Fernanda Melchor: Paradais (Paradais)

The latest addition to my website is Fernanda Melchor‘s Paradais (Paradais). The novel is set in an exclusive gated community in Mexico. The sixteen-year old Polo has dropped out of school but his mother has forced him to take a job at Paradais, where he has to clean up, garden and keep the place tidy, a job he hates almost as much as he hates his controlling mother and his pregnant cousin who lives with them. His only friend is Franco, whom he nicknames Fatboy, grandson of Paradais residents, who has also dropped out and provides cigarettes and alcohol. Fatboy lusts after one of the residents, Marian Marono, wife of a TV star, while Polo cannot wait to get away, for which he needs money. Both can be obtained from the Maronos home and Fatboy knows how to get in. Violence, crime, drugs, alcohol consumption and the huge disparity between rich and poor are all themes of this book, where no-one seem content and poverty and wealth clash.

Ellis Sharp: Alice in Venice

The latest addition to my website is Ellis Sharp‘s Alice in Venice. Alice Short is on holiday in Venice to visit the varioius sites where the film Don’t Look Now was filmed. She meets – maybe -a Frenchman called Alain who may be drug dealer, an assassin or an academic specialising in Henry Fielding or may not actually exist. She visits the sites and we learn about the film, what happened to the cast and the director and how, in some cases, the sites have changed. They chat about books set in Venice and famous visitors to Venice and various other, often cryptic, matters. As is normal with Sharp, things are not always clear but the book certainly joins the list of fascinating books set in Venice.

Robert Irwin: The Limits of Vision

The latest addition to my website is Robert Irwin‘s The Limits of Vision. Marcia is an English housewife seemingly obsessed with cleanliness. When her vacuum cleaner breaks down, just before her coffee morning guests arrive, she is confronted by Mucor the Fungus, the spokesperson for dirt. Once her guests arrive, admiring the Dutch painting of a spotlessly clean house, she drifts off to the Gobi Desert with Teilhard de Chardin, who admires her housekeeping skills. She will later have a bath with Leonardo da Vinci, hear Blake’s poem about the Hoover and meet other long deceased celebrities to help her solve her cleaning problems. Is she mad and, more importantly, what does husband Philip think? The answer is not what you might expect. As always Robert Irwin produces something different from the norm. The book was first published in 1986 but has been republished in 1922 by Dedalus Books.

Adelle Stripe & Lias Saoudi: Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure

The latest addition to my website is Adelle Stripe & Lias Saoudi‘s Ten Thousand Apologies: Fat White Family and the Miracle of Failure. This book is a fictional biography and an alternative version of historic events about Fat White Family, a contemporary English rock/punk band. The book is told in the third person (presumably by Stripe) with first person commentary by Saoudi, the frontman of the band. Saoudi (Algerian father, English mother) started at art school but soon moved into music and, in particular, aggressive, punk with outrageous performances. We follow the rise of the band (with many hiccups on the way) and their thoroughly self-destructive nature (lots of alcohol and drugs, continual squabbling, lots of personnel changes, clashes with the authorities) . Whether you are interested in the Fat White Family or not, the book is certainly a fascinating account of a band that set out to shock and is clearly self-destructive, narcissistic, provocative, controversial and badly-behaved.

Hassouna Mosbahi: الطلييتيم الدهر (Solitaire)

The latest addition to my website is Hassouna Mosbahi‘s الطلييتيم الدهر (Solitaire). Yunus is a Tunisian man who has just reached he age of sixty. He feels that his life is coming to an end. He is divorced. His country is, in his view, a mess and totally corrupt and so is the greater Arab world. This view seems to be more or less shared by his friends of the same age. Much of the book takes he form of his reminiscences, which include his interest in Sufism (and he recounts tales of Sufi mystics), Tunisian history (stories from Tunisian history), literature (he loves Flaubert and even tells us two tales based on Flaubert) and his own life which has inevitably been somewhat complicated. We also get comparisons with his male friends, including those who have spent most of their adult life away from Tunisia and returned to find that the country is in a much worse state than they had thought it would be. All agree: old age is awful and the country and the world have gone to the dogs. There is one woman who gets something of a look-in: President Ben Ali’s second wife, Leïla Ben Ali, née Trabelsi, who is viciously attacked for her corruption. But, on the whole this is about men not liking getting old and looking back on their often interesting life and as such it works very well.

Eoghan Smith: A Provincial Death

The latest addition to my website is Eoghan Smith‘s A Provincial Death. Smyth, a researcher studying the Moon is clinging to a rock two-three kilometres off the coast of Ireland. Neither we nor he know why he is here. He gradually recovers his memory and we learn that his boss has predicted that the Moon will crash onto the Earth that day. Meanwhile he wonders how he got there and how he will get off. He thinks of of his fairly unhappy life and imagines his body washed up on a beach. The book is tinged with black humour and an interventionist author who is not too sympathetic to his character while Smyth and we are wondering where the boats are.

