Posts Tagged ‘Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 1996’

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Winner 1996

April 2, 2021

With the long list for the International Booker Prize of 2021 announced a few days ago, it seems only appropriate to finally reveal the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of twenty-five years previously. This was a project I began back in the UK’s first lockdown in March last year, attempting to discover which books might have made it onto a 1996 long list (the prize itself was in abeyance between 1996 and 2000). In July I announced the long list:

In the Hold by Vladimir Arsenijevic, translated from the Serbian by Celia Hawkesworth (Harvill Press)

Your Name Shall Be Tanga by Calixthe Beyala, translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager (Heinemann African Writers Series)

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare, translated by David Bellos from the French version of Albanian by Jusuf Vrioni (Harvill Press)

Slowness by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher (Faber and Faber)

Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (Faber and Faber)

The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf, translated from the French by Dorothy S Blair (Quartet Books)

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Trap by Ana Maria Matute, translated from the Spanish by Maria Jose de la Camara and Robert Nugent (Latin American Literary Review Press)

Hypnotism Made Easy by Marie Nimier, translated from the French by Sophie Hawkes (Angela Royal Publishing)

Nevermore by Marie Redonnet, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press)

The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

Although I largely stuck with the rules of the prize (altering the timeframe slightly by including anything published within the calendar year of 1996 rather than April to April) I eventually had to include two US published titles to ensure at least four women writers were present. The list was also far more Eurocentric than I would have liked with only three writers originating from elsewhere. It features an unusually high proportion of writers who were then, or are now, regarded as world class, including two Nobel Prize winners: Kadare, Kundera, Vargas Llosa, Marias, Saramago and Sebald are all unarguably major names. Perhaps too predictably, I would have certainly placed four of them on any short list, discounting Kadare and Saramago as I felt in each case these were weaker works. The final two places would have gone to Amin Maalouf and (my discovery during the judging) Marie Redonnet.

As for a winner, it finally came down to one of two books:

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Harvill Press)

The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald, translated from the German by Michele Hulse (Harvill Press)

Both Marias and Sebald are unique stylists. One might even argue they have a lot in common in their circuitous, meandering narratives where plot plays only a minor role, and their concerns with identity, choices and loss. Today, of course, they feel like established writers, but The Emigrants was Sebald’s first book to be translated into English and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me was Marias’ third. Sebald later won the prize (posthumously) in 2002 with Austerlitz; Marias has only ever made it as far as the short list, with Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream in 2007. Ultimately, as my review shows, there were elements of The Emigrants I found uneven, whereas for me Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me remains among the perfect novels, and so takes this imaginary and entirely meaningless prize.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon

January 6, 2021

The final book in my missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 long list is Jose Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon, originally published in 1989, and the fifth of his novels to be translated into English (by Giovanni Pontiero) in 1996. The novel tells the story of a proof-reader, Raimundo Silva, who inserts a deliberate inaccuracy into the history book of the title, a ‘not’ which reverses the assertion that the Portuguese were helped by the Crusaders in the retaking of Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. Strangely, Silva has no real idea why he does this:

“No one would be happier than I to find a satisfactory explanation.”

It is thirteen days before the publishers discover the ‘mistake’, an unwelcome professional discovery that leads to a more welcome personal one as Silva meets Maria Sara who has been placed in charge of the proof reading department. At first Silva is only aware that “the woman had not taken her eyes off him” during the course of his reprimand but the meeting will lead to a late flowering of love for a man who had given up hope of any such thing:

“I’m in my fifties, he says, who is going to love me at my age, or who am I going to love…”

The novel is, at heart, a love story, but one where love is pursued through The History of the Siege of Lisbon as Maria brings Silva the single uncorrected copy and suggests “you yourself should write a history of the siege of Lisbon in which the crusaders do not help the Portuguese.” Silva’s ability to do this has already been highlighted to the reader in an opening section which we assume is from The History until we are told:

“In his book the historian gave no such description.”

This introduces another theme of the novel, that of the uncertain border between historical fact and imaginative recreation. Silva must decide why the crusaders may not have helped the Portuguese:

“What that motive might have been, we must now investigate, if we are to give the slightest credibility and verisimilitude to this new account.”

Saramago also playfully applies these rules to his own work:

“Anyone concerned with logic mush be asking himself how it is conceivable that during all this time Raimundo Silva has not given anther thought to the humiliating scene in the director’s office, why it has never been mentioned for the sake of giving some coherence to a character and verisimilitude to events.”

As Saramago points out, the history is to Silva what the novel is to Saramago – “we are not dealing here with cinema or theatre, or even with life.” And so the two stories progress hand in hand, both overlapping, as at times we find Silva walking in the twelve century streets of his imagination, or jarringly juxtaposed, as when our experience of battle preparations is interrupted by a telephone ringing.

