Ursula Le Guin’s translation of this may have been very accurate but I don’t feel it let much flavour of the original come through. It read just as though the story had always been written in English, and a generic pseudo-medieval fantasy English at that.
On the other hand it was hard to get from the story more of a sense of the eponymous Empire than “generic pseudo-medieval fantasyland” either. The story (or stories: the conceit is that a marketplace storyteller is recounting all these forgotten tales to a respectful audience) spans not only centuries but countless aeons, but there’s no sense either of continuity or development from tale to tale.
Maybe it’s a mistake for me to be trying to find any. It’s more of a patchwork than a tapestry, with the common thread being the focus on the throne itself: how the emperors and empresses – noble, ambitious, wise, paranoid, pragmatic, or weak – shape the country for good and ill, and yet how easily it can all be forgotten. How much of it is for the joy of creating a fictional empire and how much is to make political statements I can’t tell, but “Magareta’Acher” makes an appearance, for the most obvious, and there are almost certainly a great many references that I don’t have the background to even recognise. Each tale by itself is an enjoyable read, and there’s a lot beneath the surface for anyone who might choose to delve deeper.
Originally I had my own country listed under ‘N’ for its Pākehā name, but a few months ago I levelled up my reading comprehension in Te Reo Māori sufficiently to crack open this young adult science fiction novel I’ve had sitting on my ereader and my bucket list. To my delight, I found myself able to follow enough of what was going on – slow going as it was – and levelled up my vocab and understanding of sentence structure even more in the process. I quickly got used to the author‘s Ngāti Porou dialect too.
“The Writings of Rehua” is the story of the four teenagers among a colony on a planet of islands. Descendants of survivors of Earth’s ecological collapse, the people have strict rules to maintain sustainability. (They didn’t all seem very sustainable to me. A child may only be born after someone else dies – this works if deaths are spaced out, but they’re not, and waiting for all the kaumatua to die of old age will leave you with an awkward amount of childraising to do all at once at best – a completely post-menopausal society headed for extinction at worst. Likewise, not eating meat in order to avoid hunting animals to extinction sounds fine – but plants can be harvested to extinction just as easily; and the author (later in the novel) having her characters train all the world’s animals to stop eating meat too hits a pet peeve. Many animals cannot survive without meat: they can’t make the proteins they need otherwise. Do not keep your cat on a vegetarian diet.)
One day, the young people find a couple of abandoned hokio eggs. They look after them and raise the chicks to adulthood – whereupon the birds carry them to another island where other colonists are living in caves, fearing giant lizards but guided by the rest of the hokio. Four more young folk are living there, siblings so eager for new romantic possibilities. Relationships develop over the course of the book but are subordinate to the work (all guided by the telepathic hokio) of taming the giant lizards, meeting two groups of sea people, taming the giant octopodes, and finally returning to Earth.
There isn’t much in the way of excitement, even accounting for my pace: rather than plot twists the book gives us an exploration of the world, and a building of the characters’ understanding of it and its history – and purpose. But you don’t need plot twists when you’ve got characters flying giant telepathic birds and growing temporary gills for a sortie against giant octopodes!
Ngā Waituhi o Rēhua hasn’t yet been translated into English. If you’re looking for a book in English by another awesome Māori author, though, one of my very favourite books of all time is Pōtiki by Patricia Grace.
My French (and interlibrary loan) once again comes to the rescue: this detective novel was written in Catalan, and has been translated into Spanish and French.
Our point of view character is Àlex Samsó, an Andorran detective who has little inherent genius and habitually does just enough work to scrape a passing grade. When his lieutenant has to send someone on an exchange to Rome, he takes the opportunity to offload Samsó. Barely has Samsó arrived when his new colleagues are confronted not only with the inexplicable kidnapping (“el rapte”) of a newborn from the maternity ward, but also an inexplicable death (“el mort”) – suicide or murder? Puzzled beyond measure, they bring in “el Marsellès”.
Who is el Marsellès? The man from Marseilles, yes, but more to the point: think Holmes, think Poirot; you know the type. He immediately rubs Samsó up the wrong way by detecting him and making fun of him at the same time. Samsó’s dislike of him makes Samsó slightly more tolerable, because el Marsellès is indeed irritatingly pompous; but also makes el Marsellès slightly more tolerable, because Samsó really is that childishly petty that he sulks about a little ribbing for the whole damn novel.
Because of course together they fight crime. Primarily this involves el Marsellès having flashes of genius while making Samsó (who has no clue) do all the legwork. Is it a spoiler to say that the two inexplicable crimes turn out to be related after all? Samsó gains a grudging admiration for el Marsellès’s methods but neither of them become more pleasant characters over the course of the novel. But if this is the sort of story and the sort of characters you enjoy reading about, then you’ll enjoy this story.
(For those who don’t read the Romance languages, The Teacher of Cheops by the same author has been translated to English. Another French option for Andorra is Histoires d’une femme sans histoire by Michèle Gazier which I tried first but for some reason just couldn’t get into.)
(Still working on Andorra…)
This is about the childhood and coming of age of the title character. It begins full of her nostalgia for the halcyon days of basking in her mother’s love; then with her teenage years (and crushes on fellow schoolgirls) the relationship begins to chafe them both and turns to a constant tension, palpable in the prose. Poetic, the chronology of the anecdotes are a little fuzzy at the edges without the overlaps being more than a little confusing.
How much the illness Annie develops is simply adolescence, how much a physical or mental or spiritual illness, is left unclear; so also unclear is how much leaving home will really resolve it. Perhaps the parallel with her mother’s history of leaving her own father for another land provides a clue: this parallel is quietly done and always clearly intended to be an imperfect one, a distinct relationship, but it’s present for comparison all the same.
(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.