Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bulgaria: Stork Mountain, by Miroslav Penkov

When I read an interview with the author of this book online, I knew I wanted to read it. And I wasn't wrong - I absolutely loved the book.

The narrator is a young boy, born in Bulgaria, who left with his family, apparently when he was about ten years old, and returns to sell his share of the family land. He has landed in financial trouble and needs the money to pay his debts. But also, he sets out to find his grandfather who stayed in Bulgaria. Intertwining with the stories of the boy and his grandfather are the myth like stories they make up to tell each other, and the story of the young Muslim girl Elif, who the boy falls in love with. Then there are the storks who journey every year from Africa to the mountains in the south of Bulgaria, and the fire dancers who perform their rituals every year in two small villages. So there are many layers to the story, and they are all beautifully woven together.

The book is in seven sections which the author has described as corresponding to the seven stages of transformation. It's not a short book but each individual chapter is short, and the reading seemed to go quickly - perhaps because there is plenty of white space on the page, perhaps because I was so engrossed.

I really want to read more of this author's work. My only question - does this qualify as a Bulgarian book? The author was born in Bulgaria and left at about the age of nineteen for college in the United States. He is now a creative writing professor at the University of North Texas. Since he is still quite young - early thirties - I expected the perspective to be Balkan. However the book was written in English, not Bulgarian, though it has been translated and published in Bulgaria. To me, it read as Bulgaria seen through American tinted spectacles. So I think I would still like to find a book by an author still living in Bulgaria, and see if it has a different flavour, a less westernized viewpoint. It sounds like a fascinating country with a long and turbulent history, at the cross roads of Europe and Asia.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Algeria: Harraga, by Boualem Sansal

I'm trying to fill in more of the A's and B's in my list of countries. Algeria seemed as if it would not be too difficult, and so I tried to find a female author among a number of Algerian authors whose books were in our local library, but I failed. This looked like a good alternative...

Lamia is a single woman, a doctor, who lives alone in a crumbling old colonial house in Algiers. Her parents are both dead, as is her older brother Yacine, who has been killed in a car crash. Her younger brother Sofiane has become a harraga, a path burner, someone who risks his life attempting to flee the country for a better life elsewhere.

One day an impetuous, wild young woman, Cherifa, turns up on Lamia's doorstep. Lamia takes her in, because she says that Sofiane has sent her. Cherifa is pregnant, and soon turns Lamia'slife upside down with her unpredictable ways.

Lamia and Cherifa are two very different women, but they forge a friendship and alliance in a patriarchal world where to be a single woman is an affront, and a pregnant woman can be killed to protect her family's honour. I had hoped to read a book about Islamic woman written by a woman, but Sansal's perspective rings true and seems convincing. He is considered in the west to be one of Algeria's most important novelists, however since 2006 his books have been banned in his own country. Another, An Unfinished Business, has also been translated into English and I look forward to reading that, too, at a later date.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Germany: The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck

I am trying, in my quest to read a book each from every country in the world, to find books set in that particular country, written by someone who was born and brought up there, and preferably still lives there - and then also, to skew the balance towards women writers, because it would be easy to read books written only by men. This quest is easier for some countries than others. For some, there is only one writer easily found in English (Mia Couto for Mozambique, Jose Eduardo Agualusa for Angola). For some, all the books that look promising turn out to be written by writers who were either born in America or who emigrated at a very young age, and who are writing from the experience of their parents and grandparents. Armenia for instance is a particularly difficult example - there are plenty of books written by "Armenian Americans" but to find books written by contemporary Armenians that are accessible in English seems almost impossible.

Germany, however, was not too difficult. The bonus for Jenny Erpenbeck is that she was born in East Germany which brings a different perspective to her work from that of writers who grew up in the more prosperous and democratic west. The book takes its title from a phrase that recurs in the book: "a day on which a life ends is not the end of days". It is a what if" story which gives four different versions of a woman's life. In the first she dies at eight months old. In each subsequent version, events take a different turn, so that she lives longer and her story is added to. This is unlike the usual trope of "sliding doors" stories in that each story adds to what went before, but doesn't change it - she is dead or she is not, so it is more linear than a story in which she might, say, marry this man, or go off with someone else, so that two stories continue in parallel.

It is a quiet story. The unnamed woman at the centre of the story does in the end become esteemed and famous. And there is hardship and struggle in the Soviet Union during World War II. But it is all told without a great deal of drama, and yet it is quite lovely in the way it is told. I did find the abstraction of the woman's thought patterns while she was waiting for the secret police in Russia, and writing an account of herself in her defence, somewhat tedious. Other than that, I enjoyed it very much.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Taiwan: The Man With the Compound Eyes, by Wu Ming-Yi

Alice is a Chinese professor who is grieving the disappearance of her Danish husband and young son when on a rock climbing expedition. Atile'i is a youth from the mysterious island of Wayo Wayo. On Wayo Wayo, all second sons must put to sea on reaching a certain age, as a sacrifice to the sea god. Instead of the usual fate of second sons, which is to perish at sea, their spirits turning into sperm whales, Atile'i washes up on a huge floating island made of garbage - the Trash Vortex. After a tsunami, a part of this trash vortex is thrown up on the coast of Taiwan, bringing Atile'i with it.

The story of the meeting of Alice and Atile'i is at the heart of this book, which also encompasses indigenous Taiwanese culture in the form of two other characters, Hafay, a Pangcah, and Dahu, a Bunun. Then there are Sarah and Detlef, a marine biologist and an engineer, and the mysterious Man With the Compound Eyes of the title, who does or does not exist somewhere in the mountains of Taiwan.

The story of Alice and Atile'i is the most imaginative, convincing and novelistic part of the book. Some of the other elements felt a bit spurious particularly the introduction of Sarah and Detlef. I am not against novels that deal with contemporary issues, but I felt Sarah and Detlef were there just to push the environmental message home, and I don't really like to be preached at in fiction. (Was it necessary to add "a novel" after the title of the book on the front cover?)

Also, I wondered if it was a translation problem that made the language of the book seem a little stiff, in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was all in perfectly good English, and yet something seemed a little off and unnatural.

The worst passage of the whole book describes Sarah:

"She was always able to pierce the criminal subterfuges of state agencies or capitalists hiding behind the letter of environmental protection regulations or pseudoknowledge, no matter what the issue: the exploitation of polar oil or methane ice or excessive whaling in the name of research..." and so on.

Nevertheless, in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed the book very much, and appreciated the imagination of the main story line which is like nothing I have read before. The elements that dealt with indigenous culture were fascinating as I had always thought of Taiwan as populated by Chinese. (Although I did know that they had settled there on fleeing communist China, the fate of the original inhabitants was something I had entirely put to the back of my mind).

Wu Ming-Yi was born in Taiwan in 1971 and still lives there. He is a writer, artist, professor and environmental activist.