September 22, 2017

My introduction to Jean Giono last year, when New York Review of Books published Hill, was one of those moments when a half-known name exceeds all expectations, when an old voice sounds fresh and new, and when those first few pages suggest a long-term relationship. Impatiently moving onto another of his early novels, Second Harvest, I was delighted to discover that NYRB have a similarly enduring commitment to Giono, and have now released Paul Eprile’s translation of Melville (which will in turn be followed by his 1951 novel, The Open Road). As Edmund White points put in his introduction, Melville comes at a turning point in Giono’s writing life, as he moved away from his “Pan Cycle…works of an almost folkloric quality that highlighted his native Provençal landscape.” While this change may be related to the failure of Giono’s pacifism, Melville’s origins are particularly unusual as the novel began as an introduction to his own translation (alongside his friend Lucien Jacques) of Moby Dick. Instead it became an imaginative recreation of the author based on his reading of the book.

Melville begins strangely enough with the lines:

“In 1849, when Melville returned to America after a short stay in England, he had a strange item in his baggage. It was an embalmed head…but it was his own.”

It continues, however, with a summary of Meville’s biography, albeit in a style full of conversational interjections and imaginative interpolations – one in which Melville’s restless energy is echoed in the narrative voice. Giono focuses on Melville’s desire to escape to the sea, but where he is (unsurprisingly) particularly good is in his portrayal of Melville as a writer:

“For fifteen months, since he went to sea, he’d been wrestling with an angel. Like Jacob, he’s plunged into darkness and no dawn comes…He hasn’t a moment’s respite from the fight… He, Herman, wrestles with this dreadful angel who, by doing battle, illuminates the impenetrable mystery of the intercourse between humans and the gods. It’s inside of this mystery that his eyes have sight.”

It’s after Melville has dropped off the manuscript of White-Jacket with his publisher in London that the novel leaves his life behind and entirely enters Giono’s fantasy. Giono portrays Melville as a man who cannot live without adventure:

“…as long as there was the possibility of getting in discussion, in argument; as long as it should have been leading into something worthwhile, London was still bearable. But now – dark, soulless, noisy – he can’t stand it. What kind of trap had he fallen into?”

Dismissing his initial instinct to rebel by wearing a white top hat, Melville instead strikes up a conversation with the stable boy, asking him, “Supposing you had ten days of freedom to do whatever you liked, what would you do?” The stable boy’s answer, that he would visit his sweetheart, Jenny, in the village of Woodcut, is all Melville needs to begin an adventure. He acquires the appropriate costume, recreating the appearance of a sailor, a process which sees him feel alive once more:

“His heart was swelling again. Big, ferocious wings were starting to fan him furiously…”

This sense of adventure is inextricably linked to his inspiration:

“The battle with the angel has resumed. He always suspected it was only a truce.”

It seems likely that Giono sees something (or even everything) of himself in Melville, his attachment to the country echoed in Melville’s relationship with the sea. As Melville wrestles with his muse, we see Giono coming to terms with a change in his own writing:

“It’s up to me to devise my own compasses and my own rigging. In this game you set out either to win it all or lose everything… He’s no more a writer ‘of the sea’ than others are writers ‘of the soil’.”

The adventure of his coach trip is, of course, the adventure of a mysterious and beautiful woman, Adelina, as well as a brush with revolutionary politics. Though the plot is hardly complicated, it still feels as if everything moves at a breathless pace (perhaps partly because we spend a lot of time in the carriage). It is this relationship which gives him the inspiration, and motivation, to write Moby Dick.

This makes Melville one of the strangest pieces of literary criticism ever written. Whether it provides much insight into Moby Dick I cannot say (having never read it) but I suspect it is more revealing regarding Giono himself. Giono’s imaginative engagement with his subject is such, however, that it is impossible to resist.


Go Went Gone

September 16, 2017

Jenny Erpenbeck has frequently explored the injustices of history, but in her latest novel to be translated into English (by her regular translator Susan Bernofsky), Go Went Gone, she tackles the injustices of the present. Erpenbeck decided to write the novel (which was published in Germany in 2015) in 2013 in response to the media reaction to the drowning of refugees in the Mediterranean, feeling it was time to look more closely at what was happening, and, in particular, the experience of these displaced people when they arrived in Germany. “You can blank out the suffering of others,” she has said, “but you are also refusing to look at something in yourself.”

The first hurdle a writer must overcome in recreating the lives of refugees is the lack of action, forbidden, as they are, from working, largely spending their time waiting for some response from a distant bureaucracy. Erpenbeck does this by using a retired university professor, Richard, as a conduit for her exploration of their experience. Richard, having just retired, also finds time “completely different”:

“But now he’s being tormented… by time itself. Time is supposed to pass, but not just that.”

