The first quarter of the year is over and the Irish Festival Fribourg/Freiburg is taking shape. A lot has been accomplished since I last wrote about the festival in October. Even though there is plenty more to do, and it feels as if new tasks are added to the list daily, we are also seeing the first results of the winter’s work.
I’ve attended my fair share of cultural events over the years but only once before actually worked on the organisational side. That was in 2003, the last job I had before I left Ireland for good, when I worked as a producer for Gúna Nua theatre company. I’d forgotten how enjoyable and satisfying it is to make things happen! But, my God, where did that 20 years go?
The most important breakthrough this year was that the Agglomération de Fribourg, the equivalent of the city council, decided to back the festival. Without their support, other potential funders would automatically have said no.
We got the news on March 9th after sending in our 25-page application at the end of November with 13 supporting documents. More supporting documents were requested in January, including a contract with one of the venues. The project was discussed at three meetings before we finally got the good news. A champagne moment.
Having the support of the Irish Embassy, Tourism Ireland, Fribourg Tourism and the Irish Film Institute International helped make our case much stronger. There are still some funding decisions to come in and possibly more applications to send out. In the meantime, we are getting everything else lined up – the programme, the venues, the website, publicity, ticketing, volunteers, insurance, travel … the list goes on.
Now it’s as sure as sure can be: Ireland is coming to Fribourg for the weekend of 6-8 October. Save the date! We’ll be announcing the programme in June, which is suddenly around the corner. Just a note that I’m not using the royal we. I’m joined in the whole enterprise by two brilliant Fribourg women – Julie Hunt and Deirdre Coghlan. Follow the festival Facebook page to hear more about our progress.
In other news, it’s a year since Voting Day was published by Fairlight Books, and two years since the Swiss edition came out. I’m visiting two Swiss schools in the next few weeks to talk to students who’ve studied the novel and I’ve been invited to a university in Poznań in Poland later this month for the same reason. I’m delighted the story is still making waves, and I love meeting readers of all ages.
On my own reading pile, I’ve been working my way through the excellent Wyndham-Banerjee series of crime novels, set in Calcutta in the 1920s. I was lucky enough to interview the author Abir Mukherjee at the Société de Lecture in Geneva last week. We were in the beautiful yellow room you see above. I don’t have photos of the event yet.
More reading tips
My standout read of the year so far is Haven by Emma Donoghue, an extraordinary, captivating story set in seventh-century Ireland, featuring three monks on a quest to found a monastery in the most inhospitable place possible – Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry. It was amazing to be transported back that far in history. Donoghue must be one of the most accomplished writers of historical fiction working today. I can also highly recommend the film adaptation of her 2016 novel, The Wonder.
And there’s a treat in store for fans of Swiss crime fiction with the publication of the second title in the Polizei Bern series by Kim Hays this month. Sons and Brothers centres on the suspicious death of an eminent (but not very likeable) heart surgeon whose body is pulled from the Aare in Bern on a winter’s night. The investigation leads detectives Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli back to the doctor’s childhood home in the Emmenthal region.
Time for me to wrap up and wish the readers of this blog a pleasant Easter break. This is birthday season in our home with three birthdays coming up next week, so my to-do list is taken over by presents, cakes and parties for the next while. A very welcome change.
One of the challenges of working as a freelance writer is that you constantly have to renew and redirect your career. It does not happen by itself. At the beginning of this year, I set myself the goal of writing more journalism because 2021 had been a bit of a fallow year for journalism after taking a detour into science writing and communications for a while.
I also wanted to write another book in 2022, and I put together a proposal for a Swiss true crime book. In hindsight, I’m glad that project didn’t work out because the crimes were gruesome and I think writing about them would have taken its toll.
If I do manage to produce the bones of a book this year – and time is running out – it’s more likely to be fiction, as I have something percolating in the back of my mind and I’m waiting for news on a related funding application, coming next month. Fingers crossed!
