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issue 53: May - June 2006

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The Stars Above Veracruz by Barry Gifford: Thunder’s Mouth Press, US

This collection is not so much one of short stories as a collection of short anecdotes––and two much longer ones––such as overheard in a bar or flea-bag hotel. In fact it is the latter where presumably these stories are heard as the collection opens with the tale of a funambulist who worked with his parents until they fell from a high wire to their deaths, and who has since lived in a down-and-out hotel in Veracruz. He tells the story of a man who hanged himself in the hotel and says: "Those [stories] that follow are among the most interesting I have heard, remembered and written down." The final story of the collection brings us back to the "ropedancer" as he recounts a recurring dream.

Of course, Gifford being Gifford, these aren’t anecdotes in any ordinary sense, but tales with verge and edge such as you’ve never heard before. Gifford calls these pieces "a geography of fictions," a fitting description as they cover a variety of countries and locales. Hence, we shift from Honduras to LA to France, Romania, Cuba, New Zealand and so on; while constantly shifting our perspective on life around us as well.

A typical ‘story’ would be "The Sculptor’s Son," set in France. An American, who has fled to Paris after a divorce, hears the story at a dinner party there. It is about a sculptor who has had been married six or seven times and had almost as many live-in mistresses. He has eleven children, never more than one child from any one woman. Every time he gets tired of one woman, he builds an extension on his house and then begins a new life in the extension. He does not speak with his former women, but they all continue to live under one roof. They are permitted to have men over, but if they choose to live with a man, they must leave. The story is simply told by a guest at a dinner party, but it is dead effective, rather like the best of urban myths.

The two longer stories are extended anecdotal narratives: "Almost Oriental" is about an American professor, attempting to write a biography, who travels to Romania to get details of the birthplace of his subject, a now dead American author. Once in Romania, he discovers it is still much like the old communist KGB days, with "securitate" everywhere. Even the woman, a state employee, who is there to help him (and with whom he will have sex), is supposedly "securitate": When the writer expresses surprise at this state of affairs, she merely replies: "They prefer to keep track of everyone . . . . Is it not the same in America?" The story has a slightly unreal feel to it, much like the David Lynch cinema that Gifford collaborated on; one feels thrown off balance in this Eastern European culture; "[t]hings do not work the same here as they do in America," he is told, and this is just what many of Gifford’s narrators learn; a majority of the fictions’ narrators are American, traveling or living abroad, and yes, things are different. They are literally different in a cultural and geographical sense, and they tap unexplored terrain within the reader as well.

The second long story, "Murder at the Swordfish Club," is set in New Zealand and tells much of the history of that island while tracking down the recent murderer of a local Maori: "The crime was the biggest news at the Swordfish Club since Zane Grey arrived sixty-nine years before, and then all he killed were fish." The history is nicely recounted, and yes––who would have thought––Zane Grey played a part.

"Dancing with Fidel," set not long after Castro’s takeover, is a medium-length story about a young couple and a woman in a Miami nightclub who get talked into flying to Havana for a night by a strange gentleman. These are ordinary people who dare to follow a whim and chance the new.

The "ropedancer" proves an apt guide through the fictions for it is indeed a tight-wire act, this journey through life. It requires constant diligence and it is so easy to slip, as many of these beautiful losers and life-grabbing drifters do, but, generally speaking, with eyes wide awake.

The Stars Above Veracruz packs humor and pathos into a "geography" of rich and wonderful tales, the kind you’ll love to retell at dinner parties. I know, because I’ve been doing so. J.A.

See Dancing with Fidel from issue 45 of TBR

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The Priest of Evil by Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu Arcadia Books, 2006.
Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston.

I find crime novels from other counties fascinating. Many do follow some of our familiar stereotypes, such as the hard-drinking cop with a marriage problem and so on, but there are others that put a whole fresh spin on the genre, such as Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe (see TBR review issue 46). An added bonus is getting a glimpse of another culture, be it food, routines, habits or whatever. In The Priest of Evil one little throwaway detail stuck – Finnish police stations have saunas. Quite natural for that part of the world, I guess, but a totally alien concept in this part, thank god, as the image of, say, Colombo, sweating it out (still in overcoat?) is a little gruesome. The downside of these books is often the names; it is odd to read a book not really knowing how to say the hero’s name properly. In this case the lead cop is called Timo Harjunpää. How on earth is that double ‘ä’ pronounced?

Harjunpää breaks the rules as a crime novel cop. He is not a drunk, he is very happily married and still very much in love with his wife, who, to me, seems to be a bit of a pain. He hasn’t fucked up, has no enemies in the station after his job, and is not trying to prove himself. He is a totally normal everyday cop, and, in fact, it is Onerva, a minor-role female cop, who does most of the clever thinking and pieces the clues and info together while Harjunpää is still trying to work out if there is even a case to investigate.

The book kicks off with small insights into the different characters. All seem confused, not quite one with the world: There’s Mikko, a young boy terrified by his surroundings and his own overactive imagination; there’s a man wittering on in a foreign language about the goddess Maammo while killing pigeons and people; and then there is Sinikka who doesn’t know she is Sinikka; in fact, nobody does because she is invisible. Not to worry, it quickly becomes apparent what is going on and who is who. We then meet the grown-up Mikko who has put his imagination to use and become a successful writer, albeit now with a writer’s block, living in a one-roomed flat with his daughter. Mikko’s extraordinary mental wanderings lead to the nice line, ‘The walls in this room had seen other people’s lives, but not his; the ceiling didn’t know how to protect him while he was thinking…’ Later, we get to know his son, Matti, living with his ex-wife. Matti is about as confused as his dad and is a victim of bullying. The Maammo man is the Priest of the title and is a total lunatic but genuinely does seem to have strange powers, some picked up in India. And Sinikka? Now that is interesting…

The Priest, in his bid to gain favour with Maammo, has taken to dressing up as a woman and pushing people in front of underground trains, which is how Harjunpää becomes involved. The Priest then decides that a bomb has to be a lot quicker in doing his god’s work but he just needs someone to carry it for him, and, of course —along comes Matti, desperate for relief from his miserable, friendless life. The Finnish original came out a year before the Madrid train bombings and two years before the London ones, in which black rucksacks were used, and though Matti’s target is possibly not a train, the closeness is disturbing.

The ending, like the beginning, is a little weird. Almost anti-climatic, but then Harjunpää is a normal Finnish cop and not some gung-ho type with a laser on his magnum.

The simplistic title might be a bit off-putting, but inside, the writing is very good with some quirky descriptions; I particularly liked this one of a ticking clock: ‘It was more of a quiet hiss, like a hedgehog sipping milk’. Translator David Hackston must have been in a bit of a dilemma with one part where Onerva appears holding ‘numerous sections of video tape’ taken from the metro station’s CCTV surveillance cameras. She lays them out on the table and Harjunpää looks at each frame through his magnifying class. Viewable frames on videotape that has been cut up? I don’t think so. Should Hackston have tidied up Joensuu’s blunder in some way?

As crime novels go The Evil Priest is good but quite gentle and it seems the confusion and frustrations of the majority of the protagonists are the author’s real focus of attention. It is no coincidence that Mikko (son called Matti, remember) has a writer’s block after eight books and that this book is Joensuu’s ninth Harjunpää story (in Finnish, second in English; The Stone Murders 1986), but it took a very long time coming. MGS

© 2006 The Barcelona Review
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issue 53: May- June 2006

f i c t i o n

Helen Simpson: Every Third Thought
Josip Novakovich: Night Guests
Rattawut Lapcharoensap: At the Café Lovely
Craig Dixon: Box Count
David Ramos Fernandes: Blossom

picks from back issues

Barry Gifford: Holiday from Women and Dancing With Fidel
Des Dillon: The Blue Hen

q u i z

Animals in Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz:
American Lit and Culture of the1960s

b o o k   r e v i e w s

The Stars Above Veracruz by Barry Gifford
The Priest of Evil by Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu

r e g u l ar  f e a t u r e s

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
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