Monday, November 05, 2018

Ecuador: The Devil's Nose, by Luz Argentina Chiriboga

I really wanted to like this book, having searched intensively for an alternative to Jorge Icaza's Huasipungo, which seems to be the default choice for Ecuador. When I heard that Chiriboga's book was the first book by an Afro-Ecuadorian woman to be translated into English, I was intrigued.

Unfortunately I was disappointed. The book was short but very repetitive, so that it could in fact be quite a bit shorter. It tells of a group of Jamaicans brought to Ecuador to work in the construction of a railroad between Guayaquil and Quito. In the process, they had to conquer the Devil's Nose, one of the most dangerous peaks in the Andes. In the first chapter, we are told countless times in various ways that the men were leaving their families behind in order to earn money to make a better life for them. This sort of repetition is presumably present in the original untranslated text. I wondered if the author had a personal interest in this group of men, and wanted to tell an ancestor's story, but didn't have sufficient material and was trying to spin it out. Other faults may be due to the translation. I felt that it was perhaps a too literal, word for word translation which often made it very hard to understand the sense of the story. And even where the translation makes sense, it is often stilted or awkward English.

All this is a shame, because I sensed that there was an interesting story to be told here - and if one reads quickly, it is easier to get an overall impression of the story than by slowing down and trying to make sense of every sentence.

The other strange thing about this book is the prominence given to the translators, Ingrid Watson Miller and Margaret L Morris. Of course it is important to give translators their due. But it seems very odd that the "about the authors" page at the back of the book gives biographies of the translators without mentioning the original author at all.

This translation was published by Page Publishing Inc, New York in 2015. There is no mention given of when it may have been originally published in Spanish.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Gambia: Reading the Ceiling, by Dayo Forster

On her eighteenth birthday, Ayodele has a decision to make. She has decided to do The Deed. But which one of four possible men will she do it with? The ramifications of this decision will lead to different futures for her. "Reading the Ceiling" follows three possible stories for Ayodele, introducing the reader to the range of experience of modern African women.

While there are commonalities between the three different stories, each has very different outcomes. In one, Ayodele studies in England, and returns to work in the Gambia. In another, she travels the world, working in development in Mali and elsewhere. In a third, she stays in the Gambia as a single mother without tertiary education, raising her son, but eventually finding well paid employment and making a successful life for herself.

When my children were younger they sometimes read books in a series called "Choose Your Own Adventure". Every page or so, the reader was faced with two choices: "if you do this, turn to page 72. If you do that, turn to page 43". Although written in the first person, not the second person, this novel reminded me a little of those books. Eventually I realised that the reason was that both are written in the present tense. This gives an immediacy to the narration, and also elevates action above feelings, although feelings do play a part too. At any rate, I found it an engrossing read, and was absorbed in wondering as each story drew to a close, how the next alternative would work out differently for Ayodele.

Dayo Forster was born in Banjul, the capital of Gambia. Like her heroine in two of the stories, she left Gambia to study at the age of 18, because at that time there were no universities in the Gambia. Reading the Ceiling was published by Simon and Schuster, UK in 2007 at which time she was living in Kenya.It was shortlisted for Best First Book in the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-Africa Region.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Tanzania: Gravel Heart, by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tanzania is a country that was created out of an amalgam of Tanganyika on the mainland and the island of Zanzibar. I knew something of life on the mainland through friends who have worked as volunteers there, but this book is set in Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, which is largely Muslim.

Salim grows up there in the 1970s. When his father moves out of the family home, he lives with his mother and her younger brother Amir. Amir becomes a senior diplomat in London and offers Salim a home there and an opportunity to study.

This is not, however, really an emigrant story, even though Salim spends may years in London. It is more about the events that caused his father to move out, and the secrets arising from them. Eventually Salim returns to Zanzibar for his mother's funeral. There he reunites with his younger half-sister, and with his father, who tells him his story.

The narrator of the novel is Salim, but in the last part of the book Salim is relating what his father told him, which to me seemed to add a certain amount of detachment to the story as we are hearing it at two steps removed. Other than that, I found the novel interesting both as a story, and as an insight into the history of Zanzibar, and of the events of the 1970s when the country was in some turmoil through political revolution. I would be happy to read more from this author, though I would also like to find other Tanzanian writers from the mainland, to give some perspective on the rest of the country.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. From 1980 to 1982 he was a university lecturer in Nigeria. He then moved to England, to the University of Kent and has been based in the UK ever since.
Gravel Heart was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Peru: The Neighbourhood, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Since the author of this book is a Nobel prize winner, it seemed as if it would be a good choice for Peru. I found, however, that it wasn't really to my taste. It's not a badly written book, but there is a lot of sex, and some of it is very graphic. It starts when Marisa shares a bed with her friend Chabela, after Chabela is caught too close to curfew at Marisa's house and stays the night. There, they discover an attraction for each other. In the meantime Marisa's husband Enrique or Quique, a rich businessman, is being blackmailed after scandalous photos of him at an orgy come into the hands of the gutter press. Quique turns to his lawyer friend Luciano (Chabela's husband) for help.

