Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Dorfman, Al Aswany, and Wiesel

In Which I Review “Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman, “Friendly Fire” by Alaa Al Aswany, and “Dawn” by Elie Wisel

Hello! Happy almost New Year. I hope you are having a healthy and safe holiday season so far. I’ve reviewed three books. They’re definitely not cheerful, but they do make you think.

“Death and the Maiden,” by Ariel Dorfman

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They let me sit in on sessions where my role was to determine whether the prisoners could take that much torture [….] At first I told myself that it was a way of saving people’s lives, and I did because many times I told them without it being true simply to help the person who was being tortured. I ordered them to stop or the prisoner would die. But afterwards I began to… bit by bit, the virtue I was feeling turned into excitement.

This is a play about a husband and a wife who are living in the aftermath of a dictatorship. They have both suffered trauma, especially the woman, who was blindfolded and tortured by a man who liked to pay Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. One day, a man arrives, having helped her husband fix his tire. The woman recognizes the man’s voice, learns he has a tape of Death and the Maiden in his car, and comes to believe that he was her torturer. So she ties him up and puts him on trial.

This was a fascinating play. Is the man really guilty, or is it all just an unlucky coincidence? What will happen during the trial? What will be its result? Will the woman come to terms with her past?

This isn’t a spoiler but it’s something to keep in mind: if you don’t like ambiguous endings, you probably won’t like this play. Even so, I would still recommend it, because it contains a lot of important truths about the lengths people will go to prove things to themselves, and to others.

Friendly Fire, by Alaa Al Aswany, Translated by Humphrey Davies

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From my first day in the department, I had determined to despise and look down on [my coworkers]. Without saying anything, I knew how to let them feel their insignificance. It happened at this period that I needed glasses and I picked out round frames made of thin plastic. I felt that these gave my face a superior cast that was somehow provocative.”

Disclaimer: I took a class with Al Aswany and read some of the stories in this book, so I have to hope that my review isn’t biased.

This is a book of short stories about Egypt. One of them is a novella.

The stories had a kind of humor about them, even though it wasn’t comedic. It seemed more like the author was looking at his characters with an understanding grin. So, even somewhat-unsympathetic characters in the book didn’t feel very unsympathetic because I understood where they were coming from.

Also, the use of details was good. Sometimes I had to re-read a story to get at its subtleties (there was a lot that was subtextual). The insights gained made it worthwhile, though.

Overall,  I really enjoyed this book, especially “The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers,” “The Kitchen Boy,” “Dearest Sister Makarim,” “The Sorrows of Hagg Ahmad,” “Waiting for the Leader,” and “Boxer Puppies, All Colors.” My favorite story was “Izzat Amin Iskandar.” I can’t say why, exactly, but if you could only read one story from this collection, that one should be it.

Dawn, by Elie Wiesel, Translated by Frances Frenaye

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“‘I have a son your age,’ [the British prisoner] began, ‘but he’s not at all like you. He’s fair-haired, strong, and healthy. He likes to eat, drink, go to the pictures, laugh sing, and go out with the girls. He has none of your anxiety, your unhappiness.’ And he went on to tell me more about this son, who was studying at Cambridge. Every sentence was a tongue of flame which burned my body [….] I mustn’t listen to him, I told myself. He’s my enemy, and the enemy has no story.”

This book is set in British-controlled Palestine, and is about Elisha, a young Israeli freedom fighter who previously survived a Nazi concentration camp. Now, he’s been assigned to execute an Englishman, in retaliation for the British executing an Israeli prisoner, only he doesn’t want to kill the man. This book is about him waiting for dawn, when he has to carry out the act.

Previously, I had only read Night, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dawn. It turned out to be very good.

I appreciated how well it portrayed Elisha’s moral conflict. His guilt was really well-examined, and it was interesting to see Wiesel go into both rationalizations for and condemnations of the act Elisha was going to have to take. Also, Wiesel didn’t judge the protagonist, but just showed him like he was, which somehow made the book’s ultimate condemnation of murder much stronger.

