Month: April 2020

Paek Nam-nyong: 벗 (Friend)

The latest addition to my website is Paek Nam-nyong‘s 벗 (Friend). This is the first North Korean novel on my site. Moreover, it is not novel by a dissident North Korean but by a North Korean writer who is a member of the Party and well-respected within the country. We follow Judge Jeong Jin Wu who specialises in divorce and is asked to deal with the case between a successful singer and her lathe operator husband. He goes way beyond the call of duty in trying to resolve the matter and reconcile the couple. He also has his own marital problems, which he endeavours to work out as well as those of a neighbour. It is at times somewhat simplistic by our standards but nevertheless an interesting glance at a culture and system most of us know little about.

César Aira: Fulgentius

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Fulgentius. The eponymous hero of this book is a sixty-seven year old Roman general. He is setting out on his latest campaign – he has already been on over a hundred – this one to Pannonia (Eastern Europe). One thing distinguishes him from most generals. When he was twelve he wrote an autobiographical tragedy – a new genre in Roman tragedy – initially meant as a pastiche of Roman tragedies, but which took on a more serious tone as he was writing it. It was praised by his tutor but then forgotten till someone, unknown to him, revived it thirty years later. He now takes it on his travels and has it performed at every town he halts at during his campaign, very concerned about how it is performed. We follow the performances and his campaign, during which he thinks, as we might expect from Aira, about a lot of things, even though he hates philosophy. This is somewhat different from the usual Aira book but, as always, an interesting read.

Sony Labou Tansi: La vie et demie (Life and a Half)

The latest addition to my website is Sony Labou Tansi‘s La vie et demie (Life and a Half). This is a fable, bitterly attacking African dictators and their brutality and is presumably based, at least in part, on Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of what was then Zaire. Thr novel starts brutally as the Providential Guide, as the leader of the country is called, interrupts his dinner to brutally stab Martial, leader of the opposition, in front of his family. He stabs, him shoots him and poisons him but Martial will not die, till he cuts him up. The Guide and his successors are haunted by Martial, who continues to appear to them and to the people, while his daughter, Chaïdana, against her father’s wishes, kills off the ministers and, in various guises, seduces the Guide and the ministers, We follow both her successor and the Guide’s successors through an ever more fantastical story. It is a strange and unsettling tale but it undoubtedly reflects how Labou Tansi saw the rule of African dictators.

Andrés Barba: República luminosa (A Luminous Republic)

The latest addition to my website is Andrés Barba‘s República luminosa (A Luminous Republic). The novel is set in an unnamed Latin American country. Our unnamed narrator has recently taken over the social service department in a small town, by the jungle, with the task of helping the indigenous community. Gradually he and the people of the town notice groups of children, aged nine to thirteen, coming into the town and begging. Where did they come from and what is the strange language they seem to be using? Gradually, they become more aggressive. They seem to disappear at night and no-one knows where to. Moreover, they do not seem to have a leader. When they start attacking people, the police go searching for them but without success. When they attack a supermarket, injuring and killing people, they seem to disappear and cannot be found. Barba gives us a brilliant novel on the innocence (and lack thereof) of children, on how adults can often be helpless dealing with them and on various theories as to why these children do what they do, with a bit of post-truth thrown in.

Russell Celyn Jones: Ten Seconds From The Sun

The latest addition to my website is Russell Celyn JoneTen Seconds From The Sun. The novel is narrated by Ray Greenland a river boat pilot, happily married to Lily with two children. However, Ray Greenland is really Mark Swain, who was convicted of a brutal murder when he was twelve. He served his time, received pilot training, did his probation and became a free man. However, before he married, had children and travelled abroad, he was obliged to notify the authorities. He did not. He now leads a happy life, only slightly worried that he will be identified – people often think they know him but not from where. He has a cover story, based on his probation officer’s life but when people question him about his childhood, he suddenly has to invent details or claim forgetfulness. The real worry is if someone from his past reappears and, inevitably, that is what happens. What makes this book interesting is that we see his story entirely from his perspective rather than from the perspective of his new or past family. He is somewhat remorseful but more concerned about his future than his past and he has a violent streak but just about manages to control it but when his past comes back and threatens to destroy his idyll, things take a different turn.

Janos Szekely: Kísértés (Temptation)

The latest addition to my website is Janos Szekely‘s Kísértés (Temptation). This is a sad tale of Béla, a Hungarian born out of wedlock in the early 1920s – his father has disappeared – and brought up in a rural area by a cruel foster woman while his mother tries to earn her living in Budapest. He is starved, beaten and denied education. Eventually, when he tries to steal some shoes – he has none – in a very cold winter, he is packed off to Budapest, where his mother is struggling to earn her living and pay the rent. He gets a job as a hotel porter – no pay, only tips and food – but the pair still struggle, even when the father turns up again. He is seduced by an older woman and torn between left- and right-wing activists, with things only getting worse when the Great Depression hits. Szekely clearly shows his sympathies for the poor and downtrodden, for whom there seems to be little hope and little escape.

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