#6Degrees of Separation July 2020

Book memes come and go, but there’s one that I always find irresistible. So it’s a great pleasure to participate once more in the monthly Six Degrees of Separation, where we all start from the same book and end up in very different places, a reading meme hosted by the lovely Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best

This month we are starting with the highly-recommended What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, which I have on my shelves but which I haven’t read yet. I do know it’s about male friendship and also about art, but is it too obvious to go for those links? Should I try to be cleverer than that?

Clearly not, because, in the end, the link is ‘books that I bought very eagerly and really look forward to reading but because I’m so sure I’ll enjoy them, I just have them sitting on my shelves for far too long.’ Another book that fits into this category is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, although I will finally get around to it this August for #WomeninTranslation Month.

Tokarczuk’s title is famously taken from a poem by William Blake and so is my next book, a little-known and rather strange volume by Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception that I found in the rather old-fashioned British Council library in Bucharest (before I was banned from going there anymore). Huxley describes with great honesty and detail his own personal experiment with the hallucinogenic drug mescalin. In a way, it was his response to an increasingly troubled world (not the eve of the Second World War, but the Cold War and the fear that the word would descend into chaos once more) and he was a great believer in seeking a personal route to enlightenment.

Another writer who was fascinated by experimentation with drugs to induce a shamanistic trance was Carlos Castaneda, who was hugely popular in the 1960s-70s with his supposedly ethnographic accounts of his apprenticeship to a Yaqui Indian shaman from North Mexico in the so-called Teachings of Don Juan series. Anthropologists got a bit suspicious about the accuracy of the cultural practices he described and I believe the stories have now been mostly debunked as fiction.

Another anthropologist who wrote vividly and beautifully, but not always extremely truthfully was Claude Levi-Strauss. His Tristes Tropiques describing his own fieldwork in the Amazon remains a masterclass in ethnographic description, and was also the starting point for the structuralist school of anthropology. Above all, however, it is a blend of autobiography, travel literature, fiction, anthropology and social criticism which would perhaps fit better with the novels of today. At the time it was published however in 1955, the Prix Goncourt judges regretfully had to turn it down for the prize because it was considered non-fiction.

I’ll remain in the Amazon rainforest for my next book, which is by Brazilian writer Milton Hatoum and entitled Ashes of the Amazon, although the book itself describes a difficult period in the history of Brazil, while the rebellious but ultimately defeated heroes Lavo and Mundo move from the city of Manaus in the Amazon to Rio and then further afield to Europe.

I will stay in Brazil, but move to Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais region, where in the early 1970s the most famous Milton of Brazil, namely singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento, recorded an album entitled The Corner Club and gave rise to a musical and political community of the same name. Jonathon Grasse is a musician and professor of music who wrote about this movement in his book entitled The Corner Club.

This month I’ve travelled from Poland to Britain to Mexico and Brazil via my six links. Where will your links take you?

Carlos Fuentes and Vampires #TranslationThurs

I read this book in time for Halloween but didn’t have time to post a review on that day, so I am attaching it to Translation Thursday instead.

Carlos Fuentes: Vlad, transl. by E. Shaskan Bumas and Alejandro Branger.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes was a versatile and politically engaged writer. During his long career he published ambitious historical sagas such as Terra Nostra, experimental curiosities such as Christopher Unborn, psychological drama The Death of Artemio Cruz and so much more. He is difficult to pin down, except to say that he started off the boom in Latin American literature which happened in the 1960s/70s (coinciding with a boom in its musical popularity – think of bossa nova, conga, salsa etc.) and culminated in the Nobel Prize for Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1982.

Sadly, the novella Vlad, the last book that Fuentes published before his death in 2012, is not one of his masterpieces. I picked it up at random from the shelves because it relates to the myth of vampires and the historical figure of Vlad Ţepeş, a ruler of Wallachia in the 15th century.

It is the first person narration (largely) of Yves Navarro, a partner at a Mexico City law firm who seems to have it all: the career, the house, the adoring wife, the cute daughter, and a politically influential employer, Don Zurinaga. The latter asks Navarro to help an old friend from the Sorbonne purchase a home so he can settle into their country. It seems like a simple enough request, and it just so happens that Yves’ wife, AsunciĂłn, is a real estate agent. True, the client Count Vladimir Radu (‘call me Vlad’) has a few eccentric requests: the house has to back onto a ravine, a tunnel has to lead from the house to said ravine, and all the windows are to be blacked out. After weeks of dealing his client remotely, Navarro finally gets to meet him in person – and soon discovers he is a vampire. And that it might not be a coincidence that he was picked to handle Vlad’s affairs.

So the set-up seems promising, but it would be fair to say that it’s not quite what I expected: a satire of Mexico City and life within it. There are brief elements of social critique scattered throughout the book – traffic coming to a gridlock, the difference between richer and poorer neighbourhoods, estate agents used to the most eccentric demands from wealthy clients, the fact that Vlad has found an almost endless supply of fresh blood without too many questions being asked by the police in such a populous city. Yet all these strands do not combine successfully to form a coherent and rich satirical vein (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). It’s neither funny enough, nor quite frightening enough.

Of course, what annoyed me most was the cod history of Vlad ŢepeĹź, taken from historical sources of dubious and biased origin. Many of the accounts of him at the time were written by Wallachia’s enemies, therefore he was portrayed as a monster, while in Romanian folk tales and history he is remembered as a positive, just, progressive figure. All of the regurgitation of Vlad’s supposed past was unnecessary for what Fuentes was trying to achieve – if I can even understand what he was trying to achieve.

