The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

“We all felt how profoundly and how terribly outside forces can reach into a human being, to his innermost self. But we also senses that in that innermost core there was something that was unassailable and inviolable.”

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Edition: published by Vertigo, 2018

Many books are published every year that detail the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during World War II, but The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo, and originally published in 1942, is one of those rare books that provides us with an almost eye-witness account of the time when these horrifying events where still unfolding, and without the hindsight that later novels about this time period have.

The novel begins with the escape of seven prisoners from the Westhofen concentration camp, who were imprisoned there for their communist beliefs, and their escape causes a turmoil among the Nazi officers, who are tasked by their Commandant with recapturing them within a week, as well as the local community, who live in a town close to the concentration camp. Almost all of the fugitives are soon recaptured, except for one, George Heisler, who manages to evade his pursuers, and is on the run. But who can he trust in this precarious situation? As George tries to stay ahead of his pursuers, the novel uncovers the many layers of the fascist regime, vividly evoking the atmosphere of fear, distrust, and oppression, and providing a glimpse into the lives, beliefs, hopes, and fears of ordinary Germans during this time.

The book mainly focuses on the effects that the escape has on the local community, as asks important questions about how informed the local German population was about what was going on in the camps on a daily basis. Some of the most memorable and chilling scenes of the book were the ones that described how the townspeople continued to lead their ordinary lives so close to the horrors that were happening almost next door in the concentration camp. We see different facets of the local community, some are willing to help George, and others, wilfully, out of fear, or simply ignorance, choose to not get involved. When George first arrives in the town, he is struck by the sheer normality of the situations that he sees on the streets:

“In Westhoven he’d pictured a street here differently. He thought he would see a feeling of shame in every face, on every cobblestone, and that sorrow would mute the steps and voices and even the children’s games. The street here was calm; the people looked happy.”

This is an important read that documents a particular moment in history, and shows the insidious, almost banal, rise of evil.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.

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Purge by Sofi Oksanen

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Edition: published by Atlantic Books, 2018

Purge by Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, was the June pick for the Distracted by Books reading group on Goodreads. Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian author, who is best known for her novel When the Doves Disappeared (translated by Lola Rogers), and, in her fiction, she often explores the complex 20th-century history of Estonia, particularly focusing on the period when Estonia was under Communist control.

Jumping between two time periods – the 90s, shortly after the collapse the USSR, and the 50s, during the time of the Soviet Republic of Estonia – Purge is a story of two women who both, to some extent, and for different reasons, are living on the fringes of society. The novel starts off in 1992, when Aliide Truu, an older woman living alone in the countryside, finds a young girl in her front yard one day, and decides to help her. We soon find out that Zara is a young sex-trafficking victim, who was taken to Germany with promises of a better life. She manages to escape her captors, and finds shelter at Aliide’s house, even though Aliide is highly suspicious that her arrival may be more than just purely coincidental.

As the story unfold, we see that both women are complex, resilient and flawed characters, and there’s creeping sense that you can’t trust neither of them, perfectly reflecting the time when these events are set. The book vividly captures the atmosphere of Estonia (as well as the other Baltic States) in the 1990s, and the chaos that followed the collapse of the USSR when all three Baltic States regained their independence, and were going through major changes to dismantle the structures of the old Soviet regime and regain their identity. As shown in the book, some people managed to quickly exploit the uncertainty of those turbulent times, and seize the opportunities to get rich quickly, often through illegal means. At the same time, other people found themselves lost and unable to adapt to the fundamental changes that were happening in the country.

Similarly, the sections of the book set during the time of the Soviet Republic of Estonia manage to capture the constant sense of suspicion, fear and distrust that had poisoned the hearts of regular people, since anyone, from their neighbours, friends, co-workers and to even their family members, could turn out to be an informant. Purge  provides a window into the life of Estonians during the Soviet regime, and it’s an excellent exploration of how interpersonal relationships are affected when caught up in major historical changes. The book illustrates the fundamental conflicts that remain unresolved and continue to divide the people of Estonia. I felt that, in essence, the book asks the question: “Can you ever free yourself from your past memories and decisions?” A thought-provoking read, perfect for the upcoming Women in Translation month in August!

