An open letter to friends of Translating Women

Dear friends,

I hope you and your loved ones are all safe and well.

The past week has seen an upheaval of life as we know it, in a way I had never imagined would be a reality in my lifetime (call me unimaginative, but there we go). As you might expect, this is going to mean a shift in the way I’m able to provide content on the Translating Women blog. Most of the work I do here is on my own time, and my new role as a home-schooler, though precious and grounding, will have an impact on what I can realistically hope to achieve elsewhere.

However, I believe that now more than ever it is important to stay connected, to keep looking outwards not only towards you, who read my words and keep me going on this blog, but also towards other cultures and especially their women’s voices. In Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Made for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez discusses evidence showing that in many cultures pandemics disproportionately affect women (see the chapter “It’s Not The Disaster that Kills You”), and so it is vital not only to ensure that women are represented and heard, but also to look beyond our own experience. I believe that a number of issues I find troubling in the Anglophone world have arisen from looking inwards: Trump’s rise to power based on his pledge to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the border between the US and Mexico, Brexit being voted through on the swell of anti-immigration feeling in the UK… in the immediate aftermath of those election and referendum results, I remember acquaintances telling me that it wouldn’t be that bad, and that nothing is forever. That may be true, but everything has consequences, and the rise of nationalism indicates an increasing disconnection with the other that has been manifest in multiple ways as the global crisis escalates. I’ve been thinking these last days about how this resonates with many of the observations and warnings in Europa28, fresh in my mind from a recent review (written in a time when I took so many simple things in my life for granted): Renata Salecl writes that “While people choose to not put the good of the community before themselves, they expect others to do so. We, therefore, have a situation in which people do not think of themselves as part of the community, yet nonetheless imagine that such a community exists.”

I want to remain part of a community. I plan to keep posting content for the foreseeable future, though less frequently and possibly in different formats. It’s likely that my reviews will be shorter, and I’m hoping to include videos as well as text. I’ve also updated my virtual bookshelf to offer brief synopses of over 100 books, and you can always browse the reviews archive, or catch up on interviews and opinion posts from the last two years. Maintaining a virtual community has never felt more urgent: we are living through a crisis dominated by the rhetorics of division, whether it’s Trump renaming coronavirus the “Chinese virus”, racial abuse towards people of Asian origin, generational confrontation (is anyone else sick of the “Boomers vs Millenials” clickbait?) or outbursts of abuse towards retail staff trying to implement fair policies regarding purchasing quantities. Now more than ever we need to remember our common humanity, and literature – with its power to cross borders and open eyes and hearts – has a role to play in that. As Julya Rabinowich wrote, also in Europa28 (and translated by Katy Derbyshire), “The ability for empathy is what might help humankind survive … The safety and security to which we are so accustomed – they are not guaranteed.” As our lives shift and we lose so much of our certainty and security, let us hold on to our empathy. For as long as I can, and when I can, I will keep sharing recommendations, in the hope that my subscribers and visitors will want to keep receiving them.

Until soon, stay safe, and thank you as always for reading,

Helen

Review: Donatella di Pietrantonio, A Girl Returned

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2019)

A Girl Returned is an intense and affecting account of how a life can change forever in a single day. The unnamed teenage narrator leads a happy and harmonious existence with her affluent parents in a nice neighbourhood of an Italian city. Or, rather, this was her life: it is recounted in flashback, as we meet the narrator when she arrives at a rundown house in the country. This is her new home – though, as we learn, it was in fact her first home. Her parents were living in poverty when she was a baby; they had three older children already, and then found out that the mother was pregnant again. Meanwhile, the refined Adalgisa, wife of the father’s cousin, was miserably childless and wanted a little girl of her own… you can fill in the gaps. Indeed, this narrative is pieced together in half-conversations and the silences between them: the narrator finds herself suddenly transplanted back into the heart of the family who gave her away, unwanted on both sides, and with no idea why her existence has been uprooted so suddenly. She is hampered in her desire to understand by the adults who decide for her that she is too young to know the truth: she is left wondering why her mother gave her up and when she might come to take her back, constructing her own less painful version of reality in the absence of a truth that will be revealed in two key scenes towards the end of the novel.

Meeting the “girl returned” at this pivotal point plunges us straight into the most turbulent moment of our young narrator’s life: “I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother”, she tells us by way of introduction to her story. Gone is the happy bourgeois life of music lessons, elegant meals, a nice apartment and a full social life – now the girl is sharing a bedroom with three siblings she never knew she had, awakening to the rhythmic sound of her older brothers masturbating and sharing a bed with a younger sister who has yet to master night-time bladder control. Attitudes from the new family range from indifference to overt hostility, and in the village and at school there are frequent displays of resentment towards l’arminuta, the girl returned. She finds an unlikely ally in her older brother Vincenzo, a tearaway who frequently runs away with the gypsies, and he awakens in her the first flames of adolescent desire. Yet he too is wrenched away from her in one of the most painful episodes of the story, and she is left with only her younger sister Adriana for companionship. Adriana is wild and impulsive, but capable of great compassion, and gives depth to a family unit that could otherwise potentially fall into clichés of “rich girl meets poor family who despise her for having opportunities they never had.” Indeed, in a book where the narrator feels so little love and warmth, one of the most remarkable feats is that it spills over with warmth and heart. Donatella di Pietrantonio gives depth and substance to an eclectic cast of characters, many of whom (including l’arminuta herself) remain unnamed. The “other mother” speaks infrequently, and when she does it is in a rural working-class dialect that l’arminuta barely understands. She is “the mother”, “the woman who conceived me” or “the other mother” – always distanced from and by the narrator, who explains that “from the moment I was given back to her, the word “mamma” had stuck in my throat like a frog that wouldn’t jump out.”

One of the reviews on the book cover describes the author’s “feverish prose”, so I was expecting this to be a defining feature of the narrative, but this wasn’t my impression of A Girl Returned. I found it much more considered and languorous, though of course this may be a difference between the original and the translation. Ann Goldstein is, as the blurb notes, Elena Ferrante’s translator: this is marketed as a selling point, and for long stretches, in fact for the majority of the book, the translation is pitched beautifully. I liked the less frenzied pace and delivery, and Goldstein strikes an excellent balance between the intensity of the narrator’s feelings (“she reopened my memory with a lash of the whip”) and the understatement with which certain scenes are narrated (“I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen.” The occasional flash-forwards that show us the resolution of particular characters’ stories are also offered with a detached melancholy that is all the more moving for remaining unembellished. However, I was frustrated at times with calques from Italian that disrupted the syntax for me or stood out as unusual (second-verb infinitives rather than gerunds, use of nouns where English would use a noun phrase, and some literal translations of vocabulary that do not have the same general field of usage in English). It’s possible that I’m more attuned to such nuances in translations from romance languages, which are my language area, but if the translator is mentioned as one of the reasons why the book is so excellent, then it does invite certain expectations. I imagine that Goldstein has to produce translations under time pressure as she’s so prolific, and if my appreciation seems mitigated, then let me be clear: I loved A Girl Returned. I even loved most of the translation. I hope that other readers will just skim over the words and phrases that made me pause, and I certainly hope that this book will find its way into your hands: it’s a gripping story, a fascinating telling, and will linger in my mind a long while.

Review copy of A Girl Returned provided by Europa Editions

Review: Europa28 – Writing by Women on the Future of Europe

Edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave (Comma Press, 2020)

Europa28 is a ground-breaking anthology of women’s voices from across Europe, commissioned in response to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Bringing together reflections on Europe’s future from women in each of the 28 member countries (or, as things stand now, 27 plus one), it reflects the radical, engaged approach that Comma Press is known for, and is Comma’s first anthology written entirely by women. Europa28 is a visionary project, the strength of 28 voices – plus 16 translators, two editors, and the indefatigable team at Comma Press, along with their collaborators Hay Festival and Wom@rts – coming together to discuss Europe in all its diversity, complexity, beauty and fallibility.

In her impassioned introduction to the volume, Laura Bates explains the importance of hearing the perspective of women: according to analysis cited by Bates, 90% of the discussion of Brexit in the Houses of Parliament was carried out by men. Women were left out of the debate, leaving “the certainties presented by the loudest voices” to remain enshrined as fact. “To move forward”, writes Bates, “we need new ways of seeing the world around us”, and this is exactly what Europa28 offers. There is, of course, a potential danger in selecting one woman to represent each country, but to be less even-handed about the representation would generate its own problematic hierarchies. And so while one voice cannot and should not speak for an entire country (indeed, this is a position challenged by the Europa28 project), more important is that this collection offers the space to speak, setting the perspectives of all 28 women – and the nations they represent – in dialogue with one another. It brings spoken-over voices to the fore, challenging the “default setting” of seeing the world through men’s eyes and gathering together women’s perspectives from each country within a union that, though imperfect, until recently represented our closest ally.

Editors Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave have brought together a fascinating and diverse collection of expositions on what Europe can, could, or should mean. Some of the contributions are reflections based on personal experience or perspective, while others are fantastical or allegorical. Some are essays, some written from an imagined future, some struggling to find the light ahead while mired in an all-too-present now. There are profound reflections on humanity, from Apolena Rychlíková’s claim (translated by Julia Sherwood) that intolerance is not buried deep in human nature but is the mindset of powerful individuals, to Janne Teller’s pronouncement that “no happiness is possible where misery abounds.” Many pieces focus on what Edurne Portela (translated by Annie McDermott) defines as “the demonisation of the different”; surveillance, silencing and “fake news” also come under fire repeatedly, as does the complicity of silence and the danger of becoming so immersed in the virtual world that we risk sacrificing our relationships with one another.

Where did these problems, barriers and divisions spring from? Rychlíková believes them to be the result of “a boiling over of long-term frustrations for unfulfilled, even if unarticulated, demands for a dignified and well-rounded life,” while Maarja Kangro points to “a new norm of ignorance, intolerance, and exclusion”, which Yvonne Hofstetter (translated by Jen Calleja) expands on in her claim that “reality is currently taking a detour through populism, protectionism, nationalism and a good dose of arrogance.” Tereza Nvotová (translated by Jakub Tlolka) suggests that we have not learned from our past (“We scale the cold neon mast and then drop back down, again and again and again. But each time we climb to the top, we forget about our previous fall”), a position advanced by Gloria Wekker, who cites “the bitter continuities and the utter lack of shame manifesting in European political attitudes towards the non-European Other” as one of the problems within the continent and the union.

The very notion of “union” is another key focus for many of the writers, who highlight the increasing disconnectedness of our – ironically – ever more connected world. Žydrūnė Vitaitė (translated by Rimas Uzgiris) cautions against the “like and re-share cemetery” of digital activism as opposed to real activism, and from a different angle Caroline Muscat warns that this digital world that we welcome as liberating can in fact be used to control us, making us complicit in the problem: “Technology fed into this populism as digital platforms – which held so much democratic promise for opening up access to information and debate across communities and countries – ended up being used as tools of repression.” If our increasing disenfranchisement is so widespread, then it is surely no coincidence that Ana Pessoa (translated by Rahul Bery) describes loneliness as “the biggest epidemic of the 21st century”: in our obsession with being “connected,” we have lost sight of what we want to connect to. To counter this, Hilary Cottam urges us to leave old models behind and “start instead with who we really are: people who are driven as much by a desire to connect and belong as by our individual goals.”

Cottam is not the only one to propose ways of moving forward, and of working towards greater understanding and deeper connections: the ability for empathy, suggests Julia Rabinowich (translated by Katy Derbyshire), “is what might help humankind survive.” Like Nvotová, Kapka Kassabova implores us to “hear the urgent message of the past” and refuse to let the past – with all its errors and misunderstandings – endlessly repeat itself, for as Ioana Nicolaie (translated by Jean Harris) warns: “If we do not learn from the mistakes of the last century, we will find ourselves alone without freedom or hope, enclosed between walls we ourselves have allowed to be built.” The possibility for change lies in our own hands, say so many of these women: we need to break through the walls we have allowed to be built and create what Lisa Dwan refers to as “a different narrative, to overcome the oppressive voices that threaten us from without and from within.”

Many of the contributions, then, suggest what we need to do to reject structures that restrict and oppress us, but others go further still to offer models of how we might set this in motion. Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor) exhorts us to be more open to others, indicating that prejudices surrounding migration could be at the root of a damaging isolation: “still today, the question of migration is fundamental, central, because the future of our continent will be decided in terms of our capacity to welcome and also to think about the Other.” Tuning out the certainties presented by the loudest voices is essential here, and Sofía Kouvelaki encourages us to do this by looking up from ourselves and outwards towards our world: “I simply want to ask people not to look away, not to look away and remain passive about the violence that is also taking place on our doorstep as Europeans.” This commitment to making connections involves us looking up and reaching out: Hofstetter advocates for exactly this in her provocation for each of us to “breathe life back into Europe, build a better future and live humanely and democratically with others.” Reading Europa28 is a fitting place to start this engagement: throughout the anthology, the personal and the local are cast as inseparable from the collective and the global, with an emphasis on sharing stories as a key to mutual understanding and tolerance. As Annelies Beck notes, “stories … can unlock hearts and minds and lay bare the shared humanity of all … They can put a wedge in shrill sounding certainties that are sold as unassailable truths.” It is important to listen to diverse stories, to understand the fullness of humanity (and specifically, to return to a key point of my last post, the “full humanity of women”), and to topple inherited or self-perpetuating certainties that threaten not only our sense of where we belong, but of who we are. As Europa28 shows us throughout, we do not need to rely on a nostalgia for what we have lost, but instead think about what we want to become.

Review copy of Europa28 provided by Comma Press.

International Women’s Day 2020: Each for Equal

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, “Each for Equal”, ties in with the emphasis on intersectionality that is key to any kind of progressive feminism. Since “intersectional feminism” is itself a term that can be bandied around to encompass everything and nothing, I’ve been focusing my thoughts on what it can mean for women in translation.

The P-word

I recently wanted to avoid over-using the word “empower” in a piece I was writing, so looked in a thesaurus and was surprised to find “privilege” offered as a synonym. Perhaps my surprise is partly prompted by the ubiquitous – and scathing – appearance of the term “privilege” in reaction to Jeanine Cummins’s controversial novel American Dirt, but it made me wonder: why is “empower” a positive word and “privilege” so loaded with scorn? Can the two be reconciled? Empowerment as an active process can be the sharing of privilege, or rather, using what privilege we have to work towards equality and justice for those who do not have that privilege. The criticisms levelled at Cummins were for appropriating Mexican experience, speaking for (or over) Mexicans, rather than giving them the platform to speak for themselves. It is the use of privilege that makes it not entirely  synonymous with “empowerment”: privilege can be used to empower, but it can also be used to perpetuate established systems of power, and that’s where change needs to happen.

Is “normal” the new “privilege”?

In 1981, writer and activist Audre Lorde stated that “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” This is as true today as it was thirty years ago: how can we claim progress in the movement for gender equality in translated literature if predominantly white European women are getting translated? And how many of those are straight, cis, middle-class, non-disabled? Let me be clear: this is not an indictment of being any of those things. The problem is when we see these characteristics so frequently that they come to be synonymous with “normal”, and we forget that there are other voices that we are not hearing. In her powerful manifesto We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie affirms that “culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” The full humanity of women does not mean only one model of womanhood that we define as “normal” – and if we can’t change culture overnight, we can at least make conscious changes about the way it is represented on our bookshelves. If we care about equality, then we have a responsibility to read books that are not just about our own experience, that do not simply confirm our own way of living in the world. It is a source of constant bewilderment and frustration to me when reviewers or readers claim they couldn’t “relate” to a book because they don’t know the culture. I find this the literary equivalent of going to a different country and heading straight for the English pub: why should writers from other cultures make their narratives more westernised just to make them more easily digestible to us? And doesn’t the translator have a responsibility NOT to impose that in the translation? One of my favourite books, Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes for Fitzcarraldo Editions and reviewed here), was recently described by Ann Morgan as a book that does not “come meekly to the reader”, and this epitomises everything that I think translated literature should be: a door opened onto other cultures, a wake-up call lest we slip into complacency, a reminder that identity is never singular and that diversity characterises our planet.

#EachForEqual: the “full humanity of women”

In the Building Bridges interview series I conducted last year, almost all of my brilliant interviewees talked about the barriers women writers face at every stage – before they write, then when they seek publication, and after that to be brought to the attention of English-speaking literary agents. So there are two major intersecting prejudices here: being a woman and being “foreign.” With regard to how literature from outside the Anglosphere makes its way in, Tiffany Tsao recently gave an illuminating and impassioned perspective on the way in which national cultures are “packaged”: who gets to choose how their culture is represented in literature? Not the women, I’ll wager. And certainly not the full humanity of women. Then Margaret Carson identifies the issue of visibility for women writers in both their home culture and in translation even when they are published (in an article from In Other Words that you can read by searching the archives on the women in translation tumblr). Next, recent research by Richard Mansell confirms that even if they make it into translation, women are less likely to be longlisted for big literary prizes. These barriers are amplified for women of colour, working class women, disabled women, trans, queer or non-binary writers, but we CAN help to dismantle them. Mansell notes that “change is happening right now in translated fiction,” indicating that we have an opportunity, a moment to be seized before it passes: market logic suggests that if the demand is there, slowly the supply will follow – and that’s the first link in the chain of barriers that I mention above. So, in the spirit of “Each for Equal”, let’s seek out these voices, and support the publishers who champion them. If you have the privilege/empowerment potential of disposable income, support by buying books. If you don’t, borrow and request from your local library. The more these books appear on shelves, the more “normal” it will be for them to exist there.

*****

Here are a few recommendations of voices and stories that challenge preconceived ideas of “normal” in its various forms, with links to the publishers’ websites:

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin, translated by Clarissa Botsford. A rare literary insight into Albania’s landscape and traditions, this brave, absorbing and deeply moving tale of a woman sworn to live as a man reflects on selfhood, sacrifice, and what “being a woman” means. Published by And Other Stories, the only press to commit to Kamila Shamsie’s call to make 2018 a Year of Publishing Women.

Matsuda Aoko, Where the Wild Ladies Are, translated by Polly Barton. This collection of contemporary feminist twists on Japanese ghost stories puts women at the centre, allowing them to unleash their power through a web of spooky, wry and interconnected tales. Published by Tilted Axis Press, champions of intersectional reading who are on a mission to decolonise translation by “tilting the axis of world literature from the centre to the margins.” Tilted Axis have also published Indonesian writer and disability activist Khairani Barokka’s Indigenous Species, a sight-impaired-accessible art book (though, for clarity, not a translation).

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, The Adventures of China Iron, translated by Fiona MacKintosh and Iona MacIntyre. This queer feminist re-telling of a gaucho epic is a bold, revolutionary and subversive dialogue with Argentina’s history and literary canon, and is currently longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. Published by Charco Press, whose catalogue to date includes 17 titles from diverse voices from across Latin America; 8 of the 17 are by women (and with the next release, it will be a perfectly balanced 9 of 18!)

