“An elegant surpassing of the truth”: Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth

Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Granta, 2015)

I’m delighted to welcome another guest contributor to the blog today: Katie Brown has been a great supporter of the Women Writing Women Translating Women project since its launch (and was the one who urged me to read Umami!), so you can imagine my joy when she recently accepted a job in the Modern Languages department here at Exeter. Today she’s writing about a fascinating author-translator collaboration that offers new perspectives on the creativity of translation acts and which is, I hope, the first of many collaborations with Katie. You can find out more about her on the Guest Contributor page, and on her blog.

*NB: there will be a 3-week break from the blog after this post, as I am taking my summer holiday. We’ll be back mid-August!*

How do the stories we tell influence the value of objects? Are authors’ and artists’ names any more valuable than other people’s? These are just some of the questions addressed by Valeria Luiselli’s third book, The Story of my Teeth, both through its content and its collaborative creation.

The Story of my Teeth is a genre-defying book. Critics have referred to it variously as a novel, an essay, autofiction and biofiction, or a mixture of them all. The book begins as the relatively straight-forward life story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, known as “Highway”, a picaresque old man whose talents include impersonating Janis Joplin and interpreting fortune cookies. In the first of seven chapters, titled The Story (Beginning, Middle and End), Highway recounts his life from childhood, his work at the Jumex juice factory in the outskirts of Mexico City, his failed relationships, how he became an auctioneer, and his quest to replace his malformed teeth. Then through a series of chapters referred to as hyperbolics, parabolics, and allegorics, we see Highway firstly purport to sell the teeth of famous essayists throughout history and later auction a collection of objects stolen from an art gallery through tangentially related stories. The Elliptics then retells Highway’s story from an outsider’s point of view, making us view the first story in a new, much more poignant light.

An unusual protagonist, Highway brings charm and heart to questions about art and literature which might otherwise risk being seen as “too clever.” He explains his “hyperbolic” auctioneering model in this way:

“As the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyperbolics, I could restore an object’s value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth’. This meant that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way, better illuminated.”

Luiselli implies that the methods of cheeky auctioneer – inspired in part by Luiselli’s uncle who worked in the giant street market in Mexico City – are not that different from those of international art dealers, only Highway is more honest about it. The Story of my Teeth began life when Luiselli was approached by Magalí Arriola and Juan Gaitán, curators of the exhibition “El cazador y la fábrica” (The Hunter and the Factory) at the Jumex Gallery, to write a story for their exhibition catalogue. The gallery houses the largest private collection of contemporary art in Latin America and is funded by the profits of the juice factory. The curators reportedly planned the exhibition as a response to questions about urban isolation and the separation of the gallery from its surrounding area, although the exhibition itself gave few clues to this. Luiselli agreed to write a piece for the exhibition catalogue on the agreement that the workers of the juice factory could be involved in its creation. A group of workers met regularly in the factory to read chapters sent to them by Luiselli, discuss them and give feedback based on their own experiences, which was recorded and sent back to Luiselli in New York, who would then incorporate this into new drafts. Luiselli insists that the story is as much theirs as it is hers, in what Aaron Brady in the LA Review of Books calls “an implicit rebuke to the idea of isolated artistic genius.”

The idea of the artistic genius is questioned throughout The Story of my Teeth, as we see everyday characters given the names of Latin American writers, such as newspaper seller Rubén Darío or policeman Yuri Herrera. Luiselli even makes an appearance herself as a mediocre high school student whose parents send her to elocution classes. At the same time, Luiselli makes canonical thinkers part of Highway’s family, such as Miguel Sánchez Foucault or Marcelo Sánchez Proust. This caused uproar among literary critics in Mexico, who claimed that writers’ names are somehow sacred. I find this use of names as “readymades” in the style of avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp quite ambiguous: on the one hand, it breaks down class barriers, asking readers why a writer would deserve any more respect than a factory worker; but on the other hand, it only really appeals to those who keep up-to-date with the Latin American literary scene, as this is necessary to get the joke. While I really enjoyed spotting names of writers whose work I love, when I teach the book to my undergrads, it went over their heads.

“The story behind The Story of my Teeth encourages us to question terms like ‘original’ and ‘fidelity,’ and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation.”

So, more than for its thought-provoking subject material, I love to teach The Story of my Teeth as an example of the collaboration between the author and the translator. Valeria Luiselli speaks fluent English, but prefers to work closely with a translator, not to translate, but to rewrite the text with help from fresh eyes. Luiselli and Christina MacSweeney spent time together in New York working on the new text, and while MacSweeney was translating, she even listened to the same music Luiselli had been listening to as she wrote. The Story of my Teeth was the very deserving winner of the prestigious Valle Inclán Prize for translations from Spanish in 2016, whose judges, as well as many reviewers, were particularly impressed by how MacSweeney challenges the traditional invisibility of the translator. Most notably, she has added a new chapter, called “The Chronologics,” to the end of the book, a timeline which places Highway’s life within Mexican and Latin American history and makes it clear to English readers that the names which appear through the text are those of contemporary Latin American authors. MacSweeney told me that she didn’t want “dry as dust translator’s notes”, so instead set out to provide information which could help orient foreign readers in a creative way.

Beyond this most visible change, comparison with the Spanish reveals a whole series of edits to the book, which substantially alter its interpretation. The Spanish epigraphs, for example, are an anonymous quote about death and teeth and a line from Johnny Cash, whereas the English has a series of epigraphs from semioticians placed before each chapter, making it clear to readers that this book is about meaning making and the significance of words. Similarly, the English version makes the link between Highway’s auction of random objects (a stuffed toy, a false leg) and the art gallery much more explicit. New scenes are added in which Highway and his accomplice steal these objects from the gallery, and whereas the Spanish simply gives the stories inspired by the objects, the English gives the artists’ names – slightly altered of course (Doug Sánchez Aitken, Olafur Sánchez Eliasson) – as well as an exorbitant listing price for each, which is mocked when Highway sells the whole lot to a junkyard for 100 pesos.

Such changes have already been included in translations into other languages, and are expected to be included in the second Spanish edition of the book. The story behind The Story of my Teeth – from its collaborative inception to its continuing evolution in translation – encourages us to question terms like ”original” and ”fidelity,” and to see the source text not as a finished product to be slavishly reproduced in other languages, but as one step in an ongoing process of creation. Like Highway’s stories, each new version is an “elegant surpassing” of the former.

 

“Where are the women?” Voicing contemporary Russian womanhood in Before I Croak

I’m delighted to kick off a guest writing series on the blog today, and welcome my brilliant colleague Muireann Maguire to discuss her experience of translating Anna Babyashkina’s Before I Croak (Glas, 2013). You can find out more about Muireann in the Guest Contributors section and read more of her work on her blog, Russian Dinosaur.

“Finally, at the ripe old age of sixty, I’m writing my first book. All my life I’ve dreamed of this and never managed to make it happen. And now, before I croak, I’ve finally found the time to turn my Lifelong Dream into reality – to commit to paper sixty thousand words of coherent text in my own voice. I can write about what I’ve always really wanted, not whatever the editor-in-chief or the advertisers want to read […]. So now, before I croak, I, as a woman in full command of her faculties, born in the year 1979, still able to recall what life was like before mobile phones, the Internet, Putin and electric cars, sit down at my computer and, with a glow of profound satisfaction, open a new Word file […].”

It’s strange for me to read over the opening paragraphs of Russian author Anna Babyashkina’s novel Before I Croak (in the Russian original, Prezhde chem sdokhnut’), five years after writing them. After all, the words are mine; the narrator was born in the same year as me (and Anna); it’s as if the voice is my own. Yet, after a gap of half a decade, it feels as if someone else wrote this book. Which is no more than the truth, because she did.

Such are the paradoxes of a translator’s life: the words are your own, and not your own; you can’t take any credit for the book’s success, but you can be blamed if it tanks; some translators aren’t even mentioned in book reviews, or worse still, not named on the title page. (There is a limited print run of Before I Croak with the translator named as Arch Tait rather than me; hopefully, one day these copies will trade for millions, like the 1918 run of US ‘Inverted Jenny’ postage stamps printed with an upside-down aeroplane…). On the bright side, translating an author can make them your lifetime friend (as I hope will be true for Anna and me), and it connects you to something bigger than the book which you are (hopefully) getting paid to work on. When I was asked to translate Before I Croak for the Glas New Russian Writing Series, I completed a three-woman team: a female editor-publisher (Natasha Perova), and a female author (Anna).

Image taken from inpressbooks.co.uk

Before I Croak is in many ways a very female book. It explores contemporary Russian womanhood from the unusual perspective of Sonya, a rebellious sextuagenarian. Newly resident in a shabby nursing home outside Moscow (her pension fund failed!), Sonya is determined to write a Great Novel that will transform her from a retired journalist to a superstar. Instead, she finds herself overwhelmed by colourful personalities and lurid secrets. Eventually she learns to re-evaluate her past life choices – especially her failures as a daughter, wife, and mother. Most of the narrative concerns love and sex, and many metaphors draw on female physical experiences, especially birth. Sonya eventually realizes she’s lived an unfulfilled life, like most of her generation, dodging catastrophes which were never going to happen: “We didn’t vote, we didn’t write declamations, we didn’t invent utopias, we made no demands, we didn’t build barricades, we invented nothing, we boycotted no-one, we had no heroes. […] We were much too afraid”. Ironically, just as she pledges to live out her life sincerely and without fear, she realizes she is about to die: from throat cancer (hence the title). I translated the book during a happy but fraught period in my life: my first son was an infant, and I often balanced my laptop beside the feeding baby as I typed; my temporary job was due to finish soon after my maternity leave, and I had no certain prospect of another. So I worked as fast as I could, emailing Anna (who reads English) for comments and clarifications, entering into and empathizing with the often febrile story worlds of her characters. Despite its future setting, the novel has nothing in common with the Russian trend for near-future dystopian sci-fi; the retrospective narrative ensures that all its scenarios are familiar to women of Natasha’s and my generation.

By translating Before I Croak, I briefly became part of the wonderful initiative which was Glas (an archaic Russian word for “voice”): essentially, a one-woman publishing house that brought Russian writers – including some Soviet names, but primarily contemporary and often young and female writers – to Anglophone audiences abroad. Authors first “launched” in English translation by Glas include Viktor Pelevin, Ludmilla Ulitskaya, and Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I discovered the great and obscure Soviet absurdist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii through Joanne Turnbull’s translations in the anthology Seven Stories (Glas, 2006). Joanne went on to restore Krzhizhanovskii’s reputation by translating his major works for NYRB Classics; I later translated one of his stories myself. My first commissions as a literary translator were for two Glas anthologies of contemporary Russian fiction, Squaring the Circle and Still Waters Run Deep: Young Women’s Writing from Russia. Each of my translatees was young, female, and disconcertingly original; I remember learning the Russian for “boa constrictor” from one short story, and in another draft, coming terrifyingly close to translating the Russian word illuminator (porthole) as “light-switch”. I learned to double-check constantly with my dictionary. Natasha edited my final drafts, catching errors and suggesting smoother formulations. I never re-read Before I Croak in book form; I worked so rapidly on it that I still fear finding typos or mistranslations in the text. (Even today, I’m afraid of scrolling through the corrected draft in case I see orange font, the colour of Natasha’s interventions, everywhere.) In the end, I had one regret; I never liked the title, which was a literal translation of the original (and semantically quite effective, because of the double meaning of “croak” as “to die” and “to speak hoarsely”). I proposed Chain Mail, to reflect both the novel’s subplot of chain letters and the emotional armour that Sonya, the narrator, assembles around her true self. But although Natasha and Anna were receptive to my suggestion, the publicity was already fixed, so we kept Before I Croak.

“I do think that women’s fiction should preferably be translated by women translators” (Natasha Perova)

Glas was wound up in 2014, after almost twenty-five years and 170 authors, because of falling international sales. Natasha is still active as an editor and has, in fact, just published Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature (Dedalus, 2018), an anthology of stories by eleven major Russian female authors. When I reached out to Natasha for this blog post for her views on women translating (and publishing) women, here’s what she said:

“When the subject of women’s writing and women in translation comes up I always recall the start of Glas (1991). I was so proud of the first two issues until in all the reviews I read a remark that startled me: ‘Where are the women?’ I looked at the contents and yes, indeed, there were no women. The thought had never even entered my head. I felt ashamed and started looking for women authors. So the third Glas anthology was devoted exclusively to women’s writing. I discovered for myself very vibrant, emotional, and perceptive literature which was definitely different from men’s writing but in no way inferior. Since then I’ve always paid particular attention to women’s writing and followed its exciting and productive evolution. Among my modest achievements I see the fact that we published a great number of beginning women authors (they were all beginners in the early 1990s) whom nobody wanted to publish at the time, and thus helped them to become known abroad.

I do think that women’s fiction should preferably be translated by women translators. As a long-time editor of translations I’ve repeatedly noticed that when it comes to expressly female issues men often miss the point or misunderstand the context and connotations because they are not really interested enough in the women’s world with its specific problems which many men simply find annoying. This is still a very much man-dominated world, even  to some extent in Europe as well. Many things are still harder for women to attain, and this also refers to being published and translated. They say readers are mostly women, so I assume that women readers are more interested in men’s lives while men are have always been interested in themselves, naturally.

I think women make better translators as a rule because they are more attentive to detail by nature. Women with children in particular need extra support to establish their careers. They really need jobs which would allow them to work from home and stay with their children as much as they can. Writing and translating are among the jobs which provide an excellent opportunity for combining self-realization with career development. Another achievement of Glas is that we gave many budding translators a platform to showcase their first efforts and be noticed by bigger publishers.”

Anna Babyashkina agrees that women translators almost certainly do a better job of conveying female themes. She writes: “I doubt whether a male translator would have had so much empathy for Before I Croak, a book about motherhood, family, and women’s careers in contemporary Russia. As a woman, Muireann was well-acquainted with many of the ordeals and scenarios depicted in the book. I think this was an important factor in the translation’s success. For example, at one point I wrote (about Caesarian sections) that no woman can give birth naturally after having had one. Muireann looked at this in detail and clarified that a natural birth actually is possible. (At least in theory, although in practice in my country it rarely happens. Evidently they do things differently in Great Britain.) Would a man have paid any attention to this passage?” [my translation, from a personal email]. I remember this point in Anna’s novel, where a character becomes a writer’s muse, helping him to produce three novels. When they are separated, he overdoses on alcohol and pills, unable to write without her help. In summarizing this relationship, Anna twists the familiar, elegant metaphor of the writer’s muse acting as midwife to his novel; she suggests that this muse acted like an egotistical surgeon, forcing herself into the writer’s creative process, and forever “denying him the chance to give birth by himself”, i.e. to finish a book without her intervention. While I liked Anna’s metaphor, I pointed out that it broke down once you stopped assuming that one C-section precludes future natural births. Anna was impressed – but the passage stayed in. I don’t agree with Anna and Natasha that only a woman translator can give women’s themes due attention – surely a talented translator, like a talented author, is characterized by universal empathy – but I would have to agree that at that point in my own life, all aspects of motherhood were at the forefront of my mind. As they remain: my next research monograph will be about how and why male authors write about pregnancy and birth!

I will end this post with some excellent advice from Natasha Perova: “My own example as a woman publisher in post-perestroika Russia is not typical because it was a time of dislocation and constantly changing rules In Russia. It was hard for all those who launched new projects in conditions of wild capitalism, but harder still for women whose business experience was largely limited to managing family affairs. So my advice to all aspiring publishers and translators everywhere is to persevere and keep going forward no matter what, to be inventive and creative, and listen to their own inner voice for guidance”.

A bittersweet novel with enormous heart: Laia Jufresa, Umami

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (OneWorld, 2016).

There are very few books that I love completely, unconditionally, evangelically, and Umami is one of them. It’s one of a handful of “must-reads” in my virtual bookshelf, and you’re not going to read a bad word about it in this review. Umami is set in and around Mexico City, and tells the story of a group of people living in the five houses of Belldrop Mews, during a particular period of their communal lives when “the dead weigh more than the living.” The construction of the narrative is innovative: there are five different perspectives from which the story/ies are narrated, and each section works back through the years from 2005 to 2001, with each year being recounted from a different perspective. The stories are beautifully told: Laia Jufresa’s writing is immensely skilful, and Sophie Hughes’s translation feels close to symbiotic.

Image taken from oneworld-publications.com

For some reason, the reviews on the book jacket made me expect something different from this novel. I was expecting it to be dramatic, psychedelic, bursting out of the pages. In the end, though, I liked Umami better the way it was: quiet, gentle, with beautifully developed characters who fulfil narrative functions while resisting stereotype. The protagonists all felt very real: you don’t have to look too far in “real life” to find the private sorrow of involuntary childlessness, a loss that happened while everyone was looking the other way, a “new start” that cannot shake off the old life, and a merciless cancer that entirely disregards carefully laid plans for a long and happy life.

I found I took very few notes as I was reading Umami, but it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. I simply couldn’t unglue myself from the story as it unfolded, and I wanted it to go on forever: when I was 50 pages from the end I started reading very slowly and re-reading almost every page, because I didn’t want it to end. There are some books that you can appreciate for their deconstruction of reality or their subversion of genre, for all you can read into them and analyse, and there are some books that are just a joy to read because they have heart. From the stark, poignant “Luz turns three years dead today” to the hilarious admission from an ageing academic that “for the first time in forty years, I’m daring to write without footnotes”, Umami has heart.

The translation is so beautiful that I want to read Umami in its original Spanish. If that sounds like a self-contradiction, hear me out: there are clearly some passages in this book that resist translation, such as “‘Bah, let’s drop the formalities’, says the woman, drying her hair with her scarf” which I assume was a simple switch from the formal word for “you” to the informal one in Spanish, and a subversion via wordplay of the Lord’s Prayer, which necessarily has to be different in English to make any sense to its reader. Indeed, Jufresa has said that she worked with Hughes to create new sections, because Hughes felt that her first drafts simply didn’t work in English; Jufresa says of this collaboration that “I think it, in a way, is a better book because it had two authors in a way”. This collaboration between Jufresa, Hughes, Spanish and English works very well: for example, Luz explains that “Emma gave us baskets and plastic bags and told us which mushrooms we were looking out for: black trumpets. In Spanish they’re called las trompetas de la muerte, death trumpets, even though black and dead isn’t the same thing. You just can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong.” I would imagine that “death trumpets” doesn’t appear in the original novel, and therefore that the sentence “You can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong” might be an addition. But it fits in so well with Luz’s narrative voice that it is not identifiable as an addition, and simply works to enhance the novel in translation: Hughes has clearly locked horns with every fragment of this text, and produced a book that will make you forget you’re reading a translation. Even the sections which reflect on the English language or on translation do not seem forced; in fact, the entire translation subtly subverts a claim within it that “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.”

Jufresa writes all five main characters sensitively: each has their own distinctive voice, and each is consistent throughout (compare, for example, two views of the same event: “Back when there were still four of us, we didn’t all fit in one row”; “There used to be four siblings in the Perez-Walker clan, but the youngest died a couple of years ago”). This is equally true of the translation: perhaps the most clearly distinct voice is Luz, the dead girl, who speaks with a child’s voice and makes sense of the world in her child’s way. Then there is Alfonso, a grieving widower writing his wife’s story on his new computer, and who is able to articulate his emotions on a keyboard in a way that he cannot do verbally; Ana, Luz’s older sister, with her brittle teenage pseudo-wisdom, Marina, the fragile new arrival at the mews, always voiced in the third person, and Pina, Ana’s best friend, also voiced in the third person, and striving to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance. All of the characters in Umami are quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to put their lives back together. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. As Alfonso says of Linda, “if we do talk it’s about old times: her gringo childhood, my Mexico City youth, our lives before our lives with the dead.”

Throughout the narrative there are two strands of mystery: who are “The Girls”? And how did Luz drown? The identity of The Girls sums up so many things about Umami: it is uncomfortable because it strips bare the deepest sorrow of one of the protagonists and presents it to every character she meets and every reader who meets her. And as for the revelations about Luz’s death, these are left until the very end, and unless your heart is either made of stone or incredibly well fortified, prepare for it to break a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been carrying Umami inside me since I read it. Paradoxically, though, I have found this review difficult to write, as my words just don’t seem to do it justice. So let me use Alfonso’s words, writing about his deceased wife: “A couple of days ago I gave the document a title page. In big letters, in the middle of the page, I wrote, Noelia. Then I added her surnames, and then I deleted them again. Her name isn’t big enough for her. I wrote, Umami. […] Trying to explain who my wife was is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being able to quite put your finger on it.” Trying to explain why this book affected me so deeply is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: I can only recommend that you read it for yourself.

 

Feminism is for everyone: Translating Feminisms and finding a voice

Today I’m kicking off a series of more reflective posts about women, translation, and the publishing industry: these will intersperse the review posts from time to time, to offer some context to the issues I’m researching and find interesting. I’ve also got some great guest writers lined up to contribute to this series, so I hope you’ll enjoy new perspectives on “Women Writing Women Translating Women”. I want to start the series by thinking about female voices getting lost in translation, and what we might do about this. A couple of things triggered this reflection, and I’m bringing them together here: the “Immodest Women” Twitter hashtag (and one particular response), the new Translating Feminisms kickstarter from Tilted Axis Press, and the Year of Publishing Women.

Translating Feminisms kickstarter. Image taken from tiltedaxispress.com

If you haven’t heard of the “Immodest Women” hashtag, it’s a rally for female academics to put their title in their Twitter name, because we worked hard for it and it is so often denigrated. I entirely support all those women who have done it, but I haven’t done it myself. Why? Well, you might argue that I am too conditioned to be a “modest woman”, but really I just don’t like using a title – any title. In the same way that I don’t want to be defined by my marital status, I also don’t want to be defined by my PhD. But I understand why so many women feel differently: I think we can all agree that the patriarchy is alive and well (there’s an excellent Guardian ‘long read’ by Charlotte Higgins on “the age of patriarchy” here), and that in most contexts, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, women have to do everything men do, but backwards and in high heels. This is also true of getting published: books by women are priced lower than books written by men; of the much-quoted 3.5% figure (the percentage of UK sales accounted for by translated literature), less than a third is made up of writing by women; then there is the old “I don’t read women” chestnut.

Over the last weeks, I’ve read a lot of tweets from women sharing stories of how they have been belittled despite or because of their academic achievements, and I recognised myself in them all, but the one that really left an impression on me was a thread by feminist author Meena Kandasamy. She writes: “I am feeling extremely conflicted about the #ImmodestWoman hashtag and not because of self-righteousness but because there’s so much to unpack […] For every one of us who has managed to float up and breathe from that cesspool with a doctorate degree above our heads–we must remember our sisters sent home, their dreams crushed, their futures messed up, academia behaving like one petty thug-gang to have the backs of a few men.” Powerful words from a powerful woman, and an important reminder that however belittled we may sometimes (justifiably) feel, we still have that title, we still have a voice, we can still choose to be “immodest women”. So what really stood out for me in Kandasamy’s thread is the mention of people whose voices aren’t heard, the women whose dreams are crushed, and who may never get to be “immodest” because they simply don’t have a voice.

And voice is exactly where this coincides with writing, and translating. We can speak and be heard, even if the reaction is hateful (the “Immodest Women” debate made the top three headlines on the BBC news website in its first week, and there were some pretty unpleasant reactions to it), but many women cannot raise their voice, and if they did, who in the Anglophone world would hear it anyway? As Olga Castro wrote for The Conversation last year, “even those women authors who make the cut and become renowned writers in their home countries are not being translated for an English-speaking audience. There is a clear tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors. Generalist publishers have been found to have obvious gender-biased attitudes when selecting titles for translation, and the work of women writers is far less often chosen for inclusion in translation anthologies.” There is an obvious issue here about lack of inclusivity, even with all the positive things that are being done to counteract gender inequality in the publishing industry, and though Castro was writing in 2017, this year’s “Year of Publishing Women” (more on that in a moment!) has not yet made the significant change we might have hoped it would.

Tilted Axis Press are one of the pioneers doing something about this inequality: in a kickstarter-funded project challenging supporters to “smash the patriarchy”, they are proposing a series of chapbooks from women writers from Nepal, India and Vietnam. Tilted Axis already had excellent women-in-translation credentials: its founder, Deborah Smith, was the first recipient of the Man Booker International Prize (jointly with Han Kang; you can find my review of The Vegetarian here), and more than half of the authors and translators published by Tilted Axis are women. In particular, Tilted Axis focuses on literature originally written in languages that are not currently widely translated into English, and the Translating Feminisms project reinforces this, showcasing “intimate collaborations between some of Asia’s most exciting female writers and emerging-star translators: contemporary poetry of bodies, labour and language, alongside essays exploring questions such as ‘Does feminism translate?’” They situate this within a wider project of decolonisation through/ of translation, showing the importance of intersectionality in activism (here, specifically of feminism, decolonisation, and translation). This kind of project promotes dialogue between women across the world (and I can’t wait to find out how they answer the question “does feminism translate?”)

The Translating Feminisms chapbooks. Images taken from Tilted Axis Kickstarter page (link in text).

Tilted Axis have understood the importance of transnational feminism, and translation has an important role here: it is a powerful means to give voice to women who are doubly silenced – first, because they are women, and second, because they do not speak a dominant world language. Recently on the Vagabond Voices blog, I enjoyed a post about literary prizes and how these affect small independent presses. Part-way through this discussion, which is worth reading in its entirety if you feel so inclined, is this rallying cry: “coming into contact with foreign cultures helps you move beyond the borders of your reality. […] reading translations and stories told by unfamiliar voices is one way in which we can help bolster inclusivity and ensure that we are not closing ourselves off from Europe and the rest of the world. It is therefore important that continuous efforts are made to keep literary translation alive and growing.”

Though these comments are not specifically about translating women, they underline the importance of transnational dialogues. Translation is key to making “unfamiliar voices” heard, and inclusivity is equally crucial for making women’s voices heard; if the “Immodest Women” debate sprang from anything, I think it was lack of true inclusivity. But once we start to think about “inclusivity” we see it is far more wide-reaching than the academic context which was the springboard for the “Immodest Women” movement, and again it is the intersectionality that we need to be thinking about: how these voices raised in protest can join with those who struggle more to be heard. If “unfamiliar voices” can mean those from other parts of the world, it can also mean women’s voices. It’s not a huge step to alter the Vagabond Voices quotation a little and say: “coming into contact with WOMEN’S WRITING helps you move beyond the borders of your reality. […] reading translations and stories told by WOMEN is one way in which we can help bolster inclusivity […] It is therefore important that continuous efforts are made to keep WOMEN IN TRANSLATION alive and growing.”

One publisher attempting to take on the lack of inclusivity and diversity this year is And Other Stories: back in 2015, Kamila Shamsie gave an impassioned speech at the Hay Festival, contending that books by and about women are unlikely to achieve the same kind of attention as those by and/or about men. As And Other Stories explains, “Even more incendiary than her argument […] was her proposed solution. In a provocation to all British publishers, big and small, she urged presses to highlight the problem, instigate discussion, and mark the centenary of female suffrage by publishing only women authors in 2018.” And Other Stories was the only press to take up the gauntlet. But if the recently released Brother in Ice (by Alicia Kopf, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem) and People in the Room (Norah Lange, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle) are anything to go by, it was a gauntlet worth taking up. Kopf challenges the canon with her modern epic, and writes a book that is at once highly intimate and constantly outward-looking, while Whittle writes Lange’s twentieth-century Argentine classic of female lives into English for the first time with a translation that brings the original to life without seeming dated. I’ll soon be doing a full profile on And Other Stories and the Year of Publishing Women, so watch this space for more…

Image taken from andotherstories.org

So what can we as readers do to promote women’s writing, and women in translation? Well, I’m a firm believer that small actions, multiplied, can make a big difference. If you buy books, try to buy them directly from the publishers where possible. If you can support these kickstarter initiatives, that’s a great way to make a difference. If not, don’t underestimate the power of your voice. If you liked a book by a woman author, tell people. As many people as you can. Whether it’s a blog like this or a tweet or a book club or a chat with your friends, spread the word. One of my favourite comments about inclusivity (and the one I’m constantly repeating) is from Erin Dexter, who a couple of years ago said in a BBC news feature that “Feminism is for everybody, because sexism damages everyone. If you’re not a feminist you’re either a misogynist or you need to look in a dictionary.” Feminism is about all of us working for change, whether it’s in the books we read, the organisations we support, the voices we promote, or the prejudices we reject. As Kandasamy reminds us, “Individual success is great, but collective change is urgent.” We all need feminism, and we all need to extend our concept of what this is, so that all women’s voices are represented – in literature as well as in society.

 

 

 

The collective memory of a generation: Annie Ernaux, The Years

Translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo, 2018)

The opening line of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, “All the images will disappear”, both sets up and sums up her project: every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, bear witness, and claim a place in the world. This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a modern masterpiece, and I was delighted when Fitzcarraldo sent me a copy for review. Publisher Jacques Testard describes The Years as “a monumental account of twentieth-century French social history as refracted through the life of one woman”, and this is about as accurate a statement as anyone could come up with to describe The Years. It’s a tremendous, poignant, necessary book, but there’s a big issue for the translation: how will something so steeped in French cultural history translate to another context, and into another language?

Firstly, although you don’t need to have read any Ernaux to enjoy this book, any reader who has read other texts based on Ernaux’s life will recognise a number of important references in here: her mother’s illness and decline, her reflections on growing up in a post-war working class milieu, her relationships (including her first sexual relationship, an adult affair, and an illegal abortion) and her use of photographs to frame a narrative all feature in other works by Ernaux, and are presented in a different way here. In fact, “presented in a different way” could sum up everything about this book: it challenges perceptions of autobiography, balances personal triumphs and quiet tragedies with historical atrocities and the implacable passing of time, and offers a fascinating overview of life in France from the 1940s to the 2000s.

Testard advertises The Years as a “collective autobiography”, but there is more to be said on this. In one sense it is not collective, since it is written and narrated by only one person, but it is certainly not a “traditional” memoir. Rather, it is an individual voice representing a collective one: Ernaux herself describes it as an “impersonal autobiography,” based on a collection of images and reflections, a narrative framed around photographs of the author at different points throughout her life. The girl and woman in the photographs is never explicitly named as Ernaux, but the series of photos provide the reference points through which her past – and that of her country – is narrated. The “collective” aspect is evidenced in the most striking feature of this sort-of-autobiography: Ernaux never uses the first person singular. She does not speak as “I”, but rather “we”, or occasionally “one.” This narrative style mirrors Ernaux’s own description of the way her relatives told stories of World War II: “everything was told in the ‘we’ voice and with impersonal pronouns, as if everyone were equally affected by events.” Adopting the same narrative strategy elevates this from a personal memoir, and instead makes it about events that affected people of Ernaux’s generation: in this way, The Years becomes an artefact for the collective memory of a generation. In the translation, the pronoun most regularly used is “we”, which creates an inclusivity akin to that of the French impersonal pronoun “on”, but on the few occasions when Strayer uses “one” in the English translation, it stood out as a little jarring to me (“It was quite enough that you had to be afraid of making love, now that everyone knew AIDS was not only a disease for homosexuals and drug addicts, contrary to what one had first believed”; “Just getting tested was suspect, an avowal of unspeakable misconduct. One had it done at the hospital, secretly, with a number, avoiding eye contact in the waiting room.”) I can see why Strayer chose the impersonal “one” here, as using “we” in the first instance implies that she and her peers initially believed AIDS to be a disease for homosexuals and drug addicts, and in the second instance would confirm that she and her peers went to the hospital for AIDS tests. I imagine that the sudden shift to “one” was a decision not made lightly, but can’t help thinking that something truly impersonal (the non-specific mass noun “people”, for example, or a passive, if we accept a shift in agency), might have stuck out a little less here – especially in the first instance, when the subject shifts from “you” to “everyone” to “one”.

Where the impersonal pronouns do work well, and map neatly onto the French original, is in Ernaux’s description of herself via photographs in the third person singular, “she.” The woman in the photographs hopes to write about “an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of a generation,” and this is the great strength of The Years: its universality. Anyone who lived through the events Ernaux describes – even if not as closely as those who lived in France – will be able to relate to the global political shifts of the last sixty years (“1968 was the first year of the world”) and the technological advances of the 21st century (“a world that moves ahead in leaps and bounds”). Nonetheless, Ernaux eschews self-congratulation for her enterprise, noting with irony that “in the humdrum routine of personal existence, History did not matter. We were simply happy or unhappy, depending on the day.” This daily life is in part deliberately banal, in part coloured by history, but always recognisable and always beautifully observed. The Years is nostalgic yet still contemporary, from the pronouncement that progress means buying more to the description of fearing Arabs on the street during the Algerian war.

Women’s history is, unsurprisingly, at the forefront of many of the historical narratives: from equal access to education and “the deadly time ruled by their blood” that preceded the legalisation of contraception to the facilitating of backstreet abortions being likened to the Resistance of World War 2 and the revolution of May ’68, Ernaux brings to life a specifically female experience of “the years”. These are underlined by a gritty realism, however, as May ’68 is described as neither as momentous nor as glorious as the recurrent camera images, and Ernaux notes that “the struggle of women sank into oblivion. It was the only struggle that had not been officially revived in collective memory.” The Years helps to combat this, reviving the struggle of women in a conscious contribution to collective memory, and an attempt to allow a generation to own its collective history.

“Just as her older relatives used to gather around the family table to eat and to share memories that became their version of history, now it is Ernaux’s turn – and with her, her generation – to ‘tell the story of the time-before.’”