One really positive development was that I completed my first literary translation, a long-standing goal. I had the pleasure of translating a play by Joëlle Richard from French to English. I have translated non-fiction books in the past but this was a different kind of challenge. Very rewarding.
The play Mångata (a Swedish word for the road-like reflection of the moon on the water) tells the story of a Venetian woman who falls in love with a mermaid. It’s a bittersweet contemporary fairy tale about love, lockdown, isolation, self-hatred, gender fluidity, tolerance, female desire and empowerment. It packs a punch, and will be performed in Fribourg in the original French in September.
On the journalism front, I have become a regular contributor to The Local Switzerland and I’d like to share some of my opinion pieces here in case you might be interested. If you’re based in Switzerland, it would be worth subscribing to the website which produces extensive coverage of Swiss news plus a lot of material that’s helpful to Swiss residents.
An expected opportunity came along in March, when I was invited to give a TEDx talk by students at the Geneva Graduate Institute. My topic was the lack of voting rights for foreigners and TED chose to feature the talk on their website, which meant it was only released online two weeks ago. Check it out! (If the embed doesn’t work, you can click on the hyperlink in the previous sentence.)
To round off this writing news update, a reminder that Le Livre sur les Quais festival is taking place next month in Morges. I’ll be interviewing four writers in two events this year. The guest country of honour this year is Iceland so it’s a wonderful opportunity to discover Icelandic writers. The English programme is not up on the website yet; will keep you posted.
Enjoy the rest of the summer, preferably in the shade!
If I could describe Voting Day in one word, it would be dignity. That’s what each of my characters has in common, despite all the limitations and frustrations they face. Not that I set out with this theme in mind but this is what Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice brought to the story.
I only came to this realisation when I had to answer the question in this interview for Fairlight Books. You can also read an extract from the book at the end of the interview. The other two words that sum up the novel are solidarity and hope.
Today, April 1 2022, is publication day for Voting Day with Fairlight Books in the UK, the US, Ireland and beyond. I am over the moon that the novel is going to find new readers outside Switzerland. Though it is a quintessentially Swiss story, the dignity of oppressed women and solidarity between them is a universal phenomenon. As is hope for a better life.
I’d like to share links to some of the reviews I’ve seen so far for the book. This lovely review by Anne Goodwin includes a bonus piece of flash fiction inspired by Voting Day. Anne writes: “Clare O’Dea’s fiction debut is one to savour, with beautiful language and convincing characterisation.”
This one by Craig Smith for the Mechanics’ Institute Review is pretty amazing too: “Each tale is beautifully told by first time author, Clare O’Dea, who skilfully depicts the character of each woman and spins the connections between them into a compelling, coherent narrative.”
And you might be interested in this opinion piece I wrote for The Local Switzerland about the Swiss response to Ukrainian refugees (there may be a paywall, not always). As the horror of the war drags on in Ukraine, I admire the dignity of the Ukrainian people and I hope for a swift and just end to their ordeal.
To find out about the inspiration behind Voting Day, check out this essay I wrote for the Women Writers website. I’m going to steal the closing paragraphs of that essay for today’s post.
“When I covered historical injustices in the care system as a journalist, I felt deeply sorry for the survivors. Even in the less severe cases, where ‘nothing bad’ happened, there was the pain of being looked down upon, of growing up without love or protection. I ended up writing about one such child in Voting Day.
By the time I sat down to write, I felt familiar with the life and times of my characters. I knew what their homes looked like inside, what they ate, how they spoke and what their worries were. I was also able to borrow from the traces of the past that are still visible today.
It has taken almost two decades of living in Switzerland to bring me close enough to inhabit Swiss characters. Once I set the story in motion, I only had to follow and see what they would reveal. What have I learned? How difficult it is for us as humans to truly see and accept each other. How easy it is to make a difference when we do.”
