Monday, October 31, 2016

Estonia: The Ropewalker, by Jaan Kross

I read a book earlier in the year which I posted under the heading Estonia - but I decided to revisit the country for two reasons. Firstly, the author of the first book, Sofi Oksanen, is actually Finnish, though the book was set in Estonia and the author has Estonian ancestry.

Secondly, I spotted Jaan Kross's newly translated book in the library, and it looked too inviting to pass by. It is the first volume of a major historical trilogy with the overall title "Between Three Plagues". Parts 2 and 3 are apparently due to appear in English in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Jaan Kross was born in Tallinn, Estonia in 1920. At the time he was writing his historical fiction, Estonia was part of the USSR and writers were severely restricted in what they could publish. Kross withdrew into writing historical fiction, in order to become less visible to the authorities. At the time in the mid 1500s when this story is set, Estonia was part of Old Livonia, a territory which was squabbled over by several major powers, jostling for control - Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, and Poland-Lithuania. The series concerns the life of Balthasar Russow, the author of the "Chronicle of the Province of Livonia" which recounts the history of Livonia from 1156- 1583. Balthasar was a remarkable man, of peasant stock but very intelligent, with the knack of being in the right place, and saying the right thing, at the right time. The first volume ends when he is still a young man in his mid twenties, returning to Livonia after a period studying theology in Germany.

The book is quite lengthy and is packed with description. Apparently Kross was often seen walking around old Tallinn, peering at the details of buildings in order to better describe them, as many were just as they had been in Russow's day. Description can be tedious and often the reader tends to skip it. That wasn't the case for me with "The Ropewalker". Without the language standing out and drawing attention to itself, the description seemed to be an integral part of the story, easy to read and blending seamlessly with the narrative. Only occasionally did I stop over a particular phrase which seemed particularly vivid
eg "a reddish brown beard so sparse that each hair had to shout to its neighbour to be heard".

I will be looking forward to the next volume in the series, as eagerly as I am awaiting the final part of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

The Ropewalker, by Jaan Kross, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher, published by MacLehose Press 2016

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ireland: The Gamal, by Ciarán Collins

The narrator of this book is Charlie, who is known in his small Irish village as "the gamal". This is short for "gamallogue", an Irish word that seems to mean simpleton or village idiot. Charlie has witnessed traumatic events and is writing 1000 words a day at the request of his "head shrink" who believes it will help him with his PTSD. Gradually, the tragedies that beset his best friends James and Sinead, are revealed.

I loved this book. Not for the plot, which is in the end, based on fairly universal themes. In fact, towards the end, I found myself thinking of Shakespeare. Not in the sense of one Shakespeare play modernised (as in West Side Story, for instance). I did think "Romeo and Juliet" but then I found myself recognising elements of several more Shakespearean tragedies - I won't say which for fear of spoilers. What is more amazing about this book is the sense of voice. The way in which Charlie is brought to life as an observer who sees and understands a good deal more than the locals give him credit for. He is largely silent but not unintelligent. The way in which the book is cast as a sort of stream of consciousness - the "thousand words a day" device - basically a "shitty first draft" as Ann Lamott would say without it actually being shitty to read. It's in a way, a similar difficulty to writing conversation. If you transcribed what people actually say, it would be tedious and boring. The skill is in making it sound conversational, without it being actually so. In the same way, the style of this book has to convince as a first draft, and yet manage to reveal the story in a way that is not too baffling and not too repetitive. Which it does, admirably. There is enough of the nonsense that Charlie types just to fill his word count to make it sound like a first draft, and enough jumping back and forward in time, but not so much that the story suffers. In fact it only serves to enhance the tension - what did actually happen to Sinead and James? Why is Charlie so distraught that he barely left his room for two years?

Ciarán Collins was born in County Cork, where he is a teacher, in 1977. This is his first novel. I will certainly be on the lookout for the next.

Afghanistan: A Curse on Dostoevsky, by Atiq Rahimi

Initially I thought Afghanistan would be easy, but it turns out that most books set in Afghanistan are written by non Afghanis. Nadia Hashimi visited Christchurch in the last readers and writers festival, but it turns out that she was born in America of Afghani parents. (I do have one of her books waiting to be read). In the end, it came down to Khaled Hosseini - now living in the US - and Atiq Rahimi - now living in France. I had already read several books by Hosseini, so Atiq Rahimi was the pick.

I found this book quite difficult from a Western perspective. The protagonist seemed neither likeable nor sympathetic. The book starts with him committing a murder. Gradually, his reasons for the murder, and his unravelling state of mind afterwards, are revealed. He identifies with Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" (which I have not read, so have to take the parallels on the authors say so). Eventually though, I came to believe that the main theme of the book was to point out the differences between Western and Afghani justice. When Rassoul tries to turn himself in, the authorities don't take him seriously. Murder is a civil matter, between the murderer and the family of the victim. Other crimes, which we would consider far more trivial, turn out to be taken much more seriously in the eyes of the authorities. For instance, the accusation that he is a communist, and that he took a prostitute to a sacred site.

One can see why the author may have had to leave Afghanistan. Passages such as: "You know, the communists spent ten years doing everything they could to turn this nation against Allah,without success. The Muslims, on the other hand, have achieved it in a single year!" could hardly endear him to the authorities.

In the end, I found the book offered an interesting perspective on a very different world view, even if the thinking was hard to follow at times. Would I read more by the same author? I'm not sure. Though this book proclaims "winner of the Prix Goncourt", so clearly there are plenty of fans out there.

The translator (from French) is Polly McLean.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Brazil: Crow Blue, by Adriana Lisboa

This book is narrated by Vanja (short for Evangelina), a young woman of around twenty two, telling of the events of her life at the age of about thirteen to fourteen. When her mother dies, she is taken in first by her foster aunt, and then she contacts her mother's ex husband Fernando, living in the United States, and travels to Colorado to live with him. Fernando was named as the father on Vanja's birth certificate, but he was not in fact her father, having already separated from her mother quite some time before she was born.

Vanja's motive in going to live with Fernando is to look for her birth father. This quest forms one thread of the story. Another is the back story of Fernando's past as a Communist guerilla in the Amazonian jungle. There are plenty of Latin American books in which violence - whether from, and inflicted upon, guerillas in the jungle, or in the crime ridden cities, features heavily. In this book it didn't feel particularly horrific because of the way it was told at a couple of removes from the action - filtered through Fernando's memories, and then through Vanja's, some years after the telling of it to her.

I read the book quickly, for the story. I would like to go back and read it again, for the language. In places it becomes quite poetic and, I felt, deserves deeper reflection. The title of the book comes from a poem, "The Fish" whose author is not named. I was thinking of Elizabeth Bishop but when I searched online, I realised it was another fish poem - Marianne Moore's. The crow blue shells of the ocean off Copacabana beach are referred to, and then later the shell blue crows of Colorado.

The descriptions of the ocean are quite lyrical - in contrast to the publicity at the time of the Rio Olympics, which suggested that the water of Copacabana beach is so heavily polluted that no one swims there, lest they get sick. Perhaps it was cleaner fifteen years or so ago, when Vanja was a child.

I chose Crow Blue because it was the most readily available of Adriana Lisboa's books. I located a couple more at online bookstores, but only in hardback, making them a little pricy. Adriana Lisboa was born in Rio de Janeiro, and has published eleven books including six novels. She currently lives in the United States. Her novel Symphony in White won the José Saramago prize. That one is set entirely in Brazil. I'm wondering if I can persuade our library to purchase a copy, as I'd like to read more of her work.

Crow Blue, by Adriana Lisboa, translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin, published by Bloomsbury Circus 2013.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Belgium: The Guard, by Peter Terrin

I wanted to keep a good gender balance on my world reading list. After all, well over fifty percent of the books by British and American writers that I most enjoy are by women. For some countries, it's hard to find any books at all, so if I can find one author, and it's a man, I'll read it. But for Belgium, I figured there must be some good women authors out there. However, all my googling revealed one: Amélie Nothomb. And as she was raised as a diplomat's daughter, most of her books seem to involve foreigners in Japan. Which wasn't quite what I was after.

In the end I settled for Peter Terrin, as his books are readily available in our library. I will just have to address the gender balance elsewhere.(Which reminds me, it might be time to do a count up and see how I am progressing on that score).

"The Guard" is set in a dystopian future, at an unspecified date, in an unnamed city. Harry and Michel are guards who live in the basement of a block of luxury apartments. It is their job to ensure the security of the apartment owners, in the face of nameless threats from outside - a plague? a nuclear war? Rioting and looting? They never leave the basement. At least one of them must be on guard at all times, so they take turns sleeping. One weekend all the residents but one leave the building and do not return. But Harry and Michel remain on post, faithfully guarding and ensuring the security of the one remaining tenant. If they do their job well, they hope to be rewarded by "the organisation" with promotion to "the elite" - the guards who are given jobs on spacious country estates, with fresh air and gardens.

This is a fascinating study of the effects of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation on the human brain. The tension mounts. At first it is clear when Michel is fantasising and when his thoughts are about reality. Towards the end of the book, his mind ever more confused, the reader is left wondering. Is that what happened, or is that in Michel's mind?

There was only one plot line which I felt struck a false note. Eventually the organisation provides a third guard. However, this is not till after most of the residents have left. The story would have made sense if the organisation had forgotten about Harry and Michel, or if some nameless misfortune had made them unable to provide for them. Since they dropped off a third guard, clearly they haven't forgotten about them. But why do it, when nearly all the residents have left, without also providing supplies? Why not relieve Harry and Michel from their posts completely, or drop off supplies? I felt that the third guard was merely a device to rack up the tension, an unnecessary one. Other than that, the writer depicts Michel's state of mind, and the events that took place, with great skill.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Burundi: Baho, by Roland Rugero

This is I think the first book in my project that I had to buy, rather than borrowing from our local library. It is the first novel from Burundi ever to be translated into English. when it arrived in my mail box, I found a very slim package. The story itself finishes on page 90, and then we have a translator's note. So I expected the reading to go quickly, especially after being drawn in by the opening:

It's November, and the heavens are naked.
Ashamed, they try to tug a few clouds over to cover up under the merciless sun, which brings their nakedness unflinchingly to light.

I wasn't as gripped, however, by the rest of the story. Really, the narrative content amounts to enough for a short story. Nyamuragi, the mute, tries to ask a girl in sign language where he can relieve himself. She mistakes his gestures for a rape attempt. A crowd forms and almost lynches him. The story moves on from there - but not much. There are countless philosophical digressions, and proverbs in Kirundi, the local language (the book was actually written in French). Even though the translation of the proverbs is given, I found it hard to follow the relevance of many of them.

All this sounds a bit harsh. I did actually enjoy the book, and learnt quite a bit about the country from the story and the end note. Roland Rugero was born in Burundi in 1986 and works there as a journalist. He has held a residency at the Iowa International Writing Program. So clearly he has encountered western writing styles, and I am not sure how much the style of this book owes to the culture and story telling style of Burundi, and how much it is just his own personal style. But I would have preferred more complexity to the story at the heart of the book, and fewer digressions on the nature of language, time, proverbs and this that and the other.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Nigeria: Taduno's Song, by Odafe Atogun

Nigeria is one of the easier African countries to find books from. I had already read two by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - "Half of a Yellow Sun" and "Americanah", and last year's acclaimed "The Fisherman" by Chigozie Obioma. So that left me looking for something else, and I was delighted to see a new Nigerian author in our library.

What's more, Odafe Atogun was not only born in the town of Lokoja, in Nigeria, but still lives there, in the capital of Abuja. That was a bonus since so many other Nigerian authors seem to have left the country to settle in America or the UK.

Taduno's song is rather different in style from the others mentioned above. Taduno is a musician, living in exile in an unnamed country, in a lonely town seemingly empty of people. One day a letter arrives, and he realizes it is time to return home. But when he does so, he finds that all his friends and neighbours have forgotten him, even though he left only three months before, and remembers them all clearly. Taduno has lost his voice after a beating by the soldiers of his country's brutal dictator. To rescue his girlfriend Lela, who is in prison, he must find his voice and sing again.

Mostly the book is fairly non specific about names and places. However it does, once in a while, specify that the country is Nigeria, and that the city that Taduno has returned to is Lagos. It also mentions the annulment of the June 12th elections, which enabled me to search on google and find that the elections concerned were held on June 12th 1993, and that Nigeria's most brutal and corrupt dictator, General Sani Abacha, came to power after the elections were annulled.

