Our aim is to exchange views on the themes and meaning of topical, culturally diverse and thought-provoking books

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Reading group calendar in 2020

Wednesday 15 January  at Irene’s : “MIDDLE ENGLAND” by Jonathan Coe (British)

Wednesday 12 February at Paulette’s : ”THE HANDMAID’S TALE” by Margaret Atwood (Canadian)

Wednesday 11 March at Blanka's : "THE MORAVIAN NIGHT" by Peter Handke (Austrian)

Because of confinement, our schedule will be modified

Wednesday 16th June at Irene's : "THE HOME THAT WAS OUR COUNTRY" by Alia Malek (Syrian)

Wednesday 29th July at Loeky's  : "APEIROGON" by Colum Mc Cann (Irish)

Wednesday 12th August at ?: "HOMELAND" by Fernando Aramburu (Spanish)

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

When the Doves Disappeared

By Sofi Oksanen

 translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers

About the author :

SOFI OKSANEN was born in 1977 to an Estonian mother and a Finnish father.
She is author and playwright. Her novel ‘PURGE’, based on her theatre play,
Puhdistus, has received numerous domestic and international awards a.o. the French ‘ Prix Femina √©tranger’. It has been translated in more than forty languages and sold more than two million copies.
‘When the doves disappeared’ has been published in 2012 and translated in English in 2015. A year later the novel has been adapted for the theatre and shown in Finland.
‘NORMA’, her latest novel has been published in 2017.

Historical note:
Having been part of tsarist Russia for three centuries, Estonia’s independence lasted scarcely two decades after the end of WWI. The tiny Baltic country was soon to be invaded again by Stalin in 1940, and a year later by Hitler.
By the end of WWII the Soviets returned and stayed there until the end of their regime in 1991.

The story recounts how three members of an ordinary Estonian family survived in times of foreign occupation, in the forties and the sixties when the country was invaded in quick succession by the Red Army, in 1940, a year later by the Nazis, and again when the Soviets expelled the Germans in 1944. The book covers the triple invasions, twice in wartime between 1940 and 1944, and in the sixties, when Estonia was a Soviet Socialist Republic, behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.

Oksanen’s is very engaged with a particular period of the recent history of her mother’s country and chose to identify with it in her books. Her fiction is based on extensive research of this period. She collected a lot of material for her study in books and publications but also through spoken records of her mother’s relatives and other Estonians, thanks to her fluent knowledge of the language. (cfr. interviews in The Economist 2015).
In her various interviews and lectures, one can feel her wholehearted loyalty to the country, where her maternal family came from. She is very critical of the ‘colonizing’ role the Russians played in the Baltic region. As a Finnish citizen she is familiar with the history of Russian interferences, more particularly since Finland has also been annexed to the Russian Empire during the XIXth century.
As a result of the occupations in Estonia, collaboration was widespread, this is why Oksanen devoted a substantial part of her fiction to those depreciating historical details. 
 Hence, the main character, Edgar, is a collaborator and his actions have been inspired by a true Edgar Meos, who lived in Talinn during the wartime (cfr. Interview 2015). 
Edgar, Roland and Edgar’s wife, Juudith, drive the story forward during the triple episodes of occupation.  All three of them mirror the ambiguity of the circumstances and the dilemmas, the whole country was facing.

As Roland and Edgar are very different, they will move in contrary directions.  Roland will remain determined to fight for a free homeland, while Edgar, a weak and twisted mind, becomes an opportunistic mercenary and traitor, successively Nazi servant and Soviet apparatchik.
Juudith, is the helpless wife of a misogynous Edgar and will get involved in a love affair with the German enemy. Furthermore, doves play a role in this novel, as the German occupiers snatched and ate them, thereby wiping away the peace symbols and hope for independence.
The author used subtle psychological descriptions and lively dialogs to explain what went on in the minds of her protagonists.  What could they do to adjust to adjust to these frightening circumstances? Will their survival instincts take over?

Through their behaviour and their changing identities, we enter inside the Nazi and Soviet regimes and we are pulled so deep inside them that we wait breathlessly for the next revelation!
Furthermore, most chapters manage to reflect the fear which reigns in totalitarian systems.

