Monthly Archives: December 2020

REVIEW: Esther Kinsky, GROVE and Jean Frémon, NATIVITY

Esther Kinsky, Grove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove is a story of mourning: the narrator has recently lost her love, and travels to places both familiar and unfamiliar to her in order to work her way through her grief. She visits cemeteries and attends unnoticed the funerals of strangers, observing death and the mourning of others as a way to cope with the pain of her own loss. She notices grief where it might previously have gone unobserved, underlining how loss can change everything in our perspective on the world. The narrator becomes herself like the herons she observes at one cemetery: “guardians of the dead who kept watch at a proper distance, unobserved attendants to the gathered mourners.”

This kind of voyeuristic introspection (I know that sounds weird – it’s the best description I can come up with) wasn’t the highlight for me, though; I responded much more viscerally to the narrator’s intermittent references to her own mourning. There are plaintive comments that describe grief vividly and yet without melodrama: it is acknowledged that there is “no consolation in bereavement”, and that an insurmountable loss makes things that once were simple seem impossible: “Each morning I had to learn everything anew”. Similarly, the instinctive connection between memory and objects is sensitively detailed (“For years these memories were stored somewhere in my head and now they surged up only because here, at this place, I came across the missing negatives that must have been tucked away in the unused side pocket for a long time”), as is the way in which memory changes over time: “As time passed after my father’s death, he became even smaller in my mental picture of this walk along the river, and his suitcase ever larger, into which he had stuffed who knows how much of his life that he had never found a name for.” These glimpses of the narrator’s own emotion were the parts that really appealed to me in this otherwise understated narrative of grief.

The translation by Caroline Schmidt is stylistically beautiful, capturing the wistfulness and the precision of the narrator’s observations. In particular, the descriptions of nature regularly contain a single descriptive verb that makes it clear how well Schmidt has “got” this narrator: “Scattered cyprus saplings buckled over, as if in pain”; “A violent thunderstorm broke the heat that had crouched above the landscape.” There is no dialogue in Grove, or overt interaction with other characters in the present; the narrator speaks very formally (objects are weighted “qua testimony”, a town sits “atop” a hill), and there are occasional arcane phrases (“a languid summer that augured ill”) and uses of syntax (“idle lists of a forlornness that knows not what to do with itself”). This lends a gravity and formality to the narrative that is maintained admirably by Schmidt, whose translation also includes plenty of references to nature that I didn’t recognise even in English (a red-backed shrike creaks in a bush, while cliffs form tuffs on the coastline and a water ditch is lined by canebrake). I always like learning new words, and Grove was certainly the book for that. While it wasn’t “my” kind of book, it did make me think about myself – specifically about how we have to listen to what other people need us to be when they’re sharing their pain. I may not have felt a close connection with the narrator, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the shortcomings are with her.

Jean Frémon, Nativity, translated from French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2020)

This short essay from Les Fugitives is the second offering from Jean Frémon and Cole Swensen and, like the first, represents a kind of homage to Louise Bourgeois. 2018’s Now, Now, Louison was a fictionalised biography of Bourgeois by Frémon, who was a friend of hers, and Nativity features five original pieces of art by Bourgeois that she painted in watered-down gouache to accompany this reflection by Frémon on the representation of Jesus in art.

Frémon’s focus is on a painting being commissioned hundreds of years ago: the fictional painter is given the task of painting “a large Nativity on a single panel” for a palace chapel, and must succeed in representing divinity made incarnate. The painting is not solely for decorative purpose: it should not only inspire those who already read the Bible, but also serve as an instruction those who cannot read and write. His artwork must, therefore, make it clear that the baby in the painting is the son of God. Traditional depictions of the baby Jesus achieve this variously by painting a golden aura radiating from him to show that he is no ordinary child, revealing his mystery in the awe-filled faces of those gathered around, or filling the tableau with angels and kings to demonstrate the significance of his birth; this painter decides instead to dispense with the swaddling clothes, believing that the key to showing the child’s divinity lies in his nakedness. This is also, of course, the most basic sign of his humanity, thereby instructing all those who view the painting that the son of Mary is also the Son of God.

