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Monday, September 21, 2020

Finland: The Iron Age, Arja Kajermo

The Girl who narrates this slim novel lives on a farm in post war Finland. Conditions are bleak. Finland is paying reparations to Russia for their part in the war. The Girl's father is violent, damaged by his part in the war in which a huge number of Finnish men died. The Girl observes her family - father, mother and younger brothers Tapio and Tuomas, and Grandmother who owns the farm. Eventually after an argument with grandmother, the family leaves the farm and crosses into Sweden to find work. This is a quiet but beautifully written short book. The contrasts between rural Finland and urban Stockholm are seen through the eyes of the young narrator. The novel is based on a short story which was shorlisted for the Davy Byrnes Award in 2014. Arja Kajermo is a cartoonist, born in Finland, raised in Sweden and currently residing in Ireland. It was published in 2017 by Tramp Press.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Venezuela: It Would Be Night in Caracas, by Karina Sainz Borgo

When I started this project I thought that there would be plenty of books available from South America. It turned out that, while that was true for Argentina, Brazil and Chile, amd also for Colombia, it was a lot more difficult to find books from Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay. So I was pleased when this recently published book turned up at our local library. Reading it certainly explained why the Venezuelans may have had other things on their minds than writing and publishing novels. Adelaida Falcon is the only daughter of a single mother, also Adelaida Falcon. As the story opens, Adelaida the daughter is standing by her mother's grave in Caracas. Her mother has died of cancer at a time of increasing civil unrest and rampant inflation, when cancer drugs are hard to come by or almost non-existent. Adelaida's only other relatives are two elderly aunts who live in Ocumare de la Costa, a town described in the novel as a "sleepy backwater" and seemingly remote, although when I checked on the map it didn't seem to be too far from Caracas. But after years of unrest, roads are bad and travel is difficult. As the riots worsen, Adelaida's apartment is taken over by a gang of women who are in league with the oppressive forces of the government. Adelaida embarks on a desperate course in order to survive the violence. Chapters of the book alternate between the past and the present, revealing Adelaida's life from her childhood, her upbringing by her well educated mother, her job as an editor and the unravelling of civil life in Venezuela. I found the book entirely absorbing and Adelaida's actions in pursuit of survival very credible, even though somewhat extreme. At a little over 200 well-spaced pages, it is not a long novel. It is the author's first novel (preceded by two works of non-fiction) and I would be very happy to read more of her work in future. Karina Sainz Borgo was born and raised in Venezuela. She has lived in Spain since immigrating there over a decade ago. "It Would be Night in Caracas" was translated by Elizabeth Bryer and translated by Harper Collins in 2019.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Georgia: The Eighth Life (for Brilka) by Nino Haratischvili


This huge family saga of over 900 pages appeared in our library when I was wondering what to read for Georgia. I was afraid that it would take me weeks and weeks to get through, however, fortuitously a bad cold kept me from work for several days, so I was able to read it in a concentrated three days.
At the start of the twentieth century a chocolate maker in a town in Georgia prospers due to a delicious recipe, which he uses in tiny amounts in his cakes and confectionary. However he warns his daughter Stasia, to whom he entrust the recipe, that the recipe is cursed, and tragedy will follow for anyone who drinks the chocolate it in its pure form.

Is it really cursed? It is never quite clear, but certainly a very tumultuous century follows for the descendants of Stasia and her husband, Simon Jashi, a lieutenant in the revolutionary army posted to St Petersburg.

Back in Georgia, Stasia raises a son and daughter.  Her son Kostya becomes a fervent Communist and navy officer. Her daughter Kitty, meanwhile, falls in love with a man branded a traitor, and flees to the west where she becomes a famous singer. Kostya's daughter Elene has a number of turbulent relationships with men deemed unsuitable by her father. The book is narrated by her younger daughter, Niza, telling the family stories to her niece Brilka in the hopes that Brilka can create a new, less tragic, start to her own story.

Interwoven with the plot is a summary of the course of Eastern European history of the twentieth century - the Russian Revolution, the Georgian Communist party, the velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, the protests in Wenceslas Square in Prague, and the break up of the Soviet Empire. It depicts the Georgian Communist party as exceeding the Russian Communists in brutality and corruption. Real historic figures such as Stalin (himself a Georgian) intersect with the fictional characters of the novel.

The book does need a good amount of free time to give it the attention it deserves. I suspect I would not have been so gripped by it if I had had to read it in the smaller sections that I usually have time for, spread out over a couple of months. But although the events depicted are brutal at times, I found myself both educated and entertained, and ultimately hopeful that the new start the narrator is hoping for, for the rebellious niece Brilka, would in fact eventuate.

Nino Haratischvili was born in Georgia in 1983, and now lives in Berlin, where she writes in both Georgian and German. The Eighth Life was a best-seller in Germany and won a number of literary prizes. It was translated into English by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin with the assistance of an English PEN award, and was published by Scribe Publications in 2019.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Armenia: Three Apples Fell From the sky, by Narine Abgaryan

When I first started this project I had a really hard time finding a book to read from Armenia. And then when I finally found one, more kept popping up that I just couldn't resist. This is a new book recently received at our local library, and it looked interesting enough not to pass by, even though I had already read a couple of others.

The title comes from an Armenian saying "Three apples fell from heaven, one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the eavesdropper". The story is set in the remote mountain village of Maran. Hard times have fallen on the village whose inhabitants are now all elderly. They have survived an earthquake which caused half of the village to tumble into an abyss, war, drought, and famine. And yet, there is something strange and rejuvenating in the air. An elderly widow, Anatolia, about to give up on life, instead is persuaded to marry the widowed blacksmith Vasily. And an unexpected romance blossoms, and with it something else..

Despite covering most of the twentieth century in Armenian history, the events in the outside world are only vaguely sketched. There are references to "the war" (which takes eight years, so I am not quite sure which war is referred to), "the world war" and "the massacre". There is also a family which fled south to avoid "the Bolsheviks". But mostly, life in the village continues in the old, traditional ways, with little reference to the outside world. The villagers eat in a traditional and self-sufficient manner. One of the residents had been sent yeast by her son who now lives in the outside world. She tries it but everyone agrees that the bread produced from this yeast is tasteless. A rather comical incident arises from her attempt to dispose of the yeast.

Despite all the hardship depicted, this is a gentle and ultimately joyful book, which was easy and enjoyable to read. "Three Apples Fell From the Sky" was translated from Russian by Lisa C Hayden with the help of an English Pen Award, and published by Oneworld Publications in 2020.

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.