Our 10 favourite books of 2019 will change how you see the world

Our 10 favourite books of 2019 will change how you see the world

From a different account of war by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, to TS Eliot prize-winning poetry, here is a selection of the best books from the New East this year.

20 December 2019

Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Newly available in English, Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich interviews dozens of Soviet citizens who were children during the Second World War. These transcripts form a groundbreaking portrait of a generation marked by war and its myriad of shadows. The Belarussian author’s characteristic in-depth interview style breaks the hegemony of official history to bring the voices of ordinary people to the fore. She listens without comment to the collective grief of a nation told in quiet, unflinching tones. These harrowing accounts bear witness to the burning and bombing of cities, homes, and loved ones in a war that killed 15 million civilians. With this latest translation, Alexievich solidifies her place as one of the preeminent, and most compassionate, historians of our time.

The Photographer at Sixteen by George Szirtes

Poet George Szirtes was born in Hungary, but his family fled when Russian tanks rolled in during the Hungarian uprising of 1956. That year, they came as refugees to England. The Photographer at Sixteen begins decades later with the author’s mother Magda’s tragic death at age 51. It follows her life backwards through exile and isolation abroad, the devastation of the Second World War, her time in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and her ambitious years as a young photographer, before ending on a photo of her aged two. Like the German writer W. G. Sebald, famous for juxtaposing images and text, Szirtes uses his photographs of his mother to compose a poetic impression of her life. Hushed phrases about her survival at Ravensbrück hint at the starvation and humiliation she experienced there. Magda seems to have buried these memories and yet the trauma resurfaces in the form of strange habits and aversions — for instance, she has a deep fear of being seen naked, even by her husband. Szirtes lovingly reconstructs Magda’s life in this most moving biography of the year. The Photographer at Sixteen is a haunting, tender testament to an incredible woman and artist.

Poetry from the Future by Srećko Horvat

“Why a global liberation movement is our civilization’s last chance”: the tagline on the cover of Poetry from the Future leaves no room to doubt that Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat wants you to think — and act — with a sense of urgency about fighting climate change and holding corrupt governments to account. The past few years have been busy for Horvat, between writing a book with Slovenian superstar Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, advocating on behalf of jailed whistleblower Julian Assange, and touring Europe discussing the Green New Deal. In this latest book, Horvat’s arguments complete a marathon history lesson from Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to the frontlines of contemporary European politics to convince us that the dystopia is now, and this is our last chance to fix it. He advocates that a new cross-border global movement is the only way forward. This book is a desperately needed cure for activist exhaustion after years of political stagnation. Horvat takes up his role as the people’s philosopher-organizer with contagious enthusiasm — perhaps even enough to transform our cynicism into action.

Pictured: Hamid Ismailov. Courtesy of Tilted Axis Press

Of Strangers and Bees by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

“I’m a stranger at home and nobody abroad”, laments the narrator in the latest book from Hamid Ismailov. This inventive novel follows an Uzbek writer-in-exile (modelled on the author himself), a wandering medieval polymath Avicenna, and a young bee called Sina forced from his hive. The writer lives hand-to-mouth on a variety of odd jobs—some related to writing and others decidedly not — and traverses every contemporary political dilemma possible, from border crossings to slum landlords to the politics of language and ethnicity in post-Soviet states. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, Avicenna and the bee search, in their own ways, for truth. Despite the philosophical themes, the novel is remarkably transportive, full of evocative details of cities and empires, from modern Paris to Ottoman Istanbul. The three storylines are tied together by Ismailov’s spellbinding style and generous wit to produce a true gem of a book.

Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected essays, reviews, interviews and letters to the editor by Vladimir Nabokov, edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy

“Commonplace words, our petty dreams and worries, become magic on the stage when Art, the whimsical wizard, touches with rouge the lips of life.” There could hardly be a better description of Think, Write, Speak than this line from the book itself. The last major collection of Vladimir Nabokov’s work, it feels comfortingly complete, spanning from the precocious early essays written in Cambridge to scintillating interviews shortly before his death in 1977. This book illustrates Nabokov’s reverence for excellent writing, as well as his personal views on his own journey to fame in the 1950s. One of the most interesting major threads in this collection is his insistence that his fiction contains no moral teachings.

Life Went On Anyway by Oleg Sentsov, translated by Uilleam Blacker

Oleg Sentsov’s name was catapulted into international newspapers in 2018 when he won the European Parliament Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The Ukrainian film director was arrested on dubious claims of “plotting terrorist attacks” against the Russian forces in Crimea. After months of hunger striking, he was released from prison on 7 September 2019 in a prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. Life Went On Anyway is his debut collection of short memoirs of childhood in rural Crimea, filled with seemingly mundane topics — sickness, the family dog, friends and bullies — that beautifully reflects the commonality of growing up. “After all, adults are just kids who’ve grown up a bit but often still think in the same way,” he writes. Sentsov’s beguiling, unaffected style suits the child’s eye view perfectly, peppered with adult wisdom and melancholy. Life Went On Anyway is an important first collection from a vital dissident voice.

The Eighth Life: for Brilka by Nino Haratischwili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin

Nino Haratischwili’s colossal family saga presents the human cost of a century of war and colliding ideologies in Georgia and the Soviet Union. In the novel, visiting professor Niza Jashi writes her family history from her apartment in Germany (where the Georgian-born Haratischvili lives) for her 12-year-old niece, Brilka. She presents the disparate lives of six generations of the Jashi family, starting with a chocolatier in a small town on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border. Her great-grandmother Stasia leaves for Russia with the cursed family hot chocolate recipe, marking the beginning of their family’s fate at the hands of the tumultuous “red century”. In exhuming the family’s past, Niza grapples with inherited trauma and the gaping holes left in Georgian history by state-regulated silence — including Stalinist reforms, the “repatriation” of fugitives, the privileges of the nomenklatura, and violent abuses of power against women. Despite having the scope of a nineteenth-century epic, Haratischvili’s voice has a uniquely contemporary warmth, wit, and commitment to familial love that balances the darker historical themes. With each character so vividly imagined, and each plot neatly woven together, The Eighth Life is a modern masterpiece.

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Born in Odessa, Ilya Kaminsky and his family fled to the United States in 1993 during the rise of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Kaminsky’s long-awaited Deaf Republic arrives fifteen years after his award-winning debut poetry collection. This latter-day epic begins when occupying soldiers kill a deaf boy, Petya, who could not heed their orders as they broke up a forbidden public assembly (Kaminsky himself is hard of hearing). The gunshot is the last thing the townspeople hear. After Petya’s death, they all become deaf: “Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers. [...] At ten, Momma Galya chalks NO ONE HEARS YOU on the gates of the soldiers’ barracks. / By eleven a.m., arrests begin.” This incredible work envisions a world where the people’s deafness is dissidence. But, vitally, it also shows how our silence makes us complicit in the contemporary state of continuous conflict.

Spread from the cookbook Salt and Time

Salt & Time by Alissa Timoshkina

“Move over mulled wine, here comes Russian sbiten,” declares Siberian-born scholar-turned-cook Alissa Timoshkina in her recipe book, Salt & Time. Timoshkina draws on her childhood memories of Siberian cuisine and combines it with a wealth of practical experience running KinoVino, a film and supper club in London. While quintessential Russian staples make an appearance — yes, that means borscht — she also introduces unique regional dishes, from aubergine matzo bake to solyanka fish soup. While the title refers to the two essential ingredients to any good meal, it also evokes the starkness of the landscape and life in the north. A cookbook may not be traditional literature, but this one is a joy to read. Timoshkina succeeds in telling a story of people and place through their culinary history.

Portraits Without Frames by Lev Ozerov, edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk

If this book had been published just a few weeks later, it would be gracing all of the ‘Best Of’ lists and literary roundups. As it slipped quietly under the radar in the dark final weeks of 2018, I have taken the liberty to give it an honorary mention. Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames is an unprecedented book of poems. The late poet-biographer delivers fifty exquisite and shrewd portraits of Soviet writers and artists: from familiar names like Dmitry Shostakovich and Anna Akhmatova to writers whose legacies history forgot. This volume is a testament to Ozerov’s contemporaries whose work, and sometimes lives, were lost in the first years of Stalinism. In addition to comprising brilliant poetry, the volume is a reminder of just how many artists the Soviet era produced — both dissidents and those who were sympathetic to the regime — and the calibre of their work.

Read more

Our 10 favourite books of 2019 will change how you see the world

‘I’m a stranger at home and nobody abroad’: in Of Strangers and Bees, Hamid Ismailov captures the ache of emigration 

Our 10 favourite books of 2019 will change how you see the world

Ukrainian dissident Oleg Sentsov pays tribute to his childhood friend in this moving excerpt from his autobiography

Our 10 favourite books of 2019 will change how you see the world

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