The Year in World Literature Essay - The Year in World Literature (Vol. 99)

The Year in World Literature (Vol. 99)

The Year in World Literature by William Riggan

The year 1996 in world literature was not one of the most stellar in recent memory, but it did produce a good many points of light in the form of new works and important translations from a broad range of writers both established and just-emerging. Particularly impressive were the number and quality of new works of fiction by writers from Russia and the Far East.

Russian. With Dust and Ashes Anatoli Rybakov concluded his monumental trilogy, Children of the Arbat, this time taking us through the horrors of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and early 1940s down to the fateful battle of Stalingrad and also bringing to a close the sad tale of the ill-fated young lovers Sasha and Varya. Theirs is unfortunately a somewhat mundane story compared to the riveting historical background against which it unfolds. Stalin himself occupies nearly a third of the book, and the resulting portrait of the tyrant is blood-curdling, matched perhaps only by Solzhenitsyn's a quarter-century ago in The First Circle.

In 1992 Mark Kharitonov won the first Russian Booker Prize for his novel Lines of Fate, an Eco-like metafictional detective story about the efforts of a small-town scholar to track down all the writings of an obscure provincial philosopher who scribbled his aphorisms on the backs of candy wrappers. This powerful, important, and charmingly oddball work is now available to the West in an excellent translation by Helen Goscilo. Admirers of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's dark, pessimistic plays and fiction welcomed her new collection of stories, Immortal Love, a title typically ironic in its counterpoint to the often abortive loves and strangling intimacies depicted in the tales themselves. That the stories possess such strong interest and fascination is due in no small measure to the manner of telling, a relentlessly oral, colloquial, and largely uninflected style perfectly suited to the women whose experiences are recounted here.

Vladimir Makanin, who became an overnight sensation in 1993 (after nearly three decades of writing) when his novel Baize-Covered Table with Decanter won the second Russian Booker Prize, is continuing to receive much-belated and much-deserved attention for his subtle, haunting, often surrealistic fiction. In 1996 his two novellas "Escape Hatch" and "The Long Road Ahead" were issue together in translation, and to considerable acclaim. In the latter a young technician at a remote Soviet-style packing plant sometime in the near future exposes the factory as a glorified slaughterhouse processing and packaging real meat as meat substitute for a populace grown too squeamish for violence of any kind; that subversive narrative is later undercut, in good postmodernist style, by the revelation that it contains only the fictive outpourings of an "author" inspired by the fears and delusions of a seriously disturbed friend. In "Escape Hatch" a middle-aged intellectual living in a nightmarish, crumbling metropolis discovers a secret route to an extraordinary, well-lit, civilized underworld where writers and artists and thinkers of all kinds are free to spend whole days and nights in elegant cafés discussing such universal issues as art, politics, sex, life, and death; ultimately, however, he must choose between idyllic refuge here and the responsibilities of trying to protect his family and friends from the growing dangers of the normal world above ground.

Finally, the young Irina Ratushinskaya made an impressive debut in 1996 with a first novel titled The Odessans, described by the publishers as "epic" but in fact more an intimate, personal work than might be inferred from the book's size (410 pages) and sweep (from the 1905 Revolution to the start of World War II). Despite plenteous scenes of revolutionary chaos in Petersburg and the horrors of the Western Front in 1916, the author's primary focus is on the women back home, mostly in Odessa, far from the fighting and turmoil but of course closely affected by those events through the hardships and losses which war inevitably inflicts on all.

Other Slavic Languages. The exuberant and wonderfully accessible Czech novelist Josef Škvorecký treated his international audience in 1996 to his first big novel in several years, The Bride of Texas, a colorful saga that mixes historical fact with Schweikian invention in following the fortunes of some 300 Czech soldiers who fought with the Union Army's Wisconsin Battalion under General Sherman in the American Civil War. A parallel plot line traces the life and loves of the strong-willed Lida, a sort of Czech-born Scarlett O'Hara who time and again manages to "gamble on the wrong card" in choosing her men. Intermezzos in the period voice of the pseudonymous author Laura A. Lee, doubtless meant as a humorous evocation of much nineteenth-century American popular fiction (replete with chapter-ending cliffhangers), are ultimately more distracting than beneficial but still cannot detract seriously from the novel's thoroughgoing excellence and excitement. Also new to Škvorecky's Czech readers in 1996 was his Nové canterburské povidky (New Canterbury Tales), written in the 1950s but never before published until its release this year as part of a twenty-volume collected edition of his works. The author now belittles the nine tales as naïve and sentimental juvenilia, but readers and critics have embraced their lively inventiveness and irreverent humor, both strongly reminiscent of the author's now-classic first novel, The Cowards.

One of the few Serbian works to come to Western readers' attention in recent years, and one of the first to emerge from the 1990s turmoil in the former Yugoslavia, Vladimir Arsenijevi's 1995 novel U potpalublju made its appearance in English in 1996 as In the Hold. Cast in the hip, engaged, but sardonic tones of a disaffected twenty-something narrator (the author himself has only just turned thirty), the work is a stunning and moving—and often mordantly humorous—portrait of a city (Belgrade) and a cluster of youthful friends "at the edge of extinction and dispersal." Drug addiction, conscription, death and maiming, shattered political idealism, enervation of the spirit, self-pity—all are dealt with, to varying degrees of success, in the course of the novel's unfolding. The resulting portrait is one not of nationalist but of generational concerns—of a youthful generation dispirited, manipulated, and impoverished by its elders and all but condemned to continue their age-old battles.

Asia & the Pacific. The young Indian expatriate Rohinton Mistry produced perhaps the finest single work of 1996 about the subcontinent with A Fine Balance, the tale of four ordinary people struggling to survive and make ends meet during the 1975–76 state of emergency declared by Indira Gandhi. Already being compared with Salman Rushdie's now-classic Midnight's Children, the work features a more traditional Balzacian mode of narration—its epigraph is from Le Père Goriot—that may well attract and involve even more readers more profoundly. It has already received one major prize in Canada and is sure to garner others elsewhere in the Commonwealth and the U.K. in the months to come.

Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer's extraordinary "Buru Quartet" was brought to completion for Western readers in 1996 with the publication of House of Glass. The focus has now shifted from the progressive, crusading early-twentieth-century journalist Minke to Minke's antagonist, the Sorbonne-educated police commissioner Jacques Pangemanann, whose occasional pangs of conscience and constant sense of irony combine with his reactionary political stance, consummate hypocrisy, and monstrous sadism to create a narrative that is fascinatingly subversive and modern. The author's chief concern here is the corrosive influence of colonialism as embodied in Pangemanann, a cynical and self-serving opportunist yet still with at least some vestigial sense of conscience and honor that he ultimately suppresses as he succumbs to the lures of power and privilege. The result is, in one critic's apt phrasing, "an illuminating, moving account of colonial psychosis [and] a memorable analysis of the human capacity for self-destruction, anywhere and at any time."

The late Shen Congwen, considered by many as China's most serious Nobel prospect during the 1970s and 1980s, was presented to the West in 1996 with an excellent and representative collection of his short fiction, Imperfect Paradise. Most of the twenty-four tales involve provincial folk and pastoral settings, but as the volume's title implies, the "paradises" presented here are far from vapid idealizations of bucolic charms and peasant wisdom. The provincial family in "Sansan," for example, possess many of the standard virtues of country folk but also show an unusually keen adaptability to changing social circumstances that is distinctly modernistic and untraditional.

Japanese author Akira Yoshimura's novel Shipwrecks, like Shen Congwen's stories, avoided the pitfalls of romanticized idealism in its lean, graceful account of difficult, poverty-stricken life in a medieval fishing village stricken by an epidemic of smallpox contracted from the crew and cargo of a merchant ship that ran aground on a nearby reef. Under conditions wherein mere survival is an achievement, the orphaned young hero Isaku and his fellow villagers struggle on a daily basis to retain as well some semblance of humanity.

The late Kobo Abe's final novel, Kangaroo Notebook, indulged in typically dark, surreal fantasy in its imaginative and vigorous account of an office-products developer sent careening on a hospital gurney through bleak realms of memory, barren alienating wastelands, and fearful underground encounters with creatures and images of the wildest kind imaginable. As in much of Abe's earlier work, metamorphosis, alienation, the problem of personal identity, the journey motif, and elements of the fantastic blend with wholly realistic features in an exasperating and unnerving amalgam.

