The Rum: Dictador – 20 years
The Books: The Informers and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Columbia is seen by some as a country of uneasy alliances. A rum with the name Dictador and the politically charged novels of Juan Gabriel Vásquez could be another. It is wise to let each speak for itself.
A dark copper red in the glass. A warm aromatic charge of coffee, baking spices, and caramel, steeped in oak. Definitely invites lingering. When it does reach the mouth, there’s a spirited semi-sweet blend of those same flavours. Smooth, but with an alcoholic burst adding interest. Everything good must fade, if in this case a little too quickly. (40% abv)
So why the name Dictador? The story goes that one Severo Arango y Ferro arrived in the Columbian coastal town of Cartagena de Indies in1751, with the task of increasing commerce between his Spanish homeland and the New World colony. “Dictador”, as he was called by the locals (presumably for his dictatorial ways), fell in love with the rums on this stretch of Carribean coast. They became a major focus of his business. Two centuries later, in 1913, a descendent, Don Julio Arango y Parra, built Destileria Colombiana, and in honour of his forebearer, named his rum Dictador.
The opaque black bottle and the velvety coating on the box make a sexy presentation, as do the mysterious catgirls lurking about the website. Perhaps some rum drinkers are wide-eyed at the notion that the distillation uses fermented “virgin sugar cane honey”, if they don’t realize it is merely pressed sugar cane juice that is poured into the copper pot and stainless steel column stills. Aging using the “solera” method adds to the sense of the exotic. It means that rums of different ages are transferred between barrels at regular intervals, so that the final product is a multi-year blend, in this case with some rum as old as 20 years.
When all is said and done, and what you have is rum poured in a glass, the drinker become the judge, slick adornments aside. The rum is very good. A bit too coffee-sweet for some tastes, peaks a bit early for others. But certainly outside the ordinary, memorable, amorous.
Looming over the landscape for any young writer in Columbia must be the figure of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. The impact of his “magic realism” is so strong that to openly defy it required a substantial measure of literary courage. And, if such courage were to be taken seriously, it needed to be backed up by books of substantial merit. Of one of his recent novels, Juan Gabriel Vásquez has said “I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvellous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics.” All three of his mature novels have been broadly acclaimed. His most recent carried off the Impac Dublin Award.
His focus then are incidents of violent injustice. In The Informers we are taken back to the Second World War and its impact on Germans who had immigrated to Columbia some years earlier and who now find themselves blacklisted as Nazi sympathizers, detained and their livelihoods taken from them.
At the centre of The Informers is a writer, Gabriel Santoro, and his aging father, a highly respected university professor, also named Gabriel. (Interesting enough, as is Vásquez himself, and, of course, Márquez). In rawly intelligent prose that circles about the story from several angles, it is revealed that the father had falsely informed on a friend, with devastating consequences for the accused man and his family. And ultimately for the relationship between the writer and his father.
The novel is shaped by a society of distrust, scarred by violence, where dissent invites retribution. Columbia’s reputation as a country dominated by drug cartels and corruption has only recently diminished. There has been much for Vásquez to draw upon in his fiction. The results to date have been exceptional. And he is still only 41.
The Sound of Things Falling is set in a more recent Columbia. While the novel’s central character, a young law professor, is not a drug user, his life is thrown into turmoil by his country’s violent drug culture of the last quarter of the 20th century. In a Bogotá billiards hall, Antonio Yammara befriends an intriguing loner, Ricardo Laverde, who apparently has just spent two decades in jail. The pair hardly get to know each other before Laverde is killed in a drive-by motorcycle shooting. Yammara also takes a bullet but escapes with his life, although he is never again the same man.
The exemplary novel leads us deeper and deeper into the lives of Laverde, his wife and daughter, revealing how the culture of drugs (as epitomized by drug baron Pablo Escobar), violence and political corruption impacted the whole of Columbian society. There is no escape from history, Vásquez is saying. And a nation’s best writers can never ignore it.
