The Tale of the Missing Man, by Manzoor Ahtesham

36376808Character can mean either a person imagined up by an author, but also the strengths and flaws that make up a person’s personality. In The Tale of the Missing Man, by Manzoor Ahtesham and translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark, we have a meditation on both. Zamir Ahmad Khan has lived in Bhopal, India for the length of his sad sack life. We meet him in his doctor’s office, where he complains of symptoms of dissociation and malaise. Then Zamir takes us back to his childhood to show how he became who and what he is. At the end, we’re left to think about the missed opportunities of Zamir’s life. Could things have been different if he’d made different choices? Was it even possible to choose other paths?

A third of the way into the book, the narrator interrupts to explain (emphatically) that Zamir Ahmad Khan is not the narrator. The narrator chides any readers who might draw comparisons between Zamir and the narrator, to ignore the many similarities between the two. Instead, the narrator asks us to think about what might have happened if. The problem with thinking about the what ifs of Zamir’s life is that Zamir seems pathologically incapable of making good choices in his life. He falls in love with the wrong people, then fails them. He goes to the wrong school. He makes the wrong friends. He lies, all the time. He just can’t seem to help himself.

Apart from the interruptions from the narrator, The Tale of the Missing Man is written as a series of memories centered on people who have since passed away. Zamir’s life is full of wonderfully flawed people, sometimes hilariously so. To be honest, I enjoyed the other people in Zamir’s life a lot more than I liked him. Zamir, unlike those other characters, doesn’t seem to have anything he wants. Where other characters pursue careers or build families, Zamir only seems to know what he doesn’t want and avoids commitment wherever possible. I don’t mind unlikeable characters normally, but the ones who don’t know what they want or have no ambitions annoy me. Zamir annoyed me a lot.

Grunebaum and Stark do sterling work translating Ahtesham’s novel. In their afterword, they write about Ahtesham’s skill with Hindi and Urdu, as well as a Persian style of storytelling called dastan, in a way that makes me strongly suspect that I’m missing layers of meaning in The Tale of Missing Man. This isn’t the fault of the translators. They captured Ahtesham’s meandering and highly detailed writing. The liveliness of the characters and the grit of Bhopal come through brilliantly.

The Tale of the Missing Man will be best enjoyed by readers who love detailed character studies. Readers who also like to think about a writer might be thinking about and trying to accomplish by creating characters will definitely find food for thought. I found the book overlong. The longer it went on, the more I skimmed. I just didn’t care enough about Zamir to stay glued to the text. There were parts of the book I really liked. The character studies and the ending were very good. The Tale of the Missing Man just wasn’t for me.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 August 2018.

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This week on the bookish internet

  • The latest development in the alternate Nobel for Literature: readers get to vote! (Book Riot)
  • 2,000 Libros is soliciting donations to send books to children who have been forcibly separated from their parents and incarcerated by the American government. (2,000 Libros)
  • I have never heard of fairy tale writer Mary de Morgan, but I desperately want to read her stories now. (Folklore Thursday)
  • Designers share their process for creating the covers for 10 books. (Electric Literature)
  • There’s a challenge working its way through the bookish internet: if you could only have 100 books in your library, which one would you pick? (A Life in Books)
  • Kamishibai sounds utterly charming. (The Conversation)
  • Marcos Santiago Gonsalez has a brilliant piece about teaching writing, code-switching, and what they mean for young writers. (Electric Literature)
  • Do you need more poetry in your life, but don’t know where to start? Author Rabih Alameddine posts a poem every day (or more) from a wide range of poets. (The Art Divas)

Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

36373298To kill a monster, do you have to be a monster? Maggie Hoskie’s deepest fear is that the answer to this question is yes. In Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse, we watch Maggie as she wrestles with internal and external demons as zombie-like creatures start to ravage a reimagined Dinétah. She’s the only one with the skills and the grit to take these creatures down before they kill everyone—and before Maggie loses all her humanity.

Everyone in the Dinétah is struggling to survive in their climate ravaged country. The fact that there are monsters from the Diné (Navajo) legends running around an eating people is just adding insult to injury. Maggie makes her living hunting down those monsters—and running interference with Coyote and other demigods—for trade goods and very little thanks. Since it’s the only thing she’s good at and because there’s no one else to take on the job, Maggie carries on. She’s tough and survivor. The problem is that her mentor abandoned her after telling her that evil (monsters and killing monsters) is like a disease. Maggie fears that she is becoming as much a monster as the creatures she kills with her shotgun (loaded with corn pollen and obsidian pellets) and knives.

