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The Albanian bunker museum

I am in Tirana this weekend for a conference, and spent some time in the new Bunk'Art museum, just off Skanderbeg Square in the heart of the city. It's the bunker built for Enver Hoxha and Mehmet Shehu as part of the Interior Ministry in the 1980s - in fact both died before it was finished, and it was never actually used during the Communist period (it is noted that on three occasions post-1990 the government did use it in emergency conditions).


The entrance is oddly sfnal - one commenter made the point that, Tardis-like, it seems bigger on the inside; another spotted the resemblance to a Dalek. Down below, the corridors are as you would expect - bleak concrete. Weird piped music conveying the Hoxhaist aesthetic permeates the atmosphere.

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But they have done two things with this bizarre environment. First of all, there is a museum of the history of the Interior ministry occupying the first two corridors. It starts with the relatively benign story of institution-building in a newly independent and fragile state after 1912:

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and then goes into the horrors of the Communist period, commemorating more than 5,500 people who were executed by listing some of their names, interviewing survivors of internal exile, forced labour and torture, and delineating the bureaucratic mechanism which enabled this repression to take place. (I had forgotten, incidentally, that Kim Philby was instrumental in transmitting information to Tirana via Moscow destroying the anti-Communist resistance in the late 1940s.)

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Even so, thousands were able to flee Albania for other countries, and the collapse of the regime was triggered by a mass movement to refuge in Western embassies in July 1990.

A little more light-heartedly, the museum looks at the techniques of surveillance (which I found very evocative of Ismail Kadare's Palace of Dreams):



And also the famous instruction to visitors to respect socialist aesthetics in their hairstyle and clothing, complete with pictures of visitors being shaved at the border.

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The culmination of the museum part of the installation is the Ministerial underground office, with time-appropriate phones and decorated with pictures of former Interior Ministers.

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The other part of the installation is an art and performance space, in the deepest part of the bunker. Some parts of the architecture have been co-opted as art:

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Other rooms contain exhibits.

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(That "pickaxe in one hand and rifle in the other" line seems familiar.)

It's an extraordinary place. I had the pleasure of the company of a prominent scientist, who like me had been to Tirana several times before but had not had the chance to visit Bunk'Art since it opened late last year.

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What struck me was that unlike the Berlin "Topography of Terror" exhibition, this demonstrates how the normal mechanisms of establishing the structures of the Albanian state after independence in 1912 - the gendarmerie, the border guards, the fire and rescue services - were rapidly co-opted and brutally used to maintain the life of the Hoxha regime. Yet the bunker itself, built at great expense, was never used by its creators; by the time it was finished, oppression was on the way out, and its destiny turns out to be an exposure of secrets that the former rulers would have never wanted revealed, and a place for the performance of art that they would certainly have found degenerate. It's a reminder that it may take a long time, but evil government does contain the seeds of its own downfall.

Interesting Links for 10-02-2017

Interesting Links for 07-02-2017

Sunday reading

Current
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (a chapter a month)
THEN: Science Fiction Fandom in the U.K., 1930-1980, by Rob Hansen
To Lie with Lions, by Dorothy Dunnett
Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch

Last books finished
The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross

Next books
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
The Parrot's Theorem, by Denis Guedj
Short Trips: Time Signature, ed. Simon Guerrier

The Other Islam, by Stephen Schwartz

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The sultans who created the Ottoman Empire - the most powerful Muslim state and the most extensive caliphate in history - did not base their rule on Shariah alone. As mentioned, they established a body of common law, Kanun, that paralleled the religious law of Shariah.
A book about Sufism, tracing it from beginning to the present day, linking together various things of which I was aware and in which I was already interested (the Bektashi, Rūmī, the whirling dervishes, Said Nursî) into a longer historical narrative.

Unfortunately it's not all that good. to start with it's a work of apologetics written by a true believer, viewing events and people jumbled together through a partisan lens. A lot of effort is spent on denouncing Wahhabism (fair enough, but that then means you don't let your own people stand on their own merits). The net of historical adherents to Sufism is cast rather with, including some people who I suspect had never heard of it in reality. The narrative is curiously unmoored from the wider historical context. the explanation of Sufist ideas seemed relatively clear, but I was irritated by the failure to link it convincingly to other things I know about. I'm sure there are better books about Sufism out there, and I'll keep an eye out for them.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest on my unread shelves since I got it in 2010 (sent by the author I think). Next on that list is 1688: A Global History by John E. Wills.