The siege of Lisbon becomes not only the siege of the Moorish city but, tongue in cheek, Silva’s seduction of Maria. On the day he decides to phone her he “awoke with a clear idea as to how the troops should finally be deployed on the ground for the assault, including certain strategic details of his own making.” And when he says, “Before I engaged in this battle, I was a simple proof-reader…” he is referring as much to the relationship as the siege. But there is also romance in evidence which Saramago demonstrates through the use of roses. The first time Silva delivers proofs to Maria she is wearing a white rose:

“Raimundo Silva, without meditating or premeditating, detached as he was from the act and its consequences, gently touched the white rose with two fingers…”

Later he sends her two roses, while keeping two himself, and also makes her a promise:

“No one should be able to give less than they have given before, roses shouldn’t appear today and a wilderness tomorrow. There won’t be any wilderness.”

In the history he is writing he incorporates a character to represent himself, and soon they too are in love.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is both a novel of history and of love, but, above all, it celebrates the inexplicable. Silva cannot explain why he inserts ‘not’ into the proof; nor can he explain why he caresses Maria’s rose. It is perhaps a warning against definitive interpretations:

“The relationship between what we call cause and what we subsequently describe as effect is not always linear and explicit.”

With its long, leisurely sentences and frequent digressions, it may test the patience of some readers, but with Saramago the journey is more important than the destination. The second Nobel Prize winner on a long list which includes a number of writers who are automatically assigned the adjective ‘great’, choosing a winner for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996 will be far from easy.

The Emigrants

December 14, 2020

W G Sebald’s The Emigrants, originally published in 1993, was the first of his books to appear in English, translated by Michael Hulse in 1996, and therefore eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of that year. It tells the story of four men, each in some way an emigrant, each in some way connected to Sebald: one is a distant relation, another his old teacher, and two he meets, one might say, by accident. In fact, the apparently accidental nature of the narrative, the randomness of the construction (the first two chapters are much shorter than then third and fourth), disguise a deeper-lying unity which builds through the emotional ripples which run through the book.

Although Sebald’s appearance in the narrative makes it something of a memoir, the author is careful to avoid seeming the centre of attention, where instead he places his subject and circles round them drawing ever closer to the heart of their story. In the first chapter he meets Dr Henry Selwyn, the estranged husband of his landlady. Selwyn, once a doctor, now spends his days tending his garden and caring for three horses which he has saved from the knacker’s yard. Eventually Selwyn shares the story of his childhood emigration from Lithuania to England, which seems to be affecting him more intensely as he gets older. A parallel story of a friend he had to part from in Switzerland when the First World War broke out provides an echo of that primal separation:

“Even the separation from Elli, whom I had met at Christmas in Berne and married after the war, did not cause me remotely as much pain as the separation from Naegeli.”

Later Sebald hears that Selwyn has taken his own life, an act he has clearly been considering for some time as one day the author and his wife find him testing the shotgun he eventually uses to find out if it is still in working order.

Paul Bereyter, Sebald’s second subject, was once his teacher (in the 1950s), though we discover that before the Second World War it was difficult for him to find employment as he had a Jewish grandparent. Despite this, he fights in the German army. The chapter opens with his suicide, which prompts Sebald to discover more about his life. Even as a child Sebald is able to perceive something of the sadness in Bereyter’s life:

“…at any time – in the middle of a lesson, at break, or on one of our outings – he might stop of sit down somewhere, alone and apart for us all, as if he, who was always in good spirits and cheerful, was in fact desolation itself.”

It is during the 1930s, a young man in love, and at the start of his career, that everything changes:

“The wonderful future he had dreamt of that summer collapsed without a sound like the proverbial house of cards.”

Not only must he travel abroad in order to work, but his father’s business is attacked and his father dies soon after, quickly followed by his mother. As with Selwyn, as he grows older these experiences affect him more profoundly.

The chapter on Ambrose Adelwarth, Sebald’s great uncle, I found the least successful in the book, perhaps because, as Sebald’s relative, there seems to be an excess of information, or perhaps because his story seems the most tenuously connected to the book’s themes. Adelwarth himself is not Jewish but he travels the world with Cosmo Solomon (it seems to be suggested they may be more than just ‘companions’) and then becomes butler to Solomon’s family when he dies. He, too, is an emigrant, having left Germany, with much of his family, for America.

The final chapter concerns Max Ferber, and is apparently based on the painter Frank Auerbach. Like Auerbach, Ferber was sent to Britain from Germany as a child and his parents later died in a concentration camp. Sebald meets him in Manchester when he first arrives in England but at this time Ferber gives him an “extremely cursory version of his life.” It is only years later he come across an article on Ferber which reveals that he arrived in England as a fifteen-year-old in 1939.

