Friday, January 20, 2017

Norway: Echoland, by Per Petterson


This slim book is told from the point of view of twelve year old Arvid, who has travelled from Norway with his family to stay with his maternal grandparents in Denmark for the summer. He is feeling awkward and confused. His slightly older friend, Mogens, is attracted to Arvid's older sister, Gry. There is tension, never fully explained, between his mother and his grandmother. This tension appears to be longstanding, relating to events before Arvid was born, when his mother returned from Norway urgently, alone and in trouble.

Arvid's complex feelings are depicted with tenderness and beauty, and the rest of the characters also seem to be well developed and realistic. The time period of the book is not explicitly stated, but it appears that Arvid may have been born around the late 1950s, which would date the book in the early seventies, although it was first published in Norway in 1989. Perhaps the author wrote of the time period when he himself was growing up.

Echoland is translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett, and published by Harvill Secker (part of Penguin Random House) in 2016.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Guatemala: The Girl from Chimel, by Rigoberta Menchu

Something easy to follow the last two books, which were rather challenging. With my book-buying budget somewhat depleted, I turned to our local library and found two options for Guatemala: Severina, by Rodrigo Ray Rosa, or Rigoberta Menchu's The Girl from Chimel. Unfortunately the first was in Spanish, and my Spanish is pretty minimal at this point (although I do want to learn more). And "The Girl from Chimel" is a children's book, but I thought I would read it anyway - I can always read something else later.

Rigoberta Menchu is an indigenous Maya Indian, born into an impoverished Indian peasant family in 1952. She is a noted Maya activist and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work, despite being forced into exile several times during the vicious 36 year long war. "The Girl from Chimel" is an account of her village childhood, of stories told by her family, of harmony with nature, of a lost world that has been changed forever by conflict and brutal genocide.

As it's a children's book, these atrocities are only hinted at. For instance she says "since bees are sacred, their escape could lead to an evil curse. And that's just what happened. But I'm not going to talk about that now. Maybe later."

In another chapter, she says "..when the war began and the villagers had to hide out in the mountains, something magical and unbelievable happened. The river disappeared." She attributes this to the river being scared, and suggests "since a great act of wickedness made it escape, only a great act of kindness can make it come back."

The authors very name, Rigoberta, is a result of discounting the ways of the native people. Although given the name of her grandmother, Li Mi'n (which means "Sunday"), the clerk refused to register this name because it "doesn't exist". As she was born on St Rigoberta's Day, this is the name under which her birth was registered.

The book is illustrated by Domi and translated by David Unger. It was published by House of Anansi Press. I found it quite delightful and was left wanting to know more - perhaps I will seek out her memoir, "I, Rigoberta Menchu" for more of the story behind the disappearance of the river and other events. (I have just found that her account is quite controversial - will have to do more research into this).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Croatia: Leica Format, by Daša Drndić

This was the second challenging book in a row on my round the world reading tour. It took me quite a while to get into it, due to the collage style format. The book is introduced with three definitions of the word "fugue" - musical, psychological and architectural. This is followed by a brief account of a woman who believes herself to be one person, and obtains a job under that name, but turns out to be someone else. How this story relates to what follows is not entirely clear. The narrator of the book (most of it) is a woman living in a harbour town in Northern Croatia that is in decline - Fiume in Italian, Riveka in Croatian. It was once an important departure point for European emigration to the United States. Long descriptions of the life and landscapes of the town seem to require the sort of concentrated attention that one gives to poetry.

Gradually a picture is built up of the past of the woman, her family, the town. The book encompasses the horrors of the Holocaust, and of medical research on human guinea pigs, both by the Germans during World War II and other nations including the United States. It makes use of multiple fragments of text from various sources, such as poetry, medical textbooks, and other documents. Some of these have their sources acknowledged at the back, others do not and were perhaps constructed by the author.

I did, after the first fifty to hundred pages, get immersed in the book, more so than in the previous one ("Census" by Panos Ioannides). It was intriguing to see how all the fragments linked up, and to ponder whether or not Ludwig Jacob Fritz was or was not Uncle Luigi, among other puzzles. By the end of the book, I was still quite unclear on some components, and how they fitted in, for instance was Lea Moser/Tessa Koller who appears at the end of the book the same person as the narrator or not? And if not, where does she fit in the story? The atmosphere of the declining port town seemed to be evoked quite successfully, and the lingering effects of the break up of the former Yugoslavia cast a long shadow over the lives of the narrator and other people around her.

Leica Format was translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Maclehose Press in 2015. It was first published in Croatia in 2003.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cyprus: Census, by Panos Ioannides

This proved to be a difficult book, fragmentary in style, with a good deal of metaphysical discussion between the characters overlaid on the narrative. Conversations did not have the speaker identified, so that sometimes I had to stop and work out just who was saying what. Nevertheless there is a powerful story underlying the text.

Joseph Akritas is a burned out war correspondent. His wife Maria is ill with cancer. Together they retreat to a small village in the mountains of Cyprus. On the way, that meet Michael, from the island of Patmos (the island where the Revelation of St John was written. Maria becomes pregnant to Michael. In the village a mysterious couple, Piotr and Hanna Archangielsk, are working on the restoration of medieval wall paintings in a local chapel, and Maria takes up the task of assisting them by writing down descriptions of what they find.

Eventually Maria gives birth, not to a child but to a mysterious life force. While she dies in the process, spiritual healing is released for those who are able to accept it.

While it is a challenging book to read, and I found much of the philosophy hard to follow, overall I felt it was worth the effort involved and may go back to re-read this one later.

"Census" received the Cyprus National Prize for Literature in 1973. Panos Ioannides was born in Famagusta, Cyprus in 1935 and lives in Nicosia. "Census" was translated by Despina Pirketti and published by Armida Publications Ltd.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Cuba: Pig's Foot, by Carlos Acosta

This was a delightful find in our local library, a glorious, exuberant romp through more than a century of Cuban history, through the eyes of the narrator who finds himself alone in the world and makes a journey to the forgotten settlement of Pata de Puerco (pig's foot) to trace his roots, and the origins of the mysterious pigs foot amulet that has been passed down to him. But all is not quite as it seems. "My name is Oscar Mandinga" says the narrator. "Don't forget it". But is he really who he claims to be?

Whether or not he is Oscar Mandinga, and whether or not the town of Pata de Puerco exists, or whether it is an invention of his troubled brain, the lives of its inhabitants are always fascinating, and the way in which the author weaves in the strands of Cuban history contributes skilfully to the story (there are distortions, fully acknowledged in the author's notes, for instance works of a real life architect are attributed to one of the fictional characters in the story).

Carlos Acosta, interestingly, is a Cuban ballet dancer. Besides his one novel he has written a memoir, No Way Home. (This sounds intriguing - how a delinquent kid from Havana, dreaming of becoming a soccer player, became one of the world's best ballet dancers). Pig's Foot is published by Bloomsbury and translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne.

Monday, January 09, 2017

East Timor: Resistance, by Naldo Rei

It didn't seem as if I could find any fiction that originated from the relatively new nation of East Timor*. I did, however, manage to locate several memoirs in our local library: The Crossing, by Luis Cardoso, Kirsty Sword Gusmao's book A Woman of Independence, and lastly Naldo Rei's Resistance.

Kirsty Sword, who married the East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao (she met him when he was in prison in Indonesia), is an Australian. And Luis Cardoso's book was already reviewed on line - plus, it seems that he spent quite a lot of time in Portugal - so I chose Naldo Rei. East Timor - the Eastern half of an island to the north of Australia - was a Portuguese territory for 450 years. When the Portuguese left in 1975, the Indonesians invaded the island, under the guise of "developing" it. Naldo Rei's family fled to the jungle, where he lived for the first three years of his life. When he was nine, his father was shot by the Indonesian army along with other village leaders. While still at school, he became active in the resistance movement, acting as a trusted courier. He was captured and tortured by the Indonesians on a number of occasions but managed to survive through to the country's independence in 2002.

The author became a journalist and his journalism training shows in the book which is often journalistic in style rather than literary - a fairly straight forward account. This does not mean it is not emotionally gripping. It becomes quite harrowing towards the end when he recounts the torture methods used by the Indonesians, and the destruction that occurred after the East Timorese voted for independence, before the Indonesians left the country. Earlier on, some parts were a little more hard to follow, and I found myself flipping to the back of the book quite often, where there is an appendix of acronyms and terms used by the Indonesian military and the local resistance movement. I also had a little trouble keeping track of who was who, among Naldo's many relations, and colleagues in the resistance movement.

However, overall it was a very well written account, and although I was vaguely aware of the recent history of East Timor, this book really brought home the challenging path the country followed to gain its independence, and the heroism of many of the local people.

*I did locate one novel "The Redundance of Courage" set on an island that is a fictionalized version of East Timor - however, the author, Timothy Mo, is a Hong Kong born British resident. So it didn't quite qualify, though it sounds well worth reading.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

China: UFO In Her Eyes, by Xiaolu Guo

The blurb on this book looked promising when I picked it up in the library. It is described as a "brilliantly structured and darkly humorous narrative" - which is true, in a way, although I didn't feel that the book quite lived up to the dazzling promise of the dust jacket.

In Silver Hill village, Kwok Yun, an unmarried woman in her thirties, is making her way across the fields when she spots a spinning plate in the sky and hears a loud noise. She faints, and when she comes to, she finds a strange Westerner lying on the ground in the shade of one of the village's "hundred arm trees". She assists the Westerner, who is injured, but he then disappears. When she makes her report to the village chief, the attention of the authorities is attracted to this hitherto neglected village. The subsequent investigation turns the villagers' lives upside down, attracting development to the village, in a way that is not always welcomed.

I enjoyed the book, which is structured in the form of intelligence reports from official files, including interviews with the villagers. I felt, though, that it was a "once over lightly" look at events. And I was a little dissatisfied with the UFO device. I was expecting the mysterious westerner to be an airman from a crashed spy craft but in fact he turned out to have nothing to do with the UFO, which is never explained. There's nothing wrong with a bit of mystery or fantasy in a story, but since everything else in this book is quite explainable, the mystery of the UFO felt quite out of place.

There is a timeline at the back of the book showing events as taking place between 2012 and 2015 - relevant, since the book was published in 2009. So it is set as taking place slightly in the future.

Xiaolu Guo was born in a fishing village in South China. She published six books in China before moving to London in 2002. UFO In Her Eyes was published by Chatto and Windus.