Book Review: You should have come when you were not here, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Available now in some bookstores

For those of us like myself and Brannavancv_you_should_have_come_here_when Gnanalingam, who adore the nooks and crannies of history and have found Paris too lacklustre, instead hosting a city of loneliness, You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here will be a story to relate to and sympathise with. It tells the lonely tale of Veronica, a thirty-something asexual female journalist from New Zealand who travels to Paris late as a freelance journalist only to find the city indifferent to and from her.

Veronica is a lonesome (although not lonely) and apathetic character whose disdain for adhering to mainstream activities takes the story to obtuse and more interesting experiences of the lovers’ city. Veronica’s story depicts some of Paris’ least commendable areas, people, and tendencies, and is studded with historical footnotes, often expertly woven as mysterious characters drawn from Paris’ long and intricate history, moonlighting almost as figments of Veronica’s unconventional imagination. Gnanalingam has his own unique flair, and it is his creative storytelling – raw and economical, painting beautifully truthful pictures – that most draws the reader in. Though I would not recommend it to the rose-tinted Paris-virgin (for fear of killing romantic enthusiasm), those who have experienced Paris enough to both love and lament the elegant city will find the writing sufficiently quirky and entertaining, and the tale best left to permeate.

Gnanalingam set out to write a more austere account of Paris, to balance out the city’s excessive amorous embellishments in popular culture. Sometimes I think people say they loved Paris simply because it is pas acceptable to say one didn’t find it to his liking. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here dares to defy the rose-tinted glasses and reveals the reality of Paris: sometimes this is glamorous and elegant, but more often it depicts exactly what Gnanalingam aimed for: “a segregated, austere, and above all, disorientating place.”   paris_dark

Despite the intelligent charm of Gnanalingam’s writing and his honest depictions of Paris, one cannot help but feel frustrated by the absolute inaction and apathy of Veronica, who, having spent ten years managing to get to Europe, now spends months in Paris without making any proper friends or money or accomplishments. Veronica actively avoids the main sites of Paris with a sort of hipster high-brow, while managing to achieve little else anyway. Veronica is clearly most comfortable on her own, but her lack of revered relationships with anybody in the city – even family and friends from home – is difficult to swallow, especially given the lack of anything else of substance in her Parisian life. If Veronica is surprised at Paris’ indifference to her, she does little to demonstrate that shock, and nor does she adapt or try to change it.

The finale of a quaint and delicately-woven story either mars or saves it: the twist is stomach churning and dégoûtable, but essentially shock lifts the story and leaves the reader turning the tale over on your tongue and in your mind. You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here is a lonely tale but Gnanalingam’s artistic writing will keep you turning pages and the book will transpire a heavy sense of contemplativeness. In a good way.

Review by Abbie Treloar

You should have come when you were not here
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson Publishing collective
ISBN Unknown

Book review: Paris by Edward Rutherfurd

cv_parisThis book is in bookstores now.

My advance review copy of Paris weighs over 900 grams and is over 670 pages long. I didn’t keep count of the number of characters the book follows, but the number was high – and with about 800 years of Parisian and wider French events to cover, it’s understandable.

Paris tells the story of the city through the lives of four families who bump against each other and occasionally intertwine over many centuries. Significant events and periods in Parisian history – from multiple religious expulsions to The Terror, the reign of the Sun King to occupation in World War II – are interpreted by the actions and reactions of members of the families, all from different social strata, but all determined to survive.

I will admit to struggling to get into Paris – but once I got the hang of the plot skipping backwards and forwards between families and time periods, and realised that there was a central plot arc that everything was feeding into, I found it hard to put the book down, and the housework and garden were neglected as I chose to keep reading to get to the story’s conclusion.

The bulk of the novel deals with a set of characters living between the 1870s and the end of World War II, and the stories that fall outside this period are a seasoning that add richness and dimension to the story. Rutherfurd cleverly weaves his narrative so that you don’t always realise the significance of a scene, or even a whole chapter, until later in the story; I found myself having small “a-ha!” moments when I’d realise that something I’d read dozens (if not hundreds) of pages earlier was a clue to the current storyline.

A strength of Rutherfurd’s style is that he doesn’t assume the reader has prior knowledge of French history or language, of Parisian geography. The story is clearly very well researched, and events are explained without feeling like you’re sitting in a school room, and not needing to stop and check what a French phrase meant was great. Being an advance proof, my copy did not contain the family tree or maps of Paris that are in the final published book and will greatly add to the richness of the reader experience. Without these, the travelling backward and forward in time, the historically correct repetition of ancestral first names, and my ignorance of the layout of Paris, made some parts of the story feel a little muddy. I understood the action, but couldn’t always see things clearly.

