Dr. Elizabeth Riddle Recommends Novels by Pamuk, Sijie, and Némirovsky

In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series, the chair of the English Department, Dr. Elizabeth Riddle, recommends three novels in translation by Orhan Pamuk, Dai Sijie, and Irène Némirovsky.

If you pick up My Name is Red  by Orhan Pamuk, make sure to do so during a vacation, because you may have trouble putting this 400+ page book down.  The novel transports us to 16th century Turkey on the eve of profound challenges to deeply held religious and aesthetic values.  A workshop of masters of Persian miniature painting is asked by the sultan to incorporate the newly encountered Western style of painting into a special book commemorating the sultan’s achievements.  But the resulting depiction of humans could be seen as an insult to Islam, the new use of perspective a betrayal of artistic tradition.  Indeed, the national identity seems to be threatened as modernity confronts the Turkish and Persian aesthetic passed down through centuries as a treasure.  Emotional turmoil and murder ensue.

Told in the first person, the chapters alternate the voices of key characters, including the unknown murderer, lovers, artists, friends, and rivals.  We plunge into their souls, and in so doing, absorb lessons on philosophy, the meaning of art, aesthetics, identity, adaptation, loss, and survival.  Altogether a gripping read.

My Name is Red was the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 2003 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.  It was translated into lyrical English by Erdag M. Gornar, first published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. in 2001.  The Vintage International edition was published by Vintage Books in 2002.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie also confronts a turbulent period of cultural change with implications for the arts, identity, and education.  The novel is narrated primarily in the voice of an adolescent urban boy purged with his friend Luo to the countryside to work for the people, i.e. poor farmers, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China. This is their punishment for the privilege of having had some high school education in the city, and they must use subterfuge if their bodies and their spirits are to survive.  In an early scene, the violin of the narrator is determined to be a “bourgeois toy” by the village headman and about to be thrown into a fire.  At Luo’s instigation, the narrator plays for the headman and surrounding mob a suspect “Western” sonata, which the quick-thinking Luo renames “Mozart is Thinking of Chairman Mao,” thus saving both their skins and the instrument. Later, the two boys secretly read forbidden and deviously obtained Balzac novels translated from French into Chinese and share their worldly knowledge with a young seamstress, leading to very unexpected results.  This is a captivating and ironic tale lent authenticity by the author’s own experiences during the Cultural Revolution.

The 184-page novel was beautifully translated from the original French by Ina Rilke, and the English edition published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., in 2002. 

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky stems from yet another turbulent time and place, Nazi-occupied France.  This work is believed to be the first contemporaneous WW II novel.  As the preface to the French edition explains, Némirovsky, a Russian-Jewish émigré to France, and her husband perished in the Holocaust, but their two young daughters survived.  Their mother had already established a literary reputation in pre-war France, but her promise had been cut short in Auschwitz. Only in the 1990’s did the daughters realize that their mother’s notebook, which they had retained as a precious remembrance, was actually a full new and compelling novel.

Némirovsky probes human character and the mid-century mores of the French bourgeoisie set against a foreboding landscape punctuated by the trivial.  Each “movement” of the Suite presents different characters’ migrations to seek safety and sustenance, with varied degrees of success; irony and contradiction abound.

A meta-irony is that although Némirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942, her novel has been criticized by some for not addressing the specific horror of the Holocaust for her fellow Jews.  The novel thus suggests important questions about authors’ contested roles as witnesses and spokespersons for their societies of birth.

Elegantly translated from the French by Sandra Smith, the novel was published as a Vintage International edition in 2007, and previously published in hardcover first by Chatto & Windus in London, and subsequently New York by Vintage Books in 2006.

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