The latest addition to my website is Miljenko Jergović‘s Buick Riviera [Buick Riviera]. Hassan is a mild-mannered low key Bosnian Muslim who fled Bosnia as the war was starting and is now in Toledo, Oregon, married to Angela, a German actress. He is devoted to his Buick Rivera, which Angela cannot stand. She works in Salem and normally gets a lift but he offers to pick her up. It is snowing and he skids into a ditch. He is rescued by Vouko, a fellow Bosnian but a Serb who, as we learn but Hassan does not, is a war criminal. Vouko is also loud-mouthed, aggressive and is currently leaving his American wife, after having killed her puppy for defecating in his slipper. When Vouko turns up in Toledo, having found Hassan’s lost wallet, the two men clash and both men make separate, major, irrational, life-changing decisions. Culture clash, how we carry our culture with us wherever we go and, ultimately, how people can make rash decisions that have huge repercussions on their lives are the theme of this interesting but occasionally disturbing book.
The latest addition to my website is Fowzia Karim‘s Above Us the Milky Way. Fowzia Karimi and her family – parents and five daughters – left Afghanistan in 1980 after the Soviet invasion and settled in California. This is their story – how and why they left, the problems of exile and reports of the continuing horrors they left behind. But Karimi is an artist by profession and this story is told by an artist as well as by one of the daughters. She illustrates it herself, both with her own paintings and family photos, but also with her words describing in a poetic/artistic way the joys of pre-Soviet Afghanistan and their family life. Indeed, they are such a close-knit family that she often describes the five sisters as one, even though all five have their own personalities. The book is divided into twenty-six sections, one for each letter of the alphabet, with appropriate themes from Afghanistan (for A) to Zenith (for Z), though her approach is more kaleidoscopic, jumping around with her images, both visual and verbal and her telling of the story in a non-chronological way. The result is a beautiful book, a story of the horrors of war and exile but not by any means a conventional one.
A few years go I read W V Tilsley‘s Other Ranks. This is an account of a soldier in Word War I. It was originally published in 1931 and never republished. It was very hard (if not almost impossible) to find a copy. As a result of my review, I was contacted by a lady who was related to Tilsley by marriage. She was determined to get the book published and worked very hard to do so. I am happy to report that it has now been republished and you can get it direct from the publisher, Unicorn Publishing. Their website says of them Unicorn Publishing Group LLP is a leading independent publisher with three distinct imprints: Unicorn, specialising in the visual arts and cultural history; Uniform, specialising in military history; and Universe, specialising in historical fiction. I would highly recommend this book, particularly if you are interested in accounts of war, World War I or simply good writing. Hopefully the book will now become better known.
The latest addition to my website is Mo Yan‘s 红高粱家族 (Red Sorghum). This is a very colourful novel, set in Mo Yan’s home town, from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. Much of the story tells of the various groups fighting the Japanese, led by the narrator’s grandfather. While they do put up a good fight, despite inferior weaponry, they spend almost as much time fighting rival Chinese groups, though the three groups do combine when faced by the Japanese. We also a lot about about the narrator’s grandmother, a strong-minded woman, widowed three days after marriage (though glad of it). Grandma and grandfather have a lively marriage, with ups and downs, while grandfather becomes something of a bandit, but a good bandit, of course. Mo Yan tells an exciting, action-packed story, which was made into a highly successful film.
The latest addition to my website is David Albahari‘s Kontrolni punkt (Checkpoint). The novel tells about a platoon of soldiers sent to man a barrier on the top of the hill. They have no idea what the barrier is for, where they are – even which country they are in – nor what they are supposed to do. There is no habitation around and no-one wants to pass through the barrier. Initially, it is calm but then one of the soldiers is found murdered. Gradually, other soldiers are picked off. A group of refugees arrives to pass through the barrier but that does not go well. Eventually, a war does arrive as armed forces arrive but it is still not clear either to our original soldiers or, indeed, to the others who is fighting whom and why. What we do know is that the war is particularly barbaric and cruel, both towards the enemy soldiers – everyone is the enemy – and towards the civilian population. Clearly based on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the book does not hold back as damning war as pointless and cruel.
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 Vasil Bykaŭ‘s Альпийская баллада (Alpine Ballad). This is a new translation, from the original Belarusian, a distinct improvement on the previous translation from the (censored) Russian. It tells the story of two people – the Belarusian Ivan and the Italian communist, Giulia – who escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Austria, when Soviet prisoners detonate an unexploded bomb dropped by the US Air Force. The couple, who meet while escaping, manage to flee their initial pursuers and head into the Alps. Inevitably, the two become closer as they deal with the problems of their pursuers (inducing Alsatian dogs), the bad weather they first encounter, a mad German fellow escapee and, of course, the issue of food and where they are going. Bykaŭ tells an excellent story, with some criticism of the Soviet system (to Giulia’s horror), some lyrical description of the Alpine landscape and the burgeoning relationship of the two escaped prisoners.
The latest addition to my website is Julien Gracq‘s Un balcon en forêt (A Balcony in the Forest). This novel was based on Gracq’s own experiences in World War II and tells of Grange, a young lieutenant, put in charge of a bunker by the River Meuse, near the Belgian border, to stop advancing German tanks. For much of the novel Gracqq and the three men under his command are waiting while nothing much happens. Grange has an affair with a young widow living nearby, the men hunt and, all the while, they feel that the war is unreal, even as we see small signs of it creeping closer. Of course, it eventually does arrive and, for the last few days, they watch the smoke in the distance and see the planes. As we know, it does not end well for the French and Belgian defenders.
The latest addition to my website is Janne Teller‘s Hvis der var krig i Norden (War). This is a story that imagines that it is the Danes that become refugees (in the Danish original) but the British in this translation of the book. Britain as been taken over by a dictator with his nasty Britification police and is at war with the Scandinavian countries, who are bombing the UK. The fourteen year old boy (though Teller uses the second person to drive the point home to the readers) and his family have to flee and go to Egypt where there is a large refugee camp but where they are not particularly welcome, not least because the British behave badly. We follow their difficulties in trying to get asylum, work and learn the language, while things are not going well at home. Showing the problems faced from the British point of view is highly effective and, is of course, Teller’s aim.