Friday, 8 April 2016

Update 4: A Year of Reading the Med

This month’s reads were a mixed bag that left me rather depressed.  For the next round, I’m going to have to focus on countries and novels that don’t feature repressive regimes or war dramas.  I’m not sure I’ll be out of these woods anytime soon with countries like Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro still on my list. To take a break from the Med, I’ve recently plunged into the modern Chinese Classic Wild Swans by Jung Chang.  It features repressive regimes AND war dramas. Sigh.  

A reminder of my star system:
* = don’t bother
** = okay 
*** =  good 
**** = excellent !

EGYPT:  The Map of Love: A Novel by Ahdaf Soueif.  ***1/2
Short-listed for the 1999 Man Booker Prize.  A true historical fiction novel with equal doses of history and fiction.  The Map of Love (frankly, the novel deserves a better name…) weaves two multi-cultural love stories across time into the tapestry of Egyptian history from Turkish occupation and the Anglo-Egyptian war to 1998.  The story focuses on a young American woman and her Egyptian cousin who piece together the history of their grandmothers and great grandmothers (English and Egyptian) through letters and diaries while living through their own mixed-culture crises.  Through the letters, the story and Anglo-Egyptian history unfold in first-person narratives of several characters, and, in a few confusing bits that seem to have escaped a good editor, by an omniscient author. While the first-person accounts allow us to get to know several characters in depth, the shift in time and voice is often confusing. That said, the story is so engaging that we quickly forgive the annoyance of having to stop to make sure who is speaking.  There were generous doses of true history that other reviews have called “gently nationalist” or “sensitive”.  One of the reasons I embarked on this adventure of Reading the Med was to read Mediterranean authors, not western authors writing about Med countries, and so I greatly appreciated Soueif’s views.  However, the old novel-writing advice of “show, don’t tell” wasn’t always respected.  History should be woven in a living and transparent way into the story as much as possible; otherwise, you just end up with a group of characters sitting around the table discussing the ideas the author wants to get across.  While some important episodes of history (such as the Denshawai incident) are neatly treated, others are dealt with by having characters sit around a table and discuss points of view of history and culture.  It’s still interesting for readers (like me) who have very little background in Egyptian history, but it does make the novel feel a bit choppy and unconnected in spots.  But if you’re a reader like me, you’re not likely to go looking for Anglo-Egyptian history on your own or to stumble onto it accidently, so do yourself a favour and combine the enjoyable with the useful.  Read The Map of Love.      

SLOVENIA: That Night, I Saw Her by Drago Jancar. ***
Winner of France’s Best Foreign Book Prize 2014 written by one of Slovenia’s most popular authors.  This haunting mystery is a portrait of an enigmatic free-spirited young woman in the middle of a war whose refusal to accept the interpersonal changes that war imposes leads to her disappearance.  The backdrop, the Balkans of World-War II, plays an important role in the story, where friend and foe are brought together in close proximity, sometimes within the same family, and where allies and nazis and communists and partisans create a confusion of affiliations that makes it impossible to know who the good guys are. The author intentionally leaves the reader to flounder in this confusion, a confusion that our heroine rejects by treating people as individuals rather as members of a group. Too na├»ve to realize that she will not be judged with the same tolerance, her multiple affiliations lead to her disappearance. The author tells her story though the eyes of 5 witnesses, each of whom only knows a part of her story and the role they played in her final days.  It is a beautifully-crafted novel that exposes the tragedy and complexity of 20th century Balkan history, and a story that has left me utterly depressed, but perhaps a bit more informed about the horrors of war away from the front lines.

SYRIA and LIBYA: The Future Arab: A Childhood in the Middle East (book 1: 1978-1984, book 2: 1984 – 1985) by Riad Sattouf. **1/2   Sattouf’s auto-biographical graphic novel about growing up blond in the Libya of Kadhafi and the Syria of Hafez Al-Assad was awarded the Prize for Best Album at the International Festival of Bande Dessinee in 2015, and was the 5th most widely-translated French book of 2014.  These autobiographical graphic novels about growing up in a repressive society will remind you of the brilliant work of Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis fame.  It suffers in comparison, however, since it is neither laugh-out-loud nor particularly moving.  Sattouf was born to a Syrian father and French (Breton !) mother and these books recount his childhood growing up in countries trying to establish Arab socialist regimes. It is entertaining and educational in a way that sometimes only graphic novels can be… memorable but without feeling like you’ve been hit over the head with “a message.”  If you only want a light introduction to the culture, this may be a good choice.  But if you want something more poignant and profound from Libya, read Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men (see Update 3).

And for heaven’s sake, after this round of depressing novels, go read Arto Paasilina’s The Year of the Hare.  This Finish feel-good masterpiece is a marvelous antidote to all these heavy dramas.


Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor said...

Reading a graphic novel sounds really interesting. My sister is a big fan of them and I've read a few of hers when visiting and quite liked them. But, because I read mostly on my Kindle these days, I'm not sure how well that would work.

Cheers - Ellen

Sailing Mareda said...

Graphic novels certainly have the ability to convey a story in a different way. The one I remember most is Maus I and II. No matter how often you read about the holocaust, seeing "cartoon" images and symbolism is very moving. But I agree whole-heatedly, our dear kindles fall short here !