Japan's recent Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe offered readers no fewer than four new books in 1996: the first English translation of his two early-1960s novellas "Seventeen" and "J," the first a tale of a disturbed young adolescent, the second on the fateful encounter between several artsy urbanites and the superstitious inhabitants of a remote fishing village where city folk are shooting scenes for a pornographic film; the first English translation of his recent novel An Echo of Heaven, which follows the path to sainthood of a Japanese woman who salves her personal losses and tragedies through ministering to the needs of the poor and downtrodden in Mexico; the translation of the recent novel The Quiet Life, presented as the diary of the daughter of a famous writer with the given name of K--- and her report on the year in which she cared for her retarded brother while her parents were away at an American university; and the publication of the novel inaru hi ni (On the Day of Grandeur), completing Oe's "Burning Green Tree" trilogy with the convoluted but ultimately uplifting tale of the saintly Brother Gii, whose sacrificial death reunites the warring factions within his church and sets them back on the road to salvation of both their own souls and the future of the Earth and mankind.

Romance Languages. The prolific, multilingual J. M. G. Le Clézio, recently voted "the greatest contemporary writer in the French language" in a nationwide magazine poll, produced his twentieth novel in twenty-four years with La quarantaine (The Quarantine), a sprawling family saga based loosely on the author's own forebears, who resettled from Brittany to the island colony of Mauritius in the late nineteenth century. The threat of a smallpox epidemic occasions the quarantining of the passengers of a ship on a small island near Mauritius, a horrifying and prolonged confinement which nevertheless spawns a beautiful love affair between the young narrator Léon and the Hindu girl Surya; even when the quarantine is finally lifted, the two choose to stay on rather than leave their "paradise of love."

The multitalented Italian polymath Umberto Eco brought out the much-awaited sequel to The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, the intriguingly titled novel The Island of the Day Before. Set in the seventeenth century and filled with metafictional allusions to a host of literary, cultural, social, and philosophical artifacts relating to that baroque/picaresque era, the narrative charts the mental and physical course of the young soldier/sailor/student Roberto De La Grive, shipwrecked off the coast of a small Pacific island from which he is separated by what is now known as the International Date Line (hence the title). Forced to imagine life on the island from a distance both physical and temporal, Roberto develops a series of ever more fantastic stories and plots, one calling to life his fictitious evil twin Ferrante and others alluding slyly to such Hollywood fare as Mutiny on the Bounty. In sum, a brilliant demonstration of how one can simultaneously teach and entertain, and also, in its encyclopedic frame of reference and its postmodern all-inclusiveness, of the cliché that there is practically nothing new under the sun.

Eco's venerable countryman Mario Rigoni Stern presented his legion of fans and admirers with a somewhat more traditional novel, Le stagioni di Giacomo (Giacomo's Seasons), re-creating the life of a small mountain town as it struggled to survive and adapt during the Fascist era between the two world wars without sacrificing its integrity and its strong sense of community. Neither social upheaval nor fiscal hardship nor political repression can break down the harmony and decency of Giacomo's village, and the novel stands as a passionate homage to a civilization now unfortunately vanished.

From the eminent Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes came La frontera cristal (The Glass Curtain; literally "The Crystal Border"), a "novel in nine stories" focused on the oligarchic Barroso family but ultimately concerned with the larger themes of love and perfidy, hope and disillusionment, idealism and corruption, and the problematic relations between Mexico and the United States. Delito por bailar el chachachá (It's a Crime to Dance the Chachachá) by Guillermo Cabrera Infante showcased the Cuban émigré's characteristically mordant wit and incessant wordplay in three interlinked stories about a young couple dining at a Havana restaurant in the late 1950s with bolero and chachachá music blaring in the background. The real intent behind the project is to expose the faults of the Castro regime, particularly in the lengthy title story, wherein the narrator, a Cuban intellectual and authorial alter ego, holds disinterested interviews with caricaturish bureaucrats and offers firsthand reminiscences of the heady early days of the Cuban revolution. The ideological posturing sorts oddly with the fictional story line, unfortunately, and may well have been better placed in a memoir than in a work of fiction.

Germanic Languages. Far and away the most significant new work of German literature published in 1996 was Martin Walser's novel Finks Krieg (Fink's War). Based, like much of Walser's earlier fiction, on a true event, the work follows the agonizing six-year legal battle of a midlevel government official forcibly transferred to another office so that a patronage appointee might have his cherished current position. Resistance brings only damaging (and untrue) slanders about his past performance and further outrage to his sense of honor and duty, and each defeat and indignity only increases his obsession with obtaining justice. The grinding, glacial process of the case ultimately produces in Fink either utter exhaustion or transcendent wisdom, for by the time he finally wins on appeal, he no longer seems really to care about either rehabilitation or remuneration, having found in an idyllic Swiss abbey the inner peace that has so long eluded him.