The Years is a book that defies translation: how can we translate a novel that is like a memory box of post-war French culture? Yet we have to try, and that Strayer has produced a page-turning, non-alienating piece of literature is a remarkable feat. There are some minor inconsistencies in the translation, though. For example, song and book titles are sometimes given in French with no footnote, sometimes given in French with a translation in the footnote, and sometimes given in translation. It must have been quite an endeavour for the translator to decide which would be recognisable more universally, and which would not. Radio and television shows are dealt with in the same way: Les Guignols de l’Info is given a footnote, but Allô Macha is not. The quintessentially French “minitel” (a pre-internet information system) is left as “the minitel”, and one footnote makes reference to “an untranslatable fart joke.” Strayer’s approach mostly seems to correspond to Michael Hoffman’s position that “what matters to me[…] is providing an experience, not footnoting one that might have been in had in another language, if only the reader had been conversant in that” – she provides an experience with minimal footnoting, recognising that it will not be the same and that endless footnotes would not make it any more comparable to the original. Though there is the occasional inconsistency or turn of phrase that gave me pause for thought, these are small details in an otherwise beautiful manuscript, that takes Ernaux’s masterpiece and offers it as an experience to a new readership.

As a true meta-narrative, the book ends with the woman in the photographs deciding to write down her story, which will be “a slippery narrative composed in an unremitting continuous tense, absolute, devouring the present as it goes, all the way to the final image of a life.” To cover more than half a century in such incisive detail, in under 250 pages, is an achievement in itself: the passing of time is palpable throughout, but the narrative never feels rushed. Rather, this is a handing-down of an obligation to remember. Just as her older relatives used to gather around the family table to eat and to share memories that became their version of history, now it is Ernaux’s turn – and with her, her generation – to “tell the story of the time-before”; translating this important work into English contributes to this imperative to remember.

The Years ends as it began, with snapshots from images that will disappear (at the beginning) to memories she wants to save (at the end). It is, perhaps, no coincidence that she talks of “saving” things in the digital age, and this is one of the great achievements of The Years: it saves a common time, a collective memory, and “the lived dimension of History.”

“I sense a future within me”: coming of age as the wall comes down. Kerstin Hensel, Dance by the Canal

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja (Peirene, 2017)

Dance by the Canal was the third book released by Peirene in their “East and West” series, and narrates an unconventional coming of age at a pivotal moment in German history (Kerstin Hensel’s original text, Tanz am Kanal, was written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall). Yet although Dance by the Canal could be read as a novel about the GDR and its demise, it is much more than this, suggesting what could happen when a woman cannot fit into any of the roles imposed on her. The narrative challenges the framework of German society both before and after reunification, questioning any system presented as ideal, and offering other ways of living – in particular, through writing. That is not to say that Hensel proposes any new utopia in place of the discredited one(s): on the contrary, this is not a story of coming-of-age success, but rather the story of a decline and descent, with an uncertain ending.

Image taken from www.peirenepress.com

Kerstin Hensel is a prolific author, having published over thirty books and won several literary prizes. Jen Calleja recently finished her time as Translator in Residence at the British Library: this was her first translated novel (though she had previously translated non-fiction), and it’s an astonishing debut. Dance by the Canal can’t have been an easy book to translate, as it is imbued not only with the specific history of the GDR, but also with alienating uses of language and an unusual plotline that is meant to destabilise. Indeed, at a recent encounter between Hensel and Calleja, Calleja noted that she had never read anything like it and that, when reading this book, you have to let go of the “typical reading experience”. Perhaps that’s why I needed to read it twice: in my first reading, I enjoyed Dance by the Canal, but it wasn’t what I had been expecting, and I thought I’d missed something obvious because I didn’t understand the ending. When Calleja pointed out that the ending is deliberately destabilising, it was like the clouds parting: there wasn’t necessarily some deeper meaning that I had failed to detect, but rather I had failed to detect the intention of the book itself. It is supposed to be surreal, deliberately leaves questions unanswered, and consciously blurs boundaries between what is “truth” and what is “fiction”.

One of the central thrusts of the novel is the tension between name and identity: the main character, Gabriela von Haßlau, comes from an upper-middle-class family at a time when, under Communism, there were not supposed to be any class differences. Nonetheless, her difference is apparent throughout: she is teased at school for her aristocratic name, but at home she is a “silly little Binka”, never managing to live up to her parents’ expectations of the accomplishments she ought to possess. Gabriela’s father is a vascular surgeon, a patriarch, an abuser of power, and a heavy drinker; her mother is a fickle society hostess. Their aristocratic pretentions are juxtaposed with the chaotic hilarity of a larger-than-life uncle, but farcical family gatherings soon tip into darkness when the words “they’ve shot your Uncle Schorsch” signal the end of the “bad German” in the family. Even this event is shrouded in mystery, and shielded from Gabriela: “Father called Uncle Schorsch a fool, even though he hated the Russians too; they were the reason for his sadness, his fog… I was sent out of the room.” Gabriela is repeatedly dismissed from important conversations, and understands very little of what is happening around her, trapped as she is in other people’s narratives of reality.

“The uncertain nature of many of the episodes seems a deliberate choice not only of the author and translator, but also of the narrator: Gabriela is asserting control of her story by blurring what is and is not real.”

Throughout her story, Gabriela must try to avoid madness (or falling down the “last hole”) and run from an “awakening”. She is abused as a child (an encounter which she mistakes for love), raped as an adult (which is denounced as an episode of self-harm), pressured to become a mole for the secret police (though she is adamant that she knows nothing) – then “saved” by a group of feminist journalists who want to publish her story. Most of the people she meets attempt to exploit her in one way or another, and she never truly fits in anywhere: she is not allowed to be friends with Katka, a working class girl from a squalid home, but yet Katka is the only true friend she has. She is a poet and a writer, but lives variously under a bridge and in the broom cupboard of the tavern where she washes glasses under the watchful eye of the other homeless people of the fictitious East German town of Leibnitz. This eventful, unconventional life is summed up by Gabriela herself: “Anhaltinian nobility. Fffon Haßlau. Poet. Naked in front of a cop. Who’ll believe it?” Gabriela isn’t only a victim, though. She rejects complicity with the way of life imposed on her, leaving school, forming connections with people her family disapprove of, and ultimately choosing the path that her family would most revile: becoming homeless. But even as a homeless person she does not fit in: she is laughed at by her peers, and prizes paper as highly as food, writing her story on whatever scavenged paper she can find.

Two stories unfold at once: the life Gabriela is living, and the life that led up to it. Through the writing of her story, Gabriela takes us back from the present, throughout her past, and leads up to the end, the “once in a century summer” which is actually where the story began. The narrative develops in a way that can only be described as surreal: after leaving school, Gabriela is given a desk job at the cultural centre of an industrial plant, where she was supposed to have been training as a mechanical engineer. She is to be a mole, though this is not clear to her at first (she gets fired, but is encouraged to carry on writing, though she is not entirely sure why). But perhaps one of the most bizarre episodes is when Gabriela attends an arts evening, where she is to read her poetry, her “last chance” (it is unclear exactly what this “last chance” means – the last chance for redemption, yes, but the form this redemption is to take is not explicit). Gabriela sees Samuel (her mother’s lover) and asks him where her mother is. He simply replies “Haven’t you heard?” and is then carried off by the crowd before Gabriela can ascertain what she apparently has not heard (and which is never revealed to us). She then sees Frau Popiol, her childhood violin teacher, who propels her onto the stage where Gabriela reads out her poetry (to rapturous applause), before being whirled off into dancing. Gabriela recognises that she is “sick” and the whole episode is entirely surreal, all the more so when she ends up dancing with someone in a creased black dress, and realises it is her childhood friend Katka, now an artist. Gabriela awakes the next morning naked at home, with the door broken down and the sinister, grotesque secret police officer Queck standing above her.

The uncertain nature of many of the episodes seems a deliberate choice not only of the author and translator, but also of the narrator: Gabriela is asserting control of her story by blurring what is and is not real. She alone knows the distinction between her reality and her fiction, and any over-explanation in the translation would not have done justice to Hensel’s original. Calleja does not interpret for the reader, but rather leaves space for interpretation: if the German is disorientating, then the English should be no less so. Indeed, this is one of the great successes of the translation: if there is any alienation from the text, it is because it is meant to be alienating. This is not a story of communist oppression and capitalist redemption, but a story of a woman who cannot find her place in any regime. Gabriela’s only path is to write, but this is not simply because she is a victim who has no other place in the system. Rather, she writes to carve out a new space for herself, taking control of her story in order to survive: “ I sense a future within me: something could come of my story.” Her story is at times absurd, but this serves to highlight the absurdity of a society beset by amnesia and the re-writing of history. Into this history Gabriela writes her own: a compelling, challenging, messy history, but one that is uniquely hers, and which Calleja deftly re-tells to a new audience.

 

 

“Something terrible will happen”: Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld, 2017)

Usually I think that the phrase “I couldn’t put it down” is just a figure of speech, but in the case of Fever Dream it sums up my reading experience. I read it in one sitting: it’s disturbing, terrifying, and absolutely mesmerising. Fever Dream was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, and was Argentine author Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel (though she has previously published short stories). Published by OneWorld in 2017, it epitomises OneWorld’s commitment to seeking out “emotionally engaging stories with strong narratives and distinctive voices”, and Megan MacDowell’s powerful translation sweeps along with an almost hypnotic urgency.

Image taken from https://oneworld-publications.com

Fever Dream is a frighteningly real supernatural tale, in which fear and suspense are built up by what we are left to imagine just as much as by what we are shown. The text is made up of a dialogue between a woman lying in a bed in an emergency clinic, and a boy sitting beside her, asking her questions. The boy is insistent that they find out about “the worms” and “the exact moment”, and the woman tells a story that is at once meandering, owing to her confusion, and urgent, as she has very little time left. There are only four main characters in this short novel: two mothers and two children. Amanda, the woman lying in the hospital bed, had brought her daughter Nina on holiday from Buenos Aires to the Argentine countryside (a bleak landscape of seemingly endless soy fields), leaving her husband working in Buenos Aires. Nina is a small and adorable child who Amanda needs to protect from something dreadful, the threat of which has been hanging over her not just since the beginning of the narration, but her whole life: “My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible.” This premonition feeds the narrative, and the narrative feeds off it, putting inevitability and presentiment at the forefront of Amanda’s story.

The third character is Carla, who lives next door to Amanda’s holiday rental cottage. Carla tells Amanda a disturbing and supernatural tale of how at the age of six her angelic son, David, escaped death by poisoned water through a process of “transmigration” so that his soul is now partly in another body and she is left with a “monster” in place of her beloved only child. The final character is David himself, now twelve, who is sitting on the hospital bed urging the narrator to tell the story of what happened so that he can pinpoint the exact moment that the “worms” entered her body and changed the course of her life.

The “fever dream” of the title is recounted by Amanda, in something akin to real time, in that it is told in the present tense, but narrates something that happened in a recent past (David tells her at one point that she has been in the feverish state for two days): “I don’t remember much else, that’s all that is happening.” A feeling of somnambulant terror prevails: the immediacy of the present tense in both the dialogue and the dream suggests that this dream could go anywhere, change at any moment, but that the dreamer has no control over its course. Alongside the recounting of the dream is Amanda’s awareness of the real-life situation she is in: lying in bed in a clinic, wondering where her daughter is, knowing she has very little time left. She is also aware that David is not answering her questions but rather probing her with his own, determined to reach a conclusion that he deems to be essential but which to her is “unhelpful” and “missing the most important information.”

“David is a terrifying prompter… mercilessly pushing Amanda on towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, and which will explain what happened to her child.”

David is the only one who seems to have any control: he decides what is important and what is not, which details can be skipped over and which must be recalled in all their minutiae. David guides Amanda through the labyrinth of her own memory, but at times it seems as though David could change the course of the dream at any moment: “What is Nina doing? She’s such a pretty girl. What is she doing? She walks away a little. Don’t let her walk away.” However, when Amanda attempts to take control of the course of the narrative, it all spirals away: David tells her that she is focusing on the wrong things, and we see a sinister echo of the “thing” that happened: while she was looking away, focusing on something else, the “thing” came in.

Writing for The Guardian, Chris Power opines that “Paradoxically, this is a book only parents will feel the full impact of, but that impact is so great you don’t want to recommend it to anyone with young children.” Indeed, I have to admit that this was an uncomfortable read as a mother of young children: the insistence that it is in trying to protect a child from the danger we can see that we fail to notice the real danger taps into my innermost fears (though I think that might be the point), and the constant references to the “rescue distance” between mother and child (the importance of the rescue distance is evident in the novel’s original title, “Distancia de rescate”) become a painful refrain that goes from conceptual to physical as the nightmare gallops towards its inevitable conclusion:

Why do mothers do that?
What?
Try to get out in front of anything that could happen – the rescue distance.
It’s because sooner or later something terrible will happen. My grandmother used to tell my mother that, all through her childhood, and my mother would tell me, throughout mine. And now I have to take care of Nina.
But you always miss the important thing.
What is the important thing, David?”

David sidesteps the question, of course. We keep being reminded (by David) that time (Amanda’s time) is running out, and that some secret must be revealed before her death. Yet David seems to know already what happens: Amanda has repeated her story several times, and sometimes he pre-empts what she is going to remember: “In a few minutes, Nina will be left alone in the car.”

Let me be clear: I don’t like horror stories. I’m one of those people who will turn the lights on and check every corner of the house if I’ve read or watched anything remotely frightening. I should have hated Fever Dream, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t, because it’s so clever, and so perfectly terrifying. It goes far beyond dystopia, and into the realm of nightmares, yet it all feels so real, so possible, so recognisable from the powerlessness we know from our own nightmares: “I wonder if Nina is following us, but I can’t turn to check or ask the question out loud.” The construction of the book is striking: it’s a dialogue, but really it seems more like a monologue narration with a prompter getting it back on track when lines are forgotten, and telling both Schweblin’s protagonist and her readers what is and isn’t important, what is worth describing in detail and what can be glossed over. David is a terrifying prompter, though, mercilessly pushing Amanda on towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, and which will explain what happened to her child.

There are ambiguities in this novel, but they are there deliberately, to destabilise, and to bring you into Amanda’s fever dream where reality and fantasy collide in brutal ways. While my description may make you think that David is an inexorable harbinger of doom, there is also something he is trying to lead Amanda towards, something he wants her to know before the rope that determines the rescue distance is broken. And when you find out what this “something” is, it will tear down the walls around your heart.

Fever Dream is both a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. The relentless landscape of the soy fields and the repeated mentions of “poison” could make this a dystopian warning about genetic modification, but at the forefront are the entwined stories of two mothers and their love for children they are, ultimately, powerless to protect. It’s terrifying, chilling, haunting – everything you’d expect a nightmare to be – but Fever Dream is a brilliant book, a wonderful debut, and not to be missed.

Image taken from www.wordswithoutborders.org. Read full interview with Schweblin at https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/2017-man-booker-international-prize-qa-samanta-schweblin-eric-m-b-becker

“Pulling apart the threads of destiny”: Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2015)

Jenny Erpenbeck is hailed as one of Europe’s most highly regarded writers, and in 2015 her stunning novel The End of Days won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (the last one before it was merged with the Man Booker International Prize). As with the first book I read for this project (also published by Portobello – they have a wonderful translated fiction list), I have to thank my husband for introducing me to Erpenbeck: he was one of the judges on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I remember him talking to me animatedly about The End of Days at the time. It took me three years to get around to following his recommendation, but it was worth the wait. The End of Days is a historical saga with a difference, recounting the many ways in which a life could have been lived (and died). At various points throughout the twentieth century, the same character dies as a baby, a teenager, a young woman, a middle-aged woman, and an old woman, with the underlying premise that “the day on which a life comes to an end is far from being the end of days”. It’s a gripping, page-turning, emotion-investing joy of a book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Susan Bernofsky is Erpenbeck’s regular translator, and this translation is flawless. Indeed, Bernofsky is rapidly becoming someone whose work I would actively seek out (I recently read her translation of Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and it’s equally stunning). Most recently, Erpenbeck published Go, Went, Gone (also translated by Bernofsky, and also published by Portobello), which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.

Image taken from portobellobooks.com

Boyd Tonkin (founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and author of the forthcoming 100 Best Novels in Translation), says of Erpenbeck that “Her female protagonists, thrust into proximity to total war, genocide, or social upheaval in Germany and the adjacent lands, must survive and seek freedom amid the blood and fire of this uniform collective destiny”: The End of Days sweeps through twentieth-century history, refusing to align itself with any one system, ideology, or “collective destiny”. It is both a reflection on the minuteness of a single human life and a manifesto for the difference one life can make. Endings are never definitive, and the narrative is circular rather than linear: we keep returning to the handful of snow that saved the baby’s life, and even the Complete Works of Goethe goes full circle as the main character’s son considers buying it for her in an antique shop, unaware that it was the very volume pawned by her mother decades ago. He leaves it on the shelf, along with his past – an example of Erpenbeck’s resolute avoidance of the trite or the simplistic.