The novel opens with a refugee protest, a hunger strike, in Alexanderplatz; Richard’s first involvement occurs as he fails to notice the protest and its ironic intention: We become visible. The demonstration is soon over, but Richard finds it preys on his mind – “He’d really like to know what’s become of the ten men from Alexanderplatz” – and also awakens his interest in the countries the men have come from, bringing him to face to face with his own ignorance:

“The American vice president recently referred to Africa as a country – even though, as the article about this faux pas pointed out – there are fifty-four African countries. Fifty-four? He had no idea. What is the capital of Ghana? Of Sierra Leone? Or Niger?”

As Richard is a university professor, his ignorance feels wilful, a decision to ignore a large part of the globe which will later be reflected in the attitudes of his friends. Erpenbeck’s decision to make Richard a professor of Classics also seems very deliberate, a reminder of the importance of the countries around the Mediterranean to our culture (many of the refugees come from Syria, even if they are not Syrian). Richard is also East German and therefore aware that a society which seems almost relentlessly permanent can suddenly collapse. It also gives him an insight into different kinds of borders:

“…as long as a border of the sort he’s been familiar with for most of his life runs along a particular stretch of land and is permeable in either direction after border control procedures, the intentions of the two countries can be perceived by the used of barbed wire, the configuration of fortified barriers, and things of that sort. But the moment these borders are defined only by law, ambiguity takes over…”

Richard discovers that refugees can only claim asylum in the EU country they arrive in, but that those countries are happy to let them leave for another country:

“For a moment, Richard imagines what it would be like having someone explaining these laws to him in Arabic.”

Richard begins to visit refugees who have been housed in a nearby, disused home for the elderly, initially viewing this contact as a research project:

“Richard spends the next two weeks reading several books on the subject of refugees and drawing up a catalogue of questions for the conversations he wants to have with them.”

This allows Erpenbeck to use her own research without having to heavily fictionalise it. (At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Erpenbeck was paired with Jason Donald whose novel Dalila is centred on a fictional Kenyan refugee, a character created by amalgamating the experiences of the many refugees Donald has spoken to; Erpenbeck instead presents her stories largely as she heard them). Whether Richard’s journey mirrors her own, it is certainly intended to encourage the reader to move from interest to empathy. Each refugee’s story is individual, but all can be summarised in the words of Rashid:

“From one day to the next, our former life came to an end.”

Though, in style, this is very different to Erpenbeck’s previous novels – particularly in the intensity of language – it is not without haunting images. Erpenbeck uses a drowning in a lake which Richard’s house overlooks to mirror those killed on the voyage across the Mediterranean:

“They still haven’t found the man at the bottom of the lake. It wasn’t suicide. He died in a swimming accident.”

Waiting for the corpse to rise echoes the waiting of the refugees in a novel about becoming visible: as Erpenbeck has said, “Things that disappear still have their place in the world.”

Go Went Gone shows a skilled novelist engaging with a vital topic, demonstrating the importance of fiction in understanding the world. Any fear that Erpenbeck is in danger of reducing her work to reportage is dismissed by an ending which suddenly plunges us into the human depths she has so fearlessly explored in the past.

Petite Fleur

September 11, 2017

Petite Fleur is the third of Iosi Havilio’s five novels to be translated into English (on this occasion by Lorna Scott Fox), following Open Door and Paradises. It is, however, my first experience of Havilio who is clearly a rather eccentric writer of the Cesar Aira school. Beatriz Sarlo’s comment in reference to Open Door – “it doesn’t obey any of the laws of reading, it feels like it sprang out of nowhere” – could equally apply to this later novel, which begins realistically enough but is soon following a logic of its own.

As the narrator, Jose, says in the novel’s opening line, “This story begins when I was someone else,” that is, before his job in a firework factory goes up in smoke at the same time as the factory itself, “reminiscent of a far-off, spectacular war.” Jose’s sudden unemployment leads to his wife, Laura, returning to work after a year off to take care of their daughter, Antonia. Initially Jose struggles with his new role as house husband – “no initiative ever got beyond the limbo of assertions” – until Laura suggests he tidy up their CDs:

“The task took me all day, and though I’d started off unwillingly, moved entirely by a defiant pride, my excitement began to rise from the feet up with almost imperceptible warmth until I couldn’t hide it any longer… Thanks to music I passed from idleness to action, from despondency to hope, and to the ideal management of time.”

One job leads to another, and soon he is planning a vegetable garden, requiring only to borrow a neighbour’s spade to get started. The neighbour, Guillermo, who has only lived nearby for a few months and has spent most of that time refitting his apartment, turns out to be a music lover as well, and the visit extends into hours as Guillermo plays Jose records from his collection. It’s on the way out that things begin to get strange:

“He squatted down, obviously feeling dizzy, and a slow but raging irritation rose in me. A kind of primitive protest that caused something deep inside to snap. That’s when I leaned over, grabbed the spade by the handle and lifted it cleanly from between the bags and in a single continuous motion, up, back and down, sank it into the back of Guillermo’s neck.”

