Saturday, July 11, 2020

Guyana: Children of Paradise, by Fred D'Aguiar

I usually think of South America as Hispanic (with the exception of Brazil, colonized by Portugal and therefore closely related). Of course, that is not true, especially of the three small countries to the north of Brazil, formerly known as British Guiana, Dutch Guiana and French Guiana.

Since Guiana is a former British colony, many of its inhabitants emigrated to the UK, and I found it quite difficult to find a Guyanese writer actually living in Guyana, although there are a number in Britain. Fred D'Aguiar was born in London to Guyanese parents, but spent much of his childhood growing up in Guyana. For his novel, Children of Paradise, he has taken as his inspiration the true story of the Jonestown massacre. Jonestown was a religious community established in a remote area of the Guyanese jungle by American pastor Jim Jones. In 1978 most of the community, around 900 members including 300 children, died after drinking a cyanide laced potion, at the directive of the leader, rather than face investigation by authorities.

This book is a novel and the author does not claim it sticks to the facts, but it does seem to follow them quite closely. It chillingly sets out the ways in which a charismatic leader can exert a hold over a large group of people, both by mental and physical methods. One thing that did rather puzzle me was the presence in the community of a pet gorilla. It was implied that the gorilla was taken into captivity when his mother was shot, presumably in the forest where the community was located. Gorillas however, are native to Africa and not to South America. Was the gorilla transported across the ocean? There seemed to be no good reason why that might have happened. Nevertheless, the gorilla is central to the story so it was necessary for me to suspend my disbelief on that point.

Fred D'Aguiar is also a poet and that showed through particularly in the final chapter which interweaves two alternate endings to the story, one hopeful and one less so. I wanted to believe that the resourceful 10 year old Trina, along with her mother Joyce, and a large band of the commune's children, did manage to escape. In the real life version, sadly, that did not happen.

Children of Paradise was published in the UK by Granta Books in 2014 and in the USA by Harper Collins in 2016.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Vietnam: The Mountains Sing, by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

When looking for books from Vietnam, most references I found were to books written by South Vietnamese, usually after leaving the country, about their wartime experiences. When I discovered "The Mountains Sing" at our local library, it was a little different - firstly, because it is a family saga covering a greater time period, from before the Second World War to the present day, and secondly, because the author grew up in North Vietnam.

Even though there were protests in New Zealand about the Vietnam war, wanting the Americans and allies to withdraw, the Communist north was still portrayed as the enemy at the time. I was pleased to discover a much more nuanced picture of events in this novel. The Tran family at the centre of the saga are hard-working farmers living a relatively comfortable life until a series of misfortunes befall them. The patriarch of the family is killed by the Japanese during the occupation. After the war, the Communist instigated Land Reform results in them being denounced as landlords exploiting the poor, and they lose their land. Grandmother Tran Dieu Lan moves to the city, where several of her sons of the family enlist to fight in the war against the south and against the American "imperialists", with devastating results. The story is told through the eyes of Dieu Lan, and through those of her granddaughter Huong, whose mother also served in the war as a medical doctor, and returned traumatised.

Despite the hardships, the story takes a more positive turn towards the end, as young Huong studies hard at high school, and falls in love. She is a keen reader and writes "I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them - their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth." This book surely shows the humanity of the North Vietnamese, through a variety of well-rounded characters. There were a couple of plot points which I felt were somewhat contrived in order to tie up all the loose ends, but on the whole I enjoyed the book very much.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai was born in North Vietnam in 1973 during the Vietnam war. She worked as a street vendor and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to study in
Australia. She returned to Vietnam where she worked in sustainable development with various agencies including the United Nations. She is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction and non fiction in Vietnamese. She currently lives in Indonesia. The Mountains Sing is her first book in English and was published in 2020 by Algonquin Books of Capitol Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

United Kingdom: The Insomnia Museum, by Laurie Canciani

It was the title of this novel which intrigued me. I'm not sure quite what I expected - something a little surreal and quirky, I suspect. In fact the story was something else entirely. Anna is 17 and lives with her Dad who never lets her go outside. Together they build a strange collection of objects made from discarded televisons, old clocks and other junk. But Anna's father is a junkie, and one day he dies from an overdose. Anna must go outside and find her way in the world.

