Faces on the Tip of My Tongue

September 21, 2019

Emmanuelle Pagano’s Trysting, also translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis, consisted entirely of short passages which built towards a picture of love in all its many forms. Faces on the Tip of My Tongue is more traditionally structured as a series of short stories, but has a similarly cumulative effect as we discover characters and incidents reappearing from different angles, perhaps still central to the story, but just as possibly an aside, a sentence or two glimpsed fleetingly as we travel on. Where Trysting was very clearly an exploration of love, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, as the title is perhaps intended to suggest, is more difficult to pin down, reflecting, as it does, on place, isolation, and eccentricity.

The idea of isolation is touched on in the first, and briefest story, told in the first person, when the narrator tells us, “I pedalled out to the middle of the lake to read there, away from the others but not too far away.” It forms a companion piece with the final story, ‘Glitter’, in which the narrator finds glitter between the pages of a library book; the suggestion of being “away…but not to far away” echoed in the way in which the narrator believes this discovery connects her to other readers:

“I never did find more glitter. But I did find readers. I’ve found other proofs of reading. I’m no longer alone reading these demanding books, no longer alone in my steamy bath, my bubble.”

Isolation which is not loneliness is a common thread, as can be seen from the narrator of the second story’s summation of the setting:

“The plateau harbours so many solitudes you might think it bustling with life.”

Solitary characters often momentarily connect or at least coincide. In ‘Blind Spots’ the narrator intentionally hides by the roadside: “I stand in their blind spots… I make myself invisible.” But in the story he is seen:

“It’s different with you. You’re the one frightening me. You’re so serene, you’re like my fear, you’re like fear itself.”

The woman who picks the narrator up is, in fact, intent on suicide, a suicide already mentioned in the previous story (“I think she decided to kill herself, I think it was on purpose.”) but one she postpones in the course of this story, only to return to in ‘Three Press-ups and Unable to Die’:

“They’ll know of my death today, of course; I won’t get it wrong again.”

The man from the roadside wonders, “Who are you not to be frightened – a madwoman?” but he will later be referred to by another man who has hitched a lift in ‘The Mini-pilgrimage’, along with others – “he knew some mad people too, more like roadside loonies.” Another reoccurring character, “the automatic tour guide” is first introduced as “the mad old Polish man”. Madness, in this context, is living your life by ritual; habitual behaviour that is both imprisoning and liberating.

This is perhaps best seen in another ‘roadside loony’ who waits by the roadside at the place where his wife and children were killed:

“He waited there for things to be reversed, for the past, for the return of the dead. Going backwards every evening at five o’clock, waiting for life to be different.”

When the road is changed locals wonder how he will react and, in what seemed a hopeless tale, the narrator strikes a hopeful note: “He goes beyond the figure we made of him, that we thought we could reduce him to.” ‘The Loony and the Bright Spark’, is one of the most successful stand-alone stories in the collection, and could easily be placed in an anthology. The same applies to ‘The Short Cut’, although only five pages long, where a woman, returning home for a funeral, finds that a short cut has taken her back too quickly:

“I wasn’t lost on the road but in my mind. It had gone too fast, this return with the short cut.”

‘The Drop-out’, despite echoes to previous talk of cousins who look alike, also works well isolation, and is possibly the strangest story in the collection, as the narrator leaves her daughter’s wedding with the woman who may or may not be the cousin she has not seen for many years. Other stories work better in the context of the collection, accumulating meaning in their echoes, something, perhaps, to be expected from the constant play of isolation and connection within them. In both cases Pagano has an eye for the unseen, the blind spots of life, those we shun or try to forget about. This collection, alongside Trysting, marks her out as a unique and perceptive voice.

Among the Lost

September 13, 2019

Mexican novelist Emiliano Monge’s Among the Lost, originally published in 2015 and appearing last year in an English translation by Frank Wynne, begins as a group of migrants being led through jungle are suddenly stopped by spotlights:

“For their part, when the cage of light in which they find themselves ceases to close in, the men and women who left their land some days, some weeks ago, feel something drain from their entrails and huddle ever closer to each other, their tremblings merging into one, their hollow voices fusing into a single voice. The shock is passing and the terror is charged with questions.”

They have become the victims of human traffickers and are now nothing more than objects to their captors, “no more than prostrate creatures,” to be transported and used at will. They are not, however, the focus of Monge’s gaze; Among the Lost is a novel of the kidnappers rather than the kidnapped, as Monge has explained:

“Literature, I believe, is a portal to empathy, and empathy is one of the few means by which, as a society, we can dispose of violence. But to be empathetic with the victim is pretty easy. What’s truly difficult, what you need more courage for, is to find empathy for the victimizer. If we want to understand and change a pattern of systemic violence, we need to be empathetic toward both parties. I feel it’s really important to understand the victimizer in all his or her complexity: How is it that a man or a woman can kidnap and torture, and also love and protect their loved ones?”

