Friday, October 22, 2010

Between Nine and Nine by Leo Perutz

Imagine layers of rice paper; remove one layer and discover yet another layer. And each stratum incredibly detailed.

When Stanislaus Demba makes his first appearance the reader is treated to both an odd and humorous scene. Demba buys bread and bologna, but won't pick up his purchases. When the proprietor leaves Demba alone he disappears with the food—and leaves the correct amount of money on the counter.

There are numerous scenes involving hands; however, Demba keeps them hidden within a cloak. He can't pick up money, food, shake someone's hand or do anything requiring him to use his hands.

These scenes, often humorous, also point out the social stratification's of Vienna in 1917. Demba, a university graduate is a poor tutor. Whenever he's in the society of those who are wealthier or titled his person is denigrated.

Demba is in love with Sonja and loses her to a wealthy young man. The two intend to take a vacation together—to romantic Venice. When Denba hears about the vacation he loses all rational control and demands that Sonja give him time to come up with the money for a vacation. She agrees because his behavior frightens her.

Demba is now involved in a quest to obtain the money. This device gives Perutz an opportunity to roam throughout Vienna society.

Finally Stanislaus confesses to the teenaged Steffi that his hands are handcuffed. The selection of Steffi as the only person to whom he can tell his secret and ask for help is because Steffi is also an outcast. Her face is scarred.

Demba tells her that he was attempting to sell a stolen book to an antiquarian book dealer. The dealer called the police who arrived and handcuffed him. He managed to take advantage of a fall by one policeman as they were going down the stairs. He then hit the other policeman. His escape involved running to the third floor, locking the door, and eventually sliding down the roof, falling and losing and then gaining consciousness. Before jumping out of the window he contemplates freedom.

Another layer in this book is the quest for individual freedom. Hands become a metaphor for the loss of identity. With his hands handcuffed and hidden in his cloak Demba is unable to participate in a great deal of society. Each encounter shows another loss. He can't pick up the envelope containing his pay so he can't participate in commerce. He can't be intimate.

The handcuffed hands act as a metaphor for the loss of individual identity. This story needs to be read in the light of post-war Vienna and the ensuing problems—social and economic.

Perutz's ending leaves the reader wondering if Demba has imagined all these incidents or if they took place in the world in real time.

There appears only one way for Demba to experience freedom and to reconstruct an individual identity. This is a book that begs to be reread and reread. It exists on so many intricate levels.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Finished !

My Book Reviews for the Extreme Level of the Global Reading Challenge 2010

Additional Books Read for Extremist Level

In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
South America—Columbia

Out Stealing Horsesby Per Petterson

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh
Australasia—New Zealand

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Wives of the Godsby Kwei Quartey

Black Minutes by Martin Solares
North America—Mexico

My Choice of a Book

The Clown by Heinrich Boll


Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason

Books Read From the Following Countries

1. Sweden
2. Spain
3. Norway
4. Iceland
5. Germany

6. Australia
7. Samoa
8.New Zealand

9. Saudia Arabia
11. Japan

13.South Africa

15. and 16.

North America
17. United States
18. Canada
19. Mexico

South America
20. Brazil
21. Argentina
22. Columbia

The Clown By Heinrich Böll

Heinrich Böll wrote about Germany after World War II.

Böll refused to join the Nazi youth group when he was in high school. After finishing school he was conscripted and sent to the front where he sustained injuries on four separate occasions.

In The Clown Böll's protagonist is Hans, a clown who no longer can perform at a high level because of a knee injury. Even when he was able to work not everyone appreciated his pantomimes. There were political groups who distained his work. When his girlfriend leaves him he becomes depressed, begins to drink and his hold on reality becomes tenuous.

Marie had left him because she felt that their relationship was sinful. She's a devout Catholic and wanted to marry Hans, but he refused to sign an agreement that mandated that he bring up his children as Catholics. Hans is also questioning the role the Catholic Church played, plays, in European society. What was their role during the war? What is the role of religion in German society?

Hans is always on the road, going from town to town—from one setting to another— plying his trade as a clown. This moving about is emblematic of what happened to people in those war years and the years that followed. In the years after the war many families were unable to pay the rent and lost their homes.

Han’s family is quite wealthy. During the war they forced his sister to volunteer for aircraft duty and she died. His brother Leo rebels against the family by converting to Catholicism and is studying theology. Hans who has been told by his agent to take six months off after he received a scathing review is desperate for money. He arranges to meet his father and hopes that he will give him a monthly stipend until he can return to work. Their meeting doesn't go well and Hans tells his father that despite being wealthy he and his siblings were always hungry. His father no longer supports his brother Leo who has chosen to live a life of poverty.

Hans asks everyone he knows for money, but is not successful. Böll uses Hans to depict the problems facing the postwar society— Catholics and Protestants locked in theological disputes and a stratification of society.

Finally unable to get money from his father or friends, he takes his guitar to the train station, places a hat on the ground and performs for those who stop to listen and watch.

In a Paris Review interview Böll said:

In Germany after the war, 1945 to 1960 or 1970, naturally, there's not just one novel that can give that to you, but twenty—Patterns of Childhood by Christa Wolf, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson's novels, Koeppen. We can't enumerate them, but perhaps all together they write the truth about that epoch. History and fiction must complement one another. And added to that is painting, music, especially architecture . . .indeed everything that the period produced is a part of it. Truth certainly exists, but it is very hard to put together, it's always an assembled truth; historical writing is a part of it, too, but I don't believe it can deliver the whole truth.

Monday, October 11, 2010

To Siberia by Per Petterson

To have grown up in Denmark during the Nazi occupation was odious. The narrator of To Siberia recalls her life fifty some odd years prior to the beginning of the story. The reader quickly learns about her family. Her father is unsuccessful as a business man despite being a talented "joiner". Her mother is in her own world where she's preoccupied with singing hymns. Only her brother Jesper understands her and offers her companionship;  however, he has been dead for more than half her life. Jesper refered to her as "Sistermine".

Given their repressive environment both Jesper and his sister imagine far away places.Jesper wanted to get away to Morocco and his sister dreams of Siberia.

When the Germans arrive on April 9, 1940 their world enlarges beyond the confines of their small village.  Jesper who is older joins the resistance and their lives move in different directions. 

After the war Jesper travels to Morocco and his sister moves to Copenhagen. A planned reunion between brother and sister never happens.

Petterson's book unfolds as if it is happening in the present moment. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Housekeeper and the Professor By Yoko Ogawa

I've always been fascinated with the subject of memory. For years I taught children with learning disabilities and for or a number of those children short-term memory deficits were a stumbling block.

In this book Ogawa writes about a mathematics professor who, after a horrific car accident,has an abbreviated short-term memory—eighty minutes. His long term memory of events prior to his accident remains intact. But now every eighty minutes he begins anew. In order to remind himself of things he wishes to recall before the one hour and twenty minute curtain falls, he writes himself notes and pins the notes to his coat jacket.

A housekeeper is hired to help with meals and cleaning. The professor who had once been a successful teacher now enters mathematical contests.

After a number of housekeepers attempt the job and leave, one woman is found who remains. She's a single mother. The Professor pencils her name and what she does on a scrap of paper which he affixes to his coat.

A poignant relationship develops between the two which is enriched when the housekeeper has her son come over after his school day ends.

Their relationship is rooted in mathematics and the shared math is also shared with the reader. The professor's area of expertise is number theory.

There is a special bond between the young man, dubbed Root because his hair is flat on top like a square root, and the professor.

Everything is continually rediscovered even the housekeeper and her son.

Despite this there is a deep relationship and it lasts even when the professor's memory span becomes even shorter.

This is a book that makes the reader stop and think about memory, relationships, and love.

It's a quiet book—quite remarkable and beautifully written.