Thirty-odd years ago I thought that the French author Montesquieu was enlightened, witty and clever. I based this opinion on reading his Persian Letters, an epistolary novel which details the experiences of two Persian travellers, Usbek and Rica, in France in the early part of the 18th century. Last month I picked up Persian Letters again… and found out what a change thirty-odd years made.
If you and I sat down to have a cup of coffee right now… well, to begin with, I’d be drinking lemon tea. And despite of all the interesting books that you think we could or should be talking about, chances are we’d end up talking about politics and football.
(Yeah, I know. It pretends to be a book blog.)
But we had a referendum last week and the UK decided to leave the EU. Simultaneously, we reached the knockout stage of the European Championship…
In 2014, as the issue of Catalan independence heated up, Joan Planas, a Catalan film-maker and photographer decided to travel around Spain to talk to people in bars and find out what they thought about Spain, the Catalans and other topics. The resulting book, España desde el bar (Spain from the Bar) was published in April and is well worth the reading – if you can read Spanish, that is, as it has not been translated into English.
A hundred interview subjects, a hundred differing opinions from all over Spain on Catalan independence and half a dozen other current topics, from bull-fighting to corruption.
Imagine living somewhere where everything is free – except the words.
I’ll be quiet for a while and let you think about it.
I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?
In 2001 the Belgian journalist Dimitri Verhulst was commissioned by a Flemish magazine to write an article and, in order to gather material, he had himself locked up in the asylum-seekers’ centre at Arendonk. His sojourn there clearly gave him more material that he needed for a simple article for he ended up writing a whole book: Problemski Hotel.
I came to read this book as a direct consequence of the recent Brussels bombing. I felt then, and I still feel, that if we allow terrorists to dictate the agenda, they half won the battle. And so I invited you all to take part in a reading challenge – to read a Belgian book. If we were going to talk about Belgium, I’d rather talk about Belgian literature. Of which, I had to realise, I knew absolutely nothing.
Today I read an interview with Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a Spanish writer whose books I’m quite fond of. The writer, whom I once quoted because he was very convincing upon the subject of why Homer matters. The writer I’d like to write a book for me.
In Spain Pérez-Reverte is known for not being afraid to speak his mind, and is perhaps even regarded as a little bit controversial. If he is controversial, he was true to form in this interview, floating some ‘politically incorrect’ ideas.