Friday, July 29, 2011

Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indriðason

This is the latest episode in my Nordic Noir immersion campaign. Silence of the Grave, published in 2001, is the fourth novel in this Icelandic author's Detective Erlendur series, but only the second to be translated into English.

This book gets my personal award for Best Opening Line: "He knew at once it was a human bone, when he took it from the baby who was sitting on the floor chewing it."

The infant's adolescent brother had picked up the rib bone on which she was teething when he and his friends were playing near a construction site on Reykjavik's outskirts.  Detective Erlendur comes onto the scene and finds a whole skeleton buried there.  At this point, the plot splits into two threads: In post-WWII Iceland, with a US Army base nearby, an Icelandic mother struggles to protect her children from the abusive wrath of her husband. Meanwhile, Erlendur and his colleagues try to identify the bones in the makeshift grave.

As he weaves a captivating crime story, Arnaldur (Icelanders are properly known by their given names, rather than their patronymics, such as Indriðason) includes some of his favourite themes: People who simply disappear into Iceland's remote and often stormy hinterlands, domestic violence, and secrecy.

Detective Erlendur is still coping with his drug-addicted daughter, his hate-filled ex-wife, and his son who is so remote as to barely warrant mention -- in other words, with the shambles of what had been his family. Erlendur's own family history, however, is tame in comparison to that of Grimur, the nasty, violent husband who terrorised his wife and children during the late 1940s. Like so many abusers, he appears to outsiders as a weak, inconsequential person, yet he heaps psychological and physical abuse in equal measure upon his wife and, to a lesser extent, the children.

The eldest son, Simon, discovers that his father is a Janus-faced character:
On his trips to Reykjavik, Simon discovered an aspect of Grímur that he took a while to assimilate and never wholly understood. At home, Grímur was surly and violent. Hated being spoken to. Foul-mouthed if he did speak, and coarse in the way he belittled his children and their mother; he made them serve his every need and woe betide any shirker. But in dealing with everyone else, the monster seemed to shed its skin and become almost human. On Simon's first trips to town he expected Grímur to act the way he always behaved at home, snarling abuse or swinging punches. He feared this, but it never happened. On the contrary. All of a sudden Grímur wanted to please everyone. He chattered away merrily to the merchant and bowed and scraped to people who entered the shop. He addressed them formally, even smiled. Shook their hands.

Grimur's step-daughter grows up to become a psychologist, and it is she who explains the dynamics of domestic abuse to Detective Erlendur. I suspect domestic violence is commonplace in Iceland, yet it seems that the Icelanders have only recently begun to speak of it or even acknowledge it as a social ill.  

Even an Icelandic crime novel needs some comic relief, and that comes in the person of the archaeologist who is excavating the skeleton, Skarphédinn. Detective Erlendur has a like-hate relationship with the man, who is maddeningly fastidious about his work, digging out the bones at a snail's pace.  He is fat, and his canine teeth look like two yellowed fangs hanging from beneath his unkempt mustache. Erlendur, fuming with impatience, periodically tries to wrangle some new information from the plodding professor.
"The bones haven't been in the ground for any great length of time. No more than 60 or 70 years, I'd say. Maybe even less. The clothes are still on them."
"Yes, here," Skarphédinn said, pointing with a fat finger. "And in more places, I'm certain."
"I thought that was flesh," Erlendur said sheepishly...
"Listen, Erlendur. We're working methodically. There's no other way to do it. Believe me."
"Yes, maybe there's no rush," Erlendur said.
"We'll get there in the end," Skarphédinn said, running his tongue over his fangs. 
Meanwhile, in another diversion, Erlendur's colleague, Sigurdur Óli, is contending with his nymphomaniac and marriage-minded girlfriend.  He comes home one evening and realises that they're about to have that very serious conversation about two of his least favourite topics: Detective Erlendur and commitment.
Bergthóra was waiting for him when he got home. She had bought some red wine and was in the kitchen sipping it. Took out another glass and handed it to him.
"I'm not like Erlendur," Sigurdur Óli said. "Never say anything so nasty about me."
"But you want to be like him," Bergthóra said. She was cooking pasta and had lit candles in the dining room. A beautiful setting for an execution, Sigurdur Óli thought. "All men want to be like him," Bergthóra said.
"Aei, why do you say that?"
"Left to their own devices."

Erlendur is free and single, to be sure, but he also spends his spare time reading and thinking about Icelanders who disappear.  
Someone sets off from a farm, say. It's the middle of winter and the weather forecast is bad. Everyone tries to dissuade him. He ignores their advice, convinced he'll make it. The strangest thing about stories of people who freeze to death is that they never listen to advice. It's as if death lures them. They seem to be doomed.

Winter days in Iceland are entirely dark, and conversely at the height of summer, the sun never completely sets.  One would think that, as the days began to lengthen a bit, people would bend toward the sunlight like a potted houseplant.  And perhaps many Icelanders do, but Detective Erlendur is, unsurprisingly, not one of them.
It was eight in the evening. He tried to shut the bright spring evening out with the curtains, but it forced its way past them in places, dust-filled sunbeams that lit up the gloom in his flat. Spring and summer were not Erlendur's seasons. Too bright. Too frivolous. He wanted heavy, dark winters.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Salt, by Mark Kurlansky

For some reason, searching for 'salt' on Google nowadays turns up a lot of stuff about Angelina Jolie. Has she recently played Lot's wife in a Sodom & Gomorrah thriller, ending up as a pillar of salt?  No?  Hmm.  Too bad.

This book is non-fiction; Mark Kurlansky is a journalist who covers a whole host of subjects but is especially fond of writing about food. Salt is a 9-course meal of a book, rich with history, science, art and culture.

I adore salt, and my father also salted his food heavily, much to my mother's dismay. But then, he was German, and the Teutons have a long-held affinity for the stuff.  "Tacitus wrote in the first century A.D. that the Germanic tribes believed the gods listened more attentively to prayers if they were uttered in a salt mine." The Hanseatic League was formed in large part to guarantee the fair trade of salt, an essential product.

Our bodies need a certain amount of salt, and this book makes it clear the critical role that salt has played in not only as a seasoning but in preserving foods, making medication, sustaining livestock, making gunpowder, and de-icing roads, from the ancient to the present.  Sea salt, salt from brine springs, rock salt from mines, sodium chloride or magnesium chloride -- he covers it all. In reading about the salt content of various bodies of water, I found myself asking the sort of question that children ask (and most adults, for some reason, stop wondering about):  why are some bodies of water salty and others fresh? An instant later I read, "there is still no set explanation for the saltiness of the sea."

Kurlansky notes that most Italian cities are built proximate to salt works.
The Roman army required salt for its soldiers and for its horses and livestock. At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression “worth his salt” or “earning his salt.” In fact, the Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word, soldier.

Salt has contributed to geographical names in Britain, as well:  "Anglo Saxons called a saltworks a wich, and any place in England where the name ends in 'wich' at one time produced salt."

The Europeans followed the Asians in producing salted fish sauces and pastes:
Ketchup derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan... Why would English garum have an Indonesian name? Because the English, starting with the medieval spice trade, looked to Asia for seasoning. Many English condiments, even Worcestershire sauce, invented in the 1840s, are based on Asian ideas.

Cheeses, however, seem to be a truly European method of preserving dairy products with salt.
In a 1961 speech, Charles de Gaulle, explaining the ungovernable character of the French nation, said, "Nobody can easily bring together a nation that has 265 kinds of cheese.” ...
Cheese, the more successful way to preserve milk and cream, was also a popular salted food of the poor, though only the wealthy sampled the full array of English cheeses—some 150 varieties (or at least this many were remaining in the 1970s when British cheese enthusiast Patrick Rance went on a crusade to save traditional English-cheese making).

Obtaining adequate salt was always a pressing need of Europe's poor, but salt also symbolised status and wealth among the aristocracy.  Where should each dignitary sit at table in relation to the salt, which was held in ever more ornate vessels?  (A 'nef' was often in the shape of a ship, worked in a precious metal.)

In 1378, Charles V of France hosted a famous dinner that posed the awkward question of where to place the nef. Should it be in front of him or by his guest Charles IV, the Prague-born Holy Roman Emperor? And what about the emperor’s son who was also joining them, King Wenceslaus of Germany, who would become emperor after his father’s death later that same year? It was decided that the table had to be set with three large nefs, one for each of the three monarchs. 

Although Kurlansky doesn't mention it specifically, this recalls the English expression "down from the salt", referring to one's place at the dinner table and the status indicated by it. Back in the days of grand manor houses with 30-foot dining tables, the salt cellar was typically near the middle of the table. The lord and his more esteemed guests were "up from the salt" and were the only diners allowed to partake of it.

The Wieliczka salt mine in Poland, now a tourist attraction, defies belief. The walls, ceiling, floor, chandeliers, and statues are all made from salt. Chandeliers carved from salt?!  In the 19th century, the mining company hosted formal balls in the salt ballroom.  There is, in the bowels of the mine, an entire cathedral carved from the salt.

Shifting views to the west,
The history of the Americas is one of constant warfare over salt. Whoever controlled salt was in power. This was true before Europeans arrived, and it continued to be the reality until after the American Civil War... A new nation was born with the bitter memory of what it meant to depend on others for salt.

Kurlansky pays special attention to the role that salt played in the war between the states, and although I've not immersed myself in Civil War history, this is the first book I've read which suggested that salt may well have been one of the decisive factors.
In the 1939 classic film of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler sneered at southern boasts of imminent victory, pointing out that not a single cannon was made in the entire South. But the lack of an arms industry was not the only strategic shortcoming of the South. It also did not make enough salt. ...
William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the visionaries of a modern warfare in which cities are smashed and civilians starved, wanted to deny the South salt. “Salt is eminently contraband, because of its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted.” he wrote in August 1862.

A dearth of salt also affected the Rebel cavalry, whose horses depended upon it, and the infantry, whose gunpowder required it. Sherman's destruction of saltworks throughout the south was perhaps as devastating as his scorched earth tactics.

The northern states have been blessed with many saltworks, especially around the Great Lakes.  Syracuse, NY, in particular, got its start as a salt town.  Many years ago, the company I worked for was acquired by another firm based in Syracuse. The new President tried to lure us all to relocate there, giving us a sales pitch that might have been written by a tourism marketing firm. This 'greater glories of Syracuse' pitch succeeded in convincing about 4 employees (out of 1500) to move. The city had undoubtedly grown since 1820, but it still felt like we were being deported to Siberia.
William L. Stone, passing through in 1820 when the Syracuse population was 250 people, wrote, “It was so desolate it would make an owl weep to fly over it.”

It was in the south, however -- Texas to be precise -- that drillers discovered that salt deposits are often adjacent to another interesting substance.
In 1901, two men, Pattillo Higgins and Anthony Lucas, ignored the advice of geologists and started drilling a Texas salt dome called Spindletop. No one ever looked at salt domes the same way again. No longer were terms like well and drill rig to conjure up the image of salt. Spindletop had spawned the age of petroleum... 
Also because of Spindletop, geologists took a new look at salt domes. Because salt is impenetrable, organic material gets trapped next to the salt and slowly decomposes into oil and gas. For this reason, oil, gas, or both are frequently found on the edge of salt.

