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

Editorial and extract: SELF-PORTRAIT IN GREEN by Marie NDiaye


I’m very excited to bring you a piece by Sanya Semakula, Assistant Editor at Influx Press, about bringing Marie NDiaye’s work to the UK with the publication of Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump), released TODAY by Influx Press. Sanya writes passionately and insightfully about her discovery of NDiaye and the importance of this publication, and her piece is followed by an exclusive extract from Self-Portrait in Green.

Sanya Semakula is Assistant Editor at Influx Press. She is a short story writer and editor based in East London, her work can be found online at LossLit or in print anthology Flamingo Land and Other Stories.

My first introduction to Marie NDiaye was All My friends (translated by Jordan Stump). Surprised I’d never read Marie, I read up about her (she published her first novel at 17, is a winner of the Prix Goncourt, was longlisted for the Booker prize and her play Papa Doit Manger is the sole play by a living female writer to be part of the repertoire of the Comédie française).

At the time, we were publishing Percival Everett’s I am not Sidney Poitier as a way of introducing him to a UK audience and I felt Marie was similar in that she had an impressive oeuvre but was relatively lesser known in the UK. I then came to Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump), read it in one sitting and was sold.

In this subversion of the memoir, Marie plays with notions of identity, memory, and paranoia. Set in La Roele, Paris, Marseille, and Ouagadougou, the narrator obsesses over the Garonne and the mysterious women in green she encounters who occupy the binaries between seductive/repulsive  real/imagined, dead/alive. Lynchian in its odd, atmospheric, fragmented imagery and scenes, the novella is told through short dairy entries. There isn’t a traditional story arch, as it moves back and forth through genres.

Self-Portrait in Green sits between The Malady of Death (Marguerite Duras), Julia and the Bazooka (Anna Kavan) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neele Hurston) in its lyrical prose, symbolical use of the river and evocation of place and fragmented structure but it is also interlaced with entries which could read as traditional memoir. The Garonne acts as a bridge between the different scenes and snippets of the women, and the novella’s ambiguities (of plot and genre) make it all the more an exciting read and is why I thought it would make a great addition to the Influx Press list.

The narrative voice is underlined with humour which compliments the tonal shifts as the novella moves from the macabre, through absurd horror, to eerie spectres, to family dramas in provincial France and Burkina Faso and always at the centre of the narrative is the fear of flooding and the appearance and reappearance of the mysterious women in green who can be read to mean a number of things.

The novella provokes more questions than it answers, encouraging the reader to focus on something else in re-reading and its fragmentation works as a strength as you never stay long enough with the women to get to the root of their appearance.

***

Extract from Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green, translated from French by Jordan Stump (Influx Press, 2021)

All the young women were in shorts, that dazzling morning. Leaving the town hall, I walked with long strides in my army-style khaki shorts, perfectly pleased to be who was in that place – the main street of a humdrum little town – and at that time, and this contentment was crowned by a vague surprise at the very existence of such a plenitude, the conceivability of such a pleasure. That’s when I run into Cristina, but as soon as I see her I’m not sure it’s her rather than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison. Not that her name escapes me: it’s just that, among those three women, I no longer know which this one is. Deep in my pocket, my fingers squeeze and shred the little lilac leaves. This person who might be Cristina is a young woman, so she’s wearing shorts, elastic and clinging, with a print of green flowers against a green background. My elation dwindles a little. It occurs to me that wariness might be called for. And yet I like the idea that soon I’ll be driving once more past the house of the woman in green, and she’ll be standing there, knowing I’m going to stop. But Cristina’s shorts are something else altogether, because I hadn’t expected them, and because green isn’t the usual colour for women’s shorts, in the first days of spring, is it? Cristina keeps her hands behind her, pressed flat against her powerful hindquarters to display her shorts’ exuberant colour as flagrantly as she can. She stands with her legs commandingly spread, blocking the entire width of the pavement. As luck would have it, she keeps her sunglasses on, and I’ve forgotten what her eyes look like, or Marie-Gabrielle’s, or Alison’s. Her blond hair is pulled into a ponytail so severe that the skin on her temples seems stretched to the splitting point. If this woman really is Cristina, I remember that she’s my friend. Cristina has a stronger claim to that title than Marie-Gabrielle or Alison, who are, as best I can recall, nothing more than cheerful companions, in whom one would never think of confiding, because any admission of weakness, of any tiny private anxiety, would be met with frosty disapproval and nothing more. Have I ever revealed anything at all to Cristina? Certainly not, it’s not in my nature. But her entire person is awash with sympathy, with understanding just waiting to be called on. I then thought, in a surge of abandon, that the woman in green beside her banana tree might have been waiting for just that: for me to unburden my heart to her.

‘Oh, this has never happened to me before,’ says Cristina in her hoarse, muffled voice. ‘There are two things, and they’re both different from each other… The first… you already know… I, you know, I left the kids… for two days, I think… two or three days… with my parents, yes, for a holiday… just a little holiday…at grandma and grandpa’s… and… you know my kids, you know them… are they… how can I put this… are they intolerable… coarse… completely disobedient?’

‘Not at all,’ I say, taken aback.

As I remember, my friend Cristina has no children. In which case, who is this woman?

‘No one could say that… call my kids that,’ she goes on. ‘Oh, they like to run around… they… they’re full of energy… like all children… children today… vigorous, healthy… . Anyway, they’re out at grandma and grandpa’s… at my parents, I mean, and yesterday, Sunday, I go… you understand… I go… get them… pick them up, and I drive up to the house… grandma and grandpa’s house… my parents’ house… and it was… oh, absolutely silent… just… just the insects cheeping… maybe… absolutely silent… and I tell myself… they’re… they’re all taking a nap… I don’t want to bother them… so… I don’t jiggle the bell… the big metal bell on the gate… so I… I climb over the hedge… a hole… a sort of hole, a low spot… in the hedge… and I climb over it, without making a sound… and I come to… the terrace… and there… I hear… my God, I hear… someone crying… a man crying and I… I look… I look through the glass door and I see… I see my father, grandpa… papa, quietly crying… in front of grandma, my mother… she’s standing there, helpless… her arms hanging limp… head down… pitiful, miserable… oh, that’s the first time… my father crying… first time I’ve seen him… anyway… and he’s talking… no, he’s almost shouting… and my God, he says… he says… and he’s talking about my kids, I can tell… his grandchildren… who really aren’t all that… right?… About my kids on holiday with them… he says… to my mother… “I can’t take them anymore, I can’t take them anymore”… and he also… also says… “I’m leaving, I can’t stay here, I can’t stay in this house with them here”… and he’s talking, you understand, about my… about my kids… and I… I left… discreetly… I climbed over the hedge the other way and then… I… I came back… later… and everything was… everything seemed… normal… just two kids on holiday at grandma and grandpa’s… and I knew.. I knew… that wasn’t how it was… wasn’t how it really was at all!’

