Zig-zagging around the world

One of the giddy pleasures of joining a reading challenge of the kind we’ve been engaging in—to read around the world—is that you can zig-zag around the world in ways that regular travel would not allow. Your trajectory lands you bang in the middle of cultures, at the center of worlds at once unfamiliar and intimate, disturbing and exhilarating, your journey wrought by the words of storytellers who know their subjects better than any tourist guide.

So the past few months I’ve travelled across three continents—no four—with authors who’ve drawn me an insider’s map to their worlds.

I began, on New Year’s eve, in South Korea with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a surreal portrait of a woman’s rapid withdrawal into herself, the only way in which she is able to deal with the violence of human existence. The winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, Kang has been described by The Guardian as “one of South Korea’s best kept secrets”. Yeong-hye, the protagonist of the novel, is an ordinary woman from an ordinary middle-class family living an ordinary life…until she decides to stop eating meat. Her family cannot understand this decision, initially seeing it as a quirk, then as stubbornness, and finally as illness. The story is told in three parts, from three different perspectives: that of her husband, her brother in law for whom she is first a muse and then an object of desire, and her sister, who also ends up as her carer. We see Yeong-he only as reflected through their eyes, and occasionally, through her dreams that find their way into these alienating narratives. This is a book that intrigues rather than enchants. It draws out in deadpan fashion the hypocrisy that underlies our everyday lives while also in some strange way showing us that resistance is possible, though it might end up consuming us.

A happy contrast to the darkness of Kang’s novel was the small blue book from Finland, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The windswept island that is home to Sophia and her whimsical grandmother is small enough to walk around in an hour or less but large enough to offer magic and discovery to an earnest little girl. Here, wisdom resides in the tiny acts–of walking along the beach, of looking out to sea, of taking a nap in the woods, of finding a bottle in the sand. “Only small things happen in the islands, but these too…have to be dealt with.” And while Sophia and her grandmother deal with these many small things, they have hundreds of delightfully sparse conversations that make us fall in love with the way they are.

And then I veered back Eastward to Turkey, with Elif Shafak’s The Three Daughters of Eve–a story that unfolds during a bourgeois dinner party in a swanky riverside bungalow in Istanbul. Pericim, who has just emerged from a close encounter with a petty thief, spends the evening resenting the party and instead traveling across the decades to when she was a student at Oxford, under the spell of a brilliant philosophy professor whose seminar on God held her–and several other young women–in thrall. We spend the evening with Peri and the other guests, now privy to their desultory high-society chatter, and now, running with her along the Oxford streets clutching piles of books and figuring out her place in an increasingly polarised world. I found the novel somewhat unsatisfying, with loose ends that left one turning back pages to check if there were answers earlier on. I had picked up the book mainly to read someone from the country other than Pamuk–I guess I’ll have to keep looking!

I made one other stop, in Bulgaria, with Alek Popov’s The Black Box, funny in parts, disturbing in others, where two brothers, widely (and wildly) different, are spun in different directions after a series of unfortunate events. Ned, who is a successful financial whiz on Wall Street, messes up at work and is despatched to find a missing director from the company, who seems to be involved in a quasi-legal situation in Bulgaria. In the meantime, Angel, unemployed, wins the green card lottery in the United States and travels there from Bulgaria, conveniently making Ned’s (now empty) apartment his home. What follows is like an absurd drama, with each brother becoming central to a different set of crazy circumstances, from a conspiracy among dog walkers to corporate espionage in Bulgaria.

But the joy of reading resides not in whether one “liked” a book or not, but in the journey the author takes you on, through context and culture, mood and meaning. And there, all four books scored. Bigly.

Brick Lane: Monica Ali

A portrait of the Bangladeshi community in London, Brick Lane follows Nazneen, a young girl from a village in Bangladesh who is married off to Chanu, an older Bangladeshi man, and moves with him to the UK.

During her early years in London, Nazneen’s world is confined to her apartment, crammed with furniture and knick-knacks. She speak no English, and her human contact is, for the most part, restricted to the tattoo lady in the apartment opposite, who sits at the window smoking and drinking beer and barely notices Nazneen as she waves to her. Slowly, Nazneen’s world expands, and she gets to know some of the Bangladeshi women who live nearby—Razia, with a strong sense of fun and a great mimic, whom Chanu dismisses as “not respectable”, and Mrs. Islam, bossy and intefering, whom he holds in high esteem.

Nazneen settles into her new life, starts working as a seamstress, and they have two children. The story picks up pace when Nazneen meets Karim, a young radical, who brings her sewing work, and starts a passionate affair with him.

The story is told in third person from Nazneen’s perspective, and reflects her understanding of the world around her. The characters are well drawn and grow over the course of the book as they reveal themselves to Nazneen, a perceptive observer. Chanu is a kind-hearted man with dreams that he cannot realize, not because the dreams are too big but because he is more talk than action. Their flat is filled with his certificates, many of them worthless. Although he is pompous and has a tendency to hold forth, he is aware of his shortcomings. The relationship between him and Nazneen is tenderly described as they develop a closeness over the years.

Brick Lane is a book about the immigrant experience. It is something that fails Chanu, and he decides to take his dreams back to Bangladesh. Karim, who has spent all his life in London, rediscovers his religion and tries to organize the young people of the community into the Bengal Tigers, partly to take on racists—an experiment that doesn’t really work either. The women in the book—Nazneen, Razia and Mrs. Islam—are stronger and more successful, each in her own way carving out her path.

However, there is one weakness, and I think it really detracts from the book. This is the parallel story of Nazneen’s beautiful sister, Hasina, in Bangladesh. Just before Nazneen leaves, Hasina elopes with the nephew of the sawmill owner, who turns out to be a bully. (Why do fictional women who elope always end badly?) She leaves him, becomes a garment worker, is thrown out on trumped-up charges and becomes a prostitute. All this is told in her badly written letters to her sister. It’s as if Ali felt that a book about Bangladeshis needs to tackle garment workers, prostitutes and acid attacks. The letters are too brief to do the any of these issues justice. Unlike those in London, the characters do not come alive, not even Hasina.

And in the sections about Hasina, there is no trace of the humour that permeates the rest of the book—the sharp observations of human frailties. For example, the decline of the “respectable” Mrs. Islam is caught by the way she wears her hair: “And the hair on her head was not tied tightly, as it usually was, in a neat spool of white held together by the invisible powers of Godliness and elastics. Now it more nearly resembled the nest of a slovenly and spectacularly incontinent bird, and it glittered with the demented treasure of dozen black metal pins.”

The book could have been shorter and would have been better for it. But that apart—and this was Ali’s first novel—I did enjoy the writing and the characters. They felt real and like people I might know.

Minae Mizumura on the Hegemony of English: from The Claremont Review of Books

Mark A. Heberle reviews Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of English, which looks at how English dominates not only science and the internet, but also publishing, and what this means for other languages, especially Japanese. To quote from the article:

“This powerful, insightful work analyzes the predicament of world languages and literatures in an age when English has become the universal language of science and the default language of the internet. Even for creative writers, it is the virtually inescapable medium for those desiring to be taken seriously in an age of globalized discourse. …

“Mizumura’s experiences…ground the theoretical, historical, and autobiographical arguments that make up the book. Her experiences in Iowa with more than 20 ‘writers writing in their own language’—including literary artists from China and Korea, Norway and Lithuania, and a poet from Botswana who writes in English—were the origin of The Fall of Language, since they raised initial questions about the challenges facing local languages and literatures.”

Read the article on the website of The Clairemont Review of Books.

Photo taken from Nippon.com.

