Saturday, 26 July 2014

The In Between World of Vikram Lall


M.G. Vassanji

ISBN: 10-1-4000-7565-0

When I first picked this book up, I was expecting...I don’t know what really, but it certainly wasn’t what I got! It is one of the most avid reads I have had for a long time. Perhaps it is because it uses, as its backdrop, a period of history, recent enough for me to have been alive for, of which I had no information about before reading this tale. Only occasional words and phrases, ‘Mau Mau’ for example, had entered my world of knowledge, but I had no context in which to place it. But I must make clear from the outset, this is not a book about them, it is not a book of blood and guts, and explicit terror, but more about the consequences of the changes that were happening in Kenya, during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.      

The main protagonist, Vik, is telling us the story of his life, justifying his status as the most hated man in Kenya, on the most wanted list, with African hit men on the lookout for him. This makes him sound like a hardened baddie, but he isn’t, just a victim of circumstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, meeting the wrong people. I’ve just made it sound like a thriller, or a crime mystery, which it definitely is not. The criminal status is a backdrop for the story of his and his family’s life.

The story begins with his childhood, he and his sister from Indian stock, but Kenyan by birth, and their forged friendships with an African servant boy, and a pair of English children. As the Mau Mau terror period looms and erupts, the children’s lives and futures are forever changed and we follow each life to its present day conditions. We are taken through the revolution and the fledging birth of the new country, and explore how each community fares. Indians will suddenly lose their property and wealth, the Mau Mau fighters are let down on the governments promises, and the government is as corrupt as before any changes. The narrative resists the changes to this modern way of thinking, when we are with  Vik’s parents, who insist still on arranged marriages with one’s own culture, and the narrative will forge ahead with changes when we spend time with Deepa, Vik’s sister. Njoroge, the childhood servant boy adds yet another layer in the interwoven lives of all the characters. A certain amount of predictability creeps into the love story aspect of this tale, although that is blown apart on the very last page. I will resist a spoiler, but I did find the ending a little odd, considering the text, the narrator and the end. Those who read this tale will understand.

I found myself there, in Kenya, with the characters from the very beginning. The writing that absorbs the reader into the page and the atmosphere is excellent. I could smell the street, hear the sounds of the jungle and see the vistas of the Rift valley. Vassanji is a first class wordsmith, and I am very pleased to have had the pleasure of finding this book, in a second hand bookshop in Nova Scotia, Canada.    

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Silent House
Orhan Pamuk

ISBN: 978-0-571-27592-2

Set in the 1980’s pre revolution Turkey, Pamuk takes us off to a small seaside town, to a house that is in a state of disrepair, wherein lives a ninety year old grandmother, looked after by her dwarf servant, who is the illegitimate son for her deceased husband, and the  grandchildren are on the way to celebrate her birthday. Sounds simple enough? Well, it is, but...

The story is told in the first person, with each character moving the story along, explaining their role in the family, their hopes and aspirations and some even have a goal in life. We meet the dwarf, who knows nothing more than to serve his mistress; she suspicious of everyone and spending her time with her memories and her past. The younger generation who visit include one who is aiming for a better life in America, one who’s wife has left him when his drinking became too much of an issue, and a young lady veering her political thoughts towards communism.  So, for very different reasons, they all agree that Grandmother should give up the house and the proceeds should be allocated accordingly. But will it work? Can they convince the elderly lady to retire to a care home? That’s the face value premise and plot of the tale. As will all Pamuk’s work, there is an underlying threat and dark, parallel subtexts will draw you into a world that is not quite as straightforward as it seems.

It is a very pedestrian work, slowly ambling along, seemingly going nowhere but giving us an in depth knowledge of each character. But as we stroll though this quaint seaside setting, small telltale signs alert us to rumblings and discontent; guards on the beach, demanding payment for sitting and sunbathing, a small time protection racket going on against the shopkeepers by the angry youth of the town.  So we are drawn in. Certainly for me, I found myself changing my opinion of each character as they went through the tale, and I think we were meant to have that change of heart. Some of the characters find the same about each other, in the same way. I am not one for giving spoilers, so I have no intention of giving anything away, but I was initially disappointed when the climax came and I was taken completely by surprise. Immediately afterwards, the story became as pedestrian s it was before the ‘event’. It is only on reflection that I can now appreciate the how and why the author did this.

