Archive for the ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996’ Category

The Gardens of Light

October 18, 2020

The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prise in 2003 for Balthasar’s Odyssey, until this year the most recent of his novels to appear in English. In 1996 his 1991 novel The Gardens of Light was translated from French by Dorothy S. Blair and may very well have been selected then as well had the prize not been temporarily paused. Like almost all of Maalouf’s novels, it is historical (the exception, The First Century after Beatrice, is set in the future). Set in the third century, it tells the life story of Mani, founder of Manichaeism, a religion which sought to unify Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Though now largely forgotten, or remembered only as an adjective, for four hundred years Manichaeism was a popular religion, with believers spread across various empires from Rome to China. Maalouf’s novel is a sincere attempt to imaginatively recreate the life of this important historical figure.

The story begins with Mani’s father, Patek, who himself is a seeker of spiritual truth, on the day he meets the religious teacher Sittai. He warns Patek that enlightenment comes at a cost:

“Truth is an exacting mistress, Patek, tolerating no disloyalty. You owe her all your adoration; every moment of your life must be devoted to her.”

Sittai invites Patek to join his religious community, but warns him he will have to renounce meat, alcohol and women. Patek is already married, and his wife pregnant, but he goes along with Sittae deciding he will collect his child later if it is a boy. Here Maalouf establishes religion as something central to life, which supersedes all other markers of identity including family and rank.

The child is, of course, Mani, who joins his father in the religious community where he now lives. He is a model pupil, in contrast to his best friends, Malchos, who dreams only of leaving, marrying a beautiful woman and starting a profitable business. Here we see the doubleness so important in Manichaeism echoed in Mani’s life. It is as a result of this friendship that Mani begins to visit the home of a Greek in town (strictly forbidden) and there the first seed of the faith he will develop is sown when he asks to restore a mural in the house. Once the work is complete he identifies one of the figures as John the Baptist, “Not at all,” the Greek tells him:

“…there was never any Baptist in this room. It must have been the goddess Demeter, mother of corn, or Artemis, the huntress, or Dionysus, the one all our banquets are dedicated to…”

It seems likely that we are to assume the idea of the interconnectedness of religions originates here. It is not, however, until he is twenty-four that he leaves his father’s community:

“If he stayed on so long with the White-clad Brethren, even though he rejected their practices and their beliefs, even though he suffered every day by having to live cheek by jowl with them, it was possibly because his desire to leave was accompanied by fear to which he was ashamed to admit.”

It’s worth noticing that Maalouf does not attempt to ‘modernise’ Mani by presenting his interior monologue. For the most part we remain on the outside; such aspects as the spiritual twin from whom Mani gets advice are presented at face value.

The most gripping part of the novel recounts Mani’s attempt to establish his religion, a dangerous mission at a time when religion and power are often intertwined, and anything which challenges religious orthodoxy can also be seen as a threat to political order. Mani encounters power when he is sent by the merchants of Deb to sue the Sassanian emperor, currently surrounding the city, for peace. Though the emperor does not convert to Manichaeism, he allows Mani to preach and sees him as a trusted advisor. From then on, however, Mani finds himself embroiled in court battles, opposed by the emperor’s Zoroastrian retinue:

“Many people have warned me against you, Mani, during all these years. Those who are envious and jealous, but also certain people whom I believe to be devoted and sincere… How can you count among your intimates someone who rejoices in your hesitation and will tomorrow grieve over your victories?”

Mani must decide whether to compromise his beliefs in order to ensure they are spread more widely.

As someone who left Lebanon as a result of the civil war of 1975, it’s not difficult to see the attraction for Maalouf of a religious figure who seeks to unite different religions rather than divide. His career as a writer also suggests an interest in demonstrating to Europe (he writes in French) the complex and varied history of the ‘East’. There is little attempt to impose contemporary psychology on his characters which can make them appear flat and distant, but his story-telling is wonderful and the reader quickly becomes entranced by the vibrancy of the setting and the vitality of the tale.


September 29, 2020

Milan Kundera (and translator Peter Kussi) won the second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1991 with Immortality so there is every reason to suppose he would have made the long list with his following novel, Slowness, in 1996, this time with a different translator, Linda Asher, this being the first novel he wrote in French. Kundera himself features occasionally in the novel as he travels to and then stays in the chateau which is the setting for its stories, waking his wife as his restless imagination invades her dreams, “as if you’re dreams are a wastebasket where I toss pages that are too stupid.” Aware that he is inventing a new novel, she recalls:

“You’ve often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it.”

It’s difficult to resist the idea that Slowness is that novel, particularly as it descends into farce in the final pages.

Kundera first considers the concept of slowness as he drives to the chateau increasingly aware of the impatience of the driver behind him:

“Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.”

In contrast he recounts an 18th century French novella which tells the story of a young Chevalier who spends the night with a married woman only to discover he has been used as a decoy to disguise her true lover. Of the woman, Madame T, Kundera imagines “a gentle indolence emanates from her” and that “their adventure might bloom in all its splendid slowness.” Slowness not only allows us to experience but to remember:

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.”

Later, Kundera will contrast this encounter with a more modern one which seems grotesque in comparison. This second story begins with another idea (Kundera is nothing if not discursive), that of the ‘dancer’. A dancer, according to the character Pontevin, is someone who is performative in their moral actions: “The dancer differs from the politician in that he seeks not power but glory.” Berck, he says, is the “king of dancers”, but he begins with a story of him being out-manoeuvred when another ‘dancer’ kisses a man with AIDS at a dinner. Realising he cannot either copy or outdo him, Berck instead flies to Africa “and got himself photographed alongside a little dying black girl whose face was covered with flies.” As Pontevin says:

“Taking over the stage requires keeping people off it.”

In this Kundera seems to be outlining virtue-signalling (and those that condemn it) well before that phrase came into common use, summing up the attitude of the dancer as follows:

“He is in love with his life the way a sculptor might be in love with the statue he is carving.”

In this way, Pontevin sends his friend (though a clearly inferior friend) Vincent to the chateau and a conference of entomologists where Breck will be making an appearance. It is there Vincent embarks on the grotesque amorous encounter mentioned earlier which ends in simulated sodomy by the hotel pool and includes the author addressing Vincent’s member in an attempt to understand its lack of arousal. (A scene which, as in a farce, will involve all the characters coinciding in the venue, each one ridiculous in their own way).

One of these is a Czech scientist, attending the conference after years of being denied his position in his own country. This, we are told, makes him feel, a “melancholy pride”, even though he was never really in opposition to the government, a fact he has slowly forgotten over time. When he tells this story to the conference he receives a rapturous response, led, of course, by Breck:

“…he feels famous and he wants his walk to his seat to be long and never-ending.”

Kundera has great fun with this character, no doubt recycling many personal incidents, as his name is either pronounced or spelt wrong (or both), central European capitals are mentioned interchangeably, and his country is referred to as being in the ‘east’. He is in the pool to shown off the muscles he has developed through manual labour through a series of handstands, another reason for his pride.

All the characters, in fact, are exposed to the reader’s laughter in one way or another, but at the same time Kundera is usually gentle in his ridicule. We understand the anxieties which lead them to expose themselves (though perhaps less so with the female characters) and therefore we rarely feel Kundera is vicious in the spot-lighting of their weaknesses. This can, however, have a distancing effect and, for some readers, it may seem too much like his characters are merely experiments in an idea, but the laughter – sometimes cringing, sometimes cruel – always feels very human. Slowness is a novel to enjoy, whether it is read languorously or at pace.

The Pyramid

September 19, 2020

In 1996 Ismail Kadare had already been short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (for The Palace of Dreams in 1993) and would go on to be selected for inclusion in at least the long list another four times (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2013) before eventually winning the Man Booker International Prize when it was awarded to an author for their body of work rather than for a particular novel. During the nineties much of his work was being translated not from the original Albanian but via French translations – as is the case with The Pyramid where David Bellos has translated for the translation of Jusuf Vrioni (presumably, had he won, the prize would have been split three ways).

The Pyramid, like The Palace of Dreams, is one of Kadare’s historical novels, set, on this occasion, in Ancient Egypt. It begins with the ascent of the pharaoh Cheops to the throne, and his comment that “he might perhaps not wish to have a pyramid erected for him.” The resultant panic among courtiers and advisers leads to the realisation that nobody is entirely certain why the building of pyramids began in the first place:

“They were hunting for the idea that led to the conception of pyramids, the secret reason for their existence: and that was what kept eluding them.”

Eventually they tell the pharaoh that the construction of the first pyramid was the result of a crisis, but:

“The cause of this crisis was unheard of, strange, indeed quite baffling. An unprecedented, perfidious cause: the crisis had not been provoked by poverty, the late flooding of the Nile or by pestilence, as had always been the case previously, but, on the contrary, by abundance.”

In other words, the first pyramid was built to eliminate prosperity as this was becoming a threat to authority. It should be obvious by now that Kadare’s novel is not a meticulously researched historical recreation but a rather savage satire – the first project suggested to make people poorer, for example, is to dig a bottomless pit. It’s always tempting at this point to read the novel as a satire of Albania, written as a historical novel to avoid censorship, but, though there is some truth in this, Kadare’s understanding of the absurdities of dictatorship are such that to confine his barbs to one particular regime seems unnecessarily reductive. Kadare’s description of the pyramid – “domination of the rabble; the narrowing of its mind; the weakening of its will; monotony; and waste” – could apply to many a leader’s vainglorious building project.

The pyramid requires lengthy preparing – the sourcing of stone, the building of access roads, and, of course, the arrival of cartloads of whips. Almost everyone involved in the planning lives in perpetual fear, particularly those who are designing the secret entrances and exits:

“All sorts of pretexts were found for convicting and suppressing them, but the real reason for such measures was well known: to bury the secrets with the inventors.”

In this atmosphere of paranoia, rumours of plots are commonplace: one, for example, begins with a glowing block of basalt which is apparently intended to “transmit nefarious rays so that, once in the pyramid, it would draw an ill fate upon it.” Torture and execution are accepted working conditions – a government member who suggests that the construction be suspended to demonstrate that the pharaoh is immortal (an obviously obsequious comment) is dissected alive, having his tongue removed first for daring to utter this contradiction to official policy. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, are caused by the construction itself, and at points Kadare describes this stone by stone:

“As if it had nothing more urgent to do than fulfil the quota of corpses spared by its predecessor, the eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-fifth stone wrought havoc amongst its carriers.”

Further complications are caused when Cheops insists he doesn’t want to be placed beneath the pyramid but in the middle.

There is a sense that Kadare is having fun writing this novel, with throwaway comments such as describing a delegation of Greeks as “backwards” and ridiculing the Sumerian ambassador’s written report (the Sumerians having invented an alphabet) which, transcribed onto clay tablets, is being transported in two carts and “weighed about the same as the side of a house.” But perhaps he is having more fun than reader. The novel is short but its jokily superior tone becomes a little wearing, especially as it almost entirely lacks characters. Cheops is the only named figure to appear with any regularity but he remains as aloof from the reader as he does from his subjects (“Cheops visage remained impenetrable”). In fact, it is only when grave robbers appear in a coda that we feel among real people. The novel is successful as far as it aims to be. Its critique of power – irrational, trivial absurd, yet fatal – is both accurate and amusing, but Kadare has been equally clear-sighted in other novels which offer a more human counterpoint. For those who are new to his work, this is unlikely to be the best place to begin.

In the Hold

September 10, 2020

Vladimir Asrenijevic’s In the Hold is an anti-war novel which never quite reaches the war. It was the Serbian writer’s debut novel and won the prestigious NIN Prize in Yugoslavia in 1994 shortly before Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It is set in 1991 as thousands of Serbians are being conscripted in the fight against Croatian independence. At the time, Aresenjevic claimed that he did not set out to write about the deteriorating political situation:

“I wanted to tell a family story. I set it in the present–wartime–the time in which I happen to live. So my family tale turned into a nightmare.”

The novel, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, is, in fact, subtitled ‘A Soap Opera’, and largely revolves around the family and friends of the narrator: his wife, Angela, who is pregnant with their first child; her brother, Lazar, whose life as a follower of Hari Krishna is interrupted by his call-up papers; and his friend, Dejan, who used to be a drummer in a band but has returned from the war minus one arm.

The novel, in one sense, is about leaving youth behind, Angela’s pregnancy being one sign of impending adult responsibilities. We learn that the narrator and his wife’s younger days were one wild, drug-taking party – indeed, Angela was a dealer – but now he sees himself becoming his father, adopting the “domestic habits which, when we are teenagers, help us hate our fathers in precise detail,” – in this case, an afternoon nap. At the same time, any thought of the future is filled with dread:

“…I lacked the energy to confront everyday life. Troubles attract troubles, I reflected, they will leapfrog over one another, and I shall not be able to withstand the torrent when it starts to roar. I saw myself, calm in the face of the impending catastrophe, like a calf blinking meekly before the sentence of the butcher’s hammer.”

Despite this, both he and Angela are looking forward to their child being born, but they are worried about Lazar when they discover that his parents have accepted his conscription papers. “You have to hide!” Angela tells him, but Lazar is sanguine:”…none of it matters. It’s a question of karma.” The narrator lives in fear of his own conscription:

“…in so far as there was anything I feared, it was the drafters. Once they knocked for a long time on our next door neighbour’s door.”

Dejan, meanwhile, attempts to restart his life, though the narrator suspects that his missing arm is not the only difference since his return:

“Dejan bravely did all he could to give the impression of a person with whom all was absolutely well, but some sort of change – a change which was of course harder to detect than the brutal absence of his right arm – undermined that extraordinary day-long effort and spoiled it.”

Dejan talks about starting a dating agency, and then later sends the narrator t-shirts he has designed. Dejan’s determination to succeed becomes important to the narrator’s own attempts at optimism.

In the Hold, then, is a series of small stories. The novel takes place over only three months – October to December 1991. Arsenijevic captures the microscopic moments of everyday life while the conflict looms in the background, still in its early stages:

“At that time the war had not yet hit us in the face with a knot of human innards; it crushed us in wiser ways.”

Friends leave the country, maintaining that “their departure had absolutely nothing to do with the war.” Reports of the fighting dominate the news bulletins:

“Angela wept, leaning her chin on the arm of the sofa, as she watched splinters of the devastated settlements of the Danube and Vuka in the background of the rustic-featured, wartime TV reporter’s saccharine outpourings.”

As we can see, he does this with an ironic wit that extends to the title which refers to the part of a ship where, according to Arsenijevic, should it start sinking, “you have little chance of surviving but you can remain alive the longest.” Here is how he describes the attitude which allows everyday life to continue as normal:

“…like many of my fellow citizens, I endeavoured to move along the spittle-covered streets with the trained step of a native, who walks without fear along the foot of a live volcano on the island where his tribe has survived, despite the many victims claimed by the volcano, for generations.”

Although it is a slight novel, and plot is secondary, the atmosphere impresses on the reader a desperate conflict between encroaching war and ironic optimism. It is very much a novel that would have found new readers by being long listed for an award, as it could well have been had the 1996 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize occurred, having charm that is hard to resist. The conflict it describes in its infancy continues to be the subject of Balkan literature to this day; it would be a pity if this early novel were forgotten.

Hypnotism Made Easy

August 20, 2020

Marie Nimier is a French author who has written numerous novels, only two of which seem to have been translated into English – The Giraffe in 1995 and Hypnotism Made Easy (by Sophie Hawkes) in 1996, making eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list of that year. Hypnotism Made Easy is a coming-of-age story based around the titular handbook which the narrator, Cora, finds in a house which her family have rented for a holiday. So intrigued is she that she decides to take the book with her, intending to gradually acquaint herself with its contents, and linking it specifically to her strong desire to leave childhood behind:

“I would read these pages bit by bit, so that the treatise would accompany me until the day I came of age.”

The first lesson involves a form of self-hypnosis which she finds soothing:

“My outward appearance did not change at all, but inside, beneath the skin, I dreamed on in peace.”

This seems harmless, but it is already clear that the threat of hypnosis is not an idle one, and a further warning occurs when, in a later holiday, she uses the next chapter to hypnotise another young girl, but then finds herself unable to wake her:

“The day before we left she succeeded in cornering me near the telephone booth and calling me a witch.”

Cora’s earlier attempts to practise on animals have been scuppered by a fraudulent parakeet which begins dripping dye on the day it is purchased and has to be returned to the pet shop. It stands a symbol for the deceptive appearances which will trouble Cora’s love life.

Cora’s love is currently focused on her uncle, Paul, despite the mental difficulties which has resulted in hospitalisation and a refusal to eat. The affection is reciprocated – “They admitted that my uncle had often clamoured for me” – and it is Cora who eventually convinces him to eat again, using the book to help her. On Cora’s part, however, the love is laced with desire:

“My whole body shook upon contact with his skin.”

When he is discharged from hospital and begins living with his speech therapist, Cora is delighted to discover that his lover is jealous of her. She uses her hypnotic powers to ensure they can spend time alone:

“In order to rid ourselves of her, I set about giving her a headache.”

Despite their intimacy, Paul refuses Cora’s physical advances, which reach a ridiculous crisis when she threatens to deflower herself with a zucchini if he will not undertake the job himself:

“If anything were obscene, wasn’t it the innocent way he held me on his knees, as if I were still ten years old.”

Instead she turns first to a travelling hypnotist, Katz, and then (in the same night) her gym teacher, Leo. The loss of her virginity, however, does not change the in the way she had hoped:

“Virgin or no, the date remained the same. I was wrong to believe in the miracle of the two square inches.”

Though Katz is perturbed to discover she is still in high school, he promises that he will return for her when she is eighteen and make her part of his show, a promise which he keeps. Her new life, however, does not live up to her expectations: “I had thought I was escaping: in fact I was drowning.” Slowly we begin to suspect that Katz may be using hypnosis on Cora outwith the show. An interesting comparison can be made with Katz’s original assistant, Pedro whom Cora initially described as “like a poodle waiting for a biscuit.” Pedro seems like a comic character, often badly treated by Katz, but later Cora falls into the same role:

“…like an animal that seeks its master’s affection, I would sprawl all over him.”

Katz, for example, burns Cora with a lighter in order to prove his powers, and later wants her to open the show by stripping, despite her objections. At the same time she finds it difficult to remember things (“I wasn’t even twenty and I was losing my memory”) so she begins to write everything down. However, when she later looks at her journal:

“I discovered absurd, incomprehensible things there, written in my own hand.”

For all the sinister undertones of the second half, Hypnotism Made Easy is a very readable, sympathetic novel. Nimier uses hypnotism to explore adolescence and love which, for many, is a kind of madness. That Katz wants an assistant rather than an apprentice, and that he wishes her to be under his spell both on and off stage, feels like the perfect metaphor for many relationships. Cora herself is endearing even when wrong-headed, and can be easily admired in her foolishness. Most readers will hope for a happy ending she deserves. Hypnotism Made Easy is perhaps not prize-winning material, but it certainly earns its place on the long list, and will make any reader wonder why Nimier has not been translated since.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga

August 9, 2020

When publishers who, over the years, have expanded our knowledge of literature beyond the narrow confines of Europe and North America are praised, one which is often forgotten is the Heinemann African Writer series (and its companion Caribbean Writers series). This may be because much of what they published was originally written in English, or because it lay beneath often unsophisticated covers, but the fact remains that they bought the most famous African writers – Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Woly Soyinka – to a wider audience, and brought many other important writers to the attention of the West, including some, like Ayi Kwie Armah, who remain trapped in expensive, out-of-print editions. Some of their work was, however, translated, including Mariam Ba’s So Long a Letter, which remains a key text by an African woman writer. Calixthe Beyala was another writer who benefitted from the series as Heinemann published three of her novels in translation during the 1990s, including Your Name Shall Be Tanga in 1996, making her eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Beyala had a busy 1996, winning Acadmie Franaise’s Grand Prix du Roman while at the same time being accused of plagiarising Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Already a controversial figure in her home country of Cameroon due to her ‘pornographic’ writing and feminism, and currently embroiled in a dispute with a journalist who has been imprisoned on a charge of defaming her, it’s probably best to focus on the novel in question. Your Name Shall Be Tanga, which was originally published in French in 1988, and translated by Marjolijn de Jager in 1996, tells the story of two women placed together in the same prison cell. Anna-Claude is a French teacher who has come to Africa in a kind of madness, in search of the imaginary husband she believes is waiting for her. When some of her students disappear she protests and is arrested as a ‘subversive.’ When a young Cameroonian girl is put in the cell with her, she asks her to share her story:

“Give me your story. I am your deliverance. You have to assassinate the silence that you drag behind you like a dead skin.”

The novel’s title is explained when the girl decides that she will tell Anna-Claude the story of her life:

“Give me your hand; from now on you shall be me. You shall be seventeen seasons old, you shall be black, your name shall be Tanga.”

Tanga’s story is one of unrelenting abuse. It begins with her father who, already regularly unfaithful to her mother, “would later rip me apart in the budding of my twelfth year.” Her mother pretends ignorance, even when she falls pregnant, “coughed discreetly into her skirts when she saw me give birth to the child her man had sired.” From there it is a short step to child prostitution:

“I brought my body to the crossroads of other lives. I put it underneath the light. A man approached me. I smiled. I followed. I undid my clothes. I placed my body on the bed, underneath his muscles.”

The novel is not without hope but, as Tanga lies dying in a prison cell, we know these hopes are futile. When she meets Hassan she refutes the suggestion she is a whore – “I refuse the costume which he wants to put on my back” – in the hope of something better:

“I’ve decided to live, I’ve nothing to do with mother old one any longer. She pasted so much sludge onto my both that all the tidewaters couldn’t wash it away…”

When Tanga suggests marriage, however, she never sees Hassan again – she may not want to be a whore but that is all men can see in her; it is as much a prison as the one she now finds herself in.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga is a very bleak novel which portrays life for most of its character as hopeless, particularly for women. This is illustrated by Tanga’s younger sister who is ready to follow in her footsteps – “Aren’t I pretty?” she asks her. When Tanga tells her she should learn how to read instead, she accuses her of being jealous. But male characters suffer too. Take Footwreck, for example, whom Tanga attempts to ‘adopt’. Neglected as a child, rats have eaten his feet – also demonstrating (as with Tanga’s mother) that woman are not simply victims. When Tanga angers the butcher, it looks like he is going to rape her, but instead he cries. When Tanga tells him “a real man, never lets a tear drop,” he replies:

“You can’t become a man without having first been a child, you understand?”

The novel’s desolation is made bearable by the liveliness of its language, though this can at times seem overwritten. Take, for example, “Our eyes meet – they rub against each other. They go on and on and resound in me.” If the first sentence has a certain exaggerated charm, the second ironically goes on and on, and ‘resound’ feels like it has little to do with ‘rubbing’ Later in the same paragraph another metaphor is attempted: “our eyes that are there like a curtain hung between two half-open doors.” At times there is a joy in this unrestrained imagery, but at other times it is clumsy and distracting.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga is a horrific portrait of poverty in Cameroon, and the callous exploitation of children. It is written with (a sometimes overwhelming) linguistic power and certainly deserves its place on the long list.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me

July 23, 2020

What plot there is in Javier Marias’ novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (published in 1994 and translated by Margaret Jull Costa in 1996 and therefore eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of that year) is largely at the beginning and the end, and even then it is as much about what doesn’t happen as what does. The novel opens with our narrator, Victor, in bed with another man’s wife. The woman in question, however is dead, as we discover from the first sentence, which, typically, is posed as an abstract thought rather than a moment of panic:

“No one ever expects that they might someday find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again but whose name they will remember.”

Before they can make love, Marta feels unwell (“I feel absolutely deathly,” she says) and can only lie on the bed half-undressed hoping her indisposition passes quickly. Even as it becomes clear that her condition is worsening, Victor does nothing but hold her:

“I obeyed, I waited, I did nothing and I phoned no one, I just returned to my place on the bed, which was not really my place, though it was mine that night, I lay down by her side again…”

Once he realises Marta is dead he must again decide whether to act, getting as far as phoning the hotel in London where her husband, Dean, is staying only to find that they have no guest of that name. Eventually he leaves, aware that Marta’s two-year-old son will wake the next day to find his mother dead, but reassured “this child will not recognise me if he sees me again in the distant future.” He leaves with the father’s contact details, the tape from the answering machine, and Marta’s bra, heedlessly stuffed in his pocket earlier, for all the world like a killer.

From this point, the novel largely tells of Victor’s attempts to ingratiate himself with Marta’s family, like a creepy stalker in an eighties thriller. Firstly, an appearance at her funeral, but later through using a contact to gain an opportunity to work with her father, Tellez, as a speechwriter for the king. (It’s no surprise that Victor is a ghost writer in a story full of ghosts, as well as a scriptwriter for television shows which don’t get made). This entails Victor’s presence at a family dinner with Tellez, Dean and Marta’s sister, Luisa, where Marta’s death and the custody of her son is discussed, with Tellez commenting bitterly to Marta’s husband:

“I’m not so unreasonable to blame you for not having saved her when no salvation was possible, I blame you for the fact that Marta died alone.”

Though Dean may suspect, even know, that Marta was not alone, he is unable to tell her father. Meanwhile Victor sits silently, like the ghost at the feast. Inexorably, the novel moves towards the point where Victor will tell Dean about the night his wife died and Dean, in turn, will tell Victor a secret of his own.

Of course, with Marias, the journey is more important than the destination, with long, meandering sentences that wind their way through two or three ideas before reaching their full stop. Marias reveals one of his main concerns, the border land between thought and memory, at the end of the first chapter:

“’Tomorrow on the battle think on me,’ I thought or, rather, remembered.”

he quotation, which forms the novel’s title, is from the final act of Richard III on the night before the Battel of Bosworth Field, when Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those he has killed wishing defeat on him. It is, in part, a dream of guilt, the guilt that Victor perhaps feels on abandoning Marta, but it also is both a memory (of his victims) and a thought (that is, they have not actually said those words to him). In the novel this difficulty in distinguishing between memory and thought extends to an uncertainty regarding how well we know others. When Victor visits the palace, the King – who already has to speak the words others write for him – complains about how little known he is for all that he is “under the microscope”:

“…despite all this vigilance and study, they still don’t really know me, my personality is still as vague as ever…”

Victor, meanwhile, is there under the name of his friend, Ruiberriz, through whom he gained the commission (there is a scene later featuring both of them at the race track where Ruiberriz has to assume Victor’s name in turn). This preoccupation goes some way to explaining a long scene in which Victor picks up a prostitute convinced that she is his ex-wife (while giving her another assumed name, Javier):

“…she still looked too much like Celia for me to feel distrustful or to decide that it wasn’t her. Anyway, it was her, even if it wasn’t.”

These confusions within the narrative destabilise identity and force the reader to question how they ‘know’ people, a mixture of memory and thought. We realise not only how reliant we are on the narrator of this story, but on the narrator of our own.

Javier Marias was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for the second part of the Your Face Tomorrow (a phrase that crops up here) trilogy and long-listed in 2010 for part three. As a major European novelist it is could be regarded as strange that he has never won it, but perhaps that is because this would have been the year. 

The Trap

July 14, 2020

The Trap is the third novel in Ana Maria Matute’s Los mercaderes (The Merchants) trilogy, the first of which, The Island, was published in a new translation earlier this year. Originally published in 1964, it was translated by Robert Nugent and Maria Jose de la Camara in 1996 and, although it was released by a US university press, I placed it on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list of 1996 to ensure there was at least a moderate representation of women writers.

