The latest addition to my website is Stratis Tsirkas‘ Ακυβέρνητες Πολιτείες (Drifting Cities. This is a trilogy of novels, often compared to The Alexandria Quartet. Like that book, it takes place during World War II, though each book is set in a different city – Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria, respectively. The story is centred around the struggle of the expatriate Greeks to set up a new government, with a view to forming a government after the Germans are driven out of Greece. Unfortunately, there are numerous factions, from the Communists to the Fascists/Monarchist, and everything in-between, all vying for support and power. Our hero is Manos, a left-wing humanist (but not Communist), who works with his group who often feels that the British are as much as the enemy as the Germans, as Churchill definitely wants the right-wingers in power. The first book, set in Jerusalem, revolves around the boarding house of Anna Feldman, a Cologne Jew who is one of the many exiles, who have left their country because of the political situation. Manos is one of the many residents in the boarding house and we follow their often complex political and complex love life. The second book has Manos injured in the desert soon after the Battle of El Alamein and (falsely) accused of murder as the British try to track him down. In the third book, we meet his extended family, as his mother originated from Alexandria, and British treachery gets worse and the situation comes to something of a climax with the Greeks. If you can work your way around the complex Greek politics, it is a fine book, perhaps not as fine as The Alexandria Quartet but still well worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is Gafur Gulom‘s Shum bola [The Rascal, a light-hearted Uzbek novel which has been translated into German but not into English. This tells the tale of a fourteen-year old Uzbek boy from Tashkent, who because of his lies and mischievousness, gets himself into a series of amusing scrapes. He has to run away from home when he is caught by his mother stealing butter and an egg and, from then on, he gets into all sorts of trouble, including misfeeding his uncle’s favourite birds, mistakenly slaughtering a donkey instead of a cow, stealing a cow, twice being wrongly accused of stealing at a bazaar, being involved in a prayer-selling scam, spying on a harem, lying to his friend, losing sheep he was meant to be guarding and even working in an opium den. He and we get a picture of Uzbekistan, as he travels around the country, frequently visiting bazaars. We know when it is, as World War I is going on but, apart from some prices rise, it seems very remote and virtually irrelevant to the Uzbekis. It is, however, all good fun. Sadly, the book seems to be only available in Uzbekistan (I got my copy in Khiva, if that helps) and not available, at least as yet, in Western Europe or North America.
At one point, the questionable morality of our hero and his fellow Uzbeks is referred to with the phrase Everything that has no owner belongs to Hoja Nasreddin. This is a reference to an Uzbek folk hero, subject of many Uzbek stories. Nasreddin is generally believed to be of Turkish origin but the Uzbeks are determined that he was Uzbek. As you can see to the right, there is even a statue of him in Bukhara. Many of his stories have been translated into English. You can read a few here. As with the hero of Shum bola, he is a loveable rogue. Here is one which was told to us while we were looking at the statue on Bukhara.
Nasreddin was boasting to people that he could teach a donkey to speak. The people were used to his ways, so ignored him but word got to the Emir. The Emir summoned him and asked if it was true that he could teach a donkey to speak. He confirmed that this was the case. The Emir then produced a donkey and ordered Nasreddin to teach him to speak.
I am afraid that it will take a very long time, Nasreddin said.
I will give you one year, the Emir responded.
Oh no, it will take me ten years, was Nasreddin’s response.
Ten years? Are you mad? screamed the Emir.
It is very complicated teaching a donkey to speak, Nasreddin retorted. I will need ten years to do so.
The Emir reluctantly agreed to the ten years.
And it will be very expensive, Nasreddin added.
Very well. I will give you one hundred gold coins, said the Emir.
Oh no, that is not nearly enough, Nasreddin replied. I will need one hundred thousand gold coins.
One hundred thousand gold coins? Out of the question!
Then I am afraid that I cannot teach a donkey to speak, Nasreddin responded.
The Emir reluctantly summoned his vizier and ordered him to give Nasreddin the hundred thousand gold coins.
However, he concluded, if you do not teach the donkey to speak within the ten years, I will have you beheaded.
Nasreddin joyfully went home and threw the coins onto the kitchen table in front of his wife. She was impressed but asked him where he got them from. He explained the story of the donkey and the Emir.
Nasreddin, she said, others may be taken in by you but I know you well. You cannot teach a donkey to speak. In ten years, the Emir will have you beheaded.
Oh don’t worry, my love, Nasreddin replied, In ten years either the Emir or the donkey will be dead.
The latest addition to my website is N. Scott Momaday‘s House Made of Dawn. This was the first Native American novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It tells a familiar tale, that of a Native American man who cannot find his way in white society and turns to drink for solace. Abel had been a fine runner as a young man and had been brought up by his grandfather in the traditions of his people, hardworking and responsible. His mother and older brother had died when he was still young and he never knew his father. However, he had had to go off and fight in the war, where he did not fit in and the memory one of his white comrades has of him is doing a crazy war dance in front of attacking German tanks. When his grandfather collects him from the bus stop when he returns from the war, he is drunk. A defeat by an albino in a horsemanship contest at a local celebration leads him to murder the man, as he is clearly, in Abel’s eyes, a witch. After six years in prison, he is in Los Angeles but things do not go well there and he turns to drink. Only after being badly beaten up by a rogue cop and sent to hospital does he return home, to look after his dying grandfather. Momaday not only tells his story very well, showing in a fairly dispassionate way the plight of the Native American in a white society, his painterly description of the land and the people on it are masterful. It is still as worth reading now as it was forty-seven years ago.
The latest addition to my website is Jenny Erpenbeck‘s Gehen, ging, gegangen [Go, Went, Gone]. This is a very timely book, as it is about the refugee crisis and is, indeed, the second book about refugees I have read recently. The other one showed that Europe (or, at least, France) was more welcoming but then the numbers were few. In this book, written before the current Syrian refugee crisis, the numbers are greater, as is the hostility towards them, both the bureaucratic hurdles they face as well as hostility from the locals. The story concerns Richard, a recently retired professor of classical philology, a former East German, a widower with no children, living in the Berlin suburbs. He almost inadvertently becomes aware of the refugee crisis, as a group of refugees from different African countries protest against their treatment, which generally means that they are not allowed to work and not granted asylum, often because of complex German and EU laws. Slowly but surely, he becomes involved with this small group, studying them but also helping them, as it is this that becomes his retirement project. Erpenbeck shows the horrors that the refugees have escaped from and the horrors they faced coming to Germany (via Libya and Italy) and makes subtle comparisons with Richard and his former East German friends who have had their problems but obviously nothing compared to the refugees. It is a well-written and well-meaning account of the situation, with Erpenbeck making it clear that she very much sympathises with the refugees and their plight. The book was considered a favourite to win the German Book Prize but it did not, beaten out by a much longer book, dealing with the Baader-Meinhof Group.
The latest addition to my website is Rupert Thomson‘s Katherine Carlyle. Thomson’s novels tend to be dark and are often concerned with people trying to escape. This one is no exception. The eponymous heroine is nineteen years old. She lives with her father in Rome though he is usually absent, as he is a war reporter for television. Her mother had died of ovarian cancer. Kit, as she is known, is to go up to Oxford shortly. However, she is now seeing various signs. These are various found objects such as keys, coins, and playing-cards, which she thinks have a meaning just for her, though what that meaning is does not seem to be clear. Eventually, the one sign that she thinks is significant is when she hears an English couple talking about a man who lives in Berlin and whose girlfriend has just dropped him. They even mention the square where he lives, so Kit sets off to track him down. Track him down she does but he is merely the beginning of her quest, which will eventually lead her to Ugolgrad, a fictitious Russian settlement on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. It remains unclear what her motives are for the quest and for leaving her father, without telling him and what she hopes to find in Ugolgrad but then maybe that is the point – we do things or, as we think, other people do things whose motivation is unclear. This is not Thomson’s best book but it does make for an interesting read.
The Saltire Society has announced its shortlist for its 2015 literary awards. While the fiction list has several of the usual suspects – Irvine Welsh, Kate Atkinson, the underrated Janice Galloway, whose novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing I read many years ago and plan to reread and review some day, Andrew O’Hagan amd Michael Faber, what is most interesting to me is the incluson of a novel in Scottish Gaelic: Norma NicLeòid/Norma Macleod’s An Dosan (Dosan is a shortened form of the title character’s full name, Domnhall Seumas Iain). Macleod, who lives on the Isle of Skye, has written all her novels in Gaelic. I have just read Moray Watson’s An Introduction to Gaelic Fiction and he speaks highly of her, not least because she is the first author to write a sequel novel in Gaelic! Her husband Fionnlagh and her nephew, Iain, have also written novels in Gaelic. Anyone who has browsed my site, will know that I very much welcome novels written in minority languages, particularly those in the middle of the culture where there is a dominant world language, so long may the NicLeóids/MacLeods continue to write novels in Gaelic. It would be nice if one or two were translated into English but it is a good thing that these small cultures can keep the tradition alive in their own language. It is also good that the Saltire Society recognises the importance of the Gaelic tradition.
The latest addition to my website is Leila S Chudori‘s Pulang (Home). The novel tells the story of a group of Indonesians who are abroad in 1965, during the 1965 anti-communist coup and are unable to return and have to spend the rest of their lives abroad. The main character is Dimas Suryo, who is left-wing but definitely not communist. He was fortunately abroad at the time of the coup and he and his colleagues are able to go first to China and then to Paris, where they eventually open an Indonesian restaurant, which becomes successful. Dimas meets and marries (and later divorces) a French woman, he meets during the 1968 May uprising. They have a daughter, Lintang, who feels herself mainly French but is well aware of her Indonesian blood and heritage and will, in much of the second part of the book, go to Indonesia to make a documentary as part of her film studies course. While there, she is caught up in the upheavals in Indonesia in 1998, which led to the downfall of Suharto. Chudori tells a first-class story about political exile, struggling with identity in an alien even if friendly land and a longing for a home that will remain permanently closed.
I have just returned from two weeks in Central Asia, which was highly enjoyable and a lifelong dream but, from the literary point of view relatively disappointing. I found only three bookshops, the last two on the last day. The first was, somewhat surprisingly, in the middle of Khiva. (Khiva is essentially a preserved small and very old town). It was small and mainly had textbooks. The books that it had in English were exclusively for Uzbeks wanting to learn English. However, it did have a couple of Uzbek novels translated into German, one of which I bought and plan to review shortly. I have since checked them out and they do not seem to be readily available in Europe or North America. The other two bookshops were in Turkmenistan, close to one another, on the edge of the Russian market. Both sold mainly textbooks in Russian and few books in Turkmen or Western languages. One thing we did notice was that, apart from tourists, we did not see a single person reading – books, magazine or newspapers. When I asked about this, I was told that people do not read all that much, despite (officially) a high rate of literacy, and when they do, they do so at home. In the museums, virtually the only book displayed was, not surprisingly the Koran, including the oldest Koran in the world, though there now appears to be an older one.
Turkmenistan was described by our Uzbek guide as a cross between North Korea and Dubai (or, perhaps, North Korea and Las Vegas). It single-handedly keeps the Italian marble industry in business as the president has directed that all buildings must be covered in white marble and all cars must be white. They are not there yet but are certainly making good progress. What makes it even more peculiar is that, though you do see cars, you see very few pedestrians, so it looks like a gigantic mausoleum. The previous president, Niyazov, was even more (much more, in fact) megalomaniacal than the current one (Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, a former dentist). A few years before his death, he built a massive mosque (it can hold around 25,000 people) as a tribute to himself, covered in gold and white marble, with a mausoleum for himself and his family next door. Both together cost several hundred million dollars. Most mosques have quotations from the Koran on them but this one has quotations from Turkmenistan’s greatest writer (in his view), i.e. Saparmurat Niyazov. In particular, the quotations come from his book, Ruhnama, which means Book of Soul. In Independence Square, there is a statue of it at least 30 feet (10 metres) high (see photo above right). And, yes, you can read it in English. I do not recommend it.
The Turkmens do recognise their other writers and there was a section in the museum devoted to a few poets. (Incidentally, the museum is very large. When we visited (with a local guide – you cannot go anywhere without a guide), we (a group of eight) were the only ones in the museum apart from the dozen or so staff members we saw.) Magtymguly is their great poet. He did not write his poetry down, coming from an oral tradition but it was so well-known that others did and it has been preserved. His poems are available in English. The statue of him (photo above) is in Independence Square along with the statues of other Turkmen poets, including Kemine, Mollanepes and Mätäji. Sadly, for me there is not much much of a novel-writing tradition in these countries.
The latest addition to my website is Enrique Vila-Matas‘ Exploradores del abismo [Explorers of the Abyss]. This book is not a novel but, rather, a collection of linked short stories, about what Vila-Matas calls exploring the abyss, though his ideas of what is exploring the abyss may not be shared by everyone. Only one of the stories follows his usual path of literary wanderings and that is the only story in the collection to have been translated into English, under the title Because She Never Asked. This story uses a couple of ideas found in other of the stories in this collection, namely the idea of the doppelgänger and also having a story told which seems like the main story but which we later found is narrated by another character, who has been affected by this story or is involved with it somehow. Inevitably it uses both real writers and fictitious ones and goes off on tangents. The other stories tend to have far fewer literary references and several of them are dark. The theme of emptiness, the new physics and even medical difficulties are all found in several of the stories. Apart from the Forest-Meyer family, who appear in various forms in several of the stories, there are no characters that recur. While not, in my view, as rewarding of some of his other works, it is still interesting to see Vila-Matas try something a bit different from his other work but Because She Never Asked remains my favourite.