This book has been on my to-read list for some time and I'm glad I finally got round to it. It's a novel written by a Sicilian prince in the 1950s aboThis book has been on my to-read list for some time and I'm glad I finally got round to it. It's a novel written by a Sicilian prince in the 1950s about the declining aristocracy in Sicily in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The leopard of the title is the Prince of Salina, whose heraldic emblem is a leopard. The novel is centred around him, but he is a curiously passive figure. The world he grew up in crumbles around him and he gloomily but pragmatically goes with the flow.
The book is sort of nostalgic and melancholy in tone—in so far as a writer can be nostalgic for something that happened before he was born—and it exhibits a kind of regret for a lost world; but, crucially, it doesn't read, to me, as wishing to turn the clock back. The aristocratic world represents a special kind of elegance and sophistication in the book and the shift of power to a nouveau riche class of merchants is a coarsening of society, but the book doesn't attempt to claim the aristocrats as especially virtuous or deserving of their position. It reminds me a bit of Proust: not immune to snobbery and the glamour of the aristocracy, but just a bit too clear-sighted to fully buy into it.
It's low-key and atmospheric and rather wonderful....more
This is one of the great novelistic portraits of London: a London full of smoke and fog, seedy backstreet pubs, horse-drawn cabs, and gaslights. That'This is one of the great novelistic portraits of London: a London full of smoke and fog, seedy backstreet pubs, horse-drawn cabs, and gaslights. That's what I like best about it, really, the London it creates and the grotesque characters that inhabit it: Verloc himself, the secret agent and seller of pornography, his coterie of seedy, ageing and probably ineffectual foreign anarchists and revolutionaries, the police chief on his trail, the idiot brother. All of that is done brilliantly. One vaguely assumes that as a European immigrant to London himself, Conrad was drawing on personal experience in his portrayal of the anarchists, but it's just as possible that he made it all up. In fact, reading my own description of it, it makes it sound like he set out to write a parody of a Sherlock Holmes novel.
On the whole, I think that when it gets into the psychodrama at the end — his wife's reaction to what has happened — it becomes a bit less interesting. But it's still a great book....more
Halldór Laxness was an Icelandic novelist (and, incidentally, winner of the Nobel Prize). Independent People was published in 1935, and this translatiHalldór Laxness was an Icelandic novelist (and, incidentally, winner of the Nobel Prize). Independent People was published in 1935, and this translation by J. A. Thompson was written in the 40s. It's the story of Bjartur, a stubborn, misanthropic sheep-farmer grinding out a primitive existence in hostile conditions, and obsessed with the idea of being independent.
It's not what you'd call a cheerful novel, though it does have its share of dark satirical humour, as when the city-born lady of the manor goes around explaining to all the local peasants about the nobility and happiness of the farmer's life. It reminded me a bit of Thomas Hardy; both the tinge of gloom that hangs over it, and the theme of creeping modernity in an agricultural community.
The main reason I read it was to tick off Iceland for the Read The World challenge, and it has a powerful sense of place: the dark winters, with the family snowed in for weeks at a time; the redshanks, plovers and wild ducks returning to breed in spring; the folklore and poetry; the sense of remoteness from the rest of the world. And while it made me very glad not to be a peasant sheep farmer, it did quite make me want to visit Iceland, if only to see the phalaropes.
I'm glad I read it; it's a proper, major novel, and I enjoyed it. Fair warning, though; my mother, who I borrowed it from, clearly found it a bit of a chore, and I can see why. It's 550 pages, and even though I liked it, it felt like quite a long 550 pages....more
Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek (pronounced pishtyanek, apparently) is a caustic satirical novel set in a big hotel in Bratislava, now the capitalRivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek (pronounced pishtyanek, apparently) is a caustic satirical novel set in a big hotel in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia but then in Czechoslovakia, at the time of the collapse of the communist government. It has a cast of prostitutes, black-market money changers, former secret policemen and sex tourists.
The anti-hero of the novel Rácz, who starts out stoking the boilers the hotel, but ruthlessly fights his way up the food chain. The introduction suggests that 'Rácz will prove as immortal a rogue as Fielding's Jonathan Wild, Gogol's Chichikov or Thomas Mann's Felix Krull'. I'd only add that 'rogue' seems too mild a word for a character as brutal as Rácz.
The comparison that sprang to mind for me (and I should probably be more careful of these comparisons to half-remembered books I read more than a decade a go) was A Confederacy of Dunces. It has something of the extravagantly grotesque quality that I remember Toole's book having. Rivers of Babylon was published in 1991, so it was absolutely topical at the time, and it has the real edge of satire written in response to dramatic current events.
This translation by Peter Petro was published in 2007 by Garnett Press, a small press set up by the Russian Department at Queen Mary, University of London. Rivers of Babylon is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently they hope to publish the other two books ‘soon'. I imagine that it's an uncertain business trying to publish on that scale, but I for one would certainly pick up the sequel if I got the chance....more
I think there’s a great division among readers between those who read fiction primarily for the plots and characters, and those who read for the pleasI think there’s a great division among readers between those who read fiction primarily for the plots and characters, and those who read for the pleasure of the prose. Not that the two are mutually exclusive — indeed one might argue that at its best literature should provide both — but I do think there’s a real difference there, and if you read book discussions on the internet, you often see people from the two sides talking across each other.
I would generally say that I am one of those who are more interested in prose style than narrative. But The Book of Disquiet really served to test that idea. It contains some of the finest writing I have encountered for a long time; it also has absolutely no plot.
It is presented as the ‘factless autobiography’ of a Lisbon clerk named Bernardo Soares, and it is a compilation of short pieces — some just a few lines, others three or four pages — which chronicle his inner life: philosophical musings about literature, love, dreaming, religion, and so on. Sometimes it’s aphoristic, sometimes detached and analytical, sometimes more personal and emotional; but it’s almost all inside his own head. We get little glimpses of his office and colleagues, and the streets of Lisbon; but really very little.
The result is often brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes waffly, sometimes aggravating — Soares is too snobbish and solipsistic to be completely likeable — and I did actually enjoy it as well as being impressed by it. But what it doesn’t have is a lot of forward momentum. And so it took me quite a long time to read and I had to make a conscious effort to pick it up again and push through to the end. ...more
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić is my book from Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Read The World challenge. I actually had a diffHow the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić is my book from Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Read The World challenge. I actually had a different writer in mind — Ivo Andrić, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 — but when I saw this in the bookshop I switched. Mainly because most of the books I’ve been reading are a few decades old, and it’s nice to find one which is fresh out of the oven (published in German in 2006; the English translation by Anthea Bell in 2008).
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone tells the story of Aleksandar Krsmanović, a boy who is growing up in the Bosnian town of Višegrad but flees with his family to Germany in 1992 to escape the war. Since Stanišić grew up in Višegrad and moved to Germany in 1992 as a fourteen-year-old, I assume it is somewhat autobiographical.
The blurb on the back cover compares Stanišić with Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace, which gives you some idea of the kind of writer he is: a clever young man who isn’t afraid to leave evidence of his cleverness on the page. There are sections written in different voices, stylistic quirks, elements you might call magical realist, a bit of a book-within-a-book and so on. In fiction there can be a fine line between overtly clever and overly clever, and for the first few chapters I was a bit unsure which side of the line this book falls, but it won me over.
Here’s a fairly randomly picked passage:
My Nena went deaf the day Grandpa Rafik married the river Drina, face down. The marriage was legal because Nena and Grandpa Rafik had been divorced for years, something unusual in our town. After Grandpa Rafik was buried, they say she said at his graveside: I haven’t cooked anything, I haven’t brought anything, I haven’t put on black clothes, but I have a whole book full of things to forgive. They say she took out a stack of notes and began reading aloud from them. They say she stood there for a day and a night, and word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page she forgave him. And after that she said no more, and she never reacted to any kind of question again.
Nena Fatima has eyes as keen as a hawk’s, kyu, ket-ket, she recognises me before I turn into her street, and she wears headscarves. Nena’s hair is a secret — long and red and beautiful, she gave the secret away to me as we sat outside her house eating börek in summer and feeding the Drina with minced meat. Cold yoghurt, salted onions, the warmth of Nena rocking silently as she sits cross-legged. The dough is shiny with good fat. Nena rocks back and forth and lights a cigarette when I’ve had enough. I am the quietest grandson in the world, so as not to disturb her stillness and our sunset. Sultry heat gathers over the river and looks attentively at Nena Fatima, who is humming as she plaits her secret into a long braid. I don’t laugh with anyone as softly as with my Nena, I laugh with her until I’m exhausted, I don’t comb anyone else’s hair.
