Monday, 7 May 2012


as i mentioned some time back, i decided i wanted to read more fiction from writers who were western and/or non-european.  so i have been doing that, though i haven't always managed to find books that i've really enjoyed.

going through my bookshelves, i found a couple of books that i hadn't read for years, though when i started the first one, i suspect that i never read it all.  i could only remember the first chapter, and i'm sure if i had read the whole thing, i would have remembered it.  it's called "the judgement day archives", and written by russian author igor yefimov (though he was writing as andrei moscovit when it was published).  once i'd finished reading that, i immediately started a book called "country of the heart" by american writer kay nolte smith, and i don't think i'd read that one before either.

these were both cancelled library books, though i have no recollection of when i might have purchased them.  but it was entirely coincidental (in that i hadn't known this was the case when i chose to read them) that both books dealt with russian defection to the west.  i tend not to read jacket covers or the back cover of a book before i start on it.  this is because they usually don't describe the story well, or they ruin the element of surprise which many plots depend upon.  i likely to know nothing about the story when i start reading it.

so, i read two books with basically the same theme and published very close in time to each other.  the first was published in 1982 (though not translated into english until 1988), and the second was published in 1984.  so both were written when the cold war was on, when we westerners were supposed to hate russia and communism, because their ideology was evil and the regime repressive.

i well remember my later teenage years, and the angst we had over the nuclear stockpile, especially in the context of the cold war.  i never really did believe that russians were evil, though i wasn't a fan of their politics.  but then i wasn't a fan of american politics either, and i felt that both systems were failing people in different ways.  these were the days before the neo-liberal ideology had gained access to political power, so capitalism wasn't (or at least didn't seem to be) quite as harsh as it is now.  income inequality, especially in nz, was certainly a lot less pronouced.

what i find interesting is the difference in a russian person writing a russian story, as opposed to an american writing a russian story.  the latter book, which i'll call CH, never actually takes us to russia - the furthest we get from america is to finland.  the other book, which i'll call JDA, starts in russia, but also includes france, italy and of course, america.

while both books have plenty of political stuff in them - either through thought or dialogue - the second just feels so totally inauthentic that it drove me crazy.  as i wrote this post, i find that ms smith was friends with ayn rand, and was influenced by her philosophy.  which explains a whole lot.  the arguments presented by her were so facile, and infuriating really.  i guess hindsight is colouring my judgement, but i strongly suspect that i would have felt the same had i read this novel when i was 18.  i sat there reading the dialogues and thinking "there is no way people would say that".  the whole book is filled with the opposition of "individualism" versus the "kollectiv" - and yes, she really does use that term, a lot.

mr yefimov's novel is just as much against the soviet political system, and yet it's so much more intelligently written.  the experiences of his characters bring out more issues than the actual dialogues they face.  both books deal with political repression and the inability to speak freely, to publish freely.  i guess it helps that mr yemifov is himself a defector, so he is able to write more authentically about these issues.

on the other hand, mr yefimov's central character is a woman, and i don't know that he can quite capture womanhood and the way women characters would behave, think and act.  his is definitely the more powerful story, and he writes from the point of view of quite a number of different characters in the book, all of them male points of view, except for this one, central character.

it made me wonder whether or not writers should attempt to write about a culture or experience that they haven't directly lived in or through.  i guess there are examples of works that are researched well, and the author is able to bring an authentic voice to the story, even when it's essentially about a foreign culture.  but i expect it would be really hard to do, especially to do it well.

all books have a variety of characters, and a single person can't have experienced the lives of each of them.  but i think the central character and the setting of the novel do need to be something that the author has some lived experience around.  otherwise the book doesn't work.  this is where authors of fantasy fiction have an advantage - they create the setting and so it is something only they can know about.  and there is no "authentic" way for a character in that setting to behave.

i've also managed to finally finish reading "under the tuscan sun", which i started some time last year.  it's just not the book for me.  i think i didn't enjoy it because i was waiting for something to happen - something dramatic, a climax if you will.  but it never really did, and the book was more about experiencing another culture, in a much quieter way.  it doesn't help that i'm not too interested in cooking, and so the descriptions of food, the plump ripe pears and the 5 types of plums, really didn't move me too much.  i skipped over most of the recipes, and there are a lot of them.  since food was one of the key themes of the book, that really meant i wasn't getting as much out of it as i could.

also, because i live in a community that has such a variety of cultures which i'm continuously learning about, the whole notion of a reasonably wealthy woman of european heritage learning about a culture that is part of europe didn't move me too much either.  i may have been more enthusiastic if she had written about a place that was totally different from what she knew, but then in her mind it was.  just not so much for me.

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