Many thanks to the team at Fairlight Books for believing in my book and giving it wings, especially to Laura Shanahan, Daniela Ferrante, Sarah Shaw and Louise Boland. And congratulations to my Fairlight Moderns twin Polis Loizou whose fantastic novel A Good Year, set in Cyprus in 1925, is also published today.
Ps. If you’re in Dublin on April 21st, come along to Hodges Figgis at 6pm for the launch of Voting Day with Anne Griffin!
This month I’ve had a flurry of book-related activity, some of which required learning new skills. Like video editing! We’ve all come a long way with video communication in the past year and a half, haven’t we?
I remember back at the start of the pandemic when members of my book club suggested holding our next meeting online. That’s not going to work, I thought. Too many people on screen, too addling. How could you possibly have a discussion?
Soon after that I was asked to do a live online interview about my books. I declined because I was pretty overwhelmed at the time with the children off school and a new temporary job. I also didn’t think I could bear to be live on screen for a whole hour.
Now of course, that’s completely routine. I’ve been part of umpteen ‘Team’ and zoom meetings with different organisations. Our book club did well for a year online. My extended family ran a monthly quiz with three generations taking part. And the online launch of Voting Day in February of this year was an amazing experience, almost better than the real thing!
Drink and the Irish
Which brings me to a new date for the diary. I’ve been invited to give an online lecture as part of the ‘Ireland and the World’ series hosted by the University of Zurich and the Swiss Centre of Irish Studies. These are free public lectures, and my topic, on December 1st at 6.15pm (Swiss time), is ‘Conquering the world, one Irish pub at a time’. You can find the link by clicking through on this page. For this lecture I’ll be returning to the chapter in The Naked Irish on the Irish relationship with the demon drink.
The video editing I tried is pretty rudimentary but it’s a start. To make this video for the Youtube platform Translators Aloud with translators Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi, I had to research how to get the record settings right on zoom, and I figured out how to add a title page and photo at the end. So here it is, Corinne, Anna and I reading from the opening of Voting Day.
One last date for the diary for Zurich people. I have a free public event in German coming up on December 5th in a vintage furniture shop on Ankerstrasse called WOW Props. The ambiance will fit nicely with the 1950s storyline of Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten (Voting Day). I’d like to thank Andrea Maurer for hosting and Yolanda Pantli of Ouï-e Communications for organising the event. There are two time slots – 11am & 1pm and coffee and croissants for everyone. Register by email: email@example.com and tell your friends!
Now is a good time to beat the Christmas rush by buying books from your local bookshop or online. The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths is the perfect read to demystify Swiss culture and politics. Available in Swiss bookshops or direct from Bergli Books (French and German translations from Helvetiq).
This day last month, the Irish Embassy in Bern hosted the launch of my debut novel Voting Day, published in four languages. Set on the day of a failed vote on women’s suffrage in Switzerland in 1959, it tells the story of four women whose lives are connected by a foster child.
The launch evening was incredibly special, hosted by the Irish Ambassador Eamon Hickey and attended by the three translators of the book – Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi. You can still view the event at this link (passcode 70N?6Rq@).
I’d like to share some of the news and reviews of my novel from the past month. At the time of the launch, book shops were closed but I’m delighted to say that shops have opened in Switzerland today and I paid a visit to my local shop to see the book on the shelves – as you can see!
In English, there have been two videos I’d like to mention. This report by Julie Hunt on swissinfo.ch featured Voting Day along with another new novel set in Switzerland called The Other Daughter by Caroline Bishop. The report is full of wonderful archive footage.
When the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote came around on February 7th, I wrote this piece for Global Geneva Magazine explaining why it took so long for Swiss men to do the decent thing.
As for reviews, they have been positive but small in number so far. The magazine for the Swiss abroad, Swiss Review, published a favourable review of the German edition of the book by Ruth von Gunten that was translated into French, English and Spanish. Another reviewer, Antonella Amodio, wrote a review of the Italian edition of the book for the Italian edition of the magazine.
It’s a wonderful review so I will quote, courtesy of online translation:
“A story that speaks of female solidarity, dignity, kindness, the search for independence and social redemption … I thank the author Clare O’Dea and the translator of the Italian version Anna Rusconi because it was a truly touching and enlightening read.”
A review of the French edition in the newspaper Journal du Pays d’Enhaut was also lovely. The reviewer, M.Z., describes some of the plot and then adds: “I won’t say any more because this novel is very moving and you have to appreciate its originality to the last page.”
If you enjoyed Voting Day and would like other people to discover it, I’d be very glad to increase the number of reader reviews on Goodreads (EN), Lesejury.de (DE) or Lovelybooks.de (DE, FR, EN, IT). Another way to help the book fly is to ask for it in your local Swiss bookshop.
One last thing … here’s a date for the diary if you happen to have the evening free on International Women’s Day next Monday the 8th.
The Women in Film Festival, What If? will present four short films and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Voting Day will get a mention thanks to the swissinfo.ch video. The curators have chosen narratives of courage, determination and strength and I am delighted to be associated with the event. Sign up for the free 1.5-hour event here.
For Swiss readers of the blog, enjoy the freedom to browse for books again from today and stay safe out there! Congratulations to everyone who has received a vaccine. It makes me so happy to hear all the vaccination stories. We’re on the right path now.
Of all the steps in the publishing process, seeing the cover for the first time is the most uplifting because it’s the first time that the dream seems real. I’m delighted to share the cover of my new historical novel Voting Day. Isn’t it lovely? This is the German version and the title translates as, The Day the Men Said No.
The day in question is February 1, 1959 when Swiss men voted no to granting women voting rights, by a two-thirds majority. The novel is set on that day and it tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child.
Voting Day will be published in four languages, including Italian and French. The plan is to publish on time for the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote in Switzerland (the men finally got the answer right in 1971).
When I realised the only way to make this project work would be to self-publish, I decided to go for it. It’s turned into an exciting and challenging journey. Fortunately, I received some advance funding to help pay for the translations. But to get the project over the finish line, I’m running a 32-day fundraising campaign, beginning today.
All the information about the campaign is given in German and English on the wemakeit website. There’s even a video I made in German – with subtitles. If you’d like to support me, now is the opportunity to put in an advance order for the book in whichever language you prefer. You can go for one of the other rewards or just contribute any amount you feel comfortable with.
Thank you very much for pitching in. It’s pretty scary putting myself out there in this way and I appreciate all your good wishes.
One day while walking my dog in the forest, I had an idea to tell the story of four women on a particular day in history. The date I had in mind was February 1st, 1959, and the setting was to be Switzerland. The result is my first novel, Voting Day, which will be published next February in the three official Swiss national languages (German, French and Italian) and English.
The vote in question was a referendum on female suffrage, rejected by male voters on that cold, foggy Sunday. Swiss women eventually gained voting rights 12 years later in 1971 so we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary next year.
From early morning until last thing at night, Voting Day tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child. While the men go out to vote, these women have other things on their minds, mostly.
Vreni is a farmer’s wife and foster mother in her late forties whose life has shrunk to the confines of the farm and village. Her daughter Margrit seems to have found success as an office girl in Bern but her boss has put her in an impossible position.
Esther is a Yenish woman, one of the native travelling people of Switzerland. Taken from her family as a child, she now works as a hospital cleaner. When her own son Ruedi is taken into care, the future looks bleak.
Beatrice has made a good career as the hospital administrator. She dreads the prospect of a no vote after putting her heart and soul into the yes campaign. But could she hold the key to reuniting Esther with Ruedi?
It was clear to me when I started writing Voting Day that it really should reach Swiss readers, but I didn’t know how I could achieve this. How could I find one Swiss publisher willing to arrange the translation of the book, let alone three? What to do with the English version?
Luckily a sponsor came on board who was willing to pay for the translations. That brought my dream much closer to reality. With the help of a local company in Fribourg, I began to put together an ambitious self-publishing project with a simultaneous launch in the four languages planned for next February.
Publishing has become more and more challenging and often loss-making for authors. I want to find a way around that. The German translation is complete and the French and Italian are under way. The publishing costs are adding up but everything is moving in the right direction.
In November I will launch a crowdfunding campaign and continue seeking other kinds of funding. I’ve already received a lot of moral and practical support. My characters – Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice – are my inspiration.
From now on, I’ll be writing regular updates on the progress of Voting Day, and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about it. I can already share the first interview (in German) with skippr.ch about the German version, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten.
Book bloggers and journalists, please get in touch through my contact page if you would like to receive a review copy in one of the languages.
When I was researching and writing The Naked Irish in 2018 and 2019, I spent every spare minute feverishly gathering information, reading books and articles, listening to the radio, interviewing people, collecting notes and quotes left, right and centre.
This process came after 15 years of living outside the country. Nobody asked me to do it. Finding a publisher was a nail-biting challenge and I’ll always be grateful to Mentor Books (Red Stag) for saying yes.
Now that the book has been out for a year, I have enough distance to look back and wonder what the quest was all about. Why was it so important for me to write that particular book? It has a lot to do with being an emigrant.
When I left Ireland in 2003 to move to Switzerland, I stopped writing about Ireland but I never stopped caring. But if Ireland is a mother figure, she’s a mother who is indifferent to her absent children. She has enough mouths to feed at home!
And yet, I wanted to reclaim and rediscover Ireland, force her to take notice. I think I managed to do that through The Naked Irish, but in the process, I have become less sentimental about the people and the place. Close up, the hills are a bit muddy.
Before I wrote this book, I used to wonder how different my life might have been if I’d stayed in Ireland. At least The Naked Irish answered one aspect of that question. This is the work I would have covered as a journalist. I finally got my chance to write about the Irish economy, politics, social issues and literature.
I got to hold Ireland close and now I feel it drifting away again. The country is not really mine to keep any more. And that’s OK. It will be partly mine from now on, not fully mine, and that makes my life easier.
My next book is completely different. It’s a historical novel set in Switzerland and it could only be written by a Swiss person, the Swiss me. It has shown me how much this country means to me now. I’ll be sharing more news about this project with lots of razzmatazz very soon.
Final note: I took the picture above during a visit to the laténium museum and park on Lake Neuchâtel in June (highly recommended!). These reconstructed lake dwellings are based on a 6,000-year-old village that was discovered on the site. Amazing to see.
Final final note: I might as well stick in a picture from the book launch in Dublin last year because it was such a happy day. Credit, Ger Holland (@GHollandPhoto on Twitter), who did a wonderful job.
I didn’t write a round-up of 2018. Looking back, this was probably because not much went according to plan. It was a year of near misses professionally. The only big project I managed to salvage was the book that became The Naked Irish. I signed with Mentor Books / Red Stag in November 2018 and the book was published in September 2019.
Other plans that went by the wayside last year after a lot of work and anticipation included a book translation project, an application to do a Master’s, a possible job in Basel, submission of a middle grade novel and a memoir writing business. But just when I was beginning to think everything I touched turned to ashes, I got that much-needed yes from Mentor Books.
So there was a point in time when all I wanted was for a publisher to accept the book about Ireland and publish it. But as soon as that became a reality, the goalposts shifted. It wasn’t enough just for the book to be published any more, I wanted it to be a critical success. I wanted reviews to confirm that I had done a good job.
From my point of view, the book has been a critical success, with positive reviews appearing in the Irish Independent, the Business Post and The Irish Times. It is on sale all over Ireland and was hopefully under many Christmas trees this year.