Some of the other characters in the book were the people who ordered the protagonist to carry out the execution. They were well-characterized too, which I appreciated. Wiesel could have easily shown them as heartless and cruel, but that wouldn’t have given any insight into anything, and would have weakened the book. Instead, Wiesel showed that they were just as confused as Elisha, only that they were better at hiding it.

Overall, this book was very good because the author portrayed the characters as humans instead of as heroes and villains. It’s an intense read, but one that I would definitely recommend (especially on audiobook).

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Borges and Nagibin

In Which I Read “Ficciones” by Jorge Luis Borges and “Arise and Walk” by Yuri Nagibin

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Happy Hanukkah! I have been reading four books, but I’ve only managed to finish two so far. The other two will be kept a secret until next week. Meanwhile, I’ve reviewed the two books that I have read…

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

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“When it was proclaimed that the Library comprised all books, the first impression was one of extravagant joy. All men felt themselves lords of a secret, intact treasure. There was no personal or universal problem whose eloquent solution did not exist — in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly expanded to the limitless dimensions of hope.”

That was basically me when I discovered the library for the first time in my life.

Seriously though, Borges’s book was a very interesting read from an intellectual standpoint. He’s one of those authors who asks cool questions like, “What if we construct a fake society that actually starts feeling more real than the society we’re in?” and then rolls with it. All of his stories are basically like that, and you wind up thinking about them long after you’ve read them, which makes them entertaining to read as a result.

Ficciones also has the benefit of containing a lot of his great stories. You have the “Library of Babel,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “The Circular Ruins,” and “Death and the Compass.” What more could you want?

So if you’ve never read Borges before, and if you love intellectual speculation, Ficciones is a perfect place to start.

Arise and Walk, by Yuri Nagibin,
Translated by Catherine Porter

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“[About a prisoner calling his wife from Siberia] The operator wound the handle of the receiver, and wound it again. The receiver filled with rustling, crackling sounds, like wind stirring along an autumn forest path […] The voice of space is plaintive and troubled, and fills the heart with fear. Then suddenly, from far, far away, at the other end of the world, he clearly heard the voice of his former wife: ‘Yes?’ The tiny line had finally reached out to him, and tiny though it was, he suddenly felt terribly close to this long-lost family from which he was probably excluded now for ever. ‘Hello there Katya!’ he yelled. ‘How are you all?’ ‘All right.’ The voice was stiff and cold–but maybe it was just the distance that made it sound so.”

While Borges’s book was filled with intellectualism, Nagibin’s book is filled with emotion, which made them good to read in the same week.

Arise and Walk is about a boy whose father gets sent to prison in Siberia. As he grows up, the boy preserves a relationship with him, visiting him and sending him packages. At the same time, the Stalinist state penalizes people whose relatives are prisoners, so we see how the protagonist has to hide his father’s existence from his friends, co-workers, and acquaintances.

This book was very good. It had something of Chingiz Aitmatov in it, so I can’t say exactly what. Maybe in the way they both felt sincere and were thus able to elicit emotions in the reader (at their best, anyway).

Even though this book was good, something felt like it was missing. We learned a lot about the father (who was a very good character), but less about the son (other than that he had conflicting feelings about his father). He never went through an arc of his own, even though he was the protagonist. Contrast this with Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamila, where the protagonist tells a story about other people, but is changed by it himself. Maybe that’s what was missing from Arise and Walk.

After reading the book, I was surprised by two things. First of all, that Nagibin’s own father had been arrested. Maybe this would explain the sincerity of his story. Second of all (and less relevantly), that he wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay for a Kurosawa film. Yes. You can read more here.

