The latest addition to my website is Erlend O. Nødtvedt‘s Vestlandet [Westland]. This is about a road trip made by the author and his friend the painter Ingve Pedersen. In a battered Ford Camry, they set out from Bergen to the Westland region of Norway (the rainiest region of Europe) carrying the skull of Anders Lysne, a man executed some two hundred years ago by the Danes who were then occupying Norway. Our heroes plan to return it to Lysne’s home town of Lærdal. En route they meet various famous artists, writers and musicians, including Jon Fosse but also deceased ones. They get involved in the Westland Liberation Front (which may or may not exist), get stuck in a tunnel, encounter various animals, drink, break down, try to get in touch with the spirit of Westland, oppose Eastern Man, the symbol of authority and government, meet a survivalist, paint and write, listen to music and finally get to Lærdal, more or less in one piece. It is very humorous, though there is very much a serious intent behind it. Sadly, at the time of writing there is no plan to translate it into English.
The latest addition to my website is Masatsugu Ono‘s 森のはずれで (At the Edge of the Woods). An unnamed family – husband, pregnant wife and young son, possibly Japanese – move to a foreign country, to a house at the edge of the woods. The wife goes back to her parents to have her child, leaving father (who seems not to work) and son. The woods are strange. The trees move of their own accord, there are strange noises and, according to the local farmer and postman, there are imps who steal things and people. The son finds an old woman with her tale to tell. His behaviour becomes erratic. There seems to be a refugee crisis. Two dwarfs appear at the front door. And only the dogs have names. This is an excellent novel in the Japanese ghost story tradition, where things get stranger and stranger.
The latest addition to my website is Daša Drndić‘s Canzone di guerra. Our narrator is Tea Radan, a Croatian single mother who has emigrated to Çanada. In a series of sketches, she describes her life, bringing up a daughter as an émigré in Canada (of which she is very critical) but also a whole range of issues relating to Croatia and Yugoslavia, including the horrors of the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, the Tito era and the post-Tito break-up of Yugoslavia. Her time in Canada is far from perfect. For Tea and other Yugoslav émigrés, many of whom are highly skilled graduates, getting an appropriate job because of language difficulties and recognition of Croatian/Yugoslav qualifications is almost impossible so they end up selling hot dogs or stuffing envelopes. She also finds that Canada has been very lax about former Nazis and carries out her own investigation. Using a mixture of wry humour, bitterness, a strong sense of what is right and wrong, a dogged persistence and a strong critical faculty, she gives is an excellent picture of the situation in her homeland and the life of an émigré.
The latest addition to my website is Vladimir Sorokin‘s День опричника (Day of the Oprichnik). This novel is set a few years in the future. Russia now has a Tsar again and, as with Ivan the Terrible, he is protected by an armed force called the Oprichniks. The story tells a day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, the fourth highest ranking Oprichnik and an exciting and busy day it is. He and his colleagues start off by attacking the the house of a nobleman, who has run foul of the Tsar. The nobleman is hanged, his wife gang-raped and his children sent to an orphanage. While killing and other brutalities happen later, we also see bribery and corruption, book burning, flogging, drug use, alcohol and wine, special privileges, outwitting the Chinese and, I might mention, glowing genitals. We see it all through the eyes of Komiaga who is firmly committed to the cause and works hard to protect sacred Russia (yes, Russia is Christian). It is clearly an attack on both Ivan the Terrible and Putin, but an indirect one with no direct satire, sarcasm and humour and, as such, works very well.
One of the first published writers in Ukrainian was Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko. His best-known novel Marusia was translated into English while his novel Oksana was translated into French but both are very difficult to obtain. Iryna Vilde was one of the first twentieth century prose writers, writing in Ukrainian to receive any acclaim. None of her work has been translated into English but a short story collection has been published in German as Das grüne Tor and is available.
The first grouping here is authors who were mainly or entirely first published during the twentieth century, prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Note that, during the Soviet era, many/most of them would have written in Russian and that the translations into English were mainly published by Soviet presses and that the books are now quite difficult to find. All of these with English titles were published in English. Where there is a link to an author, it is to an article about him/her. Where there is a link to a title, it is to a review (however brief) of the book. Author names are in bold. If you want just the post-Soviet authors/works, go here.
Bernyk was a science fiction writer who got into a lot of trouble with the Soviet authorities
черный папирус (Black Papyrus)
Apostle of Immortality (story collection)
Земля світлячків (In the Land of the Living Lights) (stories)
I will also mention Oles Honchar who wrote in Russian and was a committed Soviet supporter but wrote a couple of interesting novels which I have reviewed: Людина і зброя (Man and Arms) and Собор (The Cathedral), the latter being of particular interest. Other works of his appeared in English, including Прапороносці (Standard-Bearers), Прага (Golden Prague), Тронка (Tronka), Циклон (The Cyclone), Берег любові (The Shore of Love) and Твоя зоря (Your Dawn).
