I’m pleased to welcome Bangkok-based journalist and writer Tom Vater as the next contributor to the ‘my year in books’ series.
Tom is the author of The Cambodian Book of the Dead, a great hard-boiled crime novel set in Cambodia, which I reviewed here on this site in early November.
Thanks for your contribution, Tom. I particularly approve of the inclusion of Robert Stone’s book, Dog Soldiers. That’s one I definitely have to re-read.
The Master and Margerita, Mikhail Bulgakov
I got to this incredible, magical tale by low-down pop cultural ways when I was sixteen and am currently rereading the book. In this enduring Russian novel, the devil causes mischief amongst the atheist and greedy communist elite in 1920s Soviet Moscow, one of the world’s greatest love stories, between the Master and Margarita, plays itself out, and there’s an alternative narrative of the relationship between Pontius Pilate and Jesus. The Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil is said to be partially inspired by the novel and that’s how I found Bulkakov’s subversive masterpiece.
“But would you kindly ponder this question: What would your good do if evil didn’t exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living beings. Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light? You’re stupid.”
― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
Quiet Days in Clichy, Henry Miller
Down and outs, borderline sexual behavior, the terror of meaningless existence. Miller hits all the right spots with this novella which I plowed through in a day in the summer. The story revolves around two struggling Americans in 1930s Paris, forever hungry and out of cash and picking up prostitutes every time they have a few francs in the pockets. The text manages an uneasy balance between rudeness, human curiosity and an odd compassion.
Prague Fatale, Philip Kerr
I am fan of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther Novels. The PI in Nazi Germany uncovering unpleasant truths for all concerned has had me gripped since his Berlin Noir trilogy in the 90s. Prague Fatale, published in 2011, is a departure from the hardboiled routine – it’s a classic locked room mystery involving the murder of a high ranking Nazi in a house full of high ranking Nazis. Between sleuthing amongst the swine, Gunther witnesses a harrowing water boarding session – a hint at how Kerr perceives history past and present. It’s complicated, even if this book isn’t.
Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone
A strange meandering novel putting the beat generation’s Neal Cassidy into a post Vietnam War heroin deal gone sour in California. The first scenes set in Vietnam, with the American presence nearing its ‘imploding’ end, are wonderful evocations of South East Asia from a firmly counter-cultural point of view. What then unravels back in the US is all part of the great disconnect, anything-goes-consumerism fighting the hippies into a corner.
Briarpatch, Ross Thomas
Benjamin Dill travels to small town America to bury his sister. Once home he unearths a can of rotten political worms that stretches back to old childhood allegiances and reaches into the highest echelons of the crooked local body politic only to reconnect with his sibling’s demise. Thomas writes with a wry smile on his face. The villains are villainous and America is a hopelessly corrupt country, but also one in which it is possible to have great fun with a good story.