Monthly Archives: February 2020

Review: Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons them there. The narrative opens with a rotting corpse found floating in an irrigation canal: the Witch is dead. Like a clanging gong announcing the event, the news reverberates throughout the village, and thus begins a kind of murder mystery. Yet to pigeon-hole Hurricane Season as “just” a murder mystery would be to do a great disservice to a narrative that is so much more than that. It’s an unsparing account of femicide, machismo, tribal terror and social destitution, and for me it was less about uncovering the “truth” of the murder and more about delving into the psyche and circumstances of the characters, to understand what led them to the pivotal moment that simultaneously connects them and creates deep divisions between them.

The premise is based on a real-life story in which a body was found floating in a river, and the justification for the murder was the victim’s alleged sorcery: Melchor takes this true story and casts it in the fictional Mexican town of La Matosa, a godforsaken place riven with violence and superstition, and on the margins in every way. We follow the events from the perspectives of different inhabitants of La Matosa: each principal character has his or her own chapter, and each story is woven with the others to form a richly grotesque tapestry of lives forgotten by the state and left to rot in their own squalor, the interconnections not always evident until the end of a chapter or a seemingly throwaway comment within it.

The Witch herself never speaks through the narrative, but pulls all the other stories together. She is constructed for us only in the minds and exaggerations of others, adding to the “small-town” patina:

“They called her The Witch, the same as her mother … If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.”

The Witch is defined by hearsay and gossip, her power feared and so expunged in the only permanent way possible (although even then, death quite literally has no dominion: “They say she never really died, because witches don’t go without a fight”). As for how she ended up floating in a canal with her throat slit, we only find out through third party reconstruction: this is a novel in which nothing is as it seems, where one person’s freeloader is another person’s saviour and the most flamboyant of characters can have the most banal of ends. We meet memorable characters in wretched circumstances: from Luismi, who “might have looked like a stupid prick (but) wasn’t one, because he always managed to give his crazy-ass cousin the slip before he went off to fumble with his butt-boys”, to Norma, compelled by society and circumstance to take her fate into her own hands with horrific results, and Brando, embroiled in a violent chain of events that he barely understands and that will ultimately destroy him. The personal tragedy wrought by universal inhumanity is almost intolerable: this is not just about Mexico and its demons, but about the monsters we make with global indifference.

There are no paragraph breaks in Hurricane Season; each chapter is one unbroken torrent of narrative wrath. In a recent feature in Publishers Weekly, Melchor explained that the first two chapters came out that way, and then she set herself the technical challenge of maintaining this style and momentum throughout the novel. She writes with undisguised and undiluted fury, raging against the lack of future for her characters and the people they represent. It’s violent but never gratuitously so, foul-mouthed but authentically so, relentless but compellingly so: you know how sometimes you wish you could unleash all your anger on a person or phenomenon that has injured you, but you know you could never come up with the flawlessly crafted surge of put-downs at the perfect moment (think Fleabag and her lambasting of her brother-in-law that is going so well until she ends it by calling him a “weakie”)? Every inch of Hurricane Season is that perfect diatribe, and not just in Melchor’s hands: Sophie Hughes translates with her trademark verve, her unparalleled sensitivity to characterisation and register, and a linguistic agility that, quite frankly, left me stunned in admiration. Sugar cane “fissles”, “glistering hot coals” fire the cauldron, we meet “skanks” and “gobshites” and people “getting their rocks off”. Hurricane Season is a broken dam of words unleashed in a deluge of profanity: it is, in every sense, a force of nature, and Hughes offers a blistering translation. She conveys all of Melchor’s brutal lyricism in a way that manages to feel effortless: all of the intense labour, the insecurity, the angst of translating such a novel vanishes in the execution. I cannot imagine a more perfect blend of authorial voice and translatorial mastery: this is the yardstick by which many other books will be measured. The threat of a hurricane swirls over La Matosa, and leaves in its wake “a searing pain that refuses to go away”: Hurricane Season is a linguistic and emotional whirlwind, bewitching and almost unbearably addictive, quite simply one of the best books I’ve ever experienced. Indeed, to say I “read” it feels somehow inadequate to convey the way in which I was drawn into the centrifugal force of this particular narrative: I highly recommend that you too give in to its pull.

Review copy of Hurricane Season provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

 

Review: Intan Paramaditha, The Wandering

Translated from Indonesian by Stephen J. Epstein (Harvill Secker, 2020).

