THIS WEEK’S NEW BOOKS REVIEWED | FEATURE
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr [trans. Alexia Trigo] (Europa Editions)
Brotherhood is an award-winning blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, written by Senegalese French writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr and translated by Alexia Trigo. The imaginary town of Kalep is bathed in tranquility and freedom, until the day a fundamentalist jihadist organisation, The Brotherhood, takes over. Sarr does not shy away from depicting the cruelty dealt out by The Brotherhood: you can feel the tension building as Abdel Karim and his men enforce its oppressive brutality on the people of Kalep.
Being immersed in Brotherhood is like living in fear in Kalep witnessing events unfold. You can practically taste the mint tea at Pere Badji’s bar, smell the spices and food in Kalep’s market and try not to gag at the stench of death and mutilation at the hospital. In a secret room underneath that bar, meanwhile, a handful of defiant individuals are meeting to plan how to fight back against the Brotherhood and drive them out of town. They decide to publish and distribute a journal to the people of Kalep, detailing the wrongs of the Brotherhood.
The heart and soul of the group of intellectuals behind the journal is Dr Malamine Camara, whose wife is dealt a severe punishment on the street by Karim’s men. What follows is an unflinching tale of defiance, the power of the written word, father and son relationships, love and hate, forgiveness and belief in an unforgettable and heartbreaking story that will resonate with many.
Price: £11.99. Info: here
words DAVID NOBAKHT
BUÑUEL: IN THE LABYRINTH OF THE TURTLES
Fermin Solis, trans. Lawrence Schimel (Self Made Hero)
Faced with a long and meandering filmmaking career, which snakes from pioneering surrealist provocations (Un Chien Andalou, L’Age Dor) to acclaimed works of arthouse (Belle De Jour, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie), Fermin Solis wisely concentrates on a brief, pivotal moment in the life of Luis Buñuel. Disillusioned with the response to his early work with “egocentric exhibitionist” Salvador Dali, Buñuel leaves Paris, secures funding from a lottery winner, and returns to his home country of Spain to create Land Without Bread, his notoriously polarizing and perplexing 1933 film documenting the harsh life and rough landscapes of the Hurdanos peasants.
Solis’ graphic novel utilizes the format to great effect: dreams bleed into the daylight, faces leer out at grotesque angles, panels occasionally repeat, nicely capturing Buñuel’s maddening attempts to cram in capitalist critique, surrealist symbology, and a romp in the mountains into one art work. He directs in a nun’s outfit. He wants to highlight poverty and inequality. He tortures goats.
Further adventures in the Spanish Civil War, Hollywood and Mexico were still to come for Buñuel. Solis’ book is a fine rendering of artistic creation and human weirdness, a great 120-page ramble through dirt and dreams.
Price: £14.99. Info: here
words WILL STEEN
Stephen Gregory (Parthian)
For his distant nephew, the sadness of Uncle Ian’s death is overshadowed by the new freedom that Ian’s cottage, situated in north Wales and now bequeathed to him, will afford him and his young family. So much so that the unusual caveat of being forced to adopt Ian’s orphaned pet, a nightmarish, malodorous sea-raven with a penchant for violence, is completely overlooked until it’s arrival.
Now an unavoidable terror within their daily existence, Stephen Gregory’s gripping storytelling charts the bird’s ability to destroy each member of the family in a different way. While the brutal bursts of violence that colour the novella will haunt readers, it’s the quiet horror of watching an ill-fated obsession grow with the menace and subtlety of a tumour within each character’s minds that demonstrates the story’s cleverness.
The light and accessible prose lets the story hurtle along, although that brevity unfortunately does certain climatic scenes and plot threads a mild disservice, and instead of feeling like the pay-off, they’re left a little skeletal. In its entirety though, it’s hard to view The Cormorant as anything less than a solid horror novel, one which proves that plenty of terror can be extracted from a well-written, straightforward plot.
Price: £8.99. Info: here
words ALEX PAYNE
Polly Barton (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
This near-350-page essay is a memoir as much as it is an exploration and evocation of Japanese culture. It is also a meditation on, and enquiry into, the nature of language learning and, ultimately, how we see the world through words.
Moving to Japan aged 21, Polly Barton [pictured, top – credit Garry Loughlin] gives us her personal experience and insights into the Nippon nation with remarkable honesty and quick intelligence. In many ways this is a coming-of-age story – filled with embarrassments, awkwardnesses, affairs, and errors, all admirably related without any softening or shying away from the facts. Instead, the author embraces them, committing them to ink where many a writer (myself included) would not, and it’s this that I perhaps found most affecting about this book.
As another former resident of Japan, I was very interested to learn more about the onomatopoeic phrases which title each chapter, each of them with reimagined meanings illustrating Barton’s own history. Jin-jin is here “the sound of being touched for the very first time”, and hiya-hiya becomes “the sound of recalling your past misdemeanours”: a brilliant way of structuring such a book, I thought. Barton won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, proof positive that she is pretty ace at that traditional – yet recently becoming more fashionable – form, the essay. This book is engaging, as clever as it is intimate, and I very much enjoyed reading it. You will, too.
Price: £12.99. Info: here
words MAB JONES
HOW DO YOU LIVE?
Genzaburo Yoshino [trans. Bruno Navasky] (Ebury)
A gentle, wise novel, this Japanese classic by Genzaburo Yoshino is translated into English for the first time following its publication in 1937. How Do You Live? is narrated in different parts by Copper and his uncle: as the teenager relays the various experiences which have shaped his understanding of the world, for example the time that he betrayed his best friend, his uncle reflects on his nephew’s behaviour by offering advice in the form of a journal.
It is difficult to convey the scope of the language and the philosophical nature of the text – suffice to say there were many passages within the book I wanted to cut out and keep, to reflect upon at a later stage. It’s also interesting to discover whether a translated story can set out to achieve the same level of understanding as the original text, and I think this proves successful. As someone who is drawn to translated novels I was intrigued by the premise of this novel and it is indeed a profound accomplishment.
This is a thought-provoking coming-of-age novel to savour and its popularity is no surprise – indeed it will soon provide the basis of an upcoming film from acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki. As a side note, the filmmaker has connections to Wales, having drawn inspiration from past visits to the country and incorporating the Welsh myths and legends in his previous work.
Price: £14.99. Info: here
words RHIANON HOLLEY