Peach Blossom Pavilion by Mingmei Yip

I have not been affected so far by the huge popularity of geisha and, in general, Far Eastern novels. Consequently, I started to read Mingmei Yip’s novel with completely naive eyes. And even though I am still not entirely aware of all the clichés and rules of geisha/courtesan novels after reading Peach Blossom Pavilion, I got a feeling that Ms. Yip learned her lesson and made sure that she used as many of the recommended ingredients of a geisha novel as possible. (Yes, I know geishas are Japanese, and this novel is set in China, but I am sure you get the point.)

The story is set in China in the 1920s, and it centers around the beautiful young girl, Xiang Xiang (a.k.a. Precious Orchid). Our heroine is only thirteen years old when she arrives at the most elite brothel of Shanghai, Peach Blossom Pavilion, after her father was innocently sentenced to death, and her mother entered a monastery. After the initial difficulties and some feeble revolt attempts, Precious Orchid becomes a priceless possession for the owners of the brothel. She slowly evolves into an awesome and sophisticated beauty, and the Shanghai elite worships her for her countless musical, artistic and erotic talents, and immerses her in a heap of presents and flowers everyday. Precious Orchid enjoys the luxury, but in her heart, of course, she hates and despises everyone and everything connected to the brothel, and her only goal in life is to leave her golden cage one day and take her revenge for the death of her innocent father.

The novel offers all that can be enticing in a story set in an exotic, faraway, culturally different time and space. Among other things, it contains several sex scenes which seem over-mystified and much too sophisticated, but still interesting for a reader from the western world. It also offers us a glimpse of Chinese daily rituals such as the ritual of tea-drinking: the characters drink countless cups of tea during the course of the story, and drinking tea seems to have the same social function as drinking an alcoholic drink has in western literature. And to top all these, the novel contains a lot of cheap but profound-sounding, mock-Chinese philosophy about the way jin and jang, and good and bad karma interact with each other.

However, there is one ingredient which is painfully missing from the novel: the soul. Even though the story is told from Precious Orchid’s perspective, and she is telling the reader about her own life and her own experiences, the narration still lacks both feeling and a touch of personality. Her words are usually bare and hollow, and they do not manifest any feeling, pain or desire. The soullessness of the narration is even more underlined by the fact that our heroine is a very unlikable, selfish and shallow person, who, among several other things, is even capable of leaving her true love because she misses the luxury of her past.

You should not look for deep sentiments, profound characterization or believable, dramatic life stories in this novel. The best (or the least irritating) way to read this novel is to simply take it as an erotic adventure story in which the unrelenting heroine survives the most gruesome difficulties, and manages to find her place in the world against all odds. By the way, sometimes the novel reminded me of Marquis De Sade’s Justine – only without its humour. Anyway, it might be possible to enjoy this novel as an easy to read adventure story, because I certainly admit that it is full of action and it is not boring for a minute.


The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus

I read a very good and enthusiastic post about The Afterparty on Kimbofo’s blog a couple of months ago, and based on her post, it was pretty easy for me to draw the conclusion that I would probably like this novel. Sometime later, I read an equally good, though critical post about the book on Kevin’s blog, and also read through the majority of the circa 150 (and mostly critical) comments the post generated, and I became even more curious about the novel. (By the way, the comments themselves are very interesting, and what makes the whole thread even more so is that the author himself joined the discussion and managed to react to the not too favorable comments and argue in a friendly way, without any resentment whatsoever. I’m sure this is the way discussions among adults should work, but they tend not to work this way, so reading 150 comments without any rudeness was immensely delightful for me.)

Of course it’s not an accident that Leo Benedictus keeps in touch with his readers and is on the lookout for reviews about his novel. But before I go into this, let me first tell you about the novel.

The Afterparty tells the story of the birthday bash and the subsequent afterparty of Hugo Marks, a 31-year-old movie actor. The main characters are Hugo himself; his wife, the (ex-)junkie supermodel Mellody; an indistinct journalist, Michael Knight, who ends up at Hugo’s party almost by accident, after his boss hands him over her own invitation; and young pop star and X-Factor participant Calvin Vance. These four people initially don’t really have too much to do with one another, but they get into various entanglements during the party and the afterparty, and by the end of the night it becomes obvious that things will never be the same again. The events themselves are made even more interesting by the fact that they are told from multiple points of view, and of course none of the events mean quite the same to the different characters.

Apart from the ’real’ story, the references to real life and to other novels which are hidden in the story, and the gently satiric depiction of the celebrity world, however, The Afterparty is also about the way a writer called William Mendez writes a novel about the birthday bash of Hugo Marks – a novel originally titled Publicity***** –, how he manages to get his novel published, and what ideas he has about the ways his novel should be publicized.

The blurb of The Afterparty says: „This book is different. You’ve never really read a book like this before.” I don’t consider myself a burned out reader who can never be pleased with anything because she had already seen it all, still, I must admit that I did read books like this before. As regards, for instance, telling a story from multiple points of view, let me only mention some works of William Faulkner, Choderlos de Laclos or Bret Easton Ellis – but it’s true that I’ve never read a story in which the different characters’ parts are written in different fonts, and in which the font type itself plays as crucial a part in the characterization of characters as any detailed description about their personality or appearance. And I also read books dealing with the shallow and meaningless lives of celebrities; and also read novels which constantly kept reflecting on themselves and/or the outside world besides (or instead of) simply telling a story.

But it’s indeed true that I’ve never read a book incorporating all these, and I found the way Leo Benedictus mixes all these postmodern features and creates something he, for some reason, calls ’post-postmodern’ absolutely delightful. I’m not at all sure about the difference between postmodern and post-postmodern (if there is any), but I know that The Afterparty is exactly the kind of postmodern I love: it’s clever, funny, (self-)ironic, and instead of dealing with matters of life and death, it deals with a question that happens to be one of my all-time hobby-horses: what is fiction and how does it relate to reality?

The Afterparty happens to be a piece of fiction which relates to reality quite directly. As I know it contains several references to real-life British celebrities and their infamous ways, so as I’m not that much into British celebrity life, I’m sure I missed several references or jokes in the novel. Still, I didn’t find this such a big problem as I found in the novel a lot of other things to entertain me.

For instance, the fact that in a truly clever postmodern way, The Afterparty contains itself and the story of its own marketing as well. Let me mention only a few examples of how this works. One of the marketing ploys devised by William Mendez, the novelist in the novel, is that the publisher should encourage readers to publish tweets on Twitter which contain the #afterpartybook identifying label, and promise that at least one such tweet per user will be published in the appendix of the 2012 paperback edition of the novel. And what a surprise, this happens to be one of the marketing ploys surrounding The Afterparty. And it is probably also a part of the marketing that Leo Benedictus himself participates actively in creating a hype around his novel, sometimes acts in a contradictory way, and pretends that he has a huge ego.

Well, perhaps he does have a huge ego; and perhaps I’m a mindless consumer to be set up by such marketing techniques, but I find the cheeky and entertaining way The Afterparty is advertised immensely clever and funny. (Therefore I already published and afterparty-tweet and I can hardly wait to see my username in print in the 2012 paperback edition.

There’s something that bothers me, though. I wonder how lasting The Afterparty will prove after its novelty wears off, or if we take away its current relevance and the games which surrounded its first publication in March 2011, and which won’t be interesting at all one or two years from now. Right now I will not venture to decide this question. However, I consider The Afterparty such a good book that quite probably I will reread it in a couple of years’ time, and then I will write another post about my impressions.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I was about twelve years old when, rummaging through my grandmother’s shelves, I came across this novel. Thanks to the Hungarian habit of changing the simple titles of novels to more interesting ones, the book was called The Orphan of Lowood instead of Jane Eyre, and the title led me astray: I was expecting a novel similar to Oliver Twist, and found that, in Jane Eyre, it is only the first 100 pages that deal with the topic of being an orphan in Lowood, and then the novel moves on to such themes as love, self-sacrifice, passion, belief, perseverance and similar others. At the age of twelve I wasn’t too deeply interested in these topics, consequently, the story of Jane Eyre did not find its way to my heart. Now I thought it is time to re-read the novel and find out what it can offer to my somewhat older self.

When I started to read, it immediately struck me as strange that I remember the story very well, as usually I’m not too good at recalling the small details and twists and turns of a novel, and as I had not become a Jane Eyre fan during my first read, I did not expect myself to remember a lot. Still, it seems that the novel must have made a big impression somewhere deep in my mind, as now even the smallest details came back to me at once. Of course it is also possible that my knowledge of the story can be attributed to my studies: Jane Eyre is one of those texts in English literature which was analyzed a thousand times, has countless adaptations and is referred to in several other works of fiction, so it would have been quite impossible for me during my years as an English major student to bypass this text completely, and I could easily have been involuntarily immersed in the details of the story.

Anyway, despite all my memories and lack of enthusiasm, now I was drawn into the world of Jane Eyre at once, and the story did not let me go during the first two-thirds of the novel. I found that the text was outstanding, heart-rending and colorful; the behavior, values, confidence and independence of Jane Eyre were very much worth my attention; the depiction of the contemporary high society was authentic; and the development of Jane’s and Mr. Rochester’s relationship was believable and written in a beautiful language. Apart from all these, I was stunned by the modernity of the ideas in the novel. The way Jane speaks about her need for freedom of action, about her desire to use and develop her abilities, and about the equality of man and woman is much ahead of her time. (The novel was published in 1847.)

I almost believed that I was heading towards a cathartic reading experience, when something changed. I could hardly stop reading the first two volumes, but then I could hardly read the third volume, in which Jane leaves Thornfield to find her place in the world alone. I was irritated and bored at the same time by the fact that in the last 200 pages, three or four new characters were introduced, a new storyline was developed, new conflicts occurred and I witnessed unbelievable coincidences and miraculous turns – which didn’t interest me at all, since my only concern was Jane and I wanted her to find her happiness at last.

I tried to explain to myself why I found the last 200 pages of the novel so boring, and I came up with two possible reasons for this: it might be that I no longer have the patience to read very long novels, because I believe that everything worth telling can be told in 400 pages at the most – however, I can immediately refute this claim, as I know countless examples of highly engaging 400 or more page novels. And it can also be that it’s not a very brilliant idea to take a story in an absolutely new direction in its last one-third. I don’t have any scientific explanation for this, it’s only my gut feeling that it does no good to the structure and rhythm of a novel to load the story with several new elements towards its end. Personally, I don’t have an idea how the time of Jane’s necessary absence from Thornfield could have been filled in any better way, but I’m not a novelist, so I cannot be expected to know this. On the whole I think if Jane Eyre was a book of only 450 pages, it would be a perfect novel, but as it is, the eagerly longed-for catharsis didn’t come, or rather, it was lost somewhere along the totally uninteresting story of the Rivers family.

Finally, let me include some trivia here: on my copy of Jane Eyre, among the usual pieces of positive reviews there are two, rather contradictory sentences. On the front cover a certain Jenny Colgan states that “Jane Eyre has been turning girls into women for generations”; and on the back cover, Sarah Waters claims that “you have to be a grown-up to really get it”. I refrain from any further comments and just add one thing: I agree with Ms. Waters and I truly believe that Jane Eyre is not exactly the read for teenage girls.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

As you might guess from its title, this novel is set in Oxford and it’s about a series of murders. The narrator, a young Argentinian mathematician (whose name we don’t learn, only know that it contains a double ’l’ which makes it hard to pronounce for several people – so we might as well surmise that the name is „Guillermo”) arrives in Oxford on a one-year scholarship to study mathematical theory, but his attention to his studies soon flags for two reasons. One of these is that our hero quickly finds a girlfriend and spends his time with her instead of studying hard, and the other is that he becomes entangled in a strange murder case which seems to be the first in a series. The narrator then proceeds with the help of Arthur Seldom, the famous mathematician, to investigate the case and tries to find out how the clues left by the murderer, which are elements in a mathematical series, are connected with the individual cases in the murder series.

The most interesting feature of this novel is the narrator’s character and the role he plays in the novel. On the one hand, our hero is a typical cool guy, a Latin macho who is so charming and impetuous that he seems to be able to captivate the hearts of half the women in Oxford in a moment. Based on his age and his behavior, he – and not the considerably older Seldom – should be the supersleuth who solves the mysteries, but our young hero doesn’t seem to be a particularly apt detective, he never realizes anything on his own and it takes him quite a lot of time to find the solution. So if we read The Oxford Murders as a typical hero-and-his-sidekick story, we have to realize that the protagonist fits the role of the sidekick much better than the role of the hero.

This playful reversal is not the only interesting feature in the novel, however. As the author is a mathematician, the protagonists are mathematicians and it seems that the murderer has something to do with mathematics as well, it’s probably no surprise that the novel contains quite a lot of mathematical-philosophical ruminations. But don’t worry – they are understandable, enjoyable and thought-provoking, and they go only so deep as not to frighten away a reader like me who only likes to admire mathematics from a safe distance. Martínez doesn’t scare his readers with actual calculations and formulas but manages to show some of the beauty of mathematics.

And one more thing which makes this novel stand out from the mass of crime stories: the way Martínez depicts Oxford. He creates the atmosphere of the ancient, peaceful university town astonishingly well, and he easily makes the reader visualize a world where people don’t hang curtains on their windows and don’t lock their front doors because they have nothing to hide – but where they still live a life full of emotions and passions behind the facade of a calm, „typically English” way of life.

And after all, this clever but not too demanding novel is exactly about emotions and passions. Served with a lot of mathematics.

The Gingerbread Woman by Jennifer Johnston

According to the blurb, this is the story of the chance encounter of two people (man and woman, naturally) with damaged pasts. They develop an unusual friendship and finally with the help of each other become capable of facing the pains of their pasts and perhaps start a new life.

As it is, I happen to be a sucker for stories about people with tragic memories. I have an inexplicable drawing towards novels such as this: an intimate, very human story with few characters, dealing with the tackling of the past. Of course I’m always afraid that I run into some abhorrent kitsch about the magical healing powers of love or some similar topic, but I also always hope that perhaps this one will be something different – a truly beautiful and unobtrusive story which will find its way to my heart.

To my great delight, I quickly found that The Gingerbread Woman belongs to the second category. This is a heart-rending and painful story, so life-like that it’s almost too hard to bear, but amidst all the pain it manages to convey in a slightly paradoxical way that perhaps hope indeed springs eternal.

It is not my intention to write down in detail the traumas the protagonists, Clara and Lar have to deal with, as it is exactly the main driving force and topic of the novel how – through a series of roundabouts – they manage to face up to the past and admit at least to themselves what is torturing them. When they finally succeed in this, it is a great relief both for them and for the reader – we might as well call it a cathartic moment.

By the way it is highly interesting how very differently Lar and Clara choose to fight with their pasts. Lar claims that he doesn’t want to forget his pain, doesn’t want to be healed, and his only desire is that he should be left alone to hate the whole world in peace, while Clara attempts to be optimistic and can hardly wait until her pain is gone, so that she might be able to laugh again. Contrary to what we may expect, it is Lar who tells his story (or parts of his story) compulsively to everyone coming his way, but he refuses to listen to the sympathetic words he gets in return. Clara, on the other hand, keeps her story a secret as much as possible, and finally gets rid of her memories by writing them down as notes for a novel, that is, she fictionalizes her life.

Despite the fact that the motif of novel-writing (which usually gives a touch of literariness to any novel) appears in the book, The Gingerbread Woman remains on the ground throughout. It is especially Lar’s life which is strongly influenced by the history of his home country, Northern Ireland, but Clara herself is not the kind of heroine either who stands apart from her present and reality, and tries to spice up her boring life with imaginary ailments.

Although the novel doesn’t deal with particularly pleasant themes, it appealed to me very much all the same. I took to Clara and Lar very much, and I wanted to know as much as possible about their lives. I was almost desperate to continue whenever I had to stop reading. It doesn’t happen to me often nowadays but I got to like the protagonists so much, I found them so strong and realistic characters that it was hard for me to believe at the end of the novel that the story is over and I will never get to know more about them.

Even though the whole novel is exquisite, the end is particularly so: it answers some questions and indicates some directions in which the life of the protagonists is likely to go, but it also leaves several options open. It seems that nothing is entirely black, but it cannot be taken for granted either that everything will turn out all right in the end. And I believe it is a great achievement that the author did not feel an urge to finish the story with a happy end, but did not feel it necessary to torture her characters to death either. Jennifer Johnston seems to have found the perfect balance between suffering and hope, and created a truly wonderful novel.

The Shining by Stephen King

It was during winter, with a snowstorm raging outside when I first read this novel at the age of fifteen, and probably the circumstances of the reading had a lot to do with the huge impact the story had on me then. A large part of the story takes place in winter, with deep snow covering the world, and as a young and empathic reader I became so engrossed in the novel and I was so terrified that I was positively scared to look out of my window, for fear that the hedges in our garden might come to life as well. Now I read the novel for the third time, and even though I was still terrified at certain points, my previous youthful enthusiasm is as good as gone – perhaps I’m getting to be too old for King.

Probably most of you know what the story is about, but let me sum it up briefly: Jack Torrance, the (ex-)alcoholic, unemployed teacher and writer gets a wonderful job: he will be the winter caretaker of the Outlook Hotel which is situated high up in the Colorado mountains. Jack hopes that during the quiet winter months he will be able to finish the play he’s working on and perhaps start a new life in the spring after. He takes his wife, Wendy and his talented son, Danny with him as well, but their tranquillity is disturbed by the real or imaginary ghosts haunting the infamous Outlook more and more often, and slowly but steadily the family peace and Jack’s sanity are torn to shreds.

Although this seems like a regular ghost story, King managed to make much more of his material (though not as much as he lays claim to – but more of this later). The strongest point of the novel is the way King creates awfully ominous and claustrophobic settings and atmosphere. The characters of the novel know from the very beginning that the Outlook is cut off from the rest of the world every winter for four or five months because of the snow, and they have some forebodings about the hotel, but they still accept the long isolation, saying that this job might be the last chance for Jack to start again after losing his previous job. They believe that they are clever and well-prepared people who will be able to live just fine without the outside world and who won’t get on each other’s nerves – but of course the reader is much more clever than them and knows in advance that this is not what’s going to happen. And our superior knowledge fills the novel with a terrible and ever-increasing sense of tension: on the one hand, we can hardly wait for the first snow to fall, for the Torrance family to be finally cut off from the world and for the emotions and rages to erupt; but on the other hand, we keep hoping that they might have sense enough to run from the Outlook and return to the normal world when it is still possible.

After a certain point, of course, there’s no turning back for the characters. When winter sets in, the Torrance family is closed in – and not only in the Outlook but also in the more and more unbearable company of their own consciousness (and subconscious), and they are forced to face the memories, dreams, hallucinations and plans which keep surfacing from deep inside their minds and which slowly puts them out of joint with reality and normality.

Of course the several horroristic, creepy though sometimes a bit banal elements of the novel (moving hedge animals, ghosts in the bathroom, ancient elevators going round all by themselves etc.) can be frightening in themselves, but the most frightening feature of the novel is that it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when normality gives way to insanity. There is no single moment, no single event which starts off this change. The change happens gradually and you can’t even know for sure when the process becomes irreversible. This makes the story especially hopeless, since it’s possible that for instance, Wendy thinks she could still save her family when in fact it wouldn’t be possible anymore even if she could find their way out of the snowed-in hotel.

Apart from all this, it’s not hard to notice that the Outlook, besides being a haunted house, is the typical literary representation of the Freudian model of the human mind: the ground floor and the spaces inhabited by the family represent the ego; Jack’s mental degradation starts in the cellar, the world of hidden things, which stands for the id; and the final dramatic fight between Jack and Danny takes place on the highest floor of the hotel, the empire of the superego. I’m not a psychologist so I don’t go any deeper into the analysis of the Freudian symbolism of the novel. King himself doesn’t do this, either, but by mixing the haunted house theme with a whole lot of popular Freudian elements he managed to make the atmosphere of the novel rather special.

Besides his great ability to create a creepy atmosphere, King’s ability to draw characters is worth mentioning, too. And it’s not only that he can create wonderful protagonists – his supporting characters are also great and he can draw a character in a single sentence. For instance, there’s an episode in the novel where one of the more important characters is travelling by plane. The plane gets into a snowstorm and several passengers get sick. King mentions a man who pukes into his magazine by mistake. A flight attendant helps him and says: “don’t worry, I can understand your feelings. I feel the same way about Reader’s Digest myself.” This single sentence uttered by the flight attendant is sufficient for me to imagine her and the life she might have. And even though she is a character who never makes a reappearance in the story, I feel that her life contains the possibility of a separate novel – and I feel that King knows this, too.

Having said this, it seems a bit of a contradiction that it’s also because of certain points in King’s characterization that I don’t appreciate this novel as much as I did earlier. This is what I hinted at when I wrote that in my opinion, King didn’t make so much of the novel as he assumed.

King happened to make the major mistake of writing a preface to this 1977 novel in 2001. In the preface he mentions among other things that he considers The Shining a huge turning point in his career and that while writing this novel he realized that he had two ways before him: he could either go on writing clever horror stories, or he could dig deeper and attempt to create an evil protagonist who is not only a two-dimensional character but a „real” person with a past, good and bad personality traits and very human weaknesses. King thinks that in creating Jack Torrance, he managed to create such a character, and he seems to find the key to his character in the single fact that Jack’s father treated him in a brutal and unpredictable way when he was a child, yet, he kept loving his father and even though he was afraid of his father, he still considered him a god-like figure.

According to King, this contradictory relation between Jack and his father accounts for the way Jack behaves as an adult and also explains his insane actions. According to King, this tortured relation instantly makes Jack’s character very deep and human and makes his evilness more frightening.

But according to me, this is not the case at all. Indeed, Jack is frightening and human at the same time, but I don’t think that the special relation he had with his father makes his character particularly deep. In fact, I think the way King depicts this relation, in, for instance, Jack’s memories of his father, or the way he re-enacts this relation in the relationship between Jack and Danny is direct, unsophisticated and very much cliché-like. The parallels are too direct and the events of the past which, resurfacing in the present, assume a symbolic meaning are simply popular Freudian ingredients and not deep at all.

And this is absolutely fine by me, and I consider The Shining a good book, but I believe it’s vain of King to assume that he has it in himself to go into Dostoyevskiyan depths. King is a wonderful storyteller. He can give me the creeps all right. He can create engrossing characters. But he is no psychologist (or only a popular psychologist) and it’s slightly ridiculous of him to pretend that he is.

(If I hadn’t read the preface, I probably wouldn’t have written the last couple of paragraphs at all, and I would have appreciated the novel higher. But by explaining himself away, King very cleverly managed to draw my attention to the faults of the novel and his abilities as a writer, and now I don’t consider The Shining such an extraordinarily good novel anymore – simply a good one.)

Problemski Hotel by Dimitri Verhulst

Dimitri Verhulst was brought to my attention by two kind acquaintances of mine. One of them praised Problemski Hotel on his blog earlier, and the other recommended to me another novel by Verhulst, The Misfortunates. I started with Problemski Hotel, which was such an exquisite novel that soon after finishing it I bought The Misfortunates as well, and it didn’t have to lie around for long before I got down to reading it, either. Anyway, this post is about Problemski Hotel.

This short documentary novel tells about the residents of a Belgian refugee camp. The camp houses all kinds of refugees: people from Africa, Chechnya, Albania, India are crowded together, men and women are thrown together, and people from Christian and Islamic backgrounds engage in sometimes violent conflict on a daily basis. The everyday life of the refugees is predictable and immensely boring, nevertheless, it is filled with the most diverse stress factors. The refugees have nothing to do, they have nowhere to go, and in their life there’s definitely no point in trying to get close to anybody, since there’s no telling when someone receives the long-awaited letter telling them whether or not they can stay in Belgium. It doesn’t matter whether the answer is positive or negative, sooner or later everyone leaves the camp, so it’s no use forming friendships or long-term plans.

In the camp everything is transitory, and even though each refugee left a terrible past behind, this doesn’t matter to anyone at all: the other refugees don’t care as they all have horrible life stories of their own, therefore they can hardly be expected to be surprised or shocked by the horrors others endured; the immigration officers don’t care because they are overburdened and are lost among the bureaucratic procedures; and the locals don’t care because all they understand is that with each new refugee, there’s one more useless dipshit treading the Belgian land.

All this could serve as the basis for a brutal, heart-wrenching and unsettling novel, and indeed, Verhulst’s book is such a novel. But not in the way you might expect: there’s not a bit of pretended shock or hypocritical, effusive pity over the misery of others, and there’s no word written in the book which is only meant for effect. This may partly be so because the narrator of the book isn’t a clever external narrator who explains everything (and most certainly it’s not Dimitri Verhulst, the journalist) but Bipul Masli, an acclaimed photojournalist and himself a refugee from Africa. Even though he sees a possible cover photo in each of his refugee camp acquaintances due to his professional background, he still manages to treat every one of them like a human being, and not like an example case offered by some humar rights organization to the public to be shocked by.

And of course we cannot ignore Bipul Masli’s style and humor. His style is cruelly cynical, and his humor is such that made me wonder how Kurt Vonnegut could be considered the master of black humor when authors such as Dimitri Verhulst exist. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kurt Vonnegut (though not as much as I did when I was a teenager, but I still like him well enough), but he simply doesn’t seem to be playing in the same league as Dimitri Verhulst, as regards both his humor and his oft-praised humanism.

Anyway, the usual thing happened to me while I read Problemski Hotel: it was such an excellent and stunning book that I find it extremely hard to speak about it. I’m not Dimitri Verhulst therefore I cannot write without a lot of over-dramatization about the things he handles so easily and naturally. And if there’s one thing I don’t want to do with this book, it is to spoil it with my tearjerking and dramatic words. Therefore I stop writing now.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

I like the work of Ian McEwan. I wouldn’t be happy to read two of his books in close succession, and fortunately no-one compels me to do so, so I always read his novels after waiting a sufficient time, when I feel that I’m ready again for the extraordinary experience his work usually provides me with. The Comfort of Strangers had also been sitting on my desk for a couple of months before I mustered the necessary courage which is needed for reading McEwan.

I know it’s not the size of a book that counts, however, in the beginning I was deceived and disappointed by the fact that The Comfort of Strangers only runs to 100 pages, so I was expecting a simple, perhaps rather shallow story without too much soul-dissection, one I would read in two hours and then forget about in a week. I was wrong. As soon as I started reading the novel, I realized that this is not a text that can or should be read quickly. McEwan demands the reader’s attention but he gives much pleasure in return, and he also proves that his short novel can contain as much drama, suspense, tragedy and gloomy poetry as any thousand-page book.

The novel tells the story of the English couple, Colin and Mary, who spend their holiday in an unnamed city (apparently it’s Venice). Their time passes monotonously until one evening, when, while walking through the city late at night looking for a place to eat, they bump into Robert, a rather aggressive, overwhelmingly cordial local man who invites the couple first to a smoky bar, and then next day to his own apartment. Here they meet Robert’s disabled wife, Caroline, who can hardly walk because of the constant pain in her back. The rest of the novel analyzes the special relationships which exist among these four people, but I would rather not say any more of the story, as every further detail might diminish the morbid, perverted delight offered by the book.

Because despite all its brutality and harshness, The Comfort of Strangers is a beautiful text. It’s written in such a stunning, poetic and seductive language that I often found myself reading a sentence three or four times before moving on, and I also turned back the pages several times to read through a particularly rich paragraph again. In this fascinating, cutting and detached language McEwan tells us quite a lot about the relationship of men and women, alienation, passion, desire and fear, and what he says here is never reassuring and often unsettling.

The atmosphere of the novel, suggested by the story and the language itself, is much enhanced by the city where the events take place. Although it is not stated explicitly, several signs imply that the story is set in Venice: we read about channels and bridges, the characters move about in boats and the cemetery island can also be vaguely seen on the horizon – and Venice is not the city of light, airy stories: just think of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion or Daphne Du Maurier’s story, Don’t Look Now. These stories came to my mind immediately when reading The Comfort of Strangers, and the comparisons didn’t make my heart any easier.

Apart from the style, the language and the setting, the title of the novel is also worth contemplating. I think it’s beautiful and very expressive. To be comfortable among strangers – it almost sounds like an oxymoron, and still: Colin and Mary feel at home in the strange city, in the company of Robert and Caroline, and this is the setting where they find the means of rekindling their rather cold relationship which is more of a friendship now than a love affair. The same holds true for Robert and Caroline who can gratify their passions and sexual desires under the strange gaze and presence of Colin and Mary.

On the whole, this is a stunning and rich novel which also made me reflect on myself and the world. And this is exactly what I expect from a book.