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Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)

I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.

[my translation]

On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.

 

MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.

 

 

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Book 63: Niger (French) – Camisole de paille = The Straw Camisole (Amadou IDÉ)

              

   ‘Mother, I’ve come to find out what’s happening. For a few days now, people have been coming and going here. Especially Old Gôro whose shadow hovers over all the marriages in the village. Have you been charged with preparing a marriage without telling me?’

                ’It’s because of you, my daughter. Only because of you’ answered the mother after a long silence.

                ’Because of me, mother? What’s it got to do with me? No one has spoken to me of marriage here, not even my friends.’

                ’That doesn’t surprise me, my daughter. That’s because it’s a matter of your own marriage’, her mother sighed.

[my translation]

 

Fatou and Karimou are lovers and want to get married, but Fatou’s mother doesn’t like him and forbids her only child from wedding him. Her parents force her to marry the ‘Koumandaw’ (the regional authority) against her will – her weak husband Old Mazou having been bribed by giving him his dream of a hajj to Mecca – but she quickly escapes him and her drought-desiccated village for the city, where she is taken under the wing by a house of kindly prostitutes and grows into an independent young woman. When Fatou and Karimou meet back in the village, they find they have grown apart. Fatou, like everyone, has to find a way of accommodating the pressures of family and of changing ways of life, and she does.

It is a slim novel, but I loved it! It’s such a shame that it (or any other of Amadou Idé’s novels) hasn’t been translated into English.

 

IDÉ, Amadou (1951 – ), Misères et grandeurs ordinaires, Ciboure, Le Cheminante, 2014, ISBN 978-2-37127-016-9

Book 49: Nepal (English) – Buddha’s Orphans (Samrat UPADHYAY)

Here I am at country number fifty, about a quarter of the way through my quest!

 

Raja’s mother had abandoned him on the parade ground of Tundikhel on a misty morning before Kathmandu had awakened, then drowned herself in Rani Pokhari, half a kilometer north. No one connected the cries of the baby to the bloated body of the woman that would float to the surface of the pond later that week.

 

I couldn’t help being a little disappointed with this book. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much. I just didn’t feel that, despite being a full-length novel, it had the depth of Upadhyay’s “Arresting god in Kathmandu”, a collection of short stories that I found as wonderful as its title. Upadhyay was apparently the first Nepalese writer to be translated into English. It was after reading “Arresting” that I felt I needed to read more of his work, and chose this one when I changed the intention of my reading criteria to exclude short stories.

This is one of those luscious subcontinental family sagas I love so much. It centres on two Nepalis who we first meet as boy (Raja) and girl (Nilu). Only the boy, Raja, is a true orphan – the book starts with his mother drowning herself. He is taken in by a homeless man, Bokey Ba, and a footpath corn seller, Kaki; as he grows, the once unwanted boy becomes the object of a tug-of-war among those who care for him.

Nilu is only an orphan in the sense that she ends up despising and being estranged from her alcoholic, snobbish mother Muwa. Raja and Nilu become friends, are separated, fall in love, marry, separate, come together again…

The story takes place against the background of Nepal’s tumultuous recent history, beginning under the unpopular ‘King M.’ and following through his overthrow. Raja has a part, but only a very minor one, in the events – perhaps foreshadowed by Bokey Ba’s trying to dump him in the palace (leading to his name), and Raja’s chewing on a button with the King’s portrait. Raja takes part in demos against the monarchy without telling his wife, though she spies him at one. When their young son is taken gravely ill she is held up by a demo (which Raja isn’t at) and he dies. This leads to their estrangement.

I found it a totally enjoyable read, so please don’t let my slight tinge of disappointment put you off. I suspect Upadhyay might become one of the great subcontinental writers; as to whether his forte is in fact in short stories rather than novels, well, I’ll just have to read more of him to find out, which will be no hardship!

