Sebastiano Vassalli: Marco e Mattio [Marco and Mattio]

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The latest addition to my website is Sebastiano Vassalli‘s Marco e Mattio [Marco and Mattio]. Like other Vassalli novels this one is based on a real story, in this case a nineteenth century Italian shoe mender and charcoal burner called Mattio Lovat. Most of the action takes place at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century in and near Pieve, in the Zoldo valley, then a fairly remote area, with Belluno as the nearest town, but now a ski area. We first meet the Marco of the title, a smooth-talking German, who turns out to be the devil (or something akin to the devil). He will pop in and out of Mattio’s life. We meet Mattio as a twelve year old, when he shows Marco around the area for his nature studies. However, Marco leaves the area as winter comes, though Mattio is sure that he saw him and two others fleeing from the town, after a vicious assault on the local archpriest, his niece and his house. The key issue in this novel is pellagra, a disease caused usually by niacin deficiency. It is a disease that affects many of the people in the area who have a poor diet. They are aware of the disease but not that it is diet-related. One of the effects of the disease is for the victim to show symptoms of insanity. Mattio’s father, also called Marco, is the first to be affected in the family but then Mattio’s younger brother shows signs of being possessed by the devil and he is exorcised. We follow Mattio’s career as he follows in his father’s footsteps as a shoe mender and charcoal burner. However, it is a time of great political upheaval with the Napoleonic Wars and then the Austrian occupation of Northern Italy and Mattio gets involved in politics. But he, too, suffers from pellagra and it affects him profoundly, as he believes he is the Christ born to suffer and he does in a cruel way. Vassalli tells a superb story of a period of political upheaval, of the effects of pellagra and how it famously affected one man, Mattio Lovat, and of how the devil plays his part. It made the list of the 100 Best Italian novels but has only been translated into German, not English.

Petre M. Andreevski: Пиреј (Pirey)

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The latest addition to my website is Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey), a novel about the brutalities of World War 1 in Macedonia. The novel tells the story of Ion and Velika, a Macedonian couple who get married and have five children. Life has not been easy for them but, when World War 1 comes, Ion is press-ganged into the Serbian army and has to go off and fight, leaving Velika to fend for herself and their children. Ion sees many brutalities, sees many of his fellow Macedonians killed and ends up wounded himself. He even captures a Bulgarian prisoner and finds out that it is his brother. Meanwhile, things are worse for Velika. She struggles to feed her children, not helped by the continual arrival of various armies, who loot the village. Her five children gradually die, mainly because of cholera. She is forced to work on building a road for the Bulgarians. The Komitadjis, the Bulgarian nationalists, threaten to kill her because her husband is in the Serbian army. The war finally ends but the village is now occupied by the hated Serbs, instead of the hated Bulgarians, so they are no better off. Ion comes home devastated by the deaths of all of his children and takes to drink, which ends up killing him. This novel is hailed as one of the classics of Macedonian literature and is still very much read in Macedonia. As a story of the brutalities and futility of war, it is very powerful.

Marilynne Robinson: Lila

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The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Lila, the third book in Robinson’s Gilead trilogy. This one, of course, tells the story of Lila, whom we have met in the previous two novels as the (much younger) wife of the seventy-seven year old Reverend Ames and mother of his seven-year old son, Robby. In the previous books, she came across as a quiet, unassuming woman, whose origins are something of a mystery. We now learn of her antecedents. She was living with a family, when very young, and, because she cried, she was put outside and left there, even after dark. She was rescued by Doll, a woman who, for some reason, sometimes slept at that house. Doll took her under her wing and they spend the next several years travelling around the country with a group led by a man called Doane, doing odd jobs and just about managing to survive. One year, Doll stopped travelling to allow time for Lila to go to school and learn to read and write. Life was not always easy and most of the time they slept out of doors but they just about managed to survive, till the Depression came and then work and food became harder to find. The group split up and Doll and Lila went off together, till Doll was arrested for knifing a man and Lila, by now an adult, became a prostitute. Eventually, she walked away from that and landed up in Gilead, Iowa, where she met and eventually married the Reverend Ames. While we have been following her early life, we have also learned about her time in Gilead, living in a shack and doing odd jobs. We have also learned of her life with the Reverend Ames, about which she has doubts, even after she becomes pregnant and wonders whether she should leave and set back out on the road, perhaps to look for Doll. It is a very fine book about a woman trying to find her place in the world, whether belonging to a community, being a wife and mother and embracing religion is what she wants or what she needs and her internal struggle to find the solution is not easy.

Marilynne Robinson: Home

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The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Home, the second book in her Gilead trilogy. In the first book – Gilead – the Reverend John Ames told his tale and mentioned the son of his very good friend the Reverend Robert Boughton, Jack. Unlike his seven siblings, Jack had been a wilful, badly behaved child and had continued in this way. As a child, he had stolen, refused to go to church and, sometimes, school and generally been a trial for his parents. As a young man, he had got a girl from a poor family pregnant and then refused to have anything to with mother or child. He had subsequently left the family home and had not been seen for twenty years. He returned, somewhat chastened and, as we had learned (though his family did not learn till later in the book) had left behind a woman (to whom he was not married) and child. Ames had been quite critical of him.

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This book tells the story of his return but from the perspective of the Boughton family – Jack himself, his sister, Glory, for whom a long relationship has recently ended unsatisfactorily and is now looking after her aged father, and their father, Robert Boughton. The story is essentially about how the three adapt to the situation, with the father-son and brother-sister relationship gradually being improved, if not fully repaired, over the course of the book. Jack still has his problems, not least because he is missing Della, his partner, and their son, because he still drinks, though not nearly as much, because he still feels somewhat uncomfortable with both his father and sister (as well as with the Reverend Ames) and because he recognises that his life has not gone well and the future does not bode well. Most of the book is the struggle of the three to establish a modus vivendi which, gradually, they more or less do but with the inevitable ups and downs. While it is certainly a fine book, I consider this to be the least satisfactory of Robinson’s four novels but still very much worth reading.

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead

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The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Gilead. This is another first-class novel from Marilynne Robinson and, in fact, the first of a trilogy of novels, set in Gilead, Iowa, about the Ames and Boughton families, where the paterfamilias, in each case, is a professional religious minister. This book is narrated by John Ames, seventy-seven at the time of writing and with a heart condition, so worrying somewhat (but not too much) about what he sees as his imminent death. Ames had married young but his wife, Louisa, had died in childbirth with their first child, and the baby had died too. He had remained a somewhat lonely widower till he met a much younger woman, Lila, and had married her (at her suggestion). They have a son, who is almost seven, and Ames’ narration is a long letter to his son. Ames recounts the story of his father and grandfather. His grandfather had moved to Kansas from Maine to help John Brown and the Free-Soilers, those seeking to make Kansas a free rather than a slave state. John Ames’ father is aware that his father had been involved in some violence at that time but no details are given. When he was older, the grandfather had come to live with his son, John Ames’ father, but had then wandered off to become an itinerant preacher. After they find out where he is, the father plans to set off and find him and the twelve-year old John asks to accompany him. The journey will have a profound effect on both father and son.

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John has followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and become a minister. Much of this book is about his life as a minister and what his faith means to him. He is a pragmatic minister, always willing to help his parishioners, not only in matters of faith but in more practical areas. His parishioners are often poor and that poses its own set of problems. Above all, though he has a joy of life, a joy in his faith and a love of people. But he is no saint and has his own set of problems, not least with Jack, the wayward son of his best friend, Robert Boughton. Jack is wilful. As a child he committed various petty crimes. as a young adult, he got a young local woman from a poor family pregnant and refused to marry her or even look after her. Try as he might John Ames cannot accept Jack. Overall, this is a first-class book about faith, about the complexity of relationships and, above all, about what it means to be a good and decent man, struggling with life’s problems.

Zaza Burchuladze: რომანი (Adibas)

adibas

The latest addition to my website is Zaza Burchuladze‘s რომანი (Adibas), another fine novel from Dalkey Archive Press’s wonderful Georgian Literature Series. This one is a supremely cynical novel by a writer known as the bad boy of Georgian literature. In this novel, Shako (aka Gio) is an actor, in between assignments, who spends most of his time hanging out with friends, engaging in sex with a series of girlfriends and doing drugs. He and his friends seem to have few interests beyond these activities, with scoring the latest drug their main concern. However, as they go on with their lives and gratifications, Georgia is under invasion by Russia. Though Tbilisi may be bombed or even be under chemical attack, they really do not care all that much. It may be now and then a minor inconvenience. A Russian drone approaches Shako in the street but he finds it rather amusing, though the street cleaner nearby does not. A road is closed but that merely means rescheduling his meeting. As long as he can get his oral sex and his drugs and some occasional acting work, everything is fine and who cares about Abkhazia? This is a very amusing and very cynical novel and we should be grateful to Dalkey Archive press for making it available to us in English.

Aleksander Majkowski: Żëcé i przigodë Remusa. Zvjercadło kaszubskji (Life and Adventures of Remus)

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The latest addition to my website is Aleksander Majkowski‘s Żëcé i przigodë Remusa. Zvjercadło kaszubskji (Life and Adventures of Remus), the first and almost certainly the last Kashubian novel on my website. Kashubia is in the North-Western part of what is now Poland, west of Gdánsk. This novel, first published in 1938 soon after its author’s death, has been called The Great Kashubian Novel. It tells the story of Remus. We first meet him through the eyes of the young narrator. He is an old and very poor man, dressed in rags, who sleeps anywhere and eats anything. He makes his living as a pedlar, selling books. The narrator, while, like other children, somewhat afraid of him, is also interested in him as he talks about a mysterious submerged castle and a princess caught in a spell, who needs rescuing. The narrator goes away to school and, when he returns, he learns that Remus has died. He learns, however, that Remus has left him a manuscript, which tells of his life and which is the rest of the novel.

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Remus grew up as a young farm boy on a rural farm in Kashubia. One day, while out with his flock, he comes across a mysterious castle and hears a cry for help from a princess on the other side of the river from the castle. She asks him to carry her across but, as he is about to do so, three monsters rise up out of the river. Initially, at the princess’s instigation, he is not scared but then loses his courage and lets her down. Castle, monsters and princess disappear. He continues to look for the castle and the princess. He finds a golden sword and a cooking pot containing ashes, which he assumes are hers and which he buries. With the help of one of the young women on the farm, he tracks down domestic ghosts and even fights and almost kills a monster (who turns out not to be a monster). When he again finds the princess and the castle, things become complicated, particularly after meeting a strange wounded man on the farm and learning about the travails of Kashubia. It is an enjoyable novel, with elements of Don Quixote in Remus and certainly the only Kashubian novel any of us are likely to read. While it has been translated into English, the English text is not easy to obtain (see link my website for more details.)

Literary prizes

Winner of the most recent Waverton Good Read Award
Winner of the most recent Waverton Good Read Award

If you have been following this blog recently, you will have noticed I have been reading selections from the shortlists/winners of literary prizes. This was a response to the disappointing (for me) Man Booker Prize shortlist. One thing I did discover is that there are far more literary prizes than I had imagined. Wikipedia has a list, though it is not complete (e.g. the Folio Prize and Dylan Thomas Prize do not seem to be there.) There are far more there you and I could possibly have ever heard of. Quite a few are excluded for the purposes of my current exercise: those only in languages I cannot read; those who give the award to an individual rather than to a specific book (e.g. the Nobel Prize); those who give the award only to genre fiction and those who give the award to a work which is not a novel, either because the rules do not allow novels or because it allows other types of writing and one of these types won it this year.

Winner of the Croatian Ksaver Šandor Gjalski Prize - Juliana Matanović: I na početku i na kraju bijaše kava
Winner of the Croatian Ksaver Šandor Gjalski Prize – Juliana Matanović: I na početku i na kraju bijaše kava

However, even allowing for these exclusions, there are many literary prizes for which I did not read a shortlisted book/winner. Indeed, had I wanted to, I could easily have continued till next year and still not read a book from every literary prize shortlist. And who has heard of all of these, outside the publishing world? Does winning, for example, the Dylan Thomas Prize or the Waverton Good Read Award resonate beyond the author’s immediate family, friends and publisher/agent? Have you heard of either and/or can you name the most recent or any winners? No, nor can I. More publicity for authors and books is certainly to be welcomed and, of course, even the Nobel Prize brings forth cries of Who is this guy?, particularly from the English-speaking world. Nevertheless I wonder, do we need all of these prizes?