A Long Way Down: Nick Hornby

New Year’s Eve, London, Toppers’ Block, named for the number of people who commit suicide by jumping off the roof. Martin, a disgraced TV presenter, has decided to end his life. He is ready for the job—he has brought a stepladder and wire cutters to get through the protective netting. He sits on the ledge, smoking and contemplating his life. Maureen, a single mother with an adult disabled son who feels she cannot go on, has also decided to end it all. She goes up to the rooftop only to find Martin sitting on the ledge smoking. She waits politely for him to get on with it, until finally having run out of patience, she asks if he’ll be long. Martin, not expecting visitors and convinced that Maureen is trying to kill him, freaks out. Then Jess, a teenage daughter of a Labour minister, joins them, and Martin tries to stop her jumping by wrestling her to the ground. So far, their plans of suicide aren’t going too well. Then a polite cough announces JJ, an American: “Any of you guys order a pizza?”

The four would-be suicides all settle down to pizzas, and decide to give it another half-hour. They start (some of them reluctantly) to share their reasons for wanting to die. And so begins an unlikely friendship between four people who do not have anything in common with each other except the desire to kill themselves. They resolve to help each other survive, and the book follows them through their attempts at living and dying.

The four characters take turns at narrating, and each voice is distinctive. Martin is full of his own importance, which is what makes his fall from grace unbearable. Maureen is self-effacing, devoted to her son but unable emotionally to care from him any more. Jess is foul-mouthed, angry teenager. And JJ is a musician and a voracious reader. Nick Hornby has a light touch and there’s plenty of dark humour, but the problems are real. As the stories of each character take shape, the book becomes darker and more poignant.

I enjoy Nick Hornby’s writing and the way he uses comedy to look at the frustrations that we all go through. Like life, it’s funny and sad at the same time.

What writers really do when they write: George Saunders (from The Guardian)

A wonderful piece by George Saunders on writing. Saunders is a short story writer, and his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, has just been published. He writes about how the idea for the book came to him, and what it takes to move from an idea to a finely honed piece of writing.

“A work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them. This intuitive approach I’ve been discussing is most essential, I think, during the first phase: the gathering of the pins. This gathering phase really is: conjuring up the pins. Somehow the best pins are the ones made inadvertently, through this system of radical, iterative preference I’ve described. Concentrating on the line-to-line sound of the prose, or some matter of internal logic, or describing a certain swath of nature in the most evocative way (that is, by doing whatever gives us delight, and about which we have a strong opinion), we suddenly find that we’ve made a pin. Which pin? Better not to name it. To name it is to reduce it. Often ‘pin’ exists simply as some form of imperative, or a thing about which we’re curious; a threat, a promise, a pattern, a vow we feel must soon be broken. Scrooge says it would be best if Tiny Tim died and eliminated the surplus population; Romeo loves Juliet; Akaky Akakievich needs a new overcoat; Gatsby really wants Daisy.

“Then: up go the pins. The reader knows they are up there and waits for them to come down and be caught. If they don’t come down (Romeo decides not to date Juliet after all, but to go to law school; the weather in St Petersburg suddenly gets tropical, and the overcoat will not be needed; Gatsby sours on Daisy, falls for Betty; the writer seems to have forgotten about his grey motif) the reader cries foul, and her forehead needle plummets into the ‘N’ zone and she throws down the book and wanders away to get on to Facebook, or rob a store.”

The article is worth reading in full–an inspiration for writers and for anyone who is curious about the craft.

Thank you to Christina O’Shaughnessy for sharing this!

Read the article.

Photograph: Tim Knox for the Guardian

Dark Fire: C.J. Sansom

When I mentioned to a friend that I enjoyed Susanna Gregory’s medieval whodunits, she lent me the entire series of novels set during the time of Henry VIII with a hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, as the main character. Having just finished the first one (although strictly speaking, Dark Fire is the second in the series), I’m glad she did.

Dark Fire is a historical novel that is also a murder mystery, set in London during the last years of Henry VIII. The king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves is a disaster, and he wants to divorce her and marry Katherine Howard. But there are fears that the marriage to Howard will take England back to Catholicism, with dire consequences for Protestants and those who had defied Rome.

