Tyranny and oppression (February 2023)

"Totalitarian domination … bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man." Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1951 classic "The Origins of Totalitarianism". State tyranny and oppression have been in the spotlight for much of the past year with the growing violence against and isolation of women, minorities, or political opposition across the globe. We're mostly thinking here of Iran, Afghanistan, China and, of course, Russia, as this month will mark one year since its invasion of Ukraine. This is why, this month, we propose books that look into the experiences of the oppressed. The titles in this selection shed light on the struggles of ordinary people in the tyrannical regimes in Iran, Afghanistan, China, North Korea and Soviet Russia. We also propose a bonus book - a wonderfully illustrated edition of Snyder's "On Tyranny". These books will tell you stories that are hard to hear, but that deserve to be heard. So read on!

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University in the U.S. "On Tyranny" first appeared in 2017 as a short book, an essay, really, about tyranny and how we may prevent its spread. This larger format edition is beautifully illustrated by the German cartoonist Nora Krug (see some pictures on the book page!). The book draws on the history of the 20th century - mostly based on the experiences of Germany and Russia - to distill 20 lessons for the present. As Snyder states in an interview with the Guardian, "One of our big problems at the moment is that we find it hard to imagine a viable future. Art and literature enable us to flex those imaginative muscles." This fascinating read helps us draw parallels between our troubled past and (no less?) troubled present. The beautiful illustrations make the words speak to you on a deeper level…. And maybe, who knows, can inspire you to imagine a way to make this world a better place.

Banned in China when it came out in the late 1980s, "The Garlic Ballads" by Nobel-prize-winning Mo Yan tells a tale of a small person's battle against oppressing authority - the tyranny of the state and the family. The story revolves around two cousins, both garlic farmers, who participated in a riot against the local officials who, having stuffed their pockets with taxes, refused to buy the farmers' garlic stock. The tragicomic narrative is structured in flashbacks and has been dubbed "a kind of Chinese magical realism" for mixing hallucination and the strangeness of dreams with an unflinching depiction of the peasants' reality. It feels so real that you can almost smell it. In this multilayered novel, political and love stories intermingle to create a rich narrative exposing the good, the bad, and the ugly of the human soul.

Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg offers an insider glance into women's lives in Afghanistan. "The Underground Girls of Kabul" is a compelling exploration of "bacha posh" - one of the Afghan sub-cultures where young girls are raised (and disguised) as boys. With the tacit acceptance of others, girls can enjoy all the privileges of being male in Afghanistan. Usually, this relative freedom lasts until they reach adolescence when they switch back to being young women. Among the many acute cultural observations, Nordberg discusses the question of gender identity and brings up an array of sources and anthropological observations drawing on "third gender" examples from other cultures. This nuanced and well-researched work does not show us the stereotypical image of an oppressed burka-clad woman. Through interviews, personal accounts and desk research, Jenny Nordberg paints a different picture of an Afghan woman - that of one resisting oppression and fighting for a better future.

"The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree" is the first work of fiction translated from Farsi to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. The book tells a story of an Iranian family destroyed by the Islamic revolution of 1979. Mixing Persian folklore and harsh realities, the novel is narrated by a ghost of a 13-year-old girl whose family flees Tehran to preserve their lives and freedom. Highly critical of the Islamic state and its oppressive rule, the book has been banned in Iran. The author, Shokoofeh Azar, is an Iranian journalist who left her country in 2011 by boat to seek political asylum in Australia after having been arrested and kept for 3 months in isolation in her native country. The name of the translator of this novel is not disclosed at their request for reasons of safety.

"The Accusation" is a collection of short stories that was smuggled from North Korea into China and originally published in South Korea in 2013. Its English translation by Deborah Smith was published in 2017. The manuscript's origins are controversial as only the author's pen name is known (Bandi means "firefly" in Korean). However, the dialect used and the intimate depiction of life in North Korea suggest that the author is North Korean. Each of the seven stories in this collection shows people who have been stripped from basic freedoms and live in constant fear that a fatal accusation against them may be made at any time. A gripping read that offers a unique glance into the lives of people across different social classes and occupations who, at some point, realise that no matter what they do and how obedient they are to the state, it may and will crush them.

"Zuleikha", published in Russian in 2015, is a multi-award-winning debut novel by Guzel Yakhina, a Russian writer of Tatar origin. The story is set in the 1930s in a remote Tatar village and follows a young woman whose suffocating family life is soon replaced by a labour camp in Siberia, where she is sent after the Communists kill her husband. The heroine's story is loosely based on the experiences of Yakhina's grandmother, who was exiled to Siberia, as well as memoirs and official records of other survivors of the era. The book has been a great success in Russia but also spurred a wave of emotional response to the depiction of Stalin-era oppression as Russians struggle to come to terms with their past and present. As Yakhina says in an interview with the Guardian, "I am really sorry that behind these angry voices, we can't see the big, positive wave of voices in support. Kind voices are usually quiet. They aren't seen or heard. But there are many of them." Let this be a kind voice of support to this novel that paints a candid picture of an oppressive regime but also is full of sympathy for the people who had the misfortune to be born into it.

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