The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Maps. This novel is somewhat different from many of his others, as it focuses on an earlier part of Somali history, the war between Ethiopia and Somalia over Ogaden. The focus is very nationalistic, in that the Somalis feel that, unlike the Ethiopians, they are a unified race and that a Greater Somaliland, incorporating all the areas where Somalis live, should be created. We see this through the eyes of Askar, a boy who, like Farah, lives in Kelafo (this book calls it Kallafo), in Ogaden. Askar’s mother died giving birth to him, on her own, and the pair was found by a servant, Misra, who rescued Askar. He is brought up by Askar, who is of Ethiopian origin and, while this is not an issue for him, it does become an issue for Misra and others. Askar and Misra are very close indeed and she brings him up like her own child and he clings to her. This close relationship is key to the first part of the book. However, when a bit older, Askar goes off to Mogadishu to live with his uncle and his uncle’s wife and he becomes more obsessed with the war. However, Misra turns up in Mogadishu, having been driven out of Ogaden, while Askar is wondering whether to go to university or join the liberation fighters. Identity, both national and personal, are the key themes of this book, as Askar tries to find who he is.
The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ Kassel no invita a la lógica (The Illogic of Kassel). This is the most recent to date of his novels published both in English and Spanish. It involves the participation of the narrator (i.e.Vila-Matas) in Documenta-13, an event held every five years in Kassel, Germany, devoted to avant-garde art. We follow his examination of the various works, some of which he is fascinated by, some of which he is bemused by and some of which both bemused and fascinated by. His role is to sit in a Chinese restaurant, well away from the centre of Kassel and simply do what he normally does when writing a novel, i.e. write, though people can come up to him and talk. In addition, he volunteers to give a Lecture to Nobody, in a remote part of the forest bordering Kassel.
The Chinese restaurant session is something of a farce, as he effectively only has one visitor, a fellow Catalan, though we get considerable description about the event, including his nervousness and his inability to communicate with the people in the restaurant, who either speak German or Chinese but nothing else. Indeed, communication or lack of it is one of the themes of the novel. The other main theme, that comes up frequently, is the nature of art in the modern period and the role of art and the artist. Various people, including, of course, the narrator, give their opinions on it, though perhaps the most interesting might be that given to the narrator by Salvador Dalí, namely that there is no avant-garde but there is always Giorgione’s The Tempest, which revolutionised everything.
The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ Aire de Dylan [Looks Like Dylan]. This book is somewhat different from many of his previous ones. Though it does start with the normal approach – our narrator invited to a conference on a specific theme – it then takes a completely different tack. The conference is in St Gallen, Switzerland, and is on the theme of failure. However, the only part of the conference we see is a talk by Vilnius Lancastre, which consists entirely of a story he has recently written, following the death of his father, Juan Lancastre, a semi-famous (but fictitious) writer. Vilnius hated his father with a passion, matched only by his hatred for his mother. Vilnius is a failure, as both of his parents never tired of telling him. Even this talk is a failure, as the interpretation facilities are not working properly so people drift away and the story is so rambling and discursive that even those who understand Spanish also drift away. However, though we start with the idea of a failure – and Vilnius clearly is one – we then move onto other themes. Vilnius is determined to track down the real author of a quote which appears at the beginning of a short film he has made but which was lifted from Three Comrades, a 1938 US film. We also deal with the issue of fiction vs reality, authenticity vs disguise and artifice and father/son relationships, particularly the problem of sons of famous fathers.
And Bob Dylan? Well, Vilnius looks like the young Bob Dylan and makes no attempt to hide the fact, even though he hates the nickname people sometimes give him of Little Dylan. Clearly, he is not Dylan but, as we know, it is often the mask that counts. However, his father looked like Dylan in the film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (see photo to the right). I did not enjoy this as much as some of his earlier books but it is still a worthwhile read. Sadly, though it has been translated into several languages, it has yet to appear in English or German.
The latest addition to my website is Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz‘s Derborence (When the Mountain Fell). This novel is based on an actual historical event. In 1714 a large part of the Diabelerets mountain in Switzerland sheered off and fell on the village of Derborence. Twenty people and numerous animals were killed. There was a further fall thirty years later. This fictitious story is about Antoine Point. With his colleague Séraphin, he had gone up the mountain to the fine pasture lands to look after their animals. They stayed in a chalet built for that purpose. One night, there was an almighty crash. The villagers thought it was just a storm. However, the next morning a dust cloud covered the area. Eventually they realised what has happened and the dead, including Séraphin and Antoine were mourned. Ramuz gives an excellent description of both the landscape and the reaction of the local villagers. Two months later a man crawls out of a hole and descends to the village. It is, by all appearances, Antoine but he is pale and seems smaller. Many of the villagers think he is a ghost, particularly when he is eager to return to the mountain. Even his wife has her doubts. This is another excellent story by Ramuz, about the power of the mountains and the fear they inspire in those who live on or near them.
