Sunday, January 27, 2019

Greece: Achilles' Fiancée, by Alki Zei

I was surprised how few books from modern Greek authors were in our library, but I had a couple marked on my "to be read" list. And then this turned up on the new books display, so I decided to give it a try.

At the start of the book the narrator, Eleni, is on a train in Paris with her friends Eugene, Panos and Stephanos. This train, however, is a film set and the friends are working as extras. Eleni recalls her first long train ride, Athens to Piraeus, and then other train rides, as over the course of several weeks, the filming continues.

The Achilles of the title is a guerilla, leader of the resistance against the German occupiers of Greece during World War II, and later against the British and against the Greek government during the civil war that followed. Eleni was known to all the resistance members as "Achilles' fiancée". The book follows her story through times of imprisonment in Greece, exile in Tashkent where Greek political refugees fled, then to Moscow and eventually Paris where the book is set, sometime after the right wing military coup in Greece in 1967.

But Eleni, though a communist, grows from a young girl following what she is told, to a woman who thinks and acts for herself, and does not blindly follow the party line, even when pressured to do so by Achilles.

For a short time, I found the structure of the book a little confusing. However it quickly became clear that during breaks in the filming, Eleni is in the present as she chats to Eugene, and while the filming is taking place, she is remembering the past. The words "cut" and "sound camera action" clearly delineate the time changes. I quickly became absorbed in the story and was fascinated both by the personality of Eleni and by the events in the modern history of Greece about which I had only a vague awareness previously.

Achilles' Fiancée was first published in Greece in 1987. This edition was translated by Anatoli Fitopoulou and published by Bookboom in 2015.

Alki Zei was born in Athens in 1925. Her books are mainly based on her personal experiences, and she herself spent time as a political refugee in the Soviet Union and Paris. While the book is semi-autobiographical, however, it felt universal in the humanity and stories of the characters, both the main characters and the many others who form part of their story.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Kuwait: The Hidden Light of Objects, by Mai Al-Nakib

When I can find only one book from a particular country, the quality can be a bit hit and miss. That wasn't a problem with Mai Al-Nakib's luminous short story collection, The Hidden Light of Objects. Ten "vignettes" alternate with the ten stories in this collection, which give a vivid picture of life in Kuwait as it develops from a traditional fishing village into a cosmopolitan oil-exporting nation, and then, with the Iraqi invasion, becomes a place of horror and war, and increasing fundamentalism.

There are objects a-plenty to carry the weight of the title. In "Chinese Apples" a young girl collects story objects - objects about which she spins imaginative tales which she relates to her younger sister. The story is a lamentation for the loss of her mother, the loss of innocence. In "Amerika's Box" another young girl, named in gratitude for America's role in resisting the Iraqi invasion, has a box in which she collects objects that represent America to her. But her name gradually becomes a liability as attitudes towards America change, particularly after 9/11. And there are many more significant objects in other stories - a compass, a diary, a stamp bearing the image of an elephant, a straw hat with a red ribbon.

While these stories are set against a background of Islam, it is a far less intrusive presence than in books I have read from other Middle Eastern countries. The characters in these books have an abiding interest in the wider world, in literature, culture, music and so on from all around the globe. If the young girls take up wearing the burqa, it is with reluctance and under pressure from an increasingly fundamentalist school and social environment. One senses that the author, too, has a liberal outlook on life.

Mai Al-Nakib was born in Kuwait in 1970. She holds a PhD in English literature from Brown University in the US and teaches postcolonial studies and comparative literature at Kuwait University. The Hidden Light of Objects was published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing and won the 2014 First Book Award from the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

There is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan

It's been a while since I posted here and in that time I have read far less than usual. I have been involved in house hunting and currently with one home purchased and one not yet sold, I have two gardens to maintain. Plus, I have been reading some books that are not related to my "Round the World" project. And then there was Christmas..

Still I do have a few books to catch up on reviewing, and this slim volume from South Sudan is one of them. South Sudan only became an independent country in 2011,, and the book was published in 2013 so it was fairly quick off the mark. However it is now out of print and hard to locate, and I haven't come across any alternatives. The conditions there are likely to make it difficult for anyone to publish a full length novel for some time.

There is an interesting introduction written by the editor, Nyol Lueth Tong, who was born in South Sudan but later became a refugee in northern Sudan and Egypt. At the time the book was published, he was at Duke University in the United States.

In the introduction he says "The North has been painted as Islamic and Arabic, while the South has been characterized as Christian and African, and regionally part of East Africa... In reality, however... in the South, more than sixty languages are spoken, and although both Islam and Christianity are practiced, local belief systems dominate the spiritual realm. Moreover, the last several decades of war have forced millions of Southerners to flee their homes... South Sudanese culture, in other words, is a strikingly hard to define thing."

It may be hard to define, but this collection makes a strong contribution towards introducing it to the world. It is to be expected that many of the stories focus on conflict, although unexpectedly, one, "Holy Warrior" by David L Lukudu takes the viewpoint of a soldier for the North Sudanese army. Others show the life of women and teenagers displaced by the fighting. Romantic relationships also feature in several of the stories.

A couple of pieces were different from the rest. "Lexicographicide" by Taban Lo Liyong is an unusual experimental piece which discusses the writing of a dictionary of the Zed language, the language of a fictional island of 125,000 people. The other piece, which ends the volume, is in verse. "Tall Palms", by Arif Gamal, is an excerpt from a longer work "Morning in Serra Mattu: A Nubian Ode". It is a narrative and lyrical work featuring a large boa constrictor, and forms a satisfying contrast to the fighting in the rest of the book.

