Sunday, April 07, 2019

Bogota 39: New Voices from Latin America

I can't really count this book for my reading round the world project, as it is not from any one specific country, but it is an interesting overview of younger Latin American writers. Writers selected are not just from South America, but also from Mexico and the Caribbean. And not every South American country is represented - although I tend to forget it, the Guyanas (Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname) are none of them Latin American countries being British, French and Dutch colonies respectively. Also, there is no writer here from Paraguay which suggests that Paraguayan writers are thin on the ground - in fact, the coverage is a bit uneven with the largest group being from Mexico (7 authors) followed by Argentina and Colombia (6 each) and Chile (4). Peru has 3, Ecuador, Brazil and Uruguay 2 each and Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba 1 each. It is the second such collection being published in 2018 out of the Hay Festival of Literature as a follow up to an earlier collection in 2007.

As for genre there is a wide range. Some are quite realistic, others are futuristic and imaginative. Most are short stories, but a surprising number are excerpts from novels, in most cases not yet published in full in English, which I found on the whole rather unsatisfying, wanting to go on and read the whole thing. And some of the short stories too felt rather fragmentary. Others however, like Diego Zuniga's "Castaways" (Chile), Juan Manuel Robles' "Valentina in the Clouds" (Peru) and Valentin Trujillo's "Forest Where there was Nothing" (Uruguay) were beautifully executed small pieces. I also loved the excerpt from Laia Jufresa's "Umami", but as I had already read the full novel, it was hard to judge whether this really worked as an excerpt.

Only a few of the authors seem to have longer works available in English, and I hope that publication in this collection will lead to longer works being available in the future, as there are certainly many talented young authors represented here.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Importance of Stories

Living in such a dangerous and wounded world we need the best community building and peace making wisdom we can get hold of. My experience is that every religion and every culture has gifts to offer for the healing of our divided humanity. It's an ongoing task that requires disciplined listening, compassion and empathy. The death dealing divisions that so distort the human family have visited New Zealand. Stop, look, ponder.

Police Commissioner Bush said: "Let's not imagine the danger is over." He was referring to the day of the horror but the words have a larger significance. The danger is present as long as we live in ignorance of the wisdom, dreams and values of those who belong groups other than our own, as long as we are content to have our lives shaped by bigotry and hatred.

- Dr Keith Rowe, a former president of the New Zealand Methodist Church and of the NZ Council of Christians and Muslims.

For more of his comment see here.

Reading stories from other countries seemed trivial to me sometimes, but less so now. I recall a writer from South Sudan, a Christian nation, writing a story from the perspective of a North Sudanese Islamic fighter. A Kuwaiti woman wrote with sympathy from the perspective of a teenage suicide bomber. And many other writers have given me new perspectives on different cultures. We need to listen to these stories. We do not need to listen to hate-filled ranting. "What is your story, how did you get here" is a very different question to "what is your platform".

Events last Friday came horrifyingly close, geographically. But white privilege is real, and I was never in danger. Sadly that was not true for many fellow residents of my city, who made their homes here, often leaving countries where violence is a fact of everyday life, because they thought it was a safe country.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Mozambique: Woman of the Ashes, by Mia Couto

For some reason, in comments on Ann Morgan's blog, there have been suggestions that Mia Couto is not the best author to read for Mozambique. I'm not sure why. Maybe because he is white, and there is a feeling that authors of indigenous descent would better represent the country?

However I have previously read and enjoyed his books, and besides, after starting on this project, I soon realised that actually buying around 200 books to read was too big a financial commitment (especially in New Zealand where shipping costs from the UK or USA add considerably to the price of most books), so I need the help of the library. Mia Couto it is then, that's what is on our library shelves.

Woman of the Ashes is his latest and while I found it an interesting enough read, I wasn't quite as gripped by it as by some of his earlier books. It is a historical novel, apparently the first part of a trilogy set in 1894 when Ngungunyane, the last emperor of the state of Gaza, has raised an army to resist colonial rule. The book alternates between the voices of Sergeant Germano de Melo, a Portuguese, and the young girl, Imani, who has been appointed to act as his interpreter.

