Indriði G. Þorsteinsson: Norðan við stríð (North of War)


The latest addition to my website is Indriði G. Þorsteinsson/Indridii G Thorsteinsson‘s Norðan við stríð (North of War). This novel is based on a little-known episode of World War II, when British troops occupied Iceland in May 1940, to forestall a German invasion. The Icelandic government reluctantly accepted the invasion though maintained their neutrality. The novel however, tells of the effect of the British and their occupation on the small town of Akureyri (not named in the book). The women prefer the British men to their own men. The economy is dramatically changed as many of the men will work on the airfield the British are constructing and the Icelanders will be exposed to some new technology. While offering some criticism, Þorsteinsson treats it to a considerable degree as a light-hearted episode in Iceland’ s history and uses the opportunity to mock both the British and his own countrymen. This is the only one of his novels translated into English.

Peter Elmore: Las pruebas del Fuego [The Trials of Fire]


The latest addition to my website is Peter Elmore‘s Las pruebas del Fuego [The Trials of Fire]. Elmore has not been translated into English (nor, as far as I can see, any other language), despite the fact that he teaches in the United States. This novel, while certainly enjoyable, is not a great novel, telling the story of a Peruvian academic specialising in art history who inherits a box of old manuscripts, some of which consist of letters between two monks, indicating that a painting by a famous artist was smuggled into Peru and is probably still there. The story is essentially about his attempts to find out more about the painting and track it down, all the while dealing with various problems in his life, in particular blackmail. It is not available in English (or any other language) and probably won’t be.

Alberto Chimal: La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden]


The latest addition to my website is Alberto Chimal‘s La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden]. It has become increasingly apparent to me that much that is interesting in the contemporary novel is being written in Spanish and that Mexico is a key part of this. This novel has been hailed by many Latin American commentators as a stunningly original work and one of the best Latin American novels of recent years and I can only share their enthusiasm, only with the caveat that this novel, like other great novels, may not be for everyone. It is set in a seven-storey building in the fictitious city of Morosa, which is a giant brothel. However, though the building may appear to be seven storeys from the outside, inside it is much bigger and constantly changing, moving things around and even managing to repair itself when damaged. The brothel is also no ordinary brothel but one that caters exclusively for rich clients who want to have sex with animals. The brothel contains a whole menagerie of animals, from fleas and ants, to tigers, via lemmings and platypuses, to satisfy the odd tastes of the rich. (Fortunately, Chimal gives few descriptions of what actually goes on.) We learn the history of the building and what is going on both with the management and the clients and their strange tastes as well as learning about the secret society that inhabits the buildings, the strange scientific experiments and the secret of the garden. We also follow the adventures of two men who get into the building and who explore its interior, in order to learn of its secrets. Unusual, different but also occasionally disturbing, this is a stunningly original work. Sadly, it has not, as yet, been translated into any other language.

Sarah Mkhonza: Weeding the Flowerbeds


The latest addition to my website is Sarah Mkhonza‘s Weeding the Flowerbeds, the first novel from Swaziland on my website Actually, this is a memoir, slightly fictionalised but, frankly, there is very little literature from Swaziland in English. Sarah Mkhonza tells the story of herself and other girls at two boarding schools in Swaziland during their teens. While she writes well and keeps our interest, there is nothing special or unusual. She is concerned with the role of women and the rights of Africans but also with the opposite sex and pop music. She is keen to stand up for her rights, particularly when she considers that she has been treated unfairly but, on the whole, she behaves fairly well, gets on with her studies and grows up a fairly normal child and young woman.

Xiaolu Guo: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers


The latest addition to my website is Xiaolu Guo‘s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers. This is her first book written in English though it is (deliberately) written in bad English. It is a semi-autobiographical account of her own arrival in London and her struggles with the language and the culture. She writes as she would have spoken then (apparently it is based in part on the diaries she kept at the time). The chapters are divided into headwords, which are the words she struggles with at this time and each chapter heading also has the English dictionary definition of the word which can sometimes be a help to her but sometimes add to her confusion. As the title shows, it is also about love, another issues which shows up the cultural differences between the two countries. She meets a man twenty years older than her in a cinema and, within a week, she has moved into his house. He is bisexual, has been a drifter and now earns his living delivering things in a scruffy white van. Their cultural differences are, of course, brought out. He is a vegetarian, she is not. They have different views on relationships and various other issues, though some of these differences may well be male-female, rather than English-Chinese. The book is very funny but also has a very serious intent and works very well though, as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, it seems odd that she clearly is not British.

Rim Kin: សូផាត (Sophat)


The latest addition to my website is Rim Kin‘s សូផាត (Sophat), the first Cambodian novel published. It is a straightforward novel of love and loss. Sophat is born to an orphan woman, Soya, and her lover, the rich official, Suon. Suon abandons Soya when given an opportunity to return to Phnom Penh and while she is five months pregnant. He makes no further contact. Soya, on learning of his subsquent marrige to someone else, collapses and dies. Sophat is brought up an orphan and then transferred to a monastery. When he is twelve, he sets out for Phnom Penh to find his father and ends up in the household of the rich official, Athipadey Séna. He meets Athipadey Séna’s niece, Man Yan, and the pair fall in love but because of a misunderstanding, he leaves. The two are reunited, separated, reunited and again separated, with Kin leaving us guessing whether they will ever manage to stay together and whether Sophat will find his father. It is a simple novel but well done for a country’s first novel. Sadly, it is only available in French translation, not in English.

Chantal Fraïsse: La bèstia de totas las colors [The Beast of All Colours]


The latest addition to my website is Chantal Fraïsse‘s La bèstia de totas las colors [The Beast of All Colours], written in Occitan. This was prompted by my visit to Provence in May where I found bookshops, such as one called the Librairie de Provence, did not actually stock any books in Provençal/Occitan. On returning home, I poked around on the Internet to see if I could find any recent novels written in Provençal/Occitan and came up with this one, which had won the Paul-Froment prize for best work in Occitan in 2011. It is a simple but very enjoyable novel about the life of the financial director of Moissac Abbey, where Fraïsse works as a conservationist. She wrote it in Occitan which, she says, is her second mother tongue. Bertrand Cassanis really did exist and left behind a lot of documentation about his life and times, but Fraïsse has, by her own admission, used the bits she considered appropriate to write her novel, so the book is a novel and not a biography. This novel has not been translated into English or, indeed, into any other language and is unlikely to be so, unless Fraïsse herself translates it into French so, while I can recommend it, unless you read Occitan, you will have to wait for it to be translated.

Joanna Scott: Arrogance


The latest addition to my website is Joanna Scott‘s Arrogance, another superb novel by Scott, this one being about the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, who died aged twenty-eight during the influenza pandemic at the end of World War I. Schiele was not a man to observe conventional morality and was in trouble with local communities and the authorities for his ‘pornographic’ art and allegedly seducing underage girls. Scott aims to show the controversial man, but she also brilliantly describes the artist – how he thought, felt and reacted to life around him and how he transposed this into his art. The story is not told chronologically but in an impressionistic style, moving backwards and forwards through his life (and after his life, as we hear the accounts of two women involved in his life, who survived him). Scott gives us a wonderful portrait of an artist and his artistic struggles and concerns.

Munnings as portrayed by Harold Knight
Munnings as portrayed by Harold Knight

By coincidence, while reading this book, I happened to see the film Summer in February , about an episode in the life of the artist Alfred Munnings. What a contrast with the Scott book! The film was badly written, badly directed and badly acted, particularly by Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey fame. Munnings, played by Dominic Cooper, is portrayed as your typical caricature eccentric artist, with no depth, no feeling and no indication at what drives him as an artist, except drink and women. The story concerns a woman, Florence Carter-Wood, herself an artist, who is loved by both Munnings and Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens) and it is all raging storms, rough seas and the like to show passion, with the obligatory nudity, Cooper trying hard to be mad and eccentric and Stevens doing the stiff upper lip or wan smile (and nothing much else) he had in Downton Abbey. Forget the film. Read the book

Xiaolu Guo: 我心中的石头镇 (Village of Stone)


The latest addition to my website is Xiaolu Guo‘s 我心中的石头镇 (Village of Stone). She is one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. This novel was the last of several that she wrote in Chinese and the only one of those that has been translated into English. Her subsequent novels have been written in English. It tells the story of Coral Jiang, both in her childhood (from the ages of seven to fifteen) and in the present time, aged twenty-eight. She had been born and brought up in the Village of Stone, a remote village by the sea in the south of China, where people made their living from the sea, and which was constantly buffeted by typhoons, so much so that roofs were weighed down with stones. Her mother had died soon after giving birth to her, while her father had left before she was born. She was brought up by her grandparents, who had barely spoken to one another for many years. Life was hard and made harder for Coral, who was harassed by a mute who sexually assaulted her. In the present time, she is living in a flat in Beijing with Red and working in a video rental shop. Her life seems to be going nowhere. Btu then a large dead eel arrives in a parcel for her from the Village of Stone and things start to change.

François Mauriac: La Fin de la nuit (The End of the Night)


The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s La Fin de la nuit (The End of the Night). This is a follow-up to his Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux), written eight years earlier. In his introduction, Mauriac makes it clear he wanted to continue the story of Thérèse. It is now fifteen years later and she is living alone in Paris, She is facing both financial and health problems. One evening, there is a knock at the door. It is her daughter, Marie, whom she has not seen for three years. She is naturally glad to see Marie but finds that the seventeen-year old has an ulterior motive. Marie is in love with Georges Filhot, son of a neighbour, and has left home to follow him to Paris, where he is studying. Thérèse persuades her daughter that she must return home to her father but, before departure, the two women go and see Georges. They spend some time with him and, once Marie has left, Georges comes to visit Thérèse, where he tells her that it is she rather than Marie he loves. The rest of the novel is how Thérèse deals with this declaration and tries to bring Georges and her daughter together. It is an interesting novel, if not quite as fine as its predecessor, and something of a departure for Mauriac.