Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trinidad & Tobago: House of Ashes, by Monique Roffey

On the outskirts of the City of Silk, in the fictional Caribbean island of Sans Amen, Ashes is a follower of the Leader, who has established a spiritual commune. He has rescued street kids, fed and educated them, and trained them and other followers to fight. Now they are going to seize power, to establish a New Society.

The followers of the leader invade and take over the television station and the House of Power. But their revolution quickly goes wrong. Holed up for days in the House of Power, with their parliamentarian hostages and the army surrounding them outside, Ashes gradually changes his view of the Leader, and of the existing regime. How will it end? Will he get out alive, and will he spend his life in prison? And what of the young former street kid, Breeze, cocky but ignorant?

The use of fictional names such as the House of Power and the City of Silk give this book an edge of fantasy, but everything else about it is firmly grounded in the real world. It is based on an actual insurrection that took place in Trinidad in 1990, although with a different outcome. In that case, Islamist extremists were responsible. In the fictional version, the nature of the spiritual beliefs of the rebel group are not defined. Ashes prays, and connects himself with "the beautiful". In the House of Power, he contemplates a stained glass window depicting the crucified Christ and states that Jesus was a revolutionary. But it is clear that whatever his belief is, he is not a Christian.

There is an element of environmentalism in the book too. One of the hostage Parliamentarians is the Minister for the Environment. She is passionate about the plight of leatherback turtles, and these figure prominently in the latter part of the story.

It is a convincing and moving book, which presents the characters on both sides as complex people, sometimes misguided but doing the best they can for their beliefs. I had to google a few of the terms used, and ended up knowing a little more about the Caribbean, besides enjoying a worthwhile read.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Belize: Time and the River, by Zee Edgell

This historical novel is set in the early part of the nineteenth century in the settlement that was later to become British Honduras, and eventually Belize. Although the Spanish claimed sovereignty over the area, they had never established settlements there. Instead, there was a small British population, served by slaves imported from Jamaica and elsewhere, who acted as domestics, and as workers on the mahogany plantations which was the chief export.

The novel tells the story of Leah, a slave born in Belize town, her mother Hannah, brother Sam and friend Will, a slave who was born in Africa. Will wants Leah to be his sweetheart but she does not love him. Leah dreams of a better future and eventually becomes a freed woman although this involves some compromises on her part, and distances her from her former friends.

As the story follows Leah's life from young womanhood till her death, it reads more like a book that someone might write about the history of a forebear, rather than a fictional novel - facts of a real life do not always fit a traditional narrative arc. However, there is no indication that it is anything other than fictional. I enjoyed reading the book, despite its structural limitations. I found it an interesting portrait of the complex social conditions that prevailed in the area at the time, a country about which I previously knew little.

Zee Edgell was born in British Honduras in 1940. Her first novel, Beka Lamb, was set in 1951 and published in 1982, a year after her country became the newly independent Belize. It was the first novel by a Belizan writer to reach an international audience. She has worked in international development and travelled widely, and is currently living in the United States.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Cameroon: Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

I was delighted when I saw in the advance publicity for Imbolo Mbue's debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, that she is Cameroonian. Not so delighted when I discovered that she lives in the United States, has done so for more than a decade, and that her university education took place there. And further, that the novel is about the experience of immigrants in New York, chasing the American Dream. More of an American novel than an African novel, then. So for Cameroon, I bought, and read, Angèle Kingué's Venus of Khala-Kanti instead. But I still wanted to read the Mbue novel, and I'm glad I did.

The Jonga's - Jende and Neni, and their son Liomi - are Cameroonians trying to make it in New York. While Jende works as a chauffeur for an investment banker on Wall Street, Neni is studying at community college with a dream of going to pharmacy school. Jende does not have a green card but does have a permit to work while waiting for his asylum application to be heard. His wealthy employer, Clark and his wife Cindy are also in their own way pursuing the American dream. Cindy had a hard childhood and is insecure about her social position. The interaction between the two couples, and the events that unfold during the collapse of Lehman brothers and subsequently, form the narrative of the novel. We also meet Clark and Cindy's two children, Vince who wants to give everything up and search for peace and enlightenment, and the younger son Mighty.

Although set in New York, the novel reveals a good deal more than I expected about life in Cameroon. It is a place where everyone's dream is to leave and go somewhere else. And yet, will they find happiness there? In the end, in their own way, Jende, Clark and Vince all find a path that satisfies them. (And yet, given that the author is a woman, I find it a little strange thinking about it now that the women in this book are more harshly treated).

Be that as it may, I enjoyed the book very much, and would be interested to read more by the same author in future.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Czech Republic: Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar

My library has this labelled as science fiction, but it is much more than that. It tells the story of Jakub Prochazka, the first spaceman of Bohemia. Jakub, a scientist who studies cosmic dust, is sent into space on a mission that no other nation will undertake, to study a cloud of cosmic dust that has been left shadowing Venus by a mysterious comet. With no other companion in space than an alien arachnid, who is possibly a hallucination, Jakub must cope with the gradual failure of his marriage (via transmissions from earth), and the failure of his mission. Stranded in space, he must find a way home.

This is by no means the end of the story. The book also gives us a lot of the recent history of the Czech Republic, through the history of Jakub's own family. He must confront the dark deeds of his father, and his love for his grandparents, and somehow make a new life for himself.

I loved this book. (That's two in a row with strange aliens - a coincidence? But this one resembles Jane Rawson's in that point only, otherwise they are very different books). The suspenseful plot was enhanced by the in depth characterisation of Jakub, his wife Lenka, grandparents, and other peripheral characters including the mysterious Shoe Man.

Jaroslav Kalfar was born in the Czech Republic and emigrated to the US at the age of fifteen. It appears from his author photo that he is still quite young. Unlike many other books written by authors who emigrate to the United States, this is in no way an American book. And it appears from the acknowledgments at the back that the author still considers himself very much Czech, referring as he does to "my country" in a way that can only mean the Czech Republic. So, while I keep trying (often fruitlessly) to read books that have been published in the country and language of the author, rather than the countless American influenced books of immigrants, I felt that this one was an entirely satisfactory choice for the Czech Republic.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Australia: From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson

This book looked so intriguing when I spotted it in the library that it inspired me to make a return visit through its pages to Australia. It is based on the story of the wreck of the Admella, in South Australia in 1859. The author's great great grandfather survived this wreck. In many hands, it would have been just another historical story. However, here it becomes something much more, with the addition of an alien life form hiding in the ocean near the wreck in the form of a cephalopod, but able to transform and shape shift.

This addition turns the story into something truly amazing. Inventive, lyrical, suspenseful and invoking a sense of wonder at the beauty of earth, the oceans, and the vast expanse of space, along with tender sympathy for the plight of humans and of the homeless life forms who came to earth millions of years ago and took refuge in the oceans.

One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

Monday, April 24, 2017

North Korea: The Accusation, by Bandi

I knew that North Korea was going to be a difficult country. So I was delighted to read of this collection of short stories, smuggled out of North Korea, and furthermore, to discover that our library had copies on order.

The seven stories in this collection are relatively simple, and have a common theme - in each, the central characters are struggling to survive in a regime where the ordinary people have little, and live in fear of the consequences of the slightest wrong act or careless phrase, while the "Dear Leader" lives a luxurious lifestyle and must be praised at all costs. (When he moves around the country, it is a "Class One Event" and all other traffic must stop to make way for him). Generally, there is a moment of realization in each story, where the truth of their situation breaks through, overcoming years of propaganda.

Despite this simplicity, the characters in each story are different and completely individual. I was fascinated by the insight and power of these stories. I have to believe that they are a true reflection of life in North Korea - the author had nothing to gain by exaggeration or distortion, given that the stories were never going to be published in his own country. In fact, they lay hidden for years, most being dated around the early 1990s, until he was able to give them to someone to smuggle secretly out of the country. (Bandi means "firefly" and is, of course, a pseudonym).

The Accusation is translated by Deborah Smith, and published by Serpent's Tail in 2017.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Switzerland: The Chef, by Martin Suter

Maravan is a Tamil asylum seeker in Zurich and Andrea is a waitress at the same restaurant, the famed Chez Huwyler. Maravan is a brilliant chef but as an asylum seeker is only permitted to work in unsklled jobs, such as kitchen hand and finds himself scrubbing pots and preparing vegetables. It is 2008, the time of the global financial crisis and both Maravan and Andrea find themselves out of work.

Together they set up "Love Food", an enterprise specialising in erotic meals which, we are led to believe, have the couples who eat them wanting to jump into bed with each other. This is achieved by the aphrodisiac qualities of Ayurvedic recipes that Maravan has inherited from his beloved great aunt, combined with his "molecular cooking" techniques. Maravan is desperately trying to send money back to Sri Lanka to help his family, in the last days of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE rebels. From couples, they progress, somewhat against Maravan's values, to providing catering for rich businessmen and their escorts. Together they are drawn into an underworld of sex and illegal arms dealing.

I found the story readable enough, but not altogether convincing. Was Maravan's food really that powerful? And somehow, neither the struggles of the Sri Lankan Tamils not the world of the dodgy arms dealers really drew me in emotionally.

Nevertheless, according to the blurb Martin Suter has a huge readership. He was born in Zurich in 1948 and now spends his time between Spain and Guatemala. The Chef was translated from German by Jamie Bulloch and published in Great Britain by Atlantic Books in 2013.