The Memory Police: Yoko Ogawa

Translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder

“‘Things go on disappearing, one by one. … It doesn’t hurt, and you won’t even be particularly sad. One morning you’ll simply wake up and it will be over, before you’ve even realized. … People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. … But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it was that disappeared.’”

On an unnamed Japanese island, things are disappearing: emeralds, ribbons, bells, stamps, birds, photographs. Soon the people forget they even existed, except for a few who are unable to forget and try to salvage the disappeared things. The mother of the unnamed narrator, a novelist, is one such person. She pays for it—one day, the Memory Police come to take her away, and the narrator never sees her again.

Because none of the disappearances are natural occurrences. They are being orchestrated by a nebulous power—a dictatorship of some kind, although that is never clear. The Memory Police are the enforcers of this power, scouring the island for those who can’t forget.

The book the novelist is working on is an echo of the situation on the island. It is about a young typist and her teacher. Under his influence, she gradually loses her voice and can only communicate by typing. But when her typewriter breaks down, the teacher lures her to a room in the tower under the pretext of repairing it. He imprisons her in that room filled with broken typewriters.

The one person the novelist trusts completely with her work is her editor, R. But he is, like her mother, someone who is unable to forget. Worried that he will meet the same fate as her mother, she decides to hide him in her home, with the help of an old man who was married to her nurse. But it isn’t easy hiding a man under the eyes of the Memory Police. And how long can she hang on when everything around her is vanishing into thin air?

The way the book is written is almost like a fable. Most of the characters do not have names, as if they were insubstantial. It is about the loss of memory, a loss so deep that looking at a disappeared object brings no spark of recognition. It is also about a loss of identity, of the loss of control over our innermost selves. Our memories make us who are and if they start to dissipate and vanish, then who are we? This haunting book stayed with me for a while after I had finished reading it.

No Place to Call Home: J.J. Bola

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“And in the end, we are all looking for the same place: somewhere to call home. Home is somewhere we know, somewhere we trust. … Home is where your heart is, home is where you rest your head, home is where you never feel alone. For me, there is no place to call home; nowhere that I belong.”

At the centre of this book is a family: Papa, Mami, Jean and Marie—refugees who left Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo to try and build a better life in London. It centres mostly around Jean and his attempts to fit in, but also tells the story of Papa and Mami.

Jean becomes friendly with James, a young tearaway whose parents quite clearly neglect him. Jean looks up to the young English boy and admires his bravado. The friendship suffers when Jean decides to pay attention to his studies and leaves the cool, I-don’t-really-care gang to join the studious, uncool gang. But after everything they have been through together, the two boys never really lose their bond. 

We also learn about Papa, and how he fell in love with Mami in Kinshasa the first time he sees her: “and the person inside him who was always running away stood still”. But Papa is sent by his father, Koko Patrice, to study in Brussels. He meets Mami again a few years after, and they resume their relationship. Mami becomes pregnant and is thrown out by her father. Papa returns from Brussels to take care of her. They manage to save enough money for him to return to finish his studies.

The DRC is under the rule of a dictator, Le Marechal. J.J. Bola’s observation about the dictator and the way his supporters are taken in by him is so universal. “They swallowed his promises, his vacuous and empty promises, like poison to the thirsty, fed to them like starving children with no food. Promises are made when intentions are not honoured; be wary of the man who feeds you promises.”

Under his rule, Kinshasa is becoming unsafe. The soldiers of Le Marechal, les soldats, are killing and looting. Papa talks Mami, now pregnant with Marie, into leaving.

No Place to Call Home is about trying to create a home in spite of the constant uncertainty of someone else making the decisions about your future. Mami opens her home to others looking for shelter: Tonton (uncle in French), the flamboyant man who moves in with them, and Madeline, her daughter Christelle and the child Glody, whom Mami takes in because they have nowhere else to go.

This is such a rich book: it is a coming-of-age story, it is about the obstacles refugees face in their so-called land of refuge, and the unimaginable wounds people carry deep inside them. Papa tries to throw Tonton after another night where he turned up dead drunk. But Tonton has his pain too, a pain he tries to forget but cannot. When he tells Papa his story, “these two men like giant rocks worn down by tears” weep. Tonton had kept his story to himself, “not out of a façade or to maintain an appearance, it was because…Tonton did not want anyone else to carry the extra weight he too carried.”

