The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ París no se acaba nunca (Never Any End to Paris). This is a fun post-modern novel, nominally about the two years the unnamed author, but clearly Vila-Matas himself, spent in Paris writing his first novel. It is told in the form of a three day lecture on irony, though he admits it is really an ironic review, thirty years later, of those two years. We follow his struggles, as he lives in a garret owned by writer Marguerite Duras and his efforts to write a novel, when he has no clue what to write or how to write. He solves the first problem by stealing the plot from Unamuno and structure from Nabokov and various details from his observations and the second by getting advice from Duras and other writers. He channels Ernest Hemingway, initially his idol, and a man he (but no-one else) considers he physically resembles. He tells in-jokes and strange anecdotes. He meets a host of famous people but claims loneliness. He loves Paris but does not like it, though, as Hemingway said, once you have been there, it never ends. He tries to be Parisian but cannot even understand what Duras is saying. He even manages to get himself arrested, when he is mistaken for the famous terrorist, Carlos the Jackal. Is it a factual account of his time in Paris? Almost certainly not but that does not matter, as the border between reality and fantasy is very fluid in the post-modern world. It is, however, a very enjoyable read.
The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Knots, the second in a trilogy of novels about expatriate Somalis visiting Somalia during the early part of this century, when the situation was really grim. This one follows Cambara, a Somali woman who is living in Canada. She married an expatriate Somali, Wardi, who married her both to get papers to live in Canada and to get hold of some her money. They have a son but he drowns when Wardi, who was meant to be watching him, is busy having sex with a colleague. This is one of the reasons for her visit to Somalia. Others are revealed during the course of the book, including an attempt to recover a property formerly owned by her parents and a guilty feeling that she had done nothing for her home country since she emigrated. She stays with Zaak, a cousin, who had been brought up with her by her mother and with whom she had contracted a false marriage (at her mother’s instigation) in order to get him into Canada. He has now returned to Mogadishu and the pair do not get on. She finds that the property is now occupied by a minor warlord but this does not deter Cambara, even though the role of women is now following a more fundamentalist model in Somalia. She gets involved with a women’s group and they, together with a couple of female Somalia friends back in Canada, try to make a difference, both as regards recovery of the property and helping the downtrodden in Somalia, mainly though certainly not only women. The idea that women are the only ones that can make a difference in that situation is attractive but the book overall seems somewhat unconvincing.
The latest addition to my website is Junot Díaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. As this was voted best novel of the century (so far), I really had to read it to see if it was the best. It is not the best novel of the century so far but it is still a very fine novel. It tells the story of the de León family, a family originally from the Dominican Republic but who immigrate to New Jersey, where young oscar, a fat nerdy kid, grows up. Oscar has two main interest in his life – science fiction and falling in love. We do not learn how good a writer of science fiction he is, though his submissions are rejected but, when it comes to the opposite sex, Oscar is not very successful. While telling us Oscar’s story, Díaz also tells us about the situation in the Dominican Republic over the past fifty-sixty years, both from the perspective of the de León family as well as from the perspective of the population as a whole, both of which suffer a great deal from the repression of Trujillo, his henchmen and his successors. Díaz’s skill is to switch registers, from the humour and slang, often with sexual undertones, of the Dominican Republic to the grim story of the de Leóns and many others in the Dominican Republic as well as the pathos of Oscar’s own story, with the brutal repression of Trujillo and Co to the fore. This is a very fine novel and one I can heartily recommend but I don’t think it qualifies as the best novel of the 21st century. I made a quick survey and found eleven others I thought were better, nine of which were not written in English and five of those available in English translation. The BBC list has no books in the top twelve not written in English and only two in the top twenty, a ludicrous situation. Forget the list, however, and enjoy this book.
The latest addition to my website is Nuruddin Farah‘s Links, the first book in a trilogy about the disastrous situation in Somalia, at the beginning of the 21st century. The basic story line in all three books is the arrival in Mogadishu of one or more expatriate Somalis, who had been living in Canada, coming either to investigate the situation, or with some sort of agenda, which we gradually learn during the course of events. In this book, Jeebleh arrives in war-torn Mogadishu, from Canada. He had been brought up by his mother who, at the same time, helped bring up Bile and Caloosha, two half-brothers. Both Jeebleh and Bile had been imprisoned during the dictatorship, possibly at the instigation of Caloosha. Jeebleh had been unexpectedly released and sent into exile. Bile, a doctor, had remained in prison till the end of the dictatorship, when all prisoners had been freed. He has since opened a refuge for war orphans but continues to have health issues from his time in prison. Caloosha is now a minor warlord. Shortly before Jeebleh’s arrival, Raasta, Bile’s charismatic niece, had been kidnapped. Jeebleh, we learn, is in Mogadishu to locate his mother’s grave and to honour her, and to find her housekeeper, who seems to have disappeared. He reluctantly elicits Caloosha’s help. Inevitably, he gets involved in tracking down Raasta. Farah gives us a very detailed portrait of the chaos in Mogadishu, the background to the war and the ongoing civil war, happy to attribute blame to all the key players, while showing that the way out is positive action by ordinary people.
The latest addition to my website is George Packer‘s The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline. Though not a novel Die Zeit described it as the first Great American novel of the 21st century. While it is entirely factual, it is consciously modelled on John Dos Passos‘ U.S.A.. It tells the stories of variety of people over the past thirty-forty years, including the famous, such as Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Joe Biden and Jay Z, as well as the less famous, such as Peter Thiel and a few ordinary Americans and how they contributed to, benefited from or were victims of the unwinding. Packer describes what he means by unwinding: If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you have spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape—the farms of the Carolina Piedmont, the factories of the Mahoning Valley, Florida subdivisions, California schools. And other things, harder to see but no less vital in supporting the order of everyday life, changed beyond recognition—ways and means in Washington caucus rooms, taboos on New York trading desks, manners and morals everywhere. When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life, organized money.
Packer’s thesis follows a comment by another famous person profiled in this book, Elizabeth Warren. She recognised that the Great Depression had produced three landmark reforms: The FDIC—your bank deposits were safe. Glass-Steagall—banks couldn’t go crazy with your money. The SEC—stock markets would be tightly controlled. These were dismantled in the 1970s and 1980s (and not just by the Republicans). She and Packer have no doubt where the blame lays – with Wall Street (Robert Rubin is the bad boy poster child) and the politicians, many of whom were in the pay of and/or easily swayed by Wall Street. We see stories of how these people made a killing but also of their numerous victims, including a significant part of the populations of Youngstown and Tampa. Packer has clearly done his research and provides us with considerable detail, both with what went on both nationally, and locally, in the case of Youngstown and Tampa and illustrates his thesis with numerous examples and facts. And this is not just a left-wing rant. He sympathises with several people who favoured Reagan, as well as Tea Party members who may be misguided, in that they vote for the Republicans, all too often the cause of their distress. While not a novel nor the Great American Novel, this is a first-class work, which, I believe, everyone should read, just as they should read Capital in the Twenty-First Century, to know who is making a mess of their country, and, ultimately, the rest of the world, and how and why they are doing it.
I have just returned from four weeks in New Zealand. There were two reasons for going. The first, of course, was to escape the English January weather, though this plan has not always proved to be entirely successful, as it was snowing when we returned. The second was because we very much like New Zealand – wonderful climate, amazing scenery, good food, roads almost empty, they speak English (more or less) and they drive on the left. They are also very nice people. However, this was not a literary trip. We started off in Wellington, where we hoped to visit Katherine Mansfield’s house. Unfortunately, the only day we were in Wellington was the day when it was closed, so we missed out. We did visit Te Papa, the Wellington Museum. Te Papa is short for Te Papa Tongarewa, meaning container of treasures. I must admit my favourite discovery there was English. This was The Marriage at Cana, a painting by an English artist called Winifred Knights, whom I had never heard of, though a couple of her works are in the Tate. It was bought by the Museum from the British School in Rome, as no-one else seemed to want it, because of its size. Shame on the then directors of British art galleries.
When we were in New Zealand three years ago, we visited Dunedin and, in particular, Scribes bookshop. That visit led to several purchases of interesting works of New Zealand fiction, as recommended by Scribes owner Richard Tubbs, so we had no hesitation in returning. Richard was again most helpful and again we exceeded our luggage allowance with books, as I bought several works of fiction and my significant other found some interesting books on New Zealand and Dunedin history, also at Richard’s recommendation. This is one of those bookshops that are sadly disappearing in the age of online book-buying and ebooks – a well-stocked bookshop, with lots of interesting titles and a very helpful, friendly and knowledgeable owner. (I stress the word friendly because I have probably encountered more miserable people running bookshops during my life than miserable people in any other profession.) Its location next to one of New Zealand’s foremost universities probably helps. if you are in or near Dunedin, you should definitely visit it.
We did find one other excellent bookshop in Dunedin – The Hard to Find bookshop or, as their slogan has it, the Legendary Hard to find (but worth the effort) Quality Second Hand Bookshop. It was an excellent shop, as well and, frankly, not all that hard to find. Owner Warwick Jordan (scroll down) was very helpful and friendly and pointed out some interesting books. Warwick, Richard and other bookshop owners, however, sadly admitted that they did not not read much New Zealand fiction.
We did have a quick look at a few New Zealand new book shops, including Whitcoulls, flagship shop of the main New Zealand bookshop chain. People were reading some of the same books that they are reading elsewhere – Gillian Flynn, the new Sarah Waters, the new David Mitchell, the Rosie Project and Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter. New New Zealand books that they are reading are Owen Marshall’s Carnival Sky, Sarah-Kate Lynch, Laurence Fearnley’s Reach, Maxine Alterio’s Lives We Leave Behind and Deborah Challinor. Challinor is a New Zealander who lives in Australia. There were a couple of other Australians who were selling quite well – M L Stedman for her The Light between the Oceans and, of course, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Oh, and, naturally, Eleanor Catton is doing quite well.
And talking of Eleanor Catton… While we were there, she spoke at the Jaipur Literary Festival, where she was highly critical of the New Zealand government, saying that it was dominated by these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. Prime Minister John Key said that she has no particular great insights into politics, though why that matters, I do not know. Talk show host Sean Plunket called her a traitor and a hua. (Nor, no did I and nor, apparently, did Plunket – see this explanation.) The Taxpayers’ Union said she had received generous support from the taxpayer. Others defended her, e.g. here and here. Not surprisingly, it is now being called Cattongate. And the whole business seems part of tall poppy syndrome. My view? Good for you, Eleanor. If politicos cannot accept a bit of criticism, they should be in a more genteel profession, such as used-car selling or telemarketing. She is perfectly entitled to criticise them, even if she has received some taxpayer funding. And hasn’t the publicity she generated for her country been worth a lot more than that the few dollars she received? The answer, by the way, for any politician reading this, is Yes.