Although we have only been in Jose’s company for a few pages, it’s fair to say this seems out of character. As Guillermo has been all but decapitated, there is no doubt he is dead. Jose escapes, spade in hand, washes the blood from his clothes, and begins to dig what was once going to be his compost pit but is now a grave for Guillermo.

Although the novel is already a murder mystery (the mystery being why he committed the murder), that is not the direction which the narrative will take. Jose spends a couple of tense days waiting for the body to be found but there are “no police, no TV cameras on the doorstep.” Even when he spots a young woman leaving the apartment, the alarm is not raised. Eventually he can bear it no longer and goes round to see for himself:

“The hints of the last few days had braced me for something uncanny, but even so, when the door opened I couldn’t stifle a giggle of dismay… Guillermo greeted me with a beaming smile, elated to the point of euphoria.”

Jose has discovered that when he kills someone (or something – various experiments on ants and pigeons follow) they return to life, with no memory of the murder. Of course, the idea is ridiculous, but once that ridiculous idea has been established it can be pursued with realism, which is largely what fantastic literature does. Havilio also cleverly interrupts the narrative at this point with a reminiscence about a past love affair, only tangentially linked via a fondness for Tolstoy’s Resurrection, before Jose resumes his visits to Guillermo.

As Jose becomes accustomed to his new powers, Laura is also struggling with her new role as a working mother, eventually entering therapy which involves facing your worst fears by enacting them. Her friend, Marion, for example, (who introduces her to, Horacio, the therapist) tackles the “stigma of attractiveness” by being made to strip, insulted, having her hair cut, and eventually being kicked and spat on by the other patients before Horacio demands that she urinate in front of them. Laura’s therapy revolves around the idea that her father abandoned her because she wasn’t a son. In both her case, and Jose’s, there is a sense of coming to terms with the role reversal that has taken place in their lives via their very different forms of release and exploration. Havilio also links this to a more general tendency to destruction and rebirth (which includes the deliberate explosion at the factory, arranged by its owners):

“A periodic summons to destruction and resurgence. Take a look at history, it’s all there: rich men, lovers, artists, frittering away their works, the better to recognise themselves in downfall.”

Petite Fleur is endlessly entertaining: one long paragraph that you are unlikely to want to stop reading. As its dark ending reveals, however, it’s not simply fun and games.

Year of the Drought

September 7, 2017

The Year of the Drought, in Roland Buti’s novel (now translated by Charlotte Mandell, his first to appear in English), is 1976. Auguste, or Gus, is thirteen years old – only a few years older than I would have been that year – and living on a farm with his mother, father and older sister, Lea. His father has invested in hundreds of chickens which he plans to fatten and sell but the intense heat is causing an ever-increasing mortality rate. The real threat to the family, however, arrives in the form of Gus’ mother’s friend, Cecile. The oppressive weather, and Buti’s decision to end each chapter not so much with a cliff-hanger but with a moment of heightened emotion, creates a sense of impending doom unusual for a coming-of-age novel.

Gus, like any other thirteen-year-old, lives much of his life in his imagination; he has, for example, his own explanation for the heatwave:

“I myself was of the opinion that an asteroid had fallen somewhere in the area, a huge heavenly body composed of an unknown metal, and giving off toxic vapours.”

He longs for something out of the ordinary to happen:

“In the hope that something astounding might happen to me, I had acquired the habit of remaining still for very long periods of time… But nothing changed… No mysterious stranger, having floated done from the sky in a basket after an immense voyage through space and time, was ever threading his way towards us through the woods.”

When a stranger does arrive she is both ordinary and extraordinary: a woman who works in the Post Office yet seems to possess a sophistication and glamour absent in the countryside. She initially charms Gus, when she meets him by the roadside, with her enthusiasm for his drawing, his dove (which he is caring for while its tail feathers regrow) and even the farm horse, Bagatelle’s, defecation.

“Looking straight into my eyes she gave me a big, loud, slow kiss on each cheek. I inhaled her breath. It smelled of honey and liquorice.”

Soon Cecile moves in and slowly we realise that her relationship with Gus’ mother is more than friendship, as Buti subtly reveals:

“As she rose, she deliberately brushed against Cecile’s arm, slowing down to prolong the contact.”

Later, Gus will discover that it is his father sleeping in the spare room, and, later still, he spots his mother and Cecile at a stream where he has gone with his friend Maddy to cool off:

“Satisfied they were alone, their movements became freer and more relaxed. Cecile was the first to take off her dress, drawing it over her head in a single, fluid motion that seemed to make it magically disappear.”

The novel may seem to explore two disparate themes: one of love outside of the social conventions of the time, the other of the mechanisation of farming which is shown to be still at the mercy of the elements. Both are united, though, by the loss of control felt by Gus’ father, and the characters in general:

“It must have seemed to Dad that a cosmic shift in the natural order had taken place… One world, the lower one, that you hoped to master through work, through daily care of your animals and plants, that you could almost understand because it was almost human, and part of a universe subject to our human will – this world had yielded to another, different kind of nature, lofty distant, often incomprehensible, yet always imposing itself on us.”

Neither the drought nor his wife’s love can be controlled. Similarly, his wife cannot control her passion. The heat comes to represent that passion – oppressive, unspoken – which is expressed when they spend time together by the stream, an Edenic, out of the world moment. This is echoed in a sexual encounter Gus has with Maddy shortly after when together they sneak into the town reservoir. (There are many other examples of this, from Bagatelle’s refusal to move from a glade where he has gone to die to Rudy, a farm labourer with Down’s syndrome’s belief that every woman who visits the farm is the ‘one’).

Year of the Drought is a novel of many vivid scenes (clearing out the dead chickens will be hard to forget) which Buti manages to imbue with a power beyond his words. He takes an ordinary family and places them under extraordinary stresses, the father in particular taking on almost tragic hero proportions. An English language debut that is well worth seeking out.

The Ropewalker

September 3, 2017

Jaan Kross probably remains Estonia’s most famous writer, his availability in English largely down to a period in the mid- 1990s which saw The Czar’s Madman, Professor Marten’s Departure, and the short story collection The Conspiracy published. Two more novels have followed but his first major work, the four-volume Between the Plagues, has remained out of reach until last year when the first two volumes appeared under the title The Ropewalker, translated by Merike Lepasaar Beecher. For those who fear approaching any series in translation until there is some certainty that it can be read in full, the third volume, A People Without a Past, was published last month, and the final part is scheduled to appear next year.

The Ropewalker is a historical novel which begins in the 1550s, a period which English writers never tire of writing about, ending as it does with the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559. Its setting, however, (in European terms) could hardly be further away, lying as it does at the other edge of Europe in Livonia. Livonia, a land which does not even have the advantage of still existing, was to be found where much of present-day Estonia is but also included part of Latvia, including Riga. As the novel opens, Livonia is under the rule of the Order which, though it may sound a little science fiction, is, in fact, a group of knights supported by the German nobility. (‘Rule’ is perhaps an exaggeration as large parts of the country are owned by the Catholic Church, and large towns have their own political structures). The language of the ruling class was therefore German, excluding most of the inhabitants of Livonia who were peasants. In The Ropewalker we see the power of the Order wane, creating a vacuum which surrounding states – Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark – attempt to fill.

The attraction of this period to Kross is obvious: he lived through Estonia’s occupation during World War Two by, first, the Soviet Union, then Germany, and then the Soviets again. He also chooses as his protagonist a historical figure, Balthasar Russow (or Bal), author of the Chronicle of the Province of Livonia which charts the area’s history from 1156 to 1583, suggesting that in his own chronicling of Livonia’s history he is picking up Russow’s mantle. (All historical writing is political, but the very act of recording the history of a small nation, particularly one other states wish to absorb, is political in itself). We first meet Bal as he attempts to get a closer look at a group of (tight)ropewalkers who have suspended a rope above the town “like a silver strand of hair, stretching from the steeple to somewhere far beyond the town walls.” The dangerous manoeuvres of the rope dancers foreshadow Bal’s later adventures and the metaphorical tightrope he must walk between the different powers in the land and their representatives, but we also see here his lively curiosity and determination to discover things for himself.

Bal’s father is a wagoner and therefore a step above the peasantry; he is able to pay for Bal’s education and, unusually, has also had his daughter, Annika, educated. The story of Bal’s impressive sounding name is telling:

“His mother expressed some doubt over a name so exalted, for might it not seem as if they were prodding Our Lord to take notice of this child born to simple folk…? But his father replied, ‘Every name is a kind of prod…Since it’s a prod in any case, better that He raise our boy up a bit than push his nose down into the dirt.”

It is Bal’s aptitude for languages which first gets him noticed when a merchant asks him to write a letter in German. This is also his first introduction to ‘diplomacy’ as the letter is a fake – supposedly written by a (dead) German merchant in order to dissuade other German merchants from coming to Livonia and taking business away from the locals. Later, when Bal arrives in Stettin to further his education, the rector immediately tests his Latin:

“…as if out of spite, the rector continues in Latin and asks now about Balthasar’s studies. And he proceeds ever more quickly and aggressively, barely giving Balthasar a chance to answer before posing the next question.”

He survives the inquisition, but on another occasion, when he is sent with a letter for Duke Johan, he fears that admitting his knowledge of Latin may be a disadvantage:

“He tried at lightning speed to weigh the consequences of a ‘yes’ and the dangers of a false ‘no’ which might later be discovered.”

