Saturday, 19 December 2009

Leaving Albania

And so I am leaving Albania...a country I was always curious about in my youth, given the secretive Communist government that persisted during the 80s and 90s, giving rise to the perception (in the UK) that this was a closed-off totalitarian state which even planes had to fly around for fear of being shot down ...

I have to say that I was a little perplexed by the Albanian book on my journey: "Spring Flowers, Spring Frost" by Ismail Kadare. On the face of it, this work ticked all of the boxes for my travel purposes - a contemporary work (exploring the social upheavals of Albanian society since the demise of communism there), a native - and well respected - author (compared in the blurb to Orwell, Kafka and Gogol, no less) and an interesting premise: the return of Albania's notorious Kanun 'blood laws'.

These laws were developed pre-communism and have indeed seen a resurgence of such since communism's fall. Whilst these are actually a complicated set of feudal laws relating to social relationships and land ownership; this novel focuses on the blood law element that states: "someone is allowed to kill another person to avenge an earlier murder or moral humiliation."

This is interesting as it also colours my next stopping off point: Kosovo (inextricably linked with both Albania and Serbia through the recent Balkan conflict). However, in the context of this novel, it is used more as a device to explore the inner torment and anxieties of the work's (largely unsympathetic) protagonist - the artist Mark Gurabardhi.

And there, for me, is the problem. Whilst reading this work I did gain a glimpse of life in contemporary Albania - the coffee shops, the occasional black-outs of small village life, the left-over paranoia from the communist era - yet I never felt engaged with the plot. For a start Mark is a particularly unlikeable character who - through his own unwillingness to engage with events around him - impedes our own attempts to immerse ourselves in the plot. He is also particularly misogenistic towards his (possibly pregnant) girlfriend which - coupled with his rather unsettling fantasies about her possible incestuous infidelity with her brother - serve only to alienate the reader even further.

The main narrative is interspersed with several "Counter-chapters" which exposit upon topics as diverse as Tantalus, Oedipus Rex and the sinking of the Titanic. Again, I failed to see the connection with the main narrative, although - as with the previous Macedonian work on my journey - it may well be that I am failing to pick up on socially-specific allegorical references here...

Still, despite my literary gripes I have come away from this book with a sense of life in a small snowbound town in northern Albania - particularly fitting as whilst writing this blog, I am sitting in a small snowbound UK town called St Albans!

For the sake of fairness however; as I have not really critiqued this book in my travel entry and it seems that Kadare has a legion of fans who do appreciate his writings; here is the official Amazon review of the work:

Working at the intersection of allegory and reality, Kadare (The Three-Arched Bridge, etc.) balances the forces of expression and repression in his latest novel, about an Albanian artist who struggles to keep his sense of equilibrium when the post-Communist government threatens to bring back the so-called "blood laws," which dictated behavior in the country's medieval past. Mark Gurabardhi is the protagonist, a sensitive soul who finds himself disturbed by political events in his strife-torn country, as well as by a bizarre bank robbery and a strange, lurid report that an attractive young woman has married a snake. Closer to home, Gurabardhi's relationship with his girlfriend who also models for him is an up-and-down affair, but what changes the artist's situation is the sudden death of his boss, the director of the art center, who is killed in murky circumstances. His death prompts Gurabardhi to investigate the rumor that the repressive government is about to reintroduce the ancient, family-oriented blood laws to help tighten their control of artistic expression. To learn more, Gurabardhi finds a way to eavesdrop on a conference of prominent leaders. The political turns personal when the artist's girlfriend reveals that her brother is being hunted by the state, and the book closes with the artist making a formal inquiry to the police chief to see if the old laws will be reinstated. Kadare's plotting is sometimes spotty and disjunctive, but despite the lack of continuity, each scene is as tight as the writer's razor-sharp prose. The juxtaposition of ideas and bizarre images is alternately beautiful, peculiar and provocative, as Kadare once again provides an excellent glimpse at the difficult nature of life in a politically unstable land.

Well, it is time to leave Albania and travel further into the Balkans. Eschewing local advice I am taking a (very!) expensive taxi down the mountain routes into the northern reaches of Tirana, Albania's main city, arriving in the early hours.

Making my way on foot to the Tirana International Hotel at the bottom end of Bulevard Zogu i Pare, I approach a tout shouting shout "Prishtina, Prishtina!" and hand over my 20 EURO. The basic looking, but comfortable, bus arrives at about 8.00am and I set out on my 6-hour journey to Prishtina, in the still-disputed Republic of Kosovo...

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Macedonian snapshots: a fractured view of a disparate country

Well, I have now explored the Republic of Macedonia, courtesy of the short story anthology: "Change of the System".

I have to say, as expected, that this was a mixed bag of literature - coming from contemporary native writers writing both before and after the 1991 declaration of independence.

Co-translator Richard Gaughran states, quite correctly, in his introduction that "It is certainly true that if you want to know something about a place, you should read its fiction" - that could actually be the mission statement of this blog/website!

However, I could not help but feel a certain sense of exclusion whilst reading many of these stories... and I believe that is because a number of them are highly allegorical, no doubt due to the political climate of pre/early 90s Yugoslavia. The result of this is that whilst I enjoyed many of these stories, I felt that I was only appreciating them on the surface, and not understanding the deeper allegorical references. Examples of this would be "The Mole" by Petre M. Andreevski (a humorous tale of the battle between a man and a mole plaguing his garden, with strong oral folktale traditions in its telling), and "Sunday Dinner" by Vase Mancev; a very disturbing account of the battle between a rooster fleeing for its life and a determined farmer. Both stories were enjoyable to read but, for me, tempered by the feeling that I was not - as a foreigner - able to appreciate the deeper meanings of the tales, on a social, political or cultural level.

Elsewhere, to be honest, some stories were allegorical to the point of inpenetrability (such as Kim Mehmeti's "The Moonflower"), although works such as Ermis Lafazanovski's "The Half Rainbow" and Jadranka Vladova's "A Face to Lend" are satisfying in being well-written and giving a degree of cultural/social insight into Macedonian society.

Where this anthology really comes into its own for me, however, is in the final author's two works: "Nothing Especially Happens" and "The Death of a Fox" by Igor Isakovski. These are by a young and developing author and are notable in their focus on realism and personal experience rather than allegory and fable, and represent both a useful insight into modern Macedonian life and an exciting taster of a new, representative Macedonian literature. Isakvoski is writer to watch out for in future European literature!

I should point out here that, in finding a printed work of Macedonian literature translated into English, I struggled... and even having identified this book, I found it very difficult to track down (it is not on Amazon, and even the co-translator Richard Gaughran was unable - although not unwilling! - to help find a copy).

I finally got lucky through a secondhand book store, but if you wish to explore modern Macedonian literature further I cannot recommend highly enough the Macedonian literature website:

This is managed and produced by the aforementioned Igor Isakovski as a forum for literature in the area, and features an online English translation of his short story collection: Sandglass

(I would have used this to represent Macedonia if I did not have my stipulation of printed books for my travels).

So, to sum up, this work is a curate's egg:- i.e. good in parts - and I sincerely thank the book's producers: Richard Gaughran and Zoran Ancevski, without whom there would be no published representation of Macedonia on my travels!

And so on to Albania. I shall be travelling from Struga to Tirana at around 11-11.30am. The bus ride should be around 6-8 hours, through beautiful countryside, getting dark by the time I reach Tirana through Durres on the Adriatic, with a wait of about an hour or two at the border crossing.

Once in Albania, I shall be travelling by taxi to the remote mountain town of B.... in a book called "Spring Flowers, Spring Frost" by Ismail Kadare, which explores the conflicts and contradictions left over from the old Albanian regime. "People are disappearing never to be heard from again. The secret police appears to remain in place and operating in the shadows. The blood feuds of the ancient rule book, the "Kanun", are rumoured to being revived. And the stories that the ominous secret state archives are hidden in vaults in the local area won't die..."

See you soon!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Passing through Bulgaria

Well, my trip to Bulgaria turned out to be a brief stopover of two days, courtesy of Georgi Gospodinov's "Natural Novel" set mainly on the outskirts of the capital, Sofia.

The brevity of this visit does not indicate, however, that this is an insignificant novel - quite the contrary, I really enjoyed this work and that (combined with its relatively short length of 136 pages) - is why this was such a brief stop.

On the face of it, this novel should not have been as enjoyable as it was - it is very experimental in form and content, with a fractured structure and a number of digressions as varied as a history of toilets and the possibility of literature by flies (even a Fly Bible). These musings are loosely connected to a central (although never clearly defined) concept that Gospodinov has of a 'natural novel': "My immodest desire is to mold a novel of beginnings, a novel that keeps starting, promising something, reaching page 17 and then starting again".

Gospodinov does not achieve that aim in this work for, despite the various digressions, there is a clear sub-narrative here of a writer whose life has been shattered by the discovery that his wife is pregnant with his best friend's baby, and their subsequent divorce. This narrative is driven forward through a series of touching, at times heartbreaking, vignettes charting his various stages of disbelief, anger, despair and resignation. It is interesting that the shattered nature of the main protagonist's life is reflected fittingly in the shattered structure of the novel itself.

For me, the book works better here, in the narrative of the main character, than it does in its postmodernist musings on the nature of language and literature; although these are interesting enough. And the narrative contains enough descriptions of everyday life in Sofia to make this a worthwhile stopping point on my journey. I was particuarly struck by the description of the recent economic hardships of the country in the 1990s: "I remember an elderly woman asking for half a lemon at the market. Others searched around the empty stalls at night for a potato that might have been accidentally dropped. More and more well-dressed people overcame their shame and reached into the garbage cans".

What really struck me was the style of writing here: an engaging, at times brutally honest, and direct style which - whilst the author namechecks Salinger - for me was more reminiscent of Charles Bukowski or Hubert Selby Jnr; both of whom were expert at depicting the self-destructive anti-hero's knowing descent into social exclusion. That is not to say that this novel is derivative however, it is highly original and deserves and wider readership than it will inevitably get in the West. Nor is it a depressing read - indeed there are some moments of great humour (a favourite of mine is Chapter 22, entitled "A List of Pleasures in the 1980s". The chapter simply consists of the line: "...I can't remember any pleasures".)

To sum up then, an entertaining tragi-comic work with some fascinating glimpses of Bulgarian life, interspersed with some interesting semiotic asides. I am certainly pleased that my travels led me to this work.

And so, without further ado, it is time for me to make my way to the impressively modern glass edifice which is Sofia Central Bus Station in time for the 16.00 bus to Skopje in the Republic of Macedonia. There, for the first time on my journey, I will be tackling an anthology of short stories by a range of different native authors from different generations; I look forward to seeing what overall picture of the country these diverse voices will paint.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Leaving Turkey....

Well, the snows have melted, the roads are open and I find myself on the first train heading out of the remote city of Kars after three days' worth of events (which took me a month to read!).

This is an important point actually - the narrative of this book - for the most part - takes place over only three days (you can find a more detailed account of the plot itself in previous posts), yet while this might seem to imply this is a simple book it is, in fact, extremely complex with a multilayered plot which intertwines the wider concerns of religion and politics with the more individual issues of love, selfishness and difficulty of retaining moral integrity whilst pursuing personal happiness.

All of these themes are encapsulated in the central character - the poet Ka - and in his poems which he attempts to relate to the simple, yet complex, nature of a snowflake (reflecting the simple, yet complex, nature of the novel itself).

Orhan Panuk, the author of Snow, is an assured writer who has written a fascinating novel. He even appears as character himself, and whilst he denigrates his own art as a novelist as inferior to that of a poet, he achieves moments of poetry within his own narrative - especially in the hauntingly melancholic descriptions of the snowbound city of Kars itself.

Furthermore, Panuk is acutely aware of the fact that the East/West divisions of religion / politics which he describes also apply to literature. I shall quote a passage from Snow which is a dialogue between Panuk and a disillusioned Islamist student from Kars... this is about the novel (Snow) which Panuk is still in the process of writing at this point. The passage struck me as directly relevant to my trip around the world generally:- in selecting representative books for each country, I am only scratching the surface of each nation's culture, and caution should be taken in ever assuming one can truly learn about a culture from a single book - indeed no matter how many books about a nation one reads, one will always be reading and intepreting those works through one's own cultural background and assumptions. Anyway, Panuk illustrates this better than I can hope to, here is the passage in question:

Fazil (the former Islamic student): "If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I'd like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No-one could understand us from so far anyway".

"But no-one believes everything they read in a novel," I said.

"Oh, yes, they do believe it," he cried. "If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathise with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I've just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds."

A telling exchange and one which applies to anybody reading a book about others from outside of their own sphere of knowledge. This passage really struck me and I shall keep its message in mind for the duration of my journey around the world....

And so, after the long train journey from Kars, I shall disembark at Istanbul's main station, make my way hurriedly to the impressive Atatürk International Airport, and board an Bulgarian Air flight to Sofia, Bulgaria, for the next leg of my journey..."Natural Novel" by Georgi Gospodinov.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Still walking through the Snow in Turkey...

I am now about two thirds of the way through "Snow", the Turkish book on my journey.

What fascinates me about this book is its structure (as well as its hugely interesting characters and ideas). The book takes place over only 3 days of the protagonist (Ka)'s stay in the snowbound city of Kars, and this is reflected in the dense nature of the text itself. Furthermore, much of the narrative is currently taken up with the different views of a number of radical and moderate characters within Kars - Islamist, communist and secular - mostly involving an antipathy towards both the West and the central Turkish government. It is these religio-political debates which take precendence in the latter half of this book, whilst certain dramatic events (which I won't reveal for fear of spoiling the plot) are portrayed as almost secondary.

This could lead to a dry and inpenetrable work, yet it is quite the opposite, Orhan Panuk keeps the reader's interest by clearly showing the human side of the exponents of these - often contentious - views.

At the stage I have reached in this book, there is also an unexpected - and jarring - chapter, where Panuk himself appears to step in as a character in the novel itself, reflecting back on events following Ka's stay in Kars. Again, I cannot comment too much else I shall spoil the plot, but this brief chapter (the next chapter returns to the main narrative) gives a shocking new perspective to the events that precede and follow it...

What this demonstrates is that Panuk is a consumate writer who is able to anticipate and confound the expectations of his readers. In my opinion, he is also a writer who is able to articulate the concerns of his native homeland (which straddles Western Europe and the Islamist East) in a way which reflects the viewpoint of his fellow countrymen, yet which is also accessible to readers from outside of this perspective.

Given the current global "East/West divide" - as Governments and the media would have it - this work is especially pertinent in giving a human voice to the fragmented views of a nation which is uniquely placed to represent this wider schism, in microcosm.

I shall be finishing this book within the next week or so, and shall sum up my opinions once finished; but suffice to say I am pleased that I came across this novel at this stage on my journey.

One postscript to this blog: may I thank Deena Dajani, a follower of this trip from Jordan, for their encouraging and kind words, and suggestion for a representative work from Jordan. It is hugely encouraging to know that people from around the world are engaging with this project, and accompanying me on my online "journey" - and I really appreciate all suggestions and comments which I receive.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Snow in Turkey

As stated before, I am extremely impressed with this book ("Snow" by Orhan Pamuk); which - whilst seemingly straightforward in terms of plot - is actually multilayered on a number of personal, moral, religious and political levels - without hampering its smooth narrative. The story is thus:

Ka is a Turkish poet who spent 12 years as a political exile in Germany. His reasons for visiting the small Turkish town of Kars are twofold: curiosity about the rash of suicides by young girls in the town and a hope to reconnect with "the beautiful Ipek," whom he knew as a youth. But Kars is a tangle of poverty-stricken families, Kurdish separatists, political Islamists (including Ipek's spirited sister Kadife) and Ka finds himself making compromises with all in a desperate play for his own happiness. Ka encounters government officials, idealistic students, leftist theatre groups and the charismatic and perhaps terroristic Blue while trying to convince Ipek to return to Germany with him; each conversation pits warring ideologies against each other and against Ka's own weary melancholy. Pamuk (the author and narrator) himself becomes an important character, as he describes his attempts to piece together "what really happened" in the few days his friend Ka spent in Kars, during which snow cuts off the town from the rest of the world....

Pamuk's sometimes exhaustive conversations and descriptions create a stark picture of a little-known part of the world, where politics, religion and even happiness can seem alternately all-consuming and irrelevant. A detached tone and some dogmatic abstractions serve only to add to the novel's profound and moving tone.

I am currently only a third of the way through but shall update when I am nearer the end of this brilliant novel.

On a separate note I have recently had contact with Prince Regent Michael of Sealand (an abandoned military fort off the coast of the UK, which was claimed by former British Army Major Paddy Roy Bates in the 1960s and declared an independant nation). Whilst unrecognised by the UN, it has operated as a separate 'de facto' state ever since - even surviving an attempted coup (and kidnapping of Prince Regent Michael) and also exchanging fire with the Royal Navy on one occasion in the 1990s... I have added this state to my list, although as I have over 200 countries to visit before returning to UK waters it shall be some time before I get round to reading it. That said, it does show the diversity and complexity of the idea of 'statehood' that this exercise has shown up, and I express my thanks to the Prince Regent for his suggested work.

Monday, 19 October 2009

A divided island: "Ledra Street" in Cyprus

As I mentioned in my previous blog: this work is another set of short stories: 'Ledra Street'. However this work is set in divided Cyprus (i.e. divided between Greece and Turkey). The setting of Ledra Street is particularly interesting, as this is a street which is divided in two within Nicosia - which is itself a unique example of a city divided between the two states since the Turkish intervention in 1974.

As such, this setting forms an interesting bridge between Western and Eastern 'Europe'. Having now finished Greece's "I'd Like", I have to say I have some similar misgivings as with the previous work: i.e. the stories included are very well written and engaging, but they reveal more about the psyche of the author than the wider setting of Cyprus.

That said, the title story is a telling tale of the division of this country; and some of the early stories really hit home in depicting a country which is both accessible to modern European tourists yet singularly divided because of its recent history. The story "Guided Tour" is particularly telling here, revealing the innermost thoughts of a Cypriot tour guide showing a group of British tourists the dividing wall between between Turkish and Greek Crypus. For the tourists it is a photo opportunity; for the guide it is both a chore and a painful reminder of how her country is divided. Having been on such a tour myself as a British tourist, I found this particular story especially disconcerting.

I must say, however, that as the book progresses, Nora's satirical edge loses its sharpness; and the last few stories - which are much more experimental in form - seem to lose their political and cultural focus, becoming (as with the previous Greek set of short stories) more introspective and so less of an observation of contemporary Cyprus.

But that said, I am pleased to have come across this work; which I believe is generally representative of both the country and its current literary scene.

I should mention that these stories are all from the southern (i.e. Greek) part of Cyprus. I considered including a northern Cyprus work, but felt that as Turkey is next - and as much larger states such as Greece and Turkey themselves are only getting one representative book - this would be inappropriate for this site. I hope that choosing a work set in the divided city of Nicosia goes some way towards ameliorating this decision.

And so onto Turkey, with a recent work by Orhan Pamuk (the novel: "Snow") - a Turkish author who has deservedly gained success and accolades way beyond his native homeland - I have read the first couple of chapters and have to say I am hooked already. I shall post an update soon...

Monday, 12 October 2009

"I'd Like" Athens, Greece

I started this book of short stories called "I'd Like" late on Saturday and finished it early Monday, which probably tells you how much I enjoyed it.

As the author, Amanda Micalopoulou, states in her afterword, instead of a general anthology; she ended up writing "stories that would read like versions of an unwritten novel", and indeed they do. That is not to say that the stories themselves are not self-contained, they all are, but there is a - sometimes bewildering - series of motifs and themes that occur throughout this book (often of the visceral type: a red beret, a broken little finger, bloodied feet, theft from corpses etc). Yet this fragmentation works, especially as there is a central core of two sisters called Stella and Christiana who interlink this loose narrative (despite the timescales of the stories meaning that these cannot be the same characters throughout the book as a whole). And of course the other constant is the author herself (not necessarily Amanda herself) who pervades this works with a touching sense of self doubt about her own writing. That particular device reminded me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut's appearances in his own fiction (under his own pseudonym of Kilgore Trout).

I am probably making this book sound complex and difficult, and it isn't. The stories are honest, fresh and interesting, funny and poignant, - and the overall sense one gets is of a profound awareness of the shared human condition with just a glimpse of redemption (although the short story "Story for fools" puts that squarely in our own hands rather than any wider God).

My one gripe? Well, this is more about shedding light on being human, as opposed to being Greek! That said, there are some great descriptions of Greece both rural and urban, but at the end of the day this is a fascinating collection by a Greek author who demonstrates that - at least in a European context - our national psyches are not so different.

