Book Review: The White Book

“the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior”

The White Book, by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), is prose yet reads with the piercing beauty of poetry. It contains a series of haunting and evocative short studies on the ripples created by loss.

At twenty-two years of age the narrator’s mother gave birth to a premature baby, alone in an isolated house in the countryside. The child lived for less than two hours. The manner in which this firstborn entered and left the world remained as a shadow within the family. As the mother continued to mourn her dead daughter, her subsequent living daughter observed in the knowledge that she would not exist had her sister lived.

Each vignette in the collection is wound around a white object such as: swaddling bands, gauze, snow, a white bird, a shroud. The narrator has travelled to a strange city where she ponders her surroundings and their effect. She remembers aspects of her life thus far, including the stories she was told about her past and before she was born.

The observations are visual, internal and resonant. There is no sound other than the echo of her personal history. The narrator is living with the inevitability of loss, that all will one day die. For birth, marriage and death there are rituals – attempts to slow the erasure of those who have gone.

“there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever”

Just as freshly fallen snow adds a cleansing, soft beauty to the world it shrouds, so the writing is breathtaking in the visceral wonder it offers as it wraps itself around moments in time. The words are thoughtful and contemplative – hopeful in their acceptance of what cannot be changed.

“Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived”

This is writing to be savoured. An exquisite yet grounded read.

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Book Review: The Peace Machine

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu (translated by Mark David Wyers), tells the story of an invention designed to bring world peace. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, when citizens around the world were scheming to overthrow their autocratic rulers, a man living in the country now known as Turkey drew up plans to harness electromagnetic technology and create a mind control machine. He believed that a terrible war was looming and that averting such a crisis was more important than free will.

The protagonist of the story is Celal who uses his unusual strength to save the life of a wealthy stranger. The man then takes him in, raising Celal as his son. The boy makes the most of the opportunities this grants him, although chooses to be a writer rather than study law as his adoptive father wished. Celal writes erotic fiction, circumventing the ban on such output by working with an old schoolfriend, Jean, who lives in France. Jean finds a talented illustrator for Celal’s texts. The books prove popular netting them a sizable income.

As a result of a badly judged decision, Celal must leave his home country. He travels to France where he is told that Jean has been murdered and their money stolen. Whilst investigating this tragedy he finds out about the peace machine and becomes involved in a plan to overthrow a king and queen. To play his part he must join a circus along with the young illustrator.

The story zips around between cast and countries. There is a great deal of fighting and many deaths. Much like the circus in which part of the tale is set, each character plays numerous roles utilising disguise, bluff, costume and trickery. Celal and his associates believe in the worth of the peace machine but cannot shake off the strings of their elusive puppet master whose aims shift as the tides of power change.

“we hold the key to world peace. But if it were to be used in the wrong way, the already warped order that humanity has brought into being would be destroyed. Celal, that’s why the people should rule their countries. […] if people were left to decide for themselves whether or not to go to war, the chance of war breaking out would be slight.”

Persuasive words, smoke and mirrors take Celal on dangerous adventures. Despite the intrigue he remains convinced of the potential of the machine.

The plot is fast moving, original and well structured but I found too many of the characters, particularly the women, two dimensional. Females were introduced only to be lusted after. Even Celal’s love interest, despite her supposedly dominating personality, lacked depth.

The story is allegoric in tone with a darkly magical feel, incorporating trickery and sleight with a touch of the surreal. I enjoyed the weaving of history with the variations in achieving mind control by the wealthy and powerful. There is plenty to consider, especially in today’s world. The denouement remains open to interpretation.

There are positives but for me this was not a satisfying read despite its intriguing premise. Those female characters and the weaknesses they highlighted in the men proved too much of an irritation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: My Cat Yugoslavia

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci (translated by David Hackston), is a somewhat fragmented story involving metaphors that often slip into the surreal. It tells of a family of Albanians living in Kosovo who move to Finland when the increasing conflict threatens their safety. As refugees they are caught between their old culture and that of the country that has taken them in. What is regarded as respect by the older generation is clearly abuse by the Western European standards in which the children are now raised.

The story opens with an on line hookup between two men, both described as superficially handsome. One wishes to see the other again but is rejected. Thus we discover the problem Bekim has with trust, his fear of settling into a loving relationship and then being hurt. Instead of men he decides to share his life with a snake, the boa constrictor he purchases allowed to roam free in his apartment rather than being confined to its terrarium. His next relationship, which starts in a gay bar, is with a talking cat that wears clothes and has hateful views on homosexuals and immigrants. The snake and cat metaphors are used in subsequent encounters with Bekim’s wider family.

Born in Kosovo, Bekim moved to Finland with his parents and siblings when just a few years old. He was viciously bullied at school for being poor and a refugee. He learned to dread the question, “Where do you come from?” and the judgement that followed. As soon as he was old enough he cut off contact with his parents, ostensibly to further his education. He hated how they treated him, their desire that he behave as would have been expected in their homeland.

Although Bekim’s personal demons are represented by creatures, the second plot line unfolds more clearly. This takes the reader back to 1980 when Bekim’s mother, Emine, first meets the young man she is to marry. Although still at school she has been raised to be a good, Kosovan wife and is happy with the prospect of living with the handsome Bajram. Unlike her parents, he is from a wealthy family. He promises to treat her well.

Preparations for the wedding are described in detail, involving days of prescribed, public ritual where true feelings must be hidden. When Bajram and Emine are finally allowed to be alone together she discovers that he is brutal and demanding. Kosovan men are raised to believe that within their homes they are as gods. The women must acquiesce and serve them quietly, never complaining however disdainfully they are treated.

When the family flee to Finland they live first in a refugee centre and then in a cramped apartment. Although Bajram eventually finds work this does not last as he refuses to accept the concepts of equality and multiculturalism. He mixes with other immigrants and refugees, expecting his family to continue to treat him as the most important member of their household.

“He blindly believed in his own world.”

“People’s attitudes and values seemed to have remained unchanged from the time when they left the country, and they were preserved in tight-knit communities in overcrowded European apartment buildings in disreputable parts of town”

When Kosovo enters a fragile peace, the family become immigrants rather than refugees. The Finnish people’s resentments at their continued presence perpetuates divisions. Bajram feels no gratitude for the home he has been given. He feels justified in taking what he can by whatever means.

Emine does her best to put up with Bajram’s behaviour but understands better than he how their children are torn between the culture of Kosovo and that of Finland.

“How could he possibly have thought that his children would work, pay taxes, then return to him and help make his dreams come true instead of their own?”

Emine, Bajram and Bekim each struggle to find ways to exist having been displaced from everything they were raised to be. They are not the people they once were, but neither do they fit easily into the expectations of their adopted country.

It is always interesting to learn of different cultures, however shocking their accepted behaviours appear to a Western European reader. I was surprised by the attitudes of the refugees and immigrants portrayed as, like the Finnish people, I expected more gratitude. Perhaps I would understand better had I experienced the openly hostile reception they suffered. From that point of view this was a thought-provoking read. As a story though I found the more surreal scenes unclear.

This tale evokes less rapport than I am comfortable with for the characters portrayed due to their reluctant assimilation and demands made of their children. An unusual but not entirely satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press. 

Book Review: The Book of Riga

The Book of Riga is a collection of ten short stories written by Latvian authors and set in the country’s capital city. It opens with a history of the region written by a former president. As I am unfamiliar with the background and local culture, such information was of interest, although at times I still struggled to place each of the stories within the time-frame intended.

The authors write with a distinctive, Baltic voice yet their themes are universal. They explore the frustration protagonists feel at family, particularly the older generation with their undeviating demands and expectations.

In The Girl Who Cut My Hair a group of young people indulge in what they consider meaningful discussions whilst polishing their personal vanities and youthful if frivolous preoccupations.

“We were virgins with condoms in our handbags.
Our parents had not read either Freud or Henry Miller, absolutely not.
We were always at the ready – what if life should suddenly start?”

Westside Garden revolves around a place once owned by a wealthy family, now subdivided but still housing an elderly relic of that era. The events narrated differ between the lived experience and what is recalled with the benefit of hindsight and shared reminiscences. Sexual encounters are described as a sometimes necessary irritant. The women are still expected to adhere to a standard of presentation and behaviour.

“don’t fool around with slacks and bobbed haircuts, but act like a real woman.”

In The Birds of Kipsala Island, new build homes in the city housing young families and professionals are evocatively described

“like lockers in a gym changing room”

Within the changes imposed on the historic city, a creative community seek out places were they may indulge their conceits together. Self defined artists and intellectuals eventually realise

“no one in real life is as happy, as witty, or as capable of making sound judgements, as characters in fiction.”

The Shakes is set in an office where a successful businessman observes an increase in street demonstrations and tries to see into the future using history and detailed reasoning. In trying to draw his assistant into his endeavour he risks being seen as unhinged. She too feels something out of kilter in the air but prefers to perpetuate, while she can, the comfort of accepted roles and routines.

A White Jacket With Gold Buttons offers a picture of a writer’s hubris yet sensitivity to criticism, particularly from a rival he refuses to rate.

“Writing is, in a sense, close to psychoanalysis: the power of the written word comes exactly from the fact that an author spits out his most hidden feelings, without the shiny veneer that comes from pretending.”

The collection finishes with a supernatural tale, The Night Shift, that could be a metaphor for the realities of life, and inevitability of death.

The writing throughout presents with a distinctive cadence that is somewhat mordant yet arresting in the themes explored and characters developed. The city shines through as a beguiling survivor of its history, adapting whilst retaining its hold on certain citizens and visitors. I had never before considered visiting Riga. After reading this collection, I am tempted.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Comma Press.

Book Review: The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland

The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, by Nicolai Houm (translated by Anna Paterson), opens with a woman waking up in a tent believing she is going to die. Just a short time before she had flown to Norway to meet up with distant relatives. She has now been abandoned in a cold, lonely landscape; left without food, water or a map. The woman’s name is Jane Ashland and she struggles to relate to anyone, or to care much about their reactions to her behaviour.

