Saturday 31 May 2014

May 2014 Wrap-Up

What happened in May?  With IFFP duties finally over for the year, it was just another month, with another pile of books...  My K-Lit obsession is now in full swing, and you can rest assured that there'll be plenty of reviews of Korean literature in the coming months (especially now that I've discovered the joys of my local university library!).

But let's move on to the stats, shall we?

Total Books Read: 10

Year-to-Date: 56

New: 8

Rereads: 2

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

Novels: 7
Novellas: 1
Short Stories:2

Non-English Language: 10 (5 Korean, Icelandic, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Arabic)
In Original Language: 0
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (0/3)

Books reviewed in May were:
1) Ten by Andrej Longo
2) An Appointment with His Brother and Other Stories by Yi Mun-yol
3) Dispute over a Very Italian Piglet by Amara Lakhous
4) A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli
5) Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman
6) Running through Beijing by Xu Zechen
7) The Guest by Hwang Sok-yong
8) They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy
9) Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri
10) The Dwarf by Cho Se-hui 

Tony's Turkey for May is:
Edith Grossman's Why Translation Matters

Translation matters, and Grossman is a world-famous exponent of the art.  However, this book, taken from some lectures she gave on the subject, is nothing more than a turkey - a huge disappointment :(

Tony's Recommendation for May is:
Miklós Bánffy's They Were Counted

If I'm honest, this wasn't a great month for reviews, with Grossman's turkey accompanied by reviews of some good, but unexceptional, books.  Some of the better books included those by Hwang Sok-yong and Amara Lakhous, but in this company, Bánffy's lengthy story of a society on the brink of its downfall stands head and shoulders above the competition :)


I'm very excited about what's coming up in June - not just because I have a stack of books that I'm eager to get reading, but also because one of my favourite events is up again.  The eighth edition of Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge starts in June, and (as always) I'll be dusting off some books on my J-Lit shelves to join in.  I'll also (finally!) be starting the book I decided I would finish this year - The Tale of Genji :)

Thursday 29 May 2014

'The Dwarf' by Cho Se-hui (Review)

While I've been lucky enough to receive several review copies during my Korean literature adventures this year, I haven't had quite the same luck in searching the databases of my local library system (probably because most K-Lit books are brought out by US presses rather than British publishers).  However, a few weeks ago, I realised that my new part-time job at the local university gave me borrowing rights at their library, so I thought I'd check out what they had to offer - and there, among some old, dusty shelves at the far end of the fifth floor (sixth, if you're from North America) was a collection of translations from Korean, both classic and more recent...

...and here's the first ;)

Cho Se-hui's The Dwarf (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) is a series of interlinked stories, originally serialised between 1975 and 1978.  The book is a dark critique of the government of the time and the frenzied rush towards modernisation that took place after the Korean War.  In a few short decades, Korea experienced an accelerated shift from an agrarian state to a futuristic high-tech wonderland - the problem is that the 'Miracle on the Han' wasn't so miraculous for everyone...

The titular dwarf, Kim Pul-i, is one of the main characters of the book, a little man struggling to make ends meet.  Like many others, he and his family are evicted when their house is slated for demolition, and they are forced to sell it for a small profit to a middleman (who then sells it on to developers for big bucks).  After his attempt to run away and make use of his stature by joining a travelling circus of homeless men is thwarted by his wife, he becomes depressed, unable to provide for his family.  It's all set to end in tears...

In Cho's eyes, though, Kim is not the only 'dwarf'.  The term is also used to refer to the ordinary working-class people exploited by the rich.  When Kim is attacked by someone angry at his undercutting their prices, a woman from the neighbourhood steps in to help - from sympathy and solidarity:
"Mister?" Shin-ae spoke quietly.  "We're dwarfs too.  Maybe we've never thought of each other that way, but we're on the same side."
p.31 (University of Hawaii Press, 2006)
This solidarity is rare, though.  Most people are simply too tired and drained of energy to pay any interest to others, and when they do, they get stepped on, quickly.

The main theme of The Dwarf is the exploitation of the working classes, and Cho paints a picture of an industrial revolution in 20th-Century East Asia.  He introduces us to the horrific town of Ungang, the 'City of Machines', where the pollution and unbreathable air outside go together with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside the factories the locals work in.  Turning up for fourteen-hour shifts and jabbed with pins by supervisors to keep them awake, the workers often turn to drugs to make it through the day.  It's nothing less than Blake's 'dark satanic mills' transported to Korea.

Of course, this is the lot of the poor - the rich fare much better.  The factory owners receive huge profits, making donations to charity to keep up a good public image.  Meanwhile, the workers can't even make ends meet, with living costs amounting to more than their weekly wages.  There's little help at hand from the unions as the bosses arrange for those who raise a voice to be taken off for a swift kicking (or simply ostracised by other workers).  The truth is that the bosses have no interest in dialogue, seeing the workers as merely 'mechanical energy'...

Things aren't much better for the middle classes either as they struggle through the terrifying school system towards a university place.  It's a fight for a good education and a successful future, but it's a struggle during which most will have to decide between their conscience and the chance of a happy future.  As Shin-ae remarks, regarding her brother and his friend:
"For these two, the society in which they lived was a monstrosity.  It was a monster that wielded terrible power at its pleasure.  Her brother and his friend saw themselves as oil floating on water.  Oil does not mix with water.  But such a comparison is not really apt.  What was truly awful was the fact that the two of them stumbled along inside this great monstrosity even though they didn't accept it." (p.93)
In fact, one is to later give in and join the enemy...

The Dwarf is a scary story, told in a way which emphasises the near impossibility of escape.  The stories loop around, returning to several groups of characters: the dwarf's family, especially his elder son Yong-su; Shin-ae, a depressed, frustrated housewife; and Yun-ho, a rich kid with a bleak view on life.  While they all have different views, each tells the same story, one of a country which has sold its soul in the hope of a future filled with nice apartments and shiny cars.  The penultimate story even tells the story through the eyes of an arrogant rich kid, an exercise which simply goes to emphasise the class gulf separating him from the main characters.

All in all, it's not exactly the happiest of books, but it's a great read nonetheless.  And, of course, we can be happy that all this is in the past - can't we?  Well...  It's funny that since reading The Dwarf I've come across several reports of the growing gap between rich and poor in the West (many centred on the success of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a surprise best-seller which shows that people are beginning to be more aware of the issue).  And turning back towards East Asia, recent events have left Koreans wondering if the country even has its priorities right today.  You see, the beauty of a book like The Dwarf is that its message always seems to be relevant and timely.  It's just a shame that no one ever seems to listen...

Monday 26 May 2014

'Papers in the Wind' by Eduardo Sacheri (Review)

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup a matter of weeks away, it's no surprise to find several football-themed books on the market, and I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of one recently.  It's a novel which looks at football from a slightly different angle, but in the end it's just as much about friendship as about the beautiful game...

Eduardo Sacheri's Papers in the Wind (translated by Mara Faye Lethem, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is set in Avellaneda, just outside Buenos Aires, and follows three friends (Mauricio, Ruso and Fernando) with a passion for life - and the local football team, Independiente.  The novel starts with the three mourning the death of Fernando's brother, Mono, a former junior footballer who later became successful as a systems analyst.  As they sit in a café, taking in the reality of their friend's passing, they begin to ponder the future.

Their main concern is for the future of Mono's daughter, Guadalupe, and they're right to be concerned as Mono sank all his money into buying a young football talent, one loaned out to a team in the lower divisions:
Ruso sounds excited when he adds, "That's awesome.  That he plays first-string I mean.  That he feels secure in his spot.  For his confidence, and all that."
Bermúdez looks at him as if he's not sure he should respond.
"The thing is, kid, you have no idea just how awful his replacement is."
p.19 (Other Press, 2014)
The contract of Mario Juan Bautista Pittilanga, then, looks like US$300,000 down the drain - unless the friends can think of something fast...

While football is the topic around which the novel is constructed, the true focus of Papers in the Wind is friendship, in particular the importance of keeping in touch with childhood friends.  The three main characters are very different people, and if they had met as adults, they probably wouldn't even have given each other the time of day.  Fernando is a teacher on the wrong side of town while Mauricio is a lawyer with his sights on the big time (and any attractive secretaries who come his way).  As for Ruso, let's just say that he's a small-business owner who really shouldn't be let anywhere near a small business...

None of that really matters, though, because the three boys grew up in the same neighbourhood, kicking a ball around in the street and watching Independiente play every weekend.  These are friends who will fight for each other - as Ruso proves on a visit to Mono's uncaring specialist:
"Are you a doctor or what, you little son of a bitch?  Don't you see, don't you realize that Mono is sick, asshole?  That he's afraid he's gonna die?  Or do you not give a shit?  You didn't even look at him, asshole, you didn't even look at him!  Don't you realize what he wanted to ask you?  Didn't you realize, moron?  What?  You - you've never been afraid?" (p.165)
If the doctor hasn't had much experience of fear in the past, Ruso soon helps him to catch up in this department.

However, as most people know, modern football has a way of corrupting those who become involved in the business, and trying to sell Pittilanga to get Mono's money back is going to test the ties of our three friends:
"What I'm saying... what I'm saying is that soccer is a lie.  That it's all a farce.  That it's all business.  The players, the managers, the journalists.  Even the hooligans are on the books.  All about the benjamins.  They all do it for the money." (p.443)
The beautiful game has a dirty underbelly, and as Fernando, Ruso and Mauricio get drawn into the world of negotiations and bribery, they realise that it's impossible to come out with their integrity intact.  A bigger problem, though, is that there's always the temptation for one of the three to start acting behind the others' backs...

Papers in the Wind is a nice, easy read, and it's a story which draws you in, a definite page-turner.  The story has two alternating strands, one set in the present, and one relating the events leading up to Mono's untimely death.  The flashbacks help to set the scene for the later events, also shining a light on the nature of the relationship shared by the four young men from the suburbs.

There were a couple of minor issues I had with the book.  The first is to do with the strand dealing with Mono's illness, which, while initially interesting, later became far too slow, bogging down the main storyline.  It's an important side to the story as it helps show the strength of the bond the men share, but towards the end it really dragged, and I was skipping through it as quickly as possible to get back to the main event.

The other issue is one which will only be shared with a minority of readers out there, namely British-English speakers with a passion for football.  You see, this translation is in American English, and while that usually only poses minor concerns, the moment the book starts to mention 'soccer' in any depth, it really is a different language.  Some examples I noted down are 'field' (pitch in British English), 'wall pass' (one-two), 'goal area' (penalty area), 'demoted' (relegated), 'light towers' (floodlights), 'lateral defender, left side' (left-back) and 'an off-mark shot to the goal' (a shot off-target).  For people like me, that all makes for painful reading ;)

Luckily, though, Papers in the Wind is more about the people than the game, looking at how sport can have a corrupting influence once large amounts of money are on offer.  As you watch the best in the world this (northern) summer, don't forget that for every Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, there's a Mario Juan Bautista Pittilanga hoping that his contract is going to be renewed at the end of the season - and a middle-man counting his dollars, who might just make it happen...

Friday 23 May 2014

IFFP 2014: Some Thoughts

After what seems like years of anticipation, the official winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was awarded last night, in the presence of a host of literary stars (well, Stu, David and Jacqui were there, anyway).  The name that was eventually pulled out of the envelope was Hassan Blasim's The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright - congratulations!

If I'm being honest, it's not a result I would have predicted, but I am very happy for the publisher, Comma Press, for the publicity and praise they're getting for their work in translating shorter fiction into English.  Boyd Tonkin, the chair of the IFFP panel, showed a couple of years back that he has a soft spot for the press with his infamous 'double suicide' quote (claiming that with translated fiction and short stories both a hard sell, doing both together was a rather foolhardy endeavour...).  I've reviewed several of their books, and I'd heartily recommend collections like Gyrðir Elíasson's Stone Tree and the collection of Chinese contemporary fiction, Shi Cheng (Ten Cities).  Oh, and Blasim's book, of course ;)

In addition to the awarding of the main prize, the organisers also saw fit to laud another of my favourite presses.  Birgit Vanderbeke's The Mussel Feast, translated by Jamie Bulloch, was singled out for special praise, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one thrilled to hear Peirene Press' name mentioned on the night, even if it wasn't quite the mention they were hoping for.  Well done to Meike and the team (including the flighty Nymph...) - sadly, though, the first female winner is at least another year away...

Of course, we in the Shadow Panel published our winner the day before the official announcement, our pick being Jón Kalman Stefánsson's The Sorrow of Angels (translated by Philip Roughton, MacLehose Press).  The fact that our favourite wasn't even shortlisted for the official prize shows how important it is to have someone keeping tabs on the professionals - you can't always trust them to choose the best books ;)

A while back I expounded on this a little in my post on the differences between the IFFP and the American version, the Best Translated Book Award.  While the BTBA has its own issues (as the amount of fiction available in translation increases, its anyone-can-enter ethos is bound to come under pressure), I do feel that the American version is slightly more daring than the IFFP, with the writing prized more highly than any political concerns.

Sadly, I can't pretend that that's true over in the UK.  It's an important event for translated fiction, but I can't help scratching my head at times over some of the decisions they come up with.  It's often hard not to feel that there's a bit of an agenda there, meaning that some great books miss out while others (better fitting certain categories) seem to sneak in instead.  Still, let's try to move on with grace - here's looking ahead to 2015 ;)

Before we leave 2014 behind though, there's one more aspect of the prize I need to discuss, and that's the work of the Shadow Panel.  Stu and I were back for our third go this year, but the other four members, Tony, David, Jacqui and Bellezza, were tackling the task for the first time.  Thanks to their efforts, this was easily the most successful and professional effort so far, with more opinions and reviews helping to balance out the views (in the past, Stu and I have had a disproportionate influence on some of the decisions).  Thanks again to everyone for all the hard work over the past three months - let's hope everyone is able to go through it all again next year :)

Wednesday 21 May 2014

And the (Shadow) IFFP Winner is...

In 2014, for the third year in a row, Chairman Stu gathered together a group of brave bloggers to tackle the task of shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  It's not a task for the faint of heart - in addition to having to second-guess the strange decisions of the 'real' panel, the foolhardy volunteers undertook a voyage around the literary world, all in a matter of months...

On our journey around the globe, we started off by eavesdropping on some private conversations in Madrid, before narrowly avoiding trouble with the locals in Naples.  A quick flight northwards, and we were in Iceland, traipsing over the snowy mountains and driving around the iconic ring road - with a child in tow.  Then it was time to head south to Sweden and Norway, where we had a few drinks (and a lot of soul searching) with a man who tended to talk about himself a lot.

Next, it was off to Germany, where we almost had mussels for dinner, before spending some time with an unusual family on the other side of the wall.  After another brief bite to eat in Poland, we headed eastwards to reminisce with some old friends in Russia - unfortunately, the weather wasn't getting any better.

We finally left the snow and ice behind, only to be welcomed in Baghdad by guns and bombs.  Nevertheless, we stayed there long enough to learn a little about the customs involved in washing the dead, and by the time we got to Jerusalem, we were starting to have a bit of an identity crisis...

Still, we pressed on, taking a watery route through China to avoid the keen eye of the family planning officials, finally making it across the sea to Japan.  Having arrived in Tokyo just in time to witness a series of bizarre 'accidents', we rounded off the trip by going for a drink (or twelve) at a local bar with a strangely well-matched couple - and then it was time to come home :)

Of course, there was a method to all this madness, as our journey helped us to eliminate all the pretenders and identify this year's cream of the crop.  And the end result?  This year's winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is:

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
(translated by Philip Roughton, published by MacLehose Press)

This was a very popular (and almost unanimous) winner, a novel which stood out amongst a great collection of books.  We all loved the beautiful, poetic prose, and the developing relationship between the two main characters - the taciturn giant, Jens, and the curious, talkative boy - was excellently written.  Well done to all involved with the book - writer, translator, publisher and everyone else :)

Some final thoughts to leave you with...

- Our six judges read a total of 83 books (an average of almost fourteen per person), and ten of the books were read and reviewed by all six of us.
- This was our third year of shadowing the prize and the third time in a row that we've chosen a different winner to the 'experts'.
- After the 2012 Shadow Winner (Sjón's From the Mouth of the Whale), that makes it two wins out of three for Iceland - Til hamingju!
- There is something new about this year's verdict - it's the first time we've chosen a winner which didn't even make the 'real' shortlist...

Stu, Tony, Jacqui, David, Bellezza and myself would like to thank everyone out there for all their interest and support over the past few months - rest assured we're keen to do it all over again next year :)

Tuesday 20 May 2014

'They Were Counted' by Miklós Bánffy (Review)

Do you like big Victorian novels?  Are you a fan of fiction in translation?  Are you always on the lookout for quality books with a couple of sequels ready for you to move on to?  Well, come this way, gentle reader - I may just have something to interest you today...

