Bonsai

February 5, 2023

Bonsai was Alejandro Zambra’s first novel, originally published in 2006 and translated in 2008. Now it appears in a new translation by Megan McDowell who has translated all his subsequent books. It is a short novel made up of five parts. The story itself is summed up neatly in the fourth part:

“A guy finds out that a girlfriend from his youth is dead… That’s how it all begins.”

That is, indeed, how it all begins, with Emilia’s death, though Zambra immediately suggests the fictive nature of the novel he is constructing by suggesting the name itself is a choice – “let’s say her name is or was Emilia,” and, more directly, stating:

“In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not. The rest is literature.”

It is difficult not to think of the novel’s brevity and the tightness of its structure – as well as its very evident artificiality – as a tribute to its title, but plant life also features directly in the story. Julio and Emilia fall into the habit of reading to each other before making love. (One of Zambra’s strengths is depicting the idiosyncrasies of relationships, as seen most recently in Chilean Poet, and here he tends to introduce his characters with a history of their partners). One story they read to each other is Macedonio Fernandez’s ‘Tantalia’, about a couple who buy a plant to symbolise their love. Then, terrified that the plant might die, they decide to surround it with identical plants:

“Then comes the desolation, the tragedy of knowing that now they can never find it again.”

In the third part, Zambra moves onto Emilia’s friendship with Anita. Their habit of sharing everything reaches ridiculous lengths when Emilia asks if she can borrow Anita’s husband for a work party as she has told everyone she is married. After the party, he tries to kiss her, and she punches him – an event which leads to a cooling in her friendship with Anita. Emilia moves to Madrid, and it is only when Anita is visiting the Spanish capital that she looks for her, finding her much changed:

“You look bad. You look depressed. You look like a junkie.”

This is our first glimpse of Emilia’s mortality. She borrows money from Anita and that is the last she sees of her – in fact, the last the reader sees of her as a living character either. When we return to Julio in the fourth part, he is beginning a relationship with another woman, Maria. He meets her shortly after agreeing to transcribe the latest work from the novelist Gazmuri, about a couple who “when they were young they took care of a plant.” Gazmuri replaces Julio with someone cheaper but, rather than telling Maria, he continues the transcription by writing the novel himself, which he calls Bonsai. Zambra can’t resist including some self-criticism:

“There’s enough for a two-page story, and maybe not even a good one.”

In the final section, Julio abandons writing and instead studies the art of bonsai. He sees the similarity – “writing is like tending a bonsai” – but in selling his books to acquire the equipment he needs, there is a sense that literature has proved inadequate. The novel itself, existing halfway between prose and poetry, is also suggestive of Zambra wrestling with form in attempt to express the memories of this youthful love resurfacing after death:

“The selection of the right pot for a tree is almost an art form in itself.”

Like poetry, the novel juxtaposes its disparate elements in a way which allows them to resonate. Zambra’s characters remain grounded – fallible and often failing – without any hint of pretentiousness. Bonsai already demonstrates the abilities of a writer who can be ‘experimental’ without ever losing sight of the people at the heart of his fiction.

Daughters Beyond Command

January 29, 2023

Until now, Veronique Olmi has been largely known for her first novel, Beside the Sea, published in 2001 and translated by Adriana Hunter in 2012 as one of the first Peirene Press novellas. Only one further novel has appeared in English since, Bakhita, also translated by Hunter. Now her 2020 novel, Les évasions particulalières, is available from Europa Editions in a translation by Alison Anderson as Daughters Beyond Command, a reference to Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin (“Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”), a verse from which is used as the novel’s epigraph. This seems appropriate in a novel which is very much about changing times, beginning in 1970 and ending with Mitterrand’s election in 1981. Ten years may not seem a particularly long time for a novel which seeks to show the radical transformation of French society, and especially the place of women within it, but it is also the decade in which its three central characters, the daughters Sabine, Helene and Mariette, grow up.

The three of them are born in Aix-en-Provence, almost five hundred miles from Paris, in a Catholic family in modest circumstances: their father, Bruno, is a schoolteacher, and their mother, Agnes, doesn’t work. Agnes does, however, have a rich sister, Michelle, with whom the middle daughter, Helene, (eleven when the novel opens) frequently stays, which leaves her living between two worlds in the same way she lives between her two sisters:

“The joy she felt being back with her family was somewhat forced; she was always afraid, on seeing them again, that she wouldn’t be in step anymore.”

