Review 1314: The Paris Architect

Cover for The Paris ArchitectLucien Bernard is an architect in 1942 Paris who is eager to prove his abilities as a modernist designer. He has an opportunity to design a factory for Auguste Manet, a wealthy businessman, and is undeterred by the knowledge that it will be used to manufacture arms for the Germans. All he wants is the opportunity to advance his career.

But first, Manet wants his help in designing an undetectable place to hide a person. He has been helping Jews hide from the Gestapo until they can leave the country. Lucien has no love for Jews and is terrified he’ll be caught. But he takes on the challenge.

This is an interesting premise for a novel, but Belfoure’s writing ability isn’t up to the task. The writing, especially the dialogue, is crude and obvious. Most of the Germans are cartoonish as villains, and other characters are flat as pancakes. Lucien’s secret is threatened from several directions, which is supposed to heighten the tension but almost makes it ridiculous. Lucien’s assistant hates him and is involved in helping his own uncle finds Jews, while Lucien’s mistress is two-timing him with a Gestapo officer.

Most problematically, Lucien is a jerk. He is supposed to evolve into a good guy during the novel, but there is a fairly late scene where his reaction to thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him is brutal. Of course, he is rewarded by falling in love with a beautiful model in Paris.

As you can probably tell, I disliked this novel.

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Day 1297: The Weight of Ink

Cover for The Weight of InkThe Weight of Ink is a dual time-frame novel set in the current time and the 17th century. At first, I wasn’t as captured by the present-day sections as I was by the past, but eventually the entire novel absorbed me. There is a big revelation at the end that I anticipated, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

In the present day, Helen Watt is an English university professor of Jewish history who is elderly and ill. Requested by a previous student to examine a cache of papers he found in a wall of his 17th century house, Helen does not expect any great finds. What she discovers is a genutza, the hidden papers of a 17th century rabbi, and on one page, a mention of Spinoza. Understanding that this could be a major discovery, she requests help and gets that of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student.

One of their first, startling discoveries is that Rabbi HaCoen Mendes’s scribe, identified only by the Hebrew letter aleph, is a woman. Having reported her initial findings to Jonathan Martin, the head of the History Department, so that he could buy the papers from the owners, Helen is dismayed to find her place on the investigation usurped. She can continue working with the papers, but Martin has also given Brian Wilton access. He arrives with four graduate students to beat Helen and Aaron to any discoveries and immediately publishes an article about one of the topics in the letters.

In 1657, Ester Velasquez is a young Jewish woman who has been allowed an unusual education. In these dangerous days of the Inquisition, her family fled Portugal for Amsterdam, where her parents were killed in a fire. She and her brother Isaac are part of the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, who travels to England to educate the British Jews in their heritage, these people having been hiding there pretending to be Protestants during hundreds of years when Jews were not allowed in England. Rabbi Mendes’s difficult job is made harder when Isaac, his scribe, leaves. But the rabbi lets Ester take his place.

Offered an opportunity of knowledge, Ester comes to know that she does not want to return to a woman’s life. So, she sets about a daring deception.

Aside from covering some key events of its time—the Inquisition, the return of Jews to England, the plague, and the Great Fire—The Weight of Ink offers us an intrepid, determined heroine in Ester as well as an interesting modern story. I was really touched by this novel. It’s terrific—the kind of novel I look for in historical fiction.

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Day 1111: The Gustav Sonata

Cover for The Gustav SonataUntil the very end of The Gustav Sonata I wondered what its point was. It is a novel detached from its characters even as it puts them through events that should make us sympathetic. Further, although it is set in a specific time and place, there is little feel for what it was like then and there. This effect is in strong contrast to Tremain’s two novels about Merivel, set in Restoration England.

The novel begins in 1947, when its main character, Gustav Perle, is five years old. Although Gustav is Rose Tremain’s exact contemporary, parts of the novel are set earlier, before Gustav was born.

Gustav’s father died when he was a baby. He was a member of the police force for their small town in Switzerland, but he lost his job before Gustav was born, under circumstances that Gustav’s mother does not fully understand. All she knows is that Erich died “helping the Jews.”

Gustav’s mother Emilie has raised him without a shred of affection but only with criticism. The lack of affection is tempered somewhat by his lifelong friendship with Anton, whom he meets the first day of Kindergarten. Emilie does not like Gustav’s friendship with Anton, because Anton is Jewish. But Anton and Anton’s family are all Gustav has, really.

Anton is always a self-absorbed person. He is nervous and highly strung, a musical prodigy. Anton’s mother thinks he will become a famous musician, but he is terrified in competition and performs badly.

An important theme in this novel is Swiss neutrality and its correspondence with personal neutrality. Gustav, although faithful to his friends, is always concerned with self-mastery and holds back from his own life events. But so does this novel hold back from its characters, as if observing them through a glass.

I found this novel interesting but not involving. I think it took too long to get to its point. It is another novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 659: The Prague Cemetery

Cover for The Prague CemeteryThe Prague Cemetery opens in 1897 with a monologue that is so vile and bigoted against just about everyone—the French, the Germans, the Italians, Jesuits, Masons, women, and especially Jews—that I almost put it down at that point. That monologue is the ranting of the main character, Simonini, as learned at his grandfather’s knee. Simonini is an absolutely repellent person who makes his living forging wills and other documents but who also works for the French secret police, and the German secret police, and the Okhrana, making up lies and creating international incidents.

Simonini has a problem. He has gaps in his memory. Further, when he explores a passage in his house, it leads to the rooms of someone who wears a cassock. Following the advice of an Austrian Jew (whom he calls Froïde), he begins writing down what he can remember of his life. The next time he awakens, he finds his diary annotated by the Abbe Della Piccola, who seems to remember the time periods he cannot but doesn’t remember the others. It is soon obvious that these are two personas of the same man.

Simonini is already a forger when he begins his first employment in espionage, spying on the leadership of Garibaldi’s army for the Piedmontese secret police. He always ends up exceeding his orders, though, so when he blows up the ship containing Ippolito Nievo, who is in charge of Garibaldi’s finances, instead of simply assuring the books go to the government and nowhere else, he is shipped off to Paris.

Simonini is most concerned with the fate of what he considers his life work, a document that is supposed to be a true account of a meeting of eminent rabbis—and one Jesuit—in the Prague cemetery, where they plot against the Gentiles and scheme for world domination. Although Simonini has plagiarized some of this document from other sources, he has fabricated most of it, including the setting. Over the course of 40 years, he perfects this document, eliminating the Jesuit and changing it to a series of protocols, all the while trying to sell it to different governments. It is this document that becomes the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, used by the Nazis and other hate-mongers through the years to justify anti-Semitism, even though everyone involved in its creation knew the document was apocryphal.

Although this tale is supposed to be some sort of answer to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, being based on actual instead of made-up events, and though it is told with proper postmodern irony, it left a bad taste in my mouth. As Simonini and his abettors make up more and more ridiculous stories linking, say, the Masons to Satanic rites, with the public gleefully believing everything, I felt disgusted. Almost every character in the novel except Simonini was an actual person, and all the events the novel is based on are true, which makes it even more disturbing. Eco even has Simonini responsible for framing Dreyfus. Simonini also murders people and dumps their bodies in the sewer beneath his house.

Maybe I agree with one reviewer that some readers may not understand irony. I’m not sure. The construction of a truly dark and repellent protagonist reminded me of the novel Perfume, except that I enjoyed Perfume. I just know that although I have a dark sense of humor myself, this novel made me want to take a bath.

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