The Year in World Literature Essay - The Year in World Literature (Vol. 119)

The Year in World Literature (Vol. 119)

The Year in World Literature by William Riggan

Despite the awarding of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature to a European—the Portuguese novelist José Saramago—and the presentation of the 1998 Neustadt Prize for Literature to an anglophone African—the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah—the prevailing international winds came from the East in the literary year 1998, with strong showings from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia leading the way.

The first-ever English version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's November 1916 appeared as the second "knot" in the Russian Nobel laureate's monumental epic The Red Wheel, a vivid and sweeping panorama of Imperial Russia at war on the eve of revolution, from an author dubbed by one critic as "the dominant writer of the twentieth century." From humble huts and dingy urban apartments to the opulent drawing rooms and palaces of the Czar, from the dark dens of revolutionary conspirators to the command posts of the top army brass, and from the horror and chaos of the front lines to the gritty, mundane reality of everyday life in the metropolis—Solzhenitsyn's novel has it all, and yet manages, amid its thousand pages of exhaustive and often exhausting detail, to convey in clear and utterly convincing fashion the complete incalculability and noninevitability of events we know are to come. The overall achievement is as masterful as anything the reclusive Russian author has yet done in fiction and compares favorably with such monumental nineteenth-century masterworks as War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov.

Solzhenitsyn's younger countryman Victor Pelevin, perhaps the most gifted serious writer of post-Soviet Russia, published an English edition of his hiply ironic and frequently grotesque Russian Booker Prize-winning prose collection, A Werewolf in Central Russia and Other Stories. Among the types and individuals featured in Pelevin's tales are a public-restroom employee unable to rid herself of her workplace's stench even after its post-1989 makeover as an upscale underground clothing store, a student who drifts through life in various states of sleep and somnolence, and a collection of villagers who eagerly await transformation into werewolves, when their senses will be magnified to euphoric dimensions.

In The Ultimate Intimacy the Czech novelist Ivan Klíma uses the illicit affair between a Protestant pastor and a beautiful and intelligent but precariously balanced woman in his congregation to explore such themes as hope, guilt, and the search for true, close human contact. Told largely in the reverential, confessional tones of the pastor's personal diary, the novel slowly but convincingly reveals the ultimate intimacy as being reached only when one human being confides everything to another with no demand for or expectation of reciprocity. None of the characters here ever reaches or attains such intimacy, of course, but the ideal is clearly implicit from their sometimes noble, often ignoble failures.

Klíma's countryman Pavel Kohout's 1995 novel The Widow Killer made its debut in the West in 1998. A gripping thriller, the work also possesses an unusual and compelling moral intelligence as it follows its two protagonists—an idealistic young Prague detective and a Gestapo "liaison" officer assigned to the city's police force—in their search for a sadistic serial killer as the war and the German occupation grind slowly to an end and the Russian "liberators" move inexorably toward the Czech capital.

From the files of the late Serbian writer Danilo Kiš came Early Sorrows, a cluster of nineteen linked stories mixing childhood memories and fiction and centering on the experiences of a young Jewish boy in a Yugoslav village during the years prior to World War II. Kiš's compatriate Milorad Pavi—of Dictionary of the Khazars fame—brought out Last Love in Constantinople (in both Serbian and English), an intricately structured "tarot novel" that seeks to imitate such fractured-narrative classics as Cortázar's Hopscotch and Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler but succeeds only in fits and starts. One's ultimate impression is of a confusing and overstuffed short novel that is too clever and self-conscious by half—an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless.

Much more successful from the same region was Aleksander Tišma's novel The Book of Blam, which opens in 1942 with the machine-gunning of 1,400 residents of Novi Sad by a detachment of the Hungarian Arrow Cross. The remainder of the book follows a survivor of that massacre, the young urban intellectual Miroslav Blam, as he slowly uncovers and comes to terms with the events which orphaned him and the attitudes and sociopolitical realities which led to those events.

Poland's 1980 Nobel laureate Czes aw Mi osz, still vital and active at age 87, brought out three completely new works in 1998: Piesek przydro ny (Eng. Road-side Dog), a fascinating miscellany of prose poems, verse poems, epigrams, parables, and mini-essays on matters ranging from plants and pets to the sweep of history, the importance of memory, and the nature of faith; and Abecad o Mi osza (Mi osz's ABC's) and Inne abecad o (Another ABC), presenting alphabetically arranged remarks of varying length and detail on people, places, events, and ideas which have played important roles in his life and career.

