The Black Sheep and Other Fables

October 6, 2015

black sheep

Augusto Monterroso is perhaps the least known of that famous generation of Latin American writers which included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar and Carlos Fuentes. It is likely that this is entirely a result of his preferred form: the short story. Publishers, already fearful of translated fiction, are unlikely to take a risk with a writer who wrote only one novel, and whose short stories can be very short indeed. (Monterroso’s fame in the English-speaking world rests largely on his authorship of one of the very shortest of short stories: “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”) All I was aware of in translation was a one volume edition of his first and third collections (Complete Works (and Other Stories) and Perpetual Motion), until, that is, I happened upon, the fables he wrote in between, translated by R. D. V. Glasgow and Philip Jenkins in 2004.

The Black Sheep and Other Fables is a collection of forty-two fables which average two pages in length – the longest is four pages, some take up less than a page. Many, like the title story, are animal fables, but, of course, their real target is humanity. Here, for example, is ‘The Black Sheep’ in its entirety:

“In a distant country many years ago there existed a Black Sheep.
It was shot.
A century afterwards, the repentant flock raised an equestrian statue to it, which looked very good in the park.
So it came about that thereafter, whenever any black sheep appeared, they were quickly executed so that future generations of ordinary sheep might also be able to practise the art of sculpture.”

There speaks a man who was exiled from Guatemala to Mexico, and later saw the government he did support (and worked as a diplomat for) removed from power by the Americans.

Not all the stories are animal fables, however. Others reference Greek myth (‘Penelope’s Cloth, or Who is Deceiving Whom’, ‘Pygmalion’) or the Bible (‘Samson and the Philistines’, ‘David’s Sling’). The target of some of the best of them is writing itself. The wonderful ‘The Monkey Who Wanted to be a Satirist’ tells of a monkey who mixes with and observes others with the intention of finding raw material for his satire. He is so well-liked, however, that when he attempts to write he cannot find any group he is willing to offend:

“Finally he drew up a complete list of human defects and weaknesses, but failed to find anyone at whom he could aim his broadsides, for they were all to be found in the friends who shared his table or within himself.”

The final story, ‘The Fox is Wiser’, tells of a fox who publishes two exceptionally successful and critically acclaimed books. Years pass and he writes no more, despite the entreaties of those who claim to admire him:

“The Fox never said so, but he thought: ’What these people really want is for me to publish a bad book, but as I am the Fox, I’m not going to.
And he did not.”

This may be a slight collection, easily read in an hour, but there is plenty of wisdom to be found within its pages.

Lost Books – The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka

October 4, 2015


Josef Skvorecky ranks among the great Czech writers of the twentieth century, of which there are, of course, many – Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Ivan Kilma only form the beginnings of a list. When he and his wife fled to Canada in 1968 after the Soviet invasion, one of the first things they did was to set up a Czech publishing house. Ironically, the only one of his novels still in print in the UK seems to be The Cowards, published by Penguin Modern Classics a few years ago; The Engineer of Human Souls, generally regarded as his masterpiece (the title comes from a phrase Stalin used to describe writers) is out of print. Among his many books you will also find a detective series featuring the lugubrious Lieutenant Boruvka, the first of which, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, was published in 1966.

The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka contains twelve tales of murder and sleuthing. Despite the death count and Boruvka’s rather humourless approach to police work, the tone is light-hearted. In the first story, ‘The Supernatural Powers of Lieutenant Boruvka’, he arrives at the scene to find his subordinates determined to convince him that an apparent suicide is murder, so determined that they will not let him speak, so that when he finally agrees with them they are unaware that this is what he has been trying to tell them all along – based not on his supernatural powers but on some rather obvious proof. The stories typically involve ‘locked room’ room mysteries (one takes place in the changing rooms of a fashion show, another on a mountain top) or alibis which turn out not to be as rock solid as they first appear. All are satisfying and clever.

As the volume progresses, another dimension is added as Skvorecky begins to develop Boruvka’s character and link the stories together. No sooner is his teenage daughter, Zuzana, introduced than we find him on holiday in Italy with her:

“He had promised that if her school report turned out well, they would spend a holiday in Italy, the home of her mother’s family. He had, however, committed a fateful error: he had neglected to define the term ‘turn out well.’”

Not only does he solve one case there, but two – the second arising when guests of the cousin of the woman whose murder he solved in the previous story. Another recurring character is a young police woman who falls in love with him; in a moment of weakness he arranges to meet her in a bar, but a murder (of course) gets in the way.

The stories were clearly written with a great fondness for the genre, shared by Boruvka who frequently refers to detective fiction (though, at times, dismissively), leading to the wonderful conclusion to ‘Death on Needlepoint’:

“‘The things these scoundrels think up!’
‘Detective story writers you mean?’ asked Lieutenant Boruvka slyly.
‘No, I mean murderers!’ Sergeant Malik retorted with some heat.”

Boruvka’s knowledge of detective fiction aids him in solving two cases, though he’s not beyond having a dig at Karel Capek’s story ‘Hordubal’:

“If I were to write detective stories, he thought to himself, I would never leave the reader at sea.”

Sentiments which Skvorecky clearly shares. Translated detective fiction is now commonplace – something that was not the case twenty-five years ago when Boruvka was published by Faber. It seems reasonable to suggest a reprint is in order. Perhaps Pushkin Press’ new crime imprint Vertigo would be suitable match?

Leica Format

September 30, 2015


Dasa Drndic’s Trieste was one of the stand out novels of 2012, and so I was delighted to discover that MacLehose Press was publishing one of her earlier novels this year (albeit with a different translator, Celia Hawkesworth). Leica Format originates from 2002, some five years earlier than Trieste, but Drndic’s documentary style is very much in evidence. The title refers entirely to Drndic’s approach: this novel is about many things but not photography. Leica Format is a more elusive novel than Trieste; although it shares to some extent that novel’s geographic unity, it is thematically more diverse. Whereas the material in Trieste created a moving testament to the Holocaust, and Leica Format also features its own share of Nazi barbarity, in the latter this is diffused among a more general examination of medical experimentation, itself subsumed into a meditation on memory and forgetting.

The novel begins with the story of a middle-aged woman who leaves her family and home town and presents herself at the Academy of Music where she once studied under the name of another student. She works at the Academy for five years, and only when recognised as an imposter by another ex-student is she reunited with her family. “Who are you?…I don’t know you,” is her response: she has not been impersonating another person but believes she is that person. From there we move to the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who famously wrote under the guise of many different characters, and on, via bonsai kittens, to the anatomical remnants of Nazi medical experiments in Austria:

“…those jars, which have been waiting on shelves for half a century and more in the dank cellars of Europe, the dark cellars of Vienna, those jars where children’s brains float, no-one knows exactly how many, how many children’s brains, some say AROUND 500, others AROUND 600, yet others AROUND 700 brains.”

The novel itself seems to work on the same principle, with its separate components in their jars displayed upon its narrative shelf. The reader walks along observing, attempting to make connections. See for example the narrator / writer’s description of the town where she lives:

“The town has many constricted parts, a lot of small organs, it has an appendix, but you can get by without an appendix.”

It would be fair to assume that the narrator, if not Drndic herself, is a writer as so many other writers are quoted, especially in those early pages, as she is trying to reconcile her dislike of the town she lives in with the experience of others. “Gyorgy Konrad,” we are told, “adores his city, although all kinds of horrors happen to him constantly there.” This discomfort with her place of residence is presumably linked to her Serbian origins:

“Sometimes they ask me: Are you Serbian? Sometimes they lean over the counter and say softly, I’m Serbian. Then we both smile.”

The impression we have is of someone who would reject these definitions – references to Toronto and Paris suggest a more international mind-set – but is at the mercy of provincial attitudes. Paradoxically, this is also a town where Drndic suggests the past is too easily forgotten, where both Nazi occupation and civil war are swiftly consigned to history and a new identity adopted.

This is perhaps one reason why Drndic tells, in parallel, the story of Ludwig Jacob Fritz, a visitor to the town in 1911, on his way to the USA. In this way two versions of the town, almost one hundred years apart coexist. Fritz’s exploration of the town coincides with detailed information about its streets and buildings. This reveals how everything is both rooted in history but equally how that history can be shrugged off:

“In socialist days Ferenc Deak was fugued into Boris Kidric Street…Boris Kidric is now called Krajl Kesimir…”

Fritz’s existence is later verified by the discovery of a postcard inside a book.

