The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Aug 25, 2014

Reading Arabic

Owing to Shoe Lane library, I've suddenly increased my knowledge of Arabic fiction by leaps and bounds. I'd go so far as to say a quantum jump, except of course a quantum is a fairly small packet of energy, and I have expended a few centillion quanta at least. And still the well doth not dry! There are more books in the pipeline, and will help me in effort to read outside of the Eurocentric translation world that kept me occupied for the most of last year.

The plethora is all down to Arabia Books, an imprint which has been instrumental in translating Arabic fiction for six years. It has been incredibly generous as well - on its fifth anniversary last year, it gave away a complete set of its books to every library that signed up to the offer - for free! No wonder Shoe Lane library is a treasure-trove!

The coverage of the books is varied - not just in the countries but also in styles and genres. I've gone through books from Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt (of course), Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. I've seen nothing as yet from Yemen or Saudi or Oman or Kuwait or the UAE, but while I can expect some intellectual development in Yemen and Oman, not so from the others mentioned, stultifyingly rich and stupendously prodigal.

The variety in styles and approaches is eye-opening, too. All the countries above have suffered or continue to suffer under repression - political, social, sexual. You'd expect to find, therefore, novels of protest, and you do, but you also find remarkable works of commentary and character and inventiveness. There are memoirs, epic histories, small and taut tales of suffocation and sexual liberation. There are feisty women and brave girls as often as there are subtle men and layabout boys.

I guess one of the questions of anyone approaching Arabic fiction is - is there really an Arabic fiction? After all, there is so much variation in the language across the Arab world that for all intents and purposes Maghrebi Arabic is quite distinct from, say, Lebanese. I learn that much of the writing is in classical Arabic, which owing to the Qu'ran, is understood all across the region. No surprise then that authors choose to write in the high style, rather than in the vernacular, as that opens up their readership. However, Egyptian and Lebanese Arabic is fairly well-understood, I think, because of the soft power wielded by these countries - their pop and film industry is extremely popular. But it's not entirely clear to me which of the books I've read were originally written in the local Arabic.

Over a few posts, I'll try to summarise some of the highlights of my months of reading Arabic literature. For the impatient among you, I'd recommend a visit to the blog Arabic Literature (in English), which contains way way more coverage and suggestions for reading and interviews than I could ever manage.

Aug 21, 2014

Hrabal Pub Crawl

The Circle Line Pub Crawl is one of the most famous antics in the binge-drinking business. You have a pint of beer, choose a station on London Underground's Circle Line, choose a direction in which to take the train, get off at the next station, find a pub, have a pint, get back on the Circle Line, repeat - till all 27 stations are complete and 28 pints have been downed. 

The Circle Line, of course, is a misnomer these days. A little while ago, instead of the circular loop it had been running on for decades, it became a yo-yo. Still, the pub crawl remains an important rite of passage for Antipodeans with more bravado than sense. I'm looking at you, Andy.

Now, were you to find yourself in Prague - another great city for beer - you can try to repeat  Haňťa's drinking escapade. Bohumil Hrabal's hero from Too Loud A Solitude starts the Grand Slalom, a course he and his friend had attempted many times before but successfully only once.
It was so long ago I had forgotten most of the course, so my friend, whose name I had also forgotten, launched into an impassioned description of it to win me over: we'd start off at the Vlachovska and move on to the Little Horn, then down to Paradise Lost and then to Myler's and the Coat of Arms, and at each place we'd order only a large beer, because we had to have time to make it to Jarolímek and Ládá's and round the bend to the Charles IV and, after a detour down to the World Cafeteria, we'd go over to Hausmann's and the Brewery, and then across the tracks to the Good King Wenceslas and on to Pudil's or Krofta's, and finally Douda's or the Mercury before coming into the home stretch at the Palmovka or Scholler's Cafeteria, and if it wasn't too late, we'd cross the finish line at either Horký's or the Town of Rokycany. Running through the course, he clung to me drunkenly, but I finally shook him off and left Čížek's, crossing the luxuriant periwinkle patches of Charles Square, where the sun worshipers had moved from benches that were now in the shade to benches that were now in the setting sun. On my way back to the Black Brewery I had a glass of rum and then a beer and then another rum. Not until we are totally crushed do we show what we are made of.
Vlachovka restaurant, pub, winery

So after weeks of abstention, I dropped by Dark Sugars, a mighty fine chocolatier on Brick Lane. The genial man behind the counter made me a quick hot chocolate and topped it off with a palmful of slivers of dark and brown chocolate. While I stood there salivating, a woman walked in and said she wanted to get a selection of salty caramel chocs.

'Which box shall I put them in?' she said.

'Whichever you like, dear,' said the genial man.'You spend your life trying to convince men they needn't tell you what to do. So don't let me tell you what to do.'

Giggles all around.


I grabbed a salmon beigel and a salami beigel from the Beigel shop. £2.40 for a fine meal.


The reason I went to Brick Lane was not to go to Brick Lane - because, really, Brick Lane is a bit of a sham show, especially its southern end - but rather because I was at the Calvert 22, a gallery of Russian and Eastern European works. This is in Shoreditch, and on my way back to the office, I sauntered down Brick Lane. Calvert 22 were hosting an exhibition of photographs (titled Close and Far) by Prokudin-Gorsky along with works by a bunch of modern photographers. I took a cursory look at the modern works, but spent more time admiring Prokudin-Gorsky.

What a chap. He spent years on the Czar's commission, travelling back and forth and up and down the mighty empire, snapping away at people and buildings and landscapes. Many of these areas haven't been photographed since, and many of the monuments were destroyed in subsequent wars and Communist depredations. He used a colour methodology of his own making, and produced vibrant polychrome pictures that look like they might have been taken yesterday.

The exhibition ends today, August 17, so I dare say most of you will miss it.

Aug 13, 2014


Despite my stated intentions, I never did progress on my profiles of top-class women mathematicians ahead of the latest Fields Medals. The announcement has come and Maryam Mirzakhani has become the first woman to win this accolade.

As an 8-year-old, Maryam Mirzakhani used to tell herself stories about the exploits of a remarkable girl. Every night at bedtime, her heroine would become mayor, travel the world or fulfill some other grand destiny. 1

Mirzakhani as a child (via Quanta magazine)

In 2010, I'd written that desis and women had another four years to go for their next pop at the award. It turns out Manjul Bhargava has also won, and although he's Canadian/American, I'm sure desis will be quite pleased to claim him as one of our own.


1. A tenacious explorer of abstract surfaces, by Erica Klarreich, Quanta Magazine, August 12, 2014.

Aug 9, 2014

nazi crime fiction

Crime fiction, paradoxically, flourished under the nazis. A recent anthology (in French) by Vincent Platini allows us to rediscover these novels today. Le Figaro interviewed him recently, and this is a rather loose translation.

Vincent Platini is a researcher and lecturer at the Freie Universität de Berlin,. He analyzes the reasons that led the detective genre to flourish in the Third Reich. To be sure, the regime was not an undifferentiated bloc: while it maintained a totalitarian grip on cultural life evoking George Orwell's 1984, it also supported a mass culture based on frivolous and stupefying entertainment, reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Platini says that only a few works would have been overt propaganda. Though the nazis were hostile to kitsch culture, the likes of Goebbels realised that forcing political issues onto the public would quickly jade them. They would proceed gradually. However, this supposedly apolitical culture colluded in maintaining nazi power as it held out the promise of a better life. When the war began, mass culture was used for its soothing effect: a novel such as Annex 27, published in 1944, described a prosperous Germany distant from the impending catastrophe. It reflected nazi ideology by denying the death throes of the regime.

Platini uncovers the development of consumerism and Americanism in nazi Germany, and recalls the notable advertisements for Coca-Cola and the craze for jazz. How could the censor tolerate gangster novels and films such as were set in Chicago? Platini points out that the Reich was not viscerally anti-American; indeed, the regime had a fascination for America and the public had a taste for foreign products. Hollywood set the example for German cinema, and crime fiction took on the English style. Admittedly, this leniency only lasted for a period. As censorship became more severe, the regime tried to promote 'good' German crime fiction. This was not an overt success. England and the US remained the trendsetters and German crime writers placed their novels in American settings but with a German footprint. This displacement became liberating: it was easy to pretend that major crimes no longer existed within the Third Reich; it also permitted a veiled criticism of the regime. Here, crime fiction became escapism in the true sense.

There is a curious absence of racial obsession and anti-semitic fury in the anthology. Platini explains that this is only a relative absence. Publications connected with the nazi party had their own share of caricatures and stereotypes. For instance, in the film Münchhausen, these were implicitly Jews. However, despite the importance of racist discourse of the time, there were very few Jews in crime fiction. Anti-semitism was not a theme particularly appreciated by the public, which - amidst the persecution - preferred to turn a blind eye to it. This split consciousness was reflected in the mass culture. On the other hand, and this was more chilling, a population was annihilated through its pretend exclusion. It would have been difficult to constantly stage scenes of Jewish denigration. Hiding the repression from the public eye allowed it to be exercised without restraint. On the other hand, some Jewish authors managed to re-emerge in the imagination: Zwick, for example, wrote a novel whose narrator, exiled in the US, returns to Germany to kill the one who caused the loss of his family. What a beautiful literary revenge!

Platini mentions 'treasures buried beneath the corpse'. Was there any artistic merit to contraband literature produced in nazi Germany? Indeed, he avers, there was more merit to this than the 'legitimate' culture, if art, among other things, is a challenge to the established discourse. This scorned literature acquired value precisely it was overlooked by the censors. The art that was recognised by the nazis did not perform its critical function. But an author such as Kuckhoff - of the highest intellectual training - deliberately turned towards the detective genre because it gave him a subversive opportunity that was subtle enough to be printed in the largest magazine of the time. Even a work of resistance such as The Open Letter reveals itself a gem of rhetoric, overturning the vocabulary of propaganda. But it remains the reader's responsibility to have a critical sensibility.

Krimi, une anthologie du récit policier sous le Troisième reich», selected, edited and translated by Vincent Platini, Anacharsis, 444 p., 23 €

Aug 3, 2014


Although she did not drink martinis, she graciously prepared a double for me every evening before dinner. I introduced her to Tanqueray gin and Noilly Pratt vermouth, the ingredients for a perfect martini. Sensitive husband that I was, I courteously congratulated her every day on a fine martini, cautiously suggesting that it might be a touch drier. Day after day, I congratulated her, suggesting that it might be a touch drier still. One day I sipped the martini and bathed her in kisses: “Betsey, you’re wonderful, it’s perfect.” She did not take well to my gushing. Betsey almost never raised her voice, but raise it she did: “I knew it! I knew it! Of course I’m wonderful! Of course it’s perfect! You’re drinking straight gin.”

(Eugene D. Genovese, about his wife Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage)

Jul 30, 2014

Boyish Jingoism

After England's recent and abject collapse at Lord's, I haven't felt like telling the boy that his wish has come true. For some reason, he is vehemently anti-English these days. I suspect it's because of his half-Scot pal, with whom he had a conversation as follows:

Pal: I wish Scotland would vote for independence in autumn. I don't like England.

Boy: Did you know that England ruled over India for centuries?

Pal: I can't believe they managed to rule anyone at all.

Boy: England's out of the World Cup.

Pal: Yes-s-s-s!

Boy: India's playing England at cricket.

Pal: I hope England loses.

Boy: So do I.

Wife: But, Johnny, your dad's English.

Pal: Oh yeah...

Jul 25, 2014

Apák könyve

The Guardian thought it was full of silly ideas, a veritable gamut of Bible-like begats. The New York Times thought it was graceful and alluring. The Guardian thought its women characters were only there as incubators and to bring disaster upon the men. The New York Times thought it was a virtuoso portrayal of idiosyncratic characters. When I read Miklós Vámos' The Book Of Fathers, I thought it was alternately moving and humorous, steadily descending into the morass of Hungarian history of the past three hundred years.

Each chapter had a pastoral overture, which baffled me. How did it pertain to the story that ensued? Vámos revealed in an afterword that he intended the overture to illustrate the zodiac under which the chapter's main character was born. Indeed (and I didn't notice this), each of the twelve characters in the book was born under a different star sign. 

These twelve characters are linear descendants, father-to-son, and they, Forrest Gump-like, pop up inadvertently or advertently, at major events in Magyar history. So far, so ordinary. Vámos then pointed out that the Hungarian language was an overwhelmingly rural, unsophisticated tongue until a big cultural explosion in the late 18th century led to huge innovations in its vocabulary and its establishment as a literary vehicle to rival German and French in the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

Vámos therefore wrote the earlier chapters, which dealt with his characters in 17th and 18th centuries, in an archaic form, using only the extant vocabulary of the time, and gradually modernised his text as it moved to the 1990s. He admitted that it would be difficult to render this evolution in an Indo-European language, but that he hoped the reader would notice the language steadily change.

Well, this reader didn't notice it. Damn, I wish I could read Magyar, if only for this one linguistic treat.

Detlef Bernd Blettenberg (October 13, 1949, Wirges - ) is a German writer and reporter.

Blettenberg was born an only child in a working class family, growing up in Elgendorf, a small village community. In 1966, he moved to Leverkusen where he undertook an apprenticeship as a draughtsman in mechanical engineering. He then did his military service, and after attending the Naval Signal School at Flensburg- Mürwig he went to sea as a radio operator.

In 1972, he joined an international development agency where he would spend the next two decades. He was a development worker in Ecuador between 1972-76 where he helped coordinate vocational training at the Ministry of Education in Quito. Ecuador was the setting of his novels Weint nicht um mich in Quito and Agaven sterben einsam.

Between 1982-86, Blettenberg was a commissioner in the German Development Service in Thailand; 1992-94 in Nicaragua; 2003-2004 in Ghana. His novels Siamesische Hunde and Farang were set in Thailand, while Blauer Rum and Null Uhr Managua were set in Nicaragua, and Murnaus Vermächtnis in Ghana.

Between these missions abroad, he worked as a consultant for vocational training and trade promotion in Bonn and later in Berlin. These roles led him regularly to Africa, Latin America, Asia and Arabia. In addition, he has published technical papers for professional training, for business promotion and technology transfer. Berlin is the stage for several of his novels, especially in Barbachs Bilder and Berlin Fidschitown. Impressions from his numerous foreign trips are reflected in the novels Harte Schnitte and Land der guten Hoffnung.

Blettenberg is married to the actress Andrea Heuer.


Blettenberg is a four-time winner of the Deutscher Krimi Preis: Farang (1989), Blauer Rum (1995), Berlin Fidschitown (2004), and Murnaus Vermächtnis (2011).


Check out this appraisal of Blettenberg's books: "Being involved heightens the feelings" : Political detective novels on the edge by DB Blettenberg by Elfriede Müller (translated by Sue Neale).


Again, no English translation appears to have come out. I did find a Romanian title.

