Thursday, 18 February 2016

Update 3: A Year of Reading the Med

I've created a new category "Reading the Med" if you would like to find the earlier updates and beginning of this project.  Update 3 includes two fantastic finds and a confession.

LIBYA:  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar ****
A first novel, nominated for the 2006 Man Booker prize and winner of the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize.  This haunting story is one that will stay with me for a long time.  We see 1979 revolutionary Libya through the eyes of a 9-year old boy, whose father is taken away and tortured for subversive activities. Initially I dreaded reading this book, as I supposed it would be fairly predictable, bitter and sentimental.  But instead of focusing on the plight of the dissidents of the revolution, Matar tells the story of the family and friends caught in the cross-fire, where loyalties are tested and broken, cowardice is defined and redefined, and, because several of the main characters don’t act the way we want them to, the reader is forced to question how he/she would respond under the same pressures. As endearing as our boy narrator is, he is far from the noble stoic hero we want, manipulated by the regime and a victim of his own innocence, frustrations, and prejudices.  Several scenes are so chilling that I was not able to read more than a few pages at a time, but the often light-hearted recollections of childhood – even this childhood –  save the novel from becoming too dark. The writing is beautiful with strong sense-of-place and richly-defined characters.  The plot is well paced and the novel never bogs down in heavy-handed reflection.  Highly recommended.

TURKEY: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak ***1/2
Foreword: I am a huge fan of Turkish literature.  You may have expected me to review the works of Nobel prize-winning Orham Pamuk (whom I ADORE) or one of my all-time favourites, The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmed Hamdi Tanpinar, or even Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernieres, not a Turkish author but author of an exceptional novel about the heartbreaking birth of the Turkish nation.  A few months ago, I was watching a (fantastic) tv show called “The Europe of Writers” where the featured country was Turkey.  Pamuk was featured, but I was also introduced to Sema Kaygusuz (whom I have yet to read) and Elif Shafak, Turkey’s most widely-read author and a fascinating character in her own right.  For Christmas, some good friends offered me Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul.

In 2006, this book earned its best-selling author a condemnation by the Turkish authorities for insulting the national identity, carrying with it a 3-year prison sentence. She was eventually acquitted. The Bastard of Istanbul addresses the delicate issue of the contested Armenian genocide and does a brilliant job of presenting the complexity of history and its interpretation by its victims’ descendents almost 100 years later. The story revolves around the friendship of two young women, one Armenian-American and the other Turk, who together walk the razor’s edge between amnesia and debilitating memory to try to understand how to (if possible) erase the past and move forward from the atrocities of their shared history.  In the midst of this deliberation, the author presents us with a metaphor for the Armenian-Turkish rift in the form of dark and unspeakable family secrets.  Initially a bit annoyed by this tactic, I agreed to go along with it to see how the metaphor played out, hoping it would provide some insight into the author’s thoughts on the Turkish dilemma.  I’m very glad I did.  At first, the response left me perplexed, and that has made me appreciate the book all the more. With reflection, the parallels offered by the author become clearer: heinous crimes committed by youth and the moral obligation to punish those crimes at the expense of spoiling a glorious past and destroying a whole family. To try to move forward building ever higher on an artificial foundation can only lead to disaster and collapse.  Clearer, but not yet clear.  What good is punishment without public recognition of wrong-doing?  Is assisted suicide still suicide? This is a tale that gives the reader a lot to think about after the last page has been consumed (after which you will certainly go back and re-read some critical passages to make sure you really understood what just happened…). This is a historical fiction novel that is essential reading to understand the beginnings of an impasse that still plagues us today.  As an added bonus, it is a joy to read, and, strangely, hysterically funny in parts.    

And a CONFESSION:  I have been cheating on the Mediterranean with other non-Mediterranean countries.  It just happened.  But I’d be lying if I said that it was meaningless or that it won’t happen again.

MEXICO: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo (***)

SOUTH AFRICA:  J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (****)  

FINLAND: I have just started Arto Paasilinna’s “Le Cantique de l’Apocalypse Joyeuse” with the english title, “The Best Village in the World.”


Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor said...

More great things to add to my very long would like to read list :-) I'm particularly intrigued by The Bastard of Instanbul. I don't think I've ever read any Turkish literature. Cheers - Ellen