Author Archives: Helen Vassallo

Review: Nino Haratischvili, THE EIGHTH LIFE

Translated from German (Georgia) by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin (Scribe Books, 2019)

The prize ceremony for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will take place online this Thursday, and before the winner is announced I wanted to talk to you about a stunning book on the shortlist, The Eighth Life (for Brilka). I read The Eighth Life in April this year, at the start of the first lockdown: diving into a 1000-page novel just when “free time” became an alien concept might seem a little foolhardy, but all I can say is that this book was good for my soul. I spent two weeks reading a little a day, and accompanying the characters through their dreams and their tragedies until they were part of my daily life: I would find myself turning scenes over in my mind while going about my day, and wondering what would happen to the characters next. So if the sheer size of The Eighth Life puts you off, let me assure you that even in the most extraordinary of circumstances, it’s compelling enough to keep you hooked. I recorded a video for The Eighth Life five months ago(!) – it’s a sign of this crazy year that I’m only now getting to share it with you, but I hope you’ll enjoy both the readings (click on the video at the end of this post) and the thoughts I’m noting down here.

The Eighth Life is an epic family and historical saga that sweeps through the twentieth-century Russian Empire in a series of chapters named for different characters (and different generations) of the same family. The present-day narrator, Niza, is keeper of the family secrets, which were passed on to her by her grandmother, Stasia. Stasia is the family matriarch, though she is much younger when we meet her at the start of the twentieth century. Her dreams of becoming a dancer are still intact, though will be slowly dismantled by both history and marriage. The daughter of a skilled chocolate-maker, Stasia also knows the family’s secret recipe for a hot chocolate so sublime it has an almost magical effect, but its benefits come at a price, as the chocolate is also cursed. Generation after generation, tragedy befalls those who drink it, to the point where the recipe is never written down and never disclosed (a cynical reader might find this rather melodramatic, and although I’d usually class myself as one such reader, I confess to having been completely swept away by the magnificence of the whole story).

Niza’s narrative is at times formal and at times conspiratorial, addressed to her niece Brilka and all the more inviting because of the direct second-person address. Niza knows a great deal about her family history thanks to Stasia passing on all her stories, but what she doesn’t know she openly supplements or invents. This offers far more freedom in the storytelling, and allows Niza to bring the characters to life as she chronicles the story of this broken dynasty. Stasia’s two children, Kitty and Kostya, grow up as communism takes hold in Georgia: Kostya joins the military, and becomes indoctrinated with values that he clings to throughout his life – to the detriment of his family and his own happiness. Though he spends the rest of his long life lamenting a lost moment (which you can hear more about in the video), he is singularly unable to see his own role in the downfall of his family.

Yet if I had strong emotions towards (or against) Kostya, they paled in comparison with my reaction to Kitty. Controlled in every way by either her brother or the state (at times the line between the two is rather blurred), eventually Kitty’s only option is to leave her home and start a new life. But despite her successes elsewhere, she will forever mourn the mother she left behind and another unbearable loss (no spoilers, but watch the video to get a sense of the depth of emotion – I had to re-take that excerpt three times and my voice still wobbles at the end). The entire family is trapped in silence, suffocating on words never uttered and tears never shed: each of them failed another in a way that set them on a different path, and all of the ways in which the characters disappoint one another have repercussions for their future relationships and life choices.

One of Haratischvili’s great achievements is the empathy she is able to ignite even for her most odious characters: for example, Kostya is infuriating in his insistence on what is “right”, his dogged, dogmatic and blinded devotion to his principles and his party, and his attempts to control all the women in his family – but by making Kostya such a key part of the story, Haratischvili deftly creates empathy for this broken man even as he destroys the lives of those he most wanted to save.

The immensity of history is evident throughout The Eighth Life – not only in the use of flashback and narration of past events, but also with Niza’s awareness of what came later in (or after) her ancestors’ lives. Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin translate with a sensitivity towards both historical detail and Haratischvili’s rich storytelling: this is a sumptuous novel, exquisitely rendered. On several occasions I found myself pausing to admire the translation, re-reading entire sections to enjoy them again or marvelling over the use of a particular word; the dialogues are outstanding, as is the use of syntax and the lexical range, striking a lithe balance between understatement and sentimentality without ever leaning too heavily in either direction.

This multi-generational story of revolution and downfall strikes a endnote of possibility and new chances: Niza offers Brilka her “eighth life” in a final chapter that is as original as it was unexpected. I cannot recommend this extraordinary book highly enough, and I hope you will read it and love it as I did.

Watch my video on The Eighth Life by clicking on the link below (don’t forget: if you’re reading this review in your email, you’ll need to click through to the website to view the video, or watch it directly on Vimeo!)

Review: Andrea Jeftanovic, THEATRE OF WAR

Translated from Spanish (Chile) by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2020)

Theatre of War is Andrea Jeftanovic’s debut novel, and the final offering from a brilliant 2020 Charco catalogue. The narrator, Tamara, presents her past as if it were a play, inviting an audience to sit and observe “the spectacle of my childhood” in a script that is continually being written. Her family are all present on stage, acting the role ascribed to them, and Tamara is simply an actor playing her part, not directing or pulling the strings. This allows for an objectivity in parts of the narration that provides an excellent balance to Tamara’s more introspective monologues, a balance that mirrors the tension between historical atrocity and personal experience.

An unresolved trauma hangs heavy over the childhood household: Tamara’s father has fled his Balkan homeland, and is obsessed both with the memories of his losses there and with the news that tells him how his homeland continues to tear itself apart. “Dad is stuck in time, remembering the war” says Tamara’s child voice, observing how the present is not enough to pull her father out of the emotional stasis in which the war has left him. The legacy of the war is passed down to a generation who had no direct experience of it, transmitted through the father’s silences and obsessions: “I inhabit places I’ve never been. Dad, on the other hand, has never left that distant time.” Dragged into a past that her father can neither leave nor fully share, Tamara is left adrift, and turns to writing to find her own territory (“I founded my own country in a blue notebook where I’m not a minority”), and this gives her a place to call home (“My blue journal, the site where I’d founded my homeland, now pushes me into new territories”). As for Tamara’s mother, she is struggling with ghosts of her own, as it transpires that her other two children are from a different relationship (which will be the only one she remembers when a sudden collapse leads her to lose a big swathe of her memory). She papers over the cracks in her marriage, finding solace in the arms of a decorator, and ultimately leaves Tamara’s father one night that represents “another warped date that will alter the rest of the calendar.”

All of this brokenness is recounted in the present tense, lending an immediacy to the narration that works very well with the theatrical setting. Though Tamara as a character can only follow where her role takes her, Jeftanovic as author deftly directs her narrator via a detached yet expressive prose that recounts personal and historical tragedy without melodrama or sensationalism. Frances Riddle’s translation is, as always, impeccable: perfectly pitched and with an admirable knack for finding unexpected words and collocations that, once you’ve read them, seem like the only possible option: a “gnash of fire on the horizon”, “dented voices shuddering the walls”, “there are lagoons of silence”, “Dad cloaked by the newspaper, hiding his fist of a heart behind it”, “they strafe the centre of my heart”).

The wars in Theatre of War are all-pervading and suffocating, but feature primarily as a backdrop for the characters’ lives: the real battles are between the characters themselves, for their love and survival. In her adult life, Tamara struggles to build lasting relationships, to allow herself to love, and to come to terms with her childhood. Her multiple losses leave her standing “in the middle of the battlefield”, with the first glimmer of healing coming only when she reunites with her sister. I will, however, leave you to discover where that encounter (along with the many others that make up her adult life) takes her for, as the director of this play warns us as we hurtle towards the final scene, “everyone’s secrets will be revealed.” Theatre of War is a striking debut from Jeftanovic, a first-class translation from Riddle, and an excellent conclusion to Charco’s 2020 catalogue.

Review copy of Theatre of War provided by Charco Press

Join the virtual launch for Theatre of War on Tuesday 8 December

Review: Annie Ernaux, A MAN’S PLACE

Translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

The release of A Man’s Place makes Annie Ernaux the most published author at Fitzcarraldo Editions: this is the fifth of Ernaux’s books to be published in translation by Fitzcarraldo, with another two scheduled to come next year. A chronicler of personal and historical detail, Ernaux looks back on pivotal moments or relationships with a detached observation that belies deep emotion, and offers a portrait of a particular time, place and milieu that shaped her. In A Man’s Place, the subject is Ernaux’s father, a working class countryman who had been taken out of school at the age of twelve to work on a farm and pay his way. Defined when people spoke of him by the fact that he could neither read nor write, he had always wanted his daughter to rise above the “humiliating barriers” of a social situation in which he felt trapped, forever striving for a better life and never quite attaining it. Ernaux’s relationship with him was complex, and A Man’s Place represents her attempt to document his life as she knew it.

