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.*

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I picked this up because it was around the house and I was looking for something to read, but it turns out the author is from Mexico, so I guess it’s my book from Mexico for the Read The World challenge.

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This is a very short novel — 67 pages — narrated by Tochtli*, the young son of a drug dealer. He lives entirely surrounded by adults — a maid, a cook, two armed guards and a tutor — all of whom indulge his eccentricities out of fear of his terrifying violent father. He has a collection of hats and a desire to own a pygmy hippopotamus to go with his father’s various exotic animals, including two tigers.† The story really is of a child’s mind being warped by his surroundings; by his father’s lessons about how to be macho, and above all to avoid being ‘a faggot’, by his conversations with his father about how many shots it would take a to kill a man in different parts of the body, and by the evidence of corruption and sex and violence around him.

So at the start, although it’s disturbing the way he parrots his father, he still seems rather innocent; by the end you are wondering if it’s already too late for him, if he’s damaged beyond repair.

Having this horrible situation told in a child’s voice is an effective and creepy device. It’s also genuinely funny in a dark grotesque way. I enjoyed it.

*‘Tochtli’ is the word for rabbit in Nahuatl, and all the Mexican characters have Nahuatl animal names; so the father is called Yolcaut, ‘rattlesnake’, and so on.

† Hippopotamus is, somewhat famously, now an invasive species in Colombia after some escaped from the ranch of the drug baron Pablo Escobar.

» The photo is of the original entrance to Pablo Escobar’s hacienda. The plane is a replica of the one Escobar used to carry his first shipment of cocaine to the US. The hacienda is now a theme park; you can see the entrance in the background. “Pórtico Hacienda Nápoles” by XalD – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush

This is a properly remarkable book. It is, as the subtitle explains, ‘The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea’. Lady Hyegyŏng* was married into the royal family; she married Sado, the Crown Prince, when they were both nine years old. Sado never became king — he was executed in 1762 at the age of 27 — but their son inherited the throne as King Chŏngjo. Remarkably, Hyegyŏng outlived him as well, and three of these four ‘memoirs’ were written after 1800, during the reign of her grandson King Sunjo.

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So she had a long and eventful life, and it makes for fascinating reading. It’s sometimes a little difficult keeping track of who’s who: there’s a large cast of characters, the court intrigues are confusing, and the family relationships are complicated by the fact that the kings and princes have children by multiple women; some wives, some consorts. And because I’m unused to Korean names they all sound a bit the same to me. But it has a list of characters and some family trees, which helped.

The other complication is that these are four separate memoirs which overlap with each other. So the first (‘The Memoir of 1795’) is closest to the modern idea of a memoir, starting with her childhood and covering most of her life, but it carefully avoids any details about the single most important event: the execution of Prince Sado. The execution of the crown Prince by his father is so politically charged that she only alludes to it in the vaguest terms. Then the memoirs of 1801 and 1802 are more directly political; public advocacy aimed at defending the reputation of her father and brothers, who had fallen out favour after the death of Chŏngjo. And in the Memoir of 1805, she finally returns to the story of Sado, explaining that 40 years of silence has allowed false versions of events to take hold, and she believes it is important to tell what really happened.

And the story of Prince Sado is extraordinary. I don’t want to give all the details; I’m sure I enjoyed this book more because I was surprised and shocked by it. But the central fact of his execution is this: he was suffering from some kind of mental illness, and it progressed to the point that he was thought to be a credible threat to the life of the king. But because he was royal, custom forbade any method of execution that would disfigure the body, and poison would have implied he was a criminal; so he was shut into a rice chest and left to starve to death.

As you might imagine, this event traumatised the entire royal family in various ways; hence it being taboo to talk about it for four decades after it happened.

But although it was an extreme example, it also gives a hint of the brutality of court life. There are an awful lot of people who get banished to remote islands, or tortured or executed; usually for saying something which is perceived to be disloyal. That ‘disloyalty’, at least at this cultural distance, often seems to be based on terrifyingly slight nuances of speech.

So I found it fascinating as a portrayal of a time and place, and the whole story is positively Shakespearean.† But it is also much more readable than you might expect. If you skipped the two middle memoirs it would be a positive page-turner; not that they aren’t interesting, but they are harder work.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng is my book from South Korea for the Read The World challenge. I’d still like to read some contemporary Korean fiction, it seems like a really interesting country at the moment. But this caught my eye, and I’m glad I read it. It’s fascinating.

