Posts Tagged ‘peirene press’

The Pear Field

February 7, 2021

“I’m going to kill Vano, and then they can do what they want with me,” declares eighteen-year-old Lela in the opening pages of Nana Ekvtimishvili’s novel The Pear Field, translated by Elizabeth Heighway. Why she should want to do so, and why she has fallen out with her one-time closest friend, Vaska (even she is unsure and “can’t remember when or why she started to dislike Vaska”) are the two mysteries that drive the novel’s narrative. Yet, despite its relatively short length, it is a novel which does much more. Centred on a Georgian children’s home – the ‘School for Idiots’ as the locals call it – it paints a detailed picture of the lives of the children there, the neglect and abuse, but also the humanity and hope.

At eighteen, Lela is no longer required to stay at the children’s home but “she doesn’t know where else to go.” Instead she looks after some of the younger children, particularly Irakli who is “glued to Lela’s side.” Though many of the children are orphans, Irakli has been left at the home by his mother, whom he regularly phones from the house of a kind neighbour. Each time she promises to return for him soon but never does. Lela is irritated by Irakli’s continuing faith in his mother (by this point she has left the country and is in Greece):

“Why do you keep sticking up for her? You know she’s not coming back.”

Irakli is, of course, only one example of neglect in a novel which is littered with them. The home itself has been left to fall into ruin: one room in particular, where a balcony has collapsed, has an empty doorway leading to a fatal fall (like Chekov’s gun, Ekvtimishvili does not introduce this without later using it); in it the children use old bed springs as trampolines while the rain comes through the roof. Neglect can also be seen in the death of Sergo who runs out the gates of the home only to be killed by a car. As they leave the cemetery, the children are told not to look back:

“…you mustn’t look back. Once you’ve buried them you leave them in peace. No more crying either.”

In many ways, this is how the children live their lives.

Of all the abuse the children suffer, the sexual abuse is the worst, an aspect of their lives which Ekvtimishvili reveals slowly over the course of the novel. Much of this is focused on the character of Lela, but it is also made clear that it is widespread. Sexual abuse may seem tragically ‘typical’ for a novel set in a children’s home, but Ekvtimishvili demonstrates it is present in many forms. Take, for example, Marika, a girl around the same age as Lela but from outside the home. When they are children, Marika and Lela play together:

“There was one game in a particular, where Marika would take Lela’s knickers off followed by her own.”

It is implied that Marika feels comfortable playing this game with Lela because Lela comes from the home. When the game stops, their friendship comes to an end. Is this any different from Koba wanting to take the present day Lela out in his car?

“I’m not asking you to do it for free. I’ll pay.”

In fact, Koba wants to pay her because that is the only transaction that will excuse a relationship with Lela. The children also abuse each other: Lela recollects a ‘game’ where new girls would be taken to the pear tree field and held down by the other children, boys and girls alike, and raped. The staff are dismissive of anyone who raises concerns:

“…it was just in their nature; they wanted it too, especially if there were sweets and presents on offer.”

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Lela has also been abused by Vano, a teacher at the home. While she is still a child, he get her to undress and then masturbates in front of her; the abuse escalates until eventually he rapes her. The fact that he would lead her by the hand to a space where they would be undisturbed, now means she “can’t bear people holding her hand,” something which seems to make a wider point about how the abuse makes it difficult for her to accept any affection, perhaps one reason for her tough exterior which hides her frequently kind actions. (However, it is not Vano’s abuse of her which leads her to want to kill him, perhaps because she doesn’t regard herself as worthy of revenge). The need for toughness extends to her care for Irakli – when she arranges for him to learn English as he is going to be adopted by an American family, she ask for him to be taught “some proper vocab” by which she means swearwords and phrases like ‘Get your hands off me!’

This may make The Pear Field sound like a thoroughly bleak read, but this is not the whole truth. Difficult as their lives are, the children still experience joy and kindness, for example when stealing cherries or when a woman lowers a basket of food to them. There is still laughter, sometimes cruel, in their world. Lela herself remains undefeated and determined to act, creating her own destiny.

Ankomst

October 3, 2020

“Clear and measurable phenomena are what I want,” the narrator of Ankomst tells us, “The language of indisputable realities, rather than dumb, undefinable feelings.” Yet her time in the far north of Norway – “This is where the world ends” – collecting data on seabirds, is far from clear or measurable as she finds she cannot entirely escape the abusive relationship with her husband, S, which sent her there, or entirely embrace the newer relationship with Jo which she hoped would flourish amid the snow and ice. Feeling guilt for leaving her young daughter, Lina, behind, she is also haunted by the death of a child more than one hundred years before.

Ankomst (the title, meaning ‘arrival’ or ‘entry’ remains untranslated, which makes me wonder if it has connotations of ‘visitation’, a suggestion of the supernatural) is Gabrielsen’s second novel to be translated after The Looking-Glass Sisters in 2015, the story of two sisters in which setting – the claustrophobic interior of the family home – is equally important. On this occasion Gabrielsen is translated by Deborah Dawkin, whose previous work for Peirene Press includes Hanne Orstavik’s The Blue Room. The novel begins in hope as the narrator, having arrived in her isolated outpost, calls Jo:

“As I call him, an intense joy rises up inside me. Joy for everything that lies behind us and for what is in store, the experiences that are to come, the time that we’ll spend together out here.”

Almost immediately plans are changed as Jo tells her that he cannot yet leave his daughter as she has done:

“As though his love for Maria is greater than mine for Lina.”

The situation is complicated by their ex-partners: while S has insisted on custody of Lina, Jo’s ex-wife is often too busy to look after Maria. Yet, Jo’s reluctance to leave her also feels like a criticism, one previously in evidence in a scene recalled later when the narrator and her daughter sleep over at Jo’s: talking about her project she discovers that Jo is not really listening, “because his attention was directed towards the children.” It is on that same visit that he tells her, regarding leaving her child:

“I find this decision of yours so problematic that I don’t even know what I think about you anymore.”

This may make us speculate as to how certain Jo joining her is, one of a number of aspects of the narrative which we become increasingly unsure about. Certainly, she seems very afraid of her ex-husband, S, one reason why she has travelled to such an isolated spot, “out of S’s panoptic gaze and hopefully out of his mind.” She mentions a number of occasions when she fears his anger, including one when he suddenly turns the car off the road and down a deserted track. At the same time, we must remember that it is she who has brought the relationship to an end by having an affair, and so some anger is perhaps to be expected. The feelings of others seem to be an area of difficulty for her:

“Emotions should be like that too. Measurable. Predictable.”

Her fear, however, is real: at one point she receives a text from S and does not dare read it for two weeks.

Her reliability as a narrator is also called into question by her increasing obsession with an event which took place more than a hundred years before, when a child is killed in a fire at the settlement where she is living. More and more frequently she finds, “I drift into the thoughts of Olaf and Borghild,” increasingly identifying with Borghild:

“I continue to see her in my own movements… When I open the stove door and put on a couple of logs, I think how she too sat like this, on her knees, as she blew the embers to kindle a flame.”

At one point she thinks she sees Borghild, only to realise it is her reflection. That Olaf blames Borghild for their son’s death also seems to conflate with her own neglect of Lina:

“I am spinning a story out of thin air and my own experiences.”

The novel is taut with tension. Will Jo appear as promised? Will he narrator survive alone? And will S, as he has threatened, find her? Gabrielsen emphasises her isolation through accidents such as when she sprains her ankle or cuts her face with a fishing hook. She also regularly reminds us of S, not only through flashbacks and texts but when the narrator has her supplies delivered and the captain tells her S has “asked me to keep him informed of the situation here.” That he looks at her with “a scepticism mixed with a hint of concern” suggests that there might be reason to worry, as does her loss of memory for a few hours which include a conversation with Jo. As the end nears she feels “utterly alone, in a vulnerable place, and with the threat of a visit hanging over me.” All is prepared for a masterful conclusion.

Ankomst is a compelling human drama with the tension of a thriller. It asks unsettling questions about our relationships – with those we love, those we once loved, and those we should always love. Increasingly the reader, too, is isolated, as characters become less certain, their solidity dissipated as if walking off into a snow storm. By the end, we are left to answer those questions alone.

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.

You Would Have Missed Me

May 12, 2019

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, from 2013, remains one of my favourite Peirene publications – it is, in fact, the Peirene novel I most frequently recommend to others. Peirene policy, however, has largely focused on bringing authors who have not been translated before to an English-reading audience, and therefore to publish only one work from each author. 2019 sees this ‘rule’ broken as Jamie Bulloch offers us a second Vanderbeke novella, You Would Have Missed Me, originally published in 2016. It, too, centres on a family with a powerful male figure at the centre, and is similarly narrated by a child, a seven-year-old daughter isolated not only by the absence of siblings, but by her fractured relationship with her mother.

As with The Mussel Feast, You Would Have Missed Me has a conceit in which the story takes place during one particular day, in this case the narrator’s seventh birthday. It begins as she waits for her birthday gifts, accepting once again that she will not get the kitten she desires:

“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside.”