Reviews of The End of Days have – unsurprisingly – been overwhelmingly positive, but mostly have a sting in the tail somewhere (for example, though Kapka Kassabova finds it “exhilarating” and “shot through with an insight that almost blinds”, she also at times finds it “over-constructed and rootless”, and Alice Fishburn describes it as “beautifully written”, but “not easy on the reader”). For me, though, there’s no caveat to my appreciation of this book: the construction is powerful and thought-provoking, its roots firmly in twentieth-century history but entwined with existential speculation, and if ever I felt that it was not easy owing to the reluctance to name characters or my own lack of familiarity with some of the historical phenomena, it only made me re-read and further engage with the text in front of me.

“This book is a tour de force: sharply clever, breathtakingly ambitious, and unbearably poignant.”

Each of the five books within the story depicts a different possible path for the protagonist’s life: in the first scenario, an infant girl dies, and the mother is left childless and abandoned by her husband. In the second, the child lives because her mother thought to put a handful of snow on her chest when she was dying, and she grows up in Vienna during the First World War. She feels that life is like a round black room with no door, and that she can never be loved, while her mother cannot shake the belief that “all her life she’s paid for having snatched her first child back from hell with nothing more than a handful of snow”. She dies in a suicide pact gone wrong, leaving the mother mourning again. The third section sees the girl now a woman, a Communist writer living in Moscow. She is writing her life story; her husband has been arrested, and she knows that “they” may come for her soon. The section ends when she falls asleep on her desk, and does not hear them come for her in the early hours of the morning.

In the fourth book, the as yet unnamed protagonist dies at the beginning, a noted and respected anti-fascist who devoted her life to working tirelessly for the working classes. She has died falling down a staircase in her home (an event foreshadowed at various points throughout the book), leaving her son Sasha behind. This section is narrated from Sasha’s perspective, and gives us a personal insight into the main character as she aged. There is a man at the funeral who he instinctively knows is the father he never met, and this knowledge is explained in a phrase that sums up everything I loved about the style of this beautiful book: “it’s as if his memory were a curtain suddenly ripping in two”.

What if she didn’t die from a fall? In the fifth book, the woman – now given a name, Frau Hoffman – has lived to be a grandmother, but she is going senile. The story comes full circle as her son travels to Vienna, and in an antique shop tries to find a gift to bring back for his mother, and almost buys the very Complete Works of Goethe that his great-grandmother brought with her at the start of the century, and which has passed from them to a pawn shop when the women were deported, from where it was purchased by a war bride. After her death many years later, it finds its way back to an antique shop by way of her daughter. The cycles, contingencies, departures and returns reflect the protagonist’s repeated lingering at “the entrance to the underworld”, and her repeated retreat to live out another possible version of her days.

The End of Days is a tour de force: sharply clever, breathtakingly ambitious, and unbearably poignant. At its heart are profound and unsettling questions: What difference does one life make? Is a longer life always a better life? What impact does one choice in one moment have on the course of a life, and of history? Does one seemingly random event merely make a person deviate temporarily from the course of their fate, only to return to the same fate in a different way? Yet Erpenbeck never pontificates, never offers answers to these questions: instead, she exposes the interplay of chance and contingency on which life – a single life, and all life – is based. If you feel as though enough literature has been written about twentieth-century German history, think again. You need The End of Days on your bookshelf.

Note: “Pulling apart the threads of destiny” is a description taken from the Portobello books website.

Man Booker International special: Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo, 2017)

In honour of last night’s Man Booker International prize announcement, I’m publishing a special mid-week review post on the winning book, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. Though Tokarczuk is not yet as well-known in England as she is in Poland and in other parts of Europe, the award of the MBI prize to Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights for Fitzcarraldo Editions will undoubtedly bring much-deserved attention to her work. In a recent interview, Croft says that she spent ten years trying to get Flights published, and her dedication to the text is evident throughout the translation. There were only a couple of turns of phrase or word choices that struck me as a little odd or incongruous, but when I checked these, they were perfectly standard uses of US English. So this leaves me with not a bad word to say about the translation: it is really quite beautiful. Flights is a remarkable book: observant, shrewd, philosophical and intricate, and I admire the quiet sensitivity, the range of accuracy and detail, and the depth of understanding of Tokarczuk’s text that Croft displays in her translation.

Image taken from https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com

The structure of Flights is not easy to define. It presents numerous stories of varying length – some invented, some based on historical fact, many (but not all) to do with the pickling and preserving of human bodies – and these are punctuated by the ongoing travelogue of an unnamed female narrator. Though the different stories are, for the most part, apparently unconnected, they all share common themes of movement, nomadism, and the convergence of time and place. From the harrowing tale of a mother and son vanished from a Croatian island in ‘Kunicki: Water (II)’ to the hilarious drunken sailor taking his ferryboat passengers out to the open sea in ‘Ash Wednesday Feast’, Flights is an eclectic collection of stories, and yet it is not a short story collection. It defies genre, blending short stories with travel narratives, and studies of human anatomy with philosophical musings on time and place. If there is any way of describing Flights, perhaps it is as ‘episodes’, a definition to be found within the pages of the book itself: ‘We often refer to separate stages of time as episodes. They have no consequences, interrupting time without becoming part of it. They are self-contained occurrences, each starting from scratch; each beginning and each end is absolute’. It is, however, revealing that Tokarczuk puts these words in the mouth of a young tour guide, ‘quite young, wearing army boots, her hair pinned up in a way I found amusing; she must have been fresh out of her master’s programme’. So although we are given hints as to how we might categorise this book, these are destabilised even as they are presented to us. At a later point, the narrator even muses on her choice of writing mode: ‘Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn’t it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs?’

Ouch. So maybe I shouldn’t try to analyse this at all, but rather refer you to Claire Armitstead’s explanation of Tokarczuk’s own view of Flights, namely that ‘what she calls her “constellation novels” throw stories, essays and sketches into orbit, allowing the reader’s imagination to form them into meaningful shapes’. I think, though, that Tokarczuk’s own definition doesn’t do justice to her cleverly crafted work. For example, if you’re still wondering what pickling human bodies has to do with travel writing, Tokarczuk gently explains it on the penultimate page, when her narrator, waiting for a flight, takes out a notebook and writes about another passenger, also waiting for a flight, and also writing in his notebook (possibly about her): ‘We will simply write each other down, which is the safest form of communication and of transit; we will reciprocally transform each other into letters and initials, immortalize each other, plastinate each other, submerge each other in formaldehyde phrases and pages’. The book itself becomes a preserved artefact – and yet it doesn’t, because it will shift and transform with every reading of it.

Is your mind boggling yet? Let’s talk about the title for a moment, then. The translated title has come under scrutiny, as there was no word in English that could cover all meanings of the original title, Bieguni. Kapka Kassabova writes of bieguni that ‘this word is the key to the book […] The bieguni, or wanderers, are an obscure and possibly fictional Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement’.  I like the idea of ‘wanderings’ rather than ‘flights’ (though it would have made for an awful title), as many of the tales in Flights deal with journeys that are not airborne. The problem of translating the title is further complicated by Monique Charlesworth’s revelation that bieguni ‘also has the meaning of running or jogging in every Slavic language, says Tokarczuk; that also defined her book in a certain way’.

I do like a knotty translation problem. Although ‘flights’ may not suggest ‘wandering’ and ‘running’, it brings other implications to the English translation that enrich the work: Flights offers a birds-eye view, it takes flight, it flees. It is an action, an act, a trajectory, the passage of time, a flock, a stairway between different levels of meaning.

“It’s slightly unnerving that every original observation I might *think* I’ve come up with about this book has already been foreseen by its author”

As for the content, I found the focus on human anatomy a little uncomfortable – get me near a scalpel and I’ll become squeamish – but the observations on the preservation of human bodies or body parts was nonetheless a thought-provoking counterpoint to the nomadism elsewhere. Tokarczuk dissects and disrupts preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘movement’ or ‘stasis’ as the mapping out of the human body becomes its own form of topography. Connections are drawn between anatomy and travel narratives: Chopin’s heart makes a posthumous journey from Paris to his desired resting place in Warsaw; the ‘phantom pain’ of a 17th-century anatomist whose leg was amputated is echoed in the ‘phantom pain’ felt by the modern-day Kunicki in the second part of his story, when his wife and child are returned to him but his wife refuses to tell him where they went. But if you think I’ve made a clever connection off my own bat, think again: Tokarczuk urges us to find these connections, because ‘there are different kinds of looking. One kind of looking allows you to simply see objects, useful human things, honest and concrete, which you know right away how to use and what for. And then there’s panoramic viewing, a more general view, thanks to which you notice links between objects, their network of reflections’. It’s slightly unnerving that every original observation I might *think* I’ve come up with about this book has already been foreseen by its author.