The Whisky: Dimple 18 years
The Book: Her Privates We by Frederic Manning
It’s been a century since the outbreak of the First World War. Dimple whisky first appeared in the late 1800s, so the odd bottle could have made it to the troop depots of France. An uneasy pairing nonetheless, the whisky being made by John Haig and Co, a firm whose family included Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, the man who bore responsibility for the catastrophe that was the Battle of the Somme. The same battle that the soldiers have just dragged themselves from in the opening pages of the novel.
From the indented, triangular bottle with the gold mesh comes a blend of malt and grain whiskies. It’s a light, golden amber in colour, and offers a mildly sweet, malty nose, showing some pepper, showing some spice. In the mouth it’s firm and smooth, an energetic, rewarding sipper. Ageless, and lasting well into the night. (40% abv)
The distilling history of the Haig family can be traced back 400 years. In the early 19th century John Haig established the Cameron Bridge Distillery, which today stands as the oldest and largest spirit distillery in Europe, said to produce in excess of 100 million litres annually for the multitude of Diageo brands.
It was here, in 1826 that the very first grain whisky (the foundation of all blended Scotch) was distilled, in a continuous still invented by Robert Stein, a cousin of Haig. It was a forerunner of the Coffrey still, which set in motion the expansion and success of the modern-day Scotch whisky industry.
Dimple is one of the oldest and best-selling blended whiskies in the world. In the United States, where it is known as Pinch, it was so popular that in 1958 its distinctive bottle became the first bottle ever to be patented in that country.
Dimple/Pinch no longer has the stature it once held, but it does carry a distinct bit of distilling history.
This is the unsung classic novel of “the war to end all wars”. I have never been more engaged with a novel of war, and been rarely more moved by a novel’s final few pages. That comes, in part, from having written about the First World War myself. And in part from reading a 1930 edition of the book first owned by a soldier of the Newfoundland Regiment who fought on French soil in that same war, who, as he turned the pages, must have found it all so achingly familiar.
Author Frederic Manning wrote from his personal experience of the war. A native of Australia, Manning had settled in the UK, where, in October of 1915, he enlisted in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. The following year he marched as a private to the Battle of the Somme, as did the novel’s central character, Bourne. The two were much alike.
Manning survived the war. A decade passed before he was convinced to combine his writing talents with his experience of the trenches. The result was The Middle Parts of Fortune, released anonymously in a limited edition in 1929. The following year an expurgated version, missing some of the strong language, was published widely as Her Privates We, again authored by “Private 19022″. Manning died six years later, and it wasn’t until 1943 that he was credited with authorship of the novel, and not until the mid-1970s was the book republished in its original version. It appeared once again under its first title, although lately the shorter, more interesting title Her Privates We, has come back into use.
The novel starts and ends with battle scenes, but the long middle section is the focus of the novel — the day-to-day drudgery of the foot soldier and the relationships that hold men together in war, in dread of what will inevitably drive them apart. Bourne is hardly what one would expect of an army private — the intellectual superior of most of the officers he is serving under, a recluse at times, an instigator at others. He speaks some French and is very good at scrounging the luxuries of food and drink (including whisky) that others are forced to do without. He is acutely observant of the war in all its aspects. He befriends a select few that include the obstinate Shem and the under-aged Martlow, with whom he has little in common except a private’s experience of war. For Bourne, that seems to be all he wants, and not the officer commission the higher-ups are pressing for.
No novel of the First World War gives a more intimate experience of the regular soldier’s life. Even so, Her Privates We has remained little known as compared, for example, to All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway himself called it “the finest and noblest book of men in war I have ever read.” It surely deserves renewed attention on this the centenary of the Great War.
The Whisky: DYC – Pure Malt
The Book: Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar
The heat of summer invites a light sipping whisky and a page-turning murder mystery. Both Spanish, both enlivening the siesta.
Pale amber yellow in the glass. Light aromatics with herbal notes, pleasantly fresh. A measured touch of vanilla and spice on the palate, with a malty sweetness. Mellow but flavourful. Goes down smoothly. Perfect for the plot of a summer’s day. (40% abv, no age statement)
Destilerías y Crianza del Whisky (DYC) was the brainchild of young Spanish entrepreneur, Nicomedes Garcia Gómez, in 1959. A distillery was constructed in Palazeuelos de Eresma, northwest of Madrid, near Segovia, and by 1963 it brought the very first Spanish whisky to market. In the 1980s DYC was producing an extraordinary 20 million litres per year. With its low-priced alternative to Scottish and Irish brands, it had successfully drawn a great number of Spaniards away from the long-standing preference for brandy. Coca-Cola was very pleased. And eventually so was Bean Suntory, DYC’s current owner.
DYC Pure Malt is a step up from the basic bottlings, for which a mixer is usually a given. Production of this blended single malt began in 2007 and all takes place in house. It is made using top quality Spanish barley in the traditional malting process, together with pure mountain spring water from Peñalara. Aging follows in American oak. It is an excellent product, and for the price easily outshines the imported competition.
This is the second crime novel by Domingo Villar to be set in Galicia, in north-west Spain, and featuring Inspector Leo Caldas. The even-tempered, reclusive Caldas is offset by his partner Rafael Estévez, who is as likely to use his fists as ask questions.
And there are a lot of questions to ask. In the village of Panxón, the body of a young fisherman, Juan Castelo, has washed up on shore, his hands bound together by an odd green plastic tie. The villagers think it suicide, Caldas believes otherwise. What about the head wound? Why was Castelo alone in his boat on a Sunday, not normally a fishing day? And is there any connection to his surviving a boating accident several years earlier when the skipper of that boat drowned? What about the woman who had gone missing at that same time?
Caldas is relentless in his efforts to uncover the truth. But concrete evidence is hard to find, blind alleys numerous. Gradually the pieces do start to fit together. It is old-fashioned, stick-to-it police work, the reader connecting the dots in step with the good inspector, hoping Estévez doesn’t screw up the investigation in the meantime.
The inspector’s police job overshadows his personal life — a recently ended love affair, a dying uncle, a father for whom he never finds enough time. Life at the moment is finding the murderer, though the story has its touches of humour, and there are the on-going charms of the Galician landscape, its food and wine.
Kudos to Domingo Villar, born in Vigo where much of the book takes place, for choosing Galicia as the setting for the series. I’ve just spent a week there. It’s a welcome alternative to the heat and intensity of Madrid and Barcelona. A great place to sit in the town square, drink café con leche and get lost in a good book. I came to appreciate, not only the inspector’s tenacity, but also his love of the simple Galician mixed salad made from fresh ingredients, with a glass of good albariño in the other hand. (Never forgetting the DYC of course.)
The Whiskey: Bulleit Bourbon – Aged 10 Years
The Books: Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner by John Williams
The drink and the books emerged from adjoining states – Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado. From another era, when times were less hurried, questionably rougher. A “Frontier” bourbon makes for a good pairing, if rather more refined than what was available to the characters.
I am not a huge fan of bourbon, but this I like, very much. The amber-copper in the glass, together with aromas of vanilla and spice in deft balance with the oak, offer a firm, but friendly, handshake. It promises nothing too sweet and delivers nicely. Again, a well balanced flow — of caramel, fruit, and rye pepper. The dryness reveals depth and a complex, but homely, precision. Smooth, dry, and hold the sugar. My kind of bourbon. (45.6% abv)
The man behind the company is Tom Bulleit. He gave up a law practice in 1987 to follow a long held dream, that of bringing back to life a recipe for a high rye content bourbon distilled by his great-great-grandfather in the mid 1800s. Augustus Bulleit, who kept a tavern in Louisville, Kentucky, had distilled countless small batches before he found what he was after, and today Tom Bulleit sticks to the small-batch approach, delivering to the market three versions — the standard Bulleit “Frontier” Bourbon, Bulleit Rye, and the newest product – the selected reserve Bulleit Bourbon 10.
Made with grain grown to Bulleit’s specifications, together with Kentucky limestone-filtered water, the limited release spends 10 years in charred American oak barrels. It is filled into Bulleit’s 1880s replica bottle, bearing its trademark thin, slightly off-centre label, and then packaged in an eye-catching orange replica box.
Bulleit Distilling is owned by the spirits multinational Diageo. Bulleit 10 is distilled under contract with Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Tom Bulleit is upfront about this, as he should be, considering Four Roses is one of the preeminent bourbon distillers in the U.S. Even so, he has worked hard to set Bulleit apart, to establish its distinctive reputation, based largely on its heavy rye influence, and on the pioneering story behind the founding of the company.
Butcher’s Crossing fits into the genre of the American western, though not comfortably. It’s revisionist western, western in locale and era, but hardly in sensibility. It’s a very fine book of any sort.
It is not a novel for anyone expecting the idyll of the lone prairie, but then the title would likely send that message anyway. The single-minded slaughter and skinning of thousands of buffalo, trapped in a high mountain pass, is told in overwhelming detail. As is near death from lack of water. As is survival in a ferocious winter blizzard. It is such believable detail that grips the reader, overtaking his senses, leaving him awed by the author’s descriptive powers.
It is a simple enough story. In the 1870s a young Harvard dropout, with a head full of Emerson, goes west to experience nature in its primitive, unpredictable state. He is looking for something to change his life and finds more than he bargained for. His destination is Butcher’s Crossing. It has a cheap hotel, a saloon, a “barbar” shop, hookers, bad whiskey, and not much else. There’s a big trade in buffalo hides and deals to be made. It’s the deal, and how it eventually weighs relentlessly on the four men involved, that propels the narrative.
It is the author’s first mature novel. (He wanted everyone to forget the first.) Butcher’s Crossing was published in 1960 to little fanfare. John Williams would eventually go on to win the National Book Award for his novel Augustus (ah, another link to Bulleit). However, his writing remained little appreciated until the recent popularity of Stoner, the third of his four novels, a book first published in 1965.
Stoner, also largely overlooked when it first came to print, has reemerged after fifty years to become an international bestseller. It has been a huge hit in Europe, although, ironically, has still to gather much notice in the United States, where it is set. (A misreading of the title – the novel has nothing to do with drug culture – might be some of the reason, though likely not much.)
William Stoner’s is a life well-examined. He is a farm boy who goes off to college to study agriculture, only to be suddenly, and with some confusion, smitten by literature. His life turns abruptly and he goes on to spend most of it as a university professor. Literature gives direction to an otherwise wearisome existence. He has made a poor choice in marriage, he becomes increasingly estranged from his daughter, petty university politics threaten his career, a deep love affair finds no future. What has his life amounted to? Nothing that will be remembered. He has been a survivor and, with some small victories, a quiet hero. It is not how most Americans wish to see themselves. There is no cause for celebration. A likely reason as any for its failure to find a broad audience in its home country.
John Williams deserved much more. His writing is clean and thoughtful and expertly controlled. It flourishes in a way that causes truth to continuously surface. Both books (both very different books in setting and atmosphere) take the reader on journeys with characters whose time is often ill-spent and leads to heartbreak, but who are intensely human. The novels are a celebration of what literature can offer, in the way that nothing else does.
The Rum: Ron Diplomático – Reserva Exclusiva
The Book: The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka
A turn in this posting from whisky to rum, bringing together two exceptional works from Venezuela. This rum has been gaining attention abroad. Alberto Barrera Tyszka, one of the country’s few writers in English translation, has been doing the same.
There is a companionship to premium rum that differs from that offered by premium whisky. Perhaps it is the controlled underlying sweetness, its unhurried, tropical good nature. Certainly this Ron Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva has it in spades. A light, bright mahogany in the glass, it meets the nose with an inviting riff of spice, caramel, and vanilla. Pleasurable, enticing. In the mouth the flavours expand to a creamy nut-spice blend, with just the right heat to fill the mouth, the wood mixing in to make it a lingering, thoughtfully rich experience.
