Friday, June 30, 2017

Meixco: Two Short Novels by Yuri Herrera

This volume published by Text Publishing in Australia combined two novellas - "The Transmigration of Bodies" and "Signs Preceding the End of the World". Both are set in the dark and seedy underworld of contemporary Mexico, in the borderlands in the north. It's not the sort of setting that normally appeals to me, but despite the gritty setting, there is also a poetical lyricism about these two stories that make them fascinating.(Apparently the third in the trilogy, Kingdom Cons, has recently been published.)

In "The Transmigration of Bodies", the city is gripped in a plague. The protagonist, known as The Redeemer, has been called on by two feuding crime families to act as a go between. In "Signs Preceding the End of the World" a young girl, Makina, enlists the help of various underworld characters to get her across the border to the north in search of her brother. She is to take a message from her mother, and ask him to come back. The ending of the story is somewhat enigmatic, and apparently a parable of death.

Despite the gritty undertone of the story, again, there is a lyrical poeticism, and touches of humour. One of the villagers who had returned from the north brought back cellphones and told Makina she would soon be out of a job. He gives one to his mother and tries to call her. The phone is silent. Maybe you should have brought back a few cell towers too, says Makina, who is clearly smarter and better educated than most of the villagers.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the translator's note at the end. (The translator is Lisa Dillman). Yuri Herrera coins new language in his novels, and the problem was how to translate this into English to give the flavour of the original, and how to translate the Spanish slang so that the Mexican crime bosses did not sound like New York mafia bosses (but did sound like they had their own vernacular). I think the translator has done a spectacularly successful job, and I was fascinated with her thought processes around achieving this.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Turkey: Three Daughters of Eve, by Elif Shafak

So far, I have found several of my choices from the Middle East rather difficult - those from Iran, Syria and Lebanon. All were books which appeared to be written for readers in their country of origin. My choice for Turkey felt much more as if it had been written for Western readers, and it has a partly Western setting.

Peri is on her way to join her husband at a dinner party in Istanbul when, while she is stuck in traffic, her handbag is stolen from the back of her car. She unwisely gives chase to the thief, and a photograph falls out of her handbag, reviving her memories of her time as a student at Oxford University, events she had tried to forget. The novel shifts back and forth between the present day, her time at Oxford, and her childhood in Istanbul. The Turkey depicted is one of conflicts - one where the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had tried to set up a modern secular society, but where now, extremists of various types are increasingly influential - Islamists, Marxists and so on. Peri's own family reflects these conflicts - her secular father, her religious mother and elder brother, her left wing but somewhat naive younger brother, who has spent time in prison for illegal gun possession. Peri herself is confused and uncertain in her beliefs, and this led to devastating events while she was at Oxford.

The author comments in the acknowledgments section "My Motherland, Turkey, is a river country, neither solid nor settled. During the course of writing this novel, that river changed so many times, flowing with a dizzying speed." I felt towards the end somewhat as if she was using this novel to deliver a sociological treatise on modern Turkey and on religious conflict, and that the plot sometimes suffered a little in favour of the message. There were times when events did not seem to flow naturally, for instance, Peri takes a rather drastic step towards the end of the book but the author's characterisation of her up to that point did not fully seem to lead to that step. There seemed to be a rush towards the end to fill in the back story of a central figure, Professor Azur - far more telling than showing at this point.And I would have liked to know more about her husband Adnan, a shadow figure who had supposedly "picked up the pieces" and was her "confidant, her best friend" but there is nothing in the book to back that up.

Still, there is much to enjoy here, and even if I felt lectured to at times, I found the depiction of Istanbul and of Turkish politics interesting.

Elif Shafak has been described as Turkey's most popular female novelist. She was born in Strasbourg, France and has lived in many countries around the world, including Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English and is an award winning novelist and political scientist. She currently lives in London.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Before the Feast, by Saša Stanišić

When Ann Morgan read a book from every country in the world in 2012, her choice for Bosnia and Herzegovina was Saša Stanišić's "How the Solider Repairs the Gramophone". So when I saw his second novel, "Before the Feast" on the shelf at the library, it seemed like a good choice, especially as the blurb on the back was quite appealing.

I quickly realised though, that the book is not set in Bosnia, and does not include Bosnian characters, apart from one short passage:
Golow had a Bosnian and a Serb working for him, and he had no idea exactly what the difference was. then he found out that they didn't really know either. They both hated the war. They argued only once about the question of guilt, because there's always a one-off argument about questions of guilt, but they settled the question peacefully and then decided to watch only the German news from then on,because on that channel everyone was to blame except the Germans - they coudn;t afford to be guilty of anything for the next thousand years, and the two Yugos could both live with that.