*Or Hyegyeong, in the newer Revised Romanization which is the official standard since 2000 (this is all according to Wikipedia, obviously). Similarly, Chŏngjo = Jeongjo, etc. The book was published in 1985, so it uses the older McCune–Reischauer system. 

†Genuinely, it was reading books like this, whether about historical kings or modern dictators, that helped me see Shakespeare’s plays in a new light; I always read them as psychological studies, family dramas that just happen to be set against a more glamorous background. But life in the court of an absolute ruler, like Stalin or King Yǒngjo or Elizabeth I, is really not a normal family situation. Unfortunately I only arrived at this insight after I finished studying Shakespeare at university.

» The portrait is of King Yǒngjo, Prince Sado’s father. I took it from Wikipedia.

The Epic of Askia Mohammed by Nouhou Malio, trans. Thomas A. Hale

This is an interesting one: a piece of oral poetry, transcribed from a performance by a griot*, Nouhou Malio, in Niger. To quote the introduction:

The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounts the life of the most famous ruler of the Songhay empire, a man who reigned in Gao, an old city in present-day eastern Mali, from 1493 to 1528.

Although to be strictly accurate, it recounts the life of Askia Mohammed and some of his descendants. I was interested to learn that the events were recorded in contemporary written chronicles, so we have some sense of how the stories have changed over the centuries: the genealogies have been compressed a bit, and some historical events seem to have been conflated, but the people and events are clearly identifiable.

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The subject matter fits comfortably into what you might expect of epic poetry: kings, conquest, revenge, wrangling over succession. But of course it also has cultural specifics; for example, Askia Mohammed is remembered for spreading Islam in West Africa, and one of his notable achievements was a pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, some of the second half of the poem is the story of Amar Zoumbani, one of Askia Mohammed’s descendants, and his ambivalent social position as the son of a king and a slave woman.

It’s enjoyable as a story — if you skip over some genealogies of the Bob begat Fred begat Kevin variety — but it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable as a piece of literature. It seems to be fairly plain, direct storytelling; there’s some interesting use of repetition for emphasis, but otherwise the way the language is used seems straightforward; with the inevitable caveat that some amount has been lost in translation. Most notably, the original switched occasionally from Songhay to a version of Soninké used as an ‘occult language’ by Songhay griots, healers and sorcerers, a language which is apparently sufficiently obscure that many lines are just marked as ‘undecipherable’. There’s also some suggestion in the introduction that Malio switched between dialects of Songhay, though I may be misunderstanding; what effect any of this code-switching might have is left unclear.

I kind of feel I should be drawing comparisons with other oral/epic poetry: Greek, Haida, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, which is the only one I’ve actually studied. But nothing insightful is coming to mind, tbh.

Anyway. The Epic of Askia Mohammed is my book from Niger for the Read The World challenge.

* The local word in Niger is actually jeseré, apparently, but it’s the same kind of poet/storyteller/musician/historian role.

» The griot speaks is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence. It was taken in Guinea, but that will have to be close enough.

Kvachi by Mikheil Javakhishvili

The original title of this book was Kvachi Kvachantiradze; presumably the publisher of the English edition thought that was a bit intimidating. With names like Javakhishvili and Kvachantiradze, it is of course my book from Georgia for the Read The World challenge.

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It’s actually my second attempt for Georgia; I tried reading Avelum by Otar Chiladze, but didn’t finish it. I wondered at the time if it was a problem with the translation, but this had the same translator, Donald Rayfield, and was much more readable.

It’s a big fat novel — 523 pages; my heart sank slightly at the sight of it — but the blurb was promising:

This is, in brief, the story of a swindler, a Georgian Felix Krull, or perhaps a cynical Don Quixote, named Kvachi Kvachantiradze: womanizer, cheat, perpetrator of insurance fraud, bank-robber, associate of Rasputin, filmmaker, revolutionary, and pimp. Though originally denounced as pornographic, Kvachi’s tale is one of the great classics of twentieth-century Georgian literature — and a hilarious romp to boot.

And on the whole it lives up to that blurb. Obviously it’s not actually ‘hilarious’ — it is after all literary fiction — but I’ve long since learned that literary reviewers have very low standards for humour, and I know to make allowances. I would describe it as lively and entertaining.