The roots of Diplomático rums (of which there are several bottlings) go back to 1932. Starting in the late 1950s, ownership fell to Seagram’s, then later Diageo and Pernod Ricard. In 2002, the multinationals shed their assets, in line with Venezuela’s new economic policies. Local investment gave rise to DUSA (Destilerias Unidas S.A.).
DUSA makes a variety of spirits on its 12 hectares, situated at the foot of the Andes at about 200 m above sea level, just outside the town of La Meil. The nearby fields of sugarcane benefit from a day-to-night temperature differential of more than 20˚C, which serves to concentrate the sugars in the cane. The resultant molasses and sugarcane honey from three local refineries, a constant supply of clear, pure water sourced from the forests of Terepaima National Park, and the high humidity during aging, all deliver something special to the fermentation and distillation of Diplomático.
Its flagship Reserva Exclusiva was launched in 2004 and blends 20% light, column-distilled rum with 80% dark, pot-distilled rum, aged up to 12 years in small oak, ex-bourbon casks. Master Blender Tito Cordero hand selects a few more barrels to bring the flavour profile up an additional notch or two.
The gentlemen whose postage-stamp image graces the green, frosted bottle is Don Juancho Nieto Meléndez, a 19th century rum aficionado who was constantly seeking ways to improve the quality of Venezuelan rum. Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva is produced in his honour, and also pays tribute to the maturing process of rum.
Tyszka’s novel is all about aging, and its human consequence. For anyone surrounded by illness (and we all are at some point) it is a one-time distant bell that’s become steadily, painfully louder.
Dr Andrés Miranda’s father has terminal cancer, and it falls on the son to be the one to relate the news. Of course, as a medical doctor, he has had years of experience of presenting such news to patients. Yet when it comes to his own father the situation falls aways from him. He just can’t bring himself to do it, despite his father’s repeated demands for honesty.
It is a simple scenario, and a profound reality, one that reveals the complexities of the father-son relationship (the mother has died many years earlier). In straightforward, emotionally-honest prose, beautiful in its simplicity, the reader is lead through a meditation on life, and death. “Why do we find it so hard to accept that life is pure chance?”, a fellow doctor wonders at one point in the book. This view hangs over the story, seeming to cut through the medical jargon, though making the end no less difficult to deal with.
A parallel story, of a patient of Dr. Miranda, a hyprochondriac who bombards his office with emails demanding advice, provides relief from the central focus of the father’s decline. It is less engaging, but perhaps necessary for the emotional structure of the book.
The Sickness (La Enfermedad, superbly translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is set in Caracas, a city of intense contrasts as I saw when I visited many years ago. We see something of the poverty, in the hills surrounding the city core, through the eyes of the father’s caregiver, Mariana.
In addition to novels, Alberto Barrera Tyska has published poetry, short stories, non-fiction (co-authoring a biography of Hugo Chávez), and works regularly as a journalist. English translation of Venezuelan writing is rare, and as the quality of Tyszka’s novel suggests, we are the poorer for it. This country, as fascinating as any in South America whose writers are more celebrated, deserves a broader international audience for its literature.
The Whisky: Black Bull - 12 year old
The Books: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan Van Mersbergen
When in Pamplona, only a robust Black Bull will do. Running free in the street, in the glass, over the taste buds, over the page. An exceptional blend of word and whisky.
It’s dark golden amber in the glass. And on the nose malty cereal, a toffee nuttiness, rich and lively. Full flavoured in the mouth, with an oily, spicy impact. Lingers warm and confident. Very soundly constructed. Viva el toro! (non-chillfiltered, no added colour)
Black Bull is said to be the first 100-proof blended whisky imported and sold in the United States. That was 1933, in the wake of the repeal of Prohibition, a prime time for a strong market move. Bottled 50% abv and at the unusually high ratio of fifty/fifty malts to grains, it quickly became a best seller. It lasted through to the 1970s, after which it fell out of production. In 2001 Duncan Taylor & Co. took over the brand and the famous image of the Highland bovine was resurrected. Black Bull presently markets a 12, 30 and 40-year-old, with (rumour has it) a 50-year-old in the offing. It reappeared on the shelves in 2007 with a good deal of muscle, stacking up several awards in a short space of time.
