Adam Buenosayres – Leopoldo Marechal (translated by Norman Cheadle)

Buenosayres

The Argentine Ulysses?

In “Finnegan’s Wake”, James Joyce describes “Ulysses” as “his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles”, Leopoldo Marechal’s hero, Adam Buenosayres, has a notebook, which is presented in Book Six of this monolith, called “The Blue-Bound Notebook”. However, “Adam Buenosayres” (originally titled “Adán Buenosayres”) is not uselessly unreadable, in fact it is a very complex, many layered work, and it is not simply a “blue book” reference which links this work to “Ulysses”.

As regular visitors to this blog would know, I am, very slowly, looking at the many worlds of Ulysses and books that have been identified as being the “Ulysses” of their nation. Joshua Cohen identified “Adam Buenosayres” as the Argentine Ulysses, and unlike a few other works I have read the parallels here are justified.

The novel is expertly translated by Norman Cheadle (assisted by Shiela Ethier, who is credited on the title page but nowhere else!). Cheadle writes a detailed Introduction and provides 77 pages of detailed notes and a Bibliography, these are extremely handy to decipher a number of Argentine terms or references, and if the comparison to Joyce is considered tenuous then that should be dismissed quickly as the introduction provides a section titled “The Joyce connection and the culture wars”;

Another clear source of inspiration is Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) (p xiii)

This massive novel consists of seven “Books” and an “Indispensable Prologue”, where we learn, on the first page, that the protagonist is dead, after the funeral, Leopoldo Marechal advises us;

In the days that followed, I read two manuscripts that Adam Buenosayres had entrusted to me at his death: The Blue-Bound Notebook and Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia. Both works struck me as so extraordinary that I resolved to have them published, confident that they would find a place of honour in Argentine literature. But I later realized those strange pages would not be fully understood by the public without some account of who their author and protagonist was, so I took it upon myself to sketch out a likeness of Adam Buenosayres. At first I had in mind a simple portrait, but then it occurred to me to show my friend in the flow of his life. The more I recalled his extraordinary character, the epic figures cut by his companions, and above all the memorable exploits I had witnessed back in those days, the more novelistic possibilities expanded before my mind’s eye. I decided on a plan of five books, in which I would present my Adam Buenosayres from the moment of his metaphysical awakening at number 303 Monte Egmont Street until midnight on the following day, when angels and demons fought over his soul in Villa Crespo, in front of the Church of San Bernardo, before the still figure of Christ with the Broken Hand. Then I would transcribe The Blue-Bound Notebook and Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia as the sixth and seventh books of my tale. (pp3-4)

Like Joyce’s “Ulysses”, which focuses on a single day in Dublin, these first five “books” of “Adam Buenosayres” focuses on three days, April 28-30, in an unspecified year in the 1920’s, in Buenos Aires (hence the protagonist’s name). It does say “one day” in the introduction however we also have the manuscripts themselves and, of course, the funeral. But I could rant on for ages about the influences and inspirations, the translator’s introduction to the book most definitely explains it better than I ever could.

As explained by Norman Cheadle, this work could be interpreted as a Roman à Clef, a novel with real life keys overlaid with a façade of fiction. The main characters “carticatures of clearly recognizable individuals”, Luis Pereda is Jorge Luis Borges, the astrologer Schultz being the artist Xul Solar, the philosopher Samuel Tesler is the poet Jacobo Fijman, and Bernini the writer Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz, the protagonist Adam Buenosayres Marechal himself. Buenosayres’ beloved, Solveig Amundsen has been associated with Norah Lange, however this is under dispute. Cheadle says “caution must be exercised when interpreting Adán as a roman à clef. On the other hand, it can be read as a Kűnstlerroman whose most obvious model is Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, though these two subgenres can hardly account for the novel in its totality.”

A work so rich in literary styles it requires a serious commitment if you want to enjoy its riches, it is a book that demands many readings, and the rewards for complete immersion and further study would obviously be many, however Norman Cheadle greatly assists any reading with his detailed notes.

He haunted the night because, in his era, the torch of daytime incited a war without laurels; it raped silence, it scourged holy stillness. Daytime was external like skin, active like the hand, sweaty as armpits, loud-mouthed and prolific in falsehood. Male by sex, daytime was a young hairy-chested hero. He shied away from the light of day because it pushed him toward the temptation of material fortune, induced the anxiety to possess useless objects, as well as other unhealthy desires: to be a politician, boxer, singer, or gunman. “and the night?” Colourless, odourless, insipid as water, nighttime nevertheless kindled the dawn of difficult voices and deep calls which the day with its trombones drowns out. Antipode of light, night made the tiny stars visible. Destroyer of prisons, she favoured escape. Field of truce, she facilitated union and reconciliation. Female who healed, refreshed and stimulated, she lay with man and conceived a son called sleep, the gracious image of death. (pp19-20)

The story of a man, struggling with unrequited love, a hero who is about to undertake adventures, where the underbelly of Buenos Aires will be exposed. The first five books, consisting of 355 large pages, is Marechal coming to terms with his place in Argentina, his struggles with writing and his role within the wider literary circle;

Did Adam concoct, as was his wont, some poetic analogy to express such a vexed duality? He had no need, Plato’s inimitable simile sprang to mind: his soul was a like a wingèd chariot pulled by two different horses. One of them, sky-coloured, its mane bristling with stars, its delicate hooves airborne, tended to draw always upward, toward the heavenly meadows where it was born. The other, earth-coloured, slack-lipped, balky, its crupper twisted, paunchy, long-eared, knock-kneed, down at the mouth, and stumble-gaited, always pulled downward, itching to get stuck in muck up to the crotch. Poor Adam, the driver, held the reins of both horses and strove to keep them on track. When the accursed colt prevailed and dragged down the soul’s entire equipage, the divine equine seems to be asleep in its traces. But when the celestial steed took over, its limbs plied a marvellous light, its nostrils flared to the scent of divine alfalfa fields, and the coach flew, hoisting aloft the dead weight of the earthly horse. The sublime charger kept going higher until it sensed the air thinning, its sinews slackened, and it fell asleep drunk on loftiness. That’s when the terrestrial animal woke up and, finding its teammate asleep, let itself fall down hard, given over to voracious hunger for impure matter. When satiated, this beast nodded off, the noble bronco awoke and was master of the coach once more. Thus, between one horse and the other, between heaven and earth, now pulling on this rein and now on that one, Adam’s soul rose up or tumbled down. At the end of each trip Adam the coachman wiped acrid sweat from his brow. (p27)

Using many literary and philosophical references throughout, the influences of European thinking and culture upon Argentine progress is a subtle backdrop to the travails of our hero and his merry band of writers, artists, poets. The philosopher Samuel Tesler appears in chapter two, he does not wash as a rejection of being baptised (as per Stephen Dedalus?) and his appearance ensures there are many philosophical debates throughout their journey.

In Book Two, Adam Buenosayres wanders the streets, a la Bloom in “Ulysses” and meets a large cast of characters, this is the melting pot of Buenos Aires. A funeral crosses his path, we have dishwashers calling on Melpomene “the tragic muse” quoting poetry, Polyphemus appears as a blind street beggar who owns rental properties, drinking funeral coachmen, old witches who have been fleeced, men doffing hats to statues of Christ, large pregnant women, nymphs in blue, white and green revealing a “Hesperides of incalculable abundance”, Clotho with a spinning wheel, Syrians smoking the narghile, and it all comes together with a resounding crescendo…a fight;

Standing in the first row of the ring, Adam Buenosayres studied the combatants. There were the Iberians of thick eyebrows who’d left northern Spain and their dedication to Ceres to come here and drive orchestral streetcars; there were those who drank from the torrential Miño River, men practiced in the art of argumentation; those from the Basque countries, the natural hardness of their heads concealed by blue berets. Then there were the Andalusian matadors, abundant in guitars and brawls. And industrious Ligurians, give to wine and song. Neopolitans erudite in the fruits of Pomona, who now wield municipal brooms. Turks of pitch-black mustachios, who sell soap, perfumed water, and combs destined for cruel uses. Jews wrapped in multi-coloured blankets, who love not Bellona. Greeks astute in the stratagems of Mercury. Dalmatians of well-rivetted kidneys. The Syrio-Lebanese, who flee not the skirmishes of Theology. And Japanese dry-cleaners. In short, all those who had come from the ends of the earth to fulfil the lofty destiny of the Land-which-from-a-noble-metal-takes-its-name. Adam studied those unlikely faces and wondered about that destiny, and great was his doubt. (p94)

As the journey continues the reader is exposed to an array of Argentine history, myth and sub-cultures, the five books coming to a nationalistic conclusion;

The Argentine, by nature, was and must be a sober man, as our country folk were and still are. And so were, and are, the immigrants responsible for the existence of the majority of us. Bet what’s happened? Foreigners have induced us into a cult of sensuality and hedonism, inventing a thousand needs we didn’t have before. And – of course! – it’s all so they can sell us the geegaws they produce industrially, and so redeem the gold they pay us for our raw materials. In plain language, that’s what I call eating with both hands! (p336)

A full novel contained in the first five books, Marechal’s “Ulysses”, but this only constitutes a little over half of the work, we still have “The Blue-Bound Notebook” and the final book “Journey to the Dark City of Cacodelphia”.

“The Blue-Bound Notebook” is a metaphysical exploration, a delving into the soul of Adam Buenosayres, a philosophical musing on existence and love. The book where he has written his inner most desires for Solveig, this section explores Adam’s heart;

She moved slowly forward, beneath a sun perpendicular to the earth: her body, without shadow, had the firm fragility of a branch, a sort of combative force in her lightness, a terrible audacity in her decorum. She wore a sky-blue dress wrapped round her like a whisp of mist; but the garden, the light, the air, all heaven and earth joined forces and worked to clothe her, so much to be feared was her nakedness. With her face turned to the sun, she showed the two violets of her eyes and the slight arc of her smile; a bee buzzed in circles around her hair. As she walked, her small feet crushed golden sand, seashells, and the carapaces of blue beetles. Her arrival seemed to last an eternity, as it The One came from very far off, across a hundred days and a hundred nights. (p384)

After exploring Adam Buenosayres soul and inner machinations it is time for a decent into Hell, a la Dante’s “Inferno”, here nine stages of the helicoid tracking the living hell of Buenos Aires, the masses chewing, swallowing and shitting whatever news is fed to them, sexual debauchery, where Chapter 15 “Circe” in “Ulysses” instantly sprang to mind;

Why, it’s Don Moses Rosenbaum! He has exhumed his ancient lustring frock coat and his astrakhan hat. See how his crazed gaze wanders over the banquet table! And observe how, in the face of such devastation, he tears tufts from his beard, weeps without a sound, raises his arms toward the ceiling, as though trying to prop it up? Great God, what’s he doing now? In his madness, the poor wretch has started gathering crumbs from the tablecloth, righting toppled glasses, and salvaging the spilled wine. But no one sees or hears him, and around him the debauchery intensifies. (p470)

Occasional spices of humour appear, for example the dragon guarding the door into the fifth circle of hell needs to be put to sleep, how they do so is to read it Argentine literature.

A massive novel that contains riches upon riches, a work that deserves better recognition as a canonical piece of Argentine literary history, a book that is not an easy read, a mental exercise that took me many months to complete. Late in the book Leopoldo Marechal explains it thus;

Reader, my dear friend, if I had to justify the drowsiness that came over me in the fourth circle of Schultz’s inferno, I should remind you of a hundred illustrious precedents recorded in as many infernal excursions. Alighieri, being who he was, slept quite a bit in the descent he made. If the metaphysical character of his journey allows us to assign a symbolic value to that bard’s siestas, we can say that Alighieri slept in the proper place at the proper time. Less fortunate than he, I made an infernal descent without theological projections. I didn’t sleep when I should have, but rather when it was humanely possible to do so. How lucky are you, reader! For, having no metaphysical obligations or any cares whatsoever, you can cop a snooze on any page at all of this, my true story! (p481)

Underappreciated, sadly released in English with barely a whimper, “Adam Buenosayres” was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, not even making the shortlist (the eventual winner was Can Xue’s “The Last Lover”), which is extremely disappointing given the massive effort that the translator has put in here and given the novel’s place in Argentine literary history. Lauded by Julio Cortázar shortly after the novel was released in 1948, where he said “The publication of this book is an extraordinary event in Argentine literature.”

For lovers of complex literature this is worth reading, not because it is a materwork, but just for the ending where an insatiable desire of knowledge and the allure of reading is debated. Of all the national “Ulysses” I have read, I must say the comparison here is completely justified.

Baboon – Naja Marie Aidt (translated by Denise Newman) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

Short stories, short review.
Born in Greenland, Danish language writer Naja Marie Aidt won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize in 2008 for this short story collection (originally published as ‘Bavian’), and the translation, her first work to appear in English, was the recipient of the 2015 PEN Translation Prize. Add to the list of honours, a longlist appearance for the US based Best Translated Book Award, it meant my purposely delayed reading of these fifteen short stories to co-incide with Women In Translation Month was only heightening my sense of anticipation.
A collection which includes the surreal, the all too real, twists, simple incidents, it is not a work which can be easily classified. However the theme of fractured relationships kept bubbling to the surface.
We have stories with divorced couple, a couple with an adopted child revealing their extra marital affairs to each other, an abusive mother who beats her two-year-old child, a minor shoplifting incident which spirals out of control…
The story “The Honeymoon” explores a couple on their way to the matriarchal city of Olympus when they are attacked by a William Blake quoting savage.
Clearly the women had all the power here. He and Eva had read about it. The whole island functioned as a matriarchy; the order of succession went from mother to daughter. The women owned everything, whatever was worth owning. And here he saw it in practice; in any case, that’s what he thought. The women ran the businesses with an iron fist. The gathered outside the shops and bars, standing in small groups with their hands on their hips, and, with agitate hand movements and loud shouts, the bossed around the older boys and men who had snuck in to take a break from working. Old men with little children on their hips, boys in the middle of sweeping or carrying in goods, men dragging heavy bags home from the shops, men sweeping the stone steps, men washing dishes in the kitchens of the restaurants, whose eyes he met through the open windows. The women frightened him. There was a self-confidence in their eyes when they looked at him that he’d never seen in women before. A clear strong energy, a power, and the deep satisfaction that that power gives. Without undertones of either anger or vindictiveness. No disdain or cloying sweetness. No hint of a wish to be accepted, acknowledged, or liked.
In “The Green Darkness Of The Big Trees” we have a narrator who can only find peace and happiness whilst wandering alone in a garden:
That night I woke up crying, bathed in sweat. I had dreamed that in one single night a hurricane had stripped the leaves off all the trees in the world. I was in despair. Bare black trunks and a trembling stillness. I cried over my loneliness, which I only now understood. And I scolded myself. How could I think that you desired my company? In the mirror I saw a pathetic figure, unshaven, half bald, gray, dull red eyes with an empty expression. I couldn’t stop crying. I stayed in bed all the next day. It was Friday, I was weak and warm. I staggered down to buy a few groceries. It wasn’t until Tuesday that I returned to the garden. But I was unable to enter my silver maple. It rejected me. Or was it the opposite? The tree was silent. I felt unworthy. That’s how I was standing there, limp arms hanging at my sides, staring at the tree, at the yellow and light green leaves at its base, my legs shaking under me, wearing a coat that was far too big, when you walked up behind me, stood there quietly for a little while. I felt your gaze, and then saw you turn around. I saw your back. I saw you hurry away. In no way can I blame you for avoiding me. I would’ve done the same.
This is a collection that explores the breadth of human emotions and interactions, with “The Car Trip” giving us the all too familiar tale of what your life would be reduced to when you take four kids in a car to a summer holiday house. From a sulking teenager, seeking their own independence, through to a screaming baby, forget the romance you thought may happen whilst you are away, here is the reality.
Poetic in style, it is no shock to know Naja Marie Aidt has numerous published poetic works and linking her up with the translator Denise Newman is a coup de grace with Newman a published poet (three collections). At no stage did I find any of this varied collection cumbersome or slow, although there is a wide range of styles, from short sharp bursts, the melancholic wanderings. There is a hint of the surreal in the final story “Mosquito Bite” where our protagonist has a one night stand, where he can’t recall the full outcome, notices a mosquito bite the following day and his healthy life slowly deteriorates along with his relationship with his brothers and sisters. Is the one night stand linked to his health failing, is this some kind of metamorphosis, is it simply a mosquito bite?

This is a very enjoyable collection and a worthy inclusion on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, personally I am looking forward to Open Letter adding to Two Lines Press’ release of Naja Marie Aidt’s work with their upcoming publication “Rock, Paper, Scissors”.

La Grande – Juan José Saer (translated by Steve Dolph) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

Juan José Saer passed away in 2005, in Paris. During his final days in the hospital he worked on the book “La Grande” which was published posthumously in October of the same year.  In Amanda Hopkinson’s obituary published in The Guardian, she says:
Born outside the literary nexus of the capital, to parents of siriolibanes (Middle Eastern) origin, his writing had nothing to do with the world of tango and extravagant baroque, nor with the streets of Buenos Aires and Latin American magical realism.
Instead he wrote, in a strikingly spare style, of what he knew personally. He wrote of his home town, the provincial city of Santa Fe and its cast of often strange characters, and of his adopted home, Paris, a place of tower blocks and back alleys, inhabited by incomers and sadistic criminals, and by his fictitious maverick, Chief Inspector Morvan.
With a dozen novels, four volumes of short stories and a collection of poetry he was a celebrated part of the Argentine literary scene, even though he lived “in exile” in France. This last work, published by Open Letter Books, apparently contains numerous characters from earlier works, and was shortlisted for the US based Best Translated Book Award for 2015.
Our story opens with two men crossing a field, Gutiérrez, who mysteriously disappeared from Argentina thirty years before and who has just as mysteriously reappeared, buying a mansion. He is accompanied by a “friend” (they’ve met only twice before this day), Nula, a young wine salesman.
Our novel takes place over the space of a single week, split into seven sections, commencing with “Tuesday Water Sounds”, however it also takes place over thirty years, as our multi layered number of characters interact, question Gutiérrez’s disappearance and reflect on the literary movement “precisionism”.
Running at close to 500 pages there is plenty of room for our novelist to muse on a raft of themes, including the inner machinations of his main protagonists:
They – people from the rich countries he lived in for more than thirty years – have completely lost touch with reality and now slither around in a miserable sensualism and, as a moral consequence, content themselves with the sporadic exercise of beneficence and the contrite formulation of instructive aphorisms. He refers to the rich as the fifth column and the foreign party, and the rest, the masses, he argues, would be willing to trade tin their twelve-year-old daughter to a Turkish brothel for a new car. Any government lie suits them fine as long as they don’t have to give up their credit cards or do without superfluous possessions. The rich purchase their solutions to everything, as do the poor, but with debt. They are obsessed with convincing themselves that their way of life is the only rational one and, consequently, they are continuously indignant at the individual or collective crimes they commit or tolerate, looking to justify with pedantic shyster sophisms the acts of cowardice that obligate them to shamelessly defend the prison of excessive comfort they’ve built for themselves, and so on, and so on.
This is a very detailed work, although only over the course of a single week it contains musings on a raft of subjects, sometimes taking numerous pages to describe the natural environment and the surroundings in minute detail. For example, the effect of multiple raindrops on a river simply being single raindrops.
Our character development is of course detailed (Wednesday The Four Corners – section two) includes Nula’s family history, beginning with his grandfather who arrived in this Argentine village from Damascus. We also learn of Nula’s relationship with Lucía (as it transpires Gutiérrez’s illegitimate daughter) and their meeting. A coincidence, with long ruminations of space and time, chemical reactions that made “life” possible, to Nula’s delay at a cafe, to Lucía simply walking past at the time Nula leaves the cafe.
The fragments of each chanracter’s make-up, builds to a crescendo on the make up of relationships, you read wondering if all these pieces of the puzzle explain why Gutiérrez disappeared thirty years ago. As each day unfolds you know it is building to the invitations being handed out by Gutiérrez to a gathering at his mansion on the Sunday.
With a recurring motif of “ANOTHER MORO PROPERTY FOR SALE” and a mobile sign with the slogan “Visit HELVECIA, FOR THE GOLDEN DORADO” the puzzle has many layers. However the main theme is the passing of time (obviously within the seven day setting on the thirty year absence).
The sun has now begun to redden; its circumference is sharper and the flaming disc seems to have cooled and smoothed, losing its look of boiling metal and gaining a sort of gentleness. But the afternoon that is repeated on the plain has something solemn and disquieting about it, and an unmistakable impression comes suddenly and destroys every illusion, that the place we thought we were living is another, larger, and this destructive realization removes every known sense of the verb to live.
What happened whilst Gutiérrez was away? Returning “with the same economy of explanations as when he left”. What actually is the literary movement “precisionism” all about? For example, we have three pages explaining Gabriela threading a needle with cotton, is this precisionism?
A number of times I couldn’t help but recall Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” with multiple characters, a missing “artist” a literary movement and of course the South American feel. But in my mind this is no Bolaño.

To be honest this work made me feel like I was wading chest deep through a swamp of thick immutable treacle, the length and depth of passages that have no relevance (page after page to thread a needle?) and the banality of existence came to the fore. I can fully understand why Juan José Saer has a following, and I can fully appreciate the depth and breadth of his prose, it is just not my style. A work I wouldn’t have placed on the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, with a number higher raked in my opinion than this one.

Monastery – Eduardo Halfon – translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

…all our journeys are really one single journey, with multiple stops and layovers. That every journey, any journey, is not linear, and is not circular, and it never ends. That every journey is meaningless.

 

Welcome to the rubber-stamp filled passport of Eduardo Halfon, a work that opens with a Franz Kafka epigraph “A cage went in search of a bird.” Our book, “Monastery”, could be loosely described as eight short stories, or it could be a novel moving through numerous countries. The protagonist is Eduardo Halfon himself, world citizen, writer, a Guatemalan Jew from Polish stock, searching the planet for himself.

 

The book opens with Halfon landing at Tel Aviv airport, with his younger brother, to attend his sister’s wedding. She is a practicing Jew and Eduardo is not too happy about the upcoming wedding. At the airport he meets Tamara, an ex-girlfriend, who now works for Lufthansa. Our opening gives us the insight into Halfon’s Jewish family history:

 

Thinking about my paternal grandfather. From Lebanon. He and his seven brothers and sisters had fled Beirut at the turn of the twentieth century (my great-grandmother died during their escape and was buried in some Jewish cemetery in Corsica). Curiously, employing what might have been some commercial survival strategy, they decided that each borther and sister would settle in a different city: in Paris, in Guatemala City, in Mexico City, in Cali, in Lima, in Havana, in Manhattan, in Miami (the great-uncle I remember best – handsome, an opera singer, friend or member of Miami’s Italian Mafia – served time in a Florida jail for being a gigolo). My Lebanese grandfather, after spending a few years in Paris, was the one who then saved his brother in Guatemala from bankruptcy. That was where he met my grandmother. That was where he opened a store in El Portal del Comercio. That was where he built his palace.

 

Besides not wanting to attend his sister’s wedding (why did he fly all the way to Tel Aviv if he wasn’t going to attend?) he is struggling with his connection to the Orthodox Jewish faith, he is struggling with an identity of any description, he’s a world citizen, not Guatemalen, not Polish, not Lebanese, a wanderer searching to fill the empty void, and as he writes this all down, we are along for the journey:

 

She asked where I was from. I finished chewing a mouthful, my tongue stunned by the chiltepe, and said I was Guatemalan, just like her. She smiled politely, perhaps suspiciously, perhaps thinking the same thing I was thinking, and turned her eyes up toward the cloudless sky. I don’t know why I always find it hard to convince people, to convince myself even, that I’m Guatemalan. I suppose the expect to see someone darker and squatter, someone who looks more like them, to hear someone whose Spanish sounds more tropical. And I never pass up any opportunity to distance myself from the country either, literally as well as literarily. I grew up abroad. I spend long stretched of time abroad. I write about it and describe it from abroad. As though I was a perpetual migrant. I blow smoke over my Guatemalan origins until they become dimmer and hazier. I feel no nostalgia, no loyalty, no patriotism – despite the fact that, as my Polish grandfather liked to say, the first song I learned to sing, age two, was the national anthem.

 

Our stories take place in Tel Aviv, Guatemala, Belize, Harlem, Poland and have local foods, music, airport workers and a common thread of characters from Eduardo’s life. One of the common themes is the awkward silences, the things that should be said (but are only thought), they simply remain as awkward silences.

 

In one story Halfon drives a nice car to a remote indigenous Guatemalan house so he can park safely and visit a beach, he comes across a family who keep their deranged eldest child in a cage. Not a metaphoric cage, although there is no explanation of the situation as it is a taboo subject. We also have him visiting a coffee plantation and we receive an explanation of market forces manipulated by the New York Stock Exchange on the price of Guatemalan coffee beans. All of this revealed during the course of a meal of hot tortillas, avocado and followed by hot mangoes. But the coffee discussion is a curtain to hide what really needs to be said:

 

Don Juan turned his back to us and seemed to step into the enormous, lone coffee plant. As though hiding among its green leaves, searching for something among its green leaves. As though wishing the old plant would protect him. His back still to is, he was plucking beans off the old plant, slowly, tenderly, his campesino hands letting the red fruit fall soundlessly onto the dry ground. He bent a little and picked the lower beans. He stretched to the upper branches, pulled them toward him, and his expert hands stripped them clean. The ground around his feet was turning red. He straw hat crackled in the branches. He now looked more hunched, smaller. He kept on plucking beans and dropping them onto the ground. He kept entering the foliage of the old plant, the greenery of the leaves and branches, until the whole of him disappeared entirely.

 

The stories link across each other, with recurring characters (such as the ex-girlfriend Tamara) but there is no concrete ground here, Halfon is searching for himself, writing his stories as he visits the planet, with nowhere to call home, as he explores the trivialities of existence:

 

I watch a group of children running around on the roof of the submarine base. An outing from some French school, I think, and I think about the word trivial, about the importance of the trivial in art, in literature. Isn’t the trivial, after all, the raw material of the short story writer? Aren’t anecdotes that seem trivial – that is to say, insignificant – the very clay with which the short story writer carris out his craft and shapes his art? All of life, I think, is codified in these trivial, miniscule, transparent details – details that seem not to contain anything of importance (a leaf of grass, wrote Walt Whitman, is no less than the journey-work of the stars). A great short story writer, I think as the children play on the old submarine base, know how to make something immense of the brief, something transcendent of the insignificant, knows how to transform nothing at all into a few pages that contain everything.

 

This is a work which is Karl Ove Knausgaard’esque in its exploration of triviality, and I’m pretty sure Eduardo and Karl Ove would be on a par with their cigarette smoking. We have rings on fingers, male and female, creating a perception, which then of course becomes the reality. As mentioned before we have unspoken silences, the times when you want to ask that question but feel it is out of place, explaining the awkwardness and they create a reality. We have the repetition of themes, stories, snippets, slowly building to create our perception of Halfon, our reality of the writer. All building towards his “Monastery”, a writer who is transforming “nothing at all into a few pages that contain everything”.

 

One of my favourites of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award longlist, a writer I will continue to follow, there is no doubt that I’ll search out his other translated into English work “The Polish Boxer” (sketches of this character featuring in “Monastery”) and I will have any future works on my radar. Viva Guatemala.

Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab – Bohumil Hrabal (translated by David Short) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

As I mentioned in my review of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel “Harlequin’s Millions”, also a contender for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, Hrabal is considered, by many, to be one of the best Czech writers of the 20thcentury. “Harelquin’s Millions” was a runner up in this year’s Award with the judges mentioning “the wonderful lyricism of its winding sentences”. The work I review today is a collection of short stories, nineteen in all, published by Charles University in Prague, Karolinum Press.

The book contains an afterword by Vaclac Kadlec and “Translator’s Notes” by David Short where the history of these stories and the lyricism and challenges of translation are explained. Our stories are from the 1970’s and it is actually his last collection of short stories. A number of these stories were omitted from the original publication with a number of them also reworked. Submitted in early 1975 it was three years before the book finally appeared. In this edition we are told the published have “sought to preserve the author’s original intention” with the omitted works included and a further two removed along with a 1972 story, “The Maid of Honour” included.
Our work begins with “The St Bernard Inn”, a tale of a dream to take over the local inn, serve local food, furnish the place in style, but it is told via the story of a St Bernard sitting on the patio. Welcome to the rural world of Bohumil Hrabal and more specifically the Kersko Forest. In fact our book contains a map of the region so we can refer to the region where the tales take place.
“A Moonlit Night” brings the local police commandant into our world, telling us of his keeping law and order by letting down bike tyres of drunken citizens:
And then he took himself off with his bike, meek and barely able to walk, it wasn’t just his tyre I’d let down, but his soul, too, and that’s how it should be, when I’m on duty I don’t know even my own brother, I once fined my son for parking in the wrong place, and though he hasn’t spoken to me since, I’m quite happy talking to myself and the Moon, the Moon hanging up there in the sky, I talk to the pine trees when they let out their smell, these are my friends, and I can tell that ditches and streams and ponds are my friends, I don’t care for others any more, I don’t want to know them. I’m a loner. So I sat down, the Moon sat on my lap like some girl or other, I held out my arms and the moon-light licked my hands like a kitten, or a police dog.
Our stories reveal the characters of Kersko , their intricate details, their fears and their idiocyracies. “Mr Methie” is a story about a man who collects worthless bargains, like pairs of shoes with two left feet “Not buy a thing when it’s a real bargain?” A book where we revisit the place “where time stands still”.
“A Feral Cow” tells of a stray dog who had taken up home in a dairy barn and as the dog is causing problems it is shot, frightening a cow, who escapes into the forest. The local law enforcement officer (our narrator in this tale) decides to hunt the now feral cow:
I’ll call the hunters together, because I’m one too, a fully paid-up member of the hunt, and we’ll shoot the cow, having tracked it down first, because a feral cow might start attacking people and man is the measure of all things, not only notionally, but also for real, and doubly so in our own time, when all other comrades and I, we guard the substance of socialism against the foe, even if that foe turns out to be a feral cow.
A collection which is a scathing attack on communism, the struggle of the locals, all told though through simple tales, with only a smattering of the daily problems, written in a serious tone but dripping with sarcasm.
We have recurring characters, we have the recurring theme of meeting at the local inn or pub for a drink (or twenty) and the comraderie of the region, the care called Kersko:
Kersko Forest is so deep that, as legendary Czech wrestler Gustav Frištenský tells us, a black member of his professional Graeco-Roman group got lost in it and Frištenský never saw him again, as he says in his Memoirs.
Our characters are all full of life, including wheelchair bound friends who celebrate the mundane but don’t take offense when refused entry into the pub, we have Hungarian salamis that can’t be left long enough to fine as they are consumed too quickly, wild boar hunting, goulash, innumerable pork slaughters and dishes:
From six o’clock onwards the sole pre-occupation of any true man of Kersko and its forests is to spend a pleasant evening over a pint in the pub, and all the banter and chit-chat, the arguments and imbecilities are a brilliant way to unwind from our daily tribulations, so our serenity is fully restored and as we cycle home at night we’re on a par with a newborn child, though that only on the assumption that mine host has been good to us.
Generally the stories are a single paragraph, although twenty odd pages in length, and the traditional long winding sentences remain. At times I did find the translation a little clunky (“I was sitting by an open window, deeply engrossed and without not a single reason to be doing anything..”), however the notes at the end of the book did assist explaining Hrabal’s regular use of invented words, love of alliteration, and other idiosyncrasies which could explain the ‘stop/check/re-read/check/give up’ reading I had at times.
It is also a patchy collection with the later works being very experimental in style and having a preoccupation with the writer’s own death. I much preferred the earlier stories of simple characters and interactions in the inns, rather than the mythical chasing of women on bicycles with fake diamond pedals, muses with white felt hats and no teeth leaving a doorstep as a gift.
Our book is also beautifully bound, includes a vast collection of colour illustrations by Jiri Grus. Enjoyable, a tad patchy, a large number of gems but a few unpolished rocks, all in all a worthy inclusion on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, but not as strong as Hrabal’s other book on the list, nor am I outraged that it didn’t make the shortlist.

Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret – Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

 

One of the benefits of literary awards, like the Best Translated Book Award, is it brings obscure works to the reading public, nations such as Angola have their artistic presence put to the English speaking world, stories and cultures other than our own are highlighted to a wider audience, and small independent publishers get to highlight their wares. If I hadn’t made the conscious effort to read the longlist of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award I am pretty sure I would still remain without an Angolan novel being on my world reading map.


Author Ondjaki was born in Luanda, Angola in 1977. The author of five novels, three short story collections, poems and stories for children, he was named in 2012, by “The Guardian”, as one of its “Top Five African Writers” and the following year he was awarded the Jose Sarmago Prize for his novel “Os Transparentes”.

This work was originally published in 2008 and is translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan, an admirable job being done their indeed with numerous made up words, a blend of Russian, Portuguese and slang terms throughout, must have presented its own challenges.

To be honest my knowledge of Angolan history was basically non-existent so the Portuguese influence, Cuban speaking characters, a monument to their first President Agostino Neto, and the Soviet troops all a revelation to me.

The work opens with an epigraph by Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, as did the dark “Last Words From Montmartre” by Qiu Miaojin, her works and influence obviously spreading far and wide, Taiwan and Angola!!

It was a huge page with a half-crumpled drawing of the government’ plan for the whole Mausoleum area, with tiny pictures that were dotted with symbols where they were going to put new parks, swing sets, a new waterfront drive close to the sea, lots of space with lawns where dogs could walk and poop all over, slides, water fountains, mature trees that I don’t know how they were going to grow so fast, and a tone of people lining up to enter the Mausoleum and see the body of the Comrade President, embalmed with Soviet techniques.
 

Our story is narrated by a young boy, yes another coming-of-age story, who along with other residents of their area, watches the construction of the Mausoleum, a dedication to former President Agostino Neto, overseen by Soviet “troops”. The characters include 3.14 (Pi’s nickname), Charlita, Dr. Rafael KnockKnock (named after the way he quietly knocks on doors), Comrade Gas Jockey (resident of a defunct gas station), Sea Foam (a local dreadlocked Cuban speaking crazy who swims in the sea foam every day), and Soviet Goodafterov (named after the way he says “good afternoon”). Of course we have Granma Nineteen, named after she has to toe amputated from gangrene.

The story is a retrospective look at the threat to a local community by the construction of the Mausoleum, a time when they feel threatened of having their homes “dexploded” and the plans the kids come up with to rid themselves of the threat. An older character looking back, “it was in a time the elders call before” and all the childhood influences which have created the person he is today.

What could be read as a political allegory for the country of Angola, with the Soviets keeping caged local birds in a warehouse, with parrots saying anti-USA things such as “Hey, Reagan, hands off Angola”, the Cuban influenced Sea Foam crazily attempting to release the caged birds. The Angolan people have had their culture and identity stolen and caged, how can they get it back?

When you grow up, you have to remember all of these tales. Inside you. You promise?
 

As per numerous African novels of this style, the innocence of youth is to the fore, and the language paints an evocative picture of the setting:

The sea breeze carried a heap of smells that you had to keep your eyes closed to understand, as though it were a carnival of colours: mangoes still green and pretty hanging from the trees, mangoes already gnawed by bats, the green smell of the cherimoya fruit, the dust brushed of the guavas that were about to fall, the smell of Surinam cherries blended with that of the loquat tree, the smells of chicken coups and pigpens, the cries of the parrots and the dogs, two or three bursts from an AK-47, a radio that someone had left on during a news broadcast in an African language, the footfalls of people who were running to get home, or at least to get to a place where they wouldn’t get wet, and even if it were already late, the sounds of the bakery that was in the street behind, where they started work so early and worked all night to ensure that the bread arrived hot at the houses of people who spent the whole night sleeping. Which meant that, in the end, the smell of the rain was a difficult thing to describe to someone who wasn’t familiar with the bathroom of Granma Agnette’s house.
 

The story is quite a simple one and the tension builds towards a conclusion where our rooting for the anti-hero youths of Angola is revealed. However, towards the end the work I felt the tension dropped and as we got very close to the ending, the story almost deconstructed and the style suddenly leapt into a different tone, it became rushed nature and personally I felt this detracted from the earlier innocent sections. It could well be another parallel with Angolan history with a cobbled plan for the future being put in place, but by the time I’d gotten that far into the work, to suddenly change style felt cumbersome and I just pushed through to the end. 

Personally one of my least favourite of the Best Translated Book Award longlist, however that does not mean it is not a worthwhile book to investigate.

As regular visitors to this blog would possibly know, I am not a huge fan of coming-of-age stories, and without specifically demeaning this book in any way, it is actually a fine example of the young innocent voice style, I am personally a bit over picking up an African book and finding it is in a child’s voice. Recently I’ve reviewed NoViolet Bulaweyo’s “We Need New Names”from Zimbabwe, Juan Tomas Avila Laurel’s Equatorial Guinean “By Night The MountainBurns” and the Tutsi tale, “Our Lady of the Nile” by Scholastique Mukasonga. All African works, all in children’s voices, all looking at the issues in their countries through innocent eyes.

Again not a criticism of this book, but a reflection on the choices made by publishers where the same investments in translating literature are being focused on a similar storyline. One would think there would be a raft of available literature from these little represented nations but to focus on a single style and genre is becoming a tad repetitive.

If these coming-of-age tales are your thing, then possibly this is a work for you, a further exposure to an emerging African writer and a glimpse into Angolan life.

Street of Thieves – Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

In February I reviewed Mathias Enard’s “Zone” (translated by Charlotte Mandell), a work longlisted for the 2012 Best Translated Book Award, a work published in Great Britain in 2014 and therefore eligible for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, a work the Shadow Jury of that award rated highly and shortlisted, a work lauded by critics and one used to push along the sales of “Street of Thieves”. The covers quotes ‘Bomb’, “Enard’s Zone is an epic of modern literature”, the back cover says “Zone, which Christophe Claro boldly declared to be ‘the novel of the decade, of not the century.’” A hard act to follow? Let’s see.
Our story (again translated by Mandell) is a first person narrative with Lakhdar our narrator, he “has no moral strength whatsoever” and early in the work he falls for his next door neighbour, his cousin, is caught in flagrante by his father and leaves home. His fate is sealed as we follow him though living on the Moroccan street, selling his body, until finally a childhood friend, Bassam, gets him a job as a bookseller at the Propogation of Koranic Thought. Although a practicing Muslim, Lakhdar reads French thrillers, drinks an occasional beer, smokes spliffs every now and again and as a young man enjoys ogling the bodies of the female tourist. He is still a child wandering, looking for a destination.
Sheikh Nureddin invited us to lunch at a little neighbourhood restaurant, like every Friday, with the rest of the “active members” of the Group; I listened to them talk politics, Arab Revolutions, etc. It was amusing to see these bearded conspirators licking their fingers; the Sheikh had spread his napkin over his chest, one corner tucked into his shirt collar, so as not to get stains on himself – saffron sauce doesn’t come out easily. Another man held his spoon with his fist like a cudgel and shovelled food in a few inches away from his plate, to have the least distance possible to travel: he stuffed semolina into his wide open mouth like gravel into a cement mixer. Bassam had already finished, his cheeks streaked with yellow, and was now passionately sucking a last chicken bone. The beards of these prophets glistened with semolina grains, were spotted with a shower of garden snow, and they needed to be brushed off like rugs.
The colour, the atmosphere, and the smells of Moroccan life are constantly brought to life through Enard’s expressive language. This is a world where Lakhdar wants escape, we many meetings with Bassam on the shore, watching the ferries leaving to Spain, a world where life could surely not be as bad as living in Tangier.
Our narrator meets a young Spanish tourist, Judit, falls in love and sees a way out of the endless monotony of selling cheap books. Judit gives him, as a gift, a copy of Choukri’s “For Bread Alone” and I thought we would have a parallel story opening up. “For Bread Alone” is Choukri’s autobiographical novel describing drought and starvation as a youngster in Rif (the village where Lakhdar’s cousin retreats to), a further travel to Tangier (where Lakhdar now lives), tales of homelessness, begging, petty theft, prostitution, drugs, alcohol. And although our work is littered with these tales too Lakhdar is also self educated, learning French from reading cheap thrillers, using the internet to be an expert in Arabic to impress the girlfriend, however, I feel the connection to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is more apt. More on that later…
We follow Lakhdar as he moves from dead end job to dead end job:
I also took advantage of my boss’s absence to sketch out a plan. I knew he kept – at least when he was there – a certain sum of money in a little safe, so he could pay people without a middleman, that this safe had a key, and that he kept it on his key ring.
The idea of stealing it came to me from the thriller I was reading, from all the thrillers I had read; after all, wasn’t I locked up in a novel, a very noir one? It was only logical that it was these books that suggested a way out.
On the surface this work could be compared to last year’s Best Translated Book Award shortlisted “Horses of God” by Mahi Binebine(translated by Lulu Norman), a novel revisiting the lives of twelve suicide bombers who died in Casablanca in May 2003, along with thirty civilians. That tale following Yachine from the after-life as he reflects on his journey from the slums to suicide bomber. However this book implies complicity in the activities of the Arab Spring and the riots in Barcelona, and is more the journey of Lakhdar from troubled youth to troubled adult in Barcelona, living with the drug addicts and prostitutes on the Street of Thieves.
I left Algeciras with the sensation that the world was empty, peopled exclusively by phantoms that appeared at night to die or kill, to leave or take, without ever seeing each other or communicating with each other, and in the long night of the bus that brought me to Barcelona, city of Fate and Death, I had the terrible impression of crossing into the Land of Darkness, the real darkness, our own, and the further the bus advanced into obscurity on the highway in the middle of the desert, between Almeria and Murcia, the deeper the horror I had just witnessed seeped into me;”
This work opens with an epigraph from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (‘But when one is young, one must see things, gather experience, ideas; enlarge the mind.’ ‘Here!’ I interrupted. ‘You can never tell! Here I met Mr. Kurtz.’) and I feel the references are quite dominant throughout. “The Horror”, a character Cruz, who is a peddler of death, locking Lakhdar in his quarters, obsessed with macabre endings of human life – surely a thinly veiled reference to Kurtz?
We also have the theme of failing to understand the machinations and motivations of others, a mind in darkness, as well as the slow journey towards understanding oneself. We have the boats travelling (Conrad in reverse) to the perceived freedom of Spain, and instead of the Congo River leading to the heart we have the Mediterranean leading to freedom.
Cities can be tamed, or rather they tame us; they teach us how to behave, they make us lose, little by little, our foreign surface; they tear our outer yokel shell away from us, melt us into themselves, shape us in their image – very quickly, we abandon our way of walking, we stop looking in the air, we no longer hesitate when we enter a subway station, we have the right rhythm, we advance at the right pace, and whether you’re Moroccan, Pakistani, English, German, French, Andalusian, Catalan, or Philippine, in the end Barcelona, London, or Paris train us like dogs. We surprise ourselves one day, waiting at the pedestrian crossing for the signal to walk; we learn the language, the words of the city, its smells, its clamor”

Whilst no “Zone” with the spiralling journey into a man’s mind over 600 kilometres without stopping, this is still an enjoyable book. With references to numerous other books throughout, it is also a journey the reader could explore further. With an anti-hero narrator, a “thriller” style tension, and references to the economic collapse of Europe, a yearning for a “home”, Islamist thought, it can be slightly scattered at times. There are “Zone” like ramblings which do feel out of place in a simple tale, however personally I found this an enjoyable work, a worthy inclusion on the Best Translated Book Award longlist, but if the judges felt “Zone” wasn’t worthy of the shortlist then I can fully understand why this didn’t make the final ten.

Winter Mythologies and Abbots – Pierre Michon (translated by Ann Jefferson) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

It’s the High Middle Ages, with its beautiful images, assiduous scribes, and horses.

Pierre Michon, as publishers Yale University Press and Archipelago Books (for “Small Lives” and “The Eleven”) is a multi-award winning French writer, including the Prix Décembre, Grand Prix SGDL de literature, the Prix Louis Guilloux, and the Prix de la Ville de Paris.


Our work is actually two works, Mytholo­gies d’hiver, pub­lished in 1997, and Abbés, 1992, are combined here in what, is still, a short work (totalling 116 pages). However that doesn’t mean it is a light read, this prose is denser than the forests portrayed.


As the opening quote alludes to we are in the High Middle Ages and our book opens with “Winter Mythologies”, twelve character portraits, thee miracles in Ireland and nine passages on “the Causes”. Our story opens with “Brigid’s Fervor”, where the daughters of a King are bathing in the river and are approached by Patrick, the archbishop of Armagh. They are convinced that baptism will help them see “the true God” and take part as well as preparing for their first Holy Communion. Brigit, the eldest daughter, is convinced she will see the Son of God, with tragic consequences.


Next up is “Columbkill’s Sadness”, “it is winter in the year 559”, and Columbkill reads from the library of Finian the abbot. He comes across St Jerome’s translation of the psalms copied by Faustus.


“Suibhne’s Levity” tells us the story of king Suibhne’s battle with his trusted abbot, Fin Barr’s, brother.


The Annals of the Four Masters recounts that Suibhne, king of Kildare, has a taste for things of this world. He is a simple man. Simple happiness and simple pleasures are his way. He is heavy and course, with nasty fair hair on his head like moss on a stone – and no delicacy of mind or soul. He wages war, he eats, he laughs, and for the rest he is like the brown bull of Cuailnge which covers fifty heifers a day. Fin Barr the abbot follows close behind this human monolith, and tries to remind him that the hereafter reckons even the thickness of a hair. The thickness of the soul is worse. Fin Barr lived for nine years at the tip of a headland, and nine more years on the lake, at Gougane Barra, with the seagulls and the crows: he is all mind and hands of glass. Curiously, he loves Suibhne because Suibhne is like a bull or a rock that might possibly have a soul. And Suibhne loves Fin Barr, who makes him feel, beyond the joys of this world, the joy of having a soul.


These opening three stories “Fervor”, “Sadness”, and “Levity” in their titles reveal the breadth of these emotions, a religious fervor, a sadness of loss and the levity of relationships. An exploration of the lives of Saints, which continues throughout the latter vignettes.


Our stories are well researched with Michon creating a fictional world for the characters who became saints, a reality where these minor players again have centre stage.


“Abbots” also explores minor historical characters with a lot more depth than the opening “Winter Mythologies” where some sketches run to only three or four pages.


Our tale opens with the story of Eble, lord of the monastery on a small broken island. He has two passions, Glory and female flesh:


Glory, which is the gift of spreading fire within the memory of men, and flesh, which has the gift of consuming bodies at will in a spike of flame or a bolt of lightning. And the tall woman who is standing in front of him, and who is already walking away on her feet of marble, has the unbound vertical force of a lightning flash.


We have the tale of a wild boar, a beast who could be the devil himself:


Around the Feast of the Holy Cross in September the men and the blue hounds are busy with hart: the women hunt hare on the shore with hawks and sheld-fowl with slender, quivering dogs from Syria. The gray boar emerges from the russet oak wood, and twenty paces off he trots the length of the procession, as if he were following them. The few Syrian dogs foolish enough to approach him are gored without causing him to even swerve from his path. The women turn back and retreat to the castle; they set up a gallop, the boar gallops too, twenty paces off; they take fright, but not Emma. She has a sort of fondness for this monster: it’s like night in full day, like a horse that has scented wild cat and quivers beneath her, like Fierabras who quivers on top of her in the night. He doesn’t leave them until they reach the postern; he trots unhurriedly back toward the tree cover.


The translation of this work would most probably have been a difficult task with Middle Ages terms, equipment and places all to the fore, however the atmosphere of those times slowly unfolds through the murk and as a reader you are transported to habits and armor. A story where an occasional glimpse into Michon’s task of research is added. For example the tourist activity of visiting Saint’s bones is discussed…when you go to the countless churches and see the countless Saint’s bones, “we gawp at the little notice that summarizes the saint’s life which is always fundamentally the same one.” Through this work Michon adds flesh to these forgotten saint’s bones, he adds light to those dark caverns in those churches.


An interesting work, transporting you to times long forgotten, resurrecting the stories of minor players in sainthood, unfortunately I feel as though they are soon to be forgotten again, as this is a slender and “minor” work in that the stories are scant and although the times are recalled the characters are still minor. Fun reading but not a work that I would include on my own personal shortlist for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.

 

 

Last Words From Montmartre – Qiu Miaojin (translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

The sleeve of sets the tone, “When the pioneering Taiwanese novelist Qiu Miaojin committed suicide in 1995 at age twenty-six, she left behind her unpublished masterpiece, Last Words from Montmartre.” As I wrote in my review of Eduoard Leve’s “Suicide”, a work he delivered to his publisher ten days before taking his own life:

There is no escaping the fact that this fictional work’s subject matter and Leve’s own suicide lurks large as you read through the work. Although it is meant to be an homage to the narrator’s friend who had committed suicide twenty years earlier you cannot help to be constantly drawn to the tale of Leve’s own death at his own hands less than two weeks after he delivered to manuscript to his editor.


It is a very similar story with Qiu Miaojin’s work, as our translator, Ari Larissa Heinrich, eloquently says in her afterword:


Knowing that an author writing about suicide has in fact committed suicide naturally complicates the reading of any book. If nothing else, it suggests that no matter what the author’s claims may be to artifice or character development, there is a degree of “realism” or autobiography to be accounted for that differs from the range of what usually may be called the “semiautobiographical”.


In other words, I’m approaching the last words with a predetermined thought pattern. And one cannot underestimate the powerfulness of this work.


Qiu was a published author and celebrated lesbian icon in Taiwan before her death, so our work is not attracting attention purely based on her tragic final act.


Our story takes the form of twenty one letters and introduction and conclusion, as our author points out “If this book should be published, readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written.” In fact the “letters” do not follow a strict numerical sequence with “letter five” appearing after “letter seventeen”, which in itself is repeated twice (as a heading) and appears after “letter ten”.


Please don’t feel burdened by this. It’s just that I still have so much to give. I want to give you everything there is to give. The sweet juice has yet to be completely squeezed from the fruit. All the hurt has not yet severed the cord I’ve tied to your body, so I’ve returned to your side to sing for you. You nearly severed it, but a gossamer filament is still suspended there. I don’t know when you’ll make the final, lethal cut, but before that happens I will cling to you and sing with all my heart.


This is from “Letter One”, a love letter to her ex-girlfriend Xu. And the letters about her love that will never waiver continue. The waves from elation to depression, from obsession to rejection are presented to us as raw as a French steak tartare. This is a work where you are watching a train wreck about to happen and you simply do not have the power to look away:


If I told you the truth, Yong, would I have to drown myself as Osamu Dazai chose to do upon finishing No Longer Human? Remember that time when we went to the Institute of Modern Literature and saw photographs of the recovery effort for Dazai’s body and you promised to take me to the river where he drowned himself. I was thrilled by your suggestion. Yong, when will I die? For a long time I’ve appreciated Dazai, as you know, in a different way than other artists. He didn’t reach his potential, he died before he could become a great name, and Yukio Mishima made fun of him for having “weak vitality.” But this is irrelevant, really. People can make fun of him all they want, and yet the ones who do are often the same ones trying to hide some sort of corruption or hypocrisy, even Mishima. Dazai and I basically share the same nature. Yong, I’d like to go to Tokyo to see the river where he drowned before I die. Will you take me there, to the place you didn’t have time to take me last time?


Although twenty-one “letters” they are not all addressed, some are to her ex Xu, others to Yong, some even appear to be simply noting events in her own life as though self-addressed, this gives us the context of her break down, of her current state of mind and builds the tension and explains the events in her life. A country girl from Taiwan, who is exiled in Paris for study, although fitting in, not being able to retain her own culture, a girl who travels to Japan, a girl who loves the movies of Russian and Greek greats. What is presented on the page is a melding of cultures of sexuality of being a woman of simply being human.


Xu,

Maybe this letter doesn’t fit with the book as a whole. When I’d written as far as the tenth letter the book had already taken on a life of its own. It had its own aesthetic style, its own themes, plus the content and ideas were already mapped in my head. I’ve written nearly half of it and the prose has found its own style organically. It seems I can’t speak honestly to you through the book anymore. IT now expresses more than what I’d wanted to convey to you: it has grown denser, more beautiful, and you won’t be able to appreciate its whole value until I’ve finished writing it. It won’t be a great work of art, but it could be a book of true purity: the detailed, thorough excavation of one very small field of a young person’s life.


This quote is from “Letter Five”, placed after “Letter Seventeen” (as explained above) and until this stage of the work it didn’t read like a “novel”, being engrossed in Qiu’s private thoughts and feelings as though I was a “peeping Tom” on her world, this work is very voyeuristic in style. And besides the inner machinations of Qiu’s mind, we also get an understanding of her deep education and reverence for fine art, film, sculpture, and writing.


If we revere and celebrate Karl Ove Knaugaard’s ramblings through his “My Struggle” series, his examination of the minutiae, his self-indulgence, then there is no reason why we shouldn’t indulge Qiu Miaojin and her ramblings.  


It is not until page 89 of a 146 page work when suicide is explicitly discussed, although there have been many many deep ruminations on death itself, “Yes, this time I’ve decided to kill myself not because I can’t live with suffering and not because I don’t enjoy being alive. I love life passionately, and my wish to die is a wish to live…”


Although “branded” as “queer literature” I personally feel this could potentially restrict the readership of this work. Whilst the gay references are startling in their obviousness, this book is more a celebration of life, an examination of obsession, of love, of a broken heart, of a young girl taken outside of her comfort zone and culture. Again, as our translator points out in the Afterword:


Although Qiu was celebrated in Taiwan as a national prodigy, she saw herself as part of an international community of writers and artists both living and dead and, crucially, as part of a community unconstrained by conventional labels and categories such as “lesbian,” “Chinese,” or even “woman.” Like the Japanese and French writers she revered, Qiu saw herself in dialogue with “classic, albeit mostly avant-garde, world art and literature.


Personally this work was a revelation, one that I am disappointed did not make the Best Translated Book Award shortlist. This leads me to commit to a post once I’ve completed the reading of the longlist, announcing my favourite ten works which I feel should have made up the shortlist, as I can guarantee quite categorically this would make my final ten, at the expense of at least four works which did feature.


If you want to be pushed into a rollercoaster world of love, elation, depression, self-harm self-deprecating behaviour and then celebration of life then get a copy of this novel. Quite simply (again) a revelation.

Snow and Shadow – Dorothy Tse (translated by Nicky Harman) – 2015 Best Translated Book Award

My latest Best Translated Book Award adventure took me to Hong Kong and the surreal world of Dorothy Tse. I can’t recall having read any other work from Hong Kong so culturally this work was going to be a revelation (one way or another) and I can assure you it didn’t disappoint on that front.
Dorothy Tse is only 38 years of age and an Assistant Professor of creative writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. The very interesting website www.snowandshadow.comoffers up a raft of information about our short story collection, including an interview with Dorothy Tse.
What are one or two essential things Western readers should understand about modern life in Hong Kong that will help them to appreciate your writing?  
I don’t think that having an experience of living in Hong Kong means that one would understand a writer from Hong Kong. Most of the time, a writer is an outsider in his or her own culture. There are qualities that are more important than nationality or identity that inform how a reader understands literature. I think a person’s moods or dreams may have just as much, if not more, influence on how someone may read my work. 
On another section of the website Tse says: ” Using a language that is not taken for granted should be regarded as a good opportunity and not a detriment to writing. It is a language of distance and requires meditation.
This is a work where the celebration of language, the cultural norms, the expected is all thrown up in the air and the outcome is a surreal, macabre world of a city sitting in between cultures.  If you find the Japanese writer  Yoko Ogawa’s short “Gothic” tales slightly off-beat or bizarre then crank those up to volume eleven, add a little more and you wouldn’t even hold a candle to Dorothy Tse’s musings.
Our book contains thirteen short stories, opening with Tse’s first published story “Woman Fish”, which appeared in ‘The Guardian” in 2013. Basically it is the story of a man’s wife who turns into a fish:
He imagines waking from a nightmare to find his wife has gone out through the unlocked door alone, losing herself in the city’s lawless back streets, ending up auctioned off in an underground seafood restaurant. Or maybe she’ll be spotted by pimps and installed as a diversion in a brothel.  He sees his wife flattened out, studded with glinting light bulbs on an enormous poster. But one bulb has blown and the filament sticks in his head, the scene before him gradually fading into darkness.
His wife has stopped eating. He fills a huge fish tank for her and sets it up in the middle of the sitting room. When she puts her head into it, he hears a gurgling sound and a stream of bubbles rises to the surface. But most of the time she sits motionless on a chair in front of the picture of a river that hangs on the wall. In her eyes, a torrent of ambiguous color surges past, gradually narrowing until it vanishes into transparency.
“The Love Between Leaf and Knife” is a story about a couple, Leaf and Knife, who want to prove they are better than the other on Valentine’s Day by ignoring the other’s pleading for attention (love). I won’t explain what they actually do in this tale, needless to say it contains leaves and knives.
Our collection is littered with characters who only have initials for names or names reflecting their character or actions. This is a bizarre world indeed.
The story “The Travelling Family” is narrated by a boy whose father, mother, sister and grandma all go on “holiday” together, but as the story unfolds each of the others finds their own place in life and disappear, leaving the boy alone:
Finally Mom burst into a flood of tears and I saw that she was crying fireworks and waterfalls, an elephant and a lion. I had never seen her weep such glittering tears. When she was slicing onions at home, the tears she shed where nothing special. Yet now the elephant and the lion paced before me, and the lion’s yawning maw gave me quite a fright.
These are stories of people outside of their boundaries, the mundane being held up to a glittering strange opposite of reality. Whilst it would be easy to think this approach may leave the reader scratching their heads, the style and approach actually make the work engrossing…what insane concoction is going to be presented next?…you don’t have to wait long…
The story “Head”, is about Wood and Flower’s only child, a son named Tree, he loses his head. His father Wood, offers his own head as a transplant. Whilst on the surface this seems an insane musing, the story of a father moulding his own son to such an extent that he simply becomes a replica of himself is a parallel interpretation that can be made. For example, Wood teaches Tree to like swings, it is only once the transplant is fully successful, Tree finds a girlfriend in Bean that he begins to lose his father’s looks”.
“Blessed Bodies” opens with:
Y-land had no marriage system but was famous for its prosperous sex industry. Even bartering was allowed: when the male clients could not afford to pay, they could obtain sexual services by trading their body parts. At the moment of sexual arousal, a man would stand in the doorway, peeping into a dim room when a woman reclined on the bed. Once she adopted the desired position, he no longer cared about his arms or legs. But with the ebbing of arousal, the man would open his eyes to see what had once been his limb – first amputated, then frozen, bottled, and removed. Only then would he be astonished at the impulsive decision he had made.
Yes, sounds like something from a David Lynch movie, but the essence of the opening is men being unable to contain their desires. Our tale, of course has tragic consequences.
A number of these works contain, what most Western readers would deem, far too extreme musings, death, decapitation, metamorphosis and more are all presented suddenly as part of a fractured reality.
“Bed” muses on the extreme need to sleep but being unable to find a bed of one’s own.
“The Mute Door” uses another simple inanimate object, this time instead of a bed simply a door, to push the reader into a world where what we take for granted is questioned:
The door is constructed in such a way as to conceal the fact that it does not exist. Precisely because entering and departing leaves no trace, it becomes necessary to suggest it by means of this pantomime. Thus all doors are symbolic, and we can only grope our way blindly. Nothing limits us, nothing protects us. Decisions are impossible.
Among all the doors that I have come across, it is only the invisible doors of mime artists that capture the essence of a door. Whether is streets occupied by the language of colonizers or in a red square in the month of June, mime artists can always silently create a house that is theirs alone. All that is needed is a pair of hands and a posture that implies the actor is walking close to a wall, and an enclosure instantaneously appears and disappears, in accordance with the actor’s abrupt footsteps and sudden spins. No groundwork is necessary for a house like that, no foundation on rock – this house is built from the poetry of the body and the mystery of bones and flesh in motion. The room has no boundaries, nor does it have cracks to let anyone in. It dawns on the audience that a door is no more than a fish slipping constantly out of their grasp. One of the sayings of mime artists is, “A door is not outside of you.”
This story contains “The Displacement Apartments”, where once you leave your own home you can no longer recognise your own front door. Our story contains a pizza delivery guy, his first day on the job, frantically looking for apartment 3.14 in the Displacement Apartments complex as he needs to deliver the monthly special, “The March Lion”, (not the “Loch Ness Monster Special”). Another story where on the surface it may just seem trite or surreal, however it covers the age old theme of displacement, not having a place like home or even a place that feels like home, just roaming around with everybody else, lost. For Hong Kong to be moving from British to Chinese rule, there is an obvious parallel here for the reader to interpret as they see fit.
Our collection is full of references to not belonging, to having an unsure culture, displacement, chasing a sense of meaning or fulfillment. With recurring images or themes throughout, for example we have doctors with gleaming white teeth, there is plenty of fodder here for an in-depth study of the sub-plot in Tse’s work.
Our collection ends with the title story, “Snow and Shadow” where our characters (outside of the title characters, Snow and Shadow) are J, Q and K and the future is told by soothsayers with poker cards (J = Jack, Q = Queen, K = King???). This madcap tale is a blend of just about every fairy tale you could imagine, with dwarfs, mirrors containing beauties, sleep, peeping, long hair, even a Dumbo. But this is no tale for children’s bedtime reading.
Our book opens with a short introduction by translator Nicky Harman where a few of the challenges in translating this work are discussed. I can imagine that it wouldn’t have been an easy task with the strange jumping of reality into a dreamlike (or nightmare like) world the norm, with names not having relevance beyond the actual function of the name (eg. Tree). This work flows smoothly and although extreme in nature does not feel stilted in any way, to me pointing to a smooth translation indeed.

This collection was a revelation to me, of a world where the expected is not accepted, where the unexpected will just about happen in every paragraph you approach. Expect mice to live in people’s hair. Bizarre, surreal, fractured, insane and then some, a welcome addition to my world of reading. Thanks Best Translated Book Award judges for bringing this to my attention.