The novel takes place in 1540, the hottest summer of the century. Matthew Shardlake takes on the case of Elizabeth, a young girl who has been accused of killing her cousin. But Elizabeth will not utter a word, either to Shardlake or at her trial, and is condemned to the press, an inhuman punishment for those who will not plead.

In the meantime, Thomas Cromwell, Shardlake’s old master, is losing favour with the king. Cromwell arranged the marriage to Anne of Cleves and would stand to lose his position and very possibly his life, if the king married Katherine Howard and went back to Catholicism.

Cromwell promises the king Greek fire, a legendary substance used by the Byzantines to blow up ships—a fire that could burn on water. The formula had been lost for centuries but had been found in London, and the substance had been secretly recreated. Cromwell wants Shardlake to help him find the Greek fire in time for a demonstration planned for the king in ten days. He “persuades” Shardlake by delaying Elizabeth’s sentence.

But people connected with Greek fire are being brutally murdered. Shardlake has not only to find the formula and expose the person behind the killings but also unravel the mystery surrounding Elizabeth. He is helped in this by Barak, one of Cromwell’s men sent to help—and keep an eye on—the lawyer.

C.J. Sansom’s fine eye for detail brings Tudor London alive: the noise and commotion of the streets; the narrow, warped wooden stairs in a badly built, lopsided house; the expensive red and green wallpaper on the walls of a senior barrister’s office; and the bottles of herbs and spices and musky smell of a Moorish apothecary’s shop. I  could feel the heat and the smells that came off the river at low tide.

The characters are engaging. Shardlake, because of his disability, is an outsider and a loner with a strong sense of justice. Barak seems like a thug at first but Sansom slowly reveals the man behind the tough exterior: a loyal man who, like Shardlake, cares for those hard done by.

Like the best of historical novels, Dark Fire immerses the reader in the period—a time of turmoil and uncertainty, power struggles and religious strife. Not that different, then, from ours.

New York Times on Truth and Lies in Fiction–Lie to Me: Fiction in the Post-Truth Era

truth_edited-1Adam Kirsch
New York Times, 17 January 2017

Adam Kirsch on the problematic relationship between truth and lies in writing.

“Reality is the ingredient that turns a bad fiction into an enthralling one.

“This dynamic is part of the novel’s origins. The earliest English novels, from ‘Moll Flanders’ (1722) to ‘Clarissa’ (1748), were published anonymously, with titles that implied they were true stories. It took generations to establish the conventions of fiction sufficiently to allow readers to take pleasure in novels that were explicitly untrue. The suspension of disbelief that fiction involves is a late stage in the evolution of taste, and it may prove to have been a temporary one.

“The rise of the memoir over the past few decades doesn’t mean that readers are ready to abandon the techniques of fiction; but, like readers three centuries ago, they want the freedom of fiction along with consequentiality of fact.


“The problem with our ‘post-truth’ politics is that a large share of the population has moved beyond true and false. They thrill precisely to the falsehood of a statement, because it shows that the speaker has the power to reshape reality in line with their own fantasies of self-righteous beleaguerment. To call novelists liars is naïve, because it mistakes their intention; they never wanted to be believed in the first place. The same is true of demagogues.”

Read the article.

Born to Run: Bruce Springsteen

born-to-run-9781501141515_hrIt was in the early 80s that I first heard Bruce Springsteen. Looking for new music, I raided the tiny music shop in Secunderabad (India) and picked up Born to Run. I was hooked. The music spoke to me, although I was from a different culture and a different continent—it was the feeling deep down inside of needing to be on the move (and I thought Thunder Road was one of the best love songs I’d heard). I’ve been a fan of his music ever since.

So I was excited, but a little nervous, when this book came out. Did I really want to get to know someone I admired? Maybe there is something to be said about keeping a distance.

He didn’t disappoint. The book is funny and poignant and above all, honest. You do get to know Springsteen better, warts and all. He doesn’t gloss over the problems he had getting close to people, his depression and his single-minded ambition. Although the writing can be lyrical, it is not polished—he tends to throw around ellipses and words in capital letters (which can be a bit disconcerting) and strings of adjectives. But this makes his story feel immediate. You can really feel what it must have been like to be young and full of music—and hormones! And it’s a distinct style, which I liked, rather than a bland recounting of events that you sometimes find in autobiographies. His passion for music, and for making music, shines throughout the book.

Springsteen grew up in New Jersey, son of an exuberant Italian mother and a misanthropic Irish father (with some Dutch heritage, which explains the surname). The father’s frustration and anger would come out when he’d been drinking and would often erupt on his son for not being tough enough. Looking back, Springsteen is able to see his father more clearly: “beyond his rage, he harboured a gentleness, timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity. These were all the things I harboured on the outside and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled him.”

Springsteen knew quite early that the only thing he could do with his life was make music. He started out with rock—one of his early bands was Steel Mill that played “primal rock” with long guitar solos. Inspired by Bob Dylan and wanting to write about his experience and the world he lived in, he started working on songs that became his first album, Greetings from Ashbury Park. That was the beginning of the long road for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They have played together for almost 40 years. I saw them in Bern in 2009, their last tour with the charismatic saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, to whom Springsteen dedicates a chapter. Of Clemon’s death in 2011, Springsteen says “losing him was like losing the rain”.

Springsteen dealt with the emotional scars left by his father by never allowing anyone to get really close and staying constantly on the move. But you can’t run from yourself, and it was only a matter of time before depression caught up with him, “spewing like an oil spill over the beautiful turquoise green gulf of my carefully planned existence”. He got through it, mostly, with help from his wife Patti Scialfa and his manager Jon Landau. But through it all—through the depression, the fame and the wealth—he’s never lost touch with reality.

His songs are often about ordinary people trying to get by. He captured 9/11 in The Rising, and the financial meltdown of the late 2000s in Wrecking Ball. I enjoyed the time I spent in his company, and hope he carries on doing what he has been doing all these years: reminding us that the “other” isn’t really all that different from us. And in this fraught time, when societies are so divided, this message is more important than ever.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster—Svetlana Alexievich


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voices-from-chernobyl“Chernobyl is like the war of all wars. There’s nowhere to hide. Not underground, not underwater, not in the air.”

On 26 April 1986, Energy Block No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was destroyed by a series of explosions. This was one of the biggest technological disasters of the twentieth century, and no one was prepared for it. Soviet officials—under enormous political pressure from from those at the top who worried about how the country would be perceived after this—tended to err on the side of caution. (More information on the reaction.)

Ten years after the explosions, Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and author, began talking to the survivors, including residents of the area and those who came to clean up. Their testimonies form this book. Alexievich stands back and lets the people speak. And an oral history of the disaster emerges from the monologues of those whose voices had not yet been heard.

While it did not even have a nuclear reactor on its soil, Belarus has been the most affected by Chernobyl. It lost 485 of its villages and settlements. Of a total of 10 million people, some 2.1 million—or one in five, of whom 700,000 are children—now live on contaminated land. In the two regions that are closest to Chernobyl, mortality rates are 20 percent higher than birth rates.

Through these individual stories, the author builds up an overall picture of what really happened, both during the Chernobyl disaster and its aftermath. What comes through is a suffering that is unimaginable and an unthinkable negligence on the part of the authorities.

Many of the interviewees spoke of the beauty of Chernobyl’s landscape—and its stillness. As if even the birds knew something terrible had happened, and left. But radiation is an invisible and lethal enemy. Farmers living off the land could not understand why they had to milk their cows and then throw the milk away. Or why they could not eat the carrots and cucumbers they grew. Although the liquidators—civil and military staff who cleaned up—were asked to dig up the topsoil and bury it deep in the earth, keeping it away from the water table, this did not always happen in practice.

An interviewee spoke of the liquidators who helped clear up the roof of the reactor. The lead vests they wore were of no use as the radiation came from below them. The only “protection” they had for their feet were cheap imitation-leather boots. The liquidators would spend a minute and a half to two minutes a day frantically cleaning up the debris, and then would be let go with a hundred roubles and a certificate. “And then they disappeared into the vast peripheries of our motherland….They were young guys. They’re dying now, but they understand that if it wasn’t for them…These are people who came from a certain culture, the culture of the great achievement. They were a sacrifice.”

The unquestioning faith of citizens in their state and their duty is striking. Those who were called upon to go to Chernobyl went without protest. People in the exclusion zone were not too concerned, initially. After all, if the situation was really so serious, would the authorities not have informed them? However, their faith did not survive Chernobyl.

This book is not for the squeamish. On a physical level, there are graphic descriptions of what radiation can do to humans. Every pregnancy was a nightmare. There is a telling remark made by a midwife: “It was a long time since I had seen a happy pregnant woman”. Many women opted for abortions. Children who were carried to term were born deformed.

On an emotional level, the stories are heartbreaking. Lyudmilla, for example, was married to a fireman who was part of the clean-up operation and was dying of radiation sickness. Through it all, she nursed him, refusing to leave his side, trying to protect him as best she could. “And they photographed him. For science, they said. I’d have pushed them all out of there!…How dare they? It’s all mine—it’s my love.” Those who moved to another part of the country were stigmatized.

Listening to these stories—and it really does feel like you’re listening to them—is overwhelming. There were times when I felt numb because of the sheer volume of detail, told and retold. The author’s writing reflects the people as they speak, flat and repetitive at times, lyrical at others. Alexiviech has found a way to bring the disaster to life simply by listening to ordinary people who have seen it first-hand.

A photographer, Viktor Latun, captured the events in Chernobyl in the days after the disaster. He is quoted as saying: “We don’t live on this earth, but in our dreams, in our conversations. Because you need to add something to this ordinary life, in order to understand it. Even when you’re near death.”

In 2015, Svetlana Alexiviech was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. And I can see why. The voices she records in her book stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

Italian Shoes: Henning Mankell

italian-shoesWe find an aging man, living by himself on a Swedish island, where he has been in solitude since his retirement 12 years back. Once, he made a mistake he regrets so badly he has left everything to stay by himself with only a cat and a dog for company.

His world is suddenly disrupted when Harriet, his first and only love, who is suffering from a deadly illness, comes to see him to claim a promise he made before he left her; that he would take her to a pool in the forest he visited as a child.

For the first time in many years, Frederick is forced not only to think about the past, but also to confront it in flesh and blood, and by that, also to change his situation, and shape a different future.

Frederick is not able to understand why he left Harriet, nor is she. Indeed, there are a number of things about himself and the choices he has made in life that he is not able to comprehend, and he must realise that he has not always been a good person. He cannot make up for everything that has been lost, but he can try to fulfill his promise.

Throughout the book, the reader gets to know more and more why Frederick has decided to abandon everything to live on an island. A journey which takes the reader through a number of encounters; Italian shoemakers living in the forest, girls who have fled war but are unable to escape conflicts which continue inside themselves, athletes who lost everything, and professional postcard writers.

Sometimes Mankell’s stories are so farfetched they become difficult to relate to, but every story also has a purpose. As in his other books, Mankell wants his readers to be reminded of those who are worse off, including those who live far away, to be made uncomfortable by the large inequalities that exist in the world today.

Italian Shoes is a book about getting old, loneliness, and how our life choices affect us. It makes us consider what is really important. Despite the many opportunities to change his life journey, for our hero, doing so seems very hard. This is the situation for many people, and should remind us to reflect about our situation – time passes fast and at certain point things can no longer be done, or undone, depending on the situation. 

Despite the difficult themes, the book is beautiful, almost poetic. Mankell’s language, and the way he depicts Frederick and his emotional journey, makes this a book that should be prioritised.