‘The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden’ by Jonas Jonasson

My rating: 3 stars

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden took me quite a while to finish, although it is not a particularly long book. Halfway through, reading it became more of a chore and, therefore, I only managed to go through a couple of pages each time. Jonas Jonasson’s chief aim must have been to satirise political ideas and historical events, the characters being just a means to an end. It’s obvious that the author used this story to criticise racism, the apartheid, social inequality and shadowy international relations in an attempted humorous way. The novel is rather funny in parts, but sometimes it tries too hard to be so.

One essential thing to know about this book is that it’s completely bonkers. The plot develops through two distinctive strands set in two different continents, but they end up converging in Sweden, following a series of implausible events. The first significant character to be introduced is Nombeko Mayeki, a latrine emptier in Soweto, South Africa. She had a hard life. Her mother died when she was 10 years old and she never knew her father. After a series of coincidences, she became the manager of latrine emptying at sector B.

Having been born in the early 1960s, she never went to school, as South African politicians back then saw no reason for black children to do so. However, she was really good at calculations and was eager to learn to read. She asked a fellow latrine emptier, Thabo, who had done a lot of travelling and had a secret stash of diamonds, to teach her. Since he ended up being murdered by two women from Mozambique, Nombeko took the opportunity to stay with the diamonds for herself and, after being fired, headed to Johannesburg. Her foray into the city was shorter than she had anticipated, though. Soon after her arrival, she was run over by a drunk driver – Mr van der Westhuizen. Continue reading

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‘A Confissão da Leoa’ (‘Confession of the Lioness’) by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

Mia Couto is an author who, after reading only one book by, I became immensely interested in. A Confissão da Leoa, Confession of the Lioness in the English translation, was my second foray into his work and I was not disappointed, but neither was I astonished. Disguised in a tale about a lion hunt told from two different perspectives, this is essentially a book about the many tribulations faced by the women who live in a Mozambican village and its consequences.

The first perspective the reader is presented with is that of Mariamar. She lives in Kulumani with her parents. Her sister Silência has recently died in result of a lion attack, and her mother, Hanifa Assulua, is struggling to deal with that fact. The traditions revolving around a person’s death are repeatedly displayed and are a first taste of the various magical realism elements that can be found throughout the book. Superstition still plays an important part in people’s lives, and many decisions are made with them in mind.

News soon arrive that a couple of people from the capital are going to the village to solve the problems posed by the lions and among them is a hunter. Hanifa becomes really distressed with the prospect of his arrival, because she believes that he will take Mariamar to the city. For that reason, she intends to leave the house and kill him. In order to stop her, her husband, Genito Mpepe, throws her against a cabinet. Mariamar intervenes to defend her mother and says she was the one who has called the lions so the hunter would go to the village. Continue reading

‘For Two Thousand Years’ by Mihail Sebastian

My rating: 3 stars

The structure chosen by an author to tell a specific story can result to be either beneficial or a hindrance. While reading For Two Thousand Years, I wished more than once that the Romanian author Mihail Sebastian hadn’t decided to write this novella as if it were a notebook, since many of the events and relationships presented were only briefly mentioned, despite them being interesting enough to be further delved into. My reading experience ended up being saved by the social and historical themes touched on, including anti-Semitism and Zionism.

The entirety of the book consists of journal entries written by a Jewish man, who at first is attending university in Bucharest. During the time between the two world wars, he starts to be ostracised because of his religion and ethnicity and seems to feel lost, being unsure about what he should be studying. As other students don’t want Jews to attend classes, there is fighting at the university. For that reason, the narrator decides to give up on some classes, while considering others worth of the punches. However, he wonders if he is fighting back as much as the other Jews.

Almost all notebook entries feel like scraps of information taken from a bigger story. Overall, they are not fully connected in order to create a coherent and gripping plot. That seems to have been done on purpose, though, to mimic a real notebook. But it didn’t make for a great reading experience in my opinion. The narrator himself admits that his notebook lacks parts of his life, mainly when it comes to his involvement with Marga Stern. It’s a shame that his relationships with friends and colleagues are not further delved into throughout the book, because he appears to be a really good reader of people. Continue reading

‘Dear Mr. M’ by Herman Koch

My rating: 4 stars

To tell a captivating story is not an easy undertaking. When an author decides to pen two intertwined stories told from different perspectives in one single book, the task becomes even more complex. But Herman Koch achieves that almost flawlessly in Dear Mr. M, while mixing a crime story with a reflection on writing, fiction, and the need to choose the right elements in order to create a compelling plot. This is no fast-paced thriller. It uses a murder to explain the necessary differences between fiction and reality.

The book starts with an extended letter to Mr. M, a renowned writer, from a neighbour who is in a way spying on him and his wife. He details everything he knows about Mr M’s movements. It seems that he is aware of all his steps and is obsessed with him and his family. For that reason, the first chapters have quite a creepy feeling to them. It’s slightly uncomfortable how the neighbour is able to paint a picture about what happens at Mr. M’s home from the sounds he hears. When he doesn’t know exactly what is happening, he comes up with informed guesses. But some things he is sure about, like him having a daughter and his wife being much younger than he is. Both of them are away at the time he is writing.

The neighbour is a reader of Mr. M’s books and knows that he is not as famous as he once was. In fact, he sees him as a mediocre writer. Right from the beginning he makes his reservations about his talent quite clear. Continue reading

‘S.: A Novel about the Balkans’ by Slavenka Drakulic

My rating: 4 stars

S.: A Novel about the Balkans may be short, but it’s far from being an easy read. Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian novelist and journalist, examines a real war and its consequences through the fictional story of S., a woman who was forced to adapt to her new situation in order to survive the conflict in Bosnia. This book is both an account of what happened to her during the war and her perception of other people’s feelings.

When the story starts, it’s 1993 and S. has just given birth to a baby boy at a hospital in Stockholm. That child was not desired, though. She had been repeatedly raped in Bosnia during the war. When she found out that she was pregnant, it was already too late to have an abortion, and she had no choice but to carry the pregnancy to term. There seems to be this idea in society that women are spared during wars, because the majority tend not to actively fight. However, as this book illustrates, they are far from being safe from atrocities, quite the opposite.

In the following chapters, readers are taken back in time to the early summer of 1992, the year when S.’s life changed forever. She was 29 years old and a teacher in a small village in Bosnia, living in an apartment within the school perimeter. One day, S. is removed from her home by a soldier, who takes her to a gym where Muslims are being gathered. The men are then killed, while the women are made to enter buses without knowing their destination. A sense of disbelief takes over them, leading to numbness. Continue reading

‘Nada’ by Carmen Laforet

My rating: 4 stars

The evening after I finished reading Nada by the Spanish writer Carmen Laforet, I was under the impression that nothing exceptionally memorable had happened plot-wise throughout the book. That sensation is not really accurate, though. Andrea, the main character in this novel, had a year full of new experiences, but the way in which they are narrated made them feel almost ordinary, when in fact much changed in her life. This is the story of a young woman who was trying to become independent. Being an orphan living on a meagre pension, she struggled to reconcile poverty and hunger with her friends’ way of life.

Andrea arrived in Barcelona alone to start anew and attend university. Although she felt anxious, she quickly became enchanted by the city. She was staying with close relatives at their house on Aribau Street. At the time of her arrival, seven people lived there already – her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncles Román and Juan, plus his wife Gloria and their son, and Antonia, the housemaid. One of the allures of this book is to discover the characters’ personalities and back stories while reading, so I won’t say much about them. But, from early on, it became apparent that there was a conflict between Juan and Román involving Gloria.

The first character Andrea had to learn to deal with was Angustias. She was authoritarian, seemed to be fairly conservative and kept trying to repress Andrea. These characteristics can be inferred from her actions and are not straightforwardly penned. In fact, that happens with the other members of the family as well. It was via their interactions with Andrea that I started forming my own opinions about them, which made me feel involved in the story. They all seemed to be on the verge of madness to some extent. Continue reading

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 stars

In the Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead tells the story of a slave, Cora, who managed to escape a cotton plantation in 19th century America, while raising stimulating questions about racism, the true meaning of freedom and the importance of education to genuinely achieve liberty. Additionally, wrapped up in these issues, there is a reflection on motherhood from the point of view of a daughter who felt abandoned.

Cora was a slave at the Randall plantation in Georgia when the newly arrived Caesar approached her about running North via the underground railroad – a boxcar pulled by a steam locomotive moving on rails through a tunnel heading to the free states and Canada. In real life, though, the Underground Railroad was a network of safehouses, secret routes and abolitionists who aided escaped slaves. This difference added a pinch of magical realism to a historical fiction novel without overpowering it.

Although Cora is the main character in this novel, we are first introduced to her grandmother, Ajarry, who believed that it was impossible to escape the plantation. It didn’t feel at all illogical to start the book with an overview of Ajarry’s story, seeing that Cora’s first answer to Caesar’s proposal was influenced by her – she refused to flee. Three weeks later, however, she changed her mind. At the time of her first response, she was thinking as her grandmother, while afterwards she was assessing the situation from the point of view of her mother. Continue reading

‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 stars

Ian McEwan is a writer whose work I have mixed feelings about. Some books I really enjoyed, while others I found too dull. Nutshell falls into the first category, thanks to both its original narrator – an impressively intelligent and occasionally drunk foetus – and the frequent lyricism of the prose. In the first person, the resident of Trudy’s womb gradually unveils a plot of criminal intent, involving his mother and Claude.

The foetus can listen to everything people nearby him are saying. That faculty allows him to realise that Trudy and Claude, her lover and his uncle, are planning to act against John Cairncross, his father. John is a poet who hasn’t achieved much success. Despite not living in the same house as Trudy anymore, as she claimed to need more space and time to be alone, he still visits them in the hope of returning to his family house one day.

Throughout the novel, Trudy displays erratic feelings concerning John, but one thing is constant: her irresponsibility as a mother. She drinks too many alcoholic beverages for a pregnant woman. Something that the precocious narrator doesn’t really mind, although he is aware that alcohol can lower his intelligence. During a dinner out with Claude, Trudy drinks two glasses of wine, and the foetus has quite a poetic response to it. Continue reading

‘Uma Vida à Sua Frente’ (‘The Life Before Us’) by Romain Gary

My rating: 4 stars

I haven’t read many books by twentieth-century French authors, so I was both excited and nervous about finally picking up one by Romain Gary. He was born Roman Kacew in Vilnius but moved to France when he was only fourteen years old. Uma Vida à Sua Frente (The Life Before Us in the English translation) focuses on the strong and touching bond between a motherless boy and the woman who took care of him. This heart-warming story made me frequently smile and almost cry, while it exposed the possible consequences of getting old.

The narrator of the book is Mohammed, a young boy who lived with Madame Rosa, an ageing Jewish woman who was a former prostitute and Auschwitz survivor. She took care of various children, whose mothers were also prostitutes, in exchange for money. Mohammed was really curious about who his mother was and wondered how Madame Rosa knew that he was a Muslim if he had been living with her since he was little. Although Madame Rosa was Jewish, she wanted Mohammed to observe the traditions of his heritage.

The diversity of the French population is showcased throughout the book. Mohammed lived in Belleville, Paris, and had African, Arab and Jewish neighbours. There are references to casual xenophobia and racism which are not always connected with hate but with preconceived ideas about other people and cultures. The innocence with which Mohammed recalls some of the xenophobic and sexist remarks he overheard and sometimes repeated made me uncomfortably smile. Continue reading

‘Seeing People Off’ by Jana Benová

My rating: 3 stars

When I started reading Seeing People Off by the Slovak author Jana Benová, I didn’t immediately try to determine a correlation between the title and the story being told. In fact, it is only more or less halfway through this short novel that the significance of the title becomes quite obvious and that the fragmented plot seems to genuinely serve a purpose. Nevertheless, after finishing the book, I was left wondering about what was “real” and what was fictional in the context of the story.

Elza and Ian live with one another at Petrzalka in Bratislava. The walls of their apartment play music and talk. Together with Rebeka, Elza’s best friend, and Elfman, they established a Quartet – a group of artists who follows a system according to which one of them works to earn money for a time while the others create. Rebeka is the only one who hasn’t worked yet. Away from her group of friends, Elza maintains an affair with Kalisto Tanzi, an artist who is always travelling. It appears that she is looking for something more in life, some novelty.

The first chapter feels somewhat all over the place and confusing. What it conveys only makes more sense after we’re told, in the second one, that Elza has read aloud at Café Hyena the first ten pages of the book she is working on, “Seeing People Off”. This information made me occasionally wonder whether some of the events really happened to the characters or if they were just stories within a story. Continue reading