#20Books of Summer: An Entertaining Start

 Kōtarō Isaka: Bullet Train, transl. Sam Malissa

Former assassin Kimura embarks upon the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Morioka (one of the longest direct lines in Japan, over 670 km) with a personal mission of revenge: he wants to shoot schoolboy Satoshi, who bullied his son and made him fall off the rooftop of a building, putting him into a coma in hospital. But the train is full of other paid gangsters, who all seem to be after a suitcase full of money and trying to avoid getting punished by the man mobster boss who hired them. Nanao is the unluckiest criminal in the world, and all too aware of it. Meanwhile, Tangerine and Lemon operate as a pair, look like twins, but are in fact very different, with Tangerine reading serious Russian novels, while Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. When things go wrong, they all have to readjust their plans and end up stalking each other.

The plot is utterly ludicrous and the black comedy is over the top, and you can’t help feeling that the book has been written with an eye firmly on a film adaptation (which, sure enough, the filming for an American action thriller based on the book has just wrapped, starring Brad Pitt and creating a few more feminine roles, which the book sadly lacks). At first, I struggled with the translation, which felt too ‘American’, but then I realised that the Japanese original is probably quite Americanised too, heavily influenced by American film-makers such as Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers. Not forgetting, of course, the Thomas the Tank Engine animated series. For those familiar with Japanese popular culture, however, there are also references to the yakuza and to Naoki Urasawa’s manga (later turned into an anime series) Monster, with the angelic-looking teenage master criminal.

With its fast pace and constant switching of points of view, plus a few unexpected twists, this is sheer entertainment, if you don’t examine the far-fetched plot too closely. Perfect for a train ride!

John Boyne: The Echo Chamber

The Cleverleys are privileged and self-obsessed media addicts: George is an Alan Partridge kind of TV chat show host, who has interviewed everyone who is anyone, consider himself a ‘national treasure’ and is angling for a peerage. His wife Beverley writes soppy, predictable bodice-rippers – or rather, she provides the ‘ideas’ and gets ghostwriters to actually write them. Their three children are all still living at home. Nelson (named after Mandela) suffers from social anxiety and only feels slightly more comfortable if he is wearing a uniform. The daughter Elizabeth is an internet troll but dreams of becoming a media influencer. The youngest, Achilles, is still a schoolboy and uses his good looks to seduce and then blackmail older men.

Through this thoroughly unlikable family, there is a lot of satirising of our obsession with media, but Boyne also takes swipes at ‘wokeness’ and ‘anti-wokeness’, implicit and explicit racism, gender identities, fake news and fake outrage, engaging in charity purely as a way to increase your public profile, media pile-ons and cancel culture… and the Ukrainian outlaw and folk hero Ustym Karmaliuk, believe it or not (who is the name of a tortoise consigned into Beverley’s care).

It is all quite hilarious, although the humour is more farce than subtle. It made me snort with laughter a few times, but about halfway in, it starts to feel like a joke that has gone on for too long. Or perhaps the author is trying to hit too many targets at once with his satire, so it ends up looking and sounding like a long Twitter rant or op-ed. Many of the jokes rely on repetition to be funny, and this also gets monotonous (and predictable) after a while. Still, it’s a quick, fun beach read, a great antidote to checking your social media accounts.

In addition to the two above, which were on my planned list of most recent Netgalley reads, I also read an additional (non-list) book with the same sort of dark humour.

Benoit Philippon: Mamie Luger

This French book features an unpredictable 104-year-old woman who is arrested by the police for trying to shoot her neighbour with a Luger dating from the Second World War. In actual fact, she was creating a diversion, to enable a young couple to escape by stealing the neighbour’s car. However, the frail old lady is by no means a saint, as the police inspector discovers while interviewing her. In fact, she turns out to be a serial killer, with a number of corpses buried in her cellar. Of course, she had perfectly good reasons for murdering each of those men, and is not at all filled with remorse. A rollicking feminist yarn, although at times it descends into stereotypical characters or predictable and repetitive situations.

None of the books above are memorable, but they certainly put me in the holiday mood and proved a welcome distraction at a time when work is very, very demanding.

Friday Fun: How to Read Outdoors

A couple of the readers commenting on last week’s post expressed some misgivings about reading indoors in fine weather, while others admitted they weren’t that keen on reading outdoors. Although in my youth I used to read outdoors (most notably when I was supposed to be looking after my grandmother’s animals – e.g. I read Anna Karenina in the cherry tree, stuffing myself with cherries and losing the cow in the process), I find the insects and the noise of other people’s mowers and barbecues put me off doing so nowadays. However, these gorgeous settings might make me change my mind.

