These are the best books I discovered in 2017 while trying to read novels from every country in the world. Here are some brilliant world literature, from Argentina to Denmark, to discover in 2018.
1. Eritrea: For those less fortunate
African Titanics — Abu Bakr Khaal (2014)
This winter, refugees across Europe will again have to face the snows in tents. They are the ones who survived the twin crossings – the Sahara and the Mediterranean. This story of that journey blew me away in 2017.
Taking you from Eritrea across the Sahara, to Libya, then Tunis, then the cruel Mediterranean, this is a book about one of the great tragedies of our time: migration at its most raw, unforgiving and deadly.
Starting with a frenetic race through the desert being chased by gangs, the story never shies away from showing us the death and suffering of migrants without ever sacrificing their humanity.
As one Eritrean man dies, his head in the lap of another, he talks about the war he fled:
Terhas poured more drops into his mouth and the glimmer of a smile appeared on his face. For one brief moment it looked as though his spirit had returned. But the moment soon passed, and the long process of death began.”
This is an incredibly poetic and poignant story, almost mythological or allegorical in the telling:
Even when dying of thirst, you cannot help being captivated by the moon, absorbing its dazzling glow and longing for it to be the last thing you see.”
Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. Photo credit: flickr_European Commission DG ECHO
After traversing the desert, the migrants in the tale arrive in Tripoli only to be trapped in a building by smugglers, where so many have been before. The description becomes more than just a messy room but a metaphor for the confusion of the desperate traveler among the multitude of lives taking the same desperate path. A sinister foreboding scene especially if you have read about the places migrants are held in Libya.
Piles of clothes were strewn across the floor alongside heaps of bags of all shapes and sizes, some half empty and others full, some threadbare and others apparently brand-new…”
The rooms were in a state of chaos too, filled with even more garments and shoes. There were precarious piles of teacups, kettles and bottles. Broken watches, socks, wigs and used sanitary towels lay here and there. Bulging bags of sugar stood amidst a mess of shaving equipment, fake jewellery, makeup, dirty underwear and empty, foreign-looking cigarette packets.”
In many ways this jumble of objects represents the diverse groups of people from so many countries, all on the same terrible journey.
I wandered through the courtyard, picking through the scattered objects and trying to imagine their owners. What fate had they suffered? Had they crossed safely, or became fish fodder? Had they even left? Or had they retraced their steps to their homeland?”
He then reads an emotional love letter from a former traveller and messages written on the walls one of which, signed anonymous, reads:
Where will you take me, oh fleeting hours?”
This Odyssean novel is not just a catalogue of horrors, it is a reflection on humanity itself and the lives we all lead. It is one of those books you can only read one little bite at a time — you need to stop as each chapter ends to reflect, catch your breath, and consider if you are in a setting that justifies reading such powerful literature. This book from Darf Publishers should be on everyone’s list.
2. Grenada: A book to get lost in
Jacob Ross — Pynter Bender (2008)
This coming-of-age story set in a poverty-stricken sugar cane plantation in 1970s Grenada became my favourite book of 2017 out of nowhere. A mysterious and layered book that slowly reveals itself to be beautiful, hopeful expose of post-colonial repression and resistance.
Pynter Bender is the story of a poet as a young man. A boy is born blind. When he recovers his sight he sees with a special lucidity, and discovers poetry in old discarded papers of his uncle. The first half of the book is his encounter with the nature around him and his gradual discovery of family secrets. In the second half, the wider world creeps in, as a repressive government sends soldiers to play cat-and-mouse with a young generation determined to challenge the exploitative status quo.
This is the story of Pynter Bender breaking centuries-old cycle of poverty —against all the odds, including temporary blindness, he becomes the first in his family to learn to read and go to school. As his teacher tells him, it took him more than a hundred years to get to the school – he didn’t start the walk –and he is destined to leave behind and forget those who made his progress possible — “the riots and the burnings and the jail”.
He grows up in a community further-impoverished by mechanisation of the sugar cane plantation. Machines replace the men, so the men emigrate for work. Pynter grows up with his mother, aunts and grandmother. Men are fleeting, violent, influences:
“The talk of women taught Pynter Bender one thing: men walked
…The women spoke of it as if it were an illness — a fever that men were born with, for which there was no accounting and no cure. It could come upon them anytime, but more likely halfway through the harvesting of the canes in April — those months of work and hunger that Old Hope called the Stretch, when the children were thinnest.”
The most powerful episodes fall at the beginning of the second part, when the exploitation of the cane workers is laid bare by the sight of the workers returning from an exhausting day’s work:
The long grey line of men and women dragging their shadows behind them like an extra weight, with the dust of the old cane road frothing around their feet”.
Jacob Ross has delivered another Caribbean classic merging politics and poetry in the tradition of Earl Lovelace, Derek Walcott, Samuel Selvon and George Lamming.
3. Finland: One for getting in touch with nature
Arto Paasilinna — The Year of the Hare (1975)
A book to remind you of long summer evenings, and that there is more to life than work.
A Finnish journalist abandons his dreary city routine in favour of a Tom Sawyer-like romp through the Finnish countryside.
If you work in an office, this is worth reading for the transformation of our hero from office drone (‘The beauty of the Finnish summer evening is lost on them both’) to man of nature:
They drove through the lovely summer evening hunched, self-absorbed as two mindless crustaceans.”
The plot is very simple. Driving back from covering a story with his newspaper’s photographer, their car hits a hare. He rushes out the nurse it, and when the photographer gets tired of waiting and drives off, his meeting with the hare somehow triggers a change in his way of life. He refuses to come back to the city, instead adopting an itinerant life travelling north through Finland, encountering all manner of picturesque adventures with his hare on the way.
The journalist sat on the edge of the ditch, holding the hare in his lap: he resembled an old woman with her knitting on her knees and lost in thought. The sound of the motor-car engine faded away. The sun set.
The journalist put the hare down on the grass patch. For a moment he was afraid the leveret would try to escape; but it huddled in the grass, and when he picked it up again, it showed no sign of fear at all.
‘So here we are,’ he said to the hare. ‘Left.’
That was the situation: he was sitting alone in the forest, in his jacket, on a summer evening.
Vatanen got to his feet, gazed at the sunset’s last redness through the forest trees, nodded to the hare. He looked towards the road but made no move that way. He picked up the hare up off the grass, put it tenderly in the side-pocket of his jacket, and left the allotment for the darkening forest.”
4. Denmark: One for short attention spans
Dorthe Nors — Minna needs a rehearsal space / Karate Chop (2013)
Can’t put down the iPhone? You need a dose of Nordic flash fiction.
Rising star of Danish, and European, literature, Dorthe Nors’ double collection provides pastoral scenes of modern life, told in very sparse, unadorned prose that lays bare everyday life with a simultaneous sense of humour, respect and irony. These are stories about the small towns and small people you won’t see on TV.
The short texts take on cancer, bullying, domestic violence, depression, and internet addiction unsparingly, compellingly getting straight to the heart of the matter without ceremony.
Nors has a brilliant, sympathetic eye for the seedy sides of life, like when she describes the town drunks:
Like rooks, they tended to attract each other so that certain parts of the town or clusters of people with indistinct a pronunciation and chinking shopping bags.”
This has been pitched by Pushkin Press as a book for the digital age, for those with short attention spans thanks to the internet, with one longer novella on one side, and a series of short stories on the other (hence the beautiful cover).
That novella is poetically composed purely of one-liners, a conceit that works brilliantly in depicting loneliness in the digital age. In The Guardian, Nors describes it as “a novel in headlines”. The composer, Minna “is alone but surrounded”, starts by being dumped by text message, which spurs her to go to an island to escape city life:
Minna has gotten Lars to elaborate on his text.
Lars has written, but I’m not really in love with you
Lars has always understood how to cut to the chase
Minna can’t ring anymore out of him
Lars is a wall
Lars is a porcupine
The stream of headlines gives a simple story and great pace, and a gentle irony to the simple annoyance of life, like bumping into annoying people you don’t want to talk to:
Disappointment inhabits her mind like rainy weather
is immediately followed by
Minna really wants an asshole filter
5. Argentina: One for dark nights by the fire
Mariana Enriquez – Things we lost in the fire (2017)
Short stories taking the spirit of Borges to post-dictatorship, contemporary Argentina – notably the slums of Buenos Aires.
Argentina’s tradition of surreal, mind-bending short stories takes a dark twist. Mariana Enriquez’s stories start with rough-and-ready social realism – run-down neighbourhoods, sleepy suburbs, working poor struggling to make ends meet – only to take macabre, gothic twists that symbolise the traumas of a society that has papered over the legacy of past repressive regimes.
These are not horror stories: the supernatural aspects of the stories serve to magnify the very real ills of society: corruption, violence, social justice in which a boarded-up haunted house is actually a former torture chamber. Really they are about the horror of real life, the slums, the addicts with eyes “completely black, like a carrion insect’s” and the cops wearing the ironic smiles that “oozed impunity and contempt”.
One story starts with a DA investigating police corruption, but ends with a carnival procession of dead, deformed bodies, people thrown into the black, polluted the river down the years – mostly by the police, where they awakened a dark spirit.
The title story begins with that social discomfort of a burned girl begging on the subway, kissing passengers on the cheek with her burnt, deformed lips. But as in many of the stories, the victim turns into a supernatural force, starting a wave of self-immolations across the country in answer to domestic violence.
These are stories that get under your skin, as the downtrodden of the earth rise up in ways that are uncomfortable for the reader. As the organiser of the Burned Women movement says,
Burnings are the work of men. They have always burned us. Now we are burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die; we’re going to flaunt our scars.”
6. Canada: One to compete with movies
Rawi Hage — De Niro’s Game (2006)
If you are tempted to spend the holidays watching Christmas movies, you need this tense, thrilling book set in civil war-era 1980s Beirut.
Ten thousand bombs had landed, and I was waiting for George.
Ten thousand bombs had landed on Beirut, that crowded city, and I was lying on a blue sofa covered with white sheets to protect it from dust and dirty feet.
It is time to leave, I was thinking to myself.”
This is a book about making the choice to go into exile. Bassam watches his friend George become a kingpin in the underworld, while he makes his own moral compromises by going on a small crime spree to finance his escape to another country. A story full of anti-heroes.
Lebanese-Canadian writer Rawi Hage won the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for this book. If you like gangster movies you will enjoy the personality clashes, the tense, heavy atmosphere and the rapid-fire way the story moves along.
With cities on fire in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, this book remains timely. As Irish writer Colm Toibin says in a new introduction to the book:
The novel manages to capture something of the daily mixture of claustrophobia, chaos, sheer terror, sexual tension, and heady hilarity in a war-torn city; it dramatizes the pain and petty treacheries and the small moments of pure comedy created by forces beyond the control of the protagonists.
De Niro’s Game is the story of the diction of that sentence as much as it is the story of survival in a time of factions. The novel enacts a war between two styles as much as between two political ideologies.”