Archive for December, 2019

Books of the Year 2019

December 20, 2019

After another year of failed projects – re-reading Doris Lessing during her centenary (got as far as three books); continuing re-reading all of Muriel Spark’s novels from her centenary last year (still have four to go) – and one which saw me taking a month off reviewing entirely before more than halving my output, there still remains the annual disappointment that is my Books of the Year. I say ‘disappointment’ as, rather than finding it impossible to choose from the hundred or so contenders, I increasingly find it difficult to select twelve books which have made an indelible, or at least a water-resistant, impression on me – a commentary on my deterioration as a reader rather than on the quality of the literature before me I fear. Anyway, without further delay, in only the particular order in which I read them, my Books of the Year (2019 edition).

Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) was an icy breath of fresh air. The Russian Novel on steroids, I loved the way it flitted between realism and surrealism, with a side helping of science fiction. I also read The Day of the Oprichnik this year and will be tackling The Queue early in 2020.

The Accompanist (translated by Marian Schwarz) wasn’t my first experience of Nina Berberova but the novella form suits her ability to distil intense emotion perfectly, as I was to find again in The Revolt.

I’d already read my favourite of the Man Booker International long list (Annie Ernaux’s The Years) last year, but, of those that were new to me, I was most impressed by Sara Stridsberg’s The Faculty of Dreams (translated by Deborah Bragen-Turner). Repetitive and circuitous in the way dreams are, it also felt wild and untamed like its subject, Valerie Solanas. (Both Ernaux and Stridsberg appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, bizarrely at the same time, but as I couldn’t go anyway, that difficult choice was not thrust upon me).

Two well-deserved republications of German writers come next. The Artificial Silk Girl (translated by Kathie von Ankum) marked the passing into my reading past of Irmgard Keun’s four most famous novels. Not only important for its evocation of 1930s Germany, it has a more universal appeal as a young woman’s coming-of-age story.

Set only a few years later, Heinrich Boll’s The Train Was on Time (translated by Leila Vennewitz) is another masterly novella, where the atmosphere of impending fatality becomes almost unbearable at points.

I’ve yet to read even a mediocre novel from Edinburgh’s Charco Press, but the best this year was Selva Almada’s The Wind Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews). Perhaps more of a ‘traditional’ novel than most of Charco’s output, it was a beautifully weighted observation of character and relationship, with a thoughtful, but never intrusive, philosophical background. Luckily more of Almada’s work will be with us next with the publication of Dead Girls in September.

Another new South American voice to me was Mario Levero. Empty Words (translated by Annie McDermott) managed to make normally irritating attributes such as having a writer as the main character, and even including writing exercises as a secondary text spliced into the main narrative, quite charming. I now long for his much lengthier The Luminous Novel to be translated.

Then saddest book I read this year was Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends (translated by Janet Louth). Even sadder, it is often quite funny. A number of Bove’s books have been translated into English but most are out of print and expensive to come by, so please buy this and encourage NYRB to continue the Bove revival! (Coincidentally, this novel is much mentioned in Brenda Lozano’s Loop which I read this month).

Having made that claim for My Friends, I must admit that Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men (translated by Ros Schwarz) is probably bleaker. Set in some future time on an uncertain planet, it’s refusal to answer the questions it asks makes it feel very like reality.

Emiliano Monge’s brutal epic Among the Lost (translated by Frank Wynne) places the reader among Mexico’s people traffickers in a story in which everyone is a victim. Viscerally immersive, this is a powerful, yet at times surprisingly poignant, novel.

Verso’s new translated fiction imprint began promisingly with Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament (translated by Charlotte Barslund). Though you are fairly certain where this novel is heading, that doesn’t stop it being an addictive examination of a family in denial.

Finally, the novel which explained Brexit to me: Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale (translated by Shaun Whiteside). In the final days of the war, with Berlin in ruins, we still find many who believe Hitler has a plan to ensure Germany’s victory.

The Taiga Syndrome

December 15, 2019

Reading Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana) I kept thinking of the opening lines of the W S Graham poem, ‘Imagine a Forest’:

“Imagine a forest
A real forest.”

As the title suggests, forests feature extensively in Garza’s novel, but it was the proposition that both the real and the imagined forest are one and the same that seemed most significant.

The Taiga Syndrome, perhaps Garza’s most experimental novel, is a strange hybrid of noir and fairy tale. It begins as the search for a missing woman, who has left her husband for another man, and headed for the remote forests of the taiga. The detective-narrator is hired by her husband to track her down. When it is suggested that the wife may not want to be found, he replies:

“If that’s what she wanted…would she be sending me messages from everywhere she goes?”

The novel, however, suggests that interpreting any message is complex and perhaps even futile. The detective accepts the case but rejects the idea that she can discover the truth: “…in the end, no one knows why someone leaves. No one can be sure.” Even reading the woman’s diaries is of little help:

“Journals…are written in an intimate code capable of escaping the reader’s – and often the writer’s – understanding.”

The detective-narrator is also a detective turned writer. Her description of her methods is one indication that we entering territory where solving the ‘case’ will not simply be a matter of finding the facts:

“This form of writing wasn’t about telling things how they were or how they could be, or could have been; it was about how they still vibrate, right now, in the imagination.”

That this equally applies to her methods of detection can be seen when she first touches the messages the woman has been sending:

“As soon as I placed my hands on the faded paper, I began to dream.”

Before she sets off on her search she hires a translator and guide, creating a pattern of “a man and a woman pursuing another man and a woman,” as well as adding a further layer of uncertainty, as, for example, when a young boy recounts one of the key events in the novel:

“That it is difficult to translate the words for sexual body parts, especially with a small child, that this all could be the result of such a difficulty or of the imagination – either the child’s or the translator’s – I would have to make clear before continuing with the report that I would eventually write for a man who may or may not have existed.”

Persistently the novel asks us, “Had all this really happened? Impossible to know.”

In a further amalgamation of the real and the imaginary, Garza threads fairy tales into the tapestry of the novel. “So, is she Hansel or Gretel?” the detective asks the husband. Later, in reference to their trail, she comments:

“No doubt someone or something had eaten whatever crumbs they might have left behind them.”

Wolves also feature, as when the local people tell the detective that a wolf cub prowled around the cabin that the couple were staying in, refusing to let anyone near.

The refusal to settle on a single interpretation, or, indeed, a single type of interpretation, is also reflected in the novel’s form. Most obviously, the narrative is ‘interrupted’ by memories which privilege all the senses, for example:

“I recall I was eating an apple while doing this. I remember the dreadful noise made by my teeth…”


“I remember the taste of my saliva. The bitterness. The acidity.”

These feel like a refusal to concede that narrative experience, experience as part of a story, supersedes the sensual experience of the moment.

The Taiga Syndrome is a more challenging novel than The Iliac Crest; its very nature challenges the reader: there is no truth to be discovered as in the darkest noir, nor fairy tale ending. The key discovery of the narrator’s search exists outside the normal frame of reality: “It’s difficult to describe what’s impossible to imagine,” she says. Yet the repeated comment that the narrator tells the translator the ‘truth’ suggests that it is a principle which is not entirely devalued, and it continues to exist importantly on a personal level. The taiga itself may represent our realisation of the vague, unknowable contours of reality, and the syndrome, where one attempts to leave but cannot, one possible reaction. The novel, to some extent, incurs a similar panic, but, as W S Graham says, “Do not imagine I put you there / For nothing.”

The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am

December 2, 2019

When Amy Arnold, author of Slip of a Fish, was speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, she discussed her love of Scandinavian Literature and mentioned, in particular, The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am, the award-winning debut novel by Kjersti A Skomsvold, originally published in 2009, and translated by Kerri A Pierce two years later. The novel’s narrator is an elderly woman, Mathea, who lives a life of solitude, both longing for and terrified by the company and conversation of others. Her isolation begins with her marriage, though this is not something she recognises, talking throughout about her husband Epsilon with love.

Her life has revolved around Epsilon to the point she has wanted little to do with others. Early in their marriage her husband gets her a job cleaning his boss’ house. “But I don’t like mingling with people,” she tells him, “I like mingling with you.” Needless to say, the job does not last long. “Now I’ll have more time to spend with you,” she informs Epsilon, responding to his observation that he will be at work:

“Yes, but you’ll be in my thoughts.”

This is also perhaps the first occasion when she mentions Epsilon retiring, something he refuses to do even when he is past retirement age:

“’But I need a refuge, away from all the …” – for a second I thought he was going to say “togetherness” but instead he said “nakedness.” ‘Does that mean me?’ I asked. ‘I’m not naming any names,’ he said.”

Epsilon, we gather, is not the most affectionate of husband’s; when he makes her a wooden box for her knitting (it could also be argued that the ear-warmers she is always making for him suggest his inability to hear her) the engraving at the bottom, ‘To my beloved Mathea’, is an unusual out-pouring of emotion:

“Usually, I only ever hear him say ‘I love you’ when we’ve already gone to bed and he thinks I’m asleep.”

Her brief and intermittent contact with the outside world is both funny and heart-breaking. She largely avoids her neighbours:

“Sometimes June or his mother peeks out their door at the very moment I do, to grab their newspaper off the mat, and it’s uncomfortable every time.”

Yet when June comes round to borrow sugar, she makes sure to buy more in case it should happen again. Similarly, after she is asked for the time as she returns from the shops, she begins to wear her husband’s watch. The grocery store is another point of contact:

“When I give him my money, I touch the palm of his hand, but he doesn’t seem to notice… if I was kidnapped five minutes later, and the cops came by and showed him my picture, the boy would say he’d never seen me before in his life.”

Her isolation is symbolised in her every expanding collection of jam: she is unable to unscrew the lids of the jars but lacks the courage to ask anyone to do it for her. When the building she lives in holds a community meeting it throws her into panic, and she wishes instead she was under house arrest.

What sets this novel above being simply a story of how the elderly can become detached from society, alongside the engaging if eccentric narrative voice, are the occasional excursions beyond the boundaries of realism into the absurd. One such can be found when June unexpectedly visits and Mathea is able to see how he sees her flat, as we are transported to a time after her death:

“He takes all the pictures off the wall and leans them against the coffee table, and then he takes out a paint brush… Then he rips up the carpet and lays parquet…”

Another story, which seems at first an aside but will go on to provide the novel with its affecting conclusion, is that of Stein, their dog:

“I tried to convince Epsilon that he’d committed suicide… In reality, though, it was me who’d killed him.”

She does this by pretending to throw a meringue into a lake for Stein to fetch; he keeps swimming and is never seen again.

The Faster I Walk The Smaller I Am is a surprisingly light-hearted mediation on death and loneliness, but though it will make you smile, its quirky humour does not disguise the deep sadness which lies at its heart.