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