Archive for January, 2023

Daughters Beyond Command

January 29, 2023

Until now, Veronique Olmi has been largely known for her first novel, Beside the Sea, published in 2001 and translated by Adriana Hunter in 2012 as one of the first Peirene Press novellas. Only one further novel has appeared in English since, Bakhita, also translated by Hunter. Now her 2020 novel, Les évasions particulalières, is available from Europa Editions in a translation by Alison Anderson as Daughters Beyond Command, a reference to Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin (“Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”), a verse from which is used as the novel’s epigraph. This seems appropriate in a novel which is very much about changing times, beginning in 1970 and ending with Mitterrand’s election in 1981. Ten years may not seem a particularly long time for a novel which seeks to show the radical transformation of French society, and especially the place of women within it, but it is also the decade in which its three central characters, the daughters Sabine, Helene and Mariette, grow up.

The three of them are born in Aix-en-Provence, almost five hundred miles from Paris, in a Catholic family in modest circumstances: their father, Bruno, is a schoolteacher, and their mother, Agnes, doesn’t work. Agnes does, however, have a rich sister, Michelle, with whom the middle daughter, Helene, (eleven when the novel opens) frequently stays, which leaves her living between two worlds in the same way she lives between her two sisters:

“The joy she felt being back with her family was somewhat forced; she was always afraid, on seeing them again, that she wouldn’t be in step anymore.”

She is often referred to by Michelle’s married name as ‘the Tavel girl’, emphasising her split loyalties – and her devotion to Michelle’s husband, David, continues throughout the novel, even as Sabine becomes class conscious, and Helene’s own beliefs, focused on animal welfare, also clash with the lives of the upper classes.

Sabine finds her life in Aix-en-Provence suffocating and is already planning to leave as soon as she can:

“She had to break free from her family and from the college; she had to prepare herself for the life that was waiting for her.”

Sabine’s desire to ‘break free’ mirrors that of many women at the time. Her family is Catholic, and Catholicism is at the centre of her parents’ identity. This does not manifest in cruelty – both Bruno and Agnes are generally kind and slow to anger – but in a rigid view of the world that can be intolerant and avoid difficult topics. When Sabine has her first period, Agnes tells her to be careful – but only later does Sabine understand she means not to get pregnant:

“Adults didn’t talk about these things. Nor did parents. Or teachers. Or any of their books.”

Only chance gives them access to a different viewpoint when Bruno rescues a girl, Rose, who has been knocked off her bike. Rose’s mother, Laurence, befriends Agnes, but she is a very different woman:

“Laurence was a free woman – untidy, joyful, and assertive. She didn’t live with her husband. She wasn’t divorced, just separated, and the difference was huge, because otherwise Bruno would never have allowed his wife to be her friend.”

Laurence also allows the sisters to see their mother differently. When she comments on Agnes’ slim figure, and how she, too, looks like a sister, they realise “that figure indicated that their mother had not lived through her youth, because she hadn’t had one.” Agnes will change over the course of the novel too, training as a post-woman in order to have a job, and also taking a decision which goes against her beliefs, one that she then keeps from her husband. The daughters find it increasingly difficult to understand their parents: “it felt to the girls as if they were separated by more than one generation.”

As the novel progresses, Sabine and Helene leave home. Sabine goes to Paris to become an actress, Helene to study. This allows Olmi to explore both their personal and political lives. Sabine’s is outwardly more turbulent – falling in love with a man who will not commit to a relationship and becoming increasingly radical in her political views. Helene seems more settled, but her belief in animal rights is possibly even more radical at the time. Michelle’s attitude to being told Helene is a vegetarian – “I’m sure she’ll have a bite” – is no doubt typical of the time.

The novel ends with the election of François Mitterrand in 1981, regarded by both Sabine and Helene as a moment of hope. Olmi’s success, however, lies not in the political aspect of the novel, but in the way in which she views such changes in attitude through the lens of one family. Daughters Beyond Command is both panoramic and personal, and it is this combination which makes it such an outstanding historical novel of the ordinary woman.

Tono the Infallible

January 22, 2023

The Devil is a recurring presence in Scottish literature – from James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack. Evelio Rosero’s Tono the Infallible (translated by Victor Meadowcroft and Anne McLean) presents us with a Columbian entry into the genre – even its cover echoes one of the many designs to have graced the front of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye in which Dougal Douglas boasts of the horns that once grew from his head. Here our potential devil is Tono, Antonio Ciruelo, a childhood friend of the narrator, the writer Heriberto “Eri” Salgado. Tono appears at Eri’s door one day, twenty years after he was last seen, demanding use of his toilet – “an earthquake made all the more terrifying for being so intimate” follows – filling the house with the stink of his filth:

“…because it comes from the most hateful and perfidious large intestine of the most hateful and perfidious Tono Ciruelo.”

Eri then recounts his friendship with Tono which begins at age fourteen (a suitable age for temptation) when both are accused of plagiarism (in Tono’s case justified but not in Eri’s) and Tono asks him where he copied his work from. Eri notices “that Ciruelo’s presence gave off coldness,” the first of many hints that he may be more (or less) than human. Despite this, Eri is intrigued by Tono:

“He would tell…these…stories – about himself, about his family – that soon captivated me, to my regret, for my entire life.”

He tells Eri that his father dresses as woman and his parents are separating. When Eri claims he is lying, Tono lets out “the most dreadful roar of laughter I’d heard in my life.” One suspects that the regret and guilt Eri feels relates in part to the way he is attracted to Tono’s stories, and his inability, even as a writer, to compete – as they say, the Devil has the best tunes. On another occasion, Tono turns a fight between Eri and another boy into a brawl using a knuckle-duster, so establishing that sex and violence are where his interests lie. When the sister of another friend, Fagua, is assaulted in the street, Eri begins to suspect that Tono, who appears at their door moments later, is to blame. At nineteen, he is invited to Tono’s home, only for his host to disappear with his thirty-five-year-old sister:

“…something like a slap exploded; then, rolling bodies; a shriek of laughter – a cry? – it was their clothes, their clothes tearing.”

On the same visit he tells Eri, “By the time I was five years old… I was already getting stiff,” and claims to have slept with his cousin at seven.

Tono’s sexual appetite almost gets Eri and Fagua killed when they go on a trip together while still at high school. Tono, whose father is a wealthy senator, is the only one of them with much in the way of money, but when they reach their destination, he refuses to buy food:

“Hunger was devouring all of us by the will of Ciruelo.”

When they threaten to leave, Tono tells them he was “conducting an experiment,” a further sign he sees others, even his friends, as little more than playthings. They find themselves in more immediate danger when they come across women from a wedding party peeing in the woods; deciding it is not enough to simply observe them, Tono places himself beneath the bride in the darkness: “He had his face under my ass.” Now the three of them find themselves in fear of being shot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the friendship doesn’t last, though years later Eri and Fagua will coincide at an airport waiting to meet Tono. After his sister’s assault, Eri says Fagua “became addicted to Ciruelo.” His sister, Angela, goes out with him: “He dazzled me.” There is something irresistible about Tono and, in fact, he claims to be able to hypnotise people.

Book One ends with the last time Eri saw Tono before he appeared at his door twenty years later; Book Two largely tells of Tono’s activities in the years between. These include his Exhibition of Pain, and the setting up of his Freedom Ranch, a form of commune in the countryside:

“The twelve females all fell pregnant, incapable of naming a father with any certainty… There is talk of two schoolgirls… who were confined to sanatoriums.”

This section is perhaps less effective as it is hearsay, and, with distance, Tono becomes a monstrous legend, almost a caricature of evil and excess, but Rosero clearly intends this to be representative of Columbia. (At one point he says, “Nor could Columbia itself escape the exhibition of pain…”) In the end we return to Tono sleeping on Eri’s couch. Could he be dead? You will not be surprised to learn Rosero has one final twist in store in this devastating portrait of appetite and evil.

Do What They Say or Else

January 15, 2023

Do What They Say or Else was Annie Ernaux’s second novel (after Cleaned Out), originally published in 1977 and only now translated into English by Christopher Beach and Carrie Noland. It tells the story a fifteen-year-old girl, Anne, set largely in the summer between collège (middle school) and lycee (high school). Like Ernaux herself, Anne is the child of working-class parents who are proud of her educational success but often demonstrate this by nagging her to do better:

“My parents don’t have their high school diplomas, and yet they’re a thousand times more annoying about it than Céline’s parents who are engineers or something.”

In the novel we see her drift away from her parents, her mother in particular. At one point she remembers when her mother worked in a textile factory and would spend Sunday afternoons sleeping. As a child she would lie down beside her, “like two dogs packed into the same crate.” Now even the memory repulses her as she enters adolescence:

“…it doesn’t matter how much my parents talk about how they want the future to be: they’ll always represent my childhood and the past.”

Much of her rejection of her identity as a child is centred around her developing sexuality, and we see many echoes of her later work, A Girl’s Story. “What would I rather have, good grades or a good body?” Anne asks herself, “It would be too much to ask for both.” Her opportunities to meet boys are limited as her mother is watchful and Anne rarely leaves the house. Most of her friends are on holiday, but one day she meets an older girl she knows from school, Gabrielle, and they arrange to go to the fair together after being invited by some boys on scooters, neighbours of Gabrielle:

“…the boys had come, a sign a kind of complicity was growing between us. There wasn’t much else between us, and if you don’t count boys and sexual things we weren’t really friends.”

It is through Gabrielle that Anne meets some older boys who are working at a summer camp for young children. When Gabrielle tells her that she has met a boy there, Anne is desperate to hear about it:

“She made me drool with anticipation, since it was, you might say, my own future that she was going to be telling me about.”

Ernaux’s great skill in articulating Anne’s thoughts, a skill that she will later use in her more autobiographical work, is already evident, from the insightful to the fleeting (“I would have liked to be even uglier than she was so she wouldn’t suspect anything”). It is this, along with her acerbic observations of her own family, that allow the novel to rise above its rather traditional trajectory of lost innocence – though it is perhaps also marked as different by Anne’s less than innocent approach to losing her innocence:

“Alberte said that her mother said that women never like it, and on the swing set I swore that I would like it even if that wasn’t normal.”

She begins to meet one of the camp counsellors, Mathieu, and her intentions are as much physical as they are romantic. It is as if she hopes sex will change her in some way, though inevitably, when it finally happens, it is disappointing:

“When he had succeeded in doing it I felt a brutal emptiness. I had always wondered what it would feel like inside. It felt like nothing.”

Anne becomes aware that she can be treated simply as a body – the word ‘brutal’ appears more than once – but she, too, thinks more about sex than she does about love. She also recognises the double standards at play:

“Curiosity is normal at my age: it would be strange if that wasn’t the case. Except that for girls, curiosity can lead to anything, and it’s frowned upon.”

Ernaux is of my parents’ generation, but her presentation of the confusions and passions of adolescence do not seem dated or irrelevant, despite the fact she is writer who foregrounds the social setting of her characters. It would be interesting to present this novel to a fifteen-year-old girl and ask her if she see anything of herself in Anne. Such is Ernaux’s honesty and accuracy, I strongly suspect she would.

Life Ceremony

January 8, 2023

Readers of Sayaka Murata’s novels, Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, will not be surprised by the content of the stories contained in Life Ceremony, translated once again by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Originally published in 2019, the collection also contains the story which introduced Murata to the English-speaking world, ‘A Clean Marriage’ which appeared in Granta in 2014. It is predicated on the narrator’s idea that “a family should not have anything to do with feelings of love between and man and a woman – it should be a simple partnership.” As Murata tends to do, this idea is taken to its logical extreme and the couple in question, who both happily have sexual partners outside of marriage, engage in a strange form of artificial insemination in order to have a child.

The idea of a sexless marriage is also seen in two stories connected by the names of their protagonists ‘A Summer’s Night’s Kiss’ and ‘Two’s Family’. In the first, Yoshiko, now in her seventies, remains a virgin despite having been married:

“She had never even once had intercourse with her older husband…Both of her daughters had been conceived by artificial insemination…”

In the second, Yoshiko also has children via artificial insemination, though in this case she remains unmarried – and, fulfilling a promise made when at high school – moves in with a friend, Kikue. She places this friendship before any sexual relationship, declaring she will be chief mourner if Kikue dies:

“It was absolutely clear to her that she would play that role, not any of Kikue’s former lovers.”

These stories are slight but, like all of Murata’s work, nudge the reader to reconsider the way in which society prioritises relationships. In the more traditional ‘Body Magic’, the teenage narrator, Ruri, is fascinated with her friend, Shiho’s, relationship, but here Murata suggests a purer kind of sexuality:

“The two of us just made it up by ourselves. When I later read in a book about other people doing it, I felt a bit relieved…”

The arousal created when Ruri hugs Shiho infuses her whole body in a way that exceeds the mechanics of sex which so interest her peers:

“Little by little the cells began vibrating, and particles, fizzing as though made form stardust, started moving around my body.”

‘Hatchling’ is also a story with a realist setting, returning us to the territory of Convenience Store Woman. As the narrator, Haruka, goes through life she finds herself adopting different personas when she is with different groups of people:

“Soon after I started university, I realised I didn’t have a personality of my own.”

At school she is Peabrain, regarded as a “goofball” by her classmates; at university she suddenly finds herself at the centre of male attention and begins to dress differently in “outfits more suitable for Princess.” By the time she is getting married she has five different characters to contend with – and of course five different sets of guests coming to the wedding. The story is a good example of the way in which Murata takes something that everyone experiences to some extent and drives it to its logical conclusion.

Although sex and relationships feature in many of the stories, in others Murata focuses on similarly primal aspects of society such as eating and death. In fact, the two are combined in ‘Life Ceremony’ where she describes the ritual which now accompanies death:

“…the custom of eating the flesh of the dead has become so deeply ingrained on our society that little by little, I’m becoming less confident about what things were like before.”

The narrator’s mixed feelings about this change when a close friend of hers dies and she becomes involved in the preparation of his body for eating. Not only does her own view alter, but the readers; perception is cleverly manipulated so that what at first feels shocking seems far less so by the conclusion. Murata’s point is made: we often fail to question the customs which we are used to.

Murata applies the same logic to more fleeting trends. In ‘First-Rate Material’, Nan has adopted the fashion of wearing human hair:

“The jet-black hair was closely knitted into rows of braids, with an intricate weave at the cuffs and neck, and it glistened alluringly in the rays of light shining in through the lobby windows.”

We enter a world in which jewellery and furniture are also made from human remains, a world that Murata cleverly navigates via Nan’s relationships as her fiancé, Naoki, who objects to this particular fashion, much to her friends’ horror.

In general, the longer the story, the better. The shorter stories tend to do little more than showcase an idea but, with length, Murata develops her ideas in interesting ways, often creating an entire world around them. Read in succession, they can seem a little too focused on turning society’s expectations on their head, but the best of them have the same power as her novels.

The Good Conscience

January 2, 2023

Last year I was able to look back on the books I had read thirty years before as that was when I first began to keep a record. This year I thought I would go one step further and re-read some of the books I first encountered in 1993, starting with one of Carlos Fuentes’ earliest works, The Good Conscience. The Good Conscience was Fuentes’ second novel (more of a novella, really) following Where the Air is Clear in 1958 and coming just a year before the novel which made his name, The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962). The translation is by Sam Hileman from 1968 – four years after Hileman seems to have translated The Death of Artemio Cruz, which was later retranslated by Alfred MacAdam (at least, this is what I think happened!) My own introduction to Fuentes came via a Picador edition of The Old Gringo and was limited to what was in print in the UK at the time, including Distant Relations (Abacus) and Where the Air is Clear which, like The Good Conscience, was published by Andre Deutsch.

As I was not reading Fuentes’ work in order, I did not recognise that the central character of The Good Conscience, Jaime Ceballo, had already appeared in Where the Air is Clear. Ceballo is the character who struggles with his ‘good conscience’ in the novel, having to decide whether to follow in the hypocritical footsteps of his family, who pay lip service to religion but place the accumulation and preservation of their wealth first. The novel opens with the family’s history from the moment they arrive in the town of Guanajuato and open a clothing shop in 1852. When Jaime is born the shop is in the hands of his father, Rodolfo, who has less aptitude for business than his predecessors. His son is the result of a marriage the rest of the family oppose, his sister, Asuncion, writing to him from Europe:

“…that the daughter of a Don Nobody was not going to sleep in her mother’s bed.”

When Asuncion and her husband, Balcarcel, return from Europe they move into the Ceballo home and Balcarcel becomes the de facto head of the family; childless, they view Jaime as their heir. Asuncion wastes no time in humiliating Rodolfo’s lower-class wife:

“Everyone laughs at you, you know. It’s just that there are certain things you didn’t learn when you were small.”

She soon convinces Rodlofo to annul the marriage and takes on the role of Jaime’s mother. (Later when Rodlofo points out, “But she’s his mother,” Asuncion replies, “No, she isn’t.”) Even as a child Balcarcel worries that Jaime takes religion too seriously, particularly when he indicates he wants to become a priest:

“You have a decidedly mistaken idea about religion. Religious training is certainly of the highest importance in life… But there can be too much of a good thing.”

A pivotal moment occurs when Jaime finds a fugitive hiding in the barn. The man, Ezequiel, claims he is on the run after organising a strike. Jaime brings him food and water, but the Balcarcel follows him, discovers the intruder and calls the police. Jaime is distraught when he sees Ezequiel being marched through the streets later that day, shouting after him, “It wasn’t me!” Jaime’s rebellion continues when he befriends a lower-class boy, Juan Manuel, from school. It is with Juan, in a bar, that he sees his mother, who, the barman tells him:

“…gives herself airs because she says she was real society lady in Guanjuato once. Claims she had a rich husband.”

The novel ends with two key conversations with the priest, Father Obregon, at the insistence of Balcarcel who has discovered his nephew is no longer going to confession. Jaime tells the priest he wishes to imitate Christ but rejects the church:

“The church is where Dona Asuncion and Don Balcarcel and all the others come once a week in order to feel that they are decent.”

By the end of that first conversation Obregon is all but convinced of Jaime’s deep faith, asking him to “pray for me”. Yet Jaime’s actions do not match his intentions. He ignores his dying father, unable to forgive him for deserting his mother. At the same time, he cannot bring himself to speak to his mother. Obregon reprimands him on both counts when he speaks to him next:

“Listen to me clearly now: love is not words but deeds. You have come to me with words but you have never been capable of a single act of true love.”

Jaime, too, is not above hypocrisy. When, at the novel’s end he walks back to the “house of his ancestors” there is a sense he has resigned himself to living the life his uncle had planned for him. The Good Conscience is a minor work among Fuentes’ many novels, but it benefits from its brevity and focus, providing a timeless story of both the desire for and the difficulty of attaining true goodness.