Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap (tr. Tess Lewis)

a nutshell: drawn from her family’s experiences among southern Austria’s Slovenian-speaking minority, this book follows the coming of age of a girl whose grandfather fought as a partisan in WWII, whose grandmother scarcely survived a concentration camp, and whose father continues to relive the trauma of torture at the hands of the Nazis

a line: “But is the peace in this region truly ours or do the languages spoken here still wear uniforms?”

an image: Haderlap portrays the war as a devious fisher of men, which has cast out its net for the adults and trapped them with its fragments of death, its debris of memory – she imagines her Father as snagged on memory’s hooks

a thought: with the world finally paying attention to the glaring epidemic of police brutality and racism, it’s worth nothing that this book makes many references to police officers’ unprovoked attacks on both children & adults during southern Austria in the Second World War, as well as the police’s violence in tearing apart families of anyone allegedly disloyal to the Third Reich

a fact: Haderlap’s focus on the effects of conflict on survivors and their children made me think back to human rights lawyer Phillippe Sands’ talk at Edinburgh Festival, where he spoke of the intergenerational traumas that prompted him to research & write East West Street in which he traces the lost history of his mother’s family in WWII

want to read Angel of Oblivion? visit here

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

a nutshell: at once sinister and compelling, this psychological thriller opens in Vienna with an invitation to share cake and rapidly spirals into a nightmare of uncontrollable obsession and oppression

a line: “The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced … I had always known that there was no safety net”

an image: the narrator’s memories of the trepidation that had always smothered family meals – particularly the way in which her grandfather used to ravage all her childhood experiences with food – are devastating to read

a thought: cleverly written, this novel pivots on the internal and external horrors of suffering from addiction (principally eating disorders) and abuse of bodies/minds; it is no easy read

a fact: the eeriest character, Frau Hohenembs, is seen to resemble the late Empress Elisabeth (‘Sissi’) of Austria, who obsessively kept her weight below 50 kilos through periods of complete fasting and rigorous exercise regimes

 

want to read The Empress and the Cake? visit here

Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

a nutshell: a Parsee girl, Lenny, candidly narrates her 1940s Lahore childhood as it mutates from a life of carefree mischief & chatter among miscellaneous friends to Partition-provoked horrors & heartache

a line: “Don’t hog God!”

an image: a colonel retells the story of the Parsis’ migration to India from Persia during the Arab invasion in 600s AD, evoking how the Indian Prince noted their arrival with a full glass of milk as a polite signal of his aversion to outsiders & their potentially disturbing alien ways; the Parsee forefathers returned the milk with a teaspoon of sugar stirred in – an indication that they’d be absorbed harmoniously into the country and sweeten the lives of his subjects

a thought: privy to adults’ tense discussions of the inevitable split, Lenny begins to notice that everyone she knows suddenly goes from being just themselves to being ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’, or ‘Christian’; tribalism is forced onto them – as the country breaks, so too does her own community fracture

a fact: India and Pakistan have been embroiled in numerous conflicts since 1947, and just today Pakistan has announced it shot down two Indian military jets; sadly the clashes depicted in this now 28-year-old novel show no signs of abating

 

want to read Cracking India (aka Ice Candy Man)? visit here

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong (tr. Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson)

a nutshell: a young woman, Hang, lucidly recalls her childhood in the Hanoi slums where she was forever torn between two sides of a family splintered by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s land reforms

a line“Hundreds of faces rose in my memory: those of my friends, people of my generation, faces gnawed with worry, shattered faces, twisted, ravaged, sooty, frantic faces.”

an image: Hang gazes out of a train window and feels wounded by the beauty of the Russian countryside under the stars – she paints a picture of light sparking off snowflakes, frail & luminous as a childhood dream

a thought: this is an exquisite novel, overflowing with intoxicating imagery and devastating insights into what it was to grow up in such a contradictory era

a fact: aged 20, the author led a Communist Youth Brigade on the front in the war against the US – but as a vocal advocate of human rights & democratic political reform, she was expelled from the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1989 and imprisoned without trial for seven months; the authorities effectively banned all four of her novels and Duong was long forbidden from travelling abroad

 

want to read Paradise of the Blind? visit here

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga

a nutshell: Tambu, a young girl in a deprived Shona village, cautiously recounts her years of struggle against sexism & racism in the hope of gaining an education and opening up opportunities for her family within a society that presumes her failure

a line: “You have to keep moving … Getting involved in this and that, finding out one thing and another. Moving, all the time. Otherwise you get trapped” (– advice to Tambu from her semi-westernised cousin, Nyasha)

an image: it’s hard to watch as Tambu’s painstaking efforts to grow maize and earn her primary school fees are thwarted by sabotage & scorn – her brother’s active hostility to the prospect of her schooling is one of many reasons behind Tambu’s frank opening statement that she was “not sorry” at his death; we learn that he constantly gloried in the exclusion & oppression she had faced as a girl since birth

a thought: memory is an ongoing source of anxiety to Tambu, particularly around identity; her observations on how (i) her brother’s British missionary education erased his self-recognition and generated a warped sense of superiority (ii) her cousin’s English upbringing tore at her roots and left her deeply unsettled

a fact: the title is from an intro to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Eartha 1961 text on the trauma of colonisation, which contains the line: “The condition of native is a nervous condition”; Dangarembga does not shy away from exposing the insidious influence of British colonialism, which lurks behind scenes of subservience, conservatism, misogyny, linguistic alienation, trauma,  hypocrisy, injustice… (the ramifications are endless)

want to read Nervous Conditions? visit here

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugrešić (tr. Michael Henry Heim)

a nutshell: taking on two semesters of teaching ‘Yugoslav literature’ at the University of Amsterdam and very much grieving the loss of her country of origin, Yugoslavia-born Tanja coaxes her fragile students towards ‘Yugonostalgia‘ – and there begins Ugrešić’s stimulating exploration of exclusion, memory, language, identity…

a line: “Retouching is our favourite artistic device. Each of us is a curator in his own museum.”

an image: breaking down after admitting she got lost in her old Zagreb neighbourhood, Tanja tries to express to an unmoved passenger on a plane how the trauma of exile hit her where she had least expected it 

a thought: I picked this book up from my local library and thought it sounded interesting – but now, since Ugrešić seems to have taken a vehemently anti-nationalist stand after war broke out in 1991 in her native former Yugoslavia, I’m a little uneasy about putting it out there as my ‘Croatia’ book for the project (esp. given the author in fact holds Dutch citizenship); in time perhaps I’ll come to swap in another

a fact: Ugrešić worked for many years at the University of Zagreb’s Institute for Theory of Literature, which explains the many literary references interweaved into the pages

 

want to read The Ministry of Pain? visit here