Sadly, the WordPress block editor has decided not to allow me to add any text directly below the image, so I will have to produce a little bit of text in-between images. Can you just quit ‘improving’ things all the time, WordPress?

  1. Above: cosy reading and writing nook, from Decor Renewal.

2. Of course, it helps if you live in a forest. From Book Bub.

3. This is so bright, you might be able to even read here after sunset. From The Backyard Room.

4. If you’re an Italian prince and want the Rolls Royce of garden loungers, this one from Patio Productions should do the trick.

5. I struggle to read for a long time in a hammock, as my back starts aching, but it’s a lovely feel. From Better Homes and Gardens.

6. If all else fails, a garden bench in the shade will do as well. From The Garden Glove.

Five Books, Five Decades (1970-2010)

I blatantly stole this idea from book blogger Gordon at Grab This Book, who invites crime authors every week to share five books, one from each of the last five decades, which they think should really be in everyone’s library. I thought that no one will invite me to do such a thing (at least not for the foreseeable future), so I might as well create my own post. Besides, it fits in rather nicely with my own five decades of life. I won’t stick to crime fiction, but will try to limit to books that I have on my shelves.

1970s

This is a toss-up between two books which actually have a lot in common: Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva (1972) and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979). Both are very short, both are a sort of stream of consciousness or philosophising about the minutiae of everyday life and the artist, especially the woman artist, and the sacrifices she still had to make to be able to create freely (and possibly still has, even now, fifty years later). Lispector’s novel was translated by Stefan Tobler in 2012.

1980s

I haven’t dared to reread this book, but back then it really changed my world; it was a sort of sexual awakening for me, all the more so because it weaved politics into love, and was forbidden in Romania for most of that decade. Which always makes a book irresistible: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Translation: Michael Henry Heim.

1990s

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy was all published during the 1990s, with my favourite, the middle volume Chourmo appearing in 1996. This is the dirty, smelly, criminal Marseille before its facelift (and City of Culture status) – yet full of colour, rhythms, diverse cultures, fully alive. Howard Curtis translated this work for Europa Editions, reissued a couple of years ago.

2000s

Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel (2002) is one of those romantic novels which I supposedly don’t enjoy. I loved this very loose adaptation of Wuthering Heights set in Japan, which skilfully blends a social fresco of post-war Japan with a timeless love story. I most certainly want to reread it. Translation: Juliet Winters Carpenter.

2010s

This is the decade that I started blogging and reviewing for other sites, so I discovered a lot of new authors and read more new releases than ever before. One author who really bowled me over when I first read her, even before she won the Nobel Prize, was Olga Tokarczuk, but the two books that have been published in English translation were both published in the original in the previous decade, so I cannot use that. I will therefore alight upon Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, Ging, Gegangen (2015), which describes so well the fear of refugees flooding one’s country and the consequences of that, which have pretty much marked (and scarred) this past decade. You can find it translated as Go Went Gone by Susan Bernofsky for Granta.

As I prepared this post, I realised two things:

A. I cannot resist cheating, so I snuck in six books rather than five (or even more, if you count the trilogy as three separate books).

B. A lot of my favourites are older than the 1970s, so I will probably create another one for the 1920-1960 period.

#6Degrees of Separation June 2021

This is possibly my favourite monthly link-up, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. A book is chosen as a starting point and all you have to do is link it to six other books to form a chain. You can make it harder on yourself by giving yourself a theme, or try to turn the chain into a circle, or you can just roam wildly, like I do!

This month we start with a book that I haven’t read, nor do I know much about it (always a tricky starting point). The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld won the Stella Prize and has been described as ‘a complex and unsettling story set in the east of Scotland, near the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and moves between three time frames and three women’ by an Amazon reviewer.

I love to eat fish, so I instantly thought of ‘seabass’ when I saw that title. Another book with a species of fish in the title is Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, a rather whimsical love story and gently satirical novel, poking fun at politics, civil servants and international relations. It was a huge hit, translated into many languages and adapted for screen. Although the author followed it up with six more novels, that were supposedly well received, I have never heard of the others, so to me he feels like a one-hit wonder.

Another author whose debut novel was hugely successful and adapted for film – but who was a true one-hit wonder (i.e. hasn’t written anything since) is Arthur Golden with his Memoirs of a Geisha. I personally found the book rather shallow – full of description and details, very much designed to titillate a Western audience, but the characters were paper-thin.