“The article went on to say that Ferber’s parents, who delayed their own departure from Germany for a number of reasons, were taken from Munich to Riga in November 1941, in one of the first deportation trains, and were subsequently murdered there.”

This leads Sebald to return to Manchester and speak to Ferber again, the resultant interview forming the rest of the chapter. Once again he unearths a past that was never really buried.

The Emigrants is a wonderful book. Sebald is adept at building from small details the portraits within, just as a painter might from the smallest brush strokes. He is also skilled at creating a powerful sense of time and place, both when he is revealing his subject’s past, but also when he describes moments in his own life. The intermingling of his text with photographs speaks of both these strengths; that they are uncaptioned suggests the fleeting images of memory with which he is so concerned. It is certainly arguable that, in The Emigrants, he creates a new form, one that would win him the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize seven years later in 2002 for Austerlitz, and eventually provoke the prize which all writers secretly long for, his own adjective. More importantly, The Emigrants remains a subtle and immersive reading experience.

The Gardens of Light

October 18, 2020

The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prise in 2003 for Balthasar’s Odyssey, until this year the most recent of his novels to appear in English. In 1996 his 1991 novel The Gardens of Light was translated from French by Dorothy S. Blair and may very well have been selected then as well had the prize not been temporarily paused. Like almost all of Maalouf’s novels, it is historical (the exception, The First Century after Beatrice, is set in the future). Set in the third century, it tells the life story of Mani, founder of Manichaeism, a religion which sought to unify Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism. Though now largely forgotten, or remembered only as an adjective, for four hundred years Manichaeism was a popular religion, with believers spread across various empires from Rome to China. Maalouf’s novel is a sincere attempt to imaginatively recreate the life of this important historical figure.

The story begins with Mani’s father, Patek, who himself is a seeker of spiritual truth, on the day he meets the religious teacher Sittai. He warns Patek that enlightenment comes at a cost:

“Truth is an exacting mistress, Patek, tolerating no disloyalty. You owe her all your adoration; every moment of your life must be devoted to her.”

Sittai invites Patek to join his religious community, but warns him he will have to renounce meat, alcohol and women. Patek is already married, and his wife pregnant, but he goes along with Sittae deciding he will collect his child later if it is a boy. Here Maalouf establishes religion as something central to life, which supersedes all other markers of identity including family and rank.

The child is, of course, Mani, who joins his father in the religious community where he now lives. He is a model pupil, in contrast to his best friends, Malchos, who dreams only of leaving, marrying a beautiful woman and starting a profitable business. Here we see the doubleness so important in Manichaeism echoed in Mani’s life. It is as a result of this friendship that Mani begins to visit the home of a Greek in town (strictly forbidden) and there the first seed of the faith he will develop is sown when he asks to restore a mural in the house. Once the work is complete he identifies one of the figures as John the Baptist, “Not at all,” the Greek tells him:

“…there was never any Baptist in this room. It must have been the goddess Demeter, mother of corn, or Artemis, the huntress, or Dionysus, the one all our banquets are dedicated to…”

It seems likely that we are to assume the idea of the interconnectedness of religions originates here. It is not, however, until he is twenty-four that he leaves his father’s community:

“If he stayed on so long with the White-clad Brethren, even though he rejected their practices and their beliefs, even though he suffered every day by having to live cheek by jowl with them, it was possibly because his desire to leave was accompanied by fear to which he was ashamed to admit.”

It’s worth noticing that Maalouf does not attempt to ‘modernise’ Mani by presenting his interior monologue. For the most part we remain on the outside; such aspects as the spiritual twin from whom Mani gets advice are presented at face value.

The most gripping part of the novel recounts Mani’s attempt to establish his religion, a dangerous mission at a time when religion and power are often intertwined, and anything which challenges religious orthodoxy can also be seen as a threat to political order. Mani encounters power when he is sent by the merchants of Deb to sue the Sassanian emperor, currently surrounding the city, for peace. Though the emperor does not convert to Manichaeism, he allows Mani to preach and sees him as a trusted advisor. From then on, however, Mani finds himself embroiled in court battles, opposed by the emperor’s Zoroastrian retinue:

“Many people have warned me against you, Mani, during all these years. Those who are envious and jealous, but also certain people whom I believe to be devoted and sincere… How can you count among your intimates someone who rejoices in your hesitation and will tomorrow grieve over your victories?”

Mani must decide whether to compromise his beliefs in order to ensure they are spread more widely.

As someone who left Lebanon as a result of the civil war of 1975, it’s not difficult to see the attraction for Maalouf of a religious figure who seeks to unite different religions rather than divide. His career as a writer also suggests an interest in demonstrating to Europe (he writes in French) the complex and varied history of the ‘East’. There is little attempt to impose contemporary psychology on his characters which can make them appear flat and distant, but his story-telling is wonderful and the reader quickly becomes entranced by the vibrancy of the setting and the vitality of the tale.


