World Review of Books — Iceland to Italy

I believe every novel should be an adventure, revealing something wholly different to your understanding of the world. That’s why I am reading one book from every country in the world, from A to Z. I’m finding hidden gems that you won’t find on the average bookstore shelf. See more at and let me know what I should read next.


Sjon — Moonstone (2013)

Setting: Iceland at the end of the First World War

What it’s about: A mysterious boy flits about Reykjavik during the Spanish Flu epidemic. It is a surrealist painting in writing.

He lives in the shadow of the city, prostituting himself to sailors and suited businessmen alike.

Also see: Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl’s Illska— sadly only available in French and German.

Rating: *


Upamanyu Chatterjee — English August (1988)

Setting: Newly-independent India

What it’s about: An optimistic, naive Indian civil servant arrives in a backwater town with grand plans to bring the fruits of independence, only to get bogged down in corruption, tribalism and bureaucracy.

Why you should read it: For the loneliness of the young civil servant trying to do good and identify with his country, whose disappointment by becoming a slacker, watching porn and smoking pot.

Read it if you liked: This is Evelyn Waugh meets Hanif Kureishi, with a bit of the spirit dissolute spirit of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis or The Graduate.

Rating: *

The best books from India? My list:

Untouchable — Mulk Raj Anand, for a bottom-up view of the politics of Satyagraha.

The Inheritance of Loss — Kiran Desai, for a cross-generational exploration of what is lost, and gained, across generations of migration between societies, lands and cultures.

A Train to Pakistan — Khushwant Singh, for the “google street map” view of communities breaking apart under the pressure of partition. It is almost sociological in the way it explores how cynical politics can drive wedges and create bitter conflict between groups where previously none existed, making it a universal warning about the ever present dangers of identity politics.

The Golden Gate — Vikram Seth, for its charming rhyming verse.


Eka Kurniawan — Man Tiger (2004)

Setting: A poo rural community in post-colonial Indonesia.

What it’s about: A mysterious murder is gradually explained through the often violent dramas of two families.

Man Tiger has been labelled as a supernatural novel in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but you feel Kurniawan is at his most passionate with the pastoral descriptions of the community. Almost more in the spirit of Thomas Hardy, the pivotal murder is almost more of an excuse to tell the story of the society that gave birth to it.

The most powerful moments are thoroughly domestic, and the worst suffering that inflicted by family members upon each other, particularly the physical and emotional domestic violence of the father of the killer with the tiger inside, Margio. A key moment in the formation of Margio is when they move from a shack to a new town, the father promising them a new and better life:

“The had reached the outskirts of town, an avenue of beautiful houses. They had yet to see their new home, but at this welcome sight, at the glistening coloured fences embellished with ornate ironwork, bright lights, and mailboxes, Margio started to get excited…But instead of stopping here they turned into an alley so narrow the cart almost couldn’t get through…The cart trundled more slowly than ever, more shakily, past densely packed shacks and untended gardens, all previously hidden by the bright houses they had passed.”

They arrive at a house that “a fallen coconut could flatten” which “looked somber and smelled of death, damp and misery”.

Also powerful: the stoic resistance of Margio’s mother, Nuraeni, to domestic violence. When her husband’s attempts to renovate the house fail, she takes over the concrete garden and starts planting flowers. At first, they bloom into a wonderful garden, “putting any flower shop to shame”, but Nuraeni has a different, bitter vision, telling her daughter that the flowers are for her funeral, allowing the greenery to take over and spoil their home:

“The yard, which they had imagined a beautiful garden adorning their little house, was now a jungle, with blooms popping up every which way…The garden became indistinguishable from dense undergrowth, and Margio started to call it a wilderness. The leaves either withered or jostled each other for life…Within two years, no one could see the facade of the house; it as covered entirely by shimmering green leaves…Dead plants fertilised the soil, and the rest thrived.”

As in the garden, so in love and in humanity, raw nature refuses to be controlled, and wildness lurks, ready to overtake the thin layer of civil order.

This is a circular novel grand in its scope despite being limited in geography. Its remains rooted within the life of two families in their small community, but the camera pans broadly within this small panorama, viewing the same period of events from different angles, so that by the end we view the violent murder that it starts with from a completely new perspective.

