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Translated from the Italian by the author

The last book I had to review from my September reading pile – I had to start reviewing out of order – back on track now.

I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing in 2006 when I read her much anticipated first novel The Namesake, a couple of years later I read her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. I didn’t encounter her again until 2018 and this time as a translator – when I read a novel by Domenico Starnone that she had translated from Italian. I was intrigued. In 2011 Jhumpa Lahiri had moved her family to Italy, where she immersed herself in the language and culture of her adopted country. Incredibly, she began writing in Italian, she has translated two novels by Starnone, as well as writing two of her own books of non-fiction in Italian. Whereabouts – first written in Italian, was Lahiri’s first novel since The Lowland in 2013.

Not a great deal happens in Whereabouts – but that shouldn’t matter – unless you’re looking for a plot driven novel I suppose. The writing is incredible, elegant and minutely observed. Not a word is wasted, an evocation of a city and one woman within it.

“Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.”

The unnamed narrator of the novel is a single woman in her mid-forties, in whose company we move through the city where she lives. She walks along the streets, over bridges through restaurants or shops, she notices the people around her. She stops to have a coffee in a little square, she recognises people she knows, or merely those she has seen on the street before.

The story of this woman is told in a series of short vignettes, chapters are titled for the places and situations in which we find her, In the Piazza, On the Street, At the Beautician, In the Sun, At My House etc. There is an incredible sense of belonging to this place, to this unnamed, acutely observed city, but also a sense of isolation.

“The city doesn’t beckon or lend me a shoulder today. Maybe it knows I’m about to leave. The sun’s dull disk defeats me; the dense sky is the same one that will carry me away. The vast and vaporous territory, lacking precise pathways, is all that binds us together now. But it never preserves our tracks. The sky, unlike the sea, never holds on to the people that pass through it. The sky contains nothing of our spirit, it doesn’t care. Always shifting, altering its aspect from one moment to the next, it can’t be defined.”

Cities are wonderful places from where to tell stories, such numbers of people, anonymously brushing shoulders as they venture forth. Yet, within cities there are neighbourhoods, where residents may see the same people at the bus stop or in the coffee shop, strangers become more recognisable and we develop relationships with some of the people around us. Lahiri portrays that relationship we can have with parts of the cities where we live beautifully, recreating those small everyday moments that happen everywhere.

We share small moments with this woman, getting coffee, talking to the barista she knows, bumping into her ex in a book shop, getting a manicure at the beauticians. There are also some awkward social encounters too, a get together at her home, where the husband of a friend proves himself to be something of a pompous idiot, who consumes all the best cakes. She also attends a baptism of a colleague’s child – but overwhelmed finds an escape at the local beach.

As she moves through the city, we become privy to the woman’s thoughts, as well as her observations, her reminiscences, and her current concerns. Three of the chapters are called In My Head – and are concerned with her inner thoughts, memories of her parents, reflections on her own solitude or reluctance to face the day. She is moving toward a finale of sorts. She has decided to leave this city – to start again elsewhere, leaving is never easy. Through each short chapter we move closer to the time when she will leave the place she seems attached to, but wants to shake off.

“This stationery store has been one of my haunts for years. When I was a young girl I’d go there to get what I needed for school, then for college, and now for teaching. Every purchase, however mundane, makes me happy. Each item validates my life somehow.”

Her mother is an elderly, though oppressive figure, twice a month the woman goes to visit her mother, taking cat’s tongue cookies with her. Her mother can talk of little besides what is wrong with her, while the daughter sits and remembers the woman she was once, when the mother was the age the daughter is now. She remembers the loss of her father, when she was much younger, a loss she very much still carries with her. There is a sense of the woman looking back at the what might have beens, considering the choices she has made throughout her life. She seems happy to be on her own, yet she is very aware of all the people around her who made different choices, seeing those other choices reflected in those other lives.

This was such a beautiful little read – under 200 pages, and full of quotable passages. There is poetic, almost dreamlike quality to the narrative. I am reminded that I want to read much more by Lahiri – especially the book she wrote about her move to Italy and how she began to write in Italian.

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Translated from the Finnish by the author

My final post for #witmonth is a little bit of a shorter post. The Union of Synchronized Swimmers is a novella – an odd little book in some ways, though not unenjoyable.

There is a lovely poetic quality to certain sections of this novella which I particularly enjoyed, a delicate use of language to describe movement and water.

“The girls started to play, though they were too old; their movements aimless at first, like they could’ve been doing anything else. They plunged into the water and sprang up, parting the surface with their hands. They crept among the reeds and made birds scatter from their nests. They tore flowers growing by the river and drew shapes in the air. They pushed each other’s heads under the surface and kept them there, as if performing a baptism. They stood on their hands in the water, their feet swinging madly against the branches of the trees.”

In an unnamed country – though the implication perhaps is that it is a former Soviet country, a group of six young woman meet by the river. Here they mess around in the water together. They are workers from a local factory, this is where many of the local women work, so many of the men have left the country to find work. They can see across the river to another place, another country, where things are very different. Soon the fun at the river turns more serious, the women start to train – they become a team, a team bringing some Olympic hope to their poor, struggling nation. For the women though this is their chance to get away, perhaps their only chance – to discover what really lies across the river.

“In the evenings, when they fell on their beds like lumbered trees, the girls felt the movement of water inside their bodies. It rocked them to a place that belonged neither to this nor to that side of the river. The beauty of the threshold: on the other side of it, everything was still possible. Perhaps they were happier then, more complete and satisfied, than they ever have been or would be.”

In alternate chapters we see the young women in the past, as they train together and in the present as they live lives far away from where they started – each of them in different countries. In chapters named for each of the six young women; Anita, Paulina, Sandra, Betty, Nina and Lidia – we see something of what happened next. Running away can’t always bring complete happiness though as these women find out – there are difficulties ahead for all of them, and one of them will decide ultimately to go home.

Anita lives in Helsinki, when she starts a relationship with a man from her own country, she decides to hide her true origins from him – never allowing her knowledge of their shared language to escape. In California Paulina goes on a boat trip – the kind tourists and new arrivals might take, but the experience only makes her feel more of an outsider than ever. In Rome Nina orders coffee in a café, goes to work at the warehouse – she is proud of her new language skills, and is acclimatising herself to the noise of the warehouse.

“There’s nothing I can’t say in both languages, she thinks, and grabs the handles of the cart. Nothing stays inside one language. Each thought – like the one of how she will eventually grow numb to the noise and the smell of the warehouse – begets its double.”

Language is an issue for all of them in some ways, in the Pyrenees Sandra is mocked for her accent and pronunciation. Meanwhile in San Martin, Betty gambles in a casino, reflecting on the difficult time she had when she lived in Bucharest, the place she had landed in first – a place where she had once stolen fish heads out of a rubbish bin. This move has been more successful she thinks – she tells her fellow gamblers at the table how she had travelled from Bucharest to Paris with a truck driver.

Lidia is the one who goes home – worn out by the years away, finding peace in the place she came from.

Cristina Sandu’s prose can be quite spare and there is a fragmentary nature to this story of leaving home in search for freedom – and to me the ending felt very abrupt. Still, it certainly gives pause for thought about the meaning of freedom, or what home might feel like – and how for some, on the other side of the river, the grass may not be quite so green after all.

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Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I think for many of us there are those books which we have been aware of for years, the covers of which are instantly recognisable, and yet have still totally passed us by. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one such book for me – I didn’t even really know what it was about, and had forgotten it was a novel in translation. So, this #Witmonth I decided to read it having seen quite a bit of hype about Muriel Babery’s latest novel on social media.

My ignorance of this book was such, that I had no idea of just how literary it is, nor how philosophical. I am quite happy reading literary novels, I do so quite frequently, the philosophical I am less keen on, but actually in this novel I was fine with it. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel that celebrates the inconspicuous among us, it’s poignant, funny, and intelligent.

“As for Madame Michel…how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her, when she used to talk with Jean Arthens or when she talks to Neptune when Diane has her back turned, or when she looks at the ladies in the building who walk right by her without saying hello. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

Renée Michel is a concierge at an elegant apartment building in the centre of Paris. A building inhabited by gracious, wealthy bourgeois families. Once she ran the building with her husband, but now she is a widow, living alone with her cat. Her one friend in the world is Manuela Lopes – a cleaner of other people’s homes, who one day plans to go home to Portugal. On Tuesdays and Thursdays at two, Manuela arrives to drink tea with Renée.

Renée is purposely unremarkable, a small dumpy, middle aged woman she prefers to perpetuate the stereotype of a building concierge with the people living around her. In fact, she has a fierce intelligence, a lover of art, music and great literature, a deep thinker and lover of Japanese culture. She is also a wonderful observer of people, and it is with some humour that she watches the comings and goings of the apartment dwellers – none of whom give her much of a second glance.

Upstairs, in one of the gracious Parisian apartments lives Paloma, the twelve year old daughter of a dull parliamentarian. She has little time or patience with either of her parents or her older sister – for she is a quiet genius. Rather like Renée she tries her best to hide her true abilities. In despair at the world in which she finds herself she has decided that she will end her life on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Until then, Paloma will continue to act as just another average pre-teen – wholly unremarkable – conforming to the expectations already laid down.

“no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.”

Renée and Paloma are both separately hiding their true selves from the world – a world that is incapable of really seeing them, a world that can’t appreciate them. However, when Ozu; a wealthy Japanese man moves into the apartment block, Renée and Paloma discover the other to be an unexpected kindred spirit. It seems that only Ozu can win over the cynical Paloma, and see through Renée’s disguise to the person she really is.

‘They didn’t recognise me,’ I say. I come to a halt in the middle of the pavement, completely flabbergasted. ‘They didn’t recognise me,’ I repeat. He stops in turn, my hand still on his arm. ‘It is because they have never seen you,’ he says. ‘I would recognise you anywhere.’

This novel is a real celebration of the unremarkable, it beautifully captures the mind of someone the world has overlooked. As for why Renée is so keen for the world to see her as a simple concierge, unremarkable, uncultured unnoticeable – well you will have to read the book to find that out – it was a question I kept asking myself – and we do discover the reason in time.

There is a poignant, inevitability to the ending, which shocked me a bit – but then I realised that it was actually the perfect ending, though it was very bittersweet. I’m so glad I finally got around to a book I had been aware of for so long.

A little bit of housekeeping – I am moving house tomorrow. So, I will likely be a bit quiet for a while, not sure how long before I have Wi-Fi again to start with. I will do my best to keep up with blog posts, social media etc via my phone but don’t be surprised if there is a bit of a lull.

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Translated from the Greek by Karen van Dyck

Three Summers is one of three #Witmonth books I still have to review, ideally by the end of the month. I have rather a lot going on at the moment so not really sure if I will manage it.

This is a novel that several bloggers have reviewed over the last year or so, and it became one I really wanted to read. Jacqui kindly sent me her copy (which I shall be sending back soon) so that I could read it over #Witmonth and I am so glad that I did. It’s a modern Greek classic, a coming of age type story, filled with sunshine and the voices of three sisters.

“That summer we bought big straw hats. Maria’s had cherries around the rim, Infanta’s had forget-me-nots, and mine had poppies as red as fire. When we lay in the hayfield wearing them, the sky, the wildflowers, and the three of us all melted into one. ‘Where are you? Off hiding again?’ my mother called. Shhhhh. We whispered and told secrets. Other years Maria and Infanta had told the secrets, leaving me out since I was the youngest. But this year…”

Growing up between the wars, in the Greek countryside near Athens are three sisters, living in a big old house with their mother, grandfather and Aunt Theresa, surrounded by a beautiful garden. Maria is the oldest, sexually bold, but ready to settle down and raise her own family, Infanta, distant but beautiful and the youngest Katerina – through who’s eyes we see the majority of the story. Each sister has their own small plot of garden to tend, each plot reflecting the personality of its owner. Maria’s garden is all little neat squares, while Infanta’s is wild, and has almond trees which need lots of watering, Katerina’s garden is full of flowers, the planting as spontaneous as she is.

Katerina is dreamy, rebellious, and deeply curious. There are secrets and dark events in the family’s past. Aunt Theresa changed forever when she was raped by her fiancé as a young woman. Katerina is especially drawn to the story of her Polish grandmother – who scandalously ran away from her husband and two children. Katerina is fascinated by this romantic figure – who nobody ever mentions, but Katerina gets some little bits of information from the family housekeeper who has been around for years.

“Memories… memories. The air is heavy with them. I can’t stand it anymore. I no longer fit in that big room with the piano, the little boxes of seeds, the peacock embroidery. I run outside and lie down on the grass. I look up at the moon between the two eucalyptuses; it touches the ledge of the cistern, and I can see the silhouette of a frog in its circle of light. But the frog is not on the moon. Like me, it is on the ground looking up.”

The sisters enjoy a good relationship, sharing secrets and dreams, talk about the local boys, gossip about neighbours, and try to figure out their parents. Their parents are separated, following their father’s infidelity, he now living in Athens – they visit him and his colourful brother from time to time.

As the title suggests the novel is set over three summers. Three summers during which these three sisters lives start to change, as they cross that divide between girlhood and adulthood. In the first summer, Maria has a sexual adventure with a neighbour’s son, who she has no intention at all of marrying. She wants to marry, as she announces to her surprised family, and she settles quickly for another neighbour; Marios, the equivalent of the boy next door.

Marios’s mother, Laura Parigori, is a fascinating character, a traditional wife and mother in many ways, she clearly yearns secretly for more. We feel an unspoken frustration in her for the smallness of her life, the things she will never do, she is still only in her forties, and while that was older then, than it is now, the years stretch ahead of her, formless and empty.

Time marches on and both Infanta and Katerina must negotiate their own fragile love affairs – while watching their elder sister settle into marriage and impending motherhood. Intense feelings, jealousy and uncertainty enter the lives of these young women – as they try to make sense of these new and exciting relationships. Katerina falls madly in love with David an astronomer who is writing a book – and when she sees him in the company of Laura Parigori a few times, she is mad with jealousy. Infanta seems taken up with Nikitas, with whom she shares a love of horse riding which they are able to do together.

Ever curious, Katerina begins to make discoveries about the past, her mother, a somewhat shadowy figure throughout this novel – seems to be acting oddly and Katerina is determined to find out why.

There is a lot more going on in this novel than the premise might at first suggest, themes of marriage, fidelity, women’s roles, the bond between siblings and motherhood are all delicately explored. The gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, the lushness of Liberaki’s prose and this beautiful translation make this a gorgeous summery read.

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Translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale

In Memory of Memory is a book that has been reviewed brilliantly by so many other bloggers, that if I am honest, I haven’t really been looking forward to trying to write about it. It is a book that is difficult to categorise, I have generally seen it described as autofiction –though it was published by Fitzcarraldo with a white cover, signifying non-fiction, but shortlisted for the International Booker Prize which is for fiction. So, I was a bit confused before I even opened it. Perhaps an exact categorisation doesn’t much matter, because what ever way you categorise this book, it is a remarkable achievement. A complex work which combines, memoir, essay, fiction, history, and travel to slowly reveal the story of a family and the Europe in which they lived and died along with an exploration of culture and memory. It is a fascinating and thoroughly immersive work, not a quick or easy read but one I am glad I tackled for this year’s #Witmonth.

When the author Maria Stepanova’s aunt dies, she is left with an apartment full of ephemera to sort through. Letters, postcards, souvenirs alongside the more personal things like diaries and photographs. Together these represent a century of life in Russia – a century during which the world changed and changed again. Carefully, over time Stepanova begins to piece together the story of this fairly ordinary Jewish family, who – despite the odds, the numerous persecutions, wars, and hardships – managed to survive.

“…that’s why I love photographs that need no interlocutor and have no desire to engage with me. They are in their own way, rehearsals for non-existence, for life without us, for the time when the room is no longer ours to enter.”

I think I have a similar feeling for photographs – well old photographs at least – Instagram has rather changed our relationship with photographs now I think. In fact, Stepanova discusses this very thing – the modern cult of the Selfie as she examines Rembrandt’s self-portraits. There are many fascinating cultural, literary, and artistic references and portraits throughout this book, setting the times of her family in yet another context. All families have those piles or albums of old photographs which when got out spark a memory or a long forgotten story. Those stories weave together to make a complete and complex picture of life – and this book does something very like that.

These stories are elusive, fragmentary and Stepanova has to fill in some gaps for us – this in no way a linear biography of a family, there is much more going on here than that. In order to fill in those gaps she travels around Russia, she goes to the places her family once lived she sees and experiences these places and shares them with us. Maria Stepanova had wanted to write a book about her family since childhood, so in a sense this is a quest for herself an intelligent, loving and ever curious examination of the past. She discusses the very nature of memory, how our memory can’t always be entirely relied upon.

As readers we are left with the memory of a host of vibrant personalities. Too many to write about here – but for me, two women emerged from the shadows of the past – and their stories held me fast. The first was Charlotte Salomon an artist, who I hadn’t heard of previously. She died in Auschwitz. Though Stepanova wants us to see her as much more than another victim of horror. Salomon wasn’t a member of Stepanova’s family, she is one among many artists and writers like Sebald, Susan Sontag, Barthes and even Dickens who come find their way into the pages of this book. The Second of those women was Stepanova’s Great-grandmother Sarra Ginzburg, a doctor who had studied in Paris but returned to the Soviet Union to practise.

“The ability to skip large chunks of time might be useful in the writing of novels, but it starts to frighten me when I realize I am doing it in life, and with real living people – that is, with dead people, of course, although there isn’t really any difference. Great-grandmother Sarra’s youth before Lyolya was born feels like the beginning. Everything is ahead of her, anything could happen. After 1916 time begins folding itself up, tightening into the felt roll of collective fate. A hundred years later I began following in her footsteps, visiting her St. Petersburg addresses, buildings with rebuilt facades, missing apartments and whole missing wings, in poor areas of the city, lit by the setting sun and inhabited by flocks of Sunday soldiers. It always seemed that if I took just another turn to the right, then that would be enough, I could transform her life, restore it, make it fit to be seen again.” 

Of course, it isn’t just the women who have extraordinary stories to tell. One especially memorable one that of Leonid Gimmelfarb, Stepanova’s grandfather’s nineteen year old cousin, who was fighting in the marshes and forests near Leningrad during the siege. He wrote regularly to his mother, and his letters are poignant though often matter of fact, he asks often after the family he has left behind.

The book as I said already isn’t structured in any linear way, Stepanova organises her book around various ideas or particular people. Interspersed with these chapters are short sections called ‘not-a- chapter’ in which through letter extracts we hear from some of these people themselves. The whole becomes a wonderfully personal work, as well as a thoroughly immersive one. Stepanova’s prose is absolutely gorgeous, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that she is a poet.

On a personal level while I enjoyed this book very much, I was probably a little less wowed by it than many others. There is a huge amount to admire in this book, the writing is glorious and I found I was learning about so many fascinating people. However, the fragmentary nature of it took me a while to settle into, and for a while I kept getting people mixed up. Overall, though it is an extraordinary piece of writing and I am very glad I have read it.

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Translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway

My second review for this year’s #Witmonth is The Pear Field from the independent Peirene Press, longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. I may have swerved this one, had I known just how dark it was, but the subtlety of the writing and beautiful translation by Elizabeth Heighway (a translator local to me I believe) held me fast, and I couldn’t look away, even when I wanted to. However, future readers should be aware that the novel concerns child abandonment, child abuse, peer abuse, violence, and international adoption. A tough read in many respects, but one I am glad I made time for.

On the outskirts of Tbilsi, in post Soviet Union Georgia is a residential school for Intellectually disabled children. The locals call it the school for idiots. In fact, there is nothing wrong with the majority of these children – they have simply been abandoned by their parents, and all the children’s homes are full. Some of the children do believe their parents will come back for them one day. This is not a happy place.

“On every floor there are toilets at the end of the corridor. The wind blowing in through the broken windowpanes carries their stench deeper into the building, making the entire corridor smell like a station toilet. The bedrooms, TV room and playrooms have their own smell, and no amount of fresh air can flush it out. It’s the smell of dirty children, or sometimes of clothes scrubbed clean with laundry soap; the smell of musty linen and hand-me-down bedding; the smell of paraffin lamps and, in winter, wood stoves: the smell of old armchairs and sticky tape covering cracks in the windows and Chinese mallow plants lined up on the sill. Lela knows each and every smell, even though sometimes they all disappear behind the acrid stench of the toilet.”

At this school the children merely survive – it’s a rough, bleak existence – where there is little if any care or compassion. The children look to one another for friendship and support – however there is also a lot of violence and abuse even among the children their games are disturbing, mirroring the horror they have already lived through. The staff few in number are ineffective and probably overwhelmed. One member of staff; the deputy head and history teacher Vamo has been an abuser for years, as Lela, now eighteen remembers with hatred and anger– her desire to kill him preventing her from leaving – yet. For now, she waits, remaining in the place she plans to leave soon, watching the other children with some anxiety. Former pupils who have left the school and gone on to live their own lives have achieved almost legendary status among those who remain – the ultimate, unspoken goal seems to survive long enough to leave.

The Georgia depicted in this novel – at least this area of Tbilisi is a dark and dangerous place, men are aggressive, violence is common, there is great poverty and throughout the novel a feeling of hopelessness. The pear field of the title is a large field of stunted pear trees next to the school, a symbol of all that is wrong, and bad in this awful place. The fruit is inedible – the ground swampy –it is here some children have subjected their victims to terrible abuses.

“The field looks so enticing, especially to new arrivals at the school, who run out on to the field and then slow involuntarily, ominously, as their feet sink into the waterlogged soil, So the pear trees just stand there with their knotted trunks and tangle of low-hanging branches, alone and forsaken, and every spring they bring forth large shiny green pears which nobody touches.”

Lela has taken Irakli under her wing, he is only nine – and believes his mother will soon return for him. From time to time, Lela accompanies him to the apartment of a woman who lives close by, from here Irakli phones his mother – wanting to know when she will come, conversations Lela listens to with fury – knowing full well that his mother has given him up – and won’t be coming back. As much as Irakli needs to believe his mother will come for him, Lela in her already world, weary cynicism and anger wants him to face the bitter truth.

When an American couple arrive at the school looking to adopt a child, Lela decides she will do all she can to make sure that child will be Irakli. If she can secure a better life for him, she only has one more thing to do before she can leave.

“I’m going to kill Vamo before winter, Lela thinks to herself. It’s summer now. Plenty of time. Irakli’s leaving in September and once he’s gone, I’ll kill Vamo. By the end of the winter. After that it might be too late. He’s so old he might just die, all by himself.”

Irakli gets swept up in Lela’s plans for him, America seems like such a dream. He agrees to take some English lessons so he can communicate with his new family – and Lela pays for them with the money she gets from the work she does around the school.

Throughout the course of the novel, we meet a host of colourful local characters, staff, and neighbours. The school play host to a wedding, the children raid a cherry orchard at night. It is very filmic – probably not surprising given the author is herself a film director.

This is a shocking novel in many ways – the period depicted not that long ago – the 1990s I believe. The lives of these children are horrendous – and there is little hope for anyone. If you can cope with the dark themes, then it is definitely worth reading.

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Translated from the German by Michael Hoffman

My first review for #witmonth is Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun – she is probably best known for her novel The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) which I read a couple of years ago.

Kully is the memorable child narrator of this novel – which portrays the displacement of a family who have left Germany in the 1930s, to escape the Nazis, and whose fate is to now wander Europe as visa after visa expires. Kully and her parents live their lives moving from country to country staying in a series of hotels, struggling to pay the bills. Kully’s father is a writer, and they seem eternally hopeful of money that is owed to them somewhere or other, or money which might come to them when his new book is published. There is a lovable, precocity to Kully – who is still very much a child, despite this new way of living – and the fact she has no one to play with.

“When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany anymore, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to learn to read and write?”

There is so much for Kully to learn about in this new way of life – the eternal problem of passports and visas, and how to act in hotels. As the novel opens Kully and her mother are alone, as Kully’s father has gone to Warsaw. It won’t be long before they are all on the move again. One hotel giving way to the next on a journey around Europe with no visible end. In the hotels Kully tries to make friends with the maids, she gets stamps from the maître d’ which she saves – she is allowed to press the buttons in the lifts – when they take the lift – as sometimes they dare not as they can’t afford to tip the lift man. Sometimes they can’t afford to go to the restaurant so hide in the room that Kully shares with her mother and her pet tortoises – later she buys some guinea pigs that escape under the wardrobe. The maître d’ stops giving Kully stamps soon enough and it’s obvious they are regarded with suspicion by hotel staff, so have to keep a low profile. When her father sends Kully a parcel for her birthday, there is duty to pay on it which she and her mother don’t have, so Kully never does find out what is in her parcel.

“Above all, I need to learn what a visa is. We have German passports, which the police gave us in Frankfurt. A passport is a little booklet with stamps in. Basically, it’s to prove that you’re alive. If you lose your passport, then as far as the whole world is concerned you might as well have died. You’re not allowed to go to any more countries.”

Through Kully’s wonderfully, innocent, wide eyed view of the world we understand the stresses and strains her parents are living under. An existence with no security, where money, the earning of it, the spending of it the saving of it becomes as vital as breathing. Kully’s father is a charming, rather hopeless man, whose optimism that all will be well waxes and wains with their changing fortunes. Kully’s mother has to try and get an advance from one of her husband’s publishers, pretending she has forgotten to bring the new manuscript with her each time they meet – a manuscript which in reality doesn’t exist yet. Kully’s mother is clearly depressed, struggling to cope with the unending struggle for money and the need to keep moving, she is a much more shadowy figure in this novel than her husband.

“Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t. When he doesn’t, we can’t do anything about it, my mother and me. Nothing is any good when he doesn’t love us. Then we’re not allowed to cry in his presence or laugh, we mustn’t give him anything, or take anything from him either. Any steps we might take only have the effect of delaying even more the time when he will love us again. Because he always comes back to us. We just have to hold still and wait, and then everything takes care of itself. There’s nothing else we can do anyway.”

Irmgard Keun reproduces that naïve childish voice perfectly – through Kully’s all seeing eye we see the world as it is for both adult and child. The fragility of this family’s position was one lived by hundreds, perhaps thousands of others at this time. The storms were already brewing across Europe – and reading this novel so many decades later we know what is to come – something Keun couldn’t have known in 1938. We can’t help but wonder, after we finish this novel, what happened to this family and this child of all nations – as the world tip-toed closer to war.

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Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

As Spanish lit month begins to draw to a close (I’m actually not sure when it ends) and my attention shifts to #Witmonth, I’m squeaking in with my review of Mexican novel Ramifications. My second book from Charco press this month – and I’m so glad I made time for it. I had seen a couple of reviews of this one, so was fairly sure I would like it, but it actually exceeded my expectations.

“The memories we return to most frequently are the most inaccurate, the least faithful to reality.”

I do love a coming of age type narrative – and in this novel the narrator looks back at his childhood – specifically the time around the disappearance of his mother Teresa when he was ten. It is also a novel of memory, and how our memories can torment us as well as comfort us. In the present, he is a thirty-two year old man, unable to leave his bed, trapped by the past, overwhelmed still by the single most defining moment of his life.

The story is told in two time periods. The first 1994, in the days and weeks after Teresa’s disappearance – a disappearance that has such a traumatic effect on her son. The second, more than twenty years later – when the adult narrator has retreated so far from the world he struggles to leave his bed, and his sister has been forced to send a regular cleaner to his apartment. What has led this man to retreat from the world so recently, more than two decades after his mother left, and two years after his father’s death?

In the Educación neighbourhood of Mexico City, in the summer of 1994, our unnamed narrator and his older teenage sister are on summer holidays from school, when their mother Teresa walks out of the family home. She goes to join the Zapatista uprising, and never returns. She leaves behind a letter for her husband which her young son longs to get a look at – hoping it will tell him when she is coming home or where she is.

“It’s commonly said that denial is the first phase of mourning, but for me, at the age of ten, it wasn’t just the first but, for a long time, the only phase. Through a process of highly complex mental gymnastics, I managed to convince myself that not only was Teresa still alive, but that she was more attentive to what was happening in my life than she’d ever been in the past. During the first two or three years, I used to imagine her reaction to anything I did. I could almost hear her robotic voice explaining why I didn’t need a certain toy, or why memorising dates was not the best way to study for my history class, why my sister’s life would be more difficult than mine because she was a woman.”

The woman he remembers and who remains a shadowy presence throughout the novel he describes as speaking in a flat monotone, an unemotional woman who leaves behind her just a handful of memories for her son to cling on to. In the wake of her disappearance the boy is left to make sense of this new world with his distant father, and teenage sister Mariana – who is naturally more interested in her teenage pursuits than her younger sibling.

For some time, the boy has been trying to teach himself the art of origami – with little success – but it becomes one of a number of obsessions, folding and refolding squares of paper, folding and refolding leaves into perfect halves – just as he will continue to unfold and refold the memories of that summer in 1994. He is a lonely, imaginative boy. Left alone in the house while his father is at work and his sister out with her friends, he builds himself a ‘zero luminosity capsule’ in his wardrobe to protect himself from the bogeyman, spending hours hidden inside – it quickly becomes a refuge. As the summer progresses he introduces more strange rituals into his days, favouring the left hand side of his body. He isolates himself from his peers, and falls out with his best friend at school.

With the encouragement of Rat – a teenage gang leader who’s been dating his sister, he undertakes a twelve hour journey by himself in search of Teresa. Inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure stories he has been reading, he imagines a future reconciliation, his quest a need to put everything back the way it was. A journey on which he meets frightening cruelty and unexpected kindness.

“Nowadays, I rarely remember my dreams. Although I spend many hours in bed, my waking and sleeping lives have turned their backs on one another. Nothing of what happens while I sleep filters into my waking existence, except for a sense of angst that seems to issue from that dark place to which I escape every so often on an unfixed schedule.”

What the author does so well here – and why I so enjoy these coming of age type narratives – is to recreate that confused, uncertainty that is a child’s view of a very adult situation.

This is such an impressive novel – it is easy to see why Daniel Saldaña Paris is such a highly regarded writer in Mexico.

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Two reviews today both of which are for Spanish lit month. The first, a modern novel from a Colombian writer published by Charco Press, the second, a novel from 1940s Spain.

Holiday Heart

Translated by Charlotte Coombe

In Holiday Heart we have the story of the disintegration of a marriage. Robayo shows us that distance that opens up between people who know each other well, but now are almost like strangers.

Pablo and Lucia are Colombian immigrants living in the US, they are both writers – and Pablo teaches at a high school. They have six year old twins, Tomas and Rosá born after Lucia underwent fertility treatment. Conflicts that started after the twins were born have intensified, and as the novel opens Lucia has taken the children to her parents’ apartment in a hotel in Miami, while Pablo remains at home. It begins to look increasingly, that their marriage has reached its conclusion.

Before setting off for Miami, Lucia had been made aware of her husband’s infidelity, and some trouble at the school where he works has resulted in a warning letter. Pablo has also been diagnosed with a syndrome called Holiday Heart – the result of too much drinking and drug use. Lucia therefore has decided that she needs time away from her husband, a chance to reflect on their relationship.

“The strange thing is not the infidelities, thinks Lucia. The really bizarre thing is to look at the other person and wonder who they are, what they’re doing there next to you, when it was that their facial features changed so much. The accumulation of time makes strangers of us; nobody can say precisely when the seed is planted.”

After the twins were born, Pablo had felt excluded from Lucia’s life with the twins. It has always been Lucia who directed this area of family life – making all the decisions around the children. That isn’t the only conflict that has arisen in their marriage, however. The couple have always had rather different attitudes to their homeland – Pablo seeing the past and the place they grew up with more nostalgia and patriotism than Lucia. Pablo has been writing an epic novel about his beloved homeland when he isn’t teaching, it’s a piece of work he seems bogged down by and completley consumed by. Lucia has made a name for herself writing a feminist magazine column, a vehicle she has used to express her general dissatisfaction.

In Miami while the children play on the beach and soak up the sun, Lucia has a lot of reflecting to do. Her parents American maid Cindy – who also helps to look after the children is a bubbly, friendly presence, but her friendliness feels inappropriate to Lucia who wants to maintain a distance while needing her to look after the children sometimes. Lucia floats around somewhat listlessly, flirting with a celebrity football player – ending skype calls with her husband abruptly and watching her children jealously as they get closer to Cindy.

The story of a disintegrating marriage is hardly a new one – but here Robayo weaves this familiar story around the story of privileged immigrants. Showing that there is a degree of racism and snobbery present within their own communities which is perhaps not often spoken about or acknowledged.

Nada

Translated by Edith Grossman

A modern classic of Spanish literature Nada was first published in 1944 the debut novel of the then twenty-three year old author. Set just after the Spanish Civil war, we must see this novel as being in some part autobiographical as this was also the period when the author herself left her home to study in Barcelona.

The novel’s opening is wonderfully memorable, eighteen year old Andrea arrives very late at night in Barcelona. Here she is to stay with her relations while she attends the university. Her late arrival obliges her to knock up the inhabitants of the house on Calle de Aribau where she will be staying – both her and our first impressions of the apartment and its inhabitants are vivid indeed.

“I hesitated for a while before I gave the bell a timid ring that no one responded to. My heart began to beat faster, and I rang the bell again. I heard a quavering voice: ‘Coming! Coming!’ Shuffling feet and clumsy hands sliding bolts open. Then it all seemed like a nightmare. In front of me was a foyer illuminated by a single weak light bulb in one of the arms of the magnificent lamp, dirty with cobwebs, that hung from the ceiling. A dark background of articles of furniture piled one on top of the other as if the household were in the middle of moving. And in the foreground the black-white blotch of a decrepit little old woman in a nightgown, a shawl thrown around her shoulders.”

This is the home of her grandmother, an aunt, and uncles. Standing around her and emerging from the shadows are a group of people she doesn’t know it is not an auspicious start. The atmosphere surrounding this house and its inhabitants is not a comfortable one, there is a feeling of tension, conflict never seems very far away. There are definite signs of poverty and she soon sees that anger and violence simmer beneath the surface of this claustrophobic household. It is a rude awakening for Andrea who had had such dreams of what the city would be like, ready as was to embark on a new chapter in her young life. She will be sharing her new home with her grandmother, her aunt Angustias, her uncle Juan, his brother Román, Juan’s wife Gloria and their baby, and the sinister seeming housemaid Antonia and her dog.

There are secrets to be revealed within this family, in which Andrea’s uncle Juan is given to sudden and violent rages, his beautiful mysterious wife slips out at night to gamble, and Román is a gifted musician and the religious Angustias can be rather overbearing.

“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”

Running counterpoint to the family on the Calle de Aribau are the new experiences Andrea has through her time at the university. The people she meets open up new ideas to her and she finds friendship with the sophisticated Ena. Later Ena’s apparent fascination with Andrea’s Uncle Román puzzles and upsets Andrea – and she constantly has the feeling there are things she either doesn’t know or understand.

Nada is a beautifully written little novel; it capture the mood of a time and place perfectly. Aspects that are dark and disturbing increase the feeling of suffocation – things left unsaid, left over from the war, all seem to play a part in shaping the people who reside in the house on the Calle de Aribau.

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Translated from the Spanish by Samuel Rutter

My first review for this year’s Spanish lit month is of The Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade. The writer was a completley new name to me when I added this one to my tbr about two years ago – but I see she is described on the cover as ‘one of the most powerful female voices in Spanish literature.’

In a sense perhaps, this is not my usual kind of novel – and yet I find myself, increasingly stepping away from my comfort zone when reading things in translation. I think that can be a good thing. I certainly enjoyed this one very much. This is a slightly unusual book, it is beautifully written, the language is very lyrical, touched with an odd, quirky humour. There is a slight gothic, fairy-tale element to the narrative in places, with larger than life characters who appear almost like the human exhibits in a peculiar fair ground side show. There’s the obese, donkey riding priest, the cross dressing dentist who steals the teeth of the dead, Meis’ Widow, now married again, but still known by the name of her first husband, and the ancient old woman up the mountain who can’t seem to die.

The Winterlings of the title (I never did understand why they were called that) are two sisters. In the 1950s they return to the small village of Tierra de Chá in Galicia after an absence of very many years. They have come back to the former home of their grandfather, from where they fled during the Spanish Civil war when they were children.

“They came past one morning like the thrumming of a hornet, swifter than an instant.

The women.

The Winterlings.

The men bent over the earth straightened up to watch. The women stilled their brooms. The children stopped playing; two women with big, tired bones, as though worn down by life, were crossing the town square.”

Their return seems to open up a lot of old wounds, for them, and for the people in this small community. In Tierra de Chá time has moved on naturally, and yet many things have stayed the same. Many of the people the sisters remembered from childhood are still around – the same traditions and superstitions remain – and everyone has their memories of the past. The village retains the secret of what happened to their grandfather after he had told his granddaughters to run – and the sisters themselves have a few secrets of their own. After all they have been away a long time, sent as refugees to England as children, they later retuned to Spain together. Dolores is the attractive sister who once, very briefly married, Saladina is the plain sister. They seem totally reliant on one another while squabbling almost constantly.

Bit by bit the sisters begin to venture out into this community – they are objects of interest and gossip, with people wondering why they have come. The priest Don Manuel persuades them to accompany him on a visit to the old woman up the mountain. It seems the old woman is unable to die, because of an agreement she entered into with their grandfather Don Reinaldo many years earlier.

“And then the old lady spoke at length about the piece of paper she had signed for their grandfather, Don Reinaldo, which was now the only thing holding her back from dying. One day, when she was sweeping the doorway to the hut, Don Reinaldo came past on the way back from visiting a neighbour. ‘Good day, old lady, how are we?’ he said ‘Terrible’ I answered. ‘How so?’ he asked. ‘I’m so hungry I can’t even think,’ I told him. And then he kept on staring at me, and finally he said: ‘Well, you do have a brain, old maid’ And skipping around, first behind me, then in front of me to get a better look at it, he said ‘You’ve got a brain like the Cathedral of Santiago.’ But of course I didn’t understand him. ‘How would you like to leave hunger behind?’ he asked suddenly. ‘That wouldn’t be bad,’ I answered. And then he made me an offer that I happily accepted: he wanted to buy my brain to study it. He would pay me, in advance, and I just had to give it over when I died.”

In time it transpires that most of the village signed similar agreements and now everyone wants these old contracts found – bizarre, it certainly is. What with contracts for the sale of brains and the dental treatment Saladina undergoes at the hands of Mr Tenderlove in hopes of improving her appearance – Cristina Sánchez-Andrade’s storytelling is richly imaginative and just a little macabre.

Then news arrives that the famous actress Ava Gardner will be coming to Spain to make a film and that lookalikes are wanted. The sisters had learned to love the movies while they were in England – and now they have a chance to make their dreams come true.

Of course, secrets can’t stay secrets for long – and in such a small community the past starts to catch up.

An odd novel, but a very enjoyable one – and a great start for me to Spanish lit month.

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