Set in Caracas, Martinique, Malta and other foreign locales, these five novels explore themes such as national identity and the meaning of life against a backdrop of oppression.
Stranger in His Own Land
The most substantial of the batch, Mesa Selimovic's The Fortress, translated from the Serbo-Croatian by E.D. Goy and Jasna Levinger (Northwestern Univ., $19.95 paperback), hails from the former Yugoslavia and is an impressive existentialist novel packed with aphorisms about the absurdity of life, the everyday abuses of power, the depressing ubiquity of evil, and the surprising force of love and words. A sampling: "It's easier to come upon a bad man, since there are far more of them"; "The greatest wisdom in life is to find a true folly"; "My second piece of advice to a man I wished well would be: Don't always say what you think"; and "Man's forever thinking of a cause outside himself, so as to be free of guilt and responsibility. This merely encourages communal irresponsibility."
Selimovic, who was born in Sarajevo of Muslim descent in 1910 and died in 1982 before his country's recent troubles, has set his tale in a vaguely delineated 18th-century Sarajevo that could almost be any impoverished, totalitarian state that threatens free speech and fosters paranoia. His narrator is Ahmet Shabo, a sensitive, articulate young man who returns shell-shocked and skeptical from a brutal, meaningless war in Russia, to find his family all dead from disease and his home destroyed by fire.
Solace comes in the form of a young Christian girl, Tiyana, whom he marries, and a subsistence-level job as a scribe for a man whose life he saved in battle. But Shabo makes the mistake of speaking his mind at a party of bigwigs -- against war and in favor of kindness -- and finds himself essentially blacklisted by the powers that be. He is unable to secure work, and is repeatedly pulled into an intrigue surrounding the rescue of an outspoken radical from prison. Whether he upholds his principles or not, he finds himself in deeper and deeper jeopardy: "Gradually, despite my efforts to avoid it, I began to feel a wall around me, invisible but impenetrable. It stood there like a fortress, without exit or approach."
Written with acute psychological sensitivity, The Fortress is a chilling, Kafkaesque tale of baffling, inescapable persecution that evokes Camus's The Stranger and Sartre's No Exit.
Better known in this country than Selimovic is Patrick Chamoiseau, the Martinican writer who employs an exuberant, somewhat mongrelized French, the language of his country's oppressors, mixed with his own oral Creole tradition, to express the concerns of his most powerless compatriots. Chamoiseau's novel Texaco won the Prix Goncourt, a coveted French literary award, in 1992. Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (Univ. of Nebraska, $25), was his first novel, originally published by Gallimard in 1986.
In inventive, chatty, playful -- and often demanding -- language that loses some of its vibrant animation in Coverdale's heavily annotated translation, Chamoiseau traces the life of Pipi Soleil, "king of the wheelbarrow," a "djobber" or market porter who helps female vendors lug and display their wares at the dusty Fort-de-France vegetable market. His tale is narrated collectively by a group of down-and-out fellow djobbers who nostalgically mourn the passing of their former way of life. They begin with Pipi's mother, Mam Elo, the ninth daughter and therefore "ninth disappointment" of an angry mason. Pipi's father is a gravedigger's son turned into a sort of evil spirit or incubus called a "dorlis," who impregnated Mam Elo in her sleep.
The djobbers' story is a breathless, headlong, meandering jumble of the individual histories of everyone whose life touches Pipi's. "Words have no brakes" in Chamoiseau, and there are so many asides that the reader is often left grasping for a main thread in this nonlinear tale. "Here's the chat on Ti-Joge, mailman-to-be," begins one such digression. These are people on whom fortune doggedly fails to shine, and in a world in which the men seduce and run, slavery is a haunting legacy, and death comes far earlier than one would reasonably expect. Chamoiseau pulls out all the stops and employs an entire literary arsenal -- poems, riddles, songs, history, folklore -- to render Pipi "a symbol of the degradation of West Indian man under the colonial regime" and his book an ode to "the unsung heroism of black men, women, and children shut up in the most terrible of life's drawers."
Spiteful Beyond the Grave
The narrator of Ana Teresa Torres's Dona Ines vs. Oblivion, translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa (Louisiana State Univ., $27.50), is on the other end of the social scale from Chamoiseau's market porters: She is the rich matriarch of an 18th-century Caracas family with a vast cacao plantation in the Curiepe Valley. Although Dona Ines Villegas dies in her eighties in 1780, she continues to rant for another two centuries from the other side of the grave -- in classic Latin American magical realist fashion.
The subject of her harangue is her outrage over the loss of her birthright, a chunk of her father's land that her husband and cousin, Alejandro, bequeathed against her will to his illegitimate son, Juan del Rosario, who was begotten by one of their black slaves. The result is an unusual revisionist history of Venezuela that chronicles the waxing and waning fortunes of the Villegas family and Venezuela through revolutions, dictatorships, earthquakes and war from 1663 to 1985.
Dona Ines, which won the 1998 Pegasus Award for Literature, is based on an actual court case about a centuries-old land dispute resolved only in the late 1980s -- a fact that adds an additional measure of interest to what sometimes reads as a long, repetitive tirade. Torres has created a remarkable voice for her heroine -- sneering, venomous, spiteful, outraged, contemptuous -- but it's an exhausting pitch to maintain for page after page, and the resulting story is neither evenly engaging nor always clear.
Dona Ines vents to her dead husband and his bastard son about how her property has been improperly taken over, first by freed blacks, then by the railroad, then by a cocoa-nut company, and finally by developers who plan to turn it into a resort. She witnesses with dismay how her 15 children (only 10 of whom survive childbirth) dwindle to one living great-great granddaughter, raised in poverty by a slave who helped her escape the destruction of Caracas. "Listen from out of my deep memory to the fate of our line," she exhorts her dead husband. "Why shouldn't I tremble with rage and desperation? We've won the war and lost all we had," she says at another point. And to her husband's detested bastard: "Here I am, Juan del Rosario, in spite of my spite."
No Woman Is an Island
Jose Saramago, the 1998 Nobel Laureate from Portugal, has produced an altogether quieter little book called The Tale of the Unknown Island, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, with illustrations by Peter Sis (Harcourt Brace, $16). The author of the far more difficult novel Blindness has written a slight fable in language a child could understand, but laced with the sharp satire of Swift.
A bold supplicant petitions a ridiculously corrupt king for a boat in which to search for an unknown island. To the king's objections that there are no unknown islands left, he insists that "there can't possibly not be an unknown island." He is tenacious enough to go through "the proper bureaucratic channels," absurd though they may be. He perseveres in his request for an audience with the king even when the lowly cleaning woman, to whom everyone has passed the buck, finally cracks open the palace door. This cleaning woman is impressed by the man's determination, and decides to follow him onto his crewless vessel -- through "the door of decisions, which is rarely used, but when it is used, it decidedly is."
Saramago manages to take this simple story -- told in incantatory run-on sentences and punctuated by wry wit -- and turn it into a subtle, sweet but somewhat puzzling tale about love and the search for personal identity. His moral: "That you have to leave the island in order to see the island, that we can't see ourselves unless we become free of ourselves." At one point, the cleaning woman comments amusingly that the king's philosopher used to say man is an island, "but since that had nothing to do with me, being a woman, I paid no attention to him."
Life During Wartime
English writer Joanna Trollope focuses on quite a different sort of island and quite a different sort of woman for the first of an intended series of historical novels written under the name Caroline Harvey. The Brass Dolphin (Viking, $24.95) is set in Malta, "the watchdog of the Mediterranean," between 1938 and 1947. It tells a tale of pride and prejudice, about a snobbish young Englishwoman named Lila Cunningham who moves to a friend's derelict vacation home because she and her daft, impractical father have no place else to go after he borrows against their Suffolk house.
At first, Lila disdains the "impenetrable foreignness" of hot, dusty Malta, and particularly a native named Angelo Saliba who repeatedly turns up to help the flummoxed Cunninghams. Slowly but surely, however, in a carefully constructed and quite predictable series of steps, Lila learns about true love and friendship through the hardships of war.
Like so many of her compatriots, Trollope remains haunted by German bombing and paints a vivid portrait of its terrors. She provides an altogether easier, less subtle and less rich read than Chamoiseau, Torres or Selimovic does, less rich even than Saramago's wisp of a fable. But fans of Trollope's complex family dramas will find comfort and absorption even in the familiarity.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic, reviews frequently for Newsday and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
Michael Dirda is on vacation. His column will resume next Sunday.