The birthday song, begun on page 34, is not completed until page 78. In the meantime, her thoughts range across her brief life so far, the family’s escape from East Germany to the West and their time in a refugee camp. Her mother, it is revealed, comes from a wealthy family, but one that sympathised with the Nazis, as (her husband points out) did that of her fiancé, who was killed during the war:

“…everything his family owned would have been expropriated after the war, and then life wouldn’t have been quite so rosy, even if they hadn’t been Nazis, but because they were Nazis, like all land-owners and fat cats, I don’t suppose they would have had much to laugh about under the Russians.”

Her husband, Osch (though I’m not certain this is his name – we’re told more than once he doesn’t like it – or simply a Flemish sigh) feels exempt from Germany’s loss (“May I also point out that you lost the war?”) as he arrived in Germany as a child from Belgium:

“My father was a foreigner because his mother had brought him to Germany from Belgium when he was very small and the war had already begun.”

The war, and her fiancé’s death, ends the mother’s first dream, but the West, the “Promised Land” as the narrator calls it, becomes her second. In a novel which opens with the narrator’s disappointment of not receiving her dream present, the disappointment of adults is also to the fore. This is perhaps best exemplified in the teak furniture that was her mother’s first acquisition in the West:

“Before we came to the West my mother had always dreamed of teak furniture, but of course she didn’t know you had to polish teak all the time because she’d only ever dreamed of it and had never owned any.”

The marriage and move to the West was, in itself, a dream of her mother’s:

“The moment a dream of a husband and child and another life had been planted inside my mother’s head, long after her landowner fiancé was out of the picture and she could have let the matter rest – at that moment everything stared to get complicated an descend into chaos.”

Osch’s dreams are different, harking back to his “East German student life with the Western cinemas and girlfriends”:

“As far as my father was concerned there was nothing promising about this land.”

As for the narrator, “I wasn’t exactly the child they’d dreamed of,” disappointment being the corollary of dreaming:

“Dreaming, however, was absolutely fine in the Promised Land. The wonderful thing about this country was that as soon as my mother had acquired the teak furniture… and was disappointed because they weren’t exactly what she had been dreaming of, she could immediately start dreaming of larch furniture…”

Initially the mother’s lack of affection, and attempts to isolate the narrator with prohibitions of who she can associate with, seems to be the greatest hurt the child suffers, but we slowly become aware of the threat of the father. A visit to a doctor reveals “a few broken bones that hadn’t fused back together very well” which the mother denies any knowledge of, and frequent references to the father’s hands (often clenched in his pockets in anger) prove to be prophetic.

But, just as with The Mussel Feast, the novel offers hope when the narrator frees herself from the present with the aid of a globe she receives as a birthday present (along with a prescient copy of The Time Machine):

“I’d done it. At the ripe time, I’d shot myself into the future…”

From there the narrator literally discovers her own voice:

“Ever since I’d heard my voice, I’d been saying things I’d never have dared say before.”

You Would Have Missed Me is another complex, provoking fable from Vanderbeke, exploring numerous themes – the twisted relationship of an abusive marriage, the attractions and disappointments of a consumer economy, the shifting status of the refugee, the power of the imagination – through the eyes, and voice, of a child. It, too, now belongs among my favourite Peirene publications.

And the Wind Sees All

September 18, 2018

Peirene Press’ final novella of 2018, Gudmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All, is the story of an Icelandic village. The novel takes us on a tour of the village streets and houses, revealing the secret histories of its inhabitants. Such omnipotence is presumably explained by the fact that the narrator is, as the title suggests, the wind, addressing us in a brief opening chapter:

“I see the secrets. I see people cooking, peeing, pottering or skulking about. Some weep, some listen, some stare. I see people silent, or screaming into their pillows. I see people throwing out rubbish and useless memories, and I don’t look away. I never look away. I see all.”

The numerous chapters which follow are connected by Kata, the choir mistress, as she bicycles to the village hall where the choir will perform that night. After the first chapter, which is devoted to her, she appears, albeit briefly, in all the others:

“From the window he sees Kata Choir gliding past on her bike, her forehead wrinkled in concentration, wearing a white dress with blue polkas dots.”

The polka dot dress not only ensure she is visible as she passes, but is linked to the past she, like the other characters, carries with her:

“She was wearing the white dress with the blue polka dots the day she was loved.”

We discover that Kata (the only character who is not Icelandic having arrived in the village, via various countries, from Slovakia) was once almost engaged to Andreas. Much of the chapter describes what would have happened, but clearly didn’t: “She would have been loved.” Her past may be tragic, but it’s difficult not to see her as a joyful presence in the novel, not simply because of the image she creates but as a result of the many friendly greetings she receives. The Reverend Saemundur believes she is “as beautiful as the life force itself.” She hasn’t worn the dress since the day she lost Andreas, which suggests that this evening, and perhaps her recognised place in village life, represents a happiness which allows her to face the past. That the entire novella takes place during her journey also makes clear that we are witnessing but one moment in the village’s life.

