Tuesday 30 September 2014

'The Things We Don't Do' by Andrés Neuman (Review)

After reading three of Andrés Neuman's books over the past couple of years (one in Spanish!), and having met him in Melbourne a while back, the Argentinian-Spanish author has definitely become one of my favourite contemporary writers.  However, where those three books were novels (in the case of Traveller of the Century a rather hefty one), his latest offering in English is very different, a collection of short vignettes no sooner tasted than devoured.  So, does his shorter work live up to his longer books?  The answer is a most emphatic 'yes' :)

The Things We Don't Do (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is a wonderful little collection of short stories, divided into five sections.  Each section contains seven thematically-linked stories, few of which run for more than three or four pages.  In addition to the stories, there's also a collection of four 'Dodecalogues' at the end, semi-serious guidelines for writing short stories (the choice of twelve rules for each set is, as the writer says, to avoid the absurd perfection of ten...).  Together, it all adds up to 170 pages of great reading.

One frequent feature of the collection is the short, short story, pieces barely managing to fill a page or two.  While I used to be a little suspicious of these, they've actually become my favourite type of short fiction as they distinguish themselves more clearly from novels than longer short stories do.  A good example is the opening story 'Happiness', a one-page piece about a man who condones his wife's adultery.  The reason for this is fairly bizarre - it's mainly because he wants to be the man she's sleeping with.  Once he's managed to live up to this standard, his wife will, of course, come back to him...

Another good one is the first section's title story, 'The Things We Don't Do'.  One of the shorter pieces in the collection, it's a list of things the writer loves about their relationship:
"I like that we don't do the things we don't do.  I like our plans on waking, when morning slinks onto our bed like a cat of light, plans we never accomplish because we get up late from imagining them so much."
'The Things We Don't Do' p.31 (Pushkin Press, 2014)
It's a less a story than an ode to the joys of a lazy Sunday in bed.

While there's a lot to enjoy in the shorter contributions, the longer ones are pretty good too.  A story about a rather less loving relationship is 'A Line in the Sand', where two stressed partners are separated by a literal line, scratched out on the beach.  Standing in the burning sun, the man slowly realises the deeper significance of the line the woman has drawn, and his unwillingness to accept it is indicative of the controlling nature the woman is attempting to highlight.  (Mind you, being compatible isn't all that great either.  In another of Neuman's relationship stories, 'A Terribly Perfect Couple', he shows how being perfect for each other can cause all manner of unexpected issues.)

Another of the main topics is writing, and in 'Theory of Lines' we get a light-hearted hint at one of Neuman's own inspirations.  This one is a short piece narrated by a writer inspired by the washing his neighbours hang out:
"As the years go by at my window, I have learned that you should not go too far in changing what you observe.  You can discover more by concentrating on just one point rather than transferring your attention hither and thither,  This counts as a lesson in synthesis.  Three or four washing lines ought to provide sufficient material for a thriller."
'Theory of Lines', p.158
There you have it - a story in every soiled item of underwear...

One of my favourites in this collection is 'Mr President's Hotel', an intriguing story in which a VIP is constantly asked to sign the visitor's book at hotels.  However, this apparently tedious task takes on more importance when he discovers that a mysterious N.N. always seems to have been there first.  When the sinister message leaver begins to direct their comments at the narrator, he suddenly feels threatened by a shadowy figure with no existence beyond the two initials and the notes.  It's a fascinating story, one that has you thinking of Kafka, and his protagonists pursued by unseen menaces.

There is definitely evidence of other influences on Neuman, though, with the short pieces paying homage to Argentinian writers like Córtazar and Borges.  Examples include 'Man Shot', a brief monologue of the thoughts of a man about to be shot by a firing squad, and 'A Cigarette', a bloody tale of honour amongst criminals.  A more obvious nod in the direction of Neuman's influences is given by the story 'The God of the Blind Men', in which a small literary society is honoured to receive none other than Jorge Luis Borges himself as its guest of honour ;)

The content is excellent, but it's the variety of styles and voices which makes The Things We Don't Do stand out.  'Delivery', for example, is a mesmerising, one-sentence stream-of-consciousness telling of an unusual birth.  Thoughts of the conception, the speaker's own childhood and the birth intermingle, all in a story with a definite (and unusual) ending.  The style is very different, though, in 'Juan, José', a tale alternating between the points of view of a psychiatrist and a patient.  The story is full of professional jargon, clinical and to the point - the only problem is that we're not sure which of the men is the psychologist and which the patient...

Another pleasing aspect to the collection is the translation - after recent disappointments, it's nice to find something which reads so well.  One of the final stories, 'The Poem-Translating Machine', examines the frustrations of translation in more detail, as a poet disappointed by a poor translation of his work begins to experiment with having it retranslated over and over again:
"Unless the poet's good taste is failing him, this fourth version of his poem is full of errors and is already close to unintelligible.  The referents have gone out of the window, the theme has been cast to the remotest margins, the enjambments sound like saws.  Devastated but at the same time amused, for a moment he imagines all his books translated into this or any other language.  He sighs gloomily.  No two ways about it, he thinks to himself, poetry is untranslatable."
'The Poem-Translating Machine' (pp.152/3)
It's an interesting idea, one with a familiar ring...

Neuman is particularly interested in translation, and his afterword mentions many of the people who have brought his work into English.  Some of the stories were originally released in English in magazines, and he takes care to name the original translators.  However, his main praise is reserved for the work of Caistor and Garcia:
"If any of the texts in this volume touches somebody's heart, that will be thanks to the patient skills of my translators, Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia.  The mistakes, I'm afraid, were my idea." (p.171)
It's nice to see the translators get due recognition :)

I loved The Things We Don't Do, and I think most others will too.  There's far more here than I could cover in a single post, with many delights awaiting anyone who decides to get themselves a copy of the book.  In fact, the only issue here is one which Pushkin Press will have recently had to deal with.  You see, while there's no doubt Pushkin will have put Neuman's name forward for next year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the question remains as to which book, as both this one and Talking to Ourselves were released in 2014...  Personally, I'd go for this one, but you never know what publishers are thinking.  Still, if Neuman makes the longlist again in 2015 (and I'd say there was a fairly good chance of that happening), we'll all find out ;)

Sunday 28 September 2014

'I live in Bongcheon-dong' by Jo Kyung-ran (Review)

Today's post not only continues this year's focus on Korean literature, it actually takes it to the next level, showing the time and effort I've put into my new hobby in 2014.  As well as introducing an entertaining story and a great new publisher, it also reveals what I've been up to in my spare time when not reading.  Intrigued?  Then read on...

Jo Kyung-ran's I Live in Bongcheon-dong (translated by Kari Schenk, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is one of many short stories released in a fascinating range by Asia Publishers, a Korea-based press.  They have had short stories by many of Korea's top writers translated and then put the English version right next to the original Korean in a beautiful little book.  In addition, each book contains a short afterword by a literary critic and a biography of the writer along with some of their more notable works.

I Live in Bongcheon-dong was a nice introduction to the series, a story about a woman who lives in, well, Bongcheon-dong...  The reader soon learns that this is an outer suburb of Seoul situated at the foot of (and half-way up) a mountain, and the story actually begins in the narrator's house, as she unexpectedly bumps into her father on the roof terrace of their house.

Looking out over the city, the daughter starts to think about her home for so many years, and the story she tells is both wide-ranging and personal.  On the one hand, there's an account of the history of the area, explaining how rice fields and marshlands were displaced by apartment buildings in a matter of decades.  On the other, there's an attempt to work through her relationship with her father, one which is inextricably linked with the place they call home.

The book is well worth reading, especially if you already have a basic knowledge of modern Korean literature.  While the story of the development of Bongcheon-dong is clearly told, it's actually quite a subtle critique of the development of Korea as a whole.  The suburb (whose name actually - optimistically - translates as 'supports the sky') was a haven for refugees, both from other parts of the country and areas of Seoul where the illegal residents were forced out during the city council's beautification projects.

It's a topic which is memorably covered in Cho Se-hui's novel The Dwarf.  A rapidly industrialising country led to an influx of migrants and lots of illegal housing, and Bongcheon-dong, an area with a bad image, certainly had its fair share:
"In 1961, there were only 7,104 residents, but in 1965 the population reached 10,134, and within ten years this number tripled.  The same thing was happening in several other areas on the outskirts that were being incorporated into Seoul.  This growth could largely be attributed to the mass migration of squatters after the government decreed that non-regulation housing was to be demolished in the city center."
p.39 (Asia Publishers, 2013)
While things have improved a little since then, there are still people out there who have nowhere else to go...

The narrator's relationship with her father is just as important a part of the story, though.  The chance encounter on the roof which starts the book leads to a rare conversation between father and daughter, one in which she discovers things she never knew.  This sets her off rethinking the past, reconsidering things she took for granted:
"A few hours later, I start reading a book borrowed from the Gwanak-gu district office entitled 'A Twenty-Year History of Gwanak', but I can't find any mention of sawmills.  According to the records, there used to be a village called Bakjaegung where Bongcheon Central market is now.  During the Joseon Dynasty, a hut called a 'jaegung' was built for the man who looked after a gravesite, so I wonder if the sawmill was built next to an old gravesite.  And was Dad a carpenter from the beginning?  Or, did he pick up the trade after settling here?  The more I read, the more questions I have." (p.31)

While it's all wonderfully understated, the reader gradually realises that the narrator has had mixed feelings about her family and her home.  She's attempted to leave Bongcheon-dong several times, only to fail because of her strong ties to the place.  You also sense that she realises she doesn't have long to uncover the secrets of her past; there are several clues in the story that her father is beginning a slow mental decline.  Her sudden need to research her suburb's history is actually an attempt to reconnect with her father before it's too late...

I Live in Bongcheon-dong is a fascinating story, and my only criticism is that the historical parts can be a little didactic.  The narrator uses texts about the city and the suburb, and at times the story reads like a work of non-fiction, which slightly jars with the dreamy tone used elsewhere.  Still, that's a minor quibble, and overall I enjoyed this a lot - and I'm definitely keen to try more of Jo's work :)

As mentioned above, this is just one of an ongoing series of books in the Modern Korean Literature Bilingual Editions series, with five sets of fifteen appearing so far (and I'd love to have them all if money were no object!).  The only issue is availability.  In Korea, you can get the books through Seoul Selection, both in-store and on their site.  If you're overseas, many books and sets are available on Amazon (however, these are unavailable for delivery to Australia, so you'll need to check your local site).

And why is this so good for me?   Because for the past few months I've been studying Korean by myself at home!  Through a mixture of library books, Youtube videos and free online materials, I'm slowly getting better, and while this book is well above my current level, it's still good reading practice (I did manage to understand a few sentences here and there).  Thanks to the publishers, I still have a couple more to try (stories by Yi Mun-yol and Hwang Sok-yong), and I can't wait to get stuck in :)

Thursday 25 September 2014

'Journey by Moonlight' by Antal Szerb (Review)

While I'm lucky enough to be fairly up to speed on a lot of what's happening in the world of translated fiction, it's impossible to cover everything, and there have been many times when I haven't got around to trying a book others read years ago.  One of those much-praised writers is Hungarian author Antal Szerb, another of those European writers whose reputation Pushkin Press has been trying to restore in the Anglosphere, and the book which has won most praise is his novel Journey by Moonlight.

So, having got there at last, will I be adding my name to the long list of admirers?

Let's just call that a yes...

Journey by Moonlight (translated by Len Rix, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a beautiful, entertaining novel, a book whose pages seem to fly by.  It's the story of a recently-married Hungarian couple, Mihály and Erzsi, who have travelled to Italy for their honeymoon.  However, what should be a happy time quickly turns sour.  In addition to a chance encounter with one of Mihály's old friends, a rather unpleasant meeting, there's the small matter of a mix-up at a small train station - when Mihály gets back on the train, he realises that he and his wife are now bound for different destinations...

From there, the two stories diverge, and we learn about the couple's pasts as they think back to what came before, trying to work out how to move forward.  Szerb sets his stories against a luscious Italian backdrop with a whole cast of wonderfully eccentric, fleshed-out characters, and while the whole novel sails serenely by, there's a sense that everything is exactly as it should be, and that a dramatic denouement is just around the corner :)

Journey by Moonlight is the story of a marriage at cross purposes.  The two ill-matched partners are hoping that marriage will help them to solve their issues; the problem is that each has a very different idea of what their future should hold.  Erzsi, the society lady, is bored and is longing to escape the dull conformity of her previous existence.  Having run away with her lover, she's now married again and beginning to sense that she might have made a huge mistake...

