Category Archives: Keun, Irmgard

Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

I wrote up Child of All Nations as part of my recent May roundup post, but it was so good I thought it deserved a bit more attention. More accurately, it was so quotable I thought it deserved a few more quotes.

Child is narrated by Kully, an intelligent young girl with a handy gift for languages. Her father is a writer and a well-regarded one. Well-regarded in literary circles anyway, not so much in 1930s Nazi Germany.

He has to flee, which means his wife and their young daughter Kully have to flee too. The problem is, just because Germany doesn’t want them any more doesn’t mean anywhere else does. So they join that vast movement of refugees criss-crossing Europe, doing whatever they can to keep one step ahead of destitution and deportation.

My mother and I spend a lot of time sitting on benches. We open our mouths to let the sun shine into them; then we eat the sunshine, and our bellies feel full of warm happy life. My father didn’t feel like eating sunshine. He wanted to sit in the café Bazaar and drink slivovitz, which he finds more warming than any amount of sunshine.

Kully’s father, clearly modelled closely on Joseph Roth, is keen to maintain a certain lifestyle. He dreams of Hollywood adaptations and international recognition. In the meantime he spends the little money they have on a lifestyle he can’t remotely afford. Drink, women, café culture. His life still holds a certain shabby glamour while Kully’s is lit by her childish imagination. For her mother it’s a bleaker existence.

My mother didn’t want to play anything with me any more. Normally we play all the time. We play: how many beds have you slept in? Or: how many trains have you been on? … Three times my mother forgot a train from Prague to Budapest and a train from Lvov to Warsaw that we took with Manya. Then she forgot the bed in Bruges which was made of iron and had golden knobs, and where we had to lie so close that we didn’t know any more which was me and which was my mother.

The family travel from country to country. When they arrive they check into a hotel and eat in its restaurants. They rely on running up the hotel bill while Kully’s father tries to get money off whatever local contacts he can find. When the local contacts run out he leaves Kully and her mother behind, human collateral, while he ranges further afield in search of money to pay the bill with. To keep getting away with it they have to maintain a certain level of appearances or the hotels won’t let them run up those bills, but there’s a sense that they’re running out of road.

Child narrators are high risk but here it works well. Kully doesn’t judge her parents. For her they are as much a part of the structure of the world as the sun or the sky. At the same time she sees them all too clearly. Her father is charming, but more concerned with his own comforts than his family’s wellbeing. At the same time it’s his mix of charm and self-regard that helps him persuade others to advance another loan or payment on account. What makes him a bad husband and father is what makes him able to provide at all. It’s a compelling portrait.

Kully’s mother has it tougher. While Kully’s father is off enjoying himself with friends and other women she has to stay back at the hotel with Kully. She has to keep Kully safe and entertained, gradually withdrawing from the public life of the hotel as the staff start to wonder if their bill will ever be settled. She’s clearly depressed. She has good reason to be. Kully meanwhile is aware of her mother’s fragility and so just as her mother protects her she tries to protect her mother.

Finally there’s Kully herself. Intelligent and funny enough to be an entertaining narrator, but not too precocious as to be incredible. She’s moved country to country so often she’s barely educated, but speaks several languages. As I read I doubted either of her parents would survive the war, but I thought Kully had a pretty good chance.

The book dips a bit in the final quarter when a trip to the US takes the book briefly beyond the claustrophobia of Europe, but it’s a minor failing in what’s otherwise a strong read. Based on this I think Keun deserves far greater recognition than she’s received so it’s good to see Penguin Modern Classics redressing that a little.

One last quote, simply because I can:

She ordered bouillabaisse, which is a kind of soup that’s made out of the Mediterranean; all the creatures in the Mediterranean float around it in a hard-to-identify way, and some of them of course are poisonous. When people have had enough of life, they can choose to die either by mushrooms or bouillabaisse, but in either case I think they have to order it specially from the hotel kitchen.

We live in another age of refugees and mass movements of people. Decades after the events Keun portrays here one might hope they’d find better welcomes. They don’t. Like much fiction of the 1930s Child remains depressingly relevant.

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Filed under Hofmann, Michael (translator), Keun, Irmgard

My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.

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Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will