September 29, 2020

Milan Kundera (and translator Peter Kussi) won the second Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1991 with Immortality so there is every reason to suppose he would have made the long list with his following novel, Slowness, in 1996, this time with a different translator, Linda Asher, this being the first novel he wrote in French. Kundera himself features occasionally in the novel as he travels to and then stays in the chateau which is the setting for its stories, waking his wife as his restless imagination invades her dreams, “as if you’re dreams are a wastebasket where I toss pages that are too stupid.” Aware that he is inventing a new novel, she recalls:

“You’ve often told me you wanted to write a novel someday with not a single serious word in it.”

It’s difficult to resist the idea that Slowness is that novel, particularly as it descends into farce in the final pages.

Kundera first considers the concept of slowness as he drives to the chateau increasingly aware of the impatience of the driver behind him:

“Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.”

In contrast he recounts an 18th century French novella which tells the story of a young Chevalier who spends the night with a married woman only to discover he has been used as a decoy to disguise her true lover. Of the woman, Madame T, Kundera imagines “a gentle indolence emanates from her” and that “their adventure might bloom in all its splendid slowness.” Slowness not only allows us to experience but to remember:

“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.”

Later, Kundera will contrast this encounter with a more modern one which seems grotesque in comparison. This second story begins with another idea (Kundera is nothing if not discursive), that of the ‘dancer’. A dancer, according to the character Pontevin, is someone who is performative in their moral actions: “The dancer differs from the politician in that he seeks not power but glory.” Berck, he says, is the “king of dancers”, but he begins with a story of him being out-manoeuvred when another ‘dancer’ kisses a man with AIDS at a dinner. Realising he cannot either copy or outdo him, Berck instead flies to Africa “and got himself photographed alongside a little dying black girl whose face was covered with flies.” As Pontevin says:

“Taking over the stage requires keeping people off it.”

In this Kundera seems to be outlining virtue-signalling (and those that condemn it) well before that phrase came into common use, summing up the attitude of the dancer as follows:

“He is in love with his life the way a sculptor might be in love with the statue he is carving.”

In this way, Pontevin sends his friend (though a clearly inferior friend) Vincent to the chateau and a conference of entomologists where Breck will be making an appearance. It is there Vincent embarks on the grotesque amorous encounter mentioned earlier which ends in simulated sodomy by the hotel pool and includes the author addressing Vincent’s member in an attempt to understand its lack of arousal. (A scene which, as in a farce, will involve all the characters coinciding in the venue, each one ridiculous in their own way).

One of these is a Czech scientist, attending the conference after years of being denied his position in his own country. This, we are told, makes him feel, a “melancholy pride”, even though he was never really in opposition to the government, a fact he has slowly forgotten over time. When he tells this story to the conference he receives a rapturous response, led, of course, by Breck:

“…he feels famous and he wants his walk to his seat to be long and never-ending.”

Kundera has great fun with this character, no doubt recycling many personal incidents, as his name is either pronounced or spelt wrong (or both), central European capitals are mentioned interchangeably, and his country is referred to as being in the ‘east’. He is in the pool to shown off the muscles he has developed through manual labour through a series of handstands, another reason for his pride.

All the characters, in fact, are exposed to the reader’s laughter in one way or another, but at the same time Kundera is usually gentle in his ridicule. We understand the anxieties which lead them to expose themselves (though perhaps less so with the female characters) and therefore we rarely feel Kundera is vicious in the spot-lighting of their weaknesses. This can, however, have a distancing effect and, for some readers, it may seem too much like his characters are merely experiments in an idea, but the laughter – sometimes cringing, sometimes cruel – always feels very human. Slowness is a novel to enjoy, whether it is read languorously or at pace.

The Pyramid

September 19, 2020

In 1996 Ismail Kadare had already been short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (for The Palace of Dreams in 1993) and would go on to be selected for inclusion in at least the long list another four times (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2013) before eventually winning the Man Booker International Prize when it was awarded to an author for their body of work rather than for a particular novel. During the nineties much of his work was being translated not from the original Albanian but via French translations – as is the case with The Pyramid where David Bellos has translated for the translation of Jusuf Vrioni (presumably, had he won, the prize would have been split three ways).

The Pyramid, like The Palace of Dreams, is one of Kadare’s historical novels, set, on this occasion, in Ancient Egypt. It begins with the ascent of the pharaoh Cheops to the throne, and his comment that “he might perhaps not wish to have a pyramid erected for him.” The resultant panic among courtiers and advisers leads to the realisation that nobody is entirely certain why the building of pyramids began in the first place:

“They were hunting for the idea that led to the conception of pyramids, the secret reason for their existence: and that was what kept eluding them.”

