I spent my entire Sunday morning in bed reading the book Dear Oxbridge: Love Letter to England by Nele Pollatscheck that a friend of mine sent me from Germany. I was actually going to be smug about ‘pre-reading’ for #GermanLitMonth for once, but in fact I’ll review it right away, because it says much more about the English than the Germans (yes, mainly the English rather than the British in general).
Goran Vojnovic: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, transl. Noah Charney
Goran Vojnović is a Slovenian scriptwriter, film-maker, journalist and writer. As far as I can tell from the scant biographical details available in English, he was born and grew up in Ljubljana, but encountered other immigrants from former Yugoslavia in a ghetto estate in his home town. Their plight (and the prejudice against them) impressed him so much that he wrote a novel about it Southern Scum, Go Home! which drew some unflattering attention from the Slovene police. With his second and third novel all winning the most prestigious literary prize in Slovenia, he seems to be a versatile writer at the top of his game.
That first novel hasn’t been translated, alas, into English but his second novel Yugoslavia, My Fatherland has, with partial funding from the EU as part of the ‘Stories that Can Change the World’ initiative. And indeed, this one does change the world.
I was shocked recently to hear people of my age who could barely remember the Yugoslav War. Although I didn’t live there, it marked my youth decisively and tainted my joy at the fall of Communism. When people say that the EU has allowed the continent of Europe to live in peace for so many decades, I always feel uncomfortable. It feels disrespectful somehow, as if they are forgetting this cruel war which showed us that our old, civilised continent had not outgrown its barbaric feuds. Simply because it took place ‘on the outskirts’, in the Balkans, where it’s always been messy anyway.
The novel follows two timelines: Vladan in the present-day, a young man who discovers that the Serb father he believed dead is in fact still alive and most likely a war criminal. The second timeline tells the story of how his parents met, their contented lives in Pula before the outbreak of the war, how his father (an army officer) had to go to fight and how Vladan the little boy fled with his Slovenian mother to the relative safety of Ljubljana.
As Vladan searches for his father, who he believes lives in hiding somewhere in Serbia, he also relives some of the most distressing moments of his childhood. His mother sinks into a deep depression once they moved to a hotel in Belgrade as refugees, waiting for news from his father.
Lying there on the floor of room 211, I suddenly felt that I had neither a father nor a mother anymore, that I was without friends, that everyone in the hotel had forgotten about me, and that no one in the world would be interested in me anymore. So I kept on lying there, waiting for Dusha [his mother] to emerge from the bathroom. I felt so unwanted, so lonely, that I promised myself that the Bristol Hotel would be the last hotel I would ever set foot in.
He meets old friends of his father and family members who are still numbed by the war and trying to understand how it could have happened.
They all used to be Yugoslavs. And they were all communists…we who defended Yugoslavia stood side-by-side, in the same uniform,with those who demolished it. We sang the same anthem and bore the same coat-of-arms. But what was mine to me wasn’t theirs to them… The country fell apart because it didn’t mean more to any of them than their own arseholes… The Yugoslavs disappeared overnight, as if they’d never existed… I’m only sorry about my old man, who built this country with his bare hands. I’m glad he died before he could seethe scum he’d built all those bridges, schools and hospitals for. The scum he left all this to. They lived among us all those years, smiled at us in our Tito’s Pioneers uniforms, waved flag but, in the end, they could’t wait for it all to end, so they could fight with each other.
Vladan is always in-between cultures, and therefore never fully buys the rhetoric of any of different nationalities that used to make up the Yugoslav Republic. He is profoundly distrustful of sentimentalising the past, which can be used all too quickly to stoke up nationalistic resentments. He calls it the ‘Infantile Balkan Sentiment Syndrome’, an important ingredient in the periodic fratricide that afflicts that region. The war in Bosnia, he explains to his patient Slovenian girlfriend, who grew up untainted by the war, was ‘one big nightmare of yearning, one big bloody orgy of mental pain. The revenge of the lovesick, of the twisted and the eternally immature.’
