Minae Mizumura: 本格小説 新潮社 (A True Novel)

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The latest addition to my website is Minae Mizumura‘s 本格小説 新潮社 (A True Novel). This book has been very well received both in Japan and elsewhere and, perhaps not surprisingly, had appeared in other European languages before appearing in English earlier this year. It was worth the wait. It is a superb Japanese take on the Wuthering Heights story, but told in that languid style that the Japanese (used to) do so well. It has the Cathy-Heathcliff tragic love affair but is also an exploration of memory and the past, the joys of the Japanese countryside, complex family relations and the nature of the novel. Minamura, who has lived and taught in the United States and is familiar with Western literature, tells the story of a novelist called Minae Mizumura who tells the story told to her by a young man who got much of it from a Japanese woman, about Taro Azuma, a man who had a difficult early life but managed to get himself to the United States and, by dint of hard work and brain power, became very rich, all the while struggling with reconciling himself with his past, which included his Japanese birth and Yoko, his Cathy Earnshaw. Some critics have said that it is too long and too slow. I was not bored for a minute and enjoyed every word of it. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in the modern novel.

Michael Ondaatje: Anil’s Ghost

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The latest addition to my website is Michael Ondaatje‘s Anil’s Ghost. This is another superb novel by Ondaatje on war, truth and perspective, this time focussing on the conflict in Sri Lanka, the country of his birth. It tells the story of Anil Tessera, a forensic pathologist and Sri Lankan by birth but who has spent much of her adult life in the West. She is now working for a United Nations human rights investigation, looking into political murders in Sri Lanka. She and her colleague, Sarath Diyasena, a local archeologist, find evidence of a body concealed in an ancient site. However, their investigation is hindered by Anil’s suspicion of Sarath’s connections, trying to identify the body and, inevitably, the fact that they are getting too near to people in power. We also meet Sarath’s brother, a doctor who deals with accidents and emergencies, who devotes his life to helping those that have been injured, while trying to keep away from politics, which is naturally not always easy. We also meet Ananda, a painter of Buddhas, who has been traumatised by the disappearance of his wife and who helps them give a face to the dead man. Ondaatje does not hold back on the horrors of war but, as with The English Patient, there is a lot more to this book.

Benjamin Markovits: Childish Loves

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The latest addition to my website is Benjamin MarkovitsChildish Loves, his third novel about Lord Byron. Unlike his previous two, this one mixes in (semi-)autobiographical details with Byron’s story, as we follow the story of an author/teacher called Benjamin Markovits, who receives the manuscripts of two novels about Byron, written by a former friend who had killed himself, which happen to have the same titles as the ones written by the real Benjamin Markovits. The fictional Markovits then decides to study Peter Sullivan, the dead author, to find out what you can learn about people from the books they write – how much is true. Sullivan had been forced to leave his previous school for an alleged homosexual encounter with a student (the charge was subsequently withdrawn) and Markovits the character is eager to see how this affected his views of and writing on Byron. The book is interesting for its study of the nature of truth, how we find it and how we recognise it but its prurient study of the lives of Byron and Sullivan tend to get somewhat boring. Benjamin Markovits was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Steven Hall: The Raw Shark Texts

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The latest addition to my website is Steven Hall‘s The Raw Shark Texts. I found it a rather contrived novel that did not really work for me. It tells the story of a young Englishman, Eric Sanderson, who has had something of a breakdown – eleven times – since the accidental death in Greece of his girlfriend. The latest incarnation of Eric Sanderson has the task of trying to ward off conceptual sharks which, while conceptual, can also bite and kill, while trying to track down a mysterious guru, with the aid of the Un-Space Exploration Committee. Of course, a girl joins him to help him, in good sub-Murakami style and together they save the world from Mycroft Ward, who is trying to take over everybody’s consciousness. I may have enjoyed this when I was young and carefree but, frankly, it now seems a little silly and proof and that no-one can wrote Murakami like Murakami. Steven Hall was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Laos and Cambodia

A Cambodian library
A Cambodian library

We have just returned from a holiday in Laos and Cambodia, finally seeing Angkor Wat. I have two novels from Cambodia on my site and two from Laos and, though I was given another Cambodian novel in English, it seems unlikely that many more will be added. Though the Khmer Empire was undoubtedly very literate in its heyday, that was a long time ago. Jayavarman VII will join Suppiluliumas of the Hittites as one of my favourite kings, not least because of their respective names but also because they seem to have both been great statesman. The Khmers certainly seem to have been highly literate as there are inscriptions carved on walls and stelae and most sites seem to have what are called Libraries (see left) where, apparently, they stored texts written on palm leaves. These have, of course, all disappeared but continued to be used by monks, though many were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Stele with ancient Khmer script
Stele with ancient Khmer script

