There was once a celebrated Society for Dead Poets. In my opinion, many authors who have died in the past 12 months should also be celebrated. So here goes.

 

Readers of racy romances may miss Jackie Collins who had 32 books to her credit and ended up just as famous as her enhanced sister Joan.

 

Crime fiction lovers will miss Ruth Rendell and her Inspector Wexford. She wrote 60 novels, some under the pen name Barbara Vine. They’ll also miss Henning Mankell and his 11 tales involving Inspector Kurt Wallender.

 

Science fiction fans will mourn the end of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Disc World’ Series, which comprised 40 of his 70 books.

 

In the general fiction category, of Colleen McCulloch’s 25 novels, Vietnamese readers will remember the Thorn Birds from its 1990s serialization on local TV, and a host are familiar with the Mocking Bird of Harper Lee.

 

On a Tin Drum

 

The name of Nobel Literature Prize winner Gunter Grass will always be synonymous with his 1959 opus The Tin Drum which, like a lot of his fiction explored memories from his childhood city of Danzig (Gdansk), Poland, especially motifs about the horror of war and genocide. When awarding him the Nobel Prize the committee wrote that: “In his excavation of the past, Günter Grass goes deeper than most and he unearths the intertwined roots of good and evil.”

 

The Tin Drum broke away from realism by having as its main character Oskar — a dwarf, but a peculiar one — his 80cm height was the result of his own decision, at age three, to stop growing. Oskar’s intelligence is fully developed, but he pretends to be an idiot, blabbering like a child and avoiding all adult responsibility and controlling events by beating his infernal tin drum.

 

The novel, narrated by Oskar from the confines of a lunatic asylum after World War II, mixes ingredients of German folklore with the grotesque, and investigates the development of the German psyche from 1900 through the Second World War and concludes when Oskar resumes life as an adult hunchback at the beginning of the German reconstruction. It is set in Danzig and Dusseldorf and follows the fortunes of Oskar and his family during the rise and fall of Nazism.

 

The novel was intended, in part, to raise issues for contemporary Germans about the extent to which they were complicit in, and responsible for, Nazi war crimes.

 

In 2006 Grass confounded all his admirers by writing about when he was 15 in 1943 when he volunteered for military service and ended up in the notorious Waffen SS. Grass said he had no excuses for his choices but admitted that as a youngster he may have been over-excited about belonging to such an elite group.

 

By Any Other Name

 

As one of his obituarists noted, Umberto Eco had the unique ability to be able to flatter the average reader’s intellect with historical whodunits.

 

In his first novel The Name of the Rose, Eco transplanted a Sherlock Holmes-style detective murder mystery to 14th century medieval Italy and made the monk detective, William of Baskerville, a household name for readers in 30 languages. William and Adso, his young apprentice, searched through the library maze of a famous abbey to unravel a series of seven murders, all the while endeavouring to put off the hounds of the Inquisition who were panting to burn heretics and witches at the stake.

 

Eco was a post-modern theorist and the novel is a post-modern tract in that it does not offer a conclusive denouement but its Aristotelian quest for truth through clues hidden in illuminated scrolls set the pattern for future blockbusters — notably Dan Brown and his Da Vinci code.

 

Apparently William Weaver, who translated the novel from its origin Italian into English, made enough money in royalties to add a wing to his house in Tuscany that he called his Eco Chamber.

 

Eco’s other six novels traverse around biblical analysis, semiotics and detective mystery and his second last, The Prague Cemetery, another bestseller, features a secret agent tracing the rise of anti-Semitism in modern Europe.

 

The Lure of the Big Apple

 

Just about all of E. L. Doctorow’s 12 novels are historical tales set in New York. Three won major literary awards.

 

His first to hit the big time, in 1975, was Ragtime which chronicles the lives of three families in early 20th century New York. Three stories of three families are started as separate entities and are gradually threaded together to dramatically capture the spirit of the city between 1906 and 1915.

 

The separate families comprise rich white people, blacks from Harlem, and immigrant Jews, and through them and their interactions, Doctorow examines the divergent forces that converged with wonder as well as terror, at a time in the melting pot when everything seemed possible.

 

The major theme is that the American story is not singular. It is a rich and varied combination of cultural experiences and will continue to be so.

 

Truong is an avid reader and runs Bookworm (44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi). For more information on go to bookwormhanoi.com

1 comment

  • Comment Link Duy Đoàn Duy Đoàn Aug 04, 2016

    Umberto Eco is not a post-modern theorist, man! Please don't label him as this or that, which is not just misleading but also a way of disrepecting him.

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