Saturday, February 20, 2016

"Submission" by Michel Houellebecq (France)

Rating: 3 out of 3

A regular reader of mychitalka might have noticed that I give three out of three ratings very rarely. What is a three out of three rating, in my estimation? It is a book that leaves me stunned, speechless and to the point where I can do nothing else but think about the book for hours and sometimes days. The essence of the book haunts me, it has made its mark on me, and has forever become a part of my thoughts, a part of my inner world.

Obviously, there are few books that can ever meet this high qualification. This is especially true of contemporary novels, and so...I was pleasantly stunned, moved, shocked, blown away, etc. etc. etc. etc. to add one more book to the list of books that meet my highest standard. And this book is, I can say with full sincerity, perhaps the best contemporary book that I have read; that is the point to which I have been impressed.

And so, the book's title? "Submission". This is the (in?)famous French author Michel Houellebecq's latest offering. Now I would usually preface a book review with some details from the author's biography, but no- not in the case of M. Houellebecq whose private life has been muddled and maligned enough in the press. His works have been misinterpreted, misconstrued numerous times by people who undoubtably have either not read or not understood what he has been trying to say. In fact this book, "Submission" has been labelled as racist, as decadent, as who knows what, but I can say that it is none of that. It is, in brief, a brilliant, concise and captivating summary of the ultimate problems facing Western society.

The book and M. Houellebecq have been rather unfairly labelled in the press as Islamophobic, given that the book is set in a not-so-far-off alternate future wherein France elects its first Muslim majority government. Though the ruling government is ultimately moderate, the changes lead to a growing islamization of society.

This having been said, however, my reading of the book is not that it is a criticism of Islam. The book instead points to the real issue; the impotence, the lack of identity, and the lack of social cohesion which have plagued Western society, particularly since the recession of Christanity. Without a uniting belief like Christianity, a civilization will ultimately fade and be absorbed into a civilization that is more robust and united.

Even before the book reached its powerful conclusions, I was drawn in by the captivating writing. I was highlighting gems of writing here, there and everywhere... Houellebecq is really a reader's author. His prose makes you feel so close to him, as if you were in the presence of a friend, and the book- far from being a dry, political treatise, was a pleasure to read. I was disappointed, in fact, to finish it so quickly.

I expect that Houellebecq's writing may not be for everyone, and some may take issue with his fearlessness to tackle some very serious issues facing society, however, for those who appreciate the 'idea' novel, I couldn't recommend more a read of "Submission".

Houellebecq is definitely an author that my chitalka will be returning to in the future. (I read the original in French but the book is already available in English).

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

(International Dublin Literary Award 2016 Longlist) "Look Who's Back" by Timur Vermes (Germany)

Rating 2.5 out of 3

"Look Who's Back" was (is?) a German novel published in 2012 to some amount of controversy as the novel broaches a rather controversial subject - what if Hitler didn't die at the end of World War II and somehow, was able to come back to life in modern day Germany?

Based on this premise, the novel follows Hitler around as he adapts to modern day German life. The beginning of the novel is just plain funny, for reasons not so much to do with Hitler, himself, as they are just concern "____ insert any historical figure from the past here" getting shocked and disoriented by all of the technological advancements and political changes in modern day life.

Hitler's horror at finding out that modern day people eat pressed grain (granola bars) would have been  just as funny had it been Peter the Great or Gengis Khan, for example.

In the novel, Hitler rather quickly finds fame as a TV show and Youtube celebrity. He is generally 'likable' in the novel; a patriot who is 'fanatically' obsessed with the prosperity of the country. Its only when he starts talking about anti-Semetism and racial purity that things get unsettling...

But this likeability of Hitler is very important to the narrative. As Hitler points out himself in the novel, he was democratically elected. Obviously, he had appeal, and to the reader, he is also appealing, for many reasons, until...

And this is what the novel successfully conveys to us; how easy it is to elect a monster to power if one ignores some key tenets in his philosophy because of the attractiveness of the rest of the platform. It also points out to us that we're not really so far from electing another Hitler in the future...

I give it 2.5 out of 3, but more for the idea than for the execution.

NEXT UP: 1) Still getting through Beliy's "Peterburg"; 2) Another IMPAC longlist nominee; 3) another 'controversial novel (this time, French) and 4) a lighthearted book about post-revolutionary Soviet orphans

"A Death in the Family" by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norway)

Rating: 2 out of 3 

This book has been sitting on my 'to read' pile for so long, as I have been anxious to find out what all of the excitement has been about. Any contemporary literature enthusiast would know that Knausgaard has been a regular fixture on all of the literary award longlists for the past few years, thanks to his magnum opus - "My Struggle". This 'fictionalized' series of biographical books have won Knausgaard fame, but have also gotten him into a lot of hot water with relatives who haven't taken so kindly to being 'fictionalized'...

But at any rate, what did I think of part one of 'My Struggle' (titled "A Death in the Family" in the English translation I read). Well, at times it is a very long, rambling stream-of-conscience that can be difficult to get through. Knausgaard is not afraid of at times describing the most trivial of everyday actions (e.g. making coffee) down to the very detail. This does at times make the narrative dry and more difficult to get through, but it also contributes to the feeling that you, the reader, are sort of shadowing Knausgaard through his day to day 'struggles' with life.

The novel begins with some ruminations on Knausgaard's relationship with his Father as well as with some memories of Knaugaard's childhood which are at times interesting, and at times tedious to get through, for the reasons stated above.

However, the novel really picks up towards the end with the death of a family member. This is where you are sort of 'dying' for Knausgaard to give you more and more detail on what has happened, as the death is not at all straight forward. What particularly draws the reader in are all the gory details of how Knausgaard and his brother clean up the house after the death, and how the brothers slowly realize that there is more to the death than at first meets the eye (particularly as concerns Grandma Knausgaard).

I wouldn't say that this novel was the one of the best contemporary novels I've read. I wouldn't say that this is the best stream-of-consciousness/reality show type novel I've read (I preferred Roman Senchin's "Information"). I wouldn't even say that I have the endurance or interest to read the subsequent novels in the "My Struggle" series. However, I felt that the book was worth reading to get some insight into the Norwegian life and psychology.

"The Year of the Great Breakthrough" - Vasily Belov (Russia)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

After having read the first part of Belov's sweeping trilogy on forced collectivization in Russia, I couldn't help but read part 2, "The Year of the Great Breakthough". This book continues the stories of most of the main characters from the first book, i..e the Rogovs, the Sopronovs, the Shustovs, etc.

This book is well-written (you will continue to feel for the positive characters in the novel, just as much as you will continue to despise the baddies), and the novel is just as depressing (if not more so) than the first novel. In fact, incredibly enough, things get far far worse for all of the positive protagonists. The even more shocking aspect of this story is that it is based on true life facts. The forced collectivization and relocation of 'rich peasants' actually happened. Millions of people were wrested from their homelands, and lost everything and/or died due to the madness of an elite who prioritized collectivization, regardless of the human costs.

Reading this novel, I couldn't help but shudder at the millions of brilliant, hardworking Russians who may have been lost as a result of the politics of the 1930's (chillingly described at the end of the novel by Belov as 'living firewood').

This is, in short, a much recommended novel for those would like to learn more about collectivization in 1930's Russia. Its a pity that the book was seemingly never translated (it was, I believe, published only in 1994 when the West's interest in Russia seemed at an all time low).

I will be reading and posting a short review of the final novel in Belov's trilogy, in upcoming weeks.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

(2012 Prix Renaudot Winner) "Notre Dame du Nil" by Scholastique Mukanga (Rwanda)

Rating: 2 out of 3

Mychitalka travels yet again...this time (and for the first time!) to Rwanda. This is only the second book I have ever read by an author of African descent (the first was Achebe's "Things Fall Apart"), and I am glad to broaden my horizons through reading...

"Notre Dame du Nil"'s author, Scholastique Mukasonga, was born in the province of Gikongoro in Rwanda, and experienced, first hand, the ethnic violence and political conflict that ravaged Rwanda in the last half of the 20th century. These conflicts forced Mukasonga and her family to eventually immigrate to France in 1992.

For this book, "Notre Dame du Nil", Mukasonga received the 2012 Prix Renaudot.

And so, what is "Notre Dame du Nil" about? It is actually about a group of elite high school girls who are attending the Notre Dame du Nil catholic school during the the time of ethnic conflict in Rwanda. In particular, the story follows several young girls in the graduating class; some are Tutsi, and thus resigned to a life of fear and discrimination; while others are part of the Hutu majority that now rule both the school and the newly formed nation of Rwanda.

The book is divided into little episodes, where we follow the girls as they, for example,  set out on a pilgrimage to the source of the Nile, visit local magic men/women, or the neighboring Belgian weirdo, obsessed with Tutsi history. The story of the girls itself, and how their interactions are contaminated by the burgeoning racial conflict and hatred around them, is in itself interesting. I also learned a lot about Rwandan geography and history. It was easy to draw the conclusion, from reading this book, that Rwanda was yet another country irrevocably messed up by colonial powers. The novel speaks to how European invaders had a crucial (and perhaps fatal?) role in moulding the Rwandan identity. They brought catholicism, they divided the population into racial types (Hutu/Tutsi) and initially introduced the idea of Tutsi superiority. As noted by one of the novel's heroines:

"Do you know what happened to us, the Tutsis, when some of us agreed to play the role that the Whites conferred us? Its my grandmother who told me this: when the Whites arrived, they found that we were dressed like savages. They sold women, the women of chieftains, glass beads; lots of beads and lots of white cloth. They showed us how to wear it and how to do our hair. And they made them Ethiopians or Egyptians that they had come to look for before arriving here. They had their proof. They dressed us in the image of their delusions." (self-translation from the French)

At the height of the conflict, however, when needed most, Rwanda's former colonizers offered little interference. As mirrored in the novel:

"In the empty classrooms, the Belgian teachers stayed in at their desks, trying manifestly to assume what could be in such cases, good countenance. The French teachers were gathered together in deep and passionate conversation."

This was an enjoyable book and a unique book that touched on a massacre by following the lives of an elite girl's school (as opposed to directly chronicling the actual conflict). Despite the fact that the book was set almost completely within the auspices of the school, the crucial points surrounding the reasons and the repercussions of the conflict were well transmitted to the reader.

The book isn't too difficult to read in the original, but is also available in English.

NEXT UP: Still finishing up Beliy's "Peterburg", part 2 of Belov's Soviet collectivization trilogy and part 1 of Knausgaard's "Struggle". Also to come soon are a look at two of the most controversial books to be released in recent years.