The story moves around in time between Jane’s years studying literature at university, her relationships, the time spent with relatives in Norway, and the events leading to her abandonment. It becomes clear that Jane is damaged. She drinks heavily and relies on prescription drugs. Each chapter is a jigsaw piece in the puzzle that reveals the story of her life. It takes a little while for the picture to take shape, for the pieces to slot together.

Jane’s behaviour early on may be harshly judged, initial impressions being as they are reliant on a code of social conformity. The snapshots given of her background, shown as they are out of order, encourage the reader to guess at reasons. This is cleverly done – prejudices may be revealed.

From Jane’s earlier life in America through to her attempts to connect with family in Norway there is an underlying feeling of impending crisis. The complexities inherent in any relationship are adroitly presented. The evocation of grief is vivid and piercing.

The non linear structure requires the reader to follow multiple threads. Knowing that Jane ends up in a life threatening situation adds tension. The writing though is more literary than thriller in style. It is haunting and deeply moving.

This is a love story depicted with realism and regret, an exploration of empathy, or its lack, in what comes after. Jane’s behaviour will take the reader through a roller-coaster of emotions. A powerful, enthralling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: The End Of The Moment We Had

The End Of The Moment We Had, by Toshiki Okada (translated by Sam Malissa), is the latest in a series of Japanese novellas published by Pushkin Press. It contains two short stories that offer snapshots of ordinary lives, streams of consciousness from a variety of voices. They are visceral in their honesty, disturbing in their depiction of life’s quotidian pain.

The first story opens with a group of loud, drunk men travelling on a train. Their boisterous chatter disturbs other passengers yet no complaints are made. The men make their way to a club where a performance is to be held. One of the group had been told of the venue by a girl he met on an outing to the cinema, their conversation awkward in a way it is hard for the girl to get beyond as she watches the man zone out and then walk away.

After the performance at the club one of the group makes his way to a love hotel with another attendee. They spend four nights at this place, talking and having sex, before going their separate ways. They do not tell each other their names.

The narrative includes thoughts and conversations which demonstrate how little individuals understand or even care about many of those they interact with. The time in which the story is set coincides with the American offensive against Iraq and protests are being held in the streets. The characters observe what is happening – to themselves, close to home, and abroad. They remain self-absorbed, savouring their ability to briefly escape what they regard as mundane.

The second story is told from the point of view of a young woman lying in her bed. She has decided to take the day off work for no justifiable reason. As she stretches out her body and observes the grime and mould in her home she considers her husband who is working two jobs but still leaves her frustrated and dissatisfied with the circumstances in which they live. She reads a blog that details interactions at a call centre. She thinks back on times she has lashed out at her husband, wondering why he reacted as he did.

Although the actions of the characters are described, it is their meandering thoughts that are being explored. The stories offer little in the way of resolution – life goes on.

An interesting if somewhat sparse read that depicts recognisable human experiences. There may be a dearth of anything uplifting in the narrative, but the reader can empathise with the everyday tribulations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Black Sugar

Black Sugar, by Miguel Bonnefoy (translated by Emily Boyce), is a story of pirates, buried treasure and rum. Set in the forests of Venezuela it charts the country’s development through the twentieth century alongside that of residents of a remote sugar plantation. The elegant, often humorous prose is fable like. There is desire, intrigue, greed and the unstoppable rhythms of life.

The story opens with a shipwreck. Marooned inland, surrounded by swampy forest, Captain Henry Morgan is dying atop his lifetime’s hoard of treasure. As the weeks go by his marooned ship and valuable supplies rot, or are consumed by the land and his hungry crew. There follows a storm, a mutiny, and the captain and his treasure disappear.

Three centuries later the land has been drained and cultivated. A village has been built, the tale of an English pirate and his lost hoard become legend. On the Otero family farm, Ezequiel and his wife Candelaria live modestly with their late born daughter, Serena. The child has developed an interest in botany, observing her surroundings whilst dreaming of new horizons.

Their quiet life is enlivened by the arrival of a stranger. Severo Bracamonte, a young man in his twenties, has purchased documents from a travelling merchant purporting to reveal the location of the English captain’s buried treasure. He asks for permission to stay on the farm while he conducts a meticulous and methodical search. In exchange he offers a share of the booty he is convinced he will find.

Serena is unimpressed by this slight, pale faced man. As the weeks go by with no success she becomes annoyed at her parents’ tolerance of Severo’s continued presence. All this changes when he finally brings back an artifact. Serena’s reaction causes him to rethink his ambitions.

With Severo’s help the farm grows in size and wealth. He branches out, creating a mill and distillery. Serena works alongside him, keeping the farm books but yearning for a child. The arrival of another stranger, an Andalusian treasure seeker, changes their prospects once again.

Treasure comes in many forms, what use it is put to determining its value. Each of the characters achieves, but not necessarily what they thought they desired. Greed is shown to be a disease, wealth an entanglement. This is a deft and gratifying evocation of the cycle of life in an ever evolving land.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.