What the Day Owes the Night by Yasmina Khadra (Algeria)

Title: Ceea ce ziua datorează nopții

Author: Yasmina Khadra

Original title: Ce que le jour doit à la nuit

Original language: French

Rating: 4 out of 5

“Life is a train that stops at no stations; Either you jump abroad or stand on the platform and watch as it passes. ” 

“What there are things beyond our understanding, for the most part of the architects of our own unhappiness.” 

 “If you want your life to be a small part of eternity, to be lucid even in the heart of madness, love… Love with all your strength, love as it is all you know how to do, love enough to make the gods jealous themselves … for it is in love that all ugliness reveals its beauty. “

Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee (South Africa)

life and times Title: Life & Times of Michael K

Author: J. M. Coetzee

Original title: Life & Times of Michael K

Original language: English

Rating: 5 out of 5

“He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything, as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust”

When my mother was dying in hospital, he thought, when she knew her end was coming, it was not me she looked to but someone who stood behind me: her mother or the ghost of her mother. To me she was a woman but to herself she was still a child calling to her mother to hold her and help her. And her own mother, in the secret life we do not see, was a child too. I come from a line of children without end.

But most of all, as summer slanted to an end, he was learning to love idleness, idleness no longer as stretches of freedom reclaimed by stealth here and there from involuntary labour, surreptitious thefts to be enjoyed sitting on his heels before a flowerbed with the fork dangling from his fingers, but as a yielding up of himself to him, to a time flowing slowly like oil from horizon to horizon over the face of the world, washing over his body, circulating in his armpits and his groin, stirring his eyelids.

J.M. Coetzee is a South African novelist, critic and translator, noted for his novels about the effects of colonization. He won the Booker Prize twice (with Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace) and was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.

This book is about the slow thinking Michael K, a poor man with a harelip, who spent his childhood in institutions and works as a gardener. Michael’s mother becomes very sick and he decides to leave his job and carry his mother to her rural home. On the way there she dies, leaving him alone in a land torn by civil war. Imprisoned, Michael is unable to bear confinement and escapes, determined to live with dignity and freedom. I particularly liked Coetzee’s description of homelessness. For Michael K, homelessness is freedom.

I believe this book isn’t just the story of Michael who is trying to survive in a cruel world where he is alone, it is about our need for an interior, spiritual life, for some connections to the world in which we live, a sense of purpose.

I’m specially fond of this book and I believe it completely deserves every award it has received.

And if you’re thinking of reading Life and Times of Michael, make sure to read this amazing review:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/62461364

Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto (Mozambique)

Verandacufrangipani-pic

Title: Veranda cu frangipani

Author: Mia Couto

Original title: A Varanda do Frangipani

Original language: Portuguese

Translation from Portuguese to Romanian by Mioara Caragea

Rating: 4 out of 5

“Astăzi știu: Africa ne răpește ființa. Și ne golește în mod invers: umplându-ne de suflet. De aceea și astăzi simt dorința să incendiez câmpia. Ca să-și piardă eternitatea. Să nu mă mai obsedeze. Pentru că sunt un exilat, atât de surghiunit, încât nu mă mai simt rupt de nimic, nici despărțit de cineva. M-am dăruit acestei țări de parcă m-aș fi convertit la o religie. Acum nu-mi mai doresc decât să fiu o piatră pe acest pământ. Dar nu una oarecare, dintre cele pe care nimeni nu le calcă niciodată. Vreau să fiu o piatră la marginea drumului.”

“Privind ploaia curgând toată luna ianuarie, mă întrebam: cum știm că acest miros e al pământului, și nu al cerului?”

 

Happy belated New Year dear reader! It’s been a while since I’ve posted something here. During these months I’ve read many books, most of them were unrelated to my “Reading the world” project. But I enjoyed every reading that I had.

I’ve started this year with a story from Mozambique by Mia Couto. And I have to say that this short book (around 150 pages) was the perfect “come back” for my project.

I apologize for not posting the quote in English this time. I read the Romanian translation of this book and didn’t find the English version anywhere. Couto has a very special use of language that I didn’t want to destroy with an inexperienced translation.

Mia Couto is considered one of the most prominent writers in Portuguese-speaking Africa. His works have been published in more than 20 countries. After studying medicine and biology, he worked as a journalist and, for several years, headed the Mozambique News Agency. He has been awarded several
important literary prizes like the Camões Prize for Literature 2013, one of the most prestigious international awards honoring the work of Portuguese language writers. In April 2007, he became the first African author to win the prestigious Latin Union Award of Romanic Languages. In 2013 he was
awarded the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2014.

His writing is heavily influenced by magical realism, a style popular in modern Latin American literature. He is also known for his creativity with language. Within his novels, each phrase is like a short poem.

In “Under the frangipani”, Mia Couto tells the story of a murder, but rather than a whodunnit, it’s more like a who-didn’t.

The story is narrated by a dead man, Ermelindo Mucanga. He has died while working on the restoration of an old Portuguese slave fort and his body is buried under a frangipani tree. His death doesn’t upset him in any way. He is not melodramatic about it, but rather content. He doesn’t dream, but the
frangipani tree above him sometimes dreams of him. He has a pet ant-eater that lives with him and speaks to him in a kind of inner monologue as if it were his dog. He doesn’t remember much of his life, but that doesn’t bother him.

Decades after being dead, with the independence of his country, he is now considered a national hero and his mortal body is unearthed to be given a State Funeral. But he doesn’t want to be a hero, and he knows that if his body is moved, he’ll have to exist forever as a ghost. He seeks advice with a
pangolin, an animal that in Mozambican lore has supernatural powers, and is advised to enter the body of a detective investigating a murder in the fort and wait for him to die. The detective’s death is foretold and Ermelindo only has to wait six days before his new host dies and he can achieve peace again.

Izidine Naita, a police inspector from the capital, arrives at the fort island in a helicopter, to investigate the murder of Vastome, a mulato who was the director of what it is now something between a refuge and a prison for old people. The novel follows the six days of investigation in which he questions six residents, each one claming responsability for the murder and each one lying. Through the testimony of the aged inmates, the author brings up many aspects of Mozambique’s rich oral tradition, its folklore and myth, the historical and political aspects with and without the European occupiers, and their own racial and regional issues.

From the start, his task seems hopeless. Though an African by birth, he is young, and because he was educated in Europe, he has little practical experience with the culture of his people, he is more of an outsider to his own kind. He wants only the truth (or what his westernized expectations define truth to be), but what he gets is something quite different. As the story progresses, finding out who actually killed the director becomes less and less important. As one of the inmates puts it, “The crime that’s been committed here isn’t the one you’re trying to solve”. The confessions are a combination of African religious spiritualism, senile dementia and a game of seeing how much the outsider can be made to believe.

Just as the inmates carry Naita on a wild ride to the limits of their imaginations, Couto challenges our expectations by making us constantly question the nature of truth. One message that the author is trying to send is that those who try to master life are missing the point. As an inmate puts it, “What we discover in this life does not come as the result of searching for it.” Naita’s revelation and salvation is to learn to listen and to explore, gently and with humility. Our realization should be the same.

This was my first reading of Mia Couto, but I have the feeling that many more will follow.

 

The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola)

61uNp3ZoSsL

Title: The Book of Chameleons

Author: José Eduardo Agualusa

Original title: O Vendedor de Passados

Original language: Portuguese

Translation from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

Rating: 4 out of 5

The same thing happens to the soul as happens to water – it flows. Today it’s a river. Tomorrow, it will be the sea. Water takes the shape of whatever receives it. Inside a bottle it’s like a bottle. But it isn’t a bottle.

“Sometimes, she said, she could recognize a place just by the quality of the light. In Lisbon, the light at the end of spring leans madly over the houses, white and humid, and just a little bit salty. In Rio de Janeiro, in the season that the locals instinctively call ‘autumn’, and that the Europeans insist disdainfully is just a figment of their imagination, the light becomes gentler, like a shimmer of silk, sometimes accompanied by a humid grayness, which hangs over the streets, and then sinks down gently into the squares and gardens. In the drenched land of the Pantanal in Mato Grosso, really early in the morning, the blue parrots cross the sky and they shake a clear, slow light from their wings, a light that little by little settles on the waters, grows and spreads and seems to sing. In the forests of Taman Negara in Malaysia, the light is like a liquid, which sticks to your skin, and has a taste and a smell. It’s noisy in Goa, and harsh. In Berlin the sun is always laughing, at least during those moments when it manages to break through the clouds, like in those ecological stickers against nuclear power. Even in the most unlikely skies, Ângela Lúcia is able to discern shines that mustn’t be forgotten.”

 

José Eduardo Agualusa is an Angolan journalist and writer born in Huambo, back when the city was still named Nova Lisboa. Before embracing literature, he studied agronomy and silviculture in Lisbon, Portugal. He began his career by writing poetry and then later, he switched to stories and novels. He currently divides his time between Portugal, Angola and Brazil. Agualusa writes for a Portuguese magazine and an Angolan newspaper and hosts a radio program about African music and poetry on the channel RDP Africa. He is also a partner in a small publishing house in Brazil, Língua Geral, dedicated exclusively to Portuguese language authors.

Agualusa has been awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature for his novel “Creole” and was the first African writer to win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize award with his novel “The Book of Chameleons”.

“The Book of Chameleons” tells the story of Felix Ventura, an Angolan albino, who sells antique books and “invents dreams for people” – this is how he describes his job as a fabricator and seller of people’s pasts. The events are narrated by a gecko, Eulalio, who lives in Ventura’s house and once had a human form. Between the two protagonists, the albino and the gecko, there’s a strange connection, they interact with each other in dreams.

The story is not very complex; much of the lives of its characters is not revealed until the very end. For some people that might be a bit disappointing, but not for me. What’s really fascinating, and I would say the substance of this book, is its language. The writing style is simply beautiful, very poetic. The book is like a wonderful literary excursion.

Rather than a book with a story, a subject, this is more like a collection of thoughts and ideas about reincarnation, identity and change, memory, dreams and reality, as well as truth and lies.

The idea of reincarnation goes along very nicely with the quote from Jorge Luis Borges that opens the novel: “If I were to be born again, I’d like to be something completely different. I’d quite like to be Norwegian. Or Persian, perhaps. Not Uruguayan, though – that’d feel too much like just moving down the street”. The author himself admitted that the book was written in his honor and the chameleon is a reincarnation of Borges, all its recollections being related to actual events in Borges’ life.

I have read both the Romanian and the English translation of “The Book of Chameleons” and I had the feeling that the Romanian translation was somewhat closer to the original version. Besides that, it also keeps the original title of the book, “The Seller of Pasts” (in Romanian: “Vânzătorul de trecuturi”). I am not really against changing the name of a book when it would make more sense in the targeted language, and I like the metaphor that comes with the English title (people who change their pasts are chameleons), but in this case I would have preferred the original title.