Eventually they tell the pharaoh that the construction of the first pyramid was the result of a crisis, but:

“The cause of this crisis was unheard of, strange, indeed quite baffling. An unprecedented, perfidious cause: the crisis had not been provoked by poverty, the late flooding of the Nile or by pestilence, as had always been the case previously, but, on the contrary, by abundance.”

In other words, the first pyramid was built to eliminate prosperity as this was becoming a threat to authority. It should be obvious by now that Kadare’s novel is not a meticulously researched historical recreation but a rather savage satire – the first project suggested to make people poorer, for example, is to dig a bottomless pit. It’s always tempting at this point to read the novel as a satire of Albania, written as a historical novel to avoid censorship, but, though there is some truth in this, Kadare’s understanding of the absurdities of dictatorship are such that to confine his barbs to one particular regime seems unnecessarily reductive. Kadare’s description of the pyramid – “domination of the rabble; the narrowing of its mind; the weakening of its will; monotony; and waste” – could apply to many a leader’s vainglorious building project.

The pyramid requires lengthy preparing – the sourcing of stone, the building of access roads, and, of course, the arrival of cartloads of whips. Almost everyone involved in the planning lives in perpetual fear, particularly those who are designing the secret entrances and exits:

“All sorts of pretexts were found for convicting and suppressing them, but the real reason for such measures was well known: to bury the secrets with the inventors.”

In this atmosphere of paranoia, rumours of plots are commonplace: one, for example, begins with a glowing block of basalt which is apparently intended to “transmit nefarious rays so that, once in the pyramid, it would draw an ill fate upon it.” Torture and execution are accepted working conditions – a government member who suggests that the construction be suspended to demonstrate that the pharaoh is immortal (an obviously obsequious comment) is dissected alive, having his tongue removed first for daring to utter this contradiction to official policy. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, are caused by the construction itself, and at points Kadare describes this stone by stone:

“As if it had nothing more urgent to do than fulfil the quota of corpses spared by its predecessor, the eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-fifth stone wrought havoc amongst its carriers.”

Further complications are caused when Cheops insists he doesn’t want to be placed beneath the pyramid but in the middle.

There is a sense that Kadare is having fun writing this novel, with throwaway comments such as describing a delegation of Greeks as “backwards” and ridiculing the Sumerian ambassador’s written report (the Sumerians having invented an alphabet) which, transcribed onto clay tablets, is being transported in two carts and “weighed about the same as the side of a house.” But perhaps he is having more fun than reader. The novel is short but its jokily superior tone becomes a little wearing, especially as it almost entirely lacks characters. Cheops is the only named figure to appear with any regularity but he remains as aloof from the reader as he does from his subjects (“Cheops visage remained impenetrable”). In fact, it is only when grave robbers appear in a coda that we feel among real people. The novel is successful as far as it aims to be. Its critique of power – irrational, trivial absurd, yet fatal – is both accurate and amusing, but Kadare has been equally clear-sighted in other novels which offer a more human counterpoint. For those who are new to his work, this is unlikely to be the best place to begin.

In the Hold

September 10, 2020

Vladimir Asrenijevic’s In the Hold is an anti-war novel which never quite reaches the war. It was the Serbian writer’s debut novel and won the prestigious NIN Prize in Yugoslavia in 1994 shortly before Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It is set in 1991 as thousands of Serbians are being conscripted in the fight against Croatian independence. At the time, Aresenjevic claimed that he did not set out to write about the deteriorating political situation:

“I wanted to tell a family story. I set it in the present–wartime–the time in which I happen to live. So my family tale turned into a nightmare.”

The novel, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, is, in fact, subtitled ‘A Soap Opera’, and largely revolves around the family and friends of the narrator: his wife, Angela, who is pregnant with their first child; her brother, Lazar, whose life as a follower of Hari Krishna is interrupted by his call-up papers; and his friend, Dejan, who used to be a drummer in a band but has returned from the war minus one arm.

The novel, in one sense, is about leaving youth behind, Angela’s pregnancy being one sign of impending adult responsibilities. We learn that the narrator and his wife’s younger days were one wild, drug-taking party – indeed, Angela was a dealer – but now he sees himself becoming his father, adopting the “domestic habits which, when we are teenagers, help us hate our fathers in precise detail,” – in this case, an afternoon nap. At the same time, any thought of the future is filled with dread:

“…I lacked the energy to confront everyday life. Troubles attract troubles, I reflected, they will leapfrog over one another, and I shall not be able to withstand the torrent when it starts to roar. I saw myself, calm in the face of the impending catastrophe, like a calf blinking meekly before the sentence of the butcher’s hammer.”

Despite this, both he and Angela are looking forward to their child being born, but they are worried about Lazar when they discover that his parents have accepted his conscription papers. “You have to hide!” Angela tells him, but Lazar is sanguine:”…none of it matters. It’s a question of karma.” The narrator lives in fear of his own conscription:

“…in so far as there was anything I feared, it was the drafters. Once they knocked for a long time on our next door neighbour’s door.”

Dejan, meanwhile, attempts to restart his life, though the narrator suspects that his missing arm is not the only difference since his return:

“Dejan bravely did all he could to give the impression of a person with whom all was absolutely well, but some sort of change – a change which was of course harder to detect than the brutal absence of his right arm – undermined that extraordinary day-long effort and spoiled it.”

Dejan talks about starting a dating agency, and then later sends the narrator t-shirts he has designed. Dejan’s determination to succeed becomes important to the narrator’s own attempts at optimism.

In the Hold, then, is a series of small stories. The novel takes place over only three months – October to December 1991. Arsenijevic captures the microscopic moments of everyday life while the conflict looms in the background, still in its early stages:

“At that time the war had not yet hit us in the face with a knot of human innards; it crushed us in wiser ways.”

Friends leave the country, maintaining that “their departure had absolutely nothing to do with the war.” Reports of the fighting dominate the news bulletins:

“Angela wept, leaning her chin on the arm of the sofa, as she watched splinters of the devastated settlements of the Danube and Vuka in the background of the rustic-featured, wartime TV reporter’s saccharine outpourings.”

As we can see, he does this with an ironic wit that extends to the title which refers to the part of a ship where, according to Arsenijevic, should it start sinking, “you have little chance of surviving but you can remain alive the longest.” Here is how he describes the attitude which allows everyday life to continue as normal:

“…like many of my fellow citizens, I endeavoured to move along the spittle-covered streets with the trained step of a native, who walks without fear along the foot of a live volcano on the island where his tribe has survived, despite the many victims claimed by the volcano, for generations.”

Although it is a slight novel, and plot is secondary, the atmosphere impresses on the reader a desperate conflict between encroaching war and ironic optimism. It is very much a novel that would have found new readers by being long listed for an award, as it could well have been had the 1996 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize occurred, having charm that is hard to resist. The conflict it describes in its infancy continues to be the subject of Balkan literature to this day; it would be a pity if this early novel were forgotten.

Hypnotism Made Easy

August 20, 2020

Marie Nimier is a French author who has written numerous novels, only two of which seem to have been translated into English – The Giraffe in 1995 and Hypnotism Made Easy (by Sophie Hawkes) in 1996, making eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list of that year. Hypnotism Made Easy is a coming-of-age story based around the titular handbook which the narrator, Cora, finds in a house which her family have rented for a holiday. So intrigued is she that she decides to take the book with her, intending to gradually acquaint herself with its contents, and linking it specifically to her strong desire to leave childhood behind:

“I would read these pages bit by bit, so that the treatise would accompany me until the day I came of age.”

The first lesson involves a form of self-hypnosis which she finds soothing:

“My outward appearance did not change at all, but inside, beneath the skin, I dreamed on in peace.”

This seems harmless, but it is already clear that the threat of hypnosis is not an idle one, and a further warning occurs when, in a later holiday, she uses the next chapter to hypnotise another young girl, but then finds herself unable to wake her:

“The day before we left she succeeded in cornering me near the telephone booth and calling me a witch.”

Cora’s earlier attempts to practise on animals have been scuppered by a fraudulent parakeet which begins dripping dye on the day it is purchased and has to be returned to the pet shop. It stands a symbol for the deceptive appearances which will trouble Cora’s love life.

Cora’s love is currently focused on her uncle, Paul, despite the mental difficulties which has resulted in hospitalisation and a refusal to eat. The affection is reciprocated – “They admitted that my uncle had often clamoured for me” – and it is Cora who eventually convinces him to eat again, using the book to help her. On Cora’s part, however, the love is laced with desire:

“My whole body shook upon contact with his skin.”

When he is discharged from hospital and begins living with his speech therapist, Cora is delighted to discover that his lover is jealous of her. She uses her hypnotic powers to ensure they can spend time alone:

“In order to rid ourselves of her, I set about giving her a headache.”

Despite their intimacy, Paul refuses Cora’s physical advances, which reach a ridiculous crisis when she threatens to deflower herself with a zucchini if he will not undertake the job himself:

“If anything were obscene, wasn’t it the innocent way he held me on his knees, as if I were still ten years old.”

Instead she turns first to a travelling hypnotist, Katz, and then (in the same night) her gym teacher, Leo. The loss of her virginity, however, does not change the in the way she had hoped:

“Virgin or no, the date remained the same. I was wrong to believe in the miracle of the two square inches.”

Though Katz is perturbed to discover she is still in high school, he promises that he will return for her when she is eighteen and make her part of his show, a promise which he keeps. Her new life, however, does not live up to her expectations: “I had thought I was escaping: in fact I was drowning.” Slowly we begin to suspect that Katz may be using hypnosis on Cora outwith the show. An interesting comparison can be made with Katz’s original assistant, Pedro whom Cora initially described as “like a poodle waiting for a biscuit.” Pedro seems like a comic character, often badly treated by Katz, but later Cora falls into the same role:

“…like an animal that seeks its master’s affection, I would sprawl all over him.”

Katz, for example, burns Cora with a lighter in order to prove his powers, and later wants her to open the show by stripping, despite her objections. At the same time she finds it difficult to remember things (“I wasn’t even twenty and I was losing my memory”) so she begins to write everything down. However, when she later looks at her journal:

“I discovered absurd, incomprehensible things there, written in my own hand.”

For all the sinister undertones of the second half, Hypnotism Made Easy is a very readable, sympathetic novel. Nimier uses hypnotism to explore adolescence and love which, for many, is a kind of madness. That Katz wants an assistant rather than an apprentice, and that he wishes her to be under his spell both on and off stage, feels like the perfect metaphor for many relationships. Cora herself is endearing even when wrong-headed, and can be easily admired in her foolishness. Most readers will hope for a happy ending she deserves. Hypnotism Made Easy is perhaps not prize-winning material, but it certainly earns its place on the long list, and will make any reader wonder why Nimier has not been translated since.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga

August 9, 2020

When publishers who, over the years, have expanded our knowledge of literature beyond the narrow confines of Europe and North America are praised, one which is often forgotten is the Heinemann African Writer series (and its companion Caribbean Writers series). This may be because much of what they published was originally written in English, or because it lay beneath often unsophisticated covers, but the fact remains that they bought the most famous African writers – Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Woly Soyinka – to a wider audience, and brought many other important writers to the attention of the West, including some, like Ayi Kwie Armah, who remain trapped in expensive, out-of-print editions. Some of their work was, however, translated, including Mariam Ba’s So Long a Letter, which remains a key text by an African woman writer. Calixthe Beyala was another writer who benefitted from the series as Heinemann published three of her novels in translation during the 1990s, including Your Name Shall Be Tanga in 1996, making her eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Beyala had a busy 1996, winning Acadmie Franaise’s Grand Prix du Roman while at the same time being accused of plagiarising Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Already a controversial figure in her home country of Cameroon due to her ‘pornographic’ writing and feminism, and currently embroiled in a dispute with a journalist who has been imprisoned on a charge of defaming her, it’s probably best to focus on the novel in question. Your Name Shall Be Tanga, which was originally published in French in 1988, and translated by Marjolijn de Jager in 1996, tells the story of two women placed together in the same prison cell. Anna-Claude is a French teacher who has come to Africa in a kind of madness, in search of the imaginary husband she believes is waiting for her. When some of her students disappear she protests and is arrested as a ‘subversive.’ When a young Cameroonian girl is put in the cell with her, she asks her to share her story:

“Give me your story. I am your deliverance. You have to assassinate the silence that you drag behind you like a dead skin.”

The novel’s title is explained when the girl decides that she will tell Anna-Claude the story of her life:

“Give me your hand; from now on you shall be me. You shall be seventeen seasons old, you shall be black, your name shall be Tanga.”

Tanga’s story is one of unrelenting abuse. It begins with her father who, already regularly unfaithful to her mother, “would later rip me apart in the budding of my twelfth year.” Her mother pretends ignorance, even when she falls pregnant, “coughed discreetly into her skirts when she saw me give birth to the child her man had sired.” From there it is a short step to child prostitution:

“I brought my body to the crossroads of other lives. I put it underneath the light. A man approached me. I smiled. I followed. I undid my clothes. I placed my body on the bed, underneath his muscles.”

The novel is not without hope but, as Tanga lies dying in a prison cell, we know these hopes are futile. When she meets Hassan she refutes the suggestion she is a whore – “I refuse the costume which he wants to put on my back” – in the hope of something better:

“I’ve decided to live, I’ve nothing to do with mother old one any longer. She pasted so much sludge onto my both that all the tidewaters couldn’t wash it away…”

When Tanga suggests marriage, however, she never sees Hassan again – she may not want to be a whore but that is all men can see in her; it is as much a prison as the one she now finds herself in.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga is a very bleak novel which portrays life for most of its character as hopeless, particularly for women. This is illustrated by Tanga’s younger sister who is ready to follow in her footsteps – “Aren’t I pretty?” she asks her. When Tanga tells her she should learn how to read instead, she accuses her of being jealous. But male characters suffer too. Take Footwreck, for example, whom Tanga attempts to ‘adopt’. Neglected as a child, rats have eaten his feet – also demonstrating (as with Tanga’s mother) that woman are not simply victims. When Tanga angers the butcher, it looks like he is going to rape her, but instead he cries. When Tanga tells him “a real man, never lets a tear drop,” he replies:

“You can’t become a man without having first been a child, you understand?”

