Posts Tagged ‘peirene press’

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.

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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

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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.

The Blue Room

September 6, 2014

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Peirene’s second novel in this year’s coming of age series was The Blue Room by Hanne Orstavik translated by Deborah Dawkin. It would be fair to say that The Blue Room has made a powerful impression among those who have read it, as many online reviews will testify. The story it tells at first seems simple enough: the narrator, Johanne, a young woman who lives with her apparently over-protective mother awakes on the day she has chosen to go to America with her new (and perhaps only) boyfriend, Ivar, to find herself locked in her room. In the course of the novella she recounts the development of her relationship with Ivar, but indications that her version of events may not be entirely trustworthy soon begin to appear.

We get a glimpse of Orstavik’s writing method early on when Johanne recalls a lecture about “the isomorphic functioning of the brain”:

“When the senses only pick up fragments, our brain fills in the gaps to achieve wholeness and harmony.”

As with any first person narration we are aware we are not getting the whole story, but our brains fill in the ‘gaps’ fairly easily at first, especially as the possessive mother is a stock character, made more credible when Johanne reveals her religious leanings. Orstavik then inserts images that do not belong into the pattern our brains have created and, all of a sudden, our belief that we can fill in the gaps is undermined and we begin to question everything we have been told. This first happens just after Johanne has remembered her initial meeting with Ivar:

“I close my eyes. There’s an Asian girl chained to the bed. Twelve years old. It is an iron bed with rails and there are bars at the window. A fat sweaty man comes once an hour, He takes off his shorts and shirt, and she has to do whatever he wants.”

What she sees becomes more sexually explicit but with details provided to repulse rather than titivate. It provokes in the reader (or this reader at least) what would be in cartoon terms a double-take, a re-reading to check you haven’t accidentally fallen into another narrative – for narrative, rather than image, it is, with Johanne’s desire to “imagine what it’s like to be there” entirely unexplained. The setting might be the similar: both naked, in a room with a bed and a window, the girl chained, Johanne locked in, but the connection is mysterious.

These violent fantasies are in some way linked to her relationship with her mother. “Men are so simple,” she tells her daughter, “Controlled by sex and power,” while at the same time warning her against “dangerous” men. Her mother’s own previous relationships are alluded to:

“Her experience will prevent me from marrying a man who lacks boundaries, self-control and sensitivity.”

No father is mentioned and Johanne’s brother is, we are told, in America. Of her mother she says at one point, “She’s been through so much.” Yet if the mother is the controlling partner of the relationship, we might wonder why she says to Johanne, “I just can’t stand any more manipulation.” Though, of course, this could be manipulative.

Johanne’s confidence in herself is certainly lacking:

“I have something lacking, a flaw. I have a hole out of which all my strength seems to drain.”

In her relationship with her mother, with Ivar, and with her friend Karin, she seems both devoted and dependent. We might suspect that she is equally culpable in reliance on her mother:

“She’s right, I thought, we belong together like two clasped hands.”

And later, when she wishes she could be an architectural drawing:

“Then we could each spread our sheets on top of each other, Mum and I, and see where our lines diverged. And we could take an eraser and adjust them to match.”

What we have, then, is a particularly sophisticated version of the unreliable narrator: almost everything in the narrative is up for question but there is little that we can say for certain is untrue. The Blue Room is a character study where the character remains unknowable (like the ‘black box’ Johanne mentions in reference to another experiment); the exploration of a relationship where we cannot be sure, even at the end, how much we understand; a discussion of sexual desire that both celebrates and condemns. The final question it leaves us with is this, though:

How can a writer this good not be known to an English-speaking audience?

The Dead Lake

September 3, 2014

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The year’s theme for Peirene Press has been coming-of-age stories, beginning in February with Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake. Ismailov was forced into exile from Uzbekistan in 1994 and his works are still prohibited there. Although Peirene frequently bring writers into English for the first time, Ismailov is one of those rare occasions where some of his work has been previously translated. Certainly two other novels are available in print (The Railway and A Poet and Bin Laden), and a third as an e-book (The Underground). Andrew Broomfield, also responsible for A Poet and Bin Laden, has translated The Dead Lake from the Russian (Ismailov writes in both Uzbek and Russian).

Having now read all three of Peirene’s 2014 novellas, it is striking that all of them deal with the idea of coming-of-age in terms of relationships with the opposite sex, although all in different and surprising ways. In The Dead Lake that relationship is between Yerzhan and Aisulu who grow up together on the sparsely populated steppe. We hear Yerzhan’s story through the mediation of a narrator who comes across the young man on railway journey through Kazakhstan and is astounded at his virtuoso violin playing. The narrator first offends Yerzhan by mistaking him for a child – we discover later that Yerzhan stopped growing before he reached his teens – but soon befriends him and hears his life story throughout the rest of the journey.

