Monthly Archives: May 2018

Man Booker International special: Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo, 2017)

In honour of last night’s Man Booker International prize announcement, I’m publishing a special mid-week review post on the winning book, Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. Though Tokarczuk is not yet as well-known in England as she is in Poland and in other parts of Europe, the award of the MBI prize to Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights for Fitzcarraldo Editions will undoubtedly bring much-deserved attention to her work. In a recent interview, Croft says that she spent ten years trying to get Flights published, and her dedication to the text is evident throughout the translation. There were only a couple of turns of phrase or word choices that struck me as a little odd or incongruous, but when I checked these, they were perfectly standard uses of US English. So this leaves me with not a bad word to say about the translation: it is really quite beautiful. Flights is a remarkable book: observant, shrewd, philosophical and intricate, and I admire the quiet sensitivity, the range of accuracy and detail, and the depth of understanding of Tokarczuk’s text that Croft displays in her translation.

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The structure of Flights is not easy to define. It presents numerous stories of varying length – some invented, some based on historical fact, many (but not all) to do with the pickling and preserving of human bodies – and these are punctuated by the ongoing travelogue of an unnamed female narrator. Though the different stories are, for the most part, apparently unconnected, they all share common themes of movement, nomadism, and the convergence of time and place. From the harrowing tale of a mother and son vanished from a Croatian island in ‘Kunicki: Water (II)’ to the hilarious drunken sailor taking his ferryboat passengers out to the open sea in ‘Ash Wednesday Feast’, Flights is an eclectic collection of stories, and yet it is not a short story collection. It defies genre, blending short stories with travel narratives, and studies of human anatomy with philosophical musings on time and place. If there is any way of describing Flights, perhaps it is as ‘episodes’, a definition to be found within the pages of the book itself: ‘We often refer to separate stages of time as episodes. They have no consequences, interrupting time without becoming part of it. They are self-contained occurrences, each starting from scratch; each beginning and each end is absolute’. It is, however, revealing that Tokarczuk puts these words in the mouth of a young tour guide, ‘quite young, wearing army boots, her hair pinned up in a way I found amusing; she must have been fresh out of her master’s programme’. So although we are given hints as to how we might categorise this book, these are destabilised even as they are presented to us. At a later point, the narrator even muses on her choice of writing mode: ‘Am I doing the right thing by telling stories? Wouldn’t it be better to fasten the mind with a clip, tighten the reins and express myself not by means of stories and histories, but with the simplicity of a lecture, where in sentence after sentence a single thought gets clarified, and then others are tacked onto it in the succeeding paragraphs?’

Ouch. So maybe I shouldn’t try to analyse this at all, but rather refer you to Claire Armitstead’s explanation of Tokarczuk’s own view of Flights, namely that ‘what she calls her “constellation novels” throw stories, essays and sketches into orbit, allowing the reader’s imagination to form them into meaningful shapes’. I think, though, that Tokarczuk’s own definition doesn’t do justice to her cleverly crafted work. For example, if you’re still wondering what pickling human bodies has to do with travel writing, Tokarczuk gently explains it on the penultimate page, when her narrator, waiting for a flight, takes out a notebook and writes about another passenger, also waiting for a flight, and also writing in his notebook (possibly about her): ‘We will simply write each other down, which is the safest form of communication and of transit; we will reciprocally transform each other into letters and initials, immortalize each other, plastinate each other, submerge each other in formaldehyde phrases and pages’. The book itself becomes a preserved artefact – and yet it doesn’t, because it will shift and transform with every reading of it.

Is your mind boggling yet? Let’s talk about the title for a moment, then. The translated title has come under scrutiny, as there was no word in English that could cover all meanings of the original title, Bieguni. Kapka Kassabova writes of bieguni that ‘this word is the key to the book […] The bieguni, or wanderers, are an obscure and possibly fictional Slavic sect who have rejected settled life for an existence of constant movement’.  I like the idea of ‘wanderings’ rather than ‘flights’ (though it would have made for an awful title), as many of the tales in Flights deal with journeys that are not airborne. The problem of translating the title is further complicated by Monique Charlesworth’s revelation that bieguni ‘also has the meaning of running or jogging in every Slavic language, says Tokarczuk; that also defined her book in a certain way’.

I do like a knotty translation problem. Although ‘flights’ may not suggest ‘wandering’ and ‘running’, it brings other implications to the English translation that enrich the work: Flights offers a birds-eye view, it takes flight, it flees. It is an action, an act, a trajectory, the passage of time, a flock, a stairway between different levels of meaning.

“It’s slightly unnerving that every original observation I might *think* I’ve come up with about this book has already been foreseen by its author”

As for the content, I found the focus on human anatomy a little uncomfortable – get me near a scalpel and I’ll become squeamish – but the observations on the preservation of human bodies or body parts was nonetheless a thought-provoking counterpoint to the nomadism elsewhere. Tokarczuk dissects and disrupts preconceived notions of what constitutes ‘movement’ or ‘stasis’ as the mapping out of the human body becomes its own form of topography. Connections are drawn between anatomy and travel narratives: Chopin’s heart makes a posthumous journey from Paris to his desired resting place in Warsaw; the ‘phantom pain’ of a 17th-century anatomist whose leg was amputated is echoed in the ‘phantom pain’ felt by the modern-day Kunicki in the second part of his story, when his wife and child are returned to him but his wife refuses to tell him where they went. But if you think I’ve made a clever connection off my own bat, think again: Tokarczuk urges us to find these connections, because ‘there are different kinds of looking. One kind of looking allows you to simply see objects, useful human things, honest and concrete, which you know right away how to use and what for. And then there’s panoramic viewing, a more general view, thanks to which you notice links between objects, their network of reflections’. It’s slightly unnerving that every original observation I might *think* I’ve come up with about this book has already been foreseen by its author.

Perhaps this is the reason why reviewers have noted that, though they admired Flights, it is a difficult book to write about: Michael Kitto describes it as a novel ‘that should be experienced rather than written about’, and Ken Calfus found it to be ‘a dense challenging novel [that] makes for slow reading’. I must admit that I was quite relieved to find I wasn’t alone in finding this a challenging read. This does not in any way detract from my admiration of Flights, but it was certainly a different kind of experience than most of the novels I’m reading for this project. There were sections I enjoyed more than others: my favourite was the one entitled ‘Flights’, in which the bieguni appear. The protagonist, Annushka, needs to escape her daily life, and in her wanderings through monuments and crowds, she begins to follow a shrouded woman who is always muttering something to herself. Everything about this story is imbued with double meanings; take for instance Annushka’s observation of two particular passengers on her metro journey: ‘Why does she remember those two? I suspect because they’re constant, somehow, as though they moved differently, more slowly. Everyone else is like a river, a current, water that flows from here to there, creating eddies and waves, but each particular form, being fleeting, disappears, and the river forgets about them. But those two move against the current, which is why they stand out the way they do’. Couldn’t we say the same of particular episodes in Tokarczuk’s collection? And yet even as I write this, I suspect that Tokarczuk had already thought of that.

Flights is about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself. It is about nomadism and spirituality (for, after all, ‘Blessed is he who leaves’). It is about connections – with places, people, ideas – and it is a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism, against the ‘frozen order’ created to ‘falsify time’s passage’. It is about knowledge itself, but not about imprisoning or codifying knowledge in encyclopaedias or guidebooks: indeed, as Kunicki’s story shows us, the desire for too much knowledge might make us lose everything. Tokarczuk is both erudite and quick-witted (for her incisive comment, look no further than the 16-line interlude ‘North Pole Expeditions’ or the 4-line ‘Even’), and if there is a challenge in this book, it is more than just the difficulty of categorising it, or its denseness. It is the impossibility of describing time itself: ‘Moments, crumbs, fleeting configurations – no sooner have they come into existence than they fall to pieces’. Flights may not be an easy read, but it’s an extraordinarily beautiful one.

Review copy provided by FItzcarraldo Editions.

A thriller in the Israeli desert: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Waking Lions

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Pushkin Press)

If ever a book has taught me not to judge it by its cover, this is the one. Not because there’s anything wrong with the cover, but because I nearly skimmed past this, thinking that a male doctor suffering a crisis of conscience wasn’t a great fit for this project. The blurb begins: ‘Dr Eitan Green is a good man. He saves lives. Then, speeding along a deserted moonlit road in his SUV after an exhausting hospital shift, he hits someone. Seeing that the man, an African migrant, is beyond help, he flees the scene’. Though it sounded quite intriguing I initially passed over it, but thank goodness my curiosity couldn’t resist the intrigue indefinitely… because in Waking Lions, a tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement, I found two women as captivating as they were complex, whose relationship to Dr Eitan Green has inhabited my mind for weeks and who, I suspect, will stay with me long after I might forget the protagonist himself.

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One of the women is Eitan’s wife, Liat, a senior detective in the Israeli police. She is an ambitious professional, a loving mother, and has a keen sense of what is right. The other is Sirkit, a taciturn Eritrean who sweeps floors for a living, and who Eitan would not look at twice if he passed her in the street. She is the wife of the man Eitan killed: she saw what happened, and she comes to demand atonement. Suddenly Eitan’s life is divided between these two women, between intimacy and veneer, between truth and lies, between Eitan Green the medical prodigy and Eitan Green the murderer. In her second novel (following her critically acclaimed debut, One Night, Markovitch), Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen writes a perfectly flawed anti-hero and two compelling women between whom he is torn, and Sondra Silverston translates so beautifully that I forgot I was reading a translation. There was only a single sentence in over 400 pages that I could nit-pick about (but I shan’t, as it would give away a twist in the tale!)

There’s no waiting around for the intrigue to begin: the prologue opens with the line ‘He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man’. When Eitan gets out of the car and looks at the man, he realises that the man is going to die, and that if he reports his involvement, his own life as he knows it will be over. Eitan imagines his detective wife Liat looking at him the way she looks at criminals before they confess, and then ‘it leaped up and grasped him, all of him, the choking icy fear that screamed in his ears – get into the SUV. Now.’ It’s the middle of the desert, after all: no-one has seen him, no-one knew he was there. This decision sets up the uncomfortable underlying question which pervades the narrative throughout: what would you do?

“Liat’s dogged insistence on solving the case of the desert hit-and-run brings her ever closer to a truth she resolutely refuses to see, and the urgency of the narrative as it hurtles towards its conclusion is breathtaking in its brilliance.”

Eitan’s instinctive choice makes him enter a new life, in which by day he carries on as before, but Sirkit owns his nights. Liat presides over their beautiful household where everything has its place, and Sirkit dominates the long hours Eitan spends beside her in a makeshift hospital deep in the desert. Liat is both a strong-willed professional making her way in a man’s world who ‘would rather hate herself than be considered a prude’ and a bruised woman struggling to maintain a relationship with an overbearing mother, come to terms with the death of a beloved grandmother, and raise her own children in a happy home; Sirkit is portrayed by turns as a toxic she-devil existing only to torment Eitan and an intoxicating goddess, his mirror and his obsession. Though there is much of this kind of polarity in the narrative, there is nothing two-dimensional about it: the character development is excellent, and though both women are viewed primarily through Eitan’s eyes, any objectification is subtly evident in the third-person narration (‘Long after he left the garage, she still felt his gaze on her. Men can fasten their eyes on you the way people put a collar on a dog. They didn’t have to tug it; just knowing that the collar was there was enough to make the dog behave’; ‘When he turned his glance from the fence, he saw that she had been looking at him for several moments. That made him uncomfortable. It was one thing for him to look at Sirkit without her knowing it, and something else for Sirkit to look at him’). Sirkit’s ultimate unknowability is where her power lies: she is an enigma that Eitan simultaneously hates and wants to penetrate. Similarly, Eitan’s wife is no caricature: Liat’s ‘exhausting composure’ subdues even the most misogynist male prisoner, but she is still described as ‘that hot little pussy from the police’, and plays her part in a patriarchal hierarchy in which she allows herself to be patronised by her male colleagues and pretends to be impressed by them because ‘what else could she do?’ Like Sirkit, though, Liat has her own backstory: she was raised in relative poverty, is as proud as she is sensitive, and is characterised by a profound humanity that makes her want to believe her husband’s ever-spiralling lies even as she senses that their previously stable relationship is crumbling at the foundations. This is no ordinary domestic love triangle drama though: Liat’s dogged insistence on solving the case of the desert hit-and-run brings her ever closer to a truth she resolutely refuses to see, and the urgency of the narrative as it hurtles towards its conclusion is breathtaking in its brilliance.

