Archive for April, 2015

Baboon

April 30, 2015

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‘Bulbjerg’, the first story in Naja Marie Aidt’s Best Translated Book Award long-listed collection Baboon (translated by Denise Newman), begins “in the middle of an astonishing landscape: luminous, white sand dunes on all sides, wind swept, small trees twisting under the vast open sky.” A couple and their six year old child are cycling in the sunshine; slowly Aidt infiltrates the scene with unease: a buzzard flying overhead; the realisation that the couple are lost; the child crying. The tensions lie deeper, however, beyond the unlucky outing, as we soon discover: “Your sister has a tighter cunt than you.” The sudden shift in tone is typical of Aidt – the sentence is made more shocking by the way in which the narrator’s gender has been carefully hidden until this point – and the story continues on its path of disintegration as the affair is revealed and further secrets follow. Again, typically, we are never in full possession of the facts.

‘The Honeymoon’ also tells of a trip gone wrong – an idyll invaded by unexpected menace. Once again, Aidt creates tension prior to the event – a minor row between the couple with Eva swearing (after Tim has taken a picture of her peeing at the roadside) that “she would not talk to him for at least half an hour.” Shortly after a man reciting poetry forces his way into their car. Eva is transformed by the encounter, and the story ends with (as they say in the papers) a sexual act between the honeymooning couple recounted with religious overtones (finishing with Eva whispering, “We will now descend into the valley.”) The story demonstrates Aidt’s statement in an interview:

“This book is not psychological realism but more like a very physical prose, describing the characters’ body reactions in their interference with the world. I do not crawl into their brains and their emotions as much as I crawl into their physical beings.”

This is evident again in ‘Conference’ when the narrator catches sight of an ex-lover. When he briefly speaks to her, he places his hand on her shoulder:

“It stings where you had placed your hand. As if you had made an imprint on my skin.”

The story is told without dialogue, and the narrator’s reaction to the encounter is also physical as she throws up the glass of milk she has drunk on the table at lunch:

“Then it gets completely still. You wipe your mouth with your napkin and turn your head slowly slowly to look at me.”

Consistently, the everyday is interrupted by events that are entirely realistic yet at the same time occur with surreal overtones. In ‘Candy’ an oversight while shopping, forgetting to pay for two bags of sweets, leads to a husband being separated from his wife (who is accused of the crime):

“’Bring me to my wife!’ ‘Unfortunately,’ the manager said, smiling apologetically, ‘I’m not allowed to.’”

That the wife remains completely silent throughout creates a sense of the narrator’s isolation even before she is taken away. Quickly he loses control as he discovers how powerless he is. In another writer’s hands this might be simply a Kafkaesque incident about faceless authority, but Aidt is also interested in what it tells us about the couple’s relationship.

In other stories, the relationships being tested are between parent and child. In ‘Torben and Maria’, the mother (Maria’s) attitude to her son, Torben, is quickly summarised:

“Soon he’ll be two. He’s a little weakling and there’s nothing special about him.”

In the story, the kindness shown to Torben by others is contrasted by the cruelty of his mother, ultimately symbolised by the gift of a snow globe from an absent father which is smashed against the pavement by Maria. In summary it may sound a blunt instrument, but, despite its brevity, it is a nuanced portrait, not only of Maria and Torben’s relationship but of the role of her brother, Bjorn. A different kind of cruelty is shown in ‘She Doesn’t Cry’, where a young girl imitates the posture of her father and his friend. When they notice, they begin laughing: “It’s just because it’s so funny that you’re standing like us, right?” In three pages the girl has learned something fundamental about the way men treat women.

Baboon is a fierce, fearless collection of stories, stripping back its characters’ lives to the bones so sharply that often only a few pages are needed.

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The Last Lover

April 26, 2015

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The Last Lover by Can Xue (translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) has the distinction of being the only novel to be on the long list of both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. Surely, you might think, a guarantee of an exceptional book, and, indeed, you are unlikely to have encountered anything quite like it. Of the many western writers called into comparison, only J. G. Ballard seems remotely similar with his dream logic and emblematic characters – though if I tell having read all of Ballard’s work in no way prepared me for encountering The Last Lover, it may indicate the difficulty of locating a similar reading experience.

