‘Journey by Moonlight’ by Antal Szerb

My rating: 4 stars

Set in the early 20th century, Journey by Moonlight by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb tells the story of a newlywed couple struggling to come to terms with their purpose in life. Were they supposed to conform to what society expected from them? Did they genuinely want to break away from the norm? Thirty-six-year-old Mihály, the main character, was finding it especially challenging to decide what to do, seeing that he was plagued by nostalgia for his youth.

Mihály and Erzsi went on a trip around Italy for their honeymoon. While in Venice, one night he decided to wander around the back-alleys alone. When he returned to the hotel, Erzsi was worried and asked him why he hadn’t told her where he was going and why he hadn’t taken her with him. He felt offended and resentful. But that was only the beginning of their disagreements. Erzsi, who had been married before to Zolfán Pataki, didn’t fully understand Mihály at first and was sure that he didn’t understand her neither, because he didn’t concern himself with the real feelings of others.

Their next destination was Ravenna. There they received an unexpected visit from János Szepetneki, one of Mihály’s old friends. During a cryptic conversation at the local piazza, he told Mihály that he had managed to trace Ervin’s whereabouts. This encounter encouraged Mihály to tell Erzsi about the deceased Tamás Ulpius. When he was young, Mihály suffered from various nervous symptoms. One of them was feeling and seeing a whirlpool on the ground near his feet. Once at Castle Hill in Budapest, Tamás helped him when the whirlpool effect was taking much longer to disappear than usual. Continue reading

‘Tula’ by Jurgis Kuncinas

My rating: 4 stars

Tula by Jurgis Kuncinas is closer to be a fictional memoir than a clearly plotted novel. Taking place predominantly in Lithuania during the Soviet occupation, it is the story of a man struggling with an alcohol addiction and his love for Tula, whom he had an intense but short-lived relationship with. The unnamed narrator confirms early on that Tula is dead. Nevertheless, she is the reason behind some of his actions and is constantly in his thoughts, while he pictures a life of poverty and homelessness.

He recalls various moments from his life, particularly those connected with his deprived neighbourhood in Vilnius, frequently in a stream of consciousness style and, at first, in no specific chronological order. There he has known destitution and failure. Tula did not always live there, but she persistently makes up an appearance in his reminiscences anyway. He mentions various of his relatives and revives many episodes from the time of the Second World War and the 1950s, for example. He had various relationships with other women besides Tula, one of them was Aurelita.

Even before meeting Tula for the first time, he was homeless and wandered around the city looking for a place to sleep. That was particularly dangerous in that period, because there were groups of people keeping an eye on the streets whose sole purpose was to find vagrants and put them into “temporary arrest cells”. His addiction has had a huge impact on his life. He was a patient at the second section of a madhouse, which had the positive result of solving his vagrancy problem for a while. Continue reading

‘The Misfit’ by Oliver Friggieri

My rating: 4 stars

Novellas, despite their short number of pages, can be a suitable medium to believably portray the emotional and psychological condition of a specific character. The Misfit by the Maltese author Oliver Friggieri focuses on Baruch, a young man who was trying to discover himself, while grieving over his recently deceased professor.

The display of Baruch’s feelings starts at the instant when he ran to the cemetery and revisited the day of the funeral. That moment is depicted in an emotional, gracious and poignant manner. He loved his professor, who was 33 years old when he died, but no one noticed it. During classes, he always heard everything he said with the utmost attention. However, he never took notes, because he didn’t want to stop looking at him. Contrary to some of his more eager colleagues, he also didn’t approach the professor after classes.

Baruch was struggling to come to terms with who he really was. His life was full of contradictions. He felt depressed and lacked confidence. As he was extremely reserved, he also couldn’t explain his feelings to others. His parents wanted to be able to understand him but couldn’t. Baruch didn’t share his tribulations with them. Instead, he kept a diary, since he could express himself much better through written words. Friggieri used meaningful metaphors, similes and visual descriptions to convey Baruch’s psychological ordeals. Continue reading

‘A Amiga Genial’ (‘My Brilliant Friend’) by Elena Ferrante

My rating: 4 stars

Highly well-regarded books tend to leave me nervous with anticipation and apprehensive about not liking them as much as almost everyone else does. I needn’t have worried about A Amiga Genial (My Brilliant Friend in the English translation) by the pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante, though. It tells the story of the friendship between two young women since childhood, while making critical considerations on class, social mobility and the importance of education. The sequence of episodes from their life is for the most part engaging and immersive. It felt like watching the events unfold.

The narration is gripping from the outset. The prologue immediately made me want to know more about what happened in the characters’ lives up to that moment. Rino phoned the narrator, Elena Greco, asking if she knew about his mother, Raffaella Cerullo, whereabouts. They have been friends for around 60 years. Raffaella, who the narrator has always called Lila, took everything that was hers from the house and even removed herself from the pictures. She wanted to erase herself from history. Displeased, the narrator has resolved to write down their story.

Their friendship started when they were children, at the specific time when they decided to go near Don Achille’s apartment. The narrator remembers the significant moment when Lila stopped, waited for her and held her hand. But Lila had always impressed and inspired her. Despite misbehaving more than the boys at school, she was the brightest child there, having taught herself how to read. Elena felt that she had to remain close to Lila, so that in a way she wouldn’t become a threat. Her parents wanted her to be one of the best in class, if she wanted to continue studying and not to have to leave school to help them. Continue reading

‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors

My rating: 3 stars

The ending of a book can irrevocably transform our opinion on it. I was enjoying reading Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by the Danish writer Dorthe Nors almost until its conclusion. However, when I reached the last pages, I couldn’t help but feel that the story was incomplete. The main character is a woman in her early forties, Sonja, who is struggling to learn to drive a car. While being shown occurrences from her daily life, we are offered glimpses from her past and come to understand that this is a story about loneliness and lost family bonds.

Sonja is at first being taught to drive by Jytte. Although she passed the theory part without difficulty, the practice is not going well. Six months have passed and she is still not able to shift gears by herself. So, she decides to speak with Folke, the owner of the driving school, in order to change instructors. She doesn’t believe Jytte to be the appropriate teacher for an older woman. He ends up accepting to be the one to teach her how to drive. Accounts of her driving lessons are interspersed with other moments from her life. Sonja is translating a crime novel and goes to a therapeutic massagist, Ellen, who invites her to go hiking and meditate with a group of women.

Despite the plot not being too beguiling, I was surprisingly enjoying following the main character’s thoughts and actions. The writing style being fluid was one of the reasons for my initial appreciation. I was also intrigued by Sonja’s past, particular her relationship with her older sister, Kate. They used to be really close, but they don’t speak on a regular basis any longer. She believes her sister to be scared of her. Continue reading

‘The Glorious Heresies’ by Lisa McInerney

My rating: 4 stars

In The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney uses a murder as a pretext to delve into dysfunctional families and the tribulations faced by various characters whose lives were far from easy. Throughout the novel, we are given an insightful look into the darkest sides of Cork, where the story takes place. Ireland’s religiosity, drug dealing and the need to resort to prostitution are some of the themes focused on, as the characters’ lives became intertwined and spiralled somewhat out of their control.

The first main character we are introduced to is fifteen-year-old Ryan. He has a girlfriend, Karine D’Arcy, whom he took to his home to have sex with. He lived there with his father and five siblings, but they were away at the time. His mother had died some years previously. I really liked how we are not told right away what was happening. Instead readers are gradually shown the interactions between the two teenagers until what they were up to makes perfect sense. The same technique is used throughout the book in various occasions.

Ryan’s path crossed with those of the other characters in consequence of a murder. Maureen, a 59-year-old woman, unintentionally killed a man, whom she found inside her house. As she needed to get rid of the body, she contacted her estranged son, Jimmy. He was the most feared gangster in Cork. Although Maureen was the one who gave birth to him, he wasn’t raised by her but by his grandparents. He once went looking for Maureen in London and took her back home to Ireland. Continue reading

‘The Man Who Spoke Snakish’ by Andrus Kivirähk

My rating: 3 stars

Some books are more meaningful for readers from the same countries as their authors than for those from other places. I feel like The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk is one of such books, mainly because of the various references to what I believe is Estonian lore. This is an allegorical fantasy novel, set in the Middle Ages, about a changing world. The action is based on the contrasts between the ancient traditions that lingered in forests and the modernity of daily life in villages, where the influence of other countries and the Catholic Church was intense.

Leemet, the narrator of the novel, still lives in the same forest where he settled in with his mother when he was only 1 year old. There seems to be no other human beings left there, although he has a “companion”. He is the last remaining speaker of Snakish, a language used to command animals. But, unfortunately, not many of them obey anymore. He starts recollecting various events from his past and elucidating the reader about why the forest became devoid of people.

Before he was born, his parents had moved to a village almost like everyone else. His father enjoyed the way of living there, whereas his mother didn’t. They didn’t stay there for long, though, since his father died following an altercation with a bear who his mother was having an affair with. Yes, bestiality is a reality in this story and is present throughout. Bears are tremendously attracted to women, which I found bizarre and not that funny. Also, I’m not a huge fan of talking animals and there are plenty of them. Continue reading

‘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

‘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