Hans von Trotha: Pollaks Arm (Pollak’s Arm)

The latest addition to my website is Hans von Trotha‘s Pollaks Arm (Pollak’s Arm). Ludwig Pollak was a very respected Jewish Austro-Czech classical archeologist and dealer, who spent much of his adult life in Rome and is best-known for finding the missing arm of the famous sculpture Laocoön and His Sons. This book recounts the last few hours before he was arrested by the SS with his family in September 1943 and sent to Auschwitz where they were all murdered. A German called only K, who was working in the Vatican, was sent to pick him up. He failed. Pollak talked for a long time, telling his full and very fascinating story (the bulk of the novel), feeling that he has to tell the story so that he will be remembered. He also felt that he was carrying the burden of his people. We learn of his successes and the problems he had and of K’s devastation at not being able to help him.

Sergio Pitol: El desfile del amor (Love Parade)

The latest addition to my website is Sergio Pitol‘s El desfile del amor (Love Parade). Miguel del Solar is a forty year old Mexican living in England but visiting Mexico City. He has just written a history book on 1914/15 in Mexico and now plans to write one on 1942. His research reminds him that in 1942 he was staying with his aunt and uncle in a flat in Mexico City. One night Delfina del Uribe, who lived upstairs, held a party attended by various Mexican glitterati. At the party a young Austrian was murdered, two people shot and one assaulted. The whole issue was covered up even though it was suggested that German agents were involved. Del Solar decides to investigate the event, speaking to the survivors of which there are a few. Each one gives a different, often conflicting account both about the party and shooting but also about one another. Quoting Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina, he concludes no one was who they claimed to be,the characters unfolded continuously, adopting the most absurd masks, as if it were the only way of living with others. In short there is no one truth.

Lídia Jorge: O Vento Assobiando nas Gruas (The Wind Whistling in the Cranes)

The latest addition to my website is Lídia Jorge‘s Vento Assobiando nas Gruas (The Wind Whistling in the Cranes). The Leandro family have owned a canning factory in the Algarve since 1908 with a ten year gap from 1975 when it was given to the workers following the Carnation Revolution. The factory is no longer used as a factory but is the home of an extended Cape Verdean immigrant family, the Matos. The Leandro matriarch, Regina, somehow escapes from an ambulance and makes her way to the Factory where she dies. All her family are away except for Milene (thirty in years and fifteen in age according to her aunt). The plot revolves around Milene’s relationship with the Matos, her family wondering what to do about her and also their attempt to to take back the factory to sell it to a developer. Racism, drug dealing, corruption and shady deals all feature as Jorge tells us a long and complicated story.

Norwegian literature Part 2

I have now read twenty Norwegian novels in a row. To sum up a national literature, let alone an entire nation on the basis of reading twenty arbitrarily selected novels may seem foolhardy but nothing ventured….

The first point to make about these novels (and other Norwegian novels I have read) is that many of the main characters have what we might call dark souls, by which I mean they have mental health issues, do not fit in and/or tend to see the dark side of life. Now it may well be that you could take twenty arbitrarily selected novels from any other country and you would get a similar perception. Certainly twenty arbitrarily selected novels from many Eastern Europe countries would give you a similar outcome. And if you were to take twenty Swedish novels and films, I am sure the result would be similar. Doubtless there are comic Norwegian novels. Maybe they have just not been translated into English, with publishers feeling that doom and gloom sells better or is more serious, with comic novels often being considered frivolous. In short I did not laugh too much (though occasionally) when reading these novels. Of course, that does not mean that I did not enjoy them. Frankly I tend to prefer doom-and-gloom novels which says far more about me than about Norwegian novels.

When I started reading these novels, it seemed that in almost every novel someone visited a brothel but that turned out to be chance and there were definitely fewer brothels in the ones I read later. Similarly in the earlier novels, fathers had a propensity to beat their sons but that also disappeared later on.

One thing that did continue is that in most of the books one or more characters left Norway (and in some cases were never in it – four of the novels were set entirely out of Norway and three of those did not have any Norwegian characters.) Quite a few of the characters wanted to travel away from Norway, though Paris was quite popular, neighbouring Sweden and Denmark featured heavily, though some went further afield. In two of the novels, one of the characters meets a Tuareg, with not always satisfactory consequences. I am sure you could easily find twenty random novels from other countries where the characters rarely if ever leave their home country. Norway, as we know from this novel, is the sixtieth largest country by landmass, therefore, while not big it is not small either and is a very beautiful country, so why are they leaving?

World War II, not surprisingly, featured in a few novels. Norway was occupied by the Germans and this clearly had a profound effect on the country.

One other thing that I noticed is that many of the main characters were not motivated by money, status and conventional success but by other things, such as finding who they were and where they were going or just trying to make a life for themselves. Again, this is certainly not unique to Norwegian novels.

I try to avoid making best-of lists, not least, as in this case, I enjoyed all these novels. However, there were three I particularly enjoyed: Johan Harstad‘s Buzz Aldrin, Roy Jacobsen‘s Borders and Sigbjorn Holmebakk‘s The Carriage Stone.

Unlike previous years (and next year), all of these novels have been translated into English though some are easier to find than others.

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