Review of The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Title: The Bay of Foxes
Author: Sheila Kohler
Published: 26 June 2012
Publisher: Penguin Books USA
Genre: drama, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Dawit is an Ethiopian refugee living in Paris in 1978 after having escaped torture and imprisonment under the violent, oppressive rule of the Derg. He has no money, no job, and no visa, so he lives in fear of being caught by the police and deported. Then one day in a café he sees M., “that rarest of writers, a literary best-selling one.” Dawit – a well-educated aristocrat – has always admired her work. She’s in her sixties now, and her face is ravaged by both age and alcoholism, yet he still finds her beautiful. He goes over to speak to her, and they strike up a conversation.

M. is clearly enraptured by the stunning, young Dawit and invites him to stay with her in her luxurious, spacious apartment overlooking the Luxemborg gardens. Dawit eagerly grabs hold of this opportunity. He’s been living in a cramped apartment in the ghetto with many other Ethiopians, and appreciates the luxury of having his own room at M.’s place.  More importantly, he’s no longer has to worry about starving.

However, this is a strange arrangement, and as you can imagine their relationship is disturbing from the start. For a while, Dawit does nothing and barely even sees M., since she spends most of her time locked in her room, writing. He wonders what her motives could be, but there are no prizes for guessing what she wants from him. M. uses Dawit for inspiration, ideas, and shows him off to her friends like a living African artefact. Obsessed with Dawit’s youth and beauty, M. clearly expects their relationship to become sexual, but unfortunately – for both of them – Dawit is gay. It’s unfortunate for Dawit, because he is almost powerless here. M. provides him with everything – a home, food, designer clothes (Hermès, Armani). With his excellent French, he eventually starts to do secretarial and editorial work for her, so she pays him a monthly stipend. She even secures a tourist visa for him so that they can travel to her villa at The Bay of Foxes in Sardinia.

M. holds the power of wealth over Dawit, and unless he’s willing to live in fear and poverty again, he has to put up with patronising racism and can’t raise many complaints when the old woman comes into his room at night, switching on the light to watch him sleep naked, or crawling into bed with him. His life with M. actually reminds Dawit of his imprisonment in Ethiopia. The guards would also leave the light on, making it impossible for him to sleep, and like M. they could enter his cell whenever they wanted and do what they wanted with his body.

Dawit is at M.’s mercy, but in this case his imprisonment is cushioned by wealth, comfort and safety, so it’s not hard to understand why he stays. He also picks up some useful skills and information. As M.’s secretary, he takes care of all her correspondence and to do so he learns to impersonate her – she teaches him her signature, so that he can answer her letters and sign documents; he learns to imitate her rough, masculine voice so that he can take phone calls for her. They’re both very tall and skinny, and because she sometimes buys men’s or unisex clothing, he initially wears her pants suits and shoes. She calls him her “very young and dark double” and is amused by this comparison.

From here, it wasn’t difficult for me to see where the story was going. Although I can’t think of any specific examples, I’m pretty sure I’ve come across some version of this tale before. It also parallels Kohler’s earlier novel Cracks in several ways. Predictable as it is though, it’s not too bad. I like novels that intimately explore strange, manipulative relationships, and the psychology of obsession. The Bay of Foxes is also detailed and well written in a way that I find engaging even though there are no surprises. When Dawit speaks of M.’s work, he says he “does admire her spare, concentrated prose, her brief evocative novels” and I wondered if Kohler was using a description of her own work here; I’d say that’s an excellent way to describe my feelings about the two novels of hers that I’ve read so far.

The Bay of Foxes didn’t explore Ethiopian culture as much as I’d hoped (if you strip away a few names and details, Dawit could be from any number of countries), but I suppose this novel isn’t really about Dawit as an Ethiopian, but rather about the relationship between a disempowered young African man and an old, rich, white European woman. I don’t like the use of ‘African’ as a blanket term since the continent is so vast and diverse, but in this novel it doesn’t matter that Dawit is Ethiopian – to the French, the Italians and perhaps even to himself, he’s an African, a black man.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending though. It’s not unsatisfying (although I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers feel otherwise), but it’s a tad… convenient? Dawit is trapped in a difficult situation, but the most likely conclusion would, in some ways, be unjust and displeasing to the reader. Instead, Kohler smoothes everything over in a way that’s more palatable but doesn’t feel quite right. I can’t say much more of course, but I’d be interested to know what others think. All in all, a good, quick literary read, if a little predictable.

Buy a copy of The Bay of Foxes at The Book Depository

A few book-lover pics from Paris

One of the many things I loved about Paris was how literary the city is. It’s been the setting and subject of countless novels, and it’s the home of many great names in literature and philosophy. It’s an inspiring place to be, with plenty of literary sights to see. One a more day-to-day level, it’s also a city of people who love to read. Bookshops are everywhere, and people are always reading, in parks, on the metro, in cafés. Some of you might think this unremarkable, but I thought it was pretty cool; in South Africa (and more so in Ethiopia) reading isn’t quite as popular, and you won’t see that many people reading in public. As a result, Paris made my book-lover’s heart thump with pleasure 🙂

So I thought I’d share a few more book-related pics.

The Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Garden) outside the Louvre is full of exquisite sculptures based on mythical figures:

Theseus and the Minotaur

Not entirely sure about this one. The goddess Diana?

My boyfriend loves the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, so one of our early stops was for a light breakfast at Café de Flore, where Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir, and other intellectuals used to hang out and write.

I highly recommend their delicious hot chocolate (their own special blend, according to the menu). However, I do not recommend having more than a drink and a pastry there – the café is very much an overpriced tourist attraction, with the brusque, impatient service that seems to characterise touristy restaurants (people in less touristy places were usually very friendly). Next door is a souvenir shop with prices so ludicrous we didn’t even go inside.

One of the nicest things to do in Paris is relax in one the many beautiful parks with a good book:

There aren’t really any public parks in Addis Ababa and and the city is almost devoid of natural beauty, so I really appreciated this simple pleasure. The parks of Paris are perfectly maintained, and at this time of year they were all a stunning, lush green.

If I lived in Paris and spoke French, I would undoubtedly spend many Saturday or Sunday afternoons browsing the second-hand book stalls along the Seine:

Excuse the annoyed-looking man who got caught in the shot…

Of course, I had to get a few bookmarks. This yellow one is from Centre Pompidou, and is based on the design of the building.

I also bought a few bookmarks showing details from classic artworks:

From the left: Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, bought at the Louvre; Nymphe les bras levés by Adolf de Meyer, bought at Musée de l’Orangerie; Soleil couchant by Claude Monet, also from Musée de l’Orangerie, where you can view Monet’s Water Lilies, an utterly amazing series of works.

At Shakespeare and Company, Paris

It’s about time I shared some stuff from my Paris trip. One the destinations on the top of my list was the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore on rue de la Bûcherie in the Latin Quarter. The original store was opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, and is well-known for having published James Joyce’s Ulysses. Unfortunately that store was closed down by the Nazis in 1940, supposedly because Sylvia Beach refused to sell her last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German officer.

In 1951, George Whitman opened another English-language bookstore on the Left Bank. It was initially named Le Mistral, but after Sylvia Beach’s death in 1964, Whitman changed the name to Shakespeare and Company as a tribute. On the top floor of the store is a small library dedicated to Sylvia Beach, where visitors can come to read or write. George Whitman died in December 2011 at age 98. Today his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, continues to run the store in the same manner as her father, allowing young writers to live and work in the shop.

I visited the store on 15 May. One the left (just outside of this shot) is the antique book section of the store. Behind me is the normal store, selling new and second-hand books.  According to the store’s website, it hasn’t been changed much over the decades, as you can see by comparing the store with the postcards showing old photographs of the place. It certainly has the quaint, cosy feel of an old bookstore. The wooden floors and staircase creak, the books are tightly packed from floor to ceiling, and it’s very cramped. In the library you can sit on the leather bench, a worn armchair, or one of the old cinema seats. There are some antique typewriters in the shop, one of which sits on a writing desk in the library, in front of a window overlooking the street. You can put up little notes in the shop, either on a wall in one little room, or inside the tiny, tiny writing cubicle upstairs.

On the day we visited, an American singer and songwriter called Sweet Soubrette did a short performance on ukulele in the library.

Unfortunately we didn’t have a camera good enough to show how pretty this really looked. Besides the beautiful library, there were pretty pink flowers in the window, and the view was of lush green trees and quintessential Parisian buildings.

There weren’t actually any Parisians at the performance, which I guess isn’t that surprising, since the store sells books in English, and it’s as much a tourist attraction as anything else. There are signs asking people not to disturb readers and browsers by taking photos, but there are still people snapping away all the time. You’ll hear lots of American accents too, by virtue of the fact that they’re somehow louder than any other.

I had to buy some books and postcards of course:

Design as Art by Bruno Munari and Ways of Seeing by John Berger are both collections of essays on art. Buying them was a reaction to our visit to Centre Pompidou, a huge modern art gallery. Out of the galleries and museums we visited, the Pompidou was undoubtedly my favourite, but I won’t deny that I was baffled by a lot of what I saw there. Hence the art books. I also wanted a French novel, and Palafox by Eric Chevillard appealed to my taste for weird and wonderful things.

I also bought this cool Shakespeare and Co. book bag:

The picture on the bag is of the entrance to the upstairs library. The writing above the doorway reads “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise”.

We took one more photo, on May 23, when we passed by the shop after dinner on my birthday:

All in all, I thought Paris was an unbelievably beautiful, utterly enchanting city. Two weeks isn’t nearly enough time to experience even a fraction of all the incredible things it has to offer.