Archive for September, 2009

Desparately Seeking Suzanne

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Through Black Spruce, Joseph Boyden, 2008

Beaver and Trapper

This second novel is the winner of the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize. It is the story of Cree indian Will Bird, retired bush pilot and his tomboy niece Annie Bird who supports herself trapping. They live near Moosonee on the Moose River near the Hudson Bay in Northern Ontario. These Birds are descendants of the Birds of Boyden’s first novel.

Northern Ontario Parking Lot

Annie travels to her trapping camps on her snowmobile which she maintains herself. The local bootleggers turned drug dealers are the Netmakers headed by oldest brother Marius. Younger brother Gus Netmaker has run away with Annie’s sister Suzanne and neither has been heard from for months. Marius thinks the Birds are talking to the police about the drug traffic and beats Will up as a warning. Pictures of Suzanne start showing up in magazines and catalogs indicating that she may be making a living modeling. Annie sets out for Toronto looking for Suzanne. She talks to other Indians she meets in Toronto and encounters a mute Indian, Gordon, called Painted Tongue. When a white man attacks Annie and attempts to rape her, Gordon, who has secretly been following her, kills the man and saves Annie. Gordon becomes Annie’s unofficial body guard accompanying her everywhere. Annie and Gordon go to Montreal where Annie meets some models who knew Suzanne including Violet. Violet invites Annie to a party where she meets a Mohawk DJ, Butterfoot, and becomes his lover. When Butterfoot and Violet travel to NYC for work, Butterfoot smuggles Annie and Gordon across the border with him. In NY Annie starts modeling and is invited to stay in a lavish Manhattan apartment by super model Soleil. It seems Gus and other bikers have been supplying drugs to the models. Annie becomes an accepted member of the in crowd welcome at any club in Manhattan. She takes drugs when offered at the parties. Suzanne never shows up. I preferred his first novel.

Moose River

Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden, 2005

Canoe in Northern Ontario

Boyden’s first novel is based on stories he heard growing up. Two Cree men fight in WWI as snipers. Niska a traditional medicine women paddles her canoe three days to pick up her nearest living relative Elijah, returning from the war, but finds instead her nephew Xavier who has returned. Xavier is addicted to morphine and he still has a small supply. On the return canoe journey, Xavier’s supply runs out and Niska uses traditional methods including a sweat house she builds beside the river in an attempt to save Xavier. Unforgettable images.

Sweat Lodge

Master of Disguises

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

The Collector of Worlds, Lliya Troyanov, 2009

A wonderful novel written by a Bulgarian in the German language about an Englishman, the legendary Sir Richard Francis Burton. Unlike the more famous T.E. Lawrence sixty years later, not much fiction has been written about Burton. This novel deals with three distinct phases or adventures of Burton’s event filled life; his early time in India as employee of the East India company from 1842-1849; his Hajj (holy pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca) in 1851-1853; and his expedition to East Africa in 1858 to discover the source of the River Nile. The structure of the novel alternates short chapters (usually a page or two) with descriptions of events as they happen to Burton followed by after the fact discussions with Burton’s servants or Ottoman (Turkish) officials in Muslim year 1273 (1856) corresponding or discussion the Hajj, accounts of which, Burton has published in English.


In India we are introduced to a young Burton who is already proving to be gifted in acquiring languages. His first assignment is in Baroda (near Bombay) where he hires a servant to set up his household and find a teacher of Gujarat. Burton’s job is to drill some Sepoys (Indian native soldiers) a few hours a day which leaves him with a lot of time on his hands.

The servant, Naukaram, stays with Burton throughout his time in India and returns home to England with him. Burton finally dismisses Naukaram with a simple letter acknowledging his employment term but giving no details of his duties or experiences. Naukaram, who is illiterate, seeks out a lahiya (letter writer) to create a resume he can use to seek employment with another Englishman. The lahiya is immediately captivated by Naukaram’s story and continues to ask questions, take notes, and draw the servant out. The simple letter takes days, then weeks to prepare (is the lahiya writing a book?) and costs Naukaram all the money he can borrow to continue the work.

We learn that Naukaram finds Burton a Brahmin teacher, Upanishe, who imparts far more than the Gujarat language and Sanskrit. Burton is soon immersed in Hindu culture, myths, and literature, including the Kama Sutra. Burton is so talented, Upanishe suggests he dress in native clothes and pose as a cousin from Kashmir for Upanishe’s visitors and friends. Burton is a big success and his career as a master of disguises is launched.


Naukaram also finds Burton a courtesan, Kundalini, to become his mistress (Naukaram is also in love with her). She was sold as a young girl to a religious house to be trained and serve as a devadasi (where she sexually serves the priests). She runs away and is living in a Bordello in Baroda where Naukaram finds her. Kundalini instructs Burton in the art of love, forcing Burton to listen to her stories at key moments.

Burton’s English Translation of the Kama Sutra

Burton is transferred to Sind (Sindh) to join a survey team (he is terrible at surveying) where he turns to the serious study of Urdu and Farsi. In Sind, he effects the disguise of a Persian Dervish and manages to befriend a Pashtun who is dedicated to undermining British authority in the region. Burton becomes a spy reporting to the local British general. The British raid the rebel’s house (the rebel is not home) and arrest Burton. Rather than give away his disguise, he keeps up his act in prison. Naukaram attempts to convince the jailers that Burton is English but they have discovered Burton is circumcised (that he had the operation performed illustrates how far he is committed to his disguises.) so could not possibly be English. Naukaram finally is able to get a message to the British general who gets Burton released, but not before Burton is tortured in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of the rebel. Burton is a broken man and is given a two year leave of absence to return to England. Burton insists on wearing a garish hodgepodge of Indian and Persian clothing in Europe. Naukaram gets to see England, France, and Italy before he is dismissed.

Burton in Turkish Disguise

In the second part, we find Burton in Cairo, once again in the disguise of a Persian Dervish. He is seeking Egyptian permission to travel to Suez for the start of his Hajj. He gets the permission and again seeks out a local teacher to learn the details he will need for his trip. The teacher immediately suggests that performing the Hajj as a Shia will be difficult if not outright dangerous and suggests that Burton (the teacher believes he is Persian) pretend that he is a Pashtun Suni from India. Burton agrees but keeps his identity as a Sufi Dervish. He tries out his new identity by treating Egyptians for medical problems. He is a great success and no one ever suspects he is not what he says he is.


He begins his Hajj and we are treated to camel caravans, crowded boats, Bedouins bandits, and other travails of the pilgrimage. Burton appears to be truly moved by the Hajj experience and receives his letter of certification from the religious authorities.

Burton as Arab on Hajj

After Burton’s book describing his Hajj experiences is published, we read correspondence and listen to conversations between Ottoman officials as they try to discover if Burton was an English spy, scouting out the Muslim holy land for possible conquest. If Burton was an English spy, why don’t the English honor him? Maybe he was spying for France, but that doesn’t seem to make sense. Could he possibly be a true Muslim believer? Impossible, all westerners are unbelievers as we know. They interview and occasionally torture people Burton encountered or who hosted Burton during his Hajj but all are convinced Burton was a sincere believer and very knowledgeable on all things Muslim. The inquiry is inconclusive.

Finally in the third part, we catch up with Burton in 1858 as he and fellow English explorer Speke set out to find the source of the Nile. It is Burton’s last chance to gain fame and recognition which have so far eluded him. He hires a former slave Sidi Mubarak Bombay in Zanzibar to guide him and the hundred porters for the trip. They are credited with the discovery of the source of the Nile (Lake Victoria) but Burton was abed suffering from Malaria when Speke explored the Lake and found the river flowing out of it. A jealous Burton would later say that the claim was unproven until someone actually ventured down the river to prove it was the Nile.

Bombay Aka Chuma

Bombay has been a slave his whole life and knows little of his own people or their language. He finally ends up belonging to an Indian living in Bombay where he adopts the name of his master’s city. Bombay is freed when the master dies and Bombay returns to Zanzibar to live. We encounter the trip from the real time account of Speke and Burton interspersed with the stories told years later by Bombay as he entertains throngs of listeners with his tales.

Bombay is puzzled when the Englishmen insist they are “discovering” lakes, mountains, and rivers that have been known to the Africans forever. When Speke starts giving English names to his discoveries, like naming the lake Victoria, he also asks Chuma for the African names of the features. Chuma thinks this arbitrary English naming is an interesting idea and starts inventing his own humorous, sometimes obscene African names which Speke dutifully writes down alongside his own English names. When Chuma later sees the first printed European map of the area, printed alongside the English names are the fanciful names Chuma has invented. Chuma is delighted.

A charming novel about a caustic, impossible character.

Looking for Archimboldi

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

2666, Roberto Bolano, 2008

This last novel of Chilean writer Bolano was published posthumously in Spanish in 2004. Bolano asked that the novel be published in separate books but the publisher and heirs ignored him to publish the entire work as a single novel. As a result the English version, released in 2008 is almost 900 pages long. In March 2009, the Guardian reported that part 6 has been found among Bolano’s papers. The publisher, in the notes at the back of the book insists that the the book is complete as Bolano intended, but this appears not to be the case. It ends pretty abruptly with nothing resolved, making it pretty unsatisfying. Maybe someone will see fit to publish part 6 at some point. For more on the writer see Roberto Bolano.

The book is really two separate works, one about an obscure reclusive German writer Benno von Archimboldi and the other about the serial killing of hundreds of women in the mythical Mexican city of Santa Teresa (located somewhere on the highway between Hermosillo and Nogales near the Arizona border). Reviewers have claimed the city is based on Cuidad Juarez but Juarez is not even in Sonora (it is in the state of Cihuauua) and the Sonoran desert dominates the landscape of the city of Santa Teresa. Many details, including small towns in Arizona immediately north of the border, and details of illegal border crossing puts Santa Teresa near Nogales.

Nogales Sonora

Part one is the most entertaining, containing a wonderful look at the strange, sometimes irrelevant world of academics. Four professors of German, an Italian, a Spaniard, and Frenchman, and and Englishwoman have all built their academic careers and reputations writing articles about the obscure German writer Archimboldi whom no one other than his publisher seems to have met and for which no picture exists. The four academics travel the world attending conferences to deliver their latest Archimboldi papers. We learn about the academic publishing peer review process (I’ll scratch your back in my journal if you scratch mine in your journal). Archimboldi books largely don’t sell (300 copies of his first three novels) but briefly, perhaps because of the four academics, Archimboldi became a cult figure among college students. The cult soon died down. Reviews of Archimboldi’s books are generally very negative. The three academic men all fall in love with the Englishwoman and we are treated to a menage a trois before the Englishwoman chooses the Italian who is paraplegic. Some of them travel to Hamburg to meet Archimboldi’s publisher. The original publisher, a Jew who spent WWII in exile in England, is dead, but his widow, a Prussian Baroness is running the business. She admits she has met Archimboldi but refuses to give the academics any information about his whereabouts. They hear that a Mexican Minister of Culture has rescued Archimboldi from the police in Mexico City and several of them fly immediately to Mexico. The Minister says he put Archimboldi on a plane for Hermosillo and thinks Archimboldi was headed for the city of Santa Teresa. They travel to Santa Teresa and meet a professor from Barcelona, Amalfitano, who is raising his daughter Rosa as a single father. They are unable to find any information that Archimboldi ever arrived in Santa Teresa.

Part two concerns Amalfitano, whose wild wife, Lola, has left him to return to Europe where she sleeps around and hitchhikes throughout the continent. She returns one last time to Mexico to see Rosa and announce she is dying. She tells Amalfitano that she has a child by another man and is returning to Barcelona to be with him. Amalfitano has hung an old book on his clothesline where the desert slowly destroys it. Amalfitano is slowly going mad.

Chavez Sanchez Boxing
Tijuana Boxing Match

Part three begins with a black reporter, Fate, working for an obscure journal in Harlem. His editor asks him to cover a boxing match in Mexico when the sports reporter for the journal dies. Fate needs the money so flies to Tuscon and drives across the border in a rental car to Santa Teresa where the fight is to be held. The journal has limited travel budget so Fate rents a cheap room and goes to the hotel where the other journalists are staying and where press conferences on the fight will be held. Fate meets some Mexican fight reporters who let him accompany them when they go to the camp where the Mexican welterweight is training. He is unable to interview the American fighter but the fight is a total mismatch and the Mexican is knocked out in the second round. Fate goes to a bar after the fight and runs into a couple of tough Mexicans with two girls one of which is Rosa. Fate is invited to join them and they retire to small house. Fate has followed them in his rental car. The Mexicans started taking drugs and are acting strange; Rosa gets nervous and Fate thinks something very bad is about to happen so Fate offers to give Rosa a lift home. Rosa tells him she thinks it is time she left Santa Teresa to return to Barcelona. Fate offers her a ride to Tuscon, Rosa packs, gets her passport, and Amalfitano gives her enough money for the ticket home. Fate drives Rosa to Tuscon where they part.

Sonora Desert Mexico

Part four is tough slogging through 280 miserable pages where hundreds of rape and murders of women in Santa Teresa and environs go largely unsolved. The horror is broken up by a crazy man that desecrates churches and their icons and occasional kills if someone tries to stop him. It is assumed that a serial killer or two killers is responsible for the murders but the incompetent or compromised detectives make absolutely no progress in solving the cases. They can’t even identify most of the victims. One murdered high school student was seen visiting a computer repair shop several times and when the detectives discover that the German (American citizen) owner has a police record in the States including violence and rape, the German, Haas, is arrested and charged with a long list of murders. The murders continue so the detectives arrest a few gang members claiming Haas has paid them to rape and kill women in a copycat fashion to make it look like he is innocent. The police have no evidence whatever against Haas or the gang members. The police misfile evidence or lose it altogether. This includes knives and guns. When they send sample to Hermosillo or San Diego for analysis the samples or the results always go missing. We get a picture of Santa Teresa whose three principal means of economic activity involve exports to the US; narcotics, illegal immigrants, and products built in the local maquiladoras by low cost Mexican labor. Most of the women victims works for the maquiladoras. Corruption of police and politicians is central to all three types of enterprise. After a couple hundred pages of utterly depressing murders, Bolano gives us some false hopes when a retired FBI agent is hired by the local authorities to investigate the murders and train the local detectives. The authorities have no intention of allowing the FBI agent to do his job. Finally, the best woman friend of a powerful RPI woman politician (read very old wealthy family) disappears while organizing a private party for a rich man near Santa Teresa. The politician hires a private detective who finds that the friend hires models and recruits local prostitutes and local girls for the parties where drugs and sex dominate. The detective finds nothing about the disappearance.

In part five we finally meet the elusive Archimboldi; in fact we follow him throughout his entire life. His real name is Hans Reiter and he was born in 1920 to a one legged (lost in WWI) Prussian father and a one eyed mother. Hans has a sister born in 1930. Hans has a couple near drowning experiences as a child and he draws seaweed. He is convinced his fate is to die a watery death so when he is drafted in 1939 he asks to join the navy, preferably the submarine corps. Unfortunately, Hans is 6 foot 5 inches tall and the navy rejects him. He becomes an infantryman and spends the entire war on the Eastern front. His fellow infantryman thinks his height makes him the logical first target for any enemy and Hans is still convinced he is destined to die which makes him fearless. The result is a long series of heroic efforts during which Hans never receives as much as a scratch. Hans also never kills an enemy. Finally, near the end of the war, Hans is shot in the throat and is sent to a hospital to recover.

Vsevolod Vyacheslavovich Ivanov Stamp

The Russians overrun the area and Hans and other patients who are mostly recovered are sent to an empty village nearby to await further orders. Hans can’t stand the other soldiers and finds an empty house where he lives alone. Exploring the house he determines the house was owned by Jews and that the Germans are probably responsible for the empty town. He finds a hiding place and a journal written by Ansky, the presumed former owner of the house. Hans reads the journal and we are treated to a short history of the Russian Revolution with particular attention to the Russian writers of the period. Ansky joined the communist party in 1903 and observed the entire revolution and aftermath. Ansky may be a little mad but he certainly has a strange imagination. He meets the Russian science fiction writer Vsevolod Vyacheslavovich Ivanov who is having writer’s block. Ansky writes three science fiction novels from his strange imagination that are published under Ivanov’s name. In 1937 Ivanov is arrested in the Stalin purges and show trials and Ivanov signs the required confession and is executed. He never reveals that Ansky is the true author the last three novels. One entry in the journal concerns an obscure Italian painter in the generation after daVinci named Archimboldi where Hans gets his nom de plume later. (See Giuseppe Arcimboldo famous for his vegetable face portraits.) Hans adds the von to identify himself as German and not Italian. The Russians continue their advance and the Germans continue to retreat eventually deserting the army altogether. Hans surrenders to the Americans. In the camp is a man who claims his name is Zeller (the Americans are interrogating their prisoners looking for war criminals in alphabetical order). The interrogators leave the camp before reaching Z and Zeller feels compelled to confess to Hans. Zeller whose real name was Sammer was a civilian administrator for a region in Poland. His primary job was to provide forced labor for German factories. Near the end, he mistakenly receives a consignment of 500 Greek Jews who were undoubtedly intended for a death camp. The train is needed elsewhere so he unloads the Jews into an abandoned tannery. Finally an SS officer gives him an order to eliminate the Jews (these orders are never written). Sammer has no facility to eliminate such a large number but gives the order to kill a few at a time. When the Russians overrun his region, he releases the final hundred Jews still alive and runs away in his car. Sammer keeps moving west until he also surrenders to the Americans. For the first and only time in his life Hans kills someone.


Hans is released and eventually moves to Cologne where he works as a bartender. He rents a typewriter and writes his first novel. After several refusals, a publisher, the Jew Bubis in Hamburg, agrees to publish his novel. 300 copies are sold. Hans continues to write and Bubis continues to publish. Upon his death, Bubis instructs his widow, the Baroness, to continue to publish anything Hans writes.

Finally Hans sister, Lotte, learns that her son Haas has been arrested in Mexico. She is unable to help get him released but on a flight to Mexico Lotte picks up a copy of Archimboldi’s first novel and realizes it is the story of her own family and that Archimboldi must be her lost brother Hans. She contacts the Baroness at the publisher who tells Lotte where Hans is living and Lotte is able to contact him. As the novel ends, Hans, aka Archimboldi, age 80, is boarding his flight to Mexico City to try to rescue his nephew.

This ending certainly suggests that there was a part six with Archimboldi in Mexico. Maybe we will find out someday. If you have limited reading time parts 1 and 5 are best. 2 and 3 are not bad. Forget 4.