The latest addition to my website is Iván Thays‘ La disciplina de la vanidad [The Discipline of Vanity], a superb Peruvian post-modern novel about writers and writing. The nominal plot is a conference organised by the Spanish Centre for Young Writers. They have invited young authors from all over the Spanish-speaking world to a conference in a converted prison near Malaga. Thays uses this outline to both discuss serious issues related to writing and writers, including the issue of the difference between writing and being a writer, as well as to mock the various foibles of writers and different nationalities. It is witty, it is intelligent, it teaches us a lot about writing and writers and is a joy to read. Interestingly enough, this theme of being a writer as opposed to writing came up in today’s Observer with reference to the awful Martin Amis, who is certainly someone who seems to have spent more time on being a writer than writing quality works. Thays and Amis are worlds apart. It is very sad that Amis is far better known than Thays, as it should be the other way round. If you can read Spanish, read the Thays and if you cannot, don’t read Martin Amis. It will be a waste of your time.
The latest addition to my website is Jim Crace‘s The Pesthouse. I have long held the view that the United States, a country which has passed from barbarism to decadence without passing through the intervening stage of civilisation (the original quote is attributed to numerous people), will, eventually, when resources run out, collapse into a horrific civil war, fuelled by the gun culture that many in the US seem to love. The NRA’s favourite quote is When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. The trouble is that the outlaws, in this scenario, will be better armed and probably better organised and will prevail. End of political message. This book, as you can see, is about the post-apocalyptic United States though, for some reason, guns do not appear, apparently long since gone, as industry has disappeared. I feel that this may be something of a flaw in the book as the bad guys would still manufacture their own guns and bullets but maybe Crace has the sensible European abhorrence of guns and kept them out of his book. A disease called the Grand Contagion has wiped out not only much of the population but all the industry. People are now fleeing to the East coast to try and get a ship to Europe, where things seem to be much better. They have to pass through Ferrytown, which is essentially wiped out at the very beginning of the book when a landslide releases poisonous gases, killing the entire population. The two survivors – Margaret who has been confined to a pesthouse (a small hut) because it is feared that she has the dreaded flux (another disease) and Franklin, waiting outside town for his brother to get food and a ferry passage while he recovers from a knee injury – set out together to get a ship and have the usual adventures – strange sects, roaming bands of thugs, other travellers, often in distress. It is not particularly original but a well-told tale and enjoyable if you like post-apocalyptic novels. If you do, Wikipedia has a list (though not this one) though this list does include this one.
The latest addition to my website is Indriði G. Þorsteinsson/Indridii G Thorsteinsson‘s Norðan við stríð (North of War). This novel is based on a little-known episode of World War II, when British troops occupied Iceland in May 1940, to forestall a German invasion. The Icelandic government reluctantly accepted the invasion though maintained their neutrality. The novel however, tells of the effect of the British and their occupation on the small town of Akureyri (not named in the book). The women prefer the British men to their own men. The economy is dramatically changed as many of the men will work on the airfield the British are constructing and the Icelanders will be exposed to some new technology. While offering some criticism, Þorsteinsson treats it to a considerable degree as a light-hearted episode in Iceland’ s history and uses the opportunity to mock both the British and his own countrymen. This is the only one of his novels translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Peter Elmore‘s Las pruebas del Fuego [The Trials of Fire]. Elmore has not been translated into English (nor, as far as I can see, any other language), despite the fact that he teaches in the United States. This novel, while certainly enjoyable, is not a great novel, telling the story of a Peruvian academic specialising in art history who inherits a box of old manuscripts, some of which consist of letters between two monks, indicating that a painting by a famous artist was smuggled into Peru and is probably still there. The story is essentially about his attempts to find out more about the painting and track it down, all the while dealing with various problems in his life, in particular blackmail. It is not available in English (or any other language) and probably won’t be.
