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Archive for the ‘Translations’ Category

Of the Impressionists, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was always the one I was most comfortable with, the one whose pictures seemed as though you could live with them. Maybe this was because I had, as a child, a large-format booklet with poster-sized reproductions of many of his paintings, out of which I eventually tore The Swing to stick up on the wall of the first space I ever had to myself, in Hyderabad, and The Reader, to adorn my book cupboard at home in Bombay. I lived with the former for a year and the latter is still up, on the plywood door of the cupboard, just above where my grandmother used to sit in her chair; I pass by it every time I pass the piano and smile at it when I notice it, for even after all these years, that faded girl with the book looks as absorbed in her reading and in the painting as she did the first time I saw her. By now, she, and Renoir, have quietly settled down in that corner of the flat in which I grew up.

And, taking that feeling a little further, Renoir, My Father, a memoir/biography by French filmmaker Jean Renoir about his famous painter father, is a book I could live with; in fact, a book I will live with. It is comfortable and comforting, the sort of book I will go back to when I am miserable or lonely or exhausted, because it will calm and delight and be an example of sorts.

What strikes me most about this book is that it is testimony to one aspect of how to live well. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we ever learn as human beings is that of how to forgive our parents for being mortal, frail, fallible, flawed—for being, in fact, no better than us, and not the perfect comfort they might have been, sometime, in our memories of the distant past. This is a book about Renoir and, to some extent, also about his son, Jean Renoir, but it is also a book about that lesson in forgiving one’s parents. And if anyone ever understood that lesson, it was Jean Renoir as he wrote this book about his father, his family, the artistic ethos that surrounded them, and the warm, loving friendships threaded through his father’s life. For, as he writes in the first person, he neither sentimentalizes nor judges his parents; all he does is give us a matter-of-fact account of them, writing with great tenderness but also frankly and honestly, taking an approach of maturity, of the sort that many do not ever seem to attain.

Jean works his way through Renoir’s life, from his childhood to his apprenticeship in a porcelain factory, painting on fine china, through art school and his meeting with Sisley, Bazille, and Monet, to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, on to travels in Europe and North Africa, and marriage to Aline Charigot, as the family man, to his struggle with crippling arthritis, and finally, his death. His style is anecdotal and digressive, now wandering off with a recollection of old neighbours, then coming back to a tale of Renoir and a patron, moving onto a recollection from his own childhood, then talking about Renoir’s philosophy and work, and so on. Much of the book is based on conversations he had with his father after being invalided out of the First World War with a leg wound. These are mostly supplemented by recollections from Jean himself and from Gabrielle, the Renoirs’ cousin, nanny, and a model for the artist.  The result is the sort of book you can dip into at random, picking an anecdote or homing in on a name, and then reading whatever you come across, for while this is a long biographical narrative, it is also a fragmentary one, and each fragment brings something precious with it.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self Portrait, 1910

Jean’s discussion of Renoir’s artistic work and his process of creation and “seeing” his pictures is deeply insightful for anyone interested in Renoir, the painter. But it is his discussion of Renoir the man that has the most enduring value. All the same, make no mistake about it—Jean never puts his father entirely on a pedestal. He talks of all sorts of aspects of his father’s life, everything from his particular preoccupations with protecting children from illness and injury to his reactions when face with a painting forged to look like one of his, to even, briefly and discreetly, conjecture on his parents’ sex life. But it is the detachment and simultaneous fondness in his tone that  mark the narrative out as remarkable, as much as the wealth of detail he provides on personalities and a way of life long gone.

When I sat down to think about it, I realised that Renoir had his children quite late in life—44 when the eldest was born and nearly 60 at the birth of the youngest. Fifty-three years separated Jean and his father. As a consequence, they were young at the time of his physical deterioration and death and saw their mother, too, constrained by diabetes and respiratory issues. Who is to know what the young Jean felt about his old parents’ ill-health? But if there was any resentment, any impatience, any anger at their parents, Jean does not mention it; and considering his willingness to talk about his own foibles as a child, it seems likely that what is not mentioned never existed. Instead, there is a strong sense of acceptance of “everything that is the case”  (as Wittgenstein would have it); Jean’s telling of the tales of his father’s life is rooted in a firm memory of what was his reality, not in regret or seeking for an explanation for any errors committed by his parents.

