Emiliano Monge: Las tierras arrasadas (Among the Lost)

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.

Józef Wittlin: Sól ziemi (The Salt of the Earth)

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.

Edward Upward: The Rotten Elements

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.

César Aira: El pequeño monje budista (The Little Buddhist Monk)

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.

Dubravka Ugrešić: Muzej bezuvjetne predaje (The Museum of Unconditional Surrender)

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.

Daša Drndić: Doppelgänger

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.

Hwang Sok-yong: 해질무렵 (At Dusk)

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.

Dawn Powell: A Time to Be Born

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

Rita Indiana: La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle)

The latest addition to my website is Rita Indiana‘s La mucama de Omicunlé (Tentacle). This is a wonderful post-apocalyptic novel from the Dominican Republic, set both a short time into the future and but also, partially, in the seventeenth century. Acilde Figueroa, a woman, goes from being a pretend male prostitute, to being a maid for a Santeria priestess to becoming a man, and a man who may be be able to go back in time and save the world from an ecological disaster. The Servants of the Apocalypse, the Chosen One, performance art, an underwater god called Olokun, pirates, invading Spaniards, President Said Bona, with his voice like Balaguer’s and face like Malcolm X, video art, fishing and its difficulties, rare engravings about buccaneer life in the seventeenth century and, of course, quite a bit of sex, murder and mayhem, are all grist to Indiana’s mill.

Mo Yan: 天堂蒜薹之歌 (The Garlic Ballads)

The latest addition to my website is Mo Yan‘s 天堂蒜薹之歌 (The Garlic Ballads). This is a thoroughly grim tale set in Mo Yan’s usual Northeast Gaorni Township. We follow two main characters. Gao Ma is in love with Jinju but her family is determined she will marry a 45-year old wreck and do everything to stop Gao Ma marrying her, including resorting to brutal violence (on both of them) and influence in high places. Gao Ma and Gao Yang get caught up in a riot when the peasants cannot sell their garlic, despite having been exhorted to grow only garlic by the government, and both end up in prison, and both are subject to brutality. Several of the main characters end up dying a violent death, while the others end up far worse off than they were, with no-one living happily ever after.