Author Archives: Helen Vassallo

Interview with Olja Knežević, author of Catherine the Great and the Small

It’s my great privilege to bring you the second instalment in my three-part interview series about new Montenegrin novel Catherine the Great and the Small. Today author Olja Knežević talks about her book and its journey to publication in English with Istros Books (translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać). Catherine the Great and the Small is published TODAY, and you can find out more, or purchase it, here.

You self-published your previous book (Milena & Other Social Reforms) in English; did this help to circulate your work in the English-language context? How has it been different working with translators and an English-language publisher?  

Olja Knežević: Milena & Other Social Reforms was my first novel, published in 2011, and what an unusual path it had! It was originally written in English, obviously not my native tongue, because I developed it from a 20,000 word dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in London. The dissertation won Overall Prize as the best MA dissertation that year, and I went on, wind in my sails, to write the whole novel in English, from the point of view of Milena, a rebellious young Montenegrin, who had to escape to London to save her life. I was hoping to find a UK publisher. It was taking time, so in 2011 I gave in to the pleas from Montenegro, my home-country, to publish that novel there, but in Montenegrin, of course, so I had it translated into my own native tongue by someone for a modest fee. It was published by the only publisher who was independent from Montenegrin Government, because Milena is a politically engaged novel, inspired by a true story. I knew that the book would have to travel just by word-of-mouth publicity, but it seemed enough at the time. It was sold out in three weeks after its release, and is still selling. Milena has found her place in the world, an underground place, so befitting for the type of character she is. I decided to put the English language version online, and just leave it there, to find its own path.

Catherine the Great and the Small is my fourth book, and the first one to win a big regional prize, be finally noticed and picked up by its UK publisher, Istros Books. It’s a completely different world from the one of self-translating and self-publishing; with editing, proofreading and the details of translation paid close attention to, and seriously discussed between professional team members. I think the English language version of Catherine is phenomenal, and, now, that I see how it looks when a novel is professionally translated and edited, I feel sorry for Milena.

Catherine the Great and the Small is a book about women – their emancipation, their restrictions, their relationships with each other, themselves, their country (and some pretty useless men) – do you consciously view your writing process as a feminist act?          

No, I don’t consciously, deliberately, view my writing as a feminist act. Not long ago, however, I realised that I have lived a feminist life since I was a young girl. First, of course, through my mother, who instilled in me the standpoint that a woman can desire to belong to herself first, to be ambitious, outspoken, a leader and an organiser, a proud owner of her own time to even rest, to even have fun. My mother’s actions and character have shown to me that a woman can venture into men’s territory, and remain authentic there – all this while staying married to a man’s man, who she loved passionately and fought with for equality at home on a daily basis. This has formed me, and then let me travel my own road, to make my own choices and mistakes. My writing has not been an escape into pretend-worlds – it’s been the best tool to reach my consciousness when it seemed like everything else had conspired to make me forget myself. In there, in my consciousness, I’d find strong and interesting women, their relationships with each other, their community, their men. And I’d write down their stories, in order to keep belonging to my true self.

Catherine the Great and the Small is rooted in a particular time and place; how important was it to you to keep Montenegrin culture and recent history – and particularly the loss that came with the wars in the Balkans – at the centre of Katarina’s story?        

I was going to write about a woman whose life is parallel with mine, so, yes, it was important. She was not going to be me, but she should be like a close friend, with a similar destiny. In a way, writing about her life, I was writing down the collective memories of the country I have known. That’s why I wasn’t going to experiment with the form, because there are no novels on the subject as simple as a contemporary woman’s life, written down intimately and sincerely, from Montenegro. It has always been so inspirational for me, how we lived in a socialist community where, in what was then the Republic of Montenegro, we had this mixed Balkan and Mediterranean mentality, where everyone knew everyone, we lived outside, and felt free there, on the streets, socialising passionately, loudly, judgmentally, with candid vulnerability. Yet never in history were we institutionally free. Having been somewhat “in the middle”, we knew how things were in the West and in the East, and we liked our kind of “free.” Our women, after WW2, when they had become revered as true heroines, had equal rights, had equal pay for equal work, until the 1990s, when everything fell apart. Now, I’m not saying it was perfect. It was a one-party system, after all, but women could be optimistic that the future was going to bring more and more progressiveness in their social status. It never happened. Instead, enter the 1990s and the war. Women were pushed down the ladder. Always the first victims of war, women, because we don’t want it, but we immediately regress into being seen primarily as reproductive organs that bear and support the real heroes – men. That’s such a difficult and interesting conflict, a personal and political one, which makes for great material.

Katarina is always capable of finding the “ball of light” in the depths of misery – what message does this give for readers of your novel and why was it important to you that she should have this strength?

I’m glad you mentioned that image. That’s Katarina, her main strength. Most people don’t find the “ball of light” when they’re alone with themselves. They try, they dive into themselves, and find darkness there, or a ball of fears, so they hurry back to the surface, back to their ego, which has become a familiar mask with recognisable props and illusions. Katarina, somehow, from various reasons that I hope I managed to show in my novel, never lost the ability to believe there’s goodness at the very bottom of everything, there’s light, the wonder of life. She’ll survive anything, as long as she remembers to dive deep and find her inner strength.

Podgorica features for Katarina as a place where “untold stories” are waiting for her. How important is it to you that these stories from your home city are told – and through fiction – both in Montenegrin and in translation?         

I’m so grateful that writing down those untold stories is my calling. I also know it’s my territory. Many writers from my country, convinced that it’s such a small and unimportant country and language, and that the stories from where we are will probably never have a wider audience, turn to trends or whatever topic they think will be safer and sell better. I’ve always believed that the deeper you go into your own experiences, the more universal your writing becomes.

Katarina notes that “all of us lost our country” and that Montenegrins are encouraged to “live the lie” of strength, solidarity and a bright future – what role does fiction have in stripping bare these lies and this loss?              

It’s all true, the loss, the lie… Montenegro has this magic-like name, it had some stunningly heroic moments in history, and it’s a beautiful country, as if nature wanted to display, in a small space, the samples of all that she can do and say “Voila!” This is enough of pure praise from me. I don’t work for a tourist agency. In my mind’s eye, there is the image of my country chained onto a floating device and left in the rough sea to be saved only by luck. But many societies in the world are still closed, manipulative and patriarchal, and they all prefer tourist guides or pamphlet-like writing to the kind of fiction that is able to make fun of their see-through propaganda, to defy the authorities and refuse to be on their payroll.

Coming next week:

“I’ve never read another book that celebrates a woman’s individuality the way this book does.”

“My approach has been to trust the reader’s acuity and not talk down or simplify a book for an imagined ignorance.”

Interview with Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, translators of Catherine the Great and the Small

Gŵyl, an online festival of literature in translation

I was delighted to talk about the Translating Women project last week at Gŵyl, an online festival of literature in translation hosted by Caitlin Van Buren. We talked about how I choose books to read, why it’s important to read in translation no matter how many languages you speak, and the importance of intersectional feminism… all in fifteen minutes! I also got to pick three books to showcase – it was hard to narrow down hundreds to three, so I went with my gut regarding books that have particularly moved me – two that I’ve read this year and can’t stop thinking about, and one that will come as no surprise to regular readers given how much I’ve talked about it on this blog. Choosing only three did, of course, mean that I had to leave off some real favourites (and two of my three are from the same continent, so my geographical spread isn’t as even as it could have been), but check my choices and see if you agree with them – if you don’t, there are plenty more recommendations on my virtual bookshelf, and if you would have made other choices that you can’t see there, let me know!

If you can’t see the embedded video, watch it directly on YouTube here.

Alternatively, you can watch the whole day’s events, including a great interview with Carolina Orloff of Charco Press, or head to Caitlin’s YouTube channel to catch up on the full week’s programme.

Happy viewing and happy weekend!

Translating Women: the Montenegro edit. Interview with Susan Curtis, Istros Books

I’m excited today to bring you the first in a 3-part series of interviews about a new Montegrin book and its journey to publication. Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small is a tale of four Montenegrin women navigating relationships with themselves, each other, their country and some pretty disappointing men as the Balkan wars escalate. Published next week by Istros books in a co-translation by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać, you can pre-order it here.

This week I’m talking to Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books, about her mission and her decision to publish Catherine the Great and the Small.

Susan Curtis, director of Istros Books

Istros Books focuses on bringing into English books from a particular geographical area, but beyond that, what are your priorities in the books you commission?

Susan Curtis: I have tried to keep the number of male and female writers on our list equal and I have almost succeeded in that aim because there is only a slight male bias, which really reflects the trend in the region (though UK publishing is not immune to this either!) It seems to me that especially in terms of prizes for writing in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian/Montenegrin, female writers are hardly ever awarded the big national awards – Meša Selimović is a particular example. I remember when Daša Drndić was nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and we were joking that she couldn’t win because the prize always went to men. I even bought her a false moustache to wear! A few years later her novel was shortlisted for the EBRD Literature Prize and it was again given to a male author. Daša died shortly afterwards, and since her death her reputation has grown enormously, but she never won any great literary prizes in her lifetime, either here in the UK or in her home country (Yugoslavia, then Croatia). Croatia is a prime example of a country that extols a number of male writers while neglecting its very best, in my opinion, the female authors Olja Savečević, Slavenka Drakulić, as well as Dubravka Ugrešić and Drndić. Thankfully, I have the ability to bring their works to new audiences.

How did you come across Olja Knežević’s work, and Catherine the Great and the Small in particular?

This novel is part of a cooperation between Istros Books and the Croatian publisher VBZ. For three years we received EU funding to translate the winning manuscript from VBZ’s annual ‘best unpublished novel’ award. Last year Olja was the winner, and that’s how Catherine the Great and the Small came to Istros. It was perfect because I have published two previous writers from Montenegro (Andrej Nikolaidis and Ognjen Spahić) and I really wanted to publish a female Montenegrin author.

What drew you to Catherine the Great and the Small, and why do you think it is important to make it accessible to English-language readers?

Catherine the Great and Small is set in Montenegro, as it once was in the Federal Republic, and as it is now, as an independent state. Throughout the novel we not only see the main character grow and change, but we also watch the environment change, witness the rise of free enterprise, the corruption and crazy politics. The energy and bravery of the narrative voice is very addictive and inspiring – and it sheds light on a part of the world that many English-language readers are still unfamiliar with.

Did the book come with translators already assigned, or did you seek them out to commission them?

The Croatian publisher VBZ organised the translation and gave me the opportunity to work with two new translators. I have known Ellen Elias-Bursać for a while, whereas Paula Gordon was a new discovery for me. It’s always an enriching experience to work with different translators and see how they each approach their art in unique and impressive ways.

Part of your mission is to bring into English “books from unfamiliar places”, and Montenegrin literature is certainly scarce in English translation. What do you think Catherine the Great and the Small brings to the Istros catalogue, and could it open up possibilities for more Montegrin literature – particularly by women writers – to make its way into English?

Montenegro is one of Europe’s smaller countries but it does a lot to promote its culture. I have twice been invited to the Podgorica Book fair and love the city and the laid back energy of the people. Women from that part of the world are so often Valkyries and we should know more about their stories and their bravery.

On your website, you state your belief that “good literature can transcend national interests and speak to us with the common voice of human experience.” One thing that struck me in Catherine the Great and the Small was the powerlessness of many of the women, and the ways in which they either overcome or succumb to this. Do you think this is culturally and contextually specific to the text or more universal?

To follow on from my previous answer, despite their intrinsic value and strength of character, so many women from the South East Europe region are marginalised or hidden behind bullish men. The female domain has traditionally been the private one, not the public, so they are only just discovering that they can have a foothold there, too. Did you know that the only poetry allowed to women for hundreds of years were the songs of mourning that they were expected to wail at funerals? I bought a collection of these ‘tużbalice’ last time I was there… I hope to translate a few one day!

Coming next week:

“My writing has not been an escape into pretend-worlds – it’s been the best tool to reach my consciousness when it seemed like everything else had conspired to make me forget myself.”

Interview with Olja Knežević, author of Catherine the Great and the Small.

Pre-order Catherine the Great and the Small here.

Update on video review

Dear friends,

With apologies for sending you two messages in one day, this is a brief update to today’s post: the video review does not automatically embed in the email to subscribers (my lesson of the day). To view the video review, you can do any of the following:

Click on the link in your email (or click on this hyperlink) to read the post on the Translating Women site

Follow this direct link to the video on Vimeo, or copy and paste this link into your web browser:

I’ll know to include the link for email subscribers next time I embed a video into a blog post – thank you for your patience, and have a wonderful weekend!



Alternative love stories from around the world

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the lockdown would change the way I provide content on the Translating Women blog. In that open letter, I made a vague mention of hoping to include some videos in my reviews; in the back of my mind at the time was a half-formed thought of recording short videos reviews on my phone. But, as one of my favourite French expressions goes, pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué? (Loose translation: why just do a selfie video on your phone when you could add IMAGES and FADING TEXT and MUSIC and MULTIPLE CLIPS?) So… here is my first foray into the world of movie making (excuse me, I think that’s Hollywood calling…) and I’m posting it here with some trepidation, in the hope that you like it as an alternative review method. My plan is to do these occasionally, interspersed with my usual written reviews, interviews and reflective pieces.

I decided to start my onscreen adventure by showcasing books I’ve already talked about in the past, all of which offer alternative takes on the “love story”. From a murderous desire to a man who lives without love, explorations of forbidden sexuality and love that words cannot contain to a race against time and memory, I hope you’ll discover or rediscover something you love.

Here are links to all the books mentioned:

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Pushkin Press)

Rania Mamoun, Thirteen Months of Sunrise, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette (Comma Press)

Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press)

Ariana Harwicz, Feebleminded, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)

Olja SavičevičSinger in the Night, translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (Istros Books)

If you have thoughts on the video, I’d love to hear from you! Unfortunately the comment function on the blog doesn’t work because of a glitch I still haven’t worked out, but you can either comment directly on Vimeo by clicking through, on Twitter (@translatewomen), or by emailing me at

Review: Nathalie Léger, Exposition and The White Dress

Earlier this year, Les Fugitives published the final book in a trilogy of studies by Nathalie Léger. The first, Suite for Barbara Loden, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, marked the launch of Les Fugitives in 2015 and became the cornerstone of their publishing identity. Exposition, translated by Amanda DeMarco, was published in December 2019, and The White Dress, translated by Natasha Lehrer, in March 2020.

Exposition, translated from French by Amanda DeMarco (Les Fugitives, 2019)

Nathalie Léger is a museum curator, and her published works blend biographical study with personal reflection. In the opening pages of Exposition, Léger recounts her decision to curate an exhibition on the Countess of Castiglione, a young and beautiful Italian aristocrat who was a sensation at the French court of Napoleon III. Léger’s determination to curate an exhibition that focuses on a subject rather than on objects is a pattern of hers, and reflects her belief that there are far more stories to uncover about a person than an object. Her exposition of La Castiglione constitutes a discovery of the other that offers a path to discovery of the self, albeit an uneasy one: Léger is progressively consumed by her own project, noting that it has “already surreptitiously gobbled me up,” to the point that towards the end of the text when La Castiglione is imagined as saying “c’est moi,” this could also be Léger’s own voice.

La Castiglione is a figure onto whose countenance is projected the image that others have of women, imprisoned in her beauty and the role it forces her to inhabit. Having herself photographed was, Léger suggests, not a vanity project, but a means to “construct, under the guise of frivolity, what Poe called ‘the chamber of melancholy.’ To hold on, to silently hold on.” The photographs are an attempt to take control of a life shaped by others, and so the photographer’s studio becomes “a mythical space in which her empire silently expanded and where her legend was written.” Léger’s goal – at least in part – is to give La Castiglione her own agency, a legend in which she is the subject controlling her image rather than the object reflected in that image.

The translated title is well chosen by Amanda DeMarco: the French exposition means an exhibition but also an exposing, a laying bare, and this is the more important of the two meanings in Léger’s narrative: the exhibition is a means to an exposition. She muses on what a photograph can achieve – does it capture an essence, or just a moment? The countess, Léger concludes, is just “a mass of absence” behind the lifelong tableau vivant of her captured image. Imprisoned in other people’s perceptions of her, la Castiglione exists only for the gaze of the other, and so her only victory can be that she is not truly there, forever absent from her own image. Léger also lingers on representations of women through literary and visual history, and on what it is to be a woman. We witness her reflections on her own relationships and intimacies with women – particularly her mother, another woman about whom she knows little and who she wants to discover through photographs of times past.

The White Dress, translated from French by Natasha Lehrer (Les Fugitives, 2020)

Is it a coincidence that the first photograph of La Castiglione was entitled The Black Dress? Perhaps. But it is a fitting coincidence, as Léger ends her triptych with The White Dress. This takes as its subject Pippa Bacca, an Italian performance artist who undertook a hitchhike from Milan to Jerusalem wearing a wedding dress. Her journey was part of a “beautiful, and a little mad” performance for peace in countries affected by war or conflict, Bacca “a bride setting out beneath an overcast sky on an improbable journey to save the world.” Pippa Bacca never finished her journey: she disappeared in Istanbul. She was raped, murdered, and left naked in some bushes, her body already decomposing by the time she was found. Pippa’s story is entwined with a deepened reflection on Léger’s fragile and strained relationship with her mother, and the responsibility that Léger feels to both women to tell their lives. Pippa’s voice was cut short by her violent end, her murderer even appropriating her gaze by taking her video camera and using it to film his own life; Léger’s mother is similarly voiceless, having “never known how to say what she wanted, rendering daily life an endless struggle.”

Léger plans to interview Pippa’s mother, but struggles with the ethical implications of her own quest, turning back because “I had nothing to offer a mother in mourning, I was only going to take something from her, devour her heartlessly.” Instead she shifts focus from a mother who has lost a daughter to another – her own – who sacrificed hers on the altar of her marital abandonment (“we were dragged along with her in the wake of her sadness.”) For both Pippa Bacca and Léger’s mother, the wedding dress symbolises their own personal misfortune, the burden and perils of womanhood, and the pressures of conformity.

Léger struggles with the weight of all this sorrow, as she tries to navigate the horror of Pippa’s final journey and the responsibility of her mother’s never-ending one. She claims that “my feeble heart means I can’t carry more than one pain at a time,” and yet she manages to achieve just that: Léger not only immerses herself in her quest, but in so doing creates a symphony of Pippa’s story and her own life, examining the symbolism of the white dress, and the fate to which the actions of others (usually men) condemn women. Does Léger’s mother, denied “words, attacks, justice” in her divorce case and left with only tears, have any more control over her life than Pippa did? Like La Castiglione, Léger’s mother is imprisoned in the way others perceive her, but not truly there: as Léger reminded us in Exposition, “you can die a hundred deaths from not being loved.” And is it better to die believing in freedom and peace than to live consumed by resentment, frustration and regret? Léger does not offer answers, but rather a meditation; in this respect, The White Dress is a culmination of both Léger’s project and her pensive style, which is rendered by Natasha Lehrer in a graceful and attentive prose that shifts unobtrusively from the meticulously objective to the intensely personal. The tension between the story of the mother, confined to an unfulfilled life in a stifling home, and Pippa’s fateful wanderings in a dangerous outdoors, shows that women are still not free in any sphere, and makes a quietly valuable contribution to literature, biography and feminism.

Review copies of Exposition and The White Dress provided by Les Fugitives

While stocks last, order any two books from Les Fugitives to receive a free limited edition copy of the anthology Detour/Détours.

Review: Pauline Delabroy-Allard, All About Sarah

Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (Harvill Secker, 2020)

All About Sarah is Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s powerful debut novel about love: love as an all-consuming force, love as a lit match that can burn itself out, love as a sickness. To “just” call it a love story, though, would be to downplay its intensity: it is all about love because it is all about Sarah, the object of the narrator’s affection. The nod to All About Eve is a clever rendering of the title by translator Adriana Hunter; above all, it made me think of my favourite line from that film: “Where Eve goes, life goes”. Where Sarah goes, life goes, and when Sarah is no longer there, life ceases to have any meaning.

Straight away we know that Sarah is loved by the narrator, and that she is sick. This sets up the two parts of the novel: the background, including the narrator’s first encounter with Sarah, and the aftermath. The first part I found engaging and absorbing: Sarah crashes into the narrator’s life like a tornado, an impetuous violinist who laughs too loudly at the theatre, cares nothing for decorum or good manners, and whirls the narrator up and sweeps her into her world – a world that had hitherto been regimented by social expectation and doing the right thing. Our formerly uptight narrator experiences the full force of Sarah’s attention,  noticing how Sarah listens to her when she talks, asks her questions, and creates intimacy. Sarah’s declaration of love is a “gift” that comes early in the novel, a visceral confession, accompanied with the smell of sulphur as she strikes a match to light her cigarette. The moment and the smell will always be entwined, embodied by “Sarah the sulphurous”; indeed, the awakening of the senses is one of the powerful features of the love story, whether it is scents or soundtracks (particularly the narrator’s newfound obsession with string quartets, inspired by her love’s musical profession).

Such an intense love, though, cannot last: like the match that burns until it is consumed by its own flame, their desire becomes so powerful that it obliterates everything around them. Where until now Sarah’s defining feature has been her humanity (“she’s alive” is one of several recurring phrases), her portrayal shifts to vampiric: cruel, unfamiliar and murderous. The lovers part, but then Sarah falls ill: this development sets up the second part, which is dominated by Sarah’s illness and the narrator’s response to it. Here I didn’t find myself swept along with the narrator’s emotions in quite the same forcible way (perhaps I needed Sarah’s tornado presence?): she retreats into herself, abandons Sarah because she can’t face watching her die, and cuts herself off from the world and from life, neglecting everyone who cares about her, including her daughter (who has little more than a walk-on part in this scenario).

The translation by Adriana Hunter is mostly excellent, particularly in conveying the ferocity of emotions and reactions. The text poses some knotty problems: there are frequent references to French literature, the narrator writing herself into a specific literary and cultural tradition, and Hunter deals with these unobtrusively. If you don’t spot them, I don’t think you would lose anything from your reading of the book. There are, occasionally, some words I perceived as slightly anomalous – always quite banal words (apart from the repeated use of “snatch”, but I racked my brains and came up with a total deficiency of non-offensive and non-childish alternatives).

Snatch aside, there is much to love in All About Sarah: the thought that has particularly remained with me in the months since I first read it was the narrator’s longing to remember the second before Sarah came into her life, before she knew Sarah existed, which encapsulates the focus on the dual nature of passion as both desire and suffering. Above all this is a book about life, love, and how messy they both get: it manages to be both intense and detached, urgent and languorous, and is an extremely engaging more-than-just-a-love-story.

Review copy of All About Sarah provided by Harvill Secker

Reading recommendations: the coronavirus edition

In my recent open letter, I talked about my belief that literature from other cultures – especially from marginalised voices – can be a crucial means of fostering empathy in times of crisis. As I watch news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic I become ever more convinced of this, and so here are five books by women in translation that I’m recommending for the global crisis.

1. Was anyone else less than sympathetic to Mike Pence’s complaint that the coronavirus nasal swab test is “invasive”? For those who feel conflicted about a potentially life-saving rapid sweep of the nostril with a cotton bud, I recommend:

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe
Adélaïde Bon, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press (available in the US in Tina Kover’s translation for Europa Editions).
This account of living with the trauma of child sex abuse is as urgent as it is painful. In 1980s Paris, Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged nine-year-old living a charmed childhood, until the day that a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and powerful memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, in an attempt to come to terms with its devastating consequences. In her determination to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself, Bon confronts the man who defined her life by taking her childhood. A brief nasal swab won’t seem quite so melodramatic when you read what it is to keep living after every intimate orifice has been penetrated by a paedophile.


2. I’ve seen some scaremongering (and, as far as I can tell, unsubstantiated) clickbait speculating about fatal disruption to the food chain: before propagating sensationalist news, want to know how bad that really could be? I recommend:

Tender is the Flesh
Agustina Bazterrica, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Sarah Moses, Pushkin Press.
This chilling, gripping study of the cruelty humans are capable of inflicting on each other by artlessly following those who peddle lies and trade in fear is the ultimate dystopian novel: this is a world in which it is legal to breed and slaughter humans whose vocal chords have been cut so that you won’t have the inconvenience of hearing them cry out in pain as they are dismembered for your dinner party. The most terrifying thing about this superb debut novel is how believable Bazterrica makes the circumstances: it really doesn’t feel like a massive leap from the discovery of a deadly virus that led to the extermination of all animals and paralysis of the food chain, to the legalisation and normalisation of eating human flesh. After you read this, finding alternatives to pasta/ eggs/ flour won’t seem like much of a hardship (and a plant-based diet will never have seemed so appealing).


3. Described in various (sometimes dubious) contexts as a “great leveller”, this virus hits us all and doesn’t differentiate. It will attack Hollywood stars, world leaders and heirs to thrones indiscriminately, but make no mistake about it: some social groups will suffer from it more than others. To help us remember our common humanity, I recommend:

Tokyo Ueno Station
Yu Miri, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press.
The radical divide between the very wealthy and the very poor is shown in this lyrical meditation on loss and home as a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park and finds himself condemned to haunt the park indefinitely in his afterlife. Tokyo Ueno Station is a sharply observed and extraordinarily beautiful novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a man who has lost everything watches the living carry on making their mistakes, unable to warn or help those he once knew and loved. His story is intertwined with that of the Japanese Imperial family: in his life, he was sporadically relocated during imperial visits so that his very existence would not be an eyesore to those who needed to believe in the prosperity of their nation. A magical and poetic novel, which reminds us to be kind to the people who are most vulnerable, and to be the community we want to see.


4. Much of the supposedly “reassuring” narrative around coronavirus deaths rests on the majority of fatalities being people who are over 60, or who suffer “underlying health conditions”. Though I know this is meant to offer relief that the majority of those affected will recover, a death is a death – a personal, irreconcilable loss – no matter what the age or state of health of the deceased. As a reminder that the life of an older person is worth no less, I recommend:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions.
This tale of vengeance, murder, and retribution is also a powerful reflection on ageing and perceptions of “usefulness”. Through her inimitable narrator, Mrs Duszejko, Tokarczuk offers profound insights into the human condition, the isolation of the non-conformist, the lack of equality for women, and the daily impatience faced by the elderly. Drive Your Plow is also an indictment of animal cruelty, and a reminder not to stand in judgement or to dismiss those who are different from ourselves. By turns hilarious and profound, Drive Your Plow is a book that can be read and enjoyed at any time, but which has particular resonance right now with its philosophical reflections on life and death, acute observations of ageing and invisibility, and poignant reminders about the luxury of being able to cross borders.


5. One thing I’ve loved seeing in the media is stories of people who have never before interacted with their neighbours now providing them with a lifeline, and streets coming together for socially distanced exercise or dance, or to applaud frontline healthcare workers. For anyone who’s never talked to their neighbours before, I recommend:

Laia Jufresa, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes, Oneworld Publications.
This beautiful, polyvocal novel is set in and around Mexico City, and tells the story of a group of people living in the five houses of Belldrop Mews, during a particular period of their communal lives when “the dead weigh more than the living.” The story/ies are narrated from five different perspectives, but each character in Umami is quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to reassemble a broken life. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. Yet they hide this, trying to maintain an appearance of normality and of coping – but if we can learn one lesson from this global crisis, it is that we are not alone in our fear and frustration, and that solidarity and community will help us to overcome the dark times.

Review: The Beauty of the Death Cap, Catherine Doustessyier-Khoze

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Snuggly Books, 2018)

This is the final instalment in a trilogy of reviews of translations by women I met at the Translating Women conference last year (see my reviews of Bellevue and Not My Time To Die for the first two), and it’s also the first of my shorter-format lockdown reviews, a shift I discussed in my open letter a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to all those who wrote to me in response to that letter – it was deeply moving to receive your replies.

The Beauty of the Death Cap is a murderous romp through rural France, and quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Fans of crime fiction will no doubt enjoy the modern pastiche of an old-fashioned isolated genius with delusions of grandeur and nefarious intent; equally if, like me, you’ve read very little crime fiction, then this is an entertaining place to begin.

Meet Nikonor. He is an elderly and well-to-do resident of Charlanne and inheritor of its chateau, a self-proclaimed “great man” beneath whose refined exterior lies a calculated murderer. Yet this word is never mentioned: Nikonor recounts his crimes in the same way he recounts his everyday life – though the two are inseparable, for Nikonor’s everyday life is consumed by elaborate scheming to rid himself (and the world at large) of all those unworthy imbeciles who have frustrated him. Does this country gentleman sharpen his daggers? Load his pistols? Stock up on arsenic? No, for Nikonor abhors a cliché. He is a mycologist, a specialist in mushroom science, and he knows exactly how much of which species of mushroom will cause an untraceable death. Enemies of Nikonor, beware!

The characterisation and the narration maintain a tongue-in-cheek irony throughout, and though Nikonor is entirely loathsome, I couldn’t help but follow his carefully laid and executed plans with a kind of sadistic glee. If I’m honest, I prefer reading narratives that have strong female characters in the lead role (it’s not as though the literary world is lacking Machiavellian male anti-heroes…) This meant that I didn’t relish Nikonor’s relentless self-aggrandisement, and I confess that the use of phrases such as “Boys will be boys” or describing women as “hysterical” set my teeth on edge. However, I accept that this is a question of characterisation rather than misogyny – we’re not supposed to like Nikonor, after all – and in terms of characterisation it was entirely appropriate, from Nikonor’s condescending footnotes and opinions on the best cheese to his postulating on his own superiority in all things: “All those poets who have penned mawkish tributes to flowers, women and birds since the classic era are vapid fools – dreadful louts suffering from an acute atrophy of the aesthetic gland”; “it was utter madness and completely unthinkable that I would sacrifice my youthful freedom to such drivel.”

Tina Kover translates Doustessyier-Khoze’s debut with a superb blend of darkness and levity, revelling in Nikonor’s affected manner of speaking and rendering his monologue in the tone of a perfect gentleman. Despite Nikonor’s languorous and sometimes florid manner of speaking, there is still a certain urgency to the narrative, which he is committing to paper “before events catch up with me” and he arrives at “the final watershed moment of my life.” He addresses himself consciously to his reader, which is engaging and conspiratorial; his acerbic sense of humour also lends itself brilliantly to English translation, and is communicated with insouciant energy in Kover’s prose. If you’re looking for some amusing yet erudite escapism right now, The Beauty of the Death Cap is a good place to start.

A trio of Translating Women conference books: L-R Catherine Doustessyier-Khoze, THE BEAUTY OF THE DEATH CAP, tr. Tina Kover; Yolande Mukagasana, NOT MY TIME TO DIE, tr. Zoe Norridge; Ivana Dobrokovová, BELLEVUE, tr. Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.


An open letter to friends of Translating Women

Dear friends,

I hope you and your loved ones are all safe and well.

The past week has seen an upheaval of life as we know it, in a way I had never imagined would be a reality in my lifetime (call me unimaginative, but there we go). As you might expect, this is going to mean a shift in the way I’m able to provide content on the Translating Women blog. Most of the work I do here is on my own time, and my new role as a home-schooler, though precious and grounding, will have an impact on what I can realistically hope to achieve elsewhere.

However, I believe that now more than ever it is important to stay connected, to keep looking outwards not only towards you, who read my words and keep me going on this blog, but also towards other cultures and especially their women’s voices. In Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Made for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez discusses evidence showing that in many cultures pandemics disproportionately affect women (see the chapter “It’s Not The Disaster that Kills You”), and so it is vital not only to ensure that women are represented and heard, but also to look beyond our own experience. I believe that a number of issues I find troubling in the Anglophone world have arisen from looking inwards: Trump’s rise to power based on his pledge to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the border between the US and Mexico, Brexit being voted through on the swell of anti-immigration feeling in the UK… in the immediate aftermath of those election and referendum results, I remember acquaintances telling me that it wouldn’t be that bad, and that nothing is forever. That may be true, but everything has consequences, and the rise of nationalism indicates an increasing disconnection with the other that has been manifest in multiple ways as the global crisis escalates. I’ve been thinking these last days about how this resonates with many of the observations and warnings in Europa28, fresh in my mind from a recent review (written in a time when I took so many simple things in my life for granted): Renata Salecl writes that “While people choose to not put the good of the community before themselves, they expect others to do so. We, therefore, have a situation in which people do not think of themselves as part of the community, yet nonetheless imagine that such a community exists.”

I want to remain part of a community. I plan to keep posting content for the foreseeable future, though less frequently and possibly in different formats. It’s likely that my reviews will be shorter, and I’m hoping to include videos as well as text. I’ve also updated my virtual bookshelf to offer brief synopses of over 100 books, and you can always browse the reviews archive, or catch up on interviews and opinion posts from the last two years. Maintaining a virtual community has never felt more urgent: we are living through a crisis dominated by the rhetorics of division, whether it’s Trump renaming coronavirus the “Chinese virus”, racial abuse towards people of Asian origin, generational confrontation (is anyone else sick of the “Boomers vs Millenials” clickbait?) or outbursts of abuse towards retail staff trying to implement fair policies regarding purchasing quantities. Now more than ever we need to remember our common humanity, and literature – with its power to cross borders and open eyes and hearts – has a role to play in that. As Julya Rabinowich wrote, also in Europa28 (and translated by Katy Derbyshire), “The ability for empathy is what might help humankind survive … The safety and security to which we are so accustomed – they are not guaranteed.” As our lives shift and we lose so much of our certainty and security, let us hold on to our empathy. For as long as I can, and when I can, I will keep sharing recommendations, in the hope that my subscribers and visitors will want to keep receiving them.

Until soon, stay safe, and thank you as always for reading,