Monthly Archives: August 2016

Review: Zama by Antonio de Benedetto

This book was originally published in Spanish in 1956 and this English version has been translated by Esther Allen.

My Review:
ZamaDon Diego de Zama is a clerk serving the Spanish monarchy in a remote town in Paraguay at the end of the eighteenth century.  His position as an assistant for the Governor is supposed to be one of prestige and the first step as he moves up in his political career.  But if only he could find a way to get out of the backwater of Paraguay and be assigned a better position in Buenos Aires, which would also be closer to his home and his wife.  Zama is a lazy, selfish, and even at times stupid man who only seems to do things that hurt his career and his family.

There is a scene in the book in which Zama has just finished spending what little money he has at the racetrack betting on horses.  He decides to take a siesta in the shade where he encounters another man resting.  While this man is sound asleep Zama sees a poisonous spider about to jump on this man’s face and Zama decides to do absolutely nothing about it.  He doesn’t lift a finger to dispose of the spider or even warn the man of the impending danger of the venomous arachnid that is about to jump on his face.  Zama simply sits there and watches the scene unfold and seems rather detached from the fact that a poisonous spider is crawling on another man’s face.  This episode perfectly exemplifies Zama’s selfish attitude not only towards the world around him, but also towards his life, his job and his family.

The book is divided into three parts, the first of which takes place in 1790.  When we are first introduced to Zama he is waiting for a ship to come in that might contain a letter from his wife and the salary that is owed to him by the Spanish crown.  Zama misses his wife a great deal, but the lack of intimate contact with her for almost two years drives him to find a woman to fulfil his sexual desires.  In a scene that is reminiscent of the Actaeon and Artemis story from Greek mythology, he accidentally sees a local upper class woman naked while she is bathing in a river.  Once he finds out who this woman is he does everything he can to scheme his way into her home without attracting the notice of her husband or the rest of the town.  His attempts to seduce this woman are clumsy and not well planned.

The novel skips forward four years to 1794 and Zama is still stuck in this town in Paraguay. But by this time he has moved into a ramshackle farmhouse with a widow named Emilia and has a son with her.  Zama’s salary that he is owed by the Spanish crown is very seldom paid to him, so he lives in poverty and doesn’t have very much to offer his mistress and child.  He notices the child is oftentimes dirty and crying but he is never moved to console the child or find a way to provide a better life for his family.  When he has extra money in his pocket he doesn’t offer it to Emilia or his son but instead he buys his own meals at the local inn or tavern.  His own needs continue to always come first.  Zama’s wife, whom he was so eager to be near in the first part of the book, is not mentioned at all during this time.  Zama’s emotional detachment from the hardships that his families suffer is astonishing.

In the final part of the book  Zama’s selfish nature finally brings about his downfall.  The year is now 1799 and Zama is sent on an expedition with the local militia to hunt down a notorious pillager and thief.  The sole reason that he volunteers for the mission is that he thinks it will finally get him a promotion.  The final part of the book is the most exciting as Zama travels with soldiers into remote parts of South America that are dangerous because of Indian tribes.  There is also a bit of intrigue during this part of the book when the bandit’s true identity is revealed and the only one who knows this key piece of information is Zama.  His selfish and clumsy reaction to this situation is typical of his character throughout the book but this time his impetuous actions bring about his own demise.

Reading about Zama’s life is like watching a train wreck.  We know from the beginning that because of his clumsy behavior Zama is headed for a bad end, but we can’t put the book down because of our morbid curiosity to know how he finally does himself in.