This is, perhaps, the fruit of repeated contemplation of that memory; perhaps the creases have been smoothened out already, before this writing. But if they have indeed been done away with, it is not to produce triteness. There is nothing contrived about Jean’s writing of his father’s working through arthritic pain and stiffness, struggling to grasp the brush, sighing at his bedsores, calm in the steadiness of artistic creation that, Jean says, was shot through with a sense of rightness because it was the path Renoir knew he was made to go down. It is touching and intensely moving, a portrait of horrible degeneration of the body along with the ineffable fluidity of a mind entirely at ease with its place in the world.

Renoir, My Father is thus the biography of a remarkable man and also of his remarkable family life. Is it the truth about Renoir? Jean Renoir clearly understood that this would be the question people would ask, for his epigraph remarks on how history is just another genre—this cannot but be a book about his conception of Renoir his father. Does it even matter if this is the truth? It does not, though at the same time, there seems to be no question of it being anything but the truth. For the truth of this book goes well beyond the truth of biographical detail. What it carries is the truth of a good life lived and the love of a son for his father, as a human being above all else.

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Cover of 'after the quake' A few pages into this slim book of short stories by Japanese writer Murakami, I was uneasy. It was Murakami’s style that was puzzling–it was just too easy to read. Verging on boring. Very simple sentences, very little dialogue, none of the visual detailing that can draw me into a book. This was a realistic telling of a fairly ordinary story. Almost a sketchy treatment for a screenplay. I wasn’t sure I was going to have anything to say about it–all I could see in front of me was a blank.

I read on.

As I went on through the extreme simplicity of Murakami’s writing, I began to see what I couldn’t before. In this book, his is a style that is stripped down completely, made bare, with starkly contoured outlines suddenly visible. Like a line drawing, a very basic line drawing. It was simply a language so restrained, so minimal that it was conserving everything, telling more in what it wasn’t telling, in its silence than in its words. You have to read very slowly, taking in the slightness of each sentence, understanding it and then moving on, to actually grasp at the almost untellable emotional weight they convey; there is much more in suggestion than in description. There are no short-cuts to reading and comprehending these stories.

And they are a curious set of stories, all hearkening back to the quake of the title (the Kobe earthquake) in some way or another, though without their characters being directly affected by that event. A man whose wife has just left him ferries a mysterious parcel to another city. A middle-aged man and a teenage girl spend time with each other lighting bonfires on the beach. A young man who has been constantly told that he is the Son of God follows a stranger who he thinks might be his father. A woman bitter after a divorce takes a vacation in Thailand and comes to a recognition of her mortality. A collection agent is visited at night by a giant frog who insists that the two of them together have to go into battle to save the city of Tokyo from an earthquake. And the last story traces the topography of a novelist’s long-term friendship with a married couple and their baby, and how they are his family.

If I were to liken this sequence of storytelling to anything, it would be to a piece of music. The first four stories make up one part for me, each of them dealing, in some way, with the aloneness of the human being, and all written realistically. They are abrupt, almost interludes in the lives of their characters, and allow for one or two scenes in which the action takes place in an unfolded present. The background is told quickly, years of the past condensed into a line or paragraph. The characters are separate from each other, vast spaces between them. In these stories’ sudden ceasing, their ambiguity at the end, they are unnerving, very disquieting.

The fifth story, with the surreal element of the giant frog, manifests a drastic shift. Now, suddenly, superimposed on the style of the first four stories, there is this creature out of a nightmare, something leaning out of the subconscious mind and imposing itself on the story’s reality. It seems to jar, odd for the sake of oddness, and nothing really comes of it in any sense that can be easily understood or related in terms of human relationships, though it can be said to achieve a sort of dream-like closure for its protagonist.

And then, there is the final story, ‘honey pie’, perhaps the only one that can be called beautiful, the only one that carries in that strongest of emotions, love, and its sometimes-corollary, loyalty. ‘honey pie’ follows three friends, two men and a woman, through university and youth, through the marriage of two of them and the birth of a child, and then through a divorce. Junpei, one of the two men, finds himself on the verge of erotic fulfillment with Sayoko, the woman, who is no longer with Takatsuki, the father of her child and Junpei’s friend since university. But at this climactic moment, the sexual impulse sublimates into another kind of love–that for a family, a tight unit to cleave to and to protect. And yet, it is a story that ends with Junpei as another human being alone–only he is a human being courageous enough and strong enough to be both alone and one with those he loves.

As I read that last story, I could not help but feel that I had finally read a story that was complete. Not neat, or tidy, or stilted, or overly-symmetrical, but complete. That is what Murakami achieves as he closes out the sequence of intensity, of intense humanity, that is after the quake. He wrote this, I gather, after the Kobe earthquake as part of an effort to consider the reality of Japanese society more deeply. Whether it speaks to the Japanese I do not know;  nor whether it speaks to most readers; but it  has the capacity to speak to that place inside each of us that makes us fundamentally, individually, bravely human.

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Cover of 'The Miracle Game'Sitting down to respond to Josef Skvorecky’s The Miracle Game, less than twenty-four hours after I finished reading it, I already feel that I have to refer to notes. And I know even notes won’t help me to explain that elusive point, exactly what this book is about, because it’s a behemoth of a comic opera; any plot summary seems to leave out as much as it puts in.

The fact is, this isn’t precisely a book constructed around a severely methodical plot. It’s a tough read–and a completely engrossing one–because it takes as its fulcrum one person’s experience and memory, and then pivots and pirouettes around that with one scene and event after another, leaping backwards and forwards in time, changing circumstances every few pages, and encompassing a vast selection of characters. It is readable in the sense that, even though it’s a first-person narration, it’s in clear, crisp, grammatical prose and upholds basic principles of narration. But the ordering of events is, in fact, quite near to chaos, and all the better for that.

There is a point to this narrative chaos–it reflects and evokes quite effortlessly a feeling of being completely unable to ever come entirely to grips with reality and circumstances. Just when you think you’ve got it, it twists around on itself and sends you in another direction. Whether this actually works in the author’s favor is debatable, but it did, in my opinion, for the greater part. There were bits of the book we could have done quite well without, making it a rather more manageable read, but they’re there and not about to be removed.

Which is why, I find, no plot summary I’ve read, whether the synopsis on the book cover or the publisher’s blurbs on Amazon.com, can quite do justice to this labyrinth of a story. Still, one can try. The fulcrum of the book is Danny Smiricky, a first-person narrator who is a thinly disguised version of the author Skvorecky himself. In the late 1940s, in Bohemia, Danny wakes up with a start during a service in a tiny chapel to find that he, along with Vixi, his student and lover, and a congregation that has gone into hysterics, has just witnessed a strange event–the statue of St. Joseph has moved, either by some divine power, as the villagers and their priest believe, or by the power of some human contrivance, as the Secret Police judges. For this is Communist Czechoslovakia, and Catholicism isn’t looked upon kindly, leave alone miracles apparently engineered by Catholic saints. The priest is arrested and dies while being interrogated, and this is all kept silent as far as possible. But it doesn’t get completely covered up–some twenty years later, during the Prague Spring, a journalist tries to reopen investigation into exactly what happened there, and Danny discusses the miracle with him, until they finally get to the bottom of it.

That is, ostensibly, the plot. It would be more accurate to say that this book traces the events that led to Danny being in the chapel with Vixi when the miracle takes place; and further, that another thread can be drawn through the scenes of the Prague Spring and its end, when Danny observes the counter-revolutionary zeal and reactions to events in Czechoslovakia in various settings in Europe and parts of the U.S.A., which he is visiting on a Ford Foundation grant.

Yet none of this captures what the book is about. What it is about is different people living in a Communist state, some simply going from day to day and either actiuvely trying or spectacularly failing to stay out of the headlights of the Secret Police and those in power, while others, driven by ideology, use any means to justify its ends. But Skvorecky, whose first book this was after emigrating to Canada in the late 1960s, makes a chaos of it precisely because there is no other way for people in a police state to understand the world around them and how it can suddenly crack because the ideology from which power stems is suddenly redefined or reunderstood or seems to be disrupted by somebody’s actions or words.

