“War destroys everything…your family, your friends, the place where you lived, your work, your life. When you become foreign…you don’t have a choice. You don’t know where to go. You don’t know anything. I can’t see myself anymore, can’t see the child I used to be.”
The voices here are of African migrants, men who have risked everything to escape danger and to try to make a better life for themselves in Germany. We see them through the eyes of Richard, a retired classics professor living in Berlin. Richard grew up in East Germany and is still dealing with the reunification of the country. His sense of displacement is, to a much greater degree, echoed by that of the migrants.
It all starts when Richard walks past a group of African migrants demonstrating on Aleksanderplatz. He decides to learn more about these men and under the guise of doing research, he gets to know them. Most of them have made the dangerous crossing over the Mediterranean from Libya and have seen people die. Many of them barely speak German, but Richard’s knowledge of English and Italian helps him.
Little by little, we learn their stories. There is Rashid from northern Nigeria, whose boat capsized—he couldn’t swim and survived by hanging on to a cable, and watched his fellow passengers die. There is Awad from Ghana, who lived with his father in Tripoli, Libya. But father was shot during the civil war, and Awad was captured by the soldiers and beaten. “If you’re lucky, you get beaten, if you’re unlucky, you get shot”, says someone to comfort him. Then the soldiers put the prisoners on a boat and said anyone who tried to get off the boat would be shot. Richard asks him whether they were Gaddafi’s men or rebels. “We didn’t know. They all had the same uniform. … In any case, no one was on our side. Even though I grew up in Libya. Libya was my country.”
Sometimes the migrants find it hard to explain their lives to someone who comes from such a different world, such as the young Tuareg from Niger: “Why should he tell a stranger that he doesn’t know why he never had any parents? … Why should he tell him that he doesn’t know if his parents are still alive? There was fighting going on at the time when he was born. Maybe his mother or his father was among the people buried alive beneath the sand by the Nigerian soldiers, or hacked to pieces or burned alive.”
The migrants, however, are not welcome in Germany. The Kafkaesque system discourages them from staying, as Richard finds out when he tries to help them find work. Like so many other refugees and migrants throughout the world, they want to contribute to society but are prevented from doing so by the system.
It took me a little while to get into the book. In the early part of the book, I felt that the migrants’ stories were like so many we have heard—I didn’t feel that the characters were real. But it was well worth staying with because Jenny Erpenbeck does round them out and by the end, they are utterly convincing. And one other gripe: Erpenbeck refers to the festival as Eid Mubarak, which is like talking about Merry Christmas instead of Christmas. Eid Mubarak is the Eid greeting. It is jarring and could have easily been avoided.
This book puts human faces to one of the biggest crises of the 21st century. It is also a character study of a man whose little life is transformed by the migrants. Just knowing them forces him out of his isolation and makes him a part of a community. Which just reinforces the fact that the “other” is not someone to be feared but someone who could just enrich your world.
Another year is drawing to a close, and it’s time to look back at the books we have read and pull out some of the best.
Thank you for contributing to this list and making it so varied. I was delighted to see several books in translation this year. Some of you sent in mini-reviews, which are always welcome. (And I see one of you has been taken up with Harold Pinter’s plays!)
The books are arranged by category, the year they were published (for translations, I’ve used the year of the publication in English) and then by author.
Links lead to reviews on this blog. The links on the three travel books listed (all by women this time) lead to my reviews to Women on the Road. In cases where I don’t have direct links to these books, you will need to scroll down the page to find them.
What were your favourite reads this year?
Hope this list gives you ideas for books to read in 2020. Happy reading!
Contributions by Jo Grin-Yates, Kamakshi Balasubramanian, Keith Stimpson, Kristine Goulding, Paddy Torsney, Rishad Patell, Sally-Anne Sader, Sarah Waller, Suroor Alikhan, Tom Peak, Usha Raman and Will Finh Ramsay.
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (2019) The return of Jackson Brodie: really enjoy reading about this detective who has a very quirky but humane side to his character.
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad (2019) This is a really ambitious debut novel, which explores currents of historical change in a grand setting.
The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia (translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni) (2015, English translation 2019) Her first book to be translated into English, it is set during the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish flu epidemic of the early 1900s. There are a lot of characters, but the main character is a very lovable mute with special gifts who has always been surrounded by bees since he was found by Nana Reja abandoned under a bridge. A lovely read and beautifully translated.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Torczuk (translated from Polish by Antonio Lloyd-Jones) (2009, English translation 2019) By the Polish author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. A woman living alone in a forest observes the events unfolding around her as hunters are killed. Are the animals taking their revenge? Unusual and intriguing. It’s not just a whodunit, it’s also about animal rights, nature and astrology.
Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019) A forensic account of life in a reform school for boys in the Jim Crow era, and a friendship between two of its African-American inmates.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018) A retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope.
Milkman by Anna Burns (2018) There’s a reason this won the 2018 Booker Prize for fiction. None of the characters are named, none of the settings are named, none of the conflict is named, and yet it’s so clear that this is a personal, deeply emotional story about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The protagonist starts as an average, unnoticeable teenage girl, trying to hide her boyfriend from her mother. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes “interesting”. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous. It’s a story where inaction causes all the tension and silence speaks louder than words.
Washington Blackby Esi Edugyan (2018) The story follows Washington Black, a field slave working on a Barbados sugar plantation. Chosen by the eccentric brother of the master, Titch, to be a manservant and to assist in building and testing a flying machine, the character of Washington grows and develops in parallel with Titch as Washington becomes more human. What follows is their flight along the eastern coast of America, and, finally, to a remote outpost in the Arctic, where Wash, left on his own, must invent another new life, one which will propel him further across the globe. While a compelling and touching story, I have read The Book of Night Women and Underground Railroad too recently to not draw parallels—and for Washington Black to fall a bit short.
Circe by Madeline Miller (2018) A fantastically relevant retelling of a classical tale for the #MeToo era, and just a rollickingly gripping underdog story.
Warlight by Michael Ondjaate (2018) Michael Ondjaate’s inimitable prose tells a story of love, betrayal and a lost childhood in post-war England.
There There by Tommy Orange (2018) A group of Native Americans head to a powwow; each of them has a different motive for being there. The chapters move between the people and reveal a web of connections between them. A powerful book by a Native American writer.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (2018) The story follows the life of the so-called Marsh Girl, Kya Clark, an outcast living on the brink of society in a marsh in North Carolina. When a popular local man is found dead, rumours spread of her involvement. The story jumps between the present and the past to unravel the mystery, with a haunting background of the natural beauty of the marsh and a love story intertwined. Reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver, the characters are engaging but the environment is its own force in the narrative.
Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Sadaawi (translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright) (2013, English translation 2018) A man in Baghdad, is appalled at the way blown-up bits of bodies are left to rot. Determined to give them a proper burial, he collects body parts so he can create a man. Maybe then this “man” can get a proper burial. But the spirit of a dead man, looking for a home, inhabits the creature and brings him to life. A brilliant twist on the Frankenstein story.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017) A Korean woman goes to Japan just before the war in Korea and the Second World War. The book follows her as she grows old. There was so much I didn’t know about Koreans living in Japan. Beautifully written.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (2017) Shortlisted for the Man Booker Award, Elmet is set in rural Yorkshire in the present, although it could have taken place a hundred years ago. John, a paid fighter, struggles to protect his two children and to save the home he built himself on his ex-boss’s land. It is beautifully written and worth reading, but it is a grim story.
Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami (translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) (2014, English translation 2017) I am not usually a fan of short stories, but Murakami packs so much into each story that you do not feel short-changed.
Conversations with Friends: A Novel by Sally Rooney (2017) You’re inside the mind of (the very young) Frances as she talks about her life and her friends, all in one breathless go.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) The early days of Maoist China make a panoramic backdrop for this family saga, where a young woman goes in search of a father, but finds a lost history.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) Charming book about a Russian aristocrat who is forced to live in a hotel. In this confined space, he watches the changes in the Soviet Union and Russia.
The Gap of Time: William Shakespeare’ The Winter’s Tale Retold: A Novel by Jeanette Winterston (2016) Winterston’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. Love, jealousy and abandonment—she gives a new life to these familiar themes. Winterson writes beautifully about people and their attempts to muddle through life. I’m really enjoying these modern reimaginings of Shakespeare.
Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk (2015) The words of the novel weave their way around the protagonist and her life, without ever getting inside.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015) I haven’t had a book stick like this in many years. The narrative is gripping and the characters—who start deep and get deeper—are both compelling and deeply flawed in an utterly human way. Beautifully written but raw and stark. I had to put the book down a few times because I found myself getting too emotional. What a lovely read!
Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford (2014) Four pieces told through Ford’s Frank Bascombe character. Each piece is about the passage of time and the decay of ageing and its blows on the human soul—all shot through with wry touches of jaded humour.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2015) It’s more of a short story than a novel, but published as a stand-alone book. It gives guidance to the young niece of the author on how to live a feminist, empowered life. As a new mom to a little boy, I found the words poignant and well-placed. It’s a quick read and one I will go back to again in the future.
The Selector of Soulsby Shauna Singh Baldwin (2012) This book is about two Indian women, one a middle-class housewife fleeing from her abusive husband and the other, a maidservant who goes home to her daughter. Shauna Singh Baldwin uses their stories to expose the struggle of Indian women, the rise of the right-wing and the politics of abortion.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (2009) A book about twins born in Ethiopia. Their mother is Indian and dies in childbirth, their English surgeon father can’t cope and leaves, and they are brought up by an Indian couple. Medicine, politics, love, betrayal and redemption—this is a wonderful book.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007) The story links the victims of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup of Jews in Paris in July 1942 and a French family living in Paris in the present. Very moving and beautifully written.
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (2003) This Pulitzer Prize winner from 1992 holds up as an astounding piece of literature from one of America’s best authors. A modern-day king Lear.
The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (1996) The coming of age story of a 15-year-old girl, Beth Weeks, on a farm in Canada. Her father went a little crazy ever since he went into the forest after a bear that attacked Beth. Beautifully observed, tender and angry.
A Slight Ache: Harold Pinter (2015) A couple invite a match seller into their home. The seller’s silence destroys one of them and gives the other strength.
Betrayal: Harold Pinter (2013) Pinter deals with betrayal, not only by people but also by time.
Victoria Station: Harold Pinter (1982) A radio dialogue between a minicab controller and a driver waiting for instructions.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) A welcome nostalgia trip in the current climate, harking back to a time when US politics was going in the right direction and anything seemed possible, but also a sobering contrast with the state of affairs today.
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Mathar (2016) A man’s journey to find his father and rediscover his family and his war-torn country of Libya.
Wave: A Memoir of Life After the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013) For anyone dealing with grief who needs some reassurance that crazy is normal at times! Plus an evocative depiction of multicultural family life.
The Country Under my Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli (translated by Kristina Cordero with the author) (2002, English translation 2003) A fabulous feminist memoir of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
Indira Gandhi: A Biography by Pupul Jayakar (1995) An intimate biography of the first woman prime minister of India by her close friend and confidante. It provides us an in-depth account of her personality that is often seen as hard and ambitious, but that had a layer of softness beneath it all.
Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer (2019) Taking us through his rules of good writing, Benjamin Dreyer manages to be simultaneously ironic and sincere. Whether you care about the Oxford comma or not, if you’re “persnickety about language,” you will enjoy this book.
Bullet Proof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict by Teresa Rahman (2019) A journalist’s often harrowing account of covering insurgency in northeast India.
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú (2018) A non-fiction account of a well-educated Mexican-American who becomes a border control agent on the US-Mexican border during the early 2000s. While the author clearly isn’t a professional writer (yet), the reader gets a glimpse of his voice and the turmoil of the work he undertakes. Also, this is clearly a topical book given the current geopolitical situation.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyou (2018) John Carreyou’s investigation into the rise and fall of Silicon Valley startup, Theranos, reads like a thriller.
Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji by Manu Pillai (2018) Manu Pillai excavates the little-known history of the six kingdoms of the Deccan (South India), between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (translated from Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre) (2017, English translation 2018) A book on the nature of time. It is elegantly written and a little esoteric, and I would highly recommend it.
Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to Shiraz, the Heart of Iran by Lois Pryce (2017) One of the first travel books I have ever read. It was a great one to start with: I would never have imagined that a book could make me want to visit a country and, in particular, Iran, due to the bad publicity it gets in our part of the world.