...and she has.  You see, Mihály has his own issues.  While Erzsi has a longing for the bohemian life, her new husband is desperate to move in the other direction and become a more conventional man.  In fact, his choice of Italy for his honeymoon is confirmation of this turn:
"During his protracted years of wandering he had travelled in many lands, and spent long periods in France and England.  But Italy he had always avoided, feeling the time had not yet come, that he was not ready for it.  Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women."
p.9 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
He's finally made it to Italy because he believes he's ready to settle down, but it's very unlikely to happen - Mihály is a dreamer incapable of knuckling down to a steady work life.

We soon learn that the roots of his issues lie in the events of his youth, part of which he spent with a group of rather unconventional friends.  The doomed depressive Tamás Ulpius and his beautiful sister Éva, the criminal János Szepetneki and the religious Ervin (later to become a priest) - it's a fascinating group of people, but not one likely to accept the rigours of the nine-to-five.  Mihály's flight to Italy is an attempt to detach himself from the group's influence.  Sadly, it turns out that he can't get away from them, and in a well-plotted story, it all comes full circle.

As mentioned above, Journey by Moonlight is an easy read, and a most enjoyable one.  It's crammed with fascinating anecdotes and wonderful descriptions of Italy (of both the countryside and the famous cities).  It's also a very European book with its scattering of foreign extras, and in scale and detail, it's almost movie-like at times.  As the pages slip by, it's only too easy to see why Mihály is happy to be lost ;)

The effect is heightened by the great writing and the sumptuous translation.  Journey by Moonlight is such an easy book to read, that it was actually far too tempting to just sit back and enjoy and forget to take notes - Len Rix, take a bow.  This pleasure is also enhanced by the frequent light touch the writer utilises:
"I can't begin to describe how simple and natural it was just then to commit suicide.  I was drunk, and at that age drink always produced the feeling in me that nothing mattered.  And that afternoon it freed in me the chained demon that sleeps, I believe, in the depths of everyone's consciousness.  Just think, dying is so much more easy and natural and natural than staying alive..."
"Do get on with the story," said Erzsi impatiently. (p.51)
I enjoyed the occasional comic scenes, such as Mihály's entanglements with Millicent, a rich American art student, and his talks with a *very* English doctor, and these detours prevented the book from slipping into darkness, despite the serious nature of some of the events.

If I were to try to sum the book up, I'd say that it's a novel which looks at how to live a life.  There are many paths to take (priest, thief, worker, socialite, layabout, academic, suicide), examples of which stroll through the pages of the book.  The question is whether Mihály is strong enough to go his own way:
"Oh, Mihály, the world won't tolerate a man giving himself up to nostalgia."
 "It doesn't tolerate it.  It doesn't tolerate any deviation from the norm.  Any desertion or defiance, and sooner or later it turns the Zoltáns on you." (p.247)
As it turns out, it's not quite as easy to live your own life as you'd think...

Journey by Moonlight is a book which has long been championed by virtually everyone in my blogging circles, and it turns out that they were all absolutely right.  It's a book to savour, a book to reread, a great discovery, and I'm very happy that I (belatedly) made the time to read it.  Congratulations to Len Rix and Pushkin Press for bringing Szerb's work into English - and rest assured that there'll be more of his work to come on the blog before too long ;)

Monday 22 September 2014

'Ich nannte ihn Krawatte' ('I Called Him Necktie') by Milena Michiko Flašar

Hot on the heels of my recent read of Jenny Erpenbeck's Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) comes another piece of contemporary German-language literature, one which has a couple of similarities to Erpenbeck's novel.  For one thing, it's another book by a woman in translation (which I'm sure will please Biblibio!).  The other one is perhaps more relevant - once again, it's a book which you'll be able to check out in English for yourself very soon...

Milena Michiko Flašar's Ich nannte ihn Krawatte (I Called Him Necktie, out now from New Vessel Press) is the story of Hiro Taguchi, a young Japanese man who has spent the past two years in self-imposed exile inside his bedroom.  He belongs to the group of Japanese society called Hikikomori, people who, unable to cope with the stress of the outside world, decide to stay in their rooms instead.

At the start of the book, Hiro takes his first, faltering steps back into the real world, deciding that a walk in the park might do him good.  As he sits on a bench in the park, watching the rest of the world go by (being very careful not to interact with any of the passers-by), he notices a man on the bench opposite his, another person in no hurry to leave his comfortable seat.  As the days go by, the two men gradually get to know each other, nodding to each other when arriving and leaving, until one day the older man crosses the gravel path dividing them, sitting down next to Hiro and starting a conversation - which is when Hiro realises that the Hikikomori aren't the only ones suffering under the weight of Japanese society...

Ich nannte ihn Krawatte is a wonderful little book which uses an unlikely relationship between two different men to tell the story of modern Japanese society.  The first is a high-school drop-out; the second, a salaryman who has lost his job - the reader is given an insight into the stresses of Japanese daily life through the eyes of the exhausted corporate hero, and a young man who can't bear to enter that world.  As the two get closer and begin to tell stories about their lives, explaining what events brought them to their bench in the open air, Hiro's eyes are opened, and he begins to realise that his desire to hide away from the rest of the world is far from unique.

Right from the start, we're aware that we're looking back on a sad story, with the first page informing the reader that the events Hiro is to relate already belong to the past:
"Ich nannte ihn Krawatte.  Der Name gefiel ihm.  Er brachte ihn zum Lachen.  Rotgraue Streifen an seiner Brust.  So will ich ihn in Erinnerung behalten."
p.7 (Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 2012)

"I called him necktie.  The name pleased him.  It made him laugh.  Red-and-grey stripes across his chest.  That's how I want to remember him" *** (my translation)
The relationship that slowly progresses, then, is one we already know is destined to end, and the stories the two men tell contain many others which have failed to go the distance. 

Many of these stories involve people who are different, a state of affairs which can have consequences in a society which prides itself on being homogeneous.  Whether it's a student who hides his ability in spoken English, or the poet who has no desire to join the rat race, the nail that sticks up, as the Japanese proverb goes, will be hammered down - and that hammering can be just as brutal as the metaphor would suggest.  What evolves from the stories is a picture of a society where the different are stigmatised, and Hiro's withdrawal from the world is partly because he is haunted by his own passivity in the face of injustice.

This leads to a fear of relationships, a reluctance to get to close to anyone who might be able to damage him emotionally at a later date:
"Ich wollte niemandem begegnen.  Jemandem zu begegnen bedeutet, sich zu verwickeln.  Es wird ein unsichtbarer Faden geknüpft." (p.8)

"I didn't want to meet anyone.  Meeting people means getting involved.  An invisible thread is bound." ***
At the height of his issues, even the thought of touching others, or being touched by their hair, for example, brings him out in a cold sweat.  All of which, surprisingly, reminds him of own, rather distant, father...

