Russell Celyn Jones: An Interference of Light

The latest addition to my website is Russell Celyn JonesAn Interference of Light. This novel tells two stories: one set in 1937-39 and one in 1959, both taking place in Sharon, a Welsh slate-quarrying community. It is narrated by Aaron Lewis, whose parents were from the Sharon area but who emigrated to the United States, where Aaron was born and bred. He works for the Pinkerton agency, spying on the quarrymen to see their secret technique for determining the best quality slate. When a strike break out, he continues to report to the owner, Lord Elusen, all the while lodging with a family of strikers and being somewhat sympathetic towards them, particularly Paul Gravano, one of the strike leaders, while betraying them. Concurrently, we follow the story twenty years later, when Aaron returns and finds the town desolate and Paul a widower. Aaron becomes close to Granmor, Paul’s only son but learns that the effects of the strike are still felt.

Fernanda Melchor: Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season)

The latest addition to my website is Fernanda Melchor‘s emporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season). The novel tells the story of a small Mexican town, La Matosa. At the beginning, the body of a woman known locally as The Witch, is found dead in a stream. The novel tells her story and that of her mother, also called The Witch as well as the story of the people associated with her death. Her mother had married a man with fields that brought in rent. He died in mysterious circumstances and his sons by a previous marriage were killed in a car accident when they came to claim what they considered their inheritance. The daughter appeared some years later. No-one knows who her father was. After a huge hurricane destroyed much of the town, the daughter survived and continued her mother’s work, adding sex and drugs to her repertoire. However, the main theme of the novel is how these women and, indeed, all the other women in the book are badly treated by the men: violence and sexual abuse, as we follow the stories of those associated with the death of the Witch. The book is a superb indictment of the violence committed every day to women in Mexico and, of course, everywhere.

Hilary Mantel: The Mirror and the Light

The latest addition to my website is Hilary Mantel‘s The Mirror and the Light, the brilliant conclusion to her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the adviser to Henry VIII. The novel starts and ends with two beheadings. It opens with the beheading of Anne Boleyn and ends with Cromwell’s own beheading, some four years later. In the meantime, we have seen Cromwell, a mixture of kind-heartedness towards to those in trouble and ruthless antagonism towards his and Henry VIII’s enemies, show cunning and skill in manoeuvring to make sure Henry’s will is observed but, at the same time, making numerous enemies, including being hated by many of the ordinary people, as well as the powerful lords, the latter taking full advantage of his weakness when the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves goes very wrong. Mantel gives us a superb and complex portrait of a man whom history has not looked upon favourably but whom she clearly respects and admires, despite his many faults.

Kim Sagwa: 나b책 (b, Book and Me)

The latest addition to my website is Kim Sagwa‘s 나b책 (b, Book and Me). The novel tells the story of three Korean misfits, b, Book and Rang (the me of the title). Rang is badly bullied at school by the baseball boys. b’s family is very poor and she and Rang become friends till they have a falling-out. When Rang disappears from school, the boys bully b till she lets the leader fondle her. Meanwhile both girls join Book, a young man who lives in a hut on the forest and spends his life reading books. He and many other people from the seamy side of town seem to be having treatment at the local mental hospital. Above all, this book is about the misfits of Korean society: the poor, those whose parents are too busy working hard to pay attention to their children and those that just do not fit in.

Eduardo Mendoza: Riña de gatos (An Englishman in Madrid)

The latest addition to my website is Eduardo Mendoza‘s Riña de gatos (An Englishman in Madrid). Though unusually for Mendoza set in Madrid instead of Barcelona and environs, this book is his usual mockery of all and sundry, particularly the eponymous Englishman. He is Anthony Whitelands, a thirty something English art expert, specialising in Spanish art. The time is early 1936, just prior to the start of the Civil War. The country is in turmoil. He has been given a commission to advise on some paintings for a Spanish duke who wants to sell what he can to finance his escape from Spain, if that proves necessary. Whitelands gets caught up in the standard complicated Mendoza plot, involving the painter Velazquez, the murkier side of both British and Spanish politics, Soviet agents, a whore with a heart of gold and his own passions for alcohol, women and art. He meets various historial figures, including General Franco, and he bumbles around, making one wrong move after another. It is, as always with Mendoza, great fun, with lots of mockery and a complicated funny plot.

Mercè Rodoreda: Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea)

The latest addition to my website is Mercè Rodoreda‘s Jardí vora el mar (Garden by the Sea). This is a beautiful book, narrated by the gardener to a summer residence, serving successive families. We follow him as he carefully and lovingly tends the plants and garden while the well-to-do – the owner and their guests – come up from Barcelona for the summer. They and, indeed, the
other staff, have their various problems – love and romance, mental health, family – which he quietly observes and, on occasion, is called in to advise and assist with. However, he is at his happiest tending his plants or sitting in his small cottage, reminiscing about his late wife, while around him problems increase and even turn tragic.

