Posts Tagged ‘Asymptote book club’

brother in ice

Translated from Catalan/Spanish by Mara Faye Letham

When this genre defying novel (?) first arrived from the Asymptote book club I had a flick through it, and somewhat confused, felt it might not be for me. Well I was wrong, we should never judge these things too quickly. Certainly, Brother in Ice took me a little outside my comfort zone, both in style and form but I found myself reading it quickly with great enjoyment. I was particularly fascinated by the way Alicia Kopf had chosen to structure her book, after a while it started to make sense. It all works wonderfully well, what an interesting writer this woman is.

Having won awards in both its Catalan and Spanish editions, this edition is published by And Other Stories.

“I placed my foot on very thin ice. First I slipped. Now I’m sinking…
Moments of sun alternate with gusts of pain and longing that cut through my chest with the whimper of a dog that’s been run over.”

polarexplorersPart research notes, part first person fictionalised account, part travelogue, Alicia Kopf uses the stories of famous polar explorations to explore her narrator’s family and coming of age. Our narrator becomes fascinated by the tales of these long-ago explorers, Shackleton, Peary, Admundsen, Cook and Scott, so throughout the book she scatters little bits of internet research about these men, their triumphs, controversies and failures. These are stories of heroism of survival and loss. We quickly get drawn into these often well-known stories that still have the ability to fascinate.

“My brother is a man trapped in ice. He looks at us through it; he is there and he is not there. Or more precisely, there is a fissure inside him that periodically freezes over. When he is present, his outline is more clearly defined; other times he’s submerged for a while.”

In the narrative sections our narrator explores her difficult, fragile family and her own artistic life. Like Kopf herself the narrator has an older brother who is on the autistic spectrum, although he remained undiagnosed until well into adulthood. She sees her brother as a man trapped in ice – and strives to understand how his mind might work. When he is tired he doesn’t go to bed unless he is told to, he needs to be told to do most things otherwise he remains frozen, trapped. Her mother is sometimes distant, caught up with her own work and caring for her son. Still processing her parents’ separation years earlier, our narrator is a thirtysomething artist, lurching through a series of unsuitable job and unsatisfying relationships.

“The desires frozen for lack of money or unrequited love are different from the ones we freeze because we’ve given up on them. The latter have the gleam of stoic heroism. Even though we might be renouncing our desires out of fear, and we’ll spend our lives blind, without feeling or seeing anything…On the other hand, if we obey our desires we could end up lost.”

She lives in an unnamed city, working in a cold, white studio – one of many metaphors for cold or ice. Later she travels to Iceland, and I must admit this was probably one of my favourite sections of the book, as I had a short holiday in Reykjavik in February 2017, and I am sure I will go back.

I couldn’t help but wonder where our narrator ended, and the author Alicia Kopf began, there is so much that feels autobiographical. I understood completely the author’s fascination with polar exploration and stories of survival – her use of these stories in exploring her unnamed narrator’s brother’s condition is surprisingly powerful. Kopf captures the mood of strained family relationships against the struggle of a woman searching for an artistic independence of her own.

My main reason for joining the Asymptote book club was to take me outside me comfort zone, and this book has done that brilliantly. I heartily recommend these subscriptions – book six has recently arrived and this time we shall be travelling to modern China with The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge – another English Pen Award winner published in English by Balestier Press.



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(Translated from Bengali by Rimli Bhattacharya)

The latest book to arrive from The Asymptote book club was Aranyak (of the forest) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. It is a partly autobiographical novel wreathed in glorious prose. Written between 1937 and 1939, the story was written out of the diary entries the author himself kept during the years he spent in the Bihar region. This new 2017 edition from Seagull books making this only English translation available to new readers.

The plot, such as it is, is simple enough. Satyacharan, a young educated man, originally from Bengal, living in Calcutta in the 1920s, finds himself out of work. Offered a job by an old friend, Satyacharan is soon heading off to an uninhabited forest land, as an administrator of land settlement. His home and office, known as the Katcheri is a small clearing, a few huts made from straw and bamboo are his world. It is a long way indeed from Calcutta.

“There is one day I shall never forget. I remember it was Dol-purnima, the full moon which marks the spring festival of colour. The katcheri guards had taken leave for the day; all day long, they had celebrated the festival to the beat of their dholak. When I found that the singing and dancing showed no signs of abating even after it was evening, I lit a lamp and sat at my table writing letters to the head office till late at night. When I was done I happened to glance at my watch and found it was almost one. Quite frozen with the cold, I lit a cigarette and went to the window for a smoke. What I saw enthralled me so much that I stood rooted to the spot. I was overwhelmed by the indescribable light of a full moon night.”

The forest land surrounding the Katcheri is dense, unchanged for centuries, it will in time become parcelled up, given over to people to live off. Satyacharan, is a city man, he loves the life he had there, the culture, the society – and at first, he hates his new surroundings, the emptiness he finds oppressive. The people he meets are wretchedly poor, and few and far between, he is concerned how long it might take to find new tenants for every bit of land he has to manage. He sees the people as barbarians, unable to appreciate the world he knows. He is frustrated by loneliness and isolation.

“Most wonderful it is to long for one’s homeland. Those who spend their entire lives in their native village, never venturing beyond the next one, would not know how intriguing is this feeling. Only one who has lived for many years without his kin in alien lands will know how the heart cries out for Bengal, for Bengalis, for one’s own village, and for one’s dear friends and relatives.”

Soon, the forest starts to work its magic on Satyacharan, he becomes enchanted by the natural world around him, the animals that live in the forest. The people, who come into the forest seeking a new existence – begin to impress him too. Their strength and vulnerability, their simple, poverty-stricken way of life. He meets a host of memorable characters, as the forest starts to shrink, bit by tiny bit, as small pieces of land are parcelled up, new tenants found, trees felled to make way for new crops. These people include: Raju Pnaare, a religious man, shy and harmless he spends the majority of his time reading religious books, and not doing much to clear the land he has been given. Dhaotal Sahu, a village money lender, he isn’t the usual kind of money lender, he is very good at lending out money – but not so good at getting it back. He is not in the least avaricious – and is himself much poorer because of it. Dhaturia, a young dancer, who comes to the Katcheri as part of a travelling group of performers, he returns a few years later and is persuaded to stay. Kunta a widow, shunned as the daughter of a prostitute, she lives a life of great hardship, and is later given a small parcel of land for nothing. We meet Venkateswar a poet, and Raja Doboru Panna a former king.

The stories of Satyacharan’s time in the forest, are told from a distance of some years, however the images of the place, and the people he knew there stay with him long after he has left.

“When evening falls in the quiet open spaces, like a parting in the hair the narrow path that cuts through the thick forests on the distant hill comes into view. And, Dhruba – poor and with her wasted youth – probably still comes down the path with a bundle of firewood on her head: I see this often enough in my imagination. As I have seen, too, my Didi, Rakhal-babu’s widow; perhaps, even now she slips like a thief into the fields at night to pick up the discarded cobs of maize, like any other old gangota peasant woman.”

The novel is episodic, written in a series of vignettes, that reveal Satyacharan’s changing relationship with the land and the people of this vanished world. Satyacharan never really becomes a true man of the forest, he remains a city boy in his heart, but one with a true appreciation of the natural world. Aranyak is an astonishing, sometimes haunting account of one man’s struggle with nature – told by the very man employed to destroy it.


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the lime tree

This new translation by Chris Andrews 2017

The Lime Tree by César Aira is the first book I received as part of the Asymptote book club – which I subscribed to in December but which anyone can join at any time. I opted for a three-month subscription, and I am looking forward to the next two books – and who knows I may buy another subscription after that.

César Aira is a hugely prolific Argentinian writer – who in my ignorance was completely new to me. Born in 1949 in Coronel Pringles; Buenos Aires Province, where this novella takes place, he produces between two and four novella length books each year, and has previously been a Man Booker International finalist.

The Lime Tree is in some ways an ambiguous work, it could very well be a memoir of the author himself, certainly it feels very personal, the narrator is even the same age. A story of memory it also touches slightly on magical reality in a continuous narrative which Aira is sometimes hard to get a handle on.The Lime Tree is a novel which is hard to review – in that not a huge amount happens – it is highly nuanced and tenderly written.

The novel opens with a glorious image – that of ten thousand lime trees in a plaza in Coronel Pringles.

“My father, who suffered from chronic insomnia, would go to the Plaza with a bag at the beginning of summer to collect the lime’s little flowers, which he then dried and used to make tea that he drank at night, after dinner.”

One tree in particular has grown to monstrous size, and it is from this tree that the narrator remembers his father collecting fallen lime tree flowers to make tea to help with his insomnia. The monster tree is eventually cut down in a violent, political act.

The majority of this novella is a remembrance of childhood in the years just after the Peron regime ended. The father, a government electrician had been Peronist – believing in the middle-class dream it promised. After the regime was toppled the family are on the wrong side of Revolución Libertadora.

“The problem for my father was that after 1955 the march of history began, and he was left behind. Everyone remembered the good old days. What else could they do? Those good old days were all they had. But while they were remembering, things continued to happen, and next time they looked, everything had changed.”

They live simply in a single room in an enormous empty building on the edge of the town. It never occurs to them to make use of any of the other rooms – the little family stick to their small part of the world.

The portrait of both parents is quite extraordinary, the father whose dark skin is an enormous stigma in Coronel Pringles, married to a woman with a more acceptable pale skin, though her deformity makes her an outsider too. His father is quick-tempered his dramatic mother constantly talking, their son’s life is one where the boredom is relieved by gossip and unusual games.

“A child’s father is a model, a mirror, and a hope. more than that, he’s a typical man, a specimen of fully formed, adult humanity. a kind of Adam constructed from all the fragments of the world that the child progressively comes to know. it’s hardly surprising that some parts don’t fit and the whole turns out to be rather mysterious. the father is like a big, complex riddle whose answers appear one by one over the course of the child’s life. I would even venture to say that those answers are our instructions for living.”

This 106-page novella is surprisingly quite dense, there is an elegiac quality to the writing as the narrator recalls a time of social and political change in Coronel Pringles. I feel as if I must have missed some nuances in the text – though I really enjoyed the novel – it might well be a book that benefits from subsequent readings.

cesar aira

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When it comes to reading I suppose I know what I like, and I stick pretty much closely to it. I do occasionally step outside my comfort zone – and sometimes surprise myself. So, with that in mind, I have bought myself a little subscription to the Asympote book club. I don’t read that much in translation, but I have read lots of fascinating reviews by other bloggers so perhaps I am missing out. I do have a few books sitting here (that have been sitting here a while) that I keep over looking in favour of other things.

So, I am challenging myself to read a little more in translation, I would like to read one title a month – but that might be a bit ambitious – this year I have read just four books in translation.

The Asympote book club first came to my attention through Marina at Finding Time to write who is one of a team of people working hard to bring a variety of world literature to their subscribers. I have opted for a three-month subscription – and I am going to try and read each of the titles as it arrives – and perhaps join in the online discussions too. If the first three months go well I might buy a second subscription – I feel I need to widen my horizons a little.

It’s a wonderful initiative; the Asympote book club, is an international book club, which will send subscribers a surprise book every month. It’s the only international book club working with independent publishers rather than the big houses. I’m not quite sure what to expect in terms of the books I will receive – I assume that the books will be new writing rather than vintage novels (which I am always more comfortable with) but I see it all as part of the challenge – and it isn’t as if I don’t read any new writing.

asymptotePlease take a look at the Asympote book club – I think it looks very exciting and for those of you who like reading world literature it is surely a must. Or perhaps it would make a good gift for someone else.


I believe I get my first book soon – I am quite excited to see what it will be.

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