Technically this is the second half of my “I read a bunch of books from Le Monde’s Top 100 Books list.
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum – 4/5 Stars
So this is a novel presented in part as a police investigation. It begins with the bare facts of the case and states that it relies heavily on the accounts of three sources, mainly police investigators. The focus of the novel is about a woman named Katharina Blum who sort of disappeared for a few days and ends up shooting a man in his apartment. The resulting novel is about 150 pages of looking into the facts of the case.
It should be clear going in that this is stripped bare of a lot of the general tenets of fiction in the initial parts of the story and as the novel progresses, the narrator can’t seem to help itself from adding more and more to bare bones of the initial narration.
So when I say bare bones, I really do mean that. The book is written in the kind of facts-based journalistic or police report style, where things happen, but only with verification and reliable testimony can they be attributed to specific actors.
As the novel progresses though more and more of the story and especially the intentionality is brought to bear on the story.
What this book most makes me think is about the need for narration and narrators that are not simply lifeless voices. It’s so common to mistake a relatively passive narrator for a neutral one, and this novel presses against that seeming need to have those kinds of dispassionate voices in telling stories that are guided by more than the simply presentation of facts.
The Tartar Steppe – 4/5 stars
The cover and coverage of this book suggest that it should be comparable to something Kafka’s The Castle, and I think that’s just wrong. For me the brilliance of Kafka is not how particular and narrow the focus of his nightmares are, but how general and mundane they are. While The Metamorphosis works on multiple levels, including providing a critique of modern society and its emphasis on labor and capital, it also works on a family level. But also, it can also be the simple story of what happens to someone who turns into a bug.
And so by linking this to The Castle, it’s almost to suggest that this novel is less a pointed critique than I think it really is.
Instead, the blurb by JM Coetzee makes more sense. The interminable waiting part of war, and especially war categorized along colonial lines, and the total belief in the savagery of those you wish to dehumanize through the process of warfare and through the political situation that leads to warfare is salient. In this book we meet a young lieutenant on his way to a far out post on the edge of the Tartar Steppe. This boundary, this border, seem to serve as a kind of border between society and barbarism (as the title of JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians would also suggest), but then nothing happens. At first it feels like something is going to happen. And then it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean NOTHING happens, and certainly things of consequence do happen, including death, but the battle doesn’t. It must be what the first couple hundred of years of the Wall in Game of Thrones must have felt like for the Watch.
But this novel functions like an anti-narrative in that way. What does happen, is that the lives being protected by those back in civilization function while those along the wall don’t.
The General of the Dead Army – 4/5 Stars
There was an accidental theme with a lot of these novels about the breakdown in narrative and the breakdown in conventional storytelling when truly trying to finds ways to represent 20th century life. In this novel we don’t have a war, we the far aftermath of a war. A former general in Mussolini’s army and an aligned priest visit Albania 20 years after the war at the scene of a great and devastating battle to reclaim the remains of the fallen Italian soldiers. Theirs is the perspective that is privileged throughout this novel. Albania is seen as a strange closed off space, but it’s also one that’s opened its doors to its former enemy to allow for some closure. In addition, Italy was the aggressor in the fight and has asked this favor of its neighbor. The novel then, through this almost but not quite absurdist situation, reveals the curious Albanian life and culture through the gracious ways in which the Italians are treated. It’s an odd and interesting novel in a lot of ways and the novel itself does the thing that the narrative does. This is one of the first Albanian novels ever published outside of Albania, and even so, the novel was first published in French and then from French to English. So these layers of somewhat accidental obfuscation adds depth to the mystery that surrounds this novel and the people of Albania. Just the very act of putting the locus on the Italians provides just enough distance.
Horseman on the Roof – 4/5 stars
So this one is very different from the others, but still shares a lot of the same kinds of narrative distance and narrative play. Jean Giono is a French writer from the central southern part of France between Cannes and Marseilles, but a little more northern. I mention this because as I started the novel before really considering it, I had to look him up and think about the implications of this. This novel takes place in 1838 in a “plague year,” where an Italian finds himself exiled from his homeland because of a duel and lost and wandering the French countryside. As he progresses he gets embroiled in various conversations, intrigues, and other local conflicts involving and not involving that same cholera epidemic.
So this novel is really interesting and very good. And it makes me think about how uncommon it is for me to find a French or really any foreign novel that makes its way into English that is this kind of historical adventure novel. And the other thing I thought a lot about is given that I have read a lot of books that take place in the 1830s or thereabouts (think especially of like War and Peace, which takes place in 1805 and was written in 1867), and how they present an age and what that feels like from that novel’s perspective. So, for example, this novel from the 1950s has a feel that 1838 is like 500 years ago, but War and Peace can make 1805 feel almost modern. I think the tone shift that causes someone to look back at a time much further back from the author’s situation than an older novel might make an even older time period.