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

Mar 24, 2013

Under 200, Part 10

Disappointments continue apace. Francis Durbridge's Curzon Case stars his long-time detective Paul Temple and his lovely wife Steve who - despite the police's best efforts - investigate some missing boys in Steve's hometown. Once again we have a pompous protagonist (how that Steve tolerates Paul I cannot comprehend), class warfare, a motley plot involving smugglers, fine art, drugs, and the restaurant scene. Or am I thinking of the meals consumed in various picnics and parties? Durbridge's style is canonically Golden Age, although somewhat racier and in a possibly more modern setting. In classic style, the detective brings everyone into a room for his final revelation. I'm not convinced, however, that he is even in the class just below that of Christie or Allingham.

In the non-genre fiction category, I read Sándor Márai's Esther's Inheritance. The return of her lifelong love Lajos after decades has Esther aquiver with anticipation and flushed with foreboding. Lajos had dumped her for her sister and absconded shortly after his wife's death, leaving his children in Esther's temporary care. Lajos - as seen through Esther's eyes - is a charmer, a chameleon, an inconstant fellow whom everyone loves, a slippery and subconscious con-man. To me at this point he appeared monochromatic, a cipher, a nonentity. Esther knows that Lajos is returning only to break her heart again, but still she is unable to deny him. As the moment of his arrival draws near, her excitement is febrile. He comes in bearing gifts (but she knows they're worthless); his children accompany him (and they recognise their father's all-consuming weaknesses, but they hold Esther responsible); there is a malevolent woman in tow too (what is her role in the story?). Lajos' defence of himself is the first time I saw intelligence and agency in the man. For all that, he remains deeply flawed and destructive to those in his midst.

All the action of the book is concentrated among a handful of characters, all of whom have known Lajos in their youth and have experienced his charm and his betrayals. Esther, therefore, is not alone.  She has all the support she could have wanted and a searching introspective mind. And yet she manages to chuck it all away, in a resolution of the standoff that I found ultimately unconvincing.

Atiq Rahimi's Earth and Ashes was published in Dari, then in French - to wide acclaim - and then in English. Since then he's switched to writing in French (I blogged about him and other non-native French writers here) and has won the Goncourt. This was his first book and it treats with poetic voice the tragedy of Afghanistan. Years of history are compressed into a few days experienced by an old man and his grandson as they wait at a quarry to break ill tidings to the boy's father. The book, narrated by the old man in second person, alludes to ancient myth and epic poetry. Those of us who know these myths will feel their resonance; to those that don't, Rahimi's language will appear obfuscatory. The story, however, is timeless and without borders - in times of war, depredations and horrors are common, and the people that live through it are sorely damaged; family ties are often impotent before social strictures; and there is little healing to be had from death and heartbreak.


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