Which makes my next port of call particularly interesting. The work is another set of short stories by a female author: 'Ledra Street'. However this work is set in divided Cyprus (i.e. divided between Greece and Turkey). The setting of Ledra Street is particularly interesting, as this is a street which is divided in two within Nicosia - which is itself a unique example of a city divided between the two states since the Turkish intervention in 1974.

As such, this setting forms an interesting bridge between Western and Eastern 'Europe', (as well as a suitable destination en route to Turkey from Greece) and I shall update this blog once with my humble thoughts, once I have finished the book.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

From Vatican City to Malta

Well, I finished with the Vatican City on 2nd October and have to say my initial thoughts (as per my previous post) were borne out. I won't spoil things for those intending to read this, but it is probably fair to say that this worked - for me - much better as a means of gaining a sense of understanding the working of this tiny city-state, rather than shedding further light on the motives of the killings which form its main focus. With that proviso, I would certainly recommend it.

And so on to Malta...a tiny (but heavily populated) and sun-drenched archipelago in Southern Europe with strong historical links to the UK. I have never visited this place in person, and was very grateful to Margaret Callus (Assistant Librarian, National Library of Malta) who was very helpful in suggesting a suitable work.

The book suggested was 'Family Photos' by the native writer Petra Bianchi. I found this book interesting in that it follows two narratives - one set in 1861 and one in 2005, each involving families who are loosely connected. The purpose of this dual narrative seems to be to highlight the significant differences between these generations, and the sad fact that people in the contemporary age are often oblivious to, and antipathetic to, their own heritage. This is used here as a metaphor for the loss of heritage in Malta as a country - and the contrast between the rustic, communal settings of 1861 Valleta is stark in comparison with the Sliema of the 21st century, in which Malta appears to be in a state of constant flux and redevelopment; its skyline dominated by "towering cranes". This is reflected on a personal level by the character of Helen Manta, the matriarch of the contemporary family who is pressured to leave her family home for a modern apartment, as developers seek to turn her old house into... modern apartments.

As such, this book does give an interesting insight into modern Maltese life, although I feel the author has almost been too successful in highlighting the generational much of the book reads like two entirely different novels (set in 1861 and 2005 respectively), and there is not enough sense of linkage between these two. Furthermore, the plethora of characters who come and go can be hard to keep up with - especially in trying to work out generational linkages - and many of the chapters, especially the contemporary ones, are more isolated vignettes rather than sections that move the narrative along in a conventional sense, and plots and characters are often introduced and then discarded with no progression...

That said, this was probably the intention of the author - to highlight the gulf between contemporary society and its history, which is often sadly taken for granted and disregarded (and this is certainly not just true of Malta!). The strongest illustration of this idea here, are the 'Family Photos' of the title. One is led to expect that the modern day protagonist, Paul Manta - a journalist, will discover and connect with his heritage through these. The fact that this never really happens is the most striking illustration of the book's theme.

What this book did deliver was a sense of Malta as a country in a state of flux, a place of rapid modernisation which - whilst forging its own identity in C21st Europe - is perhaps in danger of losing a sense of shared history among its diverse inhabitants.

All in all, an enjoyable read and an insight not just into modern day Maltese family
life, but also its colonial history (of which I was sadly unaware... another example of how so many of us are sadly disengaged from our historical past).

Next: a trip across the water to Athens, Greece, with a selection of interlinked short stories ("I'd Like" by Amanda Michalopoulou).

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Vatican City

Well, I am two thirds of the way through my stint in the Vatican City.
As I was unable to find a book by a native author (hardly surprising in a tiny state with a population of 800 and a penchant for secrecy), I turned to John Follain's true account of a triple murder among the Holy See's Swiss Guard in 1998. The main event regards the murder of Col. Alois Estermann, commander of the Swiss Guards, the Vatican force that protects the pope, who was found shot dead in his apartment inside Vatican City, along with his wife. Also shot dead in the room was a young Swiss guardsman, Cedric Tornay. Three hours after the bodies were discovered, the Vatican released a statement naming Tornay as the killer, his motive a "fit of madness." Hmmm.

My impressions so far are that this has formed a useful insight into the inner workings of the Vatican, although Follaine is frustrated in really getting to the higher eschalons of this city-state; relying instead on a procession of second hand witnesses and - frankly - dubious contacts. I have not yet finished this book so cannot comment on his conclusions but he does seem to be drifting towards a general sense that the Vatican investigation jumped the gun and was sloppily done, but was probably not far from the truth - save for a supression of a possible homosexual relationship between Estermann and Tornay (hardly a journalistic coup: this IS the Vatican we are talking about).

Still, a well written insight into the workings and paranoia of both the Vatican City and the Swiss Guard (and I now finally know why this Roman enclave has guards exclusively from Switzerland!). I will sum my thoughts up when I finish, which will be in the next few days...after which I shall be heading to Malta.

I now have a full round the world route mapped out, and am continuing to seek future destinations. You can find these listed at: - any suggestions for filling in the blanks, or comments on my chosen books are more than welcome!

Saturday, 26 September 2009

San Marino - a brief visit

Firstly, I should acknowledge Mr Colin Leckey from Lancaster, an who individual took it upon himself to visit the 7 smallest locations of Europe and - in doing this - saved me from a huge headache in having no representation of San Marino during my sojourn in Italy.

Colin's book is a very worthwhile tome if you can find it (Grosvenor House Publishing books are more available online than in Waterstones). His book basically does what it says on the tin - he is an English guy visiting Europe's five smallest states and 2 self-governing territories, and is very eloquent in doing so (although with - perhaps overly-high - English expectations of service!).

As for San Marino.. well, due to a quirk of weather during Colin's visit it remained shrouded in fog and his over-riding impression in the gloom was of a plethora of tourist shops, although he made a spirited attempt to circumnavigate the citidel's towers in the gloom...I note that this was the shortest chapter in the book and get a sense that Coin did not really engage with the place. Which is not a criticism of Mr Leckey - indeed I get a sense from other research that San Marino is not interested in engaging itself with outsiders as a tourist trap as, say, Monaco does...which no doubt explains why its entry in my global trip is restricted to a single chapter in a book by an English foreigner!

I shall leave the summary of this tiny state to Mr Leckey: "The streets of San Marino town are twisting and narrow, and if you were to scrunch up your eyes and allow your thoughts to wander a little, you could imagine life here in medieval times, the landscape not having changed all that much down the centuries. Eye-scrunching and thought-wandering are very necessary, however, as... contemporary San Marino is overwhelmingly the preserve of tourists, shopping for keepsakes from an astonishingly large number of souvenir shops. There scarely seemed to be any other shops at all, just mile after mile of emporia stocking all kinds of tourist tat."

Oh well. At least this account is nearer than I've ever got to the City State in the flesh, and its location within Italy led neatly on to an equally landlocked and locked-off state on my journey: the Vatican City.

Again, Colin never really got anywhere near to this tiny state; but let's face it - that is the experience of most tourists... And his chapter on the City also formed a nice introduction to the "Vatican City: City Of Secrets" book by John Follain.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Leaving Italy.... well sort of.....!!

I have finished my Italian visit today, i.e: "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana" by Umberto Eco.