Duncan Taylor & Co. is one of Scotland’s largest independent bottlers of whisky. It is based in Huntly, near the Speyside whisky region of Scotland, which contributes a large percentage of the blend. The company’s whisky holdings are among the most extensive in the world, and it bottles about 200 different expressions annually. In recent years it has begun construction of its own distillery.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 debut novel, is a modernist classic. There was little prose like it before it was published, and it was much imitated after. The quintessential book of the post-WWI era, it reflected a shift in moral standards following the war, and very quickly established the author’s reputation as spokesperson for the so-called ‘lost generation’.
It is set for the most part in Paris and Pamplona, among the drifting expatriates who left America and Britain in search of more liberating societies. Life is one jolly interesting time after another, despite the lingering effects of war, at least for those with the family wealth backing them up. Jake, Robert, Lady Ashley and the others have moved away from the political, to where relationships between lovers, and between ex- and would be- lovers, seem their greatest concern. It gave readers of the 20s much to talk about.
Hemingway’s style, as it came to define his career, is straightforward and uncluttered, marked by smart, crisp dialogue. There is a rich world beneath the surface of the prose. Characters play themselves, rather than shape a story. It is a roman à clef and it would appear that the author’s friends were all clamoring to find themselves in the book.
The Pamplona scenes set the reader amid the frantic “running of the bulls” and then the death drama of the bullring. Hemingway gloried in the theatrical blood sport, and here allows it to charge the novel with an excitement beyond the various love affairs. There is a foreign, exotic quality to the book, made approachable to the American reader because it is seen through the eyes of one of their own. Life in America seemed downright mundane in comparison.
Tomorrow Pamplona is another fine novel in translation from Peirene Press, this one by Dutch author Jan Van Mersbergen. The characters are European, not outsiders in the way that Hemingway’s characters are. They drive with relative ease over several borders to get to Spain. Yet both are on the run, and are destined to come face to face with that same strain of unruly black bull.
Danny is a young boxer (as was one of Hemingway’s cast) with reason to run away. The situation he is escaping, the powerful backstory of the novel, is gradually revealed as the current story builds. Robert, the driver who picks him up on the outskirts of Amsterdam, is escaping, too, if doing so from something less explosive. It’s his yearly flight from marriage and kids, and a suffocating job.
They make an odd pair, with seemingly little in common, but their relationship coalesces into something workable. Interest in the book stems from the universal theme of whether to “run or fight” (as the author puts it), yet an equal draw is the contrast of personalities. The same could be said of Hemingway’s book.
The two books merge in Pamplona, and at that point comparison between them is inevitable. The fact that Jan Van Mersbergen enters territory so much associated with Hemingway is risky business. But his book stands on its considerable merits alone. The Pamplona section of the book is literary homage perhaps, but homage with its own story to tell.
Black bulls seem to bring out the best in writers.
The Whisky: Distillerie Warenghem – Armorik Double Maturation
The Books: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke
Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
A double-matured single malt from France. Like the books, matured in two languages. Translates to very fine experience.
This Armorik is bright, light copper in the glass. Spirited cereal on the nose, with a current of caramelized apple. A creamed, woodsy profile, spicy and dry. Peppery finish, tempered by a little salt sea air. Assertive, but very likeable. (46% abv, unchillfiltered)
Distillerie Warenghem has a history of making fruit liquors that goes back more than a century. For the past thirty years, it has turned its attention to the making of whisky. It’s one of several distilleries in Brittany, the most notable whisky-producing region of France. Warenghem is said to deliver the most Scotch-like single malt in the country, perhaps a nod to the region’s Celtic roots. Whatever the reason, it an expertly-made dram, with a reputation that now extends well beyond France.
