Sunday, November 24, 2013

Pitigrilli’s Addictive Cocaine

The cover of a 1945 Turkish edition.
Pitigrilli’s 1921 Cocaine, which I read in Eric Mosbacher’s translation from the original Italian Cocaina falls into a category of novels I seem to love, books about decadence between the World Wars that combine humor, soul searching, friends who become monks, and sad endings. Like Antal Szerb’s 1937 Journey by Moonlight, Cocaine also focuses on a young European man’s (mis)adventures at home and abroad: in Cocaine, Tito Arnaudi, who’s Italian, goes to Paris, where he gets a job as a journalist, gets involved with multiple women, and gets a cocaine habit.

The trajectory here is tragic—based on my reading, cocaine habits in novels generally do result in trouble—but most of the journey is ridiculously fun and carnivalistic, even with (or perhaps because of?) looming death. There’s even a revolver on page 36. And an orgy in a penguin room, a lover with a coffin, strawberries soaked in Champagne and ether, and a scandal because Tito invents a newspaper article about an execution and the article is published even though the execution is commuted. And there are lines like “Gambling is not the pleasure of winning, but a feeling that you are living intensely.” Which Tito does, with his Italian girlfriend Maud (née Maddalena) and his Armenian girlfriend Kalantan (she of the coffin), and what must amass to kilos of cocaine. I enjoyed Eric Mosbacher’s translation very much for its feel of another time and--perhaps even more important for the translator in me--a sense that he made lots of excellent decisions about how to handle Cocaine’s form, vocabulary (tepidarium, anyone?), and wonderful peculiarities.

For more on Cocaine:

M.A. Orthofer’s review on The Complete Review, which concludes, “Cynical, yes, and arguably offensively amoral, Cocaine is still grand entertainment, exceptionally well done.”

Peter Keough on, with this summary at the top: “Cocaine’s bleak and brilliant satire, lush and intoxicating prose, and sadistic playfulness remain as fresh and caustic as they were nine decades ago.”

A version of Alexander Stille’s afterword to Cocaine, from the NYRblog.

Up Next: Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr. Lynch’s Holiday, an interesting counterbalance to Cocaine

Disclosures: I received a galley copy of Cocaine from my local and very independent bookstore, Longfellow Books, which sells books from New Vessel Press, publisher of Cocaine. A smart move on their part for absolutely all concerned because a) I’d looked at Cocaine but it didn’t strike me at all in the store but b) it definitely struck me when I got home (!?) and c) I loved the book and d) I’m already planning to buy a couple copies for holiday gifts. (BTW: My purchase of a stack of books, many of which were translations, including a copy of Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, also published by New Vessel, is what spurred the gift… This, dear people, is only one of many reasons I love my independent book store so much. They know me as a person and a reader not as a user name, password, and credit card history. Plus they host great events!)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Two Quick Words: Police and Theft

It’s rare that I write about a book the week it hits the New York Times bestseller list but here goes… Jo Nesbø’s Police, which I read in Don Bartlett’s translation of the original Norwegian Politi, is described on the title page as “A Harry Hole Novel.” Meaning Police continues a series of novels about Harry Hole, a gruff, hard-boiled Oslo police detective. I’d be hard-boiled, too, if so many of my co-workers were murdered: they get killed off at such a rate in Police it’s a wonder anyone’s left by the end of the book.

Police is my first Nesbø book and it left me pretty indifferent. I enjoy a good detective novel but Police felt a little too twitchy and manic, shifting from plotline to plotline, character to character. I realize the furtiveness felt magnified because I haven’t read any of Nesbø’s previous novels about Harry Hole and his colleagues—always a danger with series novels—but, sorry, I think books ought to stand alone a little better than this if they’re sold alone. When Police finally settled down and began exploring character as the characters continued to explore a series of killings, I enjoyed it more, though the series of plot twists is such that mentioning relevant specifics would pretty much spoil the book for anyone intending to read it… not that those spoilers would really come as much of a surprise. Even at its best, Police still didn’t feel like much more than a typical hard-edged detective novel that could take place just about anywhere in the world. There was even a reference to Breaking Bad. Shrug.

If I were using food metaphors—and why not?—then Police is the Starbucks coffee and institutional-tasting chocolate cupcake I ate a couple weeks ago while traveling, you know, that standard junky snack you can buy anywhere to satisfy a certain craving even if you know you won’t love it. By contrast, Peter Carey’s Theft is a tasty soufflé with a glass of wine and a fun friend: light, laugh-inducing, and atmospherically memorable. Theft is narrated by two Australian brothers, both troubled in their own ways: Michael Boone is an artist who’s done time and Hugh Boone is younger, larger (at 220 pounds), and living in Michael’s care because he’s not, as they say, all there.

The (new) troubles start when Michael (a.k.a. Butcher) meets Marlene Leibovitz, who turns up at his (borrowed) house… it turns out Marlene’s the daughter-in-law of one of Michael’s favorite painters. And then we start in on forgery, thefts (art and even one of Hugh’s folding chairs he uses to sit on the street), other forms of deception, trips to Tokyo and New York, murder, and so on. What makes Theft so much fun is Carey’s combination of undependable narrative voices: Michael, mostly serious and mostly in love with the sneaky Marlene, and Hugh, quirky, perceptive about his brother’s relationship, and often using ALL CAPS to emphasize his points. All this fits together in a way that addresses questions of truth(iness) and its versions, the nature of art, and, of course, all sorts of relationships, many of them triangular. And who gets the last laugh.

Disclaimers and disclosures: I received a copy of Police from publisher Alfred A. Knopf, thank you!

Up next: Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond and MacDonald Harris’s The Carp Castle. And Pitigrilli’s Cocaine.