End of year review

She didn’t win the Nobel Prize and could not remember the words but she was there

If, twelve months ago, you had said that Donald Trump would be elected as US President, the UK would vote to leave the EU, Theresa May would become prime minister of the UK, Bob Dylan would win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Leicester City would win the English Premiership and the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series, you would have been quite rightly locked up. But, fortunately, you did not predict any of those things and nor did I. In a year that has also seen Aleppo, ISIS leaving Mosul and Palmyra and retaking Palmyra, the European refugee crisis, Putin playing games in Ukraine, Hollande becoming the first post-war president of France not to stand for a second term, the Zika virus, the Turkish failed coup d’état and the vicious repercussions, the athletics doping (no, it wasn’t just the Russians. Ask Lance Armstrong) and leadership turmoil in Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea and, doubtless, other countries, I can only start with a negative approach.

Things I did not do this year

  • Vote for Trump or Brexit
  • Play Pokémon Go
  • Go to a Wellness Clinic/Seminar or, indeed, do anything involving wellness
  • Read Knausgaard or Ferrante. Nor I did read Matar’s The Return, The Underground Railway, My Name Is Lucy Barton or any of the Man Booker shortlist. I may do so at some time in the future. But not Knausgaard or Ferrante. This list claims to be the list of lists of best books (English-language version) of 2016. I have read two of them. I may read a few more.
  • Use the following words: gift (as a verb. The verbal form of gift is give); curate; literally when I meant figuratively (my daughter gave me a mug which had on it the phrase I am figuratively dying for a cup of tea; she thinks that I am pedantic. She is right); post-truth (Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2016 but first coined in 2004 in Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie and first used in a UK book in Peter Oborne’s The Rise of Political Lying in 2005); alt-right; mindfulness; sharing economy
  • Watched The Hunger Game of Thrones or whatever it is called.
  • What you should be looking at on Instagram – bookporn
  • Take a photo of my dinner for Instagram or post a naked selfie on Instagram. Indeed, I did not do anything on Instagram, not least because I do not have an Instagram account. And nor did I take a selfie, naked or clothed.
  • Read Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream. Yes I know that Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review and that others braver than I have done so but I suspect I am neither intellectually or physically able to cope with it. My bad. Sorry, Michael.
  • Compile a list of must-read or your favourite books. There is no such thing as a must-read book and I do not know what your favourite books are and I would not presume to guess.
  • Read any book with the word girl in the title. See my last year’s review for more on this.
  • Ride an Uber taxi or stay in an AirBnB room
  • Use WhatsApp
  • Tweet
  • Buy anything that was advertised as The Perfect Gift. Perfect for whom? The seller, of course, because he wants to get rid of it.

Things I did do this year

The longest title of the year

I read 148 books from forty-five different nationalities. Forty-four were by women which is not a good ratio but better than previous years. Quite a few were from relatively small nations, including: Basque, Bolivia, Burundi, Catalonia, Comoros, Cyprus, Estonia, Greenland, Inuit, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Oman, Palestine and Puerto Rico. The most read nationality was Japan, because I focussed only on Japan early in the year, with USA second and Russia third. The longest title was Hendrik Groen‘s Pogingen om iets van het leven te maken. Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 jaar (Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old) and the shortest Claire-Louise Bennett‘s Pond and Thea Astley‘s Coda.

Ferrante 100 hundred years before Ferrante, one of my favourites

As mentioned above, I seemed to avoid the Booker Prize shortlist books, not because I thought they were no good – far from it – but nothing really attracted me enough to read it, instead of what I had planned to read. I can certainly see myself reading one or two of them at some time but then I might not and the same applied, more or less to the other prizes, except the French prizes

I also note, though this was not planned, that I have managed to read at least one book from every decade of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, I am well aware that there are many very fine novels out there from days of yore that I have not read. The earliest novel I read this year was Sibilla Aleramo‘s Una donna (A Woman at Bay; later: A Woman) (first published in 1906) who was writing Ferrante-type novels a hundred years before Ferrante, and doing, in my opinion, a better job.

Talking of women writers, too much neglected on this site, I would mention some others I enjoyed. I read three of Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer‘s novels and very much enjoyed them all and may well read some more. My Korean reading has been somewhat neglected but I did enjoy Han Kang‘s two novels, both of which were fairly gruesome but very well written. I read seven novels by the Australian writer Thea Astley and am convinced that, outside Australia, she has been sorely neglected. Zofia Nałkowska‘s Granica (Boundary) was first published in 1935 but has only just appeared in English and is well worth reading. Finally, I will mention a novel that did get good publicity at least in its native United States but did seem to do so well in the UK or elsewhere: C. E. Morgan‘s The Sport of Kings, though the Daily Telegraph did say it might be a candidate for the Great American Novel. If horse racing is not your thing, do not let that put you off. It is not my thing either but I really enjoyed this book.

The Great Basque novel?

Of the men, I was glad to have finally read Max Aub‘s El laberinto mágico [The Magic Labyrinth] six volume Spanish Civil War series. Yes, it is thoroughly partial (anti-Franco) but it does tell the story of the ordinary people opposing Franco in great detail. I do really enjoy a good long novel and this year read two excellent ones from smaller countries: Ramon Saizarbitoria‘s Martutene (Martutene) and Bakhtiyar Ali‘s Ghazalnūs wa bāghakānı̄ khayāl (I Stared at the Night of the City), the first one Basque and the second Kurdish. I really enjoyed Michal Ajvaz‘s Zlatý věk (The Golden Age), a thoroughly original novel. I must just mention three novels which deserve to be better known: Rober Racine‘s Le Mal de Vienne [The Vienna Sickness], a wonderful post-modernist romp, which has not been translated into any other language; Yoshikichi Furui‘s 白髪の唄 (White-Haired Melody) and Kyusaku Yumeno‘s ドグラマグラ [Dogra Magra], also sadly not available in English.

A well-known writer I enjoyed

Of the well-known names, most were not terribly exciting. I enjoyed Zadie Smith‘s Swing Time and Don DeLillo‘s Zero K but new works from Ian McEwan, Vargas Llosa and Eimar McBride disappointed. I still have something of a backlog in this area.

Will we enjoy the new Murakami?

I have looked at what is coming out next year and have not been terribly impressed so far but then the most interesting novels to come out in 2016 were not known to me this time last year. In 2017 we have the new Murakami (Men Without Women) (sounds like Hemingway, doesn’t it?), the first novel by renowned short story writer George Saunders (Lincoln in Bardo) and a new work from the eighty-four year old Robert Coover (Huck Out West), all of which may or may not be interesting. In Spain, there is a new Javier Cercas (another Spanish Civil War novel), a new Vila-Matas and a new Luis Goytisolo.

So onto 2017. If you thought 2016 was bad, remember 2017 will see President-elect Trumpelstiltskin become President Trumpelstiltskin. Theresa Maybot and her Three Stooges will continue to dither around on Brexit, breakfast, brisket, Brontosaurus, bric-à-brac and brain fade. We have three elections in Europe – France, Germany and the Netherlands – where a right-wing nut and/or a right-wing nut party will do well and may even win. Italy and Greece will face financial collapse. Italy may face a major volcanic eruption. And Putin, well, he will do something unpleasant. Last year I wished you a Trump-free 2016. That didn’t work out well so this year I can only wish you a joyful, interesting and exciting selection of books to read. I shall make only one prediction. A singer/songwriter will not win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But only because David Bowie and Leonard Cohen died this year. Though, of course, Patti Smith is a singer/songwriter, did turn up at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm this year (to represent Dylan) and is a published poet. And it is about time a woman won the Nobel Prize for Literature…

Saud Alsanousi: لبامبو (The Bamboo Stalk)

The latest addition to my website is Saud Alsanousi‘s لبامبو (The Bamboo Stalk), the first Kuwaiti novel on my website. It tells the story of José/Isa, son of a Filpina woman and a Kuwaiti man. Josephine, José’s mother, goes to Kuwait to work, to escape her difficult father, traumatised after his involvement in the Vietnam War. She works for a rich family and is shown sympathy only by the son, Rashid, who talks to her, marries her and impregnates her. His family is horrified and she returns to the Philippines with her baby. Though the couple divorce and both remarry, Rashid keeps in touch and Josephine always hopes her son can return to Kuwait, where, she believes, he will have a better life. However, Rashid suddenly stops writing after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. We later learn that he had fought in the Kuwaiti resistance and been captured, later dying in captivity in Iraq. However, his best friend, Ghassan, contacts Josephine and invites José to Kuwait when he is a young man and off he goes. The second part of the book deals with his difficult time there, as he is not generally welcomed by his family and, in some cases, his presence is blatantly resented. Alsanousi tells an excellent story of the struggles of dealing with being of mixed race and two races of very different values and cultures.

