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Creative Writing Critique (Satis Shroff): Fire in the Blood

Creative Writing Critique (Satis Shroff): FIRE IN THE BLOOD

Review: Irene Nemirovsky Fire in the Blood, Vintage Books, London 2008,

153 pages, 7,99 Sterling Pounds (ISBN: 978-0-099-51609-5)

Denise Epstein was 13 when her mother Irene Nemirovsky was deported to Auschwitz, where she eventually died in 1942. The daughter is now an octogenarian and was instrumental in helping her mother attain her place in the world literature. Irene Nemirovsky was a writer who could look into the souls of humans and make music with words. Her masterpiece Suite francaise was published in France in 2004 and was immediately awarded the Prix Renaudot.

The characters of Fire in Blood are  drawn from a rural French town in Burgundy, a wine-growing area where people are simple and stick together, want to retain their ‘peace’ and don’t like the police and the authorities. A place where all people show conformity and keep their mouths shut. Peace is a synonym for not wanting to be involved in the affairs of other people. The author’s attitude towards the characters has a universal appeal, for it could happen anywhere in the world in a closed-circuit society where outsiders are shunned and not generally accepted. Nemirovsky shows not only what people do to others but also what the passage of time does to us all. The characters aren’t flat and every character bounds into life and you an imagine the world that she creates in her 153 page novel still goes on with its own pace without much changes. The community itself shows a predatory behaviour of extreme cunning.

The major theme of Fire in Blood is love, poverty, arranged marriages and extra-marital affairs that lead to complications and new story developments. The protagonist Sylvestre also called Silvio tells the story in the first person singular and recalls stories in front of the fireplace about his beautiful, graceful cousin Helene and her daughter Colette, Brigitte Delos and Francoise, their marriages, happiness and boredom and the seasonal changes of the Burgundy countryside. Silvio speaks about impatient young people and the perfectly balanced older people at peace with themselves and the world, despite the creeping fear of death. The book is replete with the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses, mills, dowry, haves and have-nots, stinginess, love-affairs, hatred, deception and betrayal.  Nemirovsky is an excellent story-teller and reveals her tale of flaws and cruelties of the human heart in an intricately woven story. She builds up suspense and you feel the catharsis when an innocent-looking protagonist tells her version of how a man was murdered.

The theme is traditional and familiar and is psychologically and socially interesting in intent.

Silvio tells about his childhood and about children asking their parents how they met, fell in love and married. He also mentions past loves, former grudges, inheritances, law suits and who-married-whom and why in the French provincial setting. The story plot is slow at the beginning but gathers momentum, and the climax is not the murder but how the author unfurls the story of the confession. In the end Silvio confides to the reader how much he still loves his dear cousin Helene, who’s married to Francoise.

The intellectual qualities of writing of Nemirovsky are her cheerfulness, sudden twists and power of observation which flow into the story making it a delightful read. She gives you the impression that her tale is linear, only to show you that there’s a twist that takes narration in another direction. Silvio, the Ich-Erzähler, says to Colette, who wants to involve him in her family drama: ‘Tell them you have a lover and that he killed your husband.. What exactly did happen?’

wit and humour and there’s rhythm in the tale.

Nemirovsky employs the stylistic device of symbolism to characterise the farmers and their hypocritical nature, how they mob people they don’t prefer to have around them and how they indulge in backbiting. A stingy 60 year old farmer marries  a lovely 20 year old woman and the gossips begin. Silvio remembers how Colette had once told him he resembled a faun: ‘an old faun, now, who has stopped chasing nymphs and who huddles near the fireplace.’

This is the confession of a man who had once fire in blood, and a meditation on the various stages of life, the passing of time, in which youth and age are at odds. A recurring theme is the seed from which problems grow: ‘Imagine a field being saved and all the promise that’s contained in a grain of wheat, all the future harvests…well, it’s exactly the same in life.’

Nemirovsky’s use of dialogue is very effective and takes the story forward.

Her literary oeuvre ranges from an extraordinary collection of papers,  Fire in the Blood, Suite francaise, David Golder, Le Bal, the Courilof Affair, All Our Worldly Goods.