Leica Format is not an easy book, but there are moments of astonishing power to be found within it, in, for example, her list of medical experiments undertaken without consent from 1939 to the present (equivalent to the list of names found in Trieste), and the way in which she brings the voices of the dead to life. We might also recognise her description of the town itself:

“A contracted town in which loneliness is an epidemic that the inhabitants do not know is raging.”

Trieste was widely reviewed but Leica Format seems to have been largely ignored. It would be a pity if this prevented more of her work being translated as Drndic is clearly a vital and important voice in European literature.


September 19, 2015


Hans Herbert Grimm’s First World War novel, Schlump, had the bad luck to be published a few weeks after Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, the novel that would go on to represent the German perspective of the war to this day. It probably didn’t help that Grimm was determined to remain anonymous, fearing that association with the novel would damage his career as a teacher and disrupt his quiet life. It is likely his fear of being linked to the book later played some part in his decision to join the Nazi party who were gleefully burning and banning it. Ironically, when he did finally reveal his authorship, to the new Communist authorities, this didn’t prevent him being from being forbidden to resume his teaching career. In 1950 he committed suicide.

In contrast, Schlump is a character who takes misfortune in his stride. Often lucky, even his bad luck seems to benefit him – it is as if he has emerged from an 18th century picaresque novel onto the battlefields of 20th century Europe, embracing adventure and women alike. This may seem a strange fit for a war novel, especially one which is set during the war we most associate (rightly or wrongly) with the suffering of soldiers, however, it points towards the comic approach of later novels like Catch 22. In some ways the picaresque genre is entirely appropriate: its episodic, plotless nature mimics the chaotic progress of the war; Schlump, like so many picaresque heroes before him, must live by his wits without too much care for the letter of the law; and he must also seize pleasure where he finds it with tomorrow being far from a certainty.

It also conveys the excitement felt by many young men at the thought of going to a war which seemed, to them, like an adventure:

“Schlump became anxious that he was missing out on all of this, and was desperate to sign up…On his seventeenth birthday he went in secret to the barracks and volunteered… He returned home bursting with pride and his parents abandoned their opposition.”

Schlump’s first piece of luck is that he has a school leaver’s certificate and a rudimentary understating of French: instead of being sent to the Front, he becomes an administrator in occupied France. Far from mortal danger, with plentiful supplies of both food and girls, Schlump finds that “he’d almost forgotten he was a soldier.” Schlump proves adept at keeping everyone happy, but eventually his time is up and he is sent forward to the fighting: “he couldn’t be absolutely sure whether the last few months were absolutely real.”

Almost a third of the novel passes before Schlump sees any action, but, rather than take away for the book’s impact, this only serves to make conditions at the Front more shocking. It also reflects the experience of soldiers who spent much of their time waiting behind the lines. Schlump does not, however, sail through the war unscathed:

“Thud! The dull impact. Now it was going to explode. Schlump threw himself on the ground; here the communication trench was very shallow, giving only a hand’s width of cover. Now it was going to explode. But it lasted an eternity; he could have got much further away. And still it didn’t. Then, finally, came the dull boom, followed by a rumbling and drumming, as if a thousand horses were galloping towards him… Schlump remembered nothing after that.”

This is only Schlump’s first wound; after his recovery he returns to the fighting only to be wounded again (presumably a common experience). This allows him some time back in Germany where we can see the effects of the war on the civilian population, hunger in particular. His mother

“…placed everything in front of him that she’d put by from her own meals. She didn’t tell him she’d starved for his sake.”

Later Schlump’s father dies of hunger. In this way, Grimm creates a novel that tells of more than Schlump’s experience. A number of other stories related to Schlump by those he meets also expand the novel’s viewpoint.

Schlump, rediscovered in Germany in 2013, and now translated into English by Jamie Bulloch, deserves its belated place among the classic novels of the Great War. It may not have the emotional impact of, for example, Owen’s poetry, but this is partly due to Schlump’s everyman character – his basic education, his lack of refinement, and his enduring innocence which outlasts even the war:

“He left the station as a simple soldier, just as on the day he’d embarked from there.”

