A few years ago, probably not too long after my country began an ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, I decided that I should do something to learn more about people in other countries. Since I’m a compulsive reader the natural solution was to learn about people and culture through their literature. So I started the Around the World for a Good Book challenge to read a book by an author from every country in the world.
I set a few guidelines for the effort:
- Due to my monolingualism the book would have to be translated into English (one of the great barriers to finding books from some countries)
- The book I read should preferably be fiction – a novel or short stories. Poetry is okay as well and a non-fiction work by a native author as last resort.
- Failing to find any book that meets the above two requirements I would read a history or travel book about the country in question.
Trying to read a book from every country in the world raises a lot of questions. How many countries are there in the world anyhow? The US State Department Recognizes 191 independent states, the United Nations has 192 member states, and FIFA ranks 201 football-playing entities. Does the United Kingdom count as one nation or four? Is there such a thing as a native of the Holy See? And what about Catalonians, Palestinians, Tibetans, and other peoples who do not have nation to call their own?
Fortunately, at my pace of reading I have a lot of time to work on these questions. I’ve been neglecting Around the World for a Good Book for a long time, but this year I plan to read one book per month:
January – Haiti: Danticat Krik? Krak!
February – South Africa: Paton Cry, the Beloved Country
March – Palestine: Khoury, Elias Gate of the Sun
April – Germany: Boll Billiards at Half-Past Nine
May – Argentina: Cortazar Hopscotch
June – Australia: Keneally Woman of the Inner Sea
July – Peru: Llosa Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
August – Czech Republic: Kundera The Joke
September – Somalia: Farah Links
October – Bosnia and Herzegovina: Andric The Bridge on the Drina
November – Uganda: Isegawa Abysinnian Chronicles
December – Zimbabwe: Dangarembga Nervous Conditions
If you have any suggestions for books to read for this project, please let me know!
Here are the books I’ve read so far for Around the World for a Good Book with reviews I wrote at the time:
Brazil: Jorge Amado – Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon
Sadly I lost my review of this book in the Great Deleting Every File in My Documents Error of 2003. I remember liking this book, although the characterization of Gabriela verged on the borderline between empowered woman testing the social norms and sexist pornographic fantasy. I decided that Gabriel personified the quote from many a bumper sticker “Well behaved women rarely make history.” This was a good book about changes coming to a traditional Brazilian community.
Iraq: Betool Khedairi – A Sky So Close
The second book in my “Around the World for a Good Book” series represents contemporary fiction of Iraq. Sadly, it is the most self-important piece of junk I’ve read since Leaving Tabasco. Is there some reason I can’t sympathize with first-person tales of woe by women of different cultures or is it just bad writing? The first half of the book is dedicated to the narrator’s father, and is irritatingly written in a second person voice as if she is writing a letter or praying to her father. There are some nice vignettes that illustrate childhood and living in-between two cultures, but mostly it’s mediocre. Unfortunately, the second half is worse as the narrator switches to dealing with her mother, now writing in first person as the time scale speeds up rapidly. In a few short chapters the author contends with the Iran war, dance lessons, loving an artist / soldier, fleeing to England, and maudlin dealings with her mother’s breast cancer. Somewhere out there, an Iraqi or Iraqi ex-pat has written exemplary contemporary literature. This isn’t it.
Georgia: Valeria Alfeyeva – Pilgrimage to Dzhvari
This books represents Georgia (Republic of) for my Around the World for a Book project. I’m not sure if this is biography or a novel. The author’s note mentions the author has visited monasteries in various parts of the world, but the narrator’s name is different from the authors. The story is about a woman and her teenage son visiting a remote monastery in Georgia and the monks they interact with there. The tension of the story arises from the monks having to deal with the feminist behavior of the woman pilgrim in their midst, while the narrator attempts to understand real devotion to God as opposed to a trendy spiritualism. While the monasteries are Christians there is a certain exotic element to them that I find fascinating. The second part of the book is less even, the narrator on her own now several years later visits a monastery in another part of Georgia (not Dzhvari, even though it takes up nearly half the book) and I’m not really certain where this fits in regardless of whether its biography or fiction.