There are some similar elements of soap opera, but considerably more subtlety in the portrayal of geishas in Higuchi Ichiyo‘s work, particularly in Takekurabe, a story of adolescents growing up in the Red Light District and realising that it is not that easy to escape what life has in store for them.

Take in Japanese usually means bamboo and one of the oldest Japanese stories, almost a folk tale, is Taketori Monogatari – The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The bamboo cutter and his wife find Kaguya-hime, a princess from the Moon, as a tiny baby inside a bamboo stalk. This story has been made into an anime (under the name of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) by Studio Ghibli.

For my next choice, I go with a book that has also been adapted into a Studio Ghibli anime, namely Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. There are quite a few significant differences between the book and the film (beautifully described in this blog), the most annoying one being that Wales simply disappears. Maybe Miyazaki felt that Japanese move-goers wouldn’t know where Wales was?

For my last link I choose a novel with the word ‘castle’ in the title. Although I hesitated a little about whether I should put down Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, that one feels a little too wholesome, so in the end I could not resist going with one of my favourite authors Shirley Jackson and her wonderfully creepy We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Once more we have travelled the world – from Scotland to Yemen, Japan to the magical kingdom of Ingary (and Wales), and finally a far too small town in Vermont. Where will your Six Degrees take you?

Friday Fun: Reading and Forgetting About the World

Everyone may be rushing to go outside and escape lockdown conditions, but there will always be some of us who don’t mind staying indoors and reading… especially in cosy reading nooks such as these.

I mean, you’re practically outdoors with this attick library, aren’t you? From Pinterest.
A more classical interpretation of the librar, but Il
A lamp, a ladder, a cushion for the back, this one is for a reading pro. From Design Swan.
From the cosy to the monumental – from Blender Artists.
I can only assume the bookshelves are somewhere close by, but this is a great seating arrangement for reading. From Architectural Digest.
Couldn’t resist this vintage little photo, which might very well be a representation of me reading back in the days when I cared less about my back.

Romantic Or Not?

I am quite an omnivorous reader, but one genre that I very seldom touch is ‘romance’. Except that, of course, love is a perennial subject in literature, so you can’t really avoid it. I suppose a very broadbrush way to distinguish romance as a genre is that in ‘literary’ fiction (or crime) the love usually ends badly (or leads to endless ruminations and shame and guilt), while in romantic novels there is usually a happy end.

Perhaps I don’t believe in happy ends? You will say, no doubt, that this comes from bitter personal experience. And yet… I can’t wait to attend the Silver Wedding Anniversary of some friends from my student days, which will be organised over Zoom next weekend by their four children, who have been collecting pictures, anecdotes etc. from their friends scattered all over the world!

A funny incident over the Bank Holiday weekend provided me with the occasion to wonder at what point I got cynical about long-lasting happy relationships. Some friends of mine invited me to a BBQ and, unbeknownst to me, also invited a divorced father of roughly my age as well, possibly in the hope that they might act as matchmakers. Not only did the penny not drop until I was on my way home, but I also realised that I simply do not have it in me to make polite conversation and show an interest in a man’s job, hobbies, outlook on life, when he just drones on about himself and doesn’t even pretend to ask any questions in exchange. My years of gently drawing out, encouraging and smiling in all the right places, and trying not to rebuke self-centred egoists are over. Of course, not all men are like that: I’ve had many a fascinating conversation with happily married men, or younger men, or gay men. Men, in other words, who are more interested in my brains and wit rather than my looks.

Of course, as a teenager, I was very passionate and had several boyfriends on the go at once (and was madly in love with every one of them – for different reasons). But even back then, I did not like the books or films that ended in picturesque weddings. I adored love poetry, especially the suffering and sighing bits, like any self-respecting emo teen (although there was a cheery streak in me which got bored with all the pining after a while). I suppose what I considered romantic back then was something full of lust and overwrought emotions, but so wrong, so doomed to failure. Works such as Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Lady of the Camellias. But it wasn’t just the classics I read – aged about 10-14 I was obsessed with the slightly fictionalised historical novels of Jean Plaidy, or the Gothic romances of her alter ego Victoria Holt, as well as Jane Austen and her ‘lighter cousin’ Georgette Heyer. But, with the exception of Jane Austen, I haven’t reread any of them since.

It occurs to me that the ‘happy ending, feel-good’ romances do not seem to occur very often in the literatures I like to read (or maybe they just do not get translated much). Japanese love stories are twisted and strange for the most part; Romanian, Italian Brazilian and Spanish writers seem to be full of romantic gestures at first sight, but there’s a manipulative machismo underlying it; while the French seem to be as cynical and jaded as me. (That also seems to be the case for many of the films from the above-mentioned countries).

