Sum Marky: Vila Flogá [Villa Flogá]


The latest addition to my website is Sum Marky‘s Vila Flogá [Villa Flogá], the first, and probably last, novel from São Tomé e Príncipe on my site. As far as I can tell there is no novel from São Tomé e Príncipe that has been published in English or, indeed, any other language but Portuguese. Indeed, there are very few published prose writers from this country. Marky remains one of the few novelists, with his books all out of print. This book was both quite fun and had a serious point, not least because it mentions (albeit in passing) the Batepá massacre and the events leading up to it, particularly the fact that the white government used forced labour to get workers for the white-owned plantations. The story is about a black cook, Sum Olímpio, who works for two white men, Sum Ferón and Sum Raul, confirmed bachelors both, interested in wine, women and song. Sum Olímpio lives in a shack, which he calls Vila Flogá. However, the government’s slum clearance project means that Vila Flogá is going to be bulldozed. Sum Olímpio needs 300 escudos to buy another piece of land, money he does not have. Borrowing (from his employers) and theft (also from his employers) form part of his plan to get the money. Sum Olímpio is something of a figure of fun but Marky (who was white) did show the problems the creoles faced when dealing with the whites.

Provençal literature

Sign in Avignon showing where Mistral's Mirèio was first published
Sign in Avignon showing where Mistral’s Mirèio was first published

I have recently returned frrm a week in Provence so this is a good time to say a few words about their literature. Provençal literature, which should be called Occitan literature, had its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries and influenced many poets, including Petrarch and Dante. Indeed, Petrarch spent much time in Provence and there is a museum devoted to him in Fontaine de Vaucluse, site of the largest underground spring in France. Not a great deal more happened till the founding of the Félibrige in the mid-nineteenth century. The Félibrige was an association of like-minded poets, whose best-known member was Frédéric Mistral, author of Mirèio , a long poem in Provençal, which helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Provençal writer to do so.

Max Rouquette - not read in Provence
Max Rouquette – not read in Provence

Occitan literature does not have much of a reputation now. I have one author on my Occitan page though expect to read some authors, such as Joan Bodon (Jean Boudou), Bernat (Bernard) Manciet and Alem Surre-Garcia (link in French). However, I did expect to find other works while in Provence. A tour of the bookshops in Aix-en-Provence (i.e. in Provence) sadly revealed that, apart from the odd copy of Mirèio, the Provençal bookshops had as many books in Mongolian as in Provençal. Nor did they have any of the contemporary Provençal writers translated into French. When I asked for books in Provençal at the wittily named Librairie de Provence, they looked at me as though I was mad. We have books about Provence (i.e. travel, guidebooks, cooking) was the response. Sadly, the language and culture seem to be dying.

Camus' gravestone
Camus’ gravestone

But we did go to Lourmarin, famous perhaps as the home of Peter Mayle (no, we didn’t see him) but also the place where two famous French writers are buried. The first is Albert Camus, who needs no introduction. He bought a place in Lourmarin with the money from his Nobel Prize and died in a car crash less than two years later. Provence, however, is also home to several famous writers who wrote in French but about Provence. They have yet to appear on my site but I have read all of them many years ago and plan to reread them. Marcel Pagnol is probably the best-known, not least because of the films of his book and the films he himself made. Jean Giono is less well-known, at least in the English-speaking world. A few of his books are available in English but, sadly, not too many.

Bosco's gravestone in Loumartin
Bosco’s gravestone in Loumartin

Even less well-known is Henri Bosco, born in Avignon and buried in Lourmarin, not far from Camus. None of his works is in print in English, though some have been translated and, even in France, his reputation is fading, perhaps because he wrote about what he knew – Provence. I will mention, in passing, René Char from Isle sur la Sorgue, a pretty little town, now known for its antiques, and Samuel Beckett who is not from Provence but spent some time in Rousillon, a town famous for its ochre, during the war, hiding from the Germans.

