Friday, December 30, 2016

Portugal: The Elephant's Journey, by José Saramago

In the previous post, I said that "enjoyable" wasn't the right word to describe "The Blind Owl". It is, however, exactly the right word to describe Saramago's delightful account of "The Elephant's Journey". In it, he weaves a whimsical fantasy around the true story of an elephant given by the king of Portugal in 1551 as a wedding gift to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, later to become Emperor Maximilian. To achieve this gift, the elephant had to be transported largely on foot (with a brief sea interlude between Rosas in Spain and Genoa in Italy) from Lisbon to Vienna, across the plains of Spain and over the Italian Alps to Austria.

The style is charming, if at times a little confusing. A minimal amount of punctuation and capitals means that occasionally it is difficult in a dialogue to tell exactly who is speaking, and where the shift from one speaker to another takes place. The narrator stands back and comments from a modern viewpoint, so that we read comments such as "Having to spend the night in villages meant finding in them a covered area large enough to shelter the horses and the elephant, the four oxen, and several dozen men, and that, as you can imagine, was not easy to find in sixteenth-century portugal, where they had not yet learned to build industrial warehouses or inns for tourists."

Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922 and came to prominence as a writer in his fifties. He has produced a large body of work including plays, poetry, short stories, non-fiction and over a dozen novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. He died in 2010. "The Elephant's Journey" is no doubt not the greatest of his novels, but is well worth reading. It was translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Vintage Books.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Iran: The Blind Owl, by Sadeq Hedayat

The Blind Owl was initially banned in the author's native Iran, and became a best seller after it first appeared in 1941. It reminded me, a little, of my choice for Afghanistan - Atiq Rahimi's "A Curse on Dostoevsky". It is hallucinatory, nightmarish, circular - one is never quite sure what is being presented as having actually occurred and what is being presented as occurring only in the opium fuelled visions of the narrator, a solitary man disillusioned with life.

His occupation is a maker of pen cases, on which he paints images of an old man beneath a cypress tree. A young girl in a long black dress offers him a blue flower of morning glory. These characters and images - the old man, the young girl, the blue morning glory - appear repetitively through the book, as living characters, as images on a pottery jar, as a corpse, as the narrator himself. Similarly, tastes and smells recur such as "bitter as the stub end of a cucumber".

To say I enjoyed the book would not do it justice (and would not be quite true) but it is certainly a powerful book which lingers in the mind.

Sadeq Hedayat lived from 1903-1951, when he committed suicide. He was the founder of modernism in Persian fiction and is considered the greatest modern Persian writer.

I read the edition translated by D P Costello and published by Alma Classics.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

United Arab Emirates: That Other Me, by Maha Gargash

"That Other Me" explores the position of women in Emirati society through the eyes of three people. Majed Al-Naseemy is a wealthy businessman from Dubai, struggling to retain control of his life. His niece Mariam, daughter of his deceased brother Hareb, is studying dentistry in Cairo, in the hopes of making a life for herself away from the influence of her hated uncle. Dalal, daughter of Majed's second secret marriage, is also living in Cairo with her divorced mother, attempting to make it as a singer into the world of Arab popular music.

As Majed attempts to exert his authority over Dalal and Mariam, things start to unravel for all three of them. Dalal refuses his commands to abandon her career. Mariam is recalled to Dubai, where a marriage is arranged for her to a considerably older man, the only son of a rich widow. At her wedding there is an explosive showdown when Dalal appears among the guests.

This is an enormously readable book and provides a fascinating insight into the lives of Arab women. I found it interesting that dates of events are specified very exactly, so that we learn that it takes place between 1995 and 1998, even though it was published in 2016. There are no obvious political events that require those dates, which makes me wonder if the author has perhaps set it at the time when she was roughly the same age as the two girls.

Maha Gargash was born in Dubai to a prominent business family, studied in the United States and London, and joined Dubai Television where she directed documentaries dealing mainly with traditional Arab societies. Her first novel, "The Sand Fish" was an international best seller.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Hungary: The Door, by Magda Szabó

This is the story of the relationship between a writer and her housekeeper, Emerence, an elderly woman about whom at first we (and the narrator) know very little. Everyone in the neighbourhood knows and respects Emerence, but Emerence has some very unusual habits and reveals little of herself to those around her. No one has ever been inside her door - she entertains visitors on her front porch. Gradually however, she comes to trust the writer and her husband, and to reveal to them events from her past life, which explain why she lives the way she does.

The first brief chapter starts "I seldom dream. When I do, I wake with a start, bathed in sweat" and ends "I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing". With that beginning, one is compelled to read on and discover the reasons for the narrator's statement. The book is a brilliant character study of the two women, and of those around them, as events unfold towards their tragic end.

Undoubtedly this will be on my top ten list this year. I can find no way to expand on the brief summary above, which does not do justice to the plot or to the complexity of the characters."The Door" is translated by Len Rix and published by Vintage Books in 2005. The original Hungarian version was published in 1987. Magda Szabó was born in 1917 in Debrecen, Hungary and died in 2007. She started as a poet, moved to writing fiction and has been awarded many prizes.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fiji: Black Ice Matter, by Gina Cole

I thought it wouldn't be too difficult too find fiction from Fiji, given that it is one of the larger Pacific nations. It turns out I was wrong. While there are a number of well-known Samoan authors, Fiji was proving far more elusive. Our library had two books - Peter Thomson's memoir Kava in the Blood, which Ann Morgan read for her year long project, and a poetry collection The Lives of Coathangers by Sudesh Mishra.

I felt there should be something else out there - then I came across publicity for the release of Gina Cole's collection of short stories, published by Huia Publishers. Gina Cole is described variously on the sites I found, as either "of Fijian, Scottish and Welsh heritage but identifying most strongly with her Fijian heritage", or more simply, Fijian. I was unable to find where she was born or how long she has lived in New Zealand, where she now lives and works as a lawyer, and has studied creative writing. However, I decided that this book was as good as I was going to find for Fiji in the meantime.

Given that the Fijian link is strong in the book, and Fiji is a tropical nation, there is also a surprising amount of ice in the stories. There are glaciers, black ice making roads treacherous, the art of ice sculpture, and a story simply called "Ice" which turns out to be the drug ice, or crystal methamphetamine. Despite this repeating motif, the stories are wonderfully varied. Some are set in Fiji, others are set in New Zealand with characters of Fijian origin, and one is set in a Chinese factory and written in the voice of a young girl making Barbie doll costumes for export to the west. Nearly all are original and surprising. I loved "Till" in which a Fijian glaciologist falls into a crevasse and discovers something unexpected. (How does a Fijian become a glaciologist? "At the end of high school, he joined the other students in his year clamouring to escape the suffocating coup culture of Fiji. They hawked their prodigious intellects around the universities with no embargoes on Fijian students" - in this case, developing his maths talents at the university of Sapporo, in Hokkaido).

It wasn't the many occurences of ice that struck me as repetitive - rather, the positioning of a story "Rabbit Shoot", immediately after "Pigeon Shoot". While they are somewhat different stories, I felt the book would have been strengthened by omitting one - probably the first. Even though it was the more "Fijian" of the two, I found "Rabbit Shoot" more compelling. This was a minor quibble.

However, when I came to the story "Home Detention", I found myself constantly picking holes in the author's veracity. Although the city isn't named, this is clearly set in Christchurch - the very specific time 12.51 gives it away, and the phrase "threatening to fall in every aftershock since the big one had hit five months ago". This is set in the earthquake of February 22nd 2011, which followed the earlier quake of September 4th, 2010. And as soon as I read "it should have stopped after a few minutes, but it kept on going", I couldn't stop myself from looking for errors. For a start, the quake lasted around forty seconds, not minutes. (The more recent Kaikoura quake took about two minutes, and that was a very long shake). Then, I felt that there were far too many houses that were completely falling apart - all the worst damage crammed for the convenience of the story into one or two streets. But the clincher was when Lucas reached the police station and found it had caved in. In fact, the police headquarters was still usable for some months after the quakes, although the police did eventually move out and the building was demolished. Granted, it is fiction, but it was a real event in which 189 people lost their lives, and I felt the facts were twisted a little too much in order to suit the story. It also made me wonder where else the facts might have been twisted, though when I checked some other stories they seemed to be accurate enough - in particular in the last story in the collection, where Rena comes from Rabi - an island I had never heard of, but which turns out to be a real island in Fiji, with some interesting history as the place of resettlement of the inhabitants of Banaba (also a real island).

In any case, "Home Detention" is a good story, but I felt that it would be improved by fictionalizing the quake more, and setting it, say, in a future earthquake in Wellington (where a large quake has long been thought to be overdue).

"Black Ice Matter" is Gina Cole's first book, and I am looking forward to what she may write next.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Democratic Republic of the Congo: Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

This was a fascinating book to read shortly after Ishmael Beah's "Radiance of Tomorrow", as it gave a completely different view of the seedy underbelly of an African city, being set in a nightclub - Tram 83 - with its varied cast of miners, students, "baby chicks", gangsters, profit seeking tourists, musicians and others. "Radiance of Tomorrow" showed the old village ways as wise, and judged the evening drunkenness of the miners harshly. Tram 83 appears to make no moral judgments. It's structure, too, is quite different. There is a narrative of sorts, but language is central. Reading it is a heady experience, in which it doesn't pay to stop and puzzle over the meaning of each sentence - rather, let yourself be immersed in the rhythms, an experience rather like being in a night club full of jazz rhythms, noise, laughter, music, fights, snatches of conversations in which you are not quite sure who is talking...

Lucien is a writer home from abroad. His childhood friend Requiem has ambitions to make money in any way possible. Although it seems there is bad blood between these two. The phrase "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" comes to mind. The location of Tram 83 is "The City State" ruled by "the Dissident General" while the land outside the "City State" is the "Back Country". Mining is the source of riches in this country.

It's not a book for the faint hearted. Another character, the publisher, Malingeau, says "the main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we're happy. There needs to be fucking in African literature too!" There is plenty of that, and drugs, illegal firearms, wheeling and dealing, the eating of dog kebabs and much more besides.

Underneath it all the phrases that repeat themselves like the bass to a jazz riff such as "the station with its unfinished metal structure, gutted by artillery, train tracks, and locomotives that called to mind the railroad built by Stanley, cassava fields, cut-rate hotels, greasy spoons, bordellos, Pentecostal churches, bakeries, and noise engineered by men of all generations and nationalities combined" - a passage which repeats throughout the book, occasionally in full but mostly in truncated form, like a fragment of a theme repeating, now on trumpet, now on saxophone, now on bass.

Not a book I would have ever read if I was not doing this challenge. But a fascinating experience, nevertheless.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila was born in Lubumbashi in 1981 and now lives in Graz, Austria. Tram 83 was written in French and translated by Roland Glasser. It was published in the US by Deep Vellum publishing. I read the edition published in Australia and New Zealand by Scribe Publishing.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Sweden: My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, by Fredrik Backman

Seven year old Elsa is different. She lives with her mother and stepfather George, in a block of flats in an unnamed Swedish town. Elsa's mother is very busy running the hospital, so she spends a lot of time with her grandmother who lives in the next flat. Her grandmother is slightly crazy (in a good way), getting up to all sorts of antics such as busting into a zoo, firing paintball guns and making snowmen who look like real men who have fallen from the roof. She also tells Elsa stories about the magical kingdom of Miamas. In short, she is Elsa's superhero, and every seven year old who is different needs a superhero.

When Granny becomes ill, she leaves a trail of letters for Elsa to deliver. Each time Elsa delivers a letter to one of the inhabitants of the block of flats, she hears their story, and receives another letter to deliver. Gradually we learn more about her grandmother and about all the other people in the block of flats.

This is a wonderful story full of understanding of the complexities of human nature. I did have to suspend my tendency to nitpick a bit. For instance, Elsa meets and rescues the wurse (who seems to be actually a very large dog) but it is never quite explained why the wurse seemed to have been living in a flat on its own. Or why the wurse is so remarkably accommodating and well behaved when Elsa hides him in various places such as the garage or a wardrobe.

And I did feel a bit sceptical at times about Elsa herself. She is not supposed to be a typical seven year old. She is very smart (though the school does not seem to think so, due to institutional tunnel vision that is concerned only with whether a child "fits in"). Nevertheless - and I've known some pretty smart children - at times I thought her behaviour and wisdom was stretching it a bit even for a very smart seven year old. Still - it's within the bounds of possibility that somewhere in the world is a child who is as smart as that (I'm talking emotional intelligence rather than solving complex mathematical equations, although Elsa is also a prodigious reader).

Still - a great read for the not too cynical reader. My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises was translated by Henning Koch.

Sierra Leone: Radiance of Tomorrow, by Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah's first book, apparently much acclaimed (I haven't read it) was "Long Way Gone", a memoir of his experiences as a child soldier in the Sierra Leonean civil war. This is his second book, a novel set in the aftermath of that war. It tells of the life of a small town, Imperi, as the people gradually return to the houses they have fled during the war, and try to rebuild and resume their former lives. But they are hampered by the depradations of a mining company and of corrupt politicians.

I felt this book came from the tradition of story telling as a teaching method. Thus, I found parts of it a bit simplistic. The elders are always wise, their earlier ways are the best ways, the mining company is totally evil and the actions of its workers, who come into town drunk at night, are totally bad. The two teachers, Benjamin and Bockarie, who are the central characters, are good men trying to do their best under difficult circumstances. This may or may not be a true reflection of what was going on in Sierra Leone after the war, but as the basis for a novel, I found it somewhat unsatisfying. Perhaps a well researched non-fiction book would be a better way of bringing home the message. Or perhaps not. Apparently there was some dispute about the truth of Beah's memoir. It's easier, in a novel, to say "these things happened - not necessarily to me"- and to amalgamate all the sorts of things that happened and present them as happening to one small group of people.

The other thing that bothered me about the book was that the language felt somewhat stilted. I think this arose from the method of telling it - the omniscient third person narrator - and the need the author seemed to feel to teach facts - so we have passages that felt more at home in an encyclopedia. Passages such as
"they had come to mine rutile, a black or reddish-brown mineral consisting of titanium dioxide, which forms needle-like crystals in rocks in the earth. Rutile is used as a coating on welding rods; as pigment in paints, plastics, paper and foods; and in sunscreen to protect against ultraviolet rays. And wherever rutile is found, you also find zircon, ilmenite, bauxite, and in the case of Lion Mountain, diamonds. Not that the mining companies reveal they are mining all of these minerals. They obtain permits to dig up only one - rutile. So it is rutile alone that is mentioned in the reports it sends out, but the workers come to learn the truth."

I too, would have appreciated the chance to "come to learn" rather than being fed such undigested chunks of information, and I believe a skilled writer could achieve this. Nevertheless I enjoyed the book, particularly some of the passages where the elders told their stories from an earlier time, and where the author used expressions from his native Mende language such as "the sky rolled over and changed its sides" which means, as explained in the preface, "night came suddenly". And what I found most astonishing at the book, is the way in which it ends with Bockarie's family full of hope for the future, despite the fact that to our eyes they are at rock bottom with little to hope for. Not for nothing is the book titled "Radiance of Tomorrow".