Archive for the ‘Peirene Press’ Category

Soviet Milk

January 7, 2018

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk is a story of births and deaths, mothers and daughters. Its two narratives each begin with a birth – one in 1944, the other in 1969 – a generation apart. In both cases the father is absent: in the first because he beaten and taken away by soldiers towards the end of the war and later reported dead; in the second because the pregnancy is the result of a single encounter at a dance. In other respects, however, they could not be more different. In 1969 the mother refuses to feed her child:

“During the twenty years I lived with my mother I wasn’t able to ask her why she had deprived me of her breast. I didn’t yet know that she had.”

Later, when it’s discovered the child has developed a disgust for milk, the mother explains to her teacher:

“I didn’t want to live, and I didn’t want her to have milk from a mother who didn’t want to live.”

“Not only was I not a good mother,” she says at another point in the novel, “but I didn’t feel like a mother at all.” Her daughter has a recurring dream where she is trying to feed from her mother’s breast; when she succeeds the liquid is “bitter, repulsive.” Her grandmother, on the other hand, struggles to understand the mother’s (her daughter’s) despair:

“She grew up surrounded by love… She sucked mother’s milk until she was three years old. She was healthy, strong child. What happened to her?”

The mother (the characters are nameless so will be referred to as they are in the second narrative: grandmother, mother, daughter) blames her father, not dead after all but broken after years of hard labour. (The grandmother carries on “resolved to have no regrets” with a new husband).

“Sometimes I hated him because I suspected his self-destructive gene was deeply implanted in me.”

In turn, her father’s fate also embeds a dislike and distrust of the new Soviet state into which Latvia is subsumed. She feels he has been “discarded on the waste heap of our times.” His suffering convinces her to become a doctor but, despite her success, “within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence.” She is given an opportunity to study in Leningrad but artificially impregnating a woman on her own initiative and then assaulting her husband with a hammer when she discovers he has been beating her ends the trip prematurely. When she returns to Latvia she loses her position as a doctor in Riga and is sent to the country to work in a clinic. Shortly after she attempts suicide.

Ikstena refuses to either judge her or to simplistically assign her depression to one cause. The refusal to feed her child reflects the mother’s belief that it is, in some sense, hereditary; in a similar fashion she is happy to allow the grandmother and step-grandfather to have a dominant role in bringing up her child. As her daughter says, “My mother stood somewhere outside the family.” She herself recognises this, describing walking past their building as:

“Past their life, where I didn’t fit, but inhabited it like a ghost from another world to whose mystery I was increasingly drawn.”

This is partly her attraction to an intellectual life, represented by a copy of Moby Dick lying alongside her medical textbooks, “a longing for a life of the mind which lay beyond her grasp.” When she is exiled to the countryside, this is replaced by Nineteen Eighty-Four as her bitterness towards the regime increases. From the beginning, however, she feels intellectually stifled by the Soviet system:

“This damned cage, in which I could do nothing.”

When her daughter gets a hamster and it eats its babies before dying itself “of his yearning for freedom”, she describes the hamster as brave in his “determination for freedom,” before going onto say, “You must forgive the dead.” (Even the step-grandfather says of the hamster, “We all have to live in a cage.”)

The two narratives work together, a mother and daughter’s view (though they begin at different points they quickly synchronise).For example, a section where the mother talks about going into her daughter’s room when she isn’t there is followed by:

“My mother rarely entered my room. Yet every time I returned from my grandparents, her fragrance seemed to linger there.”

Here we realise the mother is attempting to hide her attachment from her daughter.

Soviet Milk is another wonderful find from Peirene Press. A soul-bearing study of depression, intellectual frustration, motherhood, and life in the Soviet Union, it marries these themes without contortion or exertion, just as it marries its two voices, light an dark, into a narrative where each one complements and enhances the other.