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes. A torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons there. Set in the fictional Mexican town of La Matosa, a place riven with violence and superstition, this is a tale of the monsters we make with global indifference, and is currently longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize. Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, who deliberately sought out a Polish author in response to the backlash against the Polish community in the UK following the Brexit referendum. You might have heard of that author, Olga Tokarczuk, since then…

Rania Mamoun, Thirteen Months of Sunrise, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. The first major translation of a Sudanese woman writer, this anthology brings together urgent, thoughtful and occasionally surreal short stories that reflect variously on love, contingency, broken promises, despair, religion and corruption. Published by Comma Press, who are known for their radical approach to publishing and have just released the groundbreaking anthology Europa28, bringing together women’s voices from across Europe in the wake of Brexit.

For a great list of intersectional feminist readings originally written in English, see this guide that Sophie Baggott compiled for the International Women’s Development Agency.

 

 

Review: Yolande Mukagasana, Not My Time To Die

Translated from French (Rwanda) by Zoe Norridge (Huza Press, 2019)

Not my Time to Die is the true story of a woman whose overwhelming courage and tenacity help her survive the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda: it is an anthem to love and compassion, a tribute to those she lost, and a story of survival. Originally published in French in 1997, the English translation was published by Kigali-based Huza Press in 2019.

Rwanda, 1994. Yolande Mukagasana is a nurse working in a medical centre in the Nyamirambo neighbourhood of Kigali. She heals people. She has a passionate relationship with her husband, and is mother to three children. She is well respected in her local community. She is happy. She is Tutsi.

When political events begin to spiral out of control, Yolande’s husband Joseph does not listen to her desperate entreaty that they should try to flee to safety. After all, who expects a massacre? As an incredulous Joseph laments, “Who could imagine that in such a small country, where we speak the same language and have the same traditions…” Faced with the implausibility of their new reality, he is unable to complete his sentence. It is only when it is too late that the family, like so many others, realise that they are trapped, about to be hunted down by the Hutu state-sponsored vigilantes, and slaughtered by their own neighbours, people alongside whom they had lived their whole life, people “who smiled at us just a few days earlier.” The family abandons their home and Yolande ends up separated from Joseph and their children, unable to get news of them. When she does, it brings an image that will change her life forever: her children lined up in front of a ditch and felled in turn by a machete blow to the back of the neck. This memory, given to her by another as she could not even witness it herself from her hiding place, will haunt her always: “Until my dying day, every time I think about the death of my children it will be as if I’ve just found out.” How can a human being bear so much sorrow? How can it even be articulated? With the Tutsi population almost wiped out in 1994, there are few left to tell their story, and Mukagasana steps up to that responsibility with a fortitude and empathy that I can only admire.

Not My Time to Die is a painful and beautiful book that had me holding my breath, fearful of turning the page and yet compulsively wanting to do so. Human brutality is exposed in horrific detail, strewn before us like the decomposing corpses that litter the paths of Mukagasana’s neighbourhood. This is a story of “intolerable cruelty” and indomitable hope: the story of a woman who lost her entire family, her home, her livelihood and her place in the world, and yet finds help, support and hope in surprising places. Though for the most part Mukagasana writes without judgement, her most scathing comments are reserved for the international community: the indecisive UN leadership of Boutros Boutros Ghali, for example, or the western minister who insisted that Rwanda would need to repay its national debt (“Yes, Mister Minister, if a few of us survive this genocide, we’ll pay you back for the weapons that killed us”).

Zoe Norridge has taken great care with the translation – this was evident even before I reached the Translator’s Note at the end, in which she details her meetings with Mukagasana and their discussions about the translation. The result is a translation that shows an intimate understanding of Mukagasana’s story, a retelling in which Norridge never takes over, but harnesses all of her knowledge – of Mukagasana’s life, but also of the Rwandan context, for this is her research area – to render the text in an urgent yet never sensational prose. Norridge has grappled with some significant linguistic challenges, not least in the title. She discusses the decision to render “La mort ne veut pas de moi” (literally, “death doesn’t want me”) as “not my time to die” throughout, reflecting the phrase’s function as both prophecy and talisman throughout the narrative, and reinforcing Mukagasana’s will to survive even if it might lessen the implication about this decision not being hers to make. It is clear throughout how invested Norridge is in telling this story, and this is a story that needed to be told. It is brave, beautiful, and extraordinary in its resilience and compassion. We need to know these stories in the west, to witness the human experience not represented in press coverage of international tragedies, to question our own complicity in the blind eye turned to far-off crises. Mass killings might make for sensational headlines barely remembered decades later, but the eye-witness account of watching a husband’s hand being casually lopped off by a machete, the representation of the abject horror of hiding beneath a sink for eleven days and emerging to the news that your children have been massacred while you survived – these images will remain. They cannot fade into the annals of international historical atrocity, because of the determination of the author, translator and publisher in bringing this book into being. This memoir gives a name to the dead, while refusing to name the living: murderers or survivors, they will, says Mukagasana, recognise themselves. In her hiding, she makes a vow to write down her experience, to bear witness, to write in the name of the Tutsi people, and she lays down a challenge: “May those who don’t have the strength to read it denounce themselves as complicit in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.” Reading Not My Time To Die is akin to standing up and taking responsibility for knowing, to revoke “the cowardice of the international community who have abandoned us”; it is refusing to look the other way. That Zoe Norridge’s translation makes this book available to English-language readers is a gift, and one we should have the courage to accept.

Review: Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons them there. The narrative opens with a rotting corpse found floating in an irrigation canal: the Witch is dead. Like a clanging gong announcing the event, the news reverberates throughout the village, and thus begins a kind of murder mystery. Yet to pigeon-hole Hurricane Season as “just” a murder mystery would be to do a great disservice to a narrative that is so much more than that. It’s an unsparing account of femicide, machismo, tribal terror and social destitution, and for me it was less about uncovering the “truth” of the murder and more about delving into the psyche and circumstances of the characters, to understand what led them to the pivotal moment that simultaneously connects them and creates deep divisions between them.

The premise is based on a real-life story in which a body was found floating in a river, and the justification for the murder was the victim’s alleged sorcery: Melchor takes this true story and casts it in the fictional Mexican town of La Matosa, a godforsaken place riven with violence and superstition, and on the margins in every way. We follow the events from the perspectives of different inhabitants of La Matosa: each principal character has his or her own chapter, and each story is woven with the others to form a richly grotesque tapestry of lives forgotten by the state and left to rot in their own squalor, the interconnections not always evident until the end of a chapter or a seemingly throwaway comment within it.

The Witch herself never speaks through the narrative, but pulls all the other stories together. She is constructed for us only in the minds and exaggerations of others, adding to the “small-town” patina:

“They called her The Witch, the same as her mother … If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.”

The Witch is defined by hearsay and gossip, her power feared and so expunged in the only permanent way possible (although even then, death quite literally has no dominion: “They say she never really died, because witches don’t go without a fight”). As for how she ended up floating in a canal with her throat slit, we only find out through third party reconstruction: this is a novel in which nothing is as it seems, where one person’s freeloader is another person’s saviour and the most flamboyant of characters can have the most banal of ends. We meet memorable characters in wretched circumstances: from Luismi, who “might have looked like a stupid prick (but) wasn’t one, because he always managed to give his crazy-ass cousin the slip before he went off to fumble with his butt-boys”, to Norma, compelled by society and circumstance to take her fate into her own hands with horrific results, and Brando, embroiled in a violent chain of events that he barely understands and that will ultimately destroy him. The personal tragedy wrought by universal inhumanity is almost intolerable: this is not just about Mexico and its demons, but about the monsters we make with global indifference.

There are no paragraph breaks in Hurricane Season; each chapter is one unbroken torrent of narrative wrath. In a recent feature in Publishers Weekly, Melchor explained that the first two chapters came out that way, and then she set herself the technical challenge of maintaining this style and momentum throughout the novel. She writes with undisguised and undiluted fury, raging against the lack of future for her characters and the people they represent. It’s violent but never gratuitously so, foul-mouthed but authentically so, relentless but compellingly so: you know how sometimes you wish you could unleash all your anger on a person or phenomenon that has injured you, but you know you could never come up with the flawlessly crafted surge of put-downs at the perfect moment (think Fleabag and her lambasting of her brother-in-law that is going so well until she ends it by calling him a “weakie”)? Every inch of Hurricane Season is that perfect diatribe, and not just in Melchor’s hands: Sophie Hughes translates with her trademark verve, her unparalleled sensitivity to characterisation and register, and a linguistic agility that, quite frankly, left me stunned in admiration. Sugar cane “fissles”, “glistering hot coals” fire the cauldron, we meet “skanks” and “gobshites” and people “getting their rocks off”. Hurricane Season is a broken dam of words unleashed in a deluge of profanity: it is, in every sense, a force of nature, and Hughes offers a blistering translation. She conveys all of Melchor’s brutal lyricism in a way that manages to feel effortless: all of the intense labour, the insecurity, the angst of translating such a novel vanishes in the execution. I cannot imagine a more perfect blend of authorial voice and translatorial mastery: this is the yardstick by which many other books will be measured. The threat of a hurricane swirls over La Matosa, and leaves in its wake “a searing pain that refuses to go away”: Hurricane Season is a linguistic and emotional whirlwind, bewitching and almost unbearably addictive, quite simply one of the best books I’ve ever experienced. Indeed, to say I “read” it feels somehow inadequate to convey the way in which I was drawn into the centrifugal force of this particular narrative: I highly recommend that you too give in to its pull.

Review copy of Hurricane Season provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

 

Review: Intan Paramaditha, The Wandering

Translated from Indonesian by Stephen J. Epstein (Harvill Secker, 2020).

The Wandering is an innovative, thought-provoking twist on the Choose Your Own Adventure genre. Written in a compelling second-person narrative, it is based on the following premise: You are bored with your predictable life in Jakarta, and you wish to escape. A demon lover comes to tempt you with a gift that could be cursed: a pair of red shoes that will take you wherever you want to go. But be careful what you wish for, because you may not like where you end up – and you will never be able to return home. What do you do?

This is the perfect match of theme and genre, and is impeccably executed. With every choice I made I was curious about the alternative, where it would lead and whether I’d end up with the same destiny, whether the ending is the same whichever path you take (it’s not), and whether you experience the whole book but in a different order (you don’t). I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a child, but I never had much luck with them. I’d usually end up sacrificed on a jungle altar by page 20 (and it seemed every path led back there), so I really wanted to be a survivor in The Wandering. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought: in this magical literary world where I’ve made a pact with a devil for a pair of red shoes, I tried to make the choices I really would make, or at least would make in a dream, since the reality is fairly unlikely to come to pass – so yes, go on, let me always move forwards instead of playing it safe, give me a magic mirror that allows me to see my true self, bring it on!

I met a sticky end before I was halfway through the book.

I went back to the last big choice: the magic mirror. Maybe I should have gone back further, to a previous choice: in my second adventure I had a banal but steady life, I was even something like happy. But what if I hadn’t settled down with the handsome yet uninspiring illegal immigrant? I went back to that choice and tried again. Another mundane relationship, another settled existence with neither great drama nor great happiness. So my first choice about the mirror wasn’t the problem, but this must mean that somewhere earlier on I made a false step.

You’ll notice I’m talking about my character in the first person. This is one of Paramaditha’s great achievements: making me believe in the story, become invested in it, wanting to know all my possible fates in this crystal ball of a novel. Part of this is down to her second person narrative: addressing her readers as “you” is designed to create an intimacy that I found entirely successful. Part of its triumph lies in the constant suspense, which is excellent – I suspect that a cynic might occasionally find it a little melodramatic, but I threw myself into it (I mean, if I’m going to have a pair of magic red shoes gifted to me by a Mephistophelian lover, then I’ve got to expect a little melodrama) and so it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, there is only one sentence that I found slightly heavy-handed, when we are told that “you sense that your decision will determine your path from here.” This is one of several conscious references to the genre (“You began to suspect that your failure to transcend mediocrity stemmed from a wrong turn in your life”; “Adventures don’t always offer unlimited choice”; “If you’re having an adventure you always want to know what would have happened if you chose a different road”; “Did you make the wrong choice?”), but in over 400 pages was the only one that felt a little forced to me.

As for the translation, it is both playful and dramatic, acrobatic without ever losing clarity. Reading the author’s acknowledgements and the translator’s note, I learnt how closely Epstein collaborated with Paramaditha, and the editing debt he acknowledges to Paramaditha’s friend and champion, author and translator Tiffany Tsao. It’s clear how closely and passionately they have all engaged with this work: Epstein makes stunning choices of verbal adjectives (“You felt as if your limbs were lashed to the bed”; “the lanes clogged with traffic”), offers pithy renderings of epigrammatic philosophical observations (“as befits a journey, happiness is a terminal, not a destination; nobody stays there too long”) and perfectly captures the darkly mischievous voice that directs, admonishes and tempts: “Forgive the imperiousness of this adventure, but you know that sometimes life takes away all options. Choice is a luxury. Marrying Bob is your emergency exit” (forgive the spoiler; marrying Bob is only one of a great number of options!); “If you want to know the fate of the red shoes, turn to the next page. If you don’t want to know the fate of the red shoes, well, who gives a damn? Turn to the next page”; “If you want a final adventure that might only create a spectacular mess, turn to page 405” (and yes, OF COURSE I turned to page 405). I’m curious to know how Epstein translated – whether he followed a thread through to its conclusion and went on the journey too, or whether he did it in a more linear fashion, jumping between stories while advancing chronologically through the pages. I can’t help but hope that he went on the wandering as he translated.

