Friday, November 25, 2016

Bolivia: Affections, by Rodrigo Hasbun

This slim novel centers on Hans Ertl, a German mountaineer, adventurer and film maker, and his three daughters Monika, Heidi and Trixi. Hans Ertl was forced to leave Germany after the World War II, seen as a Nazi due to his work as cameraman on Leni Reifenstahl's propaganda documentary of the 1936 Olympics, and his later work as a war photographer. In Bolivia, Hans sets out to find the legendary Inca city of Paititi, deep in the Amazon jungle. Two of his daughters accompany him on this expedition. Later, the three girls take very different paths, Monika as a guerilla revolutionary, Heidi marrying and returning to Germany to raise four children, and Trixi living a somewhat aimless life in La Paz.

Hasbun, who was born in Bolivia in 1981, states at the beginning "although inspired by historical figures, this novel is a work of fiction. As such it is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Ertl family or the other characters who appear in its pages". I found this an interesting approach, given the recent time frame of the events - it appears from a google search that Trixi at least may still be alive. It's one thing to fictionalize the lives of 17th century English kings and queens, and quite another for twentieth century characters - after all, in the former case, we know when the author describes what someone is thinking that there is in fact no way they could know that. With more recent events, and possible live informants, the boundaries seem somewhat more blurred.

Whatever the truth of the story, I found it intriguing and compelling, and well told. I was interested to see that the translator was Sophie Hughes, who is also the translator of Umami, the book from Mexico that I had just finished reading before this one. She must be very busy!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Mexico: Umami, by Laia Jufresa

Moving on down the North American continent, I arrived (at least in the pages of a book) in Mexico."Umami" tells the story of the residents of a mews complex in Mexico City. Alfonso, the owner and designer of the complex, is an expert in Meso-American dietary habits, and has named the five apartments after the five principal tastes - umami (savoury), sweet, sour, salty and bitter). His wife Noelia, a cardiologist, has died. The Perez-Walker family live in one apartment and run a music school in another. Then there is Beto, wife Chela and daughter Pina, and in the fourth apartment Marina, a depressed young artist.

One summer Ana, the eldest daughter of the Perez-Walker family, begs to be allowed to stay for the summer rather than going to her grandma Emma's in Michigan with her brothers. As her summer project, she plants a milpa (traditional Mexican garden). Ana also had a younger sister Luz, but Luz drowned three summers ago in the lake at her grandmother's.

The book moves back and forth in time over a period of four years, and changes narrators from chapter to chapter. We see the points of view of Ana, Alfonso, Pina, Luz and Marina in particular. They are all interesting characters - no stereotypes here! I found myself wondering at the task of the translator in some of the use of language. For instance Marina likes to invent colours. "Briefoamite is the ephemeral white of seafoam...burgunlip is the colour of your mouth after a few glasses of red wine...cantalight is that melony orange you only see at twilight." Reading these made me wonder what they were in the original Spanish, and whether the translator (Sophie Hughes) had to invent an entirely new set of colour names in English.

Then, in the chapters told by Luz, there are some intriguing words which arise out of a five year old's misunderstanding - "camuflash" appears to be her version of "camouflage". "Ziplings" had me wondering for a bit - your "ziplings" are the people you live with who are a similar size to you - then I realised it is "siblings". It's possible these are the same in the original, as the children do speak English when at their grandmother's for the summer. Whether English or Spanish though, I found the use of language great fun. And the book overall, funny, sad, tender, lyrical and poetic.

Laia Jufresa was born in Mexico City, and spent her adolescence in Paris. She returned to Mexico City in 2001. She currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Canada: The Gallery of Lost Species, by Nina Berkhout

I'm a bit of a sucker for quirky plots and interesting titles. So when I found this on the library shelves, and saw that it was written by a Canadian author, I decided to make it my Canada pick. (I find that my knowledge of Canadian writers is suprisingly limited, apart from Margaret Atwood, and I had already read a number of her books so wanted something new).

The title is rather reminiscent of Alice Hoffman's "The Museum of Extraordinary Things", which I had enjoyed very much. However it turns out to be very different, and much less strange. The first sentence is "When I was thirteen, I saw a unicorn". We quickly learn, however, that the unicorn is a goat. Edith, the narrator, is the younger daughter of Henry,an artist and Constance, a would be model, originally from France. Her older sister Vivienne is pushed by her mother into becoming a child beauty pageant star. Vivienne has inherited her father's artistic talent but rebels against her mother and sinks into alcoholism. Edith, feeling herself to lack talent, and nurturing a doomed passion for Liam, who yearns for Vivenne, studies museum conservation and obtains a job in the National Gallery of Canada. There she meets Theo, an elderly crypto zoologist, who studies mythical creatures. He is searching for a bird seen in Gauguin's paintings. (What happens if you find it, Edith asks his young colleague Jonathon. - Then it becomes a conservation problem no one wants to deal with).

I began to feel that this was not my sort of book at all - too much contemporary life, too much alcohol, drugs and general grittiness - but when I let go the expectations the title raised in me, I found it absorbing. It could have been sad and depressing. Instead, the ending, while not exactly uplifting, seemed to offer a resolution of sorts, and at least a measure of peace.

Nina Berkhout is a poet and this is her first novel, but the poetic sensibility shows through.

Friday, November 11, 2016

United States: News of the World, by Paulette Jiles

I decided there wasn't much point in trying to select the "best" book to represent the United States on my round the world reading tour. With so many excellent books coming out of the US, it would be an impossible task, so I just picked up a copy of the most recent book that had attracted me, from our local library.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd lost his printing business in the Civil War. He is an elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them. He now makes a living travelling through North Texas with a collection of newspapers, setting up in small towns and reading extracts to the local residents for a dime apiece. In Wichita Falls, he is offered fifty dollars to take a young girl, rescued after four years with the Kiowa tribe, to her relatives in San Antonio.

Johanna has completely forgotten her former life and believes she is a Kiowa. Gradually, as they journey south through dangerous wild country, she comes to trust the "Kepdun" and they build a relationship.

This is a beautifully told story. The descriptions of the countryside and of the growing relationship are lyrical and poetic, while there is enough action to sustain the tension. I found the style interesting - the author does not use any quotation marks in conversation. This could have been confusing, but wasn't, and somehow managed to give an old fashioned, slightly outback tone to the narrative. And it seemed a fitting week to come across a list of the events of 1870 that the Captain was selecting to relate to his audience - among them the first female law graduate, the first professional baseball team, and the adoption of the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party. (Why a donkey? Maybe someone can enlighten me).

Monday, November 07, 2016

Belarus: Down Among the Fishes, by Natalka Babina

The blurb on the back of this book was a bit misleading. "Two twin sisters, natives of Dobratyche, a small Belarusian village on the Buh river close to the border with Poland, set out to examine the events that led to granny Makrynya's unexpected death. Their trek quickly turns into a murder investigation."

After reading that, I was expecting a murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie, or Midsomer Murders. In fact, there is very little direct investigation of the murder in the book, although it does get solved in the end. Instead, there is a rich tapestry of other events - politics (one of the sisters is the local electoral agent for an opposition candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections), a treasure hunt, and the general daily life of the small village. This is a modern village. So there are not only cows, pigs, and mushroom hunting in the forest, but also the internet, crooked property developers, corrupt politicians and so on, with elements of magical realism and glimpses of history thrown in.

I found the mix enormously entertaining, and also fascinating in its look at life in a little known country. What intrigued me was that the book managed to get published in Belarus, despite its hugely critical attitude towards politics in that country. Despite a fictional name being used for the president of the country, the description of the election process, of vote rigging and of trumped up criminal charges and violent attacks on opposition candidates, it does seem to target the current President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been president since 1994, and is widely believed to be involved in vote rigging and other undemocratic processes (known by some as "Europe's last dictator"). All this makes the book sound rather grim, but it's not - in fact, all ends joyfully and the human spirit triumphs.

the author is a journalist for Nasha Niva, one of the leading independent newspapers in Belarus.

"Down Among the Fishes" by Natalka Babina, translated from the Belarusian by Jim Dingley, published by Glagoslav Publications 2013.