Bola writes beautifully: he is also a poet, and it shows. On one of his visits to James, Jean finds out that his strong friend is really a lost, unhappy child. James’s father is a violent drunk. James climbs onto the balcony ledge and sits there, feet dangling over the edge, saying over and over again that he was so tired. Jean is terrified that his friend will let himself fall. “The night had darkened: the only remaining light was the dim moon in the sky, and the brightness of inextinguishable hope still shining in their eyes. Time was lost on them, it did not exist for moments such as this; there was no rush, no slowing down, everything was frozen, silent still. The world did not watch, but it waited; no flowers bloomed, no breeze blew, no clouds passed. James got down. Time started once again.”

What I loved about this book was the perception and empathy—everyone has a story if you look close enough. I can’t recommend it enough.

Beyond the Rice Fields: Naivo

Translated from French by Allison M. Charrette

This is the first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English. It tells the story of Rafa, a young woman, and Tsito, the boy her father buys her for a slave. Their relationship is closer than mistress and slave—they are around the same age and they grow up together as playmates and friends.

Through Fara and Tsito, the novel charts Madagascar’s history in the 19th century: the influence of Christianity through schools set up by missionaries, the persecution of Christians, and the struggle of the local leaders to maintain their independence.

Fara lives with her mother Bao and her grandmother Bebe. Fado, her father, has another family and only visits Bao occasionally. Tsito is in love with Fara, who is fond of him but does not return his love. Instead she is infatuated with Faly, a bully who Tsito hates—Faly has been picking on Tsito ever since he arrived at the village.

The two children are sent to the local missionary school with Vero, one of their playmates. Vero eventually joins a group of evangelists, which puts her in danger when the new Empress wants to rid the country of Christianity, which she feels is destroying the old ways.

In the meantime, Tsito has been taken under the wing of Ibambo, a powerful slave. Thanks to him, Tsito gets a job with Andriamady, a local lord. His new job takes him to the big city—the City of Thousands. He comes across his old enemy, Faly, who has become an important and ruthless man.

Political shifts, like everywhere else, have consequences on the countryside. Rado is a victim—once a rice farmer, who was also a zebu herder, he is now doing odd jobs, thanks to a group of the kingdom’s dignitaries. Tsito realizes that “The changes happening at the heart of the kingdom hadn’t just cost him his commercial connections; they’d also cost him his rice fields.”

This rich narrative moves between the points of view of Tsito and Fara. Apart from describing a period of Madagascar’s history, it is also a love story, a tale about the battle between the traditional and the “white man’s ways”—neither of which come off well—and the struggle of ordinary people, trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of injustice and manipulation by competing powers. I got completely absorbed in the lives of the characters. It was a great introduction to the history of Madagascar.

The Ruins of Time: Ben Woolfenden

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

This quote by Marcus Tullius Cicero sets up the theme of this book. After Tom’s father retires, he becomes obsessed with tracing his family’s history. At first, Tom is bored and irritated by his father’s long accounts of what he has found, but finds himself drawn into the story.

The book moves between the past and the present, between the two sides of the family that came together to create Tom’s father. It all begins with William, a child from a poor family in Lancashire in 1830, scaring away birds from a field to earn a few pennies from the farmer. The death of his parents pushes him to leave the village, heading for Manchester.   

The enigma at the heart of the story is Elias Crane, Tom’s grandfather. Tom’s father never really knew him well—Elias was distant, a man who found it hard to show his emotions. But the discovery of a sepia photograph and a letter in Elias’s handwriting hold clues to his past. 

Having grown up in a loveless house with a stern father who could only punish and threaten, Elias becomes secretive and scornful of authority. “To have been forced to respect what he loathed, to fear where he should have loved, to have grown up to be lonely and secretive, always with an unnameable chill of dread about his heart—he saw how all these things conspired to make him what he was. And now he was a man, still he was powerless to shape his own fate.”

But he does get away, and it is with him that the paths of these two families converge.

This is a quick read, but perceptive about the damage that people inflict on each other. It also reminded me about our connection with our ancestors—whether we have anything to do with them or not, we carry their genes and their histories within us. It is moving, and well-written for a first book.

Where the Crawdads Sing: Delia Owens

“Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea… . Then within the marsh…true swamp crawls into low-lying bogs, hidden in clammy forests. Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. … A swamp knows all about death, and doesn’t necessarily define it as a tragedy, certainly not a sin.”

The book starts with the discovery of a body in the swamp, the body of Chase Andrews, an arrogant womanizer. But this is more than a murder mystery. It is the story of a girl who grows up in the coastal marshes of North Carolina, a place where people move to when they are running away from something, often the law. The town’s people look down on the marsh folk and treat them like trash.

Kya lives with her family in the marsh. Her father is abusive, and her siblings get away as soon as they can. But Kya suffers the biggest blow when her mother walks out without a backward glance, leaving her alone with her brother Jodie and her father. Eventually Jodie follows his siblings and her father dies. The only people Kya has now are an old black man known as Jumpin’, who runs a store by the water, and his wife. They become her friends and parent figures.

Then two men come into her life and change it. Although Kya is illiterate—her one foray to school was a disaster—her knowledge of the marsh is encyclopaedic. Jodie’s friend, Tate, recognizes her innate intelligence and teaches her to read. They fall in love, but after Tate leaves for university, she doesn’t see him again.

Meanwhile, there have been rumours in town about a wild woman living in the swamp and the young men compete to see who will take her first. Chase Andrews starts visiting her and becomes her lover. He promises to marry her but has no intention of seeing it through.

Then one day Chase ends up dead in the swamp, and Kya is accused of murdering him. But did she do it?

Kya is a wonderful creation—talented, strong-willed and independent. The book is seen through her point of view. Even during the trial where her life is at stake, she can’t help observing the way the principal players reveal their status:

“The judge, obviously the alpha male, was secure in his position, so his posture was imposing, but relaxed and unthreatened as the territorial boar. Tom Milton [the defence attorney], too, exerted confidence and rank with easy movements and stance. A powerful buck, acknowledged as such. The prosecutor, on the other hand, relied on wide, bright ties and broad-shouldered suit jackets to enhance his status. He threw his weight by flinging his arms or raising his voice.”

But Kya is not the only one at the heart of Where the Crawdads Sing: the marsh is a character in its own right. Delia Owens obviously knows and loves the marshlands and her love comes through in this book. There is a vivid, magical quality about them—when the scene shifts to the town, it feels like the colours fade. Owens not only tells a fascinating tale but shines a light on the beauty and the sheer diversity of creatures that live in this relatively unknown habitat. I enjoyed the story but what made this book stand out for me was the lyrical description of the marshes.

Babylon: Yasmina Reza

Translated from French by Linda Asher

“The world isn’t tidy. It’s a mess. I don’t try to make it neat.”

This epigraph from Garry Winograd, an American street photographer, opens the book. The story is narrated by Elizabeth, a sixty-year-old woman looking back at a particular day in her life.

When we first meet her, she is looking at a photograph of a Jehovah’s Witness from 1955 by Robert Frank in his book The Americans, which she keeps by her bedside, “the saddest book on earth. Dead people, gas pumps, people alone in cowboy hats. Turning the pages you see a parade of jukeboxes, television sets, trappings of the new prosperity. They’re just about as lonely as the man, these oversized new objects, too heavy, too bright, set down in spots unprepared for them.”

These images of disconnection, loneliness and the impossibility to finding order in life, run throughout the book. “People who think there’s some orderly system to life — they’re lucky”, Elisabeth thinks. The events of that particular day in her life bear witness to the randomness of life, to what happens when someone acts on an impulse that most people would have resisted.

Elisabeth and her husband Pierre live in a small apartment in Paris. She befriends their neighbours, Jean-Lino and Lydie. Lydie is a singer and a New Age healer, very flamboyant, unlike Jean-Lino, whom Elisabeth thinks of later as a “Robert Frank character for our times” (again that feeling of loneliness, of a lack of connection). Elisabeth decides to throw a party to which she invites the couple.

All her energies are focused around the party: will there be enough place for people to sit, are there enough wine glasses (no, there are not, and she buys more than she could possibly use). The party goes well until Jean-Lino makes fun of Lydie’s insistence on knowing whether the chicken she was eating at a restaurant had the freedom to roost while it lived. He runs around the room, flapping like a chicken. Lydie takes offence, and the couple leave.

The couple continue their argument in their apartment, things spiral out of control and soon Jean-Lino is ringing Elisabeth’s and Pierre’s doorbell to tell them he has strangled Lydie. The couple go up, try to persuade him to call the police but eventually give up and go home. But Elisabeth can’t imagine leaving Jean-Lino alone with the body. Once Pierre is asleep, she goes upstairs. Things become surreal and almost darkly comic, as Elisabeth tries to help Jean-Lino move the body.

Throughout the narration, Elisabeth seems to be a little detached, as if she was on the outside, watching herself. And once the events of the night are over and their consequences done with, life seems to go on.

I liked the tone of the novel—Yasmina Reza does not dramatize the already-dramatic events, but narrates them in a matter-of-fact way. And throughout the book there is the sense of life happening almost in spite of ourselves.  

The Emperor of Ocean Park: Stephen L. Carter

When Oliver Garland, a well-respected judge, dies—ostensibly of a heart attack—his daughter, Mariah, suspects foul play. Her brother, Tal, a professor of law at a university, is sceptical.

Oliver (whom Tal refers to as The Judge) was tipped to a Supreme Court judge, one of the two black judges. But at the hearings, he was repeatedly asked about his links with Jack Ziegler, a man who was involved in criminal activities (although nothing was proved). Jack is an old friend, and the Judge refuses to divulge the reasons for their meetings. He finally withdraws his candidature. The failure leaves him devastated.

At the funeral, Tal is approached by Jack, who keeps asking him about “the arrangements” that his father had made. Tal has no idea what Jack is talking about. Things get more complicated as Tal’s wife, Kimberly, is being considered for a vacancy on the federal court of appeals. She has worked very hard to get this far and is determined that Tal will not ruin her chances by stirring up any kind of controversy.

But then people around Oliver Garland start dying, and Tal has to put his career, marriage and life on the line to understand the cryptic message about chess that his father left him, knowing that of the three children, only Tal understood the game. He is helped—sort of—by Mariah, who has become obsessed with their father’s death, and as an ex-journalist, has a well-honed instinct on tracking down facts. But the more they explore, the more questions are raised.

Who is “Angela’s boyfriend”, the person who the Judge says has the answer? Who are the two men, purporting to be FBI agents, who interview Tal the day after his father dies? What is the oldest brother, Addison, not telling Mariah and Tal about the hit-and-run accident that killed their youngest sister? What on earth was Oliver Garland hiding?

This is a taut, beautifully written thriller and a glimpse into the lives of the privileged black community in the United States. It is lifts the lid on how Supreme Court judges are selected—the politics and manoeuvring behind the scenes. Stephen L. Carter can be scathing about the role of the Supreme Court: “it has been, for most of its history, a follower, not an agent, of change. … Like every other social institution, the Court has mainly been the ally of the insiders, a proposition that should come as no surprise, because only the insiders become the Presidents who nominate the Judges, the Senators who confirm them—or the candidates from whom the nominees are chosen in the first place.”

He also exposes the racism that permeates all layers of society. When Oliver Garland was being considered for the Supreme Court, someone remarked, “I hope Thurgood is keeping Oliver’s seat warm”, implying that there can be only one black judge on the Court at a time—not to mention the familiarity of using their first names to refer to both men. When Tal calls the police to report an attack on his on his campus, they almost arrest him, assuming that he was the assailant.

This is an intelligent, well-plotted thriller, and a delight to read. I would recommend it—I couldn’t put it down. And the best news? He’s written two more that form a loose trilogy!

Beauty is a Wound: Eka Kurniawan

Translated from Indonesian by Annie Tucker

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. … She had passed away at fifty-two, rose again after being dead for twenty-one years, and from that point forward nobody knew exactly how to calculate her age.”

This novel tells the story of Dewi Ayu, a mixed-race prostitute living in Halimunda, a coastal town in Indonesia. Through her story and that of her family, Eka Kurniawan traces the history of the country, from the Dutch colonial period to post-independence. He weaves together history, legends, magic realism and humour to tell a compelling tale.

Dewi Ayu comes from a privileged family, born out of an incestuous relationship. She is left with her Dutch grandparents, who raise her. When the Japanese invade Indonesia during the Second World War, her grandparents leave for the Netherlands, but Dewi Ayu decides to stay. She, with other young girls, is taken from an internment camp to become comfort women for the Japanese soldiers. She quickly emerges as someone who is unflappable and is capable of taking care of herself.

