The latest addition to my website is Dawn Powell‘s The Locusts Have No King. This is a love story, about the many vicissitudes in the love life of Frederick Olliver, a struggling but very serious writer, and Lyle Gaynor, a married and successful playwright (with the plays written jointly with her invalid, sexually incapable husband). We follow their love life, and their relationships with others, while, at the same time, Powell satirises all and sundry, from the New York social scene to the intellectuals, the artists, the journalist and advertising men, the gossipers, the ambitious arrivals from the sticks (specifically Baltimore in this case) and anyone else who falls under Powell’s scrutiny. It is an enjoyable read but not her greatest novel,
The latest addition to my website is Rabeah Ghaffari‘s To Keep the Sun Alive. This novel has two related stories. The first tells of an extended family in Iran before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and as the revolution unfolds. The various members have different views on the political situation, from the liberal to the religious right and, when the revolution breaks out, take different sides. Ghaffari is clearly against the religious right and shows some of the nasty things they do but she also shows some of the nasty things done by both the Shah’s regime and by foreigners, particularly, in this case, the US, UK and Belgium. We also follow the story of one of the family members more than thirty years after the revolution, who is now in exile in Paris and struggling to get by. Ghaffari tells her story very well, enhanced by the story of the Shazdehpoor, the man in exile in Paris, as he seems unable to fit in anywhere.
The latest addition to my website is Mo Yan‘s 檀香刑 (Sandalwood Death). This is another fine tale from Mo Yan, about the people of Mo Yan’s home town, Northern Gaomi Township, during the Boxer Rebellion, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Instead of just being oppressed by their Chinese overlords, there is a new peril. The Germans are building a railway to Gaomi and they are behaving very badly. When the people revolt, after German high-handedness and when the leader of an opera troupe finds a group of Germans sexually assaulting his wife, the authorities take the side of the Germans and arrest the leader. His daughter, who is having an affair with the local bigwig does what she can to help her father. She feels she can count on the aid of her father-in-law, whom she had never met but who has suddenly turned up, as he was the official executioner of the Emperor. It is a fine story but particularly gruesome as we get detailed descriptions of the executioner’s work.
The latest addition to my website is Jana Beňová‘s Preč! Preč! (Away! Away!). This is a short, post-modernist and bitty novel about a Slovak woman, Rosa, who wants away: away from her current boyfriend, away from wherever she happens to be and away from her job(s). She has a boyfriend, Son, whom she lives with but, one morning, she is off with Corman, leaving not only Son but Slovakia, as they head to Austria. Corman does not last long as she comes across a puppet show and Pierre, the puppet master also wants away. But she goes back to Son – for a while. She and Son also travel together, where they meet her uncle whom she had last seen in the United States but he has moved away. As with his niece, the move does not make him happy. Rosa is never really content wherever she is, whoever she is with. She quite simply does not fit in – anywhere. The book ends with the words Where are you going? Where to?, which sums it up. It is an interesting tale but does jump around a bit.
The latest addition to my website is Yolanda Oreamuno‘s La ruta de su evasión [The Route of Her Escape]. This is a superb Costa Rican feminist novel, Oreamuno’s only published novel. It tells the story of the Mendoza family: Don Vasco, the cruel paterfamilias, his long-suffering and now dying wife, Teresa, and their three sons, Roberto, Gabriel and Alvaro. Don Vasco has consistently bullied and abused Teresa. Roberto gets Cristina pregnant and marries her but tells her that he does not love her and he has no affection for her. She dies in childbirth, having gone to the hospital on her own. Gabriel has two girlfriends, one of whom is under the control of her also bullying father, who rejects Gabriel, and the other one who is a victim of Gabriel, as the other women in this book are victims. Poor Alvaro cannot cope with his life or his family and just stays in his bedroom masturbating. Oreamuno paints a grim picture of male dominance, male bullying and men’s idea that they are inherently superior to women. Sadly, this novel has not been translated into English or any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Wu Ming‘s Altai (Altai) . This is another exciting tale from Wu Ming, this one set in sixteenth century Venice and Constantinople. Our hero is Emanuele De Zante. He was born in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik) of a Jewish mother and an Italian father. He has managed to conceal his Jewish origins and, as a result, become chief of the Venetian Secret Service. When there is an explosion in the Arsenal, his boss wants a Jewish culprit and he discovers that his origins are now known and he is to be arrested. He manages to flee to Constantinople, where a rich Jew, Giuseppe Nasi, helps him but uses his spying skills. Nasi has helped persecuted Jews all over Europe but now wants to set up a Jewish homeland but not in Palestine. He has identified a place but it is controlled by Venice. So all he needs to do is get the Ottomans to go to war. Blood, gore, death, dirty politics, swashbuckling deeds, all are grist to Wu Ming’s tale in this exciting story.
The latest addition to my website is Emiliano Monge‘s Las tierras arrasadas (Among the Lost), an unremittingly grim Mexican novel about migration. We follow a day in the life of people traffickers in Southern Mexico, who capture migrants and use them as slave labour. The two main characters – Epitafio and Estela (Spanish for grave stone) – are very much in love as the narrator and the couple themselves frequently tell us. On this day they are carrying sixty-four migrants to deliver to purchasers. Some of the women are used as bribes for the local military. They have a harrowing journey, with much going wrong but not, of course, as harrowing as the poor migrants who are beaten, brutalised, raped and, in some cases, randomly killed. The migrants, with one exception, come out as shadowy figures whom we do not really see as individuals, but the various people involved in the trafficking all come out as irredeemably vicious, cruel and savage. There is no saving grace in this novel, except perhaps that some of the guilty parties end up dead.
The latest addition to my website is Józef Wittlin‘s Sól ziemi (The Salt of the Earth). This was originally published in 1935 and originally published in English in 1939 but this is a new translation. It is a World War I novel, part-mocking, part-serious. It is also the first part of a trilogy but only the first section of the second book remains, the others having been lost during World War II. We follow Piotr Niewiadomski, an illiterate, half-Polish, half-Hutsul railway worker. When World War I breaks out (we see Franz Josef signing the order), he is first promoted to acting signalman and then called up into the army. Because the Russians might be breaking through, he and his fellow conscripts are shipped off to Hungary, where we follow their hard life in a garrison (next door to the abattoir and cemetery). The first part is more mocking, both the people the area where Piotr lives but also the preparations for war, while the second part is more serious, with criticism of the cruelty of the officers and NCOs. Wittlin is clearly anti-war and puts over his point of view well but it is a pity that we do not see the men in action.
The latest addition to my website is Edward Upward‘s The Rotten Elements, the second in his Spiral Ascent Trilogy, about communism in Britain in the middle of the last century. This one follows several years after the first one and starts some time after World War II. Alan and Elsie Sebrill are married with two children and committed members of the Communist Party. However, they feel that the British party is moving away from true Leninist doctrine – the need for a violent revolution to overthrow capitalism and imperialism and not compromising with social democrat parties (i.e. the governing Labour Party in Britain) – and they raise this quite vocally. Not surprisingly, they are met with considerable opposition and things do not go well for them in the Party. The book does get into what might seem to us areas of arcane doctrinal differences but it still remains a worthwhile novel and is an interesting read.
The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s El pequeño monje budista (The Little Buddhist Monk). This, as is usual with Aira, starts off reasonably conventionally and then gradually gets stranger and stranger. The eponymous very little monk is Korean and longs to go abroad but, as a mendicant monk, cannot afford to do so. He meets a French tourist couple – he photographs culturally charged spaces – and, as he speaks fluent French, offers to take them to a temple off the beaten track. Things start getting peculiar on the train journey, with passengers continually pulling the communication cord. At the temple the sun disappears, the light plays tricks (as do the monks) and we learn that our monk may not be human and we may be in a parallel world. Or we may not. It is great fun, as usual but you really won’t be entirely clear about what is happening and why.