From Israel in 1998 came two taut, moving, and masterfully emblematic novels by the Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld. The Iron Tracks follows the peripatetic traveler Erwin Siegelbaum as he crisscrosses postwar Europe by train buying up whatever remnants of Jewish culture he can find and simultaneously searching for the former Nazi camp commandant who murdered his parents. That search, however, seems more a vaguely perceived duty, an imposed fate, than it does a mission undertaken out of rage or vengefulness, and the banality of its awkward culmination (Siegelbaum shoots the now stooped and aged ex-commandant in the back) is utterly devoid of emotional release, making the novel perhaps Appelfeld's darkest and most pessimistic yet. The Conversion, a haunting tale of moral compromise and spiritual renewal, chronicles the representative yet complex fate of a provincial Austrian bureaucrat who converts from Judaism to Christianity in order to advance his career, to improve his social acceptance, and to survive. The cost of such a compromise in one's spiritual life is much too high, Appelfeld seems to be saying, for the convert who cuts himself off from the most important aspects of his childhood and youth and tradition has lost everything, including his very identity if not his very soul.

Bernhard by the Hebrew novelist Yoel Hoffmann (born, like Appelfeld, in Romania in the 1930s but now a longtime resident and citizen of Israel) is set in the 1940s Mandate region and focuses on a widower attempting to rebuild his life at the same time that the statehood movement is proceeding toward fruition.

The innovative fiction of China's Li Rui came to the West's attention in 1998 with the publication of Silver City, a novel chronicling the "mountain-crumbling, earth-splitting events"—labor strikes, peasant revolts, Japanese occupation, student uprisings, political executions, the communist takeover—of the era between the founding of the Chinese Republic (1912) and the onset of the reign of terror known as the Cultural Revolution (1966). Panoramic in scope and kaleidoscopic in technique, the work focuses primarily on the fate of the patriarchal Li Naijing and his wealthy, farflung family as they seek to retain control over a vast salt-mining operation in the face of both a prolonged economic downturn and the spirited challenge of an upstart Western-educated rival, Bai Ruide, who dreams of becoming a modern-day industrialist and titan of business along the lines of a J. D. Rockefeller or a J. P. Morgan.

The Sandglass, the striking new novel by the younger Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera, recounts the saga of two feuding families whose lives are interlinked by the changing fortunes of postcolonial Sri Lanka, moving easily between modern-day London and pre-independence Ceylon in a search for serious answers about these families' pasts and their bitter, longstanding rivalry. For all its virtues, though, the work suffers from comparison with the author's spectacularly successful and innovative 1995 novel, Reef, and therefore will prove something of a disappointment for most readers.

Fear of Mirrors by the Pakistani writer Tariq Ali focuses exclusively on European history and politics, in the process spanning much of the twentieth century, from the final years of the Austrian Empire to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany. The tale unfolds as a series of accounts from various perspectives of the recent European past and present, all framed by an attempt at a family history by the former dissident and now-dismissed East German professor Vladimir Meyer. The result is a sophisticated discourse on a complex series of events, "at its best in its examination of the painful and morally doubtful consequences of the compromises forced on those who live their lives in the service of political ideals," as the perspicacious TLS reviewer noted so astutely.

South Africa's Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer commemorated the recent labors of her country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a weighty and complex novel about crime and punishment in transitional, post-apartheid South Africa, The House Gun. A strong family drama and simultaneously a very readable, even gripping courtroom novel involving a crime of passion committed by a young middle-class homosexual against his more mature bisexual lover, the book is also a very public and subtly programmatic fictionalization of current politics in Africa's southern cone.

One of francophone Africa's leading literary figures, Tahar Ben Jelloun of Morocco, broke a rather lengthy silence in 1998 with La nuit de l'erreur (Night of Error), a shocking but stylistically brilliant novel of depravity and violence tracking the ill-fated young heroine Zina's horrific series of trials and molestations. Unfortunately, the new work does not match the brilliance of such previous Ben Jelloun masterworks as Child of Sand and The Sacred Night, coming across instead as essentially little more than a reprise of the formula which produced those earlier successes.

In Infinite Riches, the third installment in his acclaimed Famished Road sequence, Nigerian-born Booker Prize winner Ben Okri chronicles the encroaching threat to rural, traditional African life by the increasingly pervasive onslaught of Western technology and values which are not only gradually destroying both forest and plains but also eroding the old established ways of thinking and living. The sheer scale and artistry of Okri's project testify to the grandness of his vision and the importance of his achievement.

Shortly following his selection in late February as the fifteenth laureate of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the anglophone Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah released Secrets, the third installment—after Maps (1986) and Gifts (1992)—in his (unofficially titled) "Migrations of the Son" trilogy. Set in Mogadishu in the early 1990s just before the outbreak of civil war, the novel centers on the orphaned young boy Kalaman and his gradual initiation into an exotic, tempestuous world that blends myth, animism, and mysterious tribal and familial histories with the encroaching new age of sociopolitical authoritarianism and technological progress. As Kalaman comes of age both physically and emotionally and is made privy to more and more of the secrets relating to his true identity and the colorful past of his family and friends, we are all shown and taught a great deal that is new about man's relationship to the natural world and about the true, deeper nature of family, sex, and love.

Martinique's Goncourt Prize winner Patrick Chamoiseau's lovely 1988 novel Solibo Magnificent made its English-language debut in 1998, recounting the life and career of a legendary storyteller who literally chokes to death on his own words while addressing a huge throng in the Martinican capital of Fort-de-France, thus clearing the stage (as it were) for the replacement of oral literature by the written word. And in The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto Peru's outstanding belletrist Mario Vargas Llosa produced a scandalously brilliant disquisition on true love and the power of the imagination, full of elaborate, highly charged descriptions of sexual activity that may or may not be purely the fantasies of the eponymous Rigoberto and his adored hut estranged second wife Lucrecia. While regaling the reader with wildly inventive reports and disquisitions on almost every conceivable kind of sex act (aside from sadomasochism and male-male homosexuality), the author wickedly omits any account whatsoever of the one episode on which the novel's plot hinges: the dalliance between Lucrecia and Don Rigoberto's son by his first marriage, Foncho. That crucial instance is left entirely to our imagination, like little else in this wonderfully perverse and fascinating book.

In what was a relatively weak literary year in Western Europe, only a small handful of new works stood out as worthy of mention. The young French author Marie Darrieussecq, both famous and notorious for her much-discussed first novel, Pig Tales, published Naissance des fantômes (Birth of Phantoms) in 1998, experimenting this time with a more reflective, intimate tone in the first-person narrative of a woman whose husband simply disappears one day while grocery shopping and never returns. The effect of this sudden, inexplicable abandonment is both a profound disillusionment and a rapid deterioration of the woman's psychological balance as well as her emotional connection to the real, material world.

The Persian-born French dramatist Yasmina Reza brought her much-praised play The Unexpected Man from the stage to the printed page (in both French and English), presenting readers (rather than viewers) with a series of dazzling internal monologues by a man and woman sharing a compartment on a long train ride. The man, a prominent novelist, "muses on his latest work, contemplates the futility of writing, and reconsiders his life in terms of his friends, his daughter, her lover, and the workings of his digestive system" while the woman "thinks about her life, her loves, and her friendships with full knowledge that the man she is facing is the novelist she admires and would love to speak to, and whose latest work she has lucked in her handbag" (to cite one enthusiastic viewer/reviewer).

In Identity the Czech-born French novelist Milan Kundera produced "a twisting, teasing labyrinthine story of detection" that doubles as a set of speculations on such topics as identity versus anonymity and the preponderance of surveillance in both public and private life at the end of the twentieth century. When the divorced, middle-aged Parisian advertising executive Chantal suddenly begins receiving letters from an anonymous admirer, she soon finds herself suspecting each new man she encounters to be the mysterious scribe and fantasizes how each might perceive her. Gradually these letters and speculations take over Chantal's life and thoughts so completely that both her sense of herself and her relationship with her younger lover Jean-Marc become wholly unrecognizable. "At what exact moment," the narrator asks, "did the real turn into the unreal, reality into reverie? Where was the border?" The whole does not add up to anything so substantial as, say, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but it satisfies nonetheless as a sort of Kundera Lite.

And lastly, in Todos os Nômes (All the Names) the prominent Portuguese author and 1998 Nobel Prize winner in literature José Saramago chronicles the secret and wholly abstract infatuation of a bachelor bureaucrat for the deceased thirtyish divorcée whose government file comes to his attention during a routine census. Orpheus-like, this thoroughly smitten clerk descends into the netherworld of the governmental archives of the dead to rescue his "beloved's" name and remove all official traces of her tragic suicide. Also released in 1998 and capitalizing considerably on the author's sudden international fame was the first English-language edition of Saramago's 1995 novel, Blindness, a richly parabolic tale in which an entire city is gradually struck blind, plunging its inhabitants into a desperate Hobbesian struggle for power and survival.