When she goes back to Halimandu, she gains a reputation as the most beautiful and accomplished prostitute. Over the years, she gives birth to four daughters: three stunningly beautiful—Alamanda, Adinda and Maya Dewi—and Beauty, who is spectacularly ugly. Dewi Ayu dies soon after Beauty is born; it is to see her youngest daughter that Dewi Ayu rises from the grave.

The fortunes of the family are intertwined with the story of Indonesia: the men the three older girls marry all play a role in the country’s independence. Alamanda falls in love with Comrade Kliwon, a Communist, but makes a mistake when she toys with the older regional military commander, Shodancho, and has to marry him. Her sister Adinda eventually marries Kliwon. And Maya Dewi is married to Maman Gedong, a thug who used to be a revolutionary.

The book is rich and full of twists—and what a cast of characters! Kurniawan gives them all breathing room so you get to know them (even though you won’t like all of them). But Dewi Ayu dominates them all. She is so alive, she practically leaps off the page. There are some stomach-churning moments (bestiality, incest) but also times where I found myself chuckling.

I thoroughly enjoyed Beauty is a Wound—it is original, absorbing, funny and moving.

On a personal note: I bought this English translation of an Indonesian novel in a little bookshop in Venice, proving that literature does travel!

A Man Called Ove: Fredrick Backman

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Translated from Swedish by Henning Koch

“Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his finger a policeman’s flashlight.”

When we meet him, Ove is trying to buy an iPad and driving the salesman crazy. (He often has that effect on people.) He is a stickler for rules, especially the ones he makes, and finds most people a waste of time.  

But his world is about to change. A new family moves in next door: Parvaneh, an Iranian woman, her husband Patrick and their two young daughters. In spite of himself, the family—especially Parvaneh—become an important part of Ove’s life. As does the mangy cat who haunts his doorstep, and Jimmy, his next-door neighbour (when Jimmy was a child, Ove got rid of the boy’s abusive father). There is also Mirsad, a young gay man who Ove takes in when his father throws him out.

The grumpy man we meet at the beginning of the book is fleshed out little by little, both through his interactions with his neighbours, and through his memories, especially of his adored wife Sonja. She brings light into his life and understands him in a way no one else does. When she dies, Ove can’t see the point of continuing to live.

He sets his affairs in order and tries to kill himself. He is stymied every time, often by his neighbours, who just won’t leave him alone, much to his annoyance: “Considering how they are constantly preventing him from dying, these neighbours of his are certainly not shy when it comes to driving a man to the brink of madness and suicide. That’s for sure”, he grumbles.

I loved the way Fredrick Backman writes about deeply moving events without losing sight of the humour (see the quote above). It is a beautiful portrait of a marriage, a relationship between two people who care deeply for each other but are completely different. Backman brings it alive through little details: “She had a way of folding her index finger into his palm, hiding it inside. And he always felt that nothing in the world was impossible when she did that.” Ove’s pain over the loss of his wife is heart-breaking.

I also loved the relationship between him and Parvaneh. She is a wonderful character—strong, feisty and full of compassion. From being what he sees as an annoying neighbour, she becomes his closest friend and the person he trusts to take care of his affairs after his death.

This book had me laughing and crying and most of all, believing in these people. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A Haunted House and Other Stories: Virginia Woolf

I haven’t read Virginia Woolf for decades, and I had forgotten just how well she writes. I had bought this collection of her short stories in the 1980s, and it was one of the many books I had left behind in my parents’ house when I moved. It has now found its place on my bookshelves again after all these years.

Woolf is better known for her novels—To the Lighthouse, Orlando—but these short stories are gems of observation and character study. It was a delight to rediscover her writing.

Woolf picks up on something mundane and builds a quiet, shattering event from it. A woman sees a black mark on the wall as she looks up from her book and the mark leads to a train of thought about the things she has lost, archaeology and how men make the rules everyone has to live by. In a train, a woman makes up a story about the woman sitting across from her; a new dress meant to give a woman confidence makes her feel even more insecure; a marriage falls apart when the man turns away from the secret game the couple used to play; and a man mourning the death of his wife finds his world turned upside down by her diary.

These are lives in miniature, with tiny details that reveal heartbreaks, unfulfilled desires and regrets. Woolf is known for writing streams of consciousness, and the way she follows a thought as it flutters, alights on something for a while and then moves on is exactly how thought processes work. This is writing to be savoured, not rushed through. If you haven’t read her yet, start with these and then go to her books.