Wednesday 31 December 2014

The 2014 Tony's Reading List Awards

A very good day to you all - welcome to The Tony's Reading List Awards for 2014!  The blog has been running for exactly six years now, and as always I'm celebrating the anniversary with my round-up of the good, the bad and the downright awful by handing out a few of my cherished prizes.  So, without further ado, let's see who soared and who bombed in 2014 :)

Once again, we begin with the Most-Read Author Award, and heading the list this year are a couple of rather familiar names:

I have to say that this award hasn't been completely finalised yet as the Koreans have put in a steward's enquiry.  While the Japanese pair take it 4-3 according to the stats on my list, O's three include various novellas and stories which could easily have been counted differently...

Nope, the verdict's in.  Haruki takes the prize, regaining the award he won back in 2009, and the Grand Master of J-Lit joins him thanks to a couple of December reads - well done, sirs :)

After that close tussle, let's move onto a more clear-cut race, the struggle for the Most-Read Country award:

1) South Korea (30)
2) Japan (20)
3) Germany (11)
4) France (7)
5) Italy (5)

Boom!  After one book in six years (and one that was worst in class at that), the Koreans romped home in 2014, with only a late Japanese surge making the race look even a little bit competitive.  My new-found interest in K-Lit has been the story of the blog this year, and I suspect that things will look fairly similar in 2015 as well.  The ten books I read and reviewed from the Dalkey Archive Press Library of Korean Literature beat out every other country, aside from Japan and Germany, on their own ;)
If we look at the annual statistics for English-language books versus the rest of the world, you'll see that my focus on literature in translation continues to sharpen.  Of the 130 books I read, only 8 were originally published in English, meaning that an astounding 122 (of which I read 15 in the original language) were originally written in a language other than English.  Even last year's 90% hit-rate has been surpassed - those are big numbers, no matter which way you look at it...

While it's all well and good to reward the enjoyable books of the year, New Year's Eve is also a time to reflect on the complete stinkers, which is why I always look forward to the Golden Turkey Award.  This year, once again, there were four contenders for the drumsticks:

And the winner is...

One Spoon on This EarthAnother award for the Koreans, then, although it's not one they would have wanted.  However, it's only right that I give an honourable mention to the person who made it all possible, translator Jennifer M. Lee.  Believe me when I say that this award really belongs to her... 

Having dished out the minor awards, it's time to get down the real focus of the night, the Book of the Year Award. As has been the case for a few years now, each of my monthly wrap-ups has seen one book singled out as the pick of the month, and only these titles have been found worthy of contending for the ultimate honour (links are to my reviews). Many wonderful books have missed out because of this system, to which I can say only one thing - tough luck.

Twelve of the best, I'm sure you'll agree :)  There are three nods each to France and Hungary, and two books from Austria, with works from Japan, Netherlands, Spain and South Korea rounding out the dozen.  Unsurprisingly, there's no room for an Anglophone book on the list this year...

Of course, where there's a longlist, there's also a shortlist, and here's mine: 

A True Novel
Where Tigers Are At Home
Seiobo There Below
The Old Masters

At which point, after a few stiff drinks, I had a good, long think before making my final decision - and here it is. The Tony's Reading List Book of the Year for 2014 is (highlight the blank area below with your cursor to see the winner):

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
(translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, published by Other Press)

Much more than an updated Japanese version of Wuthering Heights, A True Novel explores how much you can trust other people's versions of a story - and the wonderful product Other Press have developed makes the book even better.  Well done to everyone involved :)

That's all for this year - it's time to look ahead now to the seventh year of the blog, a year that's going to get off to a quick start as January in Japan is about to begin!  Here's hoping it's a good one for all of you, and I do hope you'll join me again occasionally in 2015 :)

Monday 29 December 2014

'Arpan' by Park Hyoung-su (Review)

With the year fast drawing to a close, there's just enough time to fit in one virtual trip to Korea before the clock strikes twelve.  Today we're looking at the second book from the Asia Publishers K-Fiction series, and where Dinner with Buffett examined capitalism in the big city, this one is a little more exotic in its themes...

Park Hyoung-su's Arpan (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a story about a story, an examination of what it means to be a writer and how closely what we write is linked to all that has come before.  The narrator is a Korean writer helping to organise a third-world writers festival in Seoul, an undertaking which is not quite as altruistic as it may appear.

In his youth, the writer spent time with the Waka people on the Thai-Burmese border, and during his time abroad, he encountered Arpan, the only writer of a tribe with an oral culture.  Helping out with the festival, then, is merely a means for getting the affable storyteller to visit Seoul, his first trip away from his mountain home.  In reality, though, while the narrator is happy to see Arpan again, the reason for the invitation has little to do with the festival - our friend has a secret, and the time has come for it to be told...

Arpan is another excellent story from the K-Fiction range, a piece which has as one of its focuses the preservation of minority cultures and languages.  Park examines what it means to preserve a culture, asking whether the idea is even possible.  Whereas no change means it is doomed to extinction, too much outside influence will inevitably lead to a dilution of traditions and perhaps total assimilation.  It's a fine line to tread, and keeping the balance is often impossible.

The reader is shown an example of a minority culture in the figure of Arpan, a member of the Waka (a tall people from the mountains).  In the Waka culture, height has a heightened(!) significance, with size or volume less important than how high items can be stacked.  You can imagine the impression the lofty skyscrapers of Seoul make on a man who lives in a small settlement of rude huts.

