Orhan Pamuk: Kafamda bir tuhaflik (A Strangeness in My Mind)

strangeness

The latest addition to my website is Orhan Pamuk‘s Kafamda bir tuhaflik (A Strangeness in My Mind). This is Pamuk’s labour of love, a hymn to his city (Istanbul), particularly as seen by the ordinary people. The main character is Mevlut Karataş, a yoghurt and boza seller, though he has many other professions – a waiter, an ice-cream seller, selling rice, chicken and chickpeas, a parking lot attendant, a restaurant manager and electricity meter reader. Mevlut comes from an Anatolian village when he is a boy to help his father sell yoghurt and boza, as well as to go to school. He is an honest, decent man, who struggles to make a living at various jobs. He elopes with a woman but, when he finally sees her, realises he has eloped with the wrong woman, the sister of the woman he really loved. He makes no complaint and marries the woman and remains a good husband and good father to their two daughters. But the main theme of this novel is how Istanbul is changing, from mass immigration from Anatolia to the rise of a moneyed middle class, with neighbourhoods rising up and others destroyed by new roads and buildings. Mevlut somehow struggles through all of these changes, barely noticing them till they have an effect on him. This is a beautifully written book and a tribute to his city but it does not have that post-modernist touch that some of his earlier works have so I do not think it will number among his greatest works.

kafamda

I was fortunate enough to go a book signing for this book and so met Pamuk. I took the opportunity of asking him whether his first novel, Cevdet Bey ve Oğullari [Cevdet Bey and His Sons], was going to be published in English. (It has been published in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Bosnian, Chinese, Dutch, Greek, Polish, Russian and Serbian.) I have read it and thought it a fine book. It turns out that it has been translated into English but it has not yet been published in English. The reason for this is that the publishers have recently (2012) published another earlier novel of his, Sessiz ev (Silent House), and did no want another earlier novel published without publishing a recent one. No, I did not really understand this reasoning and nor did he. Anyway, Cevdet Bey ve Oğullari [Cevdet Bey and His Sons] will be published in English but we not know when.

Jorge Eduardo Eielson: El cuerpo de Giulia-no [The Body of Julia-n]

cuerpo

The latest addition to my website is Jorge Eduardo Eielson‘s El cuerpo de Giulia-no [The Body of Julia-n]. Eielson was best known as an artist and poet and this clearly shows in this book. Though there is a sort of a plot – how the narrator grew up on a farm, did not like it, except for the exotic birds, and then turns up in Italy. More particularly, we are concerned with his somewhat ambiguous relationship with the ethereal Giulia, a model (according to the narrator) or a prostitute (according to the Venice police) whose body, at the beginning of the book, has been hauled out of a canal, apparently having committed suicide. We also follow the Giulia/Giuliano dichotomy. Giuliano is a man the narrator knew as a child (and even had a brief homosexual relationship with) but who is now a rich, fat and vulgar playboy. Clearly Giulia is the antithesis of Giuliano. However, as an artist, Eielson is just as much concerned with painting a picture for us – of the seamy side of Lima, of an Irish prostitute, of the exotic birds and of Giulia’s white body on the white slab of marble of the morgue. The book is long since out of print in Spanish and is highly unlikely ever to appear in English but if you can read Spanish and can find it, it is an enjoyable little gem – as long you are not expecting plot and character development.

