Basti by Intizar Husain

This is a Pakistani novel from 1979, set during Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan, but with lots of flashbacks — to a pre-Partition life in India, to Partition and the migration to Pakistan — and dreams going further back still, to India’s First War of Independence.*


The earliest scenes of pre-Partition India are seen, through a child’s eyes, as idyllically multicultural, which makes Partition a sort of fall from grace. Partially that’s just the contrast between the innocence of the child and the cynicism of the adult; but there is a sense reading the book of a great deal of political and ideological energy being expended and great changes being achieved, and none of it making life appreciably better.

Politics aside, it’s just a very well-written novel (hat-tip to Frances W. Pritchett for the translation). As well as the flashbacks, parts of it are in the form of letters, diary entries and dreams. The result is atmospheric and impressionistic, and occasionally confusing, especially for those of us who don’t have the cultural context. But it has a very strong sense of place, a great eye for detail, well-drawn characters and natural-sounding dialogue.

This is the second book from Pakistan I’ve read for the Read The World challenge; I felt I ought to be able to do better than the last one (Kartography by Kamila Shamsie), which was fine but nothing special. Basti is a definite improvement.

*i.e. the Indian Mutiny/Rebellion/Revolt of 1857.

» The photo of the Tomb of Bibi Jawindi is from Wikipedia; it’s by Shah zaman baloch and used under a CC by-sa licence.

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

This is satirical science fiction from 1936, about the discovery of a species of intelligent amphibian living in the sea next to a small island near Sumatra. The ‘newts’ are exploited and traded, initially as pearl fishers and then as cheap labour on massive marine construction projects, until they are present in huge numbers all around the world; and then — spoilers, I guess, but the clue’s in the title — they start fighting back.


I bought it because it was recommended on the Book Shambles podcast, but even so it turned out to be much more entertaining and readable than I expected. The satire is not as focussed as, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four; the biggest targets are colonialism and racism, with the trade in newts modelled on the slave trade, but along the way it takes pot shots at nationalism, capitalism, fascism, Hollywood, newspapers, scientists and much else.

I read the Robert and Marie Weatherall translation from 1936; I certainly enjoyed it, although Wikipedia suggests that the more recent Ewald Osers version is more highly regarded.

I did already have the Czech Republic ticked off for the Read The World challenge when I started — I’ve read Kafka and Hašek and whatnot — but this is the first Czech book I’ve read since then, probably.

» The photo is a tweaked version of ‘Hellbender at the National Zoo, Reptile Discovery Center’, © Brian Gratwicke and used under a CC-by licence.

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

This is a novel written in communist Albania in 1981 but set in a fictionalised version of the Ottoman Empire in, I guess, the late 19th century. The protagonist, Mark-Alem, is from a family, the Quprilis, who are originally Albanian but are living in Istanbul and are prominent, powerful players within the Ottoman Empire.


The book follows his career working at the Tabir Sarrail — the Palace of Dreams — a huge office devoted to collecting, sifting and interpreting the dreams of people from all across the empire. Once a week, a single dream is chosen as the Master-Dream and delivered to the Sultan, along with its interpretation.

“The world has long recognised the importance of dreams, and the rôle they play in anticipating the fates of countries and of the people who govern them. You have certainly heard of the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece, and of the famous soothsayers of Rome, Assyria, Persia, Mongolia, and so on. […] Now this long tradition undoubtedly has its own importance, but it pales into insignificance beside the operations of the Tabir Sarrail. Our imperial State is the first in the history of the world to have institutionalized the interpretation of dreams, and so to have brought it to such a high degree of perfection.” […]

“The task of our Palace of Dreams, which was created directly by the reigning Sultan, is to classify and examine not the isolated dreams od certain individuals — such as those who in the past were for one reason or another granted the privilege, and who in practice enjoyed the monopoly, of prediction through the interpretation of divine omens — but the ‘Tabir’ as a whole: in other words, all the dreams of all citizens without exception.”

The Palace of Dreams was apparently banned in Albania on publication, and you can see why. As a piece of political commentary, it is necessarily somewhat oblique, as this quote from Kadare points out: “dissidence was a position no one could occupy, even for a few days, without facing the firing squad. On the other hand, my books themselves constitute a very obvious form of resistance”. Still, the vision of a government trying to reach right into the minds of all its subjects, of a huge sprawling bureaucracy devoted to tracking and recording people’s thoughts, the brutal interrogation of people who are unlucky enough to have ‘significant’ dreams, and the way the process is undertaken with great seriousness but seems to be completely arbitrary: it’s a pretty good metaphor for a totalitarian government.

I find it quite hard to think of this as a book written in my lifetime; it’s not just the setting, but tone and style.  The most obvious comparison would be Kafka — there are descriptions of getting lost in the corridors of the Tabir Sarrail which are particularly reminiscent — but also someone like Bruno Schulz, perhaps. Early/mid C20th, anyway. Although this edition, which I picked up in a second-hand shop, was translated from the Albanian via the French, so I don’t know how that may have affected the nuances.

Still, it’s a striking fable. It’s very much built around one central concept, but it’s short enough that that’s not a problem.

