Tuesday 8 December 2009

Best Books of the Year Part 2 [Not About Covers]

(Following on from part one here)

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Ismail Kadare: Broken April
Vintage Classics, 2009

This book blew my mind. It's very well written, which helps, but the underlying idea is even more fascinating. The setting is Kadare’s native Albania, where the hill-dwelling people have this mad system of honour and code of behaviour called the 'Kanun'. The main character's family was visited 70 years ago by a stranger, who stayed the night. The next morning, as he's leaving the village, the stranger is shot dead. Because of the direction in which he fell, it's up to the host family to avenge his murder by killing the killer. Then it's up to that killer’s family to avenge his murder by killing someone from the host family. And then back and forth, until 70 years later some 44 people have been killed, and the main character, Georg, has just had to shoot someone dead. On top of that there's this system of 1-day and 30-day truces, and safe zones, and special rules, and taxes you have to pay when you kill someone. And it's all true.

And then a writer with romantic ideas about the Kanun stumbles into the midst of all this with his new wife while on their honeymoon. You can see where this might all go wrong for them.

(Originally written in 1978, this uncredited translation is actually from the Albanian, whereas several of Kadare’s other books in English are translations from French translations of the Albanian, the accuracy of which I’m a bit suspicious about, but which I have genuinely enjoyed.)

For a while afterwards, I was trying to work out which other writer Broken April reminded me of, and then I realised: it's like one of Ursula LeGuin's sociological-science-fiction novels, only with Albanians rather than aliens.

Bob Fingerman: From the Ashes
IDW, 2009 (as 6 comics, with collected book to come in 2010)

It’s no secret round these parts that I like a good fictional apocalypse. Artist and writer Fingerman is no different, and his comic in the form of a speculative memoir (along the lines of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America) sees a massive, world-shattering holocaust visited upon the world (and especially New York) in the last days of the Bush presidency.

The main characters are Fingerman and his wife, semi-everyman survivors who now have to contend with the collapse of society, radioactive mutants, demented self-appointed tyrants, religious fundamentalists and all of the other integral parts of the typical end-of-the-world story. You have to really know a genre to satirise it this thoroughly, and Fingerman really knows his stuff (as well as firing shots at a number of other well-deserved targets like Fox News demagogues and the like). It’s also, rather surprisingly, a rather sweet love letter to his wife.

Here are a couple of pages from the comic—click for bigger, readable versions.


Max Page: The City’s End
Yale University Press, 2008

Speaking of the destruction of New York, I was recommended this book by a commenter, and it’s great. In books, movies, comics, video games, artwork and even real life, New York has been visited with massive destruction again and again and again. Page takes a detailed, entertaining and thoughtful look at why New York is such a magnet for armageddon, and at the works of art (and pulp) which have rendered it in ruins. Tonnes of illustrations provide lots of nightmare fuel, too.

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
Harper Perennial, 2007

Way back in 2001, I read the debut novel by a young Australian writer, Hugo Wilcken. It was called The Execution, and it was wonderful: a sort of Graham Greene-ish literary thriller set in the world of Third World aid and human rights monitors. I had no idea, until I read John Self’s fine review, that Wilcken had produced a second book. And it’s a corker.

Camus-ish, Conrad-ish, and just plain excellent, Colony is set in a French South American penal colony in the 1920s, with the main characters being a war veteran-turned-criminal and a well-intentioned but too trusting official and his troubled wife.

Wilcken himself now lives in France, and it's interesting to look at the idea of prison colonies reflected here. After all, Wilcken is from Australia, a weird example of a dumping ground for criminals and political undesirables turning into a working, successful nation. Compare that to the prison in Colony, which is always on the knife-edge of vanishing back into the jungle.

Atmospheric, exciting and mysterious, Colony was well worth the six-year wait.

Carl Wilson: Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
Continuum, 2008

I’ve briefly mentioned Continuum’s 33 1/3 series before: each book is a short but in-depth analysis of a particular album. Most (including Hugo Wilcken’s look at Bowie’s Low) are reasonably straightforward narratives, well-researched and well-written, about the musicians and their experiences in making the recording, as well as the reaction to the music. But occasionally a writer goes out on a tangent, writing a novel or short stories inspired by the music. And then there’s this.

Wilson, like all right-thinking people, had nothing but disdain and contempt for Celine Dion, her albums, and her Titanic theme song. But he set out to immerse himself in the world of Celine Dion and her fans for a year, using this as a launching pad for a funny, thoughtful and perceptive analysis of taste, aesthetics, culture and mass popularity. It even manages to make Dion (though not her music) seem rather appealing, which is something I find it quite hard to admit.

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More to come next week…


Alan said...

The second of these posts and the second time you've started with a description of a book that made me desperately keen to read it, so thank you. Again, that sounds completely mental in a very good way.

That's Broken April and Memories of the Future on the wish list.

JRSM said...

Yay! You read 'Broken April', and you wonder how there are any Albanians left. As Bernard Black said of the Tibetans, "That must be why they're such a dominant world power."

Deb said...

Re Celine Dion: Someone sent me a YouTube link to Celine doing an AC/DC song in concert ("Rocked Me All Night Long"?) Tres bizarre.

I too am on the lookout for Broken April.

Unknown said...

Most of the French-to-English translations of Kadare have been done by David Bellos, best known for his translations and biography of Georges Perec. But he's won major awards for the Kadare work and I'm pretty sure Kadare himself approves, so I trust we're getting the good stuff. (That wasn't the case with, say, the French-to-English versions of Gombrowicz, now replaced by direct-from-Polish versions.)

Ricky Lee Grove said...

Another superb list of books that are incredibly interesting. You are killing my wallet, dude.

JRSM said...

Deb: Also worth seeking out is the Arab Strap version, sung in an incredibly thick Scottish accent ("'Nd ye sheook me aul naaacht leoong!")

Matt: That's reassuring to know--I've enjoyed those Bellos translations, but wasn't sure whether they bore much relation to the originals.

Richard: That's what I'm here for!

Nishant said...

That's Broken April and Memories of the Future on the wish list.

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