The Read The World Project

READ THE WORLD – Angola: Transparent City by Ondjaki

Translated by Stephen Henighan and narrated by Sam Peters.

In a crumbling apartment block in the Angolan city of Luanda, families work, laugh, scheme, and get by. In the middle of it all is the melancholic Odonato, nostalgic for the country of his youth and searching for his lost son. As his hope drains away and as the city outside his doors changes beyond all recognition, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless.

While the blurb focuses on Odonato, really Transparent City is an ensemble book as it follows the many people who live in the apartment block who have connections to it, whether that’s the postman or local politicians and tax inspectors. The male characters are the focus though, with the female characters being cooks, wives, mothers, secretaries and objects of the men’s sexual desire. It’s the men who have pseudo-narrative arcs

Transparent City is such a weird story. There’s the magical realism aspect with Odonato. He slowly becomes more transparent and weightless as he misses his son and he lose hope of seeing him again, or of seeing his city how it used to be. That part, while odd is understandable. It’s a lot of the other things going on with the characters that is confusing and farcical. Confrontations and conversations appear to go around in circles, as they do their best to befuddle whoever they’re talking to with rhetorical questions and agreeing to disagree. It feels like there’s little point to their actions and it’s difficult to gage whether the outcome is in their favour or not.

What is clear in Transparent City is that money talks in Angola and those who have it can pretty much do whatever they want. There’s also corruption and violence. The police will only help people if they are bribed, and the politicians are far removed from the everyday issues an average person may have. There are sparks of goodness and community though. The people who live in the apartment block help each other out, for the most part, and will give what they can to those who need.

I listened Transparent City on audio and to be honest, I found it a struggle to get through. I think that was mostly down to the narrator. There’s a lot of characters in this book, both male and female, and he doesn’t do anything with his voice to differentiate between the characters when they’re talking, or when he’s narrating the narrative. It makes it difficult to follow the story and to distinguish who is who. Also, I think how the book is formatted influences that too as there’s no chapters, instead there’s what I presume to be line breaks when the story goes from one characters point of view to another, but that’s hard to pick up on when listening to the audiobook.

It’s a shame that I didn’t get along with the audiobook, and maybe if I’d physically read the book I might have been able to understand it better, but I do think Transparent City didn’t work for me for reasons beyond the narrator. There often seemed little point to characters actions, and the story itself didn’t seem to have a beginning, middle or end. It was hard to become attached to any of the characters, and there may be somethings in term of the culture and politics of Angola that I didn’t understand or get deeper meanings of, but I should’ve been able to follow the story a lot better than I did.

READ THE WORLD – Taiwan: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Translated by Bonnie Huie and narrated by Jo Mei.

Afflicted by her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman who is alternately hot and cold toward her, Lazi turns for support to a circle of friends that includes the devil-may-care, rich-kid-turned-criminal Meng Sheng and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover Chu Kuang, as well as the bored, mischievous overachiever Tun Tun and her alluring slacker artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.

Set in the late 1980s, Lazi is at university in Taipei but the focus of Notes of a Crocodile are her romantic endeavours and how she tries to open herself up to love. Lazi is quite reserved when it comes to love, and it’s like she gets to a certain point in a relationship and then becomes shut off and terrified about whether she has the capacity to continue to love someone.

Lazi is an interesting character because it’s like she’s searching for love and security but is also fiercely independent. It’s how those two sides of her conflict feels very relatable. She also ponders gender and sexuality, the feminine and the masculine, and where she fits within those binaries and if she even wants to fit in them.

A lot of the conversations she has with her friends are about love and how people feel about themselves and others. Notes of a Crocodile probably has the most communicative characters I’ve seen in a book in a while. There’s still instances where Lazi or her friends don’t find the right words to say at the right time, or she talks to a friend rather than to the person who is breaking her heart, but at least they’re talking and trying to figure out their feelings.

Interspersed in the main narrative, there’s the story of the crocodile – a semi-human creature that the general human population of Taiwan are simultaneously intrigued by and scared of. The crocodile is a metaphor for queer people in Taiwan and how they were treated, and how they can feel isolated and unlovable. It took a while for me to understand these crocodile-segments and how they fit with the story and how they related to what Lazi was going through.

I listened to Notes of a Crocodile on audio and I think the narrator did a good job even though the story was a bit disjointed. A lot of the chapters end abruptly, and sometimes the narrative jumps back and forth in time so sometimes Lazi is with Shui Ling, other times she’s over her, and then sometimes she’s still coming to terms with their relationship ending. Then there’s her friend’s various relationships that you see at different points too. It’s a bit confusing but the main theme throughout is finding somewhere to belong and a lot of heartbreak.

Notes of a Crocodile was an interesting read about a time, place and culture that I knew little about. Lazi is an interesting, flawed and sometimes infuriating character but that makes her feel more real. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tibet: Love in No Man’s Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga

Translated by Hallie Treadway.

The Changthang Plateau lies in the centre of Tibet. A vast, rolling grassland stippled with azure-blue lakes and ringed by snow peaks, it is home to seven-year-old Gongzha and his family who live, as their ancestors have done for centuries, by herding and hunting. But it is 1967 and the Cultural Revolution is seeping across China. Not even the grasslands of Tibet are immune. As the Red Guard systematically loot and destroy Tibet’s monasteries, Gongzha helps hide two treasures belonging to his local temple: an ebony-black Buddha marked with an ancient symbol and a copy of the twelfth-century text the Epic of King Gesar, written in gold ink. The repercussions of his act will echo across the decades.

Love in No Man’s Land is a sprawling epic that goes from the 1960s to the 1990s. In that time, you see how life for the families who live on the grassland of Tibet change a lot, but at the same time they still keep a lot of their traditions and history. For instance, even though roads and cars start to become more common, there’s still so many places where modern civilisation hasn’t touched it and people still live how their ancestors did before them.

The writing in Love in No Man’s Land is beautiful and evocative. It really paints a vivid picture of both the harshness of the vast grasslands but also the beauty of them too. With the mountains and lakes, the wild animals (wolves, yaks, antelope and bears all play a big part), and the changing weather, it all feels so magical and far-removed from “the real world”.

Love (as you might guess from the books title) is a big theme of this book. Gongzha has a childhood sweetheart, he loves his family and he’s respectful of the grassland and the creatures who live there. He has a big heart and seeing him deal with tragedy from a young age (death and violence are not uncommon in the communities he is a part of) and how that shapes him is interesting.

As well as Gongzha and his personal journey, a big part of Love in No Man’s Land is this mystery surrounding an ancient symbol. It’s in caves, on statues, on bears, and it seems to be a part of the very essence of the grassland. Gongzha encounters it at different points in his life, each time learning a bit more about his people’s past and how they could possibly be connected to the symbol, but it’s not something that he spends his life pondering.

While Gongzha is the main protagonist you meet a lot of different characters. These people dip in and out of Gongzha’s life, and sometimes they’re the children of someone Gongzha used to know, meaning it can be difficult at times to keep track of who is who and how they’re connected to one another. That being said, having so many characters helps this word feel lived in and real. Love in No Man’s Land is in the third person and while the majority of the book is from Gongzha’s point of view, a lot is also from the point of view of the various characters that are in Gongzhas life, even if for a short while. Some might be the focus for only a page or two, while others have more of a decent sized chunk. There are some coincidences where people encounter one another and don’t realise at first that they might have a couple of people already connecting them. But on a whole, these connections seem organic as they are a people who have lived in this part of the world for generations and rarely move far from their families.

I learnt so much about the Tibetan herder’s lifestyle and how it’s evolved over the years from reading Love in No Man’s Land. I think I preferred the atmosphere this book evokes more than anything and I didn’t always feel that connected to Gongzha which is probably down to us having so different lives. It was still a fascinating read – especially this mystery to do with the symbol – and a beautifully written one too. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Venezuela: The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno

Translated by Guillermo Parra.

When leftist revolutionary Sergio’s sniper shot misses the President of Venezuela, he’s thrown into a sudden tailspin. As he attempts to escape the increasingly militarized regime, he winds up taking residence in a bohemian beachside commune, where he keeps a low profile until Lourdes, his former comrade, the object of his desire, and his possible betrayer, turns up one evening. Pursued by their former trainer in guerrilla warfare on the orders of the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, the two team up with unlikely partners to hatch a new plan for their survival.

