Category Archives: Review

Event review: Holiday Heart book launch

It was a great honour last week to chair the virtual launch of Holiday Heart, interviewing author Margarita García Robayo and translator Charlotte Coombe for a wonderful event organised by Carolina Orloff and Jules Danskin of Charco Press. I’m writing up some of the main points into a little piece here, so that those of you who missed the event can get a flavour of what was discussed, and those of you who were there can relive it! For a limited time you can also watch the interview on Charco’s website.

Charco’s director Carolina opened the live session by talking about Margarita’s “universe”, her unique mission and way of understanding the world, her talent for making us laugh with her wry, brutal humour and making us feel uncomfortable at the same time because of the way that she portrays reality. In the interview, Margarita expanded on this idea of a “universe” by explaining that her books are all pieces of a bigger literary project: whereas Latin American literature often deals with things that the region is known for, such as political violence, she made the point that it hasn’t necessarily dealt with the particular social “strip” that she focuses on – the middle class or the “in-betweeners” in terms of class. Holiday Heart is an attempt to portray the damaged and damaging Latin American middle classes by presenting uprooted characters looking for a sense of belonging, and this is the environment in which Margarita grew up: it was not an equal society, but she believes that no-one is an innocent victim of their government. Rather, we must all look to ourselves to identify the ways in which we perpetuate this inequality.

When I asked Margarita more about her main characters (the rather unpleasant Pablo and Lucía) she responded that, controversial as it might sound, she doesn’t see Pablo and Lucía as unlikeable, or rather not as purely unlikeable. They are, she suggests, simply unsatisfied people who are over-exposed – and if we were to put such a magnifying glass over anyone, we’d find flaws we didn’t suspect they had. Lucía doesn’t think of herself as racist, but is so dissatisfied with her own life that she hasn’t even noticed her son’s behaviour (which is a mirror of her own), and it is only when he makes loud racist comments in public that she is forced to confront her own behaviour. When Holiday Heart was released in Latin America, it made people question themselves and think “Do I talk/ think like that?” – and this is where its great power and provocation lies.

While Charlie did not find it difficult to inhabit the minds and thoughts of those characters as she was translating (her feeling being that their flaws come from their insecurities – their rootlessness and how they project that onto other people), there were sections that were difficult for her to deal with as she was translating. In particular, she found the sections about black people hard to translate, as well as the sections where Pablo sexualised his student and those which discussed “brown-ness”. However, Charlie noted how important it was not to dilute these issues, and to maintain that challenge to readers: though her instinct might have been how to make certain sections more culturally sensitive, her job as a translator is to convey Margarita’s intentions. Charlie also made a particularly interesting point about how a translator has to think more about who’s reading than a writer might, constantly keeping in mind the question “who am I writing for?”

When I asked both Margarita and Charlie how it felt to have this book come out not only in a time of global crisis, but also at a moment when anti-racism movements are making international headlines, they both considered this to be a good thing: Charlie feels that seeing characters with these particular flaws forces readers to confront such prejudices instead of pretending that they don’t exist, and Margarita suggested that to read a book in a negative way because it contains characters that we don’t agree with is a very limited and sad vision of literature, and went on to insist that she will never modify or erase things just because they make people feel uncomfortable. She is presenting reality: many people who wouldn’t think they are racist are in fact racist, just as many men and women who say they’re feminist aren’t really feminist – and we often don’t recognise this until it explodes in our faces.

Margarita ended the interview with an insightful observation for translators and readers alike: the absence of empathy prevents full comprehension. If we focus only on the negative aspects of the characters, then we miss some of what she’s trying to do. This to me summed up what makes Margarita such an important contemporary writer: just as in life an absence of empathy will prevent us from understanding others and feeling connected to the world around us, so in literature this absence will prevent us from understanding what a book is doing or saying, and will prevent us from understanding the context it comes from. If we only read books in which we see our ideals reflected, we will only reinforce our own sense of innate “rightness”, and never understand the multiplicity of experience and perspective that makes up our world. I truly believe Margarita García Robayo to be not just a good writer but a great one, and am grateful that with Charlie’s translation and Charco’s mission her work can reach more readers, as it deserves to.

