Monthly Archives: June 2019

Writing between two worlds: Eva Moreda, Home is Like a Different Time

Translated from Galician by Craig Patterson

In Home is like a different time, Galician writer Eva Moreda delves into the lived experience of emigrant communities in London in the 1960s and 70s. She writes from the perspective of Gelo, a recently widowed young(ish) man who has travelled from his home town of Veiga in Galicia to seek a different life in London, leaving his home – and with it his former life – suspended in his memory, exactly as it was when he left: “To go to London, Hamburg, even Madrid or Barcelona, as some people go, was to really go: to be resigned to not seeing Veiga for a year or two. It was knowing that in your mind, Veiga was going to be frozen in that same moment when you left.” In the original, the title is Veiga is like a different time (A Veiga é como un tempo distinto), and the more general “home” is well chosen for the translation, opening up the narrative to invite a more universal connection and empathy. Veiga features throughout as distant yet always remembered, a place to leave but one which is never truly left behind. Moreda’s prose is limpid and precise, and this is delicately rendered in the translation: despite an occasional overly literal term or grammatical slip, Craig Patterson communicates sensitively the undertones of longing and belonging, as well as the numerous “unsaids” so crucial to the tone of the work. Patterson resists the temptation to over-explain, showing a discreet understanding of Moreda’s uncluttered style.

Gelo addresses his narrative to a second-person “you”; this “you” is Elisa, a young woman from Veiga who Gelo meets again in London and whose life intersects with his in ways that contribute to the wistfulness and longing that pervade the text. Veiga is described as frozen in time; Elisa describes its traditions and expectations when she acknowledges that “My mum sees me working in a shop, my granny tidying up and her doing the accounts. It’s all she dreams about and hopes from life”. England is represented, then, not only as a different place, but also as a different time – in terms of years elapsed, but also a time of different attitudes and possibilities, “a country where there were no haberdasheries or families of three generations of women who lived in the same house.” Apart from one chapter which returns to the “different time” in Galicia to explain how Gelo met Elisa, all the chapters in the book take a London place name as their title. This not only shows the various locations that were significant for Galician emigrants at the time the narrative is set – places that define the characters who inhabit them, and the different versions of themselves that those characters embody in each place – but also traces Gelo and Elisa’s path through London. Both of them leave Veiga in search of something different, and both end up by turn finding and losing themselves in their new lives.

Gelo takes a job as a waiter, and the hostility towards emigrants is palpable even when not overt: Gelo’s name is rejected outright by his boss (“Gelo” sounds too much like “hello”; his full name, Angelo, is too aberrant, for how could the boss call a man Angel?) Eventually Gelo’s boss decides that he will be called Martin (a calque of his surname, Martiño), and so Gelo’s dual life begins: Gelo is “left behind somewhere, in a different time”, while Martin is swallowed up by his life in London (“I became more and more Martin and less and less Gelo”). Identity is not chosen but imposed, and this duality and eclipsing of identity is echoed elsewhere: Elisa finds work under the name “Liz”, and is employed by Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street, despite the manager’s reservations about “how the very middle-class customers of that establishment would take your imperfect accent, your at times intuitive English.” If Gelo’s life is full of unfulfilled desires and dreams, then Elisa’s is even more so: there are hints of foreboding early on, references to her eventual disappearance, and details of how she slips away from Gelo as her dreams retreat further away from her, until eventually Gelo acknowledges that “I knew that my Elisa no longer existed.” London is a place of opportunity and possibility, its streets bursting with colour and music, its enclaves brimming with camaraderie, but it is also a place that can strip away Elisa’s dreams, community, and sense of identity, as she moves through increasingly hardened incarnations of herself. Gelo is the only one who still sees “his” Elisa, and who never gives up on her, and in this sense the story is as much about the fleeting, flitting Elisa as it is about Gelo himself.

As we follow Gelo through London, “that immensity, that mass, that gravitating mass that ended up swallowing you as it twists and turns, so everything ends up becoming less important, less than in Veiga”, Gelo in turn follows Elisa – always moving, always elusive, shifting as much in identity as in destination: “The Liz from Oxford Street […] who sold skirts and perfumes in Marks and Spencer in the centre of London, who liked to go to Brighton in the summer. That Liz was alive just three years before. In the days of Bethnal Green, nobody knew where she was. Today, nobody knows where Elisa from Bethnal Green is.” Elisa’s disappearance is explained towards the end of the novel – as usual, I shall avoid spoilers, and restrict myself to saying that all the nostalgia and desire gathers and bursts out in the revelation of Elisa’s fate.

Though Gelo has both a deceased wife and, eventually, a new one, the love story in Home is like a different time is about neither of these women, but rather about the one who is never his, the one in whom he sees himself reflected, the one who always exists in a “different time.” Moreda brings to life the streets and sounds of London in the 1960s and 70s, but above all gives voice to the difficulty of being caught between two worlds, languages and identities. This beautifully observed short novel is meditative and yearning, a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit and to the lengths we will go to for love, in whatever form that love may take.

Review copy of Home is like a different time provided by Francis Boutle Publishers.

Exquisite self-portraits in a digital age: Sylvie Weil, Selfies

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2019)

Selfies is a thoughtful take on a modern obsession: in it, Sylvie Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory, which she describes before giving us a glimpse of its importance in her life.  This creates an intimacy and familiarity, explaining the detail not only of the photograph itself, but also of all the concomitant personal memories and anecdotes that the image evokes for the storyteller.

The subjects of the selfies range from milestones in Weil’s life to recollections of incidents that might seem more minor, but they all have in common a quick wit, a keen sense of irony, and an immense capacity for compassion. A heady love affair comes to an end with a big decision and a faint hint of regret for a life imagined that will never now be lived (“I’ll watch the dawn break over the red bricks of Harlem. I’ll fasten my suitcase and put water in the kettle to boil. I’ll hastily drink a cup of Nescafé, sparing a brief thought for the students for whom I’ll never pour tea”); Weil’s feelings of irritation towards a pair of American friends surface when they make a selfish decision about their pet (“When you take a dog to the vet to have him put down because he’s guilty of swallowing a plastic duck, he’s obviously got no chance of making it”); the joy of friendship is explained with the brief yet poignant comment that “she gives me the most wonderful gift anyone can give: belonging.” These incidents are connected to more significant revelations about Weil’s life: her need to belong and her passionate attachments belie hints of tragedy elsewhere in the snapshots. In ‘Self-portrait as a Visitor’ we find out that Weil’s Jewish family fled France in 1941 to escape persecution, and learn that Weil’s mother, despite coming from a distinguished family, is always haunted by the “refugee” tableau and passes on to her daughters “nostalgia for a childhood that was not ours.” Later, ‘Stabat mater’ deals with Weil’s son’s mental illness, and ‘Self-portrait as a maker of idols’ reports his disfigurement after a hate crime: the son recurs repeatedly in Weil’s tableaux, exposing Weil’s helplessness as a mother who cannot protect her child from history, from the present, or from other people (perhaps most piercingly evident in ‘Self-portrait with portrait of my son’).

Ros Schwartz conveys all the atmospheric melancholy in her beautifully measured translation, eschewing superfluous detail and offering the fragments of Weil’s life as just that – never a complete picture, but a series of connected representations. Often when reading translations of languages I know, I imagine the translator grappling with a particular choice of phrase, and sometimes wonder why this one was chosen over another. With Schwartz, every time I start to think “I wonder whether X would have worked”, I have the impression she already thought about that, weighed it up, and discarded it in favour of what I’m reading on the page. There is a carefulness to her work, a commitment to elegance and timbre: for example, in a couple of instances, a past participle starts the sentence (“Erased, the photo I wish I could have shown”; “Forgotten, the selfie with the bear”) – these sentences are not typical of English syntax, yet starting them with a subject (think “the selfie with the bear was forgotten”) would lose both the emphasis and the poetry. Schwartz’s rendering is more controlled and evocative, and you know straight away that it’s a choice, not a calque.

The vignettes offer intimate insights into Weil’s personal life but are never self-indulgent, and Weil also weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of life: in ‘Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom’ she shows how a longed-for friendship can turn on a seemingly innocuous comment, and in ‘Self-portrait as an author’ demonstrates how even a celebrated writer can feel humiliated, always dependent on people buying the books and being polite. Perhaps my favourite example of these reflections is the one Weil makes on selfies themselves, noting that “Everyone takes selfies, it’s a way of going unnoticed.” In the act of taking a selfie, what Weil is photographing goes unnoticed because people think it’s “just” a selfie like the millions of others. But Weil is using this 21st-century obsession in order to do something far more important: she is capturing a moment or an observation, or creating a longed-for memory. She is not just a tourist taking a clichéd snapshot, or a mildly hysterical middle-aged woman obsessed with snapping photos of “three scrawny roses with crumpled petals”, a cloud formation, or a family gathering, and yet this is how she wants to appear so that no-one notices her true objective, or realises what she is really capturing with her camera.

With her present-day observations, Weil reaches back to the past: to the women in the self-portraits, to her mother, and to generations of her family who have gone before. She takes as her point of departure something static, and turns it into something shifting and organic, with her acknowledgement that “the past is real and alive.” Unlike the heavily edited and filtered images usually associated with the selfie, Weil’s purpose is not to embellish but to understand, not to distance from reality but to connect. Crossing over from the visual to the verbal, this book is everything that selfies should be: it is not posed or contrived, not about looking her best or showing an over-the-top perfect life. Rather, it is vulnerable, sensitive, beautifully crafted and exquisitely displayed.

Sylvie Weil and Ros Schwartz will be in conversation with Amanda Hopkinson at the Institut Français in London TONIGHT (Monday 17 June) for the official launch of Selfies: book a ticket here.

Review copy of Selfies provided by Les Fugitives; pre-order your copy here.

 

“A city haunted by many ghosts”: The Book of Cairo

Edited and with an introduction by Raph Cormack (Comma Press, 2019)

This is the first of Comma Press’s “Reading the City” books I’ve read, and I was drawn to The Book of Cairo for primarily personal reasons: Egypt is my dad’s homeland, and its history the reason for my family’s enforced dispersal across the globe. I wanted to learn more about a country that for me carries much displaced nostalgia, and Raph Cormack’s thoughtful introduction gives a moving insight into the history and modernity of Cairo: “The city has entered into a state of enforced forgetfulness”, he writes of the Arab Spring – a different historical conflict from the one that my family endured, but the same deliberate state-sponsored amnesia. Cormack writes of a “desire to escape” prevalent among young Egyptians, and describes Cairo as “a city that has always felt on the verge of disintegration”, “beset with difficulties and haunted by many ghosts”. The Book of Cairo presents ten short stories (four of which are by women writers), and brings to life this troubled, complex city.Together these stories present a mosaic of a shifting city, fraught with problems ranging from poverty and inequality to drugs and military interventions. But they also have an individual and very human dimension, from the street-sweeper fearful of not being able to afford his daughter’s wedding (‘Gridlock’) and the alienation of experiencing everything outside of a collective narrative (‘Into the Emptiness’) to the misery of unrequited love (‘The Other Balcony’) and the single-minded quest for truth that blinds the seeker to all else (‘Hamada al-Ginn’). Cairo’s streets and buildings come to life, as does its fresco of diverse inhabitants and its westernisation (messages are sent via WhatsApp, Pampers and Persil are part of a family’s regular shopping experience, and high-rise buildings spring up to “brush the sand away into the backdrop”). The stories range in tone from comical to satirical, surreal to sinister: in ‘Whine’, an office manager becomes convinced that evil spirits are manipulating his fate, while ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ questions notions of “truth”: “They both stuck to their stories, despite the continuous physical interrogation that they were subjected to for three days, ordered by Major Haitham Hamdy himself (some people give this ‘physical interrogation’ the name ‘torture’).” In ‘Siniora’, a man is so obsessed with observing his girlfriend’s genitals that he doesn’t notice that while she is sitting naked before him she has been setting up an illegal home-grown drugs empire and has moved on from him entirely; in ‘Two Sisters’, a woman’s attraction to a masked man in a video store has vampiric consequences, while the narrator of ‘Into the Emptiness’, “dissolve[s] in this world and disappear[s].”

My two favourite stories in the collection were (perhaps coincidentally) both about storytellers: ‘Talk’ is about a professional rumour-monger, and ‘The Soul at Rest’ about an obituary writer. In ‘Talk’, a doctor is surprised to find his life close to ruins because of a rumour that he thinks has no basis in truth: his investigations lead him to the office of a man who gleefully admits that he started the rumour as part of his own ministry of vigilante justice. A failed writer himself, the rumour-monger explains that “I used to write stories that no one ever read. But I was only successful at rumours. I’ll remain an uncredited author, but at least I’ll be a well-off one. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll achieve some immortality”, and this chilling attitude highlights the dangers of slanderous stories in a fame-seeking fake-news age in which “innocence and guilt are one and the same, since both the innocent and the guilty issue the same denials.”

In ‘The Soul at Rest’, an obituary writer makes an ill-advised judgement about a woman whose lover wants her to have the most lavish obituary he can buy. The obituary writer then attempts to make amends for his thoughtlessness, acknowledging that he needs to feel better about his own mistake: “What I want to say won’t take more than a page, maybe two. But one thing is for sure, regardless of the number of pages, it won’t make a difference to anyone but me. I just want to vent so I can feel better about what I’m going through”. The obituary writer lavishes his time and money attempting to atone for the wounds caused by his thoughtless prejudice, because “the pain kept growing inside me until it had become a permanent resident”, and tries all he can to escape from his own guilt:

“I cried a lot, I asked God for forgiveness; I even went as far as asking for a transfer to another department.
I just wished that I could meet the man again, to ask for his forgiveness.”

This proves impossible for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself, but his ultimate admission that “my pain has still not subsided” is a timely reminder about the importance of resisting judgement based on class and creed.

The Book of Cairo is a superb collection of intimate modern stories that shatter the mysticism of the Orient and show us what Cairene life is and can be. I love the work Comma Press seeks out, and shall be reading more from their Reading the City series. I also highly recommend Banthology, stories of protest commissioned from the seven “unwanted nations” on Trump’s original “travel ban” (five of which are by women writers) – literature can and should be political, should challenge and subvert, should resist complacency and the “culture of sameness” – and Comma Press are leading the way.

Review copy of The Book of Cairo provided by Comma Press.

“I don’t want an ending like this”: Selja Ahava, Things That Fall from the Sky

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Oneworld, 2019)

This year Oneworld Books have released four books by women in translation (see bottom of page for full details); I went to their Translated Fiction showcase at the British Library in April to hear Olga Grjasnowa and Selja Ahava talk about their newly released titles, City of Jasmine (Grjasnowa, tr. Katy Derbyshire, reviewed here), and Things That Fall from the Sky (Ahava, tr. Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah). This was an event brilliantly chaired by Rosie Goldsmith, who also introduced Oneworld authors Alessandro d’Avenia (read a beautiful extract from What Hell is Not, tr. Jeremy Parzen, here), Jasmin B. Frelih (whose In/Half, tr. Jason Blake, was longlisted for the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize) and the extremely witty double act of Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynsky writing the period murder mystery Mrs Mohr Goes Missing as Maryla Szymiczkowa (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones).

Image from oneworld-publications.com

In Things That Fall From the Sky, Selja Ahava writes from the perspective of a child named Saara trying to make sense of something utterly senseless: her mother’s death from being hit on the head by a block of ice falling from the sky. The premise here reminded me of the cult HBO series Six Feet Under, in which a character would die in often improbable circumstances, possibly inspired by a real-life event spied in a newspaper story. The improbable event in this case is that when aeroplanes have a leak, the dripping water freezes on the outside of the plane and, as more water leaks through, can form into an ice block. If this becomes heavy enough, it can get detached in flight and fall to the ground at a speed which, if you happened to be standing in its path of descent, could smash your head off. Ahava explained that this random absurdity appealed to her sense of humour, and this “tragicomic” element is key to the success of the story: the child’s perspective allows Ahava to make pared-down, simple and often amusing observations, crucial to the pathos that serves to remind us that however farcical the circumstances, we are still dealing with a grieving child.

Two other stories of improbable things literally or figuratively “falling from the sky” interweave with Saara’s: her aunt wins the lottery twice, and a man on a remote Scottish island is struck by lightning five times in the course of his life (only to die eventually of heart failure). The common theme is not only the improbability, but also how these chance occurrences – even ostensibly wonderful ones such as winning the lottery twice – isolate the people on whom they are inflicted, and change their lives irreparably. There are three interconnected leitmotivs that recur throughout the book: the notion of “time heals” (which is exposed as a fallacy), outlines (the white lines around dead bodies in murder mysteries, but also the outline of Saara herself, when her mother drew an outline of Saara’s body on a wall one happy day: this drawing has now been wallpapered over, leaving Saara “trapped in the wall” and unable to move on), and time standing still.

Saara is obsessed with “whodunnits” and their dénouements (particularly those involving a certain Belgian detective, gathering an audience for a dramatic scene of revelation). There is understated humour in these references, but the white outline comes to represent the far more serious issues of the intangibility of death, and the difficulty of grieving absence. This is extended in two ways: firstly, in comparison with a lottery win, which is only ever intangible and never a physical pile of money and, secondly, via the image of Saara trapped in the wall: the outline of her body as it was then remains frozen in time under the new decoration, never ageing, cut off – just as  her mother was frozen in time, cut off, never to grow older. Amidst the absurdity and humour, this is a piercing reminder that time stops when loved ones die, that the deceased and those who loved them are always suspended in that moment, as Saara explains in her understanding of time and tense:

“When Mum leans over the bed, her hair spills out from behind her ears and touches my face, along with her kisses. When I say Mum leans, she’s still here. When Mum leaned, she’s already going. Dad doesn’t talk about Mum, because he can’t say leaned. He can’t talk Mum into the past; every now and then, he starts a sentence with Mum’s name, but he stops halfway.
Mum stopped halfway.”

Time “stopping” and the image of the white outline are deftly brought together when Saara explains that “Time stopped. I couldn’t think forwards or backwards. Someone drew a thick white line round our thoughts, and the thoughts stopped, and we got stuck there.” All time becomes that one moment of loss, the little girl in the walls trapped there forever, unable to move on. Things That Fall from the Sky thus becomes, in a way, a “white outline” of its own, immortalising this period of Saara’s life and grieving process.

The simplicity of a child’s perspective crystallises complex emotions: Ahava is a playwright, and this is evident in her novel. There is no superfluous detail, and the prose is characterised by a clarity of expression that is communicated by an excellent translation from Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah: Saara’s voice is vividly and sensitively conveyed – the register and tenor are pitch-perfect in Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s translation, as are the gaps of what is left unsaid.

Like City of Jasmine, the Oneworld book I reviewed last week, Things That Fall from the Sky also has a very poignant ending, showing the inadequacy of “time-heals” for a child who has lost everything that was once familiar. If City of Jasmine offered a fresh perspective on a global humanitarian crisis, Things That Fall from the Sky is more focused on the individual: Saara is not suffering from a historical tragedy, but from a personal one that it is equally impossible to explain away with platitudes. This is a story of the extraordinary events in everyday lives, but it is also the story of a child trying to come to terms with bereavement. Saara does not want her story – and with it, her mother – to come to an end: “Without an ending, there’s no story, but I don’t want an ending like this”, she says, and so her story becomes a reflection not only on the imperative to “move on” but also on storytelling itself, and on the endurance of love.

Oneworld’s women in translation 2019 publications in full:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Argentina). Full review.
Guzel Yakhina, Zuleika, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Russia).
Olga Grjasnowa, City of Jasmine, translated by Katy Derbyshire (Germany). Full review.
Selja Ahava, Things That Fall from the Sky, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Finland).

Review copy of Things That Fall from the Sky provided by Oneworld Books.