Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
Look Who's Back
(Maclehose Press: £15; e-book £1.39)
This book evoked considerable controversy when published in Germany, despite selling 1.5 million copies and being in the top sellers list. Should humour around the reincarnation of Hitler or even about the Nazi period be permissible or acceptable? We have many examples, whether contemporary as with Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator from 1940, or Brook's The Producers.
This book sees Hitler awake in a new, post-war, Germany led by a democratically elected woman with a cultural makeup different to when he killed himself in the bunker in 1945, as the Russian forces bore down on Berlin. He is essentially a down-and-out until taken in by a kindly newspaper seller, and through his wartime dress and observations is mistaken, or perhaps better, taken to be a contemporary, satirical comedian, through which he achieves a TV programme, a book deal, and goes viral.
There are moments of humour, especially around Hitler's confusion between the past and the present with his observations on current German politicians and policy, but there are also observations about the Jews and Turkish immigrants that are raw and offensive. However one needs to consider the book more deeply. It raises the question, in a society dominated by media and in particular social media, of how they could be used to raise a profile and public engagement in politics.
The book is written in the same style and vein as Mein Kampf, and the resonance with Hitler's early life is clear. A curate's egg, perhaps – offensive in its use of the language of a previous age, but certainly a reawakening to the ease with which non-mainstream politics can enter the public conscience. The book is timely when one considers the threatened economic fracturing of the EU and the emergence of the parties entering mainstream politics in some member states.
(Collected by) Franceśc Seres
(Maclehose Press: £14.99; e-book £5.09)
Play the word association game with me. I say Russia; you say… Collective farms? Chernobyl? Cosmonauts? Red Square? So, no surprises then. You will find all of these themes in this collection of 21 short stories by five very fine Russian contemporary writers. It is more of a surprise to learn that these stories reached us in English after translation from the original Russian into Catalan. No stones are left unturned by the enterprising people chez Maclehose.
The only negative thing about this collection is that it comes to an end all too soon. There is the poignancy of the plight of the cosmonaut in “The Loneliest Man in the World”, or the defiance of the elderly couple returning to their home in “The Transparency of Evil”. Turn to Red Square, and you have the whimsy of the ghost of Karl Marx visiting the down and out, and the best kept secret of Elvis Presley’s one concert in the square. The old Soviet system is not left unpoked, whether in a simple parody of the Russian Encyclopaedia or in joining the reunion of a group of friends after 21 years of exile for the crime of reading poetry together.
Like finest Russian vodka or caviar, this book should be consumed slowly and sparingly, but there is the greatest of temptations to devour it at a sitting.
By now, only a very few kind souls who read my reviews/cave writings/daubings ask if I will ever commit to a real work of print. Even my late, saintly mother was fond of describing my four previous publications as pamphlets, as opposed to books. She may have had a point. In short, the writing ain’t good enough.
But any doubts I may have had about wasting printer’s ink have been dispelled forever by the quality of writing to be found in this book. We are all tired of the reflective glances at apartheid: we all find the bits of guilt terribly tiresome: there is only so much angst and self-flagellation that a body can bear. And as a generality that is true, but I suggest instead that you avoid the generalities and pick up Vladislavic’s book. The latest wonder of our age is 3D printing: that is an invention of genius, I am sure. This is 3D writing.
When the teenage dropout Neville Smith first sorts with Saul Auerbach, celebrated photographer, he is infused with the desire to observe, but lacks the urge to go too far below the surface. The first day out sees Smith, Auerbach and a companion each choosing a door at random, interviewing and photographing the occupiers. There is no time to enter Smith’s door – the light has gone.
Twenty years later Smith returns, having lived in England in the intervening period to avoid military service. He knocks on that third door, and meets Camilla. Each of them have their own veneers of deceit. His pretence is to be a historian: hers is the (long dead) Dr Pinheiro, who she claims is being looked after in the back room. Her cache of long undelivered and unopened letters becomes a symbol of a past which no one wants to delve into, and of a superficial present. Smith, himself now a photographer, takes images of ornate letter boxes, but refuses to examine what lies behind them. In a childhood game, played with his father, he acquired the “bitter knowledge that [he] had unlearned the art of getting lost.”
Deep down, Smith knows he is going nowhere. The double negative of the title could be a reference to the photographs; however, in an exchange between Smith and his friend Leora, they discuss the experience he had with a journalist sent to profile him. They conclude that the whole thing had been ironic, including the ironies. “Maybe they cancel one another out then,” Leora said, “like a double negative.”
This is no bustling, new South Africa, post-apartheid statement, but an observation, perhaps, on modern Johannesburg. A sophisticated and complex work, rather different from the normal, but well worth the time.