Archive for the ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013’ Category

Traveller of the Century

April 26, 2013

traveller of the century

Traveller of the Century is, in many ways, an unusual novel. At first it appears curiously old fashioned for the work of a young Argentinian: set in Germany in the early nineteenth century, it begins with a young man, Hans, a translator by profession, arriving in the town of Wandernburg. Presumably the town’s name (it is not a real place) is meant to echo Han’s wanderings, though the town itself seems to have a propensity to wander, its streets and landmarks never being in quite the same place. Hans presents himself as an inveterate traveller:

“I think that in order to know where we want to be we have to travel to other places.”

The irony is that he arrives in Wandernburg at the beginning of the novel and remains there throughout – and at 600 pages, that is a lengthy ‘throughout’, again suggesting a pastiche of the 19th century novel. Though love is eventually to blame for his stay, initially he is delayed simply by an inexplicable indecision – but he is not alone:

“Travellers come here, people who have lost their way or were headed somewhere else, lone wolves. And they always end up staying here.”

Neuman includes a couple of trusted plots, in particular a love triangle in which Hans falls for a young woman, Sophie, whose father he meets. Sophie, unfortunately, is engaged to the local landowner and soon to be married. There is also a whodunit as a masked killer stalks the streets attacking women. The novel is not, however, plot driven – take, for example, Hans relationship with an old organ grinder whom he befriends, frequently spending his evenings at the cave on the outskirts of town that the organ grinder calls home. Similarly, his friendship with a Spanish merchant who has become equally at home in the German town does little to advance the story. Above all, consider the extensive scenes set during Sophie’s salons as art, history and philosophy are discussed at length. Neuman makes his intentions clear during one of these discussions:

“I believe the past should not be a distraction, but a laboratory in which to analyse the present.”

It is in sustaining the reader’s interest during these many abstract conversations that Neuman shows his skill as a writer, and demonstrates that what at first seems a strangely old fashioned story is in fact channelled directly from the present (take for example a discussion about a single European market and how much political union this would involve). It is not accident that the novel takes place in the shadow of the failure of the French Revolution, just as we now live in shadow of the failure of the Russian Revolution. (For many South American countries, of course, that sense of defeated radicalism is even more recent).

In other words, Traveller of the Century is an intellectual book, but one that wears its intellect lightly. Yes, Hans and Sophie discuss translation at length, but they reinvigorate themselves with bouts of surprisingly contemporary sex. Who said ideas were boring?

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist

April 14, 2013

I was feeling quite pleased with myself when the short list was announced last week having read 12 of the 16 titles on the long list. I’m a little disappointed that A Death in the Family didn’t make it as I’d left that one thinking it had a fairly high chance of being there.

The shortlist is:

Bundu by Chris Barnard, translated from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Alma Books)
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Harvill Secker)
Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean (Harvill Secker)
The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare, translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (Canongate)
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Pushkin Press)
Trieste by Daša Drndić, translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Maclehose Press)

Dublinesque, Traveller of the Century and Trieste were all among my favourites to make the shortlist, though in the case of Traveller of the Century this was based on the opinions of others as this was another book I had left unread on the assumption it would make it through. The Fall of the Stone City also deserves its place – Kadare is always an interesting writer and this novel is his strongest since The Successor. I felt there were better books than Bundu on the long list, but I am pleased to see a writer largely unknown outside South Africa gain recognition. It certainly tackles important issues that literature has often avoided. The Detour, however, I cannot endorse, but I’m aware that others have found it moving. Hopefully I can fit in another couple of reviews before the winner is announced.


April 8, 2013


HHhH is Laurent Binet’s first novel and it has already won a couple of prizes in his native France. The title, as you can see needed no translation – although as it stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, perhaps it does. ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’ is apparently one of those witticisms for which the Nazis were famous, and it is Heydrich’s life story that Binet seeks to tell in his novel. Or rather his death story, as the real focus is his attempted assassination by Czech parachutists. Except that one of them was Slovak – we’d better stick to the facts, something Binet very much insists on: though he is ostensibly writing a novel he doesn’t want to fictionalise anything:

“At 9.00am the first German tank enters the city.

Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague. The most advanced troops seem mostly to have driven motorbikes with side cars.”

HHhH, then, is also about Binet’s attempt to write a novel about Heydrich’s assassination without inventing anything. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” as someone once said (Twain? Hemingway? But that would be a fact so it probably doesn’t matter). Binet seems determined that they will. He begins by immersing himself in research:

“Months flow past, they become years and all that time this story keeps growing inside me. And while my life passes…the shelves of my apartment fill up with books on the Second World War….I get the feeling that my thirst for documentation, healthy to begin with, is becoming a little bit dangerous – a pretext, basically, for putting off the moment when I have to start writing.”

Of course, the opposite is true – it gives him something else to write about. In between slices of information about Heydrich’s life, Czech and Slovak politics, the Nazis’ rise and the move towards war, Binet inserts the jam of his authorial anxiety:

“There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue – reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history.”

Binet benefits from having a great story to tell – both the story of Heydrich, an emblematic Nazi and one of the primary architects of the Final Solution (our fascination with this era in European history can be seen from the fact that three of the ten long listed European books for the IFFP focus on it) and the attempt by to assassinate him (carried out by locals who were parachuted in from the UK). This has a little of everything – tension, bravery, disaster (even a jammed gun!), betrayal. Whether you enjoy this book or not will be very much down to your appreciation of Binet’s approach to this story.

While such ‘faction’ techniques are also to be found in Dasa Drndic’s Trieste and, in a different context, in Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque, here I found them less effective. It didn’t seem to allow Binet to reveal any depth of understanding of Heydrich or of the parachutists, or of any of the protagonists in the story – conversely he seemed quite intent in keeping his distance. He also didn’t involve his own life in any significant way – something that would have at least given the novel another dimension. Of course, perhaps I am a little spoilt having read the brilliant Frank Kuppner’s A Very Quiet Street and Something Very Like Murder many years ago – both excellent examples of this genre. Binet’s novel remains very readable (as I said, it has a great story to tell) but you can’t help but wonder, if he is so worried about fictionalising history, why write a novel at all?

The Last of the Vostyachs

April 5, 2013

last of the vostyachs

As I recently confessed, I wasn’t quite as impressed by Diego Marani’s New Finnish Grammar as many others were – including the IFFP judges last year who included it on the short list. Marani features again this year on the long list with his second novel to appear in English, The Last of the Vostyachs (Dedalus have also published Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot but as it is written in the artificial language of Europanto it isn’t eligible).

I found The Last of the Vostyachs a slighter but more entertaining work than New Finnish Grammar. Again the focus is very much on language and, despite Marani’s Italian origins, the novel is set largely in Finland (Marani’s obsession with Finland is beginning to look a little like Antonio Tabucchi’s with Portugal). The novel begins with the escape of a young man, Ivan, from a Russian labour camp – he is, we discover, the last remaining speaker of his language, Vostyach. Coincidentally, he is spotted (well, heard) by a Russian professor of linguistics, Olga, who is researching in the area. She is quickly aware of the importance of the discovery:

“…I could hardly believe my ears. They’re all there, the consonants which mark the transition between the Finnic languages and Eskimo-Aleut ones.”

Unfortunately, the one person she shares this news with, a Finnish colleague from years past, Jarmo, is less than pleased. He is at that very moment putting the finishing touches to a speech for an upcoming conference in which he intends to declare categorically that “the alleged kinship between the Ugro-Finnic and the Ural-Altaic branches, from which the Mongols and Eskimos descend, is to be excluded once and for all.” If this were simply an academic disagreement that would be bad enough (and the novel is a little like a campus satire written as a thriller) but Jarma is also driven by a fierce nationalism, ending his speech with the statement “that Finnish is Europe’s oldest language.” That the contradictory evidence is coming from Russia adds to his bitterness.

