MORENGA

An intermittently slow read, but an important early work in the career of one of the best living German writers.

The German colonial experience in Africa is the subject of this dense, often fascinating 1983 novel by the German author (Midsummer Night, 1998, etc.).

Relations between German colonists and both Herero and Hottentot tribes grow dangerously strained in the former South West Africa (now Namibia) in the early 20th century—and a 34-year-old “Veterinary Lieutenant (i.e., “horse doctor’) identified as Gottschalk arrives, with vague hopes of becoming both a helpful and a civilizing influence (“. . . at some point there will be eyes in this wilderness reading Goethe, ears listening to Mozart”). Excerpts from Gottschalk’s diary express his opposition to genocidal policies carried out in attempts to seize African lands, and are juxtaposed against the tale’s semidocumentary materials. These latter include (rather dry) “Battle Reports” describing campaigns led by uncompromising Teutonic commanders General von Trotha and “daredevil” Colonel Deimling, and (much more interesting) “Regional Studies,” which retell stories of earlier “conquests” (e.g., the misadventures of the hopeful, hapless English missionary Goth, and the failed entrepreneurial efforts of “energetic” surveyor Treptow). Portrayals of native African heroes (like the eponymous Herero leader and his Hottentot counterpart Witbooi) are elliptical and fragmentary, but succeed nevertheless as components of a syndrome of ironic contrasts between the African peoples and their putative superiors. That contrast is succinctly stated in a scientific report alleging that Hottentot society cannot be civilized, because within it “competition is negated by the principle of mutual aid . . . [as lived by] a human type that devotes all its intelligence . . . to the single goal of living comfortably.” The thickness of detail and mastered research are thus efficiently harnessed to Timm’s theme: the devastating consequences of collisions between what are conventionally called civilization and primitivism.

An intermittently slow read, but an important early work in the career of one of the best living German writers.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2003

ISBN: 0-8112-1514-8

Page Count: 384

Publisher: New Directions

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2003

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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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