Compass – Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Compass1

Early in Mathias Enard’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Boussole”, translated as “Compass”, our protagonist Franz Ritter references Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu”, translated as both “Remembrance of Things Past” or more recently as “In Search of Lost Time”, the second volume of such, “A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs”, also winning the Prix Goncourt in 1919.

Using “The Literary 100, A Ranking of the most influential novelists, playwrights, and poets of all time” by Daniel S. Burt” (published by Checkmark Books 2001), as a reference tool, Proust comes in at number 17;

“In Proust’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)

Similarly, Enard’s novel breaks ground, referencing memory, complex societies, sensibility and subtlety, unlike any other work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, in fact unlike any work published in the last year.

A novel that takes place in the course of a single night, whilst our protagonist the musicologist Franz Ritter, fighting insomnia, relays his memories, the merging of the Orient and the Occident, and his desires for the unattainable Sarah.

I had slept like a log in a neat little inn in the heart of a village that had seemed to me (maybe because of the fatigue of the journey or the dense fog on the roads snaking between the hills coming from Graz) much more remote that the organizers had said, slept like a log, now’s the time to think of that, maybe now I should also find a way to tire myself out, a long train trip, a hike in the mountains or a visit to seedy bars to try and get my hands on a ball of opium, but in the Alsergrund it’s not very likely I’ll fall upon a band of Iranian teriyakis, opium-smokers: unfortunately Afghanistan, victim of the markets, exports mostly heroin, an even more terrifying substance than the pills prescribed by Dr Kraus, but I have high hopes, high hopes of finding sleep, and if not in time the sun will certainly get around to rising. (p 38)

Throughout there are borders everywhere, Europe to the Orient, the unrequited love Franz has for Sarah, Tehran, Damascus, Aleppo, Turkey and moving to the “far east”. All presented in the long rambling style readers of Enard’s first English published novel, “Zone” (also translated by Charlotte Mandell), would be familiar with. This time not a single sentence work, however an internalised monologue from a struggling man.

You have to be Heine to be able to outline in this way, in ten lines, the story of a defunct love; the fine, witty Henri Heine, as Théophile Gautier calls him, Heine who asks him, as the hashish-smoker is about to leave for Constantinople, in Paris at a concert of Liszt’s, with his German accent full of humour and mischievousness: ‘How will you manage to talk about the Orient when you’re actually there?’ A question that could have been put to all travellers to Istanbul, so much does the journey diffuse its object, disseminating and multiplying it in reflections and details until it loses its reality. (p88)

This complex, but thoroughly engaging work, is a journey into the seduction of the Orient; “The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.” A novel that contains stories within stories, as Franz reads old emails, research papers, dwells on moments of joy, sadness. The historical lessons, for example the revolution in Tehran, containing the players the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini, abound. The present-day war in Syria not far from the surface and referenced a number of times.

We remained travellers, closed in the self, capable, possibly, of transforming ourselves in contact with alterity, but certainly not of experiencing it profoundly. We are spies, we make the rapid, furtive contact of spies. (p 233)

Whilst thoroughly engaging throughout, this is not a book that can be easily reviewed, a mere reader like myself, falling deep in the shadows of Enard’s greatness and knowledge. One suggestion I do have, is to play the musical works referenced by the musicologist Franz Ritter as you are reading, publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions have put together a playlist at their blog  personally I simply searched each work as it was referenced and hit “play” (the joys of modern technology!) A novel that is very much of our times (although a retrospective journey of memory);

It’s strange to think that today in Europe one so easily places the label “Muslim’ on anyone who has a last name that’s Arabic or Turkish. The violence of imposed identities. (p 327)

The acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book, including “To the Syrian people”.

This night of insomnia, this search for the turning points in his life, the search for Orientalism becomes “A mystical search without any god or transcendence other than the depths of the self…” (p445). Very much like the referenced Proust this journey of Franz Ritter’s is one that will linger for a very long time, a love story, with a person, with a region, with a country, with a culture, this is a deep and significant contribution to literature in translation.