Paul Atanya: Bloodshed in Mana

mana

The latest addition to my website is Paul Atanya‘s Bloodshed in Mana, the first novel from South Sudan on my website. The novel follows a traditional African theme, that of the coming of the white man to violently replace an idyllic African culture, though with a slight twist. The culture is that of the Mana people who are a warrior people, with wealth measured in number of cows they own. Lojore has recently been born to Namala and is a sort of Christ-like figure, as his father and maternal grandfather are both great warriors and he is seen as the hope of his people. When the neighbouring tribe, whom they have always managed to control without difficulty, get guns from the redmen (i.e. the white men, so called because of their sunburnt faces), the Mana know that they are in trouble and retreat from their traditional land of milk and honey to the hinterland. As Lojore grows, we see that he does not want to become a warrior leader and when one of the tribe is sent into exile for having killed another warrior in a fight, he is disillusioned and goes off with his cousin to study the white man’s ways, realising that they are the way of the future. Naturally, this does not go down well with his father but even the great Lomoi must accept that this change is inevitable. Atanya tells his tale well, even if his style is occasionally a bit stilted and it is nice to see that novels are starting to come out of South Sudan, even if Atanya does live in Canada.

Cyprian Ekwensi: Jagua Nana

Jagua

The latest addition to my website is Cyprian Ekwensi‘s Jagua Nana. This is an early example of the Nigerian urban novel – previous novels had been mainly set in the rural areas – and is set mainly in Lagos, though also, in part in Port Harcourt, Onitsha and Bagana. Jagua Nana – Jagua comes from the Jaguar car, because she is so stylish – is a forty-five year old Igbo woman living in Lagos. Her boyfriend, Freddie, is twenty-five, the same age as her son would have been had he lived. Jagua likes the high life, both the music and the life of the Tropicana night club. She has made her money from selling cloth but is now a high class prostitute. Freddie is infatuated with her but realises that she cannot be considered a long-term partner and he starts a relationship with the much younger Nancy. In order to keep him, Jagua subsidies his studies in England and, with her connections, manages to get the necessary official documentation. However, he goes off to England and, unknown to Jagua, takes Nancy. We follow her varied life afterwards. She goes to visit her parents in a rural area but they are not there, so she goes off to Bagana, Freddie’s home town, where she, single-handedly, resolves a long-standing tribal dispute. She goes back to her parents’ area and works briefly as a merchant princess. That does not work so she is back to Lagos, fencing for a group of thieves, before taking up with a politician and showing herself particularly adept at politics, especially as the opposing candidate is Freddie, now back in Lagos and married to Nancy. Things continue to go wrong but, somehow, Jagua survives, keeps her head up and always finds something else to do. While the urban setting and the plot are important, it is the character of Jagua that make this a worthwhile 1960s Nigerian novel.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Dublinesca (Dublinesque)

dublinesque

The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-MatasDublinesca (Dublinesque). It is about a retired publisher, Samuel Riba, a former alcoholic, the alcoholism being one of the reasons for his retirement, who prided himself on publishing quality contemporary fiction in Spanish, with a fiction list which seems to match the taste of Vila-Matas. He is adapting badly to retirement. As with other Vila-Matas’ protagonists, he spends much time of thinking of literary matters, from a general theory of the novel to the, in his view, decline of the novel in today’s world. He spends far too much time browsing the Internet and chatting on the phone to friends. He goes to occasional conferences but feels removed from the publishing world. As the title tells us, he becomes interested in Dublin, though he has normally shied away from English-speaking countries, as he does not speak English, though does have a fascination for New York. Ther Dublin fascination is prompted by a dream he has of visiting a Dublin pub called the Coxwold, which turns out not to exist. The title of this book comes not from Joyce, but from Philip Larkin though the Larkin poem equates with Chapter 6 of Ulysses, as both concern a funeral in Dublin

dublinesca

He decides to organise a trip to Dublin on Bloomsday, with the ostenible purpose of having a funeral for the Gutenberg era, which has been replaced by the digital era. He invites three friends – two former drinking companions, one an expert on Irish literature, and Nietsky, the one writer he thought he had discovered who would be great. All of this gives Riba/Vila-Matas scope for ruminating on Irish (and other) literature, with the inevitable fictitious authors also under discussion. While I certainly enjoyed this book, I did not find it as enjoyable as some of this others, not least because of the disjointed ramblings of Riba, which, at times, seemed to be going all over the place.

Adrian Jones Pearson: Cow Country

cow

The latest addition to my website is Adrian Jones Pearson‘s Cow Country. Before reviewing the book, I must say a few words about the author. I decided to read this book as it was rumoured to be by Thomas Pynchon. This theory has been debunked and, for what it is worth, Alex Shephard’s seems to me to be the most reasonable, not least, because, as he points out, A J Perry and Adrian Jones Pearson share the same initials. He points out that Perry appears to be based in Lawai. What he does not point out is that Lawai is in Kauaʻi County and that Kauaʻi is (approximately) pronounced Cow Eye, the name of the college where the book is set. When I saw mention of this book online, I contacted the publisher (which has only published this one book). I received a response from Natalie Zeldner. I contacted her at 9.56 a.m. UK time and she responded within half an hour (a record!), This means that she responded at around 5.30 a.m. if she is on the East Coast, 2.30 a.m. if on the West Coast and 11.30 p.m. if in Hawaii. Maybe US publishers are up at 2.30 and 5.30 a.m. but I would have thought 11.30 p.m. more likely. Intelius shows no record for a Natalie Zeldner and Googling reveals nothing except for a few connections with this book, which means that it fairly certain that Natalie Zeldner is a pseudonym. I also contacted the web designer but he tells me that his templates are readily available on line and has had no contact with Perry, Zeldner or Cow Eye but he has done his own research and come to no definitive conclusion. In short, I believe that Perry, Jones Pearson and Zeldner are either the same person or close associates.

Probably not Adrian Jones Pearson
Probably not Adrian Jones Pearson

As regards the book, I found it very funny. It tells the story of Cow Eye Community College, a remote US community college, in a drought-ridden area. Charlie, who seems to have no surname, is hired as the Special Projects Coordinator, with three main tasks: organising the Christmas Party, which was not held the previous year, improving the college’s woeful accreditation status and repairing the disastrous cultural divide in the college. The college is divided along all sorts of lines: meat eaters vs non meat eaters (Cow Eye Ranch, now defunct, used to be major a supplier of beef to the US); smokers vs nonsmokers; New Agers vs traditionalists; natives vs incomers; users of electric typewriters vs users of manual typewriters and many others. Most people are firmly on one side or the other, without any room for compromise. Charlie feels that he is nothing entirely, a compromiser, and he wants to change this, to be something entirely. What makes the book is its great humour. Jones Pearson satirises community colleges and, by extension, the United States; he uses a fair amount of third form/sophomoric humour and has a long line of running jokes, from Charlie’s trying to be something entirely to the US flag which, every times it appears, seems to add a star or two, starting off with twenty-three and finishing with forty-nine. It is all very funny but, behind the humour, there is clearly a serious intent, about getting on and compromise and about the nature of the United States. A lot of effort has gone into this book, not just the 540 page book, but also the various websites, including the author’s homepage, the college’s and others mentioned on my Adrian Jones Pearson page. While I admire all the effort put into it by, presumably, Perry, his pseudonyms and his associates, it is sad that he needs to do this to get this book in the public eye.

Luis Arturo Ramos: Este era un gato [This Was a Cat]

gato

The latest addition to my website is Luis Arturo RamosEste era un gato [This Was a Cat]. This novel, which has not been translated into English, tells the story of Roger Copeland. He was part of the US troops that occupied Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914. While there, he met a whore called Teresa Triana but whom he calls Tirana and they had a few nights of passion. He is then sent further into the town, where he has to pick off snipers. He tracks down one particular sniper and kills him. When he returns to the town and finds Tirana, instead of welcoming him, she shoots him, hitting him in the knee before fleeing. He is taken on board ship and then to Galveston, where his knee is treated, though it will continue to give him trouble. Sixty years, later, a retired military captain who speaks good Spanish after having spent time in Cuba and now a widower, Copeland decides to take a cruise, with the ship spending seven days in Veracruz.

