Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve had this on my to-read shelf for some time (the one in my bedroom, not the one on Goodreads), basically because I thought Housekeeping was a really magical book.

But I knew there was a long gap between the two — 24 years, apparently — so I didn’t quite know what to expect. And it is a rather different book; more conventional, really. Housekeeping is very descriptive, impressionistic, elusive; it’s a book where not much happens but it happens in a beautiful way. Gilead is more direct, not least because it’s told in character in the first person, and while it’s not exactly action-packed, it has a much more defined plot, with unexpected twists and things being revealed and everything.

I don’t want to exaggerate — it’s still a novel of nuances which works by the accumulation of impressions, and the narrator interweaves past and present, so it’s not a simple linear narrative — but it’s a less overtly poetic book. And I was less blown away by it. But I still think it’s a very fine novel. Most impressive, perhaps, apart from the general quality of the writing, is the characterisation of the narrator: it really does feel like a story told from the viewpoint of an individual, who seems to be an honest witness but whose perspective is partial. In both senses.

One measure of the quality of the writing is this: it is told from the perspective of a preacher, with a lot of religion woven through his telling of the story, and it left me feeling more sympathetic to the idea of a religious life than anything I’ve read for a long time. And sympathy for religion is not something that comes very naturally for me.

The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani

I heard about The Book of Khalid because last year was the centenary of its publication, and there was a burst of publicity to celebrate it as the first Arab-American novel. There’s a fuller biography of Rihani here, but here’s the snapshot version: Ameen Fares Rihani was born in Lebanon, but the family moved to New York for business when he was eleven. He moved back to Lebanon at 23 for health reasons [and later back to New York and back to Lebanon again] and he wrote books in both English and Arabic — The Book of Khalid being one of those written in English.

Obviously it occurred to me that I could read The Book of Khalid as my book from Lebanon for the Read The World challenge, and it’s out of copyright, so I downloaded the ebook from Project Gutenberg. But there are quite a few contemporary Lebanese writers available in English translation, and I was also considering those. So I didn’t get round to reading it until a few days ago when I was looking at my Kindle, wondering what to read, and thought I might as well give it a go.

And I have to say that I was immediately quite impressed; it struck me as more interesting and more modern than I was expecting.

It is the story of Khalid. He grows up as a muleteer in Baalbek in Lebanon, and raises enough money to move to New York; while living there he becomes an autodidact, reading literature and philosophy from second-hand books, and moving in various interesting New York circles; later he moves back to Lebanon and becomes a bit of a philosopher and political activist. Quite a lot of it is clearly somewhat autobiographical from Rihani: self-education in a basement in Brooklyn, and a period of asceticism in the mountains of Lebanon, for example.

The book is written in the voice of someone who has found an autobiographical manuscript written in Arabic by Khalid, but who is also working from another account written by Khalid’s friend Shakib. Large chunks of the novel are supposedly directly quoted from these manuscripts, but they are tied together by the unnamed ‘Editor’, who (i) is presumably responsible for the translation into English; (ii) tells quite a lot of the story as a third person narrative; and (iii) provides a certain amount of running commentary, which is frequently sceptical or at least slightly sardonic.

So you have Rihani writing the ‘autobiography’ of a character who is clearly a poorer, less sophisticated version of himself, with commentary provided by that character’s more conventional, earnest, slightly comical friend, and then commentary on both of them from a worldly and distinctly patronising Editor. You can see why I think it feels modern.

It also makes me unsure how to unpick the prose style. It is distinctly flowery by modern standards; this obviously reflects changing literary fashion, but I wasn’t sure whether it was also a stylistic device as part of the characterisation of the Editor. Some of the vocabulary in particular — umbrageous, stivy, nephelococcygia, propylon, steatopygous, edacious — makes it seem like a parody of a certain kind of writing. Or take these little passages. This is commentary from the Editor:

This leisure hour is the nipple of the soul. And fortunate they who are not artificially suckled, who know this hour no matter how brief, who get their nipple at the right time. If they do not, no pabulum ever after, will their indurated tissues assimilate. Do you wonder why the world is full of crusty souls? and why to them this infant hour, this suckling while, is so repugnant? But we must not intrude more of such remarks about mankind. Whether rightly suckled or not, we manage to live; but whether we do so marmot-like or Maronite-like, is not the question here to be considered.

‘If they do not, no pabulum ever after, will their indurated tissues assimilate’ is a particularly magnificently baroque sentence. This is a bit from Khalid himself:

“Here, where my forebears deliquesced in sensuality, devotion, and grief, where the ardency of the women of Byblus flamed on the altar of Tammuz, on this knoll, whose trees and herbiage are fed perchance with their dust, I build my athafa (little kitchen), Arab-like, and cook my noonday meal. On the three stones, forming two right angles, I place my skillet, kindle under it a fire, pour into it a little sweet oil, and fry the few eggs I purchased in the village. I abominate the idea of frying eggs in water as the Americans do.1 I had as lief fry them in vinegar or syrup, where neither olive oil nor goat-butter is obtainable. But to fry eggs in water? O the barbarity of it! Why not, my friend, take them boiled and drink a little hot water after them? This savours of originality, at least, and is just as insipid, if not more. Withal, they who boil cabbage, and heap it in a plate over a slice of corn-beef, and call it a dish, can break a few boiled eggs in a cup of hot water and call them fried. Be this as it may. The Americans will be solesistically simple even in their kitchen.

