The latest addition to my website is Héctor Abad Faciolince‘s Basura [Rubbish]. The unnamed narrator moves into a flat and sees that one of his fellow residents is Bernardo Davanzati, who published a couple of novels some time ago but has now seemingly disappeared. While looking in the rubbish for a magazine he mistakenly threw away, he comes across pages full of handwritten text, clearly those of Davanzati. He takes these pages and thereafter checks every day, collecting a mass of pages. In these pages, Davanzati seems to be writing what may be a novel, or stories or his autobiography, the narrator is not sure which. Some of the writing is nonsensical, while other sections seem to tell something of the often sad story of Davanzati’s life. Eventually, he takes it further, breaking into his flat and contacting people who may know or have known Davanzati. The book raises issues of truth vs fiction, the unreliable narrator and investigation becoming obsession. Who is mad: the narrator, Davanzati or both? Sadly, the book has only been translated into Italian.
The latest addition to my website is Chloe Aridjis‘ Sea Monsters. It tells the story of Luisa, a seventeen year old Mexican girl in 1988. She has no siblings and few friends. She is not close to her parents, who have their own preoccupations. She is not particularly interested in her school work or her future. She comes across Tomás, who has dropped out of school, and gradually they become closer. She reads about a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves who have defected from a Soviet circus troupe in Oaxaca and persuades Tomás that they should run away and go looking for the dwarves, so they head off to Zipolite. The second part of the book tells of her time there – she and Tomas drift apart – as she meets the mysterious Merman, thinks she sees the dwarves and has fantasies about the sea and about the dwarves. It is all about a young woman trying to find who she is and where she is going and what life holds for her.
The latest addition to my website is John Lanchester‘s The Wall. This is a post-apocalyptic novel about a country which has a wall entirely round its coastline (some 10,000 km) to keep out refugees. The country is presumably based on Britain. There has been an event called The Change, which has involved major flooding all over the world due to rising sea levels, presumably because of the melting of the polar ice caps. In the first part of the book, we follow a man called Kavanagh. The country requires everyone – men and women – to serve for two years as Defenders, keeping out any refugees trying to breach the wall. If any refugees do get through, the Defenders on that part of the wall are put into a boat, towed out to sea and abandoned to their fate. We follow the adventures of Kavanagh and his fellow Defenders, before turning to the story of some refugees in the second part of the book. This book was presumably written in the light of the proposed Trump wall and the refugee crisis in Europe and elsewhere and tells an effective story, but how much would a 10,000 km wall cost?
The latest addition to my website is Manuel Vilas‘ Ordesa. This book has had considerable success in Spain, both commercially and critically. It is essentially autobiographical, a tale recounted by Vilas after his divorce, in which he examines the lives of his parents, of himself and of his sons and links the events and circumstances of their lives to what is going on in Spain. It is uniformly gloomy and pessimistic, though not without some humour and a very strong affection for his late parents. Spain, however, does not fare well in this book, which will join the increasing number of books published in Spain about how dismal the country is, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis. Vilas does not hold back either on his criticism of Spain and of himself (alcoholic, divorced because of infidelities, guilt about loss of parents). Self-flagellation may be more a Spanish thing than the UK/US thing so it will be interesting to see how well the book does in English (to be published by Canongate in the UK (in April 2020) and Riverhead in the US).
The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s No Home But the Struggle. This is the final book in Upward’s Spiral Ascent trilogy. He and his wife have now left the Communist Party, feeling that it has betrayed its ideals and have also become aware of the crimes of Stalin and the faults of the Soviet Union. Alan is retired from teaching, living in a house he inherited from his family, by the sea. The couple are now involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) but this takes up a relatively small part of the book. Much of it is spent reminiscing about his childhood and young adulthood, though he continues to struggle with his poetry and whether it is relevant to his political views. The book is perhaps less interesting than the previous two because there are no political controversies. Overall, I enjoyed the trilogy but, I suspect, it will not be remembered for long.
