Will and Testament

October 21, 2019

Verso are no strangers to translated fiction, having published writers like Jose Saramago and Wu Ming in the past, but in August they announced the launch of a translated fiction imprint with two titles published this autumn, the first of which was Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament translated by Charlotte Barslund. Hjorth is a Norwegian writer with a career beginning in the 1980s, but Will and Testament is a recent novel, originally published in 2016. Its topic is, as the title suggests, is a disputed will, but the dispute is only the final fracture in a family which is no longer a family.

The novel is narrated by estranged daughter Bergjlot, who at first characterises the dispute as one between her brother, Bard, and her two sisters, Asa and Astrid, beginning when their parents’ will is changed before the unexpected death of their father:

“In the weeks leading up to his death, my siblings had become embroiled in a heated argument about how to share the family estate, the holiday cabins on Hvaler.”

The new will leaves the two holiday cabins to Astrid and Asa despite a long-stated intention that all four children will be treated equally. Bard and Bergjlot will be compensated financially, though the amount they are offered under-values the cabins according to Bard, who views the will as “the final straw in a long line of financial favouritism.” It soon becomes clear, however, that the real story is Bergjlot’s estrangement. For a long time her only contact with her family has been through Astrid, but even here there is tension, particularly when Astrid passes on news regarding their mother:

“Sometimes I had sent furious replies to such messages because Astrid treated me as though it were a matter of will, as though I could simply decide to turn up, to be nice, to make conversation. Astrid had deleted my furious emails without reading them, she wrote, and that was her right…”

This is also the first indication that Bergjlot is not listened to by her family: while deciding not to read a message sent in anger may initially be seen as emotionally mature, it is also a form of selective blindness, refusing to acknowledge that the anger exists, and may even be justified. (Ironically, Astrid is a human rights lawyer: “Everybody makes mistakes, you write… When you meet victims of human rights abuses, is that what you tell them?”). Bergjlot comments frequently ion not being heard: I has learned that speaking the truth was against the rules,” she says, and, “it was as if I didn’t exist, as if my story didn’t exist.”

Clearly something has happened in Bergjlot’s past which the family will not acknowledge, something which, though it is only revealed later in ten narrative, is unlikely to surprise many readers. The novel, however, is not really about what happened, but about the family’s reaction to it, both initially, when it is suppressed by Berjlot as well as her parents, and later, when Bergjlot, through counselling, faces up to her past:

“To finally admit the truth about the very thing they had devoted so much energy to repress and deny.”

She reaches this point after years of unhappiness: “I existed in a state of pain and shame, which couldn’t be undone, but which I couldn’t live with unprocessed either.” Her family’s refusal to engage with her, however, eventually leads her to cut off almost all ties: “the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief.”

Hjorth is not writing a novel where the character’s past is dangled in front of the reader like a carrot; she is instead interested in the ways in which we choose to ignore or side-step what is inconvenient or disruptive. Bergjlot’s mother refuses to acknowledge what happened to Bergjlot not so much by openly denying it as by not hearing it; her sisters, similarly, allow the accusations to exist in a grey area they choose never to visit, instead carrying on as normal. Behaving otherwise poses too much of a challenge to the comfortable status quo:

“If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable.”

As Bergjlot says of Astrid, “she sought reconciliation and cooperation, but there are opposites which can’t be cancelled out, there are times when you must choose.”

Will and Testament is a novel which probes large questions about guilt, acknowledgment and reconciliation in the small space of a family feud; it is a domestic drama with philosophical inquiry at its heart. It marks the discovery of another wonderful Scandinavian writer.

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An Evening with Claire

October 15, 2019

An Evening with Claire, Gaito Gazdanov’s first novel, was published in 1930 in France where Gazdanov had arrived in 1923, a Russian émigré. The novel certainly has autobiographical elements, telling, as it does, of a young Russian in Paris who left his homeland after fighting with the White Army when little more than a child. The story is framed around Claire, whom he first meets when he is thirteen. She is slightly older (“At that time I was between the fifth and sixth grades; Claire was finishing her tenth and last.”) – and one of her friends quickly dismisses the narrator as “extraordinarily immature”, something illustrated by the fact he senses rather than understands her “budding sexuality”:

“It always seemed to me I was sinking into a fiery and sweet liquid and seeing Claire’s body and her bright eyes with their long lashes near me.”

He stops visiting her after he is insulted by her mother (in French, as she assumes he will not understand) but now, in Paris he has renewed his acquaintance with her despite her marriage. Though he is now in his twenties, there is still a strong sense that he is the junior partner:

“She smiled and her smile clearly said, ‘My god, is he naïve.’”

It is finally sleeping with Claire, however, which seems to prompt the recollections which form the bulk of the narrative, originating from the feeling that there is sadness as well as joy in achieving his dream:

“…never again could I dream about Claire as I had always dreamed about her, and that much time would come to pass before I would come to form another image of her and before this image would become in its own way just as unattainable for me as had been this moment…”

The narrator’s memories from this point are presented impressionistically, a style which Gazdanov describes as follows:

“It was as if I no longer saw or knew anything that happened to me beyond the moment I chose to recollect… I grew accustomed to living within a past reality which my imagination had brought back to life.”

The narrator’s childhood is one of loss: his father dies when he is eight, and he loses his sisters as well. This makes him rather self-contained – he says, “I never loved anyone and would leave those from whom circumstances would separate me with no regrets.” It is this quality which perhaps encourages him to enlist during the civil war, an action which is not based on ideology:

“I joined the White Army because I was on its territory, because it was expected of me; and if in those days the Reds had occupied Kislovodsk, I probably would have joined the Red Army.”

His time in the army is recounted largely in the characters of his comrades rather than the horrors of war or the incompetence of generals. Even as he demonstrates his affection for his fellow soldiers, however, he continues to remain at one remove from them:

“I passed the time with the soldiers but around me they behaved with a certain guardedness, because I didn’t understand many things which, in their opinion, were extraordinarily simple; at the same time they though I knew things which, in turn, where inaccessible to them.”

The narrator’s ability to observe in detail while maintaining some distance, as well as his desire to embrace experience, suggests the writer in waiting. It also reflects what translator Jodi Daynard calls Gazdanov’s attempt “to reconcile his own joyous sense of wonderment with the depressing material and moral conditions of his times.”

An Evening with Claire can seem slight compared to some other émigré novels: Nina Berberova, for example, deals with childhood during the revolution in much greater depth in The Book of Happiness, and the civil war has been written about extensively in fiction. It also lacks the thriller structure which makes later novels such as The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and The Buddha’s Return such a delight. Having said that, it is still a beguiling read, suffused with Gazdanov’s trademark weary joy, encompassing everything from love to war.

An Orphan World

September 28, 2019

Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World, translated by Juana Adcock and Sophie Hughes, is a novel of juxtapositions. Each of its chapters tells of two different moments in the life of its narrator, alternating between each story. Caputo also places in contrast his character’s close relationship with his father and the often distant sexual exchanges which take place in his life as gay man. Finally, we find light and darkness in constant play across the narrative: the novel’s title, for example, originating in stories that the narrator’s father tells him of life on a different planet, “an orphan world with no sun, plunged into perpetual darkness.”

However, An Orphan World is, first of all, a tale of poverty:

“That’s how we lived, my dad and I, in that grey neighbourhood – a grey that was sometimes smoky, sometimes blackish – trapped in a cycle of poverty and never quite at peace.”

The father thinks up numerous schemes to make money – from charging to give people advice at the local bar (“The first piece is free, and from then on I charge.”) to using a tape recorder to pretend that their house is talking, a scam which backfires when they fail to open the door on time and everything on the tape plays ahead of the action. It is their lack of money which forces them to move to the section of town which is without any lights at night:

“I was terrified of the location, right in the heart of the dark zone – as it was called – which had no street lights at all, but the price was within what we could afford.”

Later, when their electricity is cut off because they cannot afford to pay the bill and they illegally reconnect it themselves, they are unable to put any lights on in the front of the house in case they are seen from the street. In many ways, their poverty can be seen as a journey into increasing darkness; however, light in the novel is not presented as the benevolent opposite.

The novel’s central event, overshadowing everything, is the mass murder of homosexuals, presumably on one night. We do not see the violence but are made fully aware of the horror in its aftermath:

“There, in the bar district, we came upon men with no heads: four or five bodies, floating from the neck down in their own lake. Beyond them, in a little heap, the chopped-up crimson flesh of a man (or several men) who’d been out dancing.”

Later, when a lorry appears to take the corpses away, even a policeman throws up at the sights illuminated by the headlights – including the severed heads which have been placed inside the street lights. It’s perhaps for this reason the narrator says at one point:

“So much light that, instead of illuminating the night or dissipating the darkness, it seemed to create them.”

This threat hangs over the narrator throughout – for example, when he is stopped by the police having gone out to look for food, one of them comments: “How come they didn’t kill this one, though?”

The narrator’s sex life is revealed in a refreshingly uncompromising manner. There are no ‘relationships’ but simply a series of sexual encounters. Some of these take place in a sex club he visits, others online. Caputo is particularly good at writing about the Roulette chatroom, and the narrator’s attitude to it:

“A hundred men in one; a stranger transforming into a hundred strangers.”

Later he says, “Sometimes I mistake my screen for the stranger’s”. The influence of the internet on sexual desire is clearly going to be an important topic for writers over the coming decades, and it’s exciting to see Caputo begin to explore this, though elements of voyeurism are also apparent at the sex club:

“I watched them, and I watched him watching them.”

That Caputo places this alongside the narrator’s loving relationship with his father illustrates that he is not emotionally empty – a cliché which is often present when a character indulges in sexual gratification outside of love. The narrator’s connection to his father is evident from the beginning, and Caputo often use language we would associate with a couple:

“With our arms around each other we went to his room…”

And:

“I think about my dad, and go back to lie down beside him (‘beside him’ is code for spooning him).”

There is a beauty in their relationship that survives the ugliness which surrounds them.

An Orphan World is a novel which does things that not many other novels are doing. Its father / son relationship is one of love and companionship rather than tension and resentment; the narrator’s homosexuality is powerfully central to his story without overwhelming the narrative; and the ugliness of its poverty and violence is never quite victorious in the face of its human virtues. It would be a pity if it did not get the audience it deserves simply because of its sexual openness.

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

September 21, 2019

Emmanuelle Pagano’s Trysting, also translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, consisted entirely of short passages which built towards a picture of love in all its many forms. Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is more traditionally structured as a series of short stories, but has a similarly cumulative effect as we discover characters and incidents reappearing from different angles, perhaps still central to the story, but just as possibly an aside, a sentence or two glimpsed fleetingly as we travel on. Where Trysting was very clearly an exploration of love, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, as the title is perhaps intended to suggest, is more difficult to pin down, reflecting, as it does, on place, isolation, and eccentricity.

The idea of isolation is touched on in the first, and briefest story, told in the first person, when the narrator tells us, “I pedalled out to the middle of the lake to read there, away from the others but not too far away.” It forms a companion piece with the final story, ‘Glitter’, in which the narrator finds glitter between the pages of a library book; the suggestion of being “away…but not to far away” echoed in the way in which the narrator believes this discovery connects her to other readers:

“I never did find more glitter. But I did find readers. I’ve found other proofs of reading. I’m no longer alone reading these demanding books, no longer alone in my steamy bath, my bubble.”

Isolation which is not loneliness is a common thread, as can be seen from the narrator of the second story’s summation of the setting:

“The plateau harbours so many solitudes you might think it bustling with life.”

Solitary characters often momentarily connect or at least coincide. In ‘Blind Spots’ the narrator intentionally hides by the roadside: “I stand in their blind spots… I make myself invisible.” But in the story he is seen:

“It’s different with you. You’re the one frightening me. You’re so serene, you’re like my fear, you’re like fear itself.”

The woman who picks the narrator up is, in fact, intent on suicide, a suicide already mentioned in the previous story (“I think she decided to kill herself, I think it was on purpose.”) but one she postpones in the course of this story, only to return to in ‘Three Press-ups and Unable to Die’:

“They’ll know of my death today, of course; I won’t get it wrong again.”

The man from the roadside wonders, “Who are you not to be frightened – a madwoman?” but he will later be referred to by another man who has hitched a lift in ‘The Mini-pilgrimage’, along with others – “he knew some mad people too, more like roadside loonies.” Another reoccurring character, “the automatic tour guide” is first introduced as “the mad old Polish man”. Madness, in this context, is living your life by ritual; habitual behaviour that is both imprisoning and liberating.

This is perhaps best seen in another ‘roadside loony’ who waits by the roadside at the place where his wife and children were killed:

“He waited there for things to be reversed, for the past, for the return of the dead. Going backwards every evening at five o’clock, waiting for life to be different.”

When the road is changed locals wonder how he will react and, in what seemed a hopeless tale, the narrator strikes a hopeful note: “He goes beyond the figure we made of him, that we thought we could reduce him to.” ‘The Loony and the Bright Spark’, is one of the most successful stand-alone stories in the collection, and could easily be placed in an anthology. The same applies to ‘The Short Cut’, although only five pages long, where a woman, returning home for a funeral, finds that a short cut has taken her back too quickly:

“I wasn’t lost on the road but in my mind. It had gone too fast, this return with the short cut.”

‘The Drop-out’, despite echoes to previous talk of cousins who look alike, also works well isolation, and is possibly the strangest story in the collection, as the narrator leaves her daughter’s wedding with the woman who may or may not be the cousin she has not seen for many years. Other stories work better in the context of the collection, accumulating meaning in their echoes, something, perhaps, to be expected from the constant play of isolation and connection within them. In both cases Pagano has an eye for the unseen, the blind spots of life, those we shun or try to forget about. This collection, alongside Trysting, marks her out as a unique and perceptive voice.

Among the Lost

September 13, 2019

Mexican novelist Emiliano Monge’s Among the Lost, originally published in 2015 and appearing last year in an English translation by Frank Wynne, begins as a group of migrants being led through jungle are suddenly stopped by spotlights:

“For their part, when the cage of light in which they find themselves ceases to close in, the men and women who left their land some days, some weeks ago, feel something drain from their entrails and huddle ever closer to each other, their tremblings merging into one, their hollow voices fusing into a single voice. The shock is passing and the terror is charged with questions.”

They have become the victims of human traffickers and are now nothing more than objects to their captors, “no more than prostrate creatures,” to be transported and used at will. They are not, however, the focus of Monge’s gaze; Among the Lost is a novel of the kidnappers rather than the kidnapped, as Monge has explained:

“Literature, I believe, is a portal to empathy, and empathy is one of the few means by which, as a society, we can dispose of violence. But to be empathetic with the victim is pretty easy. What’s truly difficult, what you need more courage for, is to find empathy for the victimizer. If we want to understand and change a pattern of systemic violence, we need to be empathetic toward both parties. I feel it’s really important to understand the victimizer in all his or her complexity: How is it that a man or a woman can kidnap and torture, and also love and protect their loved ones?”

Monge creates empathy for the victimizers through their tortured love story: the action takes place entirely in one day on which Epitafio (the names are all emblematic) and Estela plan, in the tradition of the best crime films, get out while they can. “When will he have the courage to give it all up,” wonders Estela of Epitafio, and, later, “I need to tell you we can’t go on like this.” Epitafio, meanwhile, has similar misgivings:

“I’m done with all this… I want the two of us to be together.”

That neither is entirely certain of what the other thinks is not only down to determined displays of violent nonchalance where anger is the other acceptable emotional response, but also to a lack of communication on the day involving a series of missed calls and no signal moments which would be comic were the consequences not so potentially tragic. (Mobile phones, so often a hindrance to writers, become a symbol of their relationship).

Monge also develops our sympathy by presenting both Epitafio and Estela as victims themselves, past and present. Our glimpses into their childhoods demonstrate that they, too, have been used. Estela remembers the wooden door at the orphanage “that kept her locked in her room, by the bed where she spent years tossing and turning, unable to sleep, by the window she spent hours peering through so she could escape her present.” Epitafio also remembers the moment he was taken from his parents:

“…his brothers pressed their terror to the windows, while their mother sobbed in her bed, and their father screamed and argued in the courtyard.”

They are also victims in the present as it quickly becomes apparent Epitafio’s lieutenant, Sepelio, and the priest who runs the orphanage, Father Nicho, are plotting against them, adding a further dimension to the lack of contact between them as the day progresses.

The link between victim and victimizer is best illustrated in the character of Mauseleo (the name he ends the novel with; in the beginning, as one of the immigrants, he is nameless). An ex-boxer, Epitafio is drawn to his giant stature among the victims and offers him the opportunity to swap sides – “It’s your lucky day,” he tells him more than once. Of course, Mauseleo must demonstrate he has the stomach as well as the physique for violence:

“Feeling his bravura heal the wounds opened up by his fears, the blind newcomer in the kingdom of the blind reaches the mass of tortured and humiliated men and women, and, for the first time today, his face relaxes.”

Mauseleo’s violence is a way of dissipating fear. “Stick out your chest,” Epitafio tells him, “I’ve freed you from having to be one of them!” For Epitafio anger has become his default, his driving force, beyond any immediate cause:

“Unaware the rage now propelling him towards the house is the result of many years and not the setback life has just visited on him.”

There are many things to love about Among the Lost beyond its fearless gaze into the world, and hearts, of violent, desperate men (and women). It is also stylistically impressive, not only in its observation of the classical unities (it began life as a play) but in the way the story is told, largely through dialogue. (Monge’s only other novel in English, The Arid Sky, though thematically similar, has an entirely different structure, retelling a life non-chronologically, and suggesting that Monge’s approach to narrative is carefully considered). Monge has also embedded quotations from Dante’s Inferno into the text, as well as extracts from the interviews of survivors. He also subtly uses the world the human traffickers inhabit to comment on events – the falcon, swooping “on a flock of birds and picking off the weakest”; the snake as Estela thinks of betrayal; the cow Epitafio runs off the road:

“Those dumb fucking animals never move… they just tense their bodies.”

Among the Lost is a terrifying, hopeless masterpiece which I fully expect to be also among my books of the year.

A Girl Returned

August 30, 2019

Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s novel A Girl Returned, newly translated by Ann Goldstein, begins with our narrator, then a thirteen-year-old girl, returning to the family she has never known. The door is opened by her younger sister, Adriana, “keeping her sharp eyes on me,” her “dark look”

“…scorched the gilt buckles of my new shoes, moved up along the blue pleats of the dress, still rigid from the store.”