I will be on holiday for the next few weeks, but have prepared several posts to publish automatically while I’m offline! Here’s what you can look forward to until my return:
Review of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, Camille Laurens, tr. Willard Wood (Les Fugitives, 2020)
Review of Three Plastic Rooms, Petra Hůlová, tr. Alex Zucker (Jantar Publishing, 2017)
Review of The Passion According to Renée Vivien, tr. Kathleen McNerney and Helena Buffery (Francis Boutle Publishing, 2020)
Interview with Helena Buffery, co-translator of The Passion According to Renée Vivien

Happy reading, and have a wonderful summer!

 

Review: The Book of Shanghai

Edited by Dai Congrong and Jin Li (Comma Press, 2020)

Featuring Wang Anyi, Xiao Bai, Shen Dacheng, Chen Danyan, Cai Jun, Chen Qiufan, Xia Shang, Teng Xiolan, Fu Yuehui and Wang Zhanhei

Translated by Lee Anderson, Yu Yan Chen, Jack Hargreaves, Paul Harris, Frances Nichol, Christopher Macdonald, Carson Ramsdell, Josh Stenberg, Katherine Tse, and Helen Wang.

The Book of Shanghai is the latest in the Reading the City series from Comma Press, and brings together ten stories of alienation at the heart of a busy metropolis. This futuristic city is the perfect site to show the disenfranchisement that comes with progress, and the insidious danger of replacing relationships and human contact with technological advances. The glittering façade of Shanghai’s high-rise buildings and neon lights is rejected in favour of what happens on the streets below, as we meet an array of memorable characters navigating situations as diverse as losing a mobile phone, collecting sellable waste, floating through an apocalyptic flood in a bathtub, and the end of the world. Five of the ten included authors are women, emphasising the commitment Comma Press make to aiming for gender parity in their anthologies (you can read more about that in my interview with Comma’s Becca Parkinson and Zoë Turner).

The stories in The Book of Shanghai also highlight the deep rift between human experience and the advance of technology, cybernetic umbilical cords that anchor us to the future while leaving us adrift in the present. Loneliness is a recurring theme, along with a disconnection that seems ironic in a city so plugged into global networks and development. In “The Novelist in the Attic” (Shen Dacheng, translated by Jack Hargreaves) a writer struggles with his legacy, and questions his usefulness in a world that has left him behind (I particularly enjoyed the following lament: “Just because I, the writer, am simple-minded, my protagonist has turned out to be a dumb fool too. Imagine that, my sole contribution to this world, nothing but the passing on of my own imbecility into fiction.”) Like other stories in the collection, “The Novelist in the Attic” has a touch of the surreal, mirroring the other-worldly sense of the murky labyrinthine streets that we see from beneath the shimmering high-rises of the city.

In several of the stories in The Book of Shanghai lives cross paths in chance encounters and stolen moments, while family bonds disintegrate and are redefined: in “The Story of Ah-Ming” (Wang Zhanhei, translated by Christopher MacDonald), an elderly woman is cast out by her family because of the lengths she goes to in her attempts to help them, while in “Snow” (Chen Danyan, translated by Paul Harris), a woman is surrounded by relatives but still feels lonely, and escapes into literature. The city comes alive (in sometimes unnerving ways) in these tales where ruptures abound, relationships falter, and individuals hurtle perilously towards solitude, shame, failure or death. In my favourite story of the collection, “State of Trance” (Chen Qiufan, translated by Josh Stenberg), we accompany one man through the last night on Earth, as he decides to take “an action that will place a perfect full stop at the end of civilisation”: his mission is to go to Shanghai Library and return the book he has borrowed.

Teeming with profound reflections, offbeat humour and unsettling observations, the individual stories hang perfectly together to create a vivid panorama of snapshots of life in a fast-moving city. Enervated and visionary, these contemporary stories acknowledge the past while focusing on an uncertain future: The Book of Shanghai is an excellent addition to a consistently innovative series.

The Comma Press podcast is back! You can hear more about The Book of Shanghai in a forthcoming episode, and if you enjoyed Europa28, you might like to tune into that episode too. You can see the series 2 schedule here.

Review copy of The Book of Shanghai provided by Comma Press

Review: Margarita García Robayo, Holiday Heart

Translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press, 2020)

*Details of the virtual launch of Holiday Heart at the end of this post (or click here if you can’t wait) – it’s going to be fabulous – and free!*

Meet Pablo and Lucía, two extremely unlikeable protagonists whose marriage is breaking down in the wake of Pablo’s infidelity. Although this, like everything else in Margarita García Robayo’s universe, is a seemingly simple situation which belies deeper emotions and greater complexities that we are invited to scrutinise, however uncomfortable it makes us.

Just as in García Robayo’s previous collection Fish Soup, the characters in Holiday Heart always disappoint: they never do the thing you hope they will do, the thing that might redeem them. Pablo and Lucía are quite deliberately antagonistic towards one another, and towards almost everyone else around them. Even their twin children Tommy and Rosa are not spared from this: in the first few pages the twins are described as “like two organs, easily removed”, Tommy’s irritating habit of responding to all questions with an apathetic shrug is introduced, and Rosa’s yawning mouth is “wide enough to fit a clenched fist inside.” Maternal tenderness this is not: gestating twins was, according to Lucía, akin to aliens taking up residence in her body. As for Pablo, he feels excluded from Lucía’s parasitic relationship with their children, but finds an outlet for his self-pity in energetic sex with a neighbour he doesn’t even like.

So how did Lucía and Pablo make it this far? Depressingly, because they just couldn’t be bothered to do otherwise. Their relationship amounts to nothing more than an accumulation of time which has made them strangers to one another: “The first symptom is disinterest, something miniscule that then becomes normal, and then both people stop wondering why they’re still there, oozing with indifference towards one another, agreeing with what the other says as a formality: the time long gone when what they said seemed interesting. Or worth listening to.” Neither Lucía nor Pablo can move beyond where they are, even as they believe in the impermanence of everything; their relationship represents no more than “piles of dead time, which nobody has bothered to clear away.” So don’t be fooled by the deceptively romantic title: a “holiday heart” is not a summer fling, but a life-threatening illness. The Spanish title, Tiempo muerto (“dead time”) focuses on this notion of relationships as simply an accumulation of time spent together – wasted time, time that is over. The English title is the one García Robayo had originally wanted to give Tiempo muerto, and works brilliantly; not only does its artful frivolity hint that nothing is as it seems beneath the family’s facade of success and happiness, but its focus on Pablo’s condition – the single event that crystallises all of this “dead time” – shows how everything is brought to a head and the veneer cracks irreparably.

Lucía and Pablo are caught in the in-between space: they left Colombia to move to the US in pursuit of the American Dream, but its sad and sordid reality is mercilessly exposed (even the fruit is too bright and shiny to be real). They are outsiders there and now belong nowhere: they have rejected their working class origins, but have never ascended the social ladder in the way they hoped; they are stagnating in their location, in their social status, and in their marriage. Middle-aged, middle-class and mediocre, Pablo and Lucía’s most irredeemable characteristic is that they are, quite simply, racist. It’s uncomfortable at times: I winced at a particular word, which I can’t even being myself to write here. But such words exist, and are used, and if we don’t feel uncomfortable reading them then I think we need to ask ourselves why. That itself is one of García Robayo’s particular talents: she holds a mirror up to her readers, makes us ask how complicit we are in the perpetuation of these loathsome attitudes even as we denounce them. For this is not the overt and brutal racism that makes headlines; rather, this is the insidious everyday racism that allows those vile events to happen by perpetuating a status quo that needs a radical shift. It’s the perspective that is so unsettling: this is not a book that gives voice to black characters – in fact those who feature are portrayed negatively, because we see the story through the eyes of people who have already judged them. It’s disturbing, and it’s meant to disturb, because it’s all too real and recognisable. I was reminded of images in the news five years ago, of groups of Latina women holding placards stating that “the silent majority stands with Trump”. I found this perhaps even more chilling than the rallies – this man despised the “silent majority” for their race, their gender, their class – and yet they lifted him on their shoulders to become a volatile and divisive world leader. Harmful views expressed publicly can be taken down publicly; it’s the silent ones that go unnoticed, and these are the ones García Robayo tackles. The real disease is not Pablo’s “holiday heart”, but rather the transmission of these attitudes to the next generation: Rosa and Tommy are as apathetic and depraved as their parents – rejecting Lucía’s attempt to spend some time with her, Rosa doesn’t want her mother to read, but rather to die, or at least to get very sick, and Tommy screams in public that he doesn’t like black people. I cringed reading these things, but I think that’s the point.

In a recent interview, director Carolina Orloff talked about Charco’s efforts to pair authors with the right translator for their work, and nowhere was this more evident than in Fish Soup. Coombe’s connection with García Robayo’s narrative voice continues in Holiday Heart: she explores a wide range of slang both contemporary and (for purposes of characterisation) out-dated, and maintains the delicate balance of García Robayo’s prose, which switches seamlessly from the understated to the exuberant, the base to the profound. Holiday Heart is acute, provocative, concise and raw, and is a short and powerful novel about many things – time, relationships, identity, infidelity, apathy, parenthood, class, race, gender – but above all it is a warning: do not be complacent, do not accumulate “dead time”, and do not accept harmful attitudes and stereotypes just because they exist. It offers, like one of the housekeeper’s foot massages, “a combination of pleasure and revulsion”, an opportunity to look inside ourselves and think, with every reaction we have – what would Pablo and Lucía do? And then do the opposite.

Don’t miss: the (online) launch of Holiday Heart on 7th July! I’ll be talking to Margarita García Robayo and Charlotte Coombe about writing and translating this gem of a novella, and you can book your (free) virtual ticket here.

Review copy of Holiday Heart provided by Charco Press

Review: Duanwad Pimwana, Arid Dreams

Translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul (Tilted Axis Press, 2020)

Arid Dreams is the latest offering from Tilted Axis Press, and part of a very strong 2020 catalogue for the publishing house: this collection of short stories offers a wide-reaching study of class and gender in Thailand and represents a key contribution to the intersectional feminism Tilted Axis Press embodies. Written with a carefully controlled rage and a deep well of compassion, these stories of solitude and stifled dreams are at once dark and witty, subverting narrative expectations and moving smoothly between the everyday and the magical. In the title story, a man becomes obsessed with a beautiful masseuse, unaware that she has to sell her body to survive, and his observations of her are simultaneously whimsical (“If I knew her any better, I’d ask her to run away with me”) and clinical (“When I really thought about it, she was one hardworking woman. She took care of the guesthouse in the morning, and in the afternoon she worked as a masseuse. When night fell, she sold her services. And on top of that, she had to look after her mother who was sick in the hospital”). Elsewhere, men fight for their own honour, which is conferred on them by the docile (or wayward) behaviour of their women, and the women do not always get to speak for themselves (one notable example is when a man reflects that “For the first time, it hit him how much faster women wither than men”, but does not modify his observation when he realises that he has been looking at a woman older than the one he thought she was). Nonetheless, their voicelessness – or their powerlessness when they do have a voice – is presented in such a way as to condemn it, and to offer space within these pages to give the women characters a voice even when they are silent.

Mui Poopoksakul has translated these lyrical short stories with great sensitivity and alertness to both the language and the context. I loved the interesting and unexpected collocations that proliferate in her translation: a little chick is “withering” in a cardboard box, and a potential chancer could be “whisking about” in the vicinity. Poopoksakul’s translations of the more poetic sections are gorgeous (“Ribbons of clouds glided over the moon, strand after strand”), and she does not shy away from leaving certain terms in the original Thai. She judges this perfectly so that a rough understanding is clear for those of us who have little or no knowledge of the language and culture (“During the monsoon season, our ears could pick up the sound of storm winds over a hundred rais away”). Poopoksakul also wisely refrains from adapting set phrases, with sentences such as “I just stared at him blankly, my mouth hanging open, feeling as heavy as a stone pestle” giving a subtle flavour of the original Thai and bringing a richness to the English-language version that works superbly.

Watch my video review to hear more about the variety of short stories, along with readings of some of my favourite sections (don’t forget: if you’re reading this review in your email, you’ll need to click through to the website to view the video, or watch it directly on Vimeo!)

 

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 H.M.Vassallo@exeter.ac.uk

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

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.

 

Review: Donatella di Pietrantonio, A Girl Returned

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2019)

A Girl Returned is an intense and affecting account of how a life can change forever in a single day. The unnamed teenage narrator leads a happy and harmonious existence with her affluent parents in a nice neighbourhood of an Italian city. Or, rather, this was her life: it is recounted in flashback, as we meet the narrator when she arrives at a rundown house in the country. This is her new home – though, as we learn, it was in fact her first home. Her parents were living in poverty when she was a baby; they had three older children already, and then found out that the mother was pregnant again. Meanwhile, the refined Adalgisa, wife of the father’s cousin, was miserably childless and wanted a little girl of her own… you can fill in the gaps. Indeed, this narrative is pieced together in half-conversations and the silences between them: the narrator finds herself suddenly transplanted back into the heart of the family who gave her away, unwanted on both sides, and with no idea why her existence has been uprooted so suddenly. She is hampered in her desire to understand by the adults who decide for her that she is too young to know the truth: she is left wondering why her mother gave her up and when she might come to take her back, constructing her own less painful version of reality in the absence of a truth that will be revealed in two key scenes towards the end of the novel.

Meeting the “girl returned” at this pivotal point plunges us straight into the most turbulent moment of our young narrator’s life: “I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother”, she tells us by way of introduction to her story. Gone is the happy bourgeois life of music lessons, elegant meals, a nice apartment and a full social life – now the girl is sharing a bedroom with three siblings she never knew she had, awakening to the rhythmic sound of her older brothers masturbating and sharing a bed with a younger sister who has yet to master night-time bladder control. Attitudes from the new family range from indifference to overt hostility, and in the village and at school there are frequent displays of resentment towards l’arminuta, the girl returned. She finds an unlikely ally in her older brother Vincenzo, a tearaway who frequently runs away with the gypsies, and he awakens in her the first flames of adolescent desire. Yet he too is wrenched away from her in one of the most painful episodes of the story, and she is left with only her younger sister Adriana for companionship. Adriana is wild and impulsive, but capable of great compassion, and gives depth to a family unit that could otherwise potentially fall into clichés of “rich girl meets poor family who despise her for having opportunities they never had.” Indeed, in a book where the narrator feels so little love and warmth, one of the most remarkable feats is that it spills over with warmth and heart. Donatella di Pietrantonio gives depth and substance to an eclectic cast of characters, many of whom (including l’arminuta herself) remain unnamed. The “other mother” speaks infrequently, and when she does it is in a rural working-class dialect that l’arminuta barely understands. She is “the mother”, “the woman who conceived me” or “the other mother” – always distanced from and by the narrator, who explains that “from the moment I was given back to her, the word “mamma” had stuck in my throat like a frog that wouldn’t jump out.”

One of the reviews on the book cover describes the author’s “feverish prose”, so I was expecting this to be a defining feature of the narrative, but this wasn’t my impression of A Girl Returned. I found it much more considered and languorous, though of course this may be a difference between the original and the translation. Ann Goldstein is, as the blurb notes, Elena Ferrante’s translator: this is marketed as a selling point, and for long stretches, in fact for the majority of the book, the translation is pitched beautifully. I liked the less frenzied pace and delivery, and Goldstein strikes an excellent balance between the intensity of the narrator’s feelings (“she reopened my memory with a lash of the whip”) and the understatement with which certain scenes are narrated (“I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen.” The occasional flash-forwards that show us the resolution of particular characters’ stories are also offered with a detached melancholy that is all the more moving for remaining unembellished. However, I was frustrated at times with calques from Italian that disrupted the syntax for me or stood out as unusual (second-verb infinitives rather than gerunds, use of nouns where English would use a noun phrase, and some literal translations of vocabulary that do not have the same general field of usage in English). It’s possible that I’m more attuned to such nuances in translations from romance languages, which are my language area, but if the translator is mentioned as one of the reasons why the book is so excellent, then it does invite certain expectations. I imagine that Goldstein has to produce translations under time pressure as she’s so prolific, and if my appreciation seems mitigated, then let me be clear: I loved A Girl Returned. I even loved most of the translation. I hope that other readers will just skim over the words and phrases that made me pause, and I certainly hope that this book will find its way into your hands: it’s a gripping story, a fascinating telling, and will linger in my mind a long while.

Review copy of A Girl Returned provided by Europa Editions

Review: Europa28 – Writing by Women on the Future of Europe

Edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave (Comma Press, 2020)

Europa28 is a ground-breaking anthology of women’s voices from across Europe, commissioned in response to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Bringing together reflections on Europe’s future from women in each of the 28 member countries (or, as things stand now, 27 plus one), it reflects the radical, engaged approach that Comma Press is known for, and is Comma’s first anthology written entirely by women. Europa28 is a visionary project, the strength of 28 voices – plus 16 translators, two editors, and the indefatigable team at Comma Press, along with their collaborators Hay Festival and Wom@rts – coming together to discuss Europe in all its diversity, complexity, beauty and fallibility.

In her impassioned introduction to the volume, Laura Bates explains the importance of hearing the perspective of women: according to analysis cited by Bates, 90% of the discussion of Brexit in the Houses of Parliament was carried out by men. Women were left out of the debate, leaving “the certainties presented by the loudest voices” to remain enshrined as fact. “To move forward”, writes Bates, “we need new ways of seeing the world around us”, and this is exactly what Europa28 offers. There is, of course, a potential danger in selecting one woman to represent each country, but to be less even-handed about the representation would generate its own problematic hierarchies. And so while one voice cannot and should not speak for an entire country (indeed, this is a position challenged by the Europa28 project), more important is that this collection offers the space to speak, setting the perspectives of all 28 women – and the nations they represent – in dialogue with one another. It brings spoken-over voices to the fore, challenging the “default setting” of seeing the world through men’s eyes and gathering together women’s perspectives from each country within a union that, though imperfect, until recently represented our closest ally.

Editors Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave have brought together a fascinating and diverse collection of expositions on what Europe can, could, or should mean. Some of the contributions are reflections based on personal experience or perspective, while others are fantastical or allegorical. Some are essays, some written from an imagined future, some struggling to find the light ahead while mired in an all-too-present now. There are profound reflections on humanity, from Apolena Rychlíková’s claim (translated by Julia Sherwood) that intolerance is not buried deep in human nature but is the mindset of powerful individuals, to Janne Teller’s pronouncement that “no happiness is possible where misery abounds.” Many pieces focus on what Edurne Portela (translated by Annie McDermott) defines as “the demonisation of the different”; surveillance, silencing and “fake news” also come under fire repeatedly, as does the complicity of silence and the danger of becoming so immersed in the virtual world that we risk sacrificing our relationships with one another.

Where did these problems, barriers and divisions spring from? Rychlíková believes them to be the result of “a boiling over of long-term frustrations for unfulfilled, even if unarticulated, demands for a dignified and well-rounded life,” while Maarja Kangro points to “a new norm of ignorance, intolerance, and exclusion”, which Yvonne Hofstetter (translated by Jen Calleja) expands on in her claim that “reality is currently taking a detour through populism, protectionism, nationalism and a good dose of arrogance.” Tereza Nvotová (translated by Jakub Tlolka) suggests that we have not learned from our past (“We scale the cold neon mast and then drop back down, again and again and again. But each time we climb to the top, we forget about our previous fall”), a position advanced by Gloria Wekker, who cites “the bitter continuities and the utter lack of shame manifesting in European political attitudes towards the non-European Other” as one of the problems within the continent and the union.

The very notion of “union” is another key focus for many of the writers, who highlight the increasing disconnectedness of our – ironically – ever more connected world. Žydrūnė Vitaitė (translated by Rimas Uzgiris) cautions against the “like and re-share cemetery” of digital activism as opposed to real activism, and from a different angle Caroline Muscat warns that this digital world that we welcome as liberating can in fact be used to control us, making us complicit in the problem: “Technology fed into this populism as digital platforms – which held so much democratic promise for opening up access to information and debate across communities and countries – ended up being used as tools of repression.” If our increasing disenfranchisement is so widespread, then it is surely no coincidence that Ana Pessoa (translated by Rahul Bery) describes loneliness as “the biggest epidemic of the 21st century”: in our obsession with being “connected,” we have lost sight of what we want to connect to. To counter this, Hilary Cottam urges us to leave old models behind and “start instead with who we really are: people who are driven as much by a desire to connect and belong as by our individual goals.”

Cottam is not the only one to propose ways of moving forward, and of working towards greater understanding and deeper connections: the ability for empathy, suggests Julia Rabinowich (translated by Katy Derbyshire), “is what might help humankind survive.” Like Nvotová, Kapka Kassabova implores us to “hear the urgent message of the past” and refuse to let the past – with all its errors and misunderstandings – endlessly repeat itself, for as Ioana Nicolaie (translated by Jean Harris) warns: “If we do not learn from the mistakes of the last century, we will find ourselves alone without freedom or hope, enclosed between walls we ourselves have allowed to be built.” The possibility for change lies in our own hands, say so many of these women: we need to break through the walls we have allowed to be built and create what Lisa Dwan refers to as “a different narrative, to overcome the oppressive voices that threaten us from without and from within.”

Many of the contributions, then, suggest what we need to do to reject structures that restrict and oppress us, but others go further still to offer models of how we might set this in motion. Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor) exhorts us to be more open to others, indicating that prejudices surrounding migration could be at the root of a damaging isolation: “still today, the question of migration is fundamental, central, because the future of our continent will be decided in terms of our capacity to welcome and also to think about the Other.” Tuning out the certainties presented by the loudest voices is essential here, and Sofía Kouvelaki encourages us to do this by looking up from ourselves and outwards towards our world: “I simply want to ask people not to look away, not to look away and remain passive about the violence that is also taking place on our doorstep as Europeans.” This commitment to making connections involves us looking up and reaching out: Hofstetter advocates for exactly this in her provocation for each of us to “breathe life back into Europe, build a better future and live humanely and democratically with others.” Reading Europa28 is a fitting place to start this engagement: throughout the anthology, the personal and the local are cast as inseparable from the collective and the global, with an emphasis on sharing stories as a key to mutual understanding and tolerance. As Annelies Beck notes, “stories … can unlock hearts and minds and lay bare the shared humanity of all … They can put a wedge in shrill sounding certainties that are sold as unassailable truths.” It is important to listen to diverse stories, to understand the fullness of humanity (and specifically, to return to a key point of my last post, the “full humanity of women”), and to topple inherited or self-perpetuating certainties that threaten not only our sense of where we belong, but of who we are. As Europa28 shows us throughout, we do not need to rely on a nostalgia for what we have lost, but instead think about what we want to become.

Review copy of Europa28 provided by Comma Press.