I am not often flummoxed by a book, but Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Radish tested my ability to interpret a writer’s purpose. It seems to be an allegoI am not often flummoxed by a book, but Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s Radish tested my ability to interpret a writer’s purpose. It seems to be an allegory for China’s Great Leap Forward but this was not something that sprang immediately to mind while I was reading it. Reading it, I was simply overwhelmed by the suffering of the central character, a little boy called Hei-hai, and puzzled by the behaviour of the characters in general.
Radish is one of a series of Penguin Specials, marketed as short books designed to ‘fill a gap’, and designed to be read in a single sitting. Suitable for the commute, the lunch break, or between dinner and bedtime, they say. Radish is only 86 pages long and the prose is simple and easy to read. But it manages to convey striking ideas, where the reader has enough knowledge of the subtext to recognise them. Like all writers in China, Mo Yan is writing under the constraints of heavy-handed censorship and so there are allusions to events and perhaps to people that are not immediately obvious. The reader has to be in the know, and I think it’s a safe bet to say that most westerners don’t know much about Chinese history. It’s possible that young people in China also aren’t much in the know, if their ignorance of their own history is as widespread as Linda Jaivin suggested in The Empress Lover.
Here’s an example of allusions that are not immediately obvious. These are the opening lines:
An autumn morning, the air hung humid, a layer of transparent dewdrops clung to blades of grass and roof tiles. Leaves on the scholar tree had begun to turn yellow; a rusty iron bell hanging from a branch was also dew laden. The production team leader, a padded jacket draped over his shoulders, ambled towards the bell, carrying a sorghum flatbread in one hand and clutching a thick-peeled leek in the other. By the time he reached the bell, his hands were empty, but his cheeks were puffed out like a field mouse scurrying away with autumn provisions. He yanked the clapper against the side of the bell, which rang out loudly, – clang, clang, clang. People young and old streamed out of the lanes to converge beneath the bell, eyes fixed on the team leader, like a crowd of marionettes. He swallowed hard, and wiped his stubble-ringed mouth on his sleeve. (p.1)
It took more than one re-reading for me to notice the first allusion. The leaves of the scholar tree turning yellow refers to the autumn of intellectual freedom and the coming Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). This year, 2016, is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of this disastrous period of China’s history .
But you also need to know something about Chinese history to recognise that this team leader is an emblem of corrupt leadership and greed.
Nightmare in Berlin is the fifth book I’ve read by the German author Hans Fallada, (1893-1947) but it was when I read the first one that I wondered ifNightmare in Berlin is the fifth book I’ve read by the German author Hans Fallada, (1893-1947) but it was when I read the first one that I wondered if Fallada had any optimism about the future of post-war Germany. This is what I wrote at the conclusion of my review of Alone in Berlin, (1947) Fallada’s story about the futile resistance campaign of a working-class couple against the Nazis, a couple who believe that once you’ve seen that a cause is right, you’re obliged to fight for it.
Is there redemption? Writing so soon after the war, Fallada must have yearned for a new Germany, and the Quangels are a metaphor for parents of the next generation. The ‘baptism’ of the street-thug Kuno, his rejection of his unrepentant father and his adoption by the symbolically named Eva is a clear indication of Fellada’s hopes for a humane post-Nazi Germany.
Nightmare in Berlin is the novel that Fallada had to write before he could write the more hopeful Alone in Berlin(/I>. It’s about the time between the evil regime and the establishment of a new order, and how an ordinary man felt about his country’s past when he could not see what its future might be. A thinly disguised autobiographical novel which traces the life of Doctor Doll in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s defeat, it represents not only the chaos of its downfall, but also the soul of a man trying to come to terms with the moral quagmire of German responsibility for its monstrous crimes against humanity.
Svetlana Alexievich was an unusual choice for the Nobel Prize because her work is investigative journalism, whereas the prize is supposed to be in theSvetlana Alexievich was an unusual choice for the Nobel Prize because her work is investigative journalism, whereas the prize is supposed to be in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction. Her win is a further blurring of the definition of literature to mean almost any kind of writing, her citation simply saying that it’s for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.