Oksanen has observed that when survival instincts come in, most peacetime values do not hold anymore and complicity and collaboration replace them.
The generalisation of collaboration with totalitarian regimes, results in treason and denunciation, even among families. Many scenes denote crimes. While one actor accepts to work in a German concentration camp, another one writes fraudulent Soviet propaganda. The hated subject of Soviet propaganda, systematically distorting the facts, is another recurring theme in the scenes of 1965.                                               

Like in a theatre play, all the occupation episodes are described in fifty short chapters with the action packed in different scenes, each time with a change in place, time and narrating voice. As the storyline is not linear, the fifty different scenes rock the reader back and forth through time, with forward-and backward flashes. This dizzy-making structure, makes it rather hard to follow and often requires a second reading, especially in the chapter where the Germans are still occupying Reval, (the old German name for Talinn) in 1942, and the action moves abruptly to Talinn 1965, buried under Soviet occupation.

It is her exquisite style that makes the novel enjoyable to read! 
Oksanen’s lyrical and poetic prose enhances most chapters when she depicts enthralling scenes of  rural life in the countryside where small farming still provided for the daily needs.
The focus is often on women with lots of responsibilities providing food by heavy work when their husbands were being drafted or in hiding. I liked the descriptions of their daily lives in the village.

An important addition to this novel is the murder mystery ‘WHO MURDERED ROSALIE?’ an enigma that runs all along the episodes, woven into most chapters.
Roland’s fianc√©e, Rosalie, has mysteriously disappeared and Roland is going to track the killer!
This intrigue keeps the story alive and fuels it with suspense, since the truth will only be revealed at the end.
It adds another dimension to the story and introduces other aspects from the sphere of romance, marriage relationships, deception and sexual orientation through gripping descriptions of feelings and sufferings.

In one of her interviews, Sofi Oksanen told the press that very few people would be ready to study the complicated history of the tiniest of Baltic countries unless it would be presented through a novel, in order to capture the interest of the public.

 I am convinced she succeeded to do so in this powerful novel.

‘…a pair of doves took off flying. He turned to look at them… the sky as white as the white of Rosalies’s flesh’.
‘…Rosalie’s neck was slender as an alder twig. Like the twigs she would have used a few months later, tied into a broom to sweep the walls before they were whitewashed…with fingers as thin as cigarette holders, fingers that Roland so loved.’

Irene Van Steenberge

Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Moravian Night: A Story by Peter Handke

By Peter Handke           Time-Travelling Tale of a Europe in Flux (NY Times)


