Thursday 31 July 2014

'Faces in the Crowd' by Valeria Luiselli (Review)

Some of you may be aware of Three Percent's World Cup of Literature, which ran parallel to the FIFA shindig earlier this month, and it came as no surprise that Roberto Bolaño's By Night in Chile was the eventual winner (the judging panel was stacked with Bolañistos...).  More surprising though was that the beaten finalist was Mexico, represented by a relatively unknown contemporary female writer.

What better way is there, then, to finish off Spanish-Language Literature Month in style while also ushering in the next big blogging event, Women in Translation Month, than giving this one a go?  None, that's what.  Off we go to Mexico City, or perhaps New York?  Bear with me - it's about to get a little confusing...

Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd (translated by Christina MacSweeney, published by Granta Books) starts off with a writer sitting at home in Mexico, jotting down memories of her younger days in New York in the few minutes she can snatch from her domestic duties.  It seems to be an ordinary, albeit interesting, story of a woman frustrated to be tied down by daily life when an artistic spirit is aching to be released, and as it is, it's a great read.  However, this simple, alternating pattern of now and then soon develops into something more.

The catalyst for this is a chance discovery in a New York library which sets the younger narrator off on an obsessive hunt for traces of a dead Mexican poet.  As the interest in the elusive Gilberto Owen grows, he begins to have a voice of his own, and the voice of the present-day narrator also fractures, with extra strands added where events take a different turn.  By the end of the work, we're no longer sure exactly whose voice is controlling the novel any more...

Faces in the Crowd is a wonderful piece of writing, elegant, poignant and light when it needs to be:
"I worked as a reader and translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing 'foreign gems'.  Nobody bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is treated with suspicion."
p.1 (Granta Books, 2012)
Very true, as we're all aware, but a good example of an odd bit of bite.  The book is actually many stories in one all jumbled up, intertwined but separate, and it's up to the reader to both separate them and work out how they interconnect.

The initial focus is the writer looking back at her youth, focusing on regrets and memories from the vantage point of her older self.  She talks about her New York friends - Moby, the literary forger, Dakota, the singer, Pajarote, the student -, but we're not sure how true it all is:
"All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I had them off by heart.  Everything else is a later elaboration.  It's not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance.  They are scaffolding, structures, empty houses." (p.4)
The longer the novel goes on, the more we begin to doubt the stories we are told about the time in New York.  We're told that a novel is being written, and there's a sense that the writer's 'memories' are just as fictional as her fiction.

We definitely can't trust her (we're not even that sure who 'she' is), and it soon becomes clear that we don't even know whose story this really is.  While initially the woman relates events from the life of Gilberto Owen, a (real-life) Mexican poet who walked the streets of New York decades before the woman's time there, later the tables are turned, and Owen appears to be seeing the women himself.  He gradually takes over the book, his ghost seeping through the pages, parallel lives threatening to overlap...

If there's one idea that suffuses Faces in the Crowd, it's that of ghosts - the novel is full of them.  The most obvious one is the spirit supposedly living in the writer's house in Mexico (cleverly named 'Without'), but the characters themselves fulfil the role of ghost for each other.  The title comes from seeing faces on the subway, in windows of passing trains, and everything has echoes of the past, resting places for ghosts - even if that's not such a good thing:
"There's nothing so ill-advised as attributing a metonymic value to inanimate things.  If you think the condition of a plant in a pot is a reflection of the condition of your soul, or worse, that of a loved one, you'll be condemned to disillusion or perpetual paranoia." (p.13)
There are plenty of examples of this in the book - books themselves play a major role here...

Faces in the Crowd is an excellent piece of writing and a well-mapped out novel.  I wasn't quite sure initially when the book took a turn towards Gilberto and away from the female narrator, but the complexity of the structure definitely added to the book, and I was convinced by the end of the story.  There's beautiful, terse writing throughout, and I have to admit that I spent a lot of my first half-hour's reading alternating between perusing pages, then noting down quotations ;)

In terms of influences and similarities, Luiselli's book owes debts to several literary ghosts.  While the first third has several echoes of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, there's also more than a hint of a more imaginative Knausgaard (albeit it in far fewer words!).  However, a book that also came to mind was Teju Cole's Open City, especially in the way that Owen and the narrator unwittingly follow the same paths, leaving their own faint traces on the streets of New York.

Luiselli is a talent that doesn't need to hide behind comparisons, though; I loved this one, and I already have Sidewalks on hold at the library.  While I'd heard of it before, I'm not aware of it having been up for any prizes, which is fairly surprising as this is a very good read.  I hereby prounounce Faces in the Crowd as the Costa Rica of The World Cup of Literature, the one story most neutrals will be taking out of it.  Hopefully, more people will now be aware of how good it is :)

Christina MacSweeney's translation was a good one, a major part of the book's success, but I just picked up on one thing which may (or may not) have been an error in translation.  It has to do with a film the family were watching, 'Raining Hamburgers' - which is a literal translation of Lluvia de hamburguesas, the Latin-American title of a certain animated film, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs... I wonder if that was intentional?  If anyone can shed any light on this, please let me know ;)

Tuesday 29 July 2014

'The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories' by Paul Griffiths (Review)

While Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 8 has been running for almost two months now, thus far I haven't really been able to contribute much.  Today's post, though, is an attempt to rectify that with something a little different.  You see, while the inspiration is Japanese, the end product is Welsh - and the style is excitingly unique.  I shall explain...

Paul Griffith's The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories (review copy courtesy of the publisher) is another of the wonderful slices of writing from The Cahiers Series, a coproduction between Sylph Editions and The Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris.  Each of the cahiers is a slim, aesthetically-pleasing volume, running to about forty pages, and they all have some sort of connection with translation.

This particular cahier is of special interest to J-Lit fans as it takes classic stories from Japanese Noh plays (slow productions which use wooden masks to convey emotions) and condenses them into brief, elegant short stories in English.  While it sounds a little unorthodox, it's actually a decision which works very well, as the original stories are less complete tales than thought-provoking vignettes - and they are all very well-known in Japan, on a par with such tales as the Arthurian legends or Aesop's fables.

Several of the choices touch on the supernatural, depicting encounters between humans and spirits.  In 'Hagoromo', a fisherman agrees to return a spirit-being's cloak to enable it to return to the heavens and, in return, is allowed to witness a heavenly dance - an indescribable event:
"The fisherman never tried to describe what he then saw, not to his beloved, not to his friends, not, when he was an old man, to the children of the village.  He had seen something; that much they all knew.  They would look into his eyes, for a trace of it.  Of course, there was nothing to be seen."
'Hagoromo', p.13 (Sylph Editions, 2014)
The first story, 'Tadanori', also introduces a spirit, when a monk sleeping beneath a cherry-blossom tree is watched over by a ghost - the poet the monk is seeking -, and in 'Kayoi Komachi' we hear of a poetess, a ghostly lover and spilt wine which never reaches the floor...

Another theme is the occurrence of chance meetings, as detailed in 'Hachi no Ki'.  In this story, a ruined, exiled nobleman decides to show pity on a traveller on a cold winter night, and while the outcome is perhaps the most predictable of all the stories, it's still elegantly done.  In contrast, 'Hanjo' tells of a chance meeting between two young lovers, where fortune conspires to put obstacles in the path of their happiness, leaving the woman to abandon hope of ever finding the man again.

As much as the stories are fascinating, though, the real beauty of The Tilted Cup is in how the tales are told.  The title itself comes from the writer's preface, which he begins:
"Translation tilts the cup, and the text takes on a new shape.  What spills over, the translator hopes, is not lost to the ground but held in the ambience of that which remains." (p.5)
In fact, by taking stories from Japanese into English, and converting them from drama to prose, Griffiths is making a double translation - or, as he puts it, tilting the cup at least twice.  Happily for the reader, it doesn't appear that too much of the essence has splashed out onto the ground ;)

Griffiths has brought the stories into the new language (and genre) with some beautiful writing, and he has a pleasingly light touch with words.  In 'Kantan', a tale of a student, a pillow and some spell-binding dreams, one of the images is described thus:
"Thereupon a messenger in court uniform arrived to tell him the emperor had died, and had named him heir.
 Why?  The messenger didn't know.  That wasn't his job."
'Kantan' (p.17)
There are many more examples of sly winks to the reader, but let's not give too much away here...

What stands out most about the collection, however is the way in which several of the tales play with the structure to make the story stand out.  In 'Fujisan', the brief text is shaped in the image of the famous mountain, and 'Teika', which recounts the perfect love between a princess and a poet, takes the form of an incomplete sentence, one which circles back on itself and could almost be read continuously.

The best of these, though, is 'Saigyozakura', in which a famous poet laments the visitors who journey to see his famous cherry-blossom tree - and disturb his tranquillity.  However, a spirit chides him for blaming the tree:
"It seems to me, said the flowers, that you carry human nonsense within you.  Only the fool thinks himself raised above folly."
'Saigyozakura' (p.36)
The beauty of this one, however, is what you discover when you glance at the end notes.  You see, this one is a story within a story, for if you look back at the text, there is another, similar tale hidden within, just waiting to be discovered by the careful reader...

As always with the cahiers, there's far more to the work than just the text.  The book also includes several photographs by John L. Tran of contemporary Japan, interspersed between the stories and perhaps reflecting them in a new light.  Many of them focus on empty hallways in covered shopping strips, cold, shiny and fairly claustrophobic.  For people who have visited Japan, they're fairly familiar images, yet the absence of people, and the forbidding, rolled-down shutters, give the pictures a slightly more sinister, other-worldly air...

...which brings us nicely back to the stories :)  The Tilted Cup is a beautiful work, another perfect coffee-table piece (for if I ever get a coffee table), and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japan, Noh plays or Japanese shopping centres.  It's not a book which will take long to read, but it's certainly one you'll be dipping back into time and time again...

Sunday 27 July 2014

'The Book of Gaza', edited by Atef Abu Saif (Review)

I've read a couple of Comma Press' excellent literary city guides, so when I was offered the chance to review another, I was more than happy to take on the task.  However, that feeling was also tinged by other, stronger, emotions.  You see, while The Book of Rio, for example, evoked memories of nights spent watching the football, the visions attached to the city discussed today are (unfotunately) much less pleasant...

The Book of Gaza (edited by Atef Abu Saif, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) contains ten stories by Palestinian writers, each of which is set in the Gaza Strip.  Like the other books in this series, The Book of Gaza has a mix of topics and settings, with stories from male and female writers presenting the reader with a privileged look inside the territory and allowing us to see the good and bad of life crammed onto a 25-mile-long strip of land.

The book contains several short, fleeting tales, and the best of these is probably Talal Abu Shawish's 'Red Lights' (tr. Alice Guthrie).  It's a story in which a grumpy taxi driver shows solidarity, and a human side, on his journey, his harsh words belying a caring interior.  Another of these vignettes is Asmaa Al Ghul's 'You and I' (tr. Alexa Firat).  A simple, elegant story of a woman's walk to and from university, it actually betrays deeper unease at what's happening in her hometown.

The other stories by female writers in the collection take a more explicit look at the life of women on the strip, and if we're talking about explicit, Najlaa Ataalah's 'The Whore of Gaza' (tr. Sarah Irving) is one which immediately comes to mind.  It introduces us to an unconventional woman at ease with her body, ruminating on money, love and sex in a society where women shouldn't really be thinking too much about at least one of these.  Is she a mistress or a whore?  A dreamer or a rationalist?  Well, that's for the reader to decide ;)

A more traditional woman is described in Nayrouz Qarmout's 'The Sea Cloak' (tr. Charis Bredin).  We start with a childhood memory which quickly turns sour as a young girl discovers that life, and gender relations, can change overnight.  Years later, she is a woman trapped in her smothering clothes (literally and metaphorically), and a trip to the coast will highlight the differences between childhood freedom and restrictive adulthood.  It's a story that's well told, reflecting issues faced by women in a patriarchal society - and it's one which has a twist in the tale...

Of course, occupation, conflict, call it what you will - the troubles in Gaza are never far away from the reader's mind.  Zaki Al 'Ela's 'Abu Jaber Goes Back to the Woods' (tr. Max Weiss) deals with this most explicitly, showing us the realities (and violence) of life inside a camp:
"Gentlemen, my boy, esteemed company.  Trust me on this.  Time and time again, they have dragged us along - on their plantations, in their factories.  We're nothing but workhorses to them, dumb as rocks.  Anyone who doesn't want to do it can go to hell; he can eat rocks or sand - him and his children.  They don't care."
'Abu Jaber Goes Back to the Woods', p.106 (Comma Press, 2014)
If you read between the lines, there are obvious wrongs on both sides in this story, but the frustrations and hardships of the Palestinians come across very strongly.  The humiliation of curfews, forced assemblies and savage beatings serve to foster the kind of resistance the presence of the soldiers is meant to stamp out.

A more hopeful look at a similar scene is Ghareeb Asqalani's 'A Flower for David' (tr. John Peate), a story in which friendship blossoms between a Palestinian worker and an Israeli engineer.  Despite the close relationship between their two families, their ties are tested by incidents that occur when the Jewish David is in the middle of his military service, and the writer wonders whether friendship can survive during an armed conflict.  Depending on your viewpoint, you might see this one as far-fetched or hopeful, but it's a ray of optimism in the middle of some pretty bleak events.

My favourite, though, is the story which kicks off the collection, Atef Abu Saif's 'A Journey in the Opposite Direction' (tr. Tom Aplin).  It's set at the southern border crossing of Rafah, where we witness thousands of people trying to get out, with a few trying to get in:
"Samir was returning to Gaza after ten years of estrangement.  'Gaza is nicer from the outside,' he said looking around him..."
'A Journey in the Opposite Direction' (p.4)
Ramzi, waiting for his brother to cross the border, encounters his old university friend Samir, and the two reminisce, aware that their lives have not gone as well as they would have liked.
This is far from being a gloomy story, though - it's beautiful, wistful and poetic, combining a sense of regret for the past with a desire to make the most of the present
"Time passed, and when time passes we do not notice the thick dust that its wheels throw up because we are too preoccupied with our many pains and joys." (p.12)
As the two men are joined by another couple of faces from the past, their bad day at the border becomes a chance to celebrate youth and enjoy what little there is to be glad about.  Despite the troubles and hardship around them, it's a story with the one thing that can rarely be taken away completely - hope...

In addition to contributing a story, Atef Abu Saif edited the book and also provides the introduction.  It's a great addition to the stories, and it includes a brief overview of the history of writing in Gaza:
"For nearly a century, Palestinian literature has honestly expressed the crisis of the Palestinian people.  It has been the faithful scribe of their history, events and tragedies, of the details of their displacement and refugeedom.  Literature has been the living voice of the Palestinian struggle, in the face of being uprooted, displaced and occupied." (p.ix)
The importance of writing also comes through in an article he contributed to Slate, one in which he describes the terrible scenes in Gaza and implores the outside world not to see the Palestinian victims as mere numbers, but as people, individuals...

...and this is the real importance of The Book of Gaza.  While it's a great collection, with several excellent stories, what it's really about is turning abstract casualties into real people.  Let's hope that the book reaches a wider audience and manages to fulfil that vitally important task.

Thursday 24 July 2014

'Dead Stars' by Álvaro Bisama (Review)

This is my third review for Spanish-Language Literature Month, but it's a big welcome to a new writer, and a new publisher.  Ox and Pigeon are a fledgling online presence with a focus on Spanish-language writers, with three works available so far purely in digital form.  After a couple of collections with stories by various writers, their third offering is their first by a single writer - and while it's fairly brief, it's a great way to kick things off :)

Álvaro Bisama's Dead Stars (translated by Megan McDowell, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novella in eighty-four brief chapters, and a story within a story.  The book begins with two unnamed narrators having coffee in the city, waiting for offices to open (to let them get on with the business of dissolving their marriage...).  Their plans are altered, however, when the woman opens the newspaper and sees a photograph of a woman she once knew - a woman who has just been arrested.

Shocked by the picture, the woman then turns to her husband, the real first-person narrator, and begins to tell him all about Javiera, the woman she met during her university days.  As the words pour out of her mouth, we learn all about the charismatic friend and her young lover, Donoso.  However, Bisama's novella is a story that's just as much about the couple in the café - and the country they live in - as about the woman in the newspaper...

Javiera is, though, the stand-out character of the book, a woman with an impressive past:
"Javiera use to talk so loudly that sometimes you'd think she was shouting.  The next day we heard half her life in five minutes, when she asked us to stay after class to choose a student representative.  Of course, we immediately elected her.  That day, she told us she'd been expelled in the eighties.  She told us how the rector had called for her head and she was kicked out of school.  She left the country.  The rest of us had all been just kids back then.  None of our life stories could compete with hers."
Chapter 8 (Ox and Pigeon, 2014)
In a time of caution and moderation, Javiera is a woman who makes no secret of her political leanings.  Having suffered horribly under the previous regime, she's determined to make herself heard, the one person who refuses to hide in the shadows.

The crux of the story is her meeting with Donoso in class.  The younger man becomes her lover, the start of a tempestuous affair that eventually goes sour.  There's an underlying clash of cultures between the die-hard revolutionary and the more pragmatic middle-class, post-Pinochet kid, and the two eventually struggle to really understand each other.  Perhaps it's a little too tempting to read a lot into these generational differences, though...

However, as mentioned above, while Javiera and Donoso dominate the story, we constantly return to our nameless, disillusioned couple.  From the vantage point of their seats outside the café, they cast an eye back on a different time, the unexpected photograph in the paper reminding them of their own experiences (including depression and addictions).  In many ways, the end of the marriage is a suitable metaphor for the crushing inertia felt in the country after the euphoria of a potential change of direction.

While the story is fascinating, Dead Stars stands out mostly for its style.  It consists of a series of brief chapters, highly effective, several of them consisting of simple one-sentence gems:
"You remember Valparaíso back then? she said.  I said: Yes, the whole city was in ruins." (Chapter 16)
In many ways, it's a recital, an outpouring of memories, and the story of Javiera is representative of a communal need to release the suffering.  The story is written in short, plain sentences for the most part, communicating the apathy felt after the draining oppression.

With Chilean authors writing about the years of oppression, there's always an elephant in the room, and there's certainly a Bolaño influence, in themes if not in style.  Of course, it would be hard for a Chilean writer not to mine that particular vein given the country's recent history.  Dead Stars has a foreword by Alejandro Zambra, a Chilean writer, poet and literary critic, which touches on the era and looks at why the characters would feel and act the way they do.  For most Anglophone readers, though, this is probably still not quite enough, and it might be a good idea to briefly look up the history of the era (Chile in the 1980s and 1990s).

In short, Dead Stars is a story of a melancholy time, seen through two relationships, where the hope of the past has gone, leaving ruins in its wake:
"The university was truly the museum of a revolution that never came, a resistance that had been slaughtered in the trenches." (Chapter 19)
Depressing?  Grim?  Yes - but an excellent little read all the same :)

If you're looking for more from Bisama, Ox and Pigeon give you some tips on their website, including a short story in one of their previous collections.  Issue 1 of The Portable Museum contains Bisama's 'Nazi Girl', along with stories by three other Spanish-language writers (including a certain Enrique Vila-Matas...).  That's a book I'm sure I'll be checking out soon too ;)

Tuesday 22 July 2014

'The Shadow of Arms' by Hwang Sok-yong (Review)

After enjoying The Guest, I was looking forward to the second of the Hwang Sok-yong books I received from Seven Stories Press a while back.  As you can see from the cover, though, while The Guest was a slow, reflective novel about a man's return to Korea, today's choice is a slightly different work.  War, what is it good for?  Well, small business and the black market, apparently...

The Shadow of Arms (translated by Chun Kyung-ja) is, rather unusually for a Korean book, set outside the Korean peninsula, taking us further South-West.  The novel takes place during the Vietnam War, where we meet a Korean soldier Ahn Yong-kyu, who is whisked out of the trenches to the city of Da Nang.  The lucky soldier has been chosen to replace a returning officer at the Joint Investigation headquarters - meaning his job has changed from hunting the Vietcong to looking for blackmarket cigarettes.

However, while life is certainly more comfortable in the city, it's by no means simpler.  The scale of the war entails a massive influx of consumer goods from America and elsewhere, leading to a black-market economy on a breath-taking scale.  Both sides in the conflict are syphoning off food, money, white goods and weapons from the warehouses scattered around the city, and it's inevitable that connections will be made between people on opposing sides.  When it comes to business in the back streets of Da Nang, Yong-kyu soon learns that you're never quite sure who exactly you're dealing with...

The story may start in the jungle, but The Shadow of Arms is a book which mostly plays out in the city.  It's a story of Koreans in the Vietnam war, there as support for their American allies and protectors, a story many people will be unaware of.  At times, it comes across as a kind of M*A*S*H* for black-market investigators, but without the humour - this is a serious book exploring serious issues.

It's made abundantly clear from the start that money is behind everything taking place in the country, with a picture drawn of people hooked on both opium and consumer products.  Early on, Yong-kyu has a glimpse of the packed American warehouses:
"What is a PX?  A Disneyland in a vast tin warehouse.  A place where an exhausted soldier with a few bloodstained military dollars can buy and possess dreams mass-produced by industrial enterprises.  The ducks and rabbits and fairies are replaced by machines and laughter and dances.  The wrapping paper and the boxes smell of rich oil and are as beautiful as flowers."
p.6 (Seven Stories Press, 2014)
A third-world country and first-world goods - it's no wonder that many people are led into the temptation of the black market...

The Korean newcomer proves himself to be surprisingly adaptive, soon making a name for himself in the markets of Da Nang.  While having to take part in the game in order to do his job, he's not greedy, diving into the black market mainly to make connections.  In doing so, he introduces the reader to a world of clubs, whore houses, American warehouses and back-street dealings - at which point many of you will be wondering where the war went.

It is out there, though, and Hwang does take us on occasional visits to the 'real' Vietnam.  The two other main characters in the book are Pham Quyen, a powerful Vietnamese Major, and his younger brother Pham Minh - an undercover agent for the National Liberation Front.  Away from Yong-kyu and his work, it's here we see some bloodshed amongst the corruption, receiving an insight into the mindset of both sides.

We also hear of atrocities, mainly from American court-martial reports.  These chapters take the form of written statements, in which soldiers are interviewed by the military police for their involvement in attacks on civilians.  Whole villages are murdered, women are raped and disposed of, yet the statements are taken calmly and filed away.  The way the crimes are handled is eerily clinical, in contrast with what actually happened...

