Posted by: koolwine | December 14, 2014

Ukraine: Death and the Penguin

Death and the Penguin by Andrey KurkovA wannabe novelist is duped into assisting a murderous gang of criminals.

Country Focus: Ukraine (Ukrayina in Ukrainian)

Death and the Penguin
By Andrey Kurkov
Translated by George Bird
Originally published in Russian as Smert’ postoronnego by Alterpress, 1996.
My edition: Harvill Press, 2001
227 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction/Mystery
Time period:
 1990s, post-independence from the Soviet Union

About the author: Kurkov’s latest work is Ukraine Diaries, a series of his personal journal entries covering November 2013 -April 2014. The entries juxtapose accounts of his daily life in Kiev with the concurrent Euromaidan Uprising. Some of the damage Kiev incurred can be seen in the current header photo, a before and after shot of Kiev’s Independence Square. The left side was taken on April 22, 2009; the right side on February 20, 2014. Credit AFP/Getty Images.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

Yes, one of the stars of this droll mystery is an actual, tuxedo-feathered, awkwardly waddling, fish-loving king penguin. Named Misha, he’s the sole charge of Viktor Alekseyvich Zolotaryov. Viktor acquired his avian companion when the local zoo announced that it could no longer feed its animals and was giving them away to citizens. This scenario is not as unlikely as I had initially imagined. Although I found no information on zoo giveaways back in the early nineties, I was dismayed to see that Ukraine’s bankrupt government cut funding to all of its zoos as of March 2014. The zoos haven’t yet resorted to passing out penguins, but the situation looks quite grim.

But back to Viktor and Misha. Viktor, an aspiring writer, gets a job at a newspaper writing obituaries (called “obelisks” by the editor) for the city’s living politicians, criminals and celebrities—Viktor chooses who—to be filed away until the VIPs kick the bucket. He pens dozens of obelisks, but his subjects remain resolutely alive and he remains unpublished.

Then one day Viktor by is approached a man who has heard about Viktor’s skill set from the editor. This man, who is also named Misha, (he’s called “Misha-non-penguin” so there’s no confusion between man and bird) hires Viktor to compose obelisks for specific people…and that’s when Viktor’s work starts appearing in print. After Viktor’s initial excitement at being published fades, he begins to question the ethics of his work and his employer. How long will it be before the next obelisk that runs in the paper commemorates him?

Death and the Penguin radiates a gloomy charm. Lonely, apathetic Viktor and displaced, silent Misha act as excellent mirrors of each other. The unusual plot cuts along steadily, ushering new people into Viktor’s life: a potential friend, a surrogate daughter, a romantic interest, and a penguinologist. It’s quickly apparent that he’s about as emotionally equipped to connect with them as Misha is. In one of his quirky insights, he admits that he’s “interdependent” rather than loving. That’s a pretty hard truth to realize, even for a fictional character. I suspect that Death and the Penguin is one of the oddest mysteries I’ll ever read. Perhaps because life in Ukraine—in both this novel and in the current news—seems anything but normal.

 

Andrey Kurkov

Andrey Kurkov

Quote:

He sank into his armchair.

Here, on the broad arm beside him, was where, just over a year ago, petite blonde Olya, of attractive little snub nose and perpetually reproachful expression, was wont to perch. Sometimes she would rest her head on his shoulder and fall asleep, plunging into dreams in which he, very likely, had no place. Only in reality was he allowed to be present. Though even there, he rarely felt needed. Silent and thoughtful—that was her. What, since her pushing off without a word, had altered? Standing beside him now was Misha the penguin. He was silent, but was he thoughtful too? What did being thoughtful amount to? Just a word describing the way one looked, perhaps?

________________________________________________________

Keep Reading!

Ukrainian writers need to be translated!

Posted by: koolwine | December 7, 2014

Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia

kyr_jamilia

A teenage boy and his sister-in-law hold little regard for their workmate, a wounded soldier, until he surprises them with his fortitude and spirit.

Country Focus: Kyrgyzstan

Jamilia
By Chingiz Aïtmatov
Translated by James Riordan
Originally published in Russian as Djamilia, 1957.
My edition: Telegram, 2007
96 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 1942

About the author: Aïtmatov’s short stories, plays and novels have been translated into over 150 languages. His global reach extends beyond literature. Before his death in 2008 at the age of 79, he had served as the Krygyzstani ambassador to the European Union, NATO, UNESCO, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

Seit, a teenage boy, and his sister-in-law Jamilia are good friends. Jamilia, married only four days before her husband Sadyk left to fight in World War II, can’t hide her disappointment when his letters to the family barely acknowledge her. Since most of the men of their remote village are at war, Seit, Jamilia, and a stranger – a wounded soldier named Daniyar – are tasked with the day-long job of carting grain to the train station. Not knowing what to make of their silent and aloof companion, Seit and Jamilia poke fun at him. After a joke at Daniyar’s expense goes wrong, he earns their admiration. On an unforgettable ride back home, he breaks into a song that wins their hearts. He and Jamilia fall in love, but Sadyk’s return threatens their happiness.

This  story about a Muslim family in the Soviet Union has a universality and timelessness to it that makes it fit for a Broadway musical (singing characters don’t hurt either). There’s not a trace of satire or irony to be found in this touching novel, whose three main characters radiate dignity and the strength of love. Aïtmatov’s beautiful, understated Jamilia deserves more recognition.

Chingiz Aitmatov

Chingiz Aitmatov

Quote:

[Jamilia] grabbed Daniyar’s hand and the poor fellow blushed from embarrassment as they hoisted a sack on crossed hands. And every time they carried a sack, grasping each other’s wrists tightly, their heads nearly touching , I saw how terribly ill at ease he was, how nervously he bit his lip, how he tried to avoid Jamilia’s face. Jamilia, though, was not the least concerned, hardly noticing her helper, exchanging jokes with the woman at the scales. Then, when the carts were loaded and we had taken up the reins, she turned to him, winking slyly and chuckling, “Hey you, what’s your name, Daniyar is it? Since you look like a man you might as well lead the way.”

Daniyar jerked the reins, silent all the while, and we were off.

You poor soul, I thought. To cap it all, your’re bashful too.

________________________________________________________

Keep Reading!

Kyrgyzstani writers need to be translated! The following two nonfiction books were written by westerners.

Posted by: koolwine | December 1, 2014

Guatemala: Severina

SeverinaA biblio-outlaw steals both the wares and the heart of a bookstore owner.

Country Focus: Guatemala

Severina
By Rodrigo Rey Rosa
Translated by Chris Andrews
Introduction by Chris Andrews
Originally published in Spanish as Severina, 2011
My edition: The Margellos World Republic of Letters, 2014
87 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 Contemporary

About the author: Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa was mentored by renowned American writer Paul Bowles, who translated a few of his student’s books—Dust on Her TongueThe Beggar’s Knife; The Pelcari Project—into English. Rey Rosa’s more recent works include The Good Cripple and The African Shore.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)

Severina is one of the names of a beautiful and mysterious book thief. She and her equally enigmatic male companion, Otto Blanco, travel around the world stealing overlooked literary masterpieces. They claim to “live for and by books.” Their lives as biblio-fugitives fascinates the narrator, a bookstore owner who falls for Severina and finds himself willing to give up everything to join her.

Rey Rosa’s novel has an underlying current of suspense, a dab of magical realism, and strong pacing, but its characters don’t resonate. The narrator is obsessed with Severina, Severina is obsessed with books, and there’s not that much else to them. Rey Rosa is known for his understated prose, but I didn’t expect one-dimensional characters to be a part of the deal.  Maybe the fault lies with translator Chris Andrews, who also authored Severina‘s overly long and tedious introduction. Whatever the case, this biblio-fantasy disappointed.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Rodrigo Rey Rosa

Quote:
Let me tell you something. One of my uncles—he was crazy, it’s true, but he also had moments of genius—believed, or said he believed, that books, the objects we call books, are animated by a kind of collective spirit. Like machines and computers in science-fiction fantasies, and the plants from which drugs are extracted, and even certain metals, like gold and iron. He talked about how books struggle for domination in certain regions of the planet, a phenomenon whose trends and flows could be tracked using one of the maps with colored arrows to indicate things like the spreading of ethnic groups or languages over the course of history. Migrations, invasions, outbreaks, extinctions. There are wars between different kinds or genres of books, he said. And, as in real wars, the best don’t always win; but for us, in the end, there are no losers, although they all fade away.

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Keep Reading!

Guatemalan writers need to be translated! Of the books below, only I, Rigoberta Menchú and The Polish Boxer are written by native Guatemalans.

Posted by: koolwine | November 23, 2014

Senegal: The Abandoned Baobab

The Abandoned Baobab by Ken BugulKen Bugul recounts her traumatic childhood in Senegal and her wild 20s in Belgium.

Country Focus: Senegal

The Abandoned Baobab: The Autobiography of a Senegalese Woman
By Ken Bugul, the pseudonym of Mariétou M’Baye
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager
Introduction by Nikki Giovanni
Originally published in French as Le baobab fou by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1984.
My edition: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991
159 pgs
.

Genre: Memoir
Time period:
 unclear, likely 1950s-1970s

About the author: Bugul has written seven novels, but they have yet to be translated into English. Her French-language publisher suggested that she use a pseudonym for the original publication of The Abandoned Baobab rather than risk reprisal from her Muslim countrymen over her nontraditional lifestyle.

World Lit Up Rating:
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The Abandoned Baobab is a testament to how the absence of a loving family can cripple a life. Ken Bugul entered the world in a small village founded at the base of a great baobab tree in a rural part of Senegal known as Ndoucoumane. The seminal moment of her life came at age five, when her mother left her, for what reason is unclear. They reunited a year later, but by then her mother  had “replaced” her with a relative’s child. She fared no better with her her father. Blind and aged, he concentrated his energy on prayer instead of his daughter. Bugul felt so marginalized by her parents that she referred to them as “the mother” and “the father,” never “my mother” or “my father.” Even her siblings—all older by a least a decade—rejected her attempts to bond with them.

Emotional insecurity did not stop her from excelling at her studies in French school, and she earned a scholarship to a university in Brussels, Belgium. Although Bugul doesn’t divulge the year, I’d wager that she arrived in Europe in the 1970s. Whatever the date, Africa and its people had captured Belgian imagination. Everyone in the city wanted to be seen with any African woman, much less one as smart, charismatic, and beautiful as Bugal. Well aware that she was being used as a social and a sexual accessory, her craving for human connection made her unable to refuse attention from even the worst sorts of people.

Bugul’s tales of the sexual and cultural exploitation she faced in Brussels, and her opinions on neocolonialism and feminism make her autobiography a standout. What I didn’t care for was the fractured chronology: she starts with the genesis of her village, cuts to her earliest childhood in Senegal, jumps to decades ahead in Belgium, then returns to her youth in Senegal, and finally picks up where she left off earlier with her life in Belgium. Another gripe: her childhood memories felt rushed and vague, particularly since she names no names and gives no dates. Maybe for good reason: without love, there’s nothing to remember but emptiness.

Ken Bugul

Ken Bugul

Quote:
Alienated, I bored my way into a world in which I didn’t feel things as deeply as I wanted to; I wanted to share them, but the necessary reference was missing. I was an orphan amidst friends who, when we were chatting, would tell parts of their family life. I’d boast about a brother, a sister, without being able to justify the ties. I wasn’t able to get excited like my friends about these bonds that would energize a person one way or another, no matter how things turned out. But I carried Ndoucoumane in my heart, the village down there.

I would throw myself in almost any relationship with tremendous enthusiasm. More often than not I was disappointed. I wanted to talk about my baobab trees, but the others, carried away by their alienation, would make fun of me and laughingly called me a kaw-kaw: kaw-kaws were the villagers who lived far away, lost in the savannah.

________________________________________________________

Keep Reading!

Senegalese writers need to be translated!

Posted by: koolwine | November 16, 2014

Venezuela: The Sickness

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera TyszkaA doctor learns that his father has only a few weeks left to live, while his nurse tries to keep a hypochondriac from stalking him.

Country Focus: Venezuela

The Sickness
By Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Introduction by Chris Adrian
Originally published in Spanish as La Enfermadad by Editorial Anagrama, 2006.
My edition: TinHouse Books, 2012
188 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 Contemporary

About the author: Barrera Tyszka teaches at the Central University of Venezuela and writes a column for the daily newspaper El Nacional. He co-authored a biography of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, which has been translated into English (see “Keep Reading!” below).

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
In The Sickness, two interweaving parallel plots explore the psychological effects of illness on caregivers. In the first, Dr. Andrés Miranda finds out that his father has terminal lung cancer. He’s not sure how break this terrible news to his father, and he’s even less sure about what to say or do after. In the second, Dr. Miranda’s secretary Karina takes pity on persistent ex-patient Ernesto Duran, a hypochondriac who’s convinced he’s dying of a mysterious disease. Despite Dr. Miranda’s order to cut off all contact with Duran, Karina surreptitiously answers Duran’s emails in the hopes of dialing down his mania.

Barrera Tyszka’s fast pacing imbues The Sickness—particularly the latter plot—with the feel of a low-key suspense novel. It’s his keen and unsentimental handling of the first (and more resonant) storyline that elevates the book to a higher plane. Although his characters confront hard realities, their compassion for each other leaves the reader with a positive feeling. Perhaps this wry statement by Dr. Miranda will explain: “Don’t be so solemn about it, it’s not so bad. That’s why we live, in order to get ill.”

Alberto Barrera Tyszka

Alberto Barrera Tyszka

Quote:
“What went wrong?” he seemed to be asking himself. He had sidestepped time rather successfully. Everything had been going relatively well until, one afternoon, that inexplicable fainting fit had stopped him in his tracks. It was that brief wavering of his equilibrium that had brought him to this place and abruptly transformed him into this weak, wounded, small—yes, smaller—person. The words “Sickness is the mother of modesty” came unbidden to Andrés’s mind. They appear in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. It’s required reading in the first term of medical school. The quote bothered him though. It struck him as not so much sad as stupid; behind it lay the desire to make of sickness a virtue. He looked at his father again. Isn’t sickness a humiliation rather than a virtue?

________________________________________________________

Keep Reading!

Venezuelan writers need to be translated!

Posted by: koolwine | November 6, 2014

Latvia: High Tide

High Tide by Inga AbeleThis lofty novel tells the story of a love triangle from end to beginning. 

Country Focus: Latvia (Latvija in Latvian)

High Tide
By Inga Ābele
Translated by Kaija Straumanis
Originally published in Latvia as Paisums by Dienas Grāmata, 2008.
My edition: Open Letter, 2013
310 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 2000s-1970s

Notes: High Tide won Inga Ābele the 2008 Latvian Literature Award for prose. Her plays, poems and short stories can be found in notable anthologies like Best European Fiction 2010.

World Lit Up Rating:
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High Tide
, indeed. I was in over my head from the start, nearly drowning in the existentialist rambling that fills the first twenty pages. Then I was saved, kinda. The story got going. In reverse. Thirty years worth.

See, God strikes the following bargain with a woman named Ieva: “If you agree to live your life in reverse, you’ll have the power to give life back to your lover, who died young. Just don’t get your hopes up—your meeting at that crossroads will last about twenty minutes, no more. Then he’ll continue on toward old age, but you, back to childhood.”

Ieva’s acceptance of the deal means that the beginning of the end of High Tide starts with Andrejs, a 39-year-old ex-con who served time for killing Aksels, his wife’s (the aforementioned Ieva’s) lover. As the story recedes into the past, the reason for Andrejs’ murder of Aksels turns out to be far less banal than expected. By then, I needed a surprise. This pensive, unhappy trio’s obsession with each other was not contagious. Their angst gave the author too much of an excuse to hold forth on religion, happiness, destiny, existence, and  love. Yes, Ābele took on all the Big Ideas, and she even did it…backwards.

Inga Abele

Inga Abele

Quote:
“See, it’s as if I’m always somewhere outside myself. Watching myself from the sidelines. Take love, for example. Watch how love takes over your body. It kisses, hugs, makes others happy, makes them sad. Your body changes shape, you’ll have a kid, then more kids, or maybe none at all. You’ll have a home somewhere, warm nights under a melting sky. Arguments, fear, gentleness. But none of it happens to you—it happens to a body you call yourself. The body you’re watching from the sidelines.”

________________________________________________________

Keep Reading!

Latvian writers need to be translated!

Posted by: koolwine | October 31, 2014

Return Trip: Mexico

Sometimes one book per country isn’t enough. Now that I’m on the lookout for international authors, their books jump out at me and I can’t refuse them even if I’ve already covered their territory. I’ve sneaked these books in between my “official” reading. I thought I’d share them with you.

Down the Rabbit Hole • Fiesta en la madriguera

by Juan Pablo Villalobos • Translated by Rosalind Harvey
Originally published in 2010 by Anagrama
My edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012 • 75 pgs

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Summary: A Liberian pygmy hippopotamus (or two) sits atop Tochtli’s wish list. Will this precocious drug lord’s son get his heart’s desire?
Genre: Fiction
Time Period: Contemporary
Setting: Mexico; Liberia

Notes: Down the Rabbit Hole is Villalobos’ first novel, and he’d prefer that you not call it “narcoliterature.” His second novel, Quesadillas, focuses on a family living in poverty in 1980s Mexico.

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Posted by: koolwine | October 28, 2014

Portugal: The Implacable Order of Things

The Implacable Order of Things by Jose Luis PeixotoA motley crew of characters fall prey to doomed marriages in a sun-scorched land. 

Country Focus: Portugal

The Implacable Order of Things
By José Luís Peixoto
Translated by Richard Zenith
Originally published in Portugal as Nenhum Olhar by Temas e Dabates, 2000.
My edition: Anchor Books, 2009
216 pgs
.

Genre: Fiction
Time period:
 Timeless

Notes: José Luís Peixoto, one of Portugal’s most highly acclaimed authors, has published ten novels in his native country. The only ones translated into English are The Piano Cemetery and the short story collection Antidote, written to complement an album by heavy metal band Moonspell.

World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
“I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things,” said musician Tom Waits. Readers who like beautiful sentences telling them terrible things could do worse than enter the strange world of Peixoto’s The Implacable Order of Things. The story spans two generations and follows four ill-fated couples: a shepherd married to a woman rumored to have relations with a giant; a set of conjoined twins wedded a to cook who produces culinary marvels; a coward married off to a woman in love with his cousin; and a master carpenter missing a leg, an arm, an ear and an eye who takes a blind prostitute for a wife.

You’re probably not wondering anymore why Tom Waits came to mind.

The ever-changing mix of multiple first person and third person narration challenged me at first. I had to read slowly, but eventually figured out who was who. The characters parade through, taking turns revealing the love that they feel, and then, one by one, they reel from the pain that befalls them. The coward’s wife and her would-be-lover, who both lament the night that could have been, narrate the most heartbreaking portions of the novel.

Peixoto’s use of repetition, both of philosophical musings—”Perhaps suffering is tossed by handfuls over the multitudes, with most of it falling on some people and little or none of it on others”—and of portions of sentences (see quote below), was initially a turnoff. As I warmed to the style, I got the feeling that I was reading incantations to summon his imaginary world. Considering that the devil plays a integral role, I’m glad it all stayed on the page. Move over, magical realism…diabolical realism is here.

Jose Luis Peixoto

Jose Luis Peixoto

Quote:
Don’t go. And I didn’t go. Even though I’d waited all day, all my life, for that moment, unique among all moments, even though I’d imagined in detail the world just beyond the boundary of that moment, I didn’t go. Don’t go. Even thought a stork rose up in flight, gliding like an embrace we’ve never known but imagine to be possible, even though I looked at her with my whole being, even though I said wait for me, tonight I’ll come and fetch you, even though the twilight had seen us where only sincere souls go, I came into this room, lay down on this bed, let that unique moment pass by indistinctly and let my life become a painful place of squandered moments, moments squandered before their time, during the weariness of their time, after the bad memory of their time, in the tedium of having and expecting nothing. Don’t go. And I didn’t go.

_________________________________________________________

Keep Reading!

Posted by: koolwine | October 12, 2014

Return Trip: France

Sometimes one book per country isn’t enough. Now that I’m on the lookout for international authors, their books jump out at me and I can’t refuse them even if I’ve already covered their territory. I’ve sneaked these books in between my “official” reading. I thought I’d share them with you.

Hector and the Search for Happiness • Le Voyage d’Hector ou la recherché du bonheur

by Françios Lelord • Translated by Lorenza Garcia
Originally published in 2002 by Éditions Odile Jacob, France
My edition: Penguin Books, 2010 • 165 pgs

Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord
Summary: To improve his patients’ well-being and overcome his own dissatisfaction with life, a psychiatrist travels around the world to research happiness.
Genre: Fiction
Time Period: Contemporary
Setting: France, China, Africa, America

Notes: Lelord, a French psychiatrist, created Hector’s character during a time when had doubts about his own career and relationships. Hector’s search struck a chord with readers, and the novel became an international bestseller. Lelord has followed Hector’s first psychological adventure with Hector and the Secrets of Love, Hector and the Passage of Time, and Hector and the Wonders of Friendship.

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Posted by: koolwine | October 1, 2014

Return Trip: Australia

Sometimes one book per country isn’t enough. Now that I’m on the lookout for international authors, their books jump out at me and I can’t refuse them even if I’ve already covered their territory. I’ve sneaked these books in between my “official” reading. I thought I’d share them with you.

Past the Shallows 

by Favel Parrett
Originally published in 2011 by Hachette Australia
My edition: Washington Square Press, 2014 • 259 pgs

Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett
Summary: Haunted by the car wreck that killed their mother, terrified by their abusive father, and abandoned by their older brother, Harry and Miles face their father’s rage aboard a wave-tossed fishing boat.
Genre: Fiction
Time Period: 1983
Setting: Tasmania

Notes: Parrett won the 2012 Newcomer of the Year Award from the Australian Book Industry. Past the Shallows was her first book, followed by this year’s When the Night Comes.

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