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.. to be fair this was more about WWII-era Italy (through the memories of a 21st century Milanese bookseller in a coma) but I cannot complain. If this is - as reports suggest - the last ever novel by Umberto Eco, then I am delighted that it came along at just the right time to represent Italy.

Of course Italy is a bit more complex than that! It also emcompasses two of Europe's tiniest states: San Marino and the Vatican City...

I was really struggling to find a representative work for San Marino and was very lucky to come across a book called "Dots on the Map" - a book by a certain Lancastrian called Colin Leckey, who travelled recently to the 7 smallest states of Europe.

Having finished with Italy I was delighted to have this tome to allow me to travel on to San Marino... though I also made the effort to read the chapters on my previously visited "Andorra" and "Monaco" countries; and found both of these chapters added a huge amount to my knowledge gleamed from the books relating to these countries that I read earlier on in my travels.

This book is a very engaging travelogue and - as well as being the sole representation of San Marino - it will serve as an additional resource to the later small 'states' I intend to visit (Vatican City, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands)

In fact, without the inspiration of this book, Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands would not have featured in my list of places to visit, so many thanks to Colin for that also!

I'll catch up after my sojourn in San Marino!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Thank you to the National Library of Estonia

Just a quick note to give thanks to the National Library of Estonia - in particular Mari Kannusaar (Chief Specialist, International Relations) and Maire Liivamets (Maire Liivamets, Literary Consultant) - who kindly replied to my request for a representative book for Estonia - which obviously has a thriving literary movement.

They have suggested a number of interesting books and as a result I have a shortlist for Estonia, which I will decide on nearer my time of arrival there on my tour...I am looking forward to it!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Still in Italy!

Just an update to let you know that I'm still here!
Well, still in Italy for the purposes of this blog...although the amnesiac protagonist has moved from Milan to his childhood home in Solara to try to reconstruct his lost memories through the eclectic literature of his childhood.

Along the way we find out as much about the schizophrenic nature of life in fascist / monarchist life in Italy during WWII, as his own personal life...

I have to say it is fascinating for me personally as, whilst I was taught the usual British / US / French / German perspectives of the second world war, I have never really had an insight into the Italian experience... and Eco is an ideal writer to sensitively introduce one to the human experience of these dark times..

Also, his narrative device of a 21st century individual delving through his 30s/40s mementoes is a highly effective way of examining modern Italy in the light of how the events of 50 years ago shaped ideal choice to represent Italy on this trip, in my opinion.

And I have good news re: San Marino! No native writer has emerged I'm afraid, however I have found a very useful little book called "Dots on the Map" by UK writer Colin Leckey who travelled to Europe's five smallest states (Liechtenstein, San Marino, the Vatican City, Monaco and Andorra), and two smallest self-governing territories (the Faroe Islands and Gibraltar).
As a result I now have a representative text for San Marino and shall add the Faroe Islands & Gibraltar to my journey. I have already been through Andorra & Monaco, and I have books lined up for the other states listed; but I shall read the chapters from this book alongside those works, and will make a retrospective note on the relevant sections on this blog...

Still struggling to find a book for Montenegro though!!

Friday, 28 August 2009

Thanks to Cvetka Bevc - head of the office, Slovene Writers' Association

Following an enquiry to the Slovene Writers' Association recently, a package arrived on my desk today, containing a book (Fuzine Blues), by contemporary Slovene writer Andrej Skubic.

This was sent to me free of charge and I am very grateful for the generostiy shown by Cvetka in taking the time to send this. Thank you and I look forward to reviewing it when I 'arrive' in Slovenia!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Still in Italy. An update and some thanks...

As I thought, "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana" is a fantastic read. Umberto Eco is a wonderful author, capable of combining complex characters with fascinating storylines that defy the categorisation of genres... I have just finished part one and am hooked! Also, some nice descriptions of Milan which remind me of time spend there...If he is true to his word and does not write another novel, we shall all be the poorer for it.

I also am looking ahead to future countries (as some do not have an established literary canon I thought it prudent to plan ahead...). In my current searches I wish to thank, for their generosity of time and advice (and, in some cases ,donating books!), the following:

Charlotte Knight (David Godwin Associates) - re: Montenegro
Pascal Seil - Conservateur-stagiaire, Centre national de littérature, Luxembourg
Cvetka Bevc - head of the office, Slovene Writers' Association
Gordana Zivkovic - re: Macedonia
Vesko - webmaster,

Again, thanks to all of the above.
However, I must restate my concern that I have no viable books for San Marino (which is not far away now!) or Montenegro... any suggestions welcome!!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

...and on to Italy

Well, I have finished with Monaco.
I have to say, I won't miss the place - all seemed a bit phony and lightweight; and I must admit my guide - Robert Westgate - was not the most sympathetic of characters. Still, provided light relief after Portugal!

Am now in Italy, in the company of Umberto Eco's latest protagonist: a Milanese antiquarian bookseller who has suffered an obscure medical condition resulting in a coma - having come out of this he has lost all personal memories except the books that he has read over his lifetime. He therefore sets about trying to reconstruct his life through his literary memories.

I have to say, I am only a few pages in but am really enjoying this book - I find this a really fascinating premise and, coupled with one of my favourite authors, I am really looking forward to my Italian trip!

A sad rumour is that Eco has stated this will be his last ever novel! A shame, as I rate 'The Name of the Rose' and 'Foucault's Pendulem' as among my favourite novels... still , I am pleased that this work has come along at just the right time to represent Italy in my travels...!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Thank you to the National Library of Serbia

Within 24 hours of an email query regarding a suitable entry for Serbia on my list, I received a very comprehensive list of potential books from Mrs Vesna Injac-Malbasa,
Deputy Director of the National Library of Serbia.

So:- due thanks to Mrs Vesna Injac-Malbasa for taking the time to respond with a really useful and well-considered set of suggestions

Monday, 17 August 2009

Sipping tequilas in Monaco...

Well, it's 17th August and I have finally left Portugal after a rather long and (I have to say) intense stay! The Portuguese book 'What Can I Do When Everything Is On Fire?' is undoubtedly a triumph of the stream-of-consciousness format (and of translation!) - but it was hard going at times due to that format and also due to the nature of its subject matter (death, suicide, mental illness, drug addiction etc).
I would recomend it but you should be in the right frame of mind - and with time set aside to plough through its 600+ pages - before starting.
I won't spoil the ending but suffice to say after that I was hoping for a spot of light relief in the sunny climes of swanky Monaco...

....and I got it! Robert Westgate's account of his year's sojourn in Monaco is a pleasant, undemanding snapshot of the place and its (mostly ex-pat) inhabitants. His views of Monaco, and the neighbouring European countries he takes trips over to, are a little overly cynical sometimes. One gets the sense that he is aiming for the American-abroad aloofness of Hemingway (an obvious hero of his) but he ends up sounding a bit crabby and petty at times..

Still, pleasant enough company for a short book to represent this small country. In fact it could have done with a bit of fleshing out, as some interesting characters are introduced but then dropped with alarming brevity. The cover notes state that Westgate is working on a onvel about Monaco, and this book reads like the hastily published manuscript notes for that - but as I say, the book is entertaining and undemanding, if a little overpriced:- a bit like Monaco itself!!

I have another 50 pages and then its over the Ligurian Sea to Italy in the company of Umberto Eco (first stop Milan)! See you there!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Now up to date, still in Portugal

Thought it was time for an update on my journeys... I am about 1/3 through the Portuguese leg of my journey ("What Can I Do When Everything Is On Fire?" by Antonio Lobo Antunes) which - whilst challenging - is a fascinating read. As I mentioned before, it is a stream-of-consciousness novel (and so I have had a few flashbacks to traumatic times having to plough through Joyce's 'Ulysses' as an English degree student!) but this really is a novel which stands on its own in this genre.

For me, the main positive is that Antunes does not mollycoddle the reader - he writes his scenarios and makes us work to interpret them (although he does provide a - very useful - dramatis personae at the start of the book to document the many major and minor characters who appear during the novel).

For me, reading the stream of consciousness (SOC) form is almost like getting used to an unfamiliar dialiect...we are not used to reading this type of wording; but the same can be said of Shakespeare's mannered English, or Irvine Welsh's extreme Scottish dialect... after a while of immersing yourself in it, you get used to it. In fact, I suspect I think it will take me a while to get used to 'conventional literature' after reading this work (and make no mistake - my next book on my travels will be a literary holiday after this*!).

My one gripe? Well, the SOC format is - without doubt - highly effective in allowing the author to take us into the minds and innermost workings of his protagonists. However, in terms of my world journey I feel that this is, in a major way, at the expense of appreciating the wider surroundings and context in which these characters operate. I wanted a candid view of Lisbon from this work and - whilst the blurb promised an insight into the denizens and environs of Lisbon city's underworld - to be honest this playing out of human tragedy could be happening anywhere in any major city in the world. So, whilst a heartening deomnstration that Portuguese literature is alive and kicking, this is not - for me - an insight into contemporary Portuguese society... (at least so far: to be fair I have 2/3 of the book to go so may well reassess my views!)

More updates on this later.. meantime can I just:

a) re-state my plea for a work to represent San Marino..despite appealing to numerous libraries and government departments in San Marino there appears to be no literature to represent this state on my travels. Shame.
b) Also, I wish to thank Magor Bookshop in Macedonia - I have a series of short stories by author Igor Isakovski (Sandglass) lined up for my Macedonian leg but would like a published work for my bookshelf also. I have found a work of English translated short stories from Macedonia - including Igor's work - entitled "Change To The System". The editor, Richard Gaughran, kindly replied that he no longer had a copy - however I have contacted the Magor Bookshop in Skopje who, though out of stock, have offered to look for a spare copy for me! I will keep you posted on progress.

Well, that's me for now - any comments, suggestions, feedback more than welcome as ever!

* my next book is "Monaco Cool" by Robert Westgate

A recollection of France - and then I'm up to date in Portugal!

Okay, so I am still in Portugal as expected,:- this is a long and involved novel (see below posts for details) but I am really enjoying it! I have always had a soft spot for Portugal based on previous, actual, visits, so do not mind my literary travels keeping me here a while.

BUT, as mentioned, I need to use my time tarrying here to catch up on my early stage travels... you will find my ports-of-call in England, Andorra and Spain below but I need to update on my second stage visit in France..

This was a book called "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery. On a selfish level, I think it was appropriate that my first stage trip around the world was from London to Paris (and as it happened I was on the Eurostar train through Paris on a short holiday as I was reading the French book!).

As to the book itself, well I will leave it's well-deserved positive review to the following from

"Renée is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building on the Left Bank. To the residents she is honest, reliable and uncultivated an ideal concierge. But Renée has a secret. Beneath this conventional façade she is passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, Renée is resigned to living a lie, with only visits from her one friend Manuela to break the monotony. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the predictably bourgeois future laid out for her, and plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. But before this happens, the death of one of their privileged neighbours will bring dramatic change to number 7, Rue de Grenelle, altering the course of both their lives forever. With sales of over a million copies in French, this funny, moving and wise novel is now an international publishing sensation. "

Friday, 3 July 2009

Some thanks - and a call for help!

Just before I return to detailing my journey, I wanted to say some thankyous.
An amazing - and unexpected - part of trip has not just been the great literature to date, but the help that I have received from various institutions and individuals from around the world, in response to my requests for help. In pursuing my travels through places with works not often translated into English, I have had the help and support of the following;

Igor Isakovski (Macedonian poet & author, and founder of the Macedonian cultural instiution: Blesok)
Immanuel Mifsud (Maltese author)
Antonis Maratheftis (Director, Cyprus Library)
Margaret Callus (Assistant Librarian, National Library of Malta)
Adam Abdi (Somalian author)
Adrian Mamo (Chairman of the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts)

Thanks all for your time.
Conversely, I am struggling for suggestions for two of Europe's smaller states - despite applications to their various government / cultural departments and libraries I have had no response... these are San Marino and the Vatican City. I have an idea for the Vatican (a late nineties work by a correspondent based in Rome - so not a native writer - an investigation into a true life murder case within the Swiss Guards... rather subjective but at least it's not Dan Browne!), but am absolutely stuck on San Marino. All I can find are historic books and travel guides, which are not appropriate. Any thoughts welcome!!

PS: review of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog", the French leg of journey to follow, I will then commence from Portugal.

...still in Portugal, so: time to catch up on the start of my journey (London)...

The Portugal leg of my journey, as mentioned, will take a while I think - it is a 600+ stream-of-consciousness novel set in Lisbon - albeit one which I am very much enjoying... that said I will look forward to a more relaxing spell in Monaco after that!

Also, it does give me chance to recap on the first 2 stages of my journey, which I completed before starting this blog.

I started in London, England (for the purposes of this trip I am splitting the UK into its 4 constituent countries), my home country; with Tarquin Hall's "Salaam Brick Lane". This book should not be confused with the popular novel called "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali, although it is set in the same part of London, currently known for its large Bangladeshi population. The author of this work returned to the UK from abroad after 10 years and found himself spending a year in a tiny bedsit in the East End of London...

The reason I chose this is that - living near and working in London, I get a real sense of the city as a place of real diversity and cosmopolitanism - not only in the modern day but historically. At one stage the author meets an Indian anthropoligist who is searching for the 'true' English EastEnder and who is appalled to find that there are no residents who can trace their pure Englishness beyond a generation or two... and this I think, sums up a very key element of 'Englishness' (and why Englishness is so hard to define) - the English are a mongrol race that have always incorporated other cultures and will no doubt continue to do so. Tarquin Hall acknowledges this as a key strength of our culture, and also - being an upper-class public-school educated graduate who grew up in 'posh' West London - demonstrates how prejudice can just as easily be experienced across CLASS in England, as RACE. The fact that his girlfriend who joins him in his 'bijou' bedsit (mistakenly) expecting a city of glitz and glamour is an Indian-born American, adds to this wide perspective of class and culture.