She is taken in by a former friend of her father, Lucky. He is described in some reviews as a "born again Christian" although I didn't feel that was clear in the book. He does, however, believe in God. And he compulsively helps people, believing that there is one person out there somewhere who he has to save.

Lucky lives on a rather grim housing estate full of high rise apartments. His son Tick supposedly has ADHD and wags school to deal drugs. I found the whole scenario of the book rather bleak. The language however is beautiful, and the voice of Anna is unusual and intriguing.

But for all her powers of description, the author needed the services of a good editor as some scenes are muddled and lacking in continuity. For instance, she makes a big deal out of Lucky's flat having bare wood floors. Then, in a scene with Anna and Tick in the living room, it shifts to the kitchen without them actually going there. Next thing, they are back in the living room. A blob of mayonnaise falls on Anna's shoe and she wipes it off on the (supposedly non-existent) carpet.

Other aspects of the story stretched my credibility slightly, although it didn't quite break, because after all, it was set in a community of the underclass, which I am not at all familiar with, so I was prepared, in the end, to believe it was possible. And for all its bleakness, it even felt somewhat redemptive, at the end.

Laurie Canciani suffered from agoraphobia as a teen (like Anna) and was kicked out of school at 16. Later she returned to formal education and earned a Masters in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. The Insomnia Museum is her first book and was published in the UK by Head of Zeus in 2018.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Singapore: How We Disappeared, by Jing-Jing Lee

Looking at the new book displays in the library seems to be a great way of finding interesting new books. After lockdown ended, I returned a big pile of books (which had had their return date extended while the library was closed) including Hilary Mantel's latest door stop, "The Mirror and the Light". I took an equally large pile home, including this novel by an author I had not encountered before.

The story is set in Singapore both during the World War II occupation of the island by the Japanese, and in relatively modern times - it seems somewhere around the turn of the century, which is perhaps during the childhood of the author. 12 year old Kevin's grandmother is dying. As she does so, confused and believing Kevin to be his father, she mumbles a confession. In the meantime, the elderly Wang Di is grieving the death of her husband, and adjusting to life in a modern high rise apartment since her old home is to be bulldozed for a new development.

Kevin sets about unravelling a family mystery. The story crosses back and forth between his story and Wang Di's in the present, and Wang Di's story in the past. I found it a compelling story, if a little grim in the description of the lives of the "comfort women" who were taken by the Japanese to serve the physical needs of their soldiers during the war.

Ultimately though, it is a redemptive story. One minor niggle I had was that the book supposedly explains why Kevin has no uncles, aunts, cousins and so on - but that is on this father's side, and there is little explanation of his mother's background. True, it would unnecessarily complicate the story to digress to much, but a little casual explanation of his mother's background would have filled out her character.

Jing-Jing Lee was born and raised in Singapore and gained a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from Oxford University. She currently lives in Amsterdam. How We Disappeared was published in the UK by Oneworld Publications in 2019. The edition I read was published in the USA by Hanover Square Press, also in 2019.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Angola: The Society of Reluctant Dreamers, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

Near the start of this project I read Jose Eduardo Agualusa's book "A General Theory of Oblivion", but that was before I started posting summaries of the books I read on my blog.

Recently I spotted his latest book at the library and as I had enjoyed the previous one, decided to read that as well. I really liked this book and it's rather unusual narrative. Daniel Benchimol, a reporter, finds a waterproof camera floating in the sea. It turns out to contain images of a woman who has been appearing in his dreams. He discovers that the woman is Moira, a Mozambican artist famous for a series of photographs depicting her own dreams.

Daniel contacts Moira and they meet. Meanwhile his daughter has been arrested as one of a group of young protesters against the current political regime.

