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Vietnam (English) – The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh NGUYEN)

Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang  with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.

 

I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.

Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.

 

NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)

Book 93: Bolivia (Spanish) – Palacio Quemado = Burnt Palace (Edmundo Paz Soldán)

The years were passing. Sometimes I remembered how my re-encounter with La Paz had been, when, at the end of the eighties, I came to study history at San Andrés. I was struck by the colour of the heights, between ochre and reddish, a limestone conformation that hinted that we were in a place little given to the somnolent manifestations of routine, and the snowy majesty of Illimani dominating the city from the distance…

 

[my translation]

Sometimes this project, at least the reading in the original language, seems like a struggle between encouragement and discouragement. Yet again, after the disillusionment with my Spanish when struggling to read Tres Tristes Tigres (for Cuba), comes an easy and enjoyable novel from Bolivia which restores my faith in my language ability. The same happened not long ago when Guinea followed Chad in French. It makes me hope that maybe it’s not me, it’s the books.
Oscar is obsessed with the presidential palace. As a boy he frequented the Palacio Quemado (the Burnt Palace), a labyrinthine, disorienting building, the symbol of the country’s lost governments, which received its strange name from being almost totally destroyed in an 1875 revolt. His brother Felipe had died there, giving him another level of mystery to penetrate.
His father worked in the Palacio Quemado as dictator Banzer’s Information Minister, and he himself ends up in the press office concocting inspiring speeches that he doesn’t believe in for the president. It is a moot point what he does believe in, if anything. For him the speeches are virtually only works of art, not something that represents life and death to the people. Nevertheless he seems to think that if only his speeches were true, Bolivia would be saved. The compassionate speech that he writes for the president doesn’t match Canedo’s body language, its failure is all down to him. Oscar turns out to be out of sync with both Canedo (who is a lame duck less than a year into his presidency) on the one hand and the people on the other (who are in a tax revolt).
His relation with Natalia, who also works in the government, is ambiguous, like the one he has with the government itself. She tries to open his eyes to how corrupt political life really is. When he goes into a slum the people there intimidate him for his supposed support of the government. Oscar’s own sister is on the opposite side of politics.
Palacio Quemado is a great look inside the unfortunate side of Bolivian politics, and highly recommended. Unfortunately I don’t think it has been translated into English.

 

PAZ SOLDAN, Edmundo (1967 – ), Edmundo, Palacio Quemado, Miami, Alfaguara, 2006, ISBN 978-1-59820-546-3

Book 92: Cuba (Spanish) – Tres Tristes Tigres = Three Trapped Tigers (Guillermo CABRERA INFANTE)

“What’s more, my word it was so weird. Boy, I swear I didn’t get a word of it.”

 

[my translation]

 

Cuba is where I would have been travelling this month, but I had to cancel due to COVID-19. (The second time this has happened when my book and trip were scheduled in the same month – see Madagascar). My best wishes to everyone there!

The title of this book (in Spanish: ‘Three Sad Tigers’) comes from a Cuban tongue twister and the whole novel is a word-play, I suppose that was its only point.
This cinematic novel was not an easy read, although I felt a bit better when my Salvadorian friend (who lived in Cuba for a while) told me that he hadn’t gotten much out of it at the first reading, either. It is written in a disjointed, often stream-of-consciousness style and is full of Cuban slang. It is a series of (as far as I could see) mostly unrelated episodes, in different styles (including descriptions of the death of Trotsky as re-told by several famous Cuban writers apparently in their own styles – I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of any of them, apart from José Martí and Alejo Carpentier). The one section I found enjoyable (and funny!) was in the middle – the incident of an apparently stolen walking stick as told separately by each of a US tourist couple who contradict each other on almost every point.
Among the many things I didn’t understand were why the character Bustrófedon writes strangely (e.g. mirror writing) but doesn’t write in real boustrophedon (left to right and right to left on alternate lines),
I feel as if I owe you an apology – perhaps I was too stupid to understand what it was on about, or need to read it a few more times, but on first reading I found it self-indulgent, (overly) ingenious, and show-offy. Nobody talks like that, in non-stop puns, no one is so remorselessly clever (and tiresome). Basically – I’m sorry to say – I found it annoying. Partly with myself – I feel I need to put more effort in to discover its virtue.
Some much more enjoyable Cuban reads (for me at least) were Cuba and the Night (Pico IYER) and Dreaming in Cuban (Cristina García).

 

CABRARA INFANTE, Guillermo (1929 – 2005), Tres tristes tigres, Barcelona, Planeta, 2016, ISBN 978-84-322-1780-7 (originally published 1967)

English translation:

CABRARA INFANTE, Guillermo, Three Trapped Tigers, translated by Donald Gardner & Suzanne Jill Levine, London, Pan, 1980, ISBN 9781536669657

Book 90: Benin (French) – Doguicimi (Paul HAZOUMÉ)

 

Convinced that all women, even those who seem truly attached to their husbands or determined never to let themselves be dishonoured, can be seduced, that those who remain indifferent to the first manifestations of love by a man, insensible to beauty, to the birth or standing of a would-be lover, deaf to his supplications or to the language of rich presents, would be unable to resist the charm of philtres. Vidaho had successively put everything into play in order to conquer Doguicimi.

[my translation]

 

When it came time to read my novel from Benin, I was thrown into a slight panic when I realised that what I had bought was not the novel I had chosen, Doguicimi by Paul Hazoumé, but a collection of literary essays on it! The novel itself seemed to be out of print, at least in French. If I was to go reading countries in order, I’d have to wait while I got a copy of the actual novel (or another one). One of the many perils of ordering books online. (Not long before, I had ended up with an Armenian book with the right title, but that turned out to be a collection of short stories, not the novel I wanted). Finally my second-hand copy arrived, covered in obscure pencil notes that I had to erase before I could read it. But I did have my chosen book.

Set in the old kingdom of Dahomey, it tells the story of how the king is so determined to go to war that he ignores the ancestors (whose wishes are transmitted via the ‘devins’ – soothsayers). His advisor Toffa is captured in the resultant debacle and is treated by definition as a traitor. Toffa’s wife is the feisty Doguicimi. Everyone is surprised that she doesn’t get done away with for speaking out, but it turns out Vidaho, the heir to the throne, has become secretly enamored of her and becomes obsessed with getting her, while Doguicimi remains steadfastly loyal to her captive husband at great personal risk till her horrible self-sacrifice. Personally, I found it hard to understand why she was so attached to him considering the way he had treated her! I suppose it is tradition and the need to be respected; perhaps her name (which is explained halfway through to mean something like ‘cite me as an example’ has something to do with it.

The people’s opinions about the Whites, who are starting their encroachment on the region, are fascinating – what the latter see as their strengths, the former see as their weaknesses. There is obviously what we would now call racism from both sides, but it is easy to understand the feeling against outsiders trying to take control of their land. By modern standards, the arrogance of the ruling class, especially, of Dahomey comes off as unpleasant.

It took me a long time to read (510 pages, plus rubbing out time!) but I learnt a fascinating amount about the culture of ancient Dahomey (renamed Benin after independence) from this book. It is a classic of early indigenous African writing and a rare chance to see this time through their eyes.

 

HAZOUMÉ, Paul (1890 – 1980), Doguicimi, Paris?, Francopoche, 1978, ISBN 978-2706806711

English translation:

HAZOUMÉ, Paul, Doguicimi: The First Dahomean Novel, translated from French by Richard Bjornson, Washington DC, Three Continents, 1990, ISBN 9780894104060

Book 89: Tunisia (French) – La Montagne du Lion = Lion Mountain (Mustapha TLILI) (مصطفى التليلي))

That happened one especially torrid summer Saturday. The embers of the afternoon had died down. The setting sun, red and immense, sank slowly but inexorably behind the Mountain, in a farewell full of passion and infinite sadness. The entire universe was engulfed in a light of dusty ochre and blood.

 

[my translation]

 

Strong-willed, religious Horïa lives alone and isolated with her old black servant Sââd, getting her only consolation by contemplating the view of Lion Mountain above. Her eldest son has gone to an America she can’t begin to imagine, her youngest is off fighting somewhere for who knows what (he is accused of being a terrorist). As she comes to discover, his letters had not been delivered to her for years. But she is about to lose her view of the mountain to a planned tourist centre (the concept of tourism is equally foreign to her). What right do they have? In a scenario familiar to people all round the world (such as the Amazon Indians having their land stolen right now), how do you stop ‘development’ from taking your land and destroying your way of life, when everyone knows that it’s your land, but you have no legal document to prove it according to the interlopers?
In the novel, tourists discover the mountain, and make a film and an illustrated book about it. When the President hears about this, he is ashamed and wants to develop a tourist complex there. Everyone else blames Horïa for hindering prosperity; even the imam avoids her. She is an ‘obstacle to progress’, considered a fool and senile.
Sââd had undergone torture for not wanting to join the Party. Horïa is equanimous and tries to keep to her own life, and concentrates on weaving her qilims, asking him to stay silent. Nevertheless, it all ends in a blaze of violence.
This is a simple but great and passionate novel. It was banned in Tunisia.

