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Posts Tagged ‘#WITmonth’

Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

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

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

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

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

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

(In Spring)

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

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

(The Listener)

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

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

(The Birthday Party)

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from French by Francis Golffing*

Sitting down to write this review and it suddenly seems to be a very long time snice I read the book – it is about 2 weeks. I really should be better organised with reviews – and make proper notes.

A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is a book of four stories – one of them the length of a novella – each telling tales of French resistance. Written at around the time theses events would have been happening, these stories are an incredible chronicle of a unique period in French history. However, the woman behind these stories is herself a fascinating figure. Russian born Elsa Triolet was an author and essayist of many books as well as a translator of Russian literature. She emigrated to France on her marriage in 1918 and was later decorated for her heroic role in the French resistance. She was a major literary and political figure in Europe – the first woman to win the Prix-Goncourt and became a peace activist after the war.

These stories were originally published illegally – the title of the final story and the collection is taken from the code used to signal the Allied landings in Normandy.

The Lovers of Avignon tells the story of Juliette Noël a beautiful young typist who lives in Lyons with her beloved aunt and the young Spanish boy she recently adopted. The war is a big disrupter of family life however, and following the death of her brother, Juliette has become involved with the resistance. She is asked to go to Avignon, an important message must be delivered – it is risky – but Juliette shrugs away the danger – telling her aunt and the child she will be home soon. In Avignon she meets Celestin – the man she is tasked with connecting with. It is Christmas time, and they have a few precious hours to spend together – pretending to be lovers – walking the ancient walls of Avignon reading the inscriptions left by recent real lovers in the years before the war.

“They had Christmas dinner in a restaurant. The whole country had made a desperate effort to dine well, or merely to dine, this Christmas. They ate Turkey with chestnuts. The waitress wore a starched apron. There were carnations on the table, bits of mistletoe overhead, and a little Christmas tree in the corner. The room was heated, and the garden behind the windows was celebrating Christmas. When they had finished their coffee they went up to Fort Saint-André.”

I think many of us can appreciate the poignancy of trying to make things as normal as possible during times that are anything but normal.

When Juliette returns to Lyons it isn’t long before she is faced with real potential danger – when Celestin turns up again. The fear here is palpable, the sense of being watched of everything being at risk.

The longest of the four stories is The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky and it isn’t until late into the story that any mention of the resistance is made at all. This is the story of an artist – drifting from Montparnasse to Lyons to the Alps – often in the company of his wife Henriette, he must hide his Jewish blood (a grandmother) while he attempts desperately to ignore much of what is happening around him and continue with his work. His bohemian lifestyle is little suited to wartime, and Alexis is often an irritated and frustrated man. Elsa Triolet is said to have based this character on Henri Matisse who apparently complained about the interruption to his work the war brought. Alexis continues to drift through France and through these days of war, he manages to have an affair – an infatuation that hurts Henriette a good deal before his eyes are finally opened to what is happening all around him, the risks that others are taking so that people like him can be safe. The woman who helps open his eyes is Louise – a journalist he knew in Paris, now working with the resistance. Part of Louise’s story is told in the next story in the collection.  

In Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree Louise, who we met towards the end of the previous story, has survived Nazi interrogation, and even escaped from a concentration camp. She is now lying low, at a safe house in the French countryside waiting to re-join the maquis. Louise passes the time reminiscing about her childhood in Russia, recalling her relationship with her mother and sister- and the world of their childhood. It’s a wonderful portrait and one I suspect is quite autobiographical, like Triolet, Louise writes her thoughts and memories in a notebook and buries them for safety under a peach tree when the time comes for her to leave.

The final story, termed the epilogue – A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is also the shortest piece. Like the previous three stories though it is rich in detail and enormously atmospheric. The story recreates the action that was undertaken when that code was broadcast on the radios that were being listened to in secret all over France. A small village in France and the resistance are ready for action, there is a parachute drop and everyone is ready to do their part. The Germans retreat but only after having left a trail of devastation and violence in their wake. The villagers suffer terrible reprisals for their resistance and Triolet brilliantly portrays the shocking realities of these times for ordinary people.

“They left havoc behind them; yawning doors, windows smashed by rifle butts. Everyone suffered his share: those who liked the Boches and those who didn’t, those who had ‘nothing to reproach themselves for’, and those who had.”

Throughout this book Elsa Triolet reveals a reality that can only come from someone who was there. It is an extraordinary testament to war and the unbelievable courage of those who were caught up in the occupation. I couldn’t help but wonder – what would I have done? Who would I have been?

* The translator is unacknowledged in my old VMC edition, so I took to Twitter to ask for help. Francis Golffing was the name suggested to me – and it looks probable it was. *

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Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Carr

I started my WIT reading early, so that I could get some reviews out at the beginning of the month. My first read for WIT is a VMC, ticking off All Virago All August too. Deborah is a highly autobiographical novel by Esther Kreitman the sister of two more famous younger brothers;  Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both of them writers, Isaac was the writer of Yentil and won the Nobel prize in literature.

Born Hinde Esther Singer into a rabbinical Jewish family in Poland in 1891. She apparently had an unhappy childhood; her mother disappointed her first child was a girl handed her over to a wet nurse for three years. Like her heroine Deborah she submitted to an arranged marriage and moved to Antwerp. Sadly, there appears to have been some division between Esther and her brothers, they decided not to offer help when she needed it and played no part in getting her work published in Yiddish journals. Her life, and that of her brothers seems to have been quite different. Having read the introduction by Clive Sinclair – it is possible to see a lot of Esther in Deborah.

The novel is set in the early part of the twentieth century (the novel ends around the start of WW1) – as the novel opens Deborah is fourteen. She is living with her parents; the unworldly, rather feckless rabbi Reb Avram Ber, his wife Raizela who is often sickly and her brother Michael. The family are living in a small Jewish village in Poland – the community here speak Yiddish rather than Polish, Reb Avram Ber is the rabbi – the family are poor, and life is very hard. The novel gets off to a pretty slow start – but the portrait of this community is instantly vivid – and I sensed this would be worth sticking with and it is, I was soon drawn into a novel in which in some ways little happens. Deborah is a bright girl, imaginative and romantic she longs for the kind of education preserved for boys, but her fate is to stay at home, to help her mother in domestic tasks, and be content with that.

In a bid for a better life – the family move twice, Reb Avram Ber taking up new appointments that he believes will enhance his family’s fortunes. The first takes them to R- (that’s as close we get to a name) – where Reb Avram Ber takes up a position in a school that is part of a Tsadik’s (spiritual leader) court.

“Deborah found more variety in life than ever she had done in Jelhitz. There the days used to pass with a great sense of security, with no expectancy of strange things to come; from morning to night and from night to morning time used to go its irksome way with unbroken monotony. Now life was unsettled, harsh circumstances played havoc with it. Trouble and cares descended on the family from all quarters, came swarming in like vermin from the walls of a rotten building creeping forth from every chink, and each time one chink as stopped up, two others appeared in its place…”

Life here is not any easier – the Tsadik’s promises seem empty ones, and often the family are left with no money. When freed from her duties, Deborah watches the students hurry across the courtyard coming to and from the school where her father is employed, and it is in this way she first catches sight of Simon – whose name she will not learn for some time. Disillusioned by their experiences in R- they family move again – this time to Warsaw.

Deborah has begun to grow up – she sees the world differently; her brother is allowed all the freedoms denied to her – and she longs to better get to know this city she is living in the midst of. Her father is asked to pass judgement on all kinds of spiritual and family difficulties that are brought to his door – including divorcing a gangster’s wayward daughter from her furious young husband. It is in Warsaw that Deborah begins to understand more about the inequalities in her world – she finds socialism and a group of young radicals, who inspire her. Amazingly, she meets again that student from R- Simon, with whom she falls hopelessly and silently in love with. It is not to be however, and Deborah is heartbroken. Numbed and hardly knowing what she is doing, she agrees to an arranged marriage to a young man in Antwerp – we sense that this will not be the happy ever after that Deborah deserves.

“When they presented Deborah with a long, golden chain and hung it round her neck, she shivered at the touch of the cold metal and at the thought that the most vicious of dogs might safely be tied up with a chain such as this.”

I can’t say too much more about what happens to Deborah from here – but the ending of the novel is powerful – heralding the horrors that were already unfolding in Europe when Esther Kreitman was writing and that would get worse.

Deborah is a vivid and poignant story of a world which we might not see very often in literature, her characters are real – and we know they came from life. Esther Kreitman writes with an unsurprising anger for the wasted lives and the horrifying fate that awaited so many of her community. It is a book that deserves to be better known than I believe it is.

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Well #Witmonth is nearly upon us, and again I am gearing up to join in with what has become a huge annual reading event. As many of you will know – for members of the Virago readers group on Librarything August is also when we do AVAA (all Virago all August – though no one expects to do that literally).

So, this year I have got together a few titles that will tick off both challenges at once. A close look at the photo above will reveal many of the titles I have waiting for Witmonth – embarrassingly, a few of them were on last year’s pile. I won’t go through all of them now – but there are several I am really looking forward to. I have started my WIT/AVAA reading early by starting Deborah by Esther Kreitman (1936) – a novel of Jewish life in Poland in the early part of the twentieth century – translated from the Yiddish by M. Carr. Some of the others I am looking forward to include A Fine of Two Hundred Francs by Elsa Triolet, Waking Lions by Ayelet Gunder-Goshen and The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa – not pictured because I have the paperback on pre-order. There are also some excellent looking titles on my kindle including, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar and Paula by Sandra Hoffmann.

Last year I posted my top ten #Witmonth books (to date) so if you follow the link that will lead you to a few more recommendations from me. However, if you’re are still after some inspiration, here are some more recommendations for some great books by women in translation.

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970) translated from Hungarian.

I have loved everything I have read by Magda Szabó – this was the most recent. It is 1943, and in Germany, Hitler is becoming frustrated by the direction the so called ‘Jewish question’ has been moving in Hungary. A senior army General in Budapest, sees the way the wind is blowing, knowing that their allies Germany will surely invade soon, he decides to send his fourteen year old daughter Georgina Vitay, across Hungary to a boarding school in Árkod, an old University town in Eastern Hungary. She has a lot to learn about others, and about what is really going on in her country.

The Artificial Silk Girl – by Irmgard Keun (1932) – translated from German.

An evocative portrait of the roaring Weimar Berlin of the 1920s/30s – it is also a wonderfully poignant story of a quirky, radical young woman, whose voice I found immediately captivating. The Artificial Silk Girl was Irmgard Keun’s second novel – banned by the Nazis it had been an instant best seller when it was first published. With the Nazis coming to power in 1933, this novel depicts life just before that tumultuous time.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (1997) translated from Norwegian.

Beautiful but brutal, this unforgettable novella, had me thinking me about it for weeks after I had finished. Love is the story of a mother and son, and one long, bitterly cold night of their lives. Vibeke is a single mother, she and her eight-year-old son have fairly recently moved to this Northern town in Norway.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (2010)– translated from Arabic.

A book I read quite recently; Celestial Bodies is a beautifully layered novel – told from several viewpoints. The story of a well to do Omani family and the society within which they live is told in alternating chapters, an omniscient third person narrator and Abdallah the husband of one of the sisters at the heart of this novel. The narrative moves back and forth in time, using the memory of various characters to reveal the story of three sisters, their parents, and in time their husbands.

Drive your plow over the Bones of the dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009) translated from Polish.

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

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (1943) translated from French.

This short novel by Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe is a beautifully written story about a woman’s passion for life. In this novella, Bourdouxhe subtly combines, tenderness, humour and sensuality in her exploration of a woman’s experience of life.  

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2004) translated from Icelandic.

Despite its rather abrupt ending – I really enjoyed this novel last Witmonth. At the heart of it is a free spirited woman, whose life it set on an entirely new course, thanks to an Icelandic road trip and deaf-mute four year old. It’s a charming novel full of colourful characters, long empty roads and self-discovery.

A world Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939 – 1945 translated from Swedish.  

Throughout the war, Astrid Lindgren documented the war as she saw it, felt about it and feared it, as well as what she read about it in the newspapers. Sweden had elected to remain neutral from the war – and given their precarious geographical position that probably saved a great many Swedes. However, their neutral position was one Astrid sometimes felt uncomfortable about – as she read about devastating occupations, war crimes and food shortages. The diary of a truly fascinating and intelligent woman.

Liar by Aylet Gundar-Goshen (2018) translated from Hebrew.

I persuaded my book group to read this last year – and though it divided us a little I think, I enjoyed this novel about a teenage girl caught up in her own terrible lie. Lies are tricky things – they have the habit of multiplying, taking on a life of their own – getting out of control. This novel explores the nature of lies and how quickly they can travel – what those lies might mean to the liar, and what the consequences could be.

Maman, What are we Called now by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar (1957) translated from French.

Persephone book number 115, first published in French in 1957, it was re-issued by Persephone in 2015. It is the diary of a few weeks in 1944, after the author’s husband was arrested. It depicts the last weeks of the German occupation of Paris.

So, there we are, what are you planning to read (if anything) for Women in Translation month?

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Translated from Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon

My latest read for #Witmonth comes from Iceland a country I am rather fascinated by as it’s a place I visited in 2017. I now really want to visit again. While reading I was googling pictures of the incredible landscape.

(It’s yet another book that I’m not counting for #20booksofsummer as I am trying to get the last four from my original list read now.)

At the heart of Butterflies in November is a free spirited woman, whose life it set on an entirely new course, thanks to an Icelandic road trip and deaf-mute four year old. It’s a charming novel full of colourful characters, long empty roads and self-discovery.

On the day that our unnamed narrator is dumped by both her lover and her husband, she runs over a goose and kills it. It’s not the best of days, she’s a thirty-something woman, a proof-reader who delivers her finished work to her clients by hand. Suddenly she is on her own, moving into a new apartment with her estranged husband dropping round every five minutes. What she wants is to get right away, far away – and she starts dreaming of a tropical get-a-way. However, her plans are thwarted when her best friend, expecting twins is hospitalised for the last three months of her pregnancy. The friend already has a four year old son – Tumi, a deaf child who communicates with a mixture of sign language and sounds difficult to decipher.

“The only thing mothers have in common with each other is the fact that they slept with a man while they were ovulating without the appropriate protection”

When Tumi’s mum asks our narrator to take care of him while she is hospitalised, she is suddenly thrust into a maternal role she is not very comfortable with. With no real idea how to care for a young child, much less one with Tumi’s needs – she can’t sign – there’s a difficult start for both of them. Tumi chooses some numbers for a big lottery draw and they win. Needing a break, and having charge of Tumi for three months, our narrator decides to put some distance between herself, her ex-husband and his new partner.

“You bid your husband farewell forever with a vigorous handshake and then meet him the next morning buying sesame seed bread rolls in the local bakery, queuing in the bank at lunchtime, swimming in the pool in the afternoon, or at the registry office later in the week, and then, the weekend after that, at the theatre with his new significant other – always inevitably bumping into each other.”

So, setting aside her previous tropical plans, she and Tumi set off on a trip across Iceland with a glove box stuffed with lottery winnings. Her destination a summer cottage over on the East coast near to where she grew up, a prefabricated cottage with no electricity she won in another competition (I wish I had such luck). More unusually (for Icelanders) is that she and Tumi set out in November.

Along the way our narrator encounters long, lonely roads, storms and the haunting rugged landscape of the Icelandic Ring Road. Tumi sits quietly in the back, and initially it is easy to forget he is there. She and Tumi have various overnight stops along the way, and as they travel and get to know one another better, they also meet a handsome falconer, an Estonian choir, stop at a cucumber farm and little Tumi comes away with a kitten. As the unlikely duo travel an understanding between them begins to develop, the author depicts their changing relationship beautifully. We can feel out narrator’s focus start to shift, she makes mistakes but has more understanding for Tumi than she realises.

“It’s difficult to gauge distances in the dark; there are no landmarks here. If there were anyone else around I’d ask for directions. I can see through the rear-view mirror that Tumi is tired and feel such an overwhelming responsibility, it’s worse than being alone – I’m responsible for another person’s happiness. The area is incredibly black. No echo of life disturbs the silence of this wilderness.”

Throughout the novel in italicised sections we get flashbacks to our narrator’s past – things that help us understand what has brought her to where she is – and her attitudes to relationships and motherhood.

I really enjoyed this novel – I loved the setting especially, and Tumi is a delightful little character. My only grumble comes right at the end of the novel, which seems to end rather abruptly. I actually thought there was about 40 pages to go – when it all ended – and there were instead a lot of recipes (food mentioned in the book) that follow. I was quite taken aback – I reread the last two or three pages and yes, it works and hangs together – but still feels very abrupt.

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Translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

When I bought this little collection of stories, I did so because I wanted to learn something about a country that I don’t know much about. I also wasn’t aware just how small a collection it was. As it was, I read it in the car on the way home from Devon last Saturday.

Before I started reading Thirteen Months of Sunrise, I had to ask myself what I knew about Sudan – and the answer was not much. My impressions of the country coming almost entirely from BBC news reports. I found myself googling pictures of the cities in Sudan so I could at least have some realistic images of the places I was reading about.

Rania Mamoun is a Sudanese author, journalist and activist, Thirteen Months of Sunrise is her debut collection of stories, though she has previously published two novels in Arabic.

“Thirteen is not a superstitious or unlucky number, it’s the number of months in a year in Ethiopia.

But that’s another story.”

There are ten stories in a collection that only runs to 70 pages, some are really very short indeed. What I found particularly fascinating was how over the course of all the stories a portrait of modern Sudan starts to emerge.

The collection opens with the title story, in which a young woman working in a computer shop meets an Ethiopian man. She fixes his computer and they start to get to know each other. They talk about Abyssinian culture and start spending more time together.

“We laughed a lot that day, and when he said, ‘I feel at home in this country,’ I was filled with joy that I’d managed to ease his sharp loneliness.”

In Passing, a young woman mourns her father – hears his voice asking why she never became a doctor. She remembers Eid, the day her father became ill. It’s a poignant reminder, should we need it, that whoever we are, wherever we may happen to live, the loss of a parent is always seismic, whatever it is that roots you to this earth is severely shaken.

“Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer. I’m flooded with memories: I feel the warmth of your embrace; the warmth of the bed where as a child I slept beside you instead of Mother; you coming home from your errands, me sticking to you like glue. Mother tried to separate me from you, but I didn’t listen. ‘He’s going on a trip tomorrow,’ she’d tell me, and I’d say: ‘But he’ll come back.’”

In Doors, a man leaves his home for a new job. The water isn’t on that morning, he hasn’t paid the bill, the bathroom door is riddled with holes, but nothing can spoil his good mood. A new job, things are looking up. I read on with a sinking feeling.

“He reached the businessman’s office on the second floor, and gazed at the beautiful door, solid and well made. It must be from a factory that makes doors and windows and other things, or maybe it’s imported, he thought to himself. At any rate, it definitely hadn’t come from a workshop in the nearby industrial zone.

A sleek, elegant plaque was affixed up high, engraved with the word DIRECTOR.

He felt the door, how cold it was, and took a deep breath. He grasped the handle and said to himself: I’ve done it; at last I’ve made it into the world.”

In A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle a woman wonders about the elderly woman who appears to have chosen to sleep on the ground near the mosque wall. She’s made a home of sorts under the neem tree, but other people in the neighbourhood said she used to own a house, has children and was tricked out of her money by ‘Madam Cash’. Some people call her a mad woman, the narrator wonders why she is all alone here, why does she keep running away from her family.

In other stories; a woman goes to a charity office day after day to beg for the money needed to help her dying son, children go hungry, a woman travels by bus from one city to another watching a fly on the window. They are stories of ordinary people, the destitute and the lost, in the midst of which we witness those things which make life so difficult for people in Sudan.

Rania Mamoun’s thought provoking collection explores isolation and estrangement within Sudanese urban life. Here is the deep love of a woman for her country and she writes about it with a complete understanding.

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Translated from French by Faith Evans.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy

It’s not very long since I last read Madeleine Bourdouxhe but this little collection from Pushkin Press was just so perfect for #Witmonth I couldn’t possibly hang on to it any longer. I love the cover image – what a fabulous attitude.

Seven of these eight stories have a woman right at the heart of them, just one story concerns a man. Taking place in Belgium and France just before or just after the Second World War, the period during which most of them were written these stories depict ordinary women. Women who are reflective, lonely or locked in unsatisfying relationships. Three of the stories were written much later as Faith Evans explains in her introduction. The occupation overshadows many of these beautiful stories – with two of the stories, the first and the last based quite heavily on Bourdouxhe’s own experiences.

In the title story; A Nail, A Rose Irene walks homeward through the icy and darkness, ruminating on her failed relationship. Suddenly, she is attacked by a man from behind, he is wielding a hammer somewhat half-heartedly. Irene engages the man in conversation – he helps her stem the bleeding, walks her home – he is oddly childlike in his eagerness to please.

“He got out his handkerchief and tried to clean her hair, to staunch the wound. She was standing up, her heart racing. A man was wiping blood from her hair – and although he was doing it gently, she was in pain. He was holding the torch on a level with their faces, and she could see his pale greyish skin and the lock of brown hair that fell on to his forehead. He’d pushed his cap back and his face looked young and very thin. It was the face of an archangel or a fool: that look could belong to either one or the other.”

From here the attacker seems to begin to romantically pursue Irene – who appears less alarmed by this behaviour than one might imagine. The whole story has a bizarreness that can only come from real life. It’s a fabulous opening to an excellent collection.

Five of the stories are titled with the names of their central characters; Anna, Louise, Leah, Clara, Blanche and René. Here we have housewives who dream about the possibility of another life; one of them Anna is fascinated by the woman across the road – who like Anna is living above a garage, serving petrol to travellers who come along, but the other woman has a fancy chignon in her hair. Leah is involved with strikers; Leah finds herself taking drastic action to help the strike achieve its desired ends. Louise is a maid who longs to escape the drudgery of her life, she spends her day looking forward to the evening when she will go out, have a drink and maybe speak to men. She dreams of being friends with her employer – Madame – and tries on Madam’s coat. René is a hairdresser – who has an odd slightly dreamlike, fantastical encounter with one of his clients.

Sous le pont Mirabeau is the longest story in the collection, published here for the first time in English. The illustrations which first accompanied it reproduced with it. It is a story, which like the opening story is based on events in Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s own life.

“There were people everywhere, men, women and children, twenty or twenty five in a lorry, seven or eight in a vehicle meant for four. She was stretched out in the back of a lorry, her tiny baby on top of her, looking straight ahead with impatience in her eyes. She’d brought it upon herself, she thought, getting caught up in this escape – yet she wasn’t really fleeing or abandoning anything, she was merely responding to an appeal. The clarity of her memories guided her like a star.”

Set in 1940, it depicts the desperate flight of Belgians trying to get to France at the time of the occupation. A woman gives birth to a daughter just as the evacuation begins. She has no option, but to take her tiny daughter on the perilous journey, travelling in jeeps with soldiers, staying with kind-hearted strangers along the way.  It is an extraordinary reminder of the times, just what hardships people had to face in the midst of the fear and disruption of occupation. There was clearly much uncertainty and yet despite that, there is hope.

This is an excellent collection – I do hope there is more Madeleine Bourdouxhe novels and stories to be discovered and translated into English. If you’re yet to discover her short novels; La Femme des Gilles and Marie are both wonderful.

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