And so begins an elaborate plot to prevent Olga and Ivan from appearing at the conference. Jarma is helped by the fact that Olga trusts him implicitly, regarding their previous relationship as a friendship when he was only courteous to her to curry favour with his superior at the time. Olga and Ivan also conveniently intend to arrive separately, placing Ivan in Jarma’s hands. Despite its esoteric premise the novel races along like a true thriller, with nothing in Jarma’s plot going quite right: Ivan goes missing; Olga drinks endlessly but refuses to keel over; and his ex-wife is on his trail with the police – attempting to return his pet dog to him.

Everything is wrapped up in a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek manner, and the novel ends with the language of Vostyach alive and well. New Finnish Grammar is no doubt a more substantial work, but beneath this novel’s fun there is a serious point about the dangers of nationalism. In his attempts to promote his language Jarma moves swiftly from academic deception to murder.

The Detour

April 1, 2013


Last year New Finnish Grammar was the novel that I just didn’t quite see as the masterpiece so many others claimed it to be – this year, it seems, it’s The Detour (so you may as well install it as the favourite for the I.F.F.P. immediately). Bakker’s already an award winning writer in translation – his first novel, The Twin, won the Impac Award. The follow up has been widely praised – including by John Burnside ( a writer I greatly admire, and not just because he’s from Fife) in The Guardian.

I can, of course, see why Burnside liked it. It begins intriguingly enough with a Dutch woman (‘Emilie’) renting a small cottage within sight of Mount Snowdon. The previous owner was an old woman who left no obvious heirs apart from ten white geese who seem to automatically become the responsibility of the renter (In the US the novel has been published as Ten White Geese). She has clearly cut herself off form her previously life entirely – that is apart from a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems (hence the alias). Rather than wishing to start again she craves only solitude, something which is interrupted by the arrival of a local farmer who grazes sheep on the land whom she immediately detests, and then later by a young hiker to whom she offers a bed for the night. There are also visits to the local baker, doctor and hairdresser – their friendliness and curiosity alike rebuffed.

There are, of course, reasons for this, as begin to become apparent when Bakker shifts the narrative to ‘the husband’. At first he assumes his wife has left after an affair with a student has been discovered, but his anger turns to concern when he suspects she may be ill. Eventually he goes in search of her, accompanied by the policeman who arrested him when he set fire to a university office (see earlier anger).

What I liked about the novel was its tone, which could fairly be said to be bleak but not in a nihilistic or cynical way: it was story told with a kind of stoic sadness. ‘Emilie’s’ contrasting moods – one moment energetic and driven, the next full of lassitude – seemed completely convincing. Bakker also uses ‘Emilie’s’ uncle well as a counterpoint, both his inept suicide attempt and his efforts to keep going through woodwork. The family’s view of him goes some way to explaining her disappearance. I particularly loved the way Bakker used the badger attack (while sun bathing ‘Emilie’ is bitten by a badger). Any time she told someone they didn’t believe her – badgers are too shy, badgers are nocturnal… I took this to reflect her fear of how people might react to her real illness. Not necessarily that they wouldn’t believe her but that they wouldn’t give her ownership of what had happened to her.

The geese, on the other hand, I found a little too metaphorical. Soon after she arrives geese begin to disappear. She tries, but fails, to protect them. Luckily there are still some left to join in with the final scene. The geese were so clearly a powerful symbol of something…but what? I’m afraid I couldn’t see the flock for the birds…

I also found it hard to buy into the relationships. Certainly the farmer is a little intrusive, but her hatred is maniacal. Maybe she simply wants to be alone…unless of course a handsome young hiker appears…a young man who then proceeds to look after her for no clear reason. This friendship is only outdone by that of the husband and the policeman, so unlikely that even one of the other characters feels he has to point it out. That they strike up a friendship in the interrogation room is a little strange, but that the he drops everything to travel to Wales with the husband at New Year is really stretching it.

And I haven’t even mentioned the protagonist’s love of Emily Dickinson.

None of these things make The Detour a bad novel – I enjoyed reading it and found it moving in places – but I do think they disqualify it from being a great novel. No doubt I’ll be proved wrong again!


March 29, 2013


Satantango is my first acquaintance with Laszlo Krasznahorkai (as a novelist anyway – I’ve since discovered he wrote the screenplay for Turin Horse which I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival a couple of years ago) and the novel is as authentically East European as his name suggests. The dense, dark woodland of its cover reflects not only the novel’s setting but its style: bleak, impenetrable, unending. (Only the fact that it is not raining prevents the jacket absolutely capturing what is inside). Within this dark landscape the characters root around like animals, lacking any redeeming features, driven only by greed and lust. In other words, it’s not something to read if you want to cheer yourself up, though I believe the author intends to inspire laughter (a kind of despairing laughter, I admit) as much as sadness.

The novel is set in a decayed village, a few houses thrown together whose inhabitants neither like nor trust one another. Within the first few pages we discover Futaki is sleeping with Schmidt’s wife, and Schmidt and Kraner are planning to steal money Futaki is owed in wages. All of them are hoping for something better. These dreams are united around Irimias, believed dead for the last eighteen months but now rumoured to be returning to the village:

“…a great magician. He could turn a pile of cow shit into a mansion if he wanted to.”

Irimias is referred to in the blurb (and presumably the title) as the Devil but this is not a novel in the manner of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye or Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov (I name two of my favourite more recent examples of a very old genre) in which a mysterious character appears and slowly corrupts or torments those around him. The villagers already believe in Irimias before we meet him and abandon all their plans to wait for him. He sends them to a manor house after a rousing speech in a local pub, many of them wrecking their own homes and possessions before they leave, but when they get there:

“…they roamed through the deserted halls of the moribund building, exploring in sombre chaotic fashion the dismantled parts of rusted machinery and in the funereal silence the suspicion grew in them that they had been lured into a trap…”

Just as they have begun to doubt Irimias, however, he appears and, as inexplicably as before, they immediately agree to his next plan.

As with Kafka, the novel works both satirically and allegorically. Krasznahorkai grew up under Communism and it is easy to see how the novel could be read as a critique of that system. It also, however, has deeper things to say about human life that still resonate today – about dreams, for example (in one way, the novel itself is a dream). It is certainly not an easy read – something that can raise suspicion when a novel is lavishly praised by critics – but its difficulty is a fundamental part of its vision.


March 24, 2013


Bundu is exactly the sort of book that makes the Independent foreign Fiction Prize worthwhile for me. I’d neither heard of the novel nor the author prior to the short list being published. In fact, Barnard seems to be well known in his native South Africa – he’s certainly not a newcomer with over thirty previous books to his name, although I can only find one other that has been translated into English.

The novel’s title refers to a largely uninhabited area that exists in a no-man’s land between South Africa and Mozambique. Brand de la Ray is a biologist who is there to study the local ecology. (Although never explicitly mentioned – his project there is left rather vague – there is a sense he is studying how life can survive there, a question that is also central to the human inhabitants). There is little else apart from a mission, a hospital and a number of scattered dwellings. Brand largely keeps to himself – as with other characters in the area, a broken relationship has been partly responsible for his arrival in such a remote spot. As the novel unfolds Barnard reveals the characters’ damaged pasts and explores whether they can be repaired.

The catalyst for the events of the novel is the arrival of an increasing number of starving refugees at the hospital:

“There were usually a few people under the fever trees waiting to be attended to…but even on busy days seldom more than ten. That morning there were probably at least forty.”

Brand and one of the nurses, Julia, have a close relationship which is always threatening to blossom into something more – “she was the only person I could talk to in my own language – in more than just the literal sense of the word.” Both are held back by the distrust created by previous relationships and an almost fanatical sense of independence. It is largely because of Julia that Brand is drawn into the refugee problem (there are soon hundreds). He calls on another local loner, Jock Mills (who is often little more than a distant motorbike engine) to help: Jock has been rebuilding an abandoned military aeroplane which Brand intends to use to fly out the refugees.

