When Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk nabbed this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the judges cited his memoir Istanbul (Vintage, $14.95) as the masterpiece that clinched the deal. A dreamy, melancholy portrait of Pamuk’s hometown, Istanbul mourns the city’s lost cosmopolitan splendor. Thanks to the Nobel, it’s now flying off the shelves. Turkish reviewers, however, savaged the book’s elitist tone and Pamuk’s evident disdain for the Anatolian riffraff who have immigrated from the interior to the capital by the millions, turning the gracefully decaying Ottoman ruins into a thrumming — if gritty — 21st-century metropolis.
Yes, the surest way to score a best-selling memoir these days is to win a Nobel Prize, whatever the category. Just ask Wangari Maathai, 2004’s Peace Prize laureate, whose Unbowed (Knopf, $24.95) is already a runaway hit. It describes the founding of Maathai’s Green Belt Movement — which is not about stylish waistwear but rather a women’s organization devoted to reforesting Kenya’s devastated landscape, and also traces her path from impoverished Kikuyu tribal girl to Ph.D to democracy activist. (What you won’t find here is her controversial claim that AIDS is a biological weapon designed to exterminate Africans.)
Kikuyus seem to be dominating both the nonfiction and fiction lists this month, as Maathai’s fellow Kikuyu author Ngugi wa Thiong’o has garnered raves for his surrealistic new novel Wizard of the Crow (Pantheon, $30). A postmodern folktale with a heavy dose of magical realism, it’s above all a political satire in which the demented dictator of an imaginary African country cons the Global Bank into helping him build the world’s tallest building in the middle of a squalid slum — while our down-and-out hero Kamiti discovers that his phony sorcerer act might not be so phony after all.
Dave Eggers jumps on the African bandwagon as well with his latest offering, What Is the What? (McSweeney’s, $26). What is What Is the What? It’s a semifictionalized memoir of a Sudanese “Lost Boy” whose family and village were destroyed by genocidal Arab militias, and who along with countless thousands of others fled Sudan on foot and eventually found refuge in America, where his troubles unfortunately continued. Well-intentioned, perhaps, but isn’t it a bit patronizing of Eggers to use his own literary style to narrate the real-life hero’s innermost thoughts? Wouldn’t we rather read an actual interview with Valentino Achak Deng, the book’s central character, than get his words channeled through a middleman, however talented?