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“Black Vodka” by Deborah Levi

Black Vodka, Deborah LeviDeborah Levy’ s novel Swimming Home (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013) and her short story collection Black Vodka (February 2013) were both published by & other stories, a literary publishing house and a not-for-private-profit company. & other stories relies significantly on the support of subscribers to produce books, which are selected for publication with the help of reading groups in different languages.

The ten stories included in Black Vodka might perhaps be compared to a concept album, with echoes of each story resonating in the others.
They are about beautiful people (with a couple of exceptions) who have interesting and well-paid jobs, live in stylish and comfortable houses and travel around Europe on business or on short holiday trips. Though some of them could not say exactly where they are from - «a bit from here, a bit from there», Jamaica, Russia or the Czech Republic – they all live in wealthy European cities, like London, Zurich or Vienna.
Their perfect, easy lives, however, cannot protect them from pain and sorrow. Some characters live in constant fear that their parents might die; others struggle to cope with bereavement. Most have love troubles. They expect, or rather feel with certainty, that their partner is about to betray them and their fears inevitably come true. Others yet are made unhappy by the way they look, and wish they could change into somebody else, into a «man without a burden on his back» (the hunchback copywriter in the title story Black Vodka) or into a pretend woman with a Barbie body and no cares in the world (Cave Girl).

It is the way these worries and sorrows are described that is original and compelling.

Love is the main cause of trouble (no matter if it is love denied in childhood, or a love impossible to live in adult life, or a feeling so strong it can even lead to insanity) and love is what connects the characters to each other in a fantastic, eerie way. In Stardust Nation, Thomas, the boss of an advertising company and his empathetic friend and accountant Nikos mysteriously become mentally connected. Nikos slowly appropriates his boss’s painful past and in the end the two are like communicating vases. They share the same memories, the same feelings and it is almost impossible to tell who of the two men actually needs psychiatric care.

Lovers too break into each other’s mind have premonitions that haunt them and materialize in their dreams. The protagonist of Roma, a woman on holiday with her husband in southern Portugal, dreams every night of her husband betraying her in the city of Roma. In her dream, Roma is nothing but a high wall over which she can still talk to her husband and tell him that he has broken her heart. She is not admitted into the city, the place where her husband exists without her.

Also in Placing a Call the pain that love or the negation of love gives is described in images, this time an accumulation of images and disturbing sounds (stains and dim stairways, telephones ringing and car alarms). It is a language that can tell the pain and talk it away at the same time. Like the orphan protagonist of A Better Way to Live says: «But Mom taught me something wonderful. She said, Be sure to enjoy language, experiment with ways of talking, be exuberant even when you don’t feel like it because language can make your world a better place to live.» 

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