Thursday 27 February 2014

IFFP 2014 - Longlist Predictions

A week on Saturday, the longlist for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will be announced, putting my anxious wait to an end (I take literature in translation *very* seriously!).  Once again, I'll be part of an elite team of ninja reviewers, led by our esteemed leader, Chairman Stu, which will shadow the real judges, forcing them to glance nervously over their shoulders before they make any rash decisions that will bring the wrath of the Shadow Panel down on their unwary heads (note to lawyers - I'm only speaking metaphorically, I promise...).

Before those five excellent individuals announce their longlist choices to the world though, I thought it was time to put my neck on the line and give you all some ideas as to books I've already read which I'd like to think will make the cut.  If I'm right, please feel free to praise my perspicacity; if not, blame the judges (the shadowy ninja reviewers are on the case...).

First up then is Strange Weather in Tokyo (Portobello Books, translated by Alison Markin Powell), Hiromi Kawakami's delightful novel about a May-to-December romance.  I'd love to see this on the longlist, even if I do loathe the name change (from the American version entitled The Briefcase) and the tacky, cutesy cover.  An equally-good book (with a much nicer cover) is Birgit Vanderbeke's novella The Mussel Feast (Peirene Press, tr. Jamie Bulloch), a short tale of seafood and domestic rebellion which I tipped for the shortlist a whole year ago :)

Continuing the trend of female submissions (or domination, if you prefer) are two excellent books from Europa Editions.  The first, Viola Di Grado's 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (tr. Michael Reynolds),is a biting, sarcastic novel set in Leeds, where the mood is as dark as the wintry northern skies (if only the American translation didn't intrude on a very English canvas...).  The second is by a writer whose fame seems to have soared over the past year; Elena Ferrante's The Story of a New Name (tr. Ann Goldstein), the sequel to My Brilliant Friend, is a book which deserves to be around at the pointy end of the competition.  You never know - if her novel takes out the prize, the mysterious Ms. Ferrante might even be tempted to make an appearance in London...

But, you might ask, are there any books from the boys?  Where are the men?  Well, a couple of likely lads appear courtesy of MacLehose PressAndreï Makine's Brief Loves that Live Forever (tr. Geoffrey Strachan)is a beautiful little work which looks at love in a cold (and ideologically-depressing) climate, painting a picture of romance and friendship in communist-era Russia.  Still, compared to Jón Kalman Stefánsson's The Sorrow of Angels (tr. Philip Roughton), Makine's novella is positively radiant.  In the sequel to Heaven and Hell, the Icelandic writer's characters battle across a most inhospitable terrain in order to get the mail delivered on time.  Remember that the next time you whinge about your post being late ;)

Finally, there are a couple of familiar names, real IFFP heavyweights.  Karl Ove Knausgaard is back with A Man in Love (Harvill Secker, tr. Don Bartlett), the second in the six-part My Struggle cycle.  Just as detailed as the first, but much more successful, it would be a huge surprise if this didn't lift Knausi (as I like to call him) onto the longlist.  And the same is true for a certain Javier Marías and his latest book The Infatuations (Hamish Hamilton, tr. Margaret Jull Costa).  A clever tale of love, trust and deception, many have picked it to do well this year.

So there you are - eight suggestions for what should be on the list next Saturday.  It's doubtful that they'll all make it to the longlist (I'm not even sure that they're all eligible - or have even been entered...), but each of them would be a worthy contender for the prize.  Rest assured - once the list is public, I'll be letting you know my thoughts and looking briefly at any which I may already have tried.

And then, of course, it'll be time to start reading ;)

Tuesday 25 February 2014

'Romola' by George Eliot (Review)

After spending some time in Renaissance Italy in Bound in Venice, I was eager to read more about the era, so I trudged off to my shelves to see what I could uncover.  Very quickly, I stumbled upon the perfect book, one I'd been meaning to reread for some time.  After a spell in Venice then, it's time to head off to Florence - in the company of a rather accomplished tour guide...

Romola was George Eliot's first attempt at fiction outside her home country (perhaps even her home county).  The reader is transported to Florence in 1492, where the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, the de facto ruler of the city, has initiated a period of uncertainty.  A power vacuum has appeared in the city, and it's a time of unrest, with rival groups vying for supremacy and the charismatic preacher Savonarola waiting in the wings.  Enter Tito Melema, a Greek-Italian survivor of a shipwreck, educated and good-looking, but down on his luck - a state of affairs which won't last long.

The stranger is taken in by some friendly locals, eventually gravitating to Nello's barber shop, a gathering place for intellectuals, and it's here that he receives an introduction to blind scholar Bardo Bardi and his beautiful daughter, Romola.  Melema is handsome, intelligent and cunning, and this is his time; in the confusion of the new world order, power, wealth, fame and love are his for the taking.  But is the fair-faced newcomer as good as he seems?
"Ay, Nello," said the painter, speaking with abrupt pauses; "and if thy tongue can leave off its everlasting chirping long enough for thy understanding to consider the the matter, thou mayst see that thou hast just shown the reason why the face of Messere will suit my traitor.  A perfect traitor should have a face which vice can write no marks on - lips that will lie with a dimpled smile - eyes of such agate-like brightness and depth that no infamy can dull them - cheeks that will rise from a murder and not look haggard."
p.46 (Everyman, 1999)
As the story progresses, we see that there's truth in the painter's view of traitors and fair faces, and we begin to discern hints of what's really beneath the smiles and curls...

Romola is a great vision of the distant past, a picture of renaissance Florence and a superb story of a man who wants it all.  Eliot shows us a visitor who, arriving at the right time (and not having any uncomfortable beliefs or scruples to get in the way), is able to ingratiate himself with various Florentine factions, succeeding in becoming one of the most useful and powerful men in the city.  The (anti)hero of the novel is a man with fatal flaws which threaten to undo him, the writer at pains to show us that then, just as now, beauty was often only skin deep.  Despite having been born in Italy, there is enough of the Greek in Tito to justify a tragedy ;)

This is because Tito is fatally flawed.  While he is outwardly strong and honest, on the inside he is weak, doubting and lazy - and not quite brazen enough to ignore the trouble he has brought upon himself:
"Tito foresaw that it would be impossible for him to escape being drawn into the circle; he must smile and retort, and look perfectly at his ease.  Well! it was but the ordeal of swallowing bread and cheese pills after all.  The man who let the mere anticipation of discovery choke him was simply a man of weak nerves." (p.168)
Despite the bold words, he is not always able to swallow the pills with a smile.  The chain armour he is eventually scared into wearing becomes a physical manifestation of his constant mental fears.

