Swallowing Mercury

February 12, 2017


Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury is a coming-of-age story set in Poland during the 1980s. Presumably largely autobiographical – Greg was born in 1974 and the central character is called Wiola – it takes the form of a series of key moments illuminating the journey from childhood to adolescence in separately tilted chapters which falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories. The book’s Polish title, Guguly, means ‘unripe fruit’, a more accurate description of the writer’s intensions perhaps, though English’s inability to translate this in one word indicates why translator Eliza Marciniak has chosen a title from an incident in another chapter, Swallowing Mercury, instead.

Poland was, at times, the centre of global politics in the 1980s, and Greg subtly infuses Wiola’s life with the effects of the uncertain political situation while making it clear her mind is filled instead with the day to day minutia of growing up:

“One day in the middle of July, my father got back from work early, and as he replaced the flypaper around the ceiling lamps, he said to my mother that martial law in Poland would end in a couple of days. I was nine, and even though I could remember the day when the children’s’ show Telemorning had failed to appear on the telly, I still had no idea what he was talking about.”

Schoolchildren are not immune, however, to the oppressive effects of the regime. After winning a painting competition (theme: ‘Threats around your farm’) by painting a potato beetle crawling out of a Coke bottle (“The jury at the provincial level concluded that my drawing ‘portrayed, in a deeply metaphorical manner, the crusade of the imperialist beetle.’”), Wiola is questioned about her entry for ‘Moscow through your eyes.’

“And who might have given you this…interesting idea? Was it your parents? Or maybe the teacher who runs the art club?”

In fact, ink has leaked over the painting while it was in her bag making it look “like the capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was being engulfed by a viscous ocean of indigo”; it is not, as the authorities seem to suspect, anti-Soviet propaganda.

If politics is one unacknowledged pillar of Wiola’s life, the Catholic religion is the other. When Wiola returns home with a ‘blessed figure’ she has won in a raffle, the women who are there helping her grandmother “set aside their down-filled farm sieves, kneeled on the floor among the white piles of feathers and started to recite prayers.” Religion and politics come into conflict when there is a rumour that the Pope, on a visit to Poland, will drive past the village. The women sew all night making bunting to welcome him.

“In the morning, I rushed to the road…to welcome the Pope, carrying a paper pennant with the Vatican’s coat of arms which I had bought at the corner shop. All that was left of the half mile of bunting were muddy shreds soaking in the ditch next to empty vodka bottles and cigarette ends.”

Wiola’s life is not only subject to the pressures of the present; she lives surrounded by the past. “The Easter of 1913 was also wet,” her grandfather tells her. Her mother talks of a classmate in the 1960s who “dreamt the dreams of someone else – the Kurzaks’ five-year-old daughter. The Kurzak girl, they said in the village, had been executed by a German firing squad in 1943 in revenge.” In one of the novel’s most striking chapters, a stranger on a bus tells Wiola a story from his childhood, a series of events which lead to the death of a friend.

As the novel progresses, Wiola’s first boyfriend reveals the relative poverty of her family when he sees her with her grandmother selling cherries at the market:

“Piotr was looking at me with surprise. I forced myself to smile and wave, but he didn’t respond; he turned the other way… I knew I’d never see him again.”

Later a more serious boyfriend will encourage her to run away but, though a coming-of-age novel, it also questions whether we ever have the freedom to become the person we might want to. Aged fifty, her father tells her:

“What a strange world this… Before I’ve even had time to blink they’re already calling me old, when inside I’m like an unripe fruit.”

Swallowing Mercury may come from a very different time and place, but it’s a reminder just how much stays the same.

Fever Dream

February 6, 2017


Samanta Schweblin’s astonishing first novel Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) is a tour de force of tension, its brief pages flicking frantically before the reader’s eyes in desperate pursuit of a conclusion. The novel takes the form of a conversation, part police interrogation, part Platonic dialogue, between Amanda and David, the child of a woman she has only recently befriended while on holiday. The conversation takes place in a hospital room where Amanda is convinced she is dying:

“But I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself.”

“None of this is important,” replies David, “We’re wasting time.” Earlier he insisted, “…we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.” And so we also have a battle for narrative supremacy: who will tell the story, and whose story will it be?

Amanda begins with David’s mother, Carla, in her car, crying. Carla tells her the story of her son and the sickness which affected him six year earlier when he was very young. Her husband, Omar, had borrowed a stallion for breeding; Carla notices that the horse has escaped from its paddock and goes in search of it carrying David. They find the horse drinking from a stream and Carla puts David down to collect it. A moment later she turns to find:

“David had knelt down in the stream, his shoes were soaked. He’d put his hands in the water and was sucking on his fingers. Then I saw the dead bird.”

By the next morning the horse is dying and so Carla, desperate to save her son, takes him to a local healer:

“She can tell if someone is sick, and where in the body the negative energy is coming from.”

The woman tells Carla that David has been poisoned and that he will die unless they try a “migration”, that is move David’s spirit to anther body:

“…then part of the poison would with him. Split into two bodies, there was the chance he could pull through.”

While this supernatural strand runs through the novel it is only one reading – initially Carla’s and increasingly Amanda’s – of events. Its importance is in emphasising the lengths mothers will go to in order to protect their children, also seen in Amanda’s obsession with the ‘rescue distance’, that is the maximum distance she can be from her daughter Nina and still be able to rescue her:

“It changes depending on the situation. For example, in the first hours we spent in the vacation house, I wanted Nina close by at all times. I needed to know how many exits the house had, find the areas of the floor with the most splinters, see if the creaky stairs posed any kind of danger.”

Unfortunately for Amanda and Carla they live in a poisoned world full of invisible danger. Where will the threat come from? Will it come from David, alone in the house with Nina?

“This is insane, I think. David is just a little boy. But I can’t help it now. I’m running. I dig in my pocket for the keys and I’m so nervous that even though I have them between my fingers, I can’t get them out.”

Or will it come unexpectedly, unnoticed though your child is standing next to you:

“With the colour of her clothes I can’t tell how wet she is, but I touch her and, yes, she’s wet.
‘It’s dew,’ I tell her, ‘It’ll dry while we’re walking.’
This is it. This is the moment.

Fever Dream can, of course, be interpreted in many ways. This title itself implies that we should take nothing for granted, that the David Amanda converses with may not be real. It is, however, profoundly disturbing, a novel which seems to threaten the reader with a voice as quietly menacing as David’s. You may find yourself looking up from its pages for your children. You may never feel comfortable again.

The Good Soldier Svejk

February 2, 2017


As well as reading books published in the year I was born, I also felt I should mark the diminishing number of years I have left by finally reading some of those longer volumes which I have always wanted to read but consistently put off until some vague future date when I’ll have all the time I need. (This may be related to discovering how old I’ll actually be before I can retire). The first of these is Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk which weighs in at almost 900 pages, a length which might make a less caring person relieved that the author died while writing the fourth volume of a projected six in 1923 (the first volume having been published in 1921). That is, if it weren’t for the fact that Svejk is such good company, and that it would be fascinating to know what fate Hasek had in store for him.

Hasek’s intention to chronicle the war from the beginning (presumably to the end) is obvious from the opening sentence – “And so they’ve killed our Ferdinand” – where he begins his record with the first shot fired. Of course, we experience this world-changing event from the perspective of the man (and woman) in the street (or pub). Svejk, with the literalism, localism, and ability to take any fact at a tangent which will become his trademark, mistakes the Ferdinand in question:

“I know two Ferdinand’s. One is a messenger at Prusa’s, the chemist’s, and once by mistake he drank as bottle of hair oil there. And the other is Ferdinand Kokoska who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.”

Soon Svejk’s wayward pronouncements find him imprisoned for treason, but Hasek’s target here is not Svejk’s ignorance but the stupidity of the state as Svejk is entrapped by plainclothes policeman Bretschneider, alongside the bartender who is arrested for taking down a picture of the Emperor because “the flies used to shit on it.” Here we see the early signs of how Hasek will use Svejk as an unwitting instrument of satire, his rambling responses often seeming more rational than the nonsensical and frequently counter-productive machinery of state.

Svejk is the eternal innocent, moving effortlessly from one mishap to the next like a gymnast somersaulting across the floor. Trouble not only finds him but is welcomed like a long lost friend and invited to stay for a drink or three; luckily he is impervious to trouble, easily drinking him under the table. His greatest weapon is his happy admission of his own stupidity. When told, for example, to “Take that idiotic expression off your face,” he replies:

“I can’t help it…I was discharged from the army for idiocy and officially certified by a commission as an idiot. I’m an official idiot.”