Now and at the Hour of Our Death

September 12, 2015


Death has never been absent from literature, and, if anything, there has recently been an outpouring of books dealing with loss. Grief, however, is an experience of the living; giving voice to grief often means viewing death through the filter of memory, where the life lived is more important than those final months. In Now and at the Hour of Our Death, Susana Moreira Marques takes a more journalistic approach to death (as befits someone who is a journalist) having spent time with a palliative care team who worked in rural Portugal during 2011 (Marques is a Portuguese journalist; the book was translated by Julia Sanches). The resultant book is more than reportage, however, despite passages which reproduce verbatim the words of the dying. Over its short length it grapples with a number of approaches, as if admitting than no one response can do the subject justice.

The first section, Travel Notes about Death, reads like a travelogue through the land of death. We briefly meet some of the individuals Marques encounters:

“He’s been bedridden for so many years that death is no longer a novelty. His skin is the thinnest white and, from his bed, he asks that the window always be left open.”

Interspersed with these vignettes are meditations headed Survival Guide, for example:

“Think of death in detail. Don’t think of the whole.”

and definitions of such words as ‘agony’ and ‘palliative’. Marques creates the sense of travelling through this landscape with frequent references to roads:

“The road does not seem the same, and yet every road seems the same.”

Her journey comes to echo that of a religious allegory. The constant presence of death flattens reality into imagery:

“And yet another metaphor: the border.”

This section has a cumulative power that reminded me of David Markson’s later works. What’s lacking, of course, is that deeper sense of the individual experience which Marques provides in the second section, Portraits. Each portrait is painted in two parts: firstly, in Marque’s words, and then secondly, in the person’s own, transcribed from Marques’ interviews. This works better than the usual journalistic technique of subsuming quotations into the article, thereby making the writer’s superiority (and control) clear. This way, Marques provides a context but then allows her subject to speak for him or herself (after all, one of the main messages of the book is, “you only know what it’s like when it happens to you,” as Paula, the first portrait, tells us).

There are only three of these stories, each providing a different perspective. When it comes to the elderly couple, Joao and Maria, their words are presented as a dialogue, appropriately as their greatest fear is separation:

“If there was just one of us left, we’d have nothing to do but stare at the walls.”

The final story is from the point of view of two daughters whose father is dying. If I had a criticism of the book it would be that three does not seem many, despite Marques’ attempt to show a breadth of experience. Of course, too many such stories would lessen the effect and move the reader from poignancy to boredom. Perhaps it would have been better if these, too, were excerpted among the first section – the division in two was one of the few things about the book which felt artificial. (There is a single page final section, which reads like a list of what Marques has learned).

Despite that single misgiving, this is book which stares death in the face and doesn’t flinch. There is no attempt to make it meaningful, or raise it beyond the often painful, and sometimes prolonged, process it is. Marques’ journey is perhaps one we should all be prepared to take.

The Master of the Day of Judgement

September 8, 2015


This month Pushkin Press launch a crime imprint, Vertigo. The initial titles include Vertigo (of course) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia by Piero Chiara, and The Master of the Day of Judgement by Leo Perutz. Perutz was last revived in the UK by Harvill in the 1990s and seems a perfect fit for Pushkin. Yet another product of the Austro-Hungarian writing factory (he was born in Prague and lived much of his life in Vienna), he was a contemporary of Kafka and Stefan Zweig who wrote his first novel (the still untranslated The Third Bullet) while recovering from a wound received in the First World War. Nine of his eleven novels have made into English, however, most recently a new translation of Between Nine and Nine, a novel which takes place over twelve hours, and which I like to think of as the precursor of 24. (According to the Afterword, this was also written as Perutz recuperated from a war wound – as this was two year later, presumably a different injury).

The Master of the Day of Judgement begins not with a murder but with a suicide. Actor Eugen Bischoff leaves the party he is hosting and wanders into the garden, though not before recounting the story of a mysterious suicide:

“It was completely unmotivated, there was nothing whatever to explain such an act of total despair. He had no debts or other money troubles, no love trouble, and no illness – in short the suicide could not have been more mysterious.”