I felt at first that there wasn't a lot of character development. In the end though, the sex, much of which seems somewhat gratuitous at first, became more important to the plot and setting. The action takes place in the final days of Alberto Fujimori's presidency and as well as the newspaper staff and the two couples, takes in the director of intelligence services, the "Doctor". I began to be more interested in the book for what it revealed about the political situation, the terrorist insurgency, and the lives of Peruvians, both rich and poor, at the time.

Vargas Llosa has written a good many novels over his career, and although I am not familiar with most of his work, it seems unlikely that he would win the Nobel Prize if he was a "one trick pony" so I am thinking it might be worth exploring a bit more to see if some of his other work is more to my taste.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Australia: The Swan Book, by Alexis Wright

I haven't stopped reading, but there were all sorts of books piling up on my "to be read" list that didn't fit into my round-the-world project. Wonderful non-fiction books, poetry and all sorts of others. And there were books from countries that I had already read a book from. This is one of them. However, it is from "another Australia" - quite different to the others I have reviewed here, as the author is an indigenous Australian from the Waanyi nation in the highlands of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria.

The book is set in a dystopian future Australia heavily impacted by climate change and by pollution from mining and other activities. Oblivia (full name Oblivion Ethylene) is a young aboriginal woman who has been gang raped and rescued from her refuge in a hollow eucalyptus tree by an old white woman, Bella Donna. They live together on a rusting hulk of a ship which has been dumped by the army, along with many others, in a drying up swampy lake in the middle of a detention camp for other indigenous people, both those whose traditional land it is, and those relocated from the cities.

The ship is surrounded by swans which have come from the south (they do not traditionally live in this area). Oblivia does not speak but has a special rapport with the swans. As her story unfolds, she becomes the wife of the first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch. She is taken to live in the city where she lives a beleaguered life, sequestered in a tower apartment. All sorts of strange characters find their way into her story - three genies, a talking monkey named Rigoletto, an old harbour master who may or may not be a ghost. And always the swans are a haunting presence, guiding Oblivia's journey.

This story is not mythical in the Western sense. It is an interweaving of worlds, the world that we would see on the surface, and the spiritual world of ghosts and nature, which is just as real. In this reality, a story is not something that is told but is an integral part of each tribe and each creature, and it must be walked rather than read. (Or perhaps it is "read" in the land). Nevertheless, there is also plenty of white European culture woven into the story - in particular, the stories and poems of swans which are woven throughout. It is both a lyrical epic, and a powerful protest against what we are doing to the earth, and against the treatment of the indigenous people of Australia.

If you are also trying to read a book from every country, and you would like to choose something non-"Western" where possible, then I would highly recommend this as a choice for Australia.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Eritrea: Heart of Fire, by Senait Mehari

This memoir bears a subtitle on the cover: "From child soldier to soul singer". This slightly over-hyped subtitle is, in part, what has led to controversy over the book, as various commenters have pointed out that the author was never a child soldier. She did not in fact, claim that she herself fought in battles. She did however write an account of her childhood in which she was abandoned at birth by a mentally distressed mother, raised in orphanages for several years until her paternal grandparents fetched her back, and then went to live with her father and his third wife.

When she was six, her father sent her along with her two elder half-sisters, to a camp of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). They had been fighting in a civil war against Ethiopia, in a battle for Eritrea's independence. However by this stage they were fighting more against another Eritrean group, the EPLF, as the two groups contended for power within Eritrea.

The younger children in the camp did not have to fight, but they did do a lot of the hard work in the camp, and were also taught to carry and fire guns. Things did not go well for the ELF, and eventually Senait's uncle managed to rescue her and her sisters, and took them to live with him in Sudan, before her father, now living in Germany, sent for the girls.

Senait did not get on well with her father and at the age of fourteen left home to live on the streets. The memoir continues on to describe how she managed to teach herself music and become a recording artist.

I found it hard to decide for myself how much of the controversy over the book may in fact be correct, and how much may be the result of certain interest groups not wanting to admit that child soldiers did in fact exist. It is entirely possible of course that there are errors in the book even without the deliberate intent to exaggerate - after all, I would have to say that my recollections of events that took place when I was six years old would not be entirely accurate, even without the complicating factor of trauma to overcome. Then, in order to make a coherent story from a chaotic set of recollections, facts may have been manipulated slightly to align better with each other. I cannot believe though, that the story was entirely fabricated - there must be at least a good proportion of truth in there.