The novel’s desolation is made bearable by the liveliness of its language, though this can at times seem overwritten. Take, for example, “Our eyes meet – they rub against each other. They go on and on and resound in me.” If the first sentence has a certain exaggerated charm, the second ironically goes on and on, and ‘resound’ feels like it has little to do with ‘rubbing’ Later in the same paragraph another metaphor is attempted: “our eyes that are there like a curtain hung between two half-open doors.” At times there is a joy in this unrestrained imagery, but at other times it is clumsy and distracting.

Your Name Shall Be Tanga is a horrific portrait of poverty in Cameroon, and the callous exploitation of children. It is written with (a sometimes overwhelming) linguistic power and certainly deserves its place on the long list.


August 3, 2020

Marie Redonnet is a French writer who was widely translated in the 1990s when five of her novels appeared from the University of Nebraska Press, the majority, like Nevermore, translated by Jordan Stump. Nevermore originally appeared in 1994, with the English translation following in 1996, and, despite no UK publication, I have included it in the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list in an effort to improve the representation of women writers. It’s a short novel with a large cast of characters, a portrait of a small town as much as any individual, told in a dispassionate, one might even say emotionless, narrative voice.

The novel opens with the arrival of two newcomers to San Rosa, an American town with French features (particularly the pissotiere, which will prove to be important to the plot). The first is Willy Bost who will be taking up a post as deputy to Commander Rodney Burke in what appears to be a two man police force; the second is Cassy Mac Key who has accepted a job as a singer at the night club Babylon. They arrive together as Willy’s car breaks down and has to be towed into town by Cassy. Both characters see San Rosa as an escape. Willy “wants to forget the past” and even writes in the notebook he carries:

“It is forbidden to remember the past.”

His transfer to Sam Rosa is a punishment “because he is considered undesirable in High Places.” Cassy, too, feels she has few options:

“She could pack her suitcase and flee. But to go where? With her CV no one would hire her.”

They both stay at the Gold House, a boarding house run by Lizzie Malik. Once an acrobat in the Fuch Circus, she had almost died in an accident that she believes was an attempt to murder her:

“In hospital, as soon as she came out of her coma, she began to shout that someone had cut her rope and had tried to kill her.”

The mystery of who killed her will form one of the novel’s main plot stands, alongside a complicated rivalry for political supremacy in the town which is linked to competing entertainment establishments, Babylon being one.

None of this, however, quite conveys the strangeness of the novel. This is apparent in its prose style and its deliberate lack of complexity. The sentences are, in general, not short enough to be dramatic, but not long enough to be complex; they are what you might call ‘medium’ sentences, and tend to stick to one idea and avoid conjunctions. This can make the novel read almost like a children’s book, particularly as Redonnet likes to use character names, including full names, frequently:

“Lizzie Mallik is just finishing the morning dishes when Willy Bost comes into the kitchen. She is relieved that he is behaving towards her as though nothing had happened. That is the best solution for both of them.”

The reference here, though, illustrates one aspect of the novel that makes it far from suitable for children: the preponderance of loveless sex acts. On his first night in the Gold House, Willy feels inexplicably aroused, so he invites Lizzie to his room and “asks her to suck him, as if it were an order,” which she does. Cassy has an even more disturbing encounter on her first night at Babylon, when the owner, Dora Atter:

“…runs her silk gloved hands over Cassy Mac Key’s body. Then she pinches her until bruises appear. She takes an instrument out of her pocket, and thrusts it into her vagina until she groans in pain.”

These incidents add to the sense of a town where power is everything, and ruthlessness is rewarded. Violence is not only sexual, and when President Harley (who has also assaulted Cassy) is found murdered in the pissotiere at the Fuch Circus, the power struggle in San Rosa comes out into the open. The journalist Danny Sapin proposes that, “The only solution is to demolish the city centre and to construct a new centre, one worthy of San Rosa.” On the other hand, Father Anderson, in his sermon, argues:

“What must be done is not to destroy the city centre but to save it, in order to make of it the city of God.”

Here, Redonnet, seems to tap into arguments still current: destroy and start again versus ‘save’ (improve) what we have. In fact, for all it is now almost thirty years old, the novel’s portrayal of small town American life does not feel dated, precisely because of its rejection of realism. It is, however, far from optimistic: the town is a snake pit of competition where sides are taken, rules are broken and winners and losers swap places overnight. Redonnet has a unique and memorable voice and vision and well deserves her place on the long list.