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.

 

20 books to inspire your summer reading

I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks, and by the time I return Women in Translation Month will be in full swing. This is an online event that happens every August, and is the brainchild of women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski, encouraging everyone to read women writers from across the world for the month of August. So I wanted to share some reading recommendations: I’ve selected ten categories with two books in each, so there is something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of women in translation or just diving into Women in Translation Month for the first time, I hope you will find something on this list that excites you and makes you want to read more.

Horror:

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan McDowell, Portobello Books
A collection of spooky, supernatural stories that blur boundaries between reality and horror. Ghosts and demons abound in post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, where women defy tradition and expectation. Perfectly crafted short stories, and utterly terrifying in their ability to slip so deftly from normality to nightmare. Full review.

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan MacDowell, Oneworld Books
A frighteningly real supernatural tale; a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. This is a hypnotic novella in which a mother is led inexorably towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, struggling with her last breaths to save her son from a fate that truly is worse than death. Full review

Experimental:

Flights, Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo Editions
A genre-defying masterpiece about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself, nomadism, spirituality, connections – with places, people, ideas – and a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism. Not an easy read, but an extraordinarily beautiful one. Full review

Brother in Ice, Alicia Kopf, translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, And Other Stories
A profound reflection on writing, relationships and self that juxtaposes the inward processing of living with an autistic brother and polar expeditions. It sounds as though it shouldn’t work, but it does: if epic expeditions seem ridiculous – journeys to the most inhospitable reaches of the planet in order to “lay claim” to a space no-one will ever visit – then Kopf turns them around, seeking to understand rather than to conquer, and charting new territory of her own.

Short stories:

Fish Soup, Margarita García Robayo, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press
Two novellas and a collection of short stories present female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they cannot escape. In “Waiting for a Hurricane”, the narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave; the collection of short stories “Worse Things” offers snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies; the novella “Sexual Education” is a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia. Uncomfortably and uncompromisingly brilliant: a gloriously grotesque reinvention of the “anti-heroine”, and a pitch-perfect translation. Full review.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette, Comma Press
The first major translation of a Sudanese woman writer. Urgent, thoughtful, occasionally surreal short stories reflecting on love, contingency, broken promises, despair, religion and corruption. Mamoun offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable: we meet women struggling to support their families, people cast out to the margins by love, by society or by illness, and relationships in many different forms. Full review.

Whimsical:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, Portobello Books
Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem. 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 blurs boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership. Full review

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Portobello Books
Quirky in the best possible way. A woman who cannot fit into society finds her place working in a convenience store, but her happiness there is threatened by the pressure from the world outside to conform to “normality.” Funny and shrewd, this was rapturously received last summer, and if you haven’t yet read it you’re in for a real treat.

Social comment:

Tokyo Ueno Station, Yu Miti, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press
A haunting novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park, and finds himself trapped there in the afterlife. His story is intertwined with that of the Imperial family in this sharply observed account of the radical divide between rich and poor. Magical, poetic, beautifully translated, and with a searingly exquisite ending.

City of Jasmine, Olga Grjasnowa, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire, Oneworld Books
City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a moving novel of resistance and refuge in the Syrian civil war, following the entangled lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. A superb story but also a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent or to think we understand something just because we have seen a version of it on the news. Full review

LGBTQI+:

Disoriental, Négar Djavadi, translated from French (Iran) by Tina Kover, Europa Editions
A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, this epic tale of a family dynasty, political asylum and murder is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe via narrator Kimiâ’s coming-of-age and her realisation regarding her sexuality (foretold in the coffee grounds read by her Armenian grandmother). During interminable periods of waiting in the relentlessly cheerful waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, Kimiâ composes a narrative that is witty, intimate, ambitious, and exceptional in both style and scope.

Tentacle, Rita Indiana, translated from Spanish (Dominican Republic) by Achy Obejas, And Other Stories
A psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry. In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life: an androgynous maid inadvertently holds the key to survival, but to fulfil the prophecy she must become a man with the help of a sacred anemone.  Brutally poetic, experimental, explosive. Full review.

Memoir:

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, Adélaïde Bon, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press
Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged child living a sheltered life in the smartest area of Paris. She was nine years old when a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and deeply affecting memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, and tries to come to terms with the devastating consequences, to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself. This stunning book is a quest for truth and for self-love, and an anthem to compassion, humanity and overcoming.

Selfies, Sylvie Weil, translated from French by Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives
A thoughtful take on a modern obsession that crosses from the visual to the verbal: Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory; she describes this before offering intimate insights of its importance in her life, and weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of existence. Full review.

Page-turner:

Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar Goshen, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Pushkin Press
A thriller set in the Israeli desert: a promising young doctor is speeding along in his SUV in the middle of the desert after a long shift, when he hits and kills a man. No-one has seen him. Knowing his life will be over if he reports it, he gets back into his car and drives away. But a woman shows up at his door: she is the wife of the man he killed, and she saw what happened. This tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement is a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read. Full review.

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist, translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Oneworld Books
A compelling and dystopian debut novel: Dorrit enters the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a luxury retirement home where she can live out her final years free of financial worry. The catch: residents must donate their organs one by one until the “final donation”. Just when she thinks she has accepted her fate, she falls in love and finds reasons to cling to life. Full review

Non-fiction:

Second-Hand Time, Svetlana Alexeivich, translated from Russian (Belarus) by Bela Shayevich, Fitzcarraldo Editions
Subtitled ‘The Last of the Soviets’, this is an unforgettable polyphonic witness to the tragedies of twentieth-century Russian history: Alexievich interviews and listens to her compatriots as they talk about the history of their country, and reconstruct a painful past through memory. This is an 800-page tome about human suffering, but don’t let that put you off: Nobel prizewinner Alexeivich is an essential read.

The Years, Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, Fitzcarraldo Editions
This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a “collective autobiography” that starts from the premise that every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, document, and claim a place in the world. This witness to twentieth-century French cultural history told through the life of one woman is a tremendous, poignant, necessary book. Full review

Dystopian:

The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, Granta Books
In the near future, Japan has closed its borders following an environmental disaster: the elderly are immortal and the children are frail. An old man raises his great-grandson, who may be the only hope for the survival of the young. Winner of the National Book Award’s inaugural prize for literature in translation in 2018.

One Hundred Shadows, Hwang Jungeun, translated from Korean by Jung Yewon, Tilted Axis Press
Set in a condemned electronics market in Seoul, this is both a sweet alternative love story and a chilling horror story. Eungyo and Mujae both work in a slum electronics market earmarked for demolition, and draw closer together as the shadows of the slums’ inhabitants start to rise. Eerie and atmospheric, this is a unique social commentary on the divide between superficial modernity and individual expendability.

Resistance in the everyday: Madeleine Bourdouxhe, A Nail, A Rose

Translated from the French (Belgium) by Faith Evans (Pushkin Press, 2019)

A Nail, A Rose is a collection of short stories by Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe, written in the twentieth century but previously untranslated. Bourdouxhe was born in 1906 and lived through two world wars; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir but has been largely forgotten by literary history, a neglect “partly explained by her diffidence but even more by the catastrophic disruptions of modern European history” (translator’s note). Translator Faith Evans has undertaken a labour of great love and dedication, rescuing these stories and with them Bourdouxhe’s talent, for a new readership.

The stories in A Nail, A Rose tell of daily life for women in the mid-twentieth century, and so in one sense there is very little plot development. Yet bubbling beneath the surface are all sorts of subtexts, particularly regarding the second world war – the stories were written in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Europe – and the social role of women. The women in the stories carry out quiet acts of resistance: they are housewives, mothers, lady’s maids, and their reality (a life of servitude and submission) is laid bare and turned on its head in surprising ways. These ordinary women have extraordinary experiences: in the title story the protagonist is wandering alone, nursing a broken heart. As she walks along thinking of her lost love (“She was living through a present without a future, she was carrying inside her a love with no tomorrow”), Irène is unexpectedly and brutally mugged. She survives the attack only to remonstrate with her assailant, divide her possessions up between them, and leave him utterly mesmerised by her. He later turns up at her door to check that she is not still suffering from his attack, and to offer his services in any way he can. This hilariously absurd turn of events showcases the message of this and so many of Bourdouxhe’s stories, as Irène tells him not to rob her of her only pleasure – self-sufficiency. You can take my meagre possessions, she implies, but you will not take my independence. Don’t let the quiet and traditional settings fool you: this is a text with a powerful feminist message.

Possessions and reappropriation also play a key part in ‘Louise’, in which a maid borrows her mistress’s expensive coat to go and meet her lover, but finds herself not only enveloped in the scent and experience of “Madame”, but also suffused with intimate fantasies of the woman who normally wears the coat. Acts of resistance against male domination are also echoed elsewhere in the text, as women rise up against their life of servitude: in ‘Blanche’ the heroine is dismissed as a “stupid woman” but in reality she just does not recognise herself in a life of cooking, cleaning and ironing (“This is me, Blanche, and I shall never know who I am”). The resistance takes on its most explicit (and murderous) form in ‘Leah’, in a scene that sums up all the poetic simplicity and unassuming brutality of Bourdouxhe’s work:

“Three or four times, at long intervals, I was assailed by deep breaths from his big open mouth. Finally he was still, and I was confronted by its abyss. As I closed his jaw with my hands there rose in me an overwhelming grief, heavy with poisonous dregs. I sat there for a long time, my hands pressed against his face, while my heart slowed down and my hands became accustomed to the stillness and coldness of death.”

These stories take us to unexpected places, and show women breaking with tradition and expectation even when they seem to be submitting to it: for example, in ‘René’, a young male hairdresser instinctively kisses a female client, and invites her to meet with him. She agrees, but his desire for her is met with impassivity, with a sense of fulfilling expectation, and his disappointment is so great that, “consumed with anger in every inch of his being”, he ends up smashing her face against a rock. He runs off but then relents, and comes back to find her only to discover that she has pulled herself up. These women are unbroken and unbowed, never allowing themselves to be dependent on men even if the circumstances in which they find themselves seem traditional – after all, this is rural Europe in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, history beats at the heart of Bourdouxhe’s tales (“the mould was rising in layers, on the world and in her heart”), and the influence of the Second World War on her writing is evident: the final story in the collection (and my personal favourite) is ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, the title borrowed from an Apollinaire poem. A woman gives birth to the sound of a foreign invasion, and finds she must flee the city, taking her newborn baby with her on the back of a truck. Blood is streaming down her legs, and her swollen breasts ache as she tries to produce enough milk to feed her baby, yet there is no melodrama here: Bourdouxhe describes her heroine’s experience (which is based on her own) in pragmatic terms (“She took a few steps around the room; she seemed to be all right. After all, she couldn’t always have a stretcher and three soldiers to help her”). It is this understatement that I most appreciated about the collection, along with the evocative musings that connect the everyday stories to universal truth and experience, such as solidarity in resistance (“All around she perceived the world’s splendour, its pain and its joy”) and living through a war for the second time (“All the past had to be lived again”).

The translation by Faith Evans has received universal praise, and for the most part deservedly. Evans communicates Bourdouxhe’s insight with extraordinary clarity and candour, but I was less convinced by the dialogues. Predominantly held between working-class characters, at times they were rather formal and affected (particularly in ‘Leah’ and ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’). However, what is evident throughout is Evans’s commitment to bringing Bourdouxhe’s writing into English, and her translations show the depth of understanding that she has for these stories and for the woman who wrote them. Bourdouxhe’s women have almost untold depths of feeling and trauma: they are alone, they are heartbroken, they are attacked, they are abandoned, they are displaced, they are bleeding and they are downtrodden. But they are never bowed: they love, they mourn, they desire, they dream, they take risks. Above all, they never lose their sense of self: they withhold their core and their forgiveness, and thanks to Evans’s efforts they emerge to claim their place in the canon of European literature.

Review copy of A Nail, A Rose provided by Pushkin Press

Destruction or redemption? The Wind That Lays Waste, Selva Almada

Translated from the Spanish (Argentina) by Chris Andrews

It’s new Charco book time, which is always something to get excited about: I have yet to read a dud book from Charco, and the newest release, The Wind That Lays Waste, is everything I’ve come to expect from them – original, evocative, memorable, and (quite simply) a really good read. I also want to take a moment to mention what a beautiful artefact this book is: Charco’s visual identity is modern, streamlined, and instantly recognisable, and their books are as much a pleasure to hold and behold as they are to read.

This latest offering is a superb addition to the Charco catalogue; it is Selva Almada’s debut novel, and it is an eerily atmospheric account of the extraordinary events in an ordinary day. While the some of the quotes on the press release hint at traditions of magical realism, I think this does The Wind That Lays Waste a disservice, as it rather draws a veil over how original the story itself is. Where it does “fit” with a literary tradition is in the focus on the everyday, small events that have enormous consequences. The narrative revolves around four characters from two generations, who form a range of unlikely pairings. On the one hand, we have itinerant evangelist Reverend Pearson travelling across the Argentine countryside “burning with the flame of Christ’s love” and dragging his teenage daughter Leni along with him. Their relationship is strained: the righteous preacher is incapable of understanding his daughter and her need for affection from a flesh-and-blood father rather than a divine one, and there is delicious authorial irony in comments such as “Leni kept quiet. They always ended up doing what her father wanted, or, as he saw it, what God expected of them.” However, this relationship is not one-dimensional: Leni is similarly unable to see her father as a person, viewing only his flaws and the way in which he embarrasses her or irritates her with his insistence on every detail of their life – such as being stranded in the middle of the plains – being part of God’s plan (“Leni thought that if one fine day the good Lord actually came down from the Kingdom of Heaven to attend to the Reverend’s mechanical mishaps, her father would be more stunned than anyone”). Nonetheless, even Leni is eternally – if reluctantly – mesmerised by Reverend Pearson’s charismatic preaching, and wishes their relationship could be different (“This meant that he was very glad to have her with him, thought Leni, but he could never say it like that, straight out; he always had to get Jesus in there, between them”).

When the Reverend’s car breaks down on a journey across the Argentine countryside, they end up at the garage and home of “the Gringo” Brauer, a man who has “no time for lofty thoughts”, and his assistant, Tapioca, a “pure soul, still a little rough around the edges.” The four characters are forced together on a public holiday, unable to leave the remote garage, and tensions rise as a storm gathers across the dusty plains. The storm is an unabashed metaphor, but it works spectacularly well: Brauer comments that “the wind is changing”, a storm approaching, and at the same time his tranquil life with Tapioca is disrupted and turned upside down as the Reverend spreads the “wind that lays waste”, intent on saving Tapioca’s soul and claiming him for Christ: “he felt that he was an arrow burning with the flame of Christ. And the bow that is drawn to shoot that arrow as far as possible, straight to the spot where the flame will ignite a raging fire. And the wind that spreads the fire will lay waste to the world with the love of Jesus.” The Reverend is both the arrow and the wind that fans the flames, and as the flames lick higher so the heat and intensity of the day burns as the storm approaches. The storm is necessary, inevitable (“Every crack in the earth was crying out for rain”), and yet this wind that lays waste will not spare the Reverend himself, as he risks saving Tapioca only to lose Leni.

If the metaphors and pairings of characters recur through the narrative, so too do the stories of abandonment: there are echoes in the backstories of cars driving off in a cloud of dust, a lone figure left on the plain behind them, and these stories are tied up with the characters’ sense of identity: even the good Reverend’s self-presentation is based on a lie that covers up his own abandonment of his wife. Indeed, there are no mothers in the present in this story; they have been left behind or they have driven off onto the horizon. The Reverend’s own mother (who was also abandoned, this time in her pregnancy by the Reverend’s American father) appears in flashbacks, largely to explain his rebirth and spiritual calling, which comes from a place of great fear and ends with his role as peripatetic evangelist. The ending is particularly enigmatic and open to interpretation: repetition and parallels abound in The Wind That Lays Waste, but nothing is fixed: there is no “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, “tainted” and “pure”. Stereotypes are dismantled and opposites blurred in this quietly powerful and superbly crafted tale of idealism and righteousness, destruction and redemption.

Review copy of The Wind That Lays Waste provided by Charco Press

Exploring mental and physical illness: Gine Cornelia Pedersen, Zero, and Maria Gerhardt, Transfer Window

Nordisk Books is an independent publishing house founded in the UK in 2016, with a focus on modern and contemporary Scandinavian literature. I was fortunate to read two of their recent releases, and am bringing them to you today in a special double-bill review.

Gine Cornelia Pedersen, Zero, translated from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger (Nordisk Books, 2018)

Zero is the stream-of-consciousness narrative of author Gine Cornelia Pedersen’s deteriorating mental health, transitioning from a childhood in which she “absorb[s] everything unfiltered” to an adult life in which:

“I don’t want help
I like it at rock bottom
I’m drowning in my own ego
It feels glorious”

Described on the cover as a “punk rock single of a novel”, Zero certainly bears characteristics of punk rock: fast-paced, hard-edged and stripped bare, this is a painful book, but also an immensely lyrical one: it pulses with obsessive intensity, bursts with life and sound and vivid descriptions. The layout of the text looks something like poetry; thoughts (and pages) are incomplete, and yet the narrative always seems carefully structured, even when sentences are cut adrift and grammar goes out of the window. There are no full stops – or, rather, there are a couple when doctors speak, but none in the monologue – indicating the outpouring and intensity and the lack of definitive “endings” (indeed, the ending itself was the only part I struggled to understand, as it seemed almost hallucinatory – whether from the effects of medication or imagination I don’t know). The story is deeply personal, and the subject pronoun “I” is used repeatedly throughout Zero, yet although such liberal repetition of “I” has the potential to become rather self-indulgent, and indeed such an intense book could easily be quite bleak or emotionally draining, neither of these is the case. On the contrary, this is an absorbing, throbbing narrative, a compelling and compulsive read.

Rosie Hedger’s translation is faultless: she has captured the voice of a tormented millennial perfectly, and every word of this spare, gut-punching book is perfection. One of the questions I found most interesting was about where the real “sickness” lies – is it with a woman struggling with her mental health, or with the way in which society deals with her? Forced into a psychiatric hospital, the narrator is injected with tranquillisers, given pills that make her a stranger to herself, and repeatedly told that this is essential (not even watered down with a platitude of it being “for her own good” – indeed, we rather suspect that the confinement is not for her own good at all). She begins her own internal revolution:

“I realise these people are sicker than I ever expected
That I’m going to have to inwardly oppose them”

This “inward opposition” is carried out by controlling her behaviour in order to assure her release (“I open my mouth to say something but I realise that it’s better to keep my thoughts to myself here”). She clings to these thoughts, to the hope that they will return, to a time when she will feel as though she inhabits her own body again. And when this begins to happen, it also symbolises a return to life:

“The feeling has started to return to my body
I’ve started thinking again
Constantly thinking
Thoughts sweep through me
It’s as if I’m getting high
Getting high off the sun, off the night, off people on the street”

It is not the medical staff with their needles and prescriptions and neat labels of psychosis who save the narrator in the end, but – if indeed she is “saved” at all, for we leave her only part-way towards a recovery that might only ever be temporary – it is by her own determination and her awareness of her mother’s love pulling her back towards life:

“And that’s when it hits me
The love in Mum’s voice
The tenderness
As if she were talking to something that might break if she were to say the wrong thing
Her absolute, total, unconditional acceptance of me”

This tribute to the mother is not at all clichéd – it is not that “love conquers all”, but rather a moving eulogy to an unconditional love that creates a lifeline where modern medicine does not. In Zero, Pedersen gives voice to all that is suppressed, to emotions dismissed as self-indulgence and treated as psychosis, and to the need to be part of the world, not isolated from it. This urgent, rebellious short text is a countdown to zero, a ticking clock, a timebomb, and a gem waiting to be discovered; I highly recommend it.

Maria Gerhardt, Transfer Window, translated from Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Nordisk Books, 2019)

In the latest release from Nordisk Books we move from mental illness to physical illness, as Transfer Window is inspired by author and musician Maria Gerhardt’s terminal cancer diagnosis. Gerhardt died in 2017 at the age of 39, and in this book she relates the difficulties of knowing that life will be cut short, and the impossibility of an old age that she can only imagine. Transfer Window is also an indictment of the failure of “healthy” friends and members of society to provide adequate palliative support: Gerhardt’s friends want her to cheer up, remind her that she “seemed so much better” last time they saw her, and would prefer that she constructed a façade of coping with her diagnosis. The book’s subtitle (“Tales of the Mistakes of the Healthy”) indicates the detrimental effect that lack of understanding and compassion can have on an ill person and, as in Zero, calls into question where the real sickness lies.

Though there is much realism in Transfer Window, the setting is a futuristic representation of end-of-life care. The majority of the narrative takes place in a vast hospital compound, a section of the city that has been blocked off and dedicated to the dying. They leave their loved ones (“We have already said goodbye to our families in a beautiful ceremony”) and enter a white-walled hospital where “bar a miraculous recovery, once you check in, you can never leave.” This hospital for the dying also seems like a voluntary prison (“I’ve been here three hundred and eighty days”; “I etch lines in the wall, to the lift of my mattress, in order to keep track of how long I have been here”), and eventually the narrator acknowledges that “this really is a ghastly place to be.” The dystopia of a seemingly perfect “death hotel” reminded me of Ninni Holmqvist’s marvellous The Unit (translated by Marlaine Delargy for Oneworld and reviewed here) – the residents seem to have all they could want, including access to marijuana oil and to virtual reality experiences that allow them to relive their most cherished memories – but what they do not have is a future.

The inconsistency of the translation was the one thing that let this book down for me: though much of the translation conveys a stark beauty and musicality, in places some literal or calqued phrases creep in. There are also some editing errors, including a number of rather oddly placed commas – this shouldn’t spoil your appreciation of the book, but it’s a shame as this is otherwise a powerful and moving text. Where Falk van Rooyen has excelled in the translation, however, is in its lyricism: there are a number of sections which are almost unbearable in the rawness of their pain. In particular, references to the narrator’s (healthy) partner are immensely moving: “My sweetheart, you are not to see me lying here sobbing. You are not to see me hunched over the toilet bowl, howling for help down the drain.” It is not only life that is cut short, but also love (“The only thing I find frustrating about the next dimension is that you are not coming along”), and yet this is never saccharine. Rather, we are made aware that the partner gets to carry on where the narrator is cut off: when the partner shouts at their son that she doesn’t have time for his reluctance to get dressed for kindergarten, the narrator comments that “I hated that you said you didn’t have time. You have so much time. You have nothing but time.”

This was a painful book to read, particularly with the knowledge that the author had died. Such confrontation with mortality is rarely comfortable, but I rather think that’s Gerhardt’s point: she doesn’t want to make things comfortable for her reader, she wants to share her pain. Gerhardt’s descriptions of her ravaged body (“My body knew pain which the body can’t bear”, “my body seized in the agony that only a body in absence of motion feels”, “a body forever in a state of emergency”) are just as important as her reflections on health and illness, and the most human thing we can do is to read this book without trying to find a “silver lining”, but rather learn from it to make fewer “Mistakes of the Healthy”.

Review copies of Zero and Transfer Window provided by Nordisk Books (via Inpress Books)

Writing between two worlds: Eva Moreda, Home is Like a Different Time

Translated from Galician by Craig Patterson

In Home is like a different time, Galician writer Eva Moreda delves into the lived experience of emigrant communities in London in the 1960s and 70s. She writes from the perspective of Gelo, a recently widowed young(ish) man who has travelled from his home town of Veiga in Galicia to seek a different life in London, leaving his home – and with it his former life – suspended in his memory, exactly as it was when he left: “To go to London, Hamburg, even Madrid or Barcelona, as some people go, was to really go: to be resigned to not seeing Veiga for a year or two. It was knowing that in your mind, Veiga was going to be frozen in that same moment when you left.” In the original, the title is Veiga is like a different time (A Veiga é como un tempo distinto), and the more general “home” is well chosen for the translation, opening up the narrative to invite a more universal connection and empathy. Veiga features throughout as distant yet always remembered, a place to leave but one which is never truly left behind. Moreda’s prose is limpid and precise, and this is delicately rendered in the translation: despite an occasional overly literal term or grammatical slip, Craig Patterson communicates sensitively the undertones of longing and belonging, as well as the numerous “unsaids” so crucial to the tone of the work. Patterson resists the temptation to over-explain, showing a discreet understanding of Moreda’s uncluttered style.

Gelo addresses his narrative to a second-person “you”; this “you” is Elisa, a young woman from Veiga who Gelo meets again in London and whose life intersects with his in ways that contribute to the wistfulness and longing that pervade the text. Veiga is described as frozen in time; Elisa describes its traditions and expectations when she acknowledges that “My mum sees me working in a shop, my granny tidying up and her doing the accounts. It’s all she dreams about and hopes from life”. England is represented, then, not only as a different place, but also as a different time – in terms of years elapsed, but also a time of different attitudes and possibilities, “a country where there were no haberdasheries or families of three generations of women who lived in the same house.” Apart from one chapter which returns to the “different time” in Galicia to explain how Gelo met Elisa, all the chapters in the book take a London place name as their title. This not only shows the various locations that were significant for Galician emigrants at the time the narrative is set – places that define the characters who inhabit them, and the different versions of themselves that those characters embody in each place – but also traces Gelo and Elisa’s path through London. Both of them leave Veiga in search of something different, and both end up by turn finding and losing themselves in their new lives.

Gelo takes a job as a waiter, and the hostility towards emigrants is palpable even when not overt: Gelo’s name is rejected outright by his boss (“Gelo” sounds too much like “hello”; his full name, Angelo, is too aberrant, for how could the boss call a man Angel?) Eventually Gelo’s boss decides that he will be called Martin (a calque of his surname, Martiño), and so Gelo’s dual life begins: Gelo is “left behind somewhere, in a different time”, while Martin is swallowed up by his life in London (“I became more and more Martin and less and less Gelo”). Identity is not chosen but imposed, and this duality and eclipsing of identity is echoed elsewhere: Elisa finds work under the name “Liz”, and is employed by Marks and Spencer on Oxford Street, despite the manager’s reservations about “how the very middle-class customers of that establishment would take your imperfect accent, your at times intuitive English.” If Gelo’s life is full of unfulfilled desires and dreams, then Elisa’s is even more so: there are hints of foreboding early on, references to her eventual disappearance, and details of how she slips away from Gelo as her dreams retreat further away from her, until eventually Gelo acknowledges that “I knew that my Elisa no longer existed.” London is a place of opportunity and possibility, its streets bursting with colour and music, its enclaves brimming with camaraderie, but it is also a place that can strip away Elisa’s dreams, community, and sense of identity, as she moves through increasingly hardened incarnations of herself. Gelo is the only one who still sees “his” Elisa, and who never gives up on her, and in this sense the story is as much about the fleeting, flitting Elisa as it is about Gelo himself.

As we follow Gelo through London, “that immensity, that mass, that gravitating mass that ended up swallowing you as it twists and turns, so everything ends up becoming less important, less than in Veiga”, Gelo in turn follows Elisa – always moving, always elusive, shifting as much in identity as in destination: “The Liz from Oxford Street […] who sold skirts and perfumes in Marks and Spencer in the centre of London, who liked to go to Brighton in the summer. That Liz was alive just three years before. In the days of Bethnal Green, nobody knew where she was. Today, nobody knows where Elisa from Bethnal Green is.” Elisa’s disappearance is explained towards the end of the novel – as usual, I shall avoid spoilers, and restrict myself to saying that all the nostalgia and desire gathers and bursts out in the revelation of Elisa’s fate.

Though Gelo has both a deceased wife and, eventually, a new one, the love story in Home is like a different time is about neither of these women, but rather about the one who is never his, the one in whom he sees himself reflected, the one who always exists in a “different time.” Moreda brings to life the streets and sounds of London in the 1960s and 70s, but above all gives voice to the difficulty of being caught between two worlds, languages and identities. This beautifully observed short novel is meditative and yearning, a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit and to the lengths we will go to for love, in whatever form that love may take.

Review copy of Home is like a different time provided by Francis Boutle Publishers.

Exquisite self-portraits in a digital age: Sylvie Weil, Selfies

Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (Les Fugitives, 2019)

Selfies is a thoughtful take on a modern obsession: in it, Sylvie Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory, which she describes before giving us a glimpse of its importance in her life.  This creates an intimacy and familiarity, explaining the detail not only of the photograph itself, but also of all the concomitant personal memories and anecdotes that the image evokes for the storyteller.

The subjects of the selfies range from milestones in Weil’s life to recollections of incidents that might seem more minor, but they all have in common a quick wit, a keen sense of irony, and an immense capacity for compassion. A heady love affair comes to an end with a big decision and a faint hint of regret for a life imagined that will never now be lived (“I’ll watch the dawn break over the red bricks of Harlem. I’ll fasten my suitcase and put water in the kettle to boil. I’ll hastily drink a cup of Nescafé, sparing a brief thought for the students for whom I’ll never pour tea”); Weil’s feelings of irritation towards a pair of American friends surface when they make a selfish decision about their pet (“When you take a dog to the vet to have him put down because he’s guilty of swallowing a plastic duck, he’s obviously got no chance of making it”); the joy of friendship is explained with the brief yet poignant comment that “she gives me the most wonderful gift anyone can give: belonging.” These incidents are connected to more significant revelations about Weil’s life: her need to belong and her passionate attachments belie hints of tragedy elsewhere in the snapshots. In ‘Self-portrait as a Visitor’ we find out that Weil’s Jewish family fled France in 1941 to escape persecution, and learn that Weil’s mother, despite coming from a distinguished family, is always haunted by the “refugee” tableau and passes on to her daughters “nostalgia for a childhood that was not ours.” Later, ‘Stabat mater’ deals with Weil’s son’s mental illness, and ‘Self-portrait as a maker of idols’ reports his disfigurement after a hate crime: the son recurs repeatedly in Weil’s tableaux, exposing Weil’s helplessness as a mother who cannot protect her child from history, from the present, or from other people (perhaps most piercingly evident in ‘Self-portrait with portrait of my son’).

Ros Schwartz conveys all the atmospheric melancholy in her beautifully measured translation, eschewing superfluous detail and offering the fragments of Weil’s life as just that – never a complete picture, but a series of connected representations. Often when reading translations of languages I know, I imagine the translator grappling with a particular choice of phrase, and sometimes wonder why this one was chosen over another. With Schwartz, every time I start to think “I wonder whether X would have worked”, I have the impression she already thought about that, weighed it up, and discarded it in favour of what I’m reading on the page. There is a carefulness to her work, a commitment to elegance and timbre: for example, in a couple of instances, a past participle starts the sentence (“Erased, the photo I wish I could have shown”; “Forgotten, the selfie with the bear”) – these sentences are not typical of English syntax, yet starting them with a subject (think “the selfie with the bear was forgotten”) would lose both the emphasis and the poetry. Schwartz’s rendering is more controlled and evocative, and you know straight away that it’s a choice, not a calque.

The vignettes offer intimate insights into Weil’s personal life but are never self-indulgent, and Weil also weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of life: in ‘Self-portrait as a Chinese mushroom’ she shows how a longed-for friendship can turn on a seemingly innocuous comment, and in ‘Self-portrait as an author’ demonstrates how even a celebrated writer can feel humiliated, always dependent on people buying the books and being polite. Perhaps my favourite example of these reflections is the one Weil makes on selfies themselves, noting that “Everyone takes selfies, it’s a way of going unnoticed.” In the act of taking a selfie, what Weil is photographing goes unnoticed because people think it’s “just” a selfie like the millions of others. But Weil is using this 21st-century obsession in order to do something far more important: she is capturing a moment or an observation, or creating a longed-for memory. She is not just a tourist taking a clichéd snapshot, or a mildly hysterical middle-aged woman obsessed with snapping photos of “three scrawny roses with crumpled petals”, a cloud formation, or a family gathering, and yet this is how she wants to appear so that no-one notices her true objective, or realises what she is really capturing with her camera.

With her present-day observations, Weil reaches back to the past: to the women in the self-portraits, to her mother, and to generations of her family who have gone before. She takes as her point of departure something static, and turns it into something shifting and organic, with her acknowledgement that “the past is real and alive.” Unlike the heavily edited and filtered images usually associated with the selfie, Weil’s purpose is not to embellish but to understand, not to distance from reality but to connect. Crossing over from the visual to the verbal, this book is everything that selfies should be: it is not posed or contrived, not about looking her best or showing an over-the-top perfect life. Rather, it is vulnerable, sensitive, beautifully crafted and exquisitely displayed.

Sylvie Weil and Ros Schwartz will be in conversation with Amanda Hopkinson at the Institut Français in London TONIGHT (Monday 17 June) for the official launch of Selfies: book a ticket here.

Review copy of Selfies provided by Les Fugitives; pre-order your copy here.

 

“A city haunted by many ghosts”: The Book of Cairo

Edited and with an introduction by Raph Cormack (Comma Press, 2019)

This is the first of Comma Press’s “Reading the City” books I’ve read, and I was drawn to The Book of Cairo for primarily personal reasons: Egypt is my dad’s homeland, and its history the reason for my family’s enforced dispersal across the globe. I wanted to learn more about a country that for me carries much displaced nostalgia, and Raph Cormack’s thoughtful introduction gives a moving insight into the history and modernity of Cairo: “The city has entered into a state of enforced forgetfulness”, he writes of the Arab Spring – a different historical conflict from the one that my family endured, but the same deliberate state-sponsored amnesia. Cormack writes of a “desire to escape” prevalent among young Egyptians, and describes Cairo as “a city that has always felt on the verge of disintegration”, “beset with difficulties and haunted by many ghosts”. The Book of Cairo presents ten short stories (four of which are by women writers), and brings to life this troubled, complex city.Together these stories present a mosaic of a shifting city, fraught with problems ranging from poverty and inequality to drugs and military interventions. But they also have an individual and very human dimension, from the street-sweeper fearful of not being able to afford his daughter’s wedding (‘Gridlock’) and the alienation of experiencing everything outside of a collective narrative (‘Into the Emptiness’) to the misery of unrequited love (‘The Other Balcony’) and the single-minded quest for truth that blinds the seeker to all else (‘Hamada al-Ginn’). Cairo’s streets and buildings come to life, as does its fresco of diverse inhabitants and its westernisation (messages are sent via WhatsApp, Pampers and Persil are part of a family’s regular shopping experience, and high-rise buildings spring up to “brush the sand away into the backdrop”). The stories range in tone from comical to satirical, surreal to sinister: in ‘Whine’, an office manager becomes convinced that evil spirits are manipulating his fate, while ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ questions notions of “truth”: “They both stuck to their stories, despite the continuous physical interrogation that they were subjected to for three days, ordered by Major Haitham Hamdy himself (some people give this ‘physical interrogation’ the name ‘torture’).” In ‘Siniora’, a man is so obsessed with observing his girlfriend’s genitals that he doesn’t notice that while she is sitting naked before him she has been setting up an illegal home-grown drugs empire and has moved on from him entirely; in ‘Two Sisters’, a woman’s attraction to a masked man in a video store has vampiric consequences, while the narrator of ‘Into the Emptiness’, “dissolve[s] in this world and disappear[s].”

My two favourite stories in the collection were (perhaps coincidentally) both about storytellers: ‘Talk’ is about a professional rumour-monger, and ‘The Soul at Rest’ about an obituary writer. In ‘Talk’, a doctor is surprised to find his life close to ruins because of a rumour that he thinks has no basis in truth: his investigations lead him to the office of a man who gleefully admits that he started the rumour as part of his own ministry of vigilante justice. A failed writer himself, the rumour-monger explains that “I used to write stories that no one ever read. But I was only successful at rumours. I’ll remain an uncredited author, but at least I’ll be a well-off one. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll achieve some immortality”, and this chilling attitude highlights the dangers of slanderous stories in a fame-seeking fake-news age in which “innocence and guilt are one and the same, since both the innocent and the guilty issue the same denials.”

In ‘The Soul at Rest’, an obituary writer makes an ill-advised judgement about a woman whose lover wants her to have the most lavish obituary he can buy. The obituary writer then attempts to make amends for his thoughtlessness, acknowledging that he needs to feel better about his own mistake: “What I want to say won’t take more than a page, maybe two. But one thing is for sure, regardless of the number of pages, it won’t make a difference to anyone but me. I just want to vent so I can feel better about what I’m going through”. The obituary writer lavishes his time and money attempting to atone for the wounds caused by his thoughtless prejudice, because “the pain kept growing inside me until it had become a permanent resident”, and tries all he can to escape from his own guilt:

“I cried a lot, I asked God for forgiveness; I even went as far as asking for a transfer to another department.
I just wished that I could meet the man again, to ask for his forgiveness.”

This proves impossible for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself, but his ultimate admission that “my pain has still not subsided” is a timely reminder about the importance of resisting judgement based on class and creed.

The Book of Cairo is a superb collection of intimate modern stories that shatter the mysticism of the Orient and show us what Cairene life is and can be. I love the work Comma Press seeks out, and shall be reading more from their Reading the City series. I also highly recommend Banthology, stories of protest commissioned from the seven “unwanted nations” on Trump’s original “travel ban” (five of which are by women writers) – literature can and should be political, should challenge and subvert, should resist complacency and the “culture of sameness” – and Comma Press are leading the way.

Review copy of The Book of Cairo provided by Comma Press.

“I don’t want an ending like this”: Selja Ahava, Things That Fall from the Sky

Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Oneworld, 2019)

This year Oneworld Books have released four books by women in translation (see bottom of page for full details); I went to their Translated Fiction showcase at the British Library in April to hear Olga Grjasnowa and Selja Ahava talk about their newly released titles, City of Jasmine (Grjasnowa, tr. Katy Derbyshire, reviewed here), and Things That Fall from the Sky (Ahava, tr. Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah). This was an event brilliantly chaired by Rosie Goldsmith, who also introduced Oneworld authors Alessandro d’Avenia (read a beautiful extract from What Hell is Not, tr. Jeremy Parzen, here), Jasmin B. Frelih (whose In/Half, tr. Jason Blake, was longlisted for the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize) and the extremely witty double act of Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynsky writing the period murder mystery Mrs Mohr Goes Missing as Maryla Szymiczkowa (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones).

Image from oneworld-publications.com

In Things That Fall From the Sky, Selja Ahava writes from the perspective of a child named Saara trying to make sense of something utterly senseless: her mother’s death from being hit on the head by a block of ice falling from the sky. The premise here reminded me of the cult HBO series Six Feet Under, in which a character would die in often improbable circumstances, possibly inspired by a real-life event spied in a newspaper story. The improbable event in this case is that when aeroplanes have a leak, the dripping water freezes on the outside of the plane and, as more water leaks through, can form into an ice block. If this becomes heavy enough, it can get detached in flight and fall to the ground at a speed which, if you happened to be standing in its path of descent, could smash your head off. Ahava explained that this random absurdity appealed to her sense of humour, and this “tragicomic” element is key to the success of the story: the child’s perspective allows Ahava to make pared-down, simple and often amusing observations, crucial to the pathos that serves to remind us that however farcical the circumstances, we are still dealing with a grieving child.

Two other stories of improbable things literally or figuratively “falling from the sky” interweave with Saara’s: her aunt wins the lottery twice, and a man on a remote Scottish island is struck by lightning five times in the course of his life (only to die eventually of heart failure). The common theme is not only the improbability, but also how these chance occurrences – even ostensibly wonderful ones such as winning the lottery twice – isolate the people on whom they are inflicted, and change their lives irreparably. There are three interconnected leitmotivs that recur throughout the book: the notion of “time heals” (which is exposed as a fallacy), outlines (the white lines around dead bodies in murder mysteries, but also the outline of Saara herself, when her mother drew an outline of Saara’s body on a wall one happy day: this drawing has now been wallpapered over, leaving Saara “trapped in the wall” and unable to move on), and time standing still.

Saara is obsessed with “whodunnits” and their dénouements (particularly those involving a certain Belgian detective, gathering an audience for a dramatic scene of revelation). There is understated humour in these references, but the white outline comes to represent the far more serious issues of the intangibility of death, and the difficulty of grieving absence. This is extended in two ways: firstly, in comparison with a lottery win, which is only ever intangible and never a physical pile of money and, secondly, via the image of Saara trapped in the wall: the outline of her body as it was then remains frozen in time under the new decoration, never ageing, cut off – just as  her mother was frozen in time, cut off, never to grow older. Amidst the absurdity and humour, this is a piercing reminder that time stops when loved ones die, that the deceased and those who loved them are always suspended in that moment, as Saara explains in her understanding of time and tense:

“When Mum leans over the bed, her hair spills out from behind her ears and touches my face, along with her kisses. When I say Mum leans, she’s still here. When Mum leaned, she’s already going. Dad doesn’t talk about Mum, because he can’t say leaned. He can’t talk Mum into the past; every now and then, he starts a sentence with Mum’s name, but he stops halfway.
Mum stopped halfway.”

Time “stopping” and the image of the white outline are deftly brought together when Saara explains that “Time stopped. I couldn’t think forwards or backwards. Someone drew a thick white line round our thoughts, and the thoughts stopped, and we got stuck there.” All time becomes that one moment of loss, the little girl in the walls trapped there forever, unable to move on. Things That Fall from the Sky thus becomes, in a way, a “white outline” of its own, immortalising this period of Saara’s life and grieving process.

The simplicity of a child’s perspective crystallises complex emotions: Ahava is a playwright, and this is evident in her novel. There is no superfluous detail, and the prose is characterised by a clarity of expression that is communicated by an excellent translation from Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah: Saara’s voice is vividly and sensitively conveyed – the register and tenor are pitch-perfect in Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s translation, as are the gaps of what is left unsaid.

Like City of Jasmine, the Oneworld book I reviewed last week, Things That Fall from the Sky also has a very poignant ending, showing the inadequacy of “time-heals” for a child who has lost everything that was once familiar. If City of Jasmine offered a fresh perspective on a global humanitarian crisis, Things That Fall from the Sky is more focused on the individual: Saara is not suffering from a historical tragedy, but from a personal one that it is equally impossible to explain away with platitudes. This is a story of the extraordinary events in everyday lives, but it is also the story of a child trying to come to terms with bereavement. Saara does not want her story – and with it, her mother – to come to an end: “Without an ending, there’s no story, but I don’t want an ending like this”, she says, and so her story becomes a reflection not only on the imperative to “move on” but also on storytelling itself, and on the endurance of love.

Oneworld’s women in translation 2019 publications in full:

Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell (Argentina). Full review.
Guzel Yakhina, Zuleika, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Russia).
Olga Grjasnowa, City of Jasmine, translated by Katy Derbyshire (Germany). Full review.
Selja Ahava, Things That Fall from the Sky, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Finland).

Review copy of Things That Fall from the Sky provided by Oneworld Books.

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

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

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

Image from oneworld-publications.com

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

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

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

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

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

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