With quick wits he answers, “Verba quidem, sed non sentiam.” (I understand the words, but not the meaning). Towards the novel’s end, when he finds himself embroiled in the Peasants’ Revolt ( a sign he cannot leave his background behind), he is asked to accompany a delegation of peasants into Tallinn and listen to what the council members say amongst themselves (believing the peasants will not understand). Language is political in a way we might only understand with reference to the Norman Conquest or the Highland Clearances in our own country.

Throughout the novel there is, of course, a great deal of ‘right time, right place’ as far as Bal is concerned, but so credibly is his character developed that this never seems forced. This allows Kross to present the history of the period without having to pan back into explanatory prose. It also means that what seems complicated in summary does not feel so in reading as the narrative carries the reader along. The Ropewalker is a classic historical novel, and also an important landmark in the subgenre of writer’s in totalitarian states using the past to write about the present (see also Ismail Kadare). Above all, it is a wonderful, immersive read.

Die, My Love

August 30, 2017

I was lucky enough to attend the Edinburgh launch of Charco Press, a new publisher of Latin American fiction which is based in the city. (Charco is apparently Spanish for puddle, so Scotland would seem to be the ideal location). The authors of its two launch publications, Ariana Harwicz (Die, My Love), and Gabriela Cabezon Camara (Slum Virgin), were both in attendance, as was co-founder and translator Carolina Orloff; the enthusiasm of all three (and of hosts, Golden Hare Books) was wonderful to behold, and I began reading Die, My Love (translated by Carolina and Sarah Moses) on the train home.

Die, My Love is a fierce, unsettling novel about motherhood and marriage. Its Argentinian author, Harwicz, spoke of writing the book while living in France with her husband and first child, explaining to some extent the sense of foreignness and isolation of the narrator. Further blurring the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, she confessed that when she began she did not know that she was writing a novel. The novel’s searing honesty is quickly apparent as the narrator considers the need to acquire a cake for her son’s six-month ‘birthday’:

“Whenever I look at him I think of my husband behind me, about to ejaculate on my back, but instead suddenly turning me over and coming inside me. If this hadn’t happened, if I’d closed my legs, if I’d grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already.”

Her husband remains a distant figure in the novel. His love of the night sky might suggest he is looking in the wrong direction, particularly as his wife remains uninterested in the meteorites he watches through his telescope, thinking only that she’d like to be on “any mission to outer space.” She fails to share his love of the outdoors:

“Personally, I don’t give a damn if I’m under the open sky or shut up in a trunk.”

His distance, though, is also a reflection of her own isolation: in the opening pages it is she who keeps herself apart from her husband and son, and throughout the novel she will frequently retreat to the woods. Her husband’s patience magnifies her own inadequacies:

“The most aggressive thing he’d said to me in seven years was ‘Go and get yourself checked out.’ I’d said to him ‘You’re a dead man’ during the first month of our relationship.”

Harwicz captures the constant anxiety which can accompany having a child. In the narrator’s earliest memory after giving birth she is “afraid of the harm she could cause the newborn.” She frequently thinks she hears her child crying only to find him lying silently – this too, of course, causing worry:

“Why does he sleep so much? Why doesn’t he stir?”

The novel’s honesty also extends to the narrator’s sex life, and the waves of desire which come over her. She becomes fixated on a neighbour, at one point writing in his voice (“Now I’m speaking as him”):

“I think about her and heave with desire.”

She haunts his home, where he stays with his wife and daughter, her sexual fantasies (“Such delicious luxury to have a man pressing on my guts”) finally fulfilled, though such is the intensity of the narrative that this is only the likeliest possibility rather than a certainty. Animal imagery describes their coupling:

“In one feline motion, I turn over and climb on top of him.”

It’s not uncommon for the narrator to compare herself to an animal, and real animals also occur again and again the narrative. The couple’s car hitting a stag is one example, a brief instance where the underlying violence of the voice punches through. (The stag survives and will be seen again by the narrator – “The stag used to appear at nightfall and linger between the woods and the garden” – inhabiting the same borderline between domesticity and wildness as she does.) Their dog is injured in the accident, and the narrator’s inability to cope with it whimpering in pain (she asks her husband to kill it) seems to echo her response to her child.

Die, My Love is a powerful exploration of the rage and loneliness which can accompany motherhood. Such feelings may not be universal (though many of her thoughts will have occurred to some in diluted form) but neither is it unique. The novel also questions the direction and purpose of relationships, and our roles within them, the narrator’s faltering marriage set against the marriage of her in-laws. It does all this in wild phrases which bite and cut at the consciousness of the reader: Harwicz spoke of a realist novel where the fantastic element lies in the language. Harwicz also said that writing a novel is a matter of life and death, and that is certainly how this novel feels.

