BOOK REVIEW / Selling love and other demons: We're all Europeans now, but our reading tastes still differ widely, as shown by this brief survey of the continent's summer bestsellers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Two books by Scandinavian authors have captured the German imagination this year in a way that has surprised even the Munich publishing house that brought them out. And although they now face competition from the much-hyped Lara's Daughter - a 'sequel' to Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago - both are in the running for bestseller of the year in Germany.

Of the two, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by the Danish writer Peter Hoeg is perhaps the more understandablesuccess (it was a surprise hit of last year in the New York Times lists). On one level it is a well-crafted, classic who- dunnit; on another, its championing of the culture of Greenland's Eskimo culture against the Danes (and Western 'civilisation' in general) prompts serious reflection. 'In the end it is much more than a gripping tale,' said Reinhard Tschapke, literary editor of Die Welt. 'It has got history and politics - and it is intellectually challenging.'

But not as challenging as Sophie's World by the Norwegian Jostein Gaarde, according to whom 'philosophy is the rock 'n' roll of the Nineties'. His way of making a crusty subject right-on is to look at it through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl who finds a piece of paper bearing the question 'Who are you?', which propels her into lively debate with the likes of Socrates, Descartes, Spinoza and Kierkegaard. 'Gaarder satisfies a need many people feel to be well-informed about such things without having to read the works of the philosophers themselves,' Dr Tschapke says. 'But this is not that easy a book. I suspect that many people who buy it don't really read it at all. They just put it on the bookshelf. It looks good.' Adrian Bridge


The book that the Italians are clutching to their perfectly tanned breasts this summer is Va' dove ti porta il cuore ('Follow Your Heart'), a slim novel in the form of a letter written to an absent granddaughter, which has been topping the bestseller lists since the spring. Susanna Tamaro, its 38-year-old author, describes the narrative as 'to the point, strong, at first sight simple.' It seems to have exploited a desire for pure human drama after the country's Byzantine political turmoils.

The story is an unashamed tear- jerker, as the old woman records her loves and losses while facing up to her own mortality. It does have its mawkish moments (the granddaughter's beloved little dog gambols around the old woman's feet while she writes), but Ms Tamaro deals briskly with critics' suggestions that her work is banal or sugary: 'Tolstoy was very well-known at a popular level. I have written an emotionally deep book. I happen to believe that crying is good for you.'

Billed by its publishers as 'a book about women', it has sold 380,000 copies since February, a blockbuster by Italian standards. If you see a row of weeping Italians on the beach, you'll know why. Fiona Leney


Kirsten Thorup's Elsekede ukendre ('Beloved Unknown'), which reached the top of the Danish bestseller list this spring, is a tale of the passionate need to convert one's fellow men. It traces the story of Rene, whose fall from grace and brilliance begins with his failure to pass his university entrance exams. He is charged with fraud for altering his grades, dismissed from university and given a conditional court sentence. With an outlaw's freedom from responsibility, Rene embarks on a career of prostitution which takes him to the gutter. He soon meets Carl, an adopted orphan who was introduced to Pentecostalism by a fisherman's daughter. The confrontation between the two men leads to a violent denouement on Carl's yacht. Ms Thorup explains: 'It was important to me not to show the Carl-Rene relationship as yet another executioner-victim syndrome, so current in our culture . . . Rene is as monomanic as Carl, and their megalomania, demonstrated in their alternating in the mutual assumption of the role of saviour, is an image of our central placing of the individual in Western culture.' Annika Savill


The Colombian novelist Gabriel Garca Marquez's short and sweet latest work could not failto be the summer's big seller, not only in Spain but also throughout Latin America. Del Amor y Otros Demonios ('Of Love and Other Demons') is yet another masterpiece from the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It had to be, to compete with the season's big non-fiction titles - a biography of Franco by the British historian Paul Preston (shortlisted for last year's Whitbread Prize for biography in Britain) and many quickie exposes of recent corruption scandals involving such famous names as the banker Mario Conde and the exGuardia Civil chief Luis Roldan.

Garca Marquez says he felt very insecure about the quality of the book - about a 12-year-old girl who falls in love with a priest - but friends persuaded him it was one of his best. They are right. The fact that its 190 large- print pages are of lemon-coloured paper made from sugar cane husks only adds to the magic. Of Love and Other Demons will be published here in June of next year. Phil Davison


One leading Portuguese publisher cautionsagainst using the term 'bestseller' in a country which has one of the highest illiteracy rates in Europe and where book prices are prohibitively high. The Forest House, a current top seller, retails in paperback at 3,500 escudos ( pounds 14) - an amount it would take an unskilled Portuguese worker about seven hours to earn. Teresa Mendonca, of Editora Bertrand, blames high translation costs and small print runs - an average of 5,000 for a well-known author - as well as VAT at 5 per cent.

But it isn't just a matter of price. 'We simply don't have a reading tradition,' Ms Mendonca says. 'Children are not encouragedto read for enjoyment at school.' Nor are the Portuguese in the habit of taking a good book to the beach: 'When we relax we don't think 'Oh, I'll read a book', we think 'I'll go and talk to my friends'.'

Although there is no recognised bestseller list, a survey of Lisbon bookshops showed the translation of The Forest House, American author Marion Zimmer Bradley's latest novel, as the current top-selling work of fiction. The novel delves into the mystic practices of the druids in first-century Britain, and tells a tale of forbidden love between the son of a Roman prefect and a high priestess. Ms Mendonca suggests that economic recession may have helped dispose the usually practical Portuguese to mysticism, fantasy and romance as a form of escapism. Pulp fiction simply does not exist here, but Editora Bertrand is about to bring out translations of Stephen King and Danielle Steele.

Local author Vergilio Ferreira's Na Tua Face (roughly, 'In Your Face') is also selling well and Jose Saramago, a leading essayist, poet, playwright and novelist, is always popular. His latest novel, Levantado do Chao ('Rising from the Ground'), about early 20th- century rural life, reflects the Portuguese taste for nostalgia. Neither is available in English. Samantha McArthur


In Forforaren ('The Seducer') by Jan Kjaerstad (roughly pronounced ''sharestard'), Norway's most successful television producer returns home to find his wife dead on a polar bear rug in the sitting room, with the murder weapon lying next to her. As he moves from room to room, various components of his life story are brought in: the death of his childhood friend, Nephertite; his eccentric, phallus-fixated Aunt Laura who 'belongs to the microscopic group of Norwegians who could effortlessly walk into a Fellini film'; the many young women who seduce him, then rise to the top of their field in Norwegian society.

The author uses the shape of the wheel both as arecurring symbol and as a structure for the whole of the book: the childhood bicycle collision with the girl he would eventually marry; the whirlpool that drags down his malevolent cousin Veronika during a river journey in Zambia. The murder is the hub from which the sub-plots emerge. The author's technique has been described as engineer-like in its precision, in making a life seem to hang together only to break the spokes and make it fall apart. Annika Savill


Imagine cruising over the history of the world in a luxury jet, the smooth silence broken only bythe urbane conversation of your companion as he attempts to explain the whys and wherefores of the teeming and troubled planet. Jean d'Ormesson's latest novel is rather like that, a cultured causerie in ether. A late and much fatter descendant of Montesquieu's Persian Letters, La Douane de mer consists of a series of dialogues between A, a 'nave and charming' being from the distant planet of Urql who has been sent to compile a report on Earth, and O, a soul who has just died at the poetically resonant maritime customs office of Venice (the meeting point of East and West). There are 60 of these metaphysical chats, on subjects from the Big Bang to steak and chips.

The programme could be daunting, but in d'Ormesson's hands the result is accessible, entertaining and, like nearly all his novels, very popular: it is enjoying its seventh month in the bestseller lists and has sold more than 200,000 copies. A member of the Academie Francaise, an editorial writer on Le Figaro and a regular charmer on TV, d'Ormesson makes the lightness of being not only bearable, but an art to be cultivated. Charles Penwarden


Although published last year, KerstinEkman's novel Handelser vid vatten ('Events by Water') continues to wield unprecedented power over the Swedish imagination. The author, long one of the most able vocalists of Swedish gloom, juxtaposes the dichotomy of a natural habitat that can be both cruel and generous with man's capacity to be evil, indifferent and good.

