Sunday, 30 March 2014

'Le Grand Meaulnes' by Alain-Fournier (Review)

After working my way through a whole pile of review copies in an attempt to give myself some breathing space before my IFFP reading got underway, it was time for something a little different, a return to old comforts.  I was looking for something I hadn't read in a while, and I also wanted to practice my increasingly rusty and creaky French before I found it too difficult to bother with.  The answer?  Well, my shelves have something for every occasion ;)

Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, published in 1913, has become a true French classic.  It's the story of François Seurel, a teenage student, whose life is turned upside-down one day by the arrival of another boarder at the Seurels' village school - Augustin Meaulnes.  Le grand Meaulnes, as he is soon dubbed by his classmates (both for his size and his charisma), becomes firm friends with the smaller, frailer François, taking over as the head of the class, the shining star of the establishment.

One day, however, Meaulnes skips school, having decided to take a horse and cart to pick up François' grandparents from a distant railway station.  Unfortunately, he fails to return that day, with the horse and cart being returned after dark by a traveller who found them abandoned in the middle of nowhere.  A few days later, just as François' father is on the verge of departing to tell Meaulnes' mother of his disappearance, the weary student makes a dramatic entrance into the schoolroom.  Once he has recovered, François persuades him to tell the story of his journey - and it's a very good one...

Le Grand Meaulnes is a wonderful story of the magic of youth, a time when all kinds of adventures seem possible.  François (along with the reader) lives vicariously through Meaulnes' hopes and dreams of finding his true love.  However, in the final part of the book, it becomes a more sombre adult affair, a tragedy of dashed hopes and expectations.

The story revolves around Meaulnes' brief stay at 'le domaine perdu', a lost estate in the middle of nowhere.  Eight days before Christmas, the daring young student finds himself in a run-down, semi-deserted castle, in the middle of his very own fairy tale.  On a walk through the grounds, he glances into a stream and barely recognises himself:
"Il s'aperçut lui-même reflété dans l'eau, comme incliné sur le ciel, dans son costume d'étudiant romantique.  Et il crut voir un autre Meaulnes ; non plus l'écolier qui s'était évadé dans une carriole de paysan, mais un être charmant et romanesque, au milieu d'un beau livre de prix..."
p.78 (Fayard - le Livre de Poche, 1983)

"He noticed himself reflected in the water, as if angled towards the sky, in his disguise of a romantic student.  And he saw another Meaulnes; no longer the student who had made off in a farmer's cart, but another being, charming and novelesque, in the middle of a fine romance..."
(my translation)
The strange lights and laughing children he then encounters are heralds of preparations for the arrival of Frantz de Galais and his new bride - you see, he's gatecrashed a wedding...

It's here that he encounters the sister of the prospective groom, Yvonne de Galais, a beautiful, unreachable fairytale princess, and he falls hopelessly in love.  However, having left in the dark, with no idea of the direction his carriage has taken, Meaulnes is unable to find out exactly where he has been.  On returning to the drab everyday life of his studies, he vows to spend his youth searching for the scene of the wedding, hoping desperately to find the young woman who has stolen his heart.

Finally, through François, he uncovers the secret of the lost estate - and the two young lovers meet again:
"Puis le group entoura Mlle de Galais.  On lui présenta les jeunes filles et les jeunes gens qu'elles ne connaissait pas...  Le tour allait venir de mon compagnon ; et je me sentais aussi anxieux qu'il pouvait l'être.  Je me disposais à faire moi-même cette présentation.
  Mais avant que j'eusse pu rien dire, la jeune fille s'avançait vers lui avec une décision et une gravité surprenantes :
  "Je reconnais Augustin Meaulnes", dit-elle.
  Et elle lui tendit la main." (p.204)

"Then the group gathered around Madamoiselle de Galais.  They introduced the young girls and the young folk she didn't know...  It was almost the turn of my companion; and I felt every bit as nervous as he must have been himself.  I readied myself to make the introduction.
  But before I could say a word, the young woman moved towards him with surprising decisiveness and gravity:
  "I recognise Augustin Meaulnes", she said.
  And she offered him her hand."
So everything ends up happily ever after?  Not quite - unfortunately, life doesn't always run like a fairytale...

While the the book is entitled Le Grand Meaulnes, in fact, it is just as much about Seurel, and the longer the story goes on, the more he comes to demand our attention.  François grows up and matures, gaining a position as a village teacher and having to take care of his friends.  As Meaulnes dashes off on his fairytale adventures, Seurel is the one left behind in the real world.  The poor young man also has to deal with his unspoken love for Yvonne, which is subordinated to his platonic love for Meaulnes; in the end, he is left with sadness, and crushed hopes...

Le Grand Meaulnes is a wonderful novel with some beautiful writing.  In addition to a compelling, fascinating story, the book is full of elegant description, especially of the country surrounding the villages.  It's a story about fairytales and what comes afterwards, and the writer explores what happens after the end of the conventional myth.  When the two lovers find each other, and the reader closes the book happily, it's really just the start of the story.

My edition came with an introduction and a detailed afterword (the French are very big on supplementing their classics...), allowing me to discover that the novel was based on actual events.  The setting is the fictionalised scene of Alain-Fournier's childhood, and the romance with Madamoiselle de Galais is based on the writer's own unrequited love for a young woman named Yvonne de Quiévrecourt.  Allowing his creation to find his true love was, perhaps, the writer's way of dealing with his sadness.

Sadly, Le Grand Meaulnes was Alain-Fournier's only novel.  The First World war broke out the year after its publication, and towards the end of 1914, the writer was killed in battle - his body was never found.  With a life, and career, cut tragically short, all that remains as his legacy is a wonderful novel of shattered dreams...

Thursday, 27 March 2014

'The Dark Road' by Ma Jian (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 9)

After a couple of diversions, I'm back on my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey, with today's leg taking us on a watery trip though the Chinese provinces.  A word of warning before we begin, though - this is most definitely not one for the faint of heart (or weak of stomach)...

The Dark Road by Ma Jian - Chatto & Windus
(translated by Flora Drew)
What's it all about?
Meili is a young woman pregnant with her second child, which in most places would be a cause for celebration.  Sadly, this is late-twentieth-century China, and the womb is the property of the state, meaning that for those who get pregnant without permission, the so-called Family Planning Officers are able to come and issue fines - or worse.

With Meili's husband, Kongzi (a seventy-sixth-generation descendant of Confucius) set on producing a male heir, the small family is forced to flee their home village, taking to the polluted waterways in an attempt to find a safe place to bring a son into the world.  Sadly, there are few safe places in this country, particularly for those unfortunate enough to be born both peasants and poor - this is a journey which will take a very, very long time...

A warning - The Dark Road is one of the most upsetting books I've ever read.  From the very first chapter, Ma plunges the reader into a chaotic, brutal world where our nerves are shredded simply by reading about Meili's experiences.  Every time that Meili and Kongzi appear to be making headway, you can guarantee that there's another disaster waiting around the corner, each more horrible than the last.

It's a novel of life in a totalitarian state, a country which has taken control of the most basic functions of life.  Most people will have heard of the One-Child Policy, but few will have envisaged the way in which it was carried out:
p.15 (Chatto & Windus, 2013)
The state has its eye on all women of child-bearing age, jumping in with mandatory IUD insertion and forced sterilisations, seemingly on a whim.  With slogans like this posted and painted on walls all over the towns and villages, it's a wonder that women dare to fall pregnant at all.

That they do, and this is certainly the case with Meili, is mainly due to the importance of the male heir in Chinese society.  In fact, while the state may have primary control of the uterus, the husband is next in line, well before the woman herself.  As one of Meili's friends comments:
"Take my advice: never rely on a husband for your happiness.  The government persecute men, then men persecute their wives in return." (p.26)
Much of Meili's suffering is brought about by the stubbornness of her husband.  A kind, educated, decent man, he is simply unable to accept life without a son and is determined to do anything he can to fulfil his filial duty.  You'd think that the well-being of his wife and daughter would take priority when the Family Planning Officers are (literally) above the law - you'd be wrong...

The novel is about far more than the effects of the One-Child Policy though.  The family's flight southwards allows the writer to take aim at several other contemporary Chinese issues.  Some of them are environmental, such as the effect on the communities forcibly relocated to make way for the impending Three Gorges Dam and the horrific pollution caused by the dumping of recycled electronic products in Guangdong Province.  The picture Ma paints of this part of China is not a pretty one.

However, the novel also explores the plight of the 'peasant' in a country where (as was the case in countries like France and Russia centuries ago) free movement is impossible.  Meili dreams of becoming a city dweller, but while she is able to mimic city fashions, she has little hope of actually making it one day:
"So, what documents do you need to avoid arrest?" Dai asks, brushing some white cotton fluff from his jumper.
"Identity card, health certificate, temporary urban residence permit, temporary work permit, birth permit, marriage licence..." Kongzi says, rattling off the list.  "But even if you have them all, if you are in a big town or city, and you look like a peasant, they'll still arrest you.  And once you're in handcuffs, they'll squeeze as much money from you as they can." (p.101)
With corrupt officials all around, one false step will see Meili lose all the ground she has painstakingly made over years.  It's not easy being a 'peasant'.

In the end though, the story always comes back to Meili and the fight for a chance to raise her children in freedom.  It's an incredible tale, made all the more chilling by the realisation that it's mostly true.  The writer spent time incognito in China researching the information - not only could this happen, it did, every day...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Personally, I'm undecided.  The Dark Road is an excellent book, both fascinating and compelling, but it has one flaw for me, and that is the way the writer strings the reader along with his plotting.  While it's an important novel, one which allows us to witness events we would not have been able to experience otherwise, there are far too many cliffhangers and dramatic scenes.  Ma deliberately ratchets up the tension time and time again before finally unloading the next bombshell - it's certainly effective, but I felt manipulated at times, and that took the novel down a few points in my estimation.

Will it make the shortlist?
Almost definitely.  This has all the makings of a potential winner, ticking just about every IFFP box you can think of.  In my BTBA v IFFP discussion a while back, one idea that came up was that the British prize is very much concerned with problems and social issues, and this is a fairly major one.  A couple of years back, Yan Lianke's Dream of Ding Village, a novel about an AIDS epidemic in China brought about by a drive for selling blood, made the shortlist (and was highly commended) - The Dark Road is a far better novel.  Don't be surprised if you see Ma Jian and Flora Drew (writer and translator, husband and wife) accepting the prize in May :)

Time to move on, and while I'd love something cheery after all these dramas, I suspect that I'm unlikely to get it.  The next stop on the tour is Iraq, and in a country devastated by war, there are pretty much guaranteed to be corpses...

