The latest addition to my website is Jun’ichiro Tanizaki‘s 鍵 (The Key). This is a highly erotic novel, written entirely in the form of diary entries by an older, unnamed man and his younger wife, Ikuko. The husband is concerned that, as he is getting older, his sexual performance has deteriorated. Ikuko, while still loving her husband, is disgusted by him, particularly in bed. The couple have an adult daughter, Toshiko, who lives with them. Kimura is a man they are considering as a husband for Toshiko, though she does not seem very enthusiastic. However Kimura visits frequently and it is clear that he is more interested in Ikuko than in Toshiko. The husband soon starts to encourage this flirtation between Kimura and Ikuko as it awakens his jealousy but makes him a more passionate lover. Gradually, it becomes apparent that each is aware of the other’s diary (they had previously kept it secret) and each is aware of the growing familiarity between Ikuko and Kimura. Tanizaki skilfully pushes this erotic relationship more and more, as Kimura and Ikuko become closer under the watchful but willing eyes of the husband. It is wonderfully done and very inventive and, indeed, still some sixty years after its original publication, titillating.
The latest addition to my website is Sebastiano Vassalli‘s Il cigno (The Swan). This is Vassalli’s Mafia novel, for which he got some criticism, not least because he is a Northerner and was accused of not understanding Sicilian culture. It tells the story of a historical event – the murder of Emanuele Notarbartolo, carried out by and for the Mafia, as Emanuele Notarbartolo was planning to stop the Mafia controlling the Bank of Sicily. The story tells both of the half-hearted investigation and trial of the culprits as well as of the other activities of the Mafia at that time (late nineteenth/early twentieth century). Vassalli paints an entirely negative picture of the Mafia, as they are corrupt and vicious, exploiting the poor and weak. He also exposes the politicians who assist the Mafia for their own gain and many of the people of Sicily who, for obvious reasons, refuse to stand up to the Mafia. Indeed many of them deny the existence of the Mafia saying that it is a Northern invention. It is not a great book but still an interesting one, telling of a key event in Sicilian history and one that Vassalli clearly believes continues to have ramifications to this day.
The blog In lieu of a field guide has published a list of Philippine novels in English translation. Always interested in novels in translation from countries which I know little about, I checked the nine novels on the list. Sadly, only the two José Rizal novels showed up on the site of a well-known online bookseller in the UK and one other in the US. Two others were held by the British Library and four others by the Library of Congress. However, generally, apart from the Rizal, these books are not easy to find. I only have two books on my Philippines page, both written in English and neither particularly easy to find. I note that I own thirteen novels from the Philippines, all originally written in English. Of course, I and other bloggers have mentioned this issue before. Even with the rise of online bookselling and ebooks, it does remain difficult to obtain novels from smaller countries. In a previous blog I mentioned the difficulty of obtaining Venezuelan novels. Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon has frequently mentioned the issue of translation from Indian languages, e.g. here. I can understand that for publishers and retailers selling books from these countries may not be profitable but, surely, with the rise of ebooks, it should become easier. I have managed to obtain many books written in Spanish purely because they are available in ebook form and therefore relatively cheap both to stock and acquire. The Philippines is very much an unknown in the UK and obviously is better-known in the US, being a former US colony. There is also a relatively large population of Filipinos in the US but only around 125,000 in the UK so access to Filipino culture in the UK is relatively limited. I hope that, with the rise of ebooks, many of the books on the list will eventually become available in the US and UK but I am not counting on it.
The latest addition to my website is Sebastiano Vassalli‘s La chimera (The Chimera). Set in Italy at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, this is a novel about witchcraft or, rather, it isn’t, it is about a young woman accused of witchcraft for the very simple crimes of a) being pretty and b) having a boyfriend outside the village where she lives. Antonia Spagnolini is a foundling, left in a church as was the custom at that time. She is taken to an orphanage run by the church where she grows up. At that time, the Bishop of Novara, Carlo Bascapè, was having a crusade against corruption and sins of the flesh. As a result, people were reluctant to adopt pretty girl orphans – Antonia was the prettiest in the orphanage – for fear of being accused of sexual depravity so, for a long time, she was not adopted. Finally she was adopted by a couple who lived in the long since disappeared village of Zardino, a small hamlet in the Po valley. She did not fit in very well. She found the people too coarse and they found her too pretty. When she grew up, she remained very pretty and several of the young men fell for her. However, she picked an itinerant worker. Soon there was talk about her. People said she caused animals to fall ill and children to be struck dumb. Crops died when she walked by and she was ‘seen’ conducting witches’ sabbaths. The local priest, a zealot who did not like Antonia’s independent spirit, reported her to the Inquisition in Novara and she was arrested and tried for witchcraft. Vassalli makes it clear that he finds the church authorities and local people to be total hypocrites in this matter, while Antonia is an innocent, free spirit, who did not conform to the standards of the time and paid the price for it. In addition to the story, Vassalli gives us a wonderful portrait of church politics at the time and what life was like for the ordinary person. Though long since out of print in English, the book has been translated and is not too difficult to find.
