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Tolstoy is my Cat: "An unsettling, beguiling and addictive literary thriller."

Date: Apr 29 2013

The keen readers amongst you will have noticed a few Europa Editions posts amongst my reviews of late; this, the third, is MINOTAUR by Benjamin Tammuz. MINOTAUR, an Israeli novel originally published in Hebrew in 1989, is the story of a handful of individuals who form the four-corners-of-a-love-square, if you will, bound and connected by obsession, desire and perverse, destructive love. Each character takes a part of the narrative, which begins with an Israeli secret agent noticing a beautiful teenager on a London bus on his forty-first birthday...

I found this book to be an addictive and riveting novel of doomed noir, reminiscent of John le Carre's European spies, but backlit by Middle Eastern dust, sunshine and politics. The telescopic narrative, narrated by the four to the story's conclusion, felt akin to moving down a tunnel which progressively narrows and tightens until it collapses in on itself, trapping the reader, as well as all the characters, as the title might suggest. It is claustrophobic, thick with secrets and ambiguities, and written/translated in a sparse and elegiac hand. I read it in a day on holiday, falling further and further into the twists and turns of the story, before reaching its conclusive and satisfying end.

Surprisingly, given the Israeli and European links of both the author and the story, this story felt quite Japanese to me, and reminiscent of the characters and tone of a number of modern Japanese writers, such as Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami. A number of the main motifs are there: the distant, nostalgia-fulled, almost-invented relationship between the central male character and his idealised object of affection - who seems to offer beaming salvation to him based  purely on a look, a face, a memory - wasn't dissimilar to the relationship between Shimamoto and Hajime in Murakami's SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN. This book also features crippling, inescapable loneliness as well themes of delayed gratification, narcissistic love and ambiguous self-concealment, which felt Japanese to me in description and tone. This gave it a langourous elegance and an extra layer of interest which might serve to expand its possible readership if anyone else picks up on that also. This, layered upon the dry heat of a settlement and several of the most intriguing corners of Europe, adds up to a cosmopolitan and complex novel which unfurls slowly and deliberately until its final page.

My only criticism would be based around the structure of the book: I found the final section to be a bit long and in need of different voice or another type of variation, but overall I found this to be an unsettling, beguiling and addictive literary thriller, awash with noir and atmosphere, which has stayed darkly in my mind in the weeks since reading.

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