Friday, May 25, 2018

Italy: The Sense of an Elephant, by Marco Missiroli

I borrowed this book from the library because I found the title (and the blurb on the back) intriguing. I wondered where it was going at first. After all, all the secrets seemed to be revealed in the first few chapters, so it wasn't a mystery. It centres round an ex-priest, Pietro, who has taken a job as concierge in an apartment block in Milan. We soon learn that Lica, the father of one of the families in the building, is his son. So I wondered how the tension would sustain itself as there didn't seem to be much to reveal. It turns out, this is not quite the "feel good" story that it seems to be at first. There are surprises to come, not least at the end, and moral dilemmas that left me with plenty to think about.

I wondered about the translation - do Italians refer to a "concierge" or do they have their own word for it? We don't seem to have an English equivalent, but to refer to Pietro as a concierge seems to lend rather a French flavour. Then, the building is frequently referred to as a "condominium" which sounds very American to me, and modern, though in other ways I pictured the building as much older. (The blurb on the back refers to it as a "palazzo" - much more Italian sounding).

I enjoyed the book, and found the characterization complex and interesting. Pietro has two old friends in Milan, the gay lawyer Poppi who found him the job, and his tarot-reading friend Anita. There are also flashbacks to his past life in Rimini, and his relationship with Celeste. And then there are other inhabitants of the apartment building including Paola and her adult son Fernando, who has the mind of a child.

The Sense of an Elephant was translated from Italian by Stephen Twilley and published by Picador in 2015. It was originally published in Italy ,where it won the Campiello Prize, in 2012.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Somalia: The Orchard of Lost Souls, by Nadifa Mohamed

I found this a really interesting book to read shortly after my pick for Ethiopia (scroll down a couple of posts). It is set in the north part of Somalia, near the border with Ethiopia and about ten years later than Maaza Mengiste's book. So there were noticeable resonances between the two stories.

The Orchard of Lost Souls focuses on three women (or rather, two women and a girl). All are strong, independent characters. Filsan is a young female soldier, sent north to Hargeisa from Mogadishu to help suppress the rebellion growing in the north. Kawsar is a widow. Nine-year-old Deqo was born in a vast refugee camp outside the city. She is brought with a troop of refugee children to dance at a political rally. When she forgets the steps, frozen in fear, she is dragged aside by the woman in charge of the troop to be punished. Kawsar intervenes and Deqo runs off, leaving Kawsar to be arrested. At the police station the soldier Filsan beats her savagely. Thereafter she is crippled and confined to her house, unable to tend to her beloved orchard. The paths of the three characters separate but, like channels of a braided river, they come together again later in the story.

Apart from the beating Kawsar receives in the police station, I found this book not nearly as brutal as Mengiste's. We see the city emptying out and suffering from the war, but the portrayal of political oppression is not as extreme, perhaps because the city is remote from the capital where the leaders live. There are certainly some brutal passages, for instance when Filsan is sent to take part in an action to destroy water reservoirs in surrounding villages, because the tribesmen are suspected of aiding the rebels. However, these are not quite as central to the story as in "Beneath the Lion's Gaze", and the focus is more on the tenderness between the three women that arises as events unfold, leading to a much more hopeful ending, at least for the central characters.

The north of Somalia, where the book is set, has been declared to be an independent state, the Republic of Somaliland, since 1991. So for anyone wishing to include Somaliland as a separate country, this would be a good book to read. However its independence is not officially recognized, and it is not on the list of countries recognized by the United Nations that I am following. Nadifa Mohamed was born in Hargeisa in 1981 and moved to London with her family in 1986, shortly before the events of this book. This was intended to be a temporary move, but it became permanent when the war broke out. She did not return to Hargeisa until 2008.

The Orchard of Lost Souls is her second book and was published by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd in 2013.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Dominica: The Orchid House, by Phyllis Shand Allfrey

"The Orchid House" is narrated by Lally, the elderly servant of a white family who have fallen on hard times in an unnamed Caribbean Island. The three small girls who had ben in Lally's charge have now grown up - Natalie is a wealthy widow, who is supporting her impoverished parents, Stella has married a farmer in America and Joan is in England where she is politically involved in the Labour Party.

During the course of the story, the girls return one by one to the island. Their father is ill and drug dependent after returning from "the war" (apparently the First World War). Each daughter tries in her own way to change things - Joan through politics, Natalie with money, and Stella with a drastic course of action that has unforeseen consequences. Caught up in the story also are Mademoiselle Bosquet, the girls' childhood French teacher who is in love with "the Master", and a young man, Andrew, dying of tuberculoses - but which sister does he most love? And which of them loves him?

The book was originally published in 1953 and was for a long time forgotten, as colonialism was left behind and the political situation in the Caribbean changed - though a film adaptation was made in 1990. There is an introduction to the current edition written by Schuyler Esprit, a scholar of Caribbean literature and post colonial studies. In it she puts the book in its cultural and political context. Although some of the finer details of her explanation were a little lost on me, nevertheless I found it worthwhile reading, all it would be quite possible to enjoy the book without it.

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was born and brought up in Dominica, and lived in New York and London as a young woman. She returned to Dominica in the 1950s, was a cofounder of the Dominica Labour Party, and subsequently became a newspaper editor. The current edition of The Orchid House was published in 2016 by Papillote Press, a publishing house which specialises in Caribbean literature.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Ethiopia: Beneath the Lion's Gaze, by Maaza Mengiste

Set around the period 1974 - 1978, when famine and rebellion led to the overthrow of the Emperor Haile Selassie and the establishment of a military dictatorship, this novel focuses on Hailu, a doctor, and his family in the capital of Addis Abbaba. At the onset of the book Hailu's wife Selam is in hospital, dying. His elder son Yonas is married to Sara, and they have one daughter, Tizita. His younger son Dawit is a student,heavily involved in clandestine political activity.

The members of the family are all deeply affected in different ways by the death of Selam. Sara mourns her as the replacement for her own mother. Hailu immerses himself in his work. Dawit becomes estranged from his childhood friend, Mickey, who has joined the military, for the security of a paid job. As the political situation unravels, all the members of the family, in their different ways, are faced with unthinkable choices.

The novel is quite grim and brutal in parts. It is lightened by lyrical passages which describe dreams or visions, including those of the dead and dying. Ethiopia has a long Christian tradition - the emperor (or King of Kings) was supposedly a descendant of the Biblical King David, the monarchy of Ethiopia being the oldest in the world - and this tradition is reflected in the beliefs of the characters.

As I read further into the book, I was more and more riveted by the writing, and found it hard to put down. The period described in the second half of the book is one of brutal genocide. The ending is somewhat inconclusive - those remaining are safe, for the meantime, but on finding that the military government (the Derg) lasted around 13 - 14 more years after the conclusion of the novel, I couldn't help wondering how long that safety would hold.

Maaza Mengiste writes in the author's note at the end that it is a fictionalized account based on real history. Only the emperor and his prime minister are given the names they had in real life. Other characters are fictionalized including many of the military leaders. So the dilemmas and actions taken in the book are not actual events that took place, but nevertheless they represent the real difficulties that a wide range of people faced at the time.

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Abbaba in 1974 and left with her family at the age of four when they fled the Ethiopian Revolution. She spent the rest of her childhood in Nigeria, Kenya and the United States, and now lives in the latter country where she teaches creative writing.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Dominican Republic: Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez

I could have read the much better known book by Junot Diaz, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao". Two things put me off - firstly, that Diaz had moved to the United States when he was six years old, and secondly, I read that the book was set in the United States (among the Dominican immigrant community).

Instead, I looked at the novels of Julia Alvarez, and found one in e-book form in our local library. "Before We Were Free" is actually a young adult book. It is narrated by Anita, who is eleven years old at the start of the story. She lives in a house on the family compound with her parents and elder brother and sister. Close by are her aunts, uncles and cousins, but gradually they have all moved away to the United States. Anita is lonely, and innocent of the wider political realities of life under "El Jefe", whose poster is on every classroom wall and in every home. It is 1960 and El Jefe is the dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

The young adult level of the book meant that I found the first chapter or two a bit simplistic, but gradually as Anita becomes older, she learns more of the political situation, and the problems that her family are facing. The gradual revelations are compelling to read and I found myself gripped by the story, through which I learnt a lot more of the history of the Dominican Republic.

Julia Alvarez has also written an adult novel set at about the same time period: "In the Time of the Butterflies". I'll be looking out for it.