The idea of dreams, both in the sense of what happens when we sleep, and in the sense of visions and hopes for the future, binds this book together. It is about the power of art, and of working together. It is both a beautiful and lyrical fantasy, and a powerful political document.

I found myself wondering about the history of the country and the current political situation - if, as it seemed from this book, it is still under a dictatorship, then how could the book get published when the author still lives in the country? So, I suspect that the government depicted in the book is fictionalized, but I will need to do more research before being sure of that.

Jose Eduardo Agualusa was born in Huambo, Angola. His previous book "A General Theory of Oblivion" won the International Dublin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. "The Society of Reluctant Dreamers" was translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and published by Harvill Secker in 2019.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Gabon: Awu's Story, by Justine Mintsa

I'm looking at a big stack of books waiting to be returned to the library. Finally our libraries are open again. In the meantime I had plenty to get on with, both books I had borrowed before lockdown and ones that I had purchased and not got to yet. I was happy to have managed to get a library copy of Hilary Mantel's "The Mirror and the Light" just a day or two before the library shut, and at over eight hundred pages it kept me quite busy especially since I was still working, from home over the internet.

Another library book I had borrowed just before lockdown was much slimmer - Justine Mintsa's "Awu's Story". It's not much over 100 pages, and the translator's introduction alone, where she comments on the cultural background and significance of the book, takes up nearly thirty pages. So it would be unreasonable, I suppose, to expect great depth in that space, and indeed, I felt the character's were rather one dimensional.

Still, there is much of interest here. Awu is the second wife of a village schoolteacher, Obame Afane. She is taken as his second wife because his much loved first wife, Bella, is childless. (That is, in a polygamous marriage). She longs to be loved in the same way as he loves Bella. But this is not to be for many years.

Eventually Obame Afane retires, and travels to the city to try and obtain his pension. Bureaucracy makes this a long drawn out and difficult process. And after his death, in tragic circumstances, Awu is subjected to humiliating traditional rituals to which widows in Fang society are customarily subjected.

As a novel, I would have appreciated more complexity, and found myself not particularly emotionally involved with the characters. But as a cultural document, I found the book interesting. There seems to be little literature from Gabon, a French speaking country (along with traditional languages), published in English, so I was glad to be able to find something.

Awu's Story was translated by Cheryl Toman and published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2018.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Armenia: The Gray House, by Mariam Petrosyan

It often seems to happen that, when I have trouble finding a book from a particular country, the solution comes in pairs. So, not long after I located Aram Pachyan's novel Goodbye Bird, I also came across a reference to Marian Petrosyan's fantasy novel. It sounded so intriguing, I bought it as well. But at over 700 pages,it is not a quick read, so it stayed on my shelf for quite a while before I started it.

I've been working my way through it since Christmas, reading other, shorter, works at the same time. But its uniqueness kept me going. While I describe it as a fantasy novel, it's not typical of any genre. On the surface, the world it describes seems almost normal at first. It is set in a residential school for children with various physical disabilities - although in The House they are not seen as disabilities, merely individual characteristics. And the House itself seems to be alive. As the novel progresses, certain happenings become stranger and stranger. The culmination of the book is the final year and graduation of the group of pupils on which the book is focused.

There were one or two points that seemed to be a bit odd - not odd in the sense that this is a fantasy, but odd in a way that didn't quite fit. There seemed to be only two intakes of new pupils over a twelve year period so that there were juniors, all roughly the same age, and seniors, also all roughly the same age as each other. The seniors had only observed graduation, and The Longest Night that preceded it, once in their time in the House,before it was there turn. One would expect - even in the context of the world of The House - new pupils each year, with a full range of ages at any one time.

Minor points such as this, however, could be overlooked in the overall powerful story telling.

This is Mariam Petrosyan's first novel and also likely to be her last - she worked on the book for eighteen years, and says that readers should not expect another book from her, since The Gray House is not merely a book but a world she knew and could visit, and she doesn't know another one. She was born in Yerevan, Armenia in 1969, where she currently lives, after a time in Moscow. The book was published in Russia in 2009, and translated into English by Yuri Machkasov. It was published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle in 2017.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Liberia: She Would be King, Wayetu Moore

A while back I chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's memoir as my choice for Liberia. I'd rather read novels, though, so when Wayetu Moore's debut novel popped up in the library, I decided to add it to my reading list.