As with all his work, you will get sucked into his setting, the world he wants you to inhabit and observe. The quality of the text is superb, the descriptive narrative has you exactly where he wants you to be. Because it is a slow burner, you will need patience to get stuck in, I’m afraid there is no horrific crime to report on the first few pages. What you will gt though, as you close the book for the last time, is an understanding of Turkey at the time when revolutionary thoughts were beginning to enter the heads of the new generation.    

Sunday, 6 July 2014

A Land without Jasmine
Ajdi Muhammad Abduh al-Ahdal

ISBN 978-1-85964-312-9

This short story, from the Yemen is a tale that can be read in one sitting; indeed it probably should be to get the full effect of the moral. It is told in the first person, however, that person changes dependent on the stage of the story. We hear from that person only once, each time moving the story of the missing girl on, or not.
The story begins with the twenty year old girl telling us what life is like for her in modern day Yemen. The narrative tells of the way of life in the country, the differences between the lives of men and women and briefly explores the interaction between the old Yemen and modern ways of life. But, the girl is to disappear...

Enter the detective, eager at first to explain the disappearance, but has to work in the face of the girl’s male family members, all carrying machine guns and threatening to take the law (the old law that is) into their own hands. We meet the shopkeeper from across the road, who spends time ogling the young girls, the lecturer from the college who openly admits to leering and intimidating his female students; and we meet the young boy, implicated by the fact that he loved his next door neighbour and followed her wherever she went. As the story, and time moves on, the family deal with her loss in different ways, and we hear from the father, who will kill his daughter if she has allowed herself to be defiled by kidnappers or rapists, to mother, who is not permitted to openly express her fears, horror and grief.

The ending of the story portrays the stark differences between Yemen and countries I am familiar with. I’m not going to put a spoiler in, but it did make me wonder if firstly, imagination of the writer has taken a step too far, or if the process of moving on was still something that happened in the modern day country. I m at no stage saying it’s a good or bad process, just one I have never encountered before.
This tale is written in an unemotional, stark way, but the narrative is alive with emotion, fear, hope despair and anger. The writing is taut, barely a wasted word; each sentence serves to move the story along, or tell the reader something about past or present Yemen. There is a clever talent that can look into the inner thoughts of a young lady and then switch, successfully, to the workings of a parent, policeman, soothsayer, young boy and Imam, all with the same depth of character. All this can be found in a book that will take no more than a couple of hours to read.

I do recommend this story; so put aside your prejudices, your preconceived ideas of this part of the world, and prepare to have your knowledge base broadened.    

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The Hangman’s Replacement
Taona Dumisani Chivenenko

Full of intrigue, mystery, humour and secretive; well, that about covers the author! This book has been written by the above named person, who has no immediately available image on ‘Google’, translated by ‘somebody’ and ‘another person’. There doesn’t appear to have an easily trackable   ISBN and the title, although central to the plot line has very little to do with erasing the idea that this is a gloomy, morbid tale, which it isn’t. So, what is it?

Science fiction, horror, satire, humour and an investigation of ‘what if...’ It starts with a simple man applying for the job, as stated in the title. He may be a simple man, but he certainly is no simpleton. Following several logical, humane but somewhat difficult philosophies, we will leave him part way through the story, only for him to return at the appropriate time. For example, to prĂ©cis a segment of his interview; how he would feel if he found out that he had dispatched a third of his prisoners who were in fact innocent. He remarked that as his wage would keep his entire village in food and drinks, which numbered many more than in the prison, he would still be saving lives by becoming the hangman. Difficult to argue with, I think but alien to our sense of decency? Discuss.

As we move through the tale, we meet the super rich, the politicians that might just be veering ever so slightly down their own path, with somewhat obscure motives and plans. So now all we need is the introduction of the flesh eating plants!  Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the human organ smuggling gang that use living cattle to transport across the borders.  But who will be the winners and losers in this battle that resembles ‘The Day of the Triffids’ and ‘Frankenstein’?  There are chapters entitled ‘The man with two brains’ (which will make sense when you get there, and there is an encounter with a dead, naked man, found in the lake, completely wrapped in a full sized condom! Again, this will make sense at the right time.

This is a book that is easily looked over, with a title that does not automatically lend itself to further investigation. But I cannot recommend highly enough that you resist the urge to pass it by, take it off the shelf, look on your e-reader, or if you have to, contact me and I will point you in the right direction – but please do try and find time. Just put your disbelief to one side for a short time, immerse yourself into every conceivable genre that 300 pages can manage to accommodate and get stuck in. I promise, you will not read about or experience the last moments on any criminal’s life.

I am told by the author (whoever that may be) that there is to be a sequel. I, for one, can’t wait. I hope it will be just as quirky and odd, but it must remain as true to humanity; and humane philosophies as this one. I can’t recommend this one highly enough! 

Monday, 16 June 2014


The Blind Man’s Garden
Nadeem Aslam

ISBN 978-0-571-28794-9

Pakistan – contemporary times, with young, passionate angry men who see their country, and neighbouring Afghanistan being invaded by westerners, infidels who are putting the very fabric of the Islamic faith in danger.  So sets the scene for this book that is not a book of war or terror, but one of internal struggles, both personal and political. And, as everywhere in the world, we enter a world of love, family standards and expectations, and simple yearning for the things that can’t be attained when young.

The story has three strains running through it. Firstly, Mikal and Jeo cross the border to Afghanistan into the war zone, for totally different reasons. Then we have Jeo’s father’s experiences whilst left at home, with fundamentalists threatening to undermine all his life’s work, while his past is a constant torment to him. Finally, we are witness to a love triangle that is doomed from the very first words on the page.  

So why does this seemingly run of the mill love triangle novel work? Because it isn’t! The Islam religion comes into play, Pakistani senses of honour and family standards are cleverly mixed in. It becomes a mental battle for my western upbringing and ways of living. The same should be said for the passages that follow the two men across the border. Their thinking patterns are expressed as the men of that part of the world would be expected to think. The western forces are trying to impose their will on the traditional way of life, and these men, and many others like them, are resisting. It does make for some uncomfortable reading in parts, not in any particular violent way, but perhaps with the realisation that all the propaganda we in the west are given about the conflict and the men concerned are not entirely with a firm basis. It does challenge our thinking.

Finally, what must it be like having self confessed terrorist in the neighbourhood? To not believe in their actions and motives, but unable to act in a decisive way to stop it must be difficult indeed. As the story progresses, it is instinctive to think that everything will be fine in the end, but you will constantly be reminded that you are viewing events from the ‘other side of the fence.’

Written in a crisp, fast paced fashion, it does have a certain ‘un-putdownability’ about it; we are always left with an urge to know what happens next. Don’t expect an easy read though; as I say, it will challenge all the perceptions and ideals that the average westerner is brought up with. I do say that with all due respect to those of the Islamic faith and upbringing. It has certainly made me realise that as with all people of the world, we all just want to do what we believe is right for our own family. And that is quite right too!

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Garlic Ballads
Mo Yan

ISBN 978-1-61145-530-4

Venturing into China, I decided to look for a contemporary work that would move away from the historical way that is well documented in other reviews. It was whilst rummaging around the works of Nobel Prize winning authors that I came across this story from an author whose work is often banned from his native home. I do think if I was the Chinese government I too would ban his work, or else be thoroughly ashamed that my actions were being exposed.

 It s a love story, (or not), a story of family values (or stresses), but mostly a story about the ordinary working folk trying to make a living for their family in spite of the actions of the local governing party members. It becomes a story of human frustration that spills over in a low level demonstration by the farmers that have devastating consequences. The garlic crop has been planted and farmed based on the request, and I use that term loosely, of the collective. A glut ensues, the farmers lose their entire years earnings, and finally they begin to ask why the government is failing them. The inevitable consequences appear disproportionate, however they are described with great plausibility.  

Into this mix, we must consider the way that a modern family still treats the women of the home. Certainly in this tale, we might have been reading a book written a hundred years ago. The wife has become a devoted slave to her husband’s whims, and the daughter is certainly not invited to offer an opinion on anything. She is to be sold, via a dowry, into a marriage that she has no wish to be part of. When she expresses a love for the young man in the next field, she is beaten brutally by her father and lambasted by her brothers while her mother stands by. Although the brothers are not entitled to beat their sister, they have no such inhibitions towards her young lover. Powerful stuff indeed!

The story is written at many levels. The three entwined threads, as I have described, goes through several time spans. Firstly we are living with the consequences of everybody’s actions. We are also taken back to the various recent histories of each of the characters and families, and finally, we are taken back to their earlier histories to explain how and why they are all in the situations they find themselves. However, throughout the novel we have the government attitude in the background. This is probably where the censor has a problem. We, the outside world, are aware of their attitude to all manner of issues concerning the ordinary folk trying to eke out a living. ‘Might is right’ is a phrase that runs as an underlying threat to every strand of this excellently written, well crafted novel concerning dreadful behaviour of all manner of departments, courts, government officials and heads of families.

I do urge you to try and find a copy of this book; if you choose to disbelieve all the claims made by the author it is still a very good read and if you do believe the claims, prepare to ask yourself what you might be able to do to change to lot of the ordinary hard working people of China.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Zorba the Greek - Nikos Kazantzakis

ISBN: 0-571-05265-7

What a man! If the world could be lived according to Zorba, then what a better place it would be...I think.

Written in the middle of the forties, but set in the Thirties, we are transported to the island of Crete, where our hero has travelled with his new found companion and employer, our narrator. Over the period of the novel, we are regaled with the philosophies and ideals of this well travelled Macedonian; he has been a fighter for causes, a lover of women, a callous handed worker and an international drifter. But he exudes confidence and trust wherever he goes. His ability to compartmentalise the various parts of his history, as well as his present day affairs makes him somebody that you could confide your innermost thoughts to.

The story is based around the opening of a disused mine on the island by our narrator, which will give our narrator, an intellectual, a chance to get amongst the working classes and the peasants. Zorba becomes his manager of the mine, working alongside and leading the workforce, spending the evenings in the same accommodation as his new found Bhudda studying owner. It is during the evenings, over simple foods that they discuss the philosophies of the world at large, people in general and the two of them in particular. As the story advances, they discover that although their lives have been lived in totally different ways; with different upbringings, ideals and beliefs, they are not so far apart after all. All this, and set against the coastline of the island, facing south.

In the writing of this work, Kazantzakis has split the text into two at many levels. He has two conflicting outlooks that come together, realising that the Bhuddist way of seeing the world is not that far different from the coarse but honest way of Zorba. There are the social differences between our two protagonists that eventually meet in the middle, the immediacy of Zorba as opposed to the considered approach from the owner of the mine. Finally, and with equal importance, there is a different approach to love, with Zorba becoming emotionally attached to a lady with a colourful past that included many gentlemen of military standing and the owner becoming attracted to a local widow in a much more genteel way. Both relationships will end in the same way, but by totally different routes.

The final parting of company by these two men comes across as inevitable, but is quite sudden and final when it does come. They both will take a little of each other’s outlooks, views and teachings with them, and although they will never meet again, there is a small twist at the end. As with the rest of the text, two conflicting approaches to the same subject; the end is both bitter and sweet.

It is, then, a fine tale of companionship, honour, belief and manliness. Clearly there are indications that date the work, but the ideals, ethos and ultimate message from Kazantzakis remains as true today as it did when it was written some 70 years ago. Well worth seeking out and reviewing your lifestyle to see if you can be a little bit more like Zorba. I will! 

Sunday, 4 May 2014


The Famished Road
  Ben Okri
                                         ISBN: 0-9-992930-9                                            

This book was the winner of the Booker Prize in 1991,

A tome of a book, it takes us to Nigeria, to a time when democratic (and I use that term lightly) government is on the horizon, and the demise of colonial power is imminent.  The tale takes us to rural countryside rather than the city, and concerns the young life of a boy and his upbringing within a poverty stricken background.
But this only describes a small part of the story; you see, our main protagonist, Azaro, is a ‘spirit child’. As such, he is a part of, and in direct conversation with the spirit world, who want him to return to their world, rather than remaining with his earthly parents. He has encounters at all sorts of times, generally within a forest environment and generally alone, only becoming aware of their importance as he gets older. His ability carries an aura, which can be seen, or felt, by one or two others as we go through the story.

So it seems that we have two complete stories threading through the book, with the spiritual encounters taking more prominence as the text continues. I think Okri uses this device to allude to the future for his country; the forests disappearing, the lives of people changing in future years. The real problem I had were the ‘other world’ parts, where monsters appeared, strange beings, spurting green blood one occasion and having several heads which all need to be chopped off...I’m sure you all get the idea. All this is great if you like that sort of thing, but I found myself starting to skip passages, at the risk of missing an important message for me, as a reader.  I found myself quite relieved each time that Azaro returned to the real life, and the history could continue; his hard working, drunken, violent father, his long suffering but loyal mother, and the landlady of the local bar, where Azaro found a sort of employment. While in the real world, fear of voting for the wrong party, the thugs, the politics and the abject poverty all come out of the pages to instil a powerful dread for the future of this family. In a non-committal fashion, the parties are known as the party for the rich and the party for the poor. The rich party offer all manner of glitter to the poor, and try to overtake the parish, and Azaro’s father chooses the party of the poor. The resulting conflict comes in many different guises. But, how will he resolve this?

I think the book could be a hundred pages shorter and the parts about the spirit world less frequent. However, overall, I am glad I read this book, even though it has been at a second attempt. Although it will not be the first book I pack for a stay on a desert island.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014


The Book of Chameleons          


                           Jose Eduardo Agualusa                                                                                                              

ISBN: 978-1-90812-901-7

This book comes with a promise of something different from the usual book that one can pick up; it is a story told by the chameleon. This lizard will tell the story of what happens, from its point of view, whilst hanging from the various walls of a house in Angola. Inside this house, past histories are re-arranged, false genealogical ancestors can be found, and all with all the accompanying paperwork, for a price.

I fear that I might not do this novel justice in its content and underlying subtext. I don’t think I know enough about the political history of Angola to fully appreciate the analogies that Agualusa as trying to twist into the text, although I was very aware that there were many there to be found. For example, one character goes off to find the gravestones of his newly invented ancestors, and another, a character with a political background, having been given a false grandparent with a famous status in the city, roundly complained that the local school should be renamed to reflect the importance of the said politician. It seemed not to have occurred to this political figure that everything he as saying, everything he as basing his on importance on, was based on a lie. It just suited him at the time. I have no doubt whatsoever, that wherever in the world you are reading this, you will be able to recognise somebody in the public arena with the same outlook. What I don’t know is whether the author put himself in danger by writing in this style. If he did, then his bravery is paradoxically counterpointed by the idea that the chameleon should be the author. The lizard keeps telling us how much of a coward it is.

As for the book itself, it is an easy flowing, without any overt political overtones, without, seemingly, any morals with which to warn us of; easy to follow text that saunters along quite happily until the end, when we get an ‘oooh’ moment. That surprise is not so much the content, but the very fact that it was there. It really snuck up on me, but like most of these times, it serves to link all the strands of the plot and finishes the story, neatly tied up with no loose ends.  In lots of ways, an ordinary, run of the mill novel, but, as I said at the beginning, I fear I’m missing many more subtle points that are lying under the headline text. Therefore, I do apologise anyone from the region who is exasperated with me, and to the author too for my nondescript review; please don’t let me put you off, the talking lizard is waiting to tell you a tale...

Thursday, 17 April 2014


After The Dance...A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti

 Edwidge Danticat
In the time of Shakespeare, when his actors were all male, the younger men and boys were given the female roles. That, in itself, is not too confusing for his audience. Add to the plot that the female character has to be disguised as a boy, so the boy is now dressed as a girl, dressing as a male. Now, bring it all up to date, give that role to someone like Eddie Izzard, in all of his transvestite glory, and we now have complete confusion – but something we might all want to watch and revel in all the complexity. Finally, let’s ship all this mix to a Caribbean Island and try and follow...

What we have in this book is a blend of travelogue, memoir, and history of the island, all bound together by the author’s return to the island of her birth, in readiness for the carnival at the end of the week. But the confusion begins almost from the very beginning. The early chapters tells of her childhood years; thus beginning the history element, and we meet characters who we can presume we will follow throughout the book, but we won’t. The following chapters will take a theme of a mask for the carnival and will give us a synopsis of why it’s appearing in the carnival, the history, the people that will don these masks, the geography of the island where the mask originated.  I’m sure you get the gist... So, having settled into the new format, we are then shifted back to the carnival itself, but little time is spent at the actual festivities, only a chapter. We will finally get a narrative of the day after the event. The only thing we don’t get is a plot, a story, a tugging of our emotions. There is simply no part of the text that leaves a ‘what happens now’ sense of excitement.

I do understand what the author has tried to do; intertwine the history of her life, with her island and bring it all into a contemporary setting. However, for me, it has dismally failed.  If it had been a travelogue, it would have been fine, albeit sketchy, as a history book, it would have been lacking, as it only scratches the surface of the complexities of the island’s mysterious past. As a memoir, it isn’t! As a work of fiction, it perhaps gives a literary licence to play with facts, landscapes and characters. The trouble is, because it is being so many different things at the same time, it just ends up confusing in every element.  So I’ve no idea whether the information in the text is true, myth or fictional. Similar, I think, to watching Eddie Izzard, playing a Viola, in Twelfth Night. Confusing, distracting, and leaves the audience wondering just what we were supposed to take away from the prose. Certainly, what you see – in this case, on the front cover – is not what you get once you delve further. Shame, really.

Written with all due respect to Eddie Izzard – I have only used his name and character for illustrative purposes of this blog and no opinion regarding his character is suggested, inferred or presumed in any other way. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

What the Day Owes the Night
Yasmina Khadra

Warning! Do not attempt this book until you have time to finish it. Once picked up, it is incredibly difficult to put it down until the end. Written, I am told, by an Algerian army officer, who has written under a female assumed name so as to avoid censorship from his superiors, this novel takes us through a multitude of emotions and circumstances.

We follow the life of Younes, or Jonas, taken from an Arab birth to be brought up in the Jewish community. We will follow his life until its conclusion and we will be submerged in the conflicts, both mental and physical between the rich and the poor, and Jew and Muslim (with a smattering of Christianity). French rule competes with independence, interspersed with an internal power struggle. Into this mix, we can add the growing pains of a young man, the angst of unrequited love and the benefits, or otherwise, of a groups of close friends with whom life’s toils are shared. I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything.

So, how has it all fitted it all in? By bombarding us with page after page of quality text! Using both descriptive landscaping and by engaging us with the main protagonists, we are, in short, thrust into the lives of the characters and we are allowed, very quickly, to decide the friendliness (or otherwise) of each in turn. As far as I’m concerned, I did want to know the fate of each one; nobody fell to the wayside. The book is also complete, inasmuch as we are told how each character finishes up. There are no loose ends, and we are allowed to close the book having got all the information we want.

Technically clever, Khadra wastes little time or words throughout. We are expected to understand there is an inherent tension between religions and levels of poverty, but as the international world might fail to know how, why and when the independence conflict started, we are told, at the appropriate time, in about four pages. Enough to learn and understand, but brief enough so as not to get bogged down with the politics. The text remains very readable and easy to follow.

As I travel through my world of authors, I have no doubt that I will want to veer off and read another novel from the same writer; this is the case in this instance. Algeria is made out to be an interesting place, the people complex and the lifestyle worthy of further exploration. And if any other Algerian authors come to the standard of Khdra, producing work of this quality, then I can’t wait to return for a second helping!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Romania - The Land of Green Plums

The Land of Green Plums
Herta Muller

Phew! You will need your wits about you for this one. From the 2009 Nobel Prize winner, Herta Muller, we are taken to the time of Nicolae Ceausescu, and the dictatorship that formed the early part of her life.

As I was being raised in the 1960’s, I was given the impression that everywhere ‘East’ was grey, overcast, gloomy and dull. Muller’s writing certainly gave credence to this perception. Everybody was downtrodden, living in fear and without hope. Although this is set two decades later, the impression remains unchanged.

The story revolves around a group of four students, from the provinces, who further their education within a university setting in the city. What begins as an omnipotent narrative soon becomes a diary type memory of events from one on these young people. As each journey unfolds, intertwined with each other, the despair for the future of each begins to seep off the page and into the psyche of the reader.  We are told of the intervention of the state in all that they did, from the secret policeman, who offered advice, veiling threats; constantly telling all the students that they are lucky to have him for their protection, to the dog at his heel, that had the same name, but tore the heels and trouser legs as soon as his master gave the order. As the students left for their predetermined jobs, decided by the state the friends decide that when they write to each other, they would place a single hair in the envelope to determine whether the post had been intercepted – it generally was, with the state keeping a firm grip on all that was said, thought and written. The story goes on to conclude the tale of each protagonist, and we, as readers, are told about, among other things, the process of emigration and the way the country operated under the dictatorship.

The writing itself is quite riveting; you can find yourself turning pages almost without realising. But there are no particular points where the story explodes, rather the opposite; it implodes within the character’s lives often. However, Muller does tend to wander off the direct line of prose, and brings in occasional allegories, reverting to hypothetical scenes to explain the present, but not for long, there is really little need to digress.

It is a difficult book to read, as I’m sure it was to write, but that doesn’t make it less of a story. The subject matter is tough the language regarding the subject is tough and the prose itself is difficult to stay with. This is not bedtime reading as I promise you will not keep up, thus failing to grasp its importance.  And I do think it important that work like this is out there. How can we learn the mistakes without reading, digesting and responding to this historical warning, being shouted long and hard from the rooftops.  
Published by Granta Books, London

ISBN 9781862072602

Sunday, 6 April 2014


A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear
Atiq Rahimi

This story has taken us to Kabul in the late 1970’s and straight back to the time when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan with an iron rod. This is not a tale that will tell us of the geography of the country, nor will it tell of landscaped vistas, or the political background to the tale; we are thrown straight in. So be ready.

The translators notes in the copy I have, tell me that the literal translation for a labyrinth in Afghan is ‘A Thousand Rooms’ – you will certainly enter a labyrinth when you turn the first page here; an excellently told tale of a terrible tale, but well worth reading.  
In a tightly written story, we spend the time with a young man who has met security police, after curfew, having had a night with friends and alcohol. Add a youthful arrogance to the mix, and we have a chap beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Rescued by a stranger, a lady, he is hidden in her house, along with her brother, until escape from the country can be organised. Well, that’s the plot, but certainly not the story.

Rahimi explores how and why the young man appears to be defying authority, and why he certainly can’t go home and expose his family now. The lady has a tale to tell as to why she is alone, we hear of her absent husband, and her hidden brother has been secreted for reasons that we will find out as the story goes on. It does all sound very dramatic and exciting, but in fact we are hearing the tales of ordinary people trying to live in extraordinary circumstances; fear being part of their everyday lives.  

As the story progresses, events begin to happen that a reader would perhaps question; is the plot becoming too whimsical?  ‘Would that really happen like that?’ you might ask. But I think you will be so sucked in to the lives of these few protagonists that you will almost forgive the author the literary licence he appears to have taken to move the plot along. Until the end, when you will understand that it is just as it really would will need to find and read this book for a full explanation.

This book is an education at many different levels. The treatment of women by the Taliban at that time is one thread. The ramifications that can be expected when young men fail to meet the standards set by the Taliban are also explained and explored. Three different men, three different endings...

All in all, it is a very well written tale, tight, no words wasted and still written with a twist in the tale that is in keeping with the subject; enough to keep us page turning right up to the end. It is not an action packed, shoot ‘em up type of story, and there is no undue or unnecessary violence, none the less, the fear leaps out of every sentence spoken, every bang on the door, every shout from the courtyard. But beware! You might well give an involuntary start if someone knocks on your door while you are reading this...

Thursday, 27 March 2014


Spring Flowers, Spring Frost


Ismail Kadare

ISBN: 9781446419588

The story is set away from the main cities, in a town that is portrayed as a little behind in its attitude, as many country regions around the world are. In this small town, we meet Mark, an artist, who is trying to get to grips with many things in his life. He has a girlfriend who keeps disappearing to the capital for days on end. She seems to be embracing the westernised way of life a little ahead of Mark. Then there is the bank robbery in the town, another legacy of the change from the old style of rule?  
There is a rumour that the old style of law, ancient in its origin, is being reintroduced – blood for blood – with extended family members living in the fear of reprisals for harm you caused; kill a man and your whole family is in jeopardy.  Is there any truth in these rumours? They certainly carry more weight when the boss at the office where Mark works is mysteriously and brutally murdered. Mark finds a way to integrate into the areas where he might find out if this national state secret law is about to explode throughout the country.
And then we move to the ‘counter chapters’. Interwoven with this story is a fable of a woman who is married off by her family, to a snake. The initial introduction is a little off putting, but I found that the fable held as much interest as the modern story. It is quite difficult here to tell any more of the fable without giving away the full story of the whole book, but perhaps suffice to say that there is a point to it.

So what we really have is a book that is exploring the political history, the current ideology and the future fears for Albania. Should the country embrace the future Western attitudes? After all, there are now bank robberies, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened under the old rule.  Should the country have stayed with the old rule, it protected the citizens from the ancient rule of an eye for an eye?  It is written in crisp, tight fashion, and is a story that you can’t really fall asleep with, half way down the page. Certainly save this one for when the concentration levels are good. That is not to say it’s a difficult book to read, far from it. I found it enjoyable to read, thought provoking and left me wanting to know more; about the country, their politics and the author of this relatively short novel.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


In The Shadow of the Banyan Tree
Vaddy Ratner

There are books in this world that seem to demand to be read. They are the books that are easy to turn the page on, the one's you can't go to bed for and yet, sometimes, they make for terrible images that will leave a lasting impression, long after the last page is turned.

This stop on my tour of the world have taken me to Cambodia, in the mid '70's, and plunged me into a world, and part of history that I was only vaguely aware of. There is a little bit of me that has been left ashamed that it has taken this long to discover a piece of history of such magnitude, while all the time I was enjoying a glorious hot and sunny teenage life; where the biggest crisis was where the next pimple might appear on my face.

Written as a work of fiction - it clearly is not! As the author explains in her notes, literary licence has been exercised, but, fundamentally, an autobiographical account of the revolution in her country by the Khmer Rouge and her family's suffering at the hands of the new regime. The tale takes us away from their home, with all its comforts, into the rural farm life and enforced slave labour. We are swept along and become part of her family, bearing her losses with as much hurt and anger as she; no grief is allowed to be displayed, (it is an unnecessary emotion.) We share her hunger, despair, fear and loss, all borne with remarkable stoicism, what little surprise that she loses the will to voice her pains in the end.

But, it is also a story that speaks of people who cared for them, who tried to make their ordeal a little more bearable, and when they are added to the lovely descriptive views of the scenery that is Cambodia, then the works begins to become a little more uplifting, both in emotion and tone of the story. Her father, along with his oral stories, give us some wonderful philosophical views on humanity, life, death and remembrance.

It is hard to imagine that all of these events, spanning more than three years, didn’t scar the author for life, perhaps it did; perhaps writing the story serve to purge the nightmares. But perhaps the story was written as in homage to her father, and all he believed in. Whichever the reason, this book must serve as a reminder to us all what perverted power can do to a country, whatever the motives. This really is a ‘must read’.