Posts Tagged ‘translated fiction’

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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sweet days of discipline

Translated from Italian by Tim Parks

I read this slight novella between my two 1977 club reads, and that feels oddly long ago now as I sit here trying to find something to say about it. I had seen so many tantalising reviews of this one that I found myself buying it just a few weeks ago. I love a tightly controlled novella – and this is certainly that, written in beautifully spare prose, it is enigmatic and dark. I had expected to love this more than I did, I certainly enjoyed it – if that is the right word, but something about this story left me feeling quite low. In many ways there isn’t a lot to say about this novel – so you may be relieved to know that this review will be quite short.

“At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell. This is where Robert Walser used to take his many walks when he was in the mental hospital in Herisau, not far from our college. He died in the snow. Photographs show his footprints and the position of his body in the snow. We didn’t know the writer.”

Set in post-war Switzerland; the narrator of Sweet Days of Discipline is a fourteen-year-old girl at a boarding school in the Appenzell. The opening of the novel has a deceptive feeling of innocence – our narrator looking back on the days of her schooling reveals herself as quite knowing, well versed in the world of the boarding school – having attended others before this. A child of separated parents she receives her instructions from her mother in Brazil and writes long letters to her father that are only briefly and infrequently answered. The narrator describes her life as a boarder – a life she sees as being that of a captor – always looking for a freedom she can’t find.

“The wind wrinkled the dark lake and my thoughts as it swept on the clouds, chopped them up with its hatchet; between them you could just glimpse the Last Judgement, finding each of us guilty of nothing.”

A new girl arrives at the school named Frédérique, who is immediately noticed by our narrator – who sees her disdain and her high forehead, and that she has ‘no humanity’. Frédérique is fifteen, seemingly perfect and perfectly obedient, and the younger girl is determined to conquer her. As she vies for Frédérique’s attention and friendship she muses on the nature of control and how close to madness it can come.

Dazzled by Frédérique she seeks to understand her, seeking ways to spend time with her and in time to emulate her.

“It was as though she talked about nothing, Her words flew. What was left after them had no wings. She never said the word God and I can barely write it down myself when I think of the silence she surrounded it with.”

The discipline and control represented in the character of Frédérique, is contrasted with that of another girl Micheline. Our unnamed narrator is torn between these two different girls, Frédérique’s cool, poised perfection and Micheline’s chatty exuberance. Having rejected a younger girl’s request to be her protector, and almost immediately seeing how she will regret this, our narrator puts all her energies into winning favour with the object of her (almost) obsession. Frédérique who can play piano and whose handwriting is so beautiful our narrator works hard to copy it. As time passes so does the unsettling nature of these relationships gather pace.

“There is a mortuary look somehow to the faces of the boarders, a faint mortuary smell to even the youngest and most attractive girls. A double image, anatomical and antique. In the one the girl runs about and laughs, and in the other she lies on a bed covered by a lace shroud. It’s her own skin has embroidered it.”

School days end and eventually we get some glimpses of these girls grown up – beyond the confines of their politely controlled world.

There are many strikingly beautiful passages and within them some extraordinary images. While I loved the quality of the writing of this delicately nuanced novella, the narrative left me feeling rather flat as I said before – but I definitely want to read more by this author – and I suspect I would get a lot from reading this again one day, as such prose deserves to be reread.

fleur jaeggy

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men without women

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Chosen by my very small book Men without women is a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. An author I would probably never have read without my book group – and I suspect will never read again. He gave us (my book group) lots to discuss – Overall, I didn’t like this book very much, and that worried me initially, I wondered if I had prejudiced myself against the book before I read it. I don’t read many modern male writers – you may have noticed – and Murakami seemed to sit somewhere outside my comfort zone. Still, it was a book group read, not especially long, I was on holiday from work so able to grimly plough through it a bit more than a day, (an attitude I accept may not have helped). I didn’t find the book unremittingly without merit – there were several things I liked – though out of the seven stories in the collection, probably only two I really engaged with; these were Kino and An Independent Organ.

The premise of the book was the first thing I liked, stories of loneliness, of men struggling in a world, forced to live their lives for whatever reason without women. It was this premise I think which sold it to my small feminist book group – only the second book written by a man we’ve read. It was those questions of how men and women live with or without one another and how men see women that interested us all. Occasionally I came across passages that made me stop and reread – they were so beautifully written – yet most of the time I found Murakmai’s writing to be nothing special. There was a distance in his writing style that I didn’t like – I am usually fine with a writer who stands back from their characters. The sense of loneliness in some of these stories is well done, the men finding it hard to engage with the world or the people around them. The relationships are stunted and awkward even between male friends the relationships are flawed – presumably because they are men without women.

In these stories we have as the title and the premise suggest men living without women. Sometimes it is a strange, slightly unexplained world – where different rules apply. In the opening story ‘Drive My Car’ A man banned from driving hires a woman chauffeur and proceeds to tell her about his odd friendship with the man who was his late wife’s lover. In ‘Yesterday’ we meet a young man who loans his girlfriend to a friend. In ‘An Independent Organ’ A plastic surgeon who finally and fatally falls in love having lived his life enjoying casual and meaningless relationships with women. In this story we learn that women have an independent organ which allows them to lie with ease hmmm!!

“Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie. This was Dr. Tokai’s personal opinion. It depends on the person, he said about the kind of lies they tell, what situation they tell them in, and how the lies are told. But at a certain point in their lives, all women tell lies, and they lie about important things. They lie about unimportant things, too, but they also don’t hesitate to lie about the most important things. And when they do, most women’s expressions and voices don’t change at all, since it’s not them lying, but this independent organ they’re equipped with that’s acting on its own. That’s why – except for a few special cases – they can still have a clear conscience and never lose sleep over anything they say.”
(An Independent Organ)

A housekeeper/mistress nicknamed ‘Scheherazade’ in the story of the same name tells stories of her teenage house breaking in pursuit of a boy who didn’t notice her. In ‘Kino’, a man gives up his job when his marriage breaks down and buys a bar with its enigmatic resident cat, and meets a woman bearing the scars of terrible abuse. In ‘Samsa in Love’ – Murakami turns Kafka’s Metamorphosis on its head – Samsa  wakes in confusion to find himself a man. The title story ‘Men without Women’ is the final one in the collection. It seems to be less of a story and more of a series of thoughts about the overarching theme of the book.

“A deep gulf separates the second and the first loneliest on earth. Most likely. Deep, and wide, too. The bottom is heaped high with the corpses of birds who have tried, and failed, to traverse it. Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there. But by then there’s no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called “Men Without Women.” Always a relentlessly frigid plural.”
(Men without Women)

As a book group we were interested particularly in the representation of women and the way women were portrayed by the author or viewed by his characters. It was here I think that my problems started. Now in all these stories the perspective is that of a man or men, and so only through them do we see women. We have women who cheat on the men in their lives, women judged in terms of their attractiveness – others who seem to hold power over a man. In each case these women seem horribly stereotypical and very two dimensional. Is this because Murakami is trying to show us how it is women are perceived by men? Is he making an important point? – I preferred to think so – or does this come from the author himself?

I was nervous about reviewing this book because Murakami is one of those writers with a legion of fans, he seems to enjoy a cult like status and I wondered – does everyone love him but me? Well no, in my book group one other member hated it so much she could see nothing positive at all, a couple of others while not hating it seemed under whelmed. I have seen the g word applied fairly liberally to his work, and I just wasn’t getting it. True, we can’t all like the same thing – still, as someone who appreciates good literary writing, I felt a bit sad that I didn’t get it.


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Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin

At the end of last year, when I was thinking about reading challenges for 2018, I decided to attempt to read more fiction in translation. I suppose I read a few of these books each year – but I have ever deliberately set out to do so. I signed up for the Asymptote book club, subscribers receive one work in translation a month and access to a Facebook discussion group. Initially I signed up for three months, but when that came to an end I took the plunge and subscribed again for a full year. This has all quite obviously whetted my appetite, as I recently found myself asking for recommendations of mid-twentieth century women writers (my comfort zone) in translation. One of the first names suggested was Clarice Lispector, a name I had vaguely heard before but knew nothing about. So, I bought Near to the Wild Heart just a couple of weeks ago, intending to save it for Women in Translation month, only to find myself reading it a few days later.

Clarice Lispector was born in Ukraine but moved to Brazil with her parents as a young child. Near to the Wild Heart was her first novel, published in 1943 around the time of her twenty-third birthday. It was greeted with great acclaim, and won the author the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize. Lispector writes in a stream of consciousness style which is reminiscent of modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. The epigraph for the novel comes from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.”

A slim novel, it is nevertheless challenging, beautifully written – the perspective changes throughout, and is impressionistic, dreamlike and introspective. I was reminded particularly of Virginia Woolf – it being a very long time since I attempted James Joyce (one novel was enough). The central character; Joana continually asking herself philosophical questions – questioning her relationship with everything including objects around her. Much, I think is therefore required of the reader, and I’m certain some of it went over my head. Apologies if I have made this sound difficult and dull, although maybe not easy – Lispector’s prose is glorious, and even those more difficult sections are a joy to read.

“When I suddenly see myself in the depths of the mirror, I take fright. I can scarcely believe that I have limits, that I am outlined and defined. I feel myself to be dispersed in the atmosphere, thinking inside other creatures, living inside things beyond myself. When I suddenly see myself in the mirror, I am not startled because I find myself ugly or beautiful. I discover, in fact, that I possess another quality. When I haven’t looked at myself for some time, I almost forget that I am human, I tend to forget my past, and I find myself with the same deliverance from purpose and conscience as something that is barely alive. I am also surprised to find as I gaze into the pale mirror with open eyes that there is so much in me beyond what is known, so much that remains ever silent.”

There is not an enormous amount of plot, which is not something that ever really bothers me. The novel tells the story of Joana, from her childhood, alone with her father, writing him poetry, through the changes that come to her childhood and adolescence, to her marriage to Otávio, through to her decision to make her own way in the world. Even as a child Joana is free thinking and unusual. Lispector’s descriptions of Joana’s thought processes and interactions with the world around her are quite wonderful.

“She lay belly-down in the sand, hand covering her face, leaving only a tiny crack for air. It grew dark dark and circles and red blotches, full, tremulous spots slowly began to appear, growing and shrinking. The grains of sand nipped her skin, buried themselves in it. Even with her eyes closed she felt that on the beach the waves were sucked back by the sea quickly quickly, also with closed eyelids. Then they meekly returned, palms splayed body loose. It was good to hear their sound.”

There is an untamed, creativity to Joana, her father calls her his little egg. The novel moves back and forth from the present time, when Joana is a young, married woman, to her past, her childhood and later the years she spends living with her aunt.

“The aunt’s house was a refuge where the wind and the light didn’t enter. The maid sat down with a sigh in the dismal entrance hall, where, among the heavy, dark furniture, the smiles of framed men glowed slightly. Joana remained standing, barely breathing in the lukewarm smell that came sweet and still after the pungent ocean air. Mould and tea with sugar.”

When Joana’s father dies, Joana is sent to another part of the country to an Aunt. Who lives near the beach. Her life changes, her wildness leading her Aunt to call her a viper. The aunt remains rather afraid of Joana. As an adolescent Joana becomes fascinated with her teacher, regarding his wife jealously, arranging a meeting with him a few years later, just before her marriage. Joana marries Otávio, who had previously been engaged to Lídia, although he doesn’t seem very committed to marriage with Joana. Even when Otávio continues his relationship with Lídia, and makes her pregnant, Joana seems more taken up with her interior life, than what is happening in her marriage. Her musings on life, death and discovering who it is she really is are very much at the heart of this extraordinary novel.

As a character Joana is quite difficult to get a firm handle on, despite the fact the novel is very largely taken up with her progress through life, she remains quite elusive. Joana is quite disconnected from the world she inhabits, and from the people around her – her emotions are very cool often she views her own emotions as if from the outside.

I both enjoyed and was confounded by this novel – overall this was a quite wonderful reading experience. Near to the Wild Heart is a novel I should probably get more out of with a second reading. I can’t help but wonder about the young woman who wrote it, what a mind she must have had. I’m sure I will read more by her in time. Clarice Lispector has been a good discovery for me – a challenging literary novelist in translation. I wonder which I should read next?

clarice lispector

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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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