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The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

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Edition: published by MacLehose Press, 2018

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, since I thoroughly enjoyed his novel The Sound of Things Falling, and something about the way Vásquez writes makes me eager to return to his fiction.

The Shape of the Ruins brings you on a journey though the violent history of 20th-century Colombia. It’s one of those books that is difficult to categorise. Part political thriller, part courtroom drama, part reportage, part conspiracy theory, and part personal memoir, the novel focuses on two defining murders of Liberal politicians and charismatic orators in Bogotá – the assassination of General Rafael Uribe Uribe on October 15, 1914, and the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948. The book examines the conspiracy theories that exist connecting these two murders, and seems to provide a space for the unwritten, hidden, or “fragile” truths that exist in places that are not within the reach of journalists and historians.

“There are truths that are no less true due to the fact that nobody knows them. Maybe they happened in a strange place where journalists and historians can’t go. And what do we do with them? Where can we give them space to exist? Do we let them rot in inexistence, only because they weren’t able to be born into life correctly, or because they let bigger forces win? There are weak truths, Vásquez, truths that can’t be defended in the world of proven facts, newspapers and history books.”

The two catalysts of the story are Doctor Benevides, who becomes obsessed with the medical artefacts collected by his father, a very talented forensic scientist, and Carlos Carballo, a fanatic, who has organised his entire life around conspiracy theories surrounding the two famous assassinations. The author gradually gets pulled into their world, and tries to sift through the conspiracies and evidence connected to “the Bogotazo”, the violent riots that broke out in Bogotá following the assassination of Gaitán (hailed as the Colombian JFK), to arrive at some historical truth of the events. The novel also includes quotes from other authors, and photographs of some of the pieces of evidence that are relevant to the investigation.

Vásquez plays with the concept of “autofiction”, as he presents himself as the narrator of the story, and blurs the lines between reality and fiction. He contemplates the different ways it is possible to view history, and suggests that our capacity of chronicling the past is limited to our interpretation of the events, therefore, history is merely an artificially constructed story.

“There are two ways to view or contemplate what we call history: one is the accidental vision, for which history is the fateful product of an infinite chain of irrational acts, unpredictable contingencies and random events (life as unremitting chaos which we human beings try desperately to order); and the other is the conspiratorial vision, a scenario of shadows and invisible hands and eyes that spy and voices that whisper in corners, a theatre in which everything happens for a reason, accidents don’t exist and much less coincidences, and where the causes of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows.”

Vásquez ruminates on the inheritance of violence that is passed on from generation to generation of Colombians. The novel illustrates the deep political divide in Colombian society that is responsible for these repeated cycles of violence.

At first, the middle section of the book feels like a long digression from the central storyline, however, as more information is revealed, you start to realise that this section is actually an integral part of the overall narrative, and, in the final section, Vásquez manages to wrap up the story in a very moving and satisfying way.

The Shape of the Ruins is an intelligent, multi-layered, and engrossing journey through key moments in 20th-century Colombian history, and it’s also one of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong

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Edition: published by Little, Brown, 2018

The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim, is a psychological thriller that has been compared to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, Misery by Stephen King and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and, since two of these novels are among my favourite books of all time, I was very intrigued to read it. Moreover, it’s a work in translation, and You-jeong Jeong is described as one of the leading psychological crime fiction authors in South Korea.

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, and, in those rare cases that I do, I find it hard to review them without giving away major plot points. I find that, in most cases, there is not much to talk about in terms of themes and symbolism, so I can only judge these books based on whether they succeeds at what they essentially set out to do – to tell a thrilling and suspenseful story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

The Good Son is narrated in the first person by Yu-jin, a 25-year old college student and former swimming champion, who lives with his widowed mother and adopted brother Hae-jin, who in many ways resembles Yu-jin’s deceased older brother. The book opens with Yu-jin waking up one day, covered in blood, and finding the body of his mother, who clearly has been murdered. We soon learn that Yu-jin suffers from a condition that requires him to use medication to prevent seizures an blackouts, but a side effect of the pills is that they make him lethargic, so he sometimes secretly goes for days without taking them. When he finds his murdered mother’s body, he quickly realizes that he will become the prime suspect of the murder investigation, so he struggles to piece together what actually happened from the fragments of his memories and his mother’s diary entries.

I think that, even if you’re not a crime fiction enthusiast, you might be able to guess, fairly accurately, how this story is going to unfold, based on just the few pieces of information provided in the synopsis. Despite the fact that this is thriller, I found the pacing of the book to be very slow, and, apart from some truly intense and chilling moments, I felt that the narrative was going in circles between each point when some new and exciting piece of information is revealed. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly surprised by the revelations. The hints that are left throughout the book made it pretty obvious, however, I found the character of Yu-jin quite fascinating and convincing. From the very start, you get the sense that he might be an unreliable narrator, and I was intrigued to find out how he will react and deal with the unfolding situation. The story is set over the course of just a few days, and it feels like you are stuck in Yu-jin mind that gives the book a rather claustrophobic atmosphere. While I found the overall plot to be quite predictable, the book really succeeds as a dark character study.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson

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Edition: published by Picador, 2018

Acts of Infidelity by Lena Andersson, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, follows Ester Nilsson, a writer and poet, who gets involved in an affair with a married actor, Olof Sten, in the hopes that he will get divorced, and their affair will eventually turn into a long-term relationship, even though, right from the start, Olof admits to Ester that he’s not planning on ever leaving his wife. At the same time, he does not object to Ester’s advances. The novel unfolds as a detailed account of the relationship dynamic between these two delusional people that continues on for several years.

Both main characters come off as incredibly selfish and callous people, and it’s hard to sympathize with either of them. At first glance, it’s easy to label Ester as the villain of the story. You, as the reader, may initially catch yourself starting to blame Ester for the affair and wanting to shake some sense into her. Although she knows from the start that Olof is married, Ester is quite aggressive in pursuing a relationship with him anyway, and even tells him, very early on, that she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, not caring about the consequences. She seems very naive for her age and wears her heart on her sleeve, believing in true love that will eventually overcome any obstacle. It’s very frustrating to be constantly subjected to her thought processes, and to read about a person, who so stubbornly doesn’t want to acknowledge the reality of the situation, until you become aware of how cleverly the author has just played you. As I read on, I realized that the author intended to illustrate how we are conditioned to almost automatically assign blame to the woman in these situations, even though Ester, despite her obvious character flaws, isn’t the one who is lying and betraying her spouse. We see how the cheating husband, at the same time, tries to shrug off any responsibility for the affair, even going as far as constantly repeating that he and Ester are not in any kind of relationship, which is just plainly absurd.

Eventually Ester is forced to realize that she has been relegated to the role of the mistress and the book examines the dichotomy between the categories of Wife – Mistress, that is often applied to women. It points out the double standard that exists here, where  woman often get defined and redefined in terms of these categories, while there are no such equivalent categories for men.

“The mistress as an idea constitutes a third counterpoint between the complimentary woman/man. Her anatomy is woman’s but her autonomy is man’s. She is a third, the most frightening and most alluring, that which in the end must be pushed out of life’s bid for dualistic order.” 

I couldn’t help thinking that, if their roles were reversed, this  situation would probably be portrayed as romantic – the passionate hero, who believes in true love, stubbornly trying to win over a married woman. Ultimately, this is a smart, darkly comic and feminist look at cheating, and this whole saga between Ester and Olof concludes with a very satisfying ending.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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I Still Dream by James Smythe

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Edition: published by The Borough Press, 2018

I Still Dream by James Smythe is an engaging and intellectually stimulating science fiction novel exploring the impact of Artificial Intelligence and the border between human and machine, reminiscent of some of the great science fiction classics.

I was gripped from the very first pages of the novel that opens in 1997, when we meet Laura Bow, a very intelligent and tech savvy 17-year old teenager with a passion for computers and coding. We learn than she has created a primitive AI system that she has named Organon, after the song Cloudbusting by Kate Bush from her album The Hounds of Love (1985). Laura’s nerdy enthusiasm for music and making mix tapes made me immediately connect with Laura and love the book even more. Organon serves as Laura’s confidant and a sort of therapist to help her deal with the mysterious disappearance of her father, a pioneering computer programmer. I thought the author did a great job at capturing the voice of a teenage girl and evoking the atmosphere of the 1990’s.

Her AI system soon gets into the hands of people who see the potential of it, and, as a result, Laura is suddenly propelled into the world of Silicon Valley. From there, the novel is divided into chapters, each of them jumping a decade into the future – 2007, 2017, 2027, 2037, 2047 – and following Laura’s life journey from her own or someone else’s perspective. The sudden jumps in time sometimes felt a bit jarring, mostly because I was left wanting more from some of the sections. I particularly enjoyed the author’s exploration of the culture of Silicon Valley – the personalities of the people, who work in the tech industry, the long working hours and constant rivalry.

On a more personal level, some sections of the novel give us a glimpse into Laura’s personal life, her marriage, and the difficult life decisions that she needs to make. We also see the development of Organon that remains a constant companion to Laura throughout her life.

The novel also deals with some big questions concerning the development and future use of AI, our increasing reliance on technology, and the very topical subject of the collection and use of our personal data, and our right to privacy. I thought the author succeeded in creating a very vivid and believable scenario of our potential future. This was my introduction to James Smythe’s writing, and I will definitely be reading more of this work.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

“The Three Travel Questions: where are you from? Where are you coming in from? Where are you going?”

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Edition: published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017

Winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, is a celebration of travel and the wanderers of the world. I’ve always enjoyed travelling and have even had opportunities to live for short periods of time in different countries, so this theme is very dear to my heart.

Flights is one those novels that is difficult to categorise. It is a mix of essays, short stories and personal musings on the topic of travel and mobility, interspersed with discussions of human anatomy. Tokarczuk draws an interesting parallel between the mapping of the world and the study of the human body.

Just like the characters in the novel, the narrative seems to be constantly in motion, shifting from one topic to another, and even jumping around in time. It’s quite fragmented but, at the same time, all the different story threads seem to be joined under the thematic umbrella of travel.

The narrator’s experience in an anatomy museum and meditations on the human body,  the science of preserving human body parts, and the use of anatomical models made from wax reminded me of certain passages in Compass by Mathias Énard, where the protagonist ruminates on the strange appeal and purpose of anatomical models. In fact, I believe that, at one point, the protagonist of Compass visits the same anatomy museum in Vienna. It must be quite a memorable place. 😜

Moreover, similarly to Énard in Compass, Tokarczuk discusses the importance of travel as a way to broaden your mind. Tokarzcuk examines the complexities of modern travel, the psychology behind it, and suggests that we should go and discover places for ourselves, without the influence of travel literature that robs us of the opportunity to form our own first impression of a place.

“Describing something is like using it – it destroys; the colours wear off, the corners lose their definition, and in the end what’s been described begins to fade, to disappear. This applies most of all to places. Enormous damage has been done by travel literature – a veritable scourge, an epidemic. Guidebooks have conclusively ruined the greater part of the planet; published in editions numbering in the millions, in many languages, they have debilitated places, pinning them down and naming them, blurring their contours.”

However, for some people, travel can also be a way to escape. One of the most memorable stories in Flights follows a woman who takes aimless trips around the city as a way to escape from the suffering of her home life. She meets a strange, shrouded woman who preaches a philosophy of rejecting materialism in favour of wandering the world.

“Whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pierced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling. (…) This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads – this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free people to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences. (…) What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans, let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded poetry. Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”

Another interesting aspect of the book was how Tokarczuk discussed the concept of time, and how modern air travel can often distort our sense of time – how strange it sometimes feels to travel across different time zones. It’s the closest that we can get to time-travel.

This is a hard book to talk about because it is made up of by so many fascinating story threads. This is a very erudite, and often moving, read about the value of travel, of being in motion and leaving behind our own personal traces on the world. I highly recommend it and look forward to reading more of Tokarzcuk’s work.

“What makes us most human is the possession of a unique and irreproducible story, that we take place over time and leave behind our traces.”

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