Najwa Barakat: مستر نون (Mister N)

The latest addition to my website is Najwa Barakat‘s مستر نون (Mister N). Mister N is a failed Lebanese writer who currently lives in a hotel, rarely leaving it. We gradually learn his story – horrors of the Lebanese Civil War, a mother he hated as she much preferred his older brother, Sa’id, now a successful businessman and a father who was a doctor, helping the poor and whom Mr N saw die. He has had two long-term relationships – the first dumped him and the second was with a Nepali prostitute whose pimp did not take kindly to him. One day he does leave the hotel (looking for a spare part for his toilet) and comes across Luhman. Luhman was a Civil War thug and murderer who died. More importantly, he was fictitious , a character in one of Mr. N’s books. Luhman keeps reappearing, his neighbours have serious mental health issues and he himself is increasingly unable to cope with life, language and people. Gradually we learn of his past and how he ended up in this hotel and who he and Luhman might really be. It is a splendid, complicated, colourful book.

Montserrat Roig: Ramona, adéu! (Goodbye, Ramona)

The latest addition to my website is Montserrat Roig‘s Ramona, adéu! (Goodbye, Ramona). The novel tells the story of three women, all called Ramona, from three successive generations. Ramona 1 lives in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and feels her life as a wife and mother is boring. She almost has an affair to liven things up. Ramona 2 had an affair before marriage but it did not work out and now she is married to Francisco. She is very concerned when she thinks he might have been killed in a terrorist attack in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War but, later, she is not happy in her marriage. Ramona 3, living in the 60s, is more liberated but she has man trouble with her boyfriend Jordi and, like her forebears, feels patronised and unhappy with her family, with Barcelona and with her life. Roig makes her point clearly, that women in Catalonia (and obviously elsewhere) were expected to follow the marriage-motherhood path and do little else, even though they would have liked to have a more fulfilling life.

Zou Jingzhi: 九栋 (Ninth Building)

The latest addition to my website is Zou Jingzhi‘s 九栋 (Ninth Building). This is an account by Zou Jingzhi of his life in China during the Cultural Revolution. We first meet him as a boy in 1966 when he and his friends form a Red Guard unit. In some respects they behave (and misbehave) like normal boys but, at the same time, they are rooting out class enemies, including their parents when appropriate, and regularly see older people physically abused and also see several dead bodies. As an educated person – his father is already imprisoned in a cowshed – Zou is sent to the Great Northern Waste where, for eight years, he has to carry out arduous agricultural work. Getting transferred, illness or injury (real or fake) and death are the three ways out. Zou survives and returns to Beijng to make a career as a writer. Though there are other works set in the Cultural Revolution, this one focusses on the life of an ordinary person and how he survives.

Georgi Gospodinov: Времеубежище (Time Shelter)

The latest addition to my website is Georgi Gospodinov‘s Времеубежище (Time Shelter). Gaustine, who may or may not exist but whom we have met before in Физика на тъгата (The Physics of Sorrow), is a geriatric psychiatrist. Assisted by the narrator who calls himself Ishmael but may well be the author, he sets up a series of homes for the Alzheimer’s/dementia patients which are seemingly set in various decades in the past, with all the relevant trappings, thus making these patients feel more at home as they regress to the past. However, eventually, the EU decides to do the same for countries as a whole, with the favourite decade decided by popular vote. Some of the book is clearly Gospodinov ruminating on memory, the past, the future, death, forgetting and remembering, with a host of fascinating ideas about how we are regressing to the past while struggling with the future. As always with Gospodinov, a thoroughly original book.

Eugene Vodolazkin: Брисбен (Brisbane)

The latest addition to my website is Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Брисбен (Brisbane). The story is told in alternating chapters, the first telling of the early life of our hero Gleb Yanovsky, till he becomes famous as a musician, and the second from, 2012 when three key events change his life. He is born and bred in Kyiv (like Vodolazkin) where, under the influence of his father, he takes up music. He eventually studies guitar but his dream is to go to Leningrad, where he studies language rather than music. He meets and marries Katya, a German woman, and they both become teachers. He is attracted by a generous offer to play music, so they go to Berlin, where the offer does not work out. However, he gets his chance and we gradually see his career take off. However,in the later story, we learn early on that he has Parkinson’s disease and the second half is, in part, how he copes with that, as well as political events. Vodolazkin is clearly concerned with the issue of how Gleb’s music and his life are interconnected and, to a lesser degree, his language(s) as he speaks Russian as a child to most people but but his father speaks Ukrainian. This is another complex and fine book from Vodolazkin.