Jul 14, 2014

Hans Werner Kettenbach

[Continuing my series of little biographical sketches of winners of the Deutscher Krimi Preis. This one is a quick and dirty translation of Peter Mohr's note "A Late Bloomer" in celebration of Hans Werner Kettenbach's 80th birthday, published on May 14, 2008, at]

For a highly successful writer, Hans Werner Kettenbach may have found his way to literature unusually late in life, but actually he has always been a late bloomer. He started his first job at age 28, he married at thirty, he graduated at the age of 36, and he only published his first novel just before his 50th birthday. In between he had been a construction worker, a stenographer and an Assistant Editor of the sports magazine "Kicker". When he was planning to emigrate to Caracas, the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger offered a job. Clearly this was anything than a model curriculum vitae for a writer.

A happy coincidence paved the way for Hans Werner Kettenbach, who was born on April 20, 1928 in Bendorf near Koblenz, to enter the world of literature. In 1977, he participated in a crime competition offered by a prestigious publishing house. With his manuscript Grand mit Vieren, which he had written after careful design in fourteen days, he won the first prize.

It was followed by the novels Glatteis (Black Ice), Sterbetage (filmed under the title Im Jahr der Schildkröte), and Schmatz oder Die Sackgasse which netted the Deutscher Krimi Preis for him in 1988. Nevertheless, the successful author remained a part-time writer. His main profession continued at the "Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger" - until his retirement in 1992 as Deputy Editor-in-Chief.

Kettenbach's two hats - journalism and literature - were extremely fruitful. Journalism informed the timeliness of his novels, and literature meant a respite from the politics of the day, while the many contacts he had made as a political journalist proved of great benefit for his literary work.

The novel Die Konkurrentin (2002), in which a successful local politician becomes entangled in a finely spun web of intrigue, takes place in a major Rhineland city. Here, one presumes, Kettenbach drew equally from his journalistic experience as he did in Kleinstadtaffäre (2004), in which the aging, successful writer Carl Wallot comes to a reading in a small town and is drawn into a power struggle with the dodgy manufacturer Kepler, who pulls all the strings in the province. Meanwhile, Zu Gast bei Dr. Buzzard (2006) goes into the mysterious events and emotional rollercoaster rides of two couples who befriend each other while travelling in the United States.

In addition, the passionate cigar smoker has been equally successful as a screenwriter: he wrote some episodes for the series Peter Strohm at the end of 1980s, the script "Ausgespielt" (with Manfred Krug), and was also involved in the film adaptation of his novel Davids Rache (David's Revenge) (1995).

He is inspired "not only by Patricia Highsmith, but also by Georges Simenon", says Hans Werner Kettenbach. For him, it's not just the psychologizing, but also the exciting stories of sympathetic ordinary figures standing in the background. In the near future he would like to fulfil his younger daughter's wish and "finally write a cheerful book".


Kettenbach's Schmatz oder Die Sackgasse won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 1988.


I'm pleased to say that not only has Hans Werner Kettenbach been translated into English but I've also read one of his books. Glatteis (Black Ice) was decent, although for some reason I don't appear to have mentioned it during my various slogs through translated crime fiction. Perhaps I misremember how good it was? This book, The Stronger Sex and David's Revenge are all available from that fine publisher Bitter Lemon Press.

Jul 8, 2014

Michael Molsner

[Continuing my series of little biographies of winners of the Deutscher Krimi Preis. This one comprises translated excerpts from the German Wikipedia.]

Heiner Michael Molsner (April 23, 1939, Stuttgart - ) is a German journalist, scriptwriter and author of crime fiction and children's books.

The son of a writer and a journalist, Molsner grew up in Olsztyn, Aalen and Munich. After graduating high school in 1959, he studied German and English literature at the University of Heidelberg. Following an editorial internship, he first held a court reporter role in Munich, then journalism appointments in Hamburg and Hanover. Since 1968, he has been a freelance writer. He is one of the founders of the "Verband deutscher Schriftsteller" (Association of German Writers), a body representing the interests of professional writers, and "Autorengruppe deutschsprachige Kriminalliteratur – Das Syndikat" (The Syndicate, an association of German crime fiction authors).

Since 2000, Molsner has lived in the Ruhr area - first in Dortmund and now in Duisburg.

Acclaim in the press has been widespread: "This man knows how to entertain an audience." (Buchreport, May 2000); "Unusually smart ... his novels have Anglo-Saxon qualities" (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 16, 1985); "...has narrative verve and a sophisticated understanding of the social milieu" (Frankfurter Rundschau, 1996); "The best kind of challenging and addictive word play that I can think of" (Eugen Drewermann reviewing Molsner's Schwarzen Faktor). Der Spiegel wrote: "...Molsner, a trained journalist, has proven to have the greatest narrative range and multifaceted understanding of the social conditions and consequences of crime. These are exemplified in his thriller Rote Messe, published in 1973: a sociological study of a small town fearful of student agitations leading to the deaths of two migrant workers. Molsner has been compared to Leonard Sciascia and Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and lauded for his "educative entertainments and entertaining educations".


Michael Molsner has won the Deutscher Krimi Preis thrice: Die Euro-Ermittler: Der ermordete Engel (1987), Unternehmen Counterforce (1988), and Die Ehre einer Offiziersfrau and Euro-Ermittler: Urians Spur (1989). In 1998, he was awarded a special prize by The Syndicate for his services to the German crime fiction fraternity.