About the Author:
A BenedettoAntonio di Benedetto, (born 2 November 1922 in Mendoza – died on 10 October 1986 in Buenos Aires), was an Argentine journalist and writer. Di Benedetto began writing and publishing stories in his teens, inspired by the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Luigi Pirandello. Mundo Animal, appearing in 1952, was his first story collection and won prestigious awards. A revised version came out in 1971, but the Xenos Books translation uses the first edition to catch the youthful flavor.  Antonio di Benedetto wrote five novels, the most famous being the existential masterpiece Zama (1956). Los suicidas (The Suicides, 1969) is noteworthy for expressing his intense abhorrence of noise. Critics have compared his works to Alain Robbe-Grillet, Julio Cortázar and Ernesto Sábato.  In mid-sixties or early seventies he caused a diplomatic faux-pas at a NATO meeting when during a ceremonial toast he raised his cup and said “cin cin” to bystanding Japanese diplomats. This caused an international pandemonium, as “chin chin” is a slang term for penis in Japanese. This later led to his prosecution. In 1976, during the military dictatorship of General Videla, di Benedetto was imprisoned and tortured. Released a year later, he went into exile in Spain, then returned home in 1984. He travelled widely and won numerous awards, but never acquired the worldwide fame of other Latin American writers, perhaps because his work was not translated to many languages.


Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books, Spanish Literature

Review-The First Wife: A Tale of Polygamy by Paulina Chiziane

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books via Netgalley.  This is my second contribution to Women In Translation month.  Please see the hasttag #WITMonth on Twitter for all of the great reviews that have been shared.

My Review:
The First WifeThis is a challenging book to read for several reasons.  It is a sad fact that women in Mozambique, even in the twenty first century, have extraordinarily tough lives and the author does not hold back from describing the hardships that women face on a daily basis in this country.  The story is told from the point of view of a woman named Rami who is in her forties and is tired from trying to raise her five children alone.  She is not divorced and but her husband of twenty years is the chief of police and doesn’t come home very often.  Rami reaches her breaking point when one of her sons breaks the window of a car while playing ball and she has to take care of the situation by herself.

Rami suspects that her husband, Tony, is not only kept away from home by his career but she also thinks he has another woman stashed away somewhere in the city.  Through local gossips she learns the name of this woman and goes to her home and confronts her.  Rami is shocked to find out that Tony is not only seeing another woman, but he has another family and home with this woman that includes four children and one on the way.  Rami gets into a physical altercation with this woman but once they both calm down and get to know each other they realize that Tony doesn’t visit either of his families very often because he has a total of fives wives and five different families.

Once the knowledge of Tony’s polygamist lifestyle is out in the open and the shock wears off,  Rami becomes empowered to improve her life and the lives of the other wives.   The only family that Tony sees on a regular basis is his fifth, most recent and youngest wife.  The other women and children suffer from the lack of a partner and male figure in their homes and they are dependent on Tony for whatever money he happens to throw their way every month on his sporadic visits.  There is an underlying tone of humor as a battle of wills ensues between Tony and his five wives who have now joined together to force him to become a proper husband.  Rami makes Tony accept the bride price from each family and recognize each woman as a proper wife.  Even though Rami is his only wife by law, the acceptance of the bride price is an acknowledgement of marriage in Mozambique culture.  The wives draw up a conjugal rota in which Tony spends one week at each house and the women have a meeting to discuss his health and his mood before they pass him off to the next wife.

There is a lot of repetition in the text as Rami constantly laments her loneliness and inadequacies.  The emphasis on cultures in the north of Mozambique versus those in the south are oftentimes reiterated.  The style of writing reminded me of epics like the Iliad and Odyssey which are prone to repetition because of their origins as oral literature.  In addition, each wife is assigned a sort of epithet that is repeated throughout the text: Rami-the first wife, Julieta-the abandoned one, Saly the feisty wife, Maua the youngest.  These titles for the women were very helpful in remembering each wife and her role in the polygamist family.

Chiziane, the first published female author in Mozambique, brings out into the open the harsh reality of life for women in her native country.  But Rami, her main character, becomes a role model for all women to take charge of their lives instead of passively accepting the dominance and suppression forced on them by the old customs in their culture.  As Rami and the other wives ban together they realize that they are stronger as a unit and eventually they come to realize that Tony is no longer so important to them and he loses his power over this family.

