Thursday, 18 September 2014

'A Distant Father' by Antonio Skármeta (Review)

I've been lucky enough to review some wonderful books from Other Press this year, so I was happy to agree to try the book reviewed in today's post, especially as it's a fairly short work.  Of course, life gets in the way of the best-laid plans (as do other books...), and it spent a few months on the shelves before I finally got around to it.

Which, in a way, is great timing - it's only actually being published today :)

Antonio Skármeta's A Distant Father (translated by John Cullen) is a short novella set in Contulmo, a small town in Chile.  It's the home of Jacques, a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher, whose return home from teaching college coincided with his French father's departure from the family home.  Now, stuck in the dull town, alone with his mother in their small house, Jacques spends his days teaching whatever needs to be taught at the local school and his spare time translating poetry for a regional newspaper.

Desperate for a change in routine, he persuades his father's old friend Cristián to accompany him to the town of Angol, where in addition to buying a present for a student's birthday, he'll get the chance to let off steam at the local brothel.  The trip turns out to be a memorable one, and not just for the reasons you'd imagine.  While roaming the streets of Angol, he discovers something which will turn his small world upside down...

A Distant Father is a beautiful little book, a story you can read through in a single-sitting (I did it twice, a week apart), a work which evokes the melancholy of youth and small-town blues.  In a town where everyone knows everyone else, there isn't much to do, and people tend to move away once they're old enough.  With few jobs, and a train service which is threatened with closure, it's easy to agree with the comment that the world is not made for small towns.

Cristián is Jacques' link to his father, and his quiet friendship is one of the young man's few refuges from sadness.  However, the silent miller has his own ways of coping:
"Cristián is an assiduous drinker of red wine, and his apron is eternally spattered with purplish stains.  He always offers me a glass, which however I always decline.  Drinking alcohol makes me sad."
p.18 (Other Press, 2014)
With alcohol only exacerbating his melancholy, Jacques needs other ways to escape from everyday life.

One of these escapes is language and literature.  Thanks to his father, Jacques is able to speak French, and he supplements his income by translating simple poems for a regional newspaper.  Hoping to fool people into thinking his trip to Angol is on business, he takes along his latest literary project:
"And so I've brought along a book by Raymond Quenau that the editor of the newspaper wants to publish in installments.  Prose is easier than poetry, but I do get all caught up in the fates of the characters.  Maybe that's because so little happens here.  We're secondary figures, not protagonists." (pp.31/2)
Again, Jacques is struggling with life away from the bright lights, living an urban life vicariously.  The book, by the way, is Zazie dans le métro, a novel about a provincial teen in the big city...

While it's a novella, A Distant Father works very much like a play.  Its short chapters act as scenes, and the simple, direct prose leaves much to the imagination.  There's a clever plot which is skilfully built up, with secrets involving birthday boy Augusto Gutierrez and his beautiful sisters Elena and Teresa.  The clues are there if you know where to look, but I'd rather not say too much more - I don't want to spoil it for you...

In short, this is a great little book with a lot to uncover in its few pages, and while I'm reluctant to give the game away, I'll provide you with one last hint.  The cover of the Other Press version has more to do with what happens than the title; the original title was Un padre de película, and the cinema entrance on the cover is a nice touch (I especially like the way the Other Press logo is used as door handles!).  OK, that's more than enough from me - go and read it ;)

Monday, 15 September 2014

'One Spoon on this Earth' by Hyun Ki-young (Review)

It's time for more K-Lit and another book from the Dalkey Archive Press  Library of Korean Literature - review number eight from the series to have made its way onto the blog.  So, do we have a joyous affair to celebrate that?  Erm, no...  Today's book continues the theme of trauma; in fact, it's a depressing book in more ways than one...

Hyun Ki-young's One Spoon on this Earth (translated by Jennifer M. Lee, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a stylised memoir of the writer's early life.  We begin with a visit to his birthplace brought about by his father's funeral, and as he muses on mortality (and how quickly life goes by), his mind inevitably turns back towards his childhood.

However, this isn't quite your standard Bildungsroman.  Hyun's hometown was on Cheju (Jeju) Island, and he was born at a very important time in Korean history.  No sooner had he managed to put the illnesses of early childhood behind him, than the whole island erupted into violence.  You see, 1948 saw the Cheju Uprising, and the narrator's childish eyes saw some very horrible things...

In my recent piece on O Chong-hui, the translators (Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton), described  Korean literature as a literature of trauma, and that's certainly the case here.  Hyun is scarred by his childhood experiences, both by the illnesses he suffered and the atrocities he witnessed, but the trauma didn't stop there.  In later years, he was arrested and beaten by the police for daring to write about an event which is still fairly controversial today.

The novel (if it is one) covers the writer's life up until he reaches the end of middle school, a point at which he considers his childhood to have ended.  His early years are spent in a rural region of an island which is far less advanced than the mainland.  While there is the occasional anecdote about playing with friends, much of the early pages make for grim reading.  In an eventful first few years, Hyun manages to survive scrofula, a cholera epidemic and a fall from a tree where he landed on his head.  The beatings and constant hunger are secondary concerns.

Part of the reason for Hyun's problems is his unsettled family life.  His father, a wandering man who neglected his family, absent for seven years of his son's childhood, is yet another example of the common K-Lit trope of the deadbeat dad (as is the over-worked mother, beating her kids with one hand, feeding them with the other...).  Another Korean cultural norm is shown in the refusal of the paternal grandparents to allow the young boy to join the mother at her parents' house in the nearby town, even though they have more room for him.  His place is in the house of his father - even if his father is nowhere to be found...

The first few years of life are merely the build-up to the uprising, though, with the cholera and famine of the post-liberation years pushing the islanders to stand up to the mainland troops 'occupying' the island.  What happened next was pretty disturbing:
"The attackers might have enjoyed the feeling of rabbit hunting, running after the people scattered in all directions in the snowfield.  Mostly the old people, the children, and the women with small children who couldn't run fast enough were targeted victims.  Mothers who beat their small children for not walking fast enough were shot, and their children were mercilessly bayoneted as if they were being skewered.  I was told that the blood spattered on the snow was monstrously red.  Mt. Halla was buried in the sullen clouds all winter long."
p.52 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
Once the uprising has been settled, we move on to the Korean war, where Mt. Halla once again features, with planes targeting the mountain top for firing practice.  These historical insights are fascinating, perhaps the most interesting parts for an outsider to read.

With the book being a semi-autobiographical work dealing with childhood, it's hard to avoid comparisons with a certain Karl Ove Knausgaard, and there are many similarities.  Both Hyun and Knausgaard grew up on an island, and their books (this one and Boyhood Island) cover pretty much the same period of their lives.  Both run wild, swimming in the sea and roaming the fields and woods, and there are even similarities in the description of slightly effeminate, book-loving young boys.

One Spoon on this Earth is not quite as elegant, though, and it's often clumsy and crude.  The cruelty of children is a frequent theme here, and with Hyun's tales of torturing insects and butchering pigs, it definitely isn't a book for animal lovers.  The writer is also fairly graphic with his descriptions of bodily functions, taking great pains to describe the exact colour of the snot dripping from his classmates' noses and where he went to masturbate in later years.  As for going to the toilet, there's a passage in which Hyun describes what he calls 'field shitting', which includes wiping his behind with a bunch of grass - or on a warm rock.  He then tells the reader:
"I'm sure you all know what it feels like." (p.94)
Erm, no...

While there's much that's interesting about the book, it does have its flaws.  It's rather repetitive at times, giving me the impression that it might have been serialised in a newspaper originally.  The way in which it's written (hundreds of short sections) and the fact that information is often reintroduced a matter of pages after the original mention certainly gives that impression.  However, there's another, much more serious, issue with the book...

Sadly, something seriously affected my enjoyment of the book, and that was that this is a really poor translation.  I usually give translators the benefit of the doubt, but here there is absolutely no doubt about the quality of the writing.  The key to a good translation, a fundamental requirement, is to make the translation readable in the target language, and that certainly doesn't happen here.  There are far too many sentences which just don't make sense, and the whole text is packed with clumsy, clunky expressions.  At times, it doesn't even read as if it was written by a native speaker of English.

So what exactly is wrong with the writing?  Well, quite apart from frequent poor vocabulary choices, odd prepositional decisions and the occasional wrong pronoun (he v she), one constant grammatical mistake was the lack of commas in defining relative clauses, a lack leading to many absurd sentences.  For example:
"My father who was in the mainland received the notice late..." (p.68)
No, he only has one father... (and it's *on* the mainland)...
"And we received an urgent message informing us that my youngest uncle who drove a police car died in an accident." (p.46)
Hmm - so how many uncles who drive police cars does he have?

It doesn't end there, though.  There are some truly awful sentences, pieces of writing that I had to examine several times to make sure that this actually was what had been printed.  Below are just a few of the worst (I could have added many, many more):
"For us children we didn't care about the speeches; it was fun to look at the speakers' expressions as they changed from pale to red and their ridiculously high-pitched voices." (p.54)

"The vast and flat grassland that sprawled out covered in snow because the scenery resembled those chaotic days." (p.51)

"Soon after, a fire broke out and one hut after another got caught on fire and burnt down more than twenty huts." (pp.65/6)
Awful, I think you'd agree (and if you don't, well, perhaps you'd better enrol in my ESL class...).  If you've been paying attention to the page numbers, you'll notice that this was all from a very small section of the book - after that, I just gave up taking notes...

I really don't like doing this, but the one thing that hurts the image of translated fiction more than anything else is bad translations - this is why many people avoid books translated from other languages (and why publishers hide translators' names inside the covers...).  I hope I play my part in praising good translations and making people aware of the wonderful work people like Margaret Jull Costa, Philip Roughton, Stephen Snyder and Anthea Bell do - sadly, there are times, like today, when I need to do the opposite.  Silence on the issue can't be a good thing, can it?

Thursday, 11 September 2014

'The Plains' by Gerald Murnane (Review)

I've been meaning to read more Australian literature for a while now, but my focus on fiction in translation has got in the way of that a little.  Actually, that's a slight understatement - in the first eight months of the year, I didn't manage to review a single Australian book...

However, with a trip to the Melbourne Writers Festival on the agenda, it was time to crack open one of the many books languishing on my shelves.  Gerald Murnane is a writer I've been wanting to try for some time, and (as I mentioned in my festival review) he's certainly an entertaining speaker.  Let's see what I think about his writing ;)

The Plains, one of the first titles in the Text Classics series, is a short novel written back in 1982.  It follows a man who ventures into inland Australia to explore 'the plains', an undefined area away from the noise of the east-coast cities.  His reason for visiting the interior is to work on a film, a piece which will capture the splendour of the wide-open expanses, and after a short period of adjustment, he meets a group of local landowners, whose patronage is vital if he is to be able to work on his project.

Things are very different on the plains, though, and time passes differently to how it moves in 'Outer Australia'.  As the days pass, we suspect that there is very little chance of the film ever being finished, the man's lengthy stay reaching epic proportions.  Still, the longer he works on his project, the more he realises that the plains are worth studying - even if he'll never be able to understand them completely.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much the whole plot of The Plains - if you're the kind of reader who likes things to, you know, happen in a novel, then I'd advise you to cut your losses here and go and find something else to do.  This is a work which moves at its own pace, a novel which, while it might be interested in may things, has little time for a reader who isn't prepared to settle down and forget the call of the outside world for a while.

The physical setting of the novel is the key to understanding it, and the filmmaker lays it out for us right at the start:
"Unchecked by hills or mountains, the sunlight in summer occupied the whole extent of the land from dawn till sunset.  And in winter the winds and showers sweeping across the great open spaces barely faltered at the few stands of timber meant as shelter for men or animals.  I knew that there were great plains of the world that lay for months under snow, but I was pleased that my own district was not one of them.  I much preferred to see all year the true configuration of the earth itself and not the false hillocks and hollows of some other element.  In any case, I thought of snow (which I had never seen) as too much a part of European and American culture to be appropriate to my own region."
pp.6/7 (Text Classics, 2012)
At times, the novel takes care in its description of the outside environment, the lengthy, unhurried passages contributing to the leisurely pace of the novel.

However, the detailed description is actually at odds with the vague nature of the location of the plains.  We know that we are in the interior, but where exactly the filmmaker has ended up is fairly unimportant.  One thing we do know is that the plainsmen have a great suspicion for anything which comes from the coast - or "Outer Australia"...

The filmmaker learns of the two great art groups of the region, rivals who debate the nature of the beauty of the plains.  However, when a third group attempts to spread its own views, the Horizonites & Haremen unite to drive out this 'foreign' concept:
"They discredited it finally on the simple grounds that it was derived from ideas current in Outer Australia.  The plainsmen were not always opposed to borrowings and importations, but in the matter of culture they had come to scorn the seeming barbarisms of their neighbours in the coastal cities and damp ranges.  And when the more acute plainsmen had convinced the public that this latest group were drawing on a jumble of the worst kinds of foreign notions, the members of the despised group chose to cross the Great Dividing Range rather than endue the enmity of all thinking plainsmen." (pp.33/4)
This idea of hostility to the big cities and 'Inner Australia' as a true nation might seem far-fetched, but it really is a different world away from the East Coast (Western Australia, for example, the large state on the other coast of the continent, often sees itself as a very different entity to the rest of the country...).

Putting aside the disputes with Outer Australia, though, life passes slowly on the plains, frustratingly so for anyone hoping to get things done.  The filmmaker's wait for an audience with the landowners takes much of the first part of the novel, and his days in the landowner's private library (mostly spent gazing out at a restricted view of the plains) pretty much fills up the rest of the book.  In fact, the more you think about The Plains, with its nameless characters, the futility of the main character's quest, with a film never to be finished, the more other writers' work comes to mind.

The quiet, ever-changing library, and the odd sense of time passing and yet standing still, definitely has shades of Borges, albeit a much more relaxed Borges, but the sheer futility of much of what happens reminds me unmistakably of Kafka.  We mustn't forget that this is Australia, though.  While Kafka's protagonists race around, shouting, blustering, hoping to force their way into seeing the right people, Murnane's creation is very much a man of his people.  He's happy to take his time - his appointment is in a pub, not a cramped office - and while he's waiting he may as well have a beer or five, as do his interviewers when he finally gets to join them...

The Plains is a beautiful, understated piece of writing, a relatively short book, but one which leaves the reader with a lot to think about.  Quite apart from deciding which of the rival camps to side with on the question of the beauty of the plains (does it lie in the vast, endless horizon or the microscopic detail of ears of wheat?), we are asked to contemplate the idea that possibilities are more important than achievements.  You see, when things are achieved, the other possibilities disappear (which again hints that the man's film is highly unlikely to be completed...).

The people of the plains go in for their own form of philosophy, one which looks for the meaning of life in a focus on very subjective truths:
"What might not follow, they ask themselves, if there should be nothing more substantial in all our experience than those discoveries that seem too slight to signify anything apart from their own brief occurrence?  How might a man reorder his conduct if he could be assured that the worth of a perception, a memory, a supposition, was enhanced rather than diminished by its being inexplicable to others?  And what could a man not accomplish, freed from any obligation to search for so-called truths apart from those demonstrated by his search for a truth peculiar to him?" (pp.110/1)
Which is probably a good place to note that any attempt to decipher Murnane's work is probably doomed to failure.  As he said in his talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival, nobody could ever come close to understanding what he wants to say through his work and what his novels mean to him...

Still, despite being indecipherable (and virtually plotless), The Plains is a great read, a soothing piece of writing which leaves you vaguely glimpsing a concealed philosophy, but unable to quite discern its contours - and yet you're not really that bothered (this is Australia, after all...).  I'm definitely keen to read more of Murnane's work, especially his first book, Tamarisk Row, and his latest, A Million Windows, as they were the ones discussed most in his talk.  Outwardly, Murnane and his novels are very Australian, but there's definitely something else waiting to be discovered at the core of his work - if you're just patient enough to wait for it to reveal itself...

Oh, while you're waiting, why not get yourself a cold one? ;)

Monday, 8 September 2014

'Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy' by Nicolás Casariego (Review)

Some of you will have seen the recent posts on my visit to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and as I said in the first of those posts, the main reason I went was to catch up with Spanish writer Nicolás Casariego to hear what he had to say about his first novel in English.  Casariego turned out to be a nice, happy sort of man, which was good to see - especially as his creation is anything but...

Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy (translated by Thomas Bunstead, review copy courtesy of Hispabooks) is written in the form of the diary in which a thirty-two-year-old Spanish lawyer decides that the time has come for him to set depression and pessimism to one side:
"Enough is enough.  I don't want to be a pessimist, or a victim, any more.  I reject the status of black hole.  This notebook, which I address and dedicate to Vidor Mallick, inveterate gambler and amateur loan shark, is proof of my will to optimism, that is, my great desire to become a man with a sunny disposition, happy, normal, one of those guys who springs out of bed every morning and has answers for pretty much every single one of life's many questions."
p.11 (Hispabooks, 2014)
A noble ambition indeed, but what can Antón do to achieve this goal?  And, more importantly, why does he feel the need for this radical step?

In pursuit of optimism and happiness, Antón decides to begin the search in books, and his family is happy to help out: elder brother Zoltan provides an armful of self-help tomes while younger sister Bela points him in the direction of the classic philosophers.  However, with family disputes and a major contract to work on, finding enlightenment isn't going to be easy.  And then, of course, there's the small matter of a woman who claims to be the mother of his unborn child...

Right from the start, Antón Mallick... was a book that just clicked with me, and I greatly enjoyed the time I spent in the world of the confused Spaniard.  What Casariego offers the reader is a picture of a man who understands that he isn't happy and has decided to do something about it.  First, though, he has to understand what exactly this elusive ideal he's chasing is, and he quickly realises that happiness is far easier to talk about than to identify:
"...happiness can be everywhere, except right here, the one place in which you and I find ourselves.  It is therefore, an invention, an imaginary refuge, a mirage in the middle of the desert, and it vanishes the moment you get close." (p.190)
As Antón progresses in his search for happiness, both in his reading and (mis)adventures outside his apartment, the reader feels sympathy for his hopeless cause.

As mentioned above, Antón isn't completely alone in his quest as his brother and sister are keen to offer bibliographic support; however, Zoltan and Bela aren't exactly models of happiness themselves.  The brother is a psychologist, one whose professional exterior hides a slightly disturbing character, while Antón's intelligent, charming sister is trapped in a stifling relationship with a lazy American 'writer'.  In fact, the only happy member of the family seems to be the Vidor Mallick Antón mentions in his diary entry.  It's a shame, then, that Vidor, supposed author of the book Confessions of a Once-Hungarian Spaniard, has been dead for well over a century...

Part of the success of the book is the way in which Casariego constructs his novel, using Antón's diary entries to both inform and deceive the reader.  It's a sort of therapy, and it's very easy to fall into the trap of trusting Señor Mallick and taking his assertions at face value.  However, in reality (as Casariego mentioned during his talk at the festival), the diary format allows Antón (and the writer) to be a little economical with the truth.  The careful reader will see contradictions and sense certain omissions, some (but not all) of which will make sense later in the novel.

The diary format in itself could get a little old very quickly, but the writer mixes things up by including several other text types.  In addition to Antón's thoughts on the books he's reading (sometimes considered, occasionally flippant and insulting), we see copies of e-mails, transcriptions of conversations on Skype and an unusual take on the life story of a Soviet satellites expert.  It does make sense, I promise.  Sort of...

Tony Messenger, over at the Messengers Booker blog, recently posted on this book and was a lot less enamoured with it, not even managing to get half-way through the novel.  However, while I can see why he didn't like it (it was around this point in the story that I had a few doubts myself), I think a lot of the flaws he pointed out were actually deliberate.  Antón is meant to be an unreliable narrator, and many of the more absurd plot developments are mere distractions, taking both the narrator and reader further away from the true centre of the book, the reason why Antón needs to go on this journey of discovery in the first place.  For me, at least, it does all eventually come together.

Which is not to say that all the threads are neatly gathered up.  It's true that the mystery of the woman-with-child is solved, and that the family manages to come together (and we do eventually find out why Antón Mallick isn't happy), but I wouldn't say that the end of the novel brings the closure I'd expected.  Which is why my question to Casariego at the festival session was about whether he'd ever considered writing a sequel (he hadn't, but I'll take the credit if he changes his mind...).  After all, the search for happiness is a rather long-term project, and I doubt that Antón will be reaching his goal any time soon...

Saturday, 6 September 2014

August 2014 Wrap-Up - Women in Translation Month

August saw the first edition of what will hopefully become an annual event, Women in Translation Month.  Hosted by Meytal of the Biblibio blog (who revealed her name during the month!), the event focused on the paucity of work by female writers in translation and attempted to turn a little more of the spotlight onto these authors.

It's hard to know how much of a success it was in the wider world, but it certainly generated a lot of interest in some quarters.  It was nice to see some publishers getting involved too (special mentions go to And Other Stories for their Tumblr series - here and here - and MacLehose Press for some suggestions on their site - here and here).  And, of course, every review on my blog in August (starting, in fact, on the 31st of July) was for the event :)

So, stats first - then my dozen reviews for Women in Translation Month :)

Total Books Read: 11

Year-to-Date: 86

New: 11

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 3
Review Copies: 6
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 2 (2 review copies)

Novels: 7
Novellas: 2
Short Stories: 1

Non-English Language: 10 (3 Spanish, 2 Italian, Korean, French, Japanese, Norwegian, German)
In Original Language: 2 (French and German)
Aussie Author Challenge: 1 (1/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 8: 1 (4/1)

Books reviewed in August were:
0) Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
1) My Son's Girlfriend by Jung Mi-kyung
2) The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
3) The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
4) The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik
5) Spirit on the Wind (and other Stories) by O Chong-hui
6) Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones
7) Numéro Six by Véronique Olmi
8) There a Petal Silently Falls by Ch'oe Yun
9) Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) by Jenny Erpenbeck
10) Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
11) Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli

Tony's Turkey for August is: Nothing

Christmas is looking very bare this year - looks like I'll be having toast instead of turkey ;)

Tony's Recommendation for August is:
Ch'oe Yun's There a Petal Silently Falls

Some great reads here, and it was a very close-run race.  The gallant runners-up this month were definitely Hanne Ørstavik's great story of psychological repression and Jenny Erpenbeck's time-twisting tale.  However, my choice goes to Ch'oe Yun's excellent selection of three long stories, a wonderful set of different writing styles and topics :)

With Women in Translation Month duties over for now, September will (hopefully) be a little more relaxing.  Then again, I do have a very big pile of ARCs looking over my shoulder...

Thursday, 4 September 2014

'Boyhood Island' by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

After a month of female writers, it was inevitable that I'd be getting through a few more testosterone-filled books in September, and who better for that than the king of confessional male writing?  Time for another slice of the life of a certain Mr. Karl Ove Knausgaard - and this one takes us right back to the start of it all...

Boyhood Island (translated by Don Bartlett) is the third in the series of Knausgaard's six My Struggle tomes, the latest to make it into English so far.  The book starts off with his parents' move to the small island of Tromøy, with little baby Karl Ove in tow.  What follows in the next 490 pages is the story of a boy growing up, with the book ending (for now) with his departure from the island at the age of twelve.

Much of the story follows young Knausi as he roams free through the landscape of both Tromøy and his youth.  He runs wild, spending sunny days in the fields and at sea, enjoying a free-range, sepia-tinted childhood, with football, sweets, music and girls as his main distractions.  It's a wonderful life, but there is one, inescapable, shadow hanging over his otherwise perfect days - his father....