Despite some opposition due to negative reactions to the writer´s receiving the Nobel Prize of 2019, which, in turn were due to his public support of President Milosevic after  the Balkan wars in the nineties, the group had agreed we should read a novel by him. The Moravian Night, apparently the most important novel of his career,   had been recommended by Anne. None of us were familiar with this writer, but we discovered that he belongs to the most important German language writer after the WWII:  he had once been relied upon to de-Nazify their culture and he indeed commands one of the great German-language prose styles of the post war period. Since the first of his 100 or so books of fiction, poetry, essays and plays appeared in 1966, his talent has been inarguable, and yet it has almost exclusively been a talent for the aesthetic. No one has ever read Handke for his ideas, but for his hostility to ideas;
Longlisted for the 2008  German Book Prize , (he rejected the nomination, according to himself, out of respect for the younger writers on the list. The book was also longlisted for the 2008  European Book Prize  and received the Nobel Prize 2019 .
He was born in 1942 in Carinthia, a heavily Slavic province of Austria. After his Slovenian mother´s suicide in 1971, Yugoslavia — historic homeland of the South Slavs — became a maternal surrogate. But despite his occasional visits, he never seemed to know it as anything other than a figment of delusion. He would apostrophize the Socialist Federal Republic as “the Balkans” — a multi ethnic paradise of farmers whose hearts were filled with wine and song, untainted by the trappings of capitalism. He made this false consciousness public just as reality collapsed; in 1991, he published a pamphlet against Slovenian independence, and over the next decade of constant war other non-fiction texts criticizing the media coverage which, he claimed, refused to hold Croats accountable for the persecution of Serbs during World War II ( the Jasenovac concentration camp was an extermination camp established  by the authorities of the Independent State of Croatia during World War II. T he Ustasa facist regime killed over 83,000 Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists in the camp between 1941 and 1945),  and raising doubts that seemed like denials of the Serbian massacres of Bosnian Muslims. 
We follow, or try to, Handke’s hero´s, or maybe rather an anti- hero´s journey across Europe and his self-questioning; the “former writer” didn’t abandon his profession to pursue a political truth, but a political emotion. "In this story, where memory and reality battle, Handke once again showcases his valuable insight and imagination." [
Here and there, the novel’s submerged plot comes up for air; namely, the ways in which the contemporary world, or the contemporary Balkans, have betrayed Handke, or just failed to live up to his imagination.
The “former writer” finds the Balkans that emerges from the fogs, toward the conclusion of “The Moravian Night,” unrecognizable: a fractious patchwork of new alphabets and towers, repopulated by strangers equipped with smartphones, whose “comportment clashed with his conception, or his will? his ideal? his idea?
Modern Serbian state has been formed in the valley of the Morava,   the longest and most significant river in Serbia. Its fertile valley is a cradle of the first, medieval, Serbian state, Moravska Serbia, with rich cultural and historical heritage, like orthodox churches and monasteries . A new artistic direction was created right here in, the “Moravska School.
The mountain ridge of Hartz was the border between East and West Germany.
This novel  is essentially a tale,  told by a former-writer to guests he has convened for a whole night  on board  his boat ( his refuge) « The Moravian Night » . The boat is moored  on the Morava in the enclave of Porodin, the last Serbian enclave.
There is a symbolism of the word « night », name of the boat  and time of day.
The former writer is going to tell his guests about his long bus-trip through Europe .
Why is it  so important for him  to tell  them / us about it ?
 I think it is because the story is first and  foremost an  exploration of his  inner self. And we understand that there is a lot of P. Handke himself in the main character. 
This trip has been spured by an attempt to flee from some « danger » ( lurking  everywhere in the book), from a woman who tried to  reduce him to silence, from the trauma of fatherlessness, and from the horrors of the war.
During this trip, the former-writer  also retraces his steps to places he had been to  in Europe in the past,  before attending   a symposium about « Noise »  in  the most  godforsaken  and desolate place in Spain, Numencia.
While going back to his homeland , he assesses the changes in the world  and tries to make sense of   what has happened. 
We were puzzled by the fact that P. Handke  mixes real places with imaginary ones, always bare, lonely , desolate places where he meets weird people .
Realism alternates with day-dreaming.  In the end of the story, life is just a delusion.
Whether we call this magic-realism or surrealism or «  merveilleux » in French, doesn’t matter.  It is a novel and there is no need to find  it rational.
I really did appreciate the elegiac description of many places steeped in loneliness.
P. Handke has also used an incredibly rich  vocabulary to describe «  noises », all of them.
It was a very good read, not easy but worth the effort.
Anne Van Calster

Friday, 21 February 2020

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Our group decided to read “The Handmaid’s Tale” because of the recent publication of Margaret Atwood’s latest book “The Testaments”.  We agreed that we could not read “The Testaments” without going back to “The Handmaid’s Tale” first.  Many of us had already read the first book and returned to it somewhat reluctantly, as it is such a frightening and tragic story.  However, we all felt it was important to do so.
During the discussion, there was a consensus that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is difficult to read, not by its style or structure, but by the chilling dystopian society it depicts.  We all remarked on how strikingly Margaret Atwood’s depiction of this society reflects some aspects of our world today, even though it was published in 1984.  In an essay written by the author and published in the New York Times in March 2017, she speaks about those parallels and how they have only increased.  (Thanks to Christa for providing us with this essay*.)
Another conclusion came from the discussion of this story of fertile women being used to provide babies for a society in which the population has been decimated by some unspecified catastrophic event:  how well the atmosphere and the world in which they live is rendered.  The reader is drawn into this world completely by the vivid descriptions of the physical and psychological environment.    This is what makes reading the story difficult.  Margaret Atwood points out that many historical events served as “strands” which were included in the story – group executions, book burnings, the pregnancies of Swedish mothers enforced by the Nazi regime, child-stealing in Argentina, etc.   All these events, of course, actually happened.
We all agreed that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a challenging but very important book. 


