In 1945, a shocking wave of suicides spread across Germany...
As Soviet troops advanced on Nazi Germany, and all seemed utterly hopeless, large numbers of German citizens chose not only suicide for themselves, but suicide for their families as well. Florian Huber pieces together a chilling, tragic and sometimes bizarre narrative of ordinary Germans trapped in circumstances of their own blind making. Once Hitler had committed suicide, on April 30, 1945, there was no conceivable path out of the national madness he had created. Hitler was all; extraordinary numbers of Germans believed he was a virtual messiah, come to save them. When news got out of the death camps and gas chambers, Germans muttered that Hitler couldn't have known. If he had known, he wouldn't have allowed it to happen. Popular delusions ran deep.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself (named after a father who gave his daughter a gun, told her to run and then kill herself) has two major parts. The first is a history of that wave of 1945 suicides, the story of a people immobilised by fear and lacking any moral compass; the second part tries to analyse why Germans got taken in by Hitler. The harsh terms set out for Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War, goes some way to explaining Hitler's popularity, but not all. So much still remains an enigma.
The most fascinating parts of the book discuss political scientist Hannah Arendt's experiences on returning to Germany after the war. Ordinary Germans, she discovered, remained indifferent or unwilling to face the crimes of the Nazi regime. These callous, self-pitying responses left Arendt in a state of shock.
A fascinating addition to the history of Nazi Germany, using contemporary diary entries and letters to explain the mindset and attitudes of ordinary Germans who created for themselves a horrific nightmare.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945, by Florian Huber. Text Publishing. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Irina Odoevtseva fled Russia soon after the 1917 Revolution and lived in Germany, then France, not returning to her homeland until 1987. She was a poet, memoirist and novelist. Isolde, published in 1929, was her second novel. It has now been translated into English for the first time.
Pretty, doll-like Liza lives in Biarritz, a seaside playground for the rich on the coast of France. She is fourteen-years-old and is much sought after by other boys. One day on the beach she meets Cromwell, an English lad who is a few years older than her. Cromwell professes undying love for Liza, calls her his “Isolde”, and is quickly drawn into her group, which includes her older brother, Antonio, and friend Odette. This young group of carefree youths live the fast life, dining out at restaurants, drinking and generally seeking pleasure. The truth of the matter, however, is that they are all short on money, or if they have money, then it is soon enough running out. The group sponges off Cromwell, while Liza, an innocent, free spirit, talks about meeting up with Andrei, a former boyfriend.
Everyone is riding an emotional merry-go-round, even Liza's mother, Natasha. She has a needy boyfriend, Bunny, who has drained his bank account for her and even started embezzling money. The slavish Bunny is not enough for Natasha, and she takes up with Boris, who is emotionally abusive.
Everything spins faster and faster for this group of children and adults. Pleasure, money, indulgence, fast cars, sex. But as the money runs out and the discarded relationships pile up, everything seems on a crash course for disaster.
Isolde caused a scandal in its day, with its air of delicious decadence and beautiful yet tainted youth. Odoevtseva captivates with her descriptions of the beautiful Liza, her trilling laughter, languid afternoons and breezy, uncomplicated character. The scene in Biarritz is painted as an enticing, voluptuaries’ playground. It’s hard not to be seduced. But as the novel progresses, one feels the hangover of such excesses, until such a dissolute lifestyle catches up with everyone. Ultimately Isolde is a moral story. Living for pleasure, on other people's money, with no consideration for the feelings of others, is the fastest route to hell.
Odoevtseva writes in a light, breezy tone, skilfully weaving into her spirited narrative an impending sense of dread, decay and doom. What a treat for English readers to have this long ignored Russian classic now available in translation.
Isolde, by Irina Odoevtseva. Published by Pushkin. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A Syrian couple flee their country for asylum in London after losing their son, Sami, in a bomb attack.
Nuri and Afra have a seven-year-old son, Sami. They live in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Nuri works as a beekeeper with his cousin, Mustafa. Afra is a visual artist. As civil war tears the country apart, the young family find their lives more and more at risk. A bomb blinds Afra and Sami, their son, is killed. Staying in Syria becomes impossible when Nuri's life is threatened: he must join a militia and start killing. Nuri and Afra make hasty plans to leave, a journey that will take them through Turkey and Greece until they arrive in England, where Mustafa has successfully sought asylum.
Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees and was raised in London. She has worked in Athens with refugees fleeing Syria and it is the stories of these people that she has fashioned into a moving story of trauma, exile and grief. Each chapter is divided into two parts, a present tense where Nuri narrates the couple's life in London as they apply for asylum, and a past tense which describes the dangerous journey from Syria. As the novel progresses chapter by chapter the past catches up with the present, and the more shocking aspects of the journey are revealed.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a skilfully crafted novel that works both as an enjoyable aesthetic experience and a testament to the suffering of those who must leave home, family and country for a future that only promises uncertainty. The story contains many shocking scenes and incidents, especially concerning villainous people smugglers, that must be drawn from real life experience.
Read this book to understand the plight of asylum seekers the world over, and be humbled by it.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri. Published by Zaffre. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Pajtim Statovci's second novel, Crossing, recently translated into English by David Hackson, concentrates on themes of loss, displacement and identity.
Bujar is a young Albanian dealing with an array of problems, personal and political. His homeland, Albania, is increasingly unstable and he feels himself oscillating between being male and female, gay and straight. His best friend, Agim, is feminine, highly intelligent and likes to dress in women’s clothes. The two boys – they are in their mid-teens – decide that there is no place for them in Albania and decide to flee. They spend much time tramping around Tirana, the country’s capital, until they save enough money to travel to Western Europe.
The story takes place along three different timelines and mostly focuses on Bujar. We see him at fourteen in Albania and in his early twenties when living in countries such as Spain, Germany and Italy. He also spends time in New York. The final part of the novel, when Bujar is in his late twenties, sees him in Finland. Throughout his travels Bujar always feels displaced, never quite fitting in, a constant outsider who dreads being asked the question, “Where are you from?” Shame is a recurring emotion, as Bujar feels himself to be both spiritually and physically homeless.
Many of the themes Pajtim Statovci addressed in his debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, are reprised here. The political and social history of the Balkans during the 1990s; the nature of being a displaced person; difficult family relationships exacerbated by war; and the terrible loneliness and despair that can result from a diverse gender and sexuality.
Pajtim Statovci is gifted at writing a spirited narrative that keeps the reader always engaged, helped by the fact that his writing is based on personal experiences. There’s no doubting the authenticity of Bujar’s narrative. Statovci also has a wonderfully surreal, even poetic, imagination. There are some beautiful set pieces, especially in the final pages where Bujar dreamily imagines his lover as a horse.
Crossing is often melancholy and haunting, a deeply affecting story of people lost and estranged in the world.
Crossing, by Pajtim Statovci. Published by Pushkin Press. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Chef, writer and farmer Matthew Evans tackles the thorniest of ethical issues concerning our food choices.
On Eating Meat investigates every aspect of meat production – ethical, economic, practical and environmental. In essence, argues Matthew Evans, Australians eat too much meat (three times the global average). Not only that, Australians want to eat cheap meat. And therein lies the problem. Cheap meat is ruinous to the environment, of questionable value to human health, especially when consumed in large quantities, and lastly, is terrible for animal welfare. The sections describing attempts to inspect intensive farming operations – piggeries and chicken factories, most notably – are worrying. Evans was blocked and frustrated at every step. Big corporate producers are secretive and defensive, not wanting the general public to see how they operate.
What is the solution to this problem? More consumer activism for a start, whether it be at the checkout or simply demanding better welfare standards. Evans believes the debate has been set solely by animal welfare activists, especially vegans, whereas meat eaters should be taking a leading role. Ideally, he would like to see vegans and carnivores come together to advocate for better animal welfare standards. While this seems unlikely, there are good arguments made in its favour. Evans shows that whether your diet is vegetarian or vegan, animals still die as a consequence. Orchards cull animals to protect their fruit, seasonal crops kill small animals, such as rodents, egg production involves feeding unwanted male chicks into mulchers and the dairy industry produces unwanted male calves, either killed on site or sent to market.
This is a book that always strives for honesty and balance, in what is often an ethical minefield. Matthew Evans leaves no stone unturned as he looks at food production and its impacts from all possible angles. Every reader will find some new fact to surprise and shock: commercial bees employed to pollinate food crops, the amount of bugs that end up in food, the rampant use of antibiotics to promote animal growth, the impact of feral cats on Australia's native wildlife, etc.