Characters in Paris, as in the real world, sit on the spectrum from thoroughly unlikeable to delightful, with steel worker Thomas Gascon being a favourite of mine. I was really interested in some of the minor players who weren’t from the main four families, particularly some members of the Renard/Fox and Jacob families, and would like to have read more about them. It felt like the Gascon family got less attention than the other three families, and I would have like to follow their story more. The death of a strong female character near the end of the book was not commented on by the other characters, which felt odd and jarred a bit, especially in the circumstances; it felt like a loose end that had been dropped. Over everything hung the spectre of a rigid class system, blindly accepted by some characters, and fought against by others.

When I started Paris I wasn’t sure that I’d be writing a genuinely positive review; now I’m looking forward to rereading it, with family tree and maps close to hand.

For an interesting review with the author about this book, I recommend this interview on Radio NZ National (the audio file will download when you click the link).

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Paris
by Edward Rutherfurd
Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN 9781444736809

Book review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

This book is in bookstores now.

Take the fragmented and volatile nature of 19th century European history, mix in a grand cast of real people, show how well read you are by referring to a wide range of real and fictional writing, and invent a thoroughly dislikeable anti-hero to tie it all together. The result is Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, a book full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, which goes back to the familiar ground of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

Eco’s academic credentials include philosophy, semiotics, literary criticism and media and communications. Fifty years ago he first published his ideas on ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts, and in his novels it seems he has pushed these ideas through into practice. The Prague Cemetery certainly requires the reader to engage, and engage deeply, questioning what is being reported on the page, and by whom. To add to the complexity, readers also need to remember that this is a translation from Italian into English. That such a complex and dynamic piece of writing should retain its integrity after such a process is remarkable.

It is also clear that Eco really meant what he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011; ‘People are tired of simple things; they want to be challenged.’ Not only does The Prague Cemetery require nothing short of your full attention, moving as it does between a narrator – we are supposed to think this is Eco himself, perhaps – the journal entries of Simone Simonini, and notes made by Simonini’s alter ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola. It also assumes the reader has a very high level of trust in the narrator, whether it is Eco, Simonini, or Dalla Piccola, to recount in great detail the complex shifts in power in 19th century European politics. Eco knows it is unlikely many readers will be as well read on this subject as he is, and spares us no detail.

But he is not just doing this to show off. Simonini is a forger, used by more than one government, or would be government, to supply ‘genuine’ documents to the other side. Who is on the other side, and who is on his side, it is hard to say. Simonini is an unreliable narrator, and it is mostly his account of his life, written nearly thirty years after the events themselves, that we are reading. We cannot be sure that anything he tells us is true. At best it is just a version – his version – of the truth. Add in the brief notes by Dalla Piccola and the interjections by the narrator and we see the world as Eco wants us to see it – complex, confusing and where we can’t know everyone’s true intentions and motivations. Just like real life.

Eco has included monochrome images of supposed engravings of the events Simonini writes about, showing us that Simonini is in fact writing a journal for publication. He is, we are supposed to believe, finally writing down the truth about his colourful life, and the role he played in producing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account of a meeting of Jewish elders in a cemetery in Prague. The Protocols exist, and are widely held to be a hoax. That did not stop them being used by the Russians and the Nazis, and even today there are claims that they are genuine.

Eco threads layer upon layer of fiction, fact, history and humour throughout this novel. Those who are not experts in this period of European history may find the detail distracting or annoying. I’d recommend setting aside your concerns; don’t try and remember all the characters and who they are aligned with. Never heard of the Two Kingdoms of Sicily? Don’t worry about it.

Not sure who Garibaldi was? Never mind. Unclear about the sequence of events with the Prussians, Bonaparte and the French Revolution? Let it go. No-one really knows all the details. Simonini certainly doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of other books you can read if you’re interested.

Instead, read The Prague Cemetery for what it is: a rollicking tale of a thoroughly unlikeable, anti-Semitic, food-obsessed murderer, at the heart of deception after deception that shaped the course of European history at the time and – in the case of the forgery that sits at the centre of the book, the Protocols – decades to come. For Europeans, especially continental Europeans, the events in this book were not that long ago. They are, still, fresh in the memory. France and Italy are proud republics with volatile political environments. In that sense, they are still very much the countries described in The Prague Cemetery. And this is a serious business; the Protocols were used by the Nazis, in part, to justify the Holocaust.

The Prague Cemetery won’t be to everyone’s taste. Simonini is a nasty piece of work, but unlike most anti-heroes it’s hard to ever feel any sympathy or empathy for him. The historical details can be exhausting. And while we know its Simonini, not Eco, being anti-Semitic, the thoughts Eco puts in Simonini’s head, and the words he puts in his mouth, are disturbing.

If you want a story about conspiracies, European history and deception where you know who the villain is because he’s an creepy looking albino priest who tortures himself, where the world is threatened and saved at the last minute, and where the hero is an American and gets the girl, Dan Brown’s the author for you. For everyone else, there’s Umberto Eco.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon
Published by Vintage Books
ISBN 9780099555971