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

IFFP Guest Post by Jacqui Patience - 'A Meal in Winter' by Hubert Mingarelli

After last week's look at A Man in Love, it's once again time to welcome Jacqui to the blog for one of her guest reviews on this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize contenders.  Today's choice is a book I haven't managed to read yet, so I'm very keen to hear what she has to say - take it away, Jacqui ;) 

Hubert Mingarelli's A Meal in Winter (from Portobello Books, translated by Sam Taylor) is a slim novella, yet it punches well above its weight. The setting is the heart of the Polish countryside at the time of the Second World War. The novella opens in a military camp as three German soldiers - Bauer, Emmerich and the unnamed narrator of the narrative - appeal to their camp commander by volunteering to look for any Jews who might be hiding in the surrounding area. By so doing, the soldiers hope to avoid the more harrowing task of executing captives, as they would ‘rather do the huntings than the shootings’. The commander grants the soldiers’ request, and they leave at the crack of dawn the following morning before the first shootings begin. This means missing breakfast, too, but it’s a price they’re willing to pay to avoid their immediate supervisor, the heartless Lieutenant Graaf.

As the soldiers spend a gruelling day combing the countryside in search of a Jew (‘one of them’), the bitter chill of winter and lack of nourishment begin to take their toll:
We came down from the hill where we had smoked. Bauer whined like a dog that he should never have sat down in the snow, that he felt cold all over now. Emmerich told him to stop, though he said it lightly, not really meaning it. Bauer yelled at us that he’d decided to whine until dark. We found another road and stayed on it for a while. It was a relief not to sink into snow at every step. On the whole, we preferred the frozen potholes, even if they were dangerous.
p.32 (Portobello Books, 2013)
I was beginning to feel hungry, but I didn’t dare bring the subject up yet. None of us had dared mention it since we left that morning. My stomach ached. Sometimes, when I turned my head too quickly, I felt dizzy. It must have been the same for Emmerich and Bauer. (p 32-33)
They find a young Jewish boy cleverly concealed in a hole in the forest, only given away by the heat and snow-melt surrounding the ground-level chimney of his dug-out. Relieved at having captured a prisoner, the soldiers head back to camp. Chilled to the bone, tired and ravenous, they chance upon a deserted hovel and decide to shelter awhile. In desperate need of warmth, the soldiers build a fire and begin to prepare a simple soup from a few meagre ingredients; meanwhile their captive sits quietly in the storeroom.

A Polish man arrives at the hovel; at first his intentions are unclear, but his actions soon show his vehemently anti-Semitic nature:
The pole took a step forward, almost touching us, then looked inside the storeroom, through the half-opened doorway. Because, up to this point, the Jew, though very close, had been invisible to him. The Pole stayed there now, motionless in front of us, staring with his black eyes at the squatting Jew, who stared sadly back. After a moment, the Pole turned his gaze on us, and the distinguished handsomeness of his face vanished. He opened his mouth and bared his gums in a kind of monstrous smile, like a dead fish without teeth. (p. 94)
As preparations for the meal unfold, questions arise: should the soldiers share their meal with the Pole in return for a slug of his potato alcohol? Can he be trusted? Will tensions flare and erupt? The mood oscillates, and small shifts in the dynamics unfold across the group as each soldier starts to question his choices and the moral implications of his mission… and shadows cast by earlier events are ever-present.

This is a stealthily gripping novella with a real sense of foreboding. The small cast of five key characters, coupled with the confined setting of the hovel, give the drama a theatrical feel, and I could almost see it working as a play. I love the way it quickly whips up an atmosphere and tangible sense of place from the first page. The prose style is fairly sparse and to the point (and hats off to Sam Taylor for some sterling work on the translation). There’s not a spare word on the page, and yet it manages to pack a great deal into 135 pages.

I read this novel on a relatively mild spring evening, yet Mingarelli’s vivid depiction of the frozen landscape and biting conditions left me craving the warmth of a bowl of Ribollita, my favourite soup.  And this feeling was only heightened by the soldiers’ anticipation of their meal:
The soup looked good and smelled good. The slices of salami floated on the surface, carried there by the cornmeal, now cooked. The melted lard was still boiling.
We turned away from the stove, and the heat caressed our backs. We watched steam rise from the soup. My head was spinning. We looked at the slices of bread. The soup was continuing to simmer. The edges of the bread were toasted, reminding us of things past. (p.115)
Dare I say this is another book I’d love to see on the IFFP shortlist? While Mingarelli has written many novels and short stories, this is his first to appear in English; I sincerely hope we’ll be able to read more of his novels and short stories in years to come.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

'Captain of the Steppe' by Oleg Pavlov (Review)

I like Russian literature, and I'm pretty keen on small publisher And Other Stories too - it's a surprise then that it took me so long to get around to today's book.  Still, I got there in the end, so let's head off to the Kazakh steppe, to spend some time in the company of a certain army officer with a liking for potatoes.

No, really...

Oleg Pavlov's Captain of the Steppe (translated by Ian Appleby, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in the final years of the Soviet Union, out in the vast, open wilds of the steppe.  We join Captain Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov, a man who has somehow ended up as a lifetime soldier:
Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov had wound up in government service neither through calculation nor through coercion; mind you, his own free will hadn't played much part either.  So they had shaved his head and taken him as a soldier, as they did everyone.  He served out his time.  But when his term as a conscript was up, they persuaded him to stay on as a sergeant major.  'Stay put, Ivan, carry on serving.  This is the right place for you.  You're not one of them civvy bastards, are you?'
(And Other Stories, 2013)
Having decided, then, to stay in the army, Khaborov rises slowly through the ranks, ending up in charge of his very own prison camp.  However, if you think that Khaborov is a success, you're sadly mistaken.  For a man of his advanced years, only having reached the rank of Captain is a bit of an embarrassment, and the camp he is in charge of, a shambles of a place in the middle of nowhere, is the ideal location to bury a man nobody really cares much for.

Still, it's his responsibility to look after the camp, and his men, a task made harder by the lack of food sent on the trucks from the main barracks.  Fearing another winter on starvation rations, Khaborov takes a brave decision, one which causes dissension in the ranks - and makes waves all the way back to headquarters...

The concept of Captain of the Steppe initially had me thinking of something along the lines of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; however, at times it's more like a Russian version of Hogan's Heroes (although the prisoners are conspicuous only by their absence...).  The soldiers are men stranded in the middle of nowhere, robbed of part of their wages, and consequently unwilling to do their duty properly.  Of course, the officers then use this as an excuse for reducing their wages further.

Trapped in the vastness of the Steppe, the reader sympathises with the soldiers - it's big, remote and depressing, and surviving on starvation rations doesn't exactly help matters.  Thus, Khabarov's simple idea, planting some of the potato rations, causes an uproar.  The men are horrified, but the captain, determined to do something to break up the tedium, stubbornly pushes through.

This is the Soviet Union though, and (inevitably) bureaucracy intervenes:
"One boring morning, dull as the reflection in a puddle of rainwater, a regimental lorry scraped along the full length of the clumsy gate and wobbled its way into the barrack square, where it stood snarling or belching, one of the two."
In its noisy belly, this lorry contains a secret service man, Skripitsyn.  He has come to tear strips off Khaborov for his temerity - how dare he think for himself?

What follows is a confused, farcical story which moves back and forth between the camp and HQ.  There's miscommunication, intrigue and betrayal (with the odd fire too) as the little Khaborov is caught in the middle of office politics, suffering as a result of other people's jealousy.  He's not the only one who suffers though:
"Suddenly, the lorry began rumbling mournfully in the steppe, scaring away the deathly hush.  It was then that the captain broke down.  It looked for all the world as though the man had reached complete collapse, and he fell prostrate.  It hit him in the side, at first; he crumpled, although without a single groan, then sank to his knees and planted himself in the ground."
Even the poor potatoes get swept up in the bad will pervading the Steppe...

The novel is an interesting look at what was happening over in the East during the Cold War - for these men, caught in the Kazakh winter, it was very cold indeed.  Over the course of the story, Khabarov develops into a minor hero, standing up to the mindless authorities, pushed to the point of breaking, but refusing to bend.  It's humour of the gallows variety, but it can be surprisingly effective (and funny).

The humour is mixed with a more serious side though, and to be honest, I'm not really sure that it always works.  I missed a consistency of tone throughout the book, and I was never quite lost in the story.  I also felt that the frequent switch of location was a little distracting (I would have preferred more from the camp and less from the petty squabbles at HQ).

Still, there's enough here to interest most readers, and this is an early Pavlov book.  And Other Stories are releasing a (loose) sequel in English later this year, The Matiushin Case, and I'll be interested to see what else Pavlov has to say about the period, and whether his later work is better.  Of course, in literature as in most areas, timing is everything - in the current political climate, Captain of the Steppe is actually acquiring even more of an edge...

Thursday, 20 March 2014

'Butterflies in November' by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 8)

After three preliminary wrap-up posts (here, here and here), a short piece comparing the IFFP and the BTBA, and a guest post from one of my fellow Shadow Panelists, it's finally time to get my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Journey for 2014 off to a proper start.  Today, we're heading off to Iceland, so buckle up - it might be a bit of a bumpy ride...

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Olafsdóttir
Pushkin Press (translated by Brian FitzGibbon, PDF review copy from the publisher)
What's it all about?
Butterflies in November is a story about a winter holiday that doesn't quite go as planned.  A multilingual translator comes home from a final tryst with her lover, only to find out that her husband wants to divorce her - to move in with his pregnant lover...  She takes his decision surprisingly calmly and takes the opportunity to go off on a trip to clear her head, hoping to head overseas for some fun in the sun.

Before she even gets out of Reykjavik, however, the fates conspire to change her plans a little.  Firstly, her friend points her in the direction of a fortune teller, who has some surprising predictions for her.  Then, her numbers come up in the lottery, providing both the choice of her destination and the money to get there.  Finally, she is saddled with an unexpected travelling partner - with her friend confined to a hospital bed in preparation for the birth of twins, our heroine is forced to drag four-year-old Tumi along with her on a very special road trip...

The central character, whose name we never learn, is a fairly unusual person.  She's scatter-brained, yet linguistically talented, translating in and out of Icelandic from and into eleven foreign languages.  Perhaps because of this talent, she is emotionally distant, seemingly unable to connect with other people on a 'normal' level.  Even when her marriage is falling apart, she can't help detaching herself from the situation:
"Thank you," he says, "I'll never forget you."  This is the third time he's said this to me in as many days.  Someone ought to tell him he is starting to repeat himself.
p.71 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Perhaps, then, the point of the trip is to learn to reconnect with the people around her, and Tumi, another unusual character, is just the boy for the job.  His premature birth has left him with weak eyesight and severe hearing loss, and he's a child most people simply overlook and ignore.  However, the translator makes an effort to see into his private world, even going so far as to learn sign language (not a hard task for a hyperpolyglot...), and in doing so, she opens herself up to people in a way she hasn't for quite some time.

One of the novel's strengths is the insights it gives into Icelandic society, in particular the smothering nature of an island community, where it's hard not to bump into people on a regular basis.  Privacy seems not so much overrated asa foreign concept, with casual acquaintances knowing all about your life in advance (several of the translator's friends are aware of her divorce before she is...).  For someone who lives in a bookish world, this kind of community could easily come to feel more than a little claustrophobic - the trouble is that it's very hard to find a space outside that bubble.

The plot has more than a few similarities with the only other of Olafsdóttir's books available in English, The Greenhouse.  Both feature a protagonist who seeks distance to work out what's happening in their life, only to be unexpectedly landed with a child.  However, the tone used is very different; where The Greenhouse is a sweet tale, always threatening to bubble over into saccharine, Butterflies in November is much drier:
"Although I can't really boast of any extensive experience in this field, I know there is no correlation between sex and linguistics, I've learnt that much." (p.18)
Perhaps the dry tone merely covers up a deeper insecurity, but the translator deinitely seems to have a harder shell than most.

Having come to the end of the journey (on the iconic Icelandic ring road...), the reader sees the translator in the final pages on her way back to where she started.  Of course, there have been changes, and that is what the author seems to be implying; while we often appear to end up back at square one, everything we do in life has a small effect on us, whether we want it to or not.  Even a November holiday ;)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, not really.  It's a pleasant enough read, but even after eight books, it's not in my top six, and I'm sure it will continue to fall.  For a 250-page novel, it really takes a while to get going - in effect, we are left waiting 100 pages for the story to start, when the translator sets off on her holiday.

I also felt that the tone was a little weak as I was never quite sure if it was meant to be warm or biting, often falling between the two and not really satisfying anyone.  Another weak aspect was the characterisation, with the men the central character meets being very hard to distinguish (perhaps deliberately).  In a book where the writing was effective, but nothing special (despite a nice, clear English version from FitzGibbon), it really needed to provide the reader with a lot more.

Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it.  There are some great books on the longlist, including a far superior Icelandic novel and a few great books from female writers - I really can't see the judges placing this above nine of the other books.  Unless, of course, this is the particular hobby horse of one of the judges, and they force it through.  Stranger things have happened (*cough* Bundu)...

So there you have it - we're off and running!  Funnily enough, my next post will continue the theme of travel as we spend a few hundred pages on the run from the authorities.  See you in China ;)

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

IFFP Guest Post by Jacqui Patience - 'A Man in Love' by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Of the Shadow Panelists for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, only Jacqui (@Jacquiwine) does not have her own blog, so when she asked if she could post the odd thought or two here at my place, I was happy to oblige.  Here, then, is her take on one of the favourites for this year's prize - a big book from an old friend...

A Man in Love (translated by Don Bartlett) begins by pitching us straight into the action, into a bit of a ‘domestic’ in fact, as we join Karl Ove Knausgaard in the middle of a summer holiday in Tjorn, near Gothenburg. The time is July 2008, and these opening scenes paint a candid picture of the reality of Karl Ove’s family life with Linda, his second wife, and their three children (Vanya, Heidi and John). All the tensions of trying to occupy and manage the needs of their three young children are centre stage:
…so twenty minutes later we found ourselves on a high, narrow and very busy bridge, grappling with two buggies, hungry, and with only an industrial area in sight. Linda was furious, her eyes were black, we were always getting into situations like this, she hissed, no one else did, we were useless, now we should be eating, the whole family, we could have been really enjoying ourselves, instead we were out here in a gale-force wind with cars whizzing by, suffocating from exhaust fumes on this bloody bridge. Had I ever seen any other families with three children outside in situations like this?
p.5 (Harvill Secker, 2013)
It’s a compelling opening, and one that immediately captured my interest.  The book starts at this point and returns to these scenes towards the end. In between these bookends, a number of other strands run through the narrative, all of which come together to form the crux of Karl Ove’s story.

In one sense – perhaps unsurprisingly given the book’s title – this is a story of how Karl Ove falls in love with Linda. At this point the timeline flips back to the early 2000s. Having suddenly upped and left Tonje, his wife and partner of eight years, Karl Ove moves from Norway to Stockholm and reconnects with Linda, a writer he first encountered at the Biskops-Arno writers’ workshop. They meet several times for coffee, the occasional drink in a bar, and while it’s clear they are attracted to one another, they seem unable to express their real feelings in order to move beyond mere small talk. Unable to deal with this paralysis any longer, Karl Ove decides to pour out his heart in a letter to Linda:
I wrote down what she meant to me. I wrote what she had been for me when I saw her for the first time and what she was now. I wrote about her lips sliding over her teeth when she got excited. I wrote about her eyes, when they sparkled and when they opened their darkness and seemed to absorb light. I wrote about the way she walked, the little, almost mannequin-like, waggle of her backside. I wrote about her tiny Japanese features. I wrote about her laughter, which could sometimes wash over everything, how I loved her then. I wrote about the words she used most often, how I loved the way she said ‘stars’ and the way she flung around the word ‘fantastic’. I wrote that all this was what I had seen, and that I didn’t know her at all, had no idea what ran through her mind and very little about how she saw the world and the people in it, but that what I could see was enough. I knew I loved her and always would. (p.194)
I won’t reveal exactly how the couple get together, but clearly they do. Here’s Karl Ove in the glow-zone of the first flushes of love:
For the first time in my life I was completely happy. For the first time there was nothing in my life that could overshadow the happiness I felt. We were together constantly, suddenly reaching for each other at traffic lights, across a restaurant table, on buses, in parks, there were no demands or desires except for each other. I felt utterly free, but only with her, the moment we were apart I began to have yearnings. (p 201)

As time passes, however, the heightened intensity of the first flushes of love fades away. Children arrive and A Man in Love taps into Karl Ove’s search for meaning in his everyday existence:
Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, not something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. (p. 59-60)
In some sense, I think part of what Knausgaard is trying to do here is to find a way of navigating normality, those flat periods between the peaks of intensity that life throws his (and our) way. We experience periods of extreme emotional sharpness in our lives. Our teenage years where everything is hyper-intense, falling in love, the birth of a child, the adrenaline rush from moments of success, a death in the family. But it’s trying to find meaning and fulfilment in the everyday that presents a challenge for Karl Ove, despite the fact he clearly loves and feels great tenderness towards his family:
At the traffic lights across from us a car was revving, and when I turned my head I saw the sound was coming from one of those enormous jeep-like vehicles that had begun to fill our streets in recent years. The tenderness I felt for Vanja was so great it was almost tearing me to pieces. To counteract it, I broke into a jog. (p. 54)
For Knausgaard, perhaps the key to all this is being able to free up sufficient space and time for his work as a writer… and this topic forms another strand within the narrative. Here, an interview with a journalist causes him to reflect on his frustrations as a writer, and difficulties in being able to devote sufficient time to his calling:
I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture in which everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be. (p. 459)
And yet the minutiae and demands of his family life are stopping him, and he lays bare his feelings for the reader to see:
But I couldn’t grasp the opportunity. I had a family and I owed it to them to be there. I had friends. And I had a weakness in my character which meant that I would say yes, yes, when I wanted to say no. no, which was so afraid of hurting others, which was so afraid of conflict and which was so afraid of not being liked that it could forgo all principles, all dreams, all opportunities, everything that smacked of truth, to prevent this happening. (p. 459-460)

This is my first experience of Knausgaard and I found it utterly compelling and addictive. I’m reading this year’s IFFP longlist (along with Stu, Tony, Bellezza, Tony and David) and as I didn’t have time to start with A Death in the Family – My Struggle: Book 1, I pitched straight in with A Man in Love.

I’m finding it a little hard to pinpoint exactly why I found this book so gripping, but I think a large part of it has to do with the sense that these are real people Knausgaard is showing us here. Real people with real names and real lives, that’s how it appears to me. And he’s laying himself and his emotions bare with extreme candour. Nothing is held back, flaws and all. Even though he internalises many of his own emotions and avoids conflict in social situations, we, the readers, gain access to his innermost thoughts right down to their essence.

Maybe there’s also an element of my recognising many of the demands and challenges he describes in raising three small children all very close to one another in age. I’ve seen the exhaustion and mix of emotions this can trigger in friends and family in similar situations and can empathise.

Part of the appeal (for me) also stems from the way in which the narrative unfolds. It doesn’t follow a conventional narrative arc and as a reader there’s the allure of not knowing quite where Karl Ove is going to take us next. Alongside the story of Karl Ove and Linda’s family life, children’s parties and wandering around Stockholm with a buggy, he spins off into topics including existential discussions on the meaning of Hölderlin’s poems, the value in innocence and purity, cultural differences between Sweden and Norway and many more. We meet various friends and family members, all vividly painted in such a way that conveys their distinct personalities and demeanours.  There are flashes of painful humour, too; the acute embarrassment and humiliation Karl Ove feels when dancing with Vanya at baby Rhythm Time class, his irritation at Swedish middle-class parents for plying children with wholesome vegetable crudités at a toddler’s party and his encounters with the neighbour from hell. It’s all here.

This is my fifth book from the IFFP longlist and while I’ve yet to read the other ten I’d be surprised if A Man in Love doesn’t make the shortlist.  Once I’ve worked through the remaining books on the longlist I’m sure I’ll read A Death in Family along with forthcoming instalments as they appear… I suspect I’m in for the long haul now.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

IFFP and BTBA - A Few Thoughts...

It's been a fruitful time for literary lists and prizes of late, and the two prizes I'm most interested in have both finally revealed their contenders for this year's main event.  The British version, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize revealed its choice of fifteen challengers (prematurely...) last Friday, while across the Atlantic, the Best Translated Book Award announced its own longlist consisting of twenty-five of the best a few days later :)

For reasons of both background (I'm English) and convenience (library availability and publisher contacts), my focus is on the IFFP, but when I look at the two lists, I can't help but feel (and not for the first time) that the BTBA list is a much weightier, better-looking one - and I don't think I'm alone in this.  The question, of course, is why...  I've been doing a bit of thinking over the past few days, trying to compare the relative natures of the two awards; consider this my attempt to unravel some of the reasons behind the contrasts in the two lists of books.

The first things to look at are the rules governing the two prizes, and there are some clear differences here affecting availability.  For one thing, the IFFP has a strict policy of submitting books by living authors, meaning that for those writers who have shuffled off this mortal coil, the BTBA is the only option.  This year, there are several works by deceased writers on the BTBA longlist, including Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Autobiography of a Corpse and Stig Sæterbakken's Through the Night.  Obviously, they're not going to be able to collect the prize money in person if they take home the prize, but is that a reason to exclude them?  Even if the IFFP's reason for this is to avoid translations of old books overshadowing more contemporary fare, it smacks of (for want of a better word) overkill.

Another possible issue over in the UK is the effort and cost involved in submitting titles for the prize.  There are some quite detailed instructions on the number of review copies which need to be submitted, and this may be a factor in limiting the number of entries.  I came up with an imagined scenario in which a press entered three books, two of which made the longlist, with one progressing to the shortlist.  According to my calculations, the publishers would be up for 110 review copies (plus postage) for their troubles...

Back in the US, by contrast, things run on a relatively small scale.  There's a handy list of e-mails and addresses on the Three Percent site, showing publishers where to send the books, which (as is most certainly not the case for the IFFP) can be e-copies.  In extreme situations, the publishers might not even need to send in a copy at all; if enough of the judges have already tried (and liked) a book, it could conceivably be sent straight to the longlist without a finger having been lifted by anyone at the publishing house...

But surely even that's not enough to explain the discrepancy between the two lists?  Well, there are some other possible factors.  I've noticed a disturbing trend whereby successful novels in translation often move from the UK to the US, but not in the opposite direction.  While not many of them made the BTBA longlist, several books from last year's IFFP longlist made their way to the States after originally coming out in Britain (examples include Travel(l)er of the Century, The Fall of the Stone City and The Detour/Ten White Geese).

However, the flow doesn't seem quite as steady in the other direction.  Is there likely to be a British edition of the 2012 BTBA winner Stone upon Stone?  When will Mikhail Shiskin's Maidenhair appear in British book shops?  Is there any chance of works like A True Novel or Blinding being picked up by a British publisher (and thus becoming eligible for the IFFP)?  I'm not sure...  Not being a part of the industry, I don't really know what the reason for this is (in fact, I might have got this all wrong, and British publishers may be preparing to bring out some of these great books as we speak), but I suspect that territorial rights play a role here.  If any of you have any insights into this murkiest of areas, please let me know :)

More than any external reason though, it's the whole ethos behind the prizes that perhaps explain the differences between the two longlists.  Even though the BTBA ends up with a much wider selection of books to choose from (and some of the judges have a good go at reading as many as humanly possible), I have a feeling that the nature of the organising body responsible means that the judges only have one goal - to choose the best piece of translated fiction published in English in the United States in the previous year.  It's a prize which is fairly limited in scope, concentrating on the community of readers passionate about literature in translation, and while the prize money may come from Amazon, the rest of the effort comes across as something put together by a bunch of hard-working volunteers.

By contrast, the IFFP, organised by Booktrust (an independent British charity with some government funding) with The Independent newspaper hovering in the background in the role of an unofficial partner, appears to have more of an agenda.  This is a highly subjective view (so don't sue me), but I feel that along with the goal of choosing the best work of translated fiction, the IFFP is attempting to promote translated fiction in general, meaning that a much more general-reader-friendly longlist is always on the cards.  The prize certainly has the aura of a semi-official, state-sanctioned push to promote translated literature to the masses...

In short, then, after close to a thousand words of idle speculation and guesswork, what it all boils down to is that in addition to having a wider range of books to choose from, owing to differences in rules, entry costs and titles published in the respective markets, the BTBA also has a slightly more high-brow approach to its task, meaning that for people like me, wanting to read the absolute best of what's being written in other languages, their longlist is more likely to throw up intriguing books.  Perhaps the relative lack of prescription on the part of the organisers (which, unless I'm wrong, is just Chad Post and his minions) allows for a much more interesting selection of books. 

Still, I could be wrong (it wouldn't be the first time...).  Please feel free to agree with my claims, contradict me, or force amendments to my post (preferably not through legal action though - I'm always open to change).  Thoughts, anyone?  Comments below, please ;)

Thursday, 13 March 2014

IFFP 2014 Round Up - Reviews 5, 6 & 7

After looking at a couple of books by female writers in my first round-up post (and two works by a pair of men last time out), it's time to finish my series of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize round-up posts for the 2014 longlist.  As I mentioned a while back, I've already polished off seven of the fifteen selections - which leaves us today with three more to evaluate :)

Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine - MacLehose Press
(translated by Geoffrey Strachan)
What's it all about?
A stroll with an old acquaintance is the catalyst for a series of memories, in which a man looks back at pivotal moments from his life, brief hours of love snatched from the drabness of everyday life.  In a clever, moving book, Makine sets the demise of the Soviet Union against a story of the redeeming power of love and friendship.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I'd love it if it did :)  It's a beautiful little book, one I had sitting around for ages before finally diving in.  A pleasure to read, Brief Loves that Live Forever will leave its mark on most readers, and while it hasn't really got the publicity it deserves thus far, a shortlisting would broaden its appeal.

Will it make the shortlist?
Definitely a good chance.  A nice, short work, with excellent writing, from a well-known writer and an experienced translator, this one has all the hallmarks of a top six book.

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson - MacLehose Press
(translated by Philip Roughton)
What's it all about?
The boy, the mysterious central figure in Heaven and Hell, has found his place in the isolated village he has been drawn to.  However, his time of comfort is short lived as he is persuaded to go on a trek through the mountains to help deliver the post.  In the company of the burly Jens, the boy sets off into the ice and snow, trusting to the winds for a safe return from a treacherous journey...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Oh, yes.  This was one of my books of the year for 2013, and it's my early frontrunner for the whole thing.  It's such a beautiful book, elegantly crafted, but with a dry, laconic sense of humour in parts too.  Icelandic literature is fast becoming one of my favourite guilty pleasures, and JKS is right up there with the best in contemporary world literature :)

Will it make the shortlist?
Strangely enough, I'm not sure.  Not everyone seems to share my love for this book (the fools), and several people believe it's simply too slow, with very little actually happening.  It only takes one or two jurors to share that opinion for them to decide to look elsewhere for books to fill the shortlist...

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim - Comma Press
(translated by Jonathan Wright)
What's it all about?
A collection of short stories, mostly set in post-war Iraq, The Iraqi Christ looks at the experiences of people in a war-torn country.  However, Blasim also ventures further afield in his tales of refugees, taking us as far as Scandinavia in one of his stories.  Don't expect brutal realism though - the writer's magical touch turns the stories into fables which often have a sense of the unreal about them...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I don't think this one will make the cut.  I love Comma Press, and I enjoyed this collection, but this is a high-quality field, making it doubtful that Blasim's book will finish in the top six.  A good book, worthy of the longlist, but unlikely to make it further.

Will it make the shortlist?
Probably not.  As Tonkin famously remarked, publishing short stories in translation is 'double suicide', and this will be one step too far.  However, if the judges are looking for a geographical spread, they might be tempted to opt for a book from the Middle East...

That's it then - all seven of my previous reads wrapped up and rated.  Now it's time to move on to the next part of the process, which means that I've got some reading to do.  Expect some more IFFP reviews very soon :)

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

IFFP 2014 Round Up - Reviews 3 & 4

Last time, I looked back at the first two of my previous Independent Foreign Fiction Prize reads for this year, and today we'll be looking at another pair of contenders.  In fact, the two books discussed today are novels which featured in most conversations prior to the longlist announcement.  The question is whether they can make it to the next stage...

A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard - Harvill Secker
(translated by Don Bartlett)
What's it all about?
Well, him, obviously.

This is the second part of Knausgaard's strangely gripping six-part descent into self observation, this time focusing on the start of his relationship with his second wife, Linda.  Knausi analyses his life in such detail that the reader feels they are right there with him, whether he is taking the children to daycare, having a drink with a friend or, erm, going to the toilet.

I'm joking.  Possibly.

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I'm tempted to say yes to this one.  Despite all the comparisons, there isn't much Proustian about the Norwegian writer's work, but it is compelling, and this second instalment of his work is, in my eyes, a lot more consistent than A Death in the Family.  People seem to like Knausgaard's books despite themselves, so this latest set of descriptions of mundane activities could well be set to enliven(?) the shortlist.

Will it make the shortlist?
Probably.  Knausgaard's work just has that feel about it, as if it needs to be celebrated and showered with prizes and accolades, and I'm confident that he'll move a step further towards that this year.  However, I will raise one small potential obstacle.  For a thirty-something frustrated scribbler like yours truly, the writer's rants about the lot of the modern man ring very true.  I just wonder whether the women on the panel will be as sympathetic to Knausi's chauvinistic whinging...

The Infatuations by Javier Marías - Hamish Hamilton
(translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
What's it all about? 
María has a nodding acquaintance with a couple in a café, and after the husband's death, she visits the grieving widow and meets a family friend.  A relationship soon develops; however, it's not one that's got the feel of happily ever after - especially when María starts to sense that the unfortunate death may not have been quite so unfortunate after all...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I enjoyed The Infatuations immensely, but I'm not convinced that it'll end up in my top six.  It didn't quite match up to my first Marías (A Heart so White), and there was one part in particular where the story dragged a little too much.  Still, it's a wonderful story with beautiful, elegant writing, a credit to both Marías and Jull Costa.

I'm sitting on the fence a little here.

Will it make the shortlist?
Yes.  Top-class writer, top-class translator - just what the shortlist needs.  Cynical, moi?

That's the second part of my wrap-up done and dusted then - stay tuned for the third of my reviews when I'll discuss the final three books of my magnificent seven :)

Monday, 10 March 2014

IFFP 2014 Round Up - Reviews 1 & 2

Well, we're off and running in the search for a champion of translated fiction, and I'm about to crack open my first new read of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.  However, before I get on to those books I haven't yet tried, I'll be looking back at the ones I've already enjoyed - and this year that means seven of the fifteen chosen.  Sit back, and enjoy the show as I wander down memory lane, rating and slating a few books and musing as to their chances of moving on to the next stage of the competition.  As always click on the links for my full reviews of the longlisted titles.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then let's begin...

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke - Peirene Press
(translated by Jamie Bulloch )
What's it all about?
A family sits around a seafood dinner, waiting for the pater familias to arrive home.  The later it becomes, the more they all get to talking about life under the shadow of a domestic dictator.  Once you've heard what's been going on at home, you'll agree that it's time for a coup - father has had things his own way for far too long...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Quite possibly.  This is one I predicted for the shortlist right at the start of 2013, and though there are some great books on the longlist, The Mussel Feast can hold its own with any of them.  It's a biting, bitter tale of domestic psychological manipulation, written in a mesmerisingly gripping style.  One caveat - I read it in German, so you'll have to look elsewhere for views on Bulloch's translation :)

Will it make the shortlist?
I'm going to go with a yes here.  After three consecutive longlistings, Peirene have established themselves as consistent contenders, and I feel that this will be rewarded by the judges this year, with one of their strongest books so far making the shortlist.  One thing I will say though is that if Julia Franck's Back to Back is good, I do wonder if there's room for two German women on a carefully curated shortlist ;)

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami - Portobello Books
(translated by Allison Markin Powell)
What's it all about?
A beautiful story of a May-to-December romance, Kawakami's novel appeared in the States as The Briefcase a while back before being repackaged for a UK audience last year.  A woman bumps into a former high school teacher in a bar and gradually falls for him, despite his eccentricities.  Imagine Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor, but better :)

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Probably not.  I liked this book a lot, and I'm glad it made the longlist, but I can't really see it barging its way into the top six (it's far too delicate for that).  I'm also of the opinion that the makeover job on both the title and the cover was hideous in the extreme, and that has cost it any chance it had of progressing.  Sorry, that's just the way it is.

Will it make the shortlist?
Nope.  There are too many good books up against it.  This is a book many will enjoy, but it's not one to stand out in the crowd, especially when there's another, more well-known, female Japanese writer in the mix...

That's the first couple of mini-reviews done - come back soon to see some more longlisted titles under the Malone microscope ;)