Mieko Kawakami: すべて真夜中の恋人たち (All the Lovers in the Night)

The latest addition to my website is Mieko Kawakami:‘s すべて真夜中の恋人たち (All the Lovers in the Night). Our heroine/narrator is Fuyuko Irie. She is a loner. We learn nothing about her parents and she seems to have no siblings. She has one (female) friend at school but they never meet outside school. After college, she becomes a proofreader for a publisher but has minimal contact with her colleagues. When offered a freelance proofreading job she takes it. Her only contact is with the lively Hijiri, who works for the publisher, and it is Hijiri who brings her out of herself somewhat. She even takes up drinking. She considers taking classes (that does not work out well) but she does meet a man, Mitsutsuka, a school physics teacher and they slowly start a platonic relationship But, ultimately, she says I’m all alone, I thought. I’d been on my own for ages, and I was convinced that there was no way I could be any more alone, but now I’d finally realized how alone I truly was.

Walter Kappacher: Der Fliegenpalast (Palace of Flies)

The latest addition to my website is Walter Kappacher‘s Der Fliegenpalast (Palace of Flies) the novel is set over ten days in August 1924 in the Austrian mountain resort of Bad Fusch and follows the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal who is there to complete three of his works, two of which, we know, he will never complete. He struggles throughout the book, unable to write much, worried about being pestered but yet aware fame is fleeting. He has health problems and has a dizzy spell. (He will die five years later.) He wants to be undisturbed, yet misses intelligent conversation which he will find with Dr Krakauer, the doctor who attends him after his dizzy spell and who is the personal doctor of a baroness. He looks back to his childhood, as he frequently visited Bad Fusch with his parents. Though only fifty, he behaves like an old man, complaining about how things are not how they used to be. Kappacher gives us a first-class portrait of an artist who is seemingly lost and unsure of himself and the world around him.

Joaquim Ruyra: Jacobé & Fineta

The latest addition to my website is Joaquim Ruyra‘s Jacobé & Fineta This collection consists of two short stories but very well worth reading . Jacobé tells of a girl who looks after a young boy, Minguet when young but he notices that as she gets older she seems to be deteriorating and even going insane. the local doctor puts it down to the fact that her father and grandfather died of alcoholism and the disease has passed to her even though she is not an alcoholic. The denouement, as the two again meet, takes place on a stormy cliff. Fineta is shorter and tells of a young woman waiting for her brother and father to return from sardine fishing but who is assaulted by a mysterious character while waiting. Both are excellent stories.

Vladimir Sorokin: Сердца Четырех (Their Four Hearts)

The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sorokin‘s Сердца Четырех (Their Four Hearts). This is the first of apparently eight Sorokin novels that will come out in English translation over the the next couple of years or so. This is the most brutal and transgressive, written by Sorokin as the Soviet Union was breaking up and his ultimate nail in the coffin to the Soviet Union. He takes a standard Soviet trope – four “typical” Soviet people (Stakhanovite worker, war victim, female Olympic athlete, teenage boy) and instead of showing them as model Soviets, we see then as depraved, brutal cruel and violent. They engage in a series of brutal activities (such as murdering the parents of two of the group) and also a series of, to us, incomprehensible rituals. Sorokin spares no-one as he shows, in massive exaggeration, the dark side of the Soviet Union. But beware! It is not for the squeamish.

Patrick McCabe:

The latest addition to my website is Patrick McCabe‘s Poguemahone. The title is the Irish for kiss my arse. Our main characters are Una and Dan Fogarty Now (2019) Una has dementia and is in a care home in southern England, where she causes a certain amount of disruption while Dan takes care of her. However, the basis of the story, told in blank verse format and owing a lot to the the traditional Irish song, is the Mahavishnu Anarchist Temple, in London in the 1970s, where Una, Dan and a lot of others live, with plenty of drugs, drink sex and 70s music. The IRA, various ghosts, raucous activities, with complaints by the neighbours and visits from the police and even suicide all feature, told in McCabe’s Irish drinking song style and inevitably ending badly. Una and Dan even visit in 2019 (it is now a motel) and find a medallion Una left behind. It went on a bit too long for me but McCabe certainly had fun writing it.

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