The Euro-Ermittler (Investigator) series dealt with issues of economic and state crime. Another of his series Global-Agenten examined political topics across Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle-East.


When asked why he wrote crime fiction, he replied: "I was a child in Olsztyn, East Prussia - northeast of Auschwitz and southwest of the Wolf's Lair. Murder there was an everyday office business. The quotidian life is the subject of literature. But literature must also be fun. And so we have the sellable form: crime fiction."

Jul 2, 2014


Alan Sillitoe's collection of short stories The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner focuses on the working class mid-Englander. In the story 'Uncle Ernest', the hero has just earned £10 for upholstering some divans, and wants to get himself a nice breakfast. He orders tea and tomatoes on toast:
A steamy appetising smell rose from the plate: he took up the knife and fork and, with the sharp clean action of the craftsman, cut off a corner of the toast and tomato and raised it slowly to his mouth, eating with relish and hardly noticing people sitting roundabout. Each wielding of the knife and fork, each geometrical cut of the slice of toast, each curve and twist of his lips joined in a complex and regular motion that gave him great satisfaction. He ate slowly, quietly and contentedly, aware only of himself and his body being warmed and made tolerable once more by food. The leisurely movement of a spoon and cup and saucer made up the familiar noise of late breakfast in a crowded cafe, sounded like music flowing here and there in variations of rhythm.

Jun 26, 2014

Frank Göhre

[Continuing my series of little biographies of winners of the Deutscher Krimi Preis. This one is a vague translation of a profile of Frank Göhre titled 'The Exception', by Ilke Kreutzträger (November 12, 2010), on]

Gruff, shameless, profound. That's the kind of books Frank Göhre writes. He gradually developed a reputation as a pornographer of the crime genre. Many photographs show him in a hat, with moustache and long coat, always looking a little grim. Just as a crime writer should.

On his webpage, he has written an 'Obituary within a lifetime' for himself. ...his sexual fantasies became so extensive that his manuscripts were no longer accepted. His writing career ended abruptly. The once-popular writer spent his last years in a hotel suite on Miami Beach, where he died in the arms of a Cuban transvestite last Friday.

And waiting at the appointed spot on the overpass by the jetty is this older gentleman. He wears a baseball cap for his stroll along the harbour. He has a warm handshake, a soft voice, kind eyes.

Frank Göhre was born in 1943 in Děčín (in the Sudetenland), and grew up in Bochum. At the age of 15, he quit school because, as he says, he was so bad at Latin. It did not look like he'd become the writer who would later in life be feted as an innovator in the German noir. He worked at a wholesale merchant's and then trained to be a bookseller. At the end of the 1960s, he joined the protests against the miserable training conditions faced by apprentices, and began at this time to write his first short stories.

He won a prize for a radio drama, and then began to receive commissions from the German public radio stations (NDR and WDR). Before he decided to become a freelance writer in 1973, he continued as a bookseller.

It seems he learned his meticulous work habits from that time. He is no mere storyteller; he is a researcher. He does not merely invent characters and let them do fictional things, but rather he investigates their personalities and saves everything he learns in case he might need it for a later story. He writes in his diary how the weather was, keeps newspaper clippings, notes down current events, scribbles on a possible story that might be interesting to a reader, perhaps even evoked memories of the time.

Göhre came to Hamburg in 1981 where he lives today with his wife in Winterhude, close to the city park. He teaches at the writers' school in Hamburg, or the screenplay camp in Freiburg, or at Ludwigsburg's Film Academy.

He doesn't like the fixed nature of a screenplay where from the outset, everything should hold together rigidly. While writing a novel, he feels much freer. He might know more or less the kind of solution he might propose for a story, but if his wife asked him on an evening which direction he might take, he would be unable to offer any information.

Göhre's daily routine is much more predictable. He is a morning person. By eight, he is usually seated at his desk in his four metres square study which is full of bookshelves. In fact, only the balcony is free from books. He writes in the mornings, and in the afternoons, he works on proofs or answers emails. The hard tasks. His wife has noticed a certain rhythm in his work, he says. He might write fast and loose a day or two, do nothing for the next two or three days, and then throw much away. Previously there were days when entire passages of text were consigned to the trashcan, and he thought he was lost for days. But nowadays he is not worried.

In his novel, Eloi - Der Auserwählte (Eloi - The Chosen One) it took Göhre five attempts to find the right beginning. Five times he wrote the text, cut out individual paragraphs, shifted the snippets back and forth, trying different combinations until they fit.

Göhre preserved all the intermediate steps of his work. He cleared out his attic, installed shelves and set up his archive. All his works are saved, even the double editions. When he is finished with a book, he said, he packed everything into an IKEA box and took it to the attic. He has finalised his will, he said. He doesn't think of death, but he knows there are family disputes in the estates of many authors.

He speaks of his new book in the same satisfied tones he spoke of his estate. Nobody in the German-speaking world writes as he does, he says, no one interleaves their plots as him. People have praised his flashbacks and changes of perspective. This is not difficult for him because he thinks not in dialogue but in images. He is an exception, he says. And there is no immodesty or boastfulness in this claim.

His years as a bookseller have given him a long view into the genre. It is something missing in his younger colleagues. Many have never heard of Chandler, he says, his face looking grim for the first time. Writing detective fiction is not as easy as many retired teachers seem to think, he says. It does not merely involve an assembly of characters, red herrings and then revealing the most unexpected person as the perpetrator.

In the summer, Göhre and his wife want to stay a month in Amsterdam. He will collect stories, do some research. Next week he will go there to find a small apartment with a garden, overlooking the canal. He has always wanted to do this, he says, and now he finally has the time.


Frank Göhre won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 1987 for Der Schrei des Schmetterlings, and in 2011 for Der Auserwählte.


English translations? Pshaw.

Jun 23, 2014


Shamsa went about showing us her many robes and accoutrements. This is my dark-red shawl, and here is the red linen tjikit, lined in wool felt. Here is my yellow bashtamal, embroidered in flowers. I tie it like an apron under this thick belt, my futeyh. It protects my kidneys and spine when I carry heavy loads. Now, this is my tiri, this brilliant green robe, split in front and on each side so that I can walk with long strides in the steppe. And under the sky-blue yalik that keeps my ribs warm, see, here is my white linen ishligh, falling over lilac knickers, shilwar, and my stockings, or ghurik, also lilac. On my feet, did you notice the leather teshrek that we make ourselves, from animal hide? 
Look, here is what I put on my head, a red fez or tarbush, and this is my silvery veil, a bashlak, decorated with gold coins. Over all of this I throw square scarves, called bushi, each one a different colour. I knot them all around my temples, leaving one to throw back like a headscarf. But it must never cover my face or braids.

Hoda Barakat, The Tiller Of Waters.

Jun 20, 2014

Horst Bieber

[Continuing my series of little biographical posts of the Deutschen Krimi Preis winners, translated from the German Wikipedia.]

Horst Bieber (January 12, 1942, Essen - ) is a German journalist and writer of crime fiction.

Bieber studied history, philosophy and German literature at university, obtaining a doctoral degree. He began his journalism career at the Essener Tageszeitung. He is a political editor has also been a member of the editorial board of Die Zeit.

His writing career began with historical non-fiction: a book on Paul Rohrbach - a conservative journalist and critic of the Weimar Republic (1972), and a work on Portugal (1975). In 1982, he published his first thriller Sackgasse (Dead end).

In his novels, Bieber addresses topical issues of society and politics: data protection, the intrusiveness of intelligence agencies, problematic police investigations. His strengths are the precision of his observation and strong storytelling talent.

Bieber has also written several crime dramas for radio, broadcast on the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, German public radio.

Bieber's journalistic career is well-respected: his work on environmental issues and the Green party, in particular, has been recognised.

In 1987, Bieber received the Deutscher Krimi Preis for Sein letzter Fehler (His Last Error).


And, again, no sign of English versions of his books. Found a Polish one, though...

Ángel Vivas' article 1989-2014: las 25 mejores novelas was published recently in El Mundo. I'm distressed, nay, delighted, no, appalled, er, indifferent, in short, a bundle of contradictions when I report that I haven't read any of these books. And I style myself a reader. I wouldn't blame you if you took this opportunity to go elsewhere for your literary fix.

No, no, please stay.

Note that these are books written by authors born in Spain and who write in Spanish (so no Galician or Catalan or Basque or - help me out here - any other language spoken in that country).

En La Orilla : Rafael Chirbes (2013). A stark portrait of modern Spain, combing through such evils as real estate speculation and careerism. (Careerism? What's he on about?) This book may soon be available in translation, published by Harvill Secker.

La noche de los tiempos : Antonio Muñoz Molina (2009). An ambitious and comprehensive account of the civil war, written with an evident desire to avoid sectarianism. Or, as the Americans might put it, a bipartisan narrative.

Crematorio : Rafael Chirbes (2007). Him again. Why aren't his works easy to find in English? 

Rabos de lagartija : Juan Marsé (2000). Set in post-war Spain, this explores the complex relationship between truth and falsehood, appearance and reality.

Juegos de la edad tardía : Luis Landero (1989). This was his first novel, wandering across a domain of unfulfilled dreams, contrasting reality and desire.

El hereje : Miguel Delibes (1998). A group of Protestants were burned in Valladolid in the mid-sixteenth century. Delibes wrote this rich novel as a defence of freedom of conscience.

Verdes valles, colinas rojas : Ramiro Pinilla (2004). A fresh and ambitious take on the social transformation of the Basque country since the 19th century.

La larga marcha : Rafael Chirbes (1996). Bildungsroman of humiliation, silence, survival from the Spanish Civil War to the end of the Franco regime. Complex and uncomplacent.

El día de mañana: Ignacio Martínez de Pisón (2011). A kaleidoscopic structure tells the story in the style of classic movies of a social climber, through whom the author does something to the Spain of the 60s and 70s when the transition to democracy was incubated. (Or intubated?)

El mal de Montano : Enrique Vila-Matas (2002). A hypnotic meta-novel with a self-referential style that fascinates and irritates in equal measure.

