The latest addition to my website is Ričardas Gavelis‘ Sun–Tzu gyvenimas šventame Vilniaus mieste (Sun-Tzu’s Life in the Holy City of Vilnius). This is a wonderful witty romp through Soviet and post-Soviet Lithuania, as seen through the eyes of the narrator, a sex-obsessed, philosophical, scientific gangster, whose real name we do not know but who has adopted the name of the famous Chinese strategist. This Sun-Tzu has no moral scruples and takes full advantage of corruption in post-Soviet Lithuanian but, at the same time, has highly original ideas about, for example, the second brain or turning his enemies into works of art, while stealing whatever he can and even losing his wife in a card game. He is avowedly evil and proud of it, not least because the Lithuanians are all dolts. Gavelis has great fun in his final novel, demolishing all and sundry and giving us a thoroughly original read.
The latest addition to my website is Vasily Grossman‘s За правое дело (Stalingrad). This book was first published in the Soviet Union in Novy Mir magazine in 1952 and then in book form in 1954, soon after Stalin’s death, without which it may not have been published. Both versions were heavily censored. Only now, with the translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, using Grossman’s original manuscript, has the book finally been published as Grossman intended it. The plot follows the situation in Stalingrad leading up to the Battle of Stalingrad and the beginning of that battle and immediately precedes the events taking place in Grossman’s famous Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). It is superbly told, as we see the action from all sides, both the ordinary Soviet citizen and those directly involved in the fighting whether as ordinary soldiers or senior officers, as well from the German side, including a couple of appearances by Hitler. By the time the book ends, the Germans have entered Stalingrad and are confident of taking it, with the Soviets offering fierce resistance but being pushed ever further back. It is brilliantly told, full of action and gives us a view of the Battle from all perspectives. It is destined to join Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) as a major Russian classic.
The latest addition to my website is Dritëro Agolli‘s Shkëlqimi dhe rënia e shokut Zylo [The Rise and Fall of Comrade Zylo]. This a witty satire on ambitious government officials. Comrade Demkë, our hero, is a civil servant in the Ministry of Culture, who would like to spend his time writing fiction but is obliged to spend his time writing reports for his seniors, for which they take all the credit. At the beginning of the book, Comrade Zylo has just become his new boss. Zylo is ambitious, very astute politically but full of useless ideas (he writes his Thoughts down on bits of paper) and the long-suffering Demkë has to do his bidding, often requiring late hours. However as the title tells us, Zylo gets caught out and we follow his gradual decline, though it is possible that he will somehow survive elsewhere. This book had great acclaim Albania for it s witty mockery of officialdom but, sadly, is not available in English.
The latest addition to my website is Will Eaves‘ Murmur. This is a fictionalised account of Alan Turing, focussing on the period after he had been receiving diethylstilbestrol to reduce his libido, after his arrest for homosexual offences in 1952. Eaves superbly shows the intellectual life and thoughts of Turing as well as his personal life and, in particular the effect on both his body and mind of the chemical castration he was receiving. The book is both a condemnation of the horrific treatment of homosexuality as though it were a disease – a view, sadly, that still exists in some parts of the world – as well as a tribute to a brilliant mind who sadly died far too young.
The latest addition to my website is Eduardo Mendoza‘s La verdad sobre el caso Savolta (The Truth about the Savolta Case). This novel, Mendoza’s first, is set in Barcelona between 1917 and 1920. The eponymous Savolta is the name of a family and the Barcelona armaments factory they own. Paul-André Lepprince, a seemingly rich and elegant Frenchman arrives in Barcelona at the beginning if the War and is soon given a senior position in the firm. Our hero, Javier Miranda, who works as a legal assistant, is detailed to assist Lepprince and soon becomes embroiled in Lepprince’s efforts to control striking workers. When the other senior managers of the firm are murdered, apparently by anarchists, Miranda is even more embroiled and is suspected by Inspector Vázquez. We know from the beginning that he somehow gets out and emigrates to the United States but there is a long and complicated plot before we find out the details of what really happened. The book has been translated into English but is currently out of print.
The latest addition to my website is Rodrigo Rey Rosa‘s El material humano (Human Matter), Though called a novel, it has been described as more of notes for a novel than an actual novel. It tells about Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s investigation into the archive project (now online) relating to the police activities during the Guatemala Civil War and to research the cases of intellectuals and artists who either had been investigated by the police or had collaborated with them as informants. Rey Rosa naturally finds strange entries in the archive, speaks to the son of the former head of the police records, discusses his mother’s kidnapping and is discouraged and warned off from pursuing his researches. Not surprisingly, he has a variety of tales to tell us about what went on during the war and what is still going on. We are waging a battle against Evil. That is how extrajudicial executions are justified, says one police officer and, sadly, this view is still to be found.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s La Place de l’Étoile (La Place de l’Étoile). This was Modiano’s first novel, published when he was twenty-two. It was a highly controversial as it viciously mocks French anti-Semitism but also French writers, Jews and Israel. It tells the story of Raphaël Schlemilovitch, a French Jew and his fanciful adventures, including his time in wartime Vienna (though he was born at the end of the war) as The Indispensable Jew, his friendship in Switzerland with a French aristocrat and a very real French Jewish writer who was, in reality, dead by this time, his involvement in the white slave trade and liking Israel to the Gestapo in France. Surprisingly, it did well in France, though it must have offended many and only came out in English translation, after Modiano won the Nobel Prize in 2015. Grotesque though it is, it may well be still very appropriate, given the rise of anti-Semitism in North America and Europe at the present time.
The latest addition to my website is Igiaba Scego‘s Oltre Babilonia (Beyond Babylon). Scego is an Italian writer of Somali origin. This novel tells the stories of four women, Zuhra, daughter of Maryam and Elias (Zuhra she has never met Elias), Maryam, Mar, daughter of Miranda, an Argentinian woman now living in Italy, and an unknown Somali man, and Miranda, a published poet. Scego jumps around in time and place, as we follow the Italian occupation of Somalia, its independence and what went wrong later, the repression in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, the story of Elias, Maryam’s husband who is now back in Somalia and who Zuhra has never met, and his parents as well as the journey Miranda, Mar and Zuhra make to Tunis to study classical Arabic, a key part of the novel, with each woman finding out something about herself. What makes this novel is a whole slew of colourful back stories, wonderful imagery and, above all, the fact that the four women. all happily freely and often wittily speak their minds on controversial issues (female genital mutilation, racism and sexism) and on less controversial issues (jobs, family, Peter Sellers). It is a first-class book – the second of Scego’s book to be translated into English – and one that deserves to have considerable success.
The latest addition to my website is José María Arguedas‘s Los ríos profundos (Deep Waters). This novel, praised by Mario Vargas Llosa as one of the great Peruvian novels, is a semi-autobiographical novel. Arguedas’ mother died when he was two and a half. When his father remarried, his stepmother already had three children. He was left to the Indian servants, so he ended up with a lifelong love for the native culture and spoke fluent Quechua. In this novel, the fourteen-year old Ernesto follows his father, a travelling lawyer, around Peru, till they stop at Abancay where the father moves on, while Ernesto is sent to school. We follow his lively school days at a religious school, lyrically described by Arguedas, including a salt revolt by the local women, with which he is very sympathetic, fights, girls, and struggling to fit in, ending with an epidemic
The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Las curas milagrosas del Dr. Aira (The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira). As the title tells us, Dr Aira is a faith healer but his faith healing methodology is, even by normal faith healing standards and Aira’s usual modus operandi, somewhat unconventional, as it seems to involve rearranging the universe. Not surprisingly, Dr. Actyn, chief of medicine at Piñero Hospital, and his colleagues, consider Dr. Aira a quack, and aim to show him up. As we see this entirely from the perspective of Dr Aira, a somewhat strange, solitary man, given to somnambulism, Actyn and Co are seen as the enemy while he is doing good work. As usual, Aira dives into strange philosophical ideas and a plot line which is, to say the least, somewhat odd, even by his own standards.