Wayetu Moore was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1985. When she was four years old, civil war broke out. At the time, her mother was studying in America. Her father fled with her and her sisters and hid in a village for six months before her mother was able to send someone to get them across the border. She now lives in America where she teaches at the City University of New York.

She Would be King is a retelling of Liberia's origins which incorporates magical and supernatural elements. It has been described as magical realism, however the author has explained that she is not attempting to fit it into this genre, but is using elements that are traditional to African story telling. It centres round three people who have supernatural powers. Gbessa is born into the Vai tribe, and is considered cursed and a witch because she was born on the day that an old woman died after beating her cat (cats were revered in the Vai culture). Gbessa has startling red hair, and an inability to die, although she feels pain.

Norman Aragon was born in Jamaica to an English father and a Maroon mother. He has the ability to become invisible. He escapes from his English father, and travels to Liberia, where he has heard there is a new colony for former slaves.

June Day is born on a southern plantation to a mother who is a ghost, a dead slave woman who does not know that she is dead. June has supernatural strength, a power which includes the ability to repel bullets and other wounds. He boards a ship for New York, but mistakenly ends up in Liberia.

Norman and June team up to rescue villagers from the predations of the slavers who still terrorize Africa, although slavery has been outlawed in the United States. They meet up with Gbessa, but she is carried off and then abandoned for dead by French slavers. She is rescued and taken into the household of an American settler in Monrovia, where she rises in society, marries and becomes a farmer's wife. Eventually, however, she meets up with Norman and June once more, as the colony is threatened by the outsiders who are still marauding and taking captives, seeing no difference between the villagers of the hinterland and the freed slaves who have settled on the coast.

This is a many layered novel with a powerful and interesting story line. I did feel the telling was a little stilted in places although I could not quite put my finger on why. And in places, the meeting and re-meeting of the three protagonists felt a little contrived. But overall, it is an original and powerful story, and an interesting take on the origins of Liberia.

The edition I read was published in the US by Graywolf Press in 2018. The book was also published in the UK by Pushkin Press in May 2019.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Zambia: The Wild Wind, by Sheena Kalayil

The author draws on her own family history for this story, although she has injected somewhat more drama and conflict into the fictionalised version. Sissy Olikara's parents are teachers seconded from the Indian state of Kerala to work in Zambia. They are living on a school campus outside Lusaka with other expatriate families, Malayalam and Americans. In is 1978, and trouble is brewing. An Air Rhodesia passenger plane is shot down by revolutionaries, bringing uncertainty to the family. In the meantime, Sissy's father has returned suddenly to India, launching a chain of events that has far-reaching consequences.

The book travels backwards and forward in time between Sissy as a child and the adult Sissy, now living in America. She revisits her past, and tries to find out what happened to her father.

I found the story very absorbing and well told. Besides learning more about Zambia, I also found it interesting to learn more about Malayalam society in Kerala, a southern state of India. The author is very good at creating suspense by revealing hints of what happened early on, during the passages narrated by Sissy as an adult, but withholding the detail until much later in the book. This drew me on chapter by chapter, and it is not until nearly the end of the book that all the threads come together in a satisfyingly complete way (although there is still some mystery as to the fate of Sissy's father).

Sheena Kalayil was born in Zambia in 1970 where her parents, like Sissy's in the story, were teachers seconded from Kerala. She attended university in the UK and worked all over the world. She now lives near Manchester with her husband and two daughters.

The Wild Wind was published in Great Britain in 2019 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Limited.

Friday, March 06, 2020

Iran: To Keep the Sun Alive, by Rabeah Ghaffari

I'm beginning to realise that the books I enjoy most by authors from other countries are those where the author left and moved to the west at a fairly young age - say late teens - or at least has a considerable amount of education in the west. (America, Canada, the UK, Australia etc). And they are often female. This is not really surprising, but a bit disappointing - I would really like to enjoy books written by someone from a very different country, who has lived in that country their whole lives, and sometimes I do, but such books seem hard to find.

So we have the book in the previous post written by a Syrian male who lived there most of his life before leaving for political reasons - which I didn't enjoy all that much. (I wasn't alone in this. A review in the Irish Times described it as having "a tone between male porno fantasy and misogyny".)

And then there is the book that is the subject of this review. It is a powerful piece of storytelling that I found myself thoroughly immersed in. Set around 1979 with the Iranian Revolution just around the corner, it follows events in the lives of one extended family. Every week they gather for lunch at the home a retired judge and his wife, Bibi-Khanoom. The characters include their adopted son, Jafar, who never speaks, Bibi-Khanoom's grand-niece, Nasreen, and the judge's brother, a Mullah, Shazdehpoor, the son of his dead sister, and Shazdehpoor's son Madjid.

Madjid and Nasreen fall in love. But he is attracted by revolutionary ideals, and leaves for the city where he falls in with radical students, only to become disillusioned. Meanwhile back in his home town of Naishapur, things are coming to a head, when, on the day of a solar eclipse, an important Muslim holy day happens to fall on the same day as an ancient Persian festival. In this festival young men jump over a fire and chant, "to keep the sun alive". The conflict of the two festivals will prove disastrous for the judge's family.

Framing the chapters set at the time of the revolution are passages describing Shazdehpoor's life in Paris, many years later, when another solar eclipse prompts him to recall what happened so many years ago.

The story is richly layered and full of lyrical prose. The problems of belief are sympathetically described and none of the characters are in the least one dimensional - both the fundamentalist viewpoint, and that of the more liberal members of the family, are given a fair hearing.

Rabeah Ghaffari was born in Iran and now lives in New York City. To Keep the Sun Alive was published in 2019 by Catapult (New York).

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Syria: States of Passion, by Nihad Sirees

Although I found this book well-written enough to keep me reading to the end, I can't say that I loved the book exactly. I didn't really feel emotionally connected enough to the protagonist, but other readers may well get more involved than I did.

Perhaps it was because the protagonist was a male and his feelings for the women in the book somehow failed to move me.

The narrator is a manager in the Agricultural Bank in Syria, and one stormy night his car breaks down in the countryside. When he goes to look for help, he comes across a remote house inhabited only by an old man and his mysterious butler, and there over a period of several days the old man relates to him the story of his life, which forms the narrative of the book. The butler however does not seem to want the story to be told and goes to fairly extreme lengths to prevent it.

There are some slightly irritating disclaimers in the early part of the story about how the narrator does not know how to tell a story properly, and he begs for forgiveness if it is not well done.. I didn't really find that that device made me believe in him as a bank functionary rather than a writer, any more than if it had been left out.

That aside, it is an interesting enough story, and the background of Syrian history from the early part of the twentieth century onwards is well described.

Nihad Sirees was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1950. He worked as an engineer, and later became an acclaimed novelist, but under pressure from the Syrian government, left for Egypt in 2012 and now lives and works in Berlin.

States of Passion was first published in Lebanon in 1998. It was translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss and published by Pushkin Press in 2018 with the help of an English PEN Award.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Mauritania: The Desert and the Drum, by Mbarek Ould Beyrouk

This is the first novel from Mauritania to be translated into English. The protagonist Rayhana is a young Bedouin girl whose life changes when foreigners arrive to mine for metal near her Bedouin camp. Rayhana is attracted to one of them, a young man Yahya, and her life changes dramatically.

I found considerable resonances in this story with the book I read for the Comoros - "A Girl Called Eel". In both stories, a young girl rejects tradition and expectation to forge her own path in life. But this story is much less hopeful than the Comoros story. Rayhana steals her tribe's sacred drum and flees to the city in search of what has been stolen from her (what this is becomes clear as the story proceeds). And yet, while rejecting her tribe's way of life, she does not accept the city way of life either, being critical of the values of both.

