César Aira: La costurera y el viento (The Seamstress and the Wind)

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s La costurera y el viento (The Seamstress and the Wind). This is another madcap adventure by Aira, as a mother (the eponymous seamstress) thinks her young son is in a lorry that is heading to Patagonia (the end of the world) and sets off in a taxi in pursuit, carrying a bulky wedding dress which she is sewing for a woman who has to get married suddenly. The taxi crashes into a lorry, she is carried by the wind and her gambling husband joins the hot pursuit, he, in turn pursued by a strange small blue car, with all of them ending up in a strange gambling joint in the middle of nowhere. All the while the narrator is commenting on travel (he hates it though he is writing the novel in Paris), memory and forgetting. It is glorious fun even if you have no idea what is going to happen or why.

Liana Badr: رج عين المرآة (Eye of the Mirror)

The latest addition to my website is Liana Badr‘s رج عين المرآة (Eye of the Mirror). This novel is set in the Tal el-Zaatar refugee camp in the mid-1970s and recounts the events of Siege of Tel al-Zaatar, as seen through the eyes of one Palestinian family and, in particular, the eldest daughter, Aisha. Aisha had been working at a convent in return for an education but is pulled out following the Ain el-Rammaneh bus massacre. She lives with her hard-working mother, her abusive, alcoholic, lazy father and her two younger siblings. As the siege intensifies, life becomes harder. Aisha falls for a guerrilla but he is promised to someone else and she is forced into a marriage with one of his comrades. She resists but cannot prevent it. Medicine, food and drinking water become harder to obtain, most of the men are killed and Aisha, as a Palestinian and woman, knows her life will be one of suffering. There is nothing positive to take from this novel, not least as we know, twenty-six years after its publication, things have not improved and the prospects for an independent Palestinian state are as remote as ever.

Rainald Goetz: Irre (Insane)

The latest addition to my website is Rainald Goetz‘s Irre (Insane). The book is about both a psychiatrist called Raspe and a multimedia artist called Rainald Goetz, both of whom worked in a psychiatric clinic which both have left by the end of the book. Goetz was in real life a psychiatrist and he has written an impassioned often angry book about the failures of psychiatry and psychiatrists, often taking the view that we are all insane, that psychiatrists may be more insane than the rest of us and that art may be the salvation. We follow Raspe’s career in the clinic, we hear the ravings of both the staff and patients and, in the final part, we see Goetz and, to a lesser extent Raspe trying to deal with the effect of their career on their lives. At times it reads like a cry from the heart and at others an indictment of the world we live in but it both cases it is an amazing read and we must be grateful for Fitzcarraldo for making it available in English thirty-four years after its publication in German.

Jean Giono: Le Hussard sur le toit (US/UK: The Horseman on the Roof; UK: The Hussar on the Roof)

The latest addition to my website is Jean Giono‘s Le Hussard sur le toit (US/UK: The Horseman on the Roof; UK: The Hussar on the Roof). This novel is set in the 1830s during a major cholera pandemic. Angelo Pardi is an Italian revolutionary, fleeing Italy after killing a baron in a duel. He arrives during the cholera pandemic, which is vividly described by Giono. He sees many dead bodies, sees people dying and is also affected by the consequences (towns and villages barricaded, superstitious locals killing people suspected of bringing cholera, difficulties in obtaining food and drink). He does help a few people but ends up in Manosque (Giono’s hometown) where he has to live on the roofs, to avoid the mob. Eventually, he manges to escape, after a series of adventures, with a young but married woman, Pauline. Giono gives a superb portrayal of a country devastated by disease but counterbalanced by the optimism and pragmatism of Angelo and Pauline.

Joyce Cary: Except the Lord

The latest addition to my website is Joyce Cary‘s Except the Lord, the second of a trilogy that started with Prisoner of Grace. In this previous novel, we followed the adult life of Chester Nimmo, as told by his ex-wife, Nina. This book is told by Chester himself and is mainly about his childhood. He grew up in a rural Devon village. His father was both a farm labourer and an Adventist preacher. The family was poor and, like many of the people of that time, suffered from health problems. His mother and two young sisters all died of tuberculosis. As Chester is writing this account, presumably for Nina, in an attempt to win her back, he often tells of things he did and the lessons he learned from his actions and the consequence, with the aim of showing how he has developed. We follow his interest in religion, left-wing politics and unionism as well as his relationship with his family. It did not work as well as the previous one for me but is still an interesting read to see how the adult became what he was.

Dana Todorović: Tragična sudbina Morica Tota (The Tragic Fate of Moritz Toth)

The latest addition to my website is Dana Todorović:‘s Tragična sudbina Morica Tota (The Tragic Fate of Moritz Toth). This is a clever tale of an unemployed punk rocker, the eponymous Moritz Toth, who finds salvation as the prompter for the lead tenor in Turandot. However, he also finds that at first one and then two mysterious characters seem to be stalking him. Who are they? Why are they stalking him and are they going to murder him? Meanwhile, we are also following the story of Tobias Keller, Advisor for Moral Issues with the Office of the Great Overseer, who has broken the rules in his role as guide to Moritz Toth by putting pebble in front of his bicycle in breach of Article 98a of the Causal Authority Regulations. Who is Tobias? Who is the Great Overseer? And what have they got to do with Moritz? Todorović tells a fine tale with philosophical conundrums, the problems of determinism and how opera and a loving prostitute can save a worried man.

Ricardo Romero: La habitación del presidente (The President’s Room)

The latest addition to my website is Ricardo Romero‘s La habitación del presidente (The President’s Room). This is Romero’s first work published in English, from a new press, Charco Press. The narrator, a boy, lives in a house with his parents and brothers. The house, like others in the neighbourhood, has a president’s room, set aside in case the President visits. The boy, unnamed like the other characters, has a few worries about the house, the room, houses with basements, adjoining houses and other issues, which Romero skilfully describes in a way to make the whole story unsettling. He is scared to enter the President’s Room but, inevitably, one day the President does come and our narrator, alone of his family does see him. Romero tells his story well and this is an interesting introduction to Charco Press.

Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin

The latest addition to my website is Boualem Sansal‘s Rue Darwin. This is a superb work by Sansal which tells the story of Yazid, an Algerian, the same age as Sansal, who takes his mother to Paris to die (of cancer) and where she can see her other children, Yazid being the only one still living in Algeria. Sadly, she falls into a coma on the plane and does not see her children but she tells Yazid (possibly telepathically) that he should return to Rue Darwin, the street where they grew up. In doing so, he finds that his antecedents are more complicated than he thought, involving the (female) head of a powerful clan, prostitution and abduction, while, at the same time, telling us about and vociferously condemning all the wars Algeria has been involved in. The novel gives us an albeit partial view of Algeria while telling an excellent and complex story.

Ricardo Piglia: La ciudad ausente (The Absent City)

The latest addition to my website is Ricardo Piglia‘s La ciudad ausente (The Absent City). This is a complex novel – a detective story, a political novel, a Joycean extravaganza, a Bildungsroman and a city novel, set during Argentina’s dirty war but concerned not only with the struggle against the brutal government but with two authors – James Joyce (whose Finnegans Wake acts as a sacred text for those fleeing the government repression) and the far less well-known (in the English-speaking world) Macedonio Fernández who has created a complex machine based in part on a Poe story and in part on the brain of his late wife, Elena. Junior, a journalist, is tracking down the machine and the Engineer, who may well have been the programmer of the machine, and gets in involved with various unsavory characters as well as those fleeing the government repression. It is a highly intelligent and original novel though, sadly, does not seem to have had the success outside Argentina that it had there.

Zigmunds Skujiņš: Vīrietis labākajos gados (A Man in His Prime)

The latest addition to my website is Zigmunds SkujiņšVīrietis labākajos gados (A Man in His Prime). This is one of two novels written by Skujiņš translated into English from Latvian. This one was published by the Soviet publishers Progress and is long since out of print and difficult to obtain. It tells the story of a man in his prime, Alfrēds Turlavs, aged forty-six and happily married. He is head of the design department of a telecommunications company in Riga and has been instructed to work on a new innervation telephone exchange. He does not think it will work and will be very expensive, so he goes behind his bosses’ back to work on an alternative model. At the same time, he starts an affair with one of his subordinates and gets her pregnant. Inevitably, things go wrong for him, both at work and in his private life. It is a well-told story and Alfrēds Turlavs could be a typical man in his prime in many other countries.