Modern Fiction Writers Who Have Been Harassed or Banned for Political Reasons

 

Here are ten courageous authors who have written truth to power in their novels and stories and have gotten into trouble for doing it.

 

PersepolisMarjane Satrapi  – Marjane Satrapi’s marvelous graphic novels Persepolis and Persepolis 2 are not only banned in her birthplace country of Iran.  These books are also banned from Chicago Public Schools classrooms below grade 8.  In fact Persepolis is now number two on the top ten list of frequently challenged books in the United States.  The reason for banning is supposedly the one or two depictions of torture, but some have wondered if the books’ positive images of Muslims may be the actual reason.

 

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Hans Fallada – By the time the Nazis took over, Hans Fallada was already a successful author with his books translated and published in Great Britain and the United States.  However in 1935 Fallada was declared by the Nazis an “undesirable author”. Fallada continued to write, and his fortunes changed somewhat when the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called one of his novels, ‘Wolf Among Wolves’, “a super book”.  Goebbels repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to get Fallada to write an anti-Semitic novel.  Ultimately Fallada was incarcerated in a Nazi insane asylum for other reasons.  After the war Fallada wrote his anti-Fascist masterpiece ‘Alone in Berlin’ (‘Every Man Dies Alone’) while in a mental institution.  Fallada died shortly thereafter.

 

263555._UY200_ Abdul Rahman Munif –  Saudi novelist Abdul Rahman Munif had his powerful works banned in Saudi Arabia for their scathing criticism of the oil industry in the Middle East and of the elite Saudis who played along with the oil companies.  Munif was also stripped of his Saudi citizenship.  His ‘Cities of Salt’ trilogy describes how the desert oasis village of Wadi-Al-Uyoun was transformed and destroyed by the arrival of western oilmen.   I read the entire ‘Cities of Salt’ trilogy which I consider probably the strongest work of protest in modern literature.  The trilogy is difficult to find in the United States for perhaps apparent reasons.

 

the four booksYan Lianke – Yan Lianke is China’s most banned and censored novelist.  He is also one of China’s most popular writers. I have recently read his novel ‘The Four Books’ which is his powerful work about China’s Great Leap Forward.  I will be writing a separate whole article about this novel soon.  It was an act of courage for Lianke to write about this massive government failure and major famine that occurred between the years of 1958 and 1962.  It is a sign that China is finally opening up to some extent that this work has been published and translated.

 

21318-MLM7474457131_122014-OHerta Muller – Early in her career, Herta Muller was fired from her job as a translator because she refused to be an informant for the secret police in Communist  Romania.  Later because of her criticism of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, Muller was banned from publishing in her own country.  She won the Nobel Literary prize in 2009.  In 2012 she severely criticized the Nobel selection of Mo Yan as a catastrophe calling him a Chinese writer who “celebrates censorship”.    So far I have only read one novel by Herta Muller, ‘The Land of Green Plums’, but I hope to read more soon.

 

4cd40492131723f092e7ff060955c4cdAlberto Moravia – Alberto Moravia’s first novel “The Time of Indifference” got him in trouble with the Fascist authorities under Mussolini.  After that, he ultimately had to leave the country and write under a pseudonym.  However, unlike several others on this list, Moravia’s story had a happy ending.  With the liberation of Italy, Moravia returned and had a long and successful career as a fiction writer and screen writer.  Among his many fine works are ‘The Woman of Rome’, ‘Boredom’, ‘Contempt’, and ‘Agostino’.  He was also a great story writer.

 

md15648249826Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky) – Andei Sinyavsky was arrested and imprisoned by the Soviet authorities in 1966 on charges of “anti-Soviet activity” for the opinions of his fictional characters.  He was released in 1971 and allowed to emigrate to France.  One interesting sidelight, Sinyavsky was the catalyst for forming the excellent Russian-English translation team of Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear.  Perhaps Sinyavsky’s greatest work is his satirical memoir ‘Goodnight!’, but I have also read and enjoyed several other of his fine novels.

