Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

March 23, 2017

Sonja is in her forties and learning to drive, a situation she finds both intimidating and awkward. This is the unprepossessing premise of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, translated, like Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, by Misha Hoekstra. In middle-age, Sonja finds herself alone and childless; her sister, Kate, won’t speak to her and her best friend, Molly, doesn’t understand her. Even her job is solitary: translating the crime novels of Gosta Svensson:

“All that flesh decomposing; the angry ejaculations, the mutilated vaginas, the ritual adornment of evil.”

(She also calls them “A crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots” – it seems Northe is not averse to poking fun at the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction). When Molly asks her why she doesn’t translate some other writer, she simply replies, “Free market forces.”

Learning to drive is an attempt to gain some control over her life, but to do this she must first relinquish control and “Sonja’s never liked being someone who has to be taken in hand and assisted.” Unfortunately her instructor, Jytte, is reluctant to return any of that control to her, dominating both the conversation and the gear-stick:

“Because Jytte’s got a lot on her mind she hasn’t had time to teach Sonja to shift for herself. Sonja’s been driving with Jytte for six months and she still fumbles with the gears. Jytte seizes the initiative and deals with it for her, since when Jytte deals with changing gears “

Sonja’s anxiety over not having control of her future can be best seen in repeated mentions of a fortune teller whose predictions she cannot, or perhaps refuses to, recall. Her attempt to change her own destiny can be seen in numerous ways. She accepts an invitation from her masseur, Ellen, to go on a ‘meditative hike’ in the country, but abandons the others over an inability to pee outdoors. She writes a letter to her sister, but doesn’t post it. She nurses the possibility of an affair with her new driving instructor, Folke, while not necessarily wanting one.

The nagging doubts which typify Sonja’s thoughts seem to originate, however, in a homesickness for the countryside where she grew up which she finds difficult to accept. Like many young people, she convinced herself that the only way to get on in life was to move to Copenhagen: “When we were driving across Funen, you said the Great Belt ferry would be ‘the point of no return.’” she tells her friend, Molly:

“And besides, who’d want to go back to Skjern anyhow?”

Yet her friendship with Molly is based entirely on their shared past:

“They came to a crossroads in their relationship years ago, but no one else in Copenhagen remembers them as they were before that. There’s no one else to nourish their roots.”

Sonja frequently remembers her childhood. Her happiest moments were alone in the rye:

“Sonja circles around in the rye like a field mouse. She’s made the path herself, and it took her some time. Above her, the sky is endless.”

These memories are echoed in her present day habit of spending time alone in a cemetery:

“Sonja thinks about the dead prime ministers in the cemetery. It’s lovely to take a blanket there… The dead make no noise, and if she’s lucky a bird of prey might soar overhead. Then she’ll lie there, and escape.”

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a clever novel, built with precision around a series of ordinary events which resonate with unexpected anxiety. Northe has spoken about the ‘invisibility’ of middle-age women, and we sense Sonja’s efforts to make herself matter; this seems to be partly by accepting who she is rather than who others want her to be. Some may find it a little dry, but it builds to a moving conclusion. I suspect it will not make the short list as it will be seen as ‘minor’ – lacking the ‘depth’ required for a prize winner. Yet Sonja’s story will resonate with many readers.

The Traitor’s Niche

March 19, 2017

Ismail Kadare is no stranger to the Man Booker International Prize having won the inaugural prize in 2005 when it was awarded, not for a single novel, but for a body of work. He has also been frequently long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the predecessor to the Man Booker International in its present form: The Successor in 2007, Agamemnon’s Daughter in 2008, The Siege in 2009, and The Fall of the Stone City in 2013 (the latter pair were also short-listed). These works reveal a little of how Kadare is currently being translated: while most appeared in English within a few years of their original publication, The Siege was first published in 1970, and represents attempts to bring Kadare’s older work to a wider audience alongside his most recent. The Traitor’s Niche continues that trend (which also includes Twilight of the Eastern Gods, another seventies novel, translated in 2014) as it was written between 1974 and 1976 when Kadare was still in Albania (he claimed political asylum in France in 1990) under the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. They also indicate the two most common methods of translation, some having been translated from French translations by David Bellos, others, like The Traitors’ Niche, being directly translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson.

The Traitor’s Niche is most reminiscent of The Palace of Dreams where Kadare also used the Ottoman empire to explore totalitarianism in the oblique way living in a totalitarian state demands (not oblique enough as The Palace of Dreams was banned). The Traitor’s Niche is set in 1822 when Albania was part of the Ottoman empire, albeit on its disregarded edges. It concerns the rebellion of Ali Pasha Tepelena who rules Albania as part of the empire until he decides “go to war against the sultan” despite the warnings of his wife:

“Why do you want to climb higher?… Why not climb down a little? Wouldn’t it be more natural to yield, to be more human, rather than opverreaching to become more than a man?”

The Sultan sends Hurshid Pasha to defeat him, but Hurshid himself soon suffers the Sultan’s displeasure when he is accused of sending only part of Ali’s fortune back to Constantinople.

Kadare is not only interested in history, of course; his subject is the ruthless exercise of power. The novel’s great skill is that it is told through a series of characters rather than events. The opening chapter presents us with Abdullah, who guards the traitor’s niche (or niche of shame) where the heads of those executed by the state are placed. Years of placing and replacing heads, as well as observing the reaction of the crowds, has taught him that “people in general were less significant than they thought themselves to be.” A nearby café owner is equally cynical:

“People are villains. They look at a severed head as if the sight of it has put them off ever committing a crime again, but as soon as they turn their backs on it, it’s clear they can hardly wait to get back to their dirty tricks.”

The niche is awaiting Ali’s head, a place currently filled by the head of the man who was sent, and failed, to defeat him. His replacement, Hurshid, knows that either he or Ali must die:

“The heavens could not contain them both. One of their suns had to sink.”

We follow Ali’s head to Constantinople in the company of Tundj Hata, who charges villagers to see it in the provinces through which he must pass. But Ali’s will not be the last head to be placed in the niche before the novel’s conclusion.

Though The Traitor’s Niche is faithful to the history it draws on, we are constantly pointed towards its wider reach, in particular in answer to the question “What will they do to Albania now?” which is immediately asked on the arrival of Ali’s head:

“They recalled situations and provinces in which a ‘state of emergency’ had been called… A ‘state of emergency’ would be devised by the First Directorate of the Interior Ministry to stimulate internal divisions on the basis of religion, regional and feudal alliances, castes and traditions.”

Or alternatively:

“The partial or full erasure of the national identity of peoples, which was the main task of the Central Archive, was carried out according to the old secret doctrine of Caw-caw and passed through five principal stages: first, the physical crushing of rebellion; second, the extirpation of any idea of rebellion; third, the destruction of culture, art and tradition; fourth, the eradication or impoverishment of the language; and fifth, the extinction or enfeeblement of the national memory.”

These descriptions of statecraft not only echo workings of the Soviet bloc, but of all powerful empires since time began. Not only do its servants live in fear of decapitation, so do those countries within its grasp. Kadare’s novel exposes the ruthlessness of powerful states, but does so in such a way as to humanise the participants, from the rebellious pasha to the guardian of the traitor’s niche.

At this stage it’s difficult to predict whether The Traitor’s Niche will appear on the short list. Eileen Battersby (of the Irish Times) has argued that, as an older novel, it should make way for newer work (goodness knows what she’d make of the Best Translated Book Award), though I’m not sure her view that great novels are always translated quickly is true in every case. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it just yet.

The Man Booker International Prize 2017

March 15, 2017

With equal parts excitement and trepidation, today I learned which books had made it onto the Man Booker International Prize long-list. The trepidation occurs because, once again, I am going to be reading all of them as part of the Shadow Jury and therefore questions such as, Have I read any? Do I own any others? and How long are they? take on much greater significance.

The 2017 Man Booker international prize longlist:
Compass by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg (Poland), translated by Eliza Marciniak and published by Portobello Books
A Horse Walks Into a Bar by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Jonathan Cape
War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans (Belgium), translated by David McKay and published by Harvill Secker
The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett and published by MacLehose Press
The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (Albania), translated by John Hodgson and published by Harvill Secker
Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton and published by MacLehose Press
The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (China), translated by Carlos Rojas and published by Chatto & Windus
Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), translated by Helen Stevenson and published by Serpent’s Tail
Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press
Judas by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto & Windus
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell and published by Oneworld

This year I have only read two of the long-listed novels, Swallowing Mercury and Fever Dream, two of the shorter novels, and two of only three by women writers. The lack of women writers is disappointing, though it partly reflects the proportion of women who are translated. It’s a shame that two excellent Peirene novels (The Empress and the Cake and Her Father’s Daughter) both missed out – Peirene have been represented since 2011 (if we regard the prize as continuing from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), every year of their existence.

Tilted Axis Press and And Other Stories might also feel disappointed not to feature, though two novels from Fitzcarraldo Editions makes up for the snubbing of Mathias Enard’s Zone in 2015 (a move which so infuriated the Shadow Jury they called it in). Both Harvill Secker and MacLehose Press (both long-time supporters of literature in translation) are also represented twice.

Eight of the thirteen books are European (the Guardian originally seemed to suggest Iceland and Albania were not part of Europe though I notice this has been changed. Alain Mabanckou is still “a French writer born in the Republic of the Congo” though, whatever that implies – perhaps that nine are European, or eleven if we use Eurovision rules and include Israel). This compares to only five European books last year (six if Turkey is regarded as European). A pity, then, that Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound was excluded, and Japanese female writers like Yoko Tawada and Hiromi Kawakami.

The list is certainly not short of well-established writers (including Nobel Prize winners in waiting, some might say): Ismail Kadare is 81, Amos Oz 77, and David Grossman, Roy Jacobson and Stefan Hertmans are all in their sixties. (Samantha Schweblin is, I think, the youngest). Many of the books themselves are heavyweights – Bricks and Mortar runs to 670 pages, Compass and The Explosion Chronicles to 480, Fish Have No Feet a comparatively paltry 380… the rest (luckily) are more manageable, and it’s unlikely anything can match the tedium of reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.

I’m most looking forward to reading The Explosion Chronicles having been impressed by The Four Books last year; similarly Compass should be a treat based on my experience of Zone. As a long-time admirer of Kadare I would have read The Traitor’s Niche anyway; the same applies to Dorthe Nors, though on the basis of only one previous book. Mabanckou and Stefansson I’ve also read before though with less relish (The Sorrow of Angels I think of with my own personal sorrow). The other writers are entirely new to me.

Let the reading begin!

(You can read the Official Shadow Panel response to the long list here).

The Proof

March 13, 2017

Although Cesar Aira was first translated into English (by the self-same Nick Caistor who has translated The Proof) and published in the UK in 1998 – the rather atypical The Hare – it has been New Directions in the US who have been largely responsible for making him available to an English-speaking audience. Luckily, presumably as a result of And Other Stories’ new partnership with New Directions, they have now taken on the mantle of Aira’s UK publisher having reprinted The Seamstress and the Wind, and released two new works, The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof.

Famously, once Aira starts writing he does not look back but pursues his premise to the end. The Proof begins with an unexpected encounter between innocent, isolated, sixteen-year-old Marcia and two ‘punk’ girls who call themselves Lenin and Mao. Marcia is described as:

“…blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes.”

The ‘punks,’ in contrast, are all in black. They are two among the many young people gathered in the cold night “with the ridiculous need to meet their friends” that Marci has passed, feeling that “she couldn’t be part of it.” They greet her with “Wannafuck?” the novel’s very first words, a shock for the reader intended to echo Marcia’s surprise. This crudeness is a counterpoint to Marcia’s comfortable but unhappy existence. Of course, she walks away, but is also attracted to devil-may care attitude of the girls:

“That two girls, two women, could have wanted to pick her up, out loud, voicing obscenities, two punks who confirmed their violent self-expulsion from proper behaviour… It was so unexpected, so novel… Really anything could happen, and those who could make it happen were the hundreds of young people who came out into the street to waste time at nightfall, after school.”

The girls pursue her, the one who called out to her, Mao, insisting it is not a joke:

“Listen to me, Marcia: what I told you is true. Love at first sight. It’s completely true.”

The girls’ ill-mannered assault is now reset as an expression of romantic sensibility. In fact, throughout the novel Mao and Lenin will remake themselves in both Marcia and the reader’s eyes, their disregard for rules allowing them an unpredictability which threatens the boundaries of both characterisation and realism.

