Africa: Broken Glass, Alain Mabanckou
Granta Magazine’s former deputy editor Ellah Wakatama Allfrey has labelled Alain Mabanckou as one of the African “continent’s greatest writers”, before noting that he’s getting better with each book. Mabanckou would do well to better his masterful Broken Glass, published in 2009. The story emerges simply when Broken Glass, the eponymous narrator in the novel, is sitting in the Credit Gone Away bar in the Congo, conversing with various other patrons. Mabanckou delights in taking readers through European literature, making cultural commentary and proffering sideways observations about politicians. As funny as it is intelligent, in short it’s a joy.
Alps: The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
The two most popular novels written about the Alps could hardly be any different, stretching from the child-centred Heidi by Johanna Spyri to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Both have literary merits, and though Heidi’s Alpine-set adventures provide a more instant sense of gratification, it’s unsurprisingly Mann’s that requires a bit more effort. This masterpiece, however, is worth every minute – even if it is set in the less-than-uplifting scenario of a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1924. There’s plenty of subtle humour as Mann makes use of various allegories to depict European society, relationships and, of course, illness, before World War II.
Amsterdam: The Fall, Albert Camus
Amsterdam is famously a city of concentric canals, situated below sea level. It appears, then, somewhat contrary for Albert Camus to set The Fall here (albeit in a bar called Mexico City), when its protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, has a love of high places. The book, published in 1956 (four years before Camus’ death in a car accident), is really a conversation between a Parisian and Clamence, who was once a successful lawyer in Paris defending the vulnerable in society, and whose self-imposed exile in Amsterdam provides the backdrop to questions of the real motivation behind altruistic acts.
Barcelona: The South, Colm Tóibín
With the help of a carefully nurtured, distinct identity, and the combination of a host of much-talked-about modern and historic architecture (not to mention the city’s football team), the Catalan capital is high on most people’s must-see-in-Europe list. Colm Tóibín’s The South, however, was actually published in 1990, before the modern building boom helped transform the city on the back of the 1992 Olympic Games. The book mirrors Tóibín’s own journey from his homeland of Ireland to Spain, with the main character, Katherine Proctor, leaving behind a failed marriage in the 1950s. Spanish and Irish landscapes and histories are interwoven within personal stories.