Category: Foreign Fiction (Page 1 of 7)

North Vietnamese soldier’s story is complex, compelling

By Lisa Newman

sorrow of war 2Bao Ninh features prominently in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s series on the Vietnam War. Ninh is a Vietnamese writer and former North Vietnamese soldier. Ninh’s novel, The Sorrow of War, is one of the only pieces of Vietnam War literature to make it out of Vietnam.

Published in Vietnam in 1991, the novel stands out for its descriptions and lack of sentimentality. Most of the Vietnamese war literature was heavy with patriotism, stories of slaughter and bravery. Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War literature of the United States could not move beyond the North Vietnamese soldier as a faceless “gook” or northing more than the “NVA” or “VC.”

Ninh weaves a complex story, told in stream-of-consciousness style. The work is a descriptive account of a solider’s experience of war, but also a love story–one not lost in the original Vietnamese title, Thân Phân Cûa Tinh Yêu, or The Destiny of Love.

The novel was controversial for the Vietnamese government–as it presented the first individual human perspective on the experience of war, the loss of human life and love, as well as life after the war–while it won great respect from Vietnamese and American veterans. American critics have compared the novel to Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).

sorrow of war UPFirst published in Vietnam in a low-budget format by the Writers Association Publishing House of Hanoi in 1991, the book was translated into raw English by Phan Thanh Hao and rewritten by Australian war journalist and author Frank Palmos. At this point, the English translation was given the title “The Sorrow of War” and was published in Great Britain by Secker and Warburg in 1993 and in the United States by Pantheon in 1995.

Ninh has never published another book, but he reports editing a weekly literary publication in Hanoi for many years. In a 2006 interview, Ninh remarks on the changing political climate of Vietnam and the lessening of government propaganda. Despite the relaxing of tensions, he explains that writing has been difficult since the publication of The Sorrow of War.

“I became famous, so people know about me and other writers respect me…but it also affected me badly because I became self-conscious.”

As Vietnamese and Americans talk more about the war and its aftermath, perhaps it will be easier for Ninh and other Vietnamese writers to share their stories.

A Season of Subtle Scandinavian Scrutiny: Knausgaard’s ‘Autumn’

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard has become an infamous contemporary writer by his beautiful prose and raw portrayal of human experience. His massive soon-to-be six volume, autobiographical series dubbed My Struggle has made an irrefutable mark by vividly cataloguing Knausgaard’s ordinary Swedish life and the challenges that come along with it. Essentially, My Struggle is the 3,600-page memoir to end all memoirs. While readers are still awaiting the release of My Struggle’s sixth volume, Knausgaard has begun a new project. Autumn begins another deeply personal adventure for the Norwegian writer as he begins to explain the world to one who has yet to enter it, Karl Ove’s unborn daughter.

I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees. You will come to see it in your own way, you will experience things for yourself and live a life of your own, so of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this: showing you the world little one, makes my life worth living.

autumnNow, at first glance, you may think that this is a heavy book and by “heavy,” I mean emotionally heavy. I won’t lie to you and say that isn’t in there, but amidst the rawness of Karl Ove’s descriptions there lies a certain beauty that is just as much frightening as it is entrancing. As Knausgaard begins to describe the world to his daughter, he engages in deep reflections on everything from cars to war, Flaubert to twilight, and bottles to beekeeping. What follows is a refreshing view of ordinary life as it is explained to one who has not yet experienced anything outside of a mother’s womb. In essays like “Lightning,” the author delves into the odd relationship between horror and beauty as he and his family watch a gigantic bolt of lightning hit the street outside their home. In “Flaubert,” the author reflects upon his favorite novel and the distinction between literary enjoyment and study. The heart of each meditation is the urge of the author to find what exactly it is that makes life worth living. As Knausgaard takes on each new topic, describing it as though it has never been seen, the reader is brought into the depths of the real and at times the philosophical. “Labia,” as an example, explores the complexity of male sexuality and the shame that often follows closely behind it. “Vomit” takes opportunity to explore the plethora of bodily fluids that we are all familiar with, but puts inquiry into the generally hatred that human beings have for that which is “usually yellowish” and still contains “chunks of pizza” and other remnants of the “undigested.”

At the heart of Knausgaard’s project is the desire to get back at the reality of life and to leave behind the routine prejudices that we allow to filter our view of the world. Through explaining the world to his daughter, the author as well as the reader is confronted with the raw beauty and the absurdity of life. Each time I finished a sitting with these essays, I somehow walked away feeling more real. Like my perception of the world had been sharpened and I had the tools necessary to appreciate the nuts and bolts that make up the world around us.

Be Hair Now: ‘Norma’ by Sofi Oksanen

normaYou might think that having magic hair that’s attuned to your emotions would be a blessing, but the titular character in Norma (by Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen) would disagree. Norma is an ordinary woman whose hair corkscrews and kinks when she feels strong emotions, such as danger or guilt. It also happens to grow about a meter a day, causing Norma to have to constantly cut it off so that no one notices. The only person that knows Norma’s secret is her mother, Anita.

As it happens, Norma opens up on the day of Anita’s funeral. Anita has committed suicide by throwing herself in front of train, or so we’re led to believe. The first inkling Norma has that something is off is when her hair starts to corkscrew when meeting a stranger at the funeral.

While it is Norma’s name who’s on the cover, I think it’s safe to say that this book actually has three main characters. Norma, obviously, is the focus of book, but alternating chapters are in a woman named Marion’s point of view. Marion is the daughter of Anita’s best friend. Marion works for her father in the seedy underworld of the hair extension business. The third main character is Anita herself. Through video diaries that Anita has left for Norma to find, Norma finds out the history of why her hair is the way it is.

There are lots of little kinks and turns in that lead you down paths you hadn’t fathomed would happen. The sub-chapters are short so it feels as if you’re flying through; I read the first half of the book in a span of about two and a half hours. Normally, I don’t like alternating points of view, but I think it’s masterfully done in Norma. I’m invested in both Norma and Marion, so I didn’t feel impatient while reading through one or the other. On the surface this may seem like a book about hair, but it’s so much more. It’s an artful look into what would happen if your best asset was also your worst, if your blessing was also your curse.

And the Stars Look Very Different Today: Jaroslav Kalfar’s ‘Spaceman of Bohemia’

I’m not much of a sci-fi guy. Enjoying certain popular films like Interstellar or works like The Martian has never been outside my personal realm of possibility, but am I going to go out and search for the most brilliant and obscure work of sci-fi literature? Probably not. That being said, it might have found me. spaceman of bohemiaJaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia is a novel that fits just as comfortably on the shelf next to Kafka as it does in the realm of sci-fi and space adventure. This is a novel that perfectly captures the feelings of loneliness and anxiety that can only come through accepting ambition while subsequently affirming the need to ground personal identity outside oneself, whether it be in love or in history. However, in order to feel out how Kalfar’s work stands out among the rest, it helps to understand the world of the author.

Sitting at the edge of Eastern Europe, Prague is the capital city of the Czech Republic and is traditionally considered to be the center of Bohemia. The Prague of the protagonist, Jakub Prochazka begins in 1948 when the Communist Party took power and all other parties became officially deceased.

My name is Jakub Prochazka. This is a common name. My parents wanted a good life for me, a life of good comradeship with my country and my neighbors, a life of service to the world united in socialism.

Jakub’s father is an informant for the Communist regime with a secret affinity for Elvis Presley and a deep love for his family. At an early age, Jakub admires his father for his dedication to the ethos of his nation, but with the fall of the Iron Curtain the success of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the mysterious death of his parents, Jakub is launched into a void of personal identity that can only be captured in the grand metaphor of space travel. In an attempt to distinguish itself as an autonomous nation, the Czech Republic chooses Jakub to embark on a potentially dangerous space mission to investigate a mysterious, purple space cloud that no national superpower is willing to risk its citizens to understand. Jakub leaves his comfortable life with his wife Lenka and a prestigious position as a professor of astrophysics to claim fame and purpose for himself and his nation. As days, weeks, then months pass in his voyage, Jakub realizes the gravity (no pun intended) of the voyage itself, and the strain that it would put on his relationships back home. Then he meets a giant space spider.

hanus the spider

To those of you that are completely freaked out by this image, I will say that I was, too. However, I will also say that after finishing the novel I LOVE Hanus the spider. As Jakub struggles with space madness he (and the reader) attempt to deal with the meaning of Hanus’ presence. I don’t want to give away too much but I will say that Hanus is at once at the center of Jakub’s peril and his guide through it.

While this novel takes on weighty themes and attempts at complex insights, it also reads seamlessly. Jaroslav’s voice through Jakub’s first person narration is at once hilarious and impactful. This Czech astronaut’s story, if nothing else, proves that you don’t need to go to space to venture into the balance between madness and sanity that we all experience in everyday life.

Julia ‘Delights’ in Sharma’s short stories

life of adventure and delightAkhil Sharma’s third book, a collection of eight short stories entitled A Life of Adventure and Delight, is complex in a way that I did not anticipate. Throughout their individual stories, a host of interesting characters find out what it means to be a good person. Each story has a way of making you think it is over, but each leaves the reader with the sense there is always so much more to it. Each story holds so much emotion and feeling. Along with an ever-present theme of loving despite flaws, there is an overarching theme of exposing the inner workings of the human heart juxtaposed with the deepest traditions of Indian culture. At times both darkly comedic and deeply emotional, these eight stories present the many different complex relationships between humans which require love: husbands and wives, parents and children, and even friends and enemies.

I am not sure I have ever read a more moving collection of short stories. Each story seems to have its own individual impact on the reader. I was riveted from the very beginning. This collection is immensely enjoyable, lovable, and quotable.

“It’s a big world. A lot of people are worth loving. Why love someone mediocre?”

Dislocation, fantasy roil in ‘A Life of Adventure and Delight’ by Akhil Sharma

By Paul Rankin. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 16).

life of adventure and delightIn Akhil Sharma’s collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight (W.W. Norton), we meet a sequence of remarkable characters in the throes of profound dislocation.

Five of the eight stories take place in the United States, while the remaining three occur in India. All, however, focus on characters struggling to preserve cultural roots and traditions even as they feel themselves getting swept along by the forces of modernity and westernization. These struggles produce narratives which are by degrees horrifying, heartbreaking, and hilarious.

In the opening scene of the opening story, for instance, we meet Gopal Maurya, recently abandoned by his daughter (Gita) and wife (Anita) and sleeping on a couch in the living room. Having banished himself from his own bed “in a burst of self-hate,” he’s resolved “to avoid comforting himself with any illusions that his life was normal.”

The absent women provide immediate backdrop for Gopal’s despair; together they also function more broadly, as a controlling metaphor which informs the dramatic tensions throughout and creates a coherence and unity that may collections lack.

Gita has become fully westernized; Anita has returned to India where she met a guru, achieved enlightenment, and moved into an ashram to sweep floors and pray. Left behind, cut off from every familiar thing, Gopal fantasizes about “calling an ambulance so that he could be touched.”

When his neighbor Mrs. Shaw comes over to borrow the lawnmower, he attempts “to extend their time together” by tangling “her in conversation.” Through she won’t even accept a drink–“Orange juice, apple juice, or grape, pineapple, guava. I also have some tropical punch”–Gopal clumsily pursues her, visiting a hair stylist rather than his “usual barber” and reading articles in popular magazines like Cosmopolitan for advice about what makes a good lover. Along the way, Gopal also fights to preserve his tenuous connection to the past by becoming involved in the Indian Cultural Association.

Each subsequent story centers on the particular desires and frustrations of its individual protagonist, but each explores similar themes of conflicted longing. In the wake of a recent tragedy, a young boy prays daily before a traditional Hindu altar at the same time he attempts to make sense of his loss by identifying with iconic western superheroes like Batman and Superman for whom personal catastrophe became the catalyst that reveled their true greatness.

A temple pandit places his cellphone on the cushion beside him while performing sacred burial rights and when, “Periodically it would ring, and he would gesture for (the others) to keep singing while he answered…with one hand played the harmonium with the other.”

A doctoral student at NYU uses the internet to hire prostitutes while maintaining the conviction that “any Indian girl who had sex before marriage had something wrong with her was in some way depraved and foul, and also unintelligent.”

A young woman, living abroad in America, soothes the pain of isolation by drinking more and more until “the drink overtook her,” at which point her husband “sends her back to her parents” knowing they “will kill her, because the shame of having an alcoholic as a daughter…is staggering.”

These stories are poignant, gripping, and subtly profound in their investigation of the moral complexities confronting all citizens of an increasingly globalized society. Each stands alone in its own right. At the same time, largely because of how deftly Sharma weaves these common threads of alienation and dislocation throughout, the sum is far greater than its parts.

Paul Rankin holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, works as a freelance writer and editor, and is on the verge of finishing his first novel. He lives in Jackson with his family.

A Life of Adventure and Delight is the July 2017 selection of the Lemuria First Edition Club. Its author, Akhil Sharma, will appear at Lemuria on Tuesday, July 18, at 5:00 to sign and 5:30 to read.

Omnia Vincit Amor: ‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West is the first novel I’ve ever read by Mohsin Hamid, but it undoubtedly will not be the last! Hamid touches on relationships, religion, immigration, and social interactions, all with a beautiful style of magical realism that flowed so well I simply didn’t want to put it down.

In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days.

exit westThis is how the story of Nadia and Saeed begins, in a country teetering on the brink of a civil war. The dangerous country is never named, but it is obvious that it is somewhere in the Middle East. People are living here in constant fear, people are shot on their way to work, and sometimes even in their own homes.

Nadia is a fiercely independent women living alone, who wears a black robe from head to toe. She does not do this for religious purposes. In fact she never prays; she’s simply comfortable doing what she wants to do. Saeed is religious, lives at home with a loving family and prays almost daily, yet is much more unsure of himself. Both are very intrigued by one another and they begin a relationship amidst the growing war within their country. They start off as close friends and then slowly begin to realize how much of a physical, social, and intellectual connection they have with one another.

As the relationship between them begins to pick up, so does the war within their country. New curfews are put into place, and the government begins to cut electricity and cell phone services, making Nadia and Saeed fear for one another’s safety. Their country is becoming unlivable for them. They soon begin to hear about ‘doors’ throughout their city and country. These doors are rumored to transport people away from their terrible city and to a new location.  The tricky thing about these doors is that one cannot pick the location of their destination, and therefore they may end up in a new country as an unwanted immigrant. Nadia and Saeed decide to take the leap and pay for someone to find a door for them. They feel as if they have lost everything, and that they simply cannot have a life worth living in their country. They are willing to take the risk of being an immigrant or even refugee if it means that they can have a better life.


Moshin Hamid

Moshin Hamid

I know, this is a magical twist that may turn some people away…but I promise, the story is still just as powerful. You still see the stress and uncertainty that comes with a new relationship, even more so with one in a country at war with itself. You see family relationships at their best and at their worst. You also get a look into the life of refugees and how, even though they’re in the same situation, people can turn on one another quickly.  In our world today, refugees are often painted in a negative light. Hamid takes you into the mindset of a refugee and helps bring back the humanity that’s often lost in today’s world. Nadia and Saeed love one another, they love friends and family, they have relationships, they lose relationships, they’re people who are fighting to just make it out of a situation that they want no part of. They’re fighting for one another, they’re fighting for themselves, and they’re fighting for others around them. In the end, Hamid has written an extraordinary novel about love and loss in the mists of war.

I’m a fan. I can’t wait for more from Mohsin Hamid. Exit Westis fantastic.

All That We Are: ‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang

human actsHuman Acts by Han Kang absolutely broke me and put the pieces right back together, just like one of her previous books I readThe Vegetarian, had. Human Acts is about the Gwangju Uprising which took place in South Korea in 1980. This Uprising lasted for a little over a week, resulting in nearly 600 deaths.

This book is the story of a boy, Dong-ho, who loses his life in the Uprising. Dong-ho is a middle-schooler who works in the Provincial Office during the uprising. His job is to take care of the corpses that are brought there, help families and friends identify their missing loved ones, and try to keep a log of the corpses that are brought in.

Each chapter of this story has a different narrator, all of whom have in common some type of connection to Dong-Ho. Each narrator is also directly or indirectly involved with the Uprising and many of them pass away during it just like Dong-Ho.

Han Kang was born in Gwangju and spent a good bit of her childhood there. She grew up in the aftermath of the Uprising, still witnessing its consequences and how it affected people in that area. Han Kang does a wonderful job of telling this tragic story in a beautiful way, refusing to water down anything and loading it with raw emotion.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves the single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, slaughtered–is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?” –Han Kang, Human Acts

Mystery Without Meat: ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

So, back in July, Maggie Smith put this book on the counter with a note on it that said, “Katie, I think you would like this. Read it and let me know what you think.” Well, it got lost in the books that get shuffled along Lemuria’s counter daily, but I found it about two weeks later in another stack. But, she was right.

vegetarianA story told through three different viewpoints, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is an eerie tale of a family member gone astray, starting when she spontaneously decides to become a vegetarian. In Yeong-hye’s South Korean family, meat is the staple in most meals, so when she decides to stop eating it, chaos breaks out. As she grows skinnier, her family grows worried. Part one of this book is told from the point-of-view of Yeong-hye’s husband, who is most directly affected by his wife’s vegetarianism, because she will not even allow meat in the house. Part two is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a videographer, who wants Yeong-hye to be in his next piece starring two naked people painted in flowers, with an emphasis on Yeong-hye’s Mongolian mark. In part three, we hear of Yeong-hye’s downward spiral through the only remaining family member who will still talk to her, her sister.

This is a story of social isolation–simply because of one’s beliefs, of one’s eating habits. Not many books have touched me the way this one has, have made me question my own life and my surroundings. Throughout the story, one gets the idea that Yeong-hye wants to stray as far away from humanity as possible. She is fed up with the conventional ways of living one’s life, so she decides to pave her own way. Few people try to understand why she is doing this, leading to her isolation and loneliness, two things Yeong-hye does not seem too distraught by. As her brother-in-law says, “Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening insider her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time.”

Intrigued by Yeong-hye’s mysterious yet simplistic and controversial ways of living, I could not stop wanting to learn more about her, and still wish I knew more. Thanks, Maggie, for helping inspire my wonder.

“She was Lo, plain Lo” – musings on the controversial classic ‘Lolita’

Tuesday evening, while vacuuming the store’s forest green carpets after closing time, I began thinking about what reading means to me. “Of course, reading novels was just another form of escape. As soon as he closed their pages he had to come back to the real world,” writes Haruki Marukami in his novel 1Q84. Way to go Marukami, you just said it all. For me reading is an escape. I enjoy reading things I simply cannot relate to, thus creating a beautiful escape from my everyday life…just a thought.

JacketOne escape I have thoroughly enjoyed recently is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. This novel tells the story of a middle-aged man, Humbert Humbert, who goes to live with a widow, Charlotte, and her twelve-year-old daughter, Lolita, in a sleepy New England town. From the moment Humbert lays eyes on Lolita, he is immediately infatuated. Eventually marrying Charlotte in order to get closer to Lolita, Humbert proves his determination for an extremely racy relationship with a girl three quarters his age. Humbert will stop at nothing to have the relationship he wants with Lolita and seems conflicted about it throughout the entire book. Lolita, however, makes the first advance towards Humbert. As their relationship proceeds, it is hard to tell who is leading the way and who, if anyone, is really in the wrong.

Upon telling one of my friends (who absolutely LOVES this book) that I was reading it, she mentioned that it is very hard to trust anything the narrator, Humbert, says. This book does a remarkable job of challenging the reader to read between the lines and find the real truth. The entire book is a question, but one of the main questions surrounding it is whether Humbert truly loved Lolita. Before reading the book, most people would assume that he does not and could not honestly love her in a sincere, romantic way. I suppose this question is for each reader to ponder in his or her own way and maybe come to a conclusion… or maybe not.

This is a story of murder and kidnap, a story of betrayal and love. Humbert’s soul is poured out on every page, thus touching our very own. A love story of a very unique kind, Lolita will have you in an emotional labyrinth… and the prose is beautiful.

“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

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