The latest addition to my website is Alberto Chimal‘s La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden]. It has become increasingly apparent to me that much that is interesting in the contemporary novel is being written in Spanish and that Mexico is a key part of this. This novel has been hailed by many Latin American commentators as a stunningly original work and one of the best Latin American novels of recent years and I can only share their enthusiasm, only with the caveat that this novel, like other great novels, may not be for everyone. It is set in a seven-storey building in the fictitious city of Morosa, which is a giant brothel. However, though the building may appear to be seven storeys from the outside, inside it is much bigger and constantly changing, moving things around and even managing to repair itself when damaged. The brothel is also no ordinary brothel but one that caters exclusively for rich clients who want to have sex with animals. The brothel contains a whole menagerie of animals, from fleas and ants, to tigers, via lemmings and platypuses, to satisfy the odd tastes of the rich. (Fortunately, Chimal gives few descriptions of what actually goes on.) We learn the history of the building and what is going on both with the management and the clients and their strange tastes as well as learning about the secret society that inhabits the buildings, the strange scientific experiments and the secret of the garden. We also follow the adventures of two men who get into the building and who explore its interior, in order to learn of its secrets. Unusual, different but also occasionally disturbing, this is a stunningly original work. Sadly, it has not, as yet, been translated into any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Sarah Mkhonza‘s Weeding the Flowerbeds, the first novel from Swaziland on my website Actually, this is a memoir, slightly fictionalised but, frankly, there is very little literature from Swaziland in English. Sarah Mkhonza tells the story of herself and other girls at two boarding schools in Swaziland during their teens. While she writes well and keeps our interest, there is nothing special or unusual. She is concerned with the role of women and the rights of Africans but also with the opposite sex and pop music. She is keen to stand up for her rights, particularly when she considers that she has been treated unfairly but, on the whole, she behaves fairly well, gets on with her studies and grows up a fairly normal child and young woman.
The latest addition to my website is Xiaolu Guo‘s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers. This is her first book written in English though it is (deliberately) written in bad English. It is a semi-autobiographical account of her own arrival in London and her struggles with the language and the culture. She writes as she would have spoken then (apparently it is based in part on the diaries she kept at the time). The chapters are divided into headwords, which are the words she struggles with at this time and each chapter heading also has the English dictionary definition of the word which can sometimes be a help to her but sometimes add to her confusion. As the title shows, it is also about love, another issues which shows up the cultural differences between the two countries. She meets a man twenty years older than her in a cinema and, within a week, she has moved into his house. He is bisexual, has been a drifter and now earns his living delivering things in a scruffy white van. Their cultural differences are, of course, brought out. He is a vegetarian, she is not. They have different views on relationships and various other issues, though some of these differences may well be male-female, rather than English-Chinese. The book is very funny but also has a very serious intent and works very well though, as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, it seems odd that she clearly is not British.
The latest addition to my website is Rim Kin‘s សូផាត (Sophat), the first Cambodian novel published. It is a straightforward novel of love and loss. Sophat is born to an orphan woman, Soya, and her lover, the rich official, Suon. Suon abandons Soya when given an opportunity to return to Phnom Penh and while she is five months pregnant. He makes no further contact. Soya, on learning of his subsquent marrige to someone else, collapses and dies. Sophat is brought up an orphan and then transferred to a monastery. When he is twelve, he sets out for Phnom Penh to find his father and ends up in the household of the rich official, Athipadey Séna. He meets Athipadey Séna’s niece, Man Yan, and the pair fall in love but because of a misunderstanding, he leaves. The two are reunited, separated, reunited and again separated, with Kin leaving us guessing whether they will ever manage to stay together and whether Sophat will find his father. It is a simple novel but well done for a country’s first novel. Sadly, it is only available in French translation, not in English.
The latest addition to my website is Chantal Fraïsse‘s La bèstia de totas las colors [The Beast of All Colours], written in Occitan. This was prompted by my visit to Provence in May where I found bookshops, such as one called the Librairie de Provence, did not actually stock any books in Provençal/Occitan. On returning home, I poked around on the Internet to see if I could find any recent novels written in Provençal/Occitan and came up with this one, which had won the Paul-Froment prize for best work in Occitan in 2011. It is a simple but very enjoyable novel about the life of the financial director of Moissac Abbey, where Fraïsse works as a conservationist. She wrote it in Occitan which, she says, is her second mother tongue. Bertrand Cassanis really did exist and left behind a lot of documentation about his life and times, but Fraïsse has, by her own admission, used the bits she considered appropriate to write her novel, so the book is a novel and not a biography. This novel has not been translated into English or, indeed, into any other language and is unlikely to be so, unless Fraïsse herself translates it into French so, while I can recommend it, unless you read Occitan, you will have to wait for it to be translated.