 

UPADHYAY, Samrat (सम्राट उपाध्याय) (1963 – ), Buddha’s Orphans, Boston/NY, Mariner, 2011, ISBN 978-0-547-46990-4

 

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 28: Burma (Myanmar) (English) – Irrawaddy Tango (Wendy LAW-YONE)

 

Set in an orwellian southeast Asian country which is a not really disguised Burma (the Irrawaddy of the title sort of gives it away!) it follows the wife of the country’s military dictator (an equally thinly-disguised U Ne Win), who has the book’s title as her unlikely nickname. Since it leaps from their first meeting to their married life, where she is already sarcastic and fearful of him, you are left with the question, why did she marry him in the first place? She seems pretty jaundiced almost from the beginning of her life, certainly about all her men, the political movements she comes into contact with, and the countries where she lived (Burma, the US and even Thailand!) and the whole book is quite bleak, for which you can’t blame someone who grew up under the dictatorship or was exiled from her country. Nevertheless Law-Yone is witty and often funny.

She compares her people to a column of caterpillars who found their way onto a pot:

“Following their leader, the insects had reached the rim and were making an endless circuit round and round the lip. Not for minutes, not for hours, but for days they circled that pot, unable to break out of their roundabout, even after collapsing periodically; even after – at long last – one member would actually strike out on its own.

In the end every adventurer returned to fall back in step with the column. And on went the march – an endless looping of the loop by witless troops who’d lost their leader but were simply unable to abandon their path.”

Another more sympathetic and heart-wrenching portrait of a beaten but dignified people comes in a picture of a robbed platform vendor:

“At one big junction we were in our seats, having a snack, when we heard a commotion on the platform. One of the food vendors, a girl about my age, was standing with a tray on her head, crying her eyes out. The tray was empty, but the girl – by force of habit, apparetly – kept it balanced on her head. The effort required an erect posture comically at odds with her misery.

The face under the tray was puffy and wet. Through her sobs, she was trying to tell some sort of story to the people who’d gathered around.

‘What is happening?’ Merc asked, in her quaint Daan, of someone below.

‘She has been robbed,’ said the person on the platform, in precise English. He had a plump mole in the middle of his chin out of which grew three luxuriant hairs. ‘They have taken everything. They have taken the food, they have taken all her money. Now she fears going home because she will be thrashed.’”

A cynical and bitter portrait of a downtrodden country which deserves better.

At the same time I was reading Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin as my travel book, which proved the perfect accompaniment. At first blush, Orwell’s stint as a policeman in the British colonial government might not seem to have much to do with his masterworks, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but Larkin shows just how ‘orwellian’ the military dictatorship was at its height.

 

Wendy LAW-YONE (1947 – ), Irrawaddy Tango, Evanston, IL, Triquarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8101-5142-1

Book 23: Great Britain: England (English) – Pride and Prejudice (Jane AUSTEN)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession
of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his
first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds
of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property
of some one or other of their daughters.”
Surely that is one of the most famous, and best, kick-offs to a novel ever. And the pure brilliance of being able to summarise a plot in a single sentence carries through the book.

How do you choose what to read from a country that could keep you reading for generations, if you discovered the secret of immortality? In the end, I ended up with the book I was reading at the time (or, one of them).
Having escaped having to read it at school, I first had a go at this classic and deeply loved novel a few years ago. I found it hard to engage with a cast of females who seemed to have no aspirations for their lives other than to get married – it had little appeal to me and it all seemed rather sad. However at second attempt it did eventually grab me. I could hardly criticise a work for its theme (so wonderfully summarised in its ingenious first sentence) or for portraying life and mores of the idle rich and not-so-rich as they were at the time of its setting. Austen, like her heroine, does wry humour very well. It is in fact a very sparkling book and I can understand why it is so well-loved.
I don’t think it would be spoiling the well-known plot for anyone if I revealed that the guy gets his girl (or the other way round) in the end. Anyone who had lived in a vacuum and never heard of the book would see the inevitability of the denouement from the beginning. But it’s Austen’s genius that for almost all of the book we can’t see how the headstrong Elizabeth and the arrogant Darcy could ever get together. It took me a while, but I finally appreciate what a marvellous work it is..

Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), Pride and Prejudice, London: Penguin, 1975 (originally 1813), ISBN 0-14-043072-5