The Germany titles are: Die Hunde und die Wölfe, Feuer im Herbst, Herbstfliege, Leidenschaft, Die Familie Hardelot, Der Fall Kurilow and Irene Nemirovsky: Die Biographie.

* * *

Irene Nemirovsky: COLD BLOOD (Satis Shroff)

Subtitle: Moaning in All Eternity

Six decades ago,

My life came to an end,

In Auschwitz.

I, Irene Nemirovsky, a writer

Of Jewish-Russian descent,

Died in Auschwitz.

I live now in my books,

In my daughter’s memories,

Who’s already an octogenarian,

Still full of love and fighting spirit:

For she fights against

The injustice of those gruesome days.

I was thirty-nine,

Had asthma,

Died shortly after I landed in Auschwitz.

I died of inflammation of my lungs,

In the month of October.

That very year the Nazis deported

Michael Epstein, dear my husband,

Who’d pleaded to have me,

His wife, freed from the clutches

Of the Gestapo.

They also killed him.

My daughters Denise 13,

And Elizabeth 5,

Were saved by friends

Of the French Resistance,

Tucked away in a cloister for nuns,

Hidden in damp cellars.

They had  my suitcase with them,

Where ever they hid,

Guarding it like the Crown Jewels.

To them it was not only a book,

But my last words,

That I’d penned in Issy-l’Eveque.

I wanted to put together five manuscripts

In one: Suite Francaise,

That was my writer’s dream.

I could put only

‘Storm in July’ and ‚Dolche’


I passed away early in August 1942.

Too early.

In my two books I’ve written

About the flight of the Parisians

From the victorious Germans,

The awful situation in an occupied hamlet.

Small people and collaborators,

Who’d go to extremes

To save their skins,

Like ants in a destroyed ant-hill.

It’s sixty years hence,

But my work hasn’t lost its glow,

Like the lava from an erupting volcano.

You can feel its intensity,

When an entire nation

Was humiliated and had to capitulate,

Losing its grace, dignity and life.

I was born in Kiew,

Fled to Paris via Finnland and Sweden,

After the Russian Revolution.

I was a maniac,

When it came to reading,

Had a French governess,

Went often to the Cote d’ Azure and Biarritz.

I studied literature in Sorbonne in 1919.

Shortly thereafter,

I began to write:

About my Russian past,

My wandering years.

The colour of the literature I wrote

Is blood from an old wound.

From this wound I’ve drawn

The maladies of the society,

Human folley.

I was influenced by writers,

From Leo Tolstoi to Henrik Ibsen.

An unhappy childhood,

Is like when your soul has died,

Without a funeral:

Moaning in all eternity.

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Kathmandu Valley Legend (Satis Shroff)


“I have a strong interest in the legend of Manjushri,” said Fumio Yonechi, a geo-morphologist from Yamagata city, when I met him in Kathmandu a long time ago. We were talking about the origin of Kathmandu Valley, which is located in the lap of the Himalayas.


“I have heard similar popular legends in Kashmir, Tibet and in Khotang,” he said.


Basically it is always the same, that is, a holy person cuts a path across the grilling mountains and draws out the water, resulting in the appearance of a new and fertile land from the bed of the lake. And Kathmandu Valley is not only the heartland of Nepal but also the most developed area in the Himalayas, due primarily to its physical setting. The Kathmandu Valley is a basin, and has a mild climate and fertile land. It is an amphitheatre in shape about 24km across, around the headwaters of the Bagmati River. Most of the rivers of Nepal have their origin in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, and they cut deep gorges through the Midland Region. But the Bagmati is an exception, rising in the Midland itself and having higher valley flow.


“I’m studying similar basins in Japan and Nepal, that is, low lying areas surrounded by mountains,” said Fumio Yonechi. “My hometown Yamagata Valley is a basin much like your Kathmandu Valley. And I find that once upon a time, the north-eastern lakes of Japan were drained of their water and became small fertile plains. These lakes are known to have existed 50,000 to 10,000 years ago during the latter part of the Pleistocene often referred to as the Wulm Ice Age,” he said.