Mills and Boon, Modern Romance Collection. Is it me, or do all the covers look very similar?

I am probably far too ignorant of the genre, but it feels to me like the Harlequin Romance/Mills and Boon type of novels are very much a product of the English-speaking world. And, while they are translated and read elsewhere, the rest of the world seems to prefer the grittiness of soap operas, with affairs, betrayals and illegitimate children galore. Another quick observation here: foreign soap operas tend to feature wealthy people, so there’s a good dose of escapism and oogling at beautiful homes. So I don’t quite understand the success of East Enders and Coronation Street here in the UK, I have to admit.

Of the books I’ve read over the past few years, are there any love stories that are believable, do not end badly and do not bring the cynic out in me? Here are some books that struck me as very romantic, although perhaps not in the conventional sense of the word:

May 2021 Reading and Watching

Restrictions might be easing here in the UK, but my confidence in this government is so ‘high’ that I prefer to watch and wait, rather than rush out to enjoy museums and theatres, although I have missed them very much indeed. So the summary this month continues to be of books, films and TV series, with a handful of online literary events too.

Books

May’s reading was going to be dedicated to Arabic literature, and in particular books from Egypt and Lebanon. Alas, only four of the ten books I read fulfilled that criteria, but I really enjoyed all of them. There was a historical view of Cairo and a very contemporary one. The Civil War in Lebanon and its aftermath were treated in equally poignant fashion but very different styles by Elias Khoury and Hoda Barakat.

The other book I had on my May reading plan because I’d been asked to review it was The Wife Who Wasn’t, a rollicking saga of East Meets West.

However, all the other books were examples of me giving in to temptation once the libraries reopened for browsing. I always enjoy Nicola Upson‘s crime series featuring the author Josephine Tey and this latest one is set on St Michael’s Mount at Christmas (I still have to visit both the English and the French version of this location). I read Flynn Berry‘s first book and liked it well enough to have a look at her second one A Double Life, which is one of those ‘what if’ stories about the Lord Lucan case and how his daughter might feel about the whole situation. Steph Cha‘s Follow Her Home is a very deliberate Chandleresque recreation of LA, albeit set in the present-day and with a mighty Korean-American female main protagonist.

I usually avoid books with all the buzz, and certainly Luster by Raven Leilani has been receiving a lot of that, having been shortlisted for both the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and has won several awards in the author’s home country the United States. Also, I wasn’t sure I could bear yet another so-called millenial novel about damaged, self-destructive young women and their unsatisfactory relationships with men (or men and women). But there it was beckoning to me on top of a book display at the library. After a fireworks of a start, which made me gasp and admire nearly every sentence, I thought it lost its way a little in the middle. It’s about a vulnerable young woman who might have a sharp wit when she talks directly to the reader, but nevertheless never quite loses her desire to be seen, touched and loved. Nevertheless, I found it less cold and manipulative than Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends (no, I haven’t read Normal People), funnier than Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times and more consistent and fierce than The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. So, if you liked any of those, you are almost certain to like this one, which I feel is better than all three. There are parallels with Fleabag, but this is a Fleabag with the burden of race and no safety net of a rich family to fall back on. Perhaps Michaela Coel’s I Will Destroy You comes closest to capturing that flawed, but very striking and unique narrative voice.

Here is a description of publisher’s tickbox exercise of providing diverse reading, which made me roar with laughter:

… a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead, an unseen, nurturing presence who exists only within the bounds of her employer’s four walls; an ‘urban’ romance wherever everybody dies by gang violence; and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.

The most memorable book I read this month was probably The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (which I nicked off my younger son’s shelf), but I also finally got to review one of my favourites from last month, namely Polly Barton‘s Fifty Sounds, about which I could have written a super-long essay. And I also reread and reviewed To the Lighthouse, which was just wondrous. As a way to forget what a chore daily cooking has become since the first lockdown, I also wrote a post about my favourite cookery books.

I’ll be embarking on the 20 Books of Summer for the next three months, and I have to admit I’m already tempted to make some drastic changes to my original plan. For example, would it not be more helpful to publishers posting their books on Netgalley if I actually read and reviewed the most recent ones, rather than the oldest ones? So I might dedicate June to the most recent, then July to my oldest and leave August for Women in Translation (admittedly, four-five of my Women in Translation choices are very recent ones anyway). The most recent list includes Mieko Kawakami (also featured in the August list), so I might swap her out for someone else in June, but a choice of ten to choose 6-7 from might look like this:

Films and TV

I seem to have found my film-watching mojo again. I’ve watched nine films and one TV mini-series this month, a mix of film classics and sheer escapism.

