I wasn’t going to resort to short books to finish #tbr20, but then there was a book in the Folio Society sale for less than £10 that I decided would be my reward for completing. As I still had 5 books to read before the sale ended, needs must. I gathered together a goodly number of short books from the TBR and then choose 5 to make an itinerary: 5 titles, 5 countries, 4 continents. 36772 km or 22850 airmiles. Today we land in South America, Africa and Europe.

Destination 1: Coronel Pringles, Argentina

Birth place of César Aira, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 for his prolific body of work. The Lime Tree (translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews), is described as a novelita on the back cover. Now I don’t know enough about Aira (actually I know nothing about his life) to say where or if the Lime Tree diverges from the facts of Aira’s early childhood, but it certainly reads more like biography than fiction. That said, not a straightforward biography. The narrator (Aira?) skitters at will between childhood memories, observations of townspeople and the effects of politics both during and after Perón. Particularly on his Peronist father who is diminished following the revolution. This is the man who collects blossom from the lime (linden) tree that grew in the town square to make tea to relieve his insomnia. Both man and tree are long gone when the narrator (Aira?) returns in his adulthood with his mature vision, and while reflecting on the passage of time, he attempts to recapture his “old self” ….

Historically interesting and anecdotally entertaining, but also slightly underwhelming. I’m not inclined to investigate Aira’s oeuvre any further. 3 stars.

Destination 2: Cairo’s Gamaliya quarter, Egypt

The stories in Naguib Mahfouz’s The Quarter (translated from Arabic by Roger Allen) were discovered after the Nobel Laureate’s death together with a cryptic note “To be published in 1994”. Which raises many questions – Why weren’t they published? (Mahfouz didn’t die until 2006.) Was he intending to polish them into a novel, but never got round to it? (His productivity decreased greatly following a failed assassination attempt in – significantly – 1994.) I’m inclined to think so, because the stories and the flash fictions in The Quarter contain such narrative richness that I can see the makings of a great urban novel.

Now this is a real coincidence, but The Gamaliya Quarter is to Mahfouz what Coronel Pringles is to Aira: his childhood home! And while in some of the stories, a narrator is looking back to past times, (I know of no parallel to the period in our quarter’s life that has become known as the black period), the stories are more immediate. As a reader, I was in the streets, in the midst of the dramas: of people leaving (whether by running off with the baker’s boy, or leaving the service of the mosque) of others returning years later as an self-declared and unwanted saint or as orphans in need of revenge. There’s a man who cannot find a wife because he is a widower 3-times over, and another who takes a much younger wife with designs on his fortune. There’s an old fort above the quarter where nefarious humans and other beings dwell. Superstition, religion, the pious, the heretical, the immoral, and the Head of The Quarter trying to keep good order. (Not always successfully or justly.)

The stories work as they are: momentary snapshots of individual lives building into a kaleidoscopic view of the community. 4 stars. I loved them and writing this has persuaded me to make a start on Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. Watch this space.

Destination 3: Paris, France

Who amongst us has not been frustrated by the proclivities of modern technology or the obstacle course set when we need to resort to the service centre? Problems start for the unnamed narrator of Benoît Duteurtre’s Customer Service (translated from French by Bruce Benderson) when he is gifted a smartphone. Having transferred his life onto it, he then leaves it behind in a taxi.

Passed by various customer service representatives from pillar to post to laptop to software upgrade, his misadventures with the technology corporationare only just beginning. But he is intrepid, as stubborn as a mule, and a preferred customer. He will not take no for an answer, even when he receives letters from a non-existent Head of Customer Services. When there is no respite, despite the help of the ever-competent teenage sidekick, he begins to suspect a conspiracy. Surely not?

Duteurtre has written a very funny but very knowing satire about our digital age and the dangers of transferring too much of ourselves onto digital platforms. The hold we give companies, global or otherwise, over ourselves. Old hat nowadays, knowing what we know now, you may think. Except that he wrote this in 2003! 4-stars. (Just too much farce at the end to merit a full 5.)

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