The latest addition to my website is Marlen Haushofer‘s Die Wand (The Wall). The story tells of an unnamed woman who is to stay with friends in a hunting lodge at the edge of the Austrian Alps. The plan is that she will arrive early and they will join her in the evening. They do not turn up that evening or ever. When she descends the gorge, at the end of which the lodge is located, to investigate, she finds an invisible wall, seemingly of infinite length, which prevents her from passing. She can see the village and neighbouring farms through the wall and she can also see two people on the farms and the cows, motionless and obviously dead.No-one comes to rescue her and no-one turns up. She adopts a small menagerie – her hunting dog, a cow (and later her calf) which she finds wandering and in need of milking, and a cat (and, later, her kittens) and they become her family. Fortunately, the lodge owner had prepared for a possible nuclear war, so it is well-stocked with supplies and she is able to grow beans and potatoes, forage, and hunt the plentiful deer on the mountain slopes. The book tells of her struggles, both physical and mental, dealing with this situation, all written down in a notebook. She adapts to the solitude, gradually forgets the past but also wonders whether it is worth going on. Because of the menagerie, she decides that she must make the effort to carry on living and surviving. But stocks (including paper for the notebook) are starting to run low.
The latest addition to my website is Victor Pelevin‘s Чапаев и Пустота (UK: The Clay Machine-Gun; US: Buddha’s Little Finger). This is another wonderful, witty, post-modernist novel from Pelevin. Pyotr Voyd, the narrator, is not sure when he lives. He is a commissar in 1919 to Vasily Chapayev, Soviet hero and subject of the book bearing his name but he is also the somewhat disturbed inmate of a contemporary (i.e. early 1990s) asylum. He much prefers being in 1919, despite the fact that Chapeyev’s niece, Anna, does not love him, though he loves her. Nevertheless, his good relationship with Chapayev, his heroic action in battle, and his visit to a type of Valhalla wth a dead baron are better than the cold baths and the oddballs of the asylum. These oddballs include a Russian gangster, a man who has had to commit seppuku after taking a job with a Japanese company and a man called Maria who thinks he is a soap opera star. Of course, Furmanov’s book got it all wrong about Chapayev and this book, based on a manuscript found in a Mongolian monastery, corrects the record. But poor old Pyotr still does not really know whether he lives then or now or, perhaps, in Inner Mongolia.
The latest addition to my website is Kate Atkinson‘s A God in Ruins. This is a follow-up to her quirky Life After Life. That book featured Ursula Todd. This book, which also features Ursula Todd to some degree, is primarily about her younger brother, Ted, and his daughter Viola. Apart from a little bit at the end, there is none of the quirkiness of the earlier book, though the chronology does jump around a bit. Ted is the Voice of Reason, a thoroughly decent, honest, nature-loving man who also happens to be a bomber pilot in World War II, something that causes him a certain amount of guilt, when he realises to what extent he has been bombing ordinary civilians rather than military targets. We get considerable detail about the bombing raids into Germany – Atkinson says, in an afterword, one of her intentions was to showcase the Halifax bombers which had been overshadowed by the larger Lancasters. However, the book also deals with the issues of moral responsibility and, as she says in the afterword, the Fall of Man (from grace). We follow Ted’s life from 1925, as a young boy, till his death in 2012, as well as the lives of his siblings, all of whom he outlives, his daughter Viola, not a nice person, her two children and other family members. Atkinson clearly wants to show, as she did in Life After Life, the effect on the various family members of the actions of their family as well as the effect of what she calls absences due to (untimely) death. It is a thoroughly enjoyable tale and a worthy successor to Life After Life.
The latest addition to my website is James Salter‘s A Sport and a Pastime. The novel is set in France, specifically Paris and Autun, and is narrated by a self-confessed unreliable narrator. He has borrowed the house of Parisian friends in Autun, where he is staying on his own, lusting unsuccessfully after the divorcee Mme Piquet. An old friend, Phillip Dean, arrives in a borrowed car and the pair travel around a bit. Dean meets Anne-Marie, a young, uneducated French woman, six years his junior. The pair start a passionate affair, described pruriently by the narrator, who admits some of the descriptions are part of his fantasies (he clearly relishes Anne-Marie’s body and their sexual activity). However, it is soon apparent to us and then to Anne-Marie and Dean, that the affair is doomed, not least because Dean has no money (he is a brilliant drop-out from Yale) and his father will not subsidise him. Salter tells his tale very well, as we follow his humdrum life, drifting between Paris and Autun, and all the while following the affair of Anne-Marie and Dean.
The latest addition to my website is Jowhor Ile‘s And After Many Days. This is Ile’s first novel and very well written for a first novel. The story involves the Utu family, who live in Port Harcourt, and consists of Benedict (Bendic), a lawyer, his wife, Ma, a teacher and their two sons, Paul and Ajie. At the beginning of the novel, Paul, who has just finished school and is about to go to university, leaves the house to go and visit a friend nearby. He is never seen again. The book tells of their lives before Paul’s disappearance as well as afterward. They naturally never give up hopes of finding Paul, even though they know in their hearts of hearts that he is dead. The whole book is set against the violence in Nigeria, from the Biafran War (when Bendic is imprisoned and nearly dies) to the oil companies exploiting the local people and using their power and brutality, with the connivance or often outright assistance of the corrupt government. Student demonstrations, random shootings and unexplained deaths colour the whole book, while, at the same time, we follow the story of a decent family trying to make a life and to help others in these circumstances. The book has been tipped to do very well this year and I can only concur.
I have just returned from a distinctly unliterary holiday in South Africa and Zimbabwe, with little literary to report. The South Africans I talked to were fairly ignorant of their own literature and professed to being far more interested in the great outdoors or cricket than in books. (For those more concerned with the Panthers vs the Broncos or what the rest of the world calls football, England and South Africa have just been playing each other at cricket in South Africa for the past few weeks. It would be churlish of me to mention the fact that England won the series.) If they had read a South African author, it was Deon Meyer in both English and Afrikaans. No-one had heard of Marlene van Niekerk or Achmat Dangor and few had heard of J M Coetzee. No matter. At least England won the cricket or have I already mentioned that?
I visited three bookshops, one in Zimbabwe and two in South Africa, though both in the same chain and very similar to one another. The one in Zimbabwe sold children’s books, educational books and a few shoddy UK and US popular paperback novels. There was not a Zimbabwean novel to be seen. The one in South Africa had a big display up front but all were nonfiction (a lot about the problems of South Africa and quite a few travel books). They did have a section called African literature, which was far smaller than the general fiction section, which contained mainly UK and US novels. The African literature section had quite a few South African novels but not all of them were new. The newer ones included Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System, a story of how ten days spread across four decades send tidal waves through the lives of ordinary and extraordinary South Africans alike, coming out in the UK and US in April this year; Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer, which came out in the UK and US last year and is a novel about E M Forster; Petina Gappah’s Book of Memory, which also came out in the UK and US last year and which is about a woman called Memory in prison for murdering her adoptive father; Irma Joubert’s Het meisje uit de trein (The Girl from the Train) (no, not that one), which came out in Afrikaans in 2011 and last year in English in the UK and US, about a German Jewish girl who escapes from a train bound for Auschwitz and ends up in South Africa; Zakes Mda’s Rachel’s Blue, coming out in March in the UK and US, and concerning rape in a US college town; Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive, already out in Kindle format in the UK and the US but only appearing in print next June, about young South Africans dealing with HIV/AIDS; Sindiwe Magona’s Chasing The Tails of My Father’s Cattle, published in South Africa last year but with no publication date in the UK and the US, about the lives of women in rural South African communities, which I hope to get to soon; and Ingrid Winterbach’s Vlakwater (it means shallow water). She writes in Afrikaans (the photo at left above shows the Afrikaans bookcase in the bookshop I visited) though some of her books have been translated into English. This one, which came out last year, has yet to be translated. It is a bizarre murder mystery.
Before Karen Blixen, whom we all remember for the film, there was Olive Schreiner, who wrote about her African farm before Karen Blixen wrote about hers. The cottage at right belonged to Schreiner in the small town of Matjiesfontein in the Karoo. You cannot simpy visit it, though you can stay in it. This was, I am afraid, all of my literary ramblings.
I was a long time subscriber to the French literary magazine La Quinzaine Littéraire, founded by the wonderful writer and editor Maurice Nadeau, who died in 2013 aged 102! He was writing and contributing till almost the end. After his death, financial troubles which had occurred before Nadeau’s death re-emerged and publication was suspended for a short time. The magazine was re-invented as La nouvelle Quinzaine littéraire. However, it was a smaller than the previous version. Towards the end of last year, there was a dispute between the editorial board and managing editor Patricia de Pas. This heated up and resulted in a significant number of resignations. The breakaway group have founded a new, online magazine, En attendant Nadeau. The second issue has just been published and, if you read French, it is well worth reading. It is to be hoped that En attendant Nadeau, La nouvelle Quinzaine littéraire, Le Matricule des Anges, Lire (which seems to have been partially absorbed by L’Express), Le Magazine Littéraire and other such literary magazines can continue to publish, as quality literary publishing is clearly going to struggle in these days of online, where we all expect free content.
The latest addition to my website is Abdulaziz Al-Farsi‘s تبكي الأرض– يضحك زحل (Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs), the first Omani novel on my website. It is a gently mocking satire of a village in Oman where the majority of people seem to be conspiring against others, have guilty secrets which are only gradually revealed (to us, at least) and where few are happy with their lot. The main character is Khalid who had escaped for the village to city but returns after an unhappy love affair. His only friend is the imaginary poet from Saturn, though he has the protection of his influential grandfather. He is only peripherally involved in the various conspiracies and plots in the village, including who should be the muezzin, who the imam, who the leader and where the meeting house should be, all of which result in plots and counter-plots, with the village split on all of the issue and resulting in mayhem and murder, perhaps as the result of a curse on the village. He mocks their hypocrisy, their religious quibbling and their petty-mindedness. It is all great fun and Al-Farsi tells his tale very well.
The latest addition to my website is Cyprian Ekwensi‘s Survive the Peace. This novel is set at the end of the Biafran War. James Odugo is a radio journalist who has been travelling around Biafra, broadcasting news of the war, with the radio station continually having to move as the Federals get closer. James’ wife and children are in a village well removed from the war. He is having an affair with Vic, a woman who also broadcasts for the radio station. At the start of the novel, the war seems to be ending. The town where James and Vic is bombed but Biafran soldiers rush into the town and discard their uniforms and weapons and flee. James and Vic manage to escape in his car and stay with a friend of James in another town. Vic wants to find her mother, James to find his family and Gladys Nwibe, with whom James had a brief fling earlier in the war, wants to find him. As the title tells us, surviving the peace is often more difficult than surviving the war, as chaos ensues, with armed robbers, the Nigerian soldiers raping the women, a shortage of food and other supplies, refugees fleeing and disease, when all most people want to do, James and Vic included, is to put their lives back together and start living a normal life. Ekwensi tells a good story of the hazards of a life after a war, where most people find their lives thrown upside down and most people have lost a friend or relative.
The latest addition to my website is Alexander Chayanov‘s Путешествие моего брата Алексея в страну крестьянской утопии (The Journey of My Brother Alexei to the Land of Peasant Utopia). This is a 1920 novel set in 1984 (yes, thirty-nine years before George Orwell got there), written by a well-respected Soviet agricultural economist, whose political views were too Utopian for Stalin and he sadly ended up shot in Kazakhstan in 1937. It tells the story of Alexei Kremnev, a Soviet official in 1921 (and not very happy with the Soviet system) who faints and wakes up in 1984 Moscow, a very different place. Moscow is much smaller and much greener. The economic system is something of a cooperative society with no collectivisation and little traditional capitalism. Everyone is encouraged to fulfill their potential, with art to the fore. It is all too wildly idealistic and improbable but a very interesting point of view but clearly one very much at odds with the then Soviet model. It is only available in a long since out of print academic journal in English translation, though the journal is available on-line (for a high price). See the review for more details.