A World Tour of Books: The King’s Day by Abdellah Taïa (Morocco)

Abdellah Taïa is one of the most interesting Moroccan writers. In 2006, he became the first openly gay Moroccan author and is to this day the only one. Him being opened with his sexuality is probably helped by the fact that he is based in Paris since 1998. Homosexuality is still illegal in Morocco.

The book of his that I’ve picked is The King’s Day, a story about the complicated friendship between two teenage boys. Omar is poor and taking care of his father, who has fallen into depression and alcoholism after Omar’s mother left him. Khalid is rich and has supportive, successful parents. Everything seems to be separating the two boys, but there exists between them deep love and caring.

That is, until Khalid is named best pupil in Morocco. As a reward, he will get to kiss the hand of king Hassan II. But he keeps this secret from his friend and when Omar finds out he sees it as a great betrayal. After that, nothing will ever be the same.

 

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The Swedish translation of Le Jour du Roi, or The King’s Day as it could be called in English.

 
The style of writing in The King’s Day is simplistic but somewhat poetic, although probably not as much as in the original French. I’ve said this many times: the French language has an inherent poésie which is untranslatable.

The themes which are dealt with are not only that of class and frienship, but also of sexuality, gender, race and, in a lesser degree, gender identity. Despair and melancholy I would say are the primary feelings in this story.

The King’s Day is a beautiful and thought-provoking book and I get why it won the precious literary award Prix de Flore. But unfortunately, it has yet to be translated to English.

I often found myself thinking while reading that the story would be unusually adaptable to the big screen and as it turns out Abdellah Taïa is also a filmmaker. In 2013, he directed the movie Salvation Army, based on his book by the same name. It was the first movie in the Arab world with a gay protagonist.

Both Salvation Army and another novel of his, An Arab Melancholia, are available in English and published by Semiotexte.

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A World Tour of Books: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)

While pondering what book I was going to read next I realised I hadn’t read anything from South or Central America yet. I remembered that a man from Colombia had won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years back but I couldn’t recall his name. After a bit of internet searching I realised I had remembered wrong. A Nobel laureate from Colombia had passed away a few years back, 2014 more precisely. 1982 is the year when Gabriel García Márquez won the Prize.

Nicknamed Gabo or Gabito in Latin America, García Márquez was a journalist and author who is considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He was one of several Latin American authors who popularized the genre of magic realism and even inspired in a way the counter-genre of McCondo; a name derivative of Macondo, the town in which many of García Márquez’s books take place.

This fictional village is the setting for the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Telling the story of the Buendía family over the course of 100 years, this whimsical book is one of García Marquez’s most popular works.

The man reading the Audible audiobook version had a really pleasant voice.

The magic realism is always present in Macondo, where strange things happen without the people thinking much of it. Whether is people passing by on flying carpets, a woman ascending to heaven or ghosts wandering the Buendía family’s house, none of these things are considered very out of the ordinary. This makes Macondo kind of its own surreal universe, where the reader can never be too sure of what will happen next.

But the town also goes through some more realistic things, both good and bad. War, colonialism, political conflicts and everyday events like people falling in love and having children.

Themes many can relate to, such as love and solitude, are woven into the dreamlike fabric of the story and making One Hundred Years of Solitude a fascinating book unlike anything I’ve read before. 

A World Tour of Books: Aicha by Bene Batako (Togo)

“If you want to know what life is like in a small village in West Africa, read this book.”

These were the words of the nice middle-aged lady who sold me Aicha at the Gothenburg Book Fair. One of the main reason I started this World Tour of Books journey was to learn more about the world, so I bought the book and started reading it on the train back home.

Aicha
Aicha tells the story about the impossible love between Karim and Aicha. They were previously engaged but while Karim was away in the city to study, Aicha’s parents sold her to the wealthy merchant Aladji to be his fourth wife.

Karim is devastated to learn this upon his return. And the troubles have only just begun.

He starts to work as a school teacher in the village and soon one of his students falls ill with malaria. Karim wants to get him access to modern medicine but the boy’s parents only trust the traditional medicine of the local marabout (a kind of witch doctor). Will Karim be able to persuade them to take the child to a hospital before it is too late?

But not everything is going bad in the village. The winds of change begin to blow when Rachida, Aicha’s aunt, refuses to let her daughter undergo female circumcision/female genital mutilation. A great debate starts among the villagers and more and more women will realise the power of making their own decisions about their bodies and their lives.

Aicha is in many ways about the conflict between tradition and the individual’s longing for self-determination. But it’s also about the power of change and progress to free people’s minds and expand their horizons.

Aicha has only been published in Swedish and French but if you know any of these languages, consider giving this thought-provoking novel a read.

 

A World Tour of Books: The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola (France)

For the country of France, the place where I spent most of my childhood, I wanted to read a book in its original language. French has a special poésie to it which simply can’t be translated. I once tried to read through an English version of one of Rimbaud’s poems and found it utterly depressing how the almost musical touch of the words got lost in translation.

I looked through my parents’ library is search of a French book I hadn’t read yet and found Le Ventre de Paris or The Belly of Paris as it is called in English.

Émile Zola being one of the greats of the genre of Naturalism, which I would like to describe as hardcore realism, I immediately became interested. The era of Naturalism is, in my opinion, one of the best periods in literature and its proponents’ determination to portray fearlessly the realities of life is a personal inspiration to me as a writer.

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The Belly of Paris tells the story of Florent, who returns to the French capital after years of exile in South America. Having been sent there after being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, he is full of resentment towards the Second Empire of Napoleon III.

He reconnects with his younger brother Quenu, who is now running a successful charcuterie alongside his beautiful wife Lisa.

Florent takes a job as an inspector in the now gone marketplace known as Les Halles. There he witnesses the affluence it brings to the city, but also the misery that exists within its walls. A distinction is made between the fat and the thin – the rich and the poor.

Although Florent lives with Quenu and Lisa, who are both unmistakably among the fat, he remains thin both in the physical and figurative sense. What he hungers for more than anything is justice and he begins to dream about a great revolution.

But while the thin might envy the fat, the fat are full of suspicion towards the poor. The idea that you should never trust a skinny man is expressed by several affluent characters throughout the book. And it is that very suspicion which will make sure Florent’s dreams remain only that.

The Naturalist beliefs of Zola are obvious in The Belly of Paris. Both in the milieus (I don’t think I’ve ever read such detailed descriptions of piles of vegetables or stinking fish) and in the dialogues. I sometimes caught myself feeling like I was reading the scenes of a documentary rather than of a novel. Although it felt a bit excessive sometimes, like when the narrator suddenly starts giving an incredibly thorough image of piles of cheese in the middle of one of the most suspenseful conversations of the story, but it does the trick. I feel quite confident that if I somehow could travel back in time to the Paris of the late nineteenth century, that I could find my way around Les Halles as if I had been there before.

The Belly of Paris is a great novel about a time and place which witnessed big changes in French society. If you are interested in history, or the Naturalist genre, this would be a good book for you.

 

A World Tour of Books: The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna (Finland)

From the country of Finland comes this humorous and charming story about a man and his hare.

Vatanen is a bored journalist who leads a passionless life in the country’s capital. One day, while he’s out on an assignment, the car he’s riding in hits a baby hare. The animal survives but has an injured paw. Suddenly gripped with compassion for the poor creature, Vatanen decides to save its life.

He leaves everything behind, including his job and his wife, and travels across Finland with his new companion. They get into many comical situations and meet many interesting characters, including a hungry raven, an angry bear and a conspiracy theorist who believes the president has been replaced by a look-alike.

 

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The Swedish translation of  The Year of the Hare

 
The Year of the Hare a feel-good book. It’s going to make you smile, laugh and maybe even pause and wonder about your own life. Vatanen’s escape from the stress of modern civilization might make you feel jealous and urge you to search for your own adventure from the drudgery of everyday life.

This 1975 book by one of Finland’s most popular authors has been translated into 18 different languages and has been adapted twice into movies, including a 2006 French film featuring Christophe Lambert.

It’s a beautiful story about the special bound between a man and his hare and has touched many hearts far beyond Finland.

Book Recommendation: The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D.

Whenever you bring up the topic of neurological differences between men and women people often assume you are trying to make a point about superiority. Because if two things are different then one must be better than the other, right?

Not at all says neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine. Author of the best-selling The Female Brain, she followed her success with The Male Brain and nowhere does she ever try to make the point of one sex being intellectually superior to the other. On the contrary: studies have shown that men and women can solve the exact same problem but will use different parts of their brains to do so.

According to Brizendine, accepting our differences and learning to understand each other can help bring more peace and success in our personal lives.

The Male Brain follows the man’s brain throughout the stages of life, from fetal development to old age, and explains how the masculine brains circuits along with a man’s changing hormones affects male feelings and behaviour. It explains for example why a man’s reaction to a woman’s problem can be perceived by her as insensitive while it is in fact a sign of his concern and affection.

And why do so many boys like rough-and-tumble play? Why are their games so competitive rather than cooperative? Why are certain adult males such players while others are strongly monogamist? Why do men become calmer and more affectionate with age? These and many other questions can be understood by learning about the male brain, male genetics and the effect of male hormones.

As a transgender man, the topic of male-female brain differences has long interested me. Obviously, if male and female brains were exactly alike people like me could not exist. One cannot feel like a man or like a woman if there is no such thing as a male or female brain.

Reading through this book helped me understand myself a little better, although it never mentions anything about trans people. I have now a better understanding of why I preferred “boy games” as a child and why I process emotion differently since I started taking testosterone.

Because not all gender differences are made in utero, at 8 weeks gestation when the neurocircuits for gender identity are believed to be laid. Hormones create certain changes also, as this book explains.

The Male Brain is mostly focused on the heterosexual male brain, which is understandable as the straight male brain is the average male brain. But there is also a very interesting although short appendix on the gay male brain. Studies have shown that homosexual men have a similar pattern to heterosexual women in the parts of the brain that affect sexuality, for example the parts that control how someone responds to male pheromones. But there are often similarities in other areas, such as the parts that effect verbal abilities.

One thing I really like about this book is that it is thoroughly well-research with plenty of references to scientific studies. In fact, the notes and references part make up almost half the book.

I would recommend The Male Brain to everyone. If you are a woman wondering how the hell the men in your life think, this book is for you. If you are a man, you could learn something important also. Through knowing oneself, it is possible to learn how to best overcome one’s weaknesses and how to best use one’s strengths.

Yourself is after all the person you need to learn to know best since it is who are going to spend every moment of your life with.

 

A World Tour of Books: The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (China)

I have long been fascinated by the psychological phenomenon known as flow, that feeling when you are “in the zone” and your actions seems to come without effort. It is through reading about flow that I came across the Taoist concept of Wu Wei.

Wu Wei, or effortless action, is the art of doing without striving to do. Sounds paradoxical? In a way, it is. And yet, anyone who has ever experienced this state of mind will recognize what it means.

There are several theories by different Chinese sages on the best way to reach this state of being. For Lao Tzu, the supposed author of the Tao Te Ching, the way to go is to return to nature and live in accordance with it. Simplicity and contentment are highly emphasised in this ancient writing and are seen as a way to avoid unnecessary distractions from the important things.

The book also highlights the value of cultivating such qualities as compassion, caution and humility and of keeping a calm and clear mind. In these ways, Taoism has certain similarities with Buddhism.

Tao Te Ching was written in the fourth century BCE and is one of the two foundational texts of Taoism. The other, the Zhuangzi, was written in the third century BCE.

The central teaching of Taoism is that one should follow the Tao, meaning the Way. This mystical force is what holds the universe and everything in it together. By following its laws one can find harmony with oneself, others and the world around us.

The Tao Te Ching explains these laws in 81 short chapters and often uses parables to make them easier to understand. Not that it always is simple to grasp the meaning of what the author was trying to say. Many sayings are paradoxical in nature and even seem contradictory. This is a book that will make you stop and meditate on what you just read.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject of philosophy. There is a reason why this writing has been cherished by many for over 2000 years. Its wisdom is timeless and thanks to its old age it is also copyright-free and doesn’t have to cost a dime. You can find it for free online and as an audiobook on Librivox.

Not that its knowledge could ever be valued in gold.

A World Tour of Books: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)

For the country of Nigeria, I have picked what is probably the most well-known African novel of all times: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Set in the late 1800’s, it tells the story of a brave warrior by the name of Okonkwo. He is a hard-working man and resilient even in the face of setbacks and adversity. Driven by a desire to never be like his father, whose laziness often led his family to the brink of starvation, he always does his best.

Like all good literary characters, he does not only have good traits. His fear of being weak leads him to rule his family with an iron hand and he frequently beats his wives and children. Although he still does feel love for them, especially his daughter Enzima.

 

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The Swedish translation of Things Fall Apart

 

Okonkwo makes a name for himself in his village and earns titles to show that he is a great man. But things will fall apart. First, he and his family will be exiled for seven years after he accidentally kills a man. Then the white people will come.

Bringing with them not only a new and to the Igbo people strange religion, but also military power like they have never seen before. Shortly after hearing of the white people, Okonkwo learns that another village has been eradicated and its population almost entirely decimated because some of its members killed a white man. After that, things will only get worse.

Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958 and is one of the most important novels about the European colonization of Africa. Previously, Africans had often been portrayed as dumb, animal-like and without any culture. But through this book many outside Nigeria learned about the complexities of Igbo society: its beliefs, values and its social order.

Sadly, many societies not only in Nigeria but all throughout Africa would be torn apart by people who thought they came with the light of civilization and of God himself. The bloodshed and suffering it led to is a truly shameful chapter of human history.

It is a known fact that history is mostly written by the winners. This is why books like Things Fall Apart are so important: to give a voice to the stories the colonisers of Africa would have preferred never to be heard.

I found this book to be very well-written. The way Achebe depicts the characters makes you feel for them even with all their flaws. Realism is the genre that best describes the style of writing. Achebe does not romanticize anything and doesn’t look away from the tragic, the disturbing as well as the beautiful.

Some of my favourite parts of the novel were when people shared stories with each other. As a writer I have a deep interest in the art of telling stories and I was fascinated with the glimpse I got into the rich tradition of Igbo storytelling.

In conclusion, this is an important and fascinating book. Truly one of world literature’s great treasures.

A World Tour of Books: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Russia)

I haven’t written a World Tour of Books post in a while and that’s because I have been reading a very long book: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

When I first came across it while shopping at a bookstore, I thought that maybe I should find something a little shorter but after reading on the back cover that this is considered by many to be the best written novel of all times, I just knew I had to read it.

 

Karenina
At over 800 pages, Anna Karenina is quite a thick book!

 

So it was with great expectations that I began to read the story of the forbidden love between Count Vronsky and Princess Anna Arkadyevna Karenina. To my surprise I found that I felt little sympathy for these characters. To try and seduce a woman you know is married, like Vronsky does, seems not very moral to me and he comes across as kind of a douche.

As for Anna, she accepts his invitations, cheats on her husband then leaves him for her new beau and even abandons her own child in the process.

Probably, I would have not disliked Anna’s character as much if her husband and been abusive towards her. But he’s actually a good person who shows an impressive patience with his wife’s childish behaviour. He is so kind-hearted that he even feels love and eventually adopts a child he knows is not his.

So, the two main characters I felt not very strongly for even if their love story is superbly written.

