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Category Archive for 'Autobiography/Memoir'

The narrator of The Twilight Zone, Nona Fernández’s latest novel, admits to having been transfixed as a child by a man who was a soldier, torturer, murderer, and supporter of a military regime that repressed all dissent. She had seen his picture on the cover of the magazine Cauce on August 27, 1984, when she was thirteen, in a magazine that had been passed from hand to hand among her classmates. The testimonies of victims and their families were accompanied by diagrams and drawings that “looked like something out of a book from the Middle Ages,” and the speaker admits that she often dreamed about this soldier-murderer, haunted and perplexed by his story of making people disappear. An intelligence agent for the Chilean military during the presidency of Augusto Pinochet (1974 – 1990), the soldier himself finally reached his breaking point, unable to withstand the horrors any longer. Presenting himself to a reporter for Cauce, he told his story in “pages and pages of details about what he had done, including names, descriptions of torture methods, and accounts of his many missions.” To the thirteen-year-old narrator, “He didn’t seem like a monster or an evil giant, or some psychopath…The man who tortured people could have been anybody. Even our teacher.” Much of this novel feels clearly autobiographical, the details of the speaker’s life often emphasizing the ironies in what is happening in the wider world, be it the TV shows from Twilight Zone and Brain Games, or music like the theme song from Ghostbusters, and the Billy Joel song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A sensitive, dramatic, and unforgettable novel of fascism in Chile.

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In this autobiographical novel of his early life and family in Gjirokastra, Albania, author Ismail Kadare focuses primarily on his mother, “the center of his universe” for his early years. Though she was not a warm, demonstrative person, her son stresses that she did have a caring nature and that it was “her self-restraint, her inability to cross a certain barrier,” that gave her a “doll-like mystery, but without the terror.” Her tears, he says, sometimes “flowed like those in cartoon films,” but when he asked her once about the reason for them, her answer “[made] my skin creep to recall it: ‘The house is eating me up!’ ” she claimed. Totally different from the newer, warmer house in which his mother had lived with her own family before her marriage, the Kadare residence was a grim, three-hundred-year-old building almost devoid of people, and for Kadare, it is as much of a character here as the family itself. Kadare’s early interest in writing eventually causes him to leave his home for later schooling in Tirana and Moscow, exposing him to many philosophies alien to his Russian teachers. These ideas further develop for him as he continues his work into the future and in exile in Europe. Trips back to his old house bring back last memories and the perplexity of his early life and family.

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I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan, written from a cell in Turkey where the author has been imprisoned for the past three years, is a memoir so stunning in its description of his prison life and so remarkable for its positive revelations regarding Altan’s emotional state that I cannot imagine anyone not rejoicing in the publication of this book. While that reaction may seem absurd on its surface and oddly romantic in its vision of reality, the author has had three years to come to terms with his arrest and figure out ways to survive – and even benefit from it, hard as that may be to believe. Sharing observations from literature and philosophy in which he sees parallels to his prison life, he connects with the reader in a broader, more universal, and peaceful way than most readers will expect. He thinks of himself as Odysseus fighting Poseidon, appreciating that “there was the storm and there was me. We were going to fight.” Ultimately, he has dream adventures from all over the world, and he is happy, possessing “a godly arrogance. I am not in prison. I am a writer…[and] like all writers, I have magic.” An extraordinary memoir by an extraordinary man.

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Young Once, published originally in 1981, when Modiano was thirty-six, came as a huge and thrilling surprise to me, after I had already read eighteen of Modiano’s other autobiographical novels. Here, in what publisher New York Review Books describes as “his breakthrough novel,” Modiano “strips away the difficulties of his earlier work and finds a clear, mysteriously moving voice for his haunting stories of love, nostalgia, and grief.” The fact that main character Louis Memling, is twenty immediately captured my own attention because that is the one stage of author Modiano’s life which had been a total blank for me in his novels. Incomplete but ominous references to this period in Sleep of Memory, published in France in 2017, and which I had just read, added to a sense of mystery. Here two young people, Louis and Odile, are “adopted” by two older men who help them in their lives and offer them work but also take advantage of their naivete´. Soon they discover that they are being used for a criminal enterprise by their “friends.” One of Modiano’s very best.

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Published originally as Livret de Famille in 1977, and written when Patrick Modiano was barely thirty, this collection of stories, all of them autobiographical, provide details about his early life and his search for answers. Nobel Prize winner Modiano had a bizarre childhood, one in which he grew up without any real supervision – and love. As a result, virtually all of his books focus on his search for who he is, what his values are, and who he might yet become as he moves forward in life. This book is particularly revelatory, including as it does, an opening chapter in which he sees his newborn daughter for the first time, and later the stories of his wedding day, the early life of his mother, his fraught relationship with his father, and his own friendships at various stages of his life. The dream-like stories here are set at various stages of his life, and they do not follow chronological order, creating a feeling for the reader that s/he is moving with the author through memories which have had continuing effects on the author’s life. These stories and others leave questions for which Patrick does not even yet have answers, but all have left their marks on him in some significant way. One of his most fascinating books.

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