The narrative opens with Ernaux announcing her father’s death, information that she imparts with characteristic understatement: “My father died exactly two months later, to the day … It was a Sunday, in the early afternoon”. The earlier event to which Ernaux refers here was her success in the entrance exams to the teacher training college in Rouen: it was a milestone in her life, but she had been unaware that her father was proud of her achievement. She discovers the significance of her success for her father when she looks through his wallet after his death and finds a newspaper clipping of the exam results: the names are listed in order of merit, and Ernaux’s was second on the list. The father’s unarticulated pride is, however, always coupled with a more palpable resentment that his daughter has been able to move “up”, to leave her parents behind, to notice their lack of refinement and in that silent observation to make them realise that she no longer accepts their ways without question.

This is a story of missed moments and painful silences, written in what Ernaux herself identifies as a neutral style and presented as an endeavour that brings her no joy. Yet the words she chooses to write her father’s story are perfectly pitched to offer both an insight into the hardships of her father’s life and an understanding of her experience of him as a daughter. Emotions were not easily expressed in the household, and this inflects Ernaux’s detached writing style: not only does she describe it as akin to the way she wrote to her parents after she moved away, but also she observes her younger self from a vantage point years later, struggling to recognise in that stranger the person she still harbours inside her (this is even more evident in the wonderful A Girl’s Story, published earlier this year by Fitzcarraldo in Alison L. Strayer’s translation). Even the decomposition of her father’s corpse is presented in a measured way (“Within a few hours, my father’s face had changed beyond all recognition … The smell set in on the Monday”). Indeed, the imperative to remain objective is explicitly voiced when Ernaux notes that she had originally thought of writing a novel about her father, but realised that this was out of the question as “in order to tell the story of a life governed by necessity, I have no right to adopt an artistic approach.”

Yet Ernaux creates a work that is artistic in an unconventional way: to write a man crippled by fear of saying the wrong thing, she chooses her words with great care and embeds simple refrains from her childhood household in beautifully crafted sentences. She places these phrases in italics, and so they stand out to allow insight into the way her parents thought and spoke. Her parents are “afraid they would lose everything and lapse back into working-class poverty”, “always afraid they would eat into their capital”, and are haunted by “this fear of being ashamed, out of place.” Ernaux’s father is afraid of what other people will say, of using the wrong words (which would have been “as bad as breaking wind”), of being looked down on; the italicised phrases and the fear they contain are, as Ernaux explicitly notes, inseparably linked to her childhood. Tanya Leslie weaves them admirably into delicate sentences of her own, her careful and lucid translation respecting Ernaux’s understated eloquence. The only thing I’m less convinced about in the translation is the title: the French La Place is less specific, and so the translated title becomes less representative of the book itself. I had similar reservations about the translated title of Happening (though my quibble there was more that the title diluted the original), and I do think that Ernaux’s titles (with the possible exception of The Years) are particularly difficult to translate literally. I’m sure this won’t be a deal-breaker, anyway – fans of Ernaux will find much to enjoy in A Man’s Place, and for those new to her work it will give an excellent introduction to her writing style and preoccupations.

It’s twenty years since I first read La Place, and it was fascinating to read it in translation with a couple of decades of reading and living under my belt. I felt much more empathy towards Ernaux’s father than I remember feeling back then, and the carefully contained and articulated emotion struck me much more than they had twenty years ago – my over-riding memory had been the depiction of a suffocating home environment and Ernaux’s detachment towards her family. These things, of course, are only part of the story, but that’s how my memory had condensed it (“Memory resists”, writes Ernaux; personal reminiscence is unreliable). Above all, A Man’s Place is an emotive goodbye to a man who remained distant from his daughter, a homage born of silences and the inability to find a way to reach one another. Ernaux’s father’s greatest fear was giving his daughter cause for shame; his greatest satisfaction “the fact that I belonged to the world which had scorned him.” In this touching tribute she creates in her “educated bourgeois world” a legacy for a man she will never fully know, giving him his place by carving it out in a world from which he always felt excluded.

Review copy of A Man’s Place provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions

REVIEW: Translators Aloud YouTube channel

Earlier this year, literary translators Charlie Coombe and Tina Kover set up Translators Aloud, a YouTube channel dedicated to putting translators in the spotlight. The channel grew from a speculative tweet by Tina, who at the time was considering reading a section from one of her translations and wondered whether there would be an audience for it. The response was definite and affirmative: not only did people want to hear it, but many other translators had also had similar thoughts and fears. Buoyed by this wave of response, Charlie suggested setting up a YouTube channel: by the end of that same day Translators Aloud (which was given its activism-meets-popular-culture name by Open University PhD student Babs Spicer) had been created.

On the channel, Charlie and Tina post regular short videos of translators reading from their work. A fruit of the global lockdown which Charlie says came about because “we were both looking for something inspiring to focus on” at a difficult and restricted time, it is a venture that brings together the best of a virtual community. Translators Aloud shares work at a time when it has not been possible to meet in person, using the modern technologies we’ve never appreciated so much until now to create a positive space for exchange. Translators Aloud is not only an excellent platform for translators trying to promote or pitch their work, but also a space in which to represent voices from around the world, bringing cultures together at a time when we are physically distanced and subjected to powerful discourses of division. It also advocates for the visibility of the translator, showing explicitly how these texts became available in English by having them read by the people who wrote the English versions.

The channel has grown in popularity and diversity, with almost 700 subscribers to date; there are over a hundred videos available to view, with the readings grouped into playlists for easy navigation. There were a number of special posts to mark International Translation Day on 30 September, notably videos from the wonderful Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Ros Schwartz, in which they give guidance to aspiring literary translators on how to pitch projects and read from their own work. Tina says this is the feature she’s most proud of, as “it felt like we were helping our community and our colleagues, and that was great.” As an added International Translation Day bonus, you can also watch Emily Wilson give a dramatic reading of her controversial and highly acclaimed translation of Homer’s Odyssey.

You won’t be surprised to learn that my favourite playlist is the one devoted to readings of women in translation. I’m always slightly wary of grouping translations by original language (though I fully recognise the convenience and simplicity of doing so) because it can potentially mean that less dominant languages still don’t get the same recognition that the “big” languages (such as French and Spanish) do, and so for me the themed playlists do exactly what I want from publicising translations – they promote diversity, encourage us to look beyond our own bubbles or what we think we like or identify with, and discover something new.

When I asked Tina and Charlie about their hopes for the future, Tina had this to say: “Obviously I hope we’ll continue to attract subscribers, and to boost sales of translated books as people discover these wonderful readings and are inspired to buy books they wouldn’t even have heard of otherwise. But right now what I’m most excited about is our new ‘Seeking a Publisher’ playlist, which features as-yet-undiscovered projects that are ripe and ready to be picked up, with the English-language rights available. If we can help in bringing more world literature to the market, I would feel incredibly satisfied that we’d really made a difference at the end of the day.”

That notion of “making a difference” is so close to my heart, as if we don’t actively do what we can to make that difference, challenging universal structures or dominant narratives, then we allow an incomplete and inadequate status quo to perpetuate itself. Those of you familiar with my more academic research focus will know that I’m currently writing a book on the agency and activism of translators and publishers, so this comment from Charlie about her hopes for the channel’s growth also very much hit home for me: “I am really keen to increase awareness of how important translators are in the process of a foreign language book getting published in English, increasing awareness of what we do in general, and also increasing transparency in the publishing process. This all goes back to the main aim of Translators Aloud which is to shine the spotlight on translators.”

Any initiative that makes translators more visible gets an enthusiastic thumbs-up from me, and Translators Aloud is a wonderful community resource that both fosters and thrives on engagement and inclusion, and one which I hope will continue to grow in scope and success. You can see more in any of the hyperlinks, or follow my viewing recommendations below.

You can probably guess my first two recommendations, since Charlie and Tina have translated two of my favourite authors, and in my list you’ll also spot a number of books I’ve reviewed on this blog – if my review hasn’t already encouraged you to discover the book, hopefully the translators reading from their work will do so!