Now surely it’s an intentional bit of mock-heroic styling to counterpose the highflown stuff about ‘women of Byblus’ and ‘altar of Tammuz’ and the kvetching about American eggs. Especially since the passage is footnoted thus:

1. Khalid would speak here of poached eggs, we believe. And the Americans, to be fair, are not so totally ignorant of the art of frying. They have lard—much worse than water––in which they cook, or poach, or fry—but the change in the name does not change the taste. So, we let Khalid’s stricture on fried eggs and boiled cabbage stand.—Editor.

Apart from the tricksy book-within-a-book structure of it, the other modern echo is political. It is an account of a young Arab man visiting the West, becoming disenchanted with it, returning to Middle East and calling for a return to a purer, more spiritual form of Islam: he sees Wahhabism as the great hope, which slightly startled me. Not that Khalid shows any signs of becoming a terrorist or even, really, a religious extremist; but still, that parallel is there. Of course it’s a pattern which has repeated many times over the centuries: responding to a decadent society by calling for a purer form of Islam to come out of the desert.

The most striking coincidence comes when he is advocating the overthrow of the oppressors and says “It is the beginning of Arabia’s Spring” — even if in this case the oppressors are the Ottoman Empire rather than Mubarak or Gaddafi or American imperialism.

It’s an interesting book. I found it a little hard going in places — there are some long discussions of religio-politico-spiritual-cultural matters where the elaborate prose style really started to drag, and bits where the book loses forward momentum a bit — but there were also bits which were lively and clever and engaging. It was certainly worth reading.

» The watercolour of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek in Syria is by John Singer Sargent and is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the advertisement for the Bayrooty Troupe is from the New York Public Library.

Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal

Noli Me Tangere is described on the back cover as ‘The novel that sparked the Philippine revolution’. Which sounds a bit hyperbolic, but apparently the publication of the novel in 1887 was an important moment; even more so, Rizal’s subsequent execution for rebellion, sedition and conspiracy.

So it’s a political novel, an unusually early example of a colonial novel written from the perspective of the colonised. In this case, the main representatives of colonial power are from the church rather than the civil authorities. That’s not unique; religion has often been an important tool of empire and post-colonial novels are full of priests and nuns and, above all, church schools. But the Philippines does seem to have been an extreme case, where the religious institutions were more powerful than the civil authorities.

Which means that the book is peopled with villainous friars — cruel, vindictive, scheming, manipulative, hypocritical, lustful, oleaginous — and it reminded me of those early gothic novels which always seemed to have sinister, black-hearted monks in them.* Especially since it’s never shy of a bit of melodrama.

In fact, it’s a rather lumpy mixture of melodrama, satire and long, wordy political discussions, and I can’t say all of it held my attention equally. I liked it most when it was at its most exaggerated — ferociously satirical or floridly gothic — and I found it fell a bit flat when it aimed for genuine sentiment.

A mixed bag for me, then. Bits of it are genuinely brilliant, though. There’s a scene with gravediggers at work in a badly over-crowded cemetery which is wonderfully morbid, for example; and a grotesque portrayal of an ageing Filipina who is so determined to marry a Spaniard and be ‘Spanish’ herself that she marries a useless, feckless man whose only quality is that in the Philippines his nationality gives him an ersatz respectability, then insists on only speaking broken Spanish.

Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal, translated by Harold Augenbraum, is my book from the Philippines for the Read the World challenge.

* In my memory they do, anyway, although glancing through a few plot synopses on Wikipedia, they were just as likely to be sinister, black-hearted aristocrats. Perhaps I’m just thinking of The Monk.

» The memorial of the execution of José Rizal is in Rizal Park in Manila. Rizal is apparently a full-on national hero in the Philippines, so there were many statues to choose from, but this is the most dynamic; the most in keeping, perhaps with the tone of the book.  The photo is © Joshua Bousel and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

I’ve just read two books for the Read The World challenge; one of them, Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, represents the downside of the challenge. It was somewhat interesting, but to be honest, reading it felt like doing homework. And there have been quite a few books which were either boring or just embarrassingly bad. Overall, though, those have been balanced out by all the engaging, interesting books which I never would have read without the challenge.

And, just often enough to keep me going, there are books which are genuinely brilliant; The Ice Palace is one of those. It’s a novel about an eleven-year old girl, Siss, and those weirdly intense childhood friendships, and suspense, and uncertainty, and loss. And it unfolds over the period of one Norwegian winter, so it all takes place in a setting of ice and snow, of darkness and silence.

The most important thing to say about it is that it is a beautiful piece of writing; hats off to the translator, Elizabeth Rokkan, for making the English beautiful. The most obvious thing to pick out is the physical descriptions, of landscape and weather, but I also think the portrayal of Siss’s interactions with the world, and her tightly wound inner life, is nuanced and convincing.

I was saying the other day, in the context of Fernando Pessoa, that there is something of a divide among readers between those who care about prose and those who care about narrative. It’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s a useful one. I am generally reading for the prose, not the plot; but The Ice Palace strikes me as a wonderful example of the narrative working to enhance the pleasure I get from the prose.

Normally when we praise something as having a good plot, I think it suggests ingenuity and intricacy. But this has a very simple plot; by thriller-writer standards, it barely has a plot at all. But what it does have is a very effective narrative structure. The book revolves around one key event, fairly early in the story, which we know more about than the characters, and which creates a situation which needs to be resolved somehow. And that creates enough tension and uncertainty to drive the rest of the book, and means that the eventual resolution, when it comes, feels like an end-point, a closure.

» The photo, On a windy day 1, is © Randi Hausken and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Only Yesterday by S.Y. Agnon

S.Y. Agnon is apparently a key figure in Israeli literature, and Only Yesterday is very much a novel about Israel. But it is my book from Ukraine for the Read The World challenge.

