A World Tour of Books: The Vegetarian by Han Kang (South Korea)

The first thing that intrigued me about this novel when I saw it in the bookstore was its titel. Being a vegetarian myself, I felt compelled to pick it up and after reading the synopsis I knew I had to give it a read.

The topic of vegetarianism is briefly touched upon in this novel but isn’t really the main theme. Through the story of Yeong-hye, a housewife in a traditional Korean marriage, Han Kang examines the potential consequences of a person rebelling against conventions.

When the homely and quiet Yeong-hye one day decides to stop eating meat, she is met with staunch opposition from the people in her life. Her parents, husband and even her sister all try to persuade her to give up her new diet. The situation soon turns into a power struggle which is about much more than just what Yeong-hye wants and doesn’t want to eat.

How much can a person take? What does it do to a person to not fully own herself but to be restricted by tradition and the opinions of others? What happens when someone finally breaks or rebels? These are some of the questions asked in this Man Booker prize winning novel which will leave you feeling shocked, moved and disturbed.

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A World Tour of Books: Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman (Australia)

Terra nullius is a Latin term which means “nobody’s land” and describes a territory free to be taken by whoever wishes to. Australia was declared such a terra nullius when it was colonised by Britain, despite the fact that it was the home of one of earth’s oldest cultures. Or rather cultures, as there are around 500 different Aboriginal groups.

The reason the British considered Australia to be nobody’s land was because they didn’t view the natives as human but rather part of the fauna, like kangaroos and koalas. They subsequently didn’t treat them with the dignity afforded to other humans and the history of the colonization of Australia is one filled with blood and oppression.

Terra Nullius is also the name of a novel by Aboriginal author Claire G. Coleman. It tells the story of the invasion of Australia – but with a twist.

This colonization does not take place in the past but the future, and the invaders do not come from beyond the ocean but from beyond the stars. Just like the British did not view the native Aboriginals as people, so do the new reptilian settlers not see the humans as their equals. They therefore do not allow them the same rights.

Many are kept as slaves, some women even used like breeding cattle. Children are taken from their families and communities, which are considered too stupid to take care of their own offspring. Everywhere, the colonizers of Earth are doing what they can to oppress the native humans and eliminate their desire to be their own people.

But there are still humans willing to fight for their freedom, despite seemingly impossible odds. Even a few reptilians, derogatorily referred to as “toads”, are prepared to stand by their side.

Terra Nullius is a fictional work but the truths it tells are very much relevant to us. It draws parallels between an imagine future and a real past to teach an uncomfortable but important lesson.

Lastly, I want to say: read this book. The story it tells will touch your heart and open your eyes.

 

A World Tour of Books: My Michael by Amos Oz (Israel)

The first time I read one of Amos Oz’s books was as a teenager. His How to Cure A Fanatic was in the curriculum of the religion course we were taking at school. I have a vague memory of what it said but I remember that I profoundly disliked it.

After being raised in a fundamentalist Christian cult, I had a very black-and-white view of the world and was not ready to accept the message of the book. Much time has passed since then and I’m thinking I need to read it again, now that I have such a different perspective on things.

But being curious about one of his most famous books, My Michael, I wanted to read it first.

The first thing you need to know about this book is that it won’t be your cup of tea if you like stories where stuff happens. My Michael is about the relationship between Hanna and Michael, who meet during the 1950s when they both study at the same university. They get married and have a child together.

Everyone expects Hanna to feel fulfilled but she can not. Probably because her husband and the life they share is so goddamn boring.

One would assume that the character whose name is in the title of the book would also be the most interesting. But Michael Gonen has to be one of the most painfully banal characters I’ve come across in literature. I find it no surprise that the mentally unstable Hanna seeks refuge in a fantasy world. The scenes where she does so are by far the best part of this novel.

I find I have mixed feelings about Hanna, from whose perspective the story is told. I find her childish and often annoying but at the same time I understand her frustration and her longing to really live, not just pass through a dull existence.

To conclude, I would say My Michael is a beautifully written, intimate portrait of a young woman falling deeper and deeper out of touch with reality. A great story, albeit a bit slow-paced.

A World Tour of Books: Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane (South Africa)

Johannes Mark Mathabane was not dealt the best of cards in the beginning of life. Born to illiterate parents in a ghetto of Apartheid South Africa, he was during his childhood surrounded by crime and poverty.

