Identity by Milan Kundera (Czech Republic)

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Title: Identitatea

Author: Milan Kundera

Original title: L’Identité

Original language: French

Rating: 5 out of 5

“Friendship is indispensable to man for the proper function of his memory. Remembering our past, carrying it around with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, with friends. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.”

“Anyhow, he asks himself, what is an intimate secret? Is that where we hide what’s most mysterious, most singular, most original about a human being? Are her intimate secrets what make Chantal the unique being he loves? No. What people keep secret is the most common, the most ordinary, the most prevalent thing, the same thing everybody has: the body and its needs, it maladies, its manias – constipation, for instance, or menstruation. We ashamedly conceal these intimate matters not because they are so personal but because, on the contrary, they are so lamentably impersonal. How can he resent Chantal, for belonging to her sex, for resembling other women, for wearing a brassiere and along with it the brassiere psychology? s if he didn’t himself belong to some eternal masculine idiocy! They both of them got their start in that putterer’s workshop where their eyes were botched with the disjointed action of the eyelid and where a reeking little factory was installed in their bellies. They both of them have bodies where their poor souls have almost no room. Shouldn’t they forgive that in each other? Shouldn’t they move beyond the little weaknesses they’re hiding at the bottom of drawers? He was gripped by an enormous compassion, and to draw a final lune under that whole story, he decided to write her one last letter.”

“Keep this in mind: it is our religion to praise life. The word “life” is the king of words. The king­word surrounded by other grand words. The word “adventure”! The word “future”! And the word “hope”! By the way, do you know the code name for the atomic bomb they dropped on Hiroshima? “Little Boy”! That’s a genius, the fellow who invented that code! They couldn’t have dreamed up a better one. Little boy, kid, tyke, tot – there’s no word that’s more tender, more touching, more loaded with future.”

Cel mai iubit dintre pământeni by Marin Preda (Romania)

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Title: Cel ma iubit dintre pământeni

Author: Marin Preda

Original title: Cel ma iubit dintre pământeni

Original language: Romanian

Rating:  3 out of 5

“Dispariţia iubirii e ca o oglindă întoarsă, nu se mai vede nimic, te uiţi zadarnic în ea. Gestul tău nu se mai reflectă, nu-i mai răspunde nimeni. Eşti singur.”

“Imbecilitatea şi prostia nu ocolesc în general pe nimeni, dar noi, românii, ne salvăm adesea luând-o în derâdere la ceilalţi şi acceptând cu humor că nici noi înşine nu facem excepţie. Rezultă o comedie care ne distrează pe toţi şi prin asta ne deosebim de alte popoare, fireşte, una dintre deosebiri…”

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

Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands by Jorge Amado (Brazil)

dona-flor-si-cei-doi-soti-ai-ei_1_fullsizeTitle: Dona Flor si cei doi soti ai ei

Author: Jorge Amado

Original title: Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos

Original language: Portuguese

Translation from Portuguese to Romanian by Laura Bădescu

Rating: 3 out of 5

“He is your outward face, I your inner, the lover whom you don’t know how and can’t bear to evade. We are your two husbands, your two faces, your yes and your no. To be happy you need both of us. When you had only me, you had love and lacked everything else, and how you suffered! When you had only him, you had everything, you lacked for nothing, and you suffered even more. Now you are Dona Flor, complete, as you should be.”

“On departing this for a better world, the aforementioned Gil, the nincompoop without any backbone, had left his family in a very tight spot, in a precarious situation. In his case the phrase ‘departing this for a better world’ is not just a cliché, but the literal truth. Whatever the mysteries that might await him in the beyond – a paradise of light, music, and glowing angels; a murky hell with boiling cauldrons; damp, limbo; circling through sidereal space; or nothing, simply not being – anything would be better by comparison than his life with Dona Rozilda.”

Jorge Amado is perhaps the most loved author in Brazil. His novels such as “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon”, “Tent of Miracles” or “Dona Flor and her Two Husbands” are classics of contemporary Brazilian literature, noted for evoking the people and customs of Amado’s native Bahia state, particularly its capital city, Salvador.

“Dona Flor and her Two Husbands” is, after “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon” probably the best known of Amado’s novels, some of its popularity having come from the success of the film version.

The novel is divided into five parts, each part recording a fragment of Dona Flor’s life. Four of these sections open with a culinary lesson taught by Dona Flor at her school and one opens with a program for a classical music concert in which Teodoro (Flor’s second husband) plays the bassoon.

The story begins with the sudden death of Flor’s husband, Vadinho, a lowlife, a gambler notorious for never winning, who collapses in the midst of Carnival celebrations. He passes away smiling while dancing the samba, dressed as a woman. Many townspeople attend Vadinho’s funeral, from politicians to prostitutes, and share their individual memories of him. He was joyful, extroverted, and full of life, but at the same time, he was also an unfaithful and abusive husband, a gambler, a scammer.

The second section narrates Flor’s deep mourning period through a series of flashbacks describing her life as a girl, Vadinho’s courtship of Flor and moments, good and bad, of their married life. Memories of her life with Vadinho haunt her at every turn. Now, with Vadinho gone, it seems as if she lies buried with him, and only the shell of Dona Flor remains, going through the motions of living. Not until she has pushed these memories aside is she able to resume her life. In a symbolic gesture at Vadinho’s grave, she lays a bouquet of flowers as a sign of her acceptance of his passing.

In the third section, although Flor is still in mourning, she has clearly become more independent and confident in her own abilities. She devotes herself to her cooking school and her friends, a group of old ladies, most of them widows, who urge her to remarry. Her sleep becomes increasingly agitated and consumed by desire and longing for Vadinho. By the end of this section, Flor attracts another admirer, Teodoro Madureira, a well-respected local pharmacist who is everything Vadinho was not (faithful, respectful, highly intelligent, introverted, and meticulous) and is happy to marry him.

The fourth section, the one that opens with Teodoro’s concert, begins with Flor and Teodoro’s honeymoon. Flor quickly realizes that Teodoro will never be able to take Vadinho’s place. Although he has all the good qualities of a husband and treats Flor very well and could provide for her and care for her in ways Vadinho never had, he is duller and more reserved. Especially in bed. Flor starts to miss the heat and passion that existed between her and her first husband.

In the last section of the novel, on the first anniversary of Flor and Teodoro’s marriage,Vadinho returns from the dead, as lusty as ever, to claim his marital rights. He is now a ghost, but has lost none of his old ways. After much interior conflict and resistance, torn between her attraction to the ghost and her desire to continue as the faithful wife of Teodoro, who has no idea what is going on, Flor accepts her new condition and lives “happily ever after” with the living Teodoro and the dead Vadinho.

Dona Flor is a perfect example of the classic theme for women in Latin American literature: Mary vs Eve. You’re either a saintly virgin or a despicable whore, with no grey area in between. But it seems like an awful lot of pages to illustrate this point. I felt that there are multiple chapters that could have quite easily been left out. The story is too predictable and could have been easier to read had the plot been richer. Not that it’s a bad book, but it didn’t really hit the spot for me. And after 500 pages, any book that didn’t really grab you, seems like a chore.

I’m not sure why the actual experience of reading the book was not that great. It does have all the clichés you’d hope for from a great Brazilian story-teller: it starts with a character dying unexpectedly during carnival while dancing, and the whole book is full of gamblers and whores; serenades, social satire, sex and food; but, like someone said in a review that I was reading, “It’s like being stranded on an island with an uncle who loves telling stories. At first, it’s interesting and funny, but after a while, it just gets to be too much”. Sadly, at one point I’ve reached the “too much” phase as well.

Under the Frangipani by Mia Couto (Mozambique)

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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)

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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.

 

Broken April by Ismail Kadaré (Albania)

9780099449874Title: Broken April

Author: Ismail Kadaré

Original Title: Prilli i Thyer

Original Language: Albanian

Translation from Albanian by New Amsterdam Books

Rating: 4 out of 5

“His suspicion that he was not going in the right direction tormented him more and more. At last he had the conviction that he would never go anywhere but in the wrong direction, to the very end of the handful of days that was left to him, unhappy moonstruck pilgrim, whose April was to be cut off short.”

“Two or three times it occurred to Gjorg that all these men had killed, and that each had his story. But those stories were locked deep within them. It was not just chance that in the glow of the fire their mouths, and even more their jaws, looked as if they had the shape of certain antique locks.”

 

I was about to write my review of “Chronicle in Stone” a couple of days ago. That was before Ismail Kadaré became my new craze and I decided to read more of his writings. This is how I found this literary gem, “Broken April”. Although “Chronicle Stone” is an amazing book, full of witty humor, I felt a stronger connection with “Broken April” because it arose in me many more feelings than the first one did.

I liked the dark, cold and mistful atmosphere and how Kadaré describes the feelings that reflect on people’s faces.

Although I was born and lived most of my life in an Eastern European country (which is why I can understand very well the intricate humor of “Chronicle in Stone”), I admit to not knowing much about Albania before this literary journey. While “Chronicle in Stone” sets Albania in the beginning of World War II, “Broken April” is out of time, you’re not quite sure where you are in terms of history.

The book tells the story of Gjorg Berisha, a young man in his twenties, living on the high Albanian plateau, who, after his brother is killed by a neighbor, is forced to commit a murder under the laws of the Kanun and then be killed by a member of the opposing family, as part of a seventy-year old blood feud between the two families. After shooting his brother’s killer, young Gjorg is entitled to thirty days’ grace, not enough to see out the month of April.

The Kanun is a set of traditional Albanian laws that existed only in oral form and was first written by the prince Lekë Dukagjini in the 15th century. It has been used mostly in northern and central Albania and surrounding areas – Yugoslavia, where there’s a large ethnic Albanian population; Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. The code applies to both Christian and Muslim Albanians.

The Kanun dictates many facets of the mountainous life. An important part deals with how murder is supposed to be handled, which often in the past and sometimes still now leads to blood feuds (gjakmarrje) that last until all the men of the two involved families are killed (yes, you’ve read that correctly… not one, but all the men). Women are only seen as producers of offspring and are not considered worthy targets. These rules have resurfaced during the nineties in Northern Albania, since people had no faith in the local government and police. There are organizations that try to mediate between feuding families, but often the only resort is for men of age to stay in their homes, which are considered a safe refuge by the Kanun, or flee the country. There are many famous examples of men that tried to do that, but to back down from a blood feud brings dishonor upon the family. And gjakmarrje is about honor rather than vengeance.

According to the Kanun, the guest is seen like a demigod, like a sacred being. “A mountaineer’s house, before being his home and the home of his family, is the home of God and of guests”. He’s shown the highest respect and given the best the family has to offer. In Gjorg’s family, the blood feud had its origin in the killing of one of their guests by a member of another clan, at the borders of the village. According to the code, if the victim falls with his face towards the village, the duty of revenge lies upon his host, while if he falls away from the village, it is upon his family. The victim had fallen with his face to the village and so, over the last seventy years, the young men of both families have killed one after another in sequence, in accordance with the rules of the Kanun.

On a second plan, “Broken April” tells a bittersweet love story. Diana and Bessian, a honeymoon couple, visit the plateau. Diana and Gjorj, although their eyes meet only for a short moment, fall for each other. Diana becomes a mountain nymph or fairy, while Gjorg finds, through love, hope in his last days.

I absolutely loved this book and with it, Kadaré has occupied a high place on my list of favorite writers.

The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat (Iran)

polirom-bufnita-oarba-4aaebf81dfcb2Title: Bufniţa Oarbă

Author: Sadegh Hedayat

English Title: The Blind Owl

Original title: بوف کور

Original language: Persian

Translation from Persian to Romanian by Gheorghe Iorga

Rating: 4 out of 5

“I write only for the benefit of my shadow on the wall. I need to introduce myself to it.”

“In this damp bed smelling of sweat, when my eyelids grew heavy and I was about to surrender to nonexistence and eternal night, all my lost memories and forgotten fears came to life: fear that the feathers in the pillow might turn to blades of daggers, that the button on my bed-clothes might grow as big as a millstone, that the piece of bread which falls to the floor might shatter like a piece of glass. I was apprehensive that should I fall asleep, the oil in the tallow burner might spill over and cause the whole city to go up in flames. The compulsive thought that the paws of the dog in front of the butcher shop might echo like the sound of the hoofs of a horse. Nagging fear that the rag-and-bone dealer sitting at his display might suddenly begin to laugh, a laughter that he could no longer control. I was afraid that the worm in the footpath of our pond might become a serpent, and that my quilt might become a tombstone with hinges that would slide and lock its marble teeth and bury me alive. I was afraid that I might lose my voice and no matter how much I screamed, nobody would come to my help.”

 

I’ve been trying to gather a few words about this book over the past few weeks but, after you read a book like “The Blind Owl”, it feels like words have lost their meaning.

Gheorghe Iorga has worked on the Romanian translation over a long period of time, starting in 1978, until 1996. In his well worth reading foreword, he writes about the evolution of the persian literature from poetry to modern fiction.

Sadegh Hedayat was one of the three fathers of Persian fiction (the other two were Mohammad-Ali Jamālzādeh and Mohammad Hejazi) and the sole father of modernist Persian literature. He was born into an aristocratic family in Tehran and grew up during a turbulent time in the history of Iran. Hedayat was educated first in Tehran and then studied dentistry, architecture and engineering in France and Belgium. After coming into contact with the leading intellectual figures of Europe, Hedayat abandoned his studies and dedicated his life to studying Western literature and to learning Iranian folklore and history. He has often been compared by the critics to Kafka and Poe. I cannot compare his writings with anyone’s because I don’t know and can’t imagine anything like it. The only thing that its strangeness reminded me of was David Lynch’s movies.

“The Blind Owl” has been subsequently banned for at least a decade in Iran (there was a wave of suicides after its been published) and seems to have been a taboo novel for even longer.

It is not an easy book to read. It’s dark, disturbing and yet strangely attractive. It is a poisonous and often hallucinatory novel, a book of obsessions, either narcotic or female related. The dialogue is inexistent, replaced by a monologue that oscillates between hysteria, madness, paranoia, agony and satisfaction, ecstasy.

It is difficult to tell when the events described are veiled by an opium-induced altered state of consciousness, are just a madman’s dream or are real. Some of the narrated events are terrifying nonetheless (an example is the outrageous test his mother demanded his father and his father’s twin-brother subject themselves to), but it’s the manner in which they are described that’s frightening. The images are surreal and the repetitions are hypnotic. There is a series of characters, images, objects, sounds, feelings which are visited again and again by the protagonist. The importance of these (if there is any) is never really explained and we are left wondering and forced to find our own (most certainly wrong) conclusions.

The obsessive presence of women (in different roles) in this book is symbolic. The narrator who is seeking confirmation of identity is desperate for the eyes or the face that can respond to him in order to confirm his being. When the narrator cannot find such confirmation, his life is hollow. The woman problem becomes the problem of existence and meaninglessness.

In the first part of the book, the woman is an angelic presence – the loved woman – who draws the narrator in with her beauty and gives him a reason to live. The sexual contact brings nothingness, destroys the dream and the innocence and the narrator is left in his arms with a rotting corpse. Later, the woman as a wife (referred with the appellative whore) is the cunning, perverse woman. She can’t be (sexually) touched. The woman also appears as a mother or a foster-mother. But she’s always hard to reach, seems to be unattainable.

Another character, always present next to a woman, is the old man with a dirty, grotesque appearance that destroys any beautiful dream.

It is said that the owls feed on the souls of the dying. At the level of unconscious, there is a fear of sex as “eating” and being eaten. When things are eaten, they disappear; therefore, one goes out of existence. Instead of being eaten, he dreams of eating the woman, of making her disappear.

Sadegh Hedayat committed suicide in 1951, following the example of his character in “The Blind Owl” (although the latter dies only spiritually).

There is much more to this novel than what I have just wrote. “The Blind Owl” offers a perpetual assault on the reader’s imagination and this commentary could go on for hours, but I will leave it up to you to experience your own reaction to the the author’s words.

The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi (Afghanistan)

The Patience Stone by Atiq RahimiTitle: The Patience Stone

Author: Atiq Rahimi

Original title: Syngué Sabour

Original language: French

Translation from French by Polly McLean

Rating: 4 out of 5

 “A fly sneaks into the heavy hush of the room. Lands on the man’s forehead. Hesitant. Uncertain. Wanders over his wrinkles, licks his skin. No taste. Definitely no taste.

The fly makes its way down into the corner of his eye. Still hesitant. Still uncertain. It tastes the white of the eye, then moves off. It isn’t chased away. It resumes its journey, getting lost in the beard, climbing the nose. Takes flight. Explores the body. Returns. Settles once more on the face. Clambers onto the tube stuffed into the half-open mouth. Licks it, moves right along it to the edge of the lips. No spit. No taste. The fly continues, enters the mouth. And is engulfed.”

 

I’m not sure whether I should look for any symbol into that, but a couple of years ago, when I moved from my homeland to my adoptive country, I was starting my journey with an Afghan writer, Khaled Hosseini and “The Kite Runner”. Now I’m embarking on this new adventure with another Afghan writer, Atiq Rahimi and “The Patience Stone”.

Atiq Rahimi is both a writer and a filmmaker. He was born in Afghanistan, but fled to Pakistan and later to France during the Soviet invasion. Since then he has been primarily residing in France. Besides writing, he produced a couple of documentaries for the French television, as well as several commercials. He also created Afghanistan’s first soap opera. Rahimi speaks French, his native language being Dari, a dialect of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He used French for this novel rather than Dari, and that made it easier for him – later, the author admitted that a kind of involuntary self-censorship and an unconscious shame that dwells in Afghan society prevented him from expressing himself in his maternal language.

“The Patience Stone” tells the story of a nameless Afghan woman who takes care of her comatose husband. When the novel begins she has been sitting there, beside her man, for sixteen days without any other sign of life other than his breath.

The entire story unfolds in a single room, in a movie-like narrative style. Although the man is severely injured and cannot speak or move, being supposedly unconscious, the entire book is written from his perspective, what he would see and hear if he were conscious. We hear sounds, including the sound of war, whispers, footsteps from outside of the room. But none of them interrupt the man’s breathing, which serves as a unit of measurement for time.

The woman begins to talk and the man becomes her Sang-e Saboor. In Persian folklore, Sang-e Saboor is the name of a magical black stone, a patience stone, which absorbs the grief of those who confide in it.

As the story progresses, she’s opening up her deepest desires, pains, and secrets to him, things that she couldn’t have shared with him if he would have been awake. She shares childhood memories, tells him how she and her sisters were deprived of affection. She remembers how they’ve come to be married, how she was engaged at age seventeen to a man she had never seen and then married in absentia. She talks about their loveless sex life.

The Patience Stone, silent, takes it all in.

Through her monologue, Rahimi offers an insight into Afghan women’s lives. She speaks of sexual desire, of obedience, war and honor in a conservative society. Rahimi’s Afghan woman is not an asexual, maternal, saintly figure, but an ordinary woman, filled with emotions and desires and unable to express herself and to be understood.

What happens to the Patience Stone in the end? It is believed that the day it explodes, after having received too much hardship and pain, will be the Judgement Day, and the day when man and woman will be set free from their suffering forever.

The book’s ending mirrors this myth quite well.

More I think about it, this small book was the perfect book to start my literary journey with.

Hello world

A couple of years ago I’ve started to collect bookmarks from countries all over the world. Ever more often, I found myself wanting to know more about the people living in those places, their stories, their emotions and their cultures. Collecting bookmarks just wasn’t enough, although my collection will accompany me on my next adventure.

One day, I had the idea of traveling by books, of reading a book from each country. “That’s pretty cool”, I told myself. “You sit in an armchair in your cozy home and you can travel in any place in the world with your mind”. I found Ann Morgan’s blog and found that she did this amazing journey in only one year. I don’t have her ambition and I don’t have that much time at my disposal. To be honest I don’t know if I want this journey to be over so soon. But her achievement inspired me, and I’ve started this personal project.

Now, the term “country” might be a bit ambiguous to some people. Although they are not sovereign states, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland are referred to as separate countries, even though together they form the country known to the world as the United Kingdom. What I refer to as country is an independent state recognized by the United Nations (currently 196 countries). Later, I might include on my list other (more or less controversial) regions or ethnic groups, but the reading of those 196 is my main goal.

My path is not yet completely clear; there are a lot of empty spots on my reading list. I invite you, reader, to help me fill in the gaps. For any recommendation, you can write me an email to wundor.ki at gmail dot com or you can leave a comment on this website.

Since I’ve written this on the 19th of December, I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year, filled with joy, beautiful people and… books.