22 February 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

A Jew Must Die by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson

Language: French
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Bitter Lemon
Pages: 92

Why This Book Should Win: Second Chessex book to make the longlist in two years; Switzerland deserves some play; maybe the most accessible and gripping of the longlisted titles; people love WWII-related novels; title is one of the more disturbing of eligible books this year.

I wrote today’s post.

Michael Orthofer turned me on to Jacques Chessex last year when he recommended The Vampire of Ropraz for the BTBA longlist. I tend to avoid “those” sorts of books—the crime-related ones, the ones with vampires in the title, the books that sound like they could be gory. But Michael is a sharp reader, and I have to admit that Ropraz took me by surprise and totally won me over.

When Bitter Lemon sent along a copy of A Jew Must Die a few months back, I fell into my same old prejudices: the title is a bit off-putting, the cover a little less than appealing, it’s about World War II (sorry, but /yawn), there is a murder involving an iron bar, etc., etc.

But, once again, I totally sucked at evaluating the greatness of this book. Once the BTBA committee picked it for the longlist, I decided that I really should read it (I’m working my way through all 25 title, and will hopefully finish all of them before the winner is announced), and once again, I was captivated.

It only took an hour to read this novella, which is perfect, since this is essentially a written version of a Dateline episode set in 1942 . . . Seriously. Just listen to the voice over narration of a few key moments:

Arthur Bloch usually covers the short distance between Monbijoustrasse and the railway station on foot, stepping out to the rhythmic tap of his stick. He gets into the first train to La Broye, which reaches Payerne via Avenches. He likes this ninety-minute trip through the stretches of meadows and valleys still filled with mist in the early-morning light.

Arrival in Payerne at 6:18. Chestnuts in bloom, silken hills, bright weather, all the more beautiful since threatened from within and without. But Arthur Bloch is unaware of the danger. Arthur Bloch does not sense it.

Almost the whole book has this same sort of omniscient distancing that causes this to read like a news report. Which makes this even more compelling, and avoids a lot of the trappings of writing a book about a horrific Nazi crime. Characterization is spotty, so we don’t have to experience the cognitive dissonance of empathizing with a fucking monster. Bloch’s death is told in direct, unadorned facts, which both keep the narrative from becoming too melodramatic and create a very creepy vibe.

A Jew Must Die is a horrifying book about a horrifying crime committed by horrifying people. And for all the books about this sort of thing that have been written, this one manages to distill the horror into something direct that will remain in my memory for a long time.

29 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

Over at World Books, Bill Marx has a very thoughtful review of two Swiss horror books: The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex, translated by W. Donald Wilson and published by Bitter Lemon (a Best Translated Book nominee) and The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, translated by H. M. Waidson and published by Oneworld Classics.

The spanking new The Vampire of Ropraz asserts that, when faced with irrational violence, the forces of ignorance and fear predominate. The classic The Black Spider (which was first published in 1842; this is a reprint of the 1958 English edition) revolves around a reneged deal with the Devil, who wants, but doesn’t get, an unbaptized child as payment for his services. The betrayal unleashes the title monster, who can be stopped by goodness, if it is free of moral corruption and hypocrisy. The latter turns out to be a tall order. But at least there’s some Paradise around to counterbalance Gotthelf’s Hell.

Interestingly, both of these books root their avenging vision of mayhem in the brutal mistreatment of children. Gotthelf appears to wish for a God “Who would avenge Himself terribly for all the injustice that is done to poor children who cannot defend themselves.” In a strange way, the Devil is doing the Lord’s work by punishing the sadists among the low- and upper classes.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Vampire of Ropraz, and although The Black Spider doesn’t sound like my sort of book, it does come with a ringing endorsement by Thomas Mann, who claimed it is “like almost no other piece of world literature.”

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a piece on Jacques Chessex’s The Vampire of Ropraz, a curious little book from one of Switzerland’s most revered authors.

Here’s the opening of the review:

If it weren’t for Michael Orthofer of Complete Review, I don’t think I would’ve ever picked up this slender book. I don’t mind my vampires on TV (True Blood is a pretty decent show), but I tend to avoid them in literature. (No, I haven’t read Twilight and probably never will.)

But this isn’t a vampire book. Sure, it’s got the spooky cover and the sadistic crimes, but this novel isn’t about anyone sucking anyone’s blood. It’s about society and fear, and finding a way to explain and cope with things that are beyond normal comprehension.

The novel is set in Ropraz—“a land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport”—where a young girl is dug up from her grave and mutilated. Newspapers seize on the sensational story, labeling the criminal who did this as the “Vampire of Ropraz,” and setting off a series of “sightings” and a hell of a lot of fear:

And click here for the full write up.

14 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

If it weren’t for Michael Orthofer of Complete Review, I don’t think I would’ve ever picked up this slender book. I don’t mind my vampires on TV (True Blood is a pretty decent show), but I tend to avoid them in literature. (No, I haven’t read Twilight and probably never will.)

But this isn’t a vampire book. Sure, it’s got the spooky cover and the sadistic crimes, but this novel isn’t about anyone sucking anyone’s blood. It’s about society and fear, and finding a way to explain and cope with things that are beyond normal comprehension.

The novel is set in Ropraz—“a land of wolves and neglect in the early twentieth century, poorly served by public transport”—where a young girl is dug up from her grave and mutilated. Newspapers seize on the sensational story, labeling the criminal who did this as the “Vampire of Ropraz,” and setting off a series of “sightings” and a hell of a lot of fear:

In the meantime, the Vampire is on the loose. He is reported in Vucherens, Ferlens and Montpreveyres, always appearing at night, evading the watch and the dogs, climbing on each occasion to the upper floor, where the daughter of the house or the maid sleeps.

“Look at the broken pane, that’s where he rested the ladder . . .”

“But he didn’t harm your daughter.”

“She woke up in time. She was dreaming, poor thing, and suddenly she started to scream. We barely had time to grab an axe and run upstairs.”

But the citizens aren’t just paranoid—more corpses are dug up and defiled. And the authorities have to find someone to pin all of these crimes on . . . And along comes Charles-Augustin Favez, suspicious enough, and recently caught “having relations” with a cow.

Chessex’s novel is based on a real-life story, which is why his sparse, direct, almost questioning prose style works so well, relating the fragments of what is known in a way that pits doubts about Favez’s guilt against the townspeople’s need for a criminal to be named.

Favez is released though—at least at first:

Favez is set free on Thursday the 9th of July. His release from prison provokes outrage. The Vampire of Ropraz is free! In vain the justice authorities defend themselves, citing the psychiatrist’s report, the expert witnesses from Basle and Zurich, the complete lack of proof regarding the three graveyard crimes and, above all, the decisive factor in the eyes of justice, the manifest inability of Favez to cut up or dissect any kind of flesh—animal flesh during the tests to which he had been subjected, or human flesh in the worst of cases. A vast, angry murmur sweeps through the countryside, and there are fears for the safety of the wrongly accused, considered a vampire by the public, fears of a lynching or a kidnapping followed by extreme abuse.

Aside from the mesmerizing way that Chessex lays out this little tale, it’s the final, speculative, surprising chapter that makes this novel worth reading. On one hand, where he leaves Favez is a bit over-the-top, but for whatever reason, it all sort of fits with this creepy sketch of a story. Worth checking out, and it will only take you about as long to read this as it would to watch an episode of Buffy.

....
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