Tina Kover reads from Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental (Europa Editions, 2018)

Charlie Coombe reads from Margarita García Robayo’s Holiday Heart (Charco Press, 2020)

Ellen Elias-Bursać and Paul Gordon read from Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small (Istros Books, 2020)

Katy Derbyshire reads from Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula (V&Q Books, 2020)

Elisabeth Jaquette reads from ‘Edges’ by Rania Mamoun, from Thirteen Months of Sunrise (Comma Press, 2019)

Annie McDermott reads from ‘The Same Stone’ by Edurne Portela, from Europa28 (edited by Sarah Cleave and Sophie Hughes, Comma Press, 2020)

Richard Philcox reads from Maryse Condé’s Waiting for the Waters to Rise (World Editions, 2021)

Fiona Graham reads from Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins (Scribe Books, 2017)

Instructions for submitting work to Translators Aloud are pinned to the Twitter page, and can also be found on the “About” section of the YouTube channel.

Review: FAREWELL, GHOSTS by Nadia Terranova

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Seven Stories Press, 2020)

This week the new UK imprint of Seven Stories Press releases Nadia Terranova’s English-language debut, a coming-of-age story with a family tragedy at its heart. Ida Laquidara is a 30-something writer living in Rome with her husband, the dependable (if not exactly passionate) Pietro. This apparently contented equilibrium is disrupted when Ida’s mother calls her back home to Sicily to help her sort out the family home before she sells it; Ida’s mother wants Ida to go through her childhood possessions and decide what to do with them. Yet this will prove an emotionally intense task, for the house and all Ida’s former belongings are heavy with the memory of her father’s abandonment: when Ida was 13, her father left the house one morning at 6.16 and never returned. Though Ida starts the novel by stating that “there’s always a reason that memories should remain memories and not come to disturb the present”, in the end her return to Messina makes the memories surge and threaten to engulf her if she does not finally confront them.

We learn little about Ida’s father, Sebastiano, other than that he was depressive and that Ida had to care for him while her mother went out to work. The abandonment is what remains: the unanswered questions, the life interrupted, the unexplained departure that leaves Ida “the daughter of the absence of Sebastiano Laquidara.” As for Ida’s relationship with her mother, it is fraught and tense: reigning over the household is the silence of a pain that they both had in common but never shared. The two women are “a family that was maimed and full of silences”, bound together by a mutual rage and an inability to move on from a morning in the 1990s that has defined their life.

Twenty-three years on, the rooms in the family home are “saturated with unused hope” just like Ida and her mother, and the house itself is on the verge of falling apart. The walls, floors, plumbing and heating look in order but all threaten to give way at any time, and the metaphor is not much of a leap: Ida and her mother stay upright but brittle, silently imploding and never far from collapse. The clock, too, symbolises their life together: it is, Ida says, stuck forever at 6.16 – and so are they (she notes that “inside me the clock had never signaled afternoon”). The unresolved trauma of Sebastiano’s disappearance weighs heavy on the household, the women and their emotional lives, both of them turning into fortresses who refuse to open up but are eroding on the inside. The Sicilian landscape also comes alive in Ida’s story, aesthetically beautiful and dramatic but unwelcoming to her. Messina is her father’s city, its shoreline walked by him so often, and her certainty that he has returned to the sea both evokes images of the (overtly referenced) mythological creatures hiding in the deep and provides the turning point for Ida’s voyage back into her past.

Ann Goldstein’s translation successfully conveys the melancholy that treads a delicate path between concision and self-indulgence. The language is suitably limpid, refusing to descend into melodrama even as dramatic events unfold: “Death is a full stop, while disappearance is the absence of a stop, of any punctuation mark at the end of the words.” This considered, almost detached narration makes the heart of the story is all the more effective (for example, in the observation that “a depressed man had consciously and forever left life and the two of us.”) There aren’t so many of the syntactical or collocational calques that characterise other translations of Goldstein’s that I’ve read, and those that are there are slightly less noticeable, such as “My mother and I didn’t know how to repair the damage and so we lived it”, or they simply add to the way in which the narrative voice is constructed (“Twenty-three years ago I put in here the proofs of the existence of a man named Sebastiano Laquidara, in this red box I buried the smell and voice of my father.”)

