Monthly Archives: January 2020

Review: Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue

Translated from Slovak by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (Jantar Publishing, 2019)

Bellevue is the first novel of award-winning Slovak writer Ivana Dobrakovová, and it is a harrowing account of one young woman’s psychological unravelling. Dobrakovová sets out from the start what will happen in terms of plot, and so it is the journey towards that point that maintains narrative momentum.

Blanka is bored of spending her summer waiting around for her steady yet zealously studious boyfriend to look up from his textbooks and spend time with her, and so she applies for a summer job at a care home in the south of France. When Blanka first arrives in Marseille she is greeted by young interns of various nationalities, all of them escaping their lives in their home country just as she is. So far, so L’Auberge Espagnole. A carefree, sun-drenched summer awaits, but things soon go awry. That the deceptively serene name of the care home, Bellevue, is taken as the title of the novel shows the importance of this experience in Blanka’s decline: it is “the place that will transform me into someone new”, but this new self is exactly the one Blanka most fears.

When faced with the reality of dealing with people in a care home, Blanka finds herself repulsed by their lack of control over their bodies, whether this is owing to morbid obesity, constant drooling, a need to urinate in a tube, or shriveled limbs. Lack of control of her own body is Blanka’s greatest fear, but the things she is afraid of and tries to avoid by extreme behaviour are the very things that her extreme behaviour causes to come about. This is foreshadowed early on when she confesses that “For a moment I almost wished I were like them, wheelchair-bound, or at least not sticking out like a sore thumb”: Blanka’s feelings of paranoia about the way the residents view her, her conviction that they resent her because of her healthy body and want her to be reduced somehow, is exactly what leads her to behave so erratically that she ends up losing control of her own bodily experience.

This unravelling seems to happen very quickly (Blanka is only at Bellevue for a few weeks), but there are plenty of hints towards a past illness. She has a history of depression and prescribed medication, and so although comments such as “I’m unhappy and I want to die” might seem to come very suddenly, we are made aware in the way she explains her feelings that they are not without precedent. Her rapid decline is mirrored in subtle shifts in the writing style, and particularly in the punctuation, which fails gradually. Commas replace full stops at paragraph ends, then they start to appear before the end of clauses; after that, the sentences gradually lose any punctuation that makes sense of them. This is not the only stylistic shift: co-translator Julia Sherwood comments in her introduction to Bellevue that “The narration changes from the past tense to the present, creating a sense of immediacy; direct speech is no longer marked, erasing the difference between Blanka’s utterances and her feverish thoughts” – these features are not only important to notice, but also to convey, and this fragmented style is superbly conveyed in the translation.

Although there were a few references in the translation that I initially thought were a bit out of place, some quick research soon corrected me. For example, I had assumed that references to Tesco and to the Avon catalogue were adaptations, but when I checked online I discovered that these companies do indeed operate in Slovakia, and so presumably these references were in the original text. Similarly, though phrases such as “there’s a good girl” made me uncomfortable – there is so much patriarchal assumption in this phrase – perhaps they too were in the original, and indeed maybe they’re meant to make us feel uncomfortable: my reaction prefigured the discomfort I felt later when Blanka is force-fed by her former friends, reduced to a dribbling mess and becoming what she most despised.

Bellevue interrogates our notions of “wellness” – both physical and mental – and presents us with a flawed narrator who, though frustrating in her constant inability to empathise or connect with the people around her, is a believable representation of the isolation caused by mental illness. We see enough of Blanka’s inner thoughts that we can come to understand her, but we cannot get through to her: this encouraged (and thwarted) intimacy is one of the most striking features of the book. I don’t think that Blanka is supposed to be likeable (“I’ll be out of this place in two weeks’ time but you, dear Marie, you’re going to rot here for the rest of your life”), but this does not mean we cannot feel compassion for her. Blanka’s inability to believe in the goodness or niceness of people is presented as the very thing that pushes them away, but there is more to it than this: Drago presents himself as caring, as wanting to help Blanka, but his sanctimonious attitude persistently reinforces her instability, his own inadequacies cast convincingly as altruistic helplessness. Perhaps, though, this is Bellevue’s key message: what good is it to treat the symptoms if we ignore the underlying cause? If Blanka is held responsible for her own solitude and isolation, isn’t this an indictment of a society all too adept at blaming the victim instead of questioning itself? Bellevue is not a comfortable read, but nor is it meant to be: it is a brave and unflinching account of mental illness, and an unsparing critique of a world that fosters it.