At any rate, I found it to be fascinating reading, and I learnt a good deal about the recent history of Eritrea, and its independence from Ethiopia. And incidentally, I found that one doesn't have to be white to have racist attitudes - Senait's mother was Ethiopian while her father was Eritrean, and apparently the darker skinned Ethiopians were looked down on by the lighter skinned Eritreans (and the Sudanese in the story, who were mostly Moslem, taunted the Eritreans, who were not only of a different skin tone, but also did not dress in a suitably modest manner).

Heart of Fire was translated from German and published in London by Profile Books in 2006. (I have returned the book to the library and didn't, unfortunately, note the name of the translator)

Friday, June 29, 2018

Latvia: Soviet Milk, by Nora Ikstena

Latvia was one of the countries on my "fairly hard to find" list, so I was delighted when this newly published title turned up at our library. Soviet Milk covers the lives of three generations of women - chiefly, a mother and daughter, but the grandmother and step-grandfather also make an appearance. None of these four are ever named - they are referred to as "my mother", "my daughter" and so on, depending on who is narrating. The book is written in short sections which switch narrators back and forth between the mother and the daughter. I was several sections in before I realised this, although perhaps it should have been obvious. Once it was clear, the story was easy to follow.

The mother was born at the end of World War II, shortly before Latvia was taken over by Soviet Russia. The daughter was born in 1969, and the novel covers the years up to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the Latvian people looking forward to the possibility of becoming and independent nation again. The mother is a doctor, but she is a deeply flawed and troubled character, and it is the grandparents' influence which has a stabilising effect on the daughter, who lives with them when her mother takes up a study opportunity in Leningrad. She returns from there disgraced, and is banished to a country health centre, where her daughter joins her for some years before returning to Riga to stay with her grandparents and attend high school.

It is a quiet, mostly undramatic story, but I found it compelling. It offers a clear picture of life in Latvia under Soviet rule, and the difficulties that entailed for the Latvian people. It is not a long book, so it was quick to read.

Soviet Milk was published in 2018 by Peirene Press and translated from Latvian by Margita Gailitis. It won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award for Best Prose. Nora Ikstena was born in 1969 (like the daughter in the story) in Riga, Latvia. She studied at the University of Latvia, moved to New York, and on her return she helped establish the Latvian Literature Centre.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Iran: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar

This is a somewhat sprawling novel which tells the events in the lives of a family in Iran after the Islamic Revolution in 1959. After the father's workshop where he makes classical Iranian musical instruments is raided and set on fire by revolutionaries, the family leaves Tehran for a quiet rural area. However, even there, they are not safe from the changes that the revolution brings.

The story uses the lyrical magic realism style of classical Persian storytelling. It is full of ghosts, jinns, spirits, mermaids and other creatures. While tragedy after tragedy befalls the family, the style of story telling and the fantastic elements in the narrative lighten the tone and make it bearable, even as the family face the loss of all they hold dear - their culture, literature and way of life, and their lives themselves.

Despite the complexities of the plot (it is not until chapter five that there is a sudden twist, and we start to realise the depth of the tragedy that has occurred), I enjoyed this book very much. The depictions of the kind of lives that cultured Iranians lived before the revolution was intriguing, given how Iran is portrayed in the media today as a repressive Islamic state. The family are depicted as book lovers, and the classical books named are from many cultures both Western and Iranian. The Blind Owl, an Iranian classic that I read earlier, is one that gets a mention. I found the blind owl hallucinatory and confusing, but this one is clearer, perhaps because it was written for a more western audience. One thing that struck me as a little odd was the narrator referring to her parents as "Mum" and "Dad" rather than using the titles that would be used for them in Iran. This is probably, again, because it was published in Australia for a western audience, but I felt that it constantly jolted me slightly out of the atmosphere of the story, and that a western audience could well handle Iranian titles for the narrators parents - after all, many other Iranian words are used. A small niggle - but it's the first book I've read in the course of this project in which this niggle has arisen.

Shokoofeh Azar was born in Iran in 1972. She studied literature at high school and university, and later worked as a journalist for an independent newspaper. In 2004, she became the first Iranian woman to backpack and hitchhike along the Silk Road. In 2010 she was forced to leave Iran, and was accepted as a political refugee by Australia in 2011. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree was published by Wild Dingo Press (Melbourne, Australia) in 2017.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Iraq: I'jaam, by Sinan Antoon

This is a slim book, but a fascinating one. There is a preface which explains the meaning of the title. Arabic script is written with dots which elucidate the meaning of the phonetic characters. Without dots, the meaning has to be deciphered from context and syntax. The dots were added to eliminate ambiguity. For instance, the word which undotted reads bayt (house) can also be read as bint (girl), banat (she built), nabt (plant), thabt (brave), and so on, by placing dots in different ways.

The text of the novel is supposedly written by an unnamed narrator, being held in prison and tortured for political reasons. It has been written without dots, and has been given by officials to a "qualified personnel" to add the dots and report on the manuscript's content.

The book is both grim and lyrical, as the narrator slips alternately between dream and reality, between nightmare, hallucination and the actuality of his current circumstances. Footnotes which give alternate readings of some words and phrases add extra layers of meaning, and allow for barbed satire at the expense of the regime depicted.

I found far fewer books from Iraq than from neighbouring Iran, but this one seemed a very good place to start. Sinan Antoon was born in Baghdad in 1967. He studied English literature at Baghdad University and moved to the United States after the 1991 Gulf War. He teaches Arabic literature and culture at New York University.

I'jaam was published in Arabic by Dar al-Adab in Beirut in 2004. It was translated into English by Rebecca Johnson and Sinan Antoon and published by City Lights Books in 2007.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Kenya: The Dance of the Jakaranda, by Peter Kimani

The Jakaranda Hotel of this novel is located at Nakuru, where the expatriate British, McDonald, had settled after arriving in Kenya to supervise the building of the railway from Mombasa on the coast, to the other side of the country, at the beginning of the twentieth century. McDonald's wife, Sally, had arrived at the house that he built for her and promptly left again.

In 1963, as Kenya is gaining its independence from Britain, Rajan, the lead singer in the hotel's resident band, is kissed by a mysterious woman in a dark corridor. He is unable to forget her. This novel unravels his story, and that of the woman, and their shared history, along with McDonald, the missionary Rev Richard Turnbull, and Rajan's grandparents Babu and Fatima, who had come to Kenya from the Punjab along with many other Indian labourers to work on the railway.

This is an epic story which is not just a family saga but reveals the unfolding story of the birth of Kenya as an independent nation. I found it compelling reading, with richly drawn characters and a fascinating setting. There was just one little niggle lurking in the background - I couldn't make sense of the timeline. There seemed to be some faulty arithmetic at work. If Rajan's father, Rashid, was born around 1903 as was described, and left Kenya at the age of eighteen - or not much more - to live in Britain, having fathered Rajan before he left - then Rajan couldn't be as young as he was supposed to be in 1963. And there were other anachronisms - the chief of which was the description of Babu having a "black polythene bag" - also around 1903, long before the invention of polythene. Or was it a figure of speech? It wasn't quite clear. These concerns weren't intrusive, for the most part, but did have me putting down the book to go and fact check from time to time.

This railway still exists today - I found a fascinating account of a journey on the railway at this website.

Peter Kimani is an award winning Kenyan novelist. He teaches journalism in Nairobi, and is a Visiting Writer at Amherst College in the United States.

The Dance of the Jakaranda was published in the United Kingdom in 2018 by Telegram under license from Akashic Books, New York

Friday, May 25, 2018

Italy: The Sense of an Elephant, by Marco Missiroli

I borrowed this book from the library because I found the title (and the blurb on the back) intriguing. I wondered where it was going at first. After all, all the secrets seemed to be revealed in the first few chapters, so it wasn't a mystery. It centres round an ex-priest, Pietro, who has taken a job as concierge in an apartment block in Milan. We soon learn that Lica, the father of one of the families in the building, is his son. So I wondered how the tension would sustain itself as there didn't seem to be much to reveal. It turns out, this is not quite the "feel good" story that it seems to be at first. There are surprises to come, not least at the end, and moral dilemmas that left me with plenty to think about.

I wondered about the translation - do Italians refer to a "concierge" or do they have their own word for it? We don't seem to have an English equivalent, but to refer to Pietro as a concierge seems to lend rather a French flavour. Then, the building is frequently referred to as a "condominium" which sounds very American to me, and modern, though in other ways I pictured the building as much older. (The blurb on the back refers to it as a "palazzo" - much more Italian sounding).

I enjoyed the book, and found the characterization complex and interesting. Pietro has two old friends in Milan, the gay lawyer Poppi who found him the job, and his tarot-reading friend Anita. There are also flashbacks to his past life in Rimini, and his relationship with Celeste. And then there are other inhabitants of the apartment building including Paola and her adult son Fernando, who has the mind of a child.

The Sense of an Elephant was translated from Italian by Stephen Twilley and published by Picador in 2015. It was originally published in Italy ,where it won the Campiello Prize, in 2012.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Somalia: The Orchard of Lost Souls, by Nadifa Mohamed

I found this a really interesting book to read shortly after my pick for Ethiopia (scroll down a couple of posts). It is set in the north part of Somalia, near the border with Ethiopia and about ten years later than Maaza Mengiste's book. So there were noticeable resonances between the two stories.

The Orchard of Lost Souls focuses on three women (or rather, two women and a girl). All are strong, independent characters. Filsan is a young female soldier, sent north to Hargeisa from Mogadishu to help suppress the rebellion growing in the north. Kawsar is a widow. Nine-year-old Deqo was born in a vast refugee camp outside the city. She is brought with a troop of refugee children to dance at a political rally. When she forgets the steps, frozen in fear, she is dragged aside by the woman in charge of the troop to be punished. Kawsar intervenes and Deqo runs off, leaving Kawsar to be arrested. At the police station the soldier Filsan beats her savagely. Thereafter she is crippled and confined to her house, unable to tend to her beloved orchard. The paths of the three characters separate but, like channels of a braided river, they come together again later in the story.