The book itself is an enjoyable read, with a series of interesting - and often tragi-comic -characters such as his landlord Mr Ali - "an unlikely mixture of South Asian and Estuary", and his Albanian neighbours. This is narrative non-fiction in the vein of Bill Bryson(with aspirations to Paul Theroux), and I'd recommend it as a taste of how London is perceived and experienced by its own residents.

A particularly striking part of the book is the description of the author's many hours spent gazing out of his attic window at a bagel store across the street. In the space of 24 hours a whole cross section of London drifts into its doors without ever meeting... cleaners in the early hours, builders later on, commuters grabbing breakfast at rush hour, tramps & beggars during the day, clubbers in the evening and prostitutes & drug dealers throughout the night. A whole panorama of interlinked humanity that combine to make up London, yet move in very different worlds - all intersecting at a humble bagel store in Brick Lane.

It may seem unusual that I didn't pick a novel for this first leg, however I believe England has a culture of socio-realism in literature (such as George Orwell's travel writings) which this book reflects, and, to be honest, I am not convinced there are that many worthy novellists at the moment who are dealing with indigenous topics and settings. I plan to wrap up my journey (after another 214 countries) back in England, and am thinking that I will end it somewhere other than London to give a flavour of the wider country...London is such a unique city it really is a mini-city state on its own... I hope to be to find a suitable fiction writer my at trip at this time (which will no doubt be several years away!).

Next stop was France and a rather nice luxury apartment in Paris... I shall cover this in my next post.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Andorra: A Great Novel set in a Small Nation

There's something not quite right about Peter Cameron's “Andorra” - the place, not the novel, that is. It is a Mediterranean coastal town, for one thing, unlike the actual landlocked principality in the Pyrenees. It's also full of preposterously named residents (Sophonsobia Quay, Vladimir Afgroni, etc.) who take an unsettling interest in the newcomer in their midst: an American fleeing a failed life shrouded in mystery. Reading like a collision between Noël Coward and Franz Kafka, this recently reissued 1997 novel may be Cameron's masterpiece.

After a devastating personal tragedy, a man leaves the United States to begin his life abroad. The country in which he finds himself is inordinately influenced by his imagination, and the events there are eerily reminiscent of his past, especially when he begins to fall in love with two women simultaneously.

Andorra - in this novel - is a small country, populated (almost exclusively) by the ancient Mrs. Reinhardt, who outlives her lifetime lease on the penthouse of the Hotel Exelsior; the Dents, an Australian couple who share a first name, a huge dog, and a secret. There is also Sophonsobia Quay, the kayaking matriarch of the powerful Quay family; her two beautiful but troubled daughters; Esmeralda St. Pitt, who runs a boarding-house for those with impeccable moral credentials; Ali, the fatalistic purveyor of coffee; and Alexander Fox, who finds himself not only in a foreign country but also in a crisis of faith, conscience, and identity.

Of course, this is no travelogue for the actual country of Andorra, but - having decided on this book in the absence of any native literature (and to be fair, this is a state with a population of only 84,000) – I am pleased with my choice. As well as being a wonderful read, “Andorra” demonstrates the fact that minor countries (in terms of size or literary/educational resources) - without known indigenous writers – are open to the danger of having their cultural reality purloined by foreign authors...sometimes for socio-political reasons. This is not necessarily the case in this instance, but will be something to consider when travelling to developing countries in Asia and Africa.

And so, from an ambiguous country, I take an ambiguous journey to end up in Madrid, in the neighbouring country of Spain: with “My Brother’s Gun” set in Madrid, by popular native author Ray Loriga.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

A Very French Society: Philosophy meets Commonality in an elegant Parisian apartment.

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.”

My second port of call is Paris, France, with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by native author Muriel Barbery. This novel was a literary sensation both in France and abroad, selling over half a million copies, and I was eager to see if it lived up to the hype…

The first narrator, Renee Michel, is a fifty-four-year-old woman who has been working for twenty-seven years as concierge of a small Parisian apartment building. Describing herself as a “proletarian autodidact,” she explains that she grew up poor and had to quit school at age twelve to work in the fields, but throughout her life she has been studying philosophy secretly, insatiable in her quest for knowledge about who she is and how she fits into the grand scheme of life.

Renee is grateful for her job as concierge, but she finds it prudent to keep her rich intellectual life hidden from the residents. Because she has no other future, she maintains the façade of the perfect concierge, someone who lives in a completely different world from them. She hides her books and even buys two TVs, keeping them turned on so that the residents will regard her as a typical, TV-watching employee.
Alternating with Renee’s thoughts about her life and the books she has been reading, are the musings of Paloma Josse, the twelve-year-old daughter of wealthy parents whose father is Minister of the Republic and whose mother, with a PhD in education, has an active professional life. Like Renee, Paloma pretends to be just average, carefully constructing her own façade so that she can fit in at school, though she has the intellectual level of a senior in college. With an older sister who torments her, Paloma is a child who has fallen through the cracks, ignored by her parents and within the school society in which she must pretend every day to be just average, a terrible strain. She has decided that on her thirteenth birthday, she will take the only path open to her: she will commit suicide, burning down her house at the same time.

She has, however, given herself an “out.” She believes that beauty can elevate humans, and she is seeking “whatever is beautiful enough to give life meaning…If I find something, then I may rethink my options: if I find a body with beautiful movement or, failing that, a beautiful idea for the mind, well then maybe I’ll think that life is worth living.”

As the lives of Renee and Paloma unfold and sometimes overlap, the rough parallels in their lives become obvious, not just in their isolation and in their need to hide their talents but in the motifs that the author establishes. Nature and its concern with moments of perfect beauty, life, and death pervade the novel. In one hilariously ironic variation of this theme, Neptune, a dog who lives in the apartment house, is observed by both Renee and Paloma as he discovers kairos, “the perfect moment” — when he mates vigorously with the whippet belonging to another resident, to the horror of the stodgy residents.

When one of the residents dies and his family decides to sell the apartment to a new owner, the novel reaches its turning point. Kakuro Ozu, whom Renee thinks may be related to the Japanese film maker that she most admires, moves in. Paloma, too, is impressed with Ozu, bemoaning the fact that he has moved in just as she has decided to kill herself. When Ozu confesses to Paloma that he suspects that Mme. Michel (Renee) is not what she seems to be, his relationship with Renee and with Paloma begins to cross the class divide at the apartment house, and Paloma begins to hope for the future.

Barbery is a skilled writer with a great ability to combine the philosophy of Renee’s studies—from Husserl’s phenomenology, to determinism and Kant’s idealism—with aesthetics and the desire of both Renee and Paloma to find true beauty in art, poetry, and life itself. Always, however, she remembers that she is writing a story, with characters who must appeal to the reader. As Renee and Ozu become friends and as Paloma begins to identify with them and share confidences with Ozu, all change their views of who they are and what their lives might be.