The situation, today, however, is less promising. I asked our guide in Laos about Harry Potter and all he knew was the films. He was not aware that they came from books. (The books have not been translated into Lao but two have been translated into Khmer – ហេរី ផោតធ័រ និង សិលាទេព and ហេរី ផោតធ័រ និង បន្ទប់ សម្ងាត់, i.e. the first two). I saw relatively few libraries (apart from the ones at the ancient sites) or bookshops in either country and those that I did see tended to have predominantly books in English and other foreign languages. The books that they had in Lao or Khmer tended to be for foreigners learning the language or children’s or technical books. Moreover, unlike in other countries, I did not see people reading. The reasons are clear. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge entirely emptied Phnom Penh, a city of 2 million people. Not only did they kill two million people and destroy its infrastructure, they also destroyed the literary culture. Bookshops, publishers, libraries and writers all disappeared. They have not really reappeared. The US dropped over 3 million bombs on Laos, making it the most bombed country in the world ever. When bombs are raining down on you, writing books is not a top priority. The country remains a single party state, nominally Communist, though allowing private property and private enterprise. Literature does not seem to be a priority. Indeed, instead of reading, people in market stalls and cafés tended to crowd around television sets, watching what seemed to be appalling soap operas, many dubbed or subtitled and imported from China, Thailand or Vietnam, three countries which continue to have a considerable influence, not always benign, on the two countries. Sadly, it would seem that the literary life has been replaced by the modern, Western-style electronic media life.

Lawrence Durrell: Tunc

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The latest addition to my website is Lawrence Durrell‘s Tunc. This is the first of a two-part series and tells of a young inventor, Felix Charlock, who invents something that seems like a spy bug but also involves storing data in a computer and analysing it, all with a slight science fiction touch. He is seduced by a mysterious and powerful company, called Merlin, to work for them. The seduction takes the form of lots of money and Benedicta, daughter of the founder of the company, with said founder now – maybe – dead. He marries Benedicta and takes the money (and enjoys the luxurious lifestyle) but has considerable doubts as to whether the marriage with the enigmatic and often absent Benedicta and the financial rewards are justified. We get the usual Durrell flourishes – mysterious expatriates in Eastern Europe, even more mysterious potentates and the innocent abroad story. I quite enjoyed it but did not think up to the standard of the Alexandria Quartet, even though Durrell himself considered it superior.

Juan Francisco Ferré: Karnaval

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The latest addition to my website is Juan Francisco Ferré‘s Karnaval, a superb novel about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. Ferré takes the story of Strauss-Kahn and his alleged rape of an African chambermaid in a luxury New York hotel and makes a wonderful novel about a character called DK (the D standing for dios i.e. the Spanish for god) and how he represents power (particularly sexual power), arrogance and lust. From DK’s letters to world leaders, offering his advice, to a documentary film with interventions from various celebrity talking heads, from DK’s sexual history to his discussion with powerful financial figures, from exorcisms and strange voices to both DK’s view and the maid’s view of what happened and the aftermath, Ferré piles on a complex picture of power and arrogance and celebrity and the downfall of a man who has these traits and who becomes larger than life in this novel. It is part biography, part satire but much more in Ferré’s telling of the tale. Sadly, it is not available in any other language as yet.

Arnon Grunberg: Tirza

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The latest addition to my website is Arnon Grunberg‘s Tirza, finally published in English this year. This is Grunberg’s masterpiece and a first-class piece of writing it is. It tells the story of Jörgen Hofmeester, a publisher’s editor, married and the father of two daughters, Ibi and Tirza. Jörgen drifts through life, as he drifted into his job (and out of it), his marriage (and out of it) and into fatherhood. His wife had walked out around three years ago and he has been left to bring up the two daughters though the eldest had soon left for university. The novel starts with the unexpected appearance of his wife, who has nowhere else to go, though the reunion is far from happy. The following day is Tirza’s birthday party and this brings its own problems, not least because Tirza introduces her boyfriend, a Moroccan called Choukri, who reminds Jörgen of Mohamed Atta. The pair are off to Africa – they choose Namibia as it seems to be the cheapest place to get to – and set off the next day. When Jörgen does not hear from them, he sets off to Namibia to find them. The skill of this book is the portrait of Jörgen, a man not fully into touch with the world and happy to drift through it, despite being a concerned and, generally, good father to his daughters. Grunberg describes his actions in great detail to really show us the man and his foibles, leaving with us with a funny but touching book, superbly written.

Juan Francisco Ferré: Providence

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The latest addition to my website is Juan Francisco Ferré‘s Providence. Though the book is in Spanish and has not been translated into English, the title is in English as it refers, in part, to the city in Rhode Island, where much of the novel is set. I say in part, as Providence also refers to a video game, a website, a film/film script and Alain Resnais’ film of that name. Providence is also the birthplace of cult horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, who appears in this novel and has clearly influenced Ferré. The book tells the story of Alex Franco (one of several characters to share a surname with a famous person), a young Spanish film maker. After his first feature-length film flops at Cannes, he is approached by an attractive but older woman who asks him to develop a film script based on a book by an obscure Russian writer, called Providence. This reminds him of an event seven months previously in Marrakesh, when a mysterious Lebanese businessman got him to agree to a sort of Faustian pact. Franco heads off to Providence, where he will teach film and write the script. Much of his time in Providence seems to be spent having sex with inappropriate women but he does discover the dark side of Providence, the Lovecraftian side, if you will and things generally do not go well for him. This is a post 9/11 novel – it is mentioned more than once though is not key – and shows a world where chaos and menace are ever-present. I felt that he got too bogged down in the Providence story, even if we did get his potted view of the history of cinema, though the book starts and finishes well.