Two tears rolled out from under Cristina’s (?) tinted lenses. I wasn’t sure what to say. What bond was there between us? And was she not guilty of having such children? Who was she? I really couldn’t think what to say. I was looking down at Cristina’s thick brown sandals. I took the little bits of lilac leaves from my pocket and carefully crumbled them over her feet.

‘The other thing,’ says Cristina, ‘maybe you’ve already heard…’

No, I answer playfully, I never hear anything. And since, for anyone who knows me, that’s an obvious, barefaced lie, I tell myself that if this woman really is my friend Cristina she’ll protest, give me a little swat on the shoulder – but no, she goes on, grim-faced, standing perfectly still.

‘A bunch of us saw it, in our yards, on the riverbank, in… Apparently there were even people who saw it in the schoolyard. The mayor… the mayor knows all about it. He saw it too. Something black, and quick. Oh, there were plenty of people who saw it.’

Cristina’s words are coming faster now. Her voice is sharper than usual. With a little hop she pulls her legs together and keeps them that way, squeezed tight. I ask:

‘What is it? What did it turn out to be?’

‘You haven’t seen anything?’ Cristina asks.

‘But what is it?’

‘You haven’t seen anything?’

All at once she pulls off her sunglasses. And then it’s clear, I don’t know that face. On the opposite pavement a young woman waves in my direction. It’s Cristina, wearing little pink shorts.

‘You haven’t seen anything?’ the first woman says again, and her tone is at once urgent, suspicious, and frightened.

I resolve not to keep this conversation up one moment longer. She vigorously wriggles her right foot, without looking at it or lowering her eyes, to shake off the shredded lilac leaves. Then she shoots me a glance full of unspoken anguish, whirls around, and hurries off, raising little clouds of dust under her sandals.

I’m so rattled I hardly notice Cristina crossing the street in her tiny pink shorts, with her graceful, jaunty gait. She kissed me twice on each cheek and I inhaled her flowery scent. Cristina smelled like a spring flower, a simple white flower. What she then said I‘m not sure I can believe myself. Still, I know I didn’t imagine it. She really did say it, however unlikely it seems. In a whisper, she said to me:

‘A bunch of us saw it, in our yards, on the riverbank, in… Apparently there were even people who saw it in the schoolyard. The mayor… the mayor knows all about it. He saw it too. Something black, and quick. Oh, there were plenty of people who saw it. What could I have answered, if not:

‘But what is it?’

Cristina shrugs, vaguely spreading her arms. Her chin tenses, quivers. Cristina is usually such an impetuous woman that at first I don’t grasp the depth of her distress.

‘No one knows,’ she murmurs.

Cristina is very pretty. Little girls turn and stare when she walks by. I’m proud to have such a charming, vivacious woman as my friend, a woman who can wear a pair of tiny pink shorts with credibility and good humor. I’m grateful to her, because now I recognise her so perfectly. I put one arm around her shoulder to reassure her, I’m not sure about what. Her shoulders sag. She’s completely disarmed. Seeing that, I don’t press her to tell me anything more.

‘The town’s sent some workers to go search the school grounds,’ Cristina continues. I’m on my way there myself. I’m worried.’

Why so worried, I ask myself, since she doesn’t have any children? And consequently, I ask myself: did I recognise her as perfectly as I thought?

Once the schoolyard and the little adjoining woods have been fruitlessly searched, I get back in my car and head for our house, a few kilometres from town. It’s already near noon. Three hours have gone by since I set off for the school, and I never noticed. Could it be that the woman in green shorts, that stranger I took for Cristina, who must herself have confused me with someone she knew, could that woman really have kept me there talking for two full hours? It doesn’t seem likely. Also, I think about that scene she described for me, the weeping father revealing his hatred for his grandchildren, and it seems naggingly close to something I’ve heard or read before. Either someone once told me about it or it comes from a novel that woman and I both happen to have read. And then she acted it out, while I listened – and I wonder: was I acting too? And did she realise I wasn’t? But was she acting herself? There, then, are all the things I don’t know. Now I’m in a hurry to get home so I can look through my books and find the one where she might have found that story. For that matter, I could well be mistaken, and that scene is reminding me of another, almost identical, and in that case fictional, while the first is simply drawn from the false Cristina’s existence. I know I can’t go straight home, and that makes me a little impatient, or maybe apprehensive. It’s noon, and the sun is beating down starkly on the water-willow fields. This hot day has left us all a little downhearted, I think, anticipating the summer that’s still to come, exhausted in advance.

I park in front of the house with the banana tree. The woman in green is gone now. A shiver of relief, almost triumph, quickly mutes my surprise and disappointment. I tell myself: my children had it exactly right, there never was a…

I get out of the car all the same. I push open the gate and start down the walk. I look up towards the second-floor balcony. The sunlight is dazzling. I shade my eyes with one hand, and that’s when I see her, up on the balcony. Then she straddles the railing and throws herself off. I’m very aware of my little smile. Because I’m saying to myself: is all this really real?

A little later I’m sitting in the kitchen of that house I so often passed by, never dreaming I might one day go inside.

 

 

 

 

Review: HAVANA YEAR ZERO by Karla Suárez

Translated from Spanish (Cuba) by Christina MacSweeney (Charco Press, 2021)

I’m always excited to receive a new book from Charco Press, and they kick off 2021 with a Cuban detective story brimming with lost fame, plot twists, basic mathematics and romantic entanglements.

Havana, 1993: Cuba’s Year Zero. It is “the year of interminable power cuts, when bicycles filled the streets and the shops were empty”, and our narrator (who gives herself the pseudonym Julia) describes her life and the narrative intrigue as follows: “I was thirty and had thousands of problems. That’s why I got involved, although in the beginning I didn’t even suspect that for the others things had started much earlier, in April 1989, when the newspaper Granma published an article about an Italian man called Antonio Meucci under the headline ‘The Telephone Was Invented in Cuba’.” Julia is enlisted by her former professor (and former lover) Euclid to help track down an original document that will prove Meucci, and not Alexander Graham Bell, to have been the inventor of the telephone. The catch: everyone who knows about the document has a vested interest in concealing its whereabouts, and each person suspects another of foul play. Thus begins a science- and rum-fuelled bounty hunt, in which friends will turn out to be foes and rivals might just be allies. Julia’s allegiance shifts variously between Euclid, her lover Ángel (whose true connection to Euclid will be revealed later in the narrative), and a garage-dwelling author named Leonardo – but each of these decidedly unreliable men also has a weakness for both Barbara, the overly friendly Italian researcher and Margarita, the spectre who haunts Julia’s happiness “like a hand moving things around beneath the Ouija board”.

Confused? Don’t be. Suárez will guide you through this labyrinth with mathematical precision and a whole lot of heart. The novel is instructive and meticulously researched, yet the sections in which we learn about Meucci’s life, his ambitions and his ignominy, never feel shoe-horned in; rather, his story is woven into Julia’s, as she gets closer to the man each time the elusive document is pulled from her reach. There is also a lot to learn here about Cuba’s “special period” and the daily deprivations that became commonplace, as well as the black hole of global aid (“the friends from overseas, the Soviet Union and almost the whole socialist bloc, had disappeared off the map, leaving us practically alone, floating in mid-ocean, and with the United States just ninety miles away”). But most of all this is the story of a woman fighting to survive, and of the people who elevate and devastate her along the way.

The style is interesting and engaging: Julia combines her scientific obsession with her social observation (“There’s a mathematical rule: your students’ stupidity is directly proportional to your mood; the worse you feel, the denser they become”; “like fractals, we reproduce the worst of ourselves and aren’t even aware of it”) and frequently uses second-person address, including regular direct questions that create intimacy (“without warning, everything had changed. Absolutely everything. Get it?”; “We were living in chaos. Right?”). There were a couple of details that interrupted the narrative flow a little, whether a syntactical slip (“Why was I at there?”) or a section of switching between formal and informal second-person address that I found confusing on first read, but overall MacSweeney’s translation is a patient and humorous rendering of Suárez’s precise yet emotional style. Character descriptions are amusingly succinct (“Leonardo was one of those people who need no encouragement to talk; in fact his words seemed to be permanently stationed just outside the door, waiting for a moment of carelessness to barge in”), and Julia’s comments on her own lifestyle are as wry as her observations of Cuba, men, her students, and human nature more generally (“I make it a rule never to go to bed with two men on the same day. Unless it’s at the same time, but that’s another matter. The thing is that I hadn’t planned for the night to end that way. It’s infuriating.”)

As usual I’ll avoid spoilers, but I must just say this: the ending of Havana Year Zero is GENIUS. It makes the frustration of all the twists and turns entirely worthwhile, and gave me a feeling of immense satisfaction as I turned the final page. This is an interesting and innovative debut novel, combining scientific research and detective fiction with a generous dose of humour and warmth.

Review copy of Havana Year Zero provided by Charco Press

REVIEW: Cécile Coulon, A Beast in Paradise

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Europa Editions, 2021)

A Beast in Paradise is the English-language debut of Cécile Coulon, and deals with the tragedy and determination of a farming family in rural France. The opening is a scene of bucolic tranquillity: “On either side of the narrow road snaking through rich green field, the green of storms and of gras, flowers – enormous, pale-hued, fragile-stemmed flowers – bloom all year round. They run alongside this ribbon of asphalt until it joins up with a path marked by a wooden stake, capped by a sign reading:

YOU HAVE REACHED PARADISE”

We are invited into Paradise, a sprawling farm whose topography is mapped out for us in the first two pages, until we encounter an elderly lady with a long memory standing in the empty pigpen. The idyll is broken in the final line of this first chapter, in a style that will come to be recognisable as one of the contrasts that characterise Coulon’s storytelling: “one beast comes here each morning, to mourn.
Blanche.”

Then a flashback begins, first to a key episode in Blanche’s adolescence and then to her childhood. Presiding over Paradise is Blanche’s grandmother Émilienne, whose dedication to the farm and its occupants – both human and animal – holds the family together and gives them a purpose: in Paradise, “everything began and ended with her.” When her daughter and son-in-law are killed in a car accident on the perilous hairpin bend leading to the farm, Émilienne is left to raise their infant children Blanche and Gabriel. Her own devastation is rarely mentioned: Émilienne is a woman who raises herself up and marches on.

In addition to her grandchildren, Émilienne takes in a young man named Louis who starts to work on the farm after the death of Blanche’s parents. Louis is systematically beaten by his father and one evening flees to Paradise in search of a refuge that he assumed would be only temporary, but which Émilienne calmly makes permanent. Louis becomes her trusted farmhand, as devoted to Paradise as Émilienne is. Paradise is a haven, but also a succubus, a place that lives inside its inhabitants as much as they dwell within it: Émilienne is part of the herd; Louis’ greatest connection to Blanche is their shared attachment to Paradise, “consuming, voracious, untameable”; even Gabriel, the only one who eventually summons up the strength to leave, is cursed with a black tree that had “taken root inside him in early childhood, a tree watered with fury by his parents’ deaths.”

Headstrong Blanche and sickly Gabriel are marked out as different because of their family tragedy, and have few friends at school. Though Gabriel has an interesting story arc in his own right, the focus is on Blanche: this is a girl who circumstances have “turned into a warrior at five years old.” As the children stumble into adolescence, Blanche’s proximity awakens feelings in Louis that she recognises but can never reciprocate – she only has eyes for Alexandre, the golden boy of the class. This is the love story that will raise Blanche up and then knock her down, and which forms the majority of the novel’s intrigue. Alexandre is wholly undeserving of Blanche, an unremarkable man with “big ideas, big dreams and little words” who has erected around himself a hubris of brilliance that fools everyone but Louis. Yet Louis, whose feelings for Blanche are widely known, is assumed to be simply jealous of Alexandre, and all his warnings go unheeded.

The great strength of the narrative is the way in which it builds up the tension towards the dénouement: in reality, years pass with very little happening, yet there is something compulsive about the awareness that something dramatic is looming. The balance between bucolic idyll and emotional and physical ferocity is also a key feature, and one that is particularly well rendered in Kover’s translation. Deep emotions burst out of careful restraint, and in these moments the expression is exquisite (“Her body remained upright through pure reflex, but inside, her whole soul, the soul made up of all the ages she had been, all the experiences she had had, caved in”). Indeed, the entire novel is sensitively translated, particularly the shifts in tone but also the smaller details of vocabulary: the path to Paradise is “pocked with brown puddles”, tiny insects go “skittering” up Blanche’s arms, one character “soils another with shame.”

The feature I most enjoyed about A Beast in Paradise, however, was the question over who the beast is – and what we understand by “beast”. The word appears in various contexts, and the perspectives on monstrosity are extremely clever: I got entirely the wrong idea about who was going to do what to whom, and so as the events developed I found myself spellbound by a story I hadn’t anticipated at all. Most of all, each time I put this book down I really looked forward to getting back to it. A Beast in Paradise is one of those books that reminds you that you don’t have to “relate” to characters – they can be completely different from you, and still draw you in. In particular, the build-up to the final revelation is outstanding, and after I’d finished reading I was left thinking about it for days. This is a story of ordinary lives and extraordinary pain, and a superb English-language debut.

Review: THE ART OF LOSING, Alice Zeniter

Translated from French by Frank Wynne (Picador Books, 2021)

Alice Zeniter’s multi-generational narrative The Art of Losing deals with the troubled legacy of the Algerian War of Independence, focusing on one family’s difficulties in coming to terms with the unnamed experience and unresolved traumas that are handed down through generations. Multiple historians have noted that this is an impossible-to-summarise period, and so there is a certain amount of necessary generalisation in the interests of maintaining momentum in plot and narration; this is, however, deftly executed, such as in this section from the opening pages: “The plural history of Algeria does not have the heft of the Official History, the one that unites. And so, French writers pen books that absorb Algeria and its histories, transforming them into a few brief pages in their histories … a history in which progress is made flesh, takes shape and shines forth.”

The Art of Losing sweeps through colonised rural Algeria, French immigrant camps, and contemporary Paris, its protagonists dislocated from every “home” they try to inhabit. The narrative opens in the present day: Naïma works in a Parisian art gallery, and carries an unspoken family legacy that gnaws away at her, and which she longs to understand. To do this, she has to go back to her origins, and this is where the flashback that makes up most of the novel begins. Naïma’s grandfather, Ali, owns an olive grove in Algeria. He fought for France in the Second World War, frequents a veteran’s club, and has a successful life until the arrival of FLN (National Liberation Front) in the village turns their lives upside down. Uncertain about the promises of the FLN, Ali prefers to observe from the sidelines, but his inaction rapidly marks him out as an enemy, until he is left with no choice but to protect himself by becoming one.

Under threat in Algeria for real or perceived collaborations with the colonisers, Ali must escape with his family on a boat to France, where he is promised he will be looked after. Once there, “France” amounts to a resettlement camp, cold and inhuman, offering no possibility of integration into the country that is supposed to be their home, because “for these people to forget an entire country, they would have had to be offered a new one. But the doors of France were not thrown open to them, only the gates of a camp.” Declared an enemy of the homeland they will never see again, Ali and his family are emotionally anchored to Algeria and administratively adrift in France: even when they leave the resettlement camp and have a home of their own, their world is restricted to the apartment, the factory where Ali works, and the supermarket. France is for them a France of the periphery, a France of utility, a “trap in which he [Ali] has lost himself”.

In the next generation, the focus is on Ali’s son Hamid, forced to grow up too soon, and to help his parents navigate life in France. Language creates a gulf between the generations, Hamid rejecting his native Arabic as he associates it with the family’s inability to integrate. As Hamid grows further away from his parents, so the gulf between his past and present increases, until his memories become “twisted shards … refashioned by years of silence.” Aware that neither the Algeria of his childhood nor the France of settlement camps and “relocations” represent any kind of promised land, Hamid carves out his own path and rejects his heritage, not passing on his language to his children. This leaves his daughter Naïma unable to communicate with her grandmother; reluctantly, she decides to rebuild the stories of her family’s past, fearing that the absence might turn out to be more comfortable than what she might uncover. Naïma embarks on a return to her origins that she hopes will reassemble the shards of memory and legacy passed down to her, and fill the silences that she has inherited: “between these slivers – like caulk, like plaster oozing between the cracks … there is Naïma’s research, begun sixty years after they have left Algeria.”

As you can probably tell from the extracts I’ve included here, Frank Wynne’s translation is excellent: there is a lot of drama in this novel, and it could easily have turned to melodrama with overly literal translation. Wynne’s attention to understatement is admirable (“Ali dreams of all the things his son might be. Suddenly, a white-hot blast filled with shards of glass sends him sprawling”); the dialogues flow smoothly and believably, and the descriptions are lavish but never over-the-top. There are comic backhanders (“This union brings him two daughters – a terrible disappointment, the family mutters by the bedside of the mother, who promptly dies of shame”) and many examples of impeccable lexical choices (“It is like the shriek of nails on a blackboard”, “They use words that wound and seethe”, “war cleaves [the family] like a ploughshare splitting a mound of earth, scattering it in little divots of farewell”).

There’s only one thing I didn’t much like in The Art of Losing: the title. It comes, of course, from the poem by Elizabeth Bishop; it certainly is appropriate to the subject matter, but the moment when the poem itself makes its appearance felt a little contrived. Overall, though, The Art of Losing represents an important contribution to the legacy of the Algerian war, a meditation on a cultural divide that persists today, and an embodiment of the claim within its own pages that fiction and research are equally necessary to shed light on this, because “they are all that remains to fill the silences handed on with the vignettes from one generation to the next.”

Review copy of The Art of Losing provided by Picador Books

Review: COCKFIGHT, María Fernanda Ampuero

Translated from Spanish (Ecuador) by Frances Riddle (Influx Press, 2021)

Cockfight is the debut work by Ecuadorian writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero, and comprises thirteen brutal and brilliant short stories in a superb translation by Frances Riddle. The opening story, “Auction”, sets the tone for the collection: the auctions in question are not genteel sales of antiques, but a terrifying form of human trafficking. People are dragged out of taxis and kidnapped, then taken to a barn where they are stripped down to their physical or financial assets and sold to the highest bidder.

The story opens with the narrator “kneeling, with my head down and covered by a filthy rag”, smelling the familiar stench of cockerels. We learn that she had grown up disposing of cockerel carcasses after cockfights organised by her father, and had developed an idiosyncratic but successful technique to survive harassment and rape attempts by the lowlife gamblers attending the fights: she would smear herself with the blood, guts and excrement of the dead birds, and stick a severed head or two between her legs when she went to sleep, to deter the men she had previously found peeking up her skirt when she woke.

Snap back to the auction, and a terrified middle-class man is sold off, followed by a desperate young woman who is handled like a piece of meat because, as the narrator observes, who’s to stop the auctioneer from groping her? There are no rules or laws in this horrific scenario, and so the resourceful narrator has to draw on her former experiences to ensure her survival. It’s a powerful opening story, and had me hooked.

The remaining twelve stories have a lot to live up to after such an explosive opener, and for the most part they do exactly that. From the nanny who tries to warn her charges that “we should be more afraid of the living than the dead” to the beautiful friend hiding a terrible secret, the beaten child turned voodoo warrior (“another lost girl in a world of lost girls”) to the young woman tied up in a shed by her brother so that the men of the village could do what they wanted to her, the women in Ampuero’s stories are prisoners in their homes, victims of “what a person is capable of doing when there’s nothing to stop them.” Yet they are fighters: they use the scant resources they have – abjection, witchcraft, tenacity – to survive the horrors inflicted on them.

