Monday, April 24, 2017

North Korea: The Accusation, by Bandi

I knew that North Korea was going to be a difficult country. So I was delighted to read of this collection of short stories, smuggled out of North Korea, and furthermore, to discover that our library had copies on order.

The seven stories in this collection are relatively simple, and have a common theme - in each, the central characters are struggling to survive in a regime where the ordinary people have little, and live in fear of the consequences of the slightest wrong act or careless phrase, while the "Dear Leader" lives a luxurious lifestyle and must be praised at all costs. (When he moves around the country, it is a "Class One Event" and all other traffic must stop to make way for him). Generally, there is a moment of realization in each story, where the truth of their situation breaks through, overcoming years of propaganda.

Despite this simplicity, the characters in each story are different and completely individual. I was fascinated by the insight and power of these stories. I have to believe that they are a true reflection of life in North Korea - the author had nothing to gain by exaggeration or distortion, given that the stories were never going to be published in his own country. In fact, they lay hidden for years, most being dated around the early 1990s, until he was able to give them to someone to smuggle secretly out of the country. (Bandi means "firefly" and is, of course, a pseudonym).

The Accusation is translated by Deborah Smith, and published by Serpent's Tail in 2017.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Switzerland: The Chef, by Martin Suter

Maravan is a Tamil asylum seeker in Zurich and Andrea is a waitress at the same restaurant, the famed Chez Huwyler. Maravan is a brilliant chef but as an asylum seeker is only permitted to work in unsklled jobs, such as kitchen hand and finds himself scrubbing pots and preparing vegetables. It is 2008, the time of the global financial crisis and both Maravan and Andrea find themselves out of work.

Together they set up "Love Food", an enterprise specialising in erotic meals which, we are led to believe, have the couples who eat them wanting to jump into bed with each other. This is achieved by the aphrodisiac qualities of Ayurvedic recipes that Maravan has inherited from his beloved great aunt, combined with his "molecular cooking" techniques. Maravan is desperately trying to send money back to Sri Lanka to help his family, in the last days of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE rebels. From couples, they progress, somewhat against Maravan's values, to providing catering for rich businessmen and their escorts. Together they are drawn into an underworld of sex and illegal arms dealing.

I found the story readable enough, but not altogether convincing. Was Maravan's food really that powerful? And somehow, neither the struggles of the Sri Lankan Tamils not the world of the dodgy arms dealers really drew me in emotionally.

Nevertheless, according to the blurb Martin Suter has a huge readership. He was born in Zurich in 1948 and now spends his time between Spain and Guatemala. The Chef was translated from German by Jamie Bulloch and published in Great Britain by Atlantic Books in 2013.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Egypt: The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany

This turned out to be a much easier read than my choice for Lebanon (previous post). In the first chapter or so, I felt it was strongly reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith's series of novels about the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street, Edinburgh. However it turned out to be much darker than that. Like the 44 Scotland Street books, The Yacoubian Building presents the various stories of the inhabitants of a single building, in this case in downtown Cairo. The year is approximately 1990, at the time of the Gulf War which followed the invasion of Kuwait. This backgrounds the tension between the various sectors of Egyptian society - the poor, the politicians, the intellectuals, the businessmen. Taha, the son of the doorkeeper of the Yacoubian Building, is a bright student who wants to join the police force, but is turned down despite outstanding performance in the entry exams because of his father's occupation. At university, he is drawn in to militant Islam. His sweetheart, Busayna, has to work to support her family after the death of her father, but finds that what her employers expect of a beautiful woman is problematic. The two gradually drift apart.

The novel exposes rampant corruption in political life, and in the police force. I found the depiction of female characters rather troubling, as most of them seemed to exist only in relation to men - someone's mother, someone's sister, someone's wife. Only the older Frenchwoman, Christine, a bar owner, and Dalwat, the rather unpleasant widowed elder sister of another character, appeared to have much agency of their own. I suspect this reflects the Eqyptian situation at the time as much as it reflects the writer's ability to create convincing depictions of the opposite sex.

The depiction of homosexuals I also found rather troubling, but again, perhaps realistic in the setting of the novel. In both cases (women and homosexuals) there seemed to be a huge focus on them as sexual objects, rather than as people with wide-ranging lives.

Despite all the dark events in the novel, it does end on a somewhat positive note. I'm not sure though, that I would agree with the blurbs on the back - the New York Times describes it as "a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart" - sympathetic, perhaps, but hardly comic in my opinion.

The Yacoubian Building was published in Arabic in 2002, translated by Humphrey Davies and published in English by Harper Perennial in 2007.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lebanon: As Though She Were Sleeping, by Elias Khoury

I'm having a hard time with books from the Middle East. I really enjoyed my selection from the United Arab Emirates - That Other Me, by Maha Gargarsh. Other than that though, I've found Middle Eastern literature very hard to get into. So it was with my selection for Lebanon, which, according to the cover, won the inaugural Arabic Novel Prize. The language is beautiful and poetic. But the story is very non-linear. Ostensibly, the action takes place over three separate nights (some months apart) - in fact, the three sections are titled "The First Night", "The Second Night" and "The Third Night". However, it is a lot more wide ranging than that, and tracks back and forth in time, in a way that is not easy to follow. I found it difficult when putting the book down and coming back to it, to remember where the story had got to.

Meelya is a young Lebanese Christian woman who has married Mansour, a Palestinian. She leaves Lebanon to live with him in Nazareth, but escapes reality in dreams. Her dream world is convincingly evoked, as she slips in and out of it. But just as in real life dreams, the book can be rambling and illogical at times. Still, the beauty of the language made me persist. Eventually, at the end of the story, there was a moment of revelation as the author linked the story of Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son Isaac with the death of Christ(and with Meelya herself) that formed a very satisfying conclusion (a little Bible knowledge will help the reader here).

As Though She Were Sleeping was translated from Arabic by Humphrey Davies and published in Great Britain by MacLehose Press in 2011.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Romania: Black Sea Twilight, by Domnica Radulescu


Nora is a talented artist growing up in Mangalia on the Black Sea Coast of Romania. Gigi, her boyfriend is from a Turkish family in the same town. Nora dreams of going to art school and Gigi of becoming a ship's captain like his father, while Nora's twin brother Valentin has been sent to live with his aunt Raluca in Bucharest, so that he can study piano. But Communist Romania under the brutal and oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu is not an easy place to grow up. The slightest joke or innocent teenaged escapade might bring someone to the attention of the secret police.

This was an absorbing story, following the fortunes of Nora, Gigi, Valentin, and of Anoushka, the young French woman with a mysterious past whom Gigi and Nora rescue from the sea in a storm, and Didona, Valentin's first love, a gypsy from the State Circus.

However, I felt the author was using the story to cram in as much as she could of the recent history of Romania. So, while the first part of the story, until Nora reaches Paris, unfolded naturally, there were some odd passages later in the story: Nora receives a letter from her mother in which her mother tells the story of her own early life. On a train trip to see France, Anoushka suddenly launches into the story of her own early life in Hungary and Romania. And Nora hangs out in Paris with a group of young artists, actors and directors, who argue vigourously about the merits of Parisian culture and the fact that many of the most prominent artists there are Romanian immigrants.

A bibliography at the end of the book seems to bear out that the author wanted to impart factual information about Romania as much as to tell a story.

Despite these sometimes awkward intrusions, which could have been trimmed down without hindering the flow of the narrative, I enjoyed reading this book.

Domnica Radulescu was born in Romania and won a national prize for a volume of short stories when she was twenty, but fled during Nicoae Ceaucsecu's dictatorship and settled in the United States as a political refugee in 1983. She is a professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.