His homelife was turbulent and his often violent father, like many other men in the ghetto, took to alcohol and gambling to attempt and escape the oppression poured on him daily. There was also the many surprise raids carried out by the authorities and where black South Africans could be arrested for such “crimes” as being unemployed or not having their passports in order.

But in the midst of all misery, Johannes’ mother saw one hope: education. If he learned how to read and write, she believed her son could one day have a shot at a better life.
The boy was opposed to it at first but did go through school, which his mother struggled hard to be able to afford. Having learned to read, he developed a passion for books and in them found hope and inspiration.
He learned to play tennis and realised he was a gifted player. It was through his involvement in this sport that he eventually got his ticket out of poverty, through a sport scholarship at an American college.

What shocked me the most reading Mathabane’s autobiography Kaffir Boy was how awful the quality of life was for blacks during Apartheid. Of course, I knew it wasn’t good. But I was surprised by the depth of the oppression and the abject poverty most of them had to suffer through. There was also the bureaucratic hurdles put in their way to make sure even something like getting a permit to seek a job was as long and humiliating a process as possible. The whole system was designed to put black people down and have them stay there.

Kaffir Boy is one man’s story of growing up under an oppressive regime which despised him simply because of the colour of his skin. But it’s also about the resilience of the human spirit and about finding hope in the midst of despair. It’s one of the most moving books I’ve read and one I highly recommend.

A World Tour of Books: Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson (United Kingdom)

Years ago, I was watching one of my favourite tv-programs, the Swedish literary show Babel, and it featured someone I immediately found fascinating: Jeanette Winterson.

I can’t recall what book(s) the inteview was about but I’ll never forget the impression she made on me. She had this wild, untamed hair, cheeky eyes and smile, spoke with passion about literature and she rode around on a motor cycle. In other words, she was a cool writer and I found myself yearning to be like her one day. I made a mental note to read a book of hers but then “something by Jeanette Winterson” got lost in my always expanding to-read list and I never got around to it. 

That is until I found a used copy of Gut Symmetries in a second-hand shop. I bought the book without even checking what it was about because I was so eager to read one of Winterson’s works. 

What it is mostly about, it turns out, is this most banal of things called a love story. But that’s about the only thing banal about this particular one and not just because of the bisexual twist. Quantum physics and Jewish mysticism play a large roll in this poetic book which looks at love in a greater, cosmic context.

 (GUT: Grand Unified Theory: the “theory of everything” physicists are looking for that will explain the entire universe.) 

I’m not much for mysticism myself. Love is in my eyes nothing but a sensation caused by chemicals in the brain to spur us to continue the species. But pretending is fun and I enjoyed reading this beautifully written book. The prose is amazing and the story moving. One of the most original love stories I’ve read so far.

A World Tour of Books: Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland)

Scandinavian melancholy is a well-known phenomenon. It’s a reoccurring theme in our literature and cinema (ever seen an Ingmar Bergman movie?). And can you blame us? We’re freezing up here and the days are dark almost six months a year. No wonder we get a bit moody sometimes.

Melancholy is interestingly the main emotion I felt when reading Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by the Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Set on the west coast of the island nation, in a small village of about 400 inhabitants, this novel has no main protagonist but tells stories from the lives of many different people. It reads more like a collection of short stories than a novel and the themes vary from the mundane to the strange and the tragic. Both the small and big questions of human existence have a place in this charming book where the lives of ordinary people are told against the harsh nature of countryside Iceland.

Swedish translation of the novel

What I liked the most was the stream-of-consciousness mode of narrative. I’ve read books in this style in the past, but most were hard to comprehend or just plain bad. Stefánsson’s words, on the other hand, run across the pages like water. They transport you through the stories seemingly without effort and it often feels like listening to a friend retell an account of events rather than reading a novel.

Overall, I really liked this book. I would even say this was one of the most pleasant reading experiences I’ve had in a while. Unfortunately, Summer Light and Then Comes the Night has not been translated to English yet. But several of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s books, Fish Have No Feet and the Heaven and Hell trilogy, have been and published through MacLehose Press. 

I haven’t read them but if they are even half as good as Summer Light and Then Comes the Night, you will likely not be disappointed. 

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.

 

taia pic
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.

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.

emil

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.