 

TLILI, Mustapha (1937-2017), La montagne du lion, Mesnil-sur-l’Estrée, Gallimard, 1988, ISBN 2-07-071395-4

Book 88: Belgium (Flemish/Dutch) – De Intrede van Christus in Brussel = Christ’s Entry into Brussels (Dimitri VERHULST)

 

In recent years, when travelling abroad, it had struck me that I was having to explain ever more frequently that there was no civil war raging here. The disconnect between political discourse and civil life could hardly have been more obvious. Flemings and Walloons weren’t staring each other down with swords drawn; our bricklayers worked together on the same sites, and what they built stood nice and straight; the Mint Orchestra consisted of musicians from north and south, and nevertheless they could play La Finta Giardiniera in the same key; people married each other across the language borders, and in their households they fought the battle of doors and pans neither more nor less than anyone else, they found the same warmth, the same chill in each other’s arms. But the populist slogans of our loudest dog-whistlers gave some outside observes the opposite impression, and kept important investors away.

 

[My translation]

 

I had been intending to reserve Belgium in order to finally get around to reading that most prolific of thriller writers, Georges Simenon, but meanwhile I had stumbled onto this fascinating novel, and it became my choice.

It was no doubt inspired by fellow Belgian James Ensor’s famous Symbolist painting, “The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888”, although as Verhulst points out, the Holy Family would seem to have a special affinity with Belgium going by the number of their visitations (especially by the Virgin Mary).

Like the painting by Ensor (and Bosch before him) it has a deliciously misanthropic view of humanity. It gets off to a depressing, workaday, cynical start, not what you might expect for such an epoch-making event, with nondescript weather. The people of Brussels can speak every language – but won’t talk to one another. (And the Messiah’s return leads to a frantic search for an Aramaic speaker). Jesus’ second coming is pre-announced in the news feeds, but apparently no one believes it, certainly they don’t communicate it to anyone else. Ironically, the most worried about it seems to be the Church, over sins like priestly paedophilia.

Since the whole novel is taking the piss out of Brussels, I was expecting the Maneken Pis to put in a cameo appearance, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Belgians’ self-deprecating nature stops the rest of the world (and Belgians themselves?) from realising what a wonderful country they’ve got. It was almost too unremittingly jaundiced for me, maybe too much for some.

If you don’t like sarcasm, steer away from this book. But in the end I loved it – the best satire I’ve read since Jonathan Swift. It is often very funny – such as the Life-of-Brian moment where despite his denials a hippie is mistaken for the returned Christ, is mobbed and ends up in an institution convinced of his divinity.

For such a slim novel, I learnt an enormous amount about Belgium (reality and stereotypes), which Verhulst calls ‘geography’s hypochondriac’.

 

VERHULST, Dimitri (1972 – ), De intrede van Christus in Brussel (in het jaar 2000 en oneffen ongeveer), Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Contact, 2011, ISBN 9789025437534

English title: Christ’s Entry into Brussels (in the year 2000 and something, or thereabouts), London, Portobello, 2014

Book 87: Guinea (French) – L’Enfant Noir (Camara LAYE)

 

And then the season we were in let us to keep ourselves apart no longer. In December, everything is flowering and everything smells lovely; everything is young: spring seems to join into summer, and the countryside, long waterlogged, long oppressed by sullen clouds, everywhere takes its revenge, bursts: the sky is never clearer, nor more resplendent: birds sing, they are drunk; joy is everywhere, everywhere it explodes and in every heart it resounds. It was that season, the beautiful season, which swelled my breast, and the tam-tam too, I confess, and the festive air of our walk; it was the beautiful season and everything that it contained – and that it did not contain – that it expanded profusely! – which made me dance with joy.

 

[my translation]

 

This was one of the first works of Francophone literature from Africa. It is perhaps not a very deep novel, but I found it a pleasant read. It certainly came as a relief after the last French novel I read, Les Racines du Yucca from Chad – much easier to read and much less boring. In fact it might be a good first novel to read in French for someone learning the language but wanting an adult book. It is based heavily on the author’s own life. It is the fairly ordinary story of a boy growing up in a traditional village, who is sent off to school in the capital Conakry and finally in France (against the opposition of his clinging mother). She was a sorcerer, in a good way – since the crocodile was her totem, she was immune from its attack. His father was a blacksmith. He later regrets not having asked about the local customs during his happy childhood in Guinea, for which he feels deep nostalgia. To tell the truth, nothing really out of the ordinary or exciting happens. What a relief after the tragic stories from Rwanda and South Sudan! Even the colonial situation (Guinea was still under French rule at the time) seems to have barely any influences. Not such an unusual story even in real life, and to tell the truth I’m surprised it’s still considered one of the classics of Francophone African literature, but still I enjoyed it.

 

LAYE, Camara (1928-1980), L’Enfant Noir, Paris, Plon, 2015, ISBN 978-2-266-17894-5

Translated into English as The Dark Child or The African Child.