Though Ida at times appeared a self-absorbed narrator, the defining moment in her emotional journey is realising that this is what she has become: someone so consumed with the pain of her own grief that she is no longer alive to the grief of others. Ida’s pain has taken up so much space that there was no room for anyone else, and this realisation may just be the key to letting it go – not to making amends, or to making good on the past, but to releasing her ghosts and allowing the living to take their place: Farewell, Ghosts is a melancholic and reflective novel that swells with intelligence and heart.

Review copy of Farewell, Ghosts provided by Seven Stories Press

Review: DAUGHTERS by Lucy Fricke

Translated from German by Sinéad Crowe (V&Q Books, 2020)

The new English-language imprint of V&Q Books offers another belter for its launch: following on from last week’s review of Paula (Sandra Hoffmann, translated by Katy Derbyshire), today I’m looking at Lucy Fricke’s Daughters, a book that manages to switch effortlessly between grief and humour and which, in a superb translation by Sinéad Crowe, is one of my favourite books so far this year.

Meet Betty. She’s a writer, recently turned 40, single, grieving, recovering from depression but clear-sighted enough to know that she won’t give up alcohol and adventure to aid her recovery. Betty is our narrator, and one of the most riotously caustic literary companions you’re likely to meet. Betty is best friends with Martha, who is a few years younger and desperately trying to have a baby with her husband Henning (who Betty thinks is the best thing to happen to Martha, though Henning himself considers Betty to be a nefarious influence on Martha). Betty and Martha are going to take us on a madcap road trip through Western Europe, for reasons that start out seeming fairly clear and become more complex as the story unfolds.

As well as a common loss that recurs as a leitmotiv through the narrative, Betty and Martha have another significant connection: they both have disappointing, absent, and pretty useless fathers. More than that: they are both still helplessly bound to those fathers – whether by a sense of duty or by genuine affection – and it is the fathers who become both the instigator and the destination of the daughters’ journey.

The journey itself originally comes about because Kurt, Martha’s terminally ill father, announces that he has booked himself into a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, and his last request is that Martha take him there because, as Martha puts it, “it’s not enough to get his own daughter to pay for him to die, but he expects me to drive him there too.” Still reeling from a recent accident, Martha feels unable to drive herself, and so ropes in Betty to act as chauffeur and chaperone for a journey that should be morbid but is truly hilarious.

The gang never make it as far as Switzerland. There’s a detour (romantic intrigue and promises broken), an accident, and a clue to the whereabouts of another father long presumed dead. Daughters is a fast-paced and eventful journey that packs an emotional punch, but tragedy is always underscored with humour: for example, of Kurt’s final trip, Betty’s stance is that “the thought of making one’s final journey in a Golf depressed me. I ordered a second pint and a shot”; faced with a set of tall bronze doors, she reflects that “if the doors of heaven are anything like that, I’ll never get in”, and of desperate new beginnings she opines that “At every new stage of life you end up back at Ikea, where every hope begins and ends.”

With two forty-ish women falling apart and taking to the open road, this book could very easily have fallen into tropes of gender and facile stereotypes (there is even an overt reference to Thelma and Louise), but the beauty of Fricke’s narrative direction is that it sidesteps all such conventions. Yes, there is an almost-final scene that could have felt contrived in other hands, but Fricke brings together her various narrative threads so skilfully, and smashes the picture-perfect ending so deftly, that she is always one step ahead of expectation. The friendship between the two women is multi-dimensional: they have a quiet complicity as well as a common grief; each is the only one the other can count on to offer unconditional support, yet they are fully aware of one another’s flaws (Betty is selfish, sensitive only in matters that concern her, whereas Martha “had a tight grip on herself … so tight that she was in danger of strangling  herself”). Above all, their bond is very human: Betty says of Martha that “There was no one else in the world with whom I could laugh so uproariously at misfortune” (as literary companions go, one could say the same of Betty herself).

Sinéad Crowe’s translation is edgy and full of verve, and nowhere more so than in the range of lexical expression she uses to reproduce Fricke’s humour: Betty is a “left-eyed bawler”, dangling in Kurt’s car is “a fir-shaped air freshener that had given up the ghost long ago”, and teenage dreams come to an abrupt end with the realisation that “we’d wanted to be champion race-car drivers, and now, twenty years later, we couldn’t even get out of a northern Italian car park.” Crowe excels in communicating Fricke’s sardonic wit, but also allows the pathos to come through in plaintive sentences such as “I had no idea how tenacious grief can be”, “neither of us talked any more about the powerlessness and unhappiness that hounded us every day and were slowly eating away at us”, or the one that most moved me: “Love began with you.”

I love the translator’s notes at the back because, as with Paula, it is revealed after the fact that this seemingly effortless prose is the result of much deliberation. It’s not that I (ever) want the translator to be invisible – hence my love of translator’s notes, and joy every time I see a translator’s name on a book cover – but rather that I prefer it if the process of translation – the brow-furrowing, synonym-searching, come-back-to-it-later or try-it-out-loud to see how it sounds and all the other countless demands that getting to grips with writing a text in another language entails – doesn’t jump out at me as I read. To me, the magic of a great translation (and a great translator) is making a complex task appear effortless. Both Katy Derbyshire with Paula and Sinéad Crowe with Daughters pull that off; I highly recommend that you give V&Q’s new women in translation a whirl.

Review copy of Daughters provided by V&Q Books

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

Interview with Guadalupe Nettel, author of Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories

I recently reviewed Guadalupe Nettel’s new collection, Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine, Seven Stories Press, 2020), and this week am delighted to bring you an interview with Guadalupe herself, offering insights into the themes and inspirations for Bezoar.

All of the stories in Bezoar deal with obsessions – from seemingly innocuous ones to those that can take over a life and set it on a different course. Did you deliberately write with this common theme, or is it a coincidence that there are echoes between the various stories?

Bezoar is a personal reflection on beauty, the beauty of anomaly. I’ve always felt drawn to uncommon people. For me, monsters are the absolute incarnation of beauty in its most authentic and most unpredictable form: brave and fragile beings who – whether voluntarily or involuntarily – oppose conventional models. But I didn’t choose characters that are completely out of the ordinary. Rather, I wanted to shine a light on compulsions and obsessions, the perverse tics and characteristics of ordinary people, the people we come across every day, ourselves even. We all have some aspect of our personality that we’d like to hide at any cost. As William Shakespeare said: “We renounce what we are to be what we hope to be.” However, I’m convinced that this thing that we try so hard to keep hidden is the source of our true beauty. I’d like it if in reading these stories, people – especially those who find themselves physically or psychologically repulsive and who are constantly comparing themselves to images of beauty and perfection in the media – started to see themselves differently; I’d like it if these stories made them want to embrace the characteristics that make them unique.

Photo credit: Mely Avila

Many of your narrators and protagonists are outsiders, whose life and experience is characterised by solitude – desired or enforced – and who exist in some way outside of conventional relationships, experience an estrangement from their own bodies, or inhabit their bodies in uncomfortable ways. What made you want to offer these perspectives in particular?

By the age of twenty I knew that I wanted to write about outsiders; about people who stand out from the crowd because of both their physical and psychological characteristics; about the blindness that is always looming over me, creeping up on me; about madness and things that others don’t tend to want to see. Without a doubt I’m an obsessive woman: I brood over my subjects ad nauseum.

Solitude is a theme that has marked my life. The solitude of the teenager, of the patient, the elderly person, the solitude of grief, of abandoned children, of people who, for one reason or another, live on the margins of society, but also the solitude of the many people who live isolated in big cities, without friends or family. I feel deep empathy for people who experience solitude, whether involuntarily or by choice. At the same time, reading is a powerful way to cope with solitude. Sometimes, when we read the right author for us at the right moment of our lives, even if it’s a Japanese writer from the 12th Century, we can feel identified and understood in a way that even our best friend can’t understand us. Fiction opens our minds, it makes us learn about other societies and cultures, imagine places where we haven’t been and like people that we never imagined we would understand. Not to mention past times or the different futures that humanity could face.

Some of the characters are also voyeurs, though not always in a conventional sense, and their voyeurism is very much connected to the cities they inhabit. Were there real people and/ or places that inspired these characters?

All these characters are inspired by friends, people I know, siblings or even myself. The second story, where a girl is spying on her handsome neighbour from the window while he is trying to get in bed with another girl, was inspired by a Cuban friend who taught me how to be a voyeur in NYC. At the beginning I didn’t understand anything I saw in the window, but he taught me how to decipher it: Do you see that vertical line?” He asked. “It’s a curtain. And that horizontal line on the left? The arm of a guitar. The red circles underneath are a woman’s toenails.” Writing is a kind of voyeurism. You start with snippets you overhear, images you see, and then you complete the story.

