Month: December 2015

Victor Pelevin: Омон Ра (Omon Ra)

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The latest addition to my website is Victor Pelevin‘s Омон Ра (Omon Ra). This is a fairly conventional satire on the Soviet space programme. Omon, the hero (named after the acronym for the special police squad – his father is a police officer) dreams of becoming a cosmonaut. He and his friend Mityok, who wants to fly to the Moon, apply to and are accepted at a cosmonaut academy, only to find that the Academy is named after a Soviet war hero who had his legs amputated below the knee and cadets are expected to undergo voluntary amputation to show their Soviet heroism. They also learn that the Soviet space programme is not as sophisticated as they thought. The Soviets want to send an unmanned spaceship to the Moon, to explore a geological fault on the dark side of the Moon. However, they do not have the technology to separate the rocket, to operate an unmanned rover remotely or to return a man from the Moon. As a result, men are used and these men will die (a hero’s death, of course). When Omon and Mityok find this out, they try to withdraw and but that is not an option. We follow their very basic and amateurish training and the even more amateurish flight. It is a witty satire on the Soviets and their space programme but not much more than that.

Victor Pelevin: Жёлтая стрела (The Yellow Arrow)

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The latest addition to my website is Victor Pelevin‘s Жёлтая стрела (The Yellow Arrow). This short novel is a train-as-a-metaphor-for-life novel, by no means the first in Russian literature. This train, called The Yellow Arrow, is a huge train. No-one knows where it comes from and only a few people seem to know that it is heading for a ruined bridge – possibly. No-one gets on and no-one gets off, not least because the train never stops. The main character, Andrei, has more or less accepted this and carries on his life. And life does go on. Sex, drink, food, tobacco, a theatre, religion, all are to be found on the train, though Andrei, when he is not reading the train magazine or a book about Indian railways (which seem remarkably similar to this railway) spends his time chatting with various friends. It is Khan who awakens in him the possibility that there may be life off the train and it may be possible to get off, though Andrei, at least initially, does not accept this. He gets onto the roof, where he sees people just sitting and chatting and accepting things, though one man does successfully dive into a river they cross. But will the train ever stop and can Andrei get off, if it does? It is an enjoyable metaphor/allegory about life in Russia and, possibly, about life elsewhere.

Ellis Sharp: Lamees Najim

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The latest addition to my website is Ellis Sharp‘s Lamees Naji,
the third Sharp novel published this year and the third I have reviewed in the past couple of weeks. This one is different from the other two. While it is certainly experimental, on the surface it seems quite mundane. We follow the life of a writer called Ellis (the story is in the third person) as he recounts his daily life – his breakfast, his musical tastes, his reading, the films he watches (not very good ones), his sleeping habits.) In particular, we follow his reading, both of books and newspapers but, more particularly, on the Internet. At first glance these also seem mundane. He reads the news. He reads book reviews. He reads about music and musicians. But, gradually, we see that there is a political angle to his reading. He reads about the unfair treatment of Greece by the EU over its debt crisis. He reads about drones and executions and Nazis and anti-Arab discrimination. Most of all, he reads about Palestine and, in particular, the Israeli invasion and destruction of Gaza in 2014 and the aftermath of those events. This gradually builds up to a crescendo, where it is virtually all about Palestine, before gradually coming back to the daily life of Ellis. He also quotes from a few books, about experimental literature and the decline of British fiction, with the quotes clearly relevant to what he is writing. It is not for everybody but, using a fairly mundane style, he manages to say more in this relatively short book than many British fiction writers do in their more grandiose books. And the last two words in the book are Lamees Najim, the first mention of this woman, a victim of Israeli terrorism.

Edmundo Paz Soldán: El delirio de Turing (Turing’s Delirium)

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The latest addition to my website is Edmundo Paz Soldán‘s El delirio de Turing (Turing’s Delirium), only the second Bolivian novel on my site. This one is set during the 2000 Cochabamba protests against increases in water prices following privatisation, though disguised as the increase in electricity prices following privatisation, in the fictitious town of Río Fugitivo. Much of the activity revolves around code-breaking, as we follow events inside the Black Chamber, the Bolivian equivalent of the US NSA and the UK GCHQ, as well as the employees of that body, the daughter of a current and a former employee of it, who is an investigative journalist, a group of hackers who hack into the Black Chamber and the computers of other government bodies and the global company that owns the electricity company, and a judge on a mission. Paz Soldán comes up with a complicated plot involving all of these, with revenge, deaths, dirty pasts and, inevitably, revelations about these characters and their deeds. While the plot was certainly very clever and made for a good read, I felt he tended to get a bit distracted from the overall political issues – corruption, abuse of power and the nefarious effects of globalisation – and the novel did not compare well with a couple of other novels I have read this year about political protests – Tryno Maldonado‘s Teoría de las catástrofes [Catastrophe Theory] and Zakhar Prilepin‘s Санькя (Sankya). However, as I said in my review, maybe I am expecting too much.

Jonathan Coe: Number 11

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The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Coe‘s Number 11. This is a sort of an update to Coe’s What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). The former book attacks Thatcherism and this book attacks the current state of contemporary Britain, though far less savagely and not focussed on the prime minister but on the various evils of the country today. We follow Rachel Wells, aged six at the start of the book and in her early twenties by the end, but Coe tends to use her more as his eyes, as it is she who sees many of the things that he criticises, from forced labour of immigrants to the behaviour of the super-rich. There is not much of a plot, more a series of vignettes exposing the things Coe wants to expose, some in satirical form (e.g. easy targets such as reality shows on TV and right-wing journalists) but most in a straightforward critical tone. He certainly covers most of the evils of the country today and the book is an enjoyable enough read but it it does not have anything like the bite of What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy), despite its little touch of Hollywood-style horror/sci-fi towards the end.

A reading list in response to the Paris attacks

The Syndicat de la librairie française (the French booksellers’ association) has put out a reading list of books to read following the terrorist atacks in Paris. The list is, of course, in French and nearly all the books are non-fiction, though there is one fiction work I have read: Mathias Enard‘s Boussole [Compass], not yet available in English but surely will be, sooner or later. Most of the books were originally written in French and I have not found any translated into English (though I have not checked every title). The list does include Stefan Zweig’s The Right to Heresy; Castellio against Calvin, translated from the German.

Mouloud Mammeri: La Colline Oubliée [The Forgotten Hill]

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The latest addition to my website is Mouloud Mammeri‘s La Colline Oubliée [The Forgotten Hill], one of the many Algerian novels sadly not translated into English. This one is about an Algerian village in the period leading up to World War II and during that war. Mokrane is the main character and we follow his life. He gets engaged and then married. He is called up to fight and undergoes training but is sent back home, once the Germans occupy France. As his wife does not get pregnant, his mother is determined that she is sinful and that Mokrane should leave her and marry someone else. By the time he is called up again, as the Allies fight Rommel, he has to all intents abandoned her but when he gets a sad letter from her, during his service, telling him she has moved back to her parents but is now pregnant, he is devastated and the effect on him is catastrophic. Mammeri also gives us an excellent portrait of the village during this period, with changing customs but also, during wartime, many problems, including disease, hunger and social disruption.

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