V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore

My second-paragraph-of-third-chapter policy faces a challenge here! There are several interpretations.
Second frame of third page Second frame of third chapter Second frame of Part III

Gosh, the Eighties were different, weren't they? This is a classic graphic story of a man bringing down the autocratic society that Moore envisaged coming by 1998, after global war and Fascist takeover in Britain. I hadn't read it before, but I know Watchmen well (and am re-reading it this year with a group of friends on Facebook) and got through the first half of From Hell when it first came out, but haven't revisited it since. Also I got Jerusalem last year and will get to it sooner or later.

The fascist regime is very nostalgic in feel - the various officials seem to date from the Fifties or earlier, and V himself is very deliberately retro, with the Guy Fawkes mask subsequently adopted from the film version of the book by the protesters of the 21st century. Yet at the same time reading it in January 2016 seemed strangely appropriate, as we grapple with new authoritarianism and protest. The scenery may change but the stories remain similar.

Against the basic setting there are a couple of sub-plots; one is V's pursuit of those who tortured him back in the old days, thus presumably giving him the extra strength he needs to carry out his works of sabotage; the other is the emotionally implausible arc of his protegee Evey Hammond, who he rescues, subjects to serious emotional abuse for no apparent reason other than to brainwash her, and eventually appoints as his successor. Moore doesn't seem to see a problem with V's behaviour here, but I certainly do. I'm impressed by those like Phil Sandifer who found more to engage with - this part of the story repelled me.

That aside, it's a very well done piece of work, just a bit unquestioning of the central character's ideology and behaviour. It was good for the 1980s and it is still pretty good now.

This was both the top unread comic on my shelves, and the top book acquired in 2016 (actually given to me by Christopher Priest and Nina Allan, who were downsizing in anticipation of a house move). Next on those lists respectively are voume 6 of Saga and John Grisham's The Innocent Man.

The Dead Men Diaries, ed. Paul Cornell

Second paragraph of third story ("The Light that Never Dies" by Eddie Robson):
Unfortunately, a couple of days later, he died again. And again. And again. Eventually, he lost count of how many times it had happened. The period of consciousness that he was afforded each time - perhaps only a minute, perhaps only thirty seconds - didn't allow for a great deal of thought. First there was the anticipation, the fear. He'd felt that the first time, but differently. The first time, it had been a terrible uncertainty. He didn't know whether the knowledge of how it would feel made it better or worse. Then there was the pain. Then there was nothing, until the fear started again.
This was the first of the Bernice Summerfield books published by Big Finish. I'm taking them in publication order, which slightly to my surprise means I am already out of sequence - this is an anthology, but apparently the first novel, which I will read next month, is set earlier. I think it would also be a bit confusing for those not familiar with Benny continuity, as the stories are by old hands riffing off established characters and themes. The standout piece is Stephen Moffat's "The Least Important Man" which features a Blake's 7 fan brought forward to Benny's time; I also enjoyed "Steal from the World" by Kate Orman, about a return to the site of a youthful expedition, and "The Door in to Bedlam" by Dave Stone, which features communication with the exiled Jason. Both "The Light that Never Dies" by Eddie Robson and the final story, "Digging up the Past" by Mark Michalowski, feature movies (or equivalent), a medium that Benny has only fleetingly graced.

As already mentioned, this was the first of the Bernice Summerfield books published by Big Finish. Next in that sequence is a novel, The Doomsday Manuscript, by Justin Richards.

The Colour Of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

Second paragraph of third section ("The Lure of the Wyrm"):
At its base it was a mere score of yards across. Then it rose through clinging cloud, curving gracefully outward like an upturned trumpet until it was truncated by a plateau fully a quarter of a mile across. There was a tiny forest up there, its greenery cascading over the lip. There were buildings. There was even a small river, tumbling over the edge in a waterfall so wind-whipped that it reached the ground as rain.
Many many years since I read this, and I had forgotten a lot about it. I remembered of course the Lankhmar / Lovecraft / Pern structure in a divine D&D framework, and most of the Ankh-Morpork scenes. I'd forgotten about Hrun the Barbarian, who of course adds Conanity to the middle two sections. The last section, "Close to the Edge", is largely Pratchett's own imagination and shows him already into the politics of technology, but still developing the comfort with his own creations that later books displayed.

