Posts Tagged ‘Asymptote book club’

Translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

The Hotel Tito by Croatian writer Ivana Bodrožić is one of the books that I received through my Asymptote book club subscription. It was a book I knew instantly it arrived I must read – it’s just taken me a while to get to it.

The conflict which engulfed the Balkan region  – and which saw the breaking up of the former Yugoslavia – is one I remember being all over the news in the early and mid-1990s. I had known people growing up, who had frequently holidayed in Yugoslavia – it was a country in Europe – and that conflict that swept through Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia – brought the possibility of war anywhere and at anytime home to me.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is nine as the novel opens, she has an older brother who is sixteen. When the Croatian war of Independence breaks out in her hometown of Vukovar – everything she has ever known is shaken up. Sent suddenly on a seaside holiday to escape the hostilities – she expects to be home in the not too distant future. By the time the summer has come to an end everything is changed – her father, having stayed behind in Vukovar to help defend it is missing. Our narrator joins her mother and brother as they travel to Zagreb. Here they join the scores of other displaced people in need of accommodation, many of them also with missing loved ones.

After several months squatting in an empty apartment, the family are served with an eviction notice – and are given a room in what has come to be called The Hotel Tito a little way outside of Zagreb; in the village of Kumrovec in the Zagorje region which was also the birthplace of Marshal Tito.

“We were among the last to move in so I didn’t know anyone. At the front desk I saw kids my age. After two or three days in our room, I ventured out and started exploring the cold, dark halls. The rambling concrete complex was vast and easy to lose my way in. The dark, that’s what I remember best, there weren’t windows except in the rooms, and out of the dark would swim the faces of old people shuffling noiselessly among the catacombs.”

The Hotel Tito is a huge political school that was previously used as part hotel part conference centre. The large conference rooms are assigned particular uses for the community living in the building, conference room 4 – day care, no 5 the church, an infirmary in another and so on. The family of three are housed in one small room, and here they live for the next few years. It is far from ideal.

Everything seems to be different, different words for favourite snacks, a different accent, a new school – for a young girl missing her father it’s all quite disorienting. Among the refugees from Vukovar are old friends from home – like Željka and her mother, and in time her grandparents turn up too. It’s time to make new friends however – other kids in the same position – they band together in that special way kids have, particularly when faced with the cruel taunts of the local children.

“We joined forces in our war against the Piglets – our favourite name for the Zagorje locals – which began on our first day at school.  The war was cruel and went on for ages, with the rare ceasefire and only sometimes real friendship.  We were all about the same age, all equally poor, but our group had come from Vukovar, a city, a real urban centre with a main square; baroque buildings, a cafe, and a Nobel Prize winner, while all they had was a pastry shop, Suljo’s, and their mangy commie president Tito who made this whole mess in the first place.  Our arguments were pretty rock-solid.”   

Naturally the family form friendships with the people they are living amongst, but their living conditions are less than ideal. The family exist in a strange kind of limbo – they have no news of their father – and with no definite death, there is no pension. Always in the back of their minds is the thought that he may yet turn up alive. Over the years, our narrator’s brother and mother write regularly to the authorities to plead for an apartment, in the meantime the Hotel Tito is their home. As the kids grow into teenagers the front desk of the Hotel Tito is the usual place to congregate when going out for the evening.

The Hotel Tito is a coming of age tale with the Croatian conflict and the family’s displacement an obvious difference. Our narrator grows up, we see her entering essay writing competitions, going on a kind of exchange trip to a family in Italy – getting her first boyfriend. Her experiences are so familiar – so like the ones we all had – and yet the context in which she grows up is so clearly different.

The fact that Ivana Bodrožić’s novel is so obviously autobiographical makes it all the more powerful. Her formative years took place during these same extraordinary times and in very similar circumstances. Bodrožić’s matter of fact child’s eye view pulls the reader in instantly, there is a wonderful sense of place in her description of the Hotel Tito. She faithfully recreates the atmosphere of a country in the grip of, and later recovering from a brutal conflict, while everyday life continues for those not in its immediate path.

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Translated from Turkish by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi

Review copy from the publisher

In the end I actually ended up with two copies of this book, one kindly sent by the publisher as stated above – the second as part of my Asymptote book club subscription. I passed on the second copy to a friend.

