This installment: a historical novel featuring a young Hungarian narrator who puts a fresh slant on difficult material (f); a take on the immigrant situation in Berlin (f); and a delicious memoir of Paris in the ‘70s (nf).
The Afterlife of Stars by Josef Kertes
The narrator, Robert 9.7 years old, and his brother Atilla, 13.6, must leave Hungary with their family when the Russians come in ’56. They make it to Paris with difficulty, en route to Canada, but first the boys learn more about their mother’s sister Hermina, an opera star who came through WWII with her own tragedies and scars. The brothers go off on a perilous journey to restore family honor—absolutely crazy—and only one returns. Now this sound deadly grim but it’s not. Because of the fresh, inquiring minds of the boys, it’s full of conjecture, flights of fantasy, and times of sensual pleasure as well. Another plus: original language like “clopped” for “clapped” and “glowheads” for angels which gives it a Hungarian flavor in my opinion.
Go Went Gone by Jeny Erpenbek
Richard’s wife is dead, he’s retired under pressure (news of his mistress didn’t help), and he’s at loose ends in Berlin. A demonstration by African refugees camping in a park gets his attention and he decides to study them for something to do. Of course he gets in deep and ends up trying to help them. Whenever there’s a little progress, slippery bureaucracy impedes it. We get to know the men’s stories and we get attached to them like Richard has. Erpenbek posits their suspended existences like that of Schroediger’s cat, neither here nor there. So many ironies and such an elegantly focused lens on the problems that are smack in front of all of us these days.
Kiss Me Again, Paris by Renate Stendahl
When Renate, who’d been a good girl on the outside but chafing under the repressive expectations of her German upbringing, fled to Paris in the ‘70s, she dove deep into the rich subculture and played out her gay yearnings in operatic fashion. She made a meager living as a cultural correspondent, flirted with panache, and pursued the mysterious Lady in Red she spied at a performance while hurting from the betrayal of Claude the Treacherous, a previous lover. The threads of her life, past and present, come together in a novelistic denouement—but this is a memoir! Full of sensuous detail, evocative atmosphere, and enhanced by dreamy photos. A feast!
Back next week.