The Palace of Dreams is my book from Albania for the Read The World challenge.

» The postcard is, as the caption says, of the central post office in Istanbul. Which is at least a big Ottoman bureaucratic building. I found it via Ottoman Imperial Archives on Flickr

America’s Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega by Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner

Political memoirs should probably always be approached with a healthy scepticism. This one was written by a man in prison for drug-trafficking, so I approached it with a lot of uncertainty; especially since I don’t know enough about the politics of Central America in the 80s.

The book does provide some help in the form of Peter Eisner, the American journalist who ghost-wrote the main text, based on interviews with Noriega, and added an introduction, footnotes and endnotes which (as agreed in advance) Noriega did not have any say over. So that provides some useful context.


Noriega’s version of events is that he was nothing but a patriot, working for the good of the people of Panama, trying to avoid getting caught up in the shitshow of Nicaragua and Honduras, and trying to keep on the good side of both the Americans and the Cubans. He also says that the US invasion of Panama was based on nothing but political expediency, that the drug charges against him were trumped up, and that the Americans were up to their eyeballs in every nasty, dirty, shady thing that happened in Central America, including drug-running.

Now a lot of his accusations are clearly true; but of course that doesn’t mean it’s all true. So, for example, given the stuff we know the CIA and the DoD were getting up to in Central America — most famously, but not only, Iran-Contra — pretty much any accusation against them starts sounding plausible. And of course the invasion was political: the fact that they ousted an uncooperative government 12 days before the Canal Zone was due to be handed over to Panamanian control doesn’t seem like a coincidence. And the idea that they did it because Noriega was a Bad Man? Well, given the kinds of regimes the US propped up in Latin America, they clearly had a very high tolerance for brutal dictatorships when it was convenient. But then you can say the same about, say, Saudi Arabia and Iraq: support for the Saudis undermines any claim to a foreign policy designed to spread democracy, freedom and human rights; but whatever the real motivations for invading Iraq, that doesn’t alter the fact that Saddam Hussein was a genuinely terrible figure.

For what it’s worth, Eisner’s conclusion is that Noriega was clearly guilty of a lot of things — like rigging elections and intimidating the opposition — but that Panama was still comparatively stable and peaceful compared to most of its neighbours. And that if Noriega was running drugs, the trial did a poor job of proving it; it relied on testimony from informants within the US prison system who were rewarded for their testimony with reduced sentences, and potentially damning evidence about American government involvement was ruled either secret or inadmissible.

Who knows. I mean, somebody probably does, and if I did the research I might have a clearer idea; but I found the book interesting, even without knowing what to make of it. The tangled politics of the region, and the extent to which the US government was caught up in it, is fascinating. Presumably, now we’ve moved on from the Cold War to the War on Terror, the CIA is less involved in Central America than it used to be, but who knows what they’re now getting up to in, say, Yemen. Or Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey…

[Oh, yeah, I forgot to say: this is my book from Panama for the Read The World challenge.]

Remnants: The Way of the Womb by Hagop Oshagan

This is my book from Armenia for the Read The World challenge. Oshagan was born in 1883 in what is now Turkey — then the Ottoman Empire — and this novel is set in the Armenian community in Turkey before the genocide. ‘The Way of the Womb’ is actually just the first volume of a three volume novel; the third, unfinished volume tells the story of the genocide itself.


The Way of the Womb works well enough as a stand-alone novel, but obviously it would be a very different experience to read the whole work. Even without any explicit references to the approaching horrors, the context is unavoidable. It creates both dark foreshadowing and an elegiac note for a lost world. Not that Oshagan presents the lost Turkish-Armenian life as a golden idyll — his characters are feuding and manipulative — but there’s a certain amount of stuff about straight-limbed, strong Armenian youths living simple, honest lives among the olive groves, contrasting with an (understandably bitter) representation of weaker, more degenerate Turks.

This volume tells the story of a woman who, desperate to produce a grandson to continue the family name, is scheming to persuade her daughter-in-law to sleep with the hired help. That is used as a framing device to look back at the history of her family, the Nalbandians; once wealthy and powerful, built up by one man, Hajji* Artin, and in terminal decline in the generations after his death.

I would like to be more enthusiastic about this book. The story itself, the characters, and the setting, are striking and interesting. But reading it was really hard work. The prose is quite dense and difficult anyway; I often found myself having to reread sentences several times. But it is made much harder by a lack of white space. The framing story has some pretty long paragraphs, but at least it’s frequently broken up by dialogue. The flashback to tell the story of the Nalbandians is 60 pages without a single paragraph break. 60 pages! I assume that’s a reflection of the original Armenian, but it was a real struggle to get through it.

It’s a pity. I can see why this is an important book for Armenians, and there really were things I liked about it; but it was just too much of a chore. It’s possible that’s the fault of the translation, rather than the original text… but either way, I won’t be picking up the next two volumes, if they get translated. For once I can see the appeal of a Reader’s Digest Condensed version, just for sake of the story, if anyone feels like producing one.

* ‘Hajji’ is obviously a term they picked up from their muslim neighbours, but in their case it was apparently used to refer to someone who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

» The photo is of the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, Turkey. It was abandoned at the time of the genocide; it was restored and reopened as a museum in 2007. The photo is © Adam Jones and used under a CC by-sa licence.

