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Book 83: Rhodesia (English) – The Grass is Singing (Doris LESSING)

She realized, suddenly, standing there, that all those years she had lived in that house, with the acres of bush all around her, and she had never penetrated into the trees, had never gone off the paths. And for all those years she had listened wearily, through the hot dry months, with her nerves prickling, to that terrible shrilling, and had never seen the beetles who made it. Lifting her eyes she saw she was standing in the full sun, that seemed so low she could reach up a hand and pluck it out of the sky: a big red sun, sullen with smoke, like a shining plow disc or a polished plate, ready for plucking. She reached up her hand; it brushed against a cluster of leaves, and something whirred away. With a little moan of horror she ran through the bushes and the grass, away back to the clearing. There she stood still, clutching at her throat.

 

Nobel laureate (2007). Doris Lessing is an amazing writer. The breadth of her writing genres is breathtaking. She was born in Persia (now Iran), grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which qualifies her to represent that defunct country, whose racisim would have been anathema to her, and later lived in Britain. Apart from needing to give Rhodesia some representation, as one of the countries that has existed during my lifetime, Lessing is simply too important to ignore, although modern Zimbabwe is so different that I wanted to choose a ‘Black’ writer to represent it (hence, ‘Bones’ by Chenjerai Hove).
This, her first novel, is a murder mystery which begins and ends with the crime, while all the rest of the book fleshes out what caused the killing. The victim, Mary, is a city girl who should never have left her satisfactory urban life but (due to the needling of her contemporaries) marries an eternally struggling farmer, Dick Turner, who seems congenitally immune to success, and she buries herself on his isolated farm. So isolated are they that she does not even know about the war. The (distant) neighbours despise these ‘poor whites’, who in turn hold themselves aloof from them. Dick treats his land a bit better than the other rapacious ‘Whites’, likewise his ‘Black’ labour force (although partly because of the difficulty of acquiring and holding onto them). But Mary becomes an ever more virulent racist – yet we can understand (although not sympathise) because we have seen how she has come to be this way. Despite this, she is drawn into a highly charged relationship with her final male servant (having driven off a string of predecessors), Moses, who she had once abused.
Mary’s mental disintegration stands as a symbol for the inevitable breakdown of the racist Rhodesian regime. Lessing masterfully describes her boring life, yet I couldn’t keep from eagerly turning the pages. I would definitely say this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

 

LESSING, Doris (1919 -2013 ), The Grass is Singing, New York, HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN 9780061673740

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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)

 

 

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