The author was born in Bosnia in 1978 but left during the war, at the age of 14, and currently lives in Germany.

The novel takes place in the East German village of Fürstenfelde. The author thanks the villagers of Fürstenberg, Fürstenfelde, Fürstenwalde, Fürstenwerder and Prenzlau for their information and hospitality, but the only one of these I could locate on a map was Prenzlau - nevertheless it does appear as if these may be real geographical locations. The inhabitants, however, are surely fictional. The action takes place on one night, on the day before the Anna feast. Though to say it takes place on that night is a simplification, given the wide ranging digressions which cover much of the history of the village. The characters are wonderfully idiosyncratic and include the local bell-ringer and his apprentice, two thieves, a dead ferryman, a retired lieutenant-colonel, the local artist, and a young girl called Anna, namesake of the Anna for whom the feast is named.

Then there are various animal characters - mice, chickens, and a vixen roaming the woods in the night.

The style is distinctive, or perhaps I should say "styles" as it changes from section to section. Parts are narrated by an unknown villager who uses the pronoun "we". Other passages sound as if they are quoted from historical documents, some parts use a straight forward third person narrative, in the present tense, other parts sound almost poetic, and there is even a passage of hand written script with numerous erasures and corrections.

I found it a highly entertaining book, from a promising young writer. Just not very Bosnian. (Although somehow, in style and outlook, it did not seem very German either).

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Zimbabwe: The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah

Even though I'm reading more by current availability than by alphabetical order, I had intended to start filling in some of the gaps in the A's, B's and C's. But I had heard a lot about Petina Gappah, and then one of her books was available on the day I went to the library, so I picked it up. It certainly lived up to the hype.

Memory is an albino woman who has been convicted of the murder of a white man, and is locked up in Harare's Chikurubi Prison on death row. In preparation for her appeal, her lawyer has asked her to write down her story as she remember's it. What emerges is a fascinating account which takes Memory from her African family in one of the poorer parts of town, to live with a well-off white man from the age of nine years old. Thus she is able to get a good education and travel overseas to study, before returning to reconcile with her foster father Lloyd. So how did she come to be convicted of his murder? And is her memory of her past accurate?

The fact that the book encompasses a range of Zimbabweans both African and European in origin, of various economic classes, and covers several decades in which the political situation of the country was fast deteriorating, makes it a fascinating picture of the country - and very moving.

Petina Gappah has law degrees from Cambridge (England), Graz University (Switzerland) and the University of Zimbabwe. Her law background shows through in this book which appears to be well researched, although she comments in the afterword that she did not take up an opportunity to visit Chikurubi Prison as she would have had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and would not then have been able to write about it. So the book relies on her research of second hand accounts. Nevertheless, it is very vivid, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Andorra: The Mysterious Balloon Man, by Albert Salvado

Andorra is a tiny country between France and Spain with a population of some 70,000 people. So it was no surprise to find that there seems to be only one fiction writer from the country with works available in translation. Fortunately Albert Salvado is a highly prolific writer. I tried to find a book actually set in Andorra but had no luck, so I chose his most recent book, The Mysterious Balloon Man, which turns out to be the first in a series with the overarching title, "The Shadow of Ali Bey".

It is a spy story, but also a historical novel, set around the turn of the eighteenth century, and taking place mostly in Spain. Alfred Gordon, a civil servant employed by the British secret service, realises that the nobility, the traditional spies, are not doing a good job. He recruits Tom Headking, a young middle class Englishman living in Spain, where he is on the run after killing Lord Brookshield's son in a duel. What follows could be described as a "rollicking tale" in which women feature mainly as the object of lust for the male characters. It is enjoyable enough, if you can overlook the sometimes laughable characterisation of the women.

Headking discovers a treatise on hot air balloons written by Polindo Remigio. This turns out to be the pseudonym of a Catalan, Domingo Badia, who was to become a spy with the name Ali Bey, who is apparently an actual historical figure. It appears that he will figure more prominently in subsequent books in the series. However, I don't think I was captivated enough to seek them out.

The book was translated by Marc Brian Druckett but there is no publisher named on my copy, leading me to believe that it may have been self published. The translation is of reasonable quality, but the section at the end on "other books by the author" has been very poorly translated.

Still, given the lack of choice for this country, what I ended up with could have been a whole lot worse.