Friday 31 May 2013

May 2013 Wrap-Up

May has been an unexpectedly busy month - but I have nobody to blame for it but myself.  I decided to educate myself a little in the area of Spanish-langauge literature, ordering a wide selction of books from my wonderful library.  At the same time, I managed to get hold of several exciting review copies too...

In fact, you just peruse this post - I'll get back to my reading ;)

Total Books Read: 9

Year-to-Date: 46

New: 9

Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 0
Review Copies: 4
From the Library: 5
On the Kindle: 0

Novels: 6
Novellas: 0
Short Stories: 3

Non-English Language: 9 (4 Spanish, 2 Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Polish)
In Original Language: 0

Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (2/3)

Books reviewed in May were:
1) Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
2) Raised from the Ground by José Saramago
3) A Heart So White by Javier Marías
4) Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami
5) Blue Bamboo by Osamu Dazai
6) The Light and The Dark by Mikhail Shishkin
7) Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
8) Mother Departs by Tadeusz Różewicz
9) The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Tony's Turkey for May is: Nothing

Not a turkey in sight - maybe next month ;)

Tony's Recommendation for May is:

Javier Marías' A Heart So White

This was an incredibly good month for reviews, and I actually struggled to choose my favourite book here.  Apologies to Krasznahorkai, Borges and Saramago (and even more apologies to Bolaño) - A Heart So White left a big impression on me, and it's Marías who just takes the honours for May :)


After such a busy month, it'd be nice to think that June could be a bit more relaxing - no such luck.  There's still a pile of quality library books and a fair few review copies to get through.  And let's not forget the start of the seventh edition of Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge, one of my favourite blogging events.  I suppose I really should get back to the reading this time... 

Thursday 30 May 2013

'The Savage Detectives' by Roberto Bolaño (Review)

The latest in my series of library-sourced Spanish-language books is one by probably the biggest name in Latin-American literature at the moment, Roberto Bolaño (writing being one occupation where death is no obstacle to fame).  Today's review is of a big book, one with big ambitions, which takes us to the US, Europe and Africa - but it all starts and ends in Mexico...

The Savage Detectives (translated by Natasha Wimmer) is the book which made Bolaño's name in the English-speaking world, and with good reason.  It's a 577-page roller-coaster of a novel, a bizarre, chopped-up account of the lives of two poets, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.  From the story's beginning in Mexico City in late 1975, we roam around the world, following the poets on their travels in search of contentment - and running away from something else entirely.

The story is written in three unequal parts. In the first, Juan Gárcia Madero, a university drop-out, describes his first encounter with the two poets, the founders (or resurrectors) of the 'visceral realist' school of poetry.  Juan plunges headlong into a world very different from the one he'd experienced up to then, but he has few regrets about leaving respectability behind:
"Also, without intending to, I ended up thinking about my aunt and uncle, about my life so far.  My old life seemed pleasant and empty, and I knew it would never be that way again.  That made me deeply glad."
p.41 (Picador, 2007)
This section of the book is written in the form of Gárcia Madero's diary, and the sex- and poetry-filled entries lead up to the moment when the three poets speed off into 1976 (and the Mexican desert) with a prostitute called Lupe.  They're hoping to escape from the wrath of Lupe's pimp, but soon the trip to save the damsel in distress will turn into another kind of quest - a hunt for a missing poet, the elusive Cesárea Tinajero...

Part Two takes up almost 400 pages, consisting of first person accounts from a vast cast of narrators.  Together, the many voices tell us what Lima and Belano did between 1976 and 1996, describing the Quixotic travels of the two poets over four continents.  We frequently return to one strand, however; a drunken night spent with a poet in January 1976, where Lima and Belano find out more about the mysterious Cesárea.  The third part of the novel then returns us to García Madero's diary, where we find out exactly what happened in the desert.  I'm certainly not going to spill the beans here, but rest assured, the events of the following twenty years all stem from what happened in Mexico's north in early 1976...

The Savage Detectives is a mindblowing novel, one which is virtually impossible to really summarise or analyse in one review post.  In some regards, it's a highly enjoyable romp, but one which demands intense focus and concentration.  With a vast array of characters, both real and made up (this is a book which could really do with a War and Peace-type character list at the front), it will take you until the very end to work out exactly what's going on.  Even then, many questions remain unanswered.

What's it all about?  You tell me...  It's a story of the excesses of youth and the eccentricities of poets - when you talk about being mad, bad and dangerous to know, Lima and Belano fit the bill nicely.  The two appear to be carrying a curse (Belano, in particular, seems to bring bad luck wherever he goes), and many of the narrators felt uneasy in his presence:
"...and then I remember too that I looked at Arturo Belano and that he didn't get up from his seat when the Ecuadorean came in, and not only did he not get up, he didn't even pay attention to us, didn't even look at us, would you believe, and I saw the hairy back of his neck and for a second I thought that what I was seeing wasn't a person, not a living, breathing human being with blood in his veins like you or me, but a scarecrow, a bundle of ragged clothes on a body of straw and plastic, something like that." (p.191)
They were right to.  Many of the people the two poets encounter end up falling ill, losing their jobs or perishing in car crashes; it's not stretching things to see them as angels of death.

It's also a novel about Mexico and Latin America, and I'm certain that the book would mean even more to people who know the area and the eras described.  The novel is full of hints of desperation, world weariness in countries which long for change.  The Mexico City of The Savage Detectives is described as a vibrant, violent city - but also as a small town of 14 million people.  I'm sure there's a message in there somewhere...

At times, Belaño makes you nostalgic about your lost youth, and you wish you were a seventeen-year-old wannabe poet, sleeping with waitresses and neurotic students.  Part one, in particular, had Haruki Murakami undertones, with García Madero taking on the role of the naive, Haruki-esque protagonist wandering through the big city.  Of course, the reality of this city is much closer to that envisaged by Ryu Murakami, with its seedy side and ever-present threat of violence.  And while we're throwing in random literary references, why not Kerouac's On the Road too?  I don't think it's too much of a stretch to see shades of Sal Paradise in García Madero, and Lima and Belano as a two-headed Dean Moriarty ;)

What helps Belaño sustain reader interest in such a long and complicated story is a great cast of characters.  Through our initial introduction to Juan, we are allowed to move through the city and meet the writer's other creations: seductive sisters María and Angélica Font (and their mad dad Quim); the flamboyant, bisexual, gorgeous wanderer Luscious Skin; old poet Amadeo Salvatierra; Lupe and her pimp, Alberto (a man with impressive attributes); and, of course, the enigmatic Cesárea Tinajero.  It's a lot to get your head around, and you might need to take a few notes now and then to help you get your bearings (I certainly did...).

Surprisingly though, the main men are the ones we know the least.  They are always seen through the eyes of others, and this has the effect of turning them into mythical creatures, ghosts of the night.  Instead of well-rounded, visible creations, Lima and Belano are the nothing at the centre of the structure, a gap where characters should be - one which the reader spends 577 pages attempting to fill.

Since finishing The Savage Detectives, it has been in my mind constantly.  It's an amazing book, one which will have its readers and its critics (in the best possible sense) for a long time to come:
"Iñaki Echevarne , Bar Giardinetto, Calle Granada del penedés, Barcelona, July, 1994.
For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it's the Readers who keep pace.  The journey may be long or short.  Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path.  Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey towards solitude.  To come near the work, to sail in her wake, is a sign of certain death, but new Criticism and new Readers approach her tirelessly and relentlessly and are devoured by time and speed.  Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness,  And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man's memory.  Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy." (p.456)
This short paragraph from near the end of the novel is an apt comment on the book, but also on Lima and Belano (who, apparently, is Bolaño's alter-ego...).  The people around the two poets accompany them on their way, but soon or later they end up walking alone...

After enjoying this one so much, I have more Bolaño on the way from the library.  Distant Star is an earlier work, one apparently narrated by Belano, and it sounds like a good one to continue my discovery of the Chilean writer's work (I think I'll leave 2666 for another time...).  All in all, it's another great library discovery, and time to chalk up another success in my self-education efforts :)

Tuesday 28 May 2013

'Mother Departs' by Tadeusz Różewicz (Review)

Stork Press is a relatively new London-based publisher, one with an eastern-European slant, but focusing particularly on Polish books (the name is a very Polish one!).  So far, they have published in several genres, and the first book to really catch my eye was the winner of the 2000 Nike Prize (the Polish Booker).  It's by a famous poet, but, as we'll see, it's actually more of a family affair...

Tadeusz Różewicz's Mother Departs (translated by Barbara Bogoczek, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short book, encompassing several different styles of writing.  There are some childhood reminiscences, short poems, diary entries, prose fragments... a bit of everything really.

It's also fragmented in another way.  While Tadeusz is the writer of the family, Mother Departs features the joint efforts of four family members: Tadeusz; his mother, Stefania; his younger brother, Stanisław; and his older brother, Janusz, a member of the Polish resistance who was executed in 1944.  Interspersed throughout the writing are family photos, many of which feature the focus of the collection, Stefania.  Despite their variety, all the pieces circle the topic of the mother (either abstractly or concretely)

In the first couple of pieces, Stefania describes the village she grew up in, sketching a picture of the lives of the farming labourers.  Their abject poverty (and their poor hygiene and diet) is set against the traditional celebrations for holidays and weddings, and a dependence on superstition. This was the time of partition, where the village fell under Russian rule.  While the middle classes seethe though, the peasants aren't particularly bothered by foreign rule - provided the Tsar helps to supply them with more food...

The next section sees Tadeusz take over with short, plain poems, mostly about mothers and grief.  In 'dead fruit', we see a mother grieving her dead son:
"The poor mother steps across the room
 adjusts the photograph and cries

 The gold suns on the table darken
 as does the dead fruit of her life" 
p.42 (Stork Press, 2013)
When we know what happened to Janusz (and the excellent introduction gives a detailed account of Różewicz's family history), the poems take on a more solemn, personal tinge.

While Różewicz is known as a poet, I much preferred the prose fragments.  One of my favourites, 'Red Stamps', a story of around 150 words, describes the visit of a bailiff who has come to decide which household items are to be confiscated to pay off debts:
"It was not until my brother and I crept into the creaking bed and hid our heads under the thick eiderdown that we dared speak out loud.  We prayed for a miracle.
But in the cold light of the morning, five red stamps bled like five wounds." (p.69)
It's an excellent story, evoking powerful images of a stressful event - I suppose you could even call it flash fiction...

Perhaps the pivotal section of the book, 'Gliwice Diary' is an honest, weary account of the last few months of Tadeusz's mother's life.  As he struggles to come to terms with her inevitable death (and, at the same time, cope with the recent death of close friend Leopold Staff), he recounts his inability to focus on his writing, and the suffering his mother endures over the final days of her life.  Ostracised by the mainstream literary society in Poland (for political reasons...), he finds himself trying to justify his methods:
"What the 'critical' or 'literary' fraternity labelled 'repetition'... - 'Tadeusz R. keeps repeating himself', they said - was and possibly still is the most valuable thing in my work.  The dogged reworking, repeating, returning to the same matter, and so on... to the very end.  Other things will get written by somebody else.  There is no alternative.  Or you end up with literary chit chat." (p.88)
Grieving a close friend, preparing for a life without his mother and struggling to carry on with his work - it's a lot to take for a young man.  At the time he was 36, a couple of years younger than I am now...

The collection ends with contributions from Tadeusz's two brothers.  Janusz's piece is a fragment from a man whose life was cut tragically short, a short description of coming home from school to his waiting mother. Stanisław's is a childhood memoir, again with a central focus on his mother.  Together, the assorted texts form both a portrait of, and a homage to, a woman - but also to a country and a time.  You see, as much as it talks about Stefania, Mother Departs talks to the reader about a shared past.  It's easy to see why it won the Nike Prize - it's not so much the private memories of a mother, as a collective, nostalgic look at what has been lost.

While I'm not a big fan of the poetry here, the collection as a whole works surprisingly well.  Bogoczek's translation is very smooth, with no obvious clumsiness (to my British eye, anyway!), and it's a book which you can dip into when the mood strikes.  I'd have to take task with the publisher over one thing though - I'm not sure you could claim that this was by Różewicz.  This work is most definitely a collaborative effort - or, as I said above, a family affair :)

Sunday 26 May 2013

'Fictions' by Jorge Luis Borges (Review)

Today's post features another stop on my Spanish-language literature self-education journey (courtesy of my wonderful library), and it's one I've been looking forward to for a while.  You see, if you're going to start reading works translated from the Spanish, there's a name you'll come across sooner or later - a certain Jorge Luis Borges...

Fictions (translated - mostly - by Anthony Kerrigan: with some stories translated by Alastair Reid, Anthony Bonner, Helen Temple and Ruthven Todd) brings together two of the writer's first collections of short stories, The Garden of Forking Paths and Artifices.  Despite this, Fictions is a short work, clocking in at just over 150 pages - mainly because Borges' creations don't tend to outstay their welcome.  For the Argentinian maestro, ten pages is a fairly long tale.

The first eight-part collection is a dazzling display of meta-fiction, and any reader wondering where writers like Enrique Vila-Matas inherited their style should look no further.  The stories are written in a dry, detached, academic tone, and Borges relates his analyses of invented works and writers (complete with footnotes...) in a manner which is both confusing and intriguing.  Beneath the surface though, you suspect that there is some serious leg-pulling going on, with the writer taking aim at out-dated philosophies and academic approaches.

A good example of this style is the story 'Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote'.  In this short piece, the narrator discusses the major unpublished work of Monsieur Menard, namely an attempt to rewrite Don Quixote - not to change it, or to transcribe it, but to rewrite it exactly as it is.  'Borges', our narrator, advances the opinion that Menard's work is superior to that of Cervantes (despite the fact that it is identical, word for word) as the modern writer can impart more meaning to the words after centuries of progress in the fields of philosophy and literary analysis.  If you say so...

Another highlight from the first collection is 'The Library of Babel', where the writer restructures the universe as a gigantic, geometrically-designed library.  It contains all the books you could ever wish for - you'll never be able to find the one you need though.  'The Babylon Lottery' is another great story, one where a former citizen of Babylon recounts how a simple game we all recognise turned into an all-encompassing way of life.  In his country, life literally is a lottery (which is certainly an interesting way of looking at things...).

The second collection, Artifices, is markedly different in style.  The focus is less on the academic (imaginary) literary analysis, and more on conventional twisty-turny types of stories.  In 'The Form of the Sword', Borges tells us the tale of a traitor, a story with a startling, unexpected ending.  'Funes, the Memorious', on the other hand, is about a man whose life is altered by an accident.  With a memory far surpassing normal human standards, he is able to remember every single thing he has ever seen or heard - and is unable to believe the polite conventions (or lies) of time and language:
"It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term 'dog' embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front)."
p.104 (John Calder, 1985)

A word which continually crops up throughout Artifices is 'labyrinth', and Borges seems obsessed by the idea of mazes, both tangible and mental.  In 'The Death and the Compass', a detective story with a difference, an investigator is concerned with fascinating possibilities of crime.  When his superior attempts to explain away a murder with a conventional explanation, the sleuth begs to differ:
"It's possible, but not interesting," Lönnrot answered.  "You will reply that reality hasn't the slightest need to be of interest.  And I'll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not." (p.118)
However, we've all heard what curiosity did to the cat, and Lönnrot eventually runs the risk of being trapped in a labyrinth partially of his own making...

Sharp-eyed Borges lovers may have noticed a rather notable omission, a deliberate one as I'm leaving the best to last.  The opening story of The Garden of the Forking Paths, 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' (translated by Alastair Reid) is the stand-out of the two collections and, perhaps, a landmark in short-story writing.  Eighteen-pages long, it's easily the longest of the tales in this selection, and it's a fascinating example of Borges' mastery of meta-fiction.

The story begins with the discovery of a book which doesn't exist, containing an article on a fictional country.  After a feverish search for more information, the writer comes across a book that was never written, one which has detailed information on the customs and philosophy of an imaginary world.  It all adds up to a shadowy conspiracy, a meticulously-planned hoax - which then begins to bleed over into the 'real' world when alien artefacts are found...

In a coda to the story, set seven years after the original events (and in the future from the point of view of the actual writing of the story), the narrator reveals the effect the teachings of Tlön have had upon the world:
"Almost immediately, reality gave ground on more than one point.  The truth is that it hankered to give ground.  Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order - dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism - was enough to fascinate men.  Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet?" (p.33)
The story was written in 1940, and Borges shows superb foresight of the tragedies about to unfold in Europe.  It's easy to fall under the spell of a regime which promises the world... 

Fictions is a short collection, but fairly dense, and it's a book I'd recommend to most people.  While not all of the stories in Artifices grabbed me, I enjoyed The Garden of Forking Paths immensely, and I'm keen to try some more.  A warning to the casual reader though: Labyrinths, the other commonly-cited collection of Borges' early writings, is an American publication which contains many of the same stories (it omits a few from the two collections from Fictions and adds some from a later collection, The Aleph).  It seems remarkably apt that even deciding which Borges book to try is steeped in confusion ;)

You'd think that I would have exhausted my ideas on a 150-page book by now, but there's something else I need to tell you.  You see (and I am not making this up), my battered old library copy, sent from somewhere in country Victoria, had one last surprise for me.  Sellotaped inside the back cover, I found a small, cut-out piece of paper, smaller than the other pages, on which was a Borges poem, 'The End Game'.  It describes a game of chess, and moves from the perspective of the pieces to that of the players, to God... and to another god.  The last three lines read:
"God moves the player, and he, the pieces
 What god from behind God begins to weave the plot
 of dust and time and dreams and agonies?"
It's a great poem - but where on earth did it come from?  Is it a part of the book that fell out, or is it just a random inclusion from a generous soul?  Whatever the answer, it's all very Borgesian :)

Thursday 23 May 2013

'The Light and The Dark' by Mikhail Shishkin (Review)

After reading (and loving) Maidenhair a while back, I was keen to try more of Mikhail Shishkin's work, hoping that another book would appear in English.  I was pleasantly surprised then when the kind people at MacLehose (well, Quercus, actually) sent me a review copy of another of his novels, his most recent translation into English.  In some ways it's a very similar book to Maidenhair - however, in others it's very different...

The Light and the Dark (translated by Andrew Bromfield) is an epistolary novel (written in letters) between Sasha and Volodenka, a pair of young lovers who have been parted.  As Sasha talks about everyday life and reminisces about her childhood, Volodenka writes about his experiences in the army, on the march to China to help crush the Boxer Rebellion.  The Boxer Rebellion?  That happened at the turn of the twentieth century - hang on a minute...

That's right.  You see, unlike Australia Post (who can struggle to locate a sturdy letter box with a large number painted on it) the Russian postal service seems to be able to work in four dimensions.  Sasha appears to be living in modern times, and moves further on in life as each letter goes by.  On the other hand, Volodenka's side of the story takes place over a matter of hot, sticky, blood-drenched months.  Is there any hope for two people separated by space and time?  Well, I'm sure love will find a way ;)

Anyone expecting a story reminiscent of the Hollywood movie The Lake House is barking up the wrong tree though, and those who have already experienced Shishkin's work, in the form of Maidenhair, will have guessed that there is a lot more to The Light and The Dark than a cheesy tale of star-crossed lovers.  In fact, the two writers barely acknowledge each other's letters, leading us to suspect that their missives aren't really reaching their destination after all.  If we attempt to make sense of the story, it would be tempting to surmise that perhaps Sasha is pining after a lost love, a soldier who died long ago...

...but the plot, as you may already have suspected, is of little consequence here.  The story is merely a canvas upon which Shishkin can sketch out his theories on time and relationships.  It's a book of childhood memories and stories of the past in which the two protagonists open up about their formative years.  Both Sasha and Volodenka have a lot to say about their relationships with their parents and the effect that marriage break-ups had on their childhood.  However, a more prominent theme is a circular return to their parents, this time in the role of carers, later in life.  For Shishkin, dealing with death is an important part of life:
"It's very important for people when their dear ones leave them.  That's a gift too.  It's the only way they can understand anything about life.  The death of the people we love, people dear to us, is a gift that can help us understand the important reason why we are here."
p.243 (Quercus Books, 2013)
It's a lesson Sasha and Volodenka are to learn in different ways.

As much as the book talks about death though, the two main characters also grow to understand the importance of embracing life.  Caught in the middle of a horrific conflict, Volodenka discovers the joy of life and a desperate wish not to die.  What he is yet to realise (and what Sasha discovers over the course of the novel) is that it is your body which drags you down, pulling you closer to death:
"Do you know what made me feel afraid the first time?  When I was fourteen or fifteen - it was a realisation that suddenly hit me: My body is dragging me into the grave.  Every day, every moment.  Every time I breathe in and breathe out.
Isn't that alone already a good enough reason to hate it?" (p.183)
But then, the body is also used to enjoy life - as we see in other parts of the book...

Just as in Maidenhair, the writer uses his characters to discuss the nature of time, refuting the idea of linear progress.  One metaphor used is that of a book already written, meaning that life is little more than acting out what has already been put down in black and white.  However, other people may read those lines at different times, causing those caught in the action to experience a feeling of déjà vu (no, me neither...).  In any case, physical objects like coins or letters link everything together, present, future and past connected to a vanishing point in time...

I enjoyed The Light and The Dark, but I'd have to say that it's not as awe-inspiring as Maidenhair.  It took me a while to get into the book, especially as the first letters seemed to make up little more than a he-said, she-said work.  At one point, I found myself agreeing with Sasha:
"I'm lying here contemplating my own navel.
 What a wonderful occupation!" (p.52)
While it was all well written and interesting, over the first half of the book I didn't feel too inspired to rush back after finishing a section.  In a sense, the lack of a strong plot and the episodic nature of the structure meant that I was treating it more like a collection of short stories than a novel...  Eventually though, The Light and The Dark did win me over, especially as the two lovers drifted further apart.  The further you advance into Shishkin's deceptively-light prose, the more you understand what he is trying to do. 

Genius or merely a good writer?  I'm not quite convinced yet that Shishkin is the next-big-thing he's been touted as.  Which is not to say that he's a one-hit wonder, quite the contrary; this is definitely a writer you'll hear more of in the future.  If you haven't already, perhaps it's time to get on board the bandwagon :)

P.S. For anyone interested in sampling some of Shishkin's other work, Dwight, of A Common Reader, shared some links to online stories in the course of his posts on a Shishkin podcast.  In the Q&A session held at San Francisco's Center for the Art of Translation, Scott Esposito chatted to Shishkin and the American translator of Maidenhair, Marian Schwartz.  Anyone interested in Shishkin's work should check out the interview - and read the stories, of course ;)

Tuesday 21 May 2013

The Official IFFP 2013 Winner - And Some Reflections...

Yesterday, in London, at a ceremony sparkling brighter than a pixie's bling collection, the five brave IFFP judges announced their choice for the best work of translated fiction in the UK in 2012.   After starting off with sixteen works, and then whittling that down to a slightly-controversial six, we were finally left with the pick of the pile...  Their decision?  The official winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2013 is:

Congratulations to the writer and translator - commiserations (and respect) to the rest of the people on the longlist :)

And that's it for another year... almost!  Before I wrap up my IFFP commitments for 2013 though, I thought I'd just share a few thoughts on the winner and the whole IFFP process.  Before last night's ceremony, I must admit that I was a little nervous.  I wasn't overly impressed with some of the decision made in 2012, and I was fully prepared to be disappointed again...

However, while I certainly wasn't expecting Bakker's name to be the one inside the envelope, I was very glad to hear that The Detour had won.  It's a great novel, well-written and thought-provoking, and it's the kind of book I personally believe should be rewarded in this type of competetion.  Like many, many people, I was also glad that Andrés Neuman's Traveller of the Century was singled out for special praise; it's a book I (and a couple of other Shadow Panellists) have been championing for a good while now :)

So why was I so worried?  Well, after a couple of years of shadowing the IFFP, I'm still not completely sure what the prize is about.  Is it purely a search for the best work of literary fiction in translation, or is it more of a campaign to promote works originally written in languages other than English?  The answer, of course, is probably a bit of both.  I'm not sure whether the judges are subject to any kind of guiding 'advice' from Booktrust, but they must surely feel a responsibility beyond the simple act of filtering the gems from the dross.

I also wonder whether there is a focus on the kind of book the organisers would like to promote.  Was the omission of László Krasznahorkai's Satantango from the shortlist (and the inclusion of Chris Barnard's Bundu) a sign that more accessible, readable fiction was preferred to difficult literary texts?  It did seem odd that the American IFFP equivalent, the Best Translated Book Award, chose Satantango as best in class when it couldn't make the top six here...

Perhaps, however, the longlist reflects the state of translated fiction in general (including the prevalence of works set during the Second World War...).  Does the lack of women on the list indicate that there weren't enough quality works by female writers translated last year?  Or were they simply not up to scratch?  Was it really a poor year for Asia, Africa and the Middle East, or were there simply not enough submissions from these regions?

All of which leads inevitably to another question - what exactly was submitted for the prize in the first place?  There's a lack of transparency in the process which makes it hard to determine exactly how representative the longlist really was (I, for one, would love to see what the publishers thought might be of interest to the panel).  This is not a criticism of the way Booktrust run things - just a gentle nudge to help them make things even better next year ;) 

As for next year, while it might be a little early still, it's worth thinking about what could be on the longlist in 2014.  While Japanese literature was absent this year, Ryu Murakami's From the Fatherland With Love (Pushkin Press) is a chance for next year, and Portobello Books is repackaging Hiromi Kawakami's The Briefcase as Strange Weather in Tokyo for a UK release later in 2013.  While we wait for Mikhail Shishkin's BTBA-shortlisted novel Maidenhair to appear in the UK, his British debut from MacLehose Press, The Light and The Dark (which I'll be reviewing in a few days time!), may be one to watch.  A couple of Arabic-language works I've read this year (Hassan Blasim's collection from Comma Press, The Iraqi Christ, and Elias Khoury's excellent White Masks, again from MacLehose) could also be in the mix, and I suppose you can't discount the next instalment in Karl Ove Knausgaard's cathartic six-pack ;)  My one to watch though is Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast - Peirene have been longlisted three years in a row, and this is the one which will finally make it to the shortlist.  Remember where you heard it first (unless I'm wrong, in which case please forget all about it...).

If you want to relive the magic of this year's IFFP, you can find links to all my reviews of the longlisted books on my 2013 Challenge Page, and Lisa and Stu have dedicated pages with links to reviews from the whole Shadow Panel.  And speaking of the Shadow Panel...

...thanks are due to Lisa, Gary, Mark and chairman Stu for their company and support on the campaign.  It's been a long, arduous journey, one that has taken us all over the world (without leaving our armchairs), but it's been one I've thoroughly enjoyed.  I hope all my readers have enjoyed the trip too, and perhaps you'll think about joining us next time around.  I'll certainly be back to do it all again in 2014 :)

Monday 20 May 2013

And the (Shadow) IFFP 2013 Winner Is...

We started off in March with sixteen titles, the cream of the fiction in translation published in the UK last year.  After a hard month of reading, thinking, discussion and cursing, the list was cut down to six by the offical panel - which is where we parted ways.

Having chosen four of the same titles as the official panel, the Shadow Panel (Stu, Lisa, Mark, Gary and myself) opted for two others to complete the full half-dozen, and then set about deciding which was to take out the prize...

Our road took us on a long journey through many times and lands.  We spent a bizarre time in an ever-shifting, nineteenth-century German town, working on translations and kissing the local girls.  We moved onto a dark exploration of Communist-era Hungary (and an even darker examination of human souls...).  We went for walks around the rainy city of Barcelona, and then flew off to Dublin for a Bloomsday jaunt.  We witnessed an extraordinary dinner party in Albania - and its consequences ten years on.  We followed a boy from the Siberian wilds on his trip to Helsinki and watched as he encountered civilisation in all its forms.  We fled to Wales (seeking some solitude) and shared a woman's house - but not her secrets...

Then we came back to earth with a bump.  There were discussions, disagreements, grudging acceptance, and then a decision...

Our choice for the winner of the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is:

Congratulations to the writer and translators - Dublinesque is a great book, and it would be a worthy winner of the real prize.  So, can it do the double?  We'll find out very soon...

Thursday 16 May 2013

'Blue Bamboo' by Osamu Dazai (Review)

Back at the start of the year, during my January in Japan event, Patrick of my so-called research wrote a J-Lit Giants piece on Osamu Dazai.  Having only read The Setting Sun and a couple of short stories, I was naturally keen to try some more of the books Patrick talked about in his piece.  The opportunity to do this soon came about when Kurodahan Press sent me a review copy of a short story collection - which turned out to be a little different to what I'd read before...

Blue Bamboo was originally released by Kodansha USA, but was recently reissued by Kurodahan Press.  It's a collection of short stories from Dazai's middle period of writing, and this reissue gave the original translator, Ralph McCarthy, the opportunity to give his work a bit of a face-lift.  Its 200 pages comprise seven stories, and while Dazai's longer work is steeped in depressing realism, these tales have a much lighter, other-worldly focus.

Two of the stories ('The Chrysanthemum Spirit' and 'Blue Bamboo') are loose adaptations of old Chinese folk tales.  In the first, a stubborn, cantankerous old man, with a passion for growing chrysanthemums, encounters an unusual brother and sister combination on his way home.  What follows is an amusing little story involving pretty flowers and the supernatural, not a sentence I find myself writing often!

In the title story, one which keeps you guessing as to whether it is to be a tragedy or a comedy, a poetic soul, with no aptitude for civil service entrance exams, is at his wits' end.  Observing a flock of ravens outside a temple, he wishes to become one of the sacred birds - and has his wish granted. What follows is a tale exploring the ups and downs of getting what you want...

Another fairy-tale story is 'The Mermaid and the Samurai', an adaptation of a famous Japanese short story from the seventeenth century.  Konnai Chudo, an exemplary samurai, kills a mermaid which is threatening to sink a boat he is travelling on.  However, when news of the event gets out, a courtier laughs at him, forcing Konnai to seek evidence of his feat - a quest which will end in tears for most involved...  It's a story which emphasises the importance of trust and belief, underlining its pivotal place in Bushido, the way of the samurai:
"To a true samurai, trust is everything.  He who will not believe without seeing is a pitiful excuse for a man.  Without trust, how can one know what is real and what is not?  Indeed, one may see and yet not believe - is this not the same as never seeing?  Is not everything, then, no more than an immaterial dream? The recognition of any reality begins with trust.  And the source of all trust is love for one's fellow man.  But you - you have not a speck of love in your miserable heart, nor of faith."
p.55, 'The Mermaid and the Samurai' (Kurodahan Press, 2012)
Then again, if someone told me they'd just taken out a mermaid, I'm not sure I'd believe them either ;)

'Romanesque' is an earlier piece, again verging on the surreal, as Dazai outlines the lives of three absurd characters (a wizard, a fighter and a liar) in order to... well, I'm not really sure.  This story is then mentioned in 'Alt Heidelberg', an autobiographical sketch of a youthful, drunken summer spent at a friend's house trying to write a story.  It's well written and humorous, and, in its more realistic tone, a welcome contrast to some of the other stories in the collection.

My favourites though are the two which bookend the collection.  The first story, 'On Love and Beauty', introduces us to a family of five unusual siblings, whose characters are sketched out for us by the writer.  They too tell stories, so Dazai is telling us a story within a story - one which works very well.  There's a lot more to the idea than mere storytelling, and Dazai uses his meta-fictional idea nicely.  As the eldest son muses:
"The description of physical appearance is extremely important in a work of fiction.  By describing what a character looks like, you bring him alive and remind people of someone close to them, thereby lending intimacy to the tale and involving the audience, so that they cease to be mere passive observers."
(pp.22/3, 'On Love and Beauty')
This is exactly what Dazai does, and the story works wonderfully precisely because the reader has a clear mental image of the family members.

The family are back for the last story, 'Lanterns of Romance', which takes up sixty of the two-hundred pages.  This time the five spend the first days of the new year spinning a longer story, to be written down, then performed.  It starts with a happily-ever-after fairytale, but goes on to become something both more realistic and grotesque.  Dazai also extends his portrait of the characters narrating the tale, adding new members to the family and fleshing out the personality of the mother.  While he uses a Hans Christian Andersen story to kick off the family's effort, the style is all Dazai's own :)

When I read The Setting Sun and Dazai's other stories, the impression I was left with was one of wasted lives, squalor and depression.  This collection is much lighter, comical and humorous, but just as enjoyable.  Dazai shows a deft touch in his humour, and McCarthy has done a good job in bringing it across into English.  There are dozens of examples like the following:
"People in the neighborhood were wont to remark that it was just like a scholar to be so perverse as to name his only son Saburo, which is of course a name normally reserved for third sons.  The fact that no one could explain what it was that made that particular act so typical of scholarly perversity was, it was said, precisely what made it so."
(p.134, 'Romanesque')
Obviously, I haven't read McCarthy's original translation, but I'm sure that whatever he did was for the better!

Entertaining stories, a good translation and a brief introduction with information about the background of the stories make this a book well worth reading.  I'd recommend it to anyone interested in J-Lit (or in tall tales!).  Give it a go - I doubt you'll be disappointed :)

Tuesday 14 May 2013

'Popular Hits of the Showa Era' by Ryu Murakami (Review)

Welcome, one and all - it's time for more Murakami madness from Pushkin Press!  After giving me a copy of Coin Locker Babies to review during January in Japan, the small publisher (with the big new web-site) recently sent me a copy of another dose of the inimitable Ryu's style.  It's a little different though: where Coin Locker Babies was bad, this one is plain mad...

Ryu Murakami's Popular Hits of the Showa Era (translated by Ralph McCarthy) is a book deserving of the luridly-coloured cover you see on the left.  We begin with six young men having a 'party', a sad social gathering of inept losers.  Right away, the writer leaves us in no doubt as to his thoughts on the group:
"These young men, in other words, represented a variety of types, but one thing they had in common was that they'd all given up on committing positively to anything in life."
p.14 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Murakami mocks his creations mercilessly in this first chapter, and when we get to see the purpose of their gathering, a drunken, cross-dressing costume karaoke party on the beach, we're laughing along.  However, the kids are not as harmless as they first appear, and pretty soon the tone changes.  One of the six, sex-starved and brain-dead, follows a woman down the street, touches her inappropriately - then kills her.

Which, as the police have no leads, is where the matter might have rested, were it not for the victim's friends.  You see, this is another gang of six, half-a-dozen mid-thirties women of the Oba-San (auntie) variety, women verging on middle age, unattractive and unloved by society.  The six women, all called Midori, form a tight-knit group, and the loss of their friend causes the remaining five to shake off their apathy.  It's time to get some revenge...

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is a black farce, a comic fight to the death between two groups of people from the less-known side of Japanese society.  J-Lit often focuses on the beautiful, the aesthetic, cherry blossoms framed against a backdrop of Fuji-san - it's a refreshing change to see one-cup sake, dubious discos and cheesy dance tunes featured so prominently.  This is a novel which focuses on the working classes, featuring two groups who are not part of the trendy, successful Japan we know.

Despite the over-the-top humour and violence though, there is a serious side to the book.  Murakami depicts two groups of people stuck in a rut with very little to live for, and the added motivation of their vendetta actually brings them back to life.  This is particularly true for the Midori society, who suddenly find themselves becoming more attractive and desirable as their concentration and focus on the feud spreads into other areas of their lives:
"What all four Midoris shared was an indelible, very serious, and very real secret - a secret that served both to bolster their self-confidence and to lend them a certain air of mystery.  And that combination of self-possession and intrigue is what makes a woman truly appealing, especially when she herself seems unaware of it." (p.156)
Sadly, they might not live to enjoy this discovery, as murder follows murder in ever more gruesome ways.  The sad truth is that revenge is a never-ending spiral, consuming those who attempt to control it.

Enough of the philosophising about Murakami's critique of Japanese society - this is a book which could also simply be enjoyed on the level of an action movie.  The two tribes are complemented by a weird supporting cast who add to the pleasure of the book.  There's a film director and bomb expert, a cheerful old man in a gun shop, and a very creepy schoolgirl, who is just... wrong.  Add to this the mental images of the cross-dressing and cavorting on beach to cheesy old-fashioned pop tunes (the Showa Era of the title finished in 1989), and you've got a pretty good idea of what awaits you :)

It's also very funny, and one of the running jokes is Japanese society's prejudice against the useless Oba-Sans, women who are no longer young enough to attract the attention of eligible men, and whose grey existence is made worse by the scorn they experience:
"Do you sell these to just, like, anybody?"
The storekeeper laughed, his wrinkles fanning out like rays of the sun.
     "Hell, no.  Only to people I feel good about.  I like your spirit.  They always say that when human beings are extinct, the only living thing left will be the cockroach, but that's bullshit.  It's the Oba-San." (p.71)
On a side note, it's surprising how easy it is to get access to some pretty serious weaponry in Japan ;)

Popular Hits of the Showa Era is a lot lighter than Coin Locker Babies, but it's still a good read with a few serious messages hidden beneath the bloodshed and karaoke.  I thought it was a great translation, the second from McCarthy that I've enjoyed recently, and I'm looking forward to more from the Pushkin-Murakami-McCarthy connection :)

A word of warning to finish today's post: from the two novels I've read so far, Ryu Murakami really seems to have it in for the good people of Tokyo.  In terms of mass destruction of the major Japanese metropolis, he's right up there with Godzilla.  Please, if you notice Murakami around, be very careful when you're in this part of Japan...

Sunday 12 May 2013

'A Heart So White' by Javier Marías (Review)

Last week, I posted on a new-to-me writer, José Saramago, who I decided to try after listening to a podcast, and today is another of my podcast-influenced library choices.  There has been a lot of talk recently about Javier Marías, mainly because his latest book (The Infatuations) is out in English in the UK (August in the US), so I decided to give him a try.  And I'm very glad I did :)

A Heart So White (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) was the winner of the 1997 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and it is a great novel.  The main character is Juan, an interpreter and translator who has just got married to his colleague, Luisa.  While you would expect him to be happy,  he has some nagging doubts about the future, mainly because of a conversation at the wedding with his father, Ranz.  Marriage is all well and good, but as Ranz asks, what happens next?

Ranz has good reason to be nervous (or sceptical) about the future.  In the very first scene of the book, we learn how his wife killed herself shortly after the honeymoon, and while he later married her sister, happiness (despite his financial and work success) has proven elusive.  He has always been reticent about the past, preferring to keep silent about his misfortunes, even when Juan asks him directly.  However, some of Ranz's friends are a little more careless, and after Juan's wedding, startling details begin to emerge.  It appears that there is more to the suicide than Ranz is telling...

This is not an adequate summary of the plot of A Heart So White, and it never could be.  It's a book so exquisitely written and cleverly thought out, a wonder to read, but fairly difficult to summarise.  The story is told through Juan's eyes, and at first the reader struggles to work out where the writer is taking us.  We move around in time, swap continents and learn small details about seemingly unconnected people.  Slowly though, shapes start to appear from the void, connections are made, secrets are uncovered...  It all finally comes together in a memorable chapter.

While A Heart So White is wonderfully plotted, a large part of the attraction lies in the writer's style.  Marías, like Saramago, uses long sentences with multiple clauses, but his style is very different to that of the Portuguese writer.  His sentences are long and languid, repetitive at times, circling slowly around, and the meaning often only becomes clear a lot later in the novel when they are repeated, usually in a very different context.  There is a confessional nature to Juan's narrative, and his chains of thoughts, innocuous at first, slowly creep under the reader's skin.  It took me a while to catch on to his style, but I raced through the second half of the book.

In a sense, it's a novel about the nature of relationships, and a central theme is the way love is rarely a two-way street, with one partner obliging, compelling the other to love them, or being compelled to do so:
"Any relationship between two people always brings with it a multitude of problems and coercions, as well as insults and humiliations... Everyone obliges everyone else."
p.178 (The Harvill Press, 1997)
It's an interesting thought, but for an Englishman the most intriguing thing about it is that it first comes from the mouth of a female English politician - surely a thinly-veiled Margaret Thatcher...

Another focus is on secrets, and the importance of keeping them.  Marías, through his creations, constantly stresses that what isn't told, never happened, and that time levels everything anyway:
"...what takes place is identical to what doesn't take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try..." (p.179)
This sense of the past slipping into oblivion (providing we take good care never to try to uncover it) is what allows Ranz and Juan to peacefully co-exist.  Of course, when Luisa decides that Juan needs to know more about his father's past, this balance is threatened.

The careful reader, on speeding through A Heart So White, may also pick up on the frequent allusions to Macbeth, and in fact the title of Marías' novel is a quotation from the play.
"My hands are of your colour; but I shame
To wear a heart so white"
Macbeth, II.2 (Lines 64-5)
Lady Macbeth is talking to her husband after he has 'done the deed', and it appears that she is chiding him for his timidness, although Marías, through Juan, also talks about how the white heart refers to Lady Macbeth's innocence, in as far as she herself did not wield the knife.  Whatever the interpretation, the quotation is inextricably linked with the events of the book - I'll say no more...

In the end, Marías ties everything together so well.  Echoes and parallels resound and rebound across the years, continents and pages, and the events of decades all serve to bring Juan (and the reader) to one fateful evening.  It is only then that we understand the true meaning behind the words Juan casually utters near the start of the novel:
"I have a tendency to want to understand everything, everything that people say and everything I hear, even at a distance, even if it's in one of the innumerable languages I don't know, even if it's in an indistinguishable murmur or an imperceptible whisper, even if it would be better that I didn't understand and what's said is not intended for my ears, or is said precisely so that I won't hear it." (p.244)
A Heart So White is a wonderful book in an excellent translation (thanks, once more, are due to the incredibly-talented Jull Costa), and Marías is a writer I'll be reading a lot more of in future.  I'm a little late to the party, but arriving fashionably late does have its advantages - I've got a lot of catching up to do :)

Thursday 9 May 2013

When is a Peirene Book not a Peirene Book?

As mentioned in my post on Sea of Ink a few weeks back, I have now read (and reread) all ten Peirene books published so far, and I'm waiting eagerly for number eleven, Mr Darwin's Gardener, to appear next month.  However, the ladies over at Peirene HQ (particularly, I suspect, the nymph herself) beg to differ.  You see, of the ten so far, I've only read four in the Peirene version - the other six have been bought and read in the original language...

...which got me thinking.  Is there really a difference between a Peirene book and what Meike Ziervogel (founder of the press) dubs 'Peirene choices'?  Is the Peirene experience different if you don't get the book directly from the nymph?  Well, let's have a little think about that, shall we?

The first difference, of course, is one which is immediately evident - the cover.  One of Peirene's strong points is its individual and identifiable branding, and Sacha Davison Lunt's cover designs are a vital part of this.  The cream background, overlaid with geometric shapes, is instantly recognisable, ensuring that the books stand out, and go together nicely.

The covers create connections not only within the Peirene stable, but also within each series.  Most of you will know that the publisher publishes a different series each year, selecting three books which fit together, and for 2013 ('Turning Point') this is reflected in the cover designs, which are slightly different to previous series.  Of course, this is not the case for the original versions, which come from different publishers - and often different countries...

The original books are also stand-alones in terms of content, each one chosen for individual interest, where Peirene's books are carefully selected in groups of three.  The books are thematically linked, each suiting the banner chosen to represent the selection.  Whether it's 'Turning Point', 'Small Epic' or 'Male Dilemma', the Peirene books have a lot more in common than the cover that surrounds them.  In this sense, I would have to say that the first series, 'Female Voice' is probably the most coherent, a set of three books which really should be read as a trilogy.

Another difference I've been weighing up is one of voice.  I've read all the French- and German-language books in the original, and at times I've felt a difference in the way the language comes across.  They seem to be of a more confessional nature, many of them (for example, Beside the Sea, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, Next World Novella) consisting of monologues, almost soliloquies.  In contrast, some of the books I've read in English (e.g. Tomorrow Pamplona, The Brothers, The Murder of Halland) are a little more plot based and outward looking.  But then, Stone in a Landslide would fit nicely in the first group, and Sea of Ink wouldn't really... hmm.

Perhaps then we can explain the split with differences in style.  There are some unique writing styles among the Peirene authors, with several experimenting with very long, multi-clause sentences (e.g. Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast, Matthias Politycki's Next World Novella), in one case with just one, book-long sentence (take a bow F.C. Delius!).  Again, some of those I've read in English, such as Tomorrow Pamplona and The Murder of Halland, seem to prefer shorter sentences.  So are we getting somewhere?  Probably not - I'd say that Sea of Ink and Maybe Next Time don't really have the same style as the other German-language books...

Perhaps I'm approaching this the wrong way though.  You see, another potential variable in this puzzle is Meike herself.  Perhaps the real difference is whether the books are Meike's personal choices or recommendations from other people, friends or translators.  I mentioned the cohesion of the 'Female Voice' series above, and I suspect that those three (including the Catalan book Stone in a Landslide), plus Next World Novella and The Mussel Feast, are much more personal choices than the others.  Are we perhaps being treated to a glimpse of Meike's own literary preferences?

Before I get too carried away though, it's very possible that I may (!) be reading a little more into this than there is to be read.  Still, it is fascinating to speculate on just what the differences are between the various Peirene books, even if (as you've seen above) it's much easier to pull together similarities.  Whether it's a matter of language or simply personal preferences, I can't help thinking that there is a logic to it somewhere behind the scenes - although that probably says a lot more about me than Peirene...

The main thing is though that while the nymph would undoubtedly prefer readers to pour all their money into her coffers, it's more important that we get to experience great books, whatever language they're in.  In the end, it doesn't really matter whether you're enjoying Peirene books or Peirene choices - just as long as you're enjoying them :)

Anyway, that's my mixture of musings and wild guesses - how about you?  Have you read any of the Peirene books in the original language?  Have you noticed any similarities between any of the books?  Let me know what your thoughts on the matter are!