Category Archives: world literature
By the time they’ve reached the end of the novel, most readers of crime fiction expect to find the author has answered the key questions: who , committed the crime, how and why.
The Murder of Halland doesn’t turn those expectations of the genre completely on their head but it certainly shakes them out. This is novel that starts with a murder. It features a detective and various suspects. It also includes a mystery about the dead man’s life. But that’s the extent of any resemblance between your typical Nordic thriller and this short novel by the Danish author Pia Juul. The pace is slower; the detective in charge of the case doesn’t have any of the personal flaws or family issues that so many of his literary profession seem to labour under. There isn’t any sense of urgency exhibited by the forces of law and order in fact and there is no revelatory scene at the end which draws all the threads together. One thing this novel does have in abundance is the feeling that like the dead man’s wife, we too are crawling our way towards understanding what happened and why.
The dead man’s wife is Bess, a writer who lives in a small Danish town with her second husband Halland. One morning she wakes to discover he is not in the house – she’s not particularly alarmed but shortly afterwards learns that he is lying dead in the market square not far away. In the absence of other ideas, she becomes the prime suspect. In the course of 167 her life is opened up to examination and not just by the reader. The experience causes her to re-evaluate her marriage, her relationship with friends and with her estranged daughter from her first marriage. In the process she uncovers some mysteries about Halland – why was he visiting Bess’s pregnant niece and keeping paperwork and his laptop there? Why did he agree to pay the rental for this girl’s apartment ? Why did he transfer a substantial amount of money into Bess’s bank account shortly before his death?
Bess uncovers these mysteries through a series of chance encounters with neighbours, with her ex husband who turns up announced on the doorstep and declares he wants to sleep with her Bess moves as in a dream through these encounters. Getting drunk on aquavit and ending up at a party kissing a neighbour doesnt get her any further towards the truth. Nor does watching any of the detective programs on television:
All I needed for happiness was a detective series. And there were lots to choose from. Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life. I watched one thriller, then another. But as soon as the penny dropped I lost interest. The puzzle attracted me – the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life.
We are no nearer an answer to making sense of all of this by the time the book ends. The mysteries are not solved, the culprit is not uncovered though there are hints as to who it might have been. But that isn’t really the point for this isn’t a novel about a crime or the hunt for a killer. It’s about bereavement and the feeling of loss and regret about failed relationships and the way that, while we can live with someone daily sharing a house with them, there are still parts of their lives that can remain a closed book.
This was a book that was hard to put down. The writing style was short and direct with an enigmatic overtone and a strong sense of the bewilderment that is recognisable to anyone who has suffered the bereavement of a close relative or friend and keeps asking Why…..
The Book: The Murder of Halland was published by Pereine Press in 2012 as part The Small Epic series. Translated from the Danish original by Martin Aitken.
The Author: Pereine describes Pia Juul as one of Denmark’s foremost writers. Not knowing very much (if anything) about the Danish literary scene I can’t really judge if that’s true or a little bit of marketing hype. According to a website on the history of Nordic women’s writing I see that she is described as a poet, prose writer and translator. She has received several prizes for literature in Denmark. This is the first of her works to be translated into English
Why I read this: In the Chutes and Ladders challenge run by the Readers’ Room blog I ended up on a square which required me to read a debut novel. A trawl through my TBR uncovered this one – it had the added advantage I could add another country to my world literature reading list.
Other reviews: A number of other bloggers have read The Murder of Halland. Here a few I’ve come across.
Reading Matters review can be found here,
For Winstons Dad blog’s review click here
David H’s blog’s review is here
HeavenAli reviewed the novel here
We’re off to South Africa for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. We’ll be in the capable hands of Penny who blogs at 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only.
Let’s meet Penny
I work at one of South Africa’s major retailers. Over the years, I’ve taken on many different roles mainly relating to the buying/planning space. However my passions lie in reading, hiking and birding. My blog is called 2015 Reading Challenge – SA books only. I didn’t even know reading challenges were a thing then. In 2014, I read a chance remark, on a reading Facebook group, to the effect that there is so much South African Fiction now, one could go a whole year and read nothing else. I thought it would be fun to try that out; I keep year lists for birds in the Southern African region, so why not books? At the same time, I decided to write a review on every book I read and start a blog.
Q. Authors like Andre Brink, Alan Paton and Doris Lessing are names that many people outside of SA would recognise. Is their work the reading experience considered to be ‘classic literature’? If not, what are some of the classics of fiction from S.A?
These writers (Doris Lessing to a lesser extent) could be regarded as classics of SA Literature, if not ‘classic literature’. It depends what is meant by classic literature; if this is meant to refer to works that, in some way, emulate works of the Western canon, then possibly not. I do not necessarily believe ‘classic literature’ to be an ideal to which our writers should be aspiring. Good writing, literary writing are very subjective terms; more important to me is if I have a quality reading experience in which I am engaged, in which characters are multi-dimensional, plot is intriguing and I learn more about the human condition.
There are many novels that meet these criteria, amongst them Afrikaans writers translated into English. These are amongst some of my favourite novels and include writers such as Karel Schoemann, Etienne van Heerden, Marlene van Niekerk and Ingrid Winterbach. Another ‘classic’ is Down Second Ave by Es’kia Mphahlele, a marvellous work that, though autobiographical, experiments with form and reads as fiction. It is set in the 1930s in a township in Pretoria and illuminates how much discrimination was endured by black people even before apartheid. Anyone interested in SA Literature should also make sure they read Bessie Head’s work, even though she may well be considered as a Botswana writer.
Q. Would you consider there are some distinct differences between literature from South Africa and those from some of the other African countries like Nigeria for example?
I am no expert on literature from other African countries so this is merely my opinion. Until very recently, I had only read a few Nigerian writers such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Flora Nwapa. I would say they are far ahead of South Africa, having experienced their independence from colonial rule much earlier. We have only been a democracy since 1994 and prior to this, we were not producing much fiction. Possibly Nigeria have been marketing themselves as the African Lit for longer and more widely too.
With respect to the reading experience, I find SA Fiction quite different. Not so much with contemporary writers, but the classic Heinemann novels are often quite dense and heavy going.
South African writing is drawn from many different cultural communities that add variety to our topics, characters and interactions. This I see as a distinct difference. We have Black, White, Indian (both Hindu and Muslim) and mixed race communities (so-called ‘coloured’ people) all writing fiction. South African writers explore many genres too, like crime fiction and speculative fiction.
Q. South Africa has produced two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and J M Coetzee in 2003. How far do you think their work is representative of the issues and challenges of the country?
I cannot comment on Gordimer as I have only read one of her books, The House Gun, published in 1998. I did not like it much as I found it cold and detached. Personally, I found JM Coetzee’s pre-Disgrace (published 1998) novels to be more representative of the country then, allegorical as they might have been. The writer I believe to be truly representative of South Africa is Zakes Mda. Although both Coetzee and Mda live in other countries now, Mda’s topics are still strongly South African while Coetzee seems to have focussed on being a stranger in a new country (isolation has always been an underlying theme in nearly every book he has written).
Since I was in my early twenties, I was hungry to read books set in my own country that, in some way, might reflect my lived experience and my surroundings; books in which I would recognise the environment but be introduced to aspects that were hidden from me. The first novels of this nature that I discovered were Andre Brink’s novels written in the seventies; the next was J.M. Coetzee’s, The Life and times of Michael K. published in 1983 (for which he won the Booker prize; still my favourite Coetzee). Then in the nineties, I discovered Zakes Mda’s She Plays With the Darkness published in 1995. I love all his novels; particularly The Madonna of the Excelsior and Heart of Redness. One of the things I love about Mda’s novels are the way they are grounded in history and also explore contemporary life. He has also written many plays but I am not familiar with them.
Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books that show a more contemporary side to life in South Africa – how it is dealing with life post-apartheid for example?
I have so many recommendations for books written post-apartheid, I could never list them all here (check my blog for some of them). I have already mentioned Zakes Mda and some Afrikaans writers. Add Eben Venter to that list (especially for his most recent novel, Wolf, Wolf). Niq Mhlongo (Dog Eat Dog, After Tears, Way Back Home and short story collection, Affluenza) does a great job of representing ‘township’ life; (during apartheid, black people were prohibited from choosing where to live and were not allowed to live in areas designated as white; these areas were called townships or in vernacular slang; eKasi).
