A book from every country — E

I am reading a book from every country in the world: an A-Z of world literature. I’m trying to uncover the deep reservoir of experience from around the world that is expressed in novels but rarely make their way onto our shelves or bestseller lists — stories of migrants, civilians in wartime or resistance fighters.

Having gone from Afghanistan to the Dominican Republic, here are the E’s, from East Timor to Ethiopia.

East Timor

Seno Gumira Ajidarma — Jazz, Perfume and the Incident (1996)

Setting: 1990s Jakarta during a brutal crackdown on protests in East Timor.

What it’s about: The author is a Jakarta journalist fired for trying to report atrocities in East Timor. He calls this a “metropolitan” novel, set in a glamorous city, where a journalist in a lonely skyscraper reads report of primitive violence occurring elsewhere — and tries to work up the courage to publish them.

The reports themselves are real, raw and brutal, interspersed between the story told in a different font, almost like the reporter sneaking them out to the public (as was the case when the book was published in 1996). These different chapters repeat in order — one on jazz, one an encounter with a mysterious woman, one with reports of the “incident”.

Why you should read it: If you like jazz. It feels like a dark 1980s detective movie, something like Bladerunner or ‘Round Midnight' (a movie referenced in the book), with bursts of corny saxophone music ripping through the narrative.

“A man on the sidewalk, in a pool of yellow mercury light, plays the saxophone…He plays the sax while walking, slowly….
A scene from Round Midnight
“Listen to the sound of the wailing and moaning — sometimes like a rumble, then a shriek, then finally subsiding into something like a stifled whisper….sending forth sounds of forlorn sorrow that creep into the night air, merge into its phosphorescent yellow glow. How well sounds mirror feelings. I hear a story about the night, about obscurity and darkness, where wounded souls, lonely and abandoned, moan and roar, whine and rage, grumble and curse, gibber and shriek. I hear the saxophone, strident and shrill, broadcasting the echoes of fate’s blows.”

Further reading: His novelistic rendering of the accounts from East Timor in full: Eyewitness.

You’ll like this if you liked: Detective stories where the hero investigates a common crime only to uncover a wider political scandal. Raymond Chandler. Any Humphrey Bogart movie.

Rating: * (My system: *=good, **=great, ***=masterpiece — think Michelin stars of books).


Poso Wells — Gabriela Aleman (2007)

What it’s about: A surreal little novel using bizarre plot lines to portray a society at the mercy of corruption and exploitation.

A journalist investigates the disappearance of dozens of women in a small town in the middle of nowhere — it doesnt appear on any map – something only their families care about until a politician is also kidnapped and the state authorities spring into action.

Meanwhile, a large foreign mining company operates behind the scenes to take advantage of the chaos and secure new concessions.

A cynical and unrestrained story from the opening scene where a politician is electrocuted by dodgy wiring while standing in a puddle of his own urine, to the final scene where the mining executive leaves town in a hurry wishing to find a lone Andean mountaintop where he can exploit mines in peace, a new set of credulous inhabitants to win over.

The definitive book from Ecuador? The most famous Ecuadorian book is Huasipongo or The Villagers by Jorge Icaza. In which an unscrupulous businessman heads out to become the landlord of an indigenous community to pay his debts, and exploits the locals. It is only available in a poor translation, and its lack of subtlety (for example, forcing a women to breastfeed his child instead of her own) makes it less impressive than some similar novels.

There is also a detective story set in Quito recently translated into French – if you like that sort of thing.

Rating: *


Alaa Al-Aswany — The Yacoubian Building (2002)

Setting: Cairo, 1990

What it’s about: Through the lives of a cast of characters in one Cairo building, Al Aswany documents the transformation of Egyptian society, as the last vestiges of a colonial state die away with the novel’s heroes.

Scene from the movie

The most powerful story is the radicalisation of the diligent doorkeeper’s son, Taha, who turns to the Muslim Brotherhood and extremism after he is denied any other route to success by corruption and snobbery, and later tortured by the police.

Individual characters and small incidents have a wider significance.

The biggest character is corruption…an all-encompassing presence who’s mastery is essential to success and crushes those who don’t — the optimistic youth or the naive gentile old elite who fail to adapt to a harsh world of oligarchy.

The building as portrayed in the movie.

In this world, the characters who succeed tend to have a dark side. There is Mr. Hamid Hawwas the “major writer of official complaints”; Kamal El Fouli, the fixer of elections, who draws a rabbit (a million pounds) to signify how much he wants to secure a seat for a candidate and who tells a client “The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule”. And there are the business people who thrive thanks to secret deals and drugs behind a facade of decency and charity.

Tahrir Square — 2011. “Some peoples are excitable and rebellious by nature, but the Egyptian keeps his down his whole life so long as he can eat.” The belief of the ruling class that created the uprising. Photo credit: flickr_Mona.

And there is Malak the wheeler-deeler who “comes and goes, talking and shouting, laughing and wheedling, swearing a hundred false oaths and making deals” and turns one shirt shop on the roof of the building into a small empire.

A delightful detail is the New York Times article recommending his tailoring, but even that cannot be trusted:

“The truth of the matter is that Basyouni, the photographer in Araba Square, can run anyone up a newspaper piece talking of his skill for any newspaper on demand. It takes Basyouni no more than the name of the newspaper and a picture of the client plus a ready-made article that he has in which the writer speaks of his great surprise at coming across in the streets of Cairo the workshop of a brilliant tailor so and so, or the establishment of the great kebab cook so and so.”

This definitive Egyptian novel? This joins Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy as the major Egyptian novel of the 20th century. His next book, the Automobile Club, is a natural sequel, essentially built around another, nearby part of the city that is already mentioned in this book. It will be interesting to see whether he issues a third novel to complete a new, fin-de-siecle Cairo trilogy of sorts.

Above all, this is the book to understand the 2011 revolution, even if it is set two decades before. I was in Tahrir Square just a few months after the 2011 revolution, and still remember the optimistic smiles of street vendors selling “Facebook Revolution” t-shirts — the spirit that has since been crushed.

That spirit is eloquently expressed in this novel, as when one woman forced to sacrifice her dignity tells the young lover Taha who will soon go a different way:

“The country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money.”

to make ends punctures the naive patriotism of her elder suitor, who cannot believe she does not love her country:

“You don’t understand because you’re well-off. When you’ve stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses and had to go through hell every day just to get home, when your house has collapsed and the government has left you sitting with your children in a tent on the street, when the police officer has insulted you and beaten you just because you’re on a minibus at night, when you’ve spent the whole day going around the shops looking for work and there isn’t any, when you’re a fine sturdy young man with an education and all you have in your pockets is a pound, or sometimes nothing at all, then you’ll know why we hate Egypt.”

The old man simply responds by playing her Edith Piaf, and when they embrace we only know they kiss because she feels “the acrid taste of whiskey in her mouth”.

Read this if you liked: Anything about the end of an era, or an ageing class coming into conflict with a new rising generation, such as Parade’s End, The Remains of the Day or, with the hindsight of 2011, we can even see the fading glory of colonial Cairo and the Yacoubian Building (and its sordid underbelly) shadows of The Great Gatsby. The lecherous older characters also have a touch of Saul Bellow/Philip Roth.

Rating: ** (I’m giving good books one star, great books two and masterpieces three)

El Salvador

Manlio Argueta – One day of life (1983)

Setting: El Salvador

What it’s about: An old peasant woman talks about her life and her day, while around her security forces crackdown on a community that dared protest outside a bank for cheaper loans.

It is a one day diary delivered at intervals of have hours starting at 6:30 interspersed by accounts from other members of her family – usually of repression from landlords or police. Violence and intimidation are omnipresent.

For example, she tells us how new priests suddenly came along and instead of telling him to except the last started to educate them about their rights.

The woman starts her day with her chores but as the narrative develops a sense of danger gathers and soon there are soldiers at her door who is for her granddaughter to arrive.

“High leather boots, halfway up their calves, and bandolier belts. The worst are those monsters they carry on their shoulders. These are the famous automatics they talk about. Iron helmets as in films about the Germans.”

The centrepiece of the novel is her fearful yet proud response to the soldiers in her home waiting for her granddaughter :

“You walk with a cemetery full of crosses on your backs, and you don’t even notice, this useless terror that you converted into aggression. But in spite of all of this, I can still give you a little water.”

Why you should read it: It is also a novel of awakening:

“The only thing we don’t have is rights. And as we begin to arrive at this awareness, this place filled up with authorities wishing to impose order, omnipotent, with the automatics as they call them. From time to time they come to see how we are behaving, who has to be taken away, who has to be beaten to be taught a lesson.”
“They want to force us with machetes and at gunpoint into resignation to our miseries. There is a kind of poverty they understand, the spiritual poverty they think they can force on us with their guns.”

Read it if you liked: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamed. Katherine Boo — Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

The best book from El Salvador? The book probably wouldn’t have received as much attention as another El Salvadorian writer Mario Bencastro were US forces not at the time engaged in the country and training the repressive forces described in the novel.

Rating: *

Equatorial Guinea

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel — By Night the Mountain Burns (2014)

Setting: A fictional Atlantic African island “A sliver of land that pokes out of the murky waters”, based on an actual, isolated island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea.

What it’s about: We start with a utopian, simple society upon which is visited a series of tragedies: large industrial trawlers take the fish from the waters, two villages accidentally burnt down all the crops, a cholera outbreak. Nobody, at any stage, comes to help.

“The evil spread throughout the island and death spread its wings over the village for weeks indeed for months. The spirit of death and evil had our Atlantic Ocean Island in their grip.”

It begins with a beautiful evocative account of the ritual of making a canoe: selecting the tree, mobilising other islanders to help moving the half-formed canoe to the sea-shore:

Every man on our Atlantic Ocean Island has his own canoe, and if he doesn’t have one a new canoe is brought into the world so that he does, so that nobody on the island has to borrow one from anyone else.”

The story unrolls in one long, oral narrative from a child’s perspective, without chapters or changes in perspective — which makes it a tiring read.

You’ll like this if you liked: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; The South Sea Tales of Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson; The Pearl by John Steinbeck. Also for those (not me) who like Angela’s Ashes style childhood stories.

Further reading:

An article by Jethro Soutar, the book’s translator:

Rating: *


African Titanics — Abu Bakr Khaal (2014)

Setting: The journey from Eritrea across the Sahara, to Libya, then Tunis, then the cruel Mediterranean.

What it’s about: One of the great tragedies of our time: migration at its most raw, unforgiving and deadly.

Starting with a frenetic race through the desert being chased by gangs, the story never shies away from showing us the death and suffering of migrants without ever sacrificing their humanity.

As one Eritrean man dies, his head in the lap of another, he talks about the war he fled:

“Terhas poured more drops into his mouth and the glimmer of a smile appeared on his face. For one brief moment it looked as though his spirit had returned. But the moment soon passed, and the long process of death began.”

Incredibly poetic and simple story, almost mythological or allegorical in the telling:

“Even when dying of thirst, you cannot help being captivated by the moon, absorbing its dazzling glow and longing for it to be the last thing you see.”
Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. Photo credit: flickr_European Commission DG ECHO

After the desert they arrive in Tripoli only to be trapped in a building by smugglers, where so many have been before. The decription becomes more than just a messy room but a representation of the confusion of the desperate Traveler the multitude of lives and identity is taking the same desperate path path. A sinister foreboding scene especially if you have read about the places migrants are held in Libya.

“Piles of clothes were strewn across the floor alongside heaps of bags of all shapes and sizes, some half empty and others full, some threadbare and others apparently brand-new.
The rooms were in a state of chaos too, filled with even more garments and shoes. There were precarious piles of teacups, kettles and bottles. Broken watches, socks, wigs and used sanitary towels lay here and there. Bulging bags of sugar stood amidst a mess of shaving equipment, fake jewellery, makeup, dirty underwear and empty, foreign-looking cigarette packets.”

In many ways this jumble of objects represents the diverse groups of people from so many countries, all on the same terrible journey.

“I wandered through the courtyard, picking through the scattered objects and trying to imagine their owners. What fate had they suffered? Had they crossed safely, or became fish fodder? Had they even left? Or had they retraced their steps to their homeland?”

He then reads an emotional love letter from a former traveller and messages written on the walls one of which, signed anonymous, reads:

“Where will you take me, oh fleeting hours?”

The book is not just a catalogue of horrors, it is a reflection on humanity itself and the lives we all lead.

“Eventually the room emptied and we were left alone. The others had gone outside to smoke and discuss the next stages of our journey in anxious, hushed tones. It was only then that Terhas began to sob, weeping for all those who had died on the journey, for Assgedom whom she had nursed for so long … that afternoon most of our companions went to investigate the various routes to Tripoli and little by little we were released from the despair that had gripped us and the terrible certainty of death. Thus, life unfolds with utter simplicity. One moment, there seems no way forward, and the next everything is within our grasp. One moment, we are lost in a snake-infested desert, and the next we are wandering the city streets. Either we travel on or we are taken forever from our intended path. All beginnings and all endings are in the hands of the great unknown, whose merciless ways remain an eternal mystery.”

Why you should read it: More than 5,000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean last year. This is the story behind the number, one that gives you an attachment to beautifully crafted characters in a way otherwise impossible given the scale of this migration.

Check out Open Migration for more.

When, inevitably, this book’s journey moves towards the dreaded boat crossing of the Mediterranean, it reaches a gut-wrenching crescendo:

“No one can easily stomach the prospect of boarding a boat he knows is likely destined to founder.”
“It is hard to describe the fear that grips you at the hour of departure. You approach the boats in the darkness as they rock violently on the water. At that moment, you truly understand the meaning of terror. People lose control of their bowels. Damp patches spread across trousers. Many jump overboard before the boat has even left the harbour. Others are swept to sea without ever having resolved whether to stay or go. When the boat finally departs, a deathly silence settles over us. People lose all ability to articulate. The vessel appears to be a hollow shell, travelling empty and alone.”
An Italian Navy vessel rescuing 1,004 refugees and migrants in the central Mediterranean. Photo Credit: Amnesty International.

Perhaps the most shocking is the scene where the sinking boat is passed by merchant ship the whose laugh at their plight even as they throw corpses out of the boat into the water in the vain hope of appealing to their compassion.

The best book from Eritrea? Yes. And one of the best books from Africa or anywhere, this century.

Further reading: What better example of the way the world ignored the plight of migrants at sea than the fact that this book has not even been reviewed by major newspapers? The thing should be a movie, yet it is not even on the radar.

Rating: *** Such an important and gripping book. It is one of those books you can only read one little bite at a time — you need to stop as each chapter ends to reflect, catch your breath, and consider if you are in a setting that justifies reading such powerful literature. This book should be everywhere.


Jaan Kross — The Conspiracy & Other Stories

Setting: Tallinn during WWII

What it’s about: Engrossing tragi-comic tales of young Estonians on the run from Nazi and Soviet occupiers alternatively as the Baltic state changes hands — based on Kross’s own life.

A young man meets an old friend from a German-Estonian family about to be repatriated to the Reich as the Soviets arrive and remembers his romantic tryst with his sister. In another story, he meets a former architecture student who has joined the lower ranks of the SS, and he helps him abscond, smuggling him across the sea to Finland:

We fumbled a handshake.
“What have you been doing with yourself?”
I hadn’t seen him since the beginning of the war.
“I’m studying.”
“What? Doric architecture?”
“No, how to use a spade in hand-to-hand combat.”
It turned out…that he would be sent to the front the following week.”

Dark endings abound. Twists of face decide survival; such as which name is engraved in a textbook in the suitcase containing dangerous writing thrown overboard just before a boat is raided.

War slowly but surely engulfs everyone. In a cafe listening to a lunchtime concert:

“Most people smile because this boy's violin playing with one of those heartening threads of normality in the ripping canvas of the epoch.”

They are separate stories but with the same protagonist and a natural progression — the first stories see a carefree student drawn into the resistance, the last two see a hardened cynic in jail as a result.

It begins with a calm soon replaced by “feverish and sinister haste” as people have to decide whether they’re German or Estonian.

In the first story he is with a former flame on her last night before leaving. They stand on the docks looking at the boats that will repatriate the German Estonians. She pulls him away for the last tryst

“My right hand still retains the memory of that pull: the sudden weight of Flora at the first jerk and the unexpected lightness of the second. I have spent much time since, analysing what lay in that pull.”

But the moment is broken when she falls and cuts her knee. A wound that will have dire consequences.

Why you should read it: To see normal life struggling to go on in a time of war, as society is pulled apart by totalitarian regimes. It’s 1939 and German families in Estonia are moving back to Germany, then the German army is coming and the hero is preparing to go into hiding.

The best book from Estonia: It is a great introduction to the rich oeuvre of Jaan Kross.

You will like this if you liked: John le Carre — stories read like tense Cold War thrillers. Or any romantic ‘love in war/youth’ novel, though I am thinking of Jan Neruda’s Prague Tales.

Rating: **


Maaza Mengiste — Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2011)

Setting: Addis Ababa during the military coup/revolution of 1974.

“Living is dangerous these days."

What it’s about: A country slowly slipping into brutality, and how ordinary people are driven to resistance.

This beautiful book starts gently from the perspective of Emperor Haile Selassie as his reign ends and of one family as their normal life slowly crumble but takes on a breathless pace as the military regime tightens its grip on the contrary.

In the most brutal and powerfully written parts the father of the family, Hailu, to whom we have been introduced as a dignified, caring and peaceful doctor, is tortured – we see how soul and body are broken, only to be salvaged in the final pages. What we see are perfectly measured lines (and it’s not easy to write torture scenes without going in to far in either direction clinical or abstract) that show how the rational mind is slowly worn down.

The writing deals with the brutality of dictatorship with delicate subtlety. As when people waiting outside the jail to see their loved ones within, when someone arrives to turn themselves in with her suitcase:

She tottered on high heels.
“They told me to turn myself in. How do I get in?” she said.
A sympathetic murmur lifted from the crowd. They cleared her path to the door.
The young woman went to the door and began to knock.
“Why are you here?” The security guard asked. “Don’t you know what they do?”
“My husband is inside,” the young woman said. “They told me that if I didn’t come, they’d kill him.” She bit her lip. “I don’t know what he did. “

Then time seems to stand still:

…they watched the sunburn pale, then yellow, red and gold in a darkening horizon. Then the front door swung open just long enough for three soldiers to grab the young woman and drag her inside.

Like The Yacoubian building, we follow a young man’s path – the doctor’s son Dawit – from optimism to activism to violence – boys with sympathy but also honesty about his flaws. The excitement of the marchers,

“One day, he would tell his father this: that the eyes die first, that we make our way to dust and ash blindly. Dawit would tell of the night he learned of this, the night they found the still breathing woman by the road, her broken bones and open wounds covered in grass and dirt.”

I won’t spoil it, but Dawit then engages in a unique, gruesome yet incredibly beautiful act of resistance against the brutal dictatorship.

Statue of Emporer Haile Selassie in Addis. Photo credit: flickr_Göran Höglund

Why you should read it: This is one of those novels that can make a remote moment of history personal and poignant in a way that history cannot.

The writing melds rich symbolism with hard facts that add colour to how a brutal regime takes shape:

“There was a new jail rising on the horizon near his home, a slab of concrete and steel carved into the forest where Dawit was once played amongst tall trees and thick grass.”

How people turn against each other like the informers of the police station when one brother goes to find his little newspaper-selling brother — innocent but taken away — and the policeman assumes he is just another informer:

“If you want to report someone just drop the name in the box over there.” He pointed to a square white metal box near the entrance.

A tiny detail but so sinister.

As darkness falls upon the country you can feel the threat growing around every character like when a group of soldiers walk past one heroine:

“One looked up, settled his gaze on Sara for so long his companions moved on ahead of him.”

Or when one older woman tries to come another in distress:

“Emama Seble massively seemed to sift through words, choosing carefully.”

The same character exchanges just a few words with another and reveals that these two characters are rich history outside the book that we will never know.

Lion of Juddah, Addis. Photo credit: flickr_pierre

You’ll like this if you liked: Epic family dramas during national upheavals like Vikram Seth’s A suitable Boy or Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace. Darkness at noon — for the breaking of good men.

Alone in Berlin – for the incredibly powerful and moving acts of resistance in the book (that I will leave the reader to discover) that touches on the very essence of humanity.

And if you like Small Acts of Resistance, read this from Steve Crawshaw:

Rating: ***