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.

Voices II: Contemporary Bahraini Short Stories, ed. & trans. Hasan Marhamah
Bras, Boys, and Blunders: Juliet & Romeo in Bahrain by Vidya Samson

I found these two books from Bahrain for the Read The World challenge, and I bought both because I thought they might offer an interesting contrast.

The Gulf states seem like a fascinating part of the world at the moment, but the rule I set myself — that books should ideally be by people who are actually from the relevant countries — is not helping. These are tiny countries with small publishing industries that do not translate a lot into English; and they have some pretty autocratic governments that probably restrict the kinds of things that can be published at all.

Bahrain Cityscape

So if I want to find books that address the full weirdness of the Gulf — the pouring of unimaginable amounts of money into international sport; the way that Dubai manages to be an autocratic Islamic state while also a favoured holiday destination of European playboys; the fact that Qatar has a population of 1.8 million, of whom only 278,000 are citizens; the planned outposts of the Guggenheim and the Louvre; the… ambiguous position of Saudi Arabia in the War on Terror — well, I’m probably going to have to look for something written by an outsider.

Vidya Samson is an outsider, and does provide an interesting perspective, although not the kind of perspective that would offer insight into, say, Qatar’s winning bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Bras, Boys, and Blunders: Juliet & Romeo in Bahrain is a teen romantic comedy about an Indian girl going to a multicultural Catholic school while her parents are working in Bahrain. At the school, white students have automatic cool status while the Indians and Pakistanis are at the bottom of the pecking order, mocked by the Arabs for their accents. Our heroine is a naive, shy girl dealing with boys, flat-chestedness, her parents; it’s fairly standard stuff, apart from the unusual setting. I’m clearly not the target market for this book, but it was likeable enough.

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Hasan Marhamah is apparently Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Bahrain, which surprises me: partly because Voices II: Contemporary Bahraini Short Stories is lacking things like author bios or even publication dates for the stories, which is the kind of thing you might expect an academic to include. But especially because the English isn’t very good. There are quite a few errors of grammar, and more often the language is just clunky and unidiomatic:

As he bulged his eyes on the road, distressing blows recurred as if broiling him on calm fire. In the extreme hectic traffic commotions, and while his feet hesitated to move, a genius idea struck into his head; a difficult idea, but he would execute it. […] Fear choked the depths of his throbbing heart. The road ambience looked like a cemetery waiting for a coffin to carry him. He could not see any more but could hear the caution horns of the angry car drivers as he drew in his mind the picture of death. A rough hand prevented his advancement and a voice in a strong military tone addressed him…

When I was reading the first story, I seriously doubted that I would make it through the whole book, but actually I found if I read it quickly, and tried not to get hung up on individual sentences, it wasn’t too bad. The more straightforward the story, the better it worked; anything too poetic or ambiguous was much more difficult. A badly translated stream of consciousness is hard going.

Still, prose style aside, reading the stories for their content was interesting. For example, love stories are interesting in a culture where contact between men and women is restricted; there are stories about extreme poverty; there were several stories about divorce. Of course I knew that it was very easy for men to divorce their wives under Islamic law, but I’d never really thought about how brutal it could be for the wives and children, that men could just set them aside and move on to new women. Which is a failure of empathy on my part, admittedly.

So I ended up enjoying it more than I expected, at least.

» Bahrain Cityscape is © Mubarak Fahad and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence. Protests in Bahrain is © Al Jazeera English and used under a CC by-sa licence. 

21 Immortals by Rozlan Mohd Noor and Ripples by Shih-Li Kow

These are a couple of books from Malaysia which I read for the Read The World challenge, both picked because I thought they would make a change compared to some of what I read for the challenge. For a start, they’re both contemporary works, rather than the 20, 30, 40 year old books I often end up reading. And 21 Immortals: Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders is a crime novel, while Ripples and other stories is, obviously, a books of short stories.

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21 Immortals was a silly choice, really. Not because of the book itself, which is fine I guess, but because I have never understood the appeal of crime fiction (or indeed the even more depressing genre, ‘true crime’). I’m just not very interested in the grisly murders themselves or the police procedural/CSI stuff. The Malaysian setting gave it some novelty value, but otherwise it was a pretty standard example of the genre and so it largely left me cold.