The difference between them is immediately obvious to Adriana, whose first instinct is to claim the dress once it outgrows her sister, who, in the meantime, is both angry and confused at her return – or, as she sees it, her abandonment by the ‘parents’ she has lived with all her life. “I want to live in my house, with you,” she tells her uncle, “If I did something wrong tell me, and I won’t do it again.” Her experience – of being taken from a poor family to live with wealthier, childless relatives – was not unheard of in Italy in the 1970s, and her return (the title, in both Italian and English, suggests she is treated as an object) allows Di Pietrantonio to examine the class divide which existed, and continues to exist to this day, in a striking and affecting manner.

Though A Girl Returned has been referred to as Di Pietrantonio’s English language debut, it is, in fact, her third novel to be translated, with both My Mother is a River and Bella Mia previously published by (very) small press, Calisi. These mark her out as a writer interested in situations of intense emotional impact, testing her characters’ resilience, just as the narrator, here, is tested. Her new family are not only much coarser than her adoptive parents, but neglectful in both care and affection. On her first night she discovers:

“My first parents didn’t recall until after dinner that there wasn’t a bed for me in the house.”

When her older brother, Vincenzo, is hit by her father, “only I was frightened, who had never seen violence close up.” When told to pluck a chicken, she replies, “I can’t, it scares me.” Her situation is made worse by the fact that she is offered no explanation as to why her aunt has returned her to her parents – something which allows the novel to work to some extent as a mystery – and, moreover, her aunt seems determined to have no contact with her at all. Even when she is finally able to return to her aunt’s house, she finds it empty:

“I rang the bell into the emptiness of the rooms and after a vain wait rang it over and over again, for a long time. I leaned my forehead against the bell and stood like that until the heat became unbearable.”

From the moment her uncle returns after having taken her to her “family that was mine against my will” (she thinks for a moment he has changed his mind) with a tub of ice cream, her adoptive family’s only contribution to her new life is entirely material – arranging for the narrator and Adriana to have bunk beds, for example. At first the narrator sees this as a sign that her aunt is still thinking of her: when she receives some money each week she “believed that I was receiving, along with the coins, the warmth of her palm.” Later, for example when her aunt visits while she is out, she is angry:

“A fierce rage was starting to swell in my stomach… Suddenly a destructive energy pervaded me, as if I’d had an injection whose effect was instantaneous.”

Her relations with her new family, however, are not entirely negative, although her attraction to her brother (“We weren’t used to being siblings and we didn’t believe it completely”) is both understandable and worrying at the same time. It is with Adriana that she finds the most affection, the physical closeness of sharing a bed (which continues even when the bunk beds are bought) slowly becoming an emotional closeness. Adriana looks out for her in the home, and when she starts school leaves her classroom to check on her:

“I wanted to see if my sister’s all right. She’s from the city.”

Conversely, the narrator takes Adriana out of her limited environment, widening her horizons, aware that “in the alien setting, she was defenceless.” Later she will come to worry about leaving her:

“Who would take out her baby teeth when I returned to the city?”

She also comes to love the family’s youngest child, Giuseppe, at one point being the only one who will comfort him:

“I don’t think I’d ever felt the pleasure of such intimacy with any creature.”

A Girl Returned, then, is not only a commentary on poverty, but a coming of age story, in which the narrator must unexpectedly develop independence and resilience. That she is largely successful (and because the novel is told from her point of view as an adult) is the reason why it is not a tale of misery despite moments of intense unhappiness. Comparisons with Elena Ferrante are perhaps inevitable but this is a lighter book, though in no way lacking in serious intent. Though it may not be Di Pietrantonio’s English language debut, hopefully it will win her the wider audience she deserves.

I Who Have Never Known Men

August 17, 2019

Jacqueline Harpman was a Belgian author who wrote numerous novels between 1958 and 2006, only two of which have been translated into English: Orlando, which won the Prix Medicis in 1996, and I Who Have Never Known Men, published one year earlier, and translated by Ros Schwartz under the title The Mistress of Silence for Harvill Press in 1997. It has now been reissued with a new introduction by Sophie Macintosh, perhaps hoping to capitalise on the growing feminist dystopia market. Yet, though I Who Have Never Known Men is clearly open to a feminist reading, the questions it raises reverberate even wider, forcing the reader to ask what it means to be human.

The novel is narrated by the youngest of a group of forty woman incarcerated in a bunker for reasons none of them understand. “No one has the slightest idea what’s behind all this,” the narrator is told by one of the older women. There is a vague sense of some catastrophe which has led to their imprisonment but they “don’t even know if there was a war,” or how they arrived at the bunker in the first place; even their initial time in the bunker is described as “the hazy period in the early days of our captivity.” Their time in the bunker is regulated by guards who use whips to control the behaviour of the women – who are now so institutionalised that they are rarely subject to any violence – enforcing such rules as “we weren’t permitted to touch one another.”

The narrator is different from the other woman not only because she is the youngest (in fact they speculate that she is “almost certainly here by accident”) but because she retains a more active mind. Perhaps this is partly because she has, in other ways, been prevented from becoming a woman. She tells us:

“The others had been adult for a long time whereas I appeared to be prepubescent. But my development stopped there: I started to get hair under my arms and on my pubes, my breasts grew a little, and then everything came to a halt. I never had a period,”

Extracting knowledge from the other women, however, is difficult as they no longer see beyond what is necessary, and do not understand what the narrator later calls “the pleasure of knowing”. When she asks one of the women about “men and love” she is mystified:

“She couldn’t understand why someone would want knowledge that would be of no use to them.”

She begins to explore her sexuality by fantasizing about one of the younger guards, to the point where she is able to orgasm without physical stimulation – “an immense sensation swept through me, an overwhelming eruption” – but this is part of a wider attempt to gain control over her environment. At the same time she begins to count her heartbeat so that she can measure time.

At this point, however – about a third of the way into the novel – everything suddenly changes. There is a “terrifyingly loud noise” and within minutes the guards have disappeared:

“For the first time since we women had been imprisoned, we were alone in the bunker.”

The siren occurs at the same time the hatch to the cell is open and so the women are suddenly freed and able to leave the bunker, venturing outside to face a landscape so barren and desolate that they wonder if they are still on Earth:

“…all we could see was the stony plain where nothing moved except the scant grass gently swaying in the breeze.”

The rest of the novel follows the women’s journey across this landscape – “while we didn’t know where to go, we didn’t have any better reason for staying” – and what they discover, while the narrator contends with the knowledge that, as the youngest, she will likely be the last to die.

In these desperate circumstances, Harpman frequently raises the question of what it means to be human. In their captivity, the narrator comments:

“We have been deprived of everything that made us human, but we organise ourselves, I suppose in order to survive, or because, when you’re human, you can’t help it.”

Later, the decision to leave the bunker is taken as a result of a plea to the women’s humanity:

“We can’t settle here and live from the bunker like parasites. We must remain human beings.”

Despite this the narrator worries that her own life has left her less than human: “I must be lacking in certain experiences that make a person fully human.” Interestingly, it is only when she decides to write down her story (as she tells us at the beginning) that she feels her life, however limited, has the same value as that of any other person:

“After all, if I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet that William Shakespeare had taken the trouble to relate in detail.”

In I Who Have Never Known Men Harpman creates circumstances which are both hopeless and incomprehensible. Even when the women are released they quickly realise, “we’d merely moved to a new prison.” It is only the resolutely human qualities of the narrator which give the reader any hope, and it is in the clash between the two that the novel’s power lies. A deservedly rediscovered classic.

The Yogini

August 5, 2019

“I am no one, fate is everything,” Homi, the central character in Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s The Yogini (translated by Arunava Sinha), tells us in a three-page prologue, ‘Returned to her senses for the first time’, opening Bandyopadhyay’s latest novel with the unsettling intensity typical of her previous works, Panty and Abandon:

“There is no such thing as free will here. No fundamental independence.”

Yet The Yogini initially strikes a different note despite falling in between the two previous translations from Tilted Axis Press in its original publication. The women in both Panty and Abandon begin with nothing, struggling for survival in difficult circumstances. Homi, on the other hand, has everything – a postgraduate degree in English, a job in the media, and a loving husband, Lalit. In fact the novel settles into something almost conventional, even going as far as to include a Jane Austenesque portrait of Homi’s mother, who complains of her other daughter, Homi’s half-sister, “She goes abroad on shopping sprees at the drop of a hat, but everything she buys is for herself,” and, when her husband falls seriously ill, worries that he will return home an invalid:

“The thing is, Lalit, I need my afternoon nap. How can I have a cripple disturbing me?”

Tensions also exist within Homi and Lalit’s relationship as Lalit accuses her of a more subtle form of selfishness, an emotional withholding:

“People like you only want to take, Khuku, you don’t know how to give.”

Only later does Homi realise what Lalit means when he ends a phone call abruptly after telling her he is staying with his family:

“…it occurred to Homi that the way he had treated her just them was exactly how she had treated him for the last year and a half.”

What prevents the first half of the novel being simply social satire is the appearance of a mysterious figure seen only by Homi:

“He looked fearsome, his matted locks and beard framing his face like a spider. His eyes blazed and his body gave off a mild stench.”

The hermit identifies himself as Homi’s ‘fate’, and Homi finds herself both repulsed and attracted, feelings which Bandyopadhyay characterises sexually. After their first meeting her body feels “violated” but later, when she is making love to Lalit, “she shocked herself with the realisation that she had subconsciously been seeking something else – a much larger head, one with matted locks and a necklace of beads round its neck.” Later still she finds her “body caught fire at his touch.” The idea of fate quickly becomes the dominant theme of the novel – Bandyopadhyay has said in interview, “Our real battle is with predilection and destiny.” It influences Homi’s view of herself and her behaviour, acting with Lalit “like a marionette” and “like a solider under orders.”

“She realised that the word ‘fate’ was gathering in her heart like unshed tears, gnawing away at her.”

The novel, and Homi’s, turning point occurs when she seeks out a palmist, who describes her as “someone whose life is influenced by no one else”;

“You consider no one close or distant, good or evil. You love no one, but nor do you respect or hate them.”

From this point on Homi’s life begins to change, at first gradually but later dramatically. Bandyopadhyay slowly dismantles the trappings of the conventional novel as Homi experiences what can only be described as a spiritual crisis which will lead us to an ending far from the romcom echoes of the opening.

Reading The Yogini I was unexpectedly reminded of the 19th century Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This was not only because it, too, is very much concerned with fate (or predestination) versus free will, but because it also contains a character, Gil-Martin, who may be a supernatural manifestation or a delusion – something Homi considers when she first sees the hermit (“Homi had classified the previous night’s frightening incident as largely imagined.”) However, where Gil-Martin seems intent only on damning Wringham, it is feasible that the hermit is saving Homi. Though she seems to have lost everything by the end of the novel, she inadvertently admitted to Lalit in the opening pages that, “I don’t want this kind of life.”

‘Yogini’ is, of course, a female noun and cannot be applied to the hermit, real or imagined. It could refer to Bibirani, a spiritual teacher whom Homi meets towards the end of the novel, but it may be intended to describe Homi herself. It would, perhaps, explain why the hermit calls her ‘Empress’, and allows us to reinterpret her journey as one towards enlightenment where she is able to give herself to fate entirely:

“She had thought her fate was stalking her, but now she wondered whether it wasn’t the other way round.”

That this remains only one possible interpretation suggests the pleasurable complexity of this wonderful author.

Empty Words

July 6, 2019

In 2013 Juan Pablo Villalobos wrote about Mario Levrero for Granta’s Best Untranslated Writers series, stating that, even before he had read him, “I knew he was a ‘strange’ writer, unclassifiable, with a boundless imagination, who was creating one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking bodies of work in the Spanish language.” Six years later we finally have one of Levrero’s novels, Empty Words, available to us in English thanks to translator Annie McDermott, who similarly describes the author as an “uncategorisable writer who refused to be bound by rules or conventions, and for whom ‘the only thing that matters in literature is writing with as much freedom as you possibly can.’”

The novel itself certainly suggests a writer who is not interested in rules or conventions, but potential readers should not assume that this makes the work in any way ‘difficult’. In fact, its strangeness is companionable, even homely, perhaps because it is mostly set in and around Levrero’s home. In an introductory note, the author explains that the novel consist of two texts intercut:

“One, entitled ‘Exercises’, is a series of short handwriting exercises, written with no other purpose than that. The other, entitled ‘The Empty Discourse’, is a single, unified text that’s more ‘literary’ in intention.”

Of course, we must never entirely trust an author’s note: just as by interspersing extracts from ‘The Empty Discourse’ among ‘Exercises’, Levrero makes a mockery of the idea it is a ‘unified text’, so too should we mistrust the claim that the latter has ‘no other purpose’. Even in describing the process by which the novel was created, Levrero seems to be deliberately setting the unconscious against the conscious mind, humorously entitling his conscious (that is content-filled) text ‘The Empty Discourse’. Levrero begins with a further disclaimer:

“My aims at this stage of the therapeutic endeavour are fairly modest. To begin with I’m going to practise writing by hand. I won’t be attempting calligraphy, but I’ll at least try to manage a script that anyone could read – myself included, because these days my writing’s so bad that not even I can decipher it.”

However, he is soon commenting on the pull of his conscious mind:

“I’m getting distracted again and paying too little attention to the handwriting and too much to the subject matter, which is anti-therapeutic…”

He is also distracted by the outside world:

“Yesterday I only managed three and a half lines of exercises and then I was interrupted and had to stop.”

However later he concedes, “The problem isn’t the demands of the outside world even though I often think it is, but rather my attachment, or commitment, to those demands.” When the discourse begins to infiltrate the exercises in Part Two, rather than the philosophical tract we may have been expecting, we find simply that outside world, and in particular the story of Levrero’s dog:

“The discourse then has been filling up with the story of the dog.”

