Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bulgaria: Stork Mountain, by Miroslav Penkov

When I read an interview with the author of this book online, I knew I wanted to read it. And I wasn't wrong - I absolutely loved the book.

The narrator is a young boy, born in Bulgaria, who left with his family, apparently when he was about ten years old, and returns to sell his share of the family land. He has landed in financial trouble and needs the money to pay his debts. But also, he sets out to find his grandfather who stayed in Bulgaria. Intertwining with the stories of the boy and his grandfather are the myth like stories they make up to tell each other, and the story of the young Muslim girl Elif, who the boy falls in love with. Then there are the storks who journey every year from Africa to the mountains in the south of Bulgaria, and the fire dancers who perform their rituals every year in two small villages. So there are many layers to the story, and they are all beautifully woven together.

The book is in seven sections which the author has described as corresponding to the seven stages of transformation. It's not a short book but each individual chapter is short, and the reading seemed to go quickly - perhaps because there is plenty of white space on the page, perhaps because I was so engrossed.

I really want to read more of this author's work. My only question - does this qualify as a Bulgarian book? The author was born in Bulgaria and left at about the age of nineteen for college in the United States. He is now a creative writing professor at the University of North Texas. Since he is still quite young - early thirties - I expected the perspective to be Balkan. However the book was written in English, not Bulgarian, though it has been translated and published in Bulgaria. To me, it read as Bulgaria seen through American tinted spectacles. So I think I would still like to find a book by an author still living in Bulgaria, and see if it has a different flavour, a less westernized viewpoint. It sounds like a fascinating country with a long and turbulent history, at the cross roads of Europe and Asia.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Algeria: Harraga, by Boualem Sansal

I'm trying to fill in more of the A's and B's in my list of countries. Algeria seemed as if it would not be too difficult, and so I tried to find a female author among a number of Algerian authors whose books were in our local library, but I failed. This looked like a good alternative...

Lamia is a single woman, a doctor, who lives alone in a crumbling old colonial house in Algiers. Her parents are both dead, as is her older brother Yacine, who has been killed in a car crash. Her younger brother Sofiane has become a harraga, a path burner, someone who risks his life attempting to flee the country for a better life elsewhere.

One day an impetuous, wild young woman, Cherifa, turns up on Lamia's doorstep. Lamia takes her in, because she says that Sofiane has sent her. Cherifa is pregnant, and soon turns Lamia'slife upside down with her unpredictable ways.

Lamia and Cherifa are two very different women, but they forge a friendship and alliance in a patriarchal world where to be a single woman is an affront, and a pregnant woman can be killed to protect her family's honour. I had hoped to read a book about Islamic woman written by a woman, but Sansal's perspective rings true and seems convincing. He is considered in the west to be one of Algeria's most important novelists, however since 2006 his books have been banned in his own country. Another, An Unfinished Business, has also been translated into English and I look forward to reading that, too, at a later date.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Germany: The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck

I am trying, in my quest to read a book each from every country in the world, to find books set in that particular country, written by someone who was born and brought up there, and preferably still lives there - and then also, to skew the balance towards women writers, because it would be easy to read books written only by men. This quest is easier for some countries than others. For some, there is only one writer easily found in English (Mia Couto for Mozambique, Jose Eduardo Agualusa for Angola). For some, all the books that look promising turn out to be written by writers who were either born in America or who emigrated at a very young age, and who are writing from the experience of their parents and grandparents. Armenia for instance is a particularly difficult example - there are plenty of books written by "Armenian Americans" but to find books written by contemporary Armenians that are accessible in English seems almost impossible.

Germany, however, was not too difficult. The bonus for Jenny Erpenbeck is that she was born in East Germany which brings a different perspective to her work from that of writers who grew up in the more prosperous and democratic west. The book takes its title from a phrase that recurs in the book: "a day on which a life ends is not the end of days". It is a what if" story which gives four different versions of a woman's life. In the first she dies at eight months old. In each subsequent version, events take a different turn, so that she lives longer and her story is added to. This is unlike the usual trope of "sliding doors" stories in that each story adds to what went before, but doesn't change it - she is dead or she is not, so it is more linear than a story in which she might, say, marry this man, or go off with someone else, so that two stories continue in parallel.