“[S]ometimes I feel we’re living in a world
we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps
of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with
that we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own
version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”
The middle of winter in Poland, near the
Czech border. Janina Duszejko is one of three people who live in the little
hamlet during the winter, when the summer visitors have gone. She is woken one night by her neighbour Oddball
(she has names for everyone—she finds their given names inadequate), who tells
her that their neighbour Big Foot is dead. They find Big Foot lying on the
floor of his house, having choked on the bone of a deer he had killed and
cooked. Duszejko feels it is rough justice.
Big Foot’s death is followed by the murder
of the chief of police, who used to hunt. He is found in a well with deer
footprints all around him. And then the body of the rich entrepreneur who runs
a fox farm is found in the woods, weeks after his disappearance. Duszejko is
convinced that it is the animals taking their revenge, but she is dismissed as
a batty old woman.
But this is not a simple whodunit and
Duszejko is no batty old woman. She is the narrator, observant, funny, honest and
a little melancholic, haunted by the disappearance of her two dogs. She looks
out for the animals who live in the forest around her and has far more sympathy
for them than for most humans.
One of her frequent visitors (almost the
only visitor) is Dizzy, who used to be her student and is now working with the
police. On his visits, he not only keeps her abreast of the investigation but works
with her on his real passion: the poetry of William Blake that he is
translating. Lines from the poetry of William Blake are scattered throughout
the book, resonating with Duszejko’s connection with nature and her anger at the
way it is being desecrated.
Interwoven with the murder mystery are
questions of animal rights and astrology. As Duszejko tries to unravel the
mystery around her, she muses on vegetarianism, human arrogance and the
importance of astrological forces—she is a keen astrologer. Convinced that the alignment
of stars at a person’s birth can predict their death, she starts studying the
charts of the victims.
This is an unusual book, a riff on the relationship between humans and animals, and how skewed it is. The hunters have erected wooden towers, reminiscent of a concentration camp. These are called pulpits. Listening to a priest praise hunting at a mass, celebrating it as honouring nature, Duszejko understands why: “In a pulpit, Man places himself above other Creatures and grants himself the right to their life and death. He becomes a tyrant and a usurper.”
There is a lot of passion here, and Duszejko is an engaging character: sharp, unafraid to tell it like it is, angry and empathetic at the same time. I loved this book—it has been beautifully translated, and the use of initial capitals on some nouns reminded me of some of the classics of the 18th century. But this is very much a novel of its time. I would strongly recommend it.
Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ahmed Sadaawi takes the story of Frankenstein and transposes
it to Baghdad in the early 2000s, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq.
Bombs go off regularly on the streets and people die every day. But not all of
them get a decent burial—bits of bodies lie rotting on the streets, unclaimed. Wanting
to force the authorities to recognize that the body parts are as deserving of a
proper burial as whole corpses, Hadi, a rather disreputable junk dealer, starts
collecting and stitching them together to make a whole man. He dubs the corpse
But things get out of hand. There is a huge explosion on
Tayaran Square—a bomber tries to attack the Sadeer Novotel Hotel but is
thwarted by Hasib, a young security guard. The hotel is spared the explosion
but Hasib is blown up in the process.
Hasib’s soul, released from his body, drifts towards the
river, wanting to touch it. He sees a man in a white vest and shorts drifting
with the current. “Go and find what happened to your body”, the man says.
“Don’t stay here.” A teenager sitting on his grave gives him the same advice.
“You have to find it or some other body, or else things will end badly for
But Hasib’s body isn’t whole anymore. He goes looking for
another one, finds Whatitsname and moves in.
Hadi wakes up in the morning to find the corpse missing. Hasib/Whatitsname has gone to the house next door, which belongs to Elishva, a widow. She never got over the fact that her son Daniel never returned from the war, although everyone around her is convinced that he is dead. So when Hasib, in his new body, walks into her house, she is convinced that Daniel has come back.
Initially, Hasib/Whatitsname wreaks vengeance on those who
are responsible for killing the people whose body parts he is using. But as the
parts decompose, he has to keep replacing them, and some of the dead are not
exactly innocent themselves. As rumours about him grow, he gathers a following
who move in with him. Meanwhile the head of the Tracking and Pursuit Unit has
decided to capture this strange creature haunting the streets of Baghdad.
