The General Returns To His Labyrinth: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927 - 2014)

on Friday, April 18, 2014
I suppose the writing was on the wall once doctors released Gabriel Garcia Marquez from hospital last week, but even so I was saddened to read that he died today. A pioneer, a poet and, for me, a personal hero, Marquez will be missed in the physical sense but, thanks to an almost unparalleled body of work (not to mention his gifting of magical realism to the literary world) he will always be with us in spirit. No doubt his death will cause a flurry of interest so if you're looking for a place to start, might I suggest his novellas, particularly No One Writes To The Colonel and Leaf Storm. They will change your world. When you're ready, move on to the incredibly complex but truly amazing General In His Labyrinth and Autumn of The Patriarch. Then read the rest. A fitting tribute to one of the true greats.

The Sci-Fi Author, Blessed Be He (Step Aside JK Rowling!)

on Thursday, April 17, 2014
Three cheers for the authorial bait-and-switch. Dickens writing as Boz, Stephen King as Richard Bachman, Dean Koontz as about three hundred different people, John Banville as Benjamin Black, JK Rowling as Robert Gailbraith... the list could go on forever. But given the time of year, here's one that I couldn't possibly... err... pass over.

Now, I doubt many of you are particularly au fait with the contemporary Czech science fiction movement so let me get you up to speed. For the past couple of months there's been only one book that matters - Altchulova Metoda (Altchul's Method) by Chaim Cigan. The first in a four book series it (according to Radio Praha) mixes "politics, prison cells and the secret police with the Middle Ages, Moses and Jewish history – a science fiction thriller told across continents and epochs." All pretty standard sci-fi stuff, I suppose (notwithstanding the heavy Jewish motifs).

So why the big fuss? It's not the book itself that's set tongues wagging so much as the identity of its author. The jacket guff claims Cigan to be a Czech emigre who now lives in Canada. Geography allayed suspicion in the absence of face-to-face interviews. Sure, the book was a success, but the Czech press weren't exactly about to to send hordes of reporters across the sea just to interview a genre writer. The phone works just fine, thank you.

However, within weeks of its release rumours began to circulate. This Cigan fellow... he just wasn't ringing true. Something was fishy... might I say, gefilte fishy. A bit of scratching around revealed Prague's best kept secret. No, not the location of the legendary Golem but, in literary terms, not that far off. Chaim Cigan was none other than the Chief Rabbi of Prague, Karol Sidon. Turns out he has a slightly unconventional idea of what makes a... sorry for this... "good book". As he said:

"Before I began writing this I couldn't read anything but what is considered lowbrow sci-fi literature, which I really love… The story almost unraveled by itself; it was fascinating for me to watch what kind of stuff was going on in my head."

Altchul's Method has yet to be translated into English and my Czech is, to use the vernacular, neupotřebitelný (work it out for yourselves). No doubt it's just a matter of time. Thankfully I still have lox of books to read in the meantime.

*Disclaimer: Yes, I am ashamed of almost very pun in this post.
** Double Disclaimer: I'm still a bit proud of the "gefilte fishy" one.

It Started With a Word: The Inaugural Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival

on Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Well, I've been sitting on the details of this for a while now but FINALLY I can let it out: having spent the past year on the organising committee of the first ever Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival we've finally unveiled our full program. And holy crap is it awesome (if I may say so myself). To be honest, I'm still kind of blown away by what our little team of incredibly hard working lit lovers has managed to put together. In addition to all the phenomenal Aussie writers on the bill (Elliot Perlman, Arnold Zable, John Safran, Michael Gawenda, Peter Singer, Kerri Sackville, Linda Jaivin and heaps more) we've managed to rope in Israel's Zeruya Shalev, New Yorkers Dara Horn and Matthue Roth as well as live link ups to superstars David Grossman and Irvin Yalom. Oh, and there's an opening gala of readings and original performances hosted by the inimitable Rachel Burger.

But wait there's more.

Put away your free steak knives, because I'll be making one of my increasingly rare public appearances to participate in three panels and I don't like sharp pointy things. The first, surprise surprise is about blogging. I'll be sitting alongside Australian journalism God Michael Gawenda and slam poet, novelist and zany video game programmer Matthue Roth riffing on life in the cloud. Next up is a gabfest with our two Yanks during which I expect not to get a word in edgewise. And, finally, I'll be sharing my favourite "forgotten gem" - an unrecognised Jewish classic - along with Arnold Zable and Renata Singer. If only I could choose between the veritable chest of such gems in my library. Best I can guess at the moment: it'll probably be Czech.

Early bird tickets went on sale today from the festival website. If you're in Melbourne or can head down at the end of May, get online and buy yours now.

And now a sexy picture:

Springtime For Hitler (Again): Look Who's Back by Timur Vermes

on Tuesday, April 1, 2014
A spoiler for those of you who have yet to see the near-perfect jacket design of Timur Vermes's gutsy novel: Adolf Hitler. That's who's back. Without any attempt to explain the intervening sixty years, Vermes plops the most hated man in history into a field on the outskirts of modern day Berlin. At first, poor old Adolf thinks the war is still on and can't understand why the kids playing soccer (obviously Hitler Youth, though how dare they not wear their uniforms) not only don't show him the proper respect but don't even seem to know who he is. Then it dawns on him; there is no war, Eva's dead, his cronies are gone and, well, Germany has gone to shit. Adolf is angry. Batshit crazy ranting angry. Yep, Adolf is right at home.

Wandering back into the big city, Hitler is taken in by a kindly newspaper vendor who thinks he must be a method actor; the best he has ever seen. As luck would have it, the newspaper stand is in the entertainment district and the vendor knows some people who know some people and, before you can say Mein Golly Gott, Adolf finds himself as the political commentator on a popular comedy show. His rants bring the house down, making him (much to his confused delight) the most popular entertainer in Germany. Hitler is well and truly back!

Needless to say, Look Who's Back could have been a tasteless, vulgar exercise in cheap comedy (or worse). Yet, in Adolf Hitler Vermes has the perfect vehicle for "big idea" political and cultural satire. It is scary to admit, but it doesn't take too much tinkering to make the evil despot's diatribes disturbingly relevant. There are some hilariously light touches - Hitler trying to understand computers (especially U-tube, as he calls it) or getting his head around Goth culture - but Vermes really digs his claws in when it comes to Angela Merkel (Adolf does not approve), the modern German political system and the very difficult relationship the country has with its past. Some of the best laughs come from the deepest cuts. When Hitler visits the fascist party headquarters he is horrified to find it peopled by pimply kids and reprobates. He takes them to task on camera, completely eviscerating the movement. It is considered his best skit yet. Meanwhile, his greatest opposition comes from right wing thugs who think he is mocking their great hero. Hilariously (at least in terms of irony), he is bashed by a couple of skinheads and almost killed. Thereafter, every left wing party tries to co-opt him as their own - a hero for the anti-violence, anti-fascist movement. You can't help but laugh.

Look Who's Back is a very funny book. It is also frightening. The idea that contemporary culture's obsession with celebrity could bring Hitler back to power might seem somewhat hysterical but it provides serious food for thought. As I finished the novel I was reminded of that line in The Clash's White Man In Hammersmith Palais: "If Adolf Hitler flew in today/ They'd send a limousine anyway." Scary but, I fear, quite true.
4.5 Out Of 5 Unfashionable Moustaches

Ah, heck - I just have to post the cover. Pure design genius!