The story's starting point is the unsolved murder of a young couple stabbed to death in their tent in a desolate northern province 25 years earlier. Their bodies were discovered by Annie when she arrived from Stockholm to join a commune - considered the thing to do by young Swedish left-wingers in the Seventies - built on impossible terrain above Svartvattnet (Blackwater) village. Over the course of the next 18 years, the commune dissolves, the members' nave ideology falls to pieces and the systematic industrial felling of the forest moves ever closer. This is a story about roots - or the lack of them - and about the loss of history. Annika Savill


There is only one list of bestsellers in Greece, established by the magazine Thiavazo ('Read'), and it has always been controversial: authors and publishers whose books do not appear on it often denounce it as a fake, and only accept its validity when (and if) they are included.

Curiously, many recent bestsellers have been long debut novels by playwrights. The greatest popular success of the last decade was Vamena kokina malia ('Dyed Red Hair') by Costas Mourselas, a serious avant-garde dramatist who immediately fell from grace with his fellow intellectuals (such is the price of commercial success). Long, difficult books like Umberto Eco's novels enjoy fashionable esteem - people used to lie on the beach with Foucault's Pendulum prominently displayed - but the current bestseller is a sensitive and poetic book by the relatively unknown Zyrana Zateli, Ke me to fos to likou epanerhonte ('They Always Come Back by Twilight'). Zateli's earlier collections of short stories earned her critical approval, but no success in terms of sales. This lengthy novel is composed of 10 interwoven stories set in a magical and supernatural landscape in Greek Macedonia (and the cover shows 'The Beguiling of Merlin' by Edward Burne-Jones) - perhaps it is precisely this gothic, romantic fairy-tale element which accounts for the book's appeal for Greek readers, after so many years of 'real-life' stories. Nikos Dimou


In the week after Alexander Solzhenitsyn returned to Moscow, Russians were reading almost anything except the books of the great chronicler of the Soviet gulags.

Constantin Gagarin, a Moscow businessman, was taking his mind off work with a Russian translation of Ticket to the Planet Tranai by the American science fiction writer Robert Sheckley. Vitaly Matveyev, a pianist, was ploughing through the Bible because he never had any religious education and thought he should fill the gap. Irina Glushenkova, a teacher, was reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte in the original because she likes serious literature, has already read most of the Russian classics and finds little to interest her among the bestselleri which are about the only books available in Moscow these days.

During the glasnost era, Russians were able to catch up on all the literature that had been banned by the Communists, including the works of Solzhenitsyn. Now the free market has brought them a flood of Western popular fiction, from Stephen King to Barbara Taylor Bradford. According to official lists, Tom Clancy's Patriot Games is the current bestseller in Moscow. But the real favourite is anyone's guess, since so many novels are translated into Russian and sold from street kiosks by cowboy publishers who violate copyright laws.

With Russian society in turmoil, contemporary Russian literature is inevitably in crisis. The organisers of Britain's Booker Prize have started giving an award in Russia to encourage good writing here. Last year the pounds 10,000 prize went to Vladimir Makanin for his novel about the plight of the individual in the Soviet bureaucratic machine, A Baize-Covered Table with a Decanter in the Middle. It may have impressed the judges, but it is not a book you often see being read in the Moscow metro. Helen Womack


Most Dutch authors write about a world concerned with little other than drugs and sex. In his autobiographical first novel Blauwe Maandagen ('Blue Mondays'), Arnon Drunberg, who is 23, reports from a completely different one: the postwar Jewish community in Holland. When what was left of the Dutch Jewish community returned from the camps, most of them were so mentally scarred that they could barely cope. Naturally this affected their children, with whom many never discussed the horrors they had gone through. They lived in an unreal world of denial, where forgetting was the password. Little has been written about this phenomenon, though what books there are have been compassionate. But Arnon Brunberg's account of his own Jewish family's life is cynical and merciless, though not without humour, to put it mildly. His mixture of Marx brothers-like dialogue, hilarious set- pieces, poetical notions, wisecracks and striking observations must account for the tremendous success of the book, which has now been ensconced at number one on the bestseller list for three months.

Additional research by Kirsten Walton