Saturday, November 04, 2017

Finland: The Winter War, by Philip Teir

After I brought this home from the library, I wondered at my choice when I saw Philip Teir described as a "Finland Swede" on the dust jacket. But it turns out that he was indeed born in Finland and grew up there - there is a considerable Swedish speaking community in parts of western Finland, something that I had not previously realised (but which makes perfect sense, given the proximity of the two countries).

The first sentence is attention grabbing: "The first mistake that Max and Katriina made that winter - and they would make many mistakes before their divorce - was to deep-freeze their grandchildren's hamster." The book then jumps back in time a few months, and chronicles the lives of Max and Katriina, their daughters Helen and Eva, and other family members. Eva is an art student trying to find her way at art school in London. Eva is married to Christian and has two children. Max's mother is elderly and frail. Max is a sociology professor writing a book which has been a long time coming to fruition. He meets one of his former students, Laura, in a chance encounter and invites her to his sixtieth birthday part where his publisher suggest she help Max with his book. This leads to his having an affair with her.

Actually I'm not sure that it should be called an affair. It doesn't seem to mean all that much to Laura, more just casual sex than a real relationship. By the time I finished the book I didn't really have a lot of sympathy for Max, who seemed to be the author of his own downfall. It's a genre of book that I don't read much - stories of modern life with not much of the weird or unusual about it (despite the opening sentence) but it was well written enough that I found it more absorbing than I expected. The epigraph is a quote by August Stridberg: "And yet those trivial matters were not without significance in life, because life consists of trivial matters", which seemed a very apposite choice, after reading the book.

The Winter War was translated from Swedish by Tiina Nunnally and published by Serpent's Tail, an imprint of Profile Books Ltd (London) in 2015.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Papua New Guinea: Tabu, by Moses Maladina

A search of our library's online catalogue revealed several novels set in Papua New Guinea - but as one was written by a New Zealander, and one by an Australian, that left me with Moses Maladina's Tabu. Moses Maladina is (or was in 2003) a senior government minister in Papua New Guinea, with a background in agriculture, law and business. He served as Papua New Guinea's High Commissioner to New Zealand from 1998 - 2002.

Like my choice for Benin, the book deals with the exploitation of the resources of third world countries, and with an inter-racial love affair. However, I found this one a lot easier to read. It is set both in 1933 and in 1997, and alternates between the two to tell the story of Elizabeth Castleton, the young wife of an Australian newly arrived in Port Moresby to work in the Australian administration there, and of her lover, the Papuan Sitiveni (Stephen). At that time such relationships were forbidden, and the White Women's Protection Act rendered any native who had relationships with a white woman liable to harsh punishment. Elizabeth falls pregnant, and leaves for Australia and thence England where she makes a career for herself and brings up her daughter alone.

In 1997 after Elizabeth's death, her grandson Edward travels to Port Moresby both to find out the truth about his grandfather, and to investigate a business deal - which turns out to be a rather shady deal involving mercenaries and the recapture of a gold mine on the island of Bougainville from rebel forces. This story is apparently based on real events.

In "As She Was Discovering Tigony", my choice for Benin, the Frenchwoman Dorcas rushed so precipitately into an affair with an African man that it made no sense to me (the actual relationship later on appeared to be sound, but I couldn't see how it started, especially since she was an older, professional woman). In this book on the other hand, the story arc in which the lonely young woman with little to do falls for the native policeman who has been tasked with showing her around the island proceeds on a much more understandable basis. Although sometimes I felt like shaking Elizabeth for her incredible naivety and selfishness in exposing Sitiveni to the huge risk of discovery.

In 1997 although the country is independent, and the harsher laws no longer exist, many of the locals are still impoverished, and the country appears to still be run for the benefit of wealthier nations and their exploitation of its rich resources of gold, oil and fish. I did feel that the book was written more to raise these issues than to tell a good story - but it was well done and the storyline was quite strong despite the issues being clearly expressed.

Tabu was published by Steele Roberts Limited (Wellington, New Zealand) in 2003.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Azerbaijan: Solar Plexus, by Rustam Ibragimbekov

I waited quite a while for this book. While I found Kurban Said's Ali and Nino in our library catalogue, I felt that it had been published too long ago to represent modern Azerbaijan. It was published in 1937 at a time when Azerbaijan was part of Soviet Russia.

Some searching on the internet eventually turned up a reference to Rustam Ibragimbekov's novel, which turned out to be somewhat expensive, however I was able to get our library to buy it and eventually it arrived.

This book is subtitled "A Baku Saga in Four Parts". It tells the story of a group of friends who grow up in houses built around the same courtyard in a street in Baku, following them through some turbulent times in Azerbaijani history, culminating in the early days of independence in the 1990s. Each of the four sections focuses on a different member of the group. Throughout, we see them balancing self interest with their friendships, as they take various actions including betrayals to get ahead and just to survive. Baku is an ancient city and the book speaks of its culture, but also of how it is changing and becoming rough and lawless. There are glimpses of the economy which is built on oil.

The second section was the most difficult for me. This section focuses on Marat, who has stayed in his courtyard apartment when all the other inhabitants have left. Because of nearby quarrying, it is doomed to be pulled down. There are passages in italics which at first I thought were dreams, then perhaps flashbacks, and eventually I wondered if they were a mix of both.

It wasn't until the third and the fourth sections that I gradually began to understand how all the events described related to each other, and all the loose plot ends began to be tied together. By the end of the book, I felt I had enjoyed it, and been somewhat enlightened about contemporary Azerbaijan, even though I had been slightly tempted in the second section to give up (but didn't, owing to the lack of alternatives).

Rustam Ibragimbekov was born in Baku in 1939. He is an internationally award-winning screenwriter, dramatist and producer. In 1994 his film Burnt by the Sun was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. (The narrator of the fourth section, Seidzade, is a writer of novels and screen plays, and I wondered if he was a somewhat autobiographical figure).

Solar Plexus was translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield and published in 2014 by Glagoslav Publications.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Bhutan: The Circle of Karma, by Kunzang Choden

I'm always wary when there seems to be only one book available from any country. The quality can vary. And this one sounded not quite my cup of tea - talk of "karma" and other spiritual concepts somewhat taken over by the Western new-agers tended to put me off.

My misgivings however were, to my pleasure, proved wrong. The book is the first novel written in English by a Bhutanese writer. And yet it read well, the English being of a higher standard than that in many of the translations I have read, where the translator should know their native language. The narration is simple and straightforward, telling the story of the life of a Bhutanese woman, Tsomo. When her mother dies in childbirth, her life changes. The book follows through all the twists and turns in her life, as she marries, loses her first husband to her sister, and later marries again. But all along she has desired to study religion and eventually she becomes a nun. This is a society where religion is the only type of learning. Her father has tutored young boys in his home, but as a girl, this was denied to Tsomo.

We see both the benefits and drawbacks of the simple life - the superstition and the useless rituals. For instance, the only treatment for a difficult childbirth is too feed the spirits and ask them to go away.

The book is a fascinating insight into the culture of this tucked away Himalayan kingdom, and also shows the changes than gradual modernisation brings to Tsomo's life - the building of roads, the coming of Western medicine.

While it would be good to have more books available from this nation, if I had had to choose from several, I would have been happy to have chosen this one.

Friday, September 22, 2017

France: Submission, by Michel Houellebecq

Since we have an election going on here in New Zealand, this seemed a very appropriate book to read right now. It's set in 2002. The protagonist is a middle-aged lecturer at the Sorbonne, an expert on nineteenth century author J-K Huysmans. (I had never hear of Huysmans, and had to google to check that he is actually a real figure.) Fran├žois is bored and lacks any sense of meaning in life. In the meanwhile, an election is taking place in France. In the first round of voting, Marine Le Pen's far right are ahead in the vote with the new Islamic Brotherhood just edging the socialists out of second place. So for the second round, the socialists throw in their lot with the Islamic party, which sweeps into power and introduces far reaching reforms.

