Ramon Saizarbitoria: Martutene (Martutene)

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The latest addition to my website is Ramon Saizarbitoria‘s Martutene (Martutene). This is a mammoth (816 pages) Basque novel, that has claims to being the Great Basque Novel. Primarily, it tells the stories of two couples. One couple is Martin, a successful Basque short story writer who is trying to write his first novel, and Julia whose husband was a Basque freedom fighter/terrorist, who has been killed, and who is translating Martin’s stories – often about their relationship – into Spanish. The other couple are both doctors, he a gynaecologist and she a neurosurgeon. Both relationships are under stress as all four have had or are having affairs. We also have an epidemiologist is who is bored with her marriage and is trying to find a man she bumped into, on a plane. We know who he is and, indeed, he plays a role in the book; she does not know who he is or what his name is. While about relationships and their difficulties, this book is about much more. It is about the Basques and Basqueness. It is about violence and death. It is about writing and literature. The main characters struggle with these issues and with who they are. It is a first-class novel and we must be grateful to Hispabooks for making it available in English.

Riga/Copenhagen

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We have just returned from our continuing tour of East European capitals – the third this year and the fifth in the past two years – with a visit to Riga. This was not a literary trip but… I have only one Latvian author on my Latvia page and own only eleven Latvian novels, not all in English. Indeed, very few have been translated into English. The bookshop you can see above left claims to be the largest bookshop in the Baltics. However, unlike in Western bookshops, they did not have a display of recent arrivals. Indeed, their display – which did not have any promotional signs, just the books – had books such as ones by Umberto Eko (sic), Paulu Koelju (Paulo Coelho) and, perhaps not surprisingly, Džordžs Orvels1984. While we do mess around with foreign names in Latin script in English, when it comes to place names and historical figures, I do not think we do it for contemporary authors. Anyway, I cannot give you much of an idea what Latvian authors are being read in Latvia today.

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I did look for statutes of Latvian authors in Riga but the statues seemed to be mainly Latvian historical and political figures. The figure to the right is an author but it is Pushkin, apparently a gift to Riga from the City of Moscow in 2009 (see the Wikipedia article on it for more info). Understandably, I suppose, the inscription is in Cyrillic only, so instead of Aleksandrs Puškins, we merely get A. Пушкин, whose meaning may not be obvious to many people.

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The not very attractive building to the left is the National Library of Latvia, opened in 2014 and the other side of the River Daugava from the Old Town where the bookshop, Pushkin and most of the tourist attraction are located. When I visited, they had an interesting exhibit on the history of the printed book in Latvia, starting with early bibles and travel accounts, up to the present day. As it was in the dark, with low level lighting for the exhibits, it was not possible to take photos. Incidentally the Latvian for book is grāmata, presumably from the Greek γράμματα, meaning letters from which, of course, we get our word grammar.

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The building is eight storeys tall and is all open inside, so you can see up to the stacks, as in the picture to the right. When I arrived they were holding a wedding in the large atrium! Unlike in other national libraries (British Library, Library of Congress, for example) it is easy to gain access to the stacks and I was able to wander around. Knowing about three words of Latvian, I could not find much that I recognised. I do not know if they have large offsite or underground stores as with the British Library, Library of Congress, etc. but there did not seem to be a large amount of books available. It was disappointing to see relatively few people there, apart from the wedding party and a couple of parties of schoolchildren.

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I wandered round the stacks, failing to recognise virtually all of the authors but was glad to see this small display of books by Regina Ezera, the only Latvian author currently on my site. You can see that the two books from the left are her novel Aka, which I have read and reviewed. Sadly it is not available in English (I read it in German).

I would like to hope more Latvian novels make their way into English but I am not optimistic. We saw virtually no-one reading a book (e.g. on the train), no Kindles (though plenty of mobile/cell phones) and only two bookshops in Riga, so I am guessing that reading is not a big thing for the Latvians.

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Back in the West, we did not do much better for literary statues in Copenhagen, except, of course, for Hans Christian Andersen, who does not appear on my site. In the photo to the right, you can see the largest bookshop in Copenhagen, Arnold Busck. It was an excellent bookshop, with many books in English as well as in Danish.

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The photo to the left shows their display of new fiction in Danish. Here is what was on display:

  • Mich Vraa: Haabet, a novel about the Danish involvement in the slave trade in the Caribbean in the early part of the nineteenth century.
  • Merete Pruds Helle: Folkets skønhed [The Beauty of People]. One of her books – A dream of antiquity journey : an imaginary journey around the ancient Mediterranean has been translated into English and a couple of her other books have been translated into French and German. This one is a family chronicle about a poor family in the 1930s set on the offshore island of Langeland.
  • Katrine Marie Guldager: Bror og Søster [Brother and Sister]. Her collection of stories called Copenhagen as well as her book of poetry called have been translated into English. This book is the fifth in a family saga called the Køge Chronicle. Set in 1976, it focuses on the relationship between a brother and sister (as the title tells us) called Henry and Leonora.
  • Benn Q. Holm: De døde og de levende [The Dead and the Living]. This novel is set during the German occupation of Denmark in World War II and is about Karen and Ebbe. Ebbe manages to escape to Sweden but, after the war, when he returns, things between him and Karen are not as they should be.
  • Morten Vittrup: Argentineren der kom sejlende på en cedertræsplanke [The Argentinian who Sailed on a Cedar Plank]. This novel is about Victor de la Vega, an Argentinian who washes ashore in Malaga in 1954. He meets Sofia who is thinking about becoming a nun but changes her mind on meeting Victor. The novel, spanning some eighty years, is about the life of the couple and involves not only various fictional characters but Che Guevara and Borges.
  • Lotte Kaa Andersen: Hambros Allé 7-9-13. This is a novel about the residents of Nos 7, 9 and 13 Hambros Allé, an exclusive part of Copenhagen, with the basic message that money does not necessary bring happiness.
  • Ane Riel: Harpiks [Resin]. This novel is about a strange family who live on an isolated island. Mother is too big to leave the bedroom and father collects junk. Lots of it. He also announces the death of his still living daughter.
  • Charlotte Weitze: Mørke cyklister [Dark Cyclists]. A couple of her books have been translated in to German. This is a collection of stories where reality and fantasy collide.
  • Nitesh Anjaan: Kind of Blue. A story of three rootless young men in Copenhagen, trying to find meaning in their life.
  • Aydin Soei: Forsoning [Reconciliation]. An autobiographical novel about growing up in Iran and then fleeing to the Soviet Union and finally to Denmark.
  • Johannes Lilleøre: Mårhund [Raccoon]. Lars Peter grows up in a remote part of Denmark and finds most comfort talking to animals, including raccoons. Twenty years later, things are not much better.
  • Niels Lyngsø: Himlen under jorden [Heaven Underground]. His poetry collection Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace has been published in English. This novel is the second in a trilogy (the first is called Min ukendte bror [My Unknown Brother]), this novel is about Nadia Nazir, anthropologist and expert on sexuality, who lives in a commune in the Paris Catacombs, where the people experiment with sex, and about Hans-Peter, the unknown brother of the previous book, who is in Geneva dealing with scientific crime.
  • Carsten Jensen: Den første sten [The First Stone]. His novel We, the Drowned has already been published in English. This novel is about a platoon of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan during the recent war and the moral conflicts they face.
  • Morten Pape: Planen [The Plan]. An autobiographical novel about growing up in a ghetto where crime and violence are part of daily life.
  • I thought that this seemed a most interesting collection of books but, sadly, I doubt if we will see many or even any in English.

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    The photo to the right is a shelf in Helsingør public library. You can see Danish versions of Ali Ollikainen’s White Hunger, a Finnish novel which has been translated into English, Katherine Pancol‘s La valse lente des tortues, translated into English as The Slow Waltz of Turtles, Antonio Pennacchi’s Il fasciocomunista, not yet translated into English, though two of his other works have been, Ruth Ozeki‘s A Tale for the Time Being and Véronique Olmi’s Le premier amour (which has also been translated into Chinese German, Italian, Polish and Russian but not English, though one of her other books has been translated into English). I have copies of all but the Pancol. I do not think I would find any but the Ozeki in my local library.

    Kronborg Castle aka Elsinor
    Kronborg Castle aka Elsinor

    Helsingør also has strong literary connections as its English name is Elsinor and Shakespeare’s Hamlet was set there. We do not really know much about the real Hamlet, though his name appears in legends dating back to the tenth century, well before Kronborg Castle was built. We also have no evidence that Shakespeare visited Helsingør, not least because it was royal palace in Shakespeare’s day and not open to the public. Nor do we know his sources. They may have come from what we now call Ur-Hamlet, a now lost play, possibly written by Thomas Kyd. Even if the connection between Kronborg/Helsingør and Hamlet is at best dubious, apart from the name, they certainly cash in on the connection and To Be or Not To be t-shirts and fridge magnets and other souvenirs are readily available. Hamlet has been performed there on numerous occasions, with English actors such as John Gieglud, Laurence Olivier, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Plummer and David Tennant, as well as various Danish actors having performed in it. With its magnificent setting overlooking the Øresund towards Sweden, it is easy to see why. If you are ever in Copenhagen, it is well worth the visit, a forty-five minute train journey from the city.

Rabih Alameddine: The Angel of History

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The latest addition to my website is Rabih Alameddine‘s The Angel of History. As with his first novel, Koolaids, the main theme of this book is about how the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco has been relegated to the back pages and racism towards Arabs is to the fore, with the situation in the Middle East – in this case Yemen and the Arab Spring more than the War in Lebanon – also ignored. We follow the story of Ya’qub a gay man living in San Francisco, who was conceived when his father was fourteen and who spent much of his childhood with his mother, a Yemeni prostitute. He has a confrontational relationship with Satan and Satan, along with Death and the Fourteen Holy Helpers, plays a key role in this book. Satire is very much to the fore but this novel is much more bitter than its predecessor and does not have the humour nor, indeed, the passion of the previous one.

Hwang Jungeun: 百의 그림자 (One Hundred Shadows)

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The latest addition to my website is Hwang Jungeun‘s 百의 그림자 (One Hundred Shadows). This is a very original work, which has had considerable success in South Korea, about very ordinary people in South Korea, whose shadows behave erratically. This may mean rising up or even detaching themselves from their owners. There is no obvious reason for this and, indeed, it can be read literally, as a sort of fantasy about shadows. However, it does seem to occur when the individuals concerned are undergoing some sort of stress. The story is about two young people, who have both dropped out of school and now work in small businesses located in a huge market shed in a poorer part of town. He – Mujae – works for a man making transformers and she – Eungyo – works for man who repairs electronic appliances. Despite their apparent attraction for one another and their ongoing friendship, their romance does not progress but they do both have the shadow problem. Hwang Jungeun tells an excellent story with considerable sympathy for the poorer parts of society but it is the strange shadows and their erratic behaviour that makes this book so original. As far as I can determine this is the second book published by Tilted Axis Press, a press founded in 2015 that publishes the books that might not otherwise make it into English, for the very reasons that make them exciting to us – artistic originality, radical vision, the sense that here is something new. I look forward to more of their books.

Rabih Alameddine: Koolaids

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The latest addition to my website is Rabih Alameddine‘s Koolaids. This is a first-class novel about two forgotten (according to the author) wars: the The Lebanese Civil War and the involvement in that war of Syria and Israel, and the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. The book has multiple narrators who, in a series of vignettes, describe the two wars. Most of the main characters end up dead, either from AIDS-related diseases or from bombs or bullets in Lebanon. This could have been a very sad novel of death and destruction and, certainly, to some degree it is. But Alameddine takes an often cynical point of view, gallows humour, if you will. Not only do we get first-hand accounts from various key characters, we get a playlet featuring, amongst others, Eleanor Roosevelt, Arjuna, Krishnamurti, Julio Cortázar, and Tom Cruise. We get the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse having a go at one another. But we also get the author’s cynical and witty attacks on those to blame: the drug companies for the AIDS crisis and Syria, Israel, the Phalange and other participants for the situation in Lebanon. This book is both funny and heart-rending. Above all, it is an excellent account of two forgotten wars by a man who knew both.

