16 June 2017

49   Colombia – Gabriel Garcia Márquez – Chronicle of a Death Foretold

This is the group selection for June 2017, to be published in July.

47  Nebraska – Willa Cather – Oh! Pioneers (Score 8.84)

My  Kindle Version of this book has an introduction by Vivian Gornick, the American critic. It is well worth reading if you can find it, or if it’s in your version.

Hanover, Nebraska, a poor, desolate sort of place, connected to the outside world by occasional trains. When we get there, there are hints of an oncoming winter with serious falls of snow. We meet Alexandra Bergson, her brothers Emil (8), Lou (5), and a kitten, a neighbour Karl (15), Joe Tovesky, her cousin and his wife Marie.

John Bergson (46), the father, is dying.

Drought comes and people start to leave their farms and their land, going back to the towns. Karl’s family prepare to leave too, but Alexandra intends to stay and make a success of the farm. The boys enjoy listening to Alexandra reading “Swiss Family Robinson”. That was one of my favourites when I was a child, read time and time again because we couldn’t easily get to a bookshop except when on holiday, and we had no local library until I was 13.

Cather’s writing is beautiful, with phrases like “He wandered in the fields until morning put out the fireflies and the stars.

We follow Alexandra’s trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows, failures and successes as she improves and extends her holdings. I don’t want to go into any more detail as it could spoil your enjoyment of the book.

If you only have time to read one book this year, do make it this one. It is magnificent. I couldn’t possibly score it any less than ten.

46  Japan –Yukio Mishima – Spring Snow (Score 6.83)

I have had this book for many years, and never picked it up because I had the feeling that Mishima was a difficult read. I was right, and I was wrong. His writing is, in general, easy to read. However, I found myself skipping extended sections dealing with reincarnations, the detailed differences between Buddhist sects, and other Eastern beliefs.

Two Siamese princes have a minor role in the story.

The story revolves round four people. Kiyoaki Matsugae is the son of a Marquis, his friend Shigekuni Honda, his tutor Iinuma, and his on-off girlfriend Satoko. We are told that Kiyoaki and Shigekuni were eleven years old at the end of the Russo-Japanese war, won by Japan, and are 18 at the beginning of the story.

Mishima’s description of Kiyoaki is such that I wondered if he reflects Mishima’s own feelings and approach to life. There are constant reminders of Kioyaki’s effeminate appearance, even as he approaches adulthood.

Iinuma appears to be a war-mongering type of person as he keeps harping on about the violence of life in the Time of the Warring States in Japan, which was brought to an end by the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu and his descendants brought peace to Japan for hundreds of years, by closing the country to outsiders until the American assault on the country aimed at opening up Japan to American trade.

The story morphs into a tale of requited love then unrequited as the target of Kioyaki’s love Satoko enters a Buddhist monastery rather than marry the aristocrat arranged by the Imperial family.

All in all I was rather disappointed in the story. Mishima has such a reputation, but I could only give the book a score of six.

 45   Turkey – Orhan Pamuk – “The White Castle”– March 2017 (Score 3.71)

Set in mediaeval times after the Turks had taken the Near East, this is the story of an Italian who was captured, along with the crew of his ship, when they fell afoul of a large Turkish fleet. Taken into slavery with the rest of the crew he earned their hatred when he used his knowledge to get some slight privileges by curing illnesses.

Eventually he was put to work under a man called Hoja (who was his spitting image, but did not realise it} to devise a spectacular fireworks display for a high society wedding anniversary.

He was offered his freedom if he converted to Islam, but twice refused. Later the Turks carried out a mock execution and he thought he was about to be decapitated, but still did not convert. The Pasha confirmed that he was to remain as Hoja’s slave. Hoja was now working on making a magnificent clock as a present for the Pasha. He wanted to make use of European knowledge for this.

The plague struck the city with many, and ongoing, deaths. Hoja found a bubo on his body and begins to panic, worrying for many pages. Nothing came of it. Eventually, and very belatedly, Hoja became aware that the Venetian was his double.

Up till this point the story went well enough, but when Hoja began to hear (In his head) the Biblical “I am that I am”, this seemed passing strange in a Moslem character. I obviously wasn’t seeing the point, and certainly not the “cool and elegantly jaundiced look at the results of cultural fusion” mentioned in the preface to my edition.

I began to tire of it and was sorely disappointed because of Pamuk’s reputation. Perhaps it was simply a “first novel” problem for me. I scored it at 5.0.

44  Nigeria – Chibundu Onuzo – The Spider King’s Daughter– February 2017 (Score 5.80)

The  narrator is ten year old Abike Johnson whose wealthy father deliberately told his chauffeur to run over her dog, showing right at the start what kind of man he is. She was watching from her bedroom window, but her father acted as if it had been an accident. The dog was severely injured, and in great pain. Abike hid her emotion and her tears and shocked her father by asking him to tell the chauffeur over the dog’s head.

Was she sadistic, or compassionate? She thinks “Abike 1, Mr Johnson 0!”

There is much use of Nigerian patois, which takes a bit of work to follow. Abike talks to a young street hawker, selling by the side of a main road. He is doing this as a result of his family having lost their money and their home so that, although he has learned patois, he speaks Standard English. He has been to New York, and can prove it by the visa stamps in his expired passport. Abike, too, has seen New York snow – gritty and brown.

The first person narrative alternates between Abike and the hawker, letting us see events from both points of view.

I have reached the point where it would spoil the book if I were to tell you anything more about events. It is sufficient to say that the ending is completely unexpected.

I gave the book a score of six.

43 India – Gita Mehta – A River Sutra– January 2017 (Score 7.6)

This book is like an Indian “Decameron”, or perhaps “The Canterbury Tales” without much travelling. The roll of the “owner of the inn” is taken by a retired civil servant from Bombay who, after his wife died, applied for a post at a government rest house, on the Narmada River, and founded by the Moghul emperor.

The Narmada is one of the most sacred rivers in India about which many legends of gods and goddesses, spirits and other beings are told. There ar six stories told, of The Monk, The Teacher, The Executive, The Courtesan, The Musician and The Minstrel. Each is a little gem, linked by the doings and conversations of the manager, his clerk Mr Chagla, his friend Mr Tariq Mia, the mullah at the local mosque and a party of archaeologists who are carrying out a dig some forty miles away.

Towards the end of the book, before the archaeologists return, a minstrel sings the “Song of the Narmada”. The head archaeologist returns just as she finishes. The rest of the book holds a real surprise.

This book isn’t great literature, but I found it an enjoyable read, giving it a score of 8.0.

18 January 2017

42   Mexico – Laura Esquivel – Pierced by the Sun– December 2016 (Score 5.07)

Lupita, a local policewoman, witnesses the murder of her local “Delegado”. The story revolves around Lupita’s life and her attempts to persuade her corrupt senior officers that she has something to contribute to the case, and ultimately to keep it going at all. In fact, there was an attempt to frame her for murder, and another on her life. Just a typical day in the life of a policewoman in Mexico.

The book describes vividly the effects of drugs and alcohol on Lupita, caused by the effect on her of accidentally killing her child, for which she served a sentence in jail (not part of the story).

The book finished with a moment of great hope for the future of Mexico. I enjoyed it, and gave it 7.5. On the other hand we must bear in mind the range of scores among our group. Four didn't like the book while three did. Hence the average score of 5.07, compared to mine of 7.5.

You may find interesting what the book tells us about the history and religion of Mexico, and of the Aztecs whose descendants are a large part of the current population as are a number of tribes also remaining from pre-conquest days.

We learn about their creation myth as well as a number of Aztec gods including Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent) and Tezcatlipoca (Smoking, or Obsidian, Mirror).

27 December 2016

41   United States (Oregon) – Richard Brautigan – So the wind won’t blow it all away– November 2016 (Score 6.85)

The story (only 104 pages long) starts with the narrator, a twelve year old boy who likes fishing in the local pond and collects beer bottles for the small amount of money he gets for each when he returns them to the depot. His family lives in poverty, so this helps to keep him in tennis shoes.

He recalls his early life when he was three and they lived in an apartment which had been part of a still active funeral parlour. He climbed on a chair to look out of the window to see early morning funerals and is astounded to see one which was clearly for a child. This seems a bit macabre for a three year old.

An elderly couple also fish at the pond, on the other side. Unusually they bring ir what looks to be all their possessions with them on a lorry, and set them up at the pond, sofas, tables, lamps (converted from electricity to work with liquid fuel). They also have dinner, eating all the fish they catch.

The story moves back and forth between his younger self and his older forty-something adult life. During this we learn that at an early stage he had to choose between spending his bottle money on one of two items. His selection led to an event in the woods which haunted him though the rest of the book.

This book has a Tom Sawyer feel, without the adventure. I didn’t enjoy it, and can only score it at 4.0.

06 November 2016

40  Japan – Murakami Haruki – Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage – October 2016 (Score 8.25)

As the story opened Tsukuru Tazaki was feeling suicidal, and had been for some time. We get some background. He had been a member of an extremely close group of five, him, two other boys and two girls, all of them from Nagoya. They did everything together, having started doing voluntary work with children while they were at school. This made them very close.

The crux of the story was that the other four had names which included a colour, while he didn’t. His name meant “doer or maker”. The boys’ names were Akamatsu (red pine tree) and Oumi (Blue Sea), while the girls’ were Shirano (White Root) and Kurono (Black Field). Japanese names generally have a meaning, often related to where the family was living at the time of the ending of the Shogunate after which families had to take surnames.

Sometime during Tsukuru’s first year at university in Tokyo the other members of the group cut him off completely, without warning, and with no further contact. After that he started having weird dreams, or maybe hallucinations.

He met a girl called Sara one night in a bar and discussed it with her. She tried, and failed, to persuade him to take action about it, and he fell back into his old ways. Some months later she phoned Tsukuru and when they met, finally persuaded him to go to try to see them. She did some research for him and discovered the present whereabouts of the four “colourful” friends.

The rest of the book is concerned with him following these trails and their final outcomes. As well as these four mysteries there is the final mystery of whether he will eventually get together with Sara. I’m telling you nothing more, but I guarantee you will enjoy the book when you decide to read it.

I gave it a score of eight out of ten.

07 October 2016

39  Iceland – Sjon – From the mouth of the whale – September 2016 (Score 5.00)

This book didn’t do much for me. It is set on Iceland, some hundreds of years ago at the time of the Reformation when many of the countries of Northern Europe were leaving the Roman Catholic religion for reformed Protestant worship. As in other countries there was an outbreak of iconoclasm.

The protagonist was in exile, prescribed, so that none may offer him succour on pain of death. He was on an isolated island, miles off the shore of Iceland. Though the Reformation had taken hold on Iceland among the upper classes, but the ordinary people still adhered to the old ways and the worship of saints, a very dangerous practice.

It seems that the people believed that neither God, Jesus, nor the majority of saints could speak their Norse tongue. Two particular saints were needed to translate the people’s prayers and pleas into the heavenly language,

Eventually the protagonist was delivered from exile in the belly of a whale, rather like Jonah.

While there is some good descriptive language in the book, there are also many long digressions consisting, mostly, of lists of seabirds, fish, crustaceans and other creatures of the wild, the sea and the air.

I couldn’t find it in myself to give this book more than six out of ten.

28 September 2016

38  Zimbabwe – J Nozipo Maraire – Zenzele – August 2016 (Score 8.00)

This book made me feel ashamed. You will find out why as you review my comments made after I read the book “Zenzele – a letter for my daughter.

Amai Zenzele, the mother of the eponymous Zenzele and the author of this long letter, has made a point of keeping her children aware of the stories of their people as well as what they are going to learn about the rest of the world.

However, the younger generation are losing knowledge of their background, and even of the terms of respect traditionally used when speaking to older people. It is clear from the text that they have absorbed the worst from the West rather than the best.

We get a good impression of what village life was, and of the differences when the young go off to live in the towns – just as happens here when they leave home.

Zenzele complains to her mother about women changing their names to those of their husband when they marry, and what is known in the West as “bride price” but in their culture has a completely different meaning and intention from that. I think we have here another example of western colonialists being lazy and not taking the step of trying to understand the culture of those whose lands they have taken.

On page 64 the author makes a powerful plea for those who go to Europe to be educated and trained in whatever subjects, to return to their own country and apply their talents to help in improving things for those, both poor and better off, who have not had the same opportunities.

I believe that this should apply also to Western countries where so many people from the “provinces” move to the capital and so deprive their home areas of the benefits of their learning and talents.

This book, written as a letter, is really a wonderful essay which opened my eyes to things I had not even thought of. My knowledge of Black Africa’s past was of the ruins of Zimbabwe, the Benin bronzes, the resistance movement led by Chaka, and the “Scramble for Africa”. It made me feel ashamed. But then, outside maybe Japan, I know equally little of any continent other than Europe.

The episode with the dress at the dress shops was so shocking.

Chapter 11 is wonderful. Six year old Zenzele went with her mother to drop off her fourteen year old cousin at his boarding school. After leaving him they went to visit the little historic chapel nearby, and were astounded at the magnificent murals which decorate it. There were golden winged angels and cherubs, all with black bodies, black saints awaiting the arrival of Christ at his Second Coming, black John the Baptist, a black Christ, and a black God sheltering and blessing everything. There reactions are astounding. Zenzele even thought that Christ looked like her father when he smiled.

Amai Zenzele could now understand the biblical statement that we are all made in God’s image. She left the local Methodist church and joined the Orthodox Ethiopian Church where all the images are “of their likeness”, and the customs are rooted in her culture.

I scored this short book at 9.0.

37  India – Tabish Khair – The Bus Stopped – July 2016 (Score 4.78)

This book basically tells the story of a bus journey between two smallish towns in India, the passengers being a fairly motley group of people. Some are on the bus from the start of the journey to the end, while others get off at and intermediate stop, or get on at another.

We read of the lives of the bus driver, the conductor, a petty thief, a village woman carrying her dead baby, a Danish company representative (who may or may not be planning to bribe a senior government officer to buy the products the Dane wants to sell for his company), and a number of others, including a eunuch. This is the first time I have come across one in any book.

We see the way of life of well-off people, peasants, tenement dwellers and others. We learn from one chapter that eunuchs were once far up the social scale as a result of the Moghul invasion and could be in charge of the harem, or have a senior political position at court. Their decline started with the Victorian “values” introduced to India under the Raj. Now they are effectively untouchables, and are militantly trying to be brought up the social scale.

The language in the book is frequently rather robust. It may well be used by the characters represented, but it still seems unnecessary for this story. I found this book to be entertaining in a gentle way, and I scored it at 6.0.

36   Guadeloupe – Maryse Condé – Windward Heights – June 2016 (Score 5.55)

There was a coincidence immediately after I finished this book. I was reading “Half a Life” by V S Naipaul, published in 2001. On page 105 of that book Richard, the publisher of a book by the protagonist, Willie Chandran (an Indian immigrant to the UK) says “One day you might give us a new reading of Wuthering Heights. Heathcliffe was a half Indian child who was found near the docks of Liverpool”.

“Windward Heights” is such a book, published in French in 1995 and English in 1998.

Windward Heights is a re-imagining, in Cuba and Guadeloupe, of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights. At the time of the story a civil war was raging throughout Cuba.

The story opens with Melchier leading a procession, carrying the flag of Chango, his god. We are taken immediately to a much hotter, livelier and colourful world than our own, sometimes dreich and rainy one.

None of this was being enjoyed by the Captain General of Cuba, posted from Spain, Jose de Cépéro. He hated the locals, the freed slaves. De Cépéro had consulted Melchior on several occasions, knowing that Melchior had a reputation as a sorcerer, or “babalawo”. Later, Melchior went to visit Razyé whom he had agreed to initiate into the rites of Chango, before Razyé returned to Guadeloupe. Melchior was murdered on the night of the festival, outside the church of Santo Cristo, leaving Razyé bereft.

Razyé gave a clue to the origin of the whole story, and his character, when he described himself as having been “found on the barren heath and cliffs” as a young child, and named after them.

The story follows the general lines of the original, but with the required changes of character, locale, events etc to give it its new milieu. I enjoyed it, with a score of 7.5, and have put my copy of the original, not read for forty years, near the top of my pile for a re-read.

02 July 2016

35   United States – William Faulkner – Light in August – May 2016 (Score 3.5)

According to “The Oxford Companion to Literature in English” the term “Light in August” is a country expression for pregnancy.

Lena, a young pregnant woman, was walking from Doane’s Mill in Alabama looking for Lucas Burch, the father of her unborn child. She had reached Mississippi by the time the story opened, walking and hitching lifts on wagons.

Armstid and Winterbottom saw her as she passed and, later, Armstid and his wagon caught up with her and gave her a lift. He took her to Jefferson where she had been told she would find Lucas, working in a mill. She then, strangely, plays little part in the story until near the end.

The story moves backward and forward in time, dramatically, and rather confusingly. Chapter 6 tells the story of Joe Christmas when he was a boy of five in a children’s home. The style of writing in this section is quite different from the earlier pages – “In the rife pinkwoman’s meddling obscurity he squatted pinkfoamed”, and “thwartface curled” cigarettes.

On page 219, at the end of the top paragraph the last two lines reminded me of an experience I had in 1975. The company I worked for was hosting a four yearly international conference. I had become friendly with a delegate from Ghana, and we spent a good bit of time together on the bus trips.

One day at a meeting associated with the conference I went to speak to some South African delegates. One of them looked at me as if I had crawled from under a stone, said something similar to, but even more vicious than the text in the book, and all four turned their backs on me. That was when I experienced real racism for the only time in my life.

Going back to Mississippi, there was a hunt for a suspected murderer, using bloodhounds, unsuccessfully. It was a comedy, not at all like the similar events which we have seen in prison break and similar films set in the southern states of the USA.

The fugitive played a major role in the book, being caught after only a week, forty miles from Jefferson. The confusing thing is that the description of his flight reads as if his flight had been many years long.

All in all, I found this a difficult read almost, in places, a stream of consciousness like Ulysses. I know that the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed the read. I can only score it at four out of ten.

34  South   Korea – J M Lee – The Investigation – April 2016 (Score 8.33)

This story is told by a young man who was a prison guard in Fukuoka Prison in Japan, on the west coast near Nagasaki, during the Second World War. At the time he is telling the story he is imprisoned in the same establishment as being a low-level war criminal. His name is Watanabe Yuichi.

At the beginning of the period he is recording he was tasked by his commander to investigate the murder of another of the guards, Sugiyama Dozan, and who, and why, did it. In the guard’s pocket Yuichi found a small sheet of paper with a poem. He described the words of the poem as being “nestled together to create small villages”. This is a strange metaphor.

Yuichi was a student of liberal arts before being drafted during the war. He was clearly well educated and of a literary bent. He was a literate man who loved books and poetry. He met Iwanami Midori, a young nurse at the prison, playing a piano and practicing for an upcoming concert.

In a supreme act of irony, Maeda, Yuichi’s superior officer gave Yuichi the job of censor, formerly carried out by Sugiyama. This involved Sugiyama, and hence Yuichi, in book burning of such subversive and dangerous authors as Turgenev, Hawthorne, Dante, Shakespeare and Stendhal. In his words he had become an executioner of literature.

Yuichi found the killer (read the book to learn how) and persuaded him to confess without any use of violence, unlike Sugiyama. He was promoted to corporal and told to take no further action on the case. He was flummoxed.

We learned that the brutal guard Sugiyama had another side. He could tune a piano to perfection, loved and wrote poetry. Even in a book where brutal events took place there are occasional beautiful images (see page 137) “Caught in the barbed wire the afternoon sunshine flashed like the scales of a fish in a net”.

At page 141 the inmates saw kites flying outside the walls of the prison. These kites played an increasing role in the story especially when a prisoner made one and started to fly it, and a kite war started.

We learned that Sugiyama had worked with another prisoner, Dong-ju, to enable him to convert surplus government documents into paper to allow books to be translated into Korean and written up on the treated paper. It does seem unrealistic in the time-scale discussed in the book that this could be done to the extent claimed. Named books are “Les Miserable”, “The Poetry of Francis Jammes”, “The Works of Kierkegaard”, “Don Quixote”, “The Greek Myths”, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Romeo and Juliet”, works of Andre Gide”, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke, Dickens, Hugo and Goethe (The Sorrows of Young Werther).

Most of these books are many hundreds of pages long in their original language. It seems likely that it is only the gist of the stories which are transcribed into Korean because of the sheer length of most of these books.

Dong-ju was educated, so he would certainly have been able to do the translations and transcriptions, but ---. Yuichi discovered about fifty volumes which had been transcribed like this, say 2500 pages.

The method employed by the prisoners was for those who could read Dong-ju’s translations to memorise as much of a book as they could while in solitary confinement. They then told the story to those who couldn’t read, who memorised it as told to them and passed it on again. This reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”.

Despite the above difficulty with a crucial part of the plot I did enjoy the book, and I recommend it to you. I scored it at 8.0.