The character that did touch my heart was Levin. A socially awkward but highly intelligent landowner, most of the plot following him is centered around his love for Kitty, whom he later marries. But this happy ending love story is not what I enjoyed most when reading about Levin. Rather it is his ponderings on religion, philosophy and politics that made me like him so much. He is a deep-thinking individual and a lot of times I was actually annoyed with his overly emotional obsession with Kitty, which I felt often distracted him from more important endeavours.

Interestingly, Levin is based on Tolstoy himself. I highly suspected this due to the similarity of their names (Lev is the Russian version of Leo) and the fact that Levin expresses many opinions that Tolstoy was known to have. As I’ve long been fascinated by this writer, it is no surprise I really liked Levin as a character.

One thing that I found irritating with this book is that sometimes in dialogues there are whole sentences in other languages. Luckily for me, most of them where in a one of my two mother tongues: French. Still, it’s quite annoying when you have to put down a book to consult Google Translate because you can’t understand what it says. At least, there should have been translations on the bottom of the pages.

Overall, I really like this book. I don’t know if it the best novel ever written (how do you even determined that objectively?) but it is definitely one of the great treasures from the history of literature.

​A Modern Classic: Forbidden Colours by Yukio Mishima 

TW: There will be mention of suicide.


A while back I started to read up on Japanese literature for my World Tour of Books post series. Eventually I picked a book by Kenzaburo Oe but there was another writer I could not get off my mind: Yukio Mishima. 

This beloved Japanese writer became infamous in 1970. Seeing that Japanese Traditionalism was being replaced by Western values with all its empty materialism, he attempted to incite a coup d’état along with his own private militia. But the attempt failed miserably and, dishonoured, he killed himself by seppuku.

Many believed his motives to have been genuine. But others saw in his actions a sign of psychosis. Yet others believed that Mishima had always planned for the coup to fail so that he could end his own life, this due to his disgust with the idea of getting old. Which reminds me of a quote that stood out to me in Forbidden Colours:

“What is the death of the body, after all, compared with the unbearable death of youth?”

But whatever his motivations were, there is so much more to Mishima than him being “that Japanese writer who killed himself like a samurai”. Three times he was nominated to the Nobel Prize in literature and during his career he would publish 25 novels and write 80 plays. He also starred in movies, became a skilled martial artist and a bodybuilder and even directed his own film. 

Seeing what a fascinating man this Yukio Mishima was, I felt I had to read something of him. I picked the novel Forbidden Colours, I must confess mainly due to its gay theme. 

In retrospect I should have started my journey into Mishima’s literature with the semi-autobriographical Confessions of a Mask but Forbidden Colours was still an amazing read.

Telling the story of Yuichi Minami (notice the resemblance with the author’s own name) it is believe to be also somewhat autobiographical. One summer he meets an elderly writer by the name of Shunsuké who in his books praises women but in reality despises them. His hatred stems from his numerous failed relationships and in his bitterness he wishes to punish women. 

In Yuichi he finds the perfect tool for this. The young man’s unusual beauty catches the opposite sex’s attention without effort and his homosexuality ensures that he will never reciprocate any woman’s feelings. Under the guidance/manipulation of Shunsuké he marries a woman, trapping her in a loveless marriage. He also charms two other women, making them fall in love with him but never loving them back.

But Yuichi will grow weary of being Shunsuké’s puppet and will realise his own power, much to the elderly writer’s dismay. 

What can I say about this book? Because it is not simply a story written down, it is a work of art. Filled with meaning boiling below the surface, it grabs your mind and demands attention. It is both beautiful and sort of ugly in its descriptions. The way the author writes about the characters’ inner life is moving but also disturbing at times. 

Shunsuké especially is a quite dislikable personality, with all his selfishness and bitterness. Yuichi is more sympathetic but he too grows cold with time. Melancholy is the word that springs to mind when I think about the spirit of the book. Hopelessness also. But somehow Mishima knew how to make the tragic beautiful. 

Forbidden Colours is considered to be one of Yukio Mishima’s lesser works and if it is then I can’t wait to read those books of his that are seen as masterpieces. Either way, I am definitely not done with his literature.