Until next week! Have a happy Hanukkah (if you celebrate), and read books, because they justify the universe and expand it to the limitless dimensions of hope.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Salih, Yakhina, and Cortázar

In Which I Review Books by Tayeb Salih, Guzel Yakhina, and Julio Cortázar

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all healthy and safe and vaccinated (or soon-to-be-vaccinated!) I’ve read three more books for this week…

The Wedding of Zein And Other Stories, by Tayeb Salih,
translated by Denys Johnson-Davies,

illustrated by Ibrahim Salahi

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“Zein was first slain by love when he had still not attained manhood. He was thirteen or fourteen at the time and was as thin and emaciated as a dried-up stalk.”

Tayeb Salih is known as one of Sudan’s greatest writers. The Wedding of Zein helps to explain why.

Zein is a book about a guy named Zein who gets married in Sudan. It’s short, and the version I read has two stories that come with it (“The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid” and “A Handful of Dates.”)

I personally enjoyed the stories more than I enjoyed Zein, but that’s only because I thought the stories were great while I thought Zein was just very good.

In Zein, Salih was good at evoking characters with nuances and quirks. The story’s plot was also intriguing. For some reason though, I found the ending to be much more interesting than the book’s beginning or middle. It left me with a lot more to think about, maybe. Had the beginning and middle been more interesting (which is super-subjective anyway), I would have probably enjoyed Zein as much as the two stories that went along with it.

Even so, I would still recommend reading this book.

Zuleikha, by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden

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“The egg was almost transparent, with a touch of light iridescence. Through its shining walls, which reached to chin level, Leibe saw the square in front of the university gleaming with cleanliness under golden sunbeams, leisurely students smiling deferentially at him, and absolutely smooth columns glimmering with unsullied whitewash. There was no bloodstain.”

This PEN award-winning book is about a Tatar woman named Zuleikha whose husband is killed by Soviet Union officials. Then Zuleikha gets sent to Siberia where she encounters the man who killed her husband. She also encounters a bunch of other people…

The first two-thirds of this book felt to me like a better-written version of The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Both authors are screenwriters, and their writing styles were similar– the books zipped along vividly and energetically. Even so, there was more interiority in Zuleikha than in the Tattooist, so I found myself sympathizing a lot more with Zuleikha’s protagonists.

Then there were some really good scenes where the protagonists had to survive the harsh winter climate of Siberia, which reminded me of scenes from another book (by Gary Paulsen) called Hatchet. Yes, Zuleikha was turning out to be a very good read…

Then came the last third of Zuleikha. Up till now, the characters had been fleshed-out people whose logical and grounded actions caused reactions which drove the plot forward.

Suddenly, they became victims of coincidences and actions that had no grounding in their previous characterization. What was really frustrating was that the author could have gotten to the same point without these coincidences. The book would have been stronger as a result.

Well, except for the anticlimactic end. The ending felt like the author was just going for the most convenient resolution rather than the one that best fit the characters’ arcs. As a result, characters wound up not really developing, and the book wound up seeming like it had lost its way.

So if you’re looking for a good book to read I probably wouldn’t recommend Zuleikha. I would recommend Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet instead, because the entirety of that book was well-written, unlike the entirety of this book (in my super-subjective opinion).

Literature Class, by Julio Cortázar,
translated by Katherine Silver

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“Having a message isn’t enough to create a novel or a short story, because that message, when it’s ideological or political, can be much better communicated in a pamphlet, an essay, or a news report. That’s not what literature is good for. Literature has other ways of conveying those messages, and can maybe even convey them with a lot more force than an article, but to do that, to have more force, it has to be great, it has to be elevated.”

This book by Julio Cortázar is a compilation of a bunch of lectures he gave at UC Berkeley in 1980. They were good, short, and not very substantial.

Compare them with Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist. Llosa had a lot more substance in terms of his discussion of fiction and craft. Cortázar just seemed to talk in generalities before reading from his short stories.

Even so, they were interesting to read for his perspective on writing and its purpose. That being said, his short stories might be a more worthwhile (and substantial) read…

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!