The latest addition to my website is Scholastique Mukasonga‘s Notre-Dame du Nil (Our Lady of the Nile). The novel tells the story of an elite girls’ school in the highlands of Rwanda. We follow some of the individual girls and teachers, as well as the various events at the school. In particular, the school is located not far from the source of the Nile and there is a black Madonna overlooking the site, to which the school makes an annual pilgrimage. However, this is the period when the Hutu-Tutsi conflict is breaking out and one girl, Gloriosa, daughter of a powerful father, helps foment the conflict in the school, even as it is starting up elsewhere in the country. As the school has both Hutu and Tutsi girls, things become very unpleasant. One of the girls is based on Mukasonga herself, who had to flee the country, while many of her family members were killed.
The latest addition to my website is Jorge Barón Biza‘s El desierto y su semilla (The Desert and Its Seed). This is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel, telling of the grim events that happened in the author’s family. Barón Biza’s father threw acid in the face of his wife (while they were discussing divorce with their lawyers). She was badly injured. He then shot himself. Much of the novel involves the various complex, expensive and painful operations that Eligia, the mother in this book, had to undergo in both Argentina and Milan, with her son by her side much of the time. When he was not by her side, he was drinking and whoring. (Both Barón Biza and his sister will also later kill themselves.) The novel is very well told – Barón Biza’s only novel – as Mario, Barón Biza’s name in this book, describes the events, analyses himself and his father and tries to use dry humour to keep going.
The latest addition to my website is Claudio Magris‘ Non luogo a procedere (Blameless). This novel continues Magris’ favourite theme of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. The unnamed protagonist has collected a mass of material relating to war, with a view to establishing a museum in Trieste. Sadly, at the start of the novel he has died in a fire and only now is the museum being set up, by Luisa Brooks, who has a Jewish mother and an African-American father. We see the exhibits, hear a lot of stories (generally based on historical events) about the horrors of war, particularly but by no means only World War II, follow the story of Luisa and her family and of the unnamed protagonist and learn of key documents which have gone missing, which show those Italians who helped the Nazis but who have managed to not only survive but prosper. Magris makes no bones about his views and illustrates them with a host of fascinating stories about war and its horrors.
The latest addition to my website is Jon Fosse‘s Melancholia I (Melancholy). This book is about a real person, the Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, though there is no indication in the English translation that he was real. Hertervig came from a poor background but was discovered and sponsored by a local businessman and was sent to study in Düsseldorf. There he had a mental breakdown and we follow a day in his life, when this breakdown is taking place. Fosse shows us his thinking – irrational, obsessed, insecure, rambling – as he is thrown out of his rented rooms for an improper relationship with the daughter of his landlady and mocked by his fellow art students. We later see him back in Norway, in a mental institution, still struggling with his demons. Fosse gives us a good portrait of his insanity and even shows us a contemporary writer (1991) struggling with writing about him.
The latest addition to my website is Glen James Brown‘s Ironopolis. This is a superb first novel, set in a sink estate in the North of England. We follow seven main characters (and a host of others) as they struggle with their lives – drugs, failed relationships, the regeneration of the estate, violence. However, Brown is a skilled writer and it is not all the miseries of a sink estate but also about they cope with their environment, with one another and even with Peg Powler, an evil water sprite. There are a few plot lines – abducted girls, an artist who apparently sees Peg Powler and then paints her, characters who fall down a well and those who get caught up in a spiral of violence – which make this much more of a complex and very readable novel.
The latest addition to my website is Mieko Kawakami‘s ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Ms Ice Sandwich). This is a charming novel about a ten year old boy, an only child whose father died when he was four, who is struggling with growing up. He takes a fancy to a woman he nicknames Ms Ice Sandwich, who works at the sandwich bar in the local supermarket, though he is too shy to speak to her, except to order a sandwich (which he often does not eat). It is a girl of his own age – nicknamed Tutti Frutti – who does more to introduce him to the opposite sex, when she invites him to her house to watch her father’s DVD collection and, in particular, Heat, with its frequent shoot-outs, which appeal to Tutti Frutti. Haruki Murakami praised Kawakami but while I found this novel a pleasant read, I cannot share Murakami’s enthusiasm.
The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s The Siege of Krishnapur, the second novel in Farrell’s post-colonial Empire trilogy. This one is based on the Siege of Lucknow of 1857, part of the Indian Rebellion against British occupation. The British seem intent on bringing civilisation to the Indians but the Indians do not want it. The well-meaning collector, Mr Hopkins, the man in charge, and the other British tend to live in a bubble, seeing the Indians only as servants or, in some cases, as people to be exploited. When the sepoys (Indians who had served in the British army) revolt, the British fight back and, naturally, continue their routines, including afternoon tea, even though there is no tea, but they do realise their civilising mission has not really worked. Farrell mocks everybody – the British, the few Indians we do meet as individuals, religion, capitalism, the idea of progress, art and anything else he can attack. It is still a worthwhile book forty-five years after it was first published.
The latest addition to my website is Shahriar Mandanipour‘s ابرو هلالیز (Moonbrow). This novel tells the story of Amir, a man from a wealthy family, who enjoys drinking, partying and sex. One time he goes too far, getting seriously drunk, and is arrested and flogged. On recovery, without telling his family, he joins the Iranian army during the Iran-Iraq. After a grim time in the war, he is wounded, losing an arm, and suffers post-traumatic stress disorder. His family do not know where he is and spend five years tracking him down. Back home he dreams of Moonbrow, the woman he thinks he love, though she may not even be real, and tries to track her down. Mandanipour gives us a portrait of Iran both under the Shah and after the Revolution as well as of the Iran-Iraq War, while telling us Amir’s search for his love.
The latest addition to my website is Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Авиатор (The Aviator). This tells the story of Innokenty who wakes up in 1999, aged around thirty, but he was born in 1900. We learn about his past before the Revolution (good) and after the Revolution (terrible), including a horrendous time in one of Stalin’s labour camps. But, as well as learning what happened to him to bring him to 1999, we see his reaction to 1999 from a 1920s point of view. Love is, of course, a factor but this book is much more, as we learn about Russia then and Russia now, neither coming out particularly favourably. Innokenty is, in many ways innocent, but quite capable of judging both eras. Vodolazkin tells an excellent tale about a man adrift in the wrong time.
The latest addition to my website is Diego Cornejo Menacho‘s Las segundas criaturas [The Second Creatures]. This is the story of the great Latin American Boom writer, Marcel Chiriboga. Marcel Chiriboga did not exist but features (mockingly) in the work of both Carlos Fuentes and José Donoso. Cornejo Menacho has decided to give his full life story while, at the same time, brilliantly mocking the Boom and its writers. A host of real people – from Boom super literary agent Carmen Balcells (who narrates much of the novel) to Romain Gary and his wife Jean Seberg – people the novel. We follow Chiriboga’s life, loves and writings, the Gary/Seberg saga and the stories of other, real novelists. It is brilliant, very witty and very inventive but not, of course, available in any other language.