Monge creates empathy for the victimizers through their tortured love story: the action takes place entirely in one day on which Epitafio (the names are all emblematic) and Estela plan, in the tradition of the best crime films, get out while they can. “When will he have the courage to give it all up,” wonders Estela of Epitafio, and, later, “I need to tell you we can’t go on like this.” Epitafio, meanwhile, has similar misgivings:

“I’m done with all this… I want the two of us to be together.”

That neither is entirely certain of what the other thinks is not only down to determined displays of violent nonchalance where anger is the other acceptable emotional response, but also to a lack of communication on the day involving a series of missed calls and no signal moments which would be comic were the consequences not so potentially tragic. (Mobile phones, so often a hindrance to writers, become a symbol of their relationship).

Monge also develops our sympathy by presenting both Epitafio and Estela as victims themselves, past and present. Our glimpses into their childhoods demonstrate that they, too, have been used. Estela remembers the wooden door at the orphanage “that kept her locked in her room, by the bed where she spent years tossing and turning, unable to sleep, by the window she spent hours peering through so she could escape her present.” Epitafio also remembers the moment he was taken from his parents:

“…his brothers pressed their terror to the windows, while their mother sobbed in her bed, and their father screamed and argued in the courtyard.”

They are also victims in the present as it quickly becomes apparent Epitafio’s lieutenant, Sepelio, and the priest who runs the orphanage, Father Nicho, are plotting against them, adding a further dimension to the lack of contact between them as the day progresses.

The link between victim and victimizer is best illustrated in the character of Mauseleo (the name he ends the novel with; in the beginning, as one of the immigrants, he is nameless). An ex-boxer, Epitafio is drawn to his giant stature among the victims and offers him the opportunity to swap sides – “It’s your lucky day,” he tells him more than once. Of course, Mauseleo must demonstrate he has the stomach as well as the physique for violence:

“Feeling his bravura heal the wounds opened up by his fears, the blind newcomer in the kingdom of the blind reaches the mass of tortured and humiliated men and women, and, for the first time today, his face relaxes.”

Mauseleo’s violence is a way of dissipating fear. “Stick out your chest,” Epitafio tells him, “I’ve freed you from having to be one of them!” For Epitafio anger has become his default, his driving force, beyond any immediate cause:

“Unaware the rage now propelling him towards the house is the result of many years and not the setback life has just visited on him.”

There are many things to love about Among the Lost beyond its fearless gaze into the world, and hearts, of violent, desperate men (and women). It is also stylistically impressive, not only in its observation of the classical unities (it began life as a play) but in the way the story is told, largely through dialogue. (Monge’s only other novel in English, The Arid Sky, though thematically similar, has an entirely different structure, retelling a life non-chronologically, and suggesting that Monge’s approach to narrative is carefully considered). Monge has also embedded quotations from Dante’s Inferno into the text, as well as extracts from the interviews of survivors. He also subtly uses the world the human traffickers inhabit to comment on events – the falcon, swooping “on a flock of birds and picking off the weakest”; the snake as Estela thinks of betrayal; the cow Epitafio runs off the road:

“Those dumb fucking animals never move… they just tense their bodies.”

Among the Lost is a terrifying, hopeless masterpiece which I fully expect to be also among my books of the year.

A Girl Returned

August 30, 2019

Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s novel A Girl Returned, newly translated by Ann Goldstein, begins with our narrator, then a thirteen-year-old girl, returning to the family she has never known. The door is opened by her younger sister, Adriana, “keeping her sharp eyes on me,” her “dark look”

“…scorched the gilt buckles of my new shoes, moved up along the blue pleats of the dress, still rigid from the store.”

The difference between them is immediately obvious to Adriana, whose first instinct is to claim the dress once it outgrows her sister, who, in the meantime, is both angry and confused at her return – or, as she sees it, her abandonment by the ‘parents’ she has lived with all her life. “I want to live in my house, with you,” she tells her uncle, “If I did something wrong tell me, and I won’t do it again.” Her experience – of being taken from a poor family to live with wealthier, childless relatives – was not unheard of in Italy in the 1970s, and her return (the title, in both Italian and English, suggests she is treated as an object) allows Di Pietrantonio to examine the class divide which existed, and continues to exist to this day, in a striking and affecting manner.

Though A Girl Returned has been referred to as Di Pietrantonio’s English language debut, it is, in fact, her third novel to be translated, with both My Mother is a River and Bella Mia previously published by (very) small press, Calisi. These mark her out as a writer interested in situations of intense emotional impact, testing her characters’ resilience, just as the narrator, here, is tested. Her new family are not only much coarser than her adoptive parents, but neglectful in both care and affection. On her first night she discovers:

“My first parents didn’t recall until after dinner that there wasn’t a bed for me in the house.”