The Trap is a very different book to The Island, written with little regard to plot, and described on the first page as a ‘Disordered Diary’. In the opening chapter Matia is back “in this island within the island” as her grandmother prepares to celebrate her ninety-ninth birthday (or rather celebrate her hundredth birthday on her ninety-ninth). The tone is bitter:

“She is like a stationery mockery of life and death. A sedentary outrage, without any emotion, in the presence of life and death.”

“Ruin is never her ruin,” Matia goes on to say, “Death is never her death… What does not happen to her does not happen to anybody.” (Does the grandmother represent Spain? “I was born in tyranny, I will die in it,” Matia later says). Already we see the novel’s strength and weakness: the language is powerful and emotive but the emotions feel unearned – particularly if you have not read the previous books. Matia also mentions Borja who, in The Island, was a boy only a little older than her:

“The eyes of that boy who cried once, on a certain daybreak, no longer exist. They have turned yellowish with the years. No one could any longer believe them to be golden, or pale green, like this June sky.”

Returning to the island revives a sense of being trapped – “the feeling of a hidden snare does not leave me” – and the diary, in opposition, “would be one of the many free acts of my life.” The novel, then, is Matia trying to make sense of her life, and in particular her relationship with her son, Bear, who is at the centre of the next chapter. However, Matia herself is almost entirely absent from the chapter, appearing at the end as ‘the Mother’, when she meets Bear, who has apparently been in the care of his grandparents in America, after he travels to Europe on finishing high school. This change in focus is indicated by the chapter title, ‘Wasting Time’ – as we shall see, these titles repeat and each one suggests a particular perspective. ‘In This City’ is from the point of view of Isa, ‘Three Days of Love’ from that of the man she loves, Mario. All are connected to each other, yet these connections need unpicked by the reader. Thus the novel is not simply a ‘disordered diary’ but a shifting sands of narratives which hint at a whole we never quite arrive at.

The Bear chapters often concern his relationship with Borja after arriving on the island, echoing Matia’s relationship with Borja in The Island which was a complicated one. The chapter title suggests that Bear is using his time there as a ‘pause’ in his life, perhaps deciding what to do next, rejecting his education in the way Matia once did. Borja tells him:

“But, Bear, you must realise how you are wasting your time. If you want to put the world in order, first you must finish your degree.”

At the heart of the novel is Matia’s concern about her son, and her relationship with him:

“What have I ever known about the maternal purpose? It is painful to think about it now, when I see him grown up, absolutely alien. His youth pains me, as it once pained me to see him advancing clumsily on his two-year-old legs; with a handful of dry leaves in his hands.”

Meanwhile, in the Isa chapters we discover that Mario is missing, and in the Mario chapters that he is being hidden by Matia (part of the difficulty in deciphering this can be seen in the fact that neither knows the other’s name). Matia is hiding him as he is a friend of Bear’s, and the suggestion is that they are involved in acting against the state. This becomes a little clearer in the final chapters when there is a plan to shoot a man.

The Trap is a novel which benefits from an attentive, indeed a note-taking, reader – there are no concessions to ‘readability’ in what is, at times, a sea of unattributed pronouns. Ultimately it is less than the sum of its parts as those parts don’t obviously add up. The absence of a UK publication is now less of a mystery.

Death in the Andes

July 7, 2020

Death in the Andes, originally published in 1993, was the first novel Mario Vargas Llosa wrote after his failed attempt at the presidency of Peru in 1990. He described it as “a novel, something between a detective story and a fictional fantasy, about cataclysms, human sacrifices, and political crimes in a village in the Andes.” The novel uses one of the characters, Corporal Lituma, from his 1986 novel Who Killed Palomino Molero?, and is also structured as a murder mystery, using the genre as a method to expose the endemic violence in the country as government forces and Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrillas fight out a bitter battle for control. Llosa takes this one step further as he exposes the deeper-lying atavistic impulses of the people living there in a Peruvian Heart of Darkness.

Lituma is half of a two man Civil Guard post in Naccos, a village high in the Andes in south-eastern Peru. Originally from the coast, the mountains feel like a different world:

“In the distance, thunder rolled through the mountains with an intermittent rumbling that rose from the bowels of the earth where the serruchos, these damn mountain people, thought that bulls, serpents, condors and spirits lived.”

Here the people speak a different language – Quechua rather than Spanish – and are deeply suspicious of outsiders, as Lituma discovers when he questions them about three men who have gone missing: “heads shaking no, monosyllables, evasive glances, frowns, pursed lips, a presentiment of menace.” The prime suspects are the guerrillas who live in the mountains; as Lituma tells his right-hand man (indeed, his only man) Tomas:

“You and I won’t get out of here alive. They have us surrounded, what’s the point of kidding ourselves.”

Vargas Llosa does not hide the savagery of the guerrillas: we see them murder two French tourists early in the novel by stoning them to death, and massacre the flock of vicunas tended by the mute ‘half-wit’ Pedro:

“They were shooting them, chasing them, killing off the wounded and dying. It seemed to Pedro Tinoco that night would never come. One of them blew up two calves lying quiet next to their mother, sent them flying with a stick of dynamite.”

Later they kill environmentalist Senora D’Harcourt, who is traveling in the mountains to plan reforestation. She refuses a Civil Guard escort, saying, “We’re not political and we have nothing to do with politics.” She cannot understand why the guerrillas intend to kill her, but, as her engineer tells her:

“They hear but they don’t listen, and they don’t want to understand what you say to them… They’re from another planet.”

As a counterpoint to the death and danger of Lituma and Tomas’ life in the mountains, Vargas Llosa introduces a love story as each night, to distract from their loneliness and fear, Tomas tells Lituma about his ‘girl’, Mercedes. This story, too, begins in violence as Tomas kills the gangster he is meant to be protecting for beating Mercedes:

“I couldn’t take it anymore… I couldn’t stand him hitting you and enjoying it like that. He almost killed you.”

Tomas’ innocence provides welcome relief to the darkness of the rest of the novel, and introduces a note of optimism. Mercedes, far from being pleased at being ‘rescued’, is furious at not only losing the money she was expecting to be paid, but now finding herself on the run(“Who told you to butt in? Who made you my bodyguard, who asked you to protect me?”). Tomas’ innocence is emphasised by Lituma’s running commentary as he tells his story presenting his more cynical world view:

“You didn’t pull out your revolver and shoot him because the stuff he was doing made you sick. Admit that you were jealous.”

One of the most successful formal features of the novel is the way Vargas Llosa tells Tomas’ story as a mixture of Tomas’ speech, Lituma’s interjections, and narrative.

As the novel progresses it becomes less certain that the guerrillas are responsible for the missing men, as Lituma suspected from the beginning – “Does Sendero ever disappear people? They just kill them and leave their leaflets behind to let everybody know who did it.” As it becomes clear that something even darker and more disturbing has occurred, Lituma questions whether discovering the truth is more dangerous than turning a blind eye, in terms of both his life and his sanity.

Death in the Andes (translated by Edith Grossman, who has gone on to translate a further six of Vargas Llosa’s novels) is perhaps not among Vargas Llosa’s very best novels (one candidate for that title would be The Feast of the Goat which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2003) but it is certainly at the top of the next tier. It’s a masterclass in conveying all the complexities of its characters and context without ever seeming laboured or labyrinthine. It both succeeds in portraying a particular place and time in Peru’s history, while at the same time exploring the deeper impulses which lie at the heart of how we live our lives. As a contender for the missing IFFP of 1996, it makes a powerful claim.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996

July 1, 2020

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, now the Booker International, has been an important part of my reading life since I first tackled the long list in 2005. The Prize itself began in 1990 and the first winner was Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, translated by Victoria Holbrook. Between 1996 and 2000, however, the award was in abeyance, and it has always struck me that revisiting these years and creating a potential long list, in the manner of the Lost Man Booker Prize for 1970, would be a fascinating exercise.

I have attempted to stay true to the rules of the Prize, for example, by not admitting authors who weren’t alive at the time. However, for reasons of simplicity, I have had to ignore the fact that prizes often regard the year as beginning on some arbitrary month and simply admit anything published in 1996. I’ve also bent (okay broken) the rule that allows only British publishers to enter. This was simply to increase (slightly) the number of women writers. To this end I have included two books published only in the US – and even then two thirds of the list is male. There is also a lack of geographical diversity, with only three books originating from outside Europe. Again, I suspect this reflects publishing at the time, but I am still open to suggestions. I’ve also limited the long list to twelve rather than the normal sixteen or more (for reasons of personal sanity).

The long list is as follows:


In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth (Harvill Press)

Your Name Shall Be Tanga by Calixthe Beyala, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Heinemann African Writers Series)

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the French version of Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni (Harvill Press)

Slowness by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher (Faber and Faber)



Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Faber and Faber)

The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf, translated from the French by Dorothy S Blair (Quartet Books)

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Trap by Ana Maria Matute, translated from the Spanish by Maria Jose de la Camara and Robert Nugent (Latin American Literary Review Press)


Hypnotism Made Easy by Marie Nimier, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (Angela Royal Publishing)

Nevermore by Marie Redonnet, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)#

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

My aim is read and review every book over the next three months and announce a winner in September. Feel free to join in – perhaps you already have a favourite here – or to suggest anything you think should have been included.