Recent reads in brief

I seem to have been reading so quickly for a few weeks there that I am way behind on reviews again, so here are a few quickies.

lifeboatThe Lifeboat
by Charlotte Rogan

This is the story of Grace, survivor of a 1914 ocean liner disaster. We learn at the start that she survived for three weeks in a lifeboat and is now facing trial for her life. She narrates the story of the shipwreck and Lifeboat 14, gradually revealing the crime she now stands accused of.

Most of the boat’s occupants are upper class women, and as such practical matters quickly fall to a small number of characters. Grace is young, recently married to a rich man, but her background is murky, as are her actions. Throughout a fairly suspenseful, exciting story she muses on matters of guilt and innocence, on character traits and social status. She watches alliances being formed, gossip spreading, moments of human strength and weakness. But ultimately Grace is a frustrating narrator. She rarely places herself in the story, and when she does her position is often unclear. Is she as weak and on the fence as she seems or is it an act? The whole narrative is being written as a piece of evidence for her lawyers, so she has a clear motive to paint her actions whiter than they perhaps were. I like ambiguity and unreliable narrators, but I found the hints at Grace’s unreliability were a little too hidden. And for a lot of the start of the novel I found the uselessness of the majority of the women incredibly annoying.

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Sound played for the enemy side

sworn-virgin

Sworn Virgin
by Elvira Dones
translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford

This sounds like it could be a very serious, heavy book but it really isn’t; it’s a very readable, enjoyable, gorgeous novel that deals with issues, serious and light, familiar and unfamiliar.

Back in 1986, when Hana Doda was a happy carefree student in the city of Tirana, she got the news that her Uncle Gjergj, her foster father, was dying back home in the mountains of northern Albania. Hana is the last family he has left, but caring for him isn’t easy in their small village with its strict traditional roles and remote distance from anywhere else. Hana can’t work or travel safely to get her uncle medicine because she is a woman. So she makes a decision. Following an old Albanian tradition, she chooses to become a sworn virgin – she will live the rest of her life as a man. In return for the freedom to earn money, travel freely, drink and smoke and, crucially, read her beloved books, she must remain chaste.

14 years later she arrives in the US to live with her cousin. She’s been Mark for her whole adult life but now she can choose to be Hana again, only it isn’t that simple. It’s a huge wrench to see herself as female again and to interact with others as a woman.

“It’s weird but when she was Mark she was better with words. Mark weighed them out inside himself, observed and honed them, stroked them, at times erased them from his mind. As a man, silence was his ally. In silence there was hope; in conversations there often wasn’t. Sound played for the enemy side.”

That a novel covering such weighty issues as communism, patriarchal oppression, sexual violence, immigration and gender identity manages to be so warm and enjoyable is a huge achievement. The contrast between Albania just before and just after the fall of communism there, and the USA in the early 21st century is vast, but Dones paints both with assurance. The US is not entirely a promised land and Albania is not entirely awful, and while Hana has opportunities in the US she didn’t have back home, she isn’t entirely sure she wants them.

“It wasn’t life. It was the annihilating breath of fear. It was pain a whisper away from the atrocious pleasure of hearing death knock at the door, then move on. It was a daily ration of menace, a nightmare you couldn’t escape.”

Dones shows criticism and compassion for tradition, but Hana’s reasons for becoming a sworn virgin aren’t just about her desire to fulfil an obscure tradition. The full reasons for her choice are revealed slowly, as she comes to terms with them herself.

But as much as anything else, this is the story of an immigrant arriving in the US, a woman starting anew in her mid-30s, reconciling who she is with the life that she wants to have. And she’s a lovely woman to spend 270 pages with, sarcastically witty, fighting hard to keep up her prickly defences.

Apparently Dones is a popular and distinguished author in Albania. I really hope that means more of her work gets translated into English.

Vergine giurata published 2007 by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore.
This translation published 2014 by And Other Stories.

Source: I’m a subscriber to And Other Stories.

White people don’t care where they send you

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe
by Romain Puértolas
translated from French by Sam Taylor

This book has already been a huge success in France and the publishers of the English translation are clearly hoping for similar sales figures. I hope they get them, even though I didn’t love it.

It would be wrong to say I am ambivalent about this book – it does not invite ambivalence. Rather, I both loved aspects of it and was frustrated or disappointed by others. It could well be a bit of a Marmite book.

At first glance – especially for the first few chapters – this is a very silly comedy, one that did make me laugh (or rather, snigger) a few times, though it’s not entirely to my comedic taste. Then, just as I was struggling to decide how I felt about all this slapstick silliness (it has a very Clouseau vibe) and the rather tricky main character, some serious issues get thrown into the mix (primarily human trafficking/illegal immigration) and, for me, it all picked up considerably. I know from online reviews that some people have objected to this combination of serious and silly but I actually thought that was handled fairly well – that was not my objection.

“A fakir by trade, Ajatashatru Oghash (pronounced A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh!) had decided to travel incognito for his first trip to Europe. For this occasion he had swapped his ‘uniform’, which consisted of a loincloth shaped like an enormous nappy, for a shiny grey suit and a tie rented for peanuts from Dilawar (pronounced Die, lawyer!), an old man from the village.”

It’s a difficult novel to summarise but the title does a fairly good job of the start! Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod has travelled from his home village in Rajhastan to Paris to buy a bed of nails from IKEA. He’s brought only a counterfeit €100 note, his real funds having been entirely spent on his airfare and visa, which I felt nicely set up the balancing act between his poverty and his shaky morals. When he gets trapped in a display model of a wardrobe in IKEA, it of course happens to be one that is earmarked for hasty transport (i.e. it isn’t disassembled) to England, where the fakir is discovered in a lorry with five illegal immigrants.

This neatly opens the door for an exploration – a largely scathing one – of border controls in a few different western European countries through the eyes of someone – an Indian with a legal Schengen visa – who doesn’t already know their ins and outs (such as the fact that the UK is not Schengen). One of Puértolas’ many former careers was as a French border guard and his inside knowledge shows, in a good way. He clearly has great sympathy for those who leave behind unimaginable poverty, hunger and disease in search of a better life, and great hatred for those who take advantage of such desperation. There are some tough details in this book, though they are never lingered on.

“It is not the fear of being beaten that twists our guts. No, because on this side of the Mediterranean we do not suffer beatings. It is the fear of being sent back to the country from which we have come, or, worse, being sent to a country we don’t know, because the white people don’t care where they send you.”

So I appreciated the subject matter, I found the story very readable and when the comedy got a little less broad it was more to my taste (or perhaps it even grew on me)…but I still didn’t love it. I might argue that the serious issues were handled a little too lightly and that they deserved to be explored more deeply, but then that would be a very different book. In fact, I am hopeful that the comedic tone of this novel will bring the issues surrounding human trafficking and illegal immigration to a wider conversation. (Indeed, at the hairdresser I spotted that this book is one of British Vogue magazine’s picks for their summer reads, which is a good start.)

My problem then is that the fakir’s reactions to his unlikely journey are trite, his opinions of the world are voiced clumsily and I never could decide if the book is racist. Certainly, it uses racial/national/gender stereotypes for comedic effect – for instance, the inability of any European to pronounce Indian names correctly – and up to a point that’s fine, but I often felt the line had been crossed.

I suppose that leaves me not ambivalent but also not decided.

L’extraordinaire voyage du fakir qui était resté coincé dans une armoire Ikea published 2013 by Le Dillettant.
This translation published July 2014 by Harvill Secker.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

The power of a great title

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio
by Amara Lakhous
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This book is clever, funny, insightful, serious and lighthearted all at once. I bought it on the back of a glowing review I read somewhere (possibly Eva of A Striped Armchair? Sorry I’m not sure on that) and am so glad that I discovered both an excellent book and a very interesting new publisher to me.

This book blends together a tried and tested format with a very modern story and characters. It’s a murder mystery, with alternate chapters made up of diary entries by the now missing – and therefore prime suspect – Amedeo, and the chapters in-between each narrated by a different character involved in the story.

They all live in an apartment building on Piazza Vittorio in Rome managed by the redoubtable Benedetta, or “the Neapolitan”. In fact, the residents come from all over – elsewhere in Italy, in Europe and the whole world. Immigration, racism and racial stereotypes are the central theme here. This one building is home to people from different parts of society, including a university professor, a travel agent, a cafe owner, a film student and an unemployed former chef. Each has their own view of the world and their own limits on what they observe or question.

The humour is evident right from the start, with Iranian immigrant Parviz despairing at his inability to hold down a job, convinced that he keeps getting fired because he doesn’t like pizza; despairing at the concierge Benedetta’s persistent use of a word he thinks (wrongly) is a swear word; despairing at the police repeatedly arresting him for feeding the pigeons, which he cannot comprehend being a crime. It is clear that this is a series of misunderstandings, largely based on his almost non-existent Italian. But he is not being mocked. Rather, Lakhous is pointing out how easy it is for people to choose anger and resentment rather than try to understand and be understood.

And the misunderstandings continue, get worse even, among people who do (or can) speak the same language but fail to listen to each other. Or prefer to believe their own prejudices and stereotypes rather the evidence before them. This can lead to some horrifying assumptions, but the humour – often revolving around the apartment’s elevator, which is central to many a row between residents – keeps the tone from getting too serious.

This is a short, fun read that has a lot to say and does it supremely elegantly. I will be on the lookout for more from this author and this publisher.

First published as Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio in 2006 by Edizioni.
This translation published 2008 by Europa Editions.