This is a clever book, full of black humour. You do need a
strong stomach at times, but it is well worth it. The story is told partly from
the perspective of Whatitsname, who records his account for a journalist. The
characters are vivid, especially Elishva, whose closest confidants are her cat
and a picture of St. George on her wall.
Sadaawi paints a picture of a city caught up in violence and
uncertainty but where people still try to get on with their lives. And where
everyone has a right to their story, even if it is a creature that is an
amalgamation of various humans. It is funny, poignant and in spite of drawing the
central idea from Mary Shelley, is utterly original. It is not surprising that
it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and was shortlisted for the
Alain Mabanckou left Congo in 1989, when he was 22, and didn’t go back for 23 years, not even when his mother died. Refusing to accept her death, he keeps up the myth that she is alive and well. “The truth was I dreaded coming face to face with the body of the woman I had last seen smiling, full of life.” But you can only evade the truth for so long. Returning to his hometown, Pointe-Noire, is a way of accepting her death.
His mother’s presence permeates the book. Pauline Kengué was a strong woman who felt it a dishonour to show her vulnerability to her son. He remembers, “I had to peer down deep into those eyes to catch sight of her worries; she had a way of keeping them from me, through a sudden contraction of her pupils.” Abandoned by Mabanckou’s father a few months before his birth, she left her village and moved to the town, determined to raise her child and “scale the endless steps that rose before her”. When Mabanckou was leaving for Paris, Mama Pauline travelled over 500 kilometres to Brazzaville to see him off. They spent a few hours in the café together. As she got up to go, she said to him, “Just don’t disappoint me”. He never saw her again.
A refusal to accept the death of loved ones runs through the book. Mabanckou brings his two dead older sisters “back to life” when he was in primary school to stop his classmates teasing him for being an only child. He says that they are tall, beautiful, speak almost all the known languages and drive in a red Citroën DS. The myth becomes so real that he hears his sisters come into the kitchen at night, looking for food. But he needn’t have worried. Every night, Mama Pauline has been leaving two plates of food for them outside the kitchen door.
The book is full of vivid memories of the people and the places that were part of Mabanckou’s life. The man Mabanckou calls his father is Papa Roger, Mama Pauline’s husband. He writes of him with affection: Papa Roger was responsible for getting Mabanckou interested in reading and probably laid the foundations for his career as a writer.
Then there was Grandma Hélène who took care of people, mostly by feeding them vast quantities of food. All they had to do was drift past her house at mealtimes. Mabanckou and his friend would see adults emerging from her house “fit to burst, like boa constrictors who’ve swallowed an antelope”. She cooked for an army and would remember everyone who hadn’t come to eat her food.
Twenty-three years is a long time, and the town has changed. The Victory Hotel where Papa Roger worked is still standing but the Cinema Rex, where Mabanckou used to watch Bruce Lee films, has become a Pentecostal church. The magic of the movies has been replaced by pastors threatening wrongdoers with hellfire. His old school has been renamed Lycée Victor-Augagneur, after a French colonialist, a man who was probably unknown in his own country.
Coming home is never easy when you have been away a long time. You are tugged by the old stories, legends and the things that have shaped you. But you are also a part of something outside your home—the adult who has made his/her place in the world. The Lights of Pointe-Noire reflects this dichotomy as it moves between childhood memories and the present. It is also a book of memories, grief and acceptance.
And Mama Pauline is always at the centre, like the miracle woman who lives in the moon. When the woman scatters shooting stars from her basket, children are born. And when someone dies, she turns off the stars. She was powerful but in no circumstance was she ever to be mentioned. “We kids would point her out just with a tilt of the nose, a lift of the chin, convinced we mustn’t point at her or utter the slightest sound, or we’d wake the next morning and find we’d been struck deaf or blind.” According to legend, she sacrificed herself to take on the sins of the world.
Looking up at the moon after his mother’s death, Mabanckou wonders if the old woman has retired and been replaced by a younger woman, “the woman I know best and who would have accepted the sacrifice too, the woman who brought me into this world”.
