2013: Reads of the Year – Rebecca DeWald

Iosi Havilio Open Door (And Other Stories, 2013 [2006]); translated by Beth Fowler)

Argentine literature in English is having a revival, with the large amount of books being translated only comparable to “el boom” of the 1960s and 1970s (see Patricio Pron at the EIBF; more reviews will follow on the GRB in 2014). Open Door tells the story of a young woman drifting through her life in Buenos Aires until her partner Aïda disappears, a suspected suicide. She finds shelter with both Jaime, an countryman twice her age, and teenager Eloïsa, a wild child from the same village, who could not be more different. The story, despite its setting in peaceful, rural Argentina, takes twists and turns, sways between sanity and insanity, between the want for peace and calm and the search for excitement, and always circles around the void of the big question: what happened to Aïda?

André Gide La porte étroite (Gallimard-Folio, 1909)

Gide is one of my all-time favourites, though with limited time for pleasure reads, it had been a while since I last picked him up. The vintage book shop Pêle-Mêle in Brussels stocks virtually all of his work (and every French classic you can think of), so I picked up the tiny pocket book and devoured it within 3 days. Its two protagonists, the narrator Jérôme, and the love of his life, Alissa, meet when they are still young and decide they will marry when the time comes. The title, Strait is the Gate (translated into English by Dorothy Bussy) refers to a passage in Matthew, 7:14:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which
leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it

which the protagonists interpret in opposing ways: when Jérôme hears the passage at a sermon, he watches Alissa and decides that they are meant to be; Alissa thinks the same, though, deeply religious, she instead interprets the strait gate and narrow way as her calling in life and the reason why she and Jérôme can’t ever be happy together. A continuous conundrum of interpretation, questioning the myth of “the one” while being intellectually and emotionally challenging and the same time. The perfect Boxing Day read!

Herman Melville Moby-Dick (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2009)

It is a classic and often mentioned in “Best Of” lists. My reason for including it is that 2013 saw my finishing this overwhelming book after three years of irregular but incessant reading, while watching friends overtake me in the task. The second reason is passages like the following, connecting the book with Franz Kafka’s ‘In der Strafkolonie’ (‘In the Penal Colony,’ translated by the Muirs, amongst others) and Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘El Aleph’ (‘The Aleph,’ translated by Andrew Hurley, Anthony Kerrigan or Norman Thomas di Giovanni, e.g.). A novel made up of short stories, if you like, which makes tackling the comprehensive oeuvre much more feasible:

And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last. And this thought it must have been which suggested to Ahab that wild exclamation of his, when one morning turning away from surveying poor Queequeg – ‘Oh, devilish tantalization of the gods!’

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