August 16, 2016


An unnamed woman enters a flat she has fled to (without clothes or belongings). We do not know why she is there or where she has come from. She asks the man who owns the flat (her lover?), “How long am I allowed to stay in this flat?” He comes and goes, dropping her off, phoning. She has no plans, though surgery, which she may or may not have, is mentioned. On her first night she finds a “crumpled panty”:

“Imported. Soft. Leopard print. At once I wanted to know who the owner was.”

Later, without clothes of her own to change into, she wears it:

“What I did not know was that I had actually stepped into a woman.
I slipped into her womanhood.
Her sexuality, her love.
I slipped into her desire, her sinful adultery, her humiliation and sorrow, her shame and loathing.”


This is not a novel, however, about a transformative piece of clothing, instead it is about the many facets of womanhood, a theme reflected in the novel’s unusual style. A series of disconnected chapters – those disconnections emphasised by seemingly random chapter numbers – tell the woman’s story, some clearly referring to the same character, but others allowing for the possibility that this is about more than one woman. Even the manner of their telling changes: opening in the first person, the second and third person are also freely used. The reader is often cast in the role of lover via the use of ‘you’ though the woman may be ‘I’ or ‘she’:

“She fell silent. You said, ‘Hello? Hello?’ a couple of times then hung up.”

“Your breath against my face was impossibly heavy. My whole body throbbed.”

This prevents the novel being about one woman’s experience (though it may be) and reflects instead the experience of women. The novel’s exploration of sexuality created problems for both Bandyopadhyay and her translator Arunva Sinha in their native India. It demonstrates the sexual exploitation of women in a dream of childhood when the woman is shown pornographic pictures by a man:

“The man had pursued her ever since clutching the book with the green cover.”

Later, when a similar scene is re-enacted by dogs – “Chasing for pure sex. Only sex. Nothing else.” – the woman feels only desire. Her desire, however, is shown to be in conflict with her role as mother in a horrifying story she tells of her son burning to death “on an afternoon when I was far away, lying beneath a man I barely knew.” Trapped in the house, he phones her:

“He was coughing, choking. But I could still hear the hurt in his voice as he asked, ‘Why did you go away, Maa, why did you leave me?’”

This perhaps explains her flight, and the attention she pays to a homeless family she observes from her balcony, often taking the child food:

“At such times I long to take her away, to teach her to read and write. To give her a full meal. To give her brushes and paints.”

In the bedroom of the flat, one wall is painted dark brown, but beneath the paint the woman can see a couple making love:

“I had opened my eyes at the sounds of passion and felt afraid – who were these people in the bedroom! But they weren’t in the room – they were in the wall. The one which was painted dark brown.”

Later we learn this was painted by the owner of the leopard skin panty – the woman whose suicide is described at one point? – raising the possibility that some of the previous chapters are hers, or that it doesn’t, in fact, matter:

“I couldn’t picture myself at your side. Instead, I found her taking my place… Then I couldn’t tell whether it was I who said it or she, ‘We will be married one day…’”

Panty is a fascinating novel: like a jigsaw the reader must piece it together, but I suspect every reader’s, and every reading’s, finished picture will be different.


August 11, 2016


Paulette Jonguitud’s Mildew is a modern Metamorphosis – and by that I refer not to Kafka’s story but its classical antecedents in Ovid’s tales. It begins with a spot:

“I found a green spot, half hidden by pubic hair. It looked like a mole, irregular in form and velvety to the touch. It seemed to be covered by grey powder. I scratched it but it did not go away. If anything the spot looked even larger.”

The spot is the start of a transformation which occurs the day before her daughter, Agustina’s, wedding, but her mind is on her niece and namesake Constanza, who has been sleeping with her husband, Felipe. In her studio, where she goes to add the finishing touches to the wedding dress, she sees her niece reflected in the mirrors:

“I walked across the room without looking in the mirrors that still contained the image of Constanza trying on dresses, lifting her skirt, lowering her neckline, and Felipe behind her whispering the same word over and over: ‘Shorter.’”

The affair is particularly bitter for the narrator as she has raised her sister’s daughter alongside her own children. The two Constanzas are also tied together by a secret – the abortion which the narrator arranged for her niece when she fell pregnant as a teenager, an unborn child which she continues to see around the house:

“I held him in my shaking hand: he was as heavy as an apple and felt warm. This tiny body died twenty years ago, I thought. And I knew that I had crossed a terrible barrier and that it was going to be very hard to return from the other side of who knows where.”