About the Author:
P ChiazinePaulina “Poulli” Chiziane (born 4 June 1955, Manjacaze, southern province of Gaza, Mozambique) is an author of novels and short stories in the Portuguese language. She studied at Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo. She was born to a Protestant family that moved from Gaza to the capital Maputo (then Lourenço Marques) during the writer’s early childhood. At home she spoke Chopi and Ronga.  Chiziane was the first woman in Mozambique to publish a novel. Her writing has generated some polemical discussions about social issues, such as the practice of polygamy in the country. For example, her first novel, Balada do Amor ao Vento (1990), discusses polygamy in southern Mozambique during the colonial period. Related to her active involvement in the politics of Frelimo (Liberation Front of Mozambique), her narrative often reflects the social uneasiness of a country ravaged and divided by the war of liberation and the civil conflicts that followed independence. Her novel “Niketche: Uma História de Poligamia” won the José Craveirinha Prize in 2003


Filed under Literature in Translation

Review: Whispers Through a Megaphone by Rachael Elliott

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.

My Review:
MegaphoneThe two main characters in this book have allowed other people to influence their lives to the point of misery.  When their stories finally intersect, they serve as a comfort for each other and form a kind of unconditional friendship that both of them have desperately needed.  Miriam hasn’t left her house in three years because of a traumatic incident for which she wrongly blames herself.  As we get to know Miriam we learn that her mental health issues have stemmed from a lifetime of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her mother.

It is very difficult to read about Miriam’s story and I usually avoid books that describe child or animal abuse because it is just too upsetting.  But Miriam’s resilient spirit and her drive to put the past behind her is uplifting.  She is told when she is a very young child that her father died when she was an infant and the only other family member that she has any contact with is her maternal grandmother.  But Miriam’s mother has not allowed her to see her grandmother and so her only source of comfort are letters from her grandmother.  But Miriam’s mother is so cruel and jealous that she puts a stop to the letters which causes Miriam additional mental anguish.  The cruelest punishment that is imposed on Miriam is that she is never allowed to talk above a whisper because her mother can’t stand any noise.  The punishment for speaking above a whisper in her mother’s presence is nothing short of torture.  As an adult Miriam continues to speak at a whisper and cannot break this abusive habit forced on her by her mother.

Ralph is also unhappy when we first meet him, but the source of his anxiety is his bizarre, demanding and overpowering wife.  Ralph and Sadie met while in college and if she didn’t become pregnant with twins then the relationship would never have lasted.  Sadie is bitter that she is forced to give up on her degree and the budding relationship with her roommate Allie.  Sadie’s questioning of her sexuality and her unhappiness in something that has always stood in the way of Ralph and Sadie’s marriage.  When Ralph accidentally uncovers this astounding secret, he flees his house and decides to live alone in the woods.  It is in this woods that Miriam comes upon him during what is her first day out of her house in three years.

I have to admit that I was reading their separate stories at the beginning of the book, I wasn’t convinced that these two people with such separate lives would meet in a way that was believable.  But Elliott masterfully weaves together the story so that Ralph and Miriam encounter each other under just the right circumstances.  They are both kindhearted people and their sincere compassion allows them to give each other honest and frank opinions.  Miriam slowly comes back to the world of the living and gains the courage to get a job and even go on a date.  Ralph finally decides to go home and face his teenage sons and the wreck of his marriage.

Whispers Through a Megaphone is an uplifting book that shows us it’s never too late in life to form a friendship that is meaningful and gratifying.  Great characters, an interesting plot and clever writing all make for a successful first book from Elliott.

About the Author:
R ElliottRachel Elliott is a writer and psychotherapist. She has worked in arts and technology journalism and her writing has featured in a variety of publications, from digital arts magazines to the French Literary Review. She has also been shortlisted for a number of short story and novel competitions in the UK and the US. Rachel was born in Suffolk, and now lives in Bath. Whispers Through a Megaphone is her first novel. It was longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For more information about the book and to hear Rachel read an excerpt visit the Pushkin Press website:


Filed under British Literature, Pushkin Press, Summer Reading

Review: Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom

I received an advance review copy of this title from Graywolf Press.  This title was published in the original Finnish in 2011 and this English version has been translated by Lola Rogers.  This is my first contribution to Women in Translation Month which is taking place all during the month of August.

