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[654] The Novel Bookstore – Laurence Cossé


” Van and Francesca talked about the issue for a long time. Francesca would have lied, to a greater or lesser degree, for the public image of the store to be: at The Good Novel, you don’t go looking for books that everyone is talking about. ” (Part II, 20, p.147)

Mystery abounds in the opening pages of The Novel Bookstore: three people are given a glimpse of death but all survived their ordeal. A devotee of Stendhal was kidnapped and left for dead in a forest. An older man of unbreakable habits is threatened and taunted by two men during his morning walk. A mother who spends much of her time shuttling children skidded of the road on a twisty mountain road. These victims are ordinary people who share a common link: they are anonymous members of an eight-person committee at The Good Novel, an elitist bookstore in Paris, that sells books the owners hold in high esteem.

We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want great novels. (Part III, 36, p.279)

The identities of the committee members are known only to Francesca and Ivan, the unlikely business partners of a unique Parisian bookstore, The Good Novel, that sells only the best fiction—high-brow literature, suggested and compiled by the said committee, considered superior to the usual bestseller-list foderol. Despite the immediate success, the bookstore’s provocative stance of offering nothing but “great” literature unleashes a tide of hatred. Detractors publish diatribes accusing its proprietors and denizens of snobbery and elitism.

Cossé devotes many pages to the intricate selection process and preservation of secrecy. Physical assault of the committee members quickens the pace of the book. It becomes obvious that the organized campaign makes use of both propaganda and business tactics. Newspaper editorials attack The Good Novel, the internet condemns it, armies of the night cover Paris with posters descrying their exclusionary practice, and rival bookstores open across the street.

While the mystery of assaults stalls and dissipates without satisfactory resolution, it is, however, incidental to the larger themes of what superlative work in the literary sphere constitutes. The struggle of this fictional literary idyll invokes the debate of reading what gives pleasure vs. reading what one’s supposed to read. Manifested also in the plight is a bigger, more encroaching issue that concerns the entire book industry: what place is there for high-brow, highly lyrical and often difficult literature in a consumerism-oriented, mercenary world? Although the ending falls flat, the book is a creative endeavor that compels readers to consider their own literary preferences more consciously.

416 pp. Europa Editions (2010). Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[481] The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano

” Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other. He had never told her that. When he imagined confessing these things to her, the thin layer of sweat on his hands evaporated completely and for a good ten minutes he was no longer capable of touching anything. (Ch.21, p.112)

The Solitude of Prime Numbers centers around two misfits: Alice Della Rocca and Mattia Balossino. It’s rather flat but poignant coming-of-age story that spans almost 25 years, from 1983 to 2007. Giordano takes the title from mathematics, which is the passion of one of his main characters, a brainy, emotionally detached boy (and later, man) named Mattia. Although intelligent, his teachers express a peculiar unease with regard to this gifted boy who seems to have no desire to form bonds with anyone. When an incident occurs for which Mattia feels responsible—the disappearance of his twin mentally-defective sister—his life becomes full of guilt, and self-loathing behavior as well. His only interest is mathematics.

The lived the slow and invisible interpenetration of their universes, like two stars gravitating around a common axis, in ever tighter orbits, whose clear destiny is to coalesce at some point in space and time. (Ch.24, p.136)

Alice is one awkward girl, forced into activities by her father that irretrievably renders her crippled and emotionally detached from her family. Unlike Mattia, she is rejected by society, and craving to fit in. She goes to extreme lengths to be normal again. Like Mattia, she has a predilection to harm herself. Eventually, the odd pair crosses paths and becomes frequent acquaintances. While living their lives separately, they are continuously linked to one another and find comfort in one another, without fully understanding the predicaments that each faces.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But whatever it is, I think I like it. (Ch.39, p.227)

Giordano’s debut novel relates the mathematical interpretation of prime numbers to human life. One sees Mattia and Alice as twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other. They are two people who never fully assimilate to the society, but acknowledge their own solitude within the other. Their broken foundation during adolescence leads them to a life so lonely, abnormal, and alienated. The novel is a meditation on loneliness, since it follows the aftermath of their adolescent challenges and demonstrates no changes in their lives. The best part is the reflection on how the two tragic figures are so close and yet so far. I’m not overly fond of neither of them, but Giordano is to be commended for his contemplative writing style. He communicates through mathematics beautifully and that is what keeps the novel together.

271 pp. Viking. Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[309] Purge – Sofi Oksanen

” What did anything matter anymore? Everything was shattered. All the trouble she’d been through! All the striving! Collecting fines from people for not having children! . . . every day of her life wasted by fear, the stink of Martin’s flesh, her endless humiliation, endless lies, endless writhing around in Martin’s bed . . . ” [4:345]

When a disheveled girl collapsed under the heath outside the house of an old woman living on the edge of the Estonian forest, Sofi Oksanen clues us in that it is no accident Zara, a young sex-trafficking victim pursued by the mafias, chooses to seek refuge in Aliide Truu’s house. In Zara’s possesion is a photo that proves her arrival is no coincidence. As the cunning and vigilant woman, suppressing her misgivings, offers the fugitive a shelter, they engage in a psychic game of suspicion and revelation to probe each other’s motives. As befit a noir or suspense story, neither of the women is what they appear to be.

A person has to have faith in something in order to survive, and Zara decided to believe that Pasha’s notebook was her ticket out of there. Once it was done, she would be free, she would get a new passport, a new identity, a new story for herself. [3:263]

The main thing was that once she married a man like Martin, no one could suggest that something had happened during her interrogation. No one would believe that a woman could go through something like that and then marry a Communist. [2:168]

The story is straight-forward and the goal is clear, despite the revelation of the family history that takes it back to the worst time in 1940s and 50s when Estonia was taken over and occupied by Soviet Union. The country was full of people abandoned to terrible violations and lasting humiliations—either at the hand of the Soviets or in their own human weakness. Jolted out of her peaceful life in the country some 50 years after the Soviet occupation, Aliide relives the past full of betrayal and pettiness, which culminated to a drama of rivalry and lust in her relation to her sister and brother-in-law. For love she couldn’t get, Aliide betrayed and sacrificed herself to the enemy.

Aliide’s hands didn’t tremble. A sudden, shameful joy spread through her chest. She was alive. She survive. Her name wasn’t on the lists. No one could bear false witness against her, nor against Martin’s wife . . . [2:187]

The plot of Purge presents an assertion for Zara’s sudden appearance in Aliide’s house. The underlying bond between them, which has warped Aliide and plagued her mind over the years, becomes the basis of her decision as to whether she will aid Zara or to get rid of her. Narrated through dual story lines, vacillating between 1940s and 90s, in multifaceted narrative forms, the novel, which can be unbearable to read at points when abuse is beyond graphic, explores the indelible impact of a time in Europe where to survive is to be implicated.

Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers
400 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]