Yerzham lives an isolated existence with his grandparents, his mother and his uncle (“The column for ‘Father’ in his birth certificate had remained blank”); in the only other house Aisulu lives with her Granny and parents. Yerzhan discovers he has a great talent for music, firstly by playing his grandfather’s dombra, and then later (when he is taken for lessons), the violin. If at first his talent seems a gift to be cherished, later you may be suspicious it is ultimately seen as pointless. The family live near ‘the Zone’, an area for nuclear testing, where Aisulu’s father works, a barren wasteland scattered with ruined buildings, one of which is nicknamed the goose:

“As they came closer, the ‘goose’ appeared more like a crane, an immense concrete block half-crumpled, as if it had melted and run on one side.”

Ismailov largely underplays the Zone to emphasise how matter-of-factly it is accepted as part of their life. The Dead Lake itself is to be found in the Zone, created by a bomb crater. Though Yerzhan is told not to drink or touch it, he

“…walked calmly into the forbidden water. For a moment he splashed about in it and then, to the admiring and terrified twittering of Aisulu and then others, he walked out of the water, shook himself off as if nothing had happened…”

Whether it is this single immersion, or (more likely) the continual exposure to radiation that prevents Yerzhan growing any further, it has a profound effect on his life. His assumption that he would marry childhood sweetheart Aisulu is challenged when she begins to exceed him in height. This begins a devastating series of events that will affect all in his tiny community.

If The Dead Lake is a critique of life on the steppe, it criticises from both the past and the present. If it is the USSR’s desperation to “catch up with the Americans and then overtake them” that leads to Yerzhan’s poisoning, the novel suggests that neither modernity nor folklore has an answer to it. A visit to a local healer is ridiculed when her methods and instructions are repeated almost word for word later when his Granny has an entirely different complaint; however, a trip to a city hospital is no more successful. Similarly, at the moment he enters the lake, Yerzhan is influenced both by the myth of Gesar his Granny has told him and American singer / film star Dean Reed (who will later drown in a lake). These influences lead to further rash action on his part later in the novel.

The Dead Lake, though it does not always seem it, is on reflection a bleak novel that offers little in the way of hope. I kept returning to the scene when Aisulu adopts a fox cub – that night it escapes from the house and is torn to pieces by the family dog. Its mother calls plaintively in the distance in a novel that is filled with the lonely howling of animals.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

May 14, 2014

untitled (15) Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a novel which can accurately be described as un-put-downable. Containing no full stops until that following its very last word, to stop reading would show an unacceptable disregard for the rules of grammar. Its author, Friedrich Christian Delius, is a German writer of some standing: in 2011 he won Germany’s most prestigious literary award, the Georg-Büchner Prize. This remains his only appearance in English, however, thanks to Peirene Press and translator Jamie Bulloch. The title, of course, echoes Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the replacement of ‘artist’ with ‘mother’ placing an emphasis on the ordinary which is reflected in the novel’s central character (though she is surrounded by art throughout). Joyce himself would celebrate the quotidian in Ulysses, and Delius borrows its ‘life in a day’ structure, taking us on a tour around Rome just as Joyce led us through Dublin. The young woman of the title is eight months pregnant; imminently a mother, she remains, for the moment, a young woman. The setting is Rome in 1943; the young woman is German and has arrived in Rome to be with her husband, but after only a few days together, he is sent to North Africa and they are separated again. The novel tells the story of her evening walk alone through Rome to a concert of classical music. Though the novel is ostensibly written in the third person, it is entirely told from the point of view of the young woman. Her ordinariness is emphasized from early on:

“especially grateful that they spoke German here, and that she did not have to make any effort to speak a foreign language in a foreign place, which she would not have been able to do, trained as a kindergarten teacher and a housekeeper, she felt she had no gift at all for languages, although she had got the best marks for arithmetic and gymnastics…”

1943 was probably the year the war turned against Germany but, though she has an awareness of this (“they hardly spoke about victories anymore, they only spoke of the length of the war”), she thinks of the war mainly as it relates to her separation from her husband. One of the novel’s strengths is the convincing way it portrays her love for her husband, not only by recounting her memories of their relationship, but by demonstrating the way he permeates her thoughts as she walks through the city:

“it was here, especially, that she missed the voice and the knowledge, the warmth and closeness of her husband, who belonged to her, she wished to see Rome as he did, not according to the Baedeker…”

The novel’s style works well in reflecting the rhythm of both her thoughts and her walk, but also has a musical effect as it builds inevitably towards the music of the concert. Here, in describing the emotional climax the music creates for her, as tears flow down her face, Delius creates his own climax with two pages of the young woman’s hopes, beginning:

“she tried to picture a future without war…”

These thoughts are then counter-pointed with her determination to be thankful for the present, looking back on previous years and concluding:

“and perhaps in a year’s time she would think back to this Saturday in January 1943 and reflect with envy how peaceful it was when, in good health and pregnant, she had walked through the winter warmth of Rome and listened to a concert while giving free reign to her fantasies for the future with a husband who was still alive,”

This passage is particularly moving as it contains a truth which the reader knows for certain (it is a year later the Allies launch their invasion of Italy), and the young woman suspects. It is, however, her refusal to despair which lingers. On this evidence it seems difficult to believe that Delius is not more widely available in English.