A Novel of
Two Families

Marianne Fredriksson
Translated by Joan Tate

Simon grew up in Oljeberget, Sweden --- the harbor for the ferry from Denmark --- during the dark days of WWII. He was sired by a mysterious Jewish fiddler from Germany, abandoned by his mother, and raised by the loving (and lovely) Karin and her stolid non-verbal husband Erik.

The story of Simon his friend Isak and the family is a low-level Swedish Buddenbrooks --- but declaimed in Biblical phrases like, "Nothing helped Erik against his anger, that great wrath burning in his chest that he understood only when he drank," or "But then he remembered the long lake there and heard the sighing in the trees, and the next moment his heart beat faster and he knew he was touching on something very dangerous."

Psychology gets mashed up in the same one- or two-sentence paragraph blender, "For a long spell, he hated Karin because of her heart, then was bitterly ashamed." Or, for a more Old Testament phraseology: "And he punished just as God did, and his blows fell heavily on the righteous and unrighteous, and the boy never tried to understand..."

The Associated Press style of Biblical Writing is apparently a hit in Sweden for Fredriksson's previous work, Hanna's Daughters sold some 2,000,000 copies. However, for those of us outside the Arctic Circle, it amounts to nothing more than a literary twitch. Sherwood Anderson was able to transform New Testament phrasing into something mysterious and glorious. Ms. Fredrikisson --- or better, her translator --- still has a tad of work to do in the verbiage department.

Total number of pages in book: 347
Total number of pages read: 101

--- Ignacio Schwartz


Mohsin Hamid
(Farrar Straus)
Daru lives in Lahore, Pakistan. He is well-educated, with good family connections --- but somewhat of a disaffected Camus Stranger type. Moth Smoke tells of a year when he:
  • Gets fired from his job at a local bank;
  • Indulges in the beast with two backs with Mumtaz, his best friend's wife;
  • Spends his afternoons and evenings batting around moths in his bedroom;
  • Takes up with heroin --- he calls it "hairy" --- and robbing botiques (sic!);
  • Turns into a general sourpuss;
  • As sourpuss, fights with everyone, including, finally, the lovely Mumtaz;
  • Screws up knocking over the botique; and
  • Gets stuck in the pokey for killing a boy.

It's a Dreiser story, but set in the Pakistan of today. The main differences are that Hamid writes shorter sentences than Dreiser, Pakistan is different than the American middle west of 1920, and there's a heap of sex and drug-taking (before he goes whole-hog with the "hairy," Daru is a full-time dope-head and dealer.)

Daru is a man of loving detail:

    Mumtax has six moles. Two are black: behind her ear and on her hip, in the trough of the wave that crests at her pelvis. Three are the color of rust: knuckle, corner of jaw, behind knee. And one is red, fiery, at the base of her spine, where a tail might grow. I touch them and know them because I watch her like a man in a field stares up at the stars, and I love her constellation because it contains her story and our story, and I wonder which mole is the beginning and which is the end.

However, despite moles and such, the story is a bit jerky, and Dara is more than a bit jerky, too. The author has trouble staying with one character, devoting whole chapters to the brain-noodlings of not only Daru, but his connection Murad, Mumtaz' husband Ozi, Ozi's wife Mumtaz, and even da judge.

And the more we get to know Daru, the more of a creep he becomes, to the point of not only beating up on his serving lad, but also purposely forgetting to pay his back wages --- and, as he falls deeper into his habit --- turning into such a snarl that he ends up offending everyone. Including the reader.

Those who come off best in Moth Smoke are the moths. Unlike the human characters, they, at least, know what they want --- namely, to immolate themselves in the candle-flame and get batted across the room by Daru's tennis racket. And then there's Mumtaz. Her story of being an unwilling mother, telling of how motherhood can ruin an almost ideal marriage, is compelling. It is a tale spoken with enough restraint and psychological insight to ring true.

For instance, when the baby is six months old, Mumtaz wants to go back to work. Ozi doesn't want her to.

    He looked at me like I was a stranger and asked if I loved our son at all. The question destroyed me. I started sobbing and couldn't stop....Ozi had found my weak spot. He may not have understood why, but he now knew he could make me do things I didn't want to do. And that's an awful power to give one person in a relationship. It killed our marriage. I think it would kill anyone's....But it takes a long time for a good marriage to die, and even a dead marriage can pretend to be alive, with habit as respirator and heart machine

One real hero of this tale --- at least for this reader --- is the city of Lahore. It's a Third world mess of The First Water. No electricity, roads falling apart, terrorists in the streets, random shooting and beatings by the police, almost no infrastructure --- and all the while, being one of the hottest, stinkiest, nosiest, most reckless places in the world. Daru is infected by the hopelessness of the place: he is reasonably smart, reasonably well-educated --- but the job market for young bankers is nil, the availability of drugs is a tempting self-destruct, and the heat is enough to make you and me want to drop the book and go out for a nice cool Tom Collins.