Marcia agrees to go to a café with them to talk. Further tension between Marcia’s conformity and the punks’ disregard for social niceties is immediately created by their refusal to order despite Marcia’s fear that, “We’ll get thrown out if we don’t have something.” Her questioning rebounds against their insistence that nothing is of any importance, including any answers they might give her. They mock one of the waitresses, whom Marcia immediately identifies with; their conversation offers duelling ideologies where neither ideology is stated. Still, Marcia is thrilled by their unpredictability:

“Marcia’s surprise only grew. From surprise she went to surprise within surprise.”

If the novel seems lacking in action up to this point, be assured the final twenty pages more than make up for it. This may be a leap of faith for readers ensconced in a largely realistic narrative, but, like Marcia, I found myself breathless with the audacity of both the girls and the author.

The seven Aira novels (or novellas) I’ve read previously divide fairly evenly into those I like and those I love: this falls into the ‘love’ category without question (and not just because of the subject matter). Though still possessed of the wildness of his best work, it is also intensely coherent, following an unstoppable narrative path from Marcia’s first step to her last. Aira’s presentation of Mao and Lenin is both cartoonish and nuanced: one moment he seems to be mocking them, the next casting admiring glances. The move at the end from all-talk to all-action is a master stroke, powering us towards a genuine conclusion. This may well be the Aira I recommend to newcomers from now on.


March 10, 2017

David Foenkinos is a French writer whose career has never quite taken off in English. His novel Delicacy (the basis of a film starring Audrey Tatou) was translated in 2011, The Erotic Potential of my Wife having previously appeared in 2008. Both, it’s fair to say, adopted a lighter tone than Charlotte, translated by Sam Taylor and published Canongate, which arrives here having won the Prix Renaudot and Prix Goncourt des Lyceens.

The Charlotte of the title is Charlotte Salomon, a German-Jewish painter who was born in Berlin in 1917. Her reputation rests largely on work she produced in the south of France between 1941 and 1943 before she was captured by occupying German forces and sent to Auchswitz. She was murdered on arrival. The novel is told in a series of short sentences, each one set on a new line. While this may give the appearance of poetry, the presence of a full stop every few words makes it intensely prosaic. The constantly abbreviated thoughts come to echo her own abbreviated life.

Death is not only the early end point of Charlotte’s story, it also haunts her beginnings:

“Charlotte learned to read her name on a gravestone.”

She is named after her mother’s sister who committed suicide when she was eighteen:

“While everyone else is sleeping, Charlotte gets out of bed.
She gathers a few belongings, as if she were going on a trip.
The city seems at a standstill, frozen in this early winter.
Charlotte has just turned eighteen.
She walks quickly towards her destination.
A bridge.
A bridge she loves.
The secret locus of her darkness.
She has known for a long time that it will be the last bridge.
In the black of night, unseen, she jumps.”

Later, when Charlotte is nine, her own mother will kill herself, a fact that will be kept from Charlotte until she is an adult. Her father remarries – an opera singer, Paula – whom Charlotte idolises. It is through Paula that Charlotte first becomes acquainted with her Jewish heritage:

“Her childhood is based around an absence of Jewish culture.
In the words of Walter Benjamin.”

Charlotte’s teenage years coincide with the nineteen thirties as conditions worsen week by week for Jews in Germany. The idea it might be a “passing phase” quickly fades:

“It is not coming from a few fanatics, but from an entire nation.”

Of course, this is a story which has been told many times. Should we feel that Charlotte’s treatment is somehow worse because she is a talented artist? Of course not. In fact it’s her family’s relative privilege which makes clear the difficulty of escape. Her father is arrested but freed after the intervention of his wife’s influential friends. Paula, despite strict quotas, is able to get into the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Her grandparents escape Germany, followed later by Charlotte, and her father and Paula leave for Holland. They are not passive; they have resources: but it is not enough.

Charlotte’s art survives (in the care of a doctor) and is recovered by her father after the war. It tells the story of her life and is entitled Life? or Theatre? Indeed, these autobiographical paintings form the basis of the novel. Her story is a very powerful one and certainly deserves to be told, and therefore your view of Foenkinos’ novel will depend on how you feel about his use of the source material. Stripping it back to a skeletal network of sentences suggests he does not want to dress it up unduly; elements are presented as if in a report, badly stated as truths, though the author’s occasional appearance as researcher reminds us of his artistic presence. Foenkinos also draws his own conclusions: amid the battle between art and death we find love, Charlotte’s passion for her step-mother’s singing teacher which, it is suggested, keeps her clinging to life.

The End of Eddy

March 4, 2017


Reading Edouard Louis’ The End of Eddy (translated by Michael Lucey) I was somehow reminded of the anti-Kailyard Scottish novel, The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown. Both writers came from poverty (Brown’s father was a farmer who never acknowledged him, his mother a servant); both went on to university (after graduating with a First in Classics from Glasgow, Brown studied at Oxford). Brown’s (only) novel, also set in a small rural community, differs in its focus on a relatively wealthy family, the successful businessman, Gourlay, who struggles in the face of competition, but Gourlay’s treatment of his son, John, whose lack of masculine attributes sees him defined as weak and sickly, resonated with the way the narrator of The End of Eddy is perceived

I mention this because The House with the Green Shutters was published in 1901, over a hundred years ago. The End of Eddy was published in 2014 and is set in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Eddy’s father was born in the same year as I was. And yet Eddy’s childhood is no better than John’s:

“From my childhood I have no happy memories. I don’t mean to say that I never, in all of those years, felt any happiness or joy. But suffering is all-consuming: it somehow gets rid of anything that doesn’t fit into its system.”

Eddy is also born in a rural village – in the North of France – into a society where gender roles are distinct and inflexible. For men, the most important characteristic is ‘toughness’:

“The village tough guys, who embodied all the much-touted masculine values, refused to conform to school discipline and it was important to him that he had been a tough guy. When my father would say of one of my brothers or cousins that he was tough, I could hear the admiration in his voice.”

Toughness is therefore in opposition to education and requires leaving school to work in the local factory, a job which will ruin Eddy’s father’s health to the point he can no longer work. Toughness must also be passed on to the following generation (there is, after all, nothing else to pass on): “A father reinforced his own masculine identity through his sons.” Eddy, however, lacks even the basics needed to fake it:

“All too soon I shattered the hopes and dreams of my father… When I began to express myself, when I learned to speak, spontaneously my voice took on feminine inflections. It was higher pitched than most other boys. Every time I spoke my hands waved frenetically every which way, twisting about, stirring up the air.”

Eddy attempts to fit in – playing football, for example – but cannot sustain an interest. This isn’t to say he is immediately vilified, simply regarded as “a little weird” or even congratulated on being “well brought up.” School, however, is a different matter, and the novel opens with a scene of bullying which will continue daily for years. Eddy also tries to fit in sexually. At school he writes persistently to a girl until she agrees to go out with him, arranging to meet in the playground:

“Laura was waiting for me. She wasn’t alone. People had heard, so others were there to witness the scene. They wanted to see me kiss a girl.”

This goes on for days and when eventually he begins to feel an erection he believes for a moment that “my body was giving into my will.” Laura, however, tries of being the girlfriend of a ‘homo’. On another occasion, his sister arranges for him to date an older girl, Sabrina, eventually plotting for them to spend the night together, but Eddy cannot become aroused, no matter what fantasies he calls on.

The story of Eddy coming to terms with his sexuality is important but, if anything, the tensions created by his class are even more threatening. When he eventually escapes school, and his parents (earlier he speaks of “the impossibility of really changing while I was still in the world of my parents, of school”) he wonders ironically whether he is not, in fact, gay but simply “had a bourgeois body that was trapped in the world of my childhood.”

Though it is clear by the end that he has left his childhood behind, this is not quite Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Its main focus is the world of his youth, which is viewed with an anthropological intensity. The racist, homophobic attitudes are perhaps less of a surprise now than they were in 2014, but quite how “nasty, brutish and short” the lives of those around him are will hopefully still shock. The sadness of this novel is not Eddy’s story, but the story of all those left behind.

The Last Summer

February 26, 2017


When Peirene published Reader for Hire in 2015, the fact it had been thirty years since its original publication marked it out as the elder statesman of their novella series; with the appearance of the first of 2017’s titles, Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer, it suddenly seems a mere whippersnapper. What, after all, is thirty years compared to more than a hundred? Ricarda Huch, born in 1864, was a German writer who, despite a fifty year career which drew praise from Thomas Mann, left the English language largely untroubled by her work – only Der Fall Deruga seems to have been previously translated, and that some time ago. Now Jamie Bulloch has made The Last Summer available to us, an epistolary novel set in pre-Revolution Russia originally published in 1910.

The novel tells the story of a plot to kill the governor of St Petersburg after student unrest causes him to close the university. His wife, Lusinya, in a time when political violence was not unusual (see, for example, Seven Hanged) insists he hires a secretary who will also act as a body guard:

“An anxious woman by nature, ever since she received the threatening letter she thinks only of how she can protect her husband’s life.”

Ironically, the man she engages for this position, Lyu, is the would-be assassin. We sense, however, a certain reluctance to complete his mission:

“When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch. You stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief as it comes down.”

Intellectually he accepts the need to kill but he is not by nature a killer. The situation is further complicated by the admiration all the family members feel for Lyu. Velya, the son, thinks “there’s something which makes his opinions tower above average ones.” In Jessika’s case, “he’s already earned my approval as his being here has such a positive influence on Mama’s mood.” Katya describes him as “very elegant, even though he has no money, and he’s a brilliant man, phenomenally clever.” the daughters dote on him to extent that their aunt fears they may have fallen in love:

“Please tell me why you’re convinced my daughters are falling in love with Lyu?…since you’ve now drawn my attention to the matter, I can see that Lyu is dangerous, masculine, courageous, clever, eye-catching – everything that might impress a young girl. At this point, however, I must praise him for behaving in rather a reserved fashion towards my two little ones.”

This highlights the dangerous dynamics within the family – Lyu must ensure he does not overstep the mark with either daughter, and risk the anger of the mother, while keeping both happy. This balancing act is also necessary when it comes to politics as the governor’s children do not agree with his decision to close the university. Velya, who is a student at there, describes it as “a very silly affair.” Katya goes further:

“Naturally it’s outrageous that a man such as Papa, who cannot control himself, closes the university because the students are defending their rights.”

Lyu must navigate a way between the different opinions. When a family row on the subject occurs, Velya comments, “He sat there as coolly as Talleyrand, proving that all of us were right.”

The Last Summer has all the tension of any undercover story; perhaps more so as we must piece together the narrative from the letters of the various characters (we see only one-sided correspondence, never the replies from cousins, aunts and sisters, or Lyu’s co-conspirator, Konstantin). This gives us insight into what characters are thinking (though obviously this can change from letter to letter) but each viewpoint also brings a blindness to other events. As the narrator changes there is also a temptation for the reader to identify with that character, allowing us to sympathise with both the revolutionary and the state, and those caught in between.

The fact that Lyu’s plans for killing the governor focus on modern machinery (first a car, then a typewriter) suggest that modernity itself will make Tsarist Russia redundant, but the novella raises the still pertinent question of whether violence is an acceptable way to pursue political ends – and without the polarising effect of a contemporary setting. The Last Summer is both a classic of (what might be loosely termed) the spy genre and of the epistolary form – it’s quite astonishing we are only now able to read it.

1967: Holy Place

February 20, 2017


When I decided to read books published in 1967 I was hoping for a mix of those I had read before, those I had long wanted to read, and perhaps a new discovery or two. In the latter category I was primarily hopeful of placing writers I had only vaguely heard of – or perhaps not even that – and didn’t really consider the possibility of unearthing something by a writer I thought I knew well which was new to me. Yet, despite having been familiar with Carlos Fuentes work since the late eighties (The Old Gringo was my introduction), a little research revealed that he had indeed published one of his lesser works in that year, the novella Holy Place. Though never granted a UK publication, it had been translated by Suzanne Jill Levine in 1972 and I quickly set about getting a copy. (It’s also available in Triple Cross alongside novellas by Jose Donoso and Severo Sarduy, and in a volume with a second novella, Birthday, published in 1988).

Holy Place is narrated by Guillermo, a shiftless, drifting young man (if twenty-nine is still young), whose only focus is his distant, dismissive mother, the movie star Claudia Nervo. The novel opens (after a brief introductory chapter) with Guillermo turning up at his mother’s house uncertain of his welcome. Claudia is, of course, the centre of attention: charming a journalist, posing for photographs, surrounded by her entourage of young girls. The only thing she fears is ageing:

“…while the camera’s shutter snaps once and again, my mother continues deceiving herself, refuses to resign herself to enjoying the taste of her victory, and poses, poses, poses today for a cover which will come out in three months because, besides the recognition of today’s victory, that of each moment, she loves and fears the time which surrounds her, escapes her, and she can only capture it today, one more time today.”

