Category Archives: South & Central American authors
Berlin in 1939 is a city of fear. Wealth, status and intelligence count for nothing in the face of hostility and antipathy towards people of the Jewish faith. For many families the only option is to flee the country. But who will take them? Other countries are not falling over themselves to provide a refuge.
For the Rosenthal family, salvation beckons when they gain coveted visas enabling them to enter Cuba, from where they will head to the United States. Leaving their classy apartment and precious heirlooms behind to be snaffled by the Nazi regime, they board the SS St. Louis, a luxurious transatlantic liner, and head for asylum. But before they can dock, the Cuban government changes its mind, leaving the 900 passengers in limbo.
After a tense period 12 -year-old Hannah Rosenthal and her mother are allowed entry but her professor father is barred because he has a different type of visa. The ship’s captain has little choice but to return to Europe with almost a full complement of passengers. Professor Rosenthal and Hannah’s best friend Leo sail away from Cuba, fearing imprisonment or death.
Reading this as a piece of fiction is an emotionally-engaging experience. But it’s made more so by the knowledge that The German Girl is based on a little-known episode that, until the early part of this century, was not even publicly acknowledged. The author Armando Lucas Correa, who is editor-in-chief of People en Español, has clearly based his debut novel on extensive research. The back of the book comes with an extensive historical note about the whole episode and what happened to the passengers after they left Cuba. But what touched me was to find a page bearing the signatures of all the passengers on the ship and numerous photographs showing them on board the ship.
Correa has chosen to tell his story through the eyes of two teenage girls. Hannah Rosenthal is a thoughtful but determined girl, fiercely loyal to her friend Leo and devoted to her father. Her relationship with her mother is more distant. Hannah constantly comments on how her mother acts as if she is on a stage, choosing her outfits carefully and deliberately waiting to be the last to board the ship so that all eyes will be upon her. She begins her story in dramatic fashion: “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.”
It’s a reflection of her desperation and unhappiness at having to love her home in Berlin even though she is frightened by the red and black flags draped along every street. Leo is her salvation, a street-wise kid who always seems to know what is going on and who extracts Hannah’s promise that she will never forget him.
Alternating with Hannah’s story is that of Anna Rosen, a 12-year-old girl in present-day New York. Anna’s father died in the attack on the World Trade Centre before Anna was born. Her mother has retreated into herself and the girl is left to suffer alone. One day she receives a package from great-aunt Hannah in Cuba who had acted as a surrogate mother to Anna’s late father. The package contains photographs taken on board a ship. In search of anything that will help her connect with her father, Anna and her mother travel to Cuba to meet Hannah and hear her story. What she reveals is that even in Cuba they were never allowed to forget they were ‘outsiders’.
The dual time narrative unfortunately didn’t work for me. I can see why Correa chose that approach, drawing parallels between the loss that both girls experience and the way they have to grow up quickly to look after their mothers. But Anna’s narrative had little of the drama and pathos that I found with Hannah’s story and the connections were often forced. In fact I don’t think the book would have suffered at all if Anna had been eliminated.
The German Girl was at times a frustrating experience because of that dual-narrator issue but it did get me thinking about the way, even today, refugees are treated.
Many authors can go through their entire career without a single award or literary prize to their name which makes the recent success of Welsh author Alys Conran even more extraordinary.
At the 2017 Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards earlier this month she swept the board with three prizes for her debut novel Pigeon. It’s a remarkable achievement considering she was in competition with Cynan Jones, an author of international standing, whose critically acclaimed fifth novel The Cove was also shortlisted.
Pigeon was selected unanimously for the overall Book of the Year title because it lingered in their minds long after the judges had finished reading it, said judging panel chairman Tyler Keevil.
Coming of Age
As a coming of age story littered with domestic violence, broken homes and mental illness it certainly has an emotional pull.
Alys Conran takes us on a journey through the memories of two children, Iola Williams and her closest (indeed her only) friend Pigeon. The pair live in a Welsh town surrounded by slate quarries. In the opening scene the pair chase an ice cream van and then debate at length their choice of flavour.
It lulls us into thinking this is a tale filled with idyllic days of innocent fun but it doesn’t take long to find this is a novel that debunks all those myths about childhood.
Both children live in broken homes. Iola’s dad has disappeared, her mother and her beloved Nain (grandmother) are dead, leaving the girl in the care of her hippy elder sister.
Pigeon, a sallow-faced skinny boy with shoulders as ‘delicate as egg shells’ lives in the garden shed of the crooked house he shared with his seamstress mother until he was ousted from his bedroom when stepfather Adrian and his daughter moved in. Pigeon is regularly beaten by this man (Pigeon refers to him only as as Him or H) and has to watch his mother lose all her spirit and independence through Adrian’s bullying.
An Adventure Goes Wrong
To channel his energy and anger he plays truant from school, disrupts Sunday School meetings and makes up adventures and stories about bad people.
Iola doesn’t fully believe in Pigeon’s fantasy world but she still goes along with his five-stage plan to prove Gwyn, the ice cream seller, is up to no good and may even be a murderer.
The plan goes disastrously wrong; the first of two calamities that results in a forced separation of the friends and threatens to sever their relationship. As they emerge from childhood into early adulthood they have a chance to start afresh but only if one of them can lay to rest their feelings of guilt from the past.
The path to redemption for Pigeon comes through his encounters with Elfyn, a father figure under whose guiding hand Pigeon learns to build dry stone walls and rediscover a willingness to speak his native language. Throughout his life Pigeon has been fascinated by words, collecting them and savouring their novelty ‘with their strange textures: clay, metal, soap textures, and the strange tastes of the words as he says them into the cold air.’ Sent to a young offenders institution in England he has no choice but to learn English though this means he has to suppress part of his self.
But slowly Pigeon learnt that English was a weapon, and could be a shield. You needed it in pristine condition, and you needed the tricks of it, so you could defend yourself. Your own language was a part of your body, like a shoulder or a thigh, and when you were hurt there was no defence. When the kids argued in Welsh at home on the hill it was a bare knuckled fight. But English. With English what you had to do was build armour, and stand there behind your shield to shoot people down. Pigeon buried his own language deep.
Significance of Language
Words and language are significant in more than one sense with Pigeon. This is the first novel to be simultaneously published in both English and Welsh. The text also blends both languages: the children’s Welsh dialogue is often rendered directly, without translation. Though this could be daunting for some readers, particularly when confronted by words that appear to have no vowels, it doesn’t spoil the experience of reading the novel because as this example shows, the context makes the meaning understandable.
‘Sut mae?’ says Gwyn shakily.
The sniffing quietens.
‘Be ydach chi’n ei wneud yma?’ His Welsh even more formal than usual. Asking the question, there’s a sinking feeling that he doesn’t want to know why they’re here after all.
Although Pigeon is the eponymous hero he doesn’t get to tell his own story. The narrative voice belongs principally to Iola , an intelligent and observant girl who relates their escapades and her own sense of loneliness with unflinching honesty.
What we learn about Pigeon comes from Iola or a third person narrator, an approach that perfectly reflects the parallel Conran draws between this boy and the bird whose name he shares. Pigeons – as anyone who has read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island will know – are generally considered unintelligent and dull but Conran has her narrator remind us, they’re also capable of heroic feats, carrying messages long distance in times of war. As the boy Pigeon grows into manhood he too finds the courage to take control of his life.
Pigeon is a memorable novel with characters that tug at the heartstrings. It has a few flaws. The backstory of Gwyn’s Italian mother Mrs Gelataio (you can join me in groaning over that name) and her determination to find her son a wife for example jarred me because of its over reliance on the comedy of her Anglo-Italian lingo. I also think Conran overdid the theme of story-telling. But it’s still a very strong first novel and I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on what she does next.
What’s Next For Alys Conran?
She does have another novel in the pipeline but she was keeping the details close to her chest when I caught up with her after the awards ceremony. All she would say is that it’s about a friendship and is set in a British seaside resort. “Not in Wales,” she emphasises. But after a few seconds, adds: “ That could change.”
No date is set yet for to completion and she won’t be drawn on that so we just have to hope it doesn’t take as long as the seven years of gestation with Pigeon. She doesn’t write with a plan in mind, preferring to let the work grow organically. Pigeon grew from a single image of children chasing the ice cream van.
Working on the novel was a long journey but it taught me a lot about how to be an author.
Alys Conran knew she wanted it to be a hybrid book, not a pure coming -of-age tale, and one that was very much a book from Wales that blended English and Welsh languages. It was her publisher’s idea however to produce simultaneous translated versions. As a fluent Welsh speaker Alys Conran could have done the translation herself but chose not to do. “I couldn’t have done a translation so effectively it would have even writing another book and I really didn’t want to write a second Pigeon.”
Authors from Wales
Invariably the question arises about the lack of prominence of writers from Wales on the world stage. “Look at the other writers in the shortlist for these awards, Cynan Jones and Jo Mazelis do have an international following” counters Alys.
She does accept that there are challenges in getting the same level of attention for fiction from Wales as that enjoyed by Ireland and Scotland. “I’ve heard people make negative comments about books set in Wales, that they don’t have enough scope. But that seems very unfair – Steinbeck and Faulkner set their work firmly in one location yet we don’t hear comments about lack of scope so why should this apply to Wales?”
While her Welsh identity is important to Alys Conran, equally critical is that she doesn’t view it as a constraint. “Identity shouldn’t be a straight jacket and authors shouldn’t view it as if it stops them writing about broader issues. I prefer to see it as a privileged point of view through which we can look at the world.”
Pigeon by Alys Conran: Footnotes
Pigeon is published by Ceredigion-based publishers, Parthian Books.
Alys Conran was born in North Wales, studied literature at Edinburgh and then completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester. She is currently a lecturer in. Relative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor.
Her fiction, poetry, and translations have been placed in several competitions, including The Bristol Short Story Prize and The Manchester Fiction Prize. At the 2017 Literature Wales Awards she topped the public vote for the Wales Arts Review People’s Choice Award and then went on to pick up the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award and the overall Book of the Year award for her debut novel Pigeon.
Update: In 2019 Alys Conran published the novel she was writing at the time of this review. It’s called Dignity. My review is available here.
This week’s Top Ten topic is about books we consider to be underrated and hidden gems. My list is a bit of a cornucopia, comprising of a smattering of historic fiction, literary fiction and works by authors from Africa and South America. All hyperlinks are to my reviews.
Let’s start in Brazil with Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, an author little known of outside of South America but is a familiar name to every schoolchild in Brazil (he’s required reading in the education system). It is supposedly an autobiography written by Bento Santiago, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, in which he describes his early life, his years of happiness married to his childhood sweetheart and then the heartbreak when he thinks she has betrayed him. Whether this is the truth is uncertain because Bento isn’t exactly a reliable narrator nor one who can be trusted to stick to the point. He can be in the middle of describing the grande passion of his life and then suddenly switches to commenting on ministerial reshuffles and train travel. A great choice for readers who like quirky novels.
Moving on to Africa, first up is Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel deemed so dangerous by the Kenyan government that they imprisoned the author. What was so incendiary about this novel? Quite simply because it turned the spotlight on the authorities for their betrayal of ordinary people in Kenya, promising them the earth when the country gained independence but then when the rains failed, the crops died and people faced starvation, they ignored their calls for help. A powerful novel that sadly depicts a situation happening in too many parts of the world.
From Ethiopia comes All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu which I picked up on a whim while at the Hay Literary Festival a few years ago. This is a book about love but also about the lengths to which someone will go to build a new life for themselves, even if that means leaving their homeland and their identity.
By complete contrast The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso offers a tale of rivalry and hostility between two very stubborn women who live next door to each other in Cape Town. Many of the scenes are hilarious but this is a novel which also asks searching questions about racial tension and the possibility of reconciliation between the different sectors of South African society.
And finally from Africa we get Wife of the Gods by the Ghanian author Kwei Quartey. The plot revolves around the murder of a young female medical student but the novel does far more than offer a well-paced detective story. This is a tale which takes us to the dark side of Ghana’s culture where young girls are offered as trokosi (or Wives of the Gods) to fetish priests and villagers still believe in the power of medicine men to assuage vengeful gods.
If those titles have given you a taste for fiction from Africa – or indeed from anywhere in the world except your own country, but you don’t know where to begin – your saviour will be The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. This offers profiles of the literature on a region by region and country by country basis and a multitude of author names to explore.
Changing direction totally I offer one of the best historical fiction novels I have read in several years. Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea takes us into the heart of the notorious squalid and disease ridden Marshalsea prison for debtors. Reading this, you can almost smell the place such is the power of Hodgson’s narrative. Her protagonist Tom Hawkins ends up in the Marshalsea because he has too much of a liking for gambling and women. The question is whether he will leave the prison alive or dead.
I couldn’t possibly create a list of under-rated gems without mentioning Holiday by Stanley Middleton. I know it seems strange to think of a Booker prize winner as a hidden gem but this winner from 1974 is one that few people seem to know. Middleton himself also seems to have disappeared from the public consciousness. This despite the fact he wrote more than 40 novels. Holiday is a quiet novel in a sense because the action, such as it is, is all inside the head of the main character. Edwin Fisher, a university professor takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside where he reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. It’s a well observed story of a man who is more an observer than a participant in life.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan was also a contender for the Booker prize. This is a novel about a community and the individuals within it that feel the effect of the collapse of Ireland’s economic boom. It’s a novel that almost never saw the light of day. It had been rejected by numerous publishers but was rescued from yet another reject pile by an intern who raved about it and persuaded her employers to give it a go. It then went on to make the long list for the Booker Prize. What happened to the intern is not known but I hope she got a permanent job for showing such great intuition.
And finally, a novel that should have won the Booker in 2013 but sadly the judges felt otherwise. Harvest by Jim Crace is a beautifully written lyrical novel set in a period in history where a traditional way of life where people rely on the land to make a living is ruptured in the name of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
A weekly round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
I’m not a great fan of ‘must read’ book lists. They either make you feel smug that you’ve read most of the titles or inadequate when you discover you’ve not even heard of most of those authors. Those few words “must read” get my back up also for another reason: they make me feel like I’m being given a medication prescription for some nasty cough medicine instead of having a door opened to what could be a wonderful experience.
But there are some lists which make me sit up and pay attention. Often they are lists where the selection is made by authors themselves rather than publishers or critics. Or they are lists that introduce me to writers from parts of the world outside my own. I use these lists to find titles I can consider for my world of literature project.
Two articles published recently have ticked both of these boxes.
In the first, David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and more recently Bone Clocks) who is a fan of Japanese literature recommended 5 books by Japanese authors. I was expecting Haruki Murakami to feature in the list but in fact Mitchell has chosen a few lesser known authors. “They are books I would like people in the West to know more, because they are some of the high points of Japanese literature,” he said. “Even the most famous aren’t widely known outside Japan, and … three aren’t even really well known there.”
I’ve not heard of any of these authors but I’ve added two of the recommendations to my wish list (the titles by Tanizaki and Ariyoshi).
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, is a domestic family saga with dark undertones. Set in Osaka on the eve of World War 2, it portrays the declining fortunes of a traditional Japanese family.
Silence by Shusaku Endo. Mitchell says this is a big historical novel about an era after Christianity is outlawed, with complex and flawed characters
The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi. Another historical novel, this time featuring a Japanese doctor who was the pioneer in the use of anaesthetic in the 1810s and the first doctor in the world to perform successfuly surgery for breast cancer. (the English translation of this novel is currently out of stock but being reprinted)
The Woman In The Dunes by Kobo Abe. Mitchell says Abe is ‘a bit bonkers’ which perhaps accounts for the odd nature of this novel. It’s about an entomologist who falls into a sandpit when he is out looking for insects one day. Somehow he becomes the slave of inhabitants of a nearby village who won’t let him out of the sandpit. He has to keep digging away at the wall of the sand dune in order to keep it from encroaching upon the village.
The Housekeeper And The Professor by Yoko Ogawa. Mitchell describes Ogawa as an experimental writer whose experiments don’t always work. This novel is one that does. It’s about a mathematics professor who wakes one morning to find his memory has been wiped clean. His housekeeper and her son help him cope with his defect.
Central American literature
I know absolutely nothing about literature from this part of the world but thanks to Words without Borders I’ve been introduced to some upcoming writers from one of those countries. The October issue of Words without Borders e-magazine features short stories by 7 Guatemalan writers. This is an opportunity to read work by authors whose material is not widely available outside their home country or translated into English.
Sunday greetings from one very hot reader. Here in the UK we’re going through a very hot spell and unusually this one is sticking around for a while. Even though my garden is in desperate need of some attention it’s far too hot to do anything much beyond pruning the rose bushes and deadheading some border plants. On a day like this there really is only one thing in the garden I want to do and that’s to sit in it with a good book and a glass of something cold.
- Which makes it fortuitous that I stocked up my reading shelves yesterday. I can hear you saying “I thought you weren’t buying any books till you’d cleared that TBR collection???” I have indeed been doing well on that front – more on that another time – but I had gone to the library to pick up The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan which had finally become available and then found the library was having a book sale. I couldn’t resist taking a look as you might expect and found some titles that will be good additions for my world literature reading project.
So now I’m set up for a lovely few hours of reading. And all I have to decide is which of these to open first.
- An Elergy for Easterly which is a collection of short stories by the Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah
- The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki. This was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now renamed the Baileys Prize) in 2012. This is the fifth novel by Farooki, who was born Pakistan to a literary family but now lives in London. It’s about a somewhat shady character who travels around the world adopting a different persona in each country.
- A book by another Pakistani author caught my eye. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009. It’s a noel about the shared histories of two families, moving from the final days of the second world war in Japan, and India on the brink of partition in 1947, to Pakistan in the early 1980s, New York in the aftermath of September 11 and Afghanistan in the wake of the resulting US bombing campaign.
- I’ve never read anything by Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for literature , nor have I read anything by a Peruvian author so when I spotted Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, it seemed an opportunity too good to miss. It actually isn’t set in South America but in Ireland where a hero of Irish Nationalism awaits the hangman’s noose having been convicted of treason.
I would have been happy with just those four but the library was offering a discount if you bought five so onto my pile went one book that has nothing to do with world literature: Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me. I have A Visit from the Goon Squad but have yet to open it so I have no idea whether I will like her style. This one predates Goon Squad by 10 years. It’s about a model who is trying to return to life after a catastrophic car accident which so badly impacted her face, she needed 80 screws to fix the back in place. Unrecognisable and unable to return to her former work, she drifts into drink and despair.
If these were your new acquisitions which would you read first?
I do enjoy going to art exhibitions but still find them exhausting. Sometimes it’s because of the crowds which the big events always attract so you have to jostle to get anything like a decent view of the works. Sometimes though it’s just that there are too many items and it gets overwhelming. But, as was the case yesterday, my brain just gets overwhelmed trying to grasp the concepts behind the artist’s work. I read the explanation of Mondrian’s theory of neo plasticism three times but still have only a vague idea what he meant.
Aside from this short break, I’ve not had much time tor anything else recently including visiting blogs I follow and enjoy. The stack of books I have yet to review keeps creeping up too.
The good news however is that I’ve made some more progress with my world literature project. At the Hay Festival a few weeks ago I listened to a fabulous discussion with Atef Abu Saif, the editor of the first anthology of short stories by Palestinian authors. He spoke so movingly about the difficulties these authors face in getting their work published that I immediately went out and bought The Book of Gaza. Unusually for me I also read it over the next few days.
I’ve also been participatin in Spanish literature month which is co hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad blog http://winstonsdad.wordpress.com and Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos. http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/spanish-lit-month-2014.
It’s given me the nudge I needed to dust off a copy of Isabel Allende’s The Infinite Plan which has lingered on my shelves for three years. I don’t dislike it and can see why so many other people love her work but it hasn’t wowed me.
As for my next read, I’m still trying to make my mind. I have a long trip to Asia starting at the end of this monotheism which will mean lots of flying hours so I need to chose a few good bookish companions. Robert Graves Goodbye to all That will be one since it’s the next book club choice but I keep changing my mind on what else to take. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is one option. Anyone read it and if so would you recommend it?