Saturday, August 12, 2017

Macedonia: A Spare Life, by Lidija Dimkovska

I am gradually, through literature, becoming familiar with all the small nations that make up the former Yugoslavia. Macedonia is one of them - a country I would have previously thought of as more Greek than Slavic, given my main reference at that time was Alexander the Great ("Alexander of Macedon"). A Spare Life was originally published in 2012 and was awarded the 2013 European Prize for Literature. It is narrated by Zlata, one of a pair of conjoined twins. She and her sister Srebra are conjoined at their heads. Despite that, and despite being brought up in poverty, they live a remarkably normal, if somewhat constrained life. The story starts when they are twelve, and follows them through school, high school, university and adulthood. The twins have very different personalities and preferences. In high school, Zlata's choices prevail and they study languages and literature. Srebra believes this to be selfish and at university she insists they study law, which is more useful to society.

The author uses the lives of the twins as a metaphor for the conjoined nature of Yugoslavia. They have always dreamed of being separate. When a crisis strikes, the twins fly to London, after managing to secure financial assistance from a government organisation, determined to pursue a risky operation to separate them.

The book is quite a lengthy one. Just occasionally, I felt that the detail made it drag a little, but overall, it is the richness of the detail that is the making of the book. It encompasses the recent history of Yugoslavia, the transition from Communism to democracy, the nature of families, of sisterhood, of religion and cultures. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Lidija Dimkovska is also a poet and her collection pH Neutral History (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. A Spare Life is translated from Macedonian by Christina E Kramer and published by Two Lines Press.

Benin: As She Was Discovering Tigony, by Olympe Bhêly-Quenum

I was rather disappointed by this book. In my searches for an author from Benin, Bhêly-Quenum's name was the one that consistently came up. I was able to read an early short story of his, "A Child in the Bush of Ghosts" in an anthology of supernatural stories, "The Weird" in our local library. It seemed promising, but as I wanted more than a short story, I ordered his novel, recently released in English translation.

It turned out to be very different to the short story. From the first chapters, it was weighed down in turgid writing, full of jargon and not seeming to make much sense. Since it is concerned with the rise of neo-colonialism, and capitalist exploitation of a newly independent Africa, it would make sense for certain of the characters - the politicians and exploiters - to use some degree of "political speak". But it seemed as if the whole novel was drenched in such language, even in the mouths of characters for whom it made little sense. This made the novel very difficult to read, although in the final few chapters, where the tension between the characters is increasing and plot lines come to a head, it seemed to improve somewhat.

The novel concerns Dorcas Keurleonan-Moricet, a white geophysicist from France, posted on assignment in Africa. Her husband also works there in international development. However their marriage is disintegrating, and Dorcas meets and falls in love with a young African man. At the same time, she has discovered mineral deposits of great value. The novel raises issues of the exploitation of Africa's gold, oil and other resources by Western nations, and of the corruption of African politics.

There are questions of value raised in the novel, but I wish it had been heavily edited and made a good deal easier to read. I felt as if the didactic purpose of the book had somewhat taken over from the literary value of the story.

Olympe Bhêly-Quenum was born in 1928 in Dahomey (now Benin). His mother was a priestess of Beninois vodun. At the age of twenty he travelled to France and was educated there, where his first novel was published in 1960, and translated into English as "Snares Without End" in 1966. He has since worked in diplomacy and journalism with a strong interest in African affairs.

This novel supposedly "caps the career of one of Africa's major authors" (foreword). I suspect that I would have preferred one of his earlier works where the language may perhaps have been more straightforward, more like his short story.

As She Was Discovering Tigony was translated by Tomi Adeaga and published by Michigan State University Press in 1917.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Bahamas: If I Had the Wings, by Helen Klonaris

I couldn't find either of the books that Ann Morgan suggested for the Bahamas - both appeared to be out of print. So I was relieved to hear of a new book coming out, Helen Klonaris's debut collection of short stories.

Helen is a Greek-Bahamian writer (apparently there is a small Greek community there) who lives between the Bay Area, California and Nassau, Bahamas. The stories are mostly coming-of-age stories with LGBT protagonists. It's not a genre that I would normally read. Fortunately I found there was more to them than that. There is a sinister edge to most of these stories, supernatural even although not in a traditional ghost story manner. There is also a strong ecological theme, highlighting the tension between developers building condos for the wealthy, and the local people who are sensitive to the habitats of fish and wildlife and to the traditional uses of plants.

