Thursday, February 19, 2009

Read World Tour!

Recently, I've become interested in African fiction. What sparked it was discovering the phenomenal Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan. This is a stark, amazing collection of stories that explore the atrocities of the last decade that have brutalized Africa from the perspective of children. Gorgeous fiction, but not for the faint of heart.

Anyways, from there I discovered the Caine Prize for African fiction, and such authors as Ben Okri. It got me thinking about all the fiction all over the world we here in the US have such little exposure to. So I thought it would be cool to pick out my favorite authors and books from each continent-- sort of an "around the world in 7 books" kind of thing. Some may be obvious picks, but other I think may be cool discoveries for you like they were for me.

First up, Africa, since we're there already:
The godfather of the African novel is Amos Tutuola. He shares a few traits with the first author I mentioned above, Uwem Akpan: they're both Nigerian, and they both are Jesuit educated (although that where their education similarities end. Akpan is a Jesuit priest with multiple advanced degrees, while Tutuola's education ended after six years). Tutuola's first book, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, made a huge splash when it debuted in English back in 1952. But it's his second novel, also written in English, that is my pick for the continent of Africa.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is about a young child who, on the run from a band of mercenaries, hides in the most remote of forests, the one ihabited by a nation of ghosts. This book is a fantasy unlike any I've seen, inhabited by ghosts immenently more vivid, grotesque, and ornate than any in western literature. In addition, the language is gangly and awkward, like the narrator, and owes much to an oral storytelling tradition.

Next, we'll head north, to Europe:

A year ago or so I came across The Pull of the Ocean, by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, a slim, intriguing novel that has been a big hit in Mourlevat's native France. Based on the fable "Tom o' my Thumb" or "Tom Thumb" as written by the king of the French fairy-tale, Charles Perrault, the plot is fairly straightforward: seven brothers, all twins but the youngest, leave their home in fear of their violent past and head for the coast.

What I love about this book is exactly what makes it so European, and, to many here in the States, maddening. Plot is tenuous; the ending is left vague, open to interpretation, and (to an American reader) unresolved; and the characters can seem remote, even at times inaccessible. But it's fascinating nonetheless. The language is great and the world these characters inhabit is at once dreamlike and real.

Even now, a year since I read it, I don't so much remember the book for the characters or what happened, but more for the intense feelings it left me with--longing, melancholy--which, just thinking about the book, brings back.

Melancholy (the word, not the feeling) brings me to the next book and the next continent, Asia.

Originally, when I was first working on this list, I thought about discussing Hong Kong comics, or ancient chinese mysteries. That was before I came across an advanced reader's copy of Japanese light novel The Melancholy of Harumi Suzumiya
by Nagaru Tanigawa.

This is an insanely popular book in Japan, spawning something like eight sequels, a manga adaptation, an anime adaptation, and translations into several languages, including now English. At first glance, it appears to be something closer to shoujo (or girls') manga, the kind of thing that would appear in Shojo Beat magazine here in the States. But it's actually something quite different:

Kyon is a high school guy, who's long ago given up his hopes of living in an interesting world. You know the world he dreams about: one inhabited by superheroes, aliens, demons, or psychics just like in comics and books. But then he ends up behind peculiar classmate Haruhi Suzumiya, mysterious, beautiful, strong, and seemingly crazy. She ropes Kyon into starting the SOS brigade with her, an after school club devoted to the interest in these fantastic things. Naturally, they discover the world is teeming with them.

What's drawn me to this book, though, isn't the wonderful, wacky plot, but it's narrator. He speaks in a world-weary, eternally idealistic voice in the tradition of other great narrators of fiction: Ishmael, for one (we discover that Kyon is a nickname, and despite hating it, he never tells us his actual name)

Continuing eastward, we end up in the West: South America

As I mentioned above, some of my choices may seem obvious, and I think the no author springs immediately to mind when considering South America than Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. But one of my favorite books by him may not be so obvious, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Looking at my entire list, this may be the only realist novel in the whole bunch, which is ironic considering that Garcia-Marquez is practically synonymous with the phrase "magic realism." But there's more to South American literature (and it's pre-eminent nobel laureate) than magic realism.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a mystery, but very different from most mystery tales. Instead of an investigation progressing from dead body to the discovery of the murderer, this book begins with the murder and murderer known, and burrows backward to explore the motivations and purpose behind the murder. It's brief, a novella, and gripping, all wrapped in Garcia-Marquez's wonderful writing.

Up out of Columbia, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's home country, and into North America.

Last July, Steven Wolk wrote a great review of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. But well before he wrote that YA novel, he made his reputation writing short stories. His first book of shorts, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a great collection, exploring issues of Native American identity and culture. He reworked one of the stories into the film Smoke Signals, which is a great movie.

Oh, and this book has possibly the greatest book title of all time. More good news on the Alexie front: True Diary is out in paperback in a little over a week, and he's already working on another YA novel titled Radioactive Love Song.

The last truly inhabited continent is Australia, and there's lots of great writers from there. My first thought was a favorite author I've mentioned before--Margo Lanagan. But then my head began to riccochet with names: Justine Larbeleister and Marcus Zusak and on and on. Finally, I decided, because this trip around the world has a decidedly fantasy/sf bent, that I should go to the #1 source for great Australian science fiction, Jonathan Strahan. An editor for Locus for years, he puts together great collections of short stories, including The Starry Rift, reviewed by Colleen here back in September.

Included in the volume? A story by Margo Lanagan, among others. And, in a "it's a small world" turn, there's also a story by the great Scott Westerfeld, part-time Australian and full-time husband to Ms. Justine Larbeleister.

Okay, so we've almost made it, but there's still that frozen beast of a continent left, Antartica.

And, while there aren't any native Antarctic writers, there is one book that comes might close in my mind. Kim Stanley Robinson's Antarctica developed out of a fascination with the continent and it's similarities to the planet Mars, which Robinson did extensive research on when he wrote his Mars trilogy. After he learned that there's a grant for artists to come to Antarctica and develop art explicitly grounded in the experience, Robinson went all-in, and what emerged was this book. I enjoyed it, but maybe it's best read as a bookend to the Mars trilogy.

So there you have it: seven continents (and one red planet thrown in for good measure!). Anybody got some good suggestions for lesser-known or new works and writers from other countries?

Mentioned in this post:
Amos Tutuola
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
Jean-Claude Mourlevat
The Pull of the Ocean
Nagaru Tanigawa
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Sherman Alexie
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Jonathan Strahan
The Starry Rift
Kim Stanley Robinson

1 comment :

mr chompchomp said...

I'm a big fan of Ben Okri. Thanks of the Tutuola tip.