There is a brief moment when Guillermo thinks Claudia is pleased to see him but, in fact, her open arms are for her current leading man. Later, when he follows her into a boutique, we are told:

“Claudia stands in the perfect pose. The dressmaker stops working and looks at me; Claudia looks through me: I am not tolerated, I am not welcome.”

Claudia fears, of course, that a son will allow others to guess at her age:

“I am a secret. Didn’t they explain? Claudia Nervo doesn’t have a son. And especially a twenty-nine-year-old son. People would start figuring.”

Her cruelty to her son, however, also seems to originate in her need to hold others in her power – to be the star. She rebuffs and entices at the same time:

“She slowly undresses, in front of me, smiling, without asking me to close my eyes or look away: a camera would suggest the whole thing with a close-up of my face.”

Thus the novel is fuelled with references to women said to have magical powers over men: the sirens, Salome, Cleopatra and Circe (as sign-posted on the back cover along with various other metaphors – never a good sign!). Circe also transformed men into animals, and another image used (the blurb writer feels he must forewarn us) is dogs. Guillermo asks Claudia to buy him dogs in order to get her attention:

“Pharaoh was nothing more than a ball of fur, the smallest among a beautiful pack of Afghans and sheepdogs among the ridiculous court of Pekinese and Chihuahuas which I went on demanding, not only to keep me company… but also to make Claudia realise how I replaced her, ah, and each time I asked her for a dog, she not only had to be aware of my existence, but also my intention to fill the place with a dozen dogs.”

Just as Claudia neglects Guillermo, so he neglects the dogs, before eventually becoming one (as revealed by both the back and front cover).

Holy Place is not a neglected gem but is an interesting detour for those already acquainted with Fuentes’ work. Though ten years into his career, it shows him experimenting both with layering Greek myth onto contemporary satire and using elements of Manuel Puig’s cinematic novels (long sections made up of only dialogue, for example). His portrayal of a movie star still rings true, though I found the Oedipal undertones less interesting. Guillermo’s obsession also makes it difficult for other characters to come to life. One for the completist.

Record of a Night Too Brief

February 18, 2017


When Stu at Winstonsdad announced a Pushkin Press fortnight, I assumed that (as usual) I would have plenty of suitable and suitably unread Pushkin titles in the piles of books which surround me (as I write this – I don’t carry them around). That this was not the case is, I think, a tribute to the titles Pushkin publish as it seems I get them to them in well below average time. Luckily I did have the recently published Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami, the first of a series of Japanese novellas that Pushkin intend to publish in the months ahead. This was not my first exposure to Kawakami as I read her most famous novel, Strange Weather in Tokyo, when it was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014. Ultimately I found that a little bland, but that was certainly not the case this time.

Record of a Night Too Brief, at sixty pages, is probably also too brief for a novella, and comes with another two short stories of similar length, ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’, all three translated by Lucy North. It certainly has the best title, but is also the strangest, and I can’t help but feel the publisher is taking a risk by placing it first – though not with me as it immediately dispelled any fear of timidity I might be harbouring after my experience with Strange Weather. The story records a night in nineteen brief chapters, presumably linked by their narrator but falling into two distinct types. The even chapters are united by a girl who becomes the focus of the narrator’s attentions; the odd are just that, disparate and singular, though frequently referencing animals.

The girl is first sighted in a crowd of people who are all heading in the same direction. She offers the narrator a ticket; it transpires that the crowd has gathered there to see a singer. When the singer begins to perform, however, the people begin to disperse in different directions:

“’The chaos has started,’ the girl said to me, joining a stream of people going by her. I watched as she was borne away.
I joined the same stream of people and pretty soon caught up with her.”

“Now a part of the chaos, alongside the girl,” it goes on, “I entered the night.” That we are entering not only the night but a dreamscape can be seen both in the narrator’s acceptance of everything that happens, and in the increasingly surreal events. Two chapters later the narrator awakes to find that “the hair of the girl who had been carried along with me had grown down to her hips.” When he kisses the girl she begins to ‘wilt’ – “In my arms, gradually she became lighter and more transparent” – until he is holding her in the palm of his hand. (Yes, I realise I have automatically assumed the narrator is male). This is a facet of Kawakami’s writing which I love in this volume – the representation of emotional dynamics using physical transformation.

