The Emperor was an old man. He was the oldest emperor in the world. Around him death was circling, circling, and reaped and reaped. Already the entire field was empty, and only the Emperor, like a forgotten silver stalk, still stood there waiting. For years, his clear and hard eyes had been looking forlornly into a lost distance. His cranium was bald, like a vaulted desert. His whiskers were white, like a pair of snowy wings. The wrinkles on his face were an untidy undergrowth, wherein dwelt the decades. His body was lean, his back slightly bent. He walked around at home with tripping little steps. But as soon as he went out onto the street, he tried to make his thighs firm, his knees flexible, his feet light, his back straight. He filled his eyes with artificial benevolence, with the true characteristic of imperial eyes: they seemed to see everyone who saw the Emperor, and they greeted everyone who greeted him. But in reality the faces only glided and flew by him, and they looked straight ahead at that delicate, fine line which is the border between life and death, out to the edge of the horizon, which the eyes of old men always see, even when houses, forests or mountains hide it. The people believed that Franz Joseph knew less than themselves, since he was so much older than they were. But maybe he knew more than many. He saw the sun going down on his empire, but said nothing. He knew that he would already be deceased before its descent. Sometimes he stood there innocently and was glad when someone explained things to him at great length which he already knew very well. Since, with the slyness of children and old men, he loved to mislead people. And he was pleased with the vanity with which they proved to themselves that they were more clever than he. He concealed his cleverness with simple-mindedness: since it was not seemly for an emperor to be as clever as his advisers. Better for him to seem simple than clever.
That was Roth’s genius description of Emperor Franz Josef I of the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled a large part of eastern Europe and which some see as a sort of proto-EU while others as a prison of nationalities. In any case, it was due to disintegrate in defeat in the First World War, going (as the author describes it) into glorious dirty defeat, with its vain banners flying. It is the moment in history when people’s loyalty was to be no longer to a monarch but to a nation.
The novel follows the fortunes of three generations. The first is a baron who fortuitously becomes the hero of the Battle of Solferino (a battle which heralded the decline of the Habsburgs), saving the Emperor’s life by pushing him down just as he’s about to be shot. He is subsequently angered by a school book which makes him out to be more heroic than he was – he couldn’t stand to be exploited for propaganda purposes.
Regardless of the truth of the legend (like that of the Habsburg Empire itself), the succeeding generations do not come up to the standard. His son works as a government official. As for the third generation, Carl Joseph gambles away his money, gets the District Commissioner to look for money, and cadges money from the Emperor himself by reminding him about his ancestor at Solferino. For Carl Joseph, it is easiest to die (in the First World War) to the sounds of a military band, especially playing the jaunty Radetzky March of Johann Strauss (the novel’s leitmotif, so well-known to us now from the end of the Vienna New Year’s Concerts).
Austria-Hungary was obviously doomed, but the Austrians didn’t (or didn’t want to) see it. Those at the centre held strange ideas about the outer parts of the empire (where much of the story takes place) which they may never visit.
The novel is full of vivid images and wonderful descriptions like the one above. It is one of the great historical novels of the 1900s. I was certainly glad I chose it.
Roth, Joseph (1894 – 1939), Radetzkymarsch, Köln, Anakonda, 2012, ISBN 978-3-86647-866-4
So it was that eight centuries after its founding by a general of Saladin’s army in 1189 A.D., Ein Hod was cleared of its Palestinian children. Yehya tried to calculate the number of generations who had lived and died in that village and he came up with forty… Forty generations of living, now stolen. Forty generations of childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, prayer and scraped knees. Forty generations of sin and charity, of cooking, toiling, and idling, of friendships and animosities and pacts, of rain and lovemaking. Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets, and scandals. All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all – all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm – as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe.
This is a novel of bewilderment and betrayal.
In the year of the creation (or recreation) of Israel, 1948 – called here by the Palestinians the ‘year without end’ – the Abulheja family is bombed out of their home and village, and forced to live in the squalid Jenin refugee camp. One of the Israeli soldiers, Moshe, steals their baby Ismael (a name as close as you can get to ‘Israel’) for his infertile wife, renames him David, and they lovingly raise him as a Jew.
His mother goes crazy. As the hopelessness of the Palestinians’ cause drags on, Jenin becomes more permanent with the years. Youssef meets and is abused by the Jewish soldier who is his brother (now David), and his outrage leads him to join the PLO though he later leaves it, cuts himself off from his family and becomes more radical. Will he become a terrorist?
Most of the story is related through the eyes of the third child, Amal, the daughter born in Jenin. She later moves to the US where, although appreciative of the more comfortable and peaceful lifestyle there, can’t help feeling somewhat resentful of those born into a luckier world free from suffering.
Understandably, there is a lot of resentment expressed at the Palestinians’ unfair treatment. Why should they have to pay for the Germans’ sins against the Jews? Why should the latter treat the people living there so cruelly, throw them out and not even let them visit their ancestral homes?
Like in any good novel, the characters measurably change during the story. It’s a sign of hope that real people can change too, for the better.
The novel is interspersed with quite a few quotes from non-fiction sources documenting the history.
I only noticed one typo, but it was a whopper. On page 285 the azan (Muslim call to prayer: I proclaim that there is no god except Allah) is quoted in Arabic, but ‘illa’ (except) is left out which leaves an unintentionally blasphemous remainder!
Despite the roles the characters seem to be forced into by the political situation, there is still hope that they can recover their humanity and empathy. And for me both of these are what is most absent in the region at the moment and the only hope for the future. And thankfully Mornings in Jenin, which is mostly but not entirely seen from the Palestinian side, ends with a glimmer of hope for reconciliation. It is a beautifully written, powerful novel which won’t leave you as a bystander.
Abdulhawa, Susan (1970 – ), Mornings in Jenin, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, ISBN 9781408813553
Noora heard their talk, too: “Which is the bride?” She knew it was hard to tell. She looked the same as Lateefa and Shamsa, tented from head to toe in their abayas, faces hidden under their shaylas, both legs dangling on one side of their donkeys. She also knew she was a bride who was not arriving as a bride should. There was no family to deliver her and not a hint of celebration. But she did not care. She just wanted a chance to be alone so that she could ponder the design of her new life.
The Sand Fish is set in Dubai in the 1950s, before everything changed and it became an oil-fuelled, glitzy, super-modern glassed city, powered by expatriate labour, on the surface at least (one wonders how much has changed behind closed doors in Arab society).
Feisty 17-year-old Noora lives in an isolated area; mother dies, her father is losing it; so her brother (who is 14) becomes de facto family head – such is sexist society – and arranges her marriage with a businessman who is rich but much older. And she becomes his third wife. Her brother (as an adult) is 100% awful.
The novel is a great portrayal of the bleakness and discomfort of a polygamous marriage. The wives hate each other (and there is an interminable power struggle between them). Their lives seem to me like slavery – ironically, it is the cheeky slave girl Yaqoota who seems to be the freest in the household.
I found it a bit unbelievable that no one realised it was the husband, not his plurality of wives, who was infertile – but perhaps it is (or was) the sexist society that considered male infertility unthinkable, or at least unmentionable. Noora didn’t seem to me to be the most intelligent of heroines – much of the time I felt I was way ahead of her and it’s hard to believe she didn’t see the situation that was being set up to get the husband a child. But I had to ask myself, why should all protagonists be clever and knowledgeable, when not everyone in the real world is? Especially if they are forced to be cloistered away by their society.
Not the greatest nor the worst book I’ve ever read, but well worth it for a glimpse into the past (or is it?) of the glitzy modern Dubai.
Gargash, Maha, The Sand Fish: a novel from Dubai, NY, Harper, 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-174467-9
One man… was curious, and this made me smile a bit, as to whether I had seen the gas chambers. I said to him: “If I had, we wouldn’t be standing around talking now.” “Yes, of course,” he rejoined, but had there actually been any gas chambers, so I said, sure, there were gas chambers too, naturally, among other things; it all depends, I added, what type of person was in which camp. In Auschwitz, for instance, you could bet on it. “But in my case,” I noted, “I’ve come from Buchenwald.” “From where?” he asked, so I had to repeat it: “Buchenwald.” “So, from Buchenwald, then,” he nodded, and I said, “That’s right.” “Let’s get this straight, then,” he said in response, with a stiff, austere, yet somehow almost preachy face. “You, sir,” and I don’t know why but I was almost stunned by this very formal and, I would say, somewhat punctilious mode of address, “you have heard about the existence of gas chambers,” so I said, sure I had. “Nonetheless, sir,” he carried on with that same austerity of one who is restoring things to order and clarity, “you personally, however, did not ascertain this with your own eyes,” and I had to admit that I hadn’t. To that he merely remarked, “I see” and after giving a curt not strode away, stiffly, erectly, and as far as I could see, unless I was very much mistaken, satisfied in some manner.
As on the one hand the last survivors of the Nazi Holocaust are leaving us, and on the other hand an increasing number of countries in the world are beset by the rise of rabble-rousing populists or even neo-fascist parties (some of whom deny that the genocide even took place), it seems more urgent than ever that we listen to the horrors that happened then because of hatred – and tragically have happened several times since, as some of the stories in this project tell.
Gyuri is 15. Although he does not at first fully grasp what is happening, his father is being sent ‘away on labour service’, in fact to a concentration camp, and feels compelled to make over his lumberyard business to Sütő, a non-Jew (”completely aboveboard regarding his race”), without a receipt, hoping he will take care of it for the family.
In time, Gyuri himself won’t be spared the concentration camps. Kertész minutely describes what it feels like to be sent to camps. This is not exactly like what people necessarily assume, even those horrified by them.
There are moral dilemmas – what is the right decision, what is the right way to conduct oneself in such a horrifying situation, amidst the uncertainty (and self-delusion?) about what will happen.
This is an uncomfortable read (and not always in the way you might expect), but it’s a great work of literature and highly recommended. Kertész won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature.
KERTÉSZ Imre (1929 – ), Fateless, translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, London, Vintage, 2006, ISBN 9780099502524
(also translated as Fatelessness)
First published in Budapest as Sorstalanság in 1975
When he was a child, nothing had given him greater pleasure than the sea. But he had abandoned it for a very serious reason: of course it was hard to accuse an inanimate medium of treachery, but as he gulped down the water in terror, feeling with his foot for the bottom that wasn’t there, it was precisely the bitterness of betrayal that he had tasted as he sank down into the water’s bottomless depths. That was the summer he thought he had learned to swim.
For Azerbaijan, I would have liked to have read Ali and Nino (said to be by Kurban Said), which has received some great reviews. But as the author, and whether or not he definitely was Azerbaijani, is uncertain, I had to rule it ineligible here. Hopefully I’ll get around to reading it some day!
So my choice was Solar Plexus by Rustam Ibragimbekov, a prolific writer, scriptwriter and playwright, and there were no regrets. It’s a family saga in four parts following three generations (1940s to 1990s) and four friends living in the same house compound through Azerbaijani history under the USSR from Stalin’s reign of terror and WWII to Azerbaijan’s newly attained independence. The vagaries of life and history throw up some serious moral dilemmas for the group. What to do when your friendships make you have to choose between your loyalty to those friends as a group; as individuals; and to truth? It is told from each of their points of view.
The cosmopolitan city of Baku must be fascinating, and so is this trip through its difficult last century. I felt like I missed a lot of its depth, but still got more than enough enjoyment from the narration of the story.
IBRAGIMBEKOV, Rustam (1939 – ), Solar Plexus: a Baku saga in four parts, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield, Glagoslav, 2014 (originally published 1996), ISBN 978-1-78267-116-9
But the city dwellers’ arrival at the island did not fail to exert its influence on the natives’ feelings and customs in general. Every day to see men dressed for holidays, for whom it was always Sunday, who went strolling, rowed aimlessly, fished without caring about the catch, swam, made music, killed time, as if there was no worry, no work to be done in the world; this aroused no envy at first, only astonishment that life could fashion itself in such a way, admiration for men who were capable of making their existence so pleasant, so peaceful, so neat and fine above all, without anyone being able to say that they did injustice to someone else or plundered the poor. Unnoticed and slowly the Hemsö people began to walk in gentle dreams, to cast long furtive looks at the big cottage; if they glimpsed a light summer frock in the meadow, they stood still enjoying the sight as if faced with something beautiful; if they caught sight of a white veil on an Italian straw hat, a red silk ribbon around a slender body in a boat on the bay from between the forest fir-trees, they fell silent and full of devotion for something which they didn’t comprehend, which they didn’t dare to hope for, but which they were drawn towards.
For Sweden, even though there are so many fantastic works from there, I really wanted to read something by Strindberg. But for present purposes it had to be a novel. Did Strindberg write novels? I have to admit that I didn’t realise that either until I went looking. So here it is. And if you thought that he only wrote gloomy, traumatic plays, here is another surprise.
Here we are in a much poorer, more uncomfortable, more rural Sweden, the one from which so many Swedes emigrated (including some of my ancestors).
Carlsson is a mainlander who comes to put a widow’s farm on its feet, and succeeds, though after his success he tends to ‘lose it’. He feels himself superior to (more cluey than) the locals, but is conscious of his inferiority in a hierarchy to the family of a professor that he brings in as paying guests. When he is rejected by the professor’s attractive daughter, he ends up marrying the widow as consolation prize – mainly for her farm – and earns the eternal enmity of her son Gusten. He gets taken for a ride by a mining company and in the end loses out to Gusten.
It is set on the islands and skerries of the Stockholm Archipelago, loved for getaways then as now by the city people; but Strindberg made himself persona non grata there by his overly close to the bone observations on the islanders in this novel. It is realistic, but shot through with a lot of humour that you might not have expected from this author.
While there is a touch of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ in Strindberg’s islanders, they are hardly idealised. It is close to the long tradition of ‘country bumpkin upstages sophisticated city slicker’ but neither side is treated maliciously or without understanding.
We realise at the outset that Carlsson is an awkward fit when the girls come to pick him up from the mainland and he yells that they should raise the jib – which their square-rigger doesn’t have.
The novel is full of beautiful descriptions of nature and folk life. Depressing it certainly isn’t. Even the tragic dénouement has its funny aspect, and doesn’t seem so catastrophic to everyone.
The Swedish book I ended up buying online was rather strange. Almost square, it was a printing from a website (see below), and deceptively thin: only 43 pages (in a normal format it would be more than 200). The page numbers of the original pop up right in the middle of the text.
STRINDBERG, August (1849 – 1912), Hemsöborna, Memphis, General Books, 2012, ISBN 9781236729163; first published Stockholm, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1914
(printing of Project Runeberg digital facsimile, available at http://runeberg.org/strindbg/hemsobor/)
Translated into English as: The People of Hemsö
His otherworldly advice was too terrible to consider. Exile to the North! To Nueva York, a city so foreign she herself had never had the ovaries to visit. The girl would be lost to her, and La Inca [Oscar’s grandmother] would have failed her great cause: to heal the wounds of the Fall, to bring House Cabral back from the dead. And who knows what might happen to the girl among the yanquis? In her mind the U.S. was nothing more and nothing less than a país overrun by gangsters, putas, and no-accounts. Its cities swarmed with machines and industry, as thick with sinvergüencería as Santo Domingo was with heat, a cuco shod in iron, exhaling fumes, with the glittering promise of coin deep in the cold lightless shaft of its eyes.
Here is one of several novels I’ve come across which have been bestsellers (or even cult novels), which haven’t really grabbed me. When that happens, I tend to blame myself. Maybe it was spoiled by hearing the revelation about Díaz’s personal misdemeanours shortly before starting it, but I didn’t really enjoy this book. I’m willing to admit that maybe I should give it another go. But there are so many great novels still to read and I still have about a hundred to read for this project!
The ‘hero’ Oscar is a fat nerd doomed to unpopularity, one would tend to assume because of his appearance and personality, but he himself thinks it is because he has been smitten by an old family fujú curse. But you can’t help admiring his resilience.
A large part of the story is actually about his hot sister, who is also a real character.