Joanna Scott: Fading, My Parmacheene Belle


The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, the author’s first novel. Joanna Scott is one of those authors who writes very intelligent novels but somehow seems to get lost in the shuffle. This book, for example, is out of print. It is part fable, part extended fishing metaphor, part old age novel, part picaresque story. The unnamed narrator, an angler/backwoodsman, has been married for fifty-three years to a woman he calls My Parmacheene Belle (a type of fishing fly). They have one child, a mentally disabled son in a home. When she dies of cancer (he blames her for abandoning him), he is visited after the funeral by Gibble, his erstwhile companion and cousin of his late wife, who introduced the pair to one another but who has now become his nemesis. In his anger with Gibble, he throws a chair, hitting the boy. He thinks he has killed him, so he runs off. On his journey, he will be joined by a young woman he calls a mermaiden, who he later learns is running away from her father, and they go off together, looking for the narrator’s wife home town. The two pass through the city before arriving at the sea on their picaresque journey. It is an excellent novel for a first novel though not necessarily an easy one, presumably why it has not had the success it deserves.

Sunjeev Sahota: Ours are the Streets


The latest addition to my website is Sunjeev Sahota‘s Ours are the Streets. Sahota is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. The novel is the notebooks of a young Englishman of Pakistani origin who moves from being a normal young man, interested in getting on at university, sex, recreational drugs and bettering himself who, after a visit to Pakistan (to accompany the body of his late father) changes into a suicide bomber. While in Pakistan, he is taken by family members and friends to Afghanistan where he sees first-hand and on video what the West is doing to Muslims and decides that being a suicide bomber is the only way. Sahota tells his story well but I was less than convinced that this was the writing of someone who is the future of the British novel.

I had read three of the novelists before Granta announced their list. I now have read three more in the past week or so. The three were picked arbitrarily and come from different backgrounds – an Englishwoman who has spent a lot of time in Australia, a Scottish woman whose childhood was spent in care homes and foster care who does not know anyone she is related to and an Englishman of Punjabi origin. Each has written one novel, though Evie Wyld has another one coming out next month. What was interesting was the similarity between the three novels.

  • All were about outcasts
  • The four main characters (there are two main characters in After the Fire, a Still Small Voice) had committed or were about to commit acts of violence against other people
  • With one possible exception, all had trouble with romantic relationships
  • All of them make a journey away from their place of origin and this journey has a profound influence on their life
  • All have conflict with their parents, except for Anais Hendricks who has no parents but criticises the mother she never knew

Anyone coming from Mars and handed these three novels as representative of British culture, would be horrified and would assume that Britain was bleak, violent and falling apart. This, of course, may well be the case. While it is clearly difficult to judge on first novels (see, for example, some of these), none of these made me think that these writers are going to be the greats of years to come. I will, naturally, be happy to be proved wrong.

Jenni Fagan: Panopticon


The latest addition to my website is Jenni Fagan‘s Panopticon. Jenni Fagan is the only Scottish writer nominated for the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list. This novel is not going to be everyone’s idea of fun, telling the story of Anais Hendricks, a fifteen-year old girl who has spent her life in care homes and foster families, not knowing anyone she is related to. Anais is what we might called troubled. She has a long arrest record – drugs, assault, failing to obey curfew orders and arson – and, at the beginning of this novel is strongly suspected of having assaulted a policewoman, who is now in a coma. She is sent to a panopticon, a C-shaped prison, where the guards can observe all residents. (The observer is a Nurse Ratched-like figure called Night Nurse.) The story concerns Anais’ life in the panopticon, her relationship with the other residents (generally good, despite the occasional fight) and with the staff (generally bad) and her attempt, aided by her social worker, Angus, to clear her name of the assault on the policewoman. Fagan spares us little detail of the continual aura of violence, the drug use and petty crime and the fairly hopeless lives that many of the residents live, though Anais, despite her faults and criminal record, is someone we must admire, as she struggles to escape from the negative environment she finds herself in. This novel is presumably at least semi-autobiographical, as Fagan herself was in care homes and has worked as a prison writer, so has seen people in similar situations. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here, if she is going to maintain her reputation as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Evie Wyld: After the Fire, a Still Small Voice


The latest addition to my website is Evie Wyld‘s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice. Evie Wyld was one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists and this is her first novel. (her second novel will appear next month, i.e. June 2013). This novel, according to Wyld, tells the story of traumatised men, not talking and scary things that people try to ignore. It is set in Australia and focusses firstly on Frank, a young man whose girlfriend has left him as he hits her too much and who heads off to a remote shack where he tries, alone, to get his life back together. When the young daughter of a neighbour disappears, he is suspected. The other apparently unrelated story tells of Leon, the only son of two Dutch Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and came to Australia. There, they set up a bakery business. Leon’s father goes off to fight in Korea and comes back traumatised. Leon works in his parents’ bakery and enjoys decorating cakes. However, when called up, he goes off to Vietnam, where he sees death and destruction and he, too, is affected by his experience. It is a well-told story and Wyld certainly brings out her theme of traumatised men, not talking and scary things that people try to ignore but I am not sure that this novel is indicative of a talent worthy of nomination to the Granta list

Esther Tusquets: ¡Bingo!


The most recent addition to my website is Esther Tusquets¡Bingo!. This was to be Tusquets’ last novel and, sadly, it has not been translated into English or, indeed, any other language except for Portuguese. Yes, it is about bingo (and it seems from the preface that Tusquets herself was not averse to playing the game) but it is more about old age. The unnamed protagonist is a successful lawyer approaching sixty and instead of the aches and pains and baldness he expected with old age, what has actually happened is that he has lost interest in the things that used to give him pleasure such as art, travel, women and the sea. He drifts around, barely going to work. One day, while drifting he goes into a bingo hall to escape the summer heat and soon becomes immersed in bingo and bingo culture, getting to know the people and the game. He also gets to know an attractive staff member there, who reminds him of his first love. It is a first-class novel despite the unpromising subject matter and it is a pity that it has not been translated into English.

Claude Simon: L’Acacia (The Acacia)


The latest addition to my website is Claude Simon‘s L’Acacia (The Acacia). This is a book about war. In twelve chapters, the book jumps backwards and forwards between World War I and World War II (with a chapter to set the scene before World War I and one set in the immediate aftermath of World War I) telling the story of Simon’s father in World War I, who did not survive, and Simon himself in World War II (he did survive). We learn of the chaos surrounding the fall of France in May 1940 as well as of the wholesale slaughter of World War I. Simon gives us superbly well-written detailed descriptions of the events as seen from the eyes of the ordinary soldier, sparing us little in his descriptions.

Chadraabalyn Lodoidamba: Тунгалаг Тамир [The Clear Tamir]


The latest addition to my website is Chadraabalyn Lodoidamba‘s Тунгалаг Тамир [The Clear Tamir]. This is the first Mongolian novel on my site. It tells the story of Mongolia from early in the twentieth century to the unsuccessful 1932 Lama Uprising. The story is told through the eyes of two brothers – Erdene and Tömör and their families, and Itgelt, a clan chief, and his family. Things change dramatically after the Russian Revolution and Erdene becomes a committed communist, while Tömör, a Sain-Er (an outlaw), helps him. We follow the lives of these people against the background of the changes taking place in Mongolia, with the involvement of the Chinese and the Russians and the move from a nomadic, clan-based culture to a more communist one. It is a thoroughly enjoyable story and was made into a successful film in Mongolia (see poster, above left). Sadly, it has only been translated into Russian and from Russian into German but not into English.

Women’s Prize for Fiction

The favourite?
The favourite?

The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced and nearly got lost in the shuffle, as it was announced the day after Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list. Fortunately for it, there was something of a controversy, as Hilary Mantel was nominated for yet another prize for her book Bring up the Bodies. Some commentators felt that it was time to give other writers a turn but the Prize Chair, Miranda Richardson, forcibly defended the decision. I am with Miranda Richardson on this, not only because I think that she is a first-class actress but also because, if Hilary Mantel has written the best book (and there is no question that it is a brilliant novel), she should win the prize. Just because a football team has won a prize, it is not stopped from winning another. The other controversy was the same old one – why should there be a separate prize for women writers? Answer: too many of the top prizes seem to prefer men (see the Prize FAQ, first question) and, if men feel that they are done down, they can always set up their own prize. End of discussion.

A dark horse?
A dark horse?

Of the six books on the shortlist, I have read three – Bring up the Bodies, Zadie Smith‘s NW and Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life (not to be confused with Jill McCorkle’s book of the same name). I had not heard of Maria Semple but plan to read her Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Barbara Kingsolver is one of those writers that I have always felt that I might read but probably would never get round to but this may make me change my mind, not least as I have a copy of The Poisonwood Bible in my library. She won the Orange Prize (predecessor of this prize) in 2010. A M Homes is one of those writers on the sadly very long list of writers I really must read but have not yet got round to. In short, this is a very strong list and while Hilary Mantel must be a strong favourite, she does have some good competition.