As Tito falls in our estimation, his role diminishes, leaving the way open for the rise of Romola, both in character and importance.  Beautiful and good, she ever so gradually begins to suspect her husband's shortcomings:
"But all the while inwardly her imagination was busy trying to see how Tito could be as good as she had thought he was, and yet find it impossible to sacrifice those pleasures of society which were necessarily more vivid to a bright creature like him than to the common run of men." (p.249)
Romola despises Tito once his true character is revealed; unlike her husband, she prefers helping the sick and poor, whoever they may be, to scheming for wealth and power.  At times, she even ends up helping Tito's enemies...

One of the major themes of Romola is the difficulty of doing the right thing when the wrong thing is so much easier (and much more lucrative), and Eliot frequently returns to her main message of the way in which we justify our bad deeds to ourselves.  She lingers on Tito's decisions to ignore signs that his adopted father, Baldassare Calvo, may not be dead after all, but it's never judgemental - Tito's actions are considered carefully as an ethical dilemma.  It's all very cleverly done, with constant arguments on one side or the other forcing the reader to examine Tito's behaviour (and wonder if we would have acted differently...).

The tragedy is played out against a superbly researched background, and the language, too, evokes the era.  We feel ourselves back in Renaissance Florence, witnessing the fall of the Medicis, and the rise (and subsequent fall) of the ambitious and enigmatic Savonarola.  From within the walls of the city state,  we are witness to the interference of the Pope and the 'visit' of the French army, along with a host of real-life characters (including Niccolò Machiavelli...) - there's even mention of Aldo Manuzio, AKA Aldus Manutius, the master publisher encountered in Bound in Venice!

Of course, there's a little too much research at times, and Romola isn't the easiest of books to get into.  The narrator is looking back at times which seem fairly primitive, and the viewpoint is almost clinically detached, giving the book the air more of a scientific study than a novel.  Also, as mentioned in Leonée Ormond's introduction, the character of Romola is especially problematic.  She's far too modern and anachronistic in the way she thinks and acts (and has the freedom to think and act); just as is to be the case in Felix Holt, the main character here is the least life-like element of a realistic historical recreation.

Romola is one of the least-read, and least-popular, of Eliot's novels.  However, it's still an excellent book, and of course, despite the title, it's Tito who is the star of the show.  While the writer warns us about him frequently, part of you still wants him to succeed in his endeavours, even after we have glimpsed some of the ugly truths lurking beneath the handsome exterior.  It's true what they say though - politics is a very dangerous game...

...especially in Renaissance Florence ;)

Sunday 23 February 2014

'Bound in Venice' by Alessandro Marzo Magno (Review)

I'm very much a lover of novels, and there's not an awful lot of non-fiction on my reading list.  However, when Europa Editions sent me a copy of today's book, it piqued my interest immediately.  The main reason for this is that it has to do with publishing, and let's face it - I'm nothing if not interested in books ;)

Bound in Venice - The Serene Republic and the Dawn of the Book (by Alessandro Marzo Magno, translated by Gregory Conti) is a look at a golden era, both for Venice and the fledgling art of publishing.  We find ourselves in the early 16th century, where the author paints a picture of a Venice which has become the world centre of the publishing trade, a city with books for everyone in a wide range of fields.

The aim of the book is clear from the start - Marzo Magno shows us life in the Serene Republic and explains why and how Venice became a publishing powerhouse.  Thanks to a mix of intellectuals and astute businessmen, available capital and a cosmopolitan clientele, all set against a background of relative liberty and (most importantly) no censorship, the scene was set for the birth of a major publishing industry, the New York or London of the day.

Of course it wasn't just in publishing that Venice was ahead of its time.  It was a fabulous city, a cosmopolitan metropolis with Armenians, Jews, Arabs, Germans and Greeks milling around the streets and piazzas.  There were:
"...books in foreign or remote languages, but spoken by many visitors to the city, which as a melting pot is perhaps rivaled only by present-day New York."
p.17 (Europa Editions, 2013)
In fact, Venice was not just a city, but a powerful empire, with lands in eastern Europe, all throughout the Mediterranean and even reaching far into mainland Italy.  Little wonder then that it became a centre of learning - and literature.

Chapter by chapter, Bound in Venice looks at a different area of the publishing industry, covering topics such as maps, music and medicine.  The recent voyages of discovery had led to a boom in the field of cartography, and maps of new lands were followed closely by newly-made maps of the human body.  Of course, in a volatile political environment, with the Ottoman Empire desperate to make Venice bleed, books on war are also rather popular...

The work is most interesting though when it focuses its gaze on a single topic.  The chapter on the Hebrew publishing industry looks at the creation of the first printed Talmud in the language, appearing (naturally) in the city with the first Jewish 'ghetto' (back when the word didn't quite have the same connotations as it does today...).  Venetian publishers didn't discriminate though; another section looks at the fairly recent discovery, by researcher Angela Nuovo, of a legendary lost Koran.  Printed in Arabic for the first time in Venice in the early 16th century, the book turns up unexpectedly in the library of San Michele monastery (uncovered in a delightful literary detective story!)

Marzo Magno also introduces some of the stars of the renaissance publishing era.  The first is Aldus Manutius, super publisher, father of the semi-colon and italics, as well as a man the writer credits with inventing the first paperbacks (or libelli portatiles).  Small in size, with no academic commentary, these were cheap, portable books allowing the masses to enjoy a hobby previously restricted to the rich:
"Aldus Romanus (as he was fond of signing his name to honor his Roman origins) is the first to conceive of the book as entertainment.  He is the inventor of reading for pleasure, and this invention brings about a bona fide intellectual revolution that transforms what was an instrument used for praying or learning into a pleasant pastime." (pp.43/4)
OK, everyone - say thanks to Uncle Aldus ;)

Renaissance Venice also saw the rise of Pietro Aretino, the first star writer.  He came to public attention with his Sonnetti Lussuriosi (Salacious Sonnets) in 1527 and became notorious as a scandalous writer, a man loved by the masses.  Aretino was also a master of self-promotion (nothing changes...), raising his profile above that of other writers.  Of course, he had the city to thank for his success:
"The symbiosis of writer and city is total.  In no other place in sixteenth century Europe could Pietro have become the Aretino, in almost no other place could he have written such things without landing in jail, in no other place could he have found a publishing network able to guarantee him the press-runs and distribution." (p.202)
As Marzo Magno makes clear on several occasions, Aretino's success was only possible in a free Venice...

There's a lot to like about Bound in Venice, but be warned - it is a bit dry at times.  This is particularly true of the long first chapter, which is full of 'interesting' statistics.  Despite the pictures painted of 16th-century bookshops, this section is rather dull and a poor introduction to what lies ahead.  Another aspect of the book which might split readers is the writer's style as his rambling, comma-filled sentences where tangents (and tense switches) abound may not be to all tastes.

So, will you like it?  Well, it's very much a book for book lovers.  If the hunt for a rare error-filled Koran in a monastery library has you nodding off, then no.  If, on the other hand, you can't wait to get on to Wikipedia and find out what Glagolitic script looks like, this might be one for you.  Come and visit the Serene Republic - and don't forget your reading glasses :)

Thursday 20 February 2014

'Talking to Ourselves' by Andrés Neuman (Review)

After the huge success of Traveller of the Century, many readers have been waiting anxiously for Andrés Neuman's next work to appear in English - and I certainly count myself among that number.  Perversely though, with such a huge weight of expectation (and having met the writer last year in Melbourne), I've found this is a review which isn't that easy to write.

The keyword here is objectivity - and to imagine that I'm talking to myself...

Talking to Ourselves (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is a short novel in three voices, which together reveal the story of how a family deals with terminal illness.  Mario, suffering from an unnamed disease, uses a short grace period of relatively good health to take his ten-year-old son, Lito, on a trip in his truck, his attempt to give his son one last, happy memory of their time together.  Meanwhile, back at home, Mario's wife Elena, physically and mentally exhausted from caring for her husband, sits around and worries - until she finds a way to cope.

After a visit to her husband's doctor, hoping to break through his professional reserve and learn the truth about Mario's prospects, Elena allows herself to become involved in an affair, a brief, physical, charged relationship.  As she details her thoughts in her diary, she struggles to understand what's going on, why she's turning her back on Mario in his final days.  The only place she can search for the answers is in books, scouring her library for any mention of death and illness.  In the end though, the truth is very clear - we all go through this alone...

Talking to Ourselves is an excellent exploration of what it means to live with the knowledge of imminent death, and the way in which we avoid discussing the thoughts constantly circling around in our minds.  By splitting his story into three alternating sections, each told in the first person by one of the family members, Neuman allows each of the main characters a say, all three having their own clear, unique voice (a credit to both the writer and the translators).  While conversations are described in each of the sections, Mario, Elena and Lito are talking very much to themselves - occasionally at cross purposes.

Lito's part is, for obvious reasons, the slightest.  Unaware of his father's illness, he's simply thrilled to be going on a journey he's been looking forward to for a long time, a trip he's likely to remember for the rest of his life.  The writer paints a picture of a boy whose thinking hasn't quite reached the level necessary to cope with his father's illness - he still thinks he can control the weather with his moods and that life is like a rally game (a crash just means you lose time...).

His simple, naive descriptions of the trip are complemented by Mario's story, a digital recording he makes when in the hospital after the trip, waiting for death to catch up with him:
"...will those mp thingamajigs still exist?, or will iPods seem as old-fashioned to your kids as my record player?, formats disappear just like people..."
p.33 (Pushkin Press, 2014)
In a quick, yet rambling monologue, he leaves an oral record to be given to his son at a later date, explaining what really happened on the trip - why they had to take so many toilet breaks, why they slept in the truck, why he hurried Lito out of a bar so quickly...

Of the three family members though, the key to Talking to Ourselves lies with Elena.  The brief respite offered by the trip allows her to think about matters in more depth, which is not necessarily a good thing:
"If Mario accepted the limits of his strength, we would have told all our friends the truth.  He prefers us to be secretive.  Discreet, he calls it.  A patient's rights go unquestioned.  No one talks about the rights of the carer.  Another person's illness makes us ill.  And so I'm in that truck with them, even though I've stayed at home." (p.17)
Elena is obviously drained by caring for her husband, and Neuman examines her emotional instability by allowing the reader to follow her through her relationship with the doctor.

Initially, there's a wall of professionalism between Elena and Dr. Escalante, one which actually frustrates her:
"The cautiousness of doctors irritates me.  Conversing with them is like talking on a phone without any coverage.  In other words, like listening to yourself speak." (p.20)
However, once the ice is broken, it's as if a torrent is bursting through a tiny hole in a dam, thrusting her into a relationship she doesn't know how to handle.  It's a graphic, physical affair, similar to that of Hans and Sophie in Traveller of the Century, but far darker and more twisted; where the two translators are celebrating their bodies in the name of life, Elena and Escalante are merely trying to forget death...

While frank about her motivations and guilt, in her attempts to get to the bottom of her actions Elena does shift some of the blame onto her husband, especially regarding his inability and unwillingness to accept his fate and let his family know about his illness:
"By avoiding the subject of his death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little." (p.49)
Of course, she is no better than her husband in this regard - her thoughts, elegantly set down in her diary, are, just like Mario's words, meant purely for herself.

