The latest addition to my website is Fiona Snyckers‘ Lacuna. J M Coetzee‘s Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace was controversial, particularly for the scene where Lucy Lurie is raped by three black men. The book was criticised for being racist, showing black men as violent, but also for sexism as Lucy is seen as passive, refusing to divulge the names of her assailants and keeping the resultant child. This book is a feminist response to Coetzee and his novel. It is told by Lucy, who is shown as a real person and a former (very junior) colleague of Coetzee when he was a university professor. It is a complex novel, discussing the issues of victim shaming, the right to appropriate the stories of others, including those still living, the link between literature and real life, the twists and turns of the legal system and how South Africa is and is not adapting to the post-apartheid era. It also tells a very good story and offers an effective challenge to Coetzee’s novel. Snyckers does an excellent job in challenging Coetzee and his point of view.
The latest addition to my website is Karen Duve‘s Regenroman (Rain). Leon Ulbricht is an unsuccessful writer when his friend Harry Klaamt gets him the job of writing a biography of Harry’s boss, Benno Pfitzner, a former boxer and current pimp and thug. With the advance, Leon, with his docile but attractive wife Martina, buys a rundown house by a marsh in a small village in the former East Germany. It rains all the time, the house is in very poor condition and, because of the water, getting worse, there is a plague of slugs and Leon has to spend his time doing repairs, though he injures himself doing so. The neighbouring sisters, one a predatory lesbian, the other a predatory man-chaser, do help a bit. However Benno wants his book and he wants it now and he is not used to not getting what he wants and becomes increasingly menacing. It all ends very badly for all concerned but it is still raining.
The latest addition to my website is Andrey Kurkov‘s Смерть постороннего (Death and the Penguin). Yes, it is about a penguin but the penguin is both Viktor’s quirky pet but also a symbol for someone struggling to cope in an alien environment. Viktor is a writer who gets a job writing obituaries in advance of celebrities’ deaths, all the while living alone with a king penguin, Misha, whom he adopted when the zoo could no longer feed him, after the fall of the Soviet Union. We and Viktor soon find out that there is a connection between Viktor’s obituaries and the death of the subjects of the obituaries which is not simply coincidental. Gradually, he, Misha, Sonya, a young girl, daughter of an acquaintance who suddenly disappears, and Nina whom Viktor hires to look after Sonya, get caught up up in a dastardly and violent plot. Kurkov cleverly mixes in the serious issue of corruption and violence in post-Soviet Ukraine with the story of a not entirely happy penguin.
A second covid year, and undoubtedly not the last has meant, for me, much less travel and none abroad and much less going out – I cannot remember the last time I went to the cinema, theatre or a pub and while I can remember the last time I went to a football match, it was well before lockdown. This has meant more time for reading as well as more time for walking and doing stuff around the house but also more of the covid lethargy which seems to affect people.
As in most years, there were some books I read that I had not heard of by December last year and even some authors I had not heard of. Indeed, there were even a few publishers I had not heard of. The publishers I read most from were Columbia University Press (five), Dedalus (five), New Directions (five), Deep Vellum (five), Archipelago (four), Fitzcarraldo (four), Istros (four), Two Lines Press (four), Europa (three) Fum d’Estampa (three), Hoopoe (three), Open Letter (three) and World Editions (three).
In terms or nationalities, the main ones were Romanian (twenty-one) Catalan (six), German (six), Japanese (six), Norwegian (six), English (five), Spanish (five), French (five), Italian (four) and US (four). Romania was the country selected for my annual reading marathon.
Less well-represented nationalities included Albania, Belarus, Bosnia, Central African Republic, Chicano, Republic of Congo, Denmark, Georgia, Guadeloupe, Iran, Latvia, Libya, Lithuania, Namibia, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Syria, Taiwan, Tanzania, Uruguay, Uzbekistan and Wales.
In terms of the language the books were originally written in, the order was Romanian (nineteen), English (fifteen), French (fifteen), Spanish (twelve), Arabic (eleven), German (seven), Russian (seven), Catalan (six), Japanese (six), and Norwegian (six). Less commonly represented languages included Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Danish, Farsi, Latvian, Slovak, Slovenian, Ukrainain, Uzbek and Welsh.
I read forty-six books by women, almost a third of the total, much higher than in recent years.
Early in the year, my annual country marathon focussed on Romania and my conclusion was that I was glad I did not live in twentieth century Romania, for which I was mildly and rightly berated. This was not a criticism of the Romanian people but partially of their various governments and partially because of the unfortunate circumstances they were exposed to, including both German and Russian occupation and being involved in both world wars. I certainly read some interesting books which, I think, were not generally well-known in the English-speaking world and I hope that I showed that Romanian literature has a lot to offer and that there are quite a few available in English.