Cleaned Out

August 19, 2017

Annie Ernaux’s Cleaned Out (translated by Carol Sanders) begins with an illegal abortion (first published in 1974, this scene takes place in 1960). Ernaux spares no detail – the story, as with most of her work, is autobiographical:

“I was on the table, all I could see between my legs was her grey hair and the red snake she was brandishing with a pair of forceps. It disappeared. Unbearable pain. I shouted at the old woman who was stuffing in cotton wool to keep it in place.”

The abortion, however, is the novel’s endpoint rather than its subject. Ernaux is instead intent on exploring the journey which has taken her narrator, Denise Lesur, from childhood to this moment:

“First I was the storekeeper’s daughter, always top of the class. Then a great big lump wearing socks on Sundays, the scholarship student. Then screwed up by a back-street abortionist, and that might be the end of it.”

It’s the story of a young woman caught between two cultures – her working class background and the middle class world she has entered via education – but belonging to neither of them:

“I didn’t always hate my parents, the customers, the store… I hate the others too now, those with education, the professors, the respectable people. I’m sick to death of them.”

Her parents own a store and bar in a poor neighbourhood, providing a level of prosperity which sets them above their customers. Denise’s childhood is a happy one – “I was like a fish in water” – the store means she never has to want for anything on its shelves, and the bar provides her with all the adult attention, unsavoury as some of it is, she needs. She is sent to a private school – a claim on entering the middle classes which her parents shrug off with, “not that we’re snobs, but the private school is nearer.” Though uneducated (or perhaps because they are), her parents place their faith in education – her father pronounces ‘school’ in the same tone as ‘church’. Denise is studious, but finds school “strange, indescribable, I was completely disorientated.” School and home seem like two different worlds: “Not even the same language.”

Denise, of course, does not fit in with the other pupils:

“In feel clumsy and awkward in comparison with the private-school girls, who are confident, who know just what to do.”

Her stories from home are “in poor taste.” Her marks, however, continue to be high:

“The others recognised that I got good marks and was at the top of the class. That knowledge made me feel free, warm, protected.”

The better she does at school, however, the more distant she feels from her life at home:

“I’m not like them. I’m different. I have nothing to say to them.”

School and home also create another dichotomy in Denise’s life. Her sordid origins become connected in her mind with sex; school, on the other hand, represents purity. As her sexual desire develops she sees it as something else that singles her out, a view exacerbated by her Catholic upbringing:

“There’s a monster growing between my legs, a flat, red cockroach, unclean. Don’t ever look at it, don’t ever touch it, don’t let anyone see it, the Devil’s down there…”

She sees her sexuality as something to resist, and her inability to resist it a sign of her own inadequacy, her true, inherited nature which she cannot escape through learning.

Cleaned Out is a fierce, physical book. In Ernaux’s hands, Denise’s emotions are often tangible, spreading through her senses. In an afterword, she talks of, “describing a life in all its aspects, including the affective and sensual, the taste of food, the smell of summer Sundays…” It’s a coming of age story, but also a coming to terms, in which Denise must wrestle with who she is before she can decide who she wants to be.

The Back Room

August 13, 2017

Carmen Martin Gaite’s The Back Room is the only one of the five of her novels to have been translated into English still in print, though it is, perhaps, not the ideal starting point. Written in the middle of a writing career which lasted forty years, it features a writer who we take to be the author (there are references, for example, to her first novel The Spa) reflecting on her childhood in the company of a stranger who arrives one night shortly after midnight, and might be anything from a journalist to the devil; perhaps simply a dream.

The novel begins one sleepless night and the narrator’s mind is already very much on her childhood – “the little girl form the provinces who can’t manage to fall asleep is looking at me in the light of the little yellow lamp.” We also sense a restlessness in the untidiness of the rooms and a lack of focus in her writing. At one point she loses her footing over a copy of Todorov’s Introduction to Fantastic Literature:

“When I finished it I wrote in a notebook: ‘I swear I’m going to write a fantastic novel.’ I suppose it was a promise I made to Todorov. That was around the middle of January, five months have gone by since then. Projects often flare up like will-o’-the-wisps in the heat of certain readings, but then one’s enthusiasm flags…”

The ringing of a telephone wakes her (the novel is full of awakenings, making the differentiation of dream and reality difficult). The visitor claims he is expected though the narrator is less certain (“I don’t know what interview he’s talking about but I don’t dare admit this.”) He quickly brings doubt to his existence, commenting on the narrator’s fear of a cockroach she has sighted in the kitchen:

“They’re mysterious….Like all apparitions. Don’t you like mystery stories?”

Later she will find with a print of ‘Luther’s Discussion with the Devil’ which was earlier pinned up in her bedroom in his hand; looking at it then she had felt “it was taking on depth and relief, that I was entering into it.”

