Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s¬†What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s¬†Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s¬†The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s¬†The Cellist of Sarajevo,¬†Alma Lazarevska’s¬†Death in the Museum of Modern Art¬†and Zlata Filipovic:¬†Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a m√©lange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for¬†the next issue of¬†Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.

 

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).

 

Reading Plans for the Rest of 2015

2015 is not over yet, so there’s still time to take a little control of my reading. It’s been a reasonably good year, and I’ve felt far less of a pressure to be ‘up-to-date’ with my reading and reviewing than in previous years. [Where did that come from? I think social media may have played a part, as I never used to care about the latest launches before.]

Anyway, I have managed to stick by and large to my resolution to be less ‘greedy’ and to allow myself to be guided by my own tastes and nothing else. I’ve surpassed my target of 120 books on Goodreads (136 and counting, so likely to hit 150 by the end of the year) and only a small number of those have been ‘unsolicited’ books for reviewing purposes. [Fortunately, I’ve learnt to turn down books I don’t fancy, so I seldom feel horribly frustrated at having to come up with something about a book I was indifferent about.]

So I’ve had fun and broadened my horizons. But… you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?… I still struggle with a toppling TBR pile (both physical and electronic). Something needs to be done about it.

Fortunately, there are a couple of months left to make a small dent in my TBR skyscraper.

GermanLitNovember will be German Lit Month, an initiative hosted by Caroline and Lizzy¬†(now in its 5th year, if I’m not mistaken). I plan to read 1 Swiss, 2 Austrian and 3 German books, all with a noirish feel.

  1. First up, Friedrich D√ľrrenmatt’s follow-up B√§rlach novel¬†Der Verdacht¬†(Suspicion but a.k.a. The Quarry in English). I loved¬†The Judge and His Hangman:¬†these are philosophical crime novels, although D√ľrrenmatt himself thought of them as potboilers.
  2. A new name to me from Pushkin Vertigo. Alexander Lernet-Holenia: I Was Jack Mortimer (transl.  Ignat Avsey), first published in 1933.
  3. Stefan Zweig. I have a copy of¬†Meisternovellen (collected novellas), but I haven’t quite decided which ones I will read – or if I can read all of them. This volume includes the Chess novella, 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Burning Secret, Confusion of Feelings, so pretty much all of the shorter pieces for which he is famous.
  4. The final three are all crime fiction: Jakob Arjouni’s 3rd Kayankaya novel¬†Ein Mann, ein Mord¬†(One Man, One Murder) and 2 volumes of the¬†Es geschah in Berlin¬†(It happened in Berlin) series 1934 and 1938. No thanks to Mrs. Peabody for making me buy the last two!

December will be my Netgalley catch-up month, as I now have 35 titles on my bookshelf. I do want to read them all, so it’s not like my eyes were larger than my tummy. Here are the ones that attract me at the moment (although this may change by December): Yasmina Khadra’s The Dictator’s Last Night;¬†Lauren Groff:¬†Fates and Furies; Saul Black:¬†The Killing Lessons; S.K. Tremayne:¬†The Ice Twins;¬†Sarah Jasmon:¬†The Summer of Secrets¬†and something completely out of my comfort zone, Massimo Marino’s Daimones Trilogy (Book 1). I know Massimo as a fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group – he is a former high energy physicist who has turned to writing ‘science fiction with heart and soul’.

 

 

Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac L√©man. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timoth√©e de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Berni√®res, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis,¬†Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an¬†experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a¬†hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.

Reading/Writing Summary for April

I could almost claim 14 books for April – except that one of them has been so massive that I am still reading it, and will be reading it for many months to come! That is, of course, Genji Monogatari¬†(Tale of Genji), which I’m reading along with brave Akylina.

greatwarOf the remaining thirteen, I had another epic doorstop of a book: The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica. You will find the full review on Necessary Fiction website shortly. This website, incidentally, is well worth a look for its thoughtful reviews of lesser-known authors and short story collections, its research and translation notes, and writer-in-residence feature. For now, let me just say this book is an ambitious, sprawling, almost encylopedic collection of stories and characters, from all the different sides fighting the First World War. Touching, humorous and ever so slightly surreal.

Six books were in my preferred genre, crime fiction. If you’ve missed any of the reviews, they are linked below (all except Cry Wolf, which I was not sufficiently enthusiastic about).