Otherwise, the story offers a strange, surreal experience, with a knowing nod to horror films or literature: Dracula, obviously;  the little girls turning vicious – Stephen King’s twins; the idealised wife/woman/muse being used then abandoned – Master & Margarita; dead child – many classic ghost stories and folk ballads. I also found it quite off-putting for the graphic descriptions not so much of physical attacks, but of the accoutrements of vampirism: eating offal in Vlad’s house, the drainage system for blood flow etc.

So not a huge success from my point of view. But what about you? Have you read it? What did you think of it? Or perhaps you have read other books by Fuentes and enjoyed them?

Global Challenge? Only Just…

With some dexterous juggling, I can just about claim to have completed the Global Reading Challenge (Medium Level) this year. I had to be a little creative with Mexico and place it in Latin America so that I could sort of claim it was South America. But if you forgive me my geographical inaccuracies and the fact that I still owe you two quick reviews for Africa and the 7th Continent, then I can claim VICTORY!!!

2015global_reading_challengev2

The Medium challenge is about reading two books from (or set in) each continent, regardless of genre. I was initially quite ambitious and planned to visit countries where I’d never been (fictionally) before. But the second half of the year became a mad, disorganised scramble to get books off my Netgalley and TBR shelves, so I had to compromise in the end.

Europe:

Moldova – The Good Life Elsewhere

Poland – Madam Mephisto

Asia:

Israel – Route de Beit Zera

India – Witness the Night

Australasia/Oceania:

Australia – Barracuda

Samoa – Blood Jungle Ballet

North America:

Native American reservation: Sherman Alexie

Houston, Texas – Pleasantville

South America:

Mexico – Faces in the Crowd

Costa Rica – Red Summer

Africa:

Morocco – Fouad Laroui

lastnightLibya – The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

The author takes us into the warped mind of Ghaddafi as he sits holed up in a secret location, trying to avoid both bombing and the wrath of his own people. There is little here to give you a profound insight into the politics or history of Libya itself, but I found it a precise dissection of a dictator’s mind, how it is possible to become a megalomaniac and lose touch with reality, how power corrupts and idealism can get subverted, how tantrums can turn vicious when you are surrounded by sycophants. I thought it also raised some interesting questions about the appeal of tyrants: how they often play the nationalistic card (us versus the foreign menace, we’re going to make our country great once more etc.), which explains their rise to power and the often confused legacy they leave behind.

7th Continent:

Space – Solaris

voyageCentre of the Earth – Jules Verne

I’d forgotten what fun this classic novel is to read – yes, even when the author enumerates all of the things Axel and his uncle the professor take with them on their expedition. Appeals to the geek in all of us, but also lessons to be learnt about how quickly he gets to the intrigue, how imaginative he is, how endlessly inventive. It’s not even remotely plausible scientifically – that underground sea alone is completely wrong for all sorts of reasons. So it’s not as good as some of his other novels, but still a rollicking read (best discovered in your youth, though).

 

No Pictures, But Plenty of Books…

I’m back from the holidays and I haven’t got the pictures to prove it. Suffice it to say that Crete was beautiful, hot but not unbearably so, full of history as well as good food and long beaches… and that it was lovely to spend time with some of my dearest friends. Yet, despite all these distractions, I also managed to get quite a bit of reading done. All with a holiday theme (or, at the very least, a beautiful location suitable for holidays).

  1. ZouroudiAnne Zouroudi: The Bull of Mithros – well, how could you go to Greece and not opt for the mouth-watering, sensuous descriptions of Greek landscape, food and way of life… oh, and crime too?
  2. Paul Johnston: The Black Life – also a Greek setting, but much more sombre subject, dealing with the deportation of Jews from Thessaloniki and its present-day consequences
  3. Takagi Akimitsu: The Tattoo Murder Case – intriguing glimpse of life in post-war Japan in the floating world of kinky-ness, tattoo artists and dubious bars
  4. Murakami Haruki: Kafka on the Shore – reread this novel of magical realism and permanent search set in Shikoku, Japan – this time in translation, hence with a lot more comprehension
  5. Melanie Jones: L’Amour Actually – fun, farcical but not terribly realistic portrayal of the transformation of a Louboutin-touting London gal into a French farming enthusiast
  6. EmeraldCathy Ace: The Corpse with the Emerald Thumb – corruption, death and intrigue in Mexico, with a lesson in tequila-making for an engaging, feisty middle-aged heroine
  7. Nicola Upson: Fear in the Sunlight – another installment in the murder mystery series featuring Josephine Tey, this one is set in the purpose-built fake village of Portmeirion in Wales and also features Alfred Hitchcock – yet it’s much more thoughtful and darker than it sounds
  8. Marissa Stapley: Mating for Life – a mother and her three daughters struggle with love, secrets, family and fidelity in this charming but not quite substantial enough tale set largely in the family vacation home on an unspecified lake in the United States.
  9. KellaGraeme Kent: Devil-Devil – the first novel I’ve ever read set in the Solomon Islands just before independence, this is not just an interesting crime story, but also a lesson in anthropology, featuring the delightfully unlikely detecting duo of Kella, a native policeman with tribal peacemaking responsibilities and Sister Conchita, a Catholic nun with a penchant for breaking the rules.