Her visitor (“the man in black” she calls him) prompts her to further memories of her youth, though in no particular order, beginning with her departure from Spain on a scholarship to study in Portugal. Her memories take place partly in the images she recalls to her mind, partly in what she tells him. At times, for example when she goes to the kitchen to make him tea, her memories are entirely separate from their conversation. This jumble of memories she associates with the back room:

“I also imagine it as the attic of one’s brain, a sort of secret place full of a vague jumble of all sorts of miscellaneous junk, separated from the cleaner and more orderly anterooms by a curtain that is only occasionally pulled back. The memories that may come to us as something of a surprise live hiding in the back room.”

She compares memory to the childhood game of Red Light where the participants attempt to approach one child who has their back turned, freezing when they turn and say ‘Red Light!’

“…time steals by so furtively that we don’t even notice it, we don’t see it passing. But all of sudden we turn around and find images that have moved behind our backs, frozen photographs that bear no dates, like the figures of the children in the game of Red Light, who could never be caught moving.”

To some extent her recollections focus on her development as a writer: “That child and her mania for sitting reading with her face glued to the balcony!” She talks of the romance novels she loved, and her own childish romances. But her memories are also a record of Franco’s dictatorship, a point she makes by describing two moments when she saw Franco’s daughter, Carmencita (who is of a similar age) – as a child and at Franco’s funeral:

“We’ve grown up and lived in the same years. She was the daughter of an army officer from the provinces. We’ve been the victims of the same manners and mores, we’ve read the same magazines and seen the same movies.”

At one point they are interrupted by a phone call from a woman claiming to be her visitor’s girlfriend. She also claims to have discovered love letters from the narrator (signed with a C) – though the narrator has no memory of them. (Missing letters, and other papers, are another recurrent motif of the novel). In the final chapter, we are given a strong impression that the novel is a dream –the narrator is awoken by her daughter’s kiss – but how much of it? And in what way does that explain the manuscript she finds:

“The place formerly occupied by Todorov’s book is now occupied by a pile of numbered pages, one hundred and eighty-two of them. On the first line is written, in capital letters with a black ballpoint pen: THE BACK ROOM.”

As the man in black reminds us:

“Ambiguity is the key to fantastic literature… Not knowing whether what one has seen is true or false, and never finding out.”

The Back Room is both puzzling and prepossessing, marking Gaite out as an intriguing writer who deserves attention.

Cry, Mother Spain

August 10, 2017

Though Lydie Salvayre writes in French (here translated by Ben Faccini), her parents were among those who fled Spain at the time of the Civil War. The ‘Mother Spain’ of the title therefore is both the country from which her family originates, and a reference to her own mother, Montse, whose story forms the basis of the novel. As Salvayre explains in a preface, however, the novel’s origins lie elsewhere, with the writings of George Bernanos, a Catholic monarchist who initially supported the Nationalist cause only to be disgusted by the atrocities he saw committed in its name. Bernanos’ perspective gives a historical context and relevance to Montse’s story, which in turn allows the reader to experience the impact of these historical forces on the individual.

The novel opens with Montse’s political awakening. When she is taken to be introduced to the Burgos family as a potential maid, don Jaime comments, “She seems quite humble.”

“But that comment, my mother says, throws me into a turmoil. For me it’s an insult, a patada in the arse, a kick in the culo, it makes me leap ten metros within my own head, it jolts my brain which had been slumbering for more than fifteen years.”

Her brother, Jose, an anarchist, is even more furious:

“Who does the bastard think he is? He’ll regret it, the bare-faced carbon. I’ll teach that bourgeoisie to think twice before opening his mouth again.”

This particularising of the class conflict which was emerging is typical of the novel. Salvarye is at pains to exemplify the various shades of opinion which exist in the village, and how they are also linked to personal relationships. While Jose represents the anarchist viewpoint, don Jaime’s adopted son, Diego, is the resident Communist. The uncertain parentage of his unruly red hair means he is largely distrusted, however, and he is jealous of the way Jose is admired by his peers. Both have difficult relationships with their fathers, don Jaime being the largest landowner in the district, and Jose’s father, though poor, also owning a few acres he wishes to hold onto. Most of the farmers in the village, however, rent their land from don Jaime and are initially entranced with Jose’s proposal for a commune:

“We no longer want to do all the whoring for the landowners: they’re keeping us in poverty and pocketing our money… We can live differently. It’s possible.”

The novel captures the initial joy felt by the villagers at the thought they might be on the verge of a better life:

“The village was in a state of effervescence the next day, at boiling point. Red-and-black scarves hung from windows and balconies, people basked in their newly acquired slogans, babbling away gesticulating, panting, throwing themselves on the few copies of Solidaridad Obrera that had finally reached the village.”

As the days pass, the mood changes, however, and Diego’s more cautious approach begins to win the argument. (One of the areas the novel explores is the conflict between the anarchists and the Communists, making clear that opposition to the Nationalists was not united).

