The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Canto Castrato. This is by far the longest novel by Aira I have read and by far the most disappointing. It is not an Aira-like novel but a fairly conventional historical novel set in Naples, Vienna, St Petersburg and Rome in the mid-eighteenth century. We follow the story of Micchino, a Neapolitan castrato, his impresario, Augustus Kette, the impresario’s daughter, Amanda and various hangers-on with brief appearances from historical characters such as Pope Clement XII and Catherine the Great. Micchino gets tired of fame and disappears. Kette finds him. Amanda has marital problems. Micchino and Co. help out. That is about it, with a bit of gossip, geopolitics, local colour galore, mild satire and chit-chat thrown in. Aira himself has not been too enthusiastic about this novel and I do not really blame him. It has not made it into English as yet and I cannot see that it will.
The latest addition to my website is Viola Di Grado‘s Cuore cavo (Hollow Heart). This s a very clever work about a twenty-five year Italian woman, Dorotea, who kills herself. We follow her story up to her death and the history of depression in her family but, more particularly, we follow her story after her death, how she adapts to being dead, her relationship with her corpse and with other dead people but also with some living people, and how she learns how to be dead. While there is some humour, it is essentially a serious book and works very well, thanks to the skill of Di Grado treating her as a character with her own problems, which are not the same as those she had while alive though, as she says, Life goes on, as people say, and death too goes on and on and on.>
The latest addition to my website is Juan Pablo Villalobos‘s No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea (I Don’t Expect Anyone To Believe Me). This is a brilliant novel about corruption and humour, about racism and academia. The main character is Juan Pablo Villalobos, a Mexican doctoral student who goes to Barcelona to study and gets caught up with a bunch of nasty gangsters who require him to change his life for their devious ends, with distinctly unpleasant consequences. Some of it is clearly tongue-in-cheek but much of it is serious, as Juan Pablo (the character) gets dragged more and more into the plot,at the expense of his studies and of his girlfriend, Valentina. It manages to combine much humour with a serious intent and accordingly works very well.
The latest addition to my website is Peadar O’Donnell‘s Islanders (US: The Way it Was With Them). The island in question is Inniscara, offshore from Arranmore, which, in turn is offshore from the Donegal mainland. O’Donnell worked on Arranmore as a teacher. It recounts the hard life of the people there, as we follow the story of the Doogan family, Mary, a widow and her ten children (one married, Peggy). They often live on a diet of potatoes and seaweed and try to supplement their income by selling eggs and knitting, and by fishing. Charlie, the eldest boy is courting Susan Manus but both find other partners. Both Mary and Peggy take ill and Charlie has to weather a storm to fetch the doctor. The herring come and go, they help a man on the run from the much-despised police and there is even a bit of violence, though generally the islanders look out for one another. It is a fine story of a hard way of life that has long since disappeared.
The latest addition to my website is Anne Enright‘s Actress. Norah FitzMaurice is the daughter of Katherine O’Dell, star of stage and screen. Norah has finally decided to tell the story of her mother, long after her death and we learn about Katherine’s rise and fall, her bad habits (drink, men, poor decisions and, the worst of all in Norah’s eyes, the failure to say who Norah’s father was). Katherine died at fifty-eight, a broken woman after three years in an asylum following her shooting of a producer in the foot. We follow both mother and daughter, the latter becoming a novelist, wife and mother, the former a flamboyant actress who almost made it in Hollywood and was successful on stage till she reached the age where there are fewer parts for women. Sometimes they clashed but Norah loved her mother and misses her but she would like to have known who her father was.
The latest addition to my website is Rafik Schami‘s Erzähler der Nacht (Damascus Nights). Salim is a great coach driver and a great story-teller. However, he owes his story-telling ability to his good fairy and one day she tells him that she is retiring and he will become dumb. If he gets seven unique gifts from seven people within three months, she will be replaced. His seven friends come up with various ideas but none work, till they realise that each one has to tell a story. We follow each of the stories and something of the man telling the story but this book, is above all, about story-telling, Arabian Nights style and very good stories they are.
The latest addition to my website is Olga Tokarczuk‘s Czysty kraj [Pure Country]. This is the first and longest story in a collection called Ostatnie historie [Recent Stories]. It tells of Ida Marzec, a fifty-four year old divorced Polish tour guide who, when driving a friend’s car during winter, skids off the road. She seems to be unhurt but the car is badly damaged. She finds shelter with a nearby old couple and is examined by their grandson, a vet, and pronounced physically unharmed. She spends the next few days, drifting around, unsure of herself and where she is, reluctant to phone for help and thinking of her past life. Above all, images of death creep in, as she thinks about her mortality and her heart condition (which doctors say is minor but she is not so sure), the dog in the house who is dying of cancer and, eventually, the nature of the place where she is staying which is place that takes in dying animals and eases them to death. Is she one of them? It is another brilliant book by Tokarczuk, sadly available in seven languages but not English.
The latest addition to my website is Sándor Mára‘s A gyertyák csonkig égnek (Embers). Hendrik is a seventy-five year old general, living alone, with his servants, in his castle in Hungary. He had had a successful military career, starting at the age of ten when he was enrolled in the military academy in Vienna. There he met Konrad and they had become close friends and remained that way for twenty-four years, despite their differences. Hendrik came from a rich family and enjoyed hunting and the military life, Konrad came from a poor family and was passionate about music. Nearly forty-two years before the start of the novel, Konrad had visited Hendrik and his wife, Krisztina. The two men went out hunting. Something happened on the hunt, for Konrad left immediately afterwards and left town without saying goodbye. There had been no communication between the two men since. And then Konrad comes to visit. It is Hendrik who explains his view of what happened and Konrad does not disagree. The event scarred the lives of both men. This is a classic Hungarian novel about honour and integrity but also about love and passion.
The latest addition to my website is Zigmunds Skujiņš‘ Kailums (Nakedness). Our hero is Stanis Draiska who has just completed his military service in Latvia in the 1960s. During that period he has exchanged many letters with a woman called Marika, who saw his published poems and wrote to him. He has never met her but is now on the way to make a surprise visit to her in the town of Randava. However, when he gets there, she has never heard of him and denies writing to him or receiving letters from him. She shares a flat with three other women. Were they responsible? Sandris decides to stay for the weekend in the town, meets an old friend of his father and has his suspicions about who wrote the letters. Gradually, some truths emerge but also so does a fair amount deception. It all ends badly.
The latest addition to my website is Patrick Modiano‘s Du plus loin de l’oubli (Out of the Dark ). This follows the standard Modiano format. A young, footloose young man, at a loose end, falls for an attractive woman, Jacqueline, in Paris. She persuades him to help her steal some money from a dubious character and the pair flee to London. There they meet the very real Peter Rachman, notorious in the 1950s-1960s as the archetypical slum landlord, who helps them. However, while our narrator is writing a novel, based on Rachman, Jacqueline is often out with Rachman, a famed womaniser. Fifteen years later, in Paris, having lost touch with Jacqueline, he sees her again entering a block of flats. He follows her. It is another fine novel from Modiano, though, as usual, we are not always entirely sure what is going on.