I'd heard some less flattering things about Volume Three of the series, and many reviews and comments felt it was weak compared to the first two books in the series.  According to Wikipedia, Volumes Three to Five were written during the initial My Struggle uproar in Norway, and the writing of these parts was supposedly a little rushed.  Initially, I agreed with that view.  The book was great to read, and I zipped through the whole thing in no time, but the first half, in particular, felt at times a bit like Topsy and Tim go to Norway...

There's a lot more to Boyhood Island than that, though.  The simple tone is deliberate, with Knausgaard's style mirroring the simplicity of the child's thoughts, the adult writer keeping out of the child's head as much as possible.  In fact, as the story progresses, and Karl Ove grows up, the style does gradually become a little more complex, and it's a wonderful description of a boy emerging from childhood.

Knausgaard is only five years or so older than me, and there's a lot here that reminds me of my own childhood.  Quite apart from the physical escapades, his weaknesses bring back painful childhood memories.  He has irrational fears, terrified by the sounds the pipes make in his house; he's unable to swim a few yards over the deep water, even though his father is right there; he's deeply affected by childish teasing (there are lots of tears...).  And, of course, then there's the complexity of relations with the opposite sex...

As he grows up, Karl Ove becomes more self aware, getting over many of his earlier behaviours.  He also gradually realises his flaws, or at least the character traits which are seen as such by his classmates at school.  To an outsider, he's a geeky, bookish, slightly effeminate cry-baby.  Still, it takes him a while to realise why he's not really as popular as he'd thought (and hoped).

This was, of course, a very different time, and the young Knausi was able to roam free, pretty much at will.  He disappears for hours at a time, only coming back for food, a young boy enjoying climbing, skiing, swimming, boating:
"That was everything.  That was the world.
 But what a world!"
p.15 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
One of the biggest realisations I had while reading Boyhood Island is how different Karl Ove's childhood (which, as noted, was fairly similar to mine) is from that of the current generation who, for many reasons, are not given half as much freedom to explore the outside world.  My daughter is seven and I'm not sure if she's ever actually left the house alone...

What makes the book, though, is not the portrayal of an idyllic outdoor lifestyle, but the portrait of Knausgaard's father.  Calling him the shadow over Karl Ove's childhood is a fair understatement:
"The sole really unpredictable factor in this life, from autumn to winter, spring to summer, from one school year to the next, was dad.  I was so frightened of him that even with the greatest effort of will I am unable to re-create the fear; the feelings I had for him I have never felt since, nor indeed anything close." (p.287)
The father is an irrational power which Karl Ove can do nothing about - as a young boy, he is absolutely powerless and at the mercy of his father's moods and whims.  And if those moods are usually bad ones...

Unfortunately for Karl Ove, the father is a tyrant who cannot be gainsaid.  He's a school-teacher of the old-school variety, a strict task-master who brooks no opposition, handing out unfair punishments, devoid of any sympathy.  The poor son is frequently punished for events beyond his control:
"What are you doing?" dad said.  "Are you completely stupid?  You don't stack wood like that!"
 He bent down and scattered the logs with his big hands.  I watched him with tears in my eyes.
 "You lay them lengthwise!" he said.  "Have you never seen a woodpile before?"
 He looked at me.
"Don't stand there weeping like a girl, Karl Ove.  Can't you do anything right?" (p.145)
It's an amazing, sobering picture of the helplessness of a child in the face of adult antagonism, one for all parents to think very closely about.  While it may seem like a harmless release of frustration, it's actually a highly damaging attack on a fragile soul.

The scary part of Boyhood Island is, as I keep saying, how similar it is to my own childhood.  Like Karl Ove, I spent a lot of my time running free, playing football and setting fires (I've matured - a bit- since then), and I, too, was an indiscriminate and voracious reader, a boy without many friends.  A Man in Love having also struck a chord, in these books Knausgaard seems to be showing me my past and present - and as he's five years older than me, I have a nasty feeling that I've also seen some of my future...

It might not be quite as good as the first two in the series, but Boyhood Island is a book that definitely grew on me.  While initially fun, but a little plain, the dark side of the story involving Karl Ove's father saves it from being a dull read.  Again, though, as was the case with A Man in Love, I'd have to wonder whether it's a boy thing: will women connect with his childhood as much?  Part of the beauty of the series so far is how much the books speak to me, but do they speak to everyone?  Will Karl Ove's clumsy, distant views of girls ring as true with female readers as they do with men?

Do let me know if you have any answers to these questions;)

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage' by Haruki Murakami (Review)

After almost six years of blogging, I'm fairly used to getting books in the post, but I was still rather excited when an unexpected parcel arrived a few weeks back with a big embargo sticker on it  (it actually arrived half an hour after the embargo had been lifted, but still...).  Inside was the beautiful book you see in the photo, and I was sorely tempted to fling everything to one side and get straight into it.

However, a new Haruki Murakami book is always a big event around these parts, and I (just about) managed to restrain myself and finish the book I was on.  Then it was time to get started: one quick read, a two-week gap, then a leisurely reread before scribbling my random thoughts down in a semi-coherent fashion - and here's what I thought about it...

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (translated by Philip Gabriel, review copy courtesy of Random House Australia) is the story of thirty-six-year-old train station designer Tsukuru Tazaki, a native of Nagoya who moved to Tokyo for study and work and has stayed there ever since.  At the start of the novel, he has recently begun a tentative relationship with the beautiful Sara Kimoto, one he's hoping will grow into something stronger.  He's rich, good looking and successful in his job, so you'd expect him to be happy - sadly, that's not the case.

His problems go back to his younger days, when Tsukuru was part of a group of five inseparable high-school kids, each of whom (with the exception of Tsukuru) had a name which contained a colour.  Suddenly, without warning, the other four cut him adrift, and this rejection by his friends sent him spiralling into depression:
"All around him, for as far as he could see, lay a rough land strewn with rocks, with not a drop of water, nor a blade of grass.  Colorless, with no light to speak of.  No sun, no moon or stars.  No sense of direction, either.  At a set time, a mysterious twilight and a bottomless darkness merely exchanged places.  A remote border on the edges of consciousness."
p.33 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
The following months are a time of great suffering, and while Tsukuru eventually manages to pull himself out of the abyss, the events of the time have left a deep impression on his life.

Despite the importance of the relationship with his friends he never dared to ask why they cut him off, but sixteen years later, at Sara's prompting, Tsukuru Tazaki decides that it's time to confront the past.  Why was he ostracised by his closest friends for reasons he can't even begin to understand?  And, more importantly, why can't he move on with his life?

Early reviews of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... have been positive, and I'm not going to argue - while I liked 1Q84 more than most, this still feels like a return to form.  It's the story of a man nostalgic for his carefree youth, desperately missing something he once had, but can never reclaim:
"But you can't go back now?  To that orderly, harmonious, intimate place?"
 He thought about this, though there was no need to.  "That place doesn't exist anymore," he said quietly.
It was in the summer of his sophomore year in college when that place vanished forever." (p.23)
It's one of the more 'normal' Murakami books, but there are still plenty of the slightly off-kilter elements the reader would expect from his writing.  We're treated to dreams, strange characters, fascinating and secretive women, stories within stories and, of course, an unresolved ending.

When the title first became known in English, many people thought that it might be changed for the translation (it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue...).  However, it's actually an important reflection of the content and themes of the novel, giving several clues as to what lies ahead.  Quite apart from the colour aspect, there's the significance of the name 'Tsukuru' (the Japanese verb for 'make' or 'construct'), an apt name for a man destined to go out into the world to build train stations.  The name was chosen, after considerable deliberation, by Tsukuru's father, and it's hard to avoid thinking that rather than Tsukuru choosing his path in life, his name - colourless as it is - decided that path for him.

The second part of the title is just as important, as the years of pilgrimage that it refers to are not just those Tsukuru spends searching for the truth. Liszt's set of piano suites, Années de pèlerinage (which, in turn, takes its title from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre), features heavily in the novel, and one haunting piece, 'Le mal du pays', acts as a kind of leitmotif, recurring throughout the book.   Shiro ('white'), one of Tsukuru's group of friends, played the piece constantly, and a later friend Haida (whose name contains the character for 'grey'...) leaves the record of the suites at Tsukuru's apartment.  If Lazar Berman's interpretation of Liszt's work goes rocketing up the classical music charts, you'll know why...

The two-part title is also reminiscent, though, of Murakami's own Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and while the earlier book seems rather different, there are several similarities.  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... also has a double strand, with the two lives happening to two very different people (Murakami emphasises this by having the trauma of the rejection by his friends alter Tsukuru physically, in terms of both his face and his body).  There's also the small matter of dreams and the subconscious, always a feature of Murakami's work, and despite the 'real' nature of this novel, there's always a sense that some things can't quite be explained, that Tsukuru's dreams (sexual or otherwise) threaten to bleed into the real world.  As Kuro ('black') comments:
"But I do think that sometimes, a certain kind of dream can be even stronger than reality..." (p.238)
If you add to that the ambiguous ending and the feeling that Tsukuru is racing against time to save his relationship with Sara, the comparison between the books doesn't seem quite so absurd ;)

While in one sense the idea of colours is a bit of a red (!) herring (it's got nothing to do with why he was rejected by his friends), it does play an important role throughout the novel.  Part of Tsukuru's problem is that deep down he really does believe that he is colourless:
"There must be something in him, something fundamental that disenchanted people.  'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki,' he said aloud.  I basically have nothing to offer to others.  If you think about it, I don't even have anything to offer myself." (pp.100/1)
At the beginning, the reader is fooled into seeing things the way Tsukuru does, but once we meet his former friends, we begin to realise that Tsukuru has a lot going for himself.  His friends emphasise his good looks, his likeable nature, the way he acted as a glue to hold the group together - he just can't see it himself.  This is as true in real life as it is in the novel; it's all too easy to think of others as 'colourful' and much brighter than ourselves...

A further metaphor for this idea is offered by Midorikawa ('green river'...) a wandering pianist who appears in a story Haida tells Tsukuru about his father.  The man claims to be able to see people's auras, a window into their character, and later in the novel Tsukuru begins to wonder whether Haida was actually telling him about his own aura.  We could also consider Tsukuru's dreams in which black and white suddenly turn grey - but I think I'll leave that one for someone more qualified to examine ;)

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... is primarily a voyage of discovery for the title figure, but in many ways it's the character of Sara which is the most intriguing.  Many will see her as a simple catalyst, another of Murakami's stock female creations, but I'm not sure she can be dismissed quite so easily.  She seems far too eager to get involved in unravelling the secrets of Tsukuru's past for someone who isn't really in a proper relationship with him yet, and I was a little confused when Kuro mentioned having heard about her (a brand-new semi-girlfriend), despite not having talked to Tsukuru in sixteen years...

Were I to go out on a limb, I'd be tempted to say that the whole thing is actually in his head (the relationship, not the whole story - although...).  Perhaps the whole search for closure comes about because Tsukuru wants to get closer to Sara and realises that he's not going to get anywhere until he resolves his issues.  This would also explain what he saw when sitting in a café before flying off to meet Kuro.  Or, then again, perhaps I'm just making this all up, and the whole thing's in *my* head (that's the trouble with Murakami - you really can read whatever you want into his stories a lot of the time...).

While I saw many ties to Hard-Boiled Wonderland..., most will compare Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... to Norwegian Wood.  Stylistically, the two books are fairly similar, and both are about a thirty-something man looking back at a pivotal year of his life.  The difference is that where Toru Watanabe is focused on the then, Tsukuru Tazaki is fucntioning in the now.  There are also parallels between the women in the books, with the dark and light of Shiro and Kuro complementing the earlier couple of Naoko and Midori - whose name means 'green' (my head is starting to hurt).

Recently, at the Edinburgh Festival, Murakami said that he wasn't overly keen on the third-person point of view as it tends to create an air of detachment, but he does that here to great effect, lending the story a wonderfully melancholy air.  Digging down to the sentence level, though, it's not quite as good.  Murakami's sentences can often be clumsy and repetitive, especially in dialogue, and there are frequent examples of sentences I'm glad I didn't write:
"He stared fixedly at the image of of his naked body for the longest time, like someone unable to stop watching a TV news report of a huge earthquake or terrible flood in a faraway land." (p.36)
A translation issue, perhaps?  I doubt it.  Philip Gabriel is a fairly big-name translator, and with a book like this, I suspect that a lot of care would have gone into examining the text.  The truth is that Murakami's books are a good example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, where simple, clunky, sentences cohere into a mesmerising piece of writing.  I suspect that not everyone will agree with that assessment, though...

With Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... being a return to form, and I'm pretty confident that it is, the inevitable talk of his Nobel Prize chances will crank up again, but I'm not convinced that it'll ever happen.  There are much better stylists out there, and it only takes one or two grumpy old Swedes who are convinced that his work fails to transcend pop fiction to ensure it will never go his way.  However, he does have a fairly impressive body of work now (I have sixteen of his books on my shelves), and he has developed an importance as a gateway writer, not just for Japanese literature, but also for translated fiction in general.  He's a figurehead for non-Anglophone writers, a genuine literary superstar, and while there are other writers who I'd rate above him, I wouldn't begrudge him the honour if it came his way :)

So, having written far too much (and said far too little), how to sum up my thoughts on the book?  Well, I actually did it a few weeks ago on finishing the first read-through.  I dashed off a quick tweet which basically said:
"Really enjoyed this, a great book - the lovers will love it, and the haters will hate it.".
And that pretty much sums it up (I could have saved myself the trouble of writing the review, really).

Oh, in case you're wondering, I'm most definitely on the side of the lovers ;)

Sunday, 31 August 2014

'Sidewalks' by Valeria Luiselli (Review)

It's the last day of August, and that means that we've reached the end of the official proceedings for Women In Translation Month (although you're free, of course, to carry on reading as many works of translated fiction by women as you like).  My reviewing month started off (a day early...) with my post on Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd, so with a liking for symmetry, I decided it would be nice to come full circle to finish the project off.  Let's all go for a cycle through the streets of Mexico City ;)

Sidewalks (translated by Christina MacSweeney), a collection of short essays about life, death, language and pushbikes, was Luiselli's debut work in Spanish, but it appeared in English at the same time as her novel.  This was probably a wise move - it's unlikely that the general reading public would have had a lot of interest in a series of musings from an unknown female Mexican writer, a book that barely scrapes past a hundred pages...

...and that, of course, would have been a shame because Sidewalks is a lovely little find, a book which takes very little time to read, but is one you'd like to dip back into at a later date.  The structure of the essays is deceptively simple, with each chopped up into shorter sections, often a matter of a paragraph or two, and they often start off talking about one topic before flitting off on a tangent to look at another - and then circling back to where we began.

A good example is 'Alternative Routes', in which an early-evening bike ride, ostensibly in search of a Portuguese dictionary, turns into a discussion of the word saudade and its possible equivalents in other languages.  This turns into a lengthy digression on the idea of melancholy, including the origins of the word, and the way in which old notions have become new illnesses, treatable with pills:
"Bastard daughter of melancholy, the term nostalgia inherited the characteristics of black bile but never achieved its former divine status.  The magic humours of mother melancholy evaporated in the three dry syllables of her aseptic daughter: nos-tal-gia."
'Alternative Routes', p.44 (Granta Books, 2013)
A bit of melancholy, a touch of nostalgia - and then the ride is over, and we arrive back where we started, in search of the dictionary :)

This isn't the only piece which has Mexico City at its heart.  One of the most impressive sections is titled 'Relingos', which, as Luiselli explains, refers to the empty spaces left at the heart of a city by bad planning or good fortune.  As the writer thinks about these voids at the heart of her home town, she also compares the idea of relingos to the work of a writer.  What else is writing if not creating words and ideas in the vain attempt to fill a void...

A few of the pieces also touch on the experiences the writer has when moving around from country to country (as she has done all her life).  'Flying Home' starts with an air journey back to Mexico City, with thoughts of home interspersed with musings about the Mexican capital's (lack of) urban planning, stories of disappearing canals and old maps jostling gently with the frustration of the aeroplane inching slowly across the screen in front of her seat.

Then, in 'Return Ticket', we look in on the writer unpacking at a new flat, moving her personal library to its new home.  Even when thumbing through old books, though, Luiselli is still thinking about cities:
"Going back to a book is like returning to the cities we believe to be our own, but which, in reality, we've forgotten and been forgotten by.  In a city - in a book - we vainly revisit passages, looking for nostalgias that no longer belong to us.  Impossible to return to a place and find it as you left it - impossible to discover in a book exactly what you first read between its lines.  We find, at best, fragments of objects among the debris, in comprehensible marginal notes that we have to decipher to make our own again."
'Return Ticket', p.85
Once again, we return to the nostalgia that we saw mentioned earlier.  Having spent her childhood overseas (and her adult life shuttling between Mexico City and New York), perhaps Luiselli is looking for something that can never be found - or wasn't really there in the first place...

Sidewalks is a beautiful little book, a wonderful way to while away an hour or so, and it's one of those rare works where you're constantly stopping to jot down an observation or copy an interesting line.  The writing is witty and laconic, cleverly looping around on itself, and the foreword by Cees Nooteboom is rather apt as Luiselli has a similar style and eye for detail to the (much older) Dutch writer.

It is a very short book, though, even shorter than the 110 pages it officially runs to (there are several blank pages between the pieces), and with Faces in the Crowd also a fairly brief novel, those wanting to immerse themselves in Luiselli's writing don't really have a lot to choose from.  However, if you are interested in learning more about the writer, I do have a few suggestions...

Firstly, I recently came across this video interview (in Spanish, with English subtitles) in which Luiselli talks about her upbringing.  Also, for those whose Spanish is passable, the writer has a monthly column for the El País newspaper, a series of short observations on life in New York.  Finally, if your language skills are really good, her third book is already out - La Historia de mis Dientes is available in Spanish now (the rest of us will have to wait until the end of 2015...).

Off you go, then ;)

Thursday, 28 August 2014

'Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay' by Elena Ferrante (Review)

While Women in Translation Month is all about highlighting the overlooked, it's also nice to celebrate those female writers who have already managed to become well known in the Anglosphere.  Of course, if you're looking for big-name female writers in translation, nobody quite seems to have captured attention over the past year or so like Elena Ferrante, the elusive, reclusive Italian writer whose Neapolitan Novels have impressed so many readers.

With the third in the series about to be released, Ferrante's reputation seems set to keep rising, but does the latest instalment measure up to her earlier books?  Well, I'll let you know very soon, but be warned -  it's impossible to discuss this book without giving away details from My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New NameIf you'd prefer not to know, please look away now...

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (translated by Ann Goldstein, e-copy supplied by Europa Editions) continues seamlessly from The Story of a New Name, with Lenù introducing her new novel at a bookshop.  When a middle-aged man is less than complimentary about her work, she's taken aback, so it's fortunate that a white knight appears to defend her - none other than Nino Sarratore, her childhood friend (and crush...).

While Nino disappears again soon after, his work as a university lecturer means that he's in the same field as Lenù's fiancé, Pietro, and it's inevitable that they will catch up again.  Lila, however, is back in Naples, and with little contact between the two old friends, it seems as if their friendship has finally run its course.  Little does Lenù know, though, that she's fated to return to her hometown again and again - it's not quite as easy to turn her back on Naples as she'd like...

Those Who leave..., the third book in the Neapolitan Novels series (the series was originally meant to be a trilogy, but it will now extend to four books), looks at the friends' adult years, with a focus on marriage, kids and work, as well as a generational shift.  The spotlight, though, is on Lenù, as we are shown her life in Florence after marriage.  Initially, she is overjoyed by her success as a writer, but this soon passes and her liking for her new family also turns sour:
"...what am I to the Airotas, a jewel in the crown of their broad-mindedness?.." 
p.50 (Europa Editions, 2014)
With the inevitable, premature addition of kids, the intelligent writer soon gets bogged down in the minutiae of domestic life, her plans of a glittering career slowly fading beneath a pile of nappies.  It's a bit of a dull life...

Outside Lenù's apartment, though, things are a little less sedate.  This is the late sixties, a time of unrest throughout Europe, and students are rioting in the hope of creating a new world order.  In these tempestuous times, especially in the universities, there is a real sense of danger, from which Pietro is certainly not exempt (he's not exactly a man of the new era...).  While her next book is a bit of a struggle, Lenù is able to dabble in journalism, tempted into becoming a voice of the people.

While her friend plays with theory in Florence, Lila is living the practice down south.  Nothing seems to get on top of her, and even in a exploitative factory, her intelligence shines through.  She soon becomes a focus for action against the management, and as the pressure builds, matters are always going to come to a head.  You see, in terms of violence, whatever the rest of Italy can do, Naples can always do better...

Those Who Leave... is an entertaining book, but, in truth, I don't quite rate it as highly as I did the first two; there's a sense of its being a bridging book, a continuation of The Story of a New Name and a set up for the final part of the series.  Part of the beauty of the first two books was the electric relationship between the two women, a tie which, while never broken, was often stretched or tangled:
"I simply listened, overwhelmed.  With her, there was no way to feel that things were settled; every fixed point of our relationship sooner or later turned out to be provisional; something shifted in her head that unbalanced her and unbalanced me." (p.222)
This is largely absent here as the two women go about their separate lives, and even when they do meet, it's usually in the presence of others, and the expected confrontation is avoided.  Several times the tension builds to what we think will be a dramatic scene, only for the emotions to ebb away without ever coming to the boil.

The focus here is much more on Lenù, and that isn't necessarily a good thing.  Her life in Florence, as mentioned, is a little dull, and she actually develops into a fairly unpleasant character over the course of the novel, particularly in the second half.  In My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name, she is our voice, our eyes, and she always cut a fairly sympathetic figure, especially when Lila managed to bring her down with a sarcastic comment.  Not any more - at times, she's downright obnoxious...

Why?  Well, throughout the second half of the book, she shows herself to be selfish, lazy and aggressive, in addition to being annoyingly passive when she should be doing getting things done.  The story is basically setting up Nino's return, and this means that poor Pietro is in for some pretty shoddy treatment.  I actually thought that for much of this book, a view through the husband's eyes would have been much more interesting, looking at the friends and their families with the eyes of an outsider.  Perhaps we'd see Lenù then in a very different light.

Again, I hasten to assure you all that I did enjoy the book, and I do think it's worth reading.  However, it's not a book that can really be enjoyed without having read the previous two novels first, and I still believe that it doesn't quite match up to those.  Having said that, I suspect that my doubts will be set against a tidal wave of support for the book when other reviews start coming in.  One of the key ideas of the novel is the frustration Lenù feels at being stuck at home with the children, having to put her career on hold while she sacrifices herself for her family, and I suspect that this aspect of the story will be appreciated far more by other readers.

The reality, though, is that Those Who Leave... spends a lot of its pages building up to the final book in the series.  The lack of interaction between Lila and Lenù in this third volume is slightly frustrating - surely the final book has to bring their relationship to a head:
"Too many bad things, and some terrible, had happened over the years, and to regain our old intimacy we would have had to speak our secret thoughts, but I didn't have the strength to find the words and she, who perhaps had the strength, didn't have the desire, didn't see the use." (p.19)
I have a feeling the climax to the Neapolitan Novels will be a rather stormy one.  This is a relationship which needs to be examined further, and I'm hopeful that the two friends will finally get to the core of their friendship next time.  It's definitely time for a good, long talk, one in which those 'secret thoughts' are finally revealed...