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Book 70: Syria (English) – In praise of hatred = Madih al-karahiya (Khaled KHALIFA)

By the end of that summer, hatred had taken possession of me. I was enthused by it; I felt that it was saving me. Hatred gave me the feeling of superiority I was searching for. I carefully read the pamphlets distributed at every meeting with the other girls and memorized whole sections of them, particularly the fatwas charging other sects with heresy. I became closer to my seven companions and grew to love them. We exchanged secrets and books describing the horrific agonies of the grave. My integration with them saved me from my desires for Ghada, who had in my mind become wretched; she was still far from the power and severity I possessed when asked my opinion on punishing those who showed contempt for religion’s doctrines. I astonished them by requesting to make a list of such girls at my school and seeking permission to disfigure them with acid for wearing tight shirts that clearly showed their breasts. Alya’s eyes shone as she asked me to be patient, as if she already knew the date we would do it.

 

Sadly, Syria has slipped a fair way down the list (which I’m trying to read in population order) from when I read this book, due to so many of its people being killed in the sickening civil war. But as it seems like the endgame is coming in the war, its time has finally come for a post. You might feel that it is set in today’s war-torn Syria, but it actually takes place in the 1980s, when a previous President Assad oversaw another terrifying massacre in Aleppo. Plus ça change…

This blistering novel is an interesting female perspective on radicalism. The young narrator is consumed by hatred. She hates not only others but even her own body, warring against her awakening sexuality; she despises her mother; sees her own family as hypocrites – since only one member of her family bothers to get up for the dawn prayers. She hates other Muslim groups that she sees as misguided. And she hates the secular but dictatorial government. She is imprisoned, both physically (in practice) and spiritually, and as much by herself as by others; not only by people, but also by institutions and by history. She can only see an enemy (and she is so like them!) – not the (invisible) good majority, only the bad in people and not the good. She fosters hatred as a weapon to gain power – as do so many around her.

When I was studying Middle Eastern history in the early 1980s, the Lebanese civil war was in full fight. My university tutor warned us that some day Syria would blow up into a far bigger conflagration, but since it was ostensibly stable and peaceful that seemed hard to believe at the time. Alas that he proved right.

This is not a happy read, but an insightful and tragic book, brilliantly written, and vital.

 

KHALIFA, Khaled (خالد خليفة‎) (1964 – ), In praise of hatred, translated from Arabic by Leri Price, London, Black Swan, 2013, ISBN 978-0-552-77613-4

(first published in Arabic 2008)

 

 

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Book 69: Chile (Spanish) – Eva Luna (Isabel ALLENDE)

“Do you touch yourself with your hands?”
“Yes…”
“Often, child?”
“Every day.”
“Every day! How many times?”
“I don’t keep count… Many times…”
“That is a grave offence in the eyes of God!”
“I didn’t know, Father. And if I put gloves on, is it still a sin?”
“Gloves! But what are you saying, you fool? Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No, no…” I murmured, terrified, working out that in any event it would be very difficult to wash my face, brush my teeth or scratch with gloves on.
“Promise that you will never do that again. Purity and innocence are the best virtues in a girl. You will say fifty Hail Marys in penitence so that God will forgive you.”
“I can’t, Father!” I replied, because I only knew how to count up to twenty.
“What do you mean, you can’t!” roared the priest, and a rain of saliva crossed the confession box and fell down on me. I ran out.
[my translation]

 

I love the magical realist novels of Isabel Allende, and I had read almost all of them, except for some reason this one. Isabel’s father was the cousin of leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende who was overthrown and killed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1973, leading to an ugly dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. The skinny country is one of my favourites in the world – the landscapes are stunningly beautiful and I found the people lovely, so I still find it inexplicable how some of them could treat their fellow citizens so brutally during the military dictatorship.
Eva Luna is a born story-teller, a South American Scheherazade; she tells the story of her family, which she decorates with whimsical fantasies (unless she is recounting reality). She is in love with a guerrilla fighter living in the mountains. Her life passes through encounters with a Thousand and One Nights cast of strange characters.

The novel is full of bizarre and sometimes funny characters and situations. But there is so much reality in their unrealness. Despite the dark and rocky personal and political history it covers, it is made palatable – more than palatable, delicious – by the resilience and humour shown.