The latest addition to my website is Marina Warner‘s The Leto Bundle. This is a superb novel about identity, refugees, immigration, religion, the effect of war and political upheaval, particularly on women, as well, of course, as we would expect from Marina Warner, about myth and its role both in the past and for us now. Leto was a female Titan, raped by Zeus and giving birth to twins. However, in this book, she is more of an everywoman, even though we follow her as a recurring character from mythological times to the present day, via medieval and Victorian times. In each of the four cases she is a victim struggling to survive, to raise her children and deal with the turmoil that is going on around her. The book is primarily set in contemporary England, though it is called Albion. The Leto Bundle is the findings from a grave where Leto was buried in an unnamed country but presumably Greece. These consist of various grave goods and shroud but no body. However, the New Albion Museum, a very thinly disguised British Museum, adds a body and christens the whole Helen, leading people not just to identify it with Helen of Troy but to set up a sort of cult around it. Ths is led by a young teacher called Kim McQuy, an immigrant from the city of Tirzah (where, we learn Leto had been) and adopted by English parents. Leto and her bundle and her children, McQuy and a pop singer called Gramercy Poule all converge towards the end. However, the book’s strength is discussing and raising a host of ideas and integrating them into a complex but very fine story. Highly recommended.
The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s De Potter’s Grand Tour. There has been some excitement this summer with all the new novels coming out late summer/autumn. These include novels by Martin Amis, Peter Carey, Michel Faber, Richard Ford, Howard Jacobson, Kate Mosse, Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Joseph O’Neill, Marilynne Robinson, Will Self, Jane Smiley, Ali Smith, Colm Tóibín and Sarah Waters. While I shall certainly read some of these (and have read one), the two I have most been looking forward to, the new Geoff Nicholson and this one, seem to have been lost in the shuffle. This is a pity as these two writers are both superb writers (but very different, of course) and I would have thought that they should be high on the list of books to read this autumn. But then I often feel that I am out of touch with the literary marketplace.
De Potter’s Grand Tour is the story of a historical character. Pierre Louis Armand de Potter d’Eleghem was a Belgian who emigrated to the United States. There he set up a tour company, specialising in taking Americans to Europe and the Middle East. It was a highly successful company. He also collected antiquities, often obtained illegally, which he lent to the University of Pennsylvania and hoped would make his name. Though the collection was subsequently acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, where it still is, it has not really made his name at all. We learn from the beginning of the book that he disappears from on board a ship. The story tells of his life, primarily after his arrival in the United States but, at the same time, also tells of the events leading up to his disappearance and what happened to his family after this disappearance. Joanna Scott’s de Potter is a fascinating character, as we are left with doubts about him. Yes, he seems to be something of a fraud but how much of one was he? Did he really die or just disappear? What led him to either die or pretend to die? Was he a good man, a bad man or, like many of us, just something in between? It is an excellent story, with Scott having consulted diaries (presumably those of Aimée, de Potter’s wife) and even including photos, so we might call it a novelised biography but, clearly, with a novelist’s viewpoint and a novelist’s creative filling in of the gaps. Yes, do read some of the other books coming out this autumn but read this one as well, as you will certainly enjoy it and you will find much worthwhile to think about.
The latest addition to my website is Chantal Spitz‘s L’île des rêves écrasés (Island of Shattered Dreams), the first novel written by a native Tahitian. Spitz originally wrote this novel as a testament for her children and it is a highly political novel. Though it tells the story of a Tahitian family (though one with English blood), it is concerned with both the myths and culture of Tahiti (both myths and poetry abound in the novel). More particularly, it is very opposed to the French colonisation of Tahiti and, even more so, the siting of the French nuclear missile system in Tahiti, something which Spitz continues to oppose. We follow the family from the 1930s, when Tematua goes off to France to help the Motherland, of which he knows very little, to fight the German invader, of which he knows even less. The family continue their lives, albeit under French influence. However, when the nuclear missile system arrives and Tematua’s son has an affair with the French woman responsible for the nuclear missile system, everything changes. It is an enjoyable book, which gives us an excellent insight into both Tahitian culture and politics.
The latest addition to my website is Haruki Murakami‘s 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年 (Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage). This book has had mixed reviews but, though it is not your standard Murakami (and shorter than some of his recent ones) I still enjoyed it very much, not least because Murakami writes so well and tells a good story. The eponymous hero, Tsukuru Tazaki, is colourless in two senses. He has a group of four friends at high school, all of whom have the name of a colour in their name, while he does not. However, he feels that, as far as his character goes, he is colourless. When the four friends cut him off, without any apparent reason, he is mystified and, indeed, suicidal. It takes him some time to get over this and it is only, many years later when he has a new girlfriend, that he is determined to find out why they did cut him off. The second half of the book is about this “pilgrimage”. He learns, the hard way, that the route to harmony is through pain and suffering. Though not Murakami’s best novel by any means, it is still a highly enjoyable and readable one. It is quite apposite that it comes out now in English as we are once again in Nobel Prize speculation time. The people at the World Literature Forum are not enthusiastic about Murakami as a Nobel Prize winner. While he is perhaps not the best unNobeled writer around, I certainly would not be disappointed if he won. The last Japanese winner was Kenzaburo Oe twenty years ago so it may be time for another Japanese laureate.
The latest addition to my website is Richard Flanagan‘s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2014. The book concerns the construction of the Burma Railway by the Japanese, using forced labour, during World War II and tells the story of a contingent of Australian soldiers, who are made to suffer considerable brutality at the hands of the Japanese and their Korean guards. Flanagan spares us few details of the horrors. He focuses on the commanding officer of the contingent, a surgeon called Dorrigo Evans. We follow Dorrigo’s affair, while in training, with the wife of his uncle, even though he has a girlfriend, Ella. We also see Dorrigo’s life after the war. Indeed, in the present, he is seventy-seven years old and still cheating on the same woman, Ella, who is now his long-suffering wife. However, the book only really becomes interesting, in my view, when the war ends and we follow the lives of the survivors – Japanese, Australian and Korean – and how they struggle, all too often unsuccessfully, to adapt to normal life. The book receive considerable praise in Australia and while it certainly is not a bad book and the final part is excellent, I am not sure that it would make a worthy Man Booker Prize winner, though having read only one other on the longlist, I am probably not competent to judge.
The latest addition to my website is Wilson Harris‘ The Guyana Quartet. This consists of four relatively short novels, all set in the Guyana jungle, and it is generally considered Harris’ masterpiece. The first novel, Palace of the Peacock, is, in my view the best and tells of the journey of a motley crew of men, working for a hard and cruel man called Donne. Donne’s native workforce has run away because of his cruelty and Donne and his men set off to get them, on a journey that it is not too dissimilar to Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God. The story is narrated by Donne’s unnamed brother, who lives in something of a dream world. The further away the crew get from civilisation, the stranger they and the environment becomes
The second book, The Far Journey of Oudin, starts with the dead Oudin wondering why he is dead and then tells us of events up to his death. He had worked for the devious Ram, who had hired him out to Mohammed, a man who, with his brothers, had conspired against his father and his half-brother, to gain their father’s inheritance but had to pay a bitter price for it. In the second half of the book, Oudin will meet Beti and will half-abduct her. The pair will set out on a mythical journey through the wilderness.
The third book, The Whole Armour, is a simpler novel. Magda, the best whore in the area, asks one of her clients Abram, to shelter her son Cristo, who has killed a man and is wanted by the police. When Abram disappear, Magda fears the worst, but it seems he has been killed by a tiger. When Magda and Cristo find the body, Magda persuades Cristo to take Abram’s clothes and then reports Criato as dead. In the second half of the book, Sharon, the woman whom Cristo and his victim had fought, is now with Mattias but he is killed by Peet, her father, and Sharon, on learning that Cristo is alive, gets back with him. However, the police are onto him.
The final book, The Secret Ladder, is the most straightforward, but only in comparison to the other three. Russell Fenwick is a surveyor and is surveying the area by the Canje region, with a view to improving the water flow in the area, as the water is becoming brackish. However, what he and his crew are doing, is likely to flood the land, to the detriment of the locals, most of whom are descendants of escaped slaves, who look to Old Poseidon as a leader. Fenwick has to deal with a crew who do not always behave and who argue with one another, as well as Poseidon and his farmers, who start sabotaging the surveying activities.
While the earlier books are clearly superior, though perhaps less straightforward, relying extensively on metaphor and poetic image, the whole quartet is a fine work and deserves to be better known. Harris gives us a wonderful picture of the Guyana jungle and the often strange people who live in and around it and the account of their lives and struggles is a superb piece of writing. It is in print in the UK and US.