US troops in Veracruz in 1914
US troops in Veracruz in 1914

Copeland gets off the ship and checks into a seedy hotel (a whores’ hotel, as the cruise director tells him). When the ship leaves, Copeland does not, staying mainly in his room. He is found by a couple of local journalist and two of their colleagues – Alberto Bolaño and his friend Miguel Angelo – spend time with him and listen to his story. However, right from the beginning of the book, we learn that Copeland is dead, shot in the head in his bed, a beatific smile on his face. Before that, he has been looking for Tirana. He may have found her and the two journalists may also have found her. She may have been seen going up to his room one night. We do know that the journalists learn his story and that someone has killed him. Ramos tells us an interesting if, at times, convoluted story which is part whodunit, part an attempt at looking back at history and seeing how it affects the present and part expiation of guilt or, at least, an attempt to expiate guilt and/or recover a lost love. It works well and is certainly a good read. It is a pity that it has not been translated.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila: Tram 83 (Tram 83)

tram83

The latest addition to my website is Fiston Mwanza Mujila‘s Tram 83 (Tram 83). As I say in my review, this is the noisiest novel I have ever read and if you don’t think that a novel can be noisy, read this one. It takes place in the major town in a place called merely City-State, a mining country that has seceded from the main country and may be based on Katanga. It is run by a thoroughly corrupt dissident general who has erectile dysfunction problems. Though the novel starts and ends in the noisy, chaotic, dirty shambles of a station, much of the action takes place in the even noisier and more chaotic Tram 83, a restaurant and hooker bar, named after a late night Brussels tram line. Lucien is the diffident intellectual, who is trying to write a play about the country and the General. He has come in from the Back Country, where most of the mining takes place. He is staying with his friend, Requiem, an action man who always seems to have some dodgy deal on the go. Lucien struggles to cope with life, particularly life in the City-State, where corruption, violence, noise, casual sex and eating dogs seem to prevail. Mwanza Mujila gives us a superb portrait of a failed state, a big change from the often somewhat romanticised view of Africa we get in African novels, showing us the noise and chaos and corruption, warts and all. It is a novel that both Africans and non-Africans should read to get a different view of the region.

Man Booker Prize shortlist

The favourite?
The favourite?

They have just announced the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

They are:

Marlon James: A Brief History of Seven Killings
Tom McCarthy: Satin Island
Chigozie Obioma: The Fishermen
Sunjeev Sahota: The Year of the Runaways
Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

Two from the UK, two from the US, one from Jamaica and one from Nigeria. Two women.

I have not read any of them but may well do so. I would think that the Yanagihara is the favourite.

Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz: Farinet ou la fausse monnaie [Farinet or the Forged Money]

farinet

The latest addition to my website is Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz‘s Farinet ou la fausse monnaie [Farinet or the Forged Money]. Maurice Farinet, when young, befriended an old man, Sage, who had found a vein of gold in the mountains. When he died, it became Farinet’s. He uses the gold to make twenty franc coins. Given that his coins are of better quality, in terms of gold content, than those made by the government, he cannot think that anyone can object. Indeed, the locals are happy to have his coins. The government takes a different view and, at the beginning of the novel, we see him escaping from prison for a second time. The police, who are not local, are unable to find him, as he is aided by the locals and has a very secret hiding place in the mountains. In particular, he is aided by Josephine, the waitress at the café who helped him after his first escape. It was Josephine who smuggled in the file and rope he used to escape the second time and it is she who brings him food. However, as one of the old men remarks, she is likely to be trouble. Farinet comes to recognise that he cannot continue as an outlaw forever, not least because hiding out in the mountains during the harsh winter may be difficult. When a local councillor brings him an offer from the government – to turn himself in, give up forgery and serve just six months in prison, during the winter months – he rejects it initially but then strongly considers it. Josephine, however, may have other ideas. Ramuz, as always, tells an excellent story of the independence of the mountain man and his struggle with what freedom means and what responsibilities it brings.