Why “I Am the Brother of XX” by Fleur Jaeggy shouldn’t win the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

Jaeggy

When I went to school – albeit a long time ago – first we were taught the alphabet, I can’t remember those dim dark ages, however I think I knew ABC before I started formal schooling, I’d ask my mum to confirm but that would result in an extended telephone conversation, in this world of instant gratification, short attention spans and meta fiction I simply cannot afford the time for such a trite confirmation.

Once the whole class had mastered the alphabet, we moved onto words, Apple, Bee, Cat, etc. Again, we waited until everybody had mastered these basics, you know the drill, cater for the average, don’t get too far ahead, or too far behind, that could upset the whole education system.

Once we knew how to spell a few basic words, we moved onto sentences, now this is where things became really tricky, you had to string words together. I was taught that a sentence contained a number of words. It would have been much later in my schooling, once I had learned words more difficult than basic animals and fruits, I believe I was taught that a sentence contains a subject and predicate and consists of a main clause or one or more subordinate clauses. Unfortunately I didn’t keep my school books from the 1960’s, they could have proven a useful reference tool fifty years later….Here is ant and bee and a red dog playing ball…

This was back in the dim dark ages of being taught a language, where nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, clauses, tense and, heaven forbid, punctuation were taught as part of our comprehension.

Grammar – wtf is that?

Why my schooling as a long introduction? Because. Fleur Jaeggy’s “I Am The Brother of XX”, translated by Gini Alhadeff, contains many. One. Word. Sentences. ONE. WORD.

No bicycles, and again, clearly marked, At any time. Ever. Unnecessary noises. It is a timeless quiet zone. And that is greatly reassuring. Even voices seem to become muted. Maybe passers-by don’t quarrel. Maybe it’s an almost happy earth. Iosif looks at the towers. The fireman’s boat, with paddles resembling fans made of water, glides by. In the dark sky the flight of dark birds. On the opposite short, large warehouses, depots. And in direct line of sight, the towers. It is what Iosif sees, the Twin Towers. They were, once. (from ‘Negde’ pp27-28)

If sentences were meant to be one word then there wouldn’t be the word “sentences” would there? Everything would suffice as “word” wouldn’t it?

Back to the digital age and short attention spans, obviously this style of book made up of twenty-one short stories and running to only 133 pages (these are short short stories), appeals to those who struggle to concentrate beyond the length of an iPhone screen. Short dark tales that you can skim in the time it takes to log onto Tinder. The traction and hype on social media when this book was released reached fever pitch, 280 characters the ideal medium to spruik the wares of a bleak dark collection. “This. Book. Is. Sooo. Brill.”

Almost “gothic” in style, with class and language well beyond any “Twilight” series, this books deals with haunting, disturbing themes. Just when you think every story is going to deal with mystical, ghost themes, your ideas get turned on their head and an unsettling tale from left field comes from along to push you further into the mire.

When I talk my sister pays too much attention. She watches me. Maybe she is writing my story, as long as I am not dead yet like my parents. I’ve always wondered whether one of them might have died because of her. Then I think that parents always die because of their children. One always dies because of someone else. I don’t know if it’s correct to say ‘because of’. But one dies for others. On behalf of others, might be more correct. (from “I Am the Brother of XX” pg13)

As Susan Jacoby advises us in her new release “Why Baseball Matters’, because this is a highly relevant title when discussing translated fiction from Switzerland, “…conversation itself has become one of the many cultural casualties of the computer era.” That probably explains why Jaeggy’s stories contain little, if no, conversation. If it does appear it is muted like the rest of the book;

Old age, she said, is horrible. It’s all horrible, I’d tell her. With a kind of glee. I tried to convince her that it’s all truly horrible (at that time our lives weren’t bad at all) and I meant it. Then her eyes radiated happiness and years went by. Swift. (from ‘The Aseptic Room’ pg50)

Time for a quick reference check, something that I can find on the internet, and something that is a paragraph long, don’t want to waste too much time researching my subject matter, there are Facebook notifications calling my attention, cat photos to scroll through. According to Wikipedia after “completing her studies in Switzerland, Jaeggy went to live in Rome, where she met Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard”. This collection shows a poetic style, could it be the influence of those writers (?), which allows the reader to build mental images well beyond what is presented on the page.

It had been snowing. For years, it seemed. In a desolate town in Brandenburg a boy shouts a Christmas sermon through a bullhorn. The town has few inhabitants. The houses are surrounded by a wall. On the wall the photograph of a German shepherd. Ich wache. I watch. It looks like a ‘Wanted’ poster. The photograph of the owner is missing. One watches, the other incites. The moment anyone walked by the wall a fierce barking was heard. There are no shops. (from ‘ The Hanging Angel’ pg 108)

Susan Sontag is quoted on the cover of the And Other Stories publication, “A wonderful, brilliant, savage writer”, obviously that brilliant and wonderful that it has only taken at least fourteen years to get these stories into English? (Sontag passed away in 2004 so I’m taking a punt that her quote was made prior to her passing).

A collection of dense, dark tales, masterfully sculpted to inhabit and haunt the reader, I believe this is a book that will probably make the shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award, simply because of the carry on that I noticed when this book was released, you’d think she’d won the Nobel Peace Prize!!! Published by And Other Stories in the United Kingdom and New Directions in the United States there’s no excuse for not joining in the “Women in Translation” movement and grabbing a copy of this. Instead of twiddling your thumbs, you could read a story whilst your apps are updating to the latest versions. Wonderful. Brilliant. Savage. Pity I was getting increased blood pressure from these clipped sentences.

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Why “Ghachar Ghochar” by Vivek Shanbhag shouldn’t win the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

Ghachar

My second post in my series “Why xxx can not win the Best Translated Book Award”. Today I look at “Ghachar Ghochar” by Vivek Shanbhag (Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perur).

Let’s state the obvious (might have to be a standard opening line for this series!), the Best Translated Book Award is for the small independent publishers to highlight their wares. The publishers that have taken home the fiction award to date have been Soft Skull, Archipelago, Melville House, New York Review of Books, New Directions, Yale University Press, And Other Stories and Open Letter, “Ghachar Ghochar” is published by Penguin, yes there’s been a big one before but c’mon Penguin stop raining on somebody else’s party!!!

When I pick up a book from India, I expect a caste struggle or a historical fiction, moving from colonial rule to independence. Rohinton Mistry gave us the untouchable leather workers Ishvar and Omprakash, in “A Fine Balance”, Salman Rushdie a protagonist, Saleem, who was born at midnight on 15 August 1947, the exact moment India became and independent country.  And I could cite example after example of what I expect when reading fiction from India. Here there’s not an untouchable in sight, and there is a small veiled reference to progress;

The walls are panelled in wood to shoulder height. Old photographs hang on the sturdy square pillars in the center of the room, showing you just how beautiful this city was a century ago. The photographs evoke a gentler, more leisurely time, and somehow Coffee House still manages to belong to that world. For instance, you can visit at seven in the evening when it’s busiest, order only a coffee and occupy a table for two hours, and no one will object. They seem to know that someone who simply sits there for so long must have a thousand wheels spinning in his head. And they know those spinning wheels will not let a person be. Eventually, he’ll be overwhelmed, just like the serene spaces in those photographs that buyers devoured and turned into the cluttered mess we have around us today. (pp1-2)

Here we have a novel where the unnamed narrator, protagonist has moved from a poor upbringing, a crowded home infested with ants, to living a life of relative luxury, a director who doesn’t have to work, a member of the middle class. This change in fortunes comes about through an uncle who has successfully set up a spice distribution business, the family who all live together have moved from struggling to bourgeois;

Our only fear now is he might lose his mind with age and become ruinously entangled in some philanthropic enterprise. So we try to keep him in a good mood, making sure he doesn’t lose his taste for food or develop other ascetic tendencies. We steer him clear of thoughts about the futility of life and so on. An unfortunate consequence of this is that we must endure his garrulity whenever he emerges from his shell – the same old stories, again and again. Who knows what pleasure he gains from reminding us of the days when we struggled to get by in this city on a tiny income. (pp23-24)

However the story is not simply about the rise from poverty to relative wellbeing, it begins in a coffee house with the narrator reflecting upon his life of luxury and reminiscing about the journey that led to him whiling away the hours sipping coffee, the main theme being family bonds, were times better when money had to be watched, when budgeting was required when a new pair of trousers were required;

Soon the house was crammed with expensive mismatched furniture and out-of-place decorations. A TV arrived. Beds and dressing tables took up space in the rooms. In retrospect, many of the new objects had no place in our daily lives. Our relationship with things we accumulated became casual; we began treating them carelessly. (p52)

I want a story like “Slumdog Millionaire”, you know the type, rise from depths, become successful, have your success cruelly taken away, these are the successful story lines that should be promoted, none of this “the biggest drama in my life is some unknown woman vying for the man of the house’s affections” rubbish. And what an incomprehensible title, you can’t give an award to a book you can’t pronounce!!!

The next morning, we woke up in a hopelessly rumpled bed. I entwined my legs in hers and said, “Look, we are ghachar ghochar now.” She did not laugh. She must have thought I was making fun of her. Of course, those words could never mean to me all that they meant to her; nor would I ever utter them as naturally as she did. But she had shared with me this secret phrase that didn’t exist in any language, and now I was one of only five people in the world who knew it. (p78)

A novella that is constructed with simple concise and familiar prose, believable well shaped characters, a tight knit family who is presided over by the male character who dragged them from the mire;

It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind. (p53)

Finally the other downfall is the length, this runs to a mere 118 pages, it is a book you can read in a single sitting. Where’s the knitted brow as you decipher philosophical existentialist angst, where grand literary themes are presented in a labyrinth of complexity? This is what I expect from translated fiction, an independent publisher exposing me to the cultural nuances of a region I know nothing about, not a comfy family drama of the middle class, well to do in India, what on earth are these judges thinking???

Why “For Isabel: A Mandala” shouldn’t win the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

ForIsabel

There is a tradition for the Best Translated Book Award, each year the twenty-five fiction titles get a write up at the “Three Percent” website, each review having the title “Why this book should win the Best Translated Book Award”. Being a stubborn old bastard, and pretty much having an opinion on just about anything, I thought it might be a good idea for me to run a series of posts for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, “Why xxx should NOT win…”

Today I start this occasional series with a look at Antonio Tabucchi’s “For Isabel: A Mandala” (translated by Elizabeth Harris).

Let’s start off with the obvious, a mandala (apparently the Sanskrit word for “sacred circle”) is the work of the devil. With the rise of adult colouring books, where numerous versions contain a mandala, there was also a plethora of warnings about them being the work of demons. Here’s just a few quotes I have found on the internet about the evil work of mandalas;

Focusing on mandalas is a spiritual practice where you merge with “deities”–this practice opens the door to demons.

A mandala is a key tool to practicing a religious ritual, and it opens people up to trances.

it is knocking on the door of a false temple.

(https://thelasthiker.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/adult-coloring-books-and-mandalas/)

And this is from a simple colouring book, imagine a whole novella that is constructed as nine concentric circles? It may be a wonderful construct and a revelatory approach to telling a story of searching for a lost woman and an ingenious way to build upon the concept of elusive truth, but don’t be fooled.

As readers of Antonio Tabucchi would know, he is a meditative writer, his work constructed of short contemplative sentences, to take the form to another level and write a book that is a mandala in itself is taking things a bit too far. Reading him I am running the risk of “knocking on the door of a false temple”.

And I have been a fan of Tabucchi’s work for a number of years, I thoroughly enjoyed his nine short stories collected together as “Time Ages In A Hurry” (translated by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani), a reflection on memory, a journey through Europe and a melancholic view of everyday occurrences, a dinner, a visit to the beach, or the dripping of morphine being dispensed through the intravenous tube to a terminally ill patient.

Or “The Women of Porto Pim” (translated by Tim Parks), a “travelogue”, blended into fiction, and taking place in the Azores, an archipelago situated in the Atlantic Ocean, about halfway between Europe and America. The Azores were colonized by the Portuguese in 1432 and Tabbuci visited the islands, in his Prologue telling us:

I am very fond of honest travel books and have always read plenty of them. They have the virtue of bringing an elsewhere, at once theoretical and plausible, to our inescapable, unyielding here. Yet an elementary sense of loyalty obliges me to put any reader who imagines that this little book contains a travel diary on his or her guard. The travel diary requires either a flair for on-the-spot writing or a memory untainted by the imagination that memory itself generates – qualities which, out of a paradoxical sense of realism, I have given up any hope of acquiring. Having reached an age at which it seems more dignified to cultivate illusions than foolish aspirations, I have resigned myself to the destiny of writing after my own fashion.

But the last published book by this prolific writer is off kilter, all of a sudden Antonio Tabucchi is writing as a dead Polish writer who has returned from space to track down Isabel. Did the old guy focus on his mandala colouring book too much? Men from outer space as narrators? Before Tabucchi writes his nine circles of the mandala, he gives us a “Justification in the form of a note”;

Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.

The opening two words “Private obsessions”!!! Sorry Mr Tabucchi, your private obsessions should remain private, a “Mandala of Consciousness” that a monk made for you obviously flipped your lid, an Italian who was obsessed with the Portuguese writing about a Sanskrit spiritual, ritual aid to meditation…

The book may be short, and as his previous works, meditative and contemplative, but opening yourself up to the chance of being possessed by a false deity? Reading this book you’re participating in the spiritual ritual without even knowing it. Be warned you may come out the other side in a trance.