Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: اند تھے سر آسما (The Mirror of Beauty)

mirror

The latest addition to my website is Shamsur Rahman Faruqi‘s اند تھے سر آسما (The Mirror of Beauty). This has been hailed as one of the great Urdu novels. It was published in Urdu in 2006 and has now been translated into English by the author, a mammoth task as the book is over 950 pages long. It is a superb story, telling of the life of a great beauty, Wazir Khanam, in the early-mid nineteenth century, just as the East India Company was taking over India. Wazir Khanam enthralled both Indian and British men – her first lover was English. She has two lovers and two husbands (and children by all four) but retains her beauty, her elegance and, above all, her strong personality, which means that no-one, Indian or British, can control her if she does not want to be controlled. As well as being about Wazir Khanam, this novel is also about a key period of Indian history, as the Mughal Empire is waning and the British, in the form of the East India Company, are gradually taking over. Faruqi, clearly and understandably, does not think very highly of the British but he does extol the Indian culture of the period – the poetry, learning, general interracial harmony and the customs – and it is this that helps make the novel so fascinating for a Western reader. This novel is clearly destined to be a classic.

Nadifa Mohamed: Black Mamba Boy

boy

The latest addition to my website is Nadifa Mohamed‘s Black Mamba Boy. Mohamed is one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, though she is Somali and this novel is very much a Somali novel. It tells the story of her grandfather, Jama Mohamed, and his difficult but adventurous life growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. Unable to find work, his father leaves what was then British Somaliland and goes to Sudan. When he does not return for a while, his mother takes him to Aden where she works long hours in a coffee factory and he roams the streets. He returns to Hargeisa but is not happy there and, one day, he leaves his relatives and sets out for Sudan to find his father, despite not knowing where Sudan is or how far and where exactly his father is. He has a difficult journey but is often aided by other Somalis who seems to be scattered all over East Africa. Things do not go well for him and he gets caught up in the Italian-British battles in World War II and is nearly killed. After the war, he seems to be doing well but things fall apart again and he is again off on his travels, heading to Palestine, Egypt and even England. He leads a very adventurous life and Mohamed tells her tale well of all his adventures and the political background to what is happening at that time.

Man Booker long list

The only one I have read (so far)
The only one I have read (so far)

They have announced the Man Booker long list for 2013. Every year, I vow that I shall keep away from it and every year I succumb. I have only read one of the books but will probably read more. I would guess that the two Irish men – Colum McCann and Colm Tóibín must be favourites. Surprised not to see Life After Life or Ghana Must Go. Indeed, none of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. Seven women, six men. Très politically correct. Of the nationalities:
three definitely English though I am not so sure about Richard House who was born in Cyprus and has lived in the US
three Irish
one US, though Ruth Ozeki is presumably on the list as she has Canadian nationality as well
one Canadian (in addition to Ruth Ozeki)
one Indian
one Malaysian
one New Zealander
one Zimbabwean
no Welsh or Scottish representatives
Eve Harris has yet to be published but the others have been, though Charlotte Mendelson’s nominated book is not out till August and Eleanor Catton’s, Alison MacLeod’s and Jhumpa Lahiri’s nominated books are not out till September. An interesting if mixed bag.

Take a look at the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize for an alternative view.

François Mauriac: La Pharisienne (A Woman of the Pharisees)

pharisienne

The latest addition to my website is ‘s La Pharisienne (A Woman of the Pharisees), the last of Mauriac’s great novels. This tells the story of Brigitte Pian, through the eyes of her stepson, Louis Pian, a woman who believes that she knows what God wants from people and it is her duty to tell them. Most of the novel concerns a period when Louis is a teenager, well-behaved and good at school, but looking back from very late in life. One of his schoolfriends, a badly-behaved, lazy, slovenly boy called Jean de Mirbel, comes to spend the summer under the care of a priest who specialises in training badly-behaved boys, near to the Pian family home. To Louis’ horror, Jean and his beloved sister Michèle, instead of playing with him, would rather play with each other. As both are two years older than Louis, their games do not meet with the approval of Brigitte. When Jean finds that his widowed mother is also misbehaving, things get much worse. Brigitte, however, is always there to offer her spiritual guidance and comfort to the afflicted. The portrait of Brigitte is a superb work by Mauriac, as she is not wholly bad. Indeed, she has a good heart and often reproaches herself with being too harsh with the tormented souls she thinks that she is helping. Mauriac shows all sides of her character, through Louis’ eyes. It will be Mauriac’s last great creation. Fortunately, not only has the book been translated into English but is in print in both the UK and USA.

The contemporary Mexican novel

Paul Auster's forthcoming book - but is it saying anything new?
Paul Auster’s forthcoming book – but is it saying anything new?

In the twentieth century, as far as I was concerned, the most interesting novel writing was coming from the United States. This is not to say that there was not a lot of interesting novels been written elsewhere – of course there was – but that, overall, the US had the most interesting, innovative writers. In the twentieth-first century, this has changed. There are still interesting novels coming out of the US but also there are too many formulaic books coming out, slickly written, very clever, very well written but not really pushing the boundaries. I love Paul Auster and Don DeLillo, for example, but are they saying anything new any more? No, I think the pendulum has swung and what is interesting is coming out of the Spanish-speaking world. This is something of a conceit because there may be all sorts of fascinating novels being written in Japan or China or the Arabic-speaking world, for example, of which I am entirely unaware, as they have not been translated into a language I can read.

Pasillos de mi memoria ajena - you can read it in Venezuela but not elsewhere
Pasillos de mi memoria ajena – you can read it in Venezuela but not elsewhere

I am going to focus on Mexico because I think a lot of interesting things are happening there, though other Latin American countries are certainly producing interesting work. Argentina and Colombia are obvious examples but, for example, according to Guillermo Parra, there is currently a boom in Venezuelan literatureI do believe there’s a sort of boom in Venezuelan literature these days, with a big variety of great writers, coming from a lot of different generations, publishing very good pieces. However, as he points out in this post, while there are a lot of interesting writers – and he gives names – not only have they not been translated into English, it is very difficult to obtain copies in Spanish even elsewhere in Latin America, let alone in Europe or North America. BTW, if you are interested in Venezuelan literature, his blog (in English) is well worth reading.

One of the anthologies of contemporary Mexican literature
One of the anthologies of contemporary Mexican literature

Mexico has produced several anthologies since the end of the last century which have showcased this emerging talent.

2000 Generación del 2000: literatura mexicana hacia el tercer milenio
2003 Nuevas voces de la narrativa mexicana
2004 Novísimos cuentos de la República Mexicana
2008 Grandes hits. Vol. 1, Nueva generación de narradores mexicanos

Dalkey Archive Press has produced Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction in English. El futuro no es nuestro: nueva narrativa latinoamericana covers all of Latin America, with two Mexican writers – Tryno Maldonado and Antonio Ortuño. It is now available in English. I am aware of the Los Mejores Cuentos Mexicanos, published annually by Joaquín Mortiz, but these have tended to focus on more conventional works, though there is much interesting in them as well. Similarly, Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories is an interesting collection in English but most of these stories are from an older generation, as are the stories in Una ciudad mejor que ésta. Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro is a State-supported publisher that has published many young Mexican writers. The first four above publications are an excellent start to what is going on in Mexican literature.

torre

One writer makes the first four Mexican anthologies, though not the others. That is Alberto Chimal, whom I reviewed last week. As a short-story writer and author of two novels, he has been very successful in Mexico, though he is little known in the English-speaking world. I suspect that might change. I remember reading the Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Detectives) well before it was translated into English and wondering why it wasn’t better known. It is now. None of the authors in these anthologies appear in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, primarily because they are of an older generation, but they are still worth examining, so I will start with a quick look at them:

Àlvaro Enrigue‘s Hipotermia is now available in English, though it is short stories (microfictions) and not a novel.
Ana Garcìa Bergua has not been published in English but her Isla de bobos has been published in French.
Cristina Rivera-Garza‘s Nadie me verá llorar has been translated into English as No One Will See Me Cry.
Daniel Sada‘s Casi nunca has been translated as Almost Never.
Eduardo Antonio Parra‘s Tierra de nadie has been translated as No Man’s Land.
Fabio Morábito is a poet and short story writer. His Caja de herramientas has been translated as Toolbox.
Some of Francisco Hinojosa‘s humorous stories, many written for children, have been translated.
Guillermo Fadanelli, one of Mexico’s best writers of the urban scene, has not been translated into English though three of his books are available in French.
Some of Guillermo Samperio‘s stories have been translated as Beatle Dreams and Other Stories.
Héctor Manjarrez is another writer who has not been translated into English (apart from the story in this collection). He is better known as a writer of short stories and poetry but has written novels.
Hernán Lara Zavala is a novelist, short story writer, essayist and children’s writer, best known for his novel Península, península, set during the Caste War of Yucatán. Sadly, like others in this collection, he has not been translated into English, apart from the story in this collection.
Jorge F. Hernández edited Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories, mentioned above. He has written novels and shot stories, often in the fantasy genre.
Juan Villoro has been translated into Dutch, French, German and Italian but not English. He has written novels, short stories and books for children.
Rosa Beltrán has been translated into French but not English. She has written novels, stories and essays and was honoured by the American Association of University Women for her writings on women writers.
Vivian Abenshushan is a short story writer who has not been translated.

That gives an idea of some writers who have had at least one story translated into English. Sadly, very few of the ones in the first four anthologies have been translated. Here are some of the more interesting ones from those anthologies:

escritores

Vizania Amezcua works for a theatre group but has written the novel Una manera de morir [A Way to Die], telling the story of a woman, Antonia, writing a book called Una manera de morir [A Way to Die], who is trying to solve the mystery of a statue given to her by her boyfriend, Vincente, the only man she has ever loved, though they are now separated. The book deals with memory and nostalgia.
Bernardo Esquinca appears in three of these anthologies but nothing of his has been translated. His Los escritores invisibles [The Invisible Writers] was selected as one of the best novels of 2009 in Mexico.
Julieta García González has written a book of stories, a children’s book and a novel, Vapor, about Gracia, a very fat young woman.
Eve Gil has been influenced by manga, e.g. in her novel Tinta violeta [Violet Ink] but her other novels cover other themes. For example Cenotafio de Beatriz [Beatrice’s Cenotaph] has two parts – Paradise and Hell and Eve’s boyfriend is called Dante, though it is not a modern Divine Comedy but rather the same story told from the perspective of each one, while El suplicio de Adán [The Torture of Adam] is about the Mexican Revolution. She also has an interesting blog, wittily called All About La Eve. Her favourite books are Dracula, Wuthering Heights, the complete works of Oscar Wilde, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor) and, the solitary Spanish-language one, Sergio Pitol’s El arte de la fuga (available in French and Chinese but not English).
Julián Herbert‘s best-known novel is Canción de tumba [Grave Song] based on his life with his mother as a child, wandering all over Mexico. She died of leukemia in 2008. He has written a book called Cocaine: A User’s Guide and played in a couple of rock bands as well as writing one other novel, poetry and stories.
Luis Felipe Lomelí has written one novel, Cuaderno de flores, about drug trafficking in Colombia.
Tryno Maldonado has written three novels – Viena roja [Red Vienna], Temporada de caza para el león negro [Hunting Season for the Black Lion], about Golo, a painter, who reads romance novels in the bath, has never read a newspaper in his life and spends his time playing video games and eating candy floss (cotton candy for the US reader) and hot dogs and any number of illegal drugs, and Teoría de las catástrofes [Catastrophe Theory] about a couple, bored with life, who get caught up with a guerilla group.
Alain-Paul Mallard is best known for his films. His book Evocación de Matthias Stimmberg was originally well over 100 pages long but he cut it and cut it again so ended up at around 40 pages.
Fabrizio Mejía Madrid has published two novels – Hombre al agua about living in Mexico City (past and present) with all its attendant horrors, including earthquakes, hurricanes and plagues, and El rencor a novel about the ruling Mexican political party.
toda
Eduardo Montagner is an interesting writer as he has written a novel in Chipileño, a dialect of Italian spoken only by immigrants to the Chipileño region of Mexico and another novel in Spanish, dealing very explicitly with homosexuality, something that is not usually welcomed in Mexico.
Guadalupe Nettel teaches linguistics at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris but has written novels and short stories. Her first novel El Huésped [The Guest] is about a girl who is inhabited by a strange creature. She becomes a reader for an Institute for the Blind where she meets someone who shows her the mysterious underground passages in Mexico City. El cuerpo en que nací (The Body Which Which I Was Born] also deals with vision but this time a birth defect in one eye makes the protagonist feel different.
Antonio Ortuño was the only Mexican writer to make the Granta Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists but, apart from that, has not been translated into English, though he has been translated into French, Italian and Romanian. He has written two novels and two books of stories and is known for his black humour.
Eduardo Rojas Rebolledo has published two novels. His first is set in the medieval period, not the first Latin-American novel to look back rather than forward. His second is set in the nineteenth century and is about memory and friendship. It starts with the narrator having mumps and, as a result, a sharp pain in his left testicle and, soon afterwards, learning of the sudden death of his friend, who has killed himself because of a problem with his penis.
Jaime Romero Robledo, a former civil engineer and video game designer, is the author of El mundo de ocho espacios, a neuroscience fiction novel, where, in the not too distant future, we are all living in a MMORPG. He claims as his influences Orwell, Huxley, Sarduy, Calvino, Brecht, Machado de Assis, Cervantes, Dante, Arreola, Rulfo, Josefina Vicens, Usigli, Faulkner, Carroll, Pirandello, Sterne, T.S Eliot, Borges, Cortázar, García Márquez, Queneau, Papini, Saramago, Lispector, M.C. Escher and C.G. Jung.
Juan José Rodríguez has written two novels – Asesinato en una lavandería China and Mi nombre es Casablanca – both about drug trafficking in Mexico, and the associated violence, not only by the traffickers but by the State.
José Ramón Ruisánchez has taught Latin-American literature at the University of Houston and, more recently, at the Universidad Iberoamericana. His best known novel is Nada Cruel about a rivalry between two brothers, one based in Mexico, the other in the United States. He has written four other novels – Remedios Infalibles contra el hipo, Novelita de amor y poco piano, Y por qué no tenemos otro perro and Cómo dejé de ser vegetariana.
Ximena Sánchez Echenique has published three novels (none translated) – one about exile, one arranged in 23 pairs of chapters, to match the human chromosome structure, as the hero’s father is a biologist, specialising in albinism, and her first telling three interrelated stories – one about a woman who has lost her taste for the basic things of life, one about how her father, and his acquisition of two Fabergé vases and one about an apprentice jeweller a hundred years earlier.
Federico Vite‘s first novel has the interesting title of Fisuras en el continente literario [Fissures in the Literary Continent], though it is about how reality is often more bizarre than fiction in Mexico.
Socorro Venegas has written three books of stories and one novel, La noche será negra y blanca [The Night will be Black and White] about the effect on an already somewhat dysfunctional family, when the youngest son dies in an accident.
Heriberto Yépez has written novels, stories, poetry, essays and criticism. One of his collection of essays is available in English. His novels, sadly, are not. A.b.u.r.t.o is a political novel about a political assassination, Tijuana and much more. Al otro lado is about drugs but also about how the hero, Tiburón, breaks free from the drugs and sets out on strange journey with his car, his mobile phone and his dog.

hanami

I have focused on novelists or, at least, writers who have written novels. There are many writers of poetry, drama and short stories who have not written novels and who are definitely worthy of consideration I will mention just one – Cristina Rascón who has written four books of short stories, has translated Japanese poetry and a book on economics. But my interest is in the novel and this should give you a brief idea of what is happening in Mexico. Politics is, of course, key as is the drug trade but they are also delving into fantasy and science fiction, history and language, as well as the other varied topics novelists write about. There are many, many more interesting Mexican writers but information is not easy to obtain and books are even harder to obtain. I hope that some of these books will eventually appear in English.

Kossi Efoui: La fabrique de cérémonies [The Ceremony Factory]

efoui

The latest addition to my website is Kossi Efoui‘s La fabrique de cérémonies [The Ceremony Factory], the first Togolese novel on my website. It tells the story of Edgar Fall, a Togolese translator, who had studied in the Soviet Union but lost his scholarship when the Soviet Union collapsed and now lives in a small flat on the eighth floor in Paris, translating pornographic photonovels into Russian. He is offered the chance to do a report for a magazine specialising in trash travel, i.e. travel by affluent Westerners to run-down third world areas, such as the slums of Soweto or Kinshasa. He is sent to Tapiokaville, what used to be Lomé, named after the ruling general (whom no-one has seen), who is presumably based on Gnassingbé Eyadéma. His journey reveals a blighted country – dead bodies by the roadside, a key road washed away by the sea, a teenage boy necklaced, drug addiciton and orphaned children. While seeing this, he remembers his life as a child in Lomé, with his aunt, his mother and his mother’s protector. It is a grim picture of an African country which has been repressively ruled since independence. It is not available in English but one of his later books – L’ombre des choses à venir – is to be published as The Shadow of Things to Come by the University of Chicago Press next month.

Jim Crace: Harvest

harvest

The latest addition to my website is Jim Crace‘s Harvest. Crace has said that this is his final novel. It is an excellent novel, telling the story of an unnamed (not only by the author but by the characters) village somewhere in England, at the time of the enclosure of the common land. At the start of the story the villagers get on with their daily life, unchanged for many years. However, the arrival of three travellers, the burning of the barn and the discovery that the man they thought was the owner is not, in fact, the real owner, leads to major upheaval in the life of everyone in the village, with witchcraft, murder and brutality the order of the day. Crace does a superb job of evoking the English landscape and village of the period and also tells an excellent storey.

Candidates for the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature

A more representative work for Edward P Jones
A more representative work for Edward P Jones

The Candidates for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature are always an interesting collection and I was glad to note that I have four of them on my site: César Aira, Mia Couto, Duong Thu Huong and Haruki Murakami. I know nothing about the three poets nominated – Edouard Maunick, Ilya Kaminsky and Ghassan Zaqtan, though Zaqtan has published two works of fiction, neither of which has been translated. I do own books by both Edward P. Jones and Chang-rae Lee and hope to get round to them soon. What is interesting is that the website gives what it calls a representative work for each author. Maybe the Mia Couto and Duong Thu Huong suggestions are valid but The Elephant Vanishes for Murakami, How I Became a Nun for Aira and All Aunt Hagar’s Children for Jones seem somewhat eccentric choices. The Neustadt selects individuals of note who nominate a choice and, presumably they chose the representative work. Murakami, for example, was nominated by Deji Olukotun, who wrote the very funny Nigerians in Space. In any case, it is good to see that they have chosen nine interesting candidates.

Xiaolu Guo: 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

20

The latest addition to my website is Xiaolu Guo‘s 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth. Though nominally written in English, it was in fact her first novel published in Chinese. However, when it was translated into English, she decided to rewrite the English so it is a sort of newish novel. It tells the story of a young woman called Fenfang Wang, clearly based on Xiaolu Guo herself, who suddenly, aged seventeen, leaves her home village, leaving only a note for her parents, and sets off for Beijing. Her first four years in Beijing are difficult. She does a series of menial jobs and has very poor accommodation. However, after four years, she gets a job in a cinema, tidying up, and that introduces her to the wonders of film. When she finds an umbrella left behind by an assistant director, he recommends that she apply to become a film extra. Initially, she does not get much work but gradually gets more. She meets an assistant to a producer and has an affair but that does not work out but gradually gets more roles and starts screenplay writing. Xiaolu Guo tells a gentle tale of a young woman facing the world in the maelstrom of Beijing and how she copes. There are no fireworks but it is an enjoyable story.

Reviving the dead in literature

stoner

I have to confess that we read the Telegraph at the weekend, primarily for the crossword, a Saturday morning treat, Helen Yemm‘s gardening column and, of course, to get a perspective on what the old colonels are thinking this week. We even visited Helen Yemm’s garden when she had an open day a few weeks ago. However, on a more literary note, John Sutherland, who is always worth reading, had an interesting column on the revival of John Williams’ Stoner this week. (The Literary Saloon also commented on it.) This is a book that has been sitting on my shelves for more years than I care to remember and which I will get round to reading one day… Sutherland goes on to give a list of five other books which he thinks should be brought up from the cellar. This is a topic I am always interested in. I have a large page devoted to neglected books, both my own suggestions and those of many others.

However, I shall start with Sutherland’s suggestions:

Not À la recherche du temps perdu
Not À la recherche du temps perdu

Irène Némirovsky: Jezebel
I have yet to read Némirovsky but she is very high on my list and I expect to read some of her novels, including Jezebel, soon. I would not have thought that she is in the cellar, though Jezebel may be less well-known than some of her others.
Charles Willeford: Cockfighter
I tend not to read crime novels so have not read any Willeford. This is not one of his crime novels but cockfighting appeals to me even less than crime so I will pass on this one.
George Du Maurier: Peter Ibbetson
Comparing Peter Ibbetson to Proust, as Sutherland does, is a bit like comparing JK Rowling to Roberto Bolaño. Du Maurier, as well as being famous for being the grandfather of Daphne, is best-known for his novel Trilby, which I have not read but I have seen the film which focuses more on the character of Svengali than on Trilby and features the wonderful John Barrymore.
Fernando Pessoa: Livro do desassossego (The Book of Disquiet; The Book of Disquietude)
Read it. Loved it. But in the cellar? I don’t think so.
Nuruddin Farah: Sardines
Another author on my list, whose books have been on my shelf for too many years. But is he unknown?

In short, not a very impressive list. Are my selections any better? You judge.