Saturday 30 June 2012

June 2012 Wrap-Up

June has been extremely busy here at Tony's Reading List.  I've had a few more ARCs than usual, and I've also been trying to fit in some books to take part in Dutch Lit Month, Indigenous Literature Week and, of course, the Japanese Literature Challenge 6.  On top of that, I had my most successful post ever (on translated fiction), and I even managed to knock off the final book from the IFFP 2012 longlist.  Now that's what I call a big month...

Total Books Read: 11
Year-to-Date: 59

New: 11
Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 3
Review Copies: 3
From the Library: 4
On the Kindle: 1 (1 Review Copy)

Novels: 5
Novellas: 5
Short Stories: 1

Non-English Language: 9 (3 Spanish, 2 Japanese, Danish, Icelandic, Italian, Dutch)
In Original Language: 0

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 1 (5/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 1 (5/10)
IFFP 2012 Longlist: 1 (15/15) - COMPLETED :)
Japanese Literature Challenge 6: 2 (2/1) 
Books read in June were:

Tony's Turkey for June is: Larissa Behrendt's Legacy

Perhaps a tad harsh, but Legacy was a lot weaker than the rest of the books this month.  It was overly preachy, dull at times, and compared to my other book for Indigenous Literature Week it was fairly anodyne, despite some of the content matter.  That makes two turkeys for Christmas so far this year...

Tony's Recommendations for June are: Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors
and Miguel de Cervante's Don Quixote

Even in a reputedly inferior translation, Don Quixote is a magnificent book, a must-read for anyone with any literary pretentions (or just a yearning for a rollocking read!).  However, I couldn't overlook Alan Duff's magnificent portrayal of Maori life, so for the first time this year, the honours are shared :)

Looking forward to July, I'm hoping to read more books for Spanish Lit Month.  That should be fairly simple though as I have another few ARCs of contemporary Spanish-language literature to get through - be careful what you wish for... ;)

Thursday 28 June 2012

Divine Inspiration from the Frozen North

One of the discoveries of my recent sojourn into shadow judging was the eventual winner of our parallel prize, Sjón, the Icelandic author of the excellent From the Mouth of the Whale.  Having heard that he had another book out in English soon, I crossed my fingers and sent out a begging e-mail (which isn't easy with crossed fingers, let me tell you), hoping for a review copy.  Luckily, Telegram Books took pity on me and my sore fingers and sent me a lovely copy of the new book, The Whispering Muse - and a very good one it is too :)

The rather slender volume, coming in at a delicate 143 pages, chronicles events from 1949, when a rather interesting character, Valdimar Haraldsson, an academic with a monomania linking the superiority of the Nordic races with frequent fish consumption, is invited to take a trip.  As a personal favour, he is to be allowed on a cargo ship carrying paper pulp from Norway to Istanbul, relaxing in a luxurious cabin on a cruise which will take some weeks.  On the first evening of the journey, he is invited to dine at the captain's table, and it is here that he meets an even more fascinating man for the first time - Caeneus: second mate of the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen and survivor of the good ship Argo...

Each evening, once the dinner utensils have been cleared away, the imposing figure (all six foot nine of him) slowly takes a small splinter of wood from his pocket, listens to it intently for a while, then proceeds to relate the next instalment of his adventures aboard the ship Jason commanded on his quest to reclaim the Golden Fleece.  The small group of officers and workers on the ship listen spellbound to the tales the impressive Caeneus spins, stories of a visit the Argonauts paid to an island inhabited only by women.  Inspired by the scrap of wood, said to be a relic of the old ship, the mate and his whispering muse entertain and enthral his listeners during their enforced delay in Norway.

Haraldsson is initially confused by the respect his fellow passengers show the burly seaman, but eventually he comes to admire his figure and dignity too.  Too full of himself and his own theories though, he sees the nightly tales as idle amusement - until, that is, he begins to feel that there may just be a connection to his own life.  Perhaps Caeneus is telling the stories just for him...

Anyone who has tried From the Mouth of the Whale will know the effect Sjón's blend of lyrical excellence and inspired imagination can have on the reader, and The Whispering Muse is every bit as wonderful and mad as its translated predecessor.  What it lacks in volume - the book is easily read in a couple of hours -, it makes up for with a bagful of ideas scattered like fairy dust throughout the story.  The mixture of Greek mythology, pompous quasi-academic self-importance and Nordic sagas (supported by a healthy diet of fish) is guaranteed to confuse, confound and entertain.

Caeneus, a man who literally and metaphorically towers above his company, is an enigma.  Despite his talent for story-telling, he is actually a taciturn soul, and it is only when the last scraps of dinner have been removed, and the splinter of wood is taken out, that he begins to talk:
"Before embarking on his tales the mate had the habit of drawing a rotten chip of wood from his pocket and holding it to his right ear like a telephone receiver.  He would listen to the chip for a minute or two, closing his eyes as if asleep, while under his eyelids his pupils quivered to and fro." Telegram Books (2012), p.18
He is actually a real character from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, and you can read all about him on Wikipedia.  Don't do it before reading the book though; if you do, you may spoil a few surprises the writer has in store for you...

Of course, there's more to The Whispering Muse than merely 140-odd pages of amusing story-telling - the problem though is figuring out exactly what themes the cunning writer has woven into the tapestry of his work.  The setting, post-war Europe, could be giving the reader a hint here.  Haraldsson, an Icelander living in Denmark, was a Nazi sympathiser during the war, working in Germany translating propaganda into his native tongue, and there are glimpses in the story of a man, and a region, attempting to come to terms with the end of the conflict.

The story of the Argonauts' visit to Lemnos could also be seen as a sort of parallel to Haraldsson's own stay on the ship.  Both stories are excerpts, interludes in a wider narrative, and when Caeneus tells the crew of the Argo's voyage from the Mediterranean up to the wilds of Ultima Thule, it's difficult not to compare this journey to the one the MS Elizabet Jun-Olsen is about to undertake - or indeed to the one Haraldsson must have endured to get from Iceland to mainland Europe.

One final possibility though is that of sexual awakening, linked to the effects of the war.  Haraldsson is strangely aroused in the presence of the splinter from the Argo, and the stories of the erotic adventures Caeneus and his ship-mates enjoyed on Lemnos eventually spur him on to a change in his lifestyle.  A metaphor for libido overcoming the dampening effects of world conflict?  Let's not take things too far ;)

The Whispering Muse, whatever interpretation you prefer to concentrate on, is another wonderful work by an inventive writer, and having a translator of the ability of Victoria Cribb only makes the book even better.  I loved her rendering of From the Mouth of the Whale, and this is again an excellent translation.  No, I haven't read the original Icelandic (!), but a good translation, as well as transferring the original meaning, is simply a good piece of writing in the new language, and Cribb's translation certainly fits that description.  To just pick out one example:
"Once the ear has fallen asleep, the humming takes on a new form.  It becomes a note, a voice sounding in the consciousness, as if a single grain of golden sand has slipped through the mesh of the sieve and, borne on the tip of the eardrum's tongue, passed through the horn and ivory-inlaid gates that divide the tangible from the invisible world." p.89
Well, I liked it anyway ;)

I have a library copy of The Blue Fox sitting on my shelves, but after enjoying The Whispering Muse, I'm a little reluctant to open it.  You see, while Sjón has written several more pieces of fiction, only three have been translated into English so far.  So, while I wait for Ms. Cribb to get to work on the rest of Sjón's back catalogue, perhaps I should just save my final ticket to his magical world for another time...

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Here Come the Drums, Here Come the Drums

After breezing through Peter Stamm's Sieben Jahre in just a couple of days, I was fooled into thinking that I was ready for a tougher task.  For a long time now, I've had a copy of Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) sitting on the shelves, so before the adrenalin rush of cruising through Stamm's book could wear off, I launched into the monstrous tome you can see on the left - three weeks later...

Günter Grass, for many reasons, has become a rather controversial figure, but there is no doubting the fact that he is one of the most important German literary figures of the twentieth century - and Die Blechtrommel is the book that made him.  It's a huge, rambling piece of magical realism, divided into three books which loosely cover the period before WWII, the war itself, and then the post-war years in West Germany.  The novel is partly autobiographical; however, once you start reading it, you suspect that few of the more interesting scenes come from Grass' personal memories ;)

The story is narrated by its hero, Oskar Matzerath, a man approaching his thirtieth birthday trapped inside a mental institute.  In the company of his helpful guard Bruno, Oskar decides to set down the story of his life (beginning, strangely enough with the conception of his mother...), telling the tale of how he lived through some of the most dramatic and sickening events in human history.  And, as he works his way through his story, the events take place to the beat of a drum...

The drum is the latest of a line descended from the one he received, as promised by his mother, for his third birthday.  The red-and-white tin drum, ever present, helps Oskar beat out the rhythm of history, taking the reader back in time to watch little Oskar growing up in Danzig.  Sentient from birth, stuck (of his own choosing) at the height of a three-year-old, with a voice that can shatter glass, this is - as you can imagine - no ordinary narrator.

After the simple, straight-forward text of Sieben Jahre, Die Blechtrommel came as a bit of a shock.  Put simply, it's a monster of a book.  The dense, complex text, with every page containing a host of unknown words, tested my German reading ability to the limit.  To wade through the 779 pages, I spent fifteen days out of twenty two, with a couple of rests between the books to relax with something a little less strenuous.  In addition to the linguistic issues, the bizarre plot (or lack of it) also made it a tricky read.  In one sense, it's a pretty straight-forward linear work, following Oskar and his family from 1899 to 1954; in another, it's a never-ending stream of increasingly bizarre episodes in the vein of Gabriel García Márquez or Haruki Murakami, never allowing you to relax in the certainty of where the story is going next.

Oskar is the focus of the book, a classic unreliable narrator who fabricates and embellishes, occasionally admitting that matters occurred slightly differently to how he had been portraying them.  Through his eyes, we see the rise of the Nazis and the start of the war in the ever-shifting city of Danzig (Gdańsk), a town divided between Polish and Germanic allegiances.  He is a witness to history, allowing us to relive events such as Kristallnacht or the taking of the Polish post-office in Danzig - although what we see has to be taken with a pinch of salt...

Our vertically-challenged friend is also a harbinger of death, bringing about (intentionally or accidentally) the demise of a host of characters, including his mother, his two fathers (it's a long story), a gang of boys he takes over, a dwarf lover, a nurse he takes a shine to...  He is less a person than a tool of destiny, a 94-cm figure dooming all he comes into contact with.  Whether as a thief, a revue performer, a nude model or an engraver of tombstones, the banging of his drum inevitably leaves death in its wake.

What makes Die Blechtrommel fascinating is the sheer variety of stories the writer produces.  The start of the book, where Oskar's grandmother uses her ingenuity (and clothing) to rescue a fugitive criminal, is a classic scene, a story which could stand alone as a great piece of literature.  That is just the beginning though: from there, Oskar takes us to his chaotic first - and last - day of school; a career as a jazz drummer in a rather unusual night club; an unfortunate incident with a cursed wooden carving; a jam session with a baby Jesus statue...  The recaps which begin to appear towards the end of the book serve to remind the reader of just how many great stories the book contains.

While it may appear that it's just a mad collection of over-the-top anecdotes, there is a more serious side to Die Blechtrommel.  Grass skilfully portrays the appeal of the Nazi party to the ordinary working man, only to turn the tables by concentrating on the gruesome, horrendous details of the atrocities committed by those people in the years before the war.  Oskar's quasi-magical qualities allow him to bear witness to events he should not have seen, such as the desperate defence of the post-office by workers who believed fervently that the French would rush to their aid, and that the British fleet was sailing into Gdańsk's harbour as they spoke...

Die Blechtrommel is a wonderful book, a truly memorable version of twentieth-century history.  It does sag a little at times (inevitably so in a book of this size and daring), but it is well worth the effort.  I'm not sure that I'll be rereading it any time soon, but if I do, I'll probably approach it differently next time, taking it a chapter at a time and treating it as self-contained stories, perhaps even selecting particular passages to have another look at.  Whatever you may think of the writer (and there are many people who don't think that much of him), his creation, Oskar is well worth getting to know.  Make the time to find out for yourself - even if it takes a lot of finding ;)

Sunday 24 June 2012

The Wings Of An Angel

Last year, I never got around to participating in Dutch Lit Month, run by Iris of Iris On Books, so I was determined to take part this time.  Sadly, with one thing or another, June has turned out to be rather busy, so I'm afraid that all I have to offer is this one almost belated effort.  Still, it's the thought that counts, right?

Cees Nooteboom is the one name which keeps coming up when people talk about Dutch literature, so I looked him up on my local library database and was lucky enough to reserve a copy of a recent novella, Lost Paradise (translated by Susan Massotty).  It's a slight work, running to 150 sparsely-filled pages, with two main strands, connected late in the book by a surprising reunion - and by the writer's insistence on putting himself in the story...

In the first part, we meet Alma, a young Brazilian woman full of an insuperable sadness.  After a traumatic event back in São Paulo, she and her best friend Almuta decide that it's time to go off on their long-awaited travels around the world, ending up in the place they have always dreamed of visiting - Australia.  A chance encounter with an Aboriginal artist helps Alma to finally rid herself of the shadow which has haunted her for so long, and a chance part-time job over in Perth gives her the opportunity to become the one thing she is obsessed with - an angel...

Meanwhile, over in the Netherlands, literary critic Erik Zondag, a grumpy middle-aged scribbler, is off to an Austrian health farm to detox, hoping to shed not only a few kilos, but also some of the anger and frustration he feels.  In a high-class institution in the mountains, far from the eyes of the outside world, Erik begins to relax and let out the pent-up emotions he has been keeping inside - and then one morning...

...well, that would be telling ;)

When I started reading Lost Paradise, I had my doubts.  The first, introductory, section really grated: the narrator was pompous, the language stilted, the behaviour slightly arrogant and sexist... and it's meant to be.  It's actually the writer himself, introducing his main character personally (literally!).  Once we get into Alma's story, the tone changes, swapping the irreverent tone for an excellent lyrical stretch of writing.  My favourite part of the book was the seventy-five pages that made up this section, a tale which probably could - and should - have been a (longish) short story in its own right.

The idea behind the book is a simple one, and the title, as you would expect, gives the reader a clue to this.  It is the idea of a yearning for something else, a simpler time, an escape from modern life - and a deliberate reference to Milton's Paradise Lost (a book which is both seen and quoted from in Nooteboom's work).  Both Alma and Erik are looking for something that isn't really there; Erik tries to alleviate his ennui in the isolated Austrian mountains, and Alma wants to leave her Weltschmerz behind in the ancient Australian Outback.  As a man Alma meets remarks, this is something that many people are desperate to do:
"For people coming from a place of chaos and confusion, it's quite tempting.  Especially since it has been destroyed, or almost.  That is what everyone has always been looking for, isn't it?  A lost paradise?" p.51, Harvill Secker (2007)
It is a yearning for simplicity, for simpler times, that leads us to run away, looking for our own lost paradise...

There's a lot to like in Lost Paradise, but there are also plenty of things which don't quite work.  As an Australia (of sorts), I'm a little uneasy with the way the writer has used the Aboriginal people and ideas in the novella, playing with this idea of mysticism and exoticism.  He never attempts to really portray the culture beyond the surface clichés, and while this may be deliberate, it often feels... well, just wrong.

I'm also less than convinced by the meta-fictional elements, with the writer lusting after, and eventually speaking to, his young female creation.  Zondag's story also suffers from this, with many a nod and a wink to Nooteboom's fellow Dutch writers.  At one point, as Erik's girlfriend condemns his over-savage critiques of certain works, he says:
"There was no question of making love after that.  Dutch authors had a lot to answer for." p.84 
In fact, if you had no idea of any Dutch authors, a couple of hours in the company of Lost Paradise would be a great place to start learning more ;)

In the end, I was left with the feeling that while Nooteboom is a talented writer, Lost Paradise is a slight, experimental, flawed work.  I've heard that he has written some good short-story collections, and this book almost feels like a couple of short stories extended and blended into something which doesn't quite come off.  I love the writing (for the most part), and I think Susan Massotty's translation is excellent; it's certainly very easy to see the different styles the writer originally used in the different sections.  However, if you're looking for a masterpiece of Dutch literature, I think you would be best advised to try something a little more substantial.

Possibly by the same writer ;)

Thursday 21 June 2012

Islands of Despair

April 2012 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, a conflict between the UK and Argentina for ownership of a group of islands in the South Atlantic.  I was seven years old at the time but, for many reasons, the conflict is a clear memory from my childhood.  For most Britons, the war is history, over, leaving us to move on with our lives.  In Argentina however, if my latest book is anything to go by, the scars run a little deeper...

Carlos Gamerro's The Islands (translated by Ian Barnett) was written in 1998, but set in 1992, ten years after the war.  It follows Felipe Félix, a veteran of the conflict, as he moves around Buenos Aires in search of information.  Felipe is a hacker, an expert in the early days of computers, and he has been hired by a wealthy businessman to find witnesses to a murder.  Not because he wishes to solve the murder, but rather because he wishes to cover it up...

With a permanent reminder of the war in the shape of a fragment of his helmet permanently lodged in his skull, it's a tough task for Felipe to forget the war entirely.  However, the path to the names his employer requires leads Felipe back to old friends and enemies, forcing his overwrought mind to confront memories he'd much rather forget.  No matter how much he twists and turns, the road always leads back to the place a part of him never really left - las Malvinas...

The Islands, the latest in And Other Stories' wonderful selection of literature in translation, is a slightly confronting book for an Englishman.  As mentioned above, I still have vivid, if somewhat confused, memories of the war, and to see it re-imagined through Argentinian eyes can be a little unnerving.  An early chapter in which Felipe creates a computer game rewriting the outcome of the war, with British ships sunk at will and soldiers slaughtered on the cold, unforgiving expanses of Goose Green, is positively disturbing.  The reality, of course, is that this is just what Felipe wishes had happened...

This quickly passes though, and the further Felipe delves into the case he has been given, the less the story becomes about the wider events of the war and more about the lasting effect it has had on the unfortunate veterans.  Like all the old soldiers, Felipe is damaged, desperate to seek refuge in cyberspace, drug-fuelled dreams or sexual encounters - unfortunately, he is still unable to escape the pull of the Islands, which have become a piece of him.  Looking back on his time in uniform, he says:
"How could those simple girls from the neighbourhood or school, sometimes barely groped at a dance or beneath a burnt-out lamp post, compete with the Islands?  As the letters arrived - or didn't - from the mainland, or when we were defeated by the effort of reconstructing a face and body in that jealous and ruthless land, we gradually realised we were surrendering them in return for a greater love."

While Felipe understands that to move on he needs to get away from his past, his friends prefer to live there.  Whether meeting to prepare for the next invasion or constructing a scale model of the Islands in a cellar, they refuse to move on, threatening to pull Felipe back into his time in the army.  This glorification of the conflict sickens Felipe:
"...however hard I tried, I couldn't forgive them for always talking about the war as some longer, more exciting version of a school-leavers' trip..."
Gradually we learn the reality of what happened from Felipe's dreams, the descriptions of the hellish battles and the mind-numbing waiting.  Counting minutes to get through the day, soaked, freezing, not caring about the war, just wanting to go home...

The first half of the book didn't convince me totally.  Things took a good while to get moving, and the two strands didn't really seem to connect much for the first two hundred pages.  The scenes in Tamerlán's tower (including some rather unusual forms of father-son discipline...) seem over the top, shocking for the sake of being shocking.  There is also a section where Felipe searches for the people on the list, a meandering journey around the city which had me skim-reading and yawning a little.

However, once we get deeper into the book, and the two strands start to come together, it becomes a lot more interesting.  In fact, the more we ignore what is happening in the outside world and retreat inside Felipe's head, the better The Islands becomes.  Gamerro treats us to wonderful swirling passages of cocaine rushes and flashbacks, blurring the lines between past and present, memory and reality (if there are any such lines...).  Felipe's return to the mental institution he was once imprisoned in, simply turning up and not having the energy to leave again, is one of a number of excellent pieces of writing in the second half of the book.

Great credit must also go to the translator, Ian Barnett, for the job he's done on The Islands.  The original uses a mix of Spanish and English at times, making a clear translation imperative.  There are also several passages where one of Felipe's comrades spouts non-stop gibberish, sounds corrupted from the original language, but close enough to enable a listener to reconstruct the real text.  Translating this nonsense into English while leaving it close enough to something that makes sense must have been a mighty task :)

Gamerro's language games don't stop there though.  Fausto Tamerlán, the superhuman villain, has obvious connections to Goethe's soul-selling character, and also to the famous Muslim leader Tamerlane - a mighty king whose love for the arts is only matched by his willingness to slaughter.  And only a cynic would name his hero Felipe Félix - there's nothing lucky about this poor soldier...

...and that's what it all boils down to.  While Felipe came back, it would be hard to call him a survivor.  For the defeated, the war is an open wound - nobody came back whole.
"It isn't true there were survivors.  There are two bites torn out of the hearts of every one of us, and they're the exact shape of the Islands."
For the losers, the war is never really over...

Tuesday 19 June 2012

The Birth of Modern J-Lit

At the end of May, I welcomed in the sixth edition of the Japanese Literature Challenge with a post introducing some of the books I hope to read and review over the coming months, and today I've got the first of (hopefully) many J-Lit reviews for the challenge, a real classic of modern Japanese literature.  Which is not to say that it's stuffy or tedious - this is a book I flew through...

The most famous Japanese writer of the modern era, and the one many people see as the father of modern Japanese literature, is Natsume Soseki, the author of such delights as I Am A Cat, Botchan, Kusamakura and Kokoro.  However, before Natsume went on his miserable sabbatical to England and came back a changed man, there was another writer who visited Europe, returning to fuse western style with eastern sensibilities - Ogai Mori.  Mori was really the first of the modern Japanese writers, and his novel The Wild Geese (translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein) is one of the best-known Japanese works of the early-twentieth century.

The Wild Geese is set in Tokyo in 1880 and starts with a description of Okada, an impeccable student who has a room next door to the writer in their boarding house.  The two become friends, and Okada eventually tells the writer of an experience he had involving a beautiful young woman.

We are then taken back in time to hear the story of the young woman, Otama, before her first encounter with Okada.  A sweet, innocent girl, cheated by a potential husband, Otama lives in relative poverty with her father - until, that is, she attracts the attention of the moneylender Suezo.  Already having a wife, he decides that Otama would make an ideal mistress and sets her up in a house in a distant suburb - a house Okada walks past every day...

Mori weaves the two strands of the tale - Okada's growing interest in the mysterious beauty and Otama's unfortunate history - together skillfully, the narrator later revealing that he had access to both sides of the story at different times, reflecting on events with the hindsight of thirty years of experience.  The frame narrative is reminiscent of Victorian novels like Wuthering Heights (although the plot has more in common with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), and the narrator has his own part to play in the novella.

However, the key to the story is Otama.  A beautiful young girl, while not forced to enter into the arrangement with Sezuo (in fact, her father is initially against it), she feels she has no choice if she wants to help support her ageing father.  At first, she is relieved that Sezuo is not as bad as he could be; however, the longer she stays trapped in her gilded cage, the more she begins to regret her fate.  She eventually longs to be free, just like the geese flying in the sky...

Things are no better for Sezuo's actual wife, Otsune, though.  While the miserly Sezuo is content to lavish money and gifts on his mistress and her father, his own family is kept to strict economy, a fact which probably irks his wife more than the suspected infidelity.  Once she becomes aware of the rumours spreading around the neighbourhood (at a time when Tokyo was still more of a town than the megalopolis it has become today...), she confronts her husband, accusing him of keeping his own children in rags so that his lover can parade around in fine silk.

The characters of the two women are the main strengths of The Wild Geese.  While Sezuo happily enjoys his double life, despite the annoyance his wife's nagging causes, the two occupants of his bedrooms suffer, showing the difficulties women faced in this era.  Neither of them are able to do anything about the situation as they have nowhere to go and nobody to turn to.  Otama decides to keep the secret of Sezuo's disgraceful profession to herself in order not to burden her father with her concerns - this attitude of resignation and perseverance is one much prized by the Japanese...

I raced through the book in a matter of hours, transfixed by the simple, yet compelling, story matched to an elegant rendition by translators Ochiai and Goldstein.  When we eventually get to the final page, desperate to find out what would happen between Okada and Otama, we are...

...well, that would be telling - you'll just have to read it for yourself ;)

Sunday 17 June 2012

Translation Matters

I was on Facebook a couple of days ago when I noticed a short exchange about a rude comment left on a blogger's site, a rather pretentious remark concerning a book challenge.  The Introverted Reader is running a Books in Translation challenge, and Jen, the host, was unhappy with what her visitor had said (or how they had said it).  When I read the comment, I agreed that it was a tad snide (to say the least), but the point being made was actually a fairly valid one.  If you need a challenge to make you read books which were originally written in a language other than English, there's something very wrong with what you're doing...

The top level of the challenge is Linguist, which entails reading 10-12 translated books over the course of the year.  For the average blogger, reading around seven to eight books per month (a conservative estimate!), that would mean that just one of those books needs to be a translation.  To be perfectly honest, if I couldn't manage that I'd feel... well, frankly, the word that comes to mind is 'embarrassed'.

To be fair, Jen accepts the validity of her visitor's opinion (if not the tone it was expressed in) and has decided to leave the comment on her blog, and I am certainly not trying to belittle her or her challenge.  Rather, the incident got me thinking, once again, about translated fiction, and why people seem to see it as a novelty, not a perfectly normal state of affairs.  I've discussed this in passing several times before (most notably here and here), but I thought I'd use today's post to toss around some more ideas on the subject.

The big question, I suppose, is why we should bother to read translated books anyway.  Well, I have a number of ideas, but here are a few to be going on with:

To experience new places and cultures
One important reason is simply to transport ourselves away from our everyday lives, to visit new places, meet new people and experience new cultures.  It's true that many English-speaking writers enable us to do this anyway, but reading something written by a native, straight from the horse's mouth as it were, is always likely to be more accurate - and possibly more interesting.  I can't imagine simply reading the latest releases in English one after the other; it would be a bit like having the same thing for dinner every night...

To reconsider things we think we know
Reading works in translation can also help readers acquire a different viewpoint on topics they thought were familiar.  A good example of this would be works about the Second World War written from the German point of view.  The more I read about how the war was experienced on the other side of the front line (and indeed elsewhere in Europe), the greater my understanding of the whole event becomes.  If you only read one side of the story, you'll never get close to understanding the whole truth.

They're often very good :)
One more reason for opting for translated fiction is that there has often already been a form of selection in place, sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Books translated into English, especially those which have had a little time to mature, are usually the best of their vintage, works you can rely on to be good reads.  Of course, there are exceptions: just as is the case in English, once a certain genre becomes successful, the quality control may be less important than getting derivative works out there (Scandinavian crime fiction being an obvious recent example...).  On the whole though, those books which do make it into the English language are quality works.

So why don't people read more translated literature?  I'm obviously not the right person to ask, but I've had a bit of a think and come up with the following ideas - and some responses:

You're not reading the "real text"
When you read a translation, you're not actually reading what the author wrote, and the gap between the original and the English can be very wide.  A bad translation can also seem very stilted, turning a beautiful piece of writing into dry, inappropriate sludge.  In good hands though, a translation can be a work of art in its own right, not better than the original, but different.

Translated fiction is difficult.
Just as many readers run a mile whenever the word 'classics' is mentioned, the mere thought of translated literature can bring people out in a cold sweat.  It's true that a lot of what is translated into English is literary fiction, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's difficult to read.  In many cases, the books can be page-turners, stories you can't put down - and they're often fairly slight as well :)

There are too many books to read already
I suspect that one reason many readers fail to try translated fiction is that they are happy to stick to authors and themes they know and trust, especially when there is a never-ending flow of new releases in English (particularly if you're a blogger who is lucky enough to get some review copies...).  However, it would be naive to think that there is nothing better out there, and anyway - how did you get to know about your favourites in the first place?  Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith...

I don't know what to read
Whether you don't know where to look for translated fiction, or you just don't have any idea whether a book is going to be any good or not, being unsure about what's actually out there is always going to prevent you from reading more widely.  Luckily, there are many places around that you can turn to, whether they be organisations such as Three Percent and Booktrust, small presses like Peirene Press, And Other Stories and Dalkey Archive Press - or blogs like Winstonsdad's Blog and The Parrish Lantern - or even yours truly ;)

That's enough pontificating from me - over to you!  Do you read a lot of literature in translation?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  If you've managed to get this far in my lengthy post, please leave a comment - I'd love to hear what you all think on the subject :)

Thursday 14 June 2012

Death Becomes Him

It's always nice to have beautiful new books come tumbling through the metaphorical letter-box, doubly so when the new arrival turns out to be from one of your favourite publishers.  So you can imagine that I was a tad on the happy side when I recently received my review copy of Peirene Press' latest publication, the eighth book in their short history, and the second of the 2012 Small Epic series.  After the dark, icy historical fiction of The Brothers, we're heading back to Scandinavia for some more-contemporary (but just as dark) fare, this time in Denmark - detective fiction, Peirene style ;)

Pia Juul's The Murder of Halland (translated by Martin Aitken) is a dark, deliberately confusing, literary crime novel, a welcome twist on the wave of Scandinavian detective fiction which has recently been invading our shores.  The novel is told through the eyes of Bess, a forty-something divorcée who left her husband a decade ago for the enigmatic Halland, a wealthy, hard-working older man.  Given the title of the novel, it is hardly surprising that his appearance in the book is a rather brief one - within a matter of pages, poor Halland is found gunned down in the street outside his house.

The first Bess (and the reader) learns about the murder is when a local man knocks on her door and blurts out that he is arresting her for the murder of her husband.  The fact that the man is not a policeman - and that Bess is not actually married to the recently departed Halland - takes something away from this rather dramatic announcement...  Once the initial shock has died down however, Bess is left to answer a few difficult questions.  If she didn't kill her partner, then who did?  Where are his phone and laptop?  And, perhaps most importantly, how does she actually feel about his death?

Over the next 150 pages, the reader is carefully inducted into Bess' world, and a most confusing one it is too.  We start with zero knowledge, but as the book progresses, Juul helpfully fills in some of the gaps.  Unfortunately, most of these gaps are not the ones we really need to know about in order to solve the crime; Bess (and Juul) keep those secrets closely guarded...

And that, of course, is part of the charm of the book.  The writer is playing with both the reader and the crime genre itself, casually throwing a murder into the first few pages of the story, then carrying on as if the identify of the murderer is of negligible interest.  By concentrating on Bess, and not anyone involved in the investigation, The Murder of Halland takes us into an awkward realm where we're not quite sure what we're reading for - is it to solve the crime, or to find out more about our traumatised heroine?

There is definitely a lot to find out about too.  You would expect to feel a lot of sympathy with someone going through what poor Bess is experiencing, but she (or Juul) makes it very hard to empathise with her.  She is rude, aggressive, ignorant, possibly alcoholic, and she apparently abandoned her husband (and her young daughter) for a relationship based purely on lust.  While she is obviously affected by grief, you do begin to wonder whether she's really just a rather horrid person.

It's also hard to decide how genuine her grief is.  The more we learn about her relationship with Halland, the less attached she appears to be.  For someone who has spent ten year's in the man's company, she seems to know very little about what makes (made...) him tick.  And I'm not convinced that the grief can completely explain her wandering eye...

While Bess is a fascinating character, the corpse of the story is every bit as interesting.  The figure of Halland towers over the novella, becoming more and more invasive with every page.  The discovery of a possible second life stuns Bess, forcing her to think hard about what Halland actually did for a living.  Could it be that he knew what was coming?  Did his illness have anything to do with it?  Is there any significance in the film poster Bess finds?  You don't really think I'm going to tell you, do you? ;)

The Murder of Halland is a wonderful little book, a play on a detective novel with a plethora of clues, red herrings and characters suspicious by their very presence scattered throughout its pages.  In many ways, not least of which is the presence of a slightly unreliable narrator, it reminds me of another Peirene offering, Matthias Politycki's Next World Novella.  Like Politycki's book, it's a story which forces the reader to pay attention to detail (including the delightful Inspector Morse-esque quotations which precede each chapter), and it's a book which will definitely stand up to rereading.  But, I hear you ask, do we find out who the murderer actually was?

Well, that would be telling ;)

Monday 11 June 2012

Seven Years in Munich

When I first started my blog, most of the little German-language literature I read was confined to classics, owing both to a lack of opportunity (pre-Book-Depository days...) and a lack of knowledge about contemporary German-language writing.  Over the past couple of years though, I have gradually built up a small library of books, and a surprising number are fairly contemporary, recommended either by small presses (e.g. Peirene Press) or fellow bloggers (e.g. Caroline and Lizzy, organisers of last November's German Literature Month).

One name which has continued to crop up is Peter Stamm, and when several reviews of his book Seven Years (Sieben Jahre in the original) appeared recently, I thought it was time to give this one a go.  It's an interesting book, fairly easy to read (I raced through my copy in two days), but deceptively simple with a lingering aftertaste.  In fact, it's a story which certainly stays in your head for a while after you finish it...

We begin the book with an image of Sonja, a beautiful middle-aged woman standing inside an art gallery in Munich.  The reader is with her husband Alex, the narrator of the book, outside looking in, alongside his daughter Sophie.  From this seemingly perfect beginning, the writer, through a story Alex tells to a family friend, shatters our illusions, telling us what life is really like for the couple.

To understand this, we have to go back to 1989 when Alex is about to complete his degree in architecture.  At the time, he is good friends with Sonja, but nothing more, and on a summer's day he is enjoying a beer with a couple of friends and flirting with some girls at a nearby table.  On a whim, one of his friends invites another girl to come and join them; a shy, quiet, dowdy-looking creature.  This is Iwona, a Polish student, and this seemingly innocuous meeting is to have a lasting, and devastating, effect on the lives of many of the characters.

The key to Sieben Jahre is the incomprehensible, unavoidable compulsion Alex has to be with Iwona, despite not really liking her at all.  After finally getting together with Sonja, he manages to extract himself from the quasi-hypnotic spell the Polish woman has cast upon him, but after the titular seven years (an apt time span for the religious Iwona), when she contacts him for financial assistance, he falls under her spell again, with catastrophic results.

Stamm makes it clear from the start that there is nothing about Iwona which should attract someone like Alex.  She is taciturn, socially awkward and incapable of talking on any subject except the movie she last watched on television, and despite certain physical attributes which are foregrounded in the text, she doesn't appear to actually impress Alex with her appearance either.  However, in her presence, Alex feels the one thing he perhaps misses from his seemingly perfect partner - a devotion and a desire to please that is literally an obsession...

If Alex doesn't sound like a very nice man at all, you're probably right.  He's a selfish, brooding, self-centred husband, jealous of his wife's talents and unconvinced of the merits of fidelity.  However, at times Sonja seems no better.  The more the reader learns about her, the less convinced we are that she actually loves Alex at all.  I had a strong impression that she merely needed a good-looking, relatively intelligent partner to share her concerns and give her a child - who that person was, and what they thought about it all seemed relatively unimportant...

When you then widen the focus to examine the other characters in Sieben Jahre, it quickly becomes clear that this is not a phenomenon confined to the unhappy couple.  The beauty, if that is the correct word, of the novel is that none of the characters are that sympathetic.  Rather than tutting disapprovingly and sending our good wishes in the direction of one character or other, we are forced to look more closely at the relationships and decide whether they are actually worth all the trouble.  Everyone is to blame for what happens (some, admittedly, more than others), but nobody comes out of it with an unblemished character.

So what is Stamm actually saying with all this angst and misbehaviour?  One conclusion you could draw is that happy marriages are merely myths, stories that shatter into fragments when scrutinised in the harsh light of day.  Another is that happiness has little to do with monetary and social success - the reader is left with a sneaking suspicion that the happiest of the characters is Iwona, despite the misfortunes she has to put up with.

What he really means is anyone's guess though, even though the language he uses to lay out his ideas is sparse, simple and easily comprehensible for a non-native reader like me.  There's a lot more to the story than  you would think - a case of the sum of the parts exceeding the total of the individual elements.  For me, at least, there's definitely enough there to justify another look at Peter Stamm's work at some point...

Thursday 7 June 2012

If You Could See The Light

I have been married for just over seven years now to a lovely, long-suffering woman who originally comes from Poland - which makes the fact that that I have somehow neglected to read even one Polish book over the three-and-a-half years of my blog even more of a travesty than it already is.  Luckily, that barren streak has come to an end thanks to receiving an e-copy of Andrzej Stasiuk's Dukla (translated by Bill Johnston) from Dalkey Archive Press - and a very fine book it is too :)

To call Dukla a novel though would be something of a stretch.  It consists of a sort of prologue, the three-part novella which gives the collection its name (one which makes up the bulk of the work) and a smattering of brief vignettes to complete the book.  With such a diverse offering of styles and genres, it's unsurprising that the reader can be a little unsettled by Dukla, but this is far from being its only unorthodox feature.

If you're looking for a plot, or a unifying storyline, I can save you the time - there isn't one.  But don't just take my word for it; Stasiuk himself admits as much right at the start:
 "There won't be any plot, there won't be any story..." p.4
A couple of pages later, he reinforces his promise, saying:
"There'll be no plot, with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end.  A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of the day.  Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light." p.6-7
It really doesn't get any less ambiguous than that...

Of course, there is some sort of cohesion to the text, and it is Dukla, a small town in the south of Poland, which supplies it.  In the first section, the narrator, a very thinly-disguised version of the writer, is on one of his regular pilgrimages to the small country town, a place which continually draws him back in a quest for something elusive and unidentifiable.  As we move into the main section of Dukla, we are given hints of what brings him back year after year, echoes of the past, images of searing summers and frosty winters...

...and, as hinted at in the quotation above, these images are what Stasiuk is interested in.  Rather than concerning himself with the lives of people living in the countryside, the writer is fascinated only by what he sees, what he really sees, the visions created by the interplay of light with objects.  He says:
"For a long time now it's seemed to me that the only thing worth describing is light, its variations and its eternal nature.  Actions interest me to a much lesser degree." p.22
Dukla certainly lives up to that intention.  Stasiuk describes the effects of light and shadow superbly, making you feel the warmth under the shade of the trees and the chill of the snow in the fields.  By recounting merely what is observed, ignoring what the mind thinks lies beneath the surface, objects are rendered unreal, created only by our perception.  And if what we see can be altered simply by different levels of light, Stasiuk seems to be implying that believing what we see may not be quite as straight-forward as many of us think:
"White, silver and black entered into subtle combinations with one another, thus placing reality under a question mark.  And if not reality, then at least the purpose and meaning of perception." p.171

The people of Dukla, as you can deduce from what the writer says about his interest in writing the novel, are merely background noises, or rather images.  They contribute nothing more to the story than the buildings radiating heat in the afternoon, or the cows aimlessly wandering across the dazzling green fields.  People slip in and out of scenes, or merely sit quietly in dusty, airless cafés - they are objects, not beings:
"People leaked from their houses drop by drop, rolled from entranceways like ponderous balls..." p.43
"People were lying on the shore as if the waves had thrown them there." p.44
This gives the book a rather unusual, otherworldly feel, creating a sense of distance between the reader and the setting - all the better for us to analyse the effect of the light, I suppose...

As much as it is a work about light though, Dukla is also one which deals with the concept of memory.  I'm probably not the first reviewer to use the word 'Proustian' in connection with Stasiuk's writing, but it is a description which comes easily to mind when meandering through the narrator's languid, unhurried descriptions of his earlier visits.  Smells and shadows evoke memories of the past, and he seems caught in those moments, always hoping to squeeze something more from the mental images he pores over.  Perhaps this obsession with the town is an attempt to process events from his youth, a way of reconnecting with his younger self...  In any case, it makes for beautiful writing :)

It is extremely difficult to sum up Dukla; the book (rather like this review) appears to be without coherence at times, a meandering stream of reminiscence which relies on a good-natured reader with time on their hands.  Despite the lack of any real story though, it is a wonderful book, one I'm very glad to have read.  There's something very Japanese about the foregrounding of language over plot, and one book it reminds me of a lot is Natsume Soseki's Kusamakura, another poetic story of a lazy summer in search of lost times.  Those who know me will realise that this is a very good thing...

I'll leave the last word to the writer though.  If you were wondering about the choice of the title, Dukla, as well as being the name of a town in the Polish countryside, is actually a real word:
"In the dictionary it says "dukla" means "a small mineshaft dug for exploratory purposes, in search of deposits, for ventilation, or as a primitive means of extracting ore."  That's right.  My method is primitive.  It's like drilling at random." p.60
I would strongly advise you all to read Dukla and judge Stasiuk's method for yourselves...

Monday 4 June 2012

More Questions than Answers

While I and the rest of the IFFP Shadow Panel were still pondering the fate of our chosen shortlist, Mark let us know of another interesting book he was reading.  Written by C.Y. Gopinath, an Indian journalist and non-fiction writer, The Book of Answers has been shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Writers Prize.  While the novel has been published normally in India, the writer still has the rights for the rest of the world, and he was happy to allow any of us who wanted a read to download an e-version at Smashwords - an offer I was too intrigued to turn down...

The story is set in India in 2015, where elections for the newly created position of Grand Convener are soon to take place.  Enigmatic (read evil) politician Shri Ishwar Prasad is hoping to strengthen his claim on power with new popular policies, one of which is abolishing the need for students to actually study for exams, instead making them go and find the answers (this is the Google age after all...).  This is all a little confusing for the elegantly-named Patros Patranobis, an average man wishing only for a quiet life, and the Mumbai accountant tries to ignore as much as possible of what is happening on the political scene.  Sadly for him though, one day, while running for the bus, he (literally) bumps into a plump gentleman - this is the start of a very unhappy time for the unfortunate Mr. Patranobis...

You see, the plump gentleman in question is a lawyer, and he is bringing Patros a bequest, a very special book called 'The Book of Answers'.  It is said to contain the answers to all the problems of the world, and soon, after a leaked report from a blog (!), the whole country is keen to know what exactly it says.  Patros, however, is not particularly interested, and despite the protests of his partner Rose, he decides to offload the rather heavy item to a rag-and-bone man.

What follows is a chaotic journey around India in which the reader is treated to a snapshot of all that is corrupt and broken in the world's largest democracy.  The Grand Convener's plans for the country, including a truly ingenious (and morally suspect) plan to eradicate poverty and a wonderfully inventive revenue-raising initiative, horrify our hapless hero - even more so when it turns out that the justification for, the provenance of, these crazy schemes is 'The Book of Answers'.  Poor Patros soon realises that these claims are lies - you see, there's a key to the book, and nobody knows where it is...

The Book of Answers is a humorous, chaotic look at politics in a country where rules are not so much set in stone as casually scratched in the sand, there to be followed or ignored depending on your status.  Poor Pat is a wonderful everyman character, a simple fellow who just wants a bit of peace and some affection from the fiery Rose.  Sadly for him, his friends, family and enemies seem to need him to be a symbol, a figure to rally around or demonise.  The more he sinks into the mire of Indian politics, the clearer it is that nothing can be settled until the mystery of the book is settled once and for all.

Gopinath's humour comes across on almost every page, from the collision which sets the whole affair in motion, to the mysterious figure of Tippy, Pat's son, a character who is always at least one step ahead of both his father and the reader.  The humour is helped by the language the writer uses, a sing-song variety of English which is slightly unfamiliar to speakers of British or American English.  Apart from the obvious vocabulary differences between the varieties of the language, sentences like the following -
"A gangly boy was playing awful guitar to an admiring girl, also gangly."
catch the reader's eye, dragging them into the story.

It's not a perfect book by any means.  Anyone expecting lyrical elegance à la Vikram Seth or Salman Rushdie will be a little disappointed.  It's more Bollywood than high literature, which is not a bad thing, of course (and, set largely in Mumbai, it's probably apt too!).  It's highly plot driven, and certain sections give you the feeling that some large holes need to be fixed, and this was the best way to do it (a conversation with a circus lady and a couple of days in the country with a dog certainly come to mind here).

On the whole though The Book of Answers is an amusing, thought-provoking novel.  Behind the humour, there is a very serious message about the nature of power corrupting and the inability of democracy, particularly in a country with such extremes of wealth and poverty, to stop this corruption.  The Grand Convener's political  beliefs sum up the situation perfectly:
"A politician is nothing unless he is in his chair, in power.  According to my doctrine, for this he needs three things: constituency, currency and chaos.  Never forget those words.  The three C's."
It is the third of these three Cs that permeates The Book of Answers.  In an attempt to confuse opponents and profit from uncertainty to cling to power, the Grand Convener will do all he can to cause chaos throughout the country.  If that involves abolishing the need for people to actually study in order to pass exams, so be it ;)

If you're a fan of novels set in India and enjoy mysteries underlaid with a rich vein of humour, I'd definitely recommend The Book of Answers.  I'm very grateful that the writer offered me the chance to read it, and I hope it does well, even if it didn't make it to the final list of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.  It is a book which sometimes hits a lot closer to home than you'd like, and for all its levity, there is a very serious side to it.  It's not often that a book manages to end on the perfect note, but Gopinath really nails the landing here - a very telling and sombre finale indeed...

For more reviews of this book, follow the links to Mark's and Gary's takes on it :)

Saturday 2 June 2012

May 2012 Wrap-Up

May looks to have been a quiet month on the reading front, but appearances can be a little deceptive.  You see, my latest incursion into the world of Anthony Trollope was a lengthy one, taking me more than a week.  Then, after racing through a German-language book in two days, I thought I was finally ready to tackle a G-Lit classic, one that had been on my shelf for a long time.  Foolish, foolish Tony - the results can be seen below...

Total Books Read: 5
Year-to-Date: 48

New: 5
Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 3
Review Copies:
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 2 (2 Review Copies)

Novels: 5
Novellas: 0
Short Stories: 0

Non-English Language: 3 (2 German, 1 Polish)
In Original Language: 2 (German)

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (4/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 0 (4/10)
IFFP 2012 Longlist: 0 (14/15)

Tony's Turkey for May is: nothing

Only five books read in the thirty-one days of May, and they were all good, so no joy for meat lovers this month :(

Tony's Recommendation for May is: Günter Grass' Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum)

I did consider, for the briefest of moments, opting for Andrzej Stasiuk's wonderfully unsettling collection of short stories and personal reflections on the nature of light, but in the end I couldn't really go past the book which took up half of my reading time this month.  It's long, and at times I doubted I'd ever get to the end; there are some parts which drag, and I'm always suspicious of books when I find out that they are partially based on the writer's own experiences.  However, Die Blechtrommel is a modern classic and deserving of the label.

Just don't expect an easy ride...

Next month will be much busier around my place.  I have several review copies of translated fiction due to arrive, and June also marks the start of one of my favourite literary challenges.  Yes, it's time for Belezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 6 - and I can't wait :)