(Yes, I’ve temporarily skipped Andorra – I’ll come back to it…)
This is a shortish novel, which I read as an ebook. It’s told from the point of view of a gecko, and it plays not only with the idea of human chameleons but also with the mutability of the past. The gecko dreams of his past life as a human; the owner of the house he lives in sells faked noble pasts for the nouveau riche-and-famous; the past he creates for one such client starts to take on a life of its own; and the real past of another client comes back to bite them all.
Intricate and clever. Occasionally I got mildly tangled about which client was which, especially in the dream sequences, and there was an important woman who I lost track of between the two times she was mentioned – both possibly artefacts of reading in busride-sized chunks. Definitely a book that would reward a reread, in any case.
I read Albert Camus’s L’Étranger in high school or university but it only makes sense to find another author for this project. My city library had books from Algeria – in one of the branches that’s been inaccessible since the February earthquake. My university library also had some good candidates – on one of the floors that’s been inaccessible ditto. I found this one on the Kobo bookstore, making it the first ebook I’ve read for this project (though certainly not the first ebook I’ve read).
Algerian White is essentially a longform personal essay: Djebar explores the deaths of three friends in particular and of Algerian writers in general, some from accidents or illness but a distressingly long procession assassinated in the succession of “events” from the 1950s to the 1990s. Where writing is so heavily intermingled with politics, this book becomes an overview of both Algerian history and Algerian literature from the War of Independence through to its publication in 1995, but all told from this very intimate point of view.
In retrospect I should have tried harder to find it in the original French. Language is so central to its theme – right from the start Djebar discusses her relationships with French, Arabic, and Berber in a way that reminded me of the Engliss Only, Pliss Tumblr, and this idea emerges again and again, only gaining importance throughout the book as it’s seen through the lens of the different authors and their lives and deaths. And Djebar chooses her words so very carefully, writing in the very literary French where you don’t use a vague word when a precise one will do, nor a simple sentence structure in place of the complex – although ellipsis… The translator has clearly been reluctant to mess with this language, so that reading it in English put me into the francophone mindset just the same way reading actual French does, to the point where I was tutoie-ing my cat. Since literary French and literary English work so differently, this makes it very difficult to read to begin with, and at least once I noticed an undertranslation (“C’est normal” doesn’t mean what we mean by “It’s normal”; it’s more akin to “It’s proper” formally, or informally “It’s the Way We Do Things around here”.)
But though it can be annoying to need to reread every second sentence to understand it, it’s mind-expanding to read prose that rewards it as Djebar’s prose does. It’s highly allusive, often close to poetry. I found myself making extracts just to come back to the thought later. Slow reading, because so very dense with meaning.
My prediction on the About page, that the number of countries in the world was likely to change before I could read one book from each, was borne out before I’d even read the third book in pursuit of my goal. Clearly I need to step up my speed!
(So far the delays are all in getting hold of the books – research, interloans, library holds, and so forth. I should get more organised about this.)
With South Sudan getting membership to the UN, I’ve updated the list of countries I want to read a book from and modified the title of the blog.
This is an even shorter book than it seems to be, the last forty pages consisting of the first two chapters of The Siege. Even with that brevity there was one point where I wondered if the story’s conceit could be spun out to full book-length — but that was before the plot thickened. By the end I was noticing ways it could have been explored even further and enjoying it so much I wished it had gone on longer. (The introduction explains its shortness: in 1975 Ismail Kadare was banned by the Writer’s Union from publishing novels, so his subsequent novels were “disguised as short stories” and published in a collection.)
The Ghost Rider retells the folktale of Konstandin rising from the grave to fulfill his promise to take his married sister Doruntine home to visit her mother — as a detective story. Stres is summoned in the middle of the night to investigate when Doruntine, newly arrived home, and her mother both fall ill with shock. The pressure on him to discover a rational explanation increases when both women die and the supernatural story begins to spread: the heresy of the resurrection motif is exacerbating political tensions between the Catholic and Orthodox churches between which Albania has long been caught in the middle.
The narrative is gripping: the voice and style is of a cosy murder mystery, but threaded with half-remembered dreams and reinforced with the steel of political awareness. As a legend is formed, so is national identity. On one level of reality, what happened becomes irrelevant; on another, it is the foundation stone of everything.
My mother lent me this copy. I hesitated a bit about reading it, because I think if one is reading a single book about the women of a country then it makes sense to read a book written by a woman of that country.
Unfortunately the library catalogue was full of a) books by Afghan men and b) books by Western women. There definitely are books by Afghan women, but the ones I was most interested in were published in France and any would have taken a long time to get here, so I went for the easy route. But you can read personal essays and poems on the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the stories of Mariam, born out of wedlock in a rural area of Herat and, when orphaned, forced to marry a man well over twice her age and move to Kabul; and Laila, born and happily raised in their new neighbourhood but who agrees to marry the same man when her parents are killed in a bomb blast and she realises she’s pregnant to her boyfriend – who her new husband has tricked her into believing is also dead.
Early on in the book and in each relationship, said husband has occasional moments of charm. Soon gone: he’s emotionally and especially physically extremely abusive; many parts of the book are a very painful read. His machinations combined with the new fundamentalist-Islamic laws make it impossible for the women to escape. But despite his attempts to pit one against the other, they form a close friendship which lets them support and heal each other, and ultimately triumph over him.
As a story of enduring revolutionary changes in regimes or of dometic violence it didn’t strike me as anything particularly special, but it is cleanly written, a smooth and compelling read, and the friendship between Mariam and Laila is lovely.
After a pitiful search in Worldcat for Fiction — Abkhazia (alas, I don’t read Russian or this would be much easier) and an even more fruitless search in my local library catalogue for books by Wikipedia’s list of Abkhaz writers, I interloaned Sandro of Chegem.
(While I waited I read Wikipedia’s articles on Abkhazia and Fazil Iskander and an online short story of his, “Forbidden Fruit“.)
In due course it arrived and I dived in. It’s a large book, and not a structured one exactly — apparently the author’s intention was originally to write something picaresque, but it morphed. It’s wonderfully narrative: the narrator chats about his uncle Sandro of the village Chegem in Abkhazia, and each tale gets sidetracked from its sidetracks so we travel back and forth in time and round and round in every circle of village life — and Soviet life, including a couple of meetings with Stalin.
The lack of discernable structure means it doesn’t really pull you forward with that desperate urge to find out what happened next (there’s no great goal to achieve or terrible fate to be averted; it’s more an extended series of slices of life) but it is easy to dip in and out of and the narrative voice is delightful to read.