Siberian bears, ruthless oligarchs, crashing ice sheets and corrupt officials come together in this splendid contemporary thriller.
Investigator Arkady Renko is worried about his girlfriend, Tatiana Petrovna. She's a journalist and often disappears for dangerous assignments. When she abruptly leaves for Siberia, with only a few clues as to her whereabouts, Arkady takes on an assignment that allows him to follow and check up on her. He discovers that Tatiana has been working with oligarch, ex-political prisoner and now presidential aspirant, Mikhail Kuznetsov. She's doing what she believes is the right thing, supporting Kuznetsov's anti-corruption platform, but it's a murky world of money, politics and terrorism.
Arkady, too, has his hands full. Sent to Siberia by Prosecutor Zurin, he's tasked with investigating suspected Chechen terrorist, Aba Makhmud. He also starts inquiries into another oligarch, Boris Benz, which takes him deep into Siberia, to the city of Irkutsk, where he sustains some serious injuries. When two politically motivated murders are uncovered, Arkady is given orders by Zurin to perform some nasty – and illegal – business. If he doesn't follow through, Zurin threatens dire consequences. Caught on the horns of a dilemma, Arkady doesn't know what to do, until fate provides some spectacular twists of its own.
The ninth in the Arkady Renko series of thrillers, which began with Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith's latest is a sophisticated, neatly organised and well paced mystery with enjoyable characters, crisp dialogue and moody atmospherics. For those interested in the politics of modern Russia, there is plenty to satisfy, with brief discussions of Putin, corruption and the murderous oil economy. And just when you think the story may be running out of puff, the last fifty pages delivers a breathtaking finale.
Classy and enjoyable stuff.
The Siberian Dilemma, by Martin Cruz Smith. Simon and Schuster. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett wrote The House Without Windows, a song in praise of nature, at the age of twelve.
A young girl, Eepersip, finds living in a house – restrictive doors, windows, rooms and their attendant rules for living – repugnant to her. She decides to leave her parents' house and live in the wild. At first Eepersip roams the woods and meadows, making friends with animals and exulting in the plant life. She eats berries and roots, drinks freshly gathered water and makes comfortable beds in the wild for sleeping. Eepersip lives in a kind of ecstasy; a pure joy inhabits every waking minute of the day. She can't imagine going back to living in a house. Her parents, Mr and Mrs Eigleen, have different ideas. In a comic game of cat-and-mouse, they try to capture Eepersip and bring her back. But their half-hearted, ill conceived strategies always fail, often farcically. In one episode Eepersip actually jumps over her father and runs in the opposite direct.
Having experienced the wonders of the woods, Eepersip decides to discover the delights of the sea. For the third part of the novel, Eepersip treks to the mountain tops, where she experiences a near transformation, giving the novel a mesmerising, glittering finish.
Barbara Newhall Follett began writing The House Without Windows when she was eight and finished it at age nine. The manuscript was destroyed in a fire and so she began re-writing it from memory. Where memory failed her, she recreated, letting her writing go off in new directions. She was only twelve years old when her novel was published in 1927.
The House Without Windows is certainly an astonishing feat, for a writer at any age. The book is suffused with a magic and wonder; the descriptions of fish, animals, plants, insects all convey an utter ecstasy of experience. The book also offers psychological lessons. Eepersip eschews identity – there are sections where she doesn't even like to be called by her name – in favour of merging with the natural world. To achieve happiness and oneness with all things, the ego must be erased. By the novel's end, Eepersip, as a solid personality, with name, family history and place in society, has almost disappeared, replaced with a humming presence, a oneness with the world.
A book of mind boggling originality from a preternaturally gifted writer.
The House Without Windows, by Barbara Newhall-Follett. Hamish Hamilton $22.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
A Swedish classic of psychological drama.
Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman's A Moth to the Flame (1948) opens with a funeral. Twenty-year-old Bengt's mother, Alma, is to be buried. It's a time of guilt, anger and mixed emotions as the family remembers the often neglected Alma. Bengt tries to cope with the loss of his mother, and he has his sympathetic and gentle fiancée, Berit, to help. But things take a dark turn when he discovers that his father, Knut, has been seeing another woman, Gun, a cashier at the local theatre. Bengt becomes both attracted to and repulsed by Gun. His emotions bounce violently between love and hate, keeping him in a state of permanent, unresolved distress.
Stig Dagerman wrote a series of highly regarded novels in his early twenties, suddenly stopped writing, and five years later tragically committed suicide at the age of thirty-one. A Moth to the Flame, a work of staggering emotional maturity, was published when the author was in his mid twenties. It's a brooding, dreamlike work of psychological interiors. The novel has no real centre of gravity and rather floats like a miasma, drenched in Freudian gloom, with its themes of guilt, desire and traumatic family relationships. The deeply conflicted Bengt has much in common with Shakepeare's Hamlet as he tries to avenge his mother's memory but is unable to set out on any definite course.
A mini masterpiece from a gifted writer who died too young.
A Moth to the Flame, by Stig Dagerman. Penguin Classics. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Peter Polites second novel is a witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in gay Sydney.
Pano is slumming it, his work as a poet barely making an income. When he sees an advertisement on a gay website, he moves in with Kane, an IT specialist. The designer house, in upwardly mobile Pemulwuy, is everything he's ever aspired to. When Pano and Kane fall into bed together, Pano almost allows himself the fiction they are a happy couple. Kane is more interested in a proposed Albanian mosque, to be built across the road. He talks Pano into a plot to discredit the mosque. Meanwhile, Pano has taken on work as a ghostwriter for a dodgy property developer. Can Pano maintain this middle-class facade, or will it all come undone?
Peter Polites' second novel is a dry, witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in Sydney and with a cast of mainly gay men. The Pillars drips with an irony worthy of Jean Genet and Joe Orton. One of its main concerns is artifice and the presentation of self. Everything – clothes, décor, cosmetics – are described in mesmerising detail, working up a picture of a superficial, branded world and its deluded denizens.
An astute work of social observation that entertains with a seductive, sly humour.
The Pillars, by Peter Polites. Hachette Australia. $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
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
North Melbourne Books