The Year in World Literature

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The Year in World Literature by William Riggan

Significant new works by three German classics, important new fiction in French by a half-dozen major writers from outside France proper, a plethora of new titles in English from leading authors of Eastern Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East, and blockbuster returns by such literary icons as Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the late Italo Calvino, and Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka, Kenzaburō Ōe, and Naguib Mahfouz highlighted the literary year 1995.


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Two of the three German publications in question were posthumous. From the late great Uwe Johnson (d. 1984) came Insel-Geschichten (Island Stories), a collection of brief, whimsical, insightful, previously unpublished tales about the author's life of self-exile on the English coast and written primarily in an effort to overcome a serious case of writer's block which had halted progress on his massive tetralogy, Jahrestage (Anniversaries). The twelve stories by the late Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll (d. 1985) collected and issued for the first time in Der blasse Hund (The Pale Dog) date mostly from the immediate postwar years but also include one prewar piece from 1938; though stylistically different from his longer later works, they all bear the unmistakable mark of the author's critically detached engagement with current events, particularly with the social and psychological aftereffects of the war. Ein weites Feld (A Broad Field), Günter Grass's 781-page attempt at writing the Great German Historical Novel, sparked prolonged and heated controversy with its dark, bitter-edged portrait of German life and culture following the unifications of both 1989 and 1871. Grass is one of the few remaining unreconstructed leftists in Germany, and one of the few public figures who continue to view the latest effort at unification as a dangerous and utter failure, as nothing more than a campaign of plunder in which Western industrialists have enriched themselves by looting and destroying the poorer, weaker East. Using a modern-day counterpart of the nineteenth-century novelist (and chronicler of Prussia's rise to glory and power after the first unification) Theodor Fontane as his protagonist and alter ego, Grass takes particular aim at the Treuhand agency, which Bonn established to oversee the sale of the thousands of farms, factories, and businesses in the East that were "the people's" property under communist rule. For such a provocative infusion of politically unpopular views into his novel, Grass has been brutally savaged by critics across the entire ideological spectrum, from Western critical potentates like Marcel Reich-Ranicki to long-suffering Eastern writers such as Walter Kempowski. Despite all the furor, the book has ridden high on the bestseller list since its release in April.

Africa and the West Indies

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Francophone writing dominated the year's literary production from Africa and the Caribbean. Tahar Ben Jelloun of Morocco, a former Goncourt Prize winner, gathered twenty-one of his short stories from the last two decades in Le premier amour est toujours le dernier (The First Love Is Always the Last). As the title indicates, the focus here is not on politics or colonial oppression, as might be expected, but on love and tormented male-female relationships. Curiously, perhaps, for such an acclaimed author and persistent opponent of the oppression of women in North African and South European societies, Ben Jelloun here proves guilty of an insidious sexism, failing utterly to distance himself from the pronounced gender stereotyping and patronizing chauvinism of his various male protagonists, many of whom are even writers, no less. In L'homme du livre (The Book Man) Driss Chraïbi, also of Morocco, treads on potentially dangerous ground by offering an imaginary and personal account of the life of the Prophet Mohammed at the time of his first revelation; the overlay of a twentieth-century sensibility—Mohammed is shy, tolerant, introspective, sensitive, respectful of his wife Khadija, playful with his four children, and generally possessed of the qualities and attitudes inherent to the ideal twentieth-century man—on an otherwise straightforward account seems clearly intended to convey the message that every epoch is responsible for making sense of its received wisdom and eternal religious verities. Algeria's Mohammed Dib, long resident in France and Scandinavia, returns to his native land in the stories and novellas of La nuit sauvage (The Savage Night), all of which deal directly or indirectly with the violence and enmity that have marked the last forty years in North Africa.