It is a quiet story. The unnamed woman at the centre of the story does in the end become esteemed and famous. And there is hardship and struggle in the Soviet Union during World War II. But it is all told without a great deal of drama, and yet it is quite lovely in the way it is told. I did find the abstraction of the woman's thought patterns while she was waiting for the secret police in Russia, and writing an account of herself in her defence, somewhat tedious. Other than that, I enjoyed it very much.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Taiwan: The Man With the Compound Eyes, by Wu Ming-Yi

Alice is a Chinese professor who is grieving the disappearance of her Danish husband and young son when on a rock climbing expedition. Atile'i is a youth from the mysterious island of Wayo Wayo. On Wayo Wayo, all second sons must put to sea on reaching a certain age, as a sacrifice to the sea god. Instead of the usual fate of second sons, which is to perish at sea, their spirits turning into sperm whales, Atile'i washes up on a huge floating island made of garbage - the Trash Vortex. After a tsunami, a part of this trash vortex is thrown up on the coast of Taiwan, bringing Atile'i with it.

The story of the meeting of Alice and Atile'i is at the heart of this book, which also encompasses indigenous Taiwanese culture in the form of two other characters, Hafay, a Pangcah, and Dahu, a Bunun. Then there are Sarah and Detlef, a marine biologist and an engineer, and the mysterious Man With the Compound Eyes of the title, who does or does not exist somewhere in the mountains of Taiwan.

The story of Alice and Atile'i is the most imaginative, convincing and novelistic part of the book. Some of the other elements felt a bit spurious particularly the introduction of Sarah and Detlef. I am not against novels that deal with contemporary issues, but I felt Sarah and Detlef were there just to push the environmental message home, and I don't really like to be preached at in fiction. (Was it necessary to add "a novel" after the title of the book on the front cover?)

Also, I wondered if it was a translation problem that made the language of the book seem a little stiff, in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was all in perfectly good English, and yet something seemed a little off and unnatural.

The worst passage of the whole book describes Sarah:

"She was always able to pierce the criminal subterfuges of state agencies or capitalists hiding behind the letter of environmental protection regulations or pseudoknowledge, no matter what the issue: the exploitation of polar oil or methane ice or excessive whaling in the name of research..." and so on.

Nevertheless, in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book very much, and appreciated the imagination of the main story line which is like nothing I have read before. The elements that dealt with indigenous culture were fascinating as I had always thought of Taiwan as populated by Chinese. (Although I did know that they had settled there on fleeing communist China, the fate of the original inhabitants was something I had entirely put to the back of my mind).

Wu Ming-Yi was born in Taiwan in 1971 and still lives there. He is a writer, artist, professor and environmental activist.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Spain: This Too Shall Pass, by Milena Busquets

The back dust jacket of this slim book carries extracts from eight reviews which claim it to be "luminous and profound", "full of subtle wisdom", "touching and deeply funny" among other words of praise. Hmmm. I found it profoundly annoying. Blanca's mother had just died. She leaves Barcelona and travels to the resort town of Cadaques along with two friends, two ex-husbands and two sons. There is also a married lover tucked away.

Any "subtle wisdom" is tucked away beneath layers of talk about sex, drugs, and detailed adjective-laden descriptions of what everyone is wearing. Blanca seems to live a comfortable life but has no visible means of support: "my psychiatrist wants me to get a job". At one point, one of her friends accuses her of being a spoilt rich girl with a trust fund, and just when I was thinking "that explains it", she denies having a trust fund, but there is no alternative explanation of the source of funds that she lives on.

As for the drugs, the talk of drug use - smoking a joint, for instance, or at another point, being offered a "line" at a party - is treated as quite casual and normal, with little hint that drugs might actually do harm. And there is plenty of the "f" word.

Yes, there is some widsom about the grief process - overwhelmed, as I said, by the other elements. Some beautiful description. Humour? Nothing that I recognised as such, perhaps it is humour that does not translate well internationally.

The book was not so bad that I had trouble finishing it. But neither was it good enough for me to have any desire to seek out more by the same author.

Japan: The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The professor of the title of this book is the survivor of a car accident which left him with a short term memory loss. His clothes are covered with pinned on notes, one of which reads "My memory only lasts for eighty minutes". The housekeeper is a single mother of a ten year old son, and she and her son gradually develop a relationship with the professor, and a love for the mathematics that is still his passion. And the professor seems to develop a relationship with them, too, even though each morning he has forgotten them and has to refer to the notes and sketch pictures pinned to his clothing that identify her as his housekeeper.

In the first section I began to wonder if I had made a good choice, as there is an extended description of how the professor asks the young boy to come up with a better way of calculating the sum of numbers from one to ten (or one to a hundred, or any other number) without adding them up. This is the sort of maths that is regularly taught to extension programmes of intermediate school age children, and I wondered if the rest of the book would be similarly tedious, but in fact it was a beautiful and tender read.

Baseball comes into it too - the son, nicknamed Root, has a passion for baseball, as does the professor, although he has never seen a game. In his case, the passion comes from numbers and statistics.

I was surprised by one thing - the meals that the housekeeper cooks seemed very Western. It describes her cooking, for instance, a roast dinner. No mention anywhere of noodles, rice, tempura or any other Japanese dish. Since the author is Japanese, I have to assume this is authentic, even though if a Western author had described Japanese meals in the same way I would have thought they had it badly wrong.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cambodia: In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner

The standard disclaimer at the front of this book is rather at odds with the afterword. One states that the book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual people, events or locales, is entirely coincidental. In the other, we read "Raami's story, is in essence, my own". Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Her protagonist, Raami, is seven years old, and the events are told through her eyes, as her comfortable and privileged life in Phnomh Penh, in a family descended from Cambodian royalty, is forever lost. Forced into the countryside by the revolutionary soldiers, constantly moved from place to place, made to labour in the fields and on vast earthworks without the aid of machinery, she loses most of her family and descends into starvation.

However, this is not as depressing as it might be, as the story is told with poetic beauty. The old Cambodian folk legends and the poetry that her father has read to her comfort Raami, and she sees beauty in the world around her.

I did feel that the narrator's view seemed somewhat too sophisticated and abstract for a seven year old. I may be misjudging here, as this may just be the different world view of one brought up in a Buddhist tradition. None of this mattered in the end, however, as events unfolded towards their gripping end. The last couple of years are told in the shortest part of the book, as the days descend into a blurring monotony of sameness, an endless repetition of work, sleep, and very little to eat.

The author escaped with her mother and arrived in the United States at the age of eleven. I would have loved to read a book written by someone still living and writing in Cambodia - however, the vigorous extermination of "intellectuals" - anyone who could read or write - by the Khmer Rouge goes a long way to explain why those books might still be rather hard to find.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Bangladesh: The Bones of Grace, Tahmima Anam

When I borrowed this from the library, I discovered it was the third in a trilogy. I wondered at reading out of order, but it didn't seem to matter to much as the story stands on its own, with a bit of filling in of earlier events in later chapters.

Zubaida Haque is on the eve of leaving the United States for a paleontology dig in Pakistan when she meets and falls in love with Elijah Strong at a concert. After the political situation in Pakistan causes the dig to go disastrously wrong, she returns to her home in Dhaka, Bangladesh where she marries her childhood friend, Rashid.

There are a number of threads to her story - her two relationships with Elijah and Rashid, her search for her origins (she is adopted) and events that take place in the ship breaking yards of Chittagong. Zubaida is there to translate for a Western woman, who is making a documentary about the lives and conditions of the workers. The passenger liner, the "Grace" is being dismantled for salvage. The Bones of Grace of the title refer to both the ship, and to the bones of the walking whale ambulocetus which were the subject of the dig (and which we return to at the end of the book).

I was surprised to find reviews on the library website which thought the book only average, and that the story was "too complex". I felt the several threads worked in well and the storyline was always clear. Besides, I am a sucker for a bit of scientific geekery such as the walking whale. I found it a beautiful, passionate book and will definitely seek out the earlier two later.

Tahmima Anam was born in Bangladesh but left at the age of two as her parents were working overseas. She returned briefly in her teens. She was named a "Granta Best Young British Novelist". However, she was brought up immersed in Bengali culture, and visits Bangladesh frequently, where the rest of her family still live. So, this is Bangladesh not quite through Western eyes, but through the eyes of someone with a thorough knowledge of both cultures.

Italy: The House in Via Manno, by Milena Agus

Wandering around the library shelves looking for authors with foreign sounding names may not be the best way of selecting books to read from around the world. This is a slim book, which attracted me because there are a lot of countries. What's more, the cover proclaims it to be an "international bestseller". It is more popular romantic fiction than literary fiction, however. I found it a pleasant light read, and it does have a bit of a twist at the end.

The narrator explores the life of her Nonna, a Sicilian woman who married in the war, not for love but for convenience. Her husband is a good man, a widower, and they make a life together, with "kindness and good deeds". Nonna meets "the Veteran" when she travels to a spa for treatment for kidney stones. His mysterious figure lurks in the background of the story. What really happened between the two of them? At just over a hundred pages, it doesn't take the reader too long to find out - or does it? The ending is not quite clear (but better for that).