The Written World

with Sarla Langdon

Attention readers!

Please note that all books reviewed in this column in every issue are available at the KILLAY LIBRARY. Just ring the lovely people there on 01792 516820 to check availability. I send them an advance list of the titles to be reviewed in each issue of TheBAY magazine and do their best to procure the books for you, no matter how ‘obscure’ my selection is.

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MANY VOICES, MANY TONGUES

Life From Elsewhere: Journeys from World Literature Edited by Amit Chaudhuri (Pushkin Press £7.99)

One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Pushkin Press £10.00)

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Pushkin Press £10.00)

Pushkin Press’ Arts Council-funded anthology of multilingual world literature entitled Life from Elsewhere features short stories including works translated from Russian, Chinese, Polish, Arabic, Spanish, and Hebrew. 
The anthology, which is also supported by Bloomberg, includes an introduction by novelist and critic Amit Chaudhuri, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, winner of the Common-wealth Writers Prize, the Encore Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Among the best known of the contributors is Andrey Kurkov famous for his poignant cult novel Death And The Penguin, now too well known for further discussion, and a significant Israeli novelist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, who has written two notable novels, One Night Markovitch (2015) and Waking Lions (2016).

Goshen presents quirky perspectives on familiar scenarios: One Night Markovitch deals with the European persecution of Jews, introducing us to two zany Israeli men who travel to Western Europe as part of a group of illicit ‘visa husbands’ enabling endangered Jewish women to travel to safety in Israel. One Night Markovitch reveals the details of life in a newborn Israel still ruled under British Mandate—-using a humorous tone veering between dry irony and pure slapstick.

In sharp contrast is Waking Lions, a harsh novel dealing with the very contemporary issue of illegal migrants. Goshen’s protagonist is Israeli Dr Eitan Green who is guilty of a hit-and-run killing of an Eritrean migrant when driving his SUV in the deserted outskirts of Beersheba. Dr Green is blackmailed by a witness of the crime, the beautiful wife of the slain Eritrean who coerces him under threat of exposure into providing secret medical treatment to the huge illegal migrant community after hours. He works himself into exhaustion, compromising his own job and that of his police detective wife Liat in the process.

Waking Lions is an unusual perspective on the Middle Eastern migrant issue, at a time when the crisis of the huge refugee influx dominates the West. Waking Lions personalises the situation providing insights into the uncomfortable mix of guilt and anger of the host country coupled with the helplessness and fatalism of the refugees, treating of the complexities and miseries of displacement that trouble us all today.

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71 Written World pic 2Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape £16.99)

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape £14.99)

 A new book by novelist, academic and critic Julian Barnes is a matter for celebration for any discerning reader. Two new offerings are an embarrassment of riches. Keeping an Eye Open is a collection of essays on seventeen significant artists and their work. The artists, mostly French romantics, realists and modernists include Gericault and his disturbing Raft of the Medusa, Manet, Cezanne, Braque, Magritte—and the British painter Lucien Freud. Barnes presents a backstory for each painting/artist, offering a wealth of fascinating detail, a display of the range of his artistic erudition. Keeping an Eye Open can be best be described as a biography of paintings selected for their striking subjects, for their potential for artistic analysis as well as for the excellence of their execution. Numerous illustrations give a visual spark to the words—I particularly like the reproductions of details from larger pictures which enable you to focus on the section of the work Barnes is discussing in the text.

Keeping an Eye Open is the perfect book for dipping into. It joins Plutarch’s Lives and The Canterbury Tales on my bedside table, supplying a soothing dip into sanity at the end of the day.

 When literary giant meets musical genius

The Noise of Time is Julian Barnes scholarly yet deeply sympathetic view of the life and times of the celebrated Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovitch. One of the most sophisticated stylists in the English language, Barnes as biographer is perfectly suited to explore the life of Russia’s most revered composer.

