Ivan Vladislavic: The Distance

The latest addition to my website is Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Distance. This novel tells the story of two brothers, Branko and Joe, growing up and living as adults in Pretoria. Each tells his version of the story, in alternating sections. They are very different, with Branko as the gregarious, sporty but not very intellectual one while Joe is the intellectual, solitary one, not very good with the girls. To Branko’s surprise and annoyance Joe becomes mildly obsessed with Muhammad Ali and we learn a considerable amount about the boxer. As adults Joe becomes a mildly successful writer and then digs out his box of Ali clippings, with a view to writing a novel. He calls on his brother’s help. Branko initially thinks it is going to be a novel about Ali but when Joe convinces him that it is, in reality, about them and their childhood, he reluctantly get involved, though he is not by any means a writer.

Gamal al-Ghitani: ااب التجليات (The Book of Epiphanies)

The latest addition to my website is Gamal al-Ghitani‘s ااب التجليات (The Book of Epiphanies), another recommendation from
The Untranslated, though I have had a copy of the book for many years. As did the Untranslated, I read the French translation of the book as the English translation is a substantial abridgement. It has not been translated into any other languages. The book is narrated by Gamal, i.e. the author, and recounts his spiritual journeys, guided by various Islamic scholars and mystics, looking back from on high at his family (including the birth of both of his parents), the early history of Islam, Islamic mysticism, particularly Sufism, and the modern history of Egypt, focussing on Gamal Abdel Nasser and his military adventures, particularly the war with Israel, which al-Gitani wholeheartedly supports. It is very long, very complex and very well done but if you can read French, read the whole book in French and not the partial book in English.

Maik Nwosu: Alpha Song

The latest addition to my website is Maik Nwosu‘s Alpha Song. Our hero, a Nigerian who adopts the name Taneba Taneba when he is estranged from his father’s family, never really finds where he fits in and where is going. His uncle gets him a job at the post office (twice) but that does not work out. He has various girlfriends but none seems to work out. His first wife dies, while he and his second wife, despite having a young son, split up, His friends die, go insane or just disappear. At the beginning of the book, he is forty-five, dying of an incurable disease, his system damaged by debauched living, writing a testament – this book – to his five-year old son, whom he does not see. It is a sad tale worsened by the fact that most of the other characters also struggle to find their place in the world.

Mircea Cărtărescu: Orbitor Vol 3, Aripa dreaptă [Blinding – The Right Wing]

The latest addition to my website is Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Orbitor Vol 3, Aripa dreaptă [Blinding – The Right Wing]. This is the third book in his Orbitor (Blinding) trilogy. This one has many of the themes of the first two books – Mircea’s life, from childhood to adulthood, Romanian politics and stunning and highly imaginative visions of Bucharest, of butterflies and his own life but it also focusses on the 1969 Romanian Revolution which saw the overthrow and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena. Mircea does not take much part in it, though he seems to participate in one or two of the demonstrations, but he certainly witnesses and comments on it. However, what makes this book is Cărtărescu’s wonderful vision as we see Bucharest and the people (and insects!) in it not just as they are but through the author’s colourful imagination, often surrealistic, sometimes horrific but always stunningly creative.

The Year of Manuel Pedrolo?

Could this be the year of Manuel de Pedrolo, the great Catalan science fiction writer? His best-known novel Mecanoscrit del segon origen (Typescript of the Second Origin) is finally being published in English this April.

As this article shows (link in Spanish), it is going to be The Year of Manuel de Pedrolo in Spain.

De Pedrolo was very prolific, writing poetry, theatre, short stories, novels and articles in the press. He also translated novelists such as John le Carré and Georges Simenon. He was ahead of his time, anti-capitalist and in favour of Catalan independence when neither view was fashionable or, indeed, safe. He only wrote in Catalan, never in Spanish. Because of his themes – sex, violence, anti-capitalism – he was a victim of Franco’s censors.

Now his house is to become a museum, thanks to the efforts of his daughter, Adelais. There will various events to celebrate his work and his life. Much of his writing will be digitised and made available on line. And, as mentioned, English-speaking readers will be able to discover why he is revered in Catalonia.

Joanna Scott: Careers for Women

The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s Careers for Women. This is another first-class novel from one of the United States’ leading novelists, who does not get the attention she deserves. As the title of this one shows, it is about sexism and, in particular sexism in the workplace, though it is also about a lot of other things. It starts in the late 1950s, when the very real Lee K Jaffe is head of the public relations department of the New York Port Authority. It is Jaffe who will push for the construction of the twin towers of the world Trade Center. Jaffe has a heart and hires a woman, Pauline Moreau, who has been arrested for prostitution, to the disgust of Maggie Gleason, the narrator and her colleagues. Maggie soon becomes close to Pauline and looks after Sonia, Pauline’s handicapped daughter, a role she takes on full-time when Pauline mysteriously disappears. At the same time, we are following the events at Alumacore, an aluminium manufacturing plant in Visby, in remote upstate New York, whose managing director, Bob Whittaker, had previously had an affair with Pauline and is the biological father of Sonia. We follow the story of what happened to Pauline, as well as the construction of (and, right at the end, destruction of) the twin towers. As well as these plot lines and the issue of sexism and (lack of) careers for women, Scott raises a host of other issues, including corruption, corporate bullying, massive pollution and anti-Semitism, all the while giving us another excellent novel.

Koen Peeters: Grote Europese roman [Great European Novel]

The latest addition to my website is Koen PeetersGrote Europese roman [Great European Novel]. This is a tongue-in-cheek novel that may be many things but is not the Great European Novel. Our hero is Robin, working for a Belgian firm n Brussels which makes gadgets (we know no more about it). Robin is in marketing. The boss, Theo, whose parents were killed in the Holocaust, takes a shine to Robin and engages him to find out what the firm needs to do to compete in the current digital world and to visit other European firms to find out what they are doing. Each chapter is named after a European capital, but Robin does not visit them all. For some of them he meets people from the capital. For others, the connection is limited to say the least. Oslo, for example is one of the names of Onslow, the firm’s computer security expert. Robin takes an entirely detached view towards both Europe as a whole and to the individual cities he visits. He also finds that the other firms are no more adapted to the new digital challenges than his. He does, however, collect a few foreign words and occasional titbits in his Moleskine notebook. It is a delightful cynical look at Europe and the world, with Europe seemingly out of touch with the new realities. However, it is not The Great European Novel by any stretch of the imagination and, I have no doubt, Peeters never intended it to be.

Victor Pelevin: Священная книга оборотня (The Sacred Book of the Werewolf)

werewolf

The latest addition to my website is Victor Pelevin‘s Священная книга оборотня (The Sacred Book of the Werewolf). This is another of his books where the main characters of the book are in fact animals, albeit in human form. A Hu-Li, the main character, is a prostitute working in present-day Moscow but she is also a two thousand year old fox. She takes human form – she looks like a young woman aged between fourteen and seventeen – enabling her to work successfully. She disguises her foxness by waggling her tail which has a hypnotic effect on humans. When something goes wrong – a client falls out of the Moscow hotel window where she works – she has to change her modus operandi. Working from the internet, she has a client who likes to be beaten with a knout. When she is too enthusiastic, as a result of his sexist remarks, she comes into conflict with the police. One of the police officers turns out to be a wolf, with pretensions to being the sacred werewolf but the fox-wolf pairing initially works – they fall passionately in love – but then both realise that this is probably not going to work. Inevitably, Pelevin is highly critical of the current political and moral situation in Russia and, with A Hu-Li’s sister married to an Englishman and the traditional English love of fox-hunting, the English do not escape his satirical pen. Post-modernity, language games and a fair amount of obscenity are the usual par for the course. It does very much drag towards the end, as Pelevin cannot decide how to wrap it up but it is still not a bad read, though certainly not his best.

Whiter than white

A non-white book that I have read but the NYT ignored
A non-white book that I have read but the NYT ignored

There is a bit of a furore going on at the moment following Janet Maslin’s Cool Books for Hot Summer Days, her summer reading recommendations in the New York Times. (I have often wondered why there should be special beach reading lists. Why can’t you just read the same books you read the rest of the year? I do.) It seems that Maslin’s is all white. Not one single writer of colour. On this side of the pond, even The Independent wrote about it, presumably tired of producing yet another what Labour/the Liberal Democrats need to do to win back votes article. Gawker had a go at Maslin and BookRiot produced an alternative (i.e. non-white) list (of which I have only read one, see cover above left).

There are other black British authors
There are other black British authors

I am prompted to blog about this, as I am reading a book by a Nigerian-born English writer whose debut novel will appear next month. She criticised last year’s Man Booker long list for being too white and has also pointed out that Black British writers are not limited to Monica Ali and Zadie Smith, a very valid point. Having recently read books by Nuruddin Farah, Yambo Ouologuem and Alain Mabanckou, I can be reasonably smug about this, though I would be the first to agree this has not always been the case. Maslin has less of an excuse for, as far as I can see, all but one of her selections are from the US. The one exceptions is the only one I have read. According to this article, 37% of the US population is not white and, as the non-white population percentage is increasing and this article is two years old, it may well be even more now, so Maslin has even less of an excuse. Fortunately, I have no plans to read any of the book on Maslin’s list, so I can remain (slightly) smug.

A list of Philippine novels in English translation

One of the two Filpino novels I have on my site
One of the two Filpino novels I have on my site

The blog In lieu of a field guide has published a list of Philippine novels in English translation. Always interested in novels in translation from countries which I know little about, I checked the nine novels on the list. Sadly, only the two José Rizal novels showed up on the site of a well-known online bookseller in the UK and one other in the US. Two others were held by the British Library and four others by the Library of Congress. However, generally, apart from the Rizal, these books are not easy to find. I only have two books on my Philippines page, both written in English and neither particularly easy to find. I note that I own thirteen novels from the Philippines, all originally written in English. Of course, I and other bloggers have mentioned this issue before. Even with the rise of online bookselling and ebooks, it does remain difficult to obtain novels from smaller countries. In a previous blog I mentioned the difficulty of obtaining Venezuelan novels. Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon has frequently mentioned the issue of translation from Indian languages, e.g. here. I can understand that for publishers and retailers selling books from these countries may not be profitable but, surely, with the rise of ebooks, it should become easier. I have managed to obtain many books written in Spanish purely because they are available in ebook form and therefore relatively cheap both to stock and acquire. The Philippines is very much an unknown in the UK and obviously is better-known in the US, being a former US colony. There is also a relatively large population of Filipinos in the US but only around 125,000 in the UK so access to Filipino culture in the UK is relatively limited. I hope that, with the rise of ebooks, many of the books on the list will eventually become available in the US and UK but I am not counting on it.