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The Orange Grove

December 28, 2017

Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove (translated form the French by Sheila Fischman) is an interesting companion to Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone: both novels explore the experience of refugees who have arrived in their authors’ countries (Canada and Germany respectively), and what has driven them from their own homes in the hope of starting a new life elsewhere. Whereas Erpenbeck begins from the outside moving inward, Tremblay travels in the other direction, his opening pages placing us immediately with twin brothers Ahmed and Aziz in their war-torn homeland:

“Ahmed and Aziz found their grandparents in the ruin of their house. Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed by a beam. Their grandfather was lying in his bedroom, his body ripped apart by the bomb that had come from the side of the mountain where every evening the sun disappeared.”

The family are visited by Soulayed, “an important man,”

“He’s a pious man. An educated man.”

“Revenge is the only answer for your grief,” he tells the brothers’ father, Zahed, leaving behind a suicide belt. Soulayed has heard that the boys previously navigated their way to the other side of the mountain, crossing (he claims) a minefield in the process:

“You found a road to lead you to that strange town… In a few days, one of you will go back there. You, Aziz, or you, Ahmed. Your father will decide. And the one who is chosen will wear a belt of explosives. He will go down to that strange town and make it disappear forever.”

Zahid’s decision is further complicated by the fact that Aziz is ill, and is likely to die. Rationally this should make such a difficult choice easier, but Zahid sees it differently:

“It would not be a sacrifice if he wore the belt. It would be an offence… It’s Ahmed who will go.”

Their mother has other ideas, asking Ahmed to persuade Aziz to take his place, unbeknownst to Zahid or Soulayed. The novel recreates the scenario with an intensity which makes it is difficult to reject the proposition that one of the sons must die. The family are not fanatical, but Soulayed’s power is unquestionable, and the examples of previous sacrifices are used alongside the desire for revenge. Those on the other side of the mountain are described as “rats” and “dogs wearing clothes.”

This alone is enough material for a short novel, but in the second part we find ourselves with Aziz some years later in Canada, where he is training as an actor. His teacher, Michael, wants Aziz to play the part of a seven-year-old boy, Sony, in a play he has written (Tremblay is also a dramatist):

“In Michael’s play, Sony found himself in the hands of an enemy soldier. The child had been a helpless witness of his parents’ savage killing… Disgusted by his crimes, the soldier was reluctant to get rid of Sony, who, as scene followed scene, reminded him of his own son.”

As well as revealing elements of what actually occurred in the first part, this second section also tackles the issues raised by Western writer presenting Ahmed and Aziz’s story in the first place – as Michael and Aziz discuss his play in relation to Aziz’s life we have, in effect, a writer / character conversation. (At one point Aziz declares, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”)

The novel is rounded off with a short section in which Aziz speaks as Sony, using his own words rather than Michael’s. His final words – “Do you hear me?”- are a summation of Tremblay’s main intent: to allow the voices of those driven from their homes by war to be heard. Both its content and format suggest those voices are a multiplicity, and we must listen all the more carefully.

The Last Summer

February 26, 2017

last-summer

When Peirene published Reader for Hire in 2015, the fact it had been thirty years since its original publication marked it out as the elder statesman of their novella series; with the appearance of the first of 2017’s titles, Ricarda Huch’s The Last Summer, it suddenly seems a mere whippersnapper. What, after all, is thirty years compared to more than a hundred? Ricarda Huch, born in 1864, was a German writer who, despite a fifty year career which drew praise from Thomas Mann, left the English language largely untroubled by her work – only Der Fall Deruga seems to have been previously translated, and that some time ago. Now Jamie Bulloch has made The Last Summer available to us, an epistolary novel set in pre-Revolution Russia originally published in 1910.

The novel tells the story of a plot to kill the governor of St Petersburg after student unrest causes him to close the university. His wife, Lusinya, in a time when political violence was not unusual (see, for example, Seven Hanged) insists he hires a secretary who will also act as a body guard:

“An anxious woman by nature, ever since she received the threatening letter she thinks only of how she can protect her husband’s life.”

Ironically, the man she engages for this position, Lyu, is the would-be assassin. We sense, however, a certain reluctance to complete his mission:

“When a beautiful old tree has to be felled to make way for a railway line, it’s painful to watch. You stand beside it like an old friend, gazing admiringly and in grief as it comes down.”

Intellectually he accepts the need to kill but he is not by nature a killer. The situation is further complicated by the admiration all the family members feel for Lyu. Velya, the son, thinks “there’s something which makes his opinions tower above average ones.” In Jessika’s case, “he’s already earned my approval as his being here has such a positive influence on Mama’s mood.” Katya describes him as “very elegant, even though he has no money, and he’s a brilliant man, phenomenally clever.” the daughters dote on him to extent that their aunt fears they may have fallen in love:

“Please tell me why you’re convinced my daughters are falling in love with Lyu?…since you’ve now drawn my attention to the matter, I can see that Lyu is dangerous, masculine, courageous, clever, eye-catching – everything that might impress a young girl. At this point, however, I must praise him for behaving in rather a reserved fashion towards my two little ones.”

This highlights the dangerous dynamics within the family – Lyu must ensure he does not overstep the mark with either daughter, and risk the anger of the mother, while keeping both happy. This balancing act is also necessary when it comes to politics as the governor’s children do not agree with his decision to close the university. Velya, who is a student at there, describes it as “a very silly affair.” Katya goes further:

“Naturally it’s outrageous that a man such as Papa, who cannot control himself, closes the university because the students are defending their rights.”

Lyu must navigate a way between the different opinions. When a family row on the subject occurs, Velya comments, “He sat there as coolly as Talleyrand, proving that all of us were right.”

The Last Summer has all the tension of any undercover story; perhaps more so as we must piece together the narrative from the letters of the various characters (we see only one-sided correspondence, never the replies from cousins, aunts and sisters, or Lyu’s co-conspirator, Konstantin). This gives us insight into what characters are thinking (though obviously this can change from letter to letter) but each viewpoint also brings a blindness to other events. As the narrator changes there is also a temptation for the reader to identify with that character, allowing us to sympathise with both the revolutionary and the state, and those caught in between.

The fact that Lyu’s plans for killing the governor focus on modern machinery (first a car, then a typewriter) suggest that modernity itself will make Tsarist Russia redundant, but the novella raises the still pertinent question of whether violence is an acceptable way to pursue political ends – and without the polarising effect of a contemporary setting. The Last Summer is both a classic of (what might be loosely termed) the spy genre and of the epistolary form – it’s quite astonishing we are only now able to read it.

The Empress and the Cake

January 7, 2017

empress-and-cake

Given that The Man I Became was narrated by a gorilla, I am astonished to announce that I found Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake (translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch) the strangest of Peirene Press’ titles last year. It begins when its unwitting narrator encounters an elderly lady who requests that they share a Gugelhupf (a cake popular in Austria): “A whole one is too much for me and they don’t sell them by the half here.” This is followed by a further invitation to accompany the woman to her apartment and share the half she has bought. (“My house keeper and I can’t eat it all between us”). Two important aspects of the novel have already been introduced: the narrator’s willingness to be swayed by her host (Frau Hohenembs) and an obsession with food.

Our narrator suffers from bulimia: once she has eaten a second slice of the cake she feels there is little point in stopping there, “the third I helped myself to without invitation because it was irrelevant now.”

“I was abandoned by the day. A faint trance descended onto me like a silk cloth. I went into the bathroom and regurgitated the whole lot.”

Already the narrative has been peppered with references to food and weight, however. “If only you knew the lengths I go to…to keep my figure!” Frau Hehenembs comments, while in the background her maid, Ida, is specifically introduced as “fat”. Meanwhile, a second narrative introduces us to Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was famously fanatical about her figure:

“Her waist measured no more than fifty centimetres; a man could have put his hand right round it. This was no surprise as she barely ate a thing.”

Frau Hohenembs relationship with Ida is a shabby reflection of the Empress and her maid, who is the narrator of the second narrative. Hohenembs herself is more than a little obsessed with Elisabeth (suggesting perhaps some connection to the maid, though as the Empress lived in the second half of the nineteenth century it seems unlikely she could be the maid, unless the novel is even stranger than I think). Not only does she have several pictures of the young Elisabeth in her home, but our narrator soon finds herself embroiled in a theft a duck press from a museum (used to squeeze the juice from carcasses which could then be drunk in lieu of eating, a method of ‘dieting’ used by Elisabeth). Later, further items are purloined as Hohenembs claims ownership through her unspoken relationship to the Empress.

Amid all the eccentricity, the novel is a distressing picture of bulimia. We learn in detail the lengths to which the narrator will go to to remain unnaturally thin:

“Often I’d leap up in the middle of reading the newspaper or watching an advertisement for diet products, stand on the scales and prove to myself that I hadn’t shifted a gram either way since the previous weigh-in fifteen minutes earlier.”

Closeted claustrophobically with the obsessions of these two women, there is little sense that men are to be blamed. Only Ida attracts a sexual partner in the course of the novel, and the narrator’s repeated reference to ‘Charlotte’ suggests a previous relationship. In any case, Stift seems more intent on dissecting how it feels than analysing its cause (though in one reading of the novel, Frau Hohenembs and Ida are simply extensions of the narrator’s psyche).

Just like Frau Hohenmebs, The Empress and the Cake may give the initial impression of charming quirkiness, but it is, in fact, grotesque, a reminder that, as Freud discovered, the horrors of this world can lie within the genteel drawing rooms of Vienna.

Her Father’s Daughter

January 5, 2017

her-fathers-daughter

In Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) a young girl must acclimatise herself to the idea of her father’s return, a father who has been missing from her childhood having spent it as a prisoner of war in Germany. The novel is entirely from the child’s point of view, but in the third person; this impressive technical feat ensures there is no disconnect between the viewpoint and the language, while at the same time delivering the perspective of the central character in all its innocence, irony and intuition.

“The child” (her name, patriotically, is France, but her mother’s habitual “my darling” has seen this fade from use; her father will have different ideas) is at first mystified by the idea her father might return. “There isn’t room here,” she says. The impenetrability of her mother’s response indicates that their closeness is threatened:

“The mother gives her that funny look again, slow, unreadable, secret.”

To the child “her entire world and the only imaginable world, is her mother”:

“And it’s this secret, intimate world, their world for just the two of them, that the child can suddenly feel slipping away.”

The father will not be the only thing to come between mother and child: there is also the memory of a trip to Normandy and a baby sister who did not come home with them, a memory of events which both the mother and grandmother deny ever took place – “It’s like a dream but it isn’t a dream.”

Sizun brilliantly charts France’s reaction to her father, an initial hostility (“Inside the child’s head, in her body, something turns to ice”) which slowly transfers itself to her mother. After all, it is she who has abandoned calling her ‘my darling’ and instead transferred that term of affection to her husband:

“The child can see she is no longer the object of her mother’s adoration. The loved one is her father.”

When the father tries to instil the discipline he believes has been lacking – for example, that she eat all the food placed before her – “it’s towards her mother… that all her resentment is directed.” She notices, but is not sympathetic towards, the change in her mother’s character – weaker, deferential, a “docile wife”. Reading between the lines (as the reader must) it seems the husband’s absence has offered the mother as much freedom as the child. Now, with the guilt of a relationship while he was away to contend with, she vainly attempts to please him.

We can also see that much of the father’s irritation is related to the war. He “listens to the radio from morning till night” and the first time he shows his daughter affection is on the day he hears that the Americans have landed. As her relationship with her father improves, however, the relationship between her parents deteriorates.

Her Father’s Daughter is a wonderful evocation of childhood memories. It does not disguise the fact that memory is selective:

“No memories either of the days immediately after that first meeting. A black hole.”

And:

“Of the weeks, the few months that come next, what will one day be left in the child’s memory?”

The memory of Normandy, which ticks like a time-bomb beneath the family, dismissed as a dream, existing, as it does, on the borderline of memory’s beginning. The novel also evokes our early impressions of our parents and the way in which they can colour our long-term relationships. And, of course, it’s also a story of the fading innocence, drifting briefly into second person to make that point:

“That was how one day you stop being a child and you end up calling yourself France, like everyone else.”

Even the placing of the comma – whether the author or translator’s decision – ensures the tone is elegiac, and confirms, above all, how beautifully written this is.

The Man I Became

January 3, 2017

man-i-became

Talking animals are staples of both satirists and Disney scriptwriters, so it seems entirely appropriate that Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became – which features a warped version of Disneyland as a shorthand for the American dream – should be told by a gorilla. (Translated by David Colmer, it was Peirene Press’ first publication of last year). Its early chapters echo the Middle Passage as the narrator and his fellow gorillas, after capture, are walked through the desert until they reach the sea, “a new desert but blue, made of water and stretching away out of sight.” Finally they arrive at the New World:

“Only when then enormous lights turned on did we see the hundreds of people behind the glass walls. Their mouths opened and closed but we couldn’t hear what they were shouting. Or were they laughing? Why were they waving? Were they angry?”

This incomprehension is shared by narrator and reader alike: for both, the rules of the New World will be revealed slowly and often obliquely. Firstly, animal must aspire to become human: clothing, shaving, smiling, conversing – before a “baptism of fire” in the form of a cocktail party. The price of failure has already been made clear: “the thing that looked like us before the shave but trampled down, miserable, broken;” or, worse, fed to the Dreamland Maritime Cleaning Crew, “also known as the Great White family.”

Dreamland, where the gorilla/human will now be employed, is portrayed as a theme park (his first experience is a ride on a roller-coaster), the Disney ‘dream come true’ of the American dream, the apex of human aspiration:

“We are, in a sense, the end point, the pinnacle. And that’s why so many people come to see us. Not only to understand their own history better, but to see how they can better themselves as well… This is where people come to celebrate being accepted into the Big Dream.”

The new humans are rewarded with gold Ds and mobile phones – “each promotion brings top-ups and new icons.” In the Dome the animals participate in a ‘recreation’ of Earth’s history from the world emerging from the darkness on beyond the present into a future in which children set off in a rocket with their robots. This section gives a good indication of the way in which the novel moves beyond allegory towards a dream state that borders on surrealism. The animals enter the show in an order that echoes their appearance at the cocktail party; when the rocket launches we are directed to a girl waving at a porthole, just as we were towards the face of a girl with “the sweetest, quietest, most delicate smile” on arrival in the New World (a motif which will reoccur later).

These ambiguities co-exist with biting satire, as we see when the narrator discusses the cost of his success:

“My schedule was so crammed, the only contact I had with others was during meetings… More and more often I used fashionable words that made people feel they were part of something exceptional.”

The story ends in apocalypse and redemption: just as the narrator’s initial identity was eliminated, so he moves beyond the one created for him – still human, but on his own terms. This gives us hope in the face of the novel’s bleak world view (a hope hinted at in the opening chapter).

Verhelst imbues what could easily have been a one-note novel with astonishing richness and depth, a broken mirror in which the shattered reflection is sometimes immediately recognisable and at others only intuitively known.

The Looking-Glass Sisters

December 10, 2015

looking glass

Gohril Gabrielsen’s The Looking-Glass Sisters, despite its pretty title, is an ugly book. Its titular sisters live together – or more accurately co-exist – in the house where they grew up, the older, who narrates the story, has been crippled from childhood, dependent on the younger, Ragna, for her care. Both are immersed in their personal unhappiness, resenting the dependence from each side of the relationship – until, that is, Ragna meets a man, Johan, and the dynamics begin to change.

The novel opens with a scene from its conclusion, with the narrator banished to the attic, and Ragna and Johan already married:

“My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window.”

