Posts Tagged ‘peirene press’

Body Kintsugi

October 7, 2022

Books can be challenging for any number of reasons: an unlikeable narrator, a complex structure, an idiosyncratic style; in the case of Senka Maric’s Body Kintsugi, newly translated by Celia Hawkesworth, the challenge lies in the subject matter itself. The novel tells the story of a woman’s relationship with her body as she discovers, and then undergoes treatment for, breast cancer. While the novel is not without hope, it is also a gruelling experience for both narrator and reader – a pairing intensified by the use of the second person – with its focus as much on the physical as the psychological effects of illness.

One aspect of the novel’s bleakness is the narrator’s isolation. The novel opens with her husband packing a bag and leaving, and this affects her state of mind in advance of her cancer diagnosis as she realises “he hadn’t left behind him a sense of emptiness, only a sense of defeat.” A month later she finds she has a pain in her shoulder – a build-up of calcium, and a reminder of how little control we have of our bodies:

“The doctor said all you could do would take painkillers and wait for it to pass.”

As that pain begins to pass, however, she discovers a lump in her breast:

“Like a pebble that’s lodged itself the top of your bathing suit.”

This series of events, told in the first few pages, creates a feeling of “how unlucky you are, how for years bad things have been piling up, one after another,” which is compounded by sense that the lump she has discovered is an inevitability linked to her mother’s breast cancer sixteen years before. The “good news,” according to the doctor, is that her diagnosis is early:

“His words were an anchor that made it possible for reality not to dissolve.”

This reaction is an example of Maric’s ability cut to the heart of the narrator’s feelings. The novel is told in short chapters, focusing on such key moments. The diagnosis is followed quickly by the first operation, where Maric makes her intentions clear:

“This is a story about the body. Its struggle to feel while reality shatters it into fragments.”

The novel’s title expresses an optimism the narrator does not often feel in its reference to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is repaired in such a way as to draw attention to the cracks. Maric certainly draws attention to the cracks (“The gash goes from the right nipple towards your back…”) but readers should not expect a celebration of the scars. When another tumour is found, and the second breast must be removed, she longs to keep something of herself despite her doctor’s disapproval:

“Protheses? Why are you talking about aesthetics to me here? I’m talking to you about your life!”

The narrator does not let her body go lightly, attempting to keep the shape of her breasts even as she cannot keep them. In writing about the aftermath of the operation, Maric captures the pain the narrator experiences:

“The pain will be relentless for the following week… You’ll try to trick it. Find a movement it will be late for. As you straighten up your almost hear the stirring of the silicone protheses inside you, a jagged sound that makes you flesh sob.”

Pain becomes a living part of her body, and in the final phrase, Maric mixes the senses to emphasise how it invades every part of her.

Alongside the story of her treatment for cancer, Maric also includes moments from the narrator’s childhood. These, too, often focus on her developing body. As a child she finds some pornographic pictures and feels her body betraying her – a memory she returns to “to enjoy the warmth in your body and hate yourself because of it.” At thirteen:

“You’re having a hard time with your body that longs to be touched.”

These chapters widen the novels scope – rather than being only a story of illness, the novel becomes an exploration of our relationship with the body, and, more specifically, its separation from the mind. It reminds us of our mortality not in a reflective, abstract way, but in drawing attention to the vessel of that mortality. In this sense it can be a brutal, bruising experience for the reader, but also perhaps a necessary correction to our tendency to forget the flesh we live in.

Of Saints and Miracles

July 7, 2022

Of Saints and Miracles, the first novel by Manuel Astur to be translated into English (by Claire Wadie), begins with a killing: with one punch, Marcelino kills his brother, Manuel. Marcelino is provoked, not only by the contempt with which Manuel addresses him (“All right you fucking retard, just scribble down four of your shitty letters and job done”), but by the fact that Manual is demanding his written consent to sell the farm they have inherited from their parents where Marcelino still lives and works. Marcelino’s simple-mindedness is demonstrated when he fails to understand at first his brother is dead – assuming that, when his car is missing next morning, he has returned to the house, and, on later finding numerous tyre tracks there, that he has retuned with friends looking for revenge. When he is told the police are looking for him (fearing he may be injured) he goes on the run.

First, he goes to the “Old World” – an abandoned village where his mother came from. His present life on the run is interspersed with stories of his past – for example, the moment when he kills his brother is juxtaposed with a scene where they play together as children:

“He loved that little boy more than anything in the whole world.”

In this way, Of Saints and Miracles is a novel of stories – “We have the voice and we have the time,” the narrator tells us. The idea of abandoned villages is introduced not at Marcelino’s arrival but in the story of Sofia, the first to seemingly interrupt the main narrative, as she walks seven hours each year to return to the village where she was born, “the one remaining inhabitant having died thirty years ago.” (These feel very much like the villages we find in Jean Giono’s early novels). Far from an interruption, her story is simply one of many, past and present, which will take their place in the narrative. The past is of particular significance:

“The past is a village folklore, a fairy-tale rewritten every day to get us through the winter, and to help us imagine a vast world beyond the valley.”

