The latest addition to my website is Yolanda Oreamuno‘s La ruta de su evasión [The Route of Her Escape]. This is a superb Costa Rican feminist novel, Oreamuno’s only published novel. It tells the story of the Mendoza family: Don Vasco, the cruel paterfamilias, his long-suffering and now dying wife, Teresa, and their three sons, Roberto, Gabriel and Alvaro. Don Vasco has consistently bullied and abused Teresa. Roberto gets Cristina pregnant and marries her but tells her that he does not love her and he has no affection for her. She dies in childbirth, having gone to the hospital on her own. Gabriel has two girlfriends, one of whom is under the control of her also bullying father, who rejects Gabriel, and the other one who is a victim of Gabriel, as the other women in this book are victims. Poor Alvaro cannot cope with his life or his family and just stays in his bedroom masturbating. Oreamuno paints a grim picture of male dominance, male bullying and men’s idea that they are inherently superior to women. Sadly, this novel has not been translated into English or any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Wu Ming‘s Altai (Altai) . This is another exciting tale from Wu Ming, this one set in sixteenth century Venice and Constantinople. Our hero is Emanuele De Zante. He was born in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) of a Jewish mother and an Italian father. He has managed to conceal his Jewish origins and, as a result, become chief of the Venetian Secret Service. When there is an explosion in the Arsenal, his boss wants a Jewish culprit and he discovers that his origins are now known and he is to be arrested. He manages to flee to Constantinople, where a rich Jew, Giuseppe Nasi, helps him but uses his spying skills. Nasi has helped persecuted Jews all over Europe but now wants to set up a Jewish homeland but not in Palestine. He has identified a place but it is controlled by Venice. So all he needs to do is get the Ottomans to go to war. Blood, gore, death, dirty politics, swashbuckling deeds, all are grist to Wu Ming’s tale in this exciting story.
The latest addition to my website is Emiliano Monge‘s Las tierras arrasadas (Among the Lost), an unremittingly grim Mexican novel about migration. We follow a day in the life of people traffickers in Southern Mexico, who capture migrants and use them as slave labour. The two main characters – Epitafio and Estela (Spanish for grave stone) – are very much in love as the narrator and the couple themselves frequently tell us. On this day they are carrying sixty-four migrants to deliver to purchasers. Some of the women are used as bribes for the local military. They have a harrowing journey, with much going wrong but not, of course, as harrowing as the poor migrants who are beaten, brutalised, raped and, in some cases, randomly killed. The migrants, with one exception, come out as shadowy figures whom we do not really see as individuals, but the various people involved in the trafficking all come out as irredeemably vicious, cruel and savage. There is no saving grace in this novel, except perhaps that some of the guilty parties end up dead.
The latest addition to my website is Józef Wittlin‘s Sól ziemi (The Salt of the Earth). This was originally published in 1935 and originally published in English in 1939 but this is a new translation. It is a World War I novel, part-mocking, part-serious. It is also the first part of a trilogy but only the first section of the second book remains, the others having been lost during World War II. We follow Piotr Niewiadomsk, an illiterate, half-Polish, half-Hutsul railway worker. When World War I breaks out (we see Franz Josef signing the order), he is first promoted to acting signalman and then called up into the army. Because the Russians might be breaking through, he and his fellow conscripts are shipped off to Hungary, where we follow their hard life in a garrison (next door to the abattoir and cemetery). The first part is more mocking, both the people the area where Piotr lives but also the preparations for war, while the second part is more serious, with criticism of the cruelty of the officers and NCOs. Wittlin is clearly anti-war and puts over his point of view well but it is a pity that we do not see the men in action.
The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s The Rotten Elements, the second in his Spiral Ascent Trilogy, about communism in Britain in the middle of the last century. This one follows several years after the first one and starts some time after World War II. Alan and Elsie Sebrill are married with two children and committed members of the Communist Party. However, they feel that the British party is moving away from true Leninist doctrine – the need for a violent revolution to overthrow capitalism and imperialism and not compromising with social democrat parties (i.e. the governing Labour Party in Britain) – and they raise this quite vocally. Not surprisingly, they are met with considerable opposition and things do not go well for them in the Party. The book does get into what might seem to us areas of arcane doctrinal differences but it still remains a worthwhile novel and is an interesting read.
