Archive for the ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015’ Category

The Last Lover

April 26, 2015

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The Last Lover by Can Xue (translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen) has the distinction of being the only novel to be on the long list of both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. Surely, you might think, a guarantee of an exceptional book, and, indeed, you are unlikely to have encountered anything quite like it. Of the many western writers called into comparison, only J. G. Ballard seems remotely similar with his dream logic and emblematic characters – though if I tell having read all of Ballard’s work in no way prepared me for encountering The Last Lover, it may indicate the difficulty of locating a similar reading experience.

For six pages I felt I was following the narrative with relative ease: Joe, the manager of the Rose Clothing Company, walks to work, has a conversation with his boss, Vincent; negotiates with a customer, Reagan; and then encounters Vincent’s wife, Lisa, on the way home to his own wife, Maria. Lisa complains about Vincent’s drinking – an unusual but hardly startling occurrence – but before Joe can get any more information:

“Lisa disappeared just as abruptly as she’d appeared. Thinking over the day’s strange occurrences, Joe felt his head buzzing with confusion.”

Well, if Joe feels his head buzzing after six pages, he’s going to struggle with the remaining three hundred. Joe at least has the advantage of being a voracious reader – in fact his earlier conversation with Vincent is to tell him he is considering giving up his job so that he can read more –even though he has developed the ability to read while working:

“…he could even talk business with a customer (he is, after all the manager of the clothing company’s sales department) and at the same time remain immersed in his stories.”

As the novel progressed, I wondered whether Joe’s stories were simply becoming indistinguishable from his life:

“He read the story aloud at the top of his voice, with the profound feeling that his life of late had been reversed, and everyday life transformed into a dreamland, one that was like a chain of interlocking rings.”

The novel is certainly dreamlike, but not in the way we would normally use that word in reference to literature – a narrative which takes on a logic different to that of reality – but in the more literal sense of having a logic that makes no sense to the conscious mind. Can Xue has certainly spoken (in an interview with Asymtote) of her creativity in a way which highlights that she is not attempting to imitate the forms which precede her:

“Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness.”

Here is a short example, typical of the novel (Daniel is Joe’s son):

“Joe saw the wasps sting Daniel’s face over and over. His face swelled rapidly so even his eyes were swollen into a single seam. Joe felt afraid, but the wasps didn’t sting him…Daniel sat calmly on the stone bench as if he had not felt the wasps attack him and was indifferent to the red swelling.
‘Daniel, where should I go?’
His manner was helpless. He knew Daniel couldn’t answer questions like this, Daniel, who was bending down to investigate the roses, half his face swollen. He told Joe that the roses gave him evil thoughts.”

In short doses there is something invigorating about the refusal of characters to react realistically and remain focussed instead on narrative logic invisible to the reader, but over the long term it becomes not only frustrating but dull. I’ve read a number of difficult novels and, at times, it can be like climbing a mountain, searching for the next foothold, unable to see the summit; but The Last Lover was a glass cliff: nothing to grab hold of, a plain expanse reflecting back on itself.

The Ravens

April 22, 2015

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As I am not the first to point out, Tomas Bannerhed’s The Ravens makes an interesting companion piece to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island. Both novels are concerned with a young boy growing up in the Scandinavian countryside with an unpredictable father. In each the protagonists encounter the first stirrings of sexual attraction and the awkwardness of first relationships. Bannerhed, however, takes a more lyrical approach – presumably freed from the constriction of reconstructing his own life – as can be seen from the novel’s title, the ravens representing the damaging thoughts that often crowd the father’s head and eventually lead to his hospitalisation.

Birds of all kinds are to be found The Ravens – when Klas is not at school or avoiding farm work, he will be listening or looking for them:

“Sit on the stone wall and see how many different bird calls I can make out, waiting for the green woodpecker to show herself in her black hole, poke out her bayonet beak and at least say hello.”

His fascination with the woodpecker perhaps suggests that he feels disconnected from his family, and the farm in particular – he talks about “the place you lot call home”. His father’s mantra is that there is too much to be done (“everything’s crowding in on me”), but Klas rarely offers to help. When his father, Agne, says, “You could come with me tomorrow morning and take a look…So you know how it’s done. The sowing.” we sense an old battle, one the father has already lost. Klas does not even fully understand his refusal (“something inside me resisted”), however his wariness of his father is evident from the beginning, as is the way his mother attempts to keep everything on an even keel, immediately diffusing potential flashpoints.