Apart from the beating Kawsar receives in the police station, I found this book not nearly as brutal as Mengiste's. We see the city emptying out and suffering from the war, but the portrayal of political oppression is not as extreme, perhaps because the city is remote from the capital where the leaders live. There are certainly some brutal passages, for instance when Filsan is sent to take part in an action to destroy water reservoirs in surrounding villages, because the tribesmen are suspected of aiding the rebels. However, these are not quite as central to the story as in "Beneath the Lion's Gaze", and the focus is more on the tenderness between the three women that arises as events unfold, leading to a much more hopeful ending, at least for the central characters.

The north of Somalia, where the book is set, has been declared to be an independent state, the Republic of Somaliland, since 1991. So for anyone wishing to include Somaliland as a separate country, this would be a good book to read. However its independence is not officially recognized, and it is not on the list of countries recognized by the United Nations that I am following. Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa in 1981 and moved to London with her family in 1986, shortly before the events of this book. This was intended to be a temporary move, but it became permanent when the war broke out. She did not return to Hargeisa until 2008.

The Orchard of Lost Souls is her second book and was published by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd in 2013.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Dominica: The Orchid House, by Phyllis Shand Allfrey

"The Orchid House" is narrated by Lally, the elderly servant of a white family who have fallen on hard times in an unnamed Caribbean Island. The three small girls who had ben in Lally's charge have now grown up - Natalie is a wealthy widow, who is supporting her impoverished parents, Stella has married a farmer in America and Joan is in England where she is politically involved in the Labour Party.

During the course of the story, the girls return one by one to the island. Their father is ill and drug dependent after returning from "the war" (apparently the First World War). Each daughter tries in her own way to change things - Joan through politics, Natalie with money, and Stella with a drastic course of action that has unforeseen consequences. Caught up in the story also are Mademoiselle Bosquet, the girls' childhood French teacher who is in love with "the Master", and a young man, Andrew, dying of tuberculoses - but which sister does he most love? And which of them loves him?

The book was originally published in 1953 and was for a long time forgotten, as colonialism was left behind and the political situation in the Caribbean changed - though a film adaptation was made in 1990. There is an introduction to the current edition written by Schuyler Esprit, a scholar of Caribbean literature and post colonial studies. In it she puts the book in its cultural and political context. Although some of the finer details of her explanation were a little lost on me, nevertheless I found it worthwhile reading, all it would be quite possible to enjoy the book without it.

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was born and brought up in Dominica, and lived in New York and London as a young woman. She returned to Dominica in the 1950s, was a cofounder of the Dominica Labour Party, and subsequently became a newspaper editor. The current edition of The Orchid House was published in 2016 by Papillote Press, a publishing house which specialises in Caribbean literature.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Ethiopia: Beneath the Lion's Gaze, by Maaza Mengiste

Set around the period 1974 - 1978, when famine and rebellion led to the overthrow of the Emperor Haile Selassie and the establishment of a military dictatorship, this novel focuses on Hailu, a doctor, and his family in the capital of Addis Abbaba. At the onset of the book Hailu's wife Selam is in hospital, dying. His elder son Yonas is married to Sara, and they have one daughter, Tizita. His younger son Dawit is a student,heavily involved in clandestine political activity.

The members of the family are all deeply affected in different ways by the death of Selam. Sara mourns her as the replacement for her own mother. Hailu immerses himself in his work. Dawit becomes estranged from his childhood friend, Mickey, who has joined the military, for the security of a paid job. As the political situation unravels, all the members of the family, in their different ways, are faced with unthinkable choices.

The novel is quite grim and brutal in parts. It is lightened by lyrical passages which describe dreams or visions, including those of the dead and dying. Ethiopia has a long Christian tradition - the emperor (or King of Kings) was supposedly a descendant of the Biblical King David, the monarchy of Ethiopia being the oldest in the world - and this tradition is reflected in the beliefs of the characters.

As I read further into the book, I was more and more riveted by the writing, and found it hard to put down. The period described in the second half of the book is one of brutal genocide. The ending is somewhat inconclusive - those remaining are safe, for the meantime, but on finding that the military government (the Derg) lasted around 13 - 14 more years after the conclusion of the novel, I couldn't help wondering how long that safety would hold.

Maaza Mengiste writes in the author's note at the end that it is a fictionalized account based on real history. Only the emperor and his prime minister are given the names they had in real life. Other characters are fictionalized including many of the military leaders. So the dilemmas and actions taken in the book are not actual events that took place, but nevertheless they represent the real difficulties that a wide range of people faced at the time.

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Abbaba in 1974 and left with her family at the age of four when they fled the Ethiopian Revolution. She spent the rest of her childhood in Nigeria, Kenya and the United States, and now lives in the latter country where she teaches creative writing.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Dominican Republic: Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez

I could have read the much better known book by Junot Diaz, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". Two things put me off - firstly, that Diaz had moved to the United States when he was six years old, and secondly, I read that the book was set in the United States (among the Dominican immigrant community).

Instead, I looked at the novels of Julia Alvarez, and found one in e-book form in our local library. "Before We Were Free" is actually a young adult book. It is narrated by Anita, who is eleven years old at the start of the story. She lives in a house on the family compound with her parents and elder brother and sister. Close by are her aunts, uncles and cousins, but gradually they have all moved away to the United States. Anita is lonely, and innocent of the wider political realities of life under "El Jefe", whose poster is on every classroom wall and in every home. It is 1960 and El Jefe is the dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

The young adult level of the book meant that I found the first chapter or two a bit simplistic, but gradually as Anita becomes older, she learns more of the political situation, and the problems that her family are facing. The gradual revelations are compelling to read and I found myself gripped by the story, through which I learnt a lot more of the history of the Dominican Republic.

Julia Alvarez has also written an adult novel set at about the same time period: "In the Time of the Butterflies". I'll be looking out for it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Madagascar: Beyond the Rice Fields, by Naivo

I was delighted when this newly published book turned up in our local library. It is described as the first Malagasy novel to be published in English. I'm not sure what that means as it was initially published in France and appears to have been translated from French. So I suspect that is "Malagasy" as in "from Madagascar" rather than "Malagasy" as in "written in the Malagasy language".

At any rate, it is a fascinating view of the little known history of Madagascar. Set in the nineteenth century, at the time of King Radama I and his successor Queen Ranavalona I, it tells of the life of Tsito, a young boy from the forest people, who is captured and enslaved, and of Fara, the daughter of the man who purchases him. It is a time of great turbulence in Madagascar. Tsito falls in love with Fara, but as a slave, he is not able to fulfil his love. However, eventually he is able to gain his freedom. He becomes a skilled craftsman, and even travels to Chatham in Kent to learn English methods of shipmaking. In the meantime Fara and her family fall victim to a sweeping wave of repression against the newly ascendant Christian religion, and against others who are suspected in any way of disloyalty to the crown, or of sorcery.

The book is dense with plot and many characters, and was at times tricky to follow. I found myself flipping back to check on earlier happenings, and also turning to the glossary and historical summary at the end of the book. Nevertheless, I was riveted by this view of a world that I was unfamiliar with, knowing of Madagascar only through wildlife documentaries.

Naivo is the pen name of Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa. The book was translated from French by Allison M. Charetteand published by Restless Books in October 2017.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Burkina Faso: The Parachute Drop, by Norbert Zongo

I was delighted to come across the Global Anthology, a website which highlights a piece of literature from every country in the world. Many countries are represented by links to short extracts, but the entry for Burkina Faso linked to a pdf the entire text of Norbert Zongo's The Parachute Drop (though lacking the introduction mentioned by Ann Morgan in her review). This downloaded beautifully to my newly acquired e-reader so I took it on holiday last week so that I could finish off the "B" countries.

Norbert Zongo was an investigative journalist. Though the novel is set in the fictional African republic of Watinbow, it has been suggested variously that the novel is a thinly disguised critique of Togo, or of Burkina Faso itself. I suspect that in discussing the misuse of power by African leaders in newly independent countries, it is applicable to quite a few African countries. Gouama, the 'Founding President and Clairvoyant Guide' of Watinbow is a deeply flawed and ruthless person, who imprisons Marxists, and students suspected of being Marxists, assassinates former loyal friends, and believes in sorcery, so that he uses the body parts of those he has had killed for bizarre rituals.

However, he is in some ways naive, and finds himself manipulated by advisors he had trusted, so that he loses power in a military coup, and finds himself stranded deep in the countryside, trying to reach safety in the form of the neighbouring country, where he believes the president will come to his aid and assist him to regain power. In the course of his arduous journey, he is assisted by local farmers and fishermen, some of whom turn out to be the very students he had earlier imprisoned, and who had managed to escape execution.

I found the portrait of Gouama surprisingly sympathetic, showing both his evil side and his humanity and, at times, good intentions. The students who assist him, however, come across as more one-sided. While both colonial governments and the new leaders of African independence (whether civilian or military) are shown as deeply flawed, the Marxists are shown as good people who care for the needs of the poor and who believe that "development" means nothing unless the people have better healthcare and enough food to eat. While this may be the case, I feel that there are flawed individuals involved in any political movement, and that Marxist governments are no better (though sometimes no worse) than other types of government in this respect.

Nevertheless, though it was clear early on that the book was written to convey a political message, I found it an engrossing story.

