Monday, February 16, 2015

Within the Vortex: Hausfrau a novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau is the first novel written by poet, Jill Alexander Essbaum. It is the interesting story of an expatriate American woman, Anna Benz who took the path of least resistance by marrying a steady as he goes Swiss banker, Bruno. Living in Zurich, Anna has not minded the feeling of being an outsider in the Swiss culture for ten years. In fact, she has not really mastered the Swiss language of her husband and her two young sons. She decides to take a German class (close to but not equal to Schwiizerdutsch) to improve her ability to speak at home and with acquaintances. In class, Anna realizes that her private self-talking English language is quite complex and nuanced compared to the language she uses with other ouslanders. Her secret life is reinforcing in the sense of a comforting solitude, and she protects it by playing a quiet non-reactive role in a barren play with her family and acquaintances.

But Anna discovers that life is not a play and solitude can satisfy many protective needs but not the most important social needs of a person. Meeting her sexual needs, for example, requires  secretive actions that are difficult given her mental game of isolation. Depression becomes a constant companion. Even her psychiatrist cannot break through the verbal walls to help her. No one speaks Anna’s language, and over the ten years living in Switzerland, the barriers to meaningful interaction slowly have become immutable.

What happens when you learn you have played the solitude game too long? Anna is a very intelligent and sensitive person who begins to look for a way out. Hausfrau is a very interesting character study that gives insight into the reader’s own conflicts between internal language and external social roles. It is unrelenting in the exploration of ineffectual imaginary defenses that are inevitably overcome by real circumstances. This is a very well-written and enjoyable contemporary novel.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Politics, Religion, and Police Work: The Deliverance of Evil by Roberto Costantini, Translated from the Italian by N. S. Thompson

The Deliverance of Evil is part one of a trilogy by Roberto Costantini. The detailed and lengthy (564 pages) thriller is the story of a young police captain, Michele Balistreri, beginning in Rome in 1982. The very good translation from Italian by N. S. Thompson captures the daily life of the citizens of Rome including solid citizens, gypsies, prostitutes, criminals, politicians, police officers, wealthy royalty, lay guests and religious of the Vatican, and Catholic church officials. Balistreri has a troublesome, secretive, and violent political past but has been saved from prosecution by his brother, a man with strong membership in the influential Christian Democrats political party.

Balistreri misses his past life of danger and makes up for it in debauchery. He certainly does not take his police captain duties or his use of women seriously. He spends most of his time rousting people with his badge in hand, drinking from dawn until dusk, and seeking new women to conquer sexually. As a result of his lack of attention, Balistreri makes a serious mistake in an investigation of a murder during the World Cup soccer match between Italy and West Germany. The drunken misogynist gets into trouble but manages to keep his police job because of his brother’s political connections.  

The novel jumps several decades in time, and the reader follows the subdued-by-age Balistreri as he drags through his life focused on recovering from damage he did to himself physically and emotionally as a young man. Due to his early failure as a stand-up man, he thinks of himself as a degenerate no better than the criminals he chased. In the 2000s he has straightened up enough to be chosen as the head of a police unit dealing with crimes by foreigners. This is a good position for Balistreri outside of the mainstream of city police work in Rome. Balistreri’s aggressive style of dealing with women and criminals has changed, and now he carefully watches his diet and religiously takes his antidepressant medication.

The past in the form of the 1982 unsolved murder haunts Balistreri in his mind and in reality during the 2006 World Cup, déjà vu all over again. He has to decide whether to live as a man or continue his holding pattern of careful work framed by personal regret and misery. He has become a toady to Rome’s dominant political and social players, careful to keep his police staff from making any controversial waves. Is it the right time for redemption and does he have the right stuff to achieve it?

The novel includes many interesting references to political history and current interactions between the Vatican and the social/political ruling class in Italy. The descriptions of the problems related to the growing legal and illegal immigrant population in Italy are interesting in light of our own US problems with immigration. 

The Deliverance of Evil is a good tour de force narrative rich in the detailed descriptions of Italian life. This causes some reduction in the pace and tension of the story but the reader gets a good idea of the high energy life in Rome. I look forward to reading the next novel in the proposed trilogy, The Root of All Evil, due to be published in April.