Friday, June 29, 2018

Latvia: Soviet Milk, by Nora Ikstena

Latvia was one of the countries on my "fairly hard to find" list, so I was delighted when this newly published title turned up at our library. Soviet Milk covers the lives of three generations of women - chiefly, a mother and daughter, but the grandmother and step-grandfather also make an appearance. None of these four are ever named - they are referred to as "my mother", "my daughter" and so on, depending on who is narrating. The book is written in short sections which switch narrators back and forth between the mother and the daughter. I was several sections in before I realised this, although perhaps it should have been obvious. Once it was clear, the story was easy to follow.

The mother was born at the end of World War II, shortly before Latvia was taken over by Soviet Russia. The daughter was born in 1969, and the novel covers the years up to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the Latvian people looking forward to the possibility of becoming and independent nation again. The mother is a doctor, but she is a deeply flawed and troubled character, and it is the grandparents' influence which has a stabilising effect on the daughter, who lives with them when her mother takes up a study opportunity in Leningrad. She returns from there disgraced, and is banished to a country health centre, where her daughter joins her for some years before returning to Riga to stay with her grandparents and attend high school.

It is a quiet, mostly undramatic story, but I found it compelling. It offers a clear picture of life in Latvia under Soviet rule, and the difficulties that entailed for the Latvian people. It is not a long book, so it was quick to read.

Soviet Milk was published in 2018 by Peirene Press and translated from Latvian by Margita Gailitis. It won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award for Best Prose. Nora Ikstena was born in 1969 (like the daughter in the story) in Riga, Latvia. She studied at the University of Latvia, moved to New York, and on her return she helped establish the Latvian Literature Centre.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Iran: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar

This is a somewhat sprawling novel which tells the events in the lives of a family in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1959. After the father's workshop where he makes classical Iranian musical instruments is raided and set on fire by revolutionaries, the family leaves Tehran for a quiet rural area. However, even there, they are not safe from the changes that the revolution brings.

The story uses the lyrical magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling. It is full of ghosts, jinns, spirits, mermaids and other creatures. While tragedy after tragedy befalls the family, the style of story telling and the fantastic elements in the narrative lighten the tone and make it bearable, even as the family face the loss of all they hold dear - their culture, literature and way of life, and their lives themselves.

Despite the complexities of the plot (it is not until chapter five that there is a sudden twist, and we start to realise the depth of the tragedy that has occurred), I enjoyed this book very much. The depictions of the kind of lives that cultured Iranians lived before the revolution was intriguing, given how Iran is portrayed in the media today as a repressive Islamic state. The family are depicted as book lovers, and the classical books named are from many cultures both Western and Iranian. The Blind Owl, an Iranian classic that I read earlier, is one that gets a mention. I found the blind owl hallucinatory and confusing, but this one is clearer, perhaps because it was written for a more western audience. One thing that struck me as a little odd was the narrator referring to her parents as "Mum" and "Dad" rather than using the titles that would be used for them in Iran. This is probably, again, because it was published in Australia for a western audience, but I felt that it constantly jolted me slightly out of the atmosphere of the story, and that a western audience could well handle Iranian titles for the narrators parents - after all, many other Iranian words are used. A small niggle - but it's the first book I've read in the course of this project in which this niggle has arisen.

Shokoofeh Azar was born in Iran in 1972. She studied literature at high school and university, and later worked as a journalist for an independent newspaper. In 2004, she became the first Iranian woman to backpack and hitchhike along the Silk Road. In 2010 she was forced to leave Iran, and was accepted as a political refugee by Australia in 2011. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was published by Wild Dingo Press (Melbourne, Australia) in 2017.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Iraq: I'jaam, by Sinan Antoon

This is a slim book, but a fascinating one. There is a preface which explains the meaning of the title. Arabic script is written with dots which elucidate the meaning of the phonetic characters. Without dots, the meaning has to be deciphered from context and syntax. The dots were added to eliminate ambiguity. For instance, the word which undotted reads bayt (house) can also be read as bint (girl), banat (she built), nabt (plant), thabt (brave), and so on, by placing dots in different ways.

The text of the novel is supposedly written by an unnamed narrator, being held in prison and tortured for political reasons. It has been written without dots, and has been given by officials to a "qualified personnel" to add the dots and report on the manuscript's content.

The book is both grim and lyrical, as the narrator slips alternately between dream and reality, between nightmare, hallucination and the actuality of his current circumstances. Footnotes which give alternate readings of some words and phrases add extra layers of meaning, and allow for barbed satire at the expense of the regime depicted.

I found far fewer books from Iraq than from neighbouring Iran, but this one seemed a very good place to start. Sinan Antoon was born in Baghdad in 1967. He studied English literature at Baghdad University and moved to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. He teaches Arabic literature and culture at New York University.

I'jaam was published in Arabic by Dar al-Adab in Beirut in 2004. It was translated into English by Rebecca Johnson and Sinan Antoon and published by City Lights Books in 2007.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Kenya: The Dance of the Jakaranda, by Peter Kimani

The Jakaranda Hotel of this novel is located at Nakuru, where the expatriate British, McDonald, had settled after arriving in Kenya to supervise the building of the railway from Mombasa on the coast, to the other side of the country, at the beginning of the twentieth century. McDonald's wife, Sally, had arrived at the house that he built for her and promptly left again.

In 1963, as Kenya is gaining its independence from Britain, Rajan, the lead singer in the hotel's resident band, is kissed by a mysterious woman in a dark corridor. He is unable to forget her. This novel unravels his story, and that of the woman, and their shared history, along with McDonald, the missionary Rev Richard Turnbull, and Rajan's grandparents Babu and Fatima, who had come to Kenya from the Punjab along with many other Indian labourers to work on the railway.

This is an epic story which is not just a family saga but reveals the unfolding story of the birth of Kenya as an independent nation. I found it compelling reading, with richly drawn characters and a fascinating setting. There was just one little niggle lurking in the background - I couldn't make sense of the timeline. There seemed to be some faulty arithmetic at work. If Rajan's father, Rashid, was born around 1903 as was described, and left Kenya at the age of eighteen - or not much more - to live in Britain, having fathered Rajan before he left - then Rajan couldn't be as young as he was supposed to be in 1963. And there were other anachronisms - the chief of which was the description of Babu having a "black polythene bag" - also around 1903, long before the invention of polythene. Or was it a figure of speech? It wasn't quite clear. These concerns weren't intrusive, for the most part, but did have me putting down the book to go and fact check from time to time.

This railway still exists today - I found a fascinating account of a journey on the railway at this website.

Peter Kimani is an award winning Kenyan novelist. He teaches journalism in Nairobi, and is a Visiting Writer at Amherst College in the United States.

The Dance of the Jakaranda was published in the United Kingdom in 2018 by Telegram under license from Akashic Books, New York

Friday, May 25, 2018

Italy: The Sense of an Elephant, by Marco Missiroli

I borrowed this book from the library because I found the title (and the blurb on the back) intriguing. I wondered where it was going at first. After all, all the secrets seemed to be revealed in the first few chapters, so it wasn't a mystery. It centres round an ex-priest, Pietro, who has taken a job as concierge in an apartment block in Milan. We soon learn that Lica, the father of one of the families in the building, is his son. So I wondered how the tension would sustain itself as there didn't seem to be much to reveal. It turns out, this is not quite the "feel good" story that it seems to be at first. There are surprises to come, not least at the end, and moral dilemmas that left me with plenty to think about.

I wondered about the translation - do Italians refer to a "concierge" or do they have their own word for it? We don't seem to have an English equivalent, but to refer to Pietro as a concierge seems to lend rather a French flavour. Then, the building is frequently referred to as a "condominium" which sounds very American to me, and modern, though in other ways I pictured the building as much older. (The blurb on the back refers to it as a "palazzo" - much more Italian sounding).

I enjoyed the book, and found the characterization complex and interesting. Pietro has two old friends in Milan, the gay lawyer Poppi who found him the job, and his tarot-reading friend Anita. There are also flashbacks to his past life in Rimini, and his relationship with Celeste. And then there are other inhabitants of the apartment building including Paola and her adult son Fernando, who has the mind of a child.

