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).