I’m doing well with the various November tags and I’m currently reading a German crime novel for German Literature Month. There are a couple more tags and awards to join in reading for too if I can manage it – Margaret Atwood Reading Month and the Sunday Times Young Writer Award coming up in early December. Meanwhile, I have two more distinctive novellas in translation to share with you today…
The Animal Gazer by Edgardo Franzosini
Translated from the Italian by Michael F Moore
This slim book is fiction, but it’s as close to biography as you can get without being pure non-fiction. The subject is Rembrandt Bugatti, brother of the more famous Ettore – of the cars. Rembrandt wasn’t an engineer though, he was an artist and sculptor, his favourite subjects were animals, whom he modelled and cast in bronze. The chapters are interleaved with ten black and white photographs of details of Bugatti’s animal bronzes. They are exquisite and full of life. I was particularly drawn to his pair of kudu antelopes, and flamingoes with their knobbly knees.
Born in Milan in 1884, Rembrandt was an odd chap: eccentric yet orderly, always dapper and well-dressed. He lived quietly in Paris, having moved there from Alsace (then in Germany) where his brother was working and then building his own factory. The obsession in his life was animals. Every day he would go to the Paris zoo in the Jardin des Plantes to draw and study the creatures there, they took the place of a wide circle of friends, although he befriended one of the keepers. He also stayed in Antwerp at times:
Rembrandt first set foot in Belgium in early fall 1906. “I have learned that an amazing rhinoceros has just arrived,” is what he told his father, without further explanation, already prepared for his departure.
He found the zoo was delighted to welcome animal sculptors and he became friends with its director, splitting his time thereafter between there and Paris. But the onset of WWI was to change everything for Rembrandt. The Germans drew closer to Paris and Antwerp, which was temporary capital of Belgium, and the zoos were closed. Then the decision was made to kill all the animals. Bugatti never got over it. He went on to work as a military paramedic, had always been prone to depression, which overtook him and he committed suicide in early 1916, He was only 31. The bones of his short life are all in novella’s blurb, so I’m not giving anything away here.
Franzosini uses the story of Rembrandt’s years in Paris and Antwerp as the frame of his novelisation of the artist’s life, with occasional glimpses of his family and few friends. You can sense his utter dedication to his favourite subjects, the things that make him feel alive. He embraces his outsider characteristics too, all shown through the thoughts that the author puts into his head. This is a haunting story of an all too brief life, beautifully told. At 124 pages including blanks and the photographs, this was a diverting, even disquieting novella that introduced me to a new artist. (8/10)
A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
This is an absolutely compelling novella about wartime atrocity and the moral choices forced upon ordinary men. The setting is the dead of winter in Poland during WWII. and three German soldiers, Bauer, Emmerich and our narrator are setting out on a trek into the frozen countryside to find hiding Jews. They had persuaded their commander to send them on this job, rather than stay behind and execute the prisoners brought back by others. They know that finding ‘one of them’ will raise their stall with the bullying lieutenant, Graaf.
As they walk, each of the men has different concerns, especially Emmerich who is anxious about his son, Bauer is keen to give advice. They are beginning to think they’ll never find anyone when Emmerich spots signs just inside the forest and they flush out a young Jewish man whom they take prisoner. They take refuge in an abandoned house where they shut the prisoner in the larder and fire up the stove to make cornmeal and sausage stew with food that Bauer has stolen. The men break up whatever wood they can find to cook with, and the warmth allows them to take off their gloves. The arrival of a Pole, who quickly shows his own anti-semitic colours, raises the tensions in the room, but he offers slivovitz for a share of the food, which is eventually ready. The food will forge temporary bonds, but these will have to be broken afterwards – and there are decisions to be made about the prisoner.
This slim novella will stay with me a long time. It reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front (reviewed here) at times, and that begins with a meal – double rations after fighting from which only half the men returned. Here, the soldier’s hunger as they wait for their meal to finally cook is palpable, as is the freezing cold. In both books, the soldiers have a mental struggle with what they are seeing and experiencing as well as their individual need for self-preservation which doesn’t necessarily lead to better decisions.
Mingarelli’s writing and Taylor’s superb translation is spare, there are no words wasted. It’s both quiet and totally shocking, and being narrated with hindsight, the author threads in small parts of the consequences of the soldiers’ actions which, like the tension on that day, build up as the story progresses. This small novel will, I’m sure, earn its place in my year-end best books list. I can’t recommend it enough. (10/10)