Sunday, 2 January 2011

Books read in 2010 (Translated Fiction)

I do not read enough translated works of fiction. In 2010 I read about a dozen.

Amas Oz is Israel’s most famous writer, and his Rhyming Life and Death is probably the best translated novel I read in 2010. It is difficult to pigeonhole this novel and I don’t think I can do better than what Oz himself said in an interview: it is an ‘introspective, experimental piece of writing that ushers the writer behind the scenes of a fiction making process.’

The Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov is most famous for his surreal classic, the mother of all magic realism, The Master and Margarita. Black Snow was one of the last novels Bulgakov wrote. He was not able to complete it (probably because of his failing health), and the novel had to wait for almost thirty years before it was published (by which time Bulgakov had been dead for several years). Black Snow is a black comedy, and is apparently very autobiographical, reflects as it does the censorship problems Bulgakov was facing in Stalin’s Russia. The protagonist, Maxudov (Bulgakov’s alter ego) has written a ‘dreadful novel’. As Maxudov is seriously contemplating suicide the novel gets picked up by a literary journal and from there it is brought to the notice of a famous independent theatre, which gets interested. Suddenly, Maxudov, the failed novelist, becomes a playwright. What follows is Muxadov’s experiences in the world of theatre and literary elites whose egos are as petty as their reputations are high. Black Snow is a delightful comedy; Bulgakov had a great knack for bringing to the fore the absurdities of life. The novel pullulates with characters, many of which are apparently based on real life characters in the Moscow theatre world on the 1930s. However, you don’t have to know the real life connections of them to enjoy the novel, although I got a tad confused with several similar sounding Russian names.

The Elegance of Hedgehog, French writer Muriel Barberry’s second novel, became an international best-seller upon its publication. Barberry taught philosophy before she became a writer. That perhaps is the reason why there is a lot of ersatz philosophy in the novel. The novel crackles with wit, but that is not enough, I am afraid, to sustain your interest, as it suffers fatally from poor construction of plot and main characters that are about as believable as mannequins.

I read two novels of Irene Nemirovsky, whose Suite Francaise, discovered decades after her death, became a best-seller. I have not yet read Suite Francaise; the two novels I read, The Courilof Affair (which has a kernel of historical truth at its centre) and Fire in the Blood, give glimpses of the talent Nemirovsky possessed. Fire in the Blood, discovered accidentally a couple of years ago, was Nemirovasky’s last completed work. She wrote this novel in what turned out to be the last years of her life that ended squalidly and unfairly in Auschwitz.It is an intense, claustrophobic little novel, and at no time is the reader unaware of the menace lurking beneath the idyll.

I haven’t read very many Japanese novels, and the one I read in 2010, Yukio Mishima’s Thirst for Love did little to increase my ardour for Japanese fiction. I am sure it is cultural, but I just didn’t get the novel. The characters spend inordinate amount of time being scrupulously polite to one another and express their intentions so obliquely that you have got to be a mind-reader to figure out what they actually mean. A tedious read.

Night Train to Lisbon, another philosophical best-seller by Pascal Mercier, was a disappointment: too many loose ends and the central character hell-bent on behaving inexplicably just for the sake of it.

I had wanted to read Giorgio Bassinni’s The Garden of Finzi-Continis, hailed as one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century, for a long time. It tells the story of a wealthy Jewish family (Finzi-Continis) which fell on bad times, to put it euphemistically, once the Fascists seized power in Italy and the Second World War began. The narrator of the novel is a bit like the narrator of Willa Carhter’s A Lost Lady (although the two novels could not be more different in their subject matters and their treatments). He is partly in awe, partly jealous, of the Finzi-Continis, for whom nothing seems to go wrong until everything begins to go wrong. May be it was the translation, maybe it was the dour subject matter, but I found the novel very hard-going. When the reader reaches the end of the novel, I guess, the expectation is that he would ponder and shake his head in sadness at the cruel blow the fate dealt to the Finzi-Continis. I just felt relieved that I managed to finish the novel without skipping the pages after pages of tedious descriptions of the garden of the Finzi-Continis.

 Journey into the Past is the second Stephan Zweig novel discovered in the past few years (the other being The Post-Office Girl). Zweig, a short-story writer of great eminence in Austria and a friend of Freud, left the country after its annexation by the Nazis in the 1930s. After spending a few years in England, he went to live in South America, where, in 1941, he killed himself. Zweig, like Joseph Roth (another talented German Jewish writer who became ‘homeless’ after the Nazis came to power in Germany), continued to have fond nostalgia for the bygone world, namely, the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Journey into the Past, in its theme and the principles that guide its narrator, is very Old World. If you really want to enjoy Journey into the Past you have to suspend your twenty-first century sensibilities of how affairs between men and women are conducted.

Imre Kerteszz won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. I had read Fateless, Kertsez’s astonishing autobiographical novel of a young boy’s experience of the German concentration camp (Kertesz is a survivor of Auschwitz), a few years ago. It is one of those novels that stay in your mind for a long time after you have finished reading them. The novel I read in 2010 was A Detective Story. At barely hundred pages, it is more like a novella. Set in an unnamed country in Latin America, the novel tries to make an oblique point that the constant surveillance and persecution can have consequences as much for the victim as for the perpetrator. 

Sandor Marai’s Esther’s Inheritance is thematically similar to his best-seller Embers. It describes a dramatically charged meeting between its protagonists after a gap of many years, and is open to all types of interpretation as regards the symbolic meaning of the encounter. Marai, a prolific writer who rose to fame in Hungary before the Second World War, and died in obscurity in the USA (he shot himself) made a post-humus entry on the world stage when the manuscript of Embers was accidentally discovered.  Esther’s Inheritance has all the hallmarks of a Marai classic, and, since, I had read Embers years ago, I was not troubled too much by the thematic similarity between it and Esther’s Inheritance

(to be continued . . .)