Thando Mqolozana tackles the taboo subject of Xhosa initiation rites in A Man who is Not a Man, as well as student politics in Unimportance. Nthikeng Mohlele, writes in a cerebral, philosophical style – try Small Things, Rusty Bell and Pleasure. Henrietta Rose-Innes is another favourite of mine; I particularly enjoyed The Rock Alphabet, Nineveh and The Green Lion. K. Sello Duiker, who committed suicide at the age of 30, produced two brilliant novels in Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams. These two books are tough reads; not for the faint-hearted.
On a lighter note, our crime fiction is excellent (it says something that I regard crime as ‘lighter’, I suppose). Deon Meyer is our most well-known crime fiction writer. He writes in Afrikaans and is translated into English. A lover of this genre should read all his books; start at the beginning with Dead Before Dying and continue to the 10thand latest, Icarus. This is not necessary as they do stand-alone but I always enjoy knowing what characters had done before.
Q. What would you recommend to someone who has never read any S African authors? Where would you suggest they start?
This is a tough one because the answer depends on the readers’ preference with regard to topic, genre and style. An extremely serious reader may want to trace the development of SA fiction by beginning in the last century while another may be more interested in South Africa today.
If the latter, Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is as good a place to start as any as it dips into every decade since the seventies. Zoe Wicomb writes of a ‘Coloured’ family that ‘tries for white’ during apartheid in Playing With the Light. Although I am not usually a fan of non-fiction, there are several books that are written in the fictional style that I have really enjoyed; anything by Jonny Steinberg who has covered topics that vary from farm murders (Midlands) to prison gangs (The Number) to HIV and Aids (Three Letter Plague). He investigates his areas of interest through in-depth, intimate interviews with individuals and teases out information that fascinates as much as it shocks.
Zukiswa Wanner’s, London Cape Town Joburg, moves between these three cities and with her protagonist, uses an outsider’s voice to illuminate the ins and outs of aspects of SA life in the business, political and personal world. Lauren Beukes is our darling of speculative fiction; inventive, imaginative and highly readable. Her second novel, Zoo City, is set in a Johannesburg that, though imagined, is strangely familiar. Then there is Finuala Dowling, said to be the ‘home-grown Jane Austen’ of SA Lit. In The Fetch and Homemaking for the Down-at-Heart, she writes of the minutiae of life with wit and sparkle and a strand of pathos.
This is merely a taste and there are many more.
Q. How important are prizes like Caine Prize for African writing to contemporary authors?
My feeling is that they are important as they do bring previously unknown writers to the attention of both publishers and readers.
Another prize which is important is the Etisalat Prize for Literature which is awarded to first time African writers of published books. It was inaugurated in 2013 and books by South African writers have been short-listed each year. The 2014 winner, Penumbra was by South African novelist, Songeziwe Mahlangu. One of my favourite novels of last year,What Will People Say by Rehana Rossouw, was short-listed last year. I highly recommend this novel; set in the Cape Flats, it is a heart-breaking tale of parents trying to do the best for their children in an environment dominated by gangs, drugs and politics at the time of the State of Emergency during the eighties.
Q. Which contemporary S African authors do you think we could be hearing more from in the future – people who may be at an early stage of their career?
Names to watch out for are Mohale Mashigo whose first novel, The Yearning, was published this year. It is an accomplished debut, well-written and with a compelling plot. The Reactive by Mashande Ntshanga gives the reader a glimpse into the disaffectedness of youth who live in a world of trauma, untimely death and limited opportunities. Yewande Omotoso’s second novel, The Woman Next Door is a great read. I think it is quite a feat to capture the personalities of two women in their eighties, as she does here. Nakahane Toure and Panashe Chigumadzi have both published debut novels in the last year.
I’m beginning to wonder if I have an issue with multi-generational family sagas. They do tend to go on for far longer than the story can sustain – and my patience endure. Or perhaps Tree of Life by Maryse Condé had been on my ‘to read’ shelf for well past its ‘best before’ date and the initial impetus for buying it had long disappeared. Either way, this was my first read for Women in Translation month 2016, and I was disappointed.
Tree of Life is a very personal story of multiple generations of one family from poverty in Guadeloupe to a comfortable existence with the trappings of a middle class life. It’s told by one of the descendants Coco although it is not until the end does she understand why she is telling this story. She is ‘the child of our tomorrows’ a family acquaintance tells her, the keeper of the flame of memory not just of her family but of her country’s history.
Coco begins by relating the history of her great grandfather Albert Louis, a man of determination who resolves to be slave to no man and to forge a new life for himself.
..on that day, Albert Louis, … looked at the handful of coins he had just received from the over-seer, raised his eyes to Heaven as if asking courage of the sun, and thundered:
It’s over. This is the last time I come here to get my pay like a dog.
And with that dramatic flourish he prepares to leave his native island and head to to America where he’d heard there was money to be made building the Panama Canal. After years of hardship and a few personal setbacks he rises above the level of a drudge and in doing so lays the foundation of a dynasty whose members travel far and wide from Guadeloupe. The lives, loves and tribulations of his descendants become the focus of the rest of the book tracing their rise to wealth from around 1904 to the 1980s as they move variously between cane plantations in Guadeloupe, poor settlements in Harlem and Haiti and the excitement of the streets of Paris. They try their hand at commerce, experience the joy and heartache of love and dally with politics.
This sweeping narrative is appealing in part. Arthur Louis is very much the patriarch who rules his life and those of his children with passion and stubbornness. There is more than a tinge of moral ambiguity to this figure. He gets swept along by the teachings of the Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey, placing huge faith in Garvey’s statement “I shall teach the Black Man to see beauty in himself.” Yet back home in Guadeloupe the native workers he employs to run his import-export warehouse and business fare little better than Albert Louis did in his plantation days and he squeezes everything he can from the impoverished black families who rent his shoddy tenement houses.
Equally well drawn is the troubled relationship of Coco and her mother Thecla. The latter sees herself as rather a free spirt, which seems to involve having a love affair and then ditching the resulting mixed race daughter in France, never to see or make contact with her for 10 years.Then when she’s shacked up with some other guy she drags the poor child first to Guadeloupe and then to Jamaica, exposing her to bulling and ridicule as not racially pure. If I had a mother like that I’d be hell bent on putting as much distance as possible between me and her.
Woven through the life stories of the generations is the emergence of black consciousness and the struggle for equality. Individuals within each generation develop their own approaches to the issue with varying degrees of success but despite the growth of mixed marriages, there is still a feeling of animosity between white and black populations. It’s left to Coco’s mother to make the most impassioned statement about discrimination that can ranges from verbal and physical attacks to prohibiting children playing together and forming friendships across colour. Yet what Thecla also sees is how racial attitudes may to always be stated – they just exist.
Thecla explains to her daughter that her origins as the child of a white family, make it hard to relate to her daughter because all she sees is the whiteness of her father and
… his mother … on her high horse, asking me who my family was and sniffing in disgust at the salt-cod smell of our name. For no one ever said a word about my colour which fundamentally was the real problem. They never talk about colour even if its right there before their eyes: It’s not done. It’s dirtier, color is, than the green diarrohea of amoebic dysentery or the sulphurous yellow piss of incontinence! When I see you, yes, I can’t help it, it’s all that I see. … Filthy stupidity, stubborn arrogance, pettiness ….. Alas thats how it is and neither you nor I can do a thing about it.
Tree of Life is a meandering novel that starts well but then seems to get bogged down in detail when Arthur Louis returns to Guadeloupe and the next generation grow up. The detail is clearly important to Coco and to Condé herself but I don’t see them as interesting to us just as my family’s history is precious to me but I know few other people care what my great great grandfather did. So for all the references to the troubled history of Guadeloupe and its people, ultimately this felt like a very long story about a set of individuals who once inhabited the planet.
Author: Tree of Life by Marys Condé
Published: as La Vie Scélérate in 1987 by Editions Seghers
Translated: from French by Victotia Retter and published in English by Ballantine Books/Random House in 1992.
Length: 368 pages
My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016
The Thing Around Your Neck is a collection of 12 stories published by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in various journals in the mid to late nineties. They therefore pre-date the novels that brought her to public attention, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), but you can see many of the same themes and ideas.
Set variously in Nigeria and America these stories depict the clash between those cultures and between the expectations and the reality of the experience of those who leave Nigeria for a ‘better life’ in USA just as Adichie did herself. These are stories that are told principally, thought not exclusively, through the eyes of women who get caught up in political or religious violence or suffer the disappointment and feelings of alienation of being a stranger in a foreign land.
In Imitation the narrator is a woman living in New Jersey whose art collector husband visits her for only two months in the year. Just before his next visit she learns he has acquired a mistress and installed her at their home in Lagos bringing fears that she will be supplanted and her new life will crumble. Another wife finds in The Arrangers of Marriage that her arranged marriage to a Nigerian doctor in America is not all it appears to be. Arriving at her new home in the USA she discovers not the large house of American television programs she watched in Nigeria, but a barely furnished run down apartment. Her husband, who is actually still a student, is so eager to fit in that he has even changed his name from Ofodile Emeka Udenwa to Dave Bell. Their marriage may not even be legitimate she discovers when he reveals a previous relationship from which he has not yet been dis-entangled.
The title story The Thing Around Your Neck features Akunna who arrives in America via the ‘visa lottery’ to live with her uncle. The plan is for her to complete her studies and then get a job enabling her to send half her earnings back to her parents. But when the uncle abuses her, she escapes to Connecticut where, while working in a restaurant, she experiences the invisibility of acute loneliness
At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.
A love affair with a restaurant customer seems to offer the dream of a happy ending and she finds “The thing that nearly choked you before you fell asleep, started to loosen, to let go”. But the power of what she has left behind is strong and in the end it a death back home that forces her to reassess her life.
One story stood out above the rest for me. A Private Experience depicts a chance encounter between two women whose lives would not normally connect. One is Chika, a medical student and a Christian member of the Igbo ethnic group, the other is an unnamed poor Muslim woman of the Hausa group. On a day when violence between these two ethnic groups breaks out in the market they take shelter in a tiny shop. When the Muslim woman complains about her dry, cracked nipples, Chika draws on her medical training to give the woman advice and false comfort. For her part, the Muslim woman takes a pragmatic approach to the shocking violence they can hear outside and by a glimpse of a dead, burned body. The dignity of the Muslim woman impresses itself on the younger woman and the hours they spend together enable them to form a bond that transcends sects. Not only was this a perfectly constructed story but the key theme is one that resonates far beyond Nigeria – on the day I read this story a Catholic priest was murdered in France by people who adhered to a different faith.
Overall these are stories tinged with regret and disappointment but they also speak of the love of Nigerla and the place called home. Most of Adichie’s characters are people who travel far and wide but Nigeria is the place for which they yearn. Although not strictly autobiographical, it’s possible to see aspects of Adichie’s own life and experiences reflected in this collection – particularly in Jumping Monkey Hill where authors from across Africa gather at a writers’ retreat in Cape Town and the young Nigerian narrator feels objectified and humiliated by the lecherous, white, male academic who leads the workshop.
Adichie’s writing has an immediacy that made me feel I had dropped straight into the lives of these women and immediately absorbed in their worries and concerns. But as is my experience with short stories in general, they left me feeling unsatisfied, wanting more time with these narrators and to know what happens next.
Title: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by: Fourth Estate in Oct. 2009
Part of my 20booksof summer challenge 2016
In this video on You Tube you can hear Adichie talk about her collection and which of the stories means the most to her personally.
The third Women in Translation month is about to begin and I’m tempted, so very tempted. I haven’t made much progress on my reading of books in translation this year so this would give me a bit of a much needed nudge. Only question is how to fit it in with so many other reading plans.
But it’s only for one month so I should be able to manage at least one shouldn’t I?
With optimism in mind I trawled through my TBR spreadsheet in search of possible candidates and narrowed it down to three options.
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Skansen. This is the fourth novel by the Finnish-Estonian writer and was much lauded when it was published last year for its chilling account of occupation in Eastern Europe in 1940s. I bought it as a Christmas present to myself but haven’t found the time to read it yet. Wish my cover was as stunning as the image above shows.
Although the title says girl singular, this is actually about three young women, all college girls who live in a boarding house somewhere in Brazil. they have formed an intense friendship over the years which is tested by the political upheaval resulting from a coup in 1964. Publishing this was a brave move by Telles since it came out at the height of the country’s military dictatorship and is a strong critique of the country’s political repression.
My third choice is a bit of a cheat since it’s already on my 20BooksofSummer reading list. But needs must if time is short. Tree of Life: A Novel of the Caribbean is a 1992 novel by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Condé. The novel tells a multigenerational story about the emergence of the West Indian middle class. The Chicago Tribune called Tree of Life “a grand account of the Caribbean, the politics of race and immigration, and the intricate, often sordid legacy of colonialism”.
I’ve you’ve read these do let me know what you thought so you can help me make up my mind which to choose. And if you are also going to join Women in Translation month don’t forget to tell me what books you’ll be reading.