Broken Glass, A Review

…in which Helen becomes a big fan of Alain Mabanckou; not for the first time she rambles extensively; she starts to become unsure of how much longer she can keep up with all this ‘in which’ lark when it seems all very self-evident, must yet again apologise for neglecting her blog for too long, the blog readers start to suspect our blogger is slightly unorganised…

Sorry AGAIN that I haven’t posted for a while. I know, I really am rubbish. Luckily, however, I have now finished my exams at laaaaaaaaaast!!! And I have just been so busy because I have landed my self a summer internship doing copywriting! Wahoo…

Anyway, for my second around the world reading challenge book, I have read Broken Glass by French-Congolese author, Alain Mabanckou. Broken Glass is his second translated novel available, and I enjoyed it so much I have added his other book available in English, African Psycho, to my TBR list. I would recommend Broken Glass to anyone who likes the sound of a refreshingly amusing exploration of people and life that makes you think without being too preachy or heavy. Also, if you know your French Literature, the majority of the gags and references will not go over your head, like they did with me. Even if you don’t, there are references to many more in this book, including Hamlet, Tarzan, Catcher In The Rye and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

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Owner of the bar Credit Gone West (I love that name), known as ‘Stubborn Snail’ (everyone in this book has nicknames – such as ‘Pampers Guy’, initially amusing until you find out how he earned his name), gives the main character, the unreliable narrator we know as ‘Broken Glass’, the task of writing this story. He wants Broken Glass to immortalise the bar and the people who visit. And that is what Broken Glass does. It’s such a realistic portrayal of human nature and the unreliability of the tales we tell, that I found it difficult to believe it was written by a once-lawyer academic professor and not a bitter drunk.

…let’s say the boss of Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book, because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked off the street when he got drunk, which shows you you should never joke with the boss…

One thing you should be aware of is the punctuation style – or lack of. There are no full stops in Broken Glass, and I know that this is something a lot of people have been put off by. I have read some reviews that express a frustration at the inability to focus to everything being narrated due to the lengthy, rambling prose style. Please don’t let this put you off. Some of the best books I have ever read have been written this way. My advice is not to worry too much about paying close attention to each detail and not skimming across things. How can you expect to read and take in the book if you are too busy thinking about the act of reading itself? Broken Glass is a silly, funny – although not exactly light-hearted – story and I think it aims to paint a picture, an overall impression, of life. You wouldn’t pay attention to everything a stranger said in a bar, hanging on to their every word. Like the impression met by a meeting in a bar, what is important in this book, in my opinion, is the overall tone and story arch. This is an excerpt:

…and what I really want people to say when they read me is ‘what’s this jumble, this mess, this muddle, this mish-mesh of barbitraries’

[…] my mischievous answer would be ‘this jumble of words is life, come on, come into my lair, check out the rotting garbage, here’s my take on life, your fiction’s no more than the output of a load of old has-beens designed to comfort other old has-beens, and until the day your characters start to see how the rest of us earn our nightly crust, there’ll be no such thing as literature, only intellectual masturbation’…

The blurb cites the book as a ‘mocking satire on the dangers of artistic integrity’, but if Broken Glass is a comedy – it is certainly a dark comedy. I found some parts uncomfortable, but that’s part of its charm. I have also read some people’s opinions of Broken Glass that claim that it was a little too crude for them. My response to this is ‘Don’t be so boring!’ Yes, there is a section where two characters have a pissing contest and the winner urinates a perfect map of France. Personally, however, I am not above a bit of toilet humour here and there.

I have to remind myself sometimes that I’m writing a book review and not an essay. Some books, like Broken Glass, are so – for want of a better word – tasty that I could sit for hours dissecting and exploring all the different ideas and themes. So I will just have to say this: read it!

To my shame, I must admit I have not read much African Literature (aside from the obvious Things Fall Apart, Half Of A Yellow Sun, etc.) so if anybody has any recommendations they would be greatly appreciated. Likewise, if you have read anything by Mabanckou, or if you know how I feel about ‘tasty’ books, I would love to hear from you. Thanks for reading!

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Can You Sell A Country? The Atom Station Review

This is my first book review and the first book I have read for the around the world reading challenge. Icelandic writer, Halldór Laxness is the only Icelandic Nobel Laureate, having won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1955 for his sixty novels. The Atom Station is one of them…

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Ulga is a country girl from the North and The Atom Station is the tale of her experience as a maid in the house of a politician. Somewhere inbetween a political satire and a coming of age novel, Laxness’s story revolves around the themes of corruption, westernisation and the preservation of traditional Icelandic values. Personally, I found parts of The Atom Station quite amusing, but I’m not sure whether I found it amusing enough to warrant being classed as a ‘satire’. Although, I understand that the irony mostly relies on knowledge of the context, which I don’t claim to have. This book would not be wasted on anyone with an interest in Icelandic history or politics. However, parts of the book resonate with anyone who knows anything about the nature of politicians. They did with me anyway…

“But he turned on his heel in the middle of the hall on his way up and continued his monologue: ‘As I was saying, you can always depend on him absolutely: If he swears something to you in confidence when he is sober, and pledges it on his honour, you can be quite sure that he is lying. If he swears it thrice in public on his mother’s name, then, quite simply, he means exactly the opposite of what he is swearing. But what he says when he is tipsy he really means, even though he swears it.'”

One of Laxness’s strengths is his characterisation. He has the ability to sum up a character just through his description of how they first appear to us in the book. Ulga is a real treat of a narrator. She is witty, curious and bold. I think if the character of Ulga hadn’t been as strong and quirky I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Atom Station quite so much. Parts of it were very heavy on philosophy and politics, which felt overwhelming and almost obnoxious, actually. The distinct preference for Communism and the Communist characters cannot be ignored. However the parodies Laxness paints of the various social groups (the upper class families, the old-fashioned farmers, the overdramatic modernist guests at the organ player’s house) were insightful and, at times, hilarious. I particularly enjoyed Ulga’s account of the spoilt family for whom she worked…

“‘I will, I will, I will go to America.’

In the middle of the floor of the study this beautiful, sleek woman lay on her back, her skirt up around her waist, wearing nylon stockings, silk panties and gilt shoes, belabouring the floor with her heels and fists and screaming, her bracelets jingling with the blows and one gilt shoe flying across the room.

Her husband stood at a distance, watching, wearing a surprised and helpless look; yet I suspect he had seen such a performance before and was not particularly amazed.”

Ultimately, The Atom Station was thought provoking and incredibly readable, although not unputdownable. At just 180 pages, I managed to read the whole thing over two two-hour train journeys. While I would not say that this was one of my favourite books, or that it moved me emotionally, I would recommend it to anybody as an insightful and unusual novel that is fun to read.  I’ve never read any Icelandic Literature before so if anybody else has read anything Icelandic or has any thoughts about this I’d love to hear about it!