Personally, I think this is the standout work on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize list, a book that will be remembered for many years to come. If they are rewarding literary merit then surely this should be a certainty to lift the prize, if they are looking at promoting literature in translation, then things become a little shakier, as it is not a simple read, a straightforward narratively driven book, but this is a book for our times. I could easily use the “Literary 100” quote and simply replace Proust with Enard, well maybe not the childhood part as much… “In Enard’s hands childhood, memory, the complexity of society, and sensibility gain a new subtlety that makes previous treatment primitive in comparison.” (p 63)

 

Judas – Amos Oz (translated by Nicholas de Lange) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

Judas

Today I am looking at the latest translated work from Israeli writer Amos Oz, a professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University, a writer who is habitually highlighted when the Nobel Prize in Literature is discussed, award winner galore and an advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For myself “Judas” is one of the more learned works on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist, whilst narratively a simple tale, this is a book full of theological, political and character contemplations.

Our novel contains four main characters, Shmuel Ash, Atalia, Gershom Wald and Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel. Our protagonist is Shmuel Ash;

Shmuel was a stocky, bearded young man of around twenty-five, she, emotional, socialist, asthmatic, liable to veer from wild enthusiasm to disappointment and back again, His shoulders were broad, his neck was short and thick, and his fingers too were thick and short, as if they each lacked a knuckle. From every pore of Shmuel Ash’s face and neck curled wiry hairs like steel wool: this beard continued upwards till it merged with the tousled hair of his head and downwards to the curling thicket of his chest. From a distance he always seemed, summer and winter alike, to be agitated and pouring with sweat. But, close up, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that instead of a sour smell of sweat his skin somehow exuded a delicate odour of talcum powder. He would be instantly intoxicated by new ideas, provided they were wittily dressed up and involved in some paradox. But he also tended to tire quickly, possibly on account of and enlarged heart and his asthma. (p2)

Shmuel’s father is involved in an unsuccessful business deal, is declared bankrupt and can no longer support his son through University, Shmuel decides to cease his studies and seeks employment as a companion to an old man on the outskirts of the city;

An old fig tree and an arbour of vines shaded the courtyard. So dense and intertwined were their branches that even now, their leaves shed, only a handful of capering gold coins managed to filter through the canopy and flicker on the flagstones. It seemed not so much a stone courtyard as a secret pool, its surface ruffled by myriad rippling wavelets. (p13)

Shmuel is employed to provide conversation each evening with Gershom Wald

Beyond this ring of warm light, between two metal trolleys laden with books, files, folders and notebooks, an elderly man sat talking on the telephone. A plaid was draped round his shoulders like a prayer shawl. He was an ugly man, broad, corked and hunchbacked. His nose was as sharp as the beak of a thirsty bird, and the curve of his chin suggested a sickle. His fine, almost feminine, grey hair cascaded down the back of his head and covered the nape of his neck. His eyes were deep-set beneath thick craggy white eyebrows that looked like woolly frost. His bushy Einstein moustache was a mound of snow. Without interrupting his telephone call, he eyed his visitor with a penetrating, quizzical glance. His sharp chin was inclined towards his left shoulder. His left eye was screwed up while the right one was open wide, round, blue and unnaturally large. The man’s face wore a sly, amused expression as if he were winking or making a sarcastic denunciation: he seemed instantly to have understood the young man before him, as if reading his mind and understanding what he was after. A moment later he switched off the searchlight beam of his gaze, acknowledged the visitor’s presence with a nod of the head and looked away, continuing his telephonic debate all the while: (p16)

Shmuel’s “employer” is Gershom’s daughter in law, Atalia a mysterious widow, alluring to Shmeul but completely indifferent to his approaches.

The final player is Atalia’s late father Shealtiel Abravanel, removed from the machinations of the official parties for his political views on a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…a Judas;

‘Are you trying to tell me that your father seriously believed that we had so much as a shadow of a chance to survive here by peaceful means? That it was possible to convince the Arabs to agree to share the land? That it is possible to obtain a homeland by means of fine words? And do you believe that too? At that time the entire progressive world supported the creation of a state for the Jewish people. Even the Communist Bloc supplied us with arms.’ (p166)

However, it is not through the simple plot here that the riches of this work are harvested, it is through the nightly discussions between Shmuel and Gershom, the writings and research of Shmuel as part of his abandoned thesis ‘The Jewish Views of Jesus’, and the debates about Judas, and his parallel Shealtiel where the heart of the novel lies.

