I have not been of much use to your Editor recently. I have provided him with little in the way of content. Then, the other day, I was in Moruya Books (which is a retail outlet, you will recall, that I am unable to walk by – even on the other side of the street) and I heard one of the wonderful women who work there (and sell you books) say to someone “He writes book reviews for The Beagle.” What’s more, someone else said to me: “Where are your book reviews? Have you stopped reading?” Well, no, I haven’t stopped reading but other things got in the way and I stopped writing about what I had read. So on the assumption that reports of my reading have been missed by people other than my children I will pick up where I left off in December. Well, not quite; there are 30 or more books that I have read that I will never tell you about. These include Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (brilliant), The Overstory by Richard Powers (highly rated by the critics but not by me nor anyone else I have spoken to. The first quarter is good then he comprehensively loses his way until at the end you have no idea where he started), An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (a good holiday read), Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton (brilliant) and Once upon a River by Diane Settlefield (absolutely brilliant: should be compulsory reading for all).
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk
The Text Publishing Company, 2018 (translation), ISBN 978 1 925 77308 8, 247pp (original published 2009, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
A couple of months ago we were staying with some friends in Sydney and these friends take a newspaper in print. Yes, I know that’s terribly retro and to me incomprehensible because a printed newspaper is always out of date. Nevertheless, if I see a newspaper I read the book reviews and there it was: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. Well, one could hardly resist a title like that. It had to be weird. And it was. But also very enjoyable – and funny. The book was short-listed for the 2019 Man Booker International prize. I am not sure what category this book fits into: it is a thriller that doesn’t exactly leave you on the edge of your seat. On the other hand, it’s a story that draws you in and makes you want to keep reading it.
Its protagonist, Janina Duszejko, is a woman in her 60s who has, we might say, a peculiar and environmentally sensitive view of the world. She sets out to tell the story of the events surrounding the murder of her two dogs. The power of the book lies in the way it treats social injustice and people who are marginalised. Duszejko worries about her Ailments. The word, and several others, are capitalised and its that capitalisation that takes the reader into the mind of a woman that few seem to take seriously.
I cannot comment on the quality of the translation. Although I am a quarter Polish, my capability at the language stretches as far as “dzień dobry” which, I am reliably informed, means “good morning”. In fact, I am in awe of translators. Their work must be difficult indeed as they search not only for the meaning in the author’s mind but also for the right word to convey that meaning. Whether or not it’s a good translation, this is a book well worth reading.
Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
Penguin, 2018 (translation), ISBN 978 0 571 33754 5, 207pp
(original published 2016, translated by Sam Taylor)
Perhaps there is a scale of translating difficulty. I cannot say. But if there is, I imagine that French is not as hard as Polish. Of course, I may be wrong. But on reading an article on the challenges of translating fiction I was drawn to Lullaby by the Moroccan writer Leïla Slimani. This is a brilliant book. It’s short at 200 pages or so and I read it in a couple of sittings. It’s a book that starts with the ending: :the baby is dead. We know the crime. We even know the perpetrator. But the book is not so much a thriller as it is an observation of the characteristics that drive diversity in society: race, class, gender.
Slimani deals with the relationships between the characters in a way that sometimes make you cringe as you read it. It easy to see faults in others but far harder to see them in oneself. We make assumptions. We don’t question our motives. This book makes the reader question whether they are guilty of the social transgressions that they are reading about. The story revolves around the perfect nanny, Louise, who is hired by Myriam, a lawyer returning to work. Myriam and her husband Paul become increasingly dependent on Louise and, in becoming so, they make assumptions about her role in their family. The fact you know what’s going to happen makes this book a compelling read.
China Dream by Ma Jian
Penguin, 2018 (translation) ISBN 978 1 784 74249 2, 179pp
(original published 2018, translated by Flora Drew)
China is much in the news because it is a major trading partner but also because its political and social system is so much different to our own. Of course, trying to use Western eyes to analyse Chinese culture is pretty tricky. I think it was Deng Xiao Ping who was asked whether he thought the French Revolution of 1789 was a good thing. He thought for a little and then replied: “it’s too soon to say.” They’re in for the long haul which I am guessing Donald Trump is incapable of grasping. Be that as it may be; if French is a more straightforward challenge than Polish, Chinese must be up there with the trickiest languages. The author of this book, Ma Jian, has offended the Chinese authorities and is exiled. His books are banned in China – which, of course, is an excellent reason to read them. He lives in the UK with his partner who is the translator of this book. Perhaps that partnership makes getting inside the mind of the author easier but I concede that “easier” is a relative term.
The book is political satire. The book’s protagonist, Ma Daode, has been promoted to lead the China Dream Bureau of the municipality of Ziyang, and has an ambitious plan to develop a neural microchip called the China Dream Device that will wipe out all memories. In his introduction to the novel, Ma Jian, refers to the announcement by Xi Jinping (China’s president) of the China Dream of national rejuvenation which “will lead to even greater economic wealth and restore China to its past glory.” Ma Daode’s neural microchip will replace everyone’s private dreams with the collective China Dream. But this means that there must be a purging of memories of the Mao period. That means that Ma Daode must confront his own past. This he attempts while juggling a large number of mistresses who sidetrack him. He tries to resolve the paradox of his youthful and adult selves by taking “Old Lady Dream’s Broth of Amnesia,” so that he can purge his memories.
The book is written in short staccato sentences, much in the way I imagine the original Chinese would have been written. It is both funny and chilling in equal measure. I shall be looking out for other books by Ma Jian. If you see this one then you should read it. You will be a better person for the experience.