World Literature Destination: The Past

The right book is what makes summer really summer
The right book is what makes summer really summer | Photo: Wolf Graebel

Books are splendid travelling companions. Our summer literature tips from around the world are not just some reading to take along in your suitcase for your days of leisure. This time, our writers also take their readers on a journey – most of them into the past.


Israel – Scenes of a Generation

By Hadassa Levy

Eshkol Nevo writes a window on the Israeli soul. He empathizes with the generation that did not come to Israel as survivors of the Holocaust and cannot claim to have built “the land” with their own hands. It is a generation living in the shadow of the past, whose lives are pressured by the complex present in which they would simply like to live.

In the novel Neuland, high school teacher Dori heads to South America in search of his father, who disappeared while on a backpacking trip. At the same time, Inbar visits her mother in Berlin, a city from which her grandmother Lili fled from the Nazis to Palestine as a young woman and which she always warned her against. Berlin stirs Inbar up, so at the airport instead of returning to Israel she takes the next-best flight and ends up in Peru. There she coincidentally meets Dori, who fascinates her, and spontaneously joins him.

Nevo lets his characters tell this multi-layered story, and the perspective shifts not only between Dori, Inbar and many minor characters, but also to Lili, whose memories create an additional level. In this way, the author is able to uniquely keep a style for each individual and describe places and encounters so that the readers feels they are truly experiencing the story. Although I, in spite of my fascination, found Neuland a bit too long in parts, it is a novel very worth reading that can also help to better understand we Israelis.

Hadassa Levy, 35, has worked in the administration of the Goethe-Institut Tel Aviv since 2012. She regularly publishes book reviews in her personal blog.


Latvia – Summer Reading Like Finger Food

By Anna Maria Strauss

What do you have to pack in your beach bag when heading to the Baltic Sea from Riga in the summer? Something to read, of course. Since bathing weather is not just for reading, though, but also calls for beach volleyball, swimming and an ice cream or two, the book tip from Latvia is summer-sized in small mouthfuls.

The Baltic comic anthology kuš! is packed full of stories about the size of the palm of your hand including works from the small but mighty Latvian comic scene and graphic short stories from around the world. Every edition is dedicated to a theme: Future 2.0, Cats and Villages are some of them. My personal favourite is Life is Live. In 26 stories, the artists devote themselves to the madness of everyday life. From the fear of leaving the house to the question of how to best greet fleeting acquaintances (a hug? a handshake? a kiss on the cheek?), the stories tell of déjà vu-provoking experiences. The scope of drawing styles is great, but the observations are always captured in highly expressive images.

The mini kuš! editions, each containing a somewhat longer story, are also worth reading and even lighter weight for your summer baggage. Since June, three Latvian stories have been added to the series: “Domino” by Rūta and Anete Daubure, “Lucky” by Oskars Pavlovskis and “Swimming Pool” by Anna Vaivare.

PS: Even if you don’t take the comics to the beach, you’ll enjoy the small portions. A picnic in the park or a barbecue by the lake always offer an opportunity for a summer reading “snack.”

Anna Maria Strauss, 29, has been responsible for the web projects of the Goethe-Instituts in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia at the Goethe-Institut Riga since spring of 2013.


South Africa – A Deathly Balancing Act

By Brigitte Doellgast

In the year 2014, South Africa is celebrating twenty years of democracy. Travellers to South Africa today will discover a fascinating country that proudly bears its nickname “Rainbow Nation.” Yet at every turn you also meet the long shadow of the past. Apartheid is still an inescapable subject. In his 2006 novel The Native Commissioner, Shaun Johnson tells the story of a white South African, George Jameson, who was born in 1916 and raised in rural South Africa. The language of his childhood, Zulu, holds lifelong fascination for him.

His excellent language skills make him the ideal candidate for his career as a native commissioner, responsible for the concerns of the black population. He gets ahead and is respected by both blacks and whites, yet can never shrug off the (self) doubt that it is boundless hubris is to be administratively supervising the diversified culture of his black compatriots as native commissioner.

The balancing act between his commitment and his career ultimately brings George Jameson to the breaking point after the election victory of the National Party in 1948 and its introduction of segregation in the form of “apartheid.” In a straightforward style, Shaun Johnson tells the story of a simple man who believes he, as an honest mediator and minor civil servant, can create a niche in a world that, with its inhumane ideology, poisons even the remotest recesses of his world.

Brigitte Doellgast, 53, has been the head of the library at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg since 2013.


Ireland – Beyond Green Meadows and Happy Fiddling

By Mechtild Manus

Foster by Claire Keegan is a novella that you can read in one afternoon, but it will stay with you a long time. The story focuses on a nine-year old farm girl who discovers a new possibility in life with foster parents yet does not renounce her own biological parents, who are unable to cope with a debt-ridden farm, their ever-growing family or themselves and the father’s alcoholism. The girl’s return to her family is among the most shattering things I have read in recent years.

Claire Keegan won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award with Foster, a prize named after the pub in which Leopold Bloom eats a gorgonzola sandwich in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The jury was chaired by the American writer Richard Ford, who praised Keegan’s “imposing array of formal beauties at the service of a deep and profound talent.” He was not exaggerating, for her two previous volumes of short stories – Walk the Blue Fields and Antarctica – reveal Claire Keegan as a storyteller who says much in few words, has an unerring eye for the decisive details and always lends the speakers a characteristic tone. This also comes through in the German translation by Hans Christian Oeser, who taught at the Goethe-Institut in Dublin in a former life.

Throughout, Claire Keegan depicts unromantic Ireland: envy and resentment at the fringes of a laying out, sexual abuse by the father, renunciation of love for the sake of the priesthood are some of the themes of the stories that Claire Keegan, herself born to a large Catholic family on a farm in the county of Wicklow south of Dublin, tells today.

Mechtild Manus, 57, has been the director of the Goethe-Institut Dublin since the summer of 2012.


Peru – A Thriller from the Land of the Inca

By Iliana Revoredo

In the novel The Blue Hour, the Peruvian author Alonso Cueto clearly and imaginatively describes the consequences of civil war in Peru. Adrián Ormache has everything in life: wife and children, a successful law office, a lovely house in Lima. At his mother’s funeral, he learns that his father ran a military barracks in the 1980s, when the Shining Path waged a guerrilla war against the state. There, his father fell in love and lived with a prisoner. One day, shortly before the dangerous “blue hour” of dawn, she was able to escape.

Adrián sets out on the exciting search for this mysterious woman... To say more would ruin a thrilling read. I also liked the novel because it took me back to the days of my youth and told me things that happened around me of which I was unaware.

Alonso Cueto was born in Lima in 1954 and received the Anna Seghers Prize in 2000 and the 2006 Herralde Prize in Spain for this very gripping novel.

Iliana Revoredo, 48, has been the head of the library at the Goethe-Institut Lima since 2007.