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.
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.
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 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.
All Our Worldly Goods is not in the same class as Suite Francaise. It’s a limp family saga of two rival families and how their shabby values impact onAll Our Worldly Goods is not in the same class as Suite Francaise. It’s a limp family saga of two rival families and how their shabby values impact on ensuing generations. Pierre Hardalot is the son of a wealthy industrialist and he’s supposed to marry Simone and bring a large dowry to the family’s paper business. Instead he runs away with Agnes to Paris and his father refuses to have anything to do with him. To see the rest of my review please visit http://anzlitlovers.com/2009/02/28/al......more
Late last year, I found myself unable to resist the tantalising reviews at Winston’s Dad and JacquiWine’s Journal, and so I lashed out and bought myseLate last year, I found myself unable to resist the tantalising reviews at Winston’s Dad and JacquiWine’s Journal, and so I lashed out and bought myself a subscription to Pushkin Press. The first title arrived today…
It’s a selection of three short stories by Japanese author Yasushi Inoue (1907-1991) but the story that gives the selection its name is at 82 pages by far the longest. Life of a Counterfeiter is ostensibly about a journalist’s failure to fulfil a commission to write a biography of a famous painter called Keigaku, but it becomes a quest to find out more about Keigaku’s forger, a man called Hösen. The lives of both men are difficult to trace, but the narrator finds the forger a more captivating subject. Through his research he learns that Hösen was very clever at avoiding detection, and that he had wasted his genuine talent as an artist even though he probably made more money selling famous poor quality fakes than he would have selling his own good quality artworks. Hösen was also a keen hobbyist in the art of making fireworks, and yearned to create one that is a perfect semblance of a bell flower.
The prose is spare and simple, and the narrator’s voice is self-aware and introspective. Occasionally he is quite hard on himself.
Sometimes, a love story can be very good for the soul. Fever at Dawn, drawn from the love letters of the author’s parents, is a triumph of the human sSometimes, a love story can be very good for the soul. Fever at Dawn, drawn from the love letters of the author’s parents, is a triumph of the human spirit over adversity that is very satisfying reading.
As a child, I had the rather naïve idea that the end of a war meant that the survivors could go home immediately, not knowing that POWs could continue to be held for months and years after an armistice, and that meant that their military guards weren’t demobbed. Occupation forces stayed in Germany for long after 1945 to manage deNazifiction; the Iron Curtain fell, trapping people behind Soviet borders; and in the case of the survivors of Nazi extermination and labour camps, the precarious state of their health meant that they were unable to go home, even if they still had homes to go to or countries willing to take them. Over 850,000 people remained in displaced persons camps for years after the war.
This is how Fever at Dawn begins:
My father, Miklós, sailed to Sweden on a rainy summer’s day three weeks after the Second World War ended. An angry north wind lashed the Baltic Sea into a three-metre swell, and he lay on the lower deck while the ship plunged and bucked. Around him, passengers clung desperately to their straw mattresses.
They had been at sea for less than an hour when Miklós was taken ill. He began to cough up bloody foam, and then he started to wheeze so badly that he almost drowned out the waves pounding the hull. He was one of the more serious cases, parked in the front row right next to the swing door. Two sailors picked up his skeletal body and carried him into a nearby cabin.
The doctor didn’t hesitate. There was no time for painkillers. Relying on luck to hit the right spot between two ribs, he stuck a large needle into my father’s chest. Half a litre of fluid drained from his lungs. When the aspirator arrived, the doctor swapped the needle for a plastic tube and siphoned off another litre and a half of mucus.
Miklós felt better. (p. 2)
Fever at Dawn could have been a grim tale, but it’s not. It’s poignant, but it’s also amusing and uplifting.
The Interpreter is the third in Diego Marani’s novels about language and identity. Monolingualists may be baffled if they subscribe to the view that eThe Interpreter is the third in Diego Marani’s novels about language and identity. Monolingualists may be baffled if they subscribe to the view that everyone should just learn to speak the same language as everyone else (usually English), or they may for the first time get a glimpse of how crucial language is to a sense of self. The possibility of such divergent responses is because the book is such an absurdist melange of events that the message may be lost. I may well have misunderstood it myself…
Felix Bellamy is the boss of a European translation service, theoretically married to Irene but in reality married to his job. He is (intentionally) the classic stereotype of a bureaucrat with no intrinsic understanding of what the organisation does, but merely interested in its smooth administration. However, he experiences a quasi-moral epiphany when the Director of Translation and Interpreting, Günther Stauber, demands that one of the interpreters be suspended. This polyglot interpreter, with five languages and an impressive commitment to improving them and learning more, has suddenly started whistling, hissing and clicking instead of producing intelligible translations for the consumers of the interpreting service. He’s not fit to do his job.
The interpreter tells Felix that the languages have ‘re-formed’ in his brain to create a new one (or a very old one from the dawn of time). He is excited by this, and doesn’t want to be ‘cured’. Like any good modern bureaucrat Felix goes through the motions of suggesting medical help, recommending the clinic of a neurologist called Dr Barnung. But by definition, Felix is a problem-solver; the interpreter is a recurring and unrepentant problem; and the pragmatic solution to the problem is to pension off the interpreter. Which Felix does without much of a qualm.
What little attention Felix has to this matter is diverted by the departure of his discontented wife Irene. He forgets all about the interpreter – until suddenly he too begins to suffer uncontrollable attacks of gobbledygook.