The Parachute Drop was translated by Christopher Wise, and originally published by Socialist Stories.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Mauritius: The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah

Nathacha Appanah is a French Mauritian of Indian origin, and worked there as a journalist before moving to France in 1998.

"The Last Brother" is set in the final years of World War II, although the young protagonist, a boy named Raj, does not know what is happening outside his island home. When a flash flood sweeps away his two brothers, Anil and Vinod, he and his parents leave their village to cope with their grief, his father taking up a new job as a prison guard. Raj, a victim of his father's savage beatings, spends time in the prison hospital, where he meets and befriends David, a young Jewish boy.

David is one of a group of European Jews who had taken ship for Palestine to escape Hitler. However the British, who were in charge of Palestine at the time, would not allow the ship to land, and the passengers were interred on the island of Mauritius for the duration of the war, where 127 of them perished.

All this is in the past when Raj, now a seventy year old man, narrates the events of those days. He carries a deep burden of guilt, and of regret for the lost David, his only friend after his brothers' death. The story benefits from the dual perspective - the simplicity of the child to whom the events happened, with the more reflective view of the old man looking back. Lyrical and poignant,it has been translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan, and published by Maclehose Press.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Chile: Camanchaca, by Diego Zúñiga

I have been intrigued by the area of Northern Chile that surrounds the Atacama Desert, the dryest place on earth, every since discovering that my great grandmother's brother, a Scottish mining engineer, settled there in the late 1800's. So when I read of this book, the author's first novel, I ordered it.

When it arrived I found a very slim volume of a little over a hundred pages, many of which carry only a few lines of text. The book tells of its teenage narrator, living with his mother in Santiago, invited by his father in the northern city of Iquique to visit him and take a road trip with him. The camanchaca is a low sea fog that is the only source of moisture in the desert. The story is told in fragments as if seen through fog, fragmented, elusive and with its outlines blurred.

I found the narrator a somewhat unappealing character - overweight, with bad teeth, uncertain about life. But the writing is compelling, with a sense of mystery about it, which is never quite solved. A quick, but not necessarily easy, read, which I found myself appreciating very much. The author was born in 1987, so it will be interesting to see what path his writing takes in future.

Camanchaca is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published in 2017 by Coffee House Press.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Cape Verde: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araujo, by Germano Almeida

I knew little about the Cape Verde Islands before reading this book, apart from the fact that I have a CD of songs by the "barefoot diva" Cesaria Evora, who comes from there. It turns out that the islands are somewhat different to the rest of Africa. They were uninhabited until discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century. It was ideally situated for the Atlantic slave trade, and its modern population has a mixture of Portuguese, Moorish, Arab and African heritage.

This was an easily readable book. The title character has been single all his life,a comfortably off business man and appeared to be a model of rectitude. But when he dies, he leaves a will of some three hundred pages, which reveals his life story, including the existence of an illegitimate daughter. This is rather unwelcome news to his nephew, who had expected to inherit his uncle's estate.

As the book proceeds, the daughter, Maria da Graca, and nephew Carlos, gradually learn more of their uncle's life, along with the reader. It is a rich picture of a life. The blurb suggests that the book moves along a blurry line between farce and tragedy. But one thing made me uncomfortable about this book - the description of the conception of Maria da Graca. Despite her mother saying "it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't wanted it", the description suggests that she had little choice in the matter, in fact it was uncomfortably close to a rape scene between an employer and a powerless employee. The book was originally written in 1991, and perhaps it didn't seem a problem then, but today this scene is disturbing.

The book was translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser and published by New Directions in 2004

Friday, March 02, 2018

Brazil: The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, by Martha Batalha

Crow Blue, the first book I read from a Brazilian author, had large parts set out of the country. And when Martha Batalha's newly translated book appeared in our library, it looked intriguing, so I thought I would give it a go.

Euridice Gusmao and her elder sister Guida are two very different people, growing up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, the daughters of Portuguese immigrant merchants. Guida reads womens magazines and styles her sister's hair. Euridice is a talented musician and dreams of fame and fortune. One day Guida disappears. Euridice gives up her ambitions to marry and live the conventional life of a wife and mother. But Euridice is bored. The book tells the story of the various projects Euridice adpots to inject some interest into her humdrum life. And what happens when Guida turns up again with her young son? (But without her husband).

I found the book entertaining and amusing. The reader cannot but feel sympathetic towards the spirited Euridice, and wish that she had lived in more enlightened times, when she might have better fulfilled her potential. For although all her schemes occupy her for a time, ultimately she does not have the means to carry any through to its completion. Perhaps her final project, writing a book, will have a better outcome? We are left to wonder...

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao was translated from the Portuguese by Eric M B Becker and published by Oneworld Publications in 2017.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

United Kingdom: Elmet, by Fiona Mozley

The United Kingdom is a tricky one (in fact, I've considered splitting it up and reading a book each for England, Scotland and Wales). It's not, of course, that there is a lack of choice but that there is too much choice. I wanted something that could only come from the UK - not a generic "modern big city" sort of book. The Booker Prize long-listed Elmet seemed to fit the bill.