The Wandering is an innovative, thought-provoking twist on the Choose Your Own Adventure genre. Written in a compelling second-person narrative, it is based on the following premise: You are bored with your predictable life in Jakarta, and you wish to escape. A demon lover comes to tempt you with a gift that could be cursed: a pair of red shoes that will take you wherever you want to go. But be careful what you wish for, because you may not like where you end up – and you will never be able to return home. What do you do?

This is the perfect match of theme and genre, and is impeccably executed. With every choice I made I was curious about the alternative, where it would lead and whether I’d end up with the same destiny, whether the ending is the same whichever path you take (it’s not), and whether you experience the whole book but in a different order (you don’t). I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a child, but I never had much luck with them. I’d usually end up sacrificed on a jungle altar by page 20 (and it seemed every path led back there), so I really wanted to be a survivor in The Wandering. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought: in this magical literary world where I’ve made a pact with a devil for a pair of red shoes, I tried to make the choices I really would make, or at least would make in a dream, since the reality is fairly unlikely to come to pass – so yes, go on, let me always move forwards instead of playing it safe, give me a magic mirror that allows me to see my true self, bring it on!

I met a sticky end before I was halfway through the book.

I went back to the last big choice: the magic mirror. Maybe I should have gone back further, to a previous choice: in my second adventure I had a banal but steady life, I was even something like happy. But what if I hadn’t settled down with the handsome yet uninspiring illegal immigrant? I went back to that choice and tried again. Another mundane relationship, another settled existence with neither great drama nor great happiness. So my first choice about the mirror wasn’t the problem, but this must mean that somewhere earlier on I made a false step.

You’ll notice I’m talking about my character in the first person. This is one of Paramaditha’s great achievements: making me believe in the story, become invested in it, wanting to know all my possible fates in this crystal ball of a novel. Part of this is down to her second person narrative: addressing her readers as “you” is designed to create an intimacy that I found entirely successful. Part of its triumph lies in the constant suspense, which is excellent – I suspect that a cynic might occasionally find it a little melodramatic, but I threw myself into it (I mean, if I’m going to have a pair of magic red shoes gifted to me by a Mephistophelian lover, then I’ve got to expect a little melodrama) and so it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, there is only one sentence that I found slightly heavy-handed, when we are told that “you sense that your decision will determine your path from here.” This is one of several conscious references to the genre (“You began to suspect that your failure to transcend mediocrity stemmed from a wrong turn in your life”; “Adventures don’t always offer unlimited choice”; “If you’re having an adventure you always want to know what would have happened if you chose a different road”; “Did you make the wrong choice?”), but in over 400 pages was the only one that felt a little forced to me.

As for the translation, it is both playful and dramatic, acrobatic without ever losing clarity. Reading the author’s acknowledgements and the translator’s note, I learnt how closely Epstein collaborated with Paramaditha, and the editing debt he acknowledges to Paramaditha’s friend and champion, author and translator Tiffany Tsao. It’s clear how closely and passionately they have all engaged with this work: Epstein makes stunning choices of verbal adjectives (“You felt as if your limbs were lashed to the bed”; “the lanes clogged with traffic”), offers pithy renderings of epigrammatic philosophical observations (“as befits a journey, happiness is a terminal, not a destination; nobody stays there too long”) and perfectly captures the darkly mischievous voice that directs, admonishes and tempts: “Forgive the imperiousness of this adventure, but you know that sometimes life takes away all options. Choice is a luxury. Marrying Bob is your emergency exit” (forgive the spoiler; marrying Bob is only one of a great number of options!); “If you want to know the fate of the red shoes, turn to the next page. If you don’t want to know the fate of the red shoes, well, who gives a damn? Turn to the next page”; “If you want a final adventure that might only create a spectacular mess, turn to page 405” (and yes, OF COURSE I turned to page 405). I’m curious to know how Epstein translated – whether he followed a thread through to its conclusion and went on the journey too, or whether he did it in a more linear fashion, jumping between stories while advancing chronologically through the pages. I can’t help but hope that he went on the wandering as he translated.

