Monthly Archives: August 2019

Humanity in the face of atrocity: Nayrouz Qarmout, The Sea Cloak

Translated from Arabic by Perween Richards (Comma Press, 2019)

It’s fair to say that The Sea Cloak is one of my most anticipated books… ever. Comma Press first started advertising it last Spring: author Nayrouz Qarmout was to appear at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in August 2018, but her visa application was turned down twice by the Home Office. She just made it in time after the festival intervened on her behalf, and was then invited back this year to take part in a panel on migration and refugees – so publication was postponed in order to launch The Sea Cloak during Qarmout’s visit to the UK. So I’ve been looking forward to this book for over a year, and I can tell you that it was absolutely, unequivocally, 100% worth the wait.

Qarmout was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and was “returned” to her home in Gaza in 1992, making her a refugee for a second time, but this time in her own country. The Sea Cloak offers insight into life in Gaza, but without melodrama or exaggeration – for Qarmout, this is simply her home, her life, her political context that she is observing. Her background in journalism shows through in her writing: there is nothing partisan here, nothing that tells her reader to think or react in a particular way. Perhaps this is also an effect of her being an “outsider” even in her own country: rather than instructing, she lays out fragments and stories from her context, and offers them for interpretation. There are aspects that hint at autobiography or personal experience (for example, the female protagonists of both ‘The Long Braid’ and ‘A Samarland Moon’ are journalists, the protagonist of ‘The Sea Cloak’ “retreated into the past, to a sprawling camp buzzing with children playing marbles and forming teams for a game of ‘Jews and Arabs’”, and the bombing of a building in ‘Our Milk’ echoes an experience Qarmout describes as being intimately connected to her writing – she forced herself to write one story for every floor that was rebuilt), but the rich tapestry of everyday people presented in The Sea Cloak defies any narrow interpretation of the text as being the experience of only one person – the rhetorical question in ‘14 June’, “How many times has she jumped out of bed thinking that a bullet has punctured her window?” may very well be Qarmout’s own experience, but it is also doubtless the experience of anyone who lives in a warzone. Fictional characters live through real events, such as in this depiction of a restaurant bombing: “The waiter staggers for a moment, still standing in the rear half of the restaurant that hasn’t collapsed. His face gushes with blood – some invisible piece of shrapnel has sliced his cheek – but he barely notices it. All he can do is stare at the splashes of colour that fringe the rubble: strips of tapestry and flesh, both heavy with history.”

Not all of the stories deal with terror and conflict: like Gazan life, these are part but not all of the picture. Many of the short stories have women’s experience at the fore: in ‘The Sea Cloak’, a girl struggles with the transition to womanhood and the restrictions that this forces on her; in ‘The Mirror’ there is the memory of a sexual assault; in ‘The Long Braid’ a schoolgirl is told by her teacher that emancipated women are “sluts”; in ‘Breastfeeding’ a mother and father want something better for their daughter than becoming “entangled in the traditions that they themselves were raised with and could never escape”, only to discover that all options lead to restriction. Life is too often decided for these women, but in many cases other women uphold this patriarchal society. Yet Qarmout’s characters try not to be, or not to remain, victims. These are not stories of misfortune but of life, and the strength of The Sea Cloak comes from not having one definable agenda, but rather a collective one: destinies are interwoven with intelligence and compassion (read ‘White Lilies’ in particular), showing us that we are never truly external to the problems of a region, because they are the problems of humanity.

As for the language and the translation, both are excellent. Qarmout’s writing has a wisdom and clarity, and a richness of expression that is both exciting and compelling. Perween Richards translated all but the title story of the collection (which was translated by Charis Bredin), and she conveys this richness superbly, bringing the text to a recognisable place without ever being untrue to its origins: the translation is careful and precise, yet not overworked. Richards was one of two winners of the Translate at City translation competition in 2016, and as far as I know this is her first major translation – and what a debut it is. This collaboration is a shining example of the best of connections: between people, places, cultures and contexts. The narratives might be shocking in their everyday candour and the lack of melodrama to describe the atrocities that have become commonplace, but there are nonetheless universal messages such as this one from ‘Breastfeeding’: “We all have to grasp at the chances we can in this life.”