Frémon discusses the Nativity analytically, and Swensen translates with great poise, subtly communicating two key things in particular: firstly, that Frémon’s decision to focus on a painter and his mission brings something very personal to the history encompassed within this short essay and secondly, that the women are notable by their absence. The painting is commissioned by a man, of a man, about the Son of Man, but the illustrations offer a different perspective. The five paintings by Bourgeois are made up of red brushstrokes, and depict the more human side of the Christmas story: a child swelling in the womb, a birth, a hungry newborn.

In four of the five paintings, the mother is as present as the child, and these invite as much reflection as Frémon’s prose. Heavily pregnant, she has just undertaken a gruelling journey, and then gone into labour and given birth in a stable. While I entirely understand the focus on the child – whether divine or human – it’s the depictions of Mary that I’m always drawn to, and they could easily have been absent from this essay just as they are absent from much discourse of the Nativity. The artwork by Bourgeois fills this void: among other images, she traces in blood-red strokes a view such as the one that Joseph – as de facto midwife – might have had.

The reflections are compelling and lucidly composed; in contrast the representations offered by Bourgeois are carnal, showing that for all the divine wonder of the Nativity, it is also the story of a first-time mother giving birth in extraordinary – and probably terrifying – circumstances. At the start of the essay, the canon commissioning the painter explains that “we depend on the imagination of painting to prove reality”, and the prints by Bourgeois do exactly that: this is an distinctly humanised view of the Nativity, and an interesting alternative Christmas story for you to seek out this year.

REVIEW: Claudia Hernández, SLASH AND BURN & Juan Pablo Villalobos, I DON’T EXPECT ANYONE TO BELIEVE ME

Claudia Hernández, Slash and Burn, translated from Spanish (El Salvador) by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories, 2021)

Slash and Burn is the first novel in English of Salvadoran writer Claudia Hernández. Technically exquisite and sensitively translated by Julia Sanches, Slash and Burn follows the life of a Salvadoran woman who fought in her country’s civil war, and who struggles to keep her family together years later. The unnamed woman gave birth to a daughter during the war, but the child was taken from her so she could continue to fight; her husband died in the war and she later had three other daughters, but hanging over the rural family life and its daily difficulties is the spectre of the child who was taken away. The mother desperately wants to be reunited with her daughter, and embarks on a voyage of discovery that takes her to France, a country distant in every way from anything she has experienced. There she finds an uptight bourgeois girl who is prone to bouts of depression and wants nothing to do with her, and so two family stories unfold simultaneously: the mother’s attempt to connect with her lost first child, and her efforts to keep together a slowly unravelling family back home.

Silence reigns over the household, the village, and the country: an unwritten code of honour means that the ex combatants internalise pain and try to provide a better future for their children without explaining to them what came before. However noble the mother’s silence may be, ultimately it rips through her family, creating fault lines between them that the children try to cross while each generation struggles to understand the other: “She couldn’t expect her to get married, have kids, and stay there for ever, looking after the children, the fields, and the chickens. Why not? She would’ve liked to do that herself. She would’ve preferred it to going about the mountains, weapon to shoulder. But she’d done it so they could have everything she was claiming not to want.” Yet it is the silence itself that perpetuates this lack of understanding, as the mother’s insistence on keeping her pain secret alienates her from her children: “Why couldn’t they appreciate the sacrifices she’d made? In part because she’d never shared any of the particulars.”

