‘Life and Fate’ by Vasily Grossman

The broad strokes of the novel, such as the trials and tribulations of the great scientist Victor Shtrum, whose character and flaws act as a mirror of the author’s own personality; the horrors of the concentration camp and slow creep of anti-Semitism;  the battle of Stalingrad and the dehumanising effects of war, as seen through the eyes of a panorama of characters, both real and fictional all intentionally echo Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. Yet, like Tolstoy, there is a deeper meaning behind Grossman’s work, one which focuses on the innateness kindness of humans even in the face of so much death and destruction and the hope that ultimately good will triumph over evil, not through grand acts, but small, scarce noticed acts of kindness-just as the Russian woman who was initially focussed on revenge exchanges the brick she was going to throw at the German soldier to kill him, to bread to fee him, so the only way humans will be able to overcome the horrors we inflict on each is via empathy and understanding and respect for our individuality. Grossman’s novel is an argument against all forms of collectivisation and homogenization; whether it be the machine of Nazism, Stalinism, Communism or collectivism, all of these act as a thresher which ultimately strip us of our humanity, leaving in its wake a shallow husk of a human being

Although Grossman lacks, perhaps, Tolstoy’s overwhelming sense of genius, he compensates for the grandiloquence which permeates ‘War and Peace’ with a deeper, perhaps more subtle Chekhovian sense of understanding of human nature as he portrays the flaws of the characters as well as their strengths; ‘humanity, warts and all’ would be a good encapsulation how Grossman portrays his characters. From Victor, the brilliant scientist, who harbours a host of demons and neuroses and whose incorrigibility is both a source of immense moral strength and superciliousness or his wife Lyuda who is able to combine acts of kindness with callousness, such as exiling Victor’s mother to her death in Ukraine, to the characters who exist on the margins of the novel, such as the old woman who harbours the escaped soldier at great potential cost to herself Semyonov, the eccentric poet Bogoleev or the Dostoevskian holy fool Ikkinikov, whose diatribes on humanity can be as profound as they can be ridiculous. The richness of the tapestry of characters which Grossman weaves through the novel gives the Soviet society which it portrays a richness and candour which few other novelists are able to match,

Grossman is also able to intersperse a sense of poetry which echoes the great novelists of the 19th century, from Turgenev to Chekhov-a feat all the more remarkable given the need for Grossman to conform to the proletariat style of Soviet literature;

“Suddenly the sun rose – like a burst of hope. The dark autumn water mirrored the sky; it began to breathe and the sun seemed to cry out in the waves. The steep banks had been salted by the night’s frost and the red-brown trees looked very gay. The wind rose, the mist vanished and the world grew cool and glass-like, piercingly transparent. There was no warmth in the sun, nor in the blue sky and water. The earth was vast: even the vast forest had both a beginning and an end, but the earth just stretched on for ever . . . And grief was something equally vast, equally eternal”

Beauty mixed with bathos; hope borne out of horror and the ability of humanity to find a way even in the darkest times are the themes which dominate Grossman’s novel, which acts as one of the greatest explorations of war and human nature in 20th century literature.

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‘Palestine +100’ by Basma Ghalyani

Palestine re-imagined a century after the Nakba, which marked the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in what is now Israel; Palestine re-imagined via the prism of sci-fi fiction, the fantastical tropes of sci-fi fiction serve to heighten the horror of the stories they are depicting, in which the Palestinian characters are systematically dehumanised beneath the behemoth of the Israeli state, in the many iterations in which it is depicted in the collection of stories.

Particular highlights include ‘Sleep it off, Dr. Schott’, which depicts the burgeoning romance between two hybrid human scientists, one Israeli and one Palestinian beneath a sea of Rachel Weisz comparisons and conversations about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. The way in which the story coalesces the artificial emotions which the two characters are implanted, with the real emotions both characters feel as they explore their individual pasts and the present burgeoning of their relationship exemplifies the artificial constructs which conflict creates around human emotions. Another highlight is ‘Digital Nation’ in which artificial intelligence supplants its human masters and creates a Palestinian state which is able to achieve its aim of independence, or of ‘Application 39’ in which a pair of bumbling pranksters manage to succeed in an application for Palestine to host the Olympics, only for the story to end if farce and tragedy as a peaceful march is turned into a massacre by over-zealous robots, designed to view Palestinians as enemies.

As with magical realism, the horrors depicted beneath all of this fantasy are the only ways in which to depict the surrealism of a world enveloped by belligerence and hatred, a world in which, as with the story ‘Vengeance’ the desire for revenge only serves to trap people in a never-ending cycle of violence from which there is no escape.

‘The Gate’ by Natsume Soseki

The ambience which Soseki creates in ‘The Gate’ reflects the psychological state which the two lead characters, Sosuke and Oyone find themselves in. The gentle undulations of their interactions and and the leisurely, quotidian way in which Soseki describes their uneventful lives masks a secret for which they have not only been ostracised by their families, but for which both appear to be doing penance throughout the novel; whether it be the loss of Sosuke’s sense of exuberance as he settles for a mundane and mediocre existence is a lowly clerk, or of Oyone’s inability to have a child, the emptiness which permeates their lives made up for by the abundance of love which flows between them. Their love is not a passionate or intense one, but one which is marked with commonplace exchanges; whether Sosuke can buy a new scarf of Oyone a new scarf or what they would eat for dinner that evening, the very ordinariness of their conversations  concealing the intensity of the emotional connection which exists between the two.

There is something quintessentially Japanese about Soseki’s understated style; from the gradual uncovering of Sosuke and Oyone’s secret about how they met and fell in love beneath the surreptitious snowfall of a long winter whilst Oyone was married to Sosuke’s friend, to the mysterious robberies which take place in the house of a wealthy neighbour or the spectre of Sosuke’s brother who haunts their house and disturbs the gentle rhythm of their lives. ‘The Gate’ is a novel in which nothing appears to happen when, in fact, a lot takes place, namely Sosuke’s spiritual apotheosis upon finding out that the friend from whom he took Oyone has returned. His spiritual crisis takes him to a zen temple,  where

‘Silence is My Mother Tongue’ by Sulaiman Addonia

The reverberations of  life in the refugee camp in which ‘Silence is My Mother Tongue’ dominate the novel; the feeling of suffocation as the characters are stifled by the never-ending feeling is misery and poverty. This is coupled with, however, Addonia’s deep-rooted sense of humanity and powers of perception, his innate sympathy for women, whether it is the prostitute Nasnet, punished, like so many women, by men for the desires she arouses in them and the heroine of the novel, Saba. Addonia is able to render the innate poetry of Saba throughout the novel, from her purple-hued thighs in the sepulchral light of dusk, to her allure as glimpsed in the azure hued hill-top view of the voyeuristic narrator. The world which Addonia conjures up is one of baleful beauty, of the scarlet incandescence of dusk or the glare of the sun and the interplay of light and shadows it creates, so that the images he creates are ones of desperation, hope and beauty and the illusions and mirages which a work of fiction necessitates.

Moreover, ‘Silence is My Mother Tongue’ does away with a large number of gender conventions and sexual tropes; from the relationship between the powerful businessman Eyob and her mute twin-brother Hagos, to the sympathy coalesced with romance experienced between Nasnet and Saba as the former is subjected to a sexual assault by one of her clients, sensuality resonates from every page of the novel, but relationships often play it in ways in which the reader would not expect, passions are left unexplained, desires unexplored, as the characters writhe under the heat of the passions they experience beneath the never-ending glare of the Sudanese sun. What stands out most, however, is Addonia’s sympathetic exploration of the emotional lives of the women in his novel. All of the women, including ones who the reader would find it difficult to sympathise with, such as the mid-wife who enforces FGM, are portrayed with sympathy and depth, although the same could also be said for the male characters as well.

‘Silence is My Mother Tongue’ is a darkly poetic masterpiece and a brilliant distillation of Addonia’s humanism and aesthetics.

‘Summer’ by Edith Wharton

Summer’ is a book which can be symbolised by the atmosphere which surrounds the life of heroine Charity; the novel begins with he gentle undulations of a summer day, the refraction of sunlight on a gentle June afternoon hide the storm-clouds on the way with coming of Harney, whose passionate love raises Charity from her slumber, from her boredom, saves her from the drudgery of life in a quiet village, a life of calmness and quiescence but lack of vitality and passion. The third part in this love triangle is Charity’s lachrymose and lugubrious benefactor Mr Royall, whose doleful nature hides a loneliness and love for Charity which he is finding it increasingly difficult to conceal.

On the surface ‘Summer’ recycles some of the most well-used tropes of romantic fiction; the superficially charming rake, the naive heroine, the moody suitor whose exterior hides a selfless souls, yet ‘Summer’ should not be judged for its exterior shell, but instead for the inner radiance of the New England she creates. The ethereal beauty of the world which surrounds summer, from the torrents which are released by her pent-up passion, to the tenuous beauty of a spring morning, the superficial artificiality of the characters is subsumed within the richness of the world Wharton creates;

“The lake was so smooth that the reflection of the trees on its edge seemed enamelled on a solid surface; but gradually, as the sun declined, the water grew transparent, and Charity, leaning over, plunged her fascinated gaze into depths so clear that she saw the inverted tree-tops interwoven with the green growths of the bottom.”

‘The Woman in the Dunes’ by Kobo Abe

In ‘The Woman in the Dunes’, the narrators is caught in a nightmarish trap whereby he in perpetually clearing away the encroachments of the ever-moving sand  before it consumes the village which has enslaved him. Abe is able to capture brilliantly the sense of claustrophobia engendered by being in the sand pit, the pervasiveness of the sand as it lodges itself in the throat of the narrator, parching him, the clammy and sticky nature of the sand as it envelops his body, almost eviscerating him, divesting him of his ability to feel, to hope, to live.

The only thing which keeps him going is his intransigence in not succumbing to his forced labour; his mind is perpetually hell-bent on escape, as he thinks of increasingly desperate and dangerous ways to free himself. This sense of desperation perhaps triggers the more unpleasant aspect of his personality. The supercilious air which he initially exudes is transformed into a sense of domination against the woman who lured him into the trap, as she uses her, both figuratively and later on in the story, literally when he rapes her to amuse the other villagers, to regain the sense of power which he lost. Here Abe does a clever thing, as the reader begins to lose sympathy with the narrator as he becomes increasingly unpleasant until, like the slow trickle of sand through a looking glass, his sense of defiance slowly disappears, to be replaced with a sense of acceptance, of contentment with his lot; better to be a knowing slave in the sand-pit than and oblivious one in the outside world.

“One could not do without repetition in life, like the beating of the heart, but it was also true that the beating of the heart was not all there was to life”

 

‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo

Evaristo is able to skilfully depict the lives of the various women who feature in ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, the richness of their inner lives is skilfully drawn out by Evaristo, from the nonagenarian landowner Hattie, to the young single mother in London with three children from different fathers, to the high-flying Carole whose life seems to be a perpetual attempt to escape her blackness,  or Yazz who is trying to find her identity beneath the multitude of labels which are thrust on her (woman, black, middle-class) and her mother Amma, the fierce playwright whose premier for her latest play acts as the backdrop for the various characters whose narratives appear in the novel to intersect and meet.

Evaristo’s greatest skill is in her ability to realistically render the lives of the characters who appear in the novel and allow them a sense of depth which is so often denied to black women in fiction. Not only this, but the sheer of variety of stories and background and her ability to allow us to empathise with each of the characters, no matter how dislikeable some of their actions may be; whether it be the the snooty and mildly racist Penelope who remains blissfully unaware of her own black ancestry or to the domineering Nzinga, whose subjugation of Dominique reflects the very toxic masculinity she is so bent on fighting against but which masks a deep-seated sense of insecurity and self-loathing.

That Evaristo is able to sensitively and skilfully portray such a kaleidoscope of characters, to colour and illuminate their lives with such brilliance, to  not only avoid the stereotypes which are so often associated with the characters who appear in her novel, but to upend them, to give a voice, personality and soul to under-represented women whose live she depicts, is testament to her acuity and ingenuity as a storyteller, one whose voice and style is unique in a backdrop and culture which is a rarely represented. Not only that, but Evaristo is able to navigate and explore the various topics which impact black women today, form intersectionality, to Westernised sense of beauty, to the sexualization of black women or the multiple barriers which they are forced to circumnavigate in order to succeed in a society where they have been set-up to fail. However, it would be unfair to describe  ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ as just being a book which merely focuses on gender or identity politics, instead it represents the work of a brilliant artist at the height of her powers and an unrivalled depiction of life in modern Britain.

‘It’s Not About the Burqa’ by Mariam Khan

Khan is able to collect the stories of various female Muslim writers who cover a variety of topics; from race, to sexuality, to fashion and the media, the common thread which runs through all of them is the perception-or lack of-of Muslim women in modern Britain.  Frequently marginalised, perpetually fetishized, forever seen via the narrow prism of their burqa, alternatively used as the stick with which to beat Muslim men for their perceived innate misogyny or for their lack of integration, we are forever hearing stories about Muslim women, but never hearing from Muslim women themselves and even when we do, their stories are so sanitised that they are rendered completely artificial.

A number of key themes are explored within the various articles in the book. One of the central ones is the commodification of the burqa in the fashion industry, one where the promotion of Muslim women in fashion outlets is driven by making money rather than from a sincere desire to diversify the representation of non-white women in fashion. The other key theme is around the expectations set around Muslim in the media. They are either expected to have some sort of ‘Muslim agenda’ or are expected so bland or neutral in their political leanings or opinions that any deviation from this leads to their immediate castigation; they are allowed to have an opinion so long as they don’t upset the apple cart, any sympathy or views they express, however nuanced, outside of the immediately leads to their demonisation, to their association with Islamic terrorism or of being anti-Western.

As one of the writers states, Muslim women experience the triple barrier of being a woman, being an ethnic minority and being Muslim-a fourth one could be added of-for those who wear one-the burqa and all of the stereotypes and negative connotations it brings. So book such as this, which allow Muslim women to express themselves and give them a voice, which allow them to break free from the stereotypes which constrain them, are vital in allowing others to understand the issues and concerns they experience and for them to regain their sense of humanity.

‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ by Ahmed Saadawi

The streets of Baghdad are haunted by ‘Whatsitsname’, a malevolent monster who harangues the guilty and innocent alike; the former for their crimes and the latter to retain his purity which is reflected by the nature of the body parts from which he is composed, the irony being that in doing so he loses his morality,  which is the very thing he was trying to retain. In many ways ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ acts as an allegory for the state of post-war Iraq, a country which was so deeply thrown into disarray and dissension that it’s redeemer is a curmudgeonly made-up from the composite part of various citizens and whose sole means of control is violence.

Otherwise the characters who inhabit the Baghdad of the novel are driven by their own private obsessions. Whether it is Elishva and her continued belief that her son Daniel, who is long dead, is still alive, or the creator of Whatsitsname, Hadi, whose glib and deceitful nature manifests itself in the creation of the monster. Saadawi’s matter-of-fact tone, coupled with the caricature like characters who inhabit the novel, sets a surreal tone to the novel, a tone which is at times somewhat unconvincing but whose arguments of the absurdities of war and the sectarian violence which has beset Iraq is a powerful one.

‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ by Haruki Murakami

Drab and dreary Tsukuru feels a sense of emotional emptiness and blankness caused by being abandoned by his inseparable group of adolescent friends, whose cacophony of colours created a sense of vibrancy within the soul of Tsukuru and whose absence has rendered Tsukuru colourless.

In some ways this is the quintessential Murakami novel; from the introverted and introspective lead character, whose emotional journey the reader follows, to the lonely nature of life in the city and the walls which we build around ourselves, to the search for meaning in life, often fruitless, yet at other times  bountiful, Tsukuru is trying to harvest the sense of belonging which being part of the group fostered within him, a sense of belonging which is forever lost to him in his relationships with other people and exacerbated by the emotional trauma, verging on death, which he goes through after being cut off from his friends.

In a world full of one-note and cliched representations of human nature, Murakami defies most conventions and revels in the plainess of his lead character. Indeed it is Murakami’s exploration of the everyday, the mundane and humdrum and his ability to create a colourless character who the reader nevertheless begins to care for and empathise with.

The novel ends with an air of ambiguity, as Tsukuru ponders on whether Sara, whose sanguine yet understated personality acts as the jolt which rouses Tsukuru from his slumber, however the reader is left pondering the life of an essentially quotidian man, whose story is rendered beautifully and sensitively beneath the skilful pen of Murakami.