Posts Tagged ‘Fitzcarraldo editions’

Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes

Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and winner of the English PEN award Hurricane Season is a Mexican novel that I have seen a lot of praise for. Ticking off both Spanish lit month and Wit month it is an intense novel, at once vivid and powerfully brutal. I found an awful lot to appreciate in this lyrically written novel, yet there were moments when I struggled to like it – the brutality is quite relentless, and it can make for grim reading.

Fernanda Melchor’s novel explores the truth of a Mexican village – the misogyny, the lives devastated by brutality and the machismo of men with little hope. Melchor writes in long, lyrical sentences – the entire book is broken up into just a few paragraphs – this style making it quite literally hard to put down, if like me you refuse to lay down a book in the middle of a paragraph, well there were moments when I did have to do just that. There were other moments when I just had to lay the book aside – to give myself a break from the onslaught.

“But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five of them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blowflies, finally recognised what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.”

La Matosa a provincial Mexican village: and Fernanda Melchor thrusts us immediately into a world of violence, poverty, and mythology, giving voice to those who are rarely heard. A group of children find the body of a woman known as the Witch in an irrigation canal – and the whole village become consumed with who might have committed the murder and why. However, Hurricane Season is a long way away from being a traditional mystery novel.

The Witch herself is a confusing character – we only see her through the remembrances of others, hairy, heavily veiled and considered ugly – she grants sexual favours, her house the scene of many raucous parties. She isn’t the first Witch – her mother before her was the old Witch, no one ever knew her by any other name.

“They called her the Witch, the same as her mother; the Young Witch when she first started trading in curses and cures, and then when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.”

She performs abortions for the local sex workers and is the subject of a lot of local gossip and rumour. One of the biggest pieces of speculation centres around the gold said to be hidden away inside her broken down house.

The perspective shifts from one unreliable character to the next and through their eyes a portrait of the village emerges: squalid, brutal and tragic. Luismi, is a layabout known to have some involvement in drug taking, he was seen near the Witch’s house that morning. It is Yesenia, Luismi’s cousin who spots him by the canal on the fateful day, she loathes her cousin because of her grandmother’s preference for him, which she considers him unworthy of. Luismi’s friend Brando is tormented by his own secret desires and lusts, fuelled by drugs and an addiction to porn. The runaway Norma, Brando’s thirteen year old lover who is pregnant with her stepfather’s child, is taken to see the Witch, but ends up in hospital, chained to her bed. It was Norma’s story I found the most disturbing, the portrayal of abuse, and hopelessness was really quite upsetting.

“… they hadn’t got a word out of Norma, not even after screaming at her, telling her not to be an idiot, asking repeatedly for her boyfriend’s name, the little bastard who’d done this and where he lived so that the police could go and arrest him, because the shameless boy had just dropped her off at the hospital and bolted. Wasn’t she angry? Didn’t she want him to pay too? And Norma, who’d just began to realise that all this was really happening, that it wasn’t just a terrible dream, clamped her mouth shut and shook her head and didn’t say a word…”

I’m very aware that I shouldn’t say too much about the plot of this novel – I imagine it will be one being read by others during this #Witmonth. So, I shall leave my discussion of the novel there. I certainly can’t say I loved this novel, but neither did I hate it – I had been warned that it might be a bit much – and there were moments when it was. I can completely see why Hurricane Season has been so lauded too – the writing is searingly honest, enthralling in many ways, Fernanda Melchor is clearly a huge talent.

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Translated by Frank Wynne

My second read for Spanishlit month was The Fallen a Cuban novel from the lovely Fitzcarraldo that I bought specifically for this reading challenge. What I know of Cuba comes mainly from TV and from people I know who have been on holiday there, their experiences entirely different from those who actually live in the country of course.

Carlos Manuel Álverez’s debut novel The Fallen tells the story of an ordinary family living together in Cuba. It’s a short novel, tender and at times painful. The novel is narrated by each member of the family in turn – the son, the mother, the father, the daughter, they are Diego, Mariana, Armando and Maria. This is a family living in quiet crisis – they are struggling to adequately take care of each other, so many things are going unspoken between them.

Diego the son is disillusioned – at eighteen he is forced to endure the obligatory military service; he leaves home bitter and angry. Every minute of his service – the boredom of long hours of guard duty – he longs to have his service over with. He is a young man frustrated by the limited freedoms that his country allows him and others. He wonders how his mother is, phones and asks her how she is, has she fallen today? He wishes that he had a father who would have bribed the admissions board to get him out of the military service he so detests.

“At 10.30 pm. Insects are fluttering around the bare yellow bulb on the quad, a background hum that grows louder as the night wears on. Anything that breaks the silence clearly benefits the soldier and his mental health.”

(the Son)

His mother Mariana is unwell, her life has changed, and she is having to relinquish some of the duties of the family home to her daughter. Once she was a teacher, now she stays in the family apartment all day.

“What exactly am I, if I already know I am not this flesh? Where is my house, my home? What part of me can they kill that does not ache? What part would hurt like a distant relative? What part would hurt like a family member and what part would hurt as though it were me? I am not a corpuscle moving through my own body from crown to toe. I lie quite still, curled up behind some specific zone, trying to make sure that death does not find me. I look at my hand, move it, and it seems independent of me. I understand that I am not this hand, that I am located somewhere outside it.”

(the mother)

She has been receiving unpleasant, anonymous phone calls – on the phone shared by them and other families in their block that no one else uses. She thinks she knows who might be responsible. And recalls a long held resentment between her and a neighbour and former colleague.

Armando is a committed revolutionary, but he is frequently dismayed by the corruption he encounters on an almost daily basis. He works as a manager in a state owned tourist hotel, he was transferred there from his previous role elsewhere.

“… I am an honest and irreproachable boss, like Che Guevara, who once visited a bicycle factory where the lickspittle manager tried to give him a bicycle for his daughter and Che put him in his place, saying that these bicycles weren’t his, meaning the manager’s, that they belonged to the state and he had no right to give them away.”

(The father)

Armando tells the Che Guevara bicycle story frequently to anyone he suspects may be acting for their own interests. It’s a story that his family are very familiar with. He is proud of the ’95 Nissan that he drives, but it is constantly running out of petrol – and he can’t work out why.

Maria has now left school and has been working in one of the state run tourist hotels. After she has been working in the hotel for a while her father is appointed as manager. She worries about her mother, devastated by her mother’s illness, she finds her own way to help. She has a boyfriend called René a chauffeur from the hotel who has become her father’s driver. Marie has started stealing from the hotel and René helps.

This exploration of family is superb – through the eyes of these four individuals we gradually begin to unravel some of the truths of this family. Álverez’s portrait of modern Cuba is a poignant one – a reminder of how simple freedoms some of us can take for granted are denied to others. Álverez shows us the clear divisions that exist between one generation and the next – the clash of idealism and cynical realism.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Fallen – what a truly excellent debut it is. Also, these Fitzcarraldo editions are just so beautiful, classy and stylish – and judging by this, my third read from their stable – the contents are rather classy too.

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Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

My second read for #Fitzcarraldofortnight was Dark Satellites – a collection of short stories by contemporary German writer Clemens Meyer whose novel Bricks and Mortar has received a lot of praise. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys contemporary short stories.

This is modern Germany, busy, multi-cultural – Meyer’s settings are the satellite towns away from the shiny heart of the modern city landscape. We have tower blocks, fast food restaurants, stations and industrial units. The people in these stories are wonderfully real, they too are rather out on the edge of things, marginalised people, the unseen and forgotten. These are people with memories of Germany before unification, their pasts are tied up with the coming down of the Berlin wall.

“Sometimes you lose yourself in time, you know, and it takes a few seconds to work out where you are.”

Meyer’s writing is brilliant, past and present are fairly fluid, always connected the minds of his characters moving between now and then. There are nine longish stories, each prefaced by a shorter opening piece.

Broken Glass in Unit 95 A guard spends his shift recalling the affair he had with a refugee woman several years earlier.

In Late Arrival, which was one of my favourite stories, two women meet and strike up a friendship. One is a cleaner on trains, she works through the night and one day she meets a hairdresser in a bar, sharing a few drinks. Two lonely people, connect.

“It was just after six in the morning, the end of the night shift on the trains, the start of the early shift in the salon. She’d swept and wiped all night, her workmates taciturn in the morning hours and everything difficult, and it seemed as though the trains they worked on got longer and longer, a new carriage waiting after every one they’d cleaned.”

A middle aged man in – The Beach Railway’s Last Runtakes some time away from his normal life when he visits the western breakwater. Here he meets an elderly man whose memories of wartime when he was a teenager remain ever present. The old man, recounts his story of those times, haunted by his actions and the split minute decision he was forced to make.

In the title story, Dark Satellites, we meet a young man who runs a burger bar. His business partner Mario has recently left – gone up the coast to run a floating fast food restaurant. It is in his burger bar, that he first meets Hamad who lives on the fourteenth floor of a nearby high rise with his girlfriend. The burger bar owner and Hamad’s girlfriend have become friendly, meeting up to smoke in the hallways – looking out the windows at the lights in the other high rise flicking on and off through the dark.

A train driver in The Distance has his life completely devastated when, while driving his night train he hits a laughing man on the railway tracks.

This is a collection of stories that perfectly illustrate the odd romanticism that comes with urban nights – perhaps that’s just me. One of my favourite things about my city is travelling in a taxi at night – looking through windows and glimpsing tiny bits of other lives. The part of the city I live in is old, industrial, very urban, others don’t look at it closely I don’t suppose, but I do, it’s like people watching, a little addictive. Meyer highlights chance, fleeting encounters between strangers – loneliness and memory.

“The nights were dull and endless, started at six and ended at six, they were like dark days that touched in the middle, and when they stopped being dull they got even darker and more endless and we wished we were bored again, hours half-asleep between our inspection rounds, our heads never allowed to touch the table top, we’d doze sitting up…”

Katy Derbyshire’s translation is superb (incidentally I discovered her Twitter the other day, and on it are photos of some of the places Mayer writes about/was inspired by).

I am so glad that I was prompted by Karen and Lizzie’s reading event to take this off the shelf, it was an excellent, deeply atmospheric reading experience.

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Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Well here I am reviewing things out of order – so that I can properly join in with #Fitzcarraldofortnight. I have wanted to read Olga Tokarczuk’s work for a while and have had two novels by the 2019 Nobel winner for some time. Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead was the one that appealed most as a place to start. The title comes from William Blake’s Proverb’s of Hell. It’s a literary novel presented as a kind of mystery – although it is much more than that.

“The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.”

In this extraordinary, and endlessly readable novel Olga Tokarczuk is exploring lots of things at once. Examining traditional ideas of ‘madness,’ animal rights and the hypocrisy of religion Drive your Plow… is also a wonderful portrayal of the lives of those living in isolation who don’t conform to everyone else’s way of thinking. These are big themes, and they are presented in a very thought provoking, intelligent way, wrapped around a mystery, this can’t be seen as a traditional crime story.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

Janina Duszejko is an eccentric, aging woman living alone in a remote Polish village close to the Czech boarder, which during winter gets completely snowed in. As the novel opens, it’s deep into the winter and Mrs Duszejko (she hates her first name) is one of three people who choose to remain in this community while other residents return to the city for the winter. During the winter months Mrs Duszejko acts as a caretaker for the empty properties in this tiny community – tramping over the snow to check on the homes that lie empty for months.

One night, one of her two neighbours; Oddball comes over to ask for Mrs D’s help, he has found their other neighbour Big Foot dead on the floor of his house. These names are the ones Janina has given to her neighbours – she ascribes everyone names, and not just people, many things are given the status of proper nouns reflecting the importance they have for Janina Duszejko, who sees the world a little differently to other people. Mrs D and Oddball discover that Big Foot might have choked on an animal bone, he was one of a number of local hunters and the bone he choked on was from one of the animals he had killed. While Mrs D and Oddball wait for the authorities, she takes the opportunity to find out a little more about a man she never really liked. So starts the beginning of a theory, about the animals that the hunters killed, taking revenge on the hunters of the district.

It isn’t long before other local men – members of the same hunting club start to die in rather peculiar ways. Animal tracks found close to each victim only strengthens Mrs D’s insistence in her own bizarre theory. Bit by bit she becomes something of a thorn in the side of the local authorities, as she insists on presenting them with her theories, asking to be kept updated, and several times writing long and involved letters, to which she never gets replies.

As the novel progresses, we begin to learn a bit more about Janina Duszejko, who suffers from unnamed illnesses, translates William Blake and studies Astrology with great conviction in its ability to prophesy everything. She is a great believer in predestination. A conservationist and animal lover, we learn that she lost her dogs, her Little Girls sometime earlier, was once a bridge engineer in Syria before returning to Poland to work as an English teacher.

Often in the company of her friends; her neighbour Oddball, Good News (the woman from the local shop) and Dizzy; a former pupil, Mrs D gets drawn into an unofficial investigation into what happened to the men, as she becomes frustrated with the direction the official investigation has taken. Spring comes to the area, and some of Mrs D’s neighbours start to return, the natural world, life, death and the changing of the seasons are always present in the narrative, as Mrs D watches closely the people and the animals with whom she shares her world.

“Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances; soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish”

This was such a brilliant novel, a richly rewarding reading experience, in which while the reader may well work out the truth of ‘whodunnit’ that in no way detracts from what is a suspenseful, noir with superb characterisation and a lovely little twist in the tale.

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