The most recent addition to my website is Arnon Grunberg‘s Arnon Grunberg: Blauwe maandagen (Blue Mondays). This was Grunberg’s first novel, written for a bet and selling 70,000 copies in the Netherlands. Frankly, it did not really appeal to me. It is an autobiographical novel, telling of his life while at high school and then, once he had been kicked out of high school, afterwards. His story is told in a matter-of-fact life way. For example, his relationship with his girlfriend, Rosie, and then, when she dumps him, with various prostitutes is told with all the passion and excitement of a dead haddock. He is something of a rebel at high school but his rebellion consists more of playing truant, often to spend time with Rosie, rather than any interesting, overt act of rebellion. After high school, it is a succession of boring jobs, culminating in working as a male escort (where the book ends) and visiting prostitutes. If you like books told in a straightforward manner about high school dropouts, this may be for you, otherwise you would be advised to pass.
The latest addition to my website is Eleanor Catton‘s Rehearsal. This is a superb debut novel about performance and imagined performance, about the power of gossip and power in relationships, about who we really we are and who we think we are and about how the younger generation is changing, presumably in New Zealand though it could equally apply to any Western country. It tells two stories that will converge. The first concerns Mr. Saladin, a teacher of jazz band at a girls’ school who has an affair with Victoria, one of his under-age students and the repercussions this affair has on the other girls, the girl’s family, particularly her younger sister, and the community. Catton brilliantly portrays these repercussions in an original manner, exemplified by the (female) saxophone teacher, who comments, almost like a Greek chorus, on the events. The other story concerns a Drama Institute, which is very difficult to get into, and which uses challenging techniques to get the students to recognise who they are and how to become actors. It is primarily seen through the eyes of one of the students, Stanley, a somewhat solitary young man with a psychologist father who tells politically incorrect jokes about pedophilia. Stanley is conventional but sometimes challenges the status quo, as does Julia, a saxophone player in the other story, a loner who befriends Victoria’s sister. It is a complex novel, superbly written, clearly showing the maturity and expertise of a much more experienced writer.
Just noted that the Portuguese writer Urbano Tavares Rodrigues died today. None of his books has been translated into English and, as far as I can see, all the sites reporting his death are in Portuguese. I have his Bastardos do Sol [Bastards of the Soil] and A Vaga de Calor [Heatwave] but have yet to read them. He was very prolific, writing novels, stories, travel accounts and essays and lived to be ninety. He was a member of the Communist Party and had to work in France for some time. As a result, his work was influenced by existentialism. He spent sometime in prison under Salazar and this also coloured his work. I suspect that his work is unlikely to be translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Georges Ngal‘s Giambatista Viko ou Le Viol du discours africain [Giambatista Viko or the Rape of African Discourse]. Ngal’s first novel is about the struggle of writing that first novel. Giambatista Viko teaches at an institute of higher learning in what was then Zaïre. He and his colleagues discuss endlessly the nature of literature and, in particular, African writing versus Western (particularly French) writing. African writing is essentially fable writing, set neither in any particular time nor place and using elements such as magic and fantasy and with plenty of bloodshed and betrayal. In the second part, Viko is hauled before a strange court, possibly in the afterlife, where he is on trial for betraying African literature by being too Western. It is all quite clever but it does not really work for me.
The latest addition to my website is Ross Raisin‘s God’s Own Country (US: Out Backward). It is a story told by Sam Marsdyke, a solitary eighteen-year old who lives on a farm on the North Yorkshire Moors, with his parents, a grumpy father and an unhappy mother. Sam is a (probably) unreliable narrator. He was asked to leave school aged fifteen, allegedly for attempting to rape a fellow student. His story is that there was mutual consent. However, we know that he has a streak of wilful violence in him. The area is becoming gentrified and Sam falls for one of the new arrivals from London, a fifteen-year old girl called Josephine Reeves. They gradually become closer and, when she has had enough of her parents and wants to run away, it is to Sam that she turns, not least because of Sam’s detailed knowledge of his beloved moors. Raisin tells a good story, even though things do not really get going till they run away. Raisin is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.
