|My top six books: top row Egypt, Poland, Canada, bottom row Austria, Palestine, Barbados|
Earlier this year I wrote about my project to read at least one novel from every country and self-governing territory I have visited (see post, Reading around the world, with a little help from my network). I counted 56 of them and I have now completed my task, taking about a year and a half. I have never read as intensively before, not even during my undergraduate years studying English literature. It has been a wonderful experience, especially because I asked friends from each country for recommendations thus adding a personal touch to each book. Some books I chose myself since I had no obvious contacts in that country but the vast majority were recommendations. I had of course already ticked off quite a few countries before I started, namely the UK (hundreds of titles over the years), Ireland, Sweden, Russia, France, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
As I mentioned in my earlier post my only problem country was Liechtenstein. I searched and searched for a novel from there in a language I can read but found nothing. My German is too basic to tackle a novel and the only books I could find were in German. The only book I found was a rather disjointed compilation of folk tales and history complied by a Canadian who had become fascinated by the country. Luxembourg also proved rather elusive and I had to settle for poetry by the excellent Anise Koltz. Maybe I will try a novel in French from Luxembourg though it will be a test of my dormant knowledge of that language. Otherwise I read the vast majority of books in English but also a few in Swedish and Danish.
Since most of the books were recommended by friends they weren't always exactly what I might have chosen myself. Some were tough reading, but they were all rewarding in their own way and this was a good way of widening my choices beyond my own preferences. Although the books come from very diverse countries and cultures there deal with universal themes: family, home, love, loyalty and their absence. People may do things differently around the world but we have the same hopes and fears.
My top titles
Many friends have asked me which books I liked best. They all had their merits and it's impossible to make any sort of ranking list but after careful consideration, here is my list of six particularly memorable titles, in no particular order.
Egypt: Naguib Mahfouz - Cairo Trilogy
A magnificent family saga tracing a Cairo family's fortunes through a turbulent period in Egypt's history as it tries to free itself from British colonial rule and the struggle between tradition and modernity. The story is told from different perspectives and shows the tensions between generations and genders. The strict patriarchal order shown at the start is soon shown to be full of contradictions as is the modernist attitudes that develop later in the book. All the characters have their flaws as well as virtues and we develop an understanding for all of them. Three books in one and a major read, but well worth it. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.
Poland: Olga Tokarczuk - Books of Jacob
An epic novel about the Jewish 18th century cult leader Jacob Frank who claimed to be the Messiah and developed a considerable and devoted following among dissident Jews in Poland and central Europe. Although Jacob is the central figure we learn about him through the eyes of many followers and critics.He has undoubted charm and charisma but is also a manipulating narcissist with no empathy or humility and we have little or no sympathy for him. The book is meticulously researched and the level of detail is sometimes overwhelming, but at the same time fascinating. The atmosphere is dark and intricately described, full of mysticism and philosophical discourse and the lasting impression of the book is more about this atmosphere than the events described.
If pushed I would probably put this one at the top of my list simply because it was so powerful. It's not an easy read and deserves to be reread to really appreciate it but I will certainly never forget it. I can clearly see why Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Canada: Richard Wagamese - A ragged company
A moving and very thought-provoking story of four homeless drifters in a nameless Canadian city trying to survive in the brutal winter where some homeless people freeze to death if they can't find shelter. All four have had tough times, suffered cruelty and bitter disappointment and ended up on the streets. They are survivors but have found strength in each other's company. They spend their days in cinemas watching movies, an escape to other worlds. They get to know a former journalist who still has a home but has lost his bearings in life and also finds solice in the cinema. He then becomes a sort of mentor for the group especially when their fortunes turn dramatically.
One day one of the group finds a lottery ticket that proves to be a jackpot winner and suddenly the group are rich. This could so easily become a rather clichéd novel about how their lives are transformed by unexpected riches but not here. They use their winnings wisely to help them find a new home, not so much physically but more emotionally. It's a touching story about roots, home, love and companionship and although there are some harrowing episodes it leaves a lasting taste of hope.
Austria: Robert Seehaller - Fältet (Eng. The field)
A haunting collection of memories from the occupants of the cemetery of a small Austrian town. Each chapter features memories of people who have recently died and by piecing together these narratives we get to know the town and the events and dramas that have taken place there in recent years. The field in the title is the name the locals have given to the cemetery. Some chapters are inter-related as we read different perspectives of the same event. Some are tales of loneliness and disappointment, others are full of hope and redemption. Some chapters are very short, only a couple of paragraphs, and are impossible to interpret beyond guesswork. I enjoyed the thoughtful and rather melancholic atmosphere of this book.
Palestine: Radwa Ashour - The woman from Tantoura
The tale of a woman and her family forced to flee from their Palestinian village in 1948 as Israeli forces took over large parts of Palestinian territory. Her father and brothers are killed as are many of the village's men and the survivors head north to exile in Lebanon's refugee camps (where their descendants still live, 75 years later). She is a survivor and brings up her children in exile, always longing for the home that has been forever lost. Tragedy strikes again in the 1982 massacre in the refugee camp of Shatila but once again she manages to survive. It is not so much a political book but the story of a woman's courage and resourcefulness to keep her family going through so much hardship. In the end there is hope since her sons find prosperous lives far from the restrictions of the refugee camps. The woman stays however holding on to her memories of home.
Barbados: Karen Lord - Redemption in indigo
A charming book of magic and wonder, based on African folk tales mixed with Caribbean traditions. In a world where everyday life is influenced by the whims and sometimes mischievous designs of spirits called djombi, a young woman finds a magic stick, the chaos stick. This belongs to the Indigo Lord who desperately needs to recover it because his magic powers are limited without the stick. He eventually finds her and takes her away to far-off places and adventures. They learn to respect each other and the Indigo Lord finds that this mortal is much cleverer than most humans. I loved this book because it was a welcome break from the tragedy and suffering of so many other books. A real feel-good book but with with depth and food for thought.
What next? I will just keep reading more from these countries and maybe widen my search to countries that I haven't visited but where I have friends or countries that I wish I could have visited. This project has opened my eyes to all the literature beyond the Anglo-American tradition that I was brought up on. I would like to read more African literature since all the books I read from there so far have been very rewarding. I need to move south of the Sahara for new perspectives.
UK, Ireland, France, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland were already well read before this project started.
Netherlands: W F Hermans - Beyond sleep
Switzerland: Friedrich Dürrenmatt - The pledge
Trinidad & Tobago: V S Naipaul - A house for Mr Biswas
Venezuela: Ana Teresa Torres - Dona Ines vs oblivion