Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Abominable Man (1971)

Although this one is #7 in the series (of 10), this is my penultimate book (as I didn’t read it in order, but in function of what was at the library). Strangely enough, the library doesn’t have the whole series, and they might have been scared by such an abominable title. (or by the book cover). Another version would be that it was so good that a reader stole the library copy. Whatever the version I choose, I’m glad I have bought this copy, because it’s quite memorable.

The Abominable Man (in Swedish version The repulsive man from Saffle) is not the killer. It’s actually the victim. A man is killed with a bayonet as he lies defenseless in a hospital bed. He was a high-ranking policeman and a former soldier. But don’t cry for him just yet. As Martin Beck and his team investigate, they discover that this man was the epitome of police brutality. By his negligence, prejudices, direct or indirect actions, he’s responsible for the death of several innocent people and the harassment and unfair indictment of countless others. In short, he won’t be missed much and it’s rather difficult to narrow down a list of suspects. To make it even more relevant to some recent cases in the media, a lot of people among the police force were aware of his cruelty and abuses, and they all kept silent.

Contrary to several books of the series, where the crime is rather banal and the investigation is long and tedious, this book is flashy and cinematic. The killer with the bayonet will not stop just with one victim, his despair and hatred have turned against the whole police force and he’s not afraid to die. It’s a tragedy of epic dimensions, and the humor of the previous volumes is scarce. The denunciation of the systemic corruption of capitalist (patriarchy, conservative, insert any of the more current vocabulary) Swedish society gets more obvious, but never at the cost of forgetting the human dimension. That’s why Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books are still so relevant today.

The book is so full of tension, it’s hard to stop reading, especially the last quarter of the book. There’s a rampage of violence, with a single man on one hand, and the entire Swedish armed forces on the other hand. The cliff-hanger is absolutely nail-biting, but I spoiled it a bit for myself by having read book #8 before. Don’t make the same mistake!

In a twisted way, it reminded me of a classic 1975 French movie with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Peur sur la ville (The Night Caller in UK/US), where the whole of the police force is hunting a cunning killer throughout a dehumanized landscape of modern towers, but in many important ways the movie and this book are polar opposites. In the movie, no soul-searching about the systemic violence of the police, no social criticism, but instead a not-so-subtle manly man demonstration of force to protect weak single women from evil killers who certainly aren’t worth a fair trial, and barely the bullet of the good detective’s gun. Unless you’re interested in cultural movie history, don’t bother watching this dud, but I guess the relentless movie music by Enio Morricone would be the perfect soundtrack for the Sjöwall & Wahlöö book.

We’re now in December, and only one last book left in the series to complete! I can’t wait!

Magda Szabo, The Door (1987)

It’s really a shame that I can’t remember who recommended me this book (this recommendation came from more than one place, but whether it was a IRL friend or a book blogger, I really can’t say). It also came with the halo of the French Femina prize, which is sort a big deal. Which is the reason why I stuck with it for so long, despite my good resolutions to abandon books that don’t grab me. All those people must have seen something I don’t see… just yet… maybe?

In The Door, the narrator is a female writer who lives in a building with a caretaker, Emerence, who is very special. Emerence and the narrator develop a long-standing relationship over the course of twenty years, with many untold rules and promises, taboos and secrets. Emerence is the servant of the narrator, works tirelessly, but she also does everything as she pleases. She is also the center of the neighborhood, knowing everyone and their secrets, ruling over other servants and talking back to generals and policemen. Emerence seems to have no fear but she doesn’t allow anyone inside her own flat.

It’s a slow-paced book (although things escalate by the last quarter), and you can read many things between the lines, both historical and symbolic. The book was published in 1987 in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain, so I couldn’t help but wonder how an officially socialist country like Hungary could have housekeepers. Also there are many references to church-going and religion and I was a bit lost. What was Szabo allowed to write and what was I meant to understand by omission? The little building and the neighborhood over which Emerence ruled seems so far from history and politics, except for references to World War 2. This is so different from the atmosphere of the dreary Democratic Germany!