Los peces de la amargura : Fernando Aramburu (2006). In one of the few incursions of Spanish narrative into the problems and consequences of terrorism, Aramburu is openly committed to its victims and to their memory.

Corazón tan blanco : Javier Marías (1992). An elegant, intriguing and subtle story of complex emotional relationships. Should one know everything about one's love? Should some things remain hidden? 

El Metro de Platino Iridiado : Álvaro Pombo (1990). Pombo has a particular sympathy for female characters, which he displays this in this excellent literary work.

Galíndez : Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1991). A representative of the Basque government in exile, Galíndez was kidnapped and murdered by the police of the Dominican dictator Trujillo after he escaped to Santo Domingo following the Spanish Civil War. Montalbán's investigative novel is brilliant.

La ruina del cielo : Luis Mateo Díez (1999). The Ruins of Heaven is the second in Díez's trilogy depicting the impending destruction of rural culture. An impeccable literary anthropology of death. (Shivers down my spine at that last sentence. And shivers back up again.)

El embrujo de ShanghaiJuan Marsé (1993). Marsé! Marsé! He returns to seduce you with his seemingly simple style and a bittersweet story that deals with the loss of innocence! Oh, Marsé!

Estatua con palomas: Luis Goytisolo (1992). A confluence of two histories, one in modern Barcelona, the other in classical Rome, characterised by the skill and quality of Goytisolo's language.

Romanticismo : Manuel Longares (2001). An ironic and elevated examination of the last years of the Franco dictatorship, set in Madrid and Salamanca.

Leyenda Del Cesar Visionario : Francisco Umbral (1991). A fictional memoir of recent events, mixing history with imagination, a free and literary exploration of the Civil War in Burgos and Salamanca veering between the mythic and the realistic. (How many different ways can one say 'real' and 'imagined'?)

El Corazón Helado : Almudena Grandes (2007). Finally! A woman. Intense and exciting tale of two families, filled with unforgettable characters and intrigue, all in the shadow of the Civil War.

Soldados De Salamina : Javier Cercas (2001). More Civil War narrative (available as Soldiers of Salamis, in translation).

La Saga de los Marx: Juan Goytisolo (1993). Following the collapse of Communism, fleeing Albanians seek a better life in a capitalist Europe. Goytisolo writes a novel-within-a-novel, telling the family history of Marx in the context of his theoretical and political legacy.

El espiritu aspero : Gonzalo Hidalgo Bayal (2009). Metaliterary masterpiece, verbal masterpiece, a taste of linguistic masterpiecery from the Baroque to Oulipo.

El Cazador de Leones : Javier Tomeo (1989). A master of Kafkaesque concision and absurdity, this is a collection of short stories that dissects its characters like an entomologist. 

Los Girasoles Ciegos : Alberto Méndez (2004). More narrative on the civil war, enhanced by language of true quality. Not one of your weak and conformist novels.

So there you go. One book by a woman out of twenty-five. Who says machismo is dead? 

But if you'd like to better the averages a bit, a commenter recommended Olvidado rey Gudú by Ana María Matute.

[Continuing my series of little biographical posts of the Deutscher Krimi Preis winners. This one is badly translated from the German Wikipedia articles on Norbert Klugmann and Peter Mathews]
Norbert Klugmann (August 27, 1951, Uelzen - ) is a German journalist and novelist. He has written crime fiction, thrillers, satire and children's books.

Klugmann was the youngest of three children born to Hildegard, a housewife, and Willi Klugmann, a canteen worker at the town railway station. The family had come from Eastern Pomerania, fleeing to the West post-World War II. After high school, Klugmann first studied German and sociology at Hamburg University, with the aim of becoming a teacher; he also took some classes in general studies including medicine, but did not finish at the University.

In 1979, Klugmann met the actress Karin Roscher-Hoffknecht; they married two years later. They had a daughter in 1996, and divorced in 2005. Since 1998, Klugmann has lived in Wellingsbüttel, near Hamburg.

Klugmann's journalistic career began in 1979: he freelanced for the music magazine Sounds,and also took up a role in the press office of the Norddeutscher Rundfunks. In the 1980s, he worked for Zeit magazine. Backed by his earnings, he was then able to concentrate on his literary career.

Between the 1970s and 2012, Klugmann had written over 70 novels, of which ten were in collaboration with Peter Mathews.


Peter Mathews (October 22, 1951, Bremerhaven - ) is a German author of crime fiction, a ghostwriter and copywriter.

Mathews took up an apprenticeship as an industrial clerk at the Hamburg school of Economics and Politics, and graduated with a degree in Economics. Until 1980, he worked at various publishers, while between 1980 and 2000, he was an advertising manager, editor and publisher at Rowohlt publishing house. From 2004-2008, he was a literary agent and publisher, and since 2008, he has worked as a freelance journalist in Berlin.

Between 1984 and 1999, he collaborated with Norbert Klugmann on a series of crime novels and stories, and also published a thriller magazine.


Norbert Klugmann and Peter Mathews won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 1986 for their novels Flieg, Adler Kühn and Ein Kommissar für alle Fälle.