The longer the story goes on, the more important Hiro's father becomes, as we come to sense that Tetsu, the office drone who has been thrown out of the hive, is the young man's key to understanding his parents.  In fact, he serves as a representative, the human face even, of the vast army of salarymen keeping the country afloat:
"Seine gebügelte Gestalt war die tausender anderer, die tagein und tagaus die Straßen füllen.  Sie strömen aus dem Bauch der stadt und verschwinden in hohen Gebäuden, in deren Fenstern der himmel in einzelne Teile zerbricht." (p.13)

"His washed-out figure was that of thousands of others who, day in and day out, fill the streets.  They stream out of the belly of the city and disappear into high buildings, in whose windows the sky shatters into scattered pieces." ***
The flip-side of this well-oiled machine is the relentless pressure of society, one which decrees that you must do this - or else.  Testsu, who was an unquestioning part of the machine for decades, is now old, used up (he can't even keep up with the corporate drinking culture) and must be removed from the machine like a worn-out part...

Another important theme of the book is the importance of face.  Ironically, while both Hiro and Tetsu are transgressing against cultural norms, they are allowed to remove themselves from society because others are ashamed to confront them for fear of what the neighbours might think:
"Mein Glück ist es, dass man mich bis heute in Ruhe gelassen hat.  Denn es gibt auch solche, die man herausgelockt hat.  Man verspricht ihnen eine Wiedereingliederung.  Genesung auch.  Arbeit.  Erfolg.  Mit diesen dünnen Versprechen auf den Lippen werden sie Schritt für Schritt zurück in die Gesellschaft, jenes große Gemeinsame, geführt.  Man gewöhnt sie daran, ihr gefällig zu sein.  Man harmonisiert sie.  Ich aber habe Glück.  Man rechnet nicht mit mir." (p.44)

"It is my good fortune that I've been left in peace thus far.  For there are those who have been tempted out.  They are promised a reintegration.  Recovery too.  Work.  Success.  With these hollow promises on the lips, they are led, step by step, back into society, this great commonality.  They are conditioned to become compliant to it.  They are harmonised.  I, however, am lucky.  Noone is counting on me." ***
As long as everyone pretends everything is OK, then everything is OK, and this leads to a distinct (damaging) lack of communication.  Tetsu finds himself unable to reveal the truth to his wife, and Hiro hides away from parents and friends, shutting the real reasons for his mental collapse deep inside.  The writer shows that in a society which favours repressing emotions there's a need for people to speak up and let their loved ones know what's going on.

Ich nannte ihn Krawatte is written in a fairly sparse style with a predominance of short sentences, a style I'm tempted to call Japano-Deutsch, and the already short story is divided into more than a hundred brief sections, making it easy to pick up and put down (although I raced through it for the most part).  Flašar's mother is Japanese, and that will probably help with the book's authenticity and reception; many readers can (quite rightly) be suspicious of western authors attempting to write about Asian culture, but this definitely feels right.  The story is also liberally sprinkled with Japanese expressions, explained in a glossary at the end of the book - I wonder if the English version will have quite as many...

...which brings me back to where we started, New Vessel Press' English translation, published as I Called Him Necktie (translated by Sheila Dickie).  The title might sound a little clumsy in English, but it's actually quite apt.  You see, while English speakers would probably just say 'tie', the Japanese word for this item of clothing is, funnily enough, 'necktie' (or a close approximation, anyway!).  The book's out now, and I'd definitely recommend it.  It's a great story and a wonderful depiction of how modern life can sometimes leave people behind - and while it is fairly specific to Japan, the truth is that it makes for uncomfortable reading for the rest of us as well.  In an increasingly capitalist world, those of us who can't keep up with the pace are just as at risk of being left behind as poor Hiro and Tetsu...

Thursday 18 September 2014

'A Distant Father' by Antonio Skármeta (Review)

I've been lucky enough to review some wonderful books from Other Press this year, so I was happy to agree to try the book reviewed in today's post, especially as it's a fairly short work.  Of course, life gets in the way of the best-laid plans (as do other books...), and it spent a few months on the shelves before I finally got around to it.

Which, in a way, is great timing - it's only actually being published today :)

Antonio Skármeta's A Distant Father (translated by John Cullen) is a short novella set in Contulmo, a small town in Chile.  It's the home of Jacques, a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher, whose return home from teaching college coincided with his French father's departure from the family home.  Now, stuck in the dull town, alone with his mother in their small house, Jacques spends his days teaching whatever needs to be taught at the local school and his spare time translating poetry for a regional newspaper.

Desperate for a change in routine, he persuades his father's old friend Cristián to accompany him to the town of Angol, where in addition to buying a present for a student's birthday, he'll get the chance to let off steam at the local brothel.  The trip turns out to be a memorable one, and not just for the reasons you'd imagine.  While roaming the streets of Angol, he discovers something which will turn his small world upside down...

A Distant Father is a beautiful little book, a story you can read through in a single-sitting (I did it twice, a week apart), a work which evokes the melancholy of youth and small-town blues.  In a town where everyone knows everyone else, there isn't much to do, and people tend to move away once they're old enough.  With few jobs, and a train service which is threatened with closure, it's easy to agree with the comment that the world is not made for small towns.

Cristián is Jacques' link to his father, and his quiet friendship is one of the young man's few refuges from sadness.  However, the silent miller has his own ways of coping:
"Cristián is an assiduous drinker of red wine, and his apron is eternally spattered with purplish stains.  He always offers me a glass, which however I always decline.  Drinking alcohol makes me sad."
p.18 (Other Press, 2014)
With alcohol only exacerbating his melancholy, Jacques needs other ways to escape from everyday life.

One of these escapes is language and literature.  Thanks to his father, Jacques is able to speak French, and he supplements his income by translating simple poems for a regional newspaper.  Hoping to fool people into thinking his trip to Angol is on business, he takes along his latest literary project:
"And so I've brought along a book by Raymond Quenau that the editor of the newspaper wants to publish in installments.  Prose is easier than poetry, but I do get all caught up in the fates of the characters.  Maybe that's because so little happens here.  We're secondary figures, not protagonists." (pp.31/2)
Again, Jacques is struggling with life away from the bright lights, living an urban life vicariously.  The book, by the way, is Zazie dans le métro, a novel about a provincial teen in the big city...

While it's a novella, A Distant Father works very much like a play.  Its short chapters act as scenes, and the simple, direct prose leaves much to the imagination.  There's a clever plot which is skilfully built up, with secrets involving birthday boy Augusto Gutierrez and his beautiful sisters Elena and Teresa.  The clues are there if you know where to look, but I'd rather not say too much more - I don't want to spoil it for you...

In short, this is a great little book with a lot to uncover in its few pages, and while I'm reluctant to give the game away, I'll provide you with one last hint.  The cover of the Other Press version has more to do with what happens than the title; the original title was Un padre de película, and the cinema entrance on the cover is a nice touch (I especially like the way the Other Press logo is used as door handles!).  OK, that's more than enough from me - go and read it ;)

Monday 15 September 2014

'One Spoon on this Earth' by Hyun Ki-young (Review)

It's time for more K-Lit and another book from the Dalkey Archive Press  Library of Korean Literature - review number eight from the series to have made its way onto the blog.  So, do we have a joyous affair to celebrate that?  Erm, no...  Today's book continues the theme of trauma; in fact, it's a depressing book in more ways than one...

Hyun Ki-young's One Spoon on this Earth (translated by Jennifer M. Lee, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a stylised memoir of the writer's early life.  We begin with a visit to his birthplace brought about by his father's funeral, and as he muses on mortality (and how quickly life goes by), his mind inevitably turns back towards his childhood.

However, this isn't quite your standard Bildungsroman.  Hyun's hometown was on Cheju (Jeju) Island, and he was born at a very important time in Korean history.  No sooner had he managed to put the illnesses of early childhood behind him, than the whole island erupted into violence.  You see, 1948 saw the Cheju Uprising, and the narrator's childish eyes saw some very horrible things...

In my recent piece on O Chong-hui, the translators (Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton), described  Korean literature as a literature of trauma, and that's certainly the case here.  Hyun is scarred by his childhood experiences, both by the illnesses he suffered and the atrocities he witnessed, but the trauma didn't stop there.  In later years, he was arrested and beaten by the police for daring to write about an event which is still fairly controversial today.

The novel (if it is one) covers the writer's life up until he reaches the end of middle school, a point at which he considers his childhood to have ended.  His early years are spent in a rural region of an island which is far less advanced than the mainland.  While there is the occasional anecdote about playing with friends, much of the early pages make for grim reading.  In an eventful first few years, Hyun manages to survive scrofula, a cholera epidemic and a fall from a tree where he landed on his head.  The beatings and constant hunger are secondary concerns.

Part of the reason for Hyun's problems is his unsettled family life.  His father, a wandering man who neglected his family, absent for seven years of his son's childhood, is yet another example of the common K-Lit trope of the deadbeat dad (as is the over-worked mother, beating her kids with one hand, feeding them with the other...).  Another Korean cultural norm is shown in the refusal of the paternal grandparents to allow the young boy to join the mother at her parents' house in the nearby town, even though they have more room for him.  His place is in the house of his father - even if his father is nowhere to be found...

The first few years of life are merely the build-up to the uprising, though, with the cholera and famine of the post-liberation years pushing the islanders to stand up to the mainland troops 'occupying' the island.  What happened next was pretty disturbing:
"The attackers might have enjoyed the feeling of rabbit hunting, running after the people scattered in all directions in the snowfield.  Mostly the old people, the children, and the women with small children who couldn't run fast enough were targeted victims.  Mothers who beat their small children for not walking fast enough were shot, and their children were mercilessly bayoneted as if they were being skewered.  I was told that the blood spattered on the snow was monstrously red.  Mt. Halla was buried in the sullen clouds all winter long."
p.52 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
Once the uprising has been settled, we move on to the Korean war, where Mt. Halla once again features, with planes targeting the mountain top for firing practice.  These historical insights are fascinating, perhaps the most interesting parts for an outsider to read.

With the book being a semi-autobiographical work dealing with childhood, it's hard to avoid comparisons with a certain Karl Ove Knausgaard, and there are many similarities.  Both Hyun and Knausgaard grew up on an island, and their books (this one and Boyhood Island) cover pretty much the same period of their lives.  Both run wild, swimming in the sea and roaming the fields and woods, and there are even similarities in the description of slightly effeminate, book-loving young boys.

One Spoon on this Earth is not quite as elegant, though, and it's often clumsy and crude.  The cruelty of children is a frequent theme here, and with Hyun's tales of torturing insects and butchering pigs, it definitely isn't a book for animal lovers.  The writer is also fairly graphic with his descriptions of bodily functions, taking great pains to describe the exact colour of the snot dripping from his classmates' noses and where he went to masturbate in later years.  As for going to the toilet, there's a passage in which Hyun describes what he calls 'field shitting', which includes wiping his behind with a bunch of grass - or on a warm rock.  He then tells the reader:
"I'm sure you all know what it feels like." (p.94)
Erm, no...

While there's much that's interesting about the book, it does have its flaws.  It's rather repetitive at times, giving me the impression that it might have been serialised in a newspaper originally.  The way in which it's written (hundreds of short sections) and the fact that information is often reintroduced a matter of pages after the original mention certainly gives that impression.  However, there's another, much more serious, issue with the book...

Sadly, something seriously affected my enjoyment of the book, and that was that this is a really poor translation.  I usually give translators the benefit of the doubt, but here there is absolutely no doubt about the quality of the writing.  The key to a good translation, a fundamental requirement, is to make the translation readable in the target language, and that certainly doesn't happen here.  There are far too many sentences which just don't make sense, and the whole text is packed with clumsy, clunky expressions.  At times, it doesn't even read as if it was written by a native speaker of English.

So what exactly is wrong with the writing?  Well, quite apart from frequent poor vocabulary choices, odd prepositional decisions and the occasional wrong pronoun (he v she), one constant grammatical mistake was the lack of commas in defining relative clauses, a lack leading to many absurd sentences.  For example:
"My father who was in the mainland received the notice late..." (p.68)
No, he only has one father... (and it's *on* the mainland)...
"And we received an urgent message informing us that my youngest uncle who drove a police car died in an accident." (p.46)
Hmm - so how many uncles who drive police cars does he have?