The plot circles around the Dinétah as Maggie and her reluctantly acquired partner, Kai, race around the Arizona desert trying to figure out where the zombies are coming, figure out what the hell Coyote wants, and avoid Law Dogs with a grudge. Meanwhile, Kai and his cheerful determination work on Maggie’s self-loathing to try and get her to realize that her curses are really gifts. What makes Maggie really good at being a monsterslayer, her clan powers of speed and bloodlust, are exactly what make her worry that she is becoming a monster herself. The fact that she can dispatch a cluster of monsters in a matter of minutes (while getting everything covered in blood and bits) horrified any bystanders as well as Maggie. Along with the question of whether Maggie and Kai can save the Dinétah is the question of whether or not Maggie can learn to see herself as a protector instead of a killer.

Trail of Lightning is a fast read, packed with fights and wonderfully drawn characters. I wish Roanhorse had done a bit more with the setting and the flooded world she created, but I’m not too miffed. This book is the first one in a series and, given all of the buzz around the book, there should be plenty more entries in Maggie’s story in the future. What Roanhorse does really well is incorporate the Diné language and culture into the story. The text is full of Diné words that are not translated, which I think gives it the necessary verisimilitude to keep the story grounded while all the fantastic stuff happens.

Death and the Maiden, by Ariel Dorfman

163330It fascinates me (in a dark sort of way, I’ll admit) when people who have been through something terrible have to find a way to live alongside the ones who committed terrible crimes against them. After the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Apartheid, and other crimes against humanity, there were so many criminals that it wasn’t possible to just through them all in prison or have them executed. In Ariel Dorfman’s wrenching play, Death and the Maiden, we see a trio of people faced with the impossible question of justice when there seems to be no options in the face of monstrous, systemic crimes.

Paulina Salas is a broken woman doing the best she can to keep herself together. She has a sympathetic husband who loves her, but it’s clear that the damage she suffered at the hands of the fascist Chilean government some years before the play opens. Just after she learns that her husband, Gerardo, has just been named to a national truth and reconciliation commission modeled on Chile’s Rettig Commission, Paulina comes face to face with the man who helped torture and rape her while she was incarcerated.

Roberto Miranda, by pure chance, helped Gerardo make it home after Gerardo blew a tire. In gratitude, Gerardo invites Roberto over for a drink. But then Roberto shows up in the middle of the night, hoping to have a warm bed and a bit of company, Paulina overhears him talking to Gerardo. Roberto’s distinctive way of speaking and pet phrases lead Paulina to remember him as the doctor who helped torture him. So, when Gerardo is asleep, Paulina ties Roberto up and puts him on trial for his crimes.

Gerardo is predictably horrified, but Paulina is determined and Roberto is frantic. The play shows us one way that the impossible question of justice and retribution might be answered. Can Paulina get justice? Will “convicting” Roberto give her some peace? What about the other people who were hurt and killed by the fascists? How do the survivors get justice without becoming just like the criminals they want to punish? This three-act play is gripping, tense, and full of hard choices. I was completely hooked.

Son of the Book Sommelier (Part IV)

The Book Sommelier is back! Here are some recommended pairings for your delectation:

33503519Creatures of Will and Temper, by Molly Tanzer and What Should be Wild, by Julia Fine 

Even though they are quite different, I saw a common theme in these books. Humans, especially women, are trained away from sensuality—by which I mean giving freedom to their senses and seeking out pleasure or fully exploring their connections to the natural world. We are warned away from these joys with terrible consequences. In these two books, we see temptations and warnings both. At the end of them, we are left to recalibrate our own measure of how much freedom we should give ourselves.

Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck, and The Question of Redby Laksmi Pamuntjak

Both of these novels explore the idea of whether or not a name means destiny. Amatka is literal about this, The Question of Red more philosophical. I am fascinated by language. It’s the idea that random collections of syllables can contain so much meaning only because the speakers of a particular language decided that they should. Reading the pair of these books gave me a chance to see what might happen when too much meaning is invested in those random syllables. This paragraph might sound too academic, but these two books are great reads.

87280I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, by Connie Willis, and Too Loud a Solitude, by Bohumil Hrabal

Being a terminal bookworm and a librarian, I am drawn to books about books. These two books definitely fit the bill because they book look at what happens when there are too many books. (Fellow bookworms, stop clutching your pearls! This does happen.) In I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, booky people try desperately to save the last copies of books before they’re lost forever. In Too Loud a Solitude, a baler struggles against the tide of discarded books. On the one hand, it’s true that libraries have no place for books that are damaged, obsolete, or outside of the mission of the library. On the other, it’s wrenching to get rid of books. Throwing away a book feels like vandalism. These two books share a passion for the written word and a quixotic quest to save what others have tossed out.

