The other shortlisted books were: The Devil's Footprints by John Burnside (UK), The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan / UK), A Far Country by Daniel Mason (USA) and Salvage by Gee Williams (UK). It seems clear at this point that The Reluctant Fundamentalist is receiving very good reviews and I look forward to reading it. The plot of A Far Country by Daniel Mason, the only American writer shortlisted, also looked interesting, but The New York Times gave it a bad review. I guess that a Western author writing about a third-world country isn't fashionable anymore!
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Friday, August 29, 2008
Nell'universo della politica, c'è chi, come la deputata Pdl e Presidente delle Donne Marocchine Suad Sbai, musulmana moderata, ha ricordato la legge del 1975 per cui non è consentito girare in pubblico a volto coperto e quindi giustifica il guardiano che ha fatto rispettare la legge, oppure chi, come Ahmad Gianpiero Vincenzo, Presidente degli Intellettuali Musulmani, ha invocato una maggiore chiarezza nella legislazione italiana. Egli lamenta inoltre il clima di islamofobia in cui s’inseriscono tali norme, ma allo stesso tempo chiede maggiore flessibilità al mondo musulmano: "La religione non impone alcun obbligo sul velo ".
Il presidente della regione Veneto, Giancarlo Galan, chiede ‘decoro e rispetto’ quando si entra in un museo. Sarcastico, invece, il commento del sindaco Massimo Cacciari: “Nei musei civici veneziani tutti possono venire vestiti come vogliono. L’unico suggerimento che mi sento di dare ai turisti è di non visitare le sale espositive con una benda davanti agli occhi”.
Italieni #5: Vi ricordate questa foto?
Io sì, la stampa e i lettori indifferenti come i bagnanti che hanno continuato a prendere il sole mentre i corpi di due bambine giacevano sulla spiaggia. Non mi importa neanche di sapere se i bagnanti sapevano o no che erano bambine rom. A me importa che erano esseri umani. Interessantissimo articolo sui rom questa settimana sull'Internazionale. E' apparso su The Observer, supplemento domenicale del Guardian. Leggilo in inglese qui, o comprati il settimanale, anche se è 'terzomondista' e 'comunista' (secondo Giuliano Ferrara, che terzomondista certamente non è. --> questa era cattiva, eh?!).
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Genre: UNO (Unidentified Narrative Object), non-fiction
About the author: Roberto Saviano was born in Naples in 1979. He employs prose and news-reporting style to narrate the story of the Camorra (the mafia of Naples and the surrounding area). His first book, Gomorra, which describes the illegal activities of the Camorra business, was a bestseller in Italy. He has been threatened by several Neapolitan “godfathers” belonging to the Casalesi clan, so he was assigned a permanent police escort by the Italian Minister of the Interior. He now writes for newspapers such as ‘La Repubblica’ and ‘L’Espresso’.
What it’s all about: This is a powerful and shocking insight into Neapolitan mafia (Camorra) and its wide implications in Italy’s and the world’s organized crime. Gomorra was made into a movie of the same name directed by Matteo Garrone, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in 2008.
Some thoughts: The first man who had the guts to write about mafia, with names and everything: I tip my hat to Roberto Saviano. Forget about Mario Puzo. Even forget about Camilleri’s Commissario Montalbano. This is the real mafia, and that’s probably why the English version is subtitled The Other Mafia.
I get so pissed off when I meet some people who, as soon as they learn that I am Italian, state that they love Italian cinema, and if I dare to ask which movies they like, they answer very proudly: The Godfather and Quentin Tarantino. Apart from the fact that those are American movies with American actors made by American people, mafia is not like that. Mafia is an unpalatable reality few outside of Italy understand or are able to believe. Its implications are worldwide and its power huge and unstoppable. As I come from the north of Italy, where organized crime takes more subtle forms, I was quite shocked to learn the extent of the phenomenon. Saviano gives a very detailed account of the business of mafia, explaining how every economical activity in the outskirts of Naples is linked to the Camorra clans. What is astonishing is that these clan leaders consider themselves to be simple businessmen who work in the ‘system’. The fact that their activities are illegal seems to be quite normal for them.
In towns like Secondigliano and Casal di Principe, the underground is the only way to earn a living, since there is one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe. During this year’s Olympic Games, a boxer called Clemente Russo from Marcianise, Caserta, dedicated his silver medal to the youths of his town, with the hope that they find a way out of the widespread criminality of the area.
