I have already produced a list of 10 favourite novels, https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2020/05/05/ten-novels-i-have-loved-or-have-influenced-me/ and I was taken aback to realise that seven were European and three from the US. I determined therefore to produce a list of favourite novels from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Australasia as there are many novels from those countries that I have loved.
“Favourite” is, of course, arbitrary. My list would vary from day to day and year to year, and I enjoy novels in different ways. The exercise of selecting 10 favourites is akin to deciding whether Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert is the “best” composer, an impossibility. But the list making is fun and has the advantage of opening up the possibility of others enjoying books you have loved.
Day One: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
My first novel in this list is Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Indeed, I can’t think how I didn’t include this in the first list. I often used to describe it as my “third favourite book” after The Leopard and The Count of Monte Cristo. No novel describes being in love more lyrically. My main memory of the book is the journey of the lovers along the river and the temptation to keep sailing backwards and forwards forever. I’ve read the novel twice and am tempted to start again this minute.
I read One Hundred Years of Solitude years before I read Love in the Time of Cholera and was captivated by it: I’d never read such a book. I must read it again. I’ve also read Memories of My Melancholy Whores, which disappointed me, but I need to read more of his novels. How much should I read and how much reread? A tough question with not many years (and maybe no time at all) to go.
Day two: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
I know of no novel that better describes how the arrival of European colonials can destroy a culture that has survived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. The novel could be set in any number of places, including North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, or other Pacific Islands, but Things Fall Apart (the title from the great Yeats’s poem) by Chinua Achebe is set in the land of the Igbo. When I read the book ten or twenty years ago, I didn’t reflect so much on how the colonial invaders would destroy not only traditional cultures but ultimately the whole planet with their “gift” of industrialisation—but now I do.
I read the book after returning from Nigeria, which I have visited many times. I have good friends who are Efiks, the people of the South- Eastern corner of Nigeria, next to the Igbo lands. My friends speak Efik, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and English fluently. I speak only one language, but it’s not unusual for Africans to speak multiple languages. I once met a woman who grew up in Soweto and spoke 11 languages, learning them as a child as she moved between the different peoples of Soweto. My friend’s brother died in the Biafran War.
My Efik friends live in Calabar, and they took me to a colonial building above the river, from where tens of thousands of slaves were shipped to the Americas. They told me that more slaves were shipped from there than from anywhere else in Africa.
Oddly perhaps, one of the things I remember most vividly from the book is the food. I ate the same food in Nigeria: pepper soup; goat egusi soup with fufu; pounded yam; and garri. I discovered that Nigerian food, which I had never thought about, is delicious, and luckily there are Nigerian restaurants in Britain.
Day three: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Indian literature is rich. There is a sense that it has inherited the tradition of the great 19th century English novelists, tackling big themes in big novels, while the English have retreated to shorter novels about neurotic individuals. I caricature, but when I read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry I felt like I was reading Dickens. Set in teeming Mumbai, the story tells of the devastating consequences on individuals of Indira Gandhi’s sterilisation policy. It’s not a pretty picture of India, just as Dickens’s novels did not paint a pretty picture of England. Mistry writes about the poor, thugs, corruption, and one thing I remember clearly is his brilliant depiction of the view of the world of one of those legless beggars who move around on small wooden trolleys with wheels.
To be honest, I have A Fine Balance and Family Matters, his other novel, mixed up in my mind. I read the novels 20 years ago, and I realise that I’d heard nothing of Mistry since that time. What could have happened? Had he died? I look him up and discover that he has spent most of his life in Canada and that he hasn’t published a novel since Family Matters in 2002. His last book was published in 2006.
Day 4: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Richard Flanagan is a fine writer, and I could well have chosen Gould’s Book of Fish, a novel that lingers in my mind after 15 years. I treasure the vision of the racist creationist who set about killing all the Aboriginals in Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then) ending up pickled in a bottle in a museum. But I’ve gone for The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a book that a friend describes as “a chronicle of love and loss.”
When I read the book I had begun my habit of writing something about every book I read on Goodreads, but what I wrote were just notes. This is what I wrote: “A tremendous book. A lyrical love story. Brutal descriptions of the experiences of the Australian POWs building the Siam to Burma railway. Plus, sympathetic insights into the experience and subsequent lives of the Japanese soldiers who drove the POWs and their Korean subordinates. Some extraordinary descriptions of beheadings and vivisections of American POWs. One of my favourite poems, Tennyson’s Ulysses, is central to the book as are Japanese death poems. The account of the central character, Dorrigo Evans, shows how he is endlessly honoured but feels wholly empty inside–but for his love of Amy and his experiences in the jungle. Wonderful passages of writing.”
