The latest addition to my website is Svava Jakobsdóttir‘s Leigjandinn (The Lodger). This is a short but superb satire on the US bases in Iceland, which Jakobsdóttir and the left-wing political party to which she belonged and for which she was a member of parliament was bitterly opposed. It tells the tale of a couple, living alone. One day a man turns up, walking in, uninvited. He starts checking the house and then rearranging the furniture, to suit his taste, before settling down on the sofa (which he has moved). When the woman’s husband returns from work, he more or less accepts the situation, urging his wife to cooperate, even though they no longer have their sitting room to themselves. He seems to be staying there indefinitely, barely moving from the sofa, except to eat. They are building a new house and when it is finally finished, the lodger moves with them. Gradually, the husband and the lodger seem to merge into one person.
The latest addition to my website is Mourad Bourboune‘s Le Muezzin [The Muezzin] (later: Le Muezzin bègue). Mourad Bourboune was one of the generation who had participated in the Algerian Revolution and who wrote about it but yet, for some reason, his reputation has not been as high as some of his contemporaries. Indeed, this book has only been translated into Danish and is long since out of print in French. It tells the story of Saïd Ramiz, a man who had descended from a line of muezzins but had never been one, except on one occasion in an emergency. He had been part of a revolutionary cell and had committed several violent acts. He had been betrayed and arrested and tortured by the French shortly before the end of the war. After a long absence he is now returning to Algeria where he is feared by various groups – those who betrayed him or might be suspected of having done so, the religious authorities, who fear he might bomb a mosque and the police, who fear he will try to restart the revolution. However, we seen him as an unbalanced man, who has recently released himself from an asylum, against the advice of his doctor. It is a fine book about the Algerian Revolution and how, in the eyes of some, it failed but sadly it is not available in English or, indeed, readily available in French.
The latest addition to my website is Hubert Aquin‘s Trou de mémoire (Blackout). This is the story of two men who have a few things in common. Pierre X Magnant and Olympe Ghezzo-Quénum are both political revolutionaries, both pharmacists and are both having an affair with a (different) English woman, who happen to be sisters, though, by the time the novel starts, Magnant has just murdered his lover, Joan. Magnant is Canadian while Ghezzo-Quénum is Ivorian. Their paths intertwine, initially because Ghezzo-Quénum contacts Magnant about his revolutionary activities but later because Magnant seems to pursue the surviving sister, Rachel. While initially it seems to be a straightforward tale of psychopathy, it turns out to be more complicated than that as we learn that the various narrators are almost certainly unreliable, with even Magnant’s confession of murdering Joan suspect. Relatively few French Canadian novels are translated into English but this one has been though is sadly quite difficult to obtain in English translation.
The latest addition to my website is Luigi Malerba‘s Il fuoco Greco [Greek Fire]. This is somewhat different from Malerba’s usual somewhat zany distorted reality and unreliable narrator. It is a historical novel set in Constantinople at the end of the tenth century, under the Byzantines. As the title says, it involves Greek fire, something that the Byzantines had developed and which was a closely guarded secret. It enabled them to successfully defeat a variety of enemies,as they fired it at the enemy ships through tubes and it would continue to burn even in water. Much of the novel describes the plotting, conspiracies and generally dirty deeds which seem to be a full-time occupation of the Byzantine elite. During the course of the novel, two emperors are overthrown and numerous people are killed tortured, exiled and shunted aside, often for dubious reasons. Malerba does not dwell too much on the details but does seem to enjoy all the plotting and, in particular, the philosophical discussions that go on around the plots. If you enjoy conspiracies and plotting, it is certainly an interesting novel, though sadly not available in English.
Doris Lessing, the Persian-born novelist, brought up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) died this morning. She is best-known for her novel The Golden Notebook but wrote many first-class novels during her long career. We had listened to her on an old Desert Island Discs just a couple of weeks ago (you can download/listen to it here), in which she talked about about how she tried to trick biographers in her autobiography and how she had not written The Golden Notebook as a feminist novel and that it had only acquired its feminist reputation sometime after publication. She will be remembered as one of the great English novelists.
The latest addition to my website is Jeremías Gamboa‘s Contarlo todo [Tell It All]. Though a first novel, this work has had considerable pre-publication promotion in the Spanish-speaking world. It has been hailed as part of the new boom and garnered many favourable pre-publication reviews. It is very much an autobiographical work, telling, in considerable detail, the life and times of Gabriel Lisboa, Gamboa’s alter ego, primarily during his twenties. Gamboa’s father had left his wife and son and Gabriel had been brought up by his uncle and aunt, who were not well off. He had managed to get scholarships at university. One day, his uncle, who was a waiter in a pizzeria, had spoken to a customer who worked for a prestigious left-wing magazine and got his nephew an interview with the man with a view to an unpaid internship during the summer. Gamboa gets the job but struggles, before becoming accepted. We follow both his journalism career but also his desire to become a writer of fiction. He meets a few people at university who help him, both in guiding his style and introducing him to writers who could serve as models. We also, of course, follow his not always easy love life. It is a fine novel, well-told, intense, passionate and detailed but perhaps not as great as some of the critics have suggested. It has only just been published in Spanish and is not yet available in translation.
Luis Goytisolo has won the Spanish Premio Nacional de las Letras Españolas [National Prize for Spanish Letters]. I found his Antagonía tetralogy challenging but well worth reading. Sadly, it is not available in English. Indeed, none of his work is available in English. His brother Juan won the prize in 2008. The only other writer on this site who has won it is Ana María Matute, though I hope to get to some of the others in the not too distant future.
The latest addition to my website is Chinghiz Aitmatov‘s И дольше века длится день (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years). Interestingly enough I have two novels from Kyrgyzstan on my website and both have science fiction elements. This one mainly tells the story of Burannyi Yedigei, a man who had suffered from shell shock in World War II and had managed to find a job suitable for him, at a remote railway junction in Kazakhstan, where he is a signalman. His friend and mentor has just died and Buryanni is taking him to be buried at a cemetery some thirty kilometers away. During the journey, he reminisces about his past life, the people who have lived at the junction, a Kazakh legend and, of course, his own life and that of the dead man. Meanwhile, two cosmonauts from a joint Soviet-US mission have found a planet with intelligent life on it and have travelled to the planet (without permission) and this is now causing a quandary for the Soviet and US governments. The space station from which the rockets are launched to the intermediate space station is located just forty kilometers away from the village where Buryanni works and this will affect him.
The latest addition to my website is Terézia Mora‘s Das Ungeheuer [The Monster], winner of this year’s German Book Prize. It follows on from Der einzige Mann auf dem Kontinent [The Only Man on the Continent], which told the story of the somewhat naive and simple computer engineer, Darius Kopp, from the former East Germany, and his wife, Flora, an immigrant from Hungary. At the beginning of this book we learn that Flora has committed suicide and Darius has had a breakdown since and stayed at home, living on pizza, alcohol and TV. His friend Juri, tries to get him to get a job but Darius decides to travel to Eastern Europe (and beyond), ostensibly to bury Flora’s ashes in her home country. We follow his journey but, at the same time, we read Flora’s journal as Darius is reading it, which he has translated from Hungarian. From it, he learns, to his surprise, that she was terribly depressed. He was completely unaware of this and this has a profound effect on him. His journey is something of an attempt to come to terms with this and get his life back on track. It is a superb novel and one that deservedly won the German book Prize. It has not yet been translated into English but I have no doubt that it will be.
The latest addition to my website is Pierre Lemaitre‘s Au revoir là-haut (The Great Swindle), the winner of the 2013 Goncourt Prize. The story starts in the last week of World War I, when all parties are awaiting the armistice. However, Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pradelle wants his last chance at glory and promotion. He sends two men out on patrol and then kills them, pretending that it was the Germans that did it. His men are now eager to attack. During the attack Albert Maillard is buried under soil but is rescued by the badly injured Édouard Périgord. Maillard looks after Périgord, helping him change his identity, as he does not want to see his family again, and caring for him. Meanwhile Pradelle has married Périgord’s sister and used his father-in-law’s connections to make money out of the war, in particular by being responsible for burying the French war dead in large cemeteries but cutting corners and cheating on the contracts. Meanwhile, things are not going well in postwar France for Albert and Édouard, till Édouard hatches a clever plan. It is an excellent story, well told, even if not great literature. It has not yet been translated into English but Maclehose Press, who have already published one of Lemaitre’s books in English and will be publishing two more next year, plan to bring out a translation in 2015. They tell me that they have not yet decided on an English title. I hope they can improve on my literal translation from the French.