The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El pequeño monje budista (The Little Buddhist Monk). This, as is usual with Aira, starts off reasonably conventionally and then gradually gets stranger and stranger. The eponymous very little monk is Korean and longs to go abroad but, as a mendicant monk, cannot afford to do so. He meets a French tourist couple – he photographs culturally charged spaces – and, as he speaks fluent French, offers to take them to a temple off the beaten track. Things start getting peculiar on the train journey, with passengers continually pulling the communication cord. At the temple the sun disappears, the light plays tricks (as do the monks) and we learn that our monk may not be human and we may be in a parallel world. Or we may not. It is great fun, as usual but you really won’t be entirely clear about what is happening and why.
The latest addition to my website is Dubravka Ugrešić‘s Muzej bezuvjetne predaje (The Museum of Unconditional Surrender). This is another first-class novel from Ugrešić about her favourite topics: exile, the break-up of Yugoslavia and its consequences, her mother, a sense of community with other Slavs, language and memories. We get a lot of stories, in particular about her mother, herself an exile (from Bulgaria) but also about friends, fellow exiles, artists and herself. As she tells us at the beginning of the novel, the novel might appear bitty but it all joins together if you stick with it. We follow her wanderings, her meetings with writers and artists and what it means to lose your country and getting lost in another one.
The latest addition to my website is Daša Drndić‘s Doppelgänger. This book actually has two novellas: Doppelgänger and Pupi. Doppelgänger is about an elderly couple who meet on New Year’s Eve 1999 (actually at 4 a..m. on New Year’s Day). Both are widowed and both incontinent. We learn about them – thirty-six members of Isabella’s family were murdered in the Holocaust and she loves chocolate, Artur was in the Yugoslav Navy and collects hats. They have fumbling sex but things do not turn out well.
The life of Pupi, the eponymous protagonist of the second story, also does not turn out well. He has retired on a meagre pension at age 50, a former chemist and not very good secret agent. He lives with his parents but, when they die, his brother throws him out and things go downhill, as he become mentally unstable. Though grim Drndić throws in plenty of humour and absurdity and both stories work very well. Things do not turn out well for the rhinoceroses in the zoo, either.
The latest addition to my website is Hwang Sok-yong‘s 해질무렵 (At Dusk). This is a superb book about an architect who, though successful, is a bit lost in his life, his wife having left him, his friends dying and his increasing concern about declining values. He receives a note asking him to phone a number – that of his old girlfriend he has not seen for years. At the same time we follow the story of a twenty-something would-be theatre director and playwright. It is not going well for her and she has to supplement her income working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. She has an enigmatic friend, whose mother she meets, but considers her life hopeless. These two stories eventually merge, of course. Part of the novel is about the changes (for the worse) in South Korea over the years and part simply about two people who are struggling to fit in.
The latest addition to my website is Dawn Powell‘s A Time to Be Born. This is was Powell’s first commercially successful novel and it is easy to see why, as it is a wicked satire on New York society when war was raging in Europe but before the US had entered the war. There are two heroines, both from Lakeville, Ohio. Amanda Keeler has come to New York to promote her novel and has managed to snare successful publisher and newspaper owner, Julian Evans and has used her marriage to him to promote her novel and by writing articles, though as we soon find out, her role both in writing her articles and second novel is limited. She soon denies Julian sex and has a relationship with her former boyfriend and then a Hemingway-like journalist and novelist. Also from Lakeville is the more naive Vicky Haven, Amanda’s protégée, who gets caught up in Amanda’s plotting while trying to make a life of her own after failing in Lakeville. Powell satirises virtually everybody in this book – high and low – which makes it great fun to read