I love a good opening sentence; a sentence which surprises, intrigues and with just a few words draws the reader into the story. Eka Kurniawan’s novel, Man Tiger, opens with such a sentence: “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.” Enough to reel me into this tale of love, revenge and hate; a story of past injustices and present inequalities, a crime novel investigating not who-did it but why.
Although barely longer than 170 pages, Kurniawan’s novel is epic in scale, both in its emotional ambition and its attempt to present a panoramic view of Indonesian provincial society encapsulated in the nameless seaside town in which the story plays out with the precision of a Greek tragedy. Continue reading “A Beastly Tale – “Man Tiger” by Eka Kurniawan”
An excellent essay by Elisabeth Hyde Stephens courtesy of Longreads about the relationship of money and creativity using the financial ups and downs of legendary Argentinian writer Jose Louis Borges as an example.
Borges and $: The Parable of the Literary Master and the Coin
In the 1960s, the Café Condé is home to a group of literary bohemians who congregate there every day under the benevolent eyes of its proprietor Madame Chably. It’s a predominantly male world with only one woman in that circle of Condé regulars, the mysterious, beautiful Louki, who appears one day and is integrated into the group, seemingly just by virtue of being there.
The narrative reveals Louki’s background through the stories of multiple narrators, including Louki herself, seamlessly transitioning from one voice to the next. Like many Modiano novels it is a detective story of sorts, both literally –one of the narrators actually is a detective tasked by Louki’s husband to find her – and figuratively. Continue reading “Remembrance of Things Past: In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano”
It is the summer of 1978: General Franco, the military dictator who ruled Spain with an iron fist since the end of the Spanish Civil War, is dead. The economy is in tatters and a new, democratic Spain is in the making. It is a time in which the old rules crumble and the new are not yet established. And in this summer, the novel’s main protagonist, Gafitas, joins a gang of young delinquents from the wrong side of the tracks who are led by the charismatic Zarco. Continue reading ““Outlaws” by Javier Cercas”
We’re staying in Rwanda this week following my recent review of Scholastique Mukasonga’s novel Our Lady of the Nile.
First up is an unsettling piece from the Literary Hub by Megha Majumdar arguing that post-genocide Rwanda is not quite the success story of democratic modernisation it likes to project.
Half-Truth and Reconciliation After the Rwandan Genocide
Finishing on a lighter note, here is a dispatch from music producer Jan Brennan originally published in The Believer on making field recordings of the Rwandan band the Good Ones.
Rwanda: Love Songs from the Ashes of a Genocide
Close to the source of the Nile in the Rwandan district of Nyambinombe, is the fictitious Catholic boarding school Our Lady of the Nile established by Belgian nuns for the “advancement of women through education in the Christian faith” and the setting of Scholastique Mukasonga’s novel of the same name. Originally published in France in 2012 it is one of the four translated books on a shortlist of ten for the International Dublin Literary award – with a prize money of 100,000 Euros for a single work of fiction, one of the richest literary awards globally. Continue reading ““Our Lady of the Nile” by Scholastique Mukasonga”
Frank Friedmaier, Simenon’s anti-hero in Dirty Snow, is a murderer, a pimp and a thug. He is self-absorbed, cold-hearted and cruel. There is, of course, no rule to say that a protagonist needs to be likable and there are many offensive characters in literature, yet most of them possess character traits which allow the reader to emphasize, or which at the very least hint at the possibility for redemption. It is the mark of Simenon’s genius that he is able to sustain the readers’ interest in a character with few, if any, redeeming features and to make such a repellent character utterly absorbing without turning him into a freak for the reader to simply gawk at.
Belgian-born Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989) wrote an extraordinary number of books and is possibly best known for his series of 75 detective novels featuring Commissaire Maigret who solves his crimes more by psychological intuition than detection. Penguin is currently publishing the entire series in new translations. Personally, I find the Maigret novels quite staid, suitable to be turned into the graded readers that we had to read while learning French in high school. Simenon himself considered writing the Maigret series a reprieve from his more serious psychological novels, the so-called “roman durs”, which number close to 200 and of which Dirty Snow is one the best. Continue reading “Rebel Without A Cause – “Dirty Snow” by Georges Simenon”
Following from last week’s review of “Voices from Chernobyl” by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, today’s featured link is a 17-minute movie based on one of the testimonies contained in it.
“The Door” – a short film by Juanita Wilson
Shot on location in Kiew and also in Prypiat inside the exclusion zone around the reactor, “The Door” is a faithful and visually stunning adaptation of one of the stand-out monologues Alexievich recorded for her book.
Translator 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”
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