As I do the Read The World challenge, various themes are recurring; this is the third book I’ve read (along with My Father’s Notebook and The Kite Runner) which is written by a refugee, starts with nostalgic memories of the home country, and then describes the country collapsing and the refugee experience. It is much the best of the three, I think; I did genuinely enjoy The Kite Runner, but it is deeply emotionally manipulative, like watching a Hollywood film about a difficult subject by a skillful but solidly mainstream director. The kind of glossy film on a ‘brave’ subject which is daring enough to win a few Oscars but which you look back on a few years later and think… meh. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is a more interesting book all round; messier, more personal (I think), funnier, sadder. And while I don’t want to overstate the originality of it — it’s been nearly a hundred years since some bright spark invented modernism, FFS — it is at least less of a straight down the line conventional narrative.
Treading Air is an Estonian novel which, to quote the blurb, ‘follows the life of Ullo Paerand through thirty years of violent upheaval in Estonia’. ITreading Air is an Estonian novel which, to quote the blurb, ‘follows the life of Ullo Paerand through thirty years of violent upheaval in Estonia’. I’ve actually had it on my to-read list for some time, but to be honest I kept putting it off because the back cover made it sound a bit depressing. And while it’s perfectly reasonable that a book telling the story of Estonia over the twentieth century would be a little gloomy, I didn’t particularly fancy it.
I’m glad I finally read it, though; it’s a fine novel and not nearly as depressing as it could be, although partially because it chooses not to dwell on the bad stuff. In fact, it is mainly about Paerand’s life as a young man before the Soviet occupation, which is handled quite lightly and with a good deal of humour; the bulk of his adult life under the Soviet regime is skipped over in a few short chapters. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be symbolic of Estonia itself: a closing down of the possibilities of life, a kind of hibernation for the whole country....more
The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz/de Queirós, is a proper doorstop of a C19th novel, over 700 pages long. It’s late C19th, though, 1888. I was trying to thThe Maias, by Eça de Queiroz/de Queirós, is a proper doorstop of a C19th novel, over 700 pages long. It’s late C19th, though, 1888. I was trying to think of apt comparisons, and none of them seemed exactly right, but it’s much more George Eliot or Tolstoy than Dickens. Or even early C20th novelists like Forster or Proust. Though the Proust comparison is not so much to do with style as subject matter: the romantic entanglements of wealthy, mildly bohemian society types.
Among the themes running through the book, the one I found most interesting was the question of Portugal’s place in the world, which is seen in terms of tradition vs. modernity but also Portugal’s cultural relationship with other European powers: there’s a real sense of a smallish country on the edge of Europe looking towards London and Paris with a hint of an inferiority complex. So the characters swing between claiming unique virtues for Portugal and admiring, for example, a dress that could only have come from Paris. Every discussion, of literature or an event or whatever, turns to comparisons with other countries; the yardstick for quality is an external one. It’s oddly like reading post-colonial fiction, even though Portugal was in fact colonist rather than colonised.
I think what I liked most about the book was the leisurely pace of it. Events at which nothing much happens — or at least nothing which is essential to advancing the plot —are allowed to spread over five or ten pages. There’s a 30-page description of them going to the races which is a big set piece within the book, full of social observation, incident and humour, but none of it is actually crucial to the plot. On another occasion, in another mood, I might have just been bored by it; but this time I enjoyed that expansiveness.
In Lisbon, from the Grémio to the Casa Havanesa, there was already talk of ‘Ega’s mistress’. He, for his part, was trying very hard to keep his happiness safe from prying eyes. While perfectly serious about the complicated precautions this entailed, he also took a romantic delight in mystery, and so always chose the most out-of-the-way places, on the outskirts of the city, in the area near the slaughterhouse, for his furtive meetings with the maid who brought him Raquel’s letters. But his every gesture (event he affected way he had of pretending not to look at the clock) revealed the enormous pride he felt in that elegant adultery. He was perfectly aware that his friends knew all about this glorious adventure of his, and were au fait with the whole drama, and this was perhaps why, when in the company of Carlos or the others, he never even mentioned her name or betrayed the slightest flicker of emotion.
One night, however, a night lit by a calm white moon, as he and Carlos were walking along together in silence on their way to Ramalhete, Ega, doubtless filled by a sudden inrush of passion, uttered a heartfelt sigh, reached out his arms and declared to the moon in a tremulous voice:
Oh, laisse-toi donc aimer, oh, l’amour c’est la vie!
This escaped his lips like the beginning of a confession. Carlos, at his side, said nothing, and simply blew his cigar smoke out into the air.
Ega clearly felt somewhat ridiculous, because he immediately recovered himself and pretended a mere literary interest.
‘They can say what they want, but there’s no one like old Hugo.’
Carlos still said nothing, but he recalled Ega’s Naturalist outbursts, in which he had inveighed against Victor Hugo, calling him a ’spiritualist blabbermouth’, ‘an imitative yokel’, ‘a lyrical old fool’ and worse.
But that night, Ega, the great phrase-maker, went on:
‘Ah yes, old Hugo, the heroic champion of the eternal truths. We need a bit of idealism, damn it, because the ideal might one day become reality.’
And with this formal recantation he shattered the silence of the streets.
A quick name-check for Margaret Jull Costa, who translated this edition, and has done a good job of it, as far as I can tell without knowing any Portuguese....more
According to the dust jacket, Srečko Kosovel is ‘often called the Slovene Rimbaud’. Mainly, as far as I can gather, because he wrote all his poetry veAccording to the dust jacket, Srečko Kosovel is ‘often called the Slovene Rimbaud’. Mainly, as far as I can gather, because he wrote all his poetry very young; not, like Rimbaud, because he decided to run off and do something else, but because he died at 22.
I found The Golden Boat: Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel while I was browsing through the Salt website, looking for something I could buy to support their ‘Just One Book‘ campaign. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and buy it as my book from Slovenia for the Read The World challenge. As a point of geographical and historical pedantry, Kosovel wasn’t actually born in Slovenia. As far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, Slovenia never existed as an independent nation before June 1991, so anyone born in Slovenia is still under 18 today. Kosovel was born in 1904 in Austria-Hungary and died in 1926 in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which became Yugoslavia three years later).
Kosovel wrote in free verse from the start, and if I’ve understood the introduction correctly, he was the first person to do so in Slovenian. But in subject matter and language, as far as one can tell in translation, the early poems are fairly conventional: low-key, atmospheric lyrics which are rooted in the Slovenian landscape, and particularly the Karst, a rugged limestone plateau where a wind called the burja blows down from the Alps. I rather liked this early work, but I can see that if he had died even younger and these were the only poems that survived, he might not seem to be a particularly significant poet.
On a Grey Morning
On a grey morning I walk the streets downtown, the fog cuts into my burning eyes, it cuts into my throat, and is cold around my heart.
Then, from the bakeries, the smell of fresh rye bread, but the bakeries are still dark, the street silent, nobody yet around and I feel tight in my soul.
It is the memory of the Karst: a village strewn among the rocks that this black bread reminds me of, this healthy scent from the bakeries that smells so much like a caress.
Later his poetry became more avant-garde. He called himself a Constructivist, although apparently the connection with Russian Constructivism is not especially close. Whatever the terminology, he is certainly part of the broader movement of European modernism, of Dada and Surrealism and Futurism and God knows what else. The poems become more fragmented, more opaque, more aggressive, there are sprinklings of mathematical symbols and typographical experimentation with different sized text and vertical text. There is some continuity of theme; the night and moonlight which are such a feature of the Karst poems are still constantly present, the Karst landscape and the burja still appear from time to time. But the poems become wider-ranging, more political. The death of Europe becomes a recurring theme, no doubt a response to having lived through the First World War: Kosovel was too young to fight, but he didn’t have to go war because the war came to him, or the town where he lived as a teenager.