The dual narrative allows the grown-up narrator to cast a new light on the defining moments of his childhood. In contrast to The Hotel Tito, which is most determinedly a coming of age novel, and all is narrated by the young protagonist in the present tense, here the author slips fluidly across timelines, adding depth and poignancy to each.
The tricky issue of culpability of the older generation and how the younger generation accuse them of blindness and self-interest has also been addressed in German literature, but I found this strand of the story slightly less compelling. I myself longed for more of the child refugee narrative, which is perhaps the part which resonates most with the utter puzzlement expressed by my friends from Yugoslavia. For example, as soon as Vladan starts school in Slovenia, he is made aware of ethnic differences, and a Bosnian refugee called Daniel tells him what’s what:
I was a Serb, because Nedelko was a Serbian name, and so was Vladan, and that it didn’t matter that my mother was Dusha, because nationality was determined by the father. He was a Muslim because his father was Muslim… [in their class] there were seven Slovenians, two Croats, three Muslims, eight Serbs, one Macedonian, one Albanian and a few fags who wouldn’t say what their fathers were called, and so were hiding what they were so they wouldn’t be teased.
All this was new to me because, in Pula, we only knew that some people had ‘nonnas’ and some had ‘grandmothers’ and some had ‘grannies’, and none of us realized that this meant something, but we certainly didn’t ask people what their father’s names were, in order to draw conclusions based on something so bizarre.
For his secondary education, Vladan ends up in a grammar school, with the most ‘carefree’ children in the world. Suddenly, none of his past experiences seem to matter anymore. He finds it hard to believe that these children once were part of the same country.
Kids from high school skied in France; they played tennis; visited European capitals; skated and tried pot. They were kind and clever and they listened to professors during lessons… They couldn’t care less about Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and most of them didn’t even distinguish between them. They didn’t ask eac other about their fathers’ names, and didn’t fight about who started the war in Bosnia. They didn’t have cousins who had been drafted into the army, uncles who were left without legs, grandmothers and grandfathers who were exiled, or aunts killed by grenades.
So will Vladan find his father in the end and will his father have a good explanation for why he did what he did during the war? Will they be reconciled? You’ll have to read this and see. But don’t make those questions your end goal. This book is worth reading for the attempt to paint a fresco of a country which has disappeared, and a people who are still trying to make sense of it all.
Finally, I can imagine that Vojnović, heavily critical as he is of all sides in the war, must be quite a controversial figure in Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, where everyone prefers a single (heavily edited) explanation or answer. I would love to hear what local reviewers made of this novel.
It’s been a long month, which is reflected in quite a good month of reading. 17 books (18 if I count the book that I read in both French and English), although I have to admit many of them were very short, more like novellas. 10 of those were in translation or another language (representing 9 countries), of which 3 books were by the same author, Cesar Aira. (Bless those rabbit holes…). 7 by men, 10 by women. 1 short story collection, 2 non-fiction, 1 1/2 books of poetry (I’ll explain about the half later). 4 definitely crime fiction, another 2 somewhat crime fiction. I am delighted to see somewhat more variety in my reading.
Bit behind with my reviewing though…
I started off with the first title in the Asymptote Book Club, Cesar Aira’s The Lime Tree. I enjoyed that so much, I promptly read another two by the author, The Literary Conference and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Strange does not even begin to describe the themes and styles of this author: it’s a world away from the magical realism of Marquez which I was never that keen on. Another Argentinean writer with a surrealist metaphorical bent is Ricardo Romero: his novella The President’s Room brought back all sorts of memories of self-censorship, of everyone knowing but no one talking, of not feeling safe even in the bosom of the family.
Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark tackled the difficult topic of child pornography and abuse, while Nadia Dalbuono’s The Extremist (review forthcoming on Shiny New Books) is a political thriller with a race against the clock hostage situation but also hints at how extremism is born and reborn in the Western world. Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic was not cheery either, showing how immigrants are treated in Switzerland and the extent to which human trafficking is hidden in that affluent society. Kate Rhodes’ Hell Bay, meanwhile, is a more typical police procedural, set on a small island, thereby creating a closed room mystery set-up.
The additional two that might very loosely be classed as crime novels are Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd (murders do happen, both in the past and in the present), and Die Stille der Gletscher (The Silence of the Glaciers) by Ulrike Schmitzer, an Austrian author who might be said to be popularising the science of climate change via a crime story and global conspiracy about scarce resources.
Cross-cultural and translated fiction
Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara contained some very short stories, almost fragments of ideas or flash fiction, from this always interesting, stylistically impeccable author. I had a bit of a French binge with Marie Darrieusecq’s Naissance des fantomes (My Phantom Husband) and Leila Slimani’s Chanson Douce. It is fascinating, if time-consuming, to read books in both languages and see how they compare. I find the English versions a bit colder than the French versions, through no fault of the translators, although I always thought that the English were the masters of the ‘straight to the point, no beating about the bush’ style.
The last one to fit in this category was written in English but depicts a cross-cultural relationship, Leila Abouleli’s The Translator.
It’s been a very good month for reading, with a lot of the books in the above categories vying for the title of ‘Book of the Month’. However, the non-fiction stuck in my mind most this January. I absolutely adored the well-documented biography and sensitive interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s works by Ruth Franklin. I was mowed down and resurrected by the eloquence and clever use of autobiographical detail in Jodie Hollander’s poetry collection My Dark Horses. Last, but not least, I was amazed at the amount of work, passion, dedication and clever detail which went into the creation of the Hamilton musical, as set out in the wonderful book Hamilton: The Revolution, full of lyrics, stage notes, background explanation, mini-bios of cast and creators, and semi-memoir, with great pictures. It offers a brilliant insight into the creative and collaborative process and shows that no genius can operate in isolation.
Actually, I wanted to read the latest book by Sarah Moss The Tidal Zone, but my local library did not have it. Then I thought her non-fiction book about living in Iceland might be of interest, or her book about the clash between motherhood and an academic career Night Waking. But guess what? They didn’t have those either, so I picked up Signs for Lost Children instead, looked at the blurb and thought: pioneering women in medicine? Meiji Japan? hmmm, intriguing topics…
That’s what is so amazing about Sarah Moss: every single one of her books is very different and yet each one sounds fascinating in its own right. There are far too few writers nowadays who can surprise without disappointing you from book to book.
Signs for Lost Children is a gendered history of discovery. Tom and Ally, the newly married couple at the start of the book, discover new worlds, both outside and within the relatively narrow confines of Victorian society. They also go on intense personal journeys, are forever changed and may not find their way back to one another. Just a few weeks after getting married, Tom sets off to a rapidly modernising Japan to build lighthouses, while Ally stays behind in Cornwall to work in a women’s asylum.
At first the scrupulously alternating chapters between his voice and her voice, Japan and England, felt somewhat belaboured, especially since there was a bit of time lag between them (the time it takes for a letter to travel between the two countries by ship, perhaps). Later on, I began to appreciate the parallel structure: it was like watching a tree grow into two separate trunks, yawning apart.
The chapters on Japan were, of course, a delight for anyone who has ever visited Japan, but had a lot to say about British Empire as well (or present-day expats in exotic locations). The observations about Western blindness to Japanese nuance and traditions are spot-on, and the firm insistence that the Japanese should adapt themselves to Western standards, for example, that their chefs should cook English meals (which they slaughter mercilessly) is very funny.
Mrs Senhouse apologises again for the dinner. It is so hard to explain to Japanese servants what is required.
Tom sets down his fork. The food indeed requires apology. ‘Perhaps a Japanese cook would be more competent in preparing Japanese food?’