My reasons for assigning the book to Ukraine were basically pragmatic — there wasn’t an alternative from Ukraine which sprang out at me, and I felt like reading something more contemporary for Israel — but it’s quite fitting anyway. It’s a novel about the early waves of modern Jewish settlers to Palestine at the start of the twentieth century, and although nearly all the action takes place in the Middle East, in many ways it’s a story of eastern and central Europe. The various characters are still as much identified with their homelands — Russia, Hungary, and so on — as they are with any nascent Israeli identity. In fact the book’s central character, Isaac, moves in an almost completely European world; the Arab population of Palestine is occasionally mentioned, but I can’t remember a single named Arab character. The few non-Jewish characters seem to be European Christians.

Neither Ukraine nor Israel existed as independent nations when this novel is set; Isaac is a Jew from Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who immigrates to what is then the British Mandate in 1908. It is obviously not a coincidence that S.Y. Agnon was also a Galician Jew who made the same move at the same date. The novel is clearly only autobiographical in a limited way, though, since Isaac is an unsophisticated working man rather than a bookish one.

This is the book I have been whinging about (1, 2) because of its sheer physical weight. And it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I do think I would have finished it quicker and perhaps enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been so unnecessarily bulky. But I still enjoyed it; it’s humane and even quite funny, as literary novels go.

The human story of Isaac held my attention; I did sometimes start to lose focus with some of the more detailed stuff about Zionism and so on. There are so many people and organisations who get mentioned: writers, politicians, theologians, Zionist charities, settler organisations, religious groups. There wasn’t too much of the book taken up by characters sitting around in cafés and having conversations about Zionism, but there was a bit, and I just got the feeling that generally in the novel there was a whole level of commentary and satire that I was missing because I didn’t have enough context. Which is unfortunate.

But even if I didn’t get all the nuances, I still thought that the ideological aspect was important to the novel. One of the striking things about it is the portrayal of people trying to create a new place from scratch. It’s not a utopian project precisely, but all these settlers have made the difficult and expensive journey from Europe to Israel because of some idea or idealism, whether political or religious, and that idea may or may not survive contact with the reality . At the very least, the reality is unlikely to be exactly what they expected.

One of my reasons for reading it was that I was interested in a book set during that early history of modern Israel. But it’s not a history book, and like all(?) good novels what makes it work is an interest in people, not in ideas. And it is a very good novel, and generally a readable and engaging one.

» The first photo is of a street scene in Jaffa in 1917. The second is Jerusalem in 1918. Both from the British Museum.

Open City by Teju Cole

I ordered this novel because I’d read and enjoyed various bits of Cole’s writing around the internet. I’ll keep this short because I’ve been getting pins and needles in my hands which I suspect is down to spending too much time typing, so I’m trying to rest them a bit.

So suffice to say it’s a delicately written, nuanced novel set mainly in New York which is about, among other things, migration and identity. I really liked it.

The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian by Francis Ebejer

The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian is my book from Malta for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel narrated by an old man called Lucian which begins with the return after decades of his childhood friend, the Baron. It is the story of their fractious relationship, and Lucian’s relationship with a woman called Katarina, cutting back and forth between the present and their youth.

It has quite a successful unreliable narrator thing going on — Lucian portrays himself as an upright, moral, dignified man in contrast to the Baron’s promiscuity and vulgarity, whereas we can see that he’s a pompous selfish prick, and that the Baron, despite a few flaws, is practically heroic in comparison.

Otherwise, though, it doesn’t have much going for it. The opening chapter has some prose which is so convoluted that it was practically incomprehensible, and I initially couldn’t tell whether this was supposed to be a way of characterising the narrator, some kind of advanced literary technique that I just wasn’t grokking, or just very badly written. In the end I decided it was a combination: Ebejer was trying to characterise Lucian as stuffy and self-important, but just wasn’t quite good enough to pull it off. The main narrative is more readable, most of the time, but it’s never any better than ordinary.

» Good Friday 2007 – Malta is © Antonio Caselli and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell

Ragamuffin is my book from Grenada for the Read The World challenge. It’s a science fiction novel about a universe where humans share space with various other species and can travel from world to world via wormholes. Some of them come from a world which was settled by people from the Caribbean, hence the title and a certain amount of West Indian-inflected dialogue.

It was quite entertaining, I guess; I’m not really much of an SF fan. I read a lot at one stage because my brother used to read them, but since we don’t live in the same house anymore, I’ve largely stopped. I think the most interesting thing about SF is when it’s used to explore ideas: so for example, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are in a sense a contribution to the Utopian tradition, and among other things, they raise the question of what human society would be like in a situation with limitless material wealth.

Ragamuffin is not really a novel of ideas in that way; it’s inventive enough, but it’s inventive within the standard tropes of science fiction. In a way this kind of space opera is really futuristic fantasy; swords and sorcery, with bionic implants taking the place of magical powers. I always thought it was interesting, incidentally, that two of the most popular works of C20th narrative, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, have such a medieval shape to them. But maybe that’s too much of a detour for this post.

Anyway, sub-genres of SF aside, what really makes the difference between good novels and bad ones is not the genre, it’s always the quality of the writing. Which in this book was perfectly reasonable but nothing remarkable. Even though it’s not the kind of book I usually read, I picked it up thinking it might be a bit of treat to read some escapist fiction. But it never really grabbed me.

» The Aztec figurine of Mictlantecuhtli is from the British Museum. As well as the Caribbean theme in the novel, there’s an Aztec-inspired culture, weirdly enough.