Perhaps this is the reason why reviewers have noted that, though they admired Flights, it is a difficult book to write about: Michael Kitto describes it as a novel ‘that should be experienced rather than written about’, and Ken Calfus found it to be ‘a dense challenging novel [that] makes for slow reading’. I must admit that I was quite relieved to find I wasn’t alone in finding this a challenging read. This does not in any way detract from my admiration of Flights, but it was certainly a different kind of experience than most of the novels I’m reading for this project. There were sections I enjoyed more than others: my favourite was the one entitled ‘Flights’, in which the bieguni appear. The protagonist, Annushka, needs to escape her daily life, and in her wanderings through monuments and crowds, she begins to follow a shrouded woman who is always muttering something to herself. Everything about this story is imbued with double meanings; take for instance Annushka’s observation of two particular passengers on her metro journey: ‘Why does she remember those two? I suspect because they’re constant, somehow, as though they moved differently, more slowly. Everyone else is like a river, a current, water that flows from here to there, creating eddies and waves, but each particular form, being fleeting, disappears, and the river forgets about them. But those two move against the current, which is why they stand out the way they do’. Couldn’t we say the same of particular episodes in Tokarczuk’s collection? And yet even as I write this, I suspect that Tokarczuk had already thought of that.

Flights is about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself. It is about nomadism and spirituality (for, after all, ‘Blessed is he who leaves’). It is about connections – with places, people, ideas – and it is a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism, against the ‘frozen order’ created to ‘falsify time’s passage’. It is about knowledge itself, but not about imprisoning or codifying knowledge in encyclopaedias or guidebooks: indeed, as Kunicki’s story shows us, the desire for too much knowledge might make us lose everything. Tokarczuk is both erudite and quick-witted (for her incisive comment, look no further than the 16-line interlude ‘North Pole Expeditions’ or the 4-line ‘Even’), and if there is a challenge in this book, it is more than just the difficulty of categorising it, or its denseness. It is the impossibility of describing time itself: ‘Moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations – no sooner have they come into existence than they fall to pieces’. Flights may not be an easy read, but it’s an extraordinarily beautiful one.

A thriller in the Israeli desert: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Waking Lions

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Pushkin Press)

If ever a book has taught me not to judge it by its cover, this is the one. Not because there’s anything wrong with the cover, but because I nearly skimmed past this, thinking that a male doctor suffering a crisis of conscience wasn’t a great fit for this project. The blurb begins: ‘Dr Eitan Green is a good man. He saves lives. Then, speeding along a deserted moonlit road in his SUV after an exhausting hospital shift, he hits someone. Seeing that the man, an African migrant, is beyond help, he flees the scene’. Though it sounded quite intriguing I initially passed over it, but thank goodness my curiosity couldn’t resist the intrigue indefinitely… because in Waking Lions, a tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement, I found two women as captivating as they were complex, whose relationship to Dr Eitan Green has inhabited my mind for weeks and who, I suspect, will stay with me long after I might forget the protagonist himself.

Image taken from https://www.pushkinpress.com

One of the women is Eitan’s wife, Liat, a senior detective in the Israeli police. She is an ambitious professional, a loving mother, and has a keen sense of what is right. The other is Sirkit, a taciturn Eritrean who sweeps floors for a living, and who Eitan would not look at twice if he passed her in the street. She is the wife of the man Eitan killed: she saw what happened, and she comes to demand atonement. Suddenly Eitan’s life is divided between these two women, between intimacy and veneer, between truth and lies, between Eitan Green the medical prodigy and Eitan Green the murderer. In her second novel (following her critically acclaimed debut, One Night, Markovitch), Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen writes a perfectly flawed anti-hero and two compelling women between whom he is torn, and Sondra Silverston translates so beautifully that I forgot I was reading a translation. There was only a single sentence in over 400 pages that I could nit-pick about (but I shan’t, as it would give away a twist in the tale!)

There’s no waiting around for the intrigue to begin: the prologue opens with the line ‘He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man’. When Eitan gets out of the car and looks at the man, he realises that the man is going to die, and that if he reports his involvement, his own life as he knows it will be over. Eitan imagines his detective wife Liat looking at him the way she looks at criminals before they confess, and then ‘it leaped up and grasped him, all of him, the choking icy fear that screamed in his ears – get into the SUV. Now.’ It’s the middle of the desert, after all: no-one has seen him, no-one knew he was there. This decision sets up the uncomfortable underlying question which pervades the narrative throughout: what would you do?

“Liat’s dogged insistence on solving the case of the desert hit-and-run brings her ever closer to a truth she resolutely refuses to see, and the urgency of the narrative as it hurtles towards its conclusion is breathtaking in its brilliance.”

Eitan’s instinctive choice makes him enter a new life, in which by day he carries on as before, but Sirkit owns his nights. Liat presides over their beautiful household where everything has its place, and Sirkit dominates the long hours Eitan spends beside her in a makeshift hospital deep in the desert. Liat is both a strong-willed professional making her way in a man’s world who ‘would rather hate herself than be considered a prude’ and a bruised woman struggling to maintain a relationship with an overbearing mother, come to terms with the death of a beloved grandmother, and raise her own children in a happy home; Sirkit is portrayed by turns as a toxic she-devil existing only to torment Eitan and an intoxicating goddess, his mirror and his obsession. Though there is much of this kind of polarity in the narrative, there is nothing two-dimensional about it: the character development is excellent, and though both women are viewed primarily through Eitan’s eyes, any objectification is subtly evident in the third-person narration (‘Long after he left the garage, she still felt his gaze on her. Men can fasten their eyes on you the way people put a collar on a dog. They didn’t have to tug it; just knowing that the collar was there was enough to make the dog behave’; ‘When he turned his glance from the fence, he saw that she had been looking at him for several moments. That made him uncomfortable. It was one thing for him to look at Sirkit without her knowing it, and something else for Sirkit to look at him’). Sirkit’s ultimate unknowability is where her power lies: she is an enigma that Eitan simultaneously hates and wants to penetrate. Similarly, Eitan’s wife is no caricature: Liat’s ‘exhausting composure’ subdues even the most misogynist male prisoner, but she is still described as ‘that hot little pussy from the police’, and plays her part in a patriarchal hierarchy in which she allows herself to be patronised by her male colleagues and pretends to be impressed by them because ‘what else could she do?’ Like Sirkit, though, Liat has her own backstory: she was raised in relative poverty, is as proud as she is sensitive, and is characterised by a profound humanity that makes her want to believe her husband’s ever-spiralling lies even as she senses that their previously stable relationship is crumbling at the foundations. This is no ordinary domestic love triangle drama though: Liat’s dogged insistence on solving the case of the desert hit-and-run brings her ever closer to a truth she resolutely refuses to see, and the urgency of the narrative as it hurtles towards its conclusion is breathtaking in its brilliance.

Alongside social comment on the plight of migrants and the repeated imagery of crossing a desert, Eitan’s own journey unfolds: if, for Sirkit, ‘to emigrate is to leave one place for another, with the place you’ve left tied to your ankle with steel chains’, then when Eitan climbed back into his SUV after hitting the man, he emigrated from his ordered life of privilege, and limped away from the accident with that night in the desert tied to his ankle with steel chains. There is no moralising: right and wrong are blurred, and we are reminded that there are times when ‘being human was a privilege’. This is an ambitious novel which gives pause for thought in several ways: as a reflection on racism and otherness, poverty and privilege, intimacy and misogyny, corruption and survival, and on the way life can change in an instant. The side-stories are all connected, and if they come together a little too neatly, I can entirely forgive this in the name of a good story. Ruth Gilligan has a offered more reserved appreciation for this novel, pointing to a ‘problematic tone’ in places and some ‘awkward similes’, but I didn’t pick up on these while reading. If they were there, they must have gone unnoticed because I enjoyed the story so much. The descriptions are vivid and immersing; in some ways, reading this novel felt comparable to watching a film. It’s a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read, an escapist joy and the literary equivalent of its own central plotline: a jolt that will shake you out of any inertia, sweep you along into a world you had never imagined, and stay with you long after it’s over.