I didn’t find it as perfect as The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los espíritus), one of my favourite books, but the writing is beautiful and I still loved it.

 

ALLENDE, Isabel (1942 – ), Eva Luna, Barcelona, Plaza & Janes, 1991, ISBN 84-01-42268-X

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.

 

 

Book 49: Venezuela (Spanish) – Doña Bárbara (Rómulo GALLEGOS)

Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.

[my translation]

 

This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:

 

“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”

 

While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.

 

GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4

 

Book 17: East Germany (’German Democratic Republic’) (German): Nachdenken über Christa T. = The Quest for Christa T. (Christa WOLF)

 

Occasionally I’ll throw in a bonus book for a place you won’t find on the current list of lands in the United Nations. Some of these will be ghost nations, like the late and mostly unlamented East Germany. The title should properly be translated as Reflections on Christa T.

The German word ‘nachdenken’ literally means to think about (or after). And it is the word which opens the book in German.

“To reflect, to think – about her. Of the attempt to be oneself. That is what is found in her diaries, which are left to us, on the loose pages of the manuscripts which have been discovered, between the lines of the letters I am acquainted with. They have taught me that I must forget my memory of her, Christa T. The colouring of memory misleads you.

So do we have to give her up for lost?” (My translation)

Christa T., the subject of this loving portrait, is an extraordinary, ordinary young woman who dies at 35 of leukaemia (heartbreakingly, she is only too aware that she will be one of the last to die of this disease). The narrator first introduces her when a self-sufficient girl appears at her school. She comes to admire her.

In retrospect, the punctuated coming-and-going relationship could be seen as symbolic of the relationship between the Germanies.

The narrator turns Dostoyevsky on his head: “I see now that unhappiness makes people alike, but happiness doesn’t, it makes them individuals”. (123)

She spends her last years planning and building a wonderful little hilltop, lakeside house, but barely gets to live in it. It seems to stand as a symbol of her promising, unfulfilled life.

I couldn’t help feeling that the narrator knows too much about her subject, more than any other human being could possibly know about someone’s inside, even than a spouse or family member. Perhaps a better vehicle for this (almost) omniscience would have been a third person viewpoint. It feels like a biography of a famous writer but with a great deal of speculation. Nevertheless, this is a great book and a fantastic psychological portrait of a candle in the wind.

 

Wolf, Christa (1929 – 2011), Nachdenken über Christa T., Suhrkamp, 2007, ISBN 9783518459133

10. Book 10: Japan (English) – The Tale of Genji = Genji monogatari (MURASAKI Shikibu)

 

In a certain reign there was a lady not of the first rank whom the emperor loved more than any of the others. The grand ladies with high ambitions thought her a presumptuous upstart, and lesser ladies were still more resentful. Everything she did offended someone. Probably aware of what was happening, she fell seriously ill and came to spend more time at home than at court. The emperor’s pity and affection quite passed bounds. No longer caring what his ladies and courtiers might say, he behaved as if intent upon stirring gossip.

 

This Heian Era classic from about 1000 CE is famous as probably the first great novel in the world and one of the earliest classics by a female writer. It is massive and took a long time to wade through! You can even see her development as the writing gets better and the characters more multi-dimensional as the plot progresses. It does have something of an unfinished, uneven feel though. Genji himself was gone so suddenly that it seems as if a chapter is missing, which is apparently the case. It gives lots of interesting insights into the exotic world of the Japanese court. Genji is a royal prince and a playboy – and to these modern eyes his womanising seems a bit tiresome! His relations in these polygamous times are quite complicated.
The Japanese appreciation of nature and importance of social relations stand in relief.
Incidentally, Murasaki Shikibu’s given name is unknown. Personal names were seemingly unimportant during this period, likewise in her book. Murasaki (’Purple’) is actually this book’s heroine (are there any other authors who had their name taken from one of their own creations?), while Shikibu was a courtly title held by her father.

 

Murasaki Shikibu (c.  973 – c. 1014), The Tale of Genji, translated from Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, NY/London, Everyman’s Library, 1992, ISBN 978-1-85715-108-4

Book 4: Indonesia (English) – The Buru Quartet (Pramoedya TOER)

People called me Minke.