The Sense of an Elephant was translated from Italian by Stephen Twilley and published by Picador in 2015. It was originally published in Italy ,where it won the Campiello Prize, in 2012.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Somalia: The Orchard of Lost Souls, by Nadifa Mohamed

I found this a really interesting book to read shortly after my pick for Ethiopia (scroll down a couple of posts). It is set in the north part of Somalia, near the border with Ethiopia and about ten years later than Maaza Mengiste's book. So there were noticeable resonances between the two stories.

The Orchard of Lost Souls focuses on three women (or rather, two women and a girl). All are strong, independent characters. Filsan is a young female soldier, sent north to Hargeisa from Mogadishu to help suppress the rebellion growing in the north. Kawsar is a widow. Nine-year-old Deqo was born in a vast refugee camp outside the city. She is brought with a troop of refugee children to dance at a political rally. When she forgets the steps, frozen in fear, she is dragged aside by the woman in charge of the troop to be punished. Kawsar intervenes and Deqo runs off, leaving Kawsar to be arrested. At the police station the soldier Filsan beats her savagely. Thereafter she is crippled and confined to her house, unable to tend to her beloved orchard. The paths of the three characters separate but, like channels of a braided river, they come together again later in the story.

Apart from the beating Kawsar receives in the police station, I found this book not nearly as brutal as Mengiste's. We see the city emptying out and suffering from the war, but the portrayal of political oppression is not as extreme, perhaps because the city is remote from the capital where the leaders live. There are certainly some brutal passages, for instance when Filsan is sent to take part in an action to destroy water reservoirs in surrounding villages, because the tribesmen are suspected of aiding the rebels. However, these are not quite as central to the story as in "Beneath the Lion's Gaze", and the focus is more on the tenderness between the three women that arises as events unfold, leading to a much more hopeful ending, at least for the central characters.

The north of Somalia, where the book is set, has been declared to be an independent state, the Republic of Somaliland, since 1991. So for anyone wishing to include Somaliland as a separate country, this would be a good book to read. However its independence is not officially recognized, and it is not on the list of countries recognized by the United Nations that I am following. Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa in 1981 and moved to London with her family in 1986, shortly before the events of this book. This was intended to be a temporary move, but it became permanent when the war broke out. She did not return to Hargeisa until 2008.

The Orchard of Lost Souls is her second book and was published by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd in 2013.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Dominica: The Orchid House, by Phyllis Shand Allfrey

"The Orchid House" is narrated by Lally, the elderly servant of a white family who have fallen on hard times in an unnamed Caribbean Island. The three small girls who had ben in Lally's charge have now grown up - Natalie is a wealthy widow, who is supporting her impoverished parents, Stella has married a farmer in America and Joan is in England where she is politically involved in the Labour Party.

During the course of the story, the girls return one by one to the island. Their father is ill and drug dependent after returning from "the war" (apparently the First World War). Each daughter tries in her own way to change things - Joan through politics, Natalie with money, and Stella with a drastic course of action that has unforeseen consequences. Caught up in the story also are Mademoiselle Bosquet, the girls' childhood French teacher who is in love with "the Master", and a young man, Andrew, dying of tuberculoses - but which sister does he most love? And which of them loves him?

The book was originally published in 1953 and was for a long time forgotten, as colonialism was left behind and the political situation in the Caribbean changed - though a film adaptation was made in 1990. There is an introduction to the current edition written by Schuyler Esprit, a scholar of Caribbean literature and post colonial studies. In it she puts the book in its cultural and political context. Although some of the finer details of her explanation were a little lost on me, nevertheless I found it worthwhile reading, all it would be quite possible to enjoy the book without it.

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was born and brought up in Dominica, and lived in New York and London as a young woman. She returned to Dominica in the 1950s, was a cofounder of the Dominica Labour Party, and subsequently became a newspaper editor. The current edition of The Orchid House was published in 2016 by Papillote Press, a publishing house which specialises in Caribbean literature.