She is often referred to by Michelle’s married name as ‘the Tavel girl’, emphasising her split loyalties – and her devotion to Michelle’s husband, David, continues throughout the novel, even as Sabine becomes class conscious, and Helene’s own beliefs, focused on animal welfare, also clash with the lives of the upper classes.

Sabine finds her life in Aix-en-Provence suffocating and is already planning to leave as soon as she can:

“She had to break free from her family and from the college; she had to prepare herself for the life that was waiting for her.”

Sabine’s desire to ‘break free’ mirrors that of many women at the time. Her family is Catholic, and Catholicism is at the centre of her parents’ identity. This does not manifest in cruelty – both Bruno and Agnes are generally kind and slow to anger – but in a rigid view of the world that can be intolerant and avoid difficult topics. When Sabine has her first period, Agnes tells her to be careful – but only later does Sabine understand she means not to get pregnant:

“Adults didn’t talk about these things. Nor did parents. Or teachers. Or any of their books.”

Only chance gives them access to a different viewpoint when Bruno rescues a girl, Rose, who has been knocked off her bike. Rose’s mother, Laurence, befriends Agnes, but she is a very different woman:

“Laurence was a free woman – untidy, joyful, and assertive. She didn’t live with her husband. She wasn’t divorced, just separated, and the difference was huge, because otherwise Bruno would never have allowed his wife to be her friend.”

Laurence also allows the sisters to see their mother differently. When she comments on Agnes’ slim figure, and how she, too, looks like a sister, they realise “that figure indicated that their mother had not lived through her youth, because she hadn’t had one.” Agnes will change over the course of the novel too, training as a post-woman in order to have a job, and also taking a decision which goes against her beliefs, one that she then keeps from her husband. The daughters find it increasingly difficult to understand their parents: “it felt to the girls as if they were separated by more than one generation.”

As the novel progresses, Sabine and Helene leave home. Sabine goes to Paris to become an actress, Helene to study. This allows Olmi to explore both their personal and political lives. Sabine’s is outwardly more turbulent – falling in love with a man who will not commit to a relationship and becoming increasingly radical in her political views. Helene seems more settled, but her belief in animal rights is possibly even more radical at the time. Michelle’s attitude to being told Helene is a vegetarian – “I’m sure she’ll have a bite” – is no doubt typical of the time.

The novel ends with the election of François Mitterrand in 1981, regarded by both Sabine and Helene as a moment of hope. Olmi’s success, however, lies not in the political aspect of the novel, but in the way in which she views such changes in attitude through the lens of one family. Daughters Beyond Command is both panoramic and personal, and it is this combination which makes it such an outstanding historical novel of the ordinary woman.

Tono the Infallible

January 22, 2023

The Devil is a recurring presence in Scottish literature – from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack. Evelio Rosero’s Tono the Infallible (translated by Victor Meadowcroft and Anne McLean) presents us with a Columbian entry into the genre – even its cover echoes one of the many designs to have graced the front of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye in which Dougal Douglas boasts of the horns that once grew from his head. Here our potential devil is Tono, Antonio Ciruelo, a childhood friend of the narrator, the writer Heriberto “Eri” Salgado. Tono appears at Eri’s door one day, twenty years after he was last seen, demanding use of his toilet – “an earthquake made all the more terrifying for being so intimate” follows – filling the house with the stink of his filth:

“…because it comes from the most hateful and perfidious large intestine of the most hateful and perfidious Tono Ciruelo.”

Eri then recounts his friendship with Tono which begins at age fourteen (a suitable age for temptation) when both are accused of plagiarism (in Tono’s case justified but not in Eri’s) and Tono asks him where he copied his work from. Eri notices “that Ciruelo’s presence gave off coldness,” the first of many hints that he may be more (or less) than human. Despite this, Eri is intrigued by Tono:

“He would tell…these…stories – about himself, about his family – that soon captivated me, to my regret, for my entire life.”

He tells Eri that his father dresses as woman and his parents are separating. When Eri claims he is lying, Tono lets out “the most dreadful roar of laughter I’d heard in my life.” One suspects that the regret and guilt Eri feels relates in part to the way he is attracted to Tono’s stories, and his inability, even as a writer, to compete – as they say, the Devil has the best tunes. On another occasion, Tono turns a fight between Eri and another boy into a brawl using a knuckle-duster, so establishing that sex and violence are where his interests lie. When the sister of another friend, Fagua, is assaulted in the street, Eri begins to suspect that Tono, who appears at their door moments later, is to blame. At nineteen, he is invited to Tono’s home, only for his host to disappear with his thirty-five-year-old sister:

“…something like a slap exploded; then, rolling bodies; a shriek of laughter – a cry? – it was their clothes, their clothes tearing.”

