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KLASSEN ON BOOKS - DECEMBER 2017 (Reviews)

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John Klassen

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009)
Benedetti was an influential member of Uruguay’s Generation of 1945, an intellectual and literary movement that included Juan Carlos Onetti and Amanda Berenguer, among others and which preceded the Latin American Boom of the 60s and 70s. The Truce was the inspiration for the 1974 film of the same name, the first Argentinean film to be nominated for an Academy Award (for Best Foreign Film). The novel is one of over ninety-five works of poetry, fiction, drama, and essays that Benedetti wrote during his lifetime, very little of which has been translated into English.

The Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s introduced Anglophone audiences to a brave new world of writers whose brand of modernism included both rigorous engagements with regional history and politics, and flightier, more fantastical modes of storytelling. Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa was at the vanguard of the former; Colombian Gabriel García Márquez was chief practitioner of the latter. Mexico and Argentina were represented by the Boom’s two other unofficial standard-bearers, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar

Post-Boom, it is arguably these four countries, together with late-addition Chile (Isabel Allende and Roberto Bolaño at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum) that have continued to provide English-speaking readers with their Latin American literary fix.

As part of its Modern Classics series, Penguin wanted to show that the Latin American literary world is a a larger place, and selected The Truce as its lead title of 2015.

The Truce
Martin Santome is 49 years old, works as chief accountant in an auto-parts importing company, and hopes to retire soon after 25 years with the firm (but in Uruguay in 1957, even retiring requires not just paperwork, but connections and bribes). Martin has been a widower for 25 years. After the sudden death of his young wife, he raised their two sons and a daughter; he is basically estranged from the sons (one he suspects of having fallen in with a bad crowd, if not outright crime, and he does not react well to the discovery that his other son is gay), but he has a closer relationship with his daughter. Martin avoids commitment; he has sex in one-night stands. He doesn’t know what he wants to do in retirement beyond, “something full, rich; the last opportunity to find myself.” But Martin has no goals, he is basically drifting through life, and though the story is presented as a diary, through he is own admissions and comments by families and co-workers, we gather the impression of a man who is good at his job, but not overly-friendly and who can be seen as punctilious, critical, distant, and uncaring, and his home life is not much better. In an outburst of honesty, Martin’s daughter sums up the family and Martin’s life:

“I have the terrible feeling that time goes by and I don’t do anything, nothing happens, and nothing moves me to the core. I look at Estban and then I look at Jaime and I’m sure they’re also unhappy. Sometimes...I also look at you and think I wouldn’t want to reach fifty years of age and have your temperament, or your poise, simply because I find them commonplace and worn out. I find myself with a great abundance of energy, but I don’t know where to apply it, nor what to do with it. I think you resigned yourself to being gloomy, and I think that’s horrible because I know you’re not gloomy. Well, at least you weren’t before.”

And then into this humdrum, ordinary, unambitious life of a not very sympathetic nor empathetic man, comes a 24 year old woman named Laura Avellaneda, who works for Martin in the accounting section. Exhibiting strongly his lack of sympathy and and even a deficit of intelligence, Martin muses, “I’ve never trusted women with numbers. Furthermore, there’s another drawback: during their menstrual period, and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if the are normally a little silly, they become complete imbeciles.” However, Martin soon appreciates Avellaneda (he always refers to her by her surname) for her good work and attitude, and then surprises himself by admitting that there is “something about Avellaneda that attracts me. That’s obvious, but what is it?” Laura has a boyfriend, but that ends. She and Martin start having coffee and breaks together at the office, Martin comes upon her ‘accidentally’ in town (Laura is not fooled), they start to meet for coffee, progress to movies, and then a first kiss. They keep their relationship secret and as the intimacy deepens, Martin is beset by hesitations about what he wants, what he’s doing, how Avellaneda can feel about all this.

Is this whole story a rationalization by an older, more powerful man (Martin is Laura’s boss) who uses his authority to ensnare the much younger Laura for sex or status? The book could well have been written the way, but I don’t think it was. Love, commitment, attraction, desire, accommodation, sharing and caring—all the things that define a couple, do not have to follow a ‘normal’ pattern of similarity in ages. I think Benedetti does a masterful job of painting this completely unexpected turn in Martin’s and Laura’s lives, and of the love that develops between them, despite all the social sanctions that one might expect for the age difference and their own, especially Martin’s uncertainties, and fears that he finally overcomes in the depth of his love for Laura. As they become closer and closer (helped a great deal by the real friendship that develops between Martin’s daughter, Blanca, and Laura), Martin invokes a plan of “absolute freedom, of getting to know each other and seeing what happens, or letting time pass, and then reviewing the situation”. The first time they are together in the apartment that Martin has rented, with flower and champagne and the expectation that they will have their first sexual intimacy, Laura, overwhelmed by what is happening asks if she can leave without any fuss. She promises everything will be fine the next day, but right now she needs a moment more of time. Martin is “disappointed, stupid, understanding”, but he does not argue, he does not cajole, he respects her wishes and feelings.

Martin travels a long way. Early in his story, he thinks: “I’m a pretender, since I myself have become complicated, odd, chaotic and impure....Could I be dried up? Emotionally, I mean?” Later, with Laura: “We made love this afternoon...Never in my life have I felt so close to bliss....I ignored that I had those reserves of tenderness in me...I have tenderness and I’m proud to have. Even desire becomes pure, even the act most definitely devoted to sex becomes almost immaculate.”

And what about Laura? We do not know her interior thoughts, only her actions and her words. She might well wonder about engaging with a man 30 years her senior and what it could mean for her future. She does think about this, but her passion is channelled through her intelligence as much as her heart. Later in her relationship with Martin, she says: “I love you....I haven’t said it to you until now, but not because I didn’t love you, but because I didn’t know why I loved you. Now I know why...I don’t love you for your face, for your years, for your words, or for your intentions. I love you because you are a good man.” Laura is also very perceptive about Martin’s feelings and, more importantly, his fears, one of which is that “...experience is good when it arrives hand in hand with vigour; afterwards, when the strength is gone, one becomes a decorous museum piece, whose only value is being a reminder of what existed. Experience and strength are contemporaries for a very short time.”

Although Martin has never articulated this to Laura, she knows it, and dismisses it out of hand: “...your fear of time, that you’ll become old and I’ll go looking elsewhere. Don’t be so sensitive. What I like most about you is something which won’t go away with the passage of time.”

The novel is a sensitive, believable story that is, I think, psychologically acute on almost every page, tracing acquaintance that grows into respect and friendship, burgeoning desire and intimacies that are intellectual, emotional and physical. All this set within the constraints of family, social positions, ages, prospects for the future, and the harness of Martin’s own personality and life experiences before he is transformed by his love for Laura.

Other characters also fill out Martin’s life. First and foremost are his children with his regrets for missed opportunities as he struggles to relate to them as adults going their own ways in their own lives. Two old friends drift back in and out Martin’s life and offer portrayals of the universal truth that every individual and every relationship is unique no matter how many billions of times the outlines have been replicated. There are good cameo character appearances, e.g. Laura’s mother and father whom Martin visits. Benedetti also commits acerbically on social atitudes (“...the national character: impudent, dull, overburdened and charming”), and political practices characterized by pervasive corruption at all levels of society.

This is a novel about the redemptive power of love, and about relationships that one is thrust into, as in a family (what Martin calls, “the unchosen relationship, of the bond posed by the circumstances”), but also those feelings that might be found in unlikely places, as with Martin and Laura, feelings that come to define life above all other considerations. It is also about the shocking fragility of life.

As fate gives, so can it take away. After Laura’s death, Martin sinks into a world that is “no longer interesting”. His almost last words in his diary:

“It’s obvious that God granted me a dark destiny. Not even cruel. Simply dark. It’s obvious that He granted me a truce. In the beginning, I was unwilling to believe that this could be happiness. I resisted with all my might, but eventually I gave in, and I believed. But it wasn’t happiness, it was only a truce. Now I’m inside my destiny again. And it’s much darker than before, much darker.”

The writing is clear, short, declarative, free of embellishments in very limited use of similes and metaphors. This strips the writing down to a focus on revealing and exploring character and relationships.

The Truce reminds me of Stoner by John Williams. Stoner is more complex because it takes the protagonist through a greater array of the vicissitudes of life in personal and professional worlds. But there is the common feature of love, and loss, in unexpected circumstances. The direct, unadorned writing styles are similar. The central strength of both novels is the depiction and exploration of life stories that elevate and celebrate the good and the bad, the heartbreaking and the hope-making in the lives of ordinary people; universals that any reader can appreciate and understand.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - NOVEMBER 2017 (Reviews)

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John Klassen

 

Jenny Erpenbeck
Erpenbeck (1967-) was born in East Berlin. She became an opera director and has several productions to her credit. In the 1990s she turned to writing and became a substantial literary presence with her books: The Old Child, The Book of Words, Visitation, The End of Days.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2017 (Reviews)

 

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John Klassen

 

David Vann

Vann (1966-) was born in Alaska. He is a novelist and short story writer, and now professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England. He has received a long list of international literary prizes. Vann describes himself as a "neoclassical writer" and says, "My novels are all Greek tragedies...".

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - AUGUST 2017 (Reviews)

 

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John Klassen

Colm Toibin

Toibin (1955-) is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist and critic. House of Names is Toibin's eleventh book. Other popular novels include The Master, The Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary, Nora Webster.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - JULY 2017 (Reviews)

 

John Klassen

David Grossman

Grossman (1954-) is an Israeli author.. He has written a number of fiction and non-fiction books, and has garnered a long list of literary prizes, the most recent being the International Man Booker for his novel: A Horse Walks into a Bar.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - MAY 2017 - By John Klassen (Reviews)

   John Klassen

Hideo Yokoyama
Yokoyama (1957-) worked for twelve years as an investigative reporter for a regional newspaper in Japan before turning to crime fiction. He has written six books. Six Four sold a million copies in the first six days when it was published in Japan; it is the first of Yokoyama's novels to be translated into English.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - JUNE 2017 (Reviews)

John Klassen

 

J.G. Farrell

Farrell (1935-1979) was born in Liverpool, of Irish descent. He died at 44, swept out to sea while fishing from the shore in Ireland. Farrell wrote eight novels (two published posthumously), but he is best known for the Empire Trilogy: Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), and The Singapore Grip (1978). The overarching theme of the Trilogy, which is clearly on display in Troubles, is the human and political consequences and costs of British colonial rule.

KLASSEN'S RECOMMENDATION FOR SPRING READING By John Klassen (Review)

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Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was a British author, and screenwriter, best known for his thriller/spy novels. In many of his novels, the protagonist is rarely a professional spy, a police officer, or a counter-intelligence operative; he is, instead, an amateur who finds himself haphazardly and unwillingly in the company of criminals or spies with real threats to his life. This is very much the approach of The Mask of Dimitrios (first published in 1939) which is often cited as one of the best of Ambler's novels. test

THE BEST IN FICTION AND NON-FICTION IN 2016 By John Klassen (Reviews)

 

        John Klassen

 FICTION

Robert Harris: Cicero Trilogy: Imperium, Lustrum, Dictator
Historical fiction that brings alive the time, place, society, and personalities that defined the evolution of Rome and its empire, all framed through the life of one of the main protagonists. Cicero had neither family name, nor wealth, nor military exploits to his credit; what he did have was overweening ambition, a brilliant mind, and peerless ability as an orator, that let him scheme and manipulate and sway individuals and mobs. Life was a malestrom of shifting fortunes and political climates in which Cicero survived a long time, in and out of the pinnacles of influence and power, but in the end, he paid with his life. Not only excellent history but, in Harris's hands, page-turners that are hard to put down.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS -November 2016 - By John Klassen (Review)

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W.G. Sebald

Sebald, (1944-2001) has been described as, "one of contemporary literature's most transformative figures."  A retrospective on his writing said that his four prose fictions, Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz are, "...utterly unique. They combine memoir, fiction, travelogue, history, and biography in the crucible of his haunting prose style to create a strange new literary compound." Sebald himself once described his writing as "documentary fiction."  He also believed that the horrors of the 20th century could not be approached directly because their enormity would paralyse the ability to think about them morally and rationally. They must, therefore, be approached obliquely, and is what he achieved in Austerlitz, approaching the Holocaust.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - OCTOBER 2016 - By John Klassen

 

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John Klassen

Sarah Bakewell, (1962-) is an English writer of non-fiction. She has published four books: The Smart (about an 18th century forgery); The English Dane (about a 19th century adventurer who was a key player in a revolution in Iceland to break from Danish control); How To Live: A Life of Montaigne; her latest is At the Existentialist Cafe (about the existentialist movement).

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - MISCELLANY OF READING JULY-AUGUST 2016 - By John Klassen

 

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John Klassen

Capsule reviews/summaries of a miscellany of books read July-August, 2106.

John Horne Burns (1916-1953): The Gallery

This first novel, published in 1947, is set largely in Naples in August, 1944 during the Allied, mainly US, occupation while war against the Germans continued to the north. The novel was widely acclaimed for its uncompromising portrayal of the motives and methods of the occupation and its effects on individuals, and morals, on both sides. Burns pulled no punches in his evaluation of American actions:

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - May 2016 - By John Klassen (Reviews)

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Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2008) was an English novelist, poet, essayist and biographer.   In the 1950s, she worked, with her husband, as co-editor of a magazine called World Review to which she contributed articles on literature, music and sculpture. She and her husband lived in public housing in the 1960s after her husband was disbarred for forging cheques. She then worked as a teacher in a drama school.  Fitzgerald launched her literary career at the age of 58, in 1975. She won the Booker Prize for her novel Offshore (1979). The Times included her in a list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The Observer named her novel, The Blue Flower, as one of the ten best historical novels. 

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - April 2016 - By John Klassen (Reviews)

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Stefan Zweig: Beware of Pity

Zweig (1881-1942) was an Austrian novelist, playwright, librettist, journalist, and biographer. At the height of his literary career in the 1920s-1930s, he was one of the most popular, and most translated, writers in the world. As Hitler consolidated power, Zweig left Austria, in 1934, to move to England. In 1940, Zweig and his wife moved to New York where they lived for two months before moving again, to Brazil where they committed suicide in February, 1942. Looking at the state of Europe, Zweig wrote in his suicide note: "I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearings a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth."

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - February 2016 By John Klassen (Reviews)

 

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JOHN KLASSEN

 Elmer Mendoza

 Mendoza (1949-) is a Mexican novelist and short story writer. He is a professor of literature at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. He is a key figure in, some even consider him the originator of, the genre known as 'narcoliterature' that explores the effects of drug trafficking and corruption in society. Silver Bullets is the first of Mendoza's novels to be translated into English.  

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - TOP TEN 2015 - By John Klassen (Reviews)

 

John Klassen

 

TOP TEN 2015
FICTION

Edward Lewis Wallant: The Pawnbroker
A novel about the tortured soul of a Holocaust survivor, now a pawnbroker in Harlem (1950s), a man who is socially and emotionally bereft, living a life for which he sees no purpose. The loss of his family in the camps appears in only a few, separate moments of reminiscence but these heighten greatly the emotional impact. Wonderful writing throughout. (Reviewed on JustOttawa in December)

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - December 2015 - By John Klassen (Review)

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 John Klassen

 

Kamel Daoud

Daoud (1970-) is an Algerian writer and journalist. The Meursault Investigation is his first novel.

 

The Meursault Investigation

It is a bold writer who takes an acknowledged classic, Camus's The Stranger (aka The Outsider) and writes a novel that gives the other side of the story as told by the brother of the man who is murdered in the Camus book. 

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - October 2015 - By John Klassen (Review)

 

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Reviews by John Klassen

 

Alistair Urquhart

 

Urquhart (1919- ) is a retired Scottish businessman. He wrote The Forgotten Soldierat the age of 90. It became a best-seller and Urquhart was much in demand as a public speaker.  After retiring from business, he taught computer skills to retired people and continued with his passion for ballroom dancing.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - September 2015 - By John Klassen (Review)

 

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Reviews by John Klassen

 

David Holdsworth

 

David Holdsworth is a retired public service officer who worked abroad and held a number of positions including in the Privy Council Office. He has now turned his skills to writing with a sharp eye for the foibles of government and public service.  His first novel: The Ambassador’s Camel: Undiplomatic Tales of Embassy Lifedescribed the antics of diplomatic life in a fictitious country.  His new book turns inward with a funny, satirical focus on the “tough on crime” agenda of the current government.

KLASSEN ON BOOKS - June/July 2015 - By John Klassen (Review)

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Mairtin O Cadhain

O Cadhain (1905-1970), whose name could most closely be rendered in English as Marteen O’Kine, was an Irish novelist, short story writer, journalist and school teacher. O Cadhain is considered Gaelic Ireland’s most important writer and a pioneer in Irish-language modernism. He wrote principally in Irish and also translated some works from English. The Dirty Dust is considered one of the greatest achievements of the Irish novel.

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