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Gosh, this book is grim. It starts with the colonel being summoned from his house in the middle of a rainy night to collect the tortured body of his daughter from the secret police, and he is told to bury her before daybreak to avoid any kind of attention.


The story of that night and the following day is combined with flashbacks, and we learn of one child after another lost to violence: being tortured by the Shah’s regime or the Islamic Republic, or dying in the Iran/Iraq War. Each of his children belongs to, and represents, a different political movement: different flavours of communism and Islamism. But they all fall foul of the government sooner or later, as the political tides change. Except, I guess, for the one who dies in the war, who is celebrated as a martyr — but is no less dead.

I don’t know enough about the politics of Iran in the 70s and 80s, so the historically specific detail is lost on me, but it still works as a portrayal of a country suffering political turmoil and violent repression. Certainly an effective novel, if not an enjoyable one.

» The photo is of ‘the acoustic ceiling of the rooftop music room of the Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan, Iran’. Not particularly thematically apt, but it’s a nice picture. © David Stanley and used under a CC-by licence.

Tales in Colour and Other Stories and Bhutanese Tales Of The Yeti by Kunzang Choden

Two collections of short pieces by the same writer, which I read as books from Bhutan for the Read The World challenge. I was intrigued to read the yeti stories but also wanted something more contemporary; in the event Tales of Colour is the more interesting book.


It was certainly interesting to read some yeti lore: I learned that they smell horrible and have hollow backs, for example. And it’s clear that they are regarded as magical/folkloric creatures rather than just another species of wild animal; people may believe they are real, but they are not just another wild animal like a bear. There are stories of women bearing them children, for example. But although I was pleased to get some sense of the yeti’s place in Bhutanese culture, the stories themselves were not especially fascinating; a selection of four or five of the best ones would have been enough for me.

Tales of Colour is a collection of short stories about everyday life for women in rural Bhutan, touching on alcoholism, illness, infidelity, the lure of the city, age… universal themes, really, and simple stories, but very well told and with a strong sense of place.

» The photo Chimi Lhakhang 01 is © Buddhist Fox and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich

Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl was one of the best books I have read for the Read The World challenge, and so I thought I would read this as well. It is, again, a compilation of verbatim transcripts; presumably somewhat edited, if only to remove the interviewer’s questions and comments, but with the rhythms and untidiness of normal speech. This time, it is people associated with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: soldiers, nurses, bereaved mothers and widows (although no Afghan voices). The title comes from the zinc coffins that were used to deliver bodies back home.

Helicopter-tank operation in Afghanistan.  Courtesy of Soviet Military Power, 1984.   Photo No. 130, page 116.

The English edition was published in 1992, and the introduction stresses the comparison with the US experience in Vietnam; soldiers returning home from an unpopular war and being told it was all a mistake, and the impact on the country’s self-image. There are of course also many differences. The USSR kept an iron grip on the news coverage, at least initially; this book’s publication in 1990 is symptomatic of the loosening up of the glasnost/perestroika era. It’s depressing to think how Putin’s government might respond to a similar book about Ukraine or Chechnya.

The other obvious parallel, of course, is with our own recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There is never a shortage of wars to write about, after all. In the end, that made this a less remarkable book, for me, than the Chernobyl one; it is not quite as unique and weird. But it is still fascinating and insightful, and I recommend it. I would just suggest trying to read it in small doses; I found when I read too much in one go, the individuality of the voices started to blur a bit.

» The photo of a Soviet helicopter-tank operation is from the Department of Defense publication Soviet Military Power, 1984, via Wikipedia. It’s a public domain image because it was created by the US government.

The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

This is a novel from 1954 about Clarence, a white man who, finding himself broke and stranded in Africa, decides to approach the king and ask him for some sort of job. Clarence’s only qualification is that he is white — which admittedly was no small thing in colonial Africa — and after he fails to contact the king, he is taken under the wing of a beggar and two boys, and begins a journey south, hoping to meet the king again later when he visits that part of the country.

UNICEF’s director for West and Central Africa, Gianfranco Rotigliano, visited the office. He does not care much for meetings so we went straight out to get a better understanding of the situation of children. Over three days we drove from Conakry to Bamako in Mali. Along the way we visited schools and health centres in towns and villages. It was abundantly clear that the health system is not working and that major reform is needed. The education system also needs reform, but fortunately for that we have, with a coalition of donors, a solution.

It’s a dreamlike, sensual narrative; I’ve noticed before that novels from Francophone Africa (Guinea, in this case) seem to be more stylised than those from former British colonies. It echoes and subverts the tradition of white men’s adventures into darkest Africa. Africa seen through Clarence’s eyes is a world of fetid scents, impenetrable jungle, and the buttocks and breasts of the women; but he is completely ineffectual and naive, dependent on and manipulated by those around him.

My first impressions of this were really good; I enjoyed it for the characterisation and description, atmosphere, nuance. For me it didn’t sustain that level of excitement though to the end, but it was still a very good read.

» The photo, ‘Washday on the Niger’ is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence.