Saturday, February 18, 2017

Lithuania: Breathing Into Marble, by Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite

Translations into English from Lithuania seemed rather thin on the ground, so I was delighted to read of the release in 2016 of this novel, which won the 2009 EU Prize for literature.

Isabel lives in a country cottage with her husband Liudas and frail son Gailius. When she decides to adopt a troubled young orphan, Ilya, she has no idea of the chain of dark events that will follow. I immersed myself in the beauty of this story - the prose is poetic and although the tale is tragic, it also ultimately seems redemptive, enabling Isabel to come to terms with her childhood and with the consequences of Ilya's adoption.

The translation on the whole was excellent - the English read smoothly and naturally. And yet, every so often, an odd, ungrammatical phrase cropped up which was not a typo that would have occurred if it had been originally written in English. These were infrequent enough that I can't locate one on a quick look through to quote, however, careful editing would have picked them up - they were all of a kind that could be easily corrected and did not really detract too much from the reading of the book.

Breathing Into Marble was translated from Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute and published by Noir Press.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Netherlands: Ten White Geese, by Gerbrand Bakker

A Dutch woman calling herself Emilie has rented a farm cottage near a small village in Wales. She has fled Amsterdam after admitting an affair with a student at the university where she was a professor, working on a study of Emily Dickinson. Gradually and quietly, her story is revealed, along with that of her husband and of the young man who is invited to stay the night, and doesn't leave. Initially "Emilie's" husband accepts her departure, but then he discovers something which causes him to set out in search of her.

This novel is full of moments of haunting beauty. It is both tragic and strangely uplifting. I had earlier started on "June", another of Gerbrand Bakker's novels, but somehow found it too slow and couldn't get into it. This one, however, I found quite compelling, and the pace of the telling just right.

Ten White Geese was translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, and published by Penguin Books in 2013 (originally published in Dutch in 2010 and in English by Harvill Secker in 2012).

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Antigua: Unburnable, by Marie-Elena John

The go-to writer for Antigua seems to be Jamaica Kincaid, but as I had already read some of her work, I wanted to find another writer from this country if possible. Marie-Elena John seemed to fit the bill - she was born in Antigua, grew up there before moving to the United States, and now lives part of the year in Antigua (and the other part in the US).

However, when her one novel, Unburnable, arrived in the post, it turns out to be set in Dominica. Although the acknowledgments at the back of the book appear to suggest that the author has family connections there, it wasn't quite clear what they were, nor did a google search help me. I decided to count the book for Antigua, anyway, although with reservations.

These reservations are as described above, and nothing to do with the quality of the writing. This is a powerful book. It recounts the return to Dominica of Lillian Baptiste, twenty years after she fled at the age of fourteen to escape her family heritage. Now she must confront the past - her half-crazy mother Iris, and grandmother Matilda, who are the subjects of chante mas songs sung at Carnival. Teddy, a man who has loved Lillian for many years, returns with her. To find the truth, however, they must look past the obvious, and come to an understanding of the island's history, and the culture of the Carib people, and the maroons (descendants of escaped slaves).

The ending of the book is left somewhat open. The reader learns the truth, but does Lillian? And can Teddy save her? I found the book fascinating, and regretted that the author had not written any more novels after the publication of Unburnable in 2006 - her primary profession was an Africa development specialist.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Syria: In Praise of Hatred, by Khaled Khalifa

This novel is set in the 1980s at the time of an uprising in Syria against Bashar al Assad's father, Hafez. The nameless teenage narrator lives in Aleppo with her three aunts Maryam, Marwa and Safaa. As hostilities escalate, she becomes increasingly involved with the Muslim brotherhood, an organisation of hard-line Sunni fundamentalists (referred to in the novel as "our sect") violently opposed to the ruling Alawite minority, and their brutal methods of imprisonment, torture and executions.

Many passages of the novel describe the narrator's state of mind, rather than events - her thoughts, perceptions, and visions. This makes for more challenging reading than a more action led plot. In the first part she often transits seamlessly between describing actual scenes and describing what are obviously mystic visions, so that I found it hard to follow the context of some of these visions. I also found it difficult to understand just why, initially, she felt that hatred was necessary, and that the only way to prevail against the "other sect" was to kill all their sons. Later, as violence becomes entrenched in the everyday life of Aleppo, there appears to be no going back for either side, and the path that she is on leads inevitably to disaster.

There is a wide range of viewpoints expressed, however, in the other characters in the story, some of whom believe still in the tolerance that Syria was historically renowned for, while others pursue pleasure more than religion. Besides the three aunts, there are parents, uncles, younger brothers, and others brought into the family by marriage. The narrator herself appears conflicted between the demands of religion and the demands of her body - despite her efforts to renounce her body, the novel is full of many passages of erotic sensuality.

The narrator, in the end, finds it hard to sustain the hatred that has fuelled her actions, after some years in prison:

"How hard it is to spend all your time believing what others want you to believe; they choose a name for you which you then have to love and defend, just as they choose the God you will worship, killing whoever opposes their version of His beauty, the people you call 'infidels'. Then a hail of bullets is released, which makes death into fact."

Khaled Khalifa was born in 1964 near Aleppo, Syria. The novel was first published secretly in Damascus, but was discovered by the regime after forty days, and was banned. It was published in Lebanon in 2008, and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It was translated by Leri Price and published by Transworld Publishers, a division of Random House, in 2012.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Singapore: Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan


I read most of this on a wet Sunday, absorbed in the goings on of a group of super rich Straits Chinese (Chinese inhabitants of Singapore and Malaysia). This is not high literature. It verges on the women's magazine romance type of story. Rachel is a university professor in New York, with a Singaporean boyfriend Nicholas, also a university professor. He invites her to Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding and meet his family. What she doesn't know is how wealthy they are, and that they have very firm ideas on who Nicholas, the only male grandchild to bear the family surname, might marry.

I have no way of gauging the accuracy of the depiction of the lifestyle of the super rich in Singapore, but it seemed to ring true, and there was an entertaining range of characters. The author neatly sidesteps the fact that some picky readers might check out the possibility of his grandmother's mansion with huge park like grounds on google maps, by having it mysteriously not appear on google maps or on a car's GPS system. There is a good deal of eating in this book - apparently Singaporeans are passionate about food. (I could have done with reading it before a Singapore stopover some years back, to find out before we went where all the best street hawker food was to be found). There is also something of an obsession with designer fashion, and plenty of flash yachts and private jets. A good many footnotes, particularly in the first part of the book, explain Malay and Hokkien names for dishes, slang and abbreviations,and offer witty asides. I did find it better to skip some of the footnotes though, for smoother reading.

About three quarters of the way through, I began to feel rather glutted, as if I had eaten too much of one of the multi course banquets described in the book. And yet, somehow I find myself wanting to read the next in the series, to find out what happens next to Rachel, Nick, Nick's cousin Astrid and the rest of the cast - variously nice and awful.

Kevin Kwan was born and brought up in Singapore (apparently he attended the elite boys school where Nick met his best friend Colin Khoo), and now lives in Manhattan. That's all the background I can find on him on the internet - if some of this story is based on real lives, there would be reason for him to be discreet.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

India: Sleeping on Jupiter, by Anuradha Roy


In the prologue of this beautifully written novel, a young girl's father is shot by armed men, her brother disappears and her mother abandons her, all in the space of a couple of days. There appears to be a war on, although exactly where and when is never made quite clear.

The book then cuts back and forth between various points of view, many years later. Three elderly widows travel by train for a holiday in Jarmuli, a temple town on the Bay of Bengal. On the train they encounter a young girl, Nomita, who seems Indian, but somehow not quite Indian. On arrival in Jarmuli, other lives cross paths - the three women, Latika, Gouri and Vidya - the temple guide, Badal who is in the throes of a forbidden love for a young boy - the seaside tea vendor, Johnny Toppo - and Suraj, who has been hired to assist Nomita in her research of locations for a documentary on spiritual tourism.

Nomita is the girl who lost her parents when she was seven years old. We learn how she was taken into an orphanage in Jarmuli, run by an internationally renowned guru - how she was sexually abused, later escaped the orphanage, and was adopted by an English woman, and taken to live in Norway. Now she is trying to uncover the secrets of her past.

The story could have been harrowing, but the beauty of the prose, lifts it to another level, making it heartbreaking but at the same time tender and even hopeful in the midst of ugliness. The writing is full of sensory detail, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of India.

There is an excellent review here.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Indonesia: The Rainbow Troops, by Andrea Hirata

This book was apparently a runaway best-seller in Indonesia, selling five million copies (and fifteen million more pirated copies). It was also turned into a movie which became the highest ever grossing film in Indonesia. It is easy to see why, as many people would find the story inspirational.

The book was written as a tribute to an inspirational teacher - two teachers, in fact. Although described as a novel, the two teachers named in the dedication are the same names as the two teachers in the book. It appears that the book is quite closely based on the author's own story. It follows a group of ten children from their first day at school on the island of Belitong. Paradoxically, although it is Indonesia's richest island in terms of natural resources, the local people are very poor, the riches from the tin mined there being appropriated by a state owned company for the benefit of a few. These poverty stricken families could not access the company run school, and the nearest state school was too far away, so the school which is central to the story is a Muhammadiyah or religious school, run by teachers almost as poverty stricken as the pupils. There is no jihad taught here - the ethics class impressed on the children standards of behaviour which would be exemplary in any setting (although, as mischievous boys, they do not always live up to the standards taught).

And yet among the students is a young maths genius, and other students with extraordinary talents in different areas. I discovered a review which likened the story to "Slum Dog Millionaire" - but no one wins a million, and for some of the students, one wonders if they ended up any better off for their education. The author however, did manage to obtain a scholarship to attend university overseas, not as a writer but as an economist, and eventually wrote the book and went on to study at the University of Iowa's prestigious Creative Writing Institute.

As his first book, this is a fairly straight forward account, more populist than literary. I did feel that in some of the descriptive passages, the metaphors used felt a bit strained, as if the author was trying too hard to come up with an unusual description.

I mentioned in another post, that the Guatemalan author Rigoberta Menchu had attracted controversy by possibly inventing some of the details in her memoirs. One might think turning one's story into a novel would avoid this criticism. But in the end, either approach leaves me with the same problem - that of wondering just how much of the story is true. (And in a western society, a thinly disguised novelisation might well attract lawsuits if readily identified characters feel they have been libelled).

Nevertheless, despite these problems, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, if a little saddening regarding the fate of some of the author's classmates.

The Rainbow Troops (Laskar Pelangi)was translated from Indonesian by Angie Kilbane and published by Vintage Books Australia in 2013. (There may be other editions elsewhere).