Archive for March, 2011

The Sickness

March 26, 2011

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – The Sickness

The Sickness, Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s first novel, cannot be accused of false advertising, being, exactly as it states, a meditation on sickness. There is not even any hint of the metaphorical associations that the word may have in English: this is a novel about illness and how we cope with it. Tyszka sets out to explore sickness through two linked stories. The first tells of a doctor, Andres Miranda, who discovers his father is dying from cancer; the second, told largely through a series of e-mails, focuses on one of Miranda’s patients, Ernesto Duran, whose belief in his own illness is at odds with that of his doctor. In this way, Tyszka examines not only sickness, but the relationships it creates.

Miranda first discovers his father’s illness when he insists on a series of tests following a faint. As he discusses with a fellow doctor, the tests are conclusive:

“If he weren’t my father…you and I would have looked at the plates and concluded that there was no hope, that it’s the mother of all tumours, that the patient is basically screwed.”

Miranda now has to decide whether he should tell his father or not. In theory, he believes this is the right thing to do:

“It’s what I’ve always said, the position I’ve always defended: the transparent relationship between doctor and patient.”

This also includes telling patients when there is nothing wrong with them. One such case is Ernesto Duran, a patient whom Miranda now refuses any contact with believing him to be entirely healthy. Duran’s regular e-mails are read only by Miranda’s secretary, Karina. Duran has come to believe that only Miranda’s reassurance that he is well will prevent his sickness:

“But that is what I felt, that if I didn’t talk to you, I would pass out wherever I happened to be. I felt that I depended on you, that you were my guarantee that I wouldn’t collapse on the floor that very instance.”

When he writes, “I have a confession to make. I’m following you,” Karina takes fright and begins to reply to his e-mails as Miranda. For much of the novel, the two main relationships are therefore based on dishonesty: Duran believing he is communicating with Miranda, and Miranda taking a trip with his father without having shared his diagnosis. However, Tyszka is not one for melodrama and, while the dishonesty creates much of the novel’s tension, the author is not preaching at us. When Karina reveals her deception, Duran decides to continue to believe it is Miranda who is e-mailing him. When Miranda finally tells his father, his reaction is both realistic and ambiguous, making it clear that Tyszka is not offering us easy solutions. When asked whether he would have preferred not to know:

“His father stood for a moment pondering the question, as if the question were a peach stone under his tongue. Then, sadly, he went up to the door and into the building.”

Tyszka immediately moves into Miranda’s father’s point of view, and the novel moves on to deal with the questions that arise when death is certain.

The novel’s strength, a quiet and thoughtful examination of an area of life that is not frequently explored by literature (and, when it is, is often used as a metaphor for something else) is also its weakness. Characters tend to frequently generalise from their experiences, for example Miranda’s father thinking about his final weeks:

“That is another of the consequences of being ill: the private agony becomes a collective ceremony.”

The reaction is no doubt typical; the aphoristic phrasing is probably not. Tyszka also scatters the novel with quotations on illness:

“The words “Sickness is the mother of modesty” came unbidden into Andres’ mind. They appear in Roberts Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy published in 1621.”

While it’s possible that Miranda, as doctor, might have these quotations floating around in his head, and it illustrates a certain intellectual detachment in his character, it seems unlikely he would provide his own bibliography.

That said, The Sickness is a thoughtful and, at times, moving novel, and well worth its place on the long list.

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Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011

March 21, 2011

The long list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced last week, as follows:

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras
To the End of the Land by David Grossman
Fame by Daniel Kehlmann
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson
Red April by Santiago Roncagliolo
Gargling With Tar by Jachym Topol
The Sickness by Alberto Berrera Tyszka
The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez
The Journey of Anders Sparrman by Per Wastberg
Lovetown by Michal Witkowski
Villain by Shuichi Yoshida
Dark Matter by Juli Zeh

Three German novels are featured, perhaps marking a resurgence in German writing, which hasn’t made much impact on the English-speaking market since The Reader. Latin American writers are also prominent again.

Last year I attempted to read all the long-listed books and, having already read five of them, it’s tempting to try again, but, given that the short list is announced in three weeks, it’s not going to happen. However, I can’t help but be tempted by a few of them, and I’ll be posting my thoughts over the next month, perhaps adding a few more once the short list is announced.

One I won’t be writing about at length is The Museum of Innocence (it is unlikely to win anyway – the prize does not tend to favour already well known writers). This is because I found it so disappointing when I read it last year, having both enjoyed and admired My Name Is Red and Snow. If you don’t know the book, it’s a love story in which the ‘tension’ is created by the inability of the lovers to make any of the decisions that would allow them to be together. It relies heavily on the cultural milieu of the setting, but whereas this is an enhancement in the work of, say, Jane Austen where it is portrayed with a light irony, here it is a cause of a rather heavy didacticism. Above all, the main character, Kemal, is so weak and foolish that you soon lose any belief that he can feel passionate emotion at all, though he persists in telling you at every opportunity. His wait for Fusun lasts many years, and Pamuk seems to have decided to mimic this with an interminable narrative that feels exactly like sitting in a small room waiting for something to happen. The only interesting idea was that Pamuk apparently actually created the museum, a collection of objects linked to Fusun – but having read the novel, you may feel that, rather than a post-modern masterstroke, this in fact is just an indication of a writer too close to his subject.

Near to the Wild Heart

March 14, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Clarice Lispector

As part of its World Book Night coverage, the BBC did manage to finally produce a reasonably interesting programme about books, focusing on twelve debut novels. Whether the novels, or the writers, will live up to the hype remains to be seen, but at least the programme was forward-looking and engaged with writers and writing, while providing a historical context with glances back at the Granta lists, and some fake(it had already been announced) drama as the list was chosen. There was also some discussion of the influence of creative writing courses, and, although no conclusions were drawn, it struck me that the days of the anguished, autobiographical first novel are clearly gone. These were writers who wanted to be someone else, often someone living at a different time, providing them with a distanced irony that was frequently used to create humour. In contrast, Clarice Lispector’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, originally published almost sixty years ago, isn’t funny. How autobiographical it is I cannot tell (it is not really a novel about what happens anyway), but it is certainly the work of a writer who took life, and writing, seriously.

The novel tells the story of Joana both as a child and as a married woman. The first half moves between the two; in the second Joana’s narrative is occasionally interspersed with those of her husband and his pregnant mistress. The narratives are not first person, but are entirely immersed in the consciousness of the character. Joana’s mother is dead at the beginning of the story and she is being raised by her father. He soon dies too and she taken to an aunt who finds her so cold and unresponsive she sends her to boarding school. There is a brief infatuation with a teacher, but the rest of the novel deals with her marriage to Otavio and his affair with his ex-fiancée, Lidia. From the very beginning, Joana’s thoughts are often bleak:

“Resting her head against the cold, shiny window-pane, she looked into the neighbour’s yard, at the great world of chickens-that-did-not-know-they-were-about-to-die. And, as if it were right under her nose, she could smell the warm, beaten earth, so fragrant and dry, where she knew perfectly well that some worm or other lay squirming before being devoured by the hen that the humans were going to eat.”

This appeal to all the senses also continues throughout: there is no real separation between emotional, physical and philosophical feelings. The novel is about her search for her identity, particularly In relation to her sex:

“Her whole life had been a mistake, she felt useless. Where was the woman with the voice? Where were the women who were merely female? And the continuation of what she had initiated as a child?”

It is clear that she feels disconnected from herself as a child, and this is one reason for the disconnected narrative structure. She often refers to herself as a child in the third person (“She remembered Joana as a little girl…”). She searches for happiness but is not sure that she will recognise it – “What do you get when you’re happy?” she asks a teacher. She discovers that the happiness she wants cannot be found through marriage:

“Happiness was effacing her, effacing her… She now wanted to know herself again, even with sorrow.”

Although Otavio makes her happy she also resents him:

“Now all her time was devoted to him and she felt any minutes she could call her own had been conceded, broken into little ice cubes which she must swallow quickly before they melted.”

The feeling she is looking for is something more profound than domestic bliss:

“I can scarcely belief that I have limits, that I am defined. I feel myself to be dispersed in the atmosphere, thinking inside other creatures, living inside things beyond myself.”

