A book from every country – G
The best world literature you have never heard of, one country at a time, from A-Z.
There is an incredible amount of great literature, telling important stories, that will never make it onto the shelves of your local bookstore or the pages of your newspaper. I am reading one book from every country in the world, in alphabetical order, to see what we are missing. For the G’s, the highlight comes from Grenada.
Note: Im going for a Michelin Star style rating system: * = a good book worth reading, ** = a great book you really should read, *** = an absolute masterpiece that will leave you feeling tingly all over.
Janis Otsiemi — African Tabloid (2016)
A police drama set in contemporary Libreville combines corruption (“a national sport”), cybercrime and political intrigue.
It paints a raw portrait of the city, with the police officers fighting internal politics, investigating revenge porn, cheating on their wives and extorting taxi drivers to make ends meet, with a generally cynical outlook on life, such as when complaining that they will never be able to extradite a criminal from France:
“Human rights is bullshit invented by the Whites to get us by the balls.”
A sort of West African Big Easy.
Honorary mention: Alpha, a graphic novel from Belgian-Gabonese writer Bessora, in which an Ivorian man crosses the Sahara and the Med to reach his family in Paris.
Dayo Forster — Reading the Ceiling (2015)
Setting: Modern Gambia & London
What it’s about: Three different iterations of one woman’s life: a successful international professional, a traditional wife, and a struggling single mother.
All three stories end incomplete and open-ended, in each case with the tragic death of her mother, with whom she endures strained relations.
“A life beginning has many paths before it; but older people — women like my mother — they can only see the path that brought their lives to the now.”
While the stories take her in different directions, the relationships she has with lovers and family members, dominate each one. Whether she embraces modernity or tradition, she faces the same struggle to establish independence and fulfilment.
Read it if you liked: Elena Ferrante.
Alexandre Qazbegi — The Prose of the Mountains (1880s)
Three novellas set in the 19th century Caucasus. A rich man becomes a shepard and experiences first-hand the humiliation and extortion the other shepards suffer at the hands of the police and border guards and are harried by bands of Cossacks.
Part of the strong Central European Classics series from the Central European University. Good for depiction of Russian colonisation and deportation of Chechens that resonates today.
Bad for simplistic, macho “man of the nature” characters who come out with lines like “A Chechen woman falls in love slowly and with hesitation, but once she is in love, she is in love forever”.
Hans Fallada — Alone in Berlin (1947)
Setting: WWII Berlin
What it’s about: An ordinary German man begins a solitary resistance after his son dies on the eastern front. Based on a true story, Otto and Etta Hampel undertake a unique and eventually pointless act of resistance when their son dies on the Eastern Front.
It is essential to understanding life under dictatorship — a society riven by fear, deception and self-loathing.
It only recently came to the attention of the English-speaking world, which in turn triggered renewed interest for it in Germany.
Why you should read it: It is a searing excavation of the petty corruption and cynicism that thrived underneath the brutality of fascism. The main plotline is almost secondary to the cast of callous and comical lowlifes that are thrown up through the telling of the Hampels — from gestapo officers to crooks and the neighbours obsessed with taking over the flats of Jewish neighbours.
Time and time again, the venal and petty trump decency. At one point, one of these scoundruls unwittingly helps the gestapo uncover a communist network hiding potential victims from the Nazis.
The world described by Fallada is not just tense and terrifying, it is the apotheosis of the “low, dishonest decade”. Fallada strips away any semblance of order or strength in the Reich.
Amma Darko — Beyond the Horizon (1995)
Harrowing short novel about domestic abuse and human trafficking.
Mara begins the book as an innocent, naive girl in a village, whose family arrange a prestigious marriage with a petty official. This begins a litany of mistreatment in a city slum. She continues to believe the best of her husband, even when immigrants to Germany and then, two years later, brings Mara to join her. Only when he forces her into prostitution does she, alone and abandoned by any human solidarity, eventually realise the depth of his betrayal.
Nikos Kazantzakis — Land and Freedom (1953)
Setting: Ottoman Empire Crete, 1889
What it’s about: A realistic and sometimes ironic portrait of a community divided by conflict, the resistance fighters who take to the hills, the authorities and the few who attempt to keep the peace.
It is unsparing in its criticism of the atrocities and hypocrisy on both sides, but gives enough redeeming grace to both sides. At the end, it questions whether stubborn bravery is a good quality or a barrier to peace.
Jacob Ross — Pynter Bender (2008)
Setting: A poverty-stricken sugar cane plantation in 1970s Grenada.
What it’s about: The story of a poet as a young man. A boy is born blind. When he recovers his sight he sees with a special ludicity, and discovers poetry in old discarded papers of his uncle. The first half of the book is his encounter with the nature around him and his gradual discovery of family secrets. In the second half, the wider world creeps in, as a repressive government sends soldiers to play cat-and-mouse with a young generation determined to challenge the exploitative status quo.
This is the story of how the boy breaks centuries-old cycle of poverty — the first in his line to learn to read and go to school. As his teacher tells him, it took him more than a hundred years to get to the school, and he didnt start the walk, and he is destined to leave behind and forget those who made his progress possible — “the riots and the burnings and the jail”.
He grows up in a community further-impoverished by mechanisation of the sugar cane plantation. Machines replace the men, so the men emigrate for work. Pynter grows up with his mother, aunts and grandmother. Men are fleeting, violent, influences.
“The talk of women taught Pynter Bender one thing: men walked…
…The women spoke of it as if it were an illness — a fever that men were born with, for which there was no accounting and no cure. It could come upon them anytime, but more likely halfway through the harvesting of the canes in April — those months of work and hunger that Old Hope called the Stretch, when the children were thinnest.”
The most powerful episodes fall at the beginning of the second part, when the exploitation of the cane workers is laid bare by the sight of the workers returning from an exhausting day’s work:
“The long grey line of men and women dragging their shadows behind them like an extra weight, with the dust of the old cane road frothing around their feet”.
Why you should read it: It is the ultimate post-colonial novel, with the brutality and suffering of past eras laregly unspoken and unavoidably present. It is a major addition to a long tradition of beautiful Caribbean post-colonial writing, where young protagonists struggle against legacies of oppression and the choice between trying to make their way in a society structured against them or immigrate.
The spirit of a young generation changing the way things are is set early on when the boy who was born blind but regained his sight helps his father prepare to lose his:
“Pynter loved this time of quietness, when the last of the evening light poured into the room and settled like honey on the bed…But a shadow crept into these moments…Their father was going blind…Pynter saw it approaching the way night crept down the slopes of the Mardi Gras [mountain]. He saw it wrap itself around the old man like a caul and settle him back against the canvas chair….And so Pynter taught the old man not to fear the coming darkness.”
It is also a deeply poetic ode to the power of reading. Just as the boy who was blind but now sees helps his father manage the descent into blindness, so the boy comes back from school and teaches his aunt to read and write in a beautiful passage about the transformative power of literacy:
“She’d been writing all her life and did not know it…if writing was nothing more than making marks that meant something, then all the women in Old Hope were writing without knowing it.”
After she writes her name for the first time, she lifts her head “as if she’d just emerged from under water” and holds the paper that “crackled in her hands like firewood” and when she steps out side, Pynter hears “her pretty laughter rising, bright and rapid like light over fast water”.
Francisco Goldman — The art of political murder (2007)
1998: Bishop Juan Gerardi, relentlessly pursuing accountability for human rights abuses committed by the military during a 30-year civil war, is murdered in his home.
Who did it? This is a work of political, investigative reportage written by a novelist — so it reads with the intensity of a novel.
It unravels the dark entrails of a powerful military establishment, stripping away the layers of a conspiracy. It is a roller-coaster ride: guilty verdicts are handed down, then challenged by a media that seem dead set against the case.
As small steps towards justice are taken, Goldman reveals what the story is about: “This is how a country changes” but also warns that another moment of triumph may never come again.
The heroes are the investigators, judiciary and human rights activists who doggedly pursue justice despite very real threats and intimidation. A judge who lives under police protection has the last word:
“I gave up my own freedom so that other people can have justice — so that other people can be free to say what they believe.”
Tierno Monénembo — The Black Terrorist (2012)
Setting: Wartime eastern France.
What it’s about: French villagers find a solider (based on a real person, Addi Ba) from Guinea hiding in the woods after escaping from German captivity. He builds a resistance cell only to be betrayed to the Gestapo (who call him “The Black Terrorist”).
The tale is mostly told to the man’s nephew 70 years later, as the villagers finally seek to recognise his bravery. Bit by bit, the story of a resistance cell and its eventual betrayal is revealed.
But it is also a book about how small French towns dealt with their demons after the war (and why not, after all, have this story told by a writer from one of France’s old colonies which in many ways liberated it). As one of the French narrators says, the towns that didn’t see acts of revenge at the Liberation, “but a wall of silence and bitterness, where we fall back on Jesus Christs and time for the curse to finish its work.”
Why you should read it: It brings to life the disgracefully undocumented role of colonial soldiers in liberating France. The soldiers who fought for France in Vietnam, Algeria, in the trenches in ’14 and the cavalry in 1870:
“sent off every time with a kick in the arse, with lungs bloody and legs missing; mugs, low in the ranks, missing from the citations and the monuments to the dead, and with that, a nest-egg ten times less than their white colleagues.”
But Monenembo has French people tell the story to the hero’s nephew from Guinea, mostly full of admiration but also betraying their stereotypes about the tirailleurs senegalais — who actually hailed from all over Africa despite their name:
“From Guinea, from Congo, or Chad, for us, all the tirailleurs were senegalese. All Blacks on the planet as well.”
Monenembo has one of the contemporary French villagers who is narrating to the nephew point out the irony of African soldiers resisting while so many French collaborate:
“What a strange moment, the war! Black resistance fighters, French traitors, Germans who love Berlioz, Baudelaire, and Beaujolais, policemen allied with outlaws. Who was the victim, who the executioner?
One could betray his brother, give up a friend to be deported to Germany, for a ration ticket or a kilo of potatoes.”
In this dynamic, Addi Bâ was
“this unknown man from the African forest who came to fight when the Whites had thrown down their arms and made peace with the enemy.”
The best book from Guinea? Tierno Monénembo dominates Guinean literature, writing about France, French colonialists in Guinea, the history of Guinea, and Guineans in Cuba.
This one is not set in Guinea, but there is a conscious effort to compare the life of the rural French village to one in Guinea, giving a deep humanity to the story.
Another book from Guinea, Mariama Barry’s three-volume autobiography documents life under the communist dictator Sékou Touré, but the linear narrative makes it a dull read, sometimes punctuated by shocking scenes, like when the teenage girl comes to school early to find a dissident hanged.
Abdulai Sila — The Ultimate Tragedy (1995)
Setting: C20th Guinea-Bissau under Portuguese colonial rule
What it’s about: It is an old-fashioned Greek tragedy in a colonial setting, where a doomed heroine (Ndani) flees her traditional society to avoid a curse only to meet it in colonial society. She survives abuse, sexual violence and force marriage only for the man she falls in love with to be unjustly deported to a prison colony for challenging a white official (“because whites always get revenge”).
Similar to the book I read for Benin, there a hint of mysogyny in the plot where a good or powerful man is brought down by his loyalty to a “cursed” woman. The saving grace is that it is not really the traditional curse but the cruel nature of colonial rule that dooms the heroines husband — a school teacher who dreams of leading an independence movement.
In the first half of the novel, Ndani is taken in by a Portuguese family — poor at home but now empowered in the colony. Tellingly, she mishears Ndani’s name, assuming she is a Dania, which she considers a communist name. When the Mistress discovers religion (and her role in saving Africans’ souls) she suddenly treats Ndani with more respect, which is met with shock and suspicion, and she remembers her stepmother’s advice:
“A housegirl should always be cautious, always know her place.”
Despite this reprieve, she is soon raped by the Portuguese husband — a colonial administrator — and forced into marriage with a Guinean community leader (a ‘regulo’) who scorns and challenges the coloniser but finds himself weakened by the marriage. Thus ends another challenge from a local figure who had refused to bow to the colonialists:
“The majority of whiles who came to Guinea were poor whites. They came to make a new life in Guine because they had nothing in the Metropole. If they cam from the north, they were fishermen. If they were from the south, they were also fishermen. If they were from the centre, they were peasants, they scrubbed potatoes or picked grapes to make wine. When they came to Guine, they forgot all this and thought people didnt know. But the Regulo knew.”
Ndani leaves the community elder for a teacher, who also plans to oppose the Portuguese, only to be goaded into punching one of them, which leads to his deportation for life on a prison island. Ndani waits for him by the sea every year, until he comes no longer.
Why you should read it: This book does for Portuguese colonialism what George Orwell’s Burmese Days (and his accompanying essay, Shooting an Elephant) did for British rule in South Asia: it lays bare the inherent weakness of the coloniser that means only violence — and the support of local elites — can maintain their rule.
It also handles the full spectrum of coloinial racism from the casual everyday treatment of house servants to the violent, ruthless, bullying repression of anyone who challenges white power.
Read it if you liked: Burmese Days.
Beryl Gilroy — Frangipani House (1986)
Another classic from Heinemann’s Caribbean Writers Series. An indomitable matriach struggles against the confines of a nursing home. Eventually her strong spirit triumphs over the institution that would subdue her, particularly the matron, who shouts at her as if her voice has been “starched and lef tin the sun to harden”.
The home is a place where time stands still, and memories are confused.
Read it if you liked: One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Pick of the bunch:
Pynter Bender: What starts as a lyrical, even wistful, story in an impoverished cane village transforms into a powerful political novel about young people’s choice between confronting corrupt societies or emigrating.
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