Tag Archives: Frances Riddle

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

Review: Andrea Jeftanovic, THEATRE OF WAR

Translated from Spanish (Chile) by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2020)

Theatre of War is Andrea Jeftanovic’s debut novel, and the final offering from a brilliant 2020 Charco catalogue. The narrator, Tamara, presents her past as if it were a play, inviting an audience to sit and observe “the spectacle of my childhood” in a script that is continually being written. Her family are all present on stage, acting the role ascribed to them, and Tamara is simply an actor playing her part, not directing or pulling the strings. This allows for an objectivity in parts of the narration that provides an excellent balance to Tamara’s more introspective monologues, a balance that mirrors the tension between historical atrocity and personal experience.

An unresolved trauma hangs heavy over the childhood household: Tamara’s father has fled his Balkan homeland, and is obsessed both with the memories of his losses there and with the news that tells him how his homeland continues to tear itself apart. “Dad is stuck in time, remembering the war” says Tamara’s child voice, observing how the present is not enough to pull her father out of the emotional stasis in which the war has left him. The legacy of the war is passed down to a generation who had no direct experience of it, transmitted through the father’s silences and obsessions: “I inhabit places I’ve never been. Dad, on the other hand, has never left that distant time.” Dragged into a past that her father can neither leave nor fully share, Tamara is left adrift, and turns to writing to find her own territory (“I founded my own country in a blue notebook where I’m not a minority”), and this gives her a place to call home (“My blue journal, the site where I’d founded my homeland, now pushes me into new territories”). As for Tamara’s mother, she is struggling with ghosts of her own, as it transpires that her other two children are from a different relationship (which will be the only one she remembers when a sudden collapse leads her to lose a big swathe of her memory). She papers over the cracks in her marriage, finding solace in the arms of a decorator, and ultimately leaves Tamara’s father one night that represents “another warped date that will alter the rest of the calendar.”

All of this brokenness is recounted in the present tense, lending an immediacy to the narration that works very well with the theatrical setting. Though Tamara as a character can only follow where her role takes her, Jeftanovic as author deftly directs her narrator via a detached yet expressive prose that recounts personal and historical tragedy without melodrama or sensationalism. Frances Riddle’s translation is, as always, impeccable: perfectly pitched and with an admirable knack for finding unexpected words and collocations that, once you’ve read them, seem like the only possible option: a “gnash of fire on the horizon”, “dented voices shuddering the walls”, “there are lagoons of silence”, “Dad cloaked by the newspaper, hiding his fist of a heart behind it”, “they strafe the centre of my heart”).

The wars in Theatre of War are all-pervading and suffocating, but feature primarily as a backdrop for the characters’ lives: the real battles are between the characters themselves, for their love and survival. In her adult life, Tamara struggles to build lasting relationships, to allow herself to love, and to come to terms with her childhood. Her multiple losses leave her standing “in the middle of the battlefield”, with the first glimmer of healing coming only when she reunites with her sister. I will, however, leave you to discover where that encounter (along with the many others that make up her adult life) takes her for, as the director of this play warns us as we hurtle towards the final scene, “everyone’s secrets will be revealed.” Theatre of War is a striking debut from Jeftanovic, a first-class translation from Riddle, and an excellent conclusion to Charco’s 2020 catalogue.

Review copy of Theatre of War provided by Charco Press

Join the virtual launch for Theatre of War on Tuesday 8 December

“No matter where I go I’m still broken”: a tale of displacement and becoming. Carla Maliandi, The German Room

Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2018)

The German Room is the final release of 2018 from Charco Press, and what a year it’s been for them: A Man Booker International longlisting (for Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), a win at the Creative Edinburgh Awards in the ‘Start-Up Award’ category, five new books (including one of my favourite books of the year, Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup, translated by Charlotte Coombe), and the celebration of their first anniversary in business. Charco Press is, without doubt, one of my favourite discoveries of 2018 – I love their attitude, their vision, and their commitment, and I have yet to read a book from them that I didn’t like. So in some ways I was almost fearful to start The German Room – I received a review copy and all I could think was “I hope it’s as good as I want it to be.” So… was it?

