Archive for the ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996’ Category

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.