When her older brother, Vincenzo, is hit by her father, “only I was frightened, who had never seen violence close up.” When told to pluck a chicken, she replies, “I can’t, it scares me.” Her situation is made worse by the fact that she is offered no explanation as to why her aunt has returned her to her parents – something which allows the novel to work to some extent as a mystery – and, moreover, her aunt seems determined to have no contact with her at all. Even when she is finally able to return to her aunt’s house, she finds it empty:

“I rang the bell into the emptiness of the rooms and after a vain wait rang it over and over again, for a long time. I leaned my forehead against the bell and stood like that until the heat became unbearable.”

From the moment her uncle returns after having taken her to her “family that was mine against my will” (she thinks for a moment he has changed his mind) with a tub of ice cream, her adoptive family’s only contribution to her new life is entirely material – arranging for the narrator and Adriana to have bunk beds, for example. At first the narrator sees this as a sign that her aunt is still thinking of her: when she receives some money each week she “believed that I was receiving, along with the coins, the warmth of her palm.” Later, for example when her aunt visits while she is out, she is angry:

“A fierce rage was starting to swell in my stomach… Suddenly a destructive energy pervaded me, as if I’d had an injection whose effect was instantaneous.”

Her relations with her new family, however, are not entirely negative, although her attraction to her brother (“We weren’t used to being siblings and we didn’t believe it completely”) is both understandable and worrying at the same time. It is with Adriana that she finds the most affection, the physical closeness of sharing a bed (which continues even when the bunk beds are bought) slowly becoming an emotional closeness. Adriana looks out for her in the home, and when she starts school leaves her classroom to check on her:

“I wanted to see if my sister’s all right. She’s from the city.”

Conversely, the narrator takes Adriana out of her limited environment, widening her horizons, aware that “in the alien setting, she was defenceless.” Later she will come to worry about leaving her:

“Who would take out her baby teeth when I returned to the city?”

She also comes to love the family’s youngest child, Giuseppe, at one point being the only one who will comfort him:

“I don’t think I’d ever felt the pleasure of such intimacy with any creature.”

A Girl Returned, then, is not only a commentary on poverty, but a coming of age story, in which the narrator must unexpectedly develop independence and resilience. That she is largely successful (and because the novel is told from her point of view as an adult) is the reason why it is not a tale of misery despite moments of intense unhappiness. Comparisons with Elena Ferrante are perhaps inevitable but this is a lighter book, though in no way lacking in serious intent. Though it may not be Di Pietrantonio’s English language debut, hopefully it will win her the wider audience she deserves.

I Who Have Never Known Men

August 17, 2019

Jacqueline Harpman was a Belgian author who wrote numerous novels between 1958 and 2006, only two of which have been translated into English: Orlando, which won the Prix Medicis in 1996, and I Who Have Never Known Men, published one year earlier, and translated by Ros Schwartz under the title The Mistress of Silence for Harvill Press in 1997. It has now been reissued with a new introduction by Sophie Macintosh, perhaps hoping to capitalise on the growing feminist dystopia market. Yet, though I Who Have Never Known Men is clearly open to a feminist reading, the questions it raises reverberate even wider, forcing the reader to ask what it means to be human.

The novel is narrated by the youngest of a group of forty woman incarcerated in a bunker for reasons none of them understand. “No one has the slightest idea what’s behind all this,” the narrator is told by one of the older women. There is a vague sense of some catastrophe which has led to their imprisonment but they “don’t even know if there was a war,” or how they arrived at the bunker in the first place; even their initial time in the bunker is described as “the hazy period in the early days of our captivity.” Their time in the bunker is regulated by guards who use whips to control the behaviour of the women – who are now so institutionalised that they are rarely subject to any violence – enforcing such rules as “we weren’t permitted to touch one another.”

The narrator is different from the other woman not only because she is the youngest (in fact they speculate that she is “almost certainly here by accident”) but because she retains a more active mind. Perhaps this is partly because she has, in other ways, been prevented from becoming a woman. She tells us:

“The others had been adult for a long time whereas I appeared to be prepubescent. But my development stopped there: I started to get hair under my arms and on my pubes, my breasts grew a little, and then everything came to a halt. I never had a period,”

Extracting knowledge from the other women, however, is difficult as they no longer see beyond what is necessary, and do not understand what the narrator later calls “the pleasure of knowing”. When she asks one of the women about “men and love” she is mystified:

“She couldn’t understand why someone would want knowledge that would be of no use to them.”

She begins to explore her sexuality by fantasizing about one of the younger guards, to the point where she is able to orgasm without physical stimulation – “an immense sensation swept through me, an overwhelming eruption” – but this is part of a wider attempt to gain control over her environment. At the same time she begins to count her heartbeat so that she can measure time.

At this point, however – about a third of the way into the novel – everything suddenly changes. There is a “terrifyingly loud noise” and within minutes the guards have disappeared:

“For the first time since we women had been imprisoned, we were alone in the bunker.”

