The Year in World Literature Essay - The Year in World Literature (Vol. 86)

The Year in World Literature (Vol. 86)

The Year in World Literature by William Riggan

The two biggest literary events of 1994 outside the Anglo-American orbit both occurred in France and both involved posthumous publications.

The first came in April with the much-belated release of Albert Camus's final, incomplete novel, Le premier homme (The First Man), thirty-four years after the Nobel Prize-winning author's death in a car crash. Long withheld from publication by his family both because the manuscript was unfinished and because of the strong opposition it surely would have aroused among staunch Gaullists and ardent supporters of Algerian independence alike, the novel interweaves three basic story lines: the Algiers childhood of one Jean Cormier, a figure closely resembling the young Camus; the adult Cormier's quest to learn about his father, killed at the Battle of the Bulge when the boy was only ten; and the history of French Algeria, at the point now when it was about to vanish. (The vast majority of pieds-noirs or French Algerians fled to France in 1962 upon the triumph of the Front de Libération Nationale and the onset of negotiations between the FLN and the French government that led to Algerian independence.) A complex, ambitious, and ambiguous work, the novel has occasioned endless and heated debate in France ever since its springtime release and has racked up astronomic sales figures as well (50,000 hardback copies sold the first week). Originally, Le premier homme would likely have been issued at approximately the time of the pieds-noirs' flight; in a large irony of history, it now appears as Algeria is again slipping almost ineluctably into sociopolitical chaos, fueled by—among other factors—FLN decline and Muslim fundamentalism and aggravated by a virulent strain of hostility toward North African immigrants among the more nationalistic elements in France. The novel is a marvelous evocation of childhood, of a particular time and place, and of the pieds-noirs' right to be heard; it may also help to some degree toward an understanding of how the present troubles came about.

Even more remarkable perhaps than the publication of Camus's manuscript was the discovery and release of Jules Verne's long-lost 1863 novel Paris au XXe siècle (Paris in the Twentieth Century). The work is nothing less than astonishing in its clairvoyance, as Verne envisions a Paris brimming with electric railways, "gaz-cabs" that jam streets lit with electricity, air pollution from industrial discharges, recorded music blaring from loudspeakers, urban flight and concomitant suburban boom, and a general dominance by "machines and money," including faxes and computers—all of it much too familiar in the latter half of our century but more than prescient 130 years ago. The book's narrative, which follows a teenage orphan and would-be poet's unsuccessful efforts to integrate himself into the new society of no-nonsense business and assembly-line culture while continuing to preserve his artistic integrity and his love of classical literature, music, and painting, is minimalist, clearly serving only as a vehicle for the author's speculative description of what Paris in the 1960s would look like and feel like. It is a cold and cruel place, where naked ambition and avarice have killed all sensations of the heart, just as the city and society literally—if melodramatically—kill the sensitive young poet.

Aside from the Camus and Verne works, "La Francophonie"—the French-speaking world outside France proper—dominated French letters in 1994. The poet and essayist Edouard Glissant of Martinique brought out his second novel, a huge and ambitious effort titled, appropriately, Tout-Monde (All the World). The "world" or universe it depicts is one marked by créolité, a creolization of peoples, language, genres—of all facets of human life and endeavor, a commingling amply reflected in the very nature and structure of this massive, all-encompassing opus, which takes the reader on a world tour and international cultural adventure starting with the author's native island. Glissant's elder countryman Aimé Césaire, a cofounder of the famed Negritude movement of the 1930s and 1940s, celebrated sixty years of literary creativity with the definitive collected edition of his verse, simply titled La poésie (The Poetry). The younger Martinican prose writer Raphaël Confiant, a leader (with Patrick Chamoiseau) of the emergent Creole movement sparked by Glissant, brought out a new novel titled Commandeur du sucre ("Sugar Commander," i.e. an overseer on a sugarcane plantation), set during the cane-harvesting season of 1936 and evoking the entire world of plantation-era Martinique, from the lowest field hands and mill laborers to the powerful administrators and distant owners. The fine Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf produced his fifth novel, Le rocher de Tanios (also issued in English late in 1994 as The Rock of Tanios), a sensuous and lyrical fleshing out of two Mediterranean myths concerning the murder of a Levantine patriarch and the disappearance of an ill-fated youth from the large rock on the Cypriot coast where he often sat in contemplation. And Tahar Ben Jelloun of Morocco, like Chamoiseau one of the few non-French ever awarded the coveted Goncourt Prize, weighed in with L'homme rompu (The Broken Man), a seriocomic novel about a minor civil servant who, in a society where corruption is pandemic, goes totally against the norm by refusing to take bribes, with disastrous consequences for all, especially his daughter and himself.

