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.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Rwanda: From Red Earth, by Denise Uwimana

I was looking for a different book in our library when I spotted this on the shelf. I hadn't heard of this book before, so it was a fortuitous discovery.

The book is not a novel but a memoir. Denise Uwimana was born in Burundi to Rwandan parents, and grew up in the Congo. Her Tutsi parents had fled Rwanda at the time of independence in 1962, when the new government was in Hutu hands, and there was considerable unrest. However Denise returned to Rwanda at the invitation of her aunt. There she found both a job and a husband. Life was good at first, but it did not last long. Even as three sons were born to them, violence was increasing, culminating in the genocide of Tutsi at the hands of their Hutu neighbours - many of whom had been friends - in 1994. Over the space of a hundred days, more than a million Tutsi were murdered.

The book would be remarkable as an account of that genocide. More remarkable is that Denise and her sons survived, by many small occurrences that can only seem miraculous.

Even more remarkable is the account of Denise's work after the genocide. Denise is the founder of Iriba Shalom International, an organization that provides material and spiritual help to genocide survivors and their children. Their are many Tutsi widoes, since the genocide targeted men and male children. But their are also Hutu women whose husbands were in prison for their part in the genocide. The work of Denise's foundation, and indeed the government, includes recovery and reconciliation between survivors on both sides. For instance, Tutsi widows were given a cow. When that cow had a calf, the woman would give the calf to a Hutu woman. The Hutu widow would give the next calf to a Tutsi woman, and so on.

Denise was driven by her Christian faith, and the book is published by a Christian publishing house. But there are no easy platitudes here. Forgiveness did not always come easily, but it did come. It is a powerful story, and one that I was unfamiliar with as I knew of the genocide of the early 1990's, but not the path that the country had followed since.

Even more remarkably, Denise wrote the book in English, her sixth language.

She now lives in Germany with her second husband, Dr. Wolfgang Reinhardt, but continues to work for healing in Rwanda.

From Red Earth was published by Plough Publishing House, Walden, New York in 2019

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ukraine: The Gardener from Ochakov, by Andrey Kurkov

The Gardener from Ochakov is a story of time travel - but it is very specific time travel, in which the protagonist makes trips into the past to one particular time and place - the town of Ochakov, in 1957.

Igor's mother, Elena Andreevna, has hired a gardener, who lives in their shed. Stepan, the gardener, bears a mysterious and blurred tattoo which Igor helps him to decipher with the help of a computer hacker friend. As a result, Igor and Stepan visit a house in Ochakov, where they find goods hidden inside a wall, including an old Soviet policeman's uniform and a wad of now unusable roubles.

But when Igor decides to wear the uniform to a party, he finds himself inexplicably back in the past. There he meets a wine smuggler and falls in love with a married woman.

I found this book immensely enjoyable. Despite the time travel, it doesn't really fit into the genre of science fiction. The how and why of the time travel is not important. What the book does very successfully is to depict life in the Ukraine in two eras - the 1950's, when it was part of Soviet Russia, and modern times, when it is an independent country. There is a dark edge to it, especially to the part set in the past, but ultimately everything turns out well for Igor and Stepan (and, we are to be hoped, for Igor's computer hacker friend who flees to the past after blackmailing the wrong people).

The Gardener from Ochakov was translated from Russian by Amanda Love Darragh and published by Harvill Secker in Londonin 2013.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Libya: The Return, by Hisham Matar

If I was to describe the ideal author for this world reading project, it would be someone born and raised in their native country, still largely resident there, and writing a book set in that country. So I was initially a little put off when I borrowed this book from the livrary, only to read on the blurb that he was born in New York (his father was a minor Libyan diplomat there at the time), and while he returned to Tripoli at a young age, his family left Libya when he was eight. Most of the rest of his childhood was spent in Cairo until he left for boarding school in the UK, and he has spent most of his adult life in London.

It's an arrogant demand, though. I quickly found on starting the book, that Matar regards himself as Libyan through and through. And the view of Libya that the book provides makes it clear that my ideal author is an unlikely construct. Under the 42 year reign of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi, a large proportion of the country's writers and intellectuals were thrown in prison for their opposition to his regime. Many of the author's own family met this fate. His father was abducted in Cairo and imprisoned in Libya. His eventual fate remains unknown. Two of Matar's uncles and two of his cousins were also imprisoned at the same time and released only after many years. The book describes how that wrote poetry in prison. Paper was bought from guards, some of whom could be bribed, and the poems were passed from prisoner to prisoner, but always had to be destroyed, often before reaching their intended recipient. So very few of the poems written in prison survive. If this was the fate of the poems, short enough to be memorised in some cases, how much more difficult would it be to write a novel under these conditions?

Hisham Matar has written two novels - his debut, In the Country of Men, was short listed for the Man Booker Prize - but The Return is non-fiction, a gripping account of his search to find out the fate of his father. This search remains, in the end, unresolved. But along the way, besides a good deal of information on Libyan politics, a light also shines on culture, art, and the importance of family.

The Return was published in the UK in 2016 by Viking, am imprint of Penguin Books Limited, and was also published in the USA.