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.
The latest addition to my website is A(nton) H Tammsaare‘s Tõde ja õigus I (Truth and Justice: Andres and Pearu ; later: Vargamäe). This is the first volume of Tammsaare’s great five-volume epic novel. This one tells the story of Andres and his new wife Krõõt, as they take over a farm which is very marshy and needs a lot of work. Their problems are not only with nature but with the next door neighbour, Pearu. Throughout the book Andres and Pearu will fight and do whatever they can to cause problems to the other, spending much time in court. However it is Krõõt who suffers most, initially producing only girls and, finally, dying, as her first son is born. Andres remarries, in somewhat controversial circumstances, and more children are born. Some of them are lost in a flu epidemic. However, his struggles with nature and Pearu continue. The next generation grows up and has very different views from their parents as to what life would hold for them. It is superb novel, with a host of characters and a main character who struggles, not always successfully, with nature, his neighbour and his soul.
The latest addition to my website is Andrés Barb‘s Las Manos Pequeñas (Such Small Hands). Marina, a seven-year old girl, is involved in a car accident, in which her parents are killed and she is injured. She receives both physical and psychological treatment – the psychologist gives her a doll which she cherishes. She is then sent to an orphanage. It is soon clear that she does not fit in with the other girls, all of whom get on well together. She stands aloof from them and soon they are teasing and bullying her, all of which she stoically puts up with. However, when they take her doll and then bury it, she does react. She devises a game whereby, at night in the dormitory, one of the girls must be the doll, wearing a special dress and make-up and being treated by the others as a doll, while she, the doll, cannot speak. This is a superb novel about groups and fitting-in but also the darker side of human nature, as seen in children.
The latest addition to my website is Paek Nam-nyong‘s 벗 (Friend). This is the first North Korean novel on my site. Moreover, it is not novel by a dissident North Korean but by a North Korean writer who is a member of the Party and well-respected within the country. We follow Judge Jeong Jin Wu who specialises in divorce and is asked to deal with the case between a successful singer and her lathe operator husband. He goes way beyond the call of duty in trying to resolve the matter and reconcile the couple. He also has his own marital problems, which he endeavours to work out as well as those of a neighbour. It is at times somewhat simplistic by our standards but nevertheless an interesting glance at a culture and system most of us know little about.
The latest addition to my website is César Aira‘s Fulgentius. The eponymous hero of this book is a sixty-seven year old Roman general. He is setting out on his latest campaign – he has already been on over a hundred – this one to Pannonia (Eastern Europe). One thing distinguishes him from most generals. When he was twelve he wrote an autobiographical tragedy – a new genre in Roman tragedy – initially meant as a pastiche of Roman tragedies, but which took on a more serious tone as he was writing it. It was praised by his tutor but then forgotten till someone, unknown to him, revived it thirty years later. He now takes it on his travels and has it performed at every town he halts at during his campaign, very concerned about how it is performed. We follow the performances and his campaign, during which he thinks, as we might expect from Aira, about a lot of things, even though he hates philosophy. This is somewhat different from the usual Aira book but, as always, an interesting read.
The latest addition to my website is Sony Labou Tansi‘s La vie et demie (Life and a Half). This is a fable, bitterly attacking African dictators and their brutality and is presumably based, at least in part, on Mobutu Sese Seko, dictator of what was then Zaire. Thr novel starts brutally as the Providential Guide, as the leader of the country is called, interrupts his dinner to brutally stab Martial, leader of the opposition, in front of his family. He stabs, him shoots him and poisons him but Martial will not die, till he cuts him up. The Guide and his successors are haunted by Martial, who continues to appear to them and to the people, while his daughter, Chaïdana, against her father’s wishes, kills off the ministers and, in various guises, seduces the Guide and the ministers, We follow both her successor and the Guide’s successors through an ever more fantastical story. It is a strange and unsettling tale but it undoubtedly reflects how Labou Tansi saw the rule of African dictators.
The latest addition to my website is Andrés Barba‘s República luminosa (A Luminous Republic). The novel is set in an unnamed Latin American country. Our unnamed narrator has recently taken over the social service department in a small town, by the jungle, with the task of helping the indigenous community. Gradually he and the people of the town notice groups of children, aged nine to thirteen, coming into the town and begging. Where did they come from and what is the strange language they seem to be using? Gradually, they become more aggressive. They seem to disappear at night and no-one knows where to. Moreover, they do not seem to have a leader. When they start attacking people, the police go searching for them but without success. When they attack a supermarket, injuring and killing people, they seem to disappear and cannot be found. Barba gives us a brilliant novel on the innocence (and lack thereof) of children, on how adults can often be helpless dealing with them and on various theories as to why these children do what they do, with a bit of post-truth thrown in.
The latest addition to my website is Russell Celyn Jone‘ Ten Seconds From The Sun. The novel is narrated by Ray Greenland a river boat pilot, happily married to Lily with two children. However, Ray Greenland is really Mark Swain, who was convicted of a brutal murder when he was twelve. He served his time, received pilot training, did his probation and became a free man. However, before he married, had children and travelled abroad, he was obliged to notify the authorities. He did not. He now leads a happy life, only slightly worried that he will be identified – people often think they know him but not from where. He has a cover story, based on his probation officer’s life but when people question him about his childhood, he suddenly has to invent details or claim forgetfulness. The real worry is if someone from his past reappears and, inevitably, that is what happens. What makes this book interesting is that we see his story entirely from his perspective rather than from the perspective of his new or past family. He is somewhat remorseful but more concerned about his future than his past and he has a violent streak but just about manages to control it but when his past comes back and threatens to destroy his idyll, things take a different turn.
The latest addition to my website is Janos Szekely‘s Kísértés (Temptation). This is a sad tale of Béla, a Hungarian born out of wedlock in the early 1920s – his father has disappeared – and brought up in a rural area by a cruel foster woman while his mother tries to earn her living in Budapest. He is starved, beaten and denied education. Eventually, when he tries to steal some shoes – he has none – in a very cold winter, he is packed off to Budapest, where his mother is struggling to earn her living and pay the rent. He gets a job as a hotel porter – no pay, only tips and food – but the pair still struggle, even when the father turns up again. He is seduced by an older woman and torn between left- and right-wing activists, with things only getting worse when the Great Depression hits. Szekely clearly shows his sympathies for the poor and downtrodden, for whom there seems to be little hope and little escape.