German writers are still attempting to come to terms with reunification and all its attendant ills, including the ugly resurgence of violent nationalism, the discovery of tainted pasts among even the seemingly most noble and long-suffering citizens, and the enormous social and fiscal costs of melding two wholly divergent cultures and states. Wolfgang Hilbig's "Ich" ("I") tells the tale of one Cambert, a would-be writer who in the 1980s reluctantly became an "unofficial collaborator" of the dreaded Stasi (the East German Ministry for State Security), reporting principally and—he believes—benignly on "Reader," a leading member of Berlin's dissident literary underground in the final years of the Democratic Republic. Just how pernicious and widespread such collaboration actually is dawns all too slowly on Cambert, until virtually everyone in the East, even "Reader" and his ilk, is implicated and "everybody reports on everybody."

Siegfried Lenz takes a more fable-like approach to changing times in Die Auflehnung (The Rebellion), which focuses on the mundane lives and intertwined fates of two very different brothers, the fish rancher Frank and the recently retired tea taster Willy. Minor rebellions of all kinds abound, by wives and offspring and neighbors as well as by Willy and Frank, in reaction to various provocations and alterations in circumstances. The ultimate "lesson" (from the famous author of The German Lesson) seems to be that we must recognize when to accept reality, when to rebel against it, and when simply to move on.

The Austrian author Peter Handke, in contrast, continued marching to his own private drummer with the 700-page "fairy tale from modern times," Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht (My Year in No-Man's Bay). Alongside the chronicle of one year in the life of the fiftyish writer Gregor Keuschning, divorced and living alone in a remote suburb of Paris, are contained the fantastic and fabulistic travel reports by seven of Keuschnig's friends detailing adventures and fantasy-filled journeys through Japan, Greece, the Scottish highlands, and other exotic realms. The point of it all is to learn to see the world and oneself anew and, if necessary, to transform and improve both in the process.

From Russia came a handful of important new works in 1994. Tiur'ma i mir (Prison and Peace) completed Vassily Aksyonov's much-heralded Moscow Saga, a monumental trilogy begun a year earlier with Pokolenie zimy (now available in English as Generations of Winter) and Voina i tiur'ma (War and Prison). A masterful Tolstoyan epic (down to the allusive titles of volumes 2 and 3), the chronicle follows the fictional Gradov family from the late 1920s, through the horrors of the 1930s purges and pogroms, to the destruction of World War II, down to the death of Stalin in 1953. The mix of actual characters (Stalin, Beria, the minor theoretician Bazarov) and events with fictional ones, the frequent and whimsical leaps in time and space, and the periodic intervention of the sly, garrulous narrator all serve to keep the reader perpetually off-guard and even fearful at times, as the work's capricious unpredictability echoes the pervasive anxiety and dread inspired in the Gradovs by the ever-increasing and increasingly pointless cruelty of the Soviet state. Comparisons are already being made to such earlier trailblazing efforts as Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Varlam Shalamov's horrifying Kolyma Tales.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's novel Vremia: Noch' (now in English as The Time: Night), on the other hand, focuses on the gritty, day-to-day life of ordinary contemporary Russians: the aging minor poet Anna, her feckless daughter Alyona, and her ex-convict son Andrei. The story is relentlessly depressing yet laced with considerable sympathy, insight, and the author's characteristic black humor. Evgeny Popov's novel The Soul of a Patriot tracks a maverick literary dropout on his drunken meanderings through the streets of Moscow as he tries to circumvent the militia and police and get to Red Square, where funeral services for Brezhnev are taking place. And Andrei Bitov's first novel in nearly a decade, The Monkey Link, follows a talkative, philosophical poet as he traverses Russia from the Baltics to the Caucasus in the waning years of the Soviet empire and ends up witnessing the August 1991 coup in Moscow.

Translations of several notable new works from Eastern Europe appeared in 1994. In Moving House and Other Stories the acclaimed Polish novelist Pawel Huelle offers a witty, humane collection of tales filtered mostly through the consciousness of a child and evoking both the richness of his nation's past and the impoverishment of its embittered national memory. The Czech author Pavel Kohout's novel I Am Snowing presents itself as "The Confessions of a Woman of Prague" but overlays its putative old-fashioned first-person narrative with all manner of postmodernist devices designed, it would seem, to convey the confusion and banality that have marked the recent socio-political transitions in Eastern Europe. A complex and engaging effort, to be sure; whether it will be a lasting success is less certain. The Estonian novelist and perennial Nobel candidate Jaan Kross weighed in with another superb historical novel, Professor Martens' Departure, mingling the eponymous Martens' personal reminiscences of past affairs and family difficulties with an account of his service to Czar Nicholas as a privy counsellor and advisor in international law during delicate treaty negotiations with Kaiser Wilhelm in 1909.

Mexico's stellar fiction writer, Carlos Fuentes, brought out El naranjo (available in English as The Orange Tree), a novel comprising five novellas, the first two of which focused on the unexpectedly tragic figure of the conquistador Hernán Cortés, as depicted by his willfully unreliable translator Jerónimo de Aguilar and by his two sons, both named Martín. The collective effect of the five novellas is the suggestion of a new world, the possibility of Otherness, of multiple lives and eternal recurrences, of cyclical and perpetual renewal—much as Cortés's discovery of the New World shattered Spain's sense of itself and overturned all assumptions as to how things were and could be.

With Del amor y otros demónios (already available in English as Love and Other Demons) Colombia's Gabriel García Márquez continued the trend established in his two previous novels of writing on specific historical periods in northern Latin America, this time focusing on the eighteenth-century colonial era and exploring how that epoch's cultural and religious values restrain and deform the love between a cleric and the young daughter of a marquis. A slighter work than The General in His Labyrinth and Love in the Time of Cholera, the novelette dwells heavily on the magical and the supernatural, particularly the miraculous continued growth of the heroine's hair for twenty years after her untimely death from rabies and its preservation in pristine condition for over two centuries.

South Africa's J. M. Coetzee delved into the life and work of Fyodor Dostoevsky to produce his newest novel, The Master of Petersburg, a pastiche of images, motifs, and ideas traceable principally to Dostoevsky's 1872 novel The Possessed and to the infamous Nechaev case (the murder of a student by his fellow terrorist conspirators over a disagreement on tactics and as a test of loyalty to their cause) on which that book was based. Here the celebrated Russian author's stepson Pavel has disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and the father has returned to Petersburg incognito to retrace the youth's final weeks and days, recover his papers and effects, and possibly shed some light on his demise as well as effect a reconciliation of sorts with the young man's memory and spirit as atonement for the neglect with which he was treated for much of his life by his famous stepfather. Parallels between the political situation in 1869 Russia and the South Africa of today give the work a strong whiff of parable that was doubtless intentional.

Nadine Gordimer set her passionate new novel, None to Accompany Me, in the period immediately prior to the first nonracial election and the beginning of majority rule in South Africa. The dissolution of the old regime and the official demise of apartheid bring disruption and significant change in the lives of individuals as well, including Gordimer's protagonist, the lawyer Vera Stark, and the black couple Didymus and Sibongile and their daughter. Two other notable 1994 novels from Africa were Kehinde, a study of transculturation and adaptation by Nigeria's Buchi Emecheta; and Paradise, an absorbing exploration of the intricate and slowly vanishing culture of East Africa by Tanzania's Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Three of Israel's finest prose writers saw new or very recent novels issued in English translation in 1994. The Way to the Cats by Yehoshua Kenaz presents an unremittingly bleak view of old age and human decline in its portrait of a grotesque, narcissistic, and thoroughly unlikable woman during her nine-month stay in a hospital while recovering from a broken leg. David Grossman, in The Book of Intimate Grammar, chronicles a lonely, sensitive young boy's fears, anguish, and emotional breakdown against the backdrop of his country's own imminent coming of age in the violent Six-Day War. And in Unto the Soul Aharon Appelfeld tells the solemn and disturbing story of a brother and sister who serve as caretakers of a cemetery for Jewish martyrs in turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe. Appelfeld also brought out a new novel in Hebrew, Laish (Lion), a livelier but still typically spare tale of a long, arduous pilgrimage from Central Europe to Jerusalem by six wagon-loads of Jewish widows, orphans, pogrom survivors, and holy men. The passing years, the rigors of the road, the perfidy of merchants and thieves en route, and the vicissitudes of weather and disease exact a high toll on the travelers, including the youthful chronicler Laish, and fewer than half of the Bergman-like company reach their journey's end. Even there, no paradise awaits them, only an uncertain future with little likelihood of their ever being able to return to their European homelands.

Another novel by Egypt's 1988 Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz made its long-overdue debut in translation in 1994. The Harafish (the title means "The Common People"), from 1977, is a vastly entertaining, colorful epic tale about a lowly cart driver turned clan chieftain and populist ruler who is succeeded by ever more decadent and thuggish types given over solely to luxury and extortion. Turkey's Bilge Karasu made his English debut with Night, a determinedly postmodernist assemblage of diary entries, fragmentary jottings, and footnote glosses which together tell a disturbing tale of political terror and repression in a totalitarian Everycity modeled on Istanbul of the early 1970s.

The biggest single literary cause célèbre in Asia in 1994 was the banning of Taslima Nasrin's novel Lajja/Shame by authorities in Bangladesh and the death threat issued against the Bengali author by Islamic extremists for what they perceived to be her blasphemous demands for revision of the Koran. However deplorable that circumstance, the book that is at the center of the controversy in this case—unlike Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, which was a vibrantly imaginative and wonderfully entertaining piece of postmodern narrative—is a dense mixture of polemic and harangue tacked onto the thinnest and most programmatic of story lines and will greatly disappoint readers expecting a better-written work of fiction around which they can rally on the beleaguered author's behalf. Far more competent and compelling was the superb Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder's novel Fireflies in the Mist, which appeared in English fifteen years after its original publication. Here four decades (1939–79) and a multiplicity of themes, characters, and events leading up to and following from the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh partition are seamlessly woven into a postnationalist epic of significant and moving proportions. Rushdie himself was vigorously in evidence in East, West, a scintillating collection of short stories, ironic fables, and grown-up fairy tales overflowing with linguistic exuberance and multicultural references of every conceivable stripe.

Four important new books from Chinese authors reached Western audiences in 1994. The supremely talented Wang Meng, the former Minister of Culture who resigned his post in 1989 rather than parrot the party line on the Tiananmen Square events, brought out The Stubborn Porridge, and Other Stories, a collection of wonderfully subtle and satiric pieces that skewer a variety of targets, from individual politicians and cultural figures to broad social experiments and government policies. The Remote Country of Women by the dissident screenwriter and novelist Bai Hua blends the harshly satiric tale of a political prisoner's escape and refuge with a poetic folktale-like narrative of earthy and harmonious life among the Mosuo people of China's mountainous southwest. Liu Sola followed up the success of her 1993 story collection Blue Sky Green Sea with the highly imaginative and experimental novella Chaos and All That, an amalgam of scenes and songs which blend in slightly disjointed postmodern fashion to recount the experiences of the female protagonist Huang Haha as she grew up amid the deadly, mindless din of the Red Guard era in mainland China. In Grass Soup Zhang Xianliang presents a fictionalized account of his harrowing labor-camp confinement in 1958–61 during Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign, aimed at pushing the nation into communism but instead exacting a terrible toll (thirty to forty million dead by some estimates) from famine and official brutality. Zhang takes himself and other intellectuals to task as well for their compromises, complicity, and general passivity during that difficult period of Chinese history, but his allusive, low-key account of the material and spiritual privations suffered by all mainland Chinese under the Great Leap Forward is extremely effective in reminding readers that the full story of this historical tragedy remains to be told.

Japan's popular and talented young novelist Haruki Murakami brought out Dance Dance Dance in 1994, the long-awaited sequel to his acclaimed Wild Sheep Chase of 1989. Here the same ordinary protagonist's extraordinary journey continues, taking him on a spiritual quest to northern Hokkaido and yet another mysterious encounter with the sage old Sheep Man. As before, the narrative takes on aspects of an allegorical game strewn with indirect commentary on the glitzy postmodern world of an advanced capitalist culture that seems to preclude setting down roots and to foster perpetual motion and constant activity—such as the protagonist's continual effort to keep dancing. That he does at last drop anchor and settle down, after a fashion, with a Sapporo receptionist would seem to be positive development.

From the fine older writer Shusaku Endo came an impressive new collection of short fiction, The Final Martyrs, gathering stories written over the course of some thirty years. Their themes are much akin to those of Endo's well-known novels: the martyrdom of Roman Catholics in Japan, the fear and nostalgia that accompany old age, the incongruous experiences of Japanese travelers in Europe, spiritual doubts and sexual yearnings, and the author's own difficult childhood in a contentious household. Translations of two earlier novels, The Girl I Left Behind and Deep River, were less impressive but added nevertheless to the rich array of Endo's works (more than a dozen now) available to readers in the West.

Endo's coeval and colleague/rival Kenzaburo Ōe garnered the world's highest literary accolade in 1994 with his receipt of the Nobel Prize and continued his prolific career with the publication of Yureugoku (Vacillation), the second installment of his monumental "Burning Green Tree" trilogy—which he claims will be his final work of fiction. Set in an idyllic village of the author's native Shikoku, the trilogy takes as its topic nothing less than the fate of humanity and the universe, replete with folkloric healers, mystical forest dwellers, transmigrating spirits of the dead, animist forces of the natural world, and messianic visionaries intent on reinvigorating and perpetuating the archetypal Tree of Life to ensure the continued survival of humankind and the cosmos. The project, to be completed in 1995, is characteristic of Ōe's entire oeuvre: marvelously imaginative yet also maddeningly complex and certain to appeal only to the most ardent and diligent of readers. More accessible is The Pinch-Runner Memorandum, his 1976 novel which made its first-ever appearance in English in 1994, recounting in a lively double-layered narrative the involvement of a typically Ōe-like father and his retarded son in the violent 1960s demonstrations against the Mutual Security Treaty between the U.S. and Japan. Along with such now-classic novels as A Private Matter and The Silent Cry, this work would provide an excellent introduction for readers curious to learn more about the world's newest Nobel laureate in literature.

A rich, eventful literary year by any standard.