A martyrdom of thoughts. Blue sea. Grey prison. A soldier is impaling hopeless thoughts on his bayonet in front of the window
Pardon me. ‘O, nothing.’ Sigaretta. Eine Edison. I hear the blue sea butting monotonously into my skull
And another example:
The Red Rocket
I am a red rocket, I ignite myself and burn and fade out. Yes, I in the red vestments! I with the red heart! I with the red blood! I am escaping tirelessly, as if I alone must reach fulfilment. And the more I escape, the more I burn. And the more I burn, the more I suffer. And the more I suffer, the faster I fade out. O, I, who want to live forever. And I go, a red man, over a green field; above me, over the azure lake of silence, clouds of iron, o, but I go, I go, a red man! Everywhere is silence: in the fields, in the sky, in the clouds, I’m the only one escaping, burning with my scalding fire and I can’t reach the silence. ...more
The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić is a book of essays written between 1991 and 1996 — that is, during and just after the wars that resulted fromThe Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić is a book of essays written between 1991 and 1996 — that is, during and just after the wars that resulted from the collapse of Yugoslavia. It is my book from Croatia for the Read The World challenge, although there is a slight awkwardness to that choice. This is from the ‘Glossary’ which Ugrešić includes at the back of the book:
A few years ago my homeland was confiscated, and, along with it my passport. In exchange I was given a new homeland, far smaller and less comfortable. They handed me a passport, a ’symbol’ of my new identity. Thousands of people paid for those new ‘identity symbols’ with their lives, thousands were driven out of their homes, scattered, humiliated, deprived of their rights, imprisoned and impoverished. I possess very expensive identity documents. the fact often fills me with horror. And shame.
My passport has not made me a Croat. On the contrary, I am far less that today than I was before.
I am no one. And everyone. In Croatia I shall be a Serb, in Serbia a Croat, in Bulgaria a Turk, in Turkey a Greek, in Greece a Macedonian, in Macedonia a Bulgarian… Being an ethnic ‘bastard’ or ’schizophrenic’ is my natural choice, I even consider it a sign of mental and moral health. And I know that I am not alone. Violent, stubborn insitence on national identities has provoked a response: today many young citizens of former Yugoslavia, particularly those scattered throughout the world, stubbornly refuse any ethnic labels.
So, although Ugrešić was born in what is now Croatia, and so her book counts for my purposes as a book from Croatia, I should be careful not to label her as a ‘Croat writer’. But then it was never the intention for this challenge that the books and writers chosen should be taken as representative of those countries — or not in a straightforward way. In the context of this challenge, that dynamic between books and countries is quite interesting, but I think it needs a post of its own.
The essays are fascinating. They communicate a sense of an overwhelming cultural trauma, not just because of the war itself but because of the whiplash speed of the changes as all the ex-Yugoslavs created new identities for themselves. Streets were renamed, history rewritten, the literary canon divvied up.
And it wasn’t simply an assertion of a new positive identity for, for example, Croatia, it was necessarily a rejection not just of Serbia and Bosnia but of Yugoslavia. So the country where all of them had lived their whole lives, and which had been an imperfect but functional state for over 80 years, became a ‘prison of nations’, and anyone who questioned this was suffering from the dangerously subversive ‘Yugo-nostalgia’.
This is from the title essay:
I know of a writer colleague who claimed to a foreign journalist that he was ‘the victim of repression’ under Yugo-communism, that his books were banned, and that he had been in prison. That colleague was never in prison nor was he ‘the victim of repression’ and all his books were regularly published. I do not believe that he was lying. Exposed to media brainwashing, terror by forgetting and collective compulsion, my colleague had simply forgotten his personal history, he carried out an unconscious mental touching-up, and in the general context the spoken lie became an acceptable truth. And after all, the foreign journalist had come to hear just such a story, in his Westerner’s head he already carried such a stereotype: the story of a repressed writer in the former communist regime and a happy end in the new, democratic one.
I know of a Zagreb Japanologist who terrorised the whole Yugoslav cultural scene for years with — Japan! Throughout the whole of former Yugoslavia there sprang up haiku circles, haiku poets, ikebana courses, anthologies of Japanese poetry, twinnings between Osaka and Varaždin, festivals of Yugoslav haiku poets. Thanks to the activity of the aforementioned Japanologist, the inflation of haiku poetry during ‘totalitarianism’ had given us all a ‘pain in the neck’. Today the famous Japanologist claims that under the ‘Tito regime’ he was exposed to repression because of … haiku poetry!
We have always been at war with Eastasia.
The essays approach this central subject from various directions — the metaphor of cleanness and cleansing, the relationship between eastern and western Europe, the kitschiness of nationalist aesthetics, pop music — and they are all well-written, thought provoking and rather quotable. But instead of typing out long extracts I’ll just suggest you read it yourself....more
This is a journalistic account of organised crime in Naples; the title is a pun on Camorra, the name of the Neapolitan mafia. It’s an eye-opening, depThis is a journalistic account of organised crime in Naples; the title is a pun on Camorra, the name of the Neapolitan mafia. It’s an eye-opening, depressing book. The prose is occasionally a little purple for my taste, which I suspect is partly the translation. And I feel a bit petty criticising the prose style since Saviano risked his life to write it; he now lives under 24 hour police protection. I can only hope his bravery does some good, although the book makes the problem seem intractable.
I realised it would feature unpleasant people doing unpleasant things — I’m not a complete idiot, I saw Goodfellas — but I thought that the movies might tend to exaggerate it, since violence is so cinematic. But actually the brutality is genuinely shocking: there are page after page of murders and beatings.
As a young doctor in the 1980s my father had worked on an ambulance crew. Four hundred deaths a year. In areas with up to five murders a day. They’d pull up in the ambulance, the wounded on the ground, but if the police hadn’t arrived, they couldn’t load him onto the stretcher. Because if word got around, the killers would come back and track down the ambulance, stop it, climb in, and finish off the job. It had happened lots of times, so the doctors and nurses knew to stand by, to wait till the killers came back to complete the operation.
Also shocking is the sheer scale of their involvement not just in clearly illegal activities like drugs, people trafficking and gun running, but in superficially legitimate businesses: fashion, construction, waste disposal. I guess it makes sense; a willingness to ignore the law can be a great competitive advantage. It’s easier to make money from imported consumer goods if you don’t pay any import duties or taxes; from clothing if it’s made in an illegal sweatshop; from waste disposal if you don’t even try to dispose of toxic waste safely.
The Casalesi have distributed their good throughout the region. Just the real estate assets seized by the Naples DDA in the last few years amount to 750 million euros. The lists are frightening. In the Spartacus trial alone, 199 buildings, 52 pieces of property, 14 companies, 12 automobiles, and 3 boats were confiscated. Over the years, according to a 1996 trial, Schiavone and his trusted men have seen the seizure of assets worth 230 million euros: companies, villas, lands, buildings, and powerful automobiles, including the Jaguar in which Sandokan was found at the time of his first arrest. Confiscations that would have destroyed any company, losses that would have ruined any businessman, economic blows that would have capsized any firm. Anyone but the Casalesi cartel. Every time I read about the seizure of property, every time I see the lists of assets the DDA has confiscated from the bosses, I feel depressed and exhausted; everywhere I turn, everything sems to be theirs. Everything. Land, buffalos, farms, quarries, garages, dairies, hotels, and restaurants. A sort of Camorra omnipotence. I can’t see anything that doesn’t belong to them.
The details of life at street level, and the mechanics of things like the waste disposal trade, are the most interesting parts of it; some of the stuff where he is detailing the feuds between different groups is less gripping, just because it’s difficult trying to keep track of all the different names and the list of murders gets depressingly repetitive. But overall it is fascinating stuff and I certainly recommend it. ...more
S.Y. Agnon is apparently a key figure in Israeli literature, and Only Yesterday is very much a novel about Israel. But it is my book from Ukraine forS.Y. Agnon is apparently a key figure in Israeli literature, and Only Yesterday is very much a novel about Israel. But it is my book from Ukraine for the Read The World challenge.
My reasons for assigning the book to Ukraine were basically pragmatic — there wasn’t an alternative from Ukraine which sprang out at me, and I felt like reading something more contemporary for Israel — but it’s quite fitting anyway. It’s a novel about the early waves of modern Jewish settlers to Palestine at the start of the twentieth century, and although nearly all the action takes place in the Middle East, in many ways it’s a story of eastern and central Europe. The various characters are still as much identified with their homelands — Russia, Hungary, and so on — as they are with any nascent Israeli identity. In fact the book’s central character, Isaac, moves in an almost completely European world; the Arab population of Palestine is occasionally mentioned, but I can’t remember a single named Arab character. The few non-Jewish characters seem to be European Christians.
Neither Ukraine nor Israel existed as independent nations when this novel is set; Isaac is a Jew from Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who immigrates to what is then the British Mandate in 1908. It is obviously not a coincidence that S.Y. Agnon was also a Galician Jew who made the same move at the same date. The novel is clearly only autobiographical in a limited way, though, since Isaac is an unsophisticated working man rather than a bookish one.
This is the book I have been whinging about (1, 2) because of its sheer physical weight. And it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I do think I would have finished it quicker and perhaps enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been so unnecessarily bulky. But I still enjoyed it; it’s humane and even quite funny, as literary novels go.