Klas’ life changes when Veronika arrives from Stockholm with her parents who idealistically assume some time in the country will do them all good. Klas invites her birdwatching and, luckily for him, there is so little to do that she agrees. Bannerhed is excellent at portraying the undercurrent of eroticism which exist between them, using a night-time encounter with a bittern to full effect:

“It brushed me with its wing! I got to feel its wing quills against my shoulder!”

Veronika picks up an egg from the nest and places it against her cheek: their discoveries in the darkness seem to be occurring within an inner landscape as well.

All this takes place as Klas’ father’s mental state deteriorates in the background. He moves out of the farm house to stay with the livestock:

“’My place is with the animals, who haven’t got any feeling,’ he explained. ‘That’s where I belong.’”

He grows obsessed with a pile of scrap metal which he feels it is important to bring order to:

“And the scrap metal pile grows taller with every passing night. It doesn’t help that I’m killing myself with all this hard labour. Is there anyone else apart from Sisyphus who can tell me how to do it?”

All this time he feels threatened by the ravens “screeching from the moment I woke.” It becomes clear that the tension around him relates to previous experiences, and the approach of “the thing no-one was allowed to speak of” is inevitable.

Perhaps for this reason, Klas seems determined to disassociate himself from his father’s troubles. When he and Veronika encounter some graffiti proclaiming “Agne heading for the loony bin,” he deflects Veronika’s questions:

“’Is it about a person called Agne?’
‘Seems to be.’”

When finally the ambulance has to be called, he simply hopes “they don’t put the flashing blue light on.”

The Ravens did not make it onto the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist, but did make it onto our shadow shortlist – a decision uninfluenced by me as I had not finished reading it at the time, but one I now feel was fully justified. It’s a wonderful portrait not only of a young boy coming of age, but of a family dealing with the challenges of mental illness. It’s certainly very assured for a first novel, and suggests that this may not be Bannerhed’s last time on a prize list.

The Investigation

April 19, 2015

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The Investigation is Korean author Jung-Myung Lee’s seventh novel, but the first to be translated into English (by Chi-Young Kim). It’s an intriguing combination of genres: part murder investigation, part meditation on the power of art, and part documentary (one of its major characters is the Korean poet, Yun Dong-ju). While Lee’s success in intertwining these strands is questionable, it contains enough in the way of interesting material to make it an enjoyable read.

The setting is a Japanese prison during the Second World War and it begins, of course, with the discovery of a body:

“The body was hanging naked from a rope wrapped around a cross beam on the ceiling. His arms were open at his sides and tied to the railing. Blood dripped from the left side of his chest, down his stomach and thigh, and hung for a moment on the tip of his big toe before falling to the ground.”

The corpse in question is that of Sugityama Dozan, a particularly vicious guard; an ex-soldier who arrived at the prison in 1939 accompanied by a variety of rumours regarding his heroic exploits and war wounds. (His reputation is enhanced by a Judge Dredd type single-handed suppression of a riot). The only clue to his killer is a poem found in his pocket, copied out in his own handwriting. The responsibility for the investigation is given to the novel’s narrator, Watanabe Yuichi, a young soldier, rather than being handed over to the police. The Warden explains:

“…here in Fukuoka prison we can’t follow standard procedures. We have the most dangerous elements of the archipelago here – men who need to be eliminated from society, people who shouldn’t have been born to begin with.”

This attitude is one that the novel sets out to both exemplify (by demonstrating the way prisoners are treated) and undermine (through Watanabe’s developing understanding of the inmates as a result of his investigation), particularly with regard to the Korean prisoners – generally held for political reasons – who are regarded as the worst of all. It quickly becomes clear that Dozan himself was not as one-dimensional a character as those around him thought – his appointment as prisoner censor allowed him to encounter literature for the first time in his life (slightly implausibly, he was initially illiterate), and this caused a transformation that Watanabe slowly uncovers, along with Dozan’s relationship with the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju. Lee has explained his intentions (in an article at

“I wanted to use these literary evidences to expand the heart of murder mystery and ask: Can literature and art provide salvation for human soul?”

For this reason, the novel also includes a subplot in which a performance of classical music is arranged involving some of the prisoners, running parallel to the story of their use in medical experiments (indeed, the prisoners are allowed to pause to listen to the music on the way to medical wing). Similarly there are two escape tunnels being dug: a conventional one, and one which leads to secret library in the prison basement:

“Some books had the power to heal illness and provide the essence of life.”

Despite some commonplaces (the naive investigator given the task exactly because he will never get to the truth and then refusing to stop until he does, for example), and perhaps too many complications towards the end, the novel’s central mystery has a number of satisfying twists. Both the setting and the literary theme enhance the novel, but there are times its parts seem in danger of becoming separated. Its greatest weakness is its rather plain narrative style, with some strange word choices (“cruddy”, “stumped” – “twinkling” appears a lot), and clichés (“ramrod-straight”; “restless sea”; “battered heart”) – particularly dangerous in a novel about the importance of art. The Investigation was always unlikely to make the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize short list, but it tells an interesting story and is a straight forward read – and is not without ambition.

While the Gods Were Sleeping

April 9, 2015

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While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier is a First World War novel with a difference – a number of differences, in fact. Both its author and setting are Belgian, a country under represented in WW1 literature given its pivotal role in the conflict, something Mortier himself has commented on in an excellent interview at Bookanista:

“My first concern in writing the novel was that for some strange reason in Belgium we don’t have a tradition of Great War novels, there’s a hiatus in our collective memory, as it were. There are a lot of private documents, letters and diaries, et cetera, but no great novel was produced during or after the war. I found that to be a strange condition in our collective imagination and literary heritage, so I decided to write this novel as a kind of symbolic gift to our national memory.”

The novel is also notable for being narrated by a woman, Helena, now ninety years old and remembering her youth. For this reason much of it takes place away from the fighting, and yet Mortier manages to movingly convey the effects of the war on both place and person.

Be warned: Helena will not be rushed in her telling of the story. As she says herself:

“’Helena, my child,’ my mother would moan if she could hear me, ‘where is this leading to? You’re shooting off in all directions.”

Mortier himself is in no hurry, carefully establishing Helena’s character in past and present, and giving some indication of life before the war with a series of childhood memories. Her mother’s voice features prominently – a voice Helena continues to hear:

“Where on earth does her voice still keep coming from? The voice, unexpectedly clear and articulated, unmistakably hers, that dry alto, that light vibrato, that I so often hear just before I go to sleep and that seldom says anything but my name.”

Helena’s mother is one of the novel’s great creations (in fact, the female characters are more memorable in general), and an important part of Mortier’s determination to set the scene prior to the conflict. Helena, too, despite 100 pages of meandering back and forward in time, becomes a compelling narrative voice. We are given some clues as to what is to come when she recalls an outing with her brother, Edgard. He calls those wounded in the war the “lucky ones,”

“They can blame their misfortune, strange enough perhaps, on the arm or leg they are missing…The others, who supposedly have nothing wrong with them, they’re the real poor devils. They never get the bombs out of their body.”

This preamble to the novel’s main events is perhaps partly explained by Mortier’s intention to write two other novels using the same characters – one from the point of view of Edgard (already published in Belgium), and another from that of the Englishman she fall in love with, Matthew Herbert. He is a war photographer, accompanied by Helena at points, and used by Mortier to show the effects of the war. That our description of the devastation near the front line comes from Helena, a civilian, perhaps adds a different perspective:

“There was no logic in the destruction, no system in the alteration of house fronts pounded totally into rubble and others that apart from the empty window frames seemed intact.”

Helena sees it in contrast to the setting she has left behind, her eye picking out the domestic detail of those houses where the façade has been blown off:

“Wherever the shadow of the clouds lifted, the glow of the afternoon sun flooded the surface of wall cupboards, beds and washbasins which had congealed snow white on tables, licked at wallpaper, and brought a gleam to dusty bell jars, under which saints’ images balanced on a chimney piece as if on the edge of a ravine.”

The novel ends with the war and Helena’s return to her home and her father, who has been separated from them throughout. Mortier demonstrates the effects of the war on occupied Belgium simply though the difference in her home: the house “cleaned out”; the vegetable beds in the garden.

How well readers get on with While the Gods were Sleeping will very much depend on how they take to Mortier’s discursive / rambling (delete as applicable) style. I often felt I was having to work quite hard to dig down to the best of the writing, however, there were moments of lyrical beauty amid the cacophony of wordiness that kept me reading.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Shortlist 2015

April 9, 2015


Both the official and the shadow jury shortlists for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize have been announced. The official shortlist is as follows:

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (Spanish: trans. Jethro Soutar), And Other Stories

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (German: trans. Susan Bernofsky), Portobello Books

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (Spanish: trans. Frank Wynne), Pushkin Press

Daniel Kehlmann, F (German: trans. Carol Brown Janeway), Quercus

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (Dutch: trans. Paul Vincent), Pushkin Press

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (Japanese: trans. Philip Gabriel), Harvill Secker

The shadow jury shortlist includes two of these books, The End of Days and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. To that we have added:

Tomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (Swedish: trans. Sarah Death), Clerkenwell Press

Mathias Enard, Zone (French: trans. Charlotte Mandell), Fitzcarraldo

Marcello Fois, Bloodlines (Italian: trans. Silvester Mazzarella), MacLehose Press

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Russian: trans. Andrew Bromfield), Peirene Press

(Zone, of course, didn’t make the official long list, so it was always going to be a point of difference). Personally, I’m quite pleased to see F on the other shortlist – my admiration for it outstripped that of other shadow jury members! Otherwise I would certainly have placed The Ravens and The Dead Lake above those selected by the IFFP panel.

Of course, it’s still entirely possible that the same book will win both.


April 4, 2015

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Sardinian writer Marcello Fois’ Bloodlines (translated by Silvester Mazzarella) is, as the title suggests, a novel which traces the lineage of a family through fifty years of Italian history. Given the death and violence contained within, however, it would seem appropriate were that family tree literally sketched in lines of blood. Ensuring the family name lives on becomes a dangerous game of chance, relying not only on the roll of dice that is fertility, but one played against death in all its forms. Despite this, Bloodlines is often a tender book, demonstrating the ties that bind us together as well as those which too easily dissolve.

Appropriately, the novel begins with both life and death. First we are told of the meeting of Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai, the couple who will form the still centre of the novel. Though their meeting “scarcely lasts a second”, this is a novel in which the narrative voice trusts in destiny – it is telling a story which has already happened, after all. It’s not for you if you are allergic to phrases such as that used when they next meet and Michel feels “the conviction that this is the woman of his life”, or to pronouncements (regarding their wedding night) such as:

“With miraculous, mathematical precision Mercede fell pregnant that very night.”

This is one beginning, but we are quickly escorted further back in time to another: the death of the blacksmith, Giuseppe Mundula’s, wife. Left childless, Giuseppe looks to adopt a young boy, and that boy is Michele. This is not the only time the novel will divert backwards before returning to the present, creating the sense that the whole story is already laid out, and focussing on those connections from past to present. Here, though, it seems that the choice to begin with Michele and Mercede is also a choice to place life before death. They are also the beginning of the bloodline, both living with borrowed names:

“Michele Angelo was given the surname Chironi after the general inspector of the orphanage at Cuglieri where he had grown up, and Mercede was surnamed Lai after the employer who took her into service and the age of seven.”

Michele works with Giuseppe and, later, takes over his blacksmith business. The family slowly grows, but is overshadowed by tragedy. Their first born, the twins Pietro and Paolo, are murdered; another son, Luigi, volunteers to fight in the First World War; a fourth, Gavino, seems to have no interest in marrying. Only their daughter, Marianna, seems destined to carry on the family line, marrying a young man who grows to become important in the new regime of Mussolini – but she, of course, will not carry on the family name. As this summary demonstrates, Fois uses the family to chart Italy’s history in the first half of the twentieth century, though from the point of view of how world events impact on a small family in out of-the-way Sardinia.

This means, of course, that that there are times when you feel that one particular plotline would make a novel on its own, and that characters are neglected for years and then suddenly appear ready to participate in the family story. Generally, however, Fois negotiates well between the passage of time and the minutiae of individual scenes. The relationship between the brothers Gavino and Luigi is beautifully developed, as is the marriage of Michele and Mercede. Marianna, however, rather misses out on page time until near the end: when, in a wonderfully written scene (and one which benefits from the narrative returning to it) she and her husband are held up by armed men, she is still largely an unknown quantity.

In the face of a life which is filled with random violence, the novel, at heart, shows faith in humanity, an early passage summing up the narrator’s viewpoint:

“Love lasts one single, perfect moment; the rest is merely reminiscence of what has already happened, but that single moment can be enough to make sense of more than one life.”

Whether this seems truthful or sentimental in the midst of the brutal realism with which Fois surrounds it will be up to the individual reader. Whatever the case, this novel does deliver a cleverly constructed family saga which manages to gaze upon history without losing sight of the individual.

