Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Slow Boat: Eltang’s Cartagena

It took me a long time to read Lena Eltang’s Картахена (Cartagena), a detective novel (of sorts) set in Italy. It’s not just that the book is 541 pages of not-so-large type. Or that I was busy and distracted by work and snow in mid-winter. Some books just demand slow, deliberate readings, and Cartagena is so filled with textured landscapes, nuanced characters, plot twists, and lovely turns of phrase that even my multi-month reading felt a little too fast.

Cartagena begins like this, with a murder:

Брата убили на рассвете, а нашли в восемь утра, когда открылся рыбный рынок. Его тело лежало в корыте с солью.
My brother was killed at dawn and found at eight in the morning, when the fish market opened. His body was lying in a large basin with salt.

The victim is Brie (yes, like the cheese) and the narrator is his sister, Petra, a law student who just happens to have been on her way to her hometown that same morning. Petra decides to stay, to try to figure out what happened to her brother; she ends up getting a job at the Briatico, a curious old waterfront hotel/nursing home with a troubled history that includes (but of course) other mysterious deaths.

Eltang shifts her narration between several figures, all of them unpleasant and/or unreliable in their own ways. Petra gets the most ink, though I had a particular affection for The Gardener’s brief passages: this may be partly because I so enjoyed his early discussion of eating mussels during a camping trip, describing, among other things, how his girlfriend (who later dumps him) “pricked them with a pin, sniffed them, counted the rings.” As a coastal Mainer who eats a lot of seafood and has friends who own a lobster pound, I’m a sucker for bits of information like this: I’d never heard of testing mussels with a pin. But I digress! Another narrator is a mysterious blogger with the name Flautista_libico, who’s obviously come to the Briatico to try to take possession of the place. Those characters’ passages are written in the first-person, though Markus’s travels are presented in the third-person: Markus has returned from London after writing a book about a woman he’s lost.

Cartagena covers a lot more in its 540 pages: a chapel fire, rehashings (and rehashings of rehashings) of old murders, family conflicts, Brie’s ambition for quick money, a priceless stamp, romances, Petra’s visits to the police with theories, a young woman’s disappearance, and the workings of the Briatico itself, which feels almost like a hermetically sealed murder setting… I could go on and on.

What fascinates me most about Cartagena, though, is Eltang’s ability to boil nearly everything in the novel down to identity, secrets, family, and masks. She gives us Brie, Petra, and their ailing mother, but she also gives us the family that’s owned and run the Briatico, as well as characters who—as is obvious, based on the names I listed a paragraph above—hide under nicknames, professions, and dye jobs. They wear costumes, too: the play the staff stages at the Briatico even plays a role in the real-life drama in Cartagena. When I look back at my notes, many of which question whether some Character X might be some Character Y’s relative, I realize how many hints Eltang plants throughout the book, placing them in various strata of characters’ truths and lies. Of course I’m not going to spill the details so will just say that Cartagena is wonderful slow reading. As I read, I kept thinking back to how Eltang mentioned in a Facebook comment that the devil is in the details in Cartagena. It’s tremendous fun to sort through—slowly, of course—all the details and stories, that her devilish characters present under various guises.

Up next: I’m very excited about this year’s Big Book Award finalists, which will be announced on Tuesday: I’m a brand-new member of Big Book’s Literary Academy and will have a vote this year. This means that, yes, I’ll be reading all the finalists this time around. Read Russia Award finalists come later in the week. And then, two books: Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I’ll start translating this summer, and Sergei Nosov’s Член общества, или Голодное время (something like Member of the Society or A Time of Hunger), the sad-but-funny story of a man’s life after selling all his Dostoevsky.

Disclaimers: I read Cartagana after translating excerpts last fall and would, yes, love to translate the entire book and sort through all its devilish details. Lena Eltang was tremendously helpful in answering my questions about the excerpts: a brief list of questions generated some fun local specifics about mussel selection, crab fishing, and olive growing.


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