The plane becomes the central image for rebuilding in the novel and a great deal of tension is created around questions of whether it will fly and where it will land. Brand and Mills, men who have largely shut themselves off from the world, now focus their energies on helping others: Mills literally risks his life; Brand abandons his research work. Most of the best scenes centre on the plane. Largely these are scenes of jeopardy, but there is one moving moment when Mills discovers that the refugees have filled the plane overnight in the hope they can escape:

“There was a whole crowd of people in the plane, twice as many as a DC-3 cold carry. They sat on each other’s laps, sat in the aisle, in the cockpit, in the open baggage hold at the back -a bank of black skulls staring at the light motionlessly as if the torch hypnotised them.”

It has all the making of a Hollywood film, though in that Mils would be a hero and Brand and Julia would walk off into the sunset together -which isn’t quite what happens. Among the animals Brand studies is a troop of baboons. The leader of the troop and Brand often look at each other as the sun sets. That gap that cannot be breached seems also to exist between people.

The Sound of Things Falling

March 16, 2013

sound of things falling

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s previous novel, The Secret History of Costaguana, involved a cameo from Joseph Conrad. It’s not hard to see why: his latest, The Sound of Things Falling, tells one characters story through the mediation of another character and seems above all concerned with the understanding of history, both personal and political. Whereas the nomadic Conrad, however, sought that understanding wherever he went (South America in Nostromo; the Congo in Heart of Darkness; London in The Secret Agent), Vasquez seeks again to reflect on his homeland of Columbia.

The novel focuses on the1990s when the Columbian government was engaged in a battle with drug lord Pablo Escobar for control of the country. The young narrator, Yammara, befriends an older man, Ricardo Laverde, in a billiard hall. Another member of the club tells him that Ricardo has recently been released after twenty years in prison, but he doesn’t know what he did to get put in there in the first place:

“But he must have done something, no? Nobody gets that many years for nothing.”

Ricardo reveals little more to Yammara, telling him not to “confuse billiards with friendship”, though he does show him a photograph he has had taken of himself in preparation for a visit from his wife who he has not seen in many years. He offers him advice that might be a mantra for the novel:

“…a person’s happy until they fuck it up somehow, then there’s no way to get back to what you used to be.”

A few weeks later Ricardo tells him he wants to play a tape and Yammara takes him to a shop where this is possible. The tape, we later find out, is from the black box of a crashed plane, the plane that his wife was travelling on. On the way home from the shop, Ricardo is fatally shot, a targeted killing, and Yammara injured.

Yammara goes on to unravel the truth about Ricardo’s life. Planes, flying and falling, form a great part of it: his grandfather a famous pilot; his father injured in a stunt at an air-show which goes wrong. Ricardo himself becomes a pilot and takes advantage of the burgeoning drug trade between Columbia and the USA. His wife is an American Peace Corp member, as is the man who introduces him to flying consignments of drugs. In exploring Ricardo’s life, we also see how the drugs trade infiltrates the country. Ricardo’s ‘big mistake’ is also Columbia’s.

As the plane crashes show, characters may make poor choices but they also have little control over their lives. A sense of isolation abounds. When Yammara goes to visit Ricardo’s daughter, he refuses the opportunity to phone his wife and tell her he will not be home that night – he becomes increasingly withdrawn from her after the shooting. The daughter, Maya, lives alone, and the connection she has with Yammara is brief, just as her parents’ marriage was. Yammara returns to find his wife and daughter have left. That togetherness may be the answer is only suggested in a question:

“…would I try to convince her, tell her that together we could defend ourselves better from the evil of the world, or that the world was too risky a place to be wandering on our own, without anyone waiting for us at home who worries about us when we don’t show up and who can go out and look for us?”

Few writers are producing such relevant and questioning novels about the places where they live.

Silent House

March 14, 2013

silent house

After being transfixed by both My Name is Red and Snow, I fell out of love with Orhan Pamuk on reading The Museum of Innocence; despite the fact that Silent House comes complete with praise for Pamuk’s last novel from a number of well-respected critics, I found it over-long and self-indulgent. Silent House, however, exists at the opposite end of Pamuk’s oeuvre, an early novel that is only now being translated into English. This, too, raises a doubt – perhaps it is only appearing on the back of Pamuk’s Nobel win and is a relatively weak work not really worth the effort. To that I would say, no – this is far less disappointing than The Museum of Innocence, a bravura performance of narrative that suggests a writer already at ease with his craft.