There are various schools of thought about where to start reading the Discworld books. Back in the day, of course, we had no choice as this was the only one out there. I think that genre fans who for some reason have not previously read Pratchett will still find this a good place to start. I can see that it might have less appeal for those readers less familiar with the fantasy genre. It was good to return to it.

This was the most popular book on my shelves (as measured by LibraryThing) that I had not yet reviewed online. Next in that sequence is Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Five Go On A Strategy Away Day:
'Yup!' said Dick.
Second paragraph of third chapter of Five on Brexit Island:
'I'm afraid so, Mummy,' said George. 'I'm for leaving Britain, and Julian's for remaining in it. You see, once they caught wind that I'd declared independence, the other three all demanded citizenship - Dick, Anne and Julian - and I gave citizenship to Timmy, of course, without him asking. It seems only fair enough, because they were all residing on the island when I declared independence. And, of course, I can't imagine Kirrin Island without them.[']
These are two one-joke books - different jokes, thankfully. Five Go On A Strategy Away Day is actually better and funnier; the notion of the Famous Five locked in bitter conflict with the Secret Seven over team-building games (there's a particularly brutal chapter where the three siblings and George analyse each other's personalities), and the addled adult version of camping, provisions and map-reading, make for a good chuckle or two. The joke in Five on Brexit Island gets pretty thin pretty quickly, leaving us wondering how many of her European co-workers Anne had been entangled with and exactly what Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny had got up to in their youth. George's evil (and non-canonical) cousin Rupert Kirrin makes an appearance in both books, which are lavishly illustrated with some of Eileen Soper's pictures from the original series, given completely unmatching captions. Basically corporate away days are much funnier than Brexit, and this is not surprisingly reflected in the books.

January books

Non-fiction: 5
Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution, ed. Margarette Lincoln
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, by David W. Anthony
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World, by Nicholas Ostler
The Other Islam, by Stephen Schwartz
The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley



Poetry: 1
Rhyme Stew, by Roald Dahl



Fiction (non-sf): 3
See How Much I Love You, by Luis Leante
Five Go On A Strategy Away Day, by Bruno Vincent
Five on Brexit Island , by Bruno Vincent



sf (non-Who): 11
A Fall of Stardust, by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess
"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman, by Harlan Ellison
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Palace of Dreams, by Ismail Kadare
Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
Penric and the Shaman, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Penric's Mission, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Colour Of Magic, by Terry Pratchett
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Humans, by Matt Haig
The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross



Doctor Who, etc: 4
Short Trips: Farewells, ed. Jacqueline Rayner
Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet, by Douglas Adams and James Goss
Rip Tide, by Louise Cooper
The Dead Men Diaries, ed. Paul Cornell



Comics: 3
Jeremiah: Een Geweer in het Water, by Hermann
Monstress Volume 1: Awakening, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd



6,300 pages
8/27 by women (Lincoln, Hurley, McGuire, Bujoldx2, Rayner, Cooper, Liu/Takeda)
2/27 by PoC (Whitehead, Liu/Takeda)

Reread: 2 (The illustrated Man, The Colour of Magic)

Reading now
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (a chapter a month)
THEN: Science Fiction Fandom in the U.K., 1930-1980, by Rob Hansen
To Lie with Lions, by Dorothy Dunnett
Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Coming soon (perhaps):
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
The Habit of Loving by Doris Lessing
The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj
Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock
Argonautica by Valerius Flaccus
The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
Every Step You Take by Maureen O'Brien
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
Saga Volume 6 by Brian K Vaughan
Warriors ed. George R. R. Martin
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Europe In The Sixteenth Century by H. G. Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse
Dune by Frank Herbert
De Mexicaan met twee hoofden by Joann Sfar
De piraten van de Zilveren Kattenklauw by Geronimo Stilton
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
1688: A Global History by John E. Wills
New Europe by Michael Palin
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling
The Angel Maker, by Stefan Brijs
Short Trips: Time Signature ed. Simon Guerrier
Eye of the Tyger by Paul McAuley
The Doomsday Manuscript by Justin Richards

The Station of the Rue de la Loi, revisited


A few years ago, I did some research into the Gare de la Rue de la Loi / Station Wetstraat, which was the precursor of the current Brussels Schuman railway station. It was opened in May 1865, nine years after the track had been laid between Bruxelles-Nord / Brussel-Noord and the station we now know as Bruxelles-Luxembourg / Brussel-Luxemburg, and closed in 1922. (The Schuman metro station opened in 1966, and the mainline trains stopped there again from 1969.) In the seven years since I last wrote about it, a couple more resources have become available online. One of them is the lovely picture above, showing an ornate wooden station, built in 1879 in advance of the Cinquantenaire celebrations (public domain antique postcard from Wikimedia). The picture was supposedly taken in about 1900 but I personally would place it a bit earlier from the style of clothes and vehicles.

