Sex and politics don't mix in this melancholy tale of gay love in Communist Poland.
It's 1980, Poland. The country is fracturing under corrupt Communist rule. Protest movements are gaining ground, even as they are brutally put down. Amidst this political turmoil, eighteen-year-old Ludwik attends an agricultural camp and is soon besotted with Janusz. The two youths go hiking by some idyllic lakes and enjoy the waters, starting a secret affair. While homosexuality is not illegal in Poland at the time, it is still a fast route to social ostracism and shame. For Ludwik, this is a major concern, as he is haunted by an early episode in his life when he made advances to a boy he liked, but was found out and humiliated.
The affair between the two boys is passionate, almost idyllic, but as they get to know each other better, cracks start to appear. Ludwik is critical of the Communist regime and believes the system can be overcome. It's better to live the truth than a lie. Janusz has different ideas. He's about to start work for the regime and has a more pragmatic view. He prefers to work every advantage you can and get ahead. Why suffer? Accordingly, he flirts with Hania, the daughter of a party official. His relationship with Hania means he can live the good life and get special requests fast-tracked. When Ludwik needs some intervention to get a doctoral thesis study approved, Janusz suggests asking Hania. Faced with such an agonising choice, one that also risks his relationship with Janusz, Ludwik finds there is no easy way out.
Swimming in the Dark is the debut novel from Tomasz Jedrowski, a German-born Polish author now living in France. It's written in a simple, elegant style that is engaging and evocative. The plot, one that travels from innocence to experience, is heartbreakingly believable.
A tragic tale that highlights a time when gay lives were filled with shame, secrets and persecution, with an interesting historical backdrop of Communist Poland.
Swimming in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski. Published by Bloomsbury. $29.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
An entertaining memoir from Liberal Party insider Christopher Pyne.
Christopher Pyne entered the Australian parliament at age twenty-five with high hopes of becoming prime minister. He traveled a long road to finally become a minister in the Howard government, and then in the Abbott and Turnbull governments. But he never reached the top job. Rather than indulge in bitterness and self-pity, he accepted his limits and graciously retired. His memoir, The Insider, covers the later years of the Howard government, when he was appointed Minister for Ageing, the opposition years and finally, the tumultuous Abbott and Turnbull years.
Don’t expect much in the way of political philosophy or policy interest in these pages. Pyne espouses an amorphous Liberal party philosophy of the individual rather than the collective, coupled with a blunt opposition to anything Labor. It’s all a case of Liberal equals good, Labor equals bad. Having said that, Pyne is a cheery fellow who relishes the work of parliament, its dynamic personalities and power plays, and all of its attendant bustle and energy. Despite his professed antipathy to Labor policy, he has cultivated many friendships with the non-liberal side of politics. Like a character out of P.G. Wodehouse, Pyne doesn’t hold grudges and sees parliament as ripping good fun.
The Insider is an enjoyable and engaging read. Pyne takes us on a grand tour of the political life, introducing the reader to a large cast of the most important political players from the last twenty years. If anything, his book gives a good idea of how the machinery of politics works, how elections are fought and won, and how reputations are made and lost.
An intriguing and candid look into how parliaments work from an affable guide.
The Insider: The Scoops, the Scandals and the Serious Business within the Canberra Bubble, by Christopher Pyne. Hachette. $34.99
Academics Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg examine how the Chinese Communist Party influences world affairs by stealth.
Following on from Clive Hamilton's Silent Invasion (2018), which investigated the influence of the Chinese Communist Party on Australia's politics and culture, comes Hidden Hand. This new book is written with Mareike Ohlberg and takes a global perspective, examining in granular detail how the CCP has slowly and quietly made its influence felt in business, politics and academia. In short, it uses money as leverage. Fear of having markets cut off or finance denied makes business leaders and politicians toe the China line, often parroting Xi Jinping's talking points. It's a creeping and insidious infiltration of Western democracy and business. Many of the guilty Western parties (economist Jeffrey Sachs is highlighted in the book) should really know better.
Hidden Hand makes for depressing reading. Its detail and exhaustive research, with its endless listing of names, government bodies and institutions, is often quite dizzying. That said, it's an important book that raises a lot of important questions. For several decades, we in the West have courted China, thinking of it as a capitalist democracy in the making. Instead, it has become increasingly autocratic.
Essential reading for the informed citizen.
Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World, by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg. Published by Hardie Grant. $32.99
A bizarre love triangle, with a cat as the major pawn.
Shozo is onto his second wife, but his heart really belongs to his cat, the beautiful Lily, with her exquisite tortoiseshell coat. First wife Shinako, who has been pushed out of her marriage in favour of the well-heeled Fukuko, is kicking up a stink. She says she is lonely and wants to take Lily to live with her. Seeing that she has been unfairly abandoned, she feels this is the least that Shozo and Fukuko can do. Shinako's secret plan is that once Lily is ensconced with her, Shozo will want to visit the cat, and hence her. The funny part is, Shinako doesn’t really like the cat, and so the plan is in some ways self-sabotaging. Thrown into this mix of emotional jeopardy is Shozo’s mother, O-rin, who has her own self-interested schemes. Weak and vacillating, Shozo finally succumbs to the pressure to give Lily to Shinako, but soon finds he can’t bear to be parted from his dear cat.
