The Brotherhood of Book Hunters – Raphaël Jerusalmy

Raphael Jerusalmy’s The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is an unexpectedly lively romp through an unlikely period of history, the dawn of the printing press. It takes advantage of the fact that its protagonist, Francois Villon, a late middle-ages French poet and ne’er-do-well, disappears from history following his banishment in 1463. Such a character, both an intellectual and a rogue, with a period of his life unaccounted for, makes for as fun and as intriguing a basis for a historical novel as one could hope for. The sharp contrasts between the criminal and book-loving sides of his persona, revealed beautifully in the novel’s first scene when Francois is visited in his prison cell by the Bishop of Paris, would almost be too good to be, if they were not in fact, true.

The plot is vivid and exciting. The characters gallivant around Europe and the Middle East, meet an array of amusing characters who are never quite what they appear, play a hand in major world events (they even inspire expeditions to the New World) and handle a surprisingly exciting range of rare manuscripts. The problem is that the pace often feels too brisk – Jerusalmy could have spent more time exploring the rich settings (Paris, Genoa, Acre etc.) and significant events which are often rushed through in only a single scene, or even quickly and matter-of-factly reported in another scene. In addition, the scenes themselves are incredibly short, only a page or two each for the most part. The adventure is certainly a rip-roaring one – no sooner had I settled into a scene than I was ripped into a new one. This gave the novel a strangely insubstantial feel which prevented a sense of engagement with events.

Similarly, Jerusalmy could take a more leisurely approach to revealing his characters, many of whom are genuinely entertaining. Francois and Colin (think Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen) are lovable rogues. Francois in particular, at turns a rough vagabond and an educated book lover, grabbed my attention. However, even these central characters have much of their character quickly explained to the reader rather than shown through their words and actions. If these characters had been shown and not told, they would have been truly memorable.

This links also to a flaw in the writing in general. There is a great deal of redundancy in the text (particularly a great many unnecessary adverbs) which explain the significance of what is occurring, when this could be deduced by the reader anyway. This makes the writing itself feel inelegant and uninspiring. Paradoxically, Jerusalmy both spends too many and too few words on his progression through the events of the plot.

Perhaps we should assume that the novel reflects the Booker Hunters’ own quest, to make books “easier to handle, lighter, less expensive. And much less serious.” One of the most interesting themes of the book is how the easily accessible books which we take for granted were born out of the handwritten tomes of scholars which were all the world had before the invention of the printing press. The novel takes big themes, the intellectual battle between religion and reason, the conflict between religion, the preservation of ancient literature, and deals with them a light way. But ultimately I felt this was taken too far, to the extent that the events and characters fly past too fast to be engaging.

A Man Lies Dreaming – Lavie Tidhar

“We’ll always have Nuremberg.”

A Man Lies Dreaming explores an alternate universe in which the Nazis lose the 1933 election to the Communists and are forced into exile. This fantasy universe exists in the dreams of Schomer, a Jewish author of pulp-fiction (shund) detained in Auschwitz. Within the fantasy, Hitler (‘Wolf’) ekes out a living as a noir-esque private eye in a London dominated by Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts. Both worlds are highly, disgustingly unpleasant, both literally and ideologically. Wolf inhabits a world of grotesque sex and abuse. Some particularly graphic scenes make for difficult reading. Their details are presented uncompromisingly, and often reflect aspects of the uncompromising degradation of the concentration camp in which Schomer is detained. While links between the two worlds are not openly explored in any great depth, the presence of, say, extreme coldness or violent injury in Auschwitz are reflected in the dream. Schomer’s sections constitute a minority of the novel and, unsurprisingly, consist of a brutal depiction of life within a concentration camp.The inevitability of this sense of despair, in both the real and the fantasy versions of history, carries a strong, dark message.

Wolf’s world takes up the majority of the novel, and rightly so, containing the most original concepts of the work. We are treated to alternate versions of all the big names of Nazism, with Leni Riefenstal being the most entertaining. Moments of out-right humour like this one stand in contrast to the more restrained, tongue-in-cheek humour inevitably accompanying such a portrayal of Hitler throughout the rest of the novel.

