An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter [2000/06] – ★★★★
A curious novella which is part travelogue, part biography, part historical fiction, part meditation on art, and part tribute to the beauty of Argentinian landscape.
What a landscape artist would be capable of doing for the love of art? Can they be capable of risking their life? What is human life in comparison to the eternity which is art?, they may ask. In today’s world of extravagant selfies, some taken in exotic locations and maybe even under relatively dangerous conditions, this short novella by Argentinian fiction writer César Aira may even feel ironically relevant again. Aira takes the real story of German landscape artist Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802 – 1858) and re-imagines one of the episodes from his life when Rugendas travelled as a documentary painter across tropical jungles and mountainous scenery of South America. César Aira’s 90 page-book surprises with its simplicity, humour and insights into the craft of an artist.
Continue reading “Review: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira” →
Crossing the Mangrove [1989/95] – ★★★★
The novel uncovers for us the very soul of Guadeloupe, beautiful, yes, but also as enigmatic, battered and toughened as the spirit of the central character.
Maryse Condé is an award-winning author from Guadeloupe, French overseas region, whose history, culture and tradition takes the centre stage in her book Crossing the Mangrove. In this simple narrative, written from multiple perspectives, the usual life of people in one small village of Rivière au Sel is shuttered by the arrival of one handsome and enigmatic man from Cuba – Francis Sancher. Little is known about this talkative stranger, but he soon manages to bring out the very best and the very worst in villagers, being showered with love and hate alike. And, then, his unnatural death raises even more questions than his life ever did. Vividly and poetically, Condé presents to us a small community in one forgotten village torn by passion, jealousy and hopelessness, with its people being as ready to move forward with life as content to settle into permanent inaction.
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This review is my contribution to the Novellas in November Reading Challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at BookishBeck.
Daisy Miller  – ★★★1/2
“Daisy…continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence” [Henry James, 1879: 44]. In this story, young and wealthy American living abroad Frederick Winterbourne becomes infatuated with Daisy Miller, an unmarried American girl touring Europe with her mother and brother. Daisy Miller is a bold and flirtatious girl who continues to mystify Winterbourne daily since their fateful meeting in Switzerland. Now, in Rome, Italy, Winterbourne’s puzzlement turns into true incredulity and then horror as he watches Daisy’s interactions with one handsome Italian Giovanelli. But who is Daisy Miller, really, and how “common” she really is and how “innocent”, or not? Henry James (The Turn of the Screw ) penned a novella which showcases the societal power of prejudice to the fullest, even if it also gives the feeling of being generic and predictable.
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Letter from an Unknown Woman  – ★★★★★
The opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference. This novella by an Austrian author, which was adapted into a major film of 1948 directed by Max Ophüls and starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, tells the story of a man who receives a strange letter one morning penned by one unknown-to-him woman. What this woman tells him is something much more than a mere confession. It is a soul-searching, gut-wrenching effort at personal liberation, a last cry to be finally understood in life and one fearful culmination of a life lived with one endless hope, a fruitless succession of attempts at happiness and one final tragic resignation. R. is a handsome man and a celebrated novelist who always had a lot of affection from women. The unknown woman is a dreamy and impressionable person from a much more modest family. What ties them together? From his point of view: three, very brief life episodes which can be counted by mere hours and which he forgot the moment they happened. From her point of view: absolutely everything, including three most important moments in her life, her whole world-view and the very point of her existence. Stefan Zweig wrote a powerful, sincere and moving account of one unrequited love and close examination of a person on the very fringes of another person’s life always looking in, hoping in vain to become a full-time participant.
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Fear and Trembling [1999/2001] – ★★
Belgian author Amélie Nothomb (Sulphuric Acid) is known for her short, thought-provoking books that often shock, but Fear and Trembling misses the mark. In this story, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, a young Belgian woman starts working for a prestigious Japanese company Yumimoto and soon finds herself overwhelmed: she is delegated meaningless, absurd and increasingly demeaning tasks, while her relationship with her immediate supervisor Fubuki Mori undergoes drastic changes – from deep admiration to extreme hate. While Nothomb’s deadpan satire on corporate culture works at the start of the book, her attempt to shockingly satirise the Japanese culture and the difficulty of the westerner to integrate into it is completely misguided. Thus, with Fear and Trembling, what starts as an intriguing and delicate satire soon turns into something bewildering, unfocused and ignorant, a strange, barely-hidden polemic on traditional female roles and Japan with some very needless and overly-shocking episodes. Continue reading “Review: Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb” →
Amulet [1999/2006] – ★★★★★
“…those who can see into the past never pay. But I could also see into the future and vision of that kind comes at a high price: life, sometimes, or sanity” [Roberto Bolaño, 1999/2006: 64].
Last year I had a goal to read a certain number of books by Asian authors (see my YARC), and so, this year, I set myself a similar goal, but, this time, I will travel to another part of the world and try to read as many books as possible by Latin American authors. I will begin my Latin America Reading Challenge with a short book by Chilean author Roberto Bolaño (1952 – 2003) titled Amulet. In this vivid “stream of consciousness” account, our narrator is Auxilio Lacouture, a woman from Uruguay and the “mother of Mexican poetry”. She works part-time at one university in Mexico City and at one point realises that her university (National Autonomous University of Mexico) is being surrounded by an army (event that happened two months before the infamous Tlatelolco massacre of 1968). Auxilio finds herself alone and hiding in the lavatory of the university as the army rounds up the staff and students. At that point she starts to recall her own past, talking to us about her dedication to nurturing the artistic talent of others. As time passes and her hunger and exhaustion increase, her account becomes increasingly hectic and imaginative. Amulet is an unusual novella with one unusual narrator at its heart, which is also strangely compelling as it tries to tell us the truth of the situation in the country and the state of Latin America’s literary talent and tradition through an unconventional and slightly dreamlike voice. Continue reading “Review: Amulet by Roberto Bolaño” →
Sulphuric Acid [2005/2007] – ★★★★
This book is by a Belgian author Amélie Nothomb, who was born in Japan, but now resides in Paris. Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside, Sulphuric Acid is a short novella which quite shockingly and darkly satirises our obsession with TV, in particular with reality television, and our idolisation of celebrities. Probably taking some inspiration from Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (1999), Sulphuric Acid is a dystopia-set story in which millions of people tune in every night for a TV programme called Concentration, which recreates a Nazi-style concentration camp with real participants. People in this programme take either the roles of guards or prisoners, with cameras catching their every move. Nothomb packs a lot of ideas into her novella of just over 120 pages, and she is very interested to explore human responses to some unthinkable situations, as we follow the main characters – a beautiful young woman Pannonique, one of the prisoners, and sadistic Zdena, one of the guards. Continue reading “Review: Sulphuric Acid by Amélie Nothomb” →
Shipwrecks [1982/96] – ★★★★★
Yoshimura’s observational novel is fascinating and subtly powerful, uncovering a different way of looking at life.
Shipwrecks is a short novel translated from the Japanese by Mark Ealey. It tells the story of one village in rural medieval Japan, following one boy Isaku, as his family struggles to get food essential for their survival. The village has numerous rituals, but one is particularly eerie: the village does everything it can to summon O–Fune-Sama (the Sea God) or shipwrecks to their coast. This phenomenon is often essential for the survival of the village (since ships carry the necessary food and other commodities), and Isaku and his family are always eagerly awaiting the season when O-Fune-Sama or shipwrecks occur. One day, such a ship does come to the shore where Isaku lives, but will it be a blessing or curse for the village? Those who like books with discernible plot points and fast-paced action should look elsewhere. Shipwrecks by Yoshimura is rather slow and contemplative as it follows day-to-day activities of one village that has one strange, but understandable desire. Continue reading “Review: Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura” →
The Hour of the Star  – ★★★★★
This short novella is probably Clarice Lispector’s finest achievement, one unusual story which is emotional, philosophical, brave and inventive.
This thought-provoking novella by Clarice Lispector was translated from Portuguese by Benjamin Moser. It is narrated by one man Rodrigo S.M. who tells the tale of Macabéa, an ordinary girl from the northeast, who tries to make ends meet living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The novella is very unusual because, before the narrator gets to the crux of the story, he spends quite some time musing on the task at hand – how to write this story (for example, should the writer undergo some “transformation” before writing?), and whether there is any point in doing so since fiction may never capture the real truth. Despite its short length, the book tells an immersive and emotional story, while the author, through her narrator, also meditates on human existence and the meaning of life. Continue reading “Review: The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector” →