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
What was the thing called exile?
Where had he met the word before? Only in novels he had read in his youth. There it had had a fine, noble overtone of fortitude and courage. Now it seemed clear enough that neither courage nor fortitude were involved, only fear. One day something had broken in his heart under the sheer weight of fear, and everything that had been dear and familiar to him became foreign and threatening. He suddenly found himself in exile without even having to move anywhere, because that is where you are when everything around is foreign and dangerous. He had become a foreigner. He had sensed that the change was irreversible, and that as a foreigner there was nothing to be ashamed of in being afraid.
When the Soviet Union suddenly disintegrated, a huge number of Soviet citizens who were Russians, or Ukrainians, or Armenians etc. living in other ‘Soviet Socialist Republics’ like Tajikistan, found themselves overnight treated as foreigners in newly independent countries. They were no longer at home in these countries, if not actively discriminated against, and a large number of them felt compelled to go ‘back’ to their home republics like Russia (even though some had never been there). And in their new ‘homelands’ they were also not at home.
After Tajikistan, the poorest of the SSRs, found itself in an independence for which it was totally unprepared, it fell into a long civil war (at the same time as the far better known one in neighbouring Afghanistan) between fundamentalist Muslims and supporters of the secular leftist dictatorship.
Hurramabad is called a novel, so I’ve included it here, although for me it had more of the feel of a collection of short stories (or ‘facets’ as the author called them).
Volos himself was born in Dushanbe to a family that came to live there along with Soviet rule in the 1920s, and had to leave in the 1990s when life in the new land became intolerable for them. Great as this book (and no doubt its translation) was, I finished it feeling the need to read something written by an ethnic Tajik writer, in the hope of some balance or seeing the situation from the other side, or merely hearing a Tajik voice. (Let’s not forget that what is now Tajikistan was conquered and colonised by the Russians, and suffered what any colony suffered). In any case Hurramabad is excellent writing and totally recommendable reading, and gave me a stunning view of injustice from a different perspective.
Volos, Andrei (1955 – ), Hurramabad: a novel in facets, translated from Russian (?) by Arch Tait, Moscow, GLAS New Russian Writing, 2001, ISBN 5-7172-0056-0
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
He sat at the wheel of the car until almost two o’clock in the morning, with the doors locked, the windows rolled right up, the lights out, the radiator grille almost projecting over the edge of the cliff into the void. His eyes, once they were accustomed to the dark, were spellbound by the breathing of the pelt of the sea, swelling and sinking again and again with the expansive yet restless respiration of a giant whose slumbers are periodically punctured by nightmares. At times a sound escaped like an angry gust. At others it sounded like a feverish panting. And again there rose the sound of breakers in the night, gnawing at the coastline and retreating with their booty to the deep. Here and there ripples of foam glistened on the dark pelt. Occasionally a pale milky beam passed high above among the stars, perhaps the quivering of a distant coastguards’ [sic] searchlight. As the hours passed Yoel had difficulty distinguishing between the murmur of the waves and the throbbing of the blood inside his skull.
A jaded, washed-up ex-spy just wants to get out of the game and get on with his life. But is anyone ever allowed to be an ex-spy?
Yoel tries to live retiringly while striving to understand and get on with the women in his life, all of whom seem to be stronger characters than him – his prickly, incomprehensible (to him) daughter living with a syndrome that is apparently epilepsy, his mother and his mother-in-law, and his attractive neighbour (too good to be true?) – not to mention his wife who died in a bizarre accident (or was it?)
He tries to be reasonable with his daughter despite her goading of him but seems to make no headway.
Despite his best efforts to keep out, his former life keeps intruding. He still keeps his old spy habits (such as making sure he parks nose out, ready for a quick getaway). The estate agent Kranz, who also suddenly comes into his life, seems nosy and suspiciously helpful – we can’t help asking ourselves whether those over-eager to help him are plants?
Eventually he is forced to come back into Mossad against his will, and when he refuses to do a messy job, his substitute gets killed in Bangkok – his feelings of anger and survivor’s guilt are so easy to identify with. It seems that he (and Israeli Jews in general?) are compelled to be forever grateful for their homeland – and to be inescapably obligated towards it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but perhaps Yoel’s unsuccessful relationship with his women is also a metaphor for Israel’s seemingly impossible relationship with its incompatible neighbours.
Oz is someone else whose work I must read more of. Sadly this great Israeli writer, commentator and peace activist died not long before I read his work.
Oz, Amos (1939-2018), To Know a Woman, translated from Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author, London, Vintage, 2001 (first published 1991), ISBN 9780099913405.
From what I could gather there was more than one ship in the port and we would have to work until late. The ships were the joy of us all, we knew that when the ships arrived we would earn more money. And there was nowhere where you could get more money than in the ships. When right through the town the sirens that the ships gave announcing their arrival were heard, everything changed: the packs of children ran towards the seashore, the business owners became happy and closed shop until midnight, the prostitutes did themselves up in the hope that the sailors would come down, the souvenir sellers cried and ran from side to side along the wharf, the city seemed to be a different city. In the pineapple packing factories, in the offices, in the loading and unloading on the pier, everywhere the talk was about the arrival of the ships. It was the same on the plantation; before the commander had arrived, the comrades already knew that the ships had anchored.