  • Andrei Rublev: yes, it can take a while to get to the point, but it’s still a visually stunning and inventive commentary on the role of the artist
  • Hunger: a visceral experience of a slice of recent history that I knew all too little about, although I had heard, of course, of Bobby Sands
  • When Harry Met Sally: loved it when I was young, have become a curmudgeon who no longer trusts the love story, even if it has its witty moments
  • Animal Farm: not just about the Soviet system – remains as relevant as the day it was made (and Boxer’s fate will forever make me cry)
  • Sweet Bean: charming but also thoughtful film about how we treat outsiders – perhaps veers a little into the sentimental
  • Touchez pas au Grisbi: now I see where Jean-Pierre Melville and Scorsese got their inspiration from – a worldweary performative tour de force from Jean Gabin, aging gangsters treating women badly, but with a hostage/loot exchange scene which almost made me forget to breathe
  • The Chess Players: The country’s burning and these two men are playing chess – a powerful indictment of both local lords and kings, as well as the British rule in India
  • The Chalet (French TV series): filmed in Rhone-Alpes, around Chamonix and Annecy, so obviously a winner in my heart, this was essentially a slasher-movie over 6 episodes, full of good-looking young people and grumpy older or depressed older people.
  • Rocco and His Brothers: Who can resist a young Alain Delon in this story of migration, urbanisation and brotherly rivalry?
  • The Boys from Fengkuei: Taiwanese film about a bunch of rather roguish young men moving to the city, very similar in content and form to Rocco and His Brothers (they actually watch this very film in the cinema at one point)

Literary Events

After a rather quiet start to the year, May has been a very busy (and expensive) month, full of events and courses (and appliances and dentists). Here is what I did in chronological order:

International Booker Prize: The Shortlisted Translators in Conversation – so fascinating to hear translators talk about the challenges of translating their very different books – especially enjoyed Sasha Dugdale talking about how nervous she felt about translating prose, because she usually translates poetry (I think most people feel it’s harder the other way round)

Produce an irresistible plot in a weekend with Shelley Weiner, Guardian Masterclasses – such an encouraging tutor, and lots of exciting ideas to stimulate the creative juices

Poet’s Cafe – took part in the open mic session, as well as heard Oliver Comins read from his poems old and new

Marlen Haushofer in Context, Institute of Modern Languages Research, SAS – only managed to attend one session, comparing The Wall with Seethaler’s A Whole Life, but I caught up with some of the recorded sessions afterwards

Reading in Translation Conference, University College Cork – again, only managed to listen to one session, the book bloggers, but will catch up with recordings

Olivier Norek and Joseph Knox in conversation with Ayo Onatade about noir fiction, at the French Institute in London, with bilingual readings from their novels

Raven Leilani – Hay Festival – such a thoughtful, articulate and gentle young woman, very impressive and very different from Edie in the novel. I thought it was itneresting that she said she was almost envious of Edie’s freedom, her giving herself entirely over to her impulses (her Id), even though it’s an extremely costly way of going about things. Leilani’s style is so clever, precise and rich, at the level of each sentence and paragraph, that I was curious how many drafts she writes to get that depth. It turns out she cannot move on until she has untangled every sentence, rewriting it at least three or four times, so she is a slow writer (and wishes she could be different).

Deborah Levy – Hay Festival – I’ve loved the previous two books in her ‘living autobiography’ trilogy and her third one Real Estate sounds just my cup of tea, especially when she talked about all the ‘unreal estate’ that live in our heads, all the houses we imagine we could be happy in, the future state that we can never achieve. She also talked about how she learnt to live with ambiguity and contradictory thoughts, and that the whole idea behind the trilogy was about figuring out why an ordinary life is worth examining and writing about.

Caleb Azumah Nelson – Hay Festival – I’ve got his debut novel Open Water on my TBR list (possibly for my June Netgalley binge) and am even more eager to read it after hearing him talk so modestly and passionately about writing from his emotions and being willing to make himself vulnerable (and how south-east London is where his world begins and ends).

