Category Archives: Portobello Books

5 women writers to discover in translation

Women in Translation month is in full swing, and following on from the individual book recommendations I gave in an earlier post, today I want to focus on authors. I love it when publishing houses champion an author rather than a single book, and when translators get to work on several books by the same author, forming a relationship and bringing a whole body of work into translation – especially when this oeuvre is constantly growing. So here are my suggestions of five contemporary women writers whose work it’s worth diving into.

(Please note that I refer here to UK editions of these books, though many are also published by US publishing houses)

Hiromi Kawakami, Portobello/ Granta Books and Pushkin Press

Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami is known for her offbeat love stories, writing relationships that are unusual, unexpected, and in many cases delightfully awkward. Published by Portobello Books, Kawakami’s portfolio was taken on by parent company Granta Books when they shuttered the Portobello imprint in January 2019. Her current translator is Allison Markin Powell, who communicates Kawakami’s whimsy perfectly.

Strange Weather in Tokyo was Kawakami’s first work to be published in Markin Powell’s translation, and has received widespread critical acclaim. It recounts the will-they-won’t-they relationship of a thirty-something woman and her much older former teacher: it’s a great unconventional romance story, though I didn’t connect with it as deeply as most people seemed to until the final page, in which the relevance of the US title (The Briefcase) becomes apparent in a way that knocked me for six.

Call me contrary, but though Strange Weather in Tokyo is worth reading, I preferred Kawakami’s  follow-up, The Nakano Thrift Shop. This follows the lives and entangled relationships of four people who work in a Tokyo thrift shop; the contemporary star-crossed young lovers, the fallibility of Mr Nakano himself, and the eccentricity of his sister are sublimely awkward.

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is Kawakami’s latest and much anticipated release, and offers connected short stories of ten women who have all loved the same man at different stages of his life. Through their reflections, a portrait of Mr Nishino emerges that is always shifting and never complete, and this innovative way of understanding a central character is as accomplished as I’d come to expect from the Kawakami-Markin Powell collaboration.

In addition to the three novels above, Kawakami’s novella Record of a Night Too Brief was translated by Lucy North and published by Pushkin Press in 2017, and her novel Manazaru was translated by Michael Emmerich and published by Counterpoint Books in 2017.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Portobello/ Granta Books

Jenny Erpenbeck writes in German, and won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize in 2015 for her sweeping novel The End of Days. Her work is deeply embedded in German history, from the ravages of the twentieth century to the modern-day refugee crisis; Susan Bernofsky translates Erpenbeck with great sensitivity and depth.

The End of Days is Erpenbeck’s best-known work, and is a historical saga with a difference, recounting the many ways in which a life could have been lived (and died) in the twentieth century. At its heart are profound and unsettling questions of the difference one life can make, and the impact one choice in one moment has on not just on an individual life, but on history. A protagonist who is unnamed for much of the novel lives through fixed historical events and more arbitrary personal ones, that may or may not all be leading to the same fate in a different way.

The progression of German history through the twentieth century echoes Erpenbeck’s earlier work Visitation, which was the only one of her novels I struggled to appreciate. Whereas in The End of Days history is viewed through a single character who lives (and dies, and lives again) through the events, in Visitation the focus is on a house by a lake in Brandenburg, which sees inhabitants (including a family of Jews and a regiment of soldiers) come and go throughout the years, and stands as a silent witness to the atrocities of the twentieth century.

My admiration for Erpenbeck and Bernofsky returned full throttle with Go Went Gone, a moving account of the refugee crisis in Berlin. Retired university professor Richard observes a makeshift camp in Oranienplatz, and strikes up an unexpected relationship with the refugees as he attempts to understand their plight. The relationship between a relatively privileged European and a group of displaced people is sensitively developed, but even more interesting are the reflections on nation and nationalism; the questions Erpenbeck raises about borders make their way into English at a particularly apposite time, confirming her status as an important writer of our times.

Erpenbeck has also published The Old Child and The Book of Words, both translated by Bernofsky and published by Portobello/Granta.

Ariana Harwicz, Charco Press

Ariana Harwicz was one of the five Argentine authors that Charco Press launched with in 2017. She writes frenzied and disturbing accounts of women’s experience on the edge of reason, and is an explosive and innovative writer. Charco co-director Carolina Orloff has been involved in the translation of all of Harwicz’s books, working with Sarah Moses on Die, My Love and with Annie McDermott on Feebleminded and the forthcoming Precocious.

The women in Harwicz’s narrative universe are “in the prime of life and in freefall” (Die, My Love): Die, My Love was longlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2018, and is an extraordinary debut in which a woman living in the French countryside struggles with maternity and with a man who can never be all she wants him to be. On its initial release in Spanish, critics rushed to categorise Die, My Love as a narrative of post-natal depression, but it is so much more than this: it is a challenge to society, a voice that refuses to be silenced, and a turbulent account of an outsider’s experience with no neat solutions.

Feebleminded returns to many of the themes of Die, My Love, and if possible is even more intense. The narrator and her mother live in a chaotic household in the countryside, constantly at loggerheads with one another but unable to exist apart. The prose is sparse and violent, but rhythmic, viscerally poetic, and full of striking images which are rendered beautifully in the translation. Contrasts abound in Feebleminded: love is perversion, tenderness is violence, lucidity is madness, and the basic premise rests on the following question: could a person want something so badly they destroy it? Harwicz’s prose is electrifying and addictive, and we can look forward to her third translated novel, Precocious, coming from Charco in 2020.

