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Translated by the author in collaboration with John Cullen

In the Company of Men was definitely a book that I wouldn’t have read without my Asymptote book club subscription. I received it in February and reading it after the year and a bit we have all been living through, was sobering.

It is a narrative about the ravages of the West African Ebola outbreak. Weaving the human stories with those of the natural world, showing movingly the absolute inter-connectedness of everything. It is very much a novel for our times, it doesn’t always make for easy reading despite the delicacy of the prose which prevents the novel from being as harrowing as I had feared it could be. Nonetheless, I was grateful the book ran to less than 150 pages.

I fear that in reviewing a novel about Ebola, I might be losing my audience a bit. However, Véronique Tadjo has produced a narrative that is in fact very readable – a sensitive and compassionate reminder of the cycle of life and the important role the natural world has to play in it.

“We were here to last. We were here to spread our shade over the remotest lands. We were here so our foliage would murmur the secrets of the four corners of the world. But human beings have destroyed our hopes. No matter where in the world they are, they wage war on the forest. Our trunks crash to the ground with a sound like thunder. Our naked roots mourn the end of our dreams. You cannot destroy the forest without spilling blood. Humans today think they can do whatever they like. They fancy themselves as masters, as architects of nature.”

The author: a poet and author from the Côte d’Ivoire uses fictionalised testimonials, legend and poetry to create a portrait of an unimaginable disaster – giving voice to the people left traumatised in its wake. Although termed a novel In the Company of Men is a series of snapshots – showing the extent of the epidemic through the eyes of the people affected.

Two boys leave their village to hunt in the nearby forest, they shoot down bats which they later cook over an open fire. Soon they are dead, their bodies ravaged by a dreadful disease that the local medical man is unable to help with. The family of the boys are told by experts not to touch their bodies – compounding their grief – but ultimately all warnings come too late and the virus spreads rapidly. The father quickly sends his eldest daughter away to the city, hoping her escape may give her chance of survival.

We meet a doctor working tirelessly to treat patients in a sweltering tent with just a plastic suit to protect him.

“I’m a trespasser in the Kingdom of Death. This is his private domain, his empire, where he rules with absolute power. I feel like an astronaut floating in space, a thousand miles from earth. The slightest tear in his spacesuit and he’s lost. The slightest tear in mine, just like him, I’m lost too.”

A student volunteers as a gravedigger while the university is closed, completley overwhelmed by the number of bodies. A grandmother agrees to take in an orphaned boy who was cast out of his village in fear. We hear from a foreign NGO volunteer who became infected with the virus, and a prefect in charge of one of the outreach teams – taking information to the people all over the country.

Watching over everyone and everything is the Baobab tree – a wise and ancient presence in mourning for the natural world, and yet also providing hope for the future. I particularly loved the way the author brought the natural world into the centre of the story it is a very powerful reminder of how connected to nature we human beings are – and how terrible are the consequences when the normal cycle of things is interrupted.

“As a bat, somewhere midway between a mammal and a bird, with my foxy-looking fangs and snout and my translucent wings, I harbor but one regret: having let Ebola escape from my belly. It was dormant in me until Man came and wreaked the splendour of the forest.”

The West African Ebola outbreak was one of the worst epidemics of our age – what Véronique Tadjo has done in this novel is to humanize it. For those of us unaffected by it, who live on the other side of the planet – Ebola is something that we glance away from on news reports, it doesn’t actually touch us. However, in this novel we hear some of those voices, we recognise the fear and the anguish and feel that helplessness. Those feelings heightened no doubt as we continue to live through a global pandemic, as terrible as Covid is – it isn’t Ebola.

In the Company of Men is a parable – a gut wrenching narrative of the human cost of this most terrible epidemic. Not always an easy read, it is worth the effort.

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Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak 

Some books come into our lives unexpectedly, acquired suddenly on a whim, I know I’m not the only one who does that! I saw someone talking about this slim little novel on Twitter just as I was wondering what book to read next. It sounded so good, that I downloaded it to my kindle and started reading it later that day. It was a lovely little book, quirky and richly poetic in its descriptions. I found out later that Wioletta Greg is particularly known as a poet – and I wasn’t surprised I think that comes across beautifully in the imagery she weaves through her narrative and the brevity of her delicate prose.

Longlisted for the 2017 International Booker Prize Swallowing Mercury is a thin novel at about 140 pages, a coming of age novel told in a series of vignettes or short interlinked stories. These stories or chapters depict the life of a young girl growing up in an agricultural community in rural Poland during the communist era. Set during the 1980s, various political events and a visit to the area by Pope John Paul root us to a period which in the author’s hands feels oddly timeless and could be almost any time in the last hundred years.

Wiola is the narrator of the story, and we see the world through her eyes, a gaze which alters as she grows up. Wiola’s voice is very matter of fact she tells her stories with a kind of naivety that both conceals and reveals a good deal. While the novel isn’t a distressing one – it certainly isn’t all roses round the door either. The adult world begins to gradually encroach on Wiola as it must for all of us as we get older.

Wiola is a good Catholic girl living with her parents, as the novel opens she has a black cat called Blacky that she is very attached to. While nothing terrible happens to the animal that we see – the animal disappears and Wiola is sad – her pet lingers in her mind for a while.

“I spent the whole summer roaming the fields with Blacky. He showed me a different kind of geometry of the world, where boundaries are not marked by field margins overgrown with thistles and goosefoot, by cobbled roads, fences or tracks trodden by humans, but instead by light, sound and the elements. With Blacky, I learned to climb haystacks, apple and cherry trees, piles of breeze blocks; I learned to keep away from limestone pits hidden by blackberry bushes, from hornets’ nests, quagmires and snares set in the grain fields.”

In the background, something understood but only occasionally referred to is the knowledge that her father was a deserter. It’s a shadow, nothing more, it doesn’t affect Wiola – but it gives us a sense of the difficulties this family must have faced. The family live in a traditional rural community, where the women gather together to tear up feathers for stuffing or make cakes. Wiola goes to the market with her grandmother to sell sour cherries, there are church rituals, weddings and stories of the past.

“In the same year that a rumour spread through Hektary that the Pope would drive past our village, my father took over the running of the farm and, to my grandmother’s dismay, began to introduce reforms, gradually turning our homestead into an unruly and exuberant zoo. It wasn’t just beehives and cages with goldfinches, canaries and rabbits, or a dovecote in the attic, where clumsy nestlings hatched out of delicate eggs that looked like table-tennis balls. In the middle of February, right after my birthday, wanting to cheer me up after the loss of Blacky, Dad pulled out of his jacket a little soggy, squeaking ball of fluff, which by the warmth of the stove gradually began to turn into a several-weeks-old Tatra sheepdog. We called him Bear.”

Wiola is a child with a keen intelligent imagination, sometimes we see as her mind takes off – spiralling off into sudden and odd little fantasies, often weaving myth, and Polish folklore with reality. These little glimpses into Wiola’s imagination are handled gently by the author – never going too far or becoming too strange or unbelievable. Wiola’s mother tells her that killing spiders brings on storms, and she is absolutely forbidden to enter the secret room at the seamstress’s house. Here is a world rich in superstition and tradition.

“In May 1984, I set out for church carrying a bundle of sweet flag, which I had picked that morning by the pond and adorned with ribbons. Water dripped from the bouquet onto my Sunday shoes. The church was filled with the smell of sweet flag leaves and silt, like a drying bog. My head started to spin. When the parish priest began to read a passage about the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the boat-shaped pulpit sailed off with him into the unknown. I slid from the bench down to the floor. They carried me outside. A woman drew a cross on my forehead with her spit. ‘We must tie a red ribbon in her hair and break the spell,’ she said, turning to the gawkers.”

Following the incident in the church described above – Wiola is taken to the doctor where she is subjected to an unpleasant experience by the creepy, rather predatory doctor. It’s one of the darker stories in the book, one which matters greatly to Wiola, though typically referred to lightly, and never brought up again. Wiola collects matchbook covers – an occupation which begins to get a little obsessional.

Childhood’s end is heralded by a family bereavement and Wiola’s certainty in her place in the world and even her place at home is severely shaken.

Swallowing Mercury was a really enjoyable novel – definitely an author I shall look out for again.

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Translated from the German by Annie Rutherford

I was delighted recently to win a copy of The Peacock from V&Q books thanks to a giveaway hosted by Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life. It seemed to be just what I was in the mood for at that time so I began reading it the day after it arrived. I absolutely loved it, quirky and light-hearted it is often difficult to believe that this was originally written in German. So often the humour seems very British. Who wouldn’t want to read a peacock whodunnit?

The setting is a dilapidated stately home in the Scottish Highlands in November. The estate is owned by Lord and Lady McIntosh – who hire out parts of the estate to holiday makers and corporate clients looking for some kind of country retreat. Aside from the dogs the laird and his wife own the grounds are home to a troublesome goose, and several peacocks – no one is quite sure how many.

“One of the peacocks had gone mad. Or maybe he just couldn’t see very well. At any rate, he suddenly regarded anything blue and shiny as competition on the marriage market.”

Thankfully, there are very few blue and shiny things in the Scottish Highlands so the only real worry are the cars that sometimes come on to the estate, it’s always a relief if they aren’t blue. Just as Lady Fiona has dispensed with one set of very satisfied guests – she must prepare for the arrival of the next. A group of London bankers will be spending three nights on a team building trip in the West Wing of the house – and her housekeeper Aileen is busy helping to get everything ship shape when she has an accident involving a Henry hoover and a step ladder. Poor Aileen comes back from hospital with her arm in plaster – and unable to resume her usual duties – in fact, it falls to Lady Fiona and Lord Hamish to look after her.

The investment department of a London bank are due to arrive – the head of the department, and her four colleagues travelling with a talented cook and a psychologist. The McIntoshes had sensed from the outset that this head of department was going to be a little difficult – but she was bringing a decent amount of money. Unfortunately, she also arrives in a brand-new metallic blue sports car. The head of department is Liz – and with her in the car is her Irish setter Mervyn. So, it’s not the most auspicious of starts when Liz steps out of the car and into some goose muck and stumbles over a rather disgustingly chewed up soft toy carried around by the McIntoshes dog Albert. The other bankers, the cook and the psychologist can only look on awkwardly.

Worried by the appearance of a very shiny blue car in the vicinity of his demented peacock, the laird instructs his groundsman Ryszard (on whom Aileen has rather a crush) to try and draw the peacocks away from the house with food. Of course, this is only partly successful.

One of the things I really enjoyed is that the reader is in on everything. A certain peacock goes missing, and later its remains are found. We know exactly what has gone on and why – but the majority of the characters don’t, which leads to lots of confusion, worry and covering up. Amidst all the worry over a dead peacock – which becomes just as much trouble dead as it ever was alive – the team building gets underway.

However, the team building doesn’t get off to the best of starts. The West Wing is not quite as luxurious as it was in its heyday, the shower is hot but only produces a trickle of water – the rooms are all quite chilly. To add insult to injury everyone but the boss Liz has to share. When it come to the team building activities designed by Rachel the psychologist it all becomes instantly awkward – the boss is there – which doesn’t really allow any of the others to relax.

“Rachel welcomed the participants to their first session and wrote three questions on a flipchart: what is important to me, what am I proud of, what do I wish for? They were to write down their answers to the questions, please, and then share them with the group. However, their answers couldn’t have anything to do with work or family.

For a moment, silence reigned. Jim took out his pen and started writing. David went pale, Andrew said quietly no. Rachel looked at him in surprise, then Bernard too said that surely she wasn’t serious, there was no way he’d do that. The boss agreed matter-of-factly with the two men – that really would be too intimate, they were here to talk about their work after all, their private lives were not a matter for discussion. The boss had a particular knack for making her opinion extremely clear.”

Rachel feels her boss has rather thrown her under the bus with this particular assignment – which is clearly going to be tricky. Bernard is almost permanently grumpy; he is sharing a bunk bed with David – who Bernard catches smirking whenever he has to get himself off the hated upper bunk. Andrew is missing his wife – Jim less so – he is taking full advantage of the fabulous food served up by their personal cook Helen. Only Helen is really content, flexing her culinary muscles and keeping everyone happy with food. She would love nothing more than to be really allowed to show off her talents. Jim simply refuses to take part in the den building exercise, head of department Liz comes down with a severe cold – and then the snow arrives – lots of it.

The portrayal of these London bankers forced together in artificial circumstances is one of the great joys of this novel. It is all uncomfortably believable and very funny. Added to which almost everyone is concerned with a dead peacock – who did what, knew what etc – a real comedy of errors. Apparently this novel was a big hit in Germany selling 500,000 copies – I can see why.

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Translated from the German by Tim Mohr

Another of the books that I read for Read indies month in February which I am trying to squeeze in before the new deadline – unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get the final one reviewed before then.

My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky is published by Europa Editions, and was the second book I received as part of my renewed subscription to the Asymptote book club. It was a book I loved so much I instantly bought another by the author. This is a novel about a dysfunctional family and the weakness of the human spirit, written with biting humour, fabulous dialogue and a good deal of heart. A slim novel that has the power to surprise us when we’re least expecting it.

Max is a child who lives with his grandparents in a refugee residence in Germany. The family have recently come to Germany from Russia taking up residence alongside families in similar circumstances. Max’s grandmother, a former ballerina, has some vague Jewish ancestry which allowed the family to get out of Russia and come to Germany as refugees, but she is nonetheless terribly antisemitic, she also hates the Germans – which considering she is living among mainly Jewish families in Germany makes things rather difficult. The move was all her idea, and Max and his grandfather followed meekly in her wake.

Max is the narrator of this delightful novel, who grows from a child not yet attending school to a young teen over the course of the narrative. Max’s grandmother Margarita controls everything in his life – she insists that he is sickly and not very bright – happy to talk about him in such a way right in front of him. Max isn’t allowed to play outside, he isn’t allowed sweets or cakes of any kind, even on his birthday he blows out the candle only to watch others eat his birthday cake. His grandmother parades Max around a series of doctors trying to find someone who will agree with her assessment of the child – and she has a thick file of medical notes at home to back up her claims.

“I’d always thought of women whenever I felt a cold claw gripping my heart. Grandmother had started to prepare me for my demise very early. The notion that time was trickling away gave me a sensation like goose bumps, and I wanted to soak up as much beauty as possible. I loved everything about women. The thin ones were lithe and fragile like daddy longlegs. The sturdier ones radiated warmth and plushness. If women were big I admired their strength, and if they were small I regretted the fact that I couldn’t protect them. That my grandmother was also a woman never crossed my mind.”

When Max does start school – and much to Max’s own shame – his grandmother tags along – right into the classroom, refusing to leave and setting herself down beside Max. Though with her lack of German (Max is already having to translate for her) this thankfully doesn’t last long, as it seems that it is Margarita that can’t keep up with the pace of learning, not Max.

In less assured hands Max’s grandmother could have become so monstrous she would be difficult to read about. Yet, Alina Bronsky has written the character of Max’s grandmother so faithfully and with a delightful mixture of comedy and pathos that while we may be outraged by her – we don’t really ever find her behaviour as upsetting as we might otherwise. In time we come to understand something deeper about Margarita – her anger comes from a place of loss – and a fear of ageing.

Meanwhile Tschingis; Max’s grandfather is a quiet, gentle man going about his work with little fuss. He generally lets his wife have her own way – and so he happily consents to taking Max to his piano lesson at a neighbour’s apartment. Nina – a woman Margarita actually approves of when they first meet – has a young daughter who goes to school with Max and has agreed to give Max piano lessons.

“The piano lessons felt like a short trip to a world I wasn’t allowed to live in. After the lessons Nina sent me to the kitchen where there were cookies and tea on the table. Grandfather smoked on the balcony and she went out and stood with him for a while every time. From behind the fluttering curtain the contours of their shoulders seemed to blend together, one entity with two heads with smoke hovering above.”

Max is actually a very bright child he is observant and he notices immediately why his grandfather is so happy to take him along to the piano lessons. Max understands with the simple uncomplicated clarity of childhood that his grandfather has fallen in love with Nina. The reader, along with Max wait with baited breath to find out what will happen if and when his grandmother finds out the truth of what’s been going on. When months later Nina gives birth to a child who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tschingis, the two families are forced to live with this new and unexpected world that has been created.

For all Margarita’s faults – and they are quite numerous – we come to see that she is capable of great love – although perhaps on her own terms. There are reasons why she is like she is, and while we may not wholly forgive her, we come to some understanding. As Max gets older he starts to find ways of loosening those ties that bind just a little – and in time finds a new place in the world that is just for him.

Thank you Asymptote for another fabulous book choice, and the introduction to an author I will read more of soon.

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Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall

Dissipatio H.G. was the first book I received after the renewal of my Asymptote book club subscription. It is I admit, a novel I would never have read without this subscription – which for me has been the point of getting it again – forcing me out of my comfort zone, introducing me to all sorts of new voices. This is a new edition from NYRB though the novel was first published in 1977 – four years after the author’s death.

“The world has never been so alive as it is since a certain breed of bipeds disappeared. It’s never been so clean, so sparkling, so good-humoured.”

Guido Morselli’s story is in itself a sad one. Having previously had several novels rejected by publishers, the rejection of this one was to prove the final straw. That evening after receipt of the rejection letter he shot himself. A year after his death, an Italian publishing house began to publish all his novels one by one – to some critical acclaim.

This is one of those times when my reading material impacted rather on my mood. While I certainly didn’t dislike this book, I was affected by the extraordinary isolation of the novel’s natator. Perhaps reading a novel like this whilst shielding, during a global pandemic lends it an extra resonance – that sense of real aloneness is almost suffocating.

“And the silence of human absence, I understand, is a silence that doesn’t flow. It accumulates.”

The author’s sadness and his own isolation pervades this novel – which considering the premise is perhaps not surprising. Dissipatio H.G. is a postapocalyptic novel in which the narrator – who it appears to be not unlike the author himself – is the last man on earth. The novel opens with a contemplation and attempt of suicide – which ultimately fails.

The narrator who has been living in isolation in a remote mountain village in an unnamed country – has survived the great vanishing. There was no gradual fading out of the humani generis – the H.G of the title – but a sudden and complete vanishing.

“These people left, I say to myself. They didn’t melt. Lower down in the valley, someone will have seen them go by, someone will know something, will explain this to me. So I must follow the road. There’s only one, it continues north toward the plain. A means of transport must be found.”

He drives to the capital Chrysopolis to see if there is anyone else living – but finds no one – no bodies, no people anywhere. Cars stopped suddenly, buildings lie open and empty. This is a city of fifty-six banks and as many churches, a metropolis which symbolises everything this man has come to despise. The man left this hated city, separating himself from his fellow humans and their daily struggles and ambitions. Yet, to find everyone gone – all human beings disappeared is rather more than he can get his head around at first. He attempts to test the theory that there must be people somewhere else – even if not in Chrysopolis – going to the airport to see people arriving, phoning foreign countries to hear a live voice.  Soon though he is left in no doubt – he is the last man on earth.

Our narrator is a man who seems to understand the impact on the natural world of that modern, frantic existence that he turned his back on. Now, he starts to see how nature is already, in these early days, beginning to flourish.

“Without seeking it, I’ve found proof that the Event is not an illusion, not just my own invention. A family of Chamois goats is walking along the tracks. Two females, a male, and kids. They’ve come down from the mountains, something that has never happened before in human memory. For that matter I’ve seen other good omens too: the birds are making an unholy racket, and their numbers have grown. Especially the nocturnal species that have come back in droves, which pleases me because I’ve always appreciated their musical talents.”

Now, as he wanders the empty streets and buildings helping himself to provisions, breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s house to lie between her deserted sheets – he is continually asking himself a number of complex philosophical questions. His memories turn frequently to the man he saw as his one real friend; Karpinsky, a psychiatrist who once treated him.  His thoughts wander and are at times hard to follow – he is naturally self-absorbed – a clever man trying to make sense of where he finds himself.

This is a powerful little novel at times complex and thought provoking. Already my next Asymptote book has arrived – and it is very different to this one. I continue to be impressed with the quality of the choices made by Asymptote.

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Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

This week is the novellas in translation week of novellas in November and A Girl Returned is a novel by an author I have read before during Novellas in November – I believe this is the third of her books to be translated into English.

So many of the books in my house have been bought because I have seen other people online talking about how good they are. This novel is one of them, a novella I saw Claire from Word by Word talking about on Twitter, and as I had read two books by the same author previously I knew I wanted it immediately. I bought it in October so that I could read it during Novellas in November – it slips in just under the 200 page limit at 170 pages – and manages to be both heart-rending and brilliantly compelling at the same time. It is a novel about mothers and daughters, family secrets and the nature of belonging.

“There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.”

As the novel opens a girl drags a large suitcase up the stairs to an apartment she has never been to before – the door is opened by her younger sister – the two girls have never met before. With no warning, and virtually no explanation a thirteen year old girl is taken from the people she has always believed to be her parents and sent to live with strangers. This is her birth family, mother, father, and siblings of whom she had no previous knowledge. They turn out to be relatives of her adoptive father – an arrangement had been made between the two families when she was a baby. Now she is thrust into a totally new world, where they even speak differently, in a town a long bus ride away from the coastal city where she had previously grown up, gone to school, and made friends. The woman she thinks of still as her mother having retreated from her in the weeks before her departure – had become something of a shadowy figure spending more and more time in bed. The girl numbed by shock hopes that when her mother is well, she will ask for her to go home.

“I was the Arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.”

The household the girl arrives in is one utterly different to the one she left behind – where she was an only child growing up in sight of the beach, with her own room. Here there are a number of noisy, squabbling siblings, Adriana is a few years younger than her, they connect almost immediately – though the girl is shocked that she must share a bed with her sister – while her older, teenage brothers occupy the other side of the bedroom. Not all the siblings are kind and welcoming. Adriana wets the bed constantly – there is an awful lot to get used to straight away. There is a kind of loneliness here that is terrible, I’m sure most of us could imagine ourselves thrust into an unfamiliar environment like this – and know how destabilising that would feel.

She thinks of the woman who bore her as ‘the mother’ – unable to call her that by name – she finds ways around ever using the word. She stands out in the family, a curiosity to people from outside the family – and treated differently by those within it. Her eldest brother Vincenzo is drawn to her in a way that’s not altogether appropriate – all in all it is a time of readjustment and confusion. She doesn’t feel like someone who was wanted – she feels her return was forced upon this family who are clearly struggling financially.

“I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family.”

She also stands out by virtue of her scholastic abilities – soon marked out by the teacher as someone who should go on to high school in the city she has just left. This possibility a beacon of hope on a shaky horizon – though as Adriana comes to rely on her new older sister’s presence, clinging to her and reacting with jealousy to anything she thinks might take her sister away, the girl has a new responsibility to consider for the first time. Adriana’s fierce love for her sister is one of the few joys for the girl – and while it has the potential to be a little destructive – the narrator is clearly looking back on it from a distance of years with a lot of affection.

As time goes on, the girl’s assumptions about the reason for her return are shaken – it is something she is keen to get to the bottom of.  Her sense of self having been so severely rocked is gradually re-built amid the tension and conflict of a new family.

Of the three novellas by Donatella Di Pietrantonio I have read to date, this is undoubtedly my favourite.

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Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

With thanks to the publisher for the review ebook and inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

Paula is one of three titles that have been chosen to launch V&Q books – an English language imprint of the German publisher Voland & Quist Verlag. This new imprint was launched earlier this week, so a big congratulations to all those involved. Translator Katy Derbyshire is heading up the imprint, which intends to publish up to five or six books a year, those books being, literary fiction and narrative nonfiction.  From the publisher’s website I can see that the intention of this imprint is to publish books telling the stories of complex relationships, migration, and its impact on people’s lives. These are definitely the kinds of books I find fascinating – and I suspect those readers already interested in the publishers like Fitzcarraldo will find plenty to like here.

I think it’s important for us all to know where we come from. Most families have those little stories often repeated of people long dead, things that happened many decades earlier – these stories are part of our make up, we love to tell them because they are a part of us.

Paula is a piece of autofiction in which the author seeks to explore and understand her relationship with her grandmother Paula. It is a delicate, intelligent piece of writing in which the author uses fiction to fill in the gaps in her knowledge about her family. Paula, the author’s grandmother was a devout Swabian Catholic born in 1915. She was a woman who the author was to go on to have a complex relationship with throughout her life. Paula refused to reveal who fathered her daughter (the author’s mother) in the 1940s – her silence on this, and the life she led during this period was absolute and was to have a profound effect on the following two generations.

“My grandmother Paula died on 10 November 1997 at the age of 82. She never talked about herself, not to the very end. She took her whole life to the grave, all her secrets and all her troubles.”

The child Sandra spent a lot of time with Paula, she recalls them regularly sitting together on the sofa watching Bonanza. She became concerned as a child that her mother didn’t have a father – and would ask why that was. Nothing was explained – she would listen carefully to what was said by her great aunt Marie and by her mother – but the truth of her grandmother’s past was always something out of reach. Sandra became determined to get to the bottom of it – to unravel the little mystery at the heart of her own family. Sandra is darker skinned than the other people in the village where the family live, and she wonders if in that there is a clue to who her grandfather was.

She discovers her grandmother’s photographs hundreds of them in homemade boxes and albums, – and starts to study them for clues. The photographs are full of people Sandra doesn’t know, pictures of men standing next to ships or motorbikes, posing in forests or fields. Many of the men are in uniform, some are dark skinned. Then there were the pictures of Paula and her sisters Marie and Theresia, photos of weddings and so on. These photographs are tantalising little glimpses into the past, and Sandra becomes sure that one of the unknown men in the photographs must be her mother’s father.

“I am an unreliable narrator. I’ve done talking therapy. I’ve reflected on my life. I’ve tried to trace the paths I’ve taken, to understand the past storms inside of me so that I can weather the storms to come.”

There is a deep affection for the woman Paula was when Sandra was a child, she remembers her scent – the feel of her skin, of her grandmotherly body lying next to her at night when she had had a bad dream. There is a deep poignancy to these tender recollections – especially when we consider the difficulties that were to come as Sandra got older.

As Sandra grows older her grandmother begins to annoy her more and more – Sandra is infuriated by her constant presence as if she is following her round the house – appearing in her room, not respecting her privacy. Sandra’s brother though doesn’t seem to have the same issues – isn’t watched in quite the same way – it makes the reader wonder – did something happen to Paula that made her so hyper-vigilant of her young granddaughter, or did she witness things in the war? – was that part of her silent past.  

“What makes a person? And how can a woman add up, build up to a real live individual if she’s done her utmost to reveal nothing of herself? Her voice, to find out what her voice adds up to, you have to imagine yourself so close you can feel her, hear it her inner murmur, her silent conversation, her thinking through prayer. Groping for understanding, it is impossible to get close enough if you don’t start with your own memories.”

We see how over time both Sandra’s and her mother’s mental health are affected by this strange, strained silence about the past and their relationship with Paula. Sandra does her best to piece together what she can from things she hears or are told to her by others like her father – but ultimately the silence her grandmother brought to their family is total, and far reaching.

Paula is a tenderly written book – whether you could call it fiction or memoir is debatable – it certainly has elements of both. The whole works beautifully – a blend of fiction and memoir, which tells the story of a family, and the writer it produced.

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Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This will be my final post for this year’s #Witmonth – I haven’t read quite as many #wit books as I had originally intended but isn’t that what always happens? The Memory Police was my sixth read for #wit – and they are all too different to pick a favourite but this one will stay with me for a long time I think. I was captivated from the first page.

The novel was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize – it didn’t win – the winner was announced yesterday as being The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translated by Michele Hutchison. It’s a book I really want to read though I am slightly put off by some reviews describing it as tough or harrowing (not sure I have yet recovered from Hurricane season) but as I do own a copy I may just give it a try. Sorry I digress.

I do occasionally enjoy dystopian fiction (as opposed to sci-fi which I tend to avoid) I find the depiction of altered but still recognisable worlds to be fascinating, the imagination that goes into creating a credible society, with all its strange rules and procedures is incredible. The Memory Police combined all the things I enjoy about dystopia; spine tingling fear, an uncertainty about what is happening, that fascination of a changed society with a deeply poignant, rather haunting story of memory and loss.

“Memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them.”

Our unnamed narrator is a young novelist on an unnamed island where things have bit by bit begun to disappear, sometimes people disappear too, like her mother. Random objects no longer exist – hats, ribbons, birds, roses – have disappeared from this world as have many other things. When something disappears it simply has no meaning for the people of the island and can be disposed of easily and unemotionally, burnt or handed over to the memory police. The world moves on and everyone continues to live without that disappeared thing – as if it never was. Hats and ribbons are one thing – but what about calendars, photographs, books – and what will be next?

“My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

Our narrator is an intelligent, caring young woman – she empathises with her friends and neighbours, worries about people getting picked up by the memory police, but she has little nostalgia for the past, except for when she is remembering her mother. Her mother had had drawers full of strange and inexplicable things in the basement of their house – objects that she would weave stories around – but her daughter can’t really remember those now. There is a sense of loss when she thinks about her mother, a wish to know what happened to her.

There are some people who retain their memories of things that have disappeared – those are the people who are at risk of being taken away by the memory police. When our narrator learns that her editor R is one such person – she is desperate to help him. Her best friend is an old man who lives on a boat near her home – he used to operate the ferry before the ferry disappeared – she gives him copies of the books she writes – but he doesn’t read them.

“…he has never read a single page of any of my books.
Once, when I told him I’d love to know what he thinks of them, he demurred.
“I couldn’t possibly say,” he said. “If you read a novel to the end, then it’s over. I would never want to do something as wasteful as that. I’d much rather keep it here with me, safe and sound, forever.”

Together the young novelist and the old man hatch a plan to save R from the memory police. They hide R is a tiny secret room between the floors in the young woman’s home – the old man rigs up ventilation and plumbing and a speaking tube – and R leaves his family and takes up a new life, hidden from view. He tries to teach his host about the things he remembers, to ignite her memory – but all that returns are meaningless flashes that have no emotional significance and immediately start to fade.

Meanwhile the novelist is working on her latest book – a novel about a woman taking typing lessons. Bit by bit the woman in the novel relinquishes control of her words to the teacher – until she has no voice left. It’s a powerful little allegory in itself.

As R desperately tries to hold on to the things that disappear – the novelist lets them go without a pang – even when novels disappear.

The Memory Police is a compelling and powerful novel – in it there are of course echoes of classics such as 1984 – although this novel is less about a regime and its bureaucracy and more about the impact on people – their survival especially. We never find out why things disappear – they just do – and to keep a disappeared thing or to retain the memory of what is disappeared is dangerous. A novel of memory, loss and control The Memory Police is hauntingly written and will no doubt encourage me to explore more by this incredible writer. I was surprised that this novel first appeared as long ago as 1994 – not only does it feel very current, frighteningly relevant – but I was puzzled as to why it’s only now been made available in English.

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Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

The Listener was Tove Jansson’s first collection of stories for adults. A recent read for #witmonth it proved a good choice for a period when I was in a very strange reading mood. Jansson’s clear, crisp prose, clear vision and her delicate philosophy was a delight to dip in and out of.

I came to Tove Jansson quite late – the Moomins completely passed me by as a child – and I only ever heard of Tove Jansson as an adult. I adored The Summer Book and A Winter Book, and I fully intend to explore more of her work – and while I enjoyed The Listener a lot I didn’t think it was quite at the standard of those other two. One story in this collection – The Squirrel is also in A Winter Book – as it was one of my favourites from that collection, it was lovely to encounter it again.

There are eighteen pieces in this collection – which only runs to 157 pages, so some of these stories really are very, very short indeed, and so rather difficult to write about. I shall attempt therefore to just give a slight flavour of the collection – but I certainly feel as if there is a limit to what I can write about this one.

Jansson’s stories portray a city ravaged by storms, the beauty of the start of spring, childhood, old age and love. There is some quite lovely imagery here – and as ever her prose is a simple joy. Characters are introspective, thoughtful, and philosophical. A couple of stories veer towards the supernatural, but with a delicacy that never strays too far from reality. Artists feature prominently, as does light and scenery – Jansson’s descriptions are always spot on.

“In this naked light, all of winter’s traces are visible not least in a face. Everything becomes distinct and turns outwards, exposed, penetrated by the light. People come out of their holes. Perhaps they’ve survived the winter in flocks or maybe alone, willy-nilly, but now they appear and make their way to the harbour, the way they always do.”

(In Spring)

The Collection opens with the title story. Aunt Gerda is a good listener, but old age is impacting on her memory, she fears what this might mean for her. Her solution to her forgetfulness is to create a unique artwork that will record the secrets that have been confided in her, but while it preserves these secrets it will also betray them.

“It seemed to her the window was a great eye looking out over the city and the harbour and a strip of the gulf under ice. The new silence and emptiness was not entirely a loss; it was something of a relief. Aunt Gerda felt like a balloon, untied, soaring off its own way. But, she thought, it’s a balloon that’s bouncing against the ceiling and can’t get free.
She understood that this was no way to live; human beings are not built to float. She needed an earthly anchor of meaning and care so she didn’t get lost in the confusion.”

(The Listener)

In The Birthday Party – two sisters throw a birthday party for their young niece – inviting a number of local children to their home. The niece herself doesn’t arrive – and the bemused aunts, clearly unused to children – or how to behave around them – try desperately to keep the party going. The way Jansson portrays these clueless women, so out of their depth is just brilliant.

“‘Come in,” said Miss Häger. “Please, go right on into the sitting room, where there’s room for everyone. Don’t stand in the doorway, go right on in …” The children went into the sitting room. She clapped her hands and cried, “Now you can start to play! What game would you like to play?” They stared at her without answering. Vera Häger went out into the kitchen and said, “You’ve got to come, right now, right away. It’s not working.”
        Her sister lifted the platter with the decorated ice cream and said, “What do you mean? What’s not working?”
         “The party. They’re just standing around. I don’t think they like me. And Daniela hasn’t come.’”

(The Birthday Party)

Black-White – is one of the longest pieces – and one of those I liked the most. It is a homage to the artist Edward Gorey. The artist in the story is an illustrator – married to Stella, they live in the house she designed. The artist is working on a collection of fifteen black and white illustrations for a book – he is inspired to use darkness in the illustrations – yet all around him in the house where they live there is just too much light. Stella suggests that he use her aunt’s old house which is standing empty in which to work. The artist packs up this things and goes to the house, where he will be alone.

In Letters To An Idol a woman writes often to an author who she admires. In time, he actually writes back – and soon after that they meet. A story which demonstrates perfectly that meeting those we admire can be problematic.

In The Wolf an elderly woman meets a Japanese man Mr Shimomura who is an illustrator for children – he specialises in drawing animals. He has asked to see some dangerous animals; he draws a wolf to demonstrate what he would like to see. So, despite the cold, and her advancing years, the woman accompanies him to a zoo – to show him a real wolf.

I mentioned The Squirrel above – the story I read before – it is still a thoroughly beautiful piece of writing, so delicately observed. An old woman living in a small house on an island, looks out of her window one day and sees a squirrel. She muses about how it came to be on the island, probably drifting over on the driftwood that washes up on the shore. Her life becomes oddly caught up with that of this little creature – her fascination in it increases. The squirrel affecting her quiet, ordered little existence on the island in unexpected ways.

The Listener is beautiful little collection of stories, Jansson’s prose is the star of the show – and I am reminded once more how I really must explore more of her work.

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Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Last year, I read Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen with my book group – I really enjoyed it – a novel about the nature of lies and lying. Waking Lions is an earlier novel – and one which also examines morals and responsibilities. I thought this was an even better novel than Liar, there’s an almost thriller like nature to the storytelling (that I don’t always like) which makes this a pacey and gripping read from page one.  The kind of novel about which I really can’t say too much.

Dr Eitan Green is a family man, a good man who once stood up for what he believed in and paid the price. He is also an arrogant man, one sure of his place in the world, and quite able to ignore that which is unpalatable. A neurosurgeon, he has recently moved his family from Tel-Aviv to the town of Beersheba on the edge of the desert – a town he hates.

One night having worked late at the hospital – Eitan decides to take his SUV through its paces, something he ever gets a chance to do – driving at speed along a deserted, moonlit road. He hits someone.

“Somewhere beyond the next step the man he hit is waiting for him; he can’t see him from here, but he’s there, another step and he’s there. He slows down, tries to delay that final step, after which he’ll have no choice but to look at the man lying on the side of the road.”

Eitan immediately sees two things, one the man he has hit is beyond help, as a doctor and a neurosurgeon he understands that instantly, and secondly the man is an African migrant. Everything he holds dear immediately feels under threat – Eitan gets back into his car and flees the scene. He is wracked with guilt – but convinces himself he did the only thing he could.

The following day at home, waiting for his wife and two young sons to return for lunch, he is visited by the wife of the man he ran down – she has his wallet – she knows everything. The man Eitan ran down was an Eritrean called Asum, Sirkit his wife is dry eyed and unemotional – and asks him to meet her that night at a deserted garage in a remote roadside location.

“emigrate is to leave one place for another, with the place you’ve left tied to your ankle with steel chains. If it’s difficult for a person to emigrate, it’s only because it’s difficult to walk in the world when an entire country is shackled to your ankle, dragging behind you wherever you go.”

 Eitan assumes she will want money – a lot of money – so he withdraws a large sum with which to pay her. Sirkit doesn’t want money – though she takes what is offered – instead what she wants is for Eitan to set up a make-shift clinic for refugees in the abandoned garage. Eitan has little choice, he feels, but to comply.

Eitan’s wife Liat is a police officer, trying hard to make her way in a male dominated world. They are called in to investigate the hit and run of an Eritrean, though it seems as if it is only Liat who cares about it. She talks about the case to her husband and is a little surprised when he takes an interest.

Eitan’s life is no longer his own – juggling long shifts at the hospital with family life and endless, gruelling nights at the garage – under the watchful eye of Sirkit – the lies start stacking up. He starts to steal medical supplies from the hospital, and at home, Liat begins to wonder who or what is taking up so much of her husband’s time. This world Eitan has entered is a long way from the privileged world he is used to, slowly he must start to set aside the prejudices he was barely even aware he had. This is a world of intense poverty and violence, a world in which criminal gangs operate, feeding off the poor and desperate. It isn’t long before Eitan himself is in real danger.

“You think this country returns our love? Nonsense! She vomits us up time and time again, sends us to hell, beats us down without mercy. With the Romans and the Greeks and the Arabs and the mosquitoes. So you think that someone here says, ‘If she doesn’t want me, I should go?’ Someone here says ‘There’s no point in holding a country by force if she’s been trying to get rid of you from the minute you came to her?’ No. You hold on to her as hard as you can and you hope. You hope that maybe she’ll finally look around and see you and say – that one. That’s the one I want.”

Gundar-Goshen portrays the lives of the sad, poverty stricken migrants that come to the garage for treatment at night faithfully and realistically. There seems to be an anger in the author’s view of their reality, their invisibility – the danger they are constantly in, living as they do on the edge of a society that barely sees them.

This is a novel clearly asking questions about a person’s moral responsibility, guilt and how we reconcile ourselves to the things we are ashamed of. We also see clearly the privilege of one part of society co-existing alongside another that is practically invisible, voiceless and poor.

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