Patrick Modiano: Remise de peine (Suspended Sentences)

The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Remise de peine (Suspended Sentences). This short novel deals with Modiano’s usual themes, telling the story of two young boys, the older clearly based on Modiano himself, who are sent to stay with three women on the outskirts of Paris, while their parents are away travelling. It soon becomes apparent (to us, if not the boys) that the various visitors to the women are up to no good, though the boys enjoy their company and, for example, the ride in the US car, listening to Edith Piaf on the radio. The boys are eventually taken along for the ride when the women visit Paris and the narrator, as an older man, will try to reconstruct where they went. It is all going to end badly and it does but Modiano has kept us involved in the story all the way.

Brazilian literature Part 2

I have now read twenty Brazilian novels in a row by twenty different authors. The oldest one was first published in 1902, the most recent in 2014. Six of the novels were by women. This is the seventh years in a row I have done this and I am not running out of countries. Indeed, I have a list of twenty-three countries for future years. Brazil, however, is the first of the countries that I have not visited. Of the future twenty-two countries, there are five I have not visited and I do not think I am likely to visit them any time soon.

The first two conclusions could apply to any of the previous six. The problem was not scrambling to find enough books but, rather, deciding which books to exclude. As my significant other frequently tells me, I have far too many books. Indeed, looking through what I did not read, I wonder why I did omit certain authors.

The second conclusion is that, like it or not, much of the world is in a mess, as regards the political situation, and Brazil is certainly no exception. This means that it is reflected in its literature. I did not consciously set out to read (or, indeed, to exclude) political books but there they were. The twenty I read had insurrections, a historical president as a character, regional problems, local problems, the influence of religion on politics, women’s issues, military dictatorship, communism, torture of political opponents, global warming, corruption, drugs, prisoners, contract killers and several references to Getúlio Vargas, the president who killed himself while in office. Indeed, one way or the other, politics crept into most of the books, even if it was not the main theme.

Humour was not a big theme. Indeed, only one of the novels – Roberto Drummond‘s Hilda Furacão (Hilda Hurricane) could be said to make much use of humour though Oswald de Andrade‘s highly experimental Serafim Ponte Grande (Seraphim Grosse Pointe) was certainly playful. That is not to say that humour did not appear in any of the others – it did – but was not a key feature.

What did appear was poverty. Brazil has a lot of poverty and while few of the books made any extensive use of the issue as theme, several did mention it. Indeed, the revolution in Euclides da Cunha‘s Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign) was inspired to a great extent by poverty. The slums of Rio and São Paulo did make more than one appearance.

Surprisingly, given that Brazil has a higher proportion of blacks than the United States, race played a relatively minor role. This may well because I read the wrong books or because Brazilian books talking about the black experience have not been much translated. Words Without Borders discussed the issue.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the novels were set in Brazil but four had substantial settings outside Brazil. When I did my Turkey marathon last year, Aslı Erdoğan‘s Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak) was interestingly enough set in Rio. She hated it. None of the Brazilian novels were set in Turkey but Moacyr Scliar‘s Os leopardos de Kafka (Kafka’s Leopards) was set partially in what is now Ukraine and also in Vienna, Nélida Piñon‘s A república dos sonhos (The Republic of Dreams) was set partially in Spain (specifically Galicia), Adriana Lisboa‘s Azul-corvo (Crow Blue) was set partially in the United States, Antônio Xerxenesky‘s F was set partially in Paris, partially in Cuba and partially in the United States, and Bernardo Carvalho‘s Mongólia [Mongolia] was set almost entirely in Mongolia, but did manage to capture violence and kidnapping in its short scene set in Brazil.

I am reluctant to pick a favourite, though I did very much enjoy Mongólia [Mongolia] and Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign). I certainly learned a lot more about Brazil though I have to admit reading these books did not inspire me to visit the country, given the violence, poverty, drugs and very hot weather. Perhaps reading books is the best way to travel these days, given all the various problems world-wide.

Antônio Xerxenesky: F

The latest addition to my website is Antônio Xerxenesky‘s F. It tells the story of Ana, a young Brazilian woman who travels to Los Angeles to meet her uncle, a former anti-Brazilian government guerrilla. He realises that she is a superb shot and has her trained with guerrillas in Cuba. She then becomes a contract killer. Much of the book concerns a specific assignment she has been given, namely to kill the very real film director and actor Orson Welles. Neither she nor we know why. What we do know is that she has been instructed to make his death look like an accident and to to kill him on 10 October 1985, which, not surprisingly, turns out to be the real date Welles died (allegedly of a heart attack). Inevitably, things are not as straightforward as they might seem. Sadly, this book is not available in English.

João Gilberto Noll: Hotel Atlântico (UK: Hotel Atlântico; US: Atlantic Hotel)

The latest addition to my website is João Gilberto Noll‘s Hotel Atlântico (UK: Hotel Atlântico; US: Atlantic Hotel). Our nameless hero is seemingly a man whose identity is unclear and not just to us. He drifts around Brazil, apparently having no family or friends and no fixed abode. Indeed, he does not have any luggage. He has casual sex with three women and sees three dead bodies of women. He has no specific destination but just arbitrarily heads to the next place. He is nearly killed. His body is deteriorating. He takes on various identities, not wilfully but almost by accident. Several of the other characters are not what they seem and also seem to be drifting. It is all vague and about how we are losing the idea of who we are and where we are going.