Friday, September 07, 2018

Australia: The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright

I haven't stopped reading, but there were all sorts of books piling up on my "to be read" list that didn't fit into my round-the-world project. Wonderful non-fiction books, poetry and all sorts of others. And there were books from countries that I had already read a book from. This is one of them. However, it is from "another Australia" - quite different to the others I have reviewed here, as the author is an indigenous Australian from the Waanyi nation in the highlands of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria.

The book is set in a dystopian future Australia heavily impacted by climate change and by pollution from mining and other activities. Oblivia (full name Oblivion Ethylene) is a young aboriginal woman who has been gang raped and rescued from her refuge in a hollow eucalyptus tree by an old white woman, Bella Donna. They live together on a rusting hulk of a ship which has been dumped by the army, along with many others, in a drying up swampy lake in the middle of a detention camp for other indigenous people, both those whose traditional land it is, and those relocated from the cities.

The ship is surrounded by swans which have come from the south (they do not traditionally live in this area). Oblivia does not speak but has a special rapport with the swans. As her story unfolds, she becomes the wife of the first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch. She is taken to live in the city where she lives a beleaguered life, sequestered in a tower apartment. All sorts of strange characters find their way into her story - three genies, a talking monkey named Rigoletto, an old harbour master who may or may not be a ghost. And always the swans are a haunting presence, guiding Oblivia's journey.

This story is not mythical in the Western sense. It is an interweaving of worlds, the world that we would see on the surface, and the spiritual world of ghosts and nature, which is just as real. In this reality, a story is not something that is told but is an integral part of each tribe and each creature, and it must be walked rather than read. (Or perhaps it is "read" in the land). Nevertheless, there is also plenty of white European culture woven into the story - in particular, the stories and poems of swans which are woven throughout. It is both a lyrical epic, and a powerful protest against what we are doing to the earth, and against the treatment of the indigenous people of Australia.

If you are also trying to read a book from every country, and you would like to choose something non-"Western" where possible, then I would highly recommend this as a choice for Australia.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Eritrea: Heart of Fire, by Senait Mehari

This memoir bears a subtitle on the cover: "From child soldier to soul singer". This slightly over-hyped subtitle is, in part, what has led to controversy over the book, as various commenters have pointed out that the author was never a child soldier. She did not in fact, claim that she herself fought in battles. She did however write an account of her childhood in which she was abandoned at birth by a mentally distressed mother, raised in orphanages for several years until her paternal grandparents fetched her back, and then went to live with her father and his third wife.

When she was six, her father sent her along with her two elder half-sisters, to a camp of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). They had been fighting in a civil war against Ethiopia, in a battle for Eritrea's independence. However by this stage they were fighting more against another Eritrean group, the EPLF, as the two groups contended for power within Eritrea.

The younger children in the camp did not have to fight, but they did do a lot of the hard work in the camp, and were also taught to carry and fire guns. Things did not go well for the ELF, and eventually Senait's uncle managed to rescue her and her sisters, and took them to live with him in Sudan, before her father, now living in Germany, sent for the girls.

Senait did not get on well with her father and at the age of fourteen left home to live on the streets. The memoir continues on to describe how she managed to teach herself music and become a recording artist.

I found it hard to decide for myself how much of the controversy over the book may in fact be correct, and how much may be the result of certain interest groups not wanting to admit that child soldiers did in fact exist. It is entirely possible of course that there are errors in the book even without the deliberate intent to exaggerate - after all, I would have to say that my recollections of events that took place when I was six years old would not be entirely accurate, even without the complicating factor of trauma to overcome. Then, in order to make a coherent story from a chaotic set of recollections, facts may have been manipulated slightly to align better with each other. I cannot believe though, that the story was entirely fabricated - there must be at least a good proportion of truth in there.

At any rate, I found it to be fascinating reading, and I learnt a good deal about the recent history of Eritrea, and its independence from Ethiopia. And incidentally, I found that one doesn't have to be white to have racist attitudes - Senait's mother was Ethiopian while her father was Eritrean, and apparently the darker skinned Ethiopians were looked down on by the lighter skinned Eritreans (and the Sudanese in the story, who were mostly Moslem, taunted the Eritreans, who were not only of a different skin tone, but also did not dress in a suitably modest manner).

Heart of Fire was translated from German and published in London by Profile Books in 2006. (I have returned the book to the library and didn't, unfortunately, note the name of the translator)

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.