The latest addition to my website is Javier Cercas‘ El Impostor [The Impostor]. This is what Cercas describes as a novel without fiction, i.e a novel based on a real life person and/or events. In this case, it is about the very real Enric Marco, a man who had been the charismatic and hard-working head of Amical de Matthausen, an organisation concerned with the rights and issues of Spaniards who had been inmates of German concentration camps during World War II. Just prior to the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied relief of the camp, at which Marco was to be a keynote speaker, a relatively obscure Spanish historian found that Marco had not been an inmate of Flossenbürg, the German concentration camp where he had claimed to be a prisoner, or, indeed, any other German concentration camp. Contrary to his story about being sent to Germany by the Gestapo, when he had fled to France from Spain after the Spanish Civil War, he had gone as a voluntary worker and had been imprisoned in an ordinary German prison for unspecified misbehaviour. He eventually admitted the lie but justified it by saying he had done a lot of good work for the organisation and he had been in a German prison.
The novel is about Javier Cercas’ investigation of the Marco story, with the (not always accurate) assistance of Marco himself, now in his nineties. However, it is about a lot more. Though Cercas struggles to find accurate data about Marco’s life, and not just his life in the camp but his alleged Civil War heroics and his alleged post-Civil War anti-Franco activities, he does manage to find a certain amount and puts together various pieces of research done by him and others to get a more or less rough idea of what really happened and where Marco was telling the truth and where he was lying. More interestingly, we learn about his own struggles with the novel – the moral implications, the truth/untruth border, how much the novel is about Marco and how much about him and his (im)partiality. We also learn, in considerable detail, about the various questions the novel and the writing of the novel raise. Was Marco justified in telling a lie, when he did a lot of good? Was Javier justified in revealing negative information he finds about Marco, which may cause distress to Marco’s wife and children? Was Marco a Don Quixote or, perhaps, a novelist but one using real life as his canvas instead of a book? These and many, many other questions are raised by Cercas during the book. It is a first-class book. Indeed, it is the last book that I shall read or, at least, complete, this year and may well be the best. It has only come out recently in Spain so is not yet available in translation but I am sure that it will be translated and, I would hope, translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is V. Y. Mudimbe‘s Entre les eaux (Between Tides), a fairly rare occurrence of a novel from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has been translated into English. This one is about Pierre Landu, a black African Catholic priest who is struggling with his faith. He is serving in an African country that is not named but is clearly Zaïre (the previous name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo). While his white colleagues are secure in their faith, he has doubts. In particular, he finds it hard to accept that his religion, as it stands, is properly serving his fellow countrymen during a time of crisis in the country. His mother and others tell him that Catholicism is a white man’s religion and he fears that God is a colonialist and oppressor, rather than a liberator.
Eventually, after much internal struggle, he runs off to join a guerrilla group fighting the government forces. Here, he meets the commander, a man of learning, who knows the scriptures but whose religion is Marxism. The commander is able to argue with Pierre and point out to him the failure of Catholicism. However, despite the fact he becomes very much involved with the group, including killing, Pierre still feels that he is, above all, a priest. When the commander disappears and his number two takes over, things get more difficult for Pierre. However, he never resolves his crisis of faith but struggles to live with it. This is a very fine book on faith and its conflicts and we should be grateful that though out of print, it is fairly easy to find in English.
The latest addition to my website is Tryno Maldonado‘s Teoría de las catástrofes [Catastrophe Theory. This novel is set in Oaxaca, Mexico, during the 2006 protests, arising from a teacher’s strike. Anselmo is a teacher of maths, who has come to Oaxaca and managed to find a few occasional and usually badly paid jobs teaching maths. One day, he meets Mariana at a party. They soon fall for one another and move in together after three weeks. Mariana has Type I diabetes and this has hindered her career. She is a specialist in children’s learning disorders and managed to study and then work in the USA but was unable to stay, as no-one would give her a permanent job, because of her health, so she had to return to Mexico. It is her ambition to travel abroad again and she and Anselmo have been saving for this purpose. The novel opens when they have been together three years. Things are not going well. Anselmo has not been able to find a job for a year and is becoming very depressed. After another less than successful interview, me meets Roberto, an Italian immigrant, who runs a successful restaurant. Roberto persuades Anselmo to come to his house, with Mariana, to help his son, Devendra, who has learning difficulties. Mariana (in particular) and Anselmo will eventually do so.