The other hero of Moth Smoke is air conditioning. The Marxist Professor Julius Superb delivers a lecture on air-conditioning that is, well, superb. "There are two social classes in Pakistan," he says:

    The first group, large and sweaty, contains those referred to as the masses. The second group is much smaller, but its members exercises vastly greater control over their immediate environment and are collectively termed the elite. The distinction between members of these two groups is made on the basis of control of an important resource: air-conditioning. You see, the elite have managed to re-create for themselve the living standards of say, Sweden, without leaving the dusty plains of the subcontinent....They wake up in air-conditioned houses, drive air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned offices, grab lunch in air-conditioned restaurants (rights of admission reserved), and at the end of the day go home to their air-conditioned lounges and relax in front of their wide-screen TVs.

Let us make this perfectly clear, however: when we spend 243 pages with the central figure in a novel, we want that character to be worth it. We want someone who is comic, or one who is driven, or one who is riven, or at best, tragically awful. If our hero is going to be a jerk, we want a jerk with class. To write about a scoundrel, we must first love --- or at least be stunned by --- that scoundrel. The Ginger Man's Sebastian Dangerfield is a whoremonger, a petty thief, and a vagabond. But he is such a wild, unruly, funny ruffian that we can't help but forgive him, even love him.

Would that Daru could be so interesting. To spend so many pages with one who has little to offer us (besides another joint) just doesn't make it.

--- P. J. Weise



The Statement (1995)
Brian Moore
The Magician's Wife (1997)
Brian Moore
rian Moore's books reflect perfect story-telling, with not a word wasted or out of place. They raise profound moral and historical questions: The Statement deals with the mentality of the Vichy police and the miliciens who collaborated with the Nazis, and of their supporters on the French Catholic Right; The Magician's Wife deals with the meeting of a primitive, fatalistic/Islamic society with European colonialism in the 19th century. But the issues involved emerge entirely from the thoughts and actions of the characters, with never a hint of editorializing by the author. His job is just to direct the action,


Every Man for Himself (1997)
Beryl Bainbridge
he well-known catastrophe at the end of this story is revealed right at the start, so the author has set herself a real challenge: to make us care about the characters even though we know what is going to happen. Unfortunately, the author's prose is so good that it overshadows the characters: we keep reading, not for their sakes, but for the writing. For example:

    Melchett and I remained silent while we continued our inspection of the ship, and when it was done and we had sunk into the leather armchairs in the foyer of A deck we still had no words. It wasn't the lavish furnishings of the public rooms, the doors inlaid with mother of pearl, the panelled corridors of oak and maple, the shimmer of gilt and brass and cut glass that made us catch our breath, anymore than the twenty-one-light candelabra hung from the massive dome above the sweep of that imperial staircase. We had spent our lives in splendid houses and grand hotels and for us there was nothing new under the sun, nothing that is in the way of opulence; it was the sublime thermodynamics of the Titanic's marine engineering that took us by the throat. Dazzled, I was thinking that if the fate of man was connected to the order of the universe, and if one could equate the scientific workings of the engines with just such a reciprocal universe, why then nothing could go wrong with my world.



England, England (1999)
Julian Barnes
his is one of those knowing, arch, very witty books. How very droll, as they say in Brit-English. I smiled a few times, but never laughed aloud, before putting it down unfinished about halfway through.


The Fisherman's Son (1999)
Michael Koepf
(Broadway Books)
his is an elegiac, deeply felt testament to the hard life of California commercial fishermen. Sometimes it verges on the sentimental, but it


Archangel (1998)
Robert Harris
(Random House)
long thriller with poorly developed main characters and a clumsily structured plot. But I kept reading it, because of the background, which is very well conveyed: the present, disintegrated Russia stumbling under the weight of its Stalinist past. There are also some quite hallucinatory passages involving the infinitely sinister and fascinating Josef Vissarionovich himself, and an unexpected legacy of his.


Hannibal (1995)
Ross Leckie
o wonder Cicero insisted that "Carthage must be destroyed". Recommended for aficionados of military strategy in the ancient world, and people who love to read about what it feels like to be mashed to a jelly by a rampaging elephant.


Thinking In Pictures (1995)
Temple Grandin
(Vintage Books)
emple Grandin is an autistic woman whose earlier autobiography, Emergence: Labelled Autistic, was fascinating. The present volume is more revealing, more personal. It takes us into a world based on visual imagery more than words, and one in which the human subtleties conveyed in words are difficult to understand. For individuals in this mental world, social intercourse is a tricky and often frightening passage --- like white-water rafting. Or, it is like being an anthropologist on Mars --- a phrase of Ms. Grandin's which Oliver Sacks adopted in an essay about her. But she needs nobody else to speak for her, on the evidence of her books.


--- Dr. Phage

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