IFFP 2015: Erpenbeck and González

EndofDaysJenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (2012)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (2014)

I’ve come across several novels on this year’s IFFP longlist which examine the twentieth century through the lives of ‘ordinary’ individuals, but this may be the sharpest one yet. The protagonist of The End of Days is born in the Austrian Empire at the start of the century; each of the novel’s five ‘books’ imagines that she died at a different point in her life; the short ‘intermezzo’ sections between them run through all the small differences – walking down this street instead of that; a window left open to let the air in – that could have kept her alive.

The first thing to say is that Susan Bernofsky’s translation is very potent indeed. When I read the first page, in which the protagonist is buried as a baby, it was so powerful that I almost had to put the book down (something that rarely happens to me): as handfuls of earth are thrown into the child’s grave, each is described as covering the girl or woman who might have been. The rest of this first section is full of tiny but resonant details, like the toy whose bells make the same jingling noise they did the day before, although so very much has changed. The protagonist’s death at such a young age is presented as a hole in reality for her family, beside which all else becomes insignificant.

The structure Erpenbeck has used enables effects like this. In The End of Days, ‘history’ in the broad sense doesn’t change; it is the individual’s interaction with history that changes. In each iteration of the protagonist’s life, her death means something different: in one section, she joins the Communist Party and moves to the Soviet Union, but dies labouring in the gulag; in another, she escapes internment and dies thirty years later, a celebrated writer and Party member; in the last, she lives to be ninety, and is one resident among many in an old people’s home. Erpenbeck’s novel intertwines the personal with the grand sweep of history to great effect, underlining the importance of both. I would certainly expect to see The End of Days on the IFFP shortlist; for me, it’s potentially a winner.

ItBWtS

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (1983)
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne (2014)

One of the interesting things about the IFFP (or, if you prefer, something that points to just how much literature from other languages remains untranslated into English) is that we’ll see the odd book which was originally written much earlier than the translation. Such is the case with In the Beginning Was the Sea, the first novel by Colombian writer González, and his first to appear in English, some thirty years on. I actually read this last year, but didn’t review it at the time, because I didn’t particularly care for it. Looking back, I think I was thrown by what the publicity material said about the book’s inspiration (which, for that reason, I won’t reveal here).

This is the story of Elena and J., a couple of intellectuals who leave behind city life to begin a new life by the sea. But money problems mean that they are going to have to earn a living from their land, and it’s not going to be plain sailing. There are hints (and increasingly clearer indications) that all is not going to end well; the novel becomes a chronicle of ill fortune, with a claustrophobic air of dread created by Frank Wynne’s translation. We know that something is coming, but not precisely what – and, for all the foreshadowing, González doesn’t make it feel too staged. I appreciated In the Beginning Was the Sea more the second time around, though I don’t anticipate that it would necessarily make my shortlist.

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

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.

Reflections: On Immunity and reading non-fiction

ImmunityI’m a reader of fiction by instinct; I read for experience more than information. This sometimes leaves me with a question when it comes to non-fiction, as happened when my book club chose E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life. The question is: if I can’t assess this book as a work of science (or whatever the book happens to be), what can I fall back on? ‘The quality of the writing’ seems an inadequate answer, not least because it effectively brushes aside the specific nature of a given book.

Eighteen months on, I might now have found an answer, after reading my first non-fiction book of the year: On Immunity: an Inoculation by Eula Biss, the latest essay from Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book starts from Biss hearing about the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, shortly after the birth of her son. The mothers in her social circle discuss whether to vaccinate their children against H1N1, before a vaccine is even available. Biss uses this as a foundation for reflecting on topics such as the different metaphors we use to describe disease and medicine; the perception and reality of risk; and the relationship between immunity and attitudes to the body.

It struck me when reading Biss’ book that here was a kind of writing I hadn’t really come across before. On Immunity is not strictly a scientific text, or a historical account, or a social commentary, memoir, or polemic (though it does have elements of all these things). It feels to me more like a writer responding to an event by thinking her way around a subject; the medium is non-fiction, but it seems to come from a similar impulse as fiction. This (non-fiction that… behaves like fiction? explores like fiction?) is clearly something which has been missing from my reading life, and I want to read more of it. And it also suggests to me that I can still think and write about the experience of reading non-fiction, just as I do with fiction, even if I don’t know about the subject. On Immunity opens up that possibility because the book is effectively discovering its subject as it goes.

So what was my experience of reading On Immunity like? Strangely, perhaps, I found myself less conscious than usual of the effect of language. When I read (for example) Weathering or The Wandering Pine, I was very much aware of the distinct ‘worlds’ being created by the words. It wasn’t like that with Biss’ volume; maybe that’s in the nature of the essay, or at least in the nature of this particular essay. But I did (as I often do with fiction) find myself appreciating how the form of the book contributed to its theme: constantly moving from topic to topic, searching for different angles on the central subject.

These ‘reflections’ posts are meant to be about thinking out loud, and I do feel that I understand my approach to reading non-fiction better. But it’s also clear to me that it will take more reading to bring these thoughts properly into focus; so I expect I’ll be returning to this topic at some point.

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: