Friday, 16 October 2020

Battered Penguins - The Dresden Green by Nicolas Freeling

As you can see this is a particularly battered specimen. It arrived in this condition, I should add, I didn't start tearing at it out of rage or irritation. Far from it - while at first I rather fought against having to spend time with the central character, I really liked both him and the book in the end. 

The central character is called Louis Schweitzer and he does seem a very cold fish to start with. However the author, Nicolas Freeling, quietly guides the reader to an understanding of Louis. You grow to like him as you watch him develop through the course of the book's events. He opens up, a little reluctantly, after years of merely existing, of going through "the chores he had trained himself to for many years", numbed by loss. 

The book is on one level a thriller, and on another a meditation on the bombing of Dresden and what it means. In his foreword, the author denies that he regards the bombing as unforgivable, and yet it seemed to me that every page of the novel was imbued with a sense of that act's depravity, and a feeling that Europe will consequently never be the same.

Above all, what makes this book good is the quality of the writing and the intelligence of the author, both of which are unexpected in a volume that presents itself, first and foremost, as a work of light entertainment

As I am rather hungry just at the moment, I will start with a relatively banal element - a nice description of a meal, (something I am always pleased to find when reading). This one is really a picnic, which the main character buys for himself:

"He pushed off exhilarated, stopped at the dairy on the corner for a piece of cheese, celery remoulade salad. Bread next door, mineral water, cold roast beef, two big gherkins: ready for the day."

Yum, (that should of course be celeriac, not celery but never mind.)

There is another meal that is far less appetising, but may provide useful advice in an emergency:

"He had two of that morning's rolls and two hard-boiled eggs, and three glasses of white wine. After that he had no wish to eat, no remnants of shock, (nothing like hard-boiled eggs for shock)."

One thing that makes the book so pleasing is the intelligence of the writer. He is rather good at conjuring up scenes and people with few words:

"a big warm room like a colossal jewel-box, bursting with a subdued glitter."

"He had a rapid easy way of getting out of autos like the gunslinger in a western sliding off his horse."

As someone who had some paintings stolen and misses them almost as much as I miss those among my friends and relations who are now dead, I loved this passage:

"A picture, even if stolen or looted, even if paid for by the blood of hundreds, pays back its price. It continues to instruct, to elevate, to unite, to construct."

The author's main characters are translators, and it was nice to discover that he seems to understand what the task of translation involves:

"That was what Louis liked about Mr Tsara - at all times he had a flair for the simple, the direct, the unpretentious. His phrases escaped from the silken cocoons of diplomacy and flew like butterflies. He was very easy and very difficult to translate, and hated being translated by anybody but Louis. Last week after an interminable discussion about oilbearing seeds he had remarked, ' We sound like a pack of suburban budgerigar breeders.' It had come out in English as 'smalltown pigeon fanciers'." 

Given its Dresden theme, the book is suffused with melancholy and disillusion about humanity and its activities, but the writing is good enough that this doesn't depress. I liked this disillusioned passage about international politics:

"Governments are all the same, naturally. The English had been discouraged by the Americans thinking it immoral for people to have colonies. The Americans, poor chaps, had been discouraged by the Russians not behaving like gentlemen about Berlin. The French, discouraged by everybody, were now being discouraging to everybody right back - enjoying it, what was more. As for Germans, nothing ever discourages them, not even their own history."

The author's sense of the fallen nature of European civilisation post Dresden is always in the background and always expressed beautifully. Contemplating the decay visible in the stone of an ancient statue, the main character, (or the author), observes:

"It is all like that, the stone, everywhere, in every town - the Gothic traceries crumbling cobwebs of foulness, the Renaissance columns bashed as though by armies of puritan image breakers, the frescoes and bas-reliefs smeared away to dirty shadows...We know vaguely, of course, that this is done by the famous acids of the air - vaguely we know that it is factory chimneys, auto exhausts, and so on, that turn our stone into dirty snow, just the way rough cider erodes the teeth. Just one of those little prices we pay for our progress, like the fish floating belly up, like the oil on our beaches, like the lemons painted with diphenyl to discourage penicillin."

The book, which feels as though it was written much closer to the end of the second world war, so much do the events of the war hover over it, was actually written in 1966, deep in the Cold War. An interesting exchange takes place between characters about the reunification of Germany, which one interlocutor advocates but the other does not:

"Your reunited German nation, free of all military burdens, possessing once more an unequalled energy and resources, would frighten all the corrupt and incompetent occident into creeping underground. You move the Bonn government into Berlin, and whether or not it possesses a tank or a plane, in a year it has total political and economic hegemony", argues the figure who is against reunification.

"I don't see why", replies the one in favour, "You maintain all the American, French and British bases on their present West-German soil. You stipulate that all costs are born by Germany alone - that takes care of the military burden angle. Economic hegemony? - you once allow the whole of Europe to unite and England balances the eastern provinces. The whole weeping sepsis ceases to exist."


But my absolute favourite bit of the book I have saved for last. One character mentions that the place where he works has a Kafkaesque atmosphere and the person he is talking to has never heard of Kafka. This is the first character's response:

"Czech writer, not much good, thought highly of because he's good at the facelessness of bureaucracy. People in his books spend their lives wandering around mysterious huge buildings full of corridors where people bustle about with papers all day, where nothing ever gets done, where everything is meaningless, where there's no answer to anything. Lends his name to dream worlds - helplessness, unreality, incomprehension, doubletalk."

Those three words "not much good" are a liberation if, like me, you have never really enjoyed reading Kafka.

So all in all an exciting, absorbing, well-written tale, with an equivocal ending. I prefer to be a Pangloss but the author is so good that I was forced by the end to admit that ours may not be the best of all possible worlds. 

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