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Kvachi is quite an appealing character just for his dynamism and inventiveness, but he is a complete shit: he makes his way in the world entirely by lying, cheating and stealing, and has no redeeming qualities. The narrative largely consists of one swindle after another and a sequence of seduced and betrayed women, which would be too repetitive to sustain a 500 page novel; what keeps it interesting is the regular changes of backdrop.

So he starts from a humble background in Georgia in the 1890s; works his way up, via university in Ukraine, to the highest circles of Russian society, and ingratiates himself with Rasputin; things get difficult, so he moves on to France; he returns to Russia in time for the Great War and the Russian Revolution; he initially works within the revolution but in due course flees back to the briefly independent Georgia; soon revolutionary politics catches up with him and eventually he flees again.

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The author, sadly, did not manage to escape Soviet politics himself. He was not sufficiently willing to keep to the party line, and was tortured and shot during Stalin’s Great Purge. It’s tempting in fact to see Stalin as a model for Kvachi; a Georgian, Ioseb Jugashvili, of humble origins, with intelligence and charisma but a complete ruthlessness, who worked his way to the top of Russian society.

But perhaps that’s a bit facile; there are no shortage of literary and historical models for a character like Kvachi. The blurb mentioned Felix Krull; you could think of Jonathan Wild or even Becky Sharp. A more recent parallel is Rácz from Peter Pišťanek’s brilliant (and genuinely funny) Rivers of Babylon.

» The photos are all from Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky’s amazing colour photographs of the Russian Empire in the 1910s, created using three separate black and white images, each taken with a colour filter, which can be recombined into a full colour image. You can find them at the Library of Congress website [woman, fish, bamboo]. I picked examples from Georgia, although the woman is stretching the point: she is in Armenian national dress and from a town which is now on the Turkish side of the border.

Stamping Grounds by Charlie Connelly

Full title: Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream. It’s Connelly’s account of following the Liechtenstein national soccer team during their qualification matches for the 2002 World Cup. After my previous book from Liechtenstein for the Read The World challenge turned out not to be from Liechtenstein at all, this one is at least about the country, even if it’s written by an Englishman.

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You can see why he thought it would be a good subject for a humorous football book; there is something fascinating about these tiny countries, fielding largely amateur teams that lose nearly every game they play and almost never score a goal. On the one hand, if you were an amateur playing your club football in the third tier of the Swiss league (Liechtenstein isn’t big enough to have its own league), it would be a terrific opportunity to play against some of the finest players in Europe in front of tens of thousands of people. But how do you cope, psychologically, with playing for a team that almost literally never wins a game?

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is that they adjust their expectations about what ‘success’ means. If they make their opponents work really hard to score, that’s a success; scoring themselves is a triumph. They didn’t in fact score in that campaign; their greatest moment in the book is losing only 0-2 to Spain at home. Which is admittedly impressive for a country with only 30,000 inhabitants, 10,000 of whom are foreigners who aren’t eligible for the national team.

In the end, though, the book was underwhelming. Liechtenstein just isn’t very interesting: it’s a tiny, mountainous country with an enviable standard of living, thanks to its healthy financial sector (i.e. it’s a tax haven); basically a microscopic Switzerland, without that country’s famous flamboyance. Connelly spends much of the book trying to work out what it means to be Liechtenstein, what distinct national character there is to separate it from Switzerland or Austria; it turns out there isn’t anything.

I think Connelly does a reasonable job with weak material; he gets chummy with some of the players, and interviews all the key members of the Liechtenstein FA, and tries to dig up a few local characters, but it feels a bit like squeezing blood from a stone.

» The photo is of a Scottish fan in Liechtenstein for their Euro 2012 qualifier. Tartan Cephalopod is © Robin Skibo-Birney and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Food In England by Dorothy Hartley

This is a magnificent book, written in 1953 by someone who learnt her cooking in English country kitchens in the days before widespread electricity and gas. It’s a combination of food history, recipes, general household advice, bits of personal memoir, opinion, and amusing or interesting quotes from old books.

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Apart from the obvious stuff — what sauces to serve with mutton*, regional ways to cook a ham, the difference between Welsh, Scottish and West Riding Oatcakes — there are chapters about beekeeping, brewing, butter churns, as well as the chapters about the history of English food: what they ate at medieval feasts, how they stored food for long sea voyages. It really does conjure up a whole lost world: not just because of the foods which have fallen out of favour, like mutton or parsnip wine, but because the recipes pre-date a whole raft of exotic ingredients like aubergine and yoghurt.