Though each story is strikingly (and memorably) individual, there are connecting themes (and even, on one occasion, connecting characters) linking them. Casual, everyday sexism is taken for granted: households should have a (male) “head” if they are to command respect, religion is manipulated by godless violators as a pretext to control and “tame” women, beatings are readily accepted as necessary, and women are confined to the domestic space. People are monstruous, and grotesque imagery abounds (“He opened and closed his mouth, as if calling out their names, but no sound fell from that toothless gap, only maggots”), and the stench of blood and other bodily fluids pervades the stories. Religious faith melds with pagan magic in a way that places women at the centre of the story: in “Passion” a woman who is feared for her magical powers returns to the village where she was once a “creature of beatings, daughter of brutality, princess of the nights that end with wounded women”, in order to meet a special man; her love and powers are gradually revealed to be the secret to Christ’s miracles. In the horrifying “Mourning”, the two sisters Marta and María (Martha and Mary) are given a shocking contemporary re-imagining, María martyred “so she would understand from her scars that cruelty would always triumph over helplessness.” And yet there is a greater force at work here too: Marta fights her sister’s oppressor with “her dedication, her deference, her devotion, her broths, her tenderness, her herbal infusions”, wresting back power with quiet determination and a little black magic.

Frances Riddle’s translation is, as ever, admirable. I greatly enjoyed her exuberant rendering of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin (Charco Press 2017) and her nuanced presentation of Andrea Jeftanovic’s Theatre of War (Charco Press 2020), and she brings the same flexibility to Cockfight. Never shying away from the ferocity of Ampuero’s subject or style, Riddle offers an unflinching insight into the worlds Ampuero inhabits and constructs, with lexical choices that evoke the noise that serves as soundtrack to a story (“The men jeer, roar, applaud. Then the slap of flesh against flesh. And the howls. The howls”), that reveal abominations with a lightness of hand (“With her, I laugh as if there were nothing wrong at home, as if my dad loved me like a dad. I laugh as if I weren’t me, but some girl who slept peacefully. I laugh as if cruelty didn’t exist”), or that sum up in a single sentence all the horrors that haunt a character (“With a switch made of laurel – that switch made of laurel – they ripped up your back, your buttocks, your tiny chest, until shreds of flesh hung loose, like a half-peeled orange”).

With subject matter and descriptions that range from mildly uncomfortable to outright terrifying, these stories are disturbing and unsettling, and that is precisely the source of their power: no airbrushed, sanitised view of womanhood is offered, no false agency given to women who live in fear not just of what lies in wait for them outside their homes, but also within its walls. The insights in Cockfight are edifying and horrifying in equal measure, all upholding the observation in one of the stories that “People are incapable of seeing themselves, and that is the root of all evil.” This is a startlingly brilliant collection in an appropriately merciless translation; I highly recommend it.

Review copy of Cockfight provided by Influx Press

Introducing Praspar Press!

How much do you know about Maltese literature? My own answer: embarrassingly little (all the more shameful given that I’m part Maltese). But that’s set to change this year, thanks to new micropublisher Praspar Press. I’m excited to bring you an interview with its founders, Jen Calleja and Kat Storace, who set up Praspar Press to support contemporary Maltese literature written in English or translated into English.

Praspar Press currently has an open call for submissions to their first publication, an anthology of contemporary Maltese writing; see the end of the post for details of how to submit!

Photo credit: Robin Silas Christian

Kat Storace (pictured right) is a London-based writer and editor. She has worked in magazine and literary publishing in Malta and London, including at Faber & Faber, and is currently creative strategist at graphic design studio Gunter Piekarski.

Jen Calleja (pictured left) is a London-based author, editor, and literary translator from German to English. Her books include I’m Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For, Goblins, and Serious Justice. She has translated works by Marion Poschmann, Wim Wenders, Kerstin Hensel, Gregor Hens, Michelle Steinbeck, among others, and she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019 and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize 2018.

How did the decision to found Praspar Press come about?

We met at an English PEN event Jen was chairing back in January 2018 and realised we both had Maltese surnames, so, of course, made plans to go for a drink. When we met, we talked about everything under the sun, including UK publishing, Maltese publishing, translation, and about how little Maltese literature has reached the UK. We then had conversations at two London Book Fairs after two events focussed on Maltese literature in the wider world, one of which Jen was once more chairing, and it spurred us on to try and found our own project to address the lack of Maltese literature making it to readers in the UK and Anglophone readers in general, and to also support emerging Maltese writers. We started making real plans in late 2019/early 2020 and we made Praspar Press completely official in autumn 2020.

When you were putting your plans in place at the start of 2020, you couldn’t have foreseen the way the year would develop. Has the pandemic affected or changed your plans in any way?

If anything, the current situation sped things up – Kat was furloughed, which gave her more time to work on the admin sides of things, and we’ve had regular Zoom meetings and a few socially distanced business walks around Clapham Common. It did mean we weren’t able to fly to Malta to take part in the Literature Festival in person, but we could do the panels we were invited to take part in over Zoom.

Within contemporary Maltese literature, what in particular do you hope to bring more attention to with your publications?

That there’s a vibrant and unique literary culture that readers might not be aware of. And that it has a distinctive linguistic aspect – there are two main languages: English and Maltese (but these also overlap and can mix a lot), and this use of language also informs Maltese identity. There’s also a postcolonial aspect to much contemporary Maltese literature, and a preoccupation with history. Malta’s geographical position in the Mediterranean, its place in the world as an island nation, also creates a dual interaction – northwards or Western, with the influence of British literature, European literature and American literature, and southwards or Eastern, with the influence of the Arab world.

Tell me a bit about some writing from Malta that you love.

The poetry of Maria Grech Ganado has always been a favourite – she’s one of the few female voices of her generation and her poems are so wise, so lyrical, whether she’s writing in English or Maltese (she does both). Kat is obsessed with a collection of poems called għax id-drogi sbieħ by Marie Gion. It’s a self-published debut collection and is the single piece of literature that really captures what it is to be a teenager in Malta. And it has some of the most beautiful writing in Maltese that she’s come across. We’re both also big fans of Loranne Vella’s work, and we’re ecstatic to be working on an English translation of her short story collection, mill-bieb ’il ġewwa.

Your first publication will be an anthology of contemporary writing from Malta; do you already have ideas about the kind of submissions you’re hoping to receive?