In Secondhand Time, the last of the Soviets, an oral history this polyphonic writing refers to the assemblage of multiple voices from Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations to form a commentary on the end of the Soviet era. Part One is called ‘The Consolation of Apocalypse’ and it consists of ‘Ten stories in a Red Interior’ covering the period 1991-2001. Part Two is called ‘The Charms of Emptiness, from the period 2002-2012. The title comes from the introduction called ‘Remarks from an Accomplice’ where Alexievich says that she’s trying honestly to hear out all the participants of the socialist drama…
"Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the ‘iron hand’, the ‘special Russian path’. They brought back the Soviet national anthem; there’s a new Komsomol, only now it’s called Nashi; there’s a ruling party, and it runs the country by the Communist Party playbook; the Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…
On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us second-hand". (p.11)
Most of us know feelgood stories about the collapse of the USSR. Soviet people were captivated by opportunities to travel and by the sudden plethora of food choices in supermarkets. Queueing up to buy McDonalds was fun – not like the soul-destroying queues for basic consumer goods which often ran out before the queue did. (See my review of Vladimir Sorokin’s sly satire The Queue, published in 1985 as Gorbachev came to power). But what Alexievich does is to put a human face on the legacy of that collapse, which led to an economic crisis and a fall in living standards that was catastrophic for some people. The book amplifies Wikipedia’s claim that
"According to a 2014 poll, 57 percent of citizens of Russia regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union, while 30 percent said they did not". (Dissolution of the Soviet Union, Wikipedia, viewed 2/8/16)
"Nostalgia for the Soviet Union could be expressed in nostalgia for the politics of the Soviet Union, society, lifestyle, culture, or simply the aesthetics of the Soviet epoch." (‘Nostalgia for the Soviet Union’, Wikipedia, viewed 2/8/16)
Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion? was longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award and was Johan Harstad’s debut novel. GoBuzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion? was longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award and was Johan Harstad’s debut novel. Goodreads tells me that it was first published in Norwegian in 2005, and subsequently made into a TV series in 2009. (You can watch episode I on YouTube, with subtitles)…
It seems a gimmicky title, but it’s surprisingly apt for a novel which is a kind of updated One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Key Kesey’s 1962 novel (and the eventual film) was a manifesto for deinstitutionalisation of people with mental illness, changing the public perception of mental illness by questioning what we mean by ‘normal’. In Harsted’s novel, a man’s rejection of everyday life seems at times like a rational response to the madness of our contemporary world. So it’s thought-provoking reading.
The story of Mattias’ long journey from pathological inertia to renewed engagement with life begins in Part I, ‘First Band on the Moon’ where things begin to unravel. Thirtysomething when the story begins, he is working as a gardener, content to be a nobody in a world where – as he perceives it – everyone wants to be the best at something. His role model is Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon who – again as Mattias perceives it – sank into obscurity because he was second, not first on the moon. From Mattias’ backstory the reader learns about his quiet, thoughtful parents, his schooldays and his teenage conclusion that it’s a mistake to raise his head above the parapet.
Over at Jane Rawson’s blog there’s a spirited conversation taking place about the novella. Is it new? Is it ‘hot’ or ‘not’?
What’s not new is GiramondoOver at Jane Rawson’s blog there’s a spirited conversation taking place about the novella. Is it new? Is it ‘hot’ or ‘not’?
What’s not new is Giramondo Shorts. I’ve read and reviewed five of them, starting with Anguli Ma, a Gothic Tale by Melbourne author Chi Vu back in 2012, and that wasn’t the first one. The series now includes a second translation, (the first was Varamo by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews) and this one, See You At Breakfast by Guillermo Fadanelli, is also Latin American, this time from Mexico.
The translation by young Australian Alice Whitmore is flawless. She captures the unsettling atmosphere of the novel in crisp, effortless prose.
Before leaving, El Alfil looked Ulises in the face. He seemed like a good man, like all the guys who ended up with his sister, good, cowardly, cry-baby men.
– Look what the good Lord sent us, she said.
Alfil wasn’t jealous. He looked at Cristina’s men as if they were new scars she would never be rid of. Every now and again he worried about those scars, and made recommendations. Once, not so long ago, it had even occurred to him to give Cristina a little tube of pepper spray.