By the time the novel ends, the reader understands both the characters and the forces that have made them the people they are, hoping at the same time that all will manage to find happiness. Motifs from Japanese film and the novels of Tolstoy combine with images celebrating the perennial beauty of flowers (especially the camellia) and the connection of beauty with death, adding universality to the stories of these characters and connecting them to broader themes. Thoughtful, ironic, and often darkly humorous, the novel creates moods which bring the characters vividly to life, even as they are contemplating the deepest of life’s mysteries.

All in all, a fascinating representation for France. Despite its cutesy air of chocolate-box Paris, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is, in fact, quite radical in its stand against French classism and hypocrisy. It's intriguing that her compatriots have bought into it so enthusiastically…

I now leave France for the tiny country of Andorra….sort of. Whilst Andorra is, in fact, a tiny nation-state that lies, landlocked, in the mountainous region between France and Spain; the novel of “Andorra” by Peter Cameron is on the ocean. Similarly the capital city of La Plata does not, in reality, exist. That said, I am pleased with my choice: though by a non-native writer and (quite intentionally by the author) bearing little resemblance to the actual Andorran topography, Peter Cameron's book is highly entertaining and also perfectly demonstrates the elusive nature of such tiny countries and how - without known indigenous writers - their actual reality can become purloined by foreign authors...

In detailing the journey from Paris to this fictionalised version of Andorra, I shall quote Cameron’s own fictional account the protagonist’s arrival:
“Andorra’s dramatic topography makes it unapproachable by air, so I arrived vuia train from Paris…I like to arrive in new places by train. There is something about literally crossing borders, traversing frontiers, watchnig the countryside hurtle by the window and become exurban, and then the gradual diminution of speed as the train approaches a city, that allows one to arrive with an experience of place that flying disallows.

“Andorra is a small country and her city – for there is only one: the capital, La Plata – is proportionately small. The train station at which I found myself was not the chaotic grand temple one expects in European cities, but simply several glass-roofed platforms separated by as many tracks, a whitewashed waiting room with worn wicker furniture and a ceiling fan that rotated at a speed that succeed only in proving that it was operational.”

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Salaam to the World on the start of my epic journey: Bricking it in London!

And so after all the research and planning I am finally starting my global journey - which I commence with a mixture of excitement but also trepidation: this is a long-haul journey which will take several years and I hope I am up to the task!

The starting point for my trip is London, in my home country of England (for the purposes of this trip I am splitting the UK into its 4 constituent countries) with Tarquin Hall's "Salaam Brick Lane". This book should not be confused with the popular novel called "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali, although it is set in the same part of London, currently known for its large Bangladeshi population. The author of this work returned to the UK from abroad after 10 years and found himself spending a year in a tiny bedsit in the East End of London...

The reason I chose this novel is that - living near and working in London, I get a real sense of the city as a place of diversity and cosmopolitanism - not only in the modern day but historically. An amusing example of this is where at one stage the author meets an Indian anthropologist who is searching for the 'true' English East Ender and who is appalled to find that there are no residents who can trace their pure Englishness beyond a generation or two... and this I think, sums up a very key element of 'Englishness' (and why Englishness is so hard to define) - the English are a mongrel race that have always incorporated other cultures and will no doubt continue to do so. Tarquin Hall acknowledges this as a key strength of our culture, and also - being an upper-class public-school educated graduate who grew up in 'posh' West London - demonstrates how prejudice can just as easily be experienced across CLASS in England, as RACE. The fact that his girlfriend who joins him in his 'bijou' bedsit (mistakenly) expecting a city of glitz and glamour is an Indian-born American, adds to this wide perspective of class and culture.

The book itself is an enjoyable read, with a series of interesting - and often tragicomic - characters such as his landlord Mr Ali - "an unlikely mixture of South Asian and Estuary", and his Albanian neighbours. This is narrative non-fiction in the vein of Bill Bryson (with aspirations to Paul Theroux), and I'd recommend it as a taste of how London is perceived and experienced by its own residents.

A particularly striking part of the book is the description of the author's many hours spent gazing out of his attic window at a bagel store across the street. In the space of 24 hours a whole cross section of London drifts into its doors without ever meeting... cleaners in the early hours, builders later on, commuters grabbing breakfast at rush hour, tramps and beggars during the day, clubbers in the evening and prostitutes & drug dealers throughout the night. A whole panorama of interlinked humanity that combine to make up London, yet move in very different worlds - all intersecting at a humble bagel store in Brick Lane.

It may seem unusual that I didn't pick a novel for this first leg, however I believe England has a culture of socio-realism in literature (such as George Orwell's travel writings) which this book reflects, and, to be honest, I am not convinced there are that many worthy novelists at the moment who are dealing with indigenous topics and settings. I plan to wrap up my journey (after several hundred intervening countries) back in England..., which I shall be splitting up further into regions. I hope to be to find suitable writers to end my trip at this time (which will no doubt be several years away!).

Next stop is France and a rather nice luxury apartment in Paris with the best-selling “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. Compared no doubt, to future journeys, my trip from London to Paris is both cheap and comfortable.

I purchase a one-way standard ticket online for a mere £39, leaving London at 8.02 in the morning from the hugely impressive St Pancras International station. St Pancras International is a triumph of nineteenth century station architecture and one of the wonders of London. The newer elements are just as impressive: below the magnificent curved glass ceiling, a nine-metre high sculpture of lovers meeting beneath the station clock watches diners in an excellent restaurant and a the longest champagne bar in Europe. Also there's a great range of independent, upmarket shops to browse through.

The train itself is comfortable and air-conditioned with food and drink available from a café bar, and the journey is just over three hours; arriving at 11.17 in Paris’ Gard du Nord: another impressive historic station that has recently benefitted from a major refurbishment. I shall update you on my French sojourn in the next post!

My Round the World trip through books begins!

Welcome to my journey!
This is the first post on a blog that will chart my journey on a Round the World trip through literature... which commences May 22nd 2009.
I am travelling the globe through literature (fiction and narrative non-fiction), starting in London, England.

I have mapped out a route around the world, as well as a book (or books for larger countries) to represent each nation that I am travelling to.

Just so you know, my constraints are:
1) Book must be fiction or narrative non-fiction (i.e. not a Lonely Planet-type Travel Guide) written by a native-born author* and set in the country of origin;
2) Book must not have been written, or be set, any earlier than 1990;
3) Books must be translated into English (or French at a push) - sorry, was never that good at languages...
4) Travel from one country / continent to another must be realistic (i.e. from one neighbouring country to another - such as France to Spain - or between landmasses which have an actual air/shipping route - e.g. Australia to Antarctica to Argentina:- a planned part of my trip much later on);
5) Books must be reasonably representative of the country - with a certain degree of cultural / social representation etc - even if this is as a background to a wider plot... what I am after is a sense of the country in question in recent times...

* where absolutely necessary I will go with a suitable non-native author.

Well, there you go, just to give you an example:- my first port of call will be in my native England. My first choice was "Salaam Brick Lane" - a narrative non-fiction by a public-school-educated Londoner who returned from 10 years abroad to live in the modern East End, and so incorporating an interesting breadth of class, as well as cultural, diversity in contemporary England.

Any further comments / suggestions more than welcome - either on this blog or at: