IFFP 2015: Fois and Mortier

FoisMarcello Fois, Bloodlines (2009)
Translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella (2014)

Bloodlines is the story of a Sardinian family through the first half of the twentieth century – but not a family linked by blood. Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai were both orphans, and, even though he was adopted by a local blacksmith, Michele Angelo kept the surname given to him at the orphanage. So the Chironi family starts at the turn of the century, and the story of Bloodlines is the story of its first faltering steps through war, mortality, and socio-political change.

Though there are tumultuous events in the background, the focus is always on what they mean for the Chironis, and there is a sense that the family’s struggles are a reflection of wider Sardianian society coming to terms with the changes of modernity and gradually becoming more of a part of Italy (if I were more certain of the history, I might suggest that the family’s seeking to establish itself from effectively nothing reflects the coming together of Italy as a nation-state). There are frequent reminders from Fois’s narrator that this is a story, and therefore selected and shaped – there are many other stories that could be told about other families. Silvester Mazzarella’s translation captures the tone of being slightly distanced from events that occasionally – often tragically – come close to home. All in all, I very much enjoyed Bloodlines and I’d be happy to see it progress to the IFFP shortlist.

Mortier

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (2008)
Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (2014)

Belgian author Mortier  offers another personal approach to the early twentieth century, this time through the eyes of Helena Demont, an old woman in the present looking back on her life before and during the First World War. It begins as a comfortable bourgeois existence, before the German invasion sends Helena to France,, and the farm of her mother’s family. The experiences of Helena’s brother in battle and convalescence, and her journeys with an English photographer whom she falls for, will bring Helena – and us – closer to the horrors of the war.

Paul Vincent’s translation is rich and dense – indeed, at times (especially towards the beginning) I found the prose a little too over-egged. But the realities of war-ravaged Flanders are rendered vividly indeed, and Helena’s emphasis on the nature of memory underlines that even such dark moments of history will eventually fade into shadows and exist, for good or ill, only in our recollections. It wouldn’t at all surprise me to see While the Gods Were Sleeping make the IFFP shortlist, and I don’t think I’d mind if it did.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

IFFP 2015: Knausgaard and Ávila Laurel

KnausgaardKarl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3 (2010)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2014)

I expect that Knausgaard will remain a fixture of the IFFP longlist until the whole of My Struggle receives UK publication; here he is for the third year running, anyway. By now, the style and approach are known quantities – intensely detailed chronicles of everyday life, told in the rough-and-ready tones of Don Bartlett’s translation – but the substance varies. The stereotype of My Struggle is that it’s just a catalogue of minutiae; but what made the first volume especially so vital for me was the sense of Knausgaard grappling with the deeper realities of life – love, death, memory – and the dizzying moments when these would break through all the chatter.. In Boyhood Island, though, I we’re largely left with only the chatter.

It’s sharp, disarmingly frank chatter: Knausgaard is focusing on his childhood, and evokes the sense of this as a time of exploring, discovering boundaries and testing them (for good or ill). There’s a running theme of the restrictions of inside spaces (home, school) versus the freedom of outside – to the point where the teenage Karl Ove talks in terms of treating his bedroom as the ultimate ‘outside’ space.

There are times when Knausgaard confronts the some of the realities which animate My Struggle: how can he really remember all this? what does he actually know about that time? But I cannot shake the impression that, in Boyhood Island, I got the form of My Struggle without the full effect, and that feels like having only half a book. That’s why I’m not keen to see this volume progress any further in the IFFP.

Avila Laurel

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (2008)
Translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (2014)

Relatively little African literature in translation makes it to UK publication, and By Night the Mountain Burns would be notable simply for being only the second work from Equatorial Guinea to be made commercially available in English. More than that, though, it’s also very good.

At the beginning, we don’t know why, or to whom, the narrator of Ávila Laurel’s novel is telling his story, but we do know that he’s telling it orally. He begins with the song that would be sung when the people of his island pulled canoes to the shore, then runs through various events and situations from his childhood: the grandfather who would never visit the sea; a fire that destroys the mountainside plantations; visitors who come to trade, or for more mysterious reasons. The style is dense, rhythmic and discursive; I was interested to read this article by Jethro Soutar on the choices he had to make while translating, which shows just what a precision job it was.

By Night the Mountain Burns highlights a number of opposites (I hesitate to say ‘contradictions’): the spoken and written texts; the island’s vernacular and Spanish, the language of authority; the mixture of Catholic and traditional beliefs. The tensions created by these opposites create an undercurrent that ripples through Ávila Laurel’s novel; but all is held together by the flexibility of the narrative voice. Though the narrator’s digressions might seem to risk making the novel too diffuse, in the end I found that a cohesion of tone wins out. There’s a wonderful sense that the style and voice are not passively reflecting place and circumstances, but are actively creating them. I was reminded of Zone in that way – and, like Zone, it helps just to jump right in.

I enjoyed By Night the Mountain Burns, and I’d be happy to see it on the IFFP shortlist. On a final note, this is the first time that And Other Stories have received a nod from the IFFP; they’re a great publisher, and I’m pleased to see them get this recognition at last.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

IFFP 2015: Kehlmann and Murakami

KehlmannDaniel Kehlmann, F (2013)
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway (2014)

I keep wanting to call F a family saga in reverse; but that description, though snappy, isn’t quite right. Let’s say that F is a novel about several generations of a family, which highlights that we approach family history by working backwards, and thereby have to piece everything together to make sense of it.

We begin in 1984, when the Friedland brothers go with their father Arthur to a hypnotism show. The hypnotist tells Arthur it’s time to make the change in life that he always wanted; next thing the boys know, their father has gone away, taking his passport. They won’t see Arthur again for years – but in the meantime, he will become an internationally famous author. The bulk of the novel follows the brothers in adulthood: Martin, the priest; Eric, the financier; Ivan, the painter – each fundamentally a fraud in his chosen profession. Their stories overlap, but in reverse chronological order; so the causes of certain events become clear only gradually, and we see the contrasting ways in which the Friedland brothers view each other.

In another section, Arthur gallops back through the generations of his family, a survey of centuries that serves to illustrate how little he ultimately knows. The final chapters of F focus on Eric’s daughter, and tie up a few loose ends – for the reader, of course; Kehlmann’s choice of viewpoint character reminds us that, as a new generation emerges, the stories of the old one recede into mystery.

Carol Brown Janeway’s translation effectively facilitates F’s movement through different tones: from social realism to humour to gothic nightmare and beyond. I knew nothing about Daniel Kehlmann’s work before starting F; now I want to read everything I can that he’s written, and I would be very happy to see this novel on the IFFP shortlist.

Murakami

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014)
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

So, time for my second encounter with the work of Haruki Murakami. I had a hunch that the IFFP would bring this, and felt both intrigued and apprehensive at the prospect. The first Murakami I read, Sputnik Sweetheart a couple of years ago, didn’t leave much of an impression. I have wondered whether he’s the kind of author for whom you need to have ‘caught the bug’ at the right time (as can be the way with such prolific writers). Obviously I’d need to read more to find that out, but going straight to an author’s latest book is not necessarily the best way. Still, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is the book on the table for the IFFP, and I like it better than Sputnik Sweetheart – albeit not  quite enough to send me off to read all his work.

Tsukuru Tazaki is 36, designs train stations for a living, and is drifting aimlessly through life. At high school, he was part of a close-knit quintet of friends – though he felt an outlier, simply because he was only one without a colour in his name. Then, one day, they asked him not to contact them any more – and Tsukuru never quite got over it. Now he’s seeing a woman, Sara, who convinces him it’s time to track down his old friends and find out why they cut him off.

