Tirza – Arnon Grunberg (translated by Sam Garrett) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

In 2008 I read the epic Man Booker Prize shortlisted “The Northern Clemency” by Philip Hensher. A novel which covered the period 1974-1994, it put a mirror up to a suburban existence, the banality and the slow decay during the Thatcher period. The ordinary was becoming art. Then in 2012 the Man Booker Prize Longlisted “The Yips” by Nicola Barker (another behemoth) explored the extreme oddities that live behind the ordinary suburban doors, agoraphobic tattoo artists, Church of England clergy who are obsessed with their fringe, internet savvy  barmaids and of course more.
Move over English suburbia and a banal existence because Jorgen Hofmeester has arrived, a resident of the best suburb in Amsterdam, so therefore the whole of Holland, our novel opens with him preparing sushi for his daughter’s graduation party. Jorgen’s a successful editor on the translation desk at a publishing house, has a much younger wife, has invested his property income into a Swiss bank account and he simply lives for his two gorgeous daughters. A suburban dream, the story of a man who has arrived. But is it?
Having children was the wife’s idea, to start with. One morning at breakfast, a breakfast which now seems to him as though it was consumed in another lifetime, she had said: “We’re going to have a baby.”
“How can that be?” he’d asked.
And she had replied: “I stopped taking the pill.”
“A baby,” he said. “My God, aren’t there enough of them in the world? And how can you be sure the child will be healthy?”
But all she had said was: “If I’d left it up to you, it would never have happened.”
All morning long the idea had flustered him, but bu the time lunch was over he had decided to shoulder his responsibility. He waited until work was over at five, then cycled to the bank and took out a life-insurance policy, without telling the wife about it. It was to be a surprise, the money the policy would pay out if anything unexpected happened to him.
That, then, was how Jorgen Hofmeester became a father; as a man who knew nothing more about fatherhood and wanted to know nothing more about it than that it was wise to take out life insurance before the child entered the world.
The first 295 pages of this novel take place at youngest daughter Tirza’s graduation party, we have our protagonist , Jorgen, drifting back and forth in time, recalling what happened to his marriage, his tetchy relationship with his eldest daughter Ibi, his dislike of hedge funds, how Tirza’s boyfriend bears a striking resemblance to September 11 ring leader  Mohammed Atta, how Jorgen has been spending his days since the publishing house decided to move him on and of course we learn more of his relationship with Tirza.
This is the party that has to be perfect, that has to prove that the rumors going around about him are not true. How well it has all turned out, that’s what he wants to say, that’s what he wants to get across, how well his life has turned out, how well the children have turned out.
On the surface we have an ordinary family, but as each layer of the onion is peeled back we begin to see a rotten core. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here, however I will let you know that Jorgen’s relationship with his wife is far from ordinary:
She was standing in front of him. He couldn’t back off, the washing machine was behind him. He could make out the individual pores in her face, the black of her mascara. Maybe she was right, maybe he had been disgusted by her. But disgust was no grounds for divorce, disgust was the zenith of intimacy. The conclusion of intimacy. Its logical conclusion. The familiarity of disgust, the immutability of it, the wistfulness it elicited. The desire to be disgusted by the other person, just one last time. And, with that, to always be a little disgusted by yourself as well.
This novel turns stereotypes on their heads, and no subject seems taboo. We have Jorgen witnessing his eldest daughter having sex with the upstairs tenant, we have Jorgen in intimate liaisons with Tirza’s classmates, we have sexual  game playing, domestic violence and once we move from the party to Africa (where Tirza is to travel with her boyfriend) we have locals turning a blind eye to the tourist sex trade.
And throughout, we have an underlying sexual tension, a creepy distasteful feeling that all is not above board with Jorgen and his relationship with his youngest daughter Tirza, yes, there is an undercurrent of incest. Whilst not explicit, the implication is always there:
He presses her against him and he understands – never before has he understood so clearly, so overwhelmingly, so undeniably – that he wants to have no reason to live without Tirza. Without her, life is no longer conceivable, and what is inconceivable in undesired. She is his right to exist. What he is pressing against him now provides him with both the privilege and the obligation to live. Without her there is no more obligation, but also no more right. He can barely remember how he lived before she was around. Waiting, that’s what it was. That’s how he lived all those years, waiting for Tirza. Of course, he didn’t know then that it was Tirza he was waiting for.
This story is one emotional roller coaster and it is one that will disturb you. The ability to evoke feelings throughout and push you into shame simply by the structure of the language or the subjects being discussed in such an off handed manner is wonderful.
Hofmeester’s mouth is dry. For the first time, he thinks he is able to distinguish between pain and despair. Despair is dull and a bit crippling, alos numbing. Despair is not feeling, it’s the opposite; the awareness that you are no longer feeling, that feelings are in the process of slipping away, of leaving you behind on your own.

This may not be a comfortable journey, in the slightest, but it is a journey into a world of taboo that I’ve taken. One I won’t forget for quite some time. 

