Sunday, January 27, 2019

Greece: Achilles' Fiancée, by Alki Zei

I was surprised how few books from modern Greek authors were in our library, but I had a couple marked on my "to be read" list. And then this turned up on the new books display, so I decided to give it a try.

At the start of the book the narrator, Eleni, is on a train in Paris with her friends Eugene, Panos and Stephanos. This train, however, is a film set and the friends are working as extras. Eleni recalls her first long train ride, Athens to Piraeus, and then other train rides, as over the course of several weeks, the filming continues.

The Achilles of the title is a guerilla, leader of the resistance against the German occupiers of Greece during World War II, and later against the British and against the Greek government during the civil war that followed. Eleni was known to all the resistance members as "Achilles' fiancée". The book follows her story through times of imprisonment in Greece, exile in Tashkent where Greek political refugees fled, then to Moscow and eventually Paris where the book is set, sometime after the right wing military coup in Greece in 1967.

But Eleni, though a communist, grows from a young girl following what she is told, to a woman who thinks and acts for herself, and does not blindly follow the party line, even when pressured to do so by Achilles.

For a short time, I found the structure of the book a little confusing. However it quickly became clear that during breaks in the filming, Eleni is in the present as she chats to Eugene, and while the filming is taking place, she is remembering the past. The words "cut" and "sound camera action" clearly delineate the time changes. I quickly became absorbed in the story and was fascinated both by the personality of Eleni and by the events in the modern history of Greece about which I had only a vague awareness previously.

Achilles' Fiancée was first published in Greece in 1987. This edition was translated by Anatoli Fitopoulou and published by Bookboom in 2015.

Alki Zei was born in Athens in 1925. Her books are mainly based on her personal experiences, and she herself spent time as a political refugee in the Soviet Union and Paris. While the book is semi-autobiographical, however, it felt universal in the humanity and stories of the characters, both the main characters and the many others who form part of their story.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Kuwait: The Hidden Light of Objects, by Mai Al-Nakib

When I can find only one book from a particular country, the quality can be a bit hit and miss. That wasn't a problem with Mai Al-Nakib's luminous short story collection, The Hidden Light of Objects. Ten "vignettes" alternate with the ten stories in this collection, which give a vivid picture of life in Kuwait as it develops from a traditional fishing village into a cosmopolitan oil-exporting nation, and then, with the Iraqi invasion, becomes a place of horror and war, and increasing fundamentalism.

There are objects a-plenty to carry the weight of the title. In "Chinese Apples" a young girl collects story objects - objects about which she spins imaginative tales which she relates to her younger sister. The story is a lamentation for the loss of her mother, the loss of innocence. In "Amerika's Box" another young girl, named in gratitude for America's role in resisting the Iraqi invasion, has a box in which she collects objects that represent America to her. But her name gradually becomes a liability as attitudes towards America change, particularly after 9/11. And there are many more significant objects in other stories - a compass, a diary, a stamp bearing the image of an elephant, a straw hat with a red ribbon.

While these stories are set against a background of Islam, it is a far less intrusive presence than in books I have read from other Middle Eastern countries. The characters in these books have an abiding interest in the wider world, in literature, culture, music and so on from all around the globe. If the young girls take up wearing the burqa, it is with reluctance and under pressure from an increasingly fundamentalist school and social environment. One senses that the author, too, has a liberal outlook on life.

Mai Al-Nakib was born in Kuwait in 1970. She holds a PhD in English literature from Brown University in the US and teaches postcolonial studies and comparative literature at Kuwait University. The Hidden Light of Objects was published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing and won the 2014 First Book Award from the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

There is a Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan

It's been a while since I posted here and in that time I have read far less than usual. I have been involved in house hunting and currently with one home purchased and one not yet sold, I have two gardens to maintain. Plus, I have been reading some books that are not related to my "Round the World" project. And then there was Christmas..

Still I do have a few books to catch up on reviewing, and this slim volume from South Sudan is one of them. South Sudan only became an independent country in 2011,, and the book was published in 2013 so it was fairly quick off the mark. However it is now out of print and hard to locate, and I haven't come across any alternatives. The conditions there are likely to make it difficult for anyone to publish a full length novel for some time.

There is an interesting introduction written by the editor, Nyol Lueth Tong, who was born in South Sudan but later became a refugee in northern Sudan and Egypt. At the time the book was published, he was at Duke University in the United States.

In the introduction he says "The North has been painted as Islamic and Arabic, while the South has been characterized as Christian and African, and regionally part of East Africa... In reality, however... in the South, more than sixty languages are spoken, and although both Islam and Christianity are practiced, local belief systems dominate the spiritual realm. Moreover, the last several decades of war have forced millions of Southerners to flee their homes... South Sudanese culture, in other words, is a strikingly hard to define thing."

It may be hard to define, but this collection makes a strong contribution towards introducing it to the world. It is to be expected that many of the stories focus on conflict, although unexpectedly, one, "Holy Warrior" by David L Lukudu takes the viewpoint of a soldier for the North Sudanese army. Others show the life of women and teenagers displaced by the fighting. Romantic relationships also feature in several of the stories.

A couple of pieces were different from the rest. "Lexicographicide" by Taban Lo Liyong is an unusual experimental piece which discusses the writing of a dictionary of the Zed language, the language of a fictional island of 125,000 people. The other piece, which ends the volume, is in verse. "Tall Palms", by Arif Gamal, is an excerpt from a longer work "Morning in Serra Mattu: A Nubian Ode". It is a narrative and lyrical work featuring a large boa constrictor, and forms a satisfying contrast to the fighting in the rest of the book.

"There is a Country" was published in 2013 by McSweeney's in San Francisco.