Each short chapter which follows introduces us to further characters from the village, some of whom, of course, are related. In most cases the narrative also divulges elements of their past creating a cumulative impression of the sadness on which our lives are built. Arno, for example, has returned to the village after a successful career because he “had to get away”:

“Everybody knew he was guilty of something.”

Gudjon and Sveinsina sit together in their house but are immersed in entirely different thoughts: his of bird-watching, hers of her previous husband who killed himself. Teddi, Sveinsina’s son, is approaching the harbour in a fishing boat, but was once a singer:

“The village remembers the wreck you were when you returned home with shattered dreams.”

Svenni remembers being abused as a child:

“Then hand moved further up. Svenni didn’t know what to do to get rid of it, whether he should move away.”

The Reverend Saemundur has an online gambling addiction. Lalli Puffin remembers telling his wife, as she lies dying, about an affair he had with Emilia, “even expecting a visit from some young person saying: You are my father.” We already know, however, that the child, died.

If this makes the book sound bleak, that is not the impression it makes on the reader. There are first of all, happy memories as well: both Kalli and Josa, for example, although long separated, fondly remember making love in a church. Both Arni and Teddi have, in different ways, saved themselves by returning to the village. Teddi reflects:

“As you make for harbour, there is this peace inside you. The beacon is there, and all you need to do is aim for the beacon, if you stick to that you’re safe, whereas if you forget about it you are lost, you end up in the shallows, fall, sink into the deep.”

In a sense it is the village which is the beacon, and Thorsson seems to find hope in village life, in the resilience of his characters and of Iceland itself (the financial crash also features at points). And the Wind Sees All may not be a twenty-four hour Ulysses, but it similarly fills its minutes with vibrant, messy, tragic, glorious life.

Soviet Milk

January 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Orange Grove

December 28, 2017

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

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

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

“He’s a pious man. An educated man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Looking-Glass Sisters

December 10, 2015

looking glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow Pamplona

January 9, 2015

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Tripoli Sky

September 16, 2014

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Over the last few years Peirene Press have provided us with one of the most stimulating and invigorating libraries of European fiction. For this year’s coming of age series they have already drifted beyond the Eastern edges of Europe with Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake; now, as the final title, Under the Tripoli Sky, suggests, they have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa. Its author, Kamal Ben Hamida, is a native of Libya, though, like so many writers, has spent much of his life outside his homeland. Known mainly as a poet and musician, Under the Tripoli Sky is (as far as I know) his only novel.

The novel is narrated by a young boy, Hadachinou, who seeks his identity among the women he lives with and around. “You are just a way of seeing things,” he is told at one point, “So open the windows of your eyes,” and the novel is one of observation. Hadachinou is a spy in the women’s camp, absorbing his knowledge of life from their stories. The novel is prefaced by a tale of a golden age of matriarchal rule before contact with Europeans corrupts the men and their society. In retrospect this seems as much a myth of childhood as of history. Such story-telling is associated with women in the novel itself. It begins with his Aunt Fatima:

“That night she came to my bed to tell me her usual goodnight story.”

Later, referring to a female neighbour he visits, Fella, he describes:

“…that wonderful world of madness she conjured up when she got carried away telling her stories.”

Hadachinou, as a child, exists in the world of women, which, as is made clear from the start, is separate from then world of men. The novel opens with his circumcision, something that takes place among men, but even there he is aware of the other world:

“Lost in this indefinable chasm, I suddenly became aware of an explosion of women’s laughter from the kitchen…What the men were up to was clearly of no concern to them.”

Though Hadachinou is happy there, the women’s world is not one of unalloyed joy. Aunt Hiba, we are told, “backed away from people in shame”:

“She didn’t want to show her broken teeth or her face with its fresh bruises from the latest blows inflicted by her husband.”

Domestic violence is a recurring theme. Although finding freedom within their own company, women’s lives in society are circumscribed by men. Zaineb, a childhood friend of Hadachinou’s, is suddenly “not allowed out any more. She would soon be married to an important man.”

What Hameda does brilliantly is balance the joy that many of the women still find in their life, with the difficulties they also face. Yes, it is a coming of age story, as Hadachinou is educated by the many women he observes and talks too, not only relatives and neighbours, but prostitutes and, at one point, a bearded lady from a visiting freak show. But it is also a wonderful picture of society, of the various social classes and the different races, religions and nationalities. Neighbours and friends include an Italian and a Jew, and then there is the black servant he regards as a ‘sister’. Of course, it might be objected that this is a society without men (Women without Men would have been an appropriate alternative title), but that would be to ignore novel after novel which purports to represent society but where women are absent. That aspect, among many others, make this a timely portrait of a country that we may have never seen this way before.