“In Japan we have the same kind of legend centred around a Buddhist who is known to have cut a mountain and drained out the water, leaving a rich land behind. Personally, I feel that our ancestors in Japan could have made that legend as they had not seen real lakes at all, because the Pleistocene lakes were too old, for in those days there were only marshes in Japan. So it is probable that our Japanese ancestors made legends out of these existing marshes “he said.


“When I first came to Nepal I heard about the legend behind the Chovar Gorge and I developed a great interest and wanted to find out the facts behind the legend.” According to the Nepalese legend, once the place where Kathmandu Valley now stands there was a vast lake called Nagahrad, which was then drained by Manjushri, a Buddhist missionary ,and then the bottom of the lake dried up. However, deposits of the former lake were identified as Pleistocene through paleontological evidence. To confirm the Pleistocene age of given to Kathmandu Valley’s fertile soil, Fumio Yonechi sampled peaty clay from lacustrine deposits at the road cutting near Khajal hamlet, located in the vicinity of Budanilkantha, which was found to be 33,200 years old. The age was determined by using radiocarbon measurement carried out by K. Kigoshi of Gakushin University, Tokyo. It is a well known fact that most sediments in the Kathmandu basin are lacustrine, and peat layers are exposed at many places.


“I surveyed Kathmandu Valley and found many peat layers,” said Mr.Yonechi.


“From the peat sample, we found many pollens of tall grasses that are normally specific to Steppe types of grassland. From that bit of information we deduced that Kathmandu Valley then was not a stable lake, but that it changed seasonally from lake to dry grassland. At that time, the climate of Kathmandu Valley was far more clearer than now: dry and rainy. Since all this took in the last Ice Age, the temperature must have been very low as compared to nowadays.”


In 1966 two Nepalese geologists discovered the jaw of a fossilised elephant: Stegodon ganesha. In order to qualify as a fossil, the remains of a dead animal or plant have to be at least 10,000 years old. Perhaps in the hoary past there were elephants in Kathmandu Valley itself, even though they are confined to the lowland (Terai) area of Chitwan today. Perhaps they roamed and fed in the grasslands of Kathmandu Valley during the dry season and went in the rainy season to other areas because the Valley would then have been flooded with water. Mr.Yonechi went on to say, “In Japan too, fossil records indicate that in the Ice Age there were elephants in existence, but now there are no elephants in our country. Archeologists have made several important excavations of prehistoric sites, and it is my dream that in future we may be able to get more information on the pre-history of Kathmandu Valley and Japan.”


The drainage pattern of the Kathmandu Valley is the most typical instance of centripetal system, according to the geologist Arthur Holmes. The Bagmati River has many tributaries from every direction: Vishnumati from the north, Manohara and Upper Bagmati from the south-east, small tributaries from the east, Godaravi from the north-east, small tributaries from the west and Nakhu from the south. Nakhu is the only river in the entire Kingdom that flows from south to north. And the Bagmati River leaves Kathmandu Valley through the 500 meter long Chovar Gorge.


The Chovar Hill is composed of limestone and there’s a cement factory also located there.


Mr.Yonechi said, “The Chovar Hill resisted the erosion by the river and dammed up the water of a big lake once upon a time on the northern side of the hill. And gradually over a span of time, the groundwater must have made a kind of karst tunnel under the Chovar Hill. A part of the water was drained through this tunnel. By and by, the roof of the cave fell and formed the gorge.


Nepal was not Nepal then. We only know about the pre-historical periode which was 200 BC, the Licchavi dynasty from 200 till 750 BC, the Thakuri dynasty from 750BC, the early Malla dynasty from 1200 till 1482, the later Mallas from 1482 till 1768 and the recent Shah dynasty since 1768 till 2007. The human history of modern Nepal began towards the end of the 18th century with the Gorkha conquests, even though the fertile, culturally rich Kathmandu Valley was the object of conquests at all times in its past and they had a tough time thwarting the marauding people from the craggy mountains. Even after the establishment of the monarchy and later democracy, the old saying that ‘Kathmandu is Nepal’ still holds, for the country is still centralised. Will the future governments bring more decentralisation to the people of this land-locked country? It would be only in the interest of the Nepalese people to do so.


Time will tell us.

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