Read it for: The extremely subtle evocation of the violence that lies deep in humanity, and particularly in Indonesia — the scars of which the book makes only vague allusions: the Japanese occupation, a war of independence of the Netherlands, which was then followed by a brutal genocide of left-wing people.

The best books from Indonesia: Eka Kurniawan is touted as the heir to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, but I found his tetralogy about an Indonesian nobleman and journalist under Dutch colonialism prosaic and one-dimensional, almost like a Tintin story.

Read it if you liked: Salman Rushdie, Adolfo Bioy Casares, John McGahern.


Mahmoud Dawlatabadi – Thirst (2014)

Setting: the Iran-Iraq war

What it’s about: Is a soldier still human? That is the question that hangs over my books from both Iran and Israel.

In Thirst, a tank of water stands between two sets of soldiers, Iranian and Iraqi. The narrative eventually forms a mirror between the two sides. Meanwhile, the writer himself is struggling to finish the story of the two soliders and the water tank because a prison camp head is coercing him to fabricate war propaganda. The two wage a witty war of words in between scenes from the battlefield.

Mahmoud Dawlatabadi probes our assumptions. As two soldiers argue in a trench about how to treat their prisoner, one explains to the other why they can do their duty and kill soldiers, but not a human being:

“It’s quite simple, sir. Soldiers are different from human beings. You can’t see a soldier’s face from far away.”

Why you should read it: For the interlacing of millenia of Persian and Mesopatamian history into modern conflicts (“What truce? We’ve been on the offensive or defensive for centuries”) and the subtle probing of the nature of humans in conflict, ancient and modern.

The dual narratives of ‘the author’ and story was risky, but works as an ode to the power of writing, as when the author ponders his plot:

“The author immediately fell to wondering whether his pen might even be able to prevent the prisoner’s death.”

Mahmoud Dawlatabadi tells us the author is a man “smitten with words” in reference to a 17th century poen “when a person who is smitten by words is given a pen, he will not stop writing even if threatened by a blade’.” Which is essentially the theme of this book.

This dedication to the word, to truth, is contrasted to a disdain for weapons of war, which gives the sense of urgency that a way must be found to overcome ancient divisons once and for all:

“Ever since the invention of lead bullets along with a device from which they could be fired in order to kill people, human beings have become nothing but statistics and can hardly be called ‘people’ anymore. And consequently, honour, kindness and humanity are now redundant concepts. For this new invention can be aimed and fired at anonymous individuals known as ‘targets’”

Rating: **


Abbas Khider — The Oranges of the President (2010) & Letter to the Aubergine Republic (2013)

Setting: Iraq under Saddam Hussein

What it’s about: Abbas Khider is an Iraqi refugee who writes in German. He writes about the repression of the Baathist state and the pain of exile.

In Letter to the Aubergine Republic, we follow a letter that a refugee working in Libya tries to get smuggled back to his family in Iraq. Every stage of the journey is a chapter introducing new characters on the smuggling route — taxi drivers, truck drivers, cafe owners and policemen — and their lives. In a sinister finale, it is revealed that the secret service actually control the entire route in order to control exiles.

In The President’s Oranges, a young man tries to live an ordinary life under a brutal regime, but is arrested (he doesnt know what for) and tortured, and eventually takes flight into exile. While charming anecdotes show that shoots of daily life can always survive (the hero forms a touching and symbolic friendship with a dove handler — the memory of which is interspersed through the story of imprisonment), Khider reminds us how quickly hope can be crushed under dictatorship.

The title comes from the moment when prisoners desperately hoping for an amnesty on Sadaam Hussein’s birthday get oranges instead.

Why you should read it: For the everyday courage of ordinary people undertaking small but dangerous acts of resistance, much in the spirit of Vaclav Havel’s power of the powerless. At the end of Oranges, two refugees escape from Iraq one says:

“Although I am very happy to have brought my family to safety, I just want to spit on everything. On my home. On the Baathists. On America. On the Arabs. On the Allies. On all of humanity. And on God, that layabout who never gets off his ass”
“Let’s spit together then.”
We spat on the ground, and went on our way.

It is also a reminder of the pre-Arab Spring world of Qaddafi, Mubarak and Sadaam Hussein.

