Samir Naqqash: فراعراقية (Tenants and Cobwebs)

The latest addition to my website is Samir Naqqash‘s فراعراقية (Tenants and Cobwebs). Samir Naqqash was an Iraqi Jew whose family emigrated to Israel when conditions for Jews in Baghdad became very difficult in Iraq. He never really fit in while in Israel and, unlike, many Jewish émigrés, persisted in writing in Arabic rather than Hebrew, which meant he had less success than other Jewish writers in Israel. This book is set in a Baghdad neighbourhood in the 1940s, when the situation is getting bad for the Jews, following the Farhud (pogrom), as a result of Nazism, Zionism and Arab nationalism. We follow the stories of a host of colourful characters, Jewish and Arab, as they struggle with their own lives, all the while becoming increasingly aware that their stay in Iraq is drawing to a close after many hundreds of years and they will have to leave (By 2013, only five Jews remained in Baghdad, down from 50,000 in 1900). Naqqash tells a superb story of their own problems and disputes, against the background of rising tensions and the gradual realisation that they will have to leave Baghdad.

César Aira: Prins

The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Prins, his most recent work to date. The narrator is a writer of Gothic novels, a job that pays well because they sell well but a job he seems to hate. However, he does not know what else he could do with his time. After considering and rejecting various possibilities, he comes up with the only possible solution: opium. En route to the dealer, on bus 126, he meets Alicia. He buys the opium from a house called Antiquity. The opium is delivered but as the key to Antiquity is hidden in the huge quantity of opium, he also gets Ujier, the dealer, as well. The narrator, Alicia and Ujier hide away in his massive house. However, the opium starts to have an effect and life becomes one of his Gothic novels. Another strange but fascinating work from Aira, not yet available in English.

Paul Gadenne: Siloé [Siloam]

The latest addition to my website is Paul Gadenne‘s Siloé [Siloam]. This is a very long autobiographical novel, Gadenne’s first, based on his stay in a tuberculosis asylum in the French Alps. Unlike Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), Gadenne does use TB as symbol of the human condition but uses the isolation of Simon Delambre, the hero, to show how much a man can change in such conditions. He is influenced my many things in his change: the beauties of nature, friendship with ordinary people, some manual labour (sewing), absence from the urban hurly-burly and routine and, above all, love. He meets and falls in love with a woman patient, Ariane (French for Ariadne) and they plan a future together. At the end of the book, Simon is clearly a changed man and definitely not a Hans Castorp as in Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). Sadly, none of Gadenne’s work has been translated into English.

Edward Upward: In the Thirties

The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s In the Thirties, the first book in his The Spiral Ascent trilogy, his best-known work. We follow the story of Alan Sebrill, in the 1930s. Sebrill, like Upward on whom he is clearly based, is a committed Communist. At the beginning of the book, he is determined to write poetry but struggles with it, feeling that it is perhaps not committed enough. After something of an epiphany, he realises he must commit himself more to the political struggle. He returns to London, where he gets a job as a teacher (a job he does not particularly relish) and joins the Communist Party. We follow the struggles of the Party, both with the problems of the Depression and, in the latter part of the book, the rise of Fascism, including the activities of the Fascists in England. Their views (almost uncritical support of the Soviet Union and Stalin) seem very naive. However, following Alan’s political (and romantic) development make the book an enjoyable read.

Jonathan Coe: Middle England

The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England. This is his best novel since his superb political satire What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). It continues the stories of Benjamin Trotter, his family and friends, from The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, while giving us another brilliant political satire, this time aimed at recent events (2010 onwards), with particular reference to Brexit. Coe skilfully mixes in the political environment, his political satire and the story of several characters from those earlier novels. He does not hide his views – Fuck Brexit! as Benjamin Trotter says – but does show the other side to a certain degree and shows how the generation gap, the class gap and the Brexit gap are alive and well in no longer moderate England.

Niviaq Korneliussen: Homo sapienne (UK: Crimson; US: Last Night in Nuuk)

The latest addition to my website is Niviaq Korneliussen‘s Homo sapienne (UK: Crimson; US: Last Night in Nuuk). The UK and US editions have different titles, with the UK title coming from one of the character’s favourite songs. In addition the UK title was published 1 November 2018 while the US edition is not published till 15 January 2019. The success of this book – it has already been published in several other languages – is simply because it is set in Greenland, written by a Greenland author and yet is about bisexuality, gender identification, excessive consumption of alcohol, casual sex and continual partying, topics we would not normally associate with Greenland. We follow five characters who struggle with their sexuality, their partners, their gender identification (in one case) and where the next party is to be held. It is certainly lively and colourful and gives us a different view of Greenland from the other Greenland novel on my website (written exactly a hundred years previously) but it is not great literature.

Dubravka Ugrešić: Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain)

The latest addition to my website is Dubravka Ugrešić‘s Ministarstvo boli (The Ministry of Pain). This is a (semi-)autobiographical novel about a Croatian woman, Tanja Lucić, who has left Croatia and is now resident in the Netherlands. Her former boyfriend has taken a job in Japan and she has decided not to accompany him. She had managed to get a short-term job as a lecturer in the Department of Serbo-Croatian at the University of Amsterdam. Most of her students are from the former Yugoslavia, as following a university course allows them to prolong their stay in the country. Much of the book is about how Tanya and her students struggle with a variety of issues relating both to their exile but also to the break-up of the country they grew up in. Language (is there one Serbo-Croat language or several different ones?), culture (despite its faults, they did grow up and know Yugoslavia and its ways), relationships between the different nationalities and with fellow Slavs, adaption to the Dutch and the Netherlands and, of course, surviving in a different world, with a different culture and a different language are all part of the problems they face on a day to day basis. There is no easy solution – adaptation is not that easy – but they can at least talk about it.

Ivo Andrić: Omerpaša Latas (Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan)

The latest addition to my website is Ivo Andrić‘s Omerpaša Latas (Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan). This is one of Andrić’s later novels, set in Bosnia like most of his novels, only just published in English for the first time. It tells of the repression of rebellion in Bosnia in the Ottoman Empire, by Omer Pasha Latas who was born in Austria of Serb parents and fled to the Ottoman Empire to escape the disgrace of his father’s behaviour and then rose through the ranks. Andrić is Bosnian so his view of Omer Pasha and is actions is highly critical. Omer Pasha is cruel, deceitful, a sexual monster and ruthless. We follow Omer Pasha’s story but also detailed stories of several people who come into contact with him, including his wife, his staff and the man who painted his portrait. Many of these are of European origin like the Pasha himself. Andrić tells his story well and we get a detailed insight into both the Pasha’s psychology and life in occupied Bosnia at that time.

Ali Smith: Winter

The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Winter. This is the second novel in her seasonal tetralogy. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family. The oldest sister, Iris, has strong left-wing views and is thrown out of the house by her father. Sophia, her younger sister, behaves and is responsible and goes on to become a successful businesswoman. She has a son, Arthur (Art) from a casual affair. Neither sister married and both are now old and not speaking to one another. Having broken off with his girlfriend, Charlotte, Arthur now turns up for Christmas at his mother’s huge house in Cornwall (where she lives alone) accompanied by a substitute, hired Charlotte, in the form of Lux. Iris is summoned as Sophia seem to be not eating and is accompanied by a strange, disembodied head and the four spend Christmas together where the past is aired, relationships discussed and challenged and topics such as Brexit, refugees, environmental politics and Greenham Common the subject of conversation. Smith makes her point about her issues but also about working together for the common good, something she feels that we do not do well either as a country or individuals.

Mo Yan: 酒国 (The Republic of Wine)

The latest addition to my website is Mo Yan‘s 酒国 (The Republic of Wine). This is a chaotic, alcohol-fuelled story about excesses in China, particularly alcohol and sex. We follow two stories, which will merge. The first involves crack investigator Ding Gou’er of the Higher Procuratorate, who is sent to investigate allegations that local mine officials are eating young boys. Drink and sex will be his downfall. At the same time, we are following an exchange of correspondence between Li Yudou, a doctor of liquor studies and would-be writer, who is writing to the famous writer, Mo Yan, submitting stories to him. Mo Yan is not terribly impressed with the stories, though does try to get them published. The stories tend to recount episodes from life in Liquorland, where he lives, including stories about the rearing and eating of young boys as well as the writer’s sexual obsession with his mother-in-law. Gradually, the two sets of stories merge, with a cast of characters obsessed with food, alcohol and sex and a plot that tends towards chaos.