The siren occurs at the same time the hatch to the cell is open and so the women are suddenly freed and able to leave the bunker, venturing outside to face a landscape so barren and desolate that they wonder if they are still on Earth:

“…all we could see was the stony plain where nothing moved except the scant grass gently swaying in the breeze.”

The rest of the novel follows the women’s journey across this landscape – “while we didn’t know where to go, we didn’t have any better reason for staying” – and what they discover, while the narrator contends with the knowledge that, as the youngest, she will likely be the last to die.

In these desperate circumstances, Harpman frequently raises the question of what it means to be human. In their captivity, the narrator comments:

“We have been deprived of everything that made us human, but we organise ourselves, I suppose in order to survive, or because, when you’re human, you can’t help it.”

Later, the decision to leave the bunker is taken as a result of a plea to the women’s humanity:

“We can’t settle here and live from the bunker like parasites. We must remain human beings.”

Despite this the narrator worries that her own life has left her less than human: “I must be lacking in certain experiences that make a person fully human.” Interestingly, it is only when she decides to write down her story (as she tells us at the beginning) that she feels her life, however limited, has the same value as that of any other person:

“After all, if I was a human being, my story was as important as that of King Lear or of Prince Hamlet that William Shakespeare had taken the trouble to relate in detail.”

In I Who Have Never Known Men Harpman creates circumstances which are both hopeless and incomprehensible. Even when the women are released they quickly realise, “we’d merely moved to a new prison.” It is only the resolutely human qualities of the narrator which give the reader any hope, and it is in the clash between the two that the novel’s power lies. A deservedly rediscovered classic.

The Yogini

August 5, 2019

“I am no one, fate is everything,” Homi, the central character in Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s The Yogini (translated by Arunava Sinha), tells us in a three-page prologue, ‘Returned to her senses for the first time’, opening Bandyopadhyay’s latest novel with the unsettling intensity typical of her previous works, Panty and Abandon:

“There is no such thing as free will here. No fundamental independence.”

Yet The Yogini initially strikes a different note despite falling in between the two previous translations from Tilted Axis Press in its original publication. The women in both Panty and Abandon begin with nothing, struggling for survival in difficult circumstances. Homi, on the other hand, has everything – a postgraduate degree in English, a job in the media, and a loving husband, Lalit. In fact the novel settles into something almost conventional, even going as far as to include a Jane Austenesque portrait of Homi’s mother, who complains of her other daughter, Homi’s half-sister, “She goes abroad on shopping sprees at the drop of a hat, but everything she buys is for herself,” and, when her husband falls seriously ill, worries that he will return home an invalid:

“The thing is, Lalit, I need my afternoon nap. How can I have a cripple disturbing me?”

Tensions also exist within Homi and Lalit’s relationship as Lalit accuses her of a more subtle form of selfishness, an emotional withholding:

“People like you only want to take, Khuku, you don’t know how to give.”

Only later does Homi realise what Lalit means when he ends a phone call abruptly after telling her he is staying with his family:

“…it occurred to Homi that the way he had treated her just them was exactly how she had treated him for the last year and a half.”

What prevents the first half of the novel being simply social satire is the appearance of a mysterious figure seen only by Homi:

“He looked fearsome, his matted locks and beard framing his face like a spider. His eyes blazed and his body gave off a mild stench.”

The hermit identifies himself as Homi’s ‘fate’, and Homi finds herself both repulsed and attracted, feelings which Bandyopadhyay characterises sexually. After their first meeting her body feels “violated” but later, when she is making love to Lalit, “she shocked herself with the realisation that she had subconsciously been seeking something else – a much larger head, one with matted locks and a necklace of beads round its neck.” Later still she finds her “body caught fire at his touch.” The idea of fate quickly becomes the dominant theme of the novel – Bandyopadhyay has said in interview, “Our real battle is with predilection and destiny.” It influences Homi’s view of herself and her behaviour, acting with Lalit “like a marionette” and “like a solider under orders.”

“She realised that the word ‘fate’ was gathering in her heart like unshed tears, gnawing away at her.”

The novel, and Homi’s, turning point occurs when she seeks out a palmist, who describes her as “someone whose life is influenced by no one else”;

“You consider no one close or distant, good or evil. You love no one, but nor do you respect or hate them.”

From this point on Homi’s life begins to change, at first gradually but later dramatically. Bandyopadhyay slowly dismantles the trappings of the conventional novel as Homi experiences what can only be described as a spiritual crisis which will lead us to an ending far from the romcom echoes of the opening.

Reading The Yogini I was unexpectedly reminded of the 19th century Scottish novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This was not only because it, too, is very much concerned with fate (or predestination) versus free will, but because it also contains a character, Gil-Martin, who may be a supernatural manifestation or a delusion – something Homi considers when she first sees the hermit (“Homi had classified the previous night’s frightening incident as largely imagined.”) However, where Gil-Martin seems intent only on damning Wringham, it is feasible that the hermit is saving Homi. Though she seems to have lost everything by the end of the novel, she inadvertently admitted to Lalit in the opening pages that, “I don’t want this kind of life.”