Oscar is a Tolkien fan (the only thing he has in common with me), but for him the DR dictator Trujillo is worse than Sauron. Maybe it was easier for Middle Earth to overthrow the Dark Lord than for the Dominicans to get rid of Trujillo, who was supposed to have created the perfect dictatorship. (Speaking of which, my preferred novel about the DR is La Fiesta del Chivo ((The Feast of the Goat)) by Mario Vargas Llosa, although he is not a Dominican, about this assassination). Trujillo’s sister is a character in Díaz’s novel.
There are lots of Dominican Spanish words, too many of which are not defined, although they certainly add colour to the text! (The unglossed ones in the quotation above are: country, prostitutes, shamelessness, cutie).
But don’t let me put you off – I’m sure many people will love the novel (it’s obvious that many did). It is often funny, the slangy language is alive and the characters are sculpted in high relief. Maybe it’s time to give it another chance myself…
DÍAZ, Junot (1968 – ), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN 978-0-571-17955-8
The signal finally went green, suddenly the cars sped away, but then it became obvious that not all of them had raced off like that. The first one in the middle lane was stopped, there must have been some mechanical problem, the accelerator loose, the gear lever stuck, or a breakdown in the hydraulic system, locked brakes, a fault in the electrical circuit, if not simply running out of fuel, it wouldn’t be the first time that that had happened. The new gathering of pedestrians on the footpath sees the driver of the immobilised car gesticulating through the windscreen, while the cars behind it honk madly. Some of the drivers have already sprung out into the street, ready to push the broken-down car to somewhere where it won’t block the traffic, and beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head towards them, to one side, to the other, they can see him yelling something, from his mouth movements they gather that he is repeating one syllable, no not one, two in fact, from what they will find when someone, finally, manages to open a door: I’m blind.
And so it all begins, a pandemic even stranger than covid-19. Here is a novel which is unique. In an unnamed place, a mystery illness starts striking everyone which causes them to go suddenly blind. The panicked government starts to cruelly sequester the victims. We follow a group isolated into a mental institution, one of whom appears inexplicably immune (and is here only because of her loyalty to her newly blind husband). We basically see the scenario through her eyes, just as she effectively becomes the group’s eyes. The group quickly revert to basic instincts and reveal (if that’s the right word) their good or bad natures. The institution basically degrades into a Lord of the Flies of adults.
The narrator is an omniscient observer, but doesn’t know everything, for example speculating as to people’s motives, and sometimes seems to be channelled through the eyes and knowledge of the victims. The characters are unnamed, but are described, as if we (at least) can see them. The writing style has very long flowing sentences but for once I didn’t find that annoying but rather a very effective technique with a mesmerising rhythm.
Blindness made me aware of how fragile the veneer of our civilisation and infrastructure is, how it could be unexpectedly thrown into disarray (as has happened to all of us since my reading), and how we might suddenly have to make real moral choices outside a philosophy class. You can’t help asking yourself, how you would act in similar circumstances – would you be a good human being, to what extent would you try to help your fellows and to what extent would you fight for your own survival?
This is a totally moving and thought-provoking story by a master writer. I will definitely be reading more Saramago (a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature).
SARAMAGO, José (1922 – 2010), Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, Porto, Porto Editora, 2017 (first published 2014), ISBN 978-972-0-04683-3
I woke up early in the morning, washed and changed, had group breakfast with the nuns, then went for a long walk, down the valley, then up the mountain. My only companions were the amulet hanging around my neck and my reed pipe. I would watch how the sea woke up when touched by the morning light, its colours changing from grey, to coral, to gold, then to turquoise like my grandmother’s necklace, which was a string of beads encased by silver. The sun would fight the darkness of the sea. The sunlight would win the day, filling the air with light. The dark-blue sea, exhausted, grew mossy green around the edges.
The heroine Salma is a Jordanian Bedouin woman. She committed what was in her society an unforgivable sin: she had sex outside marriage and became pregnant, and was subsequently disowned by her own family. She is placed under protective custody, and her own girl is taken from her. Her life is under constant threat of what I believe should be called a dishonour killing (since for me it brings nothing but shame to the murderer’s family and society).
She seems to be able to find no happiness in her life. She feels hopeless, despairing, and deracinated She calls herself “a rootless wind-blown desert weed.” In exile, Salma has a bleak, jaundiced and negative view of England (and of Jordan) – she doesn’t really seem to try to fit in. She is nowhere at home. She seems to be constantly miserable and even appears to have a death wish.
Maybe the only happiness she ever found was in the half-way house of Lebanon (as in the quote above).
Salma is continually obsessed with her lost girl (what about her boy and her husband?) and finally goes back to find her. Without giving anything away, somehow the novel’s ending seemed to me to be impossible – but probable.
For me one of the best things about the book is the beautiful cover – a gorgeous blue mosque with a lonely woman. One of the reasons I avoid e-books…
Like Salma, the author Fadia Faqir also grew up in Jordan and moved to England. Salma has both a Jordanian/Lebanese past and an English present, which alternately come together but are not totally stitched – there are patches missing (such as the moment when she falls in love in England). I also felt that as a learner, Salma’s ‘pidgin’ English was not believable. My apologies for harping on this theme, but I get constantly annoyed when authors and filmmakers try to portray the speech of characters who have English as a second language or are learners as being fluent, or making unlikely mistakes, and when there are no communication difficulties between speakers of different languages (even with aliens!)
However, I don’t want to be too critical of a book that was touching and insightful. It is definitely worth reading.
Fadia (al-)Faqir فادية الفقير (1956 – ), The Cry of the Dove, New York, Black Cat, 2007, ISBN 978-0-8021-7040-8
Convinced that all women, even those who seem truly attached to their husbands or determined never to let themselves be dishonoured, can be seduced, that those who remain indifferent to the first manifestations of love by a man, insensible to beauty, to the birth or standing of a would-be lover, deaf to his supplications or to the language of rich presents, would be unable to resist the charm of philtres. Vidaho had successively put everything into play in order to conquer Doguicimi.
When it came time to read my novel from Benin, I was thrown into a slight panic when I realised that what I had bought was not the novel I had chosen, Doguicimi by Paul Hazoumé, but a collection of literary essays on it! The novel itself seemed to be out of print, at least in French. If I was to go reading countries in order, I’d have to wait while I got a copy of the actual novel (or another one). One of the many perils of ordering books online. (Not long before, I had ended up with an Armenian book with the right title, but that turned out to be a collection of short stories, not the novel I wanted). Finally my second-hand copy arrived, covered in obscure pencil notes that I had to erase before I could read it. But I did have my chosen book.
Set in the old kingdom of Dahomey, it tells the story of how the king is so determined to go to war that he ignores the ancestors (whose wishes are transmitted via the ‘devins’ – soothsayers). His advisor Toffa is captured in the resultant debacle and is treated by definition as a traitor. Toffa’s wife is the feisty Doguicimi. Everyone is surprised that she doesn’t get done away with for speaking out, but it turns out Vidaho, the heir to the throne, has become secretly enamored of her and becomes obsessed with getting her, while Doguicimi remains steadfastly loyal to her captive husband at great personal risk till her horrible self-sacrifice. Personally, I found it hard to understand why she was so attached to him considering the way he had treated her! I suppose it is tradition and the need to be respected; perhaps her name (which is explained halfway through to mean something like ‘cite me as an example’ has something to do with it.
The people’s opinions about the Whites, who are starting their encroachment on the region, are fascinating – what the latter see as their strengths, the former see as their weaknesses. There is obviously what we would now call racism from both sides, but it is easy to understand the feeling against outsiders trying to take control of their land. By modern standards, the arrogance of the ruling class, especially, of Dahomey comes off as unpleasant.
It took me a long time to read (510 pages, plus rubbing out time!) but I learnt a fascinating amount about the culture of ancient Dahomey (renamed Benin after independence) from this book. It is a classic of early indigenous African writing and a rare chance to see this time through their eyes.
HAZOUMÉ, Paul (1890 – 1980), Doguicimi, Paris?, Francopoche, 1978, ISBN 978-2706806711
HAZOUMÉ, Paul, Doguicimi: The First Dahomean Novel, translated from French by Richard Bjornson, Washington DC, Three Continents, 1990, ISBN 9780894104060