The latest addition to my website is António Lobo Antunes‘s Conhecimento do Inferno (Knowledge of Hell, an earlier novel by Antunes but still very much in the style of his later novels. It is the story of a psychiatrist called António Lobo Antunes who is travelling from the Algarve to Lisbon by car and is recounting what he sees but, more particularly, his life, to his (absent) daughter, Joanna. His vision is inevitably bleak as he starts off by criticising the English tourists and the Portuguese who sell things to them and moves on to paint an overall bleak portrait of Portugal as it is in the present day. But he also spends much time damning his own profession and the psychiatrists who practise it, as well as describing the horrors of Portugal’s colonial war in Angola, where he served as an army doctor. As always with Antunes it is superbly told, told in an original and vivid language but it is uniformly grim as well.
The latest addition to my website is Amélie Nothomb‘s Ni d’Ève Ni d’Adam (Tokyo Fiancée), another quirky novel from the Belgian author. This one, like many of her other books, is about one of her visits to Japan and the main theme is Western-Japanese cultural differences. As the English title indicates, she meets a Japanese man and they become engaged. She had been teaching him French, which he is studying, not very successfully, at university. As always, Nothomb is witty but also insightful about Japanese culture and the Japanese view of Westerners, as well as Western views of the Japanese. Nothomb is one of those authors, like Joyce Carol Oates, whom I find difficult to keep up with, as she is prolific, producing a new novel every year. I plan to read one or two more soon.
The latest addition to my website is Rachel Joyce‘s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This is one of those quirky English novels about a seemingly normal and boring Englishman, who suddenly does something unexpected. In this case, Harold Fry, who is retired from working for a brewery and is living with his wife Maureen, their marriage having long since gone sour, receives a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, who is dying from cancer in a hospice at the other end of the country. He writes her a brief letter and sets out to post it and then does not stop but decides to walk all the way to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the hospice is, without proper footwear, equipment or maps. The book is the story of his journey. He meets some helpful people, sees something of the country and reflects on his life – his marriage, his relationship with his son, his job, Queenie. That he is a different and probably better person at the end of his journey is certain. The novel is witty, well told and, at times, poignant without being mawkish.
The latest addition to my website is Cezar Petrescu‘s Cezar Petrescu: Întunecare (Gathering Clouds), another early twentieth century Romanian novel. This one was originally three volumes but, sadly, only the first volume has been translated into English so this review only covers that first volume. It is set in the First World War. Romania initially stayed out of the war. King Carol was a Hohenzollern and tended to support Germany and Austro-Hungary. Most Romanians wanted Romania to join Russia, Britain and France, primarily to reclaim Transylvania from Hungary. Romania was ill-prepared for the war when the country finally declared war on Austro-Hungary and, after initial successes, its armies were soon overrun and went into headlong retreat. This novel shows these events from the perspective of a Romanian family – an army colonel and a member of parliament – and their friends and family. Petrescu cleverly shows the widely differing views prevailing both before and after the war and the dark side,with much corruption and profiteering. It is a pity that the other two volumes have not been translated, as they go on to tell more of what befell Romania for the rest of the war and what happened to our hero, Radu Comşa, secretary to the MP.
The latest addition to my website is Emyr Humphreys‘ The Little Kingdom. Wales has not fared as well as, for example, Scotland, in recognition of its literature in recent years, despite a thriving Welsh-language publishing industry with some of its output translated into English. Humphreys is still alive at the time of writing, almost ninety-four, but his best-known novels were written before 1970. He was a committed Welsh nationalist and Christian and these traits can be seen in this novel. It is the story of a young man who is a fervent nationalist but moves away from Christianity and gets carried away by his own arrogance and self-importance, as he and his friends and associates fight the construction of a new aerodrome, much of it built on his uncle’s land. For a first novel it is an excellent work though, sadly, long since out of print.
The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s Le Baiser au lépreux (A Kiss for the Leper). I first read Mauriac many, many years ago. Indeed, Le Mystère Frontenac (The Frontenac Mystery) is the first adult novel I read in French. Mauriac is a Catholic writer and it is his Catholicism that informs his writing (though certainly not all that informs his writing). As the Millions reports, Catholic writers seem far fewer than they were. The Millions is reporting on the USA and UK but I think the same applies in other parts of the world. Mauriac was a very important writer in France, as was Georges Bernanos who also appears on my site. Both are still read today in France but far less so in the English-speaking world. This is a pity as both are superb writers and are well worth reading, whatever your religious views. There are several other well-known French Catholic writers of that period, such as Paul Claudel, Julien Green and Charles Péguy, many of whom are still read in France today, often by non-Catholics.
Mauriac was not well served by the film industry. Apart from Thérèse Desqueyroux, made by the legendary but very much underestimated Georges Franju (there is also a very recent film version of the book), his films did not translate well to the screen. Bernanos was far more fortunate, not least because two of his books were filmed by the brilliant director Robert Bresson and are now classics of French cinema.
Le Baiser au lépreux (A Kiss for the Leper) is not a fun book. It is gloomy and miserable, both trademarks of Mauriac’s writing, and all the major characters end up far worse off than they were at the beginning. Mauriac was from les Landes, the area around Bordeaux, very conservative and Catholic and very rural. These features are reflected in many of his novels, including this one. It tells of the marriage of the son of the rich landowner to an attractive woman. Jean, the son in question, is small and ugly and tends to keep himself to himself. Noémi, who marries him at her parents’ insistence, does her best but cannot help finding him repulsive and he is well aware of this. He feels guilty about having married her and spends his time wandering the countryside in order to keep away from her. It all ends badly. Nevertheless, it s a very well-written novel and one worth reading. It has been translated into English but is out of print and not cheap to obtain, which is a pity.
The latest addition to my website is Hamid Ismailov‘s Железная Дорога (Railway), a novel from Uzbekistan. Ismailov actually lives in London and works for the BBC, having left Uzbekistan in 1992. This novel is a series of interconnected stories around the fictitious Uzbek town of Gilas and is similar in form to Fazil Iskander‘s Сандро из Чегема (Sandro of Chegem). The stories are set from the early twentieth century to around 1980 and deal with how the Uzbeks cope with Soviet domination, the various races that live in the area and, of course, their culture. They are funny, colourful and very well told.
The latest addition to my website is Timur Vermes‘ Er ist wieder da [He’s Back]. This book has had considerable success in Germany and also caused a lot of controversy. It is based on the idea that Hitler suddenly returns to Germany in August, 2011. He does not know why but assumes that it is because he is needed to help Germany with all its problems, such as Turkish immigrants and a woman chancellor. Other Germans assume that he is an actor playing the role and playing it very convincingly. He is soon offered a slot on a TV programme, where he is so authentic that it becomes wildly successful on YouTube. Vermes plays it partially for laughs, with lots of jokes about Hitler discovering new technology but also about how the producers and audience think that he is acting and he is convinced that he is back to steer Germany towards the way he thinks it should be. But Vermes also has a serious point, namely that, if Hitler were to return, he would not be rejected out of hand. The book is not yet available in English but is being translated and should appear in 2014 in English. I am sure that it will be very successful when it does appear in English.
The latest addition to my website is Thomas Brussig‘s Helden wie wir (Heroes Like Us). This had considerable success in Germany, as it was one of the earlier novels about the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, it takes a somewhat different approach from other such novels as the narrator of the novel claims that it is his penis that is responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall. The earlier part of the novel is about his upbringing and focuses extensively on his penis and his masturbatory fantasies à la Portnoy’s Complaint. The second part of the novel sees him joining the Stasi, the East German secret police, where he reveals the total incompetence of that organisation. Finally, we see his penis bringing down the Berlin Wall. It is certainly amusing but does get a bit too obsessive about the penis/sex bit.
The latest addition to my website is Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection, another of O’Flaherty’s novels set against the backdrop of Irish history. The history in this case is the 1916 Easter Rising, a spectacular failure from the military point of view but which had profound political repercussions later on. O’Flaherty focuses his story on a small group of people involved in the rising – a small unit sent to defend the Dublin-Dun Laoghaire road from the expected British troops, as well as the mother of one of the unit members. O’Flaherty shows how the rising was both badly planned and badly executed and doomed to failure early on but many brave men stuck it out, knowing that things were not going well. It is certainly not a great work but still worthwhile, whether you are interested in Irish history or not.