This willingness to embrace his faults is in stark contrast to the many authority figures he comes into conflict with who are at pains never to back down or admit they might be wrong – an attitude, of course, which was in part responsible for both the suffering of the war and Austro-Hungary’s loss.

When Svejk finally manages to join the war effort (via the madhouse and a hospital for malingerers) it is as batman to an army chaplain, Otto Katz. One of his first duties is to collect the drunken Katz from a friend’s house and drag him home. When questioned about his inebriated companion he claims the chaplain is his brother:

“He got leave and came to visit me. He was so happy that he got drunk. You see he thought I was dead.”

The quick-witted lie suggests Svejk is not as dim as he makes out, and also demonstrates a loyalty he will show throughout the novel, first to Katz and then to Lieutenant Lukas who wins him in a game of cards. This ambiguity regarding Svejk’s character is central to the novel – should we take him at face value or is he simply playing dumb? Neither his superiors, nor the reader, know for sure.

The Good Soldier Svejk is certainly a classic of war literature (and also the inspiration behind later classics such as Catch 22), all the more so for the fact that Svejk never makes it to the front line (and I like to think that, in Hasek’s plans, he never would have). Despite its length, it is as entertaining in its final moments as it is in its opening pages. Its gentle comedy undermines militaristic idealism as effectively as the most savage satire. Svejk’s idiocy may remain uncertain, but there can be no doubt over the idiocy of war.

1967: The Magic Toyshop

January 28, 2017


As I enter my fiftieth year (which I will celebrate simply for the fact of still being alive) I thought it would be interesting to commemorate the anniversary by reading some novels published in the year I was born – particularly when I realised that I had a copy of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop to hand. Though I have read some of Carter’s short stories, this would be my first novel (and only her second). Whether reading the fiction of 1967 will enlightened me in any way about my own origins is debateable, but if it gives me the excuse to explore some writing from that period which I have so far neglected then it is certainly worth the attempt.

What struck me first about The Magic Toyshop was how similar it was to many of the books I read as a child, beginning, as it does, by separating the children – fifteen-year-old Melanie, twelve-year-old Johnathan, and five-year-old Victoria – from their parents. Sometimes this was caused by war-time evacuation; on other occasions, as here, it was the result of the parents’ deaths. In fact, Melanie’s parents are entirely absent from the novel, dying, as they do, while in America, the children meanwhile in the care of Mrs Rundle. Shortly after, the children must leave their comfortable middle class existence (with luxuries such as central heating which I certainly lacked in my early childhood) and live with their uncle Philip in South London.

Of course, The Magic Toyshop is not a children’s book, as is apparent from its opening pages when one of its central preoccupations, Melanie’s sexual awakening, is revealed:

“The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood.”

One night she puts on her mother’s wedding dress and goes out in the garden, only for the door to close and lock behind her. She realises she must climb the apple tree to return to her bedroom, and that she cannot do so while wearing the dress:

“So she must take off the dress and climb into the treacherous and deceitful night… She was horribly conscious of her own exposed nakedness. She felt a new and final kind of nakedness, as if she had taken even her own skin off and now stood clothed in nothing, nude in the ultimate nudity of the skeleton.”

This moment wonderfully conveys Melanie poised (on the branches of the tree) between childhood and adulthood: the dress represents her desire to be a woman but also reveals she is missing her mother; climbing the tree is a return to childhood activities (“she had given up climbing when she had started to grow her hair and stooped wearing shorts”) but her awareness of her nakedness (as with Eve) reminds us she is no longer innocent.

Uncle Philip rules his family – his wife, Margaret, and her two brothers, Francie and Finn – like a tyrant. “Do not,” Finn tells Melanie, “treat your uncle lightly.” Finn knows this well, frequently suffering Philip’s violent outbursts:

“’Three minutes late! And you come dancing up in your stinking rags as if it didn’t matter! Do I keep a boarding house for dirty beatniks? Do I? Do I?’ And he launched a great, cracking blow at Finn’s head.”

Philip makes the toys which he sells – reluctantly, it seems, as he regards them more as works of art than playthings and doesn’t like them touched. He is proudest of his puppets and will occasionally insist that everyone gather in the basement to watch one of his performances.