My Review:
Compartment No. 6As I first started reading this book I kept wondering why a young Finnish girl would choose to attend university in the Soviet Union during the decade of the 1980’s.  But as the plot progresses it is revealed that the girl, who is never given a name, falls in love with Moscow on a trip with her family.  But the Moscow she sees on her trip as a young high school student is the pristine and official one, created and controlled by the government, and is very different than the one the girl encounters as a university student on her trip across the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian railway.  When the girl boards the train she chooses compartment No. 6 because it is quiet and empty but her solitude is soon disrupted by a gruff and garrulous ex-soldier named Vadim.

When the girl boards the train on her way to Mongolia she seems emotionally numb and the sexually explicit and crass stories of her traveling companion don’t appear to penetrate her malaise.  The author cleverly emphasizes the girl’s mental aloofness by blurring certain details that we would expect from a main character.  As I have already mentioned, she is never given a name and is simply referred to as “the girl” and her speech is never directly quoted anywhere in the text.  When Vadim and other characters are speaking, traditional quotations and direct speech are used, but the girl’s thoughts and words are always summed up in the third person.  Vadim tells one tale after another of his sexual conquests, fights and outrageous behavior but the girl is too lost in her own world to have the strong reaction to him that one would expect.

As the bleak landscape of the taiga passes her by, the girl reflects back on her time in Moscow as a student where she lived with her boyfriend, Mitka.  Her memories are scattered and disjointed and it felt as though I was looking through an old photograph album with her and getting the barest details about her relationship.  As she describes her life in Moscow, it appears that she is remembering Mitka with a feeling of bitter sweetness and there is something that has happened with Mitka and his mother that has made her flee Moscow and get as far away from them as possible.  There are vague descriptions of Mitka having a severe breakdown and being in a mental institution and the girl’s subsequent relationship with Mitka’s mother.  There is also an intriguing story of a violent encounter that the girl and Mitka suffer one night in Moscow.  This is another example of the details of the text being blurred and leaving the reader to speculate about the girl’s life in Moscow.

As the girl and Vadim get farther along on their journey, they form an unusual bond of what I would loosely call friendship.  Vadim is a man who likes to be the center of attention and tell outrageous stories and the girl listens to him.  She does flee their compartment when he suggests that they have sex, but she always comes back.  Vadim performs small tasks for the girl like brewing her tea and sharing his meals and arranging for places to stay when the train stops overnight.  Even though Vadim has had a rough life and has a proclivity towards violence, even with his own wife, he is patient and protective of this strange Finnish girl.  The culminating moment in their relationship is when they reach Mongolia and she is having a hard time dealing with her government appointed tour guide.  She seeks out Vadim, cries on his shoulder and he sets about making everything right for her.

The two most interesting aspects of this book are the relationship that develops between the girl and Vadim and the amazingly detailed descriptions of the Soviet landscape from one end of that country to another during the late 1980’s.  Even though it is spring, the forests and landscapes which the train passes are empty, untouched,  snow-covered and bleak.  By contrast, the Soviet towns at which the train makes stops are industrial, dirty, and crowded and in shambles.  The people of these towns are trying to squeeze out an existence in whatever ways they are able.  The shelves of department stores are bare and the people are forced to bargain for their vodka on the black market.  One of the most peculiar descriptions are those of the restaurants they visit which have “closed” signs on the doors but are crowded with people and the girl enters anyway.  This brings us back to the conclusion that nothing is as it seems in this brutal, cold and bizarre place that is the Soviet Union.  The author must have visited this place at some point in order to capture such vivid details in her writing.

For those interested in post-Soviet literature then Liksom’s book is a must-read.  Looking at this strange place through the eyes of a foreigner provides a unique lens for us to get another glimpse at the last days of the Soviet Union before it dissolves into oblivion.

About the Author:
R LiksomRosa Liksom was born in a village of eight houses in Lapland, Finland, where her parents were reindeer breeders and farmers. She spent her youth traveling Europe, living as a squatter and in communes. She paints, makes films, and writes in Helsinki.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature, Travel Writing

Review: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

I have been recovering from eye surgery for the past few weeks and this is the reason for my lack of posts.  I am slowly getting better and am eager to share reviews of a few fantastic books I have read over the course of the summer.  First up is my review of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes which, I believe, was eligible for the Man Booker Prize this year.  I am disappointed that it did not make the longlist because it is, in my humble opinion, a true work of literary genius.  The edition I read was published in the U.S. by Knopf.

My Review:
Noise of TimeThis skillfully written and poetic novel, which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, is divided into three parts.  The author cleverly chose what, on the surface, appear to be trivial occurrences in the life of the world-renown composer, but on closer examination reveal the soul crushing hold that Despotism and absolute Power had on this creative genius.  The first part of the book is centered around Shostakovich’s nightly ritual of getting dressed and standing by the lift outside his apartment.  While his wife and daughter are safely tucked in bed, the composer stands in the hallway, smoking cigarettes and trying to stay awake for his unusual, nocturnal routine.

It is revealed throughout the course of the first part that Lenin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and hated it.  The next day a bad review which labeled the performance as “muddle instead of music” appeared in Pravda and the composer became terrified that this would not only be the end of his music career but also the end of his existence.  He did not want to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and suffer the indignity of being taken to prison in his pajamas.  So he waits for Stalin’s henchmen fully clothed because this was the one and only aspect of the situation he could control.  The first part of the book is absolutely riveting because we never know if or when Shostakovich will be snatched away by Stalin’s thugs and the great composer has a couple of strokes of good luck which factor into the suspense.

The second part of the book is devoted to a conference that Shostakovich is required to attend in the United States.  By this time in his life he is a world famous composer and his music is well-known beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.  But Shostakovich is not only going to the United States to discuss his music but he is also being used as a tool by the Soviet government to promote Communism.  The indignity of delivering speeches which he has not written that extol and praise the virtues of Communism and condemn his beloved Stravinsky make him embarrassed and depressed.  Whenever Shostakovich talks about Power, always written with a capital “P,” and the hold it has over his art and his life my heart broke for the anxiety and mental anguish that this man suffered.  It is nothing short of astonishing that this artist was able to compose beautiful music and keep his family safe while under such intense scrutiny from the highest officials in the Soviet regime.

In the final part of the book Shostakovich suffers towards the end of his life from what he feels is the greatest and deepest blow to his dignity and his self-worth.  Up to this point in his life and career the composer has miraculously been able to avoid becoming a member of the Party.  But those in a position of Power want to exploit Shostakovich’s success once more and make him the Chairman of the Russian Confederation of Composers.  He does everything he can to avoid accepting the title and becoming a member of the party, but in the end Power is too strong for any man to resist, even one who is a famous artist.  Shostakovich tells his son that he only cried twice in his adult life: once when his first wife died and once when he joined The Party.  The last third of the book was the saddest and most difficult to read because Shostakovich is a broken man whose soul has been crushed by Power.

Barnes gives us a glimpse into the internal dialogue and turmoil of this artist and the result is a deeper understanding of the composer’s life under Stalin’s regime.  Even though he had a nice apartment, a car and driver, and world-wide fame, he pays a dear price for all of these things.  Many criticize Shostakovich for not standing up to Power but Barnes, by reconstructing the composer’s innermost thoughts, shows us that dealing with totalitarianism is a complicated matter.   Whenever the composer contemplates refusing the “requests” of government officials, he thinks of his family, “If you saved yourself, you might also save those around you, those you loved.  And since you would do anything in the world to save those you loved, you did anything in the world to save yourself.  And because there was no choice, equally there was no possibility of avoiding moral corruption.”

About the Author:
J BarnesJulian Patrick Barnes is a contemporary English writer of postmodernism in literature. He has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize— Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005), and won the prize for The Sense of an Ending (2011). He has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.

Following an education at the City of London School and Merton College, Oxford, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Subsequently, he worked as a literary editor and film critic. He now writes full-time. His brother, Jonathan Barnes, is a philosopher specialized in Ancient Philosophy.

He lived in London with his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, until her death on 20 October 2008.


Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction