Saturday 31 August 2013

August 2013 Wrap-Up

August was an interesting month with lots of reading and a few other activities too.  The highlight was my trip to the Melbourne Writers Festival - you can read about my experiences by clicking on the links below:

Laurent Binet
The Future of the Novel (Teju Cole)
Andrés Neuman 

As for normal service...

Total Books Read: 11

Year-to-Date: 82

New: 9

Rereads: 2

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

Novels: 6
Novellas: 3
Short Stories: 2

Non-English Language: 10 (5 Spanish, Icelandic, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Various)
In Original Language: 2 (German, Various)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (3/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 7: 1 (8/1)

Books reviewed in August were:
1) Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann
2) All Dogs are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão
3) In Translation by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky (eds.)
4) Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
5) 70% Acrylic 30% Wool by Viola Di Grado
6) Lonely Hearts Killer by Tomoyuki Hoshino
7) Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa
8) The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra by Pedro Mairal 

Tony's Turkey for August is: Nothing

A good month - come back in September :)

Tony's Recommendation for August is:
Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain)

Apologies to the seven other books reviewed in August - you never stood a chance.  Honourable mentions must go to Pedro Mairal, Viola Di Grado, Jón Kalman Stefánsson and Mario Vargas Llosa (in fact, there wasn't really a poor book among the reviewed choices).  The fact is though that Mann's classic towers above the others - a bit like a mountain...


Well, after that month, I need a break - not that I'll get one ;)  There are plenty more books to be read and reviewed, and German Literature Month (which I'll be observing whether it happens or not) isn't too far away either.  September should be fun...

Thursday 29 August 2013

Tony at the Melbourne Writers Festival (Part Three)

As I mentioned a while back (and as regular readers would no doubt have already guessed), my main reason for attending the Melbourne Writers Festival for the first time this year was to see the session entitled Traveller of the Century, in which Argentine-Spanish writer Andrés Neuman discussed his award-winning novel.  A word of warning before we start: don't rely on me to be too objective with this one.  Most of the following was written whilst wearing rose-tinted spectacles ;)

As with the Laurent Binet session, the interviewer was Radio National's Michael Cathcart, and the show was once again planned to be aired on radio.  Thankfully, it wasn't live this time...  We were back at ACMI, this time in a more intimate studio, and around seventy to eighty people were crammed into the rows of sofa-type seats (not great on my back, unfortunately).

From the very start, Neuman showed himself to be erudite, witty and fluent in English, able to keep the conversation rolling along in a way that Binet perhaps couldn't quite master earlier in the day.  After a brief discussion of the writer's roots (having left Argentina before high school, he said: "I feel half Latin-American and half European."), Cathcart quickly brought the discussion around to the book itself, one which revolves on the idea of identity, both personal and national.

Cathcart mentioned the setting for the story, the shifting town of Wandernburg, and Neuman explained how this invented place was following in the footsteps of such great writers as Calvino, Borges and García Marquez, all of whom used imaginary towns as the settings for their philosophical experiments.  Wandernburg's location, on the border of two powerful neighbours in a time of constant regional conflicts, means that the town frequently changes hands, forcing its inhabitants to master the art of swapping allegiances at the drop of a hat.  This is important when the focus of the novel moves on to the idea of the nation state and national characteristics, as the idea of 'typical Germans' makes no sense when there is no real Germany to shape the people.

A topic which appeared early in the conversation, reappearing towards the end, was the sex in the novel, which (as Cathcart rightly pointed out) only comes after a 300-page flirtation.  Neuman explained how readers today are unlikely to be shocked by sex scenes, and the way he decided to get around the readers' jadedness was to lull them into a false sense of security.  He did this by making the 'courtship' resemble something from Austen, before suddenly allowing Hans and Sophie to give in to their more physical instincts (in a rather un-Austenesque manner...).

Sophie is one of the more interesting characters in the book, and when Cathcart mentioned 'the beautiful Sophie', Neuman interrupted, asking why he thought she was beautiful - it's never really explicitly stated in the novel.  While most readers (yours truly included!) would have an image of a beautiful young woman in mind, the writer never describes her as such, instead allowing her intelligence and charisma to persuade the reader that she is beautiful.  In fact, in the scene where she is shown naked for the first time, Neuman goes out of his way to show the reader that she is not a flawless goddess, but a normal woman...

Another point Cathcart (who I suspect really loved this book) noted was that there were a couple of striking parallels in the novel, which Neuman was happy to agree with.  While Rudi Wilderhaus (Sophie's fiancé) is Hans' rival in love, Professor Mietter, the dogmatic centre of the literary salon, is just as much a rival, but an intellectual one.  And as we're mentioning the literary salon at the Gottlieb residence, what are the gatherings at the cave with the organ grinder and friends if not another kind of salon?

One of the most fascinating stories came from Neuman himself though when he revealed that the basis for the whole story lies with... Franz the dog!  As the audience looked on expectantly, the writer explained how the inspiration for the novel came from Franz Schubert's Winterreise, a song cycle with lyrics provided by poet Wilhelm Müller.  In the last of the twenty-four songs, the traveller comes across an organ grinder playing alone, with only dogs for an audience, and the traveller decides to throw in his lot with the old man.  And there you have a large part of what makes up Traveller of the Century...

I could go on all day, but I'll just mention one last area of interest.  Neuman has a background in translation himself, and he was naturally very enthusiastic about the process of having his work appear in the English language.  He worked hard with the two translators (Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) and credits them with the success of the English-language version saying: "What you're reading is the translators' prose." and "It's an original creation, based on the original."  For anyone familiar with the discussion about BBC Radio's recent Front Row programme on literary translation, those are heartening comments indeed :)

At the top of the review, I warned you all that my objectivity was ever-so-slightly compromised today, and there's a very good reason for that.  Not only have I now read the book twice (and loved it both times), I've also been in contact with Andrés on Twitter, and before the festival, we agreed to try to catch up when I came to his event.

I thought we might just snatch five minutes to chat, or perhaps sit down for a while over coffee; instead, once Andrés' signing duties had been fulfilled, I went with him and his lovely wife to a café and chatted for a couple of hours (which simply flew by!) about life, books and travel.  While I, naturally, was very interested in his work, he and his wife also praised my blog scribblings...  I'm happy when anybody deigns to take a look at my posts, so to have two such intelligent and erudite people appreciate what I do...

...well, let's just say that for this post, objectivity has flown out of the window :)

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Tony at the Melbourne Writers Festival (Part Two)

As noted in my prelude post, the decision to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival session described today was very much a last-minute one.  However, being a fan of the longest form of fiction, a session entitled The Future of the Novel was always going to attract my attention :)  The session was one of many around the world celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary World Writers' Conference held in Edinburgh, and while this session was a little more low-key than the chaotic events in Scotland in 1962, it was still entertaining.

The session was chaired by Scottish-Kiwi academic and writer Liam McIlvanney and also featured 'transmedia creator' Christy Dena (even after briefly chatting to her, I couldn't tell you exactly what that means - my fault not hers, I assure you).  The star attraction though was Teju Cole, author of the prize-winning novel Open City, and it was Cole who kicked things off with a ten-minute keynote address.

He started by explaining what he felt about the novel, focusing on works which (in the words of Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky) 'elongate the perspective of human sensibility', with Cole saying that: "...excellence in the novel is not one-dimensional."  After a brief summary of the history of the novel, including a comment on the retreat of English-language writing into the safe realm of consensus and prize shortlists, he moved onto his main focus, Twitter, which he described as a novel with no end, evergrowing, but with no single responsible author.  Is this one form of the novel of the future?

After this, the three writers sat down for a panel discussion, one which primarily focused on Twitter and other forms of social media.  Cole and Dena discussed the idea of the 'perpetual present' of Twitter, whereby the 'reader' is carried along on a stream of... well, consciousness.  In fact, it was suggested that Twitter may well be the end destination of the journey of writers like Joyce and Woolf towards penetrating the human psyche and exposing it to the world.  Nobody was saying that this is entirely a good thing though ;)

A further idea which was explored was the effect that online exposure has on a writer and, consequently, on their work.  Cole talked about readers: "finally having that conversation with the author you admire - and being disappointed", to great laughs from the audience.  McIlvanney asked whether this time spent online could affect writers and eat away at their valuable writing time, but Cole was of the opinion that, for him at least, this time was productive and helped with his thought processes.  He doesn't like the mindset which tries to convince him that he's wasting his time online and that he 'should' be working...

However, he does admit that the immediate nature of responses on Twitter can affect the writer and their thoughts.  As he wryly noted: "All opinions are valid - until you start encountering all opinions!".  It is here that the novel has a great advantage as it still offers the reader solace, in what Cole described as 'a place of perfect slowness'.  This relaxation is something you may find hard to find online...

In the following Q & A session, I asked the panellists what they thought the novel would look like in thirty or forty years (mainly as I thought the discussion had wandered away from that focus at times).  Dena thought that the print book would still be around, but mainly as a collectors' item, and she envisaged the future writer as a master of multiple media, print, social media and audio.  Cole's initial response was of information downloaded instantly to contact lenses - and everyone would be reading something like Fifty Shades of Grey ;)  Afterwards though, he said that it didn't really matter whether the print novel would survive in its current form.  There would always be people with drive and talent (or, as he put it, 'forceful creativity'), and these people would always create great works of art :)

This was a great session, very entertaining and informative, even if I'm not quite sure that the speakers really stuck as closely to the topic as I'd expected.  While McIlvanney and Dena spoke well, their role was really to act as a foil for Cole, a very intelligent and likeable speaker who namedropped international writers (including Australian poet Les Murray) in a way guaranteed to endear him to me.  While it's probably a very bad idea to read books based on how nice a writer is, I may well have to check out Open City at some point soon... (postscript: I'm about half-way through the book and enjoying it immensely.)

And that's all for today, but stay tuned for my final piece from the festival.  My next post will be my report from the Andrés Neuman session; hopefully, Cole's comment about meeting authors you admire won't ring true...

Monday 26 August 2013

Tony at the Melbourne Writers Festival (Part One)

As mentioned in my prelude post, my first event at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival was an interview with French writer Laurent Binet, here to discuss his very successful novel, HHhH.  After my long wait, I was happy to get into the room, one of the cinemas at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), to join a fair-sized crowd of around 120 people - many of whom were middle-aged women...

...which (if I were cynical - and of course I'm not...) might be attributable to the fact that Binet is a very good-looking man, casually dressed in a top with his sleeves rolled up.  He was chatting with the moderator, Michael Cathcart, the presenter of the Books & Arts Daily show on Radio National, and before the talk started, we were informed that we'd be live on the radio :) ***

Cathcart started by asking Binet about his background and upbringing, before moving on to the writer's move from history, his first love, to literature.  Despite deciding not to pursue studies in history, Binet's background leaves him suspicious towards the novel, and he's not a fan of the traditional French model of the realistic, psychological novel (as displayed in the works of Zola and Balzac).  In fact, he said: "I was never really interested in the fate of a fictional character."  I'm not sure many of my readers would agree with that viewpoint ;)

Cathcart then interjected, talking about how Bertolt Brecht's plays constantly reminded the audience that what they were seeing wasn't actually real, and Binet agreed that his style works in a similar way, in an attempt to remind the reader of the fictional nature, not of the story, but of the details which the writer could never really know. In HHhH, Binet (or the voice of the novel) frequently chides himself for including scenes whose veracity he could never be sure of.  Which led nicely onto a discussion of...

...Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones (at which point, Binet became a lot more animated).  Littell's book, featuring a fictional SS officer, was hugely successful in France, but Binet, it's fair to say, is not a fan.  He seemed a little disturbed by the possibility of readers confusing fact and fiction, and hates that they might believe Littell's stories.  When Cathcart brought up the idea of 'novelistic truth', Binet was quick to dismissively say: "Novelistic truth?  I don't buy that." (which got the biggest laugh of the session!).

HHhH is composed of over 250 short chapters, and Binet said that when he had finished writing them, the job was still far from done as he had to decide the order - he found it hard to decide where the narrator's interjections would best fit into the 'real' story.  In fact, with the intense research he undertook (and the difficulty in setting boundaries for his research), it ended up taking him ten years to complete the book.  By the way, for those of you who have read the book, the idea of having no page numbers came from the English publishers - this was not the case for the original French-language version...

In closing, Cathcart asked Binet about his core values, and the writer responded by affirming his need for honesty and truth.  He said that he hates fakeness, and that's one reason why he's so obsessed with history.  I was interested in the way Binet seemed to be more attached to history than to literature, and after the session (when I sneaked into the book-signing queue without a book...), I asked him if he actually thought of himself as a novelist and whether he intended to write more fiction.  He said that he now considers himself to be more of a writer of fiction and that he plans to write more novels in the future.  Sadly, I had to leave it there as I'd been spotted, and the security guards were ready to haul me away ;)

All in all, it was an interesting session, and I enjoyed my first taste of a literary festival.  As some of you may know, I didn't rate HHhH that highly when I read it earlier this year, but it was still fascinating hearing the writer explain and justify the way he wrote the book and the choices he made.  One interesting piece of information I learned was that there were some major cuts made, most of which referred to The Kindly Ones.  I bet that would have spiced HHhH up a little...

One down, two to go - next time, I'm hanging with Teju Cole (well, thirty metres away) as we talk about the future of the novel.  Stamp your ticket at the door, please ;)

*** The talk is currently available online at this link :)

Sunday 25 August 2013

'The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra' by Pedro Mairal (Review)

It's always good to see more publishers bringing out fiction in translation, and a recent addition to the fold is New Vessel Press.  They announced a starting half-dozen from around the world, and first up is a slim book from Argentina - although it's a work which certainly belies its size...

Pedro Mairal's The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (translated by Nick Caistor, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a book worthy of being New Vessel's first release.  The narrator of the story is not the titular Juan Salvatierra but his younger son, a man who lives in Buenos Aires working as an estate agent.  One of the reasons for his move was to escape from his father - or, to be more precise, from the gigantic canvas painting Salvatierra senior spent his life creating.
"I was supposed to be going away to study, but above all I wanted to escape from Barrancales, from home, and most of all from the painting, from the vortex of the painting that I felt was going to swallow me up forever, like an altar boy destined to end up as chaplain in that huge temple of images and endless duties with the canvases, pullies, colors..."
p.80 (New Vessel Press, 2012)
Years after his father's death though, our friend, together with his elder brother, Luis, decides that the unique artwork deserves to be brought out and shown to the world.  The brothers return to their hometown (and their deserted home) to find the painting and sell it to an art gallery overseas.  It's a unique creation, a tapestry-like picture which flows like a river, and there are sixty rolls piled up, one for each year of the artist's painting life...

...except that there should be sixty-one...

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra doesn't run to much more than a hundred pages, but it's a beautiful, well-written story.  The narrator initially just hopes to settle some outstanding family affairs, but in searching for the missing roll, he finds much more than he bargained for.  As well as discovering some interesting, unsettling and surprising facts about his father (and remembering the way the painting defined their relationship), he also starts to find out a little more about himself.

In fact, his search for the missing piece of the painting leads to a complete reevaluation of his life.  He decides to shut his office and return to his home town, cycling along old paths and walking by the river, the border between Uruguay and Argentina (which has its own role to play in the story...).  In effect, he is revisiting the past, adrift in a town full of strangers, where the train station is abandoned and overgrown, and his father's friends are long gone (or senile).

While his return allows him to see the town once more, it also helps him to learn more about his father, who is quite the enigmatic figure.  Juan Salvatierra was left mute by a childhood accident, and this led him indirectly to his artistic destiny.  An autodidact, his entire life was spent on one astonishing (lengthy) work.  However, when it comes to life outside painting, his son discovers that there was a lot more to his father than he ever realised...

The star of the show though is the painting itself - life captured and reflected on canvas.  It gives the son a sense of a blurred reality, and when he comes back to town, he starts to think he's in the painting:
"I looked at all this, asking myself so many questions at once.  What was this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes?  What did it all mean?  What could my father's life have been like?  Why did he feel the need to take on such a huge task?" (p.35)
One thing's for sure, Salvatierra truly wanted to create life's rich tapestry.  However, it's one which also contains many of the answers to his son's questions...

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is a beautiful, understated novella, a story which calmly unfolds in front of the reader's eyes.  It consists of short chapters full of elegant prose and measured recounts, but there are also plenty of little pieces of information which only later slot into their rightful place.  Nick Caistor's translation is partly responsible for the feel of the story, making the book smooth and a pleasure to read.  It would best be read slowly, allowing time for the story to develop at its own pace.  Alas, I fear that most readers (like myself) will devour the book in a sitting or two ;)

One book it reminded me of a little, both in its measured pace and its subject matter, is one of Peirene Press' class of 2013, Richard Weihe's Sea of Ink.  Both use the literary form to describe an artist and his art and both use short, concise chapters to great effect.  And, like Juan Salvatierra, Bada Shanren was a man of few words (in his case, by choice though!).

What Mairal has produced with this book is a painting like a story, in a story like a painting, and I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to see read it :)  It's a book I can heartily recommend, and one which I hope to reread at some point.  As I said at the start of the post, it's good to have new players in the translated fiction game - especially when they can produce books like this one.  More please :)

Friday 23 August 2013

Tony at the Melbourne Writers Festival (Prelude)

It's not often that I get up at 6.20 (and even less often that I do so with a spring in my step), but that was the case today as I headed off to the big bad city to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival - for the first time ever!

The early start was so that I could get myself a parking space at the station, saving my wife the hassle of dropping me off before the school run, but it did mean that I arrived at Federation Square, the scene of the festival, at about the same time the cleaners rolled up to make the place tidy for the day...  Still, it gave me a chance to catch up on some reading :)

I had pre-ordered tickets for two events, leaving myself ample time to relax in between.  The first, at 10.00, was with Laurent Binet, the French author of HHhH, and while I wasn't completely convinced by his book when I read it earlier this year, I was interested in hearing him discuss the book and the background (and justify his choice of style!).

My real goal was attending my second chosen event, Andrés Neuman discussing his great novel Traveller of the Century, and I was also hoping to catch up with him for a quick chat after the event.  Did I manage it?  You'll have to wait and see ;)

Predictably, though, the long wait (and the inclement Melbourne weather...) brought a change to my plans.  While I was twiddling my thumbs at 11.30, wondering what to do with myself for three hours, I noticed a line of people waiting outside one of the studios, so I asked a helper what was on.  It turned out that it was an Edinburgh World Writers' Conference session on the future of the novel, featuring (among others) Teju Cole - and it was due to start at 11.45... after a mad scramble out of the centre to find the tiny box office down by the main road and purchase a ticket, I arrived back at the room, sweaty and panting, but ready for another session.

Which is why I'm going to leave you now - I need some sleep!  But Tony, I hear you cry (I have *excellent* hearing), were the sessions any good?  Well, that's a tale for another day; for now, you can just look at some pretty photos instead :)

Thursday 22 August 2013

'Conversation in the Cathedral' by Mario Vargas Llosa (Review)

It would be a slight understatement to say that The Feast of the Goat has been the least successful book of my Spanish-language literature adventure so far.  However, I'm nothing if not fair, so I decided that I needed to give Mario Vargas Llosa a second try, a chance to make amends - and I even gambled on one of his longer works this time around.  Let's see if it was a risk worth taking...

Conversation in the Cathedral (translated by Gregory Rabassa) has absolutely nothing to do with big churches.  The cathedral of the title is a seedy bar, where two of the main characters, Santiago and Ambrosio, go to catch up after a chance meeting.  The two men have a shared history, but they are very different people - as will become evident over the next six-hundred pages.

Santiago is the son of a rich socialite family, but he has chosen the black-sheep path and works as a reporter for a tabloid newspaper, turning his back on his family and their wealth.  Ambrosio is a hulking black worker, formerly the chauffeur to Santiago's father, Don Fermín, and he has fallen on hard times.  As the two talk about what has happened in the years since they last met, the reader is treated to a spell-binding trip thorugh Peruvian history and introduced to a whole host of characters, both fictional and real.  It's a challenging book, and the two drinkers aren't the only ones with a headache by the time we get to the last page...

Where The Feast of the Goat left me cold, Conversation in the Cathedral had me coming back for more every night.  It's a novel which is far more interesting, stylistically more inventive, and much more intricate.  The first chapter detailing the events of the meeting and the conversation is fairly normal, but from chapter two the book bursts into life.  Conversations erupt without warning, several at once, intermingled, confusing:
"To work, son," Ambrosio says.  I mean, to look for work."
"Are you serious or joking?" the Lieutenant asked.
"Did my old man know you were there?" Santiago asks.
"I don't like to joke, " Bermúdez said.  "I always speak seriously."
p.46 (Harper Perennial, 2005)
By the way - Ambrosio is talking to Santiago, and the Lieutenant is talking to Bermúdez...

It gets even more complicated later when multiple conversations are taking place (from different times), and some of the speakers are present in two or three of them.  You really need to be on your toes at times in this book...  Which is not to say that it's all mind-bending.  The narrative flows nicely, and the conversations usually hit the right balance between mundane and witty:
"Why were you so bitter, then?"  Ambrosio asks.  "Was it because of the girl?"
"I never saw her alone," Santiago says.  "I wasn't bitter; a little worm in my stomach sometimes, nothing else."
"You wanted to make love to her and you couldn't with the other one there," Ambrosio says.  "I know what it's like to be close to the woman you love and not be able to do anything."
"Did that happen to you with Amalia?" Santiago asks.
"I saw a movie about it once," Ambrosio says.  (p.92)
Of course, there's more to that short exchange than meets the eye...

The book is divided into four parts, and each looks at a different period of time (even if the chapters tend to jump backwards and forwards in time).  Each introduces new characters, many of whom then fade into the background.  After 100 pages, we are obsessed with Santiago's university time and his communist leanings, eager to learn more about his friends Aída and Jacobo - by the end of the book, they've been forgotten (like mnay good university friends...).

One of the main characters is Cayo Bermúdez, a non-descript, half-breed merchant plucked from obscurity, who becomes one of the most powerful and feared men in the country in the 1950s.  Having eclipsed the General who recommended him to the President, he goes about consolidating the regime's grip on power while amassing a fortune, keeping a mistress and ruthlessly crushing all attempts at insurrection.  Oh, and did I mention that Ambrosio is his chauffeur too?

In fact, while the book begins with Santiago, it is actually Ambrosio who is the star attraction.  His connection with the rich, famous and morally questionable allows the reader to taste what life was like in Peru in the 1950s, a story fascinating enough to keep the reader's attention.  And when the pace does flag a little (inevitable in such a long book), and the reader is beginning to wonder what else might happen, Vargas Llosa throws in a murder, one he has already hinted at.  Suddenly, events take a new turn, and some surprising revelations make us see certain characters in a new light...

Conversation in the Cathedral is an excellent novel, and one which has (mostly) restored Vargas Llosa in my eyes.  Like The Feast of the Goat, it's a book concerned with history and politics, but it does so in a much more elegant and interesting manner.  Rabassa's translation is excellently unnoticeable (if you think that's a good thing!), allowing the reader to immerse themself in the story without stumbling across clumsy expressions.  While I don't think the writer manages to hold the tension right up to the end (I thought it was just that little bit too long towards the finish), he still does a good job of making the reader want to prolong their stay in the semi-fictional world he creates.

So Vargas Llosa has managed to redeem himself, and my Spanish-Literature odyssey is back on track - although it's actually nearing its end.  In fact, I have just one more of my library treats to get through before I can sit back and relax.  Which is probably a good job - I have a pile of ARCs that could really do with some attention...

Monday 19 August 2013

'Lonely Hearts Killer' by Tomoyuki Hoshino (Review)

After the previous success of Tomoyuki Hoshino's short-story collection, We, the Children of Cats (from PM Press), I was eager to try another of the writer's books.  Today's choice is a novel, which makes a nice contrast, allowing me to see which genre suits him better.  So, how does Hoshino fare in the longer form?

Lonely Hearts Killer (translated by Adrienne Carey Hurley, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novel which could almost be called dystopian in a detached, literary way.  After the death of the young Emperor (called Majesty throughout the novel), the 'Island Nation' nosedives into a communal depression, with many people unable to even get out of bed.  While many of those 'spirited away' had no strong feelings about the royal family, it seems that the event has acted as a catalyst, causing people all over the country to collapse under the stress of their everyday lives.

Although Shoji Inoue, a young unemployed filmmaker, wasn't affected by the event, he becomes fascinated by the reasons behind the nationwide downward spiral.  He gets to know one of the 'spirited away', his friend's partner, Miko, and becomes obsessed with his thoughts on the phenomenon.  It's a phase which may simply have passed away into history, if only Inoue hadn't made sure that nobody would be moving on with their lives in a hurry...

Lonely Hearts Killer is told in three parts and voices.  In the first,we learn about the death of his young Majesty, and the aftermath of the traumatic event, through Shoji's eyes.  In the middle section, his friend Iroha continues the story, trying to come to terms with Shoji and Miko's deaths and the chaotic situation Japan finds itself in as a result.  Finally, Mokuren, Iroha's friend, finishes off the story after Iroha does something foolish.  Both Iroha and Mokuren comment on the actions and thoughts of the previous part; in his introduction, Hoshino invites the reader to speculate in turn about Mokuren...

It's a frightening story, but one which is eminently believable.  A depressing event triggers mass depression and soul-searching in a country which is already in the grip of a downward spiral.  With an ageing population and a depressed economy, there is little hope for the future - and in a society where suicide is not as stigmatised as it is in Christian countries, death is always an enticing option.  Even the weather joins in, cherry blossoms blasted off the trees by giant dust storms  (perhaps symbolic of Hoshino's rejection of 'typical' J-lit conventions), and the reader is treated to the eery sight of Tokyo as a ghost town, with the streets emptied of people.

In deciding to take their lives, Inoue and Miko spark a revolution.  Death suddenly seems preferable to hanging around in a grey country waiting to die - and if you're going to go, why not take someone else with you?  Suddenly, everyone needs to be careful out on the streets:
"People were overreacting if someone just brushed up against their shoulder or arm on the train.  They would shove or even brandish a weapon at whoever had inadvertently done the touching, and the number of such cases resulting in bloody brawls had increased.  And sometimes simply walking in the same direction as another person even in a residential neighborhood would end in trouble.  The upshot of all this was a widespread aversion to other people and rampant paranoid hostility in crowded places."
p.128 (PM press, 2009)
All of a sudden, it seems that nowhere is safe, and no-one can be trusted.

A major theme involves films, with Shoji and Iroha obsessed with reproducing what they see on camera, putting layer upon layer, copy upon copy until the original is distorted, unrecognisable (an irony in a country where the traditional idea of reproduction has virtually come to a halt).  Shoji's existence has, fairly literally, been a life on film, a fact which doesn't always please him:
"Accompanying the growth of my catalogue of filmed images are occasional moments when I feel very sad at the thought that the substance of my worth, what matters about me is contained in the volume of a disc." (p.13)
Iroha is also obsessed with filming wherever she goes, and it is her film of Miko, films of films, an endless hall of digital mirrors, which causes the initial cracks in Shoji's facade.
And what are the 'love suicides' plaguing the country if not a series of copies...

Of course, this copy-cat culture is a distorted one, and the people need a strong leader to stand up and tell them to get on with their lives and stop worrying about death.  Initially, however, the royal successor (Her Majesty) is unable to do so.  In a worrying power vacuum, the gap is then filled by a politician - one who has shown himself to be a bit of an opportunist and, perhaps, morally suspect.  Just like real life then...

What's it all about?  Good question :)  It's certainly, in part at least, a stand against ultra-nationalism (something which is always a concern in Japan - I remember the men in black vans with loudspeakers distinctly...).  It's also a reflection (no pun intended) of a real sense of depression in Japan.  The Land of the Rising Sun has been eclipsed by close-to-zero economic growth and a rapidly ageing population.  In the book, few children are being born - the 'one child' policy which is introduced is meant to *stimulate* the birth rate, not control it!  The novel also highlights the danger of group-think, showing that there are risks in marginalising minorities in a culture of nationalistic homogenisation.  Then again, it might be about something else entirely :)

Once you've finished the novel (as in We, the Children of Cats), there are some added extras.  There's a great Q & A between the author and the translator, and a translator's introduction which provides background information about the novel.  This contains some useful analysis of the book (which certainly makes it easier to write a convincing review!).  Now, if only more publishers could find the time to do this...

Lonely Hearts Killer is a fascinating story with a good translation, and it's a book that is well worth checking out.  It's not always easy to get your head around what Hoshino is trying to say, but it's certainly a welcome change to some of the cherry-blossom-tinted (or blood-soaked) J-Lit around at the moment.  Do try it :)

Thursday 15 August 2013

'70% Acrylic 30% Wool' by Viola Di Grado (Review)

Today's post is on another gem from Europa Editions that I missed out on the first time around, but it's a book that was well worth waiting for.  The writing is strange, and subtly disorientating, but the setting is very, very familiar...

Viola Di Grado's 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (translated by Michael Reynolds, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a wonderfully bizarre novel, one set in the English city of Leeds.  From the very start, the city plays a starring role in the story, mostly as a dark, depressing place, a town where it's always December and daylight is just a distant cultural memory.

Of course, we're not meant to take this literally (I think...) - this view of the city is an outward projection of the mental state of the main character, Camelia Mega.  Born in Italy and brought to Leeds at the age of seven, she is struggling to cope with the loss of her father (caught in flagrante with a lover - in a car crash) and her mother's retreat into an inner-world, one of denial and wordlessness.

Camelia seems set to follow her mother down the spiral when a chance encounter on the street with a young Chinese man, Wen, provides the impetus she needs to start living again.  In fact, Leeds even manages to get past December (eventually...).  A love story with a happy ending then?  You obviously don't know Viola Di Grado...

70% Acrylic 30% Wool is a fantastic book, a novel which defies simple clichéd explanations.  It gets its power from Di Grado's manipulation of language and the way in which she makes the ordinary bizarre, constantly leaving the reader grasping at thin air.  For me, this was a more personal reading than for most because I lived in Leeds for a few years, very close to the places Camelia describes; however, the Leeds of the novel is less that of my student years and more one of some post-apocalyptic nightmare.  As any self-respecting southerner will tell you, it's grim up north:
"It must have been seven in the morning but it was dark outside, like at any self-respecting hour of the day in Leeds.  They discriminate against daylight hours here, ghettoizing them behind curtains."
p.19 (Europa Editions, 2013)
I don't think the city's tourist board will be hiring Di Grado as an ambassador any time soon...

Things start to get better though, when Camelia meets Wen, the manager of a clothes shop, and starts taking private Chinese lessons (let's ignore the fact that they met after he recognised her clothes as something he'd thrown out in the rubbish...).  Camelia had been planning to study Chinese at university before her father's death, and she soon gets swept up both with her studies, and her growing passion for the young teacher.  However, when Wen (no pun intended) fails to respond adequately to her advances, things start to get very messy.  Occasionally literally.

As you might imagine from the mixed linguistic background of the story, languages and words (or the absence thereof) play a major role in the novel.  Camelia becomes obsessed with Chinese characters, painting them on pieces of paper, plastering them across the walls of her home and tracing them manically onto her arms and legs while watching television.  Everything she sees is decoded in the form of the radicals of the characters, transformed from real objects into inky-black depictions.

Her journey into language contrasts with her mother's retreat into silence (the silence, at times, threatening to infect Camelia, forcing her to vomit up words...).  Having said that, languages do not necessarily require verbalisation, and mother and daughter somehow communicate very well with glances.  And, of course, there's always music:
"She stood up there, so red at the top of the steep narrow stairs, stairs rotten with dust, like an upside-down Tower of Babel that instead of multiplying languages had destroyed them all.  And all this, the elision of all languages, just to get to this moment, to her standing there mute and breathtaking as she always was after playing her favorite piece." (p.157)
Camelia, though, most definitely prefers words - and action...

I still don't think I've managed to quite get the idea of the novel across adequately - this book is ever so slightly twisted (in a good way, of course).  As well as the above, there'll be blood, sex, betrayal, mutilation of defenceless clothes and flowers, and symbolic references to holes.  And Leeds.  Lots of walking about the centre and student areas of Leeds.

Which brings me to the only bad thing I have to say about 70% Acrylic 30% Wool...  Michael Reynold's translation is a good one, a very good one in fact, but it's written in American English, and for me that detracted from the finished article a little.  I was just too close to the setting of the book to be able to gloss over some of the vocabulary choices, even if the style of the language isn't noticeably American.  The place I used to go and buy crisps at late at night is not a 'gas station'; the thing I used to walk on to uni most days (OK, some days) is not a 'sidewalk'; wherever Camelia found the clothes, I'm pretty certain it wasn't a 'dumpster'; oh, and while Leeds can be pretty bleak at times, it's definitely not 'gray'...

Rant over :)  This is a great book, and I really hope that more of Wunderkind Di Grado's work is available in English soon (my Italian ain't all it could be).  It's not always easy to get your head around, and understanding Camelia's actions can be a nightmare at times, but you should definitely take 70% Acrylic 30% Wool for a spin.  Definitely not one for delicates though ;)

Monday 12 August 2013

'Heaven and Hell' by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Review)

Last year, as some of you may remember, I was on a bit of an Icelandic kick and managed to read several great books from the small island nation.  One I didn't get around to though was a book by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, a novel which several bloggers had raved about.  With the sequel, The Sorrow of Angels, out now, I thought it might be time to correct this oversight - and luckily, the good people at MacLehose let me have a copy of both :)

Heaven and Hell (translated by Philip Roughton) is the first in Stefánsson's trilogy about a character known only as the Boy.  We begin with preparations for fishing for cod in the cold sea off the north Icelandic coast, in a team of six with his friend, Bá­­ður (a literary type who seems out of place in such a functional setting).  We're in the mid-nineteenth century, but it could really be back in the seventeenth century; life seems very basic - and harsh...

After a night of waiting and preparing, the fishing crews set off into the unwelcoming waters, and disaster (inevitably) strikes.  Sickened by the attitude of the other fishermen in the face of tragedy, the Boy sets off on a perilous journey back to a distant village, not caring if he survives the journey or not.  There he finds that in a land that doesn't appreciate outsiders, he's not quite as alone as he thinks...

Heaven and Hell is a great story with superb writing.  The first part of the book is dominated by the struggle between the fishermen and the sea.  The waters are a living entity: cruel, cold, deadly and majestic.  The poor sailors in their tiny 'sixereen' are at the mercy of something far greater than themselves, trusting their fate to 'an open coffin on the Polar Sea'.  Just returning to shore can be considered an achievement:
"And those on shore do not passively watch the boats land but instead lend a hand, there is a law beyond man-made laws because here it is a matter of life and death, and most choose the former."
p.75 (MacLehose Press, 2011)
For those who enjoy descriptions of man versus wild, this is the real thing, and the writer creates a poetic description of the battle for life.

On land, things are little better.  Near the shore, the village lies under almost perpetual snow, and the atmosphere amongst its inhabitants can be just as cold and forbidding.  There is a fixed hierarchy, where the owners of the big stores have entrapped the little people in their eternal debt, and the poor villagers live on a diet of credit, subservience, gossip and infidelity.  Outsiders are regarded with suspicion, and anyone a little different tends to drift into a certain circle, one centred upon the enigmatic Geirþúður.  Which is where the Boy comes in...

Stefánsson has a striking style, reminiscent at times of Saramago (a saga Saramago?).  His writing can be jerky, confronting and involved, with frequent rhetorical questions and addresses to the reader:
"A tidy man, that Pétur, like his brother, Guðmundur, skipper of the other boat, about ten metres between their huts but the brothers don't speak to each other, haven't done so in a good decade, no-one seems to know why." (p.16)
Another feature of the writing is superb imagery.  Stefánsson has a great eye for detail, and the reader is sucked into the pictures he creates, be they in the midst of a storm or in the snug of the local pub:
"This was in the evening, a dense cloud of cigar smoke in the room, they could barely see each other, or at least until one of them came up with the idea of opening the window onto the autumn and the sky coughed when the smoke was sucked out." (pp.118/9)
The narrator of the story occasionally switches eyes, following other characters away from what we have come to see as the 'centre' of the story.  When it leaves the Boy and accompanies another of the villagers or fishermen, it appears like a disembodied spirit (which, if we believe the narrative's frame, is exactly what it is...).

Heaven and Hell reminds me at times of a couple of the books I read last year.  In parts, particularly in its description of the hardship of life in Iceland, it is reminiscent of Halldór Laxness' Independent People.  The first section, with the focus on the importance of fishing is more akin though to a Faroese novel, Heðin Brú's The Old Man and his Sons.  Like many of the Icelandic books I've read, particularly those set in the past, it also emphasises the importance of books, stories... and coffee!  However, while coffee can cure all ills, literature is seen as the cause of disaster - poetry can be dangerous...
"Some poems take us to places where no words reach, no thought, they take you up to the core itself, life stops for one moment and becomes beautiful, it becomes clear with regret and happiness.  Some poems change the day, the night, your life.  Some poems make you forget, forget the sadness, the hopelessness, you forget your waterproof, the frost comes to you, says, got you, and you're dead." (p.85)
Please take care when reading...

Heaven and Hell is a great book, but it's hard to discuss the novel without giving it all away as very little actually happens over the course of the two-hundred pages.  Unlike many books, this one really feels like the first part of a trilogy, a set up of more to come.  Which is not a bad thing at all - I, for one, will be diving into The Sorrow of Angels very soon...

...just as soon as I've sorted out some thicker thermals ;)

Thursday 8 August 2013

'In Translation' by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky (eds.) (Review)

Over the past couple of years, as regular readers may have noticed, I've become much more deeply involved in the translated-fiction side of life in the literary blogosphere, and my ratio of books originally written in languages other than English has sky-rocketed.  I've also found myself reading more in German, and for a while now I've been contemplating an alternate universe, one in which money and free time magically appear, allowing me to go off and study again, this time in the field of literary translation.  It's unlikely (sigh) to ever happen, but if I get many more books like today's offering, my arm might just be twisted...

Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky, two noted American literary translators, have put together a wonderful book on the art and science of their metier, In Translation (published by Columbia University Press, review copy courtesy of Australian supplier Footprint Books***).  It consists of eighteen essays by leading translators and writers, each giving a small insight into the art of translation and the life of the translator.  The first section is mainly concerned with theory, and the essays here come complete with footnotes and academic jargon; the second part then moves onto practice, with real-life examples from a host of renowned practitioners.

Before we get onto the nitty-gritty though, we gain an insight into the unglamourous, and often thankless, role of the translator.  Peter Cole discusses the ethical dilemmas of the translator, often a choice in the eyes of the public between invisibility and treachery (to the author and to the original text).  Eliot Weinberger suggests an image of the translator as tradesman, not artist (one who really should be better paid!).  While David Bellos muses over the concept of 'foreign-soundingness', Michael Emmerich shows us how translation can be just as much about the visual as the phonological - in Japanese, snow literally (almost) falls down on the page...

If you think these issues sound a little abstract and unimportant, others are a touch more controversial.  Alice Kaplan, in an essay on the trials and tribulations of translating, talks about her battle of wills with authors (and her own translator), also mentioning the time when Nabokov ordered all the copies of a Swedish translation of Pnin to be burnt.  Whoever said the author was dead...

In the final act of the first part, Esther Allen cautions the unwary reader against assuming that translation is a given for any particular book; you see, it's not quite as straight-forward as that:
"...any given act of literary translation is a product of unique political, linguistic, cultural, technological, historical, and human contexts."
p.101 (2013, Columbia University Press)
The reality is that it takes a unique combination of factors, a whole myriad of planets aligning, to get any one particular work published in the English-speaking world.  Quality is only one small factor.

Once we dive into the practical side of things, we also get to hear from, and about, some superstars of world literature.  Maureen Freely discusses the problems of translating Orhan Pamuk, a story of an 'ethnically-cleansed' language, a head-strong writer and an unexpected venture into Turkish politics.  Cuban poet José Manuel Prieto explains the difficulties he had in translating Osip Mandelstam's most famous poems into Spanish, and Haruki Murakami explains how (and why) he took 'his' Gatsby into Japanese (on a side note, it was nice to see these last two in the collection - translated by Esther Allen and Ted Goossen - as a work on translation without any translated pieces seems rather silly...).

Once you've got your head around what you're going to translate, you need to give some thought to who you're actually translating it for.  One of my favourite pieces had Jason Grunebaum pondering this issue in translating a novel from Hindi into English.  Should he be concentrating on American English, or Indian English?  After all, if you're looking for a large potential market...

Laurence Venuti had a slightly different dilemma in wrestling with the issue of anachronism in his translation of 12th-century Italian poetry.  A poet monk criticising the Pope - what voice would work best in English?  Venuti's answer - Slim Shady:
You spoke with forkéd tongue
and deeply I was stung:
it has to lick my sore
to show the plague the door;
because I'm sure my grief
can't find the least relief
without the execution
of your absolution (p.205)
At any rate, it's certainly original...

If you're a polyglot, In Translation provides you with many great opportunities to test your skills.  Whether it's Russian, Polish, Hindi, German or 16th-century French ballad lyrics, there's something of interest in every piece.  My only issue with the collection (ironically) is that for the Englishman in me it's a little narrow, and slightly US-centric.  A piece on the US-UK language divide would have been nice (as would more British contributors...)

Still, it's a wonderfully-absorbing collection, one which has given my nascent ambitions a further push.  For those of you who think Goethe had more than Dan Brown on his mind when coining the phrase Weltliteratur, let's give a big thank you to the people who show us that there's a lot out there that is worth reading :)

Before I finish though, I'll leave you with some final advice from Susan Bernofsky, who discusses the need to let go of the original text, and the importance of both frequent revision of translation and taking the odd semantic risk:
"It takes a certain amount of pluck - not to mention aesthetic sense and the ability to write well in English - to let go of an original long enough to allow oneself to fully imagine the English words that will take its place, but without this no fully realized translation is possible." (p.233)
That sounds like a job for me :) 

***Footprint Books say that this book is available in good Australian bookshops and directly through their website :)

Monday 5 August 2013

'All Dogs Are Blue' by Rodrigo de Souza Leão

It's been a long time between drinks, but today I've finally got around to reviewing another book from great indie publishers And Other Stories.  It's another of their South American finds, this time from Brazil, and like Down the Rabbit Hole, it's a fairly short read.  It seems even shorter because of its compulsive nature - this is one you race through in a blur...

All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão (translated by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a semi-autobiographical tale of time spent inside a mental institute.  An overweight schizophrenic is locked up after trashing his parents' house, and in a confusing stream-of-consciousness monologue, we learn a little about how he's ended up there and a lot about what happens within the asylum's walls.

From the very first paragraph, the reader is shown what to expect from Souza Leão's madness:
"I swallowed a chip yesterday.  I forced myself to talk about the system that surrounds me. There was an electrode on my forehead.  I don't know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip.  The horses were galloping.  Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium."
(And Other Stories, 2013)
Our friend is a little bit paranoid and obsessed by the idea that he swallowed a chip (which may have developed from the cricket he swallowed when he was a child).  There's a lot more to his madness than that though.

After an initial stint in solitary confinement, he wanders around the asylum accompanied by his (imaginary) friends.  Baudelaire is a calm fellow, but (unfortunately) he's not always around.  Rimbaud, on the other hand, can usually be relied upon to provide the writer with some company, even if he is a tad more aggressive than his fellow French poet.  An interesting point here for non-French speakers - Rimbaud is pronounced in English as 'Rambo' ;)

We occasionally get to see the effect of the illness on the speaker's family, especially his mum and dad.  While they seem to want the best for their son, he certainly feels a little betrayed by their decision to have him committed:
"He says I'll get out when I'm better.  I move towards him and kiss him on the face.  Is it the kiss of Judas?  Will I betray my father in my madness?  And what if two men came now and crucified me upside down.  Could the cross bear the weight of this lard-arse?"
However, in rare, lucid, moments, he is able to put his delusions aside and recognise the truth, accepting that there was something very wrong with his life:
"I cried because I was thirty-seven years old and living like a teenager."

One frequent theme of All Dogs are Blue is religion, with several mentions of beliefs, of both Christian and less orthodox varieties.  It's seen as something that keeps the people happy, even if it messes with their heads at times:
"Religion nowadays just fucks with people.  I think they knew there were a lot of alcoholics in here.  Religion isn't just the opium of the people.  But it's what keeps the people happy.  It's a sad thing when a nation needs religion to lean on.  It's worse than a lunatic who's been cured, but who will always need the support of another person to be happy.  Better to be an incurable lunatic."
In view of later events, this is an interesting viewpoint.  You see, when he eventually leaves the institute, he decides to immerse himself in religion - but not as you might expect.  Our lunatic decides that those who think that a bit of religion, football and music make everything alright in the world are the real crazy ones...

All Dogs are Blue, as mentioned in my introduction, is a work you race through, a real one-sitting book.  It's a story which gives you a flavour of Brazil, albeit in small glimpses through the bars on the institute's windows, but it's also a slightly unsettling glimpse into the writer's own problems.  It fits in very well with the rest of And Other Stories' back catalogue - edgy and ever-so-slightly bizarre. 

A nice addition is an introduction by Deborah Levy (the publisher's success story of the last couple of years) in which she explores some of the book's central themes.  She describes Souza Leão's blue dog as a rare breed of the more common black dog of depression, but it is also used as a link back to his 'normal' life, his childhood, before things went wrong.  Sadly, the writer never got to enjoy his success - he took his life the year All Dogs are Blue was published...