Poisened Lives: “Voices from Chernobyl” by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices_coverTranslator and writer Tim Parks is one of the most outspoken critics of the Nobel Prize for literature. He contends that choosing the most deserving literary oeuvre across so many different cultures is a near impossible task for the secretive Swedish committee and that because of this impossibility, the members of the Nobel committee tend to choose laureates on the basis of their established moral voice. The 2015 winner, Belarussian author Svetlana Alexievich, seems to confirm Park’s criticisms.

As the first Nobel laureate specialising in non-fiction, Alexievich is probably the most openly political author honoured in the award’s recent history. A trained journalist, she specialises in oral histories, uncovering the hidden stories within major historical events. She chronicled for example, how ordinary women experienced the Second World War in War’s Unwomanly Face and wrote up the stories of young recruits in the Afghanistan war in Zinky Boys named after the zink coffins in which the dead were returned home.

There might be some truth in Park’s criticism of the Nobel Prize’s perception of honouring the best writing in the world in any given year. Yet, his criticism also carries a certain literary snobbishness, implying that a moral voice is of lesser value and can only be gained at the expense of an artistic one. This notion is compounded by the common idea that non-fiction is artistically of lesser value than fiction. Alexiviech’s politically charged and aesthetically complex works of non-fiction proves both those notions wrong. Continue reading “Poisened Lives: “Voices from Chernobyl” by Svetlana Alexievich”


Link of the week

IMG_8850_resized I am sticking with the theme of the Vietnam War this week with two links to celebrate the awarding of the Pulitzer-prize for the novel “The Sympathizer” – a black comedy about the war and its aftermath by American-Vietnamese author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

First, a recent interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen by John Freeman from The Literary Hub, which covers the award-winning  novel as well as Nguyen’s more recent non-fiction book Nothing Ever Dies which deals with how memories of the Vietnam and other wars are being constructed.

Talking to Pulitzer-prize winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen

The second is an an older piece from 2011 by Nguyen himself  which looks at the vexed question of cultural authenticity:

“On not being Vietnamese” by Viet Tanh Nguyen




The Business of War -“The Shadow of Arms” by Hwang Sok-Yong

Cover smallHaving spent the best part of the last fifteen years in Hanoi, I am always keen to get my hands on books dealing with my chosen home. Yet, after a while a certain sameness tends to creep into the reading experience: most books seem to be dealing with the Vietnam War, or as it is known here, the American War, from the US perspective.

The sheer volume of movies and books produced in the United States about the war and its aftermath (most recently Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes and The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen) decades after the famous evacuation of the last US troops from Saigon, illustrates the still unresolved trauma of having been beaten by a Third World opponent. It also tends to drown out other interesting voices. One such voice is author Hwang Sok-Yong whose war novel The Shadow of Arms was published to great acclaim in his native Korea in the 1980s and without much fanfare a couple of years ago in the United States. Continue reading “The Business of War -“The Shadow of Arms” by Hwang Sok-Yong”

Lust and Fury – A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar

A Cup of Rage_Cover_A Cup of Rage by Brazilian author Raduan Nassar is without a doubt the odd one out on this year’s long list for the Man Booker International prize. 80-year old Nassar is the oldest nominee and at a mere 64 pages, his book is by far the shortest on the list. It has also been around for the longest. Originally published in 1978, the novel arrived in its current English version with a forty year delay.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games with the world’s attention on Brazil, this book and Nassar’s only other novel Ancient Tillage from 1975, have been released in new translations by Penguin Modern Classics. These two novels almost comprise Nassar’s entire literary output. Shortly after publishing A Cup of Rage he gave up writing and set up a model farm which he ran until 2011. Not counting a collection of short stories written in the 1960s and 70s and published in book form much later, his considerable reputation as one of Brazil’s great modernists rests on an oeuvre barely exceeding 200 pages.

The plot of A Cup of Rage is deceptively simple. It is the story of an odd couple: he, an older, conservative land owner; she, a younger, progressive journalist. He arrives at his farm, while she is already there, they spend the night making love and the next morning have an enormous fight. Nassar chronicles the descent from erotic rapture, to rage, to utter despair, in only seven chapters told in one long sentence each. Continue reading “Lust and Fury – A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar”