Friday, October 01, 2010
I never make the mistake of arguing with people for whose opinions I have no respect.
Hungry? Bellerive Wharf, Bellerive. September 2010.
Book Club Friday again already. I finished two books this week, one Vietnamese and the other Swedish (although very much Finnish is tone and content).
The first was Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. Apparently quite popular in Vietnam enough to be banned – this one is a mediation through the Vietnamese War (the second one) from the perspective of a North Vietnamese volunteer. Think of it as a shorter, more disjointed Vietnamese version of The Thin Red Line.
Now, I am not sure if it is a poor translation, or if the Vietnamese lyrical style simply doesn’t translate well into English, but this one was a little disappointing for me. The overarching story was remarkable, and many of the vignettes themselves were compelling and nicely drawn, but the stilted, exaggerated and overly florid description does wear you down after a while.
I am not sure that the overly elaborate and shifting narrative also helped. While I appreciate an unreliable narrator as much as the next guy, the delicate balance of an unreliable narrator and omniscient overarching structure to me is almost certainly doomed. That said, it is well worth the effort.
The second – Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi – is a lovely little coming of age story set in the Finnish-speaking far north of Sweden. Set through the sixties, it traces the adolescence of a pair of friends and reflects on the world around them.
This is an exceptionally beautiful, poignant, often very funny novel about growing up in a remote area and feeling disconnected from the main. You can tell that the author is a poet, as each chapter really can stand alone as culturally fertile vignettes of what it is to be a young bloke growing up.
One of the marks of first-class writing is how these snippets of childhood are both intensely personal and specific – the notion of manliness in Finnish culture, the sauna and the family unit etc – and universal – the first alcoholic drink, the first kiss etc.
It really is a lovely little book. I’ve read that like Sorrows of War it was a real smash hit in its homeland, and I can see why. Recognition must go to Laurie Thompson too, as the translation is excellent.
I couldn’t recommend this one more highly. Get out there and read it!