Around the world in 10 books
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish gives me carte blanche to write about anything that takes my fancy. I know many bloggers and readers have a goal this year to broaden their reading horizons by selecting authors from different parts of the world. I’ve been making slow but steady progress down that path for the last few years so I thought this week I would take you all on my reading journey via 10 books I’ve discovered. I’ve selected novels that either a strong sense of the country or culture or that provide an insight into its history.
We start our journey in Asia …
India: I had so much choice here. In the end it was a toss up between Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry or The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Mistry takes us into the heart of Mumbai at a time (1971) when the country was in the midst of internal upheaval and the Prime Minister uses her secret police to undermine the forces that threaten to disrupt the whole fabric of India. In the end I plumped for The Lives of Others which takes a similar path of portraying a family caught up in political turbulence. Mukherjee’s tale takes place a decade earlier than Mistry’s novel at a time when Communist forces were trying to de-stablise the country. I chose this novel because I had no idea about that aspect of India’s history but I also enjoyed the way Mukerjee showed how the breakdown in the political world was mirrored by a breakdown in the structure of one family.
Japan: Norwegian Wood by Murakami Huraki is an exquisitely written novel about love and despair but I chose this because it portrayed a different side of life in Japan. This is not the Japan of kimonos and geishas, of rituals and codes of behaviour but a world seen through the eyes of its young people. Huraki sets much of this novel in Tokyo in 1969, taking us through the student world of late night bars and all night cinemas with not a karoke microphone in sight.
China: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Saijie. I knew before reading this novella that intellectuals were considered abhorrent by the Maoist regime in the 1970s and often lost their lives as a result. But I didn’t know that the regime also tried to ‘re-educate’ them by sending them off to live with the peasants in the countryside. Saijie’s novel follows two young boys despatched to a remote village where instead of being cleansed of all tainted ideas, they instead discover new ones through the novels of Balzac, Hugo and Flaubert that they have to hide from the authorities.
Let’s pick up our suitcases and make a brief stop in South America …
Colombia: The Armies by Evelio Rosero Diago. As you sip your next cup of coffee spare a few moments to think about the country from which many of those beans originate. Diago’s novel is set at a time when citizens of Colombia live in fear of armed gangs and drug dealers who hide out in the hills. They may be killed or they may have been made to ‘disappear’. This is what Ismael −a retired teacher – fears has happened to his wife when he returns home to find the place deserted. The result is a deeply moving story about a man who cannot seek safety for himself until he knows the truth about his wife.
And now we’re en route to Africa …
South Africa: I was tempted to go for Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, a classic text set just before the introduction of apartheid but decided instead on a book that shows a completely different side of the country. Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee is set well before the apartheid era but the issue of colour is still very much part of this novel about a white boy who goes missing from his woodcutter family and is found many years later living as the child of a native family. It’s a story that poses a question of which bond is stronger – that of the birth family or the family who raise and nurture the child?
Republic of the Congo: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou. This short novel brings some light relief from the serious issues with which a lot of African fiction is concerned. It’s set in a seedy bar and features the host of characters to be found propping up the bar and boring the pants off the other customers with their hard luck stories. In between we get some insights into their thoughts on life in the Congo, the delusional nature of the nation’s male population and the distrust of politicians and the nature of African politicians. It’s great fun to read and to try and spot Mabanckou’s numerous allusions to other texts.
And finally we land in Europe …
Finland: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. Until I picked this up from the Pereine Press catalogue I had no idea that Finland had experienced a devastating famine in the late 1860s. This novella holds nothing back in relating the misery caused by that event and the desperate lengths to which its citizens will go to save themselves. One of them – a peasant farmer’s wife from the north – is the focus of the novel. She abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. You read this with a sense of dread about what awaits her.
Hungary: Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. This is an equally grim though fascinating book which exposes the way evil materialises to take advantage of poor and desperate peasants already suffering the misery of an oppressive political regime. Not a book that will make you happy but it will certainly make you thankful not to be living under such a regime.
France: L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. Paris, the ‘city of lights’, had its dark side in the nineteenth century. Behind the magnificent facades and glittering wealth were people living in abject poverty amid open sewers and overflowing drains. They dreamed of a different life but – according to Zola’s theory of naturalism – their inherited flaws of character or the environment around them would always bring them down. Zola always bases his novels on meticulous research so you can be sure all the detail of living conditions is far from exaggerated.
Italy: Inspector Montelbano series by Andrea Camilleri. I’m going to end with something which could be considered light reading compared to most of the titles in this list. Ask people to name anything associated with Italy and though some will mention ‘art’, ‘heritage’ it won’t be too long before you hear ‘wine’ and ‘pasta.’ Food and Italy are inseparable which probably explains why Andrea Camilleri devotes so much time to describing the meals eaten by his lead character Inspector Montelbano. Few pages go by without a scene where the Inspector pops into his favourite trattoria for lunch – not for him your typical working day lunch of a sandwich while sat at the computer. This is a full blown three course affair. When he gets home at the end of a long day chasing criminals it’s to find his housekeeper has prepared him something delicious for supper. Camilleri is pretty mean to his readers by listing all these fabulous sounding meals but the tourist board of Sicily must be thrilled because the Montelbano books are guaranteed to make you want to dig out that passport and head for the island.
|How are your reading travels going? If you also are trying to broaden your reading, I’d love to hear about your experience. Perhaps you found some other gems for the countries I’ve mentioned. If you need inspiration take a look at the recommendations of bloggers who have written guest posts about the literature from their country – you’ll find them all on the View from Here page|
28 thoughts on “Around the world in 10 books”
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I enjoyed a lot Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and the movie too is excellent. Yes, that was the main thing of the Chinese “cultural revolution”.
Satantango is on my list!
Through The World Between Two Covers, I have recently traveled to many countries.
A lovely idea for a post! I’ve been in an English village, running around the UK, the Belgian Congo (at the time), around America, France, Russia, Japan and the UK with Iris Murdoch’s letters, in 1960s London and in ?1930s Hampstead so far, and am currently in the UK and US with various pop and rock stars …
You are one very well travelled lady! The beauty of this kind of travel is that there are no security controls and no queues or horrid airline food
This could well turn into a meme of your own!
Ooh I never thought of that!!!
A timely post as I’m thinking about my Around the World in 80 Books challenge!
Hope my list helps your travels. I found it very difficult to identify authors in some countries
Love this list and what an awesome way to roundup books read set in / and written by authors from around the World.
Glad you enjoyed this Tanya. There are some wonderful books that I would have missed because so few of them get visibility in the traditional book stores
I like this idea for TTT! And I’m surprisingly able to say that I’ve read one of them (White Hunger). But I need to read more…
its been such an eye opener to read books from around the world. Ok some have been duds but I’ve also found some stunners
A well travelled list! Currently I am reading Memoirs of a Polar Bear and that is in Russia and Germany (so far), and an Elena Ferrante novel in Italy.
I’m still undecided whether I want to read Ferrante..
I’m on the second of the Neapolitan books and am really enjoying it.
I have the first one on the e-reader so I suppose I should give it a go otherwise it was a waste of money buying it
Great post Karen, I need to read more of these
there will always be more books in the world than you have hours available to read
Such a great and refreshing list. I am starting “around the world project” this year thanks to your blog.
I hope you enjoy your journey as much as I’ve enjoyed mine Julie. I’ve discovered some fabulous authors as a result.
I have been intrigued lately by doing an around the world reading project like this. Thanks for the suggestions.
there are many challenges around that might get you started….
Really interesting list. I love Montelbano and Zola so think they’re great choices. Am intrigued by the Rohinton Mistry you considered – have only read A Fine Balance that I loved so will look out for the book you suggested.
i’ve not read A Fine Balance yet but everyoine tells me it’s wonderful Col
I loved Balzac and the Little Chinese Mistress. You might be interested in Wytske Versteeg’s The Boy (translated by Sarah Welling) from Holland. It’s a disturbing read but well worth a look.
Thanks for that tip Susan. I am trying to avoid buying anything for six months – have just about managed to resist temptation so far. but then we are only in month one
Reblogged this on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge and commented:
Some excellent recommendations for anyone looking to diversify their TBR. Bon voyage — and happy reading!
just left a message on your blog – I was really touched to see this