The book is less complex than "Half of a Yellow Sun" or "The Fishermen". It has the style of a fable, and thus it is fairly black and white, and there is not a great deal of character development. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read, with a simple but powerful message, and added more detail to my knowledge of this large African country.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Israel: The People of Forever are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu

I picked this book by my favourite method of wandering round the library shelves, looking for interesting titles with authors' names that sound foreign. Then if the blurb matches in interest, I borrow it. This one described the author as born in Jerusalem in 1987 (so, still in her mid twenties when the book was published in 2012)and living in Israel. She is the youngest ever recipient of the US National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 Award.

The author served in the Israeli Defence Force for two years. As the book makes clear, that is not unusual - in fact all young Israeli men and women are drafted for two years at the age of eighteen. The book follows three young women - Yael, Lea and Avishag - during their two years in the army, and to some extent, afterwards. Given the author's background, it might be thought that the book is thinly covered autobiography, however, since the three girls serve in different branches of the army, and have different personalities and different experiences, I suspect that there is a lot more imaginative skill that went into the story. I found all three fascinating, complex characters.

At the beginning they are all in school in a small village where the Lebanese border, where nearly everyone works "in a factory that makes parts that go in machines that help make machines that can make planes". The village, and the factory, have been built in the north near the border about thirty years previously. "There is one empty brown hill after another in that region, the government said, and if we are a country, we can't all live in just one part of it". So the girls grow up with missiles coming over the border, and with very little in the way of entertainment. Which may be why they grow up with such vivid imaginations.

The last two chapters felt a bit odd, as if the author did not quite know how to finish off the story. The second to last chapter sees the girls drafted back into the army, briefly, during a war with Lebanon. The final chapters goes back to when Yael was eighteen and waiting to enter the army, listening to her mother's story of her service in the air force as an air traffic controller, at the time when a hijacked plane was rescued from Entebbe in Uganda. It seemed to leave everything hanging in mid air, as far as the girls' lives went - but then, that is life which is never quite neatly wrapped up.

All in all, I found it an enthralling book, and I will be very interesting to see what the author comes up with as a follow up.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Korea: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

"Before my wife turned vegetarian, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way" is the opening sentence of this award winning book. It was published in Korea in 2007 but not translated into English until 2015. Early one morning the husband referred to later in the book only as "Mr Cheong" wakes to find his wife in the kitchen throwing out all the meat in the house. Her only explanation is "I had a dream".
But this is extreme vegetarianism, which appears to be a form of anorexia. The book is narrated by three different characters in three different sections (although we never hear directly from Yeong-hye herself.
Bodies, and our relationship to them, appear to be central themes of the book. Yeong-hye appears to wish to obliterate her body by not eating. Eventually she wishes only for water, and it appears that she wants to merge with the forest where the mental hospital to which she is eventually committed is situated. The second section is narrated by her brother-in-law, an artist. He creates a video piece in which he covers Yeong-hye's body and his own with gigantic colourful flowers and makes an erotic video of the two of them - but he too, seems to want to obliterate the actual bodies beneath the layers of flowers. The third section is narrated by Yeong-hye's elder sister, In-hye, a successful businesswoman who takes on the responsibility of Yeong-hye after Mr Cheong divorces her. In-hye is seemingly the normal of the two - or is she? Does she too, harbour dark secrets?

I read the first two sections in one sitting and then went to bed only to find that I couldn't sleep. Not because of nightmarish visions but because my mind was just ticking over so much with the complex layers of the story. It is both compelling and disturbing, a worthy winner of the Man Booker International Prize.

Incidentally it is In-hye's mention of her sisters "Mongolian mark" that first triggers her husband's fascination with his sister-in-law's body, and vision to paint huge fantasy flowers over her. I would like many Westerners have had no clue what this was had it not been for the fact that years ago a friend adopted a half-Greek baby. R had a "Mongolian blue spot" which is apparently common to Asian and Mediterrean races. It is a bruise-like birth mark, which has been responsible in Western societies for some cases of unjust accusations of child abuse against immigrant families. It usually fades after a few years, but Yeong-hye still has hers as an adult.

I have been a bit remiss in not acknowledging the translators of the books I have been reading. The Vegetarian is translated by Deborah Smith and published by Hogarth.