The latest addition to my website is Sándor Márai‘s Eszter hagyatéka (Esther’s Inheritance). Esther is in her late forties and lives alone with an elderly aunt. She has only ever loved one person – Lajos. After a long gap he is now visiting her and, as the second sentence of the book tells us, will rob her. He had been the friend of her brother, Laci, and was going to marry Esther but ended up marrying her younger sister, Vilma, with whom Esther did not have a good relationship. Vilma died and Esther briefly looked after her two children while Lajos travelled. When he returned, she cut off contact. But now he is back, smooth, deceitful, dishonest, deceiving Esther, her brother, her friends and everyone else he comes into contact with. People know he is deceiving them and yet they go along with it.
The latest addition to my website is David Mitchell‘s Utopia Avenue. The story starts in January 1967 in London and tells how a group is formed by a Canadian manager of four different characters, three men and one woman and the various trials and tribulations they face including but not limited to sex, drugs, family issues, band relationships, the press, a US tour, record companies, publicity and money. Many real-life famous and not so famous musicians and others make an appearance as we follow the band from their disastrous first gig to US fame and the inevitable problems a band faced in the 1960s as well as one or two not so inevitable problems, including the psychological problems of the lead guitarist. Mitchell tells an excellent story but you will enjoy it more if you are familiar with the era and the musicians of that era.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Encre sympathique [Invisible Ink]. Our hero/narrator is Jean Eyben. He is a would-be writer but works at a detective agency to earn money and get material for his work. His first job is to track down a woman called Noëlle Lefebvre. We follow his not very successful attempts, as he gets misleading clues, meets people who are not what they seem and delves back into his past, as it seems she grew up in the same place as he did. As is normal with Modiano, ten years later he is still looking for and more clues, some misleading, some not, emerge. Did she really exist? Was she really married and, if so, to whom? And is her diary partially written in invisible ink, as his life seems to be? As always with Modiano, the past pops up and then fades, characters come and go and Paris changes and life remains a mystery.
The latest addition to my website is Ruxandra Cesereanu‘s Angelus (Angelus). Three angels arrive in Metropolis, the capital of Homeland. They seem harmless but they are also mute. What do they want? Even they do not know. The first part of the book is the reaction of all and sundry to them – politicians, religious leaders, business leaders, scientists and even the Devil and God. Cesereanu mocks them all but, at the same time shows how they try and use the angels for their own ends, be it politics, religion, money or to promote their world view. In the second part, they are released into the community and changes do take place but more because of how people react to them than because of anything they do. This is a thoroughly original novel, part mocking but part deadly serious, full of ideas and heading in directions you would never have guessed.
The latest addition to my website is Rollan Seisenbayev‘s Мертвые бродят в песках (The Dead Wander in the Desert). The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake in the world. As a result of Soviet activities, it virtually disappeared. This novel tells the story from the perspective of the Kazakhs who lived on its shores, which have long since disappeared. In particular, we follow Nasyr, a fisherman who became local mullah and his son, Kakharman, a scientist. Both try in their own way try to oppose the various activities, involving using the two rivers that feed the Aral Sea to irrigate the desert, in order to grow cotton, as well as the construction of a dam, for irrigation and electricity. Their fight is in vain as the Soviets are determined to grow cotton and even consider diverting rivers from Siberia to assist. We also see the horrors the Soviets have inflicted on Kazakhstan, including a famine in the 1930s, oppression and forced migration, as well as various environmental disasters. It is a well-told but very sad tale, ending with the death of Nasyr and the fall of the Soviet Union, though things have not improved too much with the successor states.
The latest addition to my website is Georges Perec‘s L’Attentat de Sarajevo [The Sarajevo Assassination]. This is Perec’s first (written) novel. It was believed lost and only found and published well after his death. It was based on his friendship in Paris with a group of Yugoslavs. The narrator becomes friendly with a Yugoslav, Branko, in Paris but, when he sees a photo of Branko’s mistress, Mila, he is smitten. When she comes to Paris he sees her for a while but she returns to Yugoslavia. When she writes to him saying that she would like to see him, he is off to Belgrade in a few days. Branko lives in Sarajevo with his wife, Anna, but comes up to Belgrade as the two men struggle for the affection of Mila. Then, when our hero visits Sarajevo, he comes up with a plan to get Anna to shoot her husband out of jealousy. At the same time, we are following a theory about that other assassination in Sarajevo. It is not a great book and it is easy to see why he had difficulty getting it published but still an interesting idea.