On the same visit he tells Eri, “By the time I was five years old… I was already getting stiff,” and claims to have slept with his cousin at seven.

Tono’s sexual appetite almost gets Eri and Fagua killed when they go on a trip together while still at high school. Tono, whose father is a wealthy senator, is the only one of them with much in the way of money, but when they reach their destination, he refuses to buy food:

“Hunger was devouring all of us by the will of Ciruelo.”

When they threaten to leave, Tono tells them he was “conducting an experiment,” a further sign he sees others, even his friends, as little more than playthings. They find themselves in more immediate danger when they come across women from a wedding party peeing in the woods; deciding it is not enough to simply observe them, Tono places himself beneath the bride in the darkness: “He had his face under my ass.” Now the three of them find themselves in fear of being shot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the friendship doesn’t last, though years later Eri and Fagua will coincide at an airport waiting to meet Tono. After his sister’s assault, Eri says Fagua “became addicted to Ciruelo.” His sister, Angela, goes out with him: “He dazzled me.” There is something irresistible about Tono and, in fact, he claims to be able to hypnotise people.

Book One ends with the last time Eri saw Tono before he appeared at his door twenty years later; Book Two largely tells of Tono’s activities in the years between. These include his Exhibition of Pain, and the setting up of his Freedom Ranch, a form of commune in the countryside:

“The twelve females all fell pregnant, incapable of naming a father with any certainty… There is talk of two schoolgirls… who were confined to sanatoriums.”

This section is perhaps less effective as it is hearsay, and, with distance, Tono becomes a monstrous legend, almost a caricature of evil and excess, but Rosero clearly intends this to be representative of Columbia. (At one point he says, “Nor could Columbia itself escape the exhibition of pain…”) In the end we return to Tono sleeping on Eri’s couch. Could he be dead? You will not be surprised to learn Rosero has one final twist in store in this devastating portrait of appetite and evil.

Do What They Say or Else

January 15, 2023

Do What They Say or Else was Annie Ernaux’s second novel (after Cleaned Out), originally published in 1977 and only now translated into English by Christopher Beach and Carrie Noland. It tells the story a fifteen-year-old girl, Anne, set largely in the summer between collège (middle school) and lycee (high school). Like Ernaux herself, Anne is the child of working-class parents who are proud of her educational success but often demonstrate this by nagging her to do better:

“My parents don’t have their high school diplomas, and yet they’re a thousand times more annoying about it than Céline’s parents who are engineers or something.”

In the novel we see her drift away from her parents, her mother in particular. At one point she remembers when her mother worked in a textile factory and would spend Sunday afternoons sleeping. As a child she would lie down beside her, “like two dogs packed into the same crate.” Now even the memory repulses her as she enters adolescence:

“…it doesn’t matter how much my parents talk about how they want the future to be: they’ll always represent my childhood and the past.”

Much of her rejection of her identity as a child is centred around her developing sexuality, and we see many echoes of her later work, A Girl’s Story. “What would I rather have, good grades or a good body?” Anne asks herself, “It would be too much to ask for both.” Her opportunities to meet boys are limited as her mother is watchful and Anne rarely leaves the house. Most of her friends are on holiday, but one day she meets an older girl she knows from school, Gabrielle, and they arrange to go to the fair together after being invited by some boys on scooters, neighbours of Gabrielle:

“…the boys had come, a sign a kind of complicity was growing between us. There wasn’t much else between us, and if you don’t count boys and sexual things we weren’t really friends.”

It is through Gabrielle that Anne meets some older boys who are working at a summer camp for young children. When Gabrielle tells her that she has met a boy there, Anne is desperate to hear about it:

“She made me drool with anticipation, since it was, you might say, my own future that she was going to be telling me about.”

Ernaux’s great skill in articulating Anne’s thoughts, a skill that she will later use in her more autobiographical work, is already evident, from the insightful to the fleeting (“I would have liked to be even uglier than she was so she wouldn’t suspect anything”). It is this, along with her acerbic observations of her own family, that allow the novel to rise above its rather traditional trajectory of lost innocence – though it is perhaps also marked as different by Anne’s less than innocent approach to losing her innocence:

“Alberte said that her mother said that women never like it, and on the swing set I swore that I would like it even if that wasn’t normal.”

She begins to meet one of the camp counsellors, Mathieu, and her intentions are as much physical as they are romantic. It is as if she hopes sex will change her in some way, though inevitably, when it finally happens, it is disappointing:

“When he had succeeded in doing it I felt a brutal emptiness. I had always wondered what it would feel like inside. It felt like nothing.”

Anne becomes aware that she can be treated simply as a body – the word ‘brutal’ appears more than once – but she, too, thinks more about sex than she does about love. She also recognises the double standards at play:

“Curiosity is normal at my age: it would be strange if that wasn’t the case. Except that for girls, curiosity can lead to anything, and it’s frowned upon.”

Ernaux is of my parents’ generation, but her presentation of the confusions and passions of adolescence do not seem dated or irrelevant, despite the fact she is writer who foregrounds the social setting of her characters. It would be interesting to present this novel to a fifteen-year-old girl and ask her if she see anything of herself in Anne. Such is Ernaux’s honesty and accuracy, I strongly suspect she would.

Life Ceremony

January 8, 2023

Readers of Sayaka Murata’s novels, Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, will not be surprised by the content of the stories contained in Life Ceremony, translated once again by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Originally published in 2019, the collection also contains the story which introduced Murata to the English-speaking world, ‘A Clean Marriage’ which appeared in Granta in 2014. It is predicated on the narrator’s idea that “a family should not have anything to do with feelings of love between and man and a woman – it should be a simple partnership.” As Murata tends to do, this idea is taken to its logical extreme and the couple in question, who both happily have sexual partners outside of marriage, engage in a strange form of artificial insemination in order to have a child.

The idea of a sexless marriage is also seen in two stories connected by the names of their protagonists ‘A Summer’s Night’s Kiss’ and ‘Two’s Family’. In the first, Yoshiko, now in her seventies, remains a virgin despite having been married:

“She had never even once had intercourse with her older husband…Both of her daughters had been conceived by artificial insemination…”

In the second, Yoshiko also has children via artificial insemination, though in this case she remains unmarried – and, fulfilling a promise made when at high school – moves in with a friend, Kikue. She places this friendship before any sexual relationship, declaring she will be chief mourner if Kikue dies:

“It was absolutely clear to her that she would play that role, not any of Kikue’s former lovers.”

These stories are slight but, like all of Murata’s work, nudge the reader to reconsider the way in which society prioritises relationships. In the more traditional ‘Body Magic’, the teenage narrator, Ruri, is fascinated with her friend, Shiho’s, relationship, but here Murata suggests a purer kind of sexuality:

“The two of us just made it up by ourselves. When I later read in a book about other people doing it, I felt a bit relieved…”

The arousal created when Ruri hugs Shiho infuses her whole body in a way that exceeds the mechanics of sex which so interest her peers:

“Little by little the cells began vibrating, and particles, fizzing as though made form stardust, started moving around my body.”

‘Hatchling’ is also a story with a realist setting, returning us to the territory of Convenience Store Woman. As the narrator, Haruka, goes through life she finds herself adopting different personas when she is with different groups of people:

“Soon after I started university, I realised I didn’t have a personality of my own.”

At school she is Peabrain, regarded as a “goofball” by her classmates; at university she suddenly finds herself at the centre of male attention and begins to dress differently in “outfits more suitable for Princess.” By the time she is getting married she has five different characters to contend with – and of course five different sets of guests coming to the wedding. The story is a good example of the way in which Murata takes something that everyone experiences to some extent and drives it to its logical conclusion.

Although sex and relationships feature in many of the stories, in others Murata focuses on similarly primal aspects of society such as eating and death. In fact, the two are combined in ‘Life Ceremony’ where she describes the ritual which now accompanies death:

“…the custom of eating the flesh of the dead has become so deeply ingrained on our society that little by little, I’m becoming less confident about what things were like before.”

The narrator’s mixed feelings about this change when a close friend of hers dies and she becomes involved in the preparation of his body for eating. Not only does her own view alter, but the readers; perception is cleverly manipulated so that what at first feels shocking seems far less so by the conclusion. Murata’s point is made: we often fail to question the customs which we are used to.

Murata applies the same logic to more fleeting trends. In ‘First-Rate Material’, Nan has adopted the fashion of wearing human hair:

“The jet-black hair was closely knitted into rows of braids, with an intricate weave at the cuffs and neck, and it glistened alluringly in the rays of light shining in through the lobby windows.”

We enter a world in which jewellery and furniture are also made from human remains, a world that Murata cleverly navigates via Nan’s relationships as her fiancé, Naoki, who objects to this particular fashion, much to her friends’ horror.

In general, the longer the story, the better. The shorter stories tend to do little more than showcase an idea but, with length, Murata develops her ideas in interesting ways, often creating an entire world around them. Read in succession, they can seem a little too focused on turning society’s expectations on their head, but the best of them have the same power as her novels.

The Good Conscience

January 2, 2023

Last year I was able to look back on the books I had read thirty years before as that was when I first began to keep a record. This year I thought I would go one step further and re-read some of the books I first encountered in 1993, starting with one of Carlos Fuentes’ earliest works, The Good Conscience. The Good Conscience was Fuentes’ second novel (more of a novella, really) following Where the Air is Clear in 1958 and coming just a year before the novel which made his name, The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962). The translation is by Sam Hileman from 1968 – four years after Hileman seems to have translated The Death of Artemio Cruz, which was later retranslated by Alfred MacAdam (at least, this is what I think happened!) My own introduction to Fuentes came via a Picador edition of The Old Gringo and was limited to what was in print in the UK at the time, including Distant Relations (Abacus) and Where the Air is Clear which, like The Good Conscience, was published by Andre Deutsch.

As I was not reading Fuentes’ work in order, I did not recognise that the central character of The Good Conscience, Jaime Ceballo, had already appeared in Where the Air is Clear. Ceballo is the character who struggles with his ‘good conscience’ in the novel, having to decide whether to follow in the hypocritical footsteps of his family, who pay lip service to religion but place the accumulation and preservation of their wealth first. The novel opens with the family’s history from the moment they arrive in the town of Guanajuato and open a clothing shop in 1852. When Jaime is born the shop is in the hands of his father, Rodolfo, who has less aptitude for business than his predecessors. His son is the result of a marriage the rest of the family oppose, his sister, Asuncion, writing to him from Europe:

“…that the daughter of a Don Nobody was not going to sleep in her mother’s bed.”

When Asuncion and her husband, Balcarcel, return from Europe they move into the Ceballo home and Balcarcel becomes the de facto head of the family; childless, they view Jaime as their heir. Asuncion wastes no time in humiliating Rodolfo’s lower-class wife:

“Everyone laughs at you, you know. It’s just that there are certain things you didn’t learn when you were small.”

She soon convinces Rodlofo to annul the marriage and takes on the role of Jaime’s mother. (Later when Rodlofo points out, “But she’s his mother,” Asuncion replies, “No, she isn’t.”) Even as a child Balcarcel worries that Jaime takes religion too seriously, particularly when he indicates he wants to become a priest:

“You have a decidedly mistaken idea about religion. Religious training is certainly of the highest importance in life… But there can be too much of a good thing.”

A pivotal moment occurs when Jaime finds a fugitive hiding in the barn. The man, Ezequiel, claims he is on the run after organising a strike. Jaime brings him food and water, but the Balcarcel follows him, discovers the intruder and calls the police. Jaime is distraught when he sees Ezequiel being marched through the streets later that day, shouting after him, “It wasn’t me!” Jaime’s rebellion continues when he befriends a lower-class boy, Juan Manuel, from school. It is with Juan, in a bar, that he sees his mother, who, the barman tells him:

“…gives herself airs because she says she was real society lady in Guanjuato once. Claims she had a rich husband.”

The novel ends with two key conversations with the priest, Father Obregon, at the insistence of Balcarcel who has discovered his nephew is no longer going to confession. Jaime tells the priest he wishes to imitate Christ but rejects the church:

“The church is where Dona Asuncion and Don Balcarcel and all the others come once a week in order to feel that they are decent.”

By the end of that first conversation Obregon is all but convinced of Jaime’s deep faith, asking him to “pray for me”. Yet Jaime’s actions do not match his intentions. He ignores his dying father, unable to forgive him for deserting his mother. At the same time, he cannot bring himself to speak to his mother. Obregon reprimands him on both counts when he speaks to him next:

“Listen to me clearly now: love is not words but deeds. You have come to me with words but you have never been capable of a single act of true love.”

Jaime, too, is not above hypocrisy. When, at the novel’s end he walks back to the “house of his ancestors” there is a sense he has resigned himself to living the life his uncle had planned for him. The Good Conscience is a minor work among Fuentes’ many novels, but it benefits from its brevity and focus, providing a timeless story of both the desire for and the difficulty of attaining true goodness.

Books of the Year 2022 Part 2

December 27, 2022

Marzan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich)

It’s not obvious that the story of a chiropodist from an uninvitingly concrete housing estate in East Berlin would become one of my favourite books of 2022, but that is, indeed, what happened. Marzan, Mon Amour is never sentimental, but often heart-warming, without ever disguising the difficulties of life. The format allows Oskamp to share the stories of her narrator’s many customers, which in turn allows her to present a picture of East German society as it was in the years before the Berlin wall was pulled down. Yet another wonderful find from Peirene books who, despite only publishing three books a year, are frequent contributors to my top ten.

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier (translated by Adrianna Hunter)

A much more likely inclusion in the best books of 2022 is the 2020 Prix Goncourt winner The Anomaly. The story of a plane which lands twice – once when due and then an exact copy, passengers included, three months later – never has Oulipo been used to such page-turning effect. Telling the story from the point of view of numerous characters is no mere gimmick but actually adds to the tension, and the many nods to Oulipo writers of the past – and even the inclusion of a book within a book – at no point get in the way of readability. Most impressive of all, given its concept, le Tellier produces an ending that works.

Stranger to the Moon by Evelio Rosero (translated by Anne McLean and Victor Meadowcroft)

2022 saw the return of Columbian writer Evelio Rosero to print in English for the first time since 2015 thanks to new publisher, Mountain Leopard Press. Stranger to the Moon is a small book in everything but ideas, Rosero crafts a world where the Clothed and the Naked live divided, the latter largely confined to a crowded house (the narrator spends much of his time in a wardrobe) while the former are free. In what is a disturbing fable about social division, Rosero does not lose sight of his main character as an individual who does not feel like he belongs with either faction. An unsettling tale that you are not likely to forget quickly.

The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

The publication of Nona Fernandez fiction in the UK by Daunt books is to be celebrated. The Twilight Zone, which, like Space Invaders, uses popular culture as an entry point to life in Chile under dictatorship, focuses on one particular member of the armed forces who was involved in the systematic torture of those who opposed the regime – we know this because he confesses in the 1980s in a magazine article the narrator remembers. This is another smart novel on the part of Fernandez as the story of the soldier becomes linked to the story of the narrator, providing an anchor for the reader as well as a reminder that brutal regimes have a long-lasting effect on ordinary people.

Still Born by Guadalope Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey)

Still Born is also a political novel, but here the politics are personal. Nettel is not the first writer to consider the pros and cons of having children, but she asks the questions here in a particularly nuanced way. The novel tells two stories of two women: the narrator, who has made the conscious decision not to have children, and one of her friends, who falls pregnant. Both women are put in a position where their beliefs are challenged: the former by the neglected child of a neighbour, the latter by giving birth to a child who is not expected to survive. Never preachy, the novel makes a genuine attempt to explore the concept of motherhood.

Books of the Year 2022 Part 1

December 21, 2022

All Our Yesterdays – Natalia Ginzburg (1952) translated by Angus Davidson

Author of numerous short novels / novellas (take your pick), All Our Yesterdays is, I suspect, Natalia Ginzburg’s longest novel. Set in 1930s Italy, it tells the country’s story – and the rise of fascism in particular – through the story of one family. It displays all the skill with which Ginzburg generally portrays family relationships but with national narrative in the background – history through a domestic lens. Comical at times, but also moving, I can’t agree with many reviewers that Anne is the main character as this feels like an injustice to its wider cast. For all the wonder of her miniature masterpieces, this is surely her crowning achievement.

Whole Days in the Trees – Marguerite Duras (1954) translated by Anita Burrows

This year I read some of Marguerite Duras’ early work: her novel, The Little Horse of Tarqinia, and her short story collection, Whole Days in the Trees. Both impressed me, and I was particularly taken with the variety on offer in Whole Days in the Trees, as well as the sympathetic portrayal of older women. Though both ‘The Boa’ and ‘The Building Site’ feature the sexual curiosity of adolescent girls, the former has a counterpoint the ageing teacher who has never been loved. The title story portrays the difficult relationship of a young man and his mother, with Duras taking no sides, and ‘Madame Dodin’ is the love story of a middle-aged concierge and a binman. Duras’ keen observation of human behaviour, and ability to reveal her characters surreptitiously through small moments, is clear to see.

Death in Rome – Wolfgang Koeppen (1954) translated by Micheal Hofmann

Wolfgang Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass, the first in a loose trilogy, was one of my favourite novels of 2021, and so naturally I followed it up by reading not the second volume but the third, Death in Rome (luckily each book stands alone). It, similarly, tells its story via a cast of alternating characters, though here they are members of the one family. Where Pigeons on the Grass took place in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, here some time has passed, but the repercussions continue. Koeppen skilfully weaves the various strands into an intricate tapestry which gathers narrative force as the novel progresses. (Expect the second volume to feature next year…)

The Life Before Us – Romain Gary (1975) translated by Ralph Manheim

Alongside Marguerite Duras, I have also been exploring another French writer now sadly neglected in English, Romain Gary, reading both The Life Before Us and Lady L. The former is the more affecting novel, though there is much to admire in the darkly amusing Lady L. The Life Before Us was the novel with which Gary won the Prix Goncourt for the second time, having published it under a different name. The novel is the story of the relationship between an orphan, Momo, and an ex-prostitute. Madame Rosa. Despite the harsh environment which both have experienced, and the need to develop a tough exterior, the love between them becomes clearer as the novel progresses, and what could have been a bleak tale of poverty becomes something beautiful.

Dawn – Sevgi Soysal (1975) translated by Maureen Freely

Turkish writer Sevgi Soysal was completely unknown to me until earlier this year when I read this new translation of her fourth (and final) novel, Dawn. Set a time of political repression, it centres on a police raid during which the novel’s characters are arrested and then taken to the local police station to be interrogated. Many of them are related, including the two brothers Mustafa and Huseyin, one of whom has recently been released from prison. Another former prisoner, Oya, is the only woman to be taken. Soysal moves effortlessly between the thoughts and stories of the various characters, providing a detailed and unsettling picture of life in a police state

Children of Paradise

December 17, 2022

“Camilla Grudova lives in Scotland where she works as an usher in an old cinema,” according to The White Review, where her story ‘Agata’s Machine’ was published in 2015. Two years later it was one of a number of vivid, original, and often disturbing stories collected in The Doll’s Alphabet, ensuring that her first novel would be anticipated with some excitement. Children of Paradise, about the experiences of an usher who has “just arrived in the city, and in the country… and needed a job” which she acquires at the Paradise cinema, “the oldest running cinema here,” is that novel. One can only hope it is not entirely autobiographical.

The novel can be divided into two parts. In the first the narrator – who calls herself ‘Holly’ (to disguise a name that would betray her foreign origins?) – begins her job at the Paradise where she is initially ignored by the other staff until eventually being accepted into their cinephilic clique. The key word here is ‘eccentric’, which covers the staff, the customers, and the cinema itself. In the second part, the cinema is acquired by a chain, necessitating conformity, the very antithesis of the Paradise’s spirit. In neither part does the cinema seem an attractive place to work or visit. In its first incarnation it is ramshackle and run down, but not in a homely, rustic fashion – Grudova’s descriptions are such we can almost smell the damp and rot on the page:

“The ceiling was curved and covered in cracks: water satins and plaster mouldings of couples kissing, perhaps not quite human… Part of the ceiling, near the front row seats, was patched up with what looked like tape and plastic bags.”

Grudova is adept at inserting initially unobtrusive adjectives to cumulative effect: the coke Holly drinks is “tepid”, the palm plants are “dusty”, the light from the chandelier is “weak”, even the cleaning supplies are “crusty”. Her images are more noticeable – for example the pale pink tickets “like tiny, tattooed fingers” – and together they present the Paradise as the antithesis of its name. The cinema, in turn, is personified in Iris – initially regarded as a lonely old woman likely be homeless by Holly, she tuners out to be the paradise’s owner:

“She had the dirty ruined smile of a former child star, lipstick childishly drawn on, and was wearing an odd assemblage of clothes: a dirty black coat, with a t-shirt underneath, a long floral skirt that ended somewhere around her mid-calf and looked heavy with filth, bare legs, frilly socks on swollen feet stuffed into slippers.”

At first the other staff members ignore Holly, later telling her, “I didn’t think you would last a week – the girl before you, she lasted five days then was put in hospital for a mental breakdown.” Eventually she is accepted into their social life, which largely consists of watching films, and she is soon sleeping with Paolo, often in the cinema where “I always grabbed a box of popcorn to catch Paolo’s semen as I pulled myself away…”

Everything changes when Iris dies, and the Paradise is taken over by the CinemaTown chain. The cinema is refurbished (though not the screen indicating that the films themselves are now less important), uniforms are required, and staff members begin to leave if they are not fired first. Andrew is the chain’s representative, making sure staff are always busy and insisting on fire drills and team building. The novel becomes, in part, a satire of corporate takeover, but it still retains a gothic edge. The cinema floods with sewage water. The popcorn machine explodes, injuring Lydia:

“The skin up Lydia’s right arm to her neck was red and crusty brown, stuck with half-popped kernels, some of them black.”

Worse is soon to follow.

Children of Paradise is well-written and often entertains in a darkly humorous way, but it feels disappointing in comparison with the best of the stories in The Doll’s Alphabet, as if Grudova’s imagination was being curtailed by the autobiographical nature of the setting. It doesn’t quite work as a satire of corporate conformity as the Paradise seems just as unpleasant before as after the takeover. For all their eccentricities, the characters seem flat, even the narrator – who lacks both a past and a future. (I’m sure this is intentional, the narrator being an ‘audience’, the other characters ‘on screen’ – the first staff member Holly sees is “whitish grey like he had just walked out of a silent film” – but it leaves the reader out in the cold). The quirk of naming each chapter after a film soon wears thin as it does not seem to serve any purpose. In the end, this feels more like a great idea for a novel than a great novel.

Invasion of the Spirit People

December 10, 2022

And Other Stories have been regularly publishing Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novels since his debut, Down the Rabbit Hole, in 2011, in almost every case translated by Rosalind Harvey (the exception is I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me which was translated by Daniel Hahn). The latest of these is Invasion of the Spirit People set, as with his previous novel, in (an unnamed) Barcelona; its plot is less complicated but, at its heart, lies an outlandish premise of the type we have come to expect from Villalobos.

Many of the novel’s concerns are made clear in the opening pages. “This is the story of Gaston and of his best friend, Max” the first sentence reveals, and, indeed, this is a novel of love and friendship. Gaston will be the focus of the novel as Villalobos does not shy away from admitting:

“There are lots of other characters in this story, but we’re going to accompany Gaston at all times, as if we were just floating behind him and had access to his feelings, his sensations, the flow of this thoughts.”

Of course, most writers would not feel the need to point this convention out, but in doing so Villalobos achieves two contrasting aims. He both establishes that we cannot inhabit another person’s mind – in his friendship with Max, Gaston does not always understand what his friend is thinking or feeling – while at the same demonstrating that we can do exactly that imaginatively. In a novel about shared humanity both these points are important. As the novel opens, the closure of his restaurant has left Max listless and hopeless, despite Gaston’s offer to help him out:

“Gaston knows that when Max says he’s tired he means that he’s already written off this and other options.”

Gaston has his own problems to deal with as his dog, Kitten, is dying and, despite the pain it is in, he is reluctant to have it put down. The depressing nature of his circumstances, however, do not make him despair of other people, and, in a world which is presented as divided, he walks between the divisions, developing new relationships. Even his dog’s suffering leads to a new friendship when he hires a sedatoress to ease its pain.

These divisions are frequently national or even racial, but Villalobos disorientates the reader by using abstract geographical terms for parts of the globe such as ‘Near Eastern’ and ‘Southern Cone’. The novel highlights the fear that those from elsewhere are moving in and taking over, and Gaston must resist overtures from a group who want to oust these incomers:

“It’s an invasion…and if we don’t do anything, soon it will just be budget bazaars run by Far Easterners, corner shops run by Near Easterners, and green-grocers run by North Easterners.”

Reducing identity to points on a compass removes the bias inherent in place names.

If this feels a little staid for a Villalobos’ novel, Gaston also has to cope with the arrival of Max’s father (on the run from his home country) and son (on the run from a research project in the Arctic). It is the son, Pol, who introduces the idea of alien life, proposing that life on Earth is a result of extra-terrestrial intervention:

“Directed panspermia…A colonisation carried out by an extraterrestrial civilisation which sent genetic material down to earth.”

(Intriguingly, Gaston makes a living growing non-native vegetables for restaurants – another example of alien seed – which suggests that Villalobos is more relaxed about it than Pol). If we throw in ‘the greatest footballer on earth’ suffering a crisis of confidence and Gaston’s relatives, having discovered his phone number, messaging him with complaints over his inheritance, then there is certainly plenty going on in the novel. Beneath the comedy, however, there is a warm and life-affirming message about friendship. It is no surprise that the novel’s final interaction is between Garton and a child who speaks a different language – and that this matters not at all.