“How much of the day can you spend with your eyes shut? And if you open them, don’t you get distracted? Learn to pray so that nobody else notices, and you won’t require any special posture. Our great saints achieved a constant, uninterrupted Jesus Prayer. The person of prayer works and prays, eats and prays, talks and is still praying. The prayer has been formed by itself, even in sleep.” (p. 32)
“How greedily I had once tried to absorb the beauty of land and sea, to take it away with me, and yet my eye had never had its fill of seeing, nor my ear of hearing. It seemed to me that these heightened impressions had changed my idea of happiness, and if I were to look long enough something would open beyond the play of shapes, the hues of light, because none of this could be in vain. But that same unsatisfied longing still niggled away. Beauty promised and beckoned, but it still seemed to exist independently of any connection with my life, not taking it into account.
A deserted, perfect, and idle world endlessly poured out its colors and lines, but I was rooted neither in its eternity nor in its perfection.” ( p. 37)
“The only problem, as the abbot said, there’s nothing a person can’t take pride in: If you’re not beautiful you are proud of your intelligence; if you’re not intelligent you take pride in your job and your wealth; if you’re not wealthy you take pride in poverty and you can take pride in joy and even sorrows.” (p. 142)
“There is life without faith, a secular life that drags us in its wake and constantly builds and destroys Towers of Babel, exposing their inability to reach up to heaven. It promises instant happiness. You just stretch out your hand and your past and your present become of no account as you try to achieve this beautiful, imaginary thing. This life seduces, excites, attracts you, swallows your soul and heart but never fulfills them, though it promises endless satisfaction – tomorrow.” (p. 180)
Ireland: Hugh Leonard – The Patrick Pearse Motel
Representing Ireland in my slow-moving project to read a book from every country in the world is dramatist Hugh Leonard. I’d previously read the depressing and close-to-home Da. This play is very different part satire of Irish memory, part satire of nouveaux riche in Ireland, but mostly farce. Almost on the Three’s Company level of people walking in on one another and assuming the worst. Still very funny though, and it hits its point, although the play seems a bit dated.
Holy See: Robert J. Hutchinson – When in Rome
Long overdue in resuming my Around the World for a Book project, I had trouble settling on what to read for the independent nation of the Holy See. Do I read something issued by a pope or bishop from the Vatican? Do I read a fictional work composed by a high-ranking Catholic leader while he was in the Vatican, and if I do does it really represent the culture of Vatican City or is it a product of the homeland that man comes from? Does the Holy See have a literary culture it can call its own at all? Eventually I settled on Hutchinson’s book, a non-fiction work by an American, yes, but it appealed to me because he spent a year living in Rome to learn about the daily life in the Vatican. Thus he writes about the Pope and high-ranking bishops, but also about the Swiss Guards, the Vatican Bank, the library and secret archives, the tailors who make all the holy garb, the only man who speaks Latin, and the sampietrini who clean and maintain St. Peter’s basilica. In amongst the day-in-the-life of the Vatican vignettes are historical bits about papal scandals, relics, Queen Christina of Sweeden, and the bones of St. Peter. Hutchinson encounters a lot of red-tape, scowls, and silence along the way that hamper his admittedly not-so-investigative journalism, but he still manages to write a fun book.
“What non-Catholics sometimes don’t understand is that most ordinary Catholics usually have a kind of familial concern for the pope, as though he were a grandfather. Theology is beside the point. You might disagree with the pope on some issue but still worry about his health, enjoy his company, listen respectfully to what he has to say – as you would to your own grandfather. You might also ignore your grandfather’s advice, of course, but that doesn’t mean you want him to stop giving it. You understand that he’s telling it to you for your own good and that even when you ignore the advice, he’s probably right.” (p. 41)
“The Holy See is merely an outward symbol – a unifying symbol, to be sure, but a symbol nonetheless – for a faith that is somewhat larger that what is found in the 108 acres of the Vatican. Whenever I was put off by some particularly ill-mannered Vatican bureaucrat, I would go visit one the major pilgrim centers, with tour buses parked outside, and be instantly cheered up.” (p 199)
“I’d like to be able to say that my explorations of the Vatican strengthened my faith as a Catholic in the way, say, that touring the United States Capitol makes you proud to be an American. But that’s not a good comparison. The monuments of Washington, D.C. – or even those of London or Paris – convey a grandeur that the Vatican, despite the glories of St. Peter’s, really does not. If anything, spending time in the Vatican is a humbling experience. There is a lot less there than meets the eye.