"There is a Country" was published in 2013 by McSweeney's in San Francisco.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Ecuador: The Devil's Nose, by Luz Argentina Chiriboga

I really wanted to like this book, having searched intensively for an alternative to Jorge Icaza's Huasipungo, which seems to be the default choice for Ecuador. When I heard that Chiriboga's book was the first book by an Afro-Ecuadorian woman to be translated into English, I was intrigued.

Unfortunately I was disappointed. The book was short but very repetitive, so that it could in fact be quite a bit shorter. It tells of a group of Jamaicans brought to Ecuador to work in the construction of a railroad between Guayaquil and Quito. In the process, they had to conquer the Devil's Nose, one of the most dangerous peaks in the Andes. In the first chapter, we are told countless times in various ways that the men were leaving their families behind in order to earn money to make a better life for them. This sort of repetition is presumably present in the original untranslated text. I wondered if the author had a personal interest in this group of men, and wanted to tell an ancestor's story, but didn't have sufficient material and was trying to spin it out. Other faults may be due to the translation. I felt that it was perhaps a too literal, word for word translation which often made it very hard to understand the sense of the story. And even where the translation makes sense, it is often stilted or awkward English.

All this is a shame, because I sensed that there was an interesting story to be told here - and if one reads quickly, it is easier to get an overall impression of the story than by slowing down and trying to make sense of every sentence.

The other strange thing about this book is the prominence given to the translators, Ingrid Watson Miller and Margaret L Morris. Of course it is important to give translators their due. But it seems very odd that the "about the authors" page at the back of the book gives biographies of the translators without mentioning the original author at all.

This translation was published by Page Publishing Inc, New York in 2015. There is no mention given of when it may have been originally published in Spanish.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Gambia: Reading the Ceiling, by Dayo Forster

On her eighteenth birthday, Ayodele has a decision to make. She has decided to do The Deed. But which one of four possible men will she do it with? The ramifications of this decision will lead to different futures for her. "Reading the Ceiling" follows three possible stories for Ayodele, introducing the reader to the range of experience of modern African women.

While there are commonalities between the three different stories, each has very different outcomes. In one, Ayodele studies in England, and returns to work in the Gambia. In another, she travels the world, working in development in Mali and elsewhere. In a third, she stays in the Gambia as a single mother without tertiary education, raising her son, but eventually finding well paid employment and making a successful life for herself.

When my children were younger they sometimes read books in a series called "Choose Your Own Adventure". Every page or so, the reader was faced with two choices: "if you do this, turn to page 72. If you do that, turn to page 43". Although written in the first person, not the second person, this novel reminded me a little of those books. Eventually I realised that the reason was that both are written in the present tense. This gives an immediacy to the narration, and also elevates action above feelings, although feelings do play a part too. At any rate, I found it an engrossing read, and was absorbed in wondering as each story drew to a close, how the next alternative would work out differently for Ayodele.

Dayo Forster was born in Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Like her heroine in two of the stories, she left Gambia to study at the age of 18, because at that time there were no universities in the Gambia. Reading the Ceiling was published by Simon and Schuster, UK in 2007 at which time she was living in Kenya.It was shortlisted for Best First Book in the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-Africa Region.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Tanzania: Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tanzania is a country that was created out of an amalgam of Tanganyika on the mainland and the island of Zanzibar. I knew something of life on the mainland through friends who have worked as volunteers there, but this book is set in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, which is largely Muslim.

Salim grows up there in the 1970s. When his father moves out of the family home, he lives with his mother and her younger brother Amir. Amir becomes a senior diplomat in London and offers Salim a home there and an opportunity to study.

This is not, however, really an emigrant story, even though Salim spends may years in London. It is more about the events that caused his father to move out, and the secrets arising from them. Eventually Salim returns to Zanzibar for his mother's funeral. There he reunites with his younger half-sister, and with his father, who tells him his story.

The narrator of the novel is Salim, but in the last part of the book Salim is relating what his father told him, which to me seemed to add a certain amount of detachment to the story as we are hearing it at two steps removed. Other than that, I found the novel interesting both as a story, and as an insight into the history of Zanzibar, and of the events of the 1970s when the country was in some turmoil through political revolution. I would be happy to read more from this author, though I would also like to find other Tanzanian writers from the mainland, to give some perspective on the rest of the country.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. From 1980 to 1982 he was a university lecturer in Nigeria. He then moved to England, to the University of Kent and has been based in the UK ever since.
Gravel Heart was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Peru: The Neighbourhood, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Since the author of this book is a Nobel prize winner, it seemed as if it would be a good choice for Peru. I found, however, that it wasn't really to my taste. It's not a badly written book, but there is a lot of sex, and some of it is very graphic. It starts when Marisa shares a bed with her friend Chabela, after Chabela is caught too close to curfew at Marisa's house and stays the night. There, they discover an attraction for each other. In the meantime Marisa's husband Enrique or Quique, a rich businessman, is being blackmailed after scandalous photos of him at an orgy come into the hands of the gutter press. Quique turns to his lawyer friend Luciano (Chabela's husband) for help.

I felt at first that there wasn't a lot of character development. In the end though, the sex, much of which seems somewhat gratuitous at first, became more important to the plot and setting. The action takes place in the final days of Alberto Fujimori's presidency and as well as the newspaper staff and the two couples, takes in the director of intelligence services, the "Doctor". I began to be more interested in the book for what it revealed about the political situation, the terrorist insurgency, and the lives of Peruvians, both rich and poor, at the time.

Vargas Llosa has written a good many novels over his career, and although I am not familiar with most of his work, it seems unlikely that he would win the Nobel Prize if he was a "one trick pony" so I am thinking it might be worth exploring a bit more to see if some of his other work is more to my taste.