The alternate history depicts a world populated almost entirely by characters with extreme ideologies and extreme prejudices: “‘Marxism must be destroyed,’ Mosley said. ‘It is the poisoned ideology of the Jewish race.'” In a world without the Nazis to discredit fascism, Mosley and the British Union of Fascists rise to power in Britain. In the final pages of the novel, we even hear Mosley talk of a ‘final solution’ to the ‘problem’ of the Jews. The message that this world tells is ultimately that the evil of the Nazis could only ever have been diverted, never subdued. This message rings especially true when we consider the similarity of Mosley’s slogans to those of the right-wing in modern Britain: “Putting Britain First!” Mosley even makes a reference to “Bongo Bongo Land.” On the night of Mosley’s election, Wolf has a vision of modern day London complete with London Eye and the Shard, this flash-forward perhaps a hint at the inevitable recurrent uprising of fascist tendencies.

To what extent is Wolf Hitler? He is never named as such. He is certainly a character defined by extreme anti-Semitism, but this is a Hitler who was never given the opportunity to carry out the Holocaust. The evilness of his character is toned down somewhat, perhaps inevitably if he is to be a protagonist (even an anti-heroic one). At one point, Wolf frees a group of trafficked female Jews to take their revenge upon their captor.The act is contradictory for Hitler, but perhaps not for Wolf. At some points, Wolf’s anti-Semitism feels a little like lip-service, and it is precisely at these moments that one realises how distinct a character Wolf is from Hitler (even the moustache is absent). This is no bad thing, allowing this what-if universe to explore the well-worn figure of Adolf from an original perspective.

Also worth noting is the irony of the position in which Wolf finds himself. He often finds himself masquerading as a Jew. Furthermore, under Mosley he is, as a European immigrant, exposed to the kind of persecution which the real-world Hitler inflicts on the Jews. It is of course satisfying to see Hitler forced to taste his own medicine, and to be reminded that, when the scent of persecution of minorities is in the air, no-one is safe.

Overall, the novel is not an easy read, even though at times it is an entertaining one. The alternate-history concept, however is superbly well handled and is well worth reading for. Hitler is a difficult character to portray in an original way, being as he is the cause of so many secondary school history syllabi and History Channel documentaries. Despite this, A Man Lies Dreaming succeeds in providing an original and intriguing portrayal of the dictator.

Night Train – Martin Amis

The Devil and the Clear Blue Sky

Night Train, a novella about female detective Mike Hoolihan’s experience of the death of the beautiful Jennifer Rockwell, is primarily concerned with the elusiveness of happiness. It is cathartic in the depth of its despair, and a return to the real world after reading it bringing an intense sense of relief. Ultimately, I found the darkness of the novella to be gripping rather than off-puttting, despite how graphic some sections were, and found it’s contemplations on life, death and happiness to be fresh and thought-provoking rather than trite.

The most obvious candidate for the central image of the novella is the titular Night Train. However, of far more significance is the image of “clear blue sky” out of which Jennifer “falls burning”: “A white sky giving way to pixels of blue, and containing both sun and moon, which she knew all about.” This contrasts with Mike’s smoky world of obsessive suspicion: “I am turning the interrogation room into a gas chamber… That’s sometimes all you’re left with in here: The full ashtray.” Jennifer’s career as an astrophysicist relies on the clarity of the sky in order to obtain a ‘seeing’ of the heavens. In contrast, the ‘seeing’ of Mike’s career, after which the third section of the work is titled, precisely involves seeing through the smoke and obfuscation which surround a murder or suicide. The message is ultimately a pessimistic one. Life in Jennifer’s world of clarity, is only setting oneself up for a fall. This does not mean that life in Mike’s world leads to any kinder fate.

Jennifer is an angelic figure, bringing clarity and order to those around her, to such an extent that that she is more a symbol than a character. Amis returns time and again to the scene of her watching over Mike as she recovers from her alcoholism. Ultimately, however, this makes her the greatest source of despair in the work: “She hurt the living, and that’s another reason to hate her.” After her death, Jennifer’s long-term boyfriend Trader takes up his smoking habit again, falling back into the dark world which Mike inhabits. The orderliness of their shared flat begins to disintegrate also. Her fall has a far more profound effect on Mike herself.

It is Mike’s story which truly makes the work feel worthwhile. The true purpose of Jennifer as a symbol is to help to reveal Mike as a character. One of her most interesting characteristics is her constant, almost obsessive, suspicion. Her investigation takes her on a tour of all of Jennifer’s acquaintances, and there is hardly a man amongst them who is not suspected of sleeping with Jennifer. These momentary flashes of suspicion have an almost Tourettes-like quality to them, as if Mike cannot help but think the worst of each person she meets.

Perhaps disappointingly, Mike is the only character of real note in the novella. However, it is a work packed with eye-catching language and imagery, the dark tone is consistent and gripping without being overpowering, and Mike’s character is well worth the read.