My own name… for the time being I need not tell it. Not because I’m crazy for mystery. I’ve thought about it quite a lot. I don’t yet really need to reveal who I am before the eyes of others.

 

Toer really should have won a Nobel Prize for this cycle (set during and centred around the future Indonesia’s the struggle for freedom and identity), hopefully he will one day! Toer seems to be unread in modern Indonesia (despite being considered its greatest author) – for most of the time he was banned, now I guess he just seems irrelevant since (in this book) he was writing about the relationship between the Indonesians and the Dutch, and the struggle for independence and dignity, a battle which is long won and far in the past. Perhaps people still believe the blandishments against Toer from the Suharto era. This is a huge shame as it is a beautiful book, if a little melodramatic. The story of the book’s gestation in itself is amazing beyond belief. Even the translator, Max Lane (the Australian ambassador in Jakarta) did not escape unscathed.

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1. This Earth of Mankind = Bumi Manusia
In the first book the hero of the first three (at least) of the cycle, Minke, awakes to the injustice of the colonial Dutch East Indies. As an intelligent and sensitive observer, he is inevitably hindered by a civilisation which he largely feels a part of and admires but which will not accept him, as a ‘native’. The young Javanese noble also finds the first of what will be a series of lovers through the quartet, a beautiful Eurasian who symbolises his aspiration to take the best of both his worlds. The portrait of his powerful, resilient mother-in-law is wonderful.

 

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: This Earth of Mankind, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025635 0

(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1980 and in English in Australia 1982)

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2. Child of All Nations = Anak Semua Bangsa
The hero of This Earth of Mankind, Minke, has become a journalist but has realised from his European mentors that he, like his countrymen, knows little about the true situation in his country, less in fact than people in Europe do. The novel follows his gaining of political consciousness as he sets out to educate himself about his land. He becomes a (perhaps naive) admirer of the political movements in Japan, China and the Philippines, so far ahead of his own land.
The title comes from page 169: “In humility, I realized I am a child of all nations, of all ages, past and present. Place and time of birth, parents, all are coincidence: such things are not sacred.” Well, that is true in the broadest sense, that we are all subject to the accidents (coincidence) of our birth; but Minke (like all of us) is very much a child of his time and place.

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: Child of All Nations, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025633 4

(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1980 and in English in Australia 1984)

 

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3. Footsteps = Jejak langkah
Perhaps the most political of this quartet, it follows Minke’s stumbling realisation of the need for his people to organise in order to gain freedom, to speak and write in what would become known as Indonesian and to think of themselves as (eventually) Indonesians. It portrays the emergence of this political man  his influences, mistakes and setbacks. Sadly all his ideas seem to come from others – the Dutch colonisers, the Japanese, the Indos (mixed Dutch-Indonesians), the local Chinese and other minority groups, rather than from himself, but it is fascinating to trace someone’s political awakening and sources. He races through several marriages as fast as he does through political ideas and organisations. Towards the end, as he speeds towards disaster, Minke’s path crosses with the petty official Pangemanann (with two n’s, as he constantly emphasises to underline that he is in bed with the Europeans).

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: Footsteps, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025634 5

(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1985 and in English in Australia 1990)

 

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4. The House of Glass = Rumah kaca
The Dutch colonial official Pangemanann, having appeared at the end of Footsteps, takes over as narrator (he puts Minke away and then ‘solves the problem’ in a rather shocking way). He is entrusted with keeping an eye on the indigenous organisations (which are springing up like mushrooms) that might cause problems for the colonial authorities, but goes beyond that to use ‘divide and rule’ tactics to try to keep them weak. But he is a torn individual since he knows that his efforts will fail, and furthermore he is a personal admirer of Minke and other independence figures. And he still tries to see himself as a moral figure, despite his awareness that he is losing not only this morality, but also his person and his family, to drink. While few of us are as aware of the currents of history in which we swim, or have such a writ to try and influence them, he shows the folly of trying to swim against the tide of history.

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta: The House of Glass, translated by Max Lane, New York, Penguin, 1996, ISBN 0 14 025679 2

(first published in Indonesian in Jakarta, 1988 and in English in Australia 1992)