Honduras sadly has the reputation of being the archetypical banana republic. And this novel takes place on a banana plantation. It is set at the end of the 1970s as neighbouring Nicaragua falls to the leftist Sandinistas after the interminable Somoza dictatorship, and US forces start to appear in Honduras aiming to undermine that new regime.
Guillermo works on the plantation but has higher hopes, he wants to write a novel set there. When workers there go on strike for higher wages, they are partially successful, but are then are forced to work at night without pay to fill the boats and make up for it. The boats seem to symbolise war (both the economic war and the real war).
The author uses different styles skilfully. There are some breathless passages, word on word with no punctuation. This well-written novel is definitely worth reading.
Quesada, Roberto (1963 – ), Los barcos, NY, Big Banana Publisher’s [sic], 2014, ISBN 9681501015267
Published in English as The Ships with the same publisher/year.
(First published Tegucigalpa, Baktún, 1988)
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
He walked over to the Audi and looked inside the windows, black and opaque as metal. He had hoped to catch some sort of movement, some flash of an antitheft system (as if the car needed an antitheft system), but all he saw was himself, and it occurred to him that the sight of your own reflection in glass behind which you were attempting to find something rational to explain your gut fears was a fine metaphor for paranoia. His paranoia was rising in waves from somewhere in his stomach, his common sense telling it: “There is nothing to fear, the car could have come for anyone.” Or, “If they were following you, they would have parked right in front of your entrance.” His “I” was already churning, already whispering, already beckoning him to get the hell out of there and not stop, but he controlled himself. Then, just at the moment when he had convinced himself that the car’s doors were not going to open and no one was going to push him inside… Just when the absence of any discernible movement in the car’s depths had assured him that no one was inside, that the vehicle was deserted… Just when he was about to walk away… At that very second, confirming his horrifying suspicion that while he had been peering into the blackness behind the window, someone, or… or something (he shuddered) had been watching him from inside, studying him with birdlike (raven) eyes, just as he had been examining his reflection and thinking about his paranoia… In short, he already couldn’t remember what had happened first: had the motor, detonated by the ignition, turned over first or had the blinding xenon headlights turned on first? With the sleekness of a cobra the car turned its wheels and slithered off. Making an unnecessary circle through the courtyard, on the lookout, on the lookout for its prey – the circle of a predator, unhurried and ready to lunge – making this circle, the Audi picked up speed, picked up speed and disappeared.
I have to admit that I love occasionally wallowing in the misery of a devastatingly depressing dystopia, and Paranoia is that! With the difference that it is perhaps only too close to the reality in the last Communist dictatorship in Europe. It comes with a great introduction (to the current state under Lukashenko’s Belarus) by Timothy Snyder, and a fascinating preface by the translator.
As for the cheeky warning at the start of the book, it’s worth quoting in full:
“All the events related herein are fictional: the protagonists have never existed in any reality other than that of the present text. Any unsanctioned comparisons with historical figures or persons alive today may be qualified as a criminal offense punishable under international and national law. To avoid unintentionally committing acts prosecutable under the Penal Code, the author – fully aware that, essentially, he should never have written it in the first place – enjoins readers not to read this book.”
– no doubt I am guilty as charged, but you should definitely read this book!
Throughout the novel, we are asking ourselves, like the ‘subject’, Anatoly, is what he is experiencing really paranoia, or just reality?
Much of the novel from the outset consists of the surveillance reports kept by the MGB (Ministry of State Security), still called the KGB by Belarusians. (In the language of the MGB reports, a ‘person’ is called a ‘surveillance object’, and a ‘place’ is a ‘microphone’.) Paranoia has some of the most subtle and chilling descriptions of the spies’ work that I’ve read. For example, the minute description of the eaten pizza found in the subject’s rubbish. There is a report suggesting how to get Anatoly to commit suicide. However the spooks aren’t above making amusing mistakes – this doesn’t come across in the English translation, but a proof-reader had noted that the transcriber had incorrectly written ‘strange (in Russian, страннo) with a letter B’ instead of ‘the country (страна) with a letter B’. Such a shame these puns necessarily get lost in translation.
Anatoly’s girlfriend Fox had a relationship with the Minister of State Security himself, who would send her sinisterly described bouquets. Anatoly (like us) could never be quite sure if she wasn’t working for the MGB herself. The ‘friendly conversation’ with a snakelike interviewer is really, as Anatoly fears, an interrogation in which he is accused of her murder.
This is one that I will definitely re-read and that I highly recommend.
What’s distinctive about the present epoch is that nowadays anti-utopias can be based on entirely factual material. There’s no more need to invent 1984: just look around.
Martinovich, Victor: Paranoia, translated by Diane Nemec Ignashev, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-8101-2876-7
Originally published in Russian by AST (Moscow) and Astrel’-SPb (St Petersburg)
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