At the helm are Gilles Leizour and son-in-law David Roussier, two men proud of their distillery being the first in France to produce a single malt. Distillerie Warenghem is situated in the Breton town of Lannion, a few kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean. A borehole on the property, running over 100 metres underground, extracts granite-filtered, spring water for use with local wheat and barley.
Distillation is in two modified Charentais-type copper stills. The spirit is first matured for five years in oak harvested from Brittany’s Armorique Regional Nature Park. Breton oak is less porous than regular French oak and provides a slower, more subtle maturation. Another two years of maturation takes place in Spanish Oloroso sherry barrels.
Whisky production at Distillerie Warenghem has made award-winning strides in a few short decades, with the output of its single malt and blended products now reaching a quarter million bottles annually. An encouraging statistic in the country that consumes more whisky per capita than any other in the world.
Just recently I discovered the brilliant books of Peirene Press. I had noticed titles with distinctive, similarly minimalist cover designs showing up each year on the shortlists of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I purchased one, that led to another, then two more, and now I eagerly anticipate the arrival of still more titles from this London-based publisher of European novellas in their first English translations. Often less than 150 pages long, perfect for reading in one sitting, writing of exceptional quality, and by authors completely new to me. Literally, reading heaven.
These are three titles, all by female authors, all notably well translated, all particular favourites.
German-born Birgit Vanderbeke wrote The Mussel Feast in 1989, a few months prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. A mother, teenaged daughter, and son wait at the dinner table for the arrival home of the head of the household. In the centre of the table, growing cold, is a large pot of cooked mussels. A wait of minutes builds to hours, and all the while a portrait of the absent, tyrannical father emerges.
Life with this man is related by the daughter, in hermetic increments. Through wonderfully nuanced prose we learn how each of the three at the table copes with the father’s skewed expectations. It is quietly intense, a riveting study in character, with political overtones that in the reunified Germany made it an instant, hotly-debated success.
Amazingly, it was Vanderbeke’s first novel. Born in what was then East Germany, she moved to the West as a young child, growing up in Frankfurt. As a beginning novelist, she lived with her husband and children in Berlin, but in 1993 moved permanently to southern France.
France is also home to Véronique Olmi. Beside the Sea is a hypnotic story of a mother and her two young boys, a story that slowly draws the reader into the minutia of their family life, leading to the point when there is no turning away from its disturbing, stunning conclusion.
The mother’s life is plainly lived, defined by poverty and mental distress. She dearly loves her sons, and wants for them what she cannot give. Neither can she imagine them being absorbed into the world outside her own.
From the moment the three board a bus in the opening lines, the reader realizes the trip to the seaside will go badly. The 105 pages it takes to find out just how badly allows us into the mother’s mind, sharing its moments of anguish and raw tenderness, knowing it is a mind we cannot fully comprehend. It’s a brave, unforgettable piece of writing.
Despite its success in Europe, it took ten years before the book appeared in English. Peirene Press, committed to publishing strong, innovative fiction in translation, chose it as its very first publication.
Its eighth publication is by Danish author Pia Juul. Despite the title and a setting at the edge of a fjord, the reader should not expect anything that would rest easy in a stack of recent Nordic murder mysteries. There is for certain a murder (page three) and finding out just who did it remains the great unanswered question. But rather than dwell on who might have pulled the trigger, the reader’s attention is taken up with figuring out just what Bess (the narrator and partner of the dead man) is all about.
Why is she not grieving more? What exactly was her relationship with the murdered man? Why, ten years earlier, did she abandon her husband and young daughter? All absorbing questions. Yet there are no straight-forward answers, no mysteries completely solved by the last page.
The Murder of Halland is a fresh take on crime fiction. Juul has played a genre-bending literary game, for those who like their murders, and narrators, particularly perplexing.
Three fine short novels, leading to more Peirene, please.