The Giraffe’s Neck

March 31, 2015

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Judith Schalansky’s first book to appear in English was Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will, its meticulous design, maps included, indicating her ownership of the book as an object (she has also published a compendium of font, Fraktur Mon Amour). Her latest novel, The Giraffe’s Neck, though more conventional in construction, also comes interspersed with illustrations. Though a designer rather than an artist, Schalansky reminds me of Alasdair Gray who similarly crafts the design and illustration of his work; indeed, Poor Things (a novel in which medicine is prominent) is full of anatomical illustrations (from Gray’s Anatomy, of course) just as The Giraffe’s Neck is littered with pictures one might expect to find in a Biology text book.

Appropriately so, as its protagonist, Inge Lohmark, is a Biology teacher. Whether Lohmark is a joke or simply a fortuitous coincidence with the English low mark, I cannot tell, but the novel itself is often very funny. Take, for example, her class seating plan, which contains such comments as “Unscrupulously ample, competition bosom”; “Unnoticeable as weeds”; and “Vacuous expression: still thoroughly stunned by nocturnal emission.” Lohmark is what might be euphemistically called an ‘old fashioned’ teacher and the novel reads at first as if she is intent on sharing her accumulated classroom wisdom:

“It just wasn’t worth it, dragging the weak ones along with you. They were nothing but millstones which held the rest back…The later you left getting rid of a failure, the more dangerous he became.”

Of course, as the novel progresses, these early pronouncements seem increasingly ironic, as does her question to the class about species threatened with extinction. In fact, she sees everything through her narrow, Biological viewpoint apart from her own position:

“No, these children really didn’t strike her as jewels in evolution’s crown. Development was something quite different from growth.”

Even the view out of the window is subjected to her subject knowledge:

“The trees had already started to change colour. Decomposed chlorophyll made way for bright leaf pigments. Carotinoids and xanthophylls.”

This is not simply a comic novel, however: Lohmark’s redundant attitudes are echoed in a school which is running out of pupils, and a town which is running out of people. (“This town here would never recover from its population dip”). These in turn exemplify an East Germany (and Communist Bloc) which has lost its evolutionary struggle with capitalism. Lohmark herself is revealed to be a deeply lonely individual, her narrative voice a shield against those feelings of isolation. In particular, she has not seen her daughter, Claudia, in twelve years (she lives in America – she has adapted in a way Lohmark has not). Their relationship is a troubled one:

“She had given birth to Claudia and fed her. She had fulfilled her duty. What else could she have done?”

Glimpses of their shared past reveal that Lohmark’s discipline is in fact an inability to relent, to relax – to adapt. Claudia’s vegetarian ‘phase’ is simply dismissed and Lohmark’s insistence on facts is also damaging:

“Claudia had once asked her if she was beautiful. What were you supposed to say to that? You look funny. Wide face, dark freckles, slight overbite.”

The novel progresses Jean Brodie like towards her downfall, and, as with Brodie, it is not for the reasons we expect, but Schalansky neatly ties in the moment when her relationship with Claudia was sundered irrevocably with the moment her career as a Biology teacher ends.

As one might expect, is a beautifully crafted novel. I enjoyed the way our view of Lohmark changes: one moment we are laughing with her, the next shocked and angered, and (again like Brodie) at times almost sympathetic. The bravado with which Schalansky uses biology to both create Lohmark’s character and explore her themes, though it may prove a little too narrow for some readers, suggests a confident writer who is worth watching.

Tiger Milk

March 29, 2015

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Tiger Milk is Stefanie de Velasco’s debut novel and, appropriately enough, its focus is youth. It tells the story of a group of teenagers in Berlin, centring on the friendship of two fourteen year old girls, the narrator, Nini, and Iraqi refugee, Jameelah. The girls are rebellious and sexually precocious: in an opening section clearly designed to set the tone, Nini compares the taste of a piece of chewing gum she finds on the snowy ground as a young child with “the first time I put a condom on using just my mouth”. Details such as the mittens she was wearing and the Barbie doll she uses to spear the chewing gum emphasise the journey she has made in just a few years; that she and Jameelah talk their own language, replacing key vowels with ‘o’, suggests that she has not come as far as she thinks. However, as Jameelah says:

“We need to practise for later on, for real life, at some point we’ll need to know how it all works. We need to know everything so nobody can ever mess with us.”