It is set in rural Yorkshire, in the vale of Elmet, the site of the last independent Celtic kingdom in England. Here Daniel and his sister Cathy live with their father apart from modern life, in a house that Daniel's father has built by hand. They live by hunting and fishing. But even though they wish it, they cannot keep themselves apart from the outside world. Though Daniel's father is tender with his children, violence lurks inside him. And men in the outside world are threatened by their presence, and want to control their lives. A terrible denouement is coming.

It's a powerful and unsettling book but also very lyrical. Cathy takes after their father and prefers the outdoors. Daniel likes the indoors and their idiosyncratic schooling with Vivien, a neighbour. He is watchful and observant. Even so, I found him puzzling as a narrator, and couldn't quite decide if the "voice" of the book, with its impressive and precise vocabulary, was true to what he might have learnt in his year or so of being schooled this way. The other thing that I found a little unrealistic was that everyone wanted to solve their issues without the intervention of the police. But some of the events that took place would surely attract very prompt police intervention in the modern world, and this didn't happen. Or perhaps it did, just not within the time frame of the story. At any rate, as the story unfolded, I was totally gripped by the narrative, and by the beauty of the language and description.

Fiona Mozley grew up in York and is studying for a degree in medieval history. Elmet is her debut novel and is published by John Murray (Hachette UK), 2017.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Bahrain: Yummah, by Sarah A Al Shafei

I'm slowing down on the world reading because I have a lot of other books on my "to be read" list that don't fit this project. However, I thought I should try and fill in some of the gaps among the B's and C's - Bahrain being first on the list.

It came down to a choice of two books, after I searched extensively and couldn't find any others. Either QixotiQ, by Ali Al Saeed, or Yummah. And after reading Ann Morgan's review of QixotiQ, I thought Yummah would be the better bet.

Mind you, it is not without flaws. The story tells of the life of Khadeeja, a Bahraini woman growing up in a traditional society, raising her children and becoming the matriarch of a large family of grandchildren and greatgrandchildren as times change and modern influences affect their lives. "Yummah" it appears is an Arabic term for "grandmother". It's the sort of story that you might write for your family to tell of your family history. As a description of Bahraini life it was interesting enough, but there was not a lot of drama in the way events unfolded. And I found Khadeeja to be an infuriatingly perfect woman - patient and forgiving. When her husband, going through financial difficulties, leaves her to travel to Dubai where he remarries a rich woman, she never stops loving him. And when he is old and ill, she takes him back and nurses him. There were flaws too, in the maths. In places, time intervals between children are clearly stated - two years after her first daughter, she is pregnant again. She has a third daughter, and then a son, and a couple more after that - she is nursing a baby when her five year old son is bitten by a scorpion and dies. So her eldest must now be about ten years old at least - but several more children follow, and her eldest is still around eleven or twelve years old and approaching marriageable age.

The author studied in Boston and Miami and received a BA there. I presume that the book has not been translated, but written in English. It would have benefitted from editing but mostly the mistakes do not get too much in the way of the reader. I often noticed a lack of punctuation so that where I would have expected a full stop between sentences, there was none, and the two sentences were written as one. In spoken English, this would have been less obvious. The most charming quirk that I noticed on several occasions was the use of the phrase "to go behind" which floored me briefly, until I realised the author meant "to go after" eg someone "went behind" money instead of "going after" money.

But the lack of editing is an inevitable consequence of the fact that many of the books I am reading for this project are produced on low budgets, in a world where the big publishers concentrate on a few titles likely to achieve mass market success. My copy, which I had to pursue rather diligently in various corners of the internet, was I think a "print on demand" title (it does seem to be available on Amazon, but I don't purchase from there as the shipping rates to New Zealand make their prices ridiculously expensive).

At any rate, despite its flaws, I found the book an enjoyable enough read. And as the author is apparently only twenty four years old, or was at the time of its publication, perhaps there will be more to come from her, and she will improve as she goes on.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Poland: Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg

Wioletta Greg is a poet, and it shows in this delightful novella about a young girl growing up in the country in Poland in the dying days of the Communist regime. The young girl at the centre of the book is named Wiola, and one wonders if it is semi-autobiographical. At any rate, the series of small vignettes that make up the book are at times amusing and at times lyrical - but also very gritty. Superstition and religion are in conflict with each other and with politics in this community, but while in some ways it seems like a long-lost rural world, in other ways it is strikingly modern - glue-sniffing, for instance, makes an appearance. The title is taken from an episode in which Wiola breaks a thermometer and swallows the mercury after being sexually molested by the local doctor.

I found the writing very fresh and, despite the grimmer aspects of the story, overall uplifting.

"Swallowing Mercury" was translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books. It was the recipient of an English Pen Award.