The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner

36373648What do we do with people who break laws? If they’re in America, they’re thrown into prison where they are dehumanized. The stigma of the their crime and their prison sentence will follow them for the rest of their lives. In The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, we follow Romy Hall and a series of characters peripheral to her years in prison after murdering a man. Even though we see both sides of Romy’s story—and those of the other characters—we never lose site of the fact that these characters have committed serious crimes.

We meet Romy on the bus that is transferring her from county jail to Stanville Prison, where she will serve two life sentences for murder. She killed the abusive man who was stalking her. The facts that she beat him to death with a tire iron, she worked as a stripper, and that she had an overworked, unsympathetic public defender lead to her harsh sentence. Her crime also means that she’s left her young son on the outside. Unless someone brings him to visit. She will never see him again. We might be able to sympathize with Romy, but her fellow prisoners are another story. She is incarcerated with people who committed thrill murders, armed robberies, a child murderer, and women who ordered hits on people.

No one is innocent in Stanville. And yet, it’s hard not to feel for at least some of the women in the prison as they are penned in literally and figuratively by all of the rules that circumscribe their existence. It’s no wonder that people call prison graduate school for criminals. The women spend pretty much all their time trying to find ways around the rules to get a little comfort, share news, or secure a bit of safety. This on top of their miserable, poverty stricken lives means that these women are mostly doomed to a Hobbesian existence: nasty, brutish, and short.

Readers can’t help but judge these women. Even though they’ve already been before a judge and jury, The Mars Room seems to beg us to come up with our own verdicts. Knowing Romy’s backstory, from her childhood with an alcoholic, kept woman mother to her years as an addict to her memories of her son and her miserable trial, might make some readers want to give her a lighter sentence. But, as the guards constantly remind her (and us), she killed a man. Her choices ruined her life. What are we do to with people who commit violent crimes? The only answer The Mars Room gives is, “Not this.”

The Mars Room is a hard read. But I found it rewarding as it has given me so much food for thought. It’s a messy novel, appropriately enough, and I enjoyed following the sprawling connections between Romy and the rest of the characters. That said, it was hard to see what is being done across the country in the name of keeping the public safe and making criminals pay “their debt to society.” The Mars Room treads the delicate line between being preachy and entertaining. I hope this book is read widely.

Babylon, by Yasmina Reza

37842810There are several variations of this old saying, but that all go something to the effect of “A friend will help you hide but a great friend will help you hide the body.” In Yasmina Reza’s Babylon (smoothly translated by Linda Asher), we see the seeing play out over the course of 24 hours in a French city.

Elisabeth narrates the story of that very bad day in a highly confessional manner. Not only does she tells us what happened with her friend Jean-Lino, she also tells us about how they came to be friends, his family heritage, her troublesome father, and her vexed relationships with her mother and sister. She also tells us in detail about her efforts to create a lovely, lovely Spring Celebration party. The party is a success, except for a couple of uncomfortable moments. One of her husband’s work friends makes an ass of himself. Jean-Lino tells a story about his wife, Lydie, that embarrasses her.

Elisabeth doesn’t know anything is wrong until Jean-Lino comes down to the apartment she shares with her husband, Pierre, in the early hours of the morning to announce that he’s done something very stupid. He’s strangled Lydie and doesn’t know what to do. The sensible thing would be for Elisabeth and Pierre to call the police and let them deal with it. Elisabeth does not do the sensible thing. We get the sense from her confessions that she has a connection with Jean-Lino that she doesn’t have with anyone else. She feels like she’s found a true friend in him. So, she tries to help.

The plot of Babylon drifts back and forth through time as Elisabeth tells us what she thinks we need to know to understand why she didn’t just call the police. I’m not quite sure if Elisabeth is normally chatty or if she’s verbose because of nerves or if she’s just interested in rationalizing her behavior. I suspect its up to us readers to act as Elisabeth’s judge and jury. Speaking for myself, I’m can return a verdict that Babylon is a fascinating character study of an unusual woman.

Note on the translation: Linda Asher’s translation is wonderfully transparent. There were no strange word choices or weird word order to remind me that I was reading a work originally written in French. Reading Babylon was like being in a confession booth with Elisabeth.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.