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Search tags: read-in-translation
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review 2018-11-12 19:52
The Return of the Water Spirit by Pepetela
The Return of the Water Spirit - Pepetela

This is a brief novella that takes aim at the hypocrisy and arrogance of Angola’s ruling classes. The political situation is symbolized by a couple: Carmina, a communist youth leader who later embraces exploitative capitalism when political winds shift; and her husband João, a well-meaning but ineffective man who retreats into computer games as the capital city of Luanda crumbles around him – quite literally, as buildings mysteriously collapse, leaving their occupants unharmed.

Knowing nothing about the country going in, I found this a fairly engaging read, and the story is well-translated, but it would likely work better for readers familiar with recent Angolan history. Magical realist and absurdist elements – like the dispossessed protesting by going nude in public – obscure the actual history, leaving the foreign reader wondering what really happened. And while it is difficult to separate the personal from the political in such a short and pointed story, there is this recurring notion that all is right in the home when the husband takes the reins and publicly chastises his wife; I wasn’t sure how much Pepetela finds Carmina’s ruling the roost objectionable simply because she’s a woman, and how much because this specific woman is morally bankrupt.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting book from which I did learn a bit about Angola, and at 100 pages it’s a very quick read.

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review 2018-07-22 17:34
The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila
The Ultimate Tragedy - Jethro Soutar,Abdulai Sila

In 2017, this book apparently became the first novel (though more of a novella really, clocking in around 180 pages) from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It doesn’t do too well in the storytelling department, and despite being first published in 1995 it is a simplistic criticism of Portuguese colonialism (Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1973-1974), so I can see why there wasn’t a rush to translate. But of course there’s something to be said for reading voices from a particular place even if their literary merits are weak.

There will be SPOILERS below, though no more than are found in the book description (which gives away most of the story).

The book begins with a teenage girl, Ndani, traveling from her village to the capital city, Bissau, with hopes of becoming a domestic servant in a Portuguese home. After a few chapters, it skips abruptly to a village chief, smarting over an insult from a colonial official and thinking at great, repetitive length about the paramount importance of thinking. The stories come together when the chief marries Ndani (who has somehow learned to be a great lady by being a housegirl, yet is somehow the only such woman available even though the earlier chapters show that there are plenty of housegirls, and Ndani is not the brightest bulb on the tree). Then she falls in love with a local teacher, a young man trained by priests but questioning the righteousness of colonial rule. Tragedy, naturally, ensues.

The story is kind of a mess, unfortunately. It skips long periods of time without giving any sense of what Ndani’s life was like in the interim, leaving unanswered questions in its wake. Ndani’s abrupt shift from housegirl to fancy lady is not particularly convincing, nor did I find her cheerful willingness to jump right into sex believable from a woman whose only sexual experiences were rape. There’s a prophecy about Ndani that causes people to shun her, until they don’t, with no reason I could see for the change of heart other than that this plot device was no longer needed. Being in the chief’s head is tedious due to the long-winded repetition, and the teacher’s realization that the reality of colonial rule is inconsistent with Christian principles is painfully obvious; decades after colonial rule ended, I doubt this was a new idea to the book’s readers.

The translation is fairly smooth, but a number of words and concepts are left untranslated, and these are not always immediately obvious from context; most of these words appear to be from a local African language and were probably untranslated in the Portuguese original too, but a glossary would help foreign readers understand the references to local culture better.

Ultimately, this is a fairly quick and easy read, but the simplistic political commentary dominates over the story; I missed more of Ndani’s life than I saw, never got to know who she was as a person, and had no particular reason to care about her or anyone else in the story (her mistress was perhaps the most interesting character to me - a Portuguese woman who, after a near-death experience, devotes herself to "improving the natives" - but this character doesn't have the space to fully develop). I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you are specifically looking to read a book from Guinea-Bissau. If you are, this is a readable option.

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review 2018-06-04 21:57
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov
The Good Life Elsewhere - Ross Ufberg,Vladimir Lorchenkov

An absurdist, darkly humorous story about impoverished villagers trying to escape Moldova to go work in Italy. This isn’t as tightly-plotted as your typical novel, but it’s a short and quick read following the misadventures of several unfortunate Moldovans in the late 2000s. Many of the situations are over-the-top, satirizing the situations of would-be migrants and the intensity of their desire to go to Italy. The humor is really dark though, much of it involving death. I imagine this book would be funnier and more meaningful to Moldovans, but as a foreigner I did feel able to appreciate it, and it is an easy read.

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review 2018-04-23 21:11
The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić
The Bridge on the Drina - Ivo Andrić,Lovett F. Edwards,William Hardy McNeill

This is a sort of fictionalized history, which the author referred to as a “chronicle” rather than a novel. It spans about 350 years in the history of Višegrad, Bosnia, telling the story of the town and its Ottoman-era bridge from the 16th century to World War I. The book dips into the lives of individual characters, usually for vignettes of a chapter or less, but focuses more on the general feeling or changes in the town and the reaction of townspeople in general to key events than on particular characters. There are some astute character sketches; Andrić seems to have a good understanding of human nature. But overall it is a sweeping history told much more in narrative summary than specific scenes, and the town and bridge themselves, rather than particular families or plot threads, provide continuity between chapters.

It is a well-written (or well-translated) book, though a dense and slow read that felt much longer than its 300 pages. There’s a melancholy atmosphere throughout, with time passing and empires marching on indifferent to the fates of individuals. Readers should know that in the first 60 pages there is a horrifically graphic impalement scene that I did not need in my head and that a few years from now may be all I remember about the book. I persevered only after learning that there are no other graphic torture scenes, though death is a frequent occurrence throughout.

It’s also worth pointing out that, although to English-speakers this may seem like timeless storytelling, Andrić – a Bosnian Serb who ultimately made his home in Belgrade – is a controversial figure in Bosnia, and some see the book as advancing an anti-Bosniak political agenda. To me, as an outside reader, he seems to treat the Muslim and Serb populations of Višegrad both with humanity and fairly evenhandedly, with the important caveat that the Muslim population is referred to as “Turks” and “Turkish” throughout. Based on a bit of online research, this is inaccurate: the Bosnians were Slavs who had their own Bosnian Kingdom prior to their conquest by the Ottoman Empire in 1463, after which most of the population converted to Islam. But a reader ignorant of the region’s history might take Andrić’s terminology to indicate that Bosnia’s Muslims were Turkish colonists or transplants and that the Serbs were the original population. It occurs to me now that the impalement might be another subtly political decision: no such detailed brutality is described from any rulers other than the Ottomans, and Andrić imbues this scene with the maximum body horror, at a time when graphic violence in media was likely much less common than it is now (the book was published in 1945). Surely he knew how much this would stick out in readers’ minds.

Overall, the book did teach me something of the history of the Balkans, and presents a plausible chronicle of how history was experienced by everyday people over the course of hundreds of years. While I struggled a bit to get through it, I wouldn’t discourage readers who enjoy this sort of thing.

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review 2018-03-21 19:32
The Accusation by Bandi
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith,Bandi

This is a collection of short stories criticizing the North Korean government. Purportedly, it was written by an anonymous North Korean official still living in the country, and smuggled out as a handwritten manuscript. Upon reading the first couple of stories, though, I began to wonder if that backstory is a publicity stunt. I’ve read a lot of contemporary English-language fiction, and a lot of fiction from countries around the world, and what struck me about this collection is that it is written in a style characteristic of modern English-speaking authors. This makes it easy reading for those audiences: it’s written with the immediacy and emotional intimacy with the characters that one typically sees in English-language fiction; it has that pleasing balance of dialogue and narrative, that easy-to-read plot-driven flow, that immersion in the characters’ thoughts and feelings that characterizes most popular fiction today. Authors from cultural traditions very different from the mainstream western ones rarely write this way unless they have immigrated to an English-speaking country, even though almost all of them would have ready access to popular fiction, unlike someone living in North Korea.

Having these doubts, I poked around on the Internet for more information about the book (the New Yorker article is worth a read). No one has proven it to be a hoax, and a vocabulary analysis apparently indicates that the writer used North Korean language, which has diverged somewhat from South Korea’s over the decades of separation. However, I found it significant that journalist Barbara Demick, author of the fantastic Nothing to Envy (a nonfiction narrative of life in North Korea, based on her research and defectors’ accounts) also doubts the official version. Her doubt seems to stem primarily from the author’s keen awareness of the regime’s internal contradictions; this is apparently an understanding that takes defectors significant time outside the country to fully comprehend.

As for the book itself, each of its seven stories is a quick and easy read, though they average around 30 pages each. However, after the first two or three stories, which were fairly enjoyable, I began to tire of their incessant drumbeat. All of the stories are about how the regime and life in North Korea crushes a character in one way or another (usually metaphorically, but in one case physically): there is no conflict that doesn’t have the Party at its base and no possibility of happiness. At the end of the final story, a character, gazing at the red-brick local Party office, reflects, “How many noble lives had been lost to its poison! The root of all human misfortunate and suffering was that red European specter that the [party official] had boasted had put down roots in this land, the seed of that red mushroom!” Perhaps I ought to take the idea that the government could be the cause of all human suffering as evidence that the author does in fact live in North Korea, but in any case, such a simplistic view of the world doesn’t make for high-quality literary work.

Whoever the author may be, the fundamental storytelling skills are certainly there, despite a singular political focus, and it will be an especially interesting book for those who haven’t read much about North Korea. But for those who want to learn more about the country, I recommend starting with the brilliant Nothing to Envy.

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