*Margaret Atwood on What “The Handmaid’s Tale” Means in the Age of Trump 

Saturday, 25 January 2020


by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko has been described as a Japanese vertical pinball machine. The goal of the game is to fire balls that fall through a maze of metal pins into a hole. The balls that go through let you play a slot machine with the chance of winning more balls. It's partially a game of skill and partially a game of chance.

Pachinko is the second novel by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee. Born in Seoul, she arrives in the USA  when she is 7. She studied law and worked in NY then lived in Tokyo for 4 years. Her husband is half Japanese.
Published in 2017, Pachinko is an epic historical novel that follows Korean characters who eventually migrate to Japan and who become subjected to issues of racism and stereotypes between 1910 and 1980, a period that includes the Japanese occupation of Korea and World War II.
It is the first novel written for an English-speaking audience about Japanese–Korean culture. Pachinko was a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.

In a small fishing village lives a family whose beloved daughter falls pregnant by a married Yakuza (member of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan.
The family faces ruin. By chance, a Christian minister, Isak, offers to marry the girl and take her to Japan. She thus follows a man she doesn’t know ito a hostile country whose language she cannot speak, where she has no friends and no home.
That is the beginning of a story of 8 decades, 4 generations. It is an epic tale of family identity, love, death and survival.
It tells us about the difficulty of integration, the discrimination against  foreign newcomers and their struggle and resilience.
One feels the empathy, the integrity and the family loyalty through the whole story.
We all thought the book was very interesting because we didn’t know of the history in that part of the world and the relationship between Koreans and Japanese people. Some of us thought it was too long but personally I was mesmerised and interested by the cultural aspects of the book and the well described duality of human nature.

Paulette Duncan 

Monday, 20 January 2020

Middle England

By Jonathan Coe
                        This is a STATE-OF-THE-NATION NOVEL, a form that has its roots in Victorian times : when  the writer attempts to chart the changes to the country at a time of crisis.
In this book, in a humorous  and very human way, Jonathan Coe grapples with the effects of politics, here BREXIT and the way people voted , inside the community and families.
Jonathan Coe shows how the seeds of Brexit were sown in those years when the self-congratulatory of a few fuelled the resentment of many. In a multilayered portrait of « Middle England » and the middle class , he shows the gulf between the different education systems and how the age of the characters and the generational reflexes have created tensions and divisions  among families, couples, friends.
What keeps coming out is also the nostalgia for the past « grandeur » of the Empire and the ingrained feeling of «  insularity ». This explains that…
Jonathan Coe is very good at describing what « Britishness » means.
                       This is an automnal novel, about the passing of time,  what has vanished, the time lost to obscure hatreds, misplaced love and the brink of old age.
                        All this is set against the symbolism of the river Severn, following, undisturbed its timeless course «  bubbling….. merrily, merrily… »
We all found the book utterly enjoyable, and very informative .
                                                                                                       Anne Van Calster


Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Go, Went, Gone

by Jenny Erpenbeck

This novel was published in Germany in 2015 and appeared in English translation in 2017.  It tells the story of a German academic, recently retired, who comes into contact with a group of African refugees in Berlin and how this encounter changes his life.  The bureaucratic ins and outs of the German system for asylum-seekers is one of the themes of the book, and the author skillfully presents the hopes and frustrations of the group of migrants whom the main character, Richard, comes to know.  After a first meeting, a slowly developing trust between Richard and the group occurs.  We learn about their harrowing journeys to reach Germany and their frustration about not being able to work until their status is decided.  From being a distant observer of these men, Richard becomes committed to helping them, and in the end even transforms his home into a makeshift shelter.
The whole story is told in a dispassionate and sober style that makes its message even more poignant.
Our group was unanimous in finding the book excellent.  We all felt we had learned a lot about the hardships that migrants have to endure even after experiencing extreme danger and suffering while trying to reach Europe.  We all liked the style of the book, telling these terrible stories unsentimentally but powerfully.  We agreed that “Go, Went, Gone” was definitely worth reading. 
November 24, 2019