The writing was good and the secrets that Emerence kept were powerful, but both Emerence and the narrator grated on my nerves, and I had little patience for their love-hate codependency relationship. That’s how I started the book in July and finished it in November. I’m quite glad I stuck until the end but I’m in no hurry to start another book by Madga Szabo.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Murder at the Savoy (1970)

And so, to make things a bit more interesting, I decided to complete the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö novels by the end of 2021. Because it feels great to check some goals off and, quite frankly, this one seems a lot more reachable than others I had in my 2021 list (hello, mastering basic Korean verbs! Realistically, you will probably remain as mysterious as you were on Jan. 1)

This book is in the middle of the series (#6 out of 10), and the themes and characters are by now well established. The random violence, the strong of location (here in Malmö), the social injustice, the fastidious and methodical investigation, the mistakes and length of the search for clues. There are as in some other books an element of comic, slapsticks even, as stupid policemen get bogged down by procedure. The original title of the book refers, if I understand well, to a common insult against Swedish policemen who are compared with potatoes. This comes up a few times in the novel and contrast with the upper class delicacies that hotel guests eat at the Savoy, including Martin Beck himself.

American readers may be surprised how Swedes seem to take a relaxed approach to sex. The victim’s young and beautiful widow enjoys summer sun in the nude (with her lover), and finds nothing embarrassing when the inspector arrives to ask questions, and Beck has sex with a young colleague, but no strings attached. I can’t say if it’s Sweden, 1969, or if Sjöwall and Wahlöö meant something political by it.

Just as in Roseanna, luck and unluck play a part in the investigation, but in the end, Beck is more depressed than satisfied by having brought a criminal to justice. Compared with my last read of them, The man on the balcony, this one is a lot less tense, one might even say hysterical, as the crime itself is less showy, and we feel that nobody really feels sorry for the victim. But the book is still a solid mystery, and I can’t wait for the next one, which I already downloaded on my Kindle.

Georges Simenon, La Rue aux Trois poussins (1963)

In the big volume of Simenon that I took with me in our family trip, I discovered that there was a short story collection. I had fond memories of another Simenon’s short story collection (I read “Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue” five years ago already!) and it made me pick that one, which don’t feature Maigret at all. “La rue aux trois poussins” is a translator’s nightmare. It should be easy enough: “the street with the three chicks”, but you would picture three young women, whereas we are speaking here of three preschoolers. Chicks in French is an endearing term for small kids or toddlers (rather gender-neutral or boys, I have given the book back to the library, but I sort of remember that one of the three is a girl). So what would this story title be? “The street where the three buddies play?” Can you propose anything better?

In this story, three young kids play outside while their mothers are busy with chores, and their older siblings are at school. One of them listens to what a mean older boy says about his father, and repeats it at home to his mother. A long-reaching, life-altering tragedy follows this bit of gossip and that bit of misunderstanding.

Overall, I didn’t quite enjoy this collection. The stories show Simenon in a dark mood, his characters are often pitiful and mean, and it shows the women under an overwhelmingly harsh light. They’re bitter nags, superficial airheads, scheming adulterers, gossips and liers. Only Mélie the fishmonger has a proverbial heart of gold, and it was my favorite story of the whole book. One could still argue that Mélie might be very business-savvy, but if she continues to bail her ne’er-do-well husband out, she might end up badly too.

Simenon still writes with great skills, as he can draw a street scene or a café scene in a few sentences and still render it vividly. His characters are people of little money and few prospects. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but most of these stories were first published during the war between 1939 and 1941, and it might have contributed to the gloomy, hopeless and closed atmosphere of those stories. They were published in the magazine Gringoire, which was a very nationalistic, violently anti-Communist and conservative newspaper (it also published Irene Nemirovski, so it’s not all black-or-white).

It led me into the rabbit hole of Simenon’s attitude during the war. My understanding is that he was no big hero or traitor either. He very prudently retired to the countryside where he led a wealthy and relatively worry-free life, which is already a lot better than most people in the country. His passivity and lack of support for the Resistance made him suspicious at the end of the war. Even as he was blamed for collaboration, it was a late and light condemnation that occured in 1948 and it didn’t stop him from staying at the top of the bestsellers lists. It still made me wince to learn that he was so loaded while so many of his books and stories center on poor people.

Liu Xinwu, The Wedding Party (2021)

Original title: 钟鼓楼 Zhong Gu Lou (1985), translated by Jeremy Tiang

The cover of the book looks like it could be a children’s book or a comics. But that is totally misleading, this is a sprawling novel of 400 pages, full of humor, people, events and considerations on life and history. I don’t know if the title of Wedding Party has been chosen by the publisher or the translator, but it is an English choice. It is obviously the focus of the main action, as we follow a group of people who are gathering on that day for a wedding celebration. Yet, the Chinese original title refers to the location of the action: the Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing. These historical buildings are towering the action and acting as eternal landmarks compared to the agitation and constant changes of the humans that live in their shadows.

The book is set in the winter of 1982 in Beijing, which is a bit of a low-key period in Chinese history. The struggles and upheaval of Maoist era are over, people are coming back slowly from being sent away by the Cultural revolution. Yet, it is not the booming economy and wealth that we now know, or rather, it is the first moments of the dawn. People are just starting to have their basic needs covered and they can start to buy some things for pleasure, and even buy fancier wedding presents and wedding food. Some even have Japanese brand watches and install electric bells on their door, instead of letting people drop by unannounced. The Bell and Drum Towers are not a wealthy neighborhood, people live in hutong and siheyuan, which are courtyard houses split between lots of families. This make for rather… ahem… rambunctious relations, when people with various interests, wealth, status, culture and prospects are obliged to rub shoulders every day and share water taps and more.

A wedding is a stressful day for the bride and groom and their families, and it was as true in 1982 in Beijing as it is today. The mother of the groom is hosting, and her aim is to have all the guests fed with delicacies and properly impressed. The bride is a young materialistic saleswoman who basically measures her happiness to the amount of wedding gifts and especially a much awaited gold watch. The wedding will be all but serene and auspicious when dozens of neighbors and guests, including people who aren’t quite welcome (a drunkard and a thief) go through the courtyard and share this day of excitement.

The novel is full of humor and humanity. Liu Xinwu has so much empathy for his large cast of characters, and he takes the time to explain the origins of many misunderstandings and disputes that erupt on that day. Liu Xinwu is the author who is credited for inventing the scar literature, a literary form who presents the suffering of the victims of the Cultural Revolution. It is visible in this novel as more than one character alludes to their past and how they have endured the previous decade, but not in a tragic, heavy tone.

This book was awarded the Mao Dun prize at his publication in 1985, which is the equivalent of the Booker prize for China. It’s not meant to be a direct criticism of the regime, but it is quite direct in showing cases of injustice, cronyism, hypocrisy and incompetence. Liu Xinwu also shows how the parents and grandparents of those living in the siheyuan had a miserable life before 1949 as Communists came to power. Because we also see the younger generation more interested in achieving success for themselves than proclaiming any Communist ideal, we can only reflect how these havej grown up and probably turned into the wealthy generation of the 2000s.

I was in Beijing in the early 2000s and the neighborhood of the Bell and Drum Towers was a favorite place with trendy, shabby cafés and run-down siheyuan. Many younger and wealthier families had long since moved to the high-rises in the suburbs or near the fifth ring road. Older and poorer people still lived there in the shadows of the towers, a glimpse at eternal Beijing. When we visited again in 2018, it felt like the towers had not changed much, however different the rest of the city was.

I enjoyed this novel a lot because it was linked to a lot of personal memories, but I believe it might appeal to Western readers who’d like a fun glimpse into old China daily life.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, English Climate: Wartime Short Stories (2020)

I don’t know about fellow book bloggers, but in my experience it’s so much easier to write about a book one dislike than a beloved book, and to add another layer of complexity, it’s way easier to write about novels than short story collections. All this to say that I’m sorry to write only now about this collection I read and enjoyed in early July (!). If I delayed writing this post many times, it’s because the book is really good and I don’t want to mess it up!

This collection presents 22 stories written between 1940 and 1946, many of them published in the NewYorker for American readers. Of course, as this collection is published by beloved Persephone, it begets questions and comparisons with other women-centric short stories of the same period, such as Goodnight Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes (which I loved). Both collections focus on women’s daily experience on the home front (more often than not the quintessential British village or the upperclass mansion – think Midsommer Murders) and what goes in their hearts and minds beyond the official “Keep Calm and Carry On”: hopes and fears, tragedies, disappointments and tiny intimate upheavals. But Mollie Panter-Downes’ stories are a bit more emotional and kind, while these stories often have a darker undertone, although often tinged with enough humor to make it more palatable.

Even though I read them two months ago now, I still have fresh memories of these vivid scenes. Evacuee children from London to the countryside don’t react to their new surroundings like the adults expect them to. Tobacconists have few cigarettes left: which customers will they favor with their treasure? Wealthy homemakers contemplate the potentially liberating destruction of the home they’ve been restricted to. Women learn to use weapons in the perspective of a potential Nazi invasion, but perhaps they shouldn’t be trusted to have such powerful tools. Burrial ceremonies – and the ensuing family reunions – get disturbed by the impromptu falling of a bomb. Women in the absence of men make unconventional lodging arrangements. And so many other stories… We get to see a bit of everything, from wealthy to poor people, from Londoners to country people, and every time Sylvia Townsend Warner takes an unusual perspective.

