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Friday, March 19, 2021

Argentina: The Adventures of China Iron, by Gabriela Cabezon Camara

This is another book I came across by chance in our local library. Since I keep reading books from countries that I have already read one book from, it's going to take me a while to complete the list of countries. But I don't like to pass up an interesting looking book, and this is very different from the first book I read from Argentina (which was a Latin American tinged fantasy). This one is a historical novel. The heroine, China Iron, is the very young wife of a man who is the hero of an epic poem which is a "foundational gaucho epic" - Martin Fierro. China does not have a name of her own, having been brought up as an orphan by "La Negra" and never dignified with a name. (China is a generic term for women). The surname she takes, Iron, is the English translation of Fierro. When her husband is conscripted into the army, China sets off on a wagon journey across the remote pampas in the company of her new-found friend Liz, a Scottish settler who is also looking for her husband. Together they have many adventures and eventually are reunited with their husbands, although there is a big twist to that. As Liz educates China in the ways of the British Empire, and they observe the wonders of Argentina's rich flora and fauna, China grows in knowledge and confidence. I enjoyed the book enormously, but thought that parts were rather simplistic and one-sided, for instance the depiction of the Indians with whom the women and their husbands eventually settle - peace-loving, in tune with nature (and knowledgable not only about the nutritional uses of plants but also about recreational drugs), in some ways like idealised seventies hippies. Then I realised that the point of the novel is that it subverts the epic poem "Martin Fierro", and therefore is only one half of a conversation, the poem providing the other half. So its one-sided view makes perfect sense. The Adventures of China Iron was translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, and published in Edinburgh in 2019 by Charco Press. Gabriela Cabezon Camara was born in Buenos Aires in 1968. She has published a number of novels and collections of short stories. The Adventures of China Iron was selected by The New York Times as one of the best novels published in Latin America in 2017.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Samoa: Freelove, by Sia Figiel

Despite the glowing blurbs on the back of this book, it is likely to prove highly controversial. It is the story of a relationship between Ioage and Inosia (Sia). Sia narrates this story (apart from a small section at the back which is in the form of letters between the two), and she makes it clear very early on that their relationship is forbidden. But the reasons for this are different in traditional Samoan culture and Western culture. In the Samoan view, Ioage is her brother, and therefore their relationship is incestuous. In fact, he is the son of the village chief and this is what makes him her brother - it appears that all boys in the village are considered brothers to the village girls, and they must go outside the village to marry. This makes a good deal of sense to prevent inbreeding. However, although mentioned, it is somewhat glossed over that Ioage is also Sia's teacher. She is seventeen and a half, and presented as a very mature young woman, who knows her own mind, and takes a very active part in developing their relationship. I would find it very troubling to give this book to a teenage daughter, as no matter how mature a seventeen year old might think they are, the notion that a relationship with a teacher is acceptable (and beautiful and sensuous, not to mention a meeting of two very intelligent minds, as it is presented here), is a deeply problematic one. I find it strange that this does not seem to be mentioned in reviews. That aside, the book is well written - lyrical and sensuous. There is a lot of sex in the book. And also a lot of explaining. Ioage's natural role as a teacher makes the explanations of traditional Samoan culture seem natural, coming from him, and not an unwiedly chunk of exposition inserted into the narrative. Really, not very much happens apart from a passionate relationship, most of which happens in one day. One aspect I found a bit unrealistic was that when Sia leaves and goes to the United States to study, the fac that she is unmarried, pregnant, and deeply missing her lover does not seem to impact on her studies at all, in which she succeeds brilliantly. So - a number of caveats, but probably worth reading for the insight it casts on Samoan culture. Freelove was published by Little Island Press in 2018.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Jamaica: How to Love a Jamaican, by Alexia Arthurs

This is a debut collection of short stories by Alexia Arthurs, who was born and raised in Jamaica and mvoed to Brooklyn, New York with her family when she was twelve. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. In the first couple of stories, I believed that it would be a collection focused on young female characters who, like the author, were Jamaican migrants to the United States. But by the end of the collection, I realised that the author's range is quite a bit more than that. Her narrators are young and female, young and male, older and female, older and male. Some are those who have emigrated, some are those who have remained behind in Jamaica, and some have emigrated and then returned. The tensions between the generations, the older and the younger, are perfectly depicted - both the love and the exasperation and misunderstandings. The book like the meals described, is spiced with Jamaican flavours. I enjoyed it more and more as I read on. I look forward to seeing what the author might come up with next and am hoping for a full length novel. How to Love a Jamaican was published in the US by Ballantine Books and in the UK in 2018 by Pan Macmillan.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Kenya: The Perfect Nine, by Ngūgi wa Thiong'o

If I had a deadline for this project, then this would be a much better book to read for Kenya than the one I read previously. This is largely because it is short, being an adaptation as a verse epic of the story of Gīkūyū and Mūmbi, an origin tale of Kenya. It is also, however, a delight to read something that is entirely embedded in indigenous culture, and has nothing to do with later histories of colonization and exploitation by the west. As the author explains, the Gīkūyū people trace their origins to Gīkūyū (man) and Mūmbi (woman). They surveyed the lands around from the summit of the snow capped Mount Kenya. From there, they made their home in a place called Mukuruweini. Their ten daughters were called the Perfect Nine. Supposedly God provided ten suitors for the ten daughters,and the author's interpretation arises from his question: where did the Ten suitors come from? He imagines a larger number taking part in various tests, until only ten remained. The tests which the suitors had to undergo were not opportunities for them to show their manliness to passive and helpless women. The daughters had grown up having to fend for themselves and were capable and self-reliant. In this story, they take as large a part in the quest as do the suitors, and rescue the men just as often as the men rescue the women (perhaps more so). In particular, the disabled tenth daughter, whose legs have not grown with the rest of her body, is nevertheless a better marksman, more skilled with the bow and arrow, than any of the men or any of her sisters. The epic was written first in the author's native Gīkūyū language, and self-translated into English. Since the musicality of the language is vital to verse, I found myself wondering how it sounds in its original form. In English, I found the language a little pedestrian at times, but the story fascinating. Ngūgi wa Thiong'o was born in Limuru, Kenya in 1938. He has written many novels, plays, memoirs and essays and has received 13 honorary doctorates among other awards. He is currently distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. The Perfect Nine was published by The New Press, New York in 2020.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Liechtenstein: Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer

This is not the book I wanted to read for Liechtenstein. Written by a man who was born and died in Austria, and recounting, as referred to in the title, his time in Tibet, it would seem to have little connection to Liechtenstein. But so far I have failed to find anything else, and I did find a copy of this book cheaply on a second hand table. As Ann Morgan, also unable to find anything else, read it for Liechtenstein, and claimed that the author spent some years there and was living there when he wrote the book, I decided to do the same. Harrer was in India, planning a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas, when war broke out and he was interned by the British at Dehra Dun. Chafing at his confinement, he managed to escape on his third attempt, and with another mountaineer, Peter Aufschnaiter, made his way to Tibet, then largely closed off to the western world. Remarkably, he made his way to Lhasa where he became a tutor to the young Dalai Lama. The picture given of the intellectual curiosity of the young boy is remarkable. But the Chinese were pressing at the borders, and eventually Harrer, followed by the Dalai Lama himself, had to escape Tibet, where it is clear he would have preferred to stay longer. I was fascinated by the picture given of Tibet. Until I reread Ann's review, I didn't notice that the book somewhat patronized the Tibetan people. But I did note that the author often referred to aspects of Tibet in the present, even though he was writing after the Chinese invasion when things would surely have changed. And apparently he did manage to get back to Tibet in the 1980's, and wrote another book in which he was both saddened and heartened by the changes he saw, and by the resilience of the Tibetan people. A worthwhile read (whatever one might think of Harrer's supposed Nazi background), but I am still hoping to find a book that will enlighten me as much about Liechtensten.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Kazakhstan: Contemporary Kazakh Literature: Prose

As I move further through this project, I find that the remaining countries become more and more difficult to source books from. So I was pleased when I saw this collection on our library's list of new acquistions a few months ago. "Contemporary Kazakh Literature: Prose" was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Sport of the Republic of Kazakhstan and published by the National Bureau of Translations in association with Cambridge University Press in 2019. That of course was the English translation, but it was published in total in 6 UN languages and 60,000 copies distributed to universities, libraries and research centres across 93 countries. Clearly this was a project which comes with an agenda - all the stories in the more than 600 pages reflect various aspects of Kazakh culture, mainly focusing on the conflict between the traditional nomadic and rural way of life with collectivisation under Soviet rule, and modern city life. Indeed, the preface stresses that this was the purpose behind the project, initiated by the first president of the republic of Kazakhstan. At first I found the stories blending into each other, with the settings similar enough that the same footnotes, explaining various items of vocabulary, repeated for each story - the "auyl" - traditional village unit - "zigit" - a young man of a certain age group, with leadership qualities more fully explained in the text, and so on. The similarity was probably enhanced by the arrangement in chronological order of the author's birthdate. There were very many by authors born in the 1940s. So I skipped towards the end and read some that were written by considerably younger authors. I also noted that almost all the authors, from a large number, were men, with only two female writers represented. Nevertheless in the more than 600 pages, there was enough variation to give a much better understanding of a country I had previously known little about. If more governments initiated such a project, the job of finding reading matter from the remaining countries on the list would be much easier.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Tajikistan: Hurramabad, by Andrei Volos

My library copy of "Hurramabad" describes Volos as a Russian writer, however he was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in 1955, and left after high school for further study in Moscow. In this collection of stories he vividly describes the period shortly after the break up of the USSR, when ethnic Russians were forced to pack up their lives in Tajikistan and return to Russia, even though their families may have lived in Tajikistan for two or three generations. While the stories focus on ethnic Russians, there are also many Tajiks pictured, from various ethnic groups. There is a good deal of lawlessness, with Mafia style gangs seizing power locally, and the necessities of life in short supply. Russians had to sell their houses and belongings for whatever they could get, and try and leave the country safely - in one story the protagonist, who has already sent his wife and child to safety, is depicted as having to wait while the blown up railway is repaired before his train can depart. While at one point I grew a bit weary of all the depictions of strife, on the whole I enjoyed the stories and their vivid depictions of the bazaar and the various groups of characters. None more so than the Russian in the first story who wanted only to be known as a local man. In the end he got his way, as his accent, picked up from his wife, marked him as from the Kulyab ethnic group, and led to his being killed in inter tribal conflict. Hurramabad was translated from Russian by Arch Tait, and published in the Glas series of New Russian Writing in 2001.