Thursday 29 March 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Four

So far in our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize magical mystery tour, we've been to a parallel Japan, Germany, South Korea, provincial China and seventeenth-century Iceland - and today we're going back in time again, this time to nineteenth-century Italy and France.  Who needs a holiday with books like these?  I spoil you all, I really do...

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (translated by Richard Dixon)
What's it all about?
We begin in Paris, as an unnamed narrator guides us through dirty, disreputable streets until we enter a shop and peer over the shoulder of an old man.  Simone Simonini, an Italian resident for many years in the French capital, is beginning a diary of sorts in order to trawl through the depths of his memory and fill in some puzzling and worrying gaps in his recent history.  The reader is informed of Simonini's past by virtue of reading the pages of this diary; however, it's not quite as simple as that.  You see, Simonini is not the only person using the book to write down his thoughts...

The Prague Cemetery then is a conundrum of a novel, a story told by the unknown narrator, Simonini himself and the mysterious Abbé Dalla Piccola.  It's a dazzling creation, a tale drawing threads from all kind of real-life events and authentic literature to flesh out the existence of our Italian friend.  As the trio unfold daring intrigues and devious plots, leading Simonini from the combustible Italian states to a hardly more stable French republic, we begin to suspect that the three people may actually be one and the same person.

In terms of story, The Prague Cemetery is simply about how Simonini, a nerveless forger, a  murdering gourmet, a sexless sociopath, becomes caught up in some of the most explosive political and social events of nineteenth-century Europe.  Largely owing to his skills as a master forger, he is courted by the secret services of most of the major powers of the time, becoming a spy whose main talent lies in providing people with the information they need - all of it fabricated. The more he lies, the more his reputation grows, as the various services he works for have no real interest in the truth.  They are far more concerned with justifying the steps they take against various power groups - the Jesuits, the Masons and (of course) the Jews...

However, if that is not enough, the real concern of Eco's novel is Simonini and his identity.  Early in the novel, we learn of a casual acquaintance, a certain Doctor "Froïde", and the quest for the truth behind the unholy trinity of voices is definitely a Freudian one.  It is clear that a traumatic event has caused the partial amnesia experienced by both Simonini and the Abbé; we're just not quite sure what it could be.  Is it related to Simonini's forgeries?  To the various masonic lodges and cults he becomes involved with?  Well, you'll just have to read it to find out ;)

As well as reflecting actual historical events, the book also contains a plethora of meta-fictional aspects, referring to many books which, after further research, I found were all actually real.  One of the central pillars of the plot is Simonini's story of 'The Prague Cemetery', a fictional meeting of the Jewish leaders of the world, which several writers then adapt (or steal!) to both entertain an incredibly trusting audience and justify actions taken by various governments against the Jewish people.  There's definitely no such thing as an original idea in this context, but Simonini shows that original ideas are overrated, especially in an era where communication was not quite as advanced as it is today...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Let me get back to you on that...  The Prague Cemetery is an excellent book, and the translation is a wonderful one, making it a pleasure to read, but the novel is not perfect.  At times, it all feels a little too clever, as if Eco is writing more to show his intelligence than to advance the story.  The plot can occasionally flag, especially towards the middle, and there is always the danger, when characters have continual anti-semitic rants, that the author's intention of condemning these views becomes almost overshadowed by his character's beliefs.

It's also a little ironic that in a book which pokes fun at crowd-pleasing, salacious pulp fiction, Eco's own story actually takes a turn in that direction towards the end of the novel, reminding the reader of nothing more than Victorian 'sensation' fiction.  Of course, knowing Eco, this was almost certainly intentional ;)

On first finishing the novel, I wasn't quite convinced, but a few days of unconscious reflection have raised the book in my estimation, so I'll say that it does deserve to make the shortlist.  I don't think it'll be a winner though...

Will it make the shortlist?
I'll stick my neck out and say no, which may be surprising given what I said above!  Despite its undoubted excellence, the accomplished translation and Eco's stature, I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be one which is enjoyed by a minority, even among regular readers of literary fiction.  It'll have adherents who will defend it to the bitter end, but it may also leave a lot of readers cold.

I hope I'm wrong though ;)

One more done and dusted.  Stay tuned for the next stop on my virtual tour, when I'll be heading north again to spend the holidays with a lonely friend - see you then!

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Time, History and the Wonders of Chance

Although I like to devote a post to each book I read, with the number of books that pass through my hands in a year, that just isn't possible at times.  When the burden gets a little too much then, I try to ease the pressure by doing a combined post, usually attempting to twist together two books, often chosen for that very purpose.  But what happens when it's time to write up two different, randomly-chosen books together?  Well, it's amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it...

The Trumpet-Major, regarded as one of Thomas Hardy's minor works, is his only historical novel.  It is set during the Napoleonic wars, taking place in Overcombe, a village near the sea port of Budmouth (Weymouth!), on the south coast of Hardy's beloved Wessex.  Mrs. Garland and her daughter Anne, gentry fallen on hard times after the death of Mr. Garland, now rent rooms at the back of Mr. Loveday's mill.  The days pass quietly, if somewhat tediously, until the arrival one day of a large number of soldiers.

The military are encamped in Overcombe both to protect the coast against any possible invasion by the devil in French attire and to keep an eye on the King during his summer holidays.  However, the King is not the only visitor - when Miller Loveday's two sons, Robert and John, sailor and trumpet-major respectively, appear on the scene, Anne no longer has to complain of a boring life...

...but a boring life is exactly what the characters in Jenny Erpenbeck's Heimsuchung (Visitation) would like.  The novel is set by a lake just outside Berlin and spans more than a century of local and national history, telling the story of a house and the various inhabitants it receives over the course of its existence.  The location is, of course, all important as its position in the heart of the former German Democratic Republic means that just when the house's owners feel settled and secure, a change in the political environment is just around the corner...

Heimsuchung is divided into two sets of alternating chapters: one concentrates on the various people who call the old summer house their own; the other focuses on the one character who stays put through all the upheavals, the taciturn, enigmatic Gardener.  By the end of the book, the reader is left wondering just who the house actually belongs to - that is if anyone really can own anything in the long run.

At first glance, these two books may seem very different, impossible to twist together into a cohesive, integrated post.  In fact, the two books have an awful lot in common.  For one thing, both explore the lives of individuals against the backdrop of a greater historical setting.  The Trumpet-Major would be a straight tragi-comic romance were it not for the ever-present threat of a French invasion, a menace which subtly alters how the Lovedays and Garlands interact.  It is the possibility of losing one of her suitors on a European battlefield that pushes Anne Garland into casting her reserve aside - and it is a very real possibility.  One of the genuine historical events taking place during the novel is the battle of Trafalgar...

This sense of the historical intruding on the individual is also present in Heimsuchung.  Many of the people who come to acquire the house live there for decades and expect to live out their days sitting peacefully by the lake.  However, the rise of fascism, the coming of the Russians, the beginnings of a Communist state and legal battles of restitution all eventually conspire to drive the owners away.  While the house's location may be particularly unfortunate given the hindsight of twentieth-century history, it is a telling reminder that nothing lasts forever...

...which is another concept which links the two novels.  As well as the effect of the political and national on the local and individual, both stories also look at how individual lives contrast with time, on a far greater scale.  In Erpenbeck's book, there is a prologue which tells of the creation of the lake, describing the advance and retreat of the glaciers in northern Europe, a process which will one day leave a large pool of water next to a fertile stretch of land.  This skillful evocation of geological time has the effect of putting all the petty land squabbles which follow into perspective...

Hardy too contrasts the brilliant, but ephemeral, lives of humans with the land that supplies the backdrop to their existence.  In one passage, he describes a military parade for the King, a dazzling display of English aggression and style:
" one o'clock the downs were again bare... They still spread their grassy surface to the sun as on that beautiful morning not, historically speaking, so very long ago; but the king and his fifteen thousand armed men, the horses, the bands of music, the princesses, the cream-coloured teams - the gorgeous centre-piece, in short, to which the downs were but the mere mount or margin - how entirely have they all passed and gone! - lying scattered about the world as military and other dust..." p.76
In setting his story eighty years before the time of writing, Hardy achieves a distance that allows him, and the reader, to see how small and insignificant life can be, even when (at the time) events appear to be of earth-shattering importance.

Two novels chosen without much thought, two entertaining stories - and, as you can see, I did find a lot to connect the two books :)  It just goes to show you that, whatever people may say, when it comes to randomly picking books off a shelf, there's no such thing as chance...

Sunday 25 March 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Three

I'm back with more from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist, and today we're off to the frozen north for a book about... well, a lot of different things really.  Pack your harpoon, and let's get to it...

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb)
What's it all about?
Jónas Pálmason, an auto-didact in seventeenth-century Iceland, has been banished to a small island, ostensibly for his religious beliefs, in reality for refusing to follow a local leader's instructions to take part in a massacre of visiting whalers.  As he sits on his cold, lonely prison in the Arctic Circle, he watches the natural life around him, spins yarns and fills the reader in on the story of his life.  And it's a very good one.

It's actually quite difficult to really summarise From the Mouth of the Whale - it's not that kind of book.  It's best to just sit back and read it, let the words flow over you and enjoy the magical twists and turns the narrative takes.  The story begins with a short tale depicting the fall of Lucifer from a very different angle to the usual story, and it goes on from there, jumping from descriptions of the grim Icelandic countryside, to short encyclopaedic descriptions of plants, fish, birds and animals (both real and imaginary), to tales of myths and religion.

It's a stunning mix of religion, history, science and mythology, and it reflects very well the state of life at the end of the sixteenth century, where belief in science and unicorns could (and often did) go hand in hand.  At times, it is hard to see where the story is going, but that really doesn't matter.  The book is all about the journey, not the destination - the fact that there is one is an added bonus :)

The thing that lifts this book even further above your usual fare is a sparkling translation by Victoria Cribb, one of those rare, virtually seamless creations that make reading translated fiction a joy.  It can be hard to judge a translation sometimes, especially if it is merely adequate, but when you have a good (or bad!) example, it leaps out at you.  This is a very good one.

From the Mouth of the Whale is a relatively short novel, but it is thoroughly enjoyable and will have you looking Iceland up on Wikipedia for the next week (and possibly looking at the prices of flights to Reykjavik too!).  Be warned though - even in the middle of summer the average temperature is only about 15 degrees Celsius.  Perhaps you should just read some more Icelandic literature instead...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Yes.  Next question

Will it make the shortlist?
Yes.  I've heard nothing but good things about this book, which augurs well for its shortlist chances.  The translation, as discussed, is excellent, and that is always an advantage.  Sjón also made the IFFP longlist back in 2009 with The Blue Fox, so he has form, again a bonus.  And he has a cool name.  What more do you want?

That's all for this week - five down, ten to go.  Same place, next week.  OK with you?

Thursday 22 March 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Two

Thursday evening, and #translationthurs has rolled around again on Twitter, so it's time for my second round-up of books from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist.  Today we're off to the far east for a story told from beyond the grave - I hope you're not afraid of ghosts...

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (translated by Cindy Carter)
What's it all about?
Dream of Ding Village is a fascinating novel, set in a small Chinese village in the countryside, and narrated by a corpse.  Our deceased friend, a boy who was poisoned by angry villagers, tells us of the plight facing his hometown because of a mania for selling blood.  His father, a rather nasty, grasping entrepreneur, got rich by convincing his fellow villagers to sell their blood - and by skimping on the hygiene while he was at it.  Now, a decade on, AIDS ('the fever') has broken out in the Chinese provinces, and the villagers are beginning to pay the real price for their past actions...

The main character is Grandpa, also called Professor, the patriarch of the Ding family and a retired teacher of sorts.  Attempting to make up for the role his elder son played in the misfortunes of the village, he decides to house all the sick inside the school, creating a kind of commune in which those who are destined to die can live out their days in comfort.  Unfortunately, human nature proves to be too strong for community spirit to triumph over: Grandpa's noble efforts are doomed to failure as his dream descends into selfish egotism...

The reader of Dream of Ding Village is constantly reminded of various classic tales: the post-apocalyptic feel of Camus' The Plague; the Darwinist horror of Golding's Lord of the Flies; the "some animals are more equal than others" turn of events at the school, reminiscent of Orwell's Animal Farm.  The more the story progresses though, the more it appears like a biblical reckoning, a plague sent to punish the greedy and inconsiderate.  In a society where people only care for themselves, there is nobody (except Grandpa Ding) who bothers to think about what tomorrow may bring.

The extent to which the selfish villagers will sink to is frightening.  Several attempt to cheat the group out of their share of food by putting rocks in the bags of rice and flour they are required to donate.  A local youth with the fever arranges to marry an uninfected woman from a neighbouring town, and the village is sworn to secrecy.  And the trees - don't get me started on the trees...

Dream of Ding Village is not for the squeamish - there is a lot of talk of blood and rotting flesh -, but there are some bright spots.  The blossoming romance between Grandpa Ding's younger son and a fellow AIDS sufferer shows that there is a positive side to the live-for-the-moment feeling which has swept the community.  On the whole, however, it is a rather bleak picture of a serious subject, one which doesn't paint Chinese society in a favourable light.  Perhaps then it's not that surprising that it was banned in mainland China...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Possibly...  It's a good book, but I'm not sure it's good enough to be one of the main contenders.  The translation was alright, but nothing special - the dialogue, especially, was a little stilted at times, a problem which often arises when the very different Asian forms of address are put into English.  It will depend a lot on the books I haven't read yet, so if I like a lot of the others, this is one which will probably miss the cut.

Will it make the shortlist?
Again, possibly.  Most of what I've heard from other people has been positive, and I have a feeling that people would like to see a non-European book on the shortlist.  I think this may be one which will be mid-table and pushing for that final spot on the list.

Join me again on Sunday, when we will be leaving Asia and heading back to Europe.  Just a warning - it might be a bit chilly...

Monday 19 March 2012

Childhood Corrupted

As a father myself, I'm a big believer in childhood as an age of innocence, a time to explore and discover the world from beneath the shade of a sheltering environment.  Sadly, this is not always the case, and literature frequently throws up examples of less-than-perfect childhoods, ones which make you hope you're not doing the same to your kids.  So, while you ponder today's offerings, I'm off to play with my daughters :)

And Other Stories is another of my favourite little indie publishers, purveyors of fine translated fiction, and one of their most popular books so far is Juan Pablo Villalobos' Down the Rabbit Hole, translated by Rosalind Harvey.  This very slim volume (which I received as an electronic review copy!) is a three-part story told through the eyes of Tochtli, a young Mexican boy.  Our friend has the usual issues faced by kids - spending as much time on computer games as he can, avoiding his lessons wherever possible, and trying to convince his dad to get him a pygmy hippopotamus.

Wait a minute...

Unlike most kids, Tochtli's dad happens to be a Mexican drug dealer, which (as well as making the hippo thing a real possibility) means that the young boy is witness to a lot more things than most kids will ever have to see.  The further we slip down Villalobos' titular rabbit hole (an apt expression seeing as Tochtli actually means 'rabbit'), the more we find out about Tochtli and his father - and the more disturbing it becomes.  Is it possible to grow up normally in such an unusual environment?

Down the Rabbit Hole is wonderfully narrated by the macho little boy, a character who uses a style of language which is one part arrogance to three parts naivety.  His first words - "Some people say I'm precocious" - tell us that he is living in a cocoon, kept away from the real world.  In some ways, his statement is true, as his casual acceptance of certain unpalatable experiences shows.  For a young boy, he is certainly at ease around guns and corpses...

In other ways though, he is just a boy.  His vocabulary is limited, and he constantly repeats the same four or five adjectives to describe anything from tasty food to third-world hotels.  He is also oblivious to certain activities happening under his nose, such as the reason for the frequent visits of attractive women - and their long disappearances into his father's room.  While he is aware of certain aspects of life, he doesn't really understand them, and the fortress-like environment he is raised in by his paranoid father is not the best one for setting him straight on them.

As a portrait of what happens when a horribly-twisted nurture triumphs over nature, Down the Rabbit Hole is a disturbing masterpiece.  A translation which doesn't read like one, it's compelling, page-turning reading, a book which will only take an hour or so to read, but which will stay with you for a good while longer.  Just don't talk to me about the hippos...

Leaving Mexico, we turn our attention to Japan, a tranquil country where children live happy, carefree lives and would never think about death and...  oh.

Yes kids, it's another one about psychotic minors, this time set in the land of the rising sun.  Yukio Mishima's The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea (translated by John Nathan) is a tense novel set in the Japanese port town of Yokohama, and it is centred upon an unlikely trio of protagonists: Noboru, a thirteen-year-old boy; Fusako, his widowed, but still young and beautiful, mother; and Ryuji, a sailor Fusako meets and falls for.

In the first part of the story, we see the unfolding of the relationship between Ryuji and Fusako, one which Noboru views with mixed emotions.  While unwilling to share his mother, he is fascinated by the sea and has a kind of grudging respect for the weather-worn sailor.  However, when he discovers that Ryuji is just as tedious as he and his friends consider all fathers to be, his opinion changes, and he decides that Ryuji will not do.  It's what happens next which is rather harrowing...

The key issue in The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea is the importance of a strong father figure, and the damage that can be done to a young boy's character when there is no older man around to keep him on the straight and narrow.  It's probably not a viewpoint shared by all today, but Mishima certainly believes that the absence of a father, either through death or neglect, can lead to behavioural problems.  Or, in Noboru's case, an unhealthy interest in his mother's sex life.

This is actually shown more clinically in the character of The Chief, the leader of the gang of boys Noboru hangs out with.  Intellectually advanced for his age, he has an almost pathological hatred towards adults (especially fathers), despising their weakness and their willingness to conform.  He has a strong influence on the impressionable Noboru, and Ryuji's decision to attempt to become a father figure for his lover's son sets tragic events in motion, leading to a sickening denouement...

Typically for Mishima, beautiful writing is matched with horrible, horrible characters, making this novel another of those book which are a joy to read but, at the same time, slightly disturbing.  That's bad enough, but taken together, Down the Rabbit Hole and The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea really do make you think about your role as a parent.  The two books remind us that children are very delicate creatures.  If they are to grow up happy and well adjusted, it's up to the parents to make sure they have the right environment to achieve this.

And if this means no peep-holes into their mother's bedroom and no pygmy hippopotamus for their birthday, that's just the way it will have to be...

Thursday 15 March 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number One

It's #translationthurs on Twitter again, and what better way to celebrate than by kicking off a series of IFFP 2012 posts?  None, that's what ;)  And, to make things even better, I have been asked to be a late addition to the Shadow IFFP Panel - I feel extremely honoured :)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am planning to make my way through nine or ten selections from the longlist for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize before the shortlist is announced, so I thought I might get the ball rolling by rounding up the opinions of the ones I've already read and commented on.  No full reviews here - I've already examined the books in more (and, in one case, exhaustive!) detail elsewhere.  For full reviews, please click on the hyper-link on the book titles.  Shall we?

What's it all about?
Haruki Murakami is one of the heavy hitters on the longlist, and his book, 1Q84, is not exactly light either.  A story of a man and a woman, whose love must overcome such obstacles as parallel worlds, sinister cults and weird little people, Murakami's novel brings together ideas from all of his life's work and attempts to blend them into one cohesive story.

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Possibly not.  I have a much more positive view of the book than many out there, but I still don't think Murakami quite nailed the landing with this one.  There are too many unresolved issues and passages of tedium to make this a success.  I would also say that not having Book Three here actually hurts its chances as I thought it was the best of the three - although not everyone agrees...

Will it make the shortlist?
Again, no.  The reviews of 1Q84 have been fairly negative, and I would be very surprised if it were to make it any further in what is a very competitive contest.  The fact that it wasn't included in the seven-book longlist for the Man Asian Literature Prize is another indicator that it isn't going down well with the people who make these decisions.

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (translated by Anthea Bell)
What's it all about?
An ageing academic wakes up one morning to find his beloved wife slouched over scattered pieces of paper - dead.  As he attempts to come to terms with the shock, and before grief has even had the chance to set in, he notices the writing she was doing before she died - and starts reading.  The pages he sees contain a very different view of his relationship with his wife, one which destroys the image he has been carrying around in his mind for decades...

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Absolutely.  This was one of my favourite books of last year, and it is yet another of Peirene Press' little gems.  It's a cleverly-constructed cat-and-mouse game, carefully deconstructing the protagonist's life and laying bare the true state of his relationship with his darling wife.  One cautionary note though - I did read the original German, not the translation :)

Will it make the shortlist?
Possibly not.  There are a few big names on the longlist, and the cynic in me thinks that familiarity breeds shortlisting.  Politycki is not well known in English-speaking circles, so that may count against him.  Having said that, of course, translator Anthea Bell is extremely well known and respected - hopefully that will be a positive point!

What's it all about?
An elderly country woman goes missing on a trip to the Korean capital of Seoul.  As her family members frantically try to find her, a few of them relate their memories of her, only realising now how much she meant to them.

Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Nonononononono.  No.  This book is definitely one which polarises opinions, and I'm on the side which believes that it is a pile of melodramatic rubbish.  Badly written, badly translated, sentimental clap-trap which may well turn out to be my least favourite book of the year.

Will it make the shortlist?
Probably - life's cruel like that.  There are a lot of people who liked this book, so there's a fair chance that some of them will be among the judges.  Now if there's a judge there who shares my view, that will make for a very interesting discussion indeed ;)

Three down, many to go - watch this space...

Monday 12 March 2012

Dinner for Two at the Fusion-Lit Bistro

Today's post may make more sense if you read this one first.  Then again, it may not...

[The camera fades in from black to reveal a quiet restaurant; not full, not empty. A few people are standing chatting at the bar over drinks - dinner jackets and cocktail dresses aplenty. We start to zoom in gently to the entrance, on the left of our picture. Tony is walking into the restaurant, chatting to a middle-aged man of Asian appearance as they make their way to a table in the corner.  From the right, a tall, gaunt waiter approaches unhurriedly and elegantly, carrying two burgundy leather-bound menus with Fusion Lit Bistro written on the front in gold script.  The name tag on his jacket is, as always, blank.  He stops neatly at Tony's table and offers the menu to the newly-arrived guests.]

Waiter: [Bowing] Good evening, sir. Nice to see you here again.
Tony: Thank you! [Smiles] I had such an enjoyable meal last time that...
Waiter: [Addressing Tony's companion] Yes, always nice to have you here Mr. Ishiguro.  Our guests do so enjoy your creations - delectable one and all.

[He hands the menu to Ishiguro, who opens it and peruses the offerings.  Tony goes to take the other menu, only for the waiter to absent-mindedly swap it to his other hand and tuck it under his arm, causing Tony to overbalance slightly and bang his elbow on the table.]

Ishiguro: [Handing the menu back to the waiter] I think, on the whole, as it is the reason we are meeting, I would like to try The Unconsoled here.  Lightly poached, please.  [He nods to the waiter.]  Thank you, Stevens.
Waiter: [Bows] An excellent choice sir.
Tony: [Rubbing his elbow with barely concealed irritation] I'll have The Unconsoled too, Stevens, medium-rare please...
Waiter: [With a look of great disdain] That doesn't surprise me at all...  And no.
Tony: But, but... he... [Pointing to Ishiguro, who is casually surveying the restaurant's interior]  ...he called you Stevens.
Waiter: A man of Mr. Ishiguro's talents can call me what he wants.  If he so desires, I'm happy to answer to Betty.  [Tony opens his mouth to speak.] Don't.  Even.  Think. About. It. [Tony slumps back in his seat, slightly abashed.]

[The waiter strides off into the distance carrying the two menus, muttering something to himself which could be construed as 'imbecile bloggers'.  Tony sits in his place, apparently counting to ten under his breath, then turns to his dinner partner.]

Tony: So, tell me a little about today's choice then, it sounds rather intriguing...
Ishiguro: [Smiling] Well, it is rather different from my usual fare, a little more surreal, one might say.  Eastern European undertones, a man not quite sure why he is where he is, dream-like excursions through the chill night...  I rather think it's one to be judged on reflection, as a whole, not evaluated in a single mouthful, as it were...

[He is interrupted by the return of the waiter, who carefully lays down two objects on the table.]

Waiter: I thought, sir, that these amuse-bouches would complement your choice...
Tony: [Peering across] What have you brought us this time, Gustav? [The waiter glares at Tony, who sits back in his seat and suddenly finds the need to examine his nails in minute detail.]
Waiter: [To Ishiguro] A pair of minor delights, A Family Supper and A Village after Dark - these should whet the appetite. [He bows and then strides off, glancing once, disdainfully, over his shoulder at Tony as he leaves.]
Ishiguro: Please try these.  They're not high-class creations, but I'm fairly happy with them.  A Village after Dark is a sort of preparation for the main course, an interim stage towards creating The UnconsoledA Family Supper, on the other hand is a little Japanese something I whipped up.

[Tony tries the two items carefully.]

Tony: Mmm, very nice.  Delicate and yet unmistakeably from the same creator.  [He looks to one side as if thinking.]  Definitely a hint of seafood in A Family Supper - perhaps...
Ishiguro: Fugu.

[Tony gags momentarily, before recovering and taking a sip of water.  The waiter returns with the main course, and the two men set to their task in silence.  Later, the waiter returns to take the remnants away, and the two diners sit back in their chairs.]

Ishiguro: So, what did you think?
Tony: It was wonderful!  As you said, very complex, not one for the casual diner.  From the first mouthful, there were strong undertones of Kafka, especially The Castle, but the more you allow it to linger on the taste-buds, the more original and bolder it becomes.  Definitely hints of dream analysis there, lots of Freudian touches, sublimation and condensation and all that - intriguing use of location, allowing our friend Ryder to move from one building to another easily, even when they are apparently miles away.  
Ishiguro: And what did you think of the family element?
Tony: [Enthusiastically] Oh, I loved that, I loved the way that the whole thing read like a session of psycho-analysis for Ryder.  You could see the various characters and families as different aspects of Ryder himself, trying to work through his family issues, step-fathers, alcoholism.  Really excellent!  But...
Ishiguro: Yes?
Tony: Well... [Pauses]  Don't you think it's a little... at times, I mean... all a little too...
Ishiguro: [Leaning forward] Yes?
Tony: Gimmicky?

[Ishiguro leans back, a frown settling upon his hitherto placid features.  Tony waits nervously, the fear of having offended his companion written all over his furrowed brow.  Ishiguro finally sighs and gestures at the restaurant around him.]

Ishiguro: So, you're discussing a novel in an imaginary restaurant - with a writer you've never met - just to avoid writing a proper review?  And I'm the 'gimmicky' one?

[He stands up, nods curtly, and disappears in the direction of the exit.  Tony sighs and slumps back in his chair.  Moments later, the waiter walks up to the table.  He takes a leather folder and places it abruptly on the table.]

Tony: [Roused from his stupor] What, sorry, what's this?
Waiter: The bill. [Raises one eyebrow] Sir.
Tony: [Confused] But.. but, I thought this was on Mr. Ishiguro...
Waiter: Apparently, he has changed his mind.  [Smiles] Although if money is a problem, we do have a lot of dishes waiting to be washed...
Tony: [Standing up]  Come on then, Brodsky, let's get this over with.
Waiter: As you wish, sir. [Scowls] And not even close.

[They walk towards the kitchen - Tony appears to be throwing more and more names at the irritated waiter as the screen fades to black...]

Friday 9 March 2012

Tony's Reading List's IFFP 2012 Plans

I think that many of you will be aware by now that the longlist for the 2012 IFFP (Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) has been announced, and regular readers of my blog will understand that this is one of the year's more interesting literary prizes for Tony's Reading List.  While I'm not committing myself to reading the whole list (that would be very silly and would be tempting fate in a way guaranteed to bring down retribution from various gods), I am hoping to make serious inroads into the fifteen works chosen, so here is a brief overview of the current state of play...

Books I've already read and reviewed:

Books I have on order at my local library:
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter (Corsair)
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Telegram Books)
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon (Harvill Secker)
Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Secker)  

Books I can't get at the library and may buy:
Alice by Judith Hermann, translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo (The Clerkenwell Press)***
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani, translated from the Italian by Judith Landry (Dedalus)

Books I may consider if they get to the shortlist stage:
Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green (Alma Books)
The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg, translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (Faber & Faber)
Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia, translated from the French by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein (Faber & Faber)***
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Jonathan Cape)
Professor Andersen's Night by Dag Solstad, translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland (Harvill Secker)
Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas De Lange (Chatto & Windus)

***Please note that any books in French or German will be read in the original, not the translation...

It's a big ask, but I'll do my best.  If any publisher wants to donate review copies, that would be lovely too!

And if you're looking for more quality reviews of this longlist, you could do worse than stop by the Winston's Dad blog and see what Stu and his sterling selection of shadow panelists make of this year's choices.  That's quite enough blathering on for now though - it's about time I cracked open another book...

Thursday 8 March 2012

I've been through the Tundra on a Horse with no name...

As regular readers will no doubt already know, I am a big fan of Peirene Press and their beautifully-presented slices of literary excellence, so I was very happy when I recently received a review copy of this year's first offering.  2012 is to be the year of the small epic, books cramming big themes into slender paperbacks, and I was very curious to see how this idea would pan out on paper.  So, without further ado, it's time to head off to a very wintry Finland - don't forget your thermals ;)

It seems strange in an unusually sun-drenched Melbourne to be turning to a story set in the snowy Arctic, but what's exactly what The Brothers is.  Asko Sahlberg's novella, translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, is a piece of historical fiction, set in 1809 at the end of the war between Sweden and Russia.  Two brothers, Henrik and Erik, return to their family home, hoping to get on with life after their stints in the army.  It's unlikely to be a peaceful homecoming, however, as there is unresolved tension between the brothers - heightened by the fact that they served on different sides during the war.

The novella is narrated by a cast of people from the homestead (including the brothers): the old mistress, the mother of the returning soldiers; Erik's wife, Anna; the farmhand, an old family helper; and Mauri, an impoverished cousin.  The more that pours from the mouths of the narrators, the more we realise that this is not a happy family.  Behind the walls of the crumbling farmhouse, secrets abound - secrets which may well tear lives apart...

The story is told in the present tense, creating a sense of urgency and immediacy, and despite the frequent flash-backs, the overall feel is more of a play than of a novel.  The whole affair is over almost before it has begun, and the claustrophobic setting of the old farmhouse would be perfect for a stage.  There are frequent changes of scene with terse, tense confrontations between the old soldiers, moments which reveal much but promise more.

The Brothers is also full of descriptions of the unforgiving landscape surrounding, and at times cutting off, the house, emphasising the isolation of the family.  As we walk through the chill forests, treading watchfully through the thick snow, taking care not to pass too close to the icy, menacing waters of the river, the farmhouse seems almost inviting...

...but not quite.  The family home is a dark, gloomy, ramschackle edifice, a fitting symbol for the decline of the family fortunes.  On his return from the wars, Henrik sees the building with new eyes:
"This house is a cadaver.  The others are too close to see it, but it has already begun to decompose.  I flinch from its decay." p.48
This decay from years of neglect seems to have infected its inhabitants, most of whom have seen better days, few of whom have hope of a brighter future.  The ticking of clocks echoing around the rooms is a further reminder of how time has slipped away.

In a tight-knit family, this sense of hopelessness might be overcome; however, the cast of The Brothers are anything but.  Secrets abound, memories of events long past, and nobody trusts anyone enough to share them.  As the Farmhand comments, nothing can be taken on face value:
"It has always been this way around here: you say something when you mean something completely different, or at least more." p.17
The importance of sub-text in the story is palpable; things happen below the surface, and only the reader, privileged to watch events from several viewpoints, is able to (eventually) get an overview.

In the end, it is hard to believe that the story could have unfolded any other way.  There is a strong sense of fatalism, from the moment that Henrik sees (and covets) his neighbour's horse to the the pivotal, time-stopping moment in the crisp, snowy hills, where the destiny of the brothers lies in the hands of someone close to them.  Which is not to say that you won't be surprised by the turns the tale takes.

The Brothers is, I'm happy to say, another of Peirene's success stories.  While I would have preferred the book to be a little longer (and while I wasn't entirely convinced that the voices were always as distinct as they might have been), this is an excellent, elegant piece of writing, one I'm sure will stand up to rereading.  And who knows?  With the recent success of the theatre adaptation of Beside the Sea, perhaps this will be another book which will make the jump to the stage.  I'm not sure how they'll get the horse up there though...

Monday 5 March 2012

More Fun with the Two Teds

The other day, I decided to read a couple of my Hamburger Lesehefte books (cheap editions of German-language classics), and it gave me the opportunity to catch up with two writers I first discovered last year, Theodor Fontane and Theodor Storm.  I'd like to tell you that I chose the two books carefully, weighing up their complementary values, but that would be a big fat lie - I chose them because they're both written by a man called Ted.  Funnily enough though, there was actually a lot more connecting them than that...

Grete Minde is a bitter-sweet love story, about eighty-pages long, which is concerned with our titular heroine.  Poor Grete is having a tough time of things after the death of her mother as her pious sister-in-law doesn't approve of her manners or her burgeoning relationship with the neighbours' son, Valtin.  Things get worse when Grete's father dies, and after a particularly violent argument, Grete and Valtin run away together.  Years later, the young woman returns to her hometown of Tangermünder, and that's when things really hot up.

The novella is a mix of styles and influences, starting off very much like Storm's Immensee,  turning into a kind of Cinderella story, developing later into a variation of Keller's Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe before finishing off as a Stephen King novel.  That may sound a little confused (and I can assure you that I am often confused), but Grete Minde does meander around a little, not always sure what it wants to be.  By the end though, everyone gets the point...

Aquis Submersus, at sixty pages one of Storm's longer efforts, is (as Storm was wont to produce) a frame narrative, beginning in the nineteenth century, before dragging us, via a second text, back to the middle of the seventeenth century.  A young man is fascinated by a portrait of a dead child he sees in a church, and the letters C.P.A.S. (Culpa Patris Aquis Submersus) at the bottom seem to hint at a drowning caused by the father's negligence.  When our friend stumbles across some old documents however, he discovers that the story is more complex than that.

It is another tale of forbidden love, this time between an artist and the daughter of a nobleman.  Her brother forbids any thought of a marriage, but the two do manage to share some time together before being separated.  Later in life, the artist thinks back to his lost love, wondering what could have become of her - until his work takes him to an old church near his hometown...

The majority of Aquis Submersus is written in seventeenth-century German (I assume!), which takes a little getting used to.  Once you're used to the proliferation of 'h's - used to lengthen vowels - and archaic verb forms though, it's a surprisingly smooth read, and a very good one too.  Of the Storm works I've read, this one probably has most in common with Der Schimmelreiter, and the quality is up there too.  I raced through it and enjoyed it thoroughly, despite the occasional linguistic hurdle ;)

Although I chose the two stories virtually at random, there is an incredible amount linking the two stories.  Both were based on real-life events (both from the seventeenth century!), and the two stories have remarkably similar themes.  Family members get in the way of young lovers, either for reasons of religion or social status.  In both works, the role of children is a dominant one.  Both novellas also have a natural break in proceedings, with the culmination of the story coming a matter of years later.

Having said that though, I would have to add that Aquis Submersus is far better than Grete Minde, an opinion which is shared by the German literary world (always nice to know!).  This is one of Fontane's minor works, light years away from the later big-city psychological portraits of the middle classes (Effi Briest, Frau Jenny Treibel) which brought him lasting fame.  Where Aquis Submersus is poignant and touching, Grete Minde is slightly melodramatic and clichéd, and doesn't hang together as well as Storm's story.  Which is not at all surprising - the historical novella is really Storm's home turf...

Both novellas are well worth reading, but Aquis Submersus is much more typical of Storm's work than Grete Minde is of Fontane's.  However, by the time I got to the end of the two books, there was something else bothering me.  The Hamburger Lesehefte are great (cheap!) copies of German classics, but I've gone off them a little and, for many reasons, am no longer as much of a fan as I was.

For one thing, you can get free e-copies very easily anyway, which kind of defeats the object of cheap, low-quality editions.  Secondly, the Hamburger Lesehefte editions are for use in schools, which means that the language conforms to the new writing reforms.  This means little to most of you, but it basically means that what you're reading is not the original text (I especially hate the ß-lessness of the new standards!).  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, to save on printing costs the font size is minuscule, and my eyes aren't what they used to be...

What does that mean for me?  Well, in future I think I'll be downloading e-books for the most part and buying better, more expensive versions for books I really want.  And which books would they be?  Well, I would imagine that they would be books by classic German authors that I know and trust - like, for instance, the two Teds :)

Saturday 3 March 2012

February 2012 Wrap-Up

February has been a strange month on the reading front.  I read a couple of longer books to start the month (one in English, one in German), and I thought I was going to struggle to finish more than a handful before the 29th...  As you can see below though, the pace eventually picked up, and I ended up with a very respectable month's reading :)

Total Books Read: 10
Year-to-Date: 21

New: 9
Rereads: 1

From the Shelves: 7
Review Copies:
From the Library: 1
On the Kindle: 0

Novels: 7
Novellas: 3

Non-English Language: 7 (3 German, 2 Russian, 1 Japanese, 1 Finnish)
In Original Language: 3 (3 German)

Books read in February were:
10) Aquis Submersus by Theodor Storm

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 2 (4/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 2 (4/10)

Tony's Turkey for February is: nothing

While there were some books I didn't enjoy quite as much as the others this month, there weren't any which were actually bad or unenjoyable.  No turkeys in February :)

Tony's Recommendation for February is: Eugen Ruge's In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts

Keep an eye out for this one - it's apparently being translated at the moment, and I have no doubt that it will be one of the next big things when it eventually appears in English.  I was very impressed with Kawabata's classic, and The Brothers, the latest Peirene Press offering, was also an intriguing read.  Of course, those who know my blog well will appreciate that Trollope's chunksters are always near the top of these lists.  However, Ruge's complex story of a family and country whose fates are intertwined was easily my favourite book this month :)

And that's it for the shortest month of the year - let's see what I get up to in March with thirty-one full days at my disposal!

Thursday 1 March 2012

A Double Dash of Dostoyevsky (with a Garnett chaser)

It's been a while since my last Dostoyevsky read, so I thought it was time to crack open a book I've had sitting on my shelves for far too long now.  As you can see from the photo, my Wordsworth Editions purchase actually contains two of the great man's works, collected together for a very good reason - namely that they are both extremely autobiographical...

The House of the Dead is a collection of reflections about time in a Siberian prison, penned by an upper-class political prisoner who has been sentenced to ten years' incarceration.  Preceded by a introductory chapter explaining where the notes come from, the book is a rather sobering description of life inside a typical Siberian labour camp.

The notes start with the arrival of the writer, a certain Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, in Siberia, and dwell chiefly on his first year in the prison.  As a 'gentleman', he finds it hard to settle in the prison, only becoming grudgingly accepted by the peasant majority as his term wears on.  Despite his initial difficulties, the conditions in the prison are made to sound fairly acceptable: good food can be had for a price (as can vodka!); the work, while difficult, is fairly relaxed; and the inmates tend, on the whole, to avoid any kind of physical violence.

However, it's not all fun and games behind bars.  The barracks the prisoners stay in are covered in filth, and the cold Siberian winter leaves its mark on the poor wretches huddling under their greatcoats.  Worse than the physical suffering though is the mental torture the prisoners must endure.  Even if there is no immediate threat to their lives, the reality is that they are prisoners - and they won't be getting out for a long, long time...

While The House of the Dead can be a bit of a depressing read, The Gambler is anything but.  It's only half the length of its partner novel, but it seems even shorter as the reader is swept along by the energetic pace and irresistible energy of the characters.  It takes place in the (imaginary!) German resort of Roulettenburg, a town where high society from all over Europe comes to take the waters and gamble their money away.

Our main man here is Alexei Ivanovich, a young tutor attached to a family of Russian nobles.  His employer, the General, is passionately in love with a beautiful young Frenchwoman (and badly in debt to a suave Frenchman), and his stay in Roulettenburg is spent waiting for news about the health of the General's rich aunt.  With so much riding on 'Granny' shuffling off this mortal coil as soon as possible then, you can imagine that her arrival in Roulettenburg is not a welcome one...

The chapter depicting Granny's arrival steals the show, her triumphant entry set to the sound of dropping jaws an example of the writer's genius.  However, The Gambler, as the title suggests, is not about family matters, but about the dangers of the roulette wheel and the near impossibility of escaping from the casino with both wallet and soul untouched.  Spurred on by both Granny and Polina, the woman he loves but can never attain, Alexei succumbs to the temptation to risk his luck.  The consequences?  Well, that would be telling ;)

It might be difficult to believe that one man could experience both of these lives in the space of one existence, but Dostoyevsky did.  The House of the Dead is based on his own experiences in a Siberian labour camp, where he spent four years of his life imprisoned and isolated from society.  Later, in the middle of a gambling mania in Wiesbaden, and under extreme time pressure to deliver a novel he had promised, he dictated The Gambler to the woman who would later become his wife.  He definitely wasn't one for a quiet life...

Of the two, I much preferred The Gambler.  It has that page-turning quality which can make a classic novel into a thing of beauty, marrying great writing with a plot you can't wait to unravel.  The House of the Dead, by contrast, seems a little leaden and doesn't really go anywhere.  It's a collection of impressions, loosely bound together, and it's tempting to think that were it not for political constraints, it may have become a slightly less sanitised work of non-fiction.

Of course, there is one more factor that must be considered when evaluating this book, and that is the (in)famous translator, Constance Garnett.  Garnett polarises opinion, with many readers loathing her rendering of Dostoyevskian dialogue into incomprehensible, pseudo-Cockney rambling, while others like her (dated) style.  I would have to say that the translations probably played a large part in my opinions here: parts of the conversations in The House of the Dead were virtually unreadable.  For example:
"You great sow!... He's grown fat on the prison bread.  Glad he'll give us a litter of twelve suckling pigs by Christmas."
"But what sort of queer bird are you?" he cried, suddenly turning crimson.
"Just so, a bird."
"What sort?"
"That sort." pp25-6
This goes on for a while, until one of the men finally declares himself a "cocky-locky", at which point I looked to see how much more of the novel I had to read...

The Gambler, however, seemed to fly by much more smoothly, and I hardly noticed any glaring conversational wonders, often the sign of a good translation.  There was one problem with the language in The Gambler though; anyone whose French is not quite up to scratch may wish to consider investing in a dictionary before reading it.  My edition had no notes translating the frequent French comments into English :)

So, at the end of a post which has become a lot longer, and much less coherent, than I would have liked, let's summarise today's findings:

1) I liked The Gambler better.
2) Constance Garnett's translations are not for everyone, so you may want to find another edition.
3) Especially if your French isn't much good.
4) Prisons in nineteenth-century Russia weren't very clean.
5) Dostoyevsky had a very, very interesting life.

You're welcome :)