At the festival itself, the man from the mountains is even more out of place.  There's a clash of cultures, with the audience laughing silently at Arpan, looking down on a man much bigger (in many ways) than they are.  While the narrator despises the people in the room, he has his own confused relationship with the visitor:
"I cared more about Arpan than anyone else in the world.  Still, I couldn't deny the fact that lurking on the other side of that love was an indefinable hatred.  Maybe it was similar to the hatred that later generations feel towards an unconquerable original."
p.21 (Asia Publishers, 2014)
The truth is that the writer is no different to the audience - as we are to discover.

The second main theme concerns the idea of inspiration, being part of a literary tradition, and the temptation of crossing the border into plagiarism.  When the writer finally sits Arpan down to reveal the secret he's been keeping, he gives an example of a song evolving across countries and centuries:
"The human arts have never once been pure.  Every act of creation we undertake is footnoted and amended with respect to an existing point of view.  It builds up layer by layer." (p.65)
It's an interesting idea, and possibly true - but (to lean on literary tradition myself) methinks the writer doth protest too much...

As the writer sits down opposite his imposing visitor, the reader is confronted with a question: which is more important, the writer or the story?  The way Arpan ends seems to answer the question decisively.  The truth, though, is that no matter how ingenious his justifications are, the writer will always wonder whether he's done the right thing... 

Arpan is an excellent, thought-provoking story, enhanced (as the Asia Publishers books always are) by the added extras.  The inclusions this time are especially good as we are treated to the writer's own views on the story, in which he explains what he was trying to achieve. It also features an excellent translation by Sora Kim-Russell (translator of, amongst other works, Shin Kyung-sook's I'll Be Right There).  In fact, both the books in this series that I've read so far have been far better in this regard than those in the Bilingual series - a welcome sign that the standard of translation is getting better and better.

If you're new to K-Lit, and hesitant to dive into the longer (and more culturally-loaded) seminal works, the K-Fiction series looks like a nice place to start - particularly if you're keen on the idea of having a bilingual version.  For those of you outside Korea (i.e. almost everyone...), the whole set is available on Amazon, and buying all five would probably be the cheapest way to get hold of them.  I've got one more to look at - hopefully I'll be writing more about this series very soon :)

Thursday 25 December 2014

'The Bird' by O Chong-hui (Review)

Not many people will be posting Christmas Day reviews, but mine is a blog that never sleeps (besides, what better present can I give you all than another review?).  With that in mind, Merry Christmas, and happy reading ;)

One of the best discoveries I've made during my look at Korean literature is O Chong-hui (Oh Jung-hee), a writer whose stories of ordinary people stand out among the many works I've read this year.  She's known as a master of the short form, so I was interested to see how a longer piece would read - hence the book covered in today's post.  It's a work which begins simply enough, but as O is not an author who creates happy shiny people, we know that there'll be some darker tones just around the corner...

The Bird (translated by Jenny Wang Medina) is set in Korea in the 1990s.  Young U-mi and her little brother U-il have been abandoned by their mother, with the father then forced to venture far afield for work, promising to return one day.  After some years spent with relatives:
"Father had arrived without warning to take us away.  I could hear a voice solemnly and tragically recounting my fate just like in a fairy tale, saying how it came to be so that one day they had to leave the house.  It was as if I had always known that there would come a day when I would have to follow that call to leave unquestioningly."
p.21 (Telegram Books, 2007)
For the two children, life is about to change.  As well as being reunited with their father, they are about to encounter another surprise in the form of a new mother...

With a clean new room, even if it is devoid of luxuries, and friendly new neighbours, it looks as if life has turned a corner.  However, the reality is that the high hopes are unlikely to last.  Neither the father nor his new wife are the type to stick around when times get tough, and the events to come will have their effect on the two children.  They're used to being by themselves, but can they really survive all alone?

The Bird is a little different from the majority of the stories I've read by the author, mainly in its focus on the children (especially U-mi).  The story starts innocently enough, a story of life in the nineties for poor working-class kids.  The reader soon warms to the clever U-mi, who is doing her best to look after herself and her brother in the absence of parent.

She can expect little help from her father.  He's a dreamer, ambitious and violent by turns, but he's also a man caught by the times.  In order to survive, he needs to keep moving to where the work is (which, to be honest, probably suits him...).  After a few drinks, his violent streak appears, and the events the children witness are bound to leave their mark.  A question which repeatedly haunts the reader is that of the mother's whereabouts, and while U-mi accepts her father's story, the reader is a little more suspicious...

In any case, U-mi has no time to speculate as she needs to look after her younger brother.  U-il is a dreamer, an innocent, slightly backward boy, who is obsessed by a cartoon character, to the extent of believing he too can fly.  Again, what seems like an innocent, childish belief will later be shown to have a more sinister origin.

For the first half of The Bird, I felt that it was a book more aimed at teenagers, not bad but perhaps lacking in range and emotion, with U-mi's limited voice restricting the story.  Of course, I should have known better - O is a writer known for her depth, and slowly, gradually, the optimistic tone turns sour.  To start with, it's little things, such as the children's destructive tendencies (for example, in cutting faces from photos) or the treatment of poor Mr. Bear, the take-home toy from U-mi's class at school.

The last third of the book then casts away all pretence at the innocence of youth as disturbing events begin to pile up in a masterful development of a descent into darkness.  There's violence, sexual awakening and painstaking description of the filth of the underclass (there's one scene in particular which might be rather distressing for westerners...).  By the end of the book, I'd have to say things have turned almost Ogawaesque - and I mean that in a good way ;)

The writing is excellent, and Wang Medina has done good work in capturing U-mi's young voice.  The book begins with fairly simple writing that gradually darkens as the story progresses, more from the content than the style.  A nice touch is the childlike use of the word 'Mummy', a choice I found a little questionable at the start - by the end, the word seems almost sinister and mocking...

The title isn't merely drawn from U-il's dreams of flying as there is an actual bird involved.  Belonging to the children's neighbour, Mr. Yi, the tiny creature is kept safe in a cage, high above the floor:
"If I put it on the floor, she'd get eaten by a rat faster than I could move a muscle.  And birds are meant to live in the heavens like angels or fairies aren't they?  What's so great about a dirty, muddy world of land that's swarming with bad people who want to catch you for their dinner?" (p.36)
The Bird is an apt symbol of the theme of the novel, a creature representing hope and freedom, but one who is unlikely to ever obtain it.  Just like the bird, U-mi is likely to have a bleak future - the story, however is a very good one.  Chalk up another success for O Chong-hui :)

Tuesday 23 December 2014

'Zone' by Mathias Énard (Review)

Fitzcarraldo Editions is a new press in the UK, publishing quality books in plain, sleek designs.  Their first offering is a book which, while previously translated into English, had never been released in the UK.  A lengthy novel, it's a 520-page journey, one you're unlikely to forget - let's go and visit the Zone...

Zone by Matthias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell, review copy courtesy of the publisher) begins at Milan's main train station.  Frenchman Francis Mirkovic, having missed his morning flight, is two-thirds of the way through an epic train journey from Paris to Rome.  As the wheels start moving once more, the tired, hungover Mirkovic starts thinking of the end of the journey.

With five-hundred-and-fifty kilometres to go, there's ample time for thoughts, and Francis is a man with a lot to think about.  He's leaving the world of the French intelligence service, in possession of a suitcase which is to be sold in Rome, the proceeds of which will help him start a new life.  Ignoring the passers-by at the station, he prepares for the hours ahead:
"...I have to be strong I can't linger over the faces of young women I have to be resolute so I can gather momentum for the kilometers ahead of me then for the void and the terror of the world I'm changing my life my profession better not think about it..."
p.15 (Fitzcarraldo Press, 2014)
As his experiences flash before his eyes on the long run to Rome, we wonder how he'll ever forget what he's been through...

Zone is an excellent book, a sweeping novel acting on several levels.  Ostensibly, it's a description of a train journey; in reality, it's an opportunity to delve into the bloody past of the Mediterranean region.  Yes, there's plenty of sun and relaxation on the beaches, but it's also a place of constant struggle and bloodshed.  This is the Zone of the title, and as the wheels roll smoothly over the tracks, lulling the tired passengers to sleep, the reader is confronted with a tangle of war memories, as Mirkovic reminisces about 'work' and his personal life.

We move from the first level of the exhausted, hungover agent on the train to the second level, his experiences as both a soldier and a spy.  He's a veteran of the Balkan wars, a volunteer fighter in the Croatian army fighting for his mother's homeland.  The time available for reflection allows flashbacks to surface, atrocities both witnessed and undertaken, and he remembers the fate of Andrija and Vlaho, his comrades in arms.

His subsequent career as a spy, a seller and buyer of information, may seem slightly less violent, but only on the surface.  The information still leads to death, only this time at arm's length, and it's this suitcase full of the dead which is being brought to new owners.  It may appear to be his ticket to freedom, but it could also be a container full of guilt, a burden weighing him down.  Énard cleverly uses Mirkovic's stories to gradually unveil more about the agent's personal life, his character being revealed over the course of the journey.  His war crimes, his personal relationships, his mental torment - the closer he gets to his destination, the more we see him unravel.  This is a man on the verge of falling apart completely...

The Zone itself, from Gibralta and Morocco to the Middle East, is a cradle of life, a region which has given birth to civilisations for millennia; however, it's also a setting for war and death.  The third level of the novel lifts us above Mirkovic's personal experiences, expanding upon the interconnections between the wars:
" we always know what the gods are reserving for us what we are reserving for ourselves, the plan we form, from Jerusalem to Rome, from one eternal city to the other, the apostle who three times denied his friend in the pale dawn after a stormy night perhaps guided my hand, who knows, there are so many coincidences, paths that cross in the great fractal seacoast where I've been floundering for ages without knowing it..." (p.76)
While the writing and structure are very different, there are shades of Cloud Atlas here in the way that the events of different eras overlap.

The book goes back and forth in time, looking at the history of war in the Mediterranean,
giving us a four-dimensional view of the Zone.  Énard skilfully weaves in stories of the Spanish Civil War, the Great War struggles and Holocaust massacres, along with older tales of Hannibal and his elephants and the siege of Troy.  This is a region soaked in blood, home to legions of bones:
"...on the beach of Megara you still find, washed up by the waves, tiles of mosaics torn from Punic palaces sleeping on the bottom of the sea, like the wrecks of the galleys of Lepanto, the breastplates sunk in the Dardanelles, the ashes thrown in bags of cement by the SS of La Risiera along Dock No. 7 in the port of Trieste..." (p.106)
We begin to understand that the procession of soldiers and corpses is never ending...

Zone is a wonderful work, one with a dizzying array of references and ideas.  One of its more noticeable features is its style - it's a book without sentences, for the most part reflecting the motion of the train.  The words push the reader smoothly onwards, just as the train surges powerfully on through the Italian countryside, and Mandell has done sterling work to recreate this fluid style in English.  The book starts mid-sentence, and although it ends with a full stop, in a sense it really doesn't finish here.  It's just a part of the one, big sentence that is life.

Énard has created a great novel, one that deserves to be read, and it'll probably be among my best few books of the year.  It's a work I could have written far more about, a novel to be both read and studied.  Above all, it's a reminder that the conflicts of today are shadows, echoes of those of yesterday and antiquity - the soldiers may change, but the Zone doesn't...

Open Letter published the American edition of Zone, and they have just published another of Énard's books, Street of Thieves, again translated by Charlotte Mandell.  Anyone who enjoyed Zone may want to check that one out too...

Sunday 21 December 2014

'The Flying Classroom' by Erich Kästner (Review)

My budding review assistant, Emily, made her blog debut last month, and today marks her third appearance on the site.  Yet again, it's to discuss a book she received from the kind people at Pushkin's Children's Books, and after the success of The Parent Trap, it's time to look at another by the same author.  I wonder what Miss Emily will make of this one...

What's the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called The Flying Classroom, and it's by Erich Kästner.

What's it about?
It's about some boys at boarding school and their friend, No-Smoking (a man who lives in a railway carriage!).  The boys get in trouble with the grammar school boys for burning their dictionary books - they also tie the students up and keep them prisoner!  'The Flying Classroom' is a play where the teacher takes the students on geography trips, and the boys perform the play at the end of the book.

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
It was sort of a bit confusing, and sometimes it was a bit boring, but at other times it was exciting (like when Uli, one of the boys, did a difficult jump off a ladder and had a nasty surprise...).  I liked it, but not as much as The Parent Trap :)

What was your favourite part?
Probably when the boys did 'The Flying Classroom' play because it was very exciting, and they had a surprise sentence for the teachers...

Was it difficult to read?
Maybe at some times, maybe the names of the places, and I got confused with the names of the characters - but I could understand the story :)

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
Perhaps it would be a sort of book for boys because there weren't many girls in it.  In fact, there weren't ANY girls in it except for the ladies!

Emily, thank you very much :)

As expected, Emily wasn't quite as enamoured with this one as she was with The Parent Trap, but that's because she's a very girly girl and isn't overly keen on reading about naughty boys ;)  However, she did enjoy it, and it's an interesting tale of life at a German boarding school, set within a frame narrative in which the writer (Kästner) talks about how he was pressured into writing the story!

Once again, the translation work is done by the excellent Anthea Bell, and having neglected to mention him last time, it's only fair that I talk about the illustrator Walter Trier.  On the back cover, Quentin Blake is quoted thus:
"Walter Trier's deceptively innocent drawings are as classic as Kästner's words; I never tire of them."
And as he's far more of an authority on the subject than I am, I'll leave that there :)

Emily's had great fun with the two books of Kästner's she's read, but I suspect that the books are probably aimed at someone a little older than her - I'm sure she'll still be enjoying these in a few years' time.  Which is not to say that she wouldn't mind trying more of his work - and I've heard that there's more from Kästner to come from Pushkin next year with the publication of Dot and Anton.  So, if you have children who enjoy reading, and you're looking for something a little different... ;)

Thursday 18 December 2014

'Wayfarer - New Fiction by Korean Women', edited and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton (Review)

The next stop on my cruise through the history of Korean literature is the latest book from my recent visit to the local university library.  It's a book which comes highly recommended (e.g. by Charles over at Korean Literature in Translation), and having read it, I can see why.  A great collection of stories, this is definitely a book more people should be aware of :)

Wayfarer - New Fiction by Korean Women is a 1997 anthology from Women in Translation Press, edited and translated by (of course) Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.  It introduces eight female writers from South Korea, each represented by one story.  Originally released between 1974 and 1994, the stories are a representation of the influence female writers are having on Modern Korean Literature.

The title comes from a story from O Chong-hui (and an excellent one it is too) about a woman trying to rejoin society after a traumatic incident.  However, I won't say too much about it here as it was one of the stories I featured in my post on the Modern Korean Fiction anthology earlier this year, and one that piqued my interest in female writers from the country.

Even if we overlook O's story, though, there are several other great pieces, with a few common themes.  One of those is the struggle women have with gender roles, with So Yong-un's excellent 'Dear Distant Love' being a prime example.  It features a woman obsessed with a no-good lover, a man who walks all over her (and took her daughter away soon after the birth).  Yet somehow she still feels a need to treat him as a (Korean) husband should be treated:
"Before Han-su could knock on the door, Mun-ja recognized the sound of his steps and went out to welcome him.  She helped him off with his coat, she removed his socks, she brought a basin of hot water and washed his feet, and each of these objects turned the color of gold."
'Dear Distant Love', p.125 (Women in Translation Press, 1997)
It's a twisted tale, and poor Mun-ja is a martyr to her no-good lover, a woman who believes that no sacrifice is too great for the man she has decided to devote her life to...