A religion with a history as checkered as that of Christianity – inextricably tied with Borgia popes, the Inquisition, and the Crusades – must speak its truth quietly. Like the people of Israel in the Old Testament – who continually broke their promises, abandoned or murdered their brothers, and worshiped the golden calf – Christians are, in the end, just as St. Paul said, hypocritical sinners. The Vatican teaches you that.” (p. 285)
Lithuania: Icchokas Meras – Stalemate
My Around the World for a Good Book entry for Lithuania tells the story of life in the ghetto of Nazi-controlled Vilna, Lithuania. Under the rule of the sadistic Commandant Schoger, Vilna’s Jews try to go about with their life, survival, and resistance. The narrative is told from the perspective of Isaac a young chess prodigy challenged to a match against Shoger. The wager: should Shoger win, he will send the children of the ghetto to their deaths; if Isaac wins, the children will be spared, but Isaac will be put to death. In the unlikely event of a stalemate, neither Isaac nor the children will be killed.
Each chapter begins with a move in the chess match and is followed by a vignette from Isaac’s life with his girlfriend Esther and friend Janek alternating with stories from the point of view of Isaac’s brothers and sisters. These chapters give a glimpse into life in the ghetto, both the suffering under tyranny and prejudice, as well as the little joys of everyday life. Back at the chess match, with the whole community watching, Isaac must play for a stalemate, on the premise that Shoger is a man who would honor the terms of the bet. When he realizes that Shoger is not an honorable man, Isaac makes the stunning decision to make a move for a win, when he could have made a move for a stalemate, sealing his own death as well as the childrens’. This is one of the more moving and powerful books I’ve read in a long time.
Iceland: Thorarinn Eldjarn – The Blue Tower
This is my Icelandic entry for Around the World for a Good Book. Set in the 16th century, The Blue Tower tells the life story of Gudmundur Andresson imprisoned in Denmark for crimes under the Great Edict against adultery and fornication (he not only violated the edict but also wrote against its legality!). Andresson narrates his own story from his prison cell, a story that basically says that the bastards will keep you down. Despite being highly intelligent, those of higher birth work to defeat Andresson at every turn. His sarcastic wit rarely wins him any friends either. After falling from the eponymous prison tower, Andresson’s life changes and it is told in a short second part of letters to his friend in Iceland as he begins to have scholarly opportunities in Denmark. Don’t get too happy though, because he dies shortly after in a plague. This was not the easiest book to read, but definitely a change of pace from what I usually choose to read, and educational at that.
“It is often the case with great men, that their descendants prove to be small, and all the smaller the more they try to stretch and crane themselves to the stature of their begetters.” (p. 48)
Belize: Zee Edgell – Beka Lamb
Around the world for a great book pays a visit to Belize. This novel takes place in Belize City when it was still part of one of the last British colonies in the New World mainland. The time is World War II and while some Belizeans are fighting in the British Army, others are agitating for independence. This includes members of young Beka Lamb’s family, especially her grandmother, although her father is more keen to not rock the boat. Despite all the political turmoil around her, Beka’s biggest problem is getting passing grades at school. While she’s a talented essayist she struggles with all her other subjects, and faces expulsion from the elite private school she attends. Worse, her best friend Toycie is pregnant and the father won’t acknowledge. As Belize is hit by a hurricane and Toycie goes mad and then dies, things get rather melodramatic. Beka Lamb is interesting for it’s historical detail, but not a very interesting book.
Kyrgyzstan: Chingiz Aitmatov – The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years
My entry for Around the World for a Good Book for Kyrgyzstan tells the story of Burannyi Yedigei, a man who works the railroads in a remote outpost of the Soviet Union, as he attempts to bring his old friend Kazangap’s body to his peoples’ traditional burial ground. While this main plot serves as a frame for the novel and is presumably set in the 1970’s, much of the story takes place in the early 1950s and while I suspected the flashbacks would offer insight into Kazangap, he plays only a small – yet wise – part in the story. Instead Yedigei befriends an outcast family because the man in the family was captured during World War II. His friend is arrested by the Stalinist authorities and eventually dies in custody, and to add to the tragedy Yedigei falls in love with his widow, who moves away with her children without saying goodbye. This tragic story is interspersed with traditional folk tales that reflect on Yedigei’s life and thoughts. A bizarre but interesting parallel story tells of a joint US-Soviet space station that makes contact with an advanced civilization on another planet. Cold War hysteria overrides this chance for peace and discovery, as the authorities abandon the cosmonauts and surround earth in a web of nuclear weapons. The two stories come together in a sense when Yedigei and his companions discover that their traditional burial ground is within the station where the rocket ships are launched, and after a confrontation with the authorities they are forced to bury Kazangap elsewhere. This book is well-written and interesting if a bit uneven, but artfully captures the desolation of the land and Yedigei’s soul.
Ecuador: Yanez Cossio – Bruna and Her Sisters in the Sleeping City
Around the World for a Good Book returns! This time we go to Ecuador for another Latin American novel written in the magical realist style. While not quite Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it’s much better than the atrocious Leaving Tabasco. Despite the title, there’s not much about Bruna and nothing at all about the sisters. Instead, in a disjointed fashion, it goes through the stories of several generations of Bruna’s eccentric family. Well into the book it feels like I’m reading background information and waiting for the real story to start. There’s the underlying theme well-explored of class and race and attempt to hide the Indian ancestry of the family of family even though it is public knowledge. There’s the uncle who spent his life weaving a carpet for the Pope and they end up carpeting the town after he dies. There’s the devoted aunt who hires an accountant to keep track of the souls she’s freed from purgatory through her indulgences. There’s the aunt who is never allowed to marry and thus dotes on a family of cats (who get bathed weekly in one of the book’s funnier moments). There’s one man who collects frogs and another who fills a floor of the house with matchbooks. Then there’s Bruna oppressed by the weight of her family history who flees at the end of the book. It’s not a great novel, and I have to admit I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it did have a unique voice, style and themes.
Japan: Haruki Murakami – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
[Apparently I was too stunned to write a review of this book at the time. I think I was going to go spend some time in a well to think about. I liked it, but whoa!]
Greece: Nikos Kazantzakis – Zorba the Greek
The latest volume in my slow journey Around the World for a Good Book. It’s hard to figure what country to attribute it to. The author was born in Crete, lived in Greece and then lived numerous other places. The story takes place in Crete but is about a Greek. I think this is a good thing that shows the internationality of the book reading venture.
The story is hard to follow, what there is of it. A nameless narrator appears to be a reformed communist going into a mining venture to become a caring capitalist. After saying farewell to a dear friend leaving for the revolution in Russia, the narrator meets the free spirit Zorba, who agrees to work on the mine project. The novel after this is mostly conversations and philosophical debates: socialism vs. capitalism, Christianity vs. hedonism, book learning vs. the experience of life. There’s also a lot of stuff about a widow killed by villagers, something involving monks, and an old woman Zorba loves that I never really followed too well. All in all it seems secondary to the Boss learning from Zorba to live his life to the full.
“In the corner was an icon representing the Virgin pressing her cheek against her son’s, her big eyes full of tears.
‘Do you know why she’s crying, boss?’
‘Because she can see what’s going on. If I was a painter of icons, I’d draw the Virgin without eyes, ears or nose. Because I’d be sorry for her.’” – p. 201