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Book 57: North Korea (English): The Guest (HWANG Sok-Yong)

The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.

 

So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.

 

HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)

 

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Book 43: Morocco (French) – La Nuit Sacrée = The Sacred Night (Tahar BEN JELOUN)

This is a beautifully poetically written novel about a woman who was brought up as a man due to the bias against girls (as recounted in L’Enfant de sable – The Child of Sand), who escapes the past, as if ripping a curtain, and dramatically changes back, at the death of her father. She enters into a rather strange and fraught triangular relationship with an eccentric sister and (blind) brother. It centres on a rebellion against the sex and gender roles set in a traditional Islamic society.

The novel begins in Marrakesh with a fading storyteller (one of that sadly disappearing breed).

The narrator first encounters the sister in a hammam:

 

Only the main hall of the hammam is dimly lit; the other two are in darkness. In the penumbra someone blessed with good sight could just manage to make out a piece of white string from a black one. If the ambiguity of the spirit had a light, it would have to be like that. Steam clothes the naked bodies. Humidity, flowing in little grey droplets down the walls, feeds infinite discussions that continue endlessly in the chamber.

[my translation]

 

After committing a murder, she ends up in prison, quite contentedly, and voluntarily herself joins the lonely world of the blind and makes peace with the crazy mixed-up world.
By the way, the Sacred Night (Night of Destiny), during the holy month of Ramadan, is when believers’ fates are supposed to be sealed.

I was reading these words of the protagonist on the day of the Charlie Hébdo massacre in Paris and was moved:
‘… But you see, I’m like you, I love the Qur’an as superb poetry, and I’m horrified by those parasites who exploit it and who limit freedom of thought. They’re hypocrites.’

The book has strong elements of magical realism and/or mythology, and was sometimes hard to follow. But, apart from the intriguing tale, I loved its poetic language. Yet another great writer who deserves to be better known by the world at large!

 

BEN JELLOUN, Tahar (1944 – ), La Nuit Sacrée, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987, ISBN 978-2-02-0-25583-7

Book 40: Iraq (German) – Jussifs Gesichter = Yussif’s Faces (صورت يوسف) (Najem WALI) (نجم والي)

‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.

If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’

[my translation]

 

Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get.  It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.

You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.

Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.

Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and…  Just what is reality?

For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.

Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.

A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.

Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.

 

Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]

 

 

Book 37: Sudan (English) – Season of Migration to the North = موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال (Tayib SALIH)

I read this on my own migration to the north, doing the Great North Walk from Sydney towards Newcastle. This smallish novel was another discovery for me – a wonderful work which is tragically little-known. I would have been denied its delights too if I hadn’t been looking for a title from Sudan to read. I wonder how many other unexpected delights I’ll find before I finish this project?
This was one of the several (perhaps many) books I’ll be reading which was banned in its own country (beginning with number four – To Kill a Mockingbird). In some countries, like a jail sentence for an opposition politician, a banning is a badge of honour for a book. In this case, though, it surprisingly took a quarter of a century for a Sudanese regime to get around to doing that.
The migration in the title is not to the northern part of the country, as I assumed, or to Egypt, but all the way to Europe, then the protagonist Amin returns like a prodigal son to his village. So it is partly a comparison by someone who has been a part of both worlds. He finds that the denizens of both places are full of misconceptions about the ‘other’. Aren’t we all? I remember laughing with an Uzbek acquaintance who said that Australia is the epitome of exoticism in Uzbekistan, and I said that Uzbekistan was the same for Australians!
The villagers ply him with questions about Europe (except for a mysterious stranger called Mustafa Sa’eed, who is also a ‘man of the world’ by their standards – the revelation of his story will occupy us for much of the book), and he perhaps disappoints them by revealing that deep down Europeans are basically just like them. Sometimes it seems as if we gain as much insight into life in Britain as we do into that in Sudan. Certainly Europeans can exploit Africans, but Africans can exploit Europeans too. There is plenty of naïvité to go around.
Salih’s writing is luminously beautiful. I wonder, is it even more scrumptious in the original Arabic?
A thread through the story’s landscape is the Nile – without which (like Egypt) there would be no Sudan – equally on its endless migration towards the north, and which Salih describes like some ‘Ole Man River’:

“The river but for which there would have been no beginning and no end, flows northwards, paying heed to nothing; a mountain may stand in its way so it turns eastwards; it may happen upon a deep depression so it turns westwards; but sooner or later it settles down in its irrevocable journey towards the sea in the north.” (p 69)

 

This could be a good first choice for beginning to discover African literature – insightful about Arabic and European culture (and their relationships), a fairly short, easy but great read. Highly recommended.

 

SALIH, Tayib (1929 – 2009), Season of Migration to the North, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies, Edinburgh: Heinemann, 1991, ISBN 978-0-435-90974-1

(first published in the African Writers Series, 1969)

Book 36: Ukraine (English) – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina LEWYCKA)

I thought you might be interested in a list of my favourite discoveries from my reading challenge so far, things that I hope you will enjoy as much as I did without the efffort of having to read the whole world to discover them.
I mostly haven’t included the great classics here (such as To Kill a Mockingbird) since so many people are already familiar with them. One exception I’ll mention is Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. I was expecting it to be as frosty and difficult to get through as a Russian winter, but instead found its relatively light style and quirky viewpoint delightful (despite the morbid subject matter).
Maaza Mengiste’s devastating Ethiopian novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was another unpleasant subject but a searing indictment of dictatorship and military rule.
Pamuk’s Snow was such a brilliant portrayal of Turkey’s travails at the faultline between Asia and Europe that I want to read all his works.
Please Look After Mother (or Mom, if you have a US edition) by Shin Kyung-Sook really touched my heart.
I think my biggest personal discovery so far is the Albanian Ismail Kadare (post still to come) – I definitely want to read him out!
But one of my favourites – and certainly the funniest so far – is Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

 

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina LEWYCKA)

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

Reviewers often claim that a book is “laugh-out-loud funny”. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but I never find myself laughing out loud. But this one (along with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books) is the exception. It is the hilarious story of a zany, dysfunctional English Ukrainian family. The eccentric father falls for a gold-digging vampish younger woman (Valentina) from Ukraine, and his two very different sibling-rivalry-smitten daughters alternate between trying to save him from himself and pecking at each other. The “eighty-four-year-old teenager” is happiest living in his own private world, “furrowing up trails of gleaming brown ideas” (take that, Chomsky!), and when his real soul-mate turns up (also from Ukraine), it turns out to be platonic (for it is a ((slightly younger)) man who is also under the spell of Valentina) but similarly obsessed with engineering inventions.
And yes, you will learn all you need to know about the history of tractors (don’t worry, it’s not very much!)
I love the Communist-style cardboard cover design of this edition! and also the wonderfully quirky title, which manages to be both pseudo-boring and intriguing at the same time. I don’t think you will forget the wonderful, quirky characters in this novel. And it’s very, very funny. This is one that I can’t recommend too highly.

 

LEWYCKA, Marina (1946 – ), A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, London, Penguin, 2006 (first published Viking, 2005), ISBN 978-0-141-02576-6

Book 27: South Africa (English) – Disgrace (J.M. COETZEE)

A lecturer (lecher?) commits an ethical crime at his university and is sanctioned by it. He is, we assume, a White, although I don’t think this is ever spelled out. He refuses to admit his guilt but ‘goes into laager’ (as a South African would say), staying on his daughter’s isolated farm where she lives a rather idealistic 1960’s-ish lifestyle (VW Kombi included). While she looks after him, they no longer see eye to eye. She seems to see supine acceptance and resignation as the only way to survive in the new South Africa where Blacks have the power, at least partly as penance for the apartheid that was inflicted on them, and despite her terrible suffering seems more likely to get along in the new world than her fossil father.
“’Aren’t you nervous by yourself?’
Lucy shrugs. ‘There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.’
‘That’s very philosophical.’
‘Yes. When all else fails, philosophise.’”
There are two parts to the story. In the first, set in the city, he is in his own world and in control (or so he thinks). In the second, out on the farm, everything is out of his control, the Blacks are taking over, and he is incapable of understanding them. His daughter, on the other hand, is full of forbearance and fortitude, and can adapt to the changing circumstances (which isn’t to say that she isn’t traumatised by them).
The characters brilliantly symbolise the changing face of this fraught land. This is a simply written but insightful novel by a truly great writer.

 

COETZEE, J. M. (1940 – ), Disgrace, London, Vintage, 2008 (originally published 1999), ISBN 978-0-099-52683-4