Now, I notice that my greedy writer goalposts have shifted again. Suddenly, Ireland is not enough. I want the book to be a commercial success and that means looking beyond the small Irish market. After all, The Irish Times review said the book would appeal to readers outside Ireland who have reasons for peering in. People like Irish Americans. They should obviously read The Naked Irish too, ideally in great numbers. God, it’s exhausting.
No, instead of obsessing about US publishers, I would like to savour the moment. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? I want to be thankful for everything I’ve achieved so far and all the good things that have happened in 2019. I already have more than I could have hoped for a year ago. It is enough, as these photos remind me.
In January, I went to Ireland on a short research trip for the book. I had so much work ahead of me but this was the best part, the last bit of real-life research. I had meetings set up in Belfast and Ballyjamesduff and I interviewed the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, in Dublin. I also recorded two radio essays for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and enjoyed time with family and friends.
This is a photo from the drive to Co. Cavan. I chose Ballyjamesduff as a case-study because it perfectly represents the two sides of the Irish emigration story. On the one hand, the town is associated with emigration thanks to Percy French’s 1912 song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. On the other hand, it has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns with 30 per cent non-national residents. I got a warm welcome at the local school, St Clare’s College. My mother came with me as co-driver and she visited the local emigration museum (coincidence!) while I was at the school. We had a lovely lunch on the way back in this village, Virginia, and plenty of time to chat on the journey.
In March, I finally got to visit James Joyce’s grave in Zurich at the instigation of my cousin Jennifer, who was visiting from Ireland. We spent a wonderful day together in the city with time to talk and had a memorable conversation about life and death at the graveyard. There were murmurings this year about moving Joyce’s body back to Dublin. Such nonsense, he’s fine where he is, really.
Also in March, I had a writing weekend away in Wilderswil in the Berner Oberland. It’s the second time I’ve gone away with this small group of writers. The village is quiet off-season and we stay in a nice little hotel and meet for meals in between writing sessions. The perfect mix of solitude and good company. This was the view from my room.
The big event in June was the Women’s Strike in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Switzerland on the 14th. I went along to my local demonstration in Fribourg with two friends. We wanted to draw attention to all the unresolved equality issues in Switzerland and elsewhere. The energy and feeling of unity in the crowd was amazing. As the white sign here says: ‘If you’re here it means you get it’. I don’t always feel like I’m fully connected to Swiss society. This was one of the good days.
In July, one day that stands out is when I took a hike with my daughter and the dog. She had a few days home alone while the other two were at camps. It was a very hot day and we took the train to the neighbouring town of Düdingen to walk back home. I know the area well but I’d never walked it so it was a journey of discovery and we had a lovely relaxing, fun time together.
We had a family version of this adventure when we took the train to Grenchen with our bikes one day in the summer and cycled along the Aare river to Solothurn. A week spent in Portugal with the extended family was another delightful escape from normal life.
September brought the launch of The Naked Irish in Dublin, a very happy occasion. Both my godparents were there, three generations of my family, my husband, friends from school, college, writing and work. It was a reunion really, a great reason to get together and celebrate. I had the pleasure of seeing my book on Irish shelves at last (photo by Ger Holland).
A Swiss launch of The Naked Irish followed in November in Book Books Books in Lausanne, and, in December, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Brexit in the University of St. Gallen, organised by swissinfo.ch. It was my third time moderating this year – the first two were literary events: the Bibliotopia festival in May and Le Livre sur les quais in September. This is something I definitely want to do more of.
It seems like most of my highlights this year involved spending time connecting with people and doing interesting work. There were plenty of humdrum days too but the year was also made richer by the books I read. Thanks to Goodreads, I know I read 50 books this year. You can view the list on that link, including some reviews. My favourite novels were Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, and Hidden Latitudes by Alison Anderson.
I really enjoyed answering questions about my favourite non-fiction books for the website Smartthinkingbooks. You can read the interview here. Actually, I think a separate blog post is needed to talk about the books of 2019.
I hope you are fortunate enough, like me, to have a few more quiet days of freedom left before returning to the normal routine. If you scroll back through your photos of the year, may you find many good times to recall with a smile. Wishing everyone good health, harmony and goodwill in 2020.
My reading list for the first half of the year was weighted in favour of two authors who came to Switzerland, Jonathan Coe from Britain and Andrey Kurkov from Ukraine. I was invited to moderate a discussion with the visiting authors at the Bibliotopia Festival in Montricher in May. Apart from being talented and prolific writers from newsworthy countries, Coe and Kurkov are kindred spirits.
Born in the same year, 1961, both Coe and Kurkov are keen musicians. They both use humour to lampoon the social and political woes of their respective countries. Their work is a pleasure to read, which is just as well because I had to read their books in bulk in a short space of time – The Rotters’ Club, Number 11 and Middle England by Coe, and Death and the Penguin, Ukraine Diaries and The President’s Last Love by Kurkov. I recommend all of the above and I look forward to reading more from these authors.
Hailed as a post-Soviet Kafka, Kurkov’s work is whimsical on the surface with a dark undercurrent. In Death and the Penguin, the eponymous penguin is called Misha and he lives with a lonely writer called Viktor. Misha exhibits human-like emotions, or at least Viktor interprets his behaviour that way. At one stage, Misha looks at his master and considers him ‘with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldly-wise party functionary’. Hungry for work, Viktor agrees to take on the task of writing advance obituaries of VIPs for a newspaper editor. All seems fine until his first subject meets an untimely end. Before long there is an epidemic of untimely ends in the bulging obituary file, as Viktor finds himself ensnared by powerful forces. Through Viktor’s circumstances, Kurkov is making a commentary on corruption and the cheapness of life in Ukraine.
“All was well, or appeared so. To every time, its own normality. The once terrible was now commonplace, meaning that people accepted it as the norm and went on living, instead of getting needlessly agitated. For them, as for Viktor, the main thing, after all, was still to live, come what may.”
In a similar vein, the satirical gem The President’s Last Love, gives us wickedly funny characters in outlandish situations. Following the life of the fictional serving president of Ukraine, Bunin, from his youth in the 1980s, we witness the combination of cluelessness and opportunism which helps him climb up the greasy pole of politics. Bunin goes from an amoral hand-to-mouth existence to an amoral gilded existence, always entangled in blighted love affairs and sustained by heavy drinking. Ironically, when he has the most power, he has the least freedom. Even the new heart he received in a transplant comes with strings attached. You will learn more about post-Soviet Ukraine in this highly-entertaining book than you would from reading a hundred articles, and the story will make you laugh and cry. I can’t wait to read Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees set in the Donbass grey zone, which is about to be published in English.
The third book of Kurkov’s I read was his Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev which covers the time of the Maidan protests in 2013/2014. Kurkov lived a short distance away from the square where all the action happened and travelled extensively around the country during those months.
The juxtaposition of everday family life, planting vegetables at the dacha, attending literary events, throwing children’s birthday parties, with the danger, lies and absurdity of the political situation is a great way to capture recent history. It is fascinating to accompany Kurkov, an ethnic Russian, as he experiences the revolution first-hand and observes the crafty machinations of neighbouring Russia.
Incidentally, another speaker at the Bibliotopia festival, the literary activist Mikhail Shishkin, had some alarming things to say about Russia. The Swiss-based author explained that there is a civil war happening in Russia on the internet. “The frontlines are clear and everyone knows what side they are on,” he said. He warned that the war would inevitably go offline into the real world. The problem with Russia has always been the transition of power. “Russia now is pregnant with new states,” he said, predicting that the day Putin is gone, the whole system of Russia will fall apart.