We’re excited that we’re not one hundred percent sure what we’ll receive from our call out, and that it’s not been done before. We’re very grateful that the National Book Council in Malta are funding this first anthology. We could have simply invited writers we were aware of to submit, but we wanted it to remain accessible and open to a range of writers not only based in Malta, but who have Maltese heritage internationally too. The rationale behind the anthology is to offer Maltese writers an international platform and for us to connect with writers at all stages of their writing career, hopefully leading to us making great discoveries of writers and translators we’d like to work with on book-length projects in the future. We assume that most people working in UK publishing don’t know any Maltese writers or translators, and we want to help them find talented people to publish. If publishers of translated literature don’t know a translator of Maltese literature, it means they don’t have someone to consult for possible titles to translate or someone to read interesting titles or do samples for them, so maybe the anthology will open up some channels in that respect too.

What can we expect next from Praspar Press?

Our second publication, which will come out around the same time as the first anthology, will be the collection of short stories by writer and translator Loranne Vella. Kat is translating the stories, and we received funding for the translation from the NBC in Malta. We’re extremely excited to be bringing out this book, and to be introducing her to a new audience as she’s been recognised as a successful writer in Malta and in wider Europe for many years. At some point in 2021 we’ll be looking to commission our next publications, and hopefully doing a second anthology in 2022.

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Submissions to the anthology by Maltese writers, writers of Maltese heritage and translators of Maltese literature close on 31 January 2021. Visit www.praspar.com for more details.

 

REVIEW: The Book of Jakarta

Edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma (Comma Press, 2020)

The Book of Jakarta is the latest addition to the Reading the City series from Comma Press, presenting ten short stories based in the Indonesian capital. The stories that make up the collection share connected ideals, but each still offers a unique perspective on Jakarta, ranging from the political to the environmental, uncertain futures to seedy realities. Themes that recur in The Book of Jakarta are the stark divide between the wealthy and those struggling to survive, bureaucracies that range from the frustrating (“Seems like that rule was just put in place today, somehow”)* to the deadly (“for the past three days I’ve been watching the news, hoping to see his name on the list … We filed a report, and the officer told us they’ll be in touch”),** Jakarta as a place of multiple everyday dystopias – whether in the present reality, an imagined future, or alternative and not-so-unrealistic realities – and the perspectives of those on the margins of society. From an ageing sex worker to street buskers, a group of senior citizens left behind by modern life to a homeless artist, the voices are diverse but all speak from a place of dissent, of exclusion from a capitalist regime.

The translations are consistently strong and appropriately modern: there are clearly some cultural references that are tricky to translate, but I appreciated the use of occasional footnotes to help explain these.  One such reference explains the title of the opening story, “B217AN” by Ratri Nindity (translated by Mikael Johani): the title is a typical numberplate of the region, but is also a pun on a phrase meaning “together one destination”. This is key to the storyline of “B217AN”, which embodies two themes of The Book of Jakarta: movement and the outskirts. The brilliant opening line, “Tomorrow I’m getting married and tonight I rest my head on your shoulder”, sums up the story’s intrigue: two days before the narrator’s wedding she texts her former lover for one final meeting. At his insistence, the tryst is a scooter ride in adverse weather conditions to a seafood stall on the other side of town. The story is narrated in a second-person address, with the narrator both commenting on what is happening in the moment on their scooter journey, and remembering how they met and how their relationship developed. What is never explained is how they separated and the narrator came to be engaged to someone else: this is hinted at in subtle comments about the lover’s determination not to become part of mainstream life, and the narrator’s susceptibility to the myth that if she embraces such a life then she will be happy. This culminates in my favourite quotation from the piece: “People like me have to study really hard to get into the best school, the best university, and then get the perfect job that promises a better life. Sadly, this middle-class manual doesn’t have a section on how to be content.” The narrator is chasing after an elusive happiness that was promised to her generation if they followed a predetermined formula for success, but which never materialises, leaving her inhabiting the margins of a life from which she feels disconnected. Her eleventh-hour meeting with her former lover represents a final attempt to connect to life (“In this strange place, I feel like I can do whatever I want”), and to find something more satisfactory than the bland formula from which she feels disenfranchised: the detail of the journey and the not-so-final destination are superb.

Another striking perspective from the margins is found in Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s “Grown-Up Kids” (translated by Annie Tucker), in which a group of senior citizens in an apartment complex make a suicide pact. Four women (Mrs M, Mrs N, Mrs O and Mrs P) plan an outing to an amusement park to scare themselves to death on the biggest ride, while Mrs M’s husband prefers to step out of life at the National Library, where he and his wife had their first date. Mr and Mrs M’s diverging plans for their last rites epitomise the combination of pathos and humour that characterises the story: “Mrs M received a text and when she opened it she found a message from her husband: he had arrived at the National Library. Mrs M didn’t like the place; it was too big and too quiet. But Mr M relished its stillness, and as part of his poetic departure, he insisted he wanted to return to the location of their first date. Mrs M had blushed and blown her nose when she heard his plan.”

The story opens with abject reality, Mrs M helping her husband with his adult nappy and delicately dealing with his digestive problems. They say goodbye as if they were both going on separate errands, and as Mr M heads to the library, Mrs M joins her acquaintances (the anxious Mrs N, the health-food-obsessed Mrs O, and the overly coarse Mrs P, brilliantly sketched out in a series of pithy observations that Tucker renders in English with great tongue-in-cheek humour) on their final journey to the amusement park. “Grown-Up Kids” is set in a near but all-too-possible future (in which the capital of Indonesia has relocated, a plan for the near future explained by editors Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma in their introduction to the volume), leaving Jakarta a shell of historic buildings and tourist attractions. We are given a flashback to Mr and Mrs M in their youth, when they met as rebellious students taking part in an uprising (which I understood, though perhaps erroneously, to be the May 1998 events referenced in the introduction). Mrs M then searched for Mr M on the internet, and given that they are now of an age that robs them of control over their own bowels, that could set the date of the story at around 40-50 years from now. *UPDATE: the demonstration referenced is actually a 2019 event, which would locate the date of the story around 60-70 in the future*

“Grown-Up Kids” showcases the anthology’s blend of tragedy and humour, ideals and banality, and its ending shows the cynicism needed for real survival in a not-too-distant evolution of modern society, as well as echoing the terrifying-turns-cynical ending of utuit’s “Buyan” (translated by Zoë McLaughlin). As in the excellent “A Secret from Kramat Tunggak” (by Dewi Kharisma Michellia, translated by Shaffira Gayatri), older generations who have helped modern Jakarta prosper are cut off from a world – or a city – that no longer has any use for them. This generational conflict, disenfranchisement and exposition of the concept of social “usefulness” is echoed throughout the anthology. There are also implicit and explicit criticisms of the Suharto regime, of what followed it and where this could lead: this is a collection that gently educates and enlarges perspectives without ever being overly didactic, and which brings together a common purpose without reducing the sprawling archipelago to homogeny or stereotype.

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Join us for the virtual launch of The Book of Jakarta! On Tuesday 2nd February at 1pm (BST) I will be talking to authors Ratri Ninditya and Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrieke and translator Rara Rizal about their work on this exciting collection. Further details and tickets available here.

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Review copy of The Book of Jakarta provided by Comma Press

* From “The Aroma of Shrimp Paste”, Hanna Franisca, translated by Khairani Barokka

** From “The Problem”, Sabda Armandio Alif, translated by Rara Rizal

Women in translation 2020: my literary picks for the year that was…       

I had intended to post this piece in December, but the end of the year brought some unexpected challenges and I had to delay it until the new year. So although you may have left 2020 behind with relief, I hope you’ll still be willing to travel back there with me in books: 2020 will be remembered for many things (okay, mostly for one thing), but here’s a reminder of some of the great books that were released in a year none of us saw coming.

It feels strange now to look back on the post I wrote a year ago about the books I was excited to read in 2020. Throughout the year, I didn’t read as much as usual. The reasons are probably obvious: the concept of “free time” shifted radically with the lockdowns and restrictions. I read a total of 56 books, and there were quite a few I didn’t really connect with – I don’t know whether this is partly to do with the circumstances, or whether 2020 just wasn’t the year for me in terms of new releases – but it does mean that the ones I really, truly loved were very easy to pick. I’ve gone for a “top nine”, which I know is a little irregular, but these were the ones I didn’t hesitate about when I came to pick my favourite books from this strangest of years…

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Hurricane Season was the second book I read in 2020, and it set the bar. I felt a little sorry for everything I read in the weeks after this, as there was just no way anything could come close for me. Hurricane Season opens with a rotting corpse found floating in an irrigation canal: the Witch is dead. A torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons them there, Hurricane Season is a linguistic and emotional whirlwind. Bewitching and almost unbearably addictive, the translation by Sophie Hughes is astonishing: if I had to pick just one book for the year, this would be it. Full review

 

Mieko Kawakami, Breasts and Eggs, translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books)

Natsuko longs for a child of her own, while her sister Makiko thinks life will be better if she has breast enhancement surgery and her niece Midoriko has taken a vow of silence. All three women are trapped in social conventions, and Breasts and Eggs is a delicate exposition of what it is to be in a woman’s body when that body is eternally viewed as either a commodity, a conduit for male pleasure, or a reproductive vessel. Bursting with the quiet tragedy of unfulfilled hopes, daily life for those without means, and longing for a person never met, this is a novel that both reflects on the life of ordinary people and thrums with their expectations and disappointments. Full review

Margarita García Robayo, Holiday Heart, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press)

I’ll be honest: Charco had me at “new Margarita García Robayo novel in 2020”. In Holiday Heart, García Robayo’s talent for blending tragedy with humour and offering a fresco in a snapshot were in full force. The characters always disappoint: Lucía and Pablo are middle-aged, middle-class and mediocre, stagnating in their location, their social status, and their marriage. They left Colombia to move to the US in pursuit of the American Dream, but they are outsiders there and now belong nowhere: they have rejected their working class origins, but never ascended the social ladder in the way they hoped. This is an uncomfortable story, and García Robayo excels at depicting a seemingly simple situation which belies deeper emotions and greater complexities that we are invited to scrutinise, however uncomfortable it makes us. Full review

 

Lucy Fricke, Daughters, translated from German by Sinéad Crowe (V&Q Books)

Hilarious and emotional madcap road trip through Western Europe. Sold? You should be. Daughters was an outstanding release from new imprint V&Q Books, in which best friends Martha and Betty embark on a car journey to Switzerland to accompany Martha’s father to his appointment with euthanasia. Or so they think – a detour reveals a hidden agenda, and they never make it to Switzerland. There are losses, reunions, an accident, romantic intrigue, and the reappearance of someone long presumed dead… The storytelling of this fast-paced and eventful journey switches effortlessly between grief and humour, both of which are superbly communicated in Sinéad Crowe’s energetic translation. Full review

 

Claudia Hernández, Slash and Burn, translated from Spanish (El Salvador) by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories)

Slash and Burn follows the life of a Salvadoran woman who fought in her country’s civil war, and who struggles to keep her fragmented family together years later. Her first baby was taken from her during the war, and years later the spectre of the lost child hangs over the rural family life and its daily difficulties. Two family stories unfold simultaneously: the mother’s attempt to connect with her lost first child, and her efforts to keep together a slowly unravelling family back home. This simmering narrative is a story of resistance and resilience, quiet losses and enduring love, and is translated with great sensitivity by Julia Sanches. Full review

 

Négar Djavadi, Arène, Éditions Liana Levi (French; as yet untranslated)

Négar Djavadi’s second novel came out in French in the autumn, and it is magnificent. If you don’t read French, I highly recommend starting with her first novel Disoriental (tr. Tina Kover, Europa Editions), and then crossing your fingers that this one will be picked up for translation before long. The arena of the title is Paris: in a Belleville bar one night, a young man from a deprived housing estate knocks into the head of the biggest media streaming platform; neither of them are aware that this chance collision will draw them and everyone around them into a maelstrom of violence. Yet Arène is not just about the tragedy that unfolds, but also the chain of barely perceptible events that led there. Djavadi eschews facile stereotypes, and in a linguistically sumptuous narrative invites us to understand what lies behind our quick assumptions about power, race and relationships.

 

Europa28, edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave (Comma Press)

2020 wasn’t just the year of Covid-19, but also the year the UK left the European Union. In response, Comma Press teamed up with Hay Festival and Wom@rts to commission Europa28, a ground-breaking anthology of women’s voices from across Europe. In this visionary project, editors Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave have brought together a fascinating and diverse collection of expositions on what Europe can, could, or should mean: from the personal to the allegorical, the real to the fantastic, this collection is by turns gentle and fierce, witty and emotional, bringing together 28 very different stories with a common purpose of discussing Europe in all its diversity, complexity, beauty and fallibility. Full review

 

Salma, Women Dreaming, translated from Tamil by Meena Kandasamy (Tilted Axis Press)

This beautiful story of a community of women in a small Muslim village in Tamil Nadu is exquisite in its style, pace, and depictions of the reality of life for women who have no real autonomy. When Mehar’s husband Hasan takes a second wife, she exercises her legal right to divorce him, and finds herself ostracised by the community. Goaded by Hasan’s righteous wrath and no longer able to bear her mother’s constantly-voiced fears for her future, Mehar marries again in order to regain her status, but she loses her children in the process. Eloquent, emotional and powerful, Women Dreaming is essential reading, in a dynamic yet delicate translation by Meena Kandasamy.

 

Yan Ge, Strange Beasts of China, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang (Tilted Axis Press)

The final offering from Tilted Axis in 2020 is astonishing – possibly my favourite Tilted Axis book of all time. I had already read and loved Yan’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman for Balestier Press (and reviewed here), so I was excited to read this earlier work. Yet I wasn’t quite expecting to be so moved by this tale where humans and fantastical beasts co-exist (unharmoniously) in a Chinese city, trying to ignore the reality that sometimes the beasts are more human than the people and the humans more monstruous than the beasts. Though there is plenty of allegory in Strange Beasts of China, I just loved it for its compelling storytelling, the mystery at its core, and the heart of all the characters – whether human or beast. The translation by Jeremy Tiang is outstanding; I kept pausing to admire a turn of phrase, a beautifully crafted sentence, or a sensitivity to register.

 

 

So that’s my slightly belated round-up of my favourite releases of 2020. I hope there’s something in here that will pique your interest, and offer a small ray of joy from a challenging year. Happy New Year to all friends of Translating Women, and thank you as always for reading!

REVIEW: Esther Kinsky, GROVE and Jean Frémon, NATIVITY

Esther Kinsky, Grove, translated from German by Caroline Schmidt (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Grove is a story of mourning: the narrator has recently lost her love, and travels to places both familiar and unfamiliar to her in order to work her way through her grief. She visits cemeteries and attends unnoticed the funerals of strangers, observing death and the mourning of others as a way to cope with the pain of her own loss. She notices grief where it might previously have gone unobserved, underlining how loss can change everything in our perspective on the world. The narrator becomes herself like the herons she observes at one cemetery: “guardians of the dead who kept watch at a proper distance, unobserved attendants to the gathered mourners.”

This kind of voyeuristic introspection (I know that sounds weird – it’s the best description I can come up with) wasn’t the highlight for me, though; I responded much more viscerally to the narrator’s intermittent references to her own mourning. There are plaintive comments that describe grief vividly and yet without melodrama: it is acknowledged that there is “no consolation in bereavement”, and that an insurmountable loss makes things that once were simple seem impossible: “Each morning I had to learn everything anew”. Similarly, the instinctive connection between memory and objects is sensitively detailed (“For years these memories were stored somewhere in my head and now they surged up only because here, at this place, I came across the missing negatives that must have been tucked away in the unused side pocket for a long time”), as is the way in which memory changes over time: “As time passed after my father’s death, he became even smaller in my mental picture of this walk along the river, and his suitcase ever larger, into which he had stuffed who knows how much of his life that he had never found a name for.” These glimpses of the narrator’s own emotion were the parts that really appealed to me in this otherwise understated narrative of grief.

The translation by Caroline Schmidt is stylistically beautiful, capturing the wistfulness and the precision of the narrator’s observations. In particular, the descriptions of nature regularly contain a single descriptive verb that makes it clear how well Schmidt has “got” this narrator: “Scattered cyprus saplings buckled over, as if in pain”; “A violent thunderstorm broke the heat that had crouched above the landscape.” There is no dialogue in Grove, or overt interaction with other characters in the present; the narrator speaks very formally (objects are weighted “qua testimony”, a town sits “atop” a hill), and there are occasional arcane phrases (“a languid summer that augured ill”) and uses of syntax (“idle lists of a forlornness that knows not what to do with itself”). This lends a gravity and formality to the narrative that is maintained admirably by Schmidt, whose translation also includes plenty of references to nature that I didn’t recognise even in English (a red-backed shrike creaks in a bush, while cliffs form tuffs on the coastline and a water ditch is lined by canebrake). I always like learning new words, and Grove was certainly the book for that. While it wasn’t “my” kind of book, it did make me think about myself – specifically about how we have to listen to what other people need us to be when they’re sharing their pain. I may not have felt a close connection with the narrator, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the shortcomings are with her.

Jean Frémon, Nativity, translated from French by Cole Swensen (Les Fugitives, 2020)

This short essay from Les Fugitives is the second offering from Jean Frémon and Cole Swensen and, like the first, represents a kind of homage to Louise Bourgeois. 2018’s Now, Now, Louison was a fictionalised biography of Bourgeois by Frémon, who was a friend of hers, and Nativity features five original pieces of art by Bourgeois that she painted in watered-down gouache to accompany this reflection by Frémon on the representation of Jesus in art.

Frémon’s focus is on a painting being commissioned hundreds of years ago: the fictional painter is given the task of painting “a large Nativity on a single panel” for a palace chapel, and must succeed in representing divinity made incarnate. The painting is not solely for decorative purpose: it should not only inspire those who already read the Bible, but also serve as an instruction those who cannot read and write. His artwork must, therefore, make it clear that the baby in the painting is the son of God. Traditional depictions of the baby Jesus achieve this variously by painting a golden aura radiating from him to show that he is no ordinary child, revealing his mystery in the awe-filled faces of those gathered around, or filling the tableau with angels and kings to demonstrate the significance of his birth; this painter decides instead to dispense with the swaddling clothes, believing that the key to showing the child’s divinity lies in his nakedness. This is also, of course, the most basic sign of his humanity, thereby instructing all those who view the painting that the son of Mary is also the Son of God.

Frémon discusses the Nativity analytically, and Swensen translates with great poise, subtly communicating two key things in particular: firstly, that Frémon’s decision to focus on a painter and his mission brings something very personal to the history encompassed within this short essay and secondly, that the women are notable by their absence. The painting is commissioned by a man, of a man, about the Son of Man, but the illustrations offer a different perspective. The five paintings by Bourgeois are made up of red brushstrokes, and depict the more human side of the Christmas story: a child swelling in the womb, a birth, a hungry newborn.

In four of the five paintings, the mother is as present as the child, and these invite as much reflection as Frémon’s prose. Heavily pregnant, she has just undertaken a gruelling journey, and then gone into labour and given birth in a stable. While I entirely understand the focus on the child – whether divine or human – it’s the depictions of Mary that I’m always drawn to, and they could easily have been absent from this essay just as they are absent from much discourse of the Nativity. The artwork by Bourgeois fills this void: among other images, she traces in blood-red strokes a view such as the one that Joseph – as de facto midwife – might have had.

The reflections are compelling and lucidly composed; in contrast the representations offered by Bourgeois are carnal, showing that for all the divine wonder of the Nativity, it is also the story of a first-time mother giving birth in extraordinary – and probably terrifying – circumstances. At the start of the essay, the canon commissioning the painter explains that “we depend on the imagination of painting to prove reality”, and the prints by Bourgeois do exactly that: this is an distinctly humanised view of the Nativity, and an interesting alternative Christmas story for you to seek out this year.