Publisher: Oneworld Publications

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Posted March 25, 2019 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Short Stories / 4 Comments

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta SchweblinTitle: Mouthful of Birds (Goodreads)
Author: Samanta Schweblin
Translator: Megan McDowell
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2019
Pages: 240
Genres: Short Stories
My Copy: ARC from Netgalley

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Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019

Samanta Schweblin has almost become a household name. Her novella Fever Dreams has been one of the most talked about books in translation in recent years. It won so many awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award (2017), The Tournament of Books (2018), it made the Man Booker International Prize shortlist (2017) and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation longlist (2017). Needless to say, when it was announced Mouthful of Birds was getting an English translation there was plenty of buzz surrounding it.

I first discovered Samanta Schweblin from the New York Review of Books podcast, they were talking about three Argentinean authors about to take the world by storm, Pola Oloixarac, Mariana Enríquez and Samanta Schweblin. Naturally I had to read the three books that came out around the same time. Random tangent, both Samanta Schweblin and Pola Oloixarac have books out this year, so where is the next Mariana Enríquez? Out of the three it was Fever Dreams that got all the attention, but for me Things We Lost In The Fire was the true highlight.

I feel like the buzz now for Mouthful of Birds is just people projecting their love for Fever Dreams onto it. There is something rugged and unfinished about this collection of short stories that did not sit right with me. I think a truly great short story collection have the stories complements each other and often share an overarching theme. Take Things We Lost In The Fire by Mariana Enríquez (also translated by Megan McDowell) for example. Each story delivers a powerful punch and complement the collection as a whole. Now looking at Mouthful of Birds, it does not have that same feeling, it is just a group of stories anthologised for the purpose of publishing.

I see so many people loving this book and it always seems to be referencing the same stories, like the one with the merman. My opinion is they liked the individual stories they reference but nothing is really said about the complete collection. I know what I like and fairytale retellings and mythological based stories are not for me, so this is the main reason Mouthful of Birds did not work for me. I know short story collections are hard to review as a whole collection, so people point out the stories they love. I prefer to read something where the stories all work together and offer so much more than a good tale.

Mouthful of Birds will serve well for the readers interested in the whole creative process. This is a collection of her earlier short stories. There are fragments of ideas that are being explored in Mouthful of Birds that could blossom into future novels. I see elements of Fever Dreams taking form in this collection and get the feeling this collection was only published because of all the hype surrounding Samanta Schweblin. While this was not the book for me, I know many people will enjoy reading more from Schweblin. I personally recommend picking up Things We Lost In The Fire by Mariana Enríquez instead.

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Posted May 14, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror, Literary Fiction / 4 Comments

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed SaadawiTitle: Frankenstein in Baghdad (Goodreads)
Author: Ahmed Saadawi
Translator: Jonathan Wright
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2018
Pages: 272
Genres: Literary Fiction, Horror
My Copy: Paperback

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

There has been a lot of buzz around Frankenstein in Baghdad, even before being spotlighted on the Man Booker International Prize longlist and now shortlist. Ahmed Saadawi’s novel is an intense portrayal of Iraqi life in post invasion Baghdad. The violence never stopped after the American invasion and junk dealer Hadi collects body parts lying on the streets and patchworks them together. However when a wandering spirit of a guard who was a victim of a car-bomb explosion finds the corpse, he is quick to possess it, giving birth to a monster known as Whatsitsname, who sets out to seek vengeance for all the victims that make up this monster.

Two hundred years ago Mary Shelley published Frankenstein and Ahmed Saadawi’s nod to this classic serves as celebration of the genre Shelley has created. I am often sceptical about a remake or reimagining of a classic, especially when that book is so close to my heart. However I was drawn to Frankenstein in Baghdad, but that might be my love for books in translation. There are elements of this novel that almost mirror Frankenstein but with a more modern spin. Take for example the opening chapter, rather than Captain Robert Walton writing to his sister to setup the story, we have an activity report from the Tracking and Pursuit department. Letter writing is a dying art form but a military report perfectly modernised the novel’s setup.

The war on Iraq is a topic that is often talked about in western society. A war that President George W Bush claimed was successful in the Mission Accomplished speech held on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003. Yet it was not until the end of 2011 when all U.S. troops were officially withdrawn. I say ‘officially withdrawn’ but the U.S. have still had troops in Iraq, most notably the American-led intervention of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in 2014 and Operation Conquest in Mosul in 2016. The war on Iraq lead to the Iraqi Civil War which led to America’s involvement again in what they call the war on terror. I do not know much about the conflicts in Iraq apart from the information shared on the news.

I cannot expect the news to portray an unbiased account of everything happening in Iraq so it was nice to learn a little more with Frankenstein in Baghdad. While this is a surreal and fantastical novel, the book did confirm what I have always suspected. That war and violence do not lead to peace. Everything I knew about the war on Iraq had always made it out to be that America is spreading democracy and peace to the Middle East. However all the evidence points to a creation of a new monster, one that wreaks havoc on Baghdad, one that used the power vacuum and hatred to gain a foothold. Not Whatsitsname, but the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Frankenstein in Baghdad transforms from a novel of pure horror based on the actual horrors faced every day. However this novel is not as depressing as you might expect. Ahmed Saadawi has managed to convey so much of the world he lives in without scaring the reader away. Frankenstein in Baghdad reads more like a black comedy, a satire of the current state of the Middle East. Taking the themes found in Frankenstein of the way society turned a creature into a monster and turning it back onto the world showing us all the monster that has been created.

