Christian House

A choice of first novels | 18 June 2008

Christian House recommends a selection of first novels

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The ghost of Harry Lime seems to be haunting the publishing houses of London. Graham Greene’s infamous anti-hero may have come to a sticky end in the Viennese sewers but his spirit lives on in several debut novels immersed in the noir world of post-war Europe.

Hedi Kaddour’s Waltenburg (Harvill/ Secker, £20) is the most wide-ranging and ambitious of these. The book begins with the maelstrom inflicted on a French cavalry unit during the Great War before coursing through the second world war to the principal narrative of a 1950s CIA operation. The Hotel Waldhaus in the Swiss mountain village of Waltenburg proves the hub around which a German writer, an American singer, a French journalist and a shady, unidentified mole love and betray one another. Kaddour’s idiosyncratic prose, which plays fast and loose with grammatical convention, is as creative as a black market passport. The result is a long read (at 640 pages) but one that still manages to grip like an ill-gotten dossier.

Less panoramic perhaps but equally atmospheric, Dan Vyleta’s Pavel & I (Bloomsbury, £12.99) does for Berlin what The Third Man achieved for Vienna. The city sparkles like drizzle in lamp light. Vyleta has created a paean to the morally bereft, economically turbulent times when the metropolis found itself caught in a particularly unsettling vacuum, book- ended by the armistice and the blockade. This is the winter of 1946 with

people freezing in their unheated flats, impoverished, hungry, scraping together something less than a living from the crumbs that fell from their occupiers’ tables.

Pavel Richter is a decommissioned GI holed up in one such apartment. He’s in love with his neighbour, Sonia, who in turn is the mistress of the sinister, corpulent Colonel Fosko. However, when he agrees to hide the corpse of a Russian spy for a friend his problems really begin. Vyleta expertly depicts a cat running out of lives. What’s more impressive is that the reader remains uncertain which life is the authentic one.

Junot Diaz’s luminous Pulitzer prize-winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber, £12) follows another fish out of water. Eleven years in the writing, after his equally dazzling short story collection Drown, the novel records the pratfalls of Oscar Wao, an adolescent Dominican immigrant slouching around in New Jersey.

Oscar is a romantic bookworm with a penchant for Tolkien and calorific indulgence. He dreams of becoming a best- selling author and cashing in on the nubile babes success will offer up, distant spoils to a fat sci-fi-reading ‘ghetto nerd’.

For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits, an experience from which he supposed he should have emerged a better person, but that’s not what happened.

The book is peppered with ironic footnotes that have taken in at least one reviewer. To be fair, they do possess the absurdity of truth. I particularly liked the definition of the pejorative pariguayo: a kid who goes to parties and ‘stands outside and watches while other people scoop up the girls’. This novel bristles with imagination and heart, and ultimately blows a triumphant fanfare for the bravery of the persistent outcast.

If Diaz strikes a Dominican uppercut in the name of the under dog, it naturally takes a Frenchman to provide a counter-blow for la bourgeoisie. Gross Margin (Harvill/ Secker, £20) Laurent Quintreau’s scabrous, slim-line tale, translated by Polly McLean and more a novella than a novel, finds The Divine Comedy transposed to a Parisian boardroom. This is a corporate environment where executive gall comes with a bitter blast of gauloises. Inside, 11 executives battle it out. Their inner monologues rather than vocal arguments inform the story and the translation flows easily.

We’ve seen The Office deconstruct the workplace with aplomb and American Psycho examine post-modern machismo; well Gross Margin cunningly combines the laughs of the former with the acidity of the latter. Quintreau’s team proves to be a pretty unpleasant, not to mention hypocritical, lot. Insecure and arrogant, lustful and impotent, they’re engrossing in a rubber-necking way. All their twisted vanity, insane fantasies and coal-face humour hold the reader’s attention like a bloody pile up. You’ll look at your colleagues differently at that Monday morning meeting after this. It’s a guilty pleasure read, heavily shot through with misanthropy. Harry Lime would have loved it. ‘Nobody thinks in terms of human beings,’ said Harry. ‘Governments don’t, why should we? They talk about the people and the proletariat, I talk about the suckers and the mugs. It’s the same thing.’

It appears that a new generation of authors might just agree with him.