Wednesday, 16 December 2009


For no other reason than that we're coming towards the end of the year and making lists suddenly seems to be the 'thing to do', here are some books I've read in the last twelve months (although many were published before that) which might be of interest if what's been posted on this blog so far has itself been of any interest at all.

Bohumil Hrabal: The Little Town Where Time Stood Still
Novel by the Czech author of the elegantly concise 'Closely Observed Trains' and slightly madly exuberant 'I Served the King of England'. This one revolves around a brewery, a woman with unfeasibly long hair and an uncle who almost compulsively smashes up furniture in a Europe about to fall under the shadow of various dictatorships. The most obvious comparison would be Marquez - but Hrabal is better at jokes.

Julian Evans: Semi-Invisible Man
Biography of the novelist and travel writer Norman Lewis ('A Dragon Apparent', 'Naples '44' etc). Lewis combined a love of Bugatti racing cars with campaigning for the rights of indigenous communities in South America and admirably refusing to play the literary 'game'. That, at least, is how Evans sees him.

Jan Morris: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Travel book/lament for a city conventionally dismissed with the phrase 'faded grandeur' but where Freud went to study the genitalia of eels, Svevo wrote 'Zeno's Conscience' and Joyce caused a diplomatic incident within hours of his arrival (and is now commemorated by a bronze on an obscure footbridge). This, too, is the city from where Austro-Hungarian scion Maximillian departed for Mexico (and his firing squad execution, as most famously depicted by Manet) and where Archduke Franz Ferdinand's corpse passed through the streets on its way back to Vienna from Sarajevo.

Colin Thubron: Among The Russians
Account of a journey through the Soviet Union, when such a place still existed. Opens with an the phrase: 'I had been afraid of Russia ever since I could remember'. Arguably, one of the sanest travel books about the Communist bloc written during the Cold War (for contrast try Dymphna Cusack's 'Illyria Reborn' or, indeed, from a very different perspective, the Albanian chapter in Eric Newby's 'On the Shores of the Mediterranean').

Philip Marsden: The Crossing Place
Account of a journey through the Armenian diaspora and into Armenia itself. Particularly revealing for all those who 'missed' the Armenian genocide or are slightly perplexed by the stringency of the Turkish government's laws against even mentioning that it happened.

Ismail Kadare: The Siege
Despite an acceleration in publication since he won the Booker Man International Prize, only a very small number of the Albanian writer's novels are available in English translation. This is the latest, a reworking of a book previously published (during Albania's communist 'Hoxha time') as 'The Castle'. It's not difficult to tease out an allegorical interpretation of this tale of the Ottoman Empire's assault on an Albanian fortress. Hopefully, a translation of Kadare's most recent novel in Albanian, 'Darka e Gabuar' ('The Mistaken Dinner', at a stab), won't be too far distant as a French version has recently appeared. In the meantime, there's always 'The Successor', 'Broken April', 'The File on H', 'Agamemnon's Daughter', 'Chronicle in Stone'... Despite his relatively new-found fame in western Europe, Kadare remains a controversial figure in both Albania and SE Europe as a whole, largely because of his ambiguous relationship to the Hoxha regime (how did he manage to survive in the most repressive of repressive regimes without making some kind of 'accommodation' with it?) and his apparently enigmatic decision to leave the country on the eve of its 'democratic' revolution in 1991 (explained in his hard-to-find 'Albanian Spring'). For a glimpse of the arguments (and my minor incursion into them), see the review and subsequent letters at

William Dalrymple: From The Holy Mountain
Dalrymple was the only writer I saw at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival who didn't bow to the prevailing genteel atmosphere and the carefully PR industry-nurtured habit of only drinking mineral water and not swearing on stage. I bought this on the strength of his confident flouting of convention and the disapproving 'harrumphs' from the audience (who, earlier in the day, had been quite happy to queue to get Cheri Blair and Harry Hill's signatures on their latest tomes). It's an account of a journey among orthodox Christian communities from Greece to Syria and Lebanon to Egypt; its descriptions of the similarity of the religious rites practised by Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East make the tenor of world politics in the last decade look even more woefully Swiftian.

Misha Glenny: McMafia
How Montenegro allegedly funded its independence from Serbia using the profits from its blackmarket cigarette trade and many other stories of organised crime's easy exploitation of 'globalisation', the 'tiger economies' and 'new capitalism'. The section on how to hack into anyone's computer using a Pringles tube is particularly worrying. If you come across this in paperback, don't let the tabloidy cover put you off.

Robert Elsie & Janie Mathie-Heck (eds): Lightning from the Depths
Anthology of Albanian poetry that ranges from excerpts from traditional oral epics and the poetry of the 19th-century 'national renaissance' to contemporary work. Breathtakingly diverse (imagine an anthologry of English poetry ranging from Milton to Prynne) and, given the confines of a single volume, necessarily episodic, but as good a selection as is possible in the circumstances when the editors (and translators) here are some of the very few people able to translate directly from Albanian into English.

Lloyd Jones: Biografi
Very odd book which its author originally passed off as a non-fiction account of his quest to find Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha's 'double', Petar Shapallo. No such person existed or, if he did, he wasn't called Petar Shapallo. Jones, though, does seem to have travelled to Albania in the aftermath of the collapse of communism but how much of the resultant book is fiction and how much non-fiction remains a matter of debate. Either way, on the eve of Jones's appearance at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year, The Australian newspaper ( took issue with him over playing fast and loose with 'the truth'. To make matters even more confusing, there used to be an article on-line which claimed that David Byrne (as in Talking Heads) had written the book.

Not entirely unexpectedly, very few of these books were actually available in a bookshop the last time I looked.

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