I was interested in this novel primarily because I know nothing about Turkish history, yet it is such a colourful and vibrant culture, that I was keen to learn more. Like a Sword Wound is the first book in the Ottoman Quartet – which has been described by professional reviewers as being Tolstoyan in its scope. An historical epic isn’t usually my thing these days – though I have loved historical fiction in the past. There is great drama here though – and I was quickly swept up by the characters and the setting.

Before I get on to the book though, a word about the author – Ahmet Altan – his story is a sobering one. A prominent journalist and author, Ahmet Altan has been an advocate for Kurdish and Armenian minorities. When he was imprisoned on false charges in 2016 there was widespread international outrage, but despite that he is serving a life sentence – and I read somewhere that he continues to write from his prison cell.

“True love is like a sword wound, and even when the wound heals a deep scar remains.”

The novel begins towards the end of the Ottoman empire – around the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Altan brings the ancient city of Istanbul to glorious life – the scents and sounds; lemon, figs, the sea and the call to prayer. Here Sultan Abdul Hamid II holds absolute power, believing he is anointed by God. No criticism of the sultan is permitted, and the city is one almost paralysed by fear, suspicion and paranoia. In various corners of the city however dissent is already being whispered, there are those who seek to end the tyranny dished out by the sultan and those who do his bidding.

“The big roundup began the following morning, and a number of pashas and hundreds of officers were picked up from their homes and brought to Balmumcu barracks; in town, whispers of “they’ve caught the plotters, and some of them will be hanged” began to spread, and the fear that lurked beneath Istanbul like a monster and emerged from time to time began to stalk about like an epidemic. Civilians were arrested as well, those who had been denounced, and everyone was denouncing their enemies as “Fuat Pasha’s loyal followers.”

The story is narrated by Osman a middle-aged man living alone in modern day Turkey. He is visited by the spirits of his ancestors – who tell him their stories. In this way Osman becomes the omniscient narrator of events which happened long before he was born. It is an unusual device – and one that I didn’t feel got in the way of the main narrative, and perhaps serves to remind us how close in fact the modern era is to these seemingly distant events.

like a sword woundAs the novel opens Sheikh Yusuf Efendi is marrying Mehpare Hanim, the daughter of a customs director. Sheikh Efendi is the leader of the tekke – a dervish monastery. Despite still being quite young, he is seen as a wise man – his wisdom sought by people from all over the city – he is a gentle, religious man, often embarrassed and confused by his own more human feelings and desires. Mehpare Hanim is an extraordinary beauty, sexually adventurous and quite unsuited to the man she married. After their daughter is born the marriage breaks down and the couple divorce.

Mehpare Hanim re-marries, her second husband is Hüseyin Hikmet Bey, the son of the Sultan’s physician and his estranged wife Mihrişah Sultan. Mihrişah Sultan is an Egyptian beauty, she enjoys the affect her looks have on men – though is uninterested in remarrying, still only in her early forties, she unleashes a fierce jealousy in her new daughter-in-law, and scandalises Istanbul when she visits the city from her home in Paris – walking around with her head uncovered.

“From the moment Mihrisah Sultan and her daughter-in-law met, the two women’s beauty collided with all their force like two trains; in that fleeting moment, of which none but the two of them were aware, they looked at each other in terror, admiration, jealousy, and hatred, and felt the magnitude of the collision in the depths of their souls. Each believed that no one could be more beautiful than herself, yet both suspected that the other might be more beautiful.”

Hikmet Bey is a very Europeanised young man having spent several years in Paris. Mehpare soon draws her husband into her sex games and in time they draw the French governess in too. This all struck me as being fairly typical male fantasy stuff – though Altan never goes too far – it’s pretty tame. However, I was a little concerned about his view and portrayal of women. A discussion on the Asymptote members Facebook group suggested that all the characters are caricature of a type – which I can see – but it still left me feeling uncomfortable. These women are strong though, and the author doesn’t appear to be vilifying them in any way.

Another character; Ragip Bey – destined to be Osman’s grandfather – is a young army lieutenant in the Ottoman army. He is a childhood friend of Sheikh Effendi – to whom he often goes to for counsel. Following some trouble at the military college where he teaches – Ragip Bey is sent to Germany – from where, through his brother he joins the organisation plotting to overthrow the sultan’s regime. This part of the story moves the time frame forward a little to the Bulgarian anarchist bombings in Salonika where Hikmet Bey and his wife and children are currently living. Hikmet Bey has become dissatisfied in his marriage – his wife is impossible to please – and as time goes by, he too begins to take an interest in revolutionary politics. Ragip Bey’s story is particularly gripping – and one I assume will continue in the next book.

I’ll admit, I hadn’t quite expected to be as gripped by this novel as I was, and I flew through its nearly 400 pages pretty fast. I will definitely want to read the rest of the quartet – when and if it becomes available in English.

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Last year I started trying to read a little bit more fiction in translation. I bought an Asymptote book club subscription and acquired a few more titles throughout the year too. I read 18 books in translation in 2018 – which was a pretty good number for me. However, because of the (self-imposed) pressures of ACOB I didn’t read any after October.

I loved being taken outside my comfort zone with some quality world literature last year. None of the translated works I read last year made my Twelve books for 2018 list – but that’s not because they weren’t extremely good. I particularly enjoyed Katalin Street by Magda Szabo, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart, Brother in Ice by Alice Kopf and Love by Hanne Ørstavik which was so heartbreakingly poignant it stayed with me for weeks. So, I definitely want to carry on where I left off this year.

Despite the fact I am trying to rein in my book expenditure I am seriously considering renewing my subscription – if I can only remember when it runs out.

So, I have collected together a rather interesting little pile of translated works, and I really want to try and read at least one a month – though I am not putting any pressure on myself. Some of these are Asymptote books I haven’t got around to reading yet, one or two are bookcrossing books, several are books I bought myself and there are three review copies from Europa Editions, and one was a recent Christmas gift.

The People in the Photo by Heléne Gestern translated from French by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz – has been on my kindle rather a long time.

I have just started reading Like a Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan, translated from Turkish by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi – I ended up with two copies of this book, one sent to me by the lovely people at Europa it was also one of the titles included in my Asymptote subscription. So, I was able to pass on one of the copies to a friend. It is the first book in the Ottoman Quartet – and it was because I knew nothing about Turkish history that I was interested in reading it. At the time of writing, I am very much enjoying it.

The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga translated from French by Jordan stump.

The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade translated from Spanish by Samuel Rutter.

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda, translated from French by Adriana Hunter.

Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette, translated from French by Alison Anderson.

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava ólafsdóttir translated from Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon.

The Passion According to G.H by Clarice Lispector translated from Portuguese by Idra Novey.

The Listener by Tove Jansson translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson translated from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart.

Farewell. My Orange by Iwaki Kei translated from Japanese by Meredith McKinney

The Hotel Tito by Ivan Bodrožić translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe translated from French by Faith Evans. Not featured in the above photo as I accidentally left it out. It is rather difficult finding all the books in my tbr these days.

They all rather good don’t they? I am very excited about several of them, but which of them should I read next?

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Translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris

July’s offering from the Asymptote book club was I didn’t Talk by Brazilian writer Beatriz Bracher, which I read at the end of July, so I could review it for the beginning of #WITmonth.

Beatriz Bracher is the latest of the new, strong voices the Asymptote book club has introduced me to. Bracher was born in Săo Paulo, she grew up living under a military dictatorship. It is clear that her upbringing in that environment has informed her writing.

Gustavo is a professor who has just retired and is preparing to leave Sao Paulo for the quiet of the countryside. As he sorts through his papers, Gustavo is assaulted by the ghosts of the past.

In 1970 Gustavo and his brother-in-law Armando were arrested by the authorities and tortured. Later Gustavo was released, hurt but able to continue his work as a teacher. Armando was killed, and no one could ever be really sure that Gustavo didn’t talk. ‘I didn’t talk’ he tells himself – as he told his family at the time. Yet, the torture never really stopped – Gustavo has been haunted by this period of his life ever since.

His wife Eliana had been away when he was arrested – she died of pneumonia – leaving him to raise their daughter. Eliana had died before her husband could tell her he hadn’t talked – died away from him in another country – a loss he has carried ever since. He remembers a time when his daughter had liked to walk happily through the cemetery imagining the lives the dead had lived, death held no fear for her. The child had inevitably wondered why her mother’s name wasn’t there.

“I wished to conserve for what little time I could my happy ballerina for the dead. Dancing for the memory of the dead. I said, it’s true, you’re right, we’ll find your mother’s grave. The next Sunday I took a box of coloured chalk and wrote Eliana’s name and dates on the grave under which Armando, Dona Esther, and my father-in-law Dom Estevăo, lay buried. Ligia drew little flowers and hearts.”

Gustavo has lived his life rather on the fringes, ever since 1970 – always there has been that unspoken accusation – that his release was the result of a betrayal. There is a sense that Gustavo’s life has been stunted by this incident.

“Look, I was tortured, and they say I named a comrade who was later killed by soldiers’ bullets. I didn’t snitch – I almost died in the room where I could have snitched, but I didn’t talk.”

The novel is told in several voices, Gustavo’s first-person narrative is the main one. Yet alongside that are fragments of Gustavo’s brother José’s unpublished, autobiographical novel, his own notes and educational reports from earlier in his career and short extracts from other writers. In José’s writings, we get glimpses of the brothers’ upbringing, the kind of lives they lived growing up. Gustavo remembers his wife, his friendship with Armando, and what he knew back then and what he didn’t understand or didn’t question. These voices help to form a kind of collective chorus – in the midst of a story that is full of silences. There is so much that exists in the past, things not said or merely implied.

There is an ambiguity to Gustavo’s storytelling – not everything is clear – memories are fragile and emotional.

I liked this novel, but I didn’t love it – I wasn’t particularly drawn to any of the characters, but I couldn’t work out why– and I like a stronger sense of place than I felt existed here. What Bracher does do well though, is to portray a life lived in the shadow of one terrible place in time.

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Translated from German by Isabel Fargo Cole

Last month’s Asymptote book club book was the tiny novella The Tidings of the Trees by Wolfgang Hilbig. Hilbig was an East German writer of stories and poetry – and certainly the prose in this little book, is that of a poet. There are throughout this novella passages that the reader stops to re-read – or perhaps would like to read out loud. This story only came to be published after his death – though it was written I am told back in the 1980s or 90s. I knew nothing about Hilbig before this book came into my life – though I read somewhere that this is his most accessible work.

Hilbig himself is a fascinating character. In the 1970s he moved to the then GDR – Hilbig would have been a young man when the Berlin wall was erected. He had spent time in the military, later working as a tool maker and in the construction industry. It was after moving to East Germany that Hilbig became a writer. He was later given a visa to move to West Germany – I don’t know how usual this was. In a blog post on the Asymptote journal website I was interested to read how Hilbig struggled with different aspects of both East and West Germany.

So on with the book- there really isn’t an enormous amount I feel I can say about this beautifully written novella. You will be relieved to hear this review will be shorter than most.

The Tidings of the Trees is a novella about politics – not overtly so perhaps, everything is shrouded in poetic imagery – but at the bottom of it lie the politics of the past. In the present is the wall, and the isolation it creates.

“We lived in a country, cut off, walled in, where we had to end up thinking that time had no relevance for us. Time was outside, the future was outside … outside everything rushed to its doom. Meanwhile we’ve always lived in the past. For us the passage of time existed only on some withered calendar page.”

Where once there was a beautiful wood there now stands an ash smothered field covered in heaps of rubbish. A young man named Waller; a writer, encounters the strange, haunting figures of the garbagemen.

“No one, I said, could know more about the past, no one could be deeper in the know than the garbagemen. But no one asked them, for in the eyes of the world they were the ones with the least say. And if asked, they’d probably have seen themselves in the same way, perhaps they ultimately acquiesced in their somnambulistic doings on the terrain of ash…In actuality, they might think, it’s we, out here, who seal and perfect the process of forgetfulness the townspeople struggle with. Yet we ourselves can never forget… and that is the punchline of the story.”

These desperate men eke out an existence of sorts by rooting through their country’s rubbish. Waller is fascinated by them – he imagines them digging through their country’s history too.

Hilbig, uses some extraordinary imagery in The Tidings of the Trees, mannequins in a variety of poses litter the garbage site. Waller sits in a small corrugated metal hut at the side of the tip, watching the garbagemen and trying to write. He remembers a time when he was younger, when a road he walked along frequently was lined with cherry trees. Those trees are all gone now.

“Now that I’d remembered the road with the cherry trees, I set out for the area nearly every evening. I began going in pursuit of my memories: even in earlier days the perpetual flight from town had been a sort of ritual for me; as I walked those paths I underwent a visible transformation, the whole thing soon becoming an evening exercise in disappearance.”

I continue to enjoy my Asymptote book club subscription, as it introduces me to a variety of voices I would otherwise have not heard. Hilbig weaves imagery rich in meaning through his glorious prose. I read this in a sitting, but perhaps I should have read it more slowly, there is a lot to appreciate in it. There is a beautiful, elegiac quality to Hilbig’s prose that at times becomes quite haunting.

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Translated by Nicky Harman

Last month’s book from the Asymptote book club was The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge, the story of a family in a fictional town in West China. This novel is possibly my first experience with Chinese literature.

In her foreword to this novel, Yan Ge explains how the town she grew up in, no longer exists as it was, so much change has come to the region. She describes being swamped by nostalgia as she wrote about Pingle Town a town based very much on the one she grew up in. So, there is certainly an autobiographical element to this novel, though where exactly that starts and ends I wasn’t sure.

The Duan-Xue family are the owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, the younger of two adult sons; Xue Shengqiang is the current owner. He is married to Anqin and has a daughter Xingxing. Oddly, it is Xingxing who is our narrator, although she is never present in the story, but more of that later.

Shengqiang’s position is an enviable one, he has worked his way up through the family business and now he is the boss.

“It was just an ordinary April morning in Pingle Town. Dad had been around for at least forty springtimes and could describe it with his eye shut. The trees suddenly so green they made your eyes sore, the birds and the bees going at it hammer and tongs, the lurid yellow rapeseed blossom, the blazing scarlet azaleas, even the air smelled fertile, he thought sourly. It certainly brought out the crowds, and the streets heaved with day-trippers, songsters, card-players, people out to make a quick buck, and more besides. And of course there were the couples, making out, and breaking up.”

He remembers the time when he was first inducted into the family business, stirring the drums of chili bean paste buying cigarettes to give to his – shifu (foreman) – the man teaching him his craft. He now has a wife and daughter, a driver to take him around the town, and a mistress living in an apartment above his mother’s. He still gets together with his best friend Zhong and his “bros.” He seems to be living a perfect life. He is living in a town he knows well, inside out, yet it has changed beyond all recognition.

“There were no dirt roads left in Pingle Town, and you didn’t see many telegraph poles either. In 2000 or 2001, the powers-that-be got some mad idea into their heads that the town needed a facelift. Up went the stepladders, and the bucket of paint, and all the buildings on and off, the four main roads were covered in white paint. The looked like they had been plastered with stage make-up. After that, the stalls and pushcarts were driven out: the purveyors of cold dressed rabbit, flour shortbread and griddled buns filled with brown sugar even the scissor-menders and knife grinders, were all swept ruthlessly from the face of the town. All those old faces so familiar from his childhood just vanished.”

Now Shengqiang’s mother, straight talking matriarch is about to celebrate her eightieth birthday. Gran – as she is referred to throughout the novel – is to be given a wonderful party to celebrate her milestone birthday. Her middle-aged children begin to gather to make the necessary preparations. Shengqiang’s elder brother, a university teacher arrives, and Shengqiang’s hackles almost immediately rise. There are tensions between the brothers and old resentments are brought to the surface as Uncle starts to take charge. The brothers’ sister Coral also arrives to share in the preparations, and it soon emerges that her marriage to Liu Qukang is in trouble.

In the midst of all his family obligations, Shengqiang struggles – not really very well – to keep his mistress happy, and his wife in the dark. However, in the end the biggest secrets that are revealed come from Gran herself.

asymptoteI had really looked forward to reading The Chili Bean Paste Clan, but it rather underwhelmed me. This is a slightly larger type paperback and at 276 pages it feels a bit overlong. My one main problem with the novel – and it might not be a big thing for other readers – is the narration. The narrator is as I said the main character’s daughter – however she is never present within the narrative itself – there is a suggestion that she has had some sort of mental health issue – and has gone away, but she is never present in the action, or interacts with any of the other characters. This feels a bit odd, especially as she seems to know far more about her father’s sex life than any young daughter should.

While I didn’t love this novel, I certainly didn’t dislike it, I gave it a solid three stars over on Goodreads, and I found many aspects of Chinese small-town life to be fascinating.

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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 Italian by Jhumpa Lairi

This delicate, tender novel was the last Asymptote book club read (the most recent one has just arrived) – and I was immediately intrigued, because while the author is unknown to me, the name of the translator is very familiar indeed. A literary writer in her own right, I think I read at least one of her books, maybe two – though so long ago, pre-blog I can’t be sure.

Trick is apparently the fourteenth novel to be published by Domenico Starnone, it is the story of a grandfather and grandson, a story of ageing, childhood and artistic ambition.

“What really prevented me from waving my arms and calling out for help was shame. I’d wanted to be more than the place I’d grown up in, I’d sought out the world’s approval. And now that I was at the end of my life and taking stock of it, I couldn’t bear looking like an hysterical little man who screamed for help from the balcony of the old house in which he’d been a young boy, the one he’d fled from, full of ambition. I was ashamed of being locked outside, I was ashamed that I hadn’t known how to avoid it, I was ashamed to find myself lacking the controlled haughtiness that had always prevented me from asking anyone for help, I was ashamed of being an old man imprisoned by a child.”

Daniele is over seventy, a widower and an artist and illustrator of some renown, who has been living in Milan for about twenty years. His adult daughter; Betta lives in Naples with her husband and their four-year-old son Mario. The couple are mathematics academics and having been invited to attend a mathematics conference in another city, Betta calls her father and asks him to come to Naples to look after Mario for a few days. Daniele is irritated at the request at first – but of course he agrees, though he is so distracted by his latest commission – and the reception of it – that he leaves it until the last minute to travel to Naples. The apartment where his daughter lives is in a house where Daniele once lived as a child, and so his memories of his past are very much caught up in his present.

Daniele is a wonderfully crafted character, reminding us that just because a person is a bit older, it doesn’t mean that their ambition lessens, neither does their need for approval. Daniele is shaken by the less than effusive reaction to the drawings he has recently submitted to the publisher of a new edition of the Henry James story The Jolly Corner he has been asked to illustrate. It is his work that is mostly on his mind as he arrives at his daughter’s apartment – the day before she and her husband head off to the conference. Mario is told that sometimes Grandpa will have to work, which he solemnly accepts, but Mario is four and doesn’t really know what that is.

Mario is an absolute dream of a child character, precocious, vulnerable, frustrating and loving, in only the way a four-year old can be. We see everything that occurs through the eyes of the child’s grandfather – yet it is Mario who drives most of the action and he is viewed by his grandfather with great affection and bewilderment. Daniele hasn’t spent all that much time with Mario in the past, and so the child is giddy with joy at having his grandfather come to stay. So much so he refuses to go to nursery.

The action (such as it is) takes place over just four days, days in which Daniele in tested to the limit. Time and again Mario gets the better of his old grandfather, Mario can’t read or tell the time, but he knows how to lay the table has an impressive vocabulary and claims to know how everything in the apartment works. Mario tells his grandfather his drawings are too dark, an assessment his grandfather takes very seriously and muses upon a lot.

The time that Mario and his grandfather spend together is certainly not all plain sailing. Daniele is rather out of practice and he doesn’t know Mario as well as perhaps he should. While Daniele can be moody and cross, he is also very loving and eager to keep the little boy happy, pushing himself to the limits of his physical capabilities when he is playing with the boy. However, he can also be a little careless and neglectful and it is Mario who soon starts to rule the roost.

“Seeing him go up and down, tirelessly, wore me out. I dragged a chair over to the ladder and sat down, but I forced myself to monitor any tiny faltering in his movements so that I could leap up in time. It was amazing, the amount of energy in his flesh, in his bones, in his blood? Breath, nutrition. Oxygen, water, electromagnetic storms, protein, waste. How he tightened his lips. And the way he looked up, the effort those too short legs had to make in order to span the gaps between the rungs with ease.”

Disaster (almost) strikes with a balcony door that only opens from the inside, (having previously read The Days of Abandonment I’m now seriously concerned about the doors in Italian apartments) and I read on with my heart in my mouth.

A kind of appendix to the novel, after the main narrative is concluded gives us some of Daniele’s drawings and artist notes. Here we get an insight into the mind of the artist and the grandfather in a very intimate way.

So, the Asymptote book club continues to introduce me to exciting voices in world literature – the latest arrival – looks like taking me right outside my comfort zone. I’ll be honest I’m very unsure about it – I’ll let you all know in due course.


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Translated from Norwegian by Martin Aitken

The most recent offering from the Asymptote book club was Love by Hanne Ørstavik re-issued here by Archipelago books. It is a slight little book, coming in at around 120 pages, it could easily be read in one sitting. I chose to start it late one evening, too late to sit up reading it all in one go. I hadn’t realised the emotional turmoil it would leave me in. I was forced to wait until after work the following day, I had a meeting, then had to get the bus to my book group. I finished Love on the bus – I couldn’t have waited any longer – I had been worrying about the child character all day – and I had to know the worst. That might give you an idea of what kind of novella this is. It is also one that is hard to talk about without the risk of spoilers – though I will try to avoid them, and certainly won’t discuss the end – which has been a bit of a talking point on the Asymptote book club FB discussion page.

This is not a comfortable read, and had it been any longer it would be perhaps too over whelming. As it is, I think the reader has a sense that things might not end well – and we read on, with our hearts in our mouths. This was my first novel by Norwegian writer Hanne Ørstavik, and I am told that there is a recurring theme of bad mothers in some of her other work. So, if you don’t like reading such things, this won’t be for you, because it is brutal, brilliantly, beautifully written but utterly brutal. Stark, cold images remain in my head now – and it will be a long time before I stop feeling sad for a poor little boy called Jon.

Love is the story of a mother and son, and one long, bitterly cold night of their lives. Vibeke is a single mother, she and her eight-year-old son have fairly recently moved to this Northern town in Norway. Vibeke loves to read, getting though about three books a week, that evening she wants to get to the library before it shuts. It is the day before Jon’s ninth birthday, and that’s the main thing he’s thinking about as he waits for his mother to arrive home.

“The sound of the car. When he’s waiting he can never quite recall it. I’ve forgotten, he tells himself. But then it comes back to him, often in pauses between the waiting, after he’s stopped thinking about it. And then she comes, and he recognizes the sound in an instant; he hears it with his tummy, it’s my tummy that remembers the sound, not me, he thinks to himself. And no sooner has he heard the car than he sees it too, from the corner of the window, her blue car coming round the bend behind the banks of snow, and she turns in at the house and drives up the little slope to the front door.”

Jon is hopeful of a birthday cake – and thinks that perhaps if he leaves his mother alone for a while she will be able to make it without him seeing and spoiling the surprise. It is this kind of childish hopefulness against all evidence to the contrary that makes this so heartbreakingly bitter-sweet. Throughout the novel Ørstavik switches the point of view back and forth between Vibeke and Jon, it is always clear who we are with, and it is testament to Ørstavik’s ability that this constantly shifting perspective never gets confusing.

So, Jon leaves the house and goes off to sell the school raffle tickets to a neighbour, who shows him his old pair of ice skates. Meanwhile, Vibeke who has no more idea of making a birthday cake as flying a kite – smokes her cigarettes and considers nipping out to the library to change her books. She doesn’t check on Jon before she goes, assuming he has put himself to bed, now that he is getting older and not liking to be fussed over. And so, the two, each unknown to the other. go their separate ways. The library is closed – it is the wrong evening for late opening, but it is the night that the fairground has arrived, and it is there that Vibeke goes.

“She leans back against the wall and lights a cigarette, not knowing quite what to do now, having had a bath and everything. Her eyes follow a car as it skittles away, snow kicking up from its wheels. She looks across at the festoon of coloured lights at the entrance to the fair. They shine so brightly against the darkness of the sky, as if to tell everyone how irresistible they are. Our day’s Carnival, Vibeke thinks to herself. Maybe I should go in and have a look. Maybe there’s someone who can tell fortunes.”

Both Vibeke and Jon have various separate encounters that night – as gradually they are brought ever closer to tragedy. Jon is wonderfully lively, imaginative child, he has a problem with his eye which causes it to spasm and blink – he is very conscious of the blinking of his eyes and tries to stop it.

Ørstavik reminds us in this novel that love can be a dreadful thing too – when we love we trust, we assume all will be well continue as it always has. A child’s love is unquestioning and innocently trusting. Ørstavik understands the evil that lies in the betrayal of that – however accidental or merely thoughtless that betrayal is. Vibeke is not drawn as a wholly monstrous figure – it would have been so easy to write her like that. She is self-absorbed, thoughtlessly neglectful – but we believe she loves her son, perhaps in the way a young, naive girl might, I assumed she had been a young mother.

“She reaches out and smooths her hand over his head.
“Have you made any friends yet?”
His hair is fine and soft.
“Jon,” she says. “Dearest Jon.”
She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work. She remembers the new set that must still be in her bag, plum, or was it wine; a dark, sensual lipstick and nail polish the same shade. To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.”

This was my third book of a three-month subscription to the Asymptote book club – and I have now signed up for another year. If you haven’t yet – I recommend you have a look at itHannaO

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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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