And this is what the reader is left with at the end of the novel, the feeling that much has been lost in a lack of communication.  Despite appearing to be a close, loving family, each person has their own thoughts and prefers to keep them secret, hidden away inside - together but alone, trapped in their own emotions.  It's honest, but brutally so, and it leaves you with an uneasy sense that this is how it could be for us too.  Something to ponder in a quiet moment alone...

Objectivity.  Hmm.

I could (and perhaps should) leave it there - this has already blown out enough.  However, I'm not a paid reviewer, I'm a blogger, and blogging is all about subjectivity, giving people my opinions and feelings, and I don't think they're amazingly clear from what I've written above.  The truth is that when I first read Talking to Ourselves, I thought it was an excellent, thought-provoking book with three distinct voices, a novel I enjoyed immensely.  But I didn't love it.  So I had to find out why...

The reason, which I suspected on the first reading but confirmed after rereading, is all to do with subjectivity (i.e. my preferences as a reader).  You see, as mentioned above, the key to the book is Elena and the way in which her experiences as a carer have ground her down, leaving her open for the relationship she enters into with the good doctor.  However, the moment she sleeps with him, she loses my good will, and this prevents me from enjoying the novel completely.

Why does this affect my enjoyment so much?  Well, it's just the way I am.  Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, to name just two examples, are other books where I feel that the writer is expecting me to sympathise with a woman who betrays her husband, and while in each case I can see what drove her to infidelity, I can never quite bring myself to sympathise or empathise with her actions.  Most readers will be able to enjoy Elena's thoughts despite this, but for me her actions cast a very long shadow over her words.

I also thought it would be interesting to imagine what would happen if the characters in the book were (to use an in-vogue expression) 'gender-flipped'.  Let's imagine a story where a terminally-ill woman takes her daughter on one last trip, while the husband stays at home and throws himself into a sadomasochistic affair with his wife's doctor.  I really can't see that one winning over many readers, but with the roles reversed there's an expectation that the decision is more justified - or is this just me?

In truth, Talking to Ourselves is a wonderful book, cleverly constructed and well translated (Neuman told me that he occasionally looked back and tweaked his original after seeing what Caistor and Garcia were making of his text!), even if it's missing the warmth and life of Traveller of the Century.  In its tone, it reminded me more of his first novel, Bariloche, and I wonder if his big, break-out work in English is the exception in terms of style rather than the norm.  With another work out later this year from Pushkin (a collection of short stories), the picture may become a little clearer :)

So, objectivity's gone out of the window then, but that's unsurprising - it's clear that for someone who spends hours each day sitting in front of a computer monitor, subjectivity is a much more common state of mind.  You see, the truth is that while I may occasionally delude myself into thinking I'm communicating with my digital readers, in my rare moments of lucidity and honesty, I realise that what I'm really doing is talking to myself - and that's a very scary thought...

Monday 17 February 2014

'Calling All Heroes' by Paco Ignacio Taibo II (Review)

Last year, when I was lucky enough to review two books by Japanese writer Tomoyuki Hoshino, the publishers (PM Press) were kind enough to slip in one more piece of translated fiction, a slim novella which has been... shall we say 'resting' on my shelves for a good while?  Anyway, it was high time to give it a go - and it turned out to be a great little read :)

Calling All Heroes - A Manifesto for Taking Power (translated by Gregory Nipper) is a short work by Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II in which he works through his frustration at the failure of the 1968 student protests.  Although short, it's an action-packed read, a book that looks at what might have been and then tries to make it so...

We start off in January 1970 with our central character Nestor, a journalist recovering in hospital after being attacked by a knife-wielding murderer.  With time to think, he decides that the moment has come to make the government and the police pay for the atrocities committed during the Tlatelolco crackdown (or massacre...), and to this end he dictates a series of letters, summoning an army of legendary freedom fighters to Mexico City to carry out his quixotic mission.  The actions of a deluded invalid?  Perhaps...  But what if all these heroes actually came?

Calling All Heroes is a chaotic, adrenaline-charged story, initially confusing, but eventually simply exhilarating.  The book consists of thirty-one short parts, alternating between two strands.  In the first, an unknown narrator addresses Nestor in the second person, describing the events as the bitter journalist plots his attack on the unsuspecting authorities; in the second, letters to Nestor (letters he has requested) describe his character and history, also hinting at what happened in the crazy few days at the end of January 1970.

Taibo's book is effective as an historical novel, looking at the disappointment felt by students after the government crackdowns of 1968, and several of the letters portray the feelings of helplessness and loss that followed the defeat.  What is described is a city attempting to recover from a traumatic battle:
"In the city the tanks had been replaced by solitude, with similar effects.  The wounds would seem not to have closed.  We would belong to a generation of idiot princes, hemophiliacs, whose skin the blood flowed down at the slightest cut."
p.15 (PM Press, 2010)
In fact, we later see examples of this in the story of a worker who one day decides, in the middle of the street, to set fire to himself in the hope of raising awareness of the plight of the workers...

...which may all sound like grim reading.  However, Calling All Heroes is anything but, sweeping the reader along with a story straight out of an adventure book.  You see, the band of mercenaries Nestor is summoning from around the world is not an anonymous band of guns for hire - there are some very familar names amongst these soldiers of fortune:
"The next sign that the conspiracy was thriving came on Friday, when the doctor, after pointing out that with a period of pleasant convalescence you would be in the clear, took from the pocket of his hospital coat a telegram from Dick Turpin, which gave the number of the Braniff International flight on which he would arrive in Mexico." (p.52)
Yep, that's right - Mr. Stand-and-Deliver himself.

The legendary English highwayman is just the first of many legendary figures to enter the fray, and many of them are not even real.  Still with Sherlock Holmes, Winnetou and the Light Brigade (who do a fair bit of charging) on your side, things are bound to be very interesting - and even when things do get hairy, there's always another legend of classic literature (or four) to save the day ;)

It all makes for a wonderfully-entertaining and (more importantly) well-written story, a personal catharsis disguised as a Boys-Own yarn.  The different strands work well, and a whole variety of voices come through in the letters Nestor receives from his friends.  It won't take you very long to finish Taibo's book (an hour if you're a quick reader), but it'll stay with you a lot longer than that - revolution and comic-book carnage: what's not to like?