It is endlessly quotable, but here are a few random extracts:

Blending Plants For ‘Tea’

It was during the acute rationing period that all these ‘teas’ were used in England to adulterate the imported teas.

A serviceable English ‘tea’ may be made with blackthorn for bulk, and sage, lemon balm, woodruff (the plant), and black-currant leaves for flavour. Do not omit at least three out of the four flavouring herbs, but let some flavour predominate. Thus, if currant and sage predominate, the tea will somewhat favour Ceylon; if the lemon balm predominates, it will be a more China cup; if the ‘woodruff’, it will have the smoky aroma of Darjeeling.

Eggs And Apple Savoury Or ‘Marigold Eggs’ 

This is Worcestershire and Oxfordshire, and probably very old.

Line a shallow dish with thin short crust, butter the bottom, and cover it with thinly sliced apples, and set it to bake until the apples are just cooked. Make a custard mixture of eggs beaten in milk, season strongly with pepper, salt and thyme, a very little chopped sage, and a lot of marigold petals (the common yellow marigold). Pour this savoury custard over the cooked apples and return it to the oven to bake until set. I was told it was served with roast pork, like Yorkshire pudding is served with roast beef (the sage and apple indicate this), but the marigold is more usually a cheese condiment.

Sheep’s Trotters With Oatmeal

Sheep’s trotters are the ceremonial part of the Bolton Wanderers football team dinners. Only the heavy types of mountain sheep, such as the Pennine Range sheep, can make this dish well. (I don’t think a sparrow could make a meal off a Welsh trotter, but in the larger breeds of sheep, the trotters are almost as meaty as a pig’s).

And I thought this was an appealing juxtaposition of headings:

Recipe Used for Whitewashing the White House at Washington

[…]

Whitewash as Made for an Anglesey Cottage

It’s a genuinely fascinating book both as history and gastronomy.

* Redcurrant jelly for valley breeds; barberry jelly for upland breeds; rowan jelly for Welsh and mountain mutton. ‘With the dull winter mutton of the garden lands, hot onion sauce is very comforting.’ Hot laver sauce (seaweed) and samphire with salt-marsh mutton. ‘Caper sauce is served with any of the sturdier types of garden mutton. In default of the imported caper, pickled nasturtium seeds are very good.’ 

Nora by Ferdinande von Brackel, translated by Princess Marie of Liechtenstein

This was supposed to be my book from Liechtenstein for the Read The World challenge. It was listed as Nora: A Novel from the German by Marie, Princess of Liechtenstein. All the companies selling it are ones that do ‘reproduction’ copies of scanned out-of-copyright books, complete with slight scanning errors and blemishes; which is a useful service, but the metadata tends to be a bit sketchy.

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I did some googling, but couldn’t find any information about the book. But when sitting down to write this post I had one more go. And I discovered I had read a 360 page novel that was only translated by a Princess of Liechtenstein; and that the reason her English was so excellent was that her maiden name was Mary Fox. She actually sounds like an interesting character; she was a foundling adopted by Henry Fox, 4th Baron Holland who met Prince Louis of Liechtenstein in Naples. The Princely Family of Liechtenstein ‘initially refused to approve the marriage’.

Meanwhile the actual author is Ferdinande von Brackel, who doesn’t have much presence on the anglophone internet; her German Wikipedia page, via Google Translate, tells me:

The contemporary literary criticism she judged as the most talented and most important of the Catholic authors, whose creations […] at the best achievements of female literacy at all included (Hinrichsen, 1891). [5] As a writer with a strong interest in social questions, it published first During the war years 1864, 1866 and 1870 prussia friendly minded time poems.

So my novel from Liechtenstein is a novel from Germany, translated by a writer born in France and raised in London. All of which is slightly annoying — I wish I’d managed the detective work before reading it — but thankfully I rather enjoyed it. It’s a sentimental melodrama about a pair of star-crossed lovers, and it’s very dated — snobby, silly, and occasionally offensively anti-semitic — but I like a bit of soapy melodrama from time to time.

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The lovers are a young German count and Nora, the daughter of a circus-rider. So that’s the social divide; but obviously that’s a bit radical, so her father is from a French noble family, has gentlemanly airs, and is very wealthy, as proprietor of the circus. And her genteel mother asks on her deathbed that Nora should be sent to be educated at the most exclusive convent school in Belgium.

And Nora, despite the stain of her background, is an absolute paragon of piety and decorum. She’s such a paragon that you might think the message of the book was: character is more important than earthly status, and that ancient names and noble titles are petty baubles next to a pure heart. But actually, even though most of the noble characters are fairly unpleasant, we’re left in no doubt that social class is Very Important. And while the nobles might be unsympathetic, the circus folk are positively subhuman with their vulgarity of taste and mind and morals.

It’s a lot of twaddle, really.

I was interested to learn some of Marie Fox’s biography though: as a Catholic foundling brought up in an aristocratic household whose marriage to a Prince is opposed by her husband’s family, you can see why she might see parallels to her own life in the story of a circus-rider’s daughter educated in a convent whose engagement to a German count is opposed by his family, and why she would like the idea that upbringing can triumph over humble origins.

Anyway, I will provisionally count it for the moment as my book from Liechtenstein, even though it’s a bit of a cheat. I mean I could spend twenty quid to read Prince Hans-Adams II’s thoughts on the place of the nation state in the C21st century, or sixty quid for Sieglinde Gstöhl’s The Neighbours of the European Union’s Neighbours, but I’m not enthused. Perhaps I’ll just read a jokey outsider’s book about Liechtenstein’s football team and call it a day.

» The poster is from this V&A article about Astley’s Amphitheatre.

The Wanderer by Jane Holland

This, according to the blurb, is a ‘controversial reworking’ of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name*. ‘Controversial’ and ‘famous’ are both relative terms here, of course.

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I assume the controversy mainly arose because the poem is given a female narrator. To quote the introduction:

I also transformed the male ‘Wanderer’ of the poem’s title into a female figure and focused on that narrator alone, even though the original poem seems occasionally to suggest two distinct speakers. (A point on which some academics disagree.) This rather drastic change was made for two reasons. Firstly, the traditional male-male relationship of the lord and his faithful retainer takes on a strongly homoerotic charge when read with a modern sensibility and, writing as a female poet, this posited relationship lacked authenticity in my early drafts. Secondly, I originally undertook this translation to provide a centrepiece to my third poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, which is itself themed around the concept of a lone female traveller.

I think the change works well. The themes of exile and loss take on a slightly different flavour but work just as well with a female narrator. It makes it a different poem, but it’s not as radical a change as you might imagine.

There are two other notable tweaks to the poem. The first is to strip out the Christian imagery. Holland reads The Wanderer as an essentially secular poem with ‘artificially imposed religious overtones’, which is certainly an entirely plausible reading; others have found it to be deeply infused with a Christian sensibility.

The third change, which I thought was perhaps more striking than either of those, was the inclusion of a few modern references. Not that many of them, but for example in the description of men lost in battle, she writes [every other line is supposed to be indented]:

Some fell there in the line of duty,
caught off-guard in the crossfire; others
were blasted to bits at the roadside
or picked off by snipers

The Wanderer deals with that essential Anglo-Saxon theme of a world in decline, and living among the evidence former glory. Taking that idea and setting it in a modern world gives the poem a remarkable post-apocalyptic feel. I’d never made that connection before, between Anglo-Saxon poetry and, say, Mad Max; but actually it’s surprisingly apt.

Anyway, I’m generally in favour of people doing interesting reinterpretations of the classics, and I think this is completely successful. It does bring something new, but it also captures the gloomy beauty of the original.

* My awful pedantic soul (it’s a terrible affliction) requires me to point out: I’m pretty sure the title is a modern addition, like all the titles we give Anglo-Saxon poems.

» The photo is Flying in the same direction, © Susanne Nilsson and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Exotic Territory: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Paraguayan Poetry, ed. & trans. Ronald Haladyna

This is my book from Paraguay for the Read The World challenge. I previously bought a copy of I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, but that’s a fat dense modernist novel and it defeated me.

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I always find it frustrating reading poetry in translation. I mean, even with English-language poetry I often find myself uncertain, not knowing what to think; with translations you get the added bonus that you know that something will be missing, but you never know what.

And with a selection of different poets but only one translator, there’s the added worry that the influence of the translator will make them all sound alike.

In other words: nothing here grabbed me the way that poetry sometimes can. But there were certainly things to enjoy. And in fact I’ve been enjoying dipping in and out for this post more than I did on the first read-through.

Much of the poetry is political; Paraguay has been under some variety of dictatorship for most of its history, most notably under Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-89, and there are poems about repression and violence; here’s a short one about Stroessner, by Jacobo Rauskin:

Alfredo Ages

The effigy sustained
by a thousand standard bearers
loses its force and colour.

The years attenuate
the militant rictus
and the great bully
looks old in the sun.

But there is poetry on a variety of themes, including the usuals: poetry, love, death, nature. Rain seems to be a recurrent image. Here’s one by Joaquín Morales, picked semi-randomly because I quite like it and it’s short enough to type out:

Still Life, 1

It’s not the partridges with their eyes
probably bursting out,
nor the bouquet of their legs
mingled with aromatic herbs;
nor the clay vase
that clearly shows
the prints of the fingers that molded it;
not even the dark,
irregular boards of the table,
whose veins and nodules still retain
the aroma of the forest:

not the old theme of appearance and reality,
nor the one of time briefly detained in brush strokes
that memory vivifies and recomposes:

perhaps — though certainty is almost impossible —
perhaps it’s the complete apprehension
of a yellow reflection in a small dark beak.

A bit of a mixed bag, then, which perhaps is what anthologies should be; but certainly quite a lot of things I liked.

» I got the photo from Flickr; it shows the confluence of the Río Paraguay and the Río Paraná. The two rivers mark the border between Argentina (to the south and west) and Paraguay. So the photo is mostly Argentina; but it’s a nice image. It is © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and used under a CC-by licence (although actually I think NASA photos are in the public domain automatically?).

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in Search of Happiness by Amadou Ndiaye

This is my book from Mauritania for the Read The World challenge. It tells the story of Baba, a teenager who risks his life in a crowded refugee boat to start a new life in Spain.

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A geographical aside: the book kept talking about taking a small boat from Mauritania to Spain, which seemed staggering. It eventually became clear that the boats from Mauritania go to the Canary Islands rather than the Spanish mainland: a still-terrifying 500 miles across the Atlantic rather than the 1300 miles I was imagining.

It’s a self-published novel by a Mauritanian student who studied in the US on a Fulbright scholarship. According to the blurb, ‘Amadou is one of the first students from his country to write a fiction novel’. And I hate to be negative about a first novel written in the author’s second language*, but it’s not a good advertisement for self-publishing.

It’s badly in need of a copy-editor, which is mildly annoying but forgivable. More importantly, it’s not well-written.The dialogue, characterisation, plotting… it’s all just clumsy and obvious. Which is a great pity, because this is exactly the kind of subject that is badly underrepresented in fiction; if someone could write a really good novel about the experiences of illegal African immigrants to Europe, I would be thrilled to read it.

I don’t know if Ndiaye would have done better for his first novel to have written about the experiences of a Mauritanian student studying in the Appalachians, which would also be a potentially interesting subject, I would think.

Anyway, despite its weaknesses, I’m glad this book exists; the boom in self-publishing is really helping me with reading around the world.

* Third? Fourth? I’m guessing he would have one of the African languages, plus French and maybe some Arabic?

» The photo is © UNHCR/L.Boldrini.

The perfidious Kindle

In 2014 I read almost entirely genre fiction, and I blame the Kindle.

Not there’s anything wrong with genre fiction. When it’s well-written, it is the purest kind of reading pleasure; story-telling with no other purpose than to entertain.

It’s a bit like Hollywood blockbusters; a well-made blockbuster is in some ways the apotheosis of cinema. Brash, glossy, sensational entertainment may not be the most interesting or important thing that cinema can do, but it’s something cinema does uniquely well. All too often, though, I find myself sitting in the cinema watching silly, incoherent, predictable twaddle and promising myself that next time, I won’t be suckered in by the marketing, and I’ll go and see some the interesting Eastern European movie or the documentary instead.

Or the kind of junk food you think will be a self-indulgent treat, but you actually regret ordering even before you finish eating it.

And the Kindle just makes it too easy to keep buying more junk food. There’s always something heavily discounted; you can impulse buy and be reading in seconds; and the books don’t even clutter up your house.

And of course, there’s Amazon’s recommendations; they’re always telling you that if you liked X you might enjoy Y. But that doesn’t really work, for me. Because it’s the quality of the writing which matters more than the specific genre. And believe me, it doesn’t matter how much you like Georgette Heyer, other writers of historical romance are almost always disappointing. And just because you enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, it doesn’t mean you should keep buying random books that Amazon classifies as ‘Space Opera’.

So I’ve made a bit of a New Years resolution: more proper books.

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

This is the family history of three generations of Germans. The author’s grandparents were young during WWII; one grandfather fought in the French Resistance, the other seems to have been a lukewarm Fascist, but both ended up being inspired by the promise of the new socialist East Germany that was going to rise out of the ruins of the war. Then his parents grew up as products of the GDR, and he was a young man when the Berlin Wall came down.

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He’s got plenty of good material, and it’s well-written*, so if it sounds like the kind of thing you might like, you’ll probably like it.

* Apart from some slightly clunky tense shifts; he opens chapters in the past tense to establish the scene then switches to the present tense for the bulk of the text. Maybe it works better in German.

» The photo, ‘KULTUR, BERLIN GDR 1984’ is © phillygdr and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Almaty-Transit  by Dana Mazur

This is my book from Kazakhstan for the Read The World challenge, and it is, unusually, contemporary literary fiction (from 2010!). Which would be even more unusual if it had actually been translated from Kazakh or Russian, but it’s a novel in English by a Kazakh immigrant to the US. And the action moves between Los Angeles — where Aidar, a Kazakh man, lives with his American musician wife and son — and Almaty where his mother lives.

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[SPOILER ALERT, I guess; the event mentioned happens pretty early in the book, but if you don’t want to know the result, look away now]

The full title of the book is Almaty-Transit — A Ghost Story, and most of the action happens after the death of Aidar, when his spirit finds itself back home in Kazakhstan, but wanting to find some way to help his wife and child back in the States. It’s hard to give any more detail without getting even more spoilery, but I would say that for much of the book the supernatural part is handled well, and it seems like an extension of a character-driven narrative, rather than wacky stuff happening just to try and make the book more interesting. By the end, as the supernatural elements got more elaborate and more gothic fairy-tale in tone, I was starting to get a bit impatient with it, but it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me.

So, yeah, on the whole I enjoyed this, I thought it was well-written and the characters were engaging, even though the thing which is most distinctive about it — the supernatural side of the story — was in some ways the least appealing part, for me.

»The photo Almaty City is © Vladimir Yaitskiy and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Doña Bárbara by Rómulo Gallegos

An interesting fact about Rómulo Gallegos: he was the first democratically elected president of Venezuela, in 1948 (although only for a few months before losing power to a coup d’état). He was a writer before he was a politician; Doña Bárbara was published in 1929. It is, of course, my book from Venezuela for the Read The World challenge.

I didn’t choose it because the author was president of Venezuela. I was more attracted by the fact that it has been made into a movie twice and a telenovela three times. And that suggests a novel with a good story to tell.

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It is indeed a rollicking yarn, full of love, lust, jealousy, dancing, cattle rustling, chicanery, revenge, murder, sweeping landscapes, colourful birds, and manly men riding across the plains. The portrayal of women is slightly more problematic, in that there are only two major female characters, and one is pure, virginal, innocent, passive and ineffectual, while the other — the eponymous Doña Bàrbara — is manipulative, ruthless, corrupt, witchy, and uses sex as a weapon.

To be fair, Doña Bàrbara is a terrific character, a sort of cowboy Lady Macbeth. Or Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the witches rolled into one. And in best superhero fashion, she is given a backstory of childhood trauma to account for her villainy. It’s just the contrast with the young Marisela which implies a rather narrow role for what a good woman can be like.

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Despite Gallegos’s later career, this didn’t strike me as a particularly political novel in the same way as, for example, a lot of the post-colonial fiction I’ve been reading. Although you can see how it could be a part of a developing Venezuelan nationalism, because it is very much a novel about a place and a culture; the plains and the plainsmen who raise cattle there. I could see it forming part of a Venezuelan identity, rather as other cowboys did in the US.

However, the Wikipedia entry for Doña Bàrbara notes that ‘it was because of the book’s criticisms of the regime of longtime dictator Juan Vicente Gómez that [Gallegos] was forced to flee the country’. So I obviously missed some nuances. I guess the portrayal of political corruption — even though mainly at the local level in the book — is the kind of thing that dictators get annoyed by. They’re a notoriously thin-skinned bunch.

Anyway, I enjoyed it. And despite the tone of my comments, not just as a slightly melodramatic yarn — although that was enjoyable — but as a literary novel. It has an evocative sense of place, atmospheric set pieces, strong characters. Good stuff.

» I’ve actually been to the llanos of Venezuela; I was there looking for birds. ‘Scarlet Ibis | Corocoras rojas (Eudocimus ruber)’ is © Fernando Flores and used under a CC by-sa licence.

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