Monthly Archives: March 2021

Review: THE PEACOCK by Isabel Bogdan

Translated from German by Annie Rutherford (V&Q Books, 2021)

A funny, feel-good comedy of errors featuring characters ranging from the eccentric to the neurotic, a rambling castle in the Scottish Highlands, and a peacock gone rogue? Yes please. The Peacock felt like the book I’ve been waiting for – something to lift me out of the difficulties of the year, and into a hilarious world of well-meaning duplicity, guilty consciences aplenty, and team-building gone awry.

Lord and Lady McIntosh live in a remote and dilapidated castle, making their living from the Laird’s academic work (though, as Bogdan gleefully reminds us on several occasions, his Classics specialism is no match for the Lady’s engineering background when it comes to dealing with the pragmatic reality of a house crumbling around them) and the rental of holiday cottages on their estate. When a group of bankers from London want to rent out a larger space for a weekend of team-building, the McIntoshes’ housekeeper dusts off a ramshackle wing of the castle, but inadvertently breaks her ankle while dancing to ABBA with her Henry vacuum cleaner, rendering her incapable of finishing the extensive cleaning operation. This is the kind of slapstick that abounds in The Peacock, and with the housekeeper incapacitated, the Laird and Lady must prepare for their guests from the Big Smoke alone, with hilarious consequences.

So the housekeeper needs help tying her shoelaces, the shower in the guest wing emits the barest trickle of water, the goose leaves her droppings everywhere, and one of the peacocks sees anything blue and shiny as a rival that must be attacked instantly. The uptight bank boss arrives in an immaculately polished blue car (you can see the imminent peril) and promptly steps in goose poop. Her team are dismayed to find they are sharing not only the inadequate shower but also bedrooms (and must navigate – with varying success – the hazards of bunk beds: “Lying on the floor in his pyjamas in front of the boss and blubbering because he’d fallen out of a bunk bed and couldn’t get up. It didn’t get much more mortifying than that”), but at least the cook they brought with them provides a steady stream of comforting food. Just don’t ask too many questions about the plucked bird hanging in the larder. The young psychiatrist charged with leading the team-building exercises has a tough task ahead of her, and it’s about to get even tougher when there is a mutiny, the discovery of a hastily-concealed shotgun, a murdered bird and a snowfall so severe that they are stranded in the castle. With a power cut. Thank goodness for the al fresco hot tub, where new complicities will be formed…

The atmosphere is one of wild abandonment, but it is carefully constructed, full of ironic one-liners and to-the-point character sketches (“the boss had a particular knack for making her opinion extremely clear”; “Andrew didn’t speak about his inner conflicts. Jim didn’t have any”) and well thought through to make the improbable and the absurd entirely believable. Annie Rutherford’s translation is spot-on: it has meticulous attention to language in context (I was particularly delighted to see the phrase “a lick and a promise”, an expression I remember so vividly from childhood), yet maintains the glorious mayhem that characterises the story. I also really enjoyed the translator’s note at the end: this is a feature of V&Q Books, and a very welcome one, offering insight into the challenges and resolutions of the translation process. The Peacock is a best-selling, blockbusting book that sits well within the V&Q catalogue and is translated with humour and versatility. If you’re looking for some escapist enjoyment, then look no further.

Review copy of The Peacock provided by V&Q Books

Review: NIGHT AS IT FALLS, Jakuta Alikavazovic

Translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Faber & Faber, 2021)

Night as it Falls is the debut novel by French-born Bosnian-Montenegrin writer Jakuta Alikavazovic, and follows its main characters Paul and Amelia through a passionate relationship, an abandonment, a reunion, and a final separation. Amelia is the “official” mystery of the novel – a woman so remarkable as to be almost mythical, but whose personal struggles and destructive tendencies render her incapable of fully experiencing contentment. Amelia is an almost unremittingly selfish character; I didn’t warm to the description of her given in the blurb (“one of those people who destroy everything and call it art”), instead preferring later descriptions of Amelia (“the woman who had grown up too fast”; “caught in the walls like a bullet shot many decades ago, a bullet which still pressed on, imperceptibly”).

If Amelia is a mystery, there are also plenty of silences with respect to Paul’s past: we learn that his father had given him this name so that it would sound completely French, a camouflage to go unnoticed, and that Paul knows little about where he comes from other than that it is “a place that he both was and wasn’t surprised to hear regularly invoked as an example of an urban disaster.” There is also an incident later on, when Paul overhears a conversation between his daughter and his father that at first he thinks is baby talk, and then realises is his father’s first language, a language he never passed on to Paul, a language he deems safe for his granddaughter, a generation later.

The blanks in Amelia’s past are, however, more explicit: her mother was more committed to her resistance poetry than to parenthood, leaving as legacy a box of documents that is Pandora-like in its housing of “every horror, every injustice”, and which Amelia refuses to open. The blanks are also the impetus for Amelia’s flight to Sarajevo, as she goes in search of a history that belongs to her and from which she is distanced; yet we do not learn much about this time or her discoveries. Much in Night as it Falls is about what’s not said, and this left me feeling shamefully ignorant: overall, the novel is not as instructive about Bosnia’s recent history as I was expecting, but perhaps that’s my failing for unconsciously expecting that. Just because a woman goes chasing her ghosts in Sarajevo, it doesn’t mean that the book should be about the war those ghosts inhabit. I did, however, really appreciate occasional insights such as this one: “A city shelled for nearly four years, snipers on the roofs, blood in the streets, and, ten years later, cemeteries everywhere, in the stadiums, in the parks; cemeteries and oddly healed wounds; children who would become adults unable to sleep with windows open, or with windows shut.”

Much is left unsaid between the characters too: silence generates some fundamental misunderstandings that are painfully believable. This is also true of the characterisation more generally, which is extremely consistent: all of the characters behave believably, however disappointing that might be to the others. Landscapes throb with a pain that mirrors the internal struggles of the characters, and if Paul and Amelia are closely tied to the cities they inhabit, then it is appropriate that another fascinating character, Albers, makes her living (and her notoriety) studying the notion of the city. Indeed, the supporting characters are easily as fascinating as the protagonists: the other character I really warmed to was Louise, the daughter of Paul and Amelia, whose transition into adulthood is intimately connected with Albers’ fate.

Amelia’s end is announced in the early pages of the book (indeed, the opening line is “Paul was in bed with Sylvia when he found out what happened to Amelia Dehr”), with the means revealed in the early chapters and so it’s no spoiler to mention it here: she jumps out of a window. Despite knowing this from the outset, the development of how she came to that point is full of tension, and is mirrored by a mid-novel announcement of Albers’ fate, the details of which shift into sharper focus later on. I enjoyed this storytelling technique, but the thing I found most interesting while reading Night as it Falls was the slippage between the novel itself and my own expectations. In the end, it wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated: it was very western European in its focus and form, whereas I had assumed it would be more about Bosnia; despite living through historical atrocity, the characters are mostly introspective, whereas I had expected them to be more outward-facing. But why shouldn’t Alikavazovic write about a privileged woman having an internal crisis? It was my own expectation that this novel would be about historical tragedy, and if I experienced some disappointment in the divergence between my expectations and the reality, this is not a criticism of the book itself. The wars in the former Yugoslavia remain a blurred backdrop to the narrative, yet someone who is better informed about them than I am might find more of a connection between the circumstances and the characters. Night as it Falls is a formally exquisite book, each word carefully balanced and with many echoes throughout the narrative, and Jeffrey Zuckerman’s sensitivity to this in the translation makes it worth reading for its formal properties alone. It is also well worth reading for the psychological portrait of its characters, the relationships between them, and the ability to maintain tension when the dénouement has been announced at the start. This is a book to be read for what it can offer in terms of human portraits rather than geographical or historical insights, but no less impressive for that.

Review copy of Night as it falls provided by Faber & Faber

Choose to Challenge: International Women’s Day 2021

***Don’t miss an exciting Women in Translation giveaway to celebrate International Women’s Day!
Details at the end of the post, or directly in this tweet***

Translating Women: challenging an “invisible mechanism”

The challenge for this year’s International Women’s Day, “How will you help forge a gender equal world?” foregrounds a simple, brutal reality: we do not currently live in an equal world. Women have legal equality in many cultures, but all too often legal and theoretical equality do not map onto real equality of opportunity and experience. This is magnified for women in non-dominant world cultures, as well as for women of colour, working class women, non-cis women, and those embodying other non-normative or non-privileged characteristics – such as sexuality, age and health – that intersect with gender. This social inequality is the fundamental root of the gender imbalance in translated literature: it is widely acknowledged that less than one-third of literature published in translation in English is by women, and this mirrors a more pervasive gender imbalance that has become so normalised that most people no longer even notice it. In an excellent Guardian long read a few years ago, Charlotte Higgins exposed how patriarchy thrives on this normalisation of social hierarchies, functioning as “the invisible mechanism that connects a host of seemingly isolated and disparate events, intertwining the experience of women of vastly different backgrounds, race and culture, and ranging in force from the trivial and personal to the serious and geopolitical”.

Watch my 3-minute International Women’s Day video here!

A key component of this inequality, or of the invisible mechanism of patriarchy, is what Caroline Criado Perez describes in her award-winning Invisible Women: Exposing Gender Bias in a World Made for Men as the “default male”, a way of viewing the world that always uses men as the baseline indicator, the universal “norm”, and which is harmful to women (not only socially and psychologically, but also in some cases physically). There are also less quantifiable characteristics, such as class, and simply less quantified characteristics, such as race or sexuality, that intersect with gender and are further marginalised. Women writers – particularly non-white, non-middle-class women writers – face hurdles in their own country, and these are amplified when it comes to translation. It is more likely that publishers will promote their more successful authors to English-language publishers, and with the invisible mechanisms of patriarchy at work across the globe, the chances are that these prize-winning or best-selling writers will be men. It is, therefore, crucial, that we challenge this system instead of passively allowing it to perpetuate itself for, as the organisers of International Women’s Day remind us, “a challenged world is an alert world”. By not questioning existing structures, we both perpetuate and normalise the inherent bias they carry; if we stop at an argument about the inequality being in the country of origin, then we can only ever reproduce and enable structures that represent only half a world.

From challenge comes change

Translation by its very nature invites communication and understanding between peoples and cultures. At a time when “culture” is too often reduced to nationalism and stereotype, it is essential to advocate for greater diversity and inclusivity: when women are left out of “culture”, the notion of culture itself is impoverished. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her brilliant manifesto We Should All Be Feminists, “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” If culture preserves a people or nation and ensures the continuity of civilisation or nationhood, then any culture that does not offer true equality to women, or that does not actively seek to achieve diversity and inclusivity, can only ever perpetuate harmful notions of what humanity is. Ngozi Adichie’s insistence on “the full humanity of women” is also key here: “women” cannot only be understood as heterosexual women, cis women, white women, straight women, or any other dominant characteristic that can be conflated with “womanhood”. Rather, the “full humanity of women” must include minority groups that stretch beyond gender – while women are not a minority, they are still secondary, but we must also remember that within this secondary group are minorities that are often overlooked in feminism and gender politics. What is published in translation, and which books into translation make it onto literary prize lists, is a means for writers from other cultures to enter the Anglophone literary ecosystem, influencing English-language readers and writers and enriching our cultures. So it is vital that there is diversity of representation in what makes it through in translation, otherwise we allow the inequality to persist.

Choose to Challenge: we can all make a difference

You don’t have to wait for amazing books by women from other cultures to come to you; why not actively seek them out? As And Other Stories’ Nicky Smalley reminds us, after all the hurdles they’ve had to overcome to make it into English, the chances are you’ll be rewarded with an amazing read. You can read about my favourite books of 2020, or check out the reviews section. If you’ve enjoyed a book by a woman writer in translation, talk to people about it: pass on your recommendations whether it’s to one friend or to hundreds or thousands of social media followers. And when you ask others – friends, family, teachers, booksellers, social media contacts – for recommendations, if no women are suggested then ask explicitly for them. The more we gently challenge perceptions of “normality”, the more these perceptions are likely to shift towards greater inclusivity, and the more these books appear on bookshelves, the more normal it will be for them to have their place there. If we all make active and conscious changes in our own small corner, then we might get closer to an equal world.

Twitter women in translation giveaway!

I have teamed up with my friends at Europa Editions to offer a FREE bundle of FIVE books (hand-picked by me!) by women in translation to one lucky winner!  You can head over to my Twitter account to enter.

Review: SELF-PORTRAIT IN GREEN by Marie NDiaye

Translated from French by Jordan Stump (Influx Press, 2021)

I’ve been reading and enjoying Marie NDiaye’s work for twenty years, and for me Self-Portrait in Green is something of a landmark: the first time I’ve read her in English. The style is very recognisably NDiaye (a testament to Jordan Stump’s careful translation), and many of the themes and leitmotifs also resonate with much of NDiaye’s œuvre. The surreal encounters echo uses of the fantastic elsewhere in her work, and both the absent, thoroughly disappointing father and the disintegration or dissolution of the female subject, sometimes unconvinced of the material substance of her own existence, will be familiar to those who’ve read NDiaye before. Yet NDiaye is clear that in her fiction she does not write about herself, and so the resemblances between her “self-portrait” and her fiction indicate that however close we might think we’re getting with this “memoir”, we’re only seeing a small part of a much bigger picture. Indeed, Influx’s press release describes Self-Portrait in Green as “a subversion of the memoir”, and this blurring of genres is particularly interesting. Even the title is evocative in this respect: the French “autoportrait” (“self-portrait”) is a more obvious twist on “autobiographie”/”autobiography”, but even if this subtlety doesn’t translate linguistically, we are still prompted to consider the difference between an autobiography, or assumption of a “truthful” developed and chronological account of the author’s experience, and a self-portrait, which captures only a moment or a stage of life.

The narrator goes about her daily life – dropping her children at school, visiting relatives – though this life seems anything but ordinary. It is on the school run that we witness her first encounter with a woman in green, who is standing in a garden beneath a banana tree: in this banal-turns-supernatural encounter, the woman seems visible only to the narrator. The second woman in green is a cruel schoolteacher from the narrator’s childhood who comes to her in memory, and the third is the woman she mistakes for her friend Cristina, an encounter you can read in last week’s post. This extract was particularly interesting to me, as its overlap between the quietly mundane and the asphyxiatingly surreal is reminiscent of other works by NDiaye, a  nightmarish quality of being in a perfectly normal situation and yet everything seeming wrong, off-kilter (at one point the narrator even wonders to herself “is this all really real?”) The sense of being out of focus, or the focus being in an unexpected place, or one person seeing what another does not, is also a clever play with the genre of a written “self-portrait”, the contours shifting according to who is viewing. Neat answers are not given, with the narrator herself often uncertain about what she has seen and how to interpret it: this is a book that pulls its reader into a universe that, if not exactly parallel, is both familiar and destabilising – one that, like a portrait, needs to be viewed from both up close and at a distance in order to come into focus.

Other women in green include the narrator’s rapidly ballooning stepmother, who was once her close friend, a suicidal wife, or the projection of a child twenty years from now – and sometimes (or rather, just once) they may not even be dressed in green… Relationships in Self-Portrait in Green vary from the apathetic and the pitiful to the vampiric and hypnotic, and if the women serve as some kind of mirror for the narrator, then perhaps they are at once the conflicting desires inside her own heart and a projection of the lives she could have lived. They are certainly ubiquitous, and despite their unsettling effect on the narrator, they are necessary to her: “they decorate my thoughts, my invisible life, I need to remember they’re there, at once real beings and literary figures, without which, it seems to me, the harshness of existence scours skin and flesh down to the bone.”

The translation is attentive to NDiaye’s style, even if it lacks a little of her trademark concision, the economical lyricism that characterises so much of her work. The vocabulary is rich, though occasionally a little more formal in the English than in the French equivalent, owing to different fields of vocabulary usage between the two languages. Nonetheless, this is a careful translation that is respectful of the author and shows a deep acquaintance with her œuvre, and it deals particularly well with the surreal aspects of the text (as you can see from last week’s feature). In particular, the black thing that moves too quickly to grasp features both in this early section and in a chilling final scene: it comes from (or may be) the Garonne river, a pulsing presence that runs ominously through the fragments of narrative. Early on the river is described as “brown tonight, heavy, almost bulging”, and the town waits nervously but passively for the banks to break and the flood to come: if there is something inexorable about the swelling and pull of the river, so too the novella wields a destabilising and hypnotic power, hinting at dark things beneath the surface.

Review copy of Self-Portrait in Green provided by Influx Press