Ripples is more my usual thing: more ‘literary’, anyway. The stories are interlinked, each picking up some detail or character from the story before, and they are surprisingly varied in style: some are low key stories about the details of everyday life, others have more overtly dramatic subjects or are fantastical tales. Not all of them are equally successful, but there was plenty here to keep me reading, at least. At least with short stories, if you don’t like one much, there’s always another one along in a minute. And if this review seems a bit vague and non-commital: well, the truth is that it has been a few days since I finished Ripples; and although I quite liked it while I was reading it, it didn’t leave a profound impression.

So, slightly underwhelming choices for Malaysia, but hey-ho, on to the next thing.

» ‘Summer Storm over Kuala Lumpur’ is © Trey Ratcliff and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso is my book from Honduras* for the Read The World challenge. It is a book of playful, idea-heavy short stories; the influence of Borges is mentioned in the introduction, but I think I would have made the connection even without that.†

It’s actually a translation of two books, Complete Works and Other Stories (1959) and Perpetual Motion (1972) which are somewhat different in character; the ‘stories’ in Complete Works are indeed actual narratives, however short, elliptical or open-ended, whereas many of those in Perpetual Motion are more like essays or aphorisms.

I’d got a bit stuck on reading my way around the world, basically because I had two or three books waiting to be read which didn’t appeal to me: I think I’m going to need a plane journey to Australia before I can face the enormous fat modernist novel, and I need a break from Very Serious post-colonial novels from Africa.‡ On that basis, the Monterroso was an excellent choice: well written, intelligent, serious enough but with a sense of humour and, let’s be honest, short. A nice easy tick to get the list moving again.

And since that’s a bit damning-with-faint-praise: I did enjoy this book. To make the invidious comparison, I think there’s a reason that he’s much less famous than Borges; he doesn’t have quite the distinctiveness or surprisingness. But if you like that kind of thing, you will probably like these too.

* As is so often the case, my boring pedantic soul requires me to clarify on nationality: Augusto Monterroso is usually described as a Guatemalan writer. But he was born in Honduras to a Honduran mother and spent his childhood up to the age of 15 moving between the two countries. And spent most of his adult life in exile in Mexico.

† And indeed before reading Monterroso’s essay about reading Borges.

‡ Not that I necessarily dislike serious post-colonial African novels, you understand. I’m just not currently very excited about picking up another one.

» Monterroso’s most famous story is ‘The Dinosaur’, supposedly the shortest ever written. The photo of an origami triceratops is © Emre Ayaroglu and used under a CC attribution licence.

The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman A. Waberi

The Land Without Shadows is my book from Djibouti for the Read The World challenge. There are a few options available in French, but Waberi seems to be the only choice in English. Having read a few underwhelmed reviews of his novel, In The United States of Africa, I thought I’d try this collection of short pieces.

It seems to be broadly true that Francophone literature from Africa is much more overtly ‘literary’ than the English-language stuff; more playful, more given to formal and stylistic flourishes. Which says something about the influence of French culture and French academia.

Some of these are fairly conventional short stories, others are more like essays or parables or long prose poems. They add up to a sort of portrait of Djibouti — the land without shadows — both in the present and historically.

It’s quite inventive and well-written, but the plain truth is that it never really held my attention. Shrug.

» Djibouti is © Stéphane Pouyllau and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid

Told by Starlight in Chad is a collection of stories by Chadian writer Joseph Brahim Seid, translated from French by Karen Haire Hoenig. I’ve tagged this post with ‘short stories’ but they aren’t really short stories in the literary tradition: they are fables or folk tales in the oral tradition. I’m not sure whether they are all traditional stories or new ones, or how true they are to the way the stories might be ‘told by starlight’.

In some ways the material seems very familiar — wicked stepmothers, magic purses, and beautiful princesses — although the stories feature hyenas and gazelles rather than foxes and rabbits. Sometimes the stories end with a moral or an explanation of the ‘and that’s why we do so-and-so’ type, and sometimes they are, as far as I can tell, just stories.

Just to give you an idea of the style, here’s the opening to a story called Bidi-Camoun, Tchourouma’s Horse.