I found the book a little choppy at times. There are flashes of magical realism which come and go in a blink, making it more difficult to get absorbed in the story. I found Imani's part of the story a good deal more compelling than Germano's. While he acts for the Portuguese authorities, he has actually been exiled to Mozambique as punishment for taking part in a rebellion. He tells his story in letters to his superior, and I think this is what distances him somewhat from the reader.

By comparison, the book that I read for Madagascar - Beyond the Rice Fields - I found a much more compelling and fascinating book. However, I enjoyed this one enough that I will probably read parts 2 and 3 when they become available.

Woman of the Ashes was translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2018

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Kosovo: My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci

I could have managed without reading a book by a Kosovan author, as it is only a partially recognised state. (It is recognized by 113 UN member nations, but not fully recognized by Serbia, from which it claims independence).

However, this book kept popping up on my radar, and it looked interesting, so when I spotted it on the library shelves I decided to give it a go. The narrator, Bekim, is a Kosovan refugee in Finland, where his family fled when he was a child. He is now living on his own apart from his pet boa constrictor, which he allows to roam his apartment, even though he is terrified of snakes.

Then one night in a gay bar, he meets a talking cat, who moves in with him. What evolves from that meeting is a journey in which Bekim eventually returns to Kosovo to confront his past.

I initially thought that the cat of the title was Bekim's companion, the talking cat. But nowhere in the book is he mentioned by name, and there are other cats - the small black cat who becomes the companion of Bekim's mother, Emine, after she leaves her husband, and the cat that Bekim briefly adopts in Kosovo, although cats are despised animals there. It seemed in the end that the cat of the title is a metaphor for the whole of Yugoslavia, although it would be hard for me to put the comparison into words, as to how the narrator is explicitly comparing his troubled country to a cat.

This is the story of Bekim's mother, Emine, as much as it is Bekim's story, from her marriage at the age of 16 to a young man who is handsome and wealthy, but whom she scarcely knows. Despite being unsure at first, I found it thoroughly absorbing.

Pajtim Statovci himself left Kosovo for Finland at the age of two, which made me have reservations about the suitability of this book to represent the country. Nevertheless, it is a book as much, or more, about Kosovo as about refugees in Finland.

My Cat Yugoslavia won the Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize in the category Best Debut, in 2014. It has been translated into 11 languages and was published in English by Pushkin Press. It was translated from Finnish by David Hackston.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Oman: Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi

Like Kuwait, Oman has changed rapidly in recent decades as it emerged as an oil-rich nation. Economic change was accompanied by societal change, and this book traces the stories of one family during these changing decades.

It is focused on Azzan and Salima's three daughters - Mayya, Asma and Khalwa. Mayya has a secret love, who shows no interest in her, so she resigns herself to accept marriage to another man. Asma marries from a sense of duty, while Khalwa waits years for the cousin to whom she believes herself betrothed, who has emigrated to Canada where he lives, unbeknown to her, with another woman. Their lives and loves are richly depicted. But this is not just the story of the three women, but of the men of the family too, and of their other relationships. We learn of Azzan's harsh childhood, and of Mayya's husband Abdallah's life, and love for her, which is not returned.

Azzan has a secret relationship with a Bedouin woman Najir bint Shaykha (Qamar - the moon). The title of the book seems to reflect the idea of women as celestial bodies, or perhaps celestial bodies as women. A quote from an old book says "Of all the celestial bodies, the moon is closest to the matters of this lower world." And throughout the book this idea of celestial bodies gives resonance to the events that take place.

I enjoyed following the lives of the family members over several generations, and discovering lives that are richer and more complex than westerners with a superficial knowledge of Arab countries might imagine. In particular, although the three sisters were clearly expected to marry and to be subject in many ways to their husbands, the book reveals them to have greater autonomy than the reader might at first think.

Jokha Alharthi has written children's books, short fiction, and three novels in Arabic. She teaches at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat and has completed a PhD in Classical Arabic Poetry in Edinburgh (There are many quotes from classical Arabic poetry throughout the book).

Celestial Bodies won the 2010 Best Omani Novel award. It was translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth, and published in Britain by Sandstone Press in 2018, with support from the Anglo-Omani Society and Creative Scotland.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

El Salvador: One Day of Life, by Manlio Argueta

One Day of Life is a shocking book, and although it is set around the time of its publication in 1980, it seemed very relevant as the news talks of caravans of refugees from Guatemala heading for the United States border, and of American pressure for a change to the political regime in Venezuela.

In 1980 El Salvador was ruled by a brutal right wing government, backed by the United States. There had been fifty years of military rule. Fear of Communism seems to have been behind the US intervention, but this book suggests that for the majority of the peasants, it was not a political leaning towards Communism that motivated their resistance to the military regime, but a simple desire to have enough to eat and to feed their children.

The main narrator of the book is Lupe (Guadalupe), the matriarch and grandmother of a peasant family. The book follows her day from 5.30 a.m when she gets up and starts her chores, through to 5 p.m when the events related come to a resolution of sorts. From time to time, the point of view shifts to other characters, including her daughter Maria Pia, granddaughter Adolfina, and "the authorities" who are in fact, young peasant boys recruited to do the dirty work of the regime. And the action is not strictly limited to one day, as Lupe reflects on the events that have led to this day, and the hardships that the peasants experience.

Although there is a resolution, there is no happy ending. But Lupe endures her hardships with a sort of resignation. As the book says "better not to keep on thinking because it can embitter one's life".

One Day of Life was banned in El Salvador because of its negative view of the government, and the author had to go into exile in Costa Rica where he lived from 1972 to 1993 before returning to El Salvador. It was translated from Spanish by Bill Brow and published by Vintage International.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Greece: Achilles' Fiancée, by Alki Zei

I was surprised how few books from modern Greek authors were in our library, but I had a couple marked on my "to be read" list. And then this turned up on the new books display, so I decided to give it a try.

At the start of the book the narrator, Eleni, is on a train in Paris with her friends Eugene, Panos and Stephanos. This train, however, is a film set and the friends are working as extras. Eleni recalls her first long train ride, Athens to Piraeus, and then other train rides, as over the course of several weeks, the filming continues.

The Achilles of the title is a guerilla, leader of the resistance against the German occupiers of Greece during World War II, and later against the British and against the Greek government during the civil war that followed. Eleni was known to all the resistance members as "Achilles' fiancée". The book follows her story through times of imprisonment in Greece, exile in Tashkent where Greek political refugees fled, then to Moscow and eventually Paris where the book is set, sometime after the right wing military coup in Greece in 1967.

But Eleni, though a communist, grows from a young girl following what she is told, to a woman who thinks and acts for herself, and does not blindly follow the party line, even when pressured to do so by Achilles.

For a short time, I found the structure of the book a little confusing. However it quickly became clear that during breaks in the filming, Eleni is in the present as she chats to Eugene, and while the filming is taking place, she is remembering the past. The words "cut" and "sound camera action" clearly delineate the time changes. I quickly became absorbed in the story and was fascinated both by the personality of Eleni and by the events in the modern history of Greece about which I had only a vague awareness previously.

Achilles' Fiancée was first published in Greece in 1987. This edition was translated by Anatoli Fitopoulou and published by Bookboom in 2015.

Alki Zei was born in Athens in 1925. Her books are mainly based on her personal experiences, and she herself spent time as a political refugee in the Soviet Union and Paris. While the book is semi-autobiographical, however, it felt universal in the humanity and stories of the characters, both the main characters and the many others who form part of their story.