One of the things which marks Marcelino out as different is that he lives in the present – “as if on a floating island” – the stories of his childhood revealed by the narrator rather than presented as his memories:

“Like all children, Lino was reborn with every new day.”

The memories of his childhood exist instinctively rather than intellectually, in, for example, his fear of the dark:

“The night was evil, the night was his mother crying… His father carried the night in his clenched fist.”

Living in the present, Marcelino – or so the narrator speculates – exists outside of time. When he takes refuge in the wreck of an abandoned car, he imagines him as the “sole survivor” of our world:

“Time has ceased to exist, or been reborn.”

As if to emphasis this, he is visited by his dead mother. The longer he remains on the run, out of sight the more he becomes a ’story’ rather than a person. When the novel’s third section, or ‘Song’, begins with “the strangest looking pilgrim they’d ever seen… long dirty hair merging into the dirty beard” we would be forgiven for thinking this might be Marcelino, but it is another moment from his childhood when a man comes to his door describing himself not as a beggar but a storyteller:

“He said that stories were more important than anything, and that they had to be protected to prevent evil spirits from sucking the life from the earth.”

Towards the novel’s end, Marcelino begins to encounter people and finds only kindness. When a hunter gives him his coat he realises, “It was the first time in his entire life that anyone except his mother had given him a present.” Marcelino’s time in hiding feels more like a religious retreat than the act of a dangerous fugitive. The novel itself, as the title suggests, has something spiritual about it, though perhaps not quite religious despite references to Judas and hanging, and a Biblical plague of maggots. The way in which it takes the plotline of a thriller and applies the pace of a wandering stream forces the reader to look at life differently, from moment to moment, story to story:

“Everything is happening at this moment and it’s all of equal importance, the only difference being who is telling the story and why. Everything is a miracle.”

Marzahn, Mon Amour

February 20, 2022

Marzahn, Mon Amour is German writer Katja Oskamp’s third novel, but the first to be translated into English (by Jo Heinrich, her first literary translation). While the title is a playful reference to Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it is ultimately meant sincerely, however unlikely that may be given that Marzahn is housing estate of 1970s prefabricated concrete buildings on the outskirts of East Berlin. Yet the novel is exactly about finding joy in the most unlikely of places, and from the most unlikely of jobs.

The narrator is a writer in middle-aged crisis:

“You can no longer see the shore you started from, but you can’t yet get a clear enough view of the shore you’re headed for. You spend these years thrashing about in the middle of a big lake, out of breath, flagging from the tedium of swimming.”

But before we decide that yet another author wracked with mid-life doubt is the last thing we need, it is her reaction to the rejection of her latest novella that sets this apart from other novels of this type: a course in chiropody:

“None of us had taken a direct path; all of us were on the rebound, stranded or bogged down. We knew what failure felt like.”

“From writer to chiropodist – what a spectacular comedown” – or, at least, that is how it would be conventionally viewed. Yet, as the chapters which follow reveal, the narrator has no regrets, finding happiness in the simple act of helping others.

Her customers are the elderly and the frail. Frau Guse is a survivor of breast cancer who repeats the same stories on every visit – “Frau Guse and I could even swap lines; I certainly know both parts off by heart, and we have exactly the same conversation every six weeks.” Herr Paulke has also suffered from cancer:

“…he had a fatalistic sense of humour and humility in the face of the havoc old age was wreaking.”

These are qualities the narrator shares, describing another client, Frau Blumeier, “in her racy electric wheelchair, her upper body bent forward like a cyclist and her hair swept back from her forehead by the wind.” In Frau Bulmeier’s case it is polio which has led to her disability – “Only my legs, not in my head!” Erwin Fritzsche tells her he has had a heart attack and a stroke:

“His eyes tell me he has just about managed to remember these words, but that every trace of their meaning is gone.”

In the face of this, the narrator’s clients generally tend to look on the bright side. Frau Blumeier is defined by her “high spirits”. Frau Frenzel finds happiness in her dogs: when her treatment is finished and she returns to them “a shared joy erupts.” The salon is a place they are treated kindly – the narrator tells us her secret resolution is “to have every client leave happier than when they arrived.” The chair they sit in is frequently referred to as the ‘throne’. Taking ordinary pleasure in life, even when life is difficult, is a theme which runs throughout the novel, and can be seen not only in the clientele but in staff. The longest chapter describes a spa break the three beauticians take together, a trip which leads the narrator to declare (after a few drinks):

“I am overcome with love and I start eulogizing about the three of us, how we may have our quirks but we all have our hearts in the right place…”

That she is interrupted by Tiffy, who thinks she is “taking the piss”, also demonstrates the balance which Oskamp retains throughout – any danger of tipping into sentimentally is quickly averted, even if only by descriptions of the clients often grotesque feet.

The novel is much more than quirky character sketches, though. The elderly nature of the customers, who relate their life stories while being treated, creates a sociological portrait of East Germany. Nowhere is this more evident than with Herr Pietsch who was once “not only politically and ideologically on the right side, but also on the high ground, to his mind at least.” Now he is a more sympathetic figure, saving money in envelopes to get by. Things also get more difficult after reunification for less important people – Frau Janusch tells of how her husband’s furniture business collapsed:

“The easterners paid. But the westerners didn’t. That’s the way they were – who has the biggest debts?”

Her Paulke, on the other hand, has been glad to have been able to travel – “He could talk about the Norwegian fjords, the palm trees in Ticino and the pubs in Dublin.” The novel allows the characters to tell these stories without judgement; there is no sense of authorial irony overhanging their tales. This is a novel of ordinary people, a paean to everyday kindness and the dignity of work:

“The love I have inside me has turned into liquid and now runs in the most unlikely places.”

Winter Flowers

January 4, 2022

So many novels have now been written about the First World War, it sometimes it feels that contemporary writers should accept they are unlikely to add anything new. Yet Angélique Villeneuve’s Winter Flowers, originally published in French in 2014 and now translated by Adriana Hunter, focuses on two areas which have received little attention in fiction: the men who returned from the war severely injured and disfigured, and the women who survived these years alone at home. Winter Flowers tells the story of one couple (and their young daughter, Leo): Jeanne, who has survived by making artificial flowers, and her husband Toussaint, who has been badly injured at the front and has spent months recuperating in hospital before eventually returning home shortly before the end of the war.

Toussaint returns with all his limbs, but with his face badly disfigured and covered with a cloth mask, which he refuses it remove even in his wife’s presence. Before we are even aware of this physical damage, Villeneuve emphasises the physicality of the family’s relationships, beginning with the opening scene where Jeanne, despite the ache and exhaustion of work, brushes her face across Leo’s, chest:

“First with the ends of stray hairs that have escaped from her plaited bun and then with her eyelashes, she skims the child’s writhing chest, the area of skin that her knitted top lays bare.”

Such physical closeness between husband and wife, which Jeanne has been deprived of while her husband is fighting, and then even after his return, withdrawn and silent, continues to be subtly hinted at, for example in a description of Leo “her nose pressed up to her rag doll’s face.” When Toussaint lies sleeping next to her, her strongest desire is to touch him:

“She reaches out her hand, skims the hot, rough skin of his chin.”

The distance between them, however, is not only physical. Even before Toussaint reappears in her life, Jeanne has been hurt by the message she receives when he is admitted to hospital: “I want you not to come.” She describes these words as “claws, and she bore the scratch marks on her neck,” an example of how Villenueve will frequently describe emotions as physical sensations. When, after days of silence, he finally speaks his first word is ‘no’:

“A word of lava and flint, an underwater shard that has rubbed up against saliva and blood, splinters and caves.”

But first, the silence, a silence which, in a sense, begins even before his injury and return. Once he is at war, Jeanne says of the letters he sends her, “They surrendered no true facts about life at the front,” and that she asks questions “but he never replied.” Now that silent presence is in their small apartment:

“He’s just there, shut down, shut away.”

Later Jeanne wonders whether “she’d allowed herself to be swept up in the habit of silence,” and Villeneuve includes one chapter where Jeanne breaks her own silence, uncertain whether Toussaint is awake and listening, as paragraph after paragraph begins “She says…” This is her attempt to cross the gap between them, created just as much by their time apart as Toussaint’s injury:

“Toussaint, whether in the trenches or in hospital, knew nothing of the life they led.”

Rather than focus only on the ignorance of civilians regarding conditions at the front, Villeneuve draws attention to the gap in understanding. We see this from both sides: Toussaint, for example, is drawn to those who do understand his experience – when he leaves the apartment one day, Jeanne follows him and finds him meeting with a group of war-wounded soldiers. Villeneuve also demonstrates that this gap does not only exist in Jeanne and Toussaint’s relationship, showing us the uncomfortable ‘patriotism’ of those at home, as when a woman on the Metro begins publicly praising a disfigured soldier, or when she accompanies her friend Sidonie to a ceremony where she will receive a certificate for her dead son. There she describes the mayor’s speech as “riddled with impassioned fragments,” which cannot help but suggest shrapnel, just as she similarly uses language we associate with the violence of war to describe the sympathetic comments received by Toussaint:

“She’d be spattered with it right up to her face and down her neck.”

Sidonie’s experience (having lost sons to tuberculosis, she has now lost her final son to the war) is one way Villeneuve widens the scope of the novel, showing not only the losses suffered by women but the camaraderie. The two neighbours have helped each other throughout the war, even sleeping in the same bed for warmth. 

Winter Flowers is, at heart, a love story – that Jeanne and Toussiant have loved each other is never in doubt – but a love story which asks the question whether that love can be rekindled after the separation and trauma they have experienced. At one point Jeanne asks, “What is war?”

“An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible.”

 By viewing the effects of the war on one family, Villeneuve allows us to see it more clearly.

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.


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.