Thursday, April 21, 2011

Big author, small book

Ever since I published my first novel, I've tried to keep out of the messy business of critisising other novelists. I particularly avoid reviewing fellow South African writers, because the pool is so small and the egos are so big and literary critisism often ends up being nothing more than a case of mutual back-scratching. Or reciprocal nastiness.

But praising other novelists is another matter. That's why I started this blog, to spread the Good Word of Reading, to tell other readers about books I love. When it comes to reading, I have the heart of an enthusiastic missionary rather than a strict judge.

If I don't like a book, why should I waste time writing about it? That's mostly my credo, also when blogging.

When I do agree to write a review for the traditional press, I try to choose an author I've admired in the past or a book I suspect I would like. I prefer being nice to being nasty - maybe it's as simple as that.

But nice doesn't always cut the dice. Recently a Johannesburg newspaper asked me to write a short review of Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa's latest novel - latest available in English, that is - The Bad Girl. A task I took on with pleasure because I remember enjoying Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter many years ago (the book, not the movie) and being impressed with some of Vargas Llosa's more serious works.

What a disappointment this turned out to be! Not because The Bad Girl a bad novel; no, it's a quite enjoyable little love story, but it's simply not good enough for the latest laureate of the most prestigeous literary prize on earth. I felt rather presumptious, a small author like me 'attacking' a literary giant like Vargas Llosa, but this time I simply couldn't be 'nice'.

If you read Afrikaans, you could read the original review published in Beeld earlier this week ( If not, let me sum it up: 'Of a Nobel Prize-winning author you expect more than a good yarn. You expect a deeper insight, a unique style, a personal vision of the world, something bigger than the sum of the story and the person writing the story, so that by the time you reach the last sentence you are not exactly the same person as when you started reading the first page. Great books change the reader. Unfortunately even the greatest authors cannot always produce great books.'

The Bad Girl is a small book - please note, not a thin book, at more than 400 pages - about lifelong obsessive love. Comparisons are odious, yes, yes, we all know that, but I couldn't help comparing this novel rather unfavorably to another Latin-American novel about the same subject written by another Latin-American Nobel Prize winner. I'm referring to the unforgettable Love in the Time of Cholera (the book, once again, not the movie) by Gabriel García Márquez - who used to be Vargas Llosa's friend, although apparently they haven't spoken to each other for more than 30 years. Thirty Years of Solitude? Only in South America...

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