Monthly Archives: September 2020

Review: PAULA, Sandra Hoffmann

Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire (V&Q Books, 2020)

This week sees the launch of German publisher V&Q’s English-language imprint: spearheaded by Katy Derbyshire, the new imprint brings some of the most exciting new fiction in German into English. Two of the three launch releases are by women writers, and so this is the first in a two-part V&Q bonanza: today I’m reviewing Paula by Sandra Hoffman, translated by Derbyshire herself, and next week I’ll be talking about Daughters by Lucy Fricke, translated by Sinéad Crowe.

Paula is Hoffmann’s attempt to understand a woman who was stiflingly close to her but yet remained distant. Her maternal grandmother (the eponymous Paula) is a troubled and taciturn woman who has never revealed the identity of her child’s father: a devout Swabian Catholic, Paula is typically depicted with one hand in her apron pocket, worrying her rosary beads as she works her way through the prayers that are the silent soundtrack to her granddaughter’s life and narrative. Imprisoned in a silence that takes over the house and leaves her adrift into adulthood, Hoffman sets out to reclaim words never said, and so to understand Paula, “as though all the unspoken words were seeking ways out of that mute body and into the room, forging the way to you.” She is clear from the start that her imagination will fill in the blanks of a story she only knows in fragments (“I am an unreliable narrator”, she warns us and, later, “memory is inconstant”). As well as words, Hoffmann considers the importance of photographs in reconstructing memory (or in constructing it where it is withheld). Static images of a moment fixed in time allow the person viewing the photograph to impose a story on them, but in the end they too are wordless and can never create a story beyond the moment that they capture. Fiction, then, becomes Hoffmann’s only recourse to “close gaps between image and image, fragment and fragment.”

I appreciated the truthfulness of the blanks and gaps, for there is no plausible way that Hoffmann could offer a full backstory of someone who, as she acknowledges, “took her whole life to the grave”. Yet this all-pervasive silence is harmful, persisting doggedly even when the young Hoffmann was taken to family therapy because of the eating disorder that the deliberate silence passed down through generations has triggered. Hoffmann’s narrative is prompted by her need to know who her grandfather was, to break through the schweigen (a word I’m delighted to have discovered – it opens the text and features in the excellent translator’s note), but this is impossible as Paula died without revealing her secret, and left no posthumous clue. We only know fragments – for example, that Paula was engaged to a man who died in the war (but could not have been the father of her child), or that she drowned her sorrows in plum brandy when Hoffmann’s mother was young – but we never get to know Paula beyond the melancholy of a life half-lived, and which is perhaps best summed up in this reflection: “It was as though her laughter forbade itself, as if taking joy from life was forbidden, as if she had sinned so severely against her God that only prayer helped now.”

Paula has devoted her life to prayer, and this religious devotion is passed down to her granddaughter in the form of guilt and shame: as a child, Hoffmann becomes obsessed with saying five flawless “Our Fathers” to cancel out any involuntary negative thoughts she may have had about her grandmother, convinced that otherwise something bad will happen because of the bad thoughts. In this sense, Paula functions as a kind of malevolent deity, who her granddaughter believes is all-seeing and all-knowing: Paula is a difficult presence, suffocating and invasive in her silence, and fostering Hoffmann’s fear that “she’ll make me turn into her, she’ll make sure there’s no difference between her fear and mine, between her prayers and mine.”  As secrets and silence swell around her, the young Hoffmann feels that there is no room in the house for her, and envies friends who have a space of their own with no grandparent constantly lurking outside their bedroom door. Ultimately, then, she creates her own “territory” by writing: writing is not only an attempt to understand her grandmother, but also to free herself from Paula, to understand the difficult closeness of their relationship and to come to terms with it.

The translation is, unsurprisingly, excellent. Derbyshire is a skilled linguist, sensitive to the nuances between her two languages and attuned to questions of register, syntax and lexical variety. Some of my favourite instances of word choices include verbs such as “clouds scud above us like flags”, “Up on the slope a fox skulks past”, but really you could open this book at any page and find a beautifully crafted sentence, paragraph, thought or thread. Derbyshire writes in her translator’s note about finding Hoffmann’s “voice” in English (this is particularly important for the opening section of the text, but save the translator’s note for after you’ve read the book – it’s well worth reading it once you’ve absorbed Paula rather than pre-emptively before you spend a few hours with Hoffmann’s family), and though I can’t read the original German, there is something distinctive and consistent in the melancholy, the care, the images, and the crystallisation of years of pain in single breathtaking sentences that mark this out as a superb translation.

I’m delighted that Paula has found its home in English, and hope that the new imprint of V&Q Books will continue to bring us great women’s writing from German; in the meantime, I’ll see you back here next week to talk about Daughters.

Review copy of Paula provided by V&Q Books

Review: THE LYING LIFE OF ADULTS, Elena Ferrante

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2020)

I’m going to start this review with a confession: until last month, I had never read anything by Elena Ferrante.

Okay, I’ve got that off my chest.

The Lying Life of Adults is a stand-alone book that has yet to receive the attention and hype of the Neapolitan Quartet: I approached it as a blank slate, hoping for an engaging and engrossing story that would sweep me away into its universe. And, for the most part, that’s exactly what I got.

The Lying Life of Adults is narrated by Giovanna who, at the time the narrative is set, is a thirteen-year-old girl from an affluent family, living in a beautiful home high above Naples. Her parents are successful yet modest, and their house filled with love. Yet this idyllic appearance masks hidden truths that Giovanna unravels slowly after overhearing a chance conversation between her parents that sets her on a path down to the depths of the poorest areas of Naples, where she meets her estranged aunt Vittoria and is drawn into Vittoria’s brash, chaotic and passionate life.