The peripheral characters are also beautifully sketched, giving a sense of both rural and urban life, and an insight into how history has affected every household. Simple, almost throwaway clauses show the reality of life both generally (“they had an itinerary to keep and a specific time to be back by if they didn’t want roadside thieves to seize everything they’d gone to the capital for”) and specifically for households where no man was present to protect the family (“the robbers respected the men’s presence, even those who were elderly or weaker than they were. They viewed the women as they had before the war, even though they’d fought beside them, saved their lives on occasion, and could even kill them now, claiming they’d trespassed on their property. But they knew none of them would.”) This kind of understatement is characteristic of the novel, where a loved one’s brutal death is mentioned obliquely while remembering a lost wedding ring (“It can’t have been left in the place where he was turned into a thousand pieces. And it wasn’t at home. That much she was sure of: he’d have told her”) and an unwritten wartime law is explained impassively (“they could end up on trial in their camps and lose their lives after being forced to dig the ditch their bodies would lie in”).

No character is named, and many of them have two names (neither of which is ever used explicitly) – one given at birth, and another in wartime. This is occasionally confusing, and must have been extremely challenging for the translation, but Sanches is never heavy-handed: “her name, not the one she got from her mother but the one she was given in battle. She’ll call her by her given name unless she goes by the one on her birth certificate. Some ex combatants had gone back to their earlier ones.” The lack of names both reflects the ex combatants’ need for anonymity and elevates the experience of individual characters to a more universal one – this is a close scrutiny of one family, but it is also representative of a generation.

The translator’s note at the end is excellent, and offers insight into the complexities of the political situation, as well as the challenges of translating a text where no-one is named. Sanches also makes a vital point about the importance of circulating narratives from parts of the world that don’t receive much attention, and adding to the diversity of the literary landscape. Slash and Burn is a triumph from beginning to end, truly extraordinary in style and scope, its simmering narrative swelling towards an emotional conclusion.

Juan Pablo Villalobos, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories, 2020)

My next recommendation is also published by And Other Stories, and is about as different from Slash and Burn as you could imagine, but equally brilliant. I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is a gangster-crime-campus-novel from Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos: equal parts hilarious and horrifying, it is translated with sublime deadpan humour by Daniel Hahn.

Juan Pablo is a hapless doctoral student from Mexico who gets caught up in a gangster underworld that takes him to Barcelona, where he is tasked with making the (lesbian) daughter of a high-ranking official fall in love with him. If he fails in his mission… well, this is a gangster underworld, so you can imagine the stakes. He might meet the same fate as the would-be-entrepreneur cousin who got him caught up in this mess in the first place (let’s just say it was a closed coffin).

From the first page I laughed out loud: “When I arrive, there are three of them there, plus my cousin. All with dark fuzz on their upper lips (we’re sixteen at this point, maybe seventeen), faces covered in spots oozing a viscous yellowish liquid, with four enormous noses (one apiece)” – it’s the “one apiece” that got me, and this kind of humorous parenthesis continues riotously through the entire novel – even when brains are splattered across basements and mistaken identity has fatal consequences. There are some hilarious send-ups of cultural stereotypes (“you know what Catalans think when Barça’s five-nil up? That the other guys are about to bring them to a draw”) alongside serious indictments of corrupt western regimes (“We’re giving him the opportunity of a lifetime, if he makes the most of it he could end up as a minister, or president of the autonomous government, if that’s what he wants, or rather if that’s what we want”), epistolary appearances from a neurotic mother and a dead relative, and a severe case of dermatitis nervosa.

The story is engaging and the storytelling wickedly funny, but it was the ending that absolutely knocked me for six: I have a no-spoiler policy here, so all I can say is read it and watch out for those final three chapters, and how different threads fall away until… well, until you’re left with an unexpected voice and an unpredictable ending.

Like Slash and Burn, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is followed by an exceptional translator’s note. Hahn dissects knotty translation problems with a sardonic humour: this translator’s note is as glorious as the novel itself. I read and re-read it, and then pored over page 243 (there’s a challenge, readers, and I dare you to pick up the gauntlet). Brimming with black humour, self-deprecating irony and surreal shenanigans, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is simultaneously witty and dark, an escapist read that will stay with you after the laughter has faded.