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Seiobo There Below – Laszlo Krasznahorkai (translated by Ottilie Mulzet) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

I have to start this review by stating that this was probably the most difficult novel I have ever read. When you are not a genius, how do you review something composed by a genius? Your insignificant thoughts are mere ramblings compared to the broad sweeping vista of Krasznahorkai’s mind.
Let’s start off by explaining that the chapters are numbered in the Fibonacci sequence (missing 0 and 1) – if you don’t know what the Fibonacci sequence is I suggest you google it and then become even more confused. You’ll find heaps of references to nature, art, Elloitt waves, golden means, you get me? Let’s simply say the chapters are 1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144,233,377,610,987,1597 and 2854
These seventeen sections could be easily read as seventeen short stories, as we do not have a common narrator, or character and the sections cover just about the breadth of human existence. The inner sleeve tells me “Seiobo – a Japanese goddess – has a peach tree in her garden that blossoms once every three thousand years; its fruit brings immortality. In “Seiobo There Below”, we see her returning to mortal realms, searching for a glimpse of perfection.“ Now I must have been asleep when I read that section, as my only recollection of Seiobo’s involvement was through a Noh dancer performing as her.
As we know Karsznahorkai creates long winding passages of text, and this work is no different, with single sentences taking up whole chapters and running for thirty–forty pages. Therefore I may well have missed the fact that Seiobo returned to mortal realms, it could well have been squeezed in the middle of a forty page sentence, wall to wall text, no breathing between ramblings, no breaks for the astute reader, just text, text, text and more of the same text, passages that return to their origins and then split off again, for further ramblings…. get what I mean?
What I’m telling you may well lead you away from this amazing work, yes it is difficult, but it is also probably one of the most rewarding and enlightening books I have ever read. An amazing landscape of humanity attempting to define beauty, our eternal search for ultimate bliss, each and every chapter is a further exploration of the nature of perfection, whether through architecture, painting, music, sculpture or an amazing written contribution to perfection? Our welcome is not that open though…
It would be better for you to turn around and go into the thick grasses, there where one of those strange grassy islets in the riverbed will completely cover you, it would be better if you do this for once and for all, because if you come back tomorrow, or after tomorrow, there will be no one at all to understand, no one to look, not even a single one among all your natural enemies that will be able to see who you really are; it would be better for you to go away this very evening when twilight begins to fall, it would be better for you to retreat with the others, if night begins to descend, and you should not come back if tomorrow, or after tomorrow, dawn breaks, because for you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow; so hide away in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that – breathe your last.
Here is a quick summation of the blend which makes up “Seiobo There Below”. We have a heron in a Japanese river who remains perfectly still, an Italian bible crossword telling us that if we solve 54 across we’ll reach a decisive conclusion (“Queen Vashti has done wrong, not only against all the nobles and the peoples of all the provinces of King Xerxes” Esther 1:16), we have references to an Australian skin care website (which if you investigate actually takes you to Arabic articles on liposuction), we have a Persian Queen, Filippo Lippi-Firenze from 1470 an apprentice to Botticelli, Queen Vashti then appears on a wedding chest painted by Lippi (or was it Botticelli).
We have the restoration of a Buddha statue from 1367, recognised for its immortal “one single gaze”, we have a painting of the dead Christ being restored, Christ appears to be wanting to open his eyes. We have a Hungarian tourist visiting the Acropolis totally unprepared, another tourist in Venice who returns to visit a painting of Dead Christ, then an artist who creates “shiro-hannya”, the demon-head mask created for a Japanese Noh play. Flick over to a destitute Romanian who has been tricked into travelling to Spain for work and he stumbles across a mystical gallery where “these angels were real”.
Seiobo is introduced as part of Inoue Kazuyuki’s section, a celebrated Noh dancer who has found the meaning of life:
And he understood everything, and since then he has known that there is no tomorrow; I never think about that – he lowers his voice even more, and with every word that he utters he smiles, as is his custom, then his face closes up again – never, he says, because I only think about today, for me there is no tomorrow, for me there is no future, because every day is the last day, and every day is full and complete, and I could die on any given day, I am ready for it, and then the whole thing will come to an end, and by this he means that – he looks up at a guest sitting across from him on the other side of the room – that one whole will come to an end, and in the distance another shall begin, I am waiting for death, he says with an unvarying smile, I am waiting he says, and death is always close to me, and I shall lose nothing if I die, because for me only the present means everything, this day, this hour, this moment – this moment in which I am dying.
Our novel then moves to Pietro di Vannucci (Il Perugino) and his apprentices, we learn of his struggle to paint anymore. We have the Alhambra in Spain, our journey explains that we don’t know its real name, who built it, when it was built, its main function, but we do know its beauty. Another chapter and another artist who creates sculptures out of earth, by digging in hidden places away from prying eyes. Our protagonist then becomes the guard of the Venus de Milo, there was the Venus de Milo and beyond that there was nothing else at all.
We then have a lecturer giving his thoughts on the analysis of music’s essence, it shatters people’s hearts – this lecture is to a handful of elderly people, given by an ageing architect who has never had a building constructed. Then we have landscape artist Oswald Kienzl standing in line to buy a train ticket, frustrated at the lack of pace in the queue as he recalls his mourning. Back to Japan and a Shinto tree sacrifice ceremony that takes place every twenty years as part the rebuilding of the Ise Shrine, we’re here for edition seventy-one, this section highlighting the clash of European and Japanese cultures.
Onto Se’ami who has been exiled to the island of Sadogashima, he is creating a mask, o-beshimi rain-making mask for use in bagaku. Then we hear of tomb desecrations (known as “excavations”) of the earth below the Shang dynasty in 1600-1100BC.
What a deep exploration of humanity, covering thousands upon thousands of years of human history, the art and the beauty, ceremonies and beliefs contained in each era. As we know these characters are all real and as I read through each section I was enticed to research these characters further, view the artworks on line, understand the struggles through further reading. This is a huge puzzle of a novel, seeking the ultimate answers:

he looks at me, moved, he looks at my dance, but he sees me as well, as I relate to him with earthly movements that there is a Heaven, that high above the clouds there is a Light that then scatters into a thousand colors, that there is, if he casts his gaze up high and becomes deeply immersed in his soul, a boundless space in which there is nothing, but nothing at all, not even a tiny little movement like this one here, which now must slowly come to an end:
All of the puzzles are intertwined, the immortal beauty of Vashti is aligned with the immortal gaze of Buddha, which replicates a crucified Christ wanting to open his eyes……
a dark obscurity lay in these eyes, and it seemed unbearable that this dark obscurity was emanating such an endless sadness, and not the sadness of one who suffers but of one who has suffered – but not even that; he got up, and then he leaned back in the chair; it is not a question here of suffering but only of sorrow, a sorrow impossible to grasp in its entirety, and entirely incomprehensible to him, an immeasurable sorrow, he looked into Christ’s eyes and he saw nothing else there, just this pure sorrow, as if it were a sorrow without cause, he froze at the thought of it, SORROW, JUST LIKE THAT, FOR EVERYTHING, for creation, for existence, for beings, for time, for suffering and for passion, for birth and destruction
I could write endless passages here about the meaning of existence and how Krasznahorkai has moved beyond the simple apocalyptic message and into the world of beauty, the essence of non-existence and the importance of the present moment. An amazing work, which requires savouring, a slow read, allow yourself to be immersed in the world of nothing:
the earth with the water, the water with the sky, and into the earth and the water and the sky, into this indescribable Cosmos is woven our fragile existence as well, but merely for just one moment that cannot be traced, then, already, it is no more, it disappears for all eternity, irrevocably…nothing else remains, only and exclusively the landscape;

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The African Shore – Rodrigo Rey Rosa (translated by Jeffrey Gray) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

The African Shore came in for special mention at the Best Translated Book Award in 2014 with the judges noting:

We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.
American composer, translator and writer Paul Bowles translated a number of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s works into English as well as having his works translated by Rey Rosa. As a resident of Tangier for over fifty years, the setting of this novel in Morocco is a significant homage to his mentor. Paul Bowles himself recalled his first meeting of Rey Rosa in 1980 at a “creative writing” workshop at the American School of Tangier.
The youngest of the class was a Guatemalan, who wrote in Spanish. He had a fertile imagination, and used it to invent situations which were generally sinister. His texts were very short, often mere scenes or prose-poems of atmosphere, rather than tales, but all of them showed a power of invention capable of creating truly original situations.
“The African Shore” is one of those “truly original situations”, with short, sharp sections (“prose-poems”), we have a tale of a shepherd and an unnamed Columbian tourist, linked together through the fate of an owl. A great example of the short scene in use is where the shepherd invites a small boy into his tent:
When the boy stepped within reach, Hamsa grabbed one of his arms and pulled him toward him. With his free hand he lifted up his gandura.
A very similar scene takes place in the other novel on the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, set in Morocco, “Horses of God”, however that description is more detailed, and explicit. Both have the same outcome, Rodrigo Rey Rosa  actually saying more by saying less. Here is a small snippet of Mahi Binebine’s description:

Then it was Fuad’s turn to straddle the sleeping boy. He did so delicately, nuzzling and stroking his mount as if they were setting off on a long journey. Nabil was unconscious, laid out in the middle of the room like a corpse. Fuad sat astride him, whispering unintelligible words in his ear. A squawk like a bird’s, then a yelp, like someone being stabbed. And on to the next..
Our shepherd looks after his flock perilously close to the cliffs, so close in fact that our opening has him rescuing one of the flock from the cliff face. His closeness to the shore, leads him to dream of the riches he could make (from his uncle) by assisting with people smuggling from Africa to Europe.
Our unnamed Columbian (he is named once very late in the story) has lost his passport, moves from his hotel, meets a French archaeologist (who becomes a minor character) and isn’t quite as clean as what the surface may show…or is he???
He didn’t like to lie but sometimes the truth about himself seemed so unacceptable that he let himself, always thinking he’d change things later so the fiction would match the reality. He could have been single, though in the eyes of the law he was married – since he had lived several years with his girlfriend – just as he could have been something other than an ordinary tourist with a mislaid passport. He looked in the mirror. As women were always saying, men were dogs. Smiling uncomfortably, he turned and shut the light off.
Our two protagonists here have the standard human frailties, the concerns with existence, the continual journey to somewhere better…The young shepherd thinking about the powers of being able to see at night, wants to use the creature’s eyes as an amulet or as a spell, our Columbian simply admires its beauty. The owl’s journey becomes metaphor for the journey of our two characters. It is trapped, it is “broken” (injured), it is mended, it escapes. Just like our misplaced Columbian and French characters living temporarily at the gateway to Europe.

We have faxes from our Columbian character’s girlfriend, slowly becoming more frantic given the lack of response, the range of minor characters become shadier as the work progresses (or do they? Is it just our imagination as to what they are up to?), the romance between the Columbian and the archaeologist is lightly sketched, actually giving it more substance and the life of the shepherd is simple, just as the words used to describe it.
This is a quick but deeply thoughtful read, weighing in at only 136 pages, however the content reads as a much longer work. The antithesis of another Spanish work on the Best Translated Book Award list, Antonio Munoz Molina’s “In The Night Of Time”.  This is one of my favourites of the list to date, a melancholy muse that says a lot through not saying a lot at all.

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The Forbidden Kingdom – Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (translated by Paul Vincent) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

One of the delights of working your way though translated fiction award lists is you become exposed to a number of small independent publishers. As translated fiction makes up only a small part of the “consumable” market, it is primarily left to the small houses to produce the gems that sparkle on these lists. “The Forbidden Kingdom” is a case in point, produced by Pushkin Press, they tell us that “this book is part of the Pushkin Collection of paperbacks, designed to be as satisfying as possible to hold and enjoy. It is typeset in Monotype Baskerville, based on the transitional English serif typeface designed in the mid-eighteenth century by John Baskerville. It was litho-printed on Munken Premium White Paper and notch-bound by the independently owner printer TJ International in Padstow, Cornwall. The cover, with French flaps, was printed on Conqueror Brilliant White Board. The paper and cover board are both acid-free and approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).”

In other words, this is a beautifully presented work, small in size but the presentation itself is a joy to hold and read. Something that e-readers cannot offer.
Onto the novel itself, originally published in Dutch in 1932 over nine seperate instalments, it tells the tale of Portuguese National poet Luis Camoes (1524/5 – 1580) and best remembered for his epic work Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads). Our “hero” Luis is exiled from his homeland of Portugal and we follow his journey to the trading outpost of Macao in the East.
“Why was I surrounded by statues since childhood, graceful and silent, as if that were the attitude one should take to life? Why so many paintings on the wall, so that it seemed to me that they were the windows, giving a view of a world where everything was beautiful and harmonious and near at hand, making it unnecessary to travel dangerous roads! If only you’d brought me up in the woods with an axe and double-edged hunting knife for my toys and the fleeing game as my target, then I’d have become efficient and decisive! As it is, I’ve done nothing but ponder and my deeds were badly aimed shots at a vaguely glimpsed reality.”
Hold on a minute, why not introduce an unrelated story of an unnamed Irish ship radio operator in the 20th Century? One who is also exiled, but from the ships themselves, as he is losing his sanity, of course he ends up in Macao. Are these seemingly unrelated stories actually related?
Not a woman then! What then? A mind in this state, open to outside influences, becomes and easy target for demons eager to prey on a living being like parasites. But at sea there are no spirits, at least so I firmly believed. That absence, or that belief, saved me for a long time; when I yearned to be freed from my emptiness, I would not have excluded even the most malevolent of them. The sea saved me, it’s true. But I wasn’t grateful to the sea.
Of course we have a novel that jumps across time, one that also jumps across language, with sections written in the first person, others in the third person and as each chapter unfolded I found myself becoming deeply involved with the plot, only to be violently shaken free as a new chapter, place, person or style began.
The “Afterword” by Jane Fenoulhet, from University College London, gave me a little more context and assistance with this work. Jon Jacob Slauerhoff was already established  as a well known poet before his first prose works were published, he began with short story publications in 1930 before this work appeared in 1932 in nine instalments in the literary magazine “Forum” and was immediately published in book form.
Slauerhoff is most frequently described as a Romantic poet because of his themes of loss, longing, doomed love, dreamlike landscapes, and of roaming the seas.
This novel covers all of those themes, with Camoes or our unnamed radio operator battling storms, trips through rugged landscapes in China, loss of homeland or true loves, and numerous dream sequences. In a way it reads like an eighty year old David Mitchell work!!!
This is an interesting observation of potential time travel from the 1930’s, however my lack of knowledge of Camoes or “The Lusiads” was definitely a hindrance in enjoying this work. And as per my usual blog posts I don’t want to give away the plot or premise so revelation of the two characters becoming one, being only one across different times, or being totally separate threads will not be revealed here.

An enjoyable work? Yes. One that I’ll revisit? No. I think I’ll leave the analysis, the debunking of myths, the placement of this work in Slauerhoff’s oeuvre, the connection to other 1930’s works on time travel and Romantic styles, to the academics. I’m sure they’d enjoy it a heap more than me.

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Horses of God – Mahi Binebine (translated by Lulu Norman) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

I really like the quote on the “Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize” banner, Anthony Burgess, “Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.” A great line to open my review of Mahi Binebine’s “Horse of God”.

On 16 May 2003 in Casablanca, twelve suicide bombers died, taking the lives of thirty three civilians along with them. Two further bombers were arrested before they could carry out any attacks. To this day this event remains the largest terrorist attack in Morocco’s history. The suicide bombers came from the shanty town of Sidi Moumen a slum in Casablanca housing close to 300,000 people (various figures are quoted throughout the internet but I have used the census figures from 2004). The inhabitants scratching out existences by living off scraps and rubbish from the nearby dumps. Our novel follows Yachine (a self-given nickname) from the afterlife as he reflects on his journey from the slums to becoming a suicide bomber.
As you can imagine, this novel tells no easy tales, tackles an extremely controversial subject and creates anti-heroes in marginalised characters. The subject matter alone makes this no easy read, let alone the humanising of bombers as poverty stricken, bored youths who made a choice based on false promises. To say the novel made me feel uneasy is an understatement:
But around there, everyone got used to everything – to the stench of rotting and death, for instance, which became so familiar and clung to our skin. We couldn’t smell it anymore. And if it were suddenly, magically, to vanish, Sidi Moumen would lose its soul. The air would probably seem bland and insipid; dogs and cats would vanish from the scene, as would the hordes of seagulls that besieged the place, preferring its contaminated, sweltering heat to sea air, its shadowy foragers to fishermen of the deep. Even the old people would be bored if there were no more flies to swat away, or mosquitoes to anything. Can you imagine: Sidi Moumen, stripped bare! Without its wild nights at the dump. Without its campfires, where random musicians, their petrol cans transformed into mandolins, unfurl their laments into a hashish-scented sky; and those fields of plastic bags that sing in the wind, while teasing half-light turns the rubbish dunes into infinite beaches…
Our gang of friends who transition from kids picking through rubbish dumps to Salafia Jihadia terrorists, also lead lives where extreme violence is common place (people being murdered and buried in the rubbish being a common occurrence – nobody misses them anyway).  However, besides a life of no hope, the kids all play a weekly game of football (soccer) where the various slums passionately become their footballing heroes (hence the nickname Yachine – considered the greatest goalkeeper of all time, the “Black Spider” or “Black Panther” his nicknames). This is the one and only joy in their lives, besides their friendships.
In the beginning was the dump, teeming with its colony of rascals. The cult of soccer; the incessant fighting; the shoplifting and frantic getaways; the ups and downs of trying to survive; hashish, glue, and the strange places they took you; the black market and the small-time jobs; the repeated beatings; the sudden attempts at escape and their ransoms of rape and abuse…
As if the journey from a slum inhabitant to a suicide bomber isn’t controversial enough for you, the violence, including sexual, is graphically detailed, the drug use (hashish, glue sniffing) a common place occurrence, all the more that becomes piled on and it makes you begin to understand their attraction to religion as a means of escape, training in martial arts, a regimented and meaningful day, mentors, teachers who listen and at last some guidance and purpose.
He’d given us back our pride with simple words, winged words that carried us as far as our imaginations could go. No longer were we parasites, the dregs of humanity, less than nothing. We were clean and deserving and our aspirations resonated with healthy minds. We were listened to, guided. Logic had taken the place of beating. We had opened the door to God and He had entered into us. No more chasing around frantically, expending pointless energy, no more insults and stupid brawling. No more living like cockroaches on the excrement of heretics. Gone, the fatalism injected in our veins by our uneducated parents. We learned to stand shoulder to shoulder, to flatly refuse the worm’s life to which we’d been condemned in perpetuity. We knew that rights weren’t given, they had to be seized. And we were ready for any sacrifice.
As Anthony Burgess’ quote tells us, through translation I have managed to come across a work, which forces you to look at these terrorists as human. Surely a novel that will force you to examine your own beliefs, prejudices, ideas of victims and more – definitely not a comfortable read, but, I can assure you, an important work.
One flaw that did come to mind was the fact that our narrator uses such in depth language, occasionally a word that seems out of place, and given he “wasn’t taught the words to convey the beauty of people or things” it did occur to me how could he now? All knowledgeable after death?

The original title of this novel was “The Stars of Sidi Moumen” and I must admit this resonated with me a whole lot more than “Horses of God” – the phrase often used by Muslims when calling for a jihad (“Fly, horses of God, and to you the doors of paradise shall open!”) Personally the importance of their weekly soccer matches and the bond that their sport brought is to me a better title. And the cover? Young boys playing soccer, I get it, a decent soccer ball and all clothed and wearing decent footwear? That I don’t get.

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Best Translated Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and Baileys Women’s Prize Updates

I’ve been busy reading away, doing reviews and although checking the literary news, not bringing you any updates. It’s about time I did so.
Best Translated Book Award
The original twenty five books have been whittled down to a shortlist of ten books – the winner being announced tomorrow (I personally will be making my way through half a dozen from the longlist and if the winner’s not in the selection I do own, then I’m likely to purchase it for a future review. Anyways the shortlist is:
Horses Of God by Mahi Binebine (translated by Lulu Norman)
Blinding by Micrea Cartarescu (translated by Sean Cotter)
The Story Of A New Name by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)
Tirza by Arnon Grunberg (translated by Sam Garrett)
My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett)
Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (translated by Ottilie Mulzet)
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura (translated by Juliet Winters)
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (translated by Jeffrey Gray)
Leg Over Leg Vol. 1 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (translated by Humphrey Davies)
The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (translated by Paul Vincent)
The Pulitzer Prize (Fiction)
Winner was “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt – according to the panel “a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters that follows a grieving boy’s entanglement with a small famous painting that has eluded destruction, a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.
Finalists were “The Son” by Philipp Meyer and “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul” by Bob Shacochis.
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction
The shortlist for this award was announced nearly three weeks ago (sorry I was on holidays at the time!!!)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
Audrey Magee – The Undertaking
Eimear McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch (the Pulitzer Winner)
I have copies of Burial Rites and The Lowland, may get to them someday soon (don’t hold your breath though the backlog is stacking up).
You may also have noticed that I’ve been doing a little housekeeping on the blog. I’ve started adding new tags to each review with the awards that I follow added in a “tag” – this will make it easier to find a link on the right hand side of the blog and quickly locate reviews from a certain award and year. I’ve also changed the headings to not be specific to being on Longlist or Shortlist as these do change after I’ve written the review, so I’ve simply put the Award (eg. “Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014”). It will take me a week or two to get through the hundreds of reviews published here so bear with me. It could be a little while before I’m back as I’m tackling Antonio Munoz Molina’s “In The Night Of Time” from the Best Translated Book Award Longlist and at 640 pages it’s going to take me a little while.

Blinding – Mircea Cartarescu (translated by Sean Cotter) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

“There was nothing to understand, yet everything cried out to be understood…” (P109)

Welcome to the world of Mircea Cartarescu’s brain, there’s plenty in there and it just cries out to be understood, but I must admit there was a whole heap of grey matter that I just didn’t grip.
“Blinding (The Left Wing)” is the first part of a Cartarescu triptych (let’s call it that and not a trilogy as it forms part of a greater picture, the left wing being his mother, the body himself and the right wing his father from what I understand) and this triptych is a massive, intricate butterfly. The references to butterflies are too frequent to mention them all, from the birthmark on Maria’s (his mother’s) hip, an ivory engraved ring made from a mammoth’s tusk, a monstrous frozen butterfly under the surface of the Danube (which is consumed and the wings used for clothing), butterflies that attach themselves to Russian soldiers in a mausoleum and then lay an egg in his brain or even one that mates with a stranded elevator operator after the building is bombed. The metamorphosis is a constant thread along with triangles (structurally, physically, spiritually) and the colour yellow.
To say this is a complex work is an understatement, delving into a tortured mind would always be so, are we talking dreams here, or the everyday machinations of our narrator’s mind?
I felt in my sleep how, in this geyser of light, my own cranium became transparent, how the wrinkled hemispheres of my brain, wrapped in their skin, looked like the meat of walnuts yet unformed. The neurons under the pia mater, like spores bedded under asphalt, swelled here and there, growing hundreds of church spires under the sky of my skull, each one with a bell tolling for a funeral, until the pearly skin broke in hundreds of places and the neuron bells opened like wonders, like sea urchins on the peduncles, rocking and undulating in the solar wind of my Tataie’s halo. I then descended into a delirious Scythia.
How to describe this work? There are chilling stories of people who lose thier shadows,  eight pages of the divine simply exploring the magic of how we can move a single finger and heavy rhetoric:
Maybe, in the heart of this book, there is nothing other than howling, yellow, blinding, apocalyptic howling…
Underneath all of this madness in Cartaresu’s hemispheres is the city of Bucharest meticulously recreated, familiar statues explored in detail and their meanings, allegories for Science, Art, Agriculture and Trade simply part of the narrative. As you wallow inside Cartarescu’s brain you uncover a city, a country, that is part of, is actually passed, a great war. Our writer imagines he can control the city, just like the control he uses to move his finger.
When you are living inside the narrator’s “pia mater” you come across some seriously surreal stuff:
Cripples, dwarfs, cachexics, coxalgics, myelomeningoceliacs, the monstrously obese, cyclopedes, those with cleft lips, eleven fingers and eleven toes, bruised skin from a cardiac deformity, lepers, those scarred by anthrax, by scrofula, by vitiligo…the curved line of giant statues embraced the room with a ring of mutilations, and the funeral train advanced across its endless surface, like a parade of mites.
Special mention here has to go to translator Sean Cotter, who is either a genius by bringing to the English language such deeply obscure words, or he’s just as offbeat as Cartarescu in his thinking. This would not have been an easy work to translate, as you can probably gather by the few simple quotes I have included here, the novel runs to 464 pages!!!
I’m yet to touch on the broader subject of this amazing work, Cartarescu’s mother, because even though we are passengers hitching a ride through our writer’s dark mental caverns this is actually the story of his mother, how she moved to Bucharest, how she met his father, her experiences of war, of meeting a  jazz drummer from New Orleans who has a penchant for masochism,  her sexual awakening and her darkest dreams. A twisted homage to a parent?
I sat on the balcony in my pajamas for half an hour, watching the clouds, whiter than the very white sky, outlined in light, and when I went back into the kitchen, I felt I was entering a sinister cave. In the deep shadow, Mamma seemed like a gypsy woman forgotten on a chair beside the stove, all dark and sweaty, except for the globes of her eyes, which caught the blinding folds of the summer sky. Wasps in yellow plating crawled everywhere. They’d made a nest in the vent and had come through its metal grill. There were wasps as big as my fingers on my mother’s body, as though she were some kind of odd animal trainer. They pulled themselves along with their powerful buccal mechanisms, through her fine, thin, chestnut hair that was untouched by gray, spinning their wings like fans. I told her I was going for a walk. I got dressed and went into the blinding heat outside.
This is not a novel for those who would like to lay poolside and discover whodunit, it is a slow contemplative piece, an amazingly complex construction and a true example of how language can be art. Another classic example of how writers in translation are pushing the boundaries of the written word, pushing their reader’s boundaries to a higher plane:
It was a place to attempt (as I’ve done continuously for the last three months) to go back to where no one has, to remember what no one remembers, to understand what no person can understand: who I am, whatI am.

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The Story Of A New Name – Elena Ferrante (Translated by Ann Goldstein) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

It would appear as though 2014 is the year of the second book in series of books, with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle Part Two” (or “A Man In Love”) and Jon Kalman Stefansson’s “The Sorrow of Angels” both appearing on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list, and now we have Elena Ferrante’s follow up to “My Brilliant Friend” appearing on the shortlist for the Best Translated Book Award. Like Stefansson’s “The Sorrow of Angels” I read this work without delving into the delights of the first works, and for both I will be visiting the earlier pieces in the puzzle as this too is a wonderful novel (yet of course so different).

“The Story of a New Name” begins with our narrator Elena taking care of a metal box containing eight notebooks from her best friend Lila. We then travel back to Lila’s wedding (at age fifteen) to Stefano Carracci, son of the murdered loan shark Don Achille. This novel, set in Naples, is thick with family interleaving and fortunately comes with a list of characters in the front, although I didn’t have to refer to it too often (occasionally when a new character appeared just to give them some context in the greater whole). As I have been reliably informed the close friendship between Elena and Lila from the first novel in the Neapolitan Series continues here unabated. Very early on in the work we learn of Lila’s continued head-strong personality and the way her new husband deals with it, through beatings:
To her friends and relatives she had said that she had fallen on the rocks in Amalfi on a beautiful sunny morning, when she and her husband had taken a boat to a beach just at the foot of a yellow wall. During the engagement lunch for her brother and Pinuccia she had used, in telling that lie, a sarcastic tone and they had all sarcastically believed her, especially the women, who knew what had to be said when the men who loved them and whom they loved beat them severely. Besides, there was no one in the neighbourhood, especially of the female sex, who did not think that she had needed a good thrashing for a long time. So the beatings did not cause outrage, and in fact sympathy and respect for Stefano increase – there was someone who knew how to be a man.
We are in 1960’s Naples here, the families from poor backgrounds, the criminal element highly regarded and not questioned, and the roles that these characters play is to remove themselves from the day to day drudgery of working in the local shoe factory or store. The matter of fact language about their existence draws you slowly and slowly towards that time, fifty years ago, and slowly you are fighting for Elena’s only escape from the treadmill, her study, her fierce determination to become educated at all costs – that’s if her relationship with Lila will allow it.
This is an amazing work, delving deep into the mind of Elena and the her faltering self-confidence, her utter belief that she is not as brilliant nor as pretty as Lila, the manipulation by her determined friend, but the solid rock of friendship always piercing through, even when the workings of Lila conspire to take everything from Elena.
The subtlety of the language, the nuanced approach to the two characters, the slow revelation of the female form and needs is utterly compelling, like Elena’s simple observations of mothers in the street:
They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, or illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?
These two Friends share so much, yet are so different, the ever confident Lila, Elena who is wracked with self-doubt, Lila who has affairs, Elena who breaks off with her only boyfriend, Lila living with riches, creating works of art from photos, Elena jealous of Lila’s talent and fighting to become educated. A wonderful observation of the powers of true friendship.
Yes, it’s Lila who makes writing difficult. My life forces me to imagine what hers would have been if what happened to me had happened to her, what use she would have made of my luck. And her life continuously appears in mine, in the words that I’ve uttered, in which there’s often an echo of hers, in a particular gesture that is an adaptation of a gesture of hers, in my less which is such because of her more, in my more which is the yielding force of her less. Not to mention what she never said but let me guess, what I didn’t know and read later in her notebooks. Thus the story of the facts has to reckon with filters, deferments, partial truths, half lies: form it comes an arduous measurement of time passed that is based completely on the unreliable measuring device of words.

I have been reliably informed that ”The Story Of A New Name” was entered for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and as we know it didn’t make the long list. I read this novel as part of the Best Translated Book Award nomination that it has received and thankfully it was brought to my attention by the more discerning USA award. It is utterly shameful that this did not rate at least in the fifteen books presented to us by the IFFP judges, to think they promoted “Exposure” by Sayed Kashua to potential readers over and above this work is downright disgraceful. Hang your heads in shame IFFP judges, I hardly agree with your shortlist but to find out this epic and moving work was eligible and didn’t get a Guernsey is a disgrace.

