Saturday, July 11, 2020

Guyana: Children of Paradise, by Fred D'Aguiar

I usually think of South America as Hispanic (with the exception of Brazil, colonized by Portugal and therefore closely related). Of course, that is not true, especially of the three small countries to the north of Brazil, formerly known as British Guiana, Dutch Guiana and French Guiana.

Since Guiana is a former British colony, many of its inhabitants emigrated to the UK, and I found it quite difficult to find a Guyanese writer actually living in Guyana, although there are a number in Britain. Fred D'Aguiar was born in London to Guyanese parents, but spent much of his childhood growing up in Guyana. For his novel, Children of Paradise, he has taken as his inspiration the true story of the Jonestown massacre. Jonestown was a religious community established in a remote area of the Guyanese jungle by American pastor Jim Jones. In 1978 most of the community, around 900 members including 300 children, died after drinking a cyanide laced potion, at the directive of the leader, rather than face investigation by authorities.

This book is a novel and the author does not claim it sticks to the facts, but it does seem to follow them quite closely. It chillingly sets out the ways in which a charismatic leader can exert a hold over a large group of people, both by mental and physical methods. One thing that did rather puzzle me was the presence in the community of a pet gorilla. It was implied that the gorilla was taken into captivity when his mother was shot, presumably in the forest where the community was located. Gorillas however, are native to Africa and not to South America. Was the gorilla transported across the ocean? There seemed to be no good reason why that might have happened. Nevertheless, the gorilla is central to the story so it was necessary for me to suspend my disbelief on that point.

Fred D'Aguiar is also a poet and that showed through particularly in the final chapter which interweaves two alternate endings to the story, one hopeful and one less so. I wanted to believe that the resourceful 10 year old Trina, along with her mother Joyce, and a large band of the commune's children, did manage to escape. In the real life version, sadly, that did not happen.

Children of Paradise was published in the UK by Granta Books in 2014 and in the USA by Harper Collins in 2016.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Vietnam: The Mountains Sing, by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

When looking for books from Vietnam, most references I found were to books written by South Vietnamese, usually after leaving the country, about their wartime experiences. When I discovered "The Mountains Sing" at our local library, it was a little different - firstly, because it is a family saga covering a greater time period, from before the Second World War to the present day, and secondly, because the author grew up in North Vietnam.

Even though there were protests in New Zealand about the Vietnam war, wanting the Americans and allies to withdraw, the Communist north was still portrayed as the enemy at the time. I was pleased to discover a much more nuanced picture of events in this novel. The Tran family at the centre of the saga are hard-working farmers living a relatively comfortable life until a series of misfortunes befall them. The patriarch of the family is killed by the Japanese during the occupation. After the war, the Communist instigated Land Reform results in them being denounced as landlords exploiting the poor, and they lose their land. Grandmother Tran Dieu Lan moves to the city, where several of her sons of the family enlist to fight in the war against the south and against the American "imperialists", with devastating results. The story is told through the eyes of Dieu Lan, and through those of her granddaughter Huong, whose mother also served in the war as a medical doctor, and returned traumatised.

Despite the hardships, the story takes a more positive turn towards the end, as young Huong studies hard at high school, and falls in love. She is a keen reader and writes "I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them - their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth." This book surely shows the humanity of the North Vietnamese, through a variety of well-rounded characters. There were a couple of plot points which I felt were somewhat contrived in order to tie up all the loose ends, but on the whole I enjoyed the book very much.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai was born in North Vietnam in 1973 during the Vietnam war. She worked as a street vendor and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to study in
Australia. She returned to Vietnam where she worked in sustainable development with various agencies including the United Nations. She is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction and non fiction in Vietnamese. She currently lives in Indonesia. The Mountains Sing is her first book in English and was published in 2020 by Algonquin Books of Capitol Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

United Kingdom: The Insomnia Museum, by Laurie Canciani

It was the title of this novel which intrigued me. I'm not sure quite what I expected - something a little surreal and quirky, I suspect. In fact the story was something else entirely. Anna is 17 and lives with her Dad who never lets her go outside. Together they build a strange collection of objects made from discarded televisons, old clocks and other junk. But Anna's father is a junkie, and one day he dies from an overdose. Anna must go outside and find her way in the world.

She is taken in by a former friend of her father, Lucky. He is described in some reviews as a "born again Christian" although I didn't feel that was clear in the book. He does, however, believe in God. And he compulsively helps people, believing that there is one person out there somewhere who he has to save.

Lucky lives on a rather grim housing estate full of high rise apartments. His son Tick supposedly has ADHD and wags school to deal drugs. I found the whole scenario of the book rather bleak. The language however is beautiful, and the voice of Anna is unusual and intriguing.

But for all her powers of description, the author needed the services of a good editor as some scenes are muddled and lacking in continuity. For instance, she makes a big deal out of Lucky's flat having bare wood floors. Then, in a scene with Anna and Tick in the living room, it shifts to the kitchen without them actually going there. Next thing, they are back in the living room. A blob of mayonnaise falls on Anna's shoe and she wipes it off on the (supposedly non-existent) carpet.

Other aspects of the story stretched my credibility slightly, although it didn't quite break, because after all, it was set in a community of the underclass, which I am not at all familiar with, so I was prepared, in the end, to believe it was possible. And for all its bleakness, it even felt somewhat redemptive, at the end.

Laurie Canciani suffered from agoraphobia as a teen (like Anna) and was kicked out of school at 16. Later she returned to formal education and earned a Masters in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. The Insomnia Museum is her first book and was published in the UK by Head of Zeus in 2018.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Singapore: How We Disappeared, by Jing-Jing Lee

Looking at the new book displays in the library seems to be a great way of finding interesting new books. After lockdown ended, I returned a big pile of books (which had had their return date extended while the library was closed) including Hilary Mantel's latest door stop, "The Mirror and the Light". I took an equally large pile home, including this novel by an author I had not encountered before.

The story is set in Singapore both during the World War II occupation of the island by the Japanese, and in relatively modern times - it seems somewhere around the turn of the century, which is perhaps during the childhood of the author. 12 year old Kevin's grandmother is dying. As she does so, confused and believing Kevin to be his father, she mumbles a confession. In the meantime, the elderly Wang Di is grieving the death of her husband, and adjusting to life in a modern high rise apartment since her old home is to be bulldozed for a new development.

Kevin sets about unravelling a family mystery. The story crosses back and forth between his story and Wang Di's in the present, and Wang Di's story in the past. I found it a compelling story, if a little grim in the description of the lives of the "comfort women" who were taken by the Japanese to serve the physical needs of their soldiers during the war.

Ultimately though, it is a redemptive story. One minor niggle I had was that the book supposedly explains why Kevin has no uncles, aunts, cousins and so on - but that is on this father's side, and there is little explanation of his mother's background. True, it would unnecessarily complicate the story to digress to much, but a little casual explanation of his mother's background would have filled out her character.

Jing-Jing Lee was born and raised in Singapore and gained a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from Oxford University. She currently lives in Amsterdam. How We Disappeared was published in the UK by Oneworld Publications in 2019. The edition I read was published in the USA by Hanover Square Press, also in 2019.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Angola: The Society of Reluctant Dreamers, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Near the start of this project I read Jose Eduardo Agualusa's book "A General Theory of Oblivion", but that was before I started posting summaries of the books I read on my blog.

Recently I spotted his latest book at the library and as I had enjoyed the previous one, decided to read that as well. I really liked this book and it's rather unusual narrative. Daniel Benchimol, a reporter, finds a waterproof camera floating in the sea. It turns out to contain images of a woman who has been appearing in his dreams. He discovers that the woman is Moira, a Mozambican artist famous for a series of photographs depicting her own dreams.

Daniel contacts Moira and they meet. Meanwhile his daughter has been arrested as one of a group of young protesters against the current political regime.