Jun 11, 2014

Shrimp Provencale

In Frei Betto's Hotel Brasil, Mônica wants to make a camarões à la provençal for Cândido.
While Mônica cleaned up the shrimp and marinated them in salt and orange juice, Cândido chopped up the garlic so fine it was as if he was trying to split atoms. She put the rice on to boil, adding nothing by way of seasoning, but lining the bottom of the pan with extra virgin olive oil. As she did so, a satisfying feeling came over her. […] 
He added a few splashes of molho de pimento to the camarões, while she drizzled olive oil over the side salad.
As the rice cooked on the hob and the prawns baked in the oven, Mônica and Cândido sat on footstools, glasses of vinho in their hands. […] 
When the food was ready, they tipped the pan of rice over the shrimp, added a little parsley and gave everything a good stir. They took the dish into the lounge, where the table lay beautifully set and candlelit.

Jun 8, 2014

Peter Schmidt

[Continuing my series of little biographical posts of the Deutscher Krimi Preis winners. This one is badly translated from the French Wikipedia.]

Peter Schmidt (August 11, 1944 - ) is a German psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of crime and science fiction. He is also known under his nom-de-plumes of Peter Cahn and Mike Jaeger.

Schmidt was born in Gescher, Germany. He studied literature and philosophy at the University of Bochum, with a specialisation in psychology.

During the Cold War, German critics considered Schmidt the one serious writer in espionage fiction (Stern magazine). His novel Schafspelz (Sheepskin) was recognised as the first breach in the Anglo-Saxon monopoly of thrillers (Capital magazine). In his novels, Schmidt anticipated many developments in contemporary society: the collaboration of the German ministry of national security with the Red Army Faction (Die Regeln der Gewalt (Rules of Violence)), or corrupt monetary dealings by East Germany's Finance Minister Schalk-Golodkowski (Ein Fall von großer Redlichkeit (A Case of Great Honesty)), which led to his being persecuted by the Stasi during his travels in the Eastern bloc.

In his ambiguous and enigmatic detective comedies (Linders Liste (1988), Roulette (1992), Schwarzer Freitag (1993)) Schmidt also represents a unique genre of literary crime novel, which is dominated by irony, philosophical reflection and satirical approach to human weaknesses. Meanwhile, the starting point of Einsteins Gehirn (2012) is a historical crime: after Einstein's death the pathologist Thomas Harvey stole the brain of the creator of the theory of relativity. When, after years of travelling around the United States in the back of Harvey's truck, it was returned to the Princeton hospital, a Swiss admirer of the genius commissioned a small-time crook Edwin Klein to nick the precious relic and bring it to Europe. It is a curious confusion. Half a century later the 14-year old Albert researches the circumstances of his birth, as he encounters a mysterious bottle of nitrogen in his father's basement. During his own odyssey around the globe, Albert, hailed as a wunderkind because of his superior intellectual abilities, is invited to talk shows on CNN; he appears on the cover of Time magazine, discusses happiness with the Dalai Lama, argues with President George W. Bush about the failure of his foreign policy, and during an audience with Pope Benedict, finally the mystery of his true origin is resolved.

Schmidt's science fiction includes Gen Crash (1994), an epidemiology thriller involving scientists researching a cure for influenza; 2999 - Das dritte Millennium (1999) depicts a high-tech ecological dictatorship in a Europe that remains green while the other continents continue to pollute (this book, amazingly, has been translated into Czech. Czech!); Endzeit (2004) has a mad researcher who creates prehistoric pterosaurs that terrorise his city.

In his philosophical novel Montag oder Die Reise nach innen (Monday, or the Inward Journey) (1989), Schmidt describes the progression of a meditative consciousness towards greater emotional intelligence in the style of a Bildungsroman, telling the story of a gifted young protagonist, Marc Herzbaum. The ideas in the novel germinated from his own scientific researches into emotional intelligence: Schmidt developed a cognitive technique called EQ-Training, which enabled people to overcome stress, allowing them to better control their fears and other negative feelings.

Schmidt is a three-time winner of the Deutscher Krimi Preis: Erfindergeist (1986); Die Stunde des Geschichtenerzählers (1987); Das Veteranentreffen (1991). He has also won the Ruhr Literary Prize in 1994 for his lifetime of work.

And - as far as I can make out - none of his novels has been translated into English.

Jun 5, 2014

Another Old Photo

Boris Akunin likes to trawl through old family photo-albums and gaze at the portraits and try to imagine what fates befell their subjects. Often he looks for a long time at a photograph and concocts an entire biography, and then he looks at the back of it and more often than not realises that his romantic imaginations do not match the facts.

This is a picture he posted on his blog.

A lovely little girl. Surely, thought Akunin, this is a girl who had a wonderful destiny, beautiful loves, a life full of drama and unexpected twists (after all, she would have lived in twentieth century Russia). And the girl would surely become someone, because not only was she beautiful but there were makings of an extraordinary personality.

Then he turned the photo over to the other side and learned that little Lyuba Lokshina was born March 9, 1917, and died April 12, 1929. As far as I can make out, she died when a balcony collapsed. 

As Akunin says, this is not just tragic but absurd. One can somehow get used to tragedy. But absurdity?