A drastically different but equally strong impact was made by the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke with the journal/pamphlet Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa and Drina, oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien (A Winter Journey to the Danube, Sava, Morava, and Drina Rivers, or Justice for Serbia). As the subtitle indicates, Handke was aiming here to redress imbalances in press coverage of the Balkan conflict, coverage which in most cases had cast the Serbs exclusively in the role of aggressors and the Muslims and Croatians as victims. Public readings from the text in several German and Austrian cities only heightened the controversy which the work had sparked upon publication, and Handke's book became public issue number one for much of the spring in the German-speaking world.

The novelist and Swedish Academy member Kjell Espmark created one of the literary year's biggest sensations in Scandinavia—and touched a long-sensitive nerve in Sweden—with his novel Hatet (Hatred), the fifth installment in his "Years of Forgetfulness" series. The narrator here is a specter, a former prime minister of Sweden who was stabbed to death by a still-unidentified assailant and who now finds himself trapped within a private inferno (the Markeet Hall) desperately trying to piece together the jumbled memories of his past and his career in order to determine at least why he was murdered, if not by whom. The model for this narrator is of course the late Olof Palme, gunned down on a Stockholm street in 1985 and ever since the subject of endless speculation and mythologizing, since no killer was ever found and therefore no firm motive or explanation for his death ever identified with any reasonable certainty. The narrative is therefore disconcerting at least, intrusive and offensive to some, but also strangely moving and extremely adept in using a lyrical, associative prose style to convey the complexity of mind and character that marked the real-life Palme. On balance, a stunning achievement, in the judgment of most readers and critics.

Near East. The ancient practices of vendettas and blood feuds are at the heart of Egyptian writer Bahaa Taher's latest novel, Aunt Saffiya and the Monastery, wherein a Muslim elder and a Coptic monk join forces to oppose and end the vengeance sworn by the eponymous Saffiya against the man who killed her husband. That man just happens to be her former betrothed, Harbi, who had been brutally tortured by her late husband, an elderly bey, and the agent of her revenge is to be her son. A small local tragedy is raised by the captivating laconic style to a level of epic resonance and import. In A Beggar at Damascus Gate the Palestinian writer and archeologist Yasmine Zahran links the story of her people's twentieth-century struggle for a place to call home with an evocation of the ancient worlds of their ancestors. The strains in the love affair between a (female) Palestinian writer and activist and a (male) English photographer mirror on a personal level those between the strivings for Palestinian liberation and the resistance of imperial structures and authorities. Characterization and persuasiveness of argument unfortunately fall victim to cliché and hyperbole all too often, but the effort and the topic make the work eminently readable nevertheless.

Ad-She 'ya'aleh Amud Ha'Shahar (Until the Dawn's Light), the newest work by the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, follows the tragic fortunes of a brilliant young East European Jewish girl in the first decade of this century as she abandons her faith out of love for a gentile, suffers unbearable abuse at his hands, and eventually murders him, though more to salvage her son's future than to gain release for herself from the virtual prison that her life has become. The author's now-familiar controlled and compassionate tone only heightens the visceral shock of this sweet soul's metamorphosis into a cold-blooded killer but also makes possible and plausible the healing self-acceptance she is ultimately able to achieve.

West Indies and Africa. Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott brought out The Bounty, his first new collection of verse since the book-length epic poem Omeros appeared in 1990. Among the reading pleasures to be found here are a moving elegy to the poet's mother and a haunting series of poems evoking his native ground, the island of St. Lucia. The biggest impact of the year 1996 in the Caribbean region, however, was made by Jonestown, Wilson Harris's fictionalization of the events surrounding the 1978 mass suicide in his native Guyana by some 900 followers of the Reverend Jim Jones. As usual in Harris's fiction, heavy doses of philosophy and mysticism almost overwhelm the narrative line (the narrator, Francisco Bone, is a survivor of Jonestown), and the events are subsumed within a larger context, here one of postcolonial excesses and antihumanism challenged by the unbridled spirit of the "sovereign" imagination.

And lastly, the still-new nation of South Africa gained a superb and superbly celebratory novel in 1996 with André Brink's Imaginings of Sand. The tension between the returned émigrée Kristien Muller and her conservative Boer brother-in-law is palpable throughout, and the convincing facility with which Brink assumes a feminine voice and viewpoint—inhabiting both Kristien and her aged, dying Aunt Ouma—is nothing short of miraculous. A magical and intensely moving performance, Brink's best in years.