Junichiro Tanizaki published this often hilarious novella in 1936. Not only is it psychologically pitch-perfect in its depiction of a three-way power tussle, with a cat as the trophy, but it also presents a fascinating picture of Japanese society. We learn much about the importance of money and status, how marriages are made and broken, and the superficial nature of many customs. Society makes us put on many masks; Tanizaki takes them off to show our true conniving selves. A Cat, A Man and Two Women is almost a Jane Austen like comedy, where the hypocritical and the venal get their comeuppance.
A sly and piercing comedy that never puts a foot wrong. A rare piece of writing where every page is so good it has to be savored.
A Cat, A Man and Two Women, by Junichiro Tanizaki. Daunt Books. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Yukio Mishima's nihilistic tale of a gang of children and their punishment of an unsuspecting sailor.
Fusako Kuroda is a widowed woman with a 13-year-old son, Noboru. On a ship tour she meets and falls in love with the sailor Ryuji Tsukazaki. Their relationship moves quickly and the two are soon committed to each other. Noboru, Fusako's young boy, looks up to the sailor and is mesmerised by his tales of glory on the seas. It's a mysterious and dangerous world that Ryuji portrays, barely imaginable.
Meanwhile, Noboru has been running with a gang of boys his own age. They are led by “the Chief”, also 13-years old. He is intelligent but nihilistic, obsessed with the idea that life is meaningless and empty. The only way he sees to fill the void is to commit some horrible crime. He leads the group in the killing of a kitten, which he then proceeds to eviscerate, pulling out all the animal's organs. This act is seen as a preparation for worse crimes.
When the Chief learns that Ryuji, the sailor whom the gang has come to idolise as the embodiment of glory, has given up his career at sea to become the domesticated husband of Fusako, he declares that action must be taken. He prepares a sinister thermos of tea and with the assistance of Noboru, the gang lure Ryuji to a dock where something truly horrible is planned.
Yukio Mishima's 1963 novel (translated by John Nathan) is an elegantly written short novel that often shimmers with its luminous and poetic descriptions. Some of the writing is breathtakingly beautiful. The theme of the novel seems to echo the 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb, later used as the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's film Rope, in which two handsome, educated young men perform a terrible ideological crime. In Mishima's novel, a touch of Lord of the Flies is thrown in, with a gang of children performing the unthinkable. The plot is consummately developed, with an air of tension and unease permeating the text until the reader is shocked by the sudden and horrific denouement.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is dark and disturbing, mixing themes of death, sex, voyeurism and power. A nightmare that lingers uncomfortably on the consciousness.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Yukio Mishima. Vintage Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In this fascinating study, women are proven to be the stronger sex.
It’s a well-known fact that women outlive men. Look at the statistics for any country and women live longer. This is generally put down to the riskier behaviour men are more likely to indulge in. Doctor and scientist Sharon Moalem says this is not the case. Even when comparing nun and monks living in cloistered circumstances, with little to no environmental risks, it’s the nuns who live longer. What can be going on?
According to Dr Moalem, it’s all in the chromosomes. Men have XY chromosomes, whereas women have XX chromosomes. Having the two X chromosomes gives women greater immunity to disease. Moalem writes, “…the genetic advantage that women possess results from every cell within a female having the option of using one of their two X chromosomes, each of which contains around a thousand genes.” Not only that, women have greater resilience, stamina, cognitive advantages and even better visual sensitivity.
The Better Half draws on much of the author’s professional research and scientific interests. Compelling case histories are used throughout the text to show how women have the genetic advantage over men in fighting disease and physical adversity. This is popular science at its best: lively, always interesting and a pleasure to read.
The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women, by Sharon Moalem. Allen Lane. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A koala and her joey survive a bushfire in this touching story.
Tippy and Jellybean live in the Forest. They love to eat gum leaves. But one morning they wake up to find their home is on fire. They climb up high in the trees and Tippy curls her arms around her young Jellybean. When the fire has passed, Tippy checks to see if Jellybean is burnt. Luckily, a firefighter finds them and they are taken for a plane trip to safety. A caring vet named Kami looks after Tippy and Jellybean. They are given smoothies full of gum leaves and added vitamins. Once Tippy and Jellybean are better, they are taken to an animal sanctuary where they can get back to their old ways of eating gum leaves and climbing trees. Eventually, six months later, they are taken to their home in the forest. The leaves are growing back and the animals are returning. It's a happy ending for Tippy and Jellybean.
Based on a true story of two koalas from Gelantipy, East Gippsland, $1 from every sale of this book will be donated to the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund. Gorgeously illustrated by Anil Tortop, with text by Sophie Cunningham, this is a bitter-sweet story sure to touch many Australians.
3 + years old
Tippy and Jellybean by Sophie Cunningham. Illustrated by Anil Tortop. Albert Street Books.
