Sergei Lebedev: Гусь Фриц (The Goose Fritz)

The latest addition to my website is Sergei Lebedev‘s Гусь Фриц (The Goose Fritz). We follow Kirill, a Russian living in the contemporary period, who, under the influence of his grandmother, becomes interested in his ancestors, who were of German origin. He tracks down their stories, going back to the late eighteenth century, how they coped, seen as Germans, with German names, and how they were, despite their best efforts, never quite fully Russian. Lebedev give us a highly colourful account of how they were involved in many of the key events of Russian history, from the Napoleonic Wars to the Stalinist purges and how they just about survived (though many did not, dying premature deaths, often violently). Cannibalism, the various wars, rebellions and revolutions in Russia, epidemics, insanity, and love and (lots of) death are seen though the eyes of those who want to be insiders but never manage it. It is a brilliant book and confirms Lebedev as one of the foremost contemporary Russian novelists.

Miguel Ildefonso: Hotel Lima [Hotel Lima]

The latest addition to my website is Miguel Ildefonso‘s Hotel Lima [Hotel Lima]. Our hero/narrator is called Dante and we follow him in his journey underground, though his underground is merely the seedier parts of Lima, where he meets prostitutes, drug addicts, strange women and, in particular, poètes maudits. He comes in contact with an underground organisation called the Not-Poets, who detonate bombs around Lima and leave poetry rather than political slogans. He meets one member, Rosa, who, he says is the ugliest woman he has ever met, though he does have sex with her. She offers him free board and lodging to work on his latest novel – he has written two successful novels but, partially because of alcoholism, had not written anything recently. He declines. He also follows the lives of famous (in Peru) artists and poètes maudits. Ultimately, it is a poetical novel about a Peruvian writer who has lost his way and cannot seem to find it. It has not been translated into any other language.

Diamela Eltit: Vaca sagrada (Sacred Cow)

The latest addition to my website is Diamela Eltit‘s Vaca sagrada (Sacred Cow). This is a feminist, post-modern novel by a Chilean writer who stayed in Chile during the Pinochet regime. She tells the story of a woman who has two messy, violent relationships, with violence on both sides, showing indirectly, in the relationships, the violence that is going on in Chile under Pinochet. The unnamed and unreliable narrator, who may be also the same person as Francisca, a woman we first meet when bloody and bruised, struggles with life, with alcohol, with men, with getting a job and with sex. She feels totally insecure, unsure, ready to tell lies for no reason, and ready to get involved in messy relationships but finding them no escape. It is not an easy read but Eltit is clearly intent on showing women’s bodies as the battleground in what is going on in Chile and that is what she does.

Olga Grjasnowa: Gott ist nicht schüchtern (City of Jasmine)

The latest addition to my website is Olga Grjasnowa‘s Gott ist nicht schüchtern (City of Jasmine). Grjasnowa is an Azerbaijan-born German national, married to a Syrian. This novel primarily takes place during the recent Syrian Civil War. We follow the fate of three Syrians caught up in it. Hammoudi has studied medicine in Paris and briefly returned to Syria to visit his family and renew his passport. However, though his passport is renewed, he is not allowed to leave the country. Amal is the daughter of a rich man, who is studying drama. She is also demonstrating against the repression by the Assad Regime. She meets Youssef, a young director. Amal and Youssef both get arrested and later leave the country, though their troubles are far from over. Hammoudi works as a doctor in his home town of Deir ez-Zor, while under heavy attack from both the Syrian army and Isis, before escaping to Turkey and also having further problems as a refugee. It is a thoroughly grim novel but interesting to see the crisis from the perspective of the ordinary Syrian trying to survive.

Khushwant Singh: I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale

The latest addition to my website is Khushwant Singh‘s I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale. This novel is set in 1942-1943 in Amritsar. Buta Singh is the paterfamilias of a Sikh family and also the chief magistrate, the most important Indian official in the region, subordinate to the twenty-eight year old British Deputy Commissioner, Taylor, but very loyal to the British. Buta Singh’s son, Sher, and his friends, however, have acquired rifles and other weapons and are planning armed insurrection against the British. We follow the life of the Singh family but also the attempts by Sher’s group to become an organised resistance group. It all goes wrong when Sher is arrested, both for his family – Buta disowns him – and for him, as he is not the tough guy he thinks he is. It is an interesting snapshot of life in the Punjab when the British were not doing well in the war and the Indians were pushing for Independence.

Gombojav Mend-Ooyo: Altan Ovoo (Golden Hill)

The latest addition to my website is Gombojav Mend-Ooyo‘s Altan Ovoo (Golden Hill). Mend-Ooyo is best-known in Mongolia as a poet but has also written prose works, including this novel which, unusually has been translated into English (by Simon Wickham-Smith). It is very much a poetical novel and tells of how his father took him to the sacred mountain of Golden Hill, when he was a boy. Golden Hill is important because it is sacred to his people but also it is associated with Genghis Khan (who is revered and not reviled in Mongolia) who may have died near there, after falling off his horse. We also learn of his travels around Mongolia, of his life, of stories of several Mongolian characters and several Mongolian animals and of various Mongolian legends, including their origin legend. It is a joy to read but, sadly, despite being translated into English, very difficult to obtain, as it was self-published in Ulaanbaatar.

Ondjaki: O Assobiador (The Whistler)

The latest addition to my website is Ondjaki‘s O Assobiador (The Whistler). This is written as fable about a young man who has a beautiful whistle, who arrives at a sleepy Angolan town and starts whistling in the church. After some initial misgivings, the whole town, from the padre to the pigeons, is entranced by his whistling. Many of them change their outlook on life, with Ondjaki skilfully using magic and magic realism but also showing highly different effects on the various individuals. From sex to recovering from imminent death, from reconnecting with the sea to simply seeing the world in a different way, the town is changed and all for the better. It is wonderfully written and a joy to read.

Guzel Yakhina: Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha)

The latest addition to my website is Guzel Yakhina‘s Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha). Zuleikha is a Tatar woman, married to an abusive husband, in the late 1920s. Her husband is determined that the Soviets will not have any of his food and he hides. When he is caught and objects, he is shot on the spot. Zuleikha and many other villagers are then sent off to Siberia as former kulaks. The journey is hard, not least because there is a huge backlog of kulaks and other undesirables being sent off to Siberia and they are delayed on their train journey. It is made harder when Zuleikha realises she is pregnant – her husband raped her the night before his death. She has already lost four daughters, all of whom died young, and she is determined to protect her first son. We follow the story of the prisoners, the commandant and, in particular, Zuleikha, from around 1930 to the end of World War II. As the Russian title (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes) tells us, a good part (but certainly not the only part) is about how Zuleikha develops from being a submissive Muslim woman and abused wife to being someone more independent. Yakhina tells an excellent tale of life in a Siberian camp and of a woman who finds herself there.

Ansomwin Ignace Hien: Une flamme dans le noir [A Flame in the Dark]

The latest addition to my website is Ansomwin Ignace Hien‘s Une flamme dans le noir [A Flame in the Dark]. Though Hien is from Burkina Faso, much of the novel is set in Côte d’Ivoire and most of the main characters are Ivoirian, though not all. The novel tells the story of Simon, an Ivorian architect who falls for a young girl in a remote village but cannot marry her as he is about to go to France for five years. He later returns to Côte d’Ivoire and assists the young daughter of a couple to get an education. His assistance, however, consists of raping her and getting her pregnant. He marries her – she is more reluctant than he is – and we follow their messy later life. Both have affairs, both behave badly and most of the main characters end up dead or thoroughly miserable. It is a grim tale, warning against marital infidelity, unprotected sex and checking out that your partner has no hidden secrets that will come back to hurt you.