‘Yogini’ is, of course, a female noun and cannot be applied to the hermit, real or imagined. It could refer to Bibirani, a spiritual teacher whom Homi meets towards the end of the novel, but it may be intended to describe Homi herself. It would, perhaps, explain why the hermit calls her ‘Empress’, and allows us to reinterpret her journey as one towards enlightenment where she is able to give herself to fate entirely:

“She had thought her fate was stalking her, but now she wondered whether it wasn’t the other way round.”

That this remains only one possible interpretation suggests the pleasurable complexity of this wonderful author.

Empty Words

July 6, 2019

In 2013 Juan Pablo Villalobos wrote about Mario Levrero for Granta’s Best Untranslated Writers series, stating that, even before he had read him, “I knew he was a ‘strange’ writer, unclassifiable, with a boundless imagination, who was creating one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking bodies of work in the Spanish language.” Six years later we finally have one of Levrero’s novels, Empty Words, available to us in English thanks to translator Annie McDermott, who similarly describes the author as an “uncategorisable writer who refused to be bound by rules or conventions, and for whom ‘the only thing that matters in literature is writing with as much freedom as you possibly can.’”

The novel itself certainly suggests a writer who is not interested in rules or conventions, but potential readers should not assume that this makes the work in any way ‘difficult’. In fact, its strangeness is companionable, even homely, perhaps because it is mostly set in and around Levrero’s home. In an introductory note, the author explains that the novel consist of two texts intercut:

“One, entitled ‘Exercises’, is a series of short handwriting exercises, written with no other purpose than that. The other, entitled ‘The Empty Discourse’, is a single, unified text that’s more ‘literary’ in intention.”

Of course, we must never entirely trust an author’s note: just as by interspersing extracts from ‘The Empty Discourse’ among ‘Exercises’, Levrero makes a mockery of the idea it is a ‘unified text’, so too should we mistrust the claim that the latter has ‘no other purpose’. Even in describing the process by which the novel was created, Levrero seems to be deliberately setting the unconscious against the conscious mind, humorously entitling his conscious (that is content-filled) text ‘The Empty Discourse’. Levrero begins with a further disclaimer:

“My aims at this stage of the therapeutic endeavour are fairly modest. To begin with I’m going to practise writing by hand. I won’t be attempting calligraphy, but I’ll at least try to manage a script that anyone could read – myself included, because these days my writing’s so bad that not even I can decipher it.”

However, he is soon commenting on the pull of his conscious mind:

“I’m getting distracted again and paying too little attention to the handwriting and too much to the subject matter, which is anti-therapeutic…”

He is also distracted by the outside world:

“Yesterday I only managed three and a half lines of exercises and then I was interrupted and had to stop.”

However later he concedes, “The problem isn’t the demands of the outside world even though I often think it is, but rather my attachment, or commitment, to those demands.” When the discourse begins to infiltrate the exercises in Part Two, rather than the philosophical tract we may have been expecting, we find simply that outside world, and in particular the story of Levrero’s dog:

“The discourse then has been filling up with the story of the dog.”

Although he goes on to say that “the story of the dog could be a symbol of the real content of the discourse, which for some reason it’s impossible to see directly,” he is accepting that his own vision is indistinct, not simply the reader’s. Just as in the exercises the conscious mind is superimposed on the unconscious mind, so here the situation is reversed:

“Today the topic of the dog has been thrust upon me once more…”

This is perhaps inevitable given the process Levrero describes:

“When I started writing this, my idea was simply to recover the form of an existing discourse and wait for its contents to be revealed as I went along.”

The two texts naturally begin to create a dialogue which in Part Three becomes a monologue as Levrero returns to his exercises but later also to the story of the dog – perhaps an admission that the separation is impossible.

All of this, however, does not really give a sense of the reading experience which I found as hypnotic as the repetitive exercises he describes. These provide a pulse, a rhythm which runs through the text, their artificial nature ironically enhancing the reality of everything else Levrero tells us. Even more astoundingly, they produce the character development we might expect from a traditional novel in the most unexpected way. Thankfully Annie McDermott tells us that a further Levrero translation is one its way (The Luminous Novel – “a 450-page prologue explaining why it was impossible to write the book itself”). Personally, I can’t wait to renew my acquaintance with this astonishing writer.

The Wind That Lays Waste

July 3, 2019

Selva Almada’s debut novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, now translated by Chris Andrews, could be described as dramatic in its intensity if that word had not become corrupted with connotations beyond its reference to the stage. With its affordable cast of four characters (each as important as any other), its single setting, and the action taking place over a few hours, it would be easily experienced in a theatre. Of course, the thunderstorm towards which the action builds might lack the three dimensions of the imagination, and moments of back story would have to be redeployed, but the novel’s greatest strengths would remain intact: the constricted, at times claustrophobic, setting which enhances themes of freedom and escape, the dialogue full with nuance and depth, and the shifting slow burn of character development.

The idea that those characters will come to reflect on the directions their lives are taking is immediately created by the artificial pause in the literal journey of two of them, the Reverend Pearson and his teenage daughter, Elena, when their car breaks down and they are forced to stop for repairs. The mechanic, Gringo Brauer, also has the care of a teenage child, his assistant, nicknamed Tapioca. This is the first of a number of ways in which the men mirror each other. Tapioca is left with the mechanic aged nine by a woman who claims Brauer is the father:

“Tapioca nodded, still watching the truck, which had climbed up into the road now, with his mother inside, taking her away forever.”

A similar scene is repeated in reverse when Pearson drives off with Elena leaving her mother behind:

“Leni’s last image of her mother is from the rear window of the car…. Her mother is left standing there, beside the suitcase. She covers her face with her hands. She’s crying.”

This immediately marks the two men, and the two teenagers, as both similar and different. In the Reverend’s case, it is his religion which most separates him from Brauer, as seen to comic effect when he begins to say grace before a meal they are about to share together:

“‘Let us give thanks,’ said the Reverend.
Tapioca and the Gringo froze, their food-laden forks halfway between plate and mouth.”

Brauer is quietly dismissive of Pearson’s views:

“We make our own destinies, that’s what I believe. We know why we do what we do.”

As Pearson attempts to convert Tapioca, however, he grows irritated:

“I know him like the palm of my hand. And believe me, he doesn’t need any Jesus Christ. And he doesn’t need some John the Baptist like you to come along with your snake-oil spiel and tell him about the end of the world and all that crap.”

Religion is also coming between Pearson and his daughter:

“‘Ah, my girl, Jesus has blessed me,’ he said and patted her on the cheek.
This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it straight out: he always had to get Jesus in there, between them.”

Almada clearly conveys her love for her father, but one tempered with resentment:

“Her childhood was very recent, but her memory of it was empty. Thanks to her father, the Reverend Pearson, and his holy mission, all she could remember was the inside of the same old car, crummy rooms in hundreds of indistinguishable hotels, the features of dozens of children she never spent long enough with to miss when the time came to move on, and a mother whose face she could hardly recall.”

Later she says she has never seen a photograph of herself as a little girl. While Tapioca’s life appears to be one of stasis and Leni’s one of movement, it feels static to her. Her only escape is to listen to music on her Walkman (she has promised her father only to play religious music in order to be allowed this one expression of individuality).

Things come to a head when Pearson insists that Tapioca should go with him, telling Brauer, “You don’t realise how special that boy is; there’s a treasure in him… You have no idea of the destiny awaiting that boy.” In this there are echoes of his own childhood, when he was taken by his mother, who was not a particularly religious woman, to be baptised by a preacher. Though he has since converted others, he believes the boy to be exceptional in his innocence.

However, this is not really a novel about religion, but about relationships: the longstanding relationships between the fathers and their children, and the new relationships developing in this moment, with the potential to change lives. It is beautifully judged and entirely free of cliché. As the characters grow closer, in that way we can believe we know others after only a few hours together, so too the reader comes to feel their presence in the room, as if they might look up and find them there.

Who Among Us?

July 1, 2019

Who Among Us? is the third of Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti’s novels (though the first written, in 1953) to appear in English in recent years, translated, as with Springtime in a Broken Mirror, by Nick Caistor. His previous novels demonstrate a writer intrigued by different narrative forms: The Truce is written in the form of a diary; Springtime in a Broken Mirror presents us with a chorus of different voices. Who Among Us? is perhaps the most daring yet – its love triangle, while not quite a ménage a trois, is certainly a recit de trois, a story told in three narratives: the first a journal, the second a letter, and the third a short story written by one of the characters.

Each member of the triangle (Miguel, Alicia, Lucas) tells the story from their own particular angle. It is Miguel who writes the first and longest section, having encouraged his wife, Alicia, to go to Buenos Aires to sell some property in the hope she will meet Lucas. He now regards their eleven-year marriage as the wrong choice for her:

“The present crisis has arisen out of a gradual conviction: that Alicia has always preferred Lucas.”

Miguel, Alicia and Lucas’ relationship dates back to their time at school, the first two quickly becoming friends with Lucas added when he arrives a year later at Miguel’s insistence. Though Alicia is closer to Miguel, he feels that her relationship with Lucas is somehow more necessary:

“It was plain the two of them really liked me, were loyal to me and would carry on being so. I was certain of that. They, however, did not like each other: they needed one another.”

