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.

A weekend of novellas (contents may not be as advertised)

After my run of reading novellas last month, I decided to do the same again. Except some of these definitely aren’t noevllas, and I didn’t read them all at the weekend. Anyway…

KaufmanAndrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes (2003)

This was Kaufman’s first book, and the delightful imagination that he put to such great effect in books like Born Weird is on display here, too. It’s the story of Tom, an ordinary guy who married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But trouble soon came calling: on the couple’s wedding day, Hypno, the Perfectionist’s ex, hypnotised her into thinking that Tom was invisible; now she’s flying to Vancouver to begin a new life, and Tom needs to find a way to make her see him. Kaufman’s novella is peppered with vignettes of superheroes whose powers are often based on personality traits (such as the Frog-Kisser, who can ‘transform geeks into winners’ but then loses her attraction to them; or Mr Opportunity, who knocks on doors but is rarely answered). The rest of the book has the same charming mixture of the quirkily fantastical and a heart of everyday (but is it really?) emotion.

George Szirtes, Uncle Zoltán: fragments (2014)

This pamphlet from the Belgium-based publisher MIEL is a collection of bon mots from the titular Uncle Zoltán; these are by turns whimsical, fantastical, and absurd. For example:

We had a tiled stove with wings. Occasionally it would squwak and hover a foot or so off the ground, said Uncle Zoltán.

Always pack three umbrellas, one for heavy rain, one for light rain, and one for no rain, said Uncle Zoltán. A dry umbrella is consoling.

So many of these delightful snippets send the imagination off into a sideways world where all the strangeness makes sense; one also starts to imagine what kind of character Uncle Zoltán might be, built up indirectly from the fragments of reported speech. I’m not sure there’s much more I can say, because Uncle Zoltán is very much a book that lives in the reading.

Levy

Deborah Levy, An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (1990)

Newly reissued by And Other Stories as an attractive little hardback, this is a poem: a dialogue between an angel and an accountant, which evokes the push and pull of the mundane and the transcendent, the heat of desire and a quieter contentment. Rather like Uncle Zoltán, Levy’s book encourages you to focus in on the language (and even, in this case, the arrangement of words on the page). AS much as I enjoyed it, though, I find it difficult to separate out a quote from An Amorous Discourse. Here’s a video (hosted by the Irish Times) of Levy reading from it instead

WhiteleyAliya Whiteley, The Beauty (2014)

Aliya Whiteley can usually be relied upon for engaging stories with a dark twist, and The Beauty (published by Unsung Stories) is no exception. It focuses on a group of men living in a time when the female population has died out (the cause is unspecified) and the details of geography and history have become hazy; the Group relies on its storyteller Nate to retain the memory of what matters. One day, strange fungus begins to appear on the graves of the Group’s women, growing into silent, faceless female figures dubbed ‘the Beauty.’ What follows is a story that leaves the reader’s thoughts and sympathies in flux – on the one hand, there’s the moral issue of how the men treat the Beauty; on the other is the question of whether the Beauty themselves are benign. The vagueness of time and place, and the starkness of the Group’s world, only add to that sense of uncertainty.

Johnson

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (2002)

I got a very enthusiastic reaction on Twitter when I mentioned that I had this lined up to read; though I perhaps wouldn’t quite go that far myself, it’s certainly very good. Train Dreams moves back and forth through the life of Robert Grainier, a labourer born in 1889 who would go on to witness enormous change in the twentieth century. Johnson evokes the raw nature of life and landscape in Grainier’s American West; and includes memorable glimpses of others’ personal tragedies, such as that of Kootenai Bob, the old Native American who got drunk for the first (and last) time, then went to lie down on the rail track. The fragmented structure of Train Dreams serves to underline the essential; nature of Grainier’s life: unstable but enduring, haunted by the past but always with a future around the corner, for good or ill.

BarkerA,L. Barker, Lost Journey (1992)

This is one of four ghost stories which have been published in new individual editions by Galley Beggar Press. I have to admit that I’d never heard of A.L. Barker prior to reading Lost Journey, but this story was such fun that I’ll have to seek out more of her work. Barker’s narrator spots two striking figures in the street: an old woman with no legs, who travels around in an orange box on wheels; and her beautiful companion, who pushes her. Led by his libido, the narrator falls in with them; the old woman, Gerda Charles, turns out to be four hundred years old, and searching for a way to die. There’s a wry glee to this story; much of its energy comes from watching the narrator being strung along by forces outside his control, and seeing just where he’ll end up.

 

Alex Dally MacFarlane (ed.), Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) – Vector review

The following review appears in Vector issue 277 (Autumn 2014).

AliensAs Alex Dally MacFarlane notes in her introduction to this anthology, the concept of extra-terrestrial life raises questions which have been a perennial source of fascination for writers: “What will we encounter? Will we be able to encounter it at all?” And, of course, since alien life remains undiscovered, it becomes a blank canvas that writers can fill however they wish. In Aliens: Recent Encounters, MacFarlane has assembled thirty-two recent tales (the earliest are from 2002) which take a variety of approaches to the subject.

In ‘Sun Dogs‘, Brooke Bolander imagines Laika on her involuntary mission in space, where she meets some strange fiery dog-creatures who can give her whatever she wants, which the humans (whom Laika calls “whitecoats”) never could or would. ‘Sun Dogs’ is very much a story that stands or falls on its ability to create and sustain a convincing narrative viewpoint for Laika. Happily, it succeeds: Bolander’s third-person narration is a combination of persuasively non-human terminology and perception (“The world through the window is black and empty, marked with tiny faraway gleams that might be the eyes of unknown animals”), and detail that emphasises instinct and feeling. The ending, too, is satisfying, because in retrospect it fits right in.

The Four Generations of Chang E‘ by Zen Cho is a drily humorous tale of diaspora experience. We begin as Chang E has won a lottery to leave Earth for the moon, which has been colonised by aliens. We then follow three successive generations of her daughters (also named Chang E) as they react to, and are changed by, the world in which they find themselves: from wanting to fit in with the Moonites, through to a point where Earth is itself an alien place. There are some sharp lines, especially around attitudes to the native moon rabbits, which are discovered to be sentient (“The entire hall smelled of rabbit food. You worried other people would smell it on you.”); but the complex emotions of the ending are perhaps most powerful of all.

Interestingly inverting the idea of encounter, Genevieve Valentine’s ‘Carthago Delenda Est‘ is set four hundred years after a message was picked up from a planet in the Oort cloud, which caused any number of worlds to send delegations. The ambassadors have been cloned and reincarnated ever since, waiting for the unknown alien to show up. There’s a nicely wry tone to Valentine’s writing (on the number of delegates: “You wonder how amazing the message must be, to get them all up off their asses”), which fits in with the rather absurd nature of what she’s depicting: a whole existence created, entire lives lived, for an event that might never happen.

Though some reach into the depths of space, other stories in the anthology remain earthbound. For example, ‘Lambing Season‘ by Molly Gloss is a resolutely – almost stiflingly – down-to-earth tale of encounter. Delia spends six months of the year tending her flock of sheep on the mountain, with only her two dogs for company. This year, a strange craft falls from the sky; Delia investigates, and comes across a person who looks rather like a dog. Then she goes back to her sheep. Gloss’s prose evokes the vastness of the landscape that Delia inhabits, and the hard nature of her farming life; the focus on the quotidian rather than the extraordinary gives ‘Lambing Season’ a highly distinctive feel.

Courtney, the narrator of Elizabeth Bear’s ‘The Death of Terrestrial Radio’ grew up feeling estranged from other people, but with a yearning to talk to aliens. Eventually, they talked to us – or rather they transmitted a jumble of old Earth broadcasts back at us. Courtney is the astronomer who pinpointed the source of the ‘Echoes’, but it’s not so much a cause for celebration as for rueing the impossible distances that must be crossed in the universe. She reflects: “I can’t decide if knowing they were out there and that they reached out in friendship with a map and the sound of their voices, is worse than imagining they were never there at all.” All the vistas of space fall back into the story of a woman facing up to the possibility that her life’s work may have been for nothing.

There’s a bitter irony to the title of Nisi Shawl’s ‘Honorary Earthling‘, an irony which is only underlined by its inclusion in an alien-themed anthology. The story takes the form of monologues by various African American characters, who are all either talking to – or are themselves – a figure from urban legend, such as a phantom hitchhiker or doppelganger; these are then paired with related extracts of ‘found’ reportage. As a whole, these monologues show just how much their narrators – and others like them – still feel that they’re treated as outsiders (“Aren’t we lucky Seattle lets dogs ride the bus? I don’t think they’d understand if someone were to tell them they couldn’t”). Besides being a fine piece of work, ‘Honorary Earthling’ illustrates just how widely this anthology ranges.

Ken Liu’s ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species‘ is, as its title suggests, a tour how various alien races pass on their knowledge to each other. There’s some wonderfully evocative imagery here, as Liu imagines radically contrasting modes of existence: from mechanical creatures whose experience becomes etched into their stone brains by shifting channels of water, to beings of energy who see the vast structures of the universe as books to be read. That diversity of life is echoed in all the different kinds of stories in MacFarlane’s anthology.

Best European Fiction 2015: Rudan and Petrescu

BestEuroVedrana Rudan, ‘My Granddaughter’s Name Is Anita’
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

A woman lies in bed, unmoved by the attentions of her husband. He tries to pleasure her by stimulating different parts of her body, but none of it works; instead, the woman dreams about things she does enjoy – mostly shopping and clothes:

My head is in the closet. I am sniffing my blouses. I count them. Forty-three colorful babes watch me merrily. White, green, red, pink, pale green, the color of water, black. I even have one the color of dirt. A big, dull, dark-brown blouse. I don’t dare take it out of the closet because it is a gift from my husband. When he gave it to me, I thought, God, you know nothing about me. A dark-brown blouse. A mound of dirt by a freshly dug grave.

Ellen Elias-Bursać’s translation is full of such choppy rhythms that evoke the narrator’s restlessness, but also her raw emotions – desire and repulsion. Her feelings about clothes may be genuine, or magnified by the dream state; either way, they’re a sign that she’s uncertain about her life and herself. She clings on to material things that aren’t actually real, but shies away from sensations that are.

The title of Vedrana Rudan’s story stands out because it’s a seemingly throwaway line that has nothing much to do with the main story. But it opens up an entirely new context in which to view the narrator: as a grandmother, someone with ties beyond the immediate sphere of her marriage (which is all we really see in Rudan’s tale). The story illustrates that even the simplest-seeming moments can reveal emotional complexity, and may show just one facet of a life among many.

Răzvan Petrescu, ‘G-text’
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth

Well, this must have been fun/interesting/challenging/frustrating to translate: a monologue full of long, rambling sentences, with plenty of G-sounds. For example:

[…]I hated the open air grills, and the claws of the griffon that fluttered above us on odd-numbered days, I hated the glaring lies, the gladioli, the unquestioned chacun à son gout that was always questioned, but not Simon and Garfunkel, and Gogol, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Sartre’s gagging in Nausea was crushingly minor compared with the apocalyptic work of my nausea.

It’s a fabulous piece of translation by Alistair Ian Blyth. The Gs wax and wane, but the voice of Răzvan Petrescu’s narrator is always there: angry at the past and Ceaucescu’s regime – the music that was banned, the trams that didn’t run, and much more besides – a voice that feels as though it has been waiting for a chance to speak, and seizes the moment with an unstoppable torrent of words

Best European Fiction 2015: Djørup and Lenz

BestEuroAdda Djørup, ‘Birds’
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Teresa, a professor of English, writes to her partner Alejandro to explain why she has gone away without warning. Something like that, anyway:

I should say right away that my story is not an explanation, that I am not even sure myself how it is to be understood. I doubt even that it may be a story at all, for perhaps the beginning does not hang together with the middle, the middle with the end.

Teresa is not quite sure what has happened; but something changed in her when she started spitting out live birds. The line in Adda Djørup’s story that really struck me was this:

All those highly abstract and perhaps quite meaningless words about being oneself… But the birds are real, Alejandro[…]

I love the way that this inverts the standard order of fantasy and reality: the mundane things – thoughts and emotions – are elusive; the impossible birds are the only thing that Teresa feels she can hold on to. Martin Aitken’s translation is dense and discursive with introspection; but, for all Teresa’s words (which, of course, are her tools and her living), they aren’t enough for what she’s experiencing now.

Pedro Lenz, ‘Love Stories’
Translated from the dialect of Berne by Donal McLaughlin

Any work in translation is a duet between author and translator – something that’s notoriously easy to forget as a reader. But it’s perhaps more noticeable in the case of ‘Love Stories’, because Donal McLaughlin has chosen to translate Pedro Lenz‘s series of character sketches from the dialect of Berne into the dialect of Glasgow:

The wee nurse
checked the infusions,
footered aboot wi the switches again
then—a bit embarrassed like—
smiled
an’ left us
oan ur ain again.

The layout, by the way, is in recognition of the fact that Lenz often performs these as spoken-word pieces. So one’s very much aware that these are voices, and the dialect invites the reader the reader to imagine what sort of individuals these might be. I imagined Lenz’s speakers as ‘ordinary’ folk for whom expressing their emotions might not come naturally. But these acute emotional portraits – a son and his dying father; a woman making a public performance of a phone call to her lover; a man who longs to visit Thailand again – remind us that, if you look, there’s really no such thing as an ordinary person after all.

Read my other posts on Best European Fiction 2015 here.

 

 

 

A weekend of novellas

Recently, Scott Pack spent a couple of weekends reading novellas. IT sounded an interesting idea, and I had some time this weekend, so I thought I’d do the same. It did cross my mind that, having recently resolved to slow down and savour the books I read, I might be contradicting myself by now reading a small pile of books in a relatively short space of time – but actually I don’t think I was. If (as I’ve said elsewhere) a novel is like a journey and a short story is more like an intense moment of experience, then a novella is perhaps somewhere between – a sustained period of heightened experience. If I made sure that this wasn’t about reading as many books as I could, but about selecting a few and taking the time and space to appreciate them properly, there was no reason it couldn’t work.

I looked on my shelves for novellas, but also borrowed a few from the library, as I wanted there to be an element of uncertainty to the selection. The one change from my plan was that I read only six novellas, rather than the seven I had lined up – in the event, seven felt like overdoing it; six was a nice round number, manageable in the time, and still a pretty substantial amount to get through.

So, here’s what I read at the weekend (some of these may be too long or too short to count as true novellas, but hey-ho):

ProulxAnnie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain (1997)

Originally published in the New Yorker, then later released as a separate book (interestingly, several years before the film – which I haven’t seen, by the way). Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist meet as young ranch hands in 1963; while working and camping together on Brokeback Mountain, they become intimate; and their feelings for each other will haunt the rest of their lives. Brokeback Mountain is a fine example of short fiction’s ability to distil entire lives into a few pages; indeed, part of the point is that Ennis’ and Jack’s lives have been defined by a few incidents. The problem is, I never really believed in their attraction: it comes on abruptly and, for me at least, never gains the emotional weight that it needs. Now, I recognise that this could be Proulx’s point: that the two men don’t examine their desire for each other, but just accept that it’s there; and at least one of them wants to keep it at a distance, so that’s reflected in the tone of the writing. But even with that thought in mind, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t quite work for me.

garnier

Pascal Garnier, The Islanders (2010)
Translated from the French by Emily Boyce (2014)

This is the sixth of the late Pascal Garnier’s noirs to appear in English from Gallic Books, and the third I’ve read; it’s typically tense, wry, and strange. Olivier returns to Versailles to bury his mother; he discovers that his childhood Jeanne is living opposite with her blind brother Rodolphe. Jeanne and Olivier have a dark secret in their past, which threatens to come out into the open. And they’re about to gain another secret, when Olivier wakes up after a dinner party with the siblings to find the fourth guest – a stranger who had been helping Rodolphe around town – dead in the bathroom. You can guess this isn’t going to end well, but what really keeps the pages turning in The Islanders is the uncertainty over just how far these characters are prepared to go – and maybe even they don’t know until the time comes to find out.

SmithZadie Smith, The Embassy of Cambodia (2013)

My reactions to Zadie Smith’s work range from lukewarm to positive; happily, this one was positive. Its starting point is the fact that the Cambodian Embassy in London, unlike most embassies, is not in the city centre, but is instead a house on a suburban street. About the only thing anyone can see over the wall is a flying shuttlecock; what’s going on behind those walls – apart from a game of badminton – is anyone’s guess. So the Embassy becomes a metaphor for the hidden worlds and lives that lie in our midst. Smith’s protagonist is Fatou, who walks past the Embassy of Cambodia on her way to the swimming pool (where she secretly takes advantage of her employers’ membership) and wonders about her place in the world. This is a satisfying story that swoops in and out, from one person’s life to the wider world, and hinting at the untold stories that become lost in the throng of a busy street.

Garcia Marquez

Gabriel García Márquez, No One Writes to the Colonel (1961)
Translated from the Spanish by J.S. Berstein (1968)

One thing that a project like this novella-reading is useful for is ticking off a few names on the old “authors I’ve been meaning to read” list. So here’s my introduction to Gabriel García Márquez. Every Friday – as he has for the last fifteen years – the colonel eagerly awaits the mail, hoping that this will be the week his army pension arrives. In the meantime, the colonel and his wife subsist as best they can, their only real hope being the prize rooster that might win a few cockfights – if the colonel can resist the temptation to sell it. There’s a sense of absurdity running through this story, but it’s a rueful absurdity, born of being caught in an impossible situation – the absurd (but all too real) bureaucracy that withholds the colonel’s pension, and the absurd (but again all too real) lengths he has to go to in order to survive and keep face. I liked No One Writes to the Colonel, but feel I don’t quite have the measure of García Márquez’s work yet; I’ll have to read something else by him for that.

Yan GeYan Ge, White Horse (2008)
Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (2014)

Published by HopeRoad Publishing (who have a particular focus on African, Asian, and Caribbean writers), White Horse is the story of Yun Yun, who watches her cousin Zhang Qing grow up and drift away to test the waters of adulthood, though her parents may not approve. Meanwhile, Yun Yun’s widowed father is seeing one of the local teachers, which will reveal further cracks in the family’s relationships. There’s a clarity to Nicky Harman’s translation which makes this novella engaging to read, but it’s the deceptive clarity of a child’s voice – one that doesn’t know or perceive everything. This is what leads into the deeper heart of Yan Ge’s tale; that and the mysterious visions of white horses that Yun Yun keeps seeing, which may represent her own growing awareness. Good stuff.

Suceava

Bogdan Suceavă, Miruna, a Tale (2007)
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (2014)

When I saw this book in the shop it was shrinkwrapped, with no blurb on the back cover; so I had nothing to judge it by but the gorgeous design (hats off to Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press; it really is a beautiful object). Happily, the contents are just as good. The narrator, Trajan, recalls childhood visits to his grandfather in Evil Vale, where the old man would tell stories of family history which blurred the line with myth. Alistair Ian Blyth’s translation captures that elusive magical quality that makes Grandfather’s tales of fays and curses persuasive. But what I like most about Bogdan Suceavă’s book is how fully it dissolves the line between truth and fantasy: Trajan’s sister Miruna shares her grandfather’s affinity for the magical; so something is carried between them with the telling of the tales that Trajan can only guess at. And, as we only ever hear Trajan’s voice, how are we to know what’s real and what isn’t? Ultimately, it seems that what matters most is simply that the stories are told.

My final thoughts? I enjoyed doing this – it brought me into contact with books I might not have read otherwise, and led me to take from my shelves books I hadn’t got around to. I quite like the idea of having an occasion like this to read novellas, and I think I’ll be trying it again before long.

Best European Fiction 2015: Raud and Evtimova

ReinBestEuro Raud, ‘The Demise of Engineer G.’
Translated from the Estonian by Matthew Hyde

The narrator tells of his old friend G. – engineer, philatelist and gourmet, who threw the most fabulous dinner parties in an age when ingredients were scarce for most people. He also had shelves of literature: books he never really read, but which often had curious printing errors Somewhere in all this is the key to the riddle of how G. died.

Rein Raud’s story is delightfully oblique, shorn of the specific details that might enable us to work out exactly what’s going on: it’s mostly just G., his friends and his food. And what food it is:

In his masterfully planned menus one delicacy followed another, such that the most subtle nuances of flavor of every dish created a marked contrast with those of the succeeding course…at exactly the right speed for each subsequent taste to cut into the previous one at the very last moment, when the surface of the tongue, slightly straining, still wanted to keep the fading aftertaste in the mouth, so that the first new aromas had the best possible impact.

Though Matthew Hyde’s translation is capable of bringing to life sensations like that, there’s a certain fustiness about it which gives the sense of a tale being dredged up from the past, complete with the distance that implies. We can hazard a guess as to why G. met his fate; but all we really know is contained in the tale’s wry closing lines.

Zdravka Evtimova, ‘Seldom’
Translated from the Bulgarian by the author

A translator walks up the drab grey street, thinking about all the men who’ve forgotten her, and the banal novella that she’s translating. She comes upon a familiar-seeming car, whose driver turns out to be the author of that very novella. He offers the translator a lift to her office; but, as the car only moves when its passenger is happy, it could be quite a long journey…

I enjoyed this story. Zdravka Evtimova’s prose is unassuming and understated, which only adds to the sense of ordinariness:

I thought one could hardly  dub “town” the dozen ramshackle houses and the narrow, asphalt road that touched the apathetic buildings and climbed to the black sky in the distance.

Of course, what’s going on – be it hallucination or something more mysterious – is far from ordinary; but the lightness of Evtimova’s touch makes her tale entirely persuasive. When the abrupt final lines come along, it’s like waking from a dream – for reader and protagonist alike.

Read my other posts on Best European Fiction 2015 here.