Shadows of your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo

As part of my ongoing quest to read a book from every country, I picked up Shadows of your Black Memory as a book from Equatorial Guinea. It is a childhood/coming of age novel that sets up the conflict between traditional and western cultures: particularly in this case between traditional religion and Catholicism.

Which, at this point in the exercise, is not a description that fills me with excitement; because nearly all the literature of the post-colonial world seems to be about the conflict between tradition and western culture and/or modernity. Certainly the stuff which makes it into English translation. And it’s also pretty common to tell it as the story of a young person growing up caught between two worlds.

So I didn’t pick it up with much enthusiasm, but actually it’s a really good novel. It is simply very well written: vivid, fresh and engaging.

Here’s one of the Catholic bits:

When I was eight, I knew Father Claret’s catechism by heart, and my favourite book was his Straight and Sure Path to Heaven. The horror of eternal condemnation didn’t allow me to be a child. I didn’t go to the Wele River with Ba any more, I couldn’t learn how to make those bamboo toy cars that I loved so much even though cousin Asumu offered to teach me many times. I didn’t carve arrows to shoot at birds anymore, I didn’t go swimming in the Nganga River with my friend Otunga or my cousins Anton and Mbo. Even today I don’t know how to swim. I didn’t have a hunting dog, and I didn’t know how to make a cage for trapping fish. All this was for other children now, for the ones who weren’t fortunate enough to be touched by the grace of God. What’s the use of all that fun and idleness if in the end your soul is damned forever? Father Claret, the saintly one, asked me this as I read his book, and I had no choice; I had to acknowledge that the most important part of my life was my soul, and to be saved I had to avoid useless amusements, the silly games of my friends, my cousins, the brothers in my tribe. It was shortly before I was nine when I got into the habit of saying Mass from a little altar I made for myself in my room in front of the crucifix Father Ortiz had given me and under the religious things I had on the wall: the Eye-of-God triangle and some prints that were brought to me by my father’s white friends; the Little Prayer Book served as missal. Alone in my room, when no one was looking, when my little brothers succumbed to the midday sun, I got all dressed up in a bed sheet and pretended it was a priest’s chasuble and started to say Mass, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spritus Sancti, and I made the sign of the cross: I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God and the Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, Saint Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, and to Apostles Peter and Paul and all the saints, and I beat my little breast in contrition, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and I almost forgot the kyrie eleison kyrie eleison Christe eleison Christe eleison, then the intraito, oremus, and I turned my head ceremoniously; then in silent fervor I genuflected, gloria in excelsis Deo, and I recited it all without knowing what I said in a Latin I learned from listening to Father Ortiz so much.

So, yup, I really enjoyed this one. Well worth picking up. I’d be quite interested in reading the sequel if it was available in English. And I often forget to mention translators, but credit is certainly due in this case, so: the translation is by Michael Ugarte.

» The photo is of a Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri) in the Brooklyn Museum. It is actually from Gabon rather than Equatorial Guinea, but it’s the right ethnic group (Fang).

Warrior King by Sahle Sellassie

Warrior King is one of several books in English by Sahle Sellassie, all now apparently out of print. It wasn’t easy to find much information about them so I just went for the one which was available cheapest second-hand.

It is a historical novel, telling the story of the rise of Kassa Hailu, who starts as an outlaw but eventually conquers the whole of Ethiopia and establishes himself as Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.

The obvious comparison for me is with the brilliant Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, also a historical novel about the rise of an African emperor. Mofolo captured something of the brutality and darkness inherent in a man’s rise to power through conquest, and the novel has a real literary heft to it.

Warrior King is a much less interesting book. It’s not a complete whitewashing of history — Kassa Hailu is presented as a ruthless figure, even if he is rebelling against an even more brutal regime. If anything, though, it just doesn’t see that interested in engaging with the morality of it, or the psychology. It reminds me of the kind of history books parodied by 1066 And All That: history as a sequence of memorable anecdotes strung together into a basic narrative. It’s certainly not very interesting as literature, but it’s not really very interesting as history either; their just isn’t enough context or detail to make it come to life. There’s surely enough material in the rise of Tewodros II to make either a really interesting history book or a rattling good yarn. This is neither.

Warrior King is my book from Ethiopia for the Read The World challenge.

» The shield decorated with filigree and a lion’s mane is the royal shield of Tewodros II which, like quite a lot of his stuff, ended up in the British Museum.

The Hooligan Nights by Clarence Rook

Interesting one, this. Lee Jackson of victorianlondon.org decided to use some of his archive of digitised Victoriana to raise a bit of money to help support the site and put this for sale as a Kindle book for the minimum price of 86p. So I thought I’d give it a try.

Rook was apparently a Victorian journalist and this book claims to be a true account of his conversations with a young Lambeth criminal called Alf — a ‘hooligan’ when that word was new. It is what you might expect from a journalist writing about a colourful lowlife for a popular audience; that sensationalism makes it a genuine page-turner, but it comes with the usual scepticism about writers who seem more interested in a good story than accuracy. It seems pretty safe to say that it’s not actually ‘true’; it’s harder to judge whether it’s a realistic portrayal of that way of life.

However, read as a novel, it’s entertaining stuff. Alf is a classic anti-hero, charismatic and largely amoral, displayed for the prurient pleasure of the reader. It must have been fairly racy stuff in 1899; sex is only really hinted at with references to the number of Alf’s romantic entanglements, but there’s a plentiful supply of violence, crime, colourful slang and a general lively seediness.

