Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Foreign Correspondent [2006]

With his so-called Night Soldiers Series, Alan Furst, former columnist for the likes of Esquire and International Herald Tribune, has created a niche for himself through his historical spy novels set in continental Europe in the years leading to and during WWII. The Foreign Correspondent, the 9th book in the series which is already a staggering 14-novels long, opens in Paris in 1938 with the Italian regime’s secret police OVRA, as part of its mission to ruthlessly neutralize its opponents, carrying out the murder of the Editor of Liberazione, one of many underground émigré newspapers which have mushroomed in Paris to combat Mussolini and his fascist state. Carlo Weisz, an Italian émigré residing in Paris, and a foreign correspondent with Reuters covering, at that time, the final remnants of the Spanish Civil War, is nominated to take up the position upon his return. A man with an extraordinary ability to work – balancing his hectic day-job with churning out articles and editorials for Liberazione, in a clear indication of his love for both – he, along with his comrades, soon start facing OVRA’s nefarious tricks ranging from smear campaigns to even physical attacks. Meanwhile, during a visit to Berlin, he’s reacquainted with his dazzling former lover Christa, who’s now married to a Prussian aristocrat and is involved in clandestine anti-Nazi activities; and, in parallel, to complicate his life further, he’s contacted by the British Intelligence to write a heroic biopic on Colonel Ferrara, an antifascist army officer who they’ve rescued and wants to glorify. The seemingly inevitable rise of fascist powers, and the small steps of a few to oppose that, made for an engaging read, even if some plot elements were far more interesting and intriguing than others; hence, while the brooding atmosphere of deceit and subterfuge was well evoked, the book would have done well to infuse elements of existential crises, moral turpitudes, internal ambiguities and despairs, and melancholia, to bring this at par with the works of the masters of this fascinating genre, viz. Greene and le Carré.

Author: Alan Furst
Genre: Spy Thriller/Political Thriller
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, October 6, 2018

A Moveable Feast [1964]

Paris, especially in early 20th century, was a melting pot like no other for émigré writers, artists and intellectuals on the verge of breaking through – no wonder, the plethora of iconic memoirs and autobiographical / semi-autobiographical novels set in the city written by the likes of Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Joseph Roth, Anaïs Nin et al. In the masterful and modernist The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein had chronicled anecdotes and memories of the string of artistic and literary giants (including many who hadn’t yet become one) she’d hosted, over the years, at 27 Rue de Fleurus; one of them had happened to be a young Ernest Hemingway. During his stay in the city in the 1920s, as a talented but struggling expat who has decided to quit journalism and become a writer instead, he’d filled a few notebooks capturing his tryst with the city – the cafés and joints he frequented, the walks along the Left Bank, the people he’d met and befriended, comic escapades, life with his first wife Hadley, his desire to graduate from short stories to novels, etc. Over 3 decades later, upon serendipitously stumbling upon his lost diaries, he worked on them, during the last few years of his life, in order to give them the form of a memoir; A Moveable Feast, which comprises of 20 short essays – seriocomic vignettes, anecdotes, observations and wry musings – was published posthumously. Written in his typically spartan and journalistic style, albeit largely laced with a humorous and reflexive tone, it provided, on one hand, an endearing portrait of an artist as a young author who’s striving and bumbling his way towards the destiny of celebrityhood that awaits him (of course, unbeknownst to him then), while on the other an insider’s portrayals – darkly funny and oftentimes quite unsavoury too – of some of the many luminaries he’d met and known there – Stein, Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, Joyce, Ford Maddox Ford, Sylvia Beach and her legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Co., etc.

Author: Ernest Hemingway
Genre: Non-Fiction/Memoir
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Dancing Bear [1983]

Once one has read the debut novels featuring Crumley’s two fabulous private eyes, viz. Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue – The Wrong Case and The Last Good Kiss, respectively, subsequent works might seem perpetually in the act of catching up – not because the latter aren’t good, but simply because the former two novels were such powerful and explosive beasts. Dancing Bear, the 2nd book in the Milo series, therefore, doesn’t qualify as Crumley’s best and had a bit of been-there-done-that feel to it; however, that said, it still was an exciting read courtesy its visceral potion of a relatively inane beginning and seemingly unrelated events spiraling into something increasingly nasty, and ultimately leading to a violent retribution in-line with Milo’s existential dilemmas, his innate desire for frontier justice (the two Crumley anti-heroes sure love their Western movies) and his latent self-destructive impulses. Its nearly 9 years since the occurrences in his previous appearance, and, at just 4 years short of 52 – the age at which he’ll finally bequeath his father’s wealth, but forced to live an impecunious existence until then – he now works at a security firm in his hometown of Meriwether, lives alone, snorts coke and has odd drinks at the taverns he frequents (albeit in a perennial battle against both the urges), and dreams of a vacation in Mexico. So, when a wealthy septuagenarian lady from way into his past, who his father once had an affair with and he was infatuated with as a kid, requests him to satisfy her curiosity by spying on a couple, in return for a healthy wad of cash, he accepts the silly sounding job. But, a few grisly deaths, violent shootouts, arson, cross-country road trips, near escapes from death (by car bombs, bullets, cocaine overdose), discovery of massive corporate crimes, faking death, sultry one-night stands, almost falling in love, pop-philosophical and surprisingly deep existential musings, and such darkly funny madness later, he realizes that he’d been played for a sucker all along.

Author: James Crumley
Genre: Crime Thriller/Detective Novel/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Kiss of the Spider Woman [1976]

Argentinian writer Manuel Puig, who spent significant parts of his life as an exile in Mexico on account of his leftist political affiliation and sexual orientation, is probably best remembered for his landmark, formally experimental and politically brave Latin American work Kiss of the Spider Woman. Given the two protagonists of the novel, the period it was set in, and their shared interest (as will be discernible from the plot brief), it must have been a highly personal work for the author; also, for the similar reasons, it remained banned in Argentina right from its date of publication till 1983, i.e. until the end of the last military junta (Dirty War) period. It’s centered around two troubled characters confined in a cell in a dank Buenos Aires prison – Molina, a lonely trans-woman (he’s classified as a homosexual, but Molina doesn’t consider himself so as he identifies himself as a woman), who’s been incarcerated for allegedly having corrupted a minor; and Valentin, an idealistic political prisoner, who’s the member of a Marxist, revolutionary group, and is passionate about their guerilla struggle against the military dictatorship. The book largely comprises of conversations between these two characters, which don’t just reveal various facets about their personalities and personal battles, but also lead to the evolution of their growing bond; and, in an artistic choice reminiscent of Llosa’s delicious, semi-autobiographical masterpiece Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (published a year later), that’s punctuated with Molina’s chronicling of melodramatic films – tales of panther-women, zombies, Nazi propaganda and corny romantic tragedies – to Valentin as means of combating boredom and their inner anxieties. Though a novel, it’s composed, for most parts, as a play (dialogues sans any conventional narrations); and, in a continuous exercise in infusing multiple formal elements, their free-flowing conversations are accompanied by rambling stream-of-consciousness inner monologues, official surveillance reports and, rather surprisingly, elaborate footnotes on the various psychoanalytical and academic studies on homosexuality and repression. Though a reasonably easy read, the translation, unfortunately, felt tad bland and uninspired.

Author: Manuel Puig
Genre: Political Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Modernist Literature
Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina

Monday, September 10, 2018

Transit [1942]

Imagine a situation where a mass of people is desperately trying to emigrate to another country to avoid persecution by the Nazis – visa is required to be allowed entry to the destination country, but that won’t be of any use if he doesn’t have a transit visa for the route that the ship would take; and none of them would matter unless he has an exit visa as well; and, to take this paradoxical irony a step further, exit visa is dependent on residence permit which is granted only to those who’re inclined to leave. This Kafkaesque scenario forms the central tenet of renowned Jewish-German author Anna Segher’s absurdist, trenchant, existential, darkly funny, unsettlingly prescient and stupendously brilliant political satire Transit; that she herself had to flee as a political refugee to Mexico imbued a hauntingly personal context to this powerful book. Its unnamed narrator, who’s on the run from a German concentration camp and a French labour camp, stumbles upon in Nazi-occupied Paris the unfinished final novel of a great German writer called Weidel who’s just committed suicide. With that he travels to the port city of Marseilles where he encounters an enormous throng of desperate people – each with anecdotes traversing the entire spectrum from the poignant to the whimsical to the nonsensical, which the narrator listens to in the dingy cafes and decrepit hotels he frequents – and finds himself being presumed, much to his bemusement, as Weidel, by the conspiratorial Consulate bureaucracy. The ludicrosity, however, gets laced with melancholia when he chances upon and finds himself falling for the irresistibly enigmatic Marie, who’s in a fragile relationship with a doctor while also ardently awaiting Weidel who was her husband, thus adding unrequited love, along with ennui and the bleak human condition of an exile in a world going mad, to its multilayered themes; no wonder, the author once humorously summarized it as thus, “Two men fight over a woman, but she in fact loves a third man, who’s already dead.”

Author: Anna Seghers
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Existential Drama
Language: German
Country: Germany