Posts Tagged ‘peirene press’

The Blue Room

September 6, 2014

untitled (5)

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

untitled (4)

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.

Mr Darwin’s Gardener

July 27, 2013


Peirene Press’ theme for this year’s trio of novellas is ‘turning point’ and both of those so far published take the approach of channelling wider revolutions through small scale stories. In The Mussel Feast East German politics are viewed via a domestic setting and, though Mr Darwin’s Gardener takes its examination of science versus religion outside the house, it never leaves the small English village of Downe in which Darwin has chosen to spend his retirement. Not that Darwin features in the novel as anything other than an over-arching presence; the focus here is on the lives of the villagers presented to us in a mosaic of voices.

The ‘post-modern’ element of the novel, referred to on the back cover, is evident immediately in the invigorating and thrilling way the first few pages challenge the reader to make sense of a series of different perspectives, including chickens and sparrows, and Mr Darwin’s gardener, Thomas Davies. This is the way the novel will reveal itself: a series of short sections beginning in third person but swiftly zooming in to first:

“Jennifer Kenny is folding clean sheets on the kitchen table, even though it is Sunday. She looks out of the window. Thomas Davies, the gardener whose wife died, strides along the road. I took soup and bread to the house of mourning but he merely stared darky and grunted something.”

Carlson uses this technique in the opening chapter to introduce us to Davies and his relationship with the village: he is mistrusted because of his rejection of religion, particularly as a consolation after his wife’s death. This, along with his employment, links him to Darwin and his assault on religion via his theory of evolution. As the voice of the congregation says in chapter 2:

“When a man sets up new false gods for himself such as Science and the Doctrine of Evolution, he mocks our Lord, Creator of Everything, and so he is punished.”

Chapter 2 is a bravura example of Carslon’s style: it begins in the group voice of the congregation but then disintegrates into individual voices as the congregation leave the church – but then so is the first chapter of the second part where the arrival of a stranger is told in a series of perspective shifting paragraphs over three pages. The novel is worth reading for the dexterity the writer shows with this technique alone.

Carlson’s style allows her to explore the challenge to religion not in rational debate (in the ‘village debating society’ in the Anchor we find a series of quotations from unidentified speakers often only vaguely related) but through the needs and fears of individuals. In an interview about the novel she said:

“God is in the picture, because the church was still a strong influence on social life in the late 19th century, despite the fact that secularism – as well as industrialisation and capitalism – were gaining ground. But I think the essential thing is that people’s loneliness and despair is crying out for a god, and everyone seems to have a god suited to their own needs “

The debate between science and religion is not seen as one to be won or lost but as more complex than that, occurring differently within individuals. It is no surprise, therefore, that the novel ends with a question that will never be answered.