Tag Archives: Nobel Prize for Literature



The Discreet Hero – Mario Vargas Llosa – Book Review

My first attempt at this Peruvian writer, thanks to Milnerton Library New Books Preview.

A very interesting experience, reading the novel. I’ve wondered what it is about his writing that makes it so different? It was rich in descriptions of street life in Peru.  His characters were clearly defined, even the minor ones, and they came across as authentic inasmuch as I can judge from this distance. I felt I was being shown modern Peruvian life in a no-nonsense, straightforward way, with no bullshit  manoeuvres.

I was amazed at the calm acknowledgement and acceptance of the corruption in the police force and the judiciary – nothing special, just daily life! Whereas here in South Africa we’re obsessed with these issues. They are also part of our daily lives, but I wouldn’t say there’s widespread calm acceptance of the crookery.

Another strange  aspect of the novel was – very early on, at the beginning of the book – a graphic sexual fantasy between a married couple, in bed, as a prelude to their eventual coupling. Granted, the pair were main characters in the story, but thereafter we heard no more of their sex life. And I don’t recall any other spicy passages elsewhere.  I wondered if his editor had demanded that he spice up the tale with a bit of sex? Perhaps I’m more accustomed to having the sexy bits pop up mid-way, or as a finale in  Western novels.

Then there was a weird  secondary story thread about the aforementioned couple’s teenaged son who was seemingly receiving visits from the devil, in the form of a tall elderly man, who would materialise in a variety of mundane settings – park benches/buses/streets etc, and  hold intense conversations with the boy about religion, ethics and sex. This sub-thread is resolved in the final pages of the novel, and I suppose, provides the twist in the tale.

And yet these arbitrary side excursions didn’t detract from the main story which was how, in two separate families, the two sets of sons in each family behaved abominably, and criminally.  The two families were not related, but lived in the same city.  The point was, that the sons in both families disappointed their parents. A big issue was future inheritances, from rich fathers. Not a common theme in most contemporary novels in a Western setting.

A  major theme of the novel dealt with  moral integrity and unswervingly sticking to principles.  In some ways, what with the vivid descriptions of Peruvian street life, the moral issues, the inheritance problem, I felt as if I were reading a novel from the age of Dickens or a slightly later author. Which is not to say that the novel was old-fashioned. Not at all. This was modern Peru, warts and all. I suppose the big moral questions continue from age to age, despite geography and differing cultures.

It was one of the most different novels I’ve read during 2015, and came as a complete contrast to my previous read, which was Anne Tyler’s much praised A Spool of Blue Thread. She’s a prolific and popular author, and I’ve enjoyed some of her earlier novels. But that said: there could not be a greater contrast between her anodyne American family tale and the rich, passionate, dramatic, highly emotional Peruvian story. Thinking it over, I should not talk about the two books in the same blog post. The contrast was glaring.

No wonder Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010! From now on: I’m a fan. Bring me more!



Filed under BOOK REVIEWS



The Museum of Innocence by  Orhan Pamuk

A  LONG, meaty read. I had to work hard to finish the book.  Due to my sore neck I had to spend hours lying on my bed, so I could read for hours.  Luckily, or else I would not have finished it. Our Book Club chose the book because it was by a Turkish author and we hadn’t read any Turkish books in the seven years of our existence.

The blurb described the novel as “a work of romantic love”  –  if this was romantic love, then it isn’t my version. The blurb went on: “ a haunting novel of memory, desire and loss … with fascinating insights into a society tugged between East and West” : a much more accurate summation.  Especially the East/West conflict.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the city (Istanbul and the  Istanbullus and  traditional Turkish life, and I enjoyed the stories about the outdoor cinemas held in gardens, on balmy nights, under the mulberry trees)  but the main character – Kemal –  I  could cheerfully have attacked with an axe, after reading every other page!  Under the heading of MEN.  He behaved so badly towards his lover Fűsan; however,  in retaliation, she made him suffer for years.

I could not believe my eyes when I read the  last sentence in the book : “Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life”. This, as the ending TO a book about obsessive love, after pages and chapters detailing years of misery, loss, and fixation!

I liked the little touches e.g. Lemon, the canary. This bright yellow little caged bird belonged to Fusan and was probably one of the happiest brightest characters in the entire book! If not the only gleam of brightness in the book.

On thewhole, the Turkish men came across as chain smoking hard drinkers – several of them dying in their early sixties, of heart attacks.  The women were also portrayed as  smoking constantly . Because Turkey is the home of Turkish tobacco, I suppose this was not unsurprising or unrealistic. But what was a surprise to me was the portrayal of rich, upper class society.  I never thought of Turkey during the 60s/70s as having the Filthy Rich that are portrayed in this novel.

My first book by this Turkish Nobel Laureate. I might try some more.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

I decided to try another of Pamuk’s books. This earlier novel is a great deal shorter, but more complex,  than the first one I read.

The blurb says that when the book came out in 2002 it angered Islamists and westernised Turks alike and promptly sold 100 000 copies: it seems to me that any books that irritates absolutely everybody must be doing something right!

Reading Pamuk is like visiting another planet. Although the books are translated skilfully into smooth English, there is a foreign-ness about them, an otherness, a picture of a radically different culture that underlies the characters, the events, the background.  Pamuk is not writing about tourist Turkey : the Turkey of Istanbul, semi-westernised, picturesque tiled domes, crowded bazaars, leather goods and woven carpets.  No.  He is writing about something entirely different, the far north-eastern city of Kars. I had to haul out my giant atlas to locate Kars, it’s in the middle of nowhere, en route to the Iranian border. Pamuk is writing about provincial Turkey, where poverty, unemployment, dirt, hopelessness, government surveillance, plots and counterplots,  spying, arrest and torture, infuse the lives of the Turkish, Kurdish, radical Islamists and Attaturk secularists residents.