A very long time ago, in the days when miracles and wonders were still common among us, a little prince was born in the kingdom of Lake Fitri. Tchourouma was his name; noone knew the reason why. His father loved him dearly and his mother adored him. At a very young age, they had given him as a gift Bidi-Camoun, a splendid chestnut horse. When Tchourouma had barely reached his fifteenth year, his gentle mother died, snatched away by a cruel disease in her chest, which neither the skill of the fakihs, the fetish doctors nor the Bulala witchdoctors could cure. In memory of his beloved wife, the Sultan retained a great deal of affection for the child. He took him lion hunting and on walks around the lake which is the sanctuary of the ancestral spirits and the safeguard of the kingdom. Devoured with envy by the King’s great fondness for his son, the women of the harem devised plots to kill the child….

All quite interesting and quite enjoyable, though I can’t say I was completely grabbed by it. Told by Starlight in Chad is my book from Chad for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture of rock art in Chad, “Round head” paintings, is © Franck Zecchin and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Mother’s Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong

Mother’s Beloved is a collection of short stories from Laos; even with an introductory essay and with the Lao printed opposite the English, it’s only 160 pages. BTW, I don’t know a lot about Lao names, but I think that ‘Outhine’ is the surname.

I knew absolutely nothing about Laos except its approximate location (between Thailand and Vietnam). Fortunately this book has an essay about contemporary Lao literature that acted as a quick primer on the country’s modern history, which has been fairly grim: it went from being a Thai colony to a French one, got caught up in the Indochina War and the Vietnam War, when the Americans bombed it extremely heavily, then had about 15 years of communist government. Apparently it has liberalised somewhat since the fall of Russian communism, but there’s still only one legal political party: the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

The stories themselves are short and simple, both stylistically (as far as I can tell from these translations) and in terms of action. And indeed morality: by which I mean that you could often end each story with ‘and the moral of this story is … [something].’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of them were published when Laos was a communist state; I think some of that simplicity that comes from writing in a country where too much ambiguity might be regarded as politically suspicious. And often the ‘morals’ are as much political as moral: ‘every one of us, no matter how humble, can make our own sacrifice in aid of the war effort’, for example.

Still, the very simplicity of the stories has its own appeal, and one or two of them managed to combine that simplicity with just the right emotional note in a way I found effective. I’ve decided that one way I could make these little reviews more useful would be quote some of the books, so here’s the opening of a story called The Eternal Pair of Birds. It’s actually an unusually elaborate passage, but you can see it has a kind of plainness to the language.

It was late February. At the edge of the rice fields grew a flame tree full of red blooms whose colour, when reflecting the setting sun, was so bright it hurt the eyes. Next to it stood a lone palmyra. It stretched so high as if to challenge the rainstorm, the hurricane, and the sunshine. It had stood there, strong and graceful, for ages. To the people in this rural hamlet, it was like a timepiece. When the sun was high above its crown, it was noon. When the sun’s rays struck parallel across the top of its fronds, it was time to herd the cattle back to the stable and for the housewives to prepare dinner.

Mother’s Beloved is my book from Laos for the Read The World challenge. I quite enjoyed it, on balance, and if nothing else, it encouraged me to learn a bit more about the country.

» The picture is from the Plain of Jars, an archeological site in Laos which I hadn’t heard of before but is mentioned in one of the stories. The stone ‘jars’, about 1500-2000 years old, are of unknown purpose but may be funerary urns or for food storage. Apparently it’s now one of the most dangerous archeological sites on earth because of all the left-over American cluster bombs. The photo, from Flickr, is © Kumar Nav and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

We killed Mangy-Dog by Luis Bernardo Honwana

We killed Mangy-Dog & other Mozambique stories is one for the reading around the world challenge and also for the African Reading Challenge. I came across it when I was browsing through my bookshelves looking for books by people with foreign-sounding names. 

I have actually read it before — I read it when I bought it, about 15 years ago — but it’s short, so I thought I’d re-read it before ticking Mozambique off the list. I don’t remember it making much impact on me then, but this time I was impressed. It’s a slim (117 page) collection of vivid, fatalistic short stories, set in rural Mozambique and mainly told from a child’s perspective. Stylistically it has a kind of plain directness, in this translation at least. Kind of Hemingwayish. Not that I’ve read any Hemingway recently.

It seems to be out of print, unfortunately, but if you happen upon a copy somewhere, pick it up.

» The picture, Students returning from the school farm, was posted to Flickr by afronie and is used under a by-sa CC licence. It has no particular connection to the book except that it was taken in Mozambique.

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