Despite this, and a period after school when it is Alicia and Lucas who spend most time together, it is Miguel and Alicia who later marry. Even so, Miguel considers Lucas an important factor in Alicia’s choice:

“Probably Lucas sang my praises (I also praised him whenever I talked with Alicia; the absent person was always the star), and no doubt as a result Alicia became convinced I was the best of the three – and consequently the better of the two, Lucas and me, which in the end was the only choice that mattered.”

Miguel tells the story of his relationship with Alicia in a detached manner, frequently commenting on his lack of strong feelings. “I’ve never needed,” he tells us, “to be the reflection of other people’s affections.” The crisis in his marriage with Alicia is precipitated by a realisation that his feelings for her, even when she is pregnant, are lacking to the point of absence:

“All of a sudden I was overcome by the sensation that my tenderness was forced and that deep down I couldn’t care less about her or her condition.”

“I still don’t know if any any point was in love with her,” he says, “but that’s more because I question my emotional capacity.” Miguel excuses his indifference by portraying himself as the inferior member of the trio. As a teenager, he says, “I knew I was there as their witness… and consciously vegetated in their shadow,” going one step further to describe his relationship with his own life in the same terms:

“Witness is a terrible role to be cast in, and I can’t even avoid being witness to my own life…”

He briefly describes a childhood where his father routinely abused his mother, where he is also a “silent witness,” winning the reader over with his honesty:

“I don’t want to be lied to, or lie to myself. I want to know everything about myself.”

Or, at least, so it seems – at the end of the first section there is a revelation which I assume is the reason Jonathan Gibbs commented on Twitter:

“Blimey. Something’s just happened in this book… that makes me want to chuck it across the room and leave it there.”

Miguel is not, after all, a reliable narrator, as we quickly discover reading Alicia’s letter:

“I never understood why you insisted on brining me and Lucas together. I saw him as an intruder and wanted to refuse him entry, to cut him down to size, before the boundless prestige you endowed him with could begin to overshadow our fragile bond.”

The final section is a short story written by Lucas with footnotes on which he relates the characters and events in the story to those in his life (for example the character Claudia is Alicia) when he meets Alicia in Buenos Aires. Just as the previous narratives have allowed us insight into the narrator’s feeling, so too does the story in the gaps between reality and fiction.

Who Among Us? is masterfully constructed, refracting its three relationships through three different lenses, while also questioning a fourth relationship – that between text and truth: the stories we construct to explain what we do. Luckily Benedetti still has five other novels awaiting translation.

Lost Books – The City and the House

June 26, 2019

A well-deserved Natalia Ginzburg revival is already underway in both the US and the UK, though not one which has (so far) extended to her final novel, The City and the House, published in 1984 and translated by Dick Davis in 1986. As a later work this neglect is perhaps unsurprising, but it might also be explained by the fact that it is an epistolary novel written long after the form was in its prime, and perhaps too close to its extinction (I mean the point when we can reasonably accept characters will commonly write letters to each other). Having said that, Ginzburg handles the form with skill, presenting a core exchange between former lovers Giuseppe and Lucrezia while encompassing a number of other correspondents, allowing her to examine a network of relationships along the way, and combining to give a powerful sense of time passing.

We learn in the first letter that Giuseppe is planning to leave Italy and live with his brother, Ferruccio, in in America. Giuseppe tells Lucrezia that, “I have never managed to do anything and I am nearly fifty.” He feels he has few ties to Italy, having only a distant relationship with his son, Alberico:

“I would have liked someone different. But that certainly goes for him too.”

He is indifferent to Lucrezia’s claim that he is the father of one of her children, telling her instead that her husband, Piero, is “an excellent father and they have not need of any other.” The life Giuseppe imagines for himself in America, however, is altered before he even leaves Rome as his brother informs him he has married an American divorcee, Ann Marie. This will be one of many crossed wires (one of Giuseppe’s most powerful reasons for going to America was the thought of the two of them living together as a couple of bachelors, going as far as to declare, “I will do the housework and prepare the meals”) to occur as the letters cross each other in the novel.

The plot of The City and the House is not complicated, but it would be both tedious and convoluted to recount, based as it is on the ever-changing relationships of its characters. Its soap opera tendencies are mediated by variety of voices and viewpoints by which it is told. Overall we have a picture of characters searching for happiness but often unsure where to find it. Giuseppe and Lucrezia typify this, partly because we sense that their previous relationship reached a point where they might have made a stronger commitment to each other, as Lucrezia suggests:

“I wanted to leave Piero and come and live with you… You told me that I should not leave Piero, that I shouldn’t even think of doing so. You said the children would suffer. I said I would bring them with me and they wouldn’t suffer much… Then you got very frightened.”

Here, Giuseppe’s fear of being a father seems, at least in part, to bring their relationship to an end. Later he will find Ann Marie’s daughter and son-in-law easier to tolerate than she does, as well as improving his relationship with Alberico. Meanwhile Lucrezia will leave her husband for another man, but with as much desperation to inflict a change on her life as love.