I don’t know why Sylvia Townsend Warner is so little known and so little read. She’s been already a favorite writer of mine since Lolly Willowes, but I have neglected her for too long. This collection convinced me to try and find more books by her, either stories or novels. I’m writing this up for the winter!

Georges Simenon, Maigret Loses his Temper (1963)

Original title: La Colère de Maigret

As the novel starts, Maigret is huffing and puffing against bureaucracy and writing useless reports. He’s way more interested when someone informs him that the boss of several nightclubs has gone missing for several days. The man is by all means respectable, his competitors (who may or may not be as law-abiding as he is) call him “the grocer” behind his back (with the meaning of “bean counter”). Something is not right.

Indeed, three days after he’s disappeared, his body is found, strangled, near the Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Maigret and everybody else scratch their heads: it is not unexpected for nightclubs regulars to get killed, but gangsters don’t strangle, nor do they keep a dead body for days before disposing of it. Who had the man an appointment with, on the evening he walked away from his nightclub?

Now, I really don’t want to spoil anything (more) but the twist of the last 10 pages is a big one, and explains the title. Otherwise it would almost be a misnomer, as Maigret is slow, a bit impatient maybe, and his investigation is decisively low-key. But those last few pages almost take the book into a different genre, and I found that Simenon hurried things a bit too much. It’s common for Simenon not to tie nice bows on everything but in this case I felt that he could have made Maigret’s decisions or thoughts a bit clearer (especially in contrast with the investigation where he basically explains his method step by step). Anyway the conclusion will leave me thinking about it for some time…

Beyond the plot and the detective work itself, I enjoyed getting glimpses on Maigret’s personal life and what it tells of this era. Maigret goes home for lunch, and Madame Maigret is really expected to have every meal ready, except when her husband decides on a whim to not show up for dinner. Investigations continue on Saturdays, but everyone takes a break for Sunday and Maigret decides to go on a weekend break, for which Madame Maigret has to pack at one hour’s notice. Madame Maigret reads magazines and looks at her husband ironically as he goes fishing and doesn’t catch much. Madame Maigret is really a saint who hasn’t heard of women’s rights yet (this is 1963 for sure, and Simenon is annoyingly patronizing to women – if not worse, in other books). I wonder if Pierre Bayard would write an alternate version where Madame Maigret wasn’t so subservient and shallow.

Right now, I’m trying to imagine if it would be feasible in 2021 to decide on a Saturday at 5pm to hop on a train before dinner, book a hotel about 2 hours away and plan a last minute weekend getaway… (no app and just a landline). That certainly would be very expensive.

(ps. Sorry for the clumsy layout, I’m currently publishing from my phone)

The One with the Swedish Anonymous Killer

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

It was only one month ago that I finished reading #8 in the series and that I resolved to be more intentional if I wanted to complete the whole series. And I do want it very much! (all the more as the last series I’d completed was not a huge success, in a whole other genre). But within a few weeks, what a change of tone! The book I read in March was a lot of fun with literally LOL moments, this one is chilling and rather stark.

The book starts with a daily, ordinary scene in Stockholm. While people go about their daily business and kids go out to school or to the park, a man just looks down at the street from his balcony. Nothing more. But as we know we’re reading a police investigation, we just wonder where the blow will come from and expect the worse from any ordinary character.

And so we should. In this rather short book, Beck and his colleagues are confronted with a senseless murder and no clues whatsoever. Someone has attacked, raped and murdered a little girl in a park, and nothing can point to the murderer. The police are clueless and can only resort to the feeblest attempts by rounding up the usual suspects, by making more rounds in the various parks of the city, but they’re really looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. The worst is that police can only secretly hope that there will be another murder to find more clues. Martin Beck’s colleagues, who seemed so stupid and grotesque in the book I read before (and which is a later installment of the series), are now tragic figures who are all too aware of their powerlessness. They sift through telephone calls in search for the tiniest clue, and we witness how ungrateful this effort is and how little it yields. Just like Roseanna which I read many years ago, the resolution will come by a combination of sheer luck and good memory. Which is not very comforting.

This book, which is rather early in the series, is less politically-heavy handed than the later ones and it was nice. The authors clearly want to denounce the Swedish society from the 1960s where people live in anonymous large buildings without knowing, or caring for their neighbors, and where petty crime is growing. But to me people in this book, besides the tension created by the plot itself, seemed rather carefree and reasonably content. Is it the Swedish character? I’m not sure, but I look forward to reading the rest of the remaining books.

The One with the Feminist Radical Humor

Nicole-Lise Bernheim, Mersonne ne m’aime (French, 1978)

I have wondered if I should mention this book in this blog, and if so, how. It is not that this book presents anything remotely shameful, on the contrary. But it is completely, fully untranslatable, and if I attempt to explain how funny it is, I will get lost in a flurry of explanations that will be completely un-funny. This book is quintessentially French, and will surely never be translated into English. Anyway, here am I.

This book found its way into my husband’s hands in mysterious ways, as he has very eclectic reading tastes. He then had a good laugh and put it on my nightstand as soon as he’d finished it. It reminds me of another great parody mystery set in the 1970s, The seventh function of language by Laurent Binet, but the difference is that Binet’s book was published in 2015, while this one was published in the late 1970s. Far from being nostalgic, it really speaks of contemporary trends and characters and makes fun of them. I don’t think it was a huge bestseller at the time and now only few copies are still to be found.

Set in Paris in the 1970s, it is a feminist humorous sketch, in a domain that often takes itself very, very seriously. It portrays famous feminist figures and organizations, and it makes fun of it with endless puns and silly situations. Simone de Beauvoir is here renamed Brigitte de Savoir (meaning “knowledge”), the structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault makes a cameo as Foulcan (Get-the-F-out), etc. Even more sacrilegious, the book starts with the murder of said Brigitte de Savoir, whose lifeless body is discovered by a lowly female traffic warden who wanted to issue a ticket on her car.

Beyond name dropping of famous 1970s figures that have or have not remained famous nowadays, the book is not so much about a traditional mystery plot but about playing with words. Any word containing a reference to the patriarchy is replaced by a feminine equivalent. As you may know “père” in French means “father”, but “per” is a very common syllable, to be found in “person” for example. The title itself is a transformation from father to mother in the sentence “no per-son loves me”. The reading experience is not very fluid, but it is indeed memorable.

Last week, I listened to a Radiolab podcast episode about Facebook’s “Supreme court” that would give an advice on what is acceptable or not. Humor, especially when it addresses the topic of gender, is often challenged in those instances, because what one person finds funny may not be another person’s tastes. In my opinion, this book is very daring in its humor, but also radically feminist and completely respectful, a rare combination when it comes to sensitive topics.

The One with the Unrecognized Heroines

Svetlana Alexievich, War’s Unwomanly Face (Russian, 1983)

I was curious to read this book because I had heard of Svetlana Alexievich for her Nobel Prize in literature in 2015 and I had no clue what kind of books she had written. I was surprised to find it in the History shelves at my local library, slightly by chance, as I had mistakenly believed that she was writing fiction. How wrong I was! This is a very powerful book of oral history, by hundreds of women who have talked to Svetlana Alexievich and confided to her with their private memories of the war, many of which had never been shared with others before.

The Nobel prize motivation is “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” It is very accurate of my own reading experience, which is quite unlike what I’ve read before. I have read poliphobic books before, but not that big and not that raw. I am claiming this book as read, but to be completely honest, I read a bit more than half the book. These memories are very harrowing and the accumulation makes it even more difficult. I could only read it in short spurts. So much hardship! So much blood and tears!

The thing that made me come back to the book again and again was the feminist vision of war. Women are often seen as civilian victims, but not fighters, and the book shows an often ignored part of the Second world war in the Soviet union: girls and women enlisted and fought next to the men. They were as brave if not braver, having to fight prejudice among their fellow fighters first before getting to the front lines. But the Soviet union was so desperate in its defense against the Nazis that beggars can’t be choosers.

When I saw that the book was originally published in the early 1980s, I was reminded of the kind of Communist literature about wars, that insists on sacrifices for the great motherland, on strong men and women fighting the ennemy side by side. But this book goes well beyond that, as it shines a light on the not-so-glorious behavior of the Soviet men, and never ever glorifies war, even when some women speak strongly of fraternity and courage under fire.

The bitter part of these memories is to see that these courageous, even fearless women were not recognized as such as the end of the war: contrary to their fellow fighters they didn’t get medals but suspicion and distrust instead. They had transgressed some tabu and they were no longer marriage material, even tainting their younger sisters by association. The women who had left kids in the care of family to fight had difficulties to get them back because they were deemed unfit mothers. And countless others preferred to stay silent over their experience of the war when their husbands, male colleagues were flaunting theirs.

I can’t say that you’ll love reading that book, but you won’t forget it anytime soon.