This crossroads between childhood and adulthood (“real life”) is symbolised by the Tiger Milk they drink: disguised in a plastic container of chocolate milk, it contains “a little of the school cafeteria milk, a lot of maracuja juice, and a decent slug of brandy.” The suggestion they need the comfort of milk reminds us they are still children; that they require the attitude of a tiger tells us about the inhospitable world they must survive in.

Nini is the more innocent of the two. Not only is she often led by Jameelah, but she dismisses the threat of deportation which her friend faces:

“You have no idea how it works, Jameelah says, it can happen just like that.”

Much of the novel’s action is fairly conventional: we learn of the boys they love and their attempts to attract their attention. The fact they live in a community of immigrants, however, adds a different dimension, particularly when they are faced with a genuine moral choice when they witness the murder of one of their friends, Jasna. (Her death is the result of tensions between Serbs and Croatians). The scene of the murder is constructed to emphasise the way the girls are trapped between childhood and adulthood. It finds them running round a play park naked at midnight throwing rose petals, as per the instructions of a book of spells, in an attempt to win the love of their chosen ones. When Jasna appears they hide in the play fort – their outsized adult bodies confined in the child sized space. The murder itself is presented in a way which demonstrates their confusion and incomprehension:

“Are they dancing?
I think so.
Jameelah giggles softly.
Tarik and Jasna dance and they both start to cry, practically groaning…suddenly Jasna turns to the side and holds her hand to her stomach.”

Jameelah is insistent they tell no one what they have seen, even when another friend of theirs confesses to the crime; Nini is less certain. The friendship is put under strain as they are dragged unwillingly into a world of adult responsibilities as well as pleasures.

Tiger Milk gives the reader an insight into the world of working class teenagers in Berlin, and presumably in cities around Europe. There is a sense in which de Velasco presents Nini and Jameelah as typical – but this also makes it more difficult for them to stand out as characters. The community of immigrants is the novel’s most fascinating aspect, but as this is incidental to the narrator it remains in the background, though strangely fundamental to the novel’s plot. The novel was translated by Tim Mohr, who has also translated Charlotte Roche. Reading first person novels from the point of view of youthful protagonists, I wonder whether they are written in the particular register of the original country’s younger generation, almost impossible to translate into English without losing something (imagine Trainspotting in standard German, or even The Catcher in the Rye). This may be one reason I found this novel largely unaffecting.

By Night the Mountain Burns

March 24, 2015


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In an Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist dominated by European (one might even say German) literature, Juan Tomas Avila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns offers something completely different. Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea who now lives in Spain, and this is his first appearance in English, ably translated by Jethro Soutar. Soutar has spoken about how, although a translator’s job is to translate the book’s words, you also have to translate cultures, and this is particularly important when the novel is primarily designed to convey a way of life.

By Night the Mountain Burns is set on what the narrator calls “Our Atlantic Ocean island”, Annobon, as he recounts his memories of childhood. The island is particularly isolated, with only two houses over a storey high, and two public buildings – the vidjil where the men gather, and the Church. The novel is written in the style of oral literature. This is evident not only in the way the narrator addresses the reader, but in the frequent repetitions and reminders:

“I’ve already talked about my house and where it is located. I said how you could hear the waves breaking on the shore at night and that you could sense the dangers that might emerge from the sea.”

However, this is not oral literature such as might be told on the island as it is clearly aimed at a foreign audience:

“Like all the inhabitants of out Atlantic Ocean island, we lived in the big village during the rainy season, and went to the settlement in the dry season, to eat whatever we could find there.”

The story, we are told, is the result of “white people” coming to the island to “recover our oral storytelling tradition” – presumably a criticism of the romantic expectations of Europeans. The island doesn’t so much have an oral storytelling tradition as a mishmash of superstitions and imported Catholic beliefs. The narrator’s childhood reveals a life of hardship where death is never far away, a story he tells with an unresolved ignorance that’s best exemplified when he talks of his grandfather.

The novel opens with a description of his grandfather’s strange behaviour. He never leaves the top story of their house, a house he had built next to the sea but facing away from it:

“I never saw my grandfather come downstairs and I never saw him eat, either.”

Laurel uses the oral nature of the story to stretch out the mystery, saying on page 43, after he and his siblings visit their grandfather’s room on a rare occasion when he is not there, “What did we see in that room? Before I say…”, only to still be promising a revelation on page 79:

“And like I said, I’ll talk about what was in his room later, when it’s time to talk about him again.”

