The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller

The second book I finished for Read the World Project this week was one for Romania; The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller. Herta Müller writes a lot about the German minority in Romania and the corruption of the Communist Romanian government so she seemed like a good choice!

The Hunger Angel revolves around Leo, a seventeen year old German boy in Romania who is found having sex with married men in his local park. His family seem to make no objection to his consequent deportation to a Russian forced labour camp- under the guise of ‘reparations’ to Russia for the war. Over the next four or five years he faces starvation alongside other workers, as well the cruelty of the Russian guards.

I’ve seen The Hunger Angel called a prose poem and I would agree; it’s beautifully lyrical and really focuses on snippets of emotions, feelings and moments of humanity over a prolonged plot. It makes sense, seeing as Herta Müller sought inspiration from her mother’s experiences, as well as those of the late poet Oskar Pastior, with whom she originally planned to write the novel. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, poetic; think a lyrical One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

I have another of Müller’s books to read soon, a dystopian critique of Ceaușescu’s Romania. She’s become an automatic favourite of mine!

The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila

It’s been a while since I talked on here about my Read the World Project but I have been making some progress. I finished two books this week (and have another two, I believe, I’ve yet to review) and have another two on the go for this week. I turn 26 in five days, which means I’ll have four years left to finish (if I’m going by my arbitrary 30 deadline.)

I was really chuffed to find The Ultimate Tragedy. Someone I follow on twitter mentioned it and I immediately pre-ordered it with the knowledge that, as it stands, it is the only book to have ever been translated in to English from Guinea-Bissau. When I looked in to it further I found out that Abdulai Sila actually published the first novel in Guinea-Bissau (not this one, his first novel- Eterna Paixão.) So I was excited to start! I was also really drawn to the starkness of the cover; I love the artwork Dedalus Africa chose for it.

The Ultimate Tragedy revolves around Ndani- a poor, young black girl coming to Bissau in the hopes of finding employment in a white household at the suggestion of her closest friend, her stepmother. Her home village rumours her to be cursed and the white family who employ her treat her cruelly. As the story progresses Ndani is cast out and then taken as the wife of a local leader in her home village, who hopes to humiliate the Portuguese administrator with a show of his wealth. Over time she falls for an educated teacher at the local school but the Portuguese colonisers seek to quash any hope in the black locals.

It’s a surprisingly short book for one that takes place over such a long period of time, it’s only 187 pages in total, but Abdulai Sila fits in a lot of plot. His first novel, I believe, criticised the government of the newly formed Guinea-Bissau, whereas The Ultimate Tragedy shows the growing challenge towards Portuguese colonial rule as well as the corruption and racism inherent in the political system. 

I absolutely loved this book. I’m so glad that it was translated (recently- my paperback edition was published in early April of this year) because it gave me a great- but brief- insight in to a country that I know very little about. It also didn’t hold back- this isn’t a book written with a European or US publisher in mind- it’s rightly harshly critical of European colonial rule and the hypocrisy of white colonisers treating native black African people like the ignorant. There’s love here, but also political commentary and, surprisingly, humour. Less humourous, and I will provide a TW here, is the inclusion of a rape scene that takes place- literally- behind closed doors, so please be aware of that.

So, yes, go read this powerful insight in to Guinea-Bissau!

(I also found my book for Equatorial Guinea thanks to the translator of this one! It’s on its way!)

Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

I was recommended Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair for my Chile book by a friend on Facebook and read it in one sitting (it’s a fairly short book). This is the fourth book I’ve reviewed for Read the World project and probably, so far, the one I’ve enjoyed the least. Not because I’m sure Pablo Neruda isn’t a genius, but because it turns out I don’t enjoy translated poetry (poetry in general I’m slightly iffy with). Which is my failing really. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it at all, just that it took a few reads for me to get my head around the poems.

I picked this one because I wanted to branch out from novels and short stories and poetry seemed like another layer (I also have some memoirs on my list). Pablo Neruda’s background fascinated me too, the idea of a politician who is also a poet is fairly outside my realm of understanding.

Objectively, the poems are beautiful representations of love and desire and I loved it the fact that my edition of the book included the original poems as well as the translation. My Spanish is awful, but I enjoyed trying to understand them before reading the translation.

Letters from Diaspora by Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura

Book number three for my Read the World project and I chose another collection of short stories for Bosnia Herzegovina, in part because I was really excited to read this book when I found it available for preorder. When I was at university part of the politics section of my degree focused on state rebuilding after war and the Bosnian war was one of my focuses. But I feel like it’s not enough to learn cold facts about a place, stories help us to understand a history far better than a textbook could.

So going in to this book I knew it wouldn’t be a happy one. Obviously, stories of displaced survivors of genocide, masquerading as civil war, are never going to be happy. But when you also take in to consideration the failure of the Bosnian government to address the massive inequalities between Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks afterwards, as well as the fact that the Bosnian war resulted in rape being categorised as a war crime for the first time, it was obviously going to be hard-hitting.

Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura writes beautifully and her stories cover an entire spectrum of experiences within the war; survivors, both Muslim and Christian, thinking back on those they lost and the country they’ve had to leave behind. There’s nothing romantic about their stories, as there’s nothing romantic about war itself.

My only minor criticism is a few typos throughout, which us perhaps a danger of self-publishing (but not the end of the world!) Letters from Diaspora is a short but powerful collection of stories.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is my second book of my Read the World project and actually the book that sparked my interest in reading broadly across the world. I read Purple Hibiscus about ten years ago (a lot of it went over my head, I imagine) but that made me realise that as an adult I’m not reading as broadly as I did when I was a young teen. Which is probably the opposite of what it should be.

In any case, Americanah came highly recommended and I absolutely loved it. It spans several years, three countries and two main characters; Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love in Nigeria as teenagers, but events take Ifemelu to American academia and Obinze to undocumented life in Britain. 

Race plays a central part in the book as a whole. Ifemelu ‘discovers’ race in America (it not being a major concern of her life in Nigeria) and writes a successful blog from the perspective of a non-American black woman. Both her and Obinze deal with racism on both their paths; the micro-aggressions of well-meaning white people; distrust of immigrants; fetishising; shock that a black person in America might be successful; assumptions that all people of colour are a monolith. The list goes beyond that, but to note every single issue of racism or prejudice I saw brought up within the story would be likely be horribly inaccurate because they’re not my experiences. I can only get a brief glimpse in to what life must be like got these characters, and the real life stories that they reflect. I’d say it’s an uncomfortable read, but that doesn’t mean it’s not incredible, but that it showed me a lot of the internalised, institutionalised prejudices in the society I live in reflected back at me from someone else’s point of view.

It’s been a while since I read something with this level of scope; that sort of epic plot that takes place over years rather than a few months. I definitely have a newfound taste for them though!

Iraq + 100 edited by Hassan Blasim

My very first completed book for my Read the World project! I had already preordered Iraq + 100 prior to coming up with the idea for this project so it was a happy coincidence that the book arrived on my doorstep a few days beforehand! I liked the idea of beginning with a short story collection for a country that I had never read fiction from before- particularly short stories by different writers- because it felt like more of a broad scope of writing than one novel to begin with.

One of the things I noticed about the stories as I read them, which was reflected in Hassan Blasim’s introduction- is how different they were as speculative fiction to what I’m used to. For many of the stories I got the distinct impression that that speculation revolved around how the present would directly impact the future- with flashbacks and hallucinogenic techno bugs and godly reincarnation how might the future people cope with what went on in 2003? In the introduction Hassan Blasim notes that western science fiction has been able to track actual scientific progress in a short amount of time which, given the destruction of vital libraries and museums, plus brutal invasions, has been largely denied to Iraqi writers.

The stories still scan a whole spectrum of speculative writing though- speculative because they all pose the question of what Iraq will be like a hundred years after the invasion of 2003. There’s magical realism, decimated wastelands, a future where the question of ‘religious terrorism’ has shifted from the Middle East to right wing America, holographic pilgrimages and big brother-esque dictator adorned with jewels made of the cremated bodies of people who dare to speak another language. Some of the stories are hopeful, others bleak but they all tie in elements of language, culture, religion and imagination. My personal favourite stories were The Worker, Operation Daniel and Najufa.

It’ll be an uncomfortable read for anyone who isn’t used to being confronted by the consequences of America and Britain’s actions (and, given our media, that’s almost all of us). But for me it’s been a great break from the usual negative stories we see in our media about Iraq- a chance to see things from a very different perspective from mine.

Read the World Project

I’ve been thinking this week of a long term project to broaden my reading horizons. @NinjaBookBox introduced me to Book Voyage UK, a book subscription service that sends a book from a different country every month. I immediately signed up, of course, but it also got me thinking. Could I read a book from every country in the world? I mean, of course it’s possible, but could I do it within a certain time limit? Say, before I’m thirty?

So, this weekend I made a list of every country, dependent territory and annexed territory I could find online, with a few extra entries for Native people and people without states- my politics degree and a particular political interest in marginalised groups within nation states helped here. I’ve tried to think specifically rather than broadly- for example I’ve broke down the United Kingdom in to its deprecate four countries because otherwise it’s likely that ‘British’ would, by default, become’English’. Likewise, I’ve created a separate entry for Quebec and Catalonia from Canada and Spain for reasons of nationalism; the latter presumably don’t represent the former in culture and fiction. 

So far my list consists of about 250 entries, although I imagine it will grow naturally over time (for example, I’ve just now asked myself ‘should I create a separate entry on my list for Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot?‘). I turn thirty in May 2021, which gives me approximately four and a half years. Achievable? I think so.

I’ll be using the hashtag #readtheworldproject on Instagram and Twitter, should anyone feel inspired to join me, or be interested in simply keeping tabs. I’m going to be reading a variety of books, from fiction and memoirs to short stories and poetry, so if anyone has any recommendations then please get in touch!