The idea of dreams, both in the sense of what happens when we sleep, and in the sense of visions and hopes for the future, binds this book together. It is about the power of art, and of working together. It is both a beautiful and lyrical fantasy, and a powerful political document.

I found myself wondering about the history of the country and the current political situation - if, as it seemed from this book, it is still under a dictatorship, then how could the book get published when the author still lives in the country? So, I suspect that the government depicted in the book is fictionalized, but I will need to do more research before being sure of that.

Jose Eduardo Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola. His previous book "A General Theory of Oblivion" won the International Dublin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. "The Society of Reluctant Dreamers" was translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and published by Harvill Secker in 2019.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Gabon: Awu's Story, by Justine Mintsa

I'm looking at a big stack of books waiting to be returned to the library. Finally our libraries are open again. In the meantime I had plenty to get on with, both books I had borrowed before lockdown and ones that I had purchased and not got to yet. I was happy to have managed to get a library copy of Hilary Mantel's "The Mirror and the Light" just a day or two before the library shut, and at over eight hundred pages it kept me quite busy especially since I was still working, from home over the internet.

Another library book I had borrowed just before lockdown was much slimmer - Justine Mintsa's "Awu's Story". It's not much over 100 pages, and the translator's introduction alone, where she comments on the cultural background and significance of the book, takes up nearly thirty pages. So it would be unreasonable, I suppose, to expect great depth in that space, and indeed, I felt the character's were rather one dimensional.

Still, there is much of interest here. Awu is the second wife of a village schoolteacher, Obame Afane. She is taken as his second wife because his much loved first wife, Bella, is childless. (That is, in a polygamous marriage). She longs to be loved in the same way as he loves Bella. But this is not to be for many years.

Eventually Obame Afane retires, and travels to the city to try and obtain his pension. Bureaucracy makes this a long drawn out and difficult process. And after his death, in tragic circumstances, Awu is subjected to humiliating traditional rituals to which widows in Fang society are customarily subjected.

As a novel, I would have appreciated more complexity, and found myself not particularly emotionally involved with the characters. But as a cultural document, I found the book interesting. There seems to be little literature from Gabon, a French speaking country (along with traditional languages), published in English, so I was glad to be able to find something.

Awu's Story was translated by Cheryl Toman and published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2018.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Armenia: The Gray House, by Mariam Petrosyan

It often seems to happen that, when I have trouble finding a book from a particular country, the solution comes in pairs. So, not long after I located Aram Pachyan's novel Goodbye Bird, I also came across a reference to Marian Petrosyan's fantasy novel. It sounded so intriguing, I bought it as well. But at over 700 pages,it is not a quick read, so it stayed on my shelf for quite a while before I started it.

I've been working my way through it since Christmas, reading other, shorter, works at the same time. But its uniqueness kept me going. While I describe it as a fantasy novel, it's not typical of any genre. On the surface, the world it describes seems almost normal at first. It is set in a residential school for children with various physical disabilities - although in The House they are not seen as disabilities, merely individual characteristics. And the House itself seems to be alive. As the novel progresses, certain happenings become stranger and stranger. The culmination of the book is the final year and graduation of the group of pupils on which the book is focused.

There were one or two points that seemed to be a bit odd - not odd in the sense that this is a fantasy, but odd in a way that didn't quite fit. There seemed to be only two intakes of new pupils over a twelve year period so that there were juniors, all roughly the same age, and seniors, also all roughly the same age as each other. The seniors had only observed graduation, and The Longest Night that preceded it, once in their time in the House,before it was there turn. One would expect - even in the context of the world of The House - new pupils each year, with a full range of ages at any one time.

Minor points such as this, however, could be overlooked in the overall powerful story telling.

This is Mariam Petrosyan's first novel and also likely to be her last - she worked on the book for eighteen years, and says that readers should not expect another book from her, since The Gray House is not merely a book but a world she knew and could visit, and she doesn't know another one. She was born in Yerevan, Armenia in 1969, where she currently lives, after a time in Moscow. The book was published in Russia in 2009, and translated into English by Yuri Machkasov. It was published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle in 2017.