Also read it for the powerful voice of a political refugee who settled in Germany and made it his home in a way many more have since then. In these deeply autobiographical books he speaks on behalf of all refugees, and all victims of repressive states.


Rating: *** (strongly recommended for anyone learning German).


Colm Toibin – Brooklyn (2009)

Setting: Early 20th century New York City and Ireland

What it’s about: A young Irish woman, Eilis, builds a new life abroad, but the bonds of home are hard to unwind from. In many ways this feels like a sequel to one of the great Brian Friel plays about Irish immigration, Philadelphia, Here I Come, where a young man remembers all the events that led to him leaving home on his last day in the country.

Toibin has an exceptional gift for bringing characters to life through the small hardships they learn to overcome. Eilis struggles to master the boat journey, until a more travelled woman teaches her the ropes. By the end it is Eilis mentoring another young girl.

Why you should read it: For the experience of the immigrant, defined as much by the land they leave behind as the one they arrive in.

The defining moment of the book is when Eilis is tempted to stay in Ireland, and not to continue her new life in America. Returning to Ireland and treated with more respect, the staid community seems more open until she is reminded of the reality — the small-mindedness and cruelty, at which point she immediately decides to return, though the price is a heartbroken mother:

“”I’ll go down and get Joe Dempsey to collect you in the morning. I’ll ask hi to come at eight so you’ll be in plenty of time for the train.” Eilis noticed a look of great weariness come over her. “And then I’m going to bed because I’m tired and so I won’t see you in the morning. So I’ll say goodbye now.”

This review in the LRB sums up Toibin’s writing style by calling it “the grandeur of the commonplace”.

The best book from Ireland? It is very challenging to pick one writer, let alone one book, from my home country. Obviously Ulysses is one of the most important books of the 20th Century, but while it is steeped in Dublin it is also a book about everyman. I am choosing Colm Toibin instead because I am constantly surprised by how people have not heard of him — one of the finest, most sensitive and powerful writers alive today. His body of work is broad and wide-ranging, so I recommend starting with probably his most well-known work, Brooklyn, since it highlights his ability to create a bond between reader and character

Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman is the funniest novel I have ever read. It is a mind-bending fantasy set in the west of Ireland that manages to mock everything else in Irish literature.

But Colm Toibin is not only Ireland’s finest living writer, the number of simple, everyman characters that he has breathed life into makes him the best Irish writer ever. Toibin plants his characters in your mind like seeds, and under his pen they bloom, watered carefully with the minutae of everyday life.

In his short story collection, Mothers and Sons, for example, a widow who has been a housewife most of her life discovers independence by opening a chipper on the main street of her small time.

Rating: *** — I wanted to highlight Colm Toibin over writers like John McGahern and Flann O’Brian because I am constantly shocked to meet people, even from his county of Wexford, who have not heard of him, even though he is one of the most beautiful, emotive living writers today.


Shani Boianjiu – The People of Forever are not Afraid

Setting: 21st century Israel

What it’s about: What happens to everyday, precocious teenage women who grow up in a war zone and join the army? Sparse, powerful writing takes the reader into a wholly original perspective through the interweaving, wholly personal, experience of three female soldiers, weaved into the major upheavals and conflicts of 21st century Israel.

Just like Mahmoud Dawlatabadi, Boianjiu’s characters struggle to maintain their basic humanity against the conformity of army life and military orders. So when Lea is manning the checkpoint, she cannot help but see people, not danger as the army wants:

“…I would still only notice what I happened to notice. This was because I couldn’t realize I was a soldier. I thought I was still a person.”

And when reservists are called up:

“They wore green, they had guns on their backs, but they weren’t soldiers. they had beards, long hair, jobs in factories, jobs elsewhere, mortgages, wives, children.
Reservists, they went fast in that war – not the fastest, but they went fast.”

As army life starts to grind Lea down, we see more humanity, not less. When she goes out to the desert to urinate behind a dune and a civilian follows her to hassle and harangue her, he does not “catch her with her pants down”, but the patch of wet sand stands between them:

“When I lowered my eyes and stood without words, I saw that the fruit flies swarmed over the wetness”

Boianjiu describes the transitions to adulthood and the struggle to regain basic feeling in civilian life in completely unique ways. When Lea reaches the end of her service she struggles to imagine the future:

“She guess she must want a family or to get into a good school, but she guessed it from the data around her. She did not feel the want herself.”