Reading The Conspiracy is an experience. You follow multiple characters point of views throughout the story, giving you a wider understanding of the events unfolding after the failed assassination attempt than the majority of the characters. The sections from Sergio’s point of view are in the first person and there are often very long paragraphs and run on sentences. His mind is frantic and that comes across in the words on the page. There are times when he doesn’t believe what he’s seeing or doing and sees threats from everyone, making his narrative even more jumbled up and like a stream of consciousness.

The other characters point of views are written in the third person and while there’s still often long paragraphs, they tend to come across more measured and in control than Sergio, highlighting how his grip on reality is loosening.

The women in The Conspiracy are often described in a sexual manner with greater attention paid to their physical appearance – especially when it’s from Sergio’s point of view. It can be uncomfortable and eyeroll inducing due to the overtly sexual and lewd language used to describe them. But, with Lourdes especially, these women aren’t just there to be visually pleasing to the men. Lourdes is smart and capable and can tell when the walls are closing in and will go down all guns blazing if she sees no other choice.

There are a lot of twists and turns in The Conspiracy and while you as the reader tend to have more of an overview as to what’s going on than Sergio, there’s still surprises and people turn on one another or reveal secret plans. It makes it difficult to tell who to trust and while you learn more of Loudres’ backstory, the way the story is written means that like Sergio, you don’t always know if you can trust her motives.

The Conspiracy is full of backstabbing and political intrigue, but the writing style won’t be for everyone though with its manic energy and an unreliable narrator in Sergio. But at just over 200 pages, it’s a story that goes by at a steady pace and is an engaging read. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Ethiopia: The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh.

A hundred years ago, a girl was born in the northern Ethiopian city of Gondar. Before she was ten years old, Yetemegnu was married to a man two decades her senior, an ambitious poet-priest. Over the next century her world changed beyond recognition. She witnessed Fascist invasion and occupation, Allied bombardment and exile from her city, the ascent and fall of Emperor Haile Selassie, revolution and civil war. She endured all these things alongside parenthood, widowhood and the death of children. Aida Edemariam retells the story of her grandmother’s life.

The thing about time and history is it’s very easy to think that things happen so far apart from one another, but The Wife’s Tale proves that really isn’t the case. A lot can happen in one person’s lifetime, from the personal – births, deaths, careers, marriages – to the historical – changes in government, war, revolution, and technological advances. The Wife’s Tale shows how much a person can live through, the good and the bad, and how often moments in history are like a domino effect with problems or solutions can be traced back decades.

Through Yetemegnu’s life you can get an insight in Ethiopian life and culture. She was born in 1916, married at age eight to a priest who was almost thirty and had her first of nine children when she was fourteen. Her marriage wasn’t always a happy one. Never mind the fact she was a child bride (though they didn’t have a sexual relationship until she was a teenager so at least that’s something?), but her husband would sometimes hit her and she was often admonished by family when she wanted to leave.

Religion played a huge part in Yetemegnu’s life and The Wife’s Tale shows how Ethiopian Christianity was (and perhaps still is) a cornerstone to many peoples lives. Yetemegnu prays to Mary, has spiritual dreams and has so much faith in God and his plan. That doesn’t mean she just takes everything life throws at her. When her husband is arrested, she fights for him. When her lands are taken, she learns about the law and goes to the courts to fight for what is hers. When her children are endangered, she does everything in her power to protect them. She is the epitome of a strong matriarch and seeing how her experiences shape her and her actions was fascinating.

As well as learning so much about one woman’s impressive life, The Wife’s Tale covers so much of the history of twentieth century Ethiopia that you can learn so much from it. There’s the rise and fall of an Emperor, the introduction of democracy, the rise of Communism, the deadly famine as well as the fact the country was invaded by Italy in the 1930s.

I feel I learnt so much from The Wife’s Tale and seeing how one person can live through so many national and international events showed just how things are connected and that a lot can happen in one person’s lifetime. The audiobook was really good to as Andoh’s narration really brought Yetemegnu’s voice alive and made the book a lot more engaging than it might’ve been to physically read it. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Vietnam: Night, Again edited by Linh Dinh

A collection of short stories by over a dozen different authors. These stories are about relationships, family, and show a side to Vietnam that’s not just the war.

Like with a lot of short story collections, I found Night, Again to be a bit of a mixed bag and unfortunately in this case I wasn’t grabbed by many of them. I thought the writing in them was generally good, and they each were like a slice of life for often very normal people. There were a few I really liked though.

One of them was “A Marker on the Side of the Boat” by Bao Ninh. This story was about a soldier who was saved by a woman, but then the pair of them are caught in a bombing. This was a fast paced and engaging story that pulls you in in such a short number of pages.

“Gunboat on the Yangtze” by Tran Vu was an unsettling one as it was about a brother and sister who have an incestuous relationship. It’s an uncomfortable read really as to begin with even though their relationship is obviously unhealthy, there’s an almost innocence to their relationship that it seems actually supportive and good for them. That strange feeling doesn’t last for long, as events quickly take an even darker turn.

A lot of the stories in Night, Again were dark or depressing. Even the ones that were lighter in tone had a sense of melancholy about them as the characters often had a bittersweet moment of realisation about their circumstances or who they were. I did get a bit of whiplash going from story to story as while a lot of them were pretty gloomy, there was the odd story like “Scenes from an Alley” by Le Minh Khue, which was a darkly funny tale.

All in all the majority of stories in Night, Again weren’t that memorable, but I’m pleased I read some stories that weren’t just focussed on a war, but often instead dealt with the everyday tragedies. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Saint Kitts and Nevis: Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach

Adrian is the son of a black Caribbean woman and an Irish immigrant father and is blessed with the pale skin and European features to allow him social mobility in the rigidly hierarchical society of twentieth-century Caribbean life. He falls in love but is offered the opportunity to improve his social standing, and thus the rest of his life, if he can suppress his heart’s desire and decide with his head. Will he choose Julia, the only woman he has ever really loved, and settle for being an overseer, or will he opt for the plantation-owner’s daughter, Alice Mills, who could provide him with the social standing he has always dreamed of?

Only God Can Make a Tree is a short book at less than 150 pages, and it is a quick read both because of its length and because of the writing style. It’s written very simply and is very much a book where it tells you what’s happening and what characters are feeling rather than showing you through metaphors or flowery language. This makes it seem like it’s not a very well-written book as you can’t easily connect with the characters and the plot is just laid out in front of you. It took a while to get used to how it was written, but its blunt, on the nose approach to this story did make it easy to read and sometimes engaging.

For such a short book it covers a lot of time and different characters lives. Adrian is the main character but as the choices he makes have knock on effects onto the people around him, you get snippets from other characters points of view as they struggle to deal with the fallout of his actions. The latter half of the book spans more time as Adrian fathers’ children and they grow up and have to live with Adrian being their father and what that can mean for them.

Adrian is a character that’s equal parts infuriating and sympathetic. While his actions are his own, and they are often reckless and hurt women who do love him, he is boxed in by the hierarchical society and has limited options if he desires to climb the social ladder. Adrian has high aspirations in a society that won’t really allow him to have those aspirations. He is a man that’s almost trapped between two societies because of his parentage, he can pass for white a lot of the time, but at the same time many white people will never see him as anything but black and will treat him accordingly. There’s also how Adrian appears to be destined to make similar mistakes to his own father, and all the rum that’s available is not good for any of the characters.

The sections about life in Saint Kitts and Nevis in the twentieth century were interesting. White, often English, people still owned the cotton and sugar cane plantations but now they pay people to work the land, albeit very cheaply. The former slaves are now labourers. As not a lot of time has passed since the abolition of slavery, there’s still some tension as the white plantation owners believe that the black people are still savages deep down. Often the glimpses of Caribbean society and how it works were more interesting than Adrian’s life. Though that being said, how Caribbean society works had a direct effect on Adrian and how is life panned out so the intersection between the two was also interesting.

I read Only God Can Make a Tree in less than two hours but I’m not sure how long this story will stick with me. It’s a concise family saga that gives a unique insight into post-slavery Caribbean and how one man’s aspirations can have long-lasting and unexpected effects. 2/5.