– This is my brother, Cristina said. They call him El Alfil. He’s here to protect me, but as you can see he’s had his face broken. (p. 124)
Even with the context missing (which I’m not going to provide because it’s a spoiler), you can see Fadanelli’s disconcerting style. He is an exponent of what’s called ‘ Mexican dirty realism’ and there is no doubt that his juxtaposition of events and characters will take most readers aback, even if you’ve seen a few episodes about Mexico City on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program…
The Body Where I Was Born, by Guadalupe Nettel intrigued me for a number of reasons. I came across it when it was longlisted for the 2016 Best TranslaThe Body Where I Was Born, by Guadalupe Nettel intrigued me for a number of reasons. I came across it when it was longlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award, and liked the blurb; and then I discovered that UWAP (University of Western Australia Press) had the rights to publish it in Australia. I was a bit puzzled by that. UWAP (as far as I can tell from their website) doesn’t publish much in the way of translated fiction – why this book, I wondered?
I suspect now that I know the answer. It may be on a literature reading list for some lucky students…
When I was at university, I was introduced to Kafka with his novella The Metamorphosis, in which the central character Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find that he has been transformed into a large insect, never named but (especially if read in the original German, apparently) clearly verminous. Most illustrators depict it as a monstrous cockroach. There is no explanation for the cause of the metamorphosis; the novella is about how Gregor and his family adapts to it.
The Body Where I Was Born is a feminist rewriting of Kafka’s novella. It is said to be autobiographical in the sense that it covers events in Nettel’s life, both public (such as the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City) and private (such as their sojourn in France). It shows how she responded to the traumas of her young life by developing a tough carapace to shield herself from betrayal and attack. The novella also explores her sense of being an outsider; of having a disability – a congenital cataract in one eye, (which alerts the reader to the suggestion that this is a one-eyed account); and of her discovery of writing as a form of vengeance.
The Door was my choice for #WIT (Women in Translation) Month (a) because it was recently reissued by The New York Review of Books (see the interview wThe Door was my choice for #WIT (Women in Translation) Month (a) because it was recently reissued by The New York Review of Books (see the interview with editor Edwin Frank at The Paris Review) and (b) because I read the article at The New Yorker. First published in Hungary in 1987, but not in English till 1994, the French translation won France’s Prix Femina Étranger in 2003, it was nominated for the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and in 2015 it was first on the NYT's 10 Best Books List. And Magda Szabó has the distinction of being the only female Hungarian author included in Michael Orthofer's The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction (my new bible for international fiction).
But I read it all wrong. I should never have tried to read it in spurts on the Kindle. My father had a nasty infection for a while and I read it holding his hand while he drifted in and out of sleep during the worst of it at the hospital. A kindle is easy to read one-handed (something I never appreciated before!) but I should have read something less demanding...
Once again, this is a thought-provoking novel by Per Petterson, who came to world attention with Out Stealing Horses, but this novel has more in commoOnce again, this is a thought-provoking novel by Per Petterson, who came to world attention with Out Stealing Horses, but this novel has more in common with his debut novel It’s Fine By Me (1992, but not translated till 2011). (See my review). Once again there is the loss of siblings and an abusive father, and the focus is on a teenage protagonist’s choices in dealing with tragedy.
I Refuse is constructed in a patchwork of voices, recalling both the recent past in adulthood and also events from childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and 70s. The novel begins in 2006 when middle-aged Jim, driving in the dark, almost hits a man. He thinks for a moment that it’s his father, but he has never seen his father. He’s been drinking, and he may or may not have remembered to take his pills. With deft touches of detail – a makeshift bait rig, a frayed coat – Petterson establishes this character as a troubled man, short of money, and subject to panic attacks.
What sparks the panic attack is an encounter with his old childhood friend Tommy. Jim is taken aback by the change in their relative circumstances, because Tommy is rich now, driving a Mercedes and wearing an expensive coat and leather gloves.
I picked this up on a whim at the library because I liked the 1920s cover design, and took it home because I haven’t read anything translated from EgyI picked this up on a whim at the library because I liked the 1920s cover design, and took it home because I haven’t read anything translated from Egyptian since I read (and thoroughly disliked) Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk in 1997. (I loved reading Ahdaf Soueif’s Booker Prize shortlisted The Map of Love in 2002, but that was written in English, which may be why, at the library, I didn’t remember it as an Egyptian book).
If you’ve been paying any attention to Egyptian politics, you’ll know that … a-hem … things are #Understatement in a bit of a muddle since the so-called Arab Spring. If you want to read up about it, try Wikipedia; for me, suffice to say that I understand why contemporary Egyptian novelists might find it safer to write stories set back in the days of the British Empire when the patriotic Egyptian could easily work out who the bad guys were. In Aswany’s novel The Automobile Club of Egypt the Brits are – with only a couple of exceptions – racist Occupiers; the dissolute King and his stooges are corrupt, and the Egyptians are their own worst enemies because they are complicit in their own humiliations.
The novel starts in a rather odd way. In a sort of prologue, the narrator – who might be the author – is enjoying a quiet time away from home finishing off his novel, when he is visited by a strangely familiar couple. They’re two characters from his book come to life, and they’re demanding that he revise the book because he hasn’t included all their thoughts and feelings. He sends them packing, and then thinks better of it, only to find that no one has else has set eyes on them.
Then there’s a somewhat pointless chapter about Karl Benz and his tribulations in developing the motor car. He and his enterprising wife get another chapter after some intervening chapters from the main novel, and then we hear no more of him.
The novel proper is told in a disjointed way too. It is basically the story of the Gaafar family and their humiliations as the patriarch Abd el-Aziz descends into penury and has to take menial work in the Automobile Club, a luxury venue in Cairo which is dedicated to gambling and drinking, exclusive to foreigners and the occupying British in particular. The only Egyptians allowed into this club are the King and his lackeys, and the staff who are bullied brutally by those higher in the serving class. In chapters about Abd el-Aziz, his wife, their four children, their neighbours and his employers, characters are introduced and plot developments arise – which are then are left hanging until some chapters later when things are resolved and then moved along into some other crisis. Reminiscent of the way soap opera episodes end on a cliff hanger which take a week’s worth of episodes to resolve, the novel works reasonably well but the reader needs to keep her wits about her because there are rather a lot of characters and plot developments to keep track of.
The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre is not the sort of book that I associate with winning the Prix Goncourt, which is the most prestigious literary aThe Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre is not the sort of book that I associate with winning the Prix Goncourt, which is the most prestigious literary award in France. Although I’ve read hardly any of the winners, (only partly because not all of them are translated, a situation which seems to be improving), the impression that I have is that the winning books tend to be a bit demanding. One of the winners is Marcel Proust, in 1919, for Vol 2 of In Search of Lost Time: A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom a.k.a. Within a Budding Grove). More recently I liked Marguerite Duras’s The Lover which won in 1984 but it’s written in an impressionistic style (see my review); OTOH I thought that The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi was an unconvincing attempt by a male author to represent oppressed Afghani women (see my terse review) and I suspect that the choice had more to do with politics than literature. But The Great Swindle is a page-turning novel of suspense and I am indebted to Stu from Winston’s Dad for his enticing review because despite its 459 pages I romped through it over two nights and was sorry to come to the end of it.
We in Australia tend to sentimentalise the diggers of WW1, but Lemaitre has written a forceful story showing how three soldiers come back from the war corrupted by their experience, while at the same time exposing the shabby way veterans were treated by the French government and society.
Albert and Édouard are traumatised by their war. In the very last days of the war, when both sides had ceased hostilities in anticipation of the armistice, their ambitious officer Lieutenant Pradelle was still intent on making a name for himself with a pointless assault on Hill 113. Albert was buried alive by the impact of a shell, and brought back to life only by the heroic efforts of Édouard who did further damage to his wounded leg in the process, and had half his face torn off by shrapnel as he dug frantically with his hands to get Albert out. It is a measure of how compelling the writing is that – although the blurb tells us that Albert survives the war – the sequence describing Albert’s entombment and rescue is heart-stopping. Lemaitre spares no details: it is grotesque and terrifying and a stunning feat of imagination. And it sets the tone for the rest of the book: we are on Albert’s side. He is an ordinary, unprepossessing bloke, and, as we are regularly reminded by his scornful mother, also none too bright – but the reader is desperate for him to find some measure of happiness. A happiness which the author seems determined to withhold!
The Third Lie is third and last in Ágota Kristóf ‘s The Notebook Trilogy, and it follows on from The Notebook and The Proof .
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALEThe Third Lie is third and last in Ágota Kristóf ‘s The Notebook Trilogy, and it follows on from The Notebook and The Proof .
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT
It will ruin the extraordinary experience of reading this book if you have not read its predecessors, and it will ruin the experience of reading them if you read this review or this book first. It is not a matter of knowing a couple of plot points and forgetting them by the time you read the book later. Trust me, you will be denying yourself a unique reading experience if you ignore this warning.
When you have read the trilogy, then it's time to join the conversation about these extraordinary books.