One other interesting literary thing I would mention is that African writers won four of the major literary prizes this year and I read them all. Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for literature. I had already read and reviewed three of this books but I added his most recent book- Afterlives. David Diop won the International Booker Prize for his Frère d’âme (At Night All Blood Is Black), translated by Anna Moschovakis, published by Pushkin, about Senegalese soldiers in World War I. Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize for his The Promise about a dysfunctional and racist South African family.
I do not do a best of list, not least because I know that there are a lot of fine books that came out this year that I did not have a chance to read and also my view today may not be the same as my view tomorrow. However, here are some of the books I particularly enjoyed. However, I would add that I enjoyed virtually every book I read this year and, unlike, last year, did not abandon any book before finishing it.
In no particular order… Vladimir Sharov is a superb writer. Sadly he died in 2018. Dedalus have published three of his novels in English and all three are well worth reading. This year saw Будьте как дети (Be As Children) (translated by Oliver Ready), another superb book about children and innocence or sin and innocence, but don’t let that put you off, as it is about lots of other things, particularly Russian history from way back up to Lenin. If I were to pick my favourite book of the year, it would probably be this but, as mentioned, I shall not be picking a favourite book.
I have read more books originally written in Arabic than I normally do and would single out a couple. Omaima Al-Khamis‘ رواية مسرى الغرانيق في مدن العقيق (The Book Smuggler)(translated by Sarah Enany) was published by the excellent Hoopoe and did not get as much traction as it should. It is set in the eleventh century, when the Islamic world was far more advanced, e.g. in paper making and book publishing than the Western world and follows Mazid al-Hanafi, around the Islamic world. We get a lot of colourful stories, interesting historical and literary tidbits and a lot about Islamic differences. Moreover, this is a book by a Saudi woman, of which there are not many in English.
Another interesting woman writer from the Arabic-speaking world is the Palestinian Sahar Khalifeh, Several of her works have been published in English. I read her الأول : رواية (My First and Only Love) (translated by Aida Bamia) about a woman artist who returns to Palestine after many years abroad. It is , of course, about her lost love but also about the brutalities of the Israeli occupation and told very well.
While we are in that part of the world… The Iranian writer Iraj Pezeshkzad has had two novels translated into English. I read حافظ ناشنيده پند (Hafez in Love) (translated by Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi and Patricia J. Higgins)about the very real Persian poet Hafez, from Syracuse University Press, who publish some interesting books. Yes, it is about love, politics, Islam and, of course poetry and a very enjoyable read.
What has finally been translated is Mario Levrero‘s La novela luminosa (The Luminous Novel) (translated by Annie McDermott), a very long book from the excellent And Other Stories about, well, virtually nothing. Our hero is trying to write this book, The Luminous Novel and, somehow, cannot get round to doing so. We get all his excuses and how he gets sidetracked but, after 544 pages, he still has not written it. A superb novel.
There are two countries in Latin America at the forefront of producing quality writing. The first is Argentina. One of the best and most intelligent writers from that country is Pola Oloixarac. I read her novel Mona (Mona) (translated by Adam Morris). It is about literary conferences, writers, violence against women, political correctness and the French. It is another superb novel from her.
The other Latin American country whose writing really impresses me is Mexico. Mario Bellatin writes short novels but they are first-class. I read two of his this year. The first was one of the two pandemic novels I read this year (though the pandemic in this one is more AIDS-ike than covid-like) – Salón de belleza (Beauty Salon) (translated by David Shook). However, it is not a straight pandemic novel.
Moving to Spain I really enjoyed Agustín Fernández Mallo‘s Trilogía de la guerra (The Things We’ve Seen) (translated by Thomas Bunstead). The book, as you can see from the Spanish title, was a trilogy. The first book was about a literary conference attended by a writer on the Island of San Simón, an island that has a history, particularly as a prison camp during the Spanish Civil War. The second book is about Kurt Montana who was the fourth astronaut on the first moon landing. The third book is about the writer’s girlfriend’s Sebaldian exploration of Normandy. A brief summary cannot do justice to this complex, superb work.
While we are in Spain, I continue to read works translated from the Catalan. Fum d’Estampa continue to publish excellent works from the Catalan. I enjoyed all of theirs but particularly Raül Garrigasait‘s Els estranys (The Others) (translated by Tiago Miller) about a translator and the subject of the book he is translating, the bumbling Rudolf von Wielemann, a German fighting in the Carlist wars in Catalonia. It is both funny but interesting.
I have always enjoyed Susan Daitch‘s works and her Siege of Comedians did not disappoint. As always it was a complex novel, this one about face modelling, Nazis, terrorism, human trafficking, German cinema and much more.
