“We have all read the sermons. We could write them ourselves. But we are vain and ambitious all the same, and we never do live quiet, because we rise in the morning and we feel the blood coursing in our veins and we think, by the Holy Trinity, whose head can I stamp on today? What worlds are at hand, for me to conquer?”
The Mirror & the Light, the grand finale of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is, like the two previous books, a precious and unique tour de force. I say this without hesitation: to me, this trilogy constitutes the best of what Western literature of the last several decades has to offer. It’s a true modern classic; a required reading that I cannot recommend highly enough. I have read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies before this blog was even an idea, so I haven’t written reviews for them and I doubt I will anytime soon – definitely not before a reread, and these are books that require a lot of effort and attention to be fully appreciated 😉; what I can say here is that all three deserve the highest praise as rare masterpieces.
Title: The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths
Series: The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths #1
The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, from now on TISUD for the sake of me finishing this review this year and you ever reading it in full, is the first instalment in a 7-book series, a recipient of a Prix Sang d’encre for 2012, and the only Barde-Cabuçon book currently translated to English. Published by Pushkin Vertigo imprint in their series of non-English mysteries and crime novels, it had earlier existed on the market under a probably less sellable but more faithful to the original title, Casanova and a Faceless Woman. So, if you’ve read Casanova, TISUD is not a sequel, but the same exact book, just republished 😉. Ooof. Since this book is about mysterious, mistaken and hidden identities, the whole affair with the English title is simply delightfully ironic.
TISUD is a historical crime novel, and a very peculiar one at that. It takes place in 1759 in decadent Paris, somewhere between the shiny halls of Versailles ruled by debauched Louis XV and his cohorts, and the dirty, dangerous hovels of Parisian suburbs inhabited by the desperate poor. The social climate is the most compelling character in this novel, as the general population of Paris is seething with resentment, misery and anger, and seems on a brink of revolution, while the decadent elites seem oblivious to both the inequity and the inherent risks (and since it’s historical fiction, TISUD gets this part to a t).
First of all, whoever came up with that snappy if misleading one-liner “Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space,” was rather off the mark.
Yes, Unconquerable Sun does take place in a political environment reminiscent of the dynamic between ancient Macedonia, Greece and Persia. Yes, there are some details pointing to Elliot’s Alexandrian inspirations, such as snakes on Sun’s extravagant father’s clothing, a clear bow toward Alexander’s mother Olympias, or the explosive relationship between Sun and her mother Eirene, resembling that between Alexander and his father Phillip II. There are some hidden clues, such as a deficient sibling of the heir hidden away, or a host of concubines and wives, each with their own claim to the throne and a healthy dose of mistrust and rivalry toward each other. Will Elliott take the resemblances as far as the real story’s sad end? Considering the first installment, fizzling with YA vibes and a sense of youthful invincibility, I somehow rather doubt it. And anyway, Unconquerable Sun mostly tells the tale of Elliott’s fascination with Asian cultures: from very strong Chinese and Japanese influences to slightly more hidden Hinduist and even Mesopotamian elements.
Let me start by saying that I discovered, with some surprise, that I’m not the intended audience for this book: it’s definitely a children’s book, one of the few occasions where these distinctions do matter. D: A Tale of Two Worlds is full to bursting with good intentions and important issues, from the casualty of racism in modern England to the plight of immigrants from Africa, to xenophobia and post-truth and the power of words. And yet all of them are very much simplified, made slightly anecdotal and not really significant (with the exception of the disappearance of the letter D which becomes the catalyst for our protagonist’s journey) – more like inconveniences than some truly troubling issues. At the same time, it’s a bit of a self-indulgent book, delighting in taking barely concealed potshots at Trump, which for a young reader might be a tad confusing.
While Faber in the afterword indicates his inspirations – mainly Dickens, who even makes an appearance as a very old and eccentric history professor, but also Lewis’s Narnia, Thurber’s The Wonderful O and the Wonderland novels – I mostly felt that D: A Tale of Two Worlds was a modern twisted retelling of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is not a bad thing in itself, but I expected a bit more originality from Faber.
But ad rem: Faber’s D: A Tale of Two Worlds is a story of a young girl, Dhikilo, who discovers one day that the letter D is disappearing from the world. Inexplicably, magically, the letter D is being stolen from the language, from books and speech – and with its disappearance, ideas and things whose name start with this letter, begin to change their meaning or to disappear as well. Dhikilo’s only hope is her retired history teacher, professor Dodderfeld, who’s dead. Or rather ea, in the new parlance.
Ola: As much as we’d love to keep to the books and movies, the Polish ugly reality won’t allow us this luxury. After the brazen dismantling and subjugation of the judicial system, effective reintroduction of censorship in media, transforming the Roman Catholic Church into a political force, and crawling incapacitation of the military and foreign policy, the ruling authoritarian party ironically called Law and Justice decided to take posession of the citizens’ hearts and minds – by force. Starting with the persecution of the minorities: from LGBTQ to foreigners, Polish government has ended on a very Atwoodian note – by overturning (arguably illegally) the already very restrictive abortion laws, in effect banning nearly all forms of abortion, even in cases of severe foetal damage or abnormality, which often results in the death of the embryo.
Let’s put this in context: 98% of the 1,100 terminations permitted last year in Poland (a country with a population of nearly 38 million) were in the category of severe fetal abnormality. The current government had sought to overturn this law before, and not because of some high abstract values but mostly for a very concrete political gain – the removal of women’s rights comes as a gift from the Law and Justice politicians for the ultra-conservative Polish Catholic Church; it serves a very significant symbol of goodwill and a tangible guarantee of continuing support of the dominant religious institutions for the authoritarian regime.
Let’s be clear here: while the abortion theme might be the most apparent, controversial, and commanding attention, it is not the main issue here. The crux of the problem is that an increasingly authoritarian ruling party decided to overturn a long-standing and widely accepted axio-normative compromise rooted in law in the middle of a growing deadly pandemic, hoping that the battered an divided Polish society won’t notice this (yet another in a long line of progressively punitive) encroachment on civil freedoms. And now, when Poles are protesting on the streets, the leader of the Law and Justice party officially calls for the extreme right-wing organizations to defend traditional values “at all cost,” exhorting them to “win this war” – basically, and in not so many words, inciting social unrest and violence. The Guardian called it simply a betrayal of democracy, and is right.
Piotrek: It’s increasingly controversial to call what we had a compromise. If it ever was one, it was between conservative politicians and the Church, and resulted in some of the harshest abortion laws in Europe. The Church seemed to be doing well despite a growing wave of scandals, but this time they might have gone too far and the bishops are seen as just as valid a target of public anger as politicians.
There is something going on in Poland. And we’re not talking about the recent rise in COVID-19 cases – although this is very worrying, as we had twice as much cases in October than during the entire pandemic before the current month.
There is also a rise in people marching against the regime. They march, they drive very slowly on busy streets, they sit and block crucial crossroads in city centres. The rural areas I blasted in our previous political post are on the move as well, bless them. What has changed? It’s too early for a final verdict, but one thing is clearly visible – young people are mobilized like never before. It’s probably the biggest political mobilization of Polish teenagers ever. I was among the oldest on the first demonstration last week. Veterans of the resistance are a bit bitter, perhaps if we had more support five years ago we could prevent a lot of evil – but that doesn’t matter now, and clearly people younger than me needed to find their very own reasons to join the good fight. Now they see they have a very personal stake in how the society is organized and they are doing something about it. I salute them!
I’ve never seen so much energy, joy, optimism. It’s a street revolution, it’s a meme war, there’s music. Politically we might achieve nothing, again – although I might be surprised again. But this week revealed a huge social change that never before translated into the world of politics – the catho-nationalistic ideology the regime tried to feed to the young generation didn’t take.
There is hope; please, even now, when the most important thing going is is undoubtedly happening in America, pay some attention to our sad little country.