Why you should read it: The deeply poetic way the normal preoccupations of a teenage woman is magnified by the mostly monotonous, sometimes terrifying experience of military service. The strength of these stories is how they thrive in the everyday. These are everyday women leading what is for Israelis everyday lives, but Boianjiu brings them to life with brilliantly sardonic turns of phrase, and pure attitude:

“Maybe trouble isn’t something you do, it is something you are.”

And these three women are trouble, for themselves and others.

Also read this book for the way Boianjiu finds beauty in the mundane, everyday detail of military life:

“On her way back to the caravan, grasshoppers were catching their reflections in the gasoline pools that had formed from all the weapon cleanings, and plunging into them.”

Nor does she shy away from the dark side of Israeli society, human trafickking, marital violence and racism are dealt with subtly but directly.

For example, the little hints of the racism against Jews from North Africa, are not overpowering, and the characters do not let them dominate their story:

“There was one cook, the oldest of all the soldiers, a twenty-seven-year-old man from a kibbutz in the desert who used to make ha-ha-angry jokes at Mom all the time and say her skin was dark as an old chocolate cake or shit, and that she should not be allowed in his dining room because it was a health risk either way, and who gave her kisses on her neck and hard-boiled eggs he had left over.”

Books you should read from Israel: I feel that I have never felt the voice, the attitude, the “wait a minute” cool of everyday Israelis more than in Boianjiu’s writing. Look beyond Amos Oz and David Grossman and read this.

Two other mentions: Assaf Gavron’s satire on colonies in the Occupied Territories The Hilltop and Yishai Sarid’s redemption tale of an Israeli spy, Limassol.

Read this if you like: Colm Toibin, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, Jospeh Heller’s Catch 22.

Rating: ***


Leonardo Sciascia — The Day of the Owl (1961)

Setting: Sicily

What it’s about: An investigator tries to track down a mafia murder through a see of complicit silence. Sciascia excoriates a society in thrall to the mafia with a loving sense of humour for a parade of darkly comic, stoic Sicilian characters.

Why you should read it: This is more than a detective story, it is a story of politics and culture. We see Sicily through the eyes of an urbance northern investigator, who uses charm to try to untangle the web of silence, only to uncover deeper conspiracies.

The best book from Italy? There are so many Italys, so many novelists, notably Primo Levi and Italo Svevo. Honorary mentions for Cesare Pavese’s The Political Prisoner and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic story of a Sicilian noble family in decline, The Leopard. For Italy’s modern working class — Silvia Avallone’s Steel. For actually learning Italian, Alessandro Baricco’s dreamy romance Silk.

Ivory Coast

Gauz — Debout-payé (2015)

Setting: Modern Paris, seen from the perspective of African immigrants

What it’s about: Paris and its consumer meccas seen through the eyes of the security guard, from people shopping the sales in cheap shops to posh-perfume stores on rich streets, written as if a glossary.

This detached observation puts the quirks of modern life under the microscope:

FROM ONE SHOPPING CENTRE TO ANOTHER: Leave Dubai, the city-shopping centre, and come to PAris on holidays to stuff your bags on the Champs-Elysees, the street-shopping centre.

That colourful story dovetails with the story of west African immigrants in the early 1970s, charting the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric in politics. We see the euphoria of the migrant who achieves financial independence and a steady job, and the disillusion of being a second-class citizen. The novel begins with Congolese, Ivorians, Malians, Guieans, Beninois, Senegalese “etc” queueing for job interviews, each with their own accents and styles — an internationalism too often lost to western stereotypes.

Why you should read it: Gauz is an exciting young new writer from Cote d’Ivoire. He has a unqiue style and a sharp political voice delivered with style and a sense of humour. This timely book injects with humanity the people that Europe would rather not see, making it essential reading.

The best book from Cote d’Ivoire? The most well-known book from the country is Allah is not obliged by Ahamdou Kourouma, telling the story of the civil war that ravaged the region in the 1990s from the perspective of a child soldier.

Rating: **