*Ariana Harwicz will be in conversation with Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott at the Translating Women conference in London on 1 November 2019; visit the conference webpage for details and booking links!*

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Pushkin Press

Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen writes page-turning narratives that offer a painfully acute observation of human fallibility and experience. Translator Sondra Silverston is perfectly matched to Gundar-Goshen’s wry whimsy, and all of these books are a treat to read. If you’re after a good story, you’re in safe hands here: Gundar-Goshen’s storytelling is a thing of beauty, as is Silverston’s translation.

Gundar-Goshen’s debut One Night, Markovitch is a modern-day fable that follows the lives of two friends, the “gloriously average” anti-hero Yaacov Markovitch and his larger-than-life best friend Zeev Feinberg. Thanks to Zeev’s sexual exploits with the butcher’s wife, the two men have to flee their village in Eretz Israel and make marriages of convenience in Europe. Once back in Israel the new couples are to divorce, but Markovitch falls in love with his new wife and refuses to let her go – a decision that sets in motion a chain of events unfolding over decades and weaving together the destiny of all the characters. The narrative develops in unexpected ways, with retribution never quite falling where you think it will.

Gundar-Goshen followed One Night, Markovitch with Waking Lions, a tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement. Dr Eitan Green is a good man who did a bad thing: speeding along a deserted moonlit road, he hit and killed a man. His life is then torn between two women: his wife, Liat, a senior detective in the Israeli police with a keen sense of what is right, and Sirkit, a taciturn Eritrean who sweeps floors for a living. Sirkit is the wife of the man Eitan killed: she saw what happened, and she comes to demand atonement. Fast-paced and full of suspense, this novel is not to be missed.

Liar was Gundar-Goshen’s latest release in translation, and is a piercing look at how one unfortunate decision or instinct can ruin lives. 17-year-old Nofar is desperate to escape the anonymity of being unexceptional, and when a washed-up reality TV star insults her outside the ice cream parlour where she works, she lets out all her rage in a scream that will change her life: from this moment on, Nofar is caught up in a web of deceit from which no-one will emerge unscathed. Gundar-Goshen deftly blends humour and pathos in all her works, and is a writer I highly recommend.

Annie Ernaux, Fitzcarraldo Editions

A literary institution in France, Annie Ernaux has only recently come to publication in the UK thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions. Ernaux writes primarily from her own experience, and engages with issues that shaped her life and the lives of many other women throughout the second half of the twentieth century.

The Years was the first of Ernaux’s books to appear in translation (by Alison L. Strayer) from publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, and was released in 2018. This monumental book is described as a “collective autobiography” of French twentieth-century cultural history: filtered through the experience of a woman we see through photographs, and who we know to be Ernaux, The Years represents her imperative to bear witness before “all the images (…) fade”.

Ernaux’s second English-language release was Happening (translated by Tanya Leslie) earlier this year; this short novella reconstructs Ernaux’s experience of a clandestine abortion in 1963, supplementing her memory of events with fragments of a journal she kept at the time. Through the public articulation of her experience, Ernaux fulfills a sense of moral responsibility to hold a misogynist social system up to justice. It’s not an easy read, but it is a fearless and necessary one: In this time of desensitization and indifference we need books like Happening, and it begs to be experienced, even if not “enjoyed” as such.

I Remain in Darkness is the next of Ernaux’s books that Fitzcarraldo will publish later this year (also translated by Leslie). I read this in French many years ago – it’s another autobiographical piece, but this time focuses on Ernaux’s elderly mother, dying and already written off by the healthcare system. Expect painful insights and more no-holds-barred depictions of human frailty.

 

Historical horror, supernatural stories, and a gentle gem: three books reviewed

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, tr. Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books)
Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire, tr. Megan McDowell (Portobello Books)
Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books)

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2015)

I started the year’s reading with a book I felt sure would be a safe bet, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation (translated by Susan Bernofsky for Portobello Books). I’d greatly enjoyed Erpenbeck’s two other books in translation, the magnificent The End of Days and Go Went Gone, and so completing the Erpenbeck/Bernofsky/Portobello trilogy seemed like a good way to get my 2019 reading off to a stellar start.

And yet… I was disappointed. I simply didn’t connect with the story or the characters in Visitation. There are many themes in Visitation that are echoed in The End of Days – most notably, the progression of German history through the 20th century – but whereas in The End of Days this is viewed through a single character who lives (and dies, and lives again) through the events, in Visitation the focus is on a house by a lake in Brandenburg, which sees inhabitants (including a family of Jews and a regiment of soldiers) come and go throughout the years, and stands as a silent witness to the atrocities of the 20th century.

Visitation is as beautifully written and consummately translated as The End of Days and Go Went Gone, with many instances of Erpenbeck’s brutally poetic minimalism, such as in this extract: “Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Łodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized…” The house with its specially designed walk-in closet is also suitably spooky, and there are some understated one-liners brimming with personal and historical tragedy (“then she takes off her shoes forever and goes to stand on the board to be shot”) and lyrical comments on 20th-century German history (“even this dutiful German official had known that home would never again be called Bavaria, the Baltic coast or Berlin, home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit that neither knew nor was forced to imagine all these horrific things.”) So it’s not that I disliked Visitation, but it didn’t engage me in the way that The End of Days and Go Went Gone did. I found it hard to maintain interest in (and thus enthusiasm for) the story/stories, and the house itself failed to move me. It’s always worth reading Erpenbeck, so I wouldn’t advise against reading Visitation, but I did feel that it had almost been a practice run for the utter brilliance of The End of Days.

Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Portobello Books, 2017)

Two things that don’t normally appeal to me are horror stories and the supernatural, so Things We Lost in the Fire (a collection of supernatural horror stories) wasn’t an obvious choice for me. Yet it has received consistently excellent reviews, and with good reason: Mariana Enriquez writes characters and situations that are universally recognisable, and twists them deftly yet mercilessly into your worst nightmares. You’ll know from my reviews of Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream and Mouthful of Birds how much I admire Megan McDowell’s translations, and her translation of Enriquez’s short stories is perfectly controlled and dark, showcasing her own admiration for “writers who can combine the transgressive joy of horror with literary depth and original style”.

Things We Lost in the Fire is about as perfect an example of the art of short story writing as I’ve seen. Each story is exquisitely crafted: the details are full while being minimal, the characterisation impeccable, and the descriptive sections vivid yet concise. I’m going to focus on the two stories that I enjoyed the most: the first was ‘Under the Black Water’, with its themes of environmental pollution, deformed children, and the monsters we unleash on the world. A female district attorney known for her integrity is following up leads on a slum murder case when the victims seem to rise from the dead – indeed, from the depths – and we are invited not only to see a grotesque reality we might prefer to ignore, but question our own complicity in this reality for the fact of having ignored it. If this doesn’t reel you in, perhaps a quotation will: “She had no time to react; the priest was drunk, but his movement when he grabbed her gun was surprisingly fast and precise. She couldn’t even fight back, nor did she see that the deformed child had turned around and started screaming mutely. His mouth was open and he screamed without a sound.” You’ll have to read it to find out what fate awaits the priest, the DA, and the child.

The other story that really stood out for me was the title story, ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, in which women protest against their life of silence and suffering by setting themselves on fire. Self-immolation spreads as if by contagion, women burning themselves to confront male violence and a society that tells them how they should be. But this is not necessarily presented as a positive thing: while one burned woman describes it as “a new kind of beauty”, the pain – and deaths – resulting from this macabre struggle for control and agency are also detailed. And when the “bonfires” become commonplace, society simply accepts the shift, the protagonist’s mother so chillingly committed to the cause that she would offer her daughter up in sacrifice. Nothing is straightforward or black and white in Enriquez’s stories, and that’s why, though I wouldn’t have expected to be championing a collection of horror stories, I found Things we Lost in the Fire to be excellent.

Leonard and Hungry Paul, Rónán Hession (Bluemoose Books, forthcoming 2019)

And now for something completely different… my Twitter friend, Rónán Hession, is releasing his debut novel this month with independent publisher Bluemoose Books, and I had the joy of reading an advance copy of this anthem to gentleness and quiet humour. I first encountered Rónán during Women in Translation month last August, when we both read and loved Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup (translated by Charlotte Coombe for Charco Press, and reviewed here), and we’ve exchanged many comments about our women in translation reading ever since. I was slightly nervous about reading his own work (if I wasn’t crazy about it, wouldn’t it be terribly awkward?) but I didn’t have to deal with that, because it is a SUPERB debut. Through his two main characters (the eponymous Leonard and Hungry Paul), Hession finds pathos in the everyday, turning the humdrum into something magical.

We meet socially awkward Leonard just after his mother’s death, at a time when the family of his best friend (Hungry Paul) is preparing for the wedding of Hungry Paul’s older sister, Grace. Hession combines instances of the unsaid (we never find out why Hungry Paul got his nickname, and he may or may not be autistic, but the word is never used) with others of great detail (I never thought accounts of board game marathons could be so compelling, and just wait for the moment when an irate Hungry Paul takes a past-its-use-by-date tin of Roses chocolates back to the supermarket), and writes every page with immense warmth; to read Leonard and Hungry Paul is to live a while in their world. I love that Rónán was unafraid to write a book where nothing “happens” as such – because life is happening on every page, and this is one of the most life-affirming books I have read in a long time. Its gentle tone harbours some profound insights (“It may well be that if you truly want to open a heart, you need to break it open”; “We are never entirely outside of life’s choices; everything leads somewhere”), and by the end I had tears streaming down my face. I didn’t want to say goodbye to these characters, I cared about them: I wanted to tell Hungry Paul that the “strange pocket-within-a-pocket that denim jeans have” is called a coin pocket (this knowledge would have saved him from a great childhood humiliation) and hug Grace when she realised that “it was possible to make someone feel so loved at the very moment you are letting them go.” Gentleness and kindness are under-rated qualities, and they abound in Leonard and Hungry Paul: the characters may be fictional, but a real person wrote them, and that makes me feel just that bit better about the world.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’ll be back on Friday for a special International Women’s Day post!

Women in translation: the best of 2018

End-of-year compilations are abundant at the moment, and after an exciting year – generally, with the Year of Publishing Women, and personally, with the development of this blog – I want to round off the year with my top picks and recommendations of 2018. I’m going to start by sharing my four Books of the Year as revealed in the interview I did with Sophie Baggott for Wales Arts Review, then talk about four more books that I’ve loved in 2018, before looking ahead to some exciting things coming our way in 2019.

Part 1: My top four

In order of publication date (to avoid any other form of “ranking”), here are my four favourite picks of 2018.

First up is Soviet Milk, the story of three generations of Latvian women based on author Nora Ikstena’s own life, published by Peirene Press. I mentioned in my review of Soviet Milk that it intertwines with my family history, and it’s fair to say that I read much of Soviet Milk through misty eyes. But Soviet Milk is heart-wrenching whether or not you have a personal connection to the history, and is a fine example of how literature can reveal the immeasurable consequences that historical tragedy can have on the life of the individual. The mother, always “striving to turn out her life’s light”, cannot accept the impact of Soviet rule on her homeland, and in rebelling against it condemns her daughter to relative exile, unable to give her maternal affection. It is the daughter – Ikstena herself – who offers this devotion back to her mother in a poignant tribute to a woman whose despair consumed her ability to love. The translation by Margita Gailitis strikes a perfect balance that rages and laments without ever descending into melodrama.

Don’t fall over with shock, but my next choice is Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup. I know, I’ve raved about it (repeatedly), but with good reason! This is not only an excellent collection of stories and novellas, but also the kind of writing that carries you back and forth between desperate wincing and uncontrollable giggles. It offers a snapshot of what the author describes as a “Latin American universe”, but also has a universality in terms of female experience, unromantic realities, adolescent frustration and the weight of tradition that will have broad appeal (particularly when recounted with such caustic humour, beautifully replicated in Charlotte Coombe’s glorious translation). You might have read about my meeting with Margarita, and I have to say that discovering Charco Press, reading Fish Soup, and interviewing Margarita are right up there in my 2018 highlights. Fish Soup is utterly brilliant and uncompromisingly hilarious, and I recommend it unreservedly.

After starting the year in relative obscurity in the English-speaking world, Olga Tokarczuk has become something of a household name for literature lovers. Although I enjoyed her Man Booker Prize-winning Flights, published last year by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Jennifer Croft’s translation, it was Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead that really stood out for me (you can read my full review here). Tackling issues of ageism, animal cruelty, environmental damage and individuality through the lens of a pseudo-noir murder mystery, this was an unexpected page-turner, offering plenty of insights into the human condition and several moments of sheer hilarity, all brought together in an immaculate translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (again for Fitzcarraldo). Drive Your Plow is a delight from beginning to end: it’s a tale of philosophy, astrology, fatality and retribution, all recounted by a unique, oddball and utterly brilliant narrator who will sweep you up into the banalities of her daily life and the enormities of the universe.

And finally, a book I have yet to review, though I have mentioned it in a previous post: The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán. If ever you should be disappointed that more publishers didn’t commit to the Year of Publishing Women, then just read this book and you’ll soon feel instead that a small take-up produced great things. The Remainder is a tumultuous riot of a road trip (in search of a dead body that’s gone missing in transit between Berlin and Santiago de Chile) that, in amongst a series of hilariously inappropriate events, tackles the serious issues of historical memory and the generational transmission of guilt. Three main characters struggle with the burden of their parents’ suffering, and bond over death, grief, and nicotine. Throw in a rickety hearse, winding mountain roads, and more than a few bottles of pisco, and it’s a literary treat. The translation by Sophie Hughes is pitch-perfect.

Part 2: another four brilliant books

There have been several other releases that I’ve greatly enjoyed this year. Since And Other Stories were publishing only women this year, the odds were high that I’d find a few I liked, and though The Remainder was the one I loved most, I have to mention two others that I’d highly recommend. Firstly, Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, which experiments with genre and drifts between the microscopic detail of individual life and the immensity of polar expeditions, framing everything within an ice metaphor which might seem improbable but which Kopf pulls off deftly. Living with an autistic brother (“a man of ice”) and negotiating relationships in the modern world don’t seem like obvious counterfoils for discussions of polar explorations, but it works brilliantly. Brother in Ice started out as an exhibition, and it is a startlingly luminous multi-genre work of art. I found the translation overly literal in several places, and although this did not prevent me from enjoying Kopf’s daring, creative debut, I’d like to read her own translation into Spanish at some point.

My surprise end-of-year highlight was, undoubtedly, Tentacle, by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas. In a mid 21st-century dystopian Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life. Maid Acilde inadvertently holds the key to future survival, but first must become a man (with the help of a sacred anemone) and travel in time to save her home. Tentacle is explosive, innovative, steeped in history but defying tradition, a social comment that never feels moralistic: it encompasses religion and voodoo, male and female, past and present (and future, while we’re at it), is a written text with oral qualities, beautifully constructed while seeming effortlessly spontaneous… put simply, it’s a psychedelic Caribbean genesis story with ecocriticism, voodoo and time travel thrown in – what’s not to love?!

Regular readers will also know how much I enjoyed the final release of the year from Tilted Axis Press, Hwang Jungeun’s I’ll Go On, beautifully and sensitively translated by Emily Yae Won. Two sisters and the boy next door take turns to narrate their childhood and adult life: they thrash out their relationships with each other, their mothers, and themselves, doomed to never truly understand one another yet committed to negotiating life together. In a world where notions of family are becoming more fluid, this quietly profound novel examines the bonds we choose, and those we cannot shake off, and offers reflections that transcend the context of the novel and become something akin to life mottos. One such favourite of mine is this: “The things we can’t seem to figure out no matter how much we think about and how deeply we look into them – maybe these things simply aren’t meant to be figured out, they’re not meant to be known” – read the last lines of my full review to see another that you’ll want to shout out loud to everyone you meet.

I’m still sad that Granta Books is shuttering its Portobello imprint next year, but Portobello have certainly gone out on a high: the smash hit of the summer (and Foyles Book of the Year) was Convenience Store Woman, and if ever you should judge a book by its cover, this would be the one, because it’s a perfect reflection of its heroine: like misfit convenience store worker Keiko herself, the unremittingly cheerful exterior conceals a depth, nuance and everyday tragedy beneath the surface. Keiko is not like other people, but no matter how hard her family tries to “fix” her, she cannot be “cured” of her differences, acknowledging of her calling that “When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual”. Convenience Store Woman challenges us not to assume that “normal” means “better”: Sayaka Murata writes a complex, loveable heroine who cannot understand the world, and in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s excellent translation, Keiko endears herself to new audiences. Like Keiko, Convenience Store Woman is delightful, original, and impossible to put into a box.

Part 3: women in translation in 2019

Finally, instead of choosing another two books and making this a “top ten”, I thought I’d share what I’m looking forward to for 2019.

And Other Stories will continue to bring us excellent women’s writing next year, with three women in translation titles, of which these two appeal to me greatly: To Leave with the Reindeer by Olivia Rosenthal, translated from the French by Sophie Lewis, is “the account of a woman who has been trained for a life she cannot live”, and The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel, represents a “fiercely witty and nuanced contribution to feminism in the #metoo era.”

Charco Press have a bumper year coming up, with new releases from Ariana Harwicz (whose Die, My Love was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize)  and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (if you’ve seen my virtual bookshelf, you’ll know that Slum Virgin is one of my “must-read” recommendations, so a new Cabezón Cámara translation is cause for much rejoicing here!) as well as a “Proustian love story” by Brenda Lozano, and debut novels by Selva Almada and Andrea Jeftanovic.

Peirene Press are publishing only women authors in 2019 in a series called “There Be Monsters”.

As well as the much-anticipated release of their Translating Feminisms chapbooks, Tilted Axis will be kicking off 2019 with Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles.

Les Fugitives have a very exciting catalogue for 2019, with six new releases scheduled.

To conclude my year’s musings, I want to end with this beautiful reflection from an earlier Les Fugitives publication, Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance, translated with great warmth by Ros Schwartz:

“In these times of solitude and solidarities: translation, a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.”

Thank you for reading with me in 2018; I wish you all a restful and joyful festive season, and I’ll be back in January with more women in translation reviews and reflections.

Life through a furry lens: Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2016)

Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem, winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2017. At first I was a bit nonplussed when I was given this book as a gift: animal narrators are one of those quirks that usually make a novel fall into the “not my thing” category (although, as I mentioned in a previous post, I am trying to challenge my own perceptions about what is or is not “my thing”). Irrational dismissal of articulate polar bears aside, it’s hard to argue with the multiple positive reviews on the jacket cover: “enchanting”, “profound”, “beautiful”, “magnificent”, “exquisite” and “beguiling” are just some of the accolades bestowed on Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and I can’t say it doesn’t merit this proliferation of appreciative adjectives. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada steps outside human narration to better observe human nature.

Image from portobellobooks.com

Though Tawada is a prestigious writer in both Japan and Germany (she was born in Tokyo but moved to Germany in her twenties, and writes in both Japanese and German), Memoirs of a Polar Bear was the first of her novels to be published in the United Kingdom (she has since  published Last Children of Tokyo, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani). Tawada’s translator from German, Susan Bernofsky, was also the translator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (another Portobello Books jewel), and if you read my review of that then you’ll know how much I admire Bernofsky. I have not yet read a single Portobello book that I haven’t enjoyed, and I hope that when Granta Books shutters the Portobello imprint next year, the magnificent women in translation catalogue continues to grow. Neither Portobello nor Bernofsky disappoint here; Bernofksy’s prose in her translation of Memoirs of a Polar Bear is just beautiful. There were sections that I read over and over, so that their beauty could sink in fully (“Suddenly a thought struck me like a stone: I can never see him again. Of course it was perfectly possible that I’d never have been able to see him again even if he’d remained alive. But I would have gone on thinking now and then: Maybe I’ll see him again after all. This ‘maybe’ is what human beings call hope. My ‘maybe’ was dead.”) There is no unnecessary flourish or embellishment: the prose is lyrical but not florid, poetic but not melodramatic. In a novel of 250 pages, there were only two words that struck me as imperfect; it is truly a remarkable feat to translate so much with such beauty.

The polar bear protagonists are shown in all their humanity, while never losing the characteristics that make them bears.  The humans are observed close-up, their smells giving away their feelings and their body language belying their intentions: as it turns out, the polar bears are able to observe the human characters more accurately than any homo sapiens narrator could. It is through the eyes of animals that the complexity of human relationships and historical progress are brought to light: from the restrictions of the Communist regime to concerns about climate change, human history and characteristics are observed and questioned, without ever moralising or turning to propaganda. The three bears – the unnamed exiled memoirist of the first section, her daughter Tosca, and Tosca’s son Knut – are as flawed and as fallible as the humans they seek to understand, but their characterisation and narration is close to divine.

The most remarkable section of this book, in my opinion, was the final one (about a bear cub and his beloved zookeeper). As far as I can tell, this is where the writing process might have started: Knut is the real-life bear born in Berlin Zoo in 2006, whose progress was recorded in minute detail and who captured hearts worldwide while he was a cub. The relationship between Knut and his keeper Matthias moved me deeply and had me thinking about the story long after I had closed the book: the bond is described from Knut’s point of view, and he understands Matthias to be a parent to him, a person who is Knut’s whole universe and who protects him from any threats or danger. Reading this attachment through the child’s eyes was a moving experience for me, and the pivotal moment when we realise that the third-person narrative voice was actually Knut’s all along is one of great beauty. Knut’s reaction when Matthias has to be kept from him for his own safety is heartbreaking; Tawada is  skilled at observing seemingly small incidents and the magnitude of their impact on an individual (furred or not). The boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership, individual and collective experience are all blurred, erased, moved, and re-drawn, and for a book I thought would be “not my thing”, Memoirs of a Polar Bear was memorable for all the right reasons. I am glad and grateful to have had the opportunity to read it, and I can only urge you to do the same (if you haven’t already).

The second Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will be awarded TONIGHT, Tuesday 13th November, in a ceremony starting at 6.30pm BST. I’m so sad that I can’t be there, but shall be following it closely on social media – you can see the shortlist here!

“I will give you white things”: an exquisite exploration of grief. Han Kang, The White Book

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2017)

The White Book is a short meditation on mourning, as Han Kang explores through words a loss that has accompanied her throughout her life: her mother gave birth prematurely to a girl who lived only two hours, and Han has lived with the knowledge that “I’d been born and grown up in the place of that death.” Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, The White Book is another stunning collaboration between Han and Deborah Smith, though very different from the book with which they previously won the MBI, The Vegetarian. As you may know, it was Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian that kick-started the Women Writing Women Translating Women project, and it took me a further seven months and over 40 books before I returned to another collaboration between the two. The White Book had been on my to-read list for some time, but if I’d been putting it off, it was because I suspected it was going to be bruising to read. And though in some ways it was, it is also an incredibly uplifting and beautiful book. Even the cover is stripped bare, and seems vulnerable, fragile, serene, with a raised typeface on the front making it seem like an object to touch and feel as much as to read. And it is certainly like no other book I’ve read this year: it is close to poetry with its sparseness and its short lines, its placement on the pages leaving white spaces that seem to be both a void and a possibility. There is something almost spiritual in the reaching out for a connection with a sister to whom Han acknowledges that “if you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now”. Part invocation, part incantation, The White Book explores a deeply internalised mourning and brings it to some kind of light: the two sisters were never to meet, and still cannot meet on the pages of a book, but yet there is some kind of in-between space, “the gap between darkness and light”, between the blank page and the words on it, where they can each make out the other’s face.

Image from portobellobooks.com

Smith’s translation just took my breath away. I truly believe that she is a very special translator; I do not doubt that this was a difficult text to translate, to grapple with, to absorb and to reflect, but Smith makes it seem effortless. She has that rare talent of making a translation her own without deflecting or vampirising any of the admiration owed to the original. I’m curious to read her translations of other authors, to know whether there’s some special kind of alchemy between her and Han, or whether Smith brings this kind of vulnerable wisdom to all her projects… On almost every page there was a word or a turn of phrase that was so unexpected and yet so absolutely perfect, words layered with meaning, that when placed with the other words next to them turn something simple into something dazzling. Let me give you a couple of examples to explain what I mean: “they would have felt lacerated by happiness. Which would have been life. Which would have been beauty”; “like a clutch of words strewn over white paper”: I would never have thought of being “lacerated” by happiness, yet it shows how the yearning of a soul to live, to find hope, is something close to pain. And what is the mass noun for a collection of words? “Clutch” says so much here: the grouping together of the words, the closeness of the black type on the white page – all of which is aesthetically evident in this book – but also clutching onto something intangible, desperately reaching out with words towards something that slips away… a tale that clutches at your heart.

Growing up “inside this story” of her sister’s death has clearly been a transformative experience for Han, knowing, as she acknowledges to the sister she has never seen, that “my life means yours is impossible”. So what kind of ending can be given to a book this deep, this raw? Han parts from her sister, but draws into herself everything of her sister’s life and death:

“Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die.
I open my lips and mutter the words you heard on opening your black eyes, you who were ignorant of language. I press down with all my strength onto the white paper. I believe that no better words of parting can be found. Don’t die. Live.”

This inscription of love and loss onto the white paper, imprinted there with “all my strength”, gives life to the sister; pressing down onto the paper, rather than writing on it, transfers the deep emotions in a near-transcendental way. Within the pages, “within […] all of those white things”, writes Han, “I will breathe in the final breath you released.” And so rather than imprisoning a barely-caught memory of her sister within the pages of a book, Han uses the book – both the writing of it, and the artefact of black on white – to bring her sister into herself, and give her life not by writing for her, but by living with her. No easy “healing through writing” is offered up – though right from the start Han acknowledges that she is writing to transform her pain: “the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.” But to say that articulating pain means that it disappears is to simplify human experience in a way that Han resists, as she explains that “learning to love life again is a long and complicated process.”

There is depth and complexity on every page of The White Book; this is a book that aches and meditates, not one that offers answers, unless it is simply that “nothing is eternal”, not even suffering. It is both a journey and an endless circle: neither birth nor life is posited as the opposite of death, but rather they are all exposed with unflinching honesty as part of the same continuum. Just as white and black are not depicted as opposites, nor are life and death. Instead, life is plural, endless, twisting – and so is death. What struck me most of all – whether it is intentionally in the text or just my interpretation of it – is that this book is about love. “I will give you white things” writes Han, and offers to her sister, in writing, the breast milk she never lived to drink, the snowflakes she would never see, silence condensed into a pure white pebble, the candles that are lit to her memory. And in so doing, instead of living with the spectre of a dead girl, she offers her life from within herself, the white cloud of breath escaping on a cold morning. This is not a book to read if you want a story, a plotline, or a formula, but if you want to read something incandescent, then this is for you.

“Pulling apart the threads of destiny”: Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2015)

Jenny Erpenbeck is hailed as one of Europe’s most highly regarded writers, and in 2015 her stunning novel The End of Days won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (the last one before it was merged with the Man Booker International Prize). As with the first book I read for this project (also published by Portobello – they have a wonderful translated fiction list), I have to thank my husband for introducing me to Erpenbeck: he was one of the judges on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I remember him talking to me animatedly about The End of Days at the time. It took me three years to get around to following his recommendation, but it was worth the wait. The End of Days is a historical saga with a difference, recounting the many ways in which a life could have been lived (and died). At various points throughout the twentieth century, the same character dies as a baby, a teenager, a young woman, a middle-aged woman, and an old woman, with the underlying premise that “the day on which a life comes to an end is far from being the end of days”. It’s a gripping, page-turning, emotion-investing joy of a book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Susan Bernofsky is Erpenbeck’s regular translator, and this translation is flawless. Indeed, Bernofsky is rapidly becoming someone whose work I would actively seek out (I recently read her translation of Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and it’s equally stunning). Most recently, Erpenbeck published Go, Went, Gone (also translated by Bernofsky, and also published by Portobello), which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.

Image taken from portobellobooks.com

Boyd Tonkin (founder of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and author of the forthcoming 100 Best Novels in Translation), says of Erpenbeck that “Her female protagonists, thrust into proximity to total war, genocide, or social upheaval in Germany and the adjacent lands, must survive and seek freedom amid the blood and fire of this uniform collective destiny”: The End of Days sweeps through twentieth-century history, refusing to align itself with any one system, ideology, or “collective destiny”. It is both a reflection on the minuteness of a single human life and a manifesto for the difference one life can make. Endings are never definitive, and the narrative is circular rather than linear: we keep returning to the handful of snow that saved the baby’s life, and even the Complete Works of Goethe goes full circle as the main character’s son considers buying it for her in an antique shop, unaware that it was the very volume pawned by her mother decades ago. He leaves it on the shelf, along with his past – an example of Erpenbeck’s resolute avoidance of the trite or the simplistic.

Reviews of The End of Days have – unsurprisingly – been overwhelmingly positive, but mostly have a sting in the tail somewhere (for example, though Kapka Kassabova finds it “exhilarating” and “shot through with an insight that almost blinds”, she also at times finds it “over-constructed and rootless”, and Alice Fishburn describes it as “beautifully written”, but “not easy on the reader”). For me, though, there’s no caveat to my appreciation of this book: the construction is powerful and thought-provoking, its roots firmly in twentieth-century history but entwined with existential speculation, and if ever I felt that it was not easy owing to the reluctance to name characters or my own lack of familiarity with some of the historical phenomena, it only made me re-read and further engage with the text in front of me.

“This book is a tour de force: sharply clever, breathtakingly ambitious, and unbearably poignant.”

Each of the five books within the story depicts a different possible path for the protagonist’s life: in the first scenario, an infant girl dies, and the mother is left childless and abandoned by her husband. In the second, the child lives because her mother thought to put a handful of snow on her chest when she was dying, and she grows up in Vienna during the First World War. She feels that life is like a round black room with no door, and that she can never be loved, while her mother cannot shake the belief that “all her life she’s paid for having snatched her first child back from hell with nothing more than a handful of snow”. She dies in a suicide pact gone wrong, leaving the mother mourning again. The third section sees the girl now a woman, a Communist writer living in Moscow. She is writing her life story; her husband has been arrested, and she knows that “they” may come for her soon. The section ends when she falls asleep on her desk, and does not hear them come for her in the early hours of the morning.

In the fourth book, the as yet unnamed protagonist dies at the beginning, a noted and respected anti-fascist who devoted her life to working tirelessly for the working classes. She has died falling down a staircase in her home (an event foreshadowed at various points throughout the book), leaving her son Sasha behind. This section is narrated from Sasha’s perspective, and gives us a personal insight into the main character as she aged. There is a man at the funeral who he instinctively knows is the father he never met, and this knowledge is explained in a phrase that sums up everything I loved about the style of this beautiful book: “it’s as if his memory were a curtain suddenly ripping in two”.

What if she didn’t die from a fall? In the fifth book, the woman – now given a name, Frau Hoffman – has lived to be a grandmother, but she is going senile. The story comes full circle as her son travels to Vienna, and in an antique shop tries to find a gift to bring back for his mother, and almost buys the very Complete Works of Goethe that his great-grandmother brought with her at the start of the century, and which has passed from them to a pawn shop when the women were deported, from where it was purchased by a war bride. After her death many years later, it finds its way back to an antique shop by way of her daughter. The cycles, contingencies, departures and returns reflect the protagonist’s repeated lingering at “the entrance to the underworld”, and her repeated retreat to live out another possible version of her days.

The End of Days is a tour de force: sharply clever, breathtakingly ambitious, and unbearably poignant. At its heart are profound and unsettling questions: What difference does one life make? Is a longer life always a better life? What impact does one choice in one moment have on the course of a life, and of history? Does one seemingly random event merely make a person deviate temporarily from the course of their fate, only to return to the same fate in a different way? Yet Erpenbeck never pontificates, never offers answers to these questions: instead, she exposes the interplay of chance and contingency on which life – a single life, and all life – is based. If you feel as though enough literature has been written about twentieth-century German history, think again. You need The End of Days on your bookshelf.

Note: “Pulling apart the threads of destiny” is a description taken from the Portobello books website.

Disturbing, dark, and deeply compelling: Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello, 2015)

This is the novel that kindled a spark that grew into this project. I have a confession to make: despite my love of languages and of translation, I have always gravitated towards reading books written in their original language. This restricts me to anything written in English, French or Spanish, and so it was about time I widened my horizons. My husband bought me this novel as a gift, around the time that I was trying to work out the project I wanted to pursue. I didn’t see the two things as being connected, but as I was reading The Vegetarian it hit me in the gut: French women’s writing is fascinating, and I could easily carry on dedicating my professional life to reading it and writing about it. But WHAT ABOUT ALL THE OTHER BOOKS? Han Kang writes of patriarchy, violence, sexuality, madness, refusal to submit, and one woman’s determination to live as she wishes, not as she is told she ought to wish. I was gripped by Yeong-Hye’s story, and saw in it so many literary themes that are familiar to me, as well as finding a challenge to me not to be complacent about what “women’s writing” is; I realised how little I knew about Korea, and about modern literature beyond my own areas of language proficiency. At first I felt daunted and small, and then uplifted by the swell of inspiration this book offered. Every project has to begin somewhere… and this is where mine began.

Image from http://portobellobooks.com/the-vegetarian-2

“Translators can make or break a text, and Smith has made it”

Han Kang probably doesn’t need my introduction: the words ‘controversial’ and ‘best-seller’ follow her around in reviews; her latest novel The White Book has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year and has been highly publicised; The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The published translation was a debut for Deborah Smith, and she has translated this novel beautifully. There were only rare instances when I was aware I was reading a translation, mostly when describing people and their relationship to one another (I imagine there must be a particular way of doing this in Korean that has no obvious English equivalent). In a review for the Los Angeles Times, Charse Yun argues for Smith’s translation as a ‘new creation’, pointing out that ‘[h]aving copy edited South Korean literary translations for the last dozen years, I’ve striven to make them more readable. Here, finally, was a Korean book that worked spectacularly in English’. He notes some errors in the translation, a change to the style (though Han has approved the translation) and a (lone) negative review by New York Review of Books columnist Tim Parks, but this does not prevent him from lauding Smith’s work in producing a remarkable novel. As for me, I can only be admiring of a talent that produces a translation of this quality as a debut piece. I was very interested to read Smith and Han discussing the process, in an article that (to my mind) counters any negative accusations about the translation being untrue to the original. Translators can make or break a text, and Smith has made it. I shall probably never be able to read The Vegetarian in Korean, and so I can only comment on the translated text, which I found to be beautifully and compellingly written. I still considered the prose to be sparse and understated, yet packing quite a punch. The reviews mentioned above do make me wonder just how sparse and understated the original must have been, then, if Smith’s translation is judged to be embellished! I’m going to go out on a limb and wonder out loud whether there are languages that are so different from one another that there has to be some ‘new creation’ for a translation to work as a text in its own right? Charse Yun’s comment above might suggest that this is the case. I don’t have an answer to this musing, but put simply, I like good writing. And I believe that Deborah Smith’s translation of The Vegetarian is, simply, good writing.

The novel’s central character, Yeong-Hye, has a dream (the details of which are not clear at the beginning), and as a result of this she makes a sudden decision to become vegetarian. This decision is incomprehensible to her rather boorish husband, from whose perspective the first section is recounted, and indeed to everyone around her. It is passed off as a whim, and even lied about in company – Yeong-hye’s husband takes her to a business dinner, and quickly claims that she has digestive problems that are exacerbated by meat, so that he will not be judged for his wife’s unorthodox behaviour. The subversive act of refusing meat reflects, in part, Yeong-hye’s desire to take control of her own body, and of what enters it, and this is violated on two occasions following her conversion to vegetarianism: when her middle-ranking businessman husband forces himself on her sexually, and when her father (a former military official) forces meat into her mouth. We could read into this the way in which the corporate and military bodies exercise control over citizens, but there is no heavy-handed direction for us to interpret it in this way. Rather, if there is a broader message it may lie in the female characters’ complicity with Yeong-hye’s objectification: her mother tries to trick her into eating meat by claiming that it is ‘herbal medicine’, and though her sister realises the men are going too far, she remains silent and is entirely objectified by the narrator, who finds his sister-in-law much more sexually appealing than his wife. This sexual obsession is turned around in the second section, which is told from the point of view of the sister’s husband (who has an erotic obsession with Yeong-hye).

For me the truly fascinating section was the final one, told from the perspective of the sister. Until this point she has been a bystander, an object of lust, or a denouncer of her sister’s ‘madness’, but now Han Kang gives her a voice to guide us through the narrative’s dénouement. In-hye struggles to understand what is happening to Yeong-hye as her sister descends further into madness, and she is forced to look at the ways in which she has been complicit in perpetuating a social system that cannot accommodate her beloved sibling. The tension between the things she wants to believe and those she has to confront was, for me, the most thought-provoking aspect of all. What started out seeming to be one woman’s rejection of customs and traditional roles/ appearances becomes something much bigger than a metaphor for resistance: it is a sacrifice that highlights how women can get lost in what they are ‘supposed’ to be, to the point of forgetting who they are.