Books, Bikes, and Food

Reviews, Recipes, Rides… and some other things, too.


Javier Marías: Corazón tan blanco (1991)

“My hands are of your colour;
but I shame to wear a heart so white”
– Shakespeare: Macbeth

This is the quote that gives Corazón tan blanco its title, and references to Shakespeare and, in particular, to Macbeth,  abound in throughout the novel.

Corazón tan blanco tells the story of Juan Ranz, an interpreter who has just married Luisa, another interpreter. Since the beginning of their marriage, he has been possessed by a feeling of impending doom, he can’t quite put his finger on it, but it’s deeply connected to a question his father asks him on his wedding day:

“And what now?”

And even though he didn’t want to learn this fact, he realises that his father’s first wife – Juan’s aunt, because his father later married her sister – killed herself shortly after their honeymoon. And, digging even deeper, he finds out that there was a third woman, his father’s actual first wife, a Cuban to whom he was married during a brief stint of living there.

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Paolo Giordano: The Solitude of Prime Numbers (2008)

This was my Christmas holiday reward read. While Christmassing and dissertating at the same time, I needed to read something that wouldn’t hold me down with the weight of a classic. So my mum lent me The Solitude of Prime Numbers (in its German edition, Die Einsamkeit der Primzahlen). I read it in two days.

Well, it didn’t hold me down with the weight of a classic, but it is pretty harrowing in some aspects. The novel tells the stories of Mattia and Alice. Mattia feels responsible for the disappearance of his mentally handicapped twin sister, whom he left alone for an afternoon to go to a classmate’s birthday party as a small boy. Alice had a ski accident as a small girl and has a stiff leg as a consequence. Both are outsiders, ‘prime numbers’, so to speak. Mattia hurts himself in all possible ways. Alice becomes anorexic.

While Mattia shuts everyone out and seems to be the most content on his own – he is completely unable to form a social relationship – Alice continues to compete for other people’s love and admiration. It is only when the two of them are together that they seem as close to being happy as they could possibly be, given their burdens and traumas.  Still, these burdens prevent them from making a life together.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers follows them as they become adults; Mattia is a brilliant mathematician investigating prime numbers, and Alice becomes a photographer. Both are lonely in their own ways. Only at the very end did I get the impression that they are headed towards healing their wounds, although they will never heal completely.

Those who know me also know that I’m really not into Young Adult literature. The first part of The Solitude of Prime Numbers, however, is almost a YA novel, dealing with all the issues that can make the life of a teenager miserable (or enjoyable, but not in this novel) – bullying, in and outgroup dynamics, first sexual experiences and rejection, and so forth. Even so I enjoyed it, although I enjoyed the second part, the story of their adulthood, more. The profound sadness of the story gripped me completely, and it was only at the hopeful end that I took a relieved breath. Perfect for a holiday read.

Evaluation: 7/10

German title: Die Einsamkeit der Primzahlen
Spanish title: La soledad de los números primos

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Alejo Carpentier: El reino de este mundo (1949)

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately – I’ve just started a new job, which I’m loving so far, but it’s been slightly crazy.
But now it is time to tell you about a little gem I found at a wonderful bookshop specialised in foreign languages* a few weeks ago: Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo.

Taking the gem allegory even further, if García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) is a big, fat, show-offy diamond, or Bolaño’s Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives) a mysterious, deep ruby, then El reino de este mundo is a small, unassuming precious stone. Tiny, but rather pretty.

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Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962)

When I bought The Golden Notebook in Sheffield last January, it was an unlikely choice. I somehow hadn’t thought about a specific book I might want to buy while in the UK, so I picked it up on a whim. I felt like buying a classic, and I also remembered that my Mum has a few books by Doris Lessing on her bookshelf, so The Golden Notebook intrigued me. I then proceeded to be put off by its heftiness for several months (my edition has 576 pages).

When I finally mustered the courage to attack this huge and very complex novel, I was at first pleasantly surprised. During the first 150 pages, I learned more about wartime and post-World War II Britain and its colonies than in all my years of living in the UK. It’s an excellent portrait of British society during that time, and especially of the more progressive parts of society, of which Lessing herself formed part. The Golden Notebook is quite autographical, and noticeably so.

As I said, the book is rather complex: it consists of a framework novel entitled Free Women, which could in theory be a standalone. Free Women tells the story of Anna and Molly, two single, left-wing women in 1950s and 60s London. But intercalated between the sections of Free Women, the reader finds Anna’s notebooks. There are four of them, and in each one she attempts to compartmentalise one part of her life to maintain her structure and sanity. The red notebook thus contains her political development, the blue one records her daily life, the black one her literary life, and the yellow one her emotional life.

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Kirmen Uribe: Bilbao-New York-Bilbao (2009)

After struggling for weeks – or actually, make that months – through Bolaño’s excellent but challenging Los detectives salvajes, I really needed something short, sweet, and decidedly less in-your-face high-brow. So I settled for a small novel I had (fittingly) bought in Bilbao back in April: New York-Bilbao-New York by Basque* writer Kirmen Uribe. Prepare, this review somehow got long and I got sucked into fundamentals.

It was perfect. It’s small (204 pages) and a non-trivial but entertaining read. The novel is woven around a flight from Bilbao to New York and based on Uribe’s own family history. In fact, it’s so close to his own life that I really can’t tell how much of it is actually fiction. Little stories Uribe collected from the inhabitants of his native fishing village Ondarroa, from other writers and poets, and from all kinds of other sources are woven together. Using (fictional?) e-mails, letters, transcripts of recordings and diaries, he pieces together a vivid puzzle of three generations and a way of life, intimately connected with the sea and the traditions of the Basque Country, that is slowly being lost.

For his innovative writing in New York-Bilbao-New York, Uribe won the Premio Nacional de Narrativa (Spanish national literature prize) in 2009. And while at first sight the fact that there isn’t really a plot and this is not really a ‘novel’ in the traditional sense might seem tedious, it was actually a very pleasant and relaxing read.

What I kept wondering, though, was the extent to which New York-Bilbao-New York could speak to anyone who has no idea about the Basque Country. Uribe, like many of his fellow countrymen, is very proud of his people’s culture and traditions, and this shines through in many aspects of the novel. So for anybody not familiar with this cultural backdrop, reading the book might require a bit of Googling and Wikipedia research on the Basque language (Euskera), the Basque Country, and its (recent) history (there, I’ve made it easy for you).**  Towards the end of the book, Uribe wonders why  Basque literature hasn’t made it into the canon of world literature. It’s a good question, and many reasons can be cited for it (Basque is a language with a very rich oral, but little written tradition, it was forbidden under the Franco dictatorship, and so on), but I think one of the reasons – at least for recent Basque literature – is that it is quite self-involved. Two books very successful in the region – Bilbao-New York-Bilbao and Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga – are both excellent, but readers with no connection whatsoever to the Basque region might not feel easily at home in either novel. With Bilbao-New York-Bilbao, Uribe wants to reach out. I think he’s onto something and has made a start. After all, he won a national-level prize, so at least the jury ‘got’ Bilbao-New York-Bilbao.

But it’s a little bit like with Latin American literature. In El Insomnio de Bolívar, Jorge Volpi comments that for Latin American authors, it was difficult to move beyond writing ‘Latin American’ novels (and someone who wrote about other places was looked at strangely). Maybe it’s a bit the same with Basque literature, obviously for different reasons and on a smaller scale. Does it have to move beyond the Basque Country and Basque culture before really ‘making it’ outside? Or would that mean that it’d lose its distinctive flavour and become amalgamated into Spanish or wider European literature?

So far, Bilbao-New York-Bilbao hasn’t been translated into English or other languages for an audience outside the Iberian peninsula (and Latin America), but it’s available in Basque, Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Portuguese. I hope it gets translated though, because I really wonder whether it would have a shot at becoming a success.

OK, so after this rant, here comes the

Evaluation: 8/10.

*The original, published in 2008, is in Basque, and the translation to the Spanish is by Ana Arregi.
**I’m linking the Wikipedia entries here, but they have to be taken with a grain of salt. The Basque issue is a controversial one and this shines through in the articles. Also, the fact that I link them does not necessarily mean I agree with their respective slants.

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Shahriar Mandanipour: Censoring an Iranian Love Story (2009)

Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour is one of the most interesting novels I’ve ever read – interesting in the sense that it is highly innovative. The book tells the love story of Sara and Dara, two young Iranians trying to square their budding relationship with the oppression of the Iranian political regime, which leads them to leave secret messages in books, pretend not to know each other, meet in secret, and much more (which you should discover for yourselves).

But in fact, Censoring… is about much more than Sara and Dara. The novel has three layers: the actual novel, the story of the author writing the book, and those parts of the love story the author has crossed out or merely imagined in order to pass censorship.

Out of the three layers, the author’s story was the one that gripped my attention the most. Full of wit, insight, and irony, Mandanipour’s literary alter ego, Shahriar, lets the reader in on the thousand and one tricks an Iranian author has to perform in order to get his work approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. He relates his encounters with ‘his’ censor, “a man with the alias Porfiry Petrovich (yes, the detective in charge of solving Raskolnikov’s murders)”, and the almost intimate, but simultaneously destructive  relationship that has developed between them over the years. For someone like me, who knows virtually nothing about Iranian culture, it is fascinating to delve into the mind of an Iranian intellectual.

The way the book is presented is very inventive, with parts of the novel crossed out, those parts of the novel actually written down in boldface, and those thoughts the author keeps to himself, as well as his own story, set in normal font. This looks quite cool and merits a picture, so here goes:

Unfortunately, Sara and Dara’s actual love story – that is, the novel – somehow failed to capture me. This might be due to precisely the narrative’s presentation, which never lets you dive into the story completely because the next disruption is always just around the corner. I’d be interested to know whether this is intentional. Perhaps Mandanipour wants the reader to remain somewhat distanced from the plot because this is exactly what would happen if we were to read the version eventually approved by the powers that be. In that case, it would be a highly effective literary tool. But it might also just be that the story itself is not that captivating. Has anyone read this book and can enlighten me? I’m having a hard time deciding, although I’d obviously rather believe the first possibility to be true.

On the whole, Censoring an Iranian Love Story is definitely worth a read because it submerges you in a world that is completely foreign to most of us. And, as I said, the innovativeness of the presentation alone makes for a very interesting novel. Still, I wouldn’t put it all the way up there with the nines and tens. Therefore:

Evaluation: 7/10.

German title: Eine iranische Liebesgeschichte zensieren.
Spanish title: Una historia iraní de amor y censura.
Caution: The Germans spell his surname ‘Mandanipur’, while the Spanish keep the Surname but transcribe the forename as ‘Shahriyar’.

The book was originally written in Farsi, but published in the English translation.