All Backs Were Turned by Marek Hłasko

“You are charged with disrupting public order in the city of Tel Aviv on June fifth. Do you plead guilty?” “No,” Dov said. “As fast as I remember, there’s never been any order in this city.”

This is how this book begins. Maybe it is just this war, or just these times but it is refreshing to read a story about dysfunctional people in bad situations. People who are struggling with work, love, and masculinity. You know the main characters will lose but you keep reading. You want to see what happens. I seem to be in a mood where I read dark, gloomy novels and enjoy them.

“…You should know how it is with a new job. In the beginning it tires you out, then you get used to it, and then you stop enjoying it. It’s almost always like that.”

Hlasko seems to really get capitalism. It sucks. He forgot to say you get old and then die, too. This is a common thread in his novels that I have read, too. Young men, in the prime of their life, can’t find meaningful work or relationships. Could this be a reflection on his own life? If you don’t know about his life, go read the Wikipedia page. It is quite the life of moving around and searching for something, quite like the characters in his novels.

“Strong men always think they can improve the minds of fools. And wise men think they can improve the minds of fools. It never works. In the end strong men go down because of weaklings and wise men go made because of fools. It’s always been like that. How come you decided to ask me for help?”

Israel, the main character, is weak but tries to be a tough guy. He latches on to Dov and treats him like his mentor. They are both bouncing from gig to gig trying to make some money. They are directionless in life. Dov actually is a tough guy who has gotten into some trouble. They both move to the southern city of Eilat to find work. Instead of work, they find more trouble; they can’t seem to run away from themselves.

“…I’m telling you to go away. Take my advice, sonny boy.” “I’ll get used to it,” Israel said. “Yeah, you might get used to this country. But you won’t learn to like it.”

Hlasko’s characters are often foreigners or travelers trying to find their way in their world. Though I have settled down from my own nomadic life, I still feel I’m traveling. Aren’t we all traveling? Living in Taiwan for 10 years already and still learning to like it.

“I see,” the old man said. “You came here so you’d never again have to look upon violence. Beautifully said, Israel.” He took a step toward him. “Do you think the men who came here before you had this country had it handed to them on a plate?” he asked. “No, Israel. Nobody gave it to them. To take it, they had to resort to violence, and the best of them died doing it, as usually happens. How can you, a Jew, speak to me of violence?”

This captures the irony of the state of Israel perfectly.

“I like my coffee very sweet,” she said. “How does the German saying about coffee go?” “Coffee should be dark as night, sweet as sin, and strong as love,” he said. His tired face twisted into a gloomy smile. “Funny it’s the Germans who say that. Germans don’t know anything about coffee.”

Hlasko always has these little humorous asides that aren’t really connected to the main story but are enjoyable to read. Here, the love interest of Israel is musing about coffee with another German tourist. The men in all of Hlasko’s books have a difficult, and I would say toxic relationships with women. All the men in his novels haven’t even figured out their own lives, so why should they know how to interact with women?

Did I enjoy this? Yes. I have enjoyed all Hlasko’s books I have read thus far. I need something to soothe me in these times and perfect superheroes in spandex just isn’t cutting it for me.

Rating: ★★★★

Book #45 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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