It doesn't end there, though.  There are some truly awful sentences, pieces of writing that I had to examine several times to make sure that this actually was what had been printed.  Below are just a few of the worst (I could have added many, many more):
"For us children we didn't care about the speeches; it was fun to look at the speakers' expressions as they changed from pale to red and their ridiculously high-pitched voices." (p.54)

"The vast and flat grassland that sprawled out covered in snow because the scenery resembled those chaotic days." (p.51)

"Soon after, a fire broke out and one hut after another got caught on fire and burnt down more than twenty huts." (pp.65/6)
Awful, I think you'd agree (and if you don't, well, perhaps you'd better enrol in my ESL class...).  If you've been paying attention to the page numbers, you'll notice that this was all from a very small section of the book - after that, I just gave up taking notes...

I really don't like doing this, but the one thing that hurts the image of translated fiction more than anything else is bad translations - this is why many people avoid books translated from other languages (and why publishers hide translators' names inside the covers...).  I hope I play my part in praising good translations and making people aware of the wonderful work people like Margaret Jull Costa, Philip Roughton, Stephen Snyder and Anthea Bell do - sadly, there are times, like today, when I need to do the opposite.  Silence on the issue can't be a good thing, can it?

Thursday 11 September 2014

'The Plains' by Gerald Murnane (Review)

I've been meaning to read more Australian literature for a while now, but my focus on fiction in translation has got in the way of that a little.  Actually, that's a slight understatement - in the first eight months of the year, I didn't manage to review a single Australian book...

However, with a trip to the Melbourne Writers Festival on the agenda, it was time to crack open one of the many books languishing on my shelves.  Gerald Murnane is a writer I've been wanting to try for some time, and (as I mentioned in my festival review) he's certainly an entertaining speaker.  Let's see what I think about his writing ;)

The Plains, one of the first titles in the Text Classics series, is a short novel written back in 1982.  It follows a man who ventures into inland Australia to explore 'the plains', an undefined area away from the noise of the east-coast cities.  His reason for visiting the interior is to work on a film, a piece which will capture the splendour of the wide-open expanses, and after a short period of adjustment, he meets a group of local landowners, whose patronage is vital if he is to be able to work on his project.

Things are very different on the plains, though, and time passes differently to how it moves in 'Outer Australia'.  As the days pass, we suspect that there is very little chance of the film ever being finished, the man's lengthy stay reaching epic proportions.  Still, the longer he works on his project, the more he realises that the plains are worth studying - even if he'll never be able to understand them completely.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much the whole plot of The Plains - if you're the kind of reader who likes things to, you know, happen in a novel, then I'd advise you to cut your losses here and go and find something else to do.  This is a work which moves at its own pace, a novel which, while it might be interested in may things, has little time for a reader who isn't prepared to settle down and forget the call of the outside world for a while.

The physical setting of the novel is the key to understanding it, and the filmmaker lays it out for us right at the start:
"Unchecked by hills or mountains, the sunlight in summer occupied the whole extent of the land from dawn till sunset.  And in winter the winds and showers sweeping across the great open spaces barely faltered at the few stands of timber meant as shelter for men or animals.  I knew that there were great plains of the world that lay for months under snow, but I was pleased that my own district was not one of them.  I much preferred to see all year the true configuration of the earth itself and not the false hillocks and hollows of some other element.  In any case, I thought of snow (which I had never seen) as too much a part of European and American culture to be appropriate to my own region."
pp.6/7 (Text Classics, 2012)
At times, the novel takes care in its description of the outside environment, the lengthy, unhurried passages contributing to the leisurely pace of the novel.

However, the detailed description is actually at odds with the vague nature of the location of the plains.  We know that we are in the interior, but where exactly the filmmaker has ended up is fairly unimportant.  One thing we do know is that the plainsmen have a great suspicion for anything which comes from the coast - or "Outer Australia"...

The filmmaker learns of the two great art groups of the region, rivals who debate the nature of the beauty of the plains.  However, when a third group attempts to spread its own views, the Horizonites & Haremen unite to drive out this 'foreign' concept:
"They discredited it finally on the simple grounds that it was derived from ideas current in Outer Australia.  The plainsmen were not always opposed to borrowings and importations, but in the matter of culture they had come to scorn the seeming barbarisms of their neighbours in the coastal cities and damp ranges.  And when the more acute plainsmen had convinced the public that this latest group were drawing on a jumble of the worst kinds of foreign notions, the members of the despised group chose to cross the Great Dividing Range rather than endue the enmity of all thinking plainsmen." (pp.33/4)
This idea of hostility to the big cities and 'Inner Australia' as a true nation might seem far-fetched, but it really is a different world away from the East Coast (Western Australia, for example, the large state on the other coast of the continent, often sees itself as a very different entity to the rest of the country...).

Putting aside the disputes with Outer Australia, though, life passes slowly on the plains, frustratingly so for anyone hoping to get things done.  The filmmaker's wait for an audience with the landowners takes much of the first part of the novel, and his days in the landowner's private library (mostly spent gazing out at a restricted view of the plains) pretty much fills up the rest of the book.  In fact, the more you think about The Plains, with its nameless characters, the futility of the main character's quest, with a film never to be finished, the more other writers' work comes to mind.

The quiet, ever-changing library, and the odd sense of time passing and yet standing still, definitely has shades of Borges, albeit a much more relaxed Borges, but the sheer futility of much of what happens reminds me unmistakably of Kafka.  We mustn't forget that this is Australia, though.  While Kafka's protagonists race around, shouting, blustering, hoping to force their way into seeing the right people, Murnane's creation is very much a man of his people.  He's happy to take his time - his appointment is in a pub, not a cramped office - and while he's waiting he may as well have a beer or five, as do his interviewers when he finally gets to join them...

The Plains is a beautiful, understated piece of writing, a relatively short book, but one which leaves the reader with a lot to think about.  Quite apart from deciding which of the rival camps to side with on the question of the beauty of the plains (does it lie in the vast, endless horizon or the microscopic detail of ears of wheat?), we are asked to contemplate the idea that possibilities are more important than achievements.  You see, when things are achieved, the other possibilities disappear (which again hints that the man's film is highly unlikely to be completed...).

The people of the plains go in for their own form of philosophy, one which looks for the meaning of life in a focus on very subjective truths:
"What might not follow, they ask themselves, if there should be nothing more substantial in all our experience than those discoveries that seem too slight to signify anything apart from their own brief occurrence?  How might a man reorder his conduct if he could be assured that the worth of a perception, a memory, a supposition, was enhanced rather than diminished by its being inexplicable to others?  And what could a man not accomplish, freed from any obligation to search for so-called truths apart from those demonstrated by his search for a truth peculiar to him?" (pp.110/1)
Which is probably a good place to note that any attempt to decipher Murnane's work is probably doomed to failure.  As he said in his talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival, nobody could ever come close to understanding what he wants to say through his work and what his novels mean to him...

