Category Archives: OneWorld Books

The human side of a humanitarian crisis: Olga Grjasnowa, City of Jasmine

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Oneworld, 2019)

City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a soaring, searing representation of the Syrian refugee crisis, following the lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising. Above all, it is a superb story; Grjasnowa’s stark, gripping prose is translated with clarity and compassion by Derbyshire, making this an engaging and deeply moving read. What sets City of Jasmine apart from other European texts focusing on refugees (such as Jenny Erpenbeck’s admittedly marvellous Go Went Gone, translated by Susan Bernofsky for Portobello Books) is that Grjasnowa’s novel is not about refugees as broken individuals arriving in Europe, but as people with lives that are being torn apart, leaving them with no option but to flee. This shift in perspective challenges western readers to step outside the ways in which we receive and perceive the political situation, and to consider the human dimension of this humanitarian crisis.

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City of Jasmine is a brave indictment of the Syrian regime, and follows the entangled lives of Amal, Hammoudi and Youssef as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. Grjasnowa’s husband is Syrian, and on her UK book tour she commented that her desire to better understand the situation in his homeland was a motivation for writing City of Jasmine. It does not pretend to be a Syrian book: this is a European book, written for a European audience, with subtle explanatory details that would not be necessary for a Syrian readership. These are carefully rendered by Derbyshire in the translation: there is no information overload, no didactic or “educational” prose, but rather the detail is full and informative without being conspicuous or heavy-handed. I don’t usually go in for lengthy quotations, but this one, from towards the start of the story, is worth reading and exemplifies what I mean about the clarity, subtle detail, and lyricism of the prose:

“People were sick and tired. Amal was tired, her brother was tired, her friends, her fellow students, acquaintances, strangers in the streets, the entire vulgar bohème was sick and tired. They were sick and tired of the corruption, the secret services’ arbitrary decisions, their own powerlessness and permanent humiliation. They were sick and tired of all public libraries, airports, stadiums, universities, parks and even kindergartens being named after the Assads. They were sick and tired of their fathers, brothers and uncles mouldering in jails. They were sick and tired of the whole family having to chip in to buy the sons out of military service while the North American teenagers on cable TV were given cars by their parents and travelled the world. They were sick and tired of reciting ‘Assad for all eternity’ every morning at school and swearing to fight all Americans, Zionists and imperialists. They were sick and tired of memorizing Assad quotes in political-education classes and then filling in the gaps in the right order for their tests. They were sick and tired of being taught in military education to dismantle and reassemble a machine gun. They were sick and tired of being treated like animals. And above all they were sick and tired of not being allowed to say any of it out loud.”

The Syria depicted in City of Jasmine is a country in the grip of the secret services, where women and dissidents are silenced (“She’s full of unsaid words and she knows she’ll never speak them, not as long as Bashar al-Assad and his accursed family are in power”), where propaganda is the only news and no-one offers aid (“The state TV stations repeat the tale of alleged terrorists and show images of martyrs who died for Assad’s glory. The West does nothing, still nothing”). It is a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent, not to think we know about something just because we have seen a version of it on the news.

Grjasnowa’s subjects are neither downtrodden nor disadvantaged; their lives when we meet them are far removed from western depictions of refugees. Amal is from a wealthy family and works as an actress, but opposing the state makes everyone equal in persecution (though her father’s money and contacts ensure that she is released when detained), and indeed Grjasnowa sheds light on the status of those who make it beyond their own borders: “It’s the middle classes escaping; the poor remain behind in the refugee camps. It’s the people who once hoped for more from life than simply reaching a safe country, who once had ambitions and a future.” Yet this does not make City of Jasmine a story of privilege, but rather adds a thought-provoking, human dimension, as Amal cannot cope with being seen as a refugee, someone with nothing to her name except all the labels that come along with the situation into which she has been forced: “She hates being seen as a Muslim and a scrounger and she hates herself. The world has invented a new race – the race of refugees, Flüchtlinge, Muslims or newcomers. The condescension is palpable in every breath.”

This presentation forces us out of sanctimonious preconceptions and facile prejudices: the indictment is not only of the Syrian regime, but also of the way in which the west views the crisis and the people affected by it. Amal’s fate is loosely entwined with that of Hammoudi, a young doctor with a bright future. Hammoudi returns to Syria to renew his passport before taking up a prestigious job as a surgeon in Paris’s most elite hospital, and finds himself trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, unable to leave his country even though his life is elsewhere. One of France’s most promising surgeons, he becomes an illegal war doctor, and when he is forced to flee to the west he becomes a refugee too, despite the life he already had in Paris.

I always try to avoid spoilers, so I can’t tell you how City of Jasmine ends and the twist that moved me most; I can only recommend that you read it for yourself. I’m careful not to over-use the adjective “heartbreaking” – it comes too easily and can mean so little if bandied around. But this story truly merits the word “heartbreaking” – beautifully written, sensitively translated, a unique and welcome perspective on the refugee crisis. I loved every page of this book, and I highly recommend it.

 

Haunting and hypnotic short stories: Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (OneWorld, forthcoming February 2019)

Acclaimed Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin returns with this eerie collection of short stories brimming with murdered wives, abandoned brides, abject bodies, lost children, and evil spirits. Schweblin has perfected the art of writing on the fine line between reality and nightmare: by the end of each story, the comfortably recognisable world which has initially been shown to us has shifted towards something altogether more terrifying.

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Schweblin first came to English-language readers’ attention with her novella Fever Dream, also translated by Megan McDowell and also published by OneWorld: it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017, and is currently in production to be turned into a Netflix series. I loved Fever Dream, and not because I like horror stories (quite the opposite, in fact), but because I couldn’t put it down once I’d started. Like Fever Dream, Mouthful of Birds is hypnotically compelling: though each story is self-contained, I often found myself automatically carrying on to the next story even if I hadn’t planned to do so. The stories are well organised and form a coherent collection, broaching topics including environmental damage, ephemerality and mortality, private sorrows hidden behind projections of success or normality, infertility and mindless reproduction, the horrific things humans do because they are rejected for being different, and some wry observations about modern art and the patriarchy.

Schweblin’s talent is, for me, twofold: firstly, she is gifted at presenting a seemingly ordinary story, set in a tangible, recognisable world, and deftly slipping from the familiar to the unthinkable. Secondly, and this is possibly even more apparent in the short stories of Mouthful of Birds than in Fever Dream, she manages to combine complexity and concision in a quite remarkable way (consider, for example, this opening to the final story: “He returns to the room carrying a suitcase. Durable, lined in brown leather, it stands on four wheels and offers up its handle elegantly at knee level. He doesn’t regret his actions. He thinks that the stabbing of his wife had been fair, but he also knows that few people would understand his reasons.”) Megan McDowell does a superb job of translating Schweblin, gleefully communicating the sense of foreboding in the slightly-not-normal.

The collection opens with the magnificent “Headlights”, in which fields whispering with ghostly crowds turn out to be a bevy of jilted brides emerging from the darkness around the highway where the protagonist has been abandoned in her wedding dress after taking too long in the roadside facilities. I’m not going to spoil the ending here; I’ll just say it’s unexpected and brilliant. The title story, “Mouthful of Birds”, is an excellent example of how the familiar becomes suddenly threatening: a father, irritated by his ex-wife’s insistence that he take more of a responsibility for their daughter, goes to see her and finds her uncharacteristically serene and healthy. So far, so normal. But then a birdcage is unveiled, and the daughter gorges herself on its (living) occupant before turning round to bestow a bloody smile on her horrified father.

Many of the stories take place in liminal or desolate spaces: the highway, the countryside, an empty diner, a deserted railway station, on the way somewhere but never quite arriving, and these border places add to the sense of uncertainty. There are dead wives (one lying on the kitchen floor of a roadside restaurant, one stuffed ignominiously into a suitcase), lost children (an almond-sized foetus preserved for a future gestation, the sudden disappearance of a group of children obsessed with digging, a longed-for childlike being who is never seen, but seems to be a savage evil spirit), mild-mannered psychopaths and vengeful creatures, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. Turning points abound; “They lost their children that night” is the laconic pivotal moment of a story told over a rural beer counter, and when a man fails a gruesome rite of passage, the simple phrase “you hesitated” seals his fate, the ensuing horror left to our imagination. There is a dreamlike quality to Schweblin’s work that contrasts well with her tightly-structured tales; an unknown that pushes us towards a conclusion that, once reached, seems as though it was always inevitable, and which (whether we want to or not) we finish for ourselves.

My mention of dreams and nightmares are not arbitrary: they are referenced in the collection both explicitly (when a man believes that he has killed his wife and keeps waking up in his doctor’s house, wondering whether he dreamed the sequence of events) and implicitly (another character is trapped in a remote train station because he does not have the exact fare to continue his journey, and ends up being subsumed into life in the railway station). If there is something unsettling about Mouthful of Birds it is surely because, though Schweblin’s work has been described as “Gothic” or “magic realism”, the real horror comes from situations much closer to reality than we might like to think. In a recent interview, Schweblin commented on this aspect of her work, saying: “I love that it’s described as fantasy, because I’d like to think that’s a reflection of the impact it has on the reader: just the idea that something like that might happen to you makes you want to stick that world in the realm of fantasy.” The power of these stories lies in the way that they confront us with recognisable situations and turn them into a place we wish to avoid.

I suspect that Schweblin’s star will continue to rise, and if you’re not already familiar with her work, Mouthful of Birds is a good introduction. I do prefer Fever Dream – though this may be partly a question of genre, as short stories aren’t my favourite form – but If you’ve already read and enjoyed Fever Dream then you shouldn’t be disappointed. Addictive and imaginative,  Mouthful of Birds offers well-crafted stories of isolation and disintegration.

Review copy provided by Oneworld Publications.

A retirement facility with a terrifying difference: Ninni Holmqvist, The Unit

Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy (OneWorld, 2018, 2nd edition)

As soon as I read The Unit, it went straight down as a “must-read” recommendation on my virtual bookshelf: it is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s advertised as a dystopian narrative comparable to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and comes with an endorsement from Atwood on the front cover. You may already know about my admiration for Atwood’s oeuvre, so from my perspective there’s a lot to live up to if something is compared with it. Let me give you two reasons why The Unit does this for me and more: I couldn’t drag myself away from it, and I forgot I was reading a translation.

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The Unit is a dystopian novel about the value of human life and the desperation of the human heart in which, much like The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopia feels all too possible. It takes place in the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a retirement facility with a difference: the people who go there live their final years in comfort, wanting for nothing, in exchange for taking part in medical experiments and donating their organs one by one until the “final donation”. The only inhabitants of the Unit are “dispensables”: women over 50 and men over 60 who are childless, and who do not have a profession deemed “necessary” to society. Once they enter the Unit there is no going back, and no more contact with the outside world; their organs are donated to people “out in the community” – people more “necessary” than them.

It wasn’t just The Handmaid’s Tale that The Unit reminded me of, but also Atwood’s Positron series (brought together in The Heart Goes Last), and so I was interested to note that The Unit’s original publication pre-dates The Heart Goes Last, leaving no doubt that there is nothing derivative about Holmqvist’s dystopia. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I found The Unit so impressive: for a debut novel to be this perfectly observed, I can’t help but pinch myself. It is no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t put The Unit down: often when I only really had time to read one chapter, I found myself reading another and another, and then rushing late and breathless to whatever I needed to do next. I didn’t even consciously decide to read more and make myself late; it just happened. It’s very rare that a book can have this effect on me, draw me in and shut out all else as books could do in a time before I had responsibilities, internet, and a mobile phone.

“It is only on the edges of human experience that Dorrit understands what it is to belong”

Dorrit enters the Unit just after her 50th birthday: she has never had children, and never had a stable relationship. Her last relationship was with a married man, who eventually made it clear to her that he would never leave his wife and children. With no-one but her dog to care for, and with her economic position becoming untenable, Dorrit decides to have her dog adopted, live her final years in peace, and enter the Second Reserve Bank Unit. What Dorrit hadn’t anticipated is that inside the Unit she would fall in love, and that this love would make her want to cling to life at the very time she had resigned herself to it drawing to a close. For the first time in her life, she experiences what it is to be “part of a couple, not always the fifth wheel on the wagon, but regarded and treated as someone who belongs with someone else.” The connection between her desire to hold onto life because of the discovery of what it is to belong and the awareness of the inevitable tearing asunder of the “final donation” is exquisitely expressed when she describes herself as “throbbing like a heart that has just been cut out of one body and is about to be inserted and stitched into another”: it is only on the edges of human experience that she understands what it is to belong.

There are chilling references to the “dispensability” of people who have not had children, and shrewd observations about the unworthiness of some of those who have, and who “live a needed, worthwhile life, showing off with [their] offspring and spreading [themselves] out all over the streets and squares and public transportation, pushing everybody else out of the way with [their] stroller and all the rest of the stuff [they] find it necessary to carry around with [them].” More than this, there is the boundless grief of older members of society who would have liked to become parents but did not have the opportunity – because of their sexuality and the strict controls of adoption, because they thought there would always be time later on, because they were infertile, or because they did not meet the love of their life until they were “dispensable.” Dorrit’s sorrow goes even deeper: she had an abortion as a teenager because it never occurred to her that she would not have another opportunity to become a parent. She spends her years grieving for the child she never had, and that your greatest grief should represent the reason you are “dispensable” to society seems the cruellest twist of all. Added to this is an acute reflection on age: the “dispensables” have been cast out of a society that values youth and procreation, and that has very narrow ideas of what is “useful”.

“The Unit is both a page-turning story of the longing of the human heart and a thought-provoking reflection on modern values”

Marlaine Delargy’s translation is excellent, and so is the editing: in the whole book, there were only two minor points that niggled at me (one was the hyper-corrected “Johannes and I” instead of “Johannes and me”, and another was the phrase “when it comes to Johannes” – “when it comes to” in conjunction with a proper name sounds awkward to me). To say that these are the only flaws I can come up with is quite a compliment – I’m constantly on the lookout for such things, so if this was all I found then you know there’s not much to criticise. I also appreciated the focus on older protagonists: Holmqvist offers a blistering yet understated indictment of a society that dismisses this age group, and she gives them voices, personal lives, desires, and fears. They develop their own tightly-knit community outside the boundaries of “normal” life, supporting one another through the painful decision they have all taken to be there. They all know why they are in the Unit, and they all struggle with the fate that they have putatively “chosen”, but which in reality has been thrust upon them by a society incapable of seeing beyond prescribed values. This leads me to one of the most provocative points implicit in the novel: if you lived in a society where not having children rendered you “dispensable”, what would be your main aim before you reached “dispensable” age? And wouldn’t this create its own new, advanced dystopian society?

I’m not going to say too much about the ending as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, so I’ll limit myself to one objective observation and one subjective one: firstly, and objectively, fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will see that there is nothing derivative about The Unit when they read how it ends. Secondly, and entirely subjectively, I cried uncontrollably and still think about it months later. The Unit is another triumph for OneWorld (see my previous reviews of Fever Dream and Umami): it is both a page-turning story of the longing of the human heart and a thought-provoking reflection on modern values; reading it has been, for me, one of the best things to come out of this project so far.

 

 

A bittersweet novel with enormous heart: Laia Jufresa, Umami

Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (OneWorld, 2016).

There are very few books that I love completely, unconditionally, evangelically, and Umami is one of them. It’s one of a handful of “must-reads” in my virtual bookshelf, and you’re not going to read a bad word about it in this review. Umami 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 construction of the narrative is innovative: there are five different perspectives from which the story/ies are narrated, and each section works back through the years from 2005 to 2001, with each year being recounted from a different perspective. The stories are beautifully told: Laia Jufresa’s writing is immensely skilful, and Sophie Hughes’s translation feels close to symbiotic.

Image taken from oneworld-publications.com

For some reason, the reviews on the book jacket made me expect something different from this novel. I was expecting it to be dramatic, psychedelic, bursting out of the pages. In the end, though, I liked Umami better the way it was: quiet, gentle, with beautifully developed characters who fulfil narrative functions while resisting stereotype. The protagonists all felt very real: you don’t have to look too far in “real life” to find the private sorrow of involuntary childlessness, a loss that happened while everyone was looking the other way, a “new start” that cannot shake off the old life, and a merciless cancer that entirely disregards carefully laid plans for a long and happy life.

I found I took very few notes as I was reading Umami, but it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. I simply couldn’t unglue myself from the story as it unfolded, and I wanted it to go on forever: when I was 50 pages from the end I started reading very slowly and re-reading almost every page, because I didn’t want it to end. There are some books that you can appreciate for their deconstruction of reality or their subversion of genre, for all you can read into them and analyse, and there are some books that are just a joy to read because they have heart. From the stark, poignant “Luz turns three years dead today” to the hilarious admission from an ageing academic that “for the first time in forty years, I’m daring to write without footnotes”, Umami has heart.

The translation is so beautiful that I want to read Umami in its original Spanish. If that sounds like a self-contradiction, hear me out: there are clearly some passages in this book that resist translation, such as “‘Bah, let’s drop the formalities’, says the woman, drying her hair with her scarf” which I assume was a simple switch from the formal word for “you” to the informal one in Spanish, and a subversion via wordplay of the Lord’s Prayer, which necessarily has to be different in English to make any sense to its reader. Indeed, Jufresa has said that she worked with Hughes to create new sections, because Hughes felt that her first drafts simply didn’t work in English; Jufresa says of this collaboration that “I think it, in a way, is a better book because it had two authors in a way”. This collaboration between Jufresa, Hughes, Spanish and English works very well: for example, Luz explains that “Emma gave us baskets and plastic bags and told us which mushrooms we were looking out for: black trumpets. In Spanish they’re called las trompetas de la muerte, death trumpets, even though black and dead isn’t the same thing. You just can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong.” I would imagine that “death trumpets” doesn’t appear in the original novel, and therefore that the sentence “You can’t trust English: it translates stuff all wrong” might be an addition. But it fits in so well with Luz’s narrative voice that it is not identifiable as an addition, and simply works to enhance the novel in translation: Hughes has clearly locked horns with every fragment of this text, and produced a book that will make you forget you’re reading a translation. Even the sections which reflect on the English language or on translation do not seem forced; in fact, the entire translation subtly subverts a claim within it that “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.”

Jufresa writes all five main characters sensitively: each has their own distinctive voice, and each is consistent throughout (compare, for example, two views of the same event: “Back when there were still four of us, we didn’t all fit in one row”; “There used to be four siblings in the Perez-Walker clan, but the youngest died a couple of years ago”). This is equally true of the translation: perhaps the most clearly distinct voice is Luz, the dead girl, who speaks with a child’s voice and makes sense of the world in her child’s way. Then there is Alfonso, a grieving widower writing his wife’s story on his new computer, and who is able to articulate his emotions on a keyboard in a way that he cannot do verbally; Ana, Luz’s older sister, with her brittle teenage pseudo-wisdom, Marina, the fragile new arrival at the mews, always voiced in the third person, and Pina, Ana’s best friend, also voiced in the third person, and striving to come to terms with her mother’s disappearance. All of the characters in Umami are quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to put their lives back together. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. As Alfonso says of Linda, “if we do talk it’s about old times: her gringo childhood, my Mexico City youth, our lives before our lives with the dead.”

Throughout the narrative there are two strands of mystery: who are “The Girls”? And how did Luz drown? The identity of The Girls sums up so many things about Umami: it is uncomfortable because it strips bare the deepest sorrow of one of the protagonists and presents it to every character she meets and every reader who meets her. And as for the revelations about Luz’s death, these are left until the very end, and unless your heart is either made of stone or incredibly well fortified, prepare for it to break a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been carrying Umami inside me since I read it. Paradoxically, though, I have found this review difficult to write, as my words just don’t seem to do it justice. So let me use Alfonso’s words, writing about his deceased wife: “A couple of days ago I gave the document a title page. In big letters, in the middle of the page, I wrote, Noelia. Then I added her surnames, and then I deleted them again. Her name isn’t big enough for her. I wrote, Umami. […] Trying to explain who my wife was is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being able to quite put your finger on it.” Trying to explain why this book affected me so deeply is just as necessary and impossible as explaining umami: I can only recommend that you read it for yourself.