Day 5: The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the greatest of writers, but I’ve read only two of his novels: Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, which everybody seems to have read, and The Feast of the Goat. As a Londoner born in 1952, I have no direct experience of a cruel dictatorship, but I caught something of the horror when I stood beside the monument to the disappeared in Buenos Aries with a man who pointed to the names of his brother and sister-in-law and told me of how they had died. The Feast of the Goat also taught me about dictatorship as well as engrossing me in a complex, beautifully written novel. As soon as I finished the novel, I bought The End of the World News and was tempted to start it right away, but I have a general rule of not reading two books by the same author consecutively. I still haven’t read it, but now I will.
Day 6: Boyhood by J M Coetzee
I’m a great admirer of J M Coetzee, a South African writer of great clarity and insight, a man who sees that the emperor has no clothes, and one of the few people to win the Booker Prize twice. He won the Booker Prize for both Life and Times of Michael K and for Disgrace, both of which I have read, and I might well have chosen Disgrace, a book that shakes you and which is high on my reread list. I’ve also read Elizabeth Costello and The Master of St Petersburg, and I plan to read Waiting for the Barbarians. I’m not sure if it’s a fair choice—insofar as it’s a “fictionalised biography”—but I’ve chosen Boyhood, the first in the three books that constitute the whole biography. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2020/06/14/a-powerful-account-of-growing-up-in-a-beautiful-but-divided-land/ I’ve not read a better account of boyhood, an exciting and formative but risky time. I would have chosen all three, but that seemed like cheating. The middle one, Youth, is set mostly in London and is the weakest, but I could have chosen Summertime, the final one in which Coetzee imagines himself to be dead and invents a biographer who interviews people who knew him. It’s a remarkable book. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2020/07/06/how-does-a-recluse-write-an-autobiography-j-m-coetzee-has-a-brilliant-answer/
Day 7: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thein
I don’t associate China with novels. I don’t think that I’ve ever read a novel by a Chinese person who lived in China and wrote about China while living there. I’ve read Wild Swans, a novel that everybody read at the time (1991), but, although it was written by Jung Chang (who was born in China in the same year as me and was a Red Guard) it was written in English in Britain and is banned in China. Indeed, I found myself wondering if the novel was a form that featured in Chinese writing. I was, of course, completely wrong about this, and as with almost everything the Chinese invented the form long before Europeans. From Wikipedia: “The novel as an extended prose narrative which realistically creates a believable world of its own evolved in China and in Europe from the 14th to 18th centuries, though a little earlier in China. Chinese audiences were more interested in history and were more historically minded. They appreciated relative optimism, moral humanism, and relative emphasis on collective behavior and the welfare of the society.” That description doesn’t encourage me to read “the classic Chinese novels,” but perhaps I should. Does anybody in the West read them for pleasure? Nobody I know seems to.
I’m not sure if it’s cheating, but I have selected Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thein, a Canadian writer of Chinese origin. Just like Wild Swans the novel tells of the history of China, in Thein’s case from the Japanese invasion to the protests in Tiananmen Square. She is thus responding to the Chinese taste for historical novels, and she tells her story through three characters, all of them musicians. Another theme of the novel is mathematics, and, as I’ve written in my blog about the book, “Thein clearly loves music and maths, and she manages to weave them into the story in a way that works perfectly and doesn’t feel at all gratuitous.” https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2019/02/18/a-beautiful-novel-that-teaches-us-about-china-and-its-recent-history/ She refers to her book as “this literary resurrection”–and that’s exactly what the book is, an attempt to bring the dead (both the real and the imagined) to life. On other pages she explains further: “She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.” I thoroughly recommend the novel.
Day 8: The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
I spent 11 years going backwards and forwards to Bangladesh, but I was mostly in Dhaka, a megacity that feels on the edge of collapse, and saw little of what is a beautiful and varied country. One place I would have loved to visit was the Sundarbans, an area of mangrove swamps and shifting islands in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna Rivers in the Bay of Bengal, but I never did and now never will (I don’t fly any more except to Mexico). Instead of visiting I read The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, a book that I’ve described in a blog as a “biography” of a remarkable geographical area. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/10/16/a-review-of-the-hungry-tide-by-amitav-ghosh-a-biography-of-a-remarkable-geographical-area/
The main characters in this book are not the people but the Sundarbans, the rivers, the mahonas (the places where multiple rivers meet), the impenetrable, hostile mangroves, the islands that come and go, the crocodiles, the tigers, the river dolphins, and the weather, particularly the cyclone that comes every decade or so and sweeps much away.
Some of the best writing in the book is the long lyrical description of the Sundarbans. Here’s an extract: “The islands are the trailing threads of India’s fabric, the ragged fringe of her sari, the ãchol that follows her, half-wetted by the sea. They number in the thousands, these islands; some are immense and some no larger than sandbars; some have lasted through recorded history while others were washed into being just a year or two ago. These islands are the rivers’ restitution, the offerings through which they return to the earth what they have taken from it, but in such a form as to assert their permanent dominion over their gift.”
There is a constant emphasis on time and change: “In other places it took decades, even centuries, for a river to change course; it took an epoch for an island to appear. But here, in the tide country, country, transformation is the rule of life: rivers stray from week to week, and islands are made and unmade in days. In other places forests take centuries, even millennia, to regenerate; but mangroves can recolonise a denuded island in ten to fifteen years.”
There are people in the book and even a love story, but one thing I remember best from the book is how most of the women are widows from very young because the life expectancy of the men is extremely short. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/12/08/montaigne-and-the-sandarbans/ The men must fish and enter the forests in search of honey and other food, and every day a man is drowned or killed by tigers, crocodiles, or snakes.
As Ghosh writes, the assumption of early widowhood “was woven, like a skein of dark wool, into the fabric of their [the women’s] lives.” They married very young and expected to be widows in their 20s; they thought themselves lucky if widowhood was delayed until they were in their 30s. How did they deal with this constant threat of death?
They responded as Montaigne recommended: “when the menfolk went fishing it was the custom for their wives to change into the garments of widowhood. They would put away their marital reds and dress in white saris; they would take off their bangles and wash the vermilion from their heads. It was as though they were trying to hold misfortune at bay by living through it over and over again. Or was it merely a way of preparing themselves for that which they knew to be inevitable?”
Day Nine: Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee
Fiela’s Child powerfully evokes life in the Knysna Forest, which is at the Southern tip of South Africa. The novel is set in the middle of the 19th century, and although before Apartheid it deals with the relationship among different racial groups and tackles racism and sexism. Matthee is also concerned with environmental destruction, and you care for the forest, ocean, and animals (ostriches and elephants), but you also care about the people and what happens to them.
But it is the ostriches and elephants—and their complicated relationship with humans—that I remember best. Fiela’s family are trying to encourage two ostriches to mate, so that they can get relatively rich from selling their feathers. They have a handsome domesticated male, Striker, and a skinny, temperamental female, Pollie. They’ve fattened her up to make her more desirable, but neither ostrich seems much interested in the other. They must mate, Fiela insists, and they do.
Meanwhile, Elias, the father of an Afrikaans family, has developed a plot to kill and elephant and sell the tusks. He has no gun, so he is constantly searching for another way to kill an elephant. A friend describes to him an extraordinary scene of elephants wrapping their trunks round a tree to squeeze round a high path where they would fall to their deaths without the support of the tree. Elias has the idea of sawing most of the way through the tree, so that when the elephants use the tree for support the branch will snap and the elephants fall to their death. I felt tense as the elephants climbed the path towards the tree; I hated the idea that the lead elephant would die. And he didn’t: the clever animal sensed something wrong, perhaps human scent. Not only that: the next day the elephants hid themselves and sprang out and chased Elias. He just managed to escape but lost his blanket and tools. Every reader must be on the side of the elephants.
Matthee write four forest novels. I’ve not read any of the others, but Fiela’s Child has sold a million copies and the English version is in Penguin Classics.
Day 10: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Making the final choice of my top 10 is hard as it’s the moment of exclusion. I should surely have included Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I read it so long ago that I remember little. Similarly, I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children so long ago that I barely remember it, and I’ve found other novels of his that I’ve read disappointing. I loved Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy but more for comfort and amusement than for profundity. I thought that I ought to include something from V S Naipaul, but I discovered that I gave The House of Mr Biswas only four stars (out of five) on Goodreads and then read him described as a British writer—so I’ve left him out. I’ve read many books by Peter Carey, another person who has won the Booker Prize twice, and I find their quality variable; but I did love Oscar and Lucinda and wondered about including it, but again I read it a long time ago. I was greatly taken by Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez, a strange novel that described the fate of five different bodies of Eva Peron. I also have a memory of a New Zealand novel about people living in the Mackenzie country in the 19th century when it took 18 months to receive a response to a letter sent to England, but I can’t even find the book.
After all that ruminating, I’ve opted for The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, another book that I read a long time ago—probably in 1997 when it was published. It evoked India strongly for me, and my strongest memory of the book is of the making of chutney. For me the whole book taste of chutney, hot, spicy, and full of tasty bits.