A book perhaps as important as Peter Singer's Animal Liberation for its thoughtfulness and intellectual rigour.
On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It, by Matthew Evans. Published by Murdoch Books. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A fascinating, brief overview of Australia's first languages.
R. M. W. Dixon is a Professor of Linguistics who specialises in Australia's first languages. Before Europeans and the English language, Australia's First Nations spoke some 250 different languages. Early on in Australia's Original Languages, Professor Dixon clears up a common misconception. The 250 languages originally spoken were not dialects. They were not variations on the same basic language, such as American English or Australian English. Each language was entirely different, with its own vocabulary, grammar and complex forms of expression.
If our language reflects our emotional, social and psychological complexity, then Australia's Original Languages provides a snapshot of its speakers' nuanced and intricate modes of thought, categorisation and social organisation. For example, First Nations' kinship structures provide a broad classification system with names for every member, describing how they relate to the society at large. The key is that everyone is interrelated, and the language reflects the social structure. Some First Nations speak two languages, one a regular, mainstream language, and another, what's known as an avoidance language, used for particular relationships.
This book is subtitled “An Introduction”. R. M. W. Dixon gives the broadest overview of a subject that, by its nature, has great complexity. It's a reminder of how the First Nations people who speak their own language carry within them a unique consciousness and view of the world, coupled with an expressive vocabulary and grammar.
For readers who enjoyed Bruce Pascoe's brilliant Dark Emu, Australia's Original Languages provides many fascinating insights.
Australia's Original Languages: An Introduction, by R. M. W. Dixon. Published by Allen & Unwin. RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Finnish-Kosovan author Pajtim Statovci's debut, My Cat Yugoslavia, mixes surreal invention with late twentieth century history to examine the trauma of war and displacement.
Bekim is a young man born to Albanian parents. He has four other siblings, three sisters and one brother. When war breaks out in the early 1990s, the family must flee their home in Kosovo. Bajram, the socially conservative father, considers moving to America or Australia, but finally settles on Finland. Life in Finland, an advanced democracy with a first class economy, turns out to be a place hostile to foreigners. While Bajram and his wife Emine watch the news, with its daily stories of their country being ripped apart by war, their children find their own identities torn. Neither Finnish or Albanian, they don't fit in anywhere and drift emotionally from their parents.
Pajtim Statovci's debut novel My Cat Yugoslavia (translated by David Hackston) runs two parallel stories, of mother and son. First the reader is introduced to Bekim. He's gay, somewhat emotionally detached and is struggling to form a permanent relationship. For company, he buys a pet boa constrictor, a muscular creature that is nonetheless quite placid. Later, in a bar he meets a cat that wears human clothes and talks. He invites the cat back to his flat, but discovers the cat is xenophobic and homophobic.
The second story is a history of his mother, Emine, from the time she marries as a teenager to when her children are finally grown, covering the time span from 1980 – 2008. She endures a horrible “traditional” marriage, is beaten and treated like a slave rather than a wife. Despite these hardships, she sometimes feels pity for her husband and can understand his grief in losing his country.
There is much to enjoy in this fine debut. Pajtim Statovci writes an urgent and compelling prose that is hard to put down. His subject matter – loss, displacement, generational trauma – comes from a place of personal experience, giving his story authenticity (Statovci's family fled Kosovo in the early nineties).
For those who have forgotten the Balkan Wars, My Cat Yugoslavia is a stark reminder of the atrocities suffered during those years. Statovci also adds surrealistic features (mysterious cats and laid back snakes), giving his story a pleasantly beguiling aspect.
A fascinating debut and an author to watch.
My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci. Published by Pushkin Press. RRP: $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A little known Russian master of the short story.
Nikolai Leskov began his writing career as a journalist, was a contemporary of such Russian greats as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and started publishing fiction in 1862. He traveled widely around his homeland of Russia and was intimately acquainted with all levels of society, a knowledge that is reflected in his stories and novellas. He wrote several full length novels, but it is the shorter form in which he excelled.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is a collection of Leskov’s best. The stories in large part describe 19th century Russian life, although at break neck speed. There’s never a dull moment. Socially, the focus is on the clergy, the military, tradesmen, artisans and the many roles women play. In one of Leskov’s most famous stories, "The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk", bored housewife Katerina takes up with the farmhand Sergei and undertakes several murders, allowing her to seize control of her husband’s considerable estate. While it is a breathtaking story of unrepentant wickedness, it also highlights women's expected role as submissive servants to house and husband. Other stories exemplify a society that is deeply superstitious, with a runaway imagination. “The Spook”, an engaging story about a poor social outcast living on the fringe of town, shows how the misunderstood can find themselves turned into an ogre and scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.
The great thing about Leskov’s short stories are their sheer energy and verve. Everything travels at a rate of knots, with snappy dialogue and a host of buoyant characters. There’s much humour and humanity here, too. Leskov takes pity and forgives the human condition, while also exploiting it ruthlessly for entertainment value. These stories are a joy to read, like nothing you’ve ever read before, and like all great literature, one reading will never be enough.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, by Nikolai Leskov. Published by Vintage Classics. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Dostoevsky wrote The Eternal Husband between two of his major works,The Idiot and The Devils. It's a lesser known novel that should not be overlooked.
The Eternal Husband opens with the rich landowner Velchaninov fretting over a legal case concerning an estate. He's a hypochondriac, a flighty, nervous type who is haunted by memories from his past. Velchaninov tries to rise above his personal demons, giving himself pep talks that he is managing, even overcoming his problems. But still, the scenes of his past keep returning in his mind's eye, many of them shameful. If only he could put these ghosts away and enjoy his status as a respected landowner.
Making matters worse is the appearance of a strange man. This unknown man has an uncanny habit of reappearing again and again. Velchaninov almost feels that he is being taunted, that the flickering, inquisitive eyes of the stranger are indeed a reproach, even a challenge. Velchaninov becomes utterly paranoid until things build to a climax. The man hovers outside his lodgings. Unable to stand the suspense any longer, Velchaninov opens the door. They stand face to face, but something strange happens. Velchaninov recognises the man. He is Trusotsky. The two men were friends a decade ago. A complicating factor is Velchaninov's relationship with Trusotsky's wife, Natalya – they were having an affair. Natalya has now passed away, leaving only a daughter, Liza, who may be Velchaninov's. Does Trusotsky know? Is Liza Velchaninov's daughter?
The psychological game of cat-and-mouse played out in The Eternal Husbandreads like an absurdist farce. Both main characters, Velchaninov and Trusotsky, are highly strung and continually dance around each other, keeping their cards close to their chests, trying to outmanoeuvre each other.
What the theme of the novel is remains a mystery, however Dostoevsky excels at bringing to life our changeable, inconsistent natures, forever haunted by bad memories, paranoia and fevered daydreams. Dostoevsky doesn't paint these human failings as tragic, but rather as comic. There's an operatic, almost campy madness to most of the narrative. In one memorable scene Trusotsky raves deliriously to Velchaninov about how much he admires him, and then kisses him on the hand. Moments later Trusotsky demands Velchaninov kiss him back (“do kiss me!”), which he does, on the lips.
A highly accomplished, utterly original portrait of the human psyche in its everyday, disordered state.
The Eternal Husband, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Published by Alma Classics. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
R.W.R. McDonald's brilliant debut mixes murder and mayhem with its own special brand of fabulousness.
Eleven-year-old Tippy Chan's mother has won a holiday, a two week cruise. Enter babysitters Uncle Pike and his new boyfriend, Devon. Fabulous, fun and creative, they have descended on the New Zealand town of Riverstone. Uncle Pike fled Riverstone as a teenager and found refuge in gay Sydney. Now he's back with a vengeance.
Tippy and Uncle Pike share a love of Nancy Drew novels. When a grisly murder happens in the small town – Tippy's teacher is found dead, headless – Tippy and Uncle Pike form The Nancys, a crime solving club inspired by Nancy Drew. Their sleuthing opens up a new side of Riverstone: it turns out many of the locals are not what they seem and some of Tippy's closest relationships are forever changed once the real murderer is discovered.
R.W.R McDonald's The Nancys mixes brilliant comic writing with a carefully plotted whodunnit that keeps you guessing until the very last page. The cast of small town characters is vividly drawn and true to life – there's many an eccentric or annoying type you'll recognise in these pages. Most of all, it's Tippy's wry, self-deprecatory narration that wins the show. A truly original debut that charms from the first page to the last.
The Nancys, by R.W.R. McDonald. Published by Allen & Unwin. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba