Home Fire- Kamila Shamsie

This brilliant novel by Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year 2018. It is known for its reworking of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone and its prescience: we read about one of the main characters, Karamat Lone, a British born Muslim, becoming Home Secretary just as Sajid Javid is appointed Home Secretary in April of this year. I  chose not to remind myself of the Antigone story before reading and I do think the plot and ideas can stand by themselves as a story of our time- a story about family, love, loyalty and justice- but I will go back to the Antigone connections at the end of this post.

The novel starts with Isma, a young British Muslim woman missing her plane to the States because she’s subjected to an intrusive search and interrogation at Heathrow. We are immediately plunged into a world where to be a Muslim means to be under suspicion, singled out, the object of discrimination. Isma is going to the States to undertake graduate work. We learn that this is a longed-for dream which she’s only now able to realise: for the past several years she’s been bringing up her younger brother and sister, the twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz as their mother and father are both dead. Rather lonely in a biting cold east coast US town, Isma is pleased to run into Eamonn, a young British man of Pakistani origin, who’s in the US visiting his maternal grandparents. Isma already knows his background: he’s the son of Karamat Lone, a controversial MP for the North London Muslim community. Karamat Lone has been highly critical of mosques as gender-segregated spaces and as such is seen to be discarding the traditions of his community in his keenness to emphasise his own integration into British life. News arrives that he’s just been appointed Home Secretary. Through Isma’s Skype conversations with her sister, Aneeka, we realise that their brother, Parvaiz, has disappeared, that the sisters don’t know exactly where he is, but we, the readers, start guessing when Isma refers to ‘this madness he’s joined’.

The novel is narrated from the different points of view of the main characters. We go next to London and Eamonn’s section. His father made money in business before coming an MP and marrying a successful American businesswoman and Eamonn and his sister have enjoyed all the privileges of a middle class, now secular, British upbringing. Eamonn is ‘having a year off’ and now home from the US, Eamonn delivers a package from Isma to her Aunty Naseem and meets and falls in love with Aneeka. They embark on a love affair and Eamonn is truly smitten, but it becomes clear that Aneeka has another agenda- she wants Eamonn to intervene with his father to bring Parvaiz home. Karamat Lone is outraged at this idea and forbids his son to see Aneeka.

The different narrative viewpoints assist characterisation in letting us into the preoccupations and back story of each character- and for me the most powerful is Parvaiz’s story. He’s finished school, and while his twin sister Aneeka goes off to university to study law, he’s not sure what he wants to do, so works in the local fruit and veg shop while making sound recordings at night. His aimlessness is reinforced when Isma gets funding to go to the States, they decide to rent out the family home and the family effectively breaks up. He’s at a vulnerable and susceptible moment in his life and this is exploited by Farooq, who grooms him cleverly and carefully with the result that he leaves for Syria to work for the ISIS media. He experiences the tyranny and cruelty of that regime and is desperate to come home- the writer’s account of his and other young people’s experiences there is heartbreaking and one cannot feel anything but pity for the many young people who are manipulated along this path.

But pity is not in it for Karamat Lone, who, in the denouément of the novel, has a crucial part to play. Both his wife Terry and Isma make a plea for compassion and Isma describes Parvaiz’ slide into radicalism like this:

We saw something was happening, my sister and I. We thought it was some kind of secret affair, his first time in love. In a way it was. What else explains a person being turned inside out in the space of just a few weeks.

For Karamat Lone the issue is maintaining the British government hard line on dual nationals who go to support ISIS- stripping them of their British nationality so they cannot reenter, or showing compassion for the young people who are caught up in the drama including his own son, whom he adores. ( The nationality issues are more complex than this, but more detail would spoil).

So Kamila Shamsie in this story explores issues of loyalty-what does it mean to be loyal to your country, your family and group, your religion- in the very contemporary context of being a British Muslim or British of Pakistani origin? She shows us how this plays out in the lives of ordinary people- the four young people here-but also questions what this means for people in authority through the character of Karamat Lone, whose morals and motivation are at best ambivalent. We know he’s turned his back on the religion he was brought up in-in the name of British secular values? Or merely to gain populist support and to maintain his position of power? Does he actually believe in anything? And here we can touch base with Antigone, for he is the Creon of the piece, the wicked tyrant on whose watch these things happen according to the law, but not according to justice.

After reading the novel I had a quick look at the Antigone story and enjoyed Natalie Haynes’ review of Home Fire which refers to Jean Anouilh’s more modern reworking of Antigone. It’s interesting to compare plot and character, but I do think there’s so much of our contemporary world in this novel, so economically conveyed, so cleverly plotted, that it can be enjoyed without necessarily engaging too much with Antigone, if you don’t feel like it. Sort of in the spirit of sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. This is a fantastic novel and the deserved winner of the Women’s Prize.

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Die Liebe unter Aliens by Terezia Mora

I really enjoyed this latest collection of short stories by the Hungarian born German writer Terezia Mora, who has just this year, 2018, been awarded the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize for German-language literature. The protagonists of these stories are often loners, people living on the edge, often yearning for closeness and connection but living fragile and precarious existences.  In Selbstbildnis mit Geschirrtuch, the Polish protagonist lives on the edge of a Swiss city with her boyfriend Felix, rushing between cleaning jobs and terrified of falling foul of the Swiss police. In das Geschenk oder die Göttin der Barmherzigkeit a newly retired professor of Japanese in Berlin falls hopelessly in love with the Japanese manageress of a dry cleaning firm, after glimpsing her once through the window. In die Liebe unter Aliens, Tim is completely smitten with his girlfriend, Sandy, but is so enslaved to her that his rushing out of work on the dot of Feierabend to see her puts his job at risk.

The feeling that lives are precarious and temporary is in some cases linked to the provisionality of the protagonists’ work lives. Refreshingly, the characters in the collection come from a wide range of social backgrounds and some are just hanging on in there to whatever work or training place they have. In Ella Lamb in Müllinger the young protagonist is juggling her work at a photographer’s studio with commuting home every weekend to visit her baby son-we learn that she’s started other work placements which she’s given up. In die Gepard- Frage the protagonist has been urged by family to apply for a job as a Beamter- civil servant- inviting much poking of fun at the convoluted and bureaucratic mindset of that world. It’s not just the less well educated characters who feel out of place or out of sorts at work: in die portugiesische Pension a spoilt and lazy only son prefers to run his parents’ pension than work as a lawyer for which he has just about qualified and the Japanese professor in das Geschenk, adrift in retirement, fantasises about writing creatively rather than on academic matters.

Terezia Mora really excels at evoking the solitary inner thought processes of her most lonely protagonists. In Perpetuum mobile  the single father, obsessed with timing, is irritated that he has arrived 15 minutes early for his appointment and ponders on what the rest of the world does when it has to wait. In A la recherche, the young Hungarian postgraduate student in London takes ever longer walks to cope with being alone. The writer uses their inner ruminations to give us some back story to the characters, which she does with the concision and deftness of the best short story writer, but also uses their preoccupations to unsettle and unnerve us. I found Perpetuum mobile the most unsettling story with its angry protagonist and after finishing it, found myself going back to those one or two sentences where he’s admiring the beauty of the lithe young people at the climbing wall.

My favourite stories were those where the narrative viewpoint switched, giving us a different take on events. In Ella Lamb in Müllinger we understand her boss’s irritation when this young woman turns up for work barely on time and half asleep. Yet we sympathise with her spending her weekends on trains between her parents’ home, where her son lives, and her own. And her mother for all her sprudelnde Mutterschaft -effervescent motherliness-regularly takes to her bed during the weekend- full time care of her grandson may not have been part of her retirement plan. Relations between parents and children are explored or touched on in several stories. Another favourite is the title story die Liebe unter Aliens for this reason too: Tim’s boss, Eva, takes a motherly interest in him and, as she drives off to the coast alone one day, her husband refusing to come, we learn a little about her compromised marriage and her loss.

A further pleasure is the range of nationalities and languages found in the stories. Characters are away from their homeland for a range of reasons: study for the conventionally successful academic in London, casual hourly paid work for the Polish cleaner in Switzerland. There is an awareness of quite subtle differences in family culture and culture in general and an awareness of hierarchy between languages and culture. Yet this is indicated with a light touch as befits our 21st century Europe where young people in particular from a range of backgrounds are living and working away from their homeland.

This is a great collection: the elegance of language and structure, concision and light touch let the characters and their lives linger in the mind for some time after reading. If you like short stories and read German this collection is for you- and is definitely deserving of translation into English right away.

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Reading about dementia.

Sooner or later someone close to you will become ill with Alzheimer’s or dementia. This may be an older person or it may be someone in their fifties or sixties. In either case you will experience your loved one changing- you may feel, as I did, that they are drifting away. I’ve been reading about dementia over the past few years to try to understand the progress of the illness and to think about how best to help. These are four books which have deepened my understanding and informed me, I hope, about how to be a helpful friend to someone living with dementia.

Keeping Mum by Marianne Talbot-when Marianne Talbot’s mum is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s she goes to live with Marianne and this is an account by Marianne of the rewards and frustrations of those five years of having her mum living with  her. The book is down to earth and accessible and contains lots of practical advice about what to do as regards money and property in this situation. Remarkably, for me, Marianne was able to carry on working part time during this period while her mother went to a Day Care centre- this was probably hugely helpful as a respite from caring. Of course when thinking of Alzheimer’s one of our greatest fears is the thought of our loved ones no longer recognising us. There is a great moment in Keeping Mum when Marianne’s brother comes to visit. Her mum flings her arms around him, saying I don’t know who you are but I know that I love you.

The Old King in his Exile by Arno Geiger, translated by Stefan Tobler for And Other Stories- I’ve reviewed this book in detail previously here. It’s a moving account by Austrian writer Arno Geiger of his father’s decline with Alzheimer’s and taught me a lot about the first signs of the disease as well as making me think about how to respond to someone with Alzheimer’s. Looking back, Arno Geiger sees that the disease was starting shortly after his father retired: he became uncharacteristically uninterested in household projects and withdrew socially, preferring to spend his time playing patience and watching TV. When he was more obviously ill later on he was often restless and would ask to go home, though he was in the house he’d loved and cared for all his life. The account is movingly written- Arno Geiger is an acclaimed novelist- and sensitively translated by Stefan Tobler.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. This is a novel told from the point of view of Maud who at the beginning of the book is forgetful and confused- it seems that she has some sort of dementia or Alzheimer’s and the daily problems that arise as a result are told in detail. She is anxious about her friend Elizabeth who appears not to be at home and her search for Elizabeth drives the novel while a second narrative strand tells a story from the long distant past about her sister who goes missing and is never found. The writer cleverly and convincingly conveys what the world looks like from Maud’s point of view and the details of, for example, the doctor’s appointment where she is diagnosed, suggest that the writer has been close to someone living with dementia. This book has some bitter sweet  moments where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Somebody I used to know by Wendy Mitchell with Anna Wharton. This is an amazing account of Wendy Mitchell’s experience of young- onset dementia. Diagnosed at 58 when she was still working in a responsible job for the NHS the book relates how the illness completely overturned her life- but also how she rises to cope and to live with it. She gets involved with groups locally, becomes an advocate and speaker on dementia locally and nationally and continues to live independently through developing strategies to cope. Being computer literate has been enormously helpful here- when she moved house Wendy wondered how she would remember what was in her kitchen cupboards. So she took a photo of the contents of each cupboard, printed it off on her computer and stuck it on the front of each cupboard as an aide-memoire! Now, it’s clear that  Wendy was an extremely independent and practical person before she became ill which must have helped her to devise strategies. Not everyone can do this. But I liked the fact that the book is not just a catalogue of success. Wendy emphasises something I have often heard-that there are good and bad days and the bad days are truly awful. This account is honest and courageous and an incredibly inspiring read.

Thank you so much to everyone who is writing about dementia and Alzheimer’s. Thanks too to Radio 4 which introduced me to at least 2 of these books. I do feel that the more we share our experiences and feelings, the more we can help our loved ones living with dementia. These books have been a lifeline for me at times. I hope this blog post will pass this on.


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All that glitters is not gold… Alles was glaenzt by Marie Gamillscheg.

This debut novel by the Austrian writer Marie Gamillscheg Alles was glänztspoke to me as soon as I heard it was about a former mining community in decline: I’ve hugely enjoyed reading accounts of mining communities in novels by Ralph Rothmann and Anja Kampmann and I’ve witnessed myself the demise of coal mining in our very own South Yorkshire. However, this novel is set not in a coal mining area but in an area of Austria where iron ore was extracted, probably the Steiermark, which offers a different range of imaginative possibilities for the writer. Marie Gamillscheg combines lyrical descriptions of the iridescent colours of the iron ore deep in the mountain’s seam with an account of a community’s response to change- and has produced a novel which is both moving and thought provoking- with the occasional flash of humour.

The novel begins with a description of the run down village with its abandoned empty houses and the Schaubergwerk– a kind of museum or show mine- where the son et lumière no longer functions as the place needs rewiring and the mayor fears a catastrophic rockfall if improvements are undertaken. Against this background a young villager, Martin, is killed in a car accident when his car overshoots a bend on the winding road down the mountain. As the villagers try to make sense of their loss, an outsider arrives. He is Merih, a Regional Manager, and his job is to regenerate the village by persuading the remaining villagers to move from their homes in the miners’ housing development to the centre of the village.

The story is narrated by four different characters. We have the teenager, Teresa, whose sister was going out with Martin. She is desperate to leave the village to go to Music School in the city, fantasises about a future with Merih and her narrative is sprinkled with the adolescent’s concerns with body image. Susa is an older woman who runs the Espresso bar and pension and as such has her finger on the pulse of everything going on in the village and resents newcomers seeking change. Wenisch is a retired miner and chronicler of mining machinery for the museum. He lives alone, his only daughter having moved away and in the course of the story his health declines. Martin lived next door to him and their last meeting nags at him constantly. The fourth voice is that of Merih, the ebullient but naive Regional Manager, who observes the desolation of the village centre with its abandoned housing and littered cobblestones and dreams of a rejuvenated village with its new flats and youth activities centre, the Landschulheim.

Marie Gamillscheg handles this narrative technique with great aplomb. It has been used successfully before in novels which describe communities, for example in  Unterleuten by Julie Zeh, as different narrative voices can both highlight differing interpretations of events and exemplify separation and isolation within a community. Here I particularly enjoyed the way this technique deftly and succinctly builds up character, section by section, with new information added and hinted at throughout which shapes our view of these people and their lives. And the careful juxtaposition of the narratives reminded me at times of a ceilidh dance with two lines of dancers coming together and drawing apart: the contrast between Susa’s detailed observation of the cats making their home amongst the detritus in the tourist office and Merih’s cursory comment on getting rid of the paper where animals had been nesting, yet their closeness as smokers as their stubbed out cigarettes echo across both narratives.

The shifting narrative viewpoints is matched by the exploration of stability and fragility in the landscape. On the one hand the mountain is a stable presence, towering over the village, which is squeezed into the valley.  On the other hand we are told from the beginning that its inside is made up of a chaos of galleries and shafts which could cause it to collapse from within. Merih sees the mountain’s external appearance as consisting of rocks and boulders, which could form an avalanche at any time, quite opposed to its angeblich urzeitlichen, festen Charakter– its seemingly ancient, stable, unshifting character, and Teresa sees a crack in the ground which apparently widens as the story progresses. Through her dysmorphic lens her own face seems to lack definition, to be malleable, plastic, unfocused, wobbly, echoing the sense of instability in the landscape.

It should be noted that the four narratives are not the only text telling the story: they are interspersed with shorter, aphoristic texts in italics telling a sort of creation myth about the mountains, or describing the iridescent colours of the iron ore. There is an extract from a mining machinery catalogue, a section naming all the curves on the mountain road and a list of facts about the village noted down by Merih when conducting background research. These texts, and their placing, tell us more about the community and the characters, though I would definitely be asking the writer to explain further why she’ d included them if I ever met her at a reading!

It is in her use of detail too that the writer creates intimate images which draw us in to the characters and the community: Teresa’s mother standing on a stepladder changing a light bulb, Teresa counting the folds of stomach falling over her waistband as she sits talking to her sister, Merih’s observation of the way his girlfriend plays with her hair as she ties it back,  Wenisch’s skin thin and fragile because of his cortisone tablets.

So it is through the eyes of the four main characters that we see how the community absorbs and responds to the death of Martin  and the arrival of Merih and his projects, both of which bring transformation for the village: to say how this ends would be to give too much away. If you are a reader of German interested in relationships in rural communities and how they manage decline and change, you will enjoy the fresh and original voice of Marie Gamillscheg on this subject.


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Schildkroetensoldat-Tortoise Soldier- by Melinda Nadj Abonji

This slim novel, which has just won the ZKB Schiller Award 2018, is set in the Balkans at the outbreak of war. It’s the story of  Zoli, a young man who suffered head injuries after falling from his father’s motorbike and was thereafter unusual- sensitive, gentle, and a stammerer, he loves plants and crosswords and dwells on the meanings of words. A disappointment to his barely adequate parents, they get him to enlist in the army where his sensitivity is crushed further under a regime of barked orders, relentless physical exertion and coercive strutting machismo. His only crutch in the barracks is his friend Jenó, also an outsider and aware that they are being trained in the barracks at Zrenjanin for imminent combat and certain death.

A second narrative alternates with and interleaves Zoli’s story, that of his cousin, Anna, a teacher in Switzerland. Both narratives jump about in time- we learn that Zoli has died in chapter 5- and Anna’s voice acts as a kind of counterpoint to that of Zoli.  Zoli’s voice is that of someone with a heightened sensitivity, particularly for sound, and a close attention to detail: there is a beautifully delicate description of the hearing organ of a moth and he picks up on every sound in the barracks dormitory at night. Anna’s voice is less intense, more dispassionate: she doesn’t describe the tiling in the showers, but the confrontative attitude of the soldier outside the barracks when she goes to visit- and she then goes on to reflect on her country being now ruled by the military. So her narrative describes towns she passes through during the war, the bigger picture of what her country has become as well as the humble and impoverished home of Zoli’s family. We are left in no doubt though that she is deeply troubled: she takes Xanax, sleeps badly and leans heavily on her boyfriend Serge, with whom she shares only some of her worries.

The interweaving of the two stories and the lack of linearity give the novel a fragmentary feel, which reflect the helplessness of Zoli in the face of more powerful forces in his life. The succinctness with which particular scenes are described is very powerful too: I was shocked by the image of soldiers in training sticking pictures of women onto cardboard cut outs and then practising shooting them between the breasts. Zoli’s narrative in particular is very lyrical, enjoying rhyme and wordplay, with his stuttering introducing sections of the chapter as in Z-W-E-T-S-C-H-E-N-K-N-Ö-D-E-L-T-A-G.

Yet it is Anna’s voice which I found most engaging in the novel. The warm relationship between the two cousins as children is touchingly described and her depiction of Zoli’s run down home and parents when she returns after his death shows both her familiarity with and criticism of that world. She has, after all, left for Switzerland but finds herself often coming back. It is this travelling between different worlds which in the end intrigued me more than the sad story of Zoli, poignant as that is- and made me put Melinda Nadj Abonji’s first book Tauben fliegen auf on my shopping list for my next trip to Germany.

A translation from Schildkrötensoldat by Alyson Coombes can be found here:


Schildkrötensoldat by Melinda Nadj Abonji- Suhrkamp- €20.

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The Shape of the Ruins-La forma de las Ruinas- by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Anne McLean

This most recent novel by the acclaimed Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a complex, almost labyrinthine novel which examines history through the lens of conspiracy theories and theorists. It is multi layered in that it deals with two pivotal assassinations in Colombian history, the killing of the Liberal leader Rafael Uribe Uribe in October 1914, and the shooting of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9th 1948—this latter death led to  riots and the deaths of hundreds of citizens known as the Bogotazo. The novel also raises more general questions such as the relationship between history and fiction, between truth and memory through a structure which is not just multi layered but a series of stories which sit inside one another like a set of Russian dolls. Be warned:you need to have your wits about you while reading this novel—at 500 pages, it is long, with several different time frames and a cast of characters which disappear and reappear.It is easy to feel you are groping around in the dark at times, like the narrator walking through the dimly lit streets of Bogotá at night, trying to make sense of the various convoluted accounts of Colombia’s past.

The novel is a kind of auto fiction where Juan Gabriel Vásquez appears as himself and narrates the story. This starts in 2005 when he finds himself in Bogotá unexpectedly for several weeks where his wife, pregnant with twins, is hospitalised. By chance he meets an old acquaintance, Doctor Francisco Benavides, who introduces him to Carlos Carballo, a florid character and (we find out later in the novel) radio presenter, who is obsessed with the assassination of Gaitán. Benavides himself shows the narrator his museum of curiosities, largely belonging to his father, a former surgeon, which includes one of  Gaitán’s vertebrae. This experience draws the narrator back inexorably to the past, as does his wandering the streets of Bogotá remembering the violence his generation grew up with. Yet the parallel narrative of concern for his wife and baby girls pulls him back repeatedly to the present and makes him question the value of getting involved with these people and their obsessions.

The conspiracy theory around Gaitán springs from the fact that his assassin, Juan Roa Sierra, may not have been acting alone, and is likened in the novel to the assassination of Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald. Now when this first conspiracy is elaborated in the novel I found my attention wandering a little, (thinking: really? do I care about this? does it matter? are conspiracy theories a male interest?). But the second conspiracy around the death of Rafael Uribe Uribe I found much more compelling. Told in an account from the perspective of the independent investigator Marco Tulio Anzola (remember Russian dolls?) it reads like a crime thriller with unexpected leads, twists and turns and I was truly gripped. Yet the fact that this account reads like a fiction genre, which is ironically acknowledged in the novel, makes one question its truth and usefulness: do I now know more about these events or are they all made up?

For fiction is all over this novel. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’ own novels are referred to and I found myself, as a keen fan, getting into conversation with the characters about them (ok, All Saints’ Day Lovers set in Belgium does feature hunters and separating couples but they’re superbly constructed short stories nonetheless). There are frequent references to Gabriel García Márquez and his book Vivir para contarla, to Borges, Nabokov and of course Shakespeare, whose Julius Caesar gives the book its title. And the author plays with our notions of fact and fiction in the photographs of real documents included in the novel like exhibits at a trial— photos of the vertebra of Gaitán, the skull of Uribe Uribe, the underlined text of a torn out newspaper article, a copy of the entry register to Ellis Island—especially when we learn the significance of these realia in the story.

Now I’m not going to comment further on the plot, as given the complexity of the novel it would not be helpful in a review of this length. So I’ll just mention a couple of personal responses. The first is my admiration for Juan Gabriel Vásquez’ ability to  depict the personal and intimate as well as the great sweep of history. Here there is a heart rending account of the narrator’s meeting with a seriously ill patient of Dr Benavides, a scene evoked with great delicacy and tenderness, as is the moving scene where the narrator holds his baby daughters for the first time. I was reminded of the introductory scene in The Informers, where the narrator’s eye lingers over the intimate details of his elderly and frail father’s flat.Yet Vásquez describes so powerfully important- often devastating-moments in Colombian history and their effect on individuals: to name just one, we have again here the murder of the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla in 1984 on the orders of Pablo Escobar and the stunned reactions of the Colombian people.

I’m also wondering whether the book contains a critique of the legal system as a sort of side show. As in most of his novels, the narrator/ author studied law, and he tells us this consisted mainly of rhetoric and discussing Portia’s interpretation of the law in the Merchant of Venice. He skipped most of his lectures as he was more interested in literature but he seems to be inviting us to question the usefulness of  this legal training for the modern world—and this is a novel where the whole legal process is  called into question as it is manipulated in relation to the trial of Uribe’s killers . But, hey, both these accounts of the workings of the law related to a previous era and anyway this is a novel, it may all be a fiction.

So how does this novel conclude and how does it leave us? We are brought into the present, with the narrator/ author having chosen to return to Bogotá, to Colombia with his wife and daughters. He’s aware that his daughters will inherit this country with its innocence and its crimes like he did. Yet for me the exploration of conspiracy theories in the novel, the questioning of truth and fiction, lends an added dimension of discomfort to this warning :  how can we be sure of what happened in the past in order to learn from it and not repeat our mistakes? A challenge indeed for Colombia given the fragility of its peace process and its new president and a challenge for the rest of us in the era of Trump and fake news. This novel is a tour de force from Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a must read not only for Colombia watchers and fans of conspiracy theories but for all those concerned with how we represent our past.

It’s a tour de force too from Anne McLean, the translator of this novel, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’ other work. She skilfully renders both the historic sweep of the novel and the intimate details of scenes with the narrator’s new born daughters. She captures the contrasting darkness and light and the ambiguity of character. She is adept at dealing with  the different voices, registers and genres which are present in the newspaper reports, excerpts from speeches and racy account of Anzola, Who Are They?  I was interested too in her choice to retain the original Spanish caudillo in reference to Gaitán. Caudillo refers to a military or political leader, a strongman, and was most famously used to describe Franco. This epithet gives some shading to the image of the charismatic and populist leader Gaitán, of whom I knew very little beforehand, an uncomfortable ambiguity which is fed by our awareness of the current rise of powerful populist leaders the world over. The exploration of historical events in the novel, superbly translated by Anne McLean, sends ripples far beyond Colombia and into the present day.

Readers may also be interested in this BBC 3 Free Thinking discussion with Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Javier Cercas and Elif Shafak chaired by Shadidha Bati .https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/b0b48ygz

La Forma de las Ruinas- Alfaguara- £25.01 ( Amazon),Kindle £10.99

The  Shape of the Ruins- Maclehose-£20.00 Kindle £13.99


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Bogota 39- New Voices from Latin America-a feast of writing and the feat of translation-edited by Juliet Mabey-Hay Festival/ One World

In 2007 the Bogotá39 project identified and promoted 39 promising young writers from Latin America, bringing the works of writers like Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Junot Díaz to a wider readership. This 2018 collection follows on from the original with, ten years later, 39 exciting new voices from the vast and varied Latin American world. At a recent launch event at London’s Free Word Centre, where some of the writers were in a discussion expertly chaired by translator Sophie Hughes, it was said that Latin American writing is still shrugging off stereotypical expectations that it’s all about drug trafficking and armed conflict. Refreshingly, those topics hardly feature here:  this collection features rather the contemporary experiences of the urban and the rural world, managing and responding to the digital age, relationships of all kinds in these settings, with some pieces of futuristic, surreal and apocalyptic writing to echo the increasingly unstable times in which we live.

Now, as any fan of short stories will know, a collection of short stories is often more than the sum of its parts, and nowhere is this truer than with a collection of short stories in translation: as I was reading this collection, I became more and more aware of the consummate skill with which these stories have been translated. The short form requires that the translator very quickly renders the voice,  the tone, the style, the rhythm of the original, to draw us in, to unsettle and surprise us. This collection, with its broad and varied range of writing, displays a huge range of translation skills and for me is as much a showcase for the feat of translation as a feast of new Latin American writing.

A number of the stories take place in urban settings which add to the tension and sometimes bleakness of the tale: in Naked Animals the narrator catches sight of a woman in a car, her face shaped by tears, whom he then stalks by car through the city. In An Unlucky Man, the family are caught up in urban traffic while rushing their daughter Abi to the hospital after swallowing bleach. An ironic distance is taken in Work in Progress where a couple liken their never ending building project in a Buenos Aires condominium to the creation of a novel. And in The Art of Vanishing the city bars and brothels permit exhibitions of violence and lust at odds with the protagonist’s feeling for family.

The urban stories often feature solitary, lonely, sometimes displaced protagonists. In Perhaps an Animal Elvira is a young woman down on her luck in São Paulo. The story starts, disturbingly, with Elvira surreptitiously rooting round in a bin for thrown away food. Her landlord has offered to forget her rent arrears if she gives him a hand-job. In Teresa and Children the protagonists are emotionally disconnected young men, whose actions seem random and motivation unexplained: in Teresa the protagonist is more interested in planning his TV viewing than in other people, in Children the protagonist seeks out random meetings and events to relieve his solitude and lies guilelessly when finding himself at a séance.

I enjoyed, in contrast to the tension and sometimes claustrophobia of the city, the stories with a feeling for landscape. The Days Gone By describes a journey by bus and boat to visit a childhood friend- through a chilly landscape of lakes and volcanoes. The political dimension of land in South America moves to centre stage in Chaco: the narrator’s grandfather was said to have participated in moving the indigenous Mataco people from their land to make way for an oil refinery. The narrator finds the body of a Mataco lying by the roadside and then finds himself haunted, disturbingly, by the Mataco. In Forests Where There Was Nothing, Father Félix and his young seminarian disagree about the value of turning the great, bare expanses under the celestial vault into forest. The seminarian believes forestation provides more work for local people and is therefore a good thing-Father Félix denies there was nothing before forestation, remembering the empty pampas and the furious waves. Every grain of the dunes.

All kinds of relationships are explored in this collection. Papi’s False Teeth is told from Daughter’s point of view after he’s died: she ended up shouldering the burden of his care, and through the technique of slow reveal we learn the disturbing nature of Papi’s needs and the significance of the title. In Fictio Legis the narrator, returning from Spain to Mexico with her husband, is listening in to the conversation of another couple and a third man, Hans, on the plane. Her condescending narrative- the tone so superbly rendered- is interleaved by comments from Roman legislators on the payment of a dowry when the marriage is to a eunuch. A delicious twist is in store for the reader when the narrator and her husband prepare for landing. Friendship and kindness are displayed in Snow. The narrator and his friend arrive in Chicago from the Dominican Republic to study. Absolutely floored by the cold, they encounter help in finding and furnishing their apartment from a range of people of different nationalities.

The importance of tone in conveying the complexity of relationships is seen again in Titans on the Beach, so skilfully conveyed by the translator. The story is set on a beach in Germany, where the narrator is with his German girlfriend, Sue K, watching German children playing. He is aware of his  physical difference, both from the baby Teutons and his girlfriend- he with his body-hair and construction worker’s stomach, she with her washboard stomach. He resents her calling him Chewie rather than his  real name, Jesús, but puts up with it-he’s more fed up when her friends ‘tease’ him by calling him Chewbacca. Unpleasant patronising attitudes leaning into racism start to emerge and when the narrator’s pet name for his girlfriend morphs from my queen of hearts into my Prussian monarch we feel even more uncomfortable.

There are superb examples in the collection of the translator’s skill in creating mood. Lid/1981 is about a family memory and strikes a nostalgic note from the beginning, saying the family has now fallen apart, but what we once were is still present, the way the sun is present for blind men who can’t see the light, just feel its warmth on their faces. And of a family memory: my own memory doesn’t count; it’s not mine. It’s like a borrowed suit, one that fits in some places, pulls and sags in others.

There’s a wonderful recreation of incantatory rhythm in Chaco, where the narrative voice changes as the Matanco man takes over the narrator’s head and voice: the river was poison, the fish were dead. The hunger was great, the food all gone. Three men were sent hunting, none returned. Sucking on pig bones, they were found. Ayayay. And I am in awe of the translator’s success in rendering word play in How do Stones Think? The story begins with a riff on rhymes: with rhymes the words finish the same way just like two stories with happy endings. For example: slow and grow, grass and vast, never and forever.

Now this really is a collection of 39 stories and extracts and it’s been impossible to mention all of them in this post. Rest assured that there are many other intriguing stories in the collection, which also contains information about each writer and translator, a map of Latin America, and a helpful introduction from Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation. This is not just a collection but a cornucopia in that it serves as an introduction to the work of a new generation of Latin American writers. And at the modest price of £ 12.99 from Oneworld it should be on the bookshelf of every lover of Latin American Literature.

Stories mentioned here in order of appearance:

Naked Animals by Jesús Michael Soto, translated by Emily Davis.

An Unlucky Man by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell.

Work in Progress by Mauro Libertella, translated by Nick Caistor.

The Art of Vanishing by Felipe Restrepo Pombo translated by Daniel Hahn.

Perhaps an Animal by Natalia Borges Polesso, translated by Sophie Lewis.

Teresa by Eduardo Plaza, translated by Rahul Berg.

Children by Juan Pablo Roncone, translated by Ellen Jones.

The Days Gone By by Gonzalo Eltesch, translated by Katherine Rucker.

Chaco by Liliana Colanzi, translated by Julia Sanchos

Forests where there was Nothing by Valentín Trujillo, translated by Simon Bruni.

Papi’s False Teeth by Mónica Ojeda, translated by Anna Milsom

Fictio Legis by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney.

Snow by Frank Báez, translated by Anwen Roys.

Titans on the Beach by Alan Mills, translated by Delaina Haslam

Lid/1981 by Damían González Bertolino, translated by Lily Meyer.

How do Stones Think? by Brenda Lozano, translated by Lucy Greaves.


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