A book from every country – Weeks 1-6

As well as cooking a meal from every country, I set myself the challenge of reading a book from every country, while we were actually in each country.

Thus far I have, almost, managed it, and it has been enlightening, although not necessarily in the ways I would have expected.

The problem, of course, is that what with the travelling and the child-wrangling, and the cooking and the reading, there wasn’t much time to blog about them until now, when suddenly we have all the time in the world.

Choosing the books

The first challenge in each case was picking a book. We have historically been notoriously bad in the UK about reading books in translation, (although this is slowly changing) and so my choices were rather limited.

I have been helped by the Ambassadors of various countries to the US, who kindly each recommended a book to Conde Nast Traveller. These generally, have been an easy choice.

In addition I wanted to read books that I actually wanted to read. An English A level and a literature degree were quite enough compulsory reading for one lifetime…. And in my head the books I chose needed to be books “about” the country. It is blinkered and stupid of me, but it turns our that there are just as many genres of fiction in Dutch, or Hungarian, as there are in English. The biggest selling book in English from Poland at the moment is The Witcher series, which I understand to be Game of Thrones crossed with Lord of the Rings. Could be right up my street but wasn’t, I thought, what I was looking for at all.

Possibly it should have been – if that’s what Polish people want to read probably that’s what I should read too. I suspect my ideas of a representative Polish book are as wildly inaccurate as my expectations of how this trip was going to go…

I get the impression that UK publishers and translators are nearly as blinkered as I am when it comes to their choices, as the books that were available seemed to be disproportionately concerned with the twentieth century: endless wars and life under communism. With the benefit of hindsight I realise that that was subconsciously both expecting and looking for, but as I write this, in Hungary and about to embark on yet another book (Austrian) set in 1938, I’m slightly wishing I had some swords and dragons to look forward to instead.

In addition, the books have to be available on Google Play Books. Some years ago, for various reasons (including, but not limited to, the fact that they locked me out if my account) I stopped using Amazon. It is, although I know most people won’t believe me, surprisingly easy to survive in the 21st century without the everything store, but e-books seem to be one area where it has a virtual monopoly.

I have an android phone and tablet and Google does provide you with a reading app, but many books aren’t available on it, including my first choice books from Poland and Hungary, and anything at all (that I could identify) from Slovenia.

The Netherlands

I admit it: I failed at the first country.

I did not finish all 500+ pages of Collected Dutch Short Stories. I got through about eight of them (the stories, not the pages) and decided I had had enough all life is pointless and we’re just going to die anyway (and this was before Corona came to Europe). It may be that this is a fair representation of the Dutch psyche (Keane certainly commented that they thought they were popular in The Netherlands because Dutch people are as miserable as the band is) but that’s not the impression I got of then at all.

Plus I was getting bored and miserable. Time to move on. I read The Hate U Give which Lucy had brought with her instead. It was good.

Belgium

The Belgian ambassador recommended War and Turpentine by Steran Hertmans. This is a novel, but it feels very much like a memoir and was, I understand, very much inspired by the author’s own grandfather and his experiences during the First World War. It was beautifully, viscerally written and, I thought, well translated, in that the English (the original was written in Dutch) did not feel stilted or contrived.

If the aim of my reading is to give me a tiny bit of a better understanding of the country we are in, what I took from this is the conflict (which I think still remains) between the two Belgian languages, as well as the geographical misfortune of Belgium, to be the point where the armies of World War One met. To my shame I had never really thought about the Belgian army even taking part in the War, but clearly they did, and suffered as much as any other.

But what I will really remember from this book is a butal passage set in a slaughterhouse. Once read, never forgotten.

Germany

An actual paper book!

Lucy had finished the three books she brought with her by the time we got to Amsterdam, so when we passed Sterling Books in Brussels, we were dragged in to pay twice the cover price for more…

As I idly scanned the shelves, wondering how you identify a German book by its cover, the name Roland Schimmelpfennig jumped out at me. Aha! That’s how you do it…

In One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, shortly after dawn, a wolf crosses from Poland into German and makes its way towards Berlin.

Schimmelpfennig is a poet, and the writing has the feeling of poetry, or a fable told by firelight. I read each chapter several times (admittedly this is partly because a) I have a terrible tendency to read too fast and not take things in properly and b) it’s quite a short book and I wanted to make it last) in order to repeat the pleasure of reading.

In Berlin, this was absolutely the right book. It is completely rooted in the place and the names and locations were all around me. As we drove towards Poland, we followed the wolf’s route in reverse.

For the humans in the book though, the problem, whatever it may have seemed to them, was not the wolf itself. I kept thinking of EM Forster: only connect.

I suspect that as a non-German, there are themes running through this that completely passed me by. If I was looking for insights into modern Germany, what I got was alcohol. A lot of alcohol. I have no idea if that is fair or not.

Poland

I knew the Polish book I wanted to read. Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It won the Man Booker International in 2018 and she is last years Nobel Laureate for Literature. But guess what? Neither that, nor any of her other books, is available on google.

In fact of the non-witchy works on this list of Polish books in translation, only one was available: The House with the Stained Glass Window by Źanna Słoniowska.

(Ironically of course, in As You Like It, the English bookshop in Kraków there were many, many lovely Polish books in translation, but by that time what I needed was a Hungarian book…)

Once again I was forced to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. I feel I’m learning more about myself through this that I am about the countries we pass through, or the literature they produce. But then maybe that’s what good book is for.

This was, indeed, a Polish book, in that it was written in Polish. However it is set in the city of Lviv (formerly Lwów, formerly Lemberg…) which is now in Ukraine.   It thus wasn’t a book “about Poland” or indeed about the experience of being Polish, so much as it was about being from Lviv, and the experience of being torn between the many layers of culture and history in that city.

Indeed the translator’s note makes it clear that the city is itself one of the main characters in the book. The others are four generations of women with differing cultural experiences and loyalties. Like the city itself they suffer the weight of layers of complicated history and confused identity.

I knew nothing about any of this history or cultural background before I read the book and I again felt that I probably missed a great deal of nuance as a result. 

I also feel, and after three books, I am allowing myself to say this, that I read differently (and less pleasurably) on screen from how I do if I have a book. I know this at work – if I need critially to analyse a legal document I have to print it out. My eyes slide over the screen in a way that they don’t on the page. In addition, with a book I can flick back and forth to check that I am remembering things correctly or to remind myself who said what and to whom.

Hungary

Undaunted (or perhaps I didn’t have any choice), my next book was also from Google books. Again it wasn’t my first choice. The helpful lady in the Polish bookshop had recommended Sandor Marai and László Krasznahorkai but no works by either of them were available.

So, and I’m not entirely sure how, I ended up with The White King by György Dragomán. This is, together with the Schimmelpfennig, the only book that I have read on this trip that I would read again and wholeheartedly recommend. Think Lord of the Flies, but under a totalitarian government. And don’t be put off by the blurb, if it’s the same as it was on the e-book, as it’s totally wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if the people who write the blurb actually bother to read the books first.

Again though, this wasn’t a representative Hungarian book, or at least not in the way I had intended. It wasn’t acutally until I read some of the online reviews (after I’d finished it) that I realised that the unnamed totalitarian mid-80s country isn’t, in fact, Hungary but Romania. The author is an ethnic Hungarian who was born in Transylvania and moved to Hungary when he was 15. I had no idea when I was reading it. Perhaps I should have done. I don’t know whether it matters.

Austria

By this time I had given up on trying to find something that my prejudices thought was “Austrian” and just went for something that was a) by an Austrian, and b) available. It was also what the Austrian ambassador had recommended.

The book in question was The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler and as was absolutely not what I wanted to read, as it was set in 1938 and I was still hoping to step away from the troubled experience of 20th Century Europe. My Polish, Belgian and Hungarian books notwithstanding there seems to me to be so much more to write about in all these countries, yet what gets translated comes back to the same few years of misery. (And The Witcher).

Reader, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it confounded my expectations. As in Berlin, reading this in Vienna was the right book in the right place: it was lovely to wander through the Prater and think of Franz, 70 years earlier (although the bar he went to was shut, and there were no seedy dancing clubs that I noticed…).

It was also, despite being firmly set in 1938, and not shying away from the experience of Austria as it voted (with 99.73% in favour) to become part of Greater Germany, somehow not about that at all, being much more concerned with Franz’ coming of age and search for love, and above all self.

Freud is a major character too. I didn’t know he had a prosthetic jaw.

France

As I write, here we are. And here we will remain for some time. I am carrying with me a Slovenian book (lovingly identified and brought out by my mother) a Norwegian book, an Uzbek book, a Russian book and a Japanese book and I have no idea when, or if, we will be in any of those countries.

Here, though, I bought, on Monday, something entirely different and completely unconnected to 20th century history: a murder mystery. It’s in French. I may be some time.

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2 Comments

  1. I am fascinated by your reading material. What an interesting way to see and understand the countries you visit in addition actually to being there. How you have time to do this, I just can’t imagine! The travel, sightseeing, cooking, home teaching and general supervision must take up all of the days. I hope the spell in France will give you some free time.
    Good luck with the future plans. Best wishes to you all. Maggie

    • Thank you Maggie. As you say, no shortage of free time now! In fact the free time is slightly chafing… I have finished my French book and am on to my Slovenian. More on those later. I do hope that you two are coping ok with all of this and managing to get everything you need. With love. Harriet x

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