Tag Archives: World Literature

Read 174 of 2021: The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Title: The Magic Fish
Author: Trung Le Nguyen
Publisher: Random House Graphic
ISBN: 978-0593125298
Genre: Graphic Novels, LGBTQIA, Coming of Age, 
Pages: 256 
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 5/5 

I wish someone had written this book for me when I was growing up. When I was dealing with my sexuality and didn’t know any better. I wish I knew how to tell my parents and family I was gay using words that would break their hard exterior and touch their heart and soul, which of course didn’t happen. I just came out and that was that. The Magic Fish however is a book that seems to know what to say and how and is more beautiful for it.

Tiến loves his family and friends. His parents hail from Vietnam and he is keeping a secret from them – about himself, about who he is, about how he cannot tell them that he is gay because there is no equivalent for it in Vietnamese. It is also about his love for a friend, and him struggling with his identity.

At the same time, Nguyen takes us on a whirlwind of providing comfort to yourself through fairy tales. Tiến and his mother read fairy tales to each other, every night, and in those tales, each of them is trying to find and know more about their lives – the past, present, and perhaps the future.

I love how Nguyen takes the concept of a fairy tale and throws it on its head and gives his readers something so refreshing to introspect about. The Magic Fish is a book that refreshingly looks at fairy tales keeping modern lives in mind. It doesn’t shy away from breaking norms and stereotypes, which is the need of the hour and the times we live in. Trung’s art is stunning and you need to spend some time on every page to soak it all in. In short, The Magic Fish is a read meant for all, to make people understand that people lead different lives and it is all about perspective and empathy.

 

The Years by Annie Ernaux. Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer

The Years by Annie Ernaux Title: The Years
Author: Annie Ernaux
Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1910695784
Genre: Biographies, Memoirs, Women Writers, French Literature, French History
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The Years by Annie Ernaux caught my eye when it was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize 2019. I am on the shadow panel of the prize and have till now read 11/13 long-listed books. This one for sure is on my personal shortlist. Why you ask? Here’s why.

The Years is considered to be Ernaux’s finest work and rightly so. It is a narrative of the period 1941 to 2006 and all of this is told through events – historic and personal, impressions – past and present, and through culture, habits, books, art, music, movies, and above all people. It could be termed as meta-novel but it is so much more according to me. It is a woman’s experience growing up in tumultuous years. It is an experience of history, the world at large, and memory of a woman in a time that stays and mostly does not.

The Years captures so much. It is political and individual. It is Proust-like, only to find a voice of its own. It is full of lists (which I love) and long passages of what happened where and when, what food was cooked and what did it smell or taste like, what mode of transportation was taken, and whose heart was broken. Not to forget the lucid translation from the French by Alison L. Strayer. It isn’t easy to capture emotion and translate that to perfect sentences the way Strayer manages.

The Years is a book that deserves to be savoured and not rushed into. You need to take your time with it. You need to nurture it. Its fluidity, grace, and by that extension all heart is very rare to find in books. So when you do, you hang on to it and cherish the writing. Time, place, and memory beautifully merge in this gem of a book.

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo. Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes

Iza's Ballad Title: Iza’s Ballad
Author: Magda Szabo
Translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681370347
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I haven’t read too many books about mothers and daughters. I am sure there a lot of them out there but I haven’t been able to cover that territory the way I have been wanting to. Every relationship when it comes to a parent gets a little complex. There are always disagreements for sure, but we don’t realize when it leads to becoming a dysfunctional relationship from an accommodating one. It happens too fast, too soon. Families are like that I suppose and a lot of writers have written and continue to write about it. I was floored by Szabo’s earlier work “The Door” – again the relationship between two women, so I knew what I was getting into and boy was I not disappointed by it!

“Iza’s Ballad” is about Ettie – the old mother from an older world. Her daughter Iza as expected is from the modern world, with thoughts that are not aligned to those of her mother’s. Ettie is recently widowed and goes to live with Iza (who is now a doctor) in Budapest. Ettie was born and brought up without a formal education and came from a poor background. However, she ensured her daughter was well-educated and did not want for anything. Her husband Vince was a magistrate and Iza has taken after him. Ettie cannot get used to Iza’s way of living. Iza on the other hand has stopped being answerable to anyone. The traditional and the modern clash just as they did in “The Door”.

Szabo’s writing is not easy. It takes some time to get into but the translation by George Szirtes is spot on to the last detail. The reason I say this without knowing a word of Hungarian is the nuances, metaphors and folk references aren’t lost at all on the English reader. To me that is some good enough criteria of a great translation. Also, being a man he gets the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship beautifully and only too accurately.

The concept is universal and hence almost every reader can relate to it. Szabo doesn’t waste her words and that is quite evident. In fact, in so many places, she doesn’t try too hard telling the reader, but just shows and leaves and that’s how a good book should be. “Iza’s Ballad” is an emotional ride and yet restrained – balancing the old and the new, the relationship dynamics and above all love and its transformation.

The Gardens of Consolation by Parisa Reza

Title: The Gardens of Consolation
Author: Parisa Reza
Translated by: Adriana Hunter
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609453503
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 260
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“The Gardens of Consolation” by Parisa Reza is a book about common people, literally caught up in conditions which are not ordinary – things happen around them, their country changes and they just hope and pray that things remain the same. It is the story of a family that sees Iran through the changes and what do those changes mean for them and their lives. Historical fiction isn’t easy to write. I mean there is so much already written about history timelines of a country – that sometimes as a reader I wonder: what else is left to read about this? Then comes along a book like ‘The Gardens of Consolation’ that defies my way of thinking and presents me with something new and exciting.

The book is set in 1920s with young newlyweds Talla and Sardar Amir travelling from their native village Qamsar to the suburbs of Tehran, where everything is new to them. Sardar is amazed at what he can do when it comes to work and Talla is slowly coping with the ways of the world – a major change being with the Shah announcing that the chador must not be worn anymore. This is just one of the incidents but it leaves a huge impact on Talla’s life. The book then proceeds with them moving to Shemiran where they raise their son Bahram – who is somewhat of a prodigy in school and after and how his political leanings (nationalist) change him and the family. The overthrow of Mosaddegh plays a prominent role in the book and of course how Iran progressed as a country from pillar to pillar, thereby also witnessing its decline in the coming years.

I don’t want to give away much of the plot, so this is the story in brief. Having said this, the characters of this book almost become family. I could empathize so much with Talla – be it the situation of the chador to the time she is envious of the girlfriends her son brings home to also the time she goes back to her hometown and yet cannot recognize all that was left behind. Reza’s prose and Adriana Hunter’s translation does wonders to the prose. Sardar on the other hand is a content man (so is Talla by the way) and that’s why he is under constant fear of his world being torn apart one way or the other. I think so many of us can relate to this – time doesn’t matter, neither does class, what matters is the common fear of feeling secure throughout your life. Bahram’s character on the other hand is immensely complexed – he wants more and yet he doesn’t want more. We see him grow from a child to a teenager to an adult and see how his perspectives change as well.

Reza’s writing is compassionate. She makes you want to know a lot more about the characters and the situations they face on a day to day basis. “The Gardens of Consolation” makes you hoot for common people and hope and pray that all goes well in their world – and when you start doing that in a book, it means you are hooked to it. Reza makes you weep (a little), smile (a lot) and makes you a see a world that you never thought existed. A read not to be missed.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah-by-chimamanda-ngozi-adichie Title: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publisher: Anchor Books, Vintage
ISBN: 978-0307455925
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 588
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I did not know what took me this long to reread this book. I remember reading it in 2013, when it was published and I promised a friend that I would get back to it soon – reread it that is. I reread it this month, after three years and was stunned yet again, just as I was when I first read it.

How do you describe a flawless novel such as “Americanah”? How do you review it? How do you describe your feelings to people as you read it, with a hunger and also knowing that you must starve yourself for it, should it get over too soon? While this book is about race at the heart and core of it, it is also a lot more than just that. May be this will be a good start to letting you know more about the book. I for one was riveted. My mind is still reeling from the characters, their lives, their perceptions, opinions, views and how it feels when you are almost an alien in another country.

“Americanah” is fodder for the mind, heart and soul. It may sound cliché when I say this, but that’s what it was for me. It is the story of two Nigerians, each trying to find their place in the world – from school to college to working in countries that they have experienced only in movies, comics, books or TV shows. There is certain neatness to the writing – it is neither convoluted, nor simple at the same time. It deals with issues; it feels personal at the same time and an all-encompassing read.

“Americanah” – the title is a Nigerian word used to describe someone who has lived abroad for so long, maybe particularly in America that they no longer understand the nuances of being Nigerian. They speak American and eat that cuisine. They are alien to their people once they are back and somehow that is the case with Adichie’s characters as well.

Ifemelu – a bright and sharp observant girl, lives her life in Nigeria, goes to America and is in for a rude shock – where race, hair and the way she is plays a major role than she thought it would. The story of Ifemelu is about her trying to fit in and then realizing that America was never for her. She sees America through her journey and life in Nigeria and is constantly on the lookout for more. Her relationships in America are not as fulfilling as they were back home with Obinze (her former boyfriend). He was the love of Ifemelu’s life before America seeped into her bones and flesh. We see love being central to the story and yet it is so distant for the two of them – things change drastically in the course of this book.

Adichie makes her characters like you and I. There is so much of everyday reality that it is heartwarmingly overwhelming. The legacy of slavery and black people and non-black people issues are at the core of this fantastic book. We see how Obinze’s life carries out in London which is very different from that of Ifem’s in America. The common thread is that of feeling like an outsider – like you will never belong.

The secondary characters in the book are not just props – they do, say and add so much gravitas to the entire narrative. From Ifem’s boyfriends and friends to Obinze’s mom and then the reaction of friends and family when Ifem is back from America – to a Nigeria that is very different from what it was when she left it a long time ago.

Ifemelu is more than just an interesting character. To me she embodied a lot of issues, confusion, heartache and more. Obinze on the other hand has so much to say and just doesn’t. Adichie has him restrained to some extent. The blog by Ifemelu on racism called “Raceteenth” and the posts in the book are insightful and brilliantly written. Maybe at some point, being a minority group, we all go through the same kind of racism (or do we?) and that’s why I could relate more to it being a gay man.

“Americanah” is a read not to be missed out on. At any cost.