It took me a while to warm to Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki – at the beginning, it seemed that barely a page went by without an overwrought simile – but my interest began to be perked when Tsukuru’s search got underway. Tsukuru is someone who makes things (that’s even what his name means), and the way he works through his problem is both kinetic (going to visit his friends once he finds out where they are) and rooted in physicality (one of the novel’s key metaphors is how much Tsukuru and friends have changed over the years, perhaps without realising). I think that sense was what ultimately made Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki work for me. If I were more familiar with Murakami’s work, I might have picked up on more, but there it is. I don’t have particularly strong feelings either way about the prospect of the book making the IFFP shortlist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

White Hunger and Dorthe Nors

Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger (2012)
Transalted from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (2015)

White Hunger

The theme for Peirene Press’s 2015 books is ‘Chance Encounters’, and chance is particularly brutal their first selection of the year. Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is set in 1867, when Finland was beset by famine, the last naturally caused famine in Europe. In the prologue, we glimpse farming couple Marja dn Juhani gathering what meagre food they can, and engaging in mutual masturbation rather than risk bringing another child into these dire circumstances. The next time we meet them, Juhani is starving to death, and Marja and her two children leave their home behind in search of… well, whatever they can find. Their survival is dependent on the goodwill of strangers who are themselves in hardship – and goodwill can only go so far.

Alongside Marja’s family, we meet other characters, this time based in the town – an unnamed senator with plans for a railway; and the doctor Teo, who discusses solutions to the famine with his brother over a game of chess, and exchanges his medical expertise for favours from prostitutes. In many ways, these characters are the inverse of Marja: they are largely shielded from the famine while she is caught up in it; their lives may be geographically contained, but they can see a larger picture; Marja and children move through an expansive landscape, but don’t really know where they are.

I was really struck by how much White Hunger encompasses in such a small space; it feels like the story of a nation in microcosm. The journey of Marja’s family could be the story of many other families across Finland at that time; the Senator and his plans may be seen as representing the inevitable march of the future. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation underlines the starkness of what is a strong start to Peirene’s year. With Ollikainen’s second novel shortly to be published in Finnish, I hope we see an English translation before too long.

Elsewhere:

***

Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop (2008)
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken (2014)

Dorthe Nors, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (2013)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2015)

Nors

Pushkin Press are introducing the Danish writer Dorthe Nors to UK audiences with two books bound head-to-tail in a single volume. It’s a nice idea: not only is it an attractive format, it also shows us more than one side to Nors’s work. The first side is the short story collection Karate Chop; and these are very short, sharp stories indeed – fifteen over the course of eighty pages. Each is a miniature character study, often (perhaps paradoxically) oblique and precise at the same time – oblique in that Nors’s characters tend to be hiding something from themselves or the outside world; precise in the details that nonetheless come to light.

So, for example, in ‘The Buddhist’, we meet a government official who becomes a Buddhist because everyone knows Buddhists are good people; stretches the truth to become president of an aid charity (all in the name of goodness, you understand); and generally twists his own rhetoric in the manner of Joe from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. In ‘Do You Know Jussi?’, a girl waiting for a text from her boyfriend while watching a TV show about families being reunited, anything to avoid admitting that she knows the text isn’t coming. The collection’s harrowing title story depicts a woman who refuses to acknowledge where the blame in her abusive relationship lies (“It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he told her was suspicious”). Martin Aitken captures in his translation a similar sense of the unspoken as he did with Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland, to similar unsettling effect.

Sharing the bill with Karate Chop is a novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. Minna is a composer whose partner, Lars, has broken up with her – and, yes, she’s also lost her rehearsal space. Her search for a replacement is not just about finding a physical space for practising music, but also a mental space for sorting through her life.

The form of this novella is very striking: a list of fairly straightforward declarative sentences, such as:

Minna calls Lars.

Minna calls Lars until he picks up the phone.

Minna and Lars have discussed this before.

Lars has a cousin.

The cousin’s name is Tim.

Tim knows of a rehearsal space in Kastrup.

Quoting like this can give you a sense of the repetition and rhythm, but not the cumulative effect: the unstoppable flow of incantatory sentences that drives Minna forward on her personal journey – whilst also suggesting that a quiet space is going to prove elusive. It’s a superb piece of translation by Misha Hoekstra, the sort that makes me wish I could read Danish, just to experience the music that the original must surely possess. Still, I have the music of the English version to enjoy.

The author bio tells me that Nors has written four novels in addition to these books. Once again, I can only look forward eagerly to being able to read them in future.

Elsewhere:

  • Read Nors’s story ‘The Heron‘ from Karate Chop
  • …or an extract from Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
  • Interview with Nors at Bookanista.
  • John Self reviews the book for the Guardian.

Lucy Wood, Weathering (2015)

WeatheringThree years on from her marvellous story collection Diving Belles, Lucy Wood returns with her debut novel. Let’s not beat about the bush: Weathering is just as marvellous. In fact, it had me from the first paragraph:

Arse over elbow and a mouthful of river. Which she couldn’t spit out. Which soaked in and weighed her down until she was steeped in silt and water, like old tea. But where was her arse anyway, where was her elbow? There was nothing but water as far as she could tell. A stew of water and leaves and small stones and herself all mixed up in it – a strange grey grit. Scattered, then dragged under again, everything teeming, and not sure which way was up or down. Light and dark, light and dark, like a door opening and closing. (p. 1)

I love the rhythm of that prose, and the way it erases the line between character and river. It does so for good reason, too: the character, Pearl, has died; those are her ashes being scattered in the river, apparently still self-aware. They’re being scattered by Pearl’s daughter Ada, who’s returned to the valley to sort out Pearl’s old house; and Ada’s six-year-old daughter Pepper, who never knew Pearl at all. Weathering is the story of how the three generations deal with their sudden change in circumstances.

It’s easy enough to imagine a situation like this being the subject of a straightforward social realist novel – but such a novel would likely have been less interesting and powerful than Weathering. What makes Wood’s book so striking is its sense of what it is to be in that raw landscape. Each of the three protagonists has reason to feel particularly close to the valley: Pearl lived there for years, and of course is now literally part of it. For a wild soul like Pepper, whose life is just beginning, the valley is a place of excitement and colour. For Ada, who thought she’d got away from the valley years ago, it’s dreary and miserable.

Key to Wood’s technique is that she does not allow the valley to become known. For all the vivid descriptions of place, there are no names; this is not somewhere that can be given a label, and thereby given shape. Choppy sentence fragments disrupt the easy flow of understanding; like the characters, we as readers are plunged straight into a new world and have to orient ourselves as best we can.

We can also see this at work in the dialogue, which – like real conversation – is often laden with the unspoken, which can be stifling for Ada, because she finds herself having to be the person others remember, rather than the person she feels she is now; when the village shopkeeper tells her about a collection for ‘old Edwards’, Ada’s emphatic reply of ‘I don’t know who he is’ (p. 35) seems very much like a forlorn attempt to distance herself from the past. As the novel progresses, and Pepper and Ada become more comfortable in their surroundings, so the dialogue and descriptive prose become more conventionally novelistic – but never entirely; the valley will not be tamed.

The title of Weathering has two meanings: being worn away by time, but also holding on, riding out the storm. Ultimately, Wood’s characters experience something of both, as they try to find a place for themselves when the river is the thing that will carry on. Whereas in Diving Belles magic and story lay beneath the surface of everyday life, here it’s the deeper reality of the landscape that pushes through into the characters’ lives.

I want to end with another quotation, which may be tricky, because you really need the momentum of context to understand what Weathering is like.  But here’s a stretch of dialogue between Pepper and a woman on the riverbank, which to me captures something of the novel’s general attitude, as well as showing how amusing Wood’s writing can be:

[…]‘It certainly is cold today,’ [Pepper] said.

‘What are you talking about that for?’ The woman said.

Pepper shrugged. ‘I’m trying to make conversation.’

‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘That.’

‘This is what you have to do. I say, whereabouts do you live and what do you do for a living? And then you tell me. And then I say it’s cold. And then you agree. And then I say I hope the road doesn’t get ice. And then you say you heard the road will get ice. And then I say—‘

‘Christ,’ the woman said. ‘Why do we have to say all that?’

‘I don’t know,’ Pepper said. (p. 108)

Why indeed? Weathering is a novel that says just what it needs to say, in its own idiosyncratic fashion. It cements Lucy Wood’s voice as one that will continue to have my full attention.

