A L Kennedy: The Little Snake

The latest addition to my website is A L Kennedy‘s The Little Snake, a children’s fable for adults, in the style of Le petit prince (The Little Prince). The eponymous little snake is both the Angel of Death (at least where nasty cruel rich and powerful people are concerned) and a friend to the very good, such as our heroine Mary, whom we and the snake first meet as a young girl. Mary lives in a divided city, with the very rich and very poor. During the course of the book, things get worse, but the snake, when not killing the rich and powerful, helps Mary and her family, who eventually have to leave the city, with conditions having deteriorated so much. It is an amusing fable and a good read for both children and adults, not mawkish or trite and not averse to making its political point.

Cheikh Hamidou Kane: L’aventure ambigue (Ambiguous Adventure)

The latest addition to my website is Cheikh Hamidou Kane‘s L’aventure ambigue (Ambiguous Adventure). This is a semi-autobiographical novel about Samba Diallo, son of a Senegalese chief. He is a committed Muslim (like nearly all Senegalese) and clearly believes the Senegalese should follow the Muslim way. However, he is sent to France and very much struggles with the issue of how an African can retain his essential values and fit in to the modern world. He spends much time contemplating and discussing this and does not really come to a conclusion. This book is not a particularly easy read, as it is deadly serious throughout and the characters tend to speak as philosophers and theologians, using aphorisms and learned arguments, rather than as ordinary people.

Samir Naqqash: فراعراقية (Tenants and Cobwebs)

The latest addition to my website is Samir Naqqash‘s فراعراقية (Tenants and Cobwebs). Samir Naqqash was an Iraqi Jew whose family emigrated to Israel when conditions for Jews in Baghdad became very difficult in Iraq. He never really fit in while in Israel and, unlike, many Jewish émigrés, persisted in writing in Arabic rather than Hebrew, which meant he had less success than other Jewish writers in Israel. This book is set in a Baghdad neighbourhood in the 1940s, when the situation is getting bad for the Jews, following the Farhud (pogrom), as a result of Nazism, Zionism and Arab nationalism. We follow the stories of a host of colourful characters, Jewish and Arab, as they struggle with their own lives, all the while becoming increasingly aware that their stay in Iraq is drawing to a close after many hundreds of years and they will have to leave (By 2013, only five Jews remained in Baghdad, down from 50,000 in 1900). Naqqash tells a superb story of their own problems and disputes, against the background of rising tensions and the gradual realisation that they will have to leave Baghdad.

César Aira: Prins

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Prins, his most recent work to date. The narrator is a writer of Gothic novels, a job that pays well because they sell well but a job he seems to hate. However, he does not know what else he could do with his time. After considering and rejecting various possibilities, he comes up with the only possible solution: opium. En route to the dealer, on bus 126, he meets Alicia. He buys the opium from a house called Antiquity. The opium is delivered but as the key to Antiquity is hidden in the huge quantity of opium, he also gets Ujier, the dealer, as well. The narrator, Alicia and Ujier hide away in his massive house. However, the opium starts to have an effect and life becomes one of his Gothic novels. Another strange but fascinating work from Aira, not yet available in English.

Paul Gadenne: Siloé [Siloam]

The latest addition to my website is Paul Gadenne‘s Siloé [Siloam]. This is a very long autobiographical novel, Gadenne’s first, based on his stay in a tuberculosis asylum in the French Alps. Unlike Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), Gadenne does use TB as symbol of the human condition but uses the isolation of Simon Delambre, the hero, to show how much a man can change in such conditions. He is influenced my many things in his change: the beauties of nature, friendship with ordinary people, some manual labour (sewing), absence from the urban hurly-burly and routine and, above all, love. He meets and falls in love with a woman patient, Ariane (French for Ariadne) and they plan a future together. At the end of the book, Simon is clearly a changed man and definitely not a Hans Castorp as in Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). Sadly, none of Gadenne’s work has been translated into English.

Edward Upward: In the Thirties

The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s In the Thirties, the first book in his The Spiral Ascent trilogy, his best-known work. We follow the story of Alan Sebrill, in the 1930s. Sebrill, like Upward on whom he is clearly based, is a committed Communist. At the beginning of the book, he is determined to write poetry but struggles with it, feeling that it is perhaps not committed enough. After something of an epiphany, he realises he must commit himself more to the political struggle. He returns to London, where he gets a job as a teacher (a job he does not particularly relish) and joins the Communist Party. We follow the struggles of the Party, both with the problems of the Depression and, in the latter part of the book, the rise of Fascism, including the activities of the Fascists in England. Their views (almost uncritical support of the Soviet Union and Stalin) seem very naive. However, following Alan’s political (and romantic) development make the book an enjoyable read.