For six pages I felt I was following the narrative with relative ease: Joe, the manager of the Rose Clothing Company, walks to work, has a conversation with his boss, Vincent; negotiates with a customer, Reagan; and then encounters Vincent’s wife, Lisa, on the way home to his own wife, Maria. Lisa complains about Vincent’s drinking – an unusual but hardly startling occurrence – but before Joe can get any more information:

“Lisa disappeared just as abruptly as she’d appeared. Thinking over the day’s strange occurrences, Joe felt his head buzzing with confusion.”

Well, if Joe feels his head buzzing after six pages, he’s going to struggle with the remaining three hundred. Joe at least has the advantage of being a voracious reader – in fact his earlier conversation with Vincent is to tell him he is considering giving up his job so that he can read more –even though he has developed the ability to read while working:

“…he could even talk business with a customer (he is, after all the manager of the clothing company’s sales department) and at the same time remain immersed in his stories.”

As the novel progressed, I wondered whether Joe’s stories were simply becoming indistinguishable from his life:

“He read the story aloud at the top of his voice, with the profound feeling that his life of late had been reversed, and everyday life transformed into a dreamland, one that was like a chain of interlocking rings.”

The novel is certainly dreamlike, but not in the way we would normally use that word in reference to literature – a narrative which takes on a logic different to that of reality – but in the more literal sense of having a logic that makes no sense to the conscious mind. Can Xue has certainly spoken (in an interview with Asymtote) of her creativity in a way which highlights that she is not attempting to imitate the forms which precede her:

“Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness.”

Here is a short example, typical of the novel (Daniel is Joe’s son):

“Joe saw the wasps sting Daniel’s face over and over. His face swelled rapidly so even his eyes were swollen into a single seam. Joe felt afraid, but the wasps didn’t sting him…Daniel sat calmly on the stone bench as if he had not felt the wasps attack him and was indifferent to the red swelling.
‘Daniel, where should I go?’
His manner was helpless. He knew Daniel couldn’t answer questions like this, Daniel, who was bending down to investigate the roses, half his face swollen. He told Joe that the roses gave him evil thoughts.”

In short doses there is something invigorating about the refusal of characters to react realistically and remain focussed instead on narrative logic invisible to the reader, but over the long term it becomes not only frustrating but dull. I’ve read a number of difficult novels and, at times, it can be like climbing a mountain, searching for the next foothold, unable to see the summit; but The Last Lover was a glass cliff: nothing to grab hold of, a plain expanse reflecting back on itself.

The Ravens

April 22, 2015

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As I am not the first to point out, Tomas Bannerhed’s The Ravens makes an interesting companion piece to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island. Both novels are concerned with a young boy growing up in the Scandinavian countryside with an unpredictable father. In each the protagonists encounter the first stirrings of sexual attraction and the awkwardness of first relationships. Bannerhed, however, takes a more lyrical approach – presumably freed from the constriction of reconstructing his own life – as can be seen from the novel’s title, the ravens representing the damaging thoughts that often crowd the father’s head and eventually lead to his hospitalisation.

Birds of all kinds are to be found The Ravens – when Klas is not at school or avoiding farm work, he will be listening or looking for them:

“Sit on the stone wall and see how many different bird calls I can make out, waiting for the green woodpecker to show herself in her black hole, poke out her bayonet beak and at least say hello.”

His fascination with the woodpecker perhaps suggests that he feels disconnected from his family, and the farm in particular – he talks about “the place you lot call home”. His father’s mantra is that there is too much to be done (“everything’s crowding in on me”), but Klas rarely offers to help. When his father, Agne, says, “You could come with me tomorrow morning and take a look…So you know how it’s done. The sowing.” we sense an old battle, one the father has already lost. Klas does not even fully understand his refusal (“something inside me resisted”), however his wariness of his father is evident from the beginning, as is the way his mother attempts to keep everything on an even keel, immediately diffusing potential flashpoints.

Klas’ life changes when Veronika arrives from Stockholm with her parents who idealistically assume some time in the country will do them all good. Klas invites her birdwatching and, luckily for him, there is so little to do that she agrees. Bannerhed is excellent at portraying the undercurrent of eroticism which exist between them, using a night-time encounter with a bittern to full effect:

“It brushed me with its wing! I got to feel its wing quills against my shoulder!”

Veronika picks up an egg from the nest and places it against her cheek: their discoveries in the darkness seem to be occurring within an inner landscape as well.

All this takes place as Klas’ father’s mental state deteriorates in the background. He moves out of the farm house to stay with the livestock:

“’My place is with the animals, who haven’t got any feeling,’ he explained. ‘That’s where I belong.’”

He grows obsessed with a pile of scrap metal which he feels it is important to bring order to:

“And the scrap metal pile grows taller with every passing night. It doesn’t help that I’m killing myself with all this hard labour. Is there anyone else apart from Sisyphus who can tell me how to do it?”

All this time he feels threatened by the ravens “screeching from the moment I woke.” It becomes clear that the tension around him relates to previous experiences, and the approach of “the thing no-one was allowed to speak of” is inevitable.

Perhaps for this reason, Klas seems determined to disassociate himself from his father’s troubles. When he and Veronika encounter some graffiti proclaiming “Agne heading for the loony bin,” he deflects Veronika’s questions:

“’Is it about a person called Agne?’
‘Seems to be.’”

When finally the ambulance has to be called, he simply hopes “they don’t put the flashing blue light on.”

The Ravens did not make it onto the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist, but did make it onto our shadow shortlist – a decision uninfluenced by me as I had not finished reading it at the time, but one I now feel was fully justified. It’s a wonderful portrait not only of a young boy coming of age, but of a family dealing with the challenges of mental illness. It’s certainly very assured for a first novel, and suggests that this may not be Bannerhed’s last time on a prize list.

The Investigation

April 19, 2015

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The Investigation is Korean author Jung-Myung Lee’s seventh novel, but the first to be translated into English (by Chi-Young Kim). It’s an intriguing combination of genres: part murder investigation, part meditation on the power of art, and part documentary (one of its major characters is the Korean poet, Yun Dong-ju). While Lee’s success in intertwining these strands is questionable, it contains enough in the way of interesting material to make it an enjoyable read.

The setting is a Japanese prison during the Second World War and it begins, of course, with the discovery of a body:

“The body was hanging naked from a rope wrapped around a cross beam on the ceiling. His arms were open at his sides and tied to the railing. Blood dripped from the left side of his chest, down his stomach and thigh, and hung for a moment on the tip of his big toe before falling to the ground.”

The corpse in question is that of Sugityama Dozan, a particularly vicious guard; an ex-soldier who arrived at the prison in 1939 accompanied by a variety of rumours regarding his heroic exploits and war wounds. (His reputation is enhanced by a Judge Dredd type single-handed suppression of a riot). The only clue to his killer is a poem found in his pocket, copied out in his own handwriting. The responsibility for the investigation is given to the novel’s narrator, Watanabe Yuichi, a young soldier, rather than being handed over to the police. The Warden explains:

“…here in Fukuoka prison we can’t follow standard procedures. We have the most dangerous elements of the archipelago here – men who need to be eliminated from society, people who shouldn’t have been born to begin with.”

This attitude is one that the novel sets out to both exemplify (by demonstrating the way prisoners are treated) and undermine (through Watanabe’s developing understanding of the inmates as a result of his investigation), particularly with regard to the Korean prisoners – generally held for political reasons – who are regarded as the worst of all. It quickly becomes clear that Dozan himself was not as one-dimensional a character as those around him thought – his appointment as prisoner censor allowed him to encounter literature for the first time in his life (slightly implausibly, he was initially illiterate), and this caused a transformation that Watanabe slowly uncovers, along with Dozan’s relationship with the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju. Lee has explained his intentions (in an article at Upcoming4.me):

“I wanted to use these literary evidences to expand the heart of murder mystery and ask: Can literature and art provide salvation for human soul?”

For this reason, the novel also includes a subplot in which a performance of classical music is arranged involving some of the prisoners, running parallel to the story of their use in medical experiments (indeed, the prisoners are allowed to pause to listen to the music on the way to medical wing). Similarly there are two escape tunnels being dug: a conventional one, and one which leads to secret library in the prison basement:

“Some books had the power to heal illness and provide the essence of life.”

Despite some commonplaces (the naive investigator given the task exactly because he will never get to the truth and then refusing to stop until he does, for example), and perhaps too many complications towards the end, the novel’s central mystery has a number of satisfying twists. Both the setting and the literary theme enhance the novel, but there are times its parts seem in danger of becoming separated. Its greatest weakness is its rather plain narrative style, with some strange word choices (“cruddy”, “stumped” – “twinkling” appears a lot), and clichés (“ramrod-straight”; “restless sea”; “battered heart”) – particularly dangerous in a novel about the importance of art. The Investigation was always unlikely to make the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize short list, but it tells an interesting story and is a straight forward read – and is not without ambition.

While the Gods Were Sleeping

April 9, 2015

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While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier is a First World War novel with a difference – a number of differences, in fact. Both its author and setting are Belgian, a country under represented in WW1 literature given its pivotal role in the conflict, something Mortier himself has commented on in an excellent interview at Bookanista:

“My first concern in writing the novel was that for some strange reason in Belgium we don’t have a tradition of Great War novels, there’s a hiatus in our collective memory, as it were. There are a lot of private documents, letters and diaries, et cetera, but no great novel was produced during or after the war. I found that to be a strange condition in our collective imagination and literary heritage, so I decided to write this novel as a kind of symbolic gift to our national memory.”

The novel is also notable for being narrated by a woman, Helena, now ninety years old and remembering her youth. For this reason much of it takes place away from the fighting, and yet Mortier manages to movingly convey the effects of the war on both place and person.

Be warned: Helena will not be rushed in her telling of the story. As she says herself:

“’Helena, my child,’ my mother would moan if she could hear me, ‘where is this leading to? You’re shooting off in all directions.”

Mortier himself is in no hurry, carefully establishing Helena’s character in past and present, and giving some indication of life before the war with a series of childhood memories. Her mother’s voice features prominently – a voice Helena continues to hear:

“Where on earth does her voice still keep coming from? The voice, unexpectedly clear and articulated, unmistakably hers, that dry alto, that light vibrato, that I so often hear just before I go to sleep and that seldom says anything but my name.”

Helena’s mother is one of the novel’s great creations (in fact, the female characters are more memorable in general), and an important part of Mortier’s determination to set the scene prior to the conflict. Helena, too, despite 100 pages of meandering back and forward in time, becomes a compelling narrative voice. We are given some clues as to what is to come when she recalls an outing with her brother, Edgard. He calls those wounded in the war the “lucky ones,”

“They can blame their misfortune, strange enough perhaps, on the arm or leg they are missing…The others, who supposedly have nothing wrong with them, they’re the real poor devils. They never get the bombs out of their body.”

This preamble to the novel’s main events is perhaps partly explained by Mortier’s intention to write two other novels using the same characters – one from the point of view of Edgard (already published in Belgium), and another from that of the Englishman she fall in love with, Matthew Herbert. He is a war photographer, accompanied by Helena at points, and used by Mortier to show the effects of the war. That our description of the devastation near the front line comes from Helena, a civilian, perhaps adds a different perspective:

“There was no logic in the destruction, no system in the alteration of house fronts pounded totally into rubble and others that apart from the empty window frames seemed intact.”

Helena sees it in contrast to the setting she has left behind, her eye picking out the domestic detail of those houses where the façade has been blown off:

“Wherever the shadow of the clouds lifted, the glow of the afternoon sun flooded the surface of wall cupboards, beds and washbasins which had congealed snow white on tables, licked at wallpaper, and brought a gleam to dusty bell jars, under which saints’ images balanced on a chimney piece as if on the edge of a ravine.”

The novel ends with the war and Helena’s return to her home and her father, who has been separated from them throughout. Mortier demonstrates the effects of the war on occupied Belgium simply though the difference in her home: the house “cleaned out”; the vegetable beds in the garden.

How well readers get on with While the Gods were Sleeping will very much depend on how they take to Mortier’s discursive / rambling (delete as applicable) style. I often felt I was having to work quite hard to dig down to the best of the writing, however, there were moments of lyrical beauty amid the cacophony of wordiness that kept me reading.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist 2015

April 9, 2015

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Both the official and the shadow jury shortlists for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize have been announced. The official shortlist is as follows:

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (Spanish: trans. Jethro Soutar), And Other Stories

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (German: trans. Susan Bernofsky), Portobello Books

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (Spanish: trans. Frank Wynne), Pushkin Press

Daniel Kehlmann, F (German: trans. Carol Brown Janeway), Quercus

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (Dutch: trans. Paul Vincent), Pushkin Press

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Japanese: trans. Philip Gabriel), Harvill Secker

The shadow jury shortlist includes two of these books, The End of Days and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. To that we have added:

Tomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (Swedish: trans. Sarah Death), Clerkenwell Press

Mathias Enard, Zone (French: trans. Charlotte Mandell), Fitzcarraldo

Marcello Fois, Bloodlines (Italian: trans. Silvester Mazzarella), MacLehose Press

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Russian: trans. Andrew Bromfield), Peirene Press

(Zone, of course, didn’t make the official long list, so it was always going to be a point of difference). Personally, I’m quite pleased to see F on the other shortlist – my admiration for it outstripped that of other shadow jury members! Otherwise I would certainly have placed The Ravens and The Dead Lake above those selected by the IFFP panel.

Of course, it’s still entirely possible that the same book will win both.

Bloodlines

April 4, 2015

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Sardinian writer Marcello Fois’ Bloodlines (translated by Silvester Mazzarella) is, as the title suggests, a novel which traces the lineage of a family through fifty years of Italian history. Given the death and violence contained within, however, it would seem appropriate were that family tree literally sketched in lines of blood. Ensuring the family name lives on becomes a dangerous game of chance, relying not only on the roll of dice that is fertility, but one played against death in all its forms. Despite this, Bloodlines is often a tender book, demonstrating the ties that bind us together as well as those which too easily dissolve.

Appropriately, the novel begins with both life and death. First we are told of the meeting of Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai, the couple who will form the still centre of the novel. Though their meeting “scarcely lasts a second”, this is a novel in which the narrative voice trusts in destiny – it is telling a story which has already happened, after all. It’s not for you if you are allergic to phrases such as that used when they next meet and Michel feels “the conviction that this is the woman of his life”, or to pronouncements (regarding their wedding night) such as:

“With miraculous, mathematical precision Mercede fell pregnant that very night.”

This is one beginning, but we are quickly escorted further back in time to another: the death of the blacksmith, Giuseppe Mundula’s, wife. Left childless, Giuseppe looks to adopt a young boy, and that boy is Michele. This is not the only time the novel will divert backwards before returning to the present, creating the sense that the whole story is already laid out, and focussing on those connections from past to present. Here, though, it seems that the choice to begin with Michele and Mercede is also a choice to place life before death. They are also the beginning of the bloodline, both living with borrowed names:

“Michele Angelo was given the surname Chironi after the general inspector of the orphanage at Cuglieri where he had grown up, and Mercede was surnamed Lai after the employer who took her into service and the age of seven.”

Michele works with Giuseppe and, later, takes over his blacksmith business. The family slowly grows, but is overshadowed by tragedy. Their first born, the twins Pietro and Paolo, are murdered; another son, Luigi, volunteers to fight in the First World War; a fourth, Gavino, seems to have no interest in marrying. Only their daughter, Marianna, seems destined to carry on the family line, marrying a young man who grows to become important in the new regime of Mussolini – but she, of course, will not carry on the family name. As this summary demonstrates, Fois uses the family to chart Italy’s history in the first half of the twentieth century, though from the point of view of how world events impact on a small family in out of-the-way Sardinia.

This means, of course, that that there are times when you feel that one particular plotline would make a novel on its own, and that characters are neglected for years and then suddenly appear ready to participate in the family story. Generally, however, Fois negotiates well between the passage of time and the minutiae of individual scenes. The relationship between the brothers Gavino and Luigi is beautifully developed, as is the marriage of Michele and Mercede. Marianna, however, rather misses out on page time until near the end: when, in a wonderfully written scene (and one which benefits from the narrative returning to it) she and her husband are held up by armed men, she is still largely an unknown quantity.

In the face of a life which is filled with random violence, the novel, at heart, shows faith in humanity, an early passage summing up the narrator’s viewpoint:

“Love lasts one single, perfect moment; the rest is merely reminiscence of what has already happened, but that single moment can be enough to make sense of more than one life.”

Whether this seems truthful or sentimental in the midst of the brutal realism with which Fois surrounds it will be up to the individual reader. Whatever the case, this novel does deliver a cleverly constructed family saga which manages to gaze upon history without losing sight of the individual.