Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Côte d’Ivoire: The Blind Kingdom, by Véronique Tadjo


This is another country for which I had to do some searching. I am trying to find female writers, and also to find alternatives to the books already read by Ann Morgan - I'm trying not to just follow someone else's list. Ahmadou Kourouma was Ann's choice for Côte d’Ivoire, and there seemed to be little else out there, until I came across Véronique Tadjo.

This is a slim book, and it does not follow the usual structure of a novel. It is a collage of short chapters which are made up of many types of text - some declamatory, like political speeches, some rather Biblical in form, in the nature of poetry or prophesy. Although I found this structure interesting, I also found that it made it harder to recall the story line, especially when I had put the book down and picked it up again later.

The book opens with a catastrophic earthquake, which the author says in an interview at the end of the book is a metaphor for the devastation that occurred in many African countries after independence. The unnamed kingdom in the story is ruled by the blind - another metaphor. The emblem of the king and his court is the bat, an animal with very poor eyesight but excellent sonar. The bats however, which inhabit the royal palace, leave their excrement everywhere, leading to pollution and decay.

The king's daughter Akissi falls in love with Karim, one of his advisers who comes from the Other People who are sighted. Karim sends Akissi to his mother in the north of the country, where she learns from her and recovers her sight.

At times I felt the method of layered texts led to a little too much abstraction, but on the whole, I found the book interesting and well told.
The Blind Kingdom was translated from the French by Janis A Mayes and published by Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Cameroon: Venus of Khala-Kanti, by Angèle Kingué

When I started looking on the internet for books for this project, the go-to author for Cameroon seemed to be Mongo Beti. However, his best known books were written in the 1950s. I wanted to find out if there was anything more recent out there. Then Imbolo Mbue burst on the literary scene with the publication of Behold the Dreamers - which I definitely plan on reading. However, although she is a young Cameroonian author, she lives in the United States, and I feel from the publicity that her book should really be counted as an American book, even though it centres on the immigrant experience.

So I kept looking, and eventually stumbles on Angèle Kingué's Venus of Khala-Kanti. It relates the lives of three women in an imaginary West African village. Although big promises of development are made by government officials, it is these three women who do the most to improve the economic lot of the village, using their ground up methods. Assumta, who has returned from the capital where she may have worked as a prostitute, sets up a small restaurant serving the needs of the drivers of the trucks sent to build new roads, and a small shop for the village. She takes in Bella and Clarisse, who have also faced hardship in their previous lives, and together they develop the Good Hope Center, which fuels the restoration and growth of the village's inhabitants.

The story is uplifting but not unrealistic. Although the women's endeavours greatly improve their lives, and those of others around them, there are also hardships and setbacks. And unlike Ishmael Beah's Radiance of Tomorrow, I felt that the story did not unnecessarily demonize the forces of progress, nor glorify tradition, offering a somewhat more balanced view.

The fact that I had to hunt rather hard to locate this book bears out that it is probably not destined to become great literature - but it is a well told tale, in its own way, and an enjoyable read.

Venus of Khala-Kanti was translated from French by Christine Schwartz Hartley and published by Bucknell University Press.

I have added a page to the blog with a list of countries, along with the books I have read for this project, and links to the reviews that I have written. I have also included the books that I read early in my world reading project, before I started posting reviews here. Possibly I will review these later, in the meantime I thought the titles might be of interest to others pursuing the same challenge.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Lithuania: Breathing Into Marble, by Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite

Translations into English from Lithuania seemed rather thin on the ground, so I was delighted to read of the release in 2016 of this novel, which won the 2009 EU Prize for literature.

Isabel lives in a country cottage with her husband Liudas and frail son Gailius. When she decides to adopt a troubled young orphan, Ilya, she has no idea of the chain of dark events that will follow. I immersed myself in the beauty of this story - the prose is poetic and although the tale is tragic, it also ultimately seems redemptive, enabling Isabel to come to terms with her childhood and with the consequences of Ilya's adoption.

The translation on the whole was excellent - the English read smoothly and naturally. And yet, every so often, an odd, ungrammatical phrase cropped up which was not a typo that would have occurred if it had been originally written in English. These were infrequent enough that I can't locate one on a quick look through to quote, however, careful editing would have picked them up - they were all of a kind that could be easily corrected and did not really detract too much from the reading of the book.

Breathing Into Marble was translated from Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute and published by Noir Press.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Netherlands: Ten White Geese, by Gerbrand Bakker

A Dutch woman calling herself Emilie has rented a farm cottage near a small village in Wales. She has fled Amsterdam after admitting an affair with a student at the university where she was a professor, working on a study of Emily Dickinson. Gradually and quietly, her story is revealed, along with that of her husband and of the young man who is invited to stay the night, and doesn't leave. Initially "Emilie's" husband accepts her departure, but then he discovers something which causes him to set out in search of her.

This novel is full of moments of haunting beauty. It is both tragic and strangely uplifting. I had earlier started on "June", another of Gerbrand Bakker's novels, but somehow found it too slow and couldn't get into it. This one, however, I found quite compelling, and the pace of the telling just right.

Ten White Geese was translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, and published by Penguin Books in 2013 (originally published in Dutch in 2010 and in English by Harvill Secker in 2012).

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Antigua: Unburnable, by Marie-Elena John

The go-to writer for Antigua seems to be Jamaica Kincaid, but as I had already read some of her work, I wanted to find another writer from this country if possible. Marie-Elena John seemed to fit the bill - she was born in Antigua, grew up there before moving to the United States, and now lives part of the year in Antigua (and the other part in the US).

However, when her one novel, Unburnable, arrived in the post, it turns out to be set in Dominica. Although the acknowledgments at the back of the book appear to suggest that the author has family connections there, it wasn't quite clear what they were, nor did a google search help me. I decided to count the book for Antigua, anyway, although with reservations.

These reservations are as described above, and nothing to do with the quality of the writing. This is a powerful book. It recounts the return to Dominica of Lillian Baptiste, twenty years after she fled at the age of fourteen to escape her family heritage. Now she must confront the past - her half-crazy mother Iris, and grandmother Matilda, who are the subjects of chante mas songs sung at Carnival. Teddy, a man who has loved Lillian for many years, returns with her. To find the truth, however, they must look past the obvious, and come to an understanding of the island's history, and the culture of the Carib people, and the maroons (descendants of escaped slaves).

The ending of the book is left somewhat open. The reader learns the truth, but does Lillian? And can Teddy save her? I found the book fascinating, and regretted that the author had not written any more novels after the publication of Unburnable in 2006 - her primary profession was an Africa development specialist.