If you've noticed an emphasis on European fiction in The Floating Library lately, it's because I took a trip to Europe this summer. Thankfully, my vacation resembled nothing like Louis Armand's Breakfast at Midnight published by Equus Books.
Armand is many things: prolific poet, Joycean scholar and director of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at the Department of Anglophone Literatures and Culture at Charles University in Prague, where he's lived since the early 1990s. In Breakfast at Midnight, Armand's adopted city is transformed into Kafkaville: a nightmarish landscape of crumbling buildings and relentless rain.
"Labyrinths of drunken shipping containers stacked up into canyons. Rivers of slurried rainwater. Backwash. Ziggurats of scrapped steel. The drizzle once again peters out. A flair of gray light briefly in the east. At our backs. Unheeded epiphany."
It's as if Armand has dropped Ulysses' Stephen Daedalus into a neo-noir novel, but James Joyce never wrote anything this dark. Haunted by the disappearance of a former lover, the photograph of a dead girl resurrects the ghosts of a gruesome past. Aided by his friend Blake, an underground artist who takes photos of corpses, the narrator attempts to connect the crimes. But every time Blake roars into the novel on his black Enfield motorcycle, more mayhem follows and the narrator sees himself "becoming part of the evidence for a crime that hasn't taken place yet."
The fragmented sentences and staccato prose hurry the reader from one grim scene to the next. Armand isn't trying to shock us into submission. With gorgeous prose and a nuanced narrative, he peels back the layers until there's nothing left but a city denuded of fake Old World charm and inhabited by souls debased beyond recognition, the very pulp of humanity. Armand has done to Prague what Genet achieves in Our Lady of the Flowers. Breakfast at Midnight is the most savage book I've read in years.
It would take all the space available for this column to catalog the crimes that occur in Jerusalem, a novel by the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2009 with a translation by Anna Kushner. It begins with a slight from a priest who refuses to open a church for a dying woman and ends with multiple murders in the street.
In Jerusalem, which is part of a series of novels collectively called "The Kingdom," Tavares explores violence as an institution. This takes the form of a quasi-scientific study undertaken by one of the novel's principal characters, Dr. Theodor Busbeck: "I want to produce a graph—a single graph to establish, to summarize, the relationship between history and atrocity. To chart whether horror has been increasing or decreasing century after century."
Busbeck's "horror-graph" is folly, of course, but what's interesting here is the extent to which his devotion to this noble-seeming project dooms his family. He banishes his wife to the Georg Rosenberg Asylum—a literal institution of the sort of horror Busbeck studies in the abstract—and abandons his son when the boy needs him most.
What keeps the story from becoming trite and predictable is the chorus of voices Tavares marshals to tell it. From the mental patients at the asylum to the characters in a science-fiction novel, there's no shortage of opinions. Ultimately, these intrusions feel like a gimmicky convolution of an otherwise tawdry tale that takes place over the course of a few short midnight hours.
Over the last few years, I've been going through Georges Simenon's "hard novels" published by the New York Review of Books. They're generally quick, gritty reads that are slightly ahead of their time.
If Simenon is the Belgian equivalent of Jim Thompson, then The Man Who Watched Trains Go By would be his The Killer Inside Me. Kees Popinga, a respectable Dutch businessman, embarks on an ill-considered crime spree. Like Thompson, Simenon's reputation casts a long shadow over the work. The translator, Luc Sante, appears more impressed with Simenon's legendary productivity than the book itself.
There are good reasons for that. While the stream of consciousness suits the story, the chapters are uneven and Kees Popinga's exclamatory statements wear thin: He's not crazy! He's truly free! Ultimately, Simenon's over-the-top psychological portrait of a man on the run in Paris between the wars feels a bit soft-boiled.