Speaking of formerly powerful empires falling apart, Jonathan Coe does a wonderful job of excavating the cracks running through British society. His twelfth and most recent novel, Middle England, is being referred to as the great Brexit novel. Some of the main characters have appeared in two previous books, The Rotters’ Club and Closed Circle, but Middle England stands alone as a hugely satisfying read. Coe refers to these books as “panoramic serio-comic political novels”.
Middle England gives us the latest portrait of a nation, striking a pleasant harmony between light and dark notes. What shines through is how exceedingly clever and compassionate Coe is, another thing he has in common with Kurkov. Coe gently savages the dull and prosperous areas of “deep England”, graced with enormous garden centres, palaces of time-wasting for those with leisure and money. This is the heartland of Conservative voters who rely on the we-won-two-World-Wars argument no matter what the political question. The absolute rejection of the other side’s point of view, as seen in the divisions between the characters, is not a million miles away from the online civil war in Russia to which Shishkin referred.
Coe takes a broad canvas when he writes about British society, from the London Riots of 2011 to the Brexit campaign to the influence of trans rights activists in academia, all featured in Middle England. With more action and an even broader sweep, Number 11 is a fantastic read. Coe has packed a lot in, very successfully from the uber-rich of London to reality TV to food banks. A series of episodes with interconnected characters, the novel features a mini police drama and a delightful fable about the quest for the security and innocence of lost childhood. It even takes a horror-movie like turn at one point.
The black humour in The Rotters’ Club is even more pronounced. This time we are back in the 1970s, in the youth of Benjamin Trotter. Set in Birmingham where Coe is from, the novel features a big cast of characters. Like Kurkov in The President’s Last Love, this novel is closely aligned with the writer’s generation, time and place. There are stories within stories in The Rotters’ Club and plenty of characters with strongly-held opinions. An interesting way to explore the class system, labour relations, teenage angst and creativity, friendship, sexual discovery, police violence, music and more.
And all along, there are real events which shape the characters’ lives, none more so than the scene (spoiler alert) where two characters are caught up in one of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Coe builds up to the horrible climax so masterfully that its impact is devastating. You think you are in a sweet, love scene but you are actually in a vicious death scene. I hardly ever have the experience of being too shocked to continue reading but I had to put the book down for a while to recover after that scene. Not that there is any gore, just an awful realisation.
I’m going to squeeze in just one more title on the subject of politics. Another writer at the festival (it really was a fantastic line-up) was Philippe Sands, the author of East West Street, published in 2016.
This non-fiction book is partly a memoir and has been hugely popular, even though it is a fairly dense read. The city of Lvov / Lviv / Lemberg is at the heart of the book, along with the Nuremberg trials. Sands traces the stories of three Jewish men and their families from Lviv (now in Ukraine), one of whom is his own grandfather. The other two were legal scholars who ended up connected to the post-war trial through their work on the definition of genocide and crimes against humanity.
East West Street is a powerful and important book. How the author managed to write about those terrible years in such a restrained way is admirable. I loved all the personal details in the background of the three men. Accompanying Sands on his research quest was a great way to tell the interlocking stories. My only complaint is that there was too much repetition of the genocide versus crimes against humanity argument. Sands himself is a human rights lawyer.
So many books, so little time. Thanks to Goodreads, I know that I have read 25 books in the first 25 weeks of this year. When I finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered it’ll be a neat one book per week for the first half of the year.
Finally, some snippets of news to do with my work in Switzerland. Back in April, I was invited to take part in the Sunday radio show Les Hautes Parleurs on RTS radio to talk about Brexit. The interview (in French) was filmed and you can view the recording here.
Shortly before that I was the Sonntagsgast (Sunday guest) on the Regionaljournal programme on German-language Swiss public radio, Radio SRF 1. That was a more wide-ranging discussion in German. Meanwhile I am putting the finishing touches to a new writing project, and I will have exciting news about that next month.
That’s all folks. Enjoy your summer reading and do let me know if you take the plunge with Kurkov and Coe!