In 2016, when Anuradha Gunupati and I met 83-year old Abburi Chayadevi to tell her about our plans to publish a book on her writing and craft, she asked, “Why do we need this book? I am already suffering from fame.” I was delighted to find that she still asked questions! Witty, and with a very good sense of humour, Chayadevi’s eyes sparkled when she spoke. She always had a lot to say and laugh about, as she sat in the room that she shared with her sister Yashodhara in the home for the aged where she had chosen to live.
Our book – Why shouldn’t girls laugh? Abburi Chayadevi – her words and craft – was published by Saptaparni in 2017. It is a bilingual (English and Telugu) book that tells her story, combining her literary work and using her crafts as illustrations. There was no official launch because she did not want one. Little did we realise at that time that, two years later, she would be gone. Perhaps this was the answer to her question, “Why do we need this book?”
Abburi Chayadevi was a writer of Telugu short stories and essays, and a very important part of the Telugu literary world. She was a “gentle” feminist, and even though she led an apparently conservative life, she expressed her feminism through her stories. In this sense, her life was a series of short stories, mostly biographical.
When Chayadevi was growing up in the 1930s, Indian women were not supposed to smile or laugh loudly. “Why not?” she asked boldly. There was also a practice in traditional households, for a menstruating woman to stay away from everyone else, becoming a sort of untouchable person. She protested against this unjust practice in two short stories: “Moodu naalla muchata” and “Amalina malinam”.
Chayadevi found it strange that women who got
married became meek and never spoke their minds. Her own father was very
dictatorial. To vent her helplessness and anger at her father’s attitude, she wrote
a story called “Anubandham” for her college magazine.
And then she herself got married, which gave
her many more questions to ask!
In “‘Upagraham -1”, she asks why newly married
men so quickly begin taking their wives for granted. Why did her husband marry
her if he was busy working all the time and could not spend time with her? She
also found it strange that men did not express affection the way women did.
In another popular story titled, “Bonsai
brathukulu”, she likened the life of a married woman to a bonsai that is pruned
and shaped. She tells her sister, “Look at the bonsai you have tended so
lovingly. It looks proper and sweet, like a housewife. See how delicate it is.
It can’t withstand a storm and is dependent on someone for its care. A woman’s
life is like that of a bonsai.”
She challenged the status quo despite being
married to Abburi Varadarajeswara Rau—the well-known journalist, intellectual
and poet, who was supportive yet quite chauvinistic and gave her opportunities
to ask questions!
She wrote a serious and introspective story
titled “Prayanam”, in which she dealt with the subject of rape. The story concludes
that a rape could be compared to a car accident: if the fault was of the other driver,
then why then should the woman be blamed? The story ends on a very positive
note, with the raped woman being supported by a man who respects her.
Her gripping and realistic stories not only answered
her own questions but touched the hearts of many readers as they identified familiar
situations. She also wrote an autobiography, using photos from her family
albums to illustrate her narrative.
Chayadevi was more than a writer: she also very skilled at craft and doll making – all from recycled material. She was also very fond of selfies and cats. Always practical and independent, she gave away all her possessions and lived by herself in an old age home in the last years of her life.
Abburi Chayadevi passed away
on 28 June 2019 after a brief illness, and as per
her wishes, her eyes and body were donated to a medical college. She is someone
I admire very much, and the book I did on her was one of my most challenging
assignments. I feel as though I lost a dear friend. No doubt she will live on
forever through her writings.
Note: Some of Chayadevi’s short stories have been translated into English. The collection has been published as Bonsai Life and other stories by Author Press. Why shouldn’t girls laugh? can be ordered from Saptaparni (mail[at]saptaparni.com).
Although this book exists in English (as The Mouth Full of Earth), it is out of print. But I found it intriguing and beautifully written, so am sharing it with you anyway. (And for readers who read in French or Serbian.)
A man comes home to Montenegro to die—he has just learned
that he has a fatal disease. On an impulse, he gets off the train at a small
station. Not far from the station, two hunters are camping. The man walks out
of the station and seeing the two men, turns around and walks away. The hunters
decide to follow him. What starts out as simple curiosity turns into a hunt,
and the man from the train finds himself running from a growing number of
The book is narrated in first person by one of the hunters
and in third person by the man from the train in interspersed paragraphs. So as
the story develops, you get the two sides consecutively.