This juxtaposition of extraordinary situations and ordinary lives is one of the most striking features of the collection: as Richards notes of Gazan life, “Not everyone is a freedom fighter, most are just normal people trying to go through life with dignity and purpose in the face of impossible odds.” If there is everyday violence, there is also everyday experience – there is a new take on forbidden love in ‘The Anklet of Maioumas’, in which a girl and boy from opposite sides of the border hope to be together; in ‘A Samarland Moon’ two young people who have drifted apart – one towards religion, the other towards emancipation – try to remember what they loved about one another, and young boys work to advance in life in ‘Pen and Notebook’. There is no preaching or overly didactic comment – Qarmout’s characters go about their lives, and their lives just happen to unfold in one of the most volatile regions on Earth. I learnt a lot from reading The Sea Cloak, yet I didn’t feel “instructed” – I think this is a necessary book. We need this book in the west. We need to know, we need not to read only books in which we recognise ourselves. One character in ‘Black Grapes’ asks “When are they going to understand?” – this is the challenge laid down gently by Qarmout. Terror, violence and death abound, yet if there is one thing that truly defines this collection, it is humanity, and that is the connection that rises above all others. As Qarmout stated in her recent appearance at Edinburgh International Book Festival, “Suffering in revolution is a collective experience. I rebel. Then we exist. I believe creation is a revolution. Palestinian identity needs this revolution.” The Sea Cloak is indeed a quiet revolution, and I urge you to be part of it by reading and sharing these stories.

 

A road trip to remember: Olja Savičević, Singer in the Night

Translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (Istros Books, 2019)

Singer in the Night is the second novel by Croatian author Olja Savičević; the narrator tells us that it is “a story about life”, and encompassed within this is a story about love and memory, and their attendant joys and losses. Both hilarious and profound, this book is a reflection on the ways we love, the paths we choose, the exhilaration and peril of being open to new experiences and the stagnation and dessication of choosing safety and banality over desire and dreams.

Singer in the Night is mostly narrated by Clementine, an eccentric soap opera scriptwriter. Clementine is a “blonde orange” with silicon lips and whitened teeth who gave up on art and followed money and popularity, for “people needed a lot of cheap, quick emotion, they needed it in greater quantities than it was possible to produce … Let’s face it, gunk has moved the vast majority of people and filled their thoughts probably more than the best work of art ever could.” Clementine hasn’t seen her ex-husband – the elusive poet Nightingale – in some time, but she is jolted into going in search of him when he disappears after leaving a series of letters for his neighbours in Split. The letters have been written in response to a bout of loud lovemaking in one of the buildings on the street; in this hot summer with all the windows open, the sounds of passion have carried, and inspired Nightingale to write from a variety of perspectives about love. There is no trace of Nightingale in Split; he has not been in contact with his friends and family, and even the yacht that he still co-owns with Clementine has been abandoned. Cue Clementine climbing into her golden convertible car and embarking on an unforgettable journey from Slovenia through Croatia to Bosnia in search of her lost love. Along the way she recounts her memories, which she sees “as though through polished glass”, and which are interspersed with the letters from Nightingale.

Nightingale’s letters delight in the possibilities of language; he is “a ruler over words and colours” who explores the breadth of lyric expression with his shrewd observations about society and human nature. Though they are ostensibly about the lovers keeping the street awake on the hot summer nights, this is really just a pretext to talk about love (“where the heart is not free there cannot be love”), resistance (“Why would a child write if it was well?”), politics (“People constantly sing about freedom, but at the same time with all their limbs, including their tongue, they stay on the border”), and a range of other musings on war, (anti)heroism, contingency, and life in all its chaos.

While Nightingale’s missives are poetically crafted, there are occasionally some unexpected turns of phrase in Clementine’s monologue. Given how distinctive the writing style is and how renowned Celia Hawkesworth is, I rather suspect they may have been there in the original too; I found the extended use of the imperative mood quite marked, but I can’t imagine that “Let mother come home soon” was chosen over, say, “I wish mother would come home soon” or “if only mother would come home soon” without a lot of thought, or that “starkers people” was chosen as a childlike colloquialism for naturists without deliberation over its unusualness. Clementine is a unique character, and so I suppose it follows that she has a unique way of speaking, which Hawkesworth conveys ably in the translation. The repeated use of “my dear” creates intimacy and hints at Clementine’s raconteur personality; it is an affected way of speaking that indicates the milieu in which she operates but also a form of self-address, as she is recording her voice for herself. For Clementine, we discover, is suffering from a progressive memory loss, and does not want to forget the detail of her life –particularly not its joys and its passions – and for this she needs to evoke Nightingale, the lost love of her life.

The final section of the novel is the one in which Nightingale finally speaks as a character, rather than through his letters. We find out why he left and how he perceives Clementine, as well as more detail on his life philosophies. But Clementine’s own story is also full of thought-provoking pathos: Savičević is a socially engaged writer, aware that “it’s the duty of anyone living in a dystopia to create a utopia.” Her narrative calls into question the world that she and her contemporaries inherited, Clementine’s personal tragedy mirroring the historical amnesia that post-war societies slip into, both encompassed in a phrase which could sum up the entire book: “what keeps us going is memory.”

If the narrative is disorientating at times, this is indicative of Clementine’s own confusion, her road trip an apt metaphor for the narrative ride she takes us on. Her outpourings fill the silences of a relationship and a youth that have faded away, and are populated by a cast of eccentric supporting characters, from the fearless, hairless Helanka and her twin daughters Billy Goat and Arrow to Clementine’s platonic “comrade” second husband Bert and her failed movie-mogul-turned producer Kalemengo. Part road trip, part social comment, part metaphor and part love story, above all this is an exploration of memory, with some fittingly memorable twists along the way. It is not Nightingale that Clementine is moving towards on this turbulent journey, but her past, her memories, and herself. This reflection on the fragility of memory – both personal and historical – is a poignant, innovative and politically engaged book that deserves attention.

Olja Savičević will be at the Edinburgh Literary Festival on Sunday 18 August.

Review copy of Singer in the Night provided by Istros Books.

5 women writers to discover in translation

Women in Translation month is in full swing, and following on from the individual book recommendations I gave in an earlier post, today I want to focus on authors. I love it when publishing houses champion an author rather than a single book, and when translators get to work on several books by the same author, forming a relationship and bringing a whole body of work into translation – especially when this oeuvre is constantly growing. So here are my suggestions of five contemporary women writers whose work it’s worth diving into.

(Please note that I refer here to UK editions of these books, though many are also published by US publishing houses)

Hiromi Kawakami, Portobello/ Granta Books and Pushkin Press

Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami is known for her offbeat love stories, writing relationships that are unusual, unexpected, and in many cases delightfully awkward. Published by Portobello Books, Kawakami’s portfolio was taken on by parent company Granta Books when they shuttered the Portobello imprint in January 2019. Her current translator is Allison Markin Powell, who communicates Kawakami’s whimsy perfectly.

Strange Weather in Tokyo was Kawakami’s first work to be published in Markin Powell’s translation, and has received widespread critical acclaim. It recounts the will-they-won’t-they relationship of a thirty-something woman and her much older former teacher: it’s a great unconventional romance story, though I didn’t connect with it as deeply as most people seemed to until the final page, in which the relevance of the US title (The Briefcase) becomes apparent in a way that knocked me for six.

Call me contrary, but though Strange Weather in Tokyo is worth reading, I preferred Kawakami’s  follow-up, The Nakano Thrift Shop. This follows the lives and entangled relationships of four people who work in a Tokyo thrift shop; the contemporary star-crossed young lovers, the fallibility of Mr Nakano himself, and the eccentricity of his sister are sublimely awkward.

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is Kawakami’s latest and much anticipated release, and offers connected short stories of ten women who have all loved the same man at different stages of his life. Through their reflections, a portrait of Mr Nishino emerges that is always shifting and never complete, and this innovative way of understanding a central character is as accomplished as I’d come to expect from the Kawakami-Markin Powell collaboration.

In addition to the three novels above, Kawakami’s novella Record of a Night Too Brief was translated by Lucy North and published by Pushkin Press in 2017, and her novel Manazaru was translated by Michael Emmerich and published by Counterpoint Books in 2017.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Portobello/ Granta Books

Jenny Erpenbeck writes in German, and won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2015 for her sweeping novel The End of Days. Her work is deeply embedded in German history, from the ravages of the twentieth century to the modern-day refugee crisis; Susan Bernofsky translates Erpenbeck with great sensitivity and depth.

The End of Days is Erpenbeck’s best-known work, and is a historical saga with a difference, recounting the many ways in which a life could have been lived (and died) in the twentieth century. At its heart are profound and unsettling questions of the difference one life can make, and the impact one choice in one moment has on not just on an individual life, but on history. A protagonist who is unnamed for much of the novel lives through fixed historical events and more arbitrary personal ones, that may or may not all be leading to the same fate in a different way.

The progression of German history through the twentieth century echoes Erpenbeck’s earlier work Visitation, which was the only one of her novels I struggled to appreciate. Whereas in The End of Days history is viewed through a single character who lives (and dies, and lives again) through the events, in Visitation the focus is on a house by a lake in Brandenburg, which sees inhabitants (including a family of Jews and a regiment of soldiers) come and go throughout the years, and stands as a silent witness to the atrocities of the twentieth century.

My admiration for Erpenbeck and Bernofsky returned full throttle with Go Went Gone, a moving account of the refugee crisis in Berlin. Retired university professor Richard observes a makeshift camp in Oranienplatz, and strikes up an unexpected relationship with the refugees as he attempts to understand their plight. The relationship between a relatively privileged European and a group of displaced people is sensitively developed, but even more interesting are the reflections on nation and nationalism; the questions Erpenbeck raises about borders make their way into English at a particularly apposite time, confirming her status as an important writer of our times.

Erpenbeck has also published The Old Child and The Book of Words, both translated by Bernofsky and published by Portobello/Granta.

Ariana Harwicz, Charco Press

Ariana Harwicz was one of the five Argentine authors that Charco Press launched with in 2017. She writes frenzied and disturbing accounts of women’s experience on the edge of reason, and is an explosive and innovative writer. Charco co-director Carolina Orloff has been involved in the translation of all of Harwicz’s books, working with Sarah Moses on Die, My Love and with Annie McDermott on Feebleminded and the forthcoming Precocious.

The women in Harwicz’s narrative universe are “in the prime of life and in freefall” (Die, My Love): Die, My Love was longlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2018, and is an extraordinary debut in which a woman living in the French countryside struggles with maternity and with a man who can never be all she wants him to be. On its initial release in Spanish, critics rushed to categorise Die, My Love as a narrative of post-natal depression, but it is so much more than this: it is a challenge to society, a voice that refuses to be silenced, and a turbulent account of an outsider’s experience with no neat solutions.

