Archive for March, 2023

Standing Heavy

March 30, 2023

African writers have appeared intermittently on Booker International longlists, though this is, in part, the result of many writers of African origin writing in English. Last year there were none, though in 2021 Ngugi wa Thiong’o was present as both writer and translator, and in 2020 there was Willem Anker’s Red Dog, translated from Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns. (Also, the 2021 Prize was won by David Diop, whose father is from Senegal, writing about the experience of Senegalese soldiers in the First World War). This year the sole African representative is Ivoirian GauZ’ with his 2014 debut, Standing Heavy, now translated by Frank Wynne. The novel covers a half century of immigrant experience, beginning in the 1960s and ending in the decade the book was written.

The novel opens with a procession of African immigrants being hired as security guards:

“It’s relatively accessible. The training is absolutely minimal. No experience is required. Employers are all too willing to overlook official status.”

These immigrants are only ‘African’ to the uneducated European eye; GauZ’ is particularly good at identifying the different nations in various, amusing ways – what they are wearing, how they speak. This sets the tone of the novel which is frequently one of observational humour – here, for example, the author describes walking along the multicultural rue du Faubourg du Temple as:

“…like taking a stroll along the tower of Babel if it had been expertly toppled by a demolition crew such that, rather than standing vertical, it runs horizontally from Belleville to place de la Republique.”

In fact, observational humour informs the structure as well as the tone with whole chapters consisting of sights noted by security guards on duty at various shops, beginning with ‘The Sales at Camaieu’. These short observations are headed with such titles ‘The Regulars’ and ‘The Cute Little Top’ and resembles aphorism or pensées. Here, in its entirety, is ‘Fat Women’:

“Often fat women will start by picking out clothes in smaller sizes…before discreetly disappearing into a changing cubicle with the correct size.”

These sections are not only entertaining but convey the mundane, everyday working life of the security guards. As well as three sections set in particular stores, there is also one simply entitled ‘Break’ which is set in the streets outside and includes a note on the various speeds of ATM machines. Our first Ivorian is Ferdinand who arrives in what GauZ’ calls ‘The Bronze Age’ between 1960 and 1980. He stays in an Ivoirian student residence despite having never been a student:

“He had, after a fashion, inherited the room from his cousin Andre, who had gone home some months earlier with his diploma in medicine in his back pocket.”

GauZ’ keeps us informed of the political background, both in Cote de Ivoire and in France, the oil crisis being given due attention in this section. More importantly for Ferdinand, the seventies opens up the possibility of permanent residence and by the end of the chapter he is able to say:

“He had finally arrived in France, his France.”

1990 to 2000 is ‘The Golden Age’. We meet the next generation in the form of Ossiri, who comes to France to work as a security guard from a good job as a teacher in his home country:

“The wanderlust he felt inside was powerful and utterly unfathomable.”

By this point Ferdinand is running his own security company, hiring the guards for the businesses that need them – “the little boss at the end of the chain” as he describes himself. Everything changes in ‘The Age of Lead’ with the attack on the Twin Towers, which we see through the eyes of Kassoum:

“This couldn’t be happening now, live in New York… White people, as Kassoum knew, always did things by the book.”

Immigrants are now viewed with much greater suspicion; residence is much harder to achieve.

Standing Heavy is an entertaining novel which conveys the immigrant experience across the decades. If anything, it attempts too much – sketching in the political background, the chapters on observations, and the need to introduce new characters as time passes, leaves the reader feeling that Ferdinand, Ossiri and Kassoum are known only fleetingly. For this reason, it may not make it to the shortlist, but it’s presence on the longlist demonstrates the Booker International’s range not only in nationality but in tone.

Time Shelter

March 25, 2023

Although Georgi Gospodinov’s first novel, Natural Novel, was translated into English as long ago as 2005, and his second, The Physics of Sorrow, in 2012, Time Shelter (translated by Angela Rodel) is the first to be published in the UK, making it eligible for the International Booker Prize and, in fact, the first Bulgarian novel to be long-listed. Time Shelter is a philosophical and political novel, but it is written with a light touch in a style which is frequently conversational. It begins with an idea, an idea that the author claims as his own “(I must admit that in my case the idea was for a novel but still)”even as he summarises an article describing its use in a geriatric clinic in Vienna where a doctor has “decked out his office in the style of the 60s” with the result that patients stay longer and are less likely to run away. This will not the only time fact and fiction blend together in an often-indistinguishable mixture, most strikingly in the form of Time Shelter’s other central character:

“Gaustine, whom I first invented, and then met in flesh and blood.”

Gaustine might be said to be a conduit for the author’s wilder ideas, bringing them from the world of theory into practice – at least, within the fictional reality of the novel. It is Gaustine who decides to take the idea of recreating the past to benefit patients with Alzheimer’s further, beginning with a house designed to replicate the 1960s, but with expansion in mind:

“There’ll be houses from various years everywhere, little neighbourhoods, one day we’ll even have small cities, maybe even a whole country.”

He locates his operation in Switzerland as “a country without time can most easily be inhabited by all possible eras,” adding a new dimension to the phrase ‘historically neutral’. The narrator becomes Gaustine’s assistant, a “collector of the past,” an occupation not dissimilar from that of novelist as he readily confesses, admitting he is writing a novel about “the discreet monster of the past”:

“My work for the clinic and the simultaneous writing of the that book were like interconnected vessels… the basic question for both was how the past is made.”

Gospodinov tells the story of the clinic through the stories of individuals. Many of these are from former Communist countries – where, one imagines, the distinction between past and present is made even more striking by their entry into the ‘Western’ world in the 1990s. In one example, a man who can no longer remember his past relies on the memories of the policeman whose job it was to report on his activities. Some memories persist even as those in the clinic live in a recreated past. One man, who spends his days reading the newspapers of the 1970s in the belief they represent the present, comes to the author one night:

“John Lennon will be killed, he said quickly. He was truly worried, in any case he could not explain whether he had dreamed it or not.”

This is only the beginning of Gospodinov’s examination of our relationship with the past, however. In the novel’s second part he goes beyond the individual to the national as Gaustine’s prediction that “some kind of global dementia is coming” proves accurate:

“And then the past set out to flood the world…

“It  spread from one person to another like an epidemic, like the Justinian plague or the Spanish flu.”

If this paints a dystopian picture, it is also a recognisable one, a longing to return to a past which is remembered with nostalgia. We see this in former Eastern-bloc countries where the privations of Communism are seen by some as preferable to chaos of capitalism, but, of course, we have also had our own lobby group for retreat into past in the UK, Brexit being the most obvious outcome. As Gospodinov says:

“A new life was beginning, life as re-enactment.”

Countries hold referenda to decide which decade they will return to. The concept may seem far fetched but the political machinery proposing one decade or another seems remarkably similar to campaigning as we experience it today. The versions of the past on offer are, of course, not a true reflection of lived experience – just as, in the first part, individuals with dementia live in a false past, so nations which fail to recognise their past create one instead:

“The more a society forgets, the more someone produces, sells, and fills the freed-up niches with ersatz memory.”

In Time Shelter, Gospodinov tackles one of the most crucial political questions of the present moment – our relationship with the past. His exploration is playful and entertaining but nevertheless serious and thoughtful. Like the best satire, it is both ridiculous and instantly recognisable. It seems very likely it will feature of the International Booker shortlist, and should not be ruled out from winning the Prize itself.

Is Mother Dead

March 18, 2023

Superficially, Vigdis Hjorth’s latest novel Is Mother Dead (again translated by Charlotte Barslund) has much in common with Will and Testament. Here is another dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (interestingly, Hjorth has an as-yet-untranslated novel entitled What’s Wrong with Mother) where contact has been broken off and attempts at reconciliation seem difficult, if not impossible. In this case, however, it is the disowned daughter, Johanna, who determines to repair her relationship with her mother having returned to Norway from America after the death of her husband. Her father is dead, and she blames her sister, Ruth, for preventing her mother replying to her messages. (At this point we may well remember that Hjorth’s sister wrote her own novel in response to Will and Testament “in which a character suffers the trauma of living with the public fallout from a narcissistic sibling’s “dishonest” autobiographical novel.”)

The story is told from Johanna’s point of view, and she admits that the original rupture occurred as a result of her actions:

“The situation was of my own making. I had chosen to leave my marriage, my family and my country almost three decades before, although it hadn’t felt as if I had choice.”

The sense of not having a choice relates to her vocation as a painter, a talent that was initially encouraged by her mother. When Johanna is asked to draw the school’s Constitution Day invitation as she “has a talent for drawing”, her mother whispers to her, “That’s what I’ve been saying all along.” It is her father Johanna blames for stifling her ambition – she imagines:

“Mum had told Dad I had a talent for drawing, but Dad had disagreed.”

When she leaves school, she studies law like her father rather than art. Looking back to her mother’s fiftieth birthday party she remembers:

“…how I struggled to breath, the knot in my stomach I always had on such occasions when the family showed its public face, the feeling of having had script thrust at me, the expectation that I would play my part, the loyal daughter of a lawyer, the wife of a lawyer, the law student, I was ill at ease with this role…”

It is only when she falls in love with her American tutor, Mark, at a water-colour painting evening class, that she sees the chance to live the life she wants and takes it. Even then, after she moves to America, there is still some contact, but the exhibition of her artwork Child and Mother 1 and 2 in Oslo is seen as an attack by her family:

“Ruth’s occasional messages and Mum’s seasonal greetings ceased.”

Even more unforgivably, when her father dies, she does not attend his funeral. Just as she placed the blame on her father when he was alive, Johanna now regards her sister as the barrier between her and her mother – she tells herself that if her Mum had asked her to come home when her father was ill she would have, and that it is Ruth who has blocked her number on her Mum’s phone. She is, at least, self-aware enough to admit, “I blame Ruth so that Mum can go free, it’s simpler that way.”

Whether Johanna’s version of events is entirely reliable is, of course, a question that the reader will increasingly ask themselves. The novel is told in a series of short chapters, some only a sentence or two long, and its entire focus is Johanna’s relationship with her mother. This gives an impression of monomania in stark contrast to her years of detachment. We learn that Mark has recently died and that their son has moved to Europe – events which may make the reader speculate as to both Johanna’s motivation and state of mind. There are also indications that her reactions can be extreme, as for example:

“I had thought from an early age that Dad wasn’t my father.”

The unanswered phone calls from the novel’s opening pages develop into hours spent sitting in her car outside her mother’s apartment – in fact, her behaviour takes on the aspect of a stalker. She remains convinced that her mother feels the same way:

“I live a secret life in Mum’s mind and Mum lives a secret one in mine, but I’m in the process of unearthing her from the darkness, dragging her out into the light, and slowly she emerges because I want it to happen.”

Is Mother Dead could be regarded as a companion piece to Will and Testament. In the latter it is Bergjlot’s decision to break off ties with her family (“the thought of never having to see them again gave me instant relief”); here, Johanna wishes to renew them. In both cases Hjorth powerfully exposes the cracks and fissures which divide families and the desperate remedies we adopt to either paper them over or peer inside.

International Booker Prize 2023

March 14, 2023

Six of the eventual International Booker long list were mentioned in my predictions, a reasonable hit rate given that of two of the books I failed to feature (Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv and While We Were Dreaming) have yet to be published. The former, by Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov, could perhaps have been predicted, especially with a translator from Ukrainian on the judging panel (although Kurkov writes his fiction in Russian).  The latter is also far from a surprise as Clemens Meyer’s previous novel, Bricks and Mortar, was long-listed in 2017. (I say previous, but While We Were Dreaming is his debut, only now translated).

Meyer’s novel is one of three published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in what is another fantastic year for them. This achievement should not be under-estimated – such consistency is remarkable given that the judging panel changes entirely each time. Still Born is one of two novels on the list I have read, and I was very keen to see it there. The Birthday Party, I said, “sounds the most fun” and now we shall find out. The other book I have read is Is Mother Dead, which I can also full-heartedly endorse – I’ve loved each one of Hjorth’s novels. Time Shelter was also one of my favourites, a position enhanced by actually owning a copy. And, finally, Whale and Ninth Building, representing Korea and China respectively, also made it into my suggestions.

Other novels were omitted largely by my ignorance – Boulder unforgivably so as I very much enjoyed Permafrost. Maryse Conde becomes the oldest author to be included – so old, in fact, that the only previous novel I have read, Segou, is a Penguin Classic. Pyre is the first novel translated from Tamil to be recognised. And the remaining two novels originate in France (Standing Heavy) and Sweden (A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding).

In fact, after a measly four selections in 2022, which hinted at a more global outlook for the prize, Europe is back in force with eight out of the thirteen books originating in that continent. Of the remaining books, three are from Asia and one each from Africa and South America. And it is Latin America which feels like this year’s loser. Both Mariana Enriquez and Nona Fernandez were tipped by many as potential inclusions, and Charco Press miss out after being short-listed in two of the last three years. I feel partly responsible for the absence of Our Share of Night as, having generally failed to read the entire long list due to the longer books, I foolishly read this in advance. Nothing quite meets this level of challenge, or last year’s 900 page The Books of Jacob, but the judges have included three over 500 (and another over 400). Oh well. Time to start reading.

Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches

Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan, translated by Chi-Young Kim

The Gospel According to the New World by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox

Standing Heavy by GauZ’, translated by Frank Wynne

Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Angela Rodel

Is Mother Dead by Vigdis Hjorth, translated by Charlotte Barslund

Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Reuben Woolley

The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, translated by Daniel Levin Becker

While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire

Pyre by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan 

Still Born by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Rosalind Harvey

A System So Magnificent It Is Blinding by Amanda Svensson, translated by Nichola Smalley

Ninth Building by Zou Jingzhi, translated by Jeremy Tiang

Breakfast of Champions

March 5, 2023

In an excellent article on Kurt Vonnegut last year, John Self described Breakfast of Champions as a transitional novel “where Vonnegut perfects his mid-to-late style of short paragraphs, avuncular wisdom and comical line drawings”. Rereading the novel (which I first read thirty years ago, twenty years after it was first published), I was astonished at how comforting that style was despite the fathomless despair which lies behind the humour. In his later novels, Vonnegut’s meandering style can give the impression he has lost control of the narrative, but here, despite numerous circumlocutions and interruptions, that is never the case. This is perhaps because the novel’s dynamics are outlined in its opening line:

“This is a tale of the meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”

The two men are car dealer Dwayne Hoover and science fiction author Kilgore Trout. Trout, the author of over 117 novels and 2,000 short stories, most of which were published in pornographic magazines, makes an appearance in many of Vonnegut’s novels, albeit with a lack of consistency that would bemuse even a scholar of the Marvel universe. He is sometimes seen as Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego, but Vonnegut himself will appear before the novel is finished:

“I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created: Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. I was not eager to be recognised.”

The story is not complicated. Dwayne, unbeknownst to those around him, is suffering from an unspecified mental illness:

“Dwayne Hoover’s body was manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalanced his mankind. But Dwayne, like all novice lunatics, needed some bad ideas too, so that his craziness could have shape and direction.”

These bad ideas will come unwittingly from Kilgore Trout in the form of his novel Now It Can Be Told which, in a letter written by the creator and addressed to the reader, will reveal that everyone else on Earth is a robot, built as part of an experiment to test the only creature with free will – taking this literally will lead Dwayne Hoover to believe he is the only real person and this realisation will cause Dwayne to commit a series of violent acts at the novel’s conclusion. Dwayne and Kilgore will meet because Trout has been invited to the inaugural Midland City Arts Festival at the request of another recurring Vonnegut character, Eliot Rosewater, who has loaned the festival a painting on the condition that his favourite author appear.

Before then, however, Vonnegut will delight in delivering his damning verdict on the United States of America, summing up its raison d’etre as follows:

“Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold onto it.”

It would be fair to say that Vonnegut has little time for the myths which support America’s sense of identity, beginning with its ‘discovery’:

“Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.”

Its history is general is condemned as largely fictional, as exemplified in the novel by the ‘Sacred Miracle Cave’, discovered after an earthquake on Dwayne’s  father’s farm, and now a tourist attraction founded on the story that it had been used by escaped slaves which, Vonnegut tells us, is “as fake as the one about Jesse James.” It is also threatened by the other great pillar of American identity, business, as it fills with “some sort of industrial waste which formed bubbles as tough as ping-pong balls.” Later Trout will dangle his feet in the local river only to find them immediately coated in a film of impossible to remove plastic.

Beyond its central narrative, the novel is decorated with delightful diversions, all of which add to Vonnegut’s portrait of his country. The title, he begins by telling us, is the property of a breakfast cereal, and its alternative title (Goodbye Blue Monday!) originates from a washing machine advert. As Trout travels to the festival, Vonnegut interjects pictures of the trucks and vans emblazoned with meaningless words he passes. He also adds the character of Wayne Hoobler, a faint echo of Dwayne Hoover, but with a very different life, having spent most of it in jail. He now hopes Dwayne can give him the opportunity he needs to turn his life around. Each of these contributes to the novel’s success and to Vonnegut’s excoriating critique of the USA, which rings as true fifty years on as it did then.

International Booker Prize Predictions 2023

March 1, 2023

In two weeks, the long list for the International Booker Prize 2023 will be announced and so it must be time to once again try (and fail) to predict what might appear among those 12 (or 13) books. Han Kang’s Greek Lessons must be counted among the favourites, if only because it will not be available until 27th April so very few people can say otherwise. Kang (and translator Deborah Smith) won the prize in 2016 with The Vegetarian and were shortlisted in 2018 for The White Book so certainly have the pedigree. Samanta Schweblin, who has been at least long-listed for every one of her books translated into English so far, should not be discounted, though a short story collection such as Seven Empty Houses is a longer shot than a novel. Her translator, Megan McDowell, may have more luck with another Argentinian author, Mariana Enriquez, whose Our Share of Night, is both original and epic – Enriquez was shortlisted for The Dangers of Smoking in Bed in 2021. Colombian Juan Gabriel Vasquez – last seen in 2019 with The Shape of the Ruins – has written another very long novel in Retrospective (translated by Anne McLean) with the historical range and extensive page count prize juries often value.  Elsewhere in Latin America, Yuri Herrera’s Ten Planets (translated by Lisa Dillman) seems too slight, and Juan Pablo Villalobos Invasion of the Spirit People (translated by Rosalind Harvey) too strange to make it, talented as both writers are. I will, however, be very disappointed if neither of Nona Fernandez’s novels (Space Invaders and The Twilight Zone, both translated by Natasha Wimmer) are there.

Fitzcarraldo Editions, once neglected by the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but now the darling of the International Booker (not to mention the Nobel), also have some eligible Latin American authors. I would be delighted to see Guadalupe Nettel’s Still Born feature and Alejandro Zambra has two (very short) novels: Bonsai – a new translation by Megan McDowell – and The Private Lives of Trees, which McDowell translated in 2010. It is a similar story for Jon Fosse as whose Aliss in the Fire (translated by Damion Searls in 2010) is the latest addition to Fitzcarraldo’s catalogue. In entertainment terms, however, Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party (translated by Daniel Levin Becker) sounds the most fun. Among other small presses, Charco Press have already graced the short list in recent years (2020 and 2022) though there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on a stand-out title this year. Les Fugitives may have more luck with Maylis de Kerangal’s Eastbound (translated by Jessica Moore), a prescient tale of Russian conscription. If Lolli Editions are to make it three prize lists in a row, their most likely entry is perhaps Amalie Smith’s Thread Ripper (translated by Jennifer Russell). Peirene Press also have a contender in Of Saints and Miracles by Manuel Astur (translated by Claire Wadie) – Body Kintsugi is too grim; History. A Mess a little too messy.

Europe is usually the dominant continent on the long list, often making up more than half the entries. Not so last year, when only four European writers were selected. It would not surprise me if this were to happen again as there are few major European writers in contention. Orhan Pamuk, a favourite of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, has another enormous novel out, Nights of Plague (translated by Ekin Oklap) and Patrick Modiano has another slim one, Scene of the Crime (translated by Mark Polizzotti), but Nobel Prize winners rarely do well. Perhaps this year Vigdis Hjorth, so far neglected by the judges, will be rewarded for Is Mother Dead (translated by Charlotte Barslund). Veronique Olmi’s more conventional Daughters Beyond Command revisits the France of the seventies in the form of a socially aware family saga and would be popular with a wider readership – Olmi was long-listed for the IFFP in 2011. Perhaps the most likely European inclusion, however, would be an experienced writer making his prize debut: Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter (translated by Angela Rodel), his first novel to get a UK publication.

Previously listed Japanese writers Mieko Kawakami and Yoko Tawada have eligible novels, but I found both All the Lovers in the Night and Scattered All Over the Earth underwhelming. Chinese fiction is strongly represented by World Editions in the shape of Zang Yueran’s Cocoon (translated by last year’s juror, Jeremy Tiang, who may also feature with Zou Jingzhi’s Ninth Building), and might we see a return of IFFP favourite Yan Lianke with Heart Sutra (translated, as usual, by Carlos Rojas)? Korean fiction beyond Han Kang can be found in Whale by Cheong Myeong-Kwan (translated by Chi-Young Kim and published by Europa Editions). African entries are rarer with so many African writers writing in English, but perhaps Tilted Axis Press, who did so well last year, might fill the gap with So Distant from My Life by Monique Ilboudo (translated by Yarri Kamari).

Last year’s long list was the most diverse yet, more global than previous selections. Whether that remains the case is, of course, not simply up to the judges but also to publishers – where, for example, are the potential entries from the middle east this year? More importantly, the quality was high in 2022 – the eventual victor triumphing over writers who had won in 2017 and 2018. Diversity and quality are what I hope for again in 2023, even if all my predictions are wrong.