Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Procedure– Harry Mulisch



Traces expedition into Nobel candidate territory continues with Harry Mulisch’s 1999 novel, The Procedure. Mulisch has an extensive multi-genre oeuvre of at least 14 novels,  as well as drama, essays and books of poetry. He is considered one of the giants of post war Dutch literature and recipient of the Prize for Dutch literature for lifetime achievement. His two best known novels are his 1982 The Assault and his 1992 The Discovery of Heaven, both of which were made into critically acclaimed movies.

Genesis, Golems, Double Helix and Eboent oh my….

Having been forewarned that Mulisch is somewhat professed autodidact (self taught smart guy), I expected the unexpected in reading this, my first work by the author. Indeed.  Instead of chapters, the novel is divided into  ‘Deeds’, and each Deed further broken into ‘Documents’. The authorial presence was introduced in the first Document of the first Deed, titled Speaking, when our narrator instructs us precisely how the story is going to unfold, and a warning to prepare ourselves ‘through introspection and prayer’, as this tale is not for those who need immediate action and suspense, that he “can’t do it that way this time”….

The opening Document Man, explains the narrator’s interpretation of the biblical Creation story in which he informs us that a close reading of Genesis reveals ‘man’ was created three times. This is a portent of the three ‘creations’ that will take place in the novel. In the second document The Character, our narrator informs us that his opening section has caused the other ‘impure readers’ to flee and now it’s just ‘you and me’. He argues in circuitous fashion that literature is essentially theological in nature and that in the creation of a story:

The narrator of a story is at the same time not the narrator. The story itself is the actual narrator, it tells itself; from the first sentence onward, the narrative is a surprise to the narrator too…

He further explains that in the world of fiction, man is a ‘character’ having the additional meaning of a formation of characters in the alphabet, ‘figures on a typewriter’ and that the process of fictive creation is one of imitatio dei, like Jehovah. This  God-Like sense of the creative process of writing will turn out to be a key referent and be echoed by the three different stories that are variations on the theme of Creation, Genesis, and Conception.

 As in postmodern fiction enterprises, we are by now used to having ‘self conscious narratives’ the story teller winks to the reader that he and we both really know ‘what up’…Mulisch in The Procedure goes one better. He has offered to take the novitiate reader along for the whole mystery of conception, its creation, genesis and death.

Mulisch is obviously well in control of his material. From the embedded (well known) tale of  16thcentury Prague Rabbi Jehudah Loew who according to Jewish legend, successfully made a Golem, to an expose on DNA mapping and its brief history. The Deed ‘A’ is narrated in first person, Deed ‘B’ is constructed by three ‘communications’ from the protagonist: the internationally famous biochemist Victor Werker to the mother of his child. They form the narrative of the modern Pygmalion story. The prose for the first two thirds of the book is for the most part clinically detached and wry-ironical in tone, but the last two communications that form the central part of the novel are heart wrenching and powerful. Deed ‘C’, entitled The Conversation, is in third person ‘free indirect speech’ in which Victor tries to make sense of his past, present and future. The complex plot comes together full circle. That said, there is not the sense of total coherence of the disparate sections. Probably my impression is due to a momentum not sustained in the last section, it is more cerebral and in a completely different register from the emotionally moving previous ‘communique’ sections… 

What I took Away:

This is one of those novels, short as it is (230 pages in my Penguin edition) that would reward future re-readings. It’s intelligent, and is a rare bird for being a novel of ideas that IS also suspenseful and readily engaging. I would re-read it for the ‘Third Communication’ alone. Its that powerful. If you pass Mulisch’s ‘initiation’ into The Procedure, he will be glad to take you along for the ride…


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Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade– Assia Djebar



1001 words about a modern day sheherazade…

After being secretly proud of myself for keeping my readerly expectations to a minimum when I reviewed the last two much hyped novelists back to back, I had no such prejudice when starting Algerian author Assia Djebar’s 1985 novel, Fantasia:  An Algerian Cavalcade. In fact I had never heard of her, and this book only made my reading stack based on lists that have been floating around the net suggesting possible 2009 Nobel prize contenders… (now, be honest, most of you have not heard of half these writers either…)
My brow (low as is it) raised when I read that Assia Djebar is the owner of some serious literary credentials: 1996 Neustad Prize winner and the Yourcenar prize the following year. She became a member of the prestigious Académie Française  in 2005 and she is currently professor of Francophone Literature at New York University.