The idea of choosing what we do to find happiness in our lives is echoed in the choice of where contained in the novel’s title. The house referred to is that owned by Lucrezia and Piero, which many characters talk of fondly. Giuseppe writes to Piero:

“I shall carry your big, yellow old house, which you call Le Margherite, though goodness knows why, with me in my heart.”

And later, in reference to a phone call:

“It was a real joy for me to hear all their voices together and to think of them all together there, at Le Margherite, in the sitting-room, that sitting-room I remember so well with the big oval table, the lamp shade with its frayed border, the basket of firewood and the dog’s cushion, the sofa in front of the fireplace and over the fireplace the picture of King Lear.”

Just as Giuseppe moves to America, Lucrezia moves to the city, Rome. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Lear, who gave away his kingdom, is featured in Giuseppe’s description. In fact, the sale of property is a repeated act in the novel, one reason we feel time is rushing on, towards the elegiac atmosphere of the final letters. For all is lightness of tone, The City and the House could not be described as a happy novel, though its ambiguous ending leaves us with a little hope.

Lost Books – The Revolt

June 23, 2019

Nina Berberova’s The Revolt begins with the separation of two lovers – no doubt one of many separations which took place in Paris during September 1939. Einar has decide to return to his native, neutral Sweden as war breaks across Europe, leaving behind Russian émigré, Olga. The scene is described in some detail as she accompanies him to the Gare du Nord, the “night not black, rather a kind of green…”

“The entire city, and the sky up above, and the river, and the inside of the bus – everything was dark green, bottle green: our faces and the faces of the other passengers, and the Grand Palais, which we rumbled past, were all the same colour.”

The city itself seems to have physically changed, and later Olga wonders, “Was this not an underwater kingdom? Had we not drowned?” as the landscape embodies the change of state taking place in their relationship. The war itself is visible in the “crowd of recruits marching in the utter darkness,” their future, like Olga’s, now suddenly obscured. The scene is almost melodramatic were it not for Olga’s awareness (and, of course, Berberova’s too) of the potential clichés inherent in the scene she is experiencing:

“I pressed my face to the pane, the way they used to write in novels.”

The journey towards Einar’s departure is ironically interrupted with stories of promised trips together – to Stockholm, to Brazil, to Russia – an early indication of Einar’s unreliability. It is seven years before they see each other again; two letters she sends to him are returned marked ‘address unknown’. When she is eventually invited to Stockholm it is not by Einar, but by a publisher who wishes her to write a book about her uncle, Dmitrii Georgievich:

“It all came down to three questions: Is he alive? Will I ever see him again? Does he still love me?”

When she is finally reunited with Einar, however, it is to discover he is married:

“Einar’s wife was a blue-eyed giantess with light brown hair, big round cheeks that puffed out a little, bringing to mind a chubby angel or, if you prefer, an angel blowing a trumpet.”

Though she stays with Einar and his wife, Emma, for four days, Emma is careful that they are never left alone, something Olga finds harder to accept than the marriage:

“No, there was nothing to explain, and no point in belabouring the past, but maybe we could have spent a little time together?… In that moment, in powerless and bitter despair, I felt as if I were burning up with hatred, grief and outrage.”

She returns to Paris, but she will see Einar again when Emma invites her to holiday with them in Italy. “I felt like some sort of trap had been set for me,” she reflects, and certainly Emma’s intentions seem different as Einar and Olga are frequently left alone.

This is the third of Berberova’s novels I have read, and each of them deals with love, though all in a different manner, in a way that suggests a deep understanding both of her protagonists’ emotions and the dynamics of their lives. Here she cleverly begins by describing the novel’s final scene at the same time as its first:

“In everyone’s life there are moments when unexpectedly, for no apparent reason, a door that has been shut suddenly cracks open, a trellised window, only just lowered, goes up, a sharp, seemingly final ‘no’ becomes a ‘perhaps’, and in that second the world around us is transformed…”

She also speaks of what she calls a person’s ‘no man’s land’:

“…a domain that is his and his alone. The life everyone sees is one thing; the other belongs to the individual, and it is none of anyone else’s business.”

This, she says, is where she and Einar met, suggesting the closeness of their relationship, but, at the same time, this does not make love more important. As she says in the novel’s final pages, in reference to Dmitrii Georgievich’s fate:

“…if you allow anyone to arrange your no man’s land, then in the end, reasoning logically, it will reach the point where they put you in a luxurious suite of a luxurious hotel and burn your books and drive away everyone you ever loved.”

The Revolt has been recently review by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings who described it as “a subtle, nuanced piece of writing which certainly lingers in the mind”, and by Max at Pechorin’s Journal who ended his review by saying “very, very highly recommended and likely on my end of year list.” Hopefully this revival of interest in Berberova’s work will attract the attention of publishers as she deserves to be both back in print and more widely known.