The latest addition to my website is Michel Houellebecq‘s Sérotonine (Serotonin). This is another controversial novel from Houellebecq. The main character. Florent, is an agronomist and he shows us that French agriculture (and other aspects of the French economy) is facing serious problems. At the same time, we follow the story of Florent who, to get away from his job studying French agriculture and from his Japanese girlfriend, goes off grid, abandoning job, flat and girlfriend and moving to a hotel in an unfashionable part of Paris. He does not sever contact with everyone, visiting Aymeric, his old college friend and now a farmer facing huge problems on his dairy farms (primarily because of EU policies – Houellebecq is very anti-EU) and trying to re-establish contact with two old girlfriends, which does not work out very well. In particular, he takes a new (fictitious) drug, Caprizol for his depression and it has strange effects on him. It is a well-written though very contrarian book. Florent is not a loveable hero but his lifestyle choice make interesting reading. It will be out in English in September 2019, though is already available in German.
The latest addition to my website is Jamil Jan Kochai‘s 99 Nights in Logar. This is a first-class novel about an Afghan family, narrated by a twelve-year old boy, Marwan, who lives in the US but is visiting his home country with his parents. He is at war with his extended family’s dog, Budabash, but when Budabash has had enough and disappears, he and four other boys go in search for him, and have a series of adventures in still war-torn, still Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The search does not go well. Back home, love and marriage, flooding and even a bit of cross-dressing liven things up, as we see more of the war and its effects, with US forces still bombing and the Taliban roaming the countryside. The book is substantially improved by a series of Arabian Nights-style contemporary fables told by various characters. Kochai is an excellent story-teller and this book is a joy to read.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Boltshauser‘s . This book is so far the only one to appear in Dalkey Archive Press’s Liechtensteinian Literature Series, though the author was born in Switzerland and currently lives in Switzerland, but he did grow up in Liechtenstein. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator, a zoology student at the university of Bern, like the author, and his lack of focus and direction and, in particular, his troubles with the opposite sex. He has various girlfriends, all of whom seem to have other boyfriends, to his chagrin, and all of whom, like him seem to make something of a mess of their lives. He ends up dropping out but has learned nothing and is still chasing after a woman who is not too interested in him.
In a recent interview, Pat Barker said Contemporary fiction is going through a “so what” moment, with very few novels generating a real sense of passion in readers and fiction, or the reading of fiction, was not in good health. I very much disagree with her and imagine she has spent too much time reading the likes of Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgård and other popular novelists and is unaware of or has been ignoring the many first-class works published by the ever-increasing number of small presses, who have continued to publish some excellent works this year.
She is not the only one. At the beginning of the year Tim Lott complained about modern literary fiction but failed to mention any author writing in a language other than English, where the most exciting literary fiction is being written.
In March I had a go at will Self (whom, surely, Tim Lott would not have liked) for saying the novel is doomed. As I pointed out, the novel is not doomed and certainly not the literary novel, particularly the literary novel originally written in languages other than English.
I wonder what Barker’s views were on Anna Burns’ Milkman, which won the Man Booker Prize this year. Some commentators claimed it was too difficult, a comment refuted by Sam Leith. I have read all the books in his list at the end of his article, except for the Cusk novel. I wonder how many Barker has read and what she thought of them. I think she needs to look around more and she will find some wonderful books out there. I certainly did.
As happens every year, I only read books from one country for a period during the early part of the year. This year the country was Catalonia. I read twenty books from twenty different Catalan authors, partially in sympathy with the Catalan independence movement, and enjoyed them all. Sadly, quite a few were not available in English.
I read 138 novels this year (last year 132). 43 were by women (35 last year, so a slight improvement). Apart from Catalonia, less well-represented countries include Basque, Bosnia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Greece, Greenland, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Latvia, Norway, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Slovakia, Syria, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
Of the countries that I read most, Catalonia was, of course, in first place followed by Argentina (nine, of which six were by César Aira), England (eight), Scotland (seven, six by Ali Smith), France (seven), Japan (six), Norway (six), China (six, four by Mo Yan), Croatia (four, three by Dubravka Ugrešić), Hungary (four, all by Miklós Szentkuthy), Italy (four) and Mexico (four).
I do make an effort to read only books that I am going to enjoy, so it is difficult to do a best-of list. There are plenty of those around, though, sadly, translated literature is generally not very well represented. As usual, Large-Hearted Boy has a comprehensive list. The TLS, for example, had a very comprehensive list of best books, particularly in non-fiction. However, there only six translated novels, three proposed by the admirable Lydia Davis and only two published this year and one published next year. Not surprisingly, we have to turn to World Literature Today for a comprehensive list of 2018’s translated highlights. Other lists of interest: Translating Women and The Best Reviewed Books of 2018: Literature in Translation. Best slightly quirky list: Best Books to Pretend to Have Read in 2018.