The latest addition to my website is Fernando Contreras Castro‘s Única mirando al mar (Única Looking at the Sea). It tells the story of a group of scavengers (they are called divers in this book) who live in a shanty town on the main San José, Costa Rica, rubbish dump. They earn their living from what they can find in the dump, They are there because of bad luck, such as job loss or being abandoned, in the case of a child. We follow Única Oconitrillo, a former teacher’s aide, as she gradually becomes the mother figure of the other divers and finds, among other things, a son and a husband on the dump. Contreras Castro very much treats them all sympathetically but the locals, the police and the government do not. The locals want the dump moved and the divers are caught in the middle, as the government lies to all parties.
The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El divorcio (The Divorce). The book is about a lot of things but not divorce, except for the title and the fact that our US narrator Kent is recently divorced. Kent heads to Buenos Aires for a month and, while in a café, the owner opens the awning and soaks a passer-by. The passer-by, Enrique, turns out to know Kent, his companion and another customer and his connection with each one leads to one or more fantastical, improbable, Aira-like tales, involving Krishna, a major school fire, a drug dealer masquerading as a sculptor, a management manual which seems to be the key to all wisdom and the Chinese economy and its influence on the Argentinian economy, amongst other things. Even the water that soaked Enrique may be divine intervention. It is a wonderful, thoroughly original imaginative story, with Aira on top form.
The latest addition to my website is Boris Poplavsky‘s Аполлон Безобразов (Apollon Bezobrazov).
The book was written in the 1930s but only a few chapters were published in an émigré magazine, till 1992, when it was serialised in a Russian magazine and finally published in book form in 1993. It was intended to be part of a multi-volume work but only one other in the series was published (not translated), also in 1993.The narrator is Vasya,a young Russian exile living (badly) in Paris. He meets and becomes close to the decidedly strange Apollon Bezobrazov. Apollon Bezobrazov can spend his time doing absolutely nothing or he can be a whirlwind of activity. He seems indifferent to his poverty and enjoys his bohemian existence. They are joined by Tereza, daughter of a religious fanatic, who has left a monastery where it seemed she was having an affair with the abbot. The three, joined by a Siberian son of an Old Believer live first in a mansion on the outskirts of Paris and then in a castle in Switzerland. Tereza believes Apollon may well be the devil and there is some evidence for that, though he may just be the typical Russian holy fool/devilish character. It is certainly an unusual book and a fascinating one as Apollon is very unpredictable.
I read the book in French as it was not available in English at that time. However, it has since been published in English by New Orleans-based publsher Lavender Ink / Diálogos, a publisher which, I must admit, I had not heard of till this book, in a translation by the very excellent Will Firth.
Sadly, publishing it early this year meant its London launch got swamped by the Covid-19 news and lockdown and since then, it seems to have disappeared without a trace. The matter has not been helped by the Serbian copyright-holder allowing only a 500 print run and not allowing a digital version.
The book is not cheap at $40/£30 though, at the time of writing, it is on sale from the publisher at $29.95. If you are reluctant, let me remind you of the fate of three other great novels published in limited edition and since difficult to obtain.
The first is Oğuz Atay‘s Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected), a great Turkish novel. It was published in a very limited edition of 200 by the ad hoc publisher Olric Press. They hoped a commercial publisher would pick it up. None has. You can no longer get a copy for love or money.
The second is Arno Schmidt’s Bottom’s Dream. I have a copy but have not yet been brave enough to read it. It is also long since out of print. The UK version of a well-known only bookseller has it for £150 while the US version is charging the interesting amount of $389.47, in other words a lot more than the original price.
Finally I would mention Miquel de Palol’s Troiaccord. This book is in five volumes and only available in the original Catalan. I also have a copy and also have not yet been brave enough to start reading it. However, it is very difficult to obtain and very expensive if you do manage to find a copy.
In other words, my advice is buy this book now or it will go out of print and will be difficult and expensive to obtain in the future and the current price will seem like a real bargain.
While I am discussing this issue, I would urge you that, wherever possible, to buy books published by small publishers directly from the publisher. I mentioned this in May and that blog post contains links to many small publishers who are selling their own books, both print and ebooks, so please buy directly from them. Many of them (probably all of them) run on very tight budgets and the Covid-19 crisis has really hit them so they need every penny/cent/euro/dollar/pound/peso/yen/etc. they can get.
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