2014 Akutagawa Prize winner - Tomoka Shibasaki's 春の庭 [Spring Garden]
2014 Akutagawa Prize winner – Tomoka Shibasaki’s 春の庭 [Spring Garden]

So this year, this is what I read. Some are cheats, in that I had read them before and was not aware that they had made the various shortlists. Some are duplicated in that some books seem to hoover up the prizes or, at least, hoover up the shortlists (congratulations Eleanor Catton and Eimar McBride). The country name indicates the host country of the prize, not necessarily the nationality of the individual shortlisted/winning authors. Note that the links to the prize are either to the official site, where that exists or is kept up to date or, if not, to an announcement, usually in the press. Many of these will be in the original language, rather than English. It is amazing how many of the official sites fail to update their details. To give one example, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction still tells us that the winner will be announced June 4 (they must mean 4 June, the normal English way of writing it).

This year's winner of the Finnish Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize
This year’s winner of the Finnish Helsingin Sanomat Literature Prize

Ignoring those that were actually published in 2013 (Hello again, Eimear McBride and Eleanor Catton), I did read some interesting books that I may not have otherwise read. I particularly enjoyed Meursault, contre-enquête [Meursault, Counter Investigation]; Lutz Seiler: Kruso; Francesco Piccolo: Il desiderio di essere come tutti [The Desire to be Like Everyone]; Jorge Franco: El mundo de afuera [The World Outside]; Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling [Panic Spring] and Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven and was disappointed with Carmen Amoraga: La vida era eso [Such Was Life] and not too impressed with Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North. While I probably will not repeat the exercise next year, it does show me that some interesting books can be found by scouring the literary prize shortlists. I would like to hope that publishers are doing the same and are picking some of these out for translation into English as clearly some are very much deserving. Congratulations to all of these for making the shortlist and, for those who won, for winning, with, again, special congratulations to Eleanor Catton and Eimear McBride.

Australia
Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North; Fiona McFarlane: The Night Guest (both shortlist; winner not yet announced)
Voss Literary Prize: Fiona McFarlane: The Night Guest; Hannah Kent: Burial Rites; Tim Winton: Eyrie (all shortlist; winner to be announced 19 November)

Canada
Scotiabank Giller Prize: Heather O’Neill: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (shortlist) (Sean Michaels: US Conductors won)

France
Prix Goncourt: Clara Dupont Monod: Le roi disait que j’étais diable [The King Said I Was a Devil] (second shortlist); Kamel Daoud: Meursault, contre-enquête [Meursault, Counter Investigation] (final shortlist) (Lydie Salvayre’s Pas Pleurer won)
Prix Renaudot: Clara Dupont Monod: Le roi disait que j’étais diable [The King Said I Was a Devil] (shortlist); Kamel Daoud: Meursault, contre-enquête [Meursault, Counter Investigation] (shortlist) (David Foenkinos’ Charlotte won)
Prix François Mauriac: Kamel Daoud: Meursault, contre-enquête [Meursault, Counter Investigation] (winner)
Prix des 5 continents: Kamel Daoud: Meursault, contre-enquête [Meursault, Counter Investigation] (winner)
Prix Medicis étranger: Vladimir Lorchenkov: Все там будем (The Good Life Elsewhere) (longlist) (Lily Brett: Lola Bensky won)

Germany
Deutscher Buchpreis: Lutz Seiler: Kruso (winner); Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling [Panic Spring] (shortlist)

Ireland
Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award: Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (winner); Colum McCann: Transatlantic (shortlist)
Eason Novel of the Year: David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks (shortlist) (winner to be announced 26 November)

Italy
Strega: Francesco Piccolo: Il desiderio di essere come tutti [The Desire to be Like Everyone] (winner); Francesco Pecoraro: La vita in tempo di pace [Life in Peacetime] (shortlist)
Premio Letterario Viareggio-Rèpaci: Francesco Pecoraro: La vita in tempo di pace [Life in Peacetime] (winner)

Morocco
Moroccan Mamounia Prize: Réda Dalil: Le Job [The Job] (winner)

