The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 30, 2013

Under 200, Part 4

One problem with the random selection of books in a library is that I can never be sure what I will end up with. (This is the reason, of course, for the sub-200 page challenge I've taken upon myself.) As I don't read the blurbs I have no way of telling what the book will be about. So I sometimes end up with truly disturbing tales that ruin my sleep and make me wish I never started this escapade.

Ann Dee Ellis's This is what I did is an unbearable story. It is narrated by a boy who is somewhat slow to speech, socially awkward, and who is suffering under a burden of guilt. It is not difficult to guess what the guilt involves. It becomes clear soon enough as you read the book. There is child abuse. True, the protagonist is an engaging character. Still, the subject is horrific and I wonder what prompts a writer to address such an issue when the news is already filled with similar real-life horror stories. What is the message she intends to convey? Hope? Belief in human resilience? Love conquers miscommunication? 

In reality few victims of abuse have a fortunate future. The optimistic ending Ellis provides appears to me a mockery. I wish I had not read the book. I can't unread it and it has depressed me.

Jenny Erpenbeck (by Katharina Behling).
Where the earlier letters of the alphabet provided a succession of sexy stories, here among the 'D' and 'E' I'm floundering in a morass of melancholy. Jenny Erpenbeck is a German writer whose Visitation is the story of Germany as seen through the lives of the residents of one house. (She's also stunningly beautiful, but that's neither here nor there.) The characters are largely tragic, mirroring the calamitous twentieth century in their country. To give full vent to the disaster befalling them, the location of the house had to be in East Germany, for after the wars, there was also the bestiality of Communism to keep its residents occupied. Erpenbeck has a lovely touch (and the translation is lyrical, too) and the stories of ache and loss and love and family are superbly interleaved.


One fine result of this sequential hunt through the bookshelves is that I am discovering all sorts of writers I'd never otherwise have bothered to read. Even more happily, many of them are from outside the English-speaking world. It has often been said that far fewer books are translated into English than translated out of English. I remember reading somewhere that books translated into German far outnumber those into English. Were it not for the fad of international crime fiction, perhaps, even fewer books would have made it into English. My local library seems to be somewhat more enlightened than the local bookstores in that it stocks quite a few translated works. In the 43 books so far in my list, 16 are translated. Nice one, local library.


Right, I've forgotten what I wanted to say next.


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