She wrinkles her nose. ‘It is the slimy things one cannot abide. Rice, of course, and clear soup, but I cannot expect Mr Senhouse to do a day’s work on such pauper food.
He thinks of the jinrikisha men, and the men who carried stones up the rocks for the lighthouses, and the men on the mountain farms.
Senhouse is also giving up on what is probably tinned ham cooked in salty brown sauce with some inexplicably gluey vegetable admixture. ‘The Japanese constitution is a mystery.’
Tom himself starts out dreading the tea ceremony and ends up appreciating it, even bringing it back with him to England. Of course, this is Meiji Japan we are talking about, the period when Japan opened up to the rest of the world after several centuries of isolation. They caught up with Western technology remarkably quickly, to the point where they started producing fake traditional goods for the Western visitors to take home as souvenirs.
Meanwhile, Ally begins to suspect that the women who are locked up in the Truro asylum are driven mad by their family life, and find more respite in the hospital itself, despite the harsh conditions there and the unsympathetic nurses.
… if all the women in here who speak of indecent things, who recount endlessly obscene acts and unnatural couplings, are speaking from unhappy experience, then their madness may be perfectly reasonable. May be the inevitable response of a healthy mind to things that should not happen. And if that is the case, then the primary problem is not so much with the minds of some women as with the acts of some men. Older men, almost invariably. Men with power.
Ally herself is susceptible to the anxieties which haunt these women. Growing up with a kindly but absent father focused too much on his own artistic career, a mother who shows more concern and sympathy for the general ills of the world than her own daughter and a sister who committed suicide, she experienced her own nervous breakdown early on. Nevertheless, she pushed herself to find her way as a female doctor in a world which is not quite ready for them yet, where even the most kindly friends and relatives do not understand her need to be working with mad people.
But will Tom understand her when he returns from Japan? Long-distance relationships are never easy, but in that particular time and place it must have been harder still. The author steers clear of both the saccharine and the bitter in describing the reunion. Will they each, separately or jointly, find that ‘place of healing and hope for the future as well as a distaste for the past’, which Ally is trying to create for her ‘lunatic’ women? The proto-feminist storyline blends seamlessly with the cross-cultural dimension: ultimately, it’s all about keeping an open mind, being curious and forgiving about others.
An elegant novel, with understated prose which nevertheless burns lyrically intense at times. I will certainly be reading more of Sarah Moss … if ever I can find her. (And isn’t that a beautiful cover?)
Friday 13th is nothing to be superstitious about: on the contrary, it was the day when I had the pleasure of meeting in person one of the people I most admire and follow regularly via blog and Twitter: Ann Morgan of ‘A Year of Reading the World’. If you are not familiar with Ann’s accomplishment, here she is describing it in her own words:
In 2012, the world came to London for the Olympics and I went out to meet it. I read my way around all the globe’s 196 independent countries – plus one extra territory chosen by blog visitors – sampling one book from every nation.
Furthermore, she did this only via English translations, as an experiment in just how much literature in translation is available to English speakers. Her reviews are all available on her blog above, but she has also just published a book called Reading the World in the UK and The World Between Two Covers in the US. The book discusses the background of this wonderful project: choosing the countries, authors and books featured, a wider debate about translation and moving outside your comfort zone in reading.
Ann had been invited to Geneva to give a TEDx talk about her book and her reading challenge as part of a series of talks on Mind Shifts, so I could not resist the chance to meet up with her. We talked about the challenges of literary translations, about cultural differences in writing styles and subject matters and about our own career paths and works in progress. I probably rambled on too much about myself – but it was such a delight to meet with a fellow book lover.
And a reminder that our only hope of building bridges to other people and other cultures is by reading what some of their best minds and most talented writers have written. We may not agree, we may not like all that we see and read, but we start to understand their context. And thus, ultimately, broaden our own narrow little world.