Silent House is set in Turkey in 1980 (only three years before it was published)and tells the story of three generations of a family over the course of a few days. The elderly widow Fatma is visited by her three grandchildren: Faruk, Metin and Nilgun. She lives alone with her servant Recep, the illegitimate son of her husband. The son of her husband’s other illegitimate child, Hassan, also features heavily. All six of these characters play their part in telling the story in what is a master-class of multiple narration. Each has their own concerns: Faruk is a historian who haunts the local archives looking for a story but is ultimately disillusioned by history; Metin is obsessed by wealth, attempting to convince his grandmother to knock down the house and build apartments and longing to move to America; Nilgun is a young girl flirting with Communism. Hassan, a childhood friend, has conversely become embroiled with a group of Nationalists. Even in translation, the different voices of the characters come across. Most successful is that of the widow who spends most of her time reliving the past with only the occasional line of dialogue from the present intervening. It is through her that the character of her husband comes to life, a man who left Istanbul to devote himself to writing an encyclopaedia in the hope that Turkey could ‘catch up’ with European nations:

“I’m obliged to articulate a number of things that would be absurdly plain in any advanced nation, just to rouse this mound of sloths.”

His Quixote type quest creates a perspective for the political tensions in the present, with lists of those killed on both the Communist and Nationalist sides of the divide printed daily in the paper.

The novel contains two love stories, but both also have a political dimension. Metin seeks to impress a rich girl he has met but cannot compete with the wealth of her social circle. Hassan falls for Nilgun but also has to impress his fellow Nationalists who wold ridicule him if he were to admit being in love with a society girl. Pamuk is wonderful both on the agonies of young love and also the dynamics of the peer groups. In Hassan in particular, Pamuk creates a convincing picture of someone who is not inherently evil but whose frustrations at life make him capable of evil. His final words in the novel are:

“Watch out for me from now on! Be afraid!”

Despite its now historical setting, this novel still has plenty to teach us.

The Murder of Halland

March 8, 2013

murder of halland

Last year Peirene Press made it on to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long-list with Next World Novella, the story of a man waking to find his wife dead and the events which follow as he begins to see their relationship in a new light. This year they are represented by Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland in which a woman wakes to discover her partner (they’re not married in this case) has been shot. Not only must she come to terms with his death but also re-evaluate their relationship as she discovers aspects of his life that she didn’t know about.

Of course the novels are in other ways quite different. The Murder of Halland is written as an anti-detective story (you can see why this might be attractive to a Scandinavian author). Juul highlights the difference when the widowed narrator, Bess, relaxes by watching a television detective series:

“First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigation. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life.”

This is only one of a number of unusual actions which Bess takes after Halland’s death. She goes to a night club and gets drunk, kisses a neighbour, and almost misses his funeral. No-one, in fact, acts as expected. Bess’ bitter ex-husband, the man she left after a chance encounter with Halland, turns up to tell her he misses her; her daughter, who has refused to see her since the divorce, appears without the appropriately dramatic scene of reconciliation or confrontation.

Halland, too, turns out to not be all that he seemed to Bess. She discovers a room rented in the apartment of a young pregnant woman who claims to be a relative. A giant poster of The Return of Martin Guerre – which would scream clue in any normal mystery – is rolled up and put away. The money he put in her account before his death is never explained. The puzzle is never solved: as the police seem to head in one direction, the ending points ambiguously in another.

Working against genre and character expectations, Juul instead tells a story which rings true. Like most people after a life-changing experience, Bess’ life doesn’t change. “I’m not in the mood for soul-searching,” she says. She claims not to want to know the results of the police investigation until they are certain, but, in fact, admits she “preferred not to know anything at all.” Even the prose (which, of course, reflects Bess’ character) is as flat as real life.

As we have come to expect from Peirene Press, The Murder of Halland is an unsettling antidote to the majority of fiction being published today. If it is a jigsaw, it’s one with a number of missing pieces, forcing the reader to confront those blank spaces.