Archive | April 2017

Book 47: Peru (Spanish) – Lituma en los Andes = Lituma in the Andes, (translated as) Death in the Andes (Mario VARGAS LLOSA)

I felt like I had to peruse something by the great writer Vargas Llosa for his country. In a way it is a murder mystery set at the time of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency, a vicious countryside-based Marxist movement which had almost played itself out by the time I visited the country in 1994 (the book was first published the year before). Lituma is a police chief in a god-forsaken outpost in the Andes. He comes from the coast and sometimes seems to know less about his fellow countrymen from the mountains than the Danish professor in the story, or even than the present writer! His off-sider, Tomás, is a fascinating mixture of naivety and a ghastly past. To pass their time, Tomás comically retells his own murder and flight with a prostitute – the contrast between his idealism and her cynical realism really is hilarious. (Though once or twice it’s the other way round; he tells her, “This country is too dangerous to trust the banks; the best safe is your own mattress”.) These two representatives of their government in the area are not only totally alienated from the people they are supposed to protect, they are so woefully under-resourced that they live in constant fear of the Senderistas, even more so than the locals do. A ludicrous example is when a man comes from the nearby mine to ask (or rather demand) help, bearing an order from Lituma’s superiors – since the latter have almost no possibilities to communicate. Lituma is overwhelmed by the difficulties of understanding the locals’ culture and language. His post is really irrelevant to them, and they are so fearful of the Senderistas that it is almost impossible for him to learn anything from them. So, what happened to the missing people? Was it the obvious culprit, the Senderistas, the bruja (’witch’) and her bacchanalian husband, or something much more fundamental?

Right from the beginning we meet the gulf between city and country. Throughout it all, the local mountain people seem unmoved, unchanged and mute.

Lituma’s powerless is symbolised by a huayco (landslide):

 

The sky had become even darker and despite it being only early evening it was like nighttime. As if in a dream, he saw a vizcacha as big as a rabbit jump out from among the stones and run past him petrified, heading uphill; its ears were pricked up and it jumped without knowing where, finally staggering away. Lituma tried to get up but couldn’t even do that. Was it an earthquake? Was he going to die flattened by one of those boulders bounding past, rolling, leaping, colliding with each other, splitting and shattering apart right and left, thundering excruciatingly? Animals have a sixth sense, they can smell catastrophes, the little vizcacha had fled like that from its hutch because it smelled the end of the world. “Forgive me my trespasses” he cried. “I don’t want to end like this, damn it!.” He was crouching and crawling, plastered against the rock; rolling to the right, to the left and overhead, went clumps of earth, rocks of all imaginable shapes and sizes, and he felt that the rock was shuddering with the impact of the projectiles crashing and ricocheting into it. How much could it take? He had the feeling that an enormous rock, rolling down from the heights of the Cordillera, was heading straight for the rock that was protecting his back, plummeting onto it, pulverising it, and himself with it, in a second. (my translation).

 

I loved Vargas Llosa’s twist on several ancient legends – Theseus and the Minotaur (with an original variation on the ball of string!), Dionysus and his wild women, even Don Quixote. A masterful mystery, both of the missing men and of cultural misunderstanding.

 

VARGAS LLOSA, Mario (1936 – ), Lituma en los Andes, Barcelona: Planeta, 2010, ISBN 978-84-08-09416-6

 

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Book 46: Uzbekistan (English) – The Dead Lake (translation of: Вундеркинд Ержан = Wunderkind Yerzhan) (Hamid ISMAILOV)

Towards evening Uncle Shaken took the children to the Dead Lake. ‘Don’t drink the water and do not touch it,’ he told them. It was a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of an atomic bomb. A fairy-tale lake, right there in the middle of the flat, level steppe, a stretch of emerald-green water, reflecting the rare stray cloud. No movement, no waves, no ripples, no trembling – a bottle-green, glassy surface with only cautious reflections of the boys’ and girls’ faces as they peeped at its bottom by the shore. Could there possibly be some fairy-tale fish or monster of the deep to be found in this static, dense water?
The bus driver called Uncle Shaken to help him with a punctured tyre. Yerzhan was left in charge of the class. He saw his long shadow reflected on the water’s surface. Dean Reed in the boundless steppe, underneath the limitless sky, above the bottomless water. He briefly took Aisulu’s hand. Then he let go of it and pulled off his T-shirt and trousers and walked calmly into the forbidden water. For a moment he splashed about in it and then, to the admiration and terrified twittering of Aisulu and the others, he walked out of the water, shook himself off as if nothing had happened and dressed again in his canvas trousers and Chinese T-shirt.
Nobody snitched on him. And for a long time afterwards everyone recalled with respectful admiration Wunda’s dramatic escapade.

