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.