The human story of Isaac held my attention; I did sometimes start to lose focus with some of the more detailed stuff about Zionism and so on. There are so many people and organisations who get mentioned: writers, politicians, theologians, Zionist charities, settler organisations, religious groups. There wasn’t too much of the book taken up by characters sitting around in cafés and having conversations about Zionism, but there was a bit, and I just got the feeling that generally in the novel there was a whole level of commentary and satire that I was missing because I didn’t have enough context. Which is unfortunate.
But even if I didn’t get all the nuances, I still thought that the ideological aspect was important to the novel. One of the striking things about it is the portrayal of people trying to create a new place from scratch. It’s not a utopian project precisely, but all these settlers have made the difficult and expensive journey from Europe to Israel because of some idea or idealism, whether political or religious, and that idea may or may not survive contact with the reality . At the very least, the reality is unlikely to be exactly what they expected.
One of my reasons for reading it was that I was interested in a book set during that early history of modern Israel. But it’s not a history book, and like all(?) good novels what makes it work is an interest in people, not in ideas. And it is a very good novel, and generally a readable and engaging one. ...more
The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian is my book from Malta for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel narrated by an old man called Lucian which beginsThe Maltese Baron… and I Lucian is my book from Malta for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel narrated by an old man called Lucian which begins with the return after decades of his childhood friend, the Baron. It is the story of their fractious relationship, and Lucian’s relationship with a woman called Katarina, cutting back and forth between the present and their youth.
It has quite a successful unreliable narrator thing going on — Lucian portrays himself as an upright, moral, dignified man in contrast to the Baron’s promiscuity and vulgarity, whereas we can see that he’s a pompous selfish prick, and that the Baron, despite a few flaws, is practically heroic in comparison.
Otherwise, though, it doesn’t have much going for it. The opening chapter has some prose which is so convoluted that it was practically incomprehensible, and I initially couldn’t tell whether this was supposed to be a way of characterising the narrator, some kind of advanced literary technique that I just wasn’t grokking, or just very badly written. In the end I decided it was a combination: Ebejer was trying to characterise Lucian as stuffy and self-important, but just wasn’t quite good enough to pull it off. The main narrative is more readable, most of the time, but it’s never any better than ordinary....more
Voices from Chernobyl was written in 1996, ten years after the reactor meltdown. It is an oral history of the disaster; that is, it’s presented as a sVoices from Chernobyl was written in 1996, ten years after the reactor meltdown. It is an oral history of the disaster; that is, it’s presented as a series of ‘monologues’ by people who were involved in some way, with titles like ‘Monologue about War Movies’, ‘Monologue about the Shovel and the Atom’, ‘Monologue about Expensive Salami’. I’m actually a bit curious about exactly how they were collected; they are presented as verbatim transcripts, although I’m sure they’ve been tidied up somewhat. What you don’t get is any idea of what questions or prompting came from the interviewer. It’s quite an effective device, keeping the journalist out of the spotlight and letting the voices speak for themselves, but I assume there’s an element of artifice to it. I don’t think it detracted from the book, I’m just curious about the process.
The result is, anyway, an extraordinary book. The stories come from all kinds of perspectives: local farmers, soldiers, scientists, officials, construction workers, wives, children. And the material is fascinating: people’s accounts of being evacuated, of working on the reactor site, of nursing dying relatives. There are people who refused to leave, and people who came back because it was home, and people who, having fled conflicts elsewhere, moved to the area because there were houses lying empty. And overlying it all is the extraordinarily inept and chaotic government response, which included, for example, failing to distribute iodine or breathing masks because they thought doing so might cause panic.
And as well as the material being so interesting, it has a very literary quality; bleak and fatalistic, but laced with dark humour and absurdity, sometimes earthy, sometimes poetic. That poetry comes both from the real poignancy of the human situations and the surreal quality of many things that happened: the soldiers sent into the Zone to kill all the cats and dogs; the people whose job it was to dig up soil and bury it in pits; the fact that they were told that drinking vodka would help fight radiation poisoning, so everyone seems to have been rolling around in an alcoholic haze.
