“The Joke” by Milan Kundera

(Author: Milan Kundera) + (Year: 1967) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Czech Republic)


Review:

One of my all-time favourite books is Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. So when I went to the Czech republic, I wanted to get a new Kundera book along my plan of buying books from the countries I visit. I had heard about The Joke from several people, so I told myself “Why not?”. Well… I shouldn’t have.

This book represented everything I could possibly hate about Kundera. I had heard before that he has many misogynistic tones in his books, something that didn’t strike me as hard in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but it did so in The Joke. In fact, I had an extremely hard time finishing this book because of the terrible representation of human emotions, interpersonal feelings and the role of women in them.

In The Joke, women are nothing more than playthings. The only thing they do is serve a purpose. They are not beings on their own but only in relation to what men need from them. The characters themselves admit it at certain points, but it was not my impression that while the author does self-mock, he also criticizes this open misogyny. I don’t think that Kundera actually disagrees with his characters. He might realize that the roles he attributes to women are wrong, but I don’t think he has any other way of thinking, and that is clearly visible in the entire book.

This fact bothered me so deeply that I could focus on little else outside of it.

Throughout the entire book, I was deeply disturbed and disgusted by the fact that this is how some men see and treat women. This indifference, this humiliation, it was so scary – if we are to accept the world as seen through Kundera, it would be a sad world indeed. And the most terrifying part of it all is that this type of behaviour is not only real, but also very common. I noticed even more of the exactly same attitude toward women, while I was reading the book, in the world around me.

Indifference was also what was killing the characters in the book. Helena was tortured by the indifference of her lovers, Ludvik – by the indifference of the other people to his sorrows and need for revenge, Jaroslav – by the indifference of the modern world to his beloved traditions and folklore.

I believe that we all shudder at the idea of indifference. Anger is passion, same as love. It means that a person cares, one way or another. But indifference… that is altogether different and scarier. It means that to someone, or to a group of people, or even to the whole world, something that you care about, or worse yet, your entire being, is something of no importance and no consequence. And there is nothing at all to do to fight indifference. A cold and indifferent heart can hardly be shaken by any desperate action.

There was one character that I found more tolerable than the entire bunch – Kostka. He was the only character that was not entirely closed off into his own world and wanted to give and not just get. There was also one quote from Kostka that made me think long and hard until I ended up agreeing:

“I can understand you, but that doesn’t alter the fact that such general rancor against people is terrifying and sinful. Because to live in a world in which no one is forgiven, where all are irredeemable , is the same as living in hell. You are living in hell, Ludvik, and I pity you.”

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“I Served the King of England” by Bohumil Hrabal

I Served the King of England(Author: Bohumil Hrabal) + (Year: 1971) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Czech Republic)


Review:

I bought this book during my trip to Prague as part of my project to get a book or two in each new country I visit. Now, this is not my first Czech book, but I wanted to try a new Czech author nevertheless.

In my opinion, one of the best things about the book was actually the foreword. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book right now, so I can’t mention the author of the foreword, but they wrote a very informative, interesting and engaging analysis of both “I Served the King of England“, and Hrabal’s literature in general. Not knowing the author, it really helped me see some tendencies in his writing and in the themes he uses.

The book itself was not exactly to my liking. The story was rather interesting, but the atmosphere was very tight and suffocating. The main character was such a narrow-minded little man that his world was equally as small and claustrophobic. His experiences, even the ones he was most proud of and most happy about, always had a pinch of wrongness and just this general feeling about something dirty and repulsive happening. For example, as you can see in the cover of the book, he liked to put flowers in the pubic hair of the women he slept with. But those women were either prostitutes, or his Nazi-to-the-bone wife, and there was something very unpleasant and private about reading about his joy from this action.

I feel like this is something that often happens in European literature, and especially that of the ex-Communist countries. While in American literature even murder and gore are kind of shiny in description, in European literature, there is this sense of the author wanting to create shock in the reader through showing the reality in the most vulgar way possible. It is a thing I have always noticed in in every piece of art in Bulgaria – be it literature, movies, paintings, there is always sex. But it is not appealing, erotic sex. It’s always the kind of description of sex which makes you feel uncomfortable and in need of a hot shower and a lot of scrubbing.

This is how I felt while reading this book. And spoiler alert for my next Czech book – The Joke, – same thing there.

One thing which was mentioned in the foreword of the book which I couldn’t help but notice later on, was the fact that the character is always in need of proving himself and he is in a desperate need of attention and achieving every physical element of happiness and obtaining every material proof of success. While in character he is a spineless worm, in aspiration, he wants, and even briefly manages, to be rich and famous.

Setting everything about the story aside, Hrabal, undeniably, has a very good writing style. The descriptions he uses are very poetical and thought through. He guides the reader into his world and helps him see everything through exactly the right prism.

“I knew for certain that this girl could never be happy, but that her life would be sadly beautiful, and that life with her would be both an agony and a fulfillment for a man.”

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“My Name is Sir Lanka” by November Gyllensvard

My Name Is Sir Lanka(Author: November Gyllensvard) + (Year: 2015) + (Goodreads)


Review:

If you are willing to go for a wild and totally mad book, this is a good choice!

I purchased this book from the author recently (have it autographed and all), and I knew a little about the story before I started reading it. However, in reality, it exceeded my expectations about how exactly crazy it could get.

As this book is November Gyllensvard‘s first one, and has yet to be introduced to more readers, I would assume you don’t know what it is about. Once you have read it… you still might not know.

The short version of the plot is: There’s a woman who is absolutely and totally unprepared to take on the world. The greatest joy in her life is drinking. In fact, nothing else gives her joy in life. So, logically, when she gets pregnant by accident, she is not much more ready for that next big adventure. She decides to abort the baby. But instead strikes up a friendship, or rather, a “frenemy”-ship with it. As a result of that, the baby, or later the grown man, Sir Lanka, decides that he is also not ready for the world and would prefer living in his mother’s womb for a very, very long time. 32 years, to be exact.

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I know this sounds insane. It is. The entire world of My Name is Sir Lanka is upside-down, absurd, and full of social satire. Don’t expect logic in this, there is none. Every cliche is trampled and spit upon. None of it makes sense, but in a way, in this cartoonish (often in a nasty and brutal way) world things do add up and compliment each other, if not our own world.

The problems that I had with My Name is Sir Lanka were as follows:

  1. The ending: the cliffhanger left us with very little closure for any of the stories. I would have preferred just a little bit more, so that at least a part of it ties up in a way, no matter how twisted or insane. This bothered me because it left me wondering where the entire story is headed to and whether it will actually arrive to a conclusion at any point (spoiler alert, not really: My Name is Sir Lanka is the first book of a series).
  2. The proofreading, or lack thereof: this is not such a big issue and had the opportunity to discuss it with the author. It’s understandable, as it is his first book, that there was no big publisher to take care of that, but it was there and it wasn’t easy to avoid. However, this is as much a fault of the author, as it is of the person who proofread it, and hopefully it will be fixed in the future editions.
  3. This one is not a big one, the methodical execution: for a book that relies so much on paradoxes and absurdity, all of that was put together all too neatly. It was visible how much care has been put into make it as crazy as possible. And a little bit more randomness might have gone along with the tone of the book, even if to make it more absurd. My reason to say this is that there is a thin line between doing something, and trying too hard. But! For a first book, I think it is another sin that doesn’t need to be scrutinized deeply.

Overall, I would say that My Name is Sir Lanka is the beginning of a wildly imaginative journey, and I do hope that it reaches more people.

“A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove(Author: Fredrik Backman) + (Year: 2012) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Sweden)


Review:

“And this is why a cat, and overweight allergy sufferer, a bent person, and a man called Ove make the inspection round that morning.”

A Man Called Ove is quite possibly the best and most heartfelt book I have read this year. I had no idea what to expect, so I kind of imagined some psychological thriller or something, as that is most of the Scandinavian literature I have read. Not at all.

A Man Called Ove told the story of a seemingly grumpy and mean old guy, who turns out to be a kind and gentle man, hardened by life.

I both laughed and cried while reading this book, sometimes even both at once. Every chapter was one little fairytale out of the life of Ove, and all of them told the story of life, love and loss. All of the characters were so endearing and different, each on their own. Among all of those, Ove, being the main character, inevitably stood out as the heart of the book, the core of the events, and also the soul of his little community. I found him funny while he was just a grumpy old fart, and then I loved him as who he really turned out to be.

Both the humor and the story were absolutely fantastic. They were simple, but enticing. And more than anything, they rang as very true and sincere. Ove was both a borderline superhero, and just a man who did his best and expected the same from the world. His story had a lesson, the one about the Saabs and the Volvos, about the struggle to do better and be better, to give the little that to you have to the people who have nothing; about time and the power of people to survive and thrive, despite everything.

“And time is a curious thing. Most of us only live for the time that lies right ahead of us. A few days, weeks, years. One of the most painful moments in a person’s life probably comes with the insight that an age has been reacher when there is more to look back on than ahead. And when time no longer lies ahead of one, other things have to be lived for. Memories, perhaps.”

 

“Dead Male Birds” by Inci Aral

Ölü Erkek Kuşlar(Author: Inci Aral) + (Year: 1996) + (Goodreads)

(Around the world: Turkey)


Review:

Turkish literature strikes again.

I’m not sure how to weigh this book’s positives and negatives.

Turkish literature and modern Balkan literature are quite unusual in comparison to American and British literature even when the same genre (i.e. adult fiction) is concerned. The Western world puts a lot more focus on the plot, the twists and the turns in the story, of trauma, especially hidden one.

However, all the modern Turkish literature I have read is entirely centered on the characters. This book is not an exception. I will write specifically about Dead Male Birds, but everything that I say can easily be applied to every other book that I have had access to, that is set in Turkey in the last 20-30 years.

Dead Male Birds is a book about a woman who is torn between two men. The narrative is non-linear and, at times, very confusing. The main character, Suna, is having a conversation with her husband Ayhan, and she is suddenly elsewhere, in a different time and place, with her lover Onur. Then jump back – Suna is having a weird dream. Jump forward – we are in a movie theater and something completely different is happening. Then we are back to Ayhan, then months forward to Onur…

The writing is not without merit. The author is well-versed into describing emotions and emotional states. What is lacking is the reasoning behind the emotions. Suna is completely undecided on what she wants from her life, and more importantly, who she wants. Time and again she pushes both men our of her life, then draws them back in. We are privy into her desperation and sadness, but we never really find out why she is doing any of this.

The entire plot doesn’t really move much, to begin with. The story is very drawn-out, unnecessary long, and often repetitive.

The characters are developed to different levels. Emotionally, Suna is a very rich character. However, Ayhan is only represented by his actions toward Suna, and nothing more. Onur, the lover, is described up to the point where his relationship with Suna starts. After that he becomes this blank person who just pushes Suna’s inner drama.

I think the reason for this is that Dead Male Birds is a rather feminist book, or an attempt at one. It deals with the woman’s role in society, how her life is planned out, how she is not much more than a piece of furniture in the house. And while this book was written 20 years ago, I don’t think that much has changed for women in Turkey. They are still first and foremost wives and mothers, and then maybe, maybe, if they fight hard for it, they might try to be something else. That, however, carries yet another stigma – the one of the women who want to step out of the regulations.

One of my favourite parts of the book is the role-reversal between Suna and Ayhan. Ayhan, a scholar who has lived abroad, grows tired of his wife’s passivity, the fact that she is not as well educated as he is and also the fact that she doesn’t have friends of her own, doesn’t have a job, doesn’t have interests. At that point, he sees that she has been indoctrinated into being this person, and he doesn’t like it. So he makes a contract according to which Suna has to start standing on her own feet, to read and learn, to find friends and a job. Once that happens, she realizes that she can be much more than his wife, while he realizes that he doesn’t really want her to be that well educated after all.

For me, this is a real issue in countries like Turkey. From firsthand experiences from friends and, mostly, acquaintances, Turkish men often mistreat their wives and girlfriends because they see them as dull and boring, and they go to look for adventures outside of home. (Once at a social gathering I heard the following: “Give me a second to tell my girlfriend that I am in bed, so that she can go to sleep.” “But you are at a party.” “She doesn’t have to know that.” “But that’s not right.” “Come on, she is so annoying, she’ll ask me who’s here and so on, and she obviously can’t come, this is not a place for her.” And later that guy found another girl to keep him entertained.) But once those same “dull and boring” girls try to liberate themselves, they become undesirable, too loose, too frivolous in the eyes of society.

The author tries to make her own comment on this fact, but then forgets to build a story around it, so the book turns into an really long narrative of the suffering of three broken, damaged and selfish people.