And yet, had it not been for Judas, there might not have been a crucifixion, and had there been no crucifixion there would have been no Christianity. (p73)

A work that immediately brought to mind Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” and Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger”, through the development of the central character of Shmuel, for me another wonderfully rich character on the world literary stage.

Alone in his attic on a winter’s night, with strong, steady rain falling on the sloping roof close to his head and gurgling in the gutters, the cypresses bowed by the westerly wind, a night bird uttering a single harsh screech, Schmuel sat bent over his papers, taking an occasional swig from the open bottle of cheap vodka that stood before him on the desk, and wrote in his notebook: (p172)

It is through the discussions and theological musings where the depth in this work is apparent, throughout there are explanations of Judas’ role in the biblical tales, the mythology surrounding the thirty pieces of silver, the crucifixion of Jesus, the final words “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” and Judas’ subsequent suicide. In this novel these explanations come via the hand of Shmuel, but they are presented in simple enough terms for non-Christians, or Jews, to understand the parallels that are contained with other events within the novel.

Through Shmuel’s employment there is plenty of discourse and opportunity to allow for details about the 1948 War of Independence and the lead up and subsequent events, with numerous threads explored, no definitive view is portrayed.

This is a novel that addresses centuries old theological issues, alongside current political concerns about the Israel/Palestine conflict as well as confronting the question of being a traitor vs an idealistic true believer. A complex and thought provoking work, one I rate highly in my 2017 Man Booker International Prize rankings.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I would hope so, although the simple narrative may detract some readers/judges, but this is not a novel to simply keep you entertained, it is a thought provoking, complex work. Amos Oz’s history of awards certainly plays in his favour, and his shortlisting for the Prize in 2007 (when the award was given for a body of work, not a single book) could be both a positive and a negative (he lost out to Chinua Achebe from Nigeria).

Highly ranked by myself I think this is one of the under ranked dark horses for the main gong…

2017 Man Booker International Prize Shortlist

mbi2017-logo

Early this morning (Australian time) the shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize was announced. Thirteen longlisted titles have been culled to six, unlike my dismay at the 2017 Best Translated Book Award shortlist, I don’t really have any issues with the Man Booker list.

The Shadow Jury is going to take a few extra weeks to announce our shortlist of books, given the short time between both announcements, this did curtail all members getting to read all works. Stay tuned for our final six books.

Personally I have read twelve of the thirteen titles and through reading these I of course had my favourites and have rated each book upon completion. My personal list is not dramatically different from the official listing. Please note that my preferences are not those of the Shadow Jury, and there may be significant differences once we collaborate, debate and decide.

The official shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize is as follows (links in title are to my reviews, links under title are reviews by other members of the Shadow Jury):

“Compass” by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

David’s Book World review

Stu’s review

Tony’s Reading List review

Dolce Bellezza’s review

1st Reading’s review

“A Horse Walks Into a Bar” by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and published by Jonathan Cape

Stu’s review

A Little Blog of Books review

1st Reading review

David’s Book World review

Tony’s Reading List review

“The Unseen” by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett and published by MacLehose Press

1st reading review

David’s Book World review

Dolce Bellezza review

“Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra and published by Pushkin Press

1st Reading review

Dolce Bellezza review

A Little Blog of Books review

Stu’s review

“Judas” by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange and published by Chatto & Windus

David’s Book World review

A Little Blog of Books review

Stu’s review

Tony’s Reading List review

Dolce Bellezza review

“Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell and published by Oneworld

1st Reading review

Dolce Bellezza review

A Little Blog of Books review

Tony’s Reading List review

David’s Book World review

Stu’s review

My final six titles were;

“Compass” by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg (Poland), translated by Eliza Marciniak

“The Unseen” by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett

“Bricks and Mortar” by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire

“Judas” by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange

“Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell

As you can see four are common with the official shortlist.

Keeping in mind the judges could have been swayed by publishers, this may have influenced the shortlisting of both “Compass” and “Bricks and Mortar” published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and, being cynical, they would have to have the standard 30% female representation, meaning two titles should appear in the final six, I had “Swallowing Mercury” the official judges have “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal”, “Fever Dream” being a common listing and a worthy inclusion.

Overall a really solid list of titles indeed, a great list for all readers, one to explore the riches of translated fiction. If a bookmaker offers odds on the winner I’ll be having a couple of Aussie dollars on Mathias Enard and Amos Oz, for me both standouts, and as yet to be reviewed here – bear with me, my thoughts are coming, hopefully “Judas” tomorrow and “Compass” within a couple of days.

Best Translated Book Award Shortlists 2017

Zama

Today the Best Translated Book Award announced their shortlists, culling the fiction list down from twenty five titles to ten and the poetry from ten to five.

As with the announcement of the longlists last month I have an issue with the lists, but I will save my “rant” until after the listing, that way you can view the shortlisted titles and ignore my personal dismay should you chose.

Fiction

Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya, translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell (Dominican Republic, Mandel Vilar Press)

Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (Brazil, Open Letter Books)

Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Mauritius, Deep Vellum)

Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Argentina, New York Review Books)

Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Diop, translated from the Wolof by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Senegal, Michigan State University Press)

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Belgium, Pantheon)

Umami by Laia Jufresa, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Mexico, Oneworld)

Oblivion by Sergi Lebedev, translated from the Russian by Antonina W. Bouis (Russia, New Vessel Press)

Ladivine by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (France, Knopf)

Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña Paris, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)

 

Poetry

 

Berlin-Hamlet by Szilárd Borbély, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet (Hungary, New York Review Books)

Of Things by Michael Donhauser, translated from the German by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron (Austria, Burning Deck Press)

Cheer Up, Femme Fatale by Yideum Kim, translated from the Korean by Ji Yoon Lee, Don Mee Choi, and Johannes Göransson (South Korea, Action Books)

In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Morocco, Archipelago Books)

Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Argentina, New Directions) (read our review)

So the fiction longlist has culled well-known names such as Rafael Chirbes, László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías, Patrick Modiano, Sjón and Enrique Vila-Matas, and features what I feel is one of the weakest translated books I have read this year, War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay.

The Best Translated Book Award aims “to bring attention to the best original works of international fiction and poetry published in the U.S. during the previous year.”

Why do I think “War and Turpentine” should not be on the shortlist?

  • The author himself admits in section one that he is pressed for time getting the work finished in time for the 2014 centenary of World War One, and this very much shows in section three, where the post war life of Hertmans’ grandfather seems rushed, half-baked and incomplete
  • The use of formulaic plot devices such as the pocket watch and the image in the painting by his grandfather are repetitive and used to pull on heartstrings, best seller page turning techniques. To me they were overblown and manipulative, non-engaging
  • The second section, whilst well written, is simply another World War One story of horror in the trenches. Yes it is a personal story, but we have hundreds, if not thousands, of personal World War One stories, what makes this one stand out from the crowd? Nothing
  • The move from a reimagined youthful time in the early 1900’s, to a personal diary, to a piecemeal “Sebaldian” ending just doesn’t hang together
  • The book is forgettable – although the fact that it has made the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist (heaven forbid they shortlist it tomorrow) and now the BTBA shortlist, will mean I will never forget it, besides that I can assure you it is not a work that you’ll be raving about at dinner parties in 2020

To think a rambling work addressing the global financial crisis impacts for Spain, or a single sentence work (again) from Hungary, or the latest translation from a Nobel Prize winner are all considered not worthy of the shortlist instead of yet another World War One story is absolutely beyond me.

Onto my concerns with the poetry listing, and it has nothing to do with the titles included, excluded for the prime reason that three of the shortlisted works are yet to arrive on my doorstep. I ordered the whole longlist three weeks ago (excluding “In Praise of Defeat” and “Extracting the Stone of Madness” which I already owned) and only two titles have arrived, both not making the final cut.

I would love to “Shadow” follow the list, I would really enjoy sharing my thoughts on the titles, but when the delivery of the titles takes such a long period of time it simply becomes problematic. Another example of why it is so hard to promote poetry titles occurred yesterday, I had a copy of “olio” by Tyehimba Jess on order, it won the Pulitzer Prize, I was then refunded my purchase price as the title is now “sold out”. Whilst this is great for Wave Poetry being able to sell out a full print run of a poetry title, to simply deny me the ability to read the book, and refund my money does nothing to promote readers to poetry works. Whilst not directly related to the BTBA I am still very disappointed that I have not had a chance to read three of the titles on the shortlist, simply due to slow dispatch and delivery.

I’ll be back with the shortlist from the Man Booker International Prize, with my thoughts (as always) and will attempt to have reviews of the remaining titles from that longlist published here in the coming weeks.

Camanchaca – Diego Zúñiga (translated by Megan McDowell)

Canamchaca

An even shorter review today, for an even shorter book…

Today I take a short break from the 2017 Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury duties and visit a recent release from Chile. Yesterday I reviewed the 2017 MBIP longlisted novel “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin, a novel translated by Megan McDowell so let’s keep the translator theme going by looking at a book released by Coffee House Press in the USA, “Camanchaca” by Diego Zúñiga, also translated by Megan McDowell.

Another short novel Zúñiga’s work is a coming-of-age story undertaken by a young boy, traversing the country with his father;

My father’s first car was a 1971 Ford Fairlane, which my grandfather gave him with he turned fifteen.
His second was a 1985 Honda Accord, lead gray.
His third was a 1990 BMW 850i, navy blue, which he killed my Uncle Neno with.
His fourth is a Ford Ranger, smoke colored, which we are driving across the Atacama Desert. (p1)

So opens this book, a work where you learn so much from being presented with so little. From this opening quote (which is the whole opening page) we can see our narrator’s father moving into money somehow, killing his own brother (or brother-in-law) and now onto a road trip, are they escaping something?

Written in sparse open prose, the pages are filled with blank spaces, there are pauses and silences, the detached tone, invoking isolation, you are stranded with our narrator in the desert.

She told the story. In complete detail. Full of silences. (p12)

Our narrator, recalls stories from his mother, as he listens begrudgingly to worn out clichés from his father, who is attempting some connection. The protagonist interrupting any attempt at conversation by putting on his headphones, more silence on the page…

Slowly, through the stories told by his mother, “like someone putting together and taking apart a worn-out puzzle”, we begin to see some clarity, the puzzle is taking shape.

But something happened that day. It was an image that would repeat itself for years. Me dancing, no partner, in the middle of a group. (p89)

An isolated youth, the unique voice of confusion and separation from his parents, and grandparents, a young man attempting to find his own place in the world, is told in a wonderfully sparse and gnarled manner. Through “the desert fog, the camanchaca”. We piece together our narrator’s coming of age. Although sparse there are unplumbed depths here, just see the opening page quote…

Another wonderful work from South America, a region I am drawn closer and closer to as I travel the world of literature, obscure, playing with form and content, this style of novel is one that appeals very much to my tastes. Not at all formulaic, you simply do not know what the next page will bring. Like “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin, this is a book you can read in a single sitting, which I did, and as soon as you have finished, you feel like turning back to the first page and starting all over again, to understand the depths a little more, explore the silences and empty spaces just a little further.

Another wonderful revelation translated by Megan McDowell, a translator whose work I have thoroughly enjoyed with all five books of hers I have read, I know that I will be looking for her name on the cover of other releases, they’ll be added to my reading lists…

Tomorrow I plan to be back with the shortlists from the 2017 Best Translated Book Award (maybe Zúñiga and McDowell will be there in 2018?) and then back to the Man Booker International Prize longlist with a review of “Judas” by Amos Oz.

Fever Dream – Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

FeverDream

Today a short review for a short book.

By far the shortest book on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist is “Fever Dream” from Argentine Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell). But what this work may lack in length is more than made up for in tension, heightened blood pressure and breathlessness.

