30.3.12

Richard McGregor - The Party


Rating 5.8

I wish I liked it more, but the truth is that this book has been (I'm still finding my way through it) a major disappointment.

Mind you, I have read some books dedicating a superficial analysis to the mechanisms of either the Russian CPSU or the North Korean communist dynasty and I know something on how things went in the DDR or in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Hungary behind the Iron Curtain.

I've never suffered of the complex that Germans like "Ostalgie" (nostalgia for life under communist East Germany), I've never voted for a party with the term "communist" or "socialist" in its name and I like calling myself a "right leftist" - whatever that means.
I'm definitely not a conservative supporter and don't believe in the cheap virtues of liberalism.


What I would probably be quite satisfied to vote for - if Italy or England had something like that - is an equivalent of the Norwegian Arbeiderparti, a decent "party of workers" with some greenish issues which doesn't suffer the identity crisis experienced by the British Labour and the unbearable nihilism ravaging the Italian Democratic Party.

But Norway is a fairytale.
And green socialism there wipes its oil-stained face.

The only time in which I somehow flirted with communism I was 16 years old and a bunch of nice girls claiming to be "Young Leninists" - whatever that meant - approached me out of school. I was invited to one of their weekly politburo.
I went there and it turned out that taking part to that meeting was important for two reasons:
1) it gave me enough inspiration to write a short story named "A Little Leap Backwards" years later (unpublished, I'm afraid).
2) it led me to lose all of my potential interest for any aspect of the Communist cosmology (Che Guevara posters, Marx quotes, CCCP branded football shirts etc.).


It's true the Young Leninist girls were attractive, wore pantyhose and knew who Trotsky was ("a renegade!"), but how I could cope with such convincing logic that "Karl Marx wrote 300 books, have you read all of them?" as the (male) leader of the YL addressed me with a grin painted on his face?

I simply didn't have the time (and the money) to make myself a Marx bibliography. And that's where the flamboyant Young Leninist groupies lost me. No regrets left.

Alright. My apologies for this useless preamble.
What I wanted to stress out is that I cannot help but finding quite interesting the stories narrating the way in which the communist apparatchiks overruled over the economic, cultural and social lives of whole countries. And I like reading about deranged politics and politicians' idiosyncrasies.


However, The Party by the Australian journalist Richard McGregor is a bore.
At least for me.
I never managed to get into the narrative structure of this author and found his way of writing so dry that I had to keep a bottle of water at hand.

Seriously, I did my best with this book but haven't like it a bit so far.

I see there is a lot of insight work, research and first account stories behind The Party, but maybe it's just me not caring that much about The secret World of China's Communist Rulers. Who, accidentally, are all but communist in their thirst for good business. And I am sure my beloved Young Leninist girls would have not approved this.

21.3.12

Chico Buarque - Budapest


Rating 7.3

Question:
What an Italian reading the English translation of a book written in Portuguese and by a Brazilian author pretending to be the ghost writer of a German guy and dedicated to the study of the Hungarian language is up to?

No, it's not a joke.



Answer:
Writing a few impressions on Budapest by Chico Buarque.
Sorry there is no punchline here.

Composition:
This novel caught me by surprise. Of course I knew that Mr Buarque has talent, being considered one of the finest interpreters of bossanova today. A man, this Chico, who gets a high consideration in a country - Brazil - where another successful musician like Gilberto Gil spent five years playing the minister of Culture (and did some good things).

And yet, I didn't know Buarque as a novelist. To tell you the truth, the only Brazilian writer name I remember by heart is the sepia pictured, pointy bearded Machado De Asis although I have never read anything by him.

Let's talk about Chico and his Budapest.



This is a very clever novel written in a very personal style and I'm glad I picked up this book pretty much by choice in one of my usual Saturday expeditions scouring the second hand bookshops.

An unusual novel, yes, but nonetheless related to other things I read in the past combining the traveler's introspection of Nooteboom with the magical literary realism of Borges in a plot that reminded me the Ringmaster's Daughter by Gaarder.

Whereas Gaarder wrote about a guy getting his living by selling to famous novelists beginnings and whole first chapters of stories to develop in successful books, Buarque's Josè Costa is a ghost writer or - as he puts it - "an anonymous writer".

Quiet. Be quiet. José Costa is not the kind of man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and thinking about blowing up the parliament in Brasilia at the frenzy chimes of Bat Macumba by the Os Mutantes. And José Costa is neither a hacker, or the supporter of some Brazilian Pirate Party asking for the freedom from copyright and crying against Sopa.

In fact, José he's quite the opposite. And yet the copyright and royalties play a key note and a key role in his daily life of anonymous ghost writer. He gets the money without showing his face. He's happy, he's content of standing in the shadow while his associate Alvaro works on enlarging the portfolio of politicians, bishops, professors interested in having Josè writing their public speeches and essays.

Then, José Costa spends one night in Budapest on his way back from an anonymous writers world congress in Istanbul.
From that moment on his own identity will be divided into the anonymous ghost writer José Costa in Rio de Janeiro and the wandering Zsoze (surname) Kòsta (name) in Budapest.

And now I will say no more.
For this is a novel open to more than a single interpretation and the almost impossible meeting of a Brazilian mind with the Hungarian mentality.
Those who spent many hours of their lives studying on their own unusual half-forgotten languages for the sake of it (I did it), will find in Budapest a book to enshrine.

9.3.12

Åsne Seierstad - The Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya


Rating 6.8

From the bestselling author of the - extremely overrated - The Bookseller of Kabul, comes this book about Chechnya.
The Angel of Grozny is much better than what Seierstad wrote (and thought to see) about life in Kabul, but is still affected by the same cons.

Here we have a young and undoubtedly talented journalist who is not content of being a reporter but would rather like to be a writer, a storyteller.
And Åsne Seierstad does have the gift of writing some touching and beautiful descriptions here and there. The author is certainly able to use some powerful, effective and evoking imagery, but perhaps Miss Seierstad should ask herself what kind of books she aims to deliver.

Does Åsne want to write a journalistic first handed account about the time she spent in turbulent Chechnya and how she felt while reporting from there? Very well: a good half of The Angel of Grozny is about this and it works.

Does Åsne want to put herself in the shoes of Chechen people and tell us their personal sad but defiant stories on a second handed account using a hint of imagination to fill the gaps? Less appropriated but fine: the weaker chapters of this book are about this.

Does Åsne want to tell us the reason why Chechnya became such a mess at the end of the 1990s and a puppet autonomous republic later on interviewing the likes of local despot Ramzan Kadyrov, taking us in the cleansed streets of Grozny and in a Russian Court Hall? That's wonderful: the best bits of her book here are about this.

But how can you mix these three books up in a single one? And, above all, is this a good and right choice? I believe it's not, but I may be wrong.

I really enjoyed the pages in which Miss Seierstad left her need of identify herself and sympathize with the unfortunate Chechen people she wrote about to focus on what really happened around her.
There are excellent pages of good honest journalism here and, in my humble opinion, they succeed in portraying the drama of Chechnya in a far better way than those chapters in which the author tried to see things with Chechen eyes.

I think that spending a few weeks in Grozny was very brave of Åsne Seierstad but was also not enough time for being able to grasp how local people feel, think, breath, live. A journalist is not an anthropologist and anthropologists themselves can get only a superficial view on the life of people they spent years with.

I'm pretty sure Åsne Seierstad is well aware of this.
The thing is that stressing out the emotional connections, stimulating the self-identification of the readers with the characters they read about sells good.

And titling this book "The Angel of Grozny" is all but a coincidence. Angels sell splendidly. War does not.