If you are expecting the novel to climax in an explanation, you will be disappointed: Laurel’s intention seems to be to demonstrate not so much the unknowable nature of the grandfather, but the limited experience of life on the island which makes comprehension of difference difficult.

Laurel can certainly not be accused of painting a romantic picture of life on the island. Some of the most memorable sections of the narrative are the outbreak of cholera and the scene where a woman is beaten to death, despite appealing to the priest for help. In the latter, the circuitous nature of the storytelling works well: the incident is described as seen, and then later we learn what led up to it.

By Night the Mountain Burns is what might be termed anthropological literature, the primary purpose being to transport the reader to an alien culture. Initially, I found the absence of both plot and character as we normally understand them frustrating, but on consideration, I feel that Laurel is deliberately undermining these expectations to convey the nature of life on the island. In this sense the novel’s form exactly matches its subject.

In the Beginning Was the Sea

March 21, 2015

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In the Beginning Was the Sea is Columbian author Tomas Gonzalez’s first novel, originally published in 1983, and the first to be translated into a spare, incisive English by Frank Wynne. The dream of its protagonists, Elena and J, to escape urban life in Medellin for a self-sufficient existence on the land, however, is one that continues to fascinate to this day. Hints that they are perhaps not entirely prepared for this new life arrive early: Elena has brought with her a sewing machine – a remnant of her first marriage (one of very few facts we learn about their lives before) – which is broken on the journey; J a trunk full of books. Character flaws are also foreshadowed: Elena’s furious reaction to the sewing machine’s damage; J drinking with the boatman on the journey to the run-down house they have bought. Their optimism remains intact, however, Elena cleaning the house in a “frenetic whirl of activity” and J observing:

“It’s exactly how I pictured the tree in the Garden of Eden.”

Gonzalez has other ideas, quickly revealing that all will not end well:

“The other bedroom, where they would later set up the shop and where, later still, the corpse would be bathed, was completely empty.”

From this point on, every action is loaded with foreboding.

J and Elena’s troubles really begin when J loses all his savings, which he had asked a relative to invest. Gonzalez goes out of his way to make clear that J should bear the blame for this, in another of the very brief glimpses we get of their life before they moved to the coast:

“The man had a chequered history – something J knew, but managed to overlook – and more than once he had been sued for breach of trust. There were rumours that he was a professional swindler. But J ignored such stories.”

This is a key moment in the novel, as J realises he must attempt to make money from his land immediately rather than having time to plant and plan ahead; however, so heavy-handed is the description of the man he entrusted with his life savings that it’s difficult to retain much sympathy for him. Elena is, likewise, an unsympathetic character. She distrusts and dislikes all of the local people and has a ferocious temper:

“J knew that when Elena was in a rage, nothing and no one could calm her down; the only thing to do was wait it out until her anger, like a volcano, subsided.”

Her antipathy reaches a peak when she encircles their beach in barbed wire to prevent the local people walking across it. When J begins logging the trees on his plantation in order to raise capital it seems as if his dream of an idyllic existence in the country has died. The novel becomes a catalogue of their misfortunes, with happier moments harder and harder to come by. Their relationship is increasingly strained and, though the death may be difficult you predict, a happy ending is unlikely.

The novel’s title, with its Biblical echoes, refers to the final lines, where (if this was a film) the camera pans out to the waves as the credits roll:

“In the beginning was the sea…The sea was everywhere and everything. The sea was Mother. The Mother was not a woman, nor a thing, nor nothingness. She was the spirit of that which was to come and she was thought and memory.”

While I can’t claim to understand this, it is quite effective in a novel that has up to this point been very careful to avoid abstraction. It certainly conveys a sense of the sea outlasting human endeavour – and in particular the hubris of J. This unchanging nature is reflected in the novel’s characters too – neither J nor Elena can adapt to their new life; the local people cannot adapt to them. The death itself, it could be argued, arises from a refusal to change, or accept change.

In the Beginning Was the Sea is an intense, claustrophobic novel which keeps the reader at arm’s length from its characters, perhaps reflecting the displacement Elena and J feel. Its story is intentionally predictable, but lacks much in the way of psychological insight to balance the fact that we know where we are heading. How you respond to it may depend on how you respond to Gonzalez’s pessimistic vision.