Writing and translation

It has been quite an expensive month in terms of submissions to literary magazines and competitions. Not just poems and flash fiction, but I also finally got my act together and sent off the opening chapters and a synopsis of my Romania novel (as opposed to my Switzerland novel). I was also delighted to be accepted onto the BCLT Summer School and can only afford it because it’s virtual this year. I’ll be attending the Multilingual Drama section and am planning to go with Mihail Sebastian’s play The Holiday Game, which I mentioned last month.

Friday Fun: Secret Gardens Around the World

It’s not just the British gardens that are beautiful, of course. Here are some more hidden gardens all over the world, where you can forget about the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Orchard Central roof garden in Singapore, from Time Out.
My old favourite haunt, the Jardins Secrets Vaulx in Haute Savoie, France, from jardinez.com
Tsitsikamma National Park, Eastern Cape, South Africa, from Travelground.com
Sinkhole in Australia transformed into a secret garden, from Australian Traveller.
Sitio Roberto Burle Marx in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is not just a fantastic garden but also one of the most important plant collections in the world. From Transfer-Arch.com

Family Saga Set in Cairo: Naguib Mahfouz

This is not the edition I am talking about in the text; I simply love the cover photo.

Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny (originally published in 1956)

This is the first in the so-called Cairo trilogy by Mahfouz and the first book I ever read of his, even though there was a flurry of translation activity after his Nobel Prize win in 1988. I actually ordered this volume for the #1956Club back in March 2020, but ran out of time to read it. Historical fiction for present-day readers, as the events described in this book took place more than 100 years ago. However, when Mahfouz first published this, it was recent history, and it is not at all coy about the relationship between Egyptians and their ‘protectors’, the English.

This particular edition (paperback of the 1990 translation Doubleday, reissued in 1994 by Black Swan) did have quite a few typos, repeated or missing prepositions and articles etc. Initially, these jarred terribly, but once I got wrapped up in the story, I ceased to notice them as much. I assume this must have been a problem with the reissue, as I would like to think that any work involving the editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would be of a high standard.

The trilogy is at once the story of a family, and also that of a city and a country in transition, although in the first volume the social and political landscapes only become dominant towards the end of the book. The story opens with the First World War (in which Egypt held an uneasy position, having formerly been an Ottoman colony, and now under British protectorate) and continues with the 1919 attempt at revolution for Egyptian independence.

The Al Jawad family lives in one of the older inner city neighbourhoods of Cairo, with narrow streets and latticed balconies from which the secluded wives can take a peek at the outside world without being seen. The family consists of the patriarch, Ahmad, his wife and five children, some grown, from two marriages. Ahmad is a wealthy shopkeeper and devout Muslim – more in theory than in practice, for he drinks, frequents places of ill repute and has a string of mistresses. However, at home, he is quite the domestic tyrant, keeping his wife and daughters indoors more than even their neighbours accept as traditional. His family tremble for fear whenever they ask him for something, for they know he is inflexible, quick to anger, violent and able to punish them where it hurts most, by kicking them out of the house and leaving them penniless. Outside the house, however, he is considered amiable, humorous and charming. He seems completely unaware of the hypocrisy of this stance, and indeed revels in doing the exact opposite of what his family asks him to do, even if he himself agrees with them, for fear that he might lost his position of dominance.

The five ‘children’ in the household are: Yasin ‘with the body of a bull and the elegance of a peacock’, Ahmad’s son from his first marriage, a civil servant in his early twenties; nineteen-year-old law student Fahmy and the happy-go-lucky schoolboy Kamal, the only one who can move easily between the feminine and masculine worlds. The two daughters are sixteen-year-old Aisha, famed for her blonde hair and blue eyes (unusual in Egypt and therefore much prized), and sharp-tongued Khadija, who at the age of twenty already considers herself an old maid and is afraid she will never get married because of her big nose.

Their mother Amina is the most docile, obedient and caring person you can imagine – downtrodden, yes, but by no means a one-dimensional character. She is devoted to her children, but is also keen to better herself. Her learning is largely limited to the Koranic verses that her youngest child teaches her while she in turn passes on old legends and stories, but she also enjoys discussing national and international political issues with her sons, in a naïve way, admittedly, because her husband does not believe women should be well-informed. As she tends her roof garden, she repeats a little prayer which I think encapsulates perfectly her gentle nature, wanting to please everyone:

God, I ask you to watch over my husband and children, my mother and Yasin, and all the people: Muslims and Christians, even the English, my Lord, but drive them from our land as a favor to Fahmy, who does not like them.

We follow the daily schedule of the family, including their much loved afternoon coffee gathering with all the siblings teasing each other, but there is no shortage of larger events happening over the course of the two years or so covered by the story. People fall in and out of love and lust, get married and, in some cases, divorced, and reconnect with their past. Yasin makes some sort of peace with his mother, whom he despises for daring to disobey his father, moving away and then constantly remarrying and divorcing. Fahmy the idealist is forbidden from marrying the neighbour’s daughter, and gets involved in the pro-independence movement. And even gentle Amina ventures outside the house to visit a mosque but is promptly punished by her husband.

However, the family story mirrors the political situation, with the sons in particular expressing increasing rebellion towards their domestic tyrant. For example, Yasin discovers his father enjoys the dissolute lifestyle just as much as he does and consequently starts losing his respect for him. At first he argues with his father mostly in his head, while his mouth utters the words their father wants to hear. As the author says in a different part of the book, this is a family that has learnt to hide things all too well.

‘As you wish,’ Yasin thought, ‘Who has ever gone against your wishes. You marry me and divorce me. You give me life and take it away. I don’t really exist… We’re nothing. You’re everything. No, there’s a limit. I’m no longer a child. I’m just as much a man as you are. I’m the one who is going to decide my destiny.’

But what he actually says is merely: ‘Whatever you want, Father’.

Gradually, however, these small rebellions multiply and grow, until Fahmy joins the freedom fighters in secret, very much against his parents’ wishes. He does so because he knows his mother worries his life might be in danger, but his father has a rather hypocritical attitude toward Egyptian independence too – or perhaps an attitude that many of us will find familiar when it comes to giving money to charities:

… he had been content to limit his patriotism to an emotional and psychic participation, not taking any action that might have altered the life he enjoyed so much… He had never even taken the trouble to go to one of their rallies. Would that not have been a waste of his precious time? The nation did not need his time, and he was eager to have every minute of it to spend on his family, on his business, and especially on his amusements with his friends and chums. Thus his time was reserved for his own life, and the nation was welcome to a share of his heart and emotions. It was easier to part with money than time.

I won’t tell you anything more about the story, other than that Ahmad learns he cannot control everything quite as much as he wants. It reminded me very strongly of Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.

Rather pulpy looking Arabic edition, from 1988.

The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the  ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists. It introduced me to a part of the world, a culture and a historical period that I knew very little about. Although I keep saying that I am not that keen on family sagas, as with Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy, I really enjoyed being immersed in that world and have promptly ordered the next two volumes in the trilogy, albeit in a different edition (even if it spoils the symmetry on my bookshelf).

May Reading: Two Books from Lebanon

This post might also be called Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, featuring two writers, one male and one female, one living in Lebanon, the other abroad, who both use oral storytelling as a narrative device and blend personal stories with political ones, trying to explain what is inexplicable, or at least give us a flavour of what it might be like to go through such difficult times. Neither of these books are easy to read, despite what the jaunty cover of the second one might indicate, but they are worthwhile, well-written and thought-provoking.

Elias Khoury: White Masks, transl. Maia Tabet, Maclehose Press. (Originally published in 1981, in the midst of civil war in Lebanon)

An apparently banal murder of a man in his fifties, left on a rubbish tip in Beirut: Khalil Ahmad Jaber represents everyman – wife, family, two married daughters, a son who fought in the civil war and has been proclaimed a ‘martyr’. Prior to his body being discovered, disappeared for three weeks. The story is narrated by a journalist who tries to investigate the case – and speaks to his widow, his daughter, the neighbour (an engineer who seems reasonably interested in the widow), widow of the caretaker of the block of flats who seems to have had a relationship with the deceased, the rubbish collector who found the body, a militiaman who was involved in the interrogation of Khalil, his daughter, the doctor who performed the autopsy.

Each account gives of course a very different view of the troubled personality of the dead man, seeks to justify their own part in his downfall, but also show how preoccupied they are with their own lives. The narrative gives the feeling of interview transcripts, messy, slipping easily from present to past and back again, going off on tangents. Perhaps in keeping with the oral storytelling tradition of the region.

Finally, the journalist narrator’s voice comes back in at the end of the book, to almost chide himself for picking such a ‘small’ subject to ‘entertain, please and pass the time’ (surely an irony, as he succeeds in doing almost exactly the opposite – cause anxiety, worry and confuse us). He sums it up as one small tragedy among so many that are being played out daily.