Miklós Bánffy's They Were Counted (translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, review copy courtesy of Arcadia Books) is the first in a trio of books entitled The Writing on the Wall (The Transylvanian Trilogy), a series whose focus on blood is more regal than vampirish.  This first novel is set in Hungary in the first years of the twentieth century, a country proud of its long history but nervous of its junior role in the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.  Despite the very real threat of a loss of autonomy, though, the upper classes continue to drink, gamble and fool around in parliament while Vienna schemes to strip the Hungarians of much of their glory.

The novel focuses on two main characters, cousins representative of the national elite.  Balint Abady is a nobleman who has become an independent member of parliament, an intelligent and hard-working man who dreams of dragging his estates (and the country) into the twentieth century; Laszlo Gyeroffy, by contrast, is a bit of an outsider, a talented musician whose ambition to master music is threatened by his weakness for cards and drink.

Of course, it wouldn't be an epic classic novel without a touch of romance, and both of the cousins are unlucky in love.  The bright (but relatively poor) Gyeroffy is in love with Klara, for whom her parents have much higher ambitions, and his affairs of the heart threaten to derail the plans to become a talented musician.  Abady's love is directed in an even more unfortunate direction, as his desired partner, the beautiful Adrienne Miloth, is actually already married.  Still, in a society where appearances and honour count for everything (and reality nothing), it's always possible to find a way...

They Were Counted is a truly ambitious novel, a deep, melancholy attempt to capture a time of great change in Hungary.  From its opening scenes of Balint on his way to a grand ball at a large country house, the lover of Victorian literature is in familiar territory.  The first page is Hardyesque in its description of the solitary traveller (as is much of the natural description in the novel), but the castle Var-Siklod, and the ball itself, is more Downton Abbey in its imposing majesty.

If I were looking for one apt comparison, however, it would have to be Anthony Trollope, albeit a more melancholic, modernist, Weltschmerz-laden Trollope.  Abady, the well-to-do politician from the Transylvanian provinces, can't help but remind the reader of a character like Phineas Finn, particularly in his initial naivety:
"Balint's innocence stemmed not only from his straightforward nature and an upbringing that had shielded him from dishonesty and greed, but also from the fact that the protected years at the Theresianum college, at the university and even in the diplomatic service, had shown him only the gentler aspects of life.  He had lived always in a hothouse atmosphere where the realities of human wickedness wore masks; and Balint did not yet have the experience to see the truth that lay behind."
p.4 (Arcadia Books, 2013)
Ah, the innocent making his way towards the metropolis - rest assured, the end of the novel will see a much more worldly Abady...

The book, while set in 1904/5, was written in the 1930s, and the story is overshadowed by the knowledge of what was to come (the First World War, and the subsequent loss of Abady's Transylvanian homeland to Romania) and the uncertainty in the air due to Germany's belligerent rumblings in Central Europe.  This lends the book a sombre mood, with echoes of death and darkness scattered throughout, as shown in a small dinner party hosted by one of the main characters, where the table glistens with light, while behind the guest the food is served from the darkness:
"And yet, thought Laszlo, behind all this lay the uncertainty of real life; bleak, cold, cruel, unrelenting and evil.  In front was every pleasure that man could invent: food to be savoured with knowledge, wine to drive one to ecstasy, beauty and colour, light and the rosy temptation of woman's flesh to make one forget everything, especially the merciless advance of death which lurked in the shadows behind them.  The feast had been prepared so knowingly that it seemed to Laszlo that everyone present ate and drank more voraciously than usual and chatted with more hectic vivacity, as if they were driven to enjoy themselves while there was still time." (p.305)
Laszlo, in particular, is a man unlikely to meet with a happy ending.  He certainly enjoys himself, but you always have the sense that he is living on borrowed time.

Laszlo's struggles, though, are merely a distraction from the main character, Balint.  His efforts to understand the political intrigues of the fractured Empire, with the ethnic Romanians demanding more say in their affairs, and the Austrians determined to take the Hungarian military into its fold, allow the reader an insight into the events leading to 1914 (which, I'm sure, will be covered in the sequels).  He is determined to play the part his breeding demands, and when Laszlo scornfully dismisses politics, Balint replies:
"All life is politics; and I don't mean just party politics.  It is politics when I keep order on the estates and run the family properties.  It's all politics.  When we help the well-being of the people in the villages and in the mountains, when we try to promote culture, it's still politics, I say, and you can't run away from it!" (p.455)
Hmm.  Retreating to the country to help the peasants - remind you of anyone?

They Were Counted is a wonderful novel, and I'm keen to move on to the sequels when I get the chance; however, there is one aspect to the book which is a little off.  Balint's pursuit of his former love Adrienne is made unpalatable by the fact that she is scarred by her relationship with her brutish husband, a man who simply forces himself upon her.  While this is bad enough, Balint himself, blinded by his obsession, is determined to have a physical relationship with her, despite her obvious trauma.  It's unpleasant reading for a modern audience, an example of the vast gulf that can appear between cultures and eras...

I wouldn't let that put you off reading the book though, especially if you're a sucker for a novel with dashing army officers, magnificent ball scenes, gambling and promissory notes, and women in enough jewels to cover the debt of a decent-sized country.  With an excellent translation, one which reads like one of the V-Lit classics so many of us love, this is a book to enjoy leisurely - over a long period of time.  It's well worth setting aside a few weeks for ;)

Sunday 18 May 2014

'The Guest' by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

We're back to Korean literature today, and after looking at work by such luminaries as Yi Mun-yol, Park Wan-suh and Kim Young-ha, we have another big name to add to the list.  The book itself is a good one too - after several looks at South Korea, we finally get our first extended glimpse of the North...

Hwang Sok-yong's The Guest (translated by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West, review copy courtesy of Seven Stories Press) is an excellent novel focused on an atrocity which happened during the Korean War.  The main character is Reverend Ryu Yosop, a Korean man who moved to the United States, escaping from the chaos left by the civil war.

Now, forty years later, he has the chance to return to North Korea, one of a number of emigrants permitted to meet family members again.  Just before his departure, though, his elder brother Yohan passes away, and Yosop's homecoming turns into something more than just an opportunity to see some relatives.  You see, Yohan was responsible for some terrible things back in Korea, and it's now left to Yosop to face up to the ghosts of the past.  And when I say ghosts...

The Guest is a book which was met with dismay by the authorities on both sides of the border, and it's little wonder considering the subject matter.  It deals with a massacre in a collection of towns in the North in the middle of the Korean War, an incident which was blamed on the advancing American soldiers.  However, it turns out that the murders were all carried out by Koreans, with Ryu Yohan being amongst the leaders of those carrying out the atrocities.

Hwang structures his book in such a way that the reader is pulled in two directions (chronologically, that is).  We follow Yosop on his journey back to North Korea, and through his eyes we see the changes that have occurred in forty years, allowing us a rare insight into the country.  For the elderly reverend, it's to prove an emotional homecoming, despite his tainted memories:
"The moment he uttered Ch'ansaemgol, Yosop realized that some forty years had passed since he'd last mentioned the name of his hometown.  Ch'ansaemgol.  The word started out with the scent of a mountain berry, lingering at the tip of one's tongue - but then the fragrance suddenly turned into the stench of rotting fish.  It was as if a blob of black paint had been dumped on a watercolor filled with tender, pale-green leaves, the darkness slowly seeping outward towards the edges."
p.15 (Seven Stories Press, 2007)
It's with as much trepidation as joy that the old man heads off to Korea.

However, what he finds there surprises him (and perhaps us...).  He arrives to find a country which, if not as advanced as the US, or South Korea, is nonetheless a normal functioning place.  While the officials in charge of the tour are naturally suspicious of every step he takes outside the officially-sanctioned timetable, they help him to meet up with surviving relatives and even allow him to have a glimpse of his home village.  Still, not everyone's pleased to see him...

This is all due to what happened in the past, and the second strand, compiled from various eye-witness accounts, tells of the build-up to the massacre, before detailing the actions of those few horrific days.  Hwang tells the reader about the slow rise of Christianity on the Korean peninsula, and the inevitable clash of cultures which was to occur when the Communists, supported by China, began to throw their weight about after the liberation from the Japanese at the end of the Second World War.  The two imported ideologies, utterly incompatible, are the catalyst for a breakdown of the family- and community-based life the Koreans are accustomed to - the war is almost merely an excuse for the fighting to start.

The title is an interesting one.  Much as you'd assume that Yosop is the guest, there are several others highlighted in the novel.  The two foreign ideologies, Christianity and Communism, are treated as unwelcome guests (depending on where you're standing), and the word is also a euphemism for smallpox, another unwelcome 'guest', brought into the country by foreigners:
"You don't know how scary the Guest can be, do you?  Just over the past few years, in this valley alone, hundreds of children have died from it.  Even if you survive, I'm telling you, it's no use - the Guest scars you, it scars your face, leaves you marked for life." (p.43)
It's a warning about the dangers of imported evils - and a premonition of what's to come later.

One of the more interesting features of the novel, though, is the way in which Yosop is forced to face up to the ghosts of the past - literally.  You see, while most novels would be content with flashbacks, The Guest uses the protagonists themselves to tell the reader what happened, dragging them back from the other side of the grave.  Yosop has several encounters with his brother and other villagers, at one point becoming overwhelmed by the encounters with the ghosts:
"As soon as the tail of this group disappeared into the next room, Yosop began to wonder whether all the tourists in the group might not be dead." (p.93)
Luckily, he realises that he's not the only one receiving these guests.  One night, he and his uncle sit down for a final chat with a whole host of the dearly departed...

The Guest is a book I enjoyed greatly, an informative, fascinating story on a topic which can't help but intrigue.  The translation is smooth and enjoyable to read (although I wasn't sure we needed quite so many footnotes on Korean clothes and food items).  Of the Korean books I've read so far this year, this is probably the one I'd recommend most highly as it's a great mix of story and traditional culture.  It might be a little dry for some, but there's something there for most to enjoy.  I'm certainly happy I got to encounter another talented Korean writer, and you can rest assured that I'll be looking at some more of Hwang's work - hopefully quite soon, too ;)

Thursday 15 May 2014

IFFP 2014 - Who's Going to Win?

Well, it's been a long, hard road, but I've finally read and reviewed all fifteen of the longlisted books for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and next week we'll get to see who actually takes out the coveted honour of being chosen as best in field by the Shadow Panel :)  What's that?  Oh, yes, there's an official panel as well - I'd almost forgotten about them...

I suppose, then, seeing as I've gone to the effort of reading all the books, I should go to the trouble of looking at the official shortlist, and try to predict a winner (all links are to my reviews).  It's not an easy task though - those 'professionals' are notoriously difficult to second-guess...

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim
(translated by Jonathan Wright, published by Comma Press)

Brownie Points: A fashionable setting (the Middle East), some excellent stories (some verging on Magical Realism), a great small publisher with lots of friends.

Black Marks: It's a short-story collection, and it's a little uneven.

Chances of Winning:  Slim, I'd say.  While I'm happy to see Comma Press get lots of great publicity, I don't think this is one that many people would expect to hear named as the winner next week (go on, prove me wrong!).

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
(translated by Allison Markin Powell, published by Portobello Books)

Brownie Points: A beautiful story, elegant writing and a great ending.

Black Marks: A little lightweight with a truly awful cover - hate it :(

Chances of Winning:  Not very high.  It's a lovely book, but it doesn't really have the necessary heft to win a prize like this.  Heft?  You know, gravitas, oomph.  Moving on...