Bischoff does have money troubles – the bank to which he has entrusted his money has collapsed, but those around him, particularly his wife, Dina, have gone to great lengths to keep the news from him. When shots are heard and he is discovered drawing his final breath, it is assumed that his bankruptcy has been revealed to him, and our narrator, Baron von Yosch, is suspected due to a love affair with Dina predating her marriage. Yosch, who has also been wandering in Bischoff’s garden, denies having spoken to him, and there the matter would end were it not for the fact that his pipe is found smouldering next to Bischoff’s body. As the Baron has given his word of honour, it now seems he, too, will have to do the decent thing and take his own life. As Dina’s brother Felix tells him:

“It remains for me to assure you that you are under no obligation whatever to carry out in the next twenty-four hours the decision that you no doubt have already made. I shall in no circumstances inform the court of honour of your regiment of this business, should that step turn out to be necessary, before the end of the week.”

It is not the Baron, but a young engineer, Solgrub, who protests that Yosch is innocent and undertakes to investigate Bischoff’s death. One of the novel’s most entertaining features is the way Perutz uses Solgrub as the ‘detective’ hero while retaining Yosch as the narrator. At times Yosch follows Solgrub’s lead; on other occasions he strikes out on his own, pursuing some clue he has dredged from his memory, only to find Solgrub waiting for him. (It is rather like the Holmes / Watson dynamic, though as Solgrub is a stranger to the Baron before that night, and his social inferior, he is far less trusting). This allows the narrative plenty of twists and turns, as it is driven forward by the tension created by Yosch’s countdown towards an honourable death (at one point Felix appears with the promised letter) and the threat of a murderer who can compel his victims to kill themselves.

Perutz provides the novel with a conclusion that is both fantastical and plausible, one which draws on the horror genre without recourse to the supernatural. He does not forget his characters, however, the final lines focusing on Yosch and Dina, before an Editor’s Postscript casts further doubt on what we have read. Perutz is a wonderful addition to Pushkin’s list of forgotten writers; The Master of the Day of Judgement an exciting beginning for Vertigo.

The Wallcreeper

September 2, 2015


Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper is the romantic novel backwards. Its central relationship all but begins with marriage (Tiff and Stephen have known each other three weeks), a starting point for the realisation that they do not love each other. Tiff happily follows Stephen to Bern where he works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical company, while she pretends she is writing a screenplay:

“I had intimated that I was a writer with industry connections so he wouldn’t make me work.”

It would be fair to say they marry without really (or even superficially) knowing each other. Stephen’s devotion to birds is notable from the first page when, after a collision with one which causes him to crash the car, he checks the bird before Tiff, and yet later she is still able to ask him, “Wait, how did you get into birds?” (The bird in question is the titular wallcreeper, which they take home with them as a handy symbol; the avian raison d’tre ‘breed and feed’ is their credo for a while). Inevitably they both soon have lovers, a relationship in Stephen’s case which sees him abandon his career for the environmental movement.

What makes The Wallcreeper such an exhilarating read, though, is its voice, which strikes the reader as fresh and unafraid from the opening line:

“I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage.”

In fact, Zink seems to have opening lines to spare. What about:

“Our first meeting prevented a crime.”


“I hadn’t wanted to be pregnant. It was just one of those things that happen when newlyweds get drunk.”

Clearly Zink can craft a snappy, surprising sentence when she needs to. She is particularly adept when it comes to describing sexual experience – a notoriously difficult subject to get right – using language which is neither lyrical nor crude to develop a complex perspective that owes nothing to pornography. Here, for example, is an already (justly) famous passage where she recounts Stephen’s sudden and unilateral decision to penetrate her anally:

“Now, all my life I had fantasized about used sexually in every way I could think of on the spur of the respective moment. How naive I was, I said to myself. In actuality this was like using a bedpan on the kitchen counter. I knew with certainty that “pain” is a euphemism even more namby-pamby than “defilement.” Look at Stephen! He thinks he’s having sex! Smell his hand! It’s touching my hair! I thought, Tiff, my friend, we shall modify a curling iron and burn this out of your brain…
“I gasped for air, dreading the moment when he would pull out, and thought, Girls are lame.”

In this short passage, Zink manages to convey Tiff’s physical, emotional and intellectual response by using language in an astonishing number of different ways and still manages to surprise us at the end.

Zink’s skill with language can also be a weakness, however. Not only is our narrator the mistress of zeitgeist-capturing statements, everyone she knows seems equally intent on talking in punchy aphorisms. Zink’s characters have a keen need to feel interesting and express opinions. They also exist beyond the reach of countries. We move from the international world of pharmaceuticals to the international world of charities; though sense of place is important in her settings (Berne, Berlin), this is not reflected in Zink’s characters. Only Elvis, her Turkish lover, is unable to cross borders, or speak in flowing English. When he takes Tiff to a rundown bar to dance, her reaction is telling:

“I felt both better- and worse-looking than before. Better because I was suddenly reminded that the world was not all college girls and secretaries and trophy wives, and worse because everything in the whole universe is contagious if you look at it long enough.”

Elvis is the lover she stops seeing when he tells her his ex-wife is pregnant; the more respectable, and more married, Olaf is the lover whose car she runs after. Left without Stephen and Olaf, her first reaction is to ask another man to marry her. For most of the novel Tiff is far from being a feminist. Only at the end does she seem to realise: “I had been treating myself as resources to be mined.”

Tiff is ultimately a spoilt and rather ridiculous character who woos the reader with language and honesty. Her involvement with environmental charity Global Rivers Alliance is the accidental result of her relationships, just like her interest in birds. She is not untypical of the novel’s characters: even Stephen’s pharmaceutical work is on a device he hoped would benefit himself. My impression is that Zink finds them more serious than I do, but I could be wrong.

Zink is an incredible stylist and it is evident that this is a writer who has honed her skills with language over time. Yet, it also apparent that she is a writer used to a select audience. The novel’s bracing first half falters as pet preoccupations overwhelm her characterisation. However, remarkably few writers merit the intake of breath that you experience on first being plunged into her prose – with a second novel already published it will be interesting to see what she does next.

Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

August 27, 2015

Karate Chop

At Edinburgh International Book Festival, Dorthe Nors spoke about the spaces she leaves in her stories. In the novella which comes with her first collection to be translated into English, ‘Minna Needs Rehearsal Space’ (translated by Misha Hoekstra), those spaces are visible on the page:

“Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.
Minna can play four instruments.
Minna’s lost her rehearsal space.”

In a series of short statements which abhor the pronoun and are suspicious of the conjunction, Nors tells Minna’s story, the story of a search for rehearsal space, which is also a search for love, and for herself. Each introductory statement can be seen as a rehearsal of her own character, couched in the format of an online dating profile. It is quickly apparent that her problems lie not only with obtaining a suitable rehearsal space, but with coming to terms with a deteriorating relationship. Though her boyfriend, Lars, is similarly represented, it is immediately clear that Minna’s perspective remains:

“Lars ought to help her but
Lars uses condoms.
Lars is on his bike and gone.
Lars is Lars.”

The final statement, particularly as it is repeated, is an example of how meaningful the meaningless can become in the hands of a skilled writer. Lars is drifting away from Minna (Lars vanishing on his bike is also a reoccurring event) and Minna is struggling to come to terms with this:

“Lars is a hit-and-run driver.
The hit-and-run driver has suffered at most a dented fender.”

Nors’ brevity does not mean she cannot alight on the perfect metaphor to describe Minna’s sense of the relationship ending. A style that might at first appear inevitably linked to superficial characterisation (however entertaining) in fact proves synonymous with complexity, the layering sentences creating an unexpected depth. Statements like “Minna isn’t shielded from anything” lie subtly between authorial omniscience and Minna’s interior monologue. Nors also moves deftly between the unembellished action and the surreal:

“Minna places her hands cross her eyes.
Minna feels something: Was that hair?
Minna slips out to the mirror.
Minna places her face against it, and there she is:
Minna with fur on her face.
Minna in a wild stampede.”

Later we are told “Minna’s fur is a metaphor,” but, importantly, it is not a symbol imposed upon her by the narrative, but an image which rises from her own subconscious to describe her sense of herself at that moment.

In reference to another story, ‘The Buddhist’, Nors spoke of how the story similarly turns inwards to the psychology of the protagonist and how he views himself. Before the Buddhist’s conversion he is a government official, but his new belief system requires a new occupation and leading the charity People to People seems ideal:

Aha, he thinks, an organisation is a good place to begin if you want to change the world.”

Throughout the story he is simply ‘the Buddhist’, another example of the narrative voice enforcing the character’s interior monologue while creating an ironic distance. It is as he drives in his ridiculous Berlingo (which he believes “signals inner values”) that the story verges into the surreal:

“The moment the wheels of the Berlingo touch the Lillebaelt Bridge, the grey metal of the Lillebaelt Bridge is transformed into a shining Bifrost arching across the strait and stretching into the sky. It is like a mirage and yet quite real.”

In fact it is, as Nors points out, either a delusion of the character or the author’s use of surrealism: importantly, we do not have to decide which. That it is the key to the story’s conclusion is what matters.

While such flights of fancy are not the norm in Nors stories, the use of something seemingly extraneous to the plot (or artificially creating it as ‘The Big Tomato’) to explore her characters’ inner lives is. Often this is used to open the story: the overheard remark from the television in ‘Do You Know Jussi?’; the comedian’s death in ‘The Winter Garden’; the duck farm in ‘Duckling.’ The final lines of ‘The Wadden Sea’ are indicative of her approach:

“Then she pointed into the fog. She pointed into it like it was a piece of psychology. She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.”

As with ‘Minna Needs a Rehearsal Space’, this gives her stories a depth that belies their brevity. Both the novella and the short story collection (which has a different translator, Martin Aitken, and was published alone in the US) suggest a writer of great talent; hopefully Nors’ novels will follow them into English.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense

August 21, 2015

helle helle

Whose book is it – reader’s or writer’s? I ask that question because my reading experience of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written in the Present Tense differed from my normal relationship with a novel as I had the opportunity to hear Helle speak after I’d finished reading. Although unusual, this isn’t the first time I have listened to an author discuss a book I have just read, but on this occasion my understanding of the novel was altered in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

The novel itself tells the story of a young woman, Dorte, who leaves for university but does not attend, a fact she keeps hidden even from her aunt (also Dorte), the person she seems closest to. While she drifts through her present existence we learn about her past life and relationships. For a while she seems to live an idyllic existence with her boyfriend, Per, and his parents, but she leaves him to live with his cousin, Lars. The transition from one relationship to another is described in terms of action rather than emotion:

“He put his hand on my shoulder, I turned towards him and then we kissed. Per came back with his LP… When Per went to the bathroom we kissed again.”

Similarly her decision to leave Per:

“After we got home it seemed like the only thing to do was pack. I did it on the Tuesday morning before Per woke up, and when he did I told him. I carried the suitcase down the stairs and put it down und the sycamore tree while I got my bike out of the barn.”

In this way, the novel gives the false impression that nothing much happens; in fact, it disguises its eventfulness by burying moments such as these, which would be foregrounded in a traditional story, amid the prosaic details of everyday life. A perfect example of this is Dorte’s abortion:

“Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’d got me a present…”

Only the word ‘long’ reveals any kind of emotional reaction, and ironically Helle makes the telling as short as possible, not even allowing this event a sentence to itself. This style led me to assume that that Dorte was, in fact, suffering from depression (a feeling that intensified when her namesake has a breakdown near the novel’s end):

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt I should wash my hair. I realised I hadn’t had my dinner.”

Helle, however, presented her character as someone who was not unhappy but simply drifting through life. As an example, she mentioned the scene where Dorte boards a train when the conductor waves her on even though she has no intention of travelling – tearing her jeans as she gets off again. In this reading her passivity is a pause in her life, perhaps a reaction to the events the novel describes, but one which has the potential to be healing. This idea of letting life happen to you seems anathema to our contemporary driven society (perhaps on reason why the novel is set in the eighties, along with the absence of smart phones) but becomes an element in Dorte’s coming of age. A stylistic difference also goes some way to explain my different perception of Dorte’s state of mind: in the English version many of the commas have been replaced by full stops, creating a much slower, more lifeless narrative voice.

Helle, in fact, described This Should Be Written in the Present Tense as her most optimistic novel (of course, having not read the others, the context of that statement is unclear). At the beginning (which is the novel’s endpoint – everything is told in retrospect) Dorte seems determined on a new start: her parents have just washed down the apartment, her torn jeans are repaired, and she has filled three black bin bags with what she no longer needs – including pages of her writing. The novel begins with the phrase “I wrote too much…” and ends with advice from a writer:

“I’m always asking myself why does this have to be there, why does that have to be there? And if I can’t find a reason, it goes.”

This feels like a defence of Helle’s style, a declaration that, although she may seem to privilege the trivial over more serious events, what she has included has been deliberately selected. This style allows the novel space for the reader, hence more than one reading is available – something that it is all the better for.

Lost Books – Girl in a Turban

August 11, 2015

girl in a turban

One example of the lack of women writers in translation is the dearth of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winners of that gender. When Jenny Erpenbeck claimed the award with The End of Days this year, many declared her the first ever female winner. In fact, when the prize returned after a five year absence in 2001, it was won by Marta Morazzoni for The Alphonse Courrier Affair, an award that later went temporarily missing from the prize’s history. (You can read a review of The Alphonse Courrier Affair here). This still represents a depressing 2 out of 21 winners – less than ten percent.

The Alphonse Courrier Affair was not Morazzoni’s first work – or indeed, her first work translated into English. Prior to writing the novel, she had published a collection of short stories – Girl in a Turban – in Italy in 1986, swiftly translated into English by Patrick Creagh in 1988. All five stories are set in the past (the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), often touching on the lives of famous historical figures, and all, in one way or another, contemplating mortality.

The first story, ‘The White Door’, deals with Mozart’s final days, spent as the guest of a wealthy patron writing his Requiem. When his wife Constanze, visits unexpectedly, she is determined to visit the Villa of his sponsors, but he puts her off:

“ ‘How old you’ve got,’ she said, with all the savagery of a child who does not weigh its words.”

“So his malady was so obvious that it even had a name,” Mozart thinks to himself. That night he dreams of entering the Villa. Once inside he is drawn to a white door – “by instinct he knew that there was the way and that was the ineluctable access.” the door is clearly death but once opened:

“The boyish laugh that rose slowly in his throat spread forth in harmonious sound.”

In accepting death Mozart rediscovers his prematurely vanished youth.

The idea of a good death features in a number of the stories, most noticeably in ‘The Last Assignment’ which tells of Charles V’s decision to retreat to a monastery in the final years of his life through the eyes of Don Luis, a noble who is called to follow the King and is placed in charge of providing provisions for the royal party. Don Luis seems a simple man who goes about his task to the best of his ability, but he also strikes up a relationship with a gypsy whom he passes on the road to and from the town. He helps her when he finds her fallen on the ground, and she later returns the favour when he falls ill; and yet, you would not call their relationship even friendship. After his illness, Charles takes him into his confidence and allows him to read his memoirs, which he takes charge off after Charles’ death, deciding not to release them into the world for reasons we never discover, yet somehow seeming entirely in keeping with his character.

The title story refers to a painting more famously known as ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, currently residing in the home of art dealer Van Rijk

“Propped up against the wall opposite the window in the bedroom, the picture by this time had reigned supreme for a month.”

Though reluctant to sell it, he eventually does, taking the trouble to travel to Denmark with it. He is remembered by the buyer’s daughter when her father dies, and the picture is seen to rise above the commercial bargain they made.

Although death does not feature in the two remaining stories, ‘The Dignity of Signor da Ponte’ centres on an act of violence which we might assume the title character fears has ended in death, and ‘Order in the House’ concerns a living death as its protagonist, Karl, finds himself suddenly paralysed.

Morazzoni’s stories do not attempt to be neat or tricky; they moved with a staid pace in suiting to their settings. Each feels particular to its time period yet has a certain mythic quality thanks to her choice of subjects – kings, paintings, composers. None ends with a shock, yet each conclusion, on reflection, seems well-timed. Given that these were Morazzoni’s first published work, she handles the pressures of historical writing, especially with the use of characters who have actually lived, with enormous confidence. A writer who deserves to be rediscovered.


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