All children are to have the opportunity of an Islamic education. Education is privatised. Henceforth the Islamic schools and universities are by far better funded than the Christian and Jewish institutions, as money pours in from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Francois's university becomes an Islamic one, and he is offered promotion, on condition that he converts to Islam.

The book is described as a satire, but it's not what I have thought of as satire in the past i.e it's not laugh-aloud funny. But it is thought-provoking, especially regarding the essential meaningless of life in modern Europe. Will Fran├žois be happier once he has converted to Islam (and acquired a beautiful young submissive wife, with the promise of more to come?) I strongly suspect not.

submission is translated from the French by Lorin Stein and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (New York, 2015)

Now, I'm off to return the book to the library - and to vote - although not for an Islamic party (an option which is not on offer, even if I wanted it!)

Friday, September 08, 2017

Uganda: Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

This book slowed me down a little, as it's over four hundred pages long. It is in six sections, the first section telling of Kintu Kidda, who in 1750 sets out for the capital of the Buganda Kingdom to pledge allegiance to the new leader. His actions along the way result in a curse being placed upon him and on his clan. The next five sections tell the stories of various modern day descendants, and show how the curse plays out in their lives, and how they seek to overcome it.

Unlike many African novels published in the West, there is very little evidence of the West in this book. The characters do not emigrate to the West, or dream of emigrating. Neither are we treated to much exposition of either the benefits or evils of colonialism. Apparently the author, who now lives in Manchester, was rejected by publishing house after publishing house in England. They all supposedly thought the book "too difficult" for Western readers. This puzzled me a little, as the book to me did not seem difficult at all. Perhaps they really wanted to say "not Eurocentric enough" but felt they couldn't say that so said "too difficult" instead. At any rate, it was first published in Kenya in 2014 and was much acclaimed. This edition was published by Transit Books in the United States in 2017.

I found the book very readable and fascinating in its insights into the lives of the people of Uganda. However, somehow I did not feel emotionally involved with the characters and ended up feeling as if I was viewing them from something of a difference rather than being totally drawn in. Nevertheless, I was happy with my choice of book for this country, which does not seem to have the volume of literature that has come from, say, Nigeria where the choices are almost endless.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Brunei: Written in Black, by K H Lim

It seemed as if the choices for Brunei were limited to one of two books: Four Kings, by Christopher Sun, or The Forlorn Adventure, a sci fi novel by Amir Falique. Four Kings is a murder mystery set in France - besides the fact that I have not seen a good review of it, neither novel seemed likely to enlighten me much about life in Brunei.

Then I stumbled on a reference to K H Lim's Written in Black, which seemed much more like what I was looking for. The narrator of this novel is ten year old Jonathan Lee, who is attending the funeral of his "Ah Kong" (grandfather). Jonathan's mother had left for Australia six months previously. His elder brother Michael has been kicked out of the house and has joined a rock band. Jonathan is missing his mother and when he finds out from his cousin Kevin, that she has been in touch with Michael by telephone, he escapes the funeral (a traditional Chinese funeral lasting several days) in an empty coffin in the back of a truck. His quest to find his brother and thus contact his mother leads him to encounter poklans (teenage delinquents), derelict houses full of bats and weird shopkeepers.

It's a fairly unsophisticated story and the idea that a ten year old is narrating is not quite convincing - the voice of the narrator is a little too self aware - more like an adult narrating a ten year old's experiences. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable story. I was surprised to find that Jonathan's family all had western names, and there was plenty of mention of Western culture - a mother in Australia, New Zealand gardening programmes on the television. This would not have suprised me had it been, for instance, Singapore, but I knew little of Brunei other than that it is an oil-rich country ruled by a Sultan, so I was expecting something a little different. Still, other aspects of the story were definitely not western.

K H Lim was born and raised in Brunei. He graduated from medical school in the UK in 2008 and currently lives in Singapore. Written in Black was published by Monsoon Books in 2014.