This month’s tally is a return to the tried and tested. Two fiction books comprise the list with a collection of anecdotes for good measure. I start off with Camus’s The Stranger, first published in 1942. A model on absurdism, I read the novella separately in two months. Next up is ‘the Arkady Renko book that started it all, the #1 bestseller Gorky Park.’ For a while now, I’ve had this book on my shelf; it didn’t disappoint. Finally, I will cap off this month’s reads with Love Stories by acclaimed Aussie journalist, Trent Dalton. The author of Boy Swallows Universe gives us a poignant anthology of adoration in its many forms.
The Stranger (Camus). This is the first Camus book that I finished, but not the first one I attempted. Years ago, I had tried to summit The Plague but found it too philosophical. The latter has since found an audience as a result of the pandemic. My reading experience of Stranger was different as I bought it as an ebook. The novella is all of 161 pages an is divided into two parts. Part 1 transpires before Mersault (the protanist) is jailed for murder. Part 2 takes place after his arrest and subsequent incarceration.
Stranger is like night and day compared to Plague. The former was published when Camus was only twenty-nine. It is a much easier read and I got through seventy pages in one day. Stranger has been dubbed as lightweight and the best introduction to Camus. The plot revolves around an Algerian, Mersault, whose sick mother dies in the nursing home. During her funeral, he sheds no tears and shows no emotion. The following day, he then watches a movie with his girlfriend, Marie. He befriends his neighbour, Raymond, who is rumoured to be a pimp. He even writes him a character reference though he knows that Raymond hurt this girl.
One weekend, they go with Raymond to the beach, where he murders an Arab on the shore. He is arrested and tried, but his atheism never wavers. Even when he’s headed for the gallows, he doggedly rejects the Church and God. He takes the blame for his actions. In jail, he reads a lot and longs for Marie. During his trial, he shows no remorse and this dooms him. The ending is nothing short of a tragedy. Stranger was originally written in the French but today is considered a classic. There are only a handful of characters in this thin paperback but upon cresting it, this title is clearly polished and well-written.
‘There, too in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace.’
Gorky Park (Martin Cruz Smith). The first book in the author’s thriller series sees Chief Inspector Renko scrambling to solve a triple murder in the eponymous Gorky Park. Two Russians and an American are slayed in an ice rink. Renko’s superiors believe this is an open and shut case and that the trio turned on each other. The inspector, however, isn’t so inclined. His investigations lead him to a filthy rich American fur dealer and a visiting New York police detective. Meanwhile, he has to dissect this while his marriage is falling apart.
He loses a friend in the shuffle. Soon, his zealous search for the truth turns him into a fugitive. He uncovers a conspiracy stretching to the top of the food chain. He learns that as long as you have enough bribe money, the authorities could look the other way. Renko realises that his own greedy superior is in cahoots with the enemy. He meets a dissident, Irina Asanova. At first, she is brusque but her beauty beguiles him. Soon, he falls head over heels for her. Arkady even hides her in his apartment. She is a mystery that he wants to unpack.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One is set in Moscow; Part Two in Shatura. Part Three in New York. A stolen lot of sables is the bone of contention. The Russians have a stranglehold of the sable fur industry. The recent developments though would undercut their monopoly. Once in the Big Apple, Renko is reunited with his lover. However, he realises that they are just part of a bigger mechanism. He also finds Kirwill, the detective who wants to give him a fair go. He learns the truth about Irina’s activities, though he’s convinced that he knew this all along.
There’s things to both love and hate about this Renko entry. First, it paints a realistic portrait of the Cold War. Park was published in 1981 so it’s not an anachronism. Arkady is also a likeable chap: determined, loyal, and principled. Moreover, I like Smith’s finality. The ending is as decisive as one could imagine. Regardless, the chapters are rather long and there aren’t enough section breaks in them. I also found the novel to be overly descriptive. Moreover, there were a lot of lists. I am a fan of neither. In fairness, the subplots and twists made me tough it out. Based on my web-based research, Park is the finest of the series. As per the photo, a film adaptation was even produced. I would expect it to go downhill from here. I have one more Renko thriller to go through but it’s not high on my reading list.
Love Stories (Dalton). A few years ago, I reviewed Boy Swallows Universe. Dalton’s debut novel, both audiences and critics received it well. Boy represented one of 2018’s best reads. He has since released another novel, set in WWII. Last year, Dalton made a return to nonfiction book writing with the publication of Love Stories. The collection has over forty essays. The title is the result of Dalton spending two months on a busy Brisbane street corner with his antique typewriter. He yearned for passersby to tell him their stories. The result is 330 pages of musings about love. Just like Boy, this was also well-received.
Trent does not discriminate. There are the young and the old, couples and best friends, lasting and ephemeral, familial and international, comedies and tragedies. He tells of both losing and finding love. He relates fondness for kids, parents, and grandparents. He showcases stories from Rwanda, the Philippines, Netherlands, Croatia, and Ecuador. Most of the tales are short and for the most part, narrate accounts from total strangers. However, some of them are his acquaintances. There is even one tale depicting a guy who rocks up in pyjamas wherever he goes. While at it, he does this move, called a ‘floss.’ In spite of his outfit, he never feels embarrassed. He never lets other people’s opinions or stares affect him. Trent then decides to buy an orchid from the Pinay and gift it to one of the storytellers.
One must note that Dalton undertook this project in 2020, during the pandemic. Out of tough times, hope sprung. He uses the courier new font for familiar thoughts, which add colour to the narrative. This is a nod to the ancient typewriter. One thing though: he occasionally goes on these long-winded lists. Having read him before, this isn’t new but it could be distracting. As a result, I had to skip a few pages. This is a minor flaw in an otherwise impressive manuscript.