Archive for the ‘Foreign’ Category

Murakami’s latest

I had heard vaguely that Haruki Murakami had a new book out and when a Thanksgiving guest (thanks, Bonnie!) showed up with it, I started to read a few pages to see if it would interest me – and it did! I got through nine chapters before I had to surrender the book and now can’t wait to get hold of it. 1Q84 – has all of Murakami’s strengths – the minimalist, yet brilliant prose (sly and hypnotic); meticulous control of events for some mysterious purpose that keeps the pages turning; a bemused everyman narrator; enigmatic, yet well-realized women characters.  According to the publisher, it is a “mind-bending ode to Orwell’s 1984,” but I haven’t gotten far enough along to verify anything but the mind-bending part.  I’m sure I read an excerpt in the New Yorker (Town of Cats) recently and didn’t much care for it, now set within it’s proper context, I am thrilled with the novel’s potential.

My experience with Murakami goes back to a fascinating New Yorker story which I still think of:  Sleep, from 1992- in which a housewife stays up all night, every night, reading and re-reading Anna Karenina. By not sleeping, she seems to get outside of time, to achieve the impossible –  by cheating sleep, perhaps she is cheating death? – an attempt that ends in defeated delirium, of course.  When I received the Complete New Yorker as a gift, one of the first things I did was to try to track down that story; I had a suspicion that the author must be Murakami, and I was right!

I believe I have read most of his short stories and a few of his novels, plus his nonfiction book about the Tokyo gas attacks (Underground) and a New Yorker article about him. I don’t think I’ve read The Wild Sheep Chase, so maybe I’ll move it to the top of my queue. I know I read Norwegian Wood, and I think I read Sputnik Sweetheart and the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  Kafka on the Shore sounds familiar, but I’m not sure. I think I need a better method for my personal bibliography!


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I’ve been hearing about Robert Bolano and decided to try one of his books; I chose the slimmest, By Night in Chile, which is, as the reviewers have said:  surreal, hypnotic, mesmerizing.  His prose is at times mordant, at others luxurious.  The story, a rambling death-bed confession, is hard to get at, but somehow, at the end, you feel the chill of truth – “that’s how literature is made,” states the corrupt, ruined, would-be novelist Maria Canales, whose soirees were once so well-attended, to which no one will now admit attending.  The priest/poet/literary critic, Fr. Urrutia Lacroix,  is somehow us, as the wizened youth is somehow him; we feel, at the end, complicit in the downfall of humanity’s highest hopes; we repent, yes, “like everyone else” says Maria Canales, in whose basement people died of torture, while literature was discussed in the rooms above.  There is a searing indictment here, one which hurts to examine…”I want to talk of literature,” says Maria Canales of the journalists, “but they always get on to politics.” Yeats, too, felt the pull of his white tower, while the matters of everyday life called him, forced him, to attend; while Chile fell from one calamity to the next, the erudite priest read the Greeks–he started with Homer, then moved on to Thales of Miletus, Xenophanes of Colophon, Alcmaeon of Croton, Zeno of Elea–horrors are reported; yet, he reads on, he reads Tyrtaios of Sparta and Archilochos of Paros an Solon of Athens and Hipponax of Ephesos and Stresichoros of Himnera and Sappho of Mytiilene and Anakreon of Teos and Pindar of Thebes… and who can blame him?  I cannot.  I can barely open a newspaper or listen to NPR, not to mention AM Talk radio.  I don’t know what Allende stood for, though I read “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende; I think he was a socialist and Pinochet, the military dictator,  overthrew him.  The poets seem horrified by Allende’s election, yet, Pinochet’s reign of terror is something they are involved in, even profit from; there is something horrible here…something that is ghastly and true.  Bolano died in 2003, at the age of 50.  I have another of his works in hand, The Savage Detectives, and will be writing more of Bolano anon.

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Khaled Hosseini’s second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is better than the first in that it takes place entirely in Afghanistan.  His first, The Kite Runner had an initial riveting section set in Afghanistan, but the second part, set in the United States was not as compelling.  A Thousand Splendid Suns compels utterly with overlapping narratives of women’s lives that are inseparable from the recent history of this beleagured country. While reading of the sorrows and tribulations of wives who are abused; daughters denied schooling and given away as child brides; and mothers whose sons are lost in senseless wars, one has a horrible feeling that this story is still being told, that women will remain, in many cases, mere objects, abused, despised and wasted, valued only for breeding and kept subservient by physical abuse and unjust social structures.  There are many sympathetic male figures in the book, and some of the worst men show glimmers of humanity, even the bully, Rasheed, and the weak father, Jalil; however, for the most part society encourages the worst impulses so that these glimmers are eventually lost.  A poignant moment in the book is after the Soviet occupation of Kabul, when Laila’s father tells her that it is actually a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, because she is allowed to go to school and to be independent.  This while his two sons are fighting in the Jihad against the Russians, the Jihad that is mostly a reaction to the freedom allowed women under Soviet rule.  The breakdown of rebel forces into factions that tear the country apart after the Soviets leave is an illustration of the senselessness of war.  More people killed, homes destroyed, children orphaned, and women’s rights even further-circumscribed – Hosseini ends on a hopeful note, but his book, dedicated in part to the women of Afghanistan, was written two years ago.  Since then, the Taliban have increased their presence and no doubt stories such as those of Laila and especially Mariam will continue to be played out in obscurity.  We have to at least thank Hosseini who shines a light on these lives and tells his tale with love and compassion.

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The White Tiger

For sometime I’ve felt that some of the best novelists writing in English are Indians.  Just as the Irish dominated English literature in the early part of the 20th century,  with Yeats, Joyce and Shaw, I feel the Indians are using the English language to advance literature, to make the novel their own.  Writers like Vikram Seth, seemed to honor the tradition and imitate the great novels of the Victorian age.  His great book, “A Suitable Boy” explored and exhausted the limits of traditional fiction.  After that, he went on to write a much more modern (and I think, lesser) book, the muted and interior, “An Unequal Music”.  It is beautifully written, but in the end, slight.  The heartbreaking fiction of Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy and Rupa Bajwa deal with the pressure of  events and circumstances on people’s lives, rather like early 20th century American fiction.  Now, Aravind Adiga has raised the bar with a groundbreaking, disturbing work, “The White Tiger.”  Rightly compared to Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Adiga’s book is more humorous but no less bitter.  It is also suspenseful and gripping.  At first I didn’t like his decision to write the book as a letter of confession, but that narrative device quickly diminishes in importance as the story is told.  Once I read a few chapters, I couldn’t put it down.  It rings with moral authority but is also just a good story.  Thanks to India, the novel lives!

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