So quickly does Gabrielsen establish the novel’s poisonous atmosphere (aided by translator, John Irons), that the digging of a hole almost immediately feels more ominous than the action of two keen gardeners. A year earlier, we see the state of war which exists between the two sisters: Ragna’s first words are an explosion of frustration: “You’ve got to go.” As the novel is told from the other sister’s point of view, it is difficult not to be sympathetic:

“She wants to put me in a nursing home in the village, that’s where she wants to park me; she’s threatened to do it before. I’m not very old, just partially paralysed. I’ve always lived here and will never leave this house.”

However, despite its fairy-tale title, this is not a novel with clearly defined good and evil, Cinderella versus her vicious step-sister. The narrator is, in fact, fully aware of her effect on Ragna: “…is she absent from her own life because I make demands on her the whole time?” And she can be demanding, waking Ragna to massage her legs when she feels cramp coming on:

“‘A bit harder!’ I shout out into the room. ‘Can’t you do it a bit harder?’ I yell as loudly as I can. I fling myself forward and grab her arm.”

She tells herself, “Ragna is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of existence.” Ragna’s unhappiness is also explained:

“I’ve always liked to think of Ragna as one of those people who find every experience disappointing.”

The irony of the title is that each sister feels she perfectly understands the other but neither of them sees themselves clearly.

When Ragna begins her relationship with Johan, her sister goes out of her way to make her presence felt, for example when the couple first make love:

“I howl. Johan comes with a groan, my sister lets dry air escape from the slit of her mouth.”

The narrator is frightened of the dissolution of their own relationship and of her sister’s apparent happiness. Her fears are not groundless: the intention to place her in a nursing home is real, and Johan will not even talk to her, instead directing comments about her to her sister. Her reaction to this is to become an irritant, insinuating herself into their company.

Gabrielsen is very good at unearthing the pettiness at the heart of much of the novel’s rage. The use of the single toilet is one battle ground; Johan usurping the narrator’s chair is another. She is also adept at immersing the reader in the physicality of the narrator’s world: her body, the house, her physical needs. The narrator’s contempt for her sister seems partly rooted in the idea that Ragna represents the physical world whereas she aims to exist in the realms of the intellect. Hence her need for books from the library, and the notes she makes in her copy of Home University; also her assumption that Ragna’s relationship with Johan is purely physical. Eventually, we ask ourselves how much her confinement to the house is a choice. Her banishment to the attic might be seen as an ironic reflection of her desire to place herself above others.

The Looking-Glass Sisters is not a pleasant read – you are entering a cold world without kindness – but I found its icy brilliance fascinating. Ultimately it is asking the question that all literature asks: how should we live our lives?

Reader for Hire

October 25, 2015

reader

Peirene Press’ second novella this year comes from France in the form of Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean, originally published in 1985 and made into a film two years later, now finally available in English thanks to translator Adrianna Hunter. The premise is both simple and delightful: the central character, Marie-Constance, places an advert in the local paper offering her services as a reader. The suggestion comes from a friend and initially Marie is sceptical:

“And this was certainly a quirky idea: being a private reader – at a time when talking books are readily available – like in the days of duchesses, tsarinas and genteel companions.”

Her first listener is a wheel-chair bound fourteen-year-old boy, Eric. From the beginning it is clear that both text and reader will have an effect. Eric spends her first reading “without taking his eyes of the hem of my dress, or my knees even.” However, the ocular pleasure gained is balanced by the nightmares the story she reads him (Maupassant’s ‘The Hand’) gives him later:

“All through the night, she says, he kept pointing at the wall opposite him, as if he could see something terrifying there…”

Erotic attraction also plays a part with Michel, a managing director who has no time to read but wishes to have literary dinner party conversation:

“There’s no question that it’s admirable writing, perfectly admirable… but, how can you expect?… Can’t you see it’s you that I want, not that book?”

There’s an element of sexual farce in this with Marie as the innocent who is not so innocent after all. Not only was she warned when placing the ad that ‘young woman’ would send out a particular signal, but as she considers becoming a reader she admits “the thought of bachelors was entertaining.” This might explain why she gives in to Eric’s request that she wear a dress and Michel’s rather more physical demands.