For the most part, I enjoyed the stories and was struck by the author's descriptive powers and vivid imagination. I found the sustained use of "you" in several of the stories irritating after a while. These were stories narrated by "I" and addressed to "you" - not the reader, but the one who is the object of the narrator's love. I'm not sure why it irritated me - could it be because it made the stories feel voyeuristic. Just when I started to get a little tired of stories of love against obstacles - the vigorous homophobia of small religious communities - the final story, "The Dreamers" drew me in and blew me away. It's definitely the most powerful in the collection and left me with a lot to ponder on.

If I Had the Wings is published by Peepal Tree Press, a British publisher of Caribbean and Black British fiction.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Argentina: The Days of the Deer, by Liliana Bodoc

I read this book in the first few months of my world reading project, before I started blogging about it. So last time I was at the library, I picked up a copy to refresh my memory.

Liliana Bodoc is probably not a name that will come high up in the results when searching online for Argentinean writers. This is a work of fantasy, the first volume in a trilogy and the only one to be translated into English, so far as I can tell. Misaianes, the son of Death, is crossing the sea with a mighty force to attack the Remote Realms. In the House of Stars, astronomers read the omens and debate whether the fleet that they see coming is benign or evil. Messages are sent out to the seven tribes to call representatives to a Great Council. It is a long and arduous journey particularly for the representatives of the Husihuilkes, who live in the forests in the far south of the continent, in an area called the Ends of the Earth.

There are no maps in this book, but I could not help picturing the territories as having the shape of South America, and there is a distinctly South American flavour to the story. Though seven tribes are called to the council, the book focuses on Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes, and on Cucub the Zitzahay messenger sent to summon their representatives. Cucub falls in love with Dulkancellin's daughter Kuy-Kuyen, while her brother Thungur grows to be a warrior.

I'm not a huge fantasy fan but I enjoy a mix of writing so the occasional fantasy book adds variety, and the South American flavour of this one certainly increased my interest. It's a pity that the next two books in the series don't appear to have been translated as I'm curious to know what follows.

Liliana Bodoc was born in Santa Fe, Argentina and studied at the National University of Cuyo. The Days of the Deer was translated by Nick Caistor and Lucia Caistor Arendar.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Armenia: Goodbye Bird, by Aram Pachyan

It took me quite a while to find a suitable book from Armenia. At first it seemed as if there were quite a few books around by Armenian authors, most set in the early years of the twentieth century at the time of the Armenian genocide. In the end, they all proved to be written by second and third generation Armenian Americans, based on the stories of their grandparents. Furthermore, it appears that the boundaries of Armenia have changed over time, and that the area where these books were set falls substantially within the borders of present day Turkey.

Eventually, I found that a modern Armenian writer, Gurgen Khanjyan, had a book translated into English, Yenok's eye. But it was somewhat expensive, and while I hesitated, it seemed to go out of print and become wildly more expensive. (Currently showing as $999 at Amazon - plus shipping to New Zealand).

So when I heard of a new release, "Goodbye Bird" by Aram Pachyan, I thought I had better buy it quickly, before it suffered the same fate. The book is described on the dust jacket as a best seller in Armenia. Either the Armenians have very sophisticated tastes, or their tastes at least are wildly different from those of readers in the west. I can't imagine a book of this type becoming a best seller here. I found it surreal, imagistic and confusin. The language swings wildly at times from first person to second person to third person and back again all in the course of a few sentences. It is often not at all clear whether the change of person is actually a switch in who is being referred to, or whether it is the same person being referred to from a different viewpoint.

The novel concerns a young man of twenty eight who has newly left his service in the army. He does not appear to have a job. He reflects on his experiences, his former girlfriend, and friends from his childhood and the army. The "Bird" of the title is apparently a cat, which he is carrying around in the early part of the book. There are many references to both Western and local literature and music. Fortunately the book was relatively short. I think I would have struggled to get through it had it been longer. And yet, once I did finish the book, I realised that even though I thought I had been totally confused while reading it, I had indeed built up a picture of the young man and his life. Perhaps it is like an impressionistic painting, where one needs to stand back to get the picture, instead of examining it too closely and seeing only random brush strokes.