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My Struggle Book Two, A Man In Love – Karl Ove Knausgaard (Translated by Don Bartlett) – Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Long List 2014 – Best Translated Book Award 2014

Back in December 2013 I reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle – Book One, A Death In The Family” and spoke highly of his attention to the most trivial of details, the minutiae which makes up our daily existence. How often does a novel go into such triviality? Of course taking three pages to describe the ordering of a takeaway cup of coffee could be considered frustrating, but when you’re struggling with the reasons for existence it could well be the minor details which shape the person we are. A “novel” which constantly reads like an open sore of a biography, how on earth is it so gripping?
Book two of Karl Ove’s six book series, moves from his struggle with his father’s death from alcoholism to his move from Norway to Sweden and his falling in love and having children. My edition is 573 pages and basically starts and ends with our writer taking his children to a broken down fair ground, but it is the flashbacks to how his children came into being and his reactions to becoming a family man that is the real story here. Or the story of Karl Ove’s struggle to just be a good person is probably more to the point.
His relationship and discussions with his friend Geir give us detail as to how Karl Ove verbalises his struggles. His friend’s jealousy of Karl Ove’s writing ability, for example:
“Technical? Technical” Easy for you to say, that is. You can spend twenty pages describing a trip to the bathroom and hold your readers spellbound. How many people do you think can do that? How many writers would not have done that if only they could? Why do you think people spend their time touching up their modernist poems, with three words on each page? It’s because they have no other option. After all these years surely you must understand that, for Christ’s sake. If they could have, they would have. You can, and you don’t appreciate it. It means nothing to you, and you would rather be clever and write in an essayistic style. But everyone can write essays! It’s the easiest thing in the world.”
How does an ordinary man, who thinks he has limited writing ability, who believes he is a poor father, son, brother and partner, fall in love and then come to terms with the imposition this places on his writing career?
Then I met Linda and the sun rose.
I can’t find a better way to express it. The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive, and I became happier and happier, and then it hung in the sky of my life and shone and shone and shone.
Such a struggle,, as we turn each page we are drawn into Karl Ove’s need for acceptance, need to define himself, need to write a truly memorable book.
That was where I had to go, to the essence, to the inner core of human existence. If it took forty years, so be it, it took forty years. But I should never lose sight of it, never forget it, that was where I was going.
There, there, there.
Amazingly as a reader you are reading about his struggle to write a novel (which in fact you have already read – if you’ve read Book One of course) and you are actually further down the path of his struggles as you’re now reading book two, but of course this is written as part of his development. All those peripheral details, the details that make up this man’s life and his love.
If only I could bridge this distance, I wrote. I would give everything in the world for that. But I can’t. I love you, and perhaps you think you love me, but you don’t. I believe you like me, I’m fairly sure of that, but I’m not enough for you, and you know that deepest down. Perhaps you need someone now, and then along I came, and you thought, well he might do. But I don’t want to be someone who might do, that’s not good enough for me, it has to be all or nothing, you have to be ablaze, the way I am ablaze. To want the way I want. Do you understand? Oh, I know you do. I have seen how strong you can be, I have seen how weak you can be and I have seen you open up to the world. I love you, but that isn’t enough. Being friends is meaningless. I can’t even talk to you! What kind of friendship would that be? I hope you don’t take this amiss. I’m just trying to say it as it is. I love you. That is how it is. And somewhere I always will, regardless of what happens to us.
These outpourings of the soul, to his partner, friends, and family are all on the pages to see, raw and exposed. To think these people would be reading this (once published) is at times cringe worthy, in some circumstances you’d not blame people for never talking to Karl Ove again.
As per Book One the way Karl Ove addresses the generally non public thoughts of a middle aged man is startling. To say a large chunk of this book expressed my own fears and doubts would be an understatement. Having said that I can understand that female readers may find this trite, self-absorbed and lacking in compassion. This is not a series for people not wanting to confront their daily fears.
Over recent years I had increasingly lost faith in literature. I read and thought this is something someone had made up. Perhaps it was because we were totally inundated with fiction and stories. It had got out of hand. Wherever you turned you saw fiction. All these millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVD’s and TV series, they were all about made-up people in a made-up, though realistic, world. And news in the press, TV news and radio news had exactly the same format, documentaries had the same format, they were also stories, and it made no difference whether what they told had actually happened or not. It was a crisis, I felt it in every fibre of my body, something saturating was spreading through my consciousness like lard, not the least because the nucleus of all this fiction, whether true or not, was verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant. In other words, it saw the same. This sameness, which was our world, was being mass-produced. The uniqueness, which they all talked about, was thereby invalidated, it didn’t exist, it was a lie. Living like this, with the certainty that everything could equally well have been different, drove you to despair. I couldn’t write like this, it wouldn’t work, every single sentence was met with the thought: but you’re just making this up. It has no value. Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.
What more can I say?