The Year in World Literature Essay - Critical Essays

The Year in World Literature (Vol. 109)

The Year in World Literature by William Riggan

In 1997, India and the West Indies led the way in a superb literary year which saw virtually every major Western literature and several Eastern ones as well produce at least one runaway critical and popular success.

Perhaps the single biggest literary sensation of 1997 was the young South Indian writer Arundhati Roy's debut novel, The God of Small Things, a sensuously magical and intricately dreamlike tale of sexual and caste conflict in exotic, communist-infiltrated Kerala of the late 1960s. In recounting the far-flung travails of a sprawling Syrian Christian family from the southern village of Ayemenem, including painful childhood experiences, broken marriages, turbulent relocations across three continents, and a profane love between an untouchable and a respectable lady, Roy produces a narrative that is splashed with humor and irony and marked by a linguistic verve and felicity strongly reminiscent of Salman Rushdie's best work. The awarding of the U.K.'s prestigious Booker Prize to Small Things both confirmed and augmented the overwhelmingly positive worldwide reaction to this remarkable first novel.

When Memory Dies, another brilliant and moving debut novel, this time from the pen of the Sri Lankan writer A. Sivanandan, moves majestically through three generations of a Ceylonese/Sri Lankan family from the subservient 1920s, to independence in 1948, to the neoliberal communalism of the 1980s. A political novel as told by unpolitical men, the work "mulls over colonial pain with deep investment in its dramas of labor strife," wrote one admiring critic. "But what grips here is the calm and the charm, the momentous ordinariness of a life on edge."

In the stories of Love and Longing in Bombay, Vikram Chandra followed up the explosive novelistic success of 1996's mythic/exotic Red Earth and Pouring Rain with a series of chronicles about glitzy urban sophisticates, high finance, high society, and generally high times in a bewildering array of exclusive clubs and arty private parties. Like Roy and Sivanandan, Chandra belongs to a new generation of Indian writers in English who, in Rushdie's considerable wake, are enriching anglophone literature by reinventing the subcontinent in the cadences of English prose: "Through their writing, they have colonized the literary world of their colonizers," in the words of another fine younger Indian writer, Shashi Tharoor.

From elsewhere in Asia, two important mid-1980s novels from mainland China made their first appearance in the West in 1997. The Castle, by southeastern regionalist writer Jia Pingwa, weaves a complex tale about the doomed efforts of a talented and energetic young entrepreneur to reopen an abandoned antinomy mine and turn it into a provincial town's biggest economic success in more than a century. The novel suggests that however impressive China's cultural inheritance may be in its embodiment of the old fortress (the eponymous "castle") that dominates the town, at another level it can destroy individual initiative and deny the achievements of both talented contemporaries like the energetic young protagonist and famous visionaries of the past like the Legalist overlord and intellectual from 338 BCE who was executed in this very locale on trumped-up charges after a distinguished career as a court advisor.

Virgin Widows by Gu Hua follows its vibrant and vital heroine, Yao Guihua, through an oppressive failed marriage and her subsequent attempts to achieve both economic independence and cultural-social liberation from traditional restraints against the remarriage of widows and against assertive women in general. Interspersed with Yao Guihua's story is a parallel narrative set in the very same town one hundred years earlier in which the widowed young protagonist chooses a life of enforced chastity rather than a return to poverty, thus bringing honor to her husband's family and memory but ensuring herself only a lonely, loveless, barren future. A comparison of the two stories guides the reader forcefully toward an enlightened acceptance of the modernday Yao's desire to remarry.

Japan witnessed a recurrence of "Bananamania" in 1997 with the publication of Banana Yoshimoto's newest novel, Amrita, yet another earnest and quirkily ingenious foray into the adolescent soul-searchings of a Generation-X twenty-something, this time a woman trying to come to terms with the sudden death of her actress sister. The dialogue rarely rises above comic-book level ("Wow! Wow! Wow!"), but an effortless lyricism infuses the work with an often surprising weightiness and charm.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami, Japan's hippest and currently most successful male writer, is quite obviously making a concerted effort to publish a big, ambitious, heavy book that will refute the widespread critical opinion of him in Japan as a lightweight literary wiseguy who takes nothing seriously except the detritus and vacuities of Western pop culture. In following the unemployed and alienated man-child narrator through a convoluted, hallucinatory series of bizarre searches in the alternately dreamlike and nightmarish suburbs of modern-day Tokyo, the novel almost self-consciously takes up a wide range of weighty topics such as the transitory nature of romantic love, the baseness of contemporary politics, and the legacy of Japanese aggression in World War II. The result is a huge (600-plus pages) and hugely flawed compendium that nevertheless makes up for its structural shortcomings and wildly uneven design through the sheer brilliance of its invention and the author's almost Joycean exuberance for the widest possible range of literary forms and styles.

From the anglophone Caribbean in 1997 came The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips of St. Kitts, a brilliant evocation of the Holocaust experience told in flashback through the voice and discontinuous memories of a young female Jewish death-camp survivor. Undercutting and occasionally glossing this main narrative line are such improbable interpolations as a retelling of Othello in the Moor's own voice and an account of the persecution of Jewish moneylenders in fifteenth-century Italy. Phillips makes little effort to impose coherence on all these intermingled narrative threads or to tie up all the loose ends they leave; yet in this, his sixth novel, he brilliantly captures the voices of his various protagonists, "evoking their common humanity as they struggle with and against social definitions of the nature of their blood," as one early reviewer aptly stated.

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott of St. Lucia brought out The Bounty, his first collection of new verse since the 1990 epic poem Omeros, revealing anew his unmatched talent among English-language poets of the late twentieth century for creating dazzling verbal textures and the richest imagery imaginable. From the francophone Caribbean came wonderfully original novels by two younger Martinican writers: Chimères d'En-Ville (Urban Chimeras) by Raphaël Confiant recasts his own 1985 Creole novel of socioeconomic exploitation, survival, and assimilation in early colonial times in and around Fort-de-France; and L'esclave vieil homme et le molosse (The Old Slave and the Mastiff) by recent Goncourt Prize winner Patrick Chamoiseau (of Texaco fame) recounts an archetypal tale of slavery, attempted escape, and pursuit and recapture by the oppressive forces of darkness and dominion.

Two of Israel's premier writers brought out superb new works in 1997. A. B. Yehoshua's novel Masa el tom haelef: Roman bi-shlasha halakim (Voyage to the End of the Millennium: A Novel in Three Parts) looks backward rather than forward, to the end of the first millennium—specifically, the year 998—as it tracks the relationship between a prosperous Jewish merchant of Tangier and his beloved nephew and commercial partner, a young European Jew who sells the merchant's exotic wares in Paris and the Rhineland. Through these two the novelist meditates on the nature and future of Jewish identity in the contrast between the vital, sophisticated, urbanized "Oriental" Judaism and the austere, persecuted, inward-turned "European" variety.

Amos Oz's Panther in the Basement, set in 1947 Jerusalem, chronicles the adolescence of a precociously word-obsessed twelve-year-old called "Proffy" (short for "Professor"), particularly his "fraternizing" with the British occupiers and the question of whether such close contact constitutes treason or betrayal of his people and their heritage. As one perceptive critic has commented: "The now grown-up narrator knows that war is sometimes necessary, that there is a time for choosing sides. Rather, this writer is provoked by the way a precious solidarity can excite a lethal mistrust, and by the way the memory of absolute powerlessness can corrupt absolutely. He seems to be implying that when public obsessions rule private life, the human quality of that life is reduced to ashes."

Even if Yashar Kemal, Turkey's grand old man of letters and perennial Nobel candidate, had not been arrested and tried in 1996 for his outspoken defense of his country's Kurdish minority, the allegory of the ethnic rifts afflicting modern Turkey would be unmistakable in his 1980 novel, Salman the Solitary, at last made available in English in late 1997. Delivered in an old-fashioned epic voice and in Kemal's typically digressive campfire-storyteller style, the novel follows the fateful courses of two brothers, one adopted and one natural, as they weave their way toward an inevitably violent final clash. A certain shimmering yet austere lyricism mutes the tension between the brothers somewhat and sets the characters and events at some remove from the reader, unlike the wholly absorbing tragedy of Kemal's classic 1955 novel, Memed, My Hawk.

The New Life, the third and latest novel by Kemal's younger countryman Orhan Pamuk, became a runaway best-seller despite the surrealistic phantasmagoria of its story line and the extended Borgesian ambiguity of its narrative, charting the metamorphoses in the life of a young engineering student following his perusal of a certain mysterious book.

Among a good crop of 1997 releases by African authors, two stand out, as much for their strong sociopolitical relevance as for their artistic merit. Le Lys et le Flamboyant (The Lily and the Flamboyant) by the francophone Congolese writer (and associate director of UNESCO) Henri Lopes purports to be an account of the life and career of the beautiful and talented African-born mulatta singer Kolélé, as told by her former lover, the African-Chinese-European writer Victor Houang. Houang's manuscript is rejected by French publishers, however, since one "Henri Lopes" had published his own version of this story nearly twenty years earlier. Still, we get to read that manuscript, and even to compare it with its "Lopes" predecessor, which it significantly updates and expands into a treatise focused primarily on the new, latter-day hybridization of African identity and the corruption, pretensions, and hypocrisy of most modern African rulers. In the short stories of Awaiting Court Martial the prizewinning Nigerian author Festus Iyayi paints a numbingly and unrelentingly horrific portrait of human irrationality, immorality, and cruelty. His is a world where the prominent may kill with total impunity, where kindly little old grandmothers decoy unsuspecting good Samaritans into traps for armed robbers, and where supposedly loving relatives circle a patriarch's deathbed in anticipation of their inheritance once he finally expires. It is a sad, existential world of blurred beauty, of blighted dreams and ambitions, of futile struggles and empty accomplishments, a world where the grail of secret hopes lies always just beyond reach.

From the Romance-language literatures of Europe and the Americas came several outstanding new works of fiction in 1997. The Russian-born French writer Andreï Makine dazzled readers and critics alike with Le testament français (Dreams of My Russian Summers), a haunting autobiographical novel of personal and collective hardship in early-twentieth-century Russia and in Western exile, and also the first work ever to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis. As told by the Russian narrator's French-born grandmother, the tale moves from the deliciously decadent realm of 1920s Paris, to the intense hardships endured as a nurse in Russia as the catastrophic events of the thirties, forties, and fifties explode all around her, to her eventual separation from her husband and arbitrary banishment to Siberia. In her, Makine has created a living symbol of a suffering, divided Europe in the twentieth century.

J. M. G. Le Clézio's new novel, Poisson d'or (Golden Fish), recounts in the first person the kidnapping, sale, and peripatetic experiences of a young North African woman who endures the harsh realities of exclusion and marginalizing prejudice on three continents (Africa, Europe, North America) before her eventual return "home" to where her life and lineage began. Many of the themes present in the author's previous works over the last thirty years are evident here once again: the fate of the oppressed, the tension between First and Third World societies, the physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery. Particularly noteworthy are the numerous affinities with Le Clézio's acclaimed 1980 novel Désert, which also focuses on the life of a young North African woman who, like Laïla in Poisson d'or, leaves Africa only to return in the end, abandoning an unsatisfying Western world in order to rediscover her true origins and identity.

In Noticia de un secuestro (News of a Kidnapping) the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez combines the precision of first-rate journalism with the imaginative flair of the finest fiction writing to produce a classic and compelling narrative of several fateful political kidnappings orchestrated by the late Medellín drug king Pablo Escobar. The limit experience of living with one's potential executioners is rendered in prose that is as precise and clinical as a medical report, and the unimaginably fantastic is made thereby to seem quite ordinary. It is all, in other words, classic García Márquez: at once comic, tragic, and all too human.

Portugal's José Saramago, in The History of the Siege of Lisbon (orig. História do Cerco de Lisboa, 1989), weaves a cryptic, ingenious tale about two humble yet whimsically subversive proofreaders who rewrite one of the seminal events of early Portuguese history through the smallest and most subtle of alterations in the standard texts on which they are assigned to work. Their collaborative intrigue both derives from and fuels the growing attraction between the two, and their courtship, rendered in lengthy and virtually unpunctuated paragraphs of dazzling verbal virtuosity and unstable attribution, superbly reproduces "the tantalizing delirium of desire," as one admiring critic so aptly phrased it.

Portugal—the port city of Oporto, specifically—also provides the setting for the most recent novel by Italy's supremely talented Antonio Tabucchi, La testa perduta di Damasceno Monteiro (The Lost Testament of D.M.). The cultured journalist-narrator Firmino, dispatched by his circulation-conscious editor to investigate a gruesome murder (based on an actual 1996 case), uncovers a teeming underworld of poverty, corruption, and crime that permeates all layers of Oporto society, from the most hapless indigents to the most powerful leaders of government and industry. For its insistence that even in such evolved societies as those of contemporary Portugal and Italy a kind of lowercase fascism not only continues to flourish but is too often supported by the supposedly antiauthoritarian forces that control the levers of power, the novel is likely to be one of Tabucchi's most controversial works yet.

Austria's Peter Handke returned to the storytelling ways of his earliest novels and novellas with In einer dunklen Nacht ging ich aus meinem stillen Haus (On a Dark Night I Left My Quiet House), a wonderfully light and inventive account of a fantastic journey into alien territories beyond the "border," undertaken by a lonely but resourceful pharmacist in company with a former ski champion and a once-famous poet for much of the way. Nothing in this delightful book can be anticipated or guessed, and almost every page contains new surprises in both plot and poetic style. There is much worldly concern, and many troublesome facts and bitter truths of our lives are touched upon, such as the painfully relevant passages about the new relationships between men and women. Nevertheless, as one sympathetic reader noted, "We find everywhere a redemption of our common lot."

The late Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky was honored with the posthumous release of his last unpublished poems, together with a good many earlier selections, in Peizazh s navodneniem (Landscape with Floods), a collection that is nothing short of outstanding in the richness of its lyric expression and the depth and originality of its content. The landscapes here as often as not are those of the spirit and the soul as of topography and the physical world, and they are as threatened by the "flooding" of emotions and death as by rainstorms and meteorological deluges.

The Life of Insects by the younger Russian writer Victor Pelevin is set entirely within the fetid subworld of mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches, ants, and dung beetles, a seedy and lawless sphere saturated by cynicism, raw self-interest, authoritarian bullying, and the unchecked brutality of rapacious capitalists and petty hoodlums. Never strictly fable-like, parabolic, or even satiric in any sustained manner, the work fashions a universe wholly unto itself, though one which possesses definite similarities to post-Soviet Russia as that country transforms itself pell-mell from a hidebound and repressive society into one in which virtually anything goes, even sucking the lifeblood out of one's fellow creatures for one's own benefit and advancement.

Hungarian author Péter Nádas's monumental 1986 novel Emlékiratok könyve finally made its debut in English in 1997 as A Book of Memories, introducing a wealth of new readers to the stylistic brilliance and Joycean linguistic brio of this multilevel bildungsroman that moves seamlessly from the revolutionary days of 1956 to the mid-nineteenth century and back in charting the growing-up experiences of its three very different protagonists: the son of a communist prosecutor who commits suicide after the 1956 uprising; a flamboyantly gay nineteenth-century esthete; and a childhood friend of the first protagonist, who retells the latter's story from an altogether different perspective.

And lastly, in Spiritus, Albania's Ismail Kadare again attempts to come to terms with the unspeakably evil and oppressive nature of the Enver Hoxha dictatorship in an imaginative and solidly constructed work focusing on the motives and machinations of several secret-service operatives enthralled with the power of their electronic eavesdropping equipment and the secrets they are able to unearth through its use. Several characters from earlier Kadare works reappear here, and readers will readily recognize such familiar Kadarean elements as Albania viewed through foreign eyes, bumbling secret agents doting parentally over their technological gear, and a sizable admixture of Balkan and Albanian legendry.