Still, despite being indecipherable (and virtually plotless), The Plains is a great read, a soothing piece of writing which leaves you vaguely glimpsing a concealed philosophy, but unable to quite discern its contours - and yet you're not really that bothered (this is Australia, after all...).  I'm definitely keen to read more of Murnane's work, especially his first book, Tamarisk Row, and his latest, A Million Windows, as they were the ones discussed most in his talk.  Outwardly, Murnane and his novels are very Australian, but there's definitely something else waiting to be discovered at the core of his work - if you're just patient enough to wait for it to reveal itself...

Oh, while you're waiting, why not get yourself a cold one? ;)

Monday 8 September 2014

'Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy' by Nicolás Casariego (Review)

Some of you will have seen the recent posts on my visit to the Melbourne Writers Festival, and as I said in the first of those posts, the main reason I went was to catch up with Spanish writer Nicolás Casariego to hear what he had to say about his first novel in English.  Casariego turned out to be a nice, happy sort of man, which was good to see - especially as his creation is anything but...

Antón Mallick Wants to Be Happy (translated by Thomas Bunstead, review copy courtesy of Hispabooks) is written in the form of the diary in which a thirty-two-year-old Spanish lawyer decides that the time has come for him to set depression and pessimism to one side:
"Enough is enough.  I don't want to be a pessimist, or a victim, any more.  I reject the status of black hole.  This notebook, which I address and dedicate to Vidor Mallick, inveterate gambler and amateur loan shark, is proof of my will to optimism, that is, my great desire to become a man with a sunny disposition, happy, normal, one of those guys who springs out of bed every morning and has answers for pretty much every single one of life's many questions."
p.11 (Hispabooks, 2014)
A noble ambition indeed, but what can Antón do to achieve this goal?  And, more importantly, why does he feel the need for this radical step?

In pursuit of optimism and happiness, Antón decides to begin the search in books, and his family is happy to help out: elder brother Zoltan provides an armful of self-help tomes while younger sister Bela points him in the direction of the classic philosophers.  However, with family disputes and a major contract to work on, finding enlightenment isn't going to be easy.  And then, of course, there's the small matter of a woman who claims to be the mother of his unborn child...

Right from the start, Antón Mallick... was a book that just clicked with me, and I greatly enjoyed the time I spent in the world of the confused Spaniard.  What Casariego offers the reader is a picture of a man who understands that he isn't happy and has decided to do something about it.  First, though, he has to understand what exactly this elusive ideal he's chasing is, and he quickly realises that happiness is far easier to talk about than to identify:
"...happiness can be everywhere, except right here, the one place in which you and I find ourselves.  It is therefore, an invention, an imaginary refuge, a mirage in the middle of the desert, and it vanishes the moment you get close." (p.190)
As Antón progresses in his search for happiness, both in his reading and (mis)adventures outside his apartment, the reader feels sympathy for his hopeless cause.

As mentioned above, Antón isn't completely alone in his quest as his brother and sister are keen to offer bibliographic support; however, Zoltan and Bela aren't exactly models of happiness themselves.  The brother is a psychologist, one whose professional exterior hides a slightly disturbing character, while Antón's intelligent, charming sister is trapped in a stifling relationship with a lazy American 'writer'.  In fact, the only happy member of the family seems to be the Vidor Mallick Antón mentions in his diary entry.  It's a shame, then, that Vidor, supposed author of the book Confessions of a Once-Hungarian Spaniard, has been dead for well over a century...

Part of the success of the book is the way in which Casariego constructs his novel, using Antón's diary entries to both inform and deceive the reader.  It's a sort of therapy, and it's very easy to fall into the trap of trusting Señor Mallick and taking his assertions at face value.  However, in reality (as Casariego mentioned during his talk at the festival), the diary format allows Antón (and the writer) to be a little economical with the truth.  The careful reader will see contradictions and sense certain omissions, some (but not all) of which will make sense later in the novel.

The diary format in itself could get a little old very quickly, but the writer mixes things up by including several other text types.  In addition to Antón's thoughts on the books he's reading (sometimes considered, occasionally flippant and insulting), we see copies of e-mails, transcriptions of conversations on Skype and an unusual take on the life story of a Soviet satellites expert.  It does make sense, I promise.  Sort of...

Tony Messenger, over at the Messengers Booker blog, recently posted on this book and was a lot less enamoured with it, not even managing to get half-way through the novel.  However, while I can see why he didn't like it (it was around this point in the story that I had a few doubts myself), I think a lot of the flaws he pointed out were actually deliberate.  Antón is meant to be an unreliable narrator, and many of the more absurd plot developments are mere distractions, taking both the narrator and reader further away from the true centre of the book, the reason why Antón needs to go on this journey of discovery in the first place.  For me, at least, it does all eventually come together.

Which is not to say that all the threads are neatly gathered up.  It's true that the mystery of the woman-with-child is solved, and that the family manages to come together (and we do eventually find out why Antón Mallick isn't happy), but I wouldn't say that the end of the novel brings the closure I'd expected.  Which is why my question to Casariego at the festival session was about whether he'd ever considered writing a sequel (he hadn't, but I'll take the credit if he changes his mind...).  After all, the search for happiness is a rather long-term project, and I doubt that Antón will be reaching his goal any time soon...

Saturday 6 September 2014

August 2014 Wrap-Up - Women in Translation Month

August saw the first edition of what will hopefully become an annual event, Women in Translation Month.  Hosted by Meytal of the Biblibio blog (who revealed her name during the month!), the event focused on the paucity of work by female writers in translation and attempted to turn a little more of the spotlight onto these authors.

It's hard to know how much of a success it was in the wider world, but it certainly generated a lot of interest in some quarters.  It was nice to see some publishers getting involved too (special mentions go to And Other Stories for their Tumblr series - here and here - and MacLehose Press for some suggestions on their site - here and here).  And, of course, every review on my blog in August (starting, in fact, on the 31st of July) was for the event :)

So, stats first - then my dozen reviews for Women in Translation Month :)

Total Books Read: 11

Year-to-Date: 86

New: 11

Rereads: 0

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

Novels: 7
Novellas: 2
Short Stories: 1

Non-English Language: 10 (3 Spanish, 2 Italian, Korean, French, Japanese, Norwegian, German)
In Original Language: 2 (French and German)
Aussie Author Challenge: 1 (1/3)
Japanese Literature Challenge 8: 1 (4/1)

Books reviewed in August were:
0) Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
1) My Son's Girlfriend by Jung Mi-kyung
2) The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
3) The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
4) The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik
5) Spirit on the Wind (and other Stories) by O Chong-hui
6) Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones
7) Numéro Six by Véronique Olmi
8) There a Petal Silently Falls by Ch'oe Yun
9) Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) by Jenny Erpenbeck
10) Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
11) Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli

Tony's Turkey for August is: Nothing

Christmas is looking very bare this year - looks like I'll be having toast instead of turkey ;)

Tony's Recommendation for August is:
Ch'oe Yun's There a Petal Silently Falls

Some great reads here, and it was a very close-run race.  The gallant runners-up this month were definitely Hanne Ørstavik's great story of psychological repression and Jenny Erpenbeck's time-twisting tale.  However, my choice goes to Ch'oe Yun's excellent selection of three long stories, a wonderful set of different writing styles and topics :)

With Women in Translation Month duties over for now, September will (hopefully) be a little more relaxing.  Then again, I do have a very big pile of ARCs looking over my shoulder...

Thursday 4 September 2014

'Boyhood Island' by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

After a month of female writers, it was inevitable that I'd be getting through a few more testosterone-filled books in September, and who better for that than the king of confessional male writing?  Time for another slice of the life of a certain Mr. Karl Ove Knausgaard - and this one takes us right back to the start of it all...

Boyhood Island (translated by Don Bartlett) is the third in the series of Knausgaard's six My Struggle tomes, the latest to make it into English so far.  The book starts off with his parents' move to the small island of Tromøy, with little baby Karl Ove in tow.  What follows in the next 490 pages is the story of a boy growing up, with the book ending (for now) with his departure from the island at the age of twelve.

Much of the story follows young Knausi as he roams free through the landscape of both Tromøy and his youth.  He runs wild, spending sunny days in the fields and at sea, enjoying a free-range, sepia-tinted childhood, with football, sweets, music and girls as his main distractions.  It's a wonderful life, but there is one, inescapable, shadow hanging over his otherwise perfect days - his father....

I'd heard some less flattering things about Volume Three of the series, and many reviews and comments felt it was weak compared to the first two books in the series.  According to Wikipedia, Volumes Three to Five were written during the initial My Struggle uproar in Norway, and the writing of these parts was supposedly a little rushed.  Initially, I agreed with that view.  The book was great to read, and I zipped through the whole thing in no time, but the first half, in particular, felt at times a bit like Topsy and Tim go to Norway...

There's a lot more to Boyhood Island than that, though.  The simple tone is deliberate, with Knausgaard's style mirroring the simplicity of the child's thoughts, the adult writer keeping out of the child's head as much as possible.  In fact, as the story progresses, and Karl Ove grows up, the style does gradually become a little more complex, and it's a wonderful description of a boy emerging from childhood.

Knausgaard is only five years or so older than me, and there's a lot here that reminds me of my own childhood.  Quite apart from the physical escapades, his weaknesses bring back painful childhood memories.  He has irrational fears, terrified by the sounds the pipes make in his house; he's unable to swim a few yards over the deep water, even though his father is right there; he's deeply affected by childish teasing (there are lots of tears...).  And, of course, then there's the complexity of relations with the opposite sex...

As he grows up, Karl Ove becomes more self aware, getting over many of his earlier behaviours.  He also gradually realises his flaws, or at least the character traits which are seen as such by his classmates at school.  To an outsider, he's a geeky, bookish, slightly effeminate cry-baby.  Still, it takes him a while to realise why he's not really as popular as he'd thought (and hoped).

This was, of course, a very different time, and the young Knausi was able to roam free, pretty much at will.  He disappears for hours at a time, only coming back for food, a young boy enjoying climbing, skiing, swimming, boating:
"That was everything.  That was the world.
 But what a world!"
p.15 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
One of the biggest realisations I had while reading Boyhood Island is how different Karl Ove's childhood (which, as noted, was fairly similar to mine) is from that of the current generation who, for many reasons, are not given half as much freedom to explore the outside world.  My daughter is seven and I'm not sure if she's ever actually left the house alone...

What makes the book, though, is not the portrayal of an idyllic outdoor lifestyle, but the portrait of Knausgaard's father.  Calling him the shadow over Karl Ove's childhood is a fair understatement:
"The sole really unpredictable factor in this life, from autumn to winter, spring to summer, from one school year to the next, was dad.  I was so frightened of him that even with the greatest effort of will I am unable to re-create the fear; the feelings I had for him I have never felt since, nor indeed anything close." (p.287)
The father is an irrational power which Karl Ove can do nothing about - as a young boy, he is absolutely powerless and at the mercy of his father's moods and whims.  And if those moods are usually bad ones...

Unfortunately for Karl Ove, the father is a tyrant who cannot be gainsaid.  He's a school-teacher of the old-school variety, a strict task-master who brooks no opposition, handing out unfair punishments, devoid of any sympathy.  The poor son is frequently punished for events beyond his control:
"What are you doing?" dad said.  "Are you completely stupid?  You don't stack wood like that!"
 He bent down and scattered the logs with his big hands.  I watched him with tears in my eyes.
 "You lay them lengthwise!" he said.  "Have you never seen a woodpile before?"
 He looked at me.
"Don't stand there weeping like a girl, Karl Ove.  Can't you do anything right?" (p.145)
It's an amazing, sobering picture of the helplessness of a child in the face of adult antagonism, one for all parents to think very closely about.  While it may seem like a harmless release of frustration, it's actually a highly damaging attack on a fragile soul.

The scary part of Boyhood Island is, as I keep saying, how similar it is to my own childhood.  Like Karl Ove, I spent a lot of my time running free, playing football and setting fires (I've matured - a bit- since then), and I, too, was an indiscriminate and voracious reader, a boy without many friends.  A Man in Love having also struck a chord, in these books Knausgaard seems to be showing me my past and present - and as he's five years older than me, I have a nasty feeling that I've also seen some of my future...

It might not be quite as good as the first two in the series, but Boyhood Island is a book that definitely grew on me.  While initially fun, but a little plain, the dark side of the story involving Karl Ove's father saves it from being a dull read.  Again, though, as was the case with A Man in Love, I'd have to wonder whether it's a boy thing: will women connect with his childhood as much?  Part of the beauty of the series so far is how much the books speak to me, but do they speak to everyone?  Will Karl Ove's clumsy, distant views of girls ring as true with female readers as they do with men?

Do let me know if you have any answers to these questions;)