New Zealand
New Zealand Post Book Awards: Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries (shortlist) (Jill Trevelyan: Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand won)

Spain
Premio Alfaguara de Novela: Jorge Franco: El mundo de afuera [The World Outside] (winner)
Premio Nadal: Carmen Amoraga: La vida era eso [Such Was Life] (winner)

Switzerland
Schweizer Buchpreis: Gertrud Leutenegger: Panischer Frühling [Panic Spring] (shortlist) (Lukas Bärfuss: Koala won)

UK
Bad Sex Prize: Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North; Haruki Murakami: 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) (both shortlist – winner announced 3 December 2014)
Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction: Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (winner)
Desmond Elliott Prize: Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (winner)
Folio Prize: Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (shortlist) (George Saunders: Tenth of December won)
International Dylan Thomas Prize: Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries; Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (both shortlist) (Joshua Ferris: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour won)
Man Booker: Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (winner)
Walter Scott Prize: Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries; Kate Atkinson: Life After Life; Jim Crace: Harvest (all shortlist) (Robert Harris: An Officer and a Spy won)
Waterstones Book of the Year: Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North (shortlist) (winner announced 1 December)

USA
National Book Award for Fiction: Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (shortlist) (winner announced 19 November)
Pulitzer: Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch (winner)

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

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The latest addition to my website is Emily St. John Mandel‘s Station Eleven. This book has been shortlisted for the US National Book Award, with the winner to be announced 19 November. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, but don’t let that put you off. As you will see in my review, there are a already a few post-apocalyptic novels on this site and they are generally very well written and intelligent, as is this one. They do not all have to be pitched battles between good and evil nor Space Westerns consisting of lone cowboys ridding the universe of evil-doers. The apocalypse is caused by an outbreak of a pandemic called Georgia Flu, which kills off around ninety-nine percent of the world’s human population in a very short time. The main survivors in this story all have some connection with Arthur Leander, a successful Canadian film actor who dies of a heart attack on stage, while playing King Lear, just as the pandemic is breaking out. Two of the survivors, Kirsten Raymonde, then eight years old and appearing in King Lear with Leander, and Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo, who had stalked Leander but is now a paramedic and audience member, both witness Leander’s death. After the pandemic, Kirsten joins the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of both musicians and actors, who travel round what was the North-West of the United States, playing and performing in the scattered towns where there are survivors. All had been going well, till, in one town, they found that a man who called himself The Prophet had taken over and was terrorising the area. The Symphony has conflicts with him, causing them all sorts of problems. Meanwhile we follow the life of Arthur Leander, his rise to fame, his three marriage and divorces, and his contacts with the people who will survive. We also learn of a flight rerouted to Severn City Airport, as the pandemic breaks out, which will never leave the airport and how the survivors settle and survive there. Mandel tells an excellent story but also raises issues such as memories, loss of memories and recovery of memories as well as the issue of how music, Shakespeare and the determination that survival is not enough can help put back together a broken world.

Wilson Harris: Heartland

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The latest addition to my website is Wilson HarrisHeartland. This book is a follow-up to the Guyana Quartet, with three of the characters from the Quartet – Da Silva, Kaiser and Mariella – appearing in this book. Zechariah Stevenson Jr’s father, also called Zechariah, had a successful mining company, which went bankrupt when its Brazilian accountant, Camacho, fled with a large sum of money. As Stevenson Jr had been having an affair with Camacho’s wife, who also disappeared, he is somewhat implicated, but avoids any repercussions, when his father’s body is found in the river, an apparent suicide. Stevenson Jr claims that he is innocent as regards the fraud. He is now working as a watchman for a wood grant by the Kamaria Falls. When his boat disappears – accident or stolen? – and the food left by Kaiser (responsible for supplying the men working in the area) for Da Silva disappears, Stevenson sets out to the falls to find Kaiser. However, he doesn’t find Kaiser but he does find Da Silva’s body and a pregnant Amerindian woman, whom he assists while she gives birth (and then disappears). What Harris, is concerned with, as usual, is the power and mystery of the jungle and its inhabitants as well as, in this case, Stevenson’s guilt over his father’s death and the fraud. This is only a short book but Harris carries on successfully where he left off in the Guyana Quartet.