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San Perdido

David Zukerman

(Calmann-Lévy, 450 pages, 2019)

 

 What is a hero, if not a man who one day realizes the secret dreams of an entire people? San Perdido

 

In San Perdido, a small town on Panama’s Caribbean coast, Yerbo Kwinton is a legend. The poorest residents of the Lágrima slum who live off the municipal dumpsite first notice him one morning in June 1946. From out of nowhere comes a small, ten-year-old black boy with strange blue eyes, mute and frail, but with powerful hands much too large for a child his age. Decades later, the people of San Perdido will still remember him as La Mano, “the hand that reaches out to help when no one else can.”

 Felicia, a resilient Ghanian woman who made a home for herself on the edge of the landfill, is the only one able to approach this inscrutable and solitary child. They wordlessly help each other. Yet in spite of their complicity, Yerbo’s comings and goings remain a mystery. He grows up scouring heaps of garbage for scrap metal. Only a few know that he can turn into a merciless vigilante who kills thieves and child predators with his bare hands.

 As he reaches adolescence, Yerbo abandons his scavenging life to work in the harbor overlooking the Bay of Port Sangre. One day, his boss challenges him to an arm-wrestling contest. All present witness the crushing power of Yerbo’s hands. From then on, Yerbo’s reputation as a man not to be meddled with spreads around town. In San Perdido, corruption and exploitation are commonplace. The dock men’s strike is violently repressed. When the building where many of them lodge is destroyed by arson, Yerbo intervenes with deadly efficiency; summary justice, yes, but how moral can one be when living in San Perdido, “a city forsaken by God”?

An exuberant set of characters accompanies Zukerman’s elusive main hero as he defends the innocent and the oppressed. There is the temperamental Yumna who, thanks to her voluptuous beauty, climbs the social ladder by becoming the mistress of the governor—a man whose insatiable sexual appetite earned him the nickname El Toro; the exquisite Hissa, an orphan rescued by the madam of the most upscale brothel in town; the good doctor Portillo-Lopez, who cares for bodies and souls; as well as ex-American soldiers, shady adventurers, greedy public officials, and descendants of runaways slaves who long ago found refuge in the nearby rain forest.

 With great gusto, David Zukerman combines social realism with pure fiction, and an added frisson of supernatural horror. He is a master storyteller who effortlessly orchestrates his characters’ intersecting fates. There is no second role here. San Perdido is a seductive tale that transports the reader into the atmosphere of a tropical town with all its political intrigues, explosive passions, and raw sensuality—a reading pleasure hard to resist.

 

David Zukerman is an actor, musician, and playwright. San Perdido is his first novel.

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A Long Mexican Night

Isabelle Mayault

(Gallimard, 272 pages, 2018)

*** Rights sold in German (Rowohlt) ***

*** Current Italian offer ***

When his beloved cousin died in a car-crash with her lover on a highway along the Pacific, a young Mexican man inherited a suitcase. In it he discovered thousands of negatives of photos taken, five decades prior, by Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim, the three famous Central-European photographers who covered the Spanish Civil War. And he didn’t know what to do : say nothing out of loyalty, and simply become their new guardian? Or make their existence known?

To reach a decision, he started researching the chain of successive proprietors of the suitcase, to reconstitute the long night during which the heroism, discretion and audacity of a few men and women saved these precious negatives.

And now, twenty years later, it is up to him to decide their new destiny...

A Long Mexican Night is Isabelle Mayault’s debut novel. It is not the story of Capa, Taro, and Chim : rather the story of the famous suitcase -and its successive proprietors- which was thought lost and suddenly reappeared in Mexico in 2007. No-one knows what actually happened… so Isabelle Maynault offers this amazing tale.

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Spinoza: The Other Path

Blandine Kriegel

(Éditions du Cerf, 504 pages, 2018)

If Spinoza now deserves to be read, studied and understood, it is because he offers an alternative path—alternative to the one that dominated the preceding centuries, a path that can perhaps help us overcome or solve the failures and disasters attributed to modernity.

—Blandine Kriegel

 

In recent decades there has been a remarkable surge of interest in Spinoza. Neurophysiologists, psychologists, philosophers, animal rights advocates, and even botanists are rediscovering his famously dense and opaque treatises. Why is it that, once deemed “archaic and medieval,” Spinoza is now more relevant than ever? This is the question underlying Blandine Kriegel’s latest book.

Kriegel, one of France’s foremost political philosophers, explores Spinoza’s formative years through his exposure to three main cultural influences: the Sephardic Jewish tradition; his freethinking circle of Dutch friends; and the broader intellectual and political history of the Dutch Republic at the dawn of the modern scientific revolution. Throughout the book, Kriegel engages with a rich body of international research, which helped dispel Spinoza’s long-held reputation as a reclusive thinker leading a life of pure reflection in isolation from his contemporaries.

 Kriegel combines historical investigation and text analysis to introduce Spinoza’s politics. She turns to The Theologico-Political Treatise and the lesser-known Political Treatise to demonstrate why Spinoza’s innovative arguments in defense of democratic governance, separation of powers, and the freedom of thought and expression constitute a decisive stage in modern political philosophy. Did his political ideas mark a definitive rupture with classical political philosophy? And did they pave the way to the Revolution? With this in mind, she reviews the dissemination of Spinoza’s political ideas among French and English Enlightenment thinkers, while insisting on the need to distinguish Spinoza, his thought, from Spinozism, the reception of his thought.

 Finally, Kriegel examines The Ethics, Spinoza’s monumental and posthumously published work. She first introduces the historical context, focusing on the paradigm shift brought by the arrival of Newtonian physics, and on Spinoza’s critical engagement with the radical positions of Descartes. Kriegel follows with a comprehensive evaluation of each of The Ethics’s five parts illuminating Spinoza’s views on God, the universe, human nature, knowledge, will and freedom. How, she asks, are we to explain that such a profound philosophy was ignored for extended periods of time? To answer this question, she reappraises the complex reception of Spinoza’s philosophy in Germany—from early rejection, to Goethe’s enthusiasm, to Hegel’s ambivalence.

 Since the beginning of her research, Kriegel has studied early modern thinkers. Her substantial work on the historical and philosophical foundations of the concepts of human rights, republic, and democracy makes her an authority on Spinoza. Kriegel’s vast erudition allows her to address the many ways in which Spinoza’s philosophy has been misinterpreted: from the early adversaries who merely saw him as the destroyer of religion to his later adepts who approach his thought selectively. She masterfully demonstrates the contemporaneity of Spinoza’s philosophy, and why his ethics, “which do not separate knowledge from the belief in the infinitude of God and nature,” may well be the ones we most urgently need in the twenty-first century.

 

Blandine Kriegel, a student of Georges Canguilhem, and research collaborator of Michel Foucault, is one of France’s foremost political theorists and historians. She is Professor of Moral and Political Philosophy in Paris and the author of numerous books and more than four hundred articles. Her critically acclaimed book, The State and the Rule of Law, was translated and published by Princeton University Press in 1995. Kriegel was the editor of the journal Philosophie Politique. She has also had a high public profile in France through her role in a succession of national reform commissions.

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Mafiosas

Pascale Dietrich

(Liana Levi, 160 pages, 2019)

 

Ironic, feminist, delightfully unpredictable. Le Figaro

 

In a Grenoble hospital, Leone Acampora, a local mafioso, has slipped into an irreversible coma. His devoted wife, Michèle, has been notified that the end is near. She now sits by his side, reflecting lovingly on their forty-five-year marriage. All in all, it was a good one, during which she fully enjoyed the advantages, and to a lesser degree the incidental unpleasantness, of being married to the mob. Besides, she has been an exemplary and loyal wife—at least as far as her husband knows.

 But Michèle is in for a rude awakening. The comatose Leone left her a letter graciously informing her that he has no intention of traveling solo in the afterworld, but she should not worry. He has taken care of everything. The hit man he hired assured him that her death would be painless.

 Michèle is not the type of woman to die without a fight. She is determined to live, and after failing to solve the problem on her own, she calls her two daughters to her rescue. The three women are now engaged in a race against time. They must identify the hit man before he finds his prey.

 Dina and Alissia are well aware of their father’s line of business, but each has responded to it differently. For Dina, it has been a struggle. It is not easy to wonder, every time a bank is robbed, whether your family is involved. To assuage her guilt, Dina chose a career in humanitarian aid, and now works for an NGO called Major Emergencies. At this time, though, she is in a state of heightened vulnerability, unhappy in love and disillusioned with her job.

 Contrary to Dina, Alissia has fully embraced her father’s legacy. Initially she intended to become a paramedic, but she wisely shifted to another specialty. No more fishy pizza parlors for laundering money. Now she owns a respectable pharmacy, the perfect cover for behind-the-counter activities. She even developed her own approach to cope with the stress of the job. Cultivating a serene mind is crucial when one deals kilos of hashish and cocaine, and when one is facing a new wave of competitors treading on her turf.

 Alissia thus takes the initiative to send her mother to a remote villa in the mountains while planning her transfer to a more secure and permanent location. But, self-confident by nature, she fails to take into account that Leone possesses one crucial advantage: He is a father well acquainted with his two daughters’ strengths and weaknesses. And he knows that Dina is the weakest link.

 With Mafiosas, Pascale Dietrich offers a refreshing take on the mafia story. Her choice of setting departs from the genre’s convention; we discover a grittier Grenoble, with its drug-invested low-income high-rises set against the majestic backdrop of the Alps. The three protagonists, each in her own way, subvert the roles they are expected to play. Michèle will not be a passive victim. Alissia uses this crisis to redraw the rules. She will not let her future be dictated by aging godfathers playing cards in retirement homes, nor be passed over for leadership because she is a woman. As for Dina, who has always felt oppressed by the omerta, the rule of silence, transgressing the old ways will take another turn. Subtly feminist, Mafiosas is a delightful read, laced with sardonic humor and peppered with memorable scenes.

  

Pascale Dietrich is a writer and a sociologist. She has published short stories in magazines as well as short novels exploring the thriller genre, such as Le Homard (Éditions In8, 2013) and Une île bien tranquille (Éditions Liane Levi, 2016).

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Memories

Marie Rameau

(La Ville Brûle, 242 pages, 2015)

To create, even here, is to resist; it is to hope; it is to want to live.

—Denise Vernay, alias Miarka, 1946

They fought against evil without ever taking themselves for an incarnation of the good.

—Tzvetan Todorov

Marie Rameau is a photographer who has dedicated herself to honoring women who fought against the Nazis in the French Resistance. For years she has met the survivors, shot their portraits, and gathered their testimonies, always searching for the most appropriate and respectful way to preserve the memory of their historical roles in World War II. In Memories she highlights nineteen women arrested for acts of resistance. Caught in France, they were condemned to forced labor in Mauthausen, Neunengamme, and Ravensbrück—Nazi concentration camps located in Germany and Austria. Toward the end of the war, some were transferred to Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. After providing a brief biography for each woman, Rameau lets the objects they secretly crafted in the camps tell their stories.

Faced with the extreme dehumanization of camp life, female prisoners engaged in a different kind of resistance. They pilfered and recycled the materials with which they were forced to manufacture parts for the German war industry—when they were not actively sabotaging them. Electric wire was crafted into a pair of earrings; leather and rubber pieces used for gas masks were repurposed into handbags, belts, and shoes; and the fake fur lining helmets turned into stuffed animals. They spirited away anything they could, from thread and needle to paper and pencil. Some made notebook covers with their bedding’s burlap and embroidered them with cannon wick. Others drew on the unfolded lids of the small boxes intended to contain bullet casings. These objects, made in such perilous circumstances, were often tiny because they had to stay concealed. Yet, Rameau explains, they “were an integral part of the life of the inmates, and participated in networks of solidarity and sociability that structured life in the camp.” They convey better than any word the vital spirit, imagination, ingenuity, and courage of the women who crafted them against all odds.

Some of the women who appear in this book are well known, like the anthropologist Germaine Tillion, who after her release published a seminal eyewitness account of her time at Ravensbrück. Others did not return but live on in the memories of those who did. The stories sometimes overlap; the women find inspiration in the physical presence of cherished mementos infused with the friendships to which many say they owe their survival.

Memories is a touching and powerful expression of Rameau’s enduring commitment to witness, record, and remember. When asked why, she explains that “these women lived in accord with themselves, fought against the worst in humankind, and had the generosity to let us think that we can still continue to hope for the best.” She adds, “listening to them, we understand that no one is immune from becoming a terrifying being . . . we also understand that no one is immune, either, from the possibility of not becoming one!”

 

Marie Rameau is a photographer, and member of the board of directors of the Germaine Tillion Association. She previously published Des Femmes en résistance, 1939–1945 (Editions Autrement, 2008).

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Life at Versailles in 100 Questions

Mathieu Da Vinha

(Tallandier, 334 pages, 2018)

 

 In the 1660s, the area surrounding the future Palace of Versailles was an inhospitable swamp, unpleasantly windy and without direct access to spring water. Yet it is in that very place that, in 1682, Louis XIV decided to move the court and the government. So why did he choose Versailles?

 Mathieu Da Vinha, the scientific director of the Palace of Versailles Research Center, deftly answers that question as well as ninety-nine others. Using a playful question-and-answer approach, Da Vinha invites us to understand Versailles from different and complementary perspectives: architecture and garbage disposal; food procurement and sleeping arrangements; transportation and hygiene; entertainment and working conditions for all those who contributed to the realization of the Sun King’s grand vision, one that was not fully completed by the time of his death. Was Versailles a safe place? Was the food good? Who could visit? Did you have to be rich to live there? Could you die there?

 Da Vinha takes pleasure in challenging common misconceptions and legends surrounding the habits and customs of the royal court. Did courtiers live in cramped quarters, no better than “rats’ nests”? Is it true that the Sun King only took one bath in his life? These simply framed questions serve as a point of departure to explore broader themes. Thus the story on Louis XIV’s bathing preference leads to observations on seventeenth-century medical practices, and the co-opting of mirror craftsmen from Venice exemplifies European commercial and artistic rivalry in the Age of Enlightenment. Strict etiquette—the hallmark of Louis XIV’s reign—defined an art of living that became famous throughout Europe.

 Foreign observers were particularly taken by another aspect of the life at Versailles: the wide public access to the palace’s grounds. Just about anyone, they marveled, could stroll around in the gardens and catch a glimpse of the Sun King from afar. He constantly lived in the public eye. To maintain that legacy could be a burden to his successors, and most famously so for the Queen Marie-Antoinette. The chapter entitled, “Did the king and queen appeared naked before the courtiers?” details the intricate rules attached to dressing the queen. The anecdote is amusing, but also perfectly captures the absurd and oppressive quality of court protocol.

 Da Vinha brings his erudition and expertise to answer the questions that someone visiting the palace might ask. The responses he provides offer a vivid and comprehensive portrait of the first two hundred years of Versailles, from its conception up to the French Revolution. Beyond the myths of royal opulence that continue to hold sway over the public imagination, he illuminates the lives of the thousands of people who built, maintained, and populated the palace. With Life at Versailles in 100 Questions, Da Vinha offers the perfect resource to gain an accessible, entertaining, yet knowledgeable understanding of Versailles.

 

Mathieu da Vinha is currently the scientific director of the Palace of Versailles Research Center. He is the author of several studies and biographies relating to life under the reign of Louis XIV, including Versailles: Enquête historique (Tallandier, 2015), Au service du roi. Dans les coulisses de Versailles (Tallandier, 2015), Alexandre Bontemps, Premier valet de chambre de Louis XIV (éd. Perrin, 2011), Le Versailles de Louis XIV: Le fonctionnement d’une résidence royale au XVIIe siècle (Perrin, 2009), Louis XIV et Versailles (éd. Arts Lys/Château de Versailles, 2009), and Les Valets de chambre de Louis XIV (éd. Perrin, 2004.) He is also the co-author of Versailles. Histoire, dictionnaire et anthologie, published by Robert Laffont in 2015.