The latest addition to my website is Joanna Kavenna‘s . This is a novel about childbirth. There are four separate but linked stories about childbirth. The first is set in 1865 and is about Ignaz Semmelweis who discovered the link between infection and the death of women in childbirth. He went mad and, in this story, we follow his last days, as a man called Robert von Lucius interviews him in a mental asylum. The second and third stories are set in the present day. In the first we follow a forty-one year old woman who is pregnant with her second child. The baby is two weeks overdue. We follow what happens between the contractions starting and the birth. We also follow the story of a fifty-three year old novelist who has written a novel (his first one published) on Semmelweis. The final story is set in 2153 when all births have to be in vitro rather than in utero but one woman has managed to get pregnant the old-fashioned way and a group of people try to save her and her baby. They have been caught and we follow their interrogations. It is an interesting idea but, apart from the Semmelweis story, it all seems somewhat conventional. As the novelist’s agent (a woman) says, men are not interested in novels on childbirth. I do not think that that is so in my case but this one did not quite work for me. Kavenna is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.
The latest addition to my website is Ibrahim Al-Koni‘s أنوبيس (Anubis). This is the first Libyan novel on my website but it is not your typical Libyan novel, as al-Koni is a Tuareg and this is very much a Tuareg novel. It tells the story of Anubi, a legendary Tuareg character, who catches a glimpse of his father at birth but, since then, has not seen him and sets out into the desert to find him. Al-Koni adds other myths, particularly the myth of Targa (which gives its name to Tuareg), the legendary oasis, where Anubi arrives and is joined by others, for whom he becomes, eventually, both priest and leader. But he is beset by jinns, spirits and the ghost (or shadow) of his father. It is not easy reading, as the characters speak in aphorisms and riddles and it is not always clear what is going but it is, nevertheless, an interesting look at another culture and its myths.
The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s The Manikin. This is another superb novel from Joanna Scott. It is primarily set in a remote house in upstate New York called the Manikin (the name for the framework used to build anatomical models). The late owner, Henry Craxton, made his fortune out of selling scientific equipment and supplies, including taxidermy and fossils. The house is now occupied by his widow, Mary, and the various servants and their offspring. Mary is confined to a wheelchair, and is looked after by the housekeeper, Ellen Griswold. Ellen’s daughter, Peg,is something of a free spirit, who likes nothing better than to go outdoors with Junker, son of the groundskeeper. Mary is bored, and misses her only surviving son, Hal, who hates the house and is always travelling. Ellen wonders why Peg, who has had a good education, does not get a job. Junket wants Peg to fall in love with him but knows she will not and Boggio, pensioned-off former employer of Henry Craxton, stays in his hut, dreaming of his taxidermical successes. Then Mary dies and everything changes, as accustomed roles fall by the wayside. Scott tells her story brilliantly, leaving us guessing as to where the novel is going and whether it is a growing up novel, a Gothic novel a nature-lover versus nature-hater novel or something else.
The latest addition to my website is Shamsur Rahman Faruqi‘s اند تھے سر آسما (The Mirror of Beauty). This has been hailed as one of the great Urdu novels. It was published in Urdu in 2006 and has now been translated into English by the author, a mammoth task as the book is over 950 pages long. It is a superb story, telling of the life of a great beauty, Wazir Khanam, in the early-mid nineteenth century, just as the East India Company was taking over India. Wazir Khanam enthralled both Indian and British men – her first lover was English. She has two lovers and two husbands (and children by all four) but retains her beauty, her elegance and, above all, her strong personality, which means that no-one, Indian or British, can control her if she does not want to be controlled. As well as being about Wazir Khanam, this novel is also about a key period of Indian history, as the Mughal Empire is waning and the British, in the form of the East India Company, are gradually taking over. Faruqi, clearly and understandably, does not think very highly of the British but he does extol the Indian culture of the period – the poetry, learning, general interracial harmony and the customs – and it is this that helps make the novel so fascinating for a Western reader. This novel is clearly destined to be a classic.
The latest addition to my website is Nadifa Mohamed‘s Black Mamba Boy. Mohamed is one of the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, though she is Somali and this novel is very much a Somali novel. It tells the story of her grandfather, Jama Mohamed, and his difficult but adventurous life growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. Unable to find work, his father leaves what was then British Somaliland and goes to Sudan. When he does not return for a while, his mother takes him to Aden where she works long hours in a coffee factory and he roams the streets. He returns to Hargeisa but is not happy there and, one day, he leaves his relatives and sets out for Sudan to find his father, despite not knowing where Sudan is or how far and where exactly his father is. He has a difficult journey but is often aided by other Somalis who seems to be scattered all over East Africa. Things do not go well for him and he gets caught up in the Italian-British battles in World War II and is nearly killed. After the war, he seems to be doing well but things fall apart again and he is again off on his travels, heading to Palestine, Egypt and even England. He leads a very adventurous life and Mohamed tells her tale well of all his adventures and the political background to what is happening at that time.