 

9780140061406Nadine Gordimer – Gordimer was active in the anti-apartheid movement joining the African National Congress when that organization was banned in South Africa.  She edited Nelson Mandela’s famous speech, “I am Prepared to Die”, which he gave at his trial in 1962. Gordimer’s excellent novels, among them ‘July’s People’ and ‘Burger’s Daughter’, deal with how people cope with the terrible choices forced on them by racial hatred.  Her books were banned in South Africa up until the end of apartheid in 1994.

 

6a00e5509ea6a1883401a3fd343154970b-120wiJaroslav Hasek  – “The Good Soldier Schweik”  is at the top on the list of the funniest anti-war novels ever. It is about an unfunny subject, World War I.   Joseph Heller has said that he would never have written his anti-war novel “Catch-22” if it had not been for “The Good Soldier Schweik”.  This subversive novel was banned from the Czech army in 1925, the Polish translation was confiscated in 1928, the Bulgarian translation was suppressed in 1935, and the German translation was burned in Nazi bonfires in 1933.  It is especially common that army headquarters will ban this novel, citing necessary discipline within their units. Somehow it has survived.

 

_39238813_pamuk2Orhan Pamuk – The novels of Turkish novelist and Nobel Literary winner Orhan Pamuk have often been banned and burned in Turkey.  In 2005, Pamuk was arrested for an “insult to Turkishness” for the following remark: “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  The charges were later dropped.  He has become the most prominent advocate of a modern, liberal, cosmopolitan Turkey. Of Pamuk’s excellent novels, so far I have read ‘The Black Book’, ‘My Name is Red’, and ‘Snow’.

 

 

 

‘Love in a Cold Climate’ by Nancy Mitford -The Hilarious and Necessary Corrective to Downton Abbey

 

‘Love in a Cold Climate’  by Nancy Mitford   (1949) – 256 pages

 

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I watched and delighted in Downton Abbey as much as anyone else, tuning in each week to watch the adventures of the supremely aristocratic Crawley family and their household staff.  I figured that Downton Abbey was precisely calibrated to please those of today’s upper class who might still contribute money to public television, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Nancy Mitford was born into one of those aristocratic families in England but her view is entirely different from that of the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes.    Hers is a much less humane, wickedly humorous, look at the aristocracy from the inside.  Somehow I trust Nancy Mitford in her picture of the upper class more than Julian Fellowes.  The aristocrats at Downton Abbey are portrayed as being nowhere near as obnoxious as many of them at that time actually were.

Whereas in Downtown Abbey, the family cares oh so much about all the trials and tribulations that beset members of their household staff,  in ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ Lady Montdore says “I love being so dry in here and seeing all those poor people so wet.”

Here is Mitford’s wicked description of Lady Montdore:

“Her curtsies, owing to the solid quality of her frame, did not recall the graceful movement of wheat before the wind.  She scrambled down like a camel, rising again backside foremost like a cow, a strange performance, painful it might be supposed to the performer, the expression on whose face, however, belied that thought.  Her knees cracked like revolver shots but her smile was heavenly.”

In Downton, the Maggie Smith character, the Countess of Grantham, says abrupt rascally things, but she is still lovable.  In ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ the aristocrats’ behavior is often unjustifiably hateful.

In ‘Love in a Cold Climate’, we have Boy Dougdale, the Lecherous Lecturer.  He is a rich uncle in his forties who flirts with the fourteen year old girls.

“But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill.  He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least, she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer.  And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.  Do admit, Fanny.”

The whole family is appalled when the now eighteen year old Polly decides to marry her recently widowed uncle Boy Dougdale.

As Jassy truly observed, however, “Isn’t Sadie a scream, she simply doesn’t realize that what put Polly on the Lecturer’s side in the first place must have been all those dreadful things he did to her, like he once tried to with Linda and me, and that now what she really wants most in the world is to roll and roll and roll about with him in a double bed.”

The Mitford Manor House

The Mitford Manor House

You can be sharp and mean and wicked in fiction.  They don’t write them like ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ anymore.  I wish they did.

The idea that Downton Abbey misses is that all that money and free time gave these aristocratic families many opportunities to misbehave, and misbehave they did.  Many were unregenerate Nazis and needlessly cruel to their servants and less fortunate others.  And their misbehavior could take countless other forms.  I’m not saying that aristocrats were worse than the rest of us; they were just as bad, and considering the money and influence these people had the results were more pernicious.

I think Nancy Mitford would have agreed with that.

 

 

Grade:   A

 

‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ by Anthony Marra –“Heroin on the Kitchen Table, Snow on the Window Sill”

 

‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ by Anthony Marra   (2015) – 332 pages

 

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Here is a story of modern Russia with its origins in the old Soviet state.  Life goes on, and Anthony Marra captures a lot of it.

‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ is arranged like a homemade mixtape with a Side A, an Intermission, and a Side B.  At first the material on the mixtape seems unrelated, but a pattern develops.   It contains riffs on Kirovsk in Siberia, Chechnya, and St. Petersburg, riffs on the old Communist oligarchy and the new organized crime oligarchy who took over after Communism fell.  The crime team now rules, and not much has changed since the old Communist years.

When Communism fell, the people of Chechnya fought a war and won their independence just like many of the countries in Eastern Europe had achieved.  However the organized crime bosses ruling Russia lusted after all that oil money to be made in Chechnya and fought another vicious Chechen War to get it back.

An example of Anthony Marra’s sardonic black humor is the story titled “The Grozny Tourist Bureau”. It takes place in 2003 after the first and second Chechen Wars have left Grozny the most devastated city on earth according to the United Nations.  In the 1990s, Chechnya was one of the most heavily mined regions in the world with an estimated 500,000 planted land mines. The Chechnya Museum of Regional Art had been destroyed by Russian rockets, and now the former deputy director of the museum has been named the chief of the Grozny Tourist Bureau.  He must now write a brochure explaining the glories of Chechnya for tourists.

“Upon seeing the space where an apartment block once stood, I wrote “wide and unobstructed skies”.  I watched jubilantly as a pack of feral dogs chased a man, and wrote “unexpected encounters with natural life”.

Life goes on even in miserable circumstances whether it was in the old Soviet forced labor camps in Kirovsk, Siberia or in the new war-torn Chechnya.

“Kirovsk isn’t that bad, is it?”

It’s a poisoned post-apocalyptic hellscape.  “It’s a wonderful place to raise a family.”    

‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ is one work of fiction I do not recommend you listen to via audiobook as I originally attempted to do. Many of the sentences in ‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ are too rich and dense with meaning and attitude to be fully appreciated by a casual listen.  Here it is best you read the words so you can easily stop, think about them, and fully appreciate them before moving on.  Here are typical sentences:

“Whatever life-preserving instincts evolution endowed him with have been war-blunted to an amused disregard for all mortality, particularly his own.”    

“But to some people ignorance is a sleeping mask they mistake for corrective lenses.”    

Besides, this fiction is so packed with marginally related characters, locations, and plot lines, it is difficult to keep the stories all together while listening.

Grozny, Chechnya After Two Wars

Grozny, Chechnya After Two Wars

The stories take place in many locales ranging from St. Petersburg to Kirovsk in Siberia to rural Chechnya to the Chechen capital city of Grozny to outer space.

If I were summarizing the plots of these interconnected stories, it would be as follows.  These stories give specific examples of the oligarchy-induced tragedies for the Russian people from the 1930s up until today.  From Stalin’s forced labor camps in Siberia to the Chechen Wars and beyond, the misfortunes for the people of Russia have continued.

This is a rich devastatingly well-written novel.  I only wish it were more tightly organized.  I just feel that a novel this complex should have more than a mixtape structure.  Anthony Marra is certainly making some strong statements about modern Russia, but the impact is somewhat blunted by the hodge-podge arrangement of the material.

 

Grade:   B+

 

Anita Brookner (1928 – 2016)

 

 

assets_LARGE_t_420_54648121_type13145I am one of those unusual dudes who reads fiction more for the sentences than for the story.  Well everybody has got a story, but few can write good sentences.  Anita Brookner had a way with a sentence that I love.

Like nearly everyone else, I discovered Anita Brookner with her novel ‘Hotel du Lac’ back in the early 1980s.  After that I went back and read her earlier novels ‘The Debut’, ‘Providence’, and ‘Look At Me’. By then, I was a hardened Anita Brookner fan, and tried to read every novel she wrote as it was published, but I could not keep up with her.

What kind of novels did Anita Brookner write?  These novels might be considered a sort of romance novel but not your typical happily-ever-after kind.  They usually center on an entirely sufficient successful young woman.  As she was brought up, this young woman had been told repeatedly to find a man to be her husband, but she did not feel much urge to do so.  Her heroines are usually reasonably content in their own company.   Then the woman meets a man who appeals to her.  The relationship appears to be idyllic until at some point the woman decides to back off. Afterward she may be somewhat rueful about ending the relationship, but she realizes she made the necessary decision.

look at meAnita Brookner never married herself, but she seemed to be entirely fascinated with relationships. She has described herself as “a poor unfortunate creature who writes about poor unfortunate creatures”.  She liked to make jokes about being “the world’s loneliest, most miserable woman”, but she was actually a highly successful career woman.  She was an authority on eighteenth century painting, the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University.  She did not start writing novels until she was fifty-two, but then wrote almost a novel a year for twenty-five years.

I’ve read many of the tributes that have recently been written about Anita Brookner, and some use the words gloomy, melancholy, and monotonous to describe her work.  For me, these words do not fit at all.  If anything, her novels make me feel exuberant.  It is a rare treat to find someone who can express the thoughts of her characters in such a clear, objective, and eloquent fashion as Anita Brookner.

Here are some fine lines by Anita Brookner I like:

“No blame should attach to telling the truth. But it does, it does.”

“I felt at one with all those people on the sidelines of life, forced to contemplate the successful maneuvers in which others were engaged, obliged to listen politely and to refrain from comment.”   

“I have been too harsh on women, she thought, because I understand them better than I understand men.”

“For once a thing is known, it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten.”

“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.”

“I’ve never got on very well with Jane Austen.”

“It will be a pity if women in the more conventional mold are to be phased out, for there will never be anyone to go home to.”

“Like many rich men, he thought in anecdotes; like many simple women, she thought in terms of biography.” 

“Romanticism is not just a mode; it literally eats into every life. Women will never get rid of just waiting for the right man. “  

“You have no idea how promising the world begins to look once you have decided to have it all for yourself. And how much healthier your decisions are once they become entirely selfish.”   

“A man of such obvious and exemplary charm must be a liar.”  

$_35 Perhaps the most appropriate words I found about Anita Brookner are these by novelist Brian Morton in the New York Times in 2003:

“All she does is tell her stories.  With her unfashionable restraint, with the glow of unshowy intelligence on every page she writes, with the brevity and directness of her novels, and with her self-effacing willingness to put her imagination entirely at the service of the story she’s telling, Brookner is an artist of an exceptional purity.”

Brookner is for those people who are in this literature thing for real.  I expect that Anita Brookner will be one of the few modern writers whose works will continue to be read for a long time.

 

‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ by Iván Repila

‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ by Iván Repila      (2013)       110 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes

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Two brothers named Big and Small are stuck down a deep well and they can’t get out. With names like Big and Small, you just know you are in allegory territory. Big is very much the big brother. He bullies his little brother Small mercilessly, but is also protective of the little fellow. Of course Small deeply resents his bossy big brother but must depend on him to stay alive. They have some food which they were going to bring home for their mother, but Big insists that they don’t eat it. Instead they eat “squashed ants, green snails, little yellow maggots, mushy roots, and larvae”.

Starvation is not the brothers’ only threat. They drink dirty water. Wolves appear above them on the edge of the well at night, sniffing for blood.

So ‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ is a nightmare of trying to survive in desperate circumstances. Small almost loses consciousness with fever and is subject to tortured visions. Big does what he can to keep Small alive, although the boy no longer wants to live.

This novella can be read as just an intense horrible drama of endurance, but there are hints that something else might be going on here. There is the opening quote from Margaret Thatcher of all people about how the poor are not poor because others are rich, but that the poor would be even poorer if the rich were less rich. I am no fan of this nasty misguided Thatcher remark and am unsure how it applies to this story of two brothers’ survival, but it is to the book’s credit that its political allusions are not obvious.

‘The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse’ is a fine example of what all can be accomplished within a short novella. I have no idea where its title came from, since there is no mention of Attila’s horse at all in the story.

 

Grade: B+

 

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang – “I Do Not Eat Meat.”

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang (2007) – 188 pages Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

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If you thought a novel by a South Korean woman writer might be too polite or decorous for you, forget about it. ‘The Vegetarian’ is lurid and violent, and it has sex scenes that would make that old purveyor of masturbatory fantasy Philip Roth blush.

“I do not eat meat,” Yeong-Hye announces one day. Her husband is indifferent to what she does as long as she keeps up a respectable front with his work associates and bosses. However Yeong-Hye makes a big scene at a company dinner with her refusal to eat meat, and this embarrasses her husband no end.

Yeong-Hye’s father and mother come to visit. She refuses to eat meat. This so infuriates her father that he beats her severely and force feeds her a piece of meat. She spits it out and then brandishes a fruit knife and cuts her wrist. She is taken to the hospital in critical condition.

At this point, we realize that Yeong-Hye is mentally ill. I doubt that someone deciding to become a vegetarian would ever be considered a sign of mental illness in the United States, but Yeong-Hye has other symptoms. She not only refuses meat; she starves herself. She takes her clothes off and goes naked regardless of whoever happens to be around. In the second section of “The Vegetarian”, her artist brother-in-law is consumed with sexual desire for her. He is obsessed with sexual fantasies featuring Yeong-Hye. Because she is in her own little world, she is a helpless victim.

In the third section, Yeong-Hye’s sister confronts her sister’s sickness:

“Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet, and washing themselves – living in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud.”

One thing I noticed while reading the author’s notes was that Han Kang was a participant in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Apparently afterwards she returned to South Korea, because the novel was written in Korean. So what we have here is a hybrid, a South Korean novel infused with a western sensibility.

All of the scenes in the novel are portrayed with a vivid dramatic intensity I wasn’t expecting. That is why I will remember ‘The Vegetarian’ long after other novels have faded from my memory.

 

Grade: A

‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann – Nobody Falls Halfway

 

‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann (2009) – 349 pages

 

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Of all the novels published during the past few years, ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann has probably gone on to achieve the highest standing among book people. Although ignored by the Booker Prize, it later went on to win the National Book Award in the United States in 2009 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2011.

After I was bowled over by McCann’s latest book of stories ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’, I decided that it was way past time that I read ‘Let the Great World Spin’.

Most of the novel takes place on the days surrounding August 7, 1974 which is the day Frenchman Philippe Petit did his surreptitious but widely viewed tight rope walk between the two World Trade Center towers in New York City. Although Petit was arrested, the judge in the case dropped all charges, and in exchange Petit was required to give a free aerial show for children in Central Park which he was happy to do. Both Petit and the judge in this case are characters in ‘Let the Great World Spin’.

But most of the story takes place on the ground. In McCann’s words, these are”the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground.”

The theme of the novel is that all of us disparate humans down here on Earth are in this life together, and we all better do our best to help each other along. If we do help each other, wonderful things might happen. We have a selfless monk from Ireland, a black mother and daughter who work as prostitutes, and a group of upper-class mothers grieving over their sons or daughters lost in Vietnam, as well as the tightrope walker and the judge.

At first I thought these characters were somewhat shameless stereotypes. We could just as well have had a selfless black nun and two Irish male prostitutes. However by the end of the novel I came to understand why McCann wrote the novel as he did.

“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough. “

ows_140260746155780Sometimes ‘Let the Great World Spin’ has been referred to as a 9/11 novel, perhaps because the tightrope walker is walking between the two WTC buildings. However there are no direct 9/11 scenes, and I don’t believe 9/11 is ever mentioned.

Although most of the novel takes place back in 1974, the last part occurs in 2006. This final section moved me to the point that I had tears in my eyes. To me, that is the sign that I’m reading an exceptionally fine novel.

 

Grade: A

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