Although he goes on to say that “the story of the dog could be a symbol of the real content of the discourse, which for some reason it’s impossible to see directly,” he is accepting that his own vision is indistinct, not simply the reader’s. Just as in the exercises the conscious mind is superimposed on the unconscious mind, so here the situation is reversed:

“Today the topic of the dog has been thrust upon me once more…”

This is perhaps inevitable given the process Levrero describes:

“When I started writing this, my idea was simply to recover the form of an existing discourse and wait for its contents to be revealed as I went along.”

The two texts naturally begin to create a dialogue which in Part Three becomes a monologue as Levrero returns to his exercises but later also to the story of the dog – perhaps an admission that the separation is impossible.

All of this, however, does not really give a sense of the reading experience which I found as hypnotic as the repetitive exercises he describes. These provide a pulse, a rhythm which runs through the text, their artificial nature ironically enhancing the reality of everything else Levrero tells us. Even more astoundingly, they produce the character development we might expect from a traditional novel in the most unexpected way. Thankfully Annie McDermott tells us that a further Levrero translation is one its way (The Luminous Novel – “a 450-page prologue explaining why it was impossible to write the book itself”). Personally, I can’t wait to renew my acquaintance with this astonishing writer.

The Wind That Lays Waste

July 3, 2019

Selva Almada’s debut novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, now translated by Chris Andrews, could be described as dramatic in its intensity if that word had not become corrupted with connotations beyond its reference to the stage. With its affordable cast of four characters (each as important as any other), its single setting, and the action taking place over a few hours, it would be easily experienced in a theatre. Of course, the thunderstorm towards which the action builds might lack the three dimensions of the imagination, and moments of back story would have to be redeployed, but the novel’s greatest strengths would remain intact: the constricted, at times claustrophobic, setting which enhances themes of freedom and escape, the dialogue full with nuance and depth, and the shifting slow burn of character development.

The idea that those characters will come to reflect on the directions their lives are taking is immediately created by the artificial pause in the literal journey of two of them, the Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter, Elena, when their car breaks down and they are forced to stop for repairs. The mechanic, Gringo Brauer, also has the care of a teenage child, his assistant, nicknamed Tapioca. This is the first of a number of ways in which the men mirror each other. Tapioca is left with the mechanic aged nine by a woman who claims Brauer is the father:

“Tapioca nodded, still watching the truck, which had climbed up into the road now, with his mother inside, taking her away forever.”

A similar scene is repeated in reverse when Pearson drives off with Elena leaving her mother behind:

“Leni’s last image of her mother is from the rear window of the car…. Her mother is left standing there, beside the suitcase. She covers her face with her hands. She’s crying.”

This immediately marks the two men, and the two teenagers, as both similar and different. In the Reverend’s case, it is his religion which most separates him from Brauer, as seen to comic effect when he begins to say grace before a meal they are about to share together:

“‘Let us give thanks,’ said the Reverend.
Tapioca and the Gringo froze, their food-laden forks halfway between plate and mouth.”

Brauer is quietly dismissive of Pearson’s views:

“We make our own destinies, that’s what I believe. We know why we do what we do.”

As Pearson attempts to convert Tapioca, however, he grows irritated:

“I know him like the palm of my hand. And believe me, he doesn’t need any Jesus Christ. And he doesn’t need some John the Baptist like you to come along with your snake-oil spiel and tell him about the end of the world and all that crap.”

Religion is also coming between Pearson and his daughter:

“‘Ah, my girl, Jesus has blessed me,’ he said and patted her on the cheek.
This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it straight out: he always had to get Jesus in there, between them.”

Almada clearly conveys her love for her father, but one tempered with resentment:

“Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty. Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of the same old car, crummy rooms in hundreds of indistinguishable hotels, the features of dozens of children she never spent long enough with to miss when the time came to move on, and a mother whose face she could hardly recall.”

Later she says she has never seen a photograph of herself as a little girl. While Tapioca’s life appears to be one of stasis and Leni’s one of movement, it feels static to her. Her only escape is to listen to music on her Walkman (she has promised her father only to play religious music in order to be allowed this one expression of individuality).

Things come to a head when Pearson insists that Tapioca should go with him, telling Brauer, “You don’t realise how special that boy is; there’s a treasure in him… You have no idea of the destiny awaiting that boy.” In this there are echoes of his own childhood, when he was taken by his mother, who was not a particularly religious woman, to be baptised by a preacher. Though he has since converted others, he believes the boy to be exceptional in his innocence.

However, this is not really a novel about religion, but about relationships: the longstanding relationships between the fathers and their children, and the new relationships developing in this moment, with the potential to change lives. It is beautifully judged and entirely free of cliché. As the characters grow closer, in that way we can believe we know others after only a few hours together, so too the reader comes to feel their presence in the room, as if they might look up and find them there.