12 June 2018

59  Japan - Akira Yoshimura - Shipwrecks - Score 7.60

Isaku’s village is a small, poor place on the sea. On a bare rocky area where not much grows except in the distant hills. They rely on catching a variety of fish as each moves in season along the coast. We learn a great deal about their lives and lifestyle, ceremonies, selling themselves into bondage for a set number of years to provide for their families and to avoid being a burden on them.

They live in hope of an “o fune sama” event, although it is many years since this happened. O-fune-sama occurs when a merchant ship comes aground on the rocks of their section of coast, but dread a ship belonging to one of the clans of the daimyo coming aground since they must make every effort to save the vessels, their cargos and their crews, all at great hardship to themselves by the disruption of their fishing. If they are found to doing otherwise they are likely to be killed and their village destroyed since the daimyo have the power of life and death over to ordinary people.

A merchant ship crashes ashore after following a light set up by the villagers. Is it moral for the peasants to lure a ship and crew into danger in bad weather, even if it is to help feed their own families?

There is a detailed description of the emptying and stripping down of the vessel. It has enough cargo to feed the village for about three years, as well as other goods to be used in the village. Two sailors had been seen praying for salvation on the ship when it was first seen on the morning of the beaching. At the end of the work there was the disposal of their bodies, two more discovered hiding, and those of the drowned crew in the fast flowing and deep water at the two headlands out from the beach. There was now no danger of the villagers being found out.

At a later date another ship drifted in, full of dead men dressed in gorgeous red clothing. The head man ordered that they should be brought ashore and their clothing distributed among the women and children, the ship then being towed out to sea and set drifting away. I had my suspicions about what this all meant. Read the book and find out for yourself.

There was little evidence of when these events were set, except that it had to be earlier than the middle 1800s as the daimyo had lost their power by then after the arrival of the United States and other Western ships. For that reason I was surprised to read that one of the senior villagers could write script.

I gave this book a score of 8.0.

08 May 2018

58  North  Vietnam –Bao Ninh  –  The Sorrows of War (Score 5.75)

After the end of the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese army sent parties into the jungle to find the bodies of the soldiers missing in action from the particular group with which they served. This seems to be a very humane thing to do, to give their families closure.

Kien is one of the finders, travelling as a passenger in a large Russian lorry towards the sector in which he and his comrades served. He is reminiscing about the war. From his description of the fire power, and superior weaponry available to the American troops, he and his friends seem to have been in the position of the Native Americans towards the end when fighting with bows or single shot muskets against repeating rifles and pistols, and sometimes even Gatling guns.

The story chops and changes, moving around with seemingly neither rhyme nor reason. It is stated to be a first novel, and it shows. It certainly doesn’t deserve the eight or nine glowing references at the beginning. At one stage one of Kien’s colleagues is hit in the face by machine-gun fire, apparently losing an eye but with no further damage. Did the bullet simply disappear?

Apart from maybe the first half dozen pages I found the book dreadfully boring. I speed-read the rest of the book and didn’t find anything at all to entice me to slow down. I scored the book at two.

09 April 2018

57  South Africa - Andre Gide - A Dry White Season (Score 8.42) 
The South West Township (Soweto) riots, which I remember from my youth, are occurring. An Afrikaner, Ben do Toit, has been killed in a hit-and-run incident. Knowing what was reported as going on in South Africa in those days I wondered if it was murder.

The narrator receives a large parcel, posted to him by Ben do Toit. The contents record that a young African boy, Jonathon, son of Gordon, has been taken into custody by the police. Eventually Ben finds out that the boy died in police custody "of natural causes". Ben has been trying to get information from the police on behalf of Gordon, who is one of his employees.

It's one man's battle against the system, compounded by the fact that the system is intensely racist. I think that might spoil for you the pleasure of reading an incredible story. Suffice it to say that I gave the book a score of 10/10, as did one other member of the group.

15 March 2018

56  Catalunya (Catalonia) –Mercè  Rodoreda  – In Diamond Square (Score 6.20

I  recommend that you read the prologue before (not after) you read this book.

I  was looking forward to reading this book because it had a good review in the New European in their European Literature section. However, I was extremely disappointed.

The  narrator, Natalia, married Joe, the young man who asked her to dance on fiesta night. They have two children.

The  first episode which really stuck in my mind was when the Catalonian Republic was declared, and the king and queen left. Then Natalya was looking for a morning job because Joe, a woodworker, was not getting much business. She described the house where she would be working in ludicrous detail, but had the grace to say, eventually, that she had gone on a bit.

The  book began to be tedious and my intended score had dropped from 8.0 to 6.0 by page 160, about half way through.

Joe  joined the militia on the Catalan side when the Spanish Civil War was declared. Natalia had to start selling all their possessions to feed herself and the children. There was always someone willing to buy them, at less than she hoped, so some were profiting from the war.

It  was clear, though, that some kind people bought them at a higher price to help her out. Joe’s death did not help her.

By  the time I had struggled through to the end of the book my score had dropped to 4.0.

11 February 2018

55  Wales – Richard Llewellyn – How Green was my Valley (Score8.3}

How is it that I have reached the age of 71 without coming across this book? I knew of the film, of course when I was young, but had no idea that it was taken from a book rather than from the imagination of a script writer as so many of today’s mediocre films are. And I have been a voracious reader from childhood, youth and adulthood!

But I am glad that I have never read it before since I have really enjoyed it now. It is the story of Huw Morgan from his childhood and youth in a remote village in the south of Wales, soon to be despoiled by the introduction of coal mining and slag heaps which cover the hills, and devour many of the houses.

This is also a powerful story of the subjugation of ordinary people by rich people to make the rich richer while keeping the financial benefit to the poor as low as they can get away with.

One of the first things which awakens you to the fact that these people are different is the Welsh turns of phrase which are clearly transcribed into English as, for example, “There is cold it is”. This is similar to Scottish and Irish Gaelic.

Huw grew up speaking Welsh (see page 16), but I for one didn’t realise until much later that all of the people in the story were, in fact, speaking Welsh and the story could just as well be considered as a translation.

The Great Depression seems to be encroaching, with ironworks closing and wages being cut in the pits.

Huw loved bread and dripping for breakfast and other meals. So did I, though it seems to have dropped out of sight now.

In Chapter 16 we come upon something we have come upon before in our literary travels – colonial masters disparaging the local language and forbidding it to be used in school on pain of punishment. This happened in Scotland and Ireland too, as well as in the USA and Canada. For all I know it may happen anywhere where a minority of the population speaks a different language or even dialect from the majority who control things.

There is a section in which the men of the village hunt down a man who raped and killed a child. He still had all the evidence of the murder on him so the minister (Evangelical) gave permission for the girl’s male family to take the culprit up the mountain and deal with him. Next morning there was a large area of burnt grass on the side of the mountain.

On page 214 there is a beautiful description of the wind in the trees and Huw’s love of his valley. There is a poetic beauty in this book with its descriptions of the valleys, the making of food, the singing of dozens, then hundreds, of people together.

On page 320 we have the sheer cruelty of what the teacher did to a little child using a wooden board round her neck battering on her shins and cutting them while she walked, with its message “I must not speak Welsh in school” in English. It cut me to the quick because I know that such things actually happened. The teacher thoroughly deserved the hammering which Huw gave him.

It also tells of how people lived in their houses with small gardens, and doors always open to neighbours. The downside of the communities was that if they chose not to go to the church services they were shunned and boycotted. If they got on a bit they were continually talked about as getting above themselves. If a girl married out of the village, especially into a family of shopkeepers, doctors, solicitors or such like they were talked about in both directions – she’s only a miner’s slut or, she’s getting above herself.

The new minister, very popular when he first came to lead the church, replacing a “hell and damnation” preacher, was eventually driven from the church by ill-minded people. He had had the temerity to visit a young woman and her child. The husband was in the army in South Africa, fighting in the colonial wars against the Boers. The wife was full of sorrow and the minister was full of compassion. His visits were inevitably in the evening after his work for the church and the other parishioners was done, but evil tongues started wagging and he was discharged from the church.

A number of the parishioners left and followed him when he set up an independent chapel.

A final good point was the text on page 424 “The wind was busy with his comb in the grass

This is one of the small number of books which I have scored at 10.0

54  Netherlands – Deborah Moggach – Tulip Fever (Score 6.4)

 Sophia opens the story. Her old husband, Cornelis, intends to have their portrait painted by a young artist, Jan van Loos. We learn that they own a number of paintings, including “Susannah and the Elders”. Herrengracht in Amsterdam is where they live in one of the narrow, but high, buildings which front one of the canals, lading straight to the water.

 Maria is their serving girl. On page 22 she goes to bed, leaving her shoes upside down (to keep away the witches). When I was still at school, about 50 years ago, I stayed with a German family on a school exchange. When they had boiled eggs for breakfast they always knocked their spoons through the bottom “so that the witches could not use them as boats”. For a joke I copied them. I still do it all these years later, without even thinking.

 Tulip-mania runs through the story, affecting the lives of several of the characters. The writing is beautiful and the stories fit together piece by piece, told in short interweaving sections for the lives of the different members of the cast, Sophia the wife, Cornelis the husband, Maria the maid, William the lover of Maria, and Jan van Loos, the portrait painter.

 I gave the book a score of eight from ten.

02 December 2017

53  Algeria – Yasmina Khadra – The Swallows of Kabul (Score 7.66}

I don’t normally go into quite as much detail as I have in discussing this book, but I don’t want to mislead you about the events in it. It is your choice whether to read on or not.

Thee first incident in this story is the Executive Murder, by crown stoning, of a woman condemned as a prostitute. There seems to have been no trial. By any normal standards of humanity she didn’t deserve to die like that. Mohsen Ramat is our eye at the killing.

I wonder if, in a situation like that under such a regime, people are afraid not to go and not to throw stones in case they are reported and suffer the same fate along with their families.

Chapter 2 opens in a jail where Atiq Shaukat works as a guard. His wife Zunaira is a beautiful woman. We can only know that because we are in his house and she is free of the burqa while she is at home.

On page 58, after an inconclusive talk with his sick wife Musarrat Atiq storms out of the house in which she has exhausted herself preparing a meal for him. The man is an idiot, unfeeling, though he has his own serious problems outside of their home.

Mohsen also proves himself an idiot when he fights with Zunaira, and strikes her.

The most horrendous sentence in this book, spoken about Zunaira when she is sentenced to death is “After all, she’s only a woman!” She pushed Mohsen away to stop him attacking her. He tripped and broke his neck against a wall.

Zunaira ends up in prison, waiting for execution (again no trial). Musarrat, who is already near death, takes her place and is executed in her place. This is possible because of the burqas which all women are forced to wear outside the home.

Zunaira disappears. Atiq is demented trying to find her, running around Kabul pulling women’s burqas off, but never finding her. Atiq is mobbed by irate husbands and is beaten to death.

All I can say at the end of this book is that I finished it because it was the book group selection. None of us could have known in advance just how horrific it is. The back cover blurb gives no real clue. Even J M Coetzee says merely that it is hell on earth, a place of hunger, tedium and stifling fear.

I gave this book a score of three because of the selflessness of Musarrat’s sacrifice and Zunaira’s escape.

03 November 2017

52  Somalia – Nuruddin Farah – Maps (Score 2.85)

We read “From a crooked rib” by Farah, a number of years ago, when I gave it a score of 7.0.

Is Askar the protagonist in “Maps”? He was found, new-born, by Misra who bathed him and looked after him, and continued to do so throughout his childhood, up to about 16.

The story starts in the second person, told by an unknown narrator who could not possibly have known some of the things he or she discusses unless omniscient (which would be cheating). I found that unusual and disturbing, especially when, later in the novel the author changes persons frequently. The initial change to first person is when Askar is seven.

Something happened between Askar and Misra when he was in his teens, causing him to hate rather than love her. It’s not clear whether it’s something she had done, and had control of, or had no control of.

The use of “discrete” as a verb on page 67 in “You managed to discrete the dreamed anecdote” makes no sense, unless the author is trying to persuade us that that it is a verb.

I did not enjoy this book at all. For an author who won a literary prize, although one I have never heard of (awarded every two years by the University of Oklahoma), it was a major disappointment to me. Also, despite our group having read foreign literature every month for about 16 years, I had heard of very few of the other prize-winners.

I learned something about the long term problems between Somalia and Ethiopia, and how they largely result from the artificial division into two groups by the various colonial powers, England, France and Italy, who carved the area up between them.

Towards the end of the book I wondered where the occasional use of Italian comes from when there had been no sign of it up to that point. There was no hint, as far as I remember that Askar could speak Italian. Was this just a ploy for Askar and Hilaal to speak without Misra understanding? Why wasn’t she suspicious about that?

I have one further complaint about the misuse of English, which is not restricted to this book. On page 221 we see “In one a horseman is dropped to the floor, and the hose rides the wind, eastwards”. There is no indication that the book is a translation so I must assume that Farah, or his editor, has used this dreadfully lazy way of speaking which has become prevalent in England, and is creeping into Scottish English. What on Earth has happened to the very descriptive word “ground”?

I gave this book a score of two.