Despite persistent humiliation, proscriptions and persecution from Soviet dictator Stalin’s culture police, Shostakovich did not defect to the welcoming West for fear of Stalin’s nine degrees of punishment: his freedom would result in the incarceration and murder of every member of his family.

Barnes shows deep insight into the demoralised Shostakovich’s timid and nervous personality—it takes a gifted artist to understand another so intuitively. With terse understatement, Barnes paints the soul-destroying portrait of the cruel control methodology of Soviet communism, using a dry ironic prose style to sketch the horrors of totalitarianism that so crippled the life of one of the greatest composers Russia has ever produced.

When a literary giant meets a musical genius, your reward is the riveting and revelatory biography The Noise of Time.

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The Black Notebook by Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano

Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti (MacLehose Quercus £14.99)

 Every time another novel by French Nobel laureate (2014) Patrick Modiano is translated and published, the English speaking literary world experiences a frisson of excitement. The Black Notebook issued by Maclehose Press was a pleasure to receive and is once again an exploration of memory as was his Dora Bruder (reviewed in Bay magazine last year).

Forty years ago, our protagonist, would-be writer Jean, entered details of his daily life in Paris in his black notebook, to assist him in recalling the situations relating to the names of shops, streets, and people he encounters. In addition are scribbled comments, indecipherable observations, minute memos….Forty years later, the entries in the black notebook trigger Jean’s memories of people and events to evoke the essence of a city.

When Jean finds the eponymous black notebook, he sets off to revisit the sites of his memories and to test his recollection of events that took place four decades ago, resulting in a novel that is a mirror of life in the French capital.

Jean’s mysterious girlfriend Dannie had embroiled him in the sinister side of Paris, introducing him to her disreputable friends who were denizens of the world of seedy cafes and cheap hotels. This dodgy and colourful group of friends, namely Aghamouri, Chastagnier, Marciano and Duwelz were criminal operators but Jean never finds out what felonies they committed.

Jean’s memories overlap with an old vice squad dossier, prompting him to try and recall the details of a case long closed where he was probably the only remaining witness.

Modiano succeeds in painting a portrait of the Montparnasse district, expressing its pleasant, its beautiful and its sinister moods in delicately etched detail. His approach is pensive and nostalgic and his style impeccable.

Peter Englund, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, read a citation which said Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies…”

The Black Notebook definitely confirms this perceptive statement.

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Fly Away Home by Marina Warner (Salt Publishing £8.99)

Novelist, historian and mythographer Marina Warner has a place in the top 20 of my favourite authors, a position earned by her superb studies of myths and fairytales—which have won fulsome praise in this column.

Her new collection of short stories Fly Away Home is an imaginative representation of the quirks of life that turn a normal situation into a magical, unpre-dictable narrative. Meet Melusine, a mermaid who can temporarily turn into a normal woman, and in the course of such a metamorphosis, has an unpleasant encounter with a human lover.

Watermark is the haunting story of the young medieval artists who are sent by their master from Italy to peddle their wares and talents in England, a charming vignette of youthful ingenuity.

I particularly love the fairytale A Chatelaine in the Making relating the adventures of teenager Clara Dufay who is saved from the predatory attentions of her mother’s lover M de Grivegarde when the charms on her bracelet come to life and whisk her away into the arms of her handsome young violinist amour.

In Fly Away Home, Warner enchants the reader with twenty stories, all exquisitely phrased and all equally memorable.

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71 Written World pic 3

MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE 2016

A very distinguished longlist of 13 novels from across the world has been announced for the Booker International 2016, written in a dozen different languages. Some of these are of very high literary merit – two of which I have already reviewed in this column: Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind was reviewed in BAY February 2016, and The Vegetarian by Han Kan in BAY July 2015

Here are reviews of the best entries out of the seven more books received so far. Orhan Pamuk remains a serious contender for the 2016 Booker International prize.

What is worth celebrating is that for the first time the translator is getting his/her due with the £50,000 prize being divided equally between the author and the translator of the winning submission.

 

Death By Water by Kenzaburo Oe (Nobel Laureate 1994) Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm (Atlantic Books £20.00)

Nobel Laureate Kenzaburi Oe’s Japanese novel Death By Water is a multilayered examination of the development of creativity in the performing and graphic arts, in literature and in music. Each of Oe’s characters plays a vivid role in the portrayal of their creative abilities. Death by Water is narrated by the protagonist Kogito Choko who is a famous savant and a celebrated writer with an impressive knowledge of Western music and literature.

When a young experimental theatre group successfully stages Kogito’s work they invade his life, introduced by his sister Asa, who is famous for her part in the making of an award winning feminist film. The troupe also have a benevolent influence on Kogito’s special-needs son Akari who has achieved recognition as a music composer but has an uncomfortable relationship with his father.

Oe controls the tempo of the remarkable novel for a beautifully paced narration of how each of his characters achieve creative enrichment.

A literary tour de force indeed!

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A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Harvill Secker £14.99)

Portuguese writers have achieved a notable level of recognition on the international literary scene, (cue the review of Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago’s Raised From The Ground reviewed in BAY March 2014), and multi-award winning Angolan novelist Jose Eduardo Agualusa is a stellar addition to this literary galaxy.

A General Theory of Oblivion is the story of a Portuguese woman, Ludovica who moves to a luxurious high-rise flat in Angola to live with her sister and new brother-in-law. A traumatic childhood experience has left her with crippling agoraphobia and when her sister and her husband disappear during the violent Angolan troubles, Ludovica walls herself with her dog Phantom into the flat, feeding herself from the full sized garden on the verandah. Ludo grows old in the apartment writing her story on the walls when her store of paper and her eyesight give out.

Stirring events happen around her and are chronicled by Agualusa in sparkling mini-chapters that sustain the momentum of the narrative brilliantly, while telling the concomitant story of the people and the horrors they suffer during the inevitable bloodshed that accompanied the Angolan fight for independence.

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White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

Translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press £12.00)

Peirene Press specialises in beautiful little novellas that bear witness to little-known tragedies in remote arenas, events that taint the history of mankind. In August 2014 this column featured my review of of Peirene’s shatteringly beautiful The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, a story of post-Chernobyl trauma on the Russian steppes.  

Aki Ollikainen’s novel White Hunger is set during the 1867 famine in Finland which resulted in a wave of migration from rural areas across the Baltic nation. Among the hunger refugees is Marja whose terrible journey we follow as she treks in the unforgiving snow, facing bitter cold, disease and starvation — and bitter rejection from those who should have helped her and her children.

A heart-wrenching narrative, disturbingly topical as well.

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Mend the Living by Mayliss de Kerangal Translated from the French by Jessica Moore (MacLehose Press £14.99)

MacLehose Press has the distinction of having two titles selected for entry in the Booker International Longlist. Mend the Living is the more noteworthy of the two.

Three young French lads eagerly drive to the beach, impatient on this winter morning to catch the surf at the break of dawn. The waves created by a rare tide pattern are exhilarating, but the journey back in their little van is catastrophic.

In this densely written, sharply observed novel, award winning French writer Mayliss de Kerangal paints an insightful portrait of Marianne and Sean Limbeau’s desperate reaction to the death of their son Simon. We meet the doctors, the nurses and the Le Havre Hospital staff who deal with Simon’s brain- dead body.

All that remains is for the Limbeaus to consent to donating Simon’s organs — a decision explaining the title Mend the Living, a quote from Anton Chekov’s little-known play Platonov: “What shall we do, Nicolas? Bury the dead and mend the living.”

Analysing the Limbeaus’ agonising dilemma, as they reconcile themselves to authorising the donation of Simon’s organs, Kerangal maintains a very high level of reader engagement throughout. Mend the Living is an extraordinary work of contemporary literature, definitely a contender for the Booker International shortlist.

For Swansea readers: Kerangal’s opening chapter on the boys revelling in the waves has to be one of the finest descriptions of a good hour’s surfing ever written.

 

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