I will admit now up front, at first glance I had preconceived notions of a ‘lighter’ read. I was surprised when I thumbed the first few pages to see a Glossary of Berber-Arabic terms, a Chronology of Algerian History, and the Contents listing the three titled  parts to the narrative; with the ‘Part III’  broken into five ’movements’. Notice was duly taken, I settled into the book and when the desert dust and last shrill clamor faded, I found myself inexplicably on the other side of a Fantasia, and Assia Djebar’s third novel…

Fantasia (cultural definition): An equestrian event, a traditional closing of a Berber wedding celebration, it is a martial performance, and also is referred to as the “Game of Gunpowder” it symbolizes a strong attachment to tradition. Fantasia (musical definition): a musical composition featuring free improvisation by the composer.

Cavalcade: A procession or parade, that focuses on a re-enactment of important historical events. It is a participation event, as opposed to a spectacle.

Many, many historic and interrelated ‘witnessed’ events, first person reports, narrative snapshots but no conventional plot= no plot synopsis. I suppose one COULD say, a Berber Arab exile looks back and makes sense of her country’s and her own personal emancipation from cultural-colonial tyrannies… but I won’t. But I can say that the prose is a tour de force: from succinct reporting to a rich lyrical extravagance, from sensuous impressionistic set pieces to keenly nuanced and detailed  renderings of landscape and atmosphere. 

Call it an exoskeleton, since it’s a Fantasia after all…Since the book overtly incorporates the structure of a musical fantasia (and since I have NO formal knowledge of music theory, I had to look it up!): its says it is characterized by  free improvisation, a loose ‘arrangement’ of thematically contrapuntal sections  or ‘Fugue’ overlaying each other to enhance and develop themes… There are two narratives, the first in the “current” time, a narrator look’s back on her formative years as an Arab girl in colonial Algiers. The second consist of The Cavalcade: a pageant of two counterpointed histories, the first more recent past, during the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence largely from the point of view of the colonized (Algerians) and the distant, 1830 French conquest culled from actual first person accounts, primarily from the perspective of the conquerors (French).

There are thematic dichotomies, or dialectics Djebar explores through the novel’s contrapuntal structure, or Fugue. The colonized vs the colonizers, the theme of (big L) Language: the oral tradition of capturing and expressing the past of the Berber tribesmen vs the French, written language. Cultural repression as in the social mores of the veil ( the subsumed feminine identity as entrenched in the traditions of her homeland)  vs emancipation ( feminine self expression). The self vs the Other (the self is equated as the colonized,  the Other the colonizers). A major leitmotiv in the novel is the theme of Love Letter and the written word. In an early scene, the narrator recounts how she and her French-schooled sisters have clandestinely sent out ‘Love Letters’ to unknown paramours listed in the personal sections of a magazine. It is counterpointed with the dispatches of the war historian’s correspondences sent back to France. These early correspondents have conflicted emotions about the monstrosities of war, and are cause for self examination. We develop a sense that the colonizers are attracted to this alien world of Algiers, like an uncontrollable desire for a woman: it is equated to forcible sexual conquest:

these new crusaders of the colonial era, overwhelmed by such a clamor of voices, wallow in the depths of concentrated sound. Penetrated and deflowered;  Africa is taken despite the protesting cries that she cannot stifle.

This highly complex structure used in the novel is a wonderfully interesting arrangement: there are five sections in each movement, a ‘Voice” section, a short narrative of a tale of death or survival in the War of Independence,  a titled prose poem, followed by another Voice section, this is then followed by a section called ‘Embrace’ an vignette of an event or scene from the first War of conquest. Overall though, there is an imbalance due to the fugue portion which is contained in the five ‘movements’ of part III, it is overweight with at least two of the Voice sections seemed to me to not add anything thematically to their counterparts, they seemed to be repetitious. It should be emphasized heavily that the novel is NOT disjointed as it may sound by my simple breakdown. Djebar artfully ties together multiple elements that I have not even touched on: images and motifs of cultural ceremony (such the ululations of the tribes women, shrill cries of celebration or lament) , the allusions to the role of the storyteller embedded in their culture in the figure of Sheherazade..and finally the Muslim/Quranic elements and her probably controversial depiction on its deleterious affect on the role of women in Algerian society.

What I took Away: (Blarmy part)
This work is first part of a projected Quartet. (I ordered the second novel, A Sister to Sherehazade )
I get the sense that Fantasia is a story that the writer had to get out as if her life depended on it. She found a form to give her country’s chaotic past a supremely rich voice. What is unclear is if her Sherazade’s voice finds listening, unveiled ears in her homeland.

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Heart So White– Javier Marias

Heart so white

Macbeth murders sleep…

says the narrator at one point in the much hailed Spanish novelist Javier Marias’ highest profile work to date; his 1992 novel Heart So White.

I read Macbeth (unbelievably) for the first time last spring and had highlighted:  “My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white” from Lady Macbeth’s  response to Macbeth when he told her “the deed is done” (meaning Macbeth tells his wife he has murdered Duncan). With that said, one does not have to have read Macbeth to enjoy this novel. After finishing this,  I had learned more about the layers of interpretations of the play than any of my rereading  ever could.

The 40something newly married narrator Juan, is a government Interpreter slash Translator, and he, we are told has a ‘tendency to want to understand everything that people say, and everything that I hear, even at a distance’. From this vocation, Juan has privileged his premise that even everyday conversation,  human dialogue is often a ‘matter of life and death’ in its influence in the course of human events:

Its strange that words don’t have worse consequences than they do. Or perhaps we just don’t see it, we just don’t think they have any consequences and, in fact, the world’s in a permanent state of disaster because of the things we’ve said.

Soon after his honeymoon, Juan has decided that his imagined future together with Luissa his wife is a ‘concrete’ one, its trajectory is predictable. But he also has ‘presentiments of disaster’ and the discovery of the sources of these forebodings provide the impetus for his attempt make sense, to discover the reality of the chronicle of his enigmatic father, Ranz’s previous marriages and their dark secrets they have hidden.

In the course of his reflection he forms ‘hypothesis and conjectures’ of connectedness between past events of Ranzs’ marriages and his own current marriage and their influence on an imagined future. The strands, or threads of the fabric, are formed by  two parallel stories of his father and his first wife Theresa; along with his own relationship with his wife Luissa. They form a weave with two counter-posed stories of couples: first the purely conjectured relationship fabricated from an overheard conversation in a neighboring hotel room in Havana, the ‘story’ of Miriam and Guillermo. Second the attempts at relationships of his friend Berta and her noir lover Bill.        

Marais’ narrative is much like a weaving loom whose shuttle and arms are formed by: ‘listening’ which is primary Interpretation, and Translation: which is less direct, and more subject to distortion, recounting of the personal events, the stories,  which may be self serving lies or part truths, pictures of the past. Just as in the plays of Shakespeare, in Heart So White  much of what characters, and narrator, learn about each other, plot events or even of themselves is through casual overhearing and eavesdropping. Another device of the narrative-loom is repetition of ideas, framing spoken sentences remembered, which Marias uses here much like in the poetic form of the villanelle. This loom creates:

“a vast piece of cloth with no stitching, no ornament, no folds, like invisible, reddish sky with no angles to limit it, then differentiated, and mobile hole in which one cannot see the we and there is only repetition, but not the repetition that occurs after some time has passed, which is not only tolerable but pleasant, not only tolerable but necessary a continuous, uninterrupted repetition, a constant leveling out of what is happening.”


Then there are four lines from Macbeth centered on Lady Macbeth’s role in Macbeth’s murder of Duncan that are repeated as in stanzas of a villanelle . They are used to frame inferences in the narrative, each probing specific themes:  “a heart so white”: complicity/implication, “brainsickly” thinking:  secrets/culpability, “the dead are like pictures”: ‘negation of the retold’ and last, “Macbeth murders sleep”: the willful ignorance of the past’s affect on the future. They echo and reverberate within Juan’s story, and are a prism that Juan the narrator uses to explore and attribute meaning to events in his and his father’s relationships with women, as well as the mirrored stories of the other couples that form the narrative.