A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard
(translated by Don Bartlett, published by Harvill Secker)
Brownie Points: A genuine worldwide success, a subject that resonates with many people, well-written and equally well-translated - and surprisingly gripping too.

Black Marks: Divisive - has many vocal haters amongst the crowds of admirers.  May also be a bit of a blokey book (does Knausi's angst resonate as much with women?).

Chances of Winning:  He'll be there or thereabouts come the announcement, but I suspect that he'll be a very well-supported runner up...

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli
(translated by Sam Taylor, published by Portobello Books)

Brownie Points: Easy to read, WW2 setting (everyone loves that, right?).

Black Marks: Too easy to read, not really that interesting.

Chances of Winning: Much higher than I'd like - the judges have form with WW2 books...  Surely they can't give the prize to an overblown short story - can they?

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
(translated by Stephen Snyder, published by Harvill Secker)

Brownie Points:  Dark, clever, a great translation, eminently rereadable - a great book with a female author (what the prize has been crying out for...).

Black Marks:  Not many I can think of - it's not really even a short-story collection.  Lacking in war references, perhaps?

Chances of Winning: Very, very high.  I hope Ogawa's in attendance, as everyone will look very silly if Revenge wins and Boyd Tonkin has to accept it on her behalf.  If ever a short-story collection by a female writer is to win, this is the time ;)

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke
(translated by Jamie Bulloch, published by Peirene Press)

Brownie Points: A taut, tense work, already a classic back in Germany, telepathic waves of support from bloggers all over the world for the plucky underdogs from Peirene Towers :)

Black Marks: Not many, really, apart from being up against a few good books.  Possibly a bit short?

Chances of Winning: Definitely not unthinkable, but I suspect that The Mussel Feast will just come up short.  If Revenge wasn't on the list, Vanderbeke's role as the 'Great Female Hope' (trademark pending) would be unchallenged.  Instead, I think the Nymph will have to be content with compliments from the judges and complimentary champagne ;)

All of which leads me to conclude that the official winner next week will be Yoko Ogawa's Revenge (in a split decision over A Man in Love, with The Mussel Feast the other book to feature heavily in the discussions)..., naturally, the judges will choose A Meal in Winter just to spite me.  If that does happen, then I'd just like to say to all the other authors on the list - I'm really, really sorry :(

Tuesday 13 May 2014

'Running through Beijing' by Xu Zechen (Review)

Anyone interested in literature in translation is bound to have stumbled across the name of Scott Esposito at some point.  He has his own blog, Conversational Reading, and oversees the publication of The Quarterly Conversation, an excellent online periodical.

Obviously, that's not enough to keep him busy though (even with his BTBA judging duties and the That Other Word podcast), and his work at the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco includes bringing books out with Two Lines Press, another small publisher with a focus on fiction in translation.

So when I was asked to take a look at one of the most recent publications, how could I say no? ;)

Xu Zechen's Running through Beijing (translated by Eric Abrahamsen, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is the story of Dunhuang, a petty criminal who has just been released from jail, having spent some time inside for selling fake IDs.  He's a boy from the provinces, with no real connections in Beijing, and as he walks the streets alone, buffeted by the dust storms sweeping over the city, he begins to wonder what he's going to do with himself.  It's then that he bumps into Xiaorong, a seller of fake DVDs, who allows him to stay for a while, and that's all Dunhuang needs to get back on his feet.

Dunhuang also moves into the DVD game, his chance of a second start in the big city:
"It was different now, though.  He was an old hand, calloused, nonchalant.  Anyway, selling pirated DVDs was miles closer to legality than making fake IDs.  And what was most important was his return to entrepreneurship - he was basically restarting his life in Beijing.  He reminded himself constantly that he was working for himself, and that filled him with confidence."
(Two Lines Press, 2014)
A hard-working, smooth-talking, handsome lad, Dunhuang is bound to make a go of things, and he manages to make the best of his limited opportunities.  However, in Beijing, it's always two steps forwards, one step back, especially when you're living outside the law...

Running through Beijing is an entertaining story of people trying to make ends meet in a shadowy environment.  Dunhuang is our (fake) passport to the Chinese capital, taking us from illegally-constructed shacks to hidden DVD factories, from squalid university dormitories to anonymous tower blocks.  Despite some of the setbacks the characters face, it's a fairly light-hearted story at times, with the occasional touch of pathos.

We find ourselves in a city where most people realise that the law is there merely to be circumvented.  Everyone wants fake DVDs, everyone knows that fake IDs are available, and the police are mainly trying to catch thieves in order to take a cut of the fines they impose.  Even one of Dunhuang's landladies is in on the act - when she catches him with some of his illegal films, her indignation is just an attempt to squeeze more rent money out of her (illegal) lodger.

Dunhuang is a very interesting character, one who is actually a lot more naive and innocent than he thinks (a Chinese Oliver Twist...).  A former student, he decides he needs to break the law to survive.  When he's not peddling fake goods, he's actually pretty honest, though, particularly in his support for the friend who took most of the responsibility when the two were arrested.
"He would spend his days selling DVDs to make money, of course, but he would also find some time to visit Bao Ding.  Ideally, he'd locate Qibao before that - he didn't want to disappoint Bao Ding."
Of course, when he meets Bao Ding's girlfriend - and finds her rather attractive -, his honesty is put to the test... 

The girlfriend issue aside, over the course of the novel, Dunhuang shows several signs of personal growth.  Not only does he try to keep his word to Bao Ding, he also begins to take a look at his life and make some changes.  Once immersed in the fake DVD world, he begins to develop an interest in some of the more esoteric films he's selling, devouring books on cinematic history in his spare time.  He starts jogging, buys better clothes and is a different person by the end of the story (let's change the comparison to a Chinese David Copperfield...), the final scene showing his true character.