The Shadow of Arms is a fascinating view of the Vietnam war from a different angle to the one most of us will have used before.  Yong-kyu acts as a quasi-neutral observer - he's mostly detached, but his mask does slip occasionally:
"Drink, drink, you'll feel great at heart, peel and and eat it while it's still soft and tender, chew it, relish it, suck it, suck it, stick it in deep and suck it, see you in a clean bedroom with graceful designs and tasteful decor, soft touch, for diminishing stamina, for indigestion, it'll make you younger, it'll make you sleep, stocks and savings and investments will make a deluge of money, of rifles machine guns rockets grenades cannon napalm helicopters tanks kill me take the GI money and run for the room down the hall, hey, whore here's your customer, take him to your room sit down lie down undress go ahead spread insert suck pay soldiers of the Cross rise up for the Lord go away brimstone is burning God bless Americans God bless America." (p.236)
As you can see, while he's usually cool and professional in his work, even he gets a little disillusioned with what's going on in the country...

While both sides have their bad points, the book certainly dwells more on the shortcomings of Americans.  Certainly, an American (especially one with a personal connection to the war) might be more affected by the negative portrayal of their behaviour than I was, and there's little about Vietcong atrocities until the end of the novel.  For this reason, The Shadow of Arms (based on Hwang's own experiences in Vietnam) was a controversial book in Korea; in fact, the second part was only published after a political change of regime.

The Shadow of Arms is an interesting read, but there are a few issues I had with it.  The book needed a conclusion after the development of relationships between Yong-kyu and the two brothers, but it seemed a little forced, too quick and contrived.  As a whole, the book suffers a little from the uneasy mix of literary fiction and thriller (similar to the issues I had last year with Ryu Murakami's From the Fatherland, With Love).

In some places, the translation also seemed a little off.  There were unusual typos ('of' for 'off' in some phrasal verbs, 'taught' instead of 'taut') which perhaps should have been picked up (and may have been in a later print).  I also found it hard to distinguish between the Americans and Koreans at times, although I actually found that the Vietnamese characters were much clearer and more distinct.

Perhaps a question to resolve here is who would enjoy this book most.  I have a feeling that it's less for lovers of K-Lit and literary fiction than readers interested in the Vietnam War, as it's a solid novel which looks at the conflict from a new angle.  It gives us a picture of Da Nang as a temporarily multi-cultural city, a Vietnamese Casablanca, if you will.  The moral of the story, though?  Well, that's hard to distill into one idea, but where there's a war, you need cocktails and dancing, and there's always someone who can get his hands on them - at a price...

Sunday 20 July 2014

'The Mahé Circle' by Georges Simenon (Review)

As many of you will know, Penguin Classics have committed themselves to bringing out new translations of all of Georges Simenon's 'Maigret' detective novels/stories over the new few years (and there are a lot of them).  However, as someone with little interest in crime novels, I didn't really expect to get involved in reading the Belgian author's work - until, that is, I was tipped off about something a little different.  You see, Simenon's work isn't all about Maigret, you know...

The Mahé Circle (translated by Siân Reynolds, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short novel set on an island in the South of France, and on the first page we meet our 'hero', the good doctor François Mahé, out in a boat, trying to catch fish in the company of one of the locals.  It's the first time Mahé has brought his family to the island of Porquerolles, and initially his decision seems to have been a poor one, as both he and his family struggle to adapt to the southern way of life.

However, once he returns to his comfortable bourgeois existence, the doctor realises that he misses the unstructured, chaotic life of the south, and he gradually begins to loathe his daily life.  At the age of thirty-five (and tipping the scales at ninety kilos), Mahé slowly comes to think of his world as a conspiracy against him, an identity which has been gradually built around him, without his permission - a stifling circle preventing him from living his own life.  It's inevitable that by the time the holidays come around again, Doctor Mahé is itching to pack up the car and head South again...

Simenon's short novel is an excellent portrait of a man whose average, unthinking existence is shattered by the realisation that there's something more to be had from life than Sunday dinners with friends and a spot of fishing at the weekend.  While most of the 'action', as it is, happens on the island, much of the psychological drama takes place back at home.  It's a place where he should be in his element, an environment of his own, yet this simple truth turns out to be an enormous lie.

The truth is that Mahé, like many people, has been formed by his environment.  He lives in the house of his dead father (his mother still lives with him), and his wife is a woman chosen more for her ability to fit into the running of the house rather than from any true feelings of love.  Mahé realises that most people would be happy:
"What more could he ask for?  He had a quiet life, plenty of free time to go hunting and fishing whenever he wanted to.  Good dogs.  And anyone from the village would readily keep him company."
p.52 (Penguin Classics, 2014)
For him, though, those village people, many of whom bear the same family name as him, form a tight circle, smothering his hopes of freedom.

Where there's a mid-life crisis, there's usually a catalyst to set it off, and while life on Porquerolles is lazy and sunny, it's not just boules and pastis in the evening that have the doctor in a spin.  At the start of the novel, he is called to the house of a dying woman in place of the absent local doctor, and a glimpse of her elder daughter, an eleven-year-old girl in a red dress, sets off an explosive chain reaction of thoughts in his head.
"No, it was an obsession, that was the word, a haunting obsession.  And it had started that very first day, but faintly, insidiously, like those incurable illnesses that you only become aware of when it is too late for treatment." (p.75)
It's here that his rebellion against 'normal' life begins, and the comparison above is remarkably apt in many ways...

...all of which will undoubtedly trigger Lolita warnings in most readers' minds, but that's not quite the way The Circle of Mahé goes.  The young Elizabeth is less a real sexual target than an embodiment of the allure of the South, a representative of the freedom Porquerolles offers in the face of the staid, stifling village of Saint-Hilaire:
"Here men drained the life out of day after day, with tasks that followed the inexorable rhythm of the ploughman's almanac.
 There..." (pp.111/2)
The implication here is that in Saint-Hilaire, life is merely a form of serving time, whereas back on Porquerolles life is truly worth living - which sounds suspiciously like a hankering after greener grass.

The Mahé Circle is a brief read, 150 pages (with fairly large type), and you can skip through it at a brisk pace, thanks in part to a nice, breezy translation from Siân Reynolds.  By keeping some words in the original French, particularly in the Porquerolles chapters, she gives the book a Mediterranean air, one which would be spoiled by translating absolutely everything into English (don't forget, many of these things are alien to Mahé too).  I have absolutely no idea what the English for péquois is, but I suspect that if the fish the doctor is obsessed with catching does have an English name, knowing it would make me none the wiser ;)

While the Lolita comparison doesn't stand up, I was reminded of a few other works over the course of the book (not least Moby Dick, in Mahé's obsession for catching a péquois!).  One is Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, particularly in the way Newland Archer's life is skilfully manipulated in Wharton's novel by the women in his family circle.  For a more contemporary slant, though, I often thought that Mahé's troubles could see the book fit right into Peirene Press' 'Male Dilemma' series - Simenon's work is a book verging on a novella with a male protagonist at a pivotal point in his life...

In the end, though, The Mahé Circle is an excellent story that stands on its own, a clever work which, in a way, forms its own circle, leaving the good doctor back where he started in more ways than one.  It's a book I enjoyed immensely (for more than just the hour or so it took me to read it!), and while I'm still not convinced about crime fiction, I may just be tempted to give Maigret a go.  You see, I did get another book along with this one, and... well, it can't hurt, can it? ;)

Thursday 17 July 2014

'Paris' by Marcos Giralt Torrente (Review)

Time for my second contribution to Spanish-Language Literature Month, and today's offering is from a publisher who deserve to be highlighted this month.  Hispabooks is a fairly recent addition to the ranks of publishers who focus on literature in translation, with their speciality being... well, Spanish literature :)  I've already reviewed a couple of their titles, and this book is one which comes very highly recommended indeed - an intense story made (mostly) in Madrid...

Marcos Giralt Torrente's Paris (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is an excellent, psychological novel, a book which looks at the weakness of memory and the dangers of reliance on a single person in your life.  It's written in the form of a monologue told by a middle-aged man looking back to his childhood and, in particular, events surrounding his ne'er-do-well father and his enigmatic, saintly mother.

While the pair have long since parted, there was a strange attraction between the two, one which even the father's spell in prison failed to break, and this forms one of the central issues the narrator attempts to get to the bottom of.  However, he's also fascinated by something which he will never be able to learn the whole truth about (his mother, the only one with full knowledge, is suffering from dementia and has no memory of earlier events).  He believes that the key to the final breakdown of his parents' relationship lies in the time his mother spent in Paris, a time which could reveal several secrets - but it's possible that there are other, darker truths out there, just waiting to be brought into the light...

Paris is intense and powerful, and the combination of great writing and an intriguing secret makes for an excellent novel.  It was the unanimous winner of the 1999 Premio Herralde de Novela (a Spanish prize for debut novels), beating Andrés Neuman's Bariloche into second place.  For a first novel, it's a surprisingly complex and developed piece of writing.  However, the flip side of that is that it should come with a warning - you'll need a lot of concentration to stick to the task at hand.

The novel centres on the figure of the mother, a portrait of the mother as a martyr to her family.  She's a woman who's very good at keeping secrets, holding her true feelings deep within:
"Talking about herself would have meant allowing her "self" to surface, and that was something she simply could not allow.  What she felt and how she really was had to be covered up, concealed beneath hundreds of protective veils - either learned or innate - that established a distance between her and the suffering or hopes that were watching and waiting inside her."
p.40 (Hispabooks, 2014)
The author develops his picture of the mother with a slow, steady build up of details.  A controlled, measured woman who knows her man will disappoint her, she wants to believe in him, despite knowing full well that he will never change. Which rather begs the question - why does she stay with him for so long?  And, more intriguingly, does she have a few more secrets of her own?

As much as the novel is about the mother, though, there's also a lot to discover about the narrator, a man searching for truth among the rubble of half-remembered events.  He's never really sure of the events he discusses, constantly talking around the facts, either because he can't remember them or because he never knew them in the first place (in several places he explains that he was never privy to the whole truth).  In fact, the same is true for the poor reader as we are strung along a little, never really knowing what, or whom, to believe.

While calling him an unreliable narrator might be a touch extreme, it's true that caution is called for when trying to get to the bottom of the story.  His mother's loss of memory fuels his obsession with the past:
"I can no longer separate what she told me from what I know now, from what she gradually confided to me in later, lonelier years, and from what I've since found out for myself, what I dared to think, or what I made up." (p.64)
Much of what he tells us is 'pieced together later', the product of his imagination, although he is the first to admit the problematic nature of his conclusions.  The language used reflects this; it's incredibly tentative and halting, full of conditionals and modals.  The text abounds with phrases such as 'must have been', 'may have said' and 'I will never know if...'.  Still, that doesn't mean he isn't playing with us...

Paris is also about subjectivity, and Giralt Torrente discusses at length the way in which we can confuse facts and feelings:
"Things happen, and later on you might recount them to someone else with more or less exactitude, and the image you convey will not be so very different from the original events.  What you were feeling, though, what was going on inside you while those things were happening, is more a matter of silences.  We can get quite close in our description of events, but we will never be able to describe their very essence, an essence tinged with despair, or joy, or with both at once." (p.37)
Which doesn't stop the writer, and narrator, from trying to pin down the essence of those distant events.  We are drawn into this game too, tempted to judge the characters - the mother, the father, the narrator, his Aunt Delphina.  The problem is that with only a few of the facts, we can never be completely sure that we're right.

The writing is excellent, with a style reminiscent of Saramago and Marías (there are definite shades of A Heart So White here). Paris consists for the most part of long, precise sentences, full of complex clauses, constantly folding back on, and contradicting, themselves.  Of course, this is all aided by the choice of translator - Jull Costa, as always, does a wonderful job, meaning that the book never reads like a translation.

Paris is a very good book, and for those who like his style, there's more out there from Giralt Torrente in translation.  His story collection The End of Love is already available, and Father and Son (which, as Tiempo de Vida, won the Premio Nacional de Narrativa in 2011) will appear in English in September.  So is he the next big thing in Spanish?  Well, there's certainly a lot to like.  Paris is a fascinating, complex novel - even the cover, while initially plain, reveals something about the plot.  It's definitely not an easy read, but it's certainly a rewarding one :)

Before I finish, there is one little issue I want to address here.  This is my third Hispabooks work, and all three have had British translators (Rosalind Harvey, Jonathan Dunne and Margaret Jull Costa).  While the translations definitely feel very British, for some reason, the books use American spelling conventions, plus the occasional, jarring Americanism.  It's a trend I'd already picked up in the first two books, and reading Paris merely confirmed it.

These (rare) Americanisms particularly stand out in Jull Costa's excellent translation.  Examples include 'jelly' instead of 'jam', 'wash up' instead of 'wash his face'/'have a wash', 'bills' instead of 'notes' and 'Mom' instead of 'Mum'.  It's not a huge thing, but it seems an odd stylistic choice to me, almost as if the publishers are hedging their bets with the variety of English.  It's likely that most people wouldn't notice, but I like to think that when it comes to translations, I'm not most people ;)

Any thoughts?  I'd love to hear if anyone else has noticed this trend - and what you make of it...

Monday 14 July 2014

'The Book of Rio', Toni Marques & Katie Slade (eds.) (Review)

The World Cup is about to end (disappointingly) for Brazil, but with the Olympics taking place in Rio in 2016, it's not like the eyes of the world will be leaving the country for long any time soon.  Realising this, Comma Press (still on a high from Hassan Blasim's IFFP victory) have taken it upon themselves to introduce Anglophone readers to the city with the big statue.  How?  Through literature, of course ;)

The Book of Rio (edited by Toni Marques and Katie Slade, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is another of Comma Press' excellent city guides, short-story collections helping readers to familiarise themselves with foreign shores.  This one contains ten short stories by Brazilian authors, each of which looks at life in Rio from a slightly different angle.  From Copacabana to the favela shanty towns, there's something for everyone here (even if football is conspicuous by its absence!).

Cesar Cardoso's 'Spare Me, Copacabana' (translated by Ana Fletcher) is the first story of the collection, a monologue from a party girl, which tells of her (and Copacabana's) faded glory.  The idea of women trading favours for pleasure (and more) also comes up in Patrícia Melo's 'I Love You' (tr. Daniel Hahn).  This one is a short, nicely-written story in which an escort gets caught up in a domestic squabble, all the time checking on how her friends are getting on at a nightclub.  The wonders of the smartphone age :)

Things get a lot more serious on the pleasure front in 'Song of Songs' by Nei Lopes (tr. Amanda Hopkinson), a story which takes the reader into the world of carnevale.  Lopes introduces us to a man running one of the many carnival organisations, showing us the grit and politics behind the glamour.  This is a tale about business, sex and money - and keeping it all in the family in the worst possible way...

Of course, it's not all fun down Rio way, and several stories look at those less fortunate inhabitants of the city.  In Luiz Ruffato's 'Lucky was Sandra' (tr. Jethro Soutar), a girl dreams of escape from the suburbs, determined to make a go of her life.  However, what goes up, must come down, and it's not long before Sandra ends up back in her old neighbourhood - whether she's better or worse off is hard to say.  Another sob story is João Gilberto Noll's 'Something Urgently' (tr. Sophie Lewis), where a boy from a criminal family is old before his time, doomed to a life on the margins of society.

Crime is also evident (from a distance) in Sérgio Sant'Anna's 'Strangers' (tr. Julia Sanches).  One of my favourites from this collection, the story has two strangers inspecting an apartment at the same time - and noticing some suspicious holes in the walls.  This one has it all, bullets from the favelas, sex in the afternoon and the joys of an uncertain, dangerous life.  A reflection on life in Rio?

Like many developing cities, Rio is changing at a rapid pace, but this brings uncertainty and danger for the workers bringing this change.  Domingos Pellegrini's 'The Biggest Bridge in the World' (tr. Jon S. Vincent) details the experience of an electrician on a major project, a... well, read the title ;)  It's a gig that's certainly well-paid, but money's not everything:
"Let's see some hustle, boys, let's see some hustle, because we only have three weeks.  Let's see some hustle because we only have two weeks.  One of the guys who worked with me, Arnold, fell asleep on his face on the seventh day, with his mouth right next to the end of a high tension cable.  He left the bridge and went straight to the hospital and never came back."
'The Biggest Bridge in the World', p.27 (Comma Press, 2014)
A real bridge of sighs, this grand project shows the price of progress (and might remind readers of certain projects which were implemented for the World Cup...).

Of course, traditions are important too, especially in an impersonal modern society.  While João Ximenes Braga's 'The Woman who Slept with a Horse' (tr. Zoë Perry) is thankfully free of bestiality, it does detail the struggles of an unhappy career woman looking for meaning in life:
"Andréa wanted to be everywhere, because she never wanted to be anywhere.  She especially did not want to be at home.  If she actually thought about it, she would realise that she didn't even want to be in her own body." (p.87)
Modern life being rubbish, Andréa attempts to spice things up by hooking up with a man involved in a native religion - but is she in over her head?

This malaise is also evident elsewhere.  In Marcelo Moutinho's 'Decembers' (tr. Kimberly M. Hastings), a man sees his grandfather through different eyes at three points in time, leaving him wistful for the past he never knew.  Finally, 'Places, in the Middle of Everything' by Elvira Vigna (tr. Lucy Greaves) gives us a melancholy piece to finish off with.  It's a story about a woman, her lover, a lot of rain and very little hope.  In fact, it's the perfect story to reflect the mood of the country after the events of the 8th of July...

The Book of Rio is a great collection, but (of course) it's a mere glimpse of what the city (and Brazilian literature in general) has to offer.  My only quibble with the book is that it's a tad on the short side, with most pieces being fairly brief.  Still, that's a minor concern, and the book is well worth checking out, leaving the reader with lots of names for future reference.

And if you like the sound of this kind of trip, you should definitely check out Comma Press' website.  You see, while today's post has concentrated on a Brazilian metropolis, there are plenty more literary holiday destinations for the discerning reader to discover in their series of city- and country-based collections.  So, where do you want to go today? ;)

Thursday 10 July 2014

'Paradises' by Iosi Havilio (Review)

Over the last couple of years, I've discovered many great books and writers, mainly in translation, but it's always nice to return to old favourites.  However, in some cases, these discoveries have quickly become old favourites, with sequels appearing within a decent space of time.  Good examples of this are Jon Kalman Stefansson with his Icelandic sagas, Karl Ove Knausgaard and his very public midlife crisis and (of course) Elena Ferrante's bitter, twisted and compelling tales of two women in Naples :)

Let's see if today's post, my first for this year's Spanish Lit Month, can add another name to that worthy list...

Iosi Havilio's Open Door was a novel I enjoyed a few years back, and Paradises (translated by Beth Fowler, e-copy courtesy of And Other Stories) is a follow-up book, featuring the same protagonist.  It picks up several years after the events of the first book, with our nameless heroine still living on the old farm in the country.  However, right from the start, Paradises shows us that things will be a little different this time around - her partner, Jaime, has just been killed in a hit-and-run incident, and our friend decides that it's time to head back to the big bad city.

However, things are a little different this time around.  First, she lands a job at a zoo, mainly thanks to Iris, a Romanian migrant who lives at the same lodging house.  Then, Eloisa, her oversexed friend from the country, manages to track her down.  Oh, there's one other thing - did I forget to mention her four-year-old son, Simon?

While the story and setting are different from those of Open Door, the style is very much the same.  It's just as detached, just as world weary - and just as lacking in sentiment:
"In this new Jaime, the final Jaime, who I'll only see this once, in addition to his stillness, the smell of alcohol or formaldehyde, I'm not sure, I suddenly discover an oddity that bears little relation to death.  Instead of his lips being sealed, as was his habit, somewhere between resignation and embarrassment, I catch sight of a small opening at the right-hand corner of his mouth, a sarcastic, sly smile, as if death had caught Jaime mocking something."
(And Other Stories, 2013)
We don't waste too much time grieving poor Jaime.  Instead, his departure merely marks the start of a new stage in his widow's life.

She moves on, then, just as she arrived, without leaving a trace, and with all contacts left behind.  Simon is one addition to her baggage, but he too is quiet and unassuming, not a boy to overcomplicate her life.  However, for the first time in years, she has to find a job, entering the world of work once more.  From the country to the city, you might think it's back to reality - the truth is that none of it seems real...

In fact, Paradises is pervaded by a dreamlike, grotesque quality at times, and when she moves into an old tower block, it's almost like a journey into a twisted fairy tale.  Not that you'd find much like this in a kids' book:
"But the thing that keeps me from sleep more than anything, adding to the insomnia of recent days, is not the noise from the street or the music or conversations, but those strange murmurs produced in the bowels of the building and which at times I think might be in my head.  Metallic sounds, wind-like, flushes, hums, sputters, like the secretions of a decomposing organism."
What awaits her there does remind the reader of certain of Grimm's Tales, though.  There's Tosca, the gigantic, cancer-ridden, morphine-addict matriarch of the building, watching over the goings on with the help of her mentally handicapped son.  Together, they sit at the top of a society of drug dealers, drag queens and other assorted human jettsam in a squat with unreliable power and water...

It's inevitable that Eloisa, the most memorable character from the first novel, crashes back into the life of the main character.  The younger woman is as mad as ever, but slightly different in this new environment, and this actually sums Paradises up nicely - it's very similar to Open Door, yet very different at the same time (if that makes sense...).  While the older woman is happy to see Eloisa again, she's never quite sure whether to go along with her stunts or cut her off.  There's some excellent interplay here, and for readers who remember the first book, the sexual tension between the two is skilfully drawn out.

Havilio's style is simple, but hypnotic.  While the plot is quite ordinary, the author's handling of it makes it seem as if it's happening a world away.  It can all seem hidden behind a veil of fog - you see, the main character just isn't quite on our wavelength:
"Simon has taken advantage of those seconds of distraction to escape from my sight.  He's hiding or being hidden by the landscape.  One of the two is using the other.  I'm not going to shout, I wouldn't know how.  I wait, to see if he appears, surely he'll appear, but he doesn't appear.  I stand up and walk without alarm, accommodating my flip-flops between the holes and the stones."
She seems incapable of strong emotions, no matter what life throws at her, and her inability to really get upset adds to the dreamlike feel of the novel.

While I'm not quite sure Havilio is up with the writers I mentioned at the start of the post, Paradises is very enjoyable and well written with a good translation (one with a noticeably British-English feel).  In truth, it's not really about the story, it's all about the 'vibe' - it's a mellow book, with occasional (deliberate) jarring tones of swearing and drugs, just enough to keep the reader on their toes.  Enough of my thoughts though - I'll leave the last words to our anonymous friend, words which sum up her style perfectly:
"I offer no opinion, nor do I contradict her.  I prefer to let things follow their natural course, then I'll see."
And that pretty much sums her (and the book) up ;)