This book is escapism taken to the next level, while still making serious and significant comments about modern societies. Intertexts range from well-known literary works, popular songs and films to more subtle (and, I’m ashamed to say, over my head) references to Indonesian literature which, when they were pointed out to me, made me feel very acutely the question posed by one of the characters: “why don’t we hear of Indonesian writers outside the country?” Alongside such mirrors (magic or otherwise) held up to her adventurers, Paramaditha also excels at mordant observations about migration, the brutality of Trump’s America, the falsehood of the American dream, and the personal dimension of the “refugee crisis”, and many of the stories reprise the refrain, also discussed in the afterword, “good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering”. As befits the theme and genre, reflections on movement versus stasis abound (“For some, the world is indeed very small. But a small world such as this is not – or hasn’t been – yours. So far, the world you know is vast and random”), but above all, The Wandering is about relationships – their integrity, their contingency, their familiarity and their failures. As I was turning though pages to get to my next instalment, I would see names that were unfamiliar, and know that another choice meant different encounters: this made me think about the world, about chance and fate and the choices we make: some of these are just detours, different ways of ending up at the same place. But others change our direction, leading to different encounters, places, and life paths. When you’ve read enough of the possible stories you realise you don’t always meet Meena, or Yvette – it is your choices that bring you to them or let them pass you by. You might end up in the same place – even on the same flight to Peru – but with an entirely different life, observing the people who would have been close to you if you’d made a different choice.

I *think* I had every possible adventure in the end. Some of them were against my instincts and turned out satisfactorily. Some were instinctive and pretty ill-fated. If I learned anything about myself, it’s that I’m better at decisions in real life than in a dramatic alternative universe where I’ve made a pact with the devil for a pair of magic shoes. And what about you? I recommend that you don these glorious red shoes and see where they take you…

Review copy of The Wandering provided by Harvill Secker.

Follow the “Red Shoe Odyssey” on Intan Paramaditha’s website, and view the shoes’ adventures.

Building Bridges interview series: Nicci Praça

Nicci Praça has had a long and successful career in publishing: she was Head of Publicity for Quercus, where she launched MacLehose Press and did the PR for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Then she moved to freelance work for independent publishing houses, starting with And Other Stories and then helping to launch Fitzcarraldo Editions, where she stayed until the beginning of 2019. During that time she also worked with a number of other independent publishers, including Les Fugitives, Influx Press and Istros Books, as well as helping to establish the Art of Translation events series at the Caravanserail bookshop and promoting the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

Nicci currently balances her freelance PR work with managing the new Amnesty International Book Shop in Kentish Town.

Throughout your career in publishing, have you perceived an increase in the number of translated works that are making their way into English?

Yes. When I first started in 2001 I was working in commercial fiction for a commercial publishing house, and we didn’t publish much translation. Five years later I moved to Quercus, which was then a very young independent publishing house; they had just won The Costa Book Award, and shortly after that Christopher MacLehose was brought in to publish mainly literature in translation. Up until that point, my contact with literature in translation hadn’t been significant; all the books I had read had been classics that had been translated a long time ago. I started working with translated literature in the crime genre, and I found that although publicizing literature in translation to literary editors was quite difficult, publicizing literature in translation to crime reviewers was easy; they were very open to looking at what was happening in other cultures and in other countries. Their openness really helped: by the time Christopher (MacLehose) published The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I worked on, the crime community had already accepted Henning Mankell (author of the Wallander mysteries) and Peter Høeg (author of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), so when I pitched Stieg Larsson to them they were very open to the idea. But when I pitched Stieg Larsson to the literary editors, I had to turn it into a news story that they would be interested in. By the time the paperback came out, everybody wanted to read it. And a lot of that excitement had come from the initial response from the crime community that had reviewed the hardback and been enthused by it. After working on that trilogy I noticed a distinct rise in the interest in literature in translation from literary editors. And since then I’ve found literary editors more open to discovering new voices from different countries and different languages.

Within the headline figure, the much-quoted 3.5% that represents the proportion of literature in English that is in translation, do you see anything changing?

I do. I see translated literature growing, particularly if our borders shrink, but especially because younger generations, from the millennials down, are keen to find out about what’s going on around the world. The Internet has helped with that, and people’s tastes seem to be broader, which is great. I think that there will be more of a hunger for literature in translation; it’s going to keep growing. People aren’t necessarily finding out about literature in translation through the national media, but they are discovering literature in translation through Instagram, blogs, Booktube, Twitter, and particularly from online literary journals like Asymptote, Guernica, Words Without Borders and so on.

How do the publishing houses that you work with identify translated works for commission?

It works in various ways. They’re approached by agents in some cases, and by translators in others; for example, both Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft have been great champions of Olga Tokarczuk. And when they’re really passionate about somebody they don’t stop, so that’s probably the strongest avenue where publishers find literature in translation. They also find new books from the authors they’ve published in translation, by having conversations with them about what they’re reading and what they recommend.

You mentioned Olga Tokarczuk; could we talk about Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and the journey from pitch to publication and then ultimately prize-winner? [note: this interview took place before Tokarczuk was awarded the delayed 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature]. 

Jennifer Croft approached Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo Editions and spoke to him about Flights; she’d been translating it and felt very passionately about it. Granta had published Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones); it had got coverage in the UK, and there was also a chance that Olga might be shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature. These things make a difference when a publisher is trying to decide whether to publish an author. By the time I came to Fitzcarraldo Editions, Flights had already been purchased and was going to be published in May 2017. Poland was the guest of honour at London Book Fair that year, so Olga had been invited as part of that initiative in April 2017. The London Book Fair managed to get her interviews and meetings with Claire Armistead at The Guardian, who has been a great champion of Olga. Olga also met Rosie Goldsmith, Joanna Walsh, Katherine Taylor; these people are important influencers, not only in publishing but also in literature in translation. She also had a very well-respected translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, championing her work and offering to interpret for her at events. So by the time she came back to launch Flights she already had a groundswell of support. Then early in 2018 she was longlisted and then shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize, and they have quite a heavy publicity schedule; all of the publicity that had happened from the previous year through to April 2018 was already quite significant by the time she was shortlisted for the MBI. Then she won, and that just catapulted her to a completely different level, one which is quite rare for a writer from another country whose books are published in translation.

There has been a beginning of a move away from Eurocentrism in translated literature. How do you perceive that shift, and do you think it might change with the current political climate?

These shifts happen all the time; marginalised languages become very fashionable during specific periods. For example, two years ago Korean literature really exploded on the publishing scene: it was helped by the publication of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, but also Korea had been a London Book Fair guest of honour. So there are patterns where a certain country is the guest of honour and UK publishers are exposed to publishers within those countries and to translators promoting literature from that country. The challenge is to keep these languages at the forefront and continue to publish them.

Do you perceive there being any challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature? And if so, what do you think might be done to overcome them?

It’s an odd situation because a lot of the translators are women, but the books we’re publishing aren’t necessarily by women writers. The percentages are still very low, which makes small independent publishers who publish women in translation activist publishers. They’re the ones who see that there is a gap in the market which needs to be filled.  I think that’s why I prefer independent publishing, because a lot of it is driven by gaps in markets and people’s passion to fill those gaps.

You’ve worked with a number of publishers who have different approaches to translated literature; what activities do they undertake to promote translation and help those works to reach publication?

Obviously publicity around those books and those authors is very important, and every publisher will undertake to make sure that a book gets the right kind of publicity or as much publicity as possible. But the ones who are actively working hard on this are the translators: they do the bulk of the work, talking about writers and pitching them as much as possible to get them in print. A good publisher will take an author and nurture them and continue to publish their work, which is very important, but funding is also very important: if publishers don’t have the funding to pay for a translation a book might not necessarily get published. They work hard at getting the funding for these books, and then submitting them for prizes where possible, but what they can do is fairly limited. The media has more work to do: they have more opportunities, but they are reluctant. Getting a foreign author on the BBC is really difficult. Even if the author has an incredible reputation overseas, it’s still really hard. Part of that is because of language: if they don’t speak English “properly”, there is a reluctance to put them on air, and so writers have to be so extraordinary before someone in the national media will even begin to take a look at them.

That sounds quite stagnant; Christopher MacLehose wrote an article over ten years saying much the same thing: that authors are heavily involved in promoting their own work, and that translators take on a lot of the publicity work. So why do you think it isn’t changing?

Gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of my biggest bugbears. It makes things so difficult, because if you’re not getting the publicity for a book, how do you get the word out there? Most sales teams don’t consider online publications to be strong enough mouthpieces to sell books, but as a publicist I disagree with that. I think that online publications are much stronger than radio and newspapers, particularly now, because I’m not sure how many people really trust what’s coming out of certain media platforms. And that’s where the Internet has really helped us, because we can circumvent the national media to get word out there. The Internet has also really helped independent publishers: if they had no platform to inform people of the books that they’re publishing, nobody would know about them and no-one would buy them because it’s also really hard to get books into bookshops. You’ve got another set of gatekeepers there and they only really get on board when they see everybody else getting on board. So the internet is crucial to the publishing industry, certainly in terms of literature in translation.

Review: Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue

Translated from Slovak by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (Jantar Publishing, 2019)

Bellevue is the first novel of award-winning Slovak writer Ivana Dobrakovová, and it is a harrowing account of one young woman’s psychological unravelling. Dobrakovová sets out from the start what will happen in terms of plot, and so it is the journey towards that point that maintains narrative momentum.

Blanka is bored of spending her summer waiting around for her steady yet zealously studious boyfriend to look up from his textbooks and spend time with her, and so she applies for a summer job at a care home in the south of France. When Blanka first arrives in Marseille she is greeted by young interns of various nationalities, all of them escaping their lives in their home country just as she is. So far, so L’Auberge Espagnole. A carefree, sun-drenched summer awaits, but things soon go awry. That the deceptively serene name of the care home, Bellevue, is taken as the title of the novel shows the importance of this experience in Blanka’s decline: it is “the place that will transform me into someone new”, but this new self is exactly the one Blanka most fears.

When faced with the reality of dealing with people in a care home, Blanka finds herself repulsed by their lack of control over their bodies, whether this is owing to morbid obesity, constant drooling, a need to urinate in a tube, or shriveled limbs. Lack of control of her own body is Blanka’s greatest fear, but the things she is afraid of and tries to avoid by extreme behaviour are the very things that her extreme behaviour causes to come about. This is foreshadowed early on when she confesses that “For a moment I almost wished I were like them, wheelchair-bound, or at least not sticking out like a sore thumb”: Blanka’s feelings of paranoia about the way the residents view her, her conviction that they resent her because of her healthy body and want her to be reduced somehow, is exactly what leads her to behave so erratically that she ends up losing control of her own bodily experience.

This unravelling seems to happen very quickly (Blanka is only at Bellevue for a few weeks), but there are plenty of hints towards a past illness. She has a history of depression and prescribed medication, and so although comments such as “I’m unhappy and I want to die” might seem to come very suddenly, we are made aware in the way she explains her feelings that they are not without precedent. Her rapid decline is mirrored in subtle shifts in the writing style, and particularly in the punctuation, which fails gradually. Commas replace full stops at paragraph ends, then they start to appear before the end of clauses; after that, the sentences gradually lose any punctuation that makes sense of them. This is not the only stylistic shift: co-translator Julia Sherwood comments in her introduction to Bellevue that “The narration changes from the past tense to the present, creating a sense of immediacy; direct speech is no longer marked, erasing the difference between Blanka’s utterances and her feverish thoughts” – these features are not only important to notice, but also to convey, and this fragmented style is superbly conveyed in the translation.

Although there were a few references in the translation that I initially thought were a bit out of place, some quick research soon corrected me. For example, I had assumed that references to Tesco and to the Avon catalogue were adaptations, but when I checked online I discovered that these companies do indeed operate in Slovakia, and so presumably these references were in the original text. Similarly, though phrases such as “there’s a good girl” made me uncomfortable – there is so much patriarchal assumption in this phrase – perhaps they too were in the original, and indeed maybe they’re meant to make us feel uncomfortable: my reaction prefigured the discomfort I felt later when Blanka is force-fed by her former friends, reduced to a dribbling mess and becoming what she most despised.

