through the power of the Web.
The narrative is one long interior monologue, with flashbacks gradually filling in the background that led to the hero’s presence in Dubai. It is unsparingly frank, as the hero discloses his activities with pornography and prostitutes, his own feelings of inadequacy, how he was in fact “cheating” on his girlfriend by withholding any emotional interaction.

Beneath it all, however, he is somehow searching for a shred of authenticity, if not exactly integrity. As the denouement approaches, he faces the choice of being bounced again to another country by events seemingly beyond his control, or accepting consequences that would in a technical sense be unjust.

He takes inspiration, in a final burst of irony from the author, in the example of Conrad Black, the newspaper magnate who was eventually jailed for a number of financial crimes. Imprisonment, the narrator muses, at least puts a limit to culpability. “It’s certainly true that so long as he’s inside, he can hardly be punished more.”

Netherland was a book about expatriates and rootlessness as well. Though different in style, this book is thematically very much in keeping with the other. To examine these themes, so topical in our times, in such wildly variant fashion is a virtuoso performance by the author.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Catching up

I've been neglecting my blogs. This is due in part to being busy with work. Also, I have the feeling blogging is a bit passe. And for this blog in particular I had gotten into a rut of viewing it as a book review blog, rather than a reading blog.

I have been posting only when I finish a book and if there are any readers they must be amazed at how few books I read. I don't read enough, but I read more books than I finish. For my book group, for instance, I usually make an effort to read some of the book, but I haven't finished that many.

I really liked Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne and read a good half of it. I loved his historical sense, his authoritative chronicle of the Comanches and the early Texas settlers and his vivid descriptions of the terrain. In our book group discussion, several participants said it went downhill in the second part with the actual description of Quanah Parker. That gave me little incentive to want to finish the book.

I also liked Night Soldiers by Alan Furst. I read about a third of it and may get back to it. Some book group members found it too brutal. I have to admit I was losing sympathy for the main character, as I often do for Furst's main character (liking is one thing, sympathy another). I did, however, appreciate his depiction of the deplorable Stalinist mentality, where the practice is so at odds with the ideal. The hero's recruiter in the Bulgarian village represented the ideal, while his training in the NKVD was the reality.

I've also been doing more reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books -- two thrillers I was not too excited about. The first was Marc Levy's Replay, which was really juvenile, and the second was Ben Mezrich's Seven Wonders, which was more entertaining but pretty shallow. I've signed up for another one, The Empire of the Night by Robert Olen Butler, which will interrupt my reading of The Dog by Joseph O'Neill, a book I really like and will finish and review here.

Also, I've been writing a monthly blog for WIRoB, Words for Thought, which are musings about reading and how books fit into our cultural milieu.

So I am doing a considerable amount of reading, and some writing about it that doesn't appear here. I've decided to be more flexible about what and when I write here, so my posting should be more frequent -- at least until I give up on blogging altogether.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Last Policeman

Hank Palace has finally achieved his childhood dream of becoming a detective in the Concord Police Department. The only hitch is that shortly afterwards it was announced that a comet was on a path to collide with the earth in a few months, and was likely to destroy all life on the planet.

This "pre-apocalyptic" setting turns Ben H. Winters' police procedural into a psychological thriller. In many ways, the imminent collision with the comet is itself apocalyptic as the structures of industrial society gradually corrode and crumble. Companies go bankrupt, the telecommunications infrastructure collapses in pieces, and, not surprisingly, suicides spike.

So when a mild-mannered actuary expert is found dead with a belt around his neck tied to the doorknob -- the more efficient way of suicide by hanging, we are told -- it is logical to assume that he is simply another "hanger." But Hank is not comfortable with this verdict. The victim had shown no suicidal tendencies; there was no note; there were other bruises unaccounted for.

The question is, however, what does it matter -- suicide or murder? Why work hard to bring a killer to justice when everyone is doomed to die in just a few months? Hank's colleagues scoff at him and tease him about his unaccountable obsession. At one point, he becomes frustrated and tells the medical examiner that he may not be the type of person for an end-of-the-world scenario. To which she replies that he may be the only type suited to it.

This is the nub of the novel. What is it that keeps a man bound to duty even in the face of imminent catastrophe? An engaged reader is confronted with the question of how he or she would react in a similar situation. It is a tribute to Winters' skill as a writer in creating this improbable situation in way that you ask yourself this question seriously.

It is in a sense the human condition writ large, because each of us faces imminent doom. But our individual doom does not obviate the need for laws to govern society and police to enforce them. With life as we know it about to end, any prison term -- whether for murder or a minor infraction -- is a virtual life sentence.

This is the backdrop for Hank's investigation into the life and sudden death of the insurance employee who was a whiz at actuarial tables and an obsessive observer of the deadly comet's progress. Hank encounters a long-lost childhood friend of the victim who recently reestablished contact; his estranged sister, a midwife, and her husband, a preacher newly specialized in end-of-the-world counseling; a colleague at work who seemed unaccountably concerned about the victim; his boss, and others, any of whom could be suspect in what Hank stubbornly believes to be a murder.

All of this is told in a quirky first person, with Hank able to say things like "holy moly" with a straight face. He is sympathetic because there is at least a little bit of Hank in each of us -- an idealist who want to hold on to some shred of naivete and pursue a life that is above all honorable.

Winters apparently intends chronicle these last six months of life on earth in a trilogy, and has already published the second volume. What fun.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Dog Stars

Peter Heller's post-apocalyptic novel grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. It took a few pages to get used to the style -- paragraphs with extra separation and sentence fragments. But these are graphic and linguistic representations of the fragmented world left after a virulent flu and blood disease have killed most of the planet's inhabitants.

The first-person narrator, Hig, is himself fragmented. Much of what he cherished has been destroyed, but he goes on surviving without being sure why. He put a pillow over his wife's face at her urgent request to end her suffering at the end and has been emotionally shut down since then. Such consolation as there is comes from his dog, Jasper, and some activities that were hobbies before and now are useful survival skills -- hunting, fishing, flying.

He lives in a hangar at a small airfield in Colorado and patrols the "perimeter" he and his partner, Bangley, have set up in an ancient Cessna. For mankind has been reduced to savagery in a truly kill or be killed environment. Intruders are killed without any questions asked. Hig worries that Bangley, a weapons expert with an uncertain past, will eliminate him if he outlives his usefulness as a comrade in arms.

What disrupts this dystopian existence is a cryptic radio call he intercepts in the plane one day, indicating there may be a functional settlement in Grand Junction. Eventually, Hig sets out to track this signal and has his first encounter with other people that does not end in death for one side or the other and rekindles long-dormant emotions.

The first-person narration works well in this context. There are so few people, there is little for an omniscient narrator to know. Hig's flat, fragmented narration is nonetheless eloquent, sometimes lyrical and often poignant, without any pretension or artifice. The reader's enormous sympathy for his plight and the suspense of the story propel you through the book.

Heller, a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop as well as a magazine writer and author of several nonfiction books, has a disciplined command of language. The prose, the story, the narration are extremely lean, trimmed of any distraction or unnecessary detail -- a kind of post-modern Hemingway.

Can a post-apocalyptic novel have a happy ending? Everything is relative when people are stripped of civilization. Suffice it to say Heller's view is ever so slightly more hopeful than that of Cormac McCarthy in The Road -- but there are no guarantees.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Bitter Cross

Simon Mawer's historical novel, his second, is a grim portrayal of corruption and betrayal. As with his later The Gospel of Judas, it is about an illicit love affair involving a man of God who betrays his vow of celibacy, giving the lovers a shred of happiness but dooming them to death and separation.

What's evident already in this early work is Mawer's wonderful command of language, a diction that is rich -- perhaps a little over-rich waiting for the discipline of later works -- and a literary quality that gives his prose a texture even as he tells a compelling story.

The story here concerns Gerard Paulet, one of handful of English Knights of Malta to survive Henry VIII's persecution of Catholics, who along with his comrades ends  up in exile at the order's headquarters in Malta. The Knights of St. John themselves are in exile, having been driven out of Rhodes to the small island in the Mediterranean that Mawer describes with the scorn of one who actually lived there.

His details of the knights, their galleys, their ships, the geography of the Mediterranean match a David Mitchell or Patrick Leigh-Fermor in their precision and arcane knowledge. Presumably the history, too, is accurate. It makes for a colorful background for the tortured affair between Paulet and the widowed princess of the island, Vittoria Pignatelli. It is, as with the affairs in Gospel and The Glass Room, an irresistible passion that brooks no denial -- not a choice, but a destiny. There is nothing Platonic about it, the happiness comes from carnal knowledge in defiance not only of Paulet's vows but the rigid social convention, which, as Vittoria's brother patiently explains to Paulet, does not allow a noblewoman like his sister to have an affair with someone below her station, for the knight is only "gentle."

The two lovers remain true to each other but there is distrust, which feeds on the betrayal of those around them as they are caught up in the intrigues of Renaissance Italy, the fight against the Turks for the control of the Mediterranean and Europe, and the dying throes of a crusading military order that has outlived its purpose.

There are intimations of the denoument because the story is told in the first person by an aged and broken Paulet, living out his days peacefully in the knights' priory in Rome. The author skillfully weaves the story backward and forward in time, maintaining the suspense not of what happens, but how and why.

Paulet is convincingly complex, torn as the protagonist in Gospel not only by the broken vows but the loss of faith as the joy of human coupling undermines belief in a religion that demands celibacy for its holy men. He nonetheless tries to preserve a certain semblance of honor, though his ambivalence in the climactic end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain how far he succeeds.

Much of the plot turns on his suspect "adoption" of a Muslim boy captured during a raid. His account of why and how he took the boy as his ward seems incomplete -- there is no sufficient motivation given. Later, given the turn of events, the reader begins to suspect that he is in fact an unreliable narrator, that he has not told the whole story.

The book is a downer. The cynicism is all-pervading, leavened with only the faintest glimmer of hope that the shared passion of Paulet and Vittoria is sufficient for redemption. It is, in the moral morass of Renaissance Europe, a true emotion, however many vows and conventions are broken. It sets the themes that run through Mawer's later novels, different as they are in setting and context.