I began by saying the novel wasn’t funny: if you can read the above with a straight face then you will cope with what now seems the old-fashioned naivety of its modernism. While the novel’s register can be powerful, it can also verge on the banal in trying too hard to be interesting, and its refusal to ever be satisfied could be seen as either heroic or wearing. These are the thoughts of an adolescent so we shouldn’t assume that Lispector endorses them completely, but neither does she present them to be sniggered at. Joana’s search for meaning as an individual and a woman is urgent and intense – which, among today’s novels, makes Near to the Wild Heart something of an antique.

Lispector can provide one final warning for the debutants, however: her novel caused a sensation when first published in Brazil, but she struggled to publish each of her books after that.

Danger rating: a dizzying percussion of stream of consciousness can feel a little like a hailstorm experienced in a caravan. Written in 1944, this wasn’t translated into English until 1986 by Giovanni Pontiero, who has also translated some of her other work. It’s published by the wonderful New Directions Press.

Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life

March 6, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Dubravka Ugresic

With International Woman’s Day approaching, it seems an opportune time to read “a representative piece of women’s writing”, as Dubravka Ugresic playfully refers to her novella Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life. Ugresic begins by drawing comparisons between the type-writer and the sewing machine and goes on to structure her novella through the extended metaphor of creating a garment. Each chapter refers to a stage in the tailoring process – for example pleating, hemming and pinning – and is also marked with various lines symbolising further actions like cutting, gathering or smocking. Though my knowledge of sewing is extremely limited, it is clear that some thought has gone into this. For example each chapter is prefaced by a short piece of domestic advice, and each of these is marked out to be cut as they are not necessary to the story. More amusingly, other sections are marked to be stretched (“The text may be resized in any direction in case of unfulfilled expectations”) or to be taken in (“The text may be taken in as required with critical darts”). The subtitles also seem apt – the chapter entitled ‘Steffie meets some men’ is linked to “concealed button fastenings”, and, while I can’t quiet explain why this is appropriate, it is.

Ugresic’s humorous approach to ‘women’s writing’ can be seen from the prologue, ‘Designing the Garment’, where under the heading ‘Material’, she prints a series of letters addressed to an agony aunt, finally alighting on Steffie’s letter as the raw material for her fabric / fabrication:

“I am twenty five years old and a typist by profession. I live with my aunt. I don’t think I’m very attractive, but some people tell me I am. I’m different from everybody my age: they’re all married or have boyfriends, and I have no-one. I’m lonely and sad and don’t know what to do.”

In the first chapter Steffie is overcome by despair when shelling peas (you don’t have to take my word for it, each chapter title provides a neat summary). When she seeks the advice of her friends, they offer the same solution:

“…a guy’s the most important thing in a girl’s life.”

Although Mariana tells her that “there are a million ways to catch a guy”, it turns out that there are only three: clothes (Steffie falls asleep while reading a fashion magazine); figure (Steffie diets but loses no weight at all); and make up (her aunt tells her a story about a woman who used match ends to line her eyes and blinded herself – though, to be fair, this is one of the few women who survive her aunt’s stories). Despite this lack of success, Steffie does meet some men – a truck driver, a he-man, and an intellectual. All are inadequate in various amusing ways (perhaps it’s because I am a man that this was my favourite chapter), and Steffie attempts to free herself from the need for male company by embracing culture, acquiring a pet, and learning a foreign language.

The novella has a wonderful lightness of tone that belies its serious examination of sexual politics and, in particular, the way in which women can attempt to define themselves through men. Ugresic uses the tricks of post-modernism with an enchanting joie de vivre, not only intervening herself in the story more than once (“Poor Steffie Cvek! One slap in the face after another!”), but providing us with a series of endings, including one chapter where her mother, her aunt and two other women discuss how the story would have continued, and a final section of what Alasdair Gray calls ‘critic fuel’, discussing her intentions and inspirations.

Ugresic has suffered in English from being unable to retain a single publisher, though this seems to be largely because she is too interesting, restlessly searching for new ways to write. This would strike me as a very good place to begin to become acquainted with her.

Danger rating: despite my lowest ever mark at school being for sewing, I was able to escape with all my fingers intact. Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life is translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Dalkey Archive Press in a volume with some equally entertaining short stories, Lend Me Your Character.