Ivan Jablonka: Laëtitia ou la Fin des hommes [Laetitia or the End of Men]

The latest addition to my website is Ivan Jablonka‘s Laëtitia ou la Fin des hommes [Laetitia or the End of Men]. This is not really a novel but it has been sold as a novel in France and won prizes for novels so here it is. It recounts the true story of Laëtitia Perrais, who was brutally murdered and talks in great detail about the long investigation into her death but also of her early life and that of her twin sister, Jessica. The parents of the two girls were respectively a drunk and violent (him) and depressive (her). Eventually the girls were fostered but, after Laëtitia’s death, it was find out that the foster-father was sexually abusing Jessica, several other girls in his care and, possibly, Laëtitia. Jablonka covers all of this in some detail, talking about the psychology, the administrative aspects, the sociology and the politics (President Sarkozy intervenes). It is a superb book, focussing on violence towards women and children who are brought up in difficult conditions, and well worthy of the prizes it has won. It will surely appear in English soon.

Wright Morris: The Field of Vision

The latest addition to my website is Wright Morris‘s The Field of Vision. It tells the story of a disparate group of people who are attending a bullfight in Mexico and whose back-stories we learn as the bullfight progresses. Walter McKee, but invariably called McKee, has always looked up to Gordon Boyd, who has had some success as a playwright. McKee, his wife, Lois, his grandson Gordon, named after his father, who was named after Boyd, and his father-in-law, Tom Scanlon, who is now blind and deaf and was expected to die some forty years ago, meet Boyd at the bullfight, with a German-born psychoanalyst and one of the psychoanalyst’s former patients and now seemingly his lover, Paula Kahler. As we follow the progress of the bullfight, we learn about the earlier lives of the characters and, in particular, Boyd’s influence on McKee and his effect on McKee and his family, even when they do not see him for a while. It does not quite work for me, maybe because the characters are not too sympathetic.

Koen Peeters: Grote Europese roman [Great European Novel]

The latest addition to my website is Koen PeetersGrote Europese roman [Great European Novel]. This is a tongue-in-cheek novel that may be many things but is not the Great European Novel. Our hero is Robin, working for a Belgian firm n Brussels which makes gadgets (we know no more about it). Robin is in marketing. The boss, Theo, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust, takes a shine to Robin and engages him to find out what the firm needs to do to compete in the current digital world and to visit other European firms to find out what they are doing. Each chapter is named after a European capital, but Robin does not visit them all. For some of them he meets people from the capital. For others, the connection is limited to say the least. Oslo, for example is one of the names of Onslow, the firm’s computer security expert. Robin takes an entirely detached view towards both Europe as a whole and to the individual cities he visits. He also finds that the other firms are no more adapted to the new digital challenges than his. He does, however, collect a few foreign words and occasional titbits in his Moleskine notebook. It is a delightful cynical look at Europe and the world, with Europe seemingly out of touch with the new realities. However, it is not The Great European Novel by any stretch of the imagination and, I have no doubt, Peeters never intended it to be.

Jean Giono: Colline (Hill of Destiny; later: Hill)

The latest addition to my website is Jean Giono‘s Colline (Hill of Destiny; later: Hill). This is Giono’s first novel and is rightly considered a classic of French literature. It tells the story of a remote and isolated hamlet in Provence, with only thirteen inhabitants. The oldest inhabitant, a cantankerous old man called Janet, is taken ill. At around that time, things start to go wrong. There is a storm. The spring from which they get their water supply dries up. There is a major fire. A young girl becomes seriously ill. In particular, they see a cat, a known harbinger of disaster. They struggle with the various disasters, not always sticking together, while Janet lies on his sickbed, telling them that the hill by the village is going to rise up against them and that they are all doomed. Eventually they come to a conclusion. The cause of their problems is Janet and they will not have peace as long as he is alive. This is a superb story about superstition and living in isolation but also about the connectedness of the peasants to their land.

Juli Zeh: Schilf (UK: Dark Matter; US: In Free Fall)

The latest addition to my website is Juli Zeh‘s Schilf (UK: Dark Matter; US: In Free Fall). This is a novel where theoretical physics meets the detective story. Two theoretical physicists – Oskar and Sebastian – have been firm friends since meeting physics class at university, though the friendship is no longer as strong as it was. Oskar, still single, lives in Geneva, working on the particle accelerator, while Sebastian, who is married to Maike, with a son, Liam, teaches physics at the University of Freiburg. Maike, a keen cyclist, is going away on a cycling holiday and Sebastian is to take Liam to scout camp, giving him a joyful couple of weeks on his own to work on a physics problem. On the way to the scout camp, Sebastian stops to go to the toilet, leaving the sleeping Liam in the car. As he leaves the toilet, his phone rings. The car and Liam have gone and the apparent kidnapper tells him that Dabbelink must go. Dabbaelink is an anaesthetist, who cycles with Maike but whose boss is involved in a medical scandal. Sebastian eventually does kill Dabbelink, only to find, a few days later, that Liam is alive and well and at the scout camp. Schilf is sent from Stuttgart to solve the problem. Schilf is dying (he has a brain tumour) but is a very successful though unconventional detective. The second part shows how Schilf, using, to a certain degree, theoretical physics, solves the problem leading to what can only be called an unexpected and unusual conclusion. It is very cleverly done, as Zeh mixes in police work and theoretical physics, particularly the many-worlds interpretation, one of whose main exponents is Dieter Zeh (no relation).

Santiago Gamboa: Necrópolis (Necropolis)

The latest addition to my website is Santiago Gamboa‘s Necrópolis (Necropolis). This is one of the two of his novels that has been translated into English. The narrator, known only as EH, is a Colombian writer just recovering from a long, serious illness, who is invited to a conference held by the International Congress on Biography and Memory in Jerusalem. The conference features other writers, though mainly non-fiction writers, whose biographies, he says, seem straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. Various writers present either what are essentially their own autobiographies or the stories of other people. One man, José Maturana, tells a story of how he was in prison when he was essentially rescued by a man called Walter de la Salle, a former drug user who had inherited money and started running a mission, often helping prisoners. José joined his mission and worked with him but it all went badly, ending in a shoot-out with the police, Walter disappearing and José and Jessica, the other key member, moving on. The day after his talk, José is found in his hotel room, his wrists slashed. EH does not believe it is suicide and, together with an Icelandic journalist, he investigates. Meanwhile, the situation in Jerusalem – the necropolis of the title – is becoming untenable with bomb attacks, rockets and so on battering the city and battering the hotel. It is both a grim but highly complex novel, dealing with literature, death, finding meaning in life, politics, religion and, of course, sex and drugs.

Norman Manea: Plicul negru (The Black Envelope)

The latest addition to my website is Norman Manea‘s Plicul negru (The Black Envelope), the last novel Manea published in Romania before emigrating to the United States. It tells the story of Anatol Dominic Vancea Voinov, better known as Tolea, during the bleak period of in Romanian history in the early 1980s. Tolea has been fired from his job as a high school teacher because of delicate relations — extremely delicate, I can tell you — with some teenage boys and has managed to get a job as a receptionist at the Tranzit Hotel, a hotel where people go for sex. Much of the novel is about his search for the contents of the black envelope, an envelope delivered to his father, which resulted in his father committing suicide. However, it also paints a grim picture of Romania as cold, hunger, poverty and unemployment prevail and there are spies everywhere, particularly spying on Tolea. All of this is seen through Tolea’s febrile imagination, giving us a novel that is often chaotic, where the line between reality and imagination is thin, often very thin. It is also a damning and cynical indictment of Romania under Ceaușescu. This novel is not for everybody but if you enjoy a bit of chaos and don’t mind not always being sure what is going on, this is certainly a worthwhile novel.

Juli Zeh: Nullzeit (Decompression)

The latest addition to my website is Juli Zeh‘s Nullzeit (Decompression). This novel tells the story of a diving instructor, Sven. He has fled Germany, after realising he does not want to be a lawyer, accompanied by his girlfriend, Antje, ten years his junior. For fourteen years, they have now had a successful diving business. Their latest clients are Theo and Jola. He, seven years old than her, is a writer who has written nothing for some time. She is the daughter of a major German TV and film producer and is herself the star of a TV soap opera. She wants to learn to dive for a possible film role. It soon becomes apparent that things are not well between the couple. She starts flirting with Sven and Sven finds it hard to resist, even though he has been shown to be conventional and fairly passionless, at least as regards the opposite sex. The triangle between Theo, Jola and Sven develops throughout the novel and inevitably comes to a head. It is made more interesting that we follow both Sven’s narration and Jola’s diary and the two narrations give clearly different, often diametrically opposed accounts of the same events. However, as I indicate in my review, I find the plot to be inconsistent, even if the clash between the two relationships is well told.