A year after his death, Rolf Peter Sieferle, a historian, has become a publishing sensation in Germany. His slim book, “Finis Germania” (The end of Germany), is a meditation on German political culture. Most notable are unseemly musings on the “perpetual myth” that the guilt of Auschwitz can only be atoned for “when the Germans disappear altogether”. Reviled as anti-Semitic by most critics, the book would have sunk were it not for Der Spiegel, which recommended it before public outrage prompted its editor to remove the book from its bestseller list. It soon topped Amazon’s national chart. In the past readers have turned to – and manipulated – Goethe, Kleist, Nietzsche and Mann for help defining “German-ness”. Sieferle’s succès de scandale is a testament to what a precarious task that remains.
A book described by its author as “the life story of a generic person” hardly sounds like a page-turner. But “82 nyeon-saeng, Kim Ji-young” (Born in 1982, Kim Ji-young) is the year’s biggest-selling book in South Korea. Kim Ji-young (combining the most popular girl’s name of the early 1980s with Korea’s most common surname) is an ordinary woman navigating everyday sexism at school and work. Gender equality is a hot topic in Korean politics: one MP even gave the book to the newly elected president, Moon Jae-in; another went further and bought 300 copies for the entire National Assembly.
More Zeez please
The illustrators behind “Zeez” (above) could not have chosen a more apt name for their new comic. Zeez is the Arabic word for cicada, a small insect that spends much of its life underground before emerging to create a loud, humming chorus. It is the latest work making a noise in Lebanon, where comics and longer-form graphic novels have become hugely popular for their ability to explore sensitive and often personal stories, overcome language barriers and even evade censors. It tackles violence, traffic and political strife on the streets of Beirut – a welcome addition to a genre that too often focuses on yesterday’s wars at the expense of today’s troubles.
There has been a recent vogue for books promoting past thinkers as guides to happy living. Few would seem less qualified for that role than the 19th-century Italian philosopher-poet Giacomo Leopardi, sometimes seen as the father of nihilism. Yet in “L’arte di essere fragili: Come Leopardi può salvarti la vita” (The art of being fragile: how Leopardi can save your life), Alessandro D’Avenia reverses the conventional view to depict him, not as an incurable pessimist, but as a “hunter after beauty” blighted by loneliness, who sought “moments of rapture” that made life worth living and loving. It has become an unlikely bestseller and a cult text for moody teens.
Kasem bin Abubakar’s moral tales of young Muslims finding love and answers in their faith are favourites in Bangladesh. The octogenarian book-seller-turned-novelist’s fans are so devoted, some send him letters written in their own blood. Popular with young, rural folk, they are a world away from the secular tales of Bangladeshi émigré authors – and far outsell them. Abubakar’s first novel “Futonto Golap” (Blossomed rose) sparked a whole new genre of Islamic fiction that younger authors, such as Abdus Salam Mitul, are now mimicking as the country becomes more pious. With literacy rates rising and half the 163m population under 26, the genre will keep on blooming.
The art of the possible
Jaime Durán Barba is one of Latin America’s most influential political gurus. His weighty new book, "La política en el siglo XXI: arte, mito o ciencia" (Politics in the 21st century: art, myth or science) has proved a surprise hit in Argentina, whose president Mauricio Macri is one of the veteran strategist’s clients. Filled with anecdotes from past campaigns, the book explains how technology has overturned the political order and revolutionised the art of politicking. In the digital age, Durán argues, it is harder to manipulate voters, who are better educated and less ideological. Britain’s Remainers and Donald Trump's opponents might dispute that, but for Argentine readers, emerging from 12 years of populist rule under the Kirchners, it is cause for hope.