Archive for August, 2014

The Tea Lords

August 30, 2014

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For my final Women in Translation Month book I thought I would focus on a writer who is apparently regarded as one of the most important of her own country yet is still little known here. Hella Haasse is a Dutch writer whose career began in the 1940s and continued until the 2000s (she died in 2011). Her novels have sporadically appeared in English, but it was only in 2010 that The Tea Lords, considered her greatest achievement, became available thanks to translator Ina Rilke, who also translated her first novel, The Black Lake, in 2013.

The Tea Lords is set in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) where Haasse was born in 1918. The novel begins in the 1870s and ends on the first of February 1918 – Haasse was born on the second. The colony would obviously be well known to Haasse, and the period would be within living memory when she grew up there, however the novel did not spring from her imagination but is based on the records of a particular family, as is explained in an afterward:

“The material…is not invented; rather, it has been chosen and arranged to meet the demands of a novel.”

This origin affects the novel: as an accurate picture of life for the Dutch colonists it is probably unsurpassed, but it seemed to me there was at times a certain gentleness towards the characters that may have arisen from a concern not to traduce individuals who once lived, and whose relatives aided the author’s research. The novel’s form also seems affected, particularly in the latter half when much of it is presented in the form of letters and diaries. In an imaginative novel this might be a way to give us insight into the characters; here there is a suspicion that the extracts may simply have been lifted as if the process of fictionalising events had become tiresome.

This is not to say that the story the novel tells is not interesting. Its central character is Rudolf Kerkhoven, the eldest son of a family with strong connections to the colony. Rudolf views his education in Holland as a necessary step before returning to Java, as we see in the novel’s prelude which describes his first day at Gamboeng, the estate that will become his own:

“He was twenty-four years old and for the first time in his life, he was his own man, his own master. Everything he had experienced until then was merely preparation for this moment.”

Rudolf’s two great character traits are his determination to succeed and the ever-present feeling that his success is never fully recognised by the rest of his family. Family slights are commonplace in his mind, but, whereas in a novel the writer may have engineered a confrontation, here they are played out (more accurately) in letters and diaries. In common with many novels of the colonial experience, Rudolf’s love of the land is shown to be entirely sincere. Relationships with the local population are touched on but often along the lines of “I can’t run this household properly unless I am strict with them.” Generally, they are denied both a presence and a voice, perhaps surprisingly for a novel written in 1992. (Again, the nature of the novel’s creation is an influence on this).

More surprisingly, women are also largely absent from the early part of the novel. It is towards the middle before Rudolf seeks to marry, Haasse giving us insight to his fiancée via a diary that she allows Rudolf’s sister to read so she can convey her thoughts to Rudolf. This, however, she doesn’t do:

“I didn’t mention all those bad dreams and gloomy thought soft yours. Far better to leave them out.”

This is something we are reminded off after Jenny’s death when Rudolf reflects on how well he actually knew her. It’s also interesting for the reader as we see the narrative focus on Rudolf has left Jenny marginalised for much of the novel, learning, for example, that:

“It was largely thanks to Jenny’s efforts that signatures in support of Captain Dreyfus were collected on the grandstands of the Bandoeng racecourse.”

This hint of dissent seems out of place in what is a very traditional novel in more ways than one. Haasse’s ambition is to tell the story of the ‘Tea Lords’ and in this she is successful. It’s the type of novel where you are educated on its topic. It also makes an interesting comparison with other novels of colonial life, particularly as it comes from outside the English language tradition. If these are not what you are looking for, however, I would suggest The Black Lake as a much better place to become acquainted with Haasse.

Diary of the Fall

August 23, 2014

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Michel Laub was named one of the Best Young Brazilian Novelists by Granta in 2012; it is only now that the English speaking world can discover this for itself as his fifth novel, Diary of the Fall, appears in English, translated, almost inevitably, by Margaret Jull Costa. Diary of the Fall is about three generations of the same Jewish family told from the perspective of the youngest member, the son, as he tries to understand his father and grandfather, and how he became the person that he is. His own exploration, the novel itself, echoes the notebooks and diaries of his father and grandfather, both of whom have similarly attempted to put their own memories in writing. These written documents are important as the narrator is deprived of the memories themselves by his grandfather’s suicide and his father’s dementia. Memory itself, therefore, is at the centre of the novel.

The narrator traces his own identity to a moment in his childhood when he and his friends play a cruel prank on a fellow pupil. The boy in question, Joao, is bullied both for being a non-Jew in a Jewish school, and for his social background (his father is a bus conductor). As the other pupils have held bar-mitzvahs on their thirteenth birthday, Joao’s family decide to throw a party and invite his class. The other boys throw him in the air thirteen times, as is traditional, but on the final occasion they do not catch him.

“I don’t know if I did it simply because I was mirroring my classmates’ behaviour, Joao being thrown in the air once, twice…until the thirteenth time and then, as he was going up, withdrawing my arms and taking a step back and seeing Joao hover in the air and then begin the fall, or was it the other way round…what if, deep down, they were also mirroring my behaviour?”

Joao is seriously, though not permanently, injured; the effect on the narrator is longer lasting, affecting his friendships and school, and still haunting him years later.

This defining moment in the narrator’s life is only one of three: one in each generation, in what would seem a steadily diminishing seriousness. The memories that will not leave his grandfather are those of his time in Auschwitz, “a kind of memory that comes and goes and that can turn out to be an even worse prison than the one they were in.” His grandfather does not talk about Auschwitz, and even in his notebook there is no mention of it. His notebook is instead a personal dictionary containing definitions we know to be ironic:

“Family – group of people who share the house with then man and in doing so crown his desire for continuity and a loving, giving relationship, confirming the good luck he has always enjoyed in life.”

His father’s defining memory is his own father’s suicide. He begins writing his memoirs when he is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the extracts included we see the profound effect the suicide had on him:

“My mother never knew that I would sometimes lock myself in the bedroom to cry. No-one in the shop knew I would sometimes, in the middle of the morning, lock myself in the toilet and stay there for ten minutes or half an hour crying.”

In both cases these memories are not disclosed to the next generation, and there is a concern here about the tendency of men to attempt to shut away unpleasant memories: the narrator may be confiding in writing of the novel, but he also finds this difficult in his relationships.

My summarising may give the impression that the novel tells a chronological story, generation to generation, but in fact structure is one its most interesting aspects. It is not paginated but instead divided into sections of number paragraphs. This gives the impression of a series of thoughts or memories, linked but not coherent. Laub also comes back again and again to the same memories, just as we do in life:

“Forgive me if I say again that Auschwitz helps to justify what my grandfather did, if I find it easier to blame Auschwitz than to accept what my grandfather did, if I feel more comfortable continuing to list the horrors of Auschwitz…”

Luab seems to be suggesting that while we must understand our past, we should not blame it, as the narrator finally realises:

“… part of past that is likewise of no importance compared to what I am and will be, forty years old, with everything still before me, from the day that you’re born.”

The Hunger Angel

August 19, 2014


In an afterword to The Hunger Angel, Herta Muller reveals its origins in fact: in the aftermath of the Second World War Stalin insisted that Germans between the ages of seventeen and forty-five living in Romania (which had allied itself with Germany) be deported to the Soviet Union to ‘rebuild’. Muller’s mother spent five years in a labour camp, but for this novel she draws mainly on the memories of poet Oskar Pastior with whom she originally planned to write a book on the subject. When he died she eventually pursued the idea alone, using the notes they had made together over many conversations to recreate the experience of the forced labour camps where hunger dominated. Muller has had a patchy history of translation, with only a couple of books appearing in the 1980s and 90s, but a Nobel Prize in 2009 has led to her work being made available more regularly in English, in this case by Philip Boehm who includes an interesting note of his own about the nuances of translating her language.

The Hunger Angel begins prior to Leo’s deportation (Leo is presumably based on Pastior), revealing his homosexuality and his guilt:

“But the more I tried to stop myself, the faster I went back – after two days. For a rendezvous, as it was known in the park.”

What is interesting about this is that it disappears as a concern once he is in the camp, emphasising how imprisonment eliminates much of what makes him an individual, but it also prevents a straightforward reading which would interpret the camp as bad and therefore outside the camp as good:

“Before, during and after my time in the camp, for twenty-five years, I lived in in fear – of my family and of the state.”

The majority of the novel, however, is focused on the camp. Muller writes about this with the kind of detail you would expect from a writer with access to a first-hand account. At the centre of the inmates’ experience is hunger:

“…there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such an effort to tame. How can you face the world if all you can say about yourself is that you’re hungry. If you can’t think of anything else.”

The personification of hunger as the hunger angel makes this feeling an enemy to be resisted:

“The hunger angel looks at his scales and says:
You’re still not light enough for me. Why don’t you just let go.
I say: You’re deceiving me with my own flesh…But I am not my flesh. I am something else and I won’t let go.”

The idea of the angel suggests not only omnipresence and death but a certain beauty and attraction.

Muller captures brilliantly the circumscribed world of the camp with its narrow focus on the optimum utility of every decision. This cannot even be described as being entirely about survival as we see when Leo thinks they are about to be shot:

“I pushed myself to the front row so I could be one of the first. That way I wouldn’t have to load corpses onto the truck…”

The novel is told is a series of short chapters (some are only a page). These create a picture of life in the camp and some of the prisoners, but there is little sense of progression over the period of incarceration. Muller describes the journey to the camp and the release, but in between time exists in a different form; the moment the narrative turns to the camp it is almost as if Leo has always been there.

The Hunger Angel is not an enjoyable book. Then focus on survival is relentless. The characters are limited by the very circumstances they find themselves in. There are moments when you feel as a reader you may never leave the camp, but there are also times when you find yourself absorbing the detail with the same desperation as those who needed that knowledge to survive.

The Topless Tower

August 12, 2014

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During Spanish Lit Month I reviewed Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by husband and wife Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo This collaboration was my first acquaintance with Silvina Ocampo (who was a prolific writer but notoriously unavailable in English) and may well have been my last if I hadn’t fortuitously discovered that only a few years ago Hesperus Press had published a translation by James Womack of The Topless Tower. It is referred to in the introduction (co-authored by Marion Womack, hopefully another marital co-production) as “one of only two novels published during Ocampo’s lifetime” (the other being the, at that time, untranslated Where There’s Love, There’s Hate) but this is a rather generous description as, at 56 pages, I would be reluctant to call it a novella.

Ocampo edited The Book of Fantasy with Borges and Casares (it includes one of her stories) and most of her fiction was of that genre, including her children’s fiction. The Topless Tower uses many of the tropes of children’s literature from the fairy tale tower of the title to an appearance from Alice in Wonderland. James and Marion Womack suggest this is one reason why she is not better known:

“But one more answer to the question of why Silvina Ocampo is not better known is that large parts of her activity, her imaginative stories and plays and poetry, has to be filtered, or so it seems, through the unfairly marginalising label of ‘children’s writing’.”

It is certainly true that, although The Topless Tower contains many elements of a children’s fable, one senses a darker intelligence behind it. Consider, for example:

“Will the images we’ve seen through our lives remain in our eyes? Will we be like a modern camera, filled with little rolls of film; of course, rolls that don’t require to be developed? If I die before reaching my home, before seeing my mother who I love so much, will she get to see the photographic film stored inside me?”

The idea and voice here are childlike but there is a gothic imagination behind the image.

In the story a young boy, Leandro, laughs at the paintings of a man who appears at the garden gate offering them for sale, particularly one of a yellow, windowless tower. He immediately finds himself trapped in just such a tower where he finds a room with an easel and paints. He soon discovers that whatever he paints becomes reality. Initially he struggles to control this ability: branches become spiders; creepers become snakes. Above all he wants to paint his mother, which he feels will unlock his imprisonment and allow his return home, but this proves most difficult of all.

The story becomes a fable about growing up. He paints a bird and monkey as companions but loses them carelessly. Next he attempts a self-portrait (showing increasing self-awareness) which gives him another perspective, dismissing his lost pets: “You were talking about those two as if they were humans.” In his pursuit of his mother’s face he creates a young girl:

“It wasn’t his mother, but he didn’t feel much disappointment about this. He had fallen in love with the little girl he had painted by accident.”

His maturing is also seen in the way that underlined words, those he doesn’t understand (“I’ll underline the words I don’t understand” he says at the beginning), increasingly disappear from the narrative.

The Topless Tower is a strange story, flickering between light and shade, but one that does haunt the memory. It does seem very slight for stand-alone publication, and would be better as part of a selected stories – one can only hope that might one day appear.

The Hour of the Star

August 11, 2014

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My only previous acquaintance with Clarice Lispector was my reading of Near the Wild Heart, her first novel, for my Year of Reading Dangerously; I’ve now skipped her entire writing life and moved directly to her final novel, The Hour of the Star – completely unplanned as in both cases it was simply because I had the book to hand. Both have recently been reprinted as Penguin Modern Classics, along with three other novels, but my copy is the Carcanet edition translated by Giovanni Pontero. It’s a slim book – a novella – not quite reaching 100 pages, telling the apparently hopeless story of a poor young girl from the slums of Rio, Macabea.

If this sounds straight-forward, the first suggestion that it will not be appears before the story begins on the title page where twelve alternate titles are listed alongside The Hour of the Star. When it does begin we find ourselves addressed first by the writer:

“So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I will go on writing.”

The writer, though, is also a character, Rodrigo S. M. – a male voice Lispector has created to tell the story. Rodrigo tells us of his inspiration:

“In the street I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the northeast.”

He claims:

“First of all, I must make it clear that this girl does not know herself apart from the fact that she goes on living aimlessly. Were she foolish enough to ask herself ‘Who am I?’, she would fall flat on her face.”

Lispector seems to be using Rodrigo as a way of distancing herself form Macabea, making clear that not only is the novel not autobiographical, but she is writing about someone whose entire way of living and thinking is quite different to her own. This is not the same as saying that Rodrigo’s views are hers, but Rodrigo’s ferocity also forces the reader to question their own views as his angry commentary accompanies her story.

Macabea’s story is simple one. She is an orphan, brought up by an aunt. She works as a typist, is not particularly skilled even at that, and seems permanently close to losing her job. She feels inferior to her work mate Gloria (“This was probably due to the fact that Gloria was buxom.”) She regards herself as too ugly to get a boyfriend, and when she does find one he mistreats her, frustrated, as Rodrigo is, by her passivity. She drinks Coca-Cola, longs for face cream, and wants to be a movie star. When she buys coffee she fills it with sugar “to make sure she got value for her money.”

Yet it would not be accurate to say that Macabea was unhappy. Rodrigo claims he can write Macabea’s story because “I know about certain things simply by living.” However, towards the end, when Macabea visits a fortune teller she is surprised to discover the poor quality of her life:

“Macabea turned pale: it had never occurred to her that her life was so awful.”

This short novel, then, is not an expose of the life of the poor and ignorant, but an exploration of how we (i.e. readers, writers) view that life. This is perhaps where Lispector’s real anger lies, explaining such bitter in-jokes as Macabea’s remark, “On Radio Clock they used a word that worried me: mimetism.” It was for this reason (or misreading as it may be) that I found the novel fascinating. It looks like, having encountered the beginning and the end of Lispector’s work, I will have to go back and read some of the novels in-between.

Subtly Worded

August 6, 2014

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Every so often a long neglected writer will be rediscovered, even in the world of translated literature – consider Sandor Marai’s Embers or Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. One publisher in particular seems to be able to do this regular basis: step forward Pushkin Press. You might immediately think of Stefan Zweig and Antal Szerb, but within the last twelve months there has been I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holena and The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov. Now we are treated to Subtly Worded, a selection of stories from Russian émigré writer Teffi (a pseudonym explained in translator Anne Marie Jackson’s excellent introduction). The collection is also expertly curated, organised into five sections chronologically beginning before the Russian Revolution and continuing up to her final stories in the 1950s.

The early stories are witty and comic. The opening story, ‘A Radiant Easter’, simply contrasts the supposed joy of the religious celebration with the tensions within a family where one after the other leaves slamming doors behind them until only the cat is left. Similarly ‘Will-Power’ is a story about its absence. In ‘The Corsican’ the humour is already a little darker – a potential police provocateur practises the revolutionary songs he will need to pass for a radical. My favourite of the early stories, ‘The Hat’, is about the confidence that clothing can bring:

“Oh! What a woman can get away with when she’s wearing a hat like this!”

You will not be surprised to learn that there is a twist at the end. Teffi writes wonderfully about childhood in ‘Jealousy’ and then moves effortlessly to old age in ‘The Quiet Backwater’, but she is at her sharpest when she writes of other women:

“She called on Medina at eleven in the morning, before Medina had time to do her face and hair and when her defences would be at their weakest.”

The second section, stories from 1916 to 1919, contains an early satire of Communism in ‘One Day in the Future’ (“The cabby was a good one, even if he was a former botany professor”) but the stand-out story is ‘Rasputin’, particularly as it is based on first-hand knowledge, containing such details as the way he addresses everyone as “Dearie” (or its Russian equivalent), the way he places his hand on your shoulder when he wants to persuade you, and the way he speaks:

“And the way he said ‘Shall’ so commandingly, with such authority, it was as if this had been decided on high and Rasputin was in the know.”

In him we have a portrait of many manipulative, charismatic cult leaders since. The collection also contains a story about meeting Tolstoy, but, as the narrator is a child, the story is much less detailed.

Teffi also turns a telling eye to émigré life in Paris, a life of back-biting and mistrust:

“We stick together…not like planets, by mutual attraction, but by a force quite contrary to the laws of physics – mutual repulsion.”

Names, she says, are generally prefaced by the phrase “that-crook.” The title story, another example of satire, humorous on the outside but with a darker truth at its centre, concerns writing letters to the Soviet Union. Everything must be phrased in opposition to the truth to prevent those receiving the letter being arrested – an early example of double-speak if not double-think.

In the final stories, for example ‘The Blind One’, the humour is all but gone and there is a much more elegiac tone. In it the weeping of a woman is mistaken for the sound of an angel by two blinds girls. This, and the two which follow, are probably the most subtle, and saddest, stories in the collection.

These stories are probably not among the greatest ever written, and Teffi is certainly not a literary giant, but they are a delight to read, and throughout you are glad that Pushkin Press have made them available again.

My Brilliant Friend

August 3, 2014

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Having had such fun during Spanish Lit Month, it seemed a foregone conclusion that I should make some attempt to participate in Women in Translation during August (with thanks to Biblio). It also seemed entirely natural that I begin with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein), a novel so many have read and recommended. My Brilliant Friend is the first in a trilogy, the third of which (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) will be published by Europa editions in September, though Ferrante has said that she views it as one novel, the division into volumes simply necessitated by the mechanics of publishing.

My Brilliant Friend is set in post-war Italy in a poor neighbourhood and tells the story of two friends, Elena (the narrator) and Lila who begin as young children and end this first volume as adults. This story is prefaced by a contemporary scene where an elderly Elena is told by Lila’s son that Lila has gone missing, along with all her belongings – something we will presumably return to in the final volume. What follows is Elena’s attempt to write Lila’s story so that Lila cannot make herself disappear in the way she seems to want to.

The story struck me as one common in the Scottish tradition – the poor but intelligent youngster who stands out at school and whose parents are encouraged to allow them to pursue their education despite financial difficulties and a certain lack of understanding of its purpose or importance. Normally these would be young men (though Sunset Song would be an exception here) and the setting would be earlier in the century (presumably the timing links to the arrival of universal education) but scenes such as the teacher’s visit to the house would generally feature. A growing alienation from their parents (which always makes me think of Tony Harrison’s poem ‘Bookends’) and from their community would follow.

Ferrante tells this lassie o’pairts tale as well as anyone but adds another dimension in viewing it through the lens of friendship. Elena takes the traditional role of the talented youngster who is encouraged to continue through school, but Lila, we learn, is at least equally clever, teaching herself Latin and Greek when denied the chance to progress with her formal education. Throughout Elena is generally in awe of her, as, it seems, are most of her peer group, particularly the boys (though, of course, we see this from Elena’s perspective). While Elena is naturally cautious and careful, Lila seems confident and decisive, though it is noticeable that, by the novel’s end, it is Elena who has acted with the most freedom and recklessness, though she does not see this herself.

This first volume presents a wonderful picture of adolescence with all its doubts, dangers and discoveries. It doesn’t neglect its male characters, whose lives are circumscribed by rules of machismo. In fact, unlike many bildungsroman, this is also a novel of community (again it bears comparison with Sunset Song), painting in great detail the small area of Naples that Elena rarely leaves. It is an area where grudges originating in the war are still strong and violence is commonplace.

I can now see why so many people have been praising this novel: it is the kind of novel that it is difficult to imagine someone disliking, while at the same time knowing that is the result of its artistry and truthfulness rather than its accessibility. I will now join in with the recommending.