Alongside social comment on the plight of migrants and the repeated imagery of crossing a desert, Eitan’s own journey unfolds: if, for Sirkit, ‘to emigrate is to leave one place for another, with the place you’ve left tied to your ankle with steel chains’, then when Eitan climbed back into his SUV after hitting the man, he emigrated from his ordered life of privilege, and limped away from the accident with that night in the desert tied to his ankle with steel chains. There is no moralising: right and wrong are blurred, and we are reminded that there are times when ‘being human was a privilege’. This is an ambitious novel which gives pause for thought in several ways: as a reflection on racism and otherness, poverty and privilege, intimacy and misogyny, corruption and survival, and on the way life can change in an instant. The side-stories are all connected, and if they come together a little too neatly, I can entirely forgive this in the name of a good story. Ruth Gilligan has a offered more reserved appreciation for this novel, pointing to a ‘problematic tone’ in places and some ‘awkward similes’, but I didn’t pick up on these while reading. If they were there, they must have gone unnoticed because I enjoyed the story so much. The descriptions are vivid and immersing; in some ways, reading this novel felt comparable to watching a film. It’s a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read, an escapist joy and the literary equivalent of its own central plotline: a jolt that will shake you out of any inertia, sweep you along into a world you had never imagined, and stay with you long after it’s over.

Being and becoming a woman: Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin

Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories, 2015)

This book represents many ‘firsts’ for me: most notably, it was the first time I’ve read anything about Albania and the first time I’d heard of the tradition of the ‘sworn virgin’. I must confess, the title of this book left me entirely unprepared for what I’d read within (an insouciance for which my own ignorance of what a ‘sworn virgin’ meant was entirely responsible). In case you share this ignorance, or at least to allow me to bask in my newfound knowledge, a ‘sworn virgin’ is, in Albanian tradition, a role taken on by a woman when there is no man present to take charge of the household. The woman wears men’s clothes, socialises with men, behaves like a man – basically, ‘becomes’ a man to uphold the family’s honour. S/he must also remain a virgin. In an interview with the BBC to promote her TV documentary on the same subject, Elvira Dones explained that ‘If she didn’t want that marriage, the only way out so as not to dishonour the family and not to disobey the word of her father was to say ‘no, I’m going to become a man and I will take the oath of eternal virginity’.

An oath of eternal virginity? Cripes. You could be forgiven for thinking that this would make for a dire, turgid, moralising story, but far from it: This brave, absorbing and deeply moving tale offers arresting reflections on selfhood, sacrifice, and what ‘being a woman’ means.

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Sworn Virgin is published by And Other Stories, an independent publishing house based in Sheffield which is, as far as I’m aware, the only publishing house to have taken up the challenge to publish only books written by women for ‘The Year of Publishing Women’ in 2018. Each book has a list of names in the back: these are the subscribers who make it possible for And Other Stories to keep publishing ‘the types of stories most publishers consider too risky to take on’ (indeed, in her acknowledgements, Dones praises And Other Stories for believing in translated literature, and extends particular thanks to her translator, Clarissa Botsford, who searched relentlessly for a publishing house because of her profound belief in this book). Sworn Virgin epitomises the position taken by Nicky Smalley of And Other Stories, in a piece she wrote to mark International Women’s Day in 2017: given the odds stacked against translations being published, and against women’s writing being published, if a book written by a woman makes it into translation, you can be pretty sure it’s going to be good. Sworn Virgin is good. It’s more than good. The story is fascinating, the style engaging, the translation virtually irreproachable. In an interview discussing the months she spent translating Dones’s protagonist, Hana, Botsford claims to have ‘inhabited Hana’s skin’, and it shows.

“what a heroine Hana is: fiercely insecure, endlessly paradoxical, profoundly loveable.”

In the novel, Hana Doda becomes a ‘sworn virgin’ at the age of 20, when her Uncle Gjergj (her last relative) is dying. He had wanted to arrange her marriage before his death, so that he would know she was provided for. The insight into the values held in the community described by Dones, and the conflict between the villagers’ way of life and the more metropolitan Hana (a student at university in Tirana), is clear when her uncle tells her that ‘a woman who is not married is worth nothing.’ When she argues in riposte that ‘Women are the same as men’, she is silenced by her uncle’s wrath: ‘Like hell they are. Women are made to serve men and have children. Don’t be a fool!’ Hana refuses wordlessly in the end, simply going to Gjergj’s clothes chest and finding his national uniform, then presenting herself to him as a man. In doing so, her uncle dies with his dignity intact: if Gjergj had forced her to marry against her will, he would have been sad, and died sad. If she had refused, he would have lost pride. With her sacrifice, Hana gave her uncle a few more months of life, and he died brimming with pride. Yet Hana is not presented as a selfless hero(ine): tradition and modernity, right and wrong, love and duty are all blurred, for ‘it was a gesture of love; perhaps it was also a delusion’.

The newly named Mark Doda lives alone in the mountains in the north of Albania for fourteen years, but we learn this and all of Mark/Hana’s past in flashback: the novel opens with Mark’s arrival in Washington DC. He has come to stay with his cousin Lila who had emigrated to America with her husband Shtjefën, and who lives in the suburbs of DC. The ongoing theme of whether ‘gender’ is innate or learned is dealt with subtly and without pontificating: the first section of the novel is understated, as Lila (a brittle believer in the American Dream, with good intentions and a perm that makes her look like a sheep) tries to find a way to make Hana comfortable with being a woman. Lila’s limited grasp of how to bring her cousin’s emotional turmoil to an end is reduced to insisting that Hana buy a pencil skirt in a huge mall, but Hana needs more time and more space than Lila wants to give her: Lila’s superficial notion of ‘aesthetic’ femininity is at odds with Hana’s struggles to understand herself as a woman, and attempts to whitewash the fourteen years that Hana has spent denying herself everything – even her identity.

As well as gender, language is a prominent theme in Sworn Virgin, with Hana trying to learn English, and particularly American slang (with the help of her niece Jonida, adolescent maven of colourful vernacular). It seems appropriate, then, that Sworn Virgin should be published in English, and that Hana should find her voice in the language in which she so desperately wants to feel at home. We also have an insight into the importance of language in Hana’s self-expression, and how language is inextricably bound up with gender: ‘For a while now she’s been unable to balance her thoughts out, and that makes her angry. It’s weird but when she was Mark she was better with words.’ If, in her haste to ‘become’ a woman, Hana is ‘losing something she can’t quite put her finger on’, Botsford understands what this is and offers it back to her, bringing Hana to life in a new language. And what a heroine Hana is: fiercely insecure, endlessly paradoxical, profoundly loveable.

In this beautiful novel, Dones offers a rare literary insight into Albania’s landscape and traditions, and captures perfectly the self-reflection of a person caught between two worlds and the self-doubt of a woman who has spent fourteen years trying to forget herself.

All that was left unsaid: Marie Sizun, Her Father’s Daughter

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, Peirene, 2016

This is the first of several novels published by Peirene Press that I’ll be including in this project. Peirene is a small independent publishing house in the UK, dedicated to seeking out the best of European literature and bringing it to an English-speaking audience. Using the strapline ‘Truly big stories in small packages’, Peirene focuses on short novels, a decision which led the Times Literary Supplement to describe their catalogue as ‘Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: literary cinema for those fatigued by film’. Peirene include this review in their publicity material, and it certainly hits the nail on the head in terms of what you can expect from their books. Each year they publish a themed ‘series’, and release three books within the series that can be bought separately, or purchased together via subscription. So far I’ve read five books published by Peirene, and have yet to find one that disappoints.

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Her Father’s Daughter was journalist Marie Sizun’s first novel, published in France in 2005, and longlisted for the Prix Fémina. In an interview with Sizun – then 65 – around the time of its publication in French, she said that it had taken her a lifetime to find the words for this novel, acknowledging that it deals with a painful time from her own past. Nonetheless, this is not an autobiography, and no one interpretation is imposed on us: Sizun does not analyse what happened, she simply reveals it quietly and thoughtfully. The translation does not over-explain either: Adriana Hunter negotiates with ease the child’s story, her confused emotions, and her shifting affections. I couldn’t quite help myself from wondering what certain phrases must or might have been in the original, but not because the translation was bad; on the contrary, it was because it flowed so naturally that I could almost hear the French beneath it. Hunter is a prolific literary translator and renders this understated narrative beautifully, understanding the emotion of the narrative and respecting its restraint.

As Her Father’s Daughter opens, four-year-old France lives alone in an apartment with her mother in wartime Paris; her father is a prisoner of war, and she only knows him through photographs. Despite the historical situation, she lives in an idyll, sharing everything with her mother and enjoying freedom and privilege within the household.  We meet France at the moment when her life is about to change: immediately the third-person narrator recounts how ‘something intruded into the intimate, familiar world of the kitchen. Something the child perceives as a threat. When. Comes Home’. The ‘threat’ is realised when the father returns home and the mother’s devotion shifts (‘the child may now have a father but, on the other hand, she might as well no longer have a mother’). Though we are told France’s name early in the narrative, we are also told that this patriotic name that was chosen, ‘duty-bound by the war’, is never used, but rather ‘the child is quite simply the child.’

‘isn’t the regret of a ruined relationship the most quietly cataclysmic of all?’

History is present in the narrative, but does not intrude on it: many novels have been published (in France and elsewhere) about life during the Second World War, but here the focus is very much on personal relationships and the ties that bind: the war is, like any other backdrop, the circumstance in which the protagonists find themselves, and which governs the key facts. What the war cannot govern, however, (unless it is in the simple fact of having kept the daughter from her father) is how the little girl feels, and how she unleashes the chain of events that will lead to the disintegration of her family.

Her Father’s Daughter was published as part of Peirene’s ‘Fairytale: End of Innocence’ series in 2016, and pushes at the boundaries of what we understand a ‘fairytale’ to mean. The ‘end of innocence’ qualifier warns us that ‘fairytales’ are not depicted here as sweet stories with happy endings, but rather as dreams that must be renounced to a reality that comes crashing in. Her Father’s Daughter is the story of a fragile love between a daughter and the father she has never known, which is destroyed by one ill-judged revelation. With the mother’s attention and affection shifting from the child to the husband, the child must try to win over her father, who thinks she is spoilt and does not indulge her in the way she is accustomed to. Little by little, the child manages to establish a complicity with her father, and begins to resent her mother. Arguments between the parents increase in frequency and intensity, and the child tries to understand how to seal the relationship with her father. The fateful decision to tell him the unspoken secret that her mother and grandmother insist was just a dream does indeed drive a wedge between her parents, but to an extent that the child had not predicted: now she must face losing her father for a second time.

For me, Her Father’s Daughter wasn’t a defining moment in my reading life (unlike Peirene’s latest release, the magnificent Soviet Milk), but it was an enjoyable, thought-provoking one. If you read it waiting for something cataclysmic to happen, you’ll be disappointed – but isn’t the regret of a ruined relationship the most quietly cataclysmic of all? This skilful narrative is taut and tense, focusing on what is not said as much as on what is revealed. Its poignant observation of human relationships and the ‘furious intensity of her child’s love’ are as moving as they are measured.

Note: Peirene currently have a half price offer on this title; you can order it for £6 here.