As Mark Twain is supposed to have said (fact checkers have established that this quote cannot be attributed to him, but it’s still a great quote):
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
I’ve just read in quick succession two books about cross-cultural relationships and misunderstandings, about overcoming prejudices and making sense of things in a world where everything is unfamiliar. This is my specialist subject in the so-called ‘real world’ (although there are no end of surreal elements to the corporate business world), so these books are always going to tempt me. But my expectations are high, so it’s not easy for a book to meet them. The first I liked, the second I was more ambiguous about.
Kerry Hudson: Thirst
This is a simple love story between Dave, a young man from a run-down estate in London, and Alena, a young woman from Siberia who has ended up in London, a victim a human trafficking. Except that there is nothing simple about this story – and, at first, not even much love. Alena is caught shoplifting in a fancy Bond Street store, where Dave is a security guard. At first it’s pity and self-interest which brings them together, but slowly, gradually, these two very hurt and lonely people find a way to relate to each other, although both of them are reluctant to divulge their secrets and profound emotional wounds. It’s by no means certain that they will be able to build a future together – the book does not end on a ‘happily ever after’ note, although it is not pessimistic either. There are no easy answers, no sentimental sweetness about the relationship. Instead, we get a lot of good intentions, cynical self-protection, childish reactions and lying. Yet, in spite of all that, the tale is truly heart-warming and the two main characters are endearing.
What was so enjoyable about the book is that it took well-worn clichés about Eastern and Western Europe and turned them on its head. Yes, prostitution and violent Ukrainian gangs are involved, but are they ultimately that different to the drunks and thugs that Dave sees on the council estate? Poverty is equally demeaning at both ends of Europe – and the author brings to life (pitch-perfect, as far as I can tell) the world of those with little education and few options. The exact opposite of privilege. Yet these people too have dreams, a thirst for life, a desire to improve their lot and find something that takes them out of the urine-soaked grey concrete of their surroundings.
Kerry Hudson has a clear-eyed approach which eschews tales of maudlin misery, although there are hints there of anger at social injustices. Her fresh, direct style injects a note of humour even in the bleakest moments, but it’s not the right read for you if you are looking for something light-hearted at the moment.
I did want to fall in love with this one and most of the reviewers I know and trust did indeed like it. So maybe I am just ‘faulty’ and missing something, but I found it less than satisfying. In fact, it was slightly irritating and I dragged myself back to reading it with a dutiful rather than a joyous heart (we are discussing it this week at the Virtual Crime Book Club).
It’s a shame, because the book is well written stylistically and the premise is of the zany, intriguing and implausible that I usually like. Sheldon is an 82-year-old, ever so possibly senile American Jewish widower, who comes to Norway to live with his granddaughter, witnesses a crime involving the next-door neighbour and goes on the run with the neighbour’s traumatised little boy, outwitting the Norwegian police, the family and some tough Kosovan criminals along the way.
Sheldon is a former US Marine, you see, so he can hide, stalk, shoot, improvise along with the best, even if his body is no longer quite so reliable. Despite the occasional funny moments, I found the lone ranger attitude rather tiresome in the long run, too reminiscent of the American imperialism and assumption of cultural superiority which Sheldon spends most of the book dissociating from and condemning. The old man himself was far too grumpy and culturally insensitive rather than endearing, as well as brooding too much on his past, his feeling of guilt over the death of his son and on anti-semitic slights he has endured along the way. The secondary characters felt rather hastily sketched in: the little boy was a strange blank blob, partly because of his mutism, and I would have liked to see more of policewoman Sigrid and of Sheldon’s granddaughter and her partner. It just didn’t all quite gel for me, but I’m in a real minority here. I heard some reviewers say that it is not the right read if you are expecting a conventional thriller – but for me, it was too much of a thriller!
To my surprise, I discovered the author is an international affairs expert and married to a Norwegian, so I am probably reading too much negative comment into the book which betrays the main character’s flawed attitude. I will be curious, however, to see what Derek B. Miller comes up with next.