Is the identification of the murderer the problem? Would it help us understand the motives for the crime? I don’t think so… It was not for lack of trying… I spent months investigating and reading to try and establish the facts.. So now, dear reader, you too may feel as bewildered as I do. Faced with the impossibility of discovering the truth, you must doubt, as I do, the reported incident itself, as well as people’s accounts. I am sure one of those clever literary critics is going to say that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I can just hear him saying, ‘But surely Beirut is just like any other city, full of ordinary people leading ordinary lives, going to work, eating, sleeping, having sex, having children, dying, celebrating festivals buying chocolate egss, sugared almonds, and maa’moul.’ While all of that is true, I do not know how one can reconcile that assertion with my story.’

The book is troubling in its portrayal not only of the ‘artistic truth’, which is in the eye of the beholder, as we have seen in Rashomon and many other instances, but also in its political implications, namely that the truth is no longer valued. Arriving at even an approximation of the truth is no longer attempted and you can trust no one. A weary, cynical view of partisanship and a necessary indictment of all sides in a conflict.

Hoda Barakat: Voices of the Lost, transl, Marilyn Booth, Oneworld Publications. Initially published in Arabic in 2017

Barakat perhaps represents the next generation of Lebanese, who never knew the country before constant civil war drove them into exile. She has been living in France for quite a while now, so it comes as no surprise that her novel reflects the stories of those who left a country torn by war (it could be Lebanon or any other country in the Middle East or North Africa, or several different ones). Six individuals are trying to make new lives for themselves somewhere abroad, but they are also looking back towards their home, their family and their past, writing letters to the ones they left behind… letters which never reach their destination, but are found by the next letter-writer in the chain. Despite the cheery-looking cover and the more modern tone, the six stories in this novel also weave a dark and troublesome story of displacement, hopes quashed, struggling to be accepted and treated as an equal and living in poverty and uncertainty. At times, it feels like letter writers are their own worst enemies, as they make dangerous or foolish or bad choices – or at least, that’s how we would judge them at a distance, in the comfort of our own settled lives. But who knows how we might act if we were in similar situations, with the personal, familial and historical social burden weighing upon us?

The conceit of letter-writing (after all, who still writes letters nowadays, would they not be more likely to call or send messages via phone) also gives a very immediate, oral storytelling quality to the book. The letters are found in those public liminal spaces that are neither here nor there, neither old home nor new country: hotels, airports, planes. They never reach their intended destination, but towards the end of the book, we see how the intended recipients might respond to them (or at least to the people who wrote them). At the same time, the author makes us the readers question how we might respond if we were to encounter these people. None of the people presented here are ‘nice’ or ‘worthy’ refugees – they are prickly, egoistic, pitiful, performative, trying to justify the horrible things they did in the past, often downright nasty. The whole gamut of human experience, because anyone can become a displaced individual. But they are not just individuals who make bad choices, they are also victims of their place of birth, their culture and upbringing, the historical and social circumstances.

There are both shocking moments and so many poignant and wistful details in each of these stories. Here are just a few of my favourite quotes:

Nothing in my childhood or my adolescence has ever prompted a longing for the past, a past that seems to me more like a prison than anything else. I am not here in this room in order to return to what was, nor to see you and thus see with you the charming young woman I was, or how lovely and robust the springtime was that year, there in my home country. That country is gone now, it is finished, toppled over and shattered like a huge glass vase, leaving only shards scattered across the ground. To attempt to bring any of this back would end only in tragedy. It could produce only a pure unadulterated grief, an unbearable bitterness.

Another voice says the following in a letter to her mother:

If a mother doesn’t love her daughter, then who will she love in this world? Mother, why did you change so much as you got older? Didn’t I obey you enough?… I know that you loved me when I was a child. And then the world treated you harshly. The hardships accumulated, as they did for me, and the bitterness of it all weighed on your heart. This is what life does to us, how it determines things. Life unleashes its storms on us and we are no more than feathers whirling in hurricane winds.

This book provides such a powerful, uncompromising look at people on the margins of society:

These people see no one and no one sees them. Any attempt to infiltrate the world beyond that wall ends in catastrophic, violent repulsion, like the meeting of two substances whose magnetic charges repel each other. Two worlds, completely cut off from each other, two languages whose codes are mutually undecipherable, unreadable in whichever direction you try to read them.

How well can we ever know people who have lived through civil wars? How much can we ever really know about the violence and destruction, the losses, the devastation? The overpowering fear they must feel every day? Can we ever really understand how they are transformed, which things change inside them and which things harden?

I was too busy at work this month to get much reading done, so these two will be my only two books from Lebanon, but they certainly provided an intriguing insight into a different culture and literary style. My last book in the May reading of translated Arabic literature will be Egyptian: Palace Walk, which deals with far less recent history.