Eimear McBride: The Lesser Bohemians

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The latest addition to my website is Eimear McBride‘s The Lesser Bohemians. Many critics raved about her first novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I did not share their enthusiasm, finding her disjointed sentences distracting and annoying without adding anything to the book. This novel starts off in the same way but, fortunately, it gradually becomes more conventional. However, I still find sentences that stop half way and arbitrary fragments to be distracting. The story is straightforward. In 1994, Eili, an eighteen year old Irish woman, has come to London to study at drama school. She meets a man twenty years older than her, who is just becoming a successful actor. She yields her virginity to him and they start an on again off again on again off again affair. Both have demons but he, in particular, has major ones that prevent him having a straightforward relationship with a woman. Both have several flings during the relationship and both use drugs and alcohol to excess. Can the love of a good woman (with her own demons) save him? It is not a bad book but nor is it the great book that some critics have made it out to be.

Amélie Nothomb: Riquet à la houppe [Riquet with the Tuft]

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The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Riquet à la houppe [Riquet with the Tuft]. This is a modern updating of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Riquet with the Tuft. We follow the story of the two who we know are destined to meet, fall in love and live happily after. He is Déodat, son of a former dancer, who gives birth to him (her only child) when forty-eight and the chef at the dance school. He is very ugly but very intelligent. He manages to adapt to his ugliness and, indeed, succeeds in having a series of short-term affairs when he gets older. He takes a keen interest in birds and becomes a professional ornithologist. She is Trémière, very beautiful but not very bright. She struggles at school and her stupidity is taken for aloofness when she is older. Her one (very) brief fling gives her a negative view of the opposite sex. Both, however, do very well in their careers and are destined to meet on a TV chat show. Nothomb seems to be moving towards updated fairy tales which, as she says in an afterword, almost always have a happy ending while great literature generally does not have a happy ending. This is not great literature but it is a well-written and enjoyable tale.

Ian McEwan: Nutshell

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The latest addition to my website is Ian McEwan‘s Nutshell. The novel is narrated by an unborn foetus, The foetus’ mother, Trudy, is separated from his father, John, a poet and poetry publisher, and is having a relationship with his uncle, Claude, the poet’s brother. The foetus realises that the couple are plotting to kill his father. As he is still only a foetus, albeit a very intelligent and knowledgeable one, he is not always sure of what is going on and cannot, of course, intervene. Or can he? The plot thickens when, to the surprise of Trudy and Claude, John knows about their affair and reveals his own lover. Claude and Trudy now have to bring forward their plan but will it work and will the police really think John has killed himself? It is not a bad book and very well told but still not up to the standard of the early McEwan novels.

Ivan Vladislavic: The Restless Supermarket

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The latest addition to my website is Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Restless Supermarket. This is a very funny story about a retired proofreader, Aubrey Tearle, who is fighting a losing battle against the decline in standards in general but linguistic standards in particular. Set in Johannesburg in 1993, with apartheid on the way out but not yet gone, it tells the story of Tearle’s rearguard battle against linguistic failings and, at the same time, about the Café Europa, his home from home, with his various friend who sometimes support him but sometimes think that he is too much of a nitpicker. The story starts with imminent closure of the café and the plan for a Goodbye Bash, at which Tearle plans to present his Proofreader’s Derby, his post-retirement life work intended to bring out the vital role of proofreaders in today’s society. The book is both a great learning experience about linguistic oddities but, above all, it is a very funny work about a pedant and how he struggles, usually in vain, against the Philistines.

Michael Hughes: The Countenance Divine

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The latest addition to my website is Michael HughesThe Countenance Divine. This is an apocalyptic vision of England with the story told in four periods. In the first period we follow John Milton and his secretary, with the story culminating in the Great Fire of London. The second part features the poet William Blake and his visions of England, with Blake making a talking homunculus out of Milton’s rib. The third section features additions to the From Hell letter, a letter allegedly written by Jack the Ripper and enclosing half of the kidney of one of his victims, with Hughes adding a whole lot more of these letters, each more macabre than the last. The final section (where the book actually starts) features a fictitious group of people working on the Y2K bug, though one of them is involved something much more sinister. The stories do link together and give us as a whole a highly imaginative apocalyptic view of England.