Monday, December 25, 2006

Olen Steinhauer: noir or formula?

I'm looking for some opinions about Olen Steinhauer. I've been reading his recent Liberation Movements, and it fits into a nexus of other "international noir" books that I've read, in several ways. Like the works of Swedish author Håkan Nesser's Van Veeteren novels (such as Borkman's Point, reviewed here in 2006), Steinhauer's novels are set in a fictional country (in Nesser's case, it's a vaguely "north European" nation, somewhere between Holland and Sweden, in Steinhauer's, it's an East European nation under Communism). That fictional country thing had kept me from reading Steinhaier before--I prefer to get a glimpse of a real city, a real place, in reading crime fiction--that's one of the principles on which this blog is based, actually. Like the Berlin trilogy of Philip Kerr (there's a 4th novel now), Steinhauer is exploring life under a totalitarian regime under which he never lived. But for me, Steinhauer's unnamed country is not as believable as either of the above--and for me, his portrait of the "evil of Communism" has a kind of American triumphalism about it. In this latest novel, he doesn't just show the shoddiness of the classic Trabant automobile of the East, he feels he has to show a public plaza littered with them. In fact, in East Berlin, on the one occasion when I visited the Communist East, there were plenty of Trabants--all running, all parked in an orderly fashion in the public squares. There's plenty of misery and horror to portray under Communism without taking cheap shots at something you don't have personal knowledge of. In fact, Trabants are a sort of collector's item in the East now--Communist nostalgia, I guess. I'd like to hear your opinions about Steinhauer's fictional country in these novels. The books are well enough written--constructed fairly tightly--except that he feels it necessary to use an X-files plot element, extra-sensory perception (in particular, precognition), to work out the kinks in his plot. It also seems to me that his characters are not so fully drawn as Kerr's (I have the same complaint with Nesser, but Nesser's characters are at least not Communist stock characters, which some of Steinhauer's are). Steinhauer's novels are, I guess, more thrillers than noir--is it too much, then, for me to expect the fatalism (embodied, one hopes, in well realized characters and plots) that is a hallmark of noir? In any case, instead of that kind of fatalist, dark tale, Liberation Movements seems to be a brittle tale of evildoers and unfortunates--a melodrama, in other words.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

dark polish novel (maybe not "noir")

I mentioned a Polish novel of the 1960s in my previous post: Witold Gombrowicz's Pornografia. Pornografia has the bare bones of a "cozy" mystery plot: in the waning days of WWII, as the Nazis are retreating across occupied Poland, two friends (Witold and Frederick) travel to another friend's country house. They become fascinated by two adolescents, one the daughter of the house, the other a young orphan (a boy of about the same age as the daughter) who is staying with them. The group travels to the nearby home of the daughter's fiancé's family, and while there, the fiancé's mother (a devout Catholic) shows a strange fascination for the atheist Frederick. But in the evening, while the mother has gone to the kitchen, there are the sounds of a struggle, and the group finds the mother stabbed to death and a young interloper with stab wounds and bite wounds. The matching stories of the interloper and a kitchen maid suggest that the mother of the house attacked the interloper with a knife, and bit him savagely, before he got the knife away from her and killed her. But enough mystery surrounds the event to puzzle the most astute detective. Did she attack him? What was the boy doing in the house?
But the cozy plot disappears in a haze of another plot, this time a thriller closer to the spy genre: The group does not turn the murderer over to the police--they imprison him in the house and then return with him to the previous country house. And then the partisans demand that Witold and Frederick carry out the assasination of a traitor. From there, the plot goes further off the rails, according to a logic that is alien to either of the genre plots--a logic fully prepared for from the first pages of the novel. Whereas in the usual mystery or thriller, the fiction mimics life more or less adequately, in this novel life imitates the genres, more or less adequately. Gombrowicz is a "thesis" novelist, though of a peculiar and comic sort. He wants us to examine the structures (genres, even) through which we make sense of life as it comes at us day by day. What he is after is close to the "moral" of an existentialist novel of previous decades, such as might have been written by Camus or Sartre. Or perhaps a "nouveau roman," such as might be later written by Robbe-Grillet (who also did detective stories, of a sort). And the thesis is overlaid with the atmosphere of eroticism (and violence) implied by the novel's title--albeit a very (very) peculiar, second-hand eroticism also related to Gombrowicz's thesis (which has to do with youth versus maturity). This is an important book, one of the key accomplishments of the mid-20th century, by a writer with much to add to 20th century philosophy and art. The genre plots are not looked down upon, they are a simple structure on which to build the language and the thesis that are the writer's concern--but without which there is nothing he can say. In other words, this book is philosophy-as-story, or story-as-philosophy. There is no linear "meanning," only a portrait of our time, through the twin lenses of the mystery-thriller and Gombrowicz's own unique point of view. And, believe it or not, there's a recent movie version of the story, which I've ordered but haven't seen yet...

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Philosophical noir from Italy

Andrea Canobbio gives the alert reader a clue about his intentions in The Natural Disorder of Things when he gives one of the characters, a Polish gardner with a literary background, a name that is a composite of the two great Polish philosophical novelists and playwrights, Gombrowicz and Witkiewicz. The murder plot of Canobbio's novel is a McGuffin (do I have that spelled right?) in reverse--not a seemingly casual element of a story on which Hitchcock (it's his term) hung a mystery plot for a movie, but a plot on which Canobbio hangs an existential inquiry. The novel is not an allegory, something that will reveal the author's systematic philosophy, an approach that Canobbio shares with the equally oblique Polish authors I mentioned. Canobbio's approach isn't symbolic allegory but a maze--specifically a garden maze that might be constructed by the garden designer at the center of the novel--but a maze with no center and perhaps no exit. Claudio Fratta witnesses a murder that might be called "overdetermined," to use a word from the Poststructuralist philosophers (the man that Fratta has been watching (for reasons we don't learn until later) is essentially killed twice, by being run over first by a van with unrevealed drivers and then by a car driven by a woman with whom Fratta becomes obsessed. The novel progresses in events that will only be explained in later passages, as if a maze is being followed blindly or an onion is being peeled. The revenge demanded by Fratta's family after being bankrupted by a predatory lender, the affair between the previously solitary Fratta and the woman (who becomes his client), the man who is possibly (and possibly not) her husband, Fratta's brother and nephews, and Fratta's neighbor and his dogs, bred to have stripes (in particular a striped Doberman)--all these elements intertwine not to solve the initial murder but to precipitate a mirroring event that to some extent resolves Fratta's life, or at least brings him to the end of a chapter. The novel can be frustrating in its herky-jerky progression, and is perhaps too much a drama of ordinary life (rather than a crime story per se) for many fans of noir. But it has prodded me to pull out Gombrowicz's "thriller," Pornografia, which I'll report on as soon as I've re-read it. I'm looking for other suggestions, if anybody has some--as I'm in a dry spell for reading that's relevant to this blog. There are a number of books being translated for publication in the spring of 07, but not much new is available right now. Maybe I've missed something, though--any suggestions?