ReaderWriterVille

Blog in progress

Tag: Translated fiction

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

I bought this when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but didn’t get around to reading it right away. And then it won! So I put it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. A novel originally written in Arabic by a woman author from Oman, it features multiple female characters and tells the story of social change in a little-understood region of the world. All this ticks a lot of my boxes, and the professional and GR reviews were very respectful, if a little mixed.

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m still thinking about it, but I can’t say it was a fully satisfying experience. The theme is the social change of the country and the people through the 20thC, with an emphasis on three generations of women in an extended family and kin network. The reviews tend to single out three sisters in one generation (and they appear to be on the cover), but their mothers, grandmothers, daughter, and servants (formerly slaves) play equally important roles. We also read about the lives of the men in this community, most notably Abdallah, who is the father of the sisters and who gets the most POV pages.

The women’s stories focus on feelings and events surrounding marriage, childbirth, and their relationships with their parents, spouses and children. Even London, the daughter/granddaughter who is the youngest of the group and who becomes a doctor, spends more on-page time agonizing over her love interest and potential husband than anything else. Some of the writing about weddings and childbirths is very compelling. There is a description of the bridal and wedding process for one sister that gave me flashbacks, and there is a startling and effective childbirth scene. We spend a fair amount of time with Mayya after she has given birth and gone back to her family home for her post-partum rituals. If you aren’t familiar with extended family and kin networks in religious societies, you’ll learn a lot and even if you are familiar the characters’ stories will draw you in.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mini-reviews of recent reads

I just finished two very different translated novels, one a literary novel by a highly acclaimed Chinese writer in exile, the other a police procedural by a bestselling Japanese author of mysteries. I needed the latter to give my brain a rest after the former. I also finished a highly praised novel that didn’t work at all for me. I felt as if I’d read a different book than everyone else.

China Dream by Ma Jian

Ma Jian has been writing novels and nonfiction about Chinese society since the 1980s, and his critical views have led to his books being banned in China and his life in exile in the UK. The title of this book is taken from a speech by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who used the term to herald an era of “national rejuvenation” which would lead to China becoming the world’s greatest superpower. Ma Jian explores the costs that this dream imposes on ordinary Chinese people, especially those who are left behind.

Ma Daode is a government official in a regional city who seeks to create a China Dream Device, which will be implanted in all citizens and replace their individual dreams with a collective one of Chinese hegemony. His daily life, however, involves carrying out government policies like the demolition of villages to make way for economic development. Ma Daode is an extreme parody of a corrupt official, one with so many mistresses he can barely keep track of them, who takes bribes from all comers, and who ignores the welfare of the people affected by his actions.

But Ma Daode, who was a young man at the time of the Cultural Revolution, is increasingly bedeviled by nightmares of the violence and destruction of that time, in which he was both victim and perpetrator. As the story progresses, the past and the present become fused together for him, and no amount of sex and alcohol can suppress his torment.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I read this weeks ago as part of the MBI longlist (it has since made the shortlist) and I thought it was excellent. I’ve put off reviewing it because I didn’t feel I could do it justice, but here we go.

Vásquez is an acclaimed novelist who has won prizes for his earlier books. This latest release is a long and complicated set of stories focusing on two political murders in his home country of Colombia. One occurred in the 1940s and the other nearly half a century earlier. Both politicians were Leftists who presented a threat not only to the ruling parties but to powerful Colombian elites. The character who becomes involved in understanding these historical events and the conspiracy theories to which they’ve given rise has the same name as the author, and shares many characteristics and experiences as the author, but is not exactly the author. Yes, we are in the world of autofiction, but this version is quite different, to my mind, from the kind of autofiction practiced by Rachel Cusk, Olivia Laing, or Edouard Louis.

Whereas those authors tend to look inward, Vásquez the character acts as the reader’s guide to the histories, showing at first the kind of skepticism a “rational” reader would, but then slowly recognizing the ways in which conspiracies can represent a way to make sense of official explanations that aren’t entirely convincing or satisfactory. We also learn quite a bit about Vásquez the person (the character Vásquez, that is), and he doesn’t hesitate to show us both his more and less admirable qualities. The result is a novel in which the reader swings from long discursive sections about political murders in 1948 and 1914 to poignant, heart-in-mouth descriptions of Vásquez’s wife’s pregnancy and the birth and infancy of their twin daughters.

Read the rest of this entry »

Awards lists galore

The Man Booker International Prize shortlist was announced yesterday. As many news stories about the list have noted, it is dominated by women. The six books are:

  • The Years by Annie Ernaux, tr. Alison Strayer (France/French)
  • The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann, tr. Jen Calleja (Germany/German)
  • The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, tr. Anne McLean (Colombia/Spanish)
  • Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, tr. Marilyn Booth (Oman/Arabic)
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Remains of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Poland/Polish)
  • The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zeran, tr. Sophie Hughes (Chile/Spanish)

I’ve only read two of the list so far and liked them both. I had two more on hand and was able to buy the remaining two through Kobo UK. I haven’t decided whether I’ll try to read them all before the 21 May announcement, but I’ll read at least some.

I like the list. I’m sorry that After Dusk didn’t make it, but I’m also relieved that The Faculty of Dreams, which many readers rated very highly, was left off. I am just not up for a “literary fantasy” that treats Valerie Solanas as a totem for 21st-century feminists. It might be an excellent piece of literature, but the GR reviews have made me think that the less you know of the actual time, people, and intellectual debates, the more you are likely to (a) be impressed by the book; and (b) think you’re learning something about the real person. Solanas was a complicated and troubled woman whose relationship to feminism and gender theory isn’t easily summarized. The novel feels exploitative, even though the author is clearly sympathetic, in part because Solanas guarded her intellectual property so vehemently and had zero respect for affluent middle-class feminists. But that’s another blog post’s worth of off-topic material.

Read the rest of this entry »

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong

[Content warning: Off-page suicide]

This is another installment in my Man Booker International longlist reading project. At Dusk is by Hwang Sok-yong, a renowned Korean writer of whom I was of course ignorant. He is both an author and a political activist and was imprisoned in the 1990s for having gone to North Korea. The novel is translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

This is a short but densely packed novel. Park Minwoo is a successful architect in his late middle age. Park was one of the only two children in his slum neighborhood who went to high school and he went on to attend the most prestigious university in South Korea. He is married and has a daughter, but his daughter settled in the US after her medical training and his wife went to stay with her and never returned. So while he’s materially and professionally successful, Park’s personal life is much less rewarding.

Alternating with Park’s story is that of Jung Woohee, a 29-year-old woman who directs plays in a small fringe theater and works in a convenience store at night to support herself. She has a mother and sister who live in another, smaller city whom she rarely sees. Woohee is committed to being an artist but wonders if she’ll ever escape her marginal existence. She lives in a mildewed bedsit and has one friend, the slightly older Kim Minwoo, who is also barely making it, working in contract construction jobs until recently when he was laid off. They’re not romantically involved, perhaps because they don’t see how they can make a joint life together, but they are close. They’re disaffected and frustrated but they both keep going.

Read the rest of this entry »