The latest addition to my website is Juan Andrés Ferreira‘s Mil de fiebre [A Temperature of a Thousand Degrees]. This is a very long novel about two young Uruguayan men who struggle with life. Werner Gómez wants to be a writer and writes huge amounts, including a regular blog, stories, articles and novels but has struggled to get published. He eventually starts work on the Great Salto Novel (Salto is his and Ferreira’s home town). However his mental health issues, including alcohol,drugs and addiction to pornography drag him down. Luis Bruno wants to be a sport journalist and has some ideas but he too struggles and spends time in institutions, losing both jobs and his wife. Both men come from Salto but though of about the same age never meet and their paths only tangentially cross. It is a wonderfully chaotic novel but sadly seems unlikely o be translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Michel Houellebecq‘s Anéantir [Annihilate]. This is a fairly typical Houellebecq novel. It opens in late 2026. There are three main plot lines: a group of terrorists initially sends out some highly sophisticated CGI videos, using a technology not thought possible, and which appear initially on French government sites and then on Google and Facebook. They are then linked to terrorist attacks. No-one knows who is responsible. We also follow Paul Raison, an adviser to the Minister of Finance. We follow both the story of his extended family (somewhat complicated and messy) as well as his close relationship with his minister, Bruno Juge. Juge is involved (though not as a candidate) in the forthcoming presidential elections. The incumbent (clearly Macron but not named) cannot stand for what would be a third term, so a stooge is found. Inevitably all three plots get complicated and messy and Houellebecq takes full advantage to make his usual critiques of society, French politics and wokeness. It is an excellent read if not a great work of literature.
The latest addition to my website is Ghazi Algosaibi‘s شقة الحرية (An Apartment Called Freedom). This novel takes place between 1956 and 1961, primarily in Cairo and follows a group of young men, primarily Bahraini, who have gone to Cairo to study. As well as their studies, they pursue other activities. Girls are their main interest but all of them, one way or another, get involved in politics of varying kinds. Nasser is in power and Fuad, our hero and presumably based on the author, is a keen supporter and eventually gets to meet him. Fuad and one other pursue a writing career with some success. They are young men at university with all that entails but also Arab nationalists and Muslims in a period when there is great upheaval in the Arab world, not least because of the Suez Crisis. It is certainly a fascinating book, not least because Westerners will be able to identify with them in some respects but not in others.
The latest addition to my website is Muhsin al-Ramli‘s حدائق الرئيةة (The President’s Gardens). The novel tells the stories of three close Iraqi male friends. At the beginning of the novel, in the village where htey live, nine crates are found, containing the severed heads of various villagers, including one of the three friends, Ibrahim. The book tells how w got there, with lots of violence as a result of the Iran-Iraq War, the the Gulf War, the interim period when Saddam sees enemies everywhere, the Iraq War and the aftermath of that war. The three friends and we see a huge amount of violence as a direct result of the wars and of Saddam Hussein’s butchery. Al-Ramli spares us no details. We learn why Ibrahim was murdered, the origins of one of the three friends, Abdullah, a foundling, and what the President’s Gardens had to do with the story which, despite the beautiful gardens, turn out to be no prettier than the rest of the book. Al-Ramli left Iraq for Madrid in 1995. This book shows why he and many other Iraqis went into exile.
The latest addition to my website is Ismail Kadare‘s Muzgu i perendive te stepes (Twilight of the Eastern Gods). Kadare spent some time in the 1950s in the Soviet Union, primarily at the Gorky Institute and this is an account of that period. While he loved the big city, it was not all sweetness and light. He has various women troubles. Most of his colleagues are from various regions of the Soviet Union or, like him, from other countries and they are often stereotyped by the Russians. Moreover, he is not terribly enthusiastic about the Soviet view of literature. He does discover a manuscript left in a room about a doctor called Zhivago and, later, the big event will the award of the Nobel Prize to Boris Pasternak, which brings down a furore on Pasternak, supported by many of Kadare’s colleagues (but not Kadare himself). Towards the end, we learn that Soviet-Albanian relations are deteriorating (Albania will move away from the Soviet Union and ally more closely to China) and the embassy warns Albanian nationals to keep away from Russian women, an instruction Kadare ignores. While not of the standard of his novels set in Albania, it is certainly an interesting account.
The latest addition to my website is Almudena Grandes‘ El corazón helado (The Frozen Heart). This is a long and complicated novel set mainly in the present but very much looking back to the Spanish Civil War. We follow the stories of two related families, one primarily Francoist and one primarily Republican, and their respective fates during and following the Civil War. The Republican one behaved more or less honourably, the Francoist one did not, cheating the other out of its property. We see much of this through the eyes of Álvaro, son of the Francoist Julio, though he himself is left-wing who, after his father’s death meets one of his father’s bankers and starts an adulterous affair with her. At the same time, he gradually uncovers some of his father’s dirty deeds and what happened to his father’s mother who did not die of tuberculosis, as his father had always claimed. What he uncovers and his affair will disrupt the family. Grandes, who sadly died a couple of weeks ago (27 November, 2o21), superbly exposes some of the non-military horrors of the Civil War and its aftermath.
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