Jonathan Coe: Middle England

The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England. This is his best novel since his superb political satire What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). It continues the stories of Benjamin Trotter, his family and friends, from The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, while giving us another brilliant political satire, this time aimed at recent events (2010 onwards), with particular reference to Brexit. Coe skilfully mixes in the political environment, his political satire and the story of several characters from those earlier novels. He does not hide his views – Fuck Brexit! as Benjamin Trotter says – but does show the other side to a certain degree and shows how the generation gap, the class gap and the Brexit gap are alive and well in no longer moderate England.

Musings on the Nobel Prize for Literature

Maryse’s Condé Ségou
Now that the day when the Nobel Prize for Literature might have been announced is well past and not only did we not get it this year, we may not get it next year, and now that we have had the Murakami-less, heavily Scandinavian weighted Alternative Nobel literature prize, interestingly and deservedly won by the non-Scandinavian Maryse Condé, an author I have long admired, is it time to look ahead again?

Lee por Gusto has suggested a list of possible Latin American and Spanish winners. Many of these are poets, whom I have never heard of and never read and, unless you read Spanish, you probably will not have heard of either. However, there are a few interesting and, indeed, likely suggestions, including the Spanish novelists Javier Cercas, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Juan Marsé, Javier Marías and Enrique Vila-Matas

César Aira’s latest

When the issue of giving the Nobel Prize to a woman came up on Twitter, I proposed, only slightly tongue in cheek, six women, all Mexican: Carmen Boullosa, Rosario Castellanos, Elena Garro, Margo Glantz, Elena Poniatowska and Cristina Rivera-Garza. Three make the list. I would be happy to see any of these win, though were I to pick my ideal winner, it would be César Aira, who is not a woman, not Mexican and who does not make the list.

The current issue of Le Nouveau Magazine Littéraire has a section on the Nobel Prize, with various critics giving their choices. We start with Éric Fottorino who states If there are no more rules and we can speak to the dead as if they were alive, I shall choose Philip Roth To which I would respond If there are no more rules and we can speak to the dead as if they were alive, I shall choose William Shakespeare, a far superior writer to Roth I think everyone would agree. There are rules. Roth is dead and would not, in my view, even have been close, even if he were still alive.

Murakami’s latest

There are some more sensible suggestions. Amélie Nothomb goes for what might be considered the obvious choice: Haruki Murakami. Obvious maybe, but still a sound choice. The two French writers proposed are Annie Ernaux and Jean Echenoz. Other proposals include Ludmila Ulitskaya, proposed by Geneviève Brisac, Milan Kundera, whose time has surely gone, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a bit too soon, I think, Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière, an interesting choice, Ismail Kadare, a choice I would agree with, Joyce Carol Oates, certainly a worthy choice, and Russell Banks, a decidedly odd choice. Richard Malka concludes by nominating The One We Do Not Name, a writer who does not exist but who has opposed authority, been in prison and writes in different genres. If he existed, says Malka, he would deserve it.

There are certainly some interesting choices there for the Nobel Prize Committee, be it the Swedish Academy or someone else, and for amateur critics like me. As I said, I would choose César Aira and I would think Murakami would be the favourite. And yes, I have noticed that there are no Africans on this list, so I will mention Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Alain Mabanckou as two other contenders.

Niviaq Korneliussen: Homo sapienne (UK: Crimson; US: Last Night in Nuuk)

The latest addition to my website is Niviaq Korneliussen‘s Homo sapienne (UK: Crimson; US: Last Night in Nuuk). The UK and US editions have different titles, with the UK title coming from one of the character’s favourite songs. In addition the UK title was published 1 November 2018 while the US edition is not published till 15 January 2019. The success of this book – it has already been published in several other languages – is simply because it is set in Greenland, written by a Greenland author and yet is about bisexuality, gender identification, excessive consumption of alcohol, casual sex and continual partying, topics we would not normally associate with Greenland. We follow five characters who struggle with their sexuality, their partners, their gender identification (in one case) and where the next party is to be held. It is certainly lively and colourful and gives us a different view of Greenland from the other Greenland novel on my website (written exactly a hundred years previously) but it is not great literature.

Dubravka Ugrešić: Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain)

The latest addition to my website is Dubravka Ugrešić‘s Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain). This is a (semi-)autobiographical novel about a Croatian woman, Tanja Lucić, who has left Croatia and is now resident in the Netherlands. Her former boyfriend has taken a job in Japan and she has decided not to accompany him. She had managed to get a short-term job as a lecturer in the Department of Serbo-Croatian at the University of Amsterdam. Most of her students are from the former Yugoslavia, as following a university course allows them to prolong their stay in the country. Much of the book is about how Tanya and her students struggle with a variety of issues relating both to their exile but also to the break-up of the country they grew up in. Language (is there one Serbo-Croat language or several different ones?), culture (despite its faults, they did grow up and know Yugoslavia and its ways), relationships between the different nationalities and with fellow Slavs, adaption to the Dutch and the Netherlands and, of course, surviving in a different world, with a different culture and a different language are all part of the problems they face on a day to day basis. There is no easy solution – adaptation is not that easy – but they can at least talk about it.