Youssef Ziedan: عزازيل (Azazeel)


The latest addition to my website is Youssef Ziedan‘s عزازيل (Azazeel). This is a brilliant book, set in the fifth century A.D., telling the story of Hypa, an Egyptian Christian monk, who travel around the Middle East (modern Egypt, Syria, Israel and Turkey). Hypa is caught up in the religious disputes between the early Christians and the pagans (his father, a pagan, is murdered by Christians) but also in the dispute between Bishop Cyril and Bishop Nestorius, with Hypa supporting Nestorius. Unlike the dogmatic people he meets, both pagan and Christian, Hypa tends to take a more tolerant attitude, favouring sexual relationships for monks and learning from the pagans and not just from Christian sources. He is also subject to many doubts, as good heroes often are, urged on by Azazeel, i.e. the Devil. Whatever your views of religion and religious dogma, this is a first-class and most entertaining novel.

Sara Stridsberg: Beckomberga: Ode till min familj (Gravity of Love)


The latest addition to my website is Sara Stridsberg‘s Ode till min familj (Gravity of Love). This is Sara Stridsberg’s first novel translated into English (another one will be published in 2017). Not surprisingly, her work is available in nine other languages. This one is set primarily in the Beckomberga psychiatric hospital, an actual hospital just outside Stockholm, which was closed in 1995. It is narrated by Jackie, daughter of Jim, a serial alcoholic, philanderer and would-be suicide. After his wife, Jackie’s mother, Lone, leaves him, he attempts suicide one more time and is sent to Beckomberga. Jackie, who is a teenager, visits him regularly but he eventually rejects her, refusing to see her unless Lone comes as well. Lone refuses and is hell-bent on travelling around the world to see the various trouble spots. Three of the characters do commit suicide and Jim continues to try and threaten to do so, even long after he has been released from the hospital and remarried (and redivorced). Jackie struggles with her life as a single mother, unable to have a satisfactory relationship with others. This is a fairly bleak book about mental illness and those who live with those who have mental illness, with Stridsberg effectively showing the struggles that those involved go through.

Max Aub: Campo francés [French Camp]


The latest addition to my website is Max Aub‘s Campo francés [French Camp]. This is the fourth in Max Aub’s six volume Civil War series, El laberinto mágico (The Magic Labyrinth), though it was the fifth to be published. This one is set primarily in France, starting with the period immediately after the end of the Spanish Civil War. It mainly involves Juan, a Spaniard who had not been involved in the Civil War but had lived in Paris, running a small shop that sold and repaired radios. He is arrested by the police in a round-up of Communists but released when he shows that he has been mistaken for his brother Juan, who was involved in the Civil War. However, once World War II breaks out, he is re-arrested and this time, despite his pleas and the pleas of his wife and even with Juan giving himself up, he is not released. He and the many other prisoners are moved to the Roland Garros stadium where they wait in vain for their case to be heard. When World War Ii breaks out, they are shunted down to the South of the country and things do not improve. Clearly Aub, who wrote this novel in 1942, well before it was finally published, felt very bitter about this and all of his ire is aimed at France and the French authorities. It is somewhat slighter than the previous three in the series but nevertheless an interesting view of an aspect of World War II most of us will be unaware of.

Marlen Haushofer: Die Mansarde (The Loft)


The latest addition to my website is Marlen Haushofer‘s Die Mansarde (The Loft). This is Haushofer’s last published novel and a first-class one it is. The unnamed narrator lives in Vienna with her husband, Hubert, and their fifteen-year old daughter, whom they hardly ever see. They have a son who lives on his own. She starts receiving by mail excerpts from diaries she wrote and thought she had destroyed some twenty plus years ago. During this period she went completely deaf for no obvious physiological reason and spent the time in a hunting lodge (like the one in Die Wand (The Wall)), away from her husband and young son. She has her suspicions as to who is sending these excerpts now but is not sure. Apart from the issues with her psychosomatic deafness, overall, while on the face of it, a very normal and conventional housewife and mother, she is a woman who cannot come to terms with the world and its ways, her only solace, hiding out in her loft drawing and painting birds and other animals. Like other Haushofer female protagonists, she is somewhat afraid of the world and can only cope by hiding from it. Haushofer’s novel is an excellent portrait of a not uncommon twentieth century malaise.

Zadie Smith: Swing Time


The latest addition to my website is Zadie Smith‘s Swing Time, another superb novel from this author. The unnamed narrator is the daughter of a white man and black woman. She grows up wanting to be a dancer (hence the title) and, with her friend, Tracey, attends dance classes. But their paths diverge. Our narrator goes to university, in part thanks to the efforts of her ambitious mother, who will later become a Member of Parliament, and then gets a job as PA to Aimee, a highly successful Australian singer and dancer. Aimee decides to save Africa and invests in a school and other facilities for a poor Gambian village. Our narrator spends a lot of time there but Western and African values, culture and ideas clash and the timely idea of cultural appropriation becomes key to the novel. Though this and related issues, such as racism and sexism, and the various problems Africa faces, are key, it is above all a very well-told story of growing up and living in a world where you may at times not totally fit in and also a story of relationships and their difficulties. It shows that Zadie Smith is now, without a doubt, one of Britain’s foremost novelists.