Archive for December, 2022

Books of the Year 2022 Part 2

December 27, 2022

Marzan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich)

It’s not obvious that the story of a chiropodist from an uninvitingly concrete housing estate in East Berlin would become one of my favourite books of 2022, but that is, indeed, what happened. Marzan, Mon Amour is never sentimental, but often heart-warming, without ever disguising the difficulties of life. The format allows Oskamp to share the stories of her narrator’s many customers, which in turn allows her to present a picture of East German society as it was in the years before the Berlin wall was pulled down. Yet another wonderful find from Peirene books who, despite only publishing three books a year, are frequent contributors to my top ten.

The Anomaly by Herve le Tellier (translated by Adrianna Hunter)

A much more likely inclusion in the best books of 2022 is the 2020 Prix Goncourt winner The Anomaly. The story of a plane which lands twice – once when due and then an exact copy, passengers included, three months later – never has Oulipo been used to such page-turning effect. Telling the story from the point of view of numerous characters is no mere gimmick but actually adds to the tension, and the many nods to Oulipo writers of the past – and even the inclusion of a book within a book – at no point get in the way of readability. Most impressive of all, given its concept, le Tellier produces an ending that works.

Stranger to the Moon by Evelio Rosero (translated by Anne McLean and Victor Meadowcroft)

2022 saw the return of Columbian writer Evelio Rosero to print in English for the first time since 2015 thanks to new publisher, Mountain Leopard Press. Stranger to the Moon is a small book in everything but ideas, Rosero crafts a world where the Clothed and the Naked live divided, the latter largely confined to a crowded house (the narrator spends much of his time in a wardrobe) while the former are free. In what is a disturbing fable about social division, Rosero does not lose sight of his main character as an individual who does not feel like he belongs with either faction. An unsettling tale that you are not likely to forget quickly.

The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez (translated by Natasha Wimmer)

The publication of Nona Fernandez fiction in the UK by Daunt books is to be celebrated. The Twilight Zone, which, like Space Invaders, uses popular culture as an entry point to life in Chile under dictatorship, focuses on one particular member of the armed forces who was involved in the systematic torture of those who opposed the regime – we know this because he confesses in the 1980s in a magazine article the narrator remembers. This is another smart novel on the part of Fernandez as the story of the soldier becomes linked to the story of the narrator, providing an anchor for the reader as well as a reminder that brutal regimes have a long-lasting effect on ordinary people.

Still Born by Guadalope Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey)

Still Born is also a political novel, but here the politics are personal. Nettel is not the first writer to consider the pros and cons of having children, but she asks the questions here in a particularly nuanced way. The novel tells two stories of two women: the narrator, who has made the conscious decision not to have children, and one of her friends, who falls pregnant. Both women are put in a position where their beliefs are challenged: the former by the neglected child of a neighbour, the latter by giving birth to a child who is not expected to survive. Never preachy, the novel makes a genuine attempt to explore the concept of motherhood.

Books of the Year 2022 Part 1

December 21, 2022

All Our Yesterdays – Natalia Ginzburg (1952) translated by Angus Davidson

Author of numerous short novels / novellas (take your pick), All Our Yesterdays is, I suspect, Natalia Ginzburg’s longest novel. Set in 1930s Italy, it tells the country’s story – and the rise of fascism in particular – through the story of one family. It displays all the skill with which Ginzburg generally portrays family relationships but with national narrative in the background – history through a domestic lens. Comical at times, but also moving, I can’t agree with many reviewers that Anne is the main character as this feels like an injustice to its wider cast. For all the wonder of her miniature masterpieces, this is surely her crowning achievement.

Whole Days in the Trees – Marguerite Duras (1954) translated by Anita Burrows

This year I read some of Marguerite Duras’ early work: her novel, The Little Horse of Tarqinia, and her short story collection, Whole Days in the Trees. Both impressed me, and I was particularly taken with the variety on offer in Whole Days in the Trees, as well as the sympathetic portrayal of older women. Though both ‘The Boa’ and ‘The Building Site’ feature the sexual curiosity of adolescent girls, the former has a counterpoint the ageing teacher who has never been loved. The title story portrays the difficult relationship of a young man and his mother, with Duras taking no sides, and ‘Madame Dodin’ is the love story of a middle-aged concierge and a binman. Duras’ keen observation of human behaviour, and ability to reveal her characters surreptitiously through small moments, is clear to see.

Death in Rome – Wolfgang Koeppen (1954) translated by Micheal Hofmann

Wolfgang Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass, the first in a loose trilogy, was one of my favourite novels of 2021, and so naturally I followed it up by reading not the second volume but the third, Death in Rome (luckily each book stands alone). It, similarly, tells its story via a cast of alternating characters, though here they are members of the one family. Where Pigeons on the Grass took place in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, here some time has passed, but the repercussions continue. Koeppen skilfully weaves the various strands into an intricate tapestry which gathers narrative force as the novel progresses. (Expect the second volume to feature next year…)

The Life Before Us – Romain Gary (1975) translated by Ralph Manheim

Alongside Marguerite Duras, I have also been exploring another French writer now sadly neglected in English, Romain Gary, reading both The Life Before Us and Lady L. The former is the more affecting novel, though there is much to admire in the darkly amusing Lady L. The Life Before Us was the novel with which Gary won the Prix Goncourt for the second time, having published it under a different name. The novel is the story of the relationship between an orphan, Momo, and an ex-prostitute. Madame Rosa. Despite the harsh environment which both have experienced, and the need to develop a tough exterior, the love between them becomes clearer as the novel progresses, and what could have been a bleak tale of poverty becomes something beautiful.

Dawn – Sevgi Soysal (1975) translated by Maureen Freely

Turkish writer Sevgi Soysal was completely unknown to me until earlier this year when I read this new translation of her fourth (and final) novel, Dawn. Set a time of political repression, it centres on a police raid during which the novel’s characters are arrested and then taken to the local police station to be interrogated. Many of them are related, including the two brothers Mustafa and Huseyin, one of whom has recently been released from prison. Another former prisoner, Oya, is the only woman to be taken. Soysal moves effortlessly between the thoughts and stories of the various characters, providing a detailed and unsettling picture of life in a police state

Children of Paradise

December 17, 2022

“Camilla Grudova lives in Scotland where she works as an usher in an old cinema,” according to The White Review, where her story ‘Agata’s Machine’ was published in 2015. Two years later it was one of a number of vivid, original, and often disturbing stories collected in The Doll’s Alphabet, ensuring that her first novel would be anticipated with some excitement. Children of Paradise, about the experiences of an usher who has “just arrived in the city, and in the country… and needed a job” which she acquires at the Paradise cinema, “the oldest running cinema here,” is that novel. One can only hope it is not entirely autobiographical.

The novel can be divided into two parts. In the first the narrator – who calls herself ‘Holly’ (to disguise a name that would betray her foreign origins?) – begins her job at the Paradise where she is initially ignored by the other staff until eventually being accepted into their cinephilic clique. The key word here is ‘eccentric’, which covers the staff, the customers, and the cinema itself. In the second part, the cinema is acquired by a chain, necessitating conformity, the very antithesis of the Paradise’s spirit. In neither part does the cinema seem an attractive place to work or visit. In its first incarnation it is ramshackle and run down, but not in a homely, rustic fashion – Grudova’s descriptions are such we can almost smell the damp and rot on the page:

“The ceiling was curved and covered in cracks: water satins and plaster mouldings of couples kissing, perhaps not quite human… Part of the ceiling, near the front row seats, was patched up with what looked like tape and plastic bags.”

Grudova is adept at inserting initially unobtrusive adjectives to cumulative effect: the coke Holly drinks is “tepid”, the palm plants are “dusty”, the light from the chandelier is “weak”, even the cleaning supplies are “crusty”. Her images are more noticeable – for example the pale pink tickets “like tiny, tattooed fingers” – and together they present the Paradise as the antithesis of its name. The cinema, in turn, is personified in Iris – initially regarded as a lonely old woman likely be homeless by Holly, she tuners out to be the paradise’s owner:

“She had the dirty ruined smile of a former child star, lipstick childishly drawn on, and was wearing an odd assemblage of clothes: a dirty black coat, with a t-shirt underneath, a long floral skirt that ended somewhere around her mid-calf and looked heavy with filth, bare legs, frilly socks on swollen feet stuffed into slippers.”

At first the other staff members ignore Holly, later telling her, “I didn’t think you would last a week – the girl before you, she lasted five days then was put in hospital for a mental breakdown.” Eventually she is accepted into their social life, which largely consists of watching films, and she is soon sleeping with Paolo, often in the cinema where “I always grabbed a box of popcorn to catch Paolo’s semen as I pulled myself away…”

Everything changes when Iris dies, and the Paradise is taken over by the CinemaTown chain. The cinema is refurbished (though not the screen indicating that the films themselves are now less important), uniforms are required, and staff members begin to leave if they are not fired first. Andrew is the chain’s representative, making sure staff are always busy and insisting on fire drills and team building. The novel becomes, in part, a satire of corporate takeover, but it still retains a gothic edge. The cinema floods with sewage water. The popcorn machine explodes, injuring Lydia:

“The skin up Lydia’s right arm to her neck was red and crusty brown, stuck with half-popped kernels, some of them black.”

Worse is soon to follow.

Children of Paradise is well-written and often entertains in a darkly humorous way, but it feels disappointing in comparison with the best of the stories in The Doll’s Alphabet, as if Grudova’s imagination was being curtailed by the autobiographical nature of the setting. It doesn’t quite work as a satire of corporate conformity as the Paradise seems just as unpleasant before as after the takeover. For all their eccentricities, the characters seem flat, even the narrator – who lacks both a past and a future. (I’m sure this is intentional, the narrator being an ‘audience’, the other characters ‘on screen’ – the first staff member Holly sees is “whitish grey like he had just walked out of a silent film” – but it leaves the reader out in the cold). The quirk of naming each chapter after a film soon wears thin as it does not seem to serve any purpose. In the end, this feels more like a great idea for a novel than a great novel.

Invasion of the Spirit People

December 10, 2022

And Other Stories have been regularly publishing Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novels since his debut, Down the Rabbit Hole, in 2011, in almost every case translated by Rosalind Harvey (the exception is I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me which was translated by Daniel Hahn). The latest of these is Invasion of the Spirit People set, as with his previous novel, in (an unnamed) Barcelona; its plot is less complicated but, at its heart, lies an outlandish premise of the type we have come to expect from Villalobos.

Many of the novel’s concerns are made clear in the opening pages. “This is the story of Gaston and of his best friend, Max” the first sentence reveals, and, indeed, this is a novel of love and friendship. Gaston will be the focus of the novel as Villalobos does not shy away from admitting:

“There are lots of other characters in this story, but we’re going to accompany Gaston at all times, as if we were just floating behind him and had access to his feelings, his sensations, the flow of this thoughts.”

Of course, most writers would not feel the need to point this convention out, but in doing so Villalobos achieves two contrasting aims. He both establishes that we cannot inhabit another person’s mind – in his friendship with Max, Gaston does not always understand what his friend is thinking or feeling – while at the same demonstrating that we can do exactly that imaginatively. In a novel about shared humanity both these points are important. As the novel opens, the closure of his restaurant has left Max listless and hopeless, despite Gaston’s offer to help him out:

“Gaston knows that when Max says he’s tired he means that he’s already written off this and other options.”

Gaston has his own problems to deal with as his dog, Kitten, is dying and, despite the pain it is in, he is reluctant to have it put down. The depressing nature of his circumstances, however, do not make him despair of other people, and, in a world which is presented as divided, he walks between the divisions, developing new relationships. Even his dog’s suffering leads to a new friendship when he hires a sedatoress to ease its pain.

These divisions are frequently national or even racial, but Villalobos disorientates the reader by using abstract geographical terms for parts of the globe such as ‘Near Eastern’ and ‘Southern Cone’. The novel highlights the fear that those from elsewhere are moving in and taking over, and Gaston must resist overtures from a group who want to oust these incomers:

“It’s an invasion…and if we don’t do anything, soon it will just be budget bazaars run by Far Easterners, corner shops run by Near Easterners, and green-grocers run by North Easterners.”

Reducing identity to points on a compass removes the bias inherent in place names.

If this feels a little staid for a Villalobos’ novel, Gaston also has to cope with the arrival of Max’s father (on the run from his home country) and son (on the run from a research project in the Arctic). It is the son, Pol, who introduces the idea of alien life, proposing that life on Earth is a result of extra-terrestrial intervention:

“Directed panspermia…A colonisation carried out by an extraterrestrial civilisation which sent genetic material down to earth.”

(Intriguingly, Gaston makes a living growing non-native vegetables for restaurants – another example of alien seed – which suggests that Villalobos is more relaxed about it than Pol). If we throw in ‘the greatest footballer on earth’ suffering a crisis of confidence and Gaston’s relatives, having discovered his phone number, messaging him with complaints over his inheritance, then there is certainly plenty going on in the novel. Beneath the comedy, however, there is a warm and life-affirming message about friendship. It is no surprise that the novel’s final interaction is between Garton and a child who speaks a different language – and that this matters not at all.

The Little Horses of Tarquinia

December 5, 2022

The Little Horses of Tarquinia is one of Marguerite Duras’ early novels, originally published in 1953 and translated into English by Peter DuBerg in 1960 for John Calder, and reprinted in 1985 (a newer translation seems to have been self-published in 2009). It takes place over only a few days during of summer in a Mediterranean village by a lake where a group of friends are holidaying. Sara and Jacques are there with their four-year-old child; Ludi and Gina are returning to the place where they meet twelve years before, and there is also the unattached Diana, as well as a newcomer, the man with a motorboat (Jean – but generally ‘the man’). The novel charts the tensions in its characters’ relationships, which they discuss obliquely without ever quite understanding each other. As Diana says, in one of many quotable lines:

“The worst thing of all is the way married people get to know one another.”

As is often the case with Duras, the atmosphere comes before the plot. We immediately learn that the weather is particularly hot, even for summer, and the characters frequently comment on how unbearable this is:

“The summer was hot all over Europe, but here everyone was completely crushed by it…”

At one point a forest fire is seen in the distance, but such is the lethargy created by the heat (but one suspects more deeply rooted than that) no one is unduly concerned. The atmosphere is also affected by a death – a man has been killed by a mine and his parents, having spent the last few days collecting pieces of his body, have still not left. The mother is refusing to sign the death certificate:

“The village was in mourning. Everyone was waiting of them to go.”

This acts a memento mori in the novel, and the friends often go to visit the couple, and the shopkeeper who has appointed himself their guardian. He talks about his dead wife whom he loved but who did not love him back:

“Death is always a sorrow, even after the worst of possible lives that people could have together.”

This adds another strand to Duras’ examination of relationships, and of faithfulness. Although Gina and Ludi’s marriage seems to be under the most stress, Gina declares, “When I’m with one man, I can’t do it with others at the same time.” Yet, they frequently argue, and we sense long-running resentments – for example Gina’s refusal to go to America with Ludi – which display themselves in more trivial actions, such as when Gian gives noodles aux vongole, Ludi’s favourite meal, to the old couple.

It is Sara, however, who is at the centre of the novel. “Ever since the moment he was born I’ve lived in a dream,” she says of her child, suggesting she cannot believe it is quite real rather that it is a ‘dream come true’. She does not demonstrate much affection for the boy, as the narrative highlights by using ‘the child’ throughout, and shares the care of him with the maid. The maid, however, has a lover whom she asks to see every night. The others often criticise the maid, and Diana wonders whether Sara really needs to give her every night off:

“The fact is you just want to avoid spending too many evenings with the rest of us.”

In fact, much of the time Sara simply seems not to want anything very definite. Much of the narrative tension revolves around whether she will have an affair with the man who owns the motorboat, but her reluctance to take risks is demonstrated in her attitude towards the sea:

“I’m terrified when I can’t touch bottom.”

As the man says to her, “You’re afraid. It isn’t that you don’t know how to swim.” Later he will encourage her to go out of her depth, though he also makes the point, after telling her he once fell asleep in the water, “It’s something that can’t be taught or I’d teach you.” Rather than being ruled by fear, Sara seems to lack the desire to overcome it – there is certainly no moral objection to sleeping with the man. Matters are complicated when Jacques decides to take a trip – the possibility of seeing the little horses of Tarquinia is mentioned. The trip feels like a provocation towards Sara to admit the affair. When she wants to put the trip off for a few days, he asks her to explain why, and then turns to the man: “What do you think of all this?” adding opaquely:

“I like to have things stated clearly.”

This is typical of the way the characters neither avoid sensitive topics nor talk openly but rather tackle their problems obliquely. The reader may care for neither for Sara nor Jacques – no matter how intimate we are with their feelings there is always a distance – but there is a fascination in observing their relationship, as there is with all the relationships here. This is Duras’ great skill as a novelist and why we should continue to read her.