“Our Lady of the Nile” by Scholastique Mukasonga

Our Lady of the Nile(Author: Scholastique Mukasonga) + (Year: 2012) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Rwanda)


Review:

*** 3.5 stars ***

This book is just what I needed to remind me why I decided to follow the reading around the world challenge. It’s such a good profile of the situation in Rwanda for the time period and even much after (as the book is set before the 1994 Tutsi genocide), that I couldn’t help but feel carried away into the world of the book.

Our Lady of the Nile delves deeply into the psychology of the regular Rwandans, depicting their beliefs, the struggles in society, the aftermath of the Belgian colonial era, the political issues and their effect on the “small” people.

I really enjoyed the simplicity of the narrative, the rather uneducated girls who still believe in witch doctors, or so-called poisoners, and who are trying to keep their own culture, all the while feeling like they need to also be different, more white, more Belgian. The book shows the discrepancy between the “own” and the “other”, between what people want and what they think they should want.

Ever since seeing Hotel Rwanda, I have been having a hard time coping with the senseless violence and this conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, which was completely fabricated and artificial, and was created by the Belgians in order to divide and conquer. I have a really hard time grasping the idea that people would be as easily manipulated as to actually believe in this “racial” separation and even shed blood over it. And yet, they obviously are. So I keep reading information about it, trying to make myself understand. While Our Lady of the Nile didn’t solve it for me, it definitely showed a different side of the problem, as lived in a school for girls.

I really enjoyed the setting of the book, the intricate descriptions of the Rwandan society, their beliefs, the feelings of the young girls, even the taste of the Rwandan food. It was a breath of air from far, far away.

What I didn’t like as much was the actual method of narration that the author used. Rather than the reader being a participant in the events, they were just stories that someone tells. This made the book a bit repetitive, because it just followed the flow of: This is (name), she meets (name), and she starts telling her a story. It could work in a different type of a book, but in this case, it just seemed very distracting, because it took away from the flow of the book.

Even despite that, I think Our Lady of the Nile was a pretty nice book.

“The Door” by Magda Szabo

The Door

(Author: Magda Szabo) + (Year: 1987) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Hungary)


Review:

While on a trip to Budapest, I decided that to help my “Around the World” book challenge, I should buy a book written by a local author in each country that I visit. The Door was one of two books that I got there (the other one being Satantango). I had really high hopes for The Door because of the slightly mystical and fairy-tale-like description.

It was not meant to be.

The Door is a dreary book. The premise was good, but the same can’t be said about the author. Magda Szabo, to me, was not all that she is claimed to be. It seemed like she tried to make the narrator her own self, except that she went heavy on the bragging, which was very annoying. Her character is so very sophisticated, educated, smart, talented. Well… Emerence, the housekeeper, sometimes tells her that’she’s stupid and childish… But Emerence doesn’t mean it, she loves her. Right?

However, nothing is more annoying than the main character of Emerence. Emerence is as bipolar as they come. Szabo would have you believe that she is a saint, that she is a genius, misunderstood, clever, with impeccable taste, etc, etc, etc. However, Emerence is so self-contradictory that the author’s descriptions fall very short. For example, Emerence is supposedly a reserved woman of few words, who likes to do her work, but doesn’t like to show affection. Two pages later: everyone in town loves Emerence who is everyone’s confidante. People come to visit her day and night and sit on her porch for hours to talk to her, get advice or help, gossip. However, Emerence is also always working and she is never actually home. She sleeps on the loveseat for a couple of hours and then goes back to work. She’s so busy that even the people who pay her to do the housekeeping sometimes don’t see her for days on end.

So… how does that work exactly?

tenor

In general, the book was highly repetitive, the same episodes went on and on and on and on again, until the reader was perfectly able to construct the steps on their own. Also, considering how many times the author revealed small details of the ending, at some point it was so obvious that the actual ending felt dragged out for no reason. Like the narrator’s endless visits to the hospital. I will not reveal spoilers, but for 50 pages the exact same thing was happening and the only difference between every few pages were the narrator’s ominous musings and attempts at being philosophical.

There might be many great Hungarian books, but I would not say that this is one of them.

“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.

“Tutsak Gunes” by Ayse Kulin

Tutsak Güneş

(Author: Ayse Kulin) + (Year: 2015) + (Goodreads)

(Around the world: Turkey)


Review:

*** 2.5 stars ***

Maybe I am being overly generous with this book. It is definitely not nearly as good as it could have been, that is for sure.

However, this book is a first attempt, and those are always shaky. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but Tutsak Gunes (loosely translated as “Captive Sun”) might actually be the first Turkish dystopian book!

I have read Ayse Kulin before, enough so to know that she has a certain type of female characters: strong, independent, smart, defying the rules of society, free. At least that is how the author would try to sell them to you. Another thing that both Yuna, the main character of Tutsak Gunes, and, let’s say, Aylin, the main character of Adi: Aylin, have in common, is their fascination with the Sufi symbol of spread wings, signifying things beyond even freedom and a rebellion against rules and chains.

