Sayaka Murata: ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman)

The latest addition to my website is Sayaka Murata‘s ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman). Murata did and, apparently, still does work in a convenience store. Keiko Furukura has never quite understand social norms since she was a child. When starting university she sees a new convenience store opening up and applies for the job. At the beginning of this novel she has worked there for eighteen years. She has found her place, her life governed by the convenience store and its manual of behaviour. She is very happy, knows her job well and does not want to change. To her parents’ chagrin she has never had a boyfriend, let alone a husband. Then Shiraha turns up to work at the store, looking as much for a wife as for a job. Murata tells her story very sympathetically, showing that finding your niche, even if it as a lowly as convenience store worker, is what matters, particularly if you do not fit in with the way society thinks you should fit in.

Christoph Ransmayr: Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness)

The latest addition to my website is Christoph Ransmayr‘s Die Schrecken des Eises und der Finsternis (The Terrors of Ice and Darkness). The book is about Arctic exploration and tells the story of several actual historical expeditions, including, in particular, the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition. It also recounts the story of the fictitious half-Austrian, half-Italian, Josef Mazzini who is determined to follow in the footsteps of the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition in the contemporary period. We know from the beginning of the book that he does not succeed while the Austro-Hungarian North Pole expedition does. I found the stories of the historical expeditions – others are recounted in less detail – more interesting than Mazzini’s story, even if his obsession, which matches that of the leaders of the previous ones, is interesting. Incidentally, Ransmayr is not the only German-speaking novelist to write about the Arctic. Sten Nadolny‘s Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit (The Discovery of Slowness) is about the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.

Tanja Maljartschuk: Біографія випадкового чуда (A Biography of a Chance Miracle)

The latest addition to my website is Tanja Maljartschuk‘s Біографія випадкового чуда (A Biography of a Chance Miracle). The novel is about corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, brutality and indifference in contemporary Ukraine and uses a cynical approach to these problems. However, it is also about Lena, a Ukrainian woman, who, unlike most other Ukrainians (in her opinion) has a conscience and tries to stand up for the less fortunate, not always entirely successfully. This is Maljartschuk’s first novel in English and an excellent one it is too, showing both, with humour and a serious approach, the problems of modern-day Ukraine but the courage and, at times, foolhardiness of a young woman who tries to combat these problems. There are no easy answers – Lena struggles hard – but miracles can happen, as the title implies.

J. G. Farrell: The Singapore Grip

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s The Singapore Grip. This is the third, final and by far the longest of Farrell’s Empire trilogy. As the title tells us, it is set in Singapore and we follow events, from a British perspective, leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1942. We particularly follow the Blackett family. Walter Blackett is head of a large trading company which ruthlessly exploits the native population and the markets and Farrell attacks that, their hypocrisy, the way Walter pimps his daughter, trying to get her to marry a suitable man, and their greed. We also follow in considerable detail the events leading up to the Japanese invasion, with the civilian population confident that the Japanese will be repulsed and the military showing spectacular incompetence, as well as being woefully unprepared and not having the appropriate military equipment and support to defend against the Japanese. The novel is both funny but also deadly serious as Farrell mocks and attacks the final throes of British colonialism.

Shatila Stories

The latest addition to my website is Shatila Stories, a collaborative novel, set up by Peirene Press and written entirely by Palestinian and Syrian refuges in the Shatila refugee camp and edited into a coherent novel. The novel tells of life within the camp and it is naturally not generally pretty. Conditions are poor, violence, drugs and sexism are rife, opportunities are limited and life is not good. We follow the stories of a few of the refugees, those who try to make a better life for themselves but also those whose life has gone sour. A young girl is married off to an older man, to help pay her family’s debts, a young man and young woman enter a music contest, a young woman tries to get to university in Canada and all struggle to survive and bring meaning to their lives. Given that the novel was written by amateurs and edited by professionals, it has turned out remarkably well and is a really fascinating read.

Jon Fosse: Melancholia II (Melancholy II)

The latest addition to my website is Jon Fosse‘s Melancholia II (Melancholy II), a coda to his Melancholy, about the very real Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig. In this novel, Lars has died earlier in the year and we follow a day in the life of Oline his older sister. Oline is old, a widow and in not very good heath. She struggles through the day – her sister-in-law, for example, tells her that her other brother, Sivert, is dying – but spends much time reminiscing. She cannot remember who her many grandchildren are but she does remember Lars and his strange behaviour as a child and, indeed, as an adult. She also remembers her father’s at times irrational behaviour and the conflicts between father and son. But her time is coming near and it is her aching feet and her incontinence that also preoccupy her. Yes, it is a follow-up to the story of Lars but also about an old woman coming to the end of her life.

Yūko Tsushima: 光の領分 (Territory of Light)

The latest addition to my website is Yūko Tsushima‘s 光の領分 (Territory of Light). Tsushima was the daughter of the writer Osamu Dazai who killed himself when she was one. This novel tells the story of a woman, whom we know only by her married name, who, at the start of the novel has left her husband. She has found a flat on the fourth floor of a Tokyo former office building which gives her a lot of light and, during the course of the novel, she lives there with her two year old daughter. She has various problems, including her controlling husband who has no job, difficulties with the flat, difficulties with her daughter who is temperamental, attempts by friends to make her reconcile with her husband (who is living with another woman) and generally cooping with life as a single mother. It is not a happy novel.

César Aira: El santo [The Saint]

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El santo [The Saint], one of his more recent novels, somewhat longer than many of his previous ones and not yet translated into English. It tells the story of an unnamed priest in medieval Catalonia who is considered a saint. When he plans to retire to his native Italy, the monastery and local town realise they will lose a major tourist attraction and plan to murder him, as his corpse will be as valuable as the living man. However, he gets away onto a Greek ship, which is captured by Turkish pirates. He is sold into slavery in North Africa but does not seem to suffer. He manages to travel around and becomes close to the rulers of two territories, where we get Aira’s usual digressions on life and thought. There is one major plot twist at the end but it is not terribly important compared to Aira’s views on life and his exposition of the story of an elderly saintly man who finds a new meaning to his life and a new world.

Dong Xi: 后悔录 (Record of Regret)

The latest addition to my website is Dong Xi‘s 后悔录 (Record of Regret). This is fascinating novel set primarily in the Cultural Revolution and follows the story of Ceng Guangxian, a young man who makes a succession of poor judgements, as regards the opposite sex but also in all aspects of his life. This is partially because he has a big mouth, not a good idea in the Cultural Revolution, which gets him and many others into trouble, but also because he simply does not know to deal with people or, indeed, with life. He nearly marries three different women but ends up messing up their lives and his own, not least because he does not understand women at all. The whole novel is summed up by the fact that he is narrating the novel to a person whose identity is not revealed until the end but who is unconscious for the entire narration.

Ali Smith: The Accidental

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s The Accidental. This takes as its theme a partially dysfunctional family: mother, two children, father (second marriage) who are disrupted by the arrival of a stranger out of the blue who changes them all in various ways, both when she is there and after she has left, not necessarily for the better. The philandering stepfather, the mother, a writer, appropriating the lives of real people, the seventeen-year old son responsible for the death of a girl at his school and the twelve-year old who is bullied all confront their issues following the arrival of Amber. The idea is not original but Ali Smith, as always, carries out it very well, not going for the easy options and keeping us guessing.