The latest addition to my website is Mia Couto‘s Jesusalém (Brazil: Antes de nascer o mundo) (Tuner of Silences). As with his other books, this book is set in Mozambique during the war. Though not specified, it is presumably the Mozambican Civil War. Silvestre Vitalício, (whose his real name is Mateus Ventura) leaves the city with his family – his two sons, his brother-in-law and his servant – after the traumatic death of his wife. To everyone’s surprise they are running into the war, not from it, but they find a deserted encampment in an abandoned game reserve and settle there. Silvestre christens its Jesusalém in Portuguese, translated as Jezoosalem in English. The story is narrated by Mwanito, the youngest son, who is now eleven but was three when they left. He has no recollection of ever having seen a woman and is christened tuner of silences by his father as his only vocation is silence. Silvestre is determined that they are are the only people left in the world. There are no other people and even God has left. Things change dramatically, when a woman, a white Portuguese woman called Marta, appears, brought in by Aproximado, Silvestre’s brother-in-law, who, unlike the others, maintains some contact with the real world. When the war ends, it is time to go back, as the reserve has been sold to a private concern. Silvestre, however, is still struggling with his demons while the others try to adapt to the real world and, more or less, succeed. It is a fine though unusual story, focussing on Couto’s theme of war and the horrible effects it has on ordinary people but also on the themes of struggling to live together, when in isolation, and adapting to changing circumstances when the world is not in a state of normality.
The latest addition to my website is Gonçalo M. Tavares‘ Jerusalém (O Reino (The Kingdom) series) (Jerusalem). This is another gloomy, depressing book from Tavares. Much of it is set in the early hours of the morning in the usual unnamed city, with the main characters wandering around. The book eventually explains why they are where they are and who they are. Ernst Spengler is about to throw himself out of a window. Mylia Busbeck is in considerable pain and the doctors do not seem to be able to help. Her ex-husband, Theodor, future author of a seminal but controversial work on the relationship between history and atrocity, leaves his twelve-year old handicapped son, Kaas, to go and look for a prostitute. Kaas later wanders out himself. Finally, there is Hinnerk Obst, a former soldier who has returned from war with two things – a gun, which he threatens to use, and fear. The Georg Rosenberg Asylum and its strict director, Dr Gomperz, are a link to most of these characters. After an explanation of why they are where they are and who they are, we return to the city streets where things inevitably do not turn out well. It is grim and, at times unpleasant, but Tavares is showing us a view of the world which may have some validity for some people.
The latest addition to my website is Michel Houellebecq‘s Soumission [Submission]. This novel has received considerable pre-publication publicity because of its controversial subject matter. The book, set in 2022, follows François, a university professor who teaches nineteenth century French literature in the University of Paris III and is a specialist on the writer, J-K Huysmans. At the previous French presidential election, the run-off was between the Socialists and the extreme right. Despite the fact that the country had moved to the right, the Socialists won. However, as a result of the rise of the extreme right, the Muslims had created their own party, the Muslim Fraternity. To everyone’s surprise, in the first round of the 2022 presidential election, the Muslims were second to the extreme right. A deal was made between the other main parties and the Muslims. However, because of the uncertainty, there is considerable unease in France. There seem to be violent outbreaks which the media and government keep hidden. The university is “temporarily” closed. François leaves Paris, fearing a civil war, and heads South-West. Arriving at the small town of Martel (named after Charles Martel who beat the Arabs at Tours), he meets the husband of a colleague. This man had worked for the French internal security service but had just been given early retirement. He tells François what he thinks is going to happen. The Muslim Fraternity duly wins the election and suddenly but quietly, things start to change. Women have to dress more conservatively and are seemingly driven out of many jobs to become just wives and mothers. Polygamy is adopted. Crime drops. Eventually, François is offered a good job at the university, if he converts to Islam.
Houellebecq takes as his basis that there is a desire for an increasing religious/spiritual approach and that an incoming Muslim government would be fairly uncontroversial and not too extremist. I think he is either naive or disingenuous. In particular, suddenly relegating women to being second-class citizens is not going to happen. With a Muslim population of around 7.5%, France is not going to elect a Muslim government. He is right in that the major parties in many West European countries are looking increasingly irrelevant but, apart from the extreme right, there does not, as yet, seem to be a viable alternative and, if one does emerge, it is unlikely to be a Muslim party. Nevertheless, this is an interesting book that raises a host of ideas, inevitably controversial, as we would expect from Houellebecq, and it likely to lead to a lot of discussion, particularly when this book has been translated into other languages. Whether women and Muslims agree with it would seem to be highly doubtful.
The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ La asesina ilustrada [The Illustrated Murderess]. This is a strange story about a story, called La asesina ilustrada, which seems to have the effect that those who read it, die. The key person is Elena Villena. It is she who wrote the story, she who is married (but separated) from the writer Juan Herrera, apparently the first victim of the story, and she who visits the recently rediscovered but apparently very second-rate writer, Vidal Escabia, who appears to be the second victim of reading the story. Incest, lesbianism and rivalry between writers are all thrown into the mix, as the story develop twist after twist. It has not been translated into English but is available in French, Italian and Romanian.
I have been following the various best of the year lists, as I enjoy a list as much as the next person. Inevitably, I have learned about some interesting books that I was not aware of. I have not learned about Lena Dunham, whoever she may be, but she does appear on a lot of lists. If you have not had enough lists, you should head over to Large-Hearted Boy who, as every year, has a long, long list of lists. His lists are only English-language ones. If you are looking for exotic lists, including those in other languages, then you need to browse through the posts at The Literary Saloon. Which you should be doing anyway, all year long.
I am not going to do the standard best of the year, not least because the majority of books I read and reviewed this year were not published this year. Of course, many bloggers do a list of the best books they have read, regardless of year of publication (one blogger had Catcher in the Rye on her list) and I shall do a variation of this. Most of these lists (as I am starting writing this blog post before Christmas) are surely incomplete or do these people stop reading books in Advent? This post, as you will note, is being published on 1 January 2015, so I can report on everything I read in 2014. I shall start with a few stats.
I reviewed 171 books last year. 47 were by women. The most represented nationality was Iceland, with 20, because of my winter Iceland reading marathon, followed by France, with seventeen, Japan with fourteen (all but one by Tanazaki), England thirteen, Italy and Spain nine, Guyana (all by Wilson Harris) and the US eight each and Germany six. As always, there is little or no significance to these statistics.
So a few more lists:
Best book I read published in 2014:
Javier Cercas‘ El Impostor [The Impostor] (yes, the last book I read last year)
Lutz Seiler‘s Kruso
Kamel Daoud‘s Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation)
Jorge Franco‘s El mundo de afuera [The World Outside]
This is not a conscious attempt to exclude books written in English but just the way it worked out.
Best books I read not published in 2014:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah
Rodolfo Arias Formoso‘ Guirnaldas (bajo tierra) [Garlands (Underground)]
Rafael Chirbes: En la orilla [On the Shore]
Hans Henny Jahnn‘s Die Niederschrift des Gustav Anias Horn nachdem er 49 Jahre alt geworden war [The Notebook of Gustav Anias Horn after he was 49 years old]
Antonio Muñoz Molina‘s La noche de los tiempos (UK: The Depths of Time; US: In the Night of Time)
Irène Némirovsky: Suite française (Suite française)
Francesco Piccolo‘s Il desiderio di essere come tutti [The Desire to be Like Everyone]
Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping
Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters)
Marlene van Niekerk: Triomf (Triomf)
Ten books, four by women, only two originally written in English and with Spain the only country to have more than one on the list.
Authors I should have read a long time ago but somehow never got around to reading:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Irène Némirovsky; Marilynne Robinson
(All women. Shame on me!)
Carmen Amoraga; Wilson Harris
I was really looking forward to reading Wilson Harris last year but I have found him a hard slog. Carmen Amoraga won the Nadal but I found her La vida era eso [Such Was Life] very ordinary.
Didn’t live up to the hype
Richard Flanagan; Eimear McBride; Gonçalo M. Tavares
I have read a couple of other Flanagans and was not overly impressed so, initially, I kept away from The Narrow Road to the Deep North. However, it got rave reviews in Australia and was nominated for and then won the Man Booker. It was not a bad book but not as good as it was made out to be. Tavares was a disappointment, particularly Um Homem: Klaus Klump (O Reino (The Kingdom) series) (A Man: Klaus Klump). And I just did not get A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. As it won oodles of prizes, it must be me.
The World Literature Forum has been having an an interesting discussion on 5 Authors You Want To Read For the First Time, 5 Authors You Want To Read More, 5 Books You Want To Read and 1 Reading-Related Goal for 2015. This evolved into Five authors I don’t want to read for the first time, Five authors I don’t want to read more of and Five books I wish I hadn’t read and then split off into a separate thread. I was glad to see that the likes of Knausgaard and Flanagan made the lists (and others I would agree with and some I would not agree with). This leads me on to my next category.
Books/authors I abandoned in 2014
I don’t often give up a book after I have started reading it but there were two this year. The first was Sam Byers’ Idiopathy. This is a new young English writer who had been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award 2013 (won by Nathan Filer for his The Shock of the Fall, another book I intend to least to start reading some time). I felt Idiopathy was just silly and gave it up. The other one was more of a disappointment. I think that Alberto Chimal‘s La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden] was a brilliantly original book which, for some reason, has not been translated (though that might be changing). I was therefore looking forward to his Los Esclavos [The Slaves]. It turned out to be porn. It tells the story of a woman who runs a porn film business. The female star of her porn films is also her slave, both sexually and otherwise. I get that Chimal was writing about control and victims but I found the whole thing repulsive. I am not a prude – I enjoy a bit of porn as much as the next person – but this one really put me off. Apparently, McSweeneys are publishing it in English so you will be able to judge for yourself. And I have also, finally, give up Karl Ove Knausgård. I just do not see what people see in him.
Finding out about interesting new books used to be quite difficult. There were the special supplements in the weekend newspapers, specialist reviews and books on literary matters. Nowadays, like most people I suspect, I find out much of my information from other blogs and from other online sources. I have nearly 500 literary(-ish) blogs in my news reader and, skimming through them twice a day, I find lots and lots of useful information that I would not find elsewhere. I could pay tribute to a large number but I will focus on just a few. This is not to put down the others, many of which have provided useful information, but just to point out the ones deserving of special mention.
I do not think that it is any secret that the most important literary blog out there is The Literary Saloon. Michael Orthofer produces a wealth of interesting information 365 days a year (and 366 in leap years) as well as reviewing a whole range of interesting books. If you haven’t see his year in review, you can find out more.
One new blog this year that I have very much enjoyed is The Untranslated, though he actually started in November 2013. As the title says, he focuses on works that have not been translated into English. I have been particularly interested in his Russian readings and they make me feel that I really should resume my Russian studies. I have read one book in Russian in my life – Lermontov’s Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time), one of my favourite novels – but it was a hard slog.
There are four blogs I particularly enjoy which tend to focus on specific linguistic areas:
Arabic Literature (in English) is by far your best source for what is going on in literature in the Arabic-speaking world
Lizok’s Bookshelf is another blog that makes me want to resume my Russian studies and she is continually reporting on interesting new works that have appeared in Russian. (She also reports on older works as well.)
Love German Books is the best blog for what is happening in the literary world in German-speaking countries.
Caravana de Recuerdos is one of the best sites on Latin American literature. Despite the title, it is (mainly) in English. If you have ever wanted to learn about Argentinean literature of doom, you should be reading his recent posts.
As for other blogs, I must mention Ivan Thays‘ Moleskine. The blog is (mainly) in Spanish and he reports on Latin American literature but other literary matters of interest as well. Thays is a Peruvian novelist who is barely known in the English-speaking world, not least because none of his book has been translated into English. I have a review of one of his books on my site.
Four more blogs to mention:
Tony’s Reading List is a quirky but lively book review blog. He has been reading a lot from South Korea recently, one of the all too many areas where I have not read enough.
Three Percent is the University of Rochester’s international literature blog and producer of the essential Translation Database.
The Neglected Books Page comes up with a whole range of interesting neglected books, mainly, though by no means entirely, those originally written in English.
Wood’s Lot is a wonderful blog with literary snippets, illustrated with paintings, and links to interesting articles.
Many thanks to all of these blogs and their bloggers as well as to the other 500 or so other blogs that I have not mentioned but enjoyed throughout the year.
Apparently people from 137 different countries have visited my blog. Many thanks to all of you for stopping by and a Happy New Year to you all. No, a Happy New Year to most of you. Every day, I get about 125 spam attempts and about five hacking attempts. All are blocked with the wonderful plug-ins I have. But just a note to the potential hackers (who are mainly Chinese, followed by Russian). My userid is not admin and my password is not password. There is no point in hacking into my site, as I have no personal details about anybody on it. No credit card numbers, no social security numbers, no e-mail addresses. And, if you do try to hack in, you will be blocked. There are better things you could be doing, such as reading a book. Both China and Russia have produced some excellent works, both recently and in the past. Reading them will be much more enjoyable and rewarding than hacking into my site. A Reduced Happy New Year to the spammers and hackers and two resolutions for them – Get a life and read some books.