As Anselmo returns home, after speaking to Roberto, he is surprised to find the main square packed with people. It is the start of the teachers’ strike. Some teachers are playing football with a group of young people in black shirts. Anselmo asks to join in. At first he is refused but then joins in. The star player of the black shirts is, in fact, a young woman, Julia, and her team of black shirts are anarchists. Anselmo gets to know Julia and the other members of the group and becomes involved with their activities, which start with graffiti and move on to home-made Molotov cocktails. The rest of the novel is a detailed description of the very contentious and very violent teachers’ strike and associated protests, as well as how Mariana helps Devendra, and the deteriorating relationship of Anselmo and Mariana. Things get decidedly nasty towards the end of November 2006, as Anselmo and Mariana are caught in a police ring in the centre of Oaxaca and have a nightmare journey trying to get back to their flat. Maldonado spares us no details of the horrors they witness and endure and, by the end of the novel, all the main characters are either dead or badly scarred, physically and psychologically. It is a very intense novel and Maldonado clearly wants us to show the vicious repression of the Oaxacan authorities towards the strike, which he does very effectively. If you want to see what Mexico is becoming and, clearly, it is not improving, this novel is a good starting point. Sadly, it has not, as yet, been translated into any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Oskar Maria Graf‘s Das Leben meiner Mutter (The Life of My Mother). This is an excellent autobiographical novel, about, of course, Oskar Maria Graf’s mother, Theres (but always known as Resl) née Heimrath, but it is also about the politics and history of the region (Lake Starnberg, in Upper Bavaria, about fifteen miles south-west of Munich), about life in a small Bavarian village with large families (Resl was one of ten and she mothered eleven children) and, of course, about Graf himself, up to the time of his exile from Nazi Germany. The first part of the book is about the life and times of the Heimrath and Graf families prior to Resl’s birth and the period afterwards, till she marries Maxl Graf and produces her eleven children, including Oskar.
The second part is about young Oskar’s growing up, his disputes with his father and the rise of the Nazis. I found the history of the first part much more interesting. Berg, where the two families lived, was the site of Berg Castle, summer residence of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and we follow the story of King Ludwig II, becoming king at aged eighteen, when he clearly is not prepared to be king, not least because he preferred the arts to politics (he was a big sponsor of Wagner). We follow the Austrian-Prussian War of 1866, when Bavaria took the losing Austrian side, the unification of Germany under Prussian domination and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, in which many of the men of Berg fight. Maxl Graf, Oskar Maria’s father, was shot in the hand during this war. All of these historical events have an effect on the people of Berg and they hate the Prussians and Bismarck. It is a very well told story of a woman who worked hard all her life but also a very well told tale of life in a small Bavarian village from the middle of the nineteenth century to the beginning of World War II.
The latest addition to my website is Esmail Fassih‘s ثريا در اغما (Sorraya in a Coma). The eponymous heroine of this noel, Sorraya, spends the whole of the book in a coma. It is narrated by her uncle, Jalal Aryan. He is an employee of the Iranian National Oil Company. He had been based in Abadan and was in hospital, recovering from a stroke, when Iraqi forces invade in 1980. When he hears of his niece’s accident, he manages to get out of Abadan and, after a difficult journey, gets to Paris. There he finds Sorraya in a coma and will visit her throughout the novel, talking to the nurses and doctors in his bad French, reporting back to his sister, Farangi, Sorraya’s mother, and wondering how he is going to pay the hospital bill, as Sorraya is no longer covered by medical insurance. He will also go to the Café de la Sanction, where he meets a group of Iranian exiles who are struggling both with financial issues but also with their increasing irrelevance in the world. He tries to keep some distance from them but does not always succeed, particularly not with Leila Azadeh, his former lover who, after several husbands, is again single. Leila and Jalal comfort one another, without getting too close. Sorraya will end up as a symbol of Iran – dissociated from the world, unresponsive to outside stimuli, with many concerned for her but none having any influence on her. It is an excellent novel about exile, death and struggling with one’s own relevance.
The latest addition to my website is Augusto Higa Oshiro‘s La iluminación de Katzuo Nakamatsu [The Illumination of Katzuo Nakamatsu]. The hero of the novel, Katzuo Nakamatsu, is a fifty-eight year old Peruvian widower, of Japanese origin. He has feelings of imminent death and a terrible feeling of not belonging. He has always felt different, because of his Japanese origins. However, since his wife died, twenty five years previously, he has had little contact with people in the Peruvian-Japanese community. During the course of this book, he is told that he has to retire from his post as a university lecturer and he is devastated. His tenuous hold on reality slips even further as he looks to two models – his father’s old friend, Etsuko Unten, a fierce Japanese nationalist who also immigrated into Peru but who very much retained his Japanese ways and even committed suicide, Japanese style, and the Peruvian poet, Martín Adán, who was an alcoholic and ended up in an asylum. Gradually, he slips into a state of illumination, Kenshō, as Higa describes it, before being admitted to an asylum. Higa tells his story very well, as we follow Katzuo’s gradual descent into insanity/illumination. Sadly, neither this nor any of his others books have been translated into English and this book is quite hard to find in Spanish.
The latest addition to my website is Habib Selmi‘s نساء البساتين (Souriez, vous êtes en Tunisie !) [Smile, You Are In Tunisia]. The novel is narrated by Taoufik, a Tunisian who has married a French woman and now lives in France. He has come back to visit Tunisia, which he has not visited for five years. He is surprised by how much has changed. He is staying with his brother, Ibrahim. His first surprise is that Ibrahim’s wife, Yousra, is wearing a veil and will not kiss him but only shake hands. He finds that a religious fervour has swept through the country, with virtually all men going to the mosque for Friday prayers – his young nephew, Wael is particularly enthusiastic. However, he also finds a strong element of hypocrisy. Yousra is happy to wear sexy clothing and make-up. Some of them preaching sanctity are also having extramarital relationships. Taoufik’s older brother, Bashir, who is planning on doing the hajj to Mecca the following year, is cheating on his taxes. However, Taoufik clearly no longer fits in. Several characters ask him what nationality he is and are surprised to find that he is Tunisian. Several people also ask him to help them get to France. This is not a great book but it is interesting to read about Tunisia, the changes it has undergone and how it is just before the Arab Spring.
The latest addition to my website is Gonçalo M. Tavares‘ Um Homem: Klaus Klump (O Reino (The Kingdom) series) (A Man: Klaus Klump). This is the first in the Kingdom series, though the last to be made available in English. I found it quite disappointing. It is short, written in staccato sentences and often pithy descriptions. The subject is clear. There is a war and war is very unpleasant, very unpleasant indeed. Virtually all the women in the city seem to get raped and there are many very gruesome incidents. Klump comes from a rich family but joins the resistance but is betrayed by Herthe, who makes her living betraying those in the resistance. He spends seven years in prison, stabs his father in the eye and escape and rejoins the resistance. Herthe marries a commander of the occupying army who is murdered by her brother (with her help) on her wedding day and later marries a very rich man. The war ends and everyone goes back to their normal routines. it is short, sharp and decidedly unpleasant. Yes, the point is made but it is not an enjoyable read.
The latest addition to my website is Wilson Harris‘ Resurrection at Sorrow Hill. This is another hard slog, though Harris takes up many of the both the themes and locations he has taken up in his earlier work. We are in the Guyanese jungle, at the confluence of three rivers, above which sits Sorrow Hill, which we have already seen in The Palace of the Peacock. We start with a group of imaginatively named characters – Tiresias, who is the narrator at this point, her grandson, Dr Daemon, whose pregnant wife, Ruth has recently drowned when a riverboat capsized, Hope, who will narrate much of the rest of the book, who is eighty-seven and having an affair with Butterfly, and Christopher De’Ath, clock repairer and husband of Butterfly. De’Ath, of course, kills both Hope and Butterfly but either they are both dead and alive, as we see, but also they do die and resurrect seven years later, after De’Ath has served his prison sentence. (This is the second book this week I have read this week, where a character is shot dead and comes back to life. My random reading often throws up odd coincidences like this.) After resurrecting, Hope is admitted to Dr. Daemon’s Asylum for the Greats, a former prison where De’Ath served his prison sentence, where various inmates channel famous people from the past – Monty channels Montezuma, Len Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Karl Marx and Archie an archangel. The role of myth and history, and the Guyanese jungle as a metaphor for a journey to hell, as well as the borderline between sanity and insanity all play a role in this book but, as always, with Harris, it is hard work.
The latest addition to my website is Gonçalo M. Tavares‘ A Máquina de Joseph Walser (O Reino (The Kingdom) series) (Joseph Walser’s Machine). As the title implies, Joseph Walser has a relationship with machines. He works in a factory, operating one (we do not know what it/he does). His boss, Klober Muller, tells him how dependent humans are on machines. And he himself considers that humans are not much more than sophisticated machines. His relationship changes when he is injured by the machine and has to have a finger amputated, so that he can no longer operate the machine. He becomes a clerk. Walser lives in an unnamed European city, probably, judging by the names, somewhere in Central Europe. He is married to Margha, though he later learns she is having an affair with Klober Muller. He collects small bits of metal. He is conventional, a daydreamer and a sloppy dresser. His only real excitement, apart from his job and metal collection, is his Saturday night with a few workmates, playing dice.
There is a war on, as the city is being invaded but neither he nor most of the inhabitants of the city seem too bothered by this. However, once the invading army takes over, one of of Walser’s dice-playing friends proposes resistance. Walser is not interested. However, the resistance does take place, with bomb attacks on the occupying forces. Walser keeps away from the dice game. While the human-machine relationship is key, Tavares puts up Joseph as something of the ordinary man – generally solitary, a good citizen, indifferent and unwilling to raise his head above the parapet, though, as we learn later in the book, when he can get away with it, he will. Are we Joseph or do we judge him for his weaknesses? The book has a hint – though only a hint – of Kafka in it and is an interesting and thought-provoking work.