Review copy of Bellevue provided by Jantar Publishing

Review: Loop, Brenda Lozano

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, 2019)

This debut novel by Brenda Lozano is a clever, innovative book, an erudite observation of the everyday, a genre-smashing static journey. It’s fair to say that I admired it rather than enjoyed it exactly; mostly, I suspect, because of the point at which I read it. Loop is a series of connected fragments, and I probably jumped into it at the wrong moment: I read it on my train journey to and from the Translating Women conference, when my mind was pitching from one thing to the next, not staying anywhere for long, and returning to the same things repeatedly. This fitfulness was exacerbated by reading a book that was doing much the same thing, and so my reaction was affected by the circumstances of my reading. Nonetheless, objectively I can see all of the things that make Loop brilliant, and those are the features I’ll focus on here.

The unnamed narrator of Loop is waiting. Her boyfriend Jonás has travelled to Spain after his mother’s death; the narrator awaits his return, journeying in her mind while sitting in her armchair waiting for Jonás. As she waits she vocalises their usual routine, alternating between longing for his return and resenting his absence. She is also waiting in an airport for a delayed flight: this is the ambiguity of the literary form, as the narrator reminds us that it doesn’t matter how long passes between her notebook entries, because it will be read as if no time has passed between them: “Part of the magic of the ideal notebook is that hours, days and weeks can go by from one paragraph to the next, but because the paragraphs live side by side like neighbours, it’s as if only a few minutes have passed. Amazing – something that takes years to write could be read by someone else in a couple of hours.” Time is suspended, just as the narrator herself is suspended in her vigil, awaiting the return of Jonás. In this sense, she says, “my notebook is my waiting room” – the notebook becomes the loop, the contracted space where time expands.

The (mildly but endearingly obsessive) narrator has had some kind of accident in the recent past, though we are not given details beyond her waking up on a hospital gurney with a Shakira song playing in the background (thus alerting her to the fact that she is not, after all, now inhabiting the afterlife). This patchy detail is consistent with the “diary” narrative – in a diary, why would you painstakingly write out details of something you already know? Rather, this is an exploration of the narrator’s inner world and thoughts. Many references recur repeatedly: the Shakira song is an intermittent soundtrack, as is David Bowie’s “Wild is the Wind” (this one features as a choice on the narrator’s part, rather than as an intrusion), and a Shakespeare quote spotted on a fridge magnet becomes the narrator’s refrain to describe herself: “Welcome. A hundred thousand welcomes! I could weep, and I could laugh; I am light, and heavy. Welcome!” This becomes an invitation to us to enter her world of weeping, laughter, lightness and weight, all encapsulated within the pages of her “ideal notebook”. In this notebook she performs a kind of taxonomy of the everyday, chronicling experiences and observing objects, but she also identifies herself as a modern-day Penelope: “I’m Penelope. I weave, unravel, weave and unravel again. Will the day ever come when the waiting stops? Is there anyone who isn’t waiting for something?” “I wish. I weave. I unravel.”

It is not just The Odyssey that features as a literary reference – these are broad-ranging, from Fernando Pessoa to Marcel Proust via Oscar Wilde, and many more besides (there is a handy index of references at the back of the book). These can’t have been easy to spot and incorporate into the translation, but Lozano is in safe hands with Annie McDermott: there was not a single word, reference or turn of phrase that jarred in my reading of Loop. I had already admired McDermott’s work as editor on Ariana Harwciz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) and as co-translator with Orloff on Harwicz’s Feebleminded, and am very excited for her forthcoming translation of Selva Almada’s next book with Charco Press later this year. Her choice of title for Loop is intelligent and sensitive: it is more ambiguous than the original title, Cuaderno ideal (“ideal notebook”), which would mean very little in English. It’s a play on words in Mexican Spanish: not only is this the ideal form, but also a reference to the near-obsolete brand of notebook that the narrator uses to write down her thoughts. Lozano’s narrator describes her text as “an infinite queue”, and this is reflected in the English title: a loop has no defined beginning and end, it goes over on itself, turns around on itself, repeats itself – the refrains that punctate the narrative are played as if on a loop; the fragments of narrative loop back and return to where they started; by reading the narrator’s intimate thoughts we are in the loop, and her verbal acrobatics – energetically but unobtrusively rendered by McDermott – loop the loop.

There were some observations that made me laugh out loud, such as this from the very first page: “As a girl I thought that the electric pencil sharpener was what separated me from adult life.” But Loop is also shot through with pain (the narrator knows intimately “those depths where only pain can take you”), and some profound observations seem almost carelessly tossed in (except in Lozano, as I came to realise, nothing is careless). As well as the repeated refrain “Change. Unknowing yourself is more important than knowing yourself,” she makes delicate proclamations such as “we make the world to the measure of our hands” and “the way we relate to everything, especially when it comes to love, changes after we hit rock bottom,” as well as a list resembling a modern-day secular Beatitudes, in which she observes that “those who talk too much reject themselves; those who listen carefully accept themselves.”

When I went back to my notes to write this review, I felt far more drawn into Loop than when I actually read it, which makes me think that I should revisit it to experience it at a less stressful moment. But for now I’ll leave you with this meditative remark, which epitomises our mordantly observant narrator and her writing project: “I think telling stories is a way of putting a scar into words.”

Review copy of Loop provided by Charco Press

20 books to watch out for in 2020

2020 looks set to be an exciting year for women in translation: if, like me, you’re thinking about what your reading year will hold in terms of new releases, here are 20 books to look forward to this year by women from around the world. From dystopian alternate realities and speculative fiction to a feminist retelling of ghost stories and wickedly wry reflections on modern life, this is an eclectic and exhilarating mix of personal and political literature that includes novels, short stories, fiction, memoir, autofiction and speculative fiction. Dive in and enjoy!

I have a renewed gift subscription to Tilted Axis Press this year, and so I was excited to see that 2020 looks set to be a bumper year for the press, with five of their six titles (their biggest annual catalogue to date) being by women in translation. I can’t wait for the first release, Matsuda Aoka’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, “a contemporary feminist retelling of traditional ghost stories by one of Japan’s most exciting writers” translated by Polly Barton, and am also impatient for the new Yan Ge novel, Strange Beasts of China, translated by Jeremy Tiang (I loved The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman for Balestier Press and reviewed here), as well as the UK publication of Duanwad Pimwana’s Arid Dreams, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul. You can read publisher Deborah Smith’s take on all of the 2020 Tilted Axis titles here.

And Other Stories continue to fly the flag for women in translation this year: first off, later this month we can look forward to Rita Indiana’s second novel, Made in Saturn, translated by Sydney Hutchinson. I’m champing at the bit for this; Indiana’s first novel Tentacle, translated by Achy Obejas, was my surprise hit of 2018, and Made in Saturn is described as “a hangover from a riotous funeral, a rapid-fire elegy for the revolutionary spirit, and a glimpse of hope for all who feel eclipsed by those who came before them” – it promises to be as electrifying as Tentacle. Later in the year we can expect the next Lina Wolff, Many People Die Like You, a “wicked, discomfiting, delightful and wry” collection of short stories (translated again by Saskia Vogel, who did a magnificent job with Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers last year), and a new-to-me Salvadoran writer, Claudia Hernández, whose novel Slash and Burn, “a suspenseful, slow-burning revelation of rural life in the aftermath of political trauma,” is in the very capable hands of Julia Sanches.

Fans of Margarita García Robayo and Selva Almada are in for a treat, as Charco Press are bringing us their next novels! There probably isn’t a corner of the internet where I haven’t professed my love for García Robayo’s Fish Soup (2018); the follow-up is Holiday Heart, a novel about a disintegrating marriage, translated again by the very talented Charlotte Coombe. As for Selva Almada, The Wind That Lays Waste (tr. Chris Andrews) was an excellent debut (and won best first book of the Edinburgh International Book Fair 2019); Almada’s second offering Dead Girls is a journalistic novel about femicide, and the cherry on the cake is that it will be translated by Annie McDermott, whose previous work for Charco is top-notch. Charco will also be publishing the debut novel of Chilean author Andrea Jeftanovic, Theatre of War (tr. Frances Riddle), which marks Jeftanovic’s first appearance in English and Charco’s continued championing of women authors from across Latin America.

In March, Comma Press will be releasing a landmark collection in collaboration with Wom@rts and Hay Festival: Europa28 brings together 28 acclaimed women writers, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs writing about the future of Europe in a “powerful and timely anthology [that] looks at an ever-changing Europe from a variety of different perspectives and offers hope and insight into how we might begin to rebuild.” Sophie Hughes edits with Comma’s Sarah Cleave, and Europa28 features a stellar cast of writers and translators.

And speaking of Sophie Hughes, her translation of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season for Fitzcarraldo Editions will be released imminently! Hurricane Season is “a formidable portrait of Mexico and its demons” that, I believe, opens with the line “The Witch is dead.” Hurricane Season is one of my most anticipated books of 2020 – this time last year I mistakenly thought it was coming out in 2019, so I’ve been looking forward to it for a looooong time and I CAN’T WAIT. (*update*: I just received my copy, and the first line is not “The Witch is dead”, but it’s even better – if a book can be judged on its first page alone then I can say right now that this is AMAZING). Then in April Fitzcarraldo will be bringing us the next Annie Ernaux, A Girl’s Place (translated by Alison L. Strayer, who also translated The Years) – and will be releasing it on my birthday, no less! Champagne all round.

Elsewhere, we can look forward to the next Samanta Schweblin from Oneworld: Little Eyes, translated by Megan McDowell, is “a chilling portrait of our compulsively interconnected society”, and looks set to be as spine-tingling as Schweblin’s previous work. Earthlings, Sayaka Murata’s second book, is coming in October from Granta Books: Earthlings continues with the theme of outsiders, presenting characters who believe they are not human, and is translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, who did an excellent job on Murata’s best-selling Convenience Store Woman in 2018. Les Fugitives have kicked off the year with a new novel by award-winning Mauritian author Ananda Devi, The Living Days (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman), in which white supremacy, desperation and class conflict collide on the streets of London. My 2020 pick from Pushkin Press is Tender is the Flesh by Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica: translated by Sarah Moses, this chilling-sounding dystopian novel is set in an alternative reality in which it is legal to eat human meat. Sounds horrifying, but I do love dystopian fiction so I’m going to steel myself and dive in…

In less gruesome news, here are three very different French-language books to look out for in translation this year:

Europa Editions UK will be bringing us Valérie Perrin’s Fresh Water for Flowers, translated by Hildegarde Serle: the daily life of a cemetery caretaker is disrupted by a clandestine tribute in the “funny, moving, intimately told story of a woman who believes obstinately in happiness,” while Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, which I enjoyed reading in French last year, is coming from Daunt Books in a translation by Aneesa Abbas Higgins: in this closed-down tourist town on the border between North and South Korea, a young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a dilapidated guesthouse, and is drawn into a tacit relationship with an unexpected and mysterious guest. Finally, Harvill Secker are offering a new international series of eight books in 2020, kicking it off with All About Sarah, the debut novel by Pauline Delabroy-Allard (translated by Adriana Hunter): this was a literary sensation in France last year, and is described as “an intoxicating and evocative novel about the all-consuming love affair between two women and the ruin it leaves in its wake.”

Fans of German literature will be pleased to know that V&Q Books recently founded an English-language imprint, headed by women in translation champion Katy Derbyshire, and we can expect their first three releases in September. Two of the three are by women: Lucy Fricke’s Daughters (translated by Sinead Crowe) tells the story of “two women, pushing forty, on a road trip across Europe, each of them dealing with difficult fathers along the way”; Sandra Hoffmann’s Paula (translated by Derbyshire herself) is an autofictional account of “the writer’s relationship to her grandmother, a devout Swabian Catholic who refused to reveal who fathered her child in 1946.”

So that’s 20 books for 2020, with doubtless many more exciting releases to come in the course of the year. I’m already wondering whether any of these will make it onto my end-of-year top books of 2020 – in the meantime, happy reading!