“The Lover” by Marguerite Duras

The Lover (The Lover, #1)(Author: Marguerite Duras) + (Year: 1984) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Vietnam)


Review:

The prose of The Lover is beautiful. It opens for the reader a window into the sensual thoughts of a young girl, thirsty for passion and desire; haunted by the sad reality in which her family lives, but also obsessed with being loved, being noticed, being adored.

This semi-biographical novel tells the story of young Duras, wild, untamed and passionate. But as far as others see the main character as such, she, herself, is a ghost in this world. She is torn between what she craves in life, and what her duties are. She certainly doesn’t want to do what people tell her, but being born in the time she was, she is not always in control of her life. That role often belongs to her brother, a gambling spoiled brat who respects no one and nothing but his own desires; or her mother, a woman distraught by her poorness, but unable to decline her son’s every wish, be it attention or money.

That being so, the young girl is never really alive, and always too alive, too bright, overshadowing everyone around herself, and drowning in their shadow. And this girl falls in love, or is full of desire for a young Chinese heir who can never be more than her lover. As everything about her, this love is also quite the opposite, it is often a fiery hate. It is doomed, but it can also never be any other way.

Because of that, The Lover is a tragic letter to things lost a long time ago, from that love, to youth, innocence and family comfort.

This book, however, defies my beliefs about humanity. Or rather, what I strive to believe in. I don’t want to fully give in to the notion that people can be as horrible, cruel and cold as they are in The Lover. I remain opposed to the idea that humans can be gorged out of emotions in such a way. I don’t want to believe that beauty can only be found in tragedy. Nor that the human is so selfish and powerless.

“The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera

The Whale Rider(Author: Witi Ihimaera) + (Year: 1987) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: New Zealand)


Review:

In all honesty, this was a peculiar little book. I both liked it, and didn’t like it. I’m saying this in the sense that while I was reading The Whale Rider, I wasn’t bored out of my mind. However, at the same time, I can’t say that I actually enjoyed myself.

So in a way, this book just was. 

The story was interesting in its entirety and the fairytale quality of the entire novel. There are two stories between which the narration shifts: “current times” and the birth of Kahu, a little girl who possesses the spirit of Maori mythology, but is not loved by her grandfather, who, as the “chief” of the community, wants a grandson and is always displeased with little Kahu; and the stories from the Maori legends about the whale riders, and the pain of a whale which was ridden by the last whale rider.

As you can imagine, Kahu’s story is very endearing and cute, and the whales’ story has more of a surreal quality. However, this would be an oversimplification of how exactly wild this book gets at times. It’s a wildness in the method and narration, rather than one in the actual events, but ultimately leads to a very fairytale-ish world of collision between myth and reality.

This, however, can also be confusing, as I wasn’t sure how I’m supposed to take the story: utter fiction? Mythological reality? Fairtytale? My confusion lead me to that awkward moment which one experiences when they meet someone who seems to be insane and one doesn’t know if that person is joking/sarcastic, or really mentally unstable. (In all fairness, I’m in this situation more often than I should.)

The other thing which a story like this heavily influences is the depth of the characters. Mythological characters are rarely very deep and well-developed, so in a book which is unsure about its allegiances with reality, expectedly, the characters were not really three intentional.

Lastly, while I enjoyed the stories about Kahu, I was rather bored with the whale narration and the general repetitiveness of the book. Every encounter with Kahu and her grandfather, or the two of her grandparents just ended up being the exact same chapter over and over again, down to the actual expressions.

On the positive side, I learned very interesting things, albeit minor ones, about the Maori culture and the belief system they have, to a degree. So, while this was not the most successful encounter, it was definitely not without virtues.

“Satantango” by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Satantango(Author: Laszlo Krasznahorkai) + (Year: 1985) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Hungary)


Review:

I don’t even know what rating to give to this book. Should I rate the style of the book? The ability of the author? How it made me feel? The world it shows? I don’t know the answer to that question, so I’m just giving a rating which is… just. It’s even possible that I will revisit the review and change it.

If you’re wondering why I start this review with such uncertainty, it is because of the book itself. Satantango is undoubtedly one of the most challenging books to classify in any way. It is a snarl of dehumanized humans and vivid bleakness and full emptiness. 

Satantango tells the story of a small Hungarian village at the beginning of a rainy, cold and muddy winter. The characters are in a constant state of suspended development. Their world does not extend beyond the borders of the property they inhabit. Their dreams, passions and motivations have gone out like a candle, and have been replaced by a total confusion, lack of morale and ruled by an “unbearable lightness”.

The people in this novel are tangibly human, with earthly passions and desires which don’t go beyond the physical, but at the same time, they have left the realm of the living and have turned into ghosts in a cold ghost town. Every character is fighting with their own deep, dark and moldy existence. From the doctor who is living in an alcohol daze of his own filth, to a desperate abandoned little girl, so thirsty for attention and love that is willing to cause harm to others and herself, to the gossiping women, the greedy men, the pointlessness and the deep void of them being not quite alive.

The story, told in long, unbroken paragraphs of fractured events, develops from two different main sides, the villagers, all of them intertwined, telling the same story of their sad, miserable life, and Irimias, the mysterious, charming man that they all crave to be, crave to be with, or crave to follow. Irimias is just a small middleman between the ruling power and the peasants, however, in the eyes of the latter, he is a ruler in his own right, a gentleman, a force of nature. They let themselves be enticed and outsmarted by Irimias, and not for any other reason, but because in their eyes, he is alive, where they aren’t.

Krasznahorkai‘s writing in undoubtedly beautiful, but in a very unsettling, and even upsetting way; absurd and confusing. He pays a lot of attention to the small details, the mold in the cracks, the rips in the clothing, the dirt under the nails, while at the same time telling a story which is both simple, and infinitely convoluted. I wouldn’t say that he’s an easy author to read in the slightest. The reader is in a constant state of alertness, because at the same time so much is happening and nothing is happening, so one missed line of text could equal an entire story.

While I did like, and at the same time felt very burdened by this book, I’m not sure I will revisit Krasznahorkai’s novels. One, for sure, is worth reading, but closing yourself in this dark, empty and scary world is not something that I want to volunteer for.

“The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Refugees(Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen) + (Year: 2017) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Vietnam)


Review:

So what exactly went wrong with this book? As harsh as it might sound, to me, it meant nothing.

It’s like when you have that one friend who’s always trying to say something smart, but they end up speaking a lot, and saying nothing. This is how I felt while reading The Refugees.

At the time I decided to request it on NetGalley, because I was excited to see a book from Vietnamese author, I didn’t quite pay attention to the fact that half of the summary of The Refugees is actually a list of the author’s achievements with his other book, The Sympathizer. That would have been the first red light.

And although I know what the author wanted the readers to see in these stories, it’s one thing for the reader to know the purpose of the author, and another to actually experience the author’s ideas. What bothered me the most about The Refugees was the lack of depth to the characters in the stories, and what’s more, the discrepancy between the title and the actual stories in the book.

In order words, the word “refugees” shows this book in a very sensational way, all the while, telling stories which are usually only mildly connected to being a refugee. The difference in this situation is that the narratives of the majority of the characters in the book are those of immigrants. You can’t really take the story of a man with dementia who mistakes his wife’s name with that of his ex-girlfriend/lover, and put it in a book about refugees, because the lover used to be in a country which the characters left. Not only would this be irrational, but it also makes the stories of people who actually fled under a threat for their lives, both in the past, and in the present, seem a lot more trivial and unimportant.

There were maybe only two stories which I would categorize as ones which could properly be called refugee stories: the family which was “visited” by their dead relative, and the boy who arrived to the United States and went through a cultural shock, specifically with the two gay men he was living with. Those are narratives which do prove the clashes between the world of the people who live a normal, stable life, and the ones who are refugees; both from the point of cultural differences, and of ghosts from the past.

And don’t get me wrong, this entire review is not based on semantics. It’s based on the fact that the author wanted to give a perspective of the lives of the Vietnamese refugees, without having much to start with, and therefore, creating a book the point of which remains unclear.

This is specifically so because as much as I, as a reader, wanted to sympathize with the characters, I didn’t feel a part of their adventure. They were regular people who just happened to be out of their place. This can be applied both to the Vietnamese in America, and, say, the Vietnamese girl who went back to Vietnam for a vacation. And the characters didn’t just feel like puppets, because that would imply that they were a part of a story – they were just there, with not much else to give life and spirit to the story.

“The Girl with Seven Names” by Hyeonseo Lee

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story(Author: Hyeonseo Lee) + (Year: 2015) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: North Korea)


Review:

This is the second book that I have read, which tells the stories of North Korean defectors, the first being Nothing to Envy.

I debated with myself whether I need another book for my book world trip, but what set my mind was the idea, that while Nothing to Envy is a story told through a “middle man”, The Girl with Seven Names is an autobiography. Ultimately, now I can say that the difference between the two books is mostly in the way they view the subject. Hyeonseo Lee tells her own experiences, the life as she knew it, the world as she was taught to view it. However, Barbara Demick‘s book is more of a collection of stories, told through the prism of someone who knows the political situation well and could define the difference between what the defectors were experiencing, and what they knew about the world, versus what was actually happening. While this is mentioned in Lee’s narrative, she talks about it more in retrospect, as when certain political and historical situations were unfolding, she was oblivious to the facts, having been indoctrinated in the North Korean values.

For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a very valuable and interesting look into North Korea, and especially the way the people there view the world. But more so, as Hyeonseo Lee says so herself, she was not even from the lower classes of society, so she had it better than the rest. And “better” was not starving to death, not being sold as a bride in China, not being invited to serve and please the “leader”.

I think it’s really hard for any of us, even those, like me, who have lived in a communist, or post-communist country, to imagine the level of poverty, corruption and censure that people experience in a country like North Korea. I’ve witnessed firsthand only one somewhat similar country, that I’d rather not name, and it saddened me deeply how much people need to put up with to gain even their basic human rights, how much bribery is needed to not be falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit, or how little you have, and yet learn to live with. That is not to say that I’m not seeing remains of this to this day in my own country. There was one particular sentence in The Girl with Seven Names, which reminded me of how Bulgarians can be, and which is something that I’ve heard even from foreigners who otherwise like or even love Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people:

“North Koreans have a gift for negativity towards others, the effect of a lifetime of compulsory criticism sessions.”

While to my knowledge, people haven’t had those criticism sessions here, I feel like pessimism and negativity are only two of many things that get born from regimes like the one in North Korea. So in many ways, the book was both very alien and unimaginable, but also very familiar, and close to home.

The fact which saddened my while reading both The Girl with Seven Names, and Nothing to Envy, is how North Koreans are treated while trying to defect. I would understand the unnecessary repercussions if North Koreans were not wanted in South Korea. But knowing that South Korea welcomes them, for all the countries around to stop the defectors, imprison them, or return them to North Korea to be punished or even executed, seems the highest level of inhumane.

While reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky Hyeonseo Lee was in comparison to other defectors. At the very least, she managed to get out, and save her family, and even become a spokesperson about the rights of North Koreans. But what about all of those who were detained, killed, or maybe even worse…?

I think that books like this one are such which every person should read. Especially those who live happy little lives in a rich country in the West, and have no understanding of how the world works, or how bad some people have it. I’m sorry if it seems harsh, but the lack of empathy in some countries has reached levels which are so high that should be criminal. We’re all people, so we shouldn’t just accept that we deserve to have it better than others.