It is clear that nobody in the Italian government has read this book, otherwise they would have sent some soldiers to Secondigliano and the surrounding area, instead of scaring the pigeons in Piazza del Plebiscito!
On the literary merits of the book: at the beginning, I was baffled because I could not understand whether I was reading plain non-fiction or a narrative, highly informative fiction book. Certain parts of the book have a first person unnamed protagonist and some characters, though underdeveloped. After having read half of the book, I came to the conclusion that this is a new narrative form in Italian literature (Wu Ming 1 called it Unidentified Narrative Project: Quite appropriate!).
Oh, please make sure that you check Wu Ming, a group of Italian writers who were once part of the famous Luther Blissett Project. Click
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Genre: fiction, magical realism, allegorical novel, dystopian novel
Setting and time: unknown country and unknown era, but most likely present time
Very briefly, this is the story of the total breakdown of society following a natural disaster, an unexplained epidemic of blindness that affects an entire city (or nation, it’s not clear). People start committing every sort of despicable actions, but are also capable of acts of generosity unheard of before the epidemic.
It has been done other times before: from Lord of the Flies to the Big Brother, it is no great news that in a hostile environment when your life is at stake, people become animals and lose their humanity. This novel has been compared with Albert Camus’ s The Plague and P.D. James’s The Children of Men, despite the fact that Blindness is not science fiction and it is not really about epidemics. By the end of the novel, you get the impression that Saramago wanted to tell us something more. Blindness is maybe a metaphor for the horrors of modernity and for the loss of the meaning of life in our chaotic cities. I didn’t fully understand the end of the novel: were they really blind or not? And why did they regain their sight? Probably this has no importance, but I was expecting some sort of explanation, even vague or ambiguous. This might have helped me make sense of the story or it might have spoiled it, I don’t know. This reminds me of some short stories by Cortazar and Borges, not only for the aura of magical realism, but also for the perplexity and bafflement I perceived at the end of the novel.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
- Burning In by Mireille Juchau: Martine, a photographer in her late twenties, is leaving Sydney and moving to New York for reasons far more complex than her artistic career. Not only leaving her country behind, she’s also on the run from an ageing and lonely mother named Lotte, a Holocaust survivor, who over the years has become increasingly dependent on Martine.
- El Dorado by Dorothy Porter: In Dorothy Porter's verse novel, a serial killer who gets his poems published in The Age, tough cops, cool teenagers and some oddly matched lovers propel an assonance-driven narrative.
- Jamaica: A novel by Malcolm Knox: Six friends head for Jamaica to take part in the Negociante Classic, a notoriously tough and dangerous deep-water swimming race.
- Sorry by Gail Jones: In the remote outback of North-west Australia, English anthropologist Nicholas Keene and his wife Stella raise a curious child, Perdita. Her childhood is far from ordinary; a shack in the wilderness, with a distant father burying himself in books and an unstable mother whose knowledge of Shakespeare forms the backbone of the girl's limited education. Emotionally adrift, Perdita develops a friendship with an Aboriginal girl, Mary, with whom she will share a very special bond. She appears content with her unusual family life in this remote corner of the globe until Nicholas Keane is discovered murdered.
- The Complete Stories by David Malouf: ‘Here are the Aussie battlers in isolated hamlets, the sons of missing fathers, the mothers of outsize broods and the old women whose memories have led them into a kind of dreamtime. Reading these rich, beautifully wrought stories, you can almost smell the ti trees and hear the screeching as the cockatoos take flight.’ – The New York Times
- The Widow and Her Hero by Tom Keneally: When Grace married the genial and handsome Captain Leo Waterhouse in Australia in 1943, they were young, in love - and at war. Being abandoned isn't the perfect idea of a marriage, yet Grace cannot quell her admiration for her husband. He is a volunteer on a dangerous mission - sink Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. The team he's with has done it once, will a second go be as successful?
- The Zookeeper's War by Steven Conte: another war story. It is 1943 and each night in a bomb shelter beneath the Berlin Zoo an Australian woman, Vera, shelters with her German husband, Axel, the zoo's director. Together, they struggle to look after the animals through the air raids and food shortages. When the zoo's staff is drafted into the army, forced labourers are sent in as replacements. At first, Vera finds the idea abhorrent, but gradually she realises that the new workers are the zoo's only hope, and forms an unlikely bond with one of them.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
For some reason, Afghanistan has always been conquered by other people, but not without resistance from the Afghans. Alexander The Great (IV century B.C.) and Jenghis Khan (XIII century) were some conquerors of the distant past, but there were many more.