Giovanna’s father, Andrea, distanced himself from a family that he has always depicted as an emotional succubus, determined to control him and hold him back. When Giovanna, on the cusp of an uncomfortable transition into adolescence, overhears him telling her mother that Giovanna is getting “the face of Vittoria”, she becomes obsessed with her appearance, brooding over a genetically unavoidable meanness of spirit that she feels certain is becoming etched on her face so that she will resemble the caricature of the aunt she has never met. Vittoria is presented as a shadowy and malevolent figure who presides over all Giovanna’s childhood fears, and Giovanna’s decision to confront Vittoria does nothing to free her from this reign of terror: instead she is drawn into another version of events, one in which her father is not the honest, kind, upstanding man that she has always believed him to be. Giovanna’s decision is the catalyst for an irrevocable shift in the lives of the whole family: caught between two versions of truth, two versions of Naples, and two versions of herself, Giovanna’s comfortable world will be rocked to its core and life changed forever.

I’ve come to realise that Goldstein favours a translation that lets the original language show through: I confess that syntactical or lexical calques can jolt me out of the storytelling universe, but given how accomplished the rest of the translation is, I can only assume that these are deliberate choices. Conversely, I greatly appreciated Goldstein’s approach to dealing with places and dialect: I much prefer for street names and, for example, the names of dishes or delicacies, to remain in the original language, and this is the method that Goldstein favours. As for the instances of dialect, I don’t know whether or not they appear in Neapolitan dialect in the original text, but Goldstein deals with conversations in dialect very sensitively, avoiding any kind of adaptation and instead dealing with them in a more subtle way (I can’t give examples as I was reading an uncorrected proof, so you’ll just have to either trust me or read it for yourself and see if you agree!)

In short, The Lying Life of Adults offers a maelstrom of affairs, unrequited love, beauty, death, promises broken and appearances shattered – and, to top it all off, a bracelet that could be either a lucky charm or a curse. It is, purely and simply, a “good read” – fun, engaging, but also with some serious edges and reflections on adolescence, relationships, loss of innocence and the shifting notions of “truth” and “memory”, highlighting how these are always subjective and never the same for two people. It’s sure to be a great success, and deservedly so.

Review copy of The Lying Life of Adults provided by Europa Editions

 

Review: DEAD GIRLS by Selva Almada

Translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, 2020)

After the success of Selva Almada’s English-language debut The Wind That Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews, published by Charco Press in 2019, and reviewed here), this autumn Charco brings us her next translated work, the journalistic fiction Dead Girls. The pairing of Almada with Annie McDermott as translator is an unmitigated success: McDermott translates with characteristic linguistic verve and sensitivity to detail, respecting the delicate stylistic balance between journalism, memoir and fiction that characterises Almada’s exposition of casual femicides in Argentina. Dead Girls explores questions of social justice, of gender inequality, and of the danger that women can be silenced by brutal means just for spurning a man’s advances, for the dishonour of being slandered or, as we are reminded, “simply for being a woman.” The “interior” or provincial Argentina that Almada describes is a small-minded and misogynist place where violence is commonplace, transvestites and homosexuals are not welcome, and women are dominated, abused, or held in contempt, a place where “horror could live with you, under your roof.” Almada explains that not only was this normalisation of gendered violence accepted, but also guilt was laid squarely at the feet of the victims: “if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.”

Almada focuses on three young women or girls who were murdered in the 1980s, and whose killers have never been brought to justice. Andrea Danne was stabbed in her own bed, María Luisa Quevedo was raped and strangled before her body was dumped in some wasteland, and Sarita Mundín’s decomposing body washed up on the banks of the Tcalamochita river (or, rather, the decomposing body of a young woman was washed up, it was deemed to be Sarita, and the investigation was closed). Three girls aged between 15 and 20, three of many whose deaths go unsolved and unpunished. Almada retraces their final days, and aims to reconstruct not just their last moments, movements and conversations, but the entire universe that the girls inhabited, to better understand, scrutinise, and denounce how their fate came to pass.

Almada intertwines her investigation with memories of her own childhood growing up in a similar community in provincial Argentina, questioning the things she too took for granted or assumed were “normal” – from the absence of telephones to the women being controlled by husbands, fathers and brothers. She sets out to find out what she can, via a combination of research through newspaper archives and interviews with people who knew the girls. But even here she is met with silence – Sarita’s confidante chooses “not to reveal her pain, which is hers alone, something intimate that she defends tooth and nail”, Andrea’s sister “prefers to remain silent”, and María Luisa’s brother is evasive, finally meeting with Almada only to disappoint her in the lack of light he can – or wants to – shed on the case.

Faced with a silence that carries through into the present, Almada seeks answers elsewhere: the particular idiosyncrasy that makes this piece so individual is Almada’s decision to consult a medium, in an attempt to communicate with the dead girls beyond the grave. This is a brave and innovative twist on journalistic fiction, and one which gave me goosebumps as I read, but which ultimately represented a slight anti-climax: in her final visit, the medium tells Almada to let go, and to let the dead girls “go back to where they belong.” This did feel a little too convenient – there is no neat ending, and so the medium offers one that feels discordant with a text whose objective was “to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and then let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.” The gap between “wherever they have to go” and “back where they belong” was, for me, the one disappointment of the piece, but it must be said that Almada herself is more poetic and less conclusive in the way she takes leave of her three dead girls – but as always, I’ll leave you to discover the ending for yourselves. Dead Girls is an important and moving work that invites us to reflect on cultural practices that we would like to think are distant in both time and place, but which are frighteningly recognisable. This is not a book that will make you feel at peace with the world, but that is precisely where its strength and persuasion lie.

Review copy of Dead Girls provided by Charco Press