So this is a book about something so very serious and grave–but it is also probably one of the funniest books I’ve read recently. To the point that I laughed aloud every few pages. Skvorecky’s narration drips generous quantities of irony, is cheerfully bawdy, and even throws in some slapstick for our entertainment–and satirizes the Party and its machinations even as it warily describes them.

It’s an uncompromising narrative eye that skewers everybody and leaves them wriggling as we observe them, though it is kinder to some than to others. With the Party, it is savage, angry, but with the anger of a surgeon who knows how to wield a scalpel without too much mess; with most other characters, teachers, students, writers, most often women, it mocks, but more gently. It achieves all this mostly through fast-moving conversation and debate, sometimes reported, sometimes direct speech–Skvorecky certainly has a ear for dialogue (though I was uncomfortable with the translator’s decision to render the dialect of the Czech peasant in pure American hillbilly) and knows just how to time his characters’ speech.

Skvorecky and his wife, early in their marriage
Skvorecky and his wife, writer and actress Zdena Salivarová, in the early years of their marriage

Skvorecky’s writing of a Soviet novelist, Arashidov, drunkenly telling Morris, a British author, the long and complicated way by which his translation of the latter’s book passed beyond all Party authorization and was made available to the public; a meeting of Maoists in California, horrifyingly blind to anything beyond the framework of the ideology they espouse; schoolgirls learning by rote a description of a subject for which the government has never provided textbooks, dragging that description out time after time during an oral exam, and then trying to first feed and then drug the examiner into submission; Danny attempting to flee Soviet tanks and ferry Sylva, his friend’s wife, two children, and a suitcase full of very sexy lingerie and birth control pills to safety in Paris; a small-town girl, dazzled by the glory of a city girl’s wardrobe, trying on one outfit after another in the steamy haze of a kitchen dotted with benevolently lecherous men… the memorable scenes in this book come in plenty, as do the brief anecdotes, little one-paragraph capsules of story that could be novels in themselves, strewn carelessly on the pages.

The prose turns lyrical and yearning at times, for instance, when Danny thinks about the cult of the Virgin Mary, when he traces his route through the U.S.A., and certainly, but certainly, when he expresses his desire for a woman. It did feel sometimes that Skvorecky had too many women in this book for Danny to lust after, but then again, the narrative does cover more than twenty years, which would equate to a lot of women for a single man. Yet he undercuts this lyricism sometimes, with the acknowledgment of how the passing of a moment is final, and a memory can sometimes reveal how simply ridiculous past earnestness was. Cynical, sometimes too clever by half, yet heartfelt, with a cynicism born of genuine disappointment and disillusionment–that’s The Miracle Game. And perhaps the only end to this story is that eventually, everything, absolutely everything, can be found to be at least, as Skvorecky and Danny see it,  not uplifting, but certainly comic.

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Finally! I was beginning to think I would never reach the end of this book. I’ve been reading it steadily, on-and-off, for almost a year. That’s a new record for somebody who usually ploughs merrily through books in a day or two, if not less.

However, the book: It’s a memoir of childhood and the development of Pamuk’s imagination as an Istanbullu artist. The first chapter brings up, among other things, the little Orhan’s fear that there was another Orhan, a twin of sorts, in another part of Istanbul, living in another house. The last chapter ends with the 19-year-old Orhan’s decision to be not an architect but a writer. In between these two ideas is a meandering narrative that talks sometimes about Pamuk’s family and his life as a child and a student, sometimes about the city as a place of events, sometimes about how artists and writers from Europe and from Turkey saw the city, and sometimes about the city as if it were a picture.

This is an extraordinarily visual piece of writing, though the images Pamuk uses are smokey and grey, much like the black-and-white reproductions of photographs, etchings, and paintings that are interspersed in the text. Incidentally, I’m not sure if Faber and Faber has a larger format version of this book (I have the paperback), because I’m sure that would be a better read–less squinting at tiny-sized pictures. And definitely more visible detail, to go with what Pamuk says in his text. He is given to long lists of images of Istanbul–descriptions of buildings, of crowds, of people on the street, of windows, of alleys, of old mansions, of ruins, of the Bosphorus, long sentences full of these. They all have a certain texture that can only be called “atmospheric.” Melancholy, shadowy, slowly moving, they drift onto and off the pages.

The trouble is, they have also a certain soporific quality. This might be because the book isn’t quite as anecdotal as you might expect from a memoir, so it sometimes turns into montage without story or clear argument. Much of this montage is used by Pamuk to illustrate what he sees as the essence of Istanbul–“huzun,” a Turkish word for “melancholy.” This, Pamuk explains, refers to a feeling of deep spiritual loss that is simultaneously a hopeful way of looking at life, “a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.” For the Sufis, huzun is the spiritual anguish felt because the soul is not sufficiently close to the divine; and Saint John of the Cross has it that this anguish causes the sufferer to fall so far that his soul will, as a result, soar to its divine desire. The absence of huzun is the cause of misery. Pamuk’s interest in huzun is that it is not individual but collective — it is a feeling shared by all Istanbul. It is a feeling that the people of Istanbul have when living amongst the detritus of a dead civilization, the Ottoman Empire, an identification with something that is no longer alive and is decaying, an identification that is ultimately their essence.

I think Pamuk’s prose when he describes his huzun-drenched city is intensely beautiful and sad, like a (here I go again with the cliched metaphors) record playing in a building down the street, barely audible but haunting. But it could, sometimes, have done with a ruthless editor, somebody who would cut it where necessary, make it seem more concrete and more the memory of a living people. There, I said it–sacrilege saying that about a Nobel laureate, or maybe not. Maybe the shadows are Pamuk’s point, his refusal to go into historical fact-listing. But I don’t care entirely for them.

I did enjoy Pamuk’s writing of his family. His brother, his rival; his beautiful mother, whose love he desperately tries to gain; his dapper father, more of a dreamer than he comes across at first. Though I bet they were all insulted to read what he has to say about them. It’s a frank narration, not precisely barbed, but certainly not white-washed either; and it’s even possible that Pamuk’s memories are more weighted with alienation than his life was. Either way, these sections of the book do have a point–they tell us what Pamuk’s relationship with his family was like and part of the reason he starts to identify as strongly with the city as he does. The process of his coming to understand his family is also one of him coming to understand what the world outside has to offer. I was mildly disappointed that there weren’t that many people coming out of the crowd on the street into the book, few specific characters of his childhood, but then realised that Pamuk is presenting a very truthful version of how a relatively wealthy, Westernized, apartment-dwelling Istanbullu child would relate to the city as he grows up–he would read about it and look at it and walk through it without necessarily having the confidence or the skill to engage with it as an equal. And I do appreciate the truthfulness, though sometimes I wished his childhood had been a little more peopled.

But his narrative is peopled with writers and artists whose work contributed to the burgeoning of his imagination of the city and himself in it. Pamuk writes critical essays of a sort, discussing what they wrote/painted and when, what they focused on and what they left out, how he came to access their work, and what it made him think of his city. Not so tidily presented, of course, but highly readable. And at each juncture you understand a little more about the writer’s imagination and his inspiration.

All of these threads, it seems, get tied up in a chapter toward the end of the book, which is simply the story of Pamuk’s first love (he calls her the black rose). My interest was flagging again when I got to that chapter, and then, I couldn’t put the book down. It’s dizzyingly lovely, terribly sad, and so delicately written. I haven’t read any of Pamuk’s novels other than My Name is Red, but his tale of the black rose and how he loved her and lost her makes me understand how he came to be a novelist, a storyteller. There is a flurry of happening and he has to become a storyteller so that he can make sense of it. You can understand from the book that he never needed to be one before–he could be a painter and viewer of scenes. It’s a chapter that pulls the rest of the book together so effortlessly, making the memoir finer than it would have been otherwise.

Oddly, after reading Istanbul, I have no increase in my desire to travel there. This isn’t a travelogue, it’s a memoir by someone who has always lived there. It tells of things that are long gone, of views of the city that are no longer possible. Going there wouldn’t open the gate of Pamuk Apartments to me. There are some things that the tourist will never see, some depths of understanding that leaving would not allow. What Istanbul does do–and Pamuk hints at the same about his city and its changes–is make me regret that I left Bombay, regret that it is so difficult to live there, regret the fact that it has sprawled out in a way so unrecognizable. I realized long ago that I love “old” Bombay. Like Pamuk, I want to go home, but like his, it’s a home I never actually lived in, a shadow of a life that dwindles every day.

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Nicaraguan stamp showing Maigret lighting his pipe
Inspector Maigret lighting his pipe on a Nicaraguan stamp, one of a series depicting famous fictional detectives; others in the series included Lord Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe, and Father Brown.

Considering my fondness for detective novels, I am mildly ashamed to say that I’ve never given Simenon and his creation, Maigret, as much time as they probably deserve. In part because, even though there are dozens of books featuring Maigret, they’re not particularly easy to get hold of. And, in part, because I always found Simenon drier, less engaging than other detective novelists I enjoy.

Maigret’s Pipe is a selection of 17 short stories; I picked it up in Bombay, out of the towering stacks at the dusty, musty New and Secondhand Bookshop, sometime last October. It got read in stages; some in October, some in December, the rest this February. Perhaps a good way to read Simenon’s short stories, spreading them out a bit.

I had some problems getting into the swing of reading, once again; this time, I know it was because of the way the dialogue was punctuated. Too many ellipses and exclamation marks can really cause problems–the ellipses gave me a curious sense of the characters talking to themselves, not each other, disengaged from what was happening around them. And then the exclamation marks made it all seem too staccato. Which is not to say the stories were not engrossing–they were, for reasons I discuss below. But they weren’t the easiest of reads, for all that Simenon was and still is a “popular writer.”

But, in the course of reading these stories, I began to understand that Maigret has never entirely appealed because I am wary of him. He is brusque and free from pretensions to politeness, patient only in that he will hold out long enough to get information out of a suspect–as befits a character in a series of institutional interactions presented fitfully, so jerkily, as those exclamation marks seem to underline. As such, I don’t think I’d ever want to be interrogated by him; he’s not above anything, locking himself up in a room with a young girl for hours in one of these stories, and keeping a set of suspects in the room with the corpse of a murdered man in another, even when they complain of the smell. Gentility is not for the police, not in Maigret’s world.You’d want to make sure you’d be found innocent as soon as possible.

As for the suspects–unlike those in many detective novels, they never really gain the sympathy of Maigret or get admitted into his confidence. They are the focus of his attention, until they are proved innocent, after which they are tossed out onto the rubbish heap composed of those the police are not interested in at all. They are not his friends. They won’t be. It’s not wonder they talk hesitatingly, as if they talk to themselves, almost as if they can’t meet the eyes of this embodiment of impartial justice. What a contrast to Wimsey and Harriet Vine, or Holmes and Irene Adler, or Inspector Morse and a series of women, or Albert Campion and his friends in the criminal world. And you don’t even have the comfort of emotional insight into Maigret, as you do with Adam Dalgliesh, to make him seem more approachable.

So these aren’t cosy stories. You read them not for precision of plotting and puzzle, either, but for a black-and-white, realist, strictly unbiased treatment of the solid structure of the detective story–crime, investigation, solution. But in his bare-bones, quick, but startlingly vivid sketches of characters and place and social situation and dynamics, Simenon presents us with a finely realised world, one of modernity and alienation and cynicism. There are few comforts–his people are mostly working class, or middle class, ordinary, and even if they have outstanding intelligence or beauty or wealth, they are never permitted to be more than people in the crowd of suspects. They are always real, sometimes sordid in their deeds and ways–the story The Three Daughters of the Lawyer stays with me for its slow stripping away of bourgeois value of various sorts, to expose something ultimately wretched and miserable. And Simenon’s one interest is not to pass judgement on his characters, but rather to let Maigret discover the thread of action and speech and behaviour that has led to a crime and away from it to its perpetrator. Varied are these threads in their patterns and their paths, ingenious yet perfectly believable and real in these stories.

Maigret’s investigations rely on intuition and on his close observation and interpretation of what people do and say and how they live. Nothing within his powers is permitted to distract him from his goal; he is steadfastly, unshakably objective in his search. There are no redemptions here, no happy endings, no allowance for human relationships to form out of this crucial seeking for the truth of how one human being has done injustice to another. There is only the struggle to work the mills of justice. Reading these stories, I remain wary of the uncompromising Inspector Maigret, but there is no doubt about it–I respect him most deeply.

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