Many Ukrainians as well as Russians perished in the Soviet terror. Borys Antonenko-Davydovych is one. Three of his books have appeared in English: Смерть (Death), За ширмою (Behind the Curtain) and Between the Trenches : Selected Prose Fiction.
Before the Storm : Soviet Ukrainian fiction of the 1920s is an interesting collection of stories from that era.
However, a lot has been published since the fall of the Soviet Union and that is when the most interesting Ukrainian work appears. The following is a brief introduction to some of these writers in a fairly random order, with the three most interesting (in my view) contemporary novelists who have been translated into English appearing first. As above, where there is a link to an author, it is to an article about him/her. Where there is a link to a title, it is to a review (however brief) of the book. Author names are in bold.
The latest addition to my website is Ali Smith‘s Companion Piece. As the title implies, this is an appendage to her brilliant Seasons tetralogy and is somewhat similar, in that we follow current events, with Smith criticising what is happening in the UK. However, we also follow the story of Sandy Gray, a not very commercially successful artist (she paints poems) and her relationship with Martina Pelf, with whom she was at university. Martina phones Sandy (after thirty years of no contact) because of something strange that happened to her while she was detained at Heathrow airport. Sandy, who is in covid lockdown and struggling with her aged and ill father, gets caught up with Martina and her family. At the same time we learn of a seventeenth century young woman and her struggles and her tangential link to Martina’s story. Above all this novel is about women telling stories, about the horrors of modern Britain, about the ill-treatment of women, about language and about how life is not always as straightforward as it seems. It confirms Smith as one of the foremost British writers of this century.
The latest addition to my website is Pat Gray‘s The Redemption Cut. In one respect this is your standard detective story – maverick cop ignores his bosses, the rules and “modern policing techniques” to solve the crime. However, it is set in Belfast in 1976 during The Troubles in Northern Ireland and the cop, McCann, has to deal with strong partisan feeling not only from the criminals but also from the police and other officials. The vast majority of the characters, police, criminals and others, are Protestant and therefore determined that Ulster remain a part of the United Kingdom and will do what it takes to ensure that happens. This makes the investigation (into a brutal murder) more difficult, not helped by the fact that it is all too easy for the police and criminals to blame the IRA for every misdeed. Gray tells his story well and shows up the horrors of that era in Ulster.
The latest addition to my website is Volodymyr Rafeyenko‘s Мондеґрін. Пісні про смерть і любов (Mondegreen : Songs about Death and Love. Both Rafayenko and his hero Haba Habinsky moved away from the Donbas region when fighting broke out in 2013/14 and came to Kyiv. Haba seemingly has no friends or relatives in Kyiv and though he has a Ph.D and was a university lecturer, he ends up working in a supermarket. However, though there is an element of realism in this book, it uses post-modernism/fantasy/absurdism in many parts of the book. Haba, for example is pursued by aMare’s head, a traditional Ukrainian mythical creature and spends much of his time dipping in and out of the real world and the fantasy/post-modernist world. His love life, his meeting with his boss’s niece who may be his boss’s nephew and numerous literary, fantasy, mythical references appear. Language is also key. And is it all a dream? Like most people from Donbas, both Rafayenko and Haba have Russian as their first language. This is Rafayenko’s first book in Ukrainian (previous ones were in Russian) and Haba learns Ukrainian and makes good progress and discusses the language issue throughout the book. This is certainly an original book but one well worth reading.
The latest addition to my website is Andrey Kurkov‘s Серые пчелы (Grey Bees). This a superb novel from Kurkov about a beekeeper, Sergeyich, who lives in a small village in the grey zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Post-2014, after the Russian occupation of Crimea, most people have moved away and there are only two people left in this village. Sergeyich decides his bees need warmth and quiet, away from the frequent shelling, so he takes them on a journey and we follow his adventures, particularly his journey to meet a fellow beekeeper in Crimea, a Crimean Tatar. Sergeyich is fairly easygoing but clashes somewhat with the Russian authorities in now occupied Crimea. This is a first-class novel showing the Ukrainian-Russian border area prior to the illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
The latest addition to my website is Xue Yiwei‘s 希拉里, 密和, 我 (Celia, Misoka, I). Our unnamed narrator is from China. He, his wife and daughter had migrated from China to Montreal, nominally to get a better education for the daughter. It had not worked out. The marriage was not happy and the wife could not get a decent job They ended up owning a convenience store. At the beginning of the novel, the wife had died of pancreatic cancer and the daughter wanted nothing to do with him. Neither he nor we know why. He takes up skating where he meets (separately) the two eponymous women. Celia is the older and a local. She is divorced. Misoka is in a wheelchair and is a French-speaking South-east Asian immigrant. Both women are fairly private but do soften during the book. Both women seem to have a keen interest in China. The book recounts their three-way relationship over the one winter period and how all three are affected by it. Xue Yiwei tells an excellent story about immigration, loneliness, failed relationships and how meeting random strangers can perhaps change you.
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