Feebleminded returns to many of the themes of Die, My Love, and if possible is even more intense. The narrator and her mother live in a chaotic household in the countryside, constantly at loggerheads with one another but unable to exist apart. The prose is sparse and violent, but rhythmic, viscerally poetic, and full of striking images which are rendered beautifully in the translation. Contrasts abound in Feebleminded: love is perversion, tenderness is violence, lucidity is madness, and the basic premise rests on the following question: could a person want something so badly they destroy it? Harwicz’s prose is electrifying and addictive, and we can look forward to her third translated novel, Precocious, coming from Charco in 2020.

*Ariana Harwicz will be in conversation with Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott at the Translating Women conference in London on 1 November 2019; visit the conference webpage for details and booking links!*

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Pushkin Press

Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen writes page-turning narratives that offer a painfully acute observation of human fallibility and experience. Translator Sondra Silverston is perfectly matched to Gundar-Goshen’s wry whimsy, and all of these books are a treat to read. If you’re after a good story, you’re in safe hands here: Gundar-Goshen’s storytelling is a thing of beauty, as is Silverston’s translation.

Gundar-Goshen’s debut One Night, Markovitch is a modern-day fable that follows the lives of two friends, the “gloriously average” anti-hero Yaacov Markovitch and his larger-than-life best friend Zeev Feinberg. Thanks to Zeev’s sexual exploits with the butcher’s wife, the two men have to flee their village in Eretz Israel and make marriages of convenience in Europe. Once back in Israel the new couples are to divorce, but Markovitch falls in love with his new wife and refuses to let her go – a decision that sets in motion a chain of events unfolding over decades and weaving together the destiny of all the characters. The narrative develops in unexpected ways, with retribution never quite falling where you think it will.

Gundar-Goshen followed One Night, Markovitch with Waking Lions, a tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement. Dr Eitan Green is a good man who did a bad thing: speeding along a deserted moonlit road, he hit and killed a man. His life is then torn between two women: his wife, Liat, a senior detective in the Israeli police with a keen sense of what is right, and Sirkit, a taciturn Eritrean who sweeps floors for a living. Sirkit is the wife of the man Eitan killed: she saw what happened, and she comes to demand atonement. Fast-paced and full of suspense, this novel is not to be missed.

Liar was Gundar-Goshen’s latest release in translation, and is a piercing look at how one unfortunate decision or instinct can ruin lives. 17-year-old Nofar is desperate to escape the anonymity of being unexceptional, and when a washed-up reality TV star insults her outside the ice cream parlour where she works, she lets out all her rage in a scream that will change her life: from this moment on, Nofar is caught up in a web of deceit from which no-one will emerge unscathed. Gundar-Goshen deftly blends humour and pathos in all her works, and is a writer I highly recommend.

Annie Ernaux, Fitzcarraldo Editions

A literary institution in France, Annie Ernaux has only recently come to publication in the UK thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions. Ernaux writes primarily from her own experience, and engages with issues that shaped her life and the lives of many other women throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

The Years was the first of Ernaux’s books to appear in translation (by Alison L. Strayer) from publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, and was released in 2018. This monumental book is described as a “collective autobiography” of French twentieth-century cultural history: filtered through the experience of a woman we see through photographs, and who we know to be Ernaux, The Years represents her imperative to bear witness before “all the images (…) fade”.

Ernaux’s second English-language release was Happening (translated by Tanya Leslie) earlier this year; this short novella reconstructs Ernaux’s experience of a clandestine abortion in 1963, supplementing her memory of events with fragments of a journal she kept at the time. Through the public articulation of her experience, Ernaux fulfills a sense of moral responsibility to hold a misogynist social system up to justice. It’s not an easy read, but it is a fearless and necessary one: In this time of desensitization and indifference we need books like Happening, and it begs to be experienced, even if not “enjoyed” as such.

I Remain in Darkness is the next of Ernaux’s books that Fitzcarraldo will publish later this year (also translated by Leslie). I read this in French many years ago – it’s another autobiographical piece, but this time focuses on Ernaux’s elderly mother, dying and already written off by the healthcare system. Expect painful insights and more no-holds-barred depictions of human frailty.