Archive for March, 2014

The Iraqi Christ

March 31, 2014

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As far as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize goes, Hassan Blasim has a perfect record. His first collection of short stories to be translated into English, The Madman of Freedom Square, was long listed in 2010; his second, The Iraqi Christ, has been long listed this year (both are courtesy of Comma Press and translator Jonathan Wright). Unfortunately The Madman of Freedom Square was one of three books on the 2010 long list that I didn’t read – something I regret now that I’ve read The Iraqi Christ. Blasim is an Iraqi writer (and film maker) who now lives in Finland. A selection of his stories has been repackaged in the US as “the Iraq War from an Iraqi perspective” in The Corpse Exhibition, but this volume shows that there is more to Blasim than that.

It’s true that a number of stories focus on Iraq and the effects of the war. ‘The Iraqi Christ’ is a soldier who, rumour has it, miraculously avoids danger:

“The soldiers joined him as he left the trench, jostling to keep close to him as if he were a shield against missiles.”

His death, however, occurs in the war’s aftermath when he detonates a suicide bomb in a restaurant to save his mother’s life. ‘The Green Zone Rabbit’, the story of an assassination squad, also ends with an explosion, and ‘Crosswords’ begins with one:

“It was a double explosion. First they detonated a taxi in front of the magazine’s office. If it hadn’t been for the concrete barriers the building would have collapsed. The second vehicle was a water melon truck packed with explosives.”

However, Blasim is not interested in writing reportage and his stories pulse with invention and wit (I would use the word ‘playful’ if the subject matter weren’t so serious). The narrator of ‘The Iraqi Christ’, for example, is dead (“I was killed by friendly fire, myself”). In ‘Crosswords’ the main characters, a survivor of the explosion, finds that his body has also been possessed by a policeman who died.

Blasim’s interest in story-telling is signalled from the very first line:

“People were waiting in queues to tell their stories.”

Blasim places the story he wants to tell within the context of a story-telling competition, creating the sense that we have throughout the volume that these are just a few of the many stories that might be told. Blasim himself also appears in his fiction – for example at the end of ‘A Wolf’, which is presented as if told to him. In ‘Why Don’t You Write a Novel?’ other characters claim he is the story’s narrator going under another name (perhaps echoing the way asylum seekers must sometimes adopt a new identity):

“You’re an arsehole and a fraud. Your name’s Hassan Blasim and you claim to be Salem Hussein.”

Another character talks to him about a story which appears in this volume.

Finally, there are elements of magical realism. In ‘Sarsara’s Tree’ Blasim combines the story of a NGO with that of a grieving woman returning to her village only for strange trees to appear: “Every tree killed the ground for half a mile around it in a circle.” In ‘A Thousand and One Knives’ we find characters who can make knives disappear and appear at will.

Blasim is clearly a sophisticated and gifted writer. I suspect that one volume of short stories will make it onto the short list – this may be it. Regardless, if you are interested in the form, then you should read it.

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Ten

March 27, 2014

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Ten by Andrej Longo is the second of three short story collections long listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Longo is an Italian writer who specialises in short stories; this is his first collection to be translated into English (by Howard Curtis) but not his most recent. It is, however, attractive in its unity – if it were a collection of songs it would be described as a ‘concept album’. Not only does it contain ten stories, but each one is titled using one of the ten commandments which is then echoed in its theme.

The first story, for example, takes on ‘I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me’. As with all the stories, it is set in Naples, in what the blurb calls ‘the underbelly’ but which is simply where the poor reside: not all the characters are criminals. In fact, the narrator of the opening story has made a conscious decision to stay out of trouble:

“For the times we live in, I feel like a responsible guy. I’ve made up my mind I don’t want to end up like my dad, always in and out of prison.”

The God of the story is Giggino Mezzanotte who “runs things around here.” When the narrator and his girlfriend are threatened one Saturday night it is Mezzanotte who comes to the rescue; the narrator now no longer has a choice, he owes Mezzanotte:

“Come and see me tomorrow at eleven. You know where to find me, don’t you?”

Lack of choice is a recurrent theme, from the couple who only see each other on Tuesdays as the husband must work away to the girl being forced to marry a man she does not love.

Hope, however, is always present. The wedding doesn’t take place. A young girl who has to have an abortion after being raped still finds the strength to take control of her life. In ‘Thou shalt not kill’ a father takes his young son out even though he is clearly under threat:

“The two punks started walking in our direction… I put my hand under my T-shirt and placed it on the gun.”

