Briefly Noted Book Reviews | the new yorker
Speak, be quietby Carole Angier (Bloomsbury). This biography of WG Sebald, who died twenty years ago, aged fifty-seven, examines him on his own terms, patiently digging into the unspoken traumas of his life and the lives of those around him. . Angier, who has written biographies of Jean Rhys and Primo Levi, recounts Sebald’s isolated childhood in the Bavarian Alps, his growing awareness of German atrocities, his college career in England, and his sudden success in middle age. In sensitive readings of her work, she identifies sources – landlords, family members, teachers, fellow writers and artists – and shows how her writing is born out of an inescapable empathy with misfortune and a persistent, relentless exploration. of historical memory and its limits.
The gold machineby Iain Sinclair (Oneworld). In 2019, Sinclair traveled with her daughter to northern Peru, to retrace the footsteps of her great-grandfather Arthur. Arthur – sent there in 1891 by the Peruvian Corporation of London, to survey the lands of the coffee colonies – wrote a book about his adventures, an assured Victorian account that belied the horrors of colonialism. These horrors are central to Sinclair’s tale, a nightmarish tale that invokes “Fitzcarraldo” and “Heart of Darkness.” Impeccably researched, the text nevertheless seems unreal, navigating uncomfortably between the past and the present and drawing parallels between colonialism and tourism. The Sinclairs find themselves – like the native Asháninka, whose ancestors were forced to work in the colonies – “wandering astray in this wasteland of discredited dreams”.
a single roseby Muriel Barbery, translated from French by Alison Anderson (Europe). At the beginning of this Zen-inspired novel, Rose, a botanist living in Paris, is summoned to Kyoto for the reading of her father’s will. Rose never met her father, a Japanese art dealer, but it turns out he hired photographers to secretly document her life for him. Now, at her request, her assistant guides Rose on a tour of gardens, temples and restaurants designed to reveal the heart of Japan. At Buddhist sites, it is engulfed in a “tide of sadness mingled with flashes of pure happiness” and exalts the perfection of “the stillness of the movement of the absolute present”. The story is interspersed with aphoristic Japanese tales from different eras, the melancholy gradually turning into joy.
hard as waterby Yan Lianke, translated from Chinese by Carlos Rojas (Grove). Gao Aijun, the narrator of this thundering novel, which takes place during the Cultural Revolution, finds his life without charm: his village is like “a pool of stagnant water”, and his wife makes him feel “a cotton ball” in his the throat. He then meets a beautiful woman, also married, and, to attract her, undertakes to lead the “revolution” in their village. In a speech peppered with quotes from Mao and traditional maxims, Gao reveals how their romance, fueled by the feverish political climate, plunges the village into ever-increasing extremism – a parade of years of self-promotion schemes culminating in an unthinkable end.