In this novella, women are torn between their roles as mother and lover. The abandoned child is the guilt with which women must live when they reject motherhood. The fathers quickly desert both Constanza and her mother, Flor, leaving them to make the decision to abort, or leave the child with their family. Constanza resents her aunt for not being her mother and uses her role as lover as a weapon against her, deliberately undressing before the narrator after admitting the affair:

“She wanted he eyes on my body, she was removing her clothes to show me the ground where she had won the battle I didn’t know we were fighting.”

Macbeth is quickly referenced (“Out, damned spot”), Lady Macbeth having so graphically rejected motherhood for love of her husband. (Interestingly, the narrator echoes Lady Macbeth at one point when she complains of Constanza, “I never had the power over her that all mothers have: the power of death”). The spot is, of course, blood, the blood which Lady Macbeth thinks can be washed away (“a little water clears us of this deed”), but in fact represents the couple’s guilt, and which her sleepwalking soliloquy reveals cannot be easily extinguished. Just as her inner life usurps Lady Macbeth’s sleep, so the narrator’s body is overwhelmed by a growth that one assumes reflects internal turmoil. As it spreads, she becomes strangely accepting:

“The mildew might not be a curse. It might be an exit.”

We might be reminded that Daphne was changed to a tree to avoid the amorous pursuit of Apollo, and that such a transformation can be viewed as an escape from the roles enforced on women by men – in this there is an echo of The Vegetarian.

In Mildew the ordinary story of a tawdry affair is itself transformed by writing grounded in, but unrestrained by, reality. The narrator’s transformation enhances rather than overwhelms the narrative, Jonguitud’s structure ensuring that dramatic tension is as much a driver as magical realism, creating a story which will continue to grow within the reader, ever changing.

70% Acrylic 30% Wool

August 8, 2016


Don’t be fooled by the Italian origin of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool – the narrative voice greets the reader like a cold shower: icy, unfriendly, unexpected – yet invigorating. Its topic is, appropriately, not the Italian sunshine but the English winter:

“One day it was still December. Especially in Leeds where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before.”

The narrator is Camelia, a young Italian woman whose life has been placed on pause since the death of her father. Her studies abandoned, she has returned to care for her mother, who no longer leaves the house, or talks, shaken both by her husband’s death, and the manner of it, in flagrante (that, at least, is Italian) with another woman while his car veers off road into a ditch:

“My mother was ready to be, in a word, thrown away. Yes, I know that’s two words, but it’s better that way: one for her and one for me, because if I have to throw her away, I won’t be far behind.”


The novel’s opening is set in a frozen time, emphasised by the idea of an eternal winter, until she finds badly-made clothes in a dumpster – “Each piece had some kind of defect” – which she begins to wear. The disfigured clothing clearly connects to the damaged life she now leads, but also leads her, fairy-tale fashion, to a young Chinese man, Wen, from whose shop the clothes originated. His offer to teach her Chinese – the subject she had abandoned at university – seems a sign that she can rebuild her life. Now she is able to both talk and leave the house, but her adoption of this new dress code suggests her recovery is fragile:

“I started going out dressed in the dumpster clothes… I paraded all that obscene irregularly on the streets, the sleeves on the seat of my pants, the underarm buttons, errors of a sort that no human being could have made, and thus divine errors.”

Soon she begins to alter her own clothes in a similar way:

“I cut out all the sequins as if they were malignant tumours and replaced them with zig-zag miscarriages from my pajamas. Then I punished the pockets with some canvas patches cut from my backpack. I continued, wounding every pair of pants I owned with patches of red canvas, more or less where blood would run down your leg if you were an Italian journalist and you were fucking an English woman and you died in a ditch.”

Just as she attacks her clothes, so she sabotages her own life by sleeping with Wen’s brother when Wen rebuffs her advances. Di Grado brilliantly portrays the ups and downs of depression, Camelia’s high hopes frequently swooping down to despair again. What carries the novel forward on a fierce tide of emotion is her savage wit, descriptive phrases like “Leeds was immobilized in an orthopaedic back brace of snow”; bitter ironies as when she buys her silent mother a parrot; and the sharp wit which leads to this account of sex, drawn from her job as a translator of washing machine instructions:

“Remove clothes. End of cycle. The water will drain.”

70% Acrylic 30% Wool would perhaps be unbearable without this voice, though conversely it brings us closer to Camelia and therefore more pained by every blow she takes. This is important because the final pages may test the reader’s resolve. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is an unflinching portrayal of a woman in crisis, the kind of book which makes you want to reach into its pages before, in its final line, we are shut out completely.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

August 3, 2016

baba yaga

Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is part of Cannongate’s Myths series, where they asked contemporary writers to offer their version of an ancient story. The series began in 2006 and (I think) ended in 2014, featuring a stellar cast of international writers including Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Victor Pelevin, David Grossman…and Dubravka Ugresic. Ugresic’s take on the legend of Baba Yaga is typically idiosyncratic, divided into three discreet sections, each a completely different genre of writing – the first autobiographical, the second fiction, and the third academic – all exploring women in old age.

The first section focuses on Ugresic’s relationship with her mother. Her mother has a ‘cobweb’ in her brain:

“By ’cobweb’ she meant metastases to the brain, which had appeared seventeen years after a bout of breast cancer had been discovered in time and treated successfully.”

This makes it difficult for her recall certain common words causing strain in their relationship: “Some daughter if you can’t remember the bread spread stuff!” Ugresic also feels her mother is in denial about getting older and approaching death. She puts away all photographs of dead relatives – “I’d rather be in the company of the living” – and feels disappointed by the ageing of her friends:

“’She got so old,’ she said tersely a little later, as if spitting out a bitter morsel. Her friend was almost a year older than she was.”

Ugresic agrees to go to Varna, the city of her mother’s youth, with a Bulgarian academic and admirer of her work, Aba, who has also befriended her mother. Ugresic makes no attempt to portray herself in a good light as she becomes increasingly irritated by Aba who does not seem to able to organise anything to her satisfaction, and annoys her with knowing references to her writing:

“I snorted. Her use of the plural infuriated me. And her ‘we need to pick up a map of the city’ grated on my ear. Wasn’t she at home here? Why would she need a map?!”


Almost everything has changed since her mother was a child and the trip is a disappointment: “I had brought back nothing from my pilgrimage and received nothing in return.” It is perhaps for this reason that, in the second part of the book, Ugresic tells of three elderly women, Pupa, Beba and Kukla, taking a last trip to the Grand Hotel (Pupa, we know, is her mother’s housebound friend). These unlikely guests are determined to have the time of their lives, becoming involved in a number of comic adventures with a supporting male cast including American entrepreneur/conman Mr Shaker, and a young Bosnian with a permanent erection who is pretending to be a Turk under the name of Suleiman. Again the focus is on ageing: Shaker sells food supplements and Suleiman works at a Wellness clinic run by Dr Topolanek:

“In the first capitalist commotion, Topolanek realised that the easiest way to make money was out of human vanity.”

Shaker meanwhile, on the other side of the world, is “the king of an industry of magical powders and potions…what Mr Shaker actually sold was ideological hot air.” Pupa offers her own advice:

“Crap! Prolonging old age indeed! It’s youth you want to prolong, not old age!”

Ugresic is very good, again, on the effects of ageing on the body:

“Beba and her body lived in state of mutual intolerance. She could not remember exactly when the first hostile incident occurred.”

Of course, the book contains references to Baba Yaga throughout – but there is no need for me to comment on these as the third and final section does exactly this in a letter from Aba to the book’s editor, who has requested an expert opinion:

“As far as I gather from your accompanying letter, your author undertook to provide a text based on the myth of Baba Yaga. By the way, I was touched by your admission that you ‘don’t have a clue’ about Baba Yaga yourself.”

The analysis is exhaustive, to say the least – as Aba says herself, “I’m sure you won’t mind admitting that there was too much of everything. In fact, you were afraid at one point that I would never stop.” While such awareness of the reader’s reaction is amusing, I did find the final section trying – and, in fact, preferred the autobiographical opening to the story of Pupa, Beba and Kolka. This had the effect deteriorating enjoyment, though, of course, all the sections coexist as parts of a whole, and Ugresic is such a wonderful, witty writer that even when she is imitating dullness there is still pleasure to be had. Ugresic cleverly uses the myth of Baba Yaga as the starting point for a meditation of old age in women in a book that is funny, insightful, and, at times, moving.

The Fires of Autumn

August 2, 2016

fires of autumn

Although Irene Nemirovsky only features on my blog once (The Dogs and the Wolves way back in 2010), she is, in fact, a writer whose work I have steadily devoured as it has been translated into English (largely by Sandra Smith). The Fires of Autumn is (as far as I know) her final book – both in terms of translation (published in 2014, nothing has appeared since, and I suspect all her major work is now available in English) and also her final completed novel, written around the same time as Suite Francois and published posthumously in 1957.

The Fires of Autumn is a novel of two world wars. In her first chapter Nemirovsky skilfully introduces all her characters in a pleasant domestic setting, a Sunday meal followed by a stroll, representing the comfortable life before the First World War. Both Therese and Bernard are at the point where they are beginning to leave their childhoods behind:

“Since Therese had just turned fifteen a few days ago, she had put her curls up in a chignon, but her silky hair was not yet used to the style she tried to hold in place with hairpins, so it was escaping all over the place, which made Therese unhappy.”

“Bernard did not reply because at the age of fifteen, the company of adults still intimidated him. He was still in short trousers. (But this was the last year…)”

Therese is destined, however, for the twenty-seven-year-old Martial Brun, who is training to be a doctor. We also meet his friend, the charismatic Raymond Detang, and Madame Humbert and her daughter Renee, who survive by selling hats since Monsieur Humbert died and left them penniless. These are the middle classes: not poor, but not rich enough to put money out of their minds.


War changes everything. Even before he enlists, Bernard is aware that the experience will change him:

“’They aren’t really like us’, thought Bernard as he recalled the soldiers he’d seen when they’d returned from the front. They were different, unusual.”

Martial’s father, Adolphe, is also aware of the change:

“There was something about all this that frightened him: he no longer recognised the French. Its people spoke a new language… The most sacred words – ‘Frugality…Marital fidelity…Virginity…’ – had gradually become old-fashioned, almost laughable.”

Bernard scandalises his own father when he loses five thousand francs gambling when on leave. Nemirovsky identifies the First World War with a collapse in middle class values, a loss of morals which she dramatises by polarising her characters between those who embrace this and those who stay ‘honest’. Detang, who has already offered Bernard work during the war in America buying equipment for the army while being sure to feather his own nest, best exemplifies the new attitude:

“There was an enormous fairground where anyone who wanted to could get in; it wasn’t even necessary to hide your background like in the good old days: they were living in a cynical world which glorified the sludge from which a man had risen.”

Nemirovsky is not suggesting that corruption entered French society with the war, but that it infected the middle classes who had previously been excluded both by snobbery and a sense of propriety. Bernard is torn between the morality of the past and the attraction of easily acquired wealth, as we see in his love for Therese and his affair with Detang’s wife, Renee. This allows Nemirovsky to demonstrate these tensions using the relationships, for example when he invites Therese and her mother to his (luxurious) home only to fail to appear.

In Nemirovsky’s eyes, it is this collapse in the moral fabric of society which leads to France’s defeat in the Second World War. She demonstrates this in practical terms in a plotline which echoes All My Sons (which was, of course, based on a true story). This is, naturally, simplistic, and Nemirovsky’s morality can seem a little dated now: whereas men become corrupted by greed, for women it is only sexual morality which matters, hence Renee is Therese’s nemesis. However, Bernard’s corruption reflects an attitude we continue to see damaging society in the way which Nemirovsky suggests: why be honest when others achieve success through dishonesty? Nemirovsky also has something to tell us about corrupt politicians:

“[Detang] was not even cynical about himself, except for very rare moments when he felt depressed. He honestly considered himself an eminent statement who exists solely for the good of the people.”

Nemirovsky, of course, did not survive the Second World War and was therefore tasked with concluding her story before reality had concluded its. The title comes from Madam Pain’s comment that “these are the autumn fires; they purify the land; they prepare it for new seeds.” In many ways, for Western Europe at least, this is what happened; in the UK the lives of ordinary people were vastly improved after World War Two. As we begin to undo these improvements, the warnings of Nemirovsky’s novel become more relevant.

The Buenos Aires Affair

July 28, 2016

buenos aires affair

Manuel Puig’s The Buenos Aires Affair (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine) proclaims in its subtitle that it is a ‘detective novel’ but it is unlike any other detective novel you will read. It begins in typical fashion when the mother of Gladys Hebe D’Onoforio discovers she is missing:

“Without hesitation Clara opened the bedroom door, the bed was in disorder and Gladys had disappeared. But surely she must have left a message, a few lines saying she had gone out to look at the sea?”

Even the second chapter may seem appropriate to the genre, though its format – a one paragraph description of a room with a man and woman in it– is a little unusual. We can, however, infer that the woman is Gladys:

“The woman’s skin is very white, the gag in her mouth has been improvised by a man’s silk handkerchief, multi-coloured but sober, her hands fastened behind her with a morning tie.”

Even the fact that each chapter begins with a quotation from a movie of the 1930s or 40s (the Hollywood glamour of the period contrasting with the seediness of the situation described) may not seem too strange. In Chapter III, however, we retreat from the ‘crime’ completely with a summary of Gladys’ life. Once again, the style of narrative changes, as it will do throughout the novel, Puig adopting the emotionless tone of a psychiatric report – particularly with its focus on Gladys’ sex life (“Sexually there were three important episodes during her prolonged adolescence”). The chapter ends with a numbered list of sexual partners, before going on to provide further detail: we discover a woman who did not have her first sexual experience until late in life and has since struggled to develop relationships, a result of low confidence and problems with her ‘nerves’:

“…during that winter the situation got worse, the lack of sleep produced growing headaches and she had to increase the dosage of tranquilizers, though the quantity necessary to make her rest the whole night made her sleepy for the rest of the day…”

We become even more intimate with Gladys in the next chapter as we return to the night she went missing in a description of her attempts to masturbate (complete with foot-notes) which echoes the final chapter of Ulysses, her fantasies originating from the real-life encounters of the previous chapter.

Having established the character of the victim, Puig moves on to the suspect, Leo Druscovich. A similar summary of his life reveals that Gladys’ sexual dissatisfaction is nothing compared to Leo’s tortured sexual longings. Leo can only be aroused if he feels he is being resisted, as he discovers with a class-mate, Susana:

“The girl did not offer any resistance, Leo penetrated her without difficulty. Suddenly his erection subsided and despite all his attempts it was impossible to complete the act that afternoon.”

All the pieces are now in place for the relationship between Gladys and Leo (which we will discover in an interview with Gladys for a fashion magazine) and the ‘crime’ with which the novel opens, ‘pieces’ being the appropriate metaphor as the novel is presented as a jigsaw which the reader must put together. The Buenos Aries affair is a detective novel where the reader is the detective, and the clues are the various texts which make up each chapter, including a CV, a transcription of Leo’s speech to a psychiatrist, extracts from a newspaper, a list of Leo’s imaginary actions while suffering from insomnia… Puig is particularly adept at telephone conversations where we hear only one side of the dialogue, the gaps once again stressing the reader’s role in creating the narrative.

Part of the plot revolves around Gladys’ (mediocre) career as a sculptor, awarded a prestigious role by Leo (an art critic) as a result of their relationship. This may be a knowing satire of the Argentinian art world, but Puig seems more interested in his characters’ sexual inadequacies and in the playful range of styles he utilises to display them. Both reach a climax when, during a final confrontation, Puig chooses to illustrate each moment of the action with elaborate images from opera:

“Sensations experienced by Leo upon taking of his towel and looking at Gladys – Siegfried, overwhelmed by a blind impulse, tries to embrace her. But she slips out of his arms. She has been a goddess and no man has ever touched her. She does not know that the kiss has transformed her into a mere woman…”

The Buenos Aires Affair is a kaleidoscope of a novel – at each turn we encounter a new style, a different perspective. This can, at times, be jarring, but it can also leave the reader spellbound with wonder. Beneath the theatrical presentation lies a surprising psychological depth.

The Young Bride

July 25, 2016

young bride

Alessandro Baricco first found fame with his novel Silk, published in 1996, translated into English a year later, and made into a film in 2007. Since then his work has regularly appeared in English, generally, but not exclusively, translated by Ann Goldstein. Baricco is a restless writer, difficult to pin down to a particular style or subject. (This might partly explain the number of publishers: he is now in the safe hands of Europa Editions). The historical setting of Silk is replicated in a number of his novels, from his retelling of the Iliad in the voices of its protagonists in An Iliad to the Victorian setting of Lands of Glass, but other novels such as Emmaus and Mr Gwyn, have a more contemporary setting. They also vary widely in length: Silk and Without Blood are little more than long short stories. What they perhaps share is a sense of the story being more important than the reality created around it – in other words there is something of the fable about them – and this can be seen clearly in The Young Bride.

It has a historical setting but one which is vague and undefined. Its characters are known only by their label – the young Bride, the Father, the Mother, the Son – with only their servant, Modesto, granted a name, albeit one which refers to his primary quality. The family have a strict routine which begins when Modesto wakens them with a weather report, and continues with a lengthy breakfast:

“The usual practice keeps them at the table for hours, crossing over into the zone of lunch (which in fact in this house no one ever gets round to), as in an Italian imitation of the more stylish ‘brunch’.”

This routine is disrupted when the young Bride appears (“She wasn’t expected that day, or maybe she was, but they had forgotten about it”), promised to the Son in marriage three years earlier, now eighteen, the age at which it was agreed they would marry. In the meantime, however, the Son has been sent to England to study the textile industry, and needs to be summoned by telegram.

The novel, then, is set up very much like a 19th century novel (I couldn’t help thinking, for example, of The House of Ulloa) where a stranger (acting as the eyes of the reader) is introduced to the household of an eccentric and isolated family, the primary concern being marriage. Two aspects, however, make it very clear that this is a contemporary rendering of an old tale: one is the sexual awakening of the young Bride; the other the self-reflexive commentary by the writer (not Baricco, but a character he has created) on the process of writing. The novel also has an unusual style where it drifts into first person at points in the story, frequently, but not only, with the young Bride:

“…writing about the young Bride, I more or less abruptly change the narrative voice, for reasons that at the moment seem to me exquisitely technical, or at most blandly aesthetic, with the obvious result of complicating the life of the reader; that in itself is negligible, yet it has an irritating effect of virtuosity that at first I even tried to fight, before surrendering to the evidence that I simply couldn’t hear those sentences unless they slipped out that way…”

The writer, though female, is not the young Bride looking back on he life When she reflects on being that age she remembers “only a great confusion but also… the waste of an unprecedented and unused beauty,” whereas the story of the young Bride is very much about learning to use her beauty.

Her grandmother tells her at a young age that her beauty is a danger to her:

“Forget that you’re a woman, don’t dress like a woman, don’t move like a woman, cut your hair, don’t look at yourself in the mirror, ruin your hands, burn your skin, don’t ever wish to be beautiful, don’t try to please anyone, you mustn’t please even yourself. You have to inspire disgust, and then they’ll leave you alone…”

It is only when she arrives as the young Bride that she allows herself to feel like a woman again, encouraged by, first of all, the Daughter, who teaches her to masturbate. This is followed by a sexual encounter with the Mother, who herself possesses beauty of great power – an index of the ‘incidents’ it has caused follows. (The Father limits his input to taking her to a brothel). As its title suggests, the novel is also an erotic story (when the writer is asked what attracts her to writing about sex, she replies, “That it’s difficult”) where sex is seen as a liberating force.

The contemporary female writer telling the story of a young woman’s coming of age set in a now-distant past couldn’t help but remind me of Elena Ferrante, but what we have is in fact a riposte to Ferrante’s work:

“I’ve never though the job of writing could be resolved by wrapping one’s own affairs up in a literary package, employing the painful stratagem of changing the names and sometimes the sequence of events when, instead, the more proper sense of what we can do has always seemed to me to put between our life and what we write a magnificent distance that, produced first by the imagination, then filled in by craft and dedication, carries us to a place where worlds, non-existent before, appear.”

This is what gives The Young Bride its fable-like quality, its refusal to entirely imitate reality, moving in single sentence from the everyday detail to the echo of a dream. It is both enticing and elusive at the same time, leaving the reader seduced but also teased, delivering a series of climaxes but never satisfying. As it says at the end:

“The young Bride knew the answer with absolute precision but she kept it to herself.
“Here I ask the questions, she said.”


July 21, 2016


Umami, if (like me) you didn’t know, is a flavour:

“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s Umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”

So explains Alfonso, an anthropologist who has spent his life studying diet, and owner of Belldrop Mews, the setting of Laia Jufresa’s novel, which he has divided into houses each named after one of the five flavours. That the novel bears the name of a difficult to identify taste seems appropriate as what we experience with umami on the palate, it achieves tonally. Written with a deceptive lightness, and some humour, it is, at heart, about grief and loss.

Alfonso is among those who lose someone close to them (his wife, Noelia) but the death which resonates through the novel most powerfully is that of a child, Luz. Her sister, Ana, makes a comparison between Alfonso’s grief and her mother’s:

“He carries his grief better than my mom. He doesn’t act like a ghost, or go totally nuts over songs. At least not in front of me he doesn’t.”

Alonso also makes the comparison:

“…in the same year my wife died, aged fifty-five, so did the five-year-old daughter of my tenants. Noelia’s death seemed almost reasonable compared to Luz’s, which was so incomprehensible, so unfair. But death is never fair, nor is fifty-five old.”

