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The Bat by Jo Nesbø

The-Bat-Jo-Nesbo

The Bat by Jo Nesbø (Vintage Books, Random House, 2013) translated by Don Bartlett (originally published as Flaggermusmannen in 1997) is the first of the novels featuring Inspector Harry Hole and it’s a fascinating study of guilt and racism. Taking the question of guilt first, Harry is trapped in an official conspiracy to preserve the reputation of the Norwegian police and the peace of mind of the parents of the police officer Harry killed. People do many different things when they are in public office. Sorry, that’s a rather silly way to put it. Being human and so fallible, people act irresponsibly no matter what their status or role in society. It’s not, you understand, that they believe themselves above the law or that they can manipulate the law enforcement agencies into taking no action. Rather it’s that they become self-absorbed and fail to understand the risks they run. So when something goes wrong, senior management often decides to cover up the problem. It’s not directly to protect the individual wrongdoer although that’s the effect. It’s to maintain public confidence in the institution and, perhaps, help the families of those who die. So in a friendly-fire incident, it’s better to blame the enemy on the battlefield than the panicking squaddie who pulled the trigger. Or for the Police Commissioner to overlook the alcoholism and regular incapacity of the officer who was driving.

Aborigines are also central to the plot. Harry is partnered with an aboriginal police officer — obviously Australian officialdom has a sense of humour in matching the two social outsiders — he meets Toowoomba a younger man fighting against the institutionalised racism of the country, and relies on Joseph to find a witness and for guidance on how to accommodate the wrongful judgments of others. The opening part of Harry’s journey through Australian society is presented as a form of learning experience. He has to resolve his own reactions to his status as a barely-tolerated outsider. The Australian police are not overjoyed that a Norwegian has been sent to “help” investigate the local death of a Norwegian woman. They hide their resentment but prefer this inconvenient man to sit quietly in a corner and not disturb them. From an early point, Harry begins to engage with the local gay community which, despite official tolerance, is also struggling for acceptance. He’s also trying to find the right way to relate to Aborigines. The irony is that the Aborigines who know Harry is Norwegian and has only just arrived in Australia, will not relate to him in the same way as the locals. There should be no history or cultural baggage to get in the way of a more open set of relationships. Yet because Harry feels he doesn’t know how to relate to the Aborigines, he creates tensions where none should exist.

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Jo Nesbo author and excellent musician

Racism is a bit like how humans keep fish in an aquarium. Like mammals, fish also have a day/night cycle and if keepers disturb these circadian rhythms, the fish grow anxious and their health is threatened. So when the whites came to this big country and found “people” already there, the first reaction was to kill them. There was no possibility of sharing all this empty land. Later the whites felt guilty so they put the surviving locals on display. They tried to make them comfortable in the prevailing white culture, separated the children from their parents, introduced them to cities, and gave them an education. The expectation was that this well-intentioned forced relocation would make the new generation happy. The Aborigines would be assimilated and the whites wouldn’t have to feel guilty any more. Except, like the fish in the aquarium, many of the relocated children grew up alienated, rejecting the imposed environment as false, and wanting to return to their roots.

Harry’s like that too. The secrecy surrounding the fatal accident is forced on him. He’s even given official recognition for his good work in trying to catch the escaping criminal. How is he to expiate his own sins if they cannot be admitted? How can he be rehabilitated if there’s no public shame and punishment imposed to reflect his blameworthiness? The result is that he ends up as alienated, depressed and self-destructive as the Aborigines. The punishment he chooses for himself is cold turkey and obsessive dedication to his work as a detective. He quits drinking and drugs. He becomes a better than average detective. But he fails to become a better person because he can’t adjust to the knowledge he’s responsible for the death of a fellow officer. So when he falls off the wagon, the results are more extreme than might normally be the case.

It’s extraordinary we should have had to wait fifteen years to read this book in English. Although there are elements which some might consider controversial, there’s nothing so extreme to justify this form of censorship. That said, the continuing work of Don Bartlett has produced another outstanding result. Obviously I can’t say how this book reads in Norwegian, but it’s a wonderful piece of English. The way the plot works is also terrific. While the inclusion of the allegory and metaphor threatens to distract, the speculation and detailed analysis leading to the final conclusion is nicely balanced by the Australian context. As the outsider, Harry literally comes with a fresh pair of eyes. Except unless and until he knows something of the local culture, it’s impossible to use those eyes effectively. How can the newcomer attribute salience when he’s not aware of local significance? First he must learn and then think about what he has seen. The resulting investigation is completely engrossing. The murder of the Norwegian woman is linked to other deaths. There’s some very pleasing misdirection and Harry almost loses the game because he takes another drink. But the final conclusions are immensely satisfying. For those of you who have been wondering why Harry Hole is so dysfunctional, this is a must-read book!

For a review of the film version of one of Jo Nesbø’s books, see Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011).

For reviews of other books by Jo Nesbø, see:
Cockroaches
Police
The Son.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

The Wings of the Kirin

The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012) is based on the ninth novel in Keigo Higashino‘s “Kyoichiro Kaga” mystery series. It focuses on guilt, one of the most powerful and destructive of human emotions. Why is it so powerful? If others are aware of the “offence” committed, the wrongdoer can accept the judgment of those others and show contrition. But when you judge yourself as having broken either moral or secular laws, how can you forgive yourself? Guilt is not just self-policing, but internalised self-punishment as well. Thematically in this film, we’re into the layering of responsibility. Taking it step by step, what is the responsibility of parents for their children when they “innocently” make mistakes? When the children attend school, teachers stand in the same position as parents and must also act as moral compasses to show the inexperienced how to navigate the difficult waters of condemnation, acceptance of responsibility and redemption. When children become adults and enter the world of work, employers have a duty to provide a safe place and a safe system of work. Being human, any authority figure can fail when supposed to show others how they should behave when they have done “wrong”. The worst outcome comes when the original “offenders” and the authority figures conspire to hide the “offence”. This creates a situation in which guilt drives the continuing need for all involved to hide the offence, and to generate a potential motive for murder when the secrecy is threatened.

 

In the Nihombashi area of Tokyo, a man staggers on to a bridge with knife in his stomach, managing to get far enough across to be able to release a piece of origami into the river and die under a statue titled The Wings of the Gryphon (Kirin). Detective Kyoichiro Kaga (Hiroshi Abe) is called in to investigate, conveniently interrupting what was to him an embarrassing discussion about whether to attend the religious ceremony to acknowledge the anniversary of his father’s death. A first impression of the investigation shows the victim walked a significant distance after being stabbed, but did not ask for help. It seemed important he get to the bridge. Not too far away, Yashima, a young man, is hiding in the bushes. When the police notice him, he runs and is knocked down in the road. He has the dead man’s briefcase and wallet with him which makes him a suspect. He lies in the ICU in a coma.

Detective Kyoichiro Kaga (Hiroshi Abe)

Detective Kyoichiro Kaga (Hiroshi Abe)

 

The way the investigation unwinds is fascinating. Yuhei Matsumiya (Junpei Mizobata) Kaga’s cousin and young assistant during the investigation, establishes that Yashima worked at the factory where the deceased was a manager. He was injured in a workplace accident because of old and defective machinery. Later he was fired. When Yashima dies without regaining consciousness, the senior police officers leak the information so the mass media will treat this as a motive for the suspect to have taken revenge. They want a quick result and blaming the dead suspect is not going to be controversial. Except, of course, there are consequences, Haruka Aoyagi (Seika Taketomi) the deceased’s daughter, attempts suicide when bullied at school. Her father is being blamed for covering up an accident that almost killed Yashima. Yuto Aoyagi (Tori Matsuzaka) the deceased’s son is also very disturbed when he learns his dying father struggled to get to the statue of the Gryphon.

 

Meanwhile Kaga is wandering around Nihombashi trying to work out what the deceased was doing there. It seems to be connected to the seven shrines in the area. In the midst of all this, Kaori Nakahara (Yui Aragaki) the girlfriend of the suspect is fired from her job. It’s guilt by association. This is hard on her. Not only is she pregnant, but she had also been angry with Yashima for not making greater efforts to find work. She blames herself for pushing him into doing something bad. Indeed, she’d refused to tell him of the pregnancy because she was afraid he’d run away from the responsibility. In fact the young man loved her dearly and had been diligently looking for work.

 

When Kaga and Yuhei Matsumiya tour the shrines, they find the deceased had been leaving origami cranes made from paper bought in a local shop. Yet Ami Aoyama (Meisa Kuroki) the deceased’s wife, denies her husband was in any way religious. This leads to a kind a battle between the senior detectives who just want to close the case and blame it on Yashima, while Kaga manipulates the situation to keep the investigation going. This makes the police procedural aspect of the story particularly interesting. Naturally, the solution depends on the significance of the statue on the bridge. Historically, it was the centre of Japan, the point from which all roads begin. However, for these purposes, the meaning is a reference to a past tragedy. I confess to odd moments of weepiness leading up the end as the truth of the matter exposes so many layers of failure. This was an avoidable death. Although Japanese culture takes saving face very seriously, I suspect the same result would have occurred in other parts of the world. No-one likes to admit they are in the wrong even though there may be no punishment, formal or informal. Cover-ups are commonplace. As a result, The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ is a thoughtful and powerful film dealing with issues of social importance with a strong sense of drama as the mystery is systematically resolved. It’s yet another impressive piece of fiction from the pen of Keigo Higashino.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Salvation of a Saint
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)