Before I leave you, I just thought I'd draw your attention to some similarities with another famous Latin-American writer, a certain Roberto Bolaño.  Last year, I read a couple of his works, including The Savage Detectives, and after finishing Calling All Heroes I couldn't help but compare the two.  The setting is the same, of course, and the letters to Nestor act in the same way as the interviews people give describing the enigmatic Lima and Belano.  The two books also contain their fair share of artists - and wry humour:
"...and René Cabrera, who wrote brilliant poems and then used the paper to fill the holes in his shoes so the rain wouldn't get his socks too wet." (p.25)
Given then that this appeared in English in 2010, a clear example of strong influences and jumping on Bolaño's coat-tails, no?  Not exactly...  You see, Taibo actually got there first - in 1982.  In the words of the writer:
"Under these deplorable conditions, this shortest of novels was created.  brewed in the midst of a premature divorce, following a premature marriage, of a political crisis, of an era of hunger and underemployment, the novel became a pretext, a vendetta, dealing with Power by other means.
 Then it was put away in a drawer and rewritten three times during the following twelve years." (Appendix Two, p.118)
I'm not an expert on Latin-American literature by any means, but it seems possible that Bolaño may have had a quick read of this one at some point ;)

To finish today, a bit of music (something Stu, of Winstonsdad's Blog likes to do from time to time).  I was wondering what could possibly suit a crazy story like this, when it appeared of its own accord, unbidden - and it became clear that there was only one choice...

Thursday 13 February 2014

'A Treatise on Shelling Beans' by Wiesław Myśliwski (Review)

Wiesław Myśliwski took out the Best Translated Book Award back in 2012 with Stone upon Stone, and the Polish writer looks certain to be in the running this year too.  Once again, Archipelago Books have brought us a wonderful piece of translated fiction, one which will no doubt find its way onto many shelves (and e-readers) in the months to come.  The big question though is whether Myśliwski's new book has what it takes to pull off a repeat victory - let's have a look, shall we?

A Treatise on Shelling Beans (translated by Bill Johnston, e-copy courtesy of the publishers) is a conversation between an old man, the caretaker of a collection of holiday cabins by a lake, and a mysterious visitor, one who has come to ask for some beans.  What starts as a simple request turns into a long rambling monologue in which the old man expounds on life, music, memory - and beans, of course.  As he rattles on, painting names back on to faded nameplates, we begin to feel a sense of unease.  Why is he bringing up the past?  What is he really doing in this isolated part of the country?  Just who is this stranger anyway - and what has actually brought him to the old man's door?  The reader senses that it isn't really for a handful of beans...

A Treatise on Shelling Beans is one long, fluent, engaging monologue, albeit rambling and tangential at times.  The unnamed storyteller is the archetypal unreliable narrator, and as he continues spinning his yarns, the reader is focused not just on the content of his tales but also on how much we can trust him:
"I liked children, I still do, as I said.  But I didn't want any of my own.  Why not?  I'll leave it to you to figure out.  Me, I might not tell the truth."
p.248 (Archipelago Books, 2013)
Which is a bit of a problem - as his is the only voice we hear, we're pretty much at his mercy.

Of course, where there's a speaker, there's usually a listener, and the character known only as the visitor fills that role in this novel.  With the story told in the first person (by a man who barely pauses for breath), it would be fairly difficult to learn much about the interlocutor, but it's as if Myśliwski goes out of his way to keep the identity of the visitor a secret.  The reader is reduced to hunting for clues in the old man's stories, wondering if the request for beans, or his skill at a game involving a matchbox is a clue as to his identity...

However, for the most part, our attention is dragged back to the old man, as it's easier to piece together a picture of his life from the stories he weaves.  Going right back to his childhood, he uses the request for beans as a springboard into his youth, painting a picture of a family in the country sitting around each evening shelling happily away.  He then moves on to his later life, telling of his experiences at a boarding school, his training as an electrician and his time playing the saxophone in bands (both at home and abroad).  The stories always seem to be fragmentary, and it takes a while for the reader to cotton on to what is missing from the picture - the war.

It takes a while to get there but, as we suspect, there is a dark side to the novel, a tragic background which casts new light on the rest of the old man's stories:
"People often think, what could possibly have changed in a place where they've grown beans since forever.  But how did you manage to hold on to the conviction that there are timeless places like that?  That I can't understand.  Didn't you know that places like to mislead us?  Everything misleads us, it's true.  But places more than anything.  If it weren't for these nameplates I myself wouldn't know that this was the place."
p.9 (Archipelago Books, 2013)
Behind this seemingly innocuous statement lies the key to the novel - what happened in the village during the war...

Myśliwski also dwells on the idea of memory, and like his narrator, it's a concept that he doesn't regard as entirely reliable:
"I don't know if you agree, but in my view memory is like light that's streaming toward us from a long-dead star.  Or even just from a kerosene lamp.  Except it's not always able to reach us during our lifetime.  It depends how far it has to travel and how far away from it we are.  Because those two things aren't the same.  Actually, it may be that everything in general is memory.  The whole of this world of ours ever since it's existed.   Including the two of us here, these dogs.  Whose memory?  That I don't know." (p.32)
In the old man's eyes, the past is a creation, a tale made up of subjective memories - simply a collection of stories.  Of course, the thing with stories is that the way they unfold depends on who's telling them, and it's very possible that a different voice will have a very different view of events.

As with the previous English-language release, Bill Johnston has done a great job of capturing the unique tone of the old man, in a style which, while similar to that of Stone upon Stone, is also recognisably different.  Again, the language used is simple and uncomplicated on the whole, but with several stories within the main one, it's important that each of these also stands out - and they do.  These stories are expertly drawn out, and the tension is often palpable, even when the actual content is something as innocuous as watching a film about a man who wants to buy a hat.  Trust me - it's much more subtle than it sounds ;)

On finishing the book, my first thought was that it didn't quite grab me as much as Stone upon Stone.  The story meanders a lot, and I was constantly searching for the central thread, the elusive glue that holds it all together.  However, a week later, I'm still thinking about it (which is, of course, a good thing).  I suspect that this is a book which will benefit from rereading, one which only gives up its secrets slowly and unwillingly; the lack of an obvious plot may actually benefit the novel when it comes to be reread.  After all, what's important is not what we read, but how we remember it, a very different thing indeed:
"Besides, what is memory if not the pretense that you remember.  Though it's our only witness to having existed.  We depend on memory the way a forest depends on trees, a river on its banks.  More - if you ask me, we're created by memory.  Not just us, the whole world." (p.355)
Perhaps Myśliwski's chances of a BTBA repeat aren't that bad after all...

Monday 10 February 2014

'The Soil' by Yi Kwang-su (Review)

New literary projects are always fun, and I think I may have just found another one.  I recently received several books from Dalkey Archive which form part of their ambitious Library of Korean Literature project.  Ten of the books are already out, and the overall plan is to release twenty five(!) in the space of a year.

Dalkey are doing this in partnership with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, an organisation which appears to be impressively aggressive in promoting K-Lit (see, for example, the recently promoted free translations of twentieth-century short stories).

K-Lit is a fairly new area for me, so you might expect the journey to start off slowly - perhaps with a short-story collection, or maybe a modern novella...

Really?  You should know me better than that by now ;)

Yi Kwang-su is one of the big names in early twentieth-century Korean literature, and The Soil (translated by Hwang Sun-ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges) is a big book.  The novel, a story of life in the country and city in pre-WW2 Korea, runs to just over 500 pages and was serialised in a Korean newspaper in 1932/3.  This edition keeps to the structure of the serialisation, with each of the 272 sections, divided into four parts, taking up less than two pages.

The story follows Heo Sung, a student from the country, who is in Seoul hoping to become a lawyer.  After an enjoyable summer at home, he makes plans to return to his village after graduating, hoping to make a difference to the poor farmers - and marry the charming Yu Sun.  However, life has different plans for him.  After the death of the son and heir of Sung's patron in Seoul, the young lawyer is chosen as a suitable groom for the daughter, Yun Jeong-seong, ending up with a beautiful wife, a lucrative profession and a lot of money.

A happy ending?  Not exactly.  Sung is unsettled in his new life, and his marriage is not as happy as he might have hoped.  His wife is a vain, shallow creation of the big city, and she soon grows to despair of her hard-working, honest husband.  After one argument too many, Sung decides that enough is enough and heads back home to Salyeoul.  It's time to put his idealistic plans into action...

The Soil is a big book, one with an array of interesting characters and several ambitious ideas.  At its centre is an honest man in a moribund, corrupt society, a dreamer who wants to make his homeland a better place.  After his initial slip, Sung works hard to improve life for his home village, using his money to improve farming methods and help free the locals from the shackles of perpetual debt.  He dreams of a bucolic Korean utopia, hoping to raise living standards for all.

It's not going to be easy though when even those he wants to help are suspicious of his motives.  The farmers find it hard to understand why someone would choose to leave the city behind (and the administrators are rather suspicious of his motives, suspecting anti-government behaviour...).  Sung's pro-Korean fervour is also anachronistic as this is the height of the Japanese colonial era; the educated elite look down on the masses and hunt elsewhere for inspiration.  With ignorant locals, poverty everywhere and totally outdated beliefs in areas such as traditional medicine, it's hardly unsurprising.

The writer's views on the possible effects of foreign influence are shown in two of Sung's rivals in love.  Kim Gap-jin, another suitor hoping for Jeong-seong's hand, is a rich Japanese toadie and an arrogant womaniser, a man who looks east to Tokyo for excellence in all matters:
"There's also a Department of Korean Literature at your university, isn't there?" said Sung, who had not yet given up on leading Gap-jin in a certain direction.

"Yes.  There's the department of Korean Literature.  I really don't know what students learn there.  I think literature is useless anyway.  And to study Korean literature?  Even worse.  I don't understand the motives of anybody admitted to a prestigious university who studies Korean literature."
p.48 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
This is typical of his attitude towards his mother country; he loathes the Korean language (and its primitive Hangul 'scribbles'), preferring to use Japanese whenever possible.

The second of Sung's rivals, Dr. Lee Geon-yeong, takes his inspiration from another source.  At the start of the novel, he has just returned from ten years in America, having completed his PhD.  However, beneath his smooth exterior and his claims to bring back new ideas, he is shown to be an inveterate skirt- and money-chaser, a heartless user.  Like Gap-jin, he treats women terribly, behaving contrary to the dictates of traditional Korean customs.

While the womanisers have their moments, for me the most interesting aspects of the novel are those examining the Japanese colonial administration.  Sung and Gap-jin are typical of the new governing class under the Japanese, sailing off to Tokyo to take law exams before returning to govern the country in the name of the invaders.  It's fascinating when read against what was being published in Japan at the time - a sort of colonial shadow side of J-Lit (a good example of this is the plan the waster Kobayashi has in Natsume Soseki's Light and Dark to make his fortune in Korea...).

The colonial side reminds me a lot of what was happening in Ireland and England in the 19th century, where the elite Irish youth were incorporated into the system to become administrators of the Empire (Trollope's Phineas Finn is a book which comes to mind immediately).  In fact, once you start thinking about connections with Victorian literature, it's easy to find more.  The exploitation of workers brings Gaskell's North and South to mind while the tough life of the poor farm workers is fairly Hardyesque:
"Of this grain planted and harvested by the people, half would go to the storehouses of the landlord.  The other half would pass through storehouses of several debtors for transport by car and ship providing dealers their profits before ending up as food or alcohol in the mouths of people who had never worked in fields or seen their reflection in the water.  But those who had worked so hard in the fields, using their bodies as fertilizer, would remain forever poor, forever servants in debt, and forever hungry." (pp.92/3)
You might even say that these were hard times... ;)

The Soil is an excellent story with lots to recommend it, but it is a product of a different time and place, so a modern reader might struggle at times.  It can be rather didactic and overplain, and it is frequently extremely melodramatic - the bad are cartoonishly bad, the good are far too good.  Sung, a man who is apparently able to withstand anything, eventually wins over everyone in his presence, including characters we thought too far gone to bring back.  At times, it seems a bit a little too much of a stretch...

While the writing is not always as perfect as you might wish, this is a book I enjoyed immensely.  It's a novel which will be perfect for readers with an interest in Asia, post-colonial history or the fraught relationship between Korea and Japan - and it was the ideal start to my Korean literary journey.  Let's see where the next leg takes me ;)

Thursday 6 February 2014

'Anatomie einer Nacht' ('Anatomy of a Night') by Anna Kim (Review)

Today's book was the readalong choice back in November for German Literature Month, but (sadly) my German-language paperback copy arrived too late for me to join in.  However, it's been sitting on top of a pile for a while now, catching my eye whenever I walked past, so I thought it was about time I got around to it.  It's an excellent read, if a little grim - and for anyone who wants to read it without having to improve their German, I know where you can source Frisch & Co.'s English-language translation...

Anna Kim's Anatomie einer Nacht (Anatomy of a Night, English version translated by Bradley Schmidt) is set on the east coast of Greenland in the small, fictional town of Amarâq, the story taking place over the course of a few hours on one summer night.  Amarâq is a beautiful place, but its isolation means people often see it as the end of the world, and on this one, fateful, night, several people are about to take this description very literally.

Over the course of 300 pages, the writer introduces a whole cast of characters, moving back and forth between past and present.  They are a sorry bunch, a group of people with little to live for and hard, painful stories in their past, depressed and alone in the small outpost at the end of the world.  What happens next is unsurprising, yet shocking - one by one, the inhabitants start to kill themselves...

Let's be clear about this - Anatomy of a Night can make for grim reading at times.  It seems as if Kim's whole purpose in introducing her characters and their history is to make the suicides even more painful for the reader than they would be anyway, death after death making the reading experience rather uncomfortable.  Once you understand what is happening, you begin to wonder who will be the next to fall victim to the 'epidemic' sweeping the town.

Before reading the book, I was under the impression that the focus was on the one night, an attempt to explain why the townsfolk all chose the same night to end their lives, but this isn't really a question the writer wants to address.  Instead, the novel examines the background, looking back at upbringings and traumatic events which, much later, will explain the events of the night.

One of the potential catalysts is the town itself, a dark, brooding entity which stands out as one of the novel's most prominent characters:
"Es ist, als würde die Natur, als würde die Stadt, eine andere Sprache sprechen und sich über Bilder mitteilen, für die man besondere Augen benötigt."
p.20 (Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 2013)

"It's as if nature, as if the town, spoke a different language and shared images which required special eyes to see them."*** (my translation)
Amarâq is a landscape where the land and sky meet, giving the impression of a world with no horizon, and in the eery northern summer nights, a pale darkness appears to blanket the town.  The combination of isolation and ubiquitous silence creates a feeling akin to claustrophobia - even the reader starts to feel trapped at the end of the world.

A large focus of the novel is the character of the Greenlanders and their indigneous beliefs.  Kim, through her creations, discusses the theory of multiple souls, shamans and people who can 'read' dreams, while we also learn of historical events, such as stories of famines, food shortages - and eating people...  In a harsh environment, people tend to live for the present with no thought of the future:
"Ella holt ihren Block heraus und macht eine Notiz, warum, glauben Sie, gibt es so viele Selbstmorde?, fragt sie, die Mentalität, antwortet Peder, es ist in ihrer Natur, die Grönländer leben zu sehr in der Gegenwart, und wenn die beschissen ist dann, er umfasst seinen Hals mit einer Hand, stranguliert sich andeutungsweise." (p.100)

"Ella gets her writing pad out and makes a note, why, do you think, are there so many suicides?, she asks, mentality, answers Peder, it's in their nature, the Greenlanders live too much in the present, and when the present is shitty, then, he puts his hand around his neck, pretending to strangle himself."***
This is a perhaps a partial explanation for the epidemic Amarâq suffers from.

However, Anatomy of a Night is largely the story of the effects of colonialism.  With Denmark taking over the 'colony', the traditional way of life is changed forever.  While the natives' lives may be improved in some ways (they're certainly financially better off and no longer in danger of dying of hunger), the people are largely caught between two worlds.  This is particularly true for those Greenlanders who spend time in Denmark.  In the imperial centre, they are treated like savages and yearn to return to their natural environment.  However, on their return, they find that it's impossible to ever truly return home (a theme Kim actually examines in a non-fiction work in German, Invasionen des Privaten).

The move to dependence on Denmark also contributes to the creation of a welfare state of hopelessness.  With regular dole payments from Copenhagen, Amarâq has become an enclave for generations of welfare recipients, with little work available.  This inevitably leads to alcoholism, casual violence, stupor and vomit, and the Danes struggle to understand how their benevolence has resulted in the destruction of a way of living.  Once again, with no future, it's hard to find reasons to live for the present.

Anatomy of a Night is very confusing at times.  It's full of short, frequently shifting scenes, and the novel contains a vast array of main characters.  In order to follow the story, it's important to keep on top of the connections between the folk of Amarâq (and there are a lot...).  The book is compelling though, and excellently written, with fluid, rolling sentences.

But why does it all happen on this night?  As mentioned at the start of the review, it's a question which is never really answered.  The reasons why the Greenlanders are drawn to suicide, on the other hand, are made very, very clear.  Of course, the real question is how to prevent it, and Kim doesn't provide us with an answer to this one.  With welfare dependence, isolation, cultural attitudes and a genetic predisposition to depression, this is a community perpetually falling apart; there will always be new deaths and sorrow...
"Der Tod, bisher nur fiktiv, eine Erzählung, eine Legende, wird durch diese erste Begegnung monumental und lässt sich nicht mehr aus dem Leben rücken..." (p.69)

"Death, up to this moment merely fictional, a story, a myth, becomes, as a result of this first encounter, monumental and can no longer be separated from life..."***
The first encounter with death plants a seed which grows inside - and that all means that the nights of terror will continue...

Monday 3 February 2014

'The Happy City' by Elvira Navarro (Review)

January's over, and it's time to put away the J-Lit and return to the wider world of translated literature.  We're making a start with that today, courtesy of a novel I received for review a while back from Hispabooks.  It's off to Spain then, with just a hint of the Orient too...

Elvira Navarro's The Happy City (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is a book in two halves, with two related stories making up one whole novel.  Both stories are tales of kids growing up in a Spanish city - two Hispanic coming-of-age tales, if you will.

The first is called Story of the Chinese Restaurant "Happy City", and it's all about Chi-Huei, a young Chinese boy who finally arrives in Spain after a couple of years living away from his family.  After his time with his aunt, he has a doubly difficult task ahead.  Not only does he have to adjust to a new country and language, he also has to readjust to life with his mum and dad...

The reader is shown life as a migrant, and it's not all about the delights of the modern world.  While the family has a decent standard of living, it's tough, and they work all hours to keep their heads above water and feel like they're making progress.  For Chi-Huei, there's also the added pressure of school, with his parents pressuring him to focus on his education (when he's not helping out at his parents' restaurant...).

As a young arrival, picking up the language isn't such a big deal, and there is an unexpected benefit when his father begins to express himself more confidently in the new tongue with his two sons.  As with any nascent bilingual though, there are some issues to overcome - and this even extends to his native tongue:
"He could sense himself short-circuiting when, for example, he chatted to his aunt and then carried on using the same accent to speak to his mother, which made him feel strange and become abruptly aware, thanks to a feeling of slight embarrassment, of some sudden inappropriateness, of a subtle variation in his identity.  All at once he sounded false and felt ridiculous when he changed, as if inexplicably taking off his clothes in front of everyone and then putting on new ones that didn't suit him either."
p.32 (Hispabooks, 2013)
It's all part of the challenge of adjusting to a new environment, be it cultural or linguistic.

The second story, The Edge, focuses on Chi-Huei's friend Sara, and this story takes a very different approach.  Sara is an only child, with very clear boundaries set by her parents, and when she one day decides to cross those boundaries, an encounter with a homeless man throws her life into turmoil:
"He is a young homeless man, sitting on the steps with his legs stretched out, his body leaning lazily backwards.  Walking until I come to a halt at the edge of the sidewalk, I am horrified and fascinated; I suddenly recognize myself in the skinny body, the torn clothes, the dirty hair hanging to either side of the face ... for the vision of decay is drawing me toward something I know nothing of." (p.101)
Leaving her permitted path for the first time brings confusion and knowledge of a wider world, one which she isn't really ready to cope with.

In a sense, her decision to cross the line is a move towards the end of childhood, one which leads into a downward spiral of behaviour.  She hides her actions from her parents and invents lies to cover her tracks, something which soon leads to trouble with the law.  Sara is rebelling against home pressures, and she becomes determined to find the homeless man (who seems to be following her) and find out what he wants...

In addition to the friendship between the characters, the main connection between the stories is the theme of relationships between parents and their kids.  Chi-Huei can't see why his parents are working so much; it's not really a means to an end, he sees it as getting rich for the sake of being rich.  In addition to his anger at initially being left behind in China, he gradually becomes aware of a dim future full of responsibility, a future he would rather avoid.

Sara's parents have a very different problem.  Terrified of making a mistake, they're unable to decide between freedom and smothering.  Sara's adventures are simply the curiosity of the unknown, but the more her parents dither, the greater the danger that she will do something stupid.  Her conversations with her new friend have soured her outlook, and, like Chi-Huei, she is pessimistic about the future. 

The Happy City has two interesting stories of growing up, but for me there was no real bite to the book.  I felt it was missing something, and I wasn't convinced that the two stories really made a novel.  It was very easy to read, perhaps a little too easy at times - in fact, I'm a little tempted to describe it as a YA novel (which might actually make many of you more interested in it...).

While it's not really my kind of book, there's definitely a lot there about the problems of moving into a new stage of life, and I'm sure that many people will enjoy it.  Certainly, if you're looking for an international coming-of-age story, you could do worse than give Navarro's book a go :)

Saturday 1 February 2014

January 2014 Wrap-Up

January is finally over, which means that January in Japan is (just about) done and dusted.  It's been a fun month spreading the word about J-Lit, but it's also been an extremely tiring one...  Thanks to everyone who has taken part :)

As for the numbers - well, it's a new year, so we start at 0 again...

Total Books Read: 7

Year-to-Date: 7

New: 6

Rereads: 1

From the Shelves: 2
Review Copies: 5
From the Library: 0
On the Kindle: 1 (review copy)

Novels: 7
Short Stories: 0
Non-Fiction: 0

Non-English Language: 7 (3 Japanese, Spanish, German, Korean, Polish)
In Original Language: 1 (German)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 7: 3 (23/1)

Books reviewed in January were:
1) Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura
2) The Frontier Within by Kobo Abe
3) Modern Japanese Stories by Ivan Morris (ed.)
4) Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
5) The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa
6) Light and Dark by Natsume Soseki
7) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
8) hardboiled \ hard luck by Banana Yoshimoto
9) Deep River by Shusaku Endo
10) Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Tony's Turkey for January is:
Kobo Abe's The Frontier Within

I expected a lot more from this one, but (unfortunately) it failed to deliver.

Tony's Recommendation for January is:

Minae Mizumura's A True Novel

Norwegian Wood is always an enjoyable read, and Natsume Soseki's last novel was also impressive.  For a while, I was tempted to give the nod to the impressive Morris short-story collection, but in the end, Mizumura's Japanese take on Wuthering Heights was just too good to ignore :)


Looking ahead to February, there'll be a lot of great translated fiction again (the review copies have mounted up again during my J-Lit binge).  I really need to do a good job there too - you see, with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist announced on the 8th of March, I'm going to be pretty busy again very soon ;)