Polished reportage

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An Advertisement for Toothpaste
by Ryszard Kapuściński.
Selected from Nobody Leaves (2017),
translated by William R Brand.
Penguin Modern: 16, 2018 (1963)

The name of the late Ryszard Kapuściński was one that vaguely registered with me but until now I’d not read anything by him. I note now that controversy has followed his adoption of what has been dubbed ‘literary reportage’ and ‘magic realist allegory’ but to me, coming fresh to his work via this selection of four pieces, it first resembled the category known as creative nonfiction.

As a genre, creative nonfiction purports to present what’s factual in a literary fashion, and that’s what characterises these journalistic essays. Known as a reporter describing overseas events with first hand experience, Kapuściński instead here turns his attention on his native land, postwar Poland under communism.

Integrating himself in the action he gives the quartet of reports a veneer of actualité but glosses them with the polish of prose poetry. In doing so he, a born storyteller, invites us round his hearth, shapes his narratives into fables or short stories, and infuses them with a surrealism that gives them a fairytale quality.

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Three’s company

La Parisienne (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff, author photo)

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig.
Brennendes Geheinnis (1913)
translated by Anthea Bell.
Pushkin Press 2017 (2008)

There was dangerous unrest in the air here, covert, hidden, alarmingly mysterious, something moving underground in the woods that might be just to do with the spring season, but it alarmed the distraught child strangely.

Chapter 14, ‘Darkness and Confusion’

In this delicious novella, first published in 1913 but probably set in the 1890s, Stefan Zweig tantalises the reader by gradually shifting our point of view from a would-be seducer to the child of the intended victim. In so doing he reminds us that, as adults, our actions and our words have untold effects on young minds and that playing life games with them may result in unplanned consequences.

The story is mostly set in Semmering, an alpine resort in Austria, with a denouement in Baden bei Wien. Semmering had been made accessible in the 19th century by a spectacular mountain railway, which led to a demand for hotels in the town to accommodate wealthy Viennese tourists; it’s to Semmering that a Baron arrives for a spring break and to scout out likely females for dalliance.

His eyes alight on a woman with a young boy in tow, but she initially plays coy. He decides to befriend the twelve-year-old Edgar who, frail and clearly lonely, seems to be the best route to getting better acquainted with his planned conquest. How will Edgar react when his new grown-up ‘friend’ and his mother then seem to share a ‘burning secret’ to which he isn’t privy?

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Around the world

© C A Lovegrove

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. That’s as may be but, even though I don’t believe in hell, good intentions have certainly paved my route to reading more widely in world literature of late.

If ‘Around the World in Eighty Books’ as a popular meme smacks of hubris, Around the World in a Few Books seemed more realistic as far as I’m concerned. I therefore picked a couple or more flags to wave just to signal my intentions this year. One was Gilion Dumas’s European Reading Challenge, and another was Lory Hess’s Summer in Other Languages (whether works read in the original language or in translation).

As we approach the three-quarter point of the year Twenty Twenty-one dare I pause to take stock of where I’ve got to and what I’ve achieved? Well, of course I dare, hence what follows!

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Of campfires and sagas

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The Brothers Lionheart
by Astrid Lindgren.
Swedish title: Bröderna Lejonhjärta (1973)
translated by Joan Tate (1975).
Illustrated by Ilon Wikland (1973).
Oxford University Press, 2009.

“This can’t be real. It’s like something out of an ancient dream.”

Karl Lionheart, Chapter 12.

King Richard of England received his nickname of Lionheart during the Crusades, but legend has it that when on the way home he was captured and a ransom demanded for his release, his troubadour Blondel discovered the castle in which he was imprisoned by hearing the king sing a verse of his favourite song.

Brothers Jonathan and Karl Lion have a similar relationship to each other, Jonathan telling his invalid young sibling tales about the country of Nangiyala where they will live after they die. When a succession of incidents means they are reunited in Nangiyala may they expect an idyllic existence, passing their days in campfires and sagas?

The Brothers Lionheart turns out however to be a tale of bravery and betrayals, and of cruelty and compassion when Nangiyala comes under threat from the neighbouring polity of Karmanyaka. Will little Karl find the courage he needs to live up to their acquired epithet of Lionheart and overcome his fears before tragedy strikes?

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Circles within circles

Porquerolles (credit: Bourrichon)

My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon.
Translated by Nigel Ryan (1956).
Penguin Red Classic 2006 (1949)

The bells were still sending their circles of sound into the air.

Chapter 8

A petty crook has been shouting his mouth off about mon ami Maigret in a  popular hotel bar on one of the Îles d’Or off the southern French coast. The next day he is dead, shot first and his body mashed. Chief Inspector Maigret, shadowed by a colleague from Scotland Yard, is despatched to Porquerolles to investigate, leaving a drizzly late spring Paris for a balmy Mediterranean island.

Feeling his investigative style cramped by the English detective observing his famous methods Maigret finds himself additionally seduced by the sounds, smells and sights that assail his senses. Can he make progress in solving the mystery of who on the island would want Marcellin dead, and why?

As is familiar from many Maigret stories Simenon gets the reader to figuratively sit on the detective’s shoulder, sharing his thoughts and overhearing his quickfire questioning; the reader also has time to get caught up in descriptions of locale and prevailing atmospheres before Maigret’s final suspect or suspects are fingered.

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The apotheosis of artifice

Giambattista Piranesi, Carcere XIV (‘The Gothic Arch’)

The Narrative of Trajan’s Column
by Italo Calvino,
translated by Martin McLaughlin.
Penguin Great Ideas 115,
Penguin Classics 2020

Just the titles of so many of these pieces are mouthwateringly attractive — ‘The Museum of Wax Monsters’, ‘The Adventures of Three Clockmakers and Three Automata’, ‘The Sculptures and the Nomads’ — and their contents don’t disappoint either. Martin McLaughlin has done a great job on the translation as far as I can tell because the sentences feel newly minted, as though directly from the hand of the author to the reader.

Except there are clues that these are not recent writings: references are made to a time before the Iranian Revolution and to a few other events that locate them firmly to a time before the author’s premature death in 1985 — he was only in his 63rd year.

But it is Calvino’s gimlet observations, marshalling of details, and philosophical reflections that render his comments eternal and paradoxically contemporary, meaning that these dozen pieces will be for me a joy to revisit at some future date.

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