“Chanson Douce” (Sweet Song), Leïla Slimani’s second novel, is a study of maternal guilt and bourgeois hypocrisy based on a true crime: the murder of a baby and toddler by their nanny. Slimani tells the story with pace and a cool eye, drawing on her own experiences of nannies she had as a child in Morocco, where home help is common, and nannies she knew as a student in France, where the story is set. The novel is a hit in both countries and scooped the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious award for literature in French. Francophone readers will discover more Moroccan writers in March when the country will be the first Arab or African nation to be guest of honour at the Paris Book Fair.
“B” is for bribery
Corruption costs Mexico as much as 10% of its GDP. The “Corrupcionario Mexicano” (Mexican Corruptionary) has therefore been selling rather faster than the average word-list. Its 300 illustrated definitions include “justice” (a “social construct non-existent in Mexico”), while Mexicans are “astute” when they avoid things that are of no personal benefit, such as paying taxes or utility bills. The book is colourful and sarcastic, but in getting readers to laugh at the language of corruption it also enables them to reflect on a scourge that involves many Mexicans and affects them all.
On the origin of Europe
It is 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his anti-Papist colours to a Wittenberg church door, and Germany is in joyous thrall to its “Reformation Year”. But a dampener from Thomas Kaufmann, a renowned historian, has gained traction: in “Erlöste und Verdammte” (The Redeemed and the Damned) he argues that Luther’s use of the vernacular and of local culture helped turn a nominally united Christendom into a Europe of increasingly nationalist states. The jubilee celebrations invented in 1617 to rally supporters against Catholic militancy had, by 1917, become pure jingoism. With nationalism once more on the rise, Kaufmann ends his passionately European book with a fervent hope that the continent has learned the lessons of history.
The populist prince
In 2003 Néstor Kirchner shot from being the little-known governor of a Patagonian province to become president of Argentina. He died in 2010, just as suddenly and aged only 60, but his legacy lived on under the presidency of his wife, Cristina. Kirchnerismo, the populist surge that railed against Western neoliberalism, has defined Argentine politics ever since. So it came as a shock to many when the conservative Mauricio Macri beat Cristina’s candidate in the last election. In a timely and bestselling biography, “Kirchner: El Tipo Que Supo” (Kirchner: The Guy Who Knew), Mario Wainfeld (above), a political columnist, performs the autopsy of the man and his enduring myth.
More than half of young Hong Kongers say that they dream of emigrating. The life and works of Xu Xi, who was born in Hong Kong to Indonesian parents but is now an American citizen, embody their wanderlust. Her latest novel, “That Man in Our Lives”, has transported readers from both her native city and the widening diaspora. The story crosses the Pacific as often as she does, but evokes a city that all readers can experience as locals.
Fishers of men
A paranza is a fishing boat that uses lights to lure its catch – but in Neapolitan underworld slang, it is a hit squad. What makes the one in Roberto Saviano’s “La Paranza dei Bambini” (roughly, The Child Killers) exceptional is that it comprises teenagers who could not legally buy a beer. Though a novel (accusations of plagiarism dogged his last non-fiction work), the book is solidly rooted in reality. Naples has seen an upsurge in “baby gangs”. Originally useful to Camorra bosses because of their expendability, some teenage mobsters are now starting to challenge the city’s established clans. This is standard fare from the author of the revelatory “Gomorra”, but Italy remains fascinated by the sordid, violent world Saviano describes.