Aram Pachyan was born in 1983 in Vanadzor, Armenia. He studied at the law department of Yerevan State University. Currently he works as a journalist and columnist for the Hraparak newspaper. Goodbye Bird was translated by Nairi Hakhverdi and published by Glagoslav Publications in 2017.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

After the Rain

My blog started off as a general blog, but it got taken over for a while by my Tuesday Poem posts, and then by book reviews (more summaries than reviews) in my round the world reading project. I intend to keep up with the round the world reading, so if that is why you are here keep checking back. But I'd like to get back to more general posts.

We seem to have had our fair share of disasters in Christchurch. Earthquakes, bush fires, floods... What's next, I wonder? A plague of locusts?

These photos are the aftermath of heavy rain and flooding last week, we live on the hill that is seen in some of the photos so our house was not flooded, but the land at the bottom of the hill is very flat so for a while, all our road access was cut off. The photos don't really show the full extent of the flooding as even with a panoramic camera, it would have been impossible to get the full scene with various spurs of the hill in the way.


This last photo is one I lifted from the online version of our local newspaper, it is the river just around the corner from where we used to live

The last couple of days have been fine but apparently more rain is on the way, I'm not sure how much the ground can hold. Unfortunately with changes in land levels since the earthquakes, many parts of the city are more flood prone than before.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Singapore: The River's Song, by Suchen Christine Lim

Earlier I read Kevin Kwan's book, "Crazy Rich Asians" as the Singapore contribution for my round the world reading project. Then I spotted Suchen Christine Lim's book at our library, and it looked interesting enough for me to want to read it also. It had quite a different feel to it - Kevin Kwan's rather like a very rich dessert (a bit overwhelming towards the end) and this one more like a fresh, flavoursome and healthy Asian stir fry.

Before Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew's modernisation of Singapore, a large population of street hawkers, fishermen, boat builders etc lived along the crowded and winding banks of the Singapore River. They are there no longer. They were evicted and moved to high rise blocks of modern flats, while tower blocks of offices and hotels were built along the river, which was cleaned up and straightened, with many of the winding creeks that fed it concreted over.

This novel tells the story of Ping, the daughter of a pipa songstress, and Weng, the son of a carpenter and musician. Ping's mother's fortunes improve when she marries a wealthy businessman. Weng takes the part of the local people and acts as their voice in protests against the clearance of the riverside settlements. He is imprisoned for his part in the protests, while in the meantime Ping has left for America where she studies music.

After thirty years, Ping returns to Singapore, meets Weng again and reveals the secret that has kept them apart for thirty years.

The narrative is skilful, and kept me absorbed throughout. I felt I had learned a lot about the development of Singapore, but never in a way that prioritised teaching over story-telling.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Botswana: The Collector of Treasures, by Bessie Head

This is an older book than many I have read so far, initially published in 1977. Bessie Head was born in South Africa in 1937, the daughter of a rich white woman and an African servant, at a time when interracial relationships were illegal in South Africa. She did not move to Botswana until early adulthood, but is widely regarded as a Botswanan author. At the time she moved there in 1953, it was still the Bechuanaland protectorate.

The stories in The Collector of Treasures depict the county in its early days of independence, and show the tensions that arose out of the conflict between traditional values, the legacy of colonialism, the teachings of Christianity and the move towards modernity. They are simple tales of village life, written from a perspective that seems that of a person who is somewhat of an outsider. There is a deep sympathy displayed for the status of women, who are not treated well by men in these stories. In many cases, the men might promise marriage to a girl, get her pregnant, and then abandon her - or marry her, but take other wives and girlfriends on the side. Sometimes the women in these stories take to violence to protect themselves, and this is treated in a very matter-of-fact way and appears to be taken as natural.

While the tales are simple, the writing is skilful and there are some beautiful descriptive passages, for example

For those who were awake, it took the earth hours to adjust to daylight. The cool and damp of the night slowly arose in shimmering waves like water and even the forms of the people who bestirred themselves at this unearthly hour were distorted in the haze; they appeared to be dancers in slow motion, with fluid, watery forms.

The Collector of Treasures was published by Heinemann in their African Writers Series.