Since ‘listening is the most dangerous thing’  because it obliges the listener, in the warp and weave of the loom, Juan obliges us, the reader by weaving his story of how he comes to an understanding of the ‘reality’ behind the events of the opening scene. Once the story is started, and just as  “one word must follow the other”, consequences, implications follow, one after the other. But mere gathering of evidence will not suffice, this is the equivalent of  translating the ‘reality’ of the past, by extension, its affects on the future. This is not reliable as memories and there retelling are seen as a negation:

“Recounting an event distorts it, recounting facts distorts and twists and almost negates them, everything that one recounts, however true, becomes unreal and approximate, the truth doesn’t depend on things actually existing or happening, but on the remaining hidden or unknown or untold and what is called reality or even real life they become part of some and knowledge your symbolism, and are no longer facts, instead they become mere recognition”


Windswept bones:
This novel is as tightly bound together as any poem. It is wonderfully intricate  without being complex or complicated, if that makes any sense.

Ignorance of the consequences of what we say, of letting only ‘translations’, memories form the fabric of the narratives of our lives, is the equivalent of sleep. Juan is in this sense, as much a ‘murderer of sleep’ as Macbeth, and he either abides or not, that is the question…

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Remainder– Tom McCarthy


The tyranny of matter…

There that’s my summary of this debut novel by Tom McCarthy.
You know its really refreshing, think about how many novels are thematically concerned with the tyranny of time…

He already had established his avant-garde credentials as the founding member of the International Necronautical Society, where one of its axioms is: Death, is viewed by the INS as “a cipher for the outer limit of description, for the point at which the code breaks down”. The society explores the relationships between representation (in the artistic usage) and death.

Where to begin…. There is the narrator hero of no name, who could be referred to as the Enactor, who surrounds himself with re-enactors, who also have no names with the notable exception of the head Re-enactor, or facilitator, Nazrul Ram Vyas, Naz for short. This will be explained forthwith…Lets see, the plot structure is chronologically straight forward. The prose has a captivating, unassuming pulse, is invested with its own logic, and pace is brisk.

Our hero has experienced brain trauma, an accident involving some “bits” falling down from the sky. The first section is not so strange as we learn the nature and extent of his injury and the current state of his consciousness: that he is specifically amnesiac about the accident. But this works in his favor, as evidently this accident had a non-natural cause, and he receives a mysterious settlement of 8 ½ million pounds sterling. What is not in his favor, and which starts the novel’s own system of phenomenology, is that his primary motor functions have to be re-routed. He has to ‘learn how to eat a carrot’ by consciously thinking about every movement involved. As he gradually regains a semblance of normal life, and in the course of relearning, he develops an amazing ability to deconstruct: actions and events, the relation of objects in space.

He also comes to a conclusion that he has become, or at least his actions have become, “inauthentic” faked. He learns to equate a ‘real’ action as an act devoid of self-consciousness of the act itself, of any self cognition of the act. While in a bathroom at a friend’s party, staring at a crack in the wall triggers an apparent mimetic-connected vision. These episodes of altered consciousness, manifest themselves in a bathtub or bathrooms. He has a sensation of a part memory, part vision, where he perceives a connectedness, a sense of being “authentic”. His profound epiphany sets him off on a quest to reproduce the setting, along with a sequence of actions by various tenants in this vision, the entire high rise apartment complex, along with the neighboring building, and the particular peculiar tenants that formed the component parts, in his ‘vision-episode’.

In a mostly tongue in cheek and sardonic tone, its narrative is filled with metaphors of technology, especially telecommunications. It foregoes any interiority other than the narrator-as-commentator on his own discoveries, and the conclusions he draws from the series of successive replications. We go from one re-enactment, and all its logistics to another, but each time there is an associated revelation, sometimes in mid re-enactment, so that the novel’s processes are self aware, and has its own logic. The narrator examines the “residual”, what he has figuratively distilled from each series of enactments. This ‘remainder’ has both spatial and temporal connotations: a conclusion drawn, a residual of an event after the “surplus” matter (or time) is removed, or an actual physical residue. Each replication leads him to a new state of self awareness, advancing him closer to his quest for authenticity and subsequent moments of increasing “enlightenment” that his super-facilitators can make come to fruition. But what becomes troubling is that his visions are accompanied by an intensely pleasant physical sensation of tingling. They become an addiction, much like those that excersise to the point of enjoying their body’s own endorphin’s. Boundaries of what is not only possible, but what are ethical are pushed. After one particular adaptation goes awry, windshield wiper fluid gets re-routed through the dash of his old Fiesta and splatters his trousers, he requests that they duplicate this scene again, that his team make the fluid go away, disappear upward into space, dematerialize. He is informed that such transubstantiation is impossible, but he and his cohort Naz have become lost in their abstractions, they become detached from limits, in the enacting their ‘study’.

The mind expands, the texture of time and space deepens and stretches out, there is Light, and Blood…there are figure 8’s…I must stop here.

to avoid de-spoiling any further this amazing novel….I will leave you with the remainder…

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By Night In Chile–Roberto Bolaño



Sordel, Sordello, Which Sordello?

Having heard much about the deceased-mega-hyped-Chilean-novelist works, but having yet to read them, I started with his 2000 New Directions published By Night In Chile. Of his oeuvre at the time of this posting eight have been translated into English, and New Directions has plans for at least 6 more titles.

Bolano is known for populating his works with actual (and thinly veiled hypothetical) historical and literary figures. By Night and Chile can lay claim as having Pinochet and Nobel prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as characters (with speaking parts).

It is a first person account, confessional-memoir of one Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix, aka Father Urrutia. A now old Jesuit Priest slash poet who we learn on his deathbed is compelled to “clear up a couple of points” of his life. He does so in a single paragraph or stanza, at times dreamlike, almost always lyrical. (he can do this, he’s a poet after all).  In  Father Urrutia’s account there are six flashbacks, scenes or slices of time in which form the novels’ chronological structure. We are reliant on the lucidity of his memory, as he “tries to penetrate the phantasmagoric folds of time”. What becomes apparent, immediately, is the reader must treat his tale as an implied poem, or literary work, NOT a report of events. Secondly, he is old and his “memory” waivers in its detail and style suiting Bolano’s purpose perfectly, as his narrator is given a long leash to vary the language from the surreal to the limpid, and since thematically we are examining the relationships of literature/literati vs the state and religion in a culture he has masterfully wielded his form to his function.

Besides our narrator, the second most important character is Father Farewell. We are told Farewell is Chile’s most important literary critic, who just by coincidence is ALSO a Jesuit Priest. Farewell acts as a mentor and sounding board for our narrator and a friend of significant Chilean writers (Neruda spends time at his digs). The first section takes place at Farewell’s estate, La Bas, (significantly the name of a novel by the Fin de siècle writer Karl Huysmans). To the background of a haunting tango, there is a bacchanalian scene on the terrace, where the iconic Neruda is spied by the younger narrator chanting to the moon.  Farewell drunkenly asks the younger Urrutia if he is familiar with the “role of night” in the Italian Troubadour poets, particularly Sordel de Goit (or) Sordello Da Goito as sometimes known. He chants, Sordel, Sordello, which Sordello? Dante’s Sordello? (he figured in the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy)  Pound’s Sordello? (referenced in the Cantos) or Sordello’s own planh (funeral lament) on the death of his patron, Blacatz? He could be seen as a either the unprincipled historical figure, or Dante’s Sordello, a moral voice of his country. This “confession” parallels Dante’s Sordello, who was prevented from confessing and reconciliation by sudden death.

This drunken Sordello riff frames a theme of the novel, and prefigures later scenes that explore the role of the literati, the intelligentsia and their place in one’s country. This early epiphany also sets in motion the young priest Urrutia’s quest to become a “storyteller”(poet). But we also see that he is impressionable, and maleable, and readerly sympathies with him are cast in doubt. 

More Bones.
This novel is layered with images, allusions and symbols. On second reading, I decided it is as a whole a lot more allegorical than at first glance. Motifs that Urrutia/Bolano works in the text. Birds and more birds, (yes those are pigeons in day glow orange on the novel’s cover page).
Urrutia is early on referred to as a fledgling, Farewell is frequently seen having qualities of the falcon. The voice of the popes are referred to the sound “distant screeching of a flock of birds”.  There even an insinuated  corrupt “Trinity”  Poet/Church (Dogma)/ State, but Urrutia asks, does it matter, as long as you are bored, and turn your back on the ugliness:

Sooner or later, everyone would get their share of power again. The right, the center, the left, one big happy family…sometimes at night, I would sit on a chair in the dark and ask myself what difference there was between fascist and rebel. Just a pair of words. Two words, that’s all. And sometimes, either one will do!