There were several firsts. I read and reviewed my first graphic novel: Hariton Pushwagner‘s Soft City, prompted by Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina being longlisted for the Man Booker. While I certainly enjoyed it, I think I much prefer words rather than pictures in my novels.
I read three collaborative novels this year definitely a new experience. These were Shatila Stories, a novel written by a group of refugees in the Shatila refugee camp, and two novels by Wu Ming, the Italian collective. All three were certainly interesting reads, though I am not entirely sure that this is the future of the novel.
I also read and reviewed, for the first time, on my site, a novel in which a character has a medical procedure to change sex: Rita Indiana‘s La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle). It is not the first transgender novel on my site: this one is. I suspect that we shall see more novels by and about transgender people.
Here is a rundown on the highlights of my reading this year. Apart from the Catalan works mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed the following:
I continue to make my way through the oeuvre of César Aira. I find his work to be particularly original and it must only be a matter of time till he wins the Nobel Prize, if it is ever awarded again. Quite a few have been published in English, mainly by New Directions.
Sticking to the Spanish-speaking world, Fernando Aramburu‘s Patria (Homeland) is a book you are likely to hear about next year. It concerns the ETA, the Basque terrorists/freedom fighters (depending on your point of view) and Spain’s attempt to come to terms with the issue. It has been hugely successful in Spain and has been translated into several languages. An eight-part TV series based on the book will be shown in Spain in 2020. It is coming out in English in March 2019.
The most controversial novel on my site this year was also, perhaps, from Latin America. Javier Pedro Zabala‘s The Mad Patagonian. I say perhaps because we do not know who Zabala is and where is from. We do know he is not Javier Pedro Zabala, as there is no such person.
Moving to Asia I particularly enjoyed a couple of newly translated books from South-East Asia. Sayaka Murata‘s ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman) is a Japanese novel about a young woman who takes a temporary job working in a convenience store and, eighteen years later, is still there. Despite an unpromising subject, it works very well, partially, perhaps, because it is based on the author’s own experiences. It is also one of quite a few novels I read this year with a fairly common theme – the person who does not fit in with societal norms. If I were a psychologist, I would say these people were often on the autistic spectrum but, as I am not a psychologist, I won’t.
The other one is from China: Yan Lianke‘s 日熄 (The Day the Sun Died). Quite a few of Yan Lianke’s novels have been translated into English and I hope to get round to the others some time. This one is about burials (which are not allowed in China – the issue also appears in Mo Yan‘s novels) and about a village (Yan Lianke’s own village – he is a character in the novel) whose inhabitants nearly all start sleepwalking.
The Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov currently lives in London, which may explain why four of his novels have been translated into English. His Jinlar Bazmi (The Devil’s Dance) appeared in English this year and a very fine novel it is. It is about the Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy, who wrote the first full-length novel in Uzbek but who was executed in Stalin’s time. He mixes in Qodiriy’s story with the story of nineteenth century Uzbekistan and, in particular, the Great Game.
Sticking to the East but moving a bit West, specifically to Russia, Vladimir Sharov sadly died this year. I read two of his novels: Репетиции (Rehearsals) and До и во время (Before and During). Both books have something of a religious theme but don’t let this put you off. Both also jump between the present time and a historical period in Russia and make for fascinating reading.
Staying in Eastern Europe and, specifically, Hungary, I have now read all the books of Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary series published in French and superb books they are, both anarchic and highly original. Sadly, Phébus, the French publisher, have stopped publishing them. Contra Mundum are planning to publish the entire series in English, which will be most welcome, but they seem to have been a bit quiet recently.
Moving further West. I have read more Norwegian books than I usually do. I read two books by Jon Fosse and two by Dag Solstad. While I was well aware of both, they are two of the many authors I should have read and have just not got round to. As regards Fosse, Lars Hertervig, the protagonist of his two Melancholia books and a very real person, is one of those mentioned above, someone who does not fit into into his society. Fosse’s portrait of insanity is masterful.
Two new Solstad novels came out in English this year, which means I still have to read a couple of his novels that appeared before. This year’s two – Armand V. (Armand V.) and T. Singer (T. Singer) – are both different, one quite political (Norway-US relations are key) as seen through the eyes of a Norwegian diplomat, with the novel essentially the footnotes to a novel and the other about an ordinary man who is, like most ordinary people, less ordinary. Both are very original and well worth reading. Nevertheless, they do not seem to have garnered the publicity they deserve.
Esther Kinsky clearly spent some time in Hackney, North London. Her Am Fluss (River) is a brilliantly evocative novel about the narrator’s time in Hackney, about the local river, the River Lea, and about other rivers. It is one of those novels that, on the face of it, might seem boring, but is so well written that it is a wonderful work that I cannot recommend too highly.
This year I have been reading Ali Smith. It has been suggested that she is the only likely British candidate for the Nobel Prize and I could not disagree. She certainly one of the best if not the best current British novelist.
I have not really caught up with what is coming out next year – I like to be surprised – but will mention a few. Elfriede Jelinek‘s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) is, in theory, coming out from Yale University Press. At least that is what they told me a couple of years ago. However, there is no reference to it on their website. Wikipedia confirms this but cites me as the main source. So maybe it has been delayed again. I read it a while back and it is a brilliant book and a devastating attack on Austria.
Michel Houellebecq‘s new book Sérotonine is coming out in French on 4 January. Here is a link from the publisher’s website about it (in French). Ce roman sur les ravages d’un monde sans bonté, sans solidarité, aux mutations devenues incontrôlables, est aussi un roman sur le remords et le regret. [This novel of the ravages of a world without goodness, without solidarity, with changes which have become unchecked, is also a novel about remorse and regret.]. If I were paranoid, knowing of his dislike for the British, I would think he was having a go at Brexit.
The Comoros are not the first place you would look for to find a great novel but I really enjoyed Ali Zamir‘s Anguille sous Roche (it means Eel under Rock). Jacaranda will be publishing an English translation in 2019, entitled A Girl Called Eel. I can recommend it.
Vasily Grossman‘s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) is one of the great World War II novels. He had previously published За правое дело [For a Just Cause] which had far more success in the Soviet Union which, unlike its successor, more or less toes the Soviet line. This book has been translated into French but not into English. Its original title was Stalingrad as it is about Grossman’s experiences in Stalingrad during the siege of that city. To make matters more complicated, he did publish a book called Stalingrad but it is a book of his reporting, i.e. non-fiction. To make matters even more complicated, the New York Review of Books will be publishing За правое дело in English under the title Stalingrad in 2019.
Various English-speaking women writers will be publishing new books in 2019. Margaret Atwood will be publishing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale called The Testaments. Eleanor Catton will be publishing a book called Birnam Wood, set in a remote area of New Zealand where scores of ultra-rich foreigners are building fortress-like homes and stockpiling weapons in preparation for a coming global catastrophe. However, this was announced a couple of years ago and seems to have fallen off the radar like the Jelinek.
In Europe, Jeanette Winterson‘s Frankissstein will breathe new life into Mary Shelley’s horror story, grappling with issues of identity, technology and sexuality.Zadie Smith‘s new novel will be called Fraud and is inspired by real events from the 1830s to the 1870s England, a time when the streets of North West London still bordered fields and Kilburn’s ‘Shoot-Up Hill’ was named for a highwayman. Sticking to England but changing sex, I enjoyed Max Porter‘s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and shall look forward to his Lanny, coming out in 2019
The latest addition to my website is David Toscana‘s El ejército iluminado (The Enlightened Army). This Mexican novel tells the story of Ignacio Matus who has two bugbears, both concerned with his hatred for the United States. The first concerns the 1924 Olympics marathon at which, he claims, he won the bronze medal in front of the US runner Clarence DeMar. The only slight problem is that DeMar and the other athletes ran the race in Paris where the Olympics were being held, while Matus ran it in Monterrey, Mexico. Nevertheless, he had a better time than DeMar and theretofore should have the bronze medal. His other issue concerns the Mexican territories annexed by the United States in the mid nineteenth century which, he claims, rightfully belong to Mexico. When he is fired for teaching this view at school, he sets out with a ragged army to Texas and captures the Alamo. It is a very enjoyable book, even though things do not go quite right for DeMar but he is certainly one of the obsessive fools of literature, whom we cannot help having a grudging admiration for in his foolishness.