This book is escapism taken to the next level, while still making serious and significant comments about modern societies. Intertexts range from well-known literary works, popular songs and films to more subtle (and, I’m ashamed to say, over my head) references to Indonesian literature which, when they were pointed out to me, made me feel very acutely the question posed by one of the characters: “why don’t we hear of Indonesian writers outside the country?” Alongside such mirrors (magic or otherwise) held up to her adventurers, Paramaditha also excels at mordant observations about migration, the brutality of Trump’s America, the falsehood of the American dream, and the personal dimension of the “refugee crisis”, and many of the stories reprise the refrain, also discussed in the afterword, “good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering”. As befits the theme and genre, reflections on movement versus stasis abound (“For some, the world is indeed very small. But a small world such as this is not – or hasn’t been – yours. So far, the world you know is vast and random”), but above all, The Wandering is about relationships – their integrity, their contingency, their familiarity and their failures. As I was turning though pages to get to my next instalment, I would see names that were unfamiliar, and know that another choice meant different encounters: this made me think about the world, about chance and fate and the choices we make: some of these are just detours, different ways of ending up at the same place. But others change our direction, leading to different encounters, places, and life paths. When you’ve read enough of the possible stories you realise you don’t always meet Meena, or Yvette – it is your choices that bring you to them or let them pass you by. You might end up in the same place – even on the same flight to Peru – but with an entirely different life, observing the people who would have been close to you if you’d made a different choice.

I *think* I had every possible adventure in the end. Some of them were against my instincts and turned out satisfactorily. Some were instinctive and pretty ill-fated. If I learned anything about myself, it’s that I’m better at decisions in real life than in a dramatic alternative universe where I’ve made a pact with the devil for a pair of magic shoes. And what about you? I recommend that you don these glorious red shoes and see where they take you…

Review copy of The Wandering provided by Harvill Secker.

Follow the “Red Shoe Odyssey” on Intan Paramaditha’s website, and view the shoes’ adventures.

Building Bridges interview series: Nicci Praça

Nicci Praça has had a long and successful career in publishing: she was Head of Publicity for Quercus, where she launched MacLehose Press and did the PR for Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Then she moved to freelance work for independent publishing houses, starting with And Other Stories and then helping to launch Fitzcarraldo Editions, where she stayed until the beginning of 2019. During that time she also worked with a number of other independent publishers, including Les Fugitives, Influx Press and Istros Books, as well as helping to establish the Art of Translation events series at the Caravanserail bookshop and promoting the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

Nicci currently balances her freelance PR work with managing the new Amnesty International Book Shop in Kentish Town.

Throughout your career in publishing, have you perceived an increase in the number of translated works that are making their way into English?

Yes. When I first started in 2001 I was working in commercial fiction for a commercial publishing house, and we didn’t publish much translation. Five years later I moved to Quercus, which was then a very young independent publishing house; they had just won The Costa Book Award, and shortly after that Christopher MacLehose was brought in to publish mainly literature in translation. Up until that point, my contact with literature in translation hadn’t been significant; all the books I had read had been classics that had been translated a long time ago. I started working with translated literature in the crime genre, and I found that although publicizing literature in translation to literary editors was quite difficult, publicizing literature in translation to crime reviewers was easy; they were very open to looking at what was happening in other cultures and in other countries. Their openness really helped: by the time Christopher (MacLehose) published The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I worked on, the crime community had already accepted Henning Mankell (author of the Wallander mysteries) and Peter Høeg (author of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), so when I pitched Stieg Larsson to them they were very open to the idea. But when I pitched Stieg Larsson to the literary editors, I had to turn it into a news story that they would be interested in. By the time the paperback came out, everybody wanted to read it. And a lot of that excitement had come from the initial response from the crime community that had reviewed the hardback and been enthused by it. After working on that trilogy I noticed a distinct rise in the interest in literature in translation from literary editors. And since then I’ve found literary editors more open to discovering new voices from different countries and different languages.

Within the headline figure, the much-quoted 3.5% that represents the proportion of literature in English that is in translation, do you see anything changing?

I do. I see translated literature growing, particularly if our borders shrink, but especially because younger generations, from the millennials down, are keen to find out about what’s going on around the world. The Internet has helped with that, and people’s tastes seem to be broader, which is great. I think that there will be more of a hunger for literature in translation; it’s going to keep growing. People aren’t necessarily finding out about literature in translation through the national media, but they are discovering literature in translation through Instagram, blogs, Booktube, Twitter, and particularly from online literary journals like Asymptote, Guernica, Words Without Borders and so on.

How do the publishing houses that you work with identify translated works for commission?

It works in various ways. They’re approached by agents in some cases, and by translators in others; for example, both Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft have been great champions of Olga Tokarczuk. And when they’re really passionate about somebody they don’t stop, so that’s probably the strongest avenue where publishers find literature in translation. They also find new books from the authors they’ve published in translation, by having conversations with them about what they’re reading and what they recommend.

You mentioned Olga Tokarczuk; could we talk about Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and the journey from pitch to publication and then ultimately prize-winner? [note: this interview took place before Tokarczuk was awarded the delayed 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature]. 

Jennifer Croft approached Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo Editions and spoke to him about Flights; she’d been translating it and felt very passionately about it. Granta had published Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones); it had got coverage in the UK, and there was also a chance that Olga might be shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature. These things make a difference when a publisher is trying to decide whether to publish an author. By the time I came to Fitzcarraldo Editions, Flights had already been purchased and was going to be published in May 2017. Poland was the guest of honour at London Book Fair that year, so Olga had been invited as part of that initiative in April 2017. The London Book Fair managed to get her interviews and meetings with Claire Armistead at The Guardian, who has been a great champion of Olga. Olga also met Rosie Goldsmith, Joanna Walsh, Katherine Taylor; these people are important influencers, not only in publishing but also in literature in translation. She also had a very well-respected translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, championing her work and offering to interpret for her at events. So by the time she came back to launch Flights she already had a groundswell of support. Then early in 2018 she was longlisted and then shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize, and they have quite a heavy publicity schedule; all of the publicity that had happened from the previous year through to April 2018 was already quite significant by the time she was shortlisted for the MBI. Then she won, and that just catapulted her to a completely different level, one which is quite rare for a writer from another country whose books are published in translation.

There has been a beginning of a move away from Eurocentrism in translated literature. How do you perceive that shift, and do you think it might change with the current political climate?

These shifts happen all the time; marginalised languages become very fashionable during specific periods. For example, two years ago Korean literature really exploded on the publishing scene: it was helped by the publication of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, but also Korea had been a London Book Fair guest of honour. So there are patterns where a certain country is the guest of honour and UK publishers are exposed to publishers within those countries and to translators promoting literature from that country. The challenge is to keep these languages at the forefront and continue to publish them.

Do you perceive there being any challenges regarding gender bias in translated literature? And if so, what do you think might be done to overcome them?

It’s an odd situation because a lot of the translators are women, but the books we’re publishing aren’t necessarily by women writers. The percentages are still very low, which makes small independent publishers who publish women in translation activist publishers. They’re the ones who see that there is a gap in the market which needs to be filled.  I think that’s why I prefer independent publishing, because a lot of it is driven by gaps in markets and people’s passion to fill those gaps.

You’ve worked with a number of publishers who have different approaches to translated literature; what activities do they undertake to promote translation and help those works to reach publication?

Obviously publicity around those books and those authors is very important, and every publisher will undertake to make sure that a book gets the right kind of publicity or as much publicity as possible. But the ones who are actively working hard on this are the translators: they do the bulk of the work, talking about writers and pitching them as much as possible to get them in print. A good publisher will take an author and nurture them and continue to publish their work, which is very important, but funding is also very important: if publishers don’t have the funding to pay for a translation a book might not necessarily get published. They work hard at getting the funding for these books, and then submitting them for prizes where possible, but what they can do is fairly limited. The media has more work to do: they have more opportunities, but they are reluctant. Getting a foreign author on the BBC is really difficult. Even if the author has an incredible reputation overseas, it’s still really hard. Part of that is because of language: if they don’t speak English “properly”, there is a reluctance to put them on air, and so writers have to be so extraordinary before someone in the national media will even begin to take a look at them.

That sounds quite stagnant; Christopher MacLehose wrote an article over ten years saying much the same thing: that authors are heavily involved in promoting their own work, and that translators take on a lot of the publicity work. So why do you think it isn’t changing?

Gatekeeping. Gatekeeping is one of my biggest bugbears. It makes things so difficult, because if you’re not getting the publicity for a book, how do you get the word out there? Most sales teams don’t consider online publications to be strong enough mouthpieces to sell books, but as a publicist I disagree with that. I think that online publications are much stronger than radio and newspapers, particularly now, because I’m not sure how many people really trust what’s coming out of certain media platforms. And that’s where the Internet has really helped us, because we can circumvent the national media to get word out there. The Internet has also really helped independent publishers: if they had no platform to inform people of the books that they’re publishing, nobody would know about them and no-one would buy them because it’s also really hard to get books into bookshops. You’ve got another set of gatekeepers there and they only really get on board when they see everybody else getting on board. So the internet is crucial to the publishing industry, certainly in terms of literature in translation.