It really is a fabulous book. Here’s a little excerpt, from a man who has moved to live in the evacuated zone:
It’s easy to find books here. Now, an empty clay pitcher, or a spoon or fork, that you won’t find, but books are all over. The other day I found a volume of Pushkin. “And the thought of death is sweet to my soul.” I remember that. Yes: “The thought of death.” I am here alone. I think about death. I’ve come to like thinking. And silence helps you to prepare yourself. Man lives with death, but he doesn’t understand what it is. But I’m here alone. Yesterday I chased a wolf and a she-wolf out of the school, they were living there.
Question: Is the world as it’s depicted in words the real world? Words stand between the person and his soul.
And I’ll say this: birds, and trees, and ants, they’re closer to me now than they were. I think about them, too. Man is frightening. And strange. But I don’t want to kill anyone here. I fish here, I have a rod. Yes. But I don’t shoot animals. And I don’t set traps. You don’t feel like killing anyone here.
And here’s a bit by someone else, who moved back:
Sometimes I turn on the radio. They scare us and scare us with the radiation. But our lives have gotten better since the radiation came. I swear! Look around: they brought oranges, three kinds of salami, whatever you want. And to the village! My grandchildren have been all over the world. The littlest just came back from France, that’s where Napoleon attacked from once—”Grandma, I saw a pineapple!” My nephew, her brother, they took him to Berlin for the doctors. That’s where Hitler started from on his tanks. It’s a new world. Everything’s different. Is that the radiation’s fault, or what?
Voices from Chernobyl is my book from Belarus for the Read The World challenge. If you’re thinking ‘hang on, Belarus, that doesn’t sound right’, well, you’re right, the plant itself is in Ukraine, but it’s just by the border with Belarus and so Belarus was one of the worst affected places.
A quick namecheck for the translator, Keith Gessen, who I’m sure deserves a lot of credit for how well the book reads in English; and just to reiterate, I think this is a really good book and I strongly recommend it. ...more
… or to give him his full Ruritanian title, ‘Comte Charles de Bruc, Chargé d’Affaires de la République de St Marin à Paris, Grand Croix de l’Ordre Équ… or to give him his full Ruritanian title, ‘Comte Charles de Bruc, Chargé d’Affaires de la République de St Marin à Paris, Grand Croix de l’Ordre Équestre de Saint Marin, Officier de l’Ordre des SS. Maurice et Lazare, etc.’ Although I guess even that’s not his full title, because it ends with ‘etc’. This book was translated in 1880 from the French, which is presumably why his title isn’t given in the more obvious choices of either English or Italian.
The fact that a Sammarinese diplomat should write a self-serving history of the country isn’t really a surprise; it’s perhaps more surprising that an American writer should feel the need to translate it. I mean, it’s interesting that an independent republican city-state should survive, independent, all the way through the middle ages, the Renaissance and the unification of Italy into the modern age; but this book is not a particularly riveting account of how it happened. It doesn’t help that it tends to flatter itself; here’s an especially unsubtle example:
Their perseverance in good works, their energy in adversity, their manly love of liberty, the scrupulous loyalty with which they had kept their engagements, their immovable fidelity to their obligations, their tenacity, and their valor inspired the respect and esteem even of their enemies.
The whole book makes it sound like they managed to preserve their independence through the sheer force of their courage and virtue; presumably it was actually because they were inaccessible, strategically unimportant and just lucky.
Reading the Wikipedia article, it sounds like potentially the most interesting period of their history occurred after this book was published. The country had a fascist government from 1923, and was a single-party state from 1926, but still chose to remain neutral during WWII; then from 1945-57 they had the first elected communist government in Europe, which in turn fell in a constitutional crisis/revolution. There must be some good stories to be told about that lot.
However, I can’t be too grumpy about this book, because it was never going to be easy to find a book from San Marino for the Read The World challenge, and not only was this short, I downloaded it for free from Forgotten Books. Cheap at the price....more
Albert Salvadó is an Andorran novelist; The Teacher of Cheops is the only one of his books to be translated into English, and it is, unsurprisingly, mAlbert Salvadó is an Andorran novelist; The Teacher of Cheops is the only one of his books to be translated into English, and it is, unsurprisingly, my book from Andorra for the Read The World challenge.
It is, as the title suggests, a historical novel set in ancient Egypt. It tells the story of a slave, Sedum, who gains his freedom and rises through the 4th Dynasty equivalent of the Civil Service; along the way he is tutor to the young Pharaoh-to-be, Cheops.
It was OK. I can’t get very excited about it, but apart from a rather self-indulgent plot twist at the end, it was fairly inoffensive....more