Dubravka Ugrešić: Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain)

The latest addition to my website is Dubravka Ugrešić‘s Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain). This is a (semi-)autobiographical novel about a Croatian woman, Tanja Lucić, who has left Croatia and is now resident in the Netherlands. Her former boyfriend has taken a job in Japan and she has decided not to accompany him. She had managed to get a short-term job as a lecturer in the Department of Serbo-Croatian at the University of Amsterdam. Most of her students are from the former Yugoslavia, as following a university course allows them to prolong their stay in the country. Much of the book is about how Tanya and her students struggle with a variety of issues relating both to their exile but also to the break-up of the country they grew up in. Language (is there one Serbo-Croat language or several different ones?), culture (despite its faults, they did grow up and know Yugoslavia and its ways), relationships between the different nationalities and with fellow Slavs, adaption to the Dutch and the Netherlands and, of course, surviving in a different world, with a different culture and a different language are all part of the problems they face on a day to day basis. There is no easy solution – adaptation is not that easy – but they can at least talk about it.

Ivo Andrić: Omerpaša Latas (Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan)

The latest addition to my website is Ivo Andrić‘s Omerpaša Latas (Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan). This is one of Andrić’s later novels, set in Bosnia like most of his novels, only just published in English for the first time. It tells of the repression of rebellion in Bosnia in the Ottoman Empire, by Omer Pasha Latas who was born in Austria of Serb parents and fled to the Ottoman Empire to escape the disgrace of his father’s behaviour and then rose through the ranks. Andrić is Bosnian so his view of Omer Pasha and is actions is highly critical. Omer Pasha is cruel, deceitful, a sexual monster and ruthless. We follow Omer Pasha’s story but also detailed stories of several people who come into contact with him, including his wife, his staff and the man who painted his portrait. Many of these are of European origin like the Pasha himself. Andrić tells his story well and we get a detailed insight into both the Pasha’s psychology and life in occupied Bosnia at that time.

William Melvin Kelley

It was interesting to see in Today’s Observer, an article on William Melvin Kelley and, moreover, claiming his A Different Drummer is a lost literary masterpiece. The book has been on my site since the beginning and I read him many years ago. More interesting is his book Dunford’s Travels Everywheres (yes, it is everywheres in the plural). I notice that a well-known online bookseller has it for sale for $168.50 and more (up to $892.98) in the US and £205.49 and £1,419.46 (plus £3 delivery instead of the normal £2.89) in the UK. Anyone wanting a copy for a mere £1000? I have one available.

As Sarah Hughes says in her article, Kelley struggled to gain recognition and always felt that racism played a part in his lack of literary success. Both books are deserving of greater acclaim. According to this article, he is also credited with first using the term woke (in its modern sense of awareness of issues concerning social justice and racial justice). It is to be hoped that this republication will bring him the acclaim he did not obtain in his lifetime (he died last year – 2017). I can highly recommend both novels but I am not convinced that they were lost.

Ali Smith: Winter

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Winter. This is the second novel in her seasonal tetralogy. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family. The oldest sister, Iris, has strong left-wing views and is thrown out of the house by her father. Sophia, her younger sister, behaves and is responsible and goes on to become a successful businesswoman. She has a son, Arthur (Art) from a casual affair. Neither sister married and both are now old and not speaking to one another. Having broken off with his girlfriend, Charlotte, Arthur now turns up for Christmas at his mother’s huge house in Cornwall (where she lives alone) accompanied by a substitute, hired Charlotte, in the form of Lux. Iris is summoned as Sophia seem to be not eating and is accompanied by a strange, disembodied head and the four spend Christmas together where the past is aired, relationships discussed and challenged and topics such as Brexit, refugees, environmental politics and Greenham Common the subject of conversation. Smith makes her point about her issues but also about working together for the common good, something she feels that we do not do well either as a country or individuals.

Mo Yan: 酒国 (The Republic of Wine)

The latest addition to my website is Mo Yan‘s 酒国 (The Republic of Wine). This is a chaotic, alcohol-fuelled story about excesses in China, particularly alcohol and sex. We follow two stories, which will merge. The first involves crack investigator Ding Gou’er of the Higher Procuratorate, who is sent to investigate allegations that local mine officials are eating young boys. Drink and sex will be his downfall. At the same time, we are following an exchange of correspondence between Li Yudou, a doctor of liquor studies and would-be writer, who is writing to the famous writer, Mo Yan, submitting stories to him. Mo Yan is not terribly impressed with the stories, though does try to get them published. The stories tend to recount episodes from life in Liquorland, where he lives, including stories about the rearing and eating of young boys as well as the writer’s sexual obsession with his mother-in-law. Gradually, the two sets of stories merge, with a cast of characters obsessed with food, alcohol and sex and a plot that tends towards chaos.

Emmanuel Carrère: Un roman russe ( My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir)

The latest addition to my website is Emmanuel Carrère‘s Un roman russe (My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir). Though the English calls it a memoir – and, to a great extent it is – it is written as a novel, called a novel by the author and the publisher and reads as a novel. There are three main themes, apart from the overarching theme of Carrère’s own somewhat chaotic life. The first is his journalistic investigation of András Toma, allegedly the last World War II soldier to be repatriated. Toma was held in a mental hospital in Russia for fifty-five years, as he did not speak Russian and no-one in the hospital spoke Hungarian. Carrère and a film crew twice travel to Russia and once to Hungary to investigate. We also learn about Carrère’s family, particularly his grandfather who was Georgian and who never fitted in when in France, and his grandmother who was descended from Russian aristocrats. Finally, we follow Carrère’s tempestuous love affair with Sophie. All three stories intertwine and Carrère tells his story very well, despite showing himself to be a very flawed character.

Haruki Murakami: 騎士団長殺し (Killing Commendatore)

The latest addition to my website is Haruki Murakami‘s 騎士団長殺し (Killing Commendatore). This is the usual Murakami, with a lone hero (a portrait painter by profession), trying to solve a mystery (or, in this case, several, possibly interrelated, mysteries), having to cope with the supernatural and helped by a strange but resilient girl (and, in this case, it it really is a girl, not a woman). The plot is complicated with pre-war Vienna, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the art of portrait painting, paternity issues and secret hideaways galore all coming into the mix. As always, with Murakami, the plot is complicated but it is all great fun and a really good read and while not of the quality of some of his earlier work, it is still a fine book.

Germán Sierra: The Artifact

The latest addition to my website is Germán Sierra‘s The Artifact. Sierra is a Spanish neuroscientist but this book was written in English, though his previous novels were written in Spanish. It is essentially a novel and treatise on the future of the species, dealing with artificial intelligence, quasi-life forms, new technologies and how we relate to them and a Ballardian car accident. There are two plots, one involving the narrator who loses an arm when his car is hit by an AI controlled drone and another when he is sent an MRI from a former student showing a brain with an artifact (an anomaly seen during visual representation in MRI. It is a feature appearing in an image that is not present in the original object.) However, what makes this book so interesting is Sierra’s discussion of a whole range of biological, quasi-biological, cybernetic, neurological and other developments in our species. It is one of the most original novels I have read for some time. Not an easy read but very well worth it.

Ersi Sotiropoulos: Τι μενει απο τη νυχτα (What’s Left of the Night)

The latest addition to my website is Ersi SotiropoulosΤι μενει απο τη νυχτα (What’s Left of the Night). The novel tells of three days in June 1897 spent by Greek poet C(onstantine) P Cavafy and his older brother, John. The family has fallen on hard times, so money is tight. Cavafy himself struggles with his art – how he should write – as well as comparisons with other writers, primarily French poets. The two brothers wander round Paris, often accompanied by a fellow Greek, Nikos Mardaras, unpaid secretary to the successful (and absent) Greek poet, Jean Moréas. John likes Mardaras while Constantine cannot stand him. As well as seeing his artistic struggles, we see his sexual struggles (he is very much attracted to a male Russian ballet dancer staying at their hotel), his issues with his mother and his inability to fit in. Sotiropoulos gives us an excellent portrait of the artist and his life.

Christoph Ransmayr: Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit [Cox or the Course of Time]

The latest addition to my website is Christoph Ransmayr‘s Cox oder Der Lauf der Zeit [Cox or the Course of Time]. The hero of this book is Alister Cox, based on the very real James Cox. Unlike James Cox, Alister Cox travels to China to build clocks for the Chinese Emperor Qianlong. Qianlong is not particularly interested in the clocks and automata that they bring with them but wants a clock that can tell variable time – the time of a child or a lover or a man condemned to death. They work on those clocks and make some progress but the Emperor still seems less than impressed. Then the Emperor says he wants an eternal clock – a clock that works eternally. Cox feels he cam make such a clock but he is warned by Joseph Kiang, his interpreter, that to do so would be to challenge the Emperor, who has sole control of time, and to challenge the Emperor can only end one way – badly. I found this book less interesting than Ransmayr’s other work as it did not seem to really take off but was almost mundane, despite its exotic location and fascinating theme. It has been translated into four other languages but not English.