Martinique's Raphaël Confiant, also a former Goncourt Prize winner, brought out another in his lengthening line of Creole-flavored French novels, Commandeur du sucre (Sugar Boss), centered on the professional activities and private world of a foreman or driver on a sugarcane plantation during a single growing season in 1936. For créolistes such as Confiant, it was precisely in such a milieu that their island culture was formed, and in the mulatto driver Firmin Léander, who narrates his own story in alternating chapters, the work features a protagonist situated midway between the white planters and the black workers—precisely where the transformation of the island society founded on the plantation occurs. Maryse Condé, the outstanding francophone novelist from Guadeloupe, brought out Crossing the Mangrove, the English edition of Traversée de la mangrove, a powerful and complex generational novel that echoes Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Carlos Fuentes's Death of Artemio Cruz in its posthumous reconstruction of the life of one Francis Sancher through the fragmented reminiscences and reveries of his fellow villagers as they file past his open casket. Denigrated and reviled in life by many as a vagabond and a cur, Sancher is gradually revealed as a powerful and mysterious individual who has variously liberated, oppressed, frightened, and consoled those who now gather to bid him farewell. The young Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat followed her first novel (Breath, Eyes, Memory, 1994) with Krik? Krak!, a collection of stories set both in rural and urban Haiti and in the Haitian community of New York City. Her principal themes prove to be "oppression, hope, fear, cultural identity, and the complex ties among women," as one critic noted, and the best of her stories "humanize, particularize, give poignancy to the lives of people we may have come to think of as faceless emblems of misery, poverty, and brutality."

From anglophone Africa came two new works by Nigeria's 1986 Nobel recipient Wole Soyinka: Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years, a memoir covering the "peculiarly messy" school years 1946–55 and continuing the lightly fictionalized autobiographical project the author began in 1981 with Aké: Years of Childhood; and The Beatification of Area Boy, a powerful full-length new play which satirically and "kaleidoscopically" examines post-oil-boom Lagos, the Nigerian capital, here depicted as a city in total turmoil, where everything, including the legal system, is breaking down and the future holds little if any hope for improvement.

Eastern Europe

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The acclaimed Czech émigré writer Milan Kundera brought out his first-ever novel in French, La lenteur (Slowness), whose contemporary characters' obsessive desire for forgetting and their total surrender to "the demon of speed" embody the twentieth-century narcissism that the author holds in such obvious contempt. In Waiting for the Dark, Waiting for the Light Kundera's compatriot Ivan Klíma took up the theme of compromise and adaptation, familiar from his previous works: specifically, how the demands of a repressive state impose not only on people's domestic arrangements but also on their artistic activities and their spiritual lives. That theme is supplemented here with an examination of the impact on such arrangements of the collapse of the old repressive order as a result of the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Somewhat similarly, in The Black Envelope, Romania's Norman Manea offers a panüoüramic portrayal of Romanian society before the fall of Ceaușescu as well as an evocation of the ghosts of Romanian history back to World War II. As depicted here, twentieth-century Romania was a world of constant and complex surveillance, a monstrous realm more Kafkaesque than genuinely communistic and one that generated in its citizens only mania and alienation of the most futile and frustrating kind. In A Little Hungarian Pornography Péter Esterházy writes with extreme indirection and allusiveness about the authoritarian Kádár years in Hungary, using the idea and practice of pornography as a metaphor for cowardice, compromise, complicity, and the general mendacious quality of life there during the communist era.

Regarding the year's best works in Russian, the way was led by the acclaimed poet and novelist Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose sprawling and rambunctious novel Don't Die Before You're Dead offered a vast, emotionally satisfying panorama of Russian lives rooted in fear, as the August 1991 drama involving Gorbachev's house arrest in the Crimea and Yeltsin's bold defiance of the attempted putsch at the Russian White House played itself out before the eyes of the nation and indeed the entire world. The account mixes fact and fiction in vivid fashion, the prose is bright and unself-conscious, and the treatment of such now-vilified personages as Gorbachev is strikingly evenhanded. Andrei Bitov, in the "pilgrimage novel" The Monkey Link, offered an extremely complex, densely poetic satire on both socialist realism and the more recent Russian penchant for pulp fiction. The Soul of a Patriot by Evgeny Popov made for far more accessible and entertaining reading with its witty and brisk yet gritty and realistic epistolary account of the narrator's picaresque movements during the three-month period surrounding the 1982 death of Leonid Brezhnev. In A Ring in a Case Yuz Aleshkovsky updated Dostoevsky's classic novel The Possessed, using elements of the fantastic and the diabolic to expose the chaos, corruption, and militant nationalism of postcommunist Russia. Vladimir Makanin's Baize-Covered Table with Decanter, which garnered the first Russian Booker Prize and almost universal admiration among Russian readers and critics upon its original publication in 1993, made its appearance in English in 1995 to considerably less acclaim; one poor soul's rambling ruminations on interrogations past and future, filled with numbing details about the hellish existence of both the protagonist and his faceless, stereotyped inquisitioners (the Wise Old Man, the One Who Asks the Questions, etc.), the work unfortunately proves more dreary and dated than shocking and revelatory as an ideological model of the nightmare that was Soviet life in the 1980s.