Not all her clients are interested in her sexually, however. The elderly revolutionary, Countess Pazmany, requests that she reads extracts from Marx; to the young girl Clorinde she reads Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What is perhaps more significant is that in each case she becomes involved in the listener’s life well beyond the passive capacity of reader. She joins the normally bed-ridden Countess on a protest march and takes Clorinde to the fair, including a giant caterpillar ride which might remind us of Alice.

This is a much lighter novel than we are used to seeing from Peirene. Although it demonstrates that the message cannot be separated from the medium, and there is a lot of fun to be had following Marie on her adventures, as is often the case with a great set-up, Jean seems uncertain where to take us. The loneliness of Marie’s clients reveal Marie’s own loneliness as a reason for taking up the position of ‘reader for hire’, but the novel’s denouement suggests that, after all, she is more commonly seen as a sex object. In this sense, the novel’s comedy can seem a little of its time (the eighties) and therefore dated now – consider the changes in both reading and sexual mores in the last thirty years. For these reasons, Reader for Hire is an enjoyable hour but one that is unlikely to provoke a long term commitment.

White Hunger

October 11, 2015

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What do you do when you have nothing left? It’s a question that’s generally treated existentially in literature rather than in relation to absolute poverty. Yes, novels are littered with characters who lack money, but how many of them are so desperate their continued survival is threatened by want? It’s a question with more relevance than ever as we consider the thousands making their way to Europe driven by that same desperation. While conflict is largely blamed for this migration, another underlying factor is the droughts caused by global warming and the famine which follows in their wake. Aki Ollikaininen’s White Hunger deals with this very topic, albeit in 19th century Finland.

The novel follows the fate of one family driven from their home by hunger. Ollikainen cleverly opens with a Prologue which shows the family working together in already difficult circumstances, establishing the bonds between them. The father, Juhani, catches fish, but even they are “skinny”. Winter is approaching – the swans, he says, have already headed south. When Juhani and his wife, Marja, make love that night she fears falling pregnant: “Another mouth to feed, in this misery.” Hunger is already a problem and, with winter approaching, it will only get worse. When we next meet them, Juhani is dying, having stopped eating so that his wife and children can. If they are not to quickly follow him, Marja and the children, Mataleena and Juho, must leave:

“Marja places the last of the straw bread in Juhani’s hand. She fills the saucepan with snow and carries it to the side of the bed, within her husband’s reach.
‘This is all I can do,’ she whispers.”

And so they leave their home, falling first on the mercy of a neighbour, towards their own promised land, St Petersburg because “Marja cannot imagine anyone being permitted to starve in the Tsar’s city. There’s enough bread for everyone in St Petersburg.” They continue in the face of the disbelief of those they encounter:

“Best forget all that. Who knows if it’s possible to get away from here at all…”

They are met with a mixture of kindness and suspicion – food is short everywhere. Often they are only helped on the promise that they will move on the next day; sometimes there is no help at all:

“You’re not carting your beggars here, surely. Oh no, you don’t…You look after your own. We’ve got enough here as it is, no need to ferry in more from neighbouring parishes.”

The family’s story is told in chapters each focusing on one member; their titles, for example The Book of Marja, are in keeping with their timelessness. This does indeed feel like a Biblical famine. These are alternated with shorter sections, one of which is simply headed The Senator and tells of the apparent powerlessness of a politician in the face of this suffering. The other is dated, beginning in October 1867 and finishing in April 1868. In this narrative we meet two brothers, Lars and Teo. Lars works for the senator, whereas as Teo is a doctor of dubious morals. When we first meet them, they are playing chess – Lars’ reference to the situation on the board looking “hopeless” feels like a description of the country, as, perhaps, his consideration of sacrificing a pawn. Teo seems the more human of the brothers, but his work with the poor is at least partly driven by sexual desire. We next see him with the prostitute Cecelia – a perk of his work at the brothel. He claims to feel affection for her but she dismisses his attempts to discover her background, presumably driven to the city and her occupation by starvation – another migrant.

The stories do, of course, become intertwined, but adding these other narratives allows the novel to be more than a tale of suffering and instead to reflect on the way in which the country itself is affected and changed. You might say they give us the bigger picture the senator considers most important:

“People seem terrible interested in details, he thinks. The most important thing, however, is to see the whole; only the bigger picture gives the details their significance.”

However, it is the horrifying details of Matja’s family’s story which we retain. Though set in the cold north (white is the colour of hunger because nothing grows in the winter; it also suggests white skin stretched over white bone), this is a timely reminder of the hopelessness people can face and the impossible choices which result.

Tomorrow Pamplona

January 9, 2015

 

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Tomorrow Pamplona by the Dutch author Jan van Mersbergen was the middle title in Peirene Press’ second year, 2011; having now read all three books (the others were Matthias Politycki’s Next World Novella and Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig) I would probably go as far as to say it is my favourite collection (I wouldn’t like to comment on whether its theme, Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy, has any bearing on that!). As with most of Peirene’s authors, it was van Mersbergen’s first appearance in English; unfortunately, it remains his only one so far (he has written at least four other novels).

In the novel a young boxer, Danny, gets the opportunity to fight outside Holland with promoter Mr Varon. We don’t need to be told that this represents an important chance for him – the scene where Varon leaves his card after seeing Danny fight is familiar from many boxing films. The fact that Varon is wheelchair-bound and accompanied by a beautiful Thai woman, Ragna, seems intended only to make the moment more picturesque: in fact van Mersbergen is already presenting us with vital components of the plot in a novel where everything seems necessary. This scene, the novel’s origin, is already a memory, as it begins with Danny, weeks later, on the run for reasons unknown. This of course immediately creates suspense – Danny’s reasons for running are not revealed until near the novel’s end – but also gives the narrative urgency, as if the story has already begun and we must catch up with it. This is emphasised by the constant movement, beginning with the opening lines:

“A boxer is running through the city. He heads down a street with tall buildings on either side, darts between parked cars, runs diagonally across a junction, down a bike path, crosses a bridge and follows the curve of the tram tracks.”

Here van Mersbergen uses our expectations against us – why shouldn’t a boxer be running? – as he does when he reveals what is going through Danny’s mind:

“He lands another punch. Again he hears a bell, sharper and louder than before. Stop, someone screams.”

Danny’s real journey begins when he hitches a lift with Robert, who is heading, as he does every year, to Pamplona to run with the bulls. Robert accepts Danny despite his monosyllabic replies to Robert’s questions, and advises him:

“For a man who doesn’t have a specific place in mind, Pamplona is a great destination. Maybe the best destination of all.”

The road trip companions make an interesting contrast, not only because of Robert’s openness and Danny’s taciturnity. Robert is well equipped for the trip; Danny does not even have any cash. He calmly accepts Danny at face value (when he breaks the door of his son’s toy car he says, “These things happen”), Danny seems uncomfortable with himself. Robert describes Pamplona as an “express pilgrimage”, something that allows him to feel at peace with the world; for whatever reason, Danny is permanently on edge. Only when he decides to go with Robert does he “feel a little calmer.”

Much of the novel, therefore, consists of Danny and Robert travelling, a series of one-sided conversations which keep the tension slowly simmering. Their journey is interrupted by Danny’s memories (a device that feels natural as Danny would obviously be replaying these scenes in his mind as they drive), particularly his relationship with Ragna. Many of these scenes also consist of only two characters – in the gym, in a room – heightening the novel’s claustrophobic feel.

The novel heads inexorably towards two climaxes: the bull run and the revelation of what Danny has done: both (I won’t reveal either here) are entirely satisfying. This is not a novel about escape, however – Robert’s journey is predicated on return, a theme indicated by Danny’s encounter with a woman when they stop overnight near a river:

“I met the love of my life in this place…I never saw him again…But I return here every year.”

Tomorrow Pamplona is a breath-taking read – by that I mean that at times it was so tense I found I had forgotten to breath! Peirene’s books are famous for allowing a reading in one sitting; this is certainly one you won’t want to put down until it is finished.