Sunday, June 14, 2015

Read-The-World: Peru, Yemen, and Pakistan

I've written on another blog about my interest in Ann Morgan's Reading-the-World Challenge in which readers are invited to try to read one novel or collection of short stories from each of the 196 countries in the world. I think this is a fascinating and worthwhile endeavor. I know as I am working at my list my view of the world and its people is altering considerably. That is the triumph of great art. I've set up a separate page on this blog to chart my progress and I hope to cross-link any blog posts I make about it.

So, since I started this two weeks ago, I've finished three books (and dipped into four or five more.) Today I am happy to have spent time in Peru, Yemen, and Pakistan. I have a feeling I may be spending a lot of time in Pakistan.

This is a simply beautiful novel that pays homage to that most ancient and, to me, beloved, art formstory-telling. Saul Zurastas is a Peruvian Jew born with a terrible birthmark over his face but he has managed to stay oblivious to that. Saul becomes obsessed with the Machiguengas, a tiny, indigenous tribe dwelling in the Amazon rain forest where they wander in small bands, connected by their ancient tradition of story-telling. Eventually, by living among them and learning their culture, Saul becomes a habladore—a storyteller. It is a story filled with mysteries—from the mythic nature of the Machigungas trying to survive in a modern world, to that of a Jewish outsider who longs to keep their traditions alive. It is beautifully written as all of Llosa's books are and won my heart because story-telling is a sacred art for me.

This is a little bit of a cheat because it is not a novel but non-fiction. I had already purchased it before I began working on this list and, because the author is Yemeni and writes beautifully about her people and her country, I decided to include it. I loved her description of the tiny village in which she grew up, the groves of eucalyptus trees, and the people of the village. At the age of ten she is married, against her will, to a man who is 3 times her age. We learn that her father so feared the “disgrace” that had befallen his older daughters he thought it best to marry off Nujood as quickly as possible. Her husband promises not to have sexual relations with her until a year after she begins menstruating but, of course, as soon as they are married and she has been taken to his village, he betrays that. Eventually, little Nujood makes it to the city of Sana'a where she pleads for a divorce which is granted. This was not an easy story to read but it is well-written and gives insight into a people that, even this world today, seem completely out of time.

I did not know what to expect when I began this book but it grabbed my attention from the first page and didn't let up until the last--and what a last page it was. I can honestly say, NOTHING was what I expected. The main character, Changez, is a young Pakistani from a family that was once affluent but is now in decline. He receives a scholarship to Princeton where he graduates with all A's at the top of his class. He is promptly recruited by a top corporate valuations company, and in no time, is living a life he could not have imagined. He has a great job, a beautiful American girlfriend, and a non-stop social life. He is tall, handsome, well-dressed and well-liked. His boss takes him under his wing and it seems his future will be a brilliant one. And then the World Trade Center is attacked and Changez world view shifts.

I was quite startled by the author's naked openness about his feelings in this story. Changez is in the Philippines on business when the Towers are attacked and his first reaction is one of happiness. He is ashamed of himself for feeling that way and immediately regrets the loss of life but, at the same time, cannot help but approve of the symbolism. Yet, he is well-aware that America has given him so much--why would he feel the way he did?

Slowly Changez slips into decline--a decline that even he does not understand. He is deeply conflicted and divided inside between his gratitude to a country that has given him so much and the land of his birth that he feels loyal to. During a business trip to Chile he begins to fall apart and, while visiting the home of poet Pablo Neruda, he makes a terrible decision.

This was not an easy book to read at times but the deep conflict and confusion Changez experiences is gripping. The author takes no shortcuts and avoids the trite and expected. The end was shattering. I am very glad to have read this book but believe it is not for everyone.

I have now moved on to Ethiopia with Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone but also have books for Syria and the United Arab Emirates that I am dying to get into. I must say I am very much enjoying this journey.

Thanks for reading.


  1. What an eye-opening and refreshing list of books to read.

  2. Thanks, Scott. This really is an amazing and eye-opening experience. I am so glad I'm doing it!


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