I will resist going  further into depth here so as to avoid plot spoilers, but would be happy to discuss my notes in the “Comments”

Following the Don Salvador and Opus Dei sections, our judgement and sympathies for our narrator/hero(?) is further questioned when Urrutia in cloak and dagger fashion is solicited and accepts tutoring the illustrious Pinochet junta in Marxism.There is then the question of betrayal. Urrutia needs the assurance of Farewell to measure whether he was right in helping the junta. If one has no moral alignment, no true loyalties, or rather, if the powers are not clear cut, undefined, can there be such thing as betrayal? 
Who or where, are the patriots? Can there be “patriotism”?

Sordel, Sordello, which Sordello? Indeed

You will have to read By Night and Chile and decide for yourself.


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Embers–Sándor Márai



When re-assembling my long lost (partially destroyed) fiction library, I kept seeing this name, Sándor Márai come up in discussions of exemplary European 20th century fiction. In my old library shelves, I had EVERY significant work of fiction, even the mind numbingly obscure and experimental, but had never even HEARD of this author or any of his novels. It turns out this Hungarian novelist’s oeuvre is of some relatively recent (in literary canon time) discovery. What a discovery it is. He wrote 46 books, mostly novels and was Hungary’s most influential pre-WWII writer. I read what is considered his masterpiece, the 1942 novel, Embers in the Vintage published edition translated by Carol Brown Janeway. 

Its calm, elegant third person narrative narrowly chronicles the lives of two friends, Henrik and Konrad, in the time of great societal transition after the disintegration of the Austrio-Hungarian empire. Henrik, the now old General alone in his empty castle, reconstructs the story of a unique kinship between the two men. Focalized through Henrik, he recounts scenes of their childhood together, examining their uncommon bond, a relationship which enmeshes their two sensibilities: Henrik the ‘soldier’ and Konrad the artist. As the old general prepares for his old friend, Konrad’s visit after a 41 year absence. We gradually learn why there has been a four decade separation, and therein lies the tale…

It has been noted elsewhere that Embers is a novel containing little action. The force of the narrative is built gradually by reflection and introspection, the tension is of the slow boil kind, but by the final scene, the pressure in the atmosphere where the two finally sit down and face each other is palpable  We are in the end asked to pay attention to the silences, to compare what is said with what is left unsaid. I have always liked Harold Bloom’s concept of  Wisdom Literature. He often gives Shakespeare and Proust as examples of some high priests of Wisdom Literature. For me Embers belongs in this realm:

One’s life, viewed as a whole, is always the answer to the most important questions. Along the way, does it matter what one says, what words and principles one chooses to justify oneself? At the very end, one’s answers to the questions the world has posed with such relentlessness are to be found in the facts of one’s life. Questions such as: Who are you?…What did you actually want?… What could you actually achieve?…At what points were you loyal or disloyal or brave or a coward? And one answers as best one can, honestly or dishonestly; that’s not so important. What’s important is that one finally answers with one’s life.


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Piano– Jean Echenoz



Jean Echenoz is a contemporary French novelist of note. His work has received at least 10 literary awards, the most notable is the Prix Goncourt for his 1999 I’m Gone, (I’m Off in the UK version.)

 Published by New Press in 2003  Piano’s first person narrator tells the reader in the second paragraph that its protagonist, concert pianist Max Delamarc, is going to die a violent death in 22 days…after that reveal, things get more and more interesting. Many offbeat, tongue-in-cheek asides later, we think we know that the hero’s trajectory will always be in doubt…Echenoz masterfully frames quirky engaging characters and his scene detailing has a finely honed glittering edge that creates a vivid storyworld that makes you want to read on for the camera work alone. Mark Polizzatti’s English rendering is top notch, one loses any background idea that one is reading a translation-its that good.

To avoid any spoiler issues, I will leave off plot synopsis. Just to summarize that it is an urban death/afterlife comedy romp mostly set in Paris and has a lot of similarities to Stanley Elkin’s, The Living End.. With the tripartite structure of earth/ purgatory/ heaven?hell? with some wonderfully realized contemporary- popular culture ironies at play. Great ending and a candidate for a beach-readable though thought provoking contemporary novel

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