Running through Beijing is a great look at the real, urban China, unlike some books which focus on the plight of the rural poor and oppressed.  Recently, I read Ma Jian's The Dark Road, a rather harrowing (and manipulative) novel about government repression, but Xu's book is about different people.  This is the next level up, migrants who have made it to the city, but now have to fight to make a living there, using any means available.  The story reminded me of another book on China I've read, the Comma Press collection Shi Cheng (Ten Cities) - funnily enough, guess which writer-translation duo represented Beijing in that book?  That's right, the story 'Wheels are Round' is another Xu-Abrahamsen co-production :)

The story ends as it begins, with Dunhuang running aimlessly through the streets of Beijing, highlighting his need for perpetual motion in a hostile environment.  However, he has changed, and his prospects have too, showing that while there are always ups and downs, who knows what's possible if you work at it hard enough.  As Bao Ding comments:
"A life of luxury is tough in this damned city, but you're not likely to starve either."
And that's a surprisingly optimistic tone on which to end the review - despite some of the darker scenes, Running in Beijing is a book which has a very glass-half-full view of the world:)

Sunday 11 May 2014

'Why Translation Matters' by Edith Grossman (Review)

Something a little different today, in form if not in the general content matter.  With my blog concentrating squarely on fiction in translation, from time to time I like to take a look at more general thoughts on the topic of translation itself.  Today's book is one of the more well-known of these recent works, written by a high-profile translator who attempts to argue the importance of the art.  I rather think she's preaching to the converted round these parts, but let's give it a look anyway ;)

Edith Grossman's Why Translation Matters is a short book which developed from a series of lectures the translator gave at Yale University in 2007.  The title pretty much gives away what the book is about, and Grossman spends a lot of her time arguing for the role of translation in the notoriously monolingual Anglosphere.  However, the book also contains a lot about Grossman herself, and she uses it to discuss her approach towards her most famous translation, the recent English-language version of Don Quixiote, before adding a final section on translating Spanish-language poetry into English.

Grossman has, to say the least, a rather aggressive approach, and she argues for the importance of translation to Anglophone literature, and culture in general.  Translators are the chosen ones responsible for transporting new ideas into a second culture; with authors in other languages acting as 'long-distance mentors', it's the translator who enables this intercontinental meeting of the minds.  Of course, this is not a one-way street, and just as Goethe's call for Weltliteratur envisages, the translator enables continuous circular influences in literature.  Grossman gives the example of the influence of Faulkner and Joyce on García Márquez, who in turn influenced generations of Anglophone writers.  Similarly, she discusses Pablo Neruda's influence on American poets, with today's scene unthinkable without his legacy.

Of course, the most important question here is what a translator is actually doing when they take a work from one language into another, and Grossman gives a fairly good summary of this task:
"To my mind, a translator's fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context - the implications and echoes of the first author's tone intention, and level of discourse.  Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance.  They are not necessarily faithful to words or syntax, which are peculiar to specific languages and can rarely be brought over directly in any misguided and inevitably muddled effort to somehow replicate the original."
pp.70/1 (Yale University Press, 2010)
The key, then, is the importance of ideas and intentions over words and grammatical structure.  The focus should always be on translating at a whole-text level - a word-for-word effort, akin to a Google Translate approach, is always going to end up as a failure...

Grossman also comes up with some interesting insights when she runs through the approach she took when asked to create perhaps her most famous work, her recent translation of Don Quixote.  Forced to decide how to consider the task, she drew inspiration from Mexican poet and fiction writer Octavio Paz, whose declaration that there are no original texts (as all writing is merely a translation of the non-visual world) means that the translator is free to create their own work, without feeling burdened by the weight of the 'original' text.  Which is a nice theory ;)

As you'd expect in a book on translation, there are the usual complaints about monolingualism, including a reference to an infamous US bumper sticker:
  "If English Was Good Enough For Jesus, It's Good Enough For Me." (p.42)
While that was probably(?) tongue-in-cheek, the attitude is representative of how the English-speaking world looks at other languages and cultures, and most of my readers would have experienced moments such as one from Grossman's early life:
"I never have forgotten my adolescent self discovering nineteenth-century Russian and French novelists: the world seemed to grow large, expanding like an unbreakable balloon; it became broader and deeper as I contemplated characters more diverse and unpredictable than anything I could have imagined on my own." (p.25)
The need to expand our minds, broaden our horizons and escape from insular attitudes is something which I hope we can all appreciate :)

In truth, though, I can't say that Why Translation Matters is a book I'd really recommend to anyone other than complete novices in the area of translation.  There's very little here that you wouldn't find in a lengthy Twitter discussion (apart from, perhaps, information about Grossman's own work), and the book has a slightly bitter, angry tone, which seems to act as a replacement for any real insights.  Perhaps the reason for this lies in the origin of the text (speeches for undergraduate students), but I was hoping for something a little more substantial.

Her anger at UK publishers for daring to change her words also rubbed me up the wrong way (I remember Philip Gabriel, one of Haruki Murakami's translators, having a similar rant on a Two Voices podcast).  It's ironic that Grossman doesn't understand that her insistence on American English is part of the linguistic imperialism she's railing against in Why Translation Matters.  She claims that this wouldn't happen to books first published in the UK when they make their way across to the US:
"I do not believe publishing houses here reciprocate or return the linguistic insult by going out of their way to Americanize the texts of books first published in the United Kingdom..." (pp.45/6)
Hmm.  This is a claim I find dubious in the extreme - can any American publishers (or British translators) help me out here?

Her stories of reading Woolf and Joyce in the original (her justification for her views) miss the point somewhat.  If I choose to read American authors, I expect that the book will be written in American English, but that's not really the case for translations - I'd appreciate it if a British version at least made an effort to put the text in British English.  Of course, it seems that the new trend is for a more neutral brand of English, with blatant local usage smoothed out (Daniel Hahn recently discussed this, especially the 'got v gotten' dilemma, in his excellent Translation Diary).

In truth, this is just one example of an America-centred attitude which takes much away from Grossman's arguments.  Other than her complaints about British publishers, there's little here that ventures outside American borders, with no mention at all of places like Ireland, Australia or India.  It's telling that in discussing her work on Don Quixote, she talks about how her work has to focus on the cultural differences between 17th-century Spain and 21st-century America - and she wonders why UK editors might want to alter her work ;)

Let's face it, I'm probably not the right reader for this; if you're newer to the idea of literary translation (and American!) you'll probably enjoy it a lot more.  Lest you think that I'm alone in my reservations about Why Translation Matters, please check out Tom's piece from a few years back in which he skewers it in a much less waffly manner :)

It's a shame, really, because it goes without saying that translation does matter, and good books on the subject are important for the spread of this message (one I would recommend is the excellent In Translation, edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky).  As a reminder of the importance of the art, I'll just leave you on a sombre, and telling, note.  I read this book on the 17th of April - the day Gabriel García Márquez died.  While I didn't think much of Why Translation Matters, my thanks go to Grossman, and García Márquez's other translators, for bringing his work into our paths...

Thursday 8 May 2014

'A Meal in Winter' by Hubert Mingarelli (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 15)

After a long and arduous trek, stretching from Germany to Japan, with stops in countries such as Spain and Iraq in between, we've finally reached the last stop of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize journey.  We're in Poland today, but it's only a brief stay - it's rather cold outside...

A Meal in Winter by Hugo Mingarelli - Portobello Books
(translated by Sam Taylor)
What's it all about?
We're in Poland during the Second World War, and three German soldiers are out bright and early on patrol in the countryside.  Sick of taking part in firing squads, the trio have volunteered to scour the surrounding area for Jews in hiding, mainly to avoid having to shoot the ones already captured:
"We went at dawn, before the first shootings.  That meant missing breakfast, but it also meant not having to face Graaf, who would be filled with hatred that we had gone over his head."
p.9 (Portobello Books, 2013)
While leaving early avoids a run-in with their superior, it also means that they don't have time to eat, a decision which will affect how their day unfolds.

After a few hours' walking in the freezing cold, they uncover a Jew hiding in a hole and start walking back towards their camp.  Hunger and cold, however, force them to stop off at an old abandoned house, where they decide to start a fire to cook the meagre rations they have brought with them.  The Jew obediently takes his place in a storage cupboard, and the soldiers get to work preparing the meal - when an unexpected, and unwelcome, visitor upsets the equilibrium...

A Meal in Winter is a very short work, its 138 pages exaggerating its size; I actually finished this in well under an hour.  It can barely be called a novella, more an extended short story, and in its focus on a very limited area and group of protagonists, it's actually more akin to a play.  The book is divided into short sections, and the language is fairly simple, more plain than elegant, but very effective.

The writer is effectively basing a story on a moral dilemma, setting up a situation where the soldiers have to make a choice about what to do with the prisoner they wish they hadn't found in the first place.  Initially driven by a desire to justify their escape from the camp, the soldiers begin to regret their discovery once they have time to reflect on it in comfort.

Mingarelli is careful to humanise his creations, with all three soldiers drawn out as real people caught up in a horrible situation.  Bauer is a petty thief, quick to anger, while Emmerich is more withdrawn, preoccupied with the issue of how to raise his son in absentia.  The unnamed narrator is equally realistic, haunted (like the others) by the memories of his daily duties:
"Because if you want to know what it is that tormented me, and that torments me to this day, it's seeing that kind of thing on the clothes of the Jews we're going to kill: a piece of embroidery, coloured buttons, a ribbon in the hair.  I was always pierced by those thoughtful maternal displays of tenderness." (p.81)
Despite their orders, and the racism instilled in the soldiers from birth, it's not hard to see that it would be tempting for them to let it slide, just this one time...

The unexpected visitor, a Pole who turns up with some alcohol, hoping to share in the meal, acts as a catalyst to the situation, his obvious loathing of the Jew bringing the soldiers' better nature to the fore.  As the warmth of the hut brings everyone closer together, the story runs towards its inevitable end where two questions will be answered?  Will everyone get something to eat?  And what will happen to the prisoner...

Did it deserve to make the longlist?
No, I don't think so.  A Meal in Winter is almost painfully slight, and while it's carefully constructed, with a lot to like, it's nothing more than an interesting short story.  The figure of the Pole is a weak point, a cartoonish character designed to raise sympathy for the Jewish captive, and the writing, while clear, has nothing which raises it above the crowd.  For this to really be worthy of a spot on the shortlist, the writing would have to be excellent, and in my opinion it's just good :)

Why did it make the shortlist?
Not sure really, unless there's a secret clause 324 c (ii) in the IFFP regulations which states that a WW2-themed book must be on the shortlist every year.  It's a good book, worthy of the longlist, and it has grown on me since I finished it, but when you consider the books that were left off the shortlist (The Sorrow of Angels, Brief Loves that Live Forever, The Infatuations), you can't help but wonder whether the Wehrmacht connection got it over the line.

And if it takes out the whole thing, then I'm done with the IFFP.  Seriously.

So, that's your lot, then.  Fifteen works of translated fiction, rated, slated and ready to be judged by posterity.  The prize will be handed out in two weeks' time, and the Shadow Panel will be announcing their verdict shortly before that (I'm fairly sure that - for the third year running - we'll be choosing a very different champion!).  I'll be back next week with a review of the journey and my prediction for what the 'real' judges will opt for - see you next time :)