The station was at the corner of Boulevard Charlemagne and the Rue de la Loi. The cart on the left is coming out of Charlemagne, the cart in the middle is turning the corner, and the cart whose rear is visible on the right is trundling up the last bit of the Rue de la Loi before reaching the Rond Point (then called the Rond Point de la Rue de la Loi, due to Robert Schuman not yet being on the scene). The photographer is standing in a spot where today he or she would be instantly mown down by traffic emerging from the tunnel.

The large building to the right of the station is the original Berlaymont convent and school, where the Augustinian nuns had built themselves a new home in 1864, after being displaced by the construction of the Palais de Justice downtown. They were to stay for almost exactly a hundred years until being displaced again in 1963, this time in favour of the new European institutions.

It is a shame that we now have the Hellmouth-like opening to the underworld of Brussels Schuman, in place of the rather charming wooden station of the Rue de la Loi / Wetstraat, but realistically the original wooden structure could never have survived to the present day. It would have been almost exactly where the temporary SNCB/NMBS ticket office was during the station rebuilding which finished last year.

The Brussels Architectural Heritage Inventory website has more information about the history of Boulevard Charlemagne, including this rather nice (if faded) map with North at the left, showing also Rue Saint-Quentin, the eastern end of Rue Charles Martel (then "Rue Nouvelle"), part of Rue Stevin and the end of Rue Joseph II.


If you check the lower right hand corner, it become clear that there were two flights of stairs trailing down to the level of the railway track behind the station, which was entirely on the Berlaymont side of the road - as is also clear from the picture above. The current site of Kitty O'Shea's was owned by a Mr. Massart. (The Greek restaurant across the road was a police station.)


So, as you cross the road in the winter drizzle, running for cover under the 1960's building that has usurped both the location and the name of the Sisters of Berlaymont, spare a thought for the optimists of 137 years ago who came out to the nifty new wooden station as part of their Cinquantenaire excursion. We will be part of someone else's history project too someday.

Rip Tide, by Louise Cooper

Second paragraph of third section:
The lifeboat crew were subdued by the incident, and thankful that there were no further call-outs that week. The wind dropped and the rain squalls moved on, though it was still cloudy, and by Friday the sea was calm enough for the fishing boats to go out. Steve finished work at four, and at four-thirty he drove to the beach with his scuba equipment, for an appointment with Charlie Johns.
I must admit I had not heard of Louise Cooper before, but it turns out she was a well-known writer specialising in YA fantasy (best known for her Time Master trilogy, appropriately enough for present purposes). She lived in Cornwall, and set this Doctor Who novella there. It's a very effective story of the Eighth Doctor, on his own, encountering a human brother and sister and an alien brother and sister, who duly get entangled in the problems of shipwreck - the lifeboat motif is rather well done throughout. I am not always a fan of the Telos novellas, but this one worked very well and I'll keep an eye out for Cooper's other books.

This is the second last of all the books featuring Doctors from Old Who, in internal sequence, as far as I know. The last is The Eye of the Tyger by Paul J. McAuley. I have a couple more Telos novellas to work through and then will decide on the next part of my project to read every Who book. (The illustration below is of the frontispiece by Fred Gambino.)

Sunday reading

Current
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (a chapter a month)
The Rapture of the Nerds, by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
THEN: Science Fiction Fandom in the U.K., 1930-1980, by Rob Hansen
To Lie with Lions, by Dorothy Dunnett

Last books finished
V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore
The Other Islam, by Stephen Schwartz
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead
The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley
The Humans, by Matt Haig

Next books
Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
Short Trips: Time Signature, ed. Simon Guerrier

Books acquired in last week
Politics: Between The Extremes, by Nick Clegg
Eurofiles: A Cartoonist's View of Europe and the Wider World, by Peter Schrank
Many Grains of Sand: A sourcebook of ideas for changing the world, tried and tested in Catalonia, by Liz Castro
THEN: Science Fiction Fandom in the U.K., 1930-1980, by Rob Hansen
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
The Famished Road, by Ben Okri
Second paragraph of third chapter:
To describe the Captain would be to spoil the surprise. It's probably safest to describe his chair, which was very large and dominated the Bridge of the Citadel. From here, the Captain could look out through the vast domed windows, down the mountain, across the city of Zxoxaxax and over the plains of Malchios. The cities were easier to see than they were to spell.
I was in London at the start of the month, and who should I find in Forbidden Planet but James Goss, autographing copies of the very newest Doctor Who book!


As my regular reader knows, I rate James Goss as possibly the best regular writer of prose for Who at present. Here he follows on from the success of his novelisation of City of Death to tackle the missing book from the Key to Time series. And it's great, turning a somewhat problematic and wobbly screen story into a rather well developed narrative, filling background, foreground, and much else. The Doctor/Romana banter remains, cranked up a bit if anything; even K9 gets some good moments, plaintively calling "¿ɹǝʇsɐW" after lading upside down at one point. The Captain, the Queen and Mr Fibuli, who are all of course cartooney characters, none the less get a bit more depth and dimensionality in this treatment, and the Mentiads, renamed Mourners, make a lot more sense on the page than on the screen.

For a bonus we get the original story treatment by Adams, where the nature of the planet and the character of Romana had not yet fully evolved, and his thoughts on the Key to Time (which end with the hand-written word "Mice") - a lot more insight into story development usual. And there are some interesting hints about the true identity of the so-called White Guardian.

The first Doctor Who book published this year - a good start.

See How Much I Love You, by Luis Leante

The second paragraph of the third chapter is so long that it's almost a short story in its own right, at more than 500 words both in English and in the original Spanish:
En realidad aquel día no tenía turno de guardia, pero lo cambió con un compañero porque le resultaba muy duro pasar sola en casa una Nochevieja por primera vez en su vida. Fueron numerosas las ocasiones, durante los últimos meses, en que había hecho guardias en fechas que no le correspondían. Sin embargo aquélla, por lo que significaba para algunos la entrada en el nuevo siglo, resultaba algo especial. El Servicio de Urgencias del Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau estaba preparado para afrontar una noche de mucha actividad. Muy pocos albergaban la esperanza de dormir acaso dos o tres horas. Pero hasta las doce de la noche las urgencias que llegaron fueron incluso menos numerosas y graves que las de un día de diario. Aunque sin mucho trabajo que atender, la doctora Cambra iba de un sitio a otro tratando de mantener la mente ocupada. Acudía a la farmacia, rellenaba los huecos de gasa en el armario, se aseguraba de que las botellas de suero coincidieran con las que se habían pedido. Cada vez que entraba en la sala en donde estaba encendido el televisor, agachaba la cabeza y canturreaba por lo bajo para no reconocer su fracaso. Temía derrumbarse delante de sus compañeros en cualquier momento, como aquella vez en que rompió a llorar en mitad de un reconocimiento, mientras la auxiliar la miraba asustada, dudando entre atender a la doctora o a aquella anciana que se ahogaba por la presión de una costilla sobre los pulmones. Ahora, cada vez que escuchaba su nombre por la megafonía del Servicio de Urgencias, acudía enseguida sin pensar en otra cosa que en su trabajo. A veces algún residente o algún interno con muchas entradas en el cabello y nariz aguileña le recordaban a Alberto, todavía su marido. Pero, a diferencia de unos meses atrás, era capaz de sonreír. Llegaba incluso a imaginarlo preparando la cena junto a aquella radióloga de gimnasio y peluquería; él, que nunca había fregado un plato, que jamás había abierto los cajones de la cocina si no era para llevarse el sacacorchos. La última vez le pareció incluso que se había teñido las canas de las patillas y de las sienes. Lo imaginó también haciéndole la danza del vientre a la radióloga, y corriendo detrás de ella alrededor de la mesa del salón, en una de aquellas carreras de jungla que hacía tantos años que no practicaba con ella. Los sentimientos que le provocaba Alberto habían evolucionado de la amargura a la ironía, y de la ironía al sarcasmo. Nunca pudo imaginar que aquella persona que ocupó su vida desde muy joven pudiera parecerle, en apenas diez meses, un ser de trapo, vacío, falso, un auténtico hijo de puta. Le costaba trabajo recordar la cara de su marido cuando lo conoció, o cuando la paseaba por Barcelona en aquel Mercedes blanco, impoluto, brillante, perfecto, como él. Médico de estirpe, cardiólogo joven de carrera meteórica, seductor, inteligente, bello. La doctora Cambra no podía quitarse de la cabeza la imagen del que había sido su marido, durante veinte años, corriendo tras la joven radióloga. Cuando se cruzó en el pasillo con la doctora Carnero, anestesista de guardia, aún llevaba dibujada la sonrisa sarcástica en el rostro. Se miraron con complicidad.

She wasn’t actually supposed to be on duty that day, but she swapped her shift with a colleague because she would have found it very hard to spend New Year’s eve at home on her own for the first time in her life. In the last few months she’d taken extra shifts on numerous occasions. Still, this one was something special, given what the arrival of new century meant for so many people. The Casualty Ward of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau was prepared for a very busy night. Few staff were hoping to get more than two or three hours’ sleep. But, in fact, before midnight they admitted fewer, less serious cases than on a regular day. Although she didn’t have much to do, Doctor Cambra walked up and down trying to keep herself busy. She would go to the pharmacy, restock the cupboard with gauze, and make sure they had received as many bottles of saline solution as had been ordered. Every time she walked into the staff room where the TV was on, she would hang her head and sing to herself in a mumble to stave off her despair. She was afraid she might break down in front of her colleagues at any moment, like that time she had burst into tears in the middle of an examination, while the nurse looked on in distress, not sure whether he should tend to the doctor or to the elderly woman who couldn’t breathe because a rib was pressing on her lungs. Now, every time Doctor Cambra heard her name through the loudspeakers of the casualty ward, she went wherever she was needed without thinking about anything except her work. At times an intern with a badly receding hairline and an aquiline nose would remind her of Alberto, who was still her husband. But, unlike a few months before, she was able to smile. She could even picture him cooking dinner with that radiologist who was obsessed with the gym and the hairdresser’s; he who had never done the dishes and had never opened a kitchen drawer except to take out a corkscrew. The last time she’d seen him it looked as though he had dyed the grey hairs on his temples and sideburns. She also imagined him belly dancing for the radiologist, and chasing her around a coffee table, in one of the wild cat-and-mouse games that he hadn’t played with her for years. Her feelings for Alberto had changed from sadness to irony, and from irony to sarcasm. She would never have imagined that someone who had been such an important part of her life since her youth would become, in barely ten months, a sort of rag doll, an empty, fake being – a veritable bastard. She found it hard to remember what he looked like when they’d met, at the time when he drove around Barcelona in that white, impeccable, polished, perfect Mercedes of his, it was just like him. A doctor from a family of doctors, a young cardiologist with a brilliant career, he’d been seductive, intelligent, handsome. Now, Doctor Cambra could not rid her mind of the image of her husband of twenty years chasing the young radiologist. When she bumped into Doctor Carnero, the anaesthetist on duty, she was still wearing a sarcastic smile on her face. They looked at each other in complicity.
This novel won Spain's prestigious Alfaguera Prize in 2007; I bought it in 2010 because I was then working with the Frente Polisario for the cause of Western Sahara, and there are not a lot of books set there.

It's a story of interlocking timelines. In 2000, Montse Cambra, a Barcelona doctor whose marriage has broken up, unexpectedly finds a link to the boy who loved her and left her in 1974, as the Franco regime neared its end, We follow their romance early in that crucial year, his fate as a disappearing member of the Spanish Foreign Legion as the year ended and the Moroccans invaded, and her journey from Barcelona a quarter-century later after she finds a clue to his fate in the possessions of an accident victim who dies in her hospital. It's very well done - Barcelona of course is well realised, both in the 1970s and the turn of the century, but so are the different environments of North Africa - the corrupt garrison town at the end of the regime, the refugee camps near Tindouf, the town itself and the desert; and indeed the desperate human relationships between Montse and Santiago in the earlier timeline and between each of them and the people they respectively encounter in the Sahara later on. The twist ending is rather well done. But the point of the book is the scenery as much as the plot; it is (rightly) sympathetic to the plight of the Saharawis, promised self-determination by the International Court of Justice and denied it by Spain, Morocco, and the indifferent great powers, and the interleaving of the plot strands works particularly effectively. Recommended.

This was the non-genre fiction book that had been lingering longest on my unread shelves, since I bought it in 2010. Next on that list is Every Step You Take, by Maureen "Vicki" O'Brien.

Interesting Links for 26-01-2017

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