Boyd Tonkin

Sinister toy story: Little Eyes, by Samanta Schweblin, reviewed

We often hear that science fiction — or ‘speculative’ fiction, as the buffs prefer — can draw premonitory outlines of the shape of things to come. Well, consider the case of this novel by an acclaimed Argentinian-born, Berlin-based writer, first published in Spanish last year. Little Eyes imagines a gadget (nothing fancy really, just a

Albanian literary icon Ismail Kadare revisits ‘home’

Ismail Kadare is a kind of lapidary artist who carves meaning and pattern into the rocky mysteries of his native Albania. Born, like his frenemy the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, amid the blank-faced mansions and feuding clans of the ‘stone city’ of Gjirokaster, the novelist has always framed the terror, secrecy and confusion of the

Living life to the full

In 1971, Tove Jansson paid one of her many visits to London, where 1960s fashion hangovers made the whole city look like ‘one big fancy-dress ball’. When not partying to celebrate 20 years of British editions for her Moomin books, she and her life-partner ‘Tooti’ — the artist Tuulikki Pietilä — caught performances of Hair

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Death by water haunts the stories of Africans in Europe that flow through this fourth novel by Helon Habila. From the drowning of Milton’s swain Lycidas (a sort of tidal refrain for the book) to the capsized boat in the closing pages that offers victims in their hundreds to the ‘enraged leviathan’ of the sea,

Mocking the mandarins

Stendhal likened politics in literature to a pistol-shot in a concert: crude, but compelling. When that politics largely consists of machinations within the European Commission in Brussels, readers may fear that the writer who pulls the trigger wields no more than a pop-gun. Yet the Austrian author Robert Menasse has scoured these corridors of power

A tragic fall from grace

Nurture hatred in your heart and you will keep ‘an unfed tiger in a house full of children’. A man who passes on a plausible lie ‘may be offering a rattlesnake in a calabash of food’. Someone who lugs grievances around carries ‘a full pitcher of resentment from which, every step or so on its

Another tale of star-crossed lovers

It’s hard, in Britain, to imagine a popular museum devoted to a single poem. The Polish city of Wrocław hosts just such a shrine. It celebrates Pan Tadeusz, the verse novel written in his Parisian exile by the poet, dramatist and freedom fighter Adam Mickiewicz in the early 1830s, and now taught as a keystone

Impish secrets

Long ago, I interviewed Edmund White and found that the photographer assigned to the job was the incomparable Jane Bown — a bit like having Matisse turn up to decorate your kitchen. After we talked, Jane shot. She managed to convert a tiny hotel courtyard into a sort of antique Grecian glade. In her pictures,

The heart of Colombia’s darkness

What makes Colombia remind me of Ireland? It’s not only the soft rain that falls from grey skies on the emerald uplands around Bogotá. In both countries, ingrained habits of courtesy and charm can smooth over the jagged rifts left by a history of strife. Raised in Bogotá, and living there again after a decade

A thing of shreds and patches

On the wall of her tumbledown house in central Baghdad, an elderly Christian widow named Elishva has a beloved icon of St George with his lance raised. She chats with the saint like an old friend, but wonders why, in the picture, he stays frozen mid-thrust and why ‘he hadn’t killed the dragon years ago’.

Sunlit days and starry nights

In 1990, the BBC’s adaptation of David Lodge’s culture-clash novel Nice Work won an award at a glitzy soirée in London. At the same time, his debut stage play The Writing Game opened at the Birmingham Rep. Malcolm Bradbury, his old friend and partner on the twin tracks of literary academia and serio-comic fiction, had

Navigating a new world

In the 1890s, when British-owned ships carried 70 per cent of all seaborne trade, legislators worried about the proportion of foreigners who served in their crews; which could top 40 per cent. Their worry is not surprising, given the verdicts gathered from British consulates in port cities on the native seaman: ‘drunk, illiterate, weak, syphilitic,

Return to the lost city

During a press interview in Bombay about his latest book, the author-narrator of Friend of My Youth feels ‘a surge of bile’ against the novel. That imperialist bully of a genre has ‘squatted on the writer’s life’ and defines his ‘sense of worth or lack of it’. Our narrator, as it happens, is named ‘Amit

Hot Spring

Imagine if Kathy Lette — or possibly Julie Burchill — had written a feminist, magic-realist saga that sent four women on a road-trip around the broiling hotspots of the Arab Spring. No, not easy to do — yet the intrepid Turkish journalist and writer Ece Temelkuran has, in this novel, come up with just that

On the trail of a lost masterpiece

On 27 May 1939, the German liner St Louis docked in Havana with 937 passengers on board: all but a handful of them were Jews in flight from the Third Reich. After a dismal farrago of diplomatic obstruction, bare-faced corruption among local officials and the incitement by Nazi propaganda of anti-Semitic prejudice ‘even’ (as Leonardo

Why Milton still matters

Just 350 years ago, in April 1667, John Milton sold all rights to Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons — for £5, with another £5 due once Simmons had the first run of 1,300 copies off his hands. That sounds like a bargain for the 12-book epic poem of Satan’s war with Heaven, Eve’s

Dangerous liaisons | 26 January 2017

In a Kashmiri apple orchard, a young fugitive from the Indian army’s cruel oppressions spots a snake that has ‘mistaken its tail for a separate creature’ and started to devour itself. Imran, a.k.a. ‘Moscow’, will later break away from the equally barbaric Islamist insurgents who prey on his rage and grief, flee to Pakistan, and