Tag Archives: translated fiction

A bittersweet novel with enormous heart: Laia Jufresa, Umami

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

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

Image taken from oneworld-publications.com

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

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

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

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

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

 

“I sense a future within me”: coming of age as the wall comes down. Kerstin Hensel, Dance by the Canal

Translated from the German by Jen Calleja (Peirene, 2017)

Dance by the Canal was the third book released by Peirene in their “East and West” series, and narrates an unconventional coming of age at a pivotal moment in German history (Kerstin Hensel’s original text, Tanz am Kanal, was written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall). Yet although Dance by the Canal could be read as a novel about the GDR and its demise, it is much more than this, suggesting what could happen when a woman cannot fit into any of the roles imposed on her. The narrative challenges the framework of German society both before and after reunification, questioning any system presented as ideal, and offering other ways of living – in particular, through writing. That is not to say that Hensel proposes any new utopia in place of the discredited one(s): on the contrary, this is not a story of coming-of-age success, but rather the story of a decline and descent, with an uncertain ending.

Image taken from www.peirenepress.com

Kerstin Hensel is a prolific author, having published over thirty books and won several literary prizes. Jen Calleja recently finished her time as Translator in Residence at the British Library: this was her first translated novel (though she had previously translated non-fiction), and it’s an astonishing debut. Dance by the Canal can’t have been an easy book to translate, as it is imbued not only with the specific history of the GDR, but also with alienating uses of language and an unusual plotline that is meant to destabilise. Indeed, at a recent encounter between Hensel and Calleja, Calleja noted that she had never read anything like it and that, when reading this book, you have to let go of the “typical reading experience”. Perhaps that’s why I needed to read it twice: in my first reading, I enjoyed Dance by the Canal, but it wasn’t what I had been expecting, and I thought I’d missed something obvious because I didn’t understand the ending. When Calleja pointed out that the ending is deliberately destabilising, it was like the clouds parting: there wasn’t necessarily some deeper meaning that I had failed to detect, but rather I had failed to detect the intention of the book itself. It is supposed to be surreal, deliberately leaves questions unanswered, and consciously blurs boundaries between what is “truth” and what is “fiction”.

One of the central thrusts of the novel is the tension between name and identity: the main character, Gabriela von Haßlau, comes from an upper-middle-class family at a time when, under Communism, there were not supposed to be any class differences. Nonetheless, her difference is apparent throughout: she is teased at school for her aristocratic name, but at home she is a “silly little Binka”, never managing to live up to her parents’ expectations of the accomplishments she ought to possess. Gabriela’s father is a vascular surgeon, a patriarch, an abuser of power, and a heavy drinker; her mother is a fickle society hostess. Their aristocratic pretentions are juxtaposed with the chaotic hilarity of a larger-than-life uncle, but farcical family gatherings soon tip into darkness when the words “they’ve shot your Uncle Schorsch” signal the end of the “bad German” in the family. Even this event is shrouded in mystery, and shielded from Gabriela: “Father called Uncle Schorsch a fool, even though he hated the Russians too; they were the reason for his sadness, his fog… I was sent out of the room.” Gabriela is repeatedly dismissed from important conversations, and understands very little of what is happening around her, trapped as she is in other people’s narratives of reality.

“The uncertain nature of many of the episodes seems a deliberate choice not only of the author and translator, but also of the narrator: Gabriela is asserting control of her story by blurring what is and is not real.”

Throughout her story, Gabriela must try to avoid madness (or falling down the “last hole”) and run from an “awakening”. She is abused as a child (an encounter which she mistakes for love), raped as an adult (which is denounced as an episode of self-harm), pressured to become a mole for the secret police (though she is adamant that she knows nothing) – then “saved” by a group of feminist journalists who want to publish her story. Most of the people she meets attempt to exploit her in one way or another, and she never truly fits in anywhere: she is not allowed to be friends with Katka, a working class girl from a squalid home, but yet Katka is the only true friend she has. She is a poet and a writer, but lives variously under a bridge and in the broom cupboard of the tavern where she washes glasses under the watchful eye of the other homeless people of the fictitious East German town of Leibnitz. This eventful, unconventional life is summed up by Gabriela herself: “Anhaltinian nobility. Fffon Haßlau. Poet. Naked in front of a cop. Who’ll believe it?” Gabriela isn’t only a victim, though. She rejects complicity with the way of life imposed on her, leaving school, forming connections with people her family disapprove of, and ultimately choosing the path that her family would most revile: becoming homeless. But even as a homeless person she does not fit in: she is laughed at by her peers, and prizes paper as highly as food, writing her story on whatever scavenged paper she can find.

Two stories unfold at once: the life Gabriela is living, and the life that led up to it. Through the writing of her story, Gabriela takes us back from the present, throughout her past, and leads up to the end, the “once in a century summer” which is actually where the story began. The narrative develops in a way that can only be described as surreal: after leaving school, Gabriela is given a desk job at the cultural centre of an industrial plant, where she was supposed to have been training as a mechanical engineer. She is to be a mole, though this is not clear to her at first (she gets fired, but is encouraged to carry on writing, though she is not entirely sure why). But perhaps one of the most bizarre episodes is when Gabriela attends an arts evening, where she is to read her poetry, her “last chance” (it is unclear exactly what this “last chance” means – the last chance for redemption, yes, but the form this redemption is to take is not explicit). Gabriela sees Samuel (her mother’s lover) and asks him where her mother is. He simply replies “Haven’t you heard?” and is then carried off by the crowd before Gabriela can ascertain what she apparently has not heard (and which is never revealed to us). She then sees Frau Popiol, her childhood violin teacher, who propels her onto the stage where Gabriela reads out her poetry (to rapturous applause), before being whirled off into dancing. Gabriela recognises that she is “sick” and the whole episode is entirely surreal, all the more so when she ends up dancing with someone in a creased black dress, and realises it is her childhood friend Katka, now an artist. Gabriela awakes the next morning naked at home, with the door broken down and the sinister, grotesque secret police officer Queck standing above her.

The uncertain nature of many of the episodes seems a deliberate choice not only of the author and translator, but also of the narrator: Gabriela is asserting control of her story by blurring what is and is not real. She alone knows the distinction between her reality and her fiction, and any over-explanation in the translation would not have done justice to Hensel’s original. Calleja does not interpret for the reader, but rather leaves space for interpretation: if the German is disorientating, then the English should be no less so. Indeed, this is one of the great successes of the translation: if there is any alienation from the text, it is because it is meant to be alienating. This is not a story of communist oppression and capitalist redemption, but a story of a woman who cannot find her place in any regime. Gabriela’s only path is to write, but this is not simply because she is a victim who has no other place in the system. Rather, she writes to carve out a new space for herself, taking control of her story in order to survive: “ I sense a future within me: something could come of my story.” Her story is at times absurd, but this serves to highlight the absurdity of a society beset by amnesia and the re-writing of history. Into this history Gabriela writes her own: a compelling, challenging, messy history, but one that is uniquely hers, and which Calleja deftly re-tells to a new audience.

 

 

“Something terrible will happen”: Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream

Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld, 2017)

Usually I think that the phrase “I couldn’t put it down” is just a figure of speech, but in the case of Fever Dream it sums up my reading experience. I read it in one sitting: it’s disturbing, terrifying, and absolutely mesmerising. Fever Dream was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, and was Argentine author Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel (though she has previously published short stories). Published by OneWorld in 2017, it epitomises OneWorld’s commitment to seeking out “emotionally engaging stories with strong narratives and distinctive voices”, and Megan MacDowell’s powerful translation sweeps along with an almost hypnotic urgency.

Image taken from https://oneworld-publications.com

Fever Dream is a frighteningly real supernatural tale, in which fear and suspense are built up by what we are left to imagine just as much as by what we are shown. The text is made up of a dialogue between a woman lying in a bed in an emergency clinic, and a boy sitting beside her, asking her questions. The boy is insistent that they find out about “the worms” and “the exact moment”, and the woman tells a story that is at once meandering, owing to her confusion, and urgent, as she has very little time left. There are only four main characters in this short novel: two mothers and two children. Amanda, the woman lying in the hospital bed, had brought her daughter Nina on holiday from Buenos Aires to the Argentine countryside (a bleak landscape of seemingly endless soy fields), leaving her husband working in Buenos Aires. Nina is a small and adorable child who Amanda needs to protect from something dreadful, the threat of which has been hanging over her not just since the beginning of the narration, but her whole life: “My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible.” This premonition feeds the narrative, and the narrative feeds off it, putting inevitability and presentiment at the forefront of Amanda’s story.

The third character is Carla, who lives next door to Amanda’s holiday rental cottage. Carla tells Amanda a disturbing and supernatural tale of how at the age of six her angelic son, David, escaped death by poisoned water through a process of “transmigration” so that his soul is now partly in another body and she is left with a “monster” in place of her beloved only child. The final character is David himself, now twelve, who is sitting on the hospital bed urging the narrator to tell the story of what happened so that he can pinpoint the exact moment that the “worms” entered her body and changed the course of her life.

The “fever dream” of the title is recounted by Amanda, in something akin to real time, in that it is told in the present tense, but narrates something that happened in a recent past (David tells her at one point that she has been in the feverish state for two days): “I don’t remember much else, that’s all that is happening.” A feeling of somnambulant terror prevails: the immediacy of the present tense in both the dialogue and the dream suggests that this dream could go anywhere, change at any moment, but that the dreamer has no control over its course. Alongside the recounting of the dream is Amanda’s awareness of the real-life situation she is in: lying in bed in a clinic, wondering where her daughter is, knowing she has very little time left. She is also aware that David is not answering her questions but rather probing her with his own, determined to reach a conclusion that he deems to be essential but which to her is “unhelpful” and “missing the most important information.”

“David is a terrifying prompter… mercilessly pushing Amanda on towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, and which will explain what happened to her child.”

David is the only one who seems to have any control: he decides what is important and what is not, which details can be skipped over and which must be recalled in all their minutiae. David guides Amanda through the labyrinth of her own memory, but at times it seems as though David could change the course of the dream at any moment: “What is Nina doing? She’s such a pretty girl. What is she doing? She walks away a little. Don’t let her walk away.” However, when Amanda attempts to take control of the course of the narrative, it all spirals away: David tells her that she is focusing on the wrong things, and we see a sinister echo of the “thing” that happened: while she was looking away, focusing on something else, the “thing” came in.

Writing for The Guardian, Chris Power opines that “Paradoxically, this is a book only parents will feel the full impact of, but that impact is so great you don’t want to recommend it to anyone with young children.” Indeed, I have to admit that this was an uncomfortable read as a mother of young children: the insistence that it is in trying to protect a child from the danger we can see that we fail to notice the real danger taps into my innermost fears (though I think that might be the point), and the constant references to the “rescue distance” between mother and child (the importance of the rescue distance is evident in the novel’s original title, “Distancia de rescate”) become a painful refrain that goes from conceptual to physical as the nightmare gallops towards its inevitable conclusion:

Why do mothers do that?
What?
Try to get out in front of anything that could happen – the rescue distance.
It’s because sooner or later something terrible will happen. My grandmother used to tell my mother that, all through her childhood, and my mother would tell me, throughout mine. And now I have to take care of Nina.
But you always miss the important thing.
What is the important thing, David?”

David sidesteps the question, of course. We keep being reminded (by David) that time (Amanda’s time) is running out, and that some secret must be revealed before her death. Yet David seems to know already what happens: Amanda has repeated her story several times, and sometimes he pre-empts what she is going to remember: “In a few minutes, Nina will be left alone in the car.”

Let me be clear: I don’t like horror stories. I’m one of those people who will turn the lights on and check every corner of the house if I’ve read or watched anything remotely frightening. I should have hated Fever Dream, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t, because it’s so clever, and so perfectly terrifying. It goes far beyond dystopia, and into the realm of nightmares, yet it all feels so real, so possible, so recognisable from the powerlessness we know from our own nightmares: “I wonder if Nina is following us, but I can’t turn to check or ask the question out loud.” The construction of the book is striking: it’s a dialogue, but really it seems more like a monologue narration with a prompter getting it back on track when lines are forgotten, and telling both Schweblin’s protagonist and her readers what is and isn’t important, what is worth describing in detail and what can be glossed over. David is a terrifying prompter, though, mercilessly pushing Amanda on towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, and which will explain what happened to her child.

There are ambiguities in this novel, but they are there deliberately, to destabilise, and to bring you into Amanda’s fever dream where reality and fantasy collide in brutal ways. While my description may make you think that David is an inexorable harbinger of doom, there is also something he is trying to lead Amanda towards, something he wants her to know before the rope that determines the rescue distance is broken. And when you find out what this “something” is, it will tear down the walls around your heart.

Fever Dream is both a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. The relentless landscape of the soy fields and the repeated mentions of “poison” could make this a dystopian warning about genetic modification, but at the forefront are the entwined stories of two mothers and their love for children they are, ultimately, powerless to protect. It’s terrifying, chilling, haunting – everything you’d expect a nightmare to be – but Fever Dream is a brilliant book, a wonderful debut, and not to be missed.

Image taken from www.wordswithoutborders.org. Read full interview with Schweblin at https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/2017-man-booker-international-prize-qa-samanta-schweblin-eric-m-b-becker

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

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

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

Image taken from portobellobooks.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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