A book that can be read in one sitting, you find yourself pitched immediately into a conversation between Amanda and David. Amanda is the mother of a young daughter Nina, and in hospital apparently shortly to die, David is the mysterious son of a recent acquaintance Carla, he himself being poisoned in the not too distant past, the only “cure”? Having his body’s spirit removed;

There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit. The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit back to the sick body. Something of each of them would be left in the other. He wouldn’t be the same anymore, and I would have to be willing to accept his new being. (pg 29-30)

This bedside conversation consists of David eliciting information from Amanda, where she tells of meeting David’s mother whilst staying in a country holiday home, in a region where soy bean production and horse breeding is prominent. David appears as the inquisitor, with short sharp questions, with Amanda giving details, sometimes too many details for David’s liking….”that doesn’t matter”…

A story where conversations happen within the conversation, where the underlying theme of keeping our children close is relayed through a theory of “rescue distance”, an invisible taut rope between mother and child;

My mother always said something bad would happen. My mother was sure that sooner or later something bad would happen, and now I can see it with total clarity, I can feel it coming toward us like a tangible fate, irreversible. Now there’s almost no rescue distance, the rope is so short that I can barely move in the room, I can barely walk away from Nina to go to the closet and grab the last of our things. (p75-76)

A story told in short clipped sentences, conversational in tone rather than written, the title alluding to a fever, a dream, and the danger is always on the periphery, each page with a shimmering dream like danger, you know something horrific is coming…

And I’m starting to think you’re not going to understand, that going forward with this story doesn’t make any sense. (p 140)

A disturbing tale that drags on your tension throughout, this work is completely different to any other book on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist, unique in style, presentation, genre and subplot.

With an underlying environmental message, where we are putting our own children at risk at the expense of progress, the hallucinatory story is difficult to present without giving away too many details of the tension.

A novella from South America, where I have spent quite some time in my literary journeys in the last twelve months, I would rate this amongst my favourites from the region. Translated by Megan McDowell, who has also translated two Alejandro Zambra books (“Multiple Choice” and “My Documents”) as well as Lina Meruane’s “Seeing Red”, these three titles I have reviewed here within the last year.  She also translated Camanchaca by Diego Zúñiga, which I have read and will review on the blog shortly. When Women In Translation month comes around in August “Fever Dream” is one book you should be adding to your reading piles.

Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? Most definitely, this is a unique work, one that you complete quickly but immediately are drawn to a rereading. This book is totally unlike many literary works that contain dreamlike sequences where the symbolism is too obvious. Surely a book that will make the shortlist which is to be announced later this week.

 

Fish Have No Feet – Jón Kalman Stefánsson (translated by Philip Roughton) – 2017 Man Booker International Prize

FishHaveNoFeet

Before the Man Booker International Prize became an award for a single book, there was the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and I have been a member of that Shadow Jury since 2014, the year for firsts, when the Shadow Jury announced Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s “The Sorrow of Angels” as their “winner” of the award, a book that had not made the official shortlist!!

My review of that book can be found here in part reading:

 “The Sorrow of Angels” is Jon Kalman Stefansson’s second work in a trilogy, following on from “Heaven and Hell” and is a simple tale of “the boy” following Jens the postman on a journey to deliver the mail, they are “on their way to a place that constantly seems to be retreating.” Jens “flourishes nowhere but far from human habitation; far from life, in fact”, a man who broods and prefers silence. “The boy” lives in the world of words, poetry and the power of speech, “a person who holds a pen and paper has the possibility to change the world”.

‘The Sorrow of Angels’ is simply angels tears which manifest as snow, snow storms, blizzards, purity, treacherous ravines, glaciers, iced tracks, cold, raging icy seas and more, and besides the boy and the postman the other main character here is the snow…the sorrow of the angels. This is a beautiful book, as delicate as a snowflake but also as treacherous, it contains the mysteries of humankind. Up numerous mountains, their journey is an arduous one. Am I right in assuming this is an Icelandic “Purgatorio” (Dante’s second work in “The Divine Comedy”)? Our two characters are travelling through the seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth? The work does have the purgatory feel, where our characters are neither in hell nor heaven, the chorus is the dead, they are led by ghosts but to their safety?