The latest addition to my website is Sergio Galindo‘s Otilia Rauda (Otilia’s Body). Despite the somewhat sensationalist (though not inaccurate) title, there is more to his book than sex, though sex does play a key part. Otilia Rauda is born in a small Mexican town. By the time she has reached puberty, it is clear that she is going to be full-figured, which attracts the lust of the local men and the contempt of the local women. Her parents – she is an only child – do not find any suitable suitor or, when they do, his parents do not approve, so Otilia is still single by the age of twenty-seven. She is then married off to an unsuitable man, Isidro Peña, who is weak, a drunk and who gives his wife a venereal disease, leaving her sterile. However, Otilia is a fiercely independent and passionate woman. After her parents die, she keeps their house and frequently goes to stay there. Isidro is not allowed to set foot in it. One day, she finds a wounded man on the floor of one of the rooms. It is Rúben Lazcano, a local bandit. Instead of turning him in, she cares for him, with the help of her good friends and neighbours, Genoveva, a local herbalist, and her son, the simple-minded Melquiades, who is in love with Otilia. She cures him but, instead of being grateful, he leaves, abandoning Otilia who has, by now, fallen in love with him. When, eight years later, she sees a man lying wounded on her floor once again, she hopes it is Rúben but is a much younger man, Tomás. She cures him but he is more than willing to show her his gratitude, both sexually and also in helping her get her revenge on Rúben. We learn a lot about the background to both the story of Rúben and the town, during the Mexican Revolution but, above all, this is a wonderful story of love, passion, sex, jealousy and revenge. Surprisingly, it is available in English.
The latest addition to my website is Sergio Galindo‘s Nudo [Knot]. This tells the story of a ménage à quatre (which later evolves into a ménage à cinq), though, despite this name (given by one of the characters), there is little bed-hopping. The main couple are Allan and Nan Brown. She is Canadian and had moved to Mexico, to live with her father’s best friend, after she was left an orphan aged fifteen. She had met, fallen in love with and married Allan, an artist six years her senior, when she was serving as a nurse in London during the war. They moved to Mexico for his health, following a wartime injury. The third member of the group is Daniel, six years younger than Nan, the son of the family with whom she had lived in Mexico. The remaining two are Daniel’s first and second wives. Ivonne, the first wife, remains with the group, after she and Daniel divorce and he marries Laura. Much of the novel is about the underlying tension within the group, culminating in Nan’s (very) brief fling with Daniel. Well before that, the group drink and talk and argue but, all the while, there is a simmering tension which Galindo superbly portrays. Ultimately, the message is the refrain used by Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano: no se puede vivir sin amar [You can’t live without loving].
The latest addition to my website is Gerald Murnane‘s The Plains. This a superb novel from Murnane, best described as a fable, about the huge central area of Australia called The Plains, which seems to be run by some very rich and powerful barons who seem to be combination of Texan cattle barons and European feudal lords. What distinguishes them from the cattle barons is that their main interests seem to be intellectual pursuits. The story is narrated by a filmmaker who wants to do what no-one else seems to have done – make a film which is set in the Plains. To do so, he has to wait in the bar where there are other supplicants, waiting to sell their products – mainly coats of arms and religion – to the barons, who are on one of their regular visits to town, where they drink and eat and talk and listen to people like our narrator. We learn something of the history of this group and their intellectual pursuits. Our narrator does manage to persuade one of the barons to take him on (as Director of Film Projects) and spends the next ten years in this remote palace with a sumptuous library, struggling with the issue that Murnane seems to have struggled with, namely, how can you capture a point of view of someone else on film or elsewhere, as we all look at things differently. What makes this book is the often almost otherworldly view of these strange barons and their arcane intellectual pursuits and how they are seen by an outsider. The book has been hailed as an Australian classic and it is easy to see why, as it is a thoroughly original work.
The latest addition to my website is Gerald Murnane‘s A Million Windows. This novel(?) follows on from Barley Patch, in that it is as much about writing a novel as a novel. We are presented with a narrator who, he tells us, is not the author, though the distinction seems to me, at least, to be somewhat fine, though Murnane insists that the the discerning reader, a concept he uses frequently, will be well aware of the distinction. We get more excerpts from his life, some of which we have already seen in his previous books, as well as his comments on how and why he (and others) write. He is quite dogmatic in his views on literature, damning Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller) and, with it, all what he calls self-referential literature, i.e what we now call metafiction, as well as criticising writers such as García Márquez, Grass, Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy though he does like Henry James. He also condemns cinema – he rarely goes anymore – for having had a negative effect on prose fiction, writers’ guides, the unreliable narrator and, indeed, any literary approach which is not his. He does raise some interesting points about character, point of view and author-reader trust which, while I may not always agree with him, are certainly worthwhile starting points for a discussion about what prose fiction is, shoud be, can be and should not be. Overall, however, I got the impression that there is only one way to write a novel – his way – and no other way can be tolerated. Maybe, this is an old man’s novel – he was seventy-five when this book was published – and he is now too stuck in his ways. And, maybe, for a writer to be truly great, he has to plough his own furrow, ignoring and even despising other approaches but I think, for the ordinary reader, which I certainly consider myself to be, a more open mind to prose fiction is called for.