The latest addition to my website is Rosario Ferré‘s El Vuelo del Cisne (Flight of the Swan). The story is about a Russian ballet troupe which is in Puerto Rico when the Russian Revolution breaks out, meaning they cannot return to Russia but, as they are stateless, may not be allowed to stay in Puerto Rico. The troupe is led by a lady known as Madame to Masha, the narrator. Madame – Niura Poliakoff – has a poor background, the illegitimate daughter of a laundrywoman, but her father was well-off and his family paid for Niura to go to ballet school. She became a great success, and even danced with Nijinsky but now has her own ballet company, managed by her rich (but not as rich as she thought he was) husband, Victor Dandré. While in Puerto Rico, Niura has an affair with a man half her age and she and the company get mixed up in the anti-American politics. It all ends somewhat chaotically with terrorists/freedom fighters, a Lindbergh-like pilot and passion galore. The comparison between Puerto Rican and Russian culture is brought out, in particular their common points, namely sexual passion and hatred of oppression.
The latest addition to my website is Martín Caparrós‘ La Historia [History]. This massive novel – over a thousand pages long – was first published in 1999 but only in a very limited print run, so it has been very difficult to obtain. Anagrama have now published it in a larger print run. It is essentially a foundation myth for Argentina, inventing an entire civilisation located where the now extinct Calchaquí lived and tells of their complex and advanced culture. It is based on a manuscript found by a modern Argentinian, Mario Corvalán-Ruzzi, in a (fictitious) French château and written in French. Corvalán-Ruzzi has tried to track down the original Spanish, written by a Spanish monk taking dictation from Oscar, a man waiting for his father, the current king (or Father, as they call them) to die so that he can succeed. As he has been unable to find a Spanish version, we are presented with his translation of the French into Spanish, complete with very detailed notes. He outlines the history of the culture (called only The City and the Lands) and their often (to us) peculiar customs and behaviours. We follow them, indeed, from their founding by Albert, the first Father to Oscar, the twenty-first and last, as well as learning much about them. It is a brilliant and thoroughly original work, giving us the portrait of a civilisation that is very different from ours, though not without some similarities. I would like to hope that it might one day make it into English but I am not optimistic. Whether it does or not, it will be one of the great modern classics of Latin American literature.
The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s Careers for Women. This is another first-class novel from one of the United States’ leading novelists, who does not get the attention she deserves. As the title of this one shows, it is about sexism and, in particular sexism in the workplace, though it is also about a lot of other things. It starts in the late 1950s, when the very real Lee K Jaffe is head of the public relations department of the New York Port Authority. It is Jaffe who will push for the construction of the twin towers of the world Trade Center. Jaffe has a heart and hires a woman, Pauline Moreau, who has been arrested for prostitution, to the disgust of Maggie Gleason, the narrator and her colleagues. Maggie soon becomes close to Pauline and looks after Sonia, Pauline’s handicapped daughter, a role she takes on full-time when Pauline mysteriously disappears. At the same time, we are following the events at Alumacore, an aluminium manufacturing plant in Visby, in remote upstate New York, whose managing director, Bob Whittaker, had previously had an affair with Pauline and is the biological father of Sonia. We follow the story of what happened to Pauline, as well as the construction of (and, right at the end, destruction of) the twin towers. As well as these plot lines and the issue of sexism and (lack of) careers for women, Scott raises a host of other issues, including corruption, corporate bullying, massive pollution and anti-Semitism, all the while giving us another excellent novel.
The latest addition to my website is Yoshio Aramaki‘s 神聖代 (The Sacred Era). This is a science fiction novel in the tradition of Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick but it is a highly intelligent and serious work. Yoshio Aramaki has a reputation in Japan (but not elsewhere) as a first-class writer of speculative fiction (and, more recently, of virtual reality war novels). This is in the former category and considered his best work. It is set on an imaginary planet that has many features of Earth. The planet has a Christian-like religion but one that is Quadritarian rather than Trinitarian, with the Holy Igitur being the fourth divinity. It is facing serious climate change problems as a result of extraction of the hydrogen from the sea and has managed to travel great distances in space. Our hero is K. who, like his Kafkaesque namesake, is a solitary person who has been selected to take the special Sacred Service Examination. Successful candidates (there are fairly few) join a select group of people. He becomes the youngest to pass and is selected to study the Planet Bosch (named after the painter, who exists on their planet as well). However, he has to deal with the ghost of a famous heretic, Darko Dachilko, who was beheaded seven hundred years previously and who seems to like strangling people, an unusual career path, and travel to several exotic planets where he meets Lucifer (the devil), Darko Dachilko and a sex doll. While using conventional science fiction tropes and ideas, the book is ultimately a very serious examination of the nature of humanity, where humans are going a the relationship of humans with the divine.
The latest addition to my website is Teolinda Gersâo‘s A cidade de Ulisses (City of Ulysses). Unusually for Gersâo, this novel is narrated by a man, Paulo Vaz, an artist. Vaz has been asked to contribute to an exhibition on Portugal and, in particular, focus on his view of Lisbon. He is reluctant to accept because he has already worked on such a project, with Cecilia, his now ex-girlfriend and one, apparently, whom he is no longer in touch with. We follow his back story, in particular his relationship with his parents (cruel military father and mother who taught him painting) and, of course, his relationship with Cecilia. We learn how the couple discovered Lisbon and discovered it both as the City of Ulysses but also as the unknown city, both unknown to the world at large but also, in parts, unknown to its own inhabitants. We also learn how and why the relationship ended, how both were changed by it and how Vaz is going to put forward their joint view but also their individual views of Lisbon, the city of Ulysses. It is not your typical Gersâo novel but still a very fine one.
The latest addition to my website is Ivailo Petrov‘s Хайка за вълци (Wolf Hunt). This long novel, originally published in 1982, is set in rural Bulgaria. At the beginning of the novel, six men plan to go out in a snowstorm to hunt wolves that are attacking the sheep. Most of the rest of the novel is about these six men, their lives, loves and relationships, with all the stories linking into one another. We follow the story of the village for most of the twentieth century up to 1965. In particular, we see the coming of communism and a cooperative farm in the village, which is particularly contentious and leads to much bitterness and even deaths. The villagers love (not always wisely), fight, produce wine, tend their crops, get invovled in war, leave the area, are happy and sad and, ultimately, struggle on. At times the novel is very funny and at times it is deadly serious. Death, inevitably, triumphs and while some of the deaths are natural some are definitely not. It is a superb novel and had considerable success in Bulgaria and is well overdue in English translation.
The latest addition to my website is Wright Morris‘ Plains Song: For Female Voices. This is one of Morris’ last novels and tells the multi-generational story of the Atkins Family. Cora has married Emerson, after a very brief courtship, and then joined him and his brother, Orion, who are homesteading land out West. The families tend to have daughters and Cora has one daughter, Madge, who is overweight and quiet as a child a as an adult. Orion marries Belle, something of a hillbilly, and they have three daughters. The middle daughter dies when very young and Belle dies giving birth to the youngest one. However, it is the eldest daughter, Sharon, who is key. She is more boisterous and more independent than her cousin, Madge, and, to a certain degree, clashes with Cora. In particular, a strong contrast is made between Cora, the steadfast pillar of the family, and the more flamboyant Sharon, who leaves the area, has a musical career and never marries. We also follow the changes, both in the individuals and in the world around and the effect this has on the various characters. This is an excellent swansong to Morris’ work, focussing on the women over several generations.
The latest addition to my website is Yi Mun-Yol‘s 아우와의만남 (An Appointment with My Brother; later: Meeting with My Brother), a new translation of a book that was previously published in English as An Appointment with My Brother. It is partially based on the life of the author. In real life, his father defected to North Korea during the Korean War, leaving his wife and three children. The family never saw him again but later learned he had married and had five children. In this book, the protagonist, Professor Yi, plans a meeting with his father in Yanji, a Chinese town just over the border from North Korea. He hires an intermediary to make contact but, before the father is tracked own, he has died. Instead, as the title tells us, he meets his half-brother instead. Not surprisingly, relations between the two half-brothers from two related but very different countries are not entirely easy. Yi Mun-Yol, one of Korea’s foremost writers, tells a superb story of a country separated by ideology and the problems this causes for families, without being mawkish or overly sentimental.
The latest addition to my website is Jean Giono‘s Regain (Harvest; later: Second Harvest). This is one of the classic 20th century French novels and beautifully written. It tells the story of Aubignane, a remote village, which has essentially been abandoned. At the start of the novel, there are only three inhabitants and one leaves, to go and live with his son, soon after. The two left are Mamèche who has lost her husband and son to accidents and Panturle, a younger man. Mamèche tells him that he needs a woman and he agrees. One day, she disappears without warning. Meanwhile, the knife-sharpener, Gédémus, is on his rounds, accompanied by Arsule, a young woman who arrived at Gédémus’ village with an abusive travelling player, Tony. Tony is sent on his way and Arsule stays with the much older Gédémus. On their rounds they arrive in Aubignane but Panturle takes fright and runs away. He slips and knocks himself out, falling in a stream. When he awakes, Arsule is caring for him. Her arrival heralds a change not only for Panturle but for the village. Giono’s descriptions and story-telling are masterful in this, one of his greatest novels.
The latest addition to my website is Aleš Šteger‘s Odpusti (Absolution). This is a very funny book in the great East European tradition of using humour to damn the political system. Adam Bely (formerly of Maribor) and Rosa Portero (formerly of Cuba) are both living in Austria and working for Austrian radio and are nominally in the Slovenian city of Maribor to report on its role as European Capital of Culture but are really there to destroy the Great Orc, a network of thirteen people who are said to control the city but are formed of the souls left by Xenu, a galactic leader concocted by Scientology leader, L Ron Hubbard. No single person in the network knows all the others members, so their job is made more difficult as they try to identify the thirteen, while giving them absolution (in the form of oyster crackers) to save their souls, which generally drives them mad. Šteger’s aim is to mock the city of Maribor, endemic corruption in Slovenia, neoliberalism and, of course, religion and pseudo-religions and this he does very well, using the image of the octopus, you can see on the front cover above. It is a very original work and great fun to read.