The city is drowned for three days in a mammoth blizzard of snow, cut off from the outside world, cut off from sanity almost, as events develop.  He’s writing about a familiar theme: when the world of traditional old-style Turkey collides with the wicked West, but this time he throws nationalism versus Islamic reformers into the mix as well. The poet Ka returns from exile in Germany to write an article about the rash of suicides carried out by the ‘headscarf girls’ who return to head-covering thereby incurring the wrath of the secularists.
Ka falls in love with the beautiful Ipek, daughter of the hotel owner,
whose other daughter Kadife is in love with the dangerous Islamist
revolutionary Blue, one-time lover of her sister ….  the plot writhes and twists like a demented snake.  Meanwhile the political ferment explodes into a Ruritanian  revolution that takes place during a bizarre theatre performance.  The wildly improbable theatre troupe of two provide a modicum of comic relief at intervals, notwithstanding the fact that Sunay, the actor/impresario stages a dramatic and extraordinary climax to the events in Kars.

Despite all this tumult and turmoil, the snowy landscape inspires Ka to write eighteen brilliant poems structured on the diagram of a snowflake. He writes down the poems which arrive perfect and complete, as if he is an amanuensis, but for who or what is never revealed.  Apart from falling in love, Ka regains (fleetingly) his lost faith when he visits a famous Sheik in the city.
As a counterpoint to Ka’s adult love for Ipek there are the religious school teenage boys passionately in love with the headscarf girls, to whom they have never spoken, but for whom they are prepared to sacrifice their lives in noble gestures of pure idyllic love. Can you imagine any Western teenagers behaving like this?

Finally, the novelist inserts himself into the story, under his own name (just as he did in the Museum of Innocence) he seems to feel he has to explain why he is telling us the story of the poet Ka. This strikes me as an odd  approach.  I wonder if he does it in all his books? Clearly I shall have to read more to find out.  Question is: do I have the strength?  These two books were not an easy read.


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Recent Reads

Desert  by  JMG Le Clezio (translated from the French)

Where to start?  I wanted to read this because I’m fascinated by deserts and this book is about nomads in the Sahara.  Secondly, the writer has a huge reputation.  He won the 2008 Nobel Prize of Literature.  He has written over forty books and been translated into thirty six languages!

The cover blurb said “A writer of something akin to genius”.

His style was to do long lyrical passages about the desert, the heat, the light – which was okay at first, quite spellbinding actually  – but very repetitive after the first hundred pages.  And then he did the same thing, when he was describing the poor areas of Marseilles.  Somehow this  approach was incongruous when applied to an urban setting.

And the book structure. It opened with a historical account of the early 1900s – the great trek of the  tribal people to the coast, under the leadership of a mystical sheik – and their eventual wholesale slaughter at the end of the book.  I suppose part of the novel – apart from the beautiful prose aspect – was an indictment of European colonial policy in North Africa.  I had to read the Morocco section of Michael Palin’s Sahara   to get a perspective.

The gist of it all was that Lalla – the chief protagonist, a young nomad girl, – was a descendant of the mystical sheik  – she was filled with wanderlust and had an affinity to the desert – which pulled her back from urban immigrant life in Marseilles.  You could take the girl out of the desert but not the desert out of the girl.

His portrayal of immigrant urban life was really grim and makes you wonder if they would not have been better off staying in North Africa.  But I suppose it’s the lure of a cash economy.

Apparently this book is considered to be le Clezio’s “definitive breakthrough as a novelist”.  Was quite surprised to read this.  I found I really had to work hard to read the book and to finish it (350 pages).  Had I not know this was such a landmark book, I’m not sure I would have laboured on to the end.

Just imagine: over forty books!  Alexander McCall Smith has a similar (in fact bigger, I think) score, but he won’t be nominated for the Nobel prize –apparently comic novels don’t really count when it comes to prestigious global  prizes.  And look at Terry Pratchett’s output – also over the forty mark.   The master of them all, P. G. Wodehouse wrote something  ninety six  books in addition to  plays, song lyrics, poems, and articles. No Nobel Lit Prize for him!

SAHARA – by Michael Palin, photos by Basil Pao

This is the book version of the BBC TV series.  The series was entertaining at the time, but by flipping though the book just to enjoy the photographs, one is spared Michael Palin’s somewhat forced humour.  I enjoyed the rich ochre colours of the dunes and the wave-like ripple patterns in the sand.  Pao perfectly captures the mystique of deserts, their immensity, the sheer emptiness and the vivid contrast of a blazing blue sky that definitely borders eternity.  And his portraits of the natives of the Sahel: pitch black skin and vivid boldly patterned fabric wraps – the colours are so bold and so primary.  Perhaps they make such an impact because the backgrounds are sand and there is nothing to distract the eye?
I’m fascinated by deserts  – quite why, I’m not sure.  All that space and emptiness?  An echo  – of sorts –  of the Buddha’s teaching as seen by the Zennists where emptiness is a recurring theme.

Note to self:  I must hunt up my review of the Freya Stark autobiog, plus my notes about her own voluminous travel diaries and writings. And then there is the  book I borrowed from the Ixopo Library, in 1990, which has haunted me for years – an account by a young Westerner who joins one of the few remaining salt caravans across the Sahara, and nearly dies on the journey, from heat, thirst, loneliness … the book made a huge impression on me, and of course, I’ve forgotten his name and the title.


Filed under DESERTS