Elsewhere

Weathering has been picking up very positive mentions all over the place; here are a few of them:

Reflections: ‘light reading’

Since I’m aiming this year to think more deeply about what I read and why, I wanted to begin this occasional series of posts on how things are working out and thoughts that come my way. It’s been a good start: I’ve read three books which are certainly going to stay with me – The Vegetarian, Manazuru, and The Wandering Pine. They inspired strong responses from me, and I can recall vividly what it was like. That, ultimately, is what I’m looking for.

But there was a time, towards the end of last month, when I felt the need to read something ‘lighter’. I wasn’t even sure what that was going to mean in my current reading context; I suppose it really meant a book which I could read once and wouldn’t mind if it didn’t stay with me. I tried a few books and found voices with the potential to entertain – voices telling of crime capers or small American towns under the burden of peril; or a quirky voice masking a darker experience of the world – but I put them aside. Some of those books would probably have done the job I wanted them to; the thing was that I felt I knew where their voices would take me, and it turned out I didn’t want that.

It’s one thing to abandon books that you’re not enjoying; I have no qualms about doing that. But putting aside books which might pass the time pleasantly enough – that’s new to me, and it is not easy. Yet I resolved to do it more this year, and it’s something I will have to do to get closer to the books that really count for me. It’s a risk with every book we don’t finish, and every book we never start, that we’ll miss something vital. But that’s the way it is, so I let my instinct prevail.

HaynesThe book I chose to read in the end was The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes, which is a thriller about a woman who takes a job as a drama teacher in a pupil referral unit in Edinburgh; manages to get one of her classes interested in Greek tragedy; then finds that a tragedy has unfolded in front of her before she realised what was happening. I was immediately intrigued by the protagonist’s voice:

The first thing they’ll ask me is how I met her. They already know how we met, of course. But that won’t be why they’re asking. It never is. (p. 5)

Naturally, this opening prompts plenty of questions in the reader’s mind. There were soon hints of tragedy in the narrator’s past, and of course an uncertain future. The Amber Fury held out the promise of leading somewhere perhaps largely familiar, but not entirely. It was enough for that moment. I carried on.

Did I get what I wanted from The Amber Fury? Yes and no. It might have helped if I knew more about Greek tragedy, because I suspect there were deeper parallels in Haynes’s novel that I missed. As it was, I had to rely mainly on the book’s qualities as a thriller, and… Well, all thrillers of course play a certain kind of game, and to read one is implicitly to accept that game. The Amber Fury’s game played out pleasantly enough; but, towards the end, I was getting impatient with it. I’d had enough ‘light reading’ and was ready for something else.

Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to be ready for something else, but I’d anticipated that being at the end of an enjoyable palate-cleanser; I hadn’t imagined that I would get fed up with the whole idea of palate-cleansing before it was finished. Of course, it could just have been the choice of book; but the experience has left me wondering: if this ‘light reading’ got me hankering after something else, was it really what I wanted in the first place at all? If it was, will the price of light reading always be that I end up falling out with it? Time will tell.

 

 

The Vegetarian and Bilbao – New York – Bilbao: Shiny New Books

I have a couple of reviews in the new issue of Shiny New Books, both of novels in translation which I’d heartily recommend to you.

VegetarianFirst up is a Korean novel, The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith). It’s the story of  Yeong-hye, a woman who first stops eating meat, then refuses all food – seemingly with the ambition to renounce her body and become a tree. But The Vegetarian is also as much about the people around Yeong-hye and how they see her. It’s a superb piece of work (with an excellent cover by Tom Darracott – look more closely and you’ll see it’s not just an arrangement of flowers), which I expect will be a strong contender for the IFFP – but it’ll be eligible for next year’s Prize, so we’ll have to wait a while.

(Speaking of the IFFP, Tony and Stu are looking for new Shadow Panel members; I’m planning to join in again this year, and it’s a lot of fun of you fancy having a go.)

Bilbao

One book that might might come up in this year’s IFFP is the subject of my second review: Bilbao – New York – Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin). On one level, this is a novel about the author’s father and grandfather, both fishermen. On another, it’s about the process by which Uribe (or at least a character with his name) drew on their lives to write a novel, and about the tensions between life and art.

Go and have a look, do check the books out, and be sure to spend some time exploring the Shiny New Books site – there’s a lot of great stuff on there.