In terms of reading, there was nothing unusual that occurred in May. For the third consecutive month, I immersed in the depth and the aesthetics of European literature, beyond the ubiquitous and more popular English and Irish tales. As I have mentioned before, this is one facet of world literature that I am find myself in the dark oftentimes. But my literary journey for the past three months has commenced the correction of a skewed record.
However, as has been the case for the past two months, May was a slow reading month. The burden of balancing two acts – one personal, one professional – has taken a great toll on my reading. Thankfully, I was still able to find time to indulge in captivating reads. On the contrary, I have been lagging in my book reviews; I have at least ten pending more as of May 31. Just when I thought I was catching up, I got doused with a bitter pill of reality. But hey, I do have to earn a living right?
Back to reading.
I concluded my April reading journey with a German classic, Nobel Prize for Literature winner Herman Hesse’s Demian. This was after traveling all over Europe, from Russia, to the United Kingdom, and eventually to Germany. The journey was pleasant, and so was Demian. It showcased Hesse’s profound storytelling and his mastery in stimulating the reader’s introspection. It was a fitting way to end April.
The challenge for me at the start of May was looking for an equally compelling read that can carry over my hard-earned momentum that started last March. The perfect book presented itself out-of-the blue. The General of the Dead Army is Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s debut novel. I purchased it out of sheer curiosity, but with the idea of reading it as part of my European tour. So thus begins my May reading journey.
The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare
Tucked in the Adriatic coast is the obscure and hardly-ever talked about nation of Albania. Ask anyone to find the country in the map and probably about 10% would be able to pinpoint it at first glance. Nevertheless, the contours of this exotic country speak of a tumultuous past. Unfortunately, its pivotal role in key world events remain unheard of in most corners of the globe. Thanks to the gift of literature, Albania is brought closer to some parts of the world.
The General of the Dead Army is Ismail Kadare’s first novel, conveying the story of an Italian colonel sent to the backyards of Albania to perform a humanitarian task – retrieve the remains of soldiers who died during the Second World War. It has an interesting premise. The writing was powerful, but the story was bleak, grayish. The clinking sound of spades digging deep into the earth reverberated all through out the story. More than that, Kadare’s vivid writing drew a rough sketch of his country’s coarse outlines.
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner
From Albania, I traveled to the Scandinavian region to dig through one of the books that I keep encountering and hearing about. Jostein Gaardner’s Sophie’s World has, since time immemorial, has captured my interest. When I had the chance to nab a copy of the book, I didn’t hesitate and grabbed it without any ado. What does this book hold that it has piqued my curiosity for a long time? More importantly, will it live up to the hype?
As the byline in the story suggests, the novel relates the history of philosophy. Who are we? Why do we exist? These are centrifugal themes that the novel delves in. Through Sophie Amundsen and Alberto Knox’s discourses, the readers can easily get lost in the fascinating world of philosophy and its history. Personally, as a literary piece, Sophie’s World has failed to hit the mark; nothing pivotal happened for most of the story. The history of philosophy, on the other hand, was enlightening.
The Double by Jose Saramago
My European meanderings then took me to Portugal, with another Nobel Prize in Literature winner. Jose Saramago’s The Double is a book I randomly picked in a book sale. I have heard of Saramago, having encountered his works in several must-read lists. However, I am yet to read one of his works. With my European reading journey soaring far and wide, it is the perfect opportunity to read one of the Portuguese master storyteller’s masterpieces.
Tertuliano Maximo Afonso accidentally, through an unpopular film, found out that an actor looks exactly like him. The uncanny semblance, however, doesn’t end in the physical attributes (their penises were the same, haha). Should Tertuliano confront the person who looks and sounds exactly like him? Or would he simply forget about it. But humans were made to be curious. The Double is a witty and satirical take on hypocrisy and duality of human nature. It was a straightforward narrative that rarely digresses and all loose ends were neatly tied up in the end.
Trieste by Dasa Drndic
Trieste is an Italian city. Its proximity to other European countries such as Slovenia and Croatia made it a melting pot of different cultures. A historic and idyllic city, it laid witness to one of the biggest massacres in history, the purging of Jews during the Second World War. But it was more than just the story of death and violence. Trieste relates the story of children who were force-conceived during the Second World War to form a “superior race”. The children are sent to orphanages and were sent for adaption to Hitler loyalists.
Drndic painted a very grim picture of the war through court records and newspaper clippings. I thought I have read everything I could about World War II, I thought I knew everything there is to know about this bloody affair. I was wrong. In the cavernous halls of the gas chambers are the hollowed cries of the victims and of children, lost forever to memory. Trieste is a part of a long list of annuls about World War II but it is one of its most powerful, and also one of its darkest.
Immortality by Milan Kundera
To conclude May, I started reading Immortality, my second Milan Kundera novel. Interestingly, of the 24 authors I have read during the year, Kundera is just the third author whose works I’ve already read before (John Irving and Jane Austen were the first two). I guess this is a good thing because my reading reach is spreading beyond corners I have never thought have existed before.
I am yet to complete Immortality but it has so far played with my imagination with its references to Goethe, Hemingway, Beethoven, Ruben and a whole lot of artists and writers. But that is just one layer in thickly veiled novel which, literally, is about legacies. Quite interestingly, the female protagonist, Agnes, drew comparisons to Tolstoy’s Anna and Flaubert’s Emma. Hmmm.
Over the past three months, I immersed in one of the deepest and the oldest part of the world of literature – European literature. These more than 10 books have transported me into different worlds, and different countries. The journey has given me a better appreciation of their brand of literature. It has also given me an idea and understanding of the diverse culture that prevails in the continent. There is so much to understand and to learn.
I am cognizant that what I have read is just a scratch on the surface but I know that with more tenacity, I can give a dent into the colossal world of European literature. Or not. It is way too complex and its influence is too far reaching that to say that I can make a dent is an overstatement. But for now, I’ll just enjoy the journey (the dream is to really travel all over Europe, one fine day), let It was great, and fun.
I hope everyone had a great May. Here’s to wishing for an even better June, for myself and for everyone.