Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichy, translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)



When I read novels like this one, I feel so foolish. “Just get a job!” I think. “Quit making stupid decisions!” And then I realize I’ve had parents who stayed together, made a home for my brother and I, and taught us the way we should go. But, the troubled narrator in the novel, Cody, reminds us of this:

You’re an adult but you see yourself as a damaged child. You see yourself as a victim and therefore feel that your right to this hatred, indiscriminate and to be honest pretty vaguely defined is unshakeable. You live fully on the shadow of your parents’ failures, their losses, their blind struggle. You’ve got kids to take care of yourself but you go to pieces, breaking down the moment you start thinking about your own childhood…Your self-image leads to a critical situation in which the most important elements are a paralyzing fatalism combined with an all-eclipsing defeatism.

p. 113

Cody is a cellist, walking down the road with a composer and a drummer, but not listening well to their conversation. Instead, he is reviewing his life, the horrors that he has chosen and endured. In reading Wretchedness, I see so clearly that living a successful life isn’t as easy as “trying hard”. Where do you go when you don’t belong anywhere? When you can’t escape the pull of alcohol and drugs, such that poor choices are all you can make because you’re caught in a vortex of poverty, shame, and despair?

The drugs, the crime, the death. Doing time, filthy mattresses and sofas, the hostels, the psych wards, the memorial gardens. The whole shebang. That life and that death. It’s true. But what does it mean? What do you think it means? Sure. Yeah. You’re right. It’s not some straightforward survivor guilt, if that’s what you were thinking. What I feel is only partly sympathy, empathy, understanding. I also want to smash their faces in. They disgust me.

p. 82

It’s music that gives him the greatest relief, I think. Even if the music described in this book is a heavy, dark, almost oppressive thing. The narrator goes for rap, as well as the work of Giacinto Scelsi and Arvo Part.

Then Christoph Maria Moosmann entered. I turned round, looked up at the organ and could just make him out as he sat down at the manual. He began to play Part’s Annum per Annum and everything seemed to close in, filling with weight and levity, and the room expanded and contracted as though it were breathing, and I breathed with it, and a few seconds after the first chord’s powerful vibrations I breathed out, before holding, lungs empty, for the rest of the minute the chord sounded. Then it ebbed away, and I drew breath, deeply and noisily, much too noisily in the quiet church, as though I’d been underwater and was now struggling up to the surface, up to the oxygen, just as the pause, the silence,was at its most intense, and when those first weak, light, playfully searching notes began to sound I couldn’t help once again thinking about Soot and about that last night, what I’d done, about what I was, about Kiki and Rawna, about that bus, on that roundabout, that circular motion and centrifugal force that pushed me out towards everything with such satanic power.

p. 94-5

There is no simple, straightforward answer for those who haven’t found a place in this world. Certainly they are excluded, yet in many ways, they exclude themselves. Sometimes, the vortex is just too strong to escape.

Thanks to And Other Stories for a copy of Wretchedness to read and review here.

Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

imageYou know that the narrator, Fredrik Welin, lives alone on an icy, remote island in Sweden where the only person he sees with any regularity is Jansson, the postman. You know he was once a surgeon, but some catastrophic mistake has ended that period of his life. You know that he once loved Harriet, but left her quite suddenly one day, completely unexpectedly.

This isn’t a mystery as one would expect from the Scandinavian crime authors. But it carries an atmosphere of underlying suspense which is relentless, while closely observing the loneliness of an isolated life.

Fredrik breaks the hole in the ice every morning so that he can submerge his body in the freezing water, just to remind himself he’s still alive. And one day, when he looks up, he sees Harriet with a walker watching him. It has been decades since he last saw her, and she tells him he must fulfill his promise to take her to a lake in the northern region where he had once gone with his father.

Their journey involves looking back at the life they’d had together which had been so abruptly interrupted. It also involves a visit to an Italian shoe maker, so skilled in his craft that he only makes one or two custom pairs of shoes a year.

“I’ve been to Rome,” said Harriet. “My whole life has revolved around shoes. What I thought was just a coincidence when I was young, working in a shoe shop because my father had once worked as a foreman at Oscaria in Orebro, turned out to be something that would effect the whole of my life. All I’ve ever done, really, is wake up morning after morning and think about shoes. I once went to Rome and stayed there for a month as an apprentice to an old master craftsman who made shoes for the richest feet in the world. He devoted as much care to each pair as Stradivari did to his violins. He used to believe feet had personalities of their own. An opera singer – I can no longer remember her name – had spiteful feet that never took their shoes seriously or showed them any respect. On the other hand, a Hungarian businessman had feet that displayed tenderness toward their shoes. I learned something from that old man about shoes and art. Selling shoes was never the same after that.” p. 46

I’m not quite sure how, even after finishing this novel several weeks ago and thinking about it often since, Italian shoes fit into the story. Except for this quote:

I remembered her once saying that life was like your shoes. You couldn’t simply expect or imagine that your shoes would fit perfectly. Shoes that pinched your feet were a fact of life. p. 57

Italian Shoes is a tender sort of novel, not necessarily a thriller, that shows a tender side of Henning Mankell. If you only know him from his Kurt Wallander series, you might well enjoy this poignant novel told from the point of view of a 65 year old man revisiting his past. Thus able to face his future.