We know what both Ana and Alfonso think as this is a novel of many voices scattered across time. The novel itself doesn’t quite “tell it backwards” as the quote from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Last Post suggests, but each of four sections do, beginning in 2004 and retreating towards 2000, the year before the deaths took place. This has the effect of focusing on the grieving process before exploring the causes; the novel is concerned with the living rather than the dead. (Jufresa has said that the five year time period leads us towards the end of grief, and that the structure reflects the waves of grief as those who have lost someone return to the same memories again and again).

Other characters in the novel have also suffered losses, for example Ana’s best friend, Pina. Her mother left her without warning and she has heard nothing from her since. In Marina’s case (the occupier of ‘Bitter’), the separation is voluntary:

“It was the first time she’d left her parents’ home, where she’d lived all nineteen years of her life… She didn’t want her family to know where she was, not yet, so she mustered all her charm and said she found the house names to be very original…”

Marina, however, struggles to escape her past: in and out of therapy, and hospitalised at one point as the result of an eating disorder. An artists who is unable to paint, she instead names the colours she finds around her:

“…a hard, futuristic light appears, as pristine as the pills she takes. This one, she decides, is called whozac.”

As the novel opens in 2004 Ana is intent on creating her own garden: “A proper, traditional milpa, with corn and beans and squash.” The project suggests a renewal of life, but one which is connected to the past. The novel’s structure prevents this becoming the predictable culmination of an obvious story arc, emphasising that the grief will never entirely disappear, but demonstrating why the novel does not appear gloomy or depressing despite its subject matter. This optimistic tone is also created by the wonderful chorus of voices which Jufresa has created – not only unique to each of the five characters which narrate, but also changing according to the year. (This is, of course, particularly true of Ana who develops from a child to a young adult in this time). In this she is ably supported by translator Sophie Hughes.

Umami is an extremely accomplished first novel which tackles it subject in a way that is neither sentimental nor despondent. In it we enter a community in troubled times, and leave feeling, perhaps more hopeful, but certainly more human.

The She-Devil in the Mirror

July 18, 2016

she devil

Horacio Castellanos Moya is a Salvadorian novelist who has had a number of his novels translated into English (with Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador due out next month) and published by New Directions in the US; only one has so far made to the UK, The She-Devil in the Mirror, which was released in 2010 by Alma Books in the same translation by Katherine Silver which had appeared across the Atlantic the year before. It’s impossible to say whether this is typical of Moya’s work as he has made it clear (here) he feels a writer’s style should change according to his subject:

“I think the one who most influenced my idea of literature was Elias Canetti, with his conception of the writer as a “custodian of metamorphoses,” the writer as someone who has to be able to metamorphose himself into the people of his time, no matter how weak, miserable or dark they are. And so it is that, in my case, every novel has its own stylistic requirements born out of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.”

The She-Devil in the Mirror certainly has a particular style, both in terms of its structure and voice. In some ways a murder mystery, it is presented as a series of monologues from the victim, Olga Maria’s, friend, Laura Riveria. Laura is not ‘investigating’ the crime; she is inquisitive in a gossipy way, her breathless narration a series of confidences liberally interspersed with opinion.

Laura is there from the moment she hears of Olga’s death – literally there, as she rushes to the scene:

“But there was her body, stretched out on the living-room rug next to the sofa in a pool of blood, covered in a white sheet. I knelt down and lifted the edge of the sheet: the hole in her head was small, but all the brains had poured out the back. Oh, my dear, I felt horrible – I even felt like vomiting.”

Laura’s murder, originally classed as a robbery gone wrong, soon seems more suspicious, particularly when we discover “they didn’t steal anything, they didn’t even try to.” Laura, however, part of the country’s wealthy elite, is reluctant to help with the police investigation:

“I’m not just some nobody, they couldn’t mess with me, they’d better be very careful and show more respect or they’d soon find out who they were dealing with.”

When asked about Olga (any enemies? any extra-marital relationships?) she explodes: “how could he suspect such an honest, honourable woman, someone so devoted to her family and her work, what a scandalous insinuation.” Unwilling to talk to the police, Laura soon reveals to the reader that Olga was not, in fact, averse to an extra-marital relationship, first with a colleague of her husband’s, Julio Iglesias, and then with a photographer, Jose Carlos:

“There it was again, that gleam in her eyes I was telling you about, that same gleam I saw when we were at the American School, that she got whenever she’d start to get interested in a class-mate, the same gleam I saw with that Julio Iglesias.”

It’s her affair with an old friend, Yuca, now an important politician, that is the most likely to have placed her in danger, however.

The She-Devil in the Mirror works surprisingly well as a mystery, despite its narrator showing more interest in ensuring she has the latest gossip than in searching for the truth, upset when the police discover something she thinks only she knows or (worse) she doesn’t. Her indiscretions, though, are as revealing as any investigation, made all the more amusing by her self-absorbed, faux-emotional style. Both Laura and Olga’s unpleasantness are slowly uncovered, Laura happily sleeping with Olga’s ex-lovers while hypocritically mourning her to be sure of knowing what’s going on:

“A moment later we were at it again, hard and fast, there in the hammock, but more intensely, as if remembering Olga Maria had injected us with renewed passion, something delicious, something I’ve never felt before.”

Rather than being an unreliable narrator, Laura is a too reliable narrator, over-sharing whenever she can.

As the title suggests, there is a vanity to her, accompanied with an inability to see herself as she is, that reflects the society around her. This world of illusions is mirrored in the collapse of the fraudulent financial scheme her husband has been selling. The She-Devil in the Mirror is a brilliant example of how flexible the crime genre can be, working here as both a first-person character assassination and a political satire, while still containing the tension of a thriller.


July 16, 2016


What motivates writers to borrow their stories from reality? Perhaps a need to understand a particular person or event; sometimes simply the pleasure of recreation, to novelise hostory; and on other occasions, to provide the anchor for formal daring, in the same way that landscape once allowed painters the licence to look beyond the photographic towards the impressionistic. Rodrigo Hasbun’s second novel, Affections (the first to be translated into English, by Sophie Hughes) falls into the latter category. Its ‘real-life’ character is Hans Ertl, a German film-maker who left Germany in 1952 for Bolivia having been too closely associated with the Nazi regime as a war photographer (he also worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Olympia, and was her lover for a while). He continued to film in Bolivia until he lost his most recent work when a bridge collapsed in 1961 and promptly turned to farming instead, living until the year 2000. (For a more detailed account of his life you can read The Last Days of a Nazi-Era Photographer here – in an interesting link to Hasbun’s novel it refers to Ertl as an “unaffectionate” father).

His role as a father is central to the story Hasbun tells: Affections concerns itself largely with Ertl’s family, his wife and three daughters, and, in particular, the eldest, Monika, as her sister, Heidi recognises:

“With her recurring panic attacks, she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters.”

The novel is largely told in the voices of the daughters, in chapters which often address the reader directly, but not each other. Only when we reach Monika’s consciousness are we kept at one person remove:

“You are the motherless daughter who never stops thinking about her father, half of the time hating him profoundly, and the other half admiring and loving him unconditionally.”

Monika’s character is presented in such divided terms from the start:

“On the days when she was in good spirits, I envied my sister’s lightness, her ability to make friends with anyone. I couldn’t understand how her good nature could have such a terrible flipside. It didn’t make sense to me that the sunny and despairing girl were one and the same.”

Monika marries but the marriage is a failure, leading only to a miscarriage and an affair with her brother-in-law:

“I wanted to believe that what happened later wouldn’t have if she had become a mother.”

For Monika has her own Wikipedia entry as a guerrilla fighter (and assassin of an army Colonel). Monika, like her father, is attracted to extremes, though in Bolivia, Ertl had withdrawn from politics, and refuses to help the guerrilla movement when Monika asks him. Such connections with the past are perhaps best seen in Trixi who is offered her first cigarette by her mother when she is twelve, and continues with the habit:

“…to fill Mama’s shoes for the duration of those cigarettes, because it was when I smoked that I was most like her.”

In that same moment of the first cigarette, her mother warns her to be “suspicious of anyone in too much of a hurry”:

“The moment she said this I thought of Papa and maybe Monika too.”

The novel becomes a series of echoes through the generations. This is perhaps why Hasbun almost entirely removes the politics – both from Ertl and Monika. Monika’s motivations remain opaque making her actions seem fated – which, of course, is another reason writers write from reality: there is no escaping the ending, something Ertl realises as he supervises the digging of his own grave.

In discussing his story ‘So Much Water So Far From Home’, Hasbun said, “I think that, ultimately, this is a story about memory, about how we exist in the memories of others and how others (the living and the dead) exist in ours.” This same concern permeates Affections:

“It’s not true our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.”

Affections is a fascinating novel which seems to flicker before the reader’s eyes like a fire, creating as many shadows as it removes.


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