Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Corsair, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Yan Lianke

‘Dream of Ding Village’ by Yan Lianke


Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 352 pages; 2011. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter.

I read Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village while lying by a pool on the Greek island of Rhodes and I have to say this did not make for a good holiday read — it was far too grim and oppressive to truly enjoy while soaking up the sunshine.

Nevertheless, it’s an important story — and one that needs to be told if we are to learn anything about the value of our health, prevention of disease and the importance of proper regulated medical care.

It is set in a village in rural China devastated by the AIDS virus, which has been spread by the unfettered and wholly unregulated business of blood banks. These banks, which are run by blood merchants, pay poor peasants meagre sums for any blood they donate. Sadly, they reuse needles and other equipment, and thereby contaminate donors so that, before too long, an entire village is suffering from “the fever”.

This book, which is narrated by the ghost of a dead boy, reminded me of Ma Jian’s rather brilliant Beijing Coma, especially in its depiction of a crude and corrupt health care system in which access is dependent not on need but on the ability to pay. It also reveals much about the modern Chinese value system in which everything — including blood — has been commodified in order to make profit.

This is quite an eye-opening, confronting and gruelling read, and definitely not one for the faint-hearted. It was longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Corsair, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting

‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura


Fiction – hardcover; Corsair; 211 pages; 2012. Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates.

I first heard about Fuminori Nakamura’s prize-winning novella, The Thief, when Sakura reviewed it on Chasing Bawa, so when I saw it on the shelves of my local library I borrowed it. I gulped it down in about two days — and have been feeling slightly paranoid about having my wallet stolen ever since.

A pickpocket who targets the rich

This very quick read is about a pickpocket — the thief of the title — who narrates the story in the first person. Nishimura is a loner and claims to have no friends or family. His sole occupation is to pick the pockets of the wealthiest people he can find, either on the streets of Tokyo or the public transport system (crowded trains and platforms provide him with particularly rich pickings).

He is so good at pickpocketing he often finds wallets about his person that he has lifted with no recollection of having stolen them.  But he is not interested in credit cards or personal items found in the wallets he steals; he simply wants the cash to fund his lifestyle.

The fluorescent light glinted faintly off the button on his cuff, sliding at the edge of my vision. I breathed in gently and held it, pinched the corner of the wallet and pulled it out. A quiver ran from my fingertips to my shoulder and a warm sensation gradually spread throughout my body.

A thief with a good heart

But Nishimura isn’t a particularly bad person; there’s a good heart inside of him. In one scene he is so outraged to see a man on the train groping a schoolgirl he comes to her rescue. And later, when he sees a woman and her young son shoplifting, he warns them that they have been spotted by the store detective.

Against his better judgement, Nishimura then goes on to develop a complicated sexual relationship with the woman, who is a prostitute, but it is the boy to whom he becomes most attached. He teaches him how to pickpocket — not to exploit him but to instill some vital survival skills.

And yet it is Nishimura’s survival which is most at risk here. That’s because when he meets up with his former partner in crime, Ishikawa, he becomes embroiled in an armed robbery that is more dangerous (and complicated) than he’d been lead to believe. His special skill as a pickpocket is then put to the test in a series of increasingly dangerous operations in which failure is not an option…

A dark page-turner

The Thief, which won Japan’s 2010 Ōe Prize, is a gripping read, which races along at Formula One pace. It’s edgy, filled with paranoia and brims with a dark mix of danger and excitement.  Yet the author’s prose is exceptionally skeletal. There’s barely an adjective in the book. And despite the page-turning quality, there’s a feeling of stillness — and empty, aching silence — in the narrative.

What I especially liked is the way in which it turns the crime genre on its head. This isn’t about solving a crime; it’s merely a glimpse inside a criminal’s life which allows you to empathise with someone you would most likely condemn. (From past experience, this appears to be a common thread in Japanese crime fiction — see, for example, Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X and Natsuo Kirino’s Real World.)

Don’t expect to come away from the book feeling uplifted, because this is the kind of read that takes you to dark, terrifying places, albeit in the safety of your own imagination. But if you are looking for something fresh and a little offbeat, it will provide perfect fare.

Author, Book review, Brazil, Corsair, crime/thriller, Fiction, Ira Levin, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘The Boys from Brazil’ by Ira Levin


Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 288 pages; 2011.

Ira Levin’s  The Boys from Brazil is a classic thriller first published in 1976. Some of you may better know it as a film, starring Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, which was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1978. I have not seen the film, and I didn’t really know anything of the book’s plot, other than it was about Nazis. I picked it up for 99 pence earlier this year and thought I would save it for a time when I was looking for something fast-paced and easy to read — such as a long-haul flight.

Mysterious murder plot hatched by fugitive Nazis

The story, which opens in September 1974, is based around a mysterious plot hatched by a group of Nazi war criminals now hiding out in South America. The head Nazi is none other than Dr Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, who carried out horrible experiments on inmates at Auschwitz during the Second World War. In a secret meeting, held in a Japanese restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, he tells the gathering:

‘It’s the most important operation the Organization has ever undertaken, and “important” is a thousand times too weak a word to describe it. The hope and the destiny of the Aryan race lie in the balance. No exaggeration here, my friends; literal truth: the destiny of the Aryan folk – to hold sway over the Slays and the Semites, the Black and the Yellow – will be fulfilled if the operation succeeds, will not be fulfilled if the operation fails. So “important” isn’t a strong enough word, is it? “Holy”, maybe? Yes, that’s closer. It’s a holy operation you’re taking part in.’

The operation involves murdering civil servants living around the world, on or around their 65th birthdays.

‘Ninety-four men have to die on or near certain dates in the next two and a half years,’ he said, reading. ‘Sixteen of them are in West Germany, fourteen in Sweden, thirteen in England, twelve in the United States, ten in Norway, nine in Austria, eight in Holland and six each in Denmark and Canada. Total, ninety-four. The first is to die on or near October sixteenth; the last, on or near the twenty-third of April, 1977.’

The meeting is secretly taped by a young American journalist, who tips off the Vienna-based “Nazi hunter” Yakov Liebermann. While the pair are on the telephone discussing the matter, the journalist is killed, setting into motion a chain of events which span the globe.

To say much more is impossible without giving away crucial plot spoilers. But what I can say is this: part of the fun in reading this book is trying to figure out why these seemingly unimportant men are to be killed. Are they connected to the Nazi Party in some way? Or have they wronged Mengele in the past? Will Liebermann figure it out before he, too, is murdered by these assassins?

Genre-bending novel

The Boys from Brazil isn’t your average thriller. It has elements of science fiction in it and because it is based on real characters — including Simon Wiesenthal, whom Yakov Liebermann is supposed to represent —  it also feels rooted in “truth”. And the reason for the murder plot, when it is revealed, is chilling to the core.

However, some elements of the story, such as genetic engineering, are slightly outdated now, but I imagine that in the mid-1970s this book must have felt not only fresh and exciting but within the realm of possibility — so many of those Nazi’s were on the run and Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, had devoted his life to tracking them down and bringing them to justice.

I should also point out that Levin’s prose style is overly simplistic to the point of being dull. That’s not to say he isn’t a cracking storyteller — he is — but to keep the momentum and suspense going in this fast-paced plot, Levin doesn’t worry too much about descriptions or scene setting; he just wants to get to the point. Some people will appreciate this style, others will hate it. I didn’t mind it, although his tendency to hyphenate words — wedding-ringed, wet-darkened shoulders and so on — grated on me after awhile.

All in all, I enjoyed this book — it kept me thoroughly entertained on a flight between Rio de Janeiro and Paris — and you can’t ask much more than that.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Corsair, Fiction, holocaust, Maria Angels Anglada, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘The Auschwitz Violin’ by Maria Àngels Anglada


Fiction – paperback; Corsair; 109 pages; 2010. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Any book set in a Nazi death camp brings with it a certain kind of foreboding. But there’s something quite uplifting about Maria Àngels Anglada’s tale of survival set in Auschwitz.

Here, amid the death and brutality, a Jewish prisoner and former luthier is charged with a special task: he must make a violin for the camp’s Commandant using a limited palette of materials and tools. What Daniel doe not know is that if he fails to make the instrument to a high enough standard he will be handed over to the camp’s doctor, a man who conducts terrible experiments on his patients. But if he does build a suitable violin the doctor must hand over a case of wine to the Commandant.

This secret wager is no doubt a cruel one, but because the knowledge of it is kept from Daniel until well into the task (a fellow prisoner lets it slip), it does not affect the way he carries out the job. Indeed, Daniel is already living in fear — mainly because the Commandant’s behaviour is vindictive and unpredictable — so making the violin comes as a welcome distraction.

The story is an incredibly poignant one, especially as it shows how Daniel’s dedication to his craft gives him a reason to continue living when all around him lie starvation, disease and death. The very thought that his hand-crafted violin could be used to make beautiful music provides much-needed hope at a time of great despair.

While the book is far too slim to flesh out characters or provide important background detail, it tells the story in a simple, straightforward prose style reminiscent of short-story writing. And while it might be just over 100 pages long, it’s power should not be under-estimated. The author’s inclusion of real-life extracts from Nazi documents, which are detailed at the beginning of each chapter, only add to the weight of this novella.

The Auschwitz Violin will be published in the UK on November 4.