The story ends with the father’s desire that life turnout differently for his son:

“My only hope was that he never became like me. My only hope.”

Despite their difficult lives, many of Longo’s characters resist the bleak fates that life seems to have in store for them. Bravest of all is the old man in ‘Thou shalt not steal’ but to say more would spoil the story. This is perhaps the only story where Longo’s ability to tread then line between realism and idealism takes a misstep, but I still loved the story.

In fact, I loved the book, and I felt it succeeded as a ‘concept’ – the commandments enhanced the stories (sometimes ironically) but never felt forced or necessary, and the stories also came together to present a picture of a particular place and time. I would be delighted if this made the short list.

A Meal in Winter

March 22, 2014

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After Butterflies in November, it was almost a relief to be reading the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize’s obligatory Holocaust novel: A Meal in Winter, translated by Sam Taylor who was last year represented by HHhH, another tale of Nazi soldiers, albeit a more complex one. Its French author, Hubert Mingarelli, is apparently better known for writing fiction for ‘young adults’ in his home country; this is his first novel translated in to English.

Simplicity is the key to A Meal in Winter: it tells the story of three German soldiers posted in Poland during the Second World War. They are there to kill Jews, though this is only alluded to at first:

“He hadn’t told us how many were coming. He knew it made a difference to us, that it was important. Because if a lot came, he worried that we’d start reporting sick that night.”

The trio (Bauer, Emmerich and the narrator) escape “the killings” by volunteering to go “hunting” instead, leaving early the next morning. They find a Jew hiding in the forest and begin to march him back to camp. On the way they stop at an abandoned cottage to make a fire and eat, a meal that is interrupted by a Polish soldier who joins them, bartering alcohol in return for food. There they must decide whether to let the Jew go or take him back to his certain death.

Although the narrative is simple, Mingarelli succeeds in adding depth and complexity to it in a number of subtle ways. For example, the narrator’s dream of the three soldiers together on a tram not only provides a contrast to their present situation but reminds us that these are three conscripted civilians. The same can be said of Emmerich’s fretting about his son taking up smoking. Both also illustrate their comradeship: in the discussion as to what Emmerich should do and in the narrator’s reluctance to share his dream as it might lead to a discussion of other, more troubled dreams. Mingarelli also reveals Emmerich’s eventual fate early in the narrative:

“I would have seen the bridge in Galicia. I would have seen Emmerich leaning against a pillar, eyes wide open in the warm Galician springtime. I would have heard him pant and spit, trying desperately to speak to us…But the blood was choking him…”

This may at first seem an unnecessary postmodern affectation, or even simply mawkishly sentimental, but Mingarelli use it later to create the novel’s conclusion.

Mingarelli also focuses (as the title suggests) on the cold and the soldiers’ hunger. As they strip the cottage for wood to burn, they wonder whether to eat their salami and bread while the soup is cooking, and whether the meal in the soup will cook at all. The final decision they have to make, however, is whether to let the Jew go:

“How many have we killed?… It’s making us sick. We’ve had it up to here. We should let him go. When we think about him, we’ll feel better.”

The question is whether this one act really would make any difference. I won’t reveal their decision, but I will say I found the novel’s conclusion satisfying. Of the IFFP novels I hadn’t read before, this is the one, traditional as it is, I have found most rewarding. Though I cannot fathom how it was preferred to Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts (and, anyway, there’s usually at least two Holocaust books on every list).

Butterflies in November

March 20, 2014

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For my third Independent Foreign Fiction Prize read I’m leaving Japan behind and heading to Iceland, though, appropriately enough in the Year of Reading Women, it will be my third female writer. Butterflies in November is Audor Ava Olafsdottir’s second novel to be translated into English (both courtesy of Brian FitzGibbon), the first, The Greenhouse, having been published by Amazoncrossing a couple of years ago.

The narrator of Butterflies in November is a woman in her thirties who finds that her husband has decided to leave her and is expecting a child with another woman. Her own resistance to having children is cited as one reason for the marriage ending, though I suspect her seeming indifference to her husband’s departure may give us another clue. (She has already told her lover that she rarely thinks of him). When her husband complains:

“I feel I can’t reach you properly, you’re so lost in your own world, always thinking about something other than me.”

we feel that his words are probably accurate. Even the fact she continues to sleep with him suggests, not that she wishes to continue the relationship, but that she doesn’t care one way or the other.

A combination of her own good luck (winning two lotteries) and her friend, Audur’s, bad luck (pregnant with twins, she pulls a ligament slipping on the ice and has to be admitted to hospital) leads to her taking off around the Icelandic ring road with Audur’s deaf son, Tumi, in the passenger seat. This is, of course, a ‘voyage of discovery’, with much of that discovering consisting of sleeping with three men she meets along the way, rather like a porn version of A Christmas Carol. Ultimately the narrator and Tumi pitch up in a small village where the prefabricated holiday home she won in the first lottery has been constructed and attempt to settle there.

Although I was wary of a novel with a title like a self-help manual, Butterflies in November was initially a refreshing change after the plainness of Strange Weather in Tokyo, but, like an eccentric neighbour, it soon out stayed its welcome. There are indeed butterflies, and an unseasonal fly, though these largely seem to result in her husband receiving a smack in the face; what symbolic value they may contain was lost on me. (When a whale was later beached, I wondered if this was obligatory for Icelandic authors).
Brief childhood memories, which disappear later in the novel, added some depth to the character initially, but I found the narrator strangely bland despite the author’s best efforts to surround her with interesting characters and events. (As her husband say, “I get the strong feeling you’re holding onto seventy-five percent.”) She describes herself as a good skater, and seems to skate across the surface of her own life. Her relationship with Tumi, which I suspect is meant to have changed her in some way, seems to work largely because of the difficulties they have communicating. Despite the fortune teller’s claims (yes, there’s one of those as well):

“You’ll never be the same again, but it’s all done, you’ll be standing with the light in your arms.”

I didn’t believe it (and it wasn’t just the grammar).

I notice that the Guardian described the novel as both ‘whimsical’ and ‘kooky’; ‘quirky’ is another word that has been used. I’m afraid it too much of all three for me. Whether it makes the short list remains to be seen. A goose features prominently, and that didn’t do the winner any harm last year.

Strange Weather in Tokyo

March 13, 2014

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Extending my stay in Japan a little longer, my second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list novel is Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. Originally published in the US under the more literal (and more sensible) title The Briefcase in 2012, the novel first appeared in 2001, winning the Tanizaki Prize in Japan, and was also short listed for the Man-Asian Literary Prize. As far as I can tell it is the second of Kawakami’s novels to become available in English, the first being Manazuru. Yoko Ogawa and Kawakami not only share their nationality but their gender (both are female) and are not dissimilar in age.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is a traditional love story in all but the ages of its characters. Its narrator, Tsukiko, is a woman in her late thirties who becomes reacquainted with a much older teacher, whom she refers to throughout the narrative as ‘Sensei’ (teacher). They meet in a bar and it’s worth pointing out that this is not a novel for a recovering alcoholic as drink is consumed on almost every page. (When the characters decide they have drunk enough sake, it’s simply means it’s time for beer). After that first meeting, they encounter each other haphazardly in the same bar, sometimes ending up at Sensei’s house for a final drink. Eventually they meet up outside of the bar environment: to go to a market, and, later, mushroom picking (when they aren’t drinking, they are usually eating).

Rather like two icebergs scraping against each other, most of their developing relationship takes place beneath the surface. Only when Sensei invites Tsukiko to the annual school cherry blossom party does she begin to suspect her feelings for him. When an old classmate at the party shows an interest in her she finds it difficult to forget her former teacher:

“Sensei flashed through my mind for an instant but I immediately chased his image away.”

And:

“Sensei would never have said such a thing. Abruptly remembering Sensei, I was startled.”

At heart, then, this is an old fashioned love story. It has an unlikely couple who increasingly seem to want to be together; it has much more suitable rival; and it has its fair share of misreadings and misunderstandings. Though at one point Tsukiko complains, “No matter how I tried to get closer to him, Sensei would not let me near,” we discover more about him than we do about her, in particular about the wife who left him. There are also some symbolic idiosyncrasies: his collection of used batteries that he cannot bear to throw out hinting that he is not used up yet; the two chicks he buys at the market so that one can be a companion for the other showing that he doesn’t accept he will always be alone. Tsukiko, on the other hand, seems a void unless she is with Sensei.

I found this novel slow moving at times (particularly given its brevity) but I can say that I understood Tsukiko’s attraction to the character of Sensei who is certainly the best thing about it. Of the two Japanese novels I prefer Revenge (and I didn’t think that would make the shortlist) with its craft and cleverness, though I have found both maddeningly superficial – a symptom, perhaps, of my own ignorance of Japanese literature. Hopefully I will fare better elsewhere in the world.

Revenge

March 10, 2014

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I’m starting my Independent Foreign Fiction Prize reading this year in Japan. With no particular preference (apart from A Man in Love, there was nothing on the list that I had been intending to eventually get round to), I’ve taken the pragmatic decision to begin with the shorter texts so I can delude myself that I am making swift progress. Yoko Ogawa has been long-listed for the prize before, with The Housekeeper and the Professor in 2010. I read that novel at the time and was neither offended nor entranced by it. Two other novels, Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool are also available in English, all translated by Stephen Snyder.

The first question is whether Revenge is a novel or a series of linked short stories. The connection between the first two stories may seem tenuous at first – the opening story is set in a bakery, the second concerns a girl who later goes on to work in a bakery – but that this is more than coincidence is clear when we discover that the kiwis stored in the post office in that story have been placed there by ‘Old Mrs J’ from the third…chapter?

As we progress the connections become stronger and coalesce around a small number of characters, in particular the writer-narrator of ‘Old Mrs J’, who is the novel-writing step-mother of ‘The Little Dustman’, taking her adopted son to the zoo in a snow storm. After her funeral the narrator discovers a photograph of her holding a carrot shaped like a hand that was taken in the previous story. She reappears in ‘Tomatoes and the Full Moon’, and mentions the snow storm as having taken place thirty years earlier. The narrator of that story discovers one of her books in the hotel library – its title is identical to this collection’s first tale – ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’. In the final story, an elderly woman is read ‘Old Mrs J’ by her protégé; it seems likely she, too, is the writer.

A second strand revolves around murder. A doctor is killed in ‘Lab Coats’ by his lover because he won’t leave his wife. The same doctor is being paged at the beginning of the next story ‘Sewing for the Heart’, narrated by another characters with murderous thoughts. That story ends with intent:

“The shears in my right pocket prick my thigh as I walk.”

That the intention is fulfilled is made clear in the following story, ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’:

“The attacker used a pair of scissors, stabbed her in the heart.”

For all these connections (and there are others, one involving a Bengal tiger), the ‘chapters’ are shaped like stories, often with skilful endings, from the classic twist of ‘Lab Coats’:

“I shake it and out falls a tongue.”

To the more baleful, ambiguous conclusion to ‘Tomatoes and the Full Moon’ where we discover that the writer has left her precious manuscript behind:

“Inside was a ream of blank paper.”

The connections certainly add to the reader’s enjoyment and do trace the development of two of the characters in an interesting way. At other times they can seem gimmicky: ‘Lab Coats’ would make a great addition to any anthology, but its echoes in two other stories add little. Similarly, the discovery at the end of the final story links it to the first, but I’m not convinced this enhances either tale. Death is commonplace, occurring, I think, in every story, with two funerals and three murders. In this sense it might be said to be a gloomy book, but Ogawa’s touch is light, and I felt as if I were skating across a glistening surface beneath which lay a vast darkness. Similarly, even characters we see from different angles, we see superficially, their deeper feelings unknown even to themselves.

Though I’ve still a long way to go, I would be surprised if Revenge made the shortlist. Ultimately, it falls between two genres: as a collection of stories it lacks range; as a novel it seems slight.

Independent Foregn Fiction Prize 2014

March 9, 2014

The long list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced last Friday (you can find the full list here, though Andrej Longo’s Ten seems to be missing). I’ve fallen woefully short this year, having only read three of the fifteen books, reviewing two of them:

Brief Loves That Live Forever By Andrei Makine
The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke

On the plus side, both were excellent, as was Javier Marias’ The Infatuations (my third read), and I am not surprised to see them make the list.

As usual, European writers are well represented, though two Icelandic writers on the list seems as unlikely as two Scottish writers appearing on the long list for the new Booker Prize. There are three writers from the Arab world, two from Japan, and the Chinese novelist, Ma Jian. Africa and, more unusually, South America are completely missing.

There are one or two surprising omissions: Peter Stamm, Manuel Rivas, perhaps Eduardo Mendoza. However, my biggest disappointment is that Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts isn’t there as I though it had a strong chance of winning. Just shows what I know!

A lot to get through, then, in terms of reading the long list, but I’ll give it my best shot.