Romance Languages

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From elsewhere in Europe and the Americas in 1995 came new works by several prominent Romance-language writers. Italy's Umberto Eco weighed in with yet another lengthy novel (513 pages) set at a considerable historical remove from our own day—in this case the middle of the seventeenth century, the era of Descartes, of Galileo, and of the Baüroque in art and letters and music. The Island of the Day Before evokes the conte philosophique of Swift, Johnson, and Voltaire, taking a likable young hero on a remarkable series of physical and intellectual voyages as well as travels in time and memory and dream—all in the service of a profoundly humanist agenda that seeks to make the youthful protagonist (and the reader) aware of the uninterrupted continuity of human thought as well as of the authoritarian nature of narrative itself. Numbers in the Dark completed the Englishing of the late Italo Calvino with its presentation of a grab bag of juvenilia and previously untranslated stories and prose pieces from as early as 1943, ranging from philosophical tale to war vignette to scientific fable. Readers will find here a different Calvino from the familiar, wryly speculative, canonic author of such brilliant inventions as Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, and If on a Winter's Night a Traveler—a writer more identifiably the product of his Italian cultural and political origins but still a fantasist of extraordinary precision and beauty. Mexico's Carlos Fuentes unfortunately did not fare quite so well with Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone, the overwritten and self-indulgent account of a brief affair between a famous Mexican writer and a slightly mad American actress (based loosely on Jean Seberg) that serves principally as a metaphor for the artist's obsession with his work—the old Muse-as-mistress theme in modern intellectual-jet-set dress.

Middle East

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New novels by two of Israel's most prominent authors and translations of recent novels by two of the Arab world's leading writers highlighted the literary year in the Middle East. Egypt's 1988 Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, weighed in with Arabian Days and Nights, taking up the question of what happened to the despotic King Shahriyar and his beautiful storytelling wife Shahrzad (Scheherazade) in the months and years that followed the original 1,001 Arabian nights. Thirteen unconnected tales from the Arabian Nights are here woven into a continuous narrative that traces Shahriyar's gradual and utterly convincing development from bloodthirsty tyrant to just ruler to self-exiled seeker of wisdom and salvation. In Beirut Blues the Lebanese-born author Hanan Al-Shaykh composed a book of mourning—for a city, a country, and the way things once were; through ten "sanity-saving and identity-preserving letters" the female narrator conveys in vivid and often squalidly quotidian terms the tragic plight of a wrecked society, an entire city and country destroyed by "gang warfare fought over religion, politics, money."

Amos Oz, one of Israel's most widely translated and internationally renowned writers, came out with a new novel in both Hebrew and English, Don't Call It Night. The accidental death of a lonely, introverted boy spurs his father and one of the youth's teachers to take stock of their lives and atone for missed opportunities during his lifetime by attempting to establish a drug-rehabilitation center for young people; although the project ultimately founders, both find a kind of fleeting fulfillment and discover some meaning to their lives through developing the capacity to give of themselves to and for others. In yet another epistolary novel of sorts, Aharon Megged's Longing for Olga, a frustrated municipal clerk retires with the dream of becoming a writer, only to find himself hopelessly blocked and literarily uninspired—until, that is, he glimpses a striking young Russian woman on the promenade at the Tel Aviv seashore. Epiphanically energized, he proceeds to compose imaginary letters to himself from this "Olga," letting his wife discover them and almost ending his marriage thereby. The letters eventually become his longed-for novel, however, and ultimately reinvigorate rather than terminate his marriage.


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China's Su Tong, still basking in the afterglow of his success with Raise the Red Lantern (both book and film), saw his latest novel, Rice, released in English to similar acclaim in 1995; employing rice, the symbol of Chinese civilization and heavenly bounty, to daring iconoclastic effect and spinning a plot featuring blackmail, adultery, incest, and scandal, the author creates a visceral, fast-paced drama of poisonous family and social life in precommunist China. Mo Yan, author of the much-praised Red Sorghum, was again brought to the attention of the West with the release of his fifth novel, The Garlic Ballads; against the backdrop of the 1987 glut on the garlic market and the resulting devastation of individual farmers and entire communities dependent on this aromatic seasonal crop, three intricately intertwined tales of love and its consequences unfold as communist officialdom faces a potentially apocalyptic upheaval.

Standing above the crowd in a very productive literary year in Japan were two works by writers who boast both enormous popular followings as well as widespread critical acclaim. The celebrated author and director Ryu Murakami presented readers both at home and in the West with Coin Locker Babies, an offbeat tale recounting the lives and fortunes of two newborns abandoned by their mothers in the public lockers of train stations; via different paths (one becomes a bisexual rock star, the other a world-class pole vaulter), both eventually make their way to Tokyo and in the end destroy the women who so cruelly rejected them at birth. In the six stories of Lizard the appealing (and wonderfully named) young author Banana Yoshimoto remained within her familiar pop-culture milieu but also managed to deal substantively with matters of spirituality, selfhood, and time, in a style that some have compared favorably with that of Kazuo Ishiguro in its elegance and simplicity. The pervading theme here is that the individual is in some way inherently damaged and that growth can only come with a reconciliation of the past and the future. The 1994 Nobel laureate Kenzaburō Ōe and the eminent Catholic writer Shūsaku Endō both released first-time English editions of very early novels in 1995. Ōe's Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (Memushiri kouchi, 1958), contrary to its lightly colloquial title, is a gruesome, wrenching tale of betrayal and cruelty involving a group of orphaned and abandoned reformatory youths in wartime Japan and their doomed efforts to refashion their brutal world with some semblance of tenderness and compassion. Endō's sentimental tale The Girl I Left Behind is a flawed and awkward work filled with unlikely coincidences and heavy Christian symbolism, notable solely for the occasional flashes of sparkling intelligence and clarity that foreshadow the excellence of such later works as Wonderful Fool and Silence.

Footsteps, the third installment of a projected tetralogy (the Buru Quartet) by banned Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, tracks the career of an expelled medical student turned journalist as he becomes a grassroots political organizer and eventually a crusading publisher of the nation's first native-owned daily; based on the experiences of journalist Tirto Adi Suryo in the first two decades of the twentieth century, the novel masterfully conveys one man's dream of a unified, multiethnic Indonesia free of colonial occupation. Novel Without a Name again brought the dissident yet popular Vietnamese woman novelist Duong Thu Huong to the attention of Western readers; thoughtful and provocative, her latest work is not so much a historical novel as an expression of retrospective disillusionment with two decades of postwar communist rule. An even more powerful story of love and combat was The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bao Ninh, a grim and graphically detailed account based on the author's own experiences in 1969–75 as one of only ten survivors from a 500-man youth brigade subjected to an unrelenting series of bloody encounters in the mountains and valleys of the South; Vietnamese readers from both sides of the North/South border and in the exile community have been comparing the novel to Remarque's classic All Quiet on the Western Front for its devastating portrait of the Vietnam War's horrors and waste of human life.

And lastly, from the famous/infamous Salman Rushdie came East, West, a wildly uneven and mostly unsatisfying collection of stories all revolving around the themes of cultural and geographic displacement and divided or dual loyalties; though a few of the tales are technically interesting or mildly diverting, none even begins to approach the masterful level of the author's novels, particularly Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses. Far more successful among both critics and general readers alike was Rushdie's first full-blown novel since 1989, The Moor's Last Sigh, a huge and rambunctiously picaresque family saga told in richly allusive, pun-filled fashion by the exiled scion of a Portuguese merchant family from India. The parallels between the narrator's situation and the author's own are readily evident but do not intrude unduly on the reader's pleasure in following the myriad twists and turns of this antic tragedy-cum-political satire-cum-anti-creedal parable-cum-bitter cautionary tale all rolled into one magnificently entertaining package. Altogether a consummately brave and dazzling performance.

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The Year in World Literature (Vol. 86)


The Year in World Literature (Vol. 99)