In truth, the Americans had in fact not been the first to discover or to exploit this. The Chinese had beaten them to it, when they hit a natural gas deposit whilst drilling for salt. They then used the gas to power drills to go still deeper.
In 1835, a new well, the Shen Hai well, was drilled in Zigong. At 2,700 feet, it struck natural gas. At 2,970 feet, the well reached natural brine, but the drilling continued down to 3,300 feet, making it at the time the deepest drilled well in the world. Twenty-four years later, an American would be cheered for the achievement of having drilled 69.5 feet in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

In more modern times, the American Morton company prided itself on two things: producing salt of perfectly uniform, white crystals and also, on advice from the medical community, adding iodine to its salt. Morton boasted that no matter where the salt had originally come from or how it had been produced, every crystal coming out of their trademark metal spout would be identical to every other. Is this an American obsession, this compulsion for consistency? It seems so unlike the European fondness for regional specialties. Kurlansky notes that now the tide has turned, and discerning cooks are willing to pay a premium for less pure salt of different colors and crystal shapes.

Speaking of cooks, Kurlansky reprints many recipes, some dating back to the Roman empire, for dishes of all sorts.  All of them, needless to say, require salt.

Footnote:  While I was reading this book, researchers published a report that those of us with a great appetite for salt may be especially susceptible to heroin addiction, as both substances appear to share the same neural pathways.  Should I ever be offered some heroin, I must remember to reach instead for pretzels. Or sauerkraut. Or feta cheese, or brine-cured olives, or...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

I just finished recording this book for the Malaysian Association for the Blind, and I think it will be popular, particularly with the Indian and Chinese Malaysian readers, many of whom have never visited either China or India.  The novel takes the form of a rambling letter from Munna, AKA Balram, AKA The White Tiger (a chauffeur turned entrepreneur) to Premier Wen Jiabao (the leader of China, on the eve of his state visit to India.)

It's a comic novel -- Balram gives us India through a driver's eyes, and his misconceptions about China are entertaining -- but he makes it clear that India is a land gripped by poverty and corruption.  He wants to be sure that Wen Jiabao sees the reality beneath what his Indian hosts will show him on the official tour.  And, as it turns out, Balram gives the Premier about the best armchair tour he might hope for.  It doesn't cover much geographic territory, but Balram is going for depth rather than breadth; he describes his childhood in "the Darkness" (one of India's poorest states in the north), his tenure as a rich man's driver in Delhi, and finally, his entrepreneurial ventures in Bangalore, where the hot word of the day is outsourcing and life is lived during American business hours.

Balram also mentions fairly early in his correspondence that he has murdered his former employer.  He was very fond of the man, to be sure, and Mr. Ashok wasn't the worst master an Indian driver might have, but Balram used his idle time (while Mr. Ashok and his wife, Pinky Madam, were in the malls of Delhi) not sitting with all the other drivers chewing paan and reading the weekly crime tabloids, but philosophising.  Over time, Balram came to realise that India is for the servant class nothing more than a rooster coop. The employers, the other servants, family members, politicians -- everyone conspires to keep the roosters in the coop.  Balram is that rare rooster who, first of all, sees the coop that contains him, and second, is unwilling to remain in it.

I wonder if the real-life recipient of Balram's fictional correspondence ever read this book, and if so, what did Premier Wen Jiabao think of it?  Did he wince and shake his head and laugh, too?  Did he look differently at his driver on his next state visit to India?

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

If you go to the Unesco web site and read the history of the Villa Tugendhat, you'll have the plot outline for The Glass Room.  Mies van der Rohe, the architect, appears in the novel as Rainer von Abt; industrialist Fritz Tugendhat becomes car manufacturer Viktor Landauer, and the house -- which is less like the setting of the novel and more like its central character -- is the Landauer House.

I did not love this book with a passion, but the more I reflect upon it, the more I admire it.  I think I may grow to love it, either with time or with another reading. The book shares much in common with the functionalist design of the house:  controlled, minimalist, cerebral. Von Abt tells Viktor Landauer and his German wife, Liesel, "I will design you a house. But form without ornament is all I can give you."  Although they have reservations about his radical plan, both of them find themselves repeating their architect's mantra from time to time:  "Ornament is crime."  Mawer also seems to have adopted this functionalist motto.

When the story begins, Czechoslovakia is new, and Landauer feels that his house is a bold symbol of the young nation's enthusiasm and vigor.
"We" -- he meant those newly created political beings, the Czechoslovaks -- "have a new direction to take, a new world to make. We are neither German nor Slav. We can choose our history, that's the point." ...
...the Glass Space becoming the Glass Dream, a dream that went with the spirit of the brand new country in which they found themselves, a state in which being Czech or German or Jew would not matter, in which democracy would prevail and art and science would combine to bring happiness to all people. 

For a few years, at least, Viktor and Liesel enjoy the optimism of their new nation, new marriage, new house, and two new children, but not even their glass house can keep out shadows.  The National Socialists are rumbling to the west, and on a business trip to Vienna, Viktor falls for a young woman, Kata, and begins an affair.  Gradually, he knows that he feels more than lust for Kata, and his earlier comment -- "maybe everyone should live in a glass house" -- now seems naive and absurd.
Sitting in the train on the journey home Viktor Landauer, the man of quality, of qualities, attributes and gifts, feels only a deep and unfocused remorse, like the sadness that comes after coitus, an emotion for which he has a Czech word that he cannot translate into German with any exactness: litost.  Rue, regret for a whole universe of things, the irrevocable nature of one's life, the unbearable sorrow of being, the fact that things cannot be changed, that love, the focused light of passion and hunger should be centred not on the figure of his wife but on the body and soul of a half-educated, part-time tart. 

Viktor also realises that his family will not be able to stay in the glass house, or indeed, in Czechoslovakia. Although Liesel is German, he is a Jew, and their two children mischlinge.  Whilst some of their friends, Jew and Gentile alike, choose to wait and see, Viktor persuades Liesel that they must migrate to neutral Switzerland.  He is able to carry on business there, and they live in far from straitened circumstances, yet Liesel feels like a refugee, aching for her home, her glass house.

Mawer brings us back to the central character, where we find the Landauer House converted to a laboratory.  A young German scientist uses the latest equipment and techniques to measure and characterise the people of people of various races.  Surely, he hopes (as do his Nazi superiors), he will identify at least one fail-proof marker of the Jew, the degenerate race.  He learns that the glass house was the home of a Jew, and while this disgusts him, he cannot help but admire the stark power of its design.

When the Soviets invade from the east, the house hosts a group of Russian soldiers on their way to Berlin. The communist government of Czechoslovakia later seizes the house and converts it to a children's gymnasium and physical therapy centre.  The house wins the grudging respect of even the most dour Communists. Although the idea of one family having the wealth to own such a vast home is anathema, the simplicity of the design avoids bourgeois excess.

Throughout, the house is the scene of love, betrayal, hatred, violence and art, but the house -- that particular house -- saves the novel from lapsing into sloppy melodrama.  Mawer stayed centred in the house built upon that golden architectural (and literary) rule: Ornament is crime.  The emotions, like the lines and materials of the glass room, are minimalist. Which is more amazing? That the glass house in Czechoslovakia has survived the tumult of the past eight decades as well as it has, or that Simon Mawer seized upon it as the focal point of his novel?

The Glass Room was on the short-list for the 2009 Man Booker Prize; it won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the Wingate Prize.

A vocabulary trinket:  uxorious (adj) having or showing an excessive or submissive fondness for one's wife, from Latin uxoriosus, from uxor, 'wife'.   Liesel, having discovered Viktor's infidelity, bitterly observes the ducks on a Swiss pond.  "Uxorious birds, she thought, content in their couples..."

8 April 2012: The Guardian reports that the Villa Tugendhat is now completely and magnificently restored: