Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

How do reading friends try to lift your spirits? One brought me to Solidaridad, the legendary bookshop founded by the late National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, and forbade me to exit the shop empty-handed.

“It’s on me,” they’ll say, and treat books like a drink in which you’ll drown your pains.

Thousands to choose from, and yet I clung to this one as soon as I saw it. I was unaware that 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning author, Julian Barnes, wrote a novel about Shostakovich! For an idea of how fond I am of Shostakovich’s music: I performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 on my first solo recital and named a pet fish “Shosta” after him — never mind that this pet fish leapt outside of the fishbowl to his doom and died a very dramatic Russian death.

But I digress… needless to say, I took The Noise of Time home with me and finished reading it on the day the 2022 Man Booker Prize winner is expected to be announced.


It is surprisingly an apt read for a time when many Russian musicians and artists are being cancelled worldwide for not publicly denouncing Putin and the war against Ukraine.

This book suggests that it is not always as easy as it seems to make a public stand.

Shostakovich, who enjoyed international success after his first symphony, dealt with a blow when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (a title familiar to NYRB editions enthusiasts) was condemned by the Soviet government in 1948, endangering his life, family, and career. Although the aforementioned work was a success after its premiere in 1934, Barnes highlights the capriciousness of the Soviet state: “What the party had said yesterday was often in direct contradiction of what the party was saying today.” As if under similar laws of energy, Soviet power evolved and mutated from one form to another.

How Shostakovich had never joined the Party initially, but had allowed himself to be seen as supportive of the Party, and how his subsequent decisions played out, appear to be a question between cowardice or courage. But wasn’t this too much to ask from a man who simply wanted to compose music?

What becomes of art when it is suppressed or governed under tyranny — “art made tongue-tied by authority”?

This book has some beautiful answers:

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

“Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say or wish for.”

But if those lines still cannot convince one of the purity and the incorruptibility of great art, the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 just might.

Gyula Krúdy: The Adventures of Sindbad

Having sensed, perhaps, that I am loving the Hungarian bend of my Silk Route Reading Project, a bookseller inserted this surprise as a thoughtful gift along with my book-mail.

With a protagonist named after a character from The Thousand and One Nights, one can immediately sense the literary flavors that meet and fuse along these cultural routes.

Readers would be dissatisfied if they treated this like a novel, however. Although often related, the brief chapters should be read as a collection of stories, each one capable of standing on its own like any story from a Chekhov anthology.

These “adventures” are primarily amorous, and I would have easily dropped this book had I overlooked the sad irony masked behind the comic caprice.

Sindbad speaks beyond the grave, literally. More often than not, he is the ghost of a womanizer who committed suicide and returns to visit the women with whom he has had affairs, whether in his memories or through his phantasmic imaginings. Some of these women, victims of his philandering ways, some seductresses themselves.

“Bearing all this in mind it is understandable that the unhappy young man should have taken his own life. His desires were incapable of fulfillment. It was of no consolation to him that one hundred and seven women had reciprocated his love.”

But having died, Sindbad is described to have grown wise in death. On one occasion, he even laments how the dead see no change in the living.

Even so, it is too late to start again.

“Why can’t you find peace in the other world?” one woman asks Sindbad.

It would seem that peace and love are things you can strive for only in the world of the living.

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight

Have you ever read a novel by a Hungarian author that is not a page-turner?

I haven’t!

“I need a drink. Because I have to tell you who Tamás Ulpius was, and how he died,” on the fourteenth page, is the same bomb of intrigue that Magda Szabó drops in page three of The Door when she writes, “Thus far I have lived my life with courage, and hope to die that way, bravely and without lies. But for that to be, I must speak out. I killed Emerence.”

Intrigue is the paprika that flavors Hungarian pages up until the very end.

_ _ _

I was drawn to this book not for what the blurb promised, but for its writer: Antal Szerb, who sadly perished in a camp during the Holocaust. But like Irène Némirovsky, also a Catholic Jew who nonetheless shared a similar fate despite their conversion to another faith, there is nothing politically blatant in their writings.

There is, however, a certain psychological depth in Szerb’s style that makes it extremely appealing to me. The characters themselves are not that likeable but they seem to represent the state of disorientation of the generation between the first and the second world wars.

“‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ said the doctor, ‘just horrendous exhaustion. What were you doing, to get yourself so tired?’

‘Me?’ he asked, meditatively. ‘Nothing. Just living.’ And then he fell asleep again.”

Death plays a role in this novel, but so does Life. An existential crisis and unresolved issues of his youth haunt the main character and result in the fickleness of his decisions. He abandons his wife on what was supposed to be an idyllic honeymoon in Italy, and there begins what seems to be a muted exploration into the psychopathology of guilt.

– – –

In this edition’s introduction, we learn of Szerb’s fascination for Italy; “its art, its history, its people, its language, its ancient towns and their narrow back streets.” He had lived there as a young man from 1924 to 1929 and the country took hold of him. He returned in 1936, suspecting that it was for the last time. In a travel journal entry he wrote, “I initially wanted to go to Spain… but it occurred to me that I simply must go to Italy, while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere? The way events are moving, no one will be allowed to set foot outside his own country.”

Needless to say, his suspicions tragically proved true, but this final trip to Italy gave birth to this novel, which is a poignant love letter to Italy.

But through all of what Szerb says with clarity or through undertones, what I found most disqueting were descriptions of the generation’s moral insanity, how they viewed war with indifference — “bore the changing times on their backs with astonishing passivity, and lived quite unconnected with their own remarkable history.”

And unfortunately, Antal Szerb did not live to tell the tale, but we all know what happened next.

Tarjei Vesaas: The Hills Reply

“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or sip it like a liquer until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.” This is how Bohumil Hrabal’s Haňta reads — or how he doesn’t really read.

This is how I read, or how I did not really read, The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas. I do not think there is any other way to read, or to not really read, this book.

What is this book? I can say, “A collection of sixteen short pieces of literature.” Or I can also say, “A lyrical poem, two hundred and seventy five pages long.”

But I’d rather say: A Lispector attuned to nature. An impressionistic artwork so keenly aware of the elements, of the light in different times of the day, and of its sounds and its silences. A swan song of sheer beauty that leaves you quiet and asks your heart, for the time being, to dwell inside its pages… a heart so full, so open, it breaks.

Halldór Laxness: Wayward Heroes

“With these words, she drew back the bolts that Kolbakur had made to fasten her window frame, pulled the frame aside, and let the man into her bower. Images of gods were carved on the bower’s pillars and stiles and rails of her chair, but they were only half done — Christianity having come to Iceland before the artist completed his work.”

And with this fleeting imagery, a beautiful and ingenious depiction of the religious landscape in which the story is set. An age on the cusp between the fading world of paganism and the force of a new religion of peace, ironically preached by adventurers and men waging selfish crusades in the name of Christ. It was this melancholy conflict that I heard playing as a soundtrack throughout its pages.


It seemed revolutionary when Hollywood recently began to highlight the dark side of legends and heroes. These have become sombre reminders that even superhuman abilities are not enough to protect one from ego, the perilous thirst for fame, power, revenge, and from mere mortals’ tragedies.

Then there’s Halldór Laxness who had Wayward Heroes published way back in 1952, part of the body of work that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1955.

Written in the style of ancient Icelandic sagas, it is replete with violence, adventures amorous and otherwise, and the barbarism of medieval Europe. But how wonderfully Laxness refashions the old to become accessible and relevant to the new.

On the surface, these are the exploits of blood-brothers, Þorgeir and Þormóður. One can read it as such and it will remain entertaining. But one can always choose to go beyond that and take note of the language, the veiled ironies, how wit and sarcasm remain elegant, and the subtleties that only a master can pull off, and how this story remains especially timeless for being a cautionary tale about the heroes, kings, and causes to whom and to which we pledge fealty.

But do we ever listen?

Farnoosh Moshiri: At the Wall of the Almighty

“What did I do with my hands as a free man?” he asks himself.


A bearded guard leads him from his solitary confinement to another cell. He is on a leash, and he knows that he is in the central prison of the Holy Republic. This is all he knows. Severe torture has made him forget everything else, including his name.

With such a dismal opening, one can excuse why I shelved this, the heaviest volume on my Iran book stack, for over a year despite my deep fascination for the region and its extremely underrated writers.

My personal reading prompt for September was to go through an NYRB editions reading spree. But is there a more pressing reading prompt than the ongoing protests in Iran? I realize that we — as readers, and through our reading choices — have the power to call attention to things happening across the world and to rally with those who need a voice.

I instantly felt it was time to meet this unnamed character who is forced to admit guilt to an unknown sin that, along with his name, he cannot recall. Through daily episodes of psychological and physical torture, he slips in and out of consciousness, reality and dreams. Fragments of his childhood and of his life tease his sanity, the key players of society whose ideologies and actions lead to the revolution take shape in his mind, and the story unfolds. He begins to remember Sahar, a twin sister whom he loved deeply; and by and by his desire to die begins to be replaced by the desire to know what happened to her.

‘Sahar is dawn,’ I say, ‘the end of darkness, when the sun comes out. Daylight trapped in night.’

Categorized as a work of magic realism, I find that the magic realism is, at first, subdued, but one which crescendoes into an anarchy. Readers who are not enthusiasts of the genre should not be dissuaded, however, because we eventually recognize that it is merely our tortured character’s memories and hallucinations merging with reality, metaphors, and childhood fantasies.

This is Farnoosh Moshiri’s first novel, but its depth and calibre surpass many works by more established writers. I have not read a more harrowing ending, but I also have not read a more excellent Iranian novel.

Here is an apt literary device condemning oppressive governments that incapacitate people to distinguish nightmare from reality, and condemning regimes that engender systemic mind-conditioning that edge a nation into losing its identity — those tyrannies that ultimately coerce you into forgetting who you are.


What are we doing with our hands as free men and women; what are we doing with freedom? I ask myself.

First of all, we defend it.

Tayeb Salih Duo

“…and if we are lies we shall be lies of our own making.”

“Mark these words of mine, my son. Has not the country become independent? Have we not become free men in our own country? Be sure, though, that they will direct our affairs from afar. This is because they have left behind them people who think as they do.”

– – –

Could dictatorships in developing countries be a side-effect of colonialism?

The effects of colonialism do not end after a nation’s independence, the same way the effects of a dictatorship do not end after a people’s revolution.

Colonialism has defenders who maintain that they served whom they oppressed, dictatorships have the same apologists; but do not both warrant that succeeding leaders would grapple with a democratic exercise of authority — among many other ills they leave in their wake?

Perhaps I am late to these reflections, but there are many people still who do not understand that colonialism and dictatorships have a profound impact on political structures that one simply cannot move on from.

– – –


Season of Migration to the North was the catalyst for these thoughts; a dark and rather absurdist but lyrical depiction of the post-colonial struggle; not an angry tirade but one that challenges opposing views.

It overshadows The Wedding of Zein in many ways, tempting me to say that if there’s one Salih work you must read it should be Season of Migration to the North. On the other hand, The Wedding of Zein comes with two of his finest short stories: One of them is The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid that wistfully contemplates on the clash of social modernity and traditions.

“There will not be the least necessity for cutting down the doum tree… What all these people have overlooked is that there’s plenty of room for all these things.”

So, perhaps it’s wise to read these books together.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa that shares a border with nine other countries including Egypt. And yet we read so little of/from them. It’s time we do. We (I speak as a Filipina reader) share so much more in common than we think.

David Plante: Difficult Women, A Memoir of Three

Difficult Women. Difficult reader. This book and I did not mix well.

I found no satisfaction or pleasure in reading this, although I did not feel arrogant enough to consider it a bad book deserving to be consigned to the DNF pile. There must be something to be learned here.

To be appreciated, these sketches of Jean Rhys, Sonia Orwell, and Germaine Greer through David Plante’s personal encounters with them in the 70s, should probably be read as a literary specimen: a study on the microscopic boundaries between honesty and invasion of privacy; a rare sample that lays bare the characters of these women at particular points in their lives; an excision of the writer’s intentions, for scrutiny; and the final diagnosis that literary figures are just as human and as difficult as the rest of us. And perhaps, that’s what makes this… well… difficult.

Magda Szabó: Abigail

“In any work of literature the most interesting bits are in the detail,” Kőnig had often said in his lessons. “Be sure to attend to them closely.”

If I had a daughter, she’d find this book in a collection I created for her.

Reading this, she’d be reminded that heroines do not have to be faultless; that the surest assumptions can often be wrong; that no matter how clever we think we are, there are people wiser still; that actions always have consequences; that friendship is precious; that even in the most repetitive of routines and what we deem the bleakest of days, life will find ways to astound or surprise us.

If she philosophizes and reads deeper into the book, as I suspect a daughter of mine will, she will venture to question where childhood ends and adulthood begins, and attempt to come up with answers of her own, or a hundred questions more.

If she develops an awareness of history and politics, as she must, she will be sensitive to Magda Szabo’s subtle activism and glean the lessons of sacrifice and duty.

And I imagine this book — so engaging and difficult to put down — will only fuel the love for reading in her.


Can you tell that I read this through the eyes of a wide-eyed adolescent, and not through the eyes of an adult still haunted by the painful and confounding strains from Iza’s Ballad and The Door but who, nonetheless, acknowledges that Magda Szabó has now become a favorite?

Iza’s Ballad and The Door gnaws at the soul. Abigail educates the heart.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time to Keep Silence

The book had me at its cover; a landscape distinctly Cappadocia, one of my favorite places in the world, however otherworldly.

It had me at the introduction by Karen Armstrong. Who else more suited to introduce such a book?

Patrick Leigh Fermor had me at, “The book was based — whole passages of it word for word — on letters I wrote at the time to a correspondent (whom I later married) without the remotest thought of publication.”

He had me the entire time because reading his prose felt like meditation.

A Time to Keep Silence is a lovely exemplification of that Thomas Merton line I encountered through Rebecca Solnit earlier this year: “The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”

Known for traveling to Turkey on foot and for being one of the finest travel writers of the past century, this is a record of Fermor’s travels to a more inward direction. Through Europe’s monasteries with their divine libraries, chanting monks, cloistered lives, and vows of silence, and to Cappadocia’s abandoned rock monasteries, we are made recipients of their histories and these letters, too; but most of all, of the contemplation on modern man’s need for silence and solitude.

For someone who recently took three weeks off from social media to retreat from its noise and with only one foot back inside, this book expressed many of my unspoken thoughts, and I can only agree with a constant book friend who thinks that the only problem with this book is that it is too short. 

Here’s to places, experiences, or books where “…the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.”