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 Tullio Avoledo‘s L’anno dei dodici inverni [The Year of the Twelve Winters]. An old man comes to visit a couple and their baby in 1982, saying he wants to write a book about babies born on Christmas Day as their baby, Chiara, was. He comes most years, yet there is clearly something odd about him, not least of which he is able to predict future events and never seems to age. We also have a narrator, telling us of his own messy life. We follow Chiara who messes up her own life, after her father dies. Suddenly, we jump to 2028 and a futuristic London, where all the strange events of the previous part of the book are explained, with the writer Philip K Dick being key to the story. Yes, it is certainly part science fiction but it is also a very clever story and very well written but, sadly, not availabe in any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Paolo Maurensig‘s Il diavolo nel cassetto (A Devil Comes to Town). This is a tongue-in-cheek fable about a remote Swiss village, where everyone is a would-be writer but all have their manuscripts rejected. When a young woman, considered simple-minded by the other villagers, wins a literary prize, word spreads and the Devil, in the form of a publishers, arrived in the village to help the villagers publish their work. The curate of the village, who is telling the story, engages the Devil in a life-and-death struggle. With foxes as the avatars of the Devil, the publisher as the Devil and amateur writers as tools of the Devil, Maurensig is clearly having fun with this work.
The latest addition to my website is Wu Ming‘s Altai (Altai) . This is another exciting tale from Wu Ming, this one set in sixteenth century Venice and Constantinople. Our hero is Emanuele De Zante. He was born in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) of a Jewish mother and an Italian father. He has managed to conceal his Jewish origins and, as a result, become chief of the Venetian Secret Service. When there is an explosion in the Arsenal, his boss wants a Jewish culprit and he discovers that his origins are now known and he is to be arrested. He manages to flee to Constantinople, where a rich Jew, Giuseppe Nasi, helps him but uses his spying skills. Nasi has helped persecuted Jews all over Europe but now wants to set up a Jewish homeland but not in Palestine. He has identified a place but it is controlled by Venice. So all he needs to do is get the Ottomans to go to war. Blood, gore, death, dirty politics, swashbuckling deeds, all are grist to Wu Ming’s tale in this exciting story.
The latest addition to my website is Wu Ming‘s 54 (54). Wu Ming is an Italian collective (five men) and this novel is as the title tells us, set primarily in 1954. It tells several separate stories, featuring real and fictitious characters, which intersect in unexpected ways at various points. Part of it is based on the West’s relationship with Tito’s Yugoslavia. However, there is as story featuring Cary Grant, one featuring General Serov, head of the KGB and another featuring Lucky Luciano, the Italian-American gangster, who had been deported to Italy and who continues his drug-running activities in Italy. At the same time, we are following a group of men who live in Bologna, who had in some cases been involved with the anti-Fascist partisans and who are now primarily communist and opposed to the Italian government. All these stories are lively, colourful and action-packed, with both humour and a bit of pathos, and they all merge, together with the story of a talking thinking TV. It may be a collective novel but it does work.
The latest addition to my website is Claudio Magris‘ Non luogo a procedere (Blameless). This novel continues Magris’ favourite theme of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. The unnamed protagonist has collected a mass of material relating to war, with a view to establishing a museum in Trieste. Sadly, at the start of the novel he has died in a fire and only now is the museum being set up, by Luisa Brooks, who has a Jewish mother and an African-American father. We see the exhibits, hear a lot of stories (generally based on historical events) about the horrors of war, particularly but by no means only World War II, follow the story of Luisa and her family and of the unnamed protagonist and learn of key documents which have gone missing, which show those Italians who helped the Nazis but who have managed to not only survive but prosper. Magris makes no bones about his views and illustrates them with a host of fascinating stories about war and its horrors.
The latest addition to my website is Paolo Cognetti‘s Le otto montagne (The Eight Mountains), which won the prestigious Strega Prize in Italy. It tells the story of Pietro, only child of two mountain lovers. His father, in particular, is very keen on climbing at high altitudes in the Italian Alps and Pietro gets the bug. His mother, who prefers the lower reaches, persuades the father to rent a small cottage in Grana and the father and then, when he is older, Pietro go up the mountains. It is in Grana that Pietro meets Bruno, a boy of his own age and they become lifelong friends. Bruno is a mountain man and their close relationship helps Pietro develop his love of mountains. There is a falling-out between father and son, and between the friends when Pietro becomes a teenager but Pietro rediscovers his love of mountains with the help of Bruno.
The latest addition to my website is Nicola Pugliese‘s Malacqua (Malacqua). It tells a story of Naples over four days when it rains continually and heavily. While this could have been a straightforward catastrophe novel, Pugleise’s superb writing gives it an aura of a religious apocalypse, with cars disappearing into a chasm, a haunting screeching noise which turns out to be coming from a doll, with other identical dolls found at other catastrophe locations, and a house collapsing, killing the inhabitants. All the while we follow a journalist, a passive observer, as much concerned with his own issues as with the rain, we also follow a succession of other characters, all of whom seem to be living in a strange world of their own. It is a brilliant and very original novel, Pugliese’s only novel, and we must be grateful to And Other Stories that it now appears in English. Already – yes, early November – in the Spectator’s Best Books of the Year, Anna Aslanyan describes it as this year’s strangest and most seductive book. I can only agree with her.
The latest addition to my website is Claudio Magris‘ Alla cieca (Blindly). This is another highly inventive work from Magris, telling the story of man who thinks he is two different people – the fictitious Salvatore Cippico (born 1910) and the very real Jørgen Jørgensen (born 1780). Salvatore is recounting his tale to a psychiatrist in Trieste. He has fought for the Communists in Australia, Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia and has been imprisoned for his beliefs in all but Spain. Jørgen helped found Hobart but was later sent there as a convict and, in between, was briefly King of Iceland, served time in Newgate prison and fought at the Battle of Waterloo. Both had highly colourful lives, made more colourful by the two lives being conflated in Salvatore’s account, which is long, verbose and often confused. It is a wonderful tale, more in the realm of legend than history but the better for it.
The latest addition to my website is Claudio Magris‘ Un altro mare (A Different Sea). This novel tells the story of the very real Enrico Mreule. He is friends with two other young men, including the philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter, in Gorizia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The three friends spend their time discussing philosophy and the classics. But, in 1909, Enrico emigrates to Patagonia, where he lives an ascetic and solitary life. He returns to a much-changed world in 1922, partially because of his scurvy but partially because of Carlo’s suicide. Carlo has essentially passed his mantle on to Enrico. Back in what is now Italy, Enrico keeps his ascetic life style and moves out to the coast to a village in Yugoslavia. He continues his solitary and ascetic life, even after World War II and the advent of Communism in Yugoslavia. It is a very interesting story about a man who is not part of the modern world but lives in his own world of philosophy and the classics.