Of course the origin of these stories was influenced by the cities in which they were written. Some of them were written in the north-east of Paris. The story that opens the book is set near Place Gambetta. It’s about a photographer who specialises in taking pictures of people’s eyelids. A lot of people have asked me how I managed to come up with such an absurd premise, and my answer is always that this person exists or existed in real life.

“Bezoar”, the title story, was written in Barcelona, where I lived for some years, but I didn’t want the place to be too recognisable and so I mixed it up with memories from a recent trip to Portugal. It was inspired by a particularly obsessive period of my childhood when I used to compulsively pull out my hair.

My three stand-out stories from the collection were “Petals”, “Ptosis” and “Bezoar”, all of which feature men who become obsessed with fragile women they want to save, but who they ultimately fail. Was this a deliberate theme that you wanted to explore?

I think that when I wrote these stories I was coming to terms with something which at that point was fundamental and painful for me: no-one can save another person if that person doesn’t want to be saved, and doesn’t give themselves over to being saved, no matter how much love we give them, no matter how much attention, interest or affection we bestow on them. Everyone has their own way of living, and no-one else can interfere with that. On the other hand, often what we consider to be the “right path” might not be the right path for others. In “Ptosis”, the photographer wants the girl to keep conforming to his ideal of beauty, but all she wants is to be like everyone else. Trying to impose a model of beauty or behaviour on someone is an extremely violent act.

The title story is taken from a myth about a healing gemstone that is also a ball of hair. Why did you choose this image/ legend around which to construct a story, or a collection of stories?

It’s a myth that human beings believed in for centuries, and now we find it completely absurd. There are bezoars in the Met Museum in New York, and I imagine in other museums across the world as well. The fact that a ball of hair can be seen as a precious jewel shows that it’s our own imagination that gives objects their value. But what interests me most about this object is what people want from it: an end to their suffering. What does it matter if it’s only a ball of hair, if this stone can bring peace and heal our illnesses or pains? That’s what we’re all ultimately searching for, and I find that very moving.

“Unsettling” is a superb word to describe these stories – I was expecting something possibly supernatural, but they are unsettling precisely because they are only a hair’s breadth away from common realities. Where do you draw inspiration for these stories, and why is it important for you as a writer to “unsettle” or disturb?

As I said earlier, literature opens our minds, but this doesn’t always happen in a gentle and painless way. When we move away from what’s familiar to us, it’s normal to feel some discomfort. I think that if this book is unsettling, it’s because when we talk about how other people are strange, it’s almost impossible not to think about how we are too. Even readers who thought they were completely “normal” realise that they too, or their loved ones, might be a little monstrous and have been trying to hide it their whole life.

How do you cope writing such unsettling stories in the first person? I’m thinking of what it would take to produce creepy phrases such as “I chose to discover women in the only place where they don’t feel observed: bathroom stalls” – is there a single approach that you take, or does it differ between stories?

It comes naturally. All my characters are outsiders in one way or another. When I was a child, I often felt judged and ashamed because my eyes were “abnormal” – I was born with a congenital cataract and other problems in my right eye – and as a result of seeing with just one eye, I moved and behaved differently to other people. So I identify with the figure of the outsider. I don’t think I could bring a character to life if he or she wasn’t in some way a freak.

Were you involved in the translation process? More generally, how does it feel for your work to travel between languages and cultures?

When I can speak and understand it, it always gives me a bit of a shock to read myself in another language, but I find it amazing. To be translated into other languages and to be read by readers from different countries is an immense privilege.

Translation is an extremely delicate process. If it’s bad or careless it can be very damaging. It’s not like a badly subtitled film where you have not only the words but also the mise-en-scène and the acting, and so you can immediately identify incongruities in the translation. In literature, language is everything! Literary translation has to be one of the most difficult and admirable professions going.  If the translation is into a language I understand, like English, I try at least to read the translation and collaborate as much as possible with the translator: answer their questions, deal with any doubts they have, make suggestions and correct potential errors. But I also try to respect their own style and interpretation.

Translation of those sections originally written in Spanish: Helen Vassallo, 2020