It’s also fun for me personally that it’s all south London: the action all takes place in Clapham, Vauxhall, Elephant and Castle, Peckham Rye. The centre of this particular universe is Lambeth Walk, which was then a street market and is presented as a place where all human life is present — his descriptions of it read like a tourist visiting a middle eastern souk. The road called Lambeth Walk is still there, but the market is gone, and judging by Google street view, what is left is a very quiet and undistinguished local street. You can still see the Victorian buildings along one side, but thanks to some combination of the Luftwaffe and Lambeth planning department, the other side of the road is all large housing developments and so the feel of the street is quite gone.

It’s odd to think about how some of these places have changed. I was surprised to learn once that earlier in the C19th the roughest, most dangerous ghetto in London, where the police would only go in groups, was… Seven Dials. Which is now part of the overflow of Covent Garden, mainly consisting of quirky little fashion outlets, cafes and the like.

Anyway, at this point I’m just rambling. So I will stop.

» The image, from the British Library, is only loosely relevant, but I chose it in honour of a greengrocer I used to see from the 37 bus somewhere between Brixton and Clapham. It had a nice, swirly hand-painted sign saying ‘Mr Cheap Potatoe’. It used to cheer me up every time I saw it; sadly it doesn’t exist any more.

The King of Kahel by Tierno Monénembo

The King of Kahel is my book from Guinea for the Read The World challenge. It is the first book printed by AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s own publishing imprint specialising in translated literature. They say ‘AmazonCrossing uses customer feedback and other data from Amazon sites to identify exceptional works that deserve a wider, global audience.’ So this book was presumably picked up because it was a big hit in French.

It’s rather unusual among all the post-colonial literature I’ve read for the Read The World challenge, because the hero is a European colonialist. Specifically, it’s about Olivier de Sanderval, a real person, a man from a wealthy family of provincial French industrialists who did some exploring in what is now Guinea and wanted to set himself up as an African king.

And he’s not just the hero in the narrow sense of being the central character; it is very much his story and he is presented as a sympathetic character.

It’s always interesting to have your expectations confounded, if only because it reveals what those expectations are. Because there’s nothing terribly radical about this novel. If it had been written by a white French novelist I wouldn’t have thought anything of it; Monénembo has lived in France for nearly 40 years; and yet I was in fact surprised.

That aside, this is an enjoyable if unexceptional literary novel. It is light and cheery in tone; the back cover claims that ‘Monénembo has created nothing short of a jovial Heart of Darkness‘, which is about as baffling a description as I’ve ever encountered. The book reads to me like a playful re-imagining of history, so I assumed it was only based lightly on the historical Sanderval. Apparently, though, Monénembo did a lot of research and had access to the Sanderval family archives, so there may be more history in it than I realised… perhaps if I’d realised that I would have enjoyed it more. Or maybe I’d rather have read a straight biography.

As an example the book being unexpectedly accurate, Google found me these pictures: the two sides of a real coin produced by the real Olivier de Sanderval to serve as currency for his kingdom of Kahel. The Arabic script reads ‘Sanderval’. Which is sort of amazing, actually.

Reading on my phone

Life of Pi by Yann Martel was a free download from Apple as part of a Christmas promotion, and as such it’s the first full-length novel I have read on my iPhone. I’m almost as interested in the reading experience as the book itself.

The major conclusion is that the experience is at least good enough. The high-resolution display of the iPhone 4 makes a difference, I think, not least because you can set the type size as small as your eyesight can stand without compromising the readability.

Perhaps it’s not as immersive as a book; I find I need quiet to read these days more than I used to, but it’s especially true with the iPhone, I think, that I need good reading conditions to concentrate. I noticed a slightly increased tendency to find myself skipping a bit, a slight tendency to anticipate the end of the ‘page’ and go ahead without fully processing the last few words. It may be that I do that anyway, but that it’s more obvious when the pages are shorter. I think a bigger screen would be better as a reading experience, but it’s a great advantage not having to carry an extra device; the phone is ideal for snatching a few minutes of reading during the day.

As for the novel itself: I enjoyed it, but I can see why some people find it quite annoying. It is very high-concept and I don’t know that its cleverness manages to avoid being glib.

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

This Earth of Mankind is the first novel of the Buru Quartet, so called because it was composed when Pramoedya Ananta Toer was a political prisoner on Buru Island in the 60s. I say ‘composed’ rather than ‘written’ because the first version of it was told orally to his fellow prisoners. He had apparently just about finished the research and planning when he was arrested and all his notes and books were destroyed.

Which is an immediately intriguing back-story, although the relationship between the novel and his imprisonment is not particularly direct, in that Pramoedya was imprisoned by Suharto’s military dictatorship as part of an anti-Communist purge, whereas the novel is set at the very end of the C19th — 1898, in fact — in a Java which is part of the Dutch East Indies.

Still, it is, among other things, a clearly political novel; it deals with the political awakening of a young man growing up in a society structured as a formal racial hierarchy, with ‘Natives’ at the bottom, ‘Pures’ (i.e. Europeans) at the top, and a layer of ‘Indos’ (Indo-European, mixed race) stuck in the middle, operating as a local elite.

The hero of the novel is a Native, but an unusually privileged one; because of the importance of his family, he is the only Native* at an elite high school for Europeans and Indos. So he’s awkwardly positioned in between worlds, brought up to believe that his European education makes him better than other Natives. But of course when he comes into conflict with the establishment, he discovers how fragile his privilege is, and how much he is dependent on the goodwill of the colonial powers.

