Friday, 27 May 2016

Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu / From The Mouth Of The Whale by Sjon / The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of Enver Hoxha by Blendi Fevziu from its publishers, I B Tauris, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

Other than a couple of Kiva loans to entrepreneurs in the country I knew practically nothing about the tiny Balkan country of Albania. Reading this newly translated biography of its former dictator, Enver Hoxha, has helped me to understand more about their forty year exclusion. Author Blendi Fevziu is an Albanian journalist and the whole book is written in a reportage style, not dry at all, but firmly factual and pragmatic. Where truth is uncertain this is clearly indicated by the language used and many key events, particularly during Hoxha's ascent and early years of power, are now difficult to establish exactly due to his having since ordered the deaths of witnesses who might have refuted his own version. A prolific writer, Hoxha wrote over 70 books during his lifetime many of which apparently were 'revised' versions of his life so, while Fevziu had extensive material from which to research this biography, gleaning the truth must have been incredibly difficult.

Hoxha's unremarkable early life and dissolute student years in France seemed a strange beginning for a paranoid dictator. His selection as Communist Party leader was more due to his lack of personal drive meaning that he hadn't alienated any of the factions fighting for control, but once he got the nomination, there was no way he was going to relinquish power and maintained absolute control for forty-one years. An incredible achievement even though he effectively destroyed his country and totally isolated himself in the process. I found Fevziu's biography absolutely fascinating both as a overview history of post-war Albania and as a portrait of Hoxha himself. It was disappointing to learn of underhand British interference and finances helping the Communist regime to establish itself as the war ended (is there anywhere we haven't helped to destroy?). I did find it difficult to keep track of who everybody was, especially during the early chapters when timelines frequently jumped around, but once the narrative settled into a more linear approach, identification became easier.

As a cautionary tale against the effects of personality cults and an illustration of how large numbers of people can be convinced to follow self-destructive ideologies, this is an important book. Details of Hoxha's obsessive public relations campaign to present himself as he wanted to be seen and remembered are interestingly similar to celebrity and brand campaigns nowadays and it worked. On its launch a quarter century after Hoxha's 1985 death, some Albanians burned original language copies of this biography in the streets because it dared to criticise their former leader even though he left their country technologically worse off than when he took power, with hundreds dead, thousands imprisoned or interned, and hundreds of thousands starving.

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Books by Blendi Fevziu / biography / Books from Albania


From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I bought a second-hand copy of From The Mouth Of The Whale from Totnes Community Bookshop, intrigued by the idea of an Icelandic book. I have read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, set in Iceland, but no books actually by Icelandic authors.

In From The Mouth Of The Whale Sjon blends fact with fiction to produce a bewildering portrait of 1600s Iceland. Genuine historical figure Jon Gudmundsson the Learned really did exist, did marry as astronomer wife and did witness the massacre of Basque whalers. Here he is imagined as Jonas Palmasson, a boy prodigy who becomes a learned man and is ostracised by his community. Outlawed and isolated on a tiny island off Iceland's coast, he must survive as best he can without any help and bereft of his library, but eventually with the company of his wife. We see the story through Jonas' eyes and it is difficult to tell what is truth, what would have been seen as truth four centuries ago, and what is delusion within Jonas' mind. I was fascinated by scenes such as the devout Catholic village unearthing their banned idols in order to worship them and the text is dotted with short textbook extracts describing the bizarre properties believed of plants and animals. Jumping around in place and time, I was able to piece together Jonas' memories to make sense of his life and the politics of his time. Having visited Iceland, I was easily able to imagine locations such as Thingvallir parliament, but I would have liked more detail in some of the descriptive passages. From The Mouth Of The Whale cleverly brings historic Iceland to life and I would be interested to read more of Sjon's work.

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Books by Sjon / Historical / Books from Iceland


The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I swapped for a copy of The Fifth Child at the book exchange at Camping Bois de Coderc in France. The novella is billed as horror but I didn't find it fitted into what I would expect from that genre as, although the eponymous child is described as not human, the book is more an examination of social expectations and how we treat people who are different to ourselves.

Harriet and David meet during an office party in the swinging sixties. Both are considered 'old fashioned' by their friends and family. Neither wants to take advantage of the new freedoms of the era and both were effectively sidelined until they met each other. We see their brief courtship and the purchase of a ridiculously large house after their swift marriage. Harriet is soon pregnant with the first of the large family they both desire and, as the years go by and their brood increases, Harriet and David's house become the place to be. Family and friends descend at Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays filling the house with happiness. Instead of being mocked for being uptight and straight laced, the couple are now envied for their welcome and (assisted) generosity.

All is perfect until Harriet's more than usually difficult fifth pregnancy and the birth of Ben, a strange stocky child who physically develops faster than his age should allow, but mentally seems remote and unable to understand basic social concepts. The catalyst for visitors cutting short their stays or making excuses to be elsewhere, Harriet feels blamed for his existence and Ben's menacing presence upsets the other children. After violent acts, David and his parents arrange for Ben to be sent away, leaving Harriet apparently the only one experiencing guilt at his absence.

Lessing has written a compelling novella which I found difficult to put down. It does seem rather dated now although I can't quite put my finger on why, but asks deep questions about how difficult children are treated. Ben is presented as less (or perhaps more) than human, but does this mean he should be excluded? Does his right to a normal family upbringing override the potential safety of his siblings in the same environment? How much freedom should children be allowed in order for them to be happy? These questions are just as relevant today as in the 1980s when The Fifth Child was written and I don't think the answers are any easier. We know what we think we should do and feel, but if this was your family, what decision would you take?

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Books by Doris Lessing / Horror / Books from England

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