Fiction Review: “A Treatise on Shelling Beans” by Wieslaw Mysliwski

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“The giddy Poles,” as a Ukrainian author called them, are a freedom-loving people, yet they have lived under tyranny for most of three centuries, most severely punished in the last. In World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was virtually exterminated, and millions more perished. This tragedy was followed immediately by a Communist rule that afforded little opportunity for shedding ghosts.

In his brilliant major novel originally published in 1984, Wieslaw Mysliwski has by accretion, “Stone Upon Stone” as in its title, demonstrated how one man—if imperfectly—rebuilt his life under such circumstances. (Of the novel’s English translation in 2011, this reviewer wrote in Newcity, “As for this ‘Stone,’ you will not want to put it down.”)

Now comes Mysliwski with a compelling new novel—his second to win the Polish Nike Prize for literature—again adroitly rendered into English by Bill Johnston, in which he reveals not just the layers of a man’s life, but those of a nation’s memory and history, by unwrapping it; hence the title “A Treatise on Shelling Beans.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Where Tigers Are At Home” by Jean-Marie Blas de Robles

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9781590515624_custom-3ef6bbf266d479d83aac807de8b292862b5dcf8a-s6-c10“Where Tigers Are at Home,” by the French-Algerian writer and philosophy teacher Jean-Marie Blas-de Robles, was published in English this year. In 2008, it won the French literary award Prix Médicis. What reviews I’ve found of this novel have been positive, if not glowing. I’m sorry to report that I am baffled on this front.

The novel is enormous, over 800 pages long. It follows seven different plots, all but one taking place in contemporary Brazil, and the other, flashing back to seventeenth-century Europe, serves as a kind of focal point for the book. It follows a seventeenth-century priest, Athanasius Kircher, and his devoted follower, Caspar Schott; Eléazard, a Frenchman living in Brazil who pursues a failed love-hate study of the seventeenth-century religious figure and maintains himself in Brazil by writing desultory reports to Reuters. We also meet, in separate subplots, his soon-to-be-ex-wife Elaine, a geologist traveling deep into the jungle on a dangerous expedition; his daughter Moéma, a rebellious bisexual college student who swindles her absent father in order to fuel her drug habit; a handicapped favela-dwelling beggar named Nelson; a corrupt governor named Moreira, who makes dirty deals with U.S. corporations and government officials. How are they all connected? The characters start crossing paths—wait for it—no, wait for it some more—and a little more—on page 281. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Silence and the Roar” by Nihad Sirees

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“The Silence and the Roar,” written by the Syrian Nihad Sirees, is a modern-day farce (or so it seems) set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, where the narrator, writer Fathi Sheen, is out of favor with a ludicrous despotic government that demands the preposterous adulation of its populace for “The Leader.” Taking place over the course of a long day, the roar in the novel’s title refers to this unescapable sound of a bizarre routine: the entire populace, in the streets, rallying for the glory of the Leader. Sirees, whose works have been banned in his home country for more than a decade and who has recently fled into exile in Egypt, has fun with the contours of absurdity: “In my country slogans are arranged into lines of rhyming poetry.” Fathi, unsurprisingly, is having no part of this blind-adulation business, which is why he’s out of favor, but he does not seem particularly concerned. Instead, he spends most of his time alternately fascinated by the brainlessness of “the Masses” and searching for solitude in the arms of his equally disengaged lover, Lama. But his mother’s surprising decision to marry a well-connected functionary threatens his low-profile life, as does his inability to turn away from episodes of brutal repression he encounters in the street. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction” edited by Diego Trelles Paz and translated by Janet Hendrickson

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Imagine the portrait one might glean of the United States if all one read was the literature of William Faulkner, John Updike and Jack Kerouac.

For a long while, this rough analogy is how the bulk of United States readers formed their impressions of Latin America. A few literary colossi have dominated the region’s dreamscape in translation: Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

But Fuentes has died, Garcia Marquez is too ill to write and Vargas Llosa seems poised for his Nobel victory lap. Few believe these elders will monopolize the next decade.

A new generation of Latin American writers is emerging, with different styles and concerns. Many were born after dictators in their region fell, but before truth and reconciliation commissions began. They grew up with NAFTA, globalization and MTV. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Gold” by Chris Cleave

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Watching the bodies of Olympic athletes move so beautifully and powerfully, we want to get inside their heads. We want to be them, and we believe if we can get inside their heads, maybe, just a little bit, we can. But listening to athletes get interviewed after a match, answering the same questions with the same answers again and again, is never as satisfying as we wish it would be. (Have you seen the “Ryan Lochte Is Terrible at Interviews” video on YouTube?)

In his carefully timed novel “Gold,” British author and journalist Chris Cleave gets inside the minds of these athletes and aspires to more eloquently express the answers to all those questions we have about what it’s really like to be an Olympic athlete. In the end though, it’s not the minds of Olympic athletes we want to slide into—it’s their bodies. That’s not something a book can do. You’ll need a personal trainer if you want to get anywhere near that.  Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Soldier’s Wife” by Joanna Trollope

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Why aren’t there more contemporary literary novels about life in the armed services? In our current era of war and militarism, we need stories about the men and women and children who bear the brunt of this experience, both in the field and at home. Joanna Trollope is a phenomenally popular English writer whose novels often center on domestic drama or romance. Admittedly, at first I wondered whether a mega-selling author (whose many, many books translate easily to made-for-TV movies) could successfully mine the subtle complications of military life, with its shifting ever-present layers of class and history. But Trollope’s latest novel—published in the United States by Simon and Schuster—set me straight. A moving story about a marriage under pressure, “The Soldier’s Wife” is rich with perfectly observed details about how one family copes with deployment and leave. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Planets” by Sergio Chejfec, translated by Heather Cleary

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The Argentinian-born Jewish writer Sergio Chejfec, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1956, is well-known in his home country. The author of more than a dozen novels, “The Planets” is only his second to be translated into English (Open Letter published “My Two Worlds,” translated by Margaret B. Carson, last year). It’s half-surprising, as Chejfec, who now lives and teaches in New York, could easily be described as part of the contemporary Argentinian vanguard, carrying on the modernist banner of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. On the other hand, Americans are slow to warm to foreign authors, and Chejfec’s writing is only obliquely plot-based. His prose, which veers tantalizingly close to poetry, demands time and attention, even with (or perhaps because of) the lilting translation by Heather Cleary. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Leela’s Book” by Alice Albinia

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“Leela’s Book” by Alice Albinia, was inspired by the British author’s three-year stint in Delhi and the “Mahabharata,” an ancient Sanskrit epic ten times longer than the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” combined. That tale of two warring families is written by Vyasa, but dictated by Ganesh. Albinia’s modern-day re-imagining (although a fraction of the size) tracks some of the characters and themes of the “Mahabharata.” Vyasa is the head of one family, the widower of Leela’s sister, Meera. Even Ganesh makes an appearance, taking human form to pull the strings of his puppets. “It happens to gods at strategic moments in history,” he says. “Krishna did it; Jesus tried it; and I, too, took my turn. In the beginning, up on Kailash, I debated with myself only briefly about the type of avatar I should choose. A holy man? A warrior? A merchant? No. I need to be able to influence events, to get my errant characters back on track, to wrest control from Vyasa. And how to do that? Through my pen.”

These male characters are conniving, somewhat rapscallion characters in “Leela’s Book,” but it’s the women whose humanity provides the power. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Night Before Christmas” by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Constance Garnett

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It takes a nineteenth-century Ukrainian author like Nikolai Gogol (author of the novels “Taras Bulba” and “Dead Souls” and stories “The Overcoat” and “The Nose”) to put a Slavic turn on the title “The Night Before Christmas,” which conjures merry yuletide memories for Americans.

Here, instead of St. Nicholas, it is the devil who appears on Christmas Eve: “It was only from the goat-beard under his chin, from the little horns sticking upon his forehead, and from his being no whiter than a chimney-sweep, that one could tell that he was not a German or a district attorney, but simply the devil, who had one last night left him to wander about the world and teach good folk to sin.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Galley Slave” by Drago Jancar, translated by Michael Biggins

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At two decades’ remove from the Cold War, we Westerners can only imagine how Drago Jancar’s masterful, picaresque “The Galley Slave” must have resonated with his fellow Slovenians trapped behind the Iron Curtain when the novel was released in 1978. A Polish friend of mine who was a member of Solidarity once told me that Communism was a “crime” in which people were ruled by what were in effect gangsters.

In locating roaming protagonist Johan Ot in a Slovenia trembling on the brink of modernity, the author finds historical circumstances in which the proper human response is paranoia; in fact it is the only effective defense mechanism. As the saying goes, it’s not really paranoia when they’re actually out to get you, and “they” are certainly out to get Johan Ot. In his world, all is madness. Read the rest of this entry »