I’ve long felt a special connection with Uzbekistan, both because of a long fascination with Central Asia and because I was privileged to visit in the year it became independent from the USSR.
The author Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, lived in Uzbekistan (whence he was forced to flee in 1994) and now lives in Britain, and this book is set in Kazakhstan. Does he qualify for my Uzbek writer? Well, it seems everyone doing a similar project to this one thinks so, and has chosen him. (Fair enough; after all, Uzbekistan lies at the very heart of the Silk Road, so you should expect a bazaar of influences, cultures and ethnicities, especially with the crazy, artificial borders left in Central Asia by the collapse of the USSR.) However, while they seem to have all gone for his The Railway, I’ve chosen The Dead Lake.
With a title like that coming from an Uzbek writer, you might (like me) expect the Dead Lake to be the what’s left of the Aral Sea (which perhaps should now be re-named the Arid Sea). But it refers to another Soviet ecological catastrophe, in another country altogether.
The scene is the Polygon, the poisoned zone in Kazakhstan where the Soviet Union carried out its atmospheric and underground nuclear tests, seemingly without any consideration for the people who lived on the supposedly empty steppe (which can’t help reminding this Australian of the British tests here).
The narrator meets “Wunderkind” Yerzhan on a train across the Kazakh steppe, where he is playing the violin. He angers Yerzhan, who has been permanently stunted by the incident of rash childish bravado I quoted above, by mistaking him for a 12-year-old boy (he is in fact 27). As the train rattles over the endless plain, he learns Yerzhan’s tragic story (and fills in some of the gaps himself).
After he realises at 12 that he has stopped growing, Yerzhan makes pathetic attempts to stretch himself.
The railway seems to be a symbol of progress, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish a nuclear test from a rumbling train. So often in this world you wonder whether ‘progress’, even on balance, is worth it, most especially for the people unfortunate enough to live where there are resources (minerals, forests, agricultural land, or just space) that others covet.
I’ll never forget Ismailov’s exquisite potted legend of that other Wunderkind, Mozart.
What a tragedy that this incandescent, angry and compassionate book, along with Ismailov’s other works, is banned in Uzbekistan.

 

ISMAILOV, Hamid (1954 – ), The Dead Lake, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, Peirene, London, 2014, ISBN 978-1-908670-14-4

 

Book 45: Malaysia (English) – Garden of Evening Mists (Tan Twan Eng)

Movement high above us, higher than the heron, caught our attention. We both raised our faces to the sky at the same time. Aritomo pointed with the handle of his walking stick, looking like a prophet in an ancient land. In the furthest reaches of the eastern sky, where it had already turned to night, streaks of light were fanning out. I did not know what they were at first, but when I realised what I was looking at, a sigh misted from between my lips.
It was a storm of meteors, arrows of light shot by arches from the far side of the universe, igniting and burning up as they pierced the atmospheric shield. Hundreds of them burned out halfway, flaring their brightness just before they died.
Standing there with our heads tilted back to the sky, our faces lit by ancient starlight and the dying fires of those fragments of a planet broken up long ago, I forgot where I was, what I had gone through, what I had lost.

 

A rather tetchy retired High Court magistrate, lone survivor of a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World War, eccentrically decides to build, in memory of her sister who did not survive, a Japanese garden in the Cameron Highlands. She has a fascinating love-hate relationship with Japan, Japanese and Japanese culture, and although she is reluctant to admit to this love it is obvious in the way she lets it occupy her life. Even to the extent of volunteering for a sort of torture at the hands of a Japanese. To learn how to build her memorial she has to apprentice herself to a local Japanese settler, once Emperor Hirohito’s gardener. (One of the few obvious boo-boos is that a Japanese would call a deceased emperor by their reign name, not their given name, after their decease). I love books that connect some of the ‘smaller’ cultures of the world, as it were underneath the main current of world history. My favourite work in this genre is Amitabh Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, but this touching novel, with its surprising connections between Malaysia, Japan and South Africa is definitely up there. It is about flawed people living in a flawed world, trying their hardest to come to terms with the difficulty of existence.

 

ENG, Tan Twan (1972 – ), The Garden of Evening Mists, Newcastle upon Tyne, Canongate, 2012, ISBN 978-1-78211-017-0