The joy of revolution is also shown when Jose and Montse leave the village to join the Republican army. Salvayre describes it as “a brief interlude of freedom for my mother, a moment of enchantment.” Her mother tells her she had never before seen two people kiss, or heard a foreign language:

“In one evening Montse discovered (her creased, wrinkled face lights up with joy when she describes this) the existence of running water, hot and cold, bath tubs with wrought-iron tiger feet, lavatories with flushing mechanisms and flip-up lids, electricity in every room, refrigerators, clocks, thermometers on walls, telephones made out of ebonite.”

Superficially this may not seem political, but, of course, it is the entrenched poverty of the existing system, now broken in the anarchist held city, that has prevented her from experiencing these things before. Salvayre, as she does throughout, demonstrates how events impact the individual beyond the abstract ideas which create them. The passion for revolution is echoed in Montse’s falling for a French volunteer; the rebellious times reflected in her adolescence.

Cry, Mother Spain is a wonderful novel. It recreates the period of the Civil War in both the particular and the general. It does not stint on detailing the cruelty and violence which accompanied it, but at the same time it reveals the idealism and passion. In the turbulence of its forces we can also see something recognisable in the coming of age of both Jose and Montse. They guide us through the hope and horror in stories, which we know from the start, end very differently.

Lost Books – The Miracle-Worker

August 6, 2017

In recent years, Carmen Boullosa has become one of the most regularly translated of women writers, her third novel from Deep Vellum due to be published this month. For her first appearance in English, however, we must go back to 1994 when Amanda Hopkinson translated her novel of the previous year, The Miracle-Worker. The novel tells the story a healer, Milagrosa, who falls in love with the detective sent to discredit her – part of a plot for the presidency which soon endangers both their lives. That this sounds like a thriller is only one of a number of postmodern tricks the novel uses to entertain the reader – its plot unfolds far from conventionally, and reaches no neat conclusions.

The Miracle-Worker is introduced to the reader as a bundle of papers and an audio-tape found clutched in the hands of a dead man. (Though nothing is certain, we assume this is the body of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez). This makes even their order uncertain, as an editor (also unknown) informs the reader:

“I have ordered them into what appears, to the best of my judgement, to be the most easily comprehensible sequence.”

The novel begins in the words of the miracle-worker, Milagrosa. Her gift, she feels, depends on her isolation:

“The terror of losing the gift I have repels me from even the notion of physical closeness.”

She discusses some of the difficulties of meeting her supplicants’ wishes. When a woman asks her to heal her brain-damaged son, to whom she has dedicated her life, Milgrosa can “foresee her loneliness and abandonment as soon as the boy acquired a normal intelligence.” There is also an amusing story of a man who wants his much younger lover to see him as a younger man (fifty instead of seventy); then his lover comes to beg that he see her as older to bridge the remaining gap (fifty instead of thirty). Of course, he leaves her. Most of the requests, however (a number of which are reproduced in the novel’s next section) only serve to remind us how difficult life is.

From there we move on to a transcript of the tape-recording of the detective, Aurelio Jimenez. He explains that he’s been hired by the Industrial Textile Workers’ Union: “the Union ordered me to pursue the Milagrosa, with a specific mission to destroy her.” The reason is only vaguely suggested later:

“They’re very nervous over the issue of Northern Textiles. You know there are ten factories involved and for some reason the Union isn’t getting its way and the workers are in control. They say it’s down to the Milagrosa.”

Of course, this may mean much more to a Mexican reader, but I suspect Boullosa has no intention of writing a political thriller. The lack of exposition lends terror to the rising death count as Aurelio and Milagrosa go on the run. Aurelio’s endangerment is established early on when he is recognised as “the shit of a strike-breaker” (again never fully explained) and beaten. At this point he has already fallen for Milagrosa, and when she rescues and heals him their relationship blossoms. Soon she rejects her role as healer, reverting to her own name, E, and planning to escape the country with Aurelio.

Things are further confused when we discover the elderly man who dumped his young lover, Felipe Morales, is now running for President. Aurelio witnessed him returning to Milagrosa to ask that his wife respect and admire him again: “That fool Morales…He took advantage of me.” This, somehow, has given him the confidence needed to win the election. Aurelio begs Milagrosa to use her power to stop him:

“Please destroy Morales… I’m pleading with you. For the sake of our love, for dignity and justice.”

It is perhaps possible to read The Miracle-Worker as a political satire, but Boullosa’s primary intention seems to be to impress a sense of Mexico, in flashes, on our flinching retinas, a madcap mixture of religion, passion, corruption and violence with no obvious resolution. The novel can sometimes feel like a chase scene, with unexpected corners and no clear end point, but there’s a breathlessness to it that’s worth pursuing.