A shorter story is Kim Chi-won's 'Almaden', which describes the life of a Korean woman at a bottle shop in New York.  The story alternates between the dull description of her work routine and her fantasies of the rugged man who comes in every day for a bottle of cheap wine.  Almaden (her name for the man, but actually the brand of wine he drinks) comes to be a symbol of escape from everyday life, representative of the life she'd like to lead if only she dared.

A more subtle approach is provided by a writer I've encountered a couple of times before, namely Ch'oe Yun.  In 'The Last of Hanak'o', a man on a business trip to Italy attempts to pluck up the courage to meet up with a female friend from his younger years.  As the story evolves, events of the past are revealed, slowly emerging from the mist:
"It is forbidden to venture near the canal railing on stormy days.  Take precautions in the fog, particularly the winter fog... Then enter the labyrinth.  And bear in mind, the more frightened you are, the more lost you will be."
'The Last of Hanak'o', p.11
These words start the story, taken from a sign near the Grand Canal, but they could just as easily refer to the man's struggles to come to grips with the past.  This one is a wonderful tale of men struggling to deal with women for who they are, a story with a nice (if fairly obvious) twist in the tail.

Not all the stories are as good, though.  Two later pieces which look at the role of housewives are the weakest of the eight (perhaps I'm not the right reader for this kind of story).  Kong Son-ok's 'The Flowering of Our Lives' looks at a woman struggling to come to terms with her relationships with her mother and daughter, preferring drinking to looking after her daughter.  Meanwhile, Park Wan-suh's 'Identical Apartments' provides another typical tale of a housewife dying of boredom, never satisfied, whether living with the in-laws or moving into a new apartment.  Once again, as I've discovered several times before, Park's privileged whinging proves not to be to my taste...

However, the remaining stories are much better, and the final two summarised here have a more political edge.  Kong Chi-yong's 'Human Decency' portrays a magazine journalist working on two different stories: one is on a former artist, a beauty who has written a book on meditation; the other deals with a recently released political prisoner.  This second assignment brings back memories of the journalist's own time as a protester in the 1980s:
"How single-minded we children of the 1980s were to believe that right would triumph whatever the circumstances; how firmly we grew up believing that justice would win out in the end."
'Human Decency', p.75
The question here is which story she should prioritise in a country that would prefer to forget the past...

There are more politics on show in Kim Min-suk's 'Scarlet Fingernails'.  In this one, a woman gets to meet her father for the first time after he has spent decades in prison for being a suspected spy from the North.  It's an excellent story looking at the problem of guilt by association, an issue which was only recently resolved.  Many of the family members resent the prisoner, not because of the years he's spent away from them, but for the shadow he has nevertheless cast over their dreams and ambitions.

Even if not all of the stories were to my taste, Wayfarer is a great collection, one I'd definitely recommend.  Some similarities in style are evident across the stories, one being the gradual reveal, switching between the present-day setting and pivotal moments of the past to colour in the whole picture (perhaps the influence of O Chong-hui on later writers).  There's also sterling work, as always, by the Fultons, including an introduction giving a background of female writing throughout Korean history.  While I would have enjoyed more stories (eight is a fairly small selection), the overall quality is unquestionable - Wayfarer is well worth a read and a great first step into the area of female-written Korean fiction :)

Tuesday 16 December 2014

'Rain Over Madrid' by Andrés Barba (Review)

Despite the best worst combined efforts of Royal Mail and Australia Post, I recently received some more reading fare from the wonderful Hispabooks.  The first of the three is by a writer who was included in Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue, a man whose sentences flow smoothly and whose stories entertain and intrigue.  So, without further ado, let's take a trip to Spain...

Andrés Barba's Rain Over Madrid (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a collection of four novellas running to just over two-hundred pages.  Each takes place in the Spanish capital, and the stories are mostly about people coming to terms with love and family - fairly commonplace topics, but handled nicely.

The first piece, 'Fatherhood' sees a semi-successful musician becoming a father when his rich girlfriend unexpectedly falls pregnant.  While the relationship with the mother is fairly shortlived, he realises that fatherhood is something that lasts forever:
"It seemed then, for the first time, that a sort of transference took place; he didn't know how else to explain it - a boundless well of emotion, and also pain at the fact that intimacy and natural behaviour were not possible between them.  Until that moment, he'd only ever sensed it in the vaguest of ways, but now it seemed undeniable."
'Fatherhood', p.33 (Hispabooks, 2014)
The story extends over several years, with Barba chronicling the man's attempt to stay close to the boy he rarely sees.  Will he ever be able to break through the barrier of politeness separating them?

The other stories then move on to see matters through the eyes of women.  In 'Guilt', a married woman is forced to act as the focal point for her family, with matters coming to a head when she is forced to look for (yet another) live-in home help for her ageing, cantankerous mother.  The main character of 'Fidelity', by contrast, is a teenage girl discovering sex for the first time and generally having a wonderful time.  However, her summer in the sun turns a little sour when she finds out that she's not the only one in her family having some fun.

The final piece, 'Shopping', follows a woman approaching middle age and her glamorous mother, Nelly.  This is no maternal figure, rather a whirlwind in Prada, and her idea of being 'natural' is not what the daughter would hope for:
"Not so for Nelly.  Nelly is natural like a typhoon is natural, like all self-centered egotists, like a disaster, like the Grand Canyon, like a luxury item ensconced in an absurdly minimalist display case in a glittery shop window."
'Shopping', p.171
As they go shopping in the snow for Christmas presents, the daughter sees chinks in her mother's armour for the first time, making it easier for her to make allowances for Nelly's bossy behaviour.  After all, everyone gets old...

Rain Over Madrid is an enjoyable read with four excellent stories.  Despite the extended time span of the first two stories, it almost seems as if the book is divided into seasons, as we move from the eternal spring of 'Fatherhood', to the winter streetscape of 'Shopping'.  Each story looks at a moment of realisation, a time when a life changes direction.  Not all of the turning points are dramatic, but they're all important in their own way.

The protagonists (mostly written in the first person) struggle with relationships, and each must deal with big personalities in their lives, whether they be lovers, sisters, fathers or mothers.  Introverts for the most part, yet desiring emotion and human contact, the central characters are confronted by people who are completely self-absorbed and self-obsessed.  In order to get what they want from their relationships, Barba's creations must make an effort to assert themselves, even though it may seem easier at times to just go with the flow.

The stories are written in an excellent style, calm, casual and very easy to read.  I enjoyed Dillman's work with the translation as the stories flow nicely.  There are no jarring tones, and the dialogue and description are seamlessly integrated, making for an excellent read.  There are a few obvious Americanisms, but you can't have everything, especially when the translator comes from the States ;)

Rain Over Madrid is another enjoyable work from Hispabooks, and it's definitely a book many will enjoy.  The four stories are interesting, very accessible and easy to read in a single setting, despite their length - hopefully this bodes well for getting more from Barba into English soon :)

Sunday 14 December 2014

'In Other Words' from the British Centre for Literary Translation

I'm a big fan of the good people at the British Centre for Literary Translation, the hub of all things concerning literary translation back in the UK, so I was intrigued to hear about their twice-yearly journal In Other Words.  Recently, I was lucky enough to be sent a PDF of the latest edition after a discussion on Twitter - particularly so as I was actually name-checked in one of the articles ;)

The journal runs to about 100 pages of articles on literary translation, with the submissions covering a variety of topics.  The main focus of the latest edition is on the effects of the digital age, with a piece by translation doyenne Anthea Bell on how she has kept up to date with technology throughout her long and distinguished career.  Another interesting article looked at the concept of video game 'localisation', where the translators have to deal with issues not only of language but also of visuals and sound (and usually on a rather tight schedule).

There are many areas covered outside the digital focus.  As well as a round-up of conference events and a description of what some translators are doing inside British schools, there's an intriguing look at a close reading of some translation (from Finnish!) and a lovely piece by Roland Glasser in which (lucky man) he describes his experiences of a translation residency near Zurich...

A couple of familiar names popped up as contributors.  Peirene Press' Meike Ziervogel looked at Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, focusing on the influence Conrad's linguistic background had on the book, and Esther Allen's article was a plea to reviewers to engage more with the work of the translator when looking at translated fiction (which isn't quite as easy as she makes it sound...).

My main reason for reading, though, was the article written by Robert Burdock (AKA the creator of Rob Around Books).  His piece explained the evolution of his career as a 'literary evangelist' and was a stirring call to arms to all involved in bringing fiction in translation to the notice of the wider public.  It was nice of him to acknowledge others fighting the good fight, and Stu, Lizzy and myself were all mentioned in dispatches ;)

I'd have to agree with his main point as it really is good to feel part of a community (I've heard of - and tweeted with - a surprising number of the people mentioned in the journal).  Like Rob, I find that it's easy to feel a little isolated at times; living on the far-flung outer-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I'm probably more isolated than most from the centres of the translated fiction world.  I do like to get involved with these things, though, whether in Norwich/London (the British side of the Atlantic) or Rochester/New York/San Francisco (across the pond), so it's good to hear from all the names I see mentioned so frequently :)

If you're interested in the field, you could do a lot worse than have a look at In Other Words.  There's something for everyone, whether you're a writer, translator, agent or reader.  And let's face it - in a world of Dan Browns and Tom Clancys, we need as much support as we can get ;)

Thursday 11 December 2014

'The Republic of Užupis' by Haïlji (Review)

This year has seen a fair bit of Korean literature reviewed on Tony's Reading List, and the instigator for this was definitely the Library of Korean Literature project brought about by Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.  The number of K-Lit reviews has already passed twenty-five for the year (fairly impressive when you think that prior to 2014 I'd only read and reviewed one...), but today is a landmark day anyway.  You see, this post is my tenth review from the Dalkey series - and, luckily enough, it turns out to be on my favourite book from the series so far :)

Haïlji's The Republic of Užupis (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, review copy courtesy of the publisher and Australian distributor Footprint Books) is a wonderful addition to my burgeoning K-Lit library, a novel much more experimental and western-influenced than most of what I've read before.  The novel begins with an Asian man arriving in Lithuania, attempting to get past the rather tall guards at immigration.  When asked if he plans to stay long in the country, his reply is rather unusual - he intends to depart within a day or so, as soon as he has worked out how to get to his intended destination.

So, where is he off to?  Russia?  Poland?  Belarus?  No...  Hal, our inscrutable Oriental, is actually a native of a land which has just reclaimed its independence after decades under foreign control.  His goal is the Republic of Užupis, the land of his birth, the home of the language he understands but can no longer speak.  If only he could find someone who knows where his country is actually located...

The Republic of Užupis is a superb book, one-hundred-and-fifty pages of inventiveness, the story of a man trying to find a country which may not exist.  It's full of a deliberately confusing series of events including encounters with strangers, beautiful women, tall men and lots of snow, geese and grandfather clocks (really).  Trust me, it all makes some kind of sense (to the author, at least).

In Vilnius, there is a real Užupis (a semi-official micro-state), a place which inspires jokes from the locals, and the book acknowledges the real-life situation:
"The people of this city call this particular area Užupis - it means 'the other side of the river'.  It is the most run-down area in Vilnius.  As a joke, the struggling artists who live here began calling it the Republic of Užupis.  They even wrote a Declaration of Independence and established April Fool's Day as their Independence Day."
pp.19/20 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014)
This mock republic, however, is not the place Hal is looking for:
"That's interesting - a bogus Republic of Užupis.  But where I'm going is not a joke, it's the actual Republic of Užupis."  With that, Hal pulled the postcard from his pocket and displayed it.  "This was mailed from the actual Republic of Užupis." (p.20)
Exiled for most of his life in the land of Han (a thinly-concealed Korea), where his father was an ambassador, all Hal has to guide him on his way is a suitcase with photos showing people and flags.  Oh, and memories of the haunting anthem...

On the search for his elusive homeland, he heads onto the streets of Vilnius and is thrown straight into a whirlwind of parties and chance encounters.  Just who are these 6' 6'' men he encounters (and seriously, what's with the obsession with the grandfather clocks...)?  Eventually, he catches up with a woman he spotted during his first hours in Lithuania, the beautiful Jurgita, and hears about her involvement in the past with an Užupis man of Asian appearance.  With time running out, will this chance connection show him the way home?

The Republic of Užupis  is a short book, but it's one which throws up a million questions.  Time loops around (this isn't a book to follow the laws of time and space), and over the course of his constant encounters with his new friends, the reader begins to suspect that they might actually be old ones.  Everywhere Hal goes, he sees places he vaguely remembers, photos that look oddly familiar:
"In another photograph, taken in a study, people sat around a huge table engaged in conversation.  The walls were lined with bookshelves packed with ancient tomes in ornate bindings.  The walls to the right, as you looked at the photo, bore windows, the source of light for the scene.  Prominent in the photo was the marble sculpture set between the windows, a bust of a man whose agonized face was cupped in his hands.  The study was virtually identical to the room in which Hal now sat with Vladimir.  But the three men failed to notice this." (p.38)
It's almost as if he keeps walking into another time, his memory failing to remind him that he's seen these things before...

The book is a superb look at the importance of home and the impossibility of reaching that different country, the past, and while Haïlji is a writer with his own style, a western reader would be hard pressed to read this novel without being reminded of Kafka.  There's the snowy beginning, the aimless wandering through menacing streets, the large ramshackle houses, the cafés, the meandering corridors in government offices - all recounted in the writer's own calm, casual voice.  The reader is never quite sure exactly what's happening - they're sure to enjoy it, nonetheless.

One of the keys to the novel is language.  The Republic of Užupis is set in Lithuania, but as Hal doesn't know the language, much of the dialogue takes place in English (a story of our times...).  However, as the book progresses, there are more occasions when Hal suddenly hears Užupis being spoken.  He knows what's being said, but, having lost the ability to communicate in the language, he finds himself in the frustrating position of being unable to make himself understood.  This miscommunication only adds to the difficulty of finally getting home...

All of the above makes for a clever, mind-bending book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys novels which require more than simple page-turning.  It's superbly translated by the Fultons (which goes without saying), catching the slightly off-kilter tone and the unnatural conversations which often occur between people communicating in a third language.  The Republic of Užupis is a book I want to reread when I find a few spare hours, and it's one I hope will get some decent recognition.  Just as is the case with No One Writes Back and Pavane for a Dead Princess, this is a book which deserves to rise above the status of merely one work in the Library collection.  Here's hoping it finds the audience it deserves :)

Footprint Books, as always, assure me that this book is available in Australia, either at bookshops or through their website :)

Monday 8 December 2014

'Texas: The Great Theft' by Carmen Boullosa (Review)

A recent addition to the family of publishers translating fiction from foreign languages is Deep Vellum Publishing, a small press working out of Dallas.  The energy behind the venture is Will Evans, a man distinguished by his energy in setting up the project (and his moustache, which would go well with a Stetson).  Perhaps, then, it's apt that Deep Vellum's first offering is a book that looks at life in a multicultural society - and also provides a glimpse into the frontier past of the Lone Star State...

Carmen Boullosa's Texas: The Great Theft (translated by Samantha Schnee, electronic review copy courtesy of the publisher) takes place in 1859, some time after Texas was annexed by the United States.  We're down on the border in the town of Bruneville (on the American side of the Rio Grande), and it's high noon in a dusty, sun-baked street.  Now that's an ominous sign if ever there was one...

... and we're not mistaken:
In the market square, in front of Café Ronsard, Sheriff Shears spits five words at Don Nepomuceno:
  "Shut up you dirty greaser."
(Deep Vellum Publishing, 2014)
It doesn't take a genius to work out that Nepomuceno, one of the most respected and powerful Mexicans in the region, isn't likely to take kindly to the insult.  It's also fairly clear to see that once the shooting starts, it's going to be hard to stop.  Life in Bruneville is about to become a whole lot more interesting - and, for many people, rather short.

Texas: The Great Theft is a novel that looks at the border region in a time when matters were still unsettled.  The Mexicans are still unhappy about the way their land was stolen, both by force and by legal tricks, while the Americans are in a constant state of unease, aware that they're living life on the edge.  The high tension evident in the region means any spark can ignite an explosion.

So, a story of Yanks against Mexicans?  It's not quite as simple as that - this is a rather diverse region:
"On the other side they also have people of all stripes - Indians, cowboys, bandits, Negros, Mexicans, gringos - as well as profitable mines and endless acres of land, but it's different.  The Río Bravo divides the world in two, perhaps even three or more.  No fool would say that the gringos are all on one side and the Mexicans on the other, with separate territories for the Indians, the Negros, and even for sonsofbitches.  None of these categories is absolute."
The cosmopolitan towns make for a political nightmare, forcing both the Americans and the Mexicans into shifting, temporary alliances with the various native tribes.  It's a case of everyone trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

From the start, the average reader assumes that this will be a story about gun fights; in fact, the novel takes a good while to get moving in terms of action.  Texas: The Great Theft is much more a description of the world the incidents take place in, and as the sheriff's words travel from mouth to mouth, through the town, across the river and out to the Indian settlements, Boullosa paints a picture of the time.

Of course, the 'incident' is the backbone upon which all of the description hangs, and the Mayor of the Mexican town of Matasánchez isn't the only one who sees the dangers ahead:
He curses up and down, left and right.
When he's vented this string of insults he asks loudly, "And now what are we supposed to do?  There's no doubt that Nepomuceno will retaliate, and how!  Where does this leave the rest of us?"
By the time we return to see what Nepomuceno actually does about the insult, dozens of pages have passed, and we are now acquainted with the majority of the cast who will play out the aftermath.

Eventually, the action does get underway, with Nepomuceno retreating across the Rio Grande/Río Bravo to plan his next move.  There's tension on both sides of the river, but that doesn't stop normal life completely - the card sharps keep playing, the drunks keep drinking, the whores keep whoring.  All the while, everyone knows that soon something big is going to happen...

Texas: The Great Theft is a fascinating story, one which is well told.  There isn't a great amount of descriptive, literary writing, but it's not that kind of book.  Boullosa's story is one that balances description with action, and does it well on the whole.  It doesn't have the magic of some writers, but it's fascinating enough to keep drawing the reader ever deeper into Nepomuceno's struggle.

Schnee's translation is excellent, bringing across the tone of the book, casual, light story-telling (with a dry, disinterested narratorial voice).  Events start off slowly, but they do eventually turn ugly, with atrocities from both all sides.  Interestingly, the tone stays fairly casual, even when the killing increases - this is Texas, after all...

I enjoyed Texas: The Great Theft immensely, but I can't help thinking that it's a daring move for a new publisher based in Texas.  This is a book which, despite the bitter actions and language of all sides, probably has the Americans coming off worst (I do wonder if this one might be a hard sell up in Dallas...).  However, it's well worth trying, and hopefully, Deep Vellum will gather enough support to continue with their plan to bring translated literature to Texas - and beyond :)

Saturday 6 December 2014

November 2014 Wrap-Up

November was all about Lizzy and Caroline's German Literature Month, and while I didn't get around to reading quite as much as in previous years, I did get to try quite a few impressive German-language books.  However, even in the midst of all these Teutonic literary shenanigans, my Korean literature odyssey continued unabated, and I'm well on track to knocking off a good number of my remaining review copies before the end of the year :)

But I digress...

Total Books Read: 11

Year-to-Date: 119


Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 3
Review Copies: 5
From the Library: 2
On the Kindle: 2 (1 review copy)

Novels: 6
Novellas: 1
Short Stories: 4

Non-English Language: 11 (5 German, 4 Korean, 2 Spanish)
In Original Language: 4 (4 German)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (1/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 8: 0 (4/1)

Books reviewed in November were:
1) Agnes by Peter Stamm
2) Transit by Anna Seghers
3) The Parent Trap by Erich Kästner
4) Eine Halligfahrt (Journey to a Hallig) by Theodor Storm
5) Blumenberg by Sibylle Lewitscharoff
6) River of Fire and Other Stories by O Chong-hui
7) Irrungen, Wirrungen (Trials and Tribulations) by Theodor Fontane
8) Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician) by Thomas Mann
9) Mujong: the Heartless by Yi Kwang-su
10) Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner
11) Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) by W.G. Sebald
12) Alte Meister (The Old Masters) by Thomas Bernhard

Tony's Turkey for November is: Nothing

Another turkeyless month - surely December will see one more for the year ;)

Tony's Recommendation for November is:
Thomas Bernhard's Alte Meister

I was very close to causing major outrage by choosing one of my Korean books (River of Fire) as my pick for German Literature Month, but in the end Bernhard managed to redeem the honour of the German-language world with his claustrophobic tale of a morning in an art gallery (one I had the dubious pleasure of sharing in my post...).  It was definitely a close call, though ;)
December is a time to relax from the rigours of German-language reading and look forward to the next challenge.  You see, the first month of the new year will see the third edition of my January in Japan blogging event - which means it'll soon be time to start cracking open the J-Lit.  Do join me ;)