Bellevue interrogates our notions of “wellness” – both physical and mental – and presents us with a flawed narrator who, though frustrating in her constant inability to empathise or connect with the people around her, is a believable representation of the isolation caused by mental illness. We see enough of Blanka’s inner thoughts that we can come to understand her, but we cannot get through to her: this encouraged (and thwarted) intimacy is one of the most striking features of the book. I don’t think that Blanka is supposed to be likeable (“I’ll be out of this place in two weeks’ time but you, dear Marie, you’re going to rot here for the rest of your life”), but this does not mean we cannot feel compassion for her. Blanka’s inability to believe in the goodness or niceness of people is presented as the very thing that pushes them away, but there is more to it than this: Drago presents himself as caring, as wanting to help Blanka, but his sanctimonious attitude persistently reinforces her instability, his own inadequacies cast convincingly as altruistic helplessness. Perhaps, though, this is Bellevue’s key message: what good is it to treat the symptoms if we ignore the underlying cause? If Blanka is held responsible for her own solitude and isolation, isn’t this an indictment of a society all too adept at blaming the victim instead of questioning itself? Bellevue is not a comfortable read, but nor is it meant to be: it is a brave and unflinching account of mental illness, and an unsparing critique of a world that fosters it.

Review copy of Bellevue provided by Jantar Publishing

Review: Loop, Brenda Lozano

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, 2019)

This debut novel by Brenda Lozano is a clever, innovative book, an erudite observation of the everyday, a genre-smashing static journey. It’s fair to say that I admired it rather than enjoyed it exactly; mostly, I suspect, because of the point at which I read it. Loop is a series of connected fragments, and I probably jumped into it at the wrong moment: I read it on my train journey to and from the Translating Women conference, when my mind was pitching from one thing to the next, not staying anywhere for long, and returning to the same things repeatedly. This fitfulness was exacerbated by reading a book that was doing much the same thing, and so my reaction was affected by the circumstances of my reading. Nonetheless, objectively I can see all of the things that make Loop brilliant, and those are the features I’ll focus on here.

The unnamed narrator of Loop is waiting. Her boyfriend Jonás has travelled to Spain after his mother’s death; the narrator awaits his return, journeying in her mind while sitting in her armchair waiting for Jonás. As she waits she vocalises their usual routine, alternating between longing for his return and resenting his absence. She is also waiting in an airport for a delayed flight: this is the ambiguity of the literary form, as the narrator reminds us that it doesn’t matter how long passes between her notebook entries, because it will be read as if no time has passed between them: “Part of the magic of the ideal notebook is that hours, days and weeks can go by from one paragraph to the next, but because the paragraphs live side by side like neighbours, it’s as if only a few minutes have passed. Amazing – something that takes years to write could be read by someone else in a couple of hours.” Time is suspended, just as the narrator herself is suspended in her vigil, awaiting the return of Jonás. In this sense, she says, “my notebook is my waiting room” – the notebook becomes the loop, the contracted space where time expands.

The (mildly but endearingly obsessive) narrator has had some kind of accident in the recent past, though we are not given details beyond her waking up on a hospital gurney with a Shakira song playing in the background (thus alerting her to the fact that she is not, after all, now inhabiting the afterlife). This patchy detail is consistent with the “diary” narrative – in a diary, why would you painstakingly write out details of something you already know? Rather, this is an exploration of the narrator’s inner world and thoughts. Many references recur repeatedly: the Shakira song is an intermittent soundtrack, as is David Bowie’s “Wild is the Wind” (this one features as a choice on the narrator’s part, rather than as an intrusion), and a Shakespeare quote spotted on a fridge magnet becomes the narrator’s refrain to describe herself: “Welcome. A hundred thousand welcomes! I could weep, and I could laugh; I am light, and heavy. Welcome!” This becomes an invitation to us to enter her world of weeping, laughter, lightness and weight, all encapsulated within the pages of her “ideal notebook”. In this notebook she performs a kind of taxonomy of the everyday, chronicling experiences and observing objects, but she also identifies herself as a modern-day Penelope: “I’m Penelope. I weave, unravel, weave and unravel again. Will the day ever come when the waiting stops? Is there anyone who isn’t waiting for something?” “I wish. I weave. I unravel.”

It is not just The Odyssey that features as a literary reference – these are broad-ranging, from Fernando Pessoa to Marcel Proust via Oscar Wilde, and many more besides (there is a handy index of references at the back of the book). These can’t have been easy to spot and incorporate into the translation, but Lozano is in safe hands with Annie McDermott: there was not a single word, reference or turn of phrase that jarred in my reading of Loop. I had already admired McDermott’s work as editor on Ariana Harwciz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) and as co-translator with Orloff on Harwicz’s Feebleminded, and am very excited for her forthcoming translation of Selva Almada’s next book with Charco Press later this year. Her choice of title for Loop is intelligent and sensitive: it is more ambiguous than the original title, Cuaderno ideal (“ideal notebook”), which would mean very little in English. It’s a play on words in Mexican Spanish: not only is this the ideal form, but also a reference to the near-obsolete brand of notebook that the narrator uses to write down her thoughts. Lozano’s narrator describes her text as “an infinite queue”, and this is reflected in the English title: a loop has no defined beginning and end, it goes over on itself, turns around on itself, repeats itself – the refrains that punctate the narrative are played as if on a loop; the fragments of narrative loop back and return to where they started; by reading the narrator’s intimate thoughts we are in the loop, and her verbal acrobatics – energetically but unobtrusively rendered by McDermott – loop the loop.

There were some observations that made me laugh out loud, such as this from the very first page: “As a girl I thought that the electric pencil sharpener was what separated me from adult life.” But Loop is also shot through with pain (the narrator knows intimately “those depths where only pain can take you”), and some profound observations seem almost carelessly tossed in (except in Lozano, as I came to realise, nothing is careless). As well as the repeated refrain “Change. Unknowing yourself is more important than knowing yourself,” she makes delicate proclamations such as “we make the world to the measure of our hands” and “the way we relate to everything, especially when it comes to love, changes after we hit rock bottom,” as well as a list resembling a modern-day secular Beatitudes, in which she observes that “those who talk too much reject themselves; those who listen carefully accept themselves.”

When I went back to my notes to write this review, I felt far more drawn into Loop than when I actually read it, which makes me think that I should revisit it to experience it at a less stressful moment. But for now I’ll leave you with this meditative remark, which epitomises our mordantly observant narrator and her writing project: “I think telling stories is a way of putting a scar into words.”

Review copy of Loop provided by Charco Press