While this may not be a direct connection, it is a connection I found in the novel. While Whatsitsname is possessed by righteous fury, going about slaughtering those who have turned Baghdad into a slaughterhouse, this might work for the real life Frankenstein. Although we could argue that they are bound by the same motivation. I will leave any political opinions up to the reader to interpret. This is a stunning novel that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. There is something about Ahmed Saadawi’s story that makes this a must read. Whether his attentions were to compare Frankenstein with that of ISIS is entirely up to the reader. Novels are always subjective, this is the connections I made. I am left with anger towards the U.S. treatment of Iraq and I never had a high opinion in the first place. Without getting too political I want to leave you with one question to think about, should any country force their own values on a culture that is vastly different from their own?

This review was originally published in the literary journal The Literati

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Posted September 12, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 2 Comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel DaoudTitle: The Meursault Investigation (Goodreads)
Author: Kamel Daoud
Translator: John Cullen
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2013
Pages: 143
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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One of the key components to philosophy is the ability to argue your point, this is done in many different ways and Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger does exactly that. Kamel Daoud took the same approach for his counterargument, with his novel The Meursault Investigation. This novel seemed to have taken the world by storm, winning the Goncourt du Premier Roman, the Prix des Cinq Continents, the Prix François Mauriac and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. It follows Harum seventy years after his brother Musa (the Arab) was killed by Meursault. Harum is reflecting back on his life and the impact Meursault’s story has had on himself, his family and Algeria.

Kamel Daoud’s response to The Stranger is basically saying that life is not absurd, it has meaning. Taking a life has consequences and execution is not simply a life for a life. Meursault killing the Arab had a big impact, and never referring to him by name allowed Camus to focus his story but at the risk of missing the bigger picture. So seventy years later, well after Algeria has declared their independence from France, the story of Meursault is still a topic of discussion.

First of all, the death of Musa has an impact on the life of Harum and his family. The Meursault Investigation starts off exploring the life of Harum and his mother and how the death of Musa effected them. The novel spirals out, first looking at the effect it had on Harum, then his mother and family and then finally Algeria. This may come across as repetitive but I think it was important to understand the impact.

I watched a lecture by Daoud that talks about The Stranger and comparing it to Robinson Crusoe. This is an exploration into post-colonialism; Meursault meets someone who was different to him and kills him. Robinson Crusoe did the same thing to Friday, just not physically; he forced him to convert to his idea of civilisation. That meant changing the way his acted, dressed and most of all his religious beliefs. The fact that Meursault killed an Arab on the beach could be symbolic of the island. If you follow this train of thought, The Meursault Investigation turns into a very complex philosophical argument, not only against The Stranger but the opinions of Western society (especially France) towards the raise of Islam.

The Meursault Investigation is an angry novel with some very deep philosophical ideas embedded into the pages. Published originally in French (translated by John Cullen) this novel evoked similar reactions for me as Submission by Michel Houellebecq in the way it explores France’s reaction to Islam. I understand people’s criticism about repetitive in The Meursault Investigation but I feel like it was necessary as Daoud needs to keep circling back to the death of the Arab and exploring how it affected everyone. This is the butterfly effect and I enjoyed every moment of this novel.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Posted December 10, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon JamesTitle: A Brief History of Seven Killings (Goodreads)
Author: Marlon James
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2014
Pages: 688
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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In the lead up to 3 December 1976 general election, Bob Marley planned to perform the Smile Jamaica Concert to help ease political tension. However seven gunmen from West Kingston stormed his house, although Marley did survive he had to flee the country the next day. Not a lot was said about the fate of the seven gunmen but there are whispers around the streets. A Brief History of Seven Killing is inspired by these events in a fictionalised oral history of what might have happened.

This novel spans three decades, spanning the political tension of Jamaica in the 1970s, the crack wars in the 1980s and the changing Jamaica in the 1990s. It also follows multiple narrators, with very unique narrative styles. One thing I loved about this novel is the fact that each narrator had their own style and you could easily work out who was narrating without looking at the title of each chapter.

A Brief History of Seven Killing is Marlon James’ third novel and has recently won the Man Booker Prize. I read this before the award was announced and I was really hoping it would win. I think there are so many interesting perspectives, exploring ideas of corruption, organised crime and even the CIA trying to control the fate of the country. I was interested in America’s involvement in Jamaica’s politics in an effort to fight the spread of communism.

One of my favourite narrators was Alex, a journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine. I thought he had the right amount of bitterness and sarcasm, making his narrative style stand out. All the other narrators are great as well, and I liked the way I was able to experience so many different angles of the story. There are over seventy different characters that regularly show up throughout the novel; it can be difficult at times to remember who is who, however I think Marlon James did a decent job helping the reader through this.

I have heard people compare A Brief History of Seven Killing to The Wire, but I compare Marlon James’ style as doing something similar to James Ellroy. I hear that HBO have brought the rights to make this into a show; this is the people who developed The Wire. I am glad to see that this novel is getting the attention from winning the Man Booker Prize. I really enjoyed the experience of reading this novel, even though this is anything but brief. I am curious to see what Marlon James’ other novels are like.