Afghanistan was under British influence during the 19th century (remember that British India is just around the corner) and it gained full independence from the United Kingdom in 1919. After that, there was a period of relative stability (1933-1973) under the King Zahir Shah. When British India was partitioned in 1947, Afghanistan wanted the Pashtuns (the most important and powerful ethnicity of Afghan people) of the North-West Frontier Province of British India to be able to choose their fate. Britain only offered the choice of joining Pakistan or joining India, and they chose the former. In 1955, Afghanistan urged the creation of an autonomous Pashtunistan, but the issue was dropped (it was revived by Afghanistan in 1972 when Pakistan was weakened by the loss of East Pakistan - now Bangladesh - and the war with India). Tensions with Pakistan over the border and other issues are frequent since then.
1973 – coup led by Zahir Shah’s brother-in-law and then revolution led by the democratic party. Afghanistan becomes a republic and Taraki is president. Freedom of religion, land reform and women rights were introduced. Religiously conservative Afghans were against the reforms.
1979 – The USA saw the situation in Afghanistan as a possibility to weaken the Soviet Union. As part of a Cold War strategy, the US began to fund anti-government forces (mujaheddin) through the Pakistani intelligence. Hafizullah Amin took over as Prime Minister and Taraki was killed. Soviet occupation, which resulted in the killings of at least 600,000 to 2 millions Afghan civilians. Over 5 million fled the country to Pakistan, Iran and the rest of the world.
The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. The USA lost interest in Afghanistan and did little to help to rebuild the war-ravaged country. Warlords gained power and the Taliban (a militia of Pashtun Islamic fundamentalists students supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) developed as a politico-religious force, first seizing the capital Kabul in 1996 and eventually the rest of the country. Restrictions of freedom and violation of human rights occurred during the Taliban’s seven-year rule.
In 1998, as the Taliban appeared on the verge of taking over the whole country, U.S. missiles destroyed what was described by the Pentagon as an extensive terrorist training complex near Kabul run by Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The US then imposed economic sanctions on Afghanistan allegedly because the country refused to turn over Bin Laden. In early 2001 the Taliban destroyed all statues in the nation, including two ancient Buddhas in Bamian, because they regarded them as idolatrous and un-Islamic.
In late 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the USA invaded Afghanistan to destroy the Al-Qaeda terrorist training camps inside the country. Hamid Karzai was chosen as the interim president of Afghansitan and free elections were held in 2005. The Taliban where largely defeated, but the country itself reverted to the control of the regional warlords who held power before the Taliban. In 2006 NATO took command of all peacekeeping forces in the country. In May 2007 NATO forces killed the top Taliban field commander, Mullah Dadullah, but Taliban forces mounted some guerrilla attacks on the outskirts of the capital Kabul. Also, there has been fighting between rival factions in various parts of the country, for instance Uzbek and Tajik militia groups in the north.
The country continues to struggle with poverty, Taliban insurgency, threats from the Al-Qaeda, large concentration of land mines and a huge illegal poppy cultivation and opium trade. Reconstruction is proceeding slowly and the country is in urgent need of international aid. There's still much to do!
Monday, August 11, 2008
Setting and time: Afghanistan, then California and Pakistan, time spanning from the 1970s to the 2000s
Themes: childhood, friendship, betrayal, violence, war, emigration, father-son relationship, religion, ethnic tensions, neo-colonialism
About the author: Khaled Hosseini was born in in 1965 in Kabul, where his father worked for the Afghanistan Foreign Ministry. From 1970 to 1973 he lived in Teheran, Iran, where his father worked for the embassy of Afghanistan. In 1976 Hosseini’s father moved his family to Paris and he decided not to return to Afghanistan because communists had seized the country in a bloody coup. They sought political asylum in the United States and made their residence in California, where he still lives and works.
Plot: The 1970s, Kabul: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to an Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.
Some thoughts: This book gives great insights about life in Afghanistan and about their people: their habits, customs and sufferings. What I found dissatisfying, though, was the historical background behind the novel. It’s true that the novel was written in 2003, when Afghanistan was on television every day because of the ‘war on terror’, but my grasp of geopolitical issues is poor in this case. That’s why I am writing a post on Afghanistan, just to remember what’s happened and what’s still happening in the war-ravaged country. Afghanistan is not only Taliban and fundamentalism, as you learn while reading the book. I didn’t know, for instance, about Pashtun and Hazara people in Afghanistan and it was good to learn such a thing from a fiction book, if you know what I mean.
Nonetheless, I think that this book is a bit overrated. The story is certainly gripping and moving, but predictable at times. It was fairly obvious that Amir would loose his friend Hassan and feel guilty forever, if not from the relationship between the boys then at least from the way he used to treat him. The style could also be improved: Hosseini’s writing gives the impression that this was only a first draft of the story. It must be taken into account that The Kite Runner is Hosseini’s first novel, meaning that his skills will maybe improve. I can understand why this book was a huge best-seller: the story really breaks your heart… but couldn’t the author at least * SPOILER * spare us the horror of a child attempting suicide? I found that slightly cringing and disturbing. * SPOILER *
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Genre: non-fiction for children and young adults
About the author: Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fez, Morocco, in 1944. After having attended bilingual schools in Morocco, he studied philosophy and psychology in Paris and has been living in France since 1971. He became famous with the novel L’enfant de Sable (The Sand Child, 1985). His novel La Nuit Sacrée (The Sacred Night, 1987) won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary prize in France. Racism Explained to my Daughter was a best seller in France, Italy and Germany.
What it’s all about: This book was conceived during a demonstration against an immigration law in Paris and answers his daughter’s questions about the reasons for racism. It is aimed primarily at children and teenagers and it was widely read in schools in France.
Some thoughts: I don’t usually read non-fiction books, but I’ve always desired to have this book on my shelf. I know many people (in the sad sad place where I come from) who should read this. Unfortunately, as the author says many times, adults’ preconceptions are difficult to eradicate, which means we should work with children. I would strongly advice every Italian school to have this read in class, but as for Treviso, there is a long way to go.
I also learned a few things from the book, apart from some racial slurs in French that I’ll never use. For example, I learned that 5 out of 6 French people are of ‘foreign descent’ and a bit of history of the Jewish population of Morocco.
Now I’d like to share a short anecdote with you. It’s from a letter addressed to the author included in the annexes (pardon me if I'm too lazy to translate or find the English version):
Lorsque ma fille avait quatre ans, lors d’une promenade dans notre petite ville où nous ne rencontrions à l’époque presque jamais de personnes d’ascendance africaine, nous voyons venir en notre direction un bel homme de très haute stature, aux traits africains, à la peau presque d’ébène. Lorsqu’il nous a croisés et qu’il est à quelques pas derrière à nous, ma fille me demande si je pense qu’il est hollandais. Je suis surprise de sa question; je n’ai vu que des traits africains, une peau de couleur très foncée. « Pourquoi penses-tu qu’il est hollandais ? » lui demandai-je. « Eh bien, me dit-elle, c’est parce qu’il porte des sabots. » Je me retourne et , en effet, le jeune homme portait des sabots. Cela m'a fait chaud au cœur.
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Monday, August 4, 2008
Friday, August 1, 2008
Genre: historical novel
Setting and time: Nigeria, 1960s
Themes: war, love, colonialism, tribalism vs. modernity, ethnic tensions, national identity
Plot: In 1960s Nigeria, a country blighted by civil war, three lives intersect. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university lecturer. Olanna, a young beautiful woman, has abandoned her life of privilege to live with her charismatic lover, the professor. The third is Richard, an Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister Kainene. When in 1967 the shocking horror of the Nigerian–Biafra war engulfs them, their lives change forever.
Some thoughts: I loved this novel, it’s going straight to my all-time favourites! I liked everything about it: the characters are developed very well, the story is compelling and the style is superb. It is uniquely African without being ‘burdened’ with traditions and customs that can be difficult to understand for the average western reader. At the same time, it perfectly explains the situation behind the Nigeria-Biafra war without being pedantic. I particularly liked the fact that all characters have their flaws: Olanna is sometimes haughty, Odenigbo too idealistic and Ugwu a bit simple-minded. I loved how they evolved and changed as the story went on. There is no omniscient narrator, which means that you need to make sense of different perspectives by your own. Adichie’s characters are mostly wealthy educated Nigerians who discuss international politics and development economies, as well as poetry and art. There are nonetheless two characters in the novel that are utterly different from everything that Adichie might have experienced in her life: Ugwu and Richard. It must have been a challenge to write about a white Englishman in Nigeria and a poor houseboy, but Adichie achieves her goal. All of them felt so alive that I was thinking of them as if they were real people! The narrative is so compelling that when the characters are engulfed in the civil war you only wish that the war would finish, so that Olanna’s and Odenigbo’s suffering can end.