However… what I, as the reader, actually sensed, having rid myself of the author’s not-so-subtle propaganda, was that Yuna is a character totally out of place in this story. In fact, Tutsak Gunes offers two narratives so unconnected that they make it hard to remember that are happening simultaneously.

  1. A shape in the sky has blocked the Sun. The world is living in constant darkness and cold. The borders of the world have changed. The Ramanis Republic is a strict and tyrannical regime in which women possess nearly no rights, lack of education and big families are encouraged, human contact has almost been forbidden. A rebel movement is forming and planning to overthrow the government. Cool, huh?
  2. And then – the actual story of this book – Yuna. A woman constantly out of the loop, barely aware of her surroundings, and only focused on her lost life, lost dreams, lost aspirations. The author manages to tie her to the actual “heroes” of the story only just, so that she has some role in the events, but not really. She is forcefully presented as strong and smart, but we never witness that. We witness her happy with her role in the regime, her only starting to doubt the tyranny when it’s falling apart and not a moment before, her wondering what to do, and yet always so indecisive.

But I cannot neglect the attempt in this book. Ayse Kulin certainly tries to write a new chapter for Turkish literature. She tries to embed the reality of the country to this new, futuristic world. The thing is… she does it blatantly. She is not subtle. Neither is she masterful. The best of dystopian novels show you a world starkly different from the one you live in, and it takes you some time to realize that this is your world, just in a light you didn’t want to see it in. With Tutsak Gunes, you just know. And that softens the blow she makes on society. Not to mention that if you want to address a problem, say rights of women, you don’t do it in a book so unappealing to male readers that they would never bother getting to the heart of the story.

Overall, an admirable attempt at creativity. Not amazing, but could have been much, much worse.

“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

The Vegetarian

(Author: Han Kang) + (Year: 2016) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: South Korea)


Review:

East Asian literature has a very, very specific atmosphere. If one who knows me personally was aware that my own favourite writer is from that part of the world (Murakami, Japan), they would probably wonder why it is that having comparatively little knowledge about those Far Eastern countries, I love the literature from there so much. And this is probably one of the reasons, the atmosphere. Realistic, yet eerie, at moments eerily realistic or realistically eerie.

Either way, The Vegetarian presents a world close to that of Murakami, where everything is normal at first glance, and then you realize that it is completely wrong and something otherworldly is lurking just around the corner, though not close enough to be tangible.

This book is told from three different perspectives: the husband of Yeong-hye(the vegetarian), her brother-in-law and her sister. Yeong-hye does not have her say in the story directly, but the narratives of the other characters are infused with her personality and her influence on the people around her.

The story begins with how ordinary she is. Her husband marries her exactly because she is ordinary. He does not care for her changing or becoming striking or different in any way. But she does. She has a nightmare that changes her deeply and makes her decide to become a vegetarian. As a sickness, the nightmare sinks its claws deeper and deeper in her personality until it becomes a disease. At least to everyone, but Yeong-hye herself.

Mental illness

Obviously one of the leitmotifs of the book, however the one point only shown through the eyes of others completely. Therefore we are unable to fully grasp what is happening with Yeong-hye. This is probably also my biggest issue with the book. While I did not expect that the point of the book will be spelled out, I did hope that there will be a somewhat coherent sign as to what is actually happening to her. That she is sick, is obvious. But we never get the exact meaning of her condition. And while some might interpret it directly, as the stigma of being a vegetarian in some societies, I think that the entire idea of vegetarianism in this book is a metaphor for something else entirely, which stayed just beyond my grasp and I, therefore, see flaws in the execution.

Sex in Eastern literature

While this is not a major topic in the majority of the books and only in one part of it, I could not help but notice yet again a pattern that exist in the literature of that corner of the world. Sex is not a taboo as much as it is in the Middle East, but it is a dirty, filthy reality of life. It is always described as a sick, gross secret, almost always wrong, violent and messed up. This is one of the things which I do not know or understand about that culture and if anyone has any insight, I would love hearing it. But facts are that from everything I have read, sex is never light, easy and/or pleasant and nice. The people either dislike it violently or want it and are therefore wrong and wretched.

Character-wise I was not happy with the depth of the people. There was a visible controversy between how they see/describe themselves and how other people describe them. Each of the characters that was a narrator was later shown as the polar opposite of what they were. But as interesting as this was to follow, it also cracked my perspective of them as people and made it really hard to believe either source and they were also discrediting one another as reliable narrators. More so, little was explained about the reasons they where how they were, which obstructed me from forming a full picture of this strange family.

But it would be unfair to say that The Vegetarian did not add nicely to my literature world trip. I think it was a good perspective on South Korea and I definitely appreciated it.