 

Regicide by Nicholas Royle

We need to start this review with a little history. In 1949, Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote his first novel. It’s called Un Régicide but, for some typically Gallic reasons, it never actually saw the light of publication until 1978. There were a few editorial changes but, for the most part, the original novel transcended the years with very few changes. What was true just after the War, was true many years later. Thematically, the book is about loneliness. We have a confusion between the first-person narrator on an island and third-person Boris who lives in a city. Except there’s a kind of labyrinth in operation which links the two locations. Indeed, they may even be the same place with the island created as a dreamscape by Boris. The interesting feature of our named character is his lack of true friends, hence his possible escapism through the fog to the island. The sea around this island probably symbolises death as the dreams become nightmares that end with images of imprisonment.

Now we come to Nicholas Royle, a man whose short fiction has consistently been of the highest possible quality. He now offers Regicide (Solaris Books, 2011), his sixth adventure into the longer form, this time with a more modern take on themes similar to those raised by Robbe-Grillet. Here we have Carl. When he was young and fit, he was a cycle courier in London. As a lover of maps and visual puzzles, the freedom to explore and find new ways through the city gave him great satisfaction. Now he’s suffocating as the owner of a shop dealing in collectible records and some old books. On his first date with Annie Risk (a provocative name if ever there was one), he gets lost when walking her back to her hotel — not something that happens to him very often. On the way back to his flat, he feels disconnected from reality and, much to his own surprise, breaks into a house where he can hear a telephone ringing. Perhaps the call is for him. Some days later outside the shop, he finds part of a street map. He has no idea where it is. The challenge is whether he can find the places. Or perhaps whether the fragment he has found is like a piece of cheese in a mousetrap designed to catch clever people like Carl.

Nicholas Royle, master of the long and short forms

Carl is struggling to read Un Régicide but, with only schoolboy French, it’s slow progress. This is a man who enjoys a solitary challenge, but we are also to focus on the relationship between the man and the book. Because his translation skills are second best, it’s like trying to see the world described in the book through a fog of only partial understanding. In Robbe-Grillet’s novel, we also meet a man who struggles to see where he’s going because of the fog. You will therefore understand there’s a conscious parallelism between the dreamscapes in both the French original and Royle’s novel. Rather like China Miéville’s fascination with cityscapes, we are to consider the relationship between the world we think we see as we ride or drive through it, and the reality behind it. In the cinema before CGI, we often saw painted backdrops and simple frontages thrown up on backlots. Today, much of the background we see in film and television is unreal, generated by computers. Similarly, in the real world, you might visit a place designed for tourists. You will be given a map that’s designed to encourage you only to visit the designated places that will earn the town or city the most money. You’re not expected to slip through the side streets to discover the world beyond — the world where the locals live, the world where it’s often dirty and dangerous. . . Carl is a man who feels threatened. It’s as if this other world is somehow seeping out through the cracks and crannies of his normality, from around the back of the gasholders, from the unseen places we only glimpse from the corners of our eyes. Even if someone gives us a map, how reliable is it? The fact it does not have a legend warning of the presence of dragons, does not means there are no monsters waiting to eat us if we step off the path stretching in front of us. Life is never as predictable as we would like.

So here’s the question for you. When you dream, past and present, reality and unreality get all mixed up. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the waking from the dream worlds. They blend together as your eyes flicker uneasily under closed lids. How do you know when it’s a dream? As a final thought, when people lose track of reality, they often remember or relive episodes from their past. When those past events were traumatic, recalling them can be very disturbing. I’m reminded that kings are often revered as the father of their country. That makes regicide akin to patricide.

Regicide is a book I found interesting rather than gripping. As it develops, there are elements of horror, but the underlying themes are guilt, darkness and death. We fear the dark because we cannot see where we are. We fear death because we cannot see what will happen afterwards. We fear what we have done during life because we see our own imperfections all too clearly.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see First Novel: A Mystery.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dark Tangos by Lewis Shiner

In Dark Tangos (Subterranean Press, 2011), Lewis Shiner has written a political thriller about guilt. As everyone with a conscience knows, guilt can have a powerful effect because we generate it internally. It’s our own sense we have done something wrong. We acquire this ability to judge ourselves as we grow up in our culture. We learn how we are expected to behave within the limitations of legal, moral and purely social rules backed up by various types of punishment should we transgress. It should go without saying that long-term absolutes in behaviour are very rare, if not impossible. I suppose someone of a saintly disposition could go through life in a state of moral purity, never doing anything blameworthy. Equally, a sociopath could avoid ever feeling guilt by rejecting all external rules as a limit on his or her behaviour. Most of us live somewhere in the middle ground.

Lewis Shiner emerging from the long grass

Expanding our definition, guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt is the personal acceptance of responsibility. No-one else need be aware of what we have done until we go on to the next stage of remorse, the sense we should do something practical to relieve the emotional distress caused by the guilt. This links guilt with notions of honour and integrity. Shame only comes when those in our community share in the judgement that our behaviour fell below the standards expected. We lose public esteem and can only recover our reputation by showing contrition and accepting punishment in good spirit. This demonstrates the broader principle that the process we call rehabilitation does not work properly unless the wrongdoers accept society’s judgement and want to reform. This is true both for individuals and also for nations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is regarded by many as a successful attempt by a nation to come to terms with its past. Without openness and transparency, a group of people cannot understand what was done and then set the terms for forgiveness — which includes forgiving themselves, of course. The problem with the South African approach is that it gave amnesty to alleged wrongdoers and thereby denied victims the chance for justice in the criminal or civil courts.

The problem addressed in Dark Tangos is that holding trials does not work any better. During the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, a predominantly right-wing Catholic elite kidnapped, tortured and killed communists and other “dissidents”. This is well-documented as is the practice of taking the babies when they were born during detention. Equally well-documented, but not so well acknowledged inside the US, is the involvement of the CIA in the more general Operation Condor to prevent socialism from taking hold in the southern states of South America. There’s no doubt the US was complicit in the use of death as a form of political repression. Later, in Argentina under a different regime, there were some show trials but the government granted a general amnesty to all military officers who might have participated in the disappearances, and formally pardoned the leaders of the Junta during the relevant time. Although the amnesty laws were repealed in 2005, the people of Argentina have never been allowed a clear view of what happened and there’s little willingness in the successive governments to accept the need to establish guilt or shame those responsible. Consequently, the thousands who “disappeared” are wounds that will not heal in the Argentinian soul.

Dark Tangos assumes the CIA not only provided intelligence to the death squads, but also channelled finance through legitimate US companies trading in South America. This support for right-wing governments benefitted the US politically at a time when the domino theory was still considered relevant. The US corporations who laundered the money also benefitted because they were awarded profitable contracts by the governments for hiding payment to their operatives. In spirit, this book is not unlike The Quiet American by Graham Greene except it deals with the aftermath, rather than the early years, of US support for right-wing repressive regimes.

Rob Cavenaugh is an emotionally vulnerable older man whose marriage has just collapsed. His employer, a multinational US software company, relocates him to their Buenos Aires office which suits him because it gets him away from his wife, and he’s in love with the tango — he’s visited before to learn the dance with his wife. On arrival, he immediately throws himself into the local dance scene and starts taking lessons with a top dancer. Speaking Spanish with reasonable fluency, he’s soon making new friends. We can think of him as being one of those openly friendly guys, naturally gregarious but politically naïve. This essential innocence is soon under threat as he finds himself in love on the rebound with a young Argentinian woman. However, it soon becomes clear she has an agenda and, remarkably, she drops him. Guilt comes in many forms and seducing a man to recruit him into a dangerous activity is high on the list of things not to do. However, he finds himself all too willing to become a human pawn. If nothing else, it shows the power of sex to overwhelm basic rules about self-defence. Once he’s crossed the Rubicon, he’s immediately at risk and, as the number of people involved slowly expands, he finds himself one of the Disappeared. Yes, it still happens when one of the old operatives feels at risk. So before you decide to read this book, decide whether you can stand reading an extended description of torture and its consequences. Some of the passages are quite strong meat.

Lewis Shiner has a slightly dense prose style, including a lot of background information. Perhaps I’m unusual in being familiar with much of it. I suppose the intended American readership might be less well-informed and will benefit from the explanations. If you are going to do it justice, it’s not a quick read. However, I feel that, while being reasonably accurate in attributing guilt to the Argentinians, it underplays the guilt that should be accepted by the US. That said, this is a brave book by an American author in dealing with the uncomfortable truth about the Dirty War and Operation Condor. As a story, it exposes the shades of moral grey that all humans of ordinary courage experience. In this instance, I only found one person’s actions surprising although, in retrospect, it’s consistent with what we have seen and heard. Everyone else nicely lived up, or down, to our reasonable expectations given the set-up. This is a testament to the credibility of the characterisation. Lewis Shiner has also done justice to life in Buenos Aires. Overall, this is an intellectually powerful and socially interesting commentary on what happened in Argentina. I opened by describing it as a political thriller, i.e. it deals with an innocent man who opens Pandora’s Box on an international mess of repression and corruption. What makes this a good example of the genre is that it does include the detail of the politics. Unlike many other authors who prefer more superficial plots with guns blazing and bombs exploding to keep us interested, this is a thinking person’s thriller with attitude. It’s well worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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