Attica Locke: Pleasantville

Rebecca Whitney: The Liar’s Chair

Michael Gregorio: Cry Wolf (Ndrangheta clans penetrating the peaceful areas of Umbria in Italy)

Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

Sarah Hilary: No Other Darkness

Child44My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, as hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, is very, very tough, as Child 44, No Other Darkness and¬†Pleasantville are all jostling for position. So this time I think I’ll go for the one that kept me awake all night to finish it, which was¬†Child 44.¬†I saw the film as well this weekend, which simplifies some of the story lines and emphasises perhaps different aspects than I would have (if I’d written the screenplay – the author was not involved in it either). But I enjoyed it, and the actors were really impressive. If you want to see an interesting discussion of book vs. film adaptations, check out Margot’s latest blog post.

Meanwhile,¬†Pleasantville fulfills my North American requirement for the Global Reading Challenge – I don’t often get to read something set in Houston, Texas.

A lot of online poetry this month (after all, it is National Poetry Month for the Americans) and I’ve also started a poetry course organised by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But, surprisingly, I haven’t read any poetry collection.

However, I did read a non-fiction book, the funny yet thoughtful essay collection with the irresistible title¬†100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.

Three of the books I read this month fit into the historical fiction category, but the one I want to highlight is Fire Flowers by Ben Byrne, which gives such a poignant description of post-war Japan, something few of us know about.

Alongside the two translated books (from Swedish and classical Japanese), I also read four books in French (well above my monthly target of 1-2). These were Yasmina Khadra’s¬†L’attentat, Philippe Besson’s¬†La maison atlantique and Virginie Despentes’¬†Teen Spirit¬†(which I’ve reviewed all together here). I also read Metin Arditi’s rather chilling description of a Swiss boarding-school for boys¬†Loin des bras.

So, all in all, a good month of reading. Although some books felt a bit average, there were quite a few that impressed me. At least I no longer feel obliged to write lengthy book reviews about those I didn’t quite gel with (or even finish them). And I’m pleased that I am spending some time in Genji’s company again. It helps to slow down my world and see things from a very different angle.

In terms of writing, I’ve been less successful. School holidays and business travel have wreaked their usual havoc. I have, however, solved outstanding plot holes and know very clearly where everything is heading now. I have the post-it note wall to prove it! Although I’m still open to allowing my characters to surprise me a little…

WIP

So, how has your April been in terms of reading and writing? Any must-read books (dare I ask that question, dare I be tempted)? Anything you felt was overrated or overhyped? Let me know below!

 

 

 

 

Quick Reviews of Foreign-Language Fiction

I’ve fallen very far behind on my reviews, so will write brief ones for four books I’ve recently read in a vain attempt to catch up. Besides, although they are all good books, they did not quite bowl me over. I suspect that may be because I wasn’t reading the best efforts by these authors. I do want to revisit each one of them in future.

AttentatYasmina Khadra: L’Attentat (The Attack)

Absolutely terrifying and intriguing premise for this book. A suicide bomber attacks a Tel Aviv restaurant. Dr. Amine, a respected surgeon of Arab origin (but now an Israeli citizen) is working in a nearby hospital and spends all night trying to save the lives of the victims of the ensuing carnage. Then he is called in by the police: the suicide bomber turns out to be none other than his wife. Devastated by his loss and apparent blindness to his wife’s real feelings, he tries to understand what could have driven her to such a terrible action. There is no real final message from his wife, except for the one question about how we can enjoy personal happiness when the whole community is suffering. There are many descriptions of the humiliations of daily life for Palestinians living in Israel, but the book offers no simple answers, it merely raises more and more questions. I liked the even-handedness of the depiction of both Israelis and Palestinians – there are good and bad people in each group, there are friends and enemies that the narrator makes in both camps. It’s a powerful book in its depiction of the sources of anger amongst the Arabs in Israel, even though the points are sometimes made in a rather heavy-handed way.

TeenSpiritVirginie Despentes: Teen Spirit

A French author recommended by Emma, although for a different book. But this was the only novel I could find at the local library. She has a very natural internal monologue style and a great ear for dialogue. Bruno is a failed writer, sponging off his girlfriend. He believes he suffers from agoraphobia and has been unwilling to venture outside for well over two years. But then one of his first girlfriends from high-school contacts him and tells him that they have a thirteen year old daughter, Nancy, who wants to get to know him. This is the bittersweet, often funny story of how father and daughter find each other Рin a way that is not at all sentimental. The story is not terribly original and the ending felt a bit abrupt, but the characterisation was very good. The teenager Nancy is suitably stroppy and impressionable, but also touching and naive at times, while her father Bruno is lazy, contradictory, selfish but increasingly protective and paternal. A quick and fun read, with perhaps some more profound messages about self-absorbed parents.

BetrayalKarin Alvtegen: Betrayal (transl. Steven T. Murray)

This was an author that both John Grant and Margot Kinberg had mentioned recently, so I followed their recommendations. The book was a bit of a surprise, not quite what I expected. It started out relatively conventionally, with the discovery of a husband’s infidelity. Eva’s feeling of betrayal and hurt turns into a desire for revenge. But then it took a darker twist, not just because the characters were for the most part unlikeable and unreliable as narrators, but also because they were making some very bad choices. Most people have said they did not like the ending and I could say things about it feeling unjust, undeserved – like real life, I suppose.¬†It was a cleverly constructed book, that took well-worn tropes and managed to inject a note of freshness in them – as well as constant creepy menace. But there was something about the style which did not quite appeal to me; it felt too cold, detached, perhaps a reflection of Eva’s own desire to cope. Something did not ring quite genuine. But I’ll be looking out for more novels by this author.

MaisonatlantiquePhilippe Besson: La maison atlantique (The House on the Atlantic Coast)

Another author recommended by Emma (again, not this particular book).¬†This¬†was a rather predictable story, but the author did make the most of it. He has a limpid, clear style, very pleasant, elegant and easy to read, although with more internal musing of the first person narrator than one might expect. It’s a coming of age story, a son thwarted by his father at every turn, with predictably tragic consequences (that we’re alerted to from the very beginning, although without giving away any of the details). It would have been interesting to hear alternative points of view (and I don’t often say that about books), as it all seems to be speculation and self-justification.

So four foreign writers, three of them French-speaking, two women, two men. Luckily, they’ve all been translated to some extent.

Karin Alvtegen has had 5 psychological thrillers translated into English, all with snappy one-word titles. The best known is perhaps ‘Shame’. Yasmina Khadra’s so-called ‘extremist trilogy’ has been translated and is very thought-provoking: ‘The Attack’, ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’. Two rather controversial books by Virginie Despentes are available in English: ‘Baise-Moi’ and ‘Apocalypse Baby’. I’ve only found two Philippe Besson books in English: ‘In the Absence of Men’ and ‘His Brother’.

 

 

 

Placeholder, Admin and Other Boring Stuff

I’m on another business trip and therefore falling behind on my writing and reviewing, so be warned… This is going to be the world’s most boring blog post, mostly a reminder to self what I have read and reviewed, what still needs reviewing… yes, a To Do list!

I started off the week with a review of Child 44 – the book, rather than the film. The book was written 7 years or so ago, but I was wary of reading it because descriptions of totalitarian regimes disturb me in a way that any number of dark crime fiction thrillers cannot. And this one combines Stalinist Soviet Union with a serial killer and graphic scenes of torture? Oh, no, thank you, I thought. Yet, with the film coming out now (haven’t seen it yet, but it looks compelling) and after meeting Tom Rob Smith in Lyon, I plunged right in. It’s a wild ride: I sat up till the early hours of the morning to finish it and that doesn’t happen very often. Yes, there are minor niggles about how faithful the portrayal of fear and belief in a an oppressive state system really is, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy the thrill!

I’m also rather proud of my introduction to Latin American crime fiction. It’s not that easy to find translations into English, but I did my best with what I had. Some I’ve read, some I’ve only read about and researched – but you bet I now want to read them all!

Then there are all those books weighing on my conscience:

1) epic and encyclopedic The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica needs to be reviewed by the end of this month, preferably this week.

2) Natsume Soseki’s Light and Dark¬†has been on my bedside table since January and I’m still not nearing the end. It is so much like Henry James’s later works and I’m struggling with all the tiny details, that I wonder if I would be able to read James again nowadays.

3) Ben Byrne’s¬†Fire Flowers¬†introduced me to post-war Japan – and I want to write something about Japan’s experience of WW2 and how it’s been portrayed in both Japanese literature and abroad. I wrote something similar in my B.A. thesis, but that was a loooong while ago.

4) Three new to me authors this month: Virginie Despentes, Yasmina Khadra and Karin Alvtegen. I enjoyed their books (well, ‘enjoy’ is perhaps the wrong word to use, as each of their novels is harrowing in its own way), but I wasn’t completely bowled over. Yet. I do want to read more of them before I make up my mind, though.

5) I haven’t progressed much with¬†Tale of Genji – well, it’s a very THICK book and not easy to take with you on a trip…

6) I keep trying to resist the siren song of new releases, but I really, really want to read Sarah Hilary’s No Other Darkness.¬†So that is next on my TBR list, along with Philippe Besson, recommended by none other than Emma from Book Around the Corner.

Next week there’s no business trip coming up, the children go back to school and hopefully there’ll be time for reviewing as well as that all-important, now-critical writing!