At 300 pages plus a journey of two characters up mountains and through constant snow storms, on the surface seems like an arduous journey for the reader. There are fleeting visits to outposts, where people have shackled down for the winter, and the breaks in their journey to defrost and drink coffee (and occasionally talk of poetry, for the boy that is) are the parts where their deeper human qualities are slowly peeled back. But as soon as you’ve settled into a small, warm shack in the wilds of Iceland you’re picked up and hauled out into the raging snowstorms once again, as Jens continues his long journey to deliver the mail.

Given my enjoyment of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s earlier work I was very much looking forward to his latest book to be translated into English, “Fish Have No Feet”. Could it take out the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, giving recognition to the Icelandic writer?

The novel opens with a prelude, with ruminations on death, immediately you know that this is going to be a profound work.

Set in the fishing town of Keflavik, it cuts across three generations, moving from a bustling village reliant on fishing to the present day where the fishing quota has been removed from the town and therefore the people now live on the “quota-less sea”.

There’s the sea, so it’s that big?, before drawing the curtains, for who wants to have something that vast reminding them of better days, days of activity, when it was easy to walk tall, reminding them of having consented in silence to the sea’s fish stocks being converted into the bank accounts of fishing moguls and their descendants, to the gaping cod, the gleaming herring, becoming their blood, to the sea being privatised – we draw the curtains quick as a flash because it’s tough to have a sea teeming with fish right there before our eyes but to be prevented from fishing, to have a fish-processing company but nothing to process. (p22)
The main present day characters are Ari, who has for inexplicable reasons left his wife of twenty years and his children, and an unknown narrator, are they nephews? “A book of poems written by an unruly aunt of mine and Ari’s” (p68), or are they not related at all, Ari is “shy around his cousins, who are sitting on the bed and two chairs; he hardly knows them” (p158)? For me this mystical narrator (is he/she a ghost, an angel, a relation?) was very distracting. For scenes to be detailed about Ari in certain circumstances, for example, when he is alone in a hotel room, the impossible, strange, unreal feeling felt awkward. Although the narrator does detail Ari’s character though numerous means, analysing his contacts in his mobile phone…

Absurd? Dubious? Yes, and probably totally unhealthy to have your phone full of dead people’s numbers, numbers that only the past can answer, suggesting that a person who does so has unsolved psychological issues, refuses to face up to reality, doesn’t dare to, is an out-and-out escapee from life, a denier of the laws of nature; such things never end well. (p68)

A novel that attempts to address the “metaphysical”, what is life, death, lover etc. a book that contains a lot of questions, but do they make a satisfying meal? Examples of the plethora of rhetoric and existentialist questions;

Where does guilt come from? (p91)

Regret is the heaviest stone (p86)

Why have I lived? (p107)

Life is one chance, we get one chance to be happy, how can we make the most of it? (p222)

Some of the ruminations on life’s dissatisfaction are long winded and repetitive, I can almost see Jón Kalman Stefánsson sitting at his keyboard, drunk with melancholy, spreading his own dissatisfactions onto the page and then melding it with fiction.

As readers of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s other books will know, he is big on weather imagery, snow drifts, winds, storms, being buried in snow, the language and style match this obsession…”because the weather has done so much to shape life in Iceland for more than one thousand years.”

The references to Iceland are interesting with subjects such as US airbases, the economy and politics sprinkled throughout, but are these enough to hold a rambling existentialist question mark together?

Like Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s favoured snowdrifts, this book can be seen as deep, it is unrelenting, it is harsh, but as we know when a large snow drift melts it leaves but just a puddle….

One of my least favoured works on the longlist, I know I am a bit of a lone voice here, although it does have a powerful ending, the impact, for me, was significantly reduced by the late development of the narrative that leads there, the character being a mere sketch and the coincidental nature of the discovery all make this a flawed tale. Overall a very disappointing journey.

Can it win the Man Booker International Prize? Some readers will champion this work, personally I think it is scattered and flawed with an unconvincing narrator and way too many unresolved threads. It reads as an opening book of a larger work, however I can assure you I won’t be joining in any further journeys…I’d be shocked if it did win the award, but nothing surprises me when it comes to literary prizes.