Image from charcopress.com

The German Room is a tale of escape and “becoming”, of nostalgia and displacement, and its central premise is particularly thought-provoking: if you flee your life because it becomes intolerable, what are you fleeing towards? And will your problems follow you there? I hesitate to call this a coming-of-age story, because I think it’s more of a reflection on the modern condition: we have infinite possibilities of where to go if we want to get away, but what on earth are we going to do when we get there? As the unnamed narrator reflects early on in her story, “even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere.” Though this raises universal questions of displacement and self, the particular catalyst for the narrator’s sudden departure from her hometown of Buenos Aires is a rancorous break-up. Telling no-one that she is going away, she boards a plane to Heidelberg, the German town her parents fled to in an escape from the dictatorship in Argentina three decades earlier, and where she spent several years of her childhood. Yet a return to a place where she was once happy does not necessarily mean a return to happiness, and she finds herself adrift there, lacking purpose but yet not actively seeking it either. She takes a room in a university hall of residence, and enjoys the anonymity there: no-one knows who she is or why she is there (they all assume she is a student), and she doesn’t even have a home to keep clean – this is as much as anything an escape from adulthood and a return to a simpler time. Yet very adult concerns lie in wait for her there: an unlikely friendship with a fragile international student, a reluctant co-dependent friendship with the only other Argentine in the residence, a fleeting sexual encounter with a student she barely even likes, the pressure from the hall’s warden to enrol on a course or lose her right to remain in her room, and an increasingly sinister relationship with a Japanese woman in a state of grief. As if this ensemble cast of unlikely acquaintances didn’t provide enough intrigue, she also collides with Mario, a professor who, as a young man, lived in refuge with her family (an encounter which brings up past memories and offers a poignant insight into the traumatic consequences of a life spent in hiding), becomes sexually obsessed with the man  Mario loves, and discovers that she is pregnant – possibly by her former boyfriend, possibly by a rather vapid friend with whom she had a one-night stand when her relationship broke down.

Frances Riddle has translated this book extremely well: there is nothing in the English that seems awkward or out of place. There are things that must have been difficult to translate (Miguel Javier, for example, is “the Tucumano”, referring to the region of Argentina that he comes from; though “the Tucumano” might not be recognisable out of context in English, there seems to me no other way of describing him, since simply referring to him by name would erase the socio-cultural references which are so important to his characterisation and the power dynamics of his relationship with the narrator). I also greatly appreciated Riddle’s translation of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin (Charco Press, 2017), and imagine that Charco’s Spanish-language texts are in safe hands with her.

Carla Maliandi’s debut novel meets the level of quality I’ve come to expect from Charco books: in particular, I find it quite an achievement to write a narrator who in many ways is quite unlikeable, and yet make her sympathetic. I was quite surprised that I didn’t find myself getting irritated with the narrator or finding her introspection tedious: the character is written in such a way that she seems aware of the potentially self-indulgent nature of her own train of thought, and just stops short of being grating. Perhaps the other thing that saves this from being too navel-gazing is the overlap of the present-day personal story and a more universal past history: when asked why she wants to be in Heidelberg, the narrator replies that “I don’t know, maybe all my life I’ve idealised my childhood here, maybe I remembered this city as a place where time passed in a different way. Here, we hoped that everything would get better so that we could go back, and in the meantime, we were in limbo, far away, happy.” Heidelberg was once a place where her family sought refuge until things got better at home, and she is attempting to repeat this experience, even though she is unsure what she’s really doing “in this conservative storybook city, in this repulsively perfect country.”

It seems that what the narrator is seeking above all is anonymity, even invisibility: she likes living in the residence because “being there is like not being anywhere, it’s being alone but surrounded by a lot of people, having everything without owning anything, and being able to pass unnoticed.” Passing unnoticed will, she thinks, allow her the time to decide what she is going to do with her “life in shambles”, but even this desire remains unfulfilled, primarily because of her encounters with two particular characters and their families. Firstly, Miguel Javier (“the Tucumano”) wants to spend time with her because she represents for him some kind of anchor connecting him to his homeland, and she ends up being dragged into his sister Marta Paula’s life back home, a life of drudgery and self-sacrifice where Marta Paula’s only outlet is to visit Feli, a psychic who begins to destabilise and threaten all of their lives. Then there is Shanice, a Japanese student whose brash happiness is nothing more than “a horrible sadness disguised with bright colours and screeching music”, who wants to befriend the narrator in order to feel useful, and whose mother ends up coming to stay in Heidelberg and attaching herself to the narrator like a vampire. The narrator’s initial desire for solitude is both disrupted and reversed by this motley crew of companions, leading her to realise that there is no simple solution to her need for flight. Ultimately, the narrator’s plan for escape seems doomed to fail: as she notes herself, “simply returning to your childhood home is not much better than having no plan at all.” Her pregnancy pulls her back to the very place and people she had wanted to forget, and her prospects in Heidelberg are limited. The overlaps between past and present are particularly affecting here: having lived the happiest of childhood exiles in Heidelberg out of political necessity, her adult return to the place where she felt safe only destabilises her further, and in her encounters with Mario she begins to realise quite how severe the circumstances really were when she was a child. Now carrying a child herself, and reluctant to commit to motherhood, she seems to be seeking above all a solution to her rootlessness – a solution that is not neatly packaged and offered to us.

The narrative ends ambiguously, in a scene that is almost mystical: this was the only part I wasn’t quite sure about. I don’t want to give away the ending so I shan’t discuss it in detail here, but it certainly didn’t detract from my appreciation of the novel as a whole. In fact, I was entirely swept away by The German Room: at the end of each chapter I kept telling myself “just one more”, and ended up racing through it in a day. 2018 is definitely ending on a high note for Charco Press.

The German Room is released on 22 November 2018; you can order a copy here.

Review copy provided by Charco Press.