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Notes from the Czech under-ground

Czechs go underground

Plus, the books gripping readers in China, Canada and Mexico

Plus, the books gripping readers in China, Canada and Mexico

April/May 2018

Raid alert
“Una novela criminal” (“A criminal novel”) by Jorge Volpi from Mexico, which won the Alfaguara prize for Spanish-language fiction, tells the story of a Frenchwoman, Florence Cassez, and her lover. The pair were arrested in melodramatic style in 2005 at a ranch outside Mexico City where police freed three people that the two had kidnapped.

This was just the first of a number of police irregularities: the couple, it turned out, was already in custody and the raid was staged for the TV cameras. Cassez’s jailing prompted a row with France. In the vein of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, Volpi calls his book “a novel without fiction”. Its cool tone makes for a gripping read.

Ferrymania
Claire McFall, a Scottish teacher, didn’t expect much when her young-adult novel, “Ferryman”, was published in China in 2015. A million copies on, though, it is still on China’s bestseller lists and a Hollywood production company has bought the film rights. The book tells of a girl who journeys to the afterlife guided by Tristan, a ferryman, through a wasteland (inspired by the rugged landscape outside Glasgow) that is filled with demonic “wraiths”.

Its appeal in China has been attributed to the way the story unintentionally echoes a Chinese folktale, “Black and White Impermanence”, about two ghosts who escort the dead to their next stop. But McFall’s story offers more than just the spiritual: she says her far-flung readers love the male protagonist. “He’s charismatic, he’s brave, what more do you want?”

Alien nation
“The Boat People”, Sharon Bala’s debut, recounts the story of 500 Sri Lankan refugees who arrive in Canada with aspirations of a new life far from their war-torn homeland. Terrified that they may be terrorists, the local authorities detain the asylum-seekers and threaten them with deportation. Inspired by a true story of a ship called the MV Sun Sea that arrived in Canada in 2010, “The Boat People” calls into question the country’s supposed hospitality towards refugees. Already on several bestseller lists in Canada, Bala’s fiction has been praised for its timely appeal and its ability to capture this journey through the perspective of refugees.

Return of a hero
Last October a billionaire businessman was elected prime minister of the Czech Republic, despite facing fraud charges. Not everyone was thrilled. Some Czechs appear to be seeking consolation in books about democratic legends. Hence the surprise hit of a 688-page biography of the late poet Ivan Martin Jirous (above), also known as Magor, an iconic figure of the Communist-era underground Czech subculture.

The book has been reprinted twice since its initial run of 3,000 sold out in two months. Magor, whose nickname can loosely be translated as “loony”, was a political dissident who pushed the boundaries of what was permissible in a totalitarian state. According to the author, Marek Svehla, he showed Czechs that they could lead a dignified life even during tough times. As fears rise of eroding democracy in parts of Europe, that message may come in handy again.

Face off
Canadians feel proprietorial about ice hockey, their national winter sport, and resent that America now dominates the once-Canadian National Hockey League, with 24 teams to Canada’s seven. Yet in the literary outpourings of life on and off the ice, Canadian titles still have the edge with hometown buyers. On the list of 100 best-selling books about hockey, put out by BookNet, an industry association, to celebrate the 100th season of the NHL, 77 were Canadian. They include a book about hockey’s early days, written by Stephen Harper when he was prime minister, and autobiographies by famous players such as Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. But much like the league, the number one book, “My Story by Bobby Orr”, has a foot in both America and Canada. The legendary Boston Bruins defence player spent his professional career in the US where he now lives. But he was born across the border in Parry Sound, Ontario.