A spare, dystopian fable that examines how closely contemporary life has caught up to Kafka since the publication of The Castle.
No one comes to meet the nameless Investigator when a train lets him off at a nameless city. So it’s long after dark by the time he arrives at the Enterprise, where he’s been sent to look into a series of 20 suicides over the past year. A disembodied voice refuses to admit him so late and declines to give him any information about where he might pass the night. Left to his own devices, the Investigator finds the mordantly misnamed Hope Hotel, where a Giantess forces him to review an exhaustive list of hotel policies before she gives him the key to a room where he collapses for the night. In the morning, the Server at the hotel restaurant won’t give him tea, toast or orange juice, and the Policeman he meets over his nonbreakfast ends up questioning him. When he arrives at the Enterprise, predictably without the identification he left at the Hope, he gets little cooperation from the Guard, the Guide and especially the Manager, who’s cordial enough but also insecure, delusional and prone to hysterical fits. After spending a second night passed out in the Enterprise, the Investigator finds all the functionaries who posed such obstacles yesterday so solicitous that the effect is even more disturbing. By this time Claudel (Brodeck, 2009, etc.) has long since made it clear that in this investigation, it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive.
A technocratic Kafka nightmare—heavy on surreal diagnosis of the world’s ills, light on the traditional rewards of storytelling—crossed with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and a hint of Buster Keaton.
A Swedish debut novel that will keep readers chuckling.
Allan Karlsson has just turned 100, and the Old Folks’ Home is about to give him a birthday party that he absolutely doesn’t want. So he leaves out his window and high-tails it to a bus station, with no particular destination in mind. On a whim, he steals a suitcase and boards a bus. The suitcase’s owner, a criminal, will do anything to get it back. This is the basis for a story that is loaded with absurdities from beginning to end—the old coot has plenty of energy for his age and an abiding love of vodka. The story goes back and forth between the current chase and his long, storied life. From childhood, he has shown talent with explosives. This knack catches the attention of many world leaders of the 20th century: Franco, Truman, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung, to name a few of the people he meets. Want to blow up bridges? Allan’s your man. Want much bigger explosions? Just pour him a drink. He’s neither immoral nor amoral, but he is certainly detached, and he is absolutely apolitical. In the past, he insults Stalin (luckily, the translator faints), learns Russian in a gulag and walks back to Sweden from China, barely surviving execution in Iran along the way. In the present, he meets a strange and delightful collection of friends and enemies. Coincidence and absurdity are at the core of this silly and wonderful novel. Looking back, it seems there are no hilarious, roll-on-the-floor-laughing scenes. They will just keep readers amused almost nonstop, and that’s a feat few writers achieve.
A great cure for the blues, especially for anyone who might feel bad about growing older.
Sprawling, sometimes goofy, always seditious novel of modern life in the remotest corner of China.
Set Rabelais down in the mountains of, say, Xinjiang, mix in some Günter Grass, Thomas Pynchon and Gabriel García Márquez, and you’re in the approximate territory of Lianke’s (Serve the People! 2008, etc.) latest exercise in épatering the powers that be. Oh, and then there’s Friedrich Dürrenmatt, too, whose The Visit afforded the lesson that you should never mess with little people in the high country. Deep inside the Balou Mountains, Lianke imagines, lies a Macondo-like village inhabited by a great heroine of the Long March, broken of leg and frostbitten of toe, along with her cohort of—well, let one of them tell it: “thirty-five blind people, forty-seven deaf people, and thirty-seven cripples, together with several dozen more who are missing an arm or a finger, have an extra finger, stunted growth, or some other handicap.” These odd folks would seem an impediment to the grand plans of the local Communist leadership, smitten by dreams of revolutionary capitalism, who have a grand plan even for the hamlet of Liven, a place that prompts one of them, Chief Liu, to complain, “Fuck, I simply can’t believe it could possibly get too cold for me.” Cold is the least of his concerns in fulfilling his dream, which is to promote tourism and investment in order to turn the mountains into a Red Disneyland featuring the embalmed corpse of V.I. Lenin himself, to be bought from an ungrateful Russia and turned into a tourist attraction. Needless to say, the bureaucrats’ plans get turned on their heads, and the Cloud Cuckoo-Land that emerges isn’t quite what they bargained for. Lianke writes long, but there’s not a wasted word or scene. And who can resist a book with characters with names the likes of Grandma Mao Zhi, Little Polio Boy and One-Legged Monkey?
A satirical masterpiece, very funny for all its footnotes. You can bet the authorities in Beijing are scratching their heads about it.
The Celt in question is Sir Roger Casement, who advocated on behalf of oppressed natives of the Congo and of Amazonia, but when he turns his attention to the Irish Troubles in 1916, the British feel he’s gone too far, so he’s caught, tried and executed.
Originally published in 2010 and now lyrically translated, the novel focuses on the three major stages in Casement’s life. As a young man he travels to the Congo, and while at first he’s enamored with the European “mission,” he soon has a Conrad-ian epiphany about the exploitation of rubber workers, who are brutalized beyond belief. (Conrad, in fact, briefly appears in the novel.) Casement’s report about this exploitation garners him much acclaim in England. Next he turns his compassionate vision toward Amazonia, that section of Peru in which the indigenous peoples are once again being savagely misused by a multinational corporation—in this case the Peruvian Amazon Company, whose board, Casement discovers, comprises a number of prominent Englishmen, but in his role of British consul he courageously speaks out against the atrocities he finds there and once again publishes a devastating report; this time his findings ironically lead to his being knighted by the British. In the final phase of his life—he died at the tragically young age of 51—he supports independence for his native Ireland, naively working with the Germans during World War I against an England he now hates. At the Easter Rising he’s caught and four months later is executed at Pentonville Prison in London. Although politically and morally committed to his causes, Casement feels poor in love, for his “relationships” consist solely of fleeting and furtive homosexual liaisons. Vargas Llosa speculates that the so-called Black Diaries Casement left are authentic but that he uses them to record sexual fantasies as much as sexual reality.
The three women personifying the complicated relationship between France and Senegal in French-born NDiaye’s tripartite novel, winner of France’s Prix Concourt in 2009, need all the strength they can muster as they struggle to survive.
The novel opens with 38-year-old lawyer, Norah. Half-Sengalese, she was raised in France by her French working-class mother after her businessman father returned to his native Senegal, taking with him her beloved younger brother, Sony. When her once-powerful father asks her to visit, she drops everything to return to Senegal, where she finds him a seemingly broken man. Sony is in prison, charged with murdering the old man’s newest wife, the mother of two small girls he keeps locked in a room with a nursemaid named Khady. Soon, Norah’s Parisian live-in lover, whom she no longer trusts, shows up in Dakar with Norah’s little daughter, Lucie, and Norah is increasingly overwhelmed by conflicting pulls and loyalties. In the second section, Fanta is a Senegalese woman seen only through her French husband Rudy’s eyes. Rudy’s father ran a Senegalese vacation resort, possibly with Norah’s father, although the timeline and specifics remain vague. A bookish intellectual, Fanta was a successful teacher in Dakar before they married, but she has moved with him to France, where she finds herself unemployable. NDiaye follows Rudy, an emotionally damaged, abusive husband (not unlike Norah’s father and not unsympathetically drawn), through a disastrous day that shows the precarious position into which he has placed Fanta and their child as immigrants. The third section focuses on Khady. No longer caring for Norah’s nieces and suddenly widowed after a short marriage, Khady is forced to live with her in-laws. They don’t want her and pay a stranger to get her headed to France, supposedly to live with her cousin, Fanta. On the overland trip to the boat that will supposedly take her overseas, Khady faces one calamity after another. She thinks she has found a protector in a young man, but his desperation to escape Senegal proves greater than his affection or loyalty.
Unrelenting in its anger, pain and sorrow, but hard to put down.
A literary allegory filled with truths and absurdities about the human condition.
An unspecified army invades an unspecified country. Three soldiers arrive at a farm that is also a “temporary home for children” named Children in Reindeer Woods. Without apparent motive, they murder everyone except an 11-year-old girl, Billie. Then the soldier named Rafael murders his comrades. Now he wants to stop killing and become a farmer. Billie is oddly unmoved by the killings and becomes his (platonic) companion as he tries to remake himself into a peaceful human being. Meanwhile, puppet masters on another planet pull strings as they try to manipulate events on Earth. This novel, translated from the Icelandic, takes getting used to. Many phrases are repeated numerous times, giving the story a strange cadence not often seen in Western literature. The characters are not from a particular country or a particular culture; they are from everywhere or anywhere or nowhere. Rafael wants to transform himself from everysoldier to Everyman. Can he go from blowing up bombs to helping Billie play with her Barbies? Others pass through Reindeer Woods, such as the wandering nun who stays overnight and either sleeps with Rafael or doesn’t. Rafael shoots off one of his toes every time he fails to live up to his own standards, but pain, bleeding and infection seem not to hobble him as he tends his cows and sheep. Despite all the bodies Rafael buries, there is also humor buried in the tale—not hilarity, but perhaps a few wry smiles at mankind’s foibles.
This is the first of Icelandic author Ómarsdóttir’s novels to appear in English, and it shouldn’t be the last. Somewhere in the reader’s mind, Catch-22 echoes faintly.
A set of loosely concatenated stories that don’t quite add up to a novel but are nonetheless rich in character and in the exploration of contemporary urban life in Poland.
In the title story a man reminisces about a time 40 years before, when at the age of 12 he first had the impulse to take his life. He’s heard from Pastor Kalinowski (one of the recurring characters) about the “other world” and has some curiosity about the passage from This World to That. The possibility of his own self-destruction curiously liberates the narrator, so he gives himself permission to violate some taboos—like watch an adult film and read a forbidden book he’s found at the bottom of a cupboard. Pilch manages to inject a great deal of humor into the story—as well as tragedy, for it’s also about the narrator’s relationship to his drunken and dissolute father. “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” announces its subject grandly, though the narrator is forced to admit she might only be in the top ten—or the top 100. He’s nevertheless pleased to have found her, though his sexual fantasies about her turn out to be at one and the same time both indulged in and quashed. In “The Double of Tolstoy’s Son-in-Law,” the narrator develops an obsession about an old photograph of Tolstoy playing chess, while in “A Chapter about a Figure Sitting Motionless” the obsession is with Anka Chow Chow, a virginal soccer fan who has a weakness, or perhaps a fetish, for girls with backpacks.
It’s hard to do justice to the outré and eccentric but gorgeous quality of Pilch’s prose. Here he manages to pull off some neat literary tricks, frequently and self-consciously undermining the seriousness of his subjects with pricks of irony.
Beneath the surface placidity of Swiss life, undercurrents of spiritual turmoil and existential despair charge this powerful collection of provocative stories.
Renowned in European literary circles, Switzerland’s Stamm didn’t achieve his stateside critical breakthrough until his last novel (Seven Years, 2011, etc.). This story collection is even better, with pieces that read like the Zurich equivalent of Camus or Kafka, occasionally laced with a bit of Ibsen or Ingmar Bergman. Not a lot happens in these stories and what does mainly takes place internally, in the psyches of characters who don’t seem to have much control over their destinies or understanding of their motives and whose essential mysteries—to themselves and to the reader—could be described as the human condition. The American publication combines two separate story collections, the first published in 2008, the second in 2011, yet the stories themselves are timeless, like fables or parables, with the plainspoken translation reinforcing the stark, spare essence of the fiction. Some of these stories deal with the awkwardness of adolescence and sexual initiation, but the protagonists of many more are innocents as well. In “Children of God,” the longest story here, a minister navigates between sin and divinity as he falls in love with a young girl who insists that her pregnancy is an immaculate conception. In the process, he consults a doctor, one who was “not even an atheist, he believed in nothing, not even that there was no God.” The following story, “Go Out into the Fields...,” concerns a landscape artist—identified in the second person as “you”—who learned to paint when “you learned to see,” who “kept painting dusks, as if you wanted to stop time, to escape the certainty of death,” and who approaches his work with “a passionate indifference.” Another protagonist, a young girl who lives “In the Forest,” survives through “alert indifference.” Such a perspective might be considered Zurich Zen, and Stamm is its master.
For those who have an affinity for metaphysical fiction written with a surgeon’s precision, this collection will spur readers to seek out everything else by its author.
Wiesel takes us on a journey through dream, memory and especially storytelling in his latest novel, which concerns Shaltiel Feigenberg, who in 1975, is captured and imprisoned for 80 hours in a basement by two captors.
Feigenberg is politically unimportant and practically unknown before his capture, but soon thereafter he becomes front-page news, though his plight is reported in wildly different ways by the world press. His captors represent divergent political realities. One, Luigi, is an Italian political revolutionary with no particular animus against Jews, while the second, Ahmed, is a passionate advocate for Palestine with an intense hatred for the “Zionist cause.” Perhaps predictably, a “bad cop–good cop” dynamic develops as they tend to Feigenberg, Luigi gradually freeing him from restraints while Ahmed rails with fanatic fervor against all that Feigenberg represents to him. Luigi and Ahmed are motivated by “humanitarian” concerns—they demand that three Palestinian prisoners be freed in exchange for Feigenberg’s freedom—rather than materialistic ones. Feigenberg is mystified by his captivity, for he’s simply a professional storyteller with a special fondness for spinning his tales to children and the elderly. This forced period of darkness ironically provides him with an extended period of enlightenment, as he has time to reflect on his life—the death of his grandmother at Auschwitz, his frequently absent but observant father, his initial meeting with Blanca (the woman who eventually becomes his wife), and the growing Communist sympathies of his older brother. He begins to frame the narrative of his life in much the same way he frames the stories he makes up to entertain others. Even the Israeli government—a government that notoriously does not negotiate with terrorists—gets involved in trying to track down the elusive captive.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Wiesel continues to remind us of the brilliant possibilities of the philosophical and political novel.