I found the story gripping and was hoping for a happy ending almost to the last, but it was not to be. Perhaps in future young Bedouins will make the transition to city life more easily, and indeed, there are hints that it is a good deal more easy for men than for women. This book gives a valuable insight into the lives of the people of a little-known African country.

Mbarek Ould Beyrouk was born in Atar, Mauritania in 1957. He has written three novels. Le tambour des larmes was published in 2015 and won the Amadou-Kourouma Prize in 2016. It was translated as The Desert and the Drum by Rachael McGill and published by Dedalus in 2018.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Comoros: A Girl Called Eel, by Ali Zamir

This is another of the books that I read in 2019 and was slow to get around in reviewing. Of course, this makes it a bit harder as my memory of the story is not fresh. However, it was very vividly written and has stuck with me quite a bit.

The outcome of the book is not really in doubt from the start, as we are introduced to the protagonist, Eel, in the middle of a desperate plight - she is adrift at see and drowning. The rest of the book sets about demonstrating how she got there as she tells her story. Supposedly it unravels in one long breathless sentence. This doesn't make the book as difficult to read as one might think, because in fact there are breaks - paragraph breaks and even chapter breaks, they are just not signalled by full stops.

Eel is an engaging character. She and her sister Rattler are daughters of a fisherman, All-Knowing. They attend high school, but Eel falls for another fisherman, Voracious, and her affair with him sets off the disastrous train of events recounted in the story. It could be a depressing book but in some ways it is strangely uplifting as Eel has a good degree of self-knowledge and self-possession. She lives fully, without regrets and is accepting of her fate without the ending feeling fatalistic.

The Comoros are a small island group about which I knew little, the book suggests that they were formerly a French colony, now independent, although the nearby island of Mayotte (which figures in the story) chose to remain as a territory of France.

Ali Zamir was born in Anjouan in the Comoros in 1987 and now lives in France. A Girl Called Eel (Anguille sous Roche) is the first of his three (so far) novels, was published by Le Tripode in 2016 and won the Prix Senghor. It was translated into English by Aneesa Abbas Higgins and published in Britain by Jacaranda Books in 2019, supported by an English PEN award.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Marshall Islands: Marshall Islands Legends and Stories, ed Daniel A Kelin

I'm catching up - I have been reading but not posting, so this and the following two reviews are for books I read in 2019 but didn't post until 2020.

Daniel A Kelin lives in Hawaii (the United States) but travelled around the Marshall Islands, a scattered collection of tiny islands and archipelagos, collecting these stories. Unlike the traditional tales I've read from other Pacific nations, gods do not seem to feature in these stories, but there are plenty of supernatural beings , especially demons, and the trickster figure Letao. The sense of humour of the native story tellers is reflected in the frequent ending of the Letao stories - "he went to America, that's why the people there are so smart."

I did wonder whether there exist tales of gods which were not revealed to the editor, as it appears there may have been some cultural restrictions on telling the traditional stories to an outsider. However, most of the story tellers appeared to appreciate the necessity to have the stories recorded in order to preserve them, as the young people of the islands adopt a more Western way of life, and the old oral culture passes away.

I enjoyed these stories, more so than the ones I read from Nauru, as there appeared to be a greater variety. Since they were collected more recently, there are more reflections of modern culture in the stories, although they appear to be still largely traditional.

It seems timely that I came across a news story about the islands just a few days ago. They have been passed around various western nations before gaining their sovereignty - in World War 1 they were a Japanese territory and in 1944 they were taken over by the United States, which used them as a site for testing nuclear weapons.(Most notably, on Bikini Atoll.) It seems that the giant dome built to contain radioactive waste is leaking, contaminating the Enewetak lagoon and thus the food supply of the islanders. Nowhere else in the world has the US dumped so much of its nuclear waste on another country.

Hopefully the problem can be dealt with, and the life of the islanders can continue, including the passing on of their unique culture as expressed in these stories.

Marshall Islands Legends and Stories was published by Bess Press (Honolulu, Hawaii) in 2003.