Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ukraine: The Gardener from Ochakov, by Andrey Kurkov

The Gardener from Ochakov is a story of time travel - but it is very specific time travel, in which the protagonist makes trips into the past to one particular time and place - the town of Ochakov, in 1957.

Igor's mother, Elena Andreevna, has hired a gardener, who lives in their shed. Stepan, the gardener, bears a mysterious and blurred tattoo which Igor helps him to decipher with the help of a computer hacker friend. As a result, Igor and Stepan visit a house in Ochakov, where they find goods hidden inside a wall, including an old Soviet policeman's uniform and a wad of now unusable roubles.

But when Igor decides to wear the uniform to a party, he finds himself inexplicably back in the past. There he meets a wine smuggler and falls in love with a married woman.

I found this book immensely enjoyable. Despite the time travel, it doesn't really fit into the genre of science fiction. The how and why of the time travel is not important. What the book does very successfully is to depict life in the Ukraine in two eras - the 1950's, when it was part of Soviet Russia, and modern times, when it is an independent country. There is a dark edge to it, especially to the part set in the past, but ultimately everything turns out well for Igor and Stepan (and, we are to be hoped, for Igor's computer hacker friend who flees to the past after blackmailing the wrong people).

The Gardener from Ochakov was translated from Russian by Amanda Love Darragh and published by Harvill Secker in Londonin 2013.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Libya: The Return, by Hisham Matar

If I was to describe the ideal author for this world reading project, it would be someone born and raised in their native country, still largely resident there, and writing a book set in that country. So I was initially a little put off when I borrowed this book from the livrary, only to read on the blurb that he was born in New York (his father was a minor Libyan diplomat there at the time), and while he returned to Tripoli at a young age, his family left Libya when he was eight. Most of the rest of his childhood was spent in Cairo until he left for boarding school in the UK, and he has spent most of his adult life in London.

It's an arrogant demand, though. I quickly found on starting the book, that Matar regards himself as Libyan through and through. And the view of Libya that the book provides makes it clear that my ideal author is an unlikely construct. Under the 42 year reign of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi, a large proportion of the country's writers and intellectuals were thrown in prison for their opposition to his regime. Many of the author's own family met this fate. His father was abducted in Cairo and imprisoned in Libya. His eventual fate remains unknown. Two of Matar's uncles and two of his cousins were also imprisoned at the same time and released only after many years. The book describes how that wrote poetry in prison. Paper was bought from guards, some of whom could be bribed, and the poems were passed from prisoner to prisoner, but always had to be destroyed, often before reaching their intended recipient. So very few of the poems written in prison survive. If this was the fate of the poems, short enough to be memorised in some cases, how much more difficult would it be to write a novel under these conditions?

Hisham Matar has written two novels - his debut, In the Country of Men, was short listed for the Man Booker Prize - but The Return is non-fiction, a gripping account of his search to find out the fate of his father. This search remains, in the end, unresolved. But along the way, besides a good deal of information on Libyan politics, a light also shines on culture, art, and the importance of family.

The Return was published in the UK in 2016 by Viking, am imprint of Penguin Books Limited, and was also published in the USA.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Colombia: Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras

I had read a book by a Colombian author early on in my world literature journey, but it was set throughout in Argentina. So it seemed appropriate to try again with something actually set in Colombia, and I found this in our local library.

It is set at the height of the time when the country is riven by violence and the name of the drug lord Pablo Escobar is on everyone's lips. Seven year old Chula and her older sister Cassandra live in an upper class gated community in the capital, Bogota, but outside their neighbourhood life is not so safe.

Petrona is a teenager from the city slums, where her family has fled after being forced off their farm in the conflict. Chula's mother hires her as a live-in-maid, and Chula tries to befriend her. At first Petrona speaks little, and Chula makes a game of counting the syllables in each sentence that Petrona speaks. Gradually Petrona warms to Chula, but there are other forces in her life, and the escalation of political violence leads them towards disaster.

Quite a few of the books I have read in this project have a background of violence. While the events described in this book were devastating, it was saved from being all gloom and doom by the perspective of the seven year old, which seemed to lighten the tone enough to make it more bearable to read. It is narrated from Chula's perspective as an older teenager herself, so has the benefit of both a child's perspective, and the viewpoint of the older Chula who is able to make sense of what happened.

While the story is a novel, it draws heavily on the personal experience of the author. Ingrid Rojas Contreras was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia and now lives in California. Fruit of the Drunken Tree was published by Doubleday, New York in 2018.