Posts Tagged ‘translated fiction’

Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

I read The Mad Women’s Ball for my book group, the week before my Daphne du Maurier reading week – it turned out to be a good book for us to discuss. It is a slight novel that examines the horrors endured by women placed in institutions in the nineteenth century. It has, amazingly already been made into a film, though I have yet to see it.

The thing that I feel I must say first and foremost is that I didn’t find this novel as depressing as it could have been. There are some disturbing scenes (including one of sexual assault) that really do make the reader catch their breath – but it is also a novel of friendship and of finding a sort of freedom in unlikely places.

The setting is The Salpêtrière Asylum: Paris, 1885, here the renowned Dr Charcot thrills certain sections of Paris society with his demonstrations of hypnotism on women who have been cast out by society and their families. Women from all sections of society, deemed mad – but really in the main just inconvenient, outspoken, unconventional.

“The Salpêtrière is a dumping ground for women who disturb the peace. An asylum for those whose sensitivities do not tally with what is expected of them. A prison for women guilty of possessing an opinion.”

Genevieve is the head nurse at the asylum, called ‘the old Lady’ behind her back – though that has nothing to do with her age. She hangs on Dr Charcot’s every word, believing in him and his work, and the rightness of the women in her care being incarcerated as they are. Her opinion however, naturally worth about as much as that of the women incarcerated. There are some harrowing scenes of women paraded before an audience, attending one of the doctor’s lectures, he hypnotises them, inducing fits that the assembled men (because of course they are all men) can ‘study.’

Once a year there is another great spectacle at The Salpêtrière Asylum, the mad women’s ball – properly called the Lenten Ball. This is the hottest ticket in town for the Paris elite. Only those fortunate enough to be invited get into the ball where they will get a chance to see the mad women all dressed up. For the women of the asylum themselves it is the best night of the year, the excitement begins weeks before, the great question for each of them of course, what they will wear.

Eugénie is a young woman from a conventional, proper, middle class family. She particularly adores her grandmother. She knows her father only looks at her in terms of what kind of marriage she might make, and when she attempts intellectual debate with him he calls her insolent. Eugénie, has a secret – sometimes she can see and hear the dead. She knows what it could mean if she tells anyone – but she has heard about a book about spirits that has scandalised all of Paris, and she is determined to get hold of it. She asks to accompany her brother Théophile to salons where all sorts of things are discussed without fear. Eugénie is an intelligent inquiring young woman, she wants to understand this strange ‘gift’ she has been saddled with. She decides she can trust her grandmother, and one evening decides to take her into her confidence. You can probably guess what happens next. The betrayal is huge.

“Truth be told, whether free or incarcerated, women were not safe anywhere. Since the dawn of time, they had been the victims of decisions that were taken without their consent.”

Eugénie becomes another woman locked away with little hope of ever being released when there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. It is just a few weeks before the mad women’s ball – and Eugénie finds herself surrounded by women who can talk of little else. At first Eugénie is locked up by herself, but once she has stopped raging and calmed down, she gets to meet some of the other women, given a bed in a dormitory. She meets Louise, young and vulnerable believing herself in love with one of the male orderlies and Thérèse an older former prostitute who has been at the asylum for many years, and doesn’t want to leave – it’s her safe place, she knits shawls for everyone.

Eugénie sees something in Genevieve – she recognises the grief she carries still for her adored younger sister who died. Determined not to succumb, to find a way out of the asylum, Eugénie thinks she knows how to get Genevieve to help her get out. Eugénie represents the world of faith and Genevieve the world of science that were so often at odds at this time, but can these two women find a common ground and work together?

This is a wonderful little novel – Victoria Mas does a brilliant job at exposing the double standards and inequalities in nineteenth century French society. For a feminist book group like mine, there was a lot to discuss. Women had little agency at this time, as Mas reminds us – even women’s clothes were designed to hamper them.

“The sole purpose of the corset was clearly to immobilize a woman’s body in a posture considered desirable – it was certainly not intended to allow her free movement. As if intellectual constraints were not sufficient, women had to be hobbled physically. One might almost think that, in imposing such restrictions, men did not so much scorn women as fear them.”

This is an incredibly thought provoking novel – it made me angry, it made me sad, but there is no unremitting misery, and I was surprised by several ideas – including the one, that for some, the asylum offered a kind of freedom.

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Translated by Laura Lonsdale

Another of the books I bought in the New Year with my Christmas book vouchers, The Island by Ana Maria Matute is a delicate coming of age novel, that I first heard about from Jacqui at Jacquiwine’s journal.

Set on the island of Mallorca just after the start of the Spanish Civil war, this is a beautifully written novel, with images that linger long in the mind. The story is narrated by Matia, a fourteen year old girl, who having recently been expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress, has been sent to live with her grandmother. Her aristocratic grandmother is a watchful, domineering woman, and Matia is not particularly happy with the new arrangement. She has already undergone a lot of change and upset in her young life, her mother dead, her father has gone off to fight the war. For a while she lived with her father’s old nurse, then she left for school, and now she’s been sent to the island. There’s a subtle atmosphere of oppressiveness even at the start of this narrative, a growing sense of childhood’s end, a shadow ever present.

“My grandmother’s hands were knuckled and bony, and they had some beauty in spite of their coffee-coloured stains. On the index and ring fingers of her right hand jiggled two large, murky diamonds. After lunch she would drag her rocking chair to the window of her private drawing room (mist and gloom, the scorching, damp wind tearing itself open on the agaves or pushing the chestnut coloured leaves under the almond trees; swollen, leaden clouds blurring the green brightness of the sea) and from there, with her old jewel-encrusted opera glasses – the sapphires were false -she would inspect the white houses on the Slope, where the tenant farmers lived, or she would peer out to sea, where there wasn’t a boat to be seen, not any trace of the horror that fell from the lips of Antonia, the housekeeper.”

In Matia’s grandmother’s house lives her Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja, Aunt Emilia is an insubstantial figure, cowed by her mother’s domination of the household. Borja is a year older than Matia, a sly boy, capable of malevolent spite, he manages to always be on his best behaviour when the grownups are around. The housekeeper, Antonia, her son Lauro and a parrot complete the household. Lauro acts as a kind of tutor to Borja and Matia, following them around and keeping them company outside the house. Borja is spitefully cruel to Lauro, calling him ‘Chinky’ and seeming to hold some special knowledge over his head. Matute portrays this uncomfortable and unequal relationship well, the reader knows we are only just starting to see Borja’s real character.

The teenagers on the island all seem to have their own little ‘bands’ with whom they run around – I stop short of calling them friends, they are merely allies – for a time. Matia and Borja spending pretty much all their time together, have their band of hangers on too. This is summer, they all spend long hours outside, yet there is a darkness to this unfettered freedom, and bright, blisteringly hot summer days.

“A tiny green lizard came out from under a stone. The two of us remained very quiet looking at it. Our eyes were close to the ground and, from between the grasses, the lizard looked at us. His tiny eyes, like pinheads, were sharp and terrible. For moments it seemed like the awful dragon of Saint George, in the stained-glass window of Santa Maria. I said to myself: “He belongs among the men: the ugly things of men and women.” And I was at the point of growing and changing into a woman. Or probably I already was.”

Matia meets Manuel, an outsider, and feels instantly drawn to him. Manuel and his family have long been persecuted for their Jewish heritage. Manuel’s step-father killed by other members of their own family for his politics. This is childhood’s end for these teenagers and nothing is quite as it might seem. The story of Mallorca and these teenagers at this time takes place against a dark historical backdrop of anti-Semitic atrocities – the evidence of which still exists in the town square.

“From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat, terrifying and unsteady, mixing with the wind and sky. And it seemed that shining worlds could disappear there, and rootless echoes wander and be lost.”

Matute’s descriptions of the island and its landscape are beautiful, and yet there isn’t any feeling of idyll. This is a time of ancient hatreds and complicated allegiances – and a war is being fought not too far away. Borja hates Manuel and lets Matia know it, he is jealous of Manuel, when he learns there may be an unexpected connection between him and the powerful local landowner Jorge, who Borja clearly hero-worships from afar.

As the novel progresses, Matia starts to see things for how they are – how the real adult world is not a very nice place. Everywhere around her there seems to be betrayal or unkindness, the Fairytales she once loved so much are shown up to be lies.

This is a subtly lyrical novel, a coming of age story with a seam of darkness running through it.

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I have had a much better reading month this month (hooray) but more of that in my monthly roundup post in a few days. One challenge has helped me get through more volumes during November and that’s #novnov. Some of the novellas probably don’t warrant a post all to themselves – and so I am combining three reads in one post – which is also helping me catch up. Apologies for the long post.

Murder in the Dark – Margaret Atwood (1984)

Murder in the Dark, a collection of what are described as prose poems ticked another reading challenge box for me. November is MARM (Margaret Atwood Reading month) and I usually try to read a couple of things but this year have only managed this little volume. Prose poems is probably a good description, or vignettes, they are generally too short to be considered short stories. It’s always impressive how much some writers like Margaret Atwood can say in just a few paragraphs.

These little pieces are fabulous examples of Atwood’s absolute brilliance – several very bizarre – others rather funny, childhood reminiscences and observations of life. I just the love the way Atwood has of looking at things. She exposes the frailties of human nature, the balance of power between the sexes is a theme we come across many times in this little collection.

In Making Poison a group of very young children mix up a big pot of poison – adding all kinds of noxious substances having little idea what they will do with it. She recalls stealing Horror comics from the drugstore – reading them with her friend on the street outside the funeral home. She recalls Boyfriends, Liking Men and the Victory Burlesk. She discusses something as mundane as Bread – but gives it a little Atwood kick – and we suddenly see it differently. Men and women swap roles in a piece titled Simmering and it the titular piece knowing when to call a halt to a game of Murder in the Dark is vital.

“Men’s novels are about how to get power. Killing and so on, or winning and so on. So are women’s novels, though the method is different. In men’s novels, getting the woman or women goes along with getting the power. It’s a perk, not a means. In women’s novels you get the power by getting the man. The man is the power. But sex won’t do, he has to love you. What do you think all that kneeling’s about, down among the crinolines, on the Persian carpet? Or at least say it. When all else is lacking, verbalization can be enough. Love. There, you can stand up now, it didn’t kill you. Did it?”

(from Women’s Novels)

These pieces are full of Atwood’s wisdom and wit, her feminism and intelligence shines through – but those who dislike very short pieces may want to swerve this one.

The Story of Stanley Brent – Elizabeth Berridge (1945)

This sweet little hardback of only about 80 pages, The Story of Stanley Brent is published by Michael Walmer has been on my tbr for well over a year. Simon’s recent reading of it – reminded me it was one I intended to read this month I’m delighted I did, I rather loved it.

It is the portrait of a very ordinary man – a very ordinary life. Although this novella is very short – Elizabeth Berridge does a wonderful job of portraying a whole life – a marriage, a career neither of which are particularly unique. It’s in Stanley Brent’s very ordinariness that the poignancy lies for me – there must have been countless men like Stanley in that generation.

Stanley proposes to his Ada in 1907 – after which follows a long engagement. Finally they marry – and suffer an excruciatingly awkward honeymoon with Ada utterly ignorant of the realities of married life – Stanley is left feeling terrible – suddenly seeing Ada as a stranger. A young man horribly unsure of how to fix things.

“The sight of the flat sands, the quietness of the night, emphasised by the slight sea-noise of dark waters, bought him uncomfortably face to face with himself. Time seemed absent. This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself. He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging. He had never felt so helpless.”

It’s an inauspicious start – but they find their way in time.

 Stanley works in a firm of land agents in London, an old fashioned firm – when he is made a partner he and Ada can buy a house in the suburbs. Two daughters are born. He and Ada have different ideas – and while Ada thinks her husband should have some ambition, get himself into one of the new estate agent firms springing up in the suburbs – Stanley is content to stay in his old fashioned firm, that just don’t do the business it once did.

It’s hard to convey just how good this is – what Berridge achieves in this tiny volume is very impressive indeed. She presents us with a very realistic portrait of a couple often struggling to understand one another. She reveals their hopes, fears frustrations, parenting and frailties.

This is the sort of very short novella that really packs a punch, the characters and atmosphere of the piece are so memorable I am convinced it will really stay with me.

Under the Tripoli Sky – Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) translated by Adriana Hunter.

Another novella I have had tbr for a long time. One of the Peirene Press coming of age series Under The Tripoli Sky is set in the Tripoli of the 1960s. I love a coming of age story – and so that’s what drew me to it initially – no idea why I waited so long to read it.

Our narrator is Hadachinou a lonely boy – who undergoes a circumcision ceremony as the novella opens. In this segregated society, Hadachinou is able to slip through the sweltering streets virtually unnoticed, listening to the whispered conversations of the women, hearing their stories, a witness to their desires.

“They forget about me but I’m there, catching glimpses of them through the gaps where the tented awnings cross, watching.”

His friends are all young girls who don’t yet have to be segregated – he also likes the company of his aunts, his mother and her friends. This is a society where many woman are discontented with their lot, they have lots to complain of stories of violence meted out, for the slightest thing. He is a strange little witness to their lives – a boy who soon enough will soon take his own place in this patriarchal society.

His mother shares her own secrets with her best friend Jamila. A woman this adolescent boy finds an extraordinary presence in their home, when she comes to stay. Jamila is a woman much talked about in the community – gossip Great Aunt Nafissa tries to put a stop to. Jamila fuels his imagination at time when he is discovering his own desires.

This is an engaging little story of pre Gaddafi Libya, full of cultural insight of a society on the brink of change.

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Translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe

Daughters is the fourth novel by Lucy Fricke, published in the UK by V&Q books. Passed on to me by a friend with whom I often share books of fiction in translation. Although I read this at the end of October it was with the intention of reviewing it for German lit month which is hosted again by Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

This is a novel that tells the story of two women, one nearing forty, the other just over forty. Together they set off on a mad-cap road trip across Europe, a delightful evocation of friendship, and exploration of death and family.

Betty and Martha have been friends for years, Betty is unmarried, Martha married and undergoing IVF treatment for the child she is desperate to have before it is too late. Our narrator Betty has been struggling with her mental health for a few years, and regularly takes anti-depressants that she has been warned not to stop taking suddenly. As we meet her she is in Rome, intending to make her way to the grave of a man who was a sort of father to her years before. However, her mission is interrupted when she receives a call from her friend Martha that sends her hurrying back to Germany – recognising her friend is having a crisis.

Both women have had difficult fathers along the way. Betty had a couple of terrible fathers/father figures in her life, the one good one, she still remembers with great fondness the man her friend Martha refers to as The Trombonist. He was a man who lived with Betty’s mother when she was a child, a man who showed her great kindness. It is many years since he disappeared from Betty’s life, and about a decade since she heard that he was dead. Martha’s father is still alive – just about – Kurt – who for the first thirty years of Martha’s life had barely been around, especially not when he was needed. Now, old, sick, and widowed Kurt is back in regular touch with Martha. A few years into a cancer diagnosis he has floored Martha with his latest request – resulting in a crisis call to her best friend. Kurt wants Martha to drive him to Switzerland – where he has announced that he has an appointment – an appointment to die.

“Even if everything was exactly the way Martha had described it, I couldn’t picture it. How did you drive someone to the place where they would die? What were you supposed to talk about on the way? What were you supposed to eat? Was he even able to eat? Was it okay to listen to music? To enjoy the scenery? What the hell was it okay to do during someone’s final days and hours?”

Only following an accident – in which both women were involved, Martha can’t face driving any more, so she asks Betty to drive them all to Switzerland, it’s hard to refuse a father’s last request. So, with Betty driving Kurt’s old car, the three set off for Switzerland. Only, it seems that Kurt hasn’t been entirely transparent about his plans for this trip – and is soon directing them on a little detour through Italy, where he plans to look up an old flame – a woman he never really got over. Once in Italy, Betty is reminded of her original quest to find the grave of The Trombonist – who Betty remembers with such fondness, recalling him as she saw him then, with the eyes and mind of a child.

“… a gambling-addicted Italian, a devastatingly handsome macho, he’s put me on his shoulders and carried me through the good half of my childhood. I’d loved him to distraction.”

Both women are searching for their missing fathers – though in clearly different ways, they both have things to come to terms with about these difficult men. Betty is a lively, engaging narrator – her slightly sardonic narration making this a novel that beautifully balances humour and pathos.

As they leave Kurt in Italy with his old girlfriend – the two friends set off again – only Betty hadn’t planned on being away quite so long and has no more of her anti-depressant medication with her. As she starts to withdraw from her medication, Betty’s behaviour starts to become a little erratic. In the small town where The Trombonist is buried – Betty is surprised by the reaction she receives to his name – which sets her off on yet another journey – this time to Greece.

“That afternoon, we were stranded somewhere between partings and passings, between memories and fresh hope. It was time to go our separate ways now. I’d go to an island, and Martha would spend her last few days with Kurt the way they deserved to, true to their ideas of happiness and belonging. I was sure I saw something lighting up within her, a faith she had abandoned long ago but at that moment was almost palpable: a fleeting trust that everything does have meaning after all.”

This is definitely the kind of translated fiction I love, a bit quirky, written with feeling and humour, while exploring those things that at the end of the day matter to us all. I loved the friendship depicted here and Kurt was a brilliantly drawn character too. This novel was an absolute winner for German lit month – and has reminded me I should look out for more from the V&Q list.

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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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