Monday, November 05, 2018

Ecuador: The Devil's Nose, by Luz Argentina Chiriboga

I really wanted to like this book, having searched intensively for an alternative to Jorge Icaza's Huasipungo, which seems to be the default choice for Ecuador. When I heard that Chiriboga's book was the first book by an Afro-Ecuadorian woman to be translated into English, I was intrigued.

Unfortunately I was disappointed. The book was short but very repetitive, so that it could in fact be quite a bit shorter. It tells of a group of Jamaicans brought to Ecuador to work in the construction of a railroad between Guayaquil and Quito. In the process, they had to conquer the Devil's Nose, one of the most dangerous peaks in the Andes. In the first chapter, we are told countless times in various ways that the men were leaving their families behind in order to earn money to make a better life for them. This sort of repetition is presumably present in the original untranslated text. I wondered if the author had a personal interest in this group of men, and wanted to tell an ancestor's story, but didn't have sufficient material and was trying to spin it out. Other faults may be due to the translation. I felt that it was perhaps a too literal, word for word translation which often made it very hard to understand the sense of the story. And even where the translation makes sense, it is often stilted or awkward English.

All this is a shame, because I sensed that there was an interesting story to be told here - and if one reads quickly, it is easier to get an overall impression of the story than by slowing down and trying to make sense of every sentence.

The other strange thing about this book is the prominence given to the translators, Ingrid Watson Miller and Margaret L Morris. Of course it is important to give translators their due. But it seems very odd that the "about the authors" page at the back of the book gives biographies of the translators without mentioning the original author at all.

This translation was published by Page Publishing Inc, New York in 2015. There is no mention given of when it may have been originally published in Spanish.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Gambia: Reading the Ceiling, by Dayo Forster

On her eighteenth birthday, Ayodele has a decision to make. She has decided to do The Deed. But which one of four possible men will she do it with? The ramifications of this decision will lead to different futures for her. "Reading the Ceiling" follows three possible stories for Ayodele, introducing the reader to the range of experience of modern African women.

While there are commonalities between the three different stories, each has very different outcomes. In one, Ayodele studies in England, and returns to work in the Gambia. In another, she travels the world, working in development in Mali and elsewhere. In a third, she stays in the Gambia as a single mother without tertiary education, raising her son, but eventually finding well paid employment and making a successful life for herself.

When my children were younger they sometimes read books in a series called "Choose Your Own Adventure". Every page or so, the reader was faced with two choices: "if you do this, turn to page 72. If you do that, turn to page 43". Although written in the first person, not the second person, this novel reminded me a little of those books. Eventually I realised that the reason was that both are written in the present tense. This gives an immediacy to the narration, and also elevates action above feelings, although feelings do play a part too. At any rate, I found it an engrossing read, and was absorbed in wondering as each story drew to a close, how the next alternative would work out differently for Ayodele.

Dayo Forster was born in Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Like her heroine in two of the stories, she left Gambia to study at the age of 18, because at that time there were no universities in the Gambia. Reading the Ceiling was published by Simon and Schuster, UK in 2007 at which time she was living in Kenya.It was shortlisted for Best First Book in the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-Africa Region.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Tanzania: Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tanzania is a country that was created out of an amalgam of Tanganyika on the mainland and the island of Zanzibar. I knew something of life on the mainland through friends who have worked as volunteers there, but this book is set in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, which is largely Muslim.

Salim grows up there in the 1970s. When his father moves out of the family home, he lives with his mother and her younger brother Amir. Amir becomes a senior diplomat in London and offers Salim a home there and an opportunity to study.

This is not, however, really an emigrant story, even though Salim spends may years in London. It is more about the events that caused his father to move out, and the secrets arising from them. Eventually Salim returns to Zanzibar for his mother's funeral. There he reunites with his younger half-sister, and with his father, who tells him his story.

The narrator of the novel is Salim, but in the last part of the book Salim is relating what his father told him, which to me seemed to add a certain amount of detachment to the story as we are hearing it at two steps removed. Other than that, I found the novel interesting both as a story, and as an insight into the history of Zanzibar, and of the events of the 1970s when the country was in some turmoil through political revolution. I would be happy to read more from this author, though I would also like to find other Tanzanian writers from the mainland, to give some perspective on the rest of the country.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. From 1980 to 1982 he was a university lecturer in Nigeria. He then moved to England, to the University of Kent and has been based in the UK ever since.
Gravel Heart was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Peru: The Neighbourhood, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Since the author of this book is a Nobel prize winner, it seemed as if it would be a good choice for Peru. I found, however, that it wasn't really to my taste. It's not a badly written book, but there is a lot of sex, and some of it is very graphic. It starts when Marisa shares a bed with her friend Chabela, after Chabela is caught too close to curfew at Marisa's house and stays the night. There, they discover an attraction for each other. In the meantime Marisa's husband Enrique or Quique, a rich businessman, is being blackmailed after scandalous photos of him at an orgy come into the hands of the gutter press. Quique turns to his lawyer friend Luciano (Chabela's husband) for help.

I felt at first that there wasn't a lot of character development. In the end though, the sex, much of which seems somewhat gratuitous at first, became more important to the plot and setting. The action takes place in the final days of Alberto Fujimori's presidency and as well as the newspaper staff and the two couples, takes in the director of intelligence services, the "Doctor". I began to be more interested in the book for what it revealed about the political situation, the terrorist insurgency, and the lives of Peruvians, both rich and poor, at the time.

Vargas Llosa has written a good many novels over his career, and although I am not familiar with most of his work, it seems unlikely that he would win the Nobel Prize if he was a "one trick pony" so I am thinking it might be worth exploring a bit more to see if some of his other work is more to my taste.

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.