THE SHADOW OF WHAT WE WERE

The past is present in this political novel, which requires greater knowledge of Chile’s politics and recent history than...

Former Chilean revolutionaries reunite as bumbling conspirators in this novella by Sepúlveda (The Name of a Bullfighter, 1996, etc.).

The author, a former political prisoner in Chile now living in Spain, opens the book in 1925 with a bank robbery in Santiago, one committed in the spirit of Robin Hood (“This is a robbery, but we are not thieves”). The story then flashes forward to contemporary Santiago, for an incident that provides what little plot there is. Coco Aravena, a grandson of one of those original robbers, faces eviction from his apartment, because of, as his wife charges, his “laziness, depression, disillusionment, lack of ambition, contempt for work and possible lack of decency.” His wife angrily starts tossing their possessions onto the sidewalk, including a phonograph player that strikes a pedestrian and kills him. The dead man has a gun. Coco takes it. Someone else takes the dead man’s shoes. Coco schemes to invent a scenario in which their apartment was ransacked and whoever robbed them also killed the pedestrian. He also reunites with three former friends who had been militant supporters of Salvador Allende, until his overthrow by a coup in 1973 forced them underground, even into exile. They now look different and have different values. Some of this novel is very funny, such as a passing reference to “the strict morality of the anarchists” and a long soliloquy on the execrable quality of Chilean coffee. Some of it is serious, such as the invocation of the “immutable land of memory” and the admonition that Chileans need to “stop being wimps afraid of our own past.” But much of it plainly means more to the author and his Chilean readership than to those reading this English translation.

The past is present in this political novel, which requires greater knowledge of Chile’s politics and recent history than American readers are likely to bring to it.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-60945-002-1

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: Dec. 2, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2010

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THE UNSEEN

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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