The Year in World Literature (Vol. 91) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Uwe Johnson (d. 1984) came Insel-Geschichten (Island Stories), a collection of brief, whimsical, insightful, previously unpublished tales about the author's life of self-exile on the English coast and written primarily in an effort to overcome a serious case of writer's block which had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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Eastern Europe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Romance Languages

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 847 words.)