I enjoyed it; it reminded me rather of one of those European novels from between the world wars, with a whiff of melodrama, and characters having long wordy conversations about ideas. Slightly old-fashioned, but in a good way. I’m certainly tempted to pick up the second in the quartet.

This Earth of Mankind is my book from Indonesia for the Read The World challenge.

* it feels very weird to keep capitalising ‘Native’ like that, but I’m following the practice of the novel, or the translation, which capitalises the racial terms to emphasise their formal legal status.

» The photo, by Isidore van Kinsbergen, is from Wikimedia, and according to Google Translate, it is Raden Mas Kotar of the court of Sultan Hamengkoe Buwono VI of Djogkakarta. it’s from 1870, so it’s about 30 years too early, but hey-ho.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Cities of Salt is a novel about an unnamed Middle-Eastern country where desert tribesmen have their lives disrupted by the arrival of the oil industry. Think Saudi Arabia.

It’s 600 pages long and it’s only the first book in a quintet, so this is storytelling on a grand scale; I have to say I’m seriously impressed by it, and considering buying the next one.

There are two things which I think are particularly clever about the way it’s written. The first is that it has a large cast of characters while still feeling like a cohesive narrative. So you get a chapter or two about one person, and then the focus moves to someone else and the first character fades into the background, then after another couple of chapters you move onto a third person; and over the course of the book the cast of characters changes completely. in that way it’s very much the story of a place rather than a person. But it manages to do it in a way which feels very organic; it doesn’t read like a collection of separate stories.

The other thing I like is that even though the story is about the arrival of the (American) oil industry, it is told completely from the perspective of the Arab characters. So even though it is the Americans who are driving events much of the time, by digging wells and building roads and employing the locals, they are peripheral figures in the narrative. They just happen in the background, like the weather, and we only see them in glimpses. They are always behind the fence.

I guess that’s not unusual in post-colonial fiction, but it’s particularly effective here. Not that Saudi Arabia is actually a former colony, but it is similarly a country transformed by the arrival of outsiders. The initial encounter is on a small scale in a wadi in the desert, and the reaction is total bafflement; as the novel moves on, the scope opens out and the relationship between the two worlds becomes more complex and messier.

As soon as the camp was erected, the men paced off the area, put up wire fencing and short white pickets, scattered some strange substance around the tents and sprayed the earth with water that had a penetrating smell. Then they opened up their crates and unloaded large pieces of black iron, and before long a sound like rolling thunder surged out of this machine, frightening men, animals and birds. After several minutes of the rumbling, one of the Americans raised his hand and signalled to another, who extinguished the sound, but it was a long time before it stopped ringing in the ears.

When that was over, as fast as a magic trick, the people still watched everything that went on in silence and fear. When the sun began to sink in the west, it seemed that Wadi al-Uyoun was about to experience a night such as it had never known before. As soon as the animals began to bark and bray at sunset, the machine began to roar again, frightening everyone, only this time the sound was accompanied by a blinding light. Within moments scores of small but brilliant suns began to blaze, filling the whole area with a light that no one could believe or stand. The men and boys retreated and looked at the lights again to make sure they still saw them, and they looked at each other in terror. The animals who drew near retreated in fright; the camels fled, and the sheep stirred uneasily. Miteb stood not far from the place and spoke loudly enough to command attention over the fear and the machine’s noise. “Go back, people of Wadi al-Uyoun! If you don’t go back you’ll get burned and there’ll be nothing left of you.”

This marvellous incident, so crystal clear and yet impossible to believe at first, became with time a routine affair, for the men who for a certain period kept silent and watched everything in fear mixed with anticipation were soon used to it. Ibn Rashed went forward and asked Ghorab to explain how the lights and sound were produced, but in spite of a long and detailed explanation no one understood anything.

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif*, translated by Peter Theroux, is my book from Jordan for the Read The World challenge.

* or, according to Wikipedia, Abdul Rahman Munif; or using the Library of Congress system, ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Munīf. And just for the sake of completeness: عبد الرحمن منيف‎.

Apparently ‘Abdul’ is not actually a stand-alone name at allʻAbd al– means ‘servant of the’ and is part of a longer name: so Abdul Rahman means ‘Servant of the Benevolent’, Abdul Aziz is ‘Servant of the Almighty’,  and so on. Given how many names for God there are in Islam, there are loads of possible variants. So that’s something I’ve learnt today.

» At the camel market in Riyadh is © Charles Roffey and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Kartography by Kamila Shamsie

Kartography is my book from Pakistan for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel set in Karachi in the 90s with flashbacks to the 70s and particularly the 1971 civil war when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Raheen and Karim have a tangled relationship which parallels, and is haunted by, the tangled relationships of their parents twenty years earlier. It’s a love story, a family saga, a book about ethnic and class tensions in Pakistan.

Given that the Read The World challenge has lead me to some pretty obscure and unusual books, it was a nice change of speed to be reading some mainstream literary fiction that was actually written in English. But I wasn’t blown away by this one. I was quite pleased with it when I first picked it up: Shamsie can certainly write, and it’s well observed and lively… but after a while it started to annoy me slightly. The dramatic contrivances are just a bit too contrived and a bit too relentless: every page has to ratchet up the emotional tension, so there’s a constant stream of twists and misunderstanding and surprises. There’s never a lull or a pause; it’s a bit soap-operaish in its piling up of plot devices.

So I didn’t hate it, but I probably could have found a better book for a country like Pakistan. Quite possibly I would have enjoyed one of Shamsie’s other books more, for that matter. But there you go; win some lose some.

» How fast you want to go? is © Edge of Space and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Redemption Road by Elma Shaw

Redemption Road is a novel about people dealing with the aftermath of civil war in Liberia.

I’ll keep this fairly short because I don’t really enjoy being nasty about books, and this is unfortunately a quite badly written novel. It is full heavy-handed exposition — it has a particularly irritating way of carefully spelling everything out as though readers are a fundamentally unreliable bunch who cannot be trusted to work out anything for themselves. And it’s full of clichés; often the clichés of the romance novel or the crime thriller, which seem particularly clumsy in a book which is painstakingly working through a list of Important Social Issues.

It is so obviously well-meaning that I feel a bit guilty giving it a kicking, but this seems like a novel written as a social project rather than a work of literature.

Redemption Road is my book from Liberia for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo GOL, was uploaded to Flickr by and is © acqui_photography. He gives it this caption: ‘June 23, 2003, Monrovia, Liberia. The Government of Liberia prepares for War War II.’

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong

Paradise of the Blind is a Vietnamese novel which was apparently a bestseller in 1988 when it was originally published, in a relatively liberal moment in that country’s recent politics, but has since been banned for Duong’s unflattering portrayal of the Communist party. I’m embarrassed to admit, I had no idea that Vietnam was still a communist state. In fact, most of my associations with Vietnam are, now I think about it, drawn entirely from American war movies. So if nothing else, this book has done a little to redress that balance.

It is told mainly in flashback; Hang, a young Vietnamese woman working in a textile factory in the Soviet Union as an ‘exported worker’, is travelling across Russia on the train to visit her uncle in Moscow and remembering her childhood. Her family has been torn apart by communist land reforms, or more precisely by a feud resulting from her uncle’s behaviour as a party official during those reforms.

I’ve mentioned before that I find these novels from communist countries weirdly nostalgic. It’s not nostalgia for communism itself, which I didn’t experience. But all the imagery of communism, the breadlines, dysfunctional communal living, petty bureaucracy, the political jargon, the dangerous black market consumer goods, it all reminds me of my childhood, when the USSR was still the Great Other, and when all these images were a lively strand of popular culture.  It seems a little odd to lump communism in with Smash Hits and The Karate Kid, but that’s the way my head works.

My own quirks aside, it’s a striking and interesting novel about family relationships, and Vietnamese culture, and above all, the way that an all-consuming, inhuman political system drags down the daily lives of its citizens, and capriciously interferes with the most modest, simple human ambitions: marriage, education, livelihood.

It’s not what you’d call a cheerful book. But I would broadly recommend it.

Paradise of the Blind is my book from Vietnam for the Read The World challenge.

NB. A couple of housekeeping notes. I always feel the translators deserve a mention, even if I have nothing in particular to say about the translation, so a hat tip to Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. And on the transliteration of Vietnamese names: Wikipedia renders the author’s name with a few more diacritics, as Dương Thu Hương. I decided to stick with the version used on the title page.

» The photo is © Rosino and used under a CC by-sa licence.

The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The Bleeding of the Stone is a Libyan novel about Asouf, a Bedouin man living a hermit-like existence out in the desert, herding goats and occasionally guiding foreigners to see the rock paintings on the walls of the wadis.

Asouf has a spiritual relationship with the desert and particularly with an animal called the waddan, the Barbary Sheep*, that lives in the mountains. Two hunters arrive who want him to find the waddan for them, and the book intercuts the story of their interaction and flashbacks to Asouf’s earlier life.

So it’s a book about deserts, and man’s relationship with nature, and spirituality and religion, and environmentalism, and the effects of solitude.

Apart from getting slightly confused by the order of events — careless reading on my part meant I thought something was a flashback when it wasn’t, which made the ending distinctly unexpected — I enjoyed this book a lot. I read it in the garden on an appropriately hot afternoon (hot by South London standards, admittedly, not by Libyan standards), and it was short enough to read pretty much at one sitting. It was atmospheric and rather moving. I think the reference on the back cover to Al-Koni being ‘a master of magical realism’ is a bit peculiar, but I’m willing to forgive it, because I have been guilty myself of describing any novel where anything slightly peculiar happens in a vaguely exotic country as ‘magical realism’.

The Bleeding of the Stone is my book from Libya for the Read The World challenge. And, incidentally, for the Arabic Summer Reading Challenge.

» The photo is Ägypten, posted to Flickr by and © ursulazrich.

* The book’s endnotes actually translate waddan as moufflon, but as far as I can gather from Wikipedia this is not strictly accurate; the mouflon is a different species of wild sheep found in Asia. Although the French for Barbary Sheep is mouflon à manchettes (sleeved mouflon, roughly), so it may be an error via French. Incidentally, in one of those classic ironies of environmentalism, the Barbary Sheep which is portrayed in this book as threatened by hunting and is indeed now rare in North Africa, has been introduced for the purposes of hunting to Spain where it is spreading and causing environmental damage.

Happy Bloomsday.

His heart astir he pushed in the door of the Burton restaurant. Stink gripped his trembling breath: pungent meatjuice, slop of greens. See the animals feed.

Men, men, men.

Perched on high stools by the bar, hats shoved back, at the tables calling for more bread no charge, swilling, wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food, their eyes bulging, wiping wetted moustaches. A pallid suetfaced young man polished his tumbler knife fork and spoon with his napkin. New set of microbes. A man with an infant’s saucestained napkin tucked round him shovelled gurgling soup down his gullet. A man spitting back on his plate: halfmasticated gristle: no teeth to chewchewchew it. Chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over. Sad booser’s eyes. Bitten off more than he can chew. Am I like that? See ourselves as others see us. Hungry man is an angry man. Working tooth and jaw. Don’t! O! A bone! That last pagan king of Ireland Cormac in the schoolpoem choked himself at Sletty southward of the Boyne. Wonder what he was eating. Something galoptious. Saint Patrick converted him to Christianity. Couldn’t swallow it all however.

— Roast beef and cabbage.

— One stew.

Smells of men. His gorge rose. Spaton sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men’s beery piss, the stale of ferment.

» photo of JJ is from the Réunion des musées nationaux.

The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ

The Fortunes of Wangrin is my book from Mali for the Read The World challenge.

It’s a novel — or at least it seems to be universally described as a novel, despite the fact that Hampaté Bâ says in the Afterword:

I don’t know why, even is spite of the specific assertions contained in the Foreword, some people continue to ask themselves whether this narrative is fiction, reality, or a clever mixture of both…

I’ll repeat once more, then, for anyone who might still be in doubt, that I heard everything related to the life of the hero, from the account of his birth (a story told by his parents), through the relationship with the animist world, the various predictions, and so forth, all the way to the downfall caused by commercial bankruptcy, from Wangrin himself, in a Bambara often poetic, full of verve, humour, and vigour, to the soft musical accompaniment of his griot Diele Maadi. To this very day I recall with emotion Wangrin’s voice against the background of a guitar.

[…] I rounded off the information already at my disposal by visiting everyone who had frequented him… I have made up no event or circumstances whatsoever. Every single story was told by the people in question or by someone in their circle, either griot, houseboy, or friend.

Which is interesting case. Because it does read like fiction, stylistically; I certainly read it that way and was surprised to learn that it wasn’t. It is told as a single coherent narrative with the kind of omniscient third person narrator normally associated with fiction. To use a television analogy, it is more like a dramatisation of real events than a documentary. And I don’t think it is like a biography in the standard sense, a work of history intended to establish the true events of a person’s life.

Rather, it is a work of oral history — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since Hampaté Bâ was an ethnologist and folklorist. It has the qualities of a good storyteller telling the story of their own life: not perhaps outright fabrication, but just enough massaging and selection and elision and exaggeration to turn the messiness of reality into something beautifully moulded and polished. It’s like a memoir told in the third person.

And Wangrin is certainly an interesting character; the son of a prominent family, he was sent to the colonial school to learn French and worked as an interpreter, which put him in position as the literal and symbolic intermediary between the French colonial administration and the native population, able to play off both sides against each other. Which he did, enriching himself in the process. So a bit of a crook, then, even if a likeable one.

His position between the French and the Africans makes this book a fascinating look into the functioning of colonial life; one of the more striking things for me was how thin the layer of bureaucracy seems to have been: a very small number of French administrators on their own out in the bush, in charge of a large population of people of various languages and religions with whom they share neither culture nor language. And that makes the interpreter a rather more important figure than the title suggests.

I certainly recommend the book. Like so many of these books in translation, it had a few too many endnotes for my taste, and the edition I read had some truly awful typography inflicted on it* — but I can hardly blame Hampaté Bâ for that.

* The front cover and the page headers are set in Lithos Bold, a typeface which is a typographic cliché for black/African literature, despite being based on Greek inscriptions, so that’s at the very least unimaginative; but worse, the chapter headings use a numeral in Lithos Bold and then a chapter heading and an ornamental initial in Papyrus, another typeface used to give a generic impression of the exotic, and a rather ugly one at that.

» The masks are from the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. I just found themby putting ‘Mali’ into the search engine, and thought they were particularly striking.

Treading Air by Jaan Kross

Treading Air is an Estonian novel which, to quote the blurb, ‘follows the life of Ullo Paerand through thirty years of violent upheaval in Estonia’. I’ve actually had it on my to-read list for some time, but to be honest I kept putting it off because the back cover made it sound a bit depressing. And while it’s perfectly reasonable that a book telling the story of Estonia over the twentieth century would be a little gloomy, I didn’t particularly fancy it.

I’m glad I finally read it, though; it’s a fine novel and not nearly as depressing as it could be, although partially because it chooses not to dwell on the bad stuff. In fact, it is mainly about Paerand’s life as a young man before the Soviet occupation, which is handled quite lightly and with a good deal of humour; the bulk of his adult life under the Soviet regime is skipped over in a few short chapters. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be symbolic of Estonia itself: a closing down of the possibilities of life, a kind of hibernation for the whole country.

Anyway, it’s a fine novel which deserves more attention than I am going to give it in this post. And it is my book from Estonia for the Read The World challenge.

» Tallin, Estonia – St. Olaf Church / Iglesia de San Olaf is © Claudio Alejandro Mufarrege and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Blue Bay Palace by Nathacha Appanah

Blue Bay Palace is my book from Mauritius for the Read The World challenge.

Looking over some of my old posts about books, I’ve noticed a tendency to bend over backwards to find nice things to say in an attempt to seem fair-minded, to the point that I re-read the reviews and think they are a bit misleading. So I decided to be a bit harsher when necessary. This is one of those times.

I had problems with the prose style from the first page; it’s trying too hard for a certain kind of literary gravitas that it can’t manage, and as a result it is badly overwritten. In fact the combination of florid prose and a rather conventionally told love story reminded me above all of Mills & Boon: especially since it features a poor girl with a rich lover in an exotic location (although the ‘exotic’ part is fair enough). The main difference is that Mills & Boon novels have happy endings, and this book doesn’t; in fact, once the love story starts going wrong, it gets a bit more interesting… but then it blows it with a melodramatic and unsatisfying ending.

On the positive side, it was very short.

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