As I said, this already strange tale is interrupted by alternate chapters each one of which reads like a disturbing dream. Frequently they feature animals – the macaque that roars at the narrator to “Apologise!”; the loaches thrown onto the ground by a child; the man with a coatful of moles. It seems to me a foolish endeavour to attempt to impose meaning on all these inexplicable occurrences: the joy is in imagination unleashed, and I suspect that’s where the idea of the night being ‘too brief’ originates – not in reference to the night itself, but to the licence it gives us, even when it comes to reality.

The other two stories are more focussed but also happily embrace fantasy. ‘Missing’ tells of a family where members are prone to disappear:

“Since disappearances happen all the time in my family we got used to it pretty quickly.”

When the narrator’s older brother goes missing, her other brother simply takes his place in the marriage that is being arranged. The only problem is that the older brother is not entirely gone:

“My brother no. 1’s presence would come and go: at times it was intense, at times quite faint… Often he would sit on my chest in the middle of the night and I would wake up feeling the pressure of his weight.”

The situation becomes difficult when he interferes with the wedding.

‘A Snake Stepped On’ is also about relationships. When the narrator steps on a snake it turns into a human – “a woman in her early fifties” – and walks off. When the narrator returns home that evening the snake is in her apartment. The story revolves around whether she can – or indeed wants to – get rid of the snake.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, though I find myself having to resist the need to impose allegory on anything which breaks the bounds of realism. Once I have put that to one side, I can relax and take pleasure in the imagination of Kawakami’s vision.


February 15, 2017


My favourite book of 2015 was Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, a story of two brothers trapped in a well, which burns throughout with the fierce anger of a post-crash Europe – the same anger which has since led to Brexit (and Trump). David Clerson’s Brothers, written in the same year (2013) on the other side of the world (Canada) and now available to us thanks to translator Katia Grubisic and new publishing house QC Fiction, not only tells a similar tale of two brothers, but is illuminated with the same rage.

The two brothers live with their mother on an isolated salt march which is swiftly compared to hell (they are “children of the valley of Hennom”, another name for Gehenna or hell). One brother has a single arm; the other “two stumpy arms which are too short for his body.” Their mother tells the older brother:

“…that his brother had been shaped from his severed limb, and born with two stumpy arms, imperfect but attached to a body which was intact…”

We are entering a world where stories have a power beyond their truth, particularly the story of their father, “that dog of a father,” whom they have never met but who came from, and returned to, the sea. The younger brother communicates with the father in his dreams. When they find a wooden puppet washed ashore (the nod towards Pinocchio reminds us that, in many ways, this reads like a tale for children) they take it home, and soon a harness is created to attached one of its arms to the older brother:

“It wasn’t my idea. It was our dog of a father. It came from him. It came from the sea. He gave me the idea in a dream.”

Inevitably they decide to build a boat and set off to find their father.

In the novel’s second part, the older brother literally lives the life of a dog:

“He woke up on wet straw that smelled like animal, and realised he was hungry. On his hands and knees, he crawled out of the doghouse where he had slept, using his wooden arm for support. As he crawled, he felt a leather collar around his neck, and noticed that a chain was attached to it, restricting his movements.”

He is particularly badly treated by the children of the family whom he likens to pigs:

“He was their toy, at the mercy of their whims, a poorly trained beast held captive by a children’s circus.”

In a novel where anger has never been far beneath the surface, this life eventually unleashes his rage in a torrent of destruction:

“In rare moments of sleep, he saw himself as bloodthirsty god, marching over plains of burnt grass covered with cadavers, Puppet in his hand like a mace.”

Whereas The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse ends on the verge of this apocalyptic vision, Brothers goes beyond it. When offered the hope of redemption the older brother seems to reject it. He does not stay where he is safe, and when he leaves he is accompanied by the ravens that have haunted him since he set out on his path of revenge. We are told others are afraid of “the blackness of his eyes, a deep, abyssal blackness, come from the origins of the world.”

The older brother’s rage comes from his poverty and humiliation. Once freed it is indiscriminate. This dark fable tells the story of our times.