Where does the hostility to a complete stranger come from? What
are the stories we tell ourselves to justify our anger? The hunter is
self-aware enough to try to understand his feelings: the shift from curiosity
to anger after what he perceives to be a mocking gesture (but in reality, is
nothing of the kind). After a time, the hunter cannot even remember why he is
so angry. The man on the train, on the other hand, decides that he might want
to live after all. Or at least, not to die humiliated and hated. “These unknown
men, whose faces he had already forgotten, constituted a danger that had to be
avoided. He had no desire to join these people who might…turn him away from his
project or stop him from accomplishing it.” If
he was going to die after all, he was going to do it his way.
This book is not a thriller—it is a reflection on how we see
the “other” and about what it means to be alive. I thought I knew where the
story was going but I was wrong.
Branimir Šćepanović writes lyrically. The man on the train
feels that he is connected in some way to the two hunters “through a bizarre
and probably indissoluble link. Perplexed, he looked up to the sky as if he was
searching, in that infinite mirror, for distant and confused reflections of
memories that could help him know, or at least glimpse, the existence of this
link. But his gaze… could only find an isolated bird, too real to be an omen.”
Šćepanović packs a lot into a slim volume—questions about
existence, about our place in the world, and the things that drive us. The fact
that it is written almost as a fable makes it more powerful. Although it was
written in 1974, it still feels relevant.
translations are mine and therefore not very good. It is more to give an idea
of the text—the original (or translation, in this case) is much better written.
Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel is about obsession, guilt and the destructive relations between fathers and sons.
The novel is narrated by Cem, looking back on himself as a 16-year-old boy. His father, a pharmacist and a communist, is often absent—he is either in prison for his communist beliefs or with another woman. When he disappears for a while, leaving the family without support, it is up to Cem to provide for them. He is apprenticed to a well-digger, Mahmut, who has been given a job on the outskirts of Istanbul. Mahmut takes Cem under his wing, becoming a surrogate father figure.
The land they are working on is barren, and the water seems elusive, although Mahmut is convinced that they would find it if they dig deep enough. In the evenings, they go to the nearby town of Örgören. That is where Cem first sees the red-haired woman. He is struck by her beauty and air of mystery and becomes besotted with her, as only a 16-year-old can. She seems to recognize him, which only fuels his obsession. He finds excuses to go into town in the evenings and tries to find out more about her.
Then there is an accident at the well, and Cem is left with a feeling of guilt, which he carries with him for decades afterwards. He marries Ayşe, and the marriage seems happy. The couple’s real estate company is very successful, making them financially well off. But Cem’s guilt is always with him, creating a distance between him and other people: “What had happened at the well would always bar me from the joys of an ordinary life”.
Meanwhile, Istanbul is growing and the outskirts are being absorbed into the city. One day the area near Örgören where the well used to be is up for sale. Cem has a chance of going back to resolve all the unanswered questions that have been nagging at him. What he finds changes his view of his past and of himself.
This is a book of contrasts: between tradition—Mahmut’s age-old way of digging wells by hand, one of “the last practitioners of an art that had existed for thousands of years”—and the modern—the way Istanbul grows into a bustling, modern city. It is also about the clash between youth and age, and between what is imagined and reality.
But the central theme of the book is in its three epigraphs: two on Oedipus—the king who mistakenly killed his father—by Nietzsche and Sophocles, and one from Ferdowzi’s Shahnamah about Rustom, the king who mistakenly killed his son Sohrab. In The Red-Haired Woman, Pamuk dissects the way relations between fathers and sons can go wrong, how they can be full of minefields that explode when you least expect it. The two myths are always present in the story, so much so that it is clear that the ending would revolve around one of them.
I have enjoyed other books by Pamuk, but they can be a little dense. The Red-Haired Woman is the one I’ve found easiest to read, and it is also one of the most haunting. It starts out as a simple tale of a young boy’s coming of age but becomes quite dark. There is so much sadness here for the way fathers and sons can destroy each other, often thoughtlessly.
We are in the midst of the sixth extinction and are losing species at an alarming rate. But we seem to have trouble recognizing the scale of the loss. How many of us associate lazy summer afternoons with the buzzing of bees? Not to mention the fruit and nuts we take for granted, crops that rely on them for pollination. But already in 1998, countries in Europe were noticing that bees were abandoning their hives. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) became a global phenomenon over the next few years, affecting North America in 2006.
Maja Lunde charts this disappearance over three centuries
and interweaves narratives about three sets of parents and children and their
connections with bees.
The three main characters live in three centuries and on
three continents. In England in 1852, William is recovering from a bad bout of
depression and finds release in designing the perfect hive; in the United
States in 2007, George is battling with colony collapse disorder in his hives;
and in China in 2098, Tao, who works as a manual pollinator because the bees
have disappeared, is looking for her young son.
William has been in bed for months with severe depression. The
only thing that gets him out of bed is a need to prove himself to his son,
Edmund, and leave him a legacy. William is going to design the perfect hive—not
a straw one as was common then, but one designed like a house with frames. But
Edmund is a wastrel and a drunk, and it takes William a while to see that his
real heir is his older daughter Charlotte, working quietly by his side.
George, a bee-keeper, makes a living selling honey and
driving his bees out to areas where the local bees have gone, so that fruit
trees can be pollinated. He is angry with his son Tom who, instead of taking over
the business, wants to be a writer. But George is also hit by the CCD that
affected the other parts of North America.
By the time we get to Tao, the bees have completely disappeared, leaving humans to painstakingly pollinate by hand. As Tao says, “We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination. A paradox had saved us.” One day, when she and her husband Guan and three-year-old son Wei Wen go out for a picnic, the boy runs off to play. The parents find him in the forest, listless and comatose. The authorities are worried about the cause of his sickness and rush him to Beijing. Tao, determined to find out what happened to her son, goes in search of him.
The chapters move back and forth between the three
narratives. The stories that Lunde weaves of William, George and Tao and their
children are very moving and very human. But this is also a history of bees,
and Lunde shows how, over three centuries, these very familiar creatures go
from abundance to extinction.
The book provides both warning and hope: if we don’t do
something about the way we treat our planet, our survival as a species will be
under threat. But maybe there is still time to set things right. Maybe.
A woman in Damascus wakes in the night, sees a triangle of light where a door is left ajar and walks in. She finds her maid in bed with her husband. She throws the maid out, and immediately regrets it, but finds herself unable to go after her. Over the course of the night, both women go over the events that brought them to this point.
The woman is Hanan, married to an older man, whom she had loved as a cousin but hates as a husband. Frustrated and angry, she spends time with other women like her—wives of successful and well-to-do businessmen—where she finds solace in sex.
The maid, Aliyah, comes from a rough neighbourhood, which
Samar Yazbek describes unflinchingly. Her brute of a father is financially reliant
on his wife and daughters but does not hesitate to beat them up when the whim
takes him. Aliyah hates him and learns fairly early to fight. When she is 10
years old, the father practically sells her to Hanan as a maid. That’s the last
Aliyah sees of him—or the rest of her family—for eight years.
Eventually, Hanan seduces Aliyah. But Aliyah is a survivor
and knows how to play the game. Living in Hanan’s house protects her from her
father and the other thugs living in her neighbourhood. Aliyah uses her seductive
power over Hanan to make herself secure, and Hanan becomes completely dependent
The focus in this book is completely on the women. Aliyah
grows up fast and learns how to make the system work for her. But she becomes a
little too confident of her power, which makes her careless. Hanan is also a
victim, forced into a marriage she didn’t want, living out her life without any
purpose or meaning. The men are either brutes or ciphers, like Hanan’s husband,
only referred to “the old crocodile”.
Samar Yazbek paints a bleak picture where almost all
relationships involve some kind of power play, whether it is through sex, class
or gender. There is a fair amount of sex
but no love—none of the characters seem to really care for each other. Hanan
thinks she loves Aliyah but looking back, Hanan cannot remember a single
conversation they had. Hanan desires Aliyah and wants to control and possess her.
When Aliyah leaves, she wears Hanan’s high-heeled shoes—among all the presents
her mistress gives her, there is not a single pair of shoes.