By Balazs Pataki
Published: December 13, 2012.
(5.00 from 1 review)
To outsiders, the former USSR is always been a place where everything is strangely different. All the more so in the Exclusion Zone around the ill-fated Chernobyl power plant, where after a secret experiment went wrong in 2006, the laws of physics are bent and mysterious phenomena manifest.
A collection of three very decent short stories which won't fail to disturb your peace of mind. Each is very different and delivers a very unique mood.
On the downside one might point out certain factual errors that spoil some of the immersion, especially in the flagship Chernobyl story. Nothing that the author writes about life in the USSR or present-day Ukraine would pass a reality check (MACK trucks, listening to BBC World Service, Bible classes in Soviet orphanages). A more serious flaw however is that the author adds XVII century Western European (Mason) lore into the mouth of an old man in rural Ukraine of the Seventies which for me was rather brow-raising to read. In the third and last novelette, the author writes about a gun given as a "hunting present" to the protagonist a decade before that weapon had become available in the USA. I know these are little goofs, but still. A little more homework, and text editing because there's plenty of typos too unfortunately, and the book could have been brilliant. Still a great and enjoyable read as far as mood and story-telling are concerned. Definitely worth its price.
Tagged and described as it were a visceral war story, "Once Upon a White Man" actually is a splendid autobiography giving insight into Zimbabwe's troubles during the past decades. It fills an information gap because not much is known about how local Whites had seen those times and offers a refreshingly different view than what Western media had reported all along. It's not a White man's self-justification however, as the author presents the conflict in all its gray shades where no party is entirely innocent in the ultimate downfall of Zimbabwe. Atkins presents Whites as the backbone of a functioning society, but he also shows their inability to adapt to the changes of time; he approaches Blacks with true compassion (doing a remarkable job at avoiding paternalism and condescence), but he also speaks about their brutality and lack of moral integrity. Historical events are spiking among personal memories and anecdotes, and every page is imbued with deep love to Africa and Africans, beyond the racial barriers.
Finally, I was impressed by the author's ability to describe his native land. Sometimes it is lyrical in a way that appeals to every sense, saturating the reader's mental nose, palate and ears, while at other parts it's just plain words like "it was early August and winter was barely over" that made me realize what a different world Atkins' Africa is.
All in all, it's an fascinating autobiography that feeds the mind and casts a spell on heart and senses.
Rather a mystery story than fantasy. Short but intriguing, this re-telling of the Land of the Lotus Eaters from Ulysses appeared to me like a script scetch for a part of the Twilight Zone series. Some authors could have written a long book from this idea and it's regrettable if Walters doesn't do it because it's a story with potential. Five minus one star for bad editing (the epub version is seriously botched) and the protagonist's psychology smewhat unconvincing (how come an investigating journalist becomes sqeamish about poking his nose into other people's business, or rather - luggage?)
"...a sumptuous and captivating novella, rich in psychological insights and depth of linguistic expression. Death in Venice for Generation X, The Forest does for post-communist Budapest what Hemmingway and Fitzgerald did for Paris in the twenties."
I can only subscribe to that, except the last part (more about that later). "The Forest" is about the surrealistic love of a hopelessly self-deceiving man - probably it's not a coincidence that he works in the advertisement business, that archetypical art of deception. The psychology is flawless, with the author using a very intellectual approach to describe the protagnist's motives and emotional development. All actions and conclusions are born out of the protagonist contemplating the apparently meaningless events in the outside world; he is driven by the impetus of vividly described moments that give the story's psychology an almost Zen feeling. Through the psychological authenticity of the protagonists's thoughts and emotions, I became so much involved with the story that once I got used to the relatively slow pace, I couldn't put the book down and finished it in two long reads.
Alas, the Hemingway and Paris thing didn't work out that well. It overlaps with one of the two main issues I had with the book: one of the key characters is a dud. First, I failed to sense any chemistry, any bond between her and the protagonist. She carried no weight, even though she was to bear the key part of the story in the end. The reaon why: she was supposed to be a Hungarin-American moving back to her native land, but right in her first dialogue part, when asked about life in Hungary, the author makes her say complete and utter nonsense about her country's history and culture. It seriously damaged the character's credibility. It made her a fake.
Which leads to the other problem I have with this book. As the story proceeded, I more and more doubted if the author had ever been to Hungary and not just used a guide book to get a few street names and phrases from. Budapest as a setting is a mixed bag here: it remains void of any articular atmosphere, but at parts it comes through that the author knows the life in Budapest of the mid-Nineties very well. However, to the protagonists, it's just a city filled up with the cheapest clichés - Eastern Europe? Prostitutes: checked. Corrupt police: checked. Russian Maffia: checked. So, it's more Hollywood than Hemingway.
Lastly, I was bothered by the many errors in the Hungarian expressions. There's barely a word or local name that would be written correctly. Probably the most painful was to read Andrássy utca instead of Andrássy út. This is like writing Times Place for Times Square or Fifth Street for Fifth Avenue in a book set in New York.