Review by Chris Saliba
A year in the arctic turns into a spiritual odyssey for Austrian artist Christiane Ritter
In 1934, Austrian artist Christiane Ritter rather gamely decided to join her researcher husband, Hermann, on the remote arctic island of Spitsbergen. Many thought she was foolhardy; seasoned travellers in the area – mainly men – told her she wouldn't last the one year stay. A blithe spirit animated her. Surely it couldn't be all that bad?
When she disembarked from her comfortable ship, with its hot meals, warm cabins and serving staff, the enormity of it all quickly sunk in. The ship would not return for another year. She was greeted by her husband and his colleague, Karl. The first thing that had to be found was water, and so the men trekked off in search of it. Christiane became immediately alarmed. Wasn't there a steady supply of fresh water nearby? No, there wasn't. It was the first of many lessons that she would have to learn about her new – often harsh and unforgiving – environment.
As the months rolled on, many hardships would follow. Especially the winter storms and their unrelenting, howling noise. For several weeks Christiane is left to survive on her own, the wind lashing at her cabin. But amidst the solitude, the cold and the privations, Christiane came to love the arctic.
The chief charm of A Woman in the Polar Night is Christiane Ritter's crystal clear prose, making for a bracing narrative. Ritter's training as an artist has no doubt helped her to sketch out essential and key aspects of her visual experience, to reveal the arctic's many splendours. The passages that describe Ritter's emotional responses are both controlled (avoiding flights of fancy) and revelatory. One really does become jealous at the peace of mind and oneness she achieves in the midst of such turbulence.
At 200 pages, the book doesn't overstay its welcome, leaving you wanting just a little bit more. Beautifully presented by Pushkin Press, with illustrations by the author, this is a curious gem not to be missed.
A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter. Pushkin Press. $24.99
Hisham Matar takes the reader on a spiritual and aesthetic journey
Award winning British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar spent a month in the Tuscan city of Siena, with the aim of immersing himself in the city's great galleries, especially the Sienese School of painting, which had its great period from the 13th to 15th centuries. While Matar did spend a lot of time standing in front of famous paintings by artists such as Lorenzetti and Duccio (the gallery attendants even gave him a chair, seeing him so frequently visit), the writer also made some unexpected friendships and found himself on a voyage of inner discovery.
A Month in Siena, the result of that brief sojourn, is many things. In the main a travelogue, but also a profound meditation on art and life. Matar describes the paintings of the Sienese School in fine detail, but interpolates important events from his own life, fusing art and life into a compelling narrative. Some of the book's meditations are quite moving as death, the loss of partners and the nature of love are discussed in a language that is both intimate and beautifully wrought.
Presented with exquisite colour illustrations, this short book will magically transport you to other places while also opening a window into the soul.
A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar. Viking $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In this Elena Ferrante-like work, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami lays bare women's reproductive and cosmetic options in extraordinary detail.
Breasts and Eggs is Japanese author Mieko Kawakami's first novel to be translated into English. It first appeared as a novella and was later expanded. The book is divided into two parts, with part one the original novella, and the much longer part two the additional material.
The story opens with Natsuko, a novelist suffering writer's block who is receiving a visit from her sister Makiko in her Tokyo apartment. Makiko and her 12-year-old daughter, Midoriko, have come from Osaka, where Natsuko originally grew up. The sisters speak in the local dialect, Osaka-ben, a sassy kind of street talk that dispenses with formalities. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, Kawakami's fast paced conversations read like the sort of thing you'd overhear animated young people speaking.
Makiko and Midoriko – mother and daughter – are experiencing their own personal challenges. Midoriko has gone mute, refusing to speak. We gain insights into her thinking in a series of journal entries. The upshot is she is horrified at the idea of becoming a woman – the bodily changes, the pressure to reproduce - all of it causing revulsion. Meanwhile, Makiko has blithely announced she wants to have breast augmentation. She's casually looking into it and Natsuko is alarmed at all the health risks that go with surgery.
Part two takes place some eight years later. The main themes of part one – the pressure on women to surgically change their bodies, Midoriko's fear at her looming physical maturity – are pretty much dropped. Midoriko now has a boyfriend and Makiko's breast enhancement isn't discussed. Instead, the focus is on Natsuko's body. She wants to have a child and considers using the services of a sperm donor. She doesn't have a partner, nor does she want one, as she finds sex completely unappealing. And so starts a personal journey to find a way to have a baby, without a man being involved.
Breasts and Eggs is fast paced and chatty. Kawakami has a real gift for writing dialogue – often in huge chunks – that is naturalistic and believable. She's clearly a good listener with an ear for verbal ticks and idiosyncrasies. The book's subject matter and style, with its addictive prose, is reminiscent of Elena Ferrante's quartet of Neapolitan novels. Both works investigate in intimate details the lives of women. Kawakami focuses even more strongly on the female body, discussing menstruation and reproduction, among other things, with an unflinching eye.
There are some structural issues with Breasts and Eggs. Part two seems simply bolted onto part one and at 430 pages, the book is long and in parts long-winded. That aside, there is much to enjoy in this surprisingly candid work.
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami. Published by Picador. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books