The novel is redolent with symbolism. Philip not only wants to control his puppets but those around him. Margaret is unable to speak and must write down anything she wishes to say, just as Philip has removed her voice entirely from their relationship. Melanie is made to perform as Leda in one of Philip’s puppet shows where she is molested by a wooden swan of his invention. However, everything is grounded in Carter’s description of the drab surroundings, which feel more fifties than sixties:

“Between a failed, boarded up jeweller’s and a grocer’s displaying a windowful of sunshine cornflakes was a dark cavern of a shop, so dimly lit one did not notice it as it bowed its head under the tenement above. In the cave could be seen the vague outlines of a rocking horse, and the sharper scarlet of its flaring nostrils, and stiff-limbed puppets, dressed in rich, sombre colours, dangling from their strings; but the brown varnish of the horse and the plums and purples of the puppets made such a murk together that very little could be seen.”

In fact, it is, at times, a very Dickensian London, seen also in the grubbiness of the characters, particularly Finn:

“He wore washed-out, balding corduroy trousers, wrinkled with their own tightness. His clothes had the look of strays from a parish poor-box.”

Melanie and Finn’s relationship is also beautifully handled by Carter. She is both attracted and repulsed by him (his “insolent, off-hand, terrifying maleness”); he finds her beautiful but also young:

“He was a tawny lion poised for the kill – but was she the prey?”

The Magic Toyshop contains all the fear and thrill of growing up enhanced by Carter’s uncanny ability to marry the grotesque with the everyday. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Lost Books – Second Harvest

January 23, 2017


One of the most impressive novels I read last year was originally written in 1929. Hill (which I read in a new translation by Paul Eprile) was Jean Giono’s first novel and it left me eager for more, though up against Giono’s rather sporadic and disorganised appearance in English. Hill is the first of three novels said to comprise Giono’s ‘Pan trilogy’, the second being Un de Baumugnes (Lovers are Never Losers) and the third Regain (Second Harvest). Both were translated into English in the 1930s, but Lovers are Never Losers seems not to have been reprinted (and is therefore not the easiest book to get hold of) whereas Second Harvest (translated by Henri Fluchere and Geoffrey Myers) was (in 1999 by Harvill).

Second Harvest, like Hill, is set in a sparsely populated village in the Provence area of France. In fact the village of Aubignane is so sparsely populated that when the novel opens it has only three inhabitants left: Gaubert and Mameche, both elderly, and Panturle, the only one with much life left ahead of him:

“Panturle was a huge man. He looked like a piece of wood walking along. During the heat of the summer, when he had made himself a sort of sun-curtain out of fig leaves and held himself erect with his hands full of grass, he was just like a tree.”

That Panturle appears to be part of nature is not unexpected as Giono uses language in these novels to suggest that the landscape and the creatures (including people) which live there are inextricably linked. The wind, we are told, “waved about a little and beat its tail gently against the hard sky”; flames are “just like colts, prancing around elegantly without thinking of work”; in winter:

“The countryside shivered in silence…Every morning a russet sun rose in silence. With a few indifferent paces it strode across the whole breadth of the sky and day was over. Night heaped up the stars like grain.”

Gaubert has been convinced by his son to leave as winter approaches – “He says he’s anxious about leaving me alone this winter” – and it looks as if the village will soon be empty until Mamech asks Panturle, “If I brought you one, would you take the woman?” She does not ask this question because she has someone in mind but simply out of determination. The promise seems in vain, however, when Mamech herself disappears.

Our focus now moves to the knife-grinder, Gedemus, and the woman he travels with, Arsule. Arsule’s back-story is an indication that Giono is never sentimental about the lives he portrays. A travelling entertainer, she is abandoned by her ‘manager’ and, when found the next day by a group of farm-workers, she is repeatedly raped. Gedemus then takes her in as both servant and mistress. His treatment of her as a useful asset rather than a human being can be seen in the way that, though they set off with him pulling his knife-grinding tools in a cart, she soon takes over.

Through a series of prosaic events which Giono describes in such a way to seem almost mystical, including Gedemus and Arulse pulling Panturle from a river and saving his life, Panturle and Arsule end up living together in Abignane. Panturle’s symbolic rebirth (“He had begun to live again a few moments ago…”) is the beginning of the rebirth of the village, best seen in his decision to plant grain again having lived alone by hunting.

As with Hill, Second Harvest is a simple story told with great subtlety. Giono’s great skill is to display characters and landscape as one and in constant conflict. Even in writing of a way of life which was already dying out, there is an optimism of the will which is difficult to resist.

We Who Are About To…

January 17, 2017


Some writers fade entirely from the common memory, others remain immortalised by a single work. The latter has been the fate of ‘feminist science fiction writer’ Joanna Russ. (The quotation marks are not intended to suggest disagreement: she was a feminist, and she wrote science fiction, but the description also seems an attempt to limit her). Her novel The Female Man (in print today, and, I suspect every day since its 1975 publication) is the novel which has come to define her, though she wrote five others, and numerous short stories. (To be fair, her non-fiction essay How to Suppress Women’s Writing is still relatively well known). Now Penguin’s new Penguin Worlds series, curated by Naomi Alderman and Hari Kunzru, has chosen another of her books as one of their initial five titles: We Who Are About To…

It will not surprise you to learn that We Who Are About To… is a novel about death. Both interpretations of the phrase’s meaning (“Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant”) – is it a fatalistic acceptance of death or a plea for life? – run through the novel, which takes on the traditional SF trope of an emergency landing on an alien planet:

“In the event of a mechanical dysfunction, the ship’s computer goes for the nearest ‘tagged’ planet, i.e. where human life is supposed to be possible, then ejects the passenger compartment separately… We’re a handful of persons in a metal bungalow: five women, three men, bedding, chemical toilet, simple tools, an even simpler pocket laboratory, freeze-dried food for six months, and a water-distiller with its own sealed power pack, good for six months (and cast as a unit, unusable for anything else).”

The novel explores the difference between the passengers’ attitudes to their situation, in particular the divide between our narrator, who believes they have no chance of survival, and the other passengers who retain hopes of some kind – “Already excited talk of ‘colonization’, whatever that is.” Not only does SF generally endorse the view that the human spirit will overcome, but the novel form itself suggests as much – it’s no accident that Robinson Crusoe, one of the earliest examples, is about survival. (For those who only read ‘literary’ SF, it may come a surprise that science fiction is by and large an optimistic genre). Not only does the narrator feel survival is unlikely, but also inadvisable:

“But I think that some kinds of survival are damned idiotic. Do you want your children to live in the Old Stone Age? Do you want them to forget how to read? Do you want your great-grandchildren to die at thirty? That’s obscene.”

Placing the narration in her hands prioritises her logical if bleak viewpoint, frequently making the other characters look ridiculous in their optimism, and in the way they easily retreat to ideas of gender roles long abandoned:

“Nathalie’s life and yours and Lori’s and Cassie’s are too valuable to put in danger. You are childbearers.”

When Cassie is furious with Alan for wasting water by taking a bath he says, “I don’t think… that you ought to talk to me like that.”

“I could take you over my knee and spank you.”

When she still won’t back down he begins punching her in the face. His strength outweighs any intelligence she possesses.

This, however, covers only the first twenty-five pages, and fails to do them justice: each of Russ’ characters brings some vital ingredient to the novel’s opening, and her philosophical intent also includes creating a religion. In the novel’s second half, the narrator’s attempt to leave the group and live alone is catastrophic (I’ll say no more), and Russ follows fictional her proposition through to the end.

We Who Are About To… may be forty years old, but it is certainly not dated. It fully deserves to be rediscovered.

The Transmigration of Bodies

January 14, 2017


Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World was one of the best novels I read in 2015 and, while The Transmigration of Bodies (again translated by Lisa Dillman) may not quite match it, that does not prevent it from being another exhilarating slice of Herrera’s magpie imagination. Here we are firmly in hard-boiled territory, though transferred to a city ravaged by the type of end-times plague normally associated with science fiction.

Its central character, the Redeemer, is a “fixer” whose job it is to “take care of stuff under the table at the courts:”

“The Redeemer prided himself on knowing about all the palmgreasing, hornswoggling and machinating in the city…”

He is sent out into the deserted city to resolve a ‘situation’: one family (the Fonsecas) have lost their son, Romeo, last seen being picked up in a van by members of another family (the Castros). In retaliation they have taken Baby Girl, and The Redeemer, as the go-between, must arrange the swap.

“So different and so the same, the Castors and the Fonsecas. Poor as dirt a couple of decades ago, now too big for their boots, and neither had moved out of the barrio: they just added locks and doors and stories and a shit-ton of cement to their houses, one with more tile than the other.”

The Redeemer must walk the tight-rope between the two families, diffusing the gang-war which could erupt at any moment, and coping with the new difficulties of the epidemic such as army road-blocks (not to mention locate a condom so he can sleep with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde). As a thriller, the novel works well: the ‘kidnapping’ is not what it at first appears (I’ll say no more) and there’s more than enough jeopardy to go round. Herrera uses the noir genre to create a story which gives every indication of bleakness (and has some great hard-boiled lines like “Unhappy people aren’t the problem. It’s people taking their unhappy out on you.”) but is strangely sunny in its conclusion.

This fits with a more general intention to use the genre conventions against themselves while ensuring the novel remains a tribute and not a parody. In our hero’s relationship with Three Times Blonde, for example, it is she who calls the shots, he who regards the fact she even looks at him as a “miracle.” (And also he who walks unexpectedly into her room). It’s perhaps why Herrera resisted the temptation to write in first person. The Redeemer does, however, exist in the borderland between the criminals and the law, with a conscience which is blunted but intact.

The Transmigration of Bodies, though literally true, is a little literary for a noir title, though it has the inherent cynicism of suggesting a soulless world. In fact, this novel shows that, even in the bleakest circumstances, we can be redeemed.

One Hundred Shadows

January 10, 2017


Hwang Junguan’s One Hundred Shadows, a Korean novel originally published in 2010 and translated by Jung Yewon, is the second title from Tilted Axis Press. The novel has a fairy-tale quality to it, beginning with a young woman wandering lost in the woods:

“I saw a shadow in the woods. I didn’t know it was a shadow at first. I saw it slip through a thicket and followed it in, wondering if there was a path, and thinking how familiar it looked. The woods grew more dense the deeper in I went, but I kept on going deeper and deeper because the deeper I went, the more the shadow drew me in.”

The repetition (woods twice, shadow three times, deeper four) is typical of the novel’s style, creating a hypnotic simplicity. The narrator, Eunygo, has been drawn into the woods chasing her own shadow. Only the intervention of her friend, Mujae, (perhaps) saves her. As they attempt to find their way out of the woods, he tells her the story of (perhaps) his father, who also saw his shadow “rise”:

“If you spot someone who looks like you, it’s your shadow, and once your shadow rises it’s over for you, because shadows are very persistent, because you can’t bear not to follow your shadow once it’s risen. And then, looking like a ghost, he died.”

Mujae links the rising of his father’s shadow with his father falling into debt, and throughout the novel this phenomenon is connected to poverty and hopelessness. (As Mr Yeo says about his own shadow rising, “My life hasn’t exactly been plain sailing so it was inevitable really.”) All of the novel’s characters are poor, and if you are fearing that the novel exists in an entirely allegorical landscape, nothing could be further from the truth. Once free from the forest, Eunygo and Mujae are firmly located in the world of working class South Korea:

“I worked at an electronics market, a ramshackle warren of tiny shops close to the heart of the city… The market was where I first met Mujae. I manned the customer desk and ran errands at Mr Yeo’s repair shop, while Mujae was an apprentice at a transformer workshop.”

These businesses are threatened by the demolition of the buildings in which they are housed. The first of these is knocked down with great ceremony during the novel:

“As for the way the headlines were making it seem as though the entire market had been demolished rather than just one of the five buildings, Mr Yeo claimed that the intention was to ensure a smooth passage for the final demolition by killing off business in advance.”

This emphasises the impression we have of the novel’s characters living on the margins of society, regarded as old-fashioned and past any use, rather like the electronic equipment Mr Yeo repairs, or the bulbs sold at Omusa, no longer available anywhere else.

One Hundred Shadows is also a love story of sorts, but one which refuses to be hurried. Mujae freely admits his attraction towards Eunygo, though with rather understated phrases such as “I like you.” Eunygo is, it seems, keener to hide her feelings:

“Mujae asked me why I was sweating so much. The soup’s hot, I said…”

And later:

“Are you ill?
Your face is flushed.”

Intimate moments between them involve discussing the whorls of hair on their heads, and singing songs together. They also spend a lot of time eating. Some readers may find this gentle progression frustrating